If you see a wine label that says “Old Vine Zin” or “OVZ,” chances are pretty good that it’ll also say “Lodi.”
Besides being a small town in Northeast Ohio, Lodi is a wine region in Northern California known primarily for its Zinfandel. The appellation hasn’t traditionally had the cachet of “Napa” or “Russian River,” sitting as it does in the warmer central part of California. Wine geeks associate warm-climate regions with flabby, un-structured wines that may sell well at the grocery store but don’t usually rate a place at the Premium Wine table.
But wait! Lodi has more to offer than the wine geeks allow, as I can testify after tasting through several wines at an online interactive tasting event sponsored by an association of Lodi wine producers. There was surprising variety and a few really excellent bottles that made me rethink my definition of “Lodi wine.”
First, let’s get this climate thing straight. Lodi may sit inland, directly east of San Francisco, but it’s right on the edge of the Sacramento Delta where nightly “Delta breezes” funnel cool ocean air over the vines. The soil is sandy and summers are dry, so growers can control vine vigor and ripening with careful irrigation practices. Read the rest of this entry »
Your wine can be purple in your glass.
Your hands can be purple after pouring bottle after bottle.
Your teeth can be purple after sipping too much Petite Sirah.
Or your Wine Company can be Purple.
Derek Benham founded Purple Wine Company in 2001, after selling a value-oriented brand called Blackstone that he had co-founded. I’m sure you remember Blackstone: it produces a wine that has been, at times, America’s best-selling Merlot.
So the guy knows how to make wine, and how to make money with wine.
Enter Four Vines. This wine company was founded in 1994 by three folks who wanted to focus on making Zinfandel: big, bold, kick-ass Zins from the best Zin regions in California. Christian Tietje built the Four Vines brand with two under-$15 labels and three region-specific Zins. All were highly-rated and regarded as good values.
And now Four Vines is part of Purple Wine Company, purchased by Derek Benham about two years ago. I recently had the opportunity to taste those three appellation Zins, as well as a new PWC wine called Cryptic.
I started with Four Vines “Biker” Zinfandel Paso Robles 2009, because Paso Zins have always gotten my vote for the Best in Varietal. This one is made with fruit from two vineyards in West Side Paso Robles, including one of my all-time faves, Dante Dusi vineyard. West Side Paso is heaven for warm-climate grapes, with hot, sunny days and very cool nights that produce intense flavors and good structure. Calcareous soils (that means chalky/limestone-y) also keep yields low and flavors concentrated. Read the rest of this entry »
“Toto, we’re not in Napa anymore…”
I felt as disoriented as Dorothy and her little dog when I landed in the middle of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Ynez Valley. I was supposed to be in Wine Country, but where were the sights so familiar in the Napa Valley? Where were the gigantic Tuscan tasting rooms crowded together along the roadway? Where were the high-end restaurants grudgingly serving $200 a plate lunches? Where were the traffic jams?
Instead, I saw the brick-front Lompoc Chamber of Commerce, Circa 1892. It sits across from Sissy’s Cafe, where they make a mean lentil soup. I saw the Los Olivos General Store, and further up the street was Jedlicka’s Saddlery, where working ranch hands still buy bridles and belt buckles. I saw the pseudo-Dutch village of Solvang, which was, well, weird — but features an antique dealers showroom with one of the country’s finest collections of clocks.
And I tasted some very, VERY good wine.
The Santa Ynez Valley is south of San Francisco, just a few hours north of Los Angeles, and close enough to Santa Barbara for a nice day trip. It’s blessed with wonderfully moderate temperatures, and if you’re a wine geek like me, you know that the valley runs east-west, splitting the coastal hills and allowing morning fog and cool afternoon breezes to blow in from the ocean. This creates the longest and coolest growing season in California, and when you add endless summer sunshine, low rainfall and well-drained soils, you’ve got a little paradise for wine grapes.
Our first taste of paradise came at Melville Winery, which nestles in the cool Santa Rita Hills appellation on the west side of the valley. This is where the Melville family and winemaker Greg Brewer craft some amazing estate wines. They’ll tell you it’s all about their vineyard practices, using techniques such as these:
- High density planting creates really intense flavors in the fruit. Vines must compete for nutrients from the soil and yields are very, very low.
