Due Regazze Vineyards (JPB's Vines in Cameron Park, CA)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Insight to old world wine

For this month’s post, I’m changing it up. I’m giving up the Winologist platform to my buddy Mick. About a year ago, Mick’s wife informed him they were moving to England for awhile so the kids could experience school in another country. This did surprise him somewhat because it was not anywhere on the family calendar. He knew his wife would handle most of the logistics but it was his job to figure out how to get enough California Cabernet (his wine of choice) shipped over to last at least 6 months. After weeks of research, he found it more economical to explore the wines of the old world and see if he could find a reasonable substitute. Below is an excerpt of his journey along with some questions from the Winologist. I know I could never replicate what he did, but I would really like to try someday. Enjoy-

“We’re moving to England,” replays in my head as I walk along a narrow English road probably constructed by Romans, I surmise. I walk by a small wine shop and stop. As I enter through an old door I think of the late Robert Mondavi and his obsession with recreating the great Cabernet grapes of France. Would I find Bordeaux here in England? I digress. An hour drive from my home in California sits Napa Valley. It was 1976 when Napa Valley wines stole home and beat the legendary French wines such as Château Mouton-Rothschild in an international blind wine tasting notoriously called, “Judgment of Paris.” My love affair with California Cabernet led me to reading about the late Robert Mondavi and his quest to capture the spirit and taste of the legendary Cabernet grapes of Bordeaux. I'm in England and I'm on a quest for the mythological Bordeaux.
Slowly perusing ancient mahogany shelves I read labels from Italy and Spain. “France” hung over me in bright red letters. I kid you not; my hand shook as I reached for a bottle of Bordeaux. As I hold a Château Labat, Haut-Medoc, I hear a voice behind me. “You got a fine wine there mate!” My new friend proceeds to offer up a quick education as to the various Bordeaux appellations. “Medoc is a good wine growing region,” boasts Carl. Loyalty took hold my tongue, “Not better than Napa!” He smiles and responds with convivial English humility, “Perhaps not, Mick.” A friendship is born.
Carl and I set about cracking open one bottle of Bordeaux after another. An American and an Englishman sharing French wine in a small English village. As Carl pulls a cork from an appellation, I can’t pronounce, I walk around the shop glancing at the Italian and Spanish brands. I knew I would be visiting those countries soon enough. California wines are non-existent in the old shop.
Gas-lit streetlights illuminate the narrow path outside the wine shop as Carl and I stand at the tiny tasting table. “That’s impossible,” I protest. “How can this wonderful wine cost so little?” I grab another bottle and glance down at the price. A quick conversion from dollar to pound brings a red-tinged smile and I place an immediate three case order of this incredible Bordeaux. As I carry my cache out the door I stop and turn back to Carl, “Not better than Napa.” Carl turns off the light to the small wine shop. In the darkness I hear, “Probably not, Mick.”

