Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rombauer: More Than Just Chardonnay

Having recently celebrating its 35th year, Rombauer Vineyards is perhaps still best known for its gregarious chardonnay - a statuesque white of bombastic largesse. Experimentation with their other varieties, however, is also consistently rewarding.

My first visit to their tasting room off the Silverado Trail was in the late 1990s. Since then they have continued to deliver approachability and quality, a tradition that is becoming more scarce in the wine business with every passing year. Visitors to the area should make it a point to put Rombauer on their list. Not only are the wines worth tasting through, but the view overlooking the valley benchlands is fantastic.

2014 Rombauer Vineyards Cabernet Napa Valley $55 (sample)
Archetypal Napa Valley Cabernet: Concentrated with loads of tannic-driven grip, yet clean, well-made, and delivering extroverted, elegant fruit. Not a drop out of place here. Approachable now, but with the guts to go some distance.  Fits the benchmark for high-quality Napa cab. What's not to like?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Crocker & Starr Current Releases

Crocker & Starr is one of those wineries that sits on the edge of the radar for many.  Neither obscure or overtly famous, the times I've crossed paths with the name have all been, curiously, relative their sauvignon blanc.  So, when these four samples, three of which are red, arrived in advance of a virtual tasting, I was intrigued.

The Crocker of Crocker & Starr is Charlie Crocker, a San Francisco businessman who, in 1971, bought a defunct winery.  Napa was mostly farm land back then, so his friends must have thought he was a crack pot.  (Who's laughing now?) For many years he sold grapes from the land to wineries until, in 1997, he brought a young, aspiring winemaker into the fold.  Now in the twentieth year of their partnership, Pam Starr remains at the helm overseeing winemaking of the limited production, sustainably-grown, hand-crafted estate wines.

One of the luxuries of a comparative tasting like this is being able to look for commonalities across the wines.  Experienced, skilled winemakers often impart a unique, detectable thumbprint on all their wines.  Once you zero in on what the thumbprint is, it jumps out at you henceforth.  In the case of these wines, they do indeed come from the same gene pool.  At once iconically Napa Valley and in possession of their own personality, they all share a combination of distinctive perfume and potency.  They are also built to last.  Large and in charge now, the reds in particular will reward the patient collector as the wines' intensity evolves toward grace.  But don't discount the longevity of the sauvignon blanc. While not built for the ages, a few years on its side won't hurt it.

After this experience, perhaps Crocker & Starr belongs closer to your radar's sweep center.

2105 Crocker & Starr Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $34
Minerality dominates in this fresh-cut-grass and citrus incarnation of Napa sauvignon blanc.  Vivid clarity and cleanliness of delivery frame the profile, but it's the strong graphite edges outlining the fruit that catapults this from porch quaffer into cerebral geek territory. One pleasant surprise: in contrast to most sauv blancs, Crocker & Starr's becomes more relaxed, creamy, and approachable as it nears room temperature. 

2014 Crocker & Starr 'Casali 7' St Helena Napa Valley $80
The first word that comes to mind whenever newly experiencing something is what is most prominent, obvious. In this case that word is perfumed. It's not just aromatic, it's strongly perfumed, making it an attention-commanding beverage right out of the gate. This carries through to the attack where the high-frequency notes arc along the palate. The next word picks up where perfumed leaves off: intense. Here's where malbec makes itself known, busting through the swinging saloon doors like a gunslinger. Though with all of those lofty floral aromatics going on, it's more Annie Oakley than Jesse James. For all its swashbuckling brawn, balance and superfine tannins round out what ultimately becomes an elegant, beguiling wine, most especially on day two when it shrugs off its aggressive intensity. 92% malbec, 4% cabernet sauvignon, 4% petit verdot.

2014 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Franc St Helena Napa Valley $80
Rich nose of lively aromatics lead to an expressive, layering of textured fruit focused on a concentrated core that speaks romance in the shadow of blue neon. Strong, chalky, mouth-coating tannins retain a grip on the honest cabernet franc flavors suggesting that some years of cellaring will benefit this in terrific ways.  As with the Casali, the cab franc mellows a bit after a day while remaining bright, young, and centered on brilliant cobalt fruit.

