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The Best of the Pacific Northwest: Sineann Abondante 2009


Peter Rosback of Sineann Winery

How does this guy do it?

How does he produce so many great wines in such a  dizzying variety of styles. How can one guy be responsible for all these:

A) Incredibly rich Old Vine Zinfandel;

B) Crisp and snappy New Zealand Sauv Blanc;

C) Bold but elegant single vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs; and

D) Intense but polished Washington State red blends.

And did I mention this guy has earned several boatloads of 90+ scores for all these disparate styles??

His name is Peter Rosback, master of Sineann Winery. He’s physically located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA near Newberg, Oregon, but his grapes come from all over the place. He’s one of the new breed of winemakers who doesn’t rely on owning acres of vineyards to produce estate-grown wines, but sources grapes from the best vineyards he can lay his hands on. Peter uses fruit from vineyards in Oregon, the Columbia Valley, and even Marlborough, New Zealand. (Yes, he flies halfway around the world to make his Sauv Blanc!)

It’s a smart approach these days, when you have to be a retired football star or race car driver to be able to pony up the multi-$100,000 per acre it takes to plant your own vineyards, and then pay vineyard workers and winemaking staff for seven or so years before you can actually sell any wine. Instead of owning land, Peter locates pedigreed vineyards and then “works closely with” (read, “drives crazy”) his growers to produce the best fruit possible. It’s a way of doing business that allows Peter tremendous flexibility as a winemaker, while still maintaining control over his product.

But if you could say there’s a signature style to all of Peter’s wines, it would probably be intensity of fruit and concentration of flavors. Aha! That’s one of the things Peter creates in the vineyards. He works with his growers to reduce crop yields way below most premium or super-premium wines: he goes as low as one ton per acre. Trust me, that’s LOW! (A premium Napa Valley grape grower might harvest two and a half to three tons per acre).

abondanteSo why does he do it? The short answer is that reducing the number of grapes each vine produces greatly increases the concentration and intensity of flavor in every single grape. And believe me, it shows in Peter’s wine.

So let’s get to the wine. I recently went nuts over the Sineann Abondante 2009, a red blend made with fruit from vineyards in the lower Columbia Valley. Now I have to admit that I ordered this wine without ever tasting or even reading about it: I just figured that I’d love anything from the winemaker who’d made the amazing Sineann Resonance Vineyard Pinot Noir (with scores in every vintage hovering near the mid-90′s).

So I poured Abondante at a wine and food pairing dinner, where I’d made an admittedly wild-ass guess about how the wine would taste and pair with my food. Truthfully, I just wanted to drink it. The wine is an intriguing blend of grapes grown in the Columbia Valley. There is Merlot from the Hillside Vineyard, Cabernet Franc from the famed Champoux Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon from the Hillside Vineyard and Zinfandel (yes, Washington State Zinfandel) from vineyards that are reputed to be the oldest in the Pacific Northwest.

Wild, huh?

And it does honor to its name. “Abondante” means “generous,” and those abundant flavors jump right out of the glass. There’s rich berry fruit, which may be contributed by the old vine Zinfandel. There are floral and herbal notes (maybe from the Cab Franc?) as well as some plum and pomegranate. All of this is wrapped up in soft tannins and a round ripeness, but not jamminess, that smooths out the finish.

That’s what I liked best: intensity without weight. The fruitiness and structure all danced happily together, creating a very lithe and refined wine that just happened to be rich in fruit flavors.

This wine was kick-ass. And the good news is that it worked perfectly with Beef Filet Medallions topped with Gorgonzola and a Red Wine Reduction. Who would have thought? Like I said, I just wanted to taste the wine…

Try hard to find a bottle of 2009 Abondante, although it’ll be tough given Sineann’s small production and the ridiculously low price for this wine ($30 in my state). But do your best, because you’ll go nuts like I did… Cheers!



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Great Format, Great Wines: Wente, Murietta’s Well and Tamas Estates

karl wentePart of this story is about The Wonders of Modern Technology.

The other part is about good wine.

I’ll start with the technology part. A few weeks ago I was invited to participate in something called a Twitter Tasting. The invite came from Wente Vineyards, and although I didn’t have a clue what a “Twitter Tasting” was, I was keen to find out, because I’ve tasted and liked many Wente wines..

