Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Clover Hill DeChaunac

My recent visit to a state-run wine store in Pennsylvania resulted in the purchase of three wines produced in the Keystone State.  My encounter with Tailgate Red left me enlightened, if not delighted.  My second selection from the state store was a wine from the Lehigh Valley AVA,Clover Hill Vineyards and Winery DeChaunac.

I selected this wine because DeChaunac is a grape with which I had no prior experience.  It's a French hybrid grape planted primarily in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada.

With an alcohol level of 12% abv, it does not appear to be a heavyweight red.  The label tells me to expect “mulberry, dark berry and earth aromas and flavors,” which appears to be right on the money.  The wine sports some very dark aromas, but they seem sour to my senses.  It feels like a well made wine, with good balance between the sweetness and acidity.  It's rather full in the mouth, too, with a good weight. The sour aromas carry over onto my palate, though, and the taste is not something I would go back to experience again.

It's very seldom I experience a grape for the first time and am underwhelmed, but that is the case with DeChaunac.  Even though the wine has all the makings of one I should enjoy, I simply don't.  I feel it's a flavor profile that I just don't care for.  Perhaps with more exposure I would form a taste for it.  For a wine billed as semi-sweet, the sourness hit me oddly.

Props to Clover Hill, though, for utilizing an underexposed grape, and props to those who like it and drink it.

Tomorrow: the real winner from that Pennsylvania Wine and Spirits store purchase.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Mount Nittany Tailgate Red

Still in the capable - and local – hands of Steven and Robin, our visit to the Wilkes Barre, PA area continued with a special trip which was staged just for me.  It was a trip to one of the many state-run “Wine and Spirits” stores.  The locals just call them “state stores,” and that's where one must go to buy wine in Pennsylvania, either there or the winery.  There's no wine sold in grocery stores, supermarkets, drug stores or the corner Stop-N-Rob.  The Keystone State's archaic alcohol laws make it as difficult as possible to purchase a bottle of wine.

Expecting bars on the windows and a teller-cage atmosphere, I was pleasantly surprised to find the state store looked just like a regulation wine store inside.  There was even a very helpful gent on duty who directed me to the half-shelf of Pennsylvania and New York wines.  The limited shelf space given to the regional juice was a bit of a surprise to me.  Most of the store was given over to wines from California, France and Italy.  There were quite a few offerings in boxes, and quite a few White Zinfandels.  I hadn't seen Mateus Rosé in quite a while, but this state store was well stocked with it.  

I limited myself to the regional half-shelf and pulled a few bottles to share at some family gatherings.  The results were mixed.

The first wine I took from the shelf was dedicated to Steven's love of Penn State football.  Tailgate Red, in fact, is produced by Mount Nittany Vineyard and Winery of Centre Hall, PA.  This is located along the Susquehanna Heartland Trail of wineries north of Harrisburg.  I wish I could say I enjoyed this wine as much as I have enjoyed the sight of Joe Paterno stalking the sidelines of Penn State football games for decades.

Tailgate Red is described on the winery's website as a “light, semi-dry blend of French hybrid grape varieties.”  It's light alright, seemingly made for people who just want to drink a whole lotta wine at once.  It's a little darker red than a rosato with a fruity, candy-like nose and even more candy on the palate.  The grapey, juicy taste is appallingly sweet and reminiscent of candy, but not particularly good candy.  There is very little acidity, which makes the wine seem quite out of balance.  It was a $10 bottle which would have been overpriced at the going rate for Boone's Farm in 1973.

The grapes involved in this enological disaster are not specified on the winery's website - perhaps to protect the innocent – but I'm told there could be some Catawba or Cayuga grapes involved.  They are both native to the eastern U.S. and are cold weather varieties.  Whatever grapes were used in the production of this wine would have better served humanity had they been sold to Welch's instead.

Now And Zin's trip to Pennsylvania started with a cheap Pinot Grigio.  The Pennsylvania Wine Tasting continues tomorrow.  Please come back to this space for more.  The wines get better as we go along.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


HRM Rex Goliath 47 Pound Chicken Pinot Grigio

Robin brought out the bottle with the chicken on it, saying, "I know you really like wine, so this may not be good enough for you.  It's really cheap."  People are always mistakenly using price as a gauge for quality in wine.  I was not knocked out by the label art, or by the back story that goes along with HRM Rex Goliath 47 Pound Chicken.  A sketchy story about a huge rooster in a Texas traveling circus given royal status has the stink of very unimaginative marketing all over it - but I'll give any wine a fair chance to impress.

I'm not in the habit of insulting my in-laws anyway - at least not on purpose - so when my brother-in-law's spouse brought out the bottle with the chicken on it, I gladly accepted a glass on the porch in Kingston, PA.  It was a sad occasion that brought us to the Keystone State in the first place.  Nobody needed some overly picky wine blogger making the situation worse.

She was right about it being cheap - His Royal Majesty sells for about seven bucks a bottle most places - but she was needlessly apologetic in serving it.  It really hits the spot.

This Pinot Grigio is produced in Woodbridge, CA and is identified as "California," so it's not really clear where the grapes are sourced.  There is no oak treatment given to it.  The alcohol content is an easy-drinking 12.5% abv.

The big chicken pours up very pale in the glass and sports a nose of melon and peach that comes through quite nicely even when served cold.  This is an encouraging sign.  The palate carries through on the promise of the bouquet with the taste of minerals and lemon rind taking the spotlight.  There is a bracing acidity that makes for a clean and refreshing quaff.  This cheap wine is actually quite delicious!

Here's hoping it's a happy occasion that brings my family together again.  Here's further hoping that Robin pulls out the bottle with the chicken on it the next time I'm on her porch.

I'll detail more wine adventures from northeast Pennsylvania during the coming week, including my first encounters with Penn-produced wines.  Please keep visiting this space.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Santa Ema Sauvignon Blanc

During my recent trip to Las Vegas I found myself away from the casino for a spell.  I'm not too sure how that happened, but while strolling around in the 100+ degree heat - dry heat - I decided it was time for some refreshment.
Brio Tuscan Grille is a chain restaurant, but they appear to take a little more interest in the wine list than that usually indicates.  On this hot afternoon, refreshment came in the form of a Chilean white wine.
Santa Ema Sauvignon Blanc is from Chile's Central Valley region, in the Maipo Valley.  It's 100% Sauvignon Blanc and costs $7 per glass.  It also costs about that for a bottle at many retailers.

