Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pasadena PinotFest 2013

People who love Pinot Noir love Pinot Noir tasting events.  One of the best that we look forward to in Southern California is the Pasadena PinotFest.

This year's sixth annual event is set for Saturday February 9, 2013 from 1:00 to 4:30 p.m. at the Altadena Country Club.    A kickoff tasting and a kickoff dinner are scheduled at Noir Food and Wine.  As always, the Grand Tasting event will feature gourmet bites from Chef Claude Beltran.  His contribution to the Grand Tasting is a large - and tasty - one.

Noir's Managing Partner and Wine Director Mike Farwell started PinotFest in 2008, and it has grown in popularity since then.  Over 100 California wineries will share their Pinot Noir wines this year, and the tasting  environment is superb.

The event benefits Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services, which provides a comprehensive range of family-centered social, educational, preventive and behavioral health programs serving children, adults and families in need.

Opus Bank leads a list of corporate sponsors which deserve congratