Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Columbia Winery Current Releases

The Columbia winery - not to be confused with Columbia Crest - has a long, storied history in Washington state. By pure coincidence, it was the first Washington winery I set foot in back in the mid 90s. Today, by virtue of what appears to be a newly-struck marketing agreement, the rebranded Columbia Winery bottlings should be found and widely available nationally. It's also nice to see that they've come into the broader market with an aggressive pricing structure. Though the prices listed below are suggested retail, I suspect that in most places you will find them for a few dollars less. That puts them in real competition with the other major Washington wineries. I think they will compete just fine.
2013 Chardonnay Columbia Valley $15
Generous and spacious, though not cloying or overly residual from weight. Pleasant, if two dimensional, but a value at the price.

2012 Cabernet Columbia Valley $16
A penetrating nose is followed by big, deep fruit with light framework. Flavors are blue-black with gentle acidity. Plump and relaxed. 

2013 Merlot Columbia Valley $17
Did they get the Merlot bottles confused with the Cabernet bottles? Far more similar to what you're likely accustomed to from Cabernet then Merlot. Taut, more structured, and possessing some nice high toned notes on the finish. Data point number 103 as to how Columbia Valley will be the epicenter of Merlot's much-deserved redemption.

NV Red Blend Columbia Valley 'Composition' $17
Without a doubt my favorite of the four. Interesting that it is a non-vintage, but I'm not going to hold that against it one bit. Terrific structure, good grip, and mouth coating, powdery tannins all stitched together in a bespoke fashion for terrific results. I will be seeking this out again in the near future.  Bravo.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Worst Time of Year To Buy Wine

Higher Prices, Fewer ChoicesWTF?

By now the tree is curbside, the stockings have been boxed up, and the last of the wrapping paper and gift boxes have been recycled.  And if your cupboards are at all like ours, they look like they've been ransacked.  So, you think to yourself that, with the insanity of the holidays behind in the rear view mirror, you'll restock your wine supply.  What follows may cause you to think twice.  At least for a little while.

This is by no means supported by a critical mass of scientifically-collected data - or any data beyond the central Ohio market - but there's ample, casually-observed evidence to suggest that one resolution wine marketers made this year was to gouge consumers as much as possible.  Compounding higher prices are deliberately low inventory levels (most prominently at independent wine shops).  In other words, higher prices and fewer choices.  What the heck?

The inventory situation is pretty straightforward - with shelves depleted from the holiday rush, what better time to schedule an inventorying of products?  Particularly for smaller business that don't have sophisticated inventory management systems, the fewer the items to inventory the better. Besides, in anticipation of the typically quiet first quarter, retailers are in no hurry to unnecessarily invest in inventory that will sit stagnant for a while.  One retailer also told me that this time of year gives them a unique opportunity to "clean house" and make some careful choices about what new wines to bring into their store.  This is in full view at many wine shops, where the shelves have as many gaps as bottles.  While a small business owner's rationale for running lean is understandable, it sure is an unsettling sight.

But back to the gouging.  A swing through the wine aisle at the grocery store the other night was an eye-popping experience.  So aghast was I that I skipped the wine and went to another store, and then another - where I found the same thing: wines which two weeks ago were one price are now significantly more expensive.  What is "significantly more expensive"?  Check out this chart:

These are just a handful of nationally-available, domestically-produced wines almost everyone is familiar with and the prices of which I found so audacious, which is why I chose them.  Certainly there are brands (like Bogle) and many international wines which appear to remain steady, too.  And, sure, these observations are in just one of the country's major markets, but hikes of this magnitude across such major players are as coincidental as they are subtle.

The question is, why?  As tempting as it is to attribute something so stark to one evil cause, the truth is usually to be found in a few causal factors.  Seasonality could be playing a role, wholesale inventories could be legitimately low following a terrific holiday season, or maybe it's part of a diabolical scheme by Big Wine to put their hands into consumers' pockets.

Wait, what?  Put their hands into consumers' pockets?  Turns out others pay attention to this stuff, too.  Jeff Siegel over at the Wine Curmudgeon thinks price increases will come less overtly, via the fabrication of new brands and fancifully named wines to sell the same juice at higher prices.  Here's what one distributor told him:
“The perception is that the economy is doing well, gas prices are down, and there is more disposable income in folk’s pockets...The suppliers want to reach into that pocket and get some while the time is ripe. I think there are going to be more price increases than I would have originally thought.”
The good news is that the free market provides consumers with a very powerful weapon to combat greed: an apathetic wallet.The supply chain can hold out only so long before economic gravity forces their hand to recalibrate pricing.  I'm guessing you can hold out a lot longer.  So, if you're as disgusted as I am by this, think of it as an opportunity to do some inventory reduction of your own (read: raid your cellar).  Or maybe take the opportunity to branch out and try some things you haven't before.  It won't be too long before Big Wine gets the message.  And in the meantime, you'll still drink well.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Recycle Bin, Week of Jan. 5 - Starting The New Year Off Right

Happy New Year everyone!  Resolutions?  Not really, but maybe some emerging habits worth focusing on, like sticking to the $12 challenge.  It involves kissing a lot of frogs, but there really is a lot of great wine out there for $12 or under.  Also, getting out of the Chardonnay rut - again, plenty of other terrific whites out there, they just require experimentation.  Finally, is there any enjoyable California Cabernet out there that hasn't been price-hijacked?  These themes and more await in 2015.  In the meantime, some winners and losers of late...

