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

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….


Friday, April 1, 2011

Blending the Rules

One of the biggest misconceptions I had about wine as a young oenophile was over the concept of blending different grape varietals. My simple thought process was this: a winemaker only blended wines because he ran out of the good stuff. Fifteen years and several cases later, I have realized the error of my ways. It appears that blending different varietals can actually make a bottle of wine taste better! I’ve learned that Chianti and Bordeaux wines are not grape varietals but are in fact blends. Turns out wine makers from Italy and France have been blending wine for centuries and they are pretty good at it.

However, these old world vintners can’t just blend anything they want. There are rules that must be followed. I could go on a 50 page rant on the topic but I’ll just share the most important of these rules. The respective governments of these countries will only allow a commercial winery to blend grapes grown in a particular region. For example; a winemaker in the Bordeaux region can only blend Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot and Mablec grape varietals into their wines. If he or she thought a Syrah from the Rhone region would make their wine taste better, they could not add it and still call it a wine from Bordeaux. I know it sounds absurd, but I guess if you have been practicing a trade for centuries, change is hard. While we American winemakers haven’t had the experience of our European counterparts, we also haven’t had much time to establish rules that could inhibit blending creativity. We will try about anything to make a wine taste good.

If you think rules can’t influence innovation, Frenchman and winemaker Stephan Asseo would tell you otherwise. Despite being an established and accomplished winemaker in France, Asseo felt he had not truly reached the apex of his wine making. After a visit to Paso Robles California in the early 90’s he discovered what he was looking for; an enormous wine appellation with several microclimates that would grow several different varietals. Furthermore, he could blend them however he wanted. Today, his L’Aventure Estate wines are considered the flagship blend in the region and command a price of $85.00 a bottle. The Winologist was fortunate enough to sample this wine and it is fabulous.

However, we are not rule free either. These standards were put in place by our Government so the consumer can glean as much information about the product as possible from the label. Things like: what type of grapes, how much alcohol, where it is from and what year is the vintage. Another rule is a wine must have at least 75% of one varietal to market the wine as said varietal. For instance, I can say my wine is a Cabernet as long as 75% of the grapes are Cabernet. Should you really care, if a wine isn’t a pure varietal? Absolutely not but remember, there are several wine drinkers who think like I did 15 years ago.

Commercial California winemakers recognized this dilemma but instead of trying to go out and educate the public on the benefits of blending wine, they came up with a cheaper more creative solution. They gave these high end blends their own proprietary name! No snobby,aristocratic wine consumer would purchase something that says red wine on the label. They need something that sounds unique and special. From this mind set, we are blessed with wines named Insignia, Dominus, Opus One, and Rubicon. All of these wines have won accolades and have been given high wine scores. They even sound expensive and every one of them is a blend. Below are some notes on some of my favorite blends. I’ve stuck to North American wines because that is what I have tasted over the past month. The Australians, Chileans and Argentineans are producing some phenomenal blends as well and in my opinion they are more than reasonable. As requested by my readers, I’ve picked different price points and I hope you find the time to try them.

Dillian 2008 Vino Nostro- This wine is just wonderful and comes in at a great price point(~ 20 dollars). This is a classic example of blending grapes from multiple regions. Sixty percent of the fruit is Zinfandel which comes from America, twenty percent is Syrah which is a Rhone Style grape and 20% is Barbera which is an Italian varietal. Wine maker Tom Dillian is a fourth generation famer in Amador County and has developed into a first class vintner as well. You can buy at the winery or call Raj at Lake Forest wines and he will take care of you.

Clayhouse 2008 Adobe Red- The bulk of this Paso Robles wine is comprised from Zin and Syrah but there are an additional six varietals also in the blend! At 15 dollars, it is a bargain. Alcohol content is just under 14% and the wine offers a well balanced finish. Over 25,000 cases were produced so it should be easy to find. I know some of you frown upon wines without corks so full disclosure; this has a screw cap.

Ramey 2007 Napa Valley Claret- Lets first deal with the word Claret; it is just another fancy French way of saying blend. It is NOT a grape varietal. I really enjoyed this wine and if you appreciate good Cabernet, then you will want to pick some of this up. While the vast majority of the wine is Cab, there is also Syrah, Malbec, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot blended as well. I see it has scores in the low 90s from various wine magazines but at $36 dollars a bottle it borders on being a wine for a special occasion in this day and age.