Refreshment is what I wanted, and refreshment was delivered.  Pale, straw-colored in the glass, the nose is grassy and grapefruity with some tropical notes.  There's also a whiff of fresh melons.  The palate shows citrus on peaches.  There's a delighful acidity with a very light and refreshing mouthfeel.  The finish is medium long, but entirely delightful.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Nathanson Creek Chardonnay

All-you-can-eat buffets have been a mainstay of Las Vegas dining since the Rat Pack was smoking by the carton at the Sands.  The only thing that has changed about that is the price.  Once touted as the way to get full if you only had $1.99 left after getting cleaned out at the craps table, Las Vegas buffets now top ten, fifteen and even twenty dollars - more for the really special ones.
At the M Resort, the buffet runs about $30 - rather steep even though the food is good and there's plenty of it.  The M's Studio B buffet adds the attraction of free beverages, incuding beer and wine.  But what kind of wine are they serving for free?  Even though I was there for a 9:00 a.m. breakfast, I felt compelled to at least sample the wine and report on it here.  That's the life of a struggling wine blogger: work, work, work.
You may have seen this coming - I did - but there is only one wine label offered for free at the buffet.  It's Nathanson Creek, and I saw three varieties on hand - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and White Zinfandel.  It was a little early for a Cab, even for me, and I thought I'd pass on the White Zin.  The Chardonnay sounded like a nice breakfast wine, so I ordered a glass.
A little searching brought no wealth of information.  It's a California wine, but I can't locate the grapes any more specifically than that.  It sells for about $8 a bottle in stores and there's a drawing of a frog on the label, which didn't surprise me. 

On tasting, I was surprised - it really wasn't too bad.  Served fairly cold, the nose is quite obscured.  I get faint notes of peach and apple with an undercurrent of oaky aromas.  The wood is not overdone and the wine has a nice level of acidity.  The finish is short, but the mouthfeel is full and round.  It goes well with bacon, which is good because that's what's usually on my plate at a Vegas buffet.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Chandon Reserve Pinot Noir Brut

Fans of old-school Las Vegas remember fondly the $1.99 meals which, at one time, were prevalent in Sin City.  They were quite popular at a time when the casinos felt the need to throw a loss-leader out there to attract gamblers.
Nowadays, they have figured out the gamblers will be there no matter how much the meal costs.  In fact, Las Vegas has become quite the big ticket attraction in the opulent gambling palaces on The Strip.  Chefs of world renown have restaurants in every one of the glitzy hotels where $1.99 isn't likely to buy an iced tea, much less a meal.
When I visited the M Resort - a bit south of The Strip proper - I saw that their wine bar and cellar, The Hostile Grape, was advertising $2 sparkling wine on one particular evening.  Spying a way to enjoy a little wine break without tapping too heavily into the all-important gambling money, I decided to check out the offer.  It was my personal version of the $1.99 meal.
To the credit of The Hostile Grape, they were not lowballing the selection.  It wasn't Moet et Chandon, but it was Chandon, the California arm of the noted French Champagne house.
Chandon's Reserve Pinot Noir Brut was the $2 choice that night.  It's not a top-shelf sparkler, but it carries a little more prestige than Tott's.  Made from grapes that are 53% Napa County, 47% Sonoma County, this sparkler figures out to 76% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay and 2% Pinot Meunier.  That's the math.  Now, let's taste.
A pale golden color in the glass, the bubbles are quite fine and plentiful.  A wonderfully funky little nose shows yeasty apples.  The Febreze Factor that afflicts the rest of the hotel is not so prevalent down in the wine cellar.  A creamy palate is no doubt due to the minimum of three years spent on yeast.  Toast and earthy notes prevail, with almonds and custard very faint on the finish.
The wine was a hit with me - so big a hit, I went right upstairs and had a winning session at the blackjack table, finishing $10 up!  That's enough for several more glasses of their nice $2 sparkler.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Dillman Delight Riesling

All the watering holes at the M Resort in Las Vegas go a little heavy on the house brand wines.  There are, however, some good selections available on the wine lists throughout the bars and restaurants of the hotel and casino.
I took a break from the action on the casino floor to visit the M's Lobby Bar for a glass of Dillman Delight Riesling.  Despite the name - which I think sounds like a moonshine from The Dukes Of Hazzard - it's a German Riesling from Bernkastel in the Mosel-saar-ruwer region.  The steeply-sloped vineyards of the region produce some mighty fine Riesling grapes.
The waitress on duty at the nearly empty bar said she likes Dillman Delight because it reminds her of Pinot Grigio.  How ringing that endorsement is depends on your view of Pinot Grigio, I suppose.  After she assured me it was German, I decided to give it a try.  It's $9 per glass.
The Dillman Delight is very pale in color.  I'm told the nose carries tropical and mineral aromas, but the M perfumes their air conditioning, so getting past the Febreze scent was a challenge.  Pear juice comes through nicely on the palate with some citrus and mineral notes and a decent acidity.  There is a trace of petrol that lingers into the short finish, for which I an always grateful in a Riesling.  The waitress didn't seem to share my delight with that petrol emotion.
I tried a few other wines in a few other places while at the M Resort.  I'll be telling you about them in the coming days on this blog.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Salmon Creek Merlot

Salmon Creek is one of the 60 or so labels under Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Company umbrella.  It would seem Franzia names the labels for his California company by randomly selecting two words: the first word is an adjective, food or animal; the second is a word describing a facet of nature.  In this manner, he would have arrived at names like Almond Creek, Silver Ridge, Foxbrook, Crane Lake, Black Mountain and, of course, Salmon Creek.

I’ve had Salmon Creek wines before, in restaurants.  They - and most of Franzia’s product - are usually the least expensive wines on the menu.  This Merlot was gifted to me by the M Resort Spa Casino in Las Vegas.  At a rock-bottom price of $5.25 on the internet - and they probably paid less - it’s not the kind of wine I would want to give as a gift.  I have noticed that Las Vegas casinos don’t typically give great bottles of wine as gifts to their customers.  Maybe if our gambling contributions were larger, the wife and I would be on the list for some Gallo!

Sorry about all that peering into the gift Bronco’s mouth.  Let’s taste some cheap wine!

The color is medium ruby red, and I can see right through it.  The nose of ripe cherries and blackberries with a chimney smoke presence is pleasant, if not very commanding.  The taste shows cherry, red plums and a clove note that comes at mid-palate and lingers on the finish.  The tannins are less than spectacular.  The wine is smooth, but not really food friendly due to lack of acidity.  There is a fake-candy sort of quality to this Merlot that does not appeal to me, but might be right up someone else's alley.  The alcohol content is only 12.5% abv.  The grapes, according to the label, are sourced in Sonoma County.

I can’t say this is a good wine, but it’s really not a bad wine, either.  That depends a lot on your point of view, though.  In much the same way that Budweiser beer is drinkable, but not something to get excited about, so this Salmon Creek Merlot is nothing to cause you to pen a letter to the folks back home.  If you are looking for a cheap red wine to chill down on a hot summer day, or use in making sangria, this will do nicely.  If you are looking for a wine that will impress at a dinner party, keep looking.  And look higher up on the shelf.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Bodegas AtalayaGreenblatt's Deli is an institution on Sunset Boulevard.  They've been there since Sunset was “a dirt road west of Doheny,” according to their website.  Nowadays they are right next to the Laugh Factory, but I don't think there were any comedy clubs anywhere on Sunset in 1926.  There were no parking valets either.  Sometimes progress is a good thing, sometimes not.