So our Twitter tasting happened last night, and now I can tell you what it is — it’s a blast! Turns out Twitter has this feature called TasteLive that’s like a video conference call. On my laptop the TasteLive page shows a live streaming video of the folks hosting the tasting, in this case Karl Wente and a young woman from their PR firm. He sipped his way through five wines, commenting on each. And we in the “audience” could comment or ask questions through the Twitter feed. A commentator off-camera read our questions/comments to Karl as they came through, and he replied or commented back. This is a fun and efficient format, and a great use of Twitter. Thanks to the folks at Wente for initiating it.

So let’s get to the wine. We tasted through five wines, and that’s more than I want to review in one post. I’ll look at two today and the others in a day or so.

The first two wines don’t bear the Wente name, because the family also owns Murietta’s Well (also in Livermore, California) and Tamas Estates in the Central Coast. Each winery has its own personality, wine style and price point, so let’s start with the entry level wine.

Tamas Estates is a label that’s designed to come across as “hip and adventurouus,” and I’m guessing it’s aimed at a younger audience. The wines are supposed to be ‘approachable,” i.e. fruit-forward and easy on the finish. The first wine we tried in the Tamas line is very new to the market, and I think is pushing the envelope for California “fun” wines. Tamas Sangiovese Rosato 2010 is a pink wine, and those of us in the wine biz know that 95% of Americans think pink means semi-sweet White Zinfandel.tamas rosato

This is most certainly not a White Zin. It’s made from Sangiovese with a dash of Pinot Noir, and it has real character and class. The color, first, is a deep rose, which indicates slightly longer skin contact than your average American blush. In the glass it’s very pretty, and invited me to come hither. The nose was relatively light at first, suggesting watermelon and maybe a hint of cherry. And thankfully, there was absolutely no sweet edge.

My first sip was lots of fun. The watermelon jumped up and said hello, followed by delicate cherry and strawberry flavors. There was good intensity to the fruit — you didn’t have to hunt for flavors like you do with too many roses. But the best part? There’s a great burst of bright acid around mid-palate that carries all the way through the finish. It keeps this Rosato clean and snappy, and sets it totally apart from all but a few American pink wines. It was a great choice to use Sangiovese to lead this blend, because its natural cherry fruit and high acid seem ideally suited for a good rose.

Another thing I like about this wine is the packaging — it’s vaguely exotic, suggesting faraway places and European origins. It helps differentiate it from the herd of American pink stuff.

And did I mention this Tamas sells for around $10? That’s a deal and a half. I’d certainly recommend it in my retail store as a fun picnic/barbeque/patio summer wine.

Next up is a wine that’s on a different planet from Tamas. The winery, Murietta’s Well, has a great backstory, and dates almost to the beginning of California wine. It seems there was a guy named Joaquin Murietta, who was, depending on which biography you read, a Mexican patriot who helped settle the West or a renegade horse thief. While running his horses down to Mexico sometime around 1850, he stumbled on an artesian well in the beautiful Livermore Valley, just east of the San Francisco Bay. The area became known to the locals as Murietta’s Well, and around 1880 a European immigrant named Loius Mel fell in love with it. He bought 92 acres and planted vineyards with rootstock from Chateau d’Yquem and Chateau Margaux. Not a bad lineage for a winery…

The Wente family, who have been making wine next door for even longer than Louis Mel, got involved around 1930, and ended up taking total control in 1990 when they set out to resurrect the historic Murietta’s Well winery. Their mission now is to create “unforgettable estate blends from California’s Livermore Valley.”

The first blend in our Twitter tasting was Murietta’s Well “The Spur” 2008, which plays a twist on the traditional Bordeaux-style blend. There are four Bordeaux varietals — Cabernet Sauvignon (54%), Petite Verdot (23%), Cabernet Franc (9%) and Malbec (4%), but they’re joined by a classic California grape — 10% Petite Sirah. And that 10% really sets the tone.spur

The color is deep and intense, and right off the cork the nose showed that fleshy, iodine-y thing I get from Petite Sirah. Not that that’s a bad thing! That component calmed down with some swirling, and then the dark fruit started to develop. I got deep Cab aromas like blackberry and blackcurrant, and then the oak started ro suggest itself.

The palate had loads of richness, with blackberry and black currant darkened by some gamy notes. An initial burst of acidity resolved to a soft, sensuous mouthfeel. The oak came into play as the wine sat and developed: caramel and vanilla rounded out the back of the palate, with a hint of exotic spice. Tannins were… not very tannic, so I guess they were well integrated.