Mark Ryan 2007 Dead Horse Ciel Du Cheval Vineyard- This was one of my more pleasant finds in my cellar this month. I had bought it awhile ago and somehow it got behind a champagne bottle. Mark Ryan is one of my favorite wine makers period. He always brings out quality wines and this Washington blend is no exception. The only problem is he does very limited quantities so you are best to get on a mailing list if you really enjoy his wine. Also seems his prices have moved from the low $40s to the high $40s. That said, the quality of his wines is comparable to any high end, high priced Napa product.

Orin Swift 2009 Abstract Red Wine- A few years ago, Orin Swift owner David Phinney came out with an eclectic Zin based blend called The Prisoner. It was at a reasonable price point in the mid 20’s and it was a huge success. A friend of mine said he recently saw it listed in a Chicago restaurant for $90 bucks! The Abstract is a follow up and it is newly released. Abstract is a blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Syrah and priced in the mid- 20’s (just like the Prisoner when it was newly released) it is a great value. I believe it is sold out at the winery but you should be able to find it on-line or at a local wine merchant.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Cheers to Momma Lee!

My relationship with my mother-in-law is unusual; we actually like each other. While we share a mutual love for her daughter and my kids, we both really enjoy a nice glass or bottle of wine. Recently, she gave me a book for my birthday that truly touches on what this blog is all about; finding value.

The Wine Trials 2011 published by Fearless Critic Media lists over 175 wines under $15 dollars that beat out higher end wines in blind tastings. In addition to offering commentary on each wine, the book goes into detail (in some cases too much detail) on how the wines were selected and how the judging takes place. The book pulls no punches in describing the pressure wine makers are under to satisfy the palates of the wine media and effectively illustrates how much money goes into marketing and branding a wine. Right in the beginning of the book, they share the results of a blind tasting between a $150 dollar a bottle of Dom Perignon and a $12 dollar a bottle of Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut from the state of Washington. While over two thirds of the tasters preferred the cheaper wine, the author offers up the question; why are consumers willing to pay 12 times as much for a bottle of champagne that clearly is not 12 times better tasting?

As a winemaker, I know for a fact that there are certain processes that simply make a wine more expensive. It may be the labor in individually selecting each grape bunch that goes into a wine or the type of barrel one uses to age a wine. I will also be the first to admit there is nothing like a big bold Cab from the Howell Mountain AVA of Napa. This nectar from the wine gods is truly special, but unless you are rolling with the Bill Gates crowd, it’s not an everyday drinking wine.

I know I’ve strayed from my traditional wine review and offered up a book critique but don’t worry, for those that would rather spend their money on wine than buying this book, I’ve tasted a few wines from the book and the notes are below. If you find yourself actually going out and buying them, remember to raise your glass and offer a toast to Momma Lee.

Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut- Slight hint of green apples on the nose with plenty of acidity and bubbles to balance the flavor. Since I’m not a Champagne drinker, I bought it for some guests who drink it more than I do and they loved it. They said it will be their go to bottle from now on. As an aside, Chateau Ste. Michelle had multiple wines in this book and was chosen as the 2011 Winery of the Year.

Mark West 2008 Pinot Noir- Just like their Chardonnay I wrote about a few months ago, this Pinot is a terrific value (found it at a local supermarket for $12) . The wine offers loads of fruit flavor and is very traditional of California Coastal Pinot Noir. As their website claims, this wine is a Pinot for the people.

Norton Barrel Select 2009 Malbec- This Argentine stunner was my favorite by far. I loved the boldness but it still had elegance and balance. It is a typical Malbec that offers deep dark color with a long finish. Do not get confused with other Norton labels (Norton is a large producer and has several labels) and should cost ~$12 dollars. I would strongly suggest buying a big piece of red meat to go with it.

Hayman & Hill 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet- It’s very rare these days to discover a Napa Valley Cabernet that tastes this good for under $15 dollars. Full bodied with hint of cocoa and currants. For what it’s worth, it was hard not to get a good Napa Cab from the 2007 vintage and given the early notes for 2008 and 2009, I would grab as much as you can.