Winologist- How difficult was it to find your usual Napa Cab favorites? How much more was the price?
Mick- The U.K. and European countries we visited do not offer a diverse menu of California wines. I’m sure price has something to do with it but there seems to be a general lack of interest in California wine. When it comes to wine, there’s a sense of regional loyalty. For example, we stayed at a hotel in Sorrento on the southern Italian coast and most of the wines from the menu were from locally owned wineries. Generations of Italian families have enjoyed local wines. They have no desire to venture beyond. Italy reminds me of our Sierra Foothill wine region. Smaller wineries and rugged conditions make for sensational zesty wines.
Winologist- How did you educate yourself on what wines to buy? Was there a certain person or place you went to for the knowledge?
Mick-I’ll buy wine for an education. I had the wonderful opportunity to meet villagers knowledgeable about his or her local wines. For example, I met the general manager of a small family hotel operation based along the Amalfi Coast. He looked like Don Tommasino from the Godfather. He had a massive pinky ring! And he knew his local wines. One night we sat and drank wines from an area outside of Sorrento where he grew up. He told me great stories about his childhood and the wines from his region. Wine is funny. The more you know about the story behind a particular wine the better it tastes.
Winologist- I would guess most of the wine purchased was from France-Was there a particular region you preferred?
Mick- The French wine regions are as diverse as any on earth. The best place to drink French wine is Paris. In a typical evening I’d pick off two or three regions ordering from the hotel’s Sommelier. For example, I’d choose wines grown in Medoc, Saint-Emillion and St-Estèphe and get schooled by the Sommelier for free. I learned more at the hotel bar than if I had taken a wine tour through France. As for a favorite region I rolled like Patton through Medoc all the way into the mountains of Langeudoc. I'm proud to say there is no more Bordeaux.
Winologist-Any Italian or Spanish wines tried? If so can you offer a brief comment?
Mick-We were in a hotel on a cliff overlooking the Sorrentine Peninsula. We had just returned from a long day exploring the ruins at Pompeii. We were poolside and I was too tired to care what kind of wine they had on the menu. I asked for the house red and upon first taste nearly fell out of my chair. Spices, pepper and an explosion of vibrant tones erupted from my pallet. The Italian wines have become my new passion. In fact, I’ve made arrangements for an Italian tasting with our local wine merchant later this year.
Winologist- Were you able to visit any wine regions during your stay?
Mick- Exploring wine regions with kids is not an option. But if you’re in need of a tour guide to Windsor Castle, I’m your man.
Winologist- Describe one major difference in the wines from Europe and the wines you are used to in the US-
Mick-Well, since 90 percent of US wine sales originate from California I’ll speak for the “Left” Coast.” Sometimes I think California wines are made for the sole purpose of getting you drunk and with the recent spike in wine prices, there are certainly cheaper ways to get drunk. How many times have you cracked open and expensive “Cali Cab” and after two glasses you’re lit like July 4th? Between exorbitant prices and alcohol content quite a few friends have stopped drinking those wines. European wines tend to possess less alcohol with more emphasis on flavor. Perhaps I'm just old but I'll sacrifice hallucinations for taste any day.
Winologist - Did you stick to Reds while away or did you allow yourself to sample whites or champagne as well?
Mick-Wine comes in white? I’m glad you mention champagne. In England champagne is consumed more than water. When socializing I found that Brits enjoy champagne over any other drink of choice. As star-struck as we were to see an actual bottle of champagne on the table it’s taken for granted in the U.K.
Winologist- Can you suggest a few wines that could be purchased in the States at a reasonable price point?
Mick-From my experience it’s extremely difficult to find European wines here in California. It’s not difficult to join an online merchant like Laithwaites. Headquartered in the U.K (www.laithwaites.co.uk) Laithwaites offers customers worldwide a sensational variety of European wines for surprisingly competitive prices. For example, the Bordeaux called Chateau Labat I mentioned earlier is sold online at Laithwaites. At Laithwaites Chateau Labat is listed at roughly $30. I would expect to pay $50 to $75 for a comparable California Merlot. Italian wines are less. Furthermore, Laithwaites separates their wines by country. The website is simple to peruse. Also, Laithwaites has a wine club which sends four new wines a month to members.
Winologist-How about a wine that could be used for a special occasion?
Mick-I’m the Billy Bean of wine. Value is of equal importance to flavor and I’m constantly trying to squeeze out the best flavor for the buck. But sometimes you just got to pull out the credit card. One night we found ourselves at a little pub that had a Michelin two star rating. I noticed the name Rothschild. I bit the bullet and ordered a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. I don’t remember the year but it doesn’t matter. To my wife’s horror I broke the bottle in half so I could lick out the inside. Alright, that didn’t happen but it could have. I could have easily sold everything I own for another bottle.
Winologist-If a reader were to travel to the UK or other parts of Europe, what is the one piece of advice you would offer when purchasing?
Mick-You will not see Europe on five dollars a day. Those days are over. However, unlike the U.S., the European independent wine shop owner is alive and well. When you find a small wine shop walk inside and ingratiate yourself. Shake hands, smile and ask lots of questions. I remember a little wine shop in Eton, across the Thames River from Windsor. Literally there was only enough room in the shop for the two of us. The proprietor had wine stacked to the ceiling. Within minutes a cork was pulled. We sat across an old wine barrel and told stories, showed photos of kids and listened to an old Elvis Costello CD. I walked out of that little shop with a mixed case of wine.
In Italy and Spain wine is way of life. (Don’t be surprised if the wine doesn’t have a label – it just means you are drinking the good stuff.) Literally, time stops. A patriarch pops the cork and pours with great pride. There’s no start or finish. Food is served. As the wine pours the locals will hug you, hug your wife and hug your children. You become part of a wonderful cosmic family. One night in Marbella, Spain we enjoyed a night watching Flamenco dancers and drinking wine. We adjourned outside to a small town square. In most small towns or villages the town square is usually the central gathering spot. Before long our youngest was dancing around a fountain with one of the Flamenco dancers. A grandfatherly-type sat with the kids and told stories while we shared wine with the locals. I swear I was stuck in a chapter of a Hemingway novel. A personal quest brought more than good wine to our table; it brought a lifetime of friendships and memories that cannot be replaced. I went there with an open heart, open mind and an open wallet. In the end we lived a story worth telling. I wish it for all of my friends. Go, see and enjoy!

Winologist-Thanks for the insight Mick.

Until next time..