This is a pretty hedonistic bottle of wine. It’s a “more is more” wine — not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’d like to drink this again with some rich comfort food (Lamb Stew anyone?). But I can certainly recommend it as a unique and well-made blend.

Thanks again, Wente, and Cheers!

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The Tale of Four Juan Gil’s

jumillaSometimes catastrophes are a good thing. Really.

Now before you start saying I’m callous and heartless, let me explain the circumstances. Just over 20 years ago, the region of Jumilla in southeastern Spain was hit (finally) by the phyloxxera epidemic that had long since decimated the world’s vineyards. In case you haven’t met phyloxxera, this little louse ran rampant through Europe a century ago and wrecked havoc on the economies of Europe’s wine-producing countries. Vineyards were replanted, but at great cost to wine producers.

So when Jumilla grape growers saw their vineyards curl up and die, they took a bold approach. They not only replanted, but chose different varieties for their vineyards that promised to produce better quality wine. They also invested in modern technology, so they could produce wines that would compete on the world stage.

And compete they did. Wineries such as Bodegas Juan Gil now earn high ratings, and have been aided and abetted in their penetration worldwide by my favorite negociant, Jorge Ordonez. But more about him later. Let’s look again at Jumilla.

Tucked away in southeastern Spain, Jumilla has a warm continental climate that’s prone to drought. But wine grapes like a warm, arid climate.

The vineyards are situated on a plateau 2000 feet or more above sea level, and grapes like the slightly cooler temperatures combined with plenty of radiant heat. It helps create intense flavors in the grapes. Read the rest of this entry »

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Like Bacon in a Glass: Predator Old Vine Zinfandel 2009

pigDon’t get me wrong — I like bacon as much as the next guy. I’ll lay a few strips beside my French Toast, hit it with a little bit of maple syrup, and go to town.

But I don’t like pork in my wine.

I come across it occasionally, usually when I’m tasting California Pinot Noir or Syrah. Some people try to downplay it — “Oh, that’s not bacon; it’s just a touch of smoky oak.” But you can’t bullshit me — I know smoked ham when I taste it.

Just like in Predator Old Vine Zinfandel 2009. I was looking forward to tasting this wine, because until recently it had been allocated, sold only to an upscale grocery chain near us. Of course, there’s nothing like  “You can’t have it” to make us want it. It’s one of those tried and true principles of the capitalist economy: “The less you supply, the more we demand.”pred

So let’s skip to the moment of truth. I’d popped the cork and poured the Predator around. The bacon hit me before my nose was in the glass, and I glanced across the table. My husband was recoiling, but the other taster hadn’t reacted. I sniffed again, with the same result. But there was nothing for it but to take the plunge and sip.

What I got was — bacon. Granted, there was some soft berry underneath, but it couldn’t compete with the pig. There was no discernible acid or structure, so it finished soft, but not long. Read the rest of this entry »

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Dan Berger Hasn’t Really Discovered Sweet Muscat Wine

moscatoWe’ve been selling Moscato for years. We sell it to all those folks who don’t like dry wines, and there are many of those. Usually they’re at the beginning of the wine learning curve, and after drinking sweet stuff for a while, they decide they want to try less-sweet stuff.

So let’s link to Dan Berger’s article in the that claims that Barefoot Cellars has done wine drinkers a favor by producing a California “Muscat” at around $7. I’ve talked to many people who’ve tasted this wine, and let me be clear: it’s not good wine. My sweet-loving customers have told me it tastes like lighter fluid compared to good Italian or California Moscatos. It may be the same grape, or a derivative of it, but whatever they do to it at the Gallo wine factory takes all the wonderful flavor out of it.

The best Moscato’s are the ones from Italy, because that’s where the grape originated. In Italy’s Asti region, they make wonderful wines from the Moscato grape: they’re sweet, but not with added sugar, and have some natural spritz and nice acid on the finish to keep them from being cloying. The Italians  manage the fermentation process so that fermentation is stopped before all the sugar is consumed, which means there’s a lower level of alcohol but luscious natural sweet, peachy flavors. Some people drink them as table wines and some as dessert wines: either way, they are the best affordable sweet wines on the market (priced in the low to high $teens).

There are also some very good California Moscatos that have been around for some time. St. Supery makes one in the high $teens and Martin & Weyrich Moscato Allegro is in the low $teens (this was one of our best-selling wines more than 10 years ago). And if price is the object, you can buy a good quality Australian Moscato from Banrock Station for about the price of the Barefoot.