- Leaves are pulled to expose the stems to the sun. The stems become dry and brown so they can be included in whole-cluster fermentation without adding green flavors to the wine.
- Their Pinot Noirs see no new oak, which seemed like sacrilege: what’s red wine without oak? But the crafty folks at Melville let the dried wood from the stems act as their “oak.” It imparts that soft vanilla undertone without overpowering the fruit.
I loved several of their Pinot Noirs, including the Estate Pinot which I’ve reviewed in the past (read about the Melville 2009). My first love was Melville Sandy’s Pinot Noir 2010. It’s made with fruit from a four-acre block planted on very sandy soil, and named after a woman named, you guessed it, Sandy. The nose hit me with sweet raspberry notes, and the palate offered intense dark cherry/berry fruit without weight or jamminess. Yumm…
Melville Carrie’s Pinot Noir 2010 uses fruit from a five-acre block that sits atop an exposed mesa, where the roots have to reach deep into the soil in search of nutrients. This creates the “darkest and most powerful” of their Pinots. I loved the luscious berry compote on the nose, and the rich, textured body of this Pinot. Again, there was plenty of lush fruit and layers of spice, but it was all balanced by good natural acidity.
A few miles further up the road, we found what looked like a big old Midwestern cattle barn plopped down in wine country. It houses sister wineries Dierberg and Star Lane. Between the two of them, they capture the diversity of the Santa Ynez Valley:
- Dierberg makes Chard and Pinot Noir from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, which sits further north and eight miles closer to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean.
- Star Lane grows Syrah and Bordeaux varietals in Happy Canyon, otherwise known as the Banana Belt of Santa Barbara County. The owners were so impressed with this warm-climate region that they bought a whopping 8,000 acres — about one third the total area of the Canyon.
Dierberg’s Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay 2009 was an absolute stunner. Delicate and rich at the same time, I loved the bright pear and tropical fruit with notes of pineapple and butterscotch. The palate was lush but the finish was tangy and crisp, showing the great natural acidity that balances this wine. Thanks to aging in large oak vessels that impart just a hint of toast, and minimal secondary fermentation that maintains the natural acidity, this Chard will actually age like a White Burgundy. If you can wait that long to drink it…
Besides plenty of high ratings, Dierberg has the distinction of being served to a bevy of international dignitaries at the 2012 NATO Summit (that was the 2007 Syrah). That’s high praise, indeed.
Star Lane is like the big, bad-ass sister next to refined Dierberg. Their vineyards in Happy Canyon are unexpectedly warm for Santa Barbara County,
with more degree days and less rain than almost all of the Napa Valley. They’re also among the highest elevation, with grapevines climbing up the lower slopes of the San Rafael Mountains. They can make big reds here, like Star Lane Estate Happy Canyon 2007. Five years after vintage date this beauty is bold, rich and soft. A blend of Bordeaux varietals plus Syrah, it opens with rich creme de cassis and vanilla, following with dark berries, mocha, and a little exotic spice. The mouthfeel is juicy and the tannins are beautifully supple. A few bottles left the winery in the back of my car, and I can’t wait to revisit them with an appropriate meal to match.
There’s more to tell but I’m out of space and out of time. Stay tuned for the final installment of our adventures in the Santa Ynez Valley. Cheers!
1874. That’s when the West was Wild and Napa was a hotbed of silver mining, not wine-ing.
The year 1874 is also when this lithograph of the Charles Krug Winery was drawn. And at that point the winery had already been around for a dozen years! So if you value classic stuff, it doesn’t get any more classic than Charles Krug.
The winery has been in the hands of the Mondavi family since 1943 — yes, that Mondavi family. Italian immigrant Cesare Mondavi jump-started the already-venerable Krug winery, and brought sons Robert and Peter into the business. Robert eventually moved down the road and established the eponymous winery in Oakville, and Peter took over the reins at Krug.
And at the ripe young age of 90-something, Peter is still holding the reins (albeit with a lot of help from two more generations of Mondavi’s).