2014 Crocker & Starr Cabernet Sauvignon Stone Place Vineyard $120

Massive, dense, and luxurious.  Think wearing a mink coat to bed at The Four Seasons.  Very refined and expensive tasting, yet impossibly approachable. Terrific balancing act effortlessly delivered.  Let silence say the rest.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

10 Years Just Perfect

With those couple of rants behind us, let's return to the subject at hand… and what an example to resume the conversation with! Easily deserving of the Wine of the Week designation, it just as easily earns Wine of the Quarter. While vintage port gets the lion's share of attention in this country, a trip to Portugal a couple of years ago taught me this important lesson: dollar for dollar, pound for pound, the smart money is spent on ten-year tawnies. I just need to remind myself of that more often. Here's proof of why:

NV Dow's 10 Year Tawny Port $36
Oozing with character and beckoning, warm elegance, this epitomizes what port drinking experiences should be. Slightly viscous and wrapped in flavors of hazelnut, plum, caramel, and subtle burnt orange peel, a little goes a long way. Though some may scoff at the price tag, consider that this bottle was enjoyed over the course of a month in a household with much higher than average consumption. An added bonus: over the course of that month the character only evolved rather than diminished. When amortized over the evenings that it provided a lovely cap to, this bottle is a sizzling bargain.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

And Another Thing...

Technological advances are felt across so many aspects of life that they have become expected in their ubiquitousness.  Posting updates/articles to this blog (which has run on the Blogger platform since it's inception) is no exception. The Blogger app, created to allow for a more seamless experience in posting from your phone, leveraged the photo, user experience, and voice dictation capabilities of smart phone devices to great effect.

But... adding to the reasons why frequency of postings have dropped of late is this head scratcher: At some point in 2016 google discontinued support for Blogger from the iOS platform. This means that the Blogger app is no longer available from the Apple App Store, And the only way to post from an iPhone or iPad is to do so via the Blogger web interface (which, frankly, sucks).  Net result is that what used to take just two or three minutes is now a 20 minute clumsy ordeal. That kind of barrier will certainly impact production volume.

What now?

The way I see it, the thousands (possibly more) of content producers using this platform have three options: First and most onerous is the prospect of replatforming to a more popular blog platform such as WordPress. (Big sigh.)  Next is to just suck it up and go back to doing things the old-fashioned way; opening up the old laptop and typing away, uploading images that have been transferred from phone to email to hard drive to blog. (Another big sigh.).  Finally, perhaps there is a way to continue posting to the Blogger platform from an iPhone. Alas, Google searches have turned up nothing. I guess I shouldn't be surprised since it's Google that both removed the app and controls search results.

For those of you who are technically inclined, I invite your input. Any recommendations would be much appreciated!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Corrective Action

Happy New Year! Those of you who have been checking back on occasion have probably noticed a significant drop in the frequency of posts. This rambling update hopes to explain why with a perspective on the state of wine, changing purchasing habits, what the deal is with samples, and how taste is evolving with age. 

To begin, why so much radio silence? The answer is unfortunately simple: I've had the blahs. In many regards, I've become somewhat disenchanted with what the mainstream wine industry is offering consumers these days. Perhaps most emblematic of this is the continued lamentable trend toward sweeter, more extracted wines (both red and white), a style I think of as Twinkielike.  These bottlings are also being subjected to rapidfire label changes, making it ever more difficult for consumers to understand what is actually under each screw cap or cork.  This complaint is generally directed at domestic suppliers, but, as style trends go, what starts in the west often spreads globally. (I'm talking to you, Spain!)