2012 Bogle Sauvignon Blanc California $8
Fresh, vibrant, and lively. What's not to love at this price?  But enjoy on opening, as the next day is loses its sizzle.  Value and drinking pleasure here.

2013 Fattoria del Cerro Chianti Colli Senesi $12
Harmonious, gentle, pleasing, and life-affirming. Love it and love drinking this bright wine.  Case buy that I can no longer keep to myself.

2012 Domaine de la Royere Luberon "l'oppidum" $10
Good on opening, with black, rich fruit. Nothing terribly distinctive, however. A few hours later, though, patience was rewarded - it turned. For the better. Much for the better. At this price, it's on my short list.

2011 Famille Perrin Cotes du Rhone Reserve $12
Fine, but more expensive and forgettable than the exceptional 2010 vintage of the same bottling.
2012 Chateau Pegau Cotes du Rhone $20
Having had such success with inexpensive Cotes du Rhones, I allowed myself to get talked into this pedigreed wine, which I now regret.  Made by the same people behind the celebrated (and prohibitively expensive) Domaine de Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape, this CDR was supposedly introduced so that mere mortals could obtain something with "Pegau" on the label.  Maybe they should just stick to CDP.  This overpriced wine is very closed thanks to a tightly wound texture and dominating Syrah character. Almost impossible to enjoy now - even on day three of being open. Probably worth revisiting it a few years to see if it loosens up and sheds it's introversion, but only if someone else is buying. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Revisiting Last Year's Predictions (And Another Best Of List)

Years past have welcomed the new year with a list of predictions, and a few predictions were part of last week's Year In Review.  But how'd last year's predictions pan out?  Fellow blogger and good guy, Jeff Siegel (aka The Wine Curmudgeon) prompted this question in the prelude to his annual $10 Wine Hall Of Fame piece.  In it he flatteringly quotes one of my predictions for 2014, that "...a dollar will buy you less in 2014 than it did in 2013."  Jeff's Hall of Fame is always worth reading - he's got an uncompromising standard and a strong belief that good, interesting wine needn't be expensive.  I'm definitely down with that.  Plus, he's turned me on to a number of terrific values, including one that made it onto the Best Wines of 2014 list, the Rene Barbier Mediterranean Red.

The Wine Curmudgeon's comments also hint at the cyclical nature of the supply side of this business.  There will always be consolidation followed by divestiture, rising prices will always follow  accolades, and the atrophy of dying brands will always coincide with the welcoming of new producers (especially at the value end of the price spectrum).  And you can pretty much count on different, if not all, components of that cycle happening every year.

With that as a backdrop, let's look at those predictions from last year.  One final note of interest - these predictions carried with them a disclosure I'd like to repeat, "...if history is any indicator of future performance, it'll be 2016 before any of these really materialize as nothing ever happens as quickly as you think."
  1. Online wine sales will explode thanks to Amazon swaggering into the game and a three tier system that refuses to acknowledge changing consumer behavior.  Amazon has penetrated a number of states - 13 at last count - but not nearly as many as I would have thought by now.  Ironically, they no doubt have the strength of the three tier system to thank for that.
  2. Moscato drinkers will be dazzled by something else the same way as Moscato distracted them from Pinot Grigio.  And chances are the new, short-lived fad will be fueled by a reality TV celebrity doing something obnoxious with a bottle in hand.  Who knows, it could even be Riesling's lucky year.  
  3. Hipsters will finally let go of Riesling and find something else to geek out over.  Mencia, you could be their new sweetheart.  Honestly, I'm so un-cool anymore, I couldn't tell you what's trending in the hipster market this year.
  4. Countries like Albania, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Greece will emerge from the shadows and onto the mainstream as respected producers of value-priced (and some serious) wine. Greece has been getting some very nice - and apparently deserved - attention.  The affable and highly-regarded Mike Madrigale's number one wine by the glass is Greek.  Those other countries?  Maybe next year.
  5. The craft beer Renaissance will take a big bite out of wine's sales growth, attracting far more new drinkers to its ranks by a wide, wide margin. I'm certain I got this right.  Not only that, but I'd double down on this bet for this year thanks to #6 and a continued insistence on maintaining an elitist posture by many in the retail layer of this industry.
  6. Despite #5, overall wine prices will continue to outpace inflation and wages, also by a wide margin.  Yup.  Want proof?  Think of any wine you fell in love with 5 years ago.  What is the percentage price increase then versus today?  See?
  7. There will be more consolidation in the expensive Napa industry as under-capitalization continues to unwind.  In other words, larger holding companies will continue to enjoy picking up over-leveraged wineries at pennies on the dollar.  Prices will remain stubborn, however.  Hard to say how much consolidation happened in 2014.  My guess is that companies have learned that keeping acquisitions quiet can help preserve brand equity and exclusivity.  But the prices?  They've held fast, only entrenching the inevitable collapse of this house of cards.
  8. China will continue to prop-up pricing in first and second growth Bordeaux.  Or what they believe to be first and second growth Bordeaux.  True.  What'll be really interesting (and indicative of Chinese consumer savviness) is if this remains true as the lackluster 2011 vintage comes to market.
  9. Not unrelated to #8, there will be more scandals over counterfeit wines at auction houses.  Just ask billionaire William Koch.
  10. An aging Robert Parker will acknowledge that wine scoring is as much subjective as it is objective, causing celebration among sommeliers and anger among wine critics who have adopted his 100 point scoring system.  The popularity of the 100 point scoring system, however, will not suffer.  Well, there's still time...