Concannon 2007 Petite Sirah- While this varietal is used more for blending red wines than standing alone; more winemakers are giving Petite Sirah a chance to shine. Its low acidity tends to give the wines a more jammy fruit forward characteristic but the Concannon seems to offer enough tannins and richness to justify taking a risk and buying. I’ve tried other Concannon varietals before and they are a decent value for their price but the PS is clearly the best I've had.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

An interview with a "Wine Guy"

When it comes to picking good wine; knowledge is power. While I’ve purchased my share of wine at Costco, Bev Mo, and my local supermarket, I always spend a good amount of time and money at my favorite wine proprietor. A good wine guy can become a friend for life and offer more wine buying information than even Google can provide. For those that don’t live in California, or other major wine growing states, your wine guy might be your only access to one of your favorite brands. While they may not always have the cheapest prices, the true value finds are found at a good local wine shop.

When I moved back to California eleven years ago, many of my clients on the east coast thought Sacramento was a stone’s throw from Napa and they were always asking me what wines they should buy (Translation-“Hey I just did a huge amount of business with you, how about shipping me some of those fantastic Napa Cabs!”). My wine knowledge was limited at the time and I needed help. That is when my relationship with Lakeforest Wines started. The Sachdeva family opened for business in the mid 1990’s and their wine knowledge and salesmanship have rewarded them with business from all parts of the world. What made them unique to me was their eagerness to actually let me try a bottle before it was purchased! They have a beautiful granite countertop bar in the back of their shop and the number of regular customers hanging out there gives it a sort of “Cheers” feel to it. Back I would go to the bar and we would discuss the story behind the wine and what made it unique. It was a great experience for me. More than once, Mrs. Winologist would call the store and kindly ask them to send me home. Slowly (remember I’m of Irish descent and nothing comes quickly for us except a good joke), my knowledge of the wine world accelerated and before I had realized I’d picked up another expensive hobby, I was hooked. Below is an interview with Raj Sachdeva. Before I begin, let me just say this is not a cheap advertisement for www.lakeforestwines.com. I have stuck to my journalistic integrity and not accepted a dime for this post. However, if Raj happens to give me a HUGE discount on my next case, don’t hold it against me!

Winologist: What qualities should a consumer look for when searching for a good wine merchant?
Raj: Selection is very important. They should be offering wines you don’t normally see in a supermarket. Also, the number of years they are in business is important. There are many “fly-by-night” operations that don’t understand what it takes to build a clientele. I also tell customers to be wary of on-line only operations, particularly when purchasing older vintages. You don’t always get what you think you are paying for.

Winologist: Where is the best value today?
Raj:- Domestically, I think California Syrah wines are extremely undervalued. I’m not sure why, but there just don’t seem to be buyers for this varietal and there are some very talented winemakers putting out quality Syrah wine. Internationally, I think Chile and Argentina are putting out great wines for the price. It’s important to stick to what they are known for such as Malbec and Cabernet. Also, some will get better with age, but many are made to be drinkable right away.

Winologist: Anything particular?
Raj: JC Cellars does a nice, fruit forward Syrah and for the quality of the wine, it’s a good value in the mid twenties. Wine Spectator usually has them rated in the low 90’s. Also, there are a number of great Syrah wines from the Paso Robles region.

Winologist: What about white wines?
Raj: Right now, it seems Chardonnay has gotten unreasonably expensive but there is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc that I like. The Brancott Conders Forest Sauvignon Blanc is very nice. It has that classic acidity of the region and fresh citrus aroma.

Winologist: I keep hearing about an oversupply of wine produced in Napa but I never really see any price cuts. If I were going to spend say $70 dollars on a big Napa cab, what would you recommend?
Raj: Right now, I’m selling a lot of the Ramey 2006 Napa Cabernet. It usually retails for ~$55 dollars and I am making money selling it at $35.

Winologist: OK, back to reality. How about $20 dollars!
Raj: There are two I really like at that price point. The 2006 Steltzner Napa Cabernet and the 2008 Eberle Cabernet from Paso Robles are both outstanding. The Steltzner cab is all fruit from the Staggs Leap region and it is very rare to see a wine priced in the low 20’s from that part of Napa. The Eberle wine has always been consistently good and the 2008 is no exception.

Winologist: What buzz are you hearing about the 2010 Napa Vintage?
Raj: We’re hearing it was a difficult vintage. We had a very cool summer which delayed the harvest. Then we had a two week span of unusually hot weather right before grapes were to be picked and a lot of fruit had to be cut. . This year will be similar to the 2000 vintage which was very small. There will be some great wines, but it won’t be a year to be remembered favorably.

Winologist: Thanks for your time Raj. Now can you pour me a little more of that JC Cellars Syrah?

January 2011