Over the years Charles Krug Winery has built a classic reputation for Bordeaux varietal wines, especially their Cabernet Sauvignon and Cab blends. But they also do a pretty good job with the other Bordeaux varietal, the white one.
Sauvignon Blanc has been a staple in the Napa Valley for years. It grows well on the valley floor, and just about every Napa winery pushing out a $50 – $300 Cabernet has a $25 Sauv Blanc to go with it.
I recently tasted Charles Krug Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2011, which just happened to be the winery’s 150th anniversary vintage. Wow! Those years represent a lot of history for California and the Napa Valley, but the year 2011 was anything but a banner year for weather. The 2011 growing season was, to use a technical term, lousy. Conditions included “below average temperatures, late spring rains, a cool growing season and rain during the summer.” Yields were something like 30% below normal, and Brix (or sugar levels in the grapes) were substantially lower than usual.
So I applaud any winemaker who crafted nice wines from this vintage. Charles Krug Winery had a new winemaker at the helm, Stacy Clark, who did a great job with this 2011 Sauvignon Blanc. Here’s how I experienced it:
The nose gave me mandarin orange and pear fruit, with something savory and tangy on the back. That’s good — it smelled like sunshine and blue skies.
My first sip was a test: would this be one of those Sauv Blanc’s that turns your mouth inside out with acid, or something that reminds you of cat pee? Happily, it was neither. Instead I got a Sweet Tart — does anyone remember those? They’re a candy that has the best sweet/tart thing going, and just like that candy, the Charles Krug gave me sweet pear and tart gooseberry fruit all at once.
Not that that’s a bad thing! I loved the fruity attack and crisp finish. I also got a nice richness on the palate that kept this from being a Johnny-One-Note kind of Sauv Blanc. That means that it’s — balanced! And isn’t that what we’re looking for in any wine?
Charles Krug Sauv Blanc was fun to drink, and I wished I had some Calamari or Mussels to enjoy with it. And at the very reasonable price of $18 a bottle, it’s good wine for the money. Check it out and let me know what you think. Cheers!
Remember when “I’ll have a beer” meant “I’ll have a Budweiser?” In the bad old days before the craft brew revolution, there was only one kind of beer — the cheap domestic stuff.
Ditto the rice-based beverage called Saké. Most Americans think there’s just one kind — something they’ve encountered in their neighborhood Japanese restaurant that smells like paint thinner and tastes like…well, paint thinner.
But I discovered recently that there’s a Saké revolution brewing (sorry about the pun) engineered by a couple of guys from Portland, Oregon. Hey! Wasn’t Portland the birthplace of the craft brew revolution? What a coincidence…
Steve Vuylsteke, President and CEO of a company called SakéOne, spent years championing the Oregon wine industry. Now he’s joined up with America’s only Sakémaster, Greg Lorenz, to transform our experience of Japan’s unique beverage. They’re producing premium Sakés that are every bit as elegant and food-worthy as fine wine.
Now before I go any further, let me admit that my previous experience of Saké was limited to pounding a bar top and yelling “Sake Bomb!!” Thankfully, I learned lots of cool stuff about Saké during a recent online, live tasting event with Steve and Greg. Here are a few things to remember if you want to be at the front of the saké wave:
- Get the name right — it’s “sa-KAY,” not “SA-kee.”
- Serve the good stuff chilled, in a proper wine glass, to release all the aromas and flavors.
- Think of Saké as a food-pairing beverage, just like a fine wine.
So is Saké a wine? No.
Is it a beer? No again.
Greg explained that Saké is a unique product created by the interaction of two living organisms — yeast and koji, a mold spore that digests the rice and, along with the yeast, determines the character of each Saké.
The SakéOne company crafts premium Saké — Junmai Ginjo — using traditional techniques learned from their Japanese “brewer partners.” Their label, Momokawa, includes several styles and flavors that they believe are a good introduction to the beverage for American palates, and fit SakéOne’s mission of “providing a transition between cultures”. Read the rest of this entry »
Well, not really. There’s just one Kiwi that I know of, but I think he’s made a big impression…
Fintan du Fresne is the New Zealand-born winemaker for Chamisal Vineyards in California’s amazingly beautiful Edna Valley. These rolling hills are situated about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, but are a world apart from both. I know — I’ve been there. And I still remember the spectacular view from Jean Pierre Wolfe’s front porch, as vineyards and rolling hills framed a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
Only it’s not very distant: Chamisal’s vineyards are just five miles from the Pacific, and Edna Valley is the California AVA that’s closest to the ocean.