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

14 Best Wines of 2014 (Or 14 Wines I Wish I Had More Of)

Gravity towards reflection is common this time of year. The lull between Christmas and New Years gives a lot of us the time and head space to take inventory and look back on life's ups and downs. Sitting squarely in the "up" corner is the river of wine that has passed through these lips. What follows is a list of some wines I wish I had more of. If you wish to interpret these as the "Best Of" the year, then that wouldn't be too far off point. With around 500 wines tasted per year, remembering every single one of them can be a challenge. But this list isn't just about the highest quality or the most unusual or most exciting wines, it's about the wines which possess all of those qualities in the right measures and which also triggered an emotional tug.  It's by virtue of this special combination of characteristics that these end up being pretty easy to remember.

Almost all of these wines have already been reviewed, so instead of repeating the reviews (the wines' names are links back to the original reviews), the following explains why they made this short list.

2007 Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino 'Tenuta Nuova' $96
We may as well get the most expensive wine out of the way early.  This magnificent, captivating wine, while very expensive, provides an experience that's worth the cost.  Elegant, regal, expressive, and true to great Brunello form.  Inescapably attention-commanding and emotion-evoking.  

2009 Columbia Crest Red 'Amitage' $8
Down to the last few bottles and helpless to restrain myself, I bought more of this wine in 2014 than any other by a long shot.  Versatile and still with plenty of age runway, this was hands-down the bargain of the year and a wine I'd gladly pay double the price for.  This is also an important marker of hope that terrific wine can still be had at this price.

2010 Lenotti Le Crosare Ripasso $28
This is a remarkable wine and, as beautiful as it is, it's on this list to serve as a placeholder for all Ripassos - and other wines made in the appasimento method, like the 2009 Montresor Valpolicella Ripasso 'Capitel della Crosara' ($16). The Lenotti is far and away the most expensive Ripasso I've had the pleasure of drinking, so don't let this price deter you from exploring these comforting wines.

2012 m2 Wines Zinfandel Soucie Vineyard Mokelumne River Lodi $30
One of the six wines packaged in the honest, informative Lodi Native shipment, it proves just what heights can be achieved in this area better known for Bogle and Michael David wines.  If, like me, you long for that feeling of zinfatuation, this wine will restore your faith.Also look for 2012 Jeremy Wine Co Zinfandel Lodi ($28)

2010 Villadoria Nebiolo Langhe 'Bricco Magno' $15
Haven't decided whether this wine is on this list because it's so good or so unusual, as I suspect purist decry it as a freak.  Either way, it's memorable and a value, and will probably be much, much better in a few years.

2012 Chateau D'Aigueville Cotes du Rhone Villages $10
Yes, Dorothy, it's only $10.  I've scoured the markets and can't find another bottle of this particular wine.  Another placeholder that is just so mind-bendingly good, but which is on this list for all the mind-bendingly good Cotes du Rhones out there.  Like the 2012 Les Ameriniers Cotes du Rhone Villages 'Signargues' ($10).

