Friday, May 27, 2016

Crowd In For Some Cabernet

Columbia Crest dubs this wine "The first ever crowdsourced wine from vine to bottle." It was produced by folks who logged on to the website and told them how to make it. They set aside five acres of their Washington grapes in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA and let the people who are going to drink it make it.

The website extols that the instructions were pretty simple. Complexity is a must, and soft tannins. Some oak was ordered, but only 30% new oak. Oh, and harvest the grapes at night while it’s cool, will ya? We also like about 14.5% abv, if you’ve got it. I’m sure there may have been some other grapes in the blend, too. I’d guess Cabernet Franc for starters.

The 2014 vintage is being released this month on their website, and voting is about to end on what the 2015 should taste like. It’s a novel idea, if a little precocious and marketing-minded. Just like with Elvis fans, though, if you get enough wine lovers involved, they can’t be wrong.

Columbia Crest Crowdsourced Cabernet Sauvignon, Horse Heaven Hills, 2014

We sometimes hear that too many cooks spoil the soup. In this case, we have a lot of cooks throwing their two cents into the pot and coming up with a winner. This crowdsourced Cab is quite dark in color and lovely to smell. It shows dark berries and dark spice, with just a hint of pencil lead. The flavors are bold and follow along the lines of the nose. Tannic structure is great and acidity superb. It’s a big, purple bruiser, and there’s no steak that’s going to push it around.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Synthetic Wine

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Santa Barbara's L.A. Road Trip: Rhône Varieties

Living in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is "our" wine region. A mere two hours north of L.A., Santa Barbara wine country offers nearly 200 wineries producing truly world class wines. We take a lot of road trips up there to visit Santa Barbara Vintners, so it was nice of them to return the favor and come down here.

Santa Barbara County is home to the only transverse mountain range in North America, where the wind from the Pacific Ocean is channeled right across the Santa Barbara County Appellation.  The sub-appellations - Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and Los Olivos District are distinct and varied. The region is also home to an unrivaled growing season with the aforementioned coastal influences giving great grapes a place to thrive.  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and more are found in Santa Barbara County.

Santa Barbara Vintners brought their best to Los Angeles for four days in May. Instead of overwhelming us with close to 50 different varieties at one tasting, each day was broken down into a specific wine theme for more focus. Monday was given to Chardonnay, Tuesday Pinot Noir, Wednesday featured Rhone varieties and Thursday gave us the Bordeaux grapes.

Wednesday, May 18 - RHONE VARIETALS

Doug Margerum stole the show this time. His 2015 Margerum Riviera Rosé, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara county, are a Grenache blend, bone dry and beautiful with big cherry notes. The 2014 Margerum M5 Santa Barbara County shows ripe red fruit with an herbal quality running underneath. Margerum served it chilled and showed how great this wine would be for summer BBQs.

At the Core table, Becky Corey poured for me. She poured when I visited the tasting room, too. I don’t know if husband Dave is avoiding me, or what. Their wines are riddled with lovely floral, lavender and clove notes. The 2008 Core Mister Moreved is 94% Mourvèdre and 6% Grenache from Santa Barbara County.  It’s smooth, dark and musky.

The Fess Parker table is always a great stop. The 2013 Fess Parker Viognier, Santa Barbara County shows some fantastic earthy tones. The 2012 Fess Parker Rodney’s Vineyard Syrah, Santa Barbara County is smokey, earthy.

Ross Rankin's Imagine Wines have a non-vintage Melange that is awesome, full of spice and red fruit. The 2007 Imagine Winged Paradise Mountain Syrah, Santa Barbara County got a one-word explanation in my notes: "Silky!"

Jaffurs Wine Cellars' Craig Jaffurs poured his 2015 Viognier Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley, displaying grapefruit and flowers. The 2013 Jaffurs Syrah Santa Barbara County is elegant.

The Central Coast Group Project is headed up by Scott Sampler and he has produced a very pretty 2012 Santa Barbara County GSM and a 2012 Names Syrah from White Hawk Vineyard. He produces his wine at a collective in Buellton, the Buellton Bodegas.

Andrew Murray again has scored with his Esperance GSM. It is extremely elegant.

The 2013 Foxen Syrah shows a funky nose, and a palate that is excellent and very smooth.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Santa Barbara's L.A. Road Trip: Chardonnay

Living in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is "our" wine region. A mere two hours north of L.A., Santa Barbara wine country offers nearly 200 wineries producing truly world class wines. We take a lot of road trips up there to visit Santa Barbara Vintners, so it was nice of them to return the favor and come down here.

