Monday, December 31, 2012

V. Sattui Vintage Port 1998

The wine tastes great, but I have a bit of a bone to pick with V. Sattui Winery over the name of this one.  Port wine comes from Portugal, much as Champagne and Burgundy come from those French regions and nowhere else.  Nobody likes it when a California winery pastes "Champagne" on their label, and similar liberties with "Port" should also be avoided.  With that mini-rant out of the way, the wine - whatever it is named - is fantastic.

This is a Port-style wine, with a neutral grape spirit added at partial fermentation.  The wine is then aged in small French oak barrels for three years before bottling.  Three Portuguese grape varieties are used in this blend: Tinta Cão, Souzão and Touriga Nacional.  The retail price is $46.

The nose is heavily laced with alcohol upon pouring, not unusual for a fortified wine.  The fruitiness comes through as blackberry and currant, but any nuance is obliterated by the spirit.  The alcohol is much easier to take on the palate, and the fruit plays forward here, too.  The flavor immediately reminds me of cassis.  This port tastes very fresh and fruity for a 14-year-old wine. The color is ruby red to the edges.  There's barely a hint of raisins when first opened, but those notes do come forth after decanting.

Sweet and bold, this 1998 Port-style wine matches beautifully with dark chocolate and pairs well with Gorgonzola cheese, too.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, December 28, 2012

Cantele Primitivo

At the Las Vegas Brio Tuscan Grille, I felt like a Zinfandel, but wanted to drink Italian.  That’s an easy situation to deal with when there is a Primitivo on the list.

Primitivo and Zinfandel were thought to be the same grape with different names, until DNA analysis showed that, while very similar, they are different grapes.

The Cantele Primitivo is a 100% varietal wine, I.G.T. Salento, which is in Puglia, the heel of the Italian “boot.”  It costs $7.95 by the glass at the restaurant.

Cantele Primitivo is colored quite darkly, and has an intense nose of blackberry and spice.  An earthy aroma has a little spearmint mixed in.  On the palate, flavors of blackberry dominate, and the tannins are very gentle.  Sipping it alone was a joy, and it paired with my Bolognese sauce perfectly.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Living It Up On A Limited Wine List

There's the old Las Vegas joke about the guy at the bus depot bumming the fare back home.  Guy gives him the money for the ticket, but admonishes him "not to gamble it away."  Bum replies, "Oh, don't worry - I've got gambling money!"  In my world, it's, "Oh, I've got wine money."

We're enjoying a little holiday getaway in Las Vegas, with me alternating between a few hands of blackjack and watching my wife play slots.  If you have ever watched someone play slots, you know that it's the pattern from which boredom is made.

My wife says, "It's Vegas - why don't you live it up a little?"  I'm of Scots-Irish heritage: we love to drink, but we're too cheap to buy it.  I decided to turn loose of a few bucks and take her advice.  Live it up.

So we pop into the wine bar in the hallway between the J.W. Marriott and the Rampart Casino, a little place called Two Two One, for reasons that were never made clear.  Right away, I redefine my expectations.  The wine list has no "special occasion" wines.  On the bright side, "living it up" wasn't going to cost as much as I had thought it would.

The wine list is limited, but it offers some reliable names at prices that are pretty reasonable.  I chose the Hogue Riesling and the Ravenswood Zinfandel.

To underscore the feeling of a "vacation," I did not take notes and I did not take pictures, but take my word for it, both wines were just fine and added an extra dimension of pleasure to the evening.

They aren't exotic or worldly wines and they don't make me work too hard to figure them out, although that's something I enjoy quite a lot.  They offer a tasty escape and the chance to live it up without spending too much of my wine money - or my gambling money.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, December 21, 2012

Merry Christmas

Now And Zin hopes you are having a wonderful holiday season, full of family, giving and love.

There should be some wine in there, too.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Smith-Madrone Riesling 2011

Napa Valley producer Smith-Madrone makes wine from grapes grown on their estate at the top of the Spring Mountain district.  Stu Smith writes me that he and his winemaker brother Charles planted the vineyards in 1971.  The steep mountainside slopes are primarily dry-farmed at an altitude of between 1,300 and 2,000 feet.

On their website, they answer the question, 'Why Smith-Madrone?' this way:  “"It sounds better than Smith-Douglas Fir, Smith-Manzanita, Smith-Oak and certainly Smith-Poison Oak.  These were the predominant trees and shrubs on the property when we began," Stuart Smith explains.  "We had so much physically and emotionally invested in the development of the vineyard and the winery that we selfishly wanted our name on it.  Smith is not exactly a grand Mediterranean wine name, and certainly we couldn't call it just "Smith Winery."  Somehow Smith-Madrone had a nice ring to it."

Stu was kind enough to send samples of his three latest releases, Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Today, we’ll try the Smith-Madrone Riesling 2011.

It's not a surprise to find Cab and Chardonnay being made in Napa Valley, but Riesling?  Riesling vines were among the first planted by the Smith brothers decades ago - the vines yielding the fruit for this wine are 39 years old, qualifying them as "old vines" in most accounts.  The alcohol content is 12.6% abv and residual sugar is a just-off-dry 0.7%.  521 cases were produced.  It retails for $27.

This Riesling appears pale yellow with green highlights.  The bouquet is blessed with a fair amount of low-level petrol, something I don't expect to find in a Riesling this young.  That’s quite a pleasant surprise.  The complex nose also displays undertones of apricots, peaches and pears, which reform as flavors on the palate.  A nice minerality - a slate flavor - comes forth, too.

The wine smells interesting and tastes wonderful - that petrol aroma and wet-rock taste grab me every time - but I could use a little more acidity.  Although I've already seen several wine writers extolling the acidity of this wine, it doesn't strike me as racy or bracing like, say, a Finger Lakes Riesling.  To my palate, the fruit expression of Napa Valley wine tends to be ripe rather than crisp.  I don't expect this Riesling will stand up to very hearty food pairings, but it should match nicely with salads and shellfish.  It's a great sipper, too.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

V. Sattui Prestige Cuvée 2009

Sometimes people who know I write about wine will engage me in a wine conversation.  This usually involves either asking for a recommendation or asking if I have ever had their favorite wine.  Either way, I'm more than willing to engage.  If you know anyone who writes about wine - and there are plenty of us - you may have ended up sorry you broached the subject.  "I wouldn't have rubbed the lamp if I had known the genie would rattle on all night."

One friend made a recommendation to me.  He told me to try Napa Valley producer V. Sattui, that I would love their wines as much as he did.  As luck has it, I have the opportunity, and I'm impressed.  This space contained a bit about the V. Sattui '08 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon a while back.  Today we'll examine the winery's sparkling Cuvée, also kindly provided by the winery.

The 2009 V. Sattui Prestige Cuvée is 80% Chardonnay from their Carsi Vineyard in Yountville and 20% Pinot Noir from Henry Ranching Los Carneros.  At just under 1% residual sugar, the winery says the '09 is a little drier than their three previous releases.  The sparkler is produced in methode champenoise and is disgorged after 18 months on the yeast. It goes for $29 retail.

The wine is a beautiful golden color, particularly effective when served in a glass larger than a flute.  I dislike flutes for sparkling wine, because it is so much harder to appreciate the bouquet of the wine in a narrow little glass.  It's O.K. to drink sparkling wine from a larger wine glass.

The nose displays lovely notes of toast and honey under an apricot fruit layer.  Frothy bubbles dissipate quickly and a sweet edge sets off lovely green apples and brilliant acidity.

It's a festive wine, as sparklers are generally perceived to be, and dry enough to pair well with whatever finger food is served with it.  It's a great match with my iced shortbread Christmas cookies.  Some shrimp or caviar would be nice with it, too.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, December 17, 2012

Tasting Panel Champagne Event 2012

During the holidays, everyone wants to talk about the bubbles.  And why not?  What’s more festive than a flute full of stars?