All the press the 2010 vintage got last year was enough propaganda to send me back into the arms of Bordeaux.  Affordable Bordeuax, no less.  While there, I discovered that 2009 was a pretty good year, too.  And, though I stocked up on this wine for its age-worthiness, I couldn't help myself from helping myself to too much too early.  I wish I had more of it along with the 2009 Chateau La Grange Clinet Bordeaux ($16) and 2009 Chateau Jouanin Cotes de Bordeaux ($15)

2013 Soalheiro AlbariƱo Vinho Verde $18
Portuguese whites can be dazzling and brilliant, and rarely get above $15.  This, along with 2012 Vale Da Puopa Duoro Old Vines (and a whole truckload of white blends enjoyed in Porto this summer) and proof that Portugal is the next frontier for extremely high quality and value.  The best Portuguese whites combine layers of minerality, salinity, and composed fruit in seamless, friendly package.

2012 Roccafiore Grechetto Superiore Todi Umbria "Fiorefiore" $17
The most exciting white wine I had all year and possibly the most exciting wine of any color.  Never heard of Todi?  Don't worry, most people haven't.  It's a quiet corner of Umbria in Italy. Why is it on this list?  To remind myself (and encourage you) to keep an open mind when it comes to winegrowing regions you're unfamiliar with.  Can't find this particular white?  No worries, look for young Orvieto Classicos and Grechetto-based whites from Umbria.

NV Quinta Do Vallado 10 Year Tawny Port $19
A huge lesson from our trip to Portugal was that, despite the fame Vintage Port enjoys, there is immense and immediate enjoyment to be had in the refined pleasures of 10 Year Tawny - and it's a fraction of the price.  I will kick myself for a long, long time for not bringing more of the Vallado home.

2010 Garofoli Piancarda $18
Labeled as "Rosso Conero", you wouldn't know without looking at the back label that it's 100% Montepulciano.  And, since it's not from Abruzzo (the most famous provenance of Montepulciano), it's going to market with a proprietary name.  Like many of the other wines on this list, this seductive red is more proof that excellent wines do come from unheralded places. As an added bonus, this wine helped fuel a rediscovery of Montepulciano, which, thanks to much improved winemaking in recent years, is no longer the crappy table wine it was of my drinking youth.  To wit, the 2011 Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($15)Damn!

2011 Emeritus Pinot Noir Hallberg Ranch $42
What is expensive Pinot from a challenging year doing on this list?  Being awesome, that's what.  Dry farmed and harvested before the rains came to dilute flavors, there are few US examples of wine that so transparently express the place from whence they came as this one does.  The root stock's struggle for sustenance comes across as tension and vigor in the glass.  Though the 2012 vintage of this wine is more broadly appealing, the 2011 holds a place in my heart for the way it debunked preconceptions with style.

NV Rene Barbier Mediterranean Red $6 
Drinkable red - nah, enjoyable red for $6.  Need I say more?

2012 Wente Chardonnay Livermore Valley "Morning Fog" $11
As consistent as sunrises and sunsets.  If you like the full-bodied, oaked Chardonnay profile, you just can't miss with Wente's wines.  Also deserving of honorable mention is 2012 Chateau Ste Michelle Chardonnay Columbia Valley ($10) for the same reasons.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

10 Bullets: 2014 In Review and Predictions For 2015

In a few days we'll count down some of the more exceptional wines we've had the pleasure of enjoying in 2014, but before getting to those, a few broad strokes about vintages, events, and trends likely to affect consumers in 2015.  Similar observations were included in last year's "Best Of..." missive, which I'll use as a springboard for this year:
  1. Last year I was looking forward to the unwinding of 2011 inventories in California.  For the most part this has (thankfully) run its course.  2011 is a vintage California winemakers (and consumers) would rather forget.  Also, thankfully, 2012 was a significantly better year.  Whether 2012 is simply better by comparison or stands alone as terrific remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that purchasing 2012s from California is about 50% less risky.  If only prices weren't rising (and outpacing quality) so much.
  2. Good news: Last year I predicted good things from the Rhone Valley - and did that ever pan out to be true.  In fact, thanks to a string of great years (2010/11/12) Cotes du Rhone (especially the Villages bottlings) were one source of incredible value almost regardless of the producer.  What's more is that there are still plenty of these wines on the shelves out there, most of which are under $15.  Boo-yah.
  3. Another bastion of good fortune was Bordeaux.  Famous for constantly escalating prices of first Growths, the back-to-back vintages of 2009/10 were terrific - but not just for the pedigreed wineries.  There is a lot of drinking pleasure (and ageability) in common Bordeaux under $20 from these vintages.  And, as with the Cotes du Rhones, there are still some on shelves out there. We can only keep our fingers crossed that the 11s will deliver as much.
  4. Along with the Rhone and Bordeaux, Italy emerged as a gem for reasonably priced wines from lesser celebrated corners of the country: Colli Senesi, Marche, Sudtirol, Umbria, and Veneto.  Wow, some really classy and memorable Italian wines came to market this year, most of which are under $20.
  5. In the not-so-wonderful column is the continuation of a disturbing trend in Spanish wines, particularly Rioja.  With very few exceptions and regardless of price points, these wines suffer from oak bludgeoning, making them largely undrinkable.  Such a shame.  On the plus side, oak coopers in the Midwest of the US are enjoying a bonanza.
  6. Regular readers know how I love to use Napa Valley as a punching bag, so it should come as no surprise that Napa continues to live in la-la land.  While some winemakers do indeed turn out good product in our most famous domestic wine region, prices remain prohibitively high and completely out of whack with the quality of experience.
  7. Elsewhere in California, pricing from regions gaining on Napa's notoriety are also getting braver.  Sonoma, Paso Robles, Santa Lucia, and Santa Barbara County are rapidly climbing out of reach for many.  On the other hand, some regions like Lodi, Amador County/Sierra Foothills, and Central Coast continue to improve quality while maintaining more modest pricing.
  8. Having traveled to Portugal this year, that epiphany happened.  Portuguese whites in particular are brilliant, even if we don't see enough of them here (yet).  Another sign that Portugal is ready for its moment on the world stage? Three of The Wine Spectator's top four wines this year were from the Duoro Valley.  If you haven't already begun to experiment with Portuguese wines, you're missing out.
  9. DTC (direct to consumer, meaning wineries shipping directly to peoples' homes) sales have enjoyed double digit growth every year for the last four or five years.  This will continue to climb as buying behavior (and product availability) changes.
  10. Also as in past years, 2015 will continue to see explosive growth in the craft beer market - and at the expense of the premium wine market.  Anyone wondering why wine sales are sluggish this year need look no further than the extraordinary quality of beers being produced all over the country.
Regardless of what happens in 2015, I hope it is a safe and joyful one for you all.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Recycle Bin, Week of Dec. 15