Santa Barbara County is home to the only transverse mountain range in North America, where the wind from the Pacific Ocean is channeled right across the Santa Barbara County Appellation.  The sub-appellations - Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara and Los Olivos District are distinct and varied. The region is also home to an unrivaled growing season with the aforementioned coastal influences giving great grapes a place to thrive.  Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and more are found in Santa Barbara County.

Santa Barbara Vintners brought their best to Los Angeles for four days in May. Instead of overwhelming us with close to 50 different varieties at one tasting, each day was broken down into a specific wine theme for more focus. Monday was given to Chardonnay, Tuesday Pinot Noir, Wednesday featured Rhone varieties and Thursday gave us the Bordeaux grapes.

Monday, May 16 - CHARDONNAY
Tuesday, May 17 - PINOT NOIR
Wednesday, May 18 - RHONE VARIETALS

Here's what I found at the Chardonnay tasting.

Jim Clendenen’s Au Bon Climat Chardonnay stole the show.  I don't remember what Clendenen's quote was about, but he said, "Only cuz I can," which is a great winemaker quote, even taken out of context. His 2013 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Nuits-Blanches Au Bouge, Santa Maria Valley has a full mouth and great flavor. The Los Alamos and Bien Nacido Vineyard Chardonnays are sublime.

Brewer Clifton's wines all had great acidity. Their 2012 Brewer-Clifton 3D Chardonnay, Sta. Rita Hills is a standout, with tropical fruit and lemon showing prominently.

Foxen's Jenny Williamson Doré was kind enough to pour for me her 2013 Foxen Chardonnay Tinaquaic Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley. A dry farmed, Wente clone with amazing salinity and minerality.

Cambria Winery's 2014 Cambria Benchbreak Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley had its lees stirred and shows some pretty funky, savory minerals.

The Cambria table also tasted me on the ‘93 Byron, still very nice with a Sherry-like taste coming out, and the ‘87 Talbot, also tasting quite nice

The 2014 Pence Sebastiano Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley shows some great, savory fruit.

Qupé’s Bob Lindquist wowed the crowd with his 2013 Qupé Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard Reserve, Block Eleven, Santa Maria Valley. It's very savory, has a lovely salinity.

The 2013 Sanger Family Chardonnay, Santa Ynez Valley is perhaps a little unusual coming from the warmest part of Santa Barbara County. Aged 16 months, the wine has a really nice, savory edge.

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Elevating Zinfandel

There’s nothing like a good Zinfandel, except maybe a great Zinfandel. There were plenty of the former, and a few of the latter, on display at Elevating Zinfandel, a tasting event put on recently by Los Angeles wine educator Ian Blackburn through his WineLA. First, the highest points, then the "merely high."

When I think of the Zinfandels I really like to drink, Turley Wine Cellars comes to mind first.  They draw grapes from a variety of California vineyards, a listing of which reads like a “Who’s Who” of grapevines.

Turley Kirschenmann Vineyard, Lodi 2014 - Planted in 1915. Beautiful red cherry.
Turley Dusi Vineyard, Paso Robles 2014 - Elegant, possibly the best Paso wine I’ve had.
Turley Rattlesnake Ridge, Howell Mountain 2014 - Extremely elegant and smooth.

Ridge Vineyards is another name that Zin lovers know and revere.

Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel Blend, Alexander Valley, 2014 - Very dark, spicy with pepper and red and black cherry. It’s a true field blend, with different gapes commingled in with the Zinfandel, right in the vineyard, all picked and crushed at the same time and co-fermented. The rep told me there were "too many different grapes in the wine to fit on the label."

Beekeeper Cellars is the creation of our host, Mr. Blackburn, right. I remember telling him two years ago that his Zin could knock an unsuspecting Cab off of any steakhouse wine list. And it’s just getting better.

Beekeeper Madrona Spring Vineyard, Rockpile 2013 - Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em. The nose on this one sure is.
Beekeeper Montecillo Vineyard Sonoma Valley 2014 - Dark and savory with an herbal edge and lots of pepper. A favorite of mine.
Beekeeper 2012 Reserve is tasting better all the time.

All the others poured admirable wines, too. Here are my favorites among them.

A Rafanelli Winery
Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel 2013 - Shows spearmint.

Bedrock Wine Company
Evangelho Vineyard Heritage Wine 2014 - An excellent wine. From Oakley, 120 year-old vines. Another field blend.