The Tasting Panel magazine stages a little Champagne event each holiday season, and this year’s event depicted Editor-In-Chief Anthony Dias Blue as a Photoshopped elf.  I couldn’t stay away.  I attended the Los Angeles event on December 13, 2012 at Waterloo and City, in Culver City.

I’m glad I didn’t stay away.  I don’t drink a lot of sparkling wine throughout the year.  At the event, I happened to mention to a colleague that “I’m not a sparkling person.”  Taking the cue, she replied wryly, “Yes, we’ve noticed that about you.”  Nevertheless, I do like a chance to taste a number of good sparkling wines side-by-side.

Some of the bubbles poured are extremely affordable - some are in what you might call the “special occasion” category.  Here are a few I found interesting, with the prices taken from the sheet that was handed out at the door.

Frank Family Vineyards 2008 Blanc de Blancs ($45) - Most interesting, with some funky aromas and flavors of burnt toast and herbs.

Domaine Carneros 2008 Brut ($27) - This was the least expensive wine poured at the event, and it’s one of the best.  Frothy and funky with fine bubbles and a toasty palate.

JCB 2007 #9 ($48) - Nice bubbles lead to a crème brûlée nose and an edgy palate.

Ferrari Perle 2006, Metodo Classico, Trento DOC, Italy ($35) - This smells dark and brooding, but tastes earthy and fruity. 

Schramsberg 2008 Blanc de Noirs ($39) - Lovely toasty flavor.  Their ‘09 Blancs de Blancs wasn’t bad, either. ($37)

Champagne Paul Goerg 2002 Brut ($40) - A little light on bubbles, if that sort of thing matters to you, but a nose of caramel toast and a candy apple finish makes up for it.

Champagne Henriot Millesime 2005 ($99) - Almost without bubbles when I got to it, but great, earthy toast on the nose and palate.

Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2002 ($58) - Funky toast on the bouquet, with crisp golden apple flavors following.  

Champagne Paul Goerg 2000 Cuvée Lady Brut Vintage ($95) - An earthy, funky nose, fantastic bubbles and a toasty palate.

Champagne Gosset Grand Millesime 2000 ($100) - Aromas of Sweet Tarts and a really nice apricot flavor seem at odds, but it works.

Champagne Perrier-Jouet 2004 Belle Epoque ($130) - The most expensive wine I tasted at the event is elegant, toasty and fruity - it has it all.

All the Champagnes priced at over $100 showed characteristics worthy of note, although many of the wines at the lower end of the price spectrum displayed much more bang for the buck.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tasting Wine In All 50 States Is Not A Slam Dunk

What started as an idle thought - “can I taste wines from all 50 U.S. states?” - has become a personal mission.  Now And Zin’s Wine Country series debuted nearly two years ago, and we’re just over halfway there.

Now And Zin’s Wine Country started with a series about wines made from America’s Norton grape, in which I sampled wine from Missouri, Virginia and Georgia for the first time.  I was surprised by the quality and fascinated by the notion of wine tasting across America.

If you can make good wine in California, that's expected - it’s what you’re supposed to do with great soil and perfect weather.  Making good wine in areas of the country where nature isn’t quite as accommodating is a real achievement.

I’ve heard from American winemakers about Indiana limestone, Cornell grape creations and moderating winds from - of all places - Lake Erie.  I’ve heard winemakers cry in anguish, “I want to make dry wines, but all my customers want is sweet!”

I’ve sampled mead from Montana and Maine, Muscadine from Alabama and Kentucky Cabernet Franc.  I’ve had a Super Tuscan-style blend from Arizona, mile-high wine from Colorado, amazing bubbles from Massachusetts and Michigan, Zinfandel from Nevada and New Mexico, New York Riesling, New Jersey Merlot and North Carolina Chardonnay.

I’ve tried wine made from Vermont apples, Florida blueberries, North Dakota rhubarb and West Virginia blackberries.

There have been plenty of unexpected grapes, like Petit Manseng from Georgia, Carménère from Idaho, Traminette from Indiana, Eidelweiss from Iowa, Marquette from Minnesota and Catawba from Pennsylvania.

Two Nebraska wines are named after pelicans; a South Dakota winemaker uses Petite Sirah to take the acidic edge off the Frontenac.  There’s Touriga Nacional growing in Tennessee.

Most of the wines for this series have been supplied by the winemakers for the purpose of the article, while some have been sent by friends of mine who had travel plans to a state I hadn’t yet tasted.  To all who have sent wine for this project, I offer my heartfelt thanks.

At this writing, 27 states have been included, so I may be at this for some time.  I hear that some Washington state Rhones are on the way, and a Delaware winery is looking into their shipping permit.  Aah, shipping wine in the United States.  That has proven to be a stumbling block more than once so far.

Contacts made in Arkansas, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Ohio, Utah and Oklahoma dropped out of sight, while responses are hard to come by at all from Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, Connecticut, Louisiana, Mississippi, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wisconsin.  I am sure for some of these states, I’ll probably have to find someone who makes wine in their garage.  Any Mississippi garagistas out there?

While we are on the subject, if you know a winemaker in any of the states which haven’t been covered in Wine Country yet, please pass this article along to them.  Even if they can’t ship to me, I’d love to hear from them.

Also, one state which has been left blank is California.  Of course, I sample a lot of California wine, so finding it isn’t the problem.  I want to determine one wine or winery which is representative of California for this series.  If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.  Comment here, email or contact me on Twitter.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cornerstone Cellars Oregon Willamette Valley Chardonnay 2010

Cornerstone Cellars is expanding their line of wines, offering more than just the top-shelf Cab that made their reputation.  Part of that expansion is the Cornerstone/Oregon label, the wines for which are grown, produced and bottled in Oregon's Willamette Valley.  It’s a collaboration between Cornerstone’s managing partner Craig Camp and noted Oregon winemaker Tony Rynders.

Camp calls his Oregon Chardonnay a “lean, mean, fighting machine type of Chardonnay.  No sweet, oaky fruit bombs for me.  If you love classic Chablis, you’ll love our Oregon Chardonnay.”  He cites the wine’s backbone as its strength.  “A concentrated minerality and racy acidity that will hurt the teeth of those who love oaky, sweet Chardonnay.  I would never dream of making a spineless Chardonnay.  Cornerstone has never been about spineless wines, and I have no place for them at my table.”  Stand back.  He sounds like he means business.

2010 offered a cool growing season in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, cooler than usual.  The usual warm and dry summer never really materialized, so the fruit was harvested at a lower sugar level, which results in a higher level of acidity.

The grapes are a 50/50 mix of fruit from the Yamhill-Carlton and Chehalem Mountains AVAs.  The wine was aged on its lees - in contact with the expired yeast - for 16 months in French oak, only 24% of it new.  Aging sur lie is the Burgundian style, often giving wine a heavier, creamier mouthfeel.  It's definitely a small-production wine, as only 166 cases were made.

The rich, golden color of this Chardonnay signifies oak right away, and the nose bears out that suspicion.  To my senses, there's plenty of oak here for anybody, but Camp's claim of "lean and mean" is not a red herring.  This not a fat butterball of a Chardonnay.  That backbone shows itself easily in an acidity that is bracing, despite what would appear to be efforts to negate it - 16 months in wood, on the lees.

The wine's bouquet shows apricot and pineapple and citrus, with spices to complement them.  The oak is apparent on the palate in the form a spicy angle.  I keep waiting for that butter to coat my taste buds, but it doesn't.  Besides the fruit - which isn't bashful - the minerality is up front, in the middle and on the finish as well.