But to throw responsibility for this Season of Meh solely at the feet of the industry at large would be flat out scapegoating. A change in my own purchasing habits is as much to blame. Over the past few years I have found that the pang of regret is something I increasingly work to avoid in all aspects of life. Too many times I have enjoyed a bottle and not been able to procure any more of. So, over time, I began buying large quantities of wines that I found to be worthy of repeat enjoyment, often times finding them at substantial, tempting discount. The predictable result is depth at the expense of breadth. But there was another casualty I had not anticipated: discovery. Part of the disenchanted feeling of late is due to the absence of that thrill. There is no mystery in opening a wine you've had five times in the last year, no matter how good it is. Slow to learn, but certain to get there, this has helped shin a bright light on discovery as a critical element of enjoyment.  Yes, this is definitely a first world problem. An embarrassment of riches, really, but one that clearly demands corrective action.  My friend Paul offered his policy: two bottles of each, one to try, the other to affirm, then move on. I think I will adopt some form of that in the hopes that it will result in not only more drinking pleasure, but inspiration for writing. Thanks, Paul! 

Somewhat related is a topic I am asked about more often than any other: samples. I count myself darn lucky to be in the dwindling population of writers that public relations folks still deem influential enough to justify sending free wine too. But a dose of reality for those of you who believe it's nothing but cases of rarefied Barolo arriving on my doorstep… There is a reason why these wines are being promoted: they need it. When I am very fortunate, undiscovered gems that are having a tough time breaking into the market are among the samples. Most of the time, however, samples arrive because they just don't present a compelling product in the marketplace. This isn't just a function of quality, rather of value. There's plenty of evidence to support that if you price your product low enough, someone will buy it. $30 mediocre malbec, however, is a very tough sell, which is why it's shipped to writers in the hopes of positive press that will help move it.  At some point it becomes a struggle to find a shade of lipstick to apply to the pig that doesn't embarrass you.

Finally, a subject that deserves it's own research and rambling: how tastes evolve with age. In brief, the older I get, the more enchanted I've become with nuances of acidity, while simultaneously being less enthralled with the velvet hammer style that seems to remain in vogue. Wines that have the lacy, granular finesse that intrigues tend also to be lighter in body and lower in alcohol. That skews my preferences decidedly toward the Old World by virtue of American wines' generally bombastic demeanor. The Old World still has thousands of growers and producers who haven't been bought up by megacorp wine holding companies, making it a much better source for wines that are more appealing these days.  More on this another time.

So, there you are.  Answers to questions you probably didn't have.  Thanks for continuing to come back and stay tuned for the next chapter in wine.  Cheers.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wine of the Week

2015 Palacio de Fefiñanes Albariño de Fefiñanes Rías Baixas $19
This is an exciting wine. From the 2015 vintage, this brilliant albariño so vibrates with energy that the texture suggests a hint of effervescence. Its appeal is not in complexity. Rather, its simple honesty and focused delivery of mineral vigor really makes it irresistible. The fruit is pure, if quiet, but unobstructed by modest alcohol (12.5%).  Reminds me of some of the better whites in Portugal. Reaffirming and worth seeking out.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


At first glance, Gallica could be mistaken for yet another ego wine project; a small portfolio of limited production wines, the flagship of which is an organically-farmed, estate-bottled Napa Valley cabernet. We've heard this story many times before.

Or have we?

A closer look shows that these bottles are not typical at all. For starters, only the cabernet is from Napa. The others are from far-flung reaches of northern and central California. The syrah is from the Santa Lucia Highlands, mostly known for pinot noir. The Rhône blend is from Amador, a lesser-known growing region about 40 miles east of Sacramento - if known for anything, it's zinfandel. And Calaveras county, where the albariño is sourced?  It's deep in the Sierra Foothills; gold rush country, people!

As a champion for underdogs and the overlooked - and having had some very positive experience with wines from each of these regions - these off-the-beaten path sources piqued my interest. Eschewing the traditional Napa Valley passion project quiver (cab, merlot, chard, and sauv blanc - all from Napa) suggests a winemaker with both the gumption to color outside the lines and a commitment to an alternative philosophy.

Even without having popped a cork, I want to know more. Who is this Rosemary Cakebread? What is she after? More to the point, why?