Brown Estate Wines
Chaos Theory - Zinfandel/ Cabernet Sauvignon/Petite Sirah blend. Spicy nose with pencil lead. Big red fruit flavors, spice. Elegant and structured.

Mauritson Wines
Clay Mauritson, left, is on the winemaking team at Beekeeper, too.
His Cemetery Vineyard, Rockpile 2014 shows green pepper in a savory, herbal setting.

Chase Cellars
Zinfandel Rosé, Hayne Vineyard, St Helena 2015 - Bone dry, definitely not white zin.

Hendry Ranch Wines
Blocks 7 and 22, Napa Valley 2013 - Clone 2 Zinfandel. Strawberry jam.

Jeff Cohn Cellars
Sweetwater Springs, Sonoma Valley 2012 - Savory, earthy lavender. Silky smooth.

Martinelli Winery
Vellutini Ranch, Russian River Valley, 2012 - Very appealing light color. Floral berries, spice.

Quivira Vineyards
Hugh Chappelle, right
Flight 2013 - All Zinfandel. Smokey, red, savory.

Robert Biale Vineyards
Grande Vineyard, Napa Valley 2013 - Vines planted in 1920. Outside the Oak Knoll District. Dark and savory.

Seghesio Family Vineyard
Rockpile, Sonoma Valley 2013 - Subtle and elegant.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Wines Of Spain: Gil Family Portfolio Vertical Tasting

Gil Family Estates is celebrating their 100th birthday this year. The bodega was founded in 1916 by Juan Gil Jiménez in Spain’s Jumilla region, in the southeast, close enough to the sea to get a Mediterranean influence. Four generations have made wine there, and they keep getting better at it.

They actually have vineyards in eight of Spain’s appellations, so they can show off as much terroir as you like, maybe more.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a special winemaker's portfolio tasting in Los Angeles in a private room at The Bazaar by José Andrés. Members of the family and winemaking team were on hand and presented two of their lines, Clio and El Nido, in a vertical tasting. I think I was supposed to be at "the press table," but I got there late and was directed to the meeting of sommeliers. It was lucky day for me. I also got a great parking spot.

Clio is 70% Monastrell - Mourvédre, if you prefer - and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. El Nido is the reverse, with Cab taking top honors. Both wines get about two years aging, in French oak for the Cab and American for the Monastrell. El Nido is aged in smaller barrels than Clio, and they recommend aging in your cellar for 15 to 20 years.

The wines come from the partnership between the Gil family and Australian winemaker Chris Ringland. Grapes are grown at the highest spot in the area, at an elevation of about 2400 feet. Further north in Spain, that might not be possible, but the sea’s influence in Jumilla tempers the cold at that height. They dry-farm at Juan Gil, not that they have much choice. Southern California, even in a drought, is a tropical rain forest compared to the precipitation the weather reports allow for in Jumilla.

The roots of the old vines have to dig through three feet of solid limestone to get a drink. That’s terroir. Loren Gil said that just 20 years ago "it was not possible to think of wines of this quality from Jumilla." Things have really changed.

Gil mentioned that the biggest market for their wines is the U.S. Second is Canada, third is Switzerland. Spain, he was proud to say, has just moved up to become their fourth biggest market.

I’ll go through the wines they way they poured them, younger to older.

Clio 2011 - Big red and black fruit is layered with a floral aspect that is quite pronounced. The tannins are a little toothy yet, but not to distraction. And that will change.

Clio 2009 - Beautiful nose, fruity and floral., with blackberry, lavender and a savory edge. Very concentrated aroma and flavor. Great structure with enough tannin, but not too much.

Clio 2007 - A more earthy nose. More savory, too. Extremely smooth. Black fruit is more pronounced. They say the vintage was not a favorite, with rain at the close of harvest. It did not hurt the wine at all, though.

Clio 2005 - Very savory nose, with bramble, black fruit and a vanilla note coming out. Savory palate, even smoother. Bacon fat appears, the most savory of the lot.

Clio 2003 - Savory aromas of meat are really coming on, but there is still much dark fruit showing. Lots more vanilla here. Structure holding just fine. Palate is tasting very fruity but the dark, savory notes are becoming more vocal.

El Nido 2011 - Very dark color. Nose showing oak spice. Great acidity, extremely smooth with fantastic structure.

El Nido 2009 - Very dark again. Nose has black and blue berries and a floral aspect, rather perfumed. Very savory edge to the dark fruit flavors and quite smooth again, with great acidity.

El Nido 2007 - Beautiful smokey nose with very dark color and fruit. Very savory palate with nice tannins and juicy fruit.