It's a treasure trove of value-priced wines (and a couple of other, less enthusiastic/higher priced bottles) this week.  The Rhone continues to deliver in spades, as does a repeat success from Columbia Crest.

2013 Stoller Pinot Noir Dundee Hills $30
Fresh, focused, and fuller than you'd expect from Oregonian Pinot, yet still faithful to the region's profile. Distinctive for its subtle, delicate, funky, and appealing edge. 

2011 Columbia Crest Red Blend Columbia Valley $10
I picked this up after guessing that the Columbia Crest marketing folks rebranded the unfortunately packaged (but insanely delicious) Amitage to this slightly less unfortunate packaging. Is it the same wine?  Who knows?  Who cares? It's a different vintage and almost certainly a different blend from different vineyards, but definitely made with the same outcome in mind.  Anyway, who cares about all that?  It's a $10 wine! Whether it measures up to its predecessor or not is the yard stick in my mind. And it does (asterisk). While lighter and less umph-ing than the Amitage, it remains a well made, balanced, and eminently drinkable blend. It has traded intensity for, believe it or not at $10, a dose of polish. Add it up: balanced, drinkable, polished, and ten bucks. Let's just hope this packaging results in the same $8 blow out pricing the Amitage saw.

2013 Truchard Chardonnay Napa Valley (Sample) $20
Lighter in color than you expect for such a full-tilt wine. Archetypal California Chardonnay with a voluptuous, forward approach that maintains through the mid-palate and long into the finish. Round, well endowed, and gregarious.  A caricature of Chard on steroids.

2010 Jean-Luc Colombo Cotes du Rhone 'Les Abeilles' $12
While not a universally appealing wine, it's commendable for its unwavering focus, dark sinewy character, and deep-running rusticity.  Oh, yeah, and it's ten bucks.  And peaking in terms of its age.

2011 La Maialina IGT 'Gertrude' $12
Think fuller-bodied Chianti minus complexity plus authenticity and you end up with this. Terrifically drinkable and complementary to Italian fare.  At this price it's one to buy by the six pack. 
2012 Steelhead Vineyards Pinot Noir Sonoma County $13
What it lacks in depth it makes up for in precision. Overdelivers for its modest price point. Look for some nice medium spice and enough acidity to give it a little bit of grip. At this $$ I will be picking more up soon.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Gifts For Good Boys & Girls

Stumped for what to get your favorite wine blogger that special someone who's been really good this year?  Following are some recently reviewed special occasion wines, as well as some memorable wines reviewed earlier in the year.  Any of these would make terrific stocking stuffers for the wino in your life.  Cheers!

2012 Emeritus Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Hallberg Ranch $45 (Sample) 
The in-depth piece on the 2011 wines from this winery explains their unorthodox, ballsy (dry farming Pinot in California?!), and Burgundian approach to winemaking on the Sonoma Coast. It also expressed my excitement to revisit this vineyard in 2012. I am thrilled to report that, while the wine has remained faithful from vintage to vintage in terms of reflection of approach, the contrast between the lackluster 2011 and promising 2012 vintages is also reflected in this brilliant bottle. Exciting, refined, elegant, and multi-dimensional. Certainly more of a mouthful than the 2011, yet still restrained by comparison to California Pinot Noir and not a trace of cloying fruit - a tightrope act achieved with grace. A fantastic experience worth the spend.