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Oregon Trail

I’ve been writing this blog for over a year and a half and I have yet to write a single paragraph on the third largest wine region of the United States: Oregon. Truthfully, it wasn’t an over site or even an honest mistake. I just didn’t have the inspiration. Let me explain.

The biggest reason for not touting the wonderful wines of Oregon is the perception of value. The Oregon wine industry has marketed itself as a region that produces premium wines (which translates to premium prices) where biodynamic farming is practiced. I do not want to delve too far into the discussion of biodynamic farming but it generally costs more. If you are one of those people who go to Whole Foods grocery store and pay $25.00 a pound for chicken that was raised in a barnyard eating nothing but wheat germ and flax seed, then you will appreciate biodynamic farming practices. One of the main reasons for creating this blog was to share information about wines that I felt offered tremendous value. Discovering those values from Oregon has been a challenge.

Probably my second reason for not writing sooner about Oregon wines is I’m just not passionate about the main varietals grown in the region: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is what the region is world renown for and I will admit they are fantastic. But for my personal tastes, these two varietals are like lineman on a football team; you respect them and you know they have their place on the field, but you don’t pay to see a lineman play (with this analogy think of a bold Napa Cab or Grand Cru Bordeaux as a starting Quarterback). Again, this is just my personal opinion.

That said, I admit it is not fair to my readers to neglect such a beautiful world class wine producing area. I’ve been to Oregon’s Willamette Valley twice and both times had great wines and memorable experiences. Despite the enormous amount of money that has been invested in improving the quality of the wines and facilities, there still is a very non-commercialized feel to the region. You can still go to a tasting room and occasionally see the wine maker pouring his own wine. The customers in the tasting rooms seem to have a genuine interest in wine unlike the weekend bachelorette parties you find in the Napa Valley. Even if the main varietals grown may not be your personal favorites, it’s worth at least one visit to Oregon. But don’t go looking for any great deals.

Below are some suggestions that I feel represent some value to what the region has to offer:

2008 Torii Mor Willamette Valley Pinot Noir- A simple yet elegant example of Oregon Pinot Noir. Owner Dr. Donald Olson started producing 1,000 cases of wine at Torri Mor in 1993. Today production tops out at over 15,000 cases. The wine I tasted is not one of their reserves and generally sells in the mid twenties however I was able to buy at Beverages and More for under $17. Found dark cherry flavor with a background of earthiness that accompanies many style of Pinot Noir.

2009 Erath Pinot Gris-I know summer is hard to think about in the middle of February but drinking this made me think of being out by the pool on a hot July afternoon. The wine opens with a very floral nose with lots of citrus flavor on the finish and can be purchased direct from the winery for under $15 dollars. As an aside, Erath is one of the pioneer wineries of Oregon’s Willamette Valley founded over 40 years ago.

2009 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir-They pretty much had me with their company motto “Aristocratic wines at Democratic prices”. This consortium of wine families each have years of experience in the wine industry and are dedicated to bringing a quality product at an affordable price. They consistently score in the 90 point range with many wine magazines and also were named Best Pinot Noir for under $20 by Food and Wine Magazine. Tasted cherry flavor and had a bit of spiciness to its body as well.

2010 St. Innocent Willamette Valley Chardonnay-I picked up hints of peach and pear on the nose and tasted those flavors as well. The wine is vibrant yet not overpowering and while very drinkable now, could further develop with another few months in the bottle. Priced around $22 dollars but with only 870 cases made, it may be difficult to find at a discount.

2009 Maysara Pinot Noir McMinnville Estate Cuvee- I have not tasted this wine but it caught my eye when it made Wine Spectator’s recommended wines from Oregon list. Most of the wines on the list which scored in the mid 90s are priced anywhere from $60 to $100 dollars. The Maysara was priced at $32. Again hardly a screaming deal but sharing accolades with higher end wines deserves mentioning.

Until next time..


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It's Real and It's Spectacular!

It is with great pride and sense of accomplishment to announce that my first vintage is now in a bottle! With the help of my two daughters, along with my wine coach and good neighbor Lance,(can’t forget the moral support from my vodka drinking wife) the 2009 Due Ragazze Belle’s Blend was bottled in my garage in one unseasonably warm fall Saturday afternoon. The vineyard that was planted in the spring of 2006 by my mom, dad, Jorge the gardener and I had produced eight and a half cases of wine. Was it more work than I anticipated? Yes. Was I prepared for occasional setbacks like irrigation lines being sabotaged by thirsty raccoons; or mold outbreaks? No.