El Nido 2005 - Smoke is giving way to bacon fat on the nose. The palate is blue and black fruit. Structure is very defined. Aromas and flavors show age, structure does not.

El Nido 2003 - Color is dark. Nose shows a tad of smoke, very savory. Palate strong with dark fruit, oak is nice, less savory than earlier vintages. Great structure, still with very firm tannins.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Pushing Pedals: Cycles Gladiator Merlot

Great label. The Lady on the Bicycle is an homage to women's freedom during the Belle Epoque, when bicycle sales in France flourished prompted by the suffrage movement. Susan B. Anthony noted that bicycles gave women the ability to leave the home to work and vote. Cycles was just one bicycle company that “plastered Paris with posters” depicting free and liberated women on bikes au naturel.

Winemaker Adam LaZarre says he grew up in New York’s Finger Lakes area, but not until a U.S. Navy stint in Seattle did he get the wine bug. He started Cycles Gladiator in 2005. LaZarre’s creative tasting notes brought forth some online comment, and he tweeted that he used to write them while drinking tequila. "I don’t do that anymore," he wrote, "I changed to bourbon."

LaZarre calls this "little Merlot monster" a "fruit-driven cherry bomb of a wine." The alcohol is fairly restrained, at just 13.9% abv.  The fruit was nearly all grown in the Livermore Valley, and there are smidges of Cabernat Sauvignon and Syrah in it.  It was aged for 16 months in French and American oak.

The nose of the Cycles Gladiator Central Coast Merlot 2014 gives off a telltale funk, belying the Syrah, especially after a few days open. The fruit is dark and moody and there are notes of spice and a sweet smell, like burnt caramel, on the nose. The sip is powerful, belligerent fruit and brawny tannins, so don’t be shy. Cook a big, dirty steak and throw it on a plate next to a glass of this.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

More Evidence Of Lodi's Value To Wine World

Lodi, California never ceases to amaze me in its efforts to prove itself worthy of inclusion in the the Great Wine Region discussion. Generations upon generations of agriculture flows through the Mokelumne River, and the growers like to proudly stand in the delta dirt and talk about how Lodi wine has grown up. Lodi has worked tirelessly to throw off the "jug wine" perception, work that probably started when they rebranded themselves from the "Tokay Capital of the World" to the "Zinfandel Capital of the World." The Lodi wine industry stepped up so bravely that it was was recognized as Wine Region of the World by Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2015.

The folks at LoCA, the Wines of Lodi, work with Brandlive to periodically stage virtual tasting events designed to get a few dozen wine writers excited about the region’s wineries. They needn't try so hard - we are already excited about Lodi. So much so that the annual Wine Blogger’s Conference 2016 is set to be held there in August.

The most recent virtual event focused on wines made from grapes in Lodi's noted Mokelumne Glen Vineyard.  In case the word looks unfamiliar to you, or even if you think you have it figured out, Mokelumne is pronounced Mo-KUL-uh-me, according to the vineyard's website. Once again, the event was hosted on a video feed by Stuart Spencer, owner and winemaker at St. Amant Winery and Program Manager at the Lodi Winegrape Commission. On either side of him were Markus Niggli, winemaker at Borra Vineyards and Markus Wine Company and Brett Koth, Vineyard Manager at Mokelumne Glen Vineyards. I was provided with samples of the wines for the purpose of the event.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards is a small, family-owned vineyard specializing in grape varieties that originated in Germany and Austria. They are in the Lodi Appellation as well as the Mokelumne River sub-appellation.

There are more than 40 different grape varieties growing in their sandy, granitic soil, including Riesling, Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Zweigelt and Bacchus. The last one, I had never even heard of until this event introduced it to me.  Their collection of vines is reported to be the largest gathering of German and Austrian grapes in the U.S.

Koth spoke knowledgeably on his grapes, while Niggli offered his take as a winemaker who uses their fruit regularly. The vineyard only sells their fruit to a handful of vintners, so Niggli feels fortunate to get his hands on some.

The grapes involved in this tasting are largely thought of as cool-climate grapes, while Lodi has a warm, Mediterranean climate.  Koth told us, however, that it’s cooler than people think where his grapes grow because of the delta effect and the proximity to the river. “Temperature fluctuation is the key, “ to maintaining these varieties, he said. That and early picking to ensure the high acidity for which the grapes are known.