The samples of her wines, descriptions of which follow, help inform some of the answers.  For more of the picture, I had the chance to ask her via Google Hangout during a virtual tasting. 

While firmly planted in the heart of Napa Valley history and plenty experienced (Spottswoode, Mumm, etc.) Rosemary is not the establishment. In fact, she's a bit of a self-described rebel.  Yet she doesn't need to take the easy route or demand attention through excess. Addressing her winemaking through the dual lenses of consumer and creator, she is committed to both adventure and moderation. Contemplation and surprise are what she seeks in her wines. These subtle tensions echo in her craft.

Yes, these wines are expensive.  But in acquiring them, you're not just getting a beverage, you're participating in a journey.  A journey that's part discipline, part rebellion, and all delicious.  Is it what you want for Christmas?  Silly question - Christmas is about giving, not getting. (But in case you're looking for ideas for me, here you go.)


2015 Gallica Albariño Calaveras County $36
An extrovert, this curvy, come-hither white flaunts its plump, honeyed fruit outlined by a subtly steely trim.  On more intent examination, there's more than just a fun-loving quaffer here.  The slight viscosity is accompanied by a soft mineral clang on the mid-palate. As it warms in the glass, suggestions of savory intrigue add to the complexity on the persistent finish. Oiy.

2014 Gallica Red Blend Amador County $50
Open, accessible, even gregarious. Light-hearted, but well-made.  And damn hard to put down. Rhone blend (GSM with a dash of viognier).  Better than good.

2014 Gallica Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands $60
Good syrah - great syrah, even - can often be found growing in the background where pinot noir enjoys the limelight.  The Santa Lucia Highlands, where this syrah is grown, is one such place.  As discovered some years back, winemakers still eek out a few cases of this inky bliss each year.  Gallica's version delivers strong blue fruit framed by black pepper on a silky texture that makes it quite enchanting.  More than just pretty, this wine exudes elegance without a need to boast.  Hits the northern Rhone target squarely with coy meatiness.

2013 Gallica Cabernet Napa Valley $160
Uncorking a wine in its infancy presents some jarring contrasts, making patience an essential component of evaluation.  On opening, this a tight, unyielding ball of cabernet potential.  Sticking your nose in the glass is like poking your head into a toasted barrel.  Aromatics are dominated by vanilla-lined oak and the attack is an impenetrable wall of tannic energy.  Thankfully, I decanted this eight full hours before really returning to it.  After this period of extended relaxation, the wall came down and puddled like an expensive negligee.  Balancing magnificent intensity and serenity all in one seamless package, this incredibly perfumed experience encapsulates why drinking great wines is such a thrill.  Rosemary's target is a cab that will be great in 20 years without hitting anyone over the head - and on this she nailed it.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What To Drink This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving this year finds us in the swirling of a turbulent time. Regardless of political leanings, most people I've spoken to appear to be stumbling around somewhere between the stupor of despair and a state of anxious apprehension. Even the most hopeful among us seem to be managing down their expectations to levels better characterized by caution than optimism.

With this as an emotional foundation, it's hard to muster much enthusiasm, let alone enough to build a
sense of gratitude. What does that mean for us as we head into our family gatherings to share our thankfulness? I'm not sure.  The outlook feels tenuous and murky.  And it feels like we're grasping for meaning, for stability, for certainty.  And now it's Thanksgiving, a uniquely American tradition of community.  This time of year epitomizes what it means to be American, even if that seems more elusive than ever.  But we can, and ought to do more than flail for a mooring. 

Maybe what we should be grasping for is one another, for our commonalities, for our identities within this one human family.  Instead of rolling up our cuffs with talk of the election, perhaps for a moment we can shine a light on the values we all agree on:  hospitality, generosity, good will, good humor, and, yes, good drink.