In addition to having some truly great corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, and a killer grilled cheese with a tomato slice on it – the healthy grilled cheese – Greenblatt's is also a wine shop.  That is reflected in their wine list, which beats all other deli's in Los Angeles hands down.

I tried a Spanish wine in a recent visit to Greenblatt’s, Bodegas Atalaya, from Almansa in the Castilla-La Mancha region.  It’s a dry and arid region with hot temperatures.  This wine is made from Monastrell - known elsewhere as Mourvedre - Garnacha Tintoreara - also called Alicante Bouschet - and other red grapes.  It was $9 by the glass.

Owing somewhat to the fact that Garnacha Tintorera is one of the few grapes with red fruit inside, the wine’s purple color is inky, with no light able to get through.  On the nose are plums and road tar, with the taste dark and smooth.  I’m reminded of blackberries and even blueberries, but without the sweetness of the fruit, just the darkness of it.  It is a rather dry red, with some mouth-puckering tendancies, but overall this wine is exceedingly well made.  It’s loaded with character and smooth as silk.

Friday, August 20, 2010


Bogle Old Vine Zinfandel

Bogle Vineyards makes some pretty good wine and sells it at a pretty reasonable price.  I've been impressed with their Petite Sirah before, and now I'm diggin' their Zin.

While the PS was a fairly dark and intense wine, the Zinfandel goes the other way, over to the “bright” end of the spectrum.  It reminds me of Zin's cousin, Primitivo, in its brightness and freshness.  It even works when chilled a bit.

The Clarksburg, CA winery puts wording on the label of this old vine Zin which leads one to believe the vines are 100+ years old, but the winemaker notes say 45-80 year vines from Lodi and Amador County are used.  The alcohol content is on the high side and the wine spends ten months in American oak.

The medium red color is tinged purple around the edge.  It's not terribly dark.  The nose on this old vine Zin is fairly uncomplicated.  Big, jammy blackberry and black cherry are predominant, and it's not shy about showing itself.

On the palate, a lively mouthful of blackberry, raspberry, black pepper and clove mix it up deliciously.  Despite the age of the vines, this wine tastes youthful and brash, but after only a few minutes in the glass, it opens up and smooths out.  At 14.8% abv, it's a big wine, but the alcohol does not overpower the flavors.  A medium mouthfeel gives an almost refreshing feeling, while the finish leaves a big hint of spice behind.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Chateau Bolaire

After a recent full day of fun and frivolity, we decided to wrap things up at Le Petit Bistro.  Neither of us had been there in years, and we rather wondered how the venerable French bistro was getting along.

"Getting along" turned out to be the operative phrase.  Remembering the place as a hip joint, we were surprised to find that the clientele was so elderly on this evening that "hip joint" would surely be followed by "replacement surgery."  We were the spring chickens in this coop, and we don't usually get to say that unless we're enjoying the early-bird special in Palm Springs.  Oh well, plus ça change...plus ça change.
I ordered the Château Bolaire Bordeaux Supérieur 2004.  When our waitress mentioned it to the maÎtre d', he asked her "Are they eating?"  What the French?  After she was allowed to bring the wine to the table, the evening picked up considerably.

Denise concentrated on getting some geriatric gems from the conversations around us - some have already found their way into our daily lexicon - whle I just ruminated on the wine.

The Château Bolaire is a right bank blend of 42% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Petit Verdot.  It's quite 
dark in color, almost too dark to allow light to pass through.  The nose is a little faint, but dark fruit and a trace of tar are present.  The palate shows black cherry with spices and earthiness.  There's a leathery quality to the taste and it's very smooth to drink, with soft tannins and a long finish.

It paired well with the merguez lamb sausage, and the match was perfect with the slight gaminess of the meat. The sausage proved to be a little too spicy for me to enjoy with wine, but using a drink of cold water between the food and the wine provided an adequate link between the two.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Kalyra Orange Muscat 2006

Dessert wines get a bad rap from "serious" wine drinkers.  Those who like a dry red's tannins puckering their lips into a fish face simply don't think the sweet side brings much to the table.  That's OK.  To each, his or her own.  Most of the wine I drink is dry, and the dryer the better.  But I pulled a bottle of Orange Muscat from the rack the other night and it reminded me just how nice a good dessert wine can be.

Kalyra Winery, up Highway 154 in the pastoral Santa Ynez Valley northwest of Santa Barbara, makes great dessert wines.  They make some pretty good dry wines, too, but it was their dessert wines Denise and I fell in love with first.  Their Orange Muscat is one we have had through several vintages.  This 2006 has been in the wine rack for some time now, drawing attention to the shameful neglect I have shown the sweet nectar.

The grapes for this wine were sourced from Madeira, California.  Fortified to a 15% abv number, this viscous liquid is a rich, golden color and so thick and heavy it almost tries to stay in the glass.

On the nose are flowers, honey and apricot candy.  The palate shows even more honey, more apricots and some orange peel notes that play off the sweetness beautifully.

Kalyra makes a really lovely dessert, to be sure.  It can carry it's own weight, though, with a nice acidity that makes it pair well with cakes, tarts and the occasional pistachio ice cream.


Alma Rosa Chardonnay 2008

The Now And Zin household is undergoing a bit of a "wine clearance," with some neglected bottles getting their propers of late.  Besides, Mrs. Now And Zin - sometimes known as Denise - is always suspicious of exactly why we need another bottle of wine when the rack is already laden with them.  My hope is that thinning out the crowd may just provide the opposite reaction: "Mr. Now And Zin, you're almost out of wine!"  I feel a wine shopping trip impending.

But back to the clearance.  Here's one of those half-bottles I purchased in the event we were suddenly in need of a picnic-basket-sized wine.  We haven't needed that convenience since then, so let's unscrew the top on an Alma Rosa.

The Alma Rosa website tells the story that it was owner and winemaker Richard Sanford who discovered that the Sta. Rita Hills were good for growing grapes, due to the traverse mountain range that pulls in the cooling ocean influence from the west.  It tells further that it was Sanford who planted grapes in the region when it was unheard of to do so.  This was in 1970, a Pinot Noir vineyard.  A sale of the original winery put him in business a little to the southwest of Buellton.

Sanford's wines generally are very well constructed with wonderful acidity, and this Chardonnay is no exception.

It sits golden in the glass, giving floral and tropical aromas to the nose.  The palate detects a bit of oak but actually, more minerality is present than those big buttery notes one might expect in a California Chardonnay.

