Archive for the ‘Rating wines’ Category

Lodi Revisited

lodiIf 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 »

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Charles Krug Sauv Blanc: New Take on an Old Classic

krug1874. 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!



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Great Old World White: Heitlinger Pinot Gris

germanyAmericans don’t get Pinot Gris.

They don’t get this European style of wine that’s opulent and austere at the same time, and rich while being bone dry.

There really is no wine  on this side of the Atlantic that’s comparable to Weingut Heitlinger Pinot Gris 2010. About the only Pinot Gris we drink is from Oregon, and the Oregon Pinot Gris I’ve tasted are more fruity and less austere. Not that that’s a bad thing… There’ a very nice Oregon Pinot Gris from Raptor Ridge Winery, which I covered in another post, but it’s a very different in style from the Heitlinger.

Weingut Heitlinger is situated in southern Germany, where vineyards sunk into minerally soils on the south-facing slopes of hillsides gather the maximum radiant heat. The grapes achieve ripeness with a healthy level of acid, which ensures the crisp, snappy finish that German whites are famous for.

When I opened a bottle of the Heitlinger Pinot Gris 2010 and poured my first glass, I was struck by the nose: I smelled ripe pear, apricot and honey that suggested a sweet palate to follow.

But the palate was classically German: while I tasted  rich apricot and honey up front, it quickly dried out to a crisp, minerally finish with lots of snappy acid.

This style of wine is wonderful for food pairing. It works in those tricky situations where nothing else does, like with a salad course. I was trying to find a wine to pair with a Pear and Arugula Salad with Honey Champagne Vinaigrette, and when I tasted the Heitlinger Pinot Gris I said, “This is it!”.  I think it’ll be a great food wine in lots of situations where typical new World wines don’t work.

Try it, and let me know what you think is its perfect food companion. Cheers!

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Austin Hope’s “Candor:” Wine On Steroids?


Hope Family Winery on Live Oak Road, westside Paso Robles CA

I wrote recently about Austin Hope, a second-generation winemaker from Paso Robles, California. He’s doing some pretty edgy things down there in the Central Coast, like making wines with no vintage date. Yes, his Candor and Troublemaker lines say “Lot 1″ or “Lot 2″ instead of, say, 2010.

I explained their reasoning in my last post, but here it is again: “Wine is best made when a winemaker has choices.” The way they see it, each vintage brings something useful to the blend, just like different varietals do in a traditionally blended wine. When they can choose to add a bit of this vintage and a bit of that in order to make a better-tasting wine, then why shouldn’t they blend vintages?

A purist may say that each vintage represents a unique set of circumstances dictated by the vagaries of weather. When you see a vintage-dated wine, say “2007 Napa Cabernet”, you have an idea right off the bat of how that wine may taste, based on your knowledge of the reputation of that vintage in that region.

Well, guess what? There are plenty of wine drinkers out there who don’t have the foggiest idea what characterized the 2007 (or any other) vintage. They don’t need the short-hand message on the label, and don’t need to be reassured that this bottle isn’t too old for them to drink.

They just want a good-tasting bottle of wine.

And that’s what Austin Hope’s Candor Merlot Lot 2 and Candor Zinfandel Lot 2 give them. Let’s look at the Merlot first. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Moscato Madness?” or Cheap and Nasty California Sweet Wine

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Benziger Again: Cab, Cab and More Cab


Benziger's bowl-shaped vineyard on the mountain

If you drive northwest from the town of  Sonoma, California, up the amazingly beautiful Valley of the Moon, you’ll see Sonoma Mountain looming on your left. And if you get off the highway and head up into the hills behind the town of Glen Ellen, you’ll run into Benziger family territory. On the slopes of the Sonoma Mountain, someone found a pretty unique topographical feature: a giant bowl that sits in its own valley 800 feet above sea level, formed by volcanic explosions from the mountain some two million years ago .

What makes this bowl unique, and uniquely suited to grape growing, is that the surface around all 360 degrees of the bowl is exposed to a variety of sun exposures, elevations, soil profiles and drainage. In this one extended 85-acre vineyard, they have ideal conditions for planting…just about everything. While most of the acreage is devoted to Cabernet Sauvignon, they also grow other Bordeaux varietals, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.

Yesterday I reviewed a Zin and two vintages of  Bordeaux blend from this estate vineyard, and today I’ll talk about two more.