From the description given by Camp, I expected a nervy, steely white wine.  That's not what we have here.  The wood effect, however, coexists with the minerality of the wine in a way I find very attractive.  It is oaky, but it's quick on its feet and screams out loud for seafood - crabs or lobster, anyone?  It's a fair match with my Christmas cashews, too.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Oregon Pinot Noir By Cornerstone Cellars

Cornerstone Cellars in Napa Valley is undergoing a shift from the top-dollar Cabernet Sauvignon they have been known for in the past.  Under the guidance of managing partner Craig Camp, they are broadening the spectrum of the main label, while also producing the Stepping Stone line aimed directly at the millennial consumer.

Cornerstone’s branch office in Oregon is the result of Camp’s desire to produce quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for the labels.  In grape growing, as in real estate, it’s location, location, location.  The different growing conditions required for Cabernet and Pinot Noir prompt Camp to say “if you have a Cabernet vineyard next to a Pinot vineyard, one or both of them are in the wrong place.”  Knowing Napa was the right place for Cab, he sought out the right place for Pinot.

Camp collaborated with Oregon winemaker Tony Rynders.  Rynders' talents brought him notice at Washington’s Hogue Cellars, then at Oregon’s Domaine Serene.  All the Cornerstone/Oregon wines are grown, produced and bottled in Oregon.  

Both the wines tasted for this article are from the 2010 vintage. Camp says, “While this may have been a difficult vintage to work with, I could not be more enthusiastic about the wines. Wines like this is why I am making wine in Oregon.”

The 2010 vintage was cooler than the typical Oregon growing season.  It was the sort of year that might cause a lot of sleepless nights in Napa Valley, but in Oregon a late-blooming summer is just what they wanted.  That’s the sort of weather that allows fruit to be harvested at lower sugar levels for a higher acidity.

Cornerstone/Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2010 

This Pinot comes from the grapes of six AVAs in the Willamette Valley.  It aged for 15 months in French oak, 62% of which was new.  498 cases were produced.  It has an alcohol content of 13.5% abv and retails for $50 per bottle.

Medium ruby in the glass, this beautiful Pinot offers aromas of ripe wild cherry with an undercurrent of nutmeg.  It really is a nice olfactory package for the holiday season.  Raspberry and cherry flavors pop on the palate, while a hint of orange tea provides a great complement.  Acidity is nearly perfect, and the wine is very fresh tasting as a result.  It is restrained without seeming wimpy, vibrant without overpowering.  Put it next to a turkey or a holiday ham and it's right at home.

Stepping Stone by Cornerstone/Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2010 

The wine is also made from the grapes of six AVAs in the Willamette Valley and has a moderate 13.5% abv number.  Aging occurs over 13 months in French oak, only 35% of which was new.  137 cases were produced, and the retail price is $30.

It's a fairly dark looking Pinot, with an abundant nose.  Raspberry and cranberry aromas are right up front, with cherry cola and pepper close behind.  The palate is fruit forward as well, with a peppery flavor lacing the main thrust of black cherry and raspberry.  An earthy edge comes through and provides a nice counterpoint to all those flavors.  This is not a dainty or delicate Pinot Noir - it's deep and rich, and there's a boatload of acidity here, so have it on the table with smoked ham or sausages.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, December 10, 2012

Castellari Bergaglio Fornaci Gavi 2008

It seems a shame sometimes to just write about wine, when the food so often steals the show.  That was the case at the great Los Angeles Italian restaurant, Locanda Veneta.  My wife will tell you that I wear out the phrase "this may be the best ever," but it was impossible to stifle it at this lunch.

I opened with grilled calamari, spicy enough for me to wave off the offer of fresh ground pepper.  The grill flavor permeated the squid and the portion would have been sufficient for lunch, had I not also ordered the porchetta - stuffed with fennel sausage and served in a confit of onion.  Was it the best ever?  I'm saying "yes."

The wine was great, too.  It may not be a list-topper, but it's right up my alley.  The Gavi region in located within Piemonte, and wine production there dates back a millennium.  The white grape Cortese - the grape from which this wine is made - has no recorded history there until the mid-1600s.  It is usually fermented in steel and consumed quite young, but this one - four years old - showed some fairly complex aromas and flavors.  those who know Gavi better than I do say you should cellar it for a while before enjoying it.

Produced by Castellari Bergaglio, the Fornaci Gavi shows no trace of oak, in fact it's as steely as a white can get.  The golden hue belies the mineral-driven nose, although after a bit of warming, herbal notes start to appear that we're not apparent upon pouring.

On the palate is a savory note coming through the curtain of minerality.  Notes of tart apples and a hint of pineapple also find their way to my taste buds, but the minerals define this wine.

Was it the best ever?  Maybe not.  But like a good Italian wine should, it served as the perfect complement for this meal.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Blood Of The Vines: Rear Window

Wine Goes To The Movies with

My wife and I have endured neighbors with bagpipes, drums on the solstice, children that never stopped crying and sound systems that caused the windows to rattle like a magnitude five earthquake.  Every time we watch "Rear Window" we drop to our knees and thank the Power of the Universe that we have never had to say, "the neighbors bought a calliope."  Pop some Champagne for that blessing.

I’m not knocking Alfred Hitchcock’s choices.  The only thing I ever directed was a local television commercial that ended up looking like the cutting room scraps of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” - if, indeed, there were any scraps of that film left over.

I have dabbled in music programming during my patchwork career, though, and it has always struck me that Hitch probably never listened to the radio.  The music that serves as a constant companion to the action in “Rear Window” leaves me wondering why those people still lived in that neighborhood.  Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly sharing a snifter of brandy is certainly Hitchcockian, but the cacophony they endure during an open-window New York summer would have most people drinking right from the bottle.  If you run out, start downing mouthwash.

My current neighbor is a composer, and we are often treated to his lovely meanderings on the piano.  He never pulls a Ross Bagdasarian, though, by slamming his hands down on the keys and crying in artistic anguish.

We are keeping a close eye on his flower garden, though.

Although friends don’t make their friends listen to calliope music, they just may have an all-calliope all-the-time music channel in the tasting room at Calliope Wines.  They point out that “calliope” is Greek for “beautiful voice,” but that depends on what hour of the morning it is when the calliope music starts.  Calliope is also the Greek Muse of Eloquence and Poetry.  Think about that the next time you’re on a merry-go-round.

Can You Make Out Any Other Wines?

Put down the binoculars and pick up a bottle from Spyglass Ridge Winery.  They specialize in Pennsylvania Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin.

Michigan’s Good Neighbor Organic makes wine, cider and hard liquor in Leelanau County.  A good neighbor, indeed.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wine Country: New Mexico - St. Clair Reserve Zinfandel 2010

The New Mexico Winegrowers Association claims that New Mexico is America's oldest winemaking region.  "The first grapevines planted in what is now the state of New Mexico were brought in 1629 to Senecu, a Piro Indian pueblo south of Socorro, by Fray Gracia de Zuniga, a Franciscan, and Antonio de Arteaga, a Capuchin monk.  The cuttings brought by the missionaries were a variety of Vitis vinifera, commonly called the 'mission grape.'  This variety is still grown in New Mexico today.  Historians generally agree that the first California vines were planted in 1769 at the Mission of San Diego de Alcala."

During the late 1800s, New Mexico made enough wine to rank fifth among American states in wine production, almost a million gallons per year.  Natural flooding of the Rio Grande River so damaged many of the vineyards in the southern part of the state that before the turn of the century, New Mexico's output had cut to a trickle, and stopped altogether even before Prohibition.  The rebirth of New Mexico wine began in 1978, and the state now reports 42 wineries and tasting rooms, with annual production at around 700,000 gallons annually.

St. Clair Winery is located in Deming, New Mexico, in the Mimbres Valley wine region.  French brothers Florent and Emmanuel Lescombes have six generations of winemaking experience behind them and 120 acres of vineyards in Pyramid Valley, outside of Lordsburg.  In addition to the tasting room in Deming, they run bistros in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Farmington.

The Lescombes were kind enough to supply a sample of their Cellarmaster's Reserve Zinfandel 2010 for this edition of Wine Country.  It sells for $16 per bottle and has a 13% abv count.