2010 Don Melchor Cabernet Puente Alto Vineyard Chile $125 (Sample)
Starting with the obvious, the price tag puts this bottle of wine in some rarified company. That it is Chilean makes it even more of a surprise. With that acknowledged, what is under the cork? Plenty of merit, as it turns out. While not characteristically Chilean, it is quite characteristically high-end. From the regal color that bejewels as it's being poured into a glass, to the aromatics that beckon with temptation on approach, to the lingering, flirtatious finish, and everything in between, there is nary a drop out of place.  What else?  It evolves generously with decantation time. Students of perfection in proportion and balance will find much to obsess over in this wine. By almost every yard stick, this one measures up to outstanding.

2012 Stoller Chardonnay Dundee Hills Reserve $35 (Sample)
Sublime. Luxurious scents waft from the glass like a siren's call. The palate is complex and multi dimensional, with such a broad array of flavors that this requires some time to process and digest. There's everything from subtle vanilla and cream to flinty acidity to delicate minerality happening here. Though perhaps a smidge too generous to be a Montrachet, the resemblance is otherwise striking (but at half the price!)
2012 Faust Cabernet Napa Valley $50 (Sample)
Bordering on overwhelming when first opened: rich, powerful, and tense with strong oak. Transformation ensues as air works its magic with dazzling aromatics taking the limelight first, and racy tannins singing chorus. The fruit needs time to ease, but this particular brand of pent-up energy channels both near term vigor and long term vibrancy.  Mamma! As eve becomes night, the excitement builds, density and power remains undiminished, and the bottle is (sadly) empty. Bravo. 

2010 Lenotti Le Crosare Ripasso $30
Though priced closer to an Amarone than a typical Ripasso, it's in a leauge of its own.  An absolute delight of a wine. Charming, gregarious, and outwardly delicious. Universal appeal. Hot damn!

2011 Louis Martini Cabernet Alexander Valley $30 (Sample)
A shocker of a wine, especially considering that it's from the difficult 2011 vintage.  Rich, dense, and coarsely textured, this full-bodied Cab is remarkably delicious.  Not at all subtle, nor for the faint of heart.  This big boy has dusty tannins that are nicely integrated into its broad frame. You almost need a knife and a fork for this one.  YUM.

Finally, for the saint on your Christmas shopping list...the Lodi Native six pack:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Beer vs Wine: Value, Risk, and Experience

The debate over the relative value of wine versus beer at a local wine bar recently was fun, even if my perspective is at odds with others'.  The loaded concept of value is intriguing because it sits at the intersection of so many disparate and subjective factors: preference, worth, priorities, perception, circumstance, and so on.

The grenade I threw onto the bar was deceivingly benign: do you get the same quality of experience for $20 when spent on a bottle of wine versus a bottle of beer?  No contest.  Beer wins.  Which, as it turns out, is a generally unpopular thing to say at a wine bar.

Having spent an awful lot of time in various corners of the wine trade, I've become increasingly demanding of wine, particularly along the upslope of the pricing scale.  No doubt this is thanks to exposure to pockets of value across different regions this gig provides.  The breadth of this sampling serves to shine a light on outliers - good and not - in the universe of options available to consumers today.  But my leanings in favor of beer come from a free market economist philosophical point of view more than any exposure to wine.

At the center of this philosophy is the concept of competition reference.  Much of the wine world believes that a wine's competition is other, similar wines.  To wit, vintners have told me that they price their wines by comparing them to that of their neighbors...winegrowers' associations have told me they compare their region to other, similar (and usually proximate) regions.  This inherently flawed logic presumes consumers have limited choice, when the absolute opposite is true.  Not only do consumers enjoy choice unencumbered by provinciality, but their attention is increasingly drawn to products that can provide experiences of equal or greater value than the last product they enjoyed. 

In other words, Napa's competition isn't just Sonoma, it's Spain and Italy and Argentina and the rest of the universe.  And wine's competition isn't other wine, it's beer, cocktails, cider, and a hundred other emerging product categories. Looking for evidence of this?  Just check out how much shelf space has been retasked from wine to craft beer at your local retailer/supermarket.

So, back to that question of what $20 gets you.  If you were to randomly select a $20 bottle of wine, how likely are you to enjoy a superlative experience?  Sure, you could say that it depends on what you pick.  An Andrew Jackson goes pretty far in Australian Shiraz, Chilean Merlot, and Cotes du Rhones for the highly informed consumer.  But broadly speaking, twenty bucks doesn't do much to inoculate you from risk.  Hell, it doesn't even get you in on the ground floor in a lot of categories: Barolos, Burgundies, Brunellos, almost anything from Napa, Oregonian Pinot, Chateauneuf-du-Pape...and that list is long. 