Unorthodox as it is to offer this kind of a suggestion, there's never been a more appropriate or timely opportunity.  Larceny Bourbon ($28) from the Old Fitzgerald Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky is a plenty affordable, particularly given the drinking pleasure it yields.  Warming, potent (92 proof), and as friendly as an old, worn sweater, it is my antidote for an unsettled soul this fall. Taken in moderation, you, too, may find that it helps increase your ease of being during the holidays.  And it certainly is in keeping with my tradition of sticking with enjoying American product on this American holiday.

Whatever you choose to drink (or abstain from) this Thanksgiving, please do it safely and with warmth in your heart.  I'm counting on you.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Beaujolais. So Much More Than Noveau!

The Thursday prior to Thanksgiving ushers in the annual spectacle of Beaujolais Nouveau, the annual release made from grapes harvested just a couple of months ago. Typically, these bottlings are like so many media-driven events these days: underwhelming in quality and overblown in hype. However, what only a few consumers know is that Beaujolais comes in many forms, not just the young, mass produced plonk that typifies nouveau.

There are a number of variations, all of which are made from the gamay grape, from different areas of the broad Beaujolais AOC, that merit your attention. For starters, these wines can achieve extraordinary heights of sophistication and pleasure delivery. What's even better is their affordability. Many of these wines can be found for well under $20. Having a chance to taste through these four bottles from George Duboeuf was a treat as they are so, so different from one another and most other wines. (These wines were received as press samples.)

2016 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau $12
Oh, the sweet aromatics a fresh crushed violets and sun-baked herbs conjure images of a casual lunch enjoyed al fresco somewhere in a sleepy European hamlet. There is a particular appeal in the direct simplicity of this wine. These same characteristics carry through to the palate where the finish includes a bit of hard-edged finish.  All the same, it's light years ahead of the last nouveau I tasted and a lot cheaper than a flight to have lunch in that hamlet.

2015 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages $13
Bright, fresh, and with a nice smack of acidity, this wine sits squarely between the nouveau and the Fleurie (though closer to the nouveau in terms of quality and profile). A simple weeknight table wine that should prove versatile with everything from pizza to light fish.

2015 George Duboeuf Fleurie $20
Brilliantly expressive. Very pretty, red violet floral notes framed by firm, but lithe acidity. Such an attractive wine. Has all the components to suggest some age potential, but who's got the patience when it tastes so fantastic now? This wine helps explain why sommeliers are so smitten with Beaujolais. God damn good.

2015 George Duboeuf Morgon $22
A deep, deep inky purple color coats the inside of the decanter from which spills brooding aromas of dark fruit and baking yeast. After hours of air the nose turns focused, zeroed in on the tight fruit core. On the palate (even after five hours decanted!) its poise remains slightly clenched hinting at longevity- and a need for patience. Regardless, it is a pretty, well-crafted wine that has clean lines and features a seldom-seen side of Beaujolais.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Aged White? Yes, Yes, Yes!

Vermentino was an all but unheard of grape a few years ago, and still remains largely sheltered from the main stream wine drinking community's view.  Indigenous to Saridnia and Tuscany, vermentino makes bright, expressive whites that sing sunshine in an infatuating, lilting accent.  Since first tasting one on a trip to Italy in 2000, I've been drawn-in by its allure. Fruity, yet finishing dry, and with a whisper of acidity, vermentino wins on delicate balance.  If you can conjure an image of a seafood pasta lunch on a wisteria-canopied balcony, then you're more than halfway to imaging what wine made from this grape tastes like.

The bottle pictured here arrived in a mystery case purchased from Last Bottle.  The offer for a
mixed case ($120, including delivery) scratched my itch for finding new discoveries while fitting into the budget.  But when I saw the vintage, my hopes for brilliance were tempered by the likelihood that now, fully five years old, the wine was skunked.

Thankfully, it was not.  In fact, not only had it survived, but possibly improved.  Honeyed by age to an amber shade of gold, the 2011 Bibi Graetz Casamatta Toscana Bianco ($10) didn't so much retain its exuberance as evolved into something with elegant vigor.  Still in possession of all its attractive qualities and athletic focus, the allure of the wine seems to have deepened and intensified with age. Glorious, irresistible, and, sadly, gone.