Despite the moments of second guessing my choice of hobby, I know planting those vines has created some great memories for my family and friends. Somehow, I also created a wine that was actually drinkable. I have spent the last week visiting clients on the east coast for my real, paying job. Since many of the people I was seeing have been following my wine project, I brought along some bottles to share and get some public feedback. Everyone was impressed. As my confidence grew, I began sharing it with restaurant servers and bartenders to get their feedback. Again, nothing negative was being said. Was this just people being polite or did I actually make something people liked? While pulling my suitcase full of wine bottles and clothes across Midtown Manhattan last week, I got my answer. My friend Brian called me and said his “wine guy” had just tried my wine and he wanted to know how much I had to sell. Of course, nothing is for sale because this is just a hobby right?

To me, my wine is just ok. While I will always be my harshest critic, I think it smells better than it tastes and there just isn’t enough depth or character. On my plane ride home I started thinking; perhaps most people don’t want depth or character. Maybe they just want a wine that is easy to drink and could be served with any meal. Wine magazines and critics are always ranting about big bold flavors and complexity, vividly describing how they taste hints of coffee ice cream and black cherries. Wine makers in turn go to great lengths to develop their wines to please the critics and garner the coveted wine scores that will help sell their brand.

What I have concluded is most wine drinkers don’t read Wine Spectator and just want a wine that is approachable, easy to drink and maybe serve to guests and not be embarrassed. That said, I decided to create and share a list of wines that I think have a very high “approachability factor”. When serving several guests over the holidays it’s difficult to find wines that will please everyone’s palate. The wines chosen below are picked not necessarily to impress someone or be the next great find, but they will be something anyone should enjoy. I tried to pick multiple price points and different varietals as well. I would love to recommend the 2009 Due Ragazze Belle’s Blend but as I said before this is just a hobby and it can’t be sold. At least for now.

2007 Markham Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot- Tried this over the Thanksgiving Holidays and credit goes to Momma Lee for having picked this wine out. Very smooth, easy to drink and more importantly, easy to find. This is true value at under $19 a bottle and actually has been seen cheaper at the local grocery store.

2009 Carmel Road Monterey Pinot Noir- This is a classic work horse style of Pinot Noir that will not break the holiday budget (I picked it up at Lake forest Wines for $12.00). Great for serving at holiday parties where quantity might be more important than quality.

2005 Domaine Ste. Michelle Luxe Sparkling Wine- This Washington State winery continues to push out quality product in mass volume and at terrific price points. While I’m not a champagne drinker, I’ve actually tried this one and found it almost pleasant to the palate. Picked up some tangy citrus flavors and more importantly, I did not feel miserable the next morning.

2009 Twenty Rows Cabernet Sauvignon-The slogan on the website immediately won me over: “Napa Valley wines you can drink every day!” It appears all of their wines are $20 bucks a bottle. Again, scores very high with me on the “approachability factor” yet it still offered the distinct characteristics of what wine drinkers expect from a Napa Valley cabernet.

Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Comfort Wine

We’ve all heard the phrase “comfort food” but has anyone ever heard of “comfort wine”? I know I haven’t so I’m claiming it to be my catch phrase contribution to society! The best way to define “comfort wine” is a wine that makes you feel at home. Envision yourself sitting in your living room next to a warm fire with the TV remote control in one hand, and a big goblet of red wine in the other. Yes, autumn has arrived and winter is around the corner. People in the Northern Hemisphere are preparing for shorter days, colder weather and the beginning of the holiday season. Now is the time to find the crock pot, dig out the chili and stew recipes, and load up on some hearty red wines.

With Chardonnay weather behind us (also known as summer), now is the time to start picking up some red wine that can last you through the winter. There are still some pretty decent bargains but my sources are telling me that favorable pricing may be ending soon. Consumers have worked through most of the excess production of the 2006 and 07 vintages and the 2010 and 2011 grape crops have yielded significantly less fruit. While I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of wine to buy, I think we have found some stability in pricing. Below are some wines I feel best exemplify the concept of comfort wine. Some I’ve never tasted but have been suggested by readers of the Winologist blog. Most are more than reasonably priced and for the first time ever, some are from outside the U.S. Whether you decide to go with these selections or not, there is no better time to reload the cellar than now. And if you hear anyone using the phrase,” comfort wine”, you will at least know where it came from..

Napa Smith 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon- The good news is this wine is as good as it gets for the price point of $18.99. Great vintage year for California Cab and this monster offers wonderful robust flavor and a long detailed finish. The bad news is this winery is out of business. There are about 300 cases left. Contact Raj at Lakeforestwines@yahoo.com

2010 Cercius Cotes du Rhone Villages Visan- This French Rhone Style blend(85% Grenache and 15% Syrah) scores 93 points with Robert Parker and sells for under $17 dollars a bottle(special deal for a case: 13.99 a bottle). While I have not tasted this wine, my go-to guy for old world wines says this is a steal. There are 5000 cases available in the U.S.. If interested call Brian at 704-996-0007.