Holman Cellars Uncharted Bacchus 2015  $25
An earthy white wine, what could be better? Whites need to be earthy, I feel. Terroir gives them character in a much more visceral way the with reds. Winemaker Jason Holman is based in Napa, and the Holman Cellars "micro-winery" produces wines in extremely small lots. They like to make great wines from forgotten grapes. Forgotten? As I said earlier, I never even knew about Bacchus before this.

The grape represents only 2% of Germany’s plantings, so it is apparently not that well-known even over there.  They made 45 cases of this 100% varietal wine, which is about two barrels worth. The three days of skin contact is followed by stainless-steel fermentation.

It’s a pale wine and has an earthy lanolin note on the nose. There’s a waxy quality on the palate that fits well with the apricot and nutmeg shadings. The acidity is very good in this most unusual wine. I thought it reminded me somewhat of the Symphony grape, but more muscular and not as sweet.

Markus NIMMO Lodi White Wine 2014  $22

Markus is Niggli’s own label, and the name NIMMO originated from his time in Perth, Australia. When he was new there, he remembered his way home by making a word of the first letters of the streets he needed to travel to get there. Australia plays a big part in Niggli’s career - it’s where the Swiss native was bitten bu the wine bug.

This white wine is made from 71% Kerner grapes, 13% Gewurztraminer, 11% Riesling and 5% Bacchus, all from Mokelumne Glen Vineyards. It is fermented in 60% new oak and aged there for nine months. The alcohol sits at 13.8% abv

Gewurz and Riesling in oak? Brett was shocked when he heard Niggli’s plans for those grapes, but he says the winemaker convinced him to "get on board."

Native yeast “brings higher alcohol at lower brix,” says Niggli. He says he thinks of the Kerner grape as "the unknown," and was intrigued by it enough to use it as the base for this wine. Three days skin contact before vinification gives good color, made richer by the use of oak.

The pale golden straw color is appealing, while the nose certainly isn’t scaring anyone away. Clean earth notes define the apple, papaya and lime aromas beautifully. The palate shows off-dry pear, apple and Meyer lemon flavors on a bed of acidity. Finishing long, it’s the earth and citrus that stays around after the sip. The wine’s body makes it a lot more versatile that just "salads and sipping." Niggli recommends you pair it with anything off the grill.

Hatton Daniels Lodi Zweigelt 2015  $24

Hatton Daniels Wine Cellars is the result of several wine enthusiasts putting a winemaker’s skill to good use. The website shows that winemaker Dan Fishman also creates the bottlings of the Donum Estate and Stemmler, but with Santa Rosa-based Hatton Daniels he works with small vineyards to produce elegant, focused wines.

The vintners say this Zweigelt is "vibrant and alive," and is "meant for drinking in large, glorious quantities." They also say it’s a zero-sulfur wine, which some claim prevents hangovers. They say they make "no claim in this regard, but further study is recommended." Only 72 cases were made.

This wine is a tart little blast of cool-climate German grape, grown in Lodi. The earth that shows on the nose is mind-blowing. Raspberry fruit, oh yeah. Coffee grounds? Yep. Cola? Mm hmm. Meat? There’s some of that. The palate shows just as savory and just as dark, with tart berries, black tea and pepper.

M2 Wines Belle Etoile Blanche 2014  $24

For those who didn’t take four years of French in high school, and for those who did but have forgotten most of it, Belle Etoile Blanche means "beautiful white star." The m2 wines late-harvest dessert creation blends four German grape varieties grown in Mokelumne Glen Vineyard , 35% Rieslaner, 25% Weissburgunder, 20% Riesling and 20% Gewurztraminer. This wine is naturally sweet and is not fortified. Three months fermentation was accomplished half in neutral French oak barrels and half in a stainless steel tank. Alcohol is light, at 13.3% abv and there is less than 10% residual sugar.

Layne Montgomery is the winemaker, and he had the grapes picked as late as the first day of November and whole-cluster pressed to add character to the flavor. Koth notes that it’s the only sweet wine produced the grapes of his vineyard.  The consensus seemed to be to pair this wine with any "stinky cheese" you prefer.

M2’s Belle Etoile Blanche is a delightful dessert wine that is pleasantly sweet without overdoing it. The nose is honey and apricots, while the palate shows a crisp and acidic palate that draws a line against cloying and stands well apart from it. The fruit is clean and ripe - certainly - and leaves a citrus and stone fruit finish after the sip. This will pair with cheese in a heartbeat or a fruit tart in about the same time.