The wine is crisp and clean, bone dry,  with just a hint of oak and a trace of candy-like fruit presence.  Winemaker Sanford says his Chardonnay has a lot in common with French Chablis, and I can taste the resemblance.  It retails at the winery for $19 per bottle.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Qupe Syrah

Sometimes I wonder where this stuff comes from.  I pulled a bottle out of the rack the other day, only to find it was a half-bottle.  Where did I get that?  I don't buy half bottles - at least I thought I didn't.  Oh, yeah, it's coming back to me.  I bought a couple of half-bottles to take to the Hollywood Bowl, but my bowling excursions have been nonexistent since then.  Let's drink it here in the comfort of my own home.

This Syrah is actually 98% Syrah and 2% Grenache.  About a third of the grapes come from the Santa Ynez Valley, about a third from Santa Barbara County and another third from Paso Robles.  The Santa Maria Valley and Edna Valley are minor players in the mix.  In all, according to the Qupé website, 17 vineyards from five AVAs were tapped to get the grapes for this wine.

Robert Lindquist's half winery – the facilities and staff are shared between Qupé and Au Bon Climat – is located on the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria. It's a rustic area, and rustic is the feeling I get from drinking this Syrah.

Medium dark red in color with deep purple around the edge, it looks like it means business.  The nose carries a little heat right after opening, but shows spicy, dark berries and leather otherwise.  Violets and blackberries populate the palate.

After nearly an hour, it's still a bit hot.  It's still nice and spicy, too.  The alcohol takes about an hour and a half to ease its grip, leaving the taste extremely leathery and dry.  The fruit takes a backseat, allowing the earthy tones to ride shotgun.

At 13.5% abv, it was surprising to find so much alcohol present upon opening it, but by the second night, there were no heat issues at all.


Pessagno Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc

Making great wine is a special gift.  Those who can do it are to be admired for their ability.  Those who can make a special dessert wine have a little something extra in the admiration bank.

Stephen Pessagno’s passbook in that bank must be bulging.  
Pessagno makes small quantity wines from single vineyards in Monterey and San Benito Counties, all estate grown.  His Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc is a Sauternes-styled wine made from grapes affected by Botrytis Cinerea, or the noble rot.

The Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc has a harvest brix of 48 and a residual sugar of 18.4%.  This is definitely a sweet wine.  But a 13.5% abv number is an indication there’s something more going on.

The nose shows pear juice, even pear cobbler aromas, and a pineapple candy profile.  The sweet custard and caramel flavors are a delight, but it’s not just a sweetie - the acidity is almost bracing and can match any dessert you may put next to it.  Why waste a dessert, though?  This wine is dessert enough on its own.

The suggested retail price is $35 for a half-bottle, so it's a splurge wine.  But it’s so splurge-worthy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Oreana Verdelho

That calamari and scungilli salad at Fabrocini Beverly Glenenticed me again.  I won’t bore you with more raving on that subject, (see here, and here) but I will tell you about the wine I had with it.
Oreana Winery is in Santa Barbara - not the wine country around Santa Barbara, but right downtown.  It’s one of the stops on the Santa Barbara Urban Wine Trail.  Housed in a converted garage, Oreana’s cement floor tasting room may not land them in House Beautiful, but it really fits in with the slightly funky vibe of downtown Santa Barbara.

Verdelho is a Portuguese grape, not to be confused with the Spanish Verdejo.  There’s a rich, floral nose here and a palate that’s full and tropical.  Guava and pineapple emerge from the mix.  The winery recommends pairing it with spicy Asian cuisine and sushi.  I’ll throw my two cents in and say it was great with the seafood salad, too.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Araldica La Luciana Gavi

It's high time for another Friday Wine Treat.  In Culver City, there are plenty of good places to have a glass of wine with lunch on a nice, sunny day.  One of my favorites is Ugo .  It's actually two restaurants on one corner. 
An Italian place with full meals is backed up on the other side of a wall by a cafe which specializes in smaller, tapas-style portions.  Both sides have a nice list of Italian wines from which to choose.  If you are on one side, but want to order something from the other side, they are more than happy to oblige.
To go with my insalada spinaci, I ordered a wine from Gavi, in the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy.  Araldica 's La Luciana is made from the Cortese grape.  It sits golden in the glass and offeres a nose of melon and minerals.  It's a light-bodied wine, but feels nice and full in the mouth.  The taste of wet rocks and citrus is nearly zesty, but the overall feeling is one of silkiness.  The finish is medium-long and leaves a hint of lemon custard in its wake.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Rhone Rangers Tasting Event

The organization which devotes its efforts toward the furtherment of the 22 grape varieties of France's Rhone Valley rolled into Santa Monica August 8th with a big roomful of disciples in tow.  Rhone-styled wines were the order of the day and they drew a big crowd.  Most of the winery tables had folks lining up at least two or three deep all afternoon.  Some stayed so crowded I couldn't elbow my way in!  I expected a lot of Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne, and I was not disappointed.  I was a little taken aback at the number of Mourvedre-based wines being poured.  It has become quite a popular grape in California, and it's not just for blending anymore.  Some of the post-tasting comments on Twitter concentrated on how many good Mourvedres were poured.
Here are the tables from which I tasted, and some of my impressions of what was being poured.
10 Knots Cellars - This San Luis Obispo producer is an offshoot of Sextant Wines. Their Beachcomber 2007 white blend is a mix of Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, and it's a nice quaffer.  Their Atlantis '08 red blend combines Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache has a great nose and is lively on the palate.  The '08 Syrah is not yet released, but despite its youth, it feels like it has the makings of a good wine.

Anglim - From Paso Robles, Anglim's 100% Grenache Blanc 2008 from the Red Cedar Vineyard shows plenty of nuts and pears.  Their '07 Viognier Bien Nacido Vineyard plays up the floral and tropical notes.  The '07 Roussanne is smokey from just a touch of oak, while the Cerise 2006 red blend comes from the French Camp Vineyard and has a forceful nose and a delicious sour cherry palate.  The '06 Grenache is a little funky on the nose with cherry and raspberry dominating the flavors.  The Mourvedre from the Hastings Ranch Vineyard shows cherry and smoke and is very dry and dark.

Clavo - Located in Templeton in the Paso Robles AVA, Clavo offered a 2009 Viognier which is floral on the nose with lots of tropical flavors.  Their Grenache Blanc has a nutty nose with tropical notes on the palate.  The '07 Petite Sirah offers a big, intense nose and a chocolate edge.

Cliff Creek Cellars - This Oregon producer brought a Syrah to the table that was one of my favorites.  A 2004 vintage, it shows lovely chocolate notes.  Their 2005 Syrah has tons of blackberry and licorice, while their '03 was nice, too.  The middle sibling was the one for me, though.

Cline Cellars - This Sonoma vintner has a North Coast '09 Viognier that is crisp and tropical and a 2009 Mourvedre Rose that shows lovely raspberry fruit alongside complicated earthy tones.  Their 2008 Cashmere red blend is Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre - a dry, chalky delight.  Cline offered two "Ancient Vines" wines, an '08 Mourvedre and an '07 Carignan produced from 125-year-old vines in Contra Costa County.  Dry farmed in riverbed silt, these stressed vines produce grapes a little larger than a pea.  Both wines show a dark and earthy taste.