St. Clair's Zinfandel sits medium dark in the glass and offers a nose of dusty, brambly blackberry and black cherry.  Spices and a hint of licorice also get into the action.  The first sip surprises me.  It's so bold and jammy I'm literally taken aback.  Plums and blackberries are the focus of the flavors, and the mouthfeel is almost silky.  The masculine, rustic nature of this Zinfandel overshadows the elegant side, but both ends of that spectrum definitely have their say.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pascual Toso Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Argentina

Pascual Toso was a 19th century transplant to Argentina from Piemonte in Italy, where his family had a wine business.  He originally intended to import wine, but decided that the grapes in Mendoza were good enough for winemaking.  Toso established the winery in 1890, making his the first in the region.

With the Andes mountains to the west, Mendoza is shielded from rain and has a correspondingly dry climate with warm temperatures.  Today, Pascual Toso's vineyards are in the Maipú subregion.  Sebastopol winemaker Paul Hobbs signed on in 2001 to consult Toso winemaker Rolando Luppino.

The wine carries a 14% abv number for alcohol content.  It is imported by TGIC Importers of Woodland Hills, California, who supplied the sample I tasted.  The retail price is around $15 per bottle.

The Pascual Toso 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon has a dark ruby hue in the glass, showing a nice purple rim.  Blackberry aromas come first on the nose, with hints of oak afterward.  Vanilla and a wisp of cedar run underneath the dark fruit.  It's good to find the oak is not an overpowering presence, and that there's no alcohol heat when sniffing it - even with minimal decanting.

Plummy flavors adorn the palate, and the tannic structure is firm.  There is a nice level of acidity, or freshness, in the mouth and the wine does not feel too heavy.  The finish lingers nicely with a sense of cassis.  I find an earthiness in the taste, which I like a lot.  I don't think this Cab will bowl anyone over, but it will serve nicely as an everyday accompaniment to beef, pork or cheese.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, November 30, 2012

Stepping Stone By Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

You’d think Cornerstone Cellars winemaker Jeff Keene would have his hands full - and stained permanently purple - with the highly regarded Cabernet Sauvingon he makes for the label.  He does find the time, though, to have a little fun.

It must surely be fun for him to play around with the fantastic fruit at his disposal, fruit he uses to make wines for their Stepping Stone line.  Stepping Stone by Cornerstone has some interesting blends, lively whites, and Cabernet Sauvignon that is good enough to resent its place in a “value” line.

The grapes for Stepping Stone's 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon are sourced from four different vineyards.  The website describes the sources and their purposes like this: “The muscular, dense and concentrated fruit of Howell Mountain, the refined clarity and elegance of Rutherford to the lively aromatics and lush, vibrant sophistication of Oak Knoll, which are all balanced with a little lift and mid palate richness from our Carneros and Oakville Merlots, bring a unique harmony to this wine.”  It’s not a headbanger, with an alcohol content of only 13.9% abv.  This clocks in at the top-end of the range of Cornerstone’s line of value-priced wines, at $35 retail.  Cornerstone provided a sample for the purpose of this article.

The wine is medium dark in the glass, with a nose that pleases right away.  Big notes of blackberry mix with raspberry and black cherry while the oak spices roll in underneath.  Clove, vanilla and anise change places with each swirl.  It’s really nice on the palate, almost silky smooth with a tannic structure that does not overwhelm.  The oak definitely plays a part on the palate, but it, too, is used in good measure.  Blackberries and black cherry have some cola-like fun, and the freshness of the wine makes it oh-so-easy to drink.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Longoria Syrah Santa Barbara County, Alisos Vineyard 2008

Rick Longoria bailed on law school to spend his time in a wine cellar.  When his first winemaking gig didn’t allow him to produce Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, he struck out on his own to scratch that itch.  Longoria was the first winemaker to base his operation in the industrial park which has become fondly known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  He goes for balance in his wines, and designs them to accompany food, to be a part of a meal.

The Longoria Alisos Vineyard Syrah was purchased at the Longoria tasting room in Los Olivos.  It goes for $34 retail.  At 15.2% abv, this Syrah packs some power.  It aged in French oak - one-third of it new - for 22 months.  The winery produced only 98 cases.

On his website, Longoria reveals the source of his grapes.  He writes, "I first began working with Rhone varietals in 1998. Since then I have narrowed down our vineyard sources to just two local vineyards, Alisos in the Los Alamos Valley and Clover Creek in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Each is bottled separately and each provides us with a different interpretation of the Syrah grape, due to the unique qualities of the two sites."

The wine is very dark, an inky, purple color.  The bouquet is readily available long before my nose gets into the glass.  Dark aromas of blackberry and tar waft up, smelling very much like the northern Rhône.  The flavors come from that area, too, with back fruit leading the way for savory notes of bacon and anise.  Cola and tea notes remind me of Pinot Noir - a pretty stout Pinot, to be sure.  What really grabs me is the acidity, that mouthwatering tingle that means the wine is destined to go with food.  It's a fairly amazing quality in this juicy Syrah, so much so that it competes with the flavors.  That’s a competition in which there are no losers.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Barefoot Wine Beat The Odds To Succeed

Michael Houlihan has an interesting story to tell.  It’s the story of how he and partner Bonnie Harvey built the Barefoot Wine brand into such a formidable power on the supermarket shelf that Gallo opened up the big corporate checkbook and bought the company.

Now, it may be that people who read wine blogs don’t buy their wine in the supermarket;  and it may be that the phrase “supermarket wine” is a turnoff to people who describe themselves as “wine lovers.”  Nevertheless, a whole lot of wine crosses the checkout scanner in supermarkets - 10% of it White Zinfandel - so somebody should be interested in what Houlihan has to say.

Houlihan’s story started in Healdsburg, California, where he tried to collect a debt.  Other creditors got in line first at the bankruptcy hearing, so there was no cash to be had.  Thinking on his feet, Houlihan agreed to take wine and bottling services instead of money.  With the hard part out of the way, all he had to do was come up with a brand and learn about distribution from the ground up.  Simple, huh?

He started asking grocery stores what they wanted in a wine.  This took the grocery stores by surprise, says Houlihan.  “Nobody had ever asked the supermarkets what they wanted on the shelf.”  Well, since no one had ever asked, they told him.  They wanted a 1.5 liter bottle, a red and a white, with a name that’s an English word, and a logo that’s the same as the name.

The Barefoot brand came from Barefoot Bynum, a long-gone wine Houlihan remembered, that he thought would fit the bill for an easy word and a simple image.  His partner conceptualized the logo, and one large inkpad later they had a brand.  That's Harvey's foot on the label.

All this was happening in the mid-1980s, when Houlihan says “wine was considered pretty snooty.”  Houlihan and crew went the other way with it, designing and marketing a wine for what is generally referred to as “average taste.”  It worked.  Barefoot was selling a half-million cases of wine a year when Gallo stepped in.

Houlihan’s take on wine ratings: “If you have a number on your wine that’s in the mid to high 80s or better, you have a better chance of getting on the shelf.  However, we found what was even better was winning a contest, or getting a medal at a state fair.  We’d go out the next day in that city and put the prize or medal right on the store shelves.”

The Barefoot brand was built into a huge bestseller without advertising.  “Worthy cause marketing helped make the wine a success while assisting charities at the same time,” says Houlihan.  “We didn’t just sell wine, we tried to make the world a better place through wine.”

The early road was pitted with land mines that might have stopped a less intrepid businessman.  “A lot of people get into the wine business, and after they’ve been in it for a while they discover that they’re in the distribution business,” he says.  “You have to get through 50 states of regulations - every one of them different - supermarkets requirements, distributors who are selling hundreds of brands besides yours.”  You very quickly ask yourself, ‘Whatever happened to the romance of the wine business?’”