Of course, not all wines, whites or reds, have the same capacity to age youthfully, but I'll be slower to make assumptions in the future.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Just In Time For Thanksgiving

Just in time for Thanksgiving comes this four pack of diverse bottles from Terlato Wine's brand quiver.  A pair each from California and Italy, these wines might be on the pricier side of budget drinking, but they don't lack in the quality department.  Note that prices listed are the suggested retail prices that accompanied the samples, so you're likely to find these on the shelf for considerably less.

2015 Hanna Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley $20
Once upon a time, sauvignon blanc from Northern California had a character all its own. Granny Smith apple and fresh cut grass made for a thirst quenching, refreshing, and delicious combination. All this could be had for under $10 a bottle. Ah, the good all days. Then, a newcomer hit the scene: New Zealand sauv blanc. The electrified grapefruit zing delivered in those bottles indoctrinated the American consumer to a new, exciting (if zany) interpretation of the grape. For some years following (and to a large degree this remains true today) California producers began to imitate the Kiwi style. Though not a throwback to the original California style, this example certainly illustrates a compromise between the two - and to great effect. Impeccably made and hard to put down, this one will find a home at the Thanksgiving table without creating any awkward conversation like uncle Merle does.

2014 Alta Mora Rosso Mt Etna $24
A while back a fellow wine writer declared that nerello mascalese is one of the planet's most overlooked great varieties. Indigenous to Sicily, it is at times compared to Barolo and Burgundy. This example, from vineyards at the foot of Mount Etna, where the soils are rich in volcanic minerals, helps explain that declaration. Braced by lean acidity, this exercise in contrasts packs an awful lot of intrigue into a bottle at this price. Translucent in the glass, but dark and brooding in the mouth, mystery unfolds with a chalky, silky texture. A cerebral experience that doesn't demand analysis so much as beckons the inquisitive palate.

2014 Cecchi Chianti Classico $22
If your palate is conditioned to California reds, then it's easy to forget that there are many delicious wines built on a framework of moderation out there. And this one is a terrific example. With a nose that is super-clean, the light-medium bodied fruit comes across as plump and bright red without being jammy or overbearing. No doubt, this is thanks to lacy acidity characteristic of Chianti Classico. These somewhat contrasting qualities make for beautiful complements and a beverage that is as irresistible with hearty fall party fare as with good conversation.

2014 Markham Merlot Napa $26
With enough tannic energy and proud fruit to satisfy even the most staunch of Cabernet drinkers, this merlot proves a versatile, pleasing drink.  Characteristically Californian, but without being overbearing, the flavor profile in this wine is a pleasing combination of black, blue, and deep red fruits framed nicely by moderate toasted oak, and finishing long with superfine tannins. Would go well with anything from Thanksgiving to Moroccan.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Two More Winners From Spain

Spanish reds have been making a bit of a comeback in my world lately, not so much as standalone quaffers, but as authentically compatible accompaniments to hearty fall fare.  Though past complaints of over-oaking remain valid, the exceptions to this rule make experimentation worthwhile.  Acidity plays a key role in complementing meals, and the wines of norther Spain in particular have that aplenty.  Two quite different examples follow here with the lithe, but full-flavored Rioja at one end and the dense, full-tilt Sardon de Duero at the other.  Again, though, terrific acids play the same part in both wines.

2012 Bodegas Albanico Hazana Tradicion Rioja $13
At just 12.5% ABV, this is a lovely change of pace from the typical overblown Spanish juggernauts. The dinner table is where this old school red finds its sweet spot. Falls short of mind blowing, but at this price, it's worthy of being a repeat offender.

2010 Abadia Retuerta Sardon de Duero Seleccion Especial $30
Modern, solid, and structured.  Deliberate lines frame the black, hard fruit in this drink-me-with-a-knife-and-fork beast.  On its own, it can be overwhelming and a bit off-putting, but along side a steak and savory vegetables?  Three part harmony.  Tempranillo is noticably buffed up by 15% cab and 10% syrah.