2005 Chateau Labat Cru Bourgeois- There is true irony in recommending this wine. My buddy Crusty Old Mick bleeds big bold California Cabernet. While he and his family spend a semester in London, Mick discovered there is some place called the Bordeaux Region located in France. They seem to be able to make pretty good wine! The Chateau Labat has become a staple for him. Perhaps even more impressive, is the price point: Under $20.00 U.S. For more details, go to www.winedoctor.com.

Mateo 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel- Not everyone enjoys the intense flavor of old vine Zin but at $7 dollars a bottle its worth trying to find out if it is for you. This Sonoma County product is something that was also recommended to me by a reader (Thanks Craig Stive!) but I have yet to try it. I only bring it to your attention because at this price point, it probably won’t be around too long.

Carmel Road 2005 Pinot Noir- Another recommendation from Lake Forest Wines for under $15 dollars. While I can’t say it is the best Pinot I tasted, it certainly is a great value, especially for a Pinot. I recommend opening this bottle up and allow some air to get to it. This was truly a different wine once it opened up. I Picked up some cherry flavor along with a hint of toasted almond in the finish.

Guenoc 2009 Victorian Claret-The story on this Northern California Coast Bordeaux style blend is it was made for a company on the east coast who went bankrupt. In an effort to get rid of it, Guenoc Winery is pricing it to move! Lake Forest is selling it for $13 bucks a bottle and it’s worth every penny. It would be better if it aged another year or so but that did not stop me from buying a case. As always, the challenge will be saving a few bottles for that long.

next time JPB

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Tale of Two Tastings

Summer of 2011 has been a one way ticket to rehab! I’ve visited some fantastic wine regions, tasted some rare wines at charity events (including an 1863 Madeira) and although not wine related, I think I broke the record for Mai Tai consumption over a 7 day period while in Hawaii! However, what I want to share with my readers the most are my two blind wine tasting experiences.

Blind tastings can be done in several formats. They can be detailed and complex, complete with scoring for color, bouquet and taste. Some folks even prefer to limit the tastings to one type of grape varietal. For me personally, I like to keep things as simple as possible. The first tasting I want to discuss is one that I hosted. Mrs. Winologist was making her world famous Korean short ribs. Because there is NOTHING better in the whole world than a glass of red wine with those ribs, I decided to have our guests bring a bottle of red wine in a brown paper bag. Each wine was given a number and a corresponding numbered sheet of paper. Once our guests sampled a wine, we had them write a score between 1 and 10 based on how much they liked or disliked the wine(remember I said I like to keep it simple?) I planned to take all of the scores for the wines and derive an average for each bottle to determine a winner. Of course, there was more to this data gathering than just trying to pick a winner. The inner wine geek in me wanted to see if there was a significant difference in price versus taste.

Unfortunately, this was the wrong crowd for data gathering. It started out as planned where people were scoring appropriately with limited abusive commentary (best line was “I can’t taste this because of its ranch smell”). However, once the short ribs had been devoured, a sort of chaotic wine anarchy took place. Bags came off the wines and left the tasting table. Some guests simply stopped using their glass and drank from the bottle. In the end, I had no idea which score went to what bottle. It has taken me several phone calls and emails to figure out who brought what wine and try to piece meal together some possible useful information. There were a few results and wines that surprised me.

First of all, this crowd was as rough with their wine critiques as they were on their livers. The average bottle score for the evening was 4.9 out of 10. The low score was a 3 (my first attempt at making wine) and only three of the twelve bottles scored above a 5. The winner of the evening was a Joseph Phelps wine with a score of 8.7. Although the alleged winner was not inexpensive, price seemed to have little to do with preference. To make up for my offensive homemade wine, I entered a 2007 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet that was VERY expensive. It only scored at the average of 4.9. One of the more unique entrants was the Australian powerhouse Molly Dooker Velvet Glove Shiraz. This was the only entrant that was not from U.S soil and clearly offered a style all its own. While the Velvet Glove was very fruit forward, there was plenty of structure that is exemplified in quality made wines. The experts appear to be impressed as well as it scores in the high 90s in most wine publications. That said, the price point is WELL beyond the Winologist’s comfort level and having a guest share that bottle of liquid gold with us was like having Christmas in the summertime.