Although not involved with Barefoot Wine and Bubbly anymore, Houlihan says he still drinks Barefoot wine and he’s proud of it.  His career has now moved into helping other small business people with their careers.

“Now I help small businesses by passing along things I learned in the wine industry.  We made Barefoot an international bestseller and then sold it to the biggest winemaker in the world.  We can help people achieve what we’ve achieved.  We’re not selling wine anymore, we’re selling ideas.”

Houlihan makes himself available to teach people how to succeed by having goals more important than just the products they’re selling - the “worthy cause marketing” that helped launch Barefoot to such heights.  Houlihan says his book, The Barefoot Spirit, will “for the first time give the public a behind-the-scenes view of how the wine gets to you,” through the stories he and Harvey accumulated through nearly 20 years of building the Barefoot brand.

Houlihan’s conversation with me was mostly about the business of wine, but he eagerly told me that Jennifer Wall was Barefoot’s first winemaker, and she is still the winemaker for Barefoot.  “She had the ability to understand what the average person wanted,” he said, “fruit-forward, easy-drinking, palatable wine that was consistent from year to year.”  He says that’s why Barefoot wines are non-vintage - the supermarket shoppers told them they were more interested in consistency than in vintage variation at that price point.  That’s what the people wanted, so that’s what they delivered.

Much of Houlihan's success, it seems, came from listening to what people told him, and responding with his product.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, November 26, 2012

Wine Country: Arizona - Arizona Stronghold Vineyards

Arizona’s wine history dates back to 16th-century Spanish missionaries who planted grapes to make wine for religious purposes.  While not exactly a religious mission, Arizona’s wine industry has grown rapidly in recent years.  Six years ago there were less than a dozen wineries in the Grand Canyon State, a number that has grown to over 60 today.

According to the Arizona Wine Growers Association, Arizona wine “enjoys three established grape growing regions - Sonoita/Elgin in Santa Cruz County, the Greater Willcox region in Cochise County, and the Verde Valley in Yavapai County.  There also are vineyards or wineries in Pima, Graham, Mohave, and Gila counties, plus several urban wineries in the Phoenix metropolitan area.  The majority of the vineyard acreage in Arizona is in Cochise County.”  That's where you'll find Arizona Stronghold.

Arizona Stronghold  Vineyards was founded by industrial musician Maynard Keenan and Eric Glomski (former vegetation and landscape ecologist.)  Keenan and Glomski were both producing wines made from California grapes at the time.  They combined their assets to purchase the vineyard near Wilcox, in southeastern Arizona, which became Arizona Stronghold.  Tim White is the winemaker.

Keenan says, "this project is about reconnecting.  It's about rekindling a relationship with the Earth, to our community, to each other.”  On the label, he describes life at his high-elevation vineyards as "hot days, cool nights, harsh winds and bitter, biting cold winters."  No doubt, creating good wine takes the edge off the bad conditions that nature deals out.

"The wines express, first and foremost, Arizona," says Keenan, "and secondarily the grapes and hands of the vignerons involved ... Great wine doesn’t have to be expensive; it doesn’t have to be pretentious; and it shouldn’t be hard to find.  It just has to be great and it has to be made by people that care.”  Keenan promises “minimally mucked-with wines that retain their natural vitality and character."

Arizona Stronghold was kind enough to supply samples of two of their wines. Both are made from Arizona grapes grown in Cochise County - from the Arizona Stronghold Vineyard and Bonita Springs Vineyard - and both are five-variety blends.

Arizona Stronghold Tazi White Table Wine 2011

Their white blend is made of 28% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Riesling, 18% Malvasia Bianca, 16% Chenin Blanc and 13% Gewürztraminer.  The wine has a 13.4% abv number and comes under under a synthetic closure.  It is aged in stainless steel and neutral oak and retails for $18.

A golden straw color, Tazi is very aromatic with an upfront floral element on the nose, with lemons, minerals and orange peel and a fair amount of oak also appearing.  The palate shows a crisp minerality, medium full mouthfeel and notes of pineapple, lemon, pear juice and minerals.  The wine is extremely fresh-feeling in the mouth despite a hefty oak effect.  The flavors really come through strongly, as does the acidity.  I would love to taste this wine without any barrel aging, but with the oak it’s a force to be reckoned with.  This is not a “salad white” - it would overpower most very light dishes.  Try this with ham or pork chops.  I’m sure you could even wash down a strip steak with it.  White wines aren’t supposed to demand this much attention, are they?

Arizona Stronghold Mangus Red Table Wine 2010

Named for a famous Apache leader, Mangus is a Super Tuscan-style blend of 71% Sangiovese, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Malbec, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot.  It retails on average for about $22, has a 13.8% alcohol content and is bottled under a synthetic closure.

The wine has a medium-deep ruby color, with a bright cherry nose - courtesy of the Sangiovese - which also sports a fair amount of oak spice and alcohol.  Decant for at least a half hour to minimize the heat.  The palate offers a dusty, earthy cherry flavor with clove and nutmeg in the profile.  The oak is quite apparent in those spices, but the Arizona dust keeps the rope in its leather-gloved hand.  There is a gentle bite of tannins, and the wine’s rustic character is tempered by a little pencil point from the Cab and some floral notes from the Malbec.  On the whole, the wine rather reminds me of a Zinfandel.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2009

Cornerstone Cellars has made its name producing high-end Napa Valley Cabs known as much for their brawn as for their beauty.  I have written about several of their Stepping Stone wines, a label designed to introduce the brand to everyday wine drinkers at an affordable price point, an effort I believe they achieve handily.  Cornerstone has also provided me with a sample of their top-shelf stuff, which is the subject of this article.

The Cornerstone '09 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon marks a departure for the way Cornerstone Cellars makes its Cabernet wines.  As Cornerstone’s Craig Camp puts it, “While you have seen hints of what was to come in our 2010 Stepping Stone releases, the 2009 Cornerstone red wines are the first to preview our vision of the future for our Cabernet Sauvignon.  Our new style is more restrained, more focused on balance and elegance without giving up the authentic power that makes Napa Valley unique.”

One area of departure is the varietal makeup.  While Cornerstone’s Cabs have previously been 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2009 vintage sees a bit of Merlot introduced.  95% of the wine is made from grapes grown in six desirable Cabernet spots of Napa Valley - Ink Grade Vineyard, Howell Mountain, Oakville Station, Oakville, Kairos Vineyard and Oak Knoll District.  The Merlot is taken from Carneros’ Stewart Ranch Vineyard.  Future releases will also see increased use of Merlot, as well as Cabernet Franc.

The winery bottled 842 cases of this Napa Valley Cab.  The wine hits an alcohol number of 14.9% abv and Camp tells me the suggested retail price is $65.  Cornerstone notes that the wine shows "rich layers of complexity and remarkable overall balance.”  Winemaker Jeff Keene and the Cornerstone team spent months working on getting the blend where they want it.

It's a dark looking wine, and a dark smelling one.  Light barely gets through the purple and the nose offers black currant, balck cherry and blackberry.  If that's not dark enough for you, try some black licorice - that's in there, too.  Soft vanilla notes mingle with the opulent fruit.  The palate shows plenty of dark fruit as well, with a lacing of graphite and a touch of baking spices.  The tannins are rather young and brash, but the acidity really dominates the mouthfeel.  This wine is tailor-made to be paired with food, and the richer and meatier, the better.  I sipped it, but wished for a standing rib roast.  It paired with a skirt steak and blue cheese very nicely.

Camp comments on the wine's structure:  “It is always important to remember that acidity is a taste and tannin is a feeling.  It is not a good idea to try to manipulate taste... however, the feeling of a wine on the palate is something you can work with in the cellar without corrupting the nature of the wine.  In the cellar we treat it more like Pinot Noir, with a gentle touch, as extraction of flavor and color are the least of our worries here in the Napa Valley.”