I don’t want anyone, including Dan Berger, to drink bad Moscato. In fact, I’d be happy to send him a bottle of really good Moscato. Once he’s tried it, he’ll understand…





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Four Sisters Winery Kills It Again

sistersOK, I’ll admit this isn’t really a picture of the four sisters who’re the namesakes for this Australian winery. But they look like they could kick some serious ass, just like the wines.

Four Sisters may sound like a silly, frilly little winery, but it’s got some serious chops. In fact, it was created by one of Australia’s most respected winemakers, Trevor Mast. At Mount Langhi Ghiran, Trevor produced award-winning wines that could be massive and very bold. He started his second winery so he could create a line of fun, accessible, easy-drinking wines that his daughters and their friends could enjoy.

Some of the girls got into the act, too. The eldest, Daliah, created the silhouette art that became the winery’s logo and label.

I’ve already tasted and reviewed Four Sisters Shiraz (“Great Value Second Label Shiraz”), and gave it my top rating because it drinks twice as good as it costs. This is way more than “fun, easy-drinking” wine. So I was excited to bring home the Merlot.

I gotta admit that Merlot isn’t anything like my favorite varietal, because I’ve tasted a lot of insipid stuff made in California. And the Aussies don’t usually devote a whole lot of vineyard space to this grape, favoring the mighty Shiraz instead. But this Merlot has a whole lot of style and character.

The fruit for Four Sisters Merlot 2008 comes from Victoria, which has a cooler climate than many of Australia’s wine regions. We know what cool does to grapes, right? When it’s managed correctly, it creates structure and acid in the fruit, and contributes to more intense, concentrated flavors.

The difference shows from the first sniff. I got  intense cherry and plum, with a sharp note that signals depth and structure. The palate offers gobs of rich dark  berry fruit, with a hit of cocoa, vanilla and spice. The French oak isn’t overpowering — it rounds out the finish while letting the bright fruit show.

If I were you, I’d go grab a bottle or 12. And if you have any sisters (I have two), grab them too. Share a glass of this and enjoy. Cheers!

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Mollydooker “The Boxer” Scores a Knock-out Punch


OK, I’ll jump on the bandwagon.

I’m usually not easy. I’m not the kind to just jump on any old wagon, and go along with the crowd.

But I tasted Mollydooker The Boxer last night, and here I go…

I love Australian Shiraz when it’s balls-to-the-walls, no-holds-barred, straight up and intense. That’s how Sarah & Sparky, proprietors of Mollydooker, make their wines. They aren’t farmers — they don’t grow their own grapes. Instead, they buy grapes from growers they’ve built a bond with over the years; growers they trust to produce kick-ass fruit.

Sarah & Sparky used to make wine for other award-winning wineries, such as Marquis Philips and  Henry’s Drive. They kept getting all these amazing scores from wine critics all around the world, and earned a wagon-load of awards like “Australian Winemakers of the Year” and Wine Spectstor’s Top 10 Wines of the World. Finally, the light-bulb went off and they got the idea to create their own label. They chose the name Mollydooker, which is an Australian expression for left-handed, because they both are! Left-handed, that is. You should check out their website: they have lots of cool stories and YouTube videos.

Their Mollydooker wines are the darlings of critics — they’ve never earned less than 90 points, and five have scored the magic 99 points from the Wine Advocate. That ain’t easy… The wine I tasted is their “entry level” wine, only because their pricier labels sell so quickly that I couldn’t buy them if I tried!

So here’s my take on Mollydooker The Boxer 2009. The nose offers some red berry fruit, spice and smoky forest floor. The palate, though, is much more luscious, offering creamy mocha and vanilla up front, and then bright acid as it finishes. The balance is what makes this wine classic: it settles somewhere between voluptuous and elegant.

If you can find a bottle of any of the Mollydooker wines, grab it. Lay it down if you must, but not for too long: you shouldn’t delay this kind of fun for too long. Cheers!

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To Oak or Not To Oak… A Chardonnay Wine Review


Montes modern facility in Chile

“I love this warmth and richness.”

“I hate this heavy oak.”

Or how about…

“I love this snappy grapefruit.”

“I hate how this acid turns my mouth inside out.”

Both these examples of diametrically opposed taste buds are classic examples of why we can’t all enjoy the same white wines. Oak is oak, acid is acid, and never the twain shall meet. And these are not made up comments: they are actual conversations between me and my husband while tasting white wine.