The two wines I found to be the best value 2006 Silver Stag Cabernet and 2004 Reynoso Family Vineyards Syrah. These quality gems were brought by two guys who are the epitome of this wine blog: great wines on the cheap! The Silver Stag was big and bold with classic California flavor and was a Costco purchase. It was priced around $30 dollars but I would have paid twice that amount and felt I got a great deal. However, I could not find any more information on the winery that was updated so they might be a victim of the 2008 recession. Although I tasted the Reynoso late in the evening when my taste buds were slightly impaired, I was able to immediately connect with this wine. I found it to have the characteristics of a French Syrah, which is unusual for a Rhone style wine from the Sonoma Valley. Although the Reynoso website shows most of their wines priced in the upper twenties, my buddy Brady says he picked this up in a grocery store for under $10 bucks!

My second blind tasting was much more civilized and equally enjoyable. Our friends Lance and Angela had us over for dinner and requested we bring a bottle or two of Syrah. While, this was going to be an exclusive Syrah blind tasting, we were also opening bottles that had some age on them. Again, all the wines were numbered but it appears Lance has experienced chaotic tastings before as he only allowed our group to taste one bottle at a time. Although we were not scoring the wines with numbers, each person commented on what flavors they picked up and whether or not they enjoyed the bottle. All of the Syrah’s were from California except The Laughing Magpie 2007 which is made in Australia. What is unusual about this Syrah (Called Shiraz if you hail from “down under”) is they actually blend a small amount of white wine into it. I’ve had this wine before and while I’ve tasted better vintages, this wine is a good value at under $20(thanks Rich and Sandy for bringing this one to dinner).

For me, the highlight of the evening was getting to know Bill and Carrie Manson. They just bought a winery called Cielo Estates which is a stone’s throw from my house. Aside from being wonderful people, both Bill and Carrie made me realize the true difference between being a home winemaker like myself and someone who tries to earn a living making wine. They both spoke with passion about their product and more importantly, they had the experience to back up what they were talking about. We were treated to one of their reserve wines, a 2009 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah that was simply delicious. The price point at $28 dollars a bottle is at fair value. For me, I would think of it as a wine I would open with friends, but not something I would crack open for an everyday meal by myself.

As for the Syrah’s we tasted that had been in the cellar for a few years; I would argue waiting around didn’t really help. None of older wines tasted were more than 10 years old and I had tried the wines shortly after they were released. While the general consensus among many wine experts is aging wine develops its character, I would argue that this is not always the case. Our host Lance would even go further and claim that many American wines are simply designed to be consumed young. The aging of wine is a topic that could be debated for an eternity but I will leave you with one final thought; if a wine tastes good today, why wait for tomorrow?

If you’ve managed to read this far, you've probably concluded that although blind tasting formats can differ, the ultimate outcome is having some fun. As summer draws to an end and we approach harvest time (also referred to as Fall) consider having one last social gathering. When a guest asks what they can bring; tell them a bottle of wine and a paper bag.

Until next time-


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Discovering Hidden Treasure....At a Discount Wine Store

There is a small sliver of the American population that finds great pleasure and entertainment in scouring through estate sales, garage sales, and thrift stores trying to find something underpriced, or perhaps better; an undetected treasure. Even reality TV shows have captured this unique vein of American culture. For better or worse, my family gene pool and nurturing has strapped me with the same desire to find hidden gems. However, these so called gems or deals come in the form of a wine bottle purchased in a wine discount liquor store.

A wine discount store is the last stop for unsold wines to be purchased before they are turned into vinegar or brandy. Chances are many of the wines aren’t very good or they would have been sold long ago. The proprietors of these stores know this but they also know every buyer’s palate is different and if the price is right, a buyer’s palate can be changed. However, a good wine discount store owner also knows they need to have an occasional find in their store or people will stop visiting. That is what makes frequenting these establishments both frustrating and rewarding.

My dad often tells the story how he and Uncle Curly (ok -his real name was Eldon and I never figured out why he was called Curly) would occasionally head over to their favorite discount liquor store, buy a few bottles of wine, then head back to the parking lot and open them. If they were remotely drinkable, they would head right back into the store and buy all that was left. As you can imagine, most of these wines were immediately tossed into the closest dumpster, but at .75 cents or a dollar a bottle, it was cheap entertainment. Once in a while, they would find something they really liked and the trip would be well worth the time!

Uncle Jack and I carried on with this tradition in Chicago. Every so often in the miserable cold of winter, we would trek out to this tiny non-descriptive looking wine discount store on the near north side of the city and pick out a couple of 5th growth Bordeaux wines we knew nothing about and try them. We tried to stick with tradition and open them up in the parking lot, but it was usually 10 degrees outside so sampling was done in the warmth of our homes. On occasion, we would find something that was just fantastic .The trick however, was getting back to the store in time before the hidden treasure was discovered by someone else.