Fintan says the ocean defines Chamisal’s wines. If you look at the videos on their very cool website, you can see the marine layer (or fog bank) that rolls in from the ocean and covers the valley’s vineyards most summer mornings. The fog cools down the vines, acting like a giant wet blanket that slows the development of the grapes. Is this a bad thing? Not at all. Cool is actually good, because the longer the grapes hang on the vine, the more complex and intense the flavors become. The result is wines that are delicate but intense — an award-winning combination.
Chamisal also holds a special distinction in this AVA: its vineyards were the first planted in the Edna Valley back in 1973. Chamisal now grows five varietals, and we tasted most of them during a recent streaming live online wine tasting. It was delightful to hear Fintan du Fresne (and his sexy Kiwi accent) talk about Chamisal Vineyards and its wines, the first of which was a stunning example of Fintan’s influence.
Chamisal Stainless Steel Chardonnay Central Coast 2011 is what happens when a New Zealand palate meets California fruit. New Zealand’s very cool climate produces wines high in acid and bursting with lime and grapefruit flavors (drinking some NZ Sauv Blanc is like sucking on a grapefruit…). It’s as far away as you can get from the traditional California style that favors (or at least, used to favor) lots of oak and butter.
When Fintan came to Chamisal, the first thing he did was create a bright, clean, snappy white wine. This is the “no” Chardonnay: no oak barrel aging, no malolactic fermentation, no sur lie aging. He uses a long, cool fermentation to deliver fresh, bright fruit flavors with lots of natural acidity.
But I found this wine surprisingly rich. The nose offered lots of floral aromas and candied fruit, and the palate led with rich tropical flavors. Exotic floral notes crept in behind, followed by a spice note that’s quite unique. Fintan calls this “Chamisal spice,” and says it’s a terroir thing that manifests in all Chamisal wines. I enjoyed this wine, and think it will make a great summer quaffer for all those who want flavor without oak. It’s worth noting, too, that this Chard is from the much-vilified 2011 growing season, which threw vintners and winemakers all sorts of nasty weather curves. Fintan said he actually liked this vintage because it created fruit that was better suited to the stainless style. Read the rest of this entry »
“I don’t like Chardonnay.”
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard this lately, from customers and friends. Heck, I’ve even heard it from my significant other!
I used to try to argue, or to persuade, but it was usually a waste of time. The problem was that these folks thought all Chard tasted like the old-fashioned California style: a 2×4 and a stick of butter.
They should have tasted Wente Vineyards Chardonnays. They could have picked from a range of styles that hit all kinds of palates, and hit one very important nail right on the head — BALANCE! This deceptively simple feature just means that none the elements of a wine — fruit, acid, oak and alcohol — overpower any other. They play a nice little symphony in your mouth, without the tuba player or the cymbals hogging all the attention.
So how do the folks at Wente make such kick-ass Chardonnay? Well, they kinda have it in their genes… The generation that’s currently running the winery and vineyards is the fifth — which takes the winery’s founding way back to 1883. They have the distinction of being the country’s oldest, continuously-operated family-owned winery.
But being old doesn’t make you good. What makes them good started with the second generation, Ernest Wente, who was in the first class that graduated from UC Davis’s famed enology program. One of Ernest’s professors went to Europe and brought back some Chardonnay cuttings from Montpelier, France. In California’s climate they produced particularly beautiful fruit flavors. They propagated what they now call Wente Clone 4, and the rest is history: something like 75% of all the Chardonnay grown in California is the Wente clone. Most of those high-priced, highly-rated Chards you’ve read about use fruit descended from Ernie Wente’s French cuttings.