The structure may seem full of youthful exuberance that cries to be paired with food, but it bodes well for aging purposes.  Cornerstone's '09 Napa Valley Cabernet has a rambunctious feel now which will certainly please those who have it on the dinner table.  In the future, it will please those who have it in their cellar.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pinot Days Los Angeles 2012

The annual Pinot Days wine tasting event in Los Angeles was actually the second such event for 2012.  After the January event, the date was bumped up to its new home in November.  The event was held November 11, 2012 at the Shrine Auditorium hall.  Steve and Lisa Rigisich stage this event, and they do a great job of pulling together Pinot Noir producers from California, Oregon and New Zealand - as well as a few from other locales.

All the wines mentioned here are Pinot Noir, unless otherwise noted.  Here are some of the highlights I found - in an event where nearly everything was worthy of note:

Belle Glos Wines, Rutherford, CA
2011 Clark and Telephone - Santa Maria Valley fruit with rich chocolate on the nose and palate;  great for the holidays
2005 Las Alturas - smokey raspberry and tea, from the Santa Lucia Highlands

Bien Nacido Vineyards, Santa Maria, CA
Winemaker Trey Fletcher told me they only make about a thousand cases per year, since their fruit is in such high demand.  They sell around 300 acres of grapes to other vintners.  Fletcher said, "It's a pleasure to work with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay fruit from 40-year-old vines.”
2009 Solomon Hills Vineyard - coffee, tea and minerals
2009 Bien Nacido Vineyard - beautiful earthiness

Cameron Hughes Wine, San Francisco, CA
According to their website, Cameron Hughes is “an American négociant that makes, imports and distributes” wines that often sell for under $20 per bottle, nearly always under $30.  Wines from Cameron Hughes always make me feel like I got a lot for my money.  These are great values.
2009 Russian River Valley - mocha and earth
2009 Santa Maria Valley - cola and earth
2009 Savigny les Beaune - tart and fresh, from a French vineyard
2010 Casablanca Valley - from Chile, cool climate, huge nose, big tea notes
2010 Sonoma County - touch of orange peel
2009 Los Caneros - dark nose, black tea, great acidity.

Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, Los Olivos, CA
2009 Ashley's Vineyard - big minerals and acidity

La Fenêtre, Santa Maria, CA
Winemaker Joshua Klapper (right) keeps coming forth with terroir-driven Pinots reflective of the choice locations sourced.
2009 A Cote North Coast - black tea, acidity
2010 Santa Maria Valley - dark yet delicate
2010 Le Bon Climat Vineyard - Santa Maria Valley; delightfully funky; good with game
2010 Bien Nacido Vineyard - earth, minerals
2010 Presqu’ile Vineyard - minerals, tea, acidity

Olson Ogden Wines, Santa Rosa, CA
2009 Alder Springs Vineyard - from Mendocino, seven miles from the Pacific; mocha, cola, acidity; feels like the holidays

Pence Ranch, Buellton, CA
Winemaker Jeff Fink did a great job on these, and got quite a bit of chatter at the event.
2010 Estate Sta Rita Hills - big black tea
2010 Uplands - dark and delicious
2010 Westslope - huge minerals

Sanford, Lompoc, CA
2010 Sta Rita Hills - blend of their two estate vineyards; chocolate, mocha, tea; ready for the holidays
2009 La Rinconada - smokey minerals
2009 Sanford and Benedict - dark, smokey fruit

These entries showed admirably, too:

Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards, Buellton, CA
2008 Sta Rita Hills - raspberry candy on the nose, tea and cranberry on the palate; six different Pinot Noir clones are blended
2010 Sta Rita Hills - two clones; young and fruity

Alta Maria Vineyards, Santa Maria, CA
2009 Santa Maria Valley - several vineyards combine for this darkly perfumed wine
2010 Santa Maria Valley - huge notes of black tea

Ancient Oaks Cellars, Santa Rosa, CA
2010 Russian River Valley - smoke, tea and coffee
2009 Estate - dark cranberry flavors

August West, San Francisco, CA
Winemaker Ed Kurtzman is a Deadhead, and the name August West is a character in the Grateful Dead song, “Wharf Rat.”  Digging a little deeper, the lyrics of the song have August West stating that he loves his Pearly Baker more than he loves his wine.  The Reverend Purley Baker was a prohibition-era anti-alcohol fanatic.  Today, a group of sober Deadheads call themselves Wharf Rats.  Their motto is "One show at a time.”  It’s a shame they can’t enjoy these:
2011 Russian River Valley - candy edge to black tea flavor
2011 Rosella's Vineyard - dark cranberry notes

Benziger Family Wines, Glen Ellen, CA
2010 Signaterra Bella Luna Vineyard - Russian River Valley fruit is biodynamically farmed,,has a barnyard edge
2010 De Cuelo - also very funky, earthy

Blair Vineyards, Salinas, CA
2010 Estate - eastern part of the Arroyo Seco AVA; their first vintage; fresh, clean tasting wine, just a hint of smoke

Cargasacchi Wines, Lompoc, CA
One taster cried, "The Lompoc wine barn!" as he approached the Cargasacchi table, as if he thought he’d never arrive.
2009 Point Conception Salsipuedes - coffee, black tea, fruit, acidity; pretty good for a budget wine
2010 Cargasacchi Jalama Vineyard - great fruit forward presentation

Cornerstone Cellars, Oregon
I usually see Cornerstone’s Craig Camp (left) singing the praises of his Napa Valley fruit, but this time he was touting the Oregon branch office, which produces some very good Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  He chatted about good grapes, cool climate and tough vintages.
2010 Stepping Stone - tea, acidity
2010 Cornerstone Oregon - nice acidity and tartness from a difficult vintage; classic, floral, delicate

Derby Wine Estates, Paso Robles, CA
2007 San Simeon Reserve - like port on the nose, dark and intense flavors

Domaine Serene, Oregon
2009 Winery Hill - cherry cola
2008 Evenstad Reserve - blend of seven vineyards; earthy, black tea, great acidity

Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard, Los Olivos, CA
2010 Sta Rita Hills - due in Feb. fruit comes first
2010 Sta Rita Hills Clone 115 - acidity
2010 Sta Rita Hills Pommard Clone - dark, coffee and tea

Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery, San Francisco, CA
Fort Ross-Seaview is a new appellation, along the western edge of the Sonoma AVA.
2007 Fort Ross Vineyard - minerals
2009 Fort Ross Vineyard - coffee and tea

Inception Wines, Los Angeles, CA
This SoCal vintner sources grapes from Santa Barbara County.
2010 Central Coast - fruit from Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Los Alamos;  nice black tea notes
2010 Santa Babara County - rich dark fruit
2009 Sta Rita Hills La Encantada - beautiful black tea and acidity

Kendric Vineyards, San Anselmo, CA
2008 Marin County - very floral, holiday spice
2009 Marin County - more minerals

MacRostie Winery, Sonoma, CA
2008 Sonoma Coast - abundant minerals
2008 Wildcat Mountain - big tea notes, acidity
Both are very BIG wines

Pali Wine Company, Lompoc, CA
2010 Bluffs - Russian River Valley fruit;  BIG fruity nose, huge floral and tea aspect on palate;  These guys make enormous wines.

Stoller Vineyards, Dundee Hills, OR
2009 Reserve - very fruity

Thomas Fogarty Winery, Portola Valley, CA
2010 Santa Cruz Mountains - cranberry, earth
2010 Rapley Trail Vineyard - fruity tea
2010 Windy Hill Vineyard - minerals, earth, pomegranate

Thomas George Estates, Healdsburg, CA
2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir - refreshing, dry, mineral laden
2010 Russian River Valley - minerals black tea
2009 Star Ridge - dark and fruity

Witch Creek Winery, Carlsbad, CA
2009 Clarksburg - funky candy

It was Nice bumping into Jeff Zimmitti of Rosso Wine Shop in Glendale.  Jeff told me he has been appearing quite a bit on The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis. Apparently Leykis has broadened his spectrum from cult cabs to European wine of late, particularly Italian varieties, which has to make Zimmitti happy.