Columbia Crest - From Washington state, this winery is visible in most supermarkets in Southern California.  Their 2009 Reserve white blend is from the Coyote Canyon Vineyard.  It features Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier with a big, floral nose and is very smooth but is somewhat lacking in acidity.  Their '07 Grand Estates Reserve Syrah, however, is quite nice.  Good fruit and acidity, it's dry with a very nice nose, and smooth with fine tannins.

Curtis Winery - Near Los Olivos on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, Curtis has some very special wine.  Their '09 Heritage Blanc white blend is a mix of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne - a floral and tropical delight.  The 2009 Heritage Rose features Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault in a light strawbery format.  Their Heritage Cuvee red blend utilizes the same grapes and blend as the rose, it just spends longer with the skins.  It's a delightful, light-bodied red.

Derby Wine Estates - Derby's 2007 Fifteen 10 is a Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne blend, in equal parts.  The fruit is from Paso Robles, the Derby Vineyard.  It seems a bit light in acidity, but it certainly makes up for that in flavor and is extremely drinkable.  Fifteen 10 - the '06 red blend - shows white pepper on the nose with good acidity and grip.  Their '06 Petite Sirah is dark and jammy with lots of earth and good tannins.

Edward Sellars Vineyards - The producer from Paso's west side offered a Viognier and a blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne, both with faint noses but nice acidity.  Their red blend, the '07 Cognito - a heady brew of Mourvedre, Zinfandel, Syrah and Grenache - is earthy and mouth-puckeringly dry.

Epiphany - The Los Olivos label has a 100% Grenache Blanc with a tiny bit of residual sugar which really sets it apart from all the others and gives it a more rounded mouthfeel.  Their 2007 Revelation was just that.  20 months in oak gives it a chocolate nose and a campfire-smoke flavor profile.

Fess Parker Winery - Dave Potter - not pouring his own Municipal Wines for a change - had those delicious Fess Parker wines, highlighted by the '06 Big Easy Syrah.  100% Camp Four fruit, this is dry and smacks of chocolate and spice.

J. Lohr Vineyards - The '09 Gesture Rose is 100% Grenache, tart, fruity and dry.  Their '08 Gesture Mourvedre is very dry and dark and full of blackberry.

Jada Vineyard - Another PasoRobles producer brought their '09 XCV white blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, which is tart, fruity and refreshing.  Their 1149 rose blend has 5 varietals: Grenache, Merlot, Tannat, Syrah and Roussanne.  It is the darkest tasting rose ever!  Strawberry and raspberry meet in a delightful earthiness with some great acidity.

Justin Winery - This Paso Robles outfit brought their '08 Savant - a red blend with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec - those last two had them running the risk of being kicked out of an event touting the grapes of the Rhone!  Earthy aromas lead to a velvety black cherry taste with coffee notes at the finish.

Koehler Winery - Another entry from Los Olivos' Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, Koehler's '08 Viognier has a lemon peel and floral nose with tropical and guava notes on the palate.  The '07 Grenache is a 100% varietal wine that's all sour cherry with a lovely nose and taste.

Meyer Family Cellars - The Syrah rose sports Anderson Valley fruit from the Yorkville Highlands Vineyard with 10% Petite Sirah.  It's fruity and dry.  Their '05 Syrah from Mendocino County has cherry on the nose and is slightly chalky and dry, but smooth.  The 2006 Syrah Yorkville Highlands has lots of the earth in the nose and it's quite dry, too.

Michael-David Vineyards - This is the label that got me interested in Lodi.  Both their '09 Incognito white and the '08 Incognito red blends were poured publicy for the first time at this event.  Both are somewhat lighter in alcohol than their predecessors.  The white combines Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Sauvignon Blance, whereas the previous vintage was almost all Viognier.  The red blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault has a nice earthy quality.  Their '07 6th Sense Syrah has a very smokey quality from 16 months in oak and a hint of Petite Sirah.

Ortman Family Vineyards - Another winery from Paso Robles, Ortman poured only the 2007 Cuvee Eddy.  It's a red blend with a  brilliant cherry nose - juicy and eay to drink.

Tablas Creek Vineyard - 'The noted 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc features a tart nuttiness with guava and pear notes.

Tercero Wines - The crowd around this table kept me away and I never got the chance to taste what some were calling the hit of the show, the Tercero 2007 Mouvedre Camp Four Vineyard.

Unti Vineyards - From Healdsburg, Unti's Rose 2009 is 77% Grenache and  23% Mourvedre.  The light salmon color is appealing and it's very dry.  Their GSM blend has 80% Grenache and 10% each Syrah and Mourvedre.  It's dry and full of cherry flavor.  The 2006 Syrah Dry Creek Valley Estate is very dry with lots of spice and earth   The '06 Syrah Benchland is very earthy too.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Vasari Sicilia Bianco Mistral 2008

A recent trip to 55 Degree Wine in Atwater Village allowed me to net a few delightful surprises.  They have a store full of small-production wines from all over the world, with an emphasis on Italian, Spanish and Portuguese wines.

Vasari Mistral white is a Sicilian IGT wine which utilizes native Sicilian grapes - 40% Cataratto, 40% Inzolia and 20% Grillo.  The Vasari family has grown grapes in the hills of Santa Lucia del Mela, Italy for 1000 years, according to their website.

Catarratto is the most widespread grape variety grown in Sicily.  It’s a native grape, the second most widely planted in Sicily after Sangiovese.  Inzolia typically has fruity and floral aromas.

This white wine has a vibrant gold color, spicy floral aromas and a full-bodied mouthfeel.  It tastes of slightly sour lemon candy - especially on the finish, which seems to last forever.  There is also a rather unusual savory aspect which I find very intriguing.  The alcohol level is a moderate 12.5% abv.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Bodegas Paso Robles

Before her life as owner and winemaker of Bodegas Paso Robles, Dorothy Schuler was in the word business. "I was a writer, journalist and editor, and I don't like it when people make mistakes," she warned. With that thinly veiled admonishment, I pulled a couple of extra pages of note paper out and switched from pen to pencil, just in case anything needed to be corrected on the fly.

With that out of the way, though, we settled into the kind of conversation I like - talking with someone about their big passion. Schuler's big passion is making wines from the grape varieties native to Spain and Portugal. She does this in Paso Robles, California, where it's much more common to find Rhone-style wines at the more than 200 wineries in the region. This came about because she happened to be the only one around to do it. It's called being in the right place at the right time.

Her wine story began in 2002, when she and her husband were living in Washington state. "My husband wanted to move to Gilroy, California, and I said 'No way, Jose.' Let's look at Paso Robles. We had family in the San Francisco Bay area and in Santa Monica, so Paso Robles was just about exactly halfway between the two. I found a house in three days, and we were here, just like that.