So I knew all this when I fired up my computer to participate in an online, streaming wine tasting with Karl Wente, the fifth generation winemaker. We tasted through four Wente Chardonnays, each representing a different style and flavor profile. It became clear that the words of another Wente ancestor, maybe Ernest again, were true: he said that Chardonnay was the grape that offered the most opportunity to create a style by manipulating different elements (Sorry Karl — you said it better but I forget your words). A winemaker can choose:
1 – When to pick the grapes. When they’re picked at lower sugar levels, like 22 Brix, the wine will be lighter, leaner, and less “fruity”. Grapes that hang on the vine till they reach 24 Brix will be riper, rounder, and richer tasting.
2 – A winemaker can choose to ferment and/or age in stainless steel or oak barrels, and if oak is used the possibilities are almost endless for what type of oak is used; whether the barrels are new or used; and how long the wine sits in barrel.
All I wanted was a cheap and cheerful little wine to perk up my Marinara and Meatballs, and what I got instead was a ton of history. There’s so much packed into this deceptively simple bottle that I don’t know where to start.
First, we have “Figaro:” when I say the name I conjure up visions of a big, bearded baritone belting out, “Figaro, Figaro, Fiiiiigaro”….
Then there’s “Aragon”, or “Zaragoza,” the Spanish province that contains the Calatayud wine region. I see images of medieval knights and ladies, and it turns out there were more than enough epic battles here. Romans, Moors, and half of Europe tried to invade it, and during a particularly memorable (and bloody) siege in the 1800′s, almost every man, woman and child in Zaragoza died rather than surrender to the invading French. Wow — these are some fierce folks…
Then there’s the winery that created this wine, Bodega Niño Jesús. Really? Doesn’t that translate to “Winery Baby Jesus?” I just don’t know what to think about that…
Here’s what I know about my little bottle of history:
- Figaro Tinto 2009 comes from the wine region or D.O. called Catalayud, which sits on the River Ebro in the northeastern quadrant of Spain.
- The Continental climate borders on extreme: the summers are hot and dry and the winters are cold. In a single day, temperatures can swing 30 or 40 degrees (F).
- The vineyards where these grapes are grown sit on south-facing slopes above the river (to catch all the available sunlight, right?). And they’re at elevations of up to 2,500 feet, which gives the fruit more intense flavors and good natural acidity.
- Finally, the soil is loose, gravelly and really lousy for growing anything else, which makes it just perfect for wine grapes!
Catalayud shares these characteristics with just about every significant wine-producing region in the world. Here’s what makes Bodega Niño Jesús different: it’s a cooperative of about 150 growers tending vineyards with an average age of 30 years. These aren’t really old vines, but they’ve at least grown a beard by now, and contribute more complex flavors to the fruit. The grapes in Figaro are 100% Garnacha (Grenache), which in warm climates has a fruity, sometimes fleshy style. And significantly, this bottling is from the 2009 vintage, which in Europe was one of the best in memory.
Finally, I’m getting to the wine: Figaro Tinto is simply a killer bottle of wine, and tastes much better than its humble price. I paid $8 for it at Total Wine & More, and I was hoping for something with just enough fruit and acid to balance my Marinara sauce (homemade, thank you). What I got was bright, tangy red and black cherry fruit with a hint of spice and a well-balanced finish. When it hit the tomato-based sauce, both wine and Marinara got up and danced: the fruit became softer and more intense and the sauce turned sweet and savory.
I was in wine-and-food heaven, and all it took was a 10-spot. I will cheerfully buy this wine again, and I’d suggest you take it for a test drive, too, especially if you have pizza, red pasta or any Mediterranean specialty on your menu. And be sure to let me know what you think… Cheers!
OK, so I tasted several wines recently that seemed to depart pretty significantly from what I’ve come to expect from American wines in the $10 price range.
Were these wines jammy? No
Were they tooty-fruity (that’s a technical term…)? No
Were they big, fat cocktail wines? Again, no.
Both whites and reds showed great balance, with plenty of acid on the back to balance the fruit on the front end.
This shouldn’t be a big deal, right? But it is. It seems like the $10-and-under domestic market has been taken over by slightly-sweet Pinot Grigios; fleshy, raisin-y Zins; and red blends with enough residual sugar to make my teeth ache.