I’ll start with Benziger Obsidian Point Sonoma Mountain 2007, which is a blend of 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, 19% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot. This wine was slow to open, and in fact it didn’t show well until a few days later. The nose was more herbal than fruit, with a sharpness and off note. I thought it might be a spoiled bottle, because the palate, too was light on fruit and didn’t show a lot of depth or complexity. Read the rest of this entry »

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Benziger Zinfandel and Oonapais

benzMike Benziger has been called a pioneer. He’s probably also been called crazy by the folks who didn’t believe in his experiments in organic farming. But whatever you call him, he’s been instrumental in introducing and developing methods for growing grapes while nurturing and improving the land through his Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic farming practices.

He and many other Benzigers (a couple dozen, I think) also make wine at their winery in Sonoma County. Snugged up in the hills above the tiny town of Glen Ellen, and just a short hike from Jack London’s historic home and State Park, they’ve planted 85 acres of red and white grapes on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain.mike

This is a relatively warm-climate growing area, which was immediately obvious in the wines we tasted recently during a Twitter Tasting. In case you don’t know what that is…

A Twitter tasting is a very cool way to marry something very traditional with the latest in social media marketing. Here’s how it’s done: a group of wine bloggers (otherwise known as the “online wine community”) were invited to sit around with winemaker Mike Benziger as we tasted and talked about six of his wines. Only he sat in front of a camera in California and we sat in front of our computers in…wherever. He was on-screen and as we tasted, we tweeted questions and comments and he answered back. Very cool and very effective.

So let’s get to Benziger and their wines. I posted a story giving you background on the whole Sustainable/Organic/Biodynamic approach that Benziger Winery uses in all their estate vineyards and with all their contract growers. I think it’s a tremendous goal to grow better fruit and nurture the land for future generations. The question is — does it make better wine?

Mike Benziger thinks so. The wines he chose for us to taste included a Zinfandel, two vintages of their Bordeaux blend “Oonapais,” two vintages of the Bordeaux blend “Obsidian Point,” and their premium blend, “Tribute.” I’ll review three today and pick up the rest tomorrow. Read the rest of this entry »

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Indian Wells Merlot

michelleYou know I love Washington State reds. I stumbled across one, or maybe two, a few years ago. I thought, “Damn, this is good.”

But that could have been a random occurrence of goodness. What convinced me was when I kept coming across reds from Washington State, and every one of them made me say, “Damn, this is good.”

So it’s no surprise that my latest Washington State tasting made me go…you guessed it…”Damn…”

I just tasted Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Merlot 2009. I had ordered several cases of this wine for customers, so I knew it had something going for it, but until I saw it on the glass-pour list at Ken Stewart’s Grille (perhaps Northeast Ohio’s best restaurant), I’d never tasted it.

But before the “big reveal,” let’s do some background research.

Eastern Washington State, where this wine is made, is blessed with some of the best wine-grape-growing conditions in the world. Here’s how Bob Bertheau, Head Winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, explains it:

“Low rainfall, extra sunshine during the growing season, (and) cooler days at the end of harvest for longer hang time” produce grapes with “great structure and intense fruit.” That’s short-hand for deep, rich, complex, kick-ass reds (that’s a technical term…). Read the rest of this entry »

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An Update on Vinopic and Wine Health Ratings

grapesYesterday I wrote a post about a new online wine store called and their method of scoring wines for health and quality factors (“Giving Wines a Health Score: Sense or Nonsense?“). Today I got a comment from Santiago Navarro, Vinopic’s Chief Executive, that provides more detail on the rating system I referred to. Here is Mr. Navarro’s comment:

Our focus is not on the health properties of wine, but on having an objective approach to quality. Our wine scientist, Roger Corder, analyses for key quality indicators that reveal the quality of the grapes, the skill of the winemaker and how well-made the wine is. Polyphenols (both skin and pip) are key to the sensory pleasures we enjoy from wine; namely its colour, flavour and character. As a whole, they have the single largest positive impact on our experience from wine. It is for this reason we measure their presence and strength. In addition to this, our Master of Wine, Rosemary George, tastes the wines to ensure they are well-structured, representative of their type and generally taste great. As an example, it is important to note that Bordeaux’s success over generations has been the ability to make polyphenol-rich wines that develop in character. I believe it is only a matter of time before wine drinkers realise the value of our analyses.