"My husband and his partner started a winery, and I did the paperwork. It was a real soap opera, but the short version is, my husband had to go to England for his other job and when I asked what was to become of the winery, he said 'It's yours. Run with it.' So I did."

With a love for Spanish and Portuguese wines already ingrown, she knew which way to run. "My passion is old heritage grapes nobody else deals with. In '02 there was some Tempranillo being grown in Paso Robles, but it had just been planted, and it wsn't ready to be picked yet. I managed to find some from other places, and some Graciano - there are maybe 10 acres of that grape planted in this country - from Tres Pinos vineyard in San Benito. That first year I put out a Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon blend and a Tempranillo/Graciano blend. The Graciano is fantastic blended, but it's lovely on its own, too."

Tres Pinos is still a major provider for Bodegas Paso Robles. Schuler says, "Ron Siletto, the grower, says 
Ken Volk and I are his two favorite winemakers." Volk is known for taking the same caretaker approach with Italian varieties that Schuler takes with those from Spain and Portugal. "Ron went to a vineyard in San Benito called El Gavalon," she explains, "where they were plowing under a lot old vines that were planted in 1890. He went in there, got some cuttings from the old vines before they were destroyed and planted them at Tres Pinos. There are a lot of reasons he's a great guy, but that's probably the biggest."

Schuler sources all her grapes from growers like Siletto, who nurture the heritage grapes. "Everybody has found out I'm interested in these odd grapes, and they've started tracking me down to sell them to me. It certainly makes finding these grapes a lot easier when they come to me! Bobal, a Spanish variety, has just found its way to me like that. It's not ready this year, but I'll get it next year. Jack Ranch Vineyard in Edna Valley has some of the best Albarino in the business. I'll probably make another Albarino in the near future.

"Iberia, a dry-farmed vineyard in Calistoga, has Touriga Nacional, Graciano, Tempranillo and Tintacao in a field blend. I may be getting a ton of Alicante Bouchet from Paso Robles that was planted in 1880!

"It's important to keep these varietals going, because each has its own characteristic." Schuler makes the most of her access to these special grapes. Her Graciano and ¡Viva Yo! are winning awards for excellence.

Schuler loves to talk about her varied background. As a writer she covered cycling events in Belgium. She edited six of Timothy Leary's books while living in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles among movie and rock stars. She's quite the art collector, too, which paid extra dividends when she needed a label for her wines. "I called my artist friend, 
Morse Clary, and told him I needed an image to go on the bottles. I sent him some barrel samples and he sent me the face I used on the '02 vintage. I've been using it since." The face - pictured above - is on all her wines, with different background colors for each wine.

The thing she loves to talk about the most, though, is wine. "You've heard of GSM? Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre? I'm doing a GTM - Garnacha, Tempranillo and Monastrell. I call it Vaca Negra, and it will be released soon. The '07 is done without the Grenache - it was terrible that year - but the full '08 blend is on the way.

Schuler is a member of 
TAPAS - Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society - which is an organization of wine producers and grape growers who specialize in the varieties of the Iberian peninsula. She also has a hand in Women Of The Vine Cellars, which is an East Coast label. Schuler produces the Tempranillo for that label.

She admits it's tough to get some visibility in a place like Paso Robles, where wineries are almost to the point of overcrowding. She's happy, though, with her boutique-level production. "We did 2,500 cases in 2008," she say, "but like everybody else, I'm backing off a bit. I'll do maybe 1,500 this year."

The Bodegas Paso Robles Tasting Room is located at 729 13th Street, Paso Robles, CA.  Reach the tasting room by phone at 805-237-3780.  I tasted several of the wines of Bodegas Paso Robles at the 
California Wine Festival in Santa Barbara.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Matane at Pane E Vino

A night out with a couple of friends can hardly go wrong, but the right place for the meeting can boost an already enjoyable event to a higher plane.  Jones and Maggie met Denise and me for dinner at Pane E Vino, on Beverly in Los Angeles.  We've known Jones forever, but Maggie is a recent addition to our list of friends - and a welcome one.

We recently rediscovered Pane E Vino and it has quickly become one of our "go-to" Italian eateries.  Great food and service are abetted by a wine list that has yet to let me down.
Jones is always quick to defer to my judgment on wine selection.  It's one of the reasons I like him so much.  Should I tell him that when he follows my lead, it's usually for a wine I've never tried before?  He liked this Primitivo just fine, so I think we'll wait on that revelation a while longer.  By the way, in the photo that is his fish being fileted in the background.
The Matané Primitivo is grown and produced in Puglia, the "heel of the boot" on Italy's map. It's an IGT wine, and consists of 100% Primitivo grapes.  A collaborative effort from the Empson family and winemaker Filippo Baccalaro,  this Italian red was a nice find and paired very well with a simple rigatoni and light tomato sauce dish.
The Matané shows a medium-tinted red with some purple tones in the mix.  The only disappointment is a somewhat faint nose.  What is there, is laden with cherry and smells very fresh, though.  On the palate, there are lots of spices clamoring for attention among full and fruity cherry and raspberry notes.  A good bit of earthiness is also present.  A slightly smoky finish tops off the fruit very nicely.  The wine feels about medium-full in the mouth, has very nice tannins and is quite smooth. 

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Lone Madrone

I have sampled the wines of Lone Madrone at several tasting events around Southern California, but have never had the pleasure of a visit to their tasting room.  The Paso Robles AVA currently sports over 200 wineries - 219, according to the Lone Madrone tasting room - so I hope you’ll excuse me for not having stopped in yet.  My friends Anthony and Meri did stop in on a recent visit to Paso, and they brought me a wealth of information I thought I would pass along to you.  They found the wines as mesmerizing as I did, and I think I can safely say they appreciated my recommendation.

Neil Collins is the winemaker for Lone Madrone, and he has been making wines in the area for about 20 years.  He came up with the unusual name after seeing a single Madrone tree on a hilltop overlooking the York Mountain Vineyard.

The current tasting room has been open since 2006 and features not only their wines, but many artisinal items from local artists and points farther away, like Columbia and Africa.  Wood furniture, glass,  jewelry and clay pottery compete with the wines for a visitor’s attention.  It’s said to be a great place for a picnic, too.

The tasting room menu I was given is graced with a quote from Mark Twain:
“There are no standards of taste in wine, cigars, poetry, prose, etc.  Each man’s own taste is the standard, and a majority vote cannot decide for him or in any slightest degree affect the supremacy of his own standard.”

Here are the wines that were being poured at the Lone Madrone tasting room the day my friends were there:

La Mezcla 2008 - This white blend is Grenache Blanc and Albarino.  There are plenty of tropical notes on the nose and the palate.  I have tasted this one, and their recommendation of pairing with oysters, clams or ceviche is completely justified.

Points West White 2007 - A golden color, a honeydew bouquet and minerals aplenty make this Roussanne a delight.

Rosé 2009 - The notes say the nose is lush with strawberries, cranberries and cherries.