To my young readers this wine buying process probably sounds insane.
Truthfully, with so much information available today, scouring wine discount stores is almost a lost art. Yet, before the age of internet and phone apps that tell us almost everything we need to know about buying wine, discovering good wines at a bargain price was a challenge. I can only imagine how hard it was for dad and Uncle Curly to find drinkable wine. First, they were living in the jug wine era of California wine history. Gallo Winery, the biggest culprit of spewing out below average wine to the masses, was located about a mile from their wine discount store! Secondly, they did not have unlimited budgets to import the wines from the Old World. Even if they did, there was not enough information to know what was worth buying.

I share these stories to offer a solution to my number one reader request: Where can I get cheap wine that tastes good? The wine discount store is my solution to the problem. I realize it sounds a bit “old school” and there are definitely more efficient ways of purchasing wine. But there is nothing like finding a bottle of wine priced to move at $4.99 a bottle and know it’s listed on some website at 5 times that amount. But hey that’s just me and as I said before, I can’t help who I am.

Below are some general guidelines to follow when visiting your local wine discount establishment. I’ve also added some thoughts on wines tasted this month that are budget friendly.

#1. Know your vintages: If 2003 was a bad year for Napa, then don’t expect the ’03 Chateau Rot Gut Napa Valley Cab to be different. Even at a discounted price, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

#2. Stay away from well known brands: Most wineries that produce hundreds of thousands of cases of wine have huge marketing budgets and if they don’t sell it, they have the facilities to do something else with the product. Stick with smaller wine producers.

#3. Lean on the store manager/owner: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I like to hear from the store on how the wine was acquired. Did a winery fall on hard times and go out of business (Which means this is the last vintage)? Are they clearing this vintage out to make room for the following year? Remember, the proprietor has a vested interest in helping you.

#4. Don’t be afraid of foreign labels: Given the deteriorating strength of the U.S. dollar, the deals on buying foreign wine are harder to find. However, occasionally a non-US winemaker will try and break into a market that is dominated by U.S. wine producers and offer something cheap just to get people to try the wine. If the price is right, pick up a bottle and try it.

Wines tasted (and liked) this month.

Benson Ferry 95240 Old Vine Zin Lodi 2006- Got to give all the credit to dad on this one. He found it at his local discount wine store for 5.99 a bottle (retails for ~$20). Had the peppery nose one would expect from a Zinfandel wine but did not overpower the palate which can happen with some old vine zin. Lots of berry flavor with a hint of vanilla. This wine would go well with about any meal but I envision a summer BBQ with ribs as being an ideal fit.

Cameron Hughes California Meritage 2009- I hate to say it, but Cameron Hughes has me figured out. It starts with a simple email; 25% off the following wines for the next two hours!. I click on a few wines, and then notice shipping is free if I order two cases. The deal is done and it’s on my door step in two days. Could not be any easier and they know I’m a sucker for a deal. Very smooth wine that is drinkable today but could improve with some age. Finishes nicely and offers an elegance that is very affordable for $12.99

Cameron Hughes Lot 240 Clarksburg Albarino 2009- See notes from above. This was the second case that got me the free shipping. This gold medal winning white wine would be ideal for the summer. The Albarino grape is a Spanish varietal that has taken hold in the vineyards of California.
The best way to describe it is to say it is somewhere between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc. I think it probably has more characteristics of the later mentioned but without the cat pee aroma that some Sav Blancs possess.
This wine is very crisp with a nice balance of acidity and a touch of grapefruit was picked up as well. At $11.00 a bottle, it’s priced right for the summer.

Hogue Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2007-Props go to Crusty Old Mick for serving this at a charity event he hosted last weekend. This Washington Cab offered robust flavor with supple tannins and is reasonably priced at $10 bucks a bottle. Has the value oriented nature (also known as being cheap) of the Winologist struck a chord with Crusty Old Mick?

Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon 2008- I’m straying a bit from this month’s theme but this one is too good to not mention. Wine Spectator just gave it 94 points which is the highest rating for this Oakville Cab. Raj at Lake Forest Wines thinks it has the potential to be a finalist for Spectator’s wine of the year and he is selling it for $30 bucks a bottle (Seeing it online for $50). Even though just released, this wine showed tremendous character and offered that intense California Cab flavor that Robert Mondavi forced the world to try. Again, not a cheap wine but this one has the potential to be worth much more.

Until Next Month..


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Random Thoughts From the Winologist

April was just busy. Travel for my day job and for the holidays allowed me the opportunity to not only drink some great wine, but catch up with friends and family as well. Below are some notes and observations that you might find helpful. For those who have been following my farming hobby (Due Regazze Vineyard), I regret to inform you that an early April frost has wiped out much of the 2011 vintage. Mother Nature has once again reminded me that a farmer’s economic fate lies in her hands. With that said, the mother of my children (Mrs. Winologist) reminds me not to leave my day job!