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Monday, May 9, 2016

From Sweden With Love: Hard Cider

Sweden has given us some great gifts - Ingmar Bergman, Absolut vodka, IKEA - and some which are not so great - Dancing Queen, Pippi Longstocking, IKEA. Scandinavian beers have never excited me too much, vodka leaves me shaken not stirred and wine is almost nowhere to be found in Sweden’s upper latitude.

A company named Rekorderlig offered me a taste of their flavored hard cider, and I liked it even though I am not usually wowed by flavored alcoholic beverages. My wife, who favors sweet drinks a bit more than I, loved it.  Rekorderlig was created more than two decades ago at Åbro brewery in Vimmerby, just outside of Stockholm. Its promoters say it is delicious straight from the bottle, over ice with fresh fruit or mixed into cocktails, and they are right.

They suggest pouring their Strawberry-Lime hard cider over ice, garnished with a lime wedge. Spilling some vodka or gin into it is perfectly alright.

This beverage has a beautiful red color with a hint of orange, which makes it look very strawberry-like in the glass. The nose is a big strawberry festival all its own, and quite a natural one at that. It doesn't have the candy-coated Jolly Rancher aroma, but one of real strawberries and stems. The sip shows delightful fruit - no real complexity here - with that lime flavor making an appearance.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Cal-Italia Wine: Barbera From The Sierra Foothills

We'll touch again on Bella Grace Vineyards, located in the Sierra Foothills in Amador County.  The family-run business produces wine from 12 grape varieties harvested there, and they also have three types of olives growing on the estate.  One of those grapes is the Italian variety, Barbera.

I like the expression that the Cal-Italia grapes give in other California regions, so I was anxious to try the terroir of Amador County.  Both wines were made available to me for the purpose of this article.

Bella Grace Montagnaro Amador County 2013

This half and half blend of Barbera - sourced from several vineyards in Amador County - and their estate Zinfandel - was made in very limited quantity, just 360 cases, and it retails at $23 per bottle. The 14.5% abv alcohol number looks ripe and ready. And so it is.

A nose of red berries, mocha, licorice and pepper lead to a tempting palate of bright red cherries, chocolate and an earthy cloak in which it tries to hide. This wine cannot conceal itself, though. It’s bright and playful while remaining sincere and balanced.

Bella Grace Barbera Amador County 2013

Several vineyards in Amador County contributed to this varietal wine.  The alcohol is again a rich 14.6% abv and it has a $30 price tag. 860 cases were made.

The wine has a rustic nose that bears a bit of tar, a bit of bramble and a bit of spearmint. The oak on the palate is sweet and tasty with generous red fruit and holiday spices. The tannins grip enough, but not too hard. The finish carries some rosemary to a lengthy end. Roasted chicken and potatoes, with the potatoes burnt just a bit is what you want with this.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Le Cigare Volant Réserve 2011

The Réserve version of Randall Grahm’s flagship wine is aged en bonbonnes, which means it is aged not in oak but in glass carboys, or, less elegantly, jugs. It is also aged sur lie, or in contact with the used-up yeast cells that gave their lives making alcohol. We salute them. The former insures that you are tasting all fruit, the latter that it’s got a creamier mouthfeel than the normale Cigare.

As Grahm explains, "The Réserve has a slightly different texture than the 'normale,' tannins not quite as firm, rather softer, plusher and more velvety, with enhanced mouth feel and a slightly more savory aspect."

The varieties are 37% Mourvèdre, 34% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 9% Cinsault picked from eight Central Coast vineyards, Ventana, Del Barba, Rancho Solo, Evangelho, Bien Nacido, Alamo Creek, Bechtold and Gonsalves. At 14.5% abv, the alcohol is noticeable, but not an intrusion. 966 cases were made, and it retails normally at $79 per bottle. There was a pretty big sale going on, last I checked.

Le Cigare Volant Réserve is as fresh as a just-picked daisy. The nose full of ripe red fruit shows a touch of spice, while the palate seems even more youthful and exuberant. That’s something I might expect in a wine produced just last fall, but this one was made five years ago. Cherries, raspberry and blueberry cover the fruity side, while leather, spice and earth handle the savory lifting. It is an amazing wine, one of my favorites for the four vintages it has been produced.

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Friday, April 29, 2016

California White Wines: Shenandoah Valley

We have explored two Zinfandels of Bella Grace Vineyards, now let's try two of their white wines.  Bella Grace, as noted earlier, is in the Sierra Foothills region of Amador County.  The family-run business produces wine from 12 grape varieties harvested there.  Nearly seven acres of the estate are devoted to four different clones of sustainably-farmed Zinfandel grapes.