By contrast, if you were to randomly select a $20 bottle of beer, how likely are you to enjoy a superlative experience?  Extremely high.  The fact that you'll be hard pressed to even find such an expensive beer is, in and of itself, informative.  So rare is a $20 beer that this ambitious price point is reserved only for the most exceptional of bottlings.  Perfect case in point in Brooklyn Brewery's Black Ops, a limited release barrel-aged Imperial Stout bottle-fermented with Champagne yeast and secured under cork in a 750ml bottle.  This beer is insanely fantastic and inescapably memorable. 

It's awfully difficult to compare the experience of a beer to that of a wine, but the appeal of these experiences is the joy they bring us, so some normalization can be brought to the comparison.  So, can you recall some wines which you'd describe in similar terms; insanely fantastic and inescapably memorable?  Now, what were the price tags on those wines?  And what percentage of wines you drink provide such an experience?  If it's over 2%, then you're doing extremely well.

Does this mean we should all be drinking more beer?  Not necessarily.  But we definitely can and should be more demanding of what we get in exchange for our hard earned dollars.  The more I learn about wine marketing, the less inclined I am to wander up the price slope in search of immunity from risk - repeated experiences suggest it's not to be had.  At least not in today's wine world. That leaves us with turning over a lot of rocks in search of gems.  Thankfully, these rocks are fun to turn over.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Recycle Bin, Week of Dec. 1

The $12 gauntlet continues!  It's been a rewarding challenge finding enjoyable wines while sticking to the price cap, not to mention a little easier on the wallet.  So, on we go.  Interestingly, I've found that this ceiling is helping shift purchasing behavior.  When wines like the Les Ameriniers Cotes du Rhone Villages come across your radar for a measly $9.99, hell, you stock up on it.  But it also sets the bar for all other wines, engendering more price discrimination and expectation of quality.  If you kiss one frog and it turns into a prince, why not kiss more?

This week we've got two reasonably-priced samples and two recommended wines under the gauntlet's ceiling.  Any are worth putting in your basket.

2012 Mercer Canyons Columbia Valley Red Wine $15 (Sample)
Before even opening this wine, it had one strike for it and one strike against it. In the pro column is the fact that this label has delivered incredible value at the price point for its Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet and Estate label Merlot. In the con column is the "red wine" designation, which I have lamented in these pages before. The final analysis on this wine puts it more towards the win than the loss. Certainly not the flabby, overextracted jam monster many "red wines" have become. Instead, a solid Bordeaux-ish blend with real backbone, structure, and density. It also has a slightly green edge that has begun to emerge as a Columbia Valley characteristic. Overall, very enjoyable, food friendly, and a good value.

2012 Old Zin Vines Zinfandel Lodi $15 (Sample)
Big, boozy, brawny, comforting, and irresistible. Rounder than Aunt Betty's booty and more forward than a bridesmaid sitting in your lap. It's not going to win any awards for sophistication, but that matters not one bit as the experience is a bargain at this price. I will buy this wine next time I see it.

2013 Lander-Jenkins Chardonnay California $12
A moped wine through and through.

2012 Bogle Pinot Noir California $11
Serviceable and pleasant, even.  Is it going to score any trophies?  Actually, yes.  When's the last time you poured yourself a second glass of $11 Pinot Noir?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Everything: What I'm Drinking On Thanksgiving

There is a lot of advice out there about what wines to drink with your Thanksgiving meal.  Most of it is overly prescriptive, but some of it is quite helpful.  Eric Asimov at the New York Times always seems to have a grounded perspective, this year making the case for versatile and energetic wines.  And this week Alder Yarrow's advice over at Vinography echoes what I've said for years: it doesn't really matter what wine you serve.

But, man, do people love to agonize over what bottles to pair with the meal.  I am no exception.

Like many, I've begun to think about what bottles to put on the table.  Will I go young and vibrant or dust off some older Cabernets?  If history is any indication, both - and then some.

You see, the pattern this week follows is always the same, no matter the intent.  It begins with the aforementioned ponderings, which begin to give way to some kind of a loose plan based more on the guest list than the predictable, neutral menu.  Several trips to local retailers and long, silent spells in the basement cellar later, the loose plan becomes a group of thoughtfully assembled bottles.  Then, finally, on the day of, it all goes out the window.

Tradition dictates that my brothers and I go to pick up the meal in the midday hour (lovingly outsourced to a local smokehouse/brewery), where we get the day started with a pint. That is usually followed by another when we get home, catch up, tell stories, and play rules-flexible board games.  Unsolicited parental advice/criticism/Catholic guilt springboards either another pint or forces a shift towards something more fortifiying.  With this as the warm-up, you can see how the wine plan is left behind like yesterday's takeout cartons.  It's not forgotten, but evolves. Sort of.

The excitement of a full house, working buzz, and reuniting with family and friends make it easy to be distracted by euphoria.  So, when it comes time to retrieve those carefully-selected bottles, a simple, brilliant thought comes to mind:  I've got an even better idea!!!  And so, with spastic (and misguided) enthusiasm, thematic consistency to what ends up on the table becomes the first victim.  (Second, if you count good judgement.) Chardonnay next to French Colombard?  Sure!  Sangiovese and Petite Sirah to get things rolling?  Hell yeah.  Lambrusco after 15 year old Cabernet?  Why not?  And somewhere later in this lineup, brown liquor will materialize to help fuel the fireworks.

Such different tastes in rapid fire mount an incredible assault on palates.  So, it's completely forgivable, if not expected, that half way through the meal, no one can tell the Cotes du Rhone from the Brunello (in what was supposed to have been an all American lineup anyhow).  Later, someone will be caught pouring a Vintage Port over ice or chasing a shot of bourbon with a flute of Champagne while manhandling a turkey, stuffing, and hot sauce burrito.  And in the aftermath of the night, recycle bins will be overflowing, special bottles will remain unopened and have to wait until next Thanksgiving, and no one will be able to recall what wine they enjoyed the most.  None of it will matter.  Because we will have succeeded in enjoying one anothers' company, given thanks for lives full of love in abundance, and kicked some serious ass in heated late night rounds of Monopoly.

This is the Thanksgiving I have come to know and love.  Though wine is always served, it also just a foot note in the final analysis.  Knowing all of this doesn't change a thing, so I'm off to peruse the shelves in search of the perfect bottle.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  Please make it a safe and peaceful one.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A Word on Oak

Oak was probably originally used in winemaking for practical purposes.  They had to put the wine someplace and oak had some terrific advantages over holes in the ground and burlap sacks.  It was abundantly available (no doubt the tradition started in France), less breakable than amphoras, and, at least back then, was inexpensive.  It's also relatively easy to work with, very re-suable, and imparts some pretty desirable characteristics.

Oak's influence began to edge in to the center stage of wine styles in recent decades, sharing the limelight with fruit and terrior, with the trend hitting different regions at different times and with mixed results. The vogue, contagious as vogues inherently are, appears to persist in its most aggressive form in some winemaking corners like lingering colds.  One thing is for sure, with all the currently available and more cost-effective alternatives, the continued use of oak - especially new oak - is less about necessity than intention. And whatever the intention, the manifestation can be disastrous - and on a massive scale.

Like cologne, a little goes a long way.

Just as it is with people, oak's greatest strength in its extreme is also its greatest weakness.  And, so, its application - American and Slovenian just as much as French - has become for some a blunt instrument rather than a whisper, complement, or structural bolster. 

To wit, a string of recent tastings has left something of an astringent stripping agent on my teeth - sort of a semi-permanent paneled library in my mouth.  Tasting through a handful of expensive Napa Valley reds (Napa loves French oak), Riojas, and Ribera del Dueros (Spain loves American oak), the wines categorically suffered from such over-application, it's as though they were being punished for grave misdeeds.  Wines treated with this kind of clumsy heavy-handedness are bludgeoned into an unflattering version of themselves.  Worse still, obscured by this masking, it's hard for the drinker to sense what actually came off the vine - which is often beautiful.  And, besides, oak as a prominent flavor just doesn't taste good.

At the other end of the spectrum, traditionalists are rubbing elbows with contemporary stylistic winemaking hipsters who eschew the use of non-neutral anything in the vinification process.  For the old guard, this is just maintenance of the status quo.  Their old and long-neutral oak barrels don't leak, so why should they replace them?  And neutrality allows wine to channel its place and variety without noise or other complications.  The vast majority of the old world operates under this MO, as do a few US producers (Tablas Creek comes to mind).

For the new guard who embrace a minimalist, less-is-more philosophy, expensive oak barrels are as uncool as wearing a suit to work. All sorts of alternative vessels are being played with, from ceramic egg-shaped things to amphora to concrete.  And there's the now well-under-way and popular "naked" movement.

To bring this diatribe into balance, it's worth being plain about my own preferences: oak is not the enemy.  When used in appropriate doses it can springboard a good wine into something greater and longer-lived.  Its tannic properties can offer a structural framework for fruit that might otherwise be flabby or unfocused.  Its toast influence can induce a becoming creamy vanilla streak that offsets and flatters concentrated flavors and lend some exciting grip, too.  In those cases, I'm a huge fan.

But one is left scratching one's head at the hammer-happy carpentry approach to wines which would otherwise breathe and be themselves - for the better.  That is both a tragedy and a learning opportunity for winemaker and consumer alike.

Happy exploring - and keep that toothbrush close by!