It was a big surprise to see Heidi Hamilton, my one-time radio buddy, there.  She is now appearing in the morning show on KLOS/Los Angeles.  She was pouring at the station’s bubbly booth, helping cleanse palates when not darting over to one side of the room or the other for a taste of Pinot.  Hamilton thought I was kidding when I told her I spit out my tastes.  “I’d drink over a gallon of wine if I didn’t,” I explained.  “What am I, in college?”

Rob Barnett of Vin Village was situated perfectly to catch people as they entered the hall.  We chatted briefly about wines from Clarksburg and Baja, until he was overrun by fans.

Josh Klapper of La Fenêtre kept up his usual fast-paced patter while throwing an aside to me without breaking stride.  “That’s off the record, Randy,” he shot my way.  I wish I’d been paying attention to what he was saying at the time.  I was distracted by his wines.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

V. Sattui Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Founded in 1885 by Vittorio Sattui, this winery knows that wine goes with food.  They have an extensive deli at the Napa Valley tasting room which offers over 200 cheeses from all over the world, and you can have a picnic under the oaks outside.  V. Sattui produces, by my count, eleven different Cabernet Sauvignons.  Their wines are available only from the winery, either at their tasting room or from their website.

V. Sattui’s 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon represents a vintage which experienced a spring frost and a dry growing season, meaning a lower yield and increased intensity in the grapes.  It is a blend of three Cabs from Henry, Preston and Vittorio's vineyards, fermented separately and aged in French oak for 18 months.  There is a 2% blast of Petit Verdot and a 1% hit of Cabernet Franc in the blend.  The retail price is $35.

Looking at it in the glass, it's a very dark wine, inky purple, and the nose gives aromas that are equally dark.  Cassis, plum, blackberry and a faint whiff of tar make a ripe, bold bouquet.  The flavors are fruity as well, with currant and blackberry appearing forcefully, but complexity appears in a savory note of pencil shavings that rides underneath the fruit.  The tannins exert a bit of force - good news if there's a thick, juicy steak in your future - but the silky mouthfeel allows for the wine to be enjoyed all alone as a sipper, if you like.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Monday, November 19, 2012

Wines Of Spain: Ribera Del Duero

Spanish wine publicists have been beating the streets for the past few years, trying to carve out a bigger piece of the American wine pie.  Spain is trying to claw their way to higher visibility among U.S. wine drinkers.  They are presently fourth on the list of America’s favorite European wine, and struggling to nudge producers like Australia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa out of the way.  Individual wine regions within Spain sometimes seem to be fighting each other for attention, purporting that their taste is the true taste of Spain.  The Taste Ribera wine tasting event, held at The Red O restaurant in Los Angeles on November 8, 2012, had its timing just right for pouring in Tinseltown.  It was International Tempranillo Day.

Tempranillo - or Tinto Fino, as it is locally known - is the main grape variety used for making wines in Ribera del Duero.  The region is located about two hours north of Madrid in Spain's northern plateau, on the Duero River.  Its diverse soil - rocky limestone in the higher elevations and sandy clay near the river - and extreme climate give Ribera a distinctive terroir.  Winemaking dates back two thousand years there, but the region did not achieve Denominación de Origen status until 1982.

There are three main types of wine made from Tempranillo in Ribera.  Crianza is required to age in oak for a year and another year in the bottle.  Reserva wines spend a year in oak and two years in the bottle.  Gran Reserva wines age in oak for two years, then rest for three years in the bottle.  Tempranillo is sometimes blended with Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but it is most often seen as a 100% varietal wine.

At Taste Ribera, the wines of Tinto Pesquera displayed the highest minerality.  Their '08 Reserva beat out their '09 Crianza for the title.

Convento San Francisco was built on the ruins of a 13th-century convent.  Their '06 Tinto Fino contains 10% Merlot and is aged twelve months in oak.

From Bodegas Felix Callejo, the '10 Flores de Callejo and the '07 Callejo Crianza both show restrained oak with a nice touch of spice.  The Callejo '06 Reserva has loads of fresh fruit despite the extra year in barrels.

With all the rules about oak in the wines of Ribera, it was refreshing to taste a Tempranillo aged in stainless steel tanks.  The Bodegas Valdubón 2010 Consecha was fresh and lively, showing pure fruit flavor unfettered by wood.

The Valduero '09 Crianza and '05 Reserva are both smooth, lush, fruity and floral.

Strong minerals come forth on the Protos '08 Crianza and their '09 Tinto Fino.  The former presents great tannins while the latter has a strong fruit profile.

Besides the wines that are already distributed in the U.S., there were some wineries present which are looking for representation.  One of the notables was Bodegas y Viñedos del Linaje Garsea.  Their 2011 Garsea Roble is an easy drinking and impressive showcase for plum flavors, while their '09 Garsea Crianza is muscular and chewy.  Six months oak for the Roble, 15 months for the Crianza.  Their wines are made using an extended maceration, so you get plenty of color.  The skin contact lasts from eight to ten days.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Friday, November 16, 2012

Beekeeper Zinfandel Rockpile Appellation 2010

My friend Ian Blackburn is well known to Los Angeles wine lovers as a wine educator.  He throws some of the most extravagant and delightful wine tasting events to be found in Southern California under his Learn About Wine shingle.  He is also a winemaker now.

I caught up with Blackburn at his downtown L.A. event loft, where he treated me to a glass of his Beekeeper Zinfandel, Rockpile Appellation 2010.  The name of the wine has an interesting story.

He borrowed the crest of Blackburn, England, where a lot of honey is made.  This fit well with the fact that his great-great-great grandparents came to America as actors.  Acting wasn’t one of the professions available on the form, so they wrote down “beekeeper.”  When Ian told his father of the name ha had chosen for his wine, Dad told him, “That was my radio handle in the war!”  The name seems to have been destined for his use.

Beekeper is dark purple, with a huge nose featuring floral aromas along with cherry and black cherry.  The palate has a beefy texture, with firm tannins and flavors of dark cherry, spice, minerals and earth.  It has a masculine edge and can definitely take the place of a Cabernet.

The limestone and loam soil in the Rockpile appellation, just northwest of Dry Creek Valley, comes through without a hitch.  The hillside vines in the Madrone Spring Vineyard are all harvested by hand, with those teeny, pea sized berries and small clusters destemmed meticulously.  Rockpile was branded by Robert Parker as one of the best Zinfandel sites in northern California.

Zinfandel makes up 89% of the wine, while 11% is Petite Sirah.  Blackburn is guided in the winemaking process by Dry Creek Valley winemaker Clay Mauritson.  Beekeeper's alcohol content is a big 15.4%, and the wine retails for $60.  Blackburn admits it is a high price point for Zinfandel, but one taste shows that it will step easily into the role of a $100 bottle of Cab.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Muga Rosé 2011

A good rosé is an awesome thing.  Bodegas Muga makes an awesome rosé, which is a very good thing.

Many wine novices think that rosé wine is made from mixing red and white grapes.  Actually, rosé is usually made by limiting the skin contact when the grapes are crushed - a grape’s color is in the skin.  In Muga’s case, there is a 12-hour period when the juice is in contact with the skins.

This Spanish wine from Rioja, however, is made with both red and white grapes:  60% Garnacha, 30% Viura and 10% Tempranillo.  The wine is fermented 25 days in American oak and aged two months in same.  It cost $8 by the glass at Tender Greens.

The color is quite pretty, showing a very pale salmon hue.  A whiff of watermelon and cherry is in the forefront, but the oak does not come forward.  On the palate, flavors of melons meet an herbal quality, a sort of greenness.