The ten-year-old winery is powered completely by solar energy and has been collecting awards since its first releases.  Bella Grace is one of nine producers on the Steiner Road wine trail.  Owned by husband-and-wife vintners Michael and Charlie Havill, the operation takes its name from their two grandmothers, Bella and Grace.

Bella Grace Shenandoah Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2015

The Bella Grace 2015 Shenandoah Valley Sauvignon Blanc is pale - Maine-in-the-wintertime pale - with a nose as fresh and grassy as a new-mown lawn. It's close to being New Zealand grassy, but the aromas stay completely herbal and don't get into the kitty box area. On the palate, limes and lemons dominate with a very slight nod to California ripeness. Minerals are readily apparent and the acidity is zippy, but not bracing.  It's a very enjoyable wine, especially for fans of California SauvBlanc.  Try it with chips and guacamole this summer.

Bella Grace Shenandoah Valley Vermentino 2015

Vermentino is one of my favorite white wines, although I had never tried one, or even heard of one, from California before now. I usually have Italian versions, usually from Siciliy. This one is different and very enjoyable.

 A moderate 12.2% abv number makes this wine quite drinkable, and at $25 retail, it’s not too hard on the debit card. It is 100% Amador County Vermentino.

This beautiful, pale white has a wonderful nose of bright citrus, tropical fruit, minerals and salinity, although the ocean flavor is somewhat lower than found in Sicilian versions of the grape. The palate comes on a bit sweeter, with a Meyer lemon overlay on the minerals. The acidity is fresh and zippy, so it should do nicely next to a Caesar salad or, as a friend’s grandmother says, "a nice piece fish."

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

All Grenache, All The Time

Grenache is a tough grape to figure. A darling of the Rhône Valley, it’s used primarily as a blending grape there, abetted by its likely companions Syrah and Mourvèdre. It is a late-ripening grape, one of the most widely-planted red wine varieties in the world. It likes hot, dry climates best, which is why it is a favorite in Spain, where it is known as Garnacha. Many California climes also lend themselves well to this grape, which is just one reason it is a favorite of mine.

Bonny Doon Vineyards winemaker Randall Grahm calls this 100% Grenache the "misunderstood Ugly Duckling" wine. Grenache gets a bad rap for not being "pretty" enough, not standing well on its own, but this one dispels those notions, although through the glass darkly. At 14.5% abv, it’s hefty, but it balances it's weight very well against the aromas, flavors and mouthfeel. The Monterey County fruit comes from the Rancho Solo vineyard planted years ago, as Grahm explains.

The Bonny Doon Cuvée R Grenache 2014 shows a medium ruby color, has a beautiful, yet feisty nose of cherry, allspice and dark berries with a palate displaying dark fruit and earthy spice and minerals. Good tannic structure meets a refreshing acidity and the whole sip finishes long with black cherry notes persisting.

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Spanish Wine: Vionta Albariño

The way American wine drinkers go after Chardonnay, that’s how Spanish consumers feel about the Albariño grape.  It’s the white wine of choice on that big chunk of the Iberian peninsula, and with good reason.  It’s fresh, aromatic and downright tasty.  Not to mention, it pairs well with just about any kind of food.

This Vionta white wine is all Albariño from the Rias Baixas area of Galicia in northwest Spain.  It’s imported by the Ferrer family under the Freixenet banner.  I was kindly provided a sample of this wine for the purpose of review.

The 2014 vintage was a little light, yielding small bunches of grapes in late September that were highly concentrated as a result, according to the winery.  They say the vines are mostly over 15 years old.  More than two-thirds of the harvest was vinified "on the lees," or in contact with the spent yeast cells, lending roundness and weight to the mouthfeel.  The alcohol clocks in at 12.7% abv and the wine retails for $15.

The wine has a beautiful golden tint and smells of green apples and lemon/lime with just a hint of flowers.  On the palate, the apple notes are crisp and laced with citrus. There is a salinity that runs through it right into the finish and a bracing acidity that really makes it a refreshing sip. Pair it with fish, hummus or crackers and blue cheese.  The salinity also hits well alongside sweet cheeses.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Amador County Zinfandel Wine

Bella Grace Vineyards is located in the Sierra Foothills region of Amador County, and has tasting locations in the Shenandoah Valley and Sutter Creek.  The latter is situated in a restored, Victorian-era cottage that fits right in with the historic feel of the town. The family-run business produces wine from 12 grape varieties harvested there, and they also have three types of olives growing on the estate.