This month’s favorite value: Bourassa Vineyards Synergy 2007 Cabernet- Raj from Lake Forest Wines turned me on to this and for $18 dollars a bottle, it is an absolute steal! It is hard to get a great quality Napa Valley Cab at this price point and the 2007 vintage is being talked up as the best Napa vintage of the decade. I picked up some black currant in the bouquet and black cherry once tasted. Although it was easy to drink upon opening, a little air really brought out the character of the wine.

Runner up Value: Owen Roe Sharecroppers 2008 Cabernet- I will be the first to admit I am a huge fan of Washington Wines and Owen Roe wine maker David O’Reilly has proven he can make great wines at all price points. This wine sells for the same price as the Synergy but is a bit more fruit forward which is probably the result of aging in neutral oak barrels.

Summer Treat: Frank Family 2009 Chardonnay-Need a white wine that needs to be impressive for a potential guest? Look no further than Frank Family. This winery is traditionally known for making great Zinfandel and Cabs but their Chardonnay is delicious as well. The price point is out of my white wine wheelhouse but for a special occasion, I would spend the $28 dollars and make a white wine drinker’s day.

Tasting in Sonoma: Recently, I was fortunate enough to host a wine tasting tour for some “day job” customers in Sonoma. We provided the transportation and they chose the wineries. I’ve always viewed Sonoma as a bit more laid back than Napa and also a little more economical. Turns out none of the wineries we visited could be classified as economical. To be fair, these small, boutique wineries are not trying to compete with the major brands that produce a half million cases of wine each year. They are marketing the concept of quality over quantity. All the wines tasted were delicious. However, I usually find when phrases such as “hand crafted” or “Artisan Wines” are used to describe a winery; the price of those wines will cost more than I usually pay.

Our group’s favorite stop was Sojourn Cellars. The wines were fabulous and our host, Lesli John was knowledgeable and very patient with a group that had the attention span of lab rats. We tasted four Pinot Noir wines and two Cabernets. All wines were priced between $40 and $70 dollars and have received scores in the 90’s from various wine publications. While you might find these wines online, you are most likely going to have to contact the winery to get them.

Soujourn 2009 Pinot Noir Rogers Creek Vineyard- Good structure
and balance with a familiar earthiness found in Pinot Noir. A great
quality wine that got better as it opened up. Drinkable now, but would
benefit with another year in the bottle.

Soujourn 2009 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast- This non-vineyard
distinct wine was a blend of Pinot grapes grown from various
vineyards primarily from the southern end of the Sonoma Coast
appellation. I found it to be slightly more acidic than the Rogers
Creek but still well made and drinkable right now.

Soujourn 2009 Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard- Of the four Pinot
wines tasted, the Sangiacomo was my favorite by far. This wine had more body to it ( a cab drinkers preference) and had hints of dark cherry and raspberry picked up on the finish. The complexity reminded me of some of the Oregon Pinot wines I’ve tasted.

Soujourn 2009 Pinot Noir Gaps Crown Vineyard-This would be
My runner up to the Sangiacomo Pinot as it had identical complexity
but I felt this wine needs more time in the bottle to really show off its character. Because I lack the patience to hold wines of this quality,
I prefer owning something I can drink now.

Soujourn 2007 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon- Remember my thoughts on the Synergy; 2007 vintage is outstanding for Napa.
I found the Spring Mountain easy to drink with soft tannins and a smooth elegant finish. This is 100% Cabernet and if you prefer a medium bodied style Cab, this is a great pick.

Soujourn 2007 Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon- Howell Mountain has been the home to many cult wines produced out of
Napa. The fruit from this area creates some of the most full bodied, bold, punch you in the mouth styled Cabs you can buy. This wine is
no exception. Although it was the most expensive wine tasted, I would prefer this wine over other big name cabs that are twice the price. I even picked up a bottle for my friend Crusty old Mick, who is a Howell Mountain wine aficionado, to taste. It’s just that good.

What I loved most about our tasting was Lesli’s explanation on the importance of Terroir. Terroir is another important sounding French word that describes a vineyard’s climate, soil, and growing conditions. You can have the greatest winemaker in the world, but if your grapes are grown in Iowa, the wine is going to be less than stellar. Lesli pointed out that all of their Pinot wines are made the same way: same oak barrels, same time in aging. The difference in flavors goes back to the type of grape and where it was produced. She even had jars of soil on the table to show the differences in location.

Overall, I enjoyed my trek into Sonoma and for those that feel Napa is getting a little too busy, I would recommend the journey. Just make sure to bring your credit card.

Until next month….