The Will 2007 - Cherry and cassis on the nose lead to a full mouthfeel.  This dark and inky blend of Grenache Noir, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel has a full complement of tannins to work with.  They say it will stain your teeth.  I say you won’t care.

Old Hat 2006 - Zinfandel and Petite Sirah meet in this battle royal, and they both win.  Spice, vanilla and tobacco on the nose, with fruit and spice on the palate.

Barfandel 2007 - This was not on the menu that day, but they poured it anyway, then packaged a bottle that my friends took home.  Zin, Petite Sirah and Barbera combine here for a complex nose they say features candy apple, blackberry, strawberry, white pepper, cardamom and smoke.  They advise you enjoy it with anything grilled or glazed.

The Lone Madrone tasting costs $10 and includes the Riedel glass.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Dry Creek Chenin Blanc

Variety is the spice of life, but I freely admit I can get stuck on things I really enjoy.  A favorite tune can cause me to hit the "repeat" button for the duration of the drive.  I'll go to "On Demand" for several episodes at a time of a TV show I like.  When a restaurant makes a dish I can't do without, I don't do without.  I go there repeatedly to enjoy it again and again.

When some friends wanted to hook up for dinner, I was overjoyed when they agreed to Fabrocini Beverly Glen.  That's because they make the salad of my dreams, the calamari and scungilli.  A little light on lettuce and a little heavy on seafood is how they make it, and that's fine with me.  I ordered the Dry Creek Chenin Blanc to go with it, and all was well in my world.

Healdsburg's Dry Creek Vineyards produces some extremely nice wines.  This white is produced from 100% Chenin Blanc grapes from Clarksburg, the Sacramento Delta region.  It's stainless steel fermented with no barrel aging and logs a 12.5% abv number.  According to the winery's website, 2008 was the first vintage for the wine to have a vineyard designation, and also the first to feature a screw cap.

The nose shows minerals, citrus and tropical notes.  The palate is quite interesting, with a sweet edge to the citrus, maybe some Meyer lemon.  More minerals are tasted and a bracing acidity is present - the creek isn't the only thing that's dry here - but at the same time there is a creamy aspect which I don't find too often in white wines fermented in steel.  It's a delicious quaff on its own, but it pairs perfectly with the calamari and scungilli salad - still the only thing I've ever ordered at Fabrocini and still the reason I look forward to dining there.  Denise had the shrimp scampi, which is nothing short of amazing.  The wine is brilliant with that dish as well.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Trapiche Malbec

Los Angeles Argentine grill South Point, on Sunset Boulevard, has a history of serving their red wines at a temperature seemingly warmer than that of the room.  The wine on this trip was served at room temp but, as usual here, could have benefitted from a little breathing time.
The Trapiche Malbec is a wine I've had before at South Point, and liked.  I still do, despite the lack of time to open itself.  From Argentina's Mendoza region, Trapiche gets good marks from many as a quality producer.  I must admit, they serve several different varieties of their grape at South Point, and I have found them all delightful.  They are also all very inexpensive by restaurant standards.   The Malbec is $6 per glass.
The deep purple color and dark fruit on the nose of the Malbec are enticing attractions, and the taste features a spicy cherry component along with dark berries.  As is my custom, I paired it with the chorizo sausage, the sandwich this time instead of the appetizer.  The wine pairs well with this wonderful meat.  Sandwich or appetizer, the chorizo is a highlight of South Point's menu.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Ercavio Tempranillo

Every now and then a wine pops onto my personal radar when I see it touted as a nice "value wine."  This Ercavio is one of those wines.  I had this about a year ago, and it cost just under $10.  I think it runs a shade over that amount now.
The bottle has a rather pleasing label, with some arty little "grapeprints" at the top.  A product of Spain, this 100% Tempranillo comes from vineyards in Toledo.  It's aged 5 months in French and American oak barrels and is 13.5% abv.
Right away, I love this very fragrant nose.  It has lots of blackberry jam aromas and is also laden with earthy and oak.  The taste is a bit hot right after pouring.  This wine likes to be opened and poured - or decanted - for quite a while to let it settle down.  Once it does, I get a very nice, spicy taste that has an amazing cedar-like quality.  The mouthfeel is a little fuller than I expected from a Tempranillo.  It has a good, solid weight.  There is clove and a host of other spices in the flavor profile.  It's very purple, by the way, very deep and rich in color.  It was nice to find the taste was right along those same lines - deep and rich.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Magistrate Merlot

When a $19.95 Napa Valley wine is marked at $9.95, I pick it up and look at it.  I can’t help it.  I’m a sucker for a big sale.  I’ve bought CDs for five bucks, had ten dollar shoes and have been the proud owner of a $50 motorcycle.  Okay, the motorcycle was mostly in a basket, but even so, it was cheap.  And it was a classic.  At least I loved the CD and wore the shoes for a long time.

Magistrate Merlot is the wine in question.  I wasn’t familiar with the name, but I bought it on a hunch.  The label had markings on it citing that “Only 7,989 cases were produced and there will be no more.”  It’s hard to tell whether that’s a good or bad thing until one tastes the wine.  The label also cites that the winery is in Graton, CA.  That’s close to Napa Valley, but not in Napa Valley.  Presumably, the grapes were sourced in Napa.

A little poking around on the internet revealed that Magistrate is one of many private labels produced by Winery Exchange in Graton, CA, a bit west of Santa Rosa.  Upon learning that, I started to see a fenderless 1963 Honda Dream 300 where the wine bottle was.  A little more poking around revealed that the wine had won a silver medal in the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2010 Wine Competition.  That wasn’t really enough to make me feel good about this bargain again, though.

“Enough stalling,” I thought to myself.  “Let’s do this.”  I never say, “Let’s do this,” but in this instance it seemed the right thing to do.

Upon pouring the wine, my first impression is not a good one.  There is a lot of alcohol.  There’s way too much heat for a wine that’s only 13.5% abv.  The nose shows aromas of jammy blackberry and cherry - almost candy-like.  It’s a little fake, but pleasant.  There’s vanilla and cinnamon, too.  On the second night, the nose displays a tinge of greeness and some coffee grounds.  The heat is not so prominent, either.

The taste is really grapey, but with a black cherry cola sensation.  The finish is reasonably lengthy and leaves the memory of a Cherry Coke behind.  The wine is very dry, with mouth-gripping tannins, but it’s also a bit harsh.  The acidity seems a little out-of-balance, and there is the general feeling that something is missing on the palate.

Getting a $20 Merlot for $10 is a real bargain - if it tastes like a $20 Merlot.  Unfortunately, Magistrate does not.  It tastes more like a $7 Merlot, and that is not a bargain.  

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Amanda Cramer

Amanda Cramer was a math teacher before becoming an extraordinary winemaker.  “One particular group of students drove me to drink,” she says.  That statement may have been a vehicle for hyperbole at the time, but if those mathematical underachievers had anything to do with putting Cramer on her present career path, we owe them our thanks.