I paired it with the herb-brushed albacore, grilled Brussels sprouts, spinach salad with feta and hazelnuts and mashed potatoes.  The Muga rosé was a worthy match for all the food on the plate.  By the way, a nice, dry rosé is a great thing to have around the house if you are expecting to serve any sandwiches.  Sandwiches made from leftover turkey and ham are what I am thinking about right now.

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tasting Argentine Wine

Tasting Argentina - Game of Grapes - was another great presentation from Learn About Wine.  Ian Blackburn’s group puts on the premier wine events in Southern California, and this one, on October 25, 2012, brought wines from South America to the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

There are a number of aspects about the wine industry in Argentina which I find fascinating.  The speed at which the country turned the quality of their wine around 180 degrees was phenomenal.  Their branding of Malbec and Torrontes as "national grapes" has expanded to a global stage.  The limited use of oak in many of their wines would be cutting-edge if it weren't often due simply to the high cost of barrels.

There's a lot about Argentine wine to capture any wine lover's fancy.  Here are a few questions I found myself wondering about after Tasting Argentina.  Prices listed are suggested retail.

What's Up With Argentine Chardonnay?

Chardonnay produced in Argentina can taste wildly different from Californian or French styles, sometimes taking on a characteristic that leaves me wondering if it was, in fact, Chardonnay at all.

Urraca Chardonnay 2009 Mendoza - Organic and aged only 6 months in oak.  It’s unusual for an Argentine white to have any oak at all.  Dark and earthy, this wine has smoke to burn.  I tasted the 2008 vintage a couple of years ago, and it carried a nose like Champagne.  The '09 is so dark and smokey it might fool a lot of tasters into thinking it's something other than Chardonnay.  Extremely intriguing.

Secreto Patagónico Chardonnay 2011 Patagonia - The smokey, mineral-driven palate surprises, since the wine is unoaked.

Telteca Robles Chardonnay 2011 Maipú Mendoza - Beautiful fruit and just a hint of oak. $13

Telteca Anta Chardonnay/Viognier 2011 Maipú Mendoza - A half and half blend of the two grapes, and half of the Chardonay is barrel aged for six months.  Aromatic nose, great oak effect. $18

Why Doesn't Argentina Just Do Away With Oak Altogether?

Many Argentine red wines are treated with minimal - sometimes a complete lack of - oak.  I have been told many small family wineries can't afford barrels for all their varieties, so they save the wood for aging their Malbec.  But even larger production facilities in Argentina will go a little easier on the oak that we might expect in California.  I love this tendency, as the fruit can taste so much brighter and fresher with minimal or no oak effect.  That isn't always the case, though, with unoaked reds in Argentina.

Costaflores MTB Malbec/Petit Verdot Mendoza - Organic, unoaked, single vineyard, earthy minerals, dark fruit. $22  (Check out winemaker Mike Barrow’s underwater wine tasting.)

Pascual Toso Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Barrancas, Maipú District, Mendoza - Only 8 months in oak, earthy notes rule.  $13

Michel Torino Don David Finca La Maravilla #6 Malbec 2010 Salta - A single plot in a single vineyard.  Unoaked, but dark and mineral-driven.  $20

Secreto Patagónico Pinot Noir 2011 Patagonia - Unoaked, showing earthy minerals and a raspberry candy note.

Secreto Patagónico Malbec 2011 Patagonia - No oak and bright red fruit.  Earthy, fresh and lively.

Secreto Patagónico Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Patagonia - Unoaked, with big bright fruit.  Secreto is seeking an importer, by the way.

Argentine Malbec

When Argentine wines are poured, Malbec is the star of the show.  The Bordeaux castoff has found a comfy home in Argentina, like many other human wine transplants from Europe.  Malbec is the pride of the Argentine wine world, and its leading exported variety.

Achavel Ferrer Malbec Mendoza 2011  Luján de Cuyo, Uco Valley - Lean and earthy, aged in oak nine months.  $25

Uma Coleccion Malbec 2011 Maipú Mendoza - Very smooth, with beautiful fruit and minerals.  Only three months in oak.  $10

Telteca Roble Malbec 2009 Maipú Mendoza - Minerals galore, only six months in oak.  $13

Pascual Toso Malbec Estate 2011 Mendoza - Dark fruit and a very earthy undercurrent.  $13

Dante Robino Gran Dante Malbec 2009 Mendoza - Smokey, earthy, spicy, great grip.  $39

Muñoz De Toro Valle Perdido Patagonia Malbec 2010 Neuquén Patagonia - Extremely dark, huge smoke and earth.  Nine months oak.  $12

Solsticio Malbec Rosé 2011 Uco Valley - The winemaker was throwing away the juice from the bleed off of Malbec production when somebody said, "Hold on a minute! Lets do a rosé!"  Great acidity.

Why isn't Bonarda The National Grape of Argentina?

Not to knock Malbec, but Argentina has another red wine grape that, for my money, is more flavorful and more interesting.  Bonarda is spicy, complex and loaded with character.  The examples on display at this event offered candy-coated complexity and fresh, fruity palates.

Algodon Bonarda 2010 San Rafael, Mendoza - Gorgeous red fruit with minerals, smoke and spice.  Organic.  $21

Dante Robino Bonarda 2010 Mendoza - Spicy raspberry, fresh and bright.  $13

Muñoz De Toro Terra Sacra Reserve Bonarda 2009 La Rioja, Andes Argentina - Beautiful spice and candy notes.  14 months oak.

Ricardo Santos Tercos Bonarda 2009 Mendoza - Beautiful, lean, red fruit.  $13

Don't Forget Torrontés

I was told that Torrontés from the northern part of Argentina had the best aromatics, but that was from someone who was pouring Torrontés from the northern part of Argentina.  I noticed plenty of aromatics in wines from the south as well.

Pascual Toso Torrontés 2010 Barrancas, Maipú District - Beautiful honeysuckle nose, fruity palate and an abundance of minerals.  $13

Uma Coleccion Torrontés 2011 Maipú Mendoza - Huge floral and fruit on the nose and palate.  $10

Familia Schroeder Deseado 2012 Patagonia - Torrontés, sweet with great acidity.  Pair with blue cheese.  $15

Michel Torino Don David Torrontés 2012 Salta - All about the minerals.  High elevation vineyards, three months oak.  $17

Muñoz De Toro 100 x 100 Argentina Vineyard Selection Torrontés 2012 La Rioja - Floral with a green element.  Nice citrus.  Strong finish

Recuerdo Torrontés 2011 Valle de Famatina, La Rioja - High elevation, sandy clay soil.  Sweet floral nose, mineral driven palate.  Only their second vintage.

Ricardo Santos Tercos Torrontés 2011 Salta - Honeysuckle and grapefruit bouquet, with flavors of flowers, nuts and citrus.  $13

Solsticio Torrontés 2011 La Rioja - Honeysuckle nose, mineral-driven, citrus palate.

Other notables

There are many other types of wine in Argentina, of course.  Italian varieties get some vineyard space, and the Patagonia region in southernmost part of the country is coming out with some intense Pinot Noir, although the region's overall quality is still rather varied.

Saurus Barrel Fermented Pinot Noir 2009 Patagonia - Candy and earth.  $25

Familia Schroeder Pinot Noir / Malbec 2007 Patagonia - Earthy, yet bright.  $60

Graffigna Centenario Reserve Pinot Grigio 2011 San Juan - Minerals and peaches.  $13

Michel Torino Cuma Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Salta - Really smokey, campfire aromas.  Six months in oak.

Muñoz De Toro Pampas Estate Barbera/Merlot 2011 Pampas Buenos Aires - Smokey and supple, with a cherry explosion.  50%Barbera, 50% Merlot.  Hard to believe only 3 months in oak.

Ricardo Santos Dry Semillon 2011 Mendoza - Honey and grapefruit.  $16

Follow Randy Fuller on Twitter