Please note, we do not measure resveratrol as it is not an indicator of quality. It is a minor polyphenol in wine and anybody who thinks otherwise had been misled.

I read this to mean that what causes us to enjoy the taste of a  bottle of wine can be expressed in the numbers Vinopic gives us. Those numbers are also an indication of that wine’s ability to provide health benefits.

The  Vinopic website is up today, so go to and read for yourself. There’s a ton of useful information on grape physiology (if you’re interested in that sort of thing) and its connection to flavor and healthfulness. See for yourself and decide what you think. Cheers!

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Giving Wines a Health Score: Sense or Nonsense?

grapesI read in a recent post by Dr. Vino that a couple of British wine people have created an online wine store that rates all of its wines on a healthfulness scale.  The site is called and here’s how Dr. Vino describes it.

Vinopic brings together Rosemary George, Master of Wine and one of the UK’s leading wine writers and critics, and Professor Roger Corder, world renowned health expert and author of The Wine Diet. These two wine experts assess and score every wine at Vinopic for the two key elements of wine quality. Roger guides consumers in the direction of higher “natural quality” by taking into consideration the richness in grape polyphenols. Rosemary ensures the wines are of superior “drinking quality”, rewarding aroma, taste and pleasure.

If you’re wondering what they mean by “Natural quality” and what “grape polyphenols” have to do with anything, they’re obliquely referring to our old friend, Resveratrol. This substance found in red grapes and therefore red wine was the Miracle Drug of the mouseMoment a year or two ago. Researchers found that if they fed massive amounts to laboratory mice, the little critters would show reduced signs of aging. (You can read all about it in my post, “Are You A Man (Woman) Or A Mouse?”).

Every nutritionist and anti-aging quack jumped on the Resveratrol bandwagon, and many wine geeks made it their mission to figure out which red wines would give drinkers the most anti-aging bang for their buck. They published articles saying things like, “Cool-climate Pinot Noir has the highest levels of Resveratrol, followed by mountain-grown Malbec” (or something like that).

People who didn’t know any better (i.e. who drank little or no wine of any kind) came stumbling into my wine shop, clutching dog-eared pages ripped out of magazines and newspapers. They believed that the key to their health and happiness lay in procuring this one, exact, cool-climate, mountain-grown red wine. And when I told them the Oregon Pinot they were seeking was gonna run them $25 or $30 a bottle, they almost wept.

What was the problem then? Too much hype and not enough common sense.

And what’s wrong with the Vinopic concept (in my humble opinion)? Too much hype and not enough common sense.


Wines made from grapes that ripen slowly, i.e. where cooler temperatures and lots of sunlight allow longer “hang time,” will have more developed polyphenols (and Resveratrol), which are the compounds in red grapes that ripen more slowly than grape sugars and also happen to contribute flavor and complexity to wine.

Grapes grown that way are also the ones used to make higher-quality wines: it costs more to baby the grapes through their growing season, usually dropping fruit to limit yields and further improve quality. So the wines made from these grapes cost more.

The cheaper wines generally use grapes grown by the boatload, the more tons the merrier, in the relatively hot Central Valleys of the world.

Do they have less Resveratrol? Yes. Are they less healthful and lower quality? Yes again.

But not just because of the Resveratrol. These wines happen to be made by companies that intend to fill grocery store shelves with wine in jugs and boxes. To keep costs down and to standardize flavor profiles, they add to the wine: CHEMICALS, SUGAR, SULFITES, AND GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE.

So we’re getting around to the Moral of my Story: If you want to be healthy, feel youthful, and enjoy a lovely-tasting beverage with food, friends and family — drink any red wine that doesn’t come in a jug or 5 liter box (notice I said % liter, because there’s some decent stuff in 3 liter boxes) and doesn’t cost less than about $8 a bottle. (Or even a little less for some good-quality and good-tasting imports from Spain, Chile or Argentina.)

It’s that simple. You don’t need complicated rating systems or scientific reports — just ask your friendly local wine merchant to recommend a good, naturally-made red (i.e. with no unnecessary additives) and whether it’s a Pinot Noir, Malbec, Rioja or Cab, you’ll be doing your body a favor while you give yourself some fun and pleasure.

And now excuse me — I’m gonna pour myself a glass of red wine. Cheers!

P.S. – I tried to go to and Google says “Cannot Be Found.”




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