I had lunch with Amanda Cramer recently.  Well, I and eleven other wine-writer types did.  She’s the winemaker at Niner Wine Estatesin Paso Robles.  The lunch and tasting - at West Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis - showcased seven of the wines Cramer has made for the Paso producer since signing on with them in 2004.  Praise has been heaped upon her by a variety of award-giving interests.  Just this year she won two gold medals for her wines and grabbed the winemaker of the year award at the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition.  There, she was up against over 3,000 other wineries, so those kudos are anything but “gimmes.”

Wine Fever

Cramer was bitten by the wine bug at Cornell University.  “I filled out a semester of math and science studies with an elective class: Introduction to Wine and Spirits,” she explains.  “It was a 15-week class that provided basics on grape growing and winemaking plus lots of tasting labs so we could get hands-on experience with wine regions around the world.”  That was all it took to get her interest, even though she pursued her teaching path and got a job in which the chalk was in her hand, not the soil.  Then, along came those disinterested students, pointing the way to her exit from teaching.

In the wine industry, Cramer has worked and learned at Far Niente Winery, Chimney Rock, and Heidi Barrett’s Paradigm in Napa Valley, D'Arenberg in McLaren Valley in South Australia and Casa Lapostolle in Santa Cruz, Chile.  Of her viticulture knowledge, Cramer modestly says, "I know enough to know what I don't know, and I know who does know, so I can call them if I need to.  I don't emulate anybody," she insists - but her love for Carmenere stems from her days in Chile

When she was given the opportunity to help create a winery from the ground up, it was too much to pass up.  The new facilities which she has at her disposal allow Niner to make wines on-site now, rather than trucking their grapes to a crush facility.  That means they can pick grapes at night, and they have time to double sort - sorting both the clusters and the individual grapes.  “Double sorting gets every last stem out of the grapes," says Cramer.  "I like to press ‘sweet’  - without any stems - so the vegetal notes are minimized and the fruit is the main thing."

The newly-opened Hospitality Center at Niner Wines looks like a stone barn, but inside it contains a cutting edge wine tasting facility complete with a demonstration kitchen to be used by visiting chefs.

Her Philosophy

Cramer believes quality wines begin in the vineyard, but they definitely don't end there.  When tweaking is called for, she's an able and willing tweaker.  "We don’t grow grapes, we grow wine bottles.  My goal is balanced tannins, so it's an approachable wine,” she says, adding that her red wines are “nicely aged and built to last."

“With oak, overall we use 75% French, 15%-20% Hungarian and the rest American.  Hungarian is basically the same as French oak, and I can get Hungarian for sooo much less.  Our Italian varieties get new oak and a little less time in the barrel than, say, Merlot.  Our Merlot spends 16-18 months in oak.  One-third of it is new, one-third is once-used and one-third is twice-used.”

The Vineyards

All of Cramer’s wines are estate wines, with the grapes coming, so far, exclusively from Niner’s Bootjack Ranch Vineyard east of Paso Robles.  That vineyard is dominated by Bordeaux varieties.  “It’s got a Cab focus, but the Carmenere is great,” she says.  The only white grape from Bootjack Ranch is Sauvignon Blanc, so that’s the only white wine on Niner’s menu at present.  “That will change when the grapes in our Heart Hill Vineyard start to come in.  We hope to have a Heart Hill flagship wine, and that will be a blend of Rhone varieties.  That vineyard was named for a stand of oak trees that have grown in the shape of a heart.  It’s west of the Paso AVA, about 12 miles from the ocean.  It has a longer, cooler growing season.  2010 will be our first vintage from Heart Hill.”

One of the big attractions for Cramer is the location itself.  The Paso Robles AVA is one of the gems of California’s Central Coast.  It’s said to be the fastest growing wine region in the Golden State, and now boasts over 200 wineries.  Warm days, cool nights and diverse soils which feature limestone, shale and sandy loam all give Paso Robles’ wines a unique character and present the opportunity for many different varieties to be grown.

The Wines

Here are the wines Amanda Cramer poured at the luncheon, along with my notes on them.   All the wines utilize fruit from Bootjack Ranch Vineyard.

Rosato 2008 - It’s a deep red strawberry color with a beautiful cherry nose.  The wine has a fresh and vibrant character with great acidity.  It’s really delicious and mouth watering.  The juice spends about three days on the skins, so the color is darker than in previous vintages.  "Maybe a little too dark," says Cramer.  I disagree, it’s a lovely, rich color.  The grapes are 75% Sangiovese and 25% Barbera.  With an alcohol content of 14.5%, it’s as dry as a bone.

Sauvignon Blanc 2008 - There is a grassy nose with tons of tropical notes.  A mix of steel and neutral oak in the winemaking process adds a lot of character.  I taste citrus - lime and grapefruit.  It’s 14.1% abv with a bracing acidity - quite refreshing and food-friendly.  This is all Sauvignon Blanc, since it’s the only white grape Niner has made wine from - so far.  Cramer explains, “Heart Hill has Grenache Blanc that will be ready this year.  The Marsanne and Roussanne were just planted in 2010.”

Sangiovese 2007 - The Niner family traveled in italy and fell in love with Italian grapes.  They tried Nebbilo, but Cramer says "it didn't work out."  Their Barbera vines developed viruses and had to be yanked out.  “That hurt,” says Cramer.  “Barbera is a part of our Rosato.  The block was replanted to Barbera, so that’ll be okay.”   The Sangiovese shows spicy cherry, black cherry and licorice on the nose, with cherries and dark berries on the palate.  It’s quite dry and full in the mouth.  It’s a blend of 97% Sangiovese and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The 14.9% alcohol content does not detract from the aromas or the taste.

Merlot 2007 - This Merlot is nice and dry, too, with smoke on the nose and mouth puckering tannins.  It tastes fruity and dry with a graphite edge.  Cramer says, "We weren't sure about the Merlot, but we blended it with cab and it blossomed in the bottle.”  86% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc.  It’s got the lowest alcohol level of all their wines, at 13.8%.

Syrah 2006 - There is a big, blackberry and blueberry nose with hints of chocolate!  The taste is fruity and dry, at 14.5% abv.  There’s a splash (2%) of Petite Sirah in this blend, with big tannins once again.  “We like to start with 100% Syrah and go from there until it’s right,” says Cramer.  “I've got three different lots of Syrah at Bootjack Ranch, so even at 100%, it’s still a blend to me."

Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - There is some Merlot in this big Cab.  Spices and fruit on the nose with a lovely floral streak lead to blackberry, cassis and some graphite on the palate.
It’s a 14.3% alcohol level.

Fog Catcher 2005 - This big red blend is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot.  The nose shows plenty of dark fruit, with red fruit, minerals, pencil point and smoke on the palate.  It’s dry and dark.  Future vintages of this blend should include as many as six Bordeaux varieties, according to Cramer.  The wine sits at 14.1% abv.