So, YES, I was thrilled when I tasted through the portfolio of Double Decker Wines, a “new” brand made by the folks at Wente Vineyards. The brand is aimed squarely at the Generation Whatever crowd — younger drinkers coming into the wine market, who want wines that are fun and unpretentious. (But trust me, they’ll also sell well to those of us over-40′s who drink wine with dinner every night and don’t want to plunk down a twenty for each bottle).
The Double Decker winemaking team is young enough to connect well with its audience. Thirty-something winemaker Karl Wente is the fifth generation of his family to be riding the vineyards on their Livermore, California property. The flagship winery dates back to 1883, and has been a leader in California winemaking all along (ever heard of Wente Clone Chardonnay?)
For the Double Decker project, they source fruit other vineyards, with some pretty impressive results. Let’s get to it.
Double Decker Pinot Grigio 2010 makes me think of Europe, not California. Made with fruit sourced from cool-climate Arroyo Seco, it shows its stuff right off the bat with a nose of delicate pear and pretty florals. The palate led with some tropical notes, but quickly showed some spice and snap. What lingered on my palate was tangy acidity — a clean, refreshing finish.
I (and several other bloggers) talked to Karl about the wine through a streaming online event (which is also very cool, by the way). He shared some of his winemaking secrets: one of those is that he blends a few percentage points of Riesling and Viognier into his Pinot Grigio. Karl says that these floral, aromatic grapes don’t really announce their presence, but just accentuate the fruit character of the Pinot Grigio.
He goes even further in his pursuit of balance: like the European winemakers, he picks his grapes at a lower brix (that means, when the sugar levels are lower) so that the wine will retain that bright natural acidity.
Yup, it all worked very well for me.
OK, this one’s for all you lovers of unabashedly, un-apologetically New-World-style wines.
I mean wines with boatloads of fruit and voluptuous textures that don’t feel obliged to meet Old World standards of restraint or delicacy. (Can you tell I’ve been hanging out with way too many Euro-phile wine drinkers?)
The wine that sent me over the edge last night was Martin Family Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2009. It comes from a small-production, family-owned winery that, “is basically a passionate hobby that’s gotten a bit out of hand…. sort of like starting out collecting baseball cards and then one day realizing you own a major league ball team,” according to Jim Morris, vineyard manager.
Mike Martin, owner and winemaker, got the ball rolling by making wines for family and friends. They were a thirsty lot, and “because they wanted more free wine,” he made more. Then he planted a vineyard and contracted with some of the best growers in the Dry Creek Valley. He now produces about 4,000 cases of big reds (Cab, Zinfandel and Syrah) from vineyards in this northern Sonoma County appellation.
The lazy waterway called Dry Creek is a tributary of the Russian River, which all you Pinot Noir freaks know is the epicenter of a cool-climate region that produces some of America’s best Pinot and Chardonnay. The Dry Creek Valley AVA lies just north of the Russian River Valley, but has a very different micro-climate. Because its topography lies above the fog line, Dry Creek grapes begin each day in sunshine and cool-ish temperatures that warm considerably through the afternoon. A return to cool temps at night builds the structure that keeps Dry Creek fruit from becoming jammy.
Mike Martin takes it one step further: “the fruit for our wines is primarily from steep, rocky, hillside vineyards that produce super-concentrated, intense fruit flavors.”
Now I get it: that’s why the ripe, round aromas of blackberries jumped right out of the bottle, followed by rich mocha when it hit my glass. The color was deep garnet and almost opaque, showing good extraction and concentration.
The palate didn’t waste any time revealing gobs of rich blackberry and dark cherry fruit, along with some vanilla oak and chocolate. But just when all this opulence threatened to become jammy, the acid kicked in, brightening and cleansing the flavors. And right behind that were the well-integrated tannins that added depth and dimension.
This is what balance is all about, right? We can have our big up-front fruit and 14.8% ABV (that’s what the bottle says!) as long as we cool it down with proper acid and tannic structure.
Did I mention that all this goes for under $20? Yes, you can share the love for what I consider to be a bargain-basement price for wine of this quality. My next mission is to find the Martin Family Syrah — I can’t wait to see what they do with that grape… Cheers!