“A-Ha!” you say. Does this indicate irreparable marital discord? I don’t think so. I hope not.

But what it comes down to is this: white wines represent a very wide array of styles and winemaking techniques, from super-dry, flinty and acidic wines such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Austrian Gruner Veltliner, to oaky, soft, even flabby Chardonnays (classic California style). In my vast (or pretty vast) experience of conducting and participating in wine tastings, people’s palates go either one way or the other: they either love New Zealand whites or they hate them, and they either love oak-y Chards or hate them.

But let’s make a big wine wish: What if we could find a white that would bridge the gap; that would be like the Nobel Peace Prize of the wine world and unite the warring factions? Read the rest of this entry »

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Vina Robles

roblesI opened up the wine list at a cool little pizza place in Florida and was surprised to see “not-your-usual-pizza-joint-winelist.” It was a very pleasant surprise, because I’ve come to dread the pathetic short list of cheap Italian and not-so-cheap but still lousy California selections.

The joint is actually part of a small national chain called “Grimaldi’s,” and they do a great job with build-your-own pizzas, craft beers and lots of wines by the glass and bottle. We drank a glass of Ferrari-Carano Siena (an elegant Sonoma County Sangiovese blend) at a bargain price, but we’d had it before and already knew it was a stellar wine.

The new winery of the evening was Vina Robles, which we learned sits in the rolling hills just north of Paso Robles, California. It was actually kind of a “deja-vu all over again” experience, because we realized we’d visited the winery on a buying trip many years ago. It was probably not long after the release of their first vintage (2000), and we met with the Swiss restaurateur who is their owner. Our impression of the wines then was that they were very Old World in style: leaner than typical California and more earthy and dry. We weren’t sure the wines would “fit” in our area, or that the winery had good long-term prospects.

I guess we were very wrong (it’s happened before, I’ll admit…) Vina Robles now has a magnificent retail and restaurant operation, and wines that have gotten great ratings from Wine Spectator, and Wine Enthusiast, and medals from a long list of competitions.

In fact, Vina Robles now hangs their hat on their Old World heritage: their publicity tag line is “European Inspiration– California Character.” It seems they’ve learned to work with the ultra-ripe fruit that the Paso Robles climate produces: its very warm days and cool nights grow Bordeaux and Rhone varietals that are rich and intense.

We got a feeling for that style with Vina Robles Red4 2008, a blend of the Rhone varietals Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Mourvedre. The rich, jammy nose said, “this ain’t no European wine” right off the bat, and the palate delivered lots of sweet blackberry and raspberry flavors with an almost viscose mid-palate. You could practically spread this thing on toast (not that that’s a bad thing…). But the balance isn’t way off — the Petite Sirah lends enough structure to keep it from being flabby. Interesting, too, that I didn’t detect any of the bacon-y or tar-y notes I sometimes get from California Syrah.

Next we drank the Vina Robles Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. This shows much more of its European heritage, with a leaner but fruit-filled palate and deep, dark berry fruit. There are flavor notes of toasty oak and coffee, and drier tannins that are nevertheless well-integrated. This is a really nice Cab that balances elegance and intensity, and is also a great value for around $20.

The website also shows a Chardonnay and white blend that I’d like to taste. let me know if you try them: Cheers!

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How Mountains Make Wine: Finca Decero

deceroOnce upon a time there was a remote patch of soil in the shadow of some mighty snow-capped mountains. The soil grew only scrub and rocks, and was teased all day long by the “remolinos,” little whirlwinds that kicked up the dusty soil.

A young man with Switzerland and Napa in his ancestry came over the snow-capped mountains and found the patch of soil. He must have been visited by a strong vision, because he decided to dig down into the soil and plant vines that he hoped would someday grow wonderful, rich, ripe red grapes…

So that’s enough of the fable format. Rather than wearing it way too thin, I’ll just jump right to 2011 and the Finca Decero estates in the once-remote Agrelo region of Mendoza, Argentina. It really was created “from scratch” (the meaning of Decero) and includes the Remolinos Vineyard, which is planted to several red grape varieties. This being Mendoza, Malbec is king, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot also get some space.

We know the soil can produce some wonderful reds: Finca Decero’s wines have received huge ratings ever since their inaugural vintages (the Malbec earned 92 points from the Wine Advocate, the highest score ever given a Malbec). So what’s so special about this land? Read the rest of this entry »

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