The ten-year-old winery is powered completely by solar energy and has been collecting awards since its first releases.  Bella Grace is one of nine producers on the Steiner Road wine trail.  Owned by husband-and-wife vintners Michael and Charlie Havill, the operation takes its name from their two grandmothers, Bella and Grace.

Nearly seven acres of the estate are devoted to four different clones of sustainably-farmed Zinfandel grapes.

2013 Estate Amador County Zinfandel

The 2013 Estate Amador County Zinfandel brings an alcohol level of 14.3% abv to the table and retails for $20. The winery describes it as a "young, assertive Zinfandel," that has great aging potential over the next few years.  It’s one of those award winners we heard about earlier.

This wine is a treat. The bright, zippy cherry fruit on the first night turns into darker and more savory stuff on the second, and I love when that happens. The nose is fruity enough, but it does show the minerality nicely along with smoke, leather and cigars. The palate is dark and beefy with some spiciness coming through. The tannins are healthy, but they don't get in the way of the sip.

2013 Old Vine Zinfandel Amador County

Dry farmed in Crain Sleeper Vineyard, a "heritage vineyard" in Shenandoah Valley, this 100% Zinfandel hits 14.5% abv in alcohol and rings up at 30 in American dollars. The grapes were grown and managed by Bob and Carol Sleeper, descendants of one of the original families to settle in California's Shenandoah Valley in the early 1850's. The old vines we have here were planted in the early 1970s, and yes, that makes me feel old, too. The early 1970s were great for music and movies, and apparently for Zinfandel grapes, as well.

The wine is earthy, spicy and deep. It has a dark ruby color, a nose of holiday spices and cherries with minerals all over the place. In the mouth, it's juicy and ripe and full of red fruit with those minerals riding herd over the components. The finish is lengthy and the tannins chewy.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Wine Country Connecticut: Saltwater Farm Vineyard

The Nutmeg State’s wine industry - in the modern era - started with the passage of the Connecticut Winery Act in 1978. Wine goes back a lot further than that, of course.  The early colonists loved wine, and there were plenty of native grapes around, but they weren’t very good at growing wine grapes. They relied mainly on European imports. In the 19th century, some progress was made in the area of viticulture, but production remained rather small until more than a hundred years later.

There are two American Viticultural Areas in the state, which are home to about three dozen vineyards and wineries. There’s the Western Connecticut Highlands AVA in the west and the Southeastern New England AVA toward the eastern part of the state, which is where you will find Saltwater Farm Vineyard.

Saltwater Farm is in the sleepy seaside town of Stonington, and its owners look to preserve the history of their property as "coastal Connecticut farmland and a WWII-era private airport." It is a beautiful property that overlooks the tidal salt marshes of Wequetequock Cove and traces its agrarian roots back more than 350 years to the founding of Stonington in the mid-1600s, according to the winery.

Rhode Island native Michael M. Connery bought the property in 2001 and refurbished the old hangar into a striking winery facility. The vineyard is split by a grassy landing strip and the estate is a part of the Coastal Wine Trail. The property is under vines on 15 of its 100 acres and it offers some nice vistas of Long Island Sound

Winemaker Gilles Martin is a Frenchman who lives and works in Long Island, New York. He is also the winemaker at several vineyards on the island’s North Fork

They have a lot of weddings at Saltwater Farm, like many wineries, but Bride’s Magazine voted Saltwater Farm as one of the most romantic wedding venues in the U.S. The winery should be open for the season by now.  If you will be in the area this summer, check out the Connecticut Wine Festival in July.

2013 Gold Arc Chardonnay

The wine has a lovely golden color, showing some age and oak. The nose is somewhat muted, but fascinating, nonetheless. An earthy tone drapes over some Meyer lemon, oak spice and a beautiful caramel note.  The palate is great, not too oaky - just enough - and a very clean and full mouth. The citrus note advances first, followed by that incredible earth with a creme brulee finish. And the acidity is zippy, too. I could hardly ask for more from a Chardonnay than what is delivered here.

2013 Merlot

It’s a fairly dark wine, with a nose showing cherry, mocha, just a hint of oak, a slight trace of earthy salinity and a smoky element that often makes its way out of a glass of Merlot. It's not an extremely forceful nose, but there’s quite a lot going on in it. Some of that has to do with 16 months of oak aging. The taste of this 100% Merlot is what I expect from a cool climate red wine, restrained and food-friendly, with a nice acidity and a flavor that leans more towards tart than ripe, although it isn't far from the midpoint of that scale. It's a great wine to have with food, that's for sure. Coffee notes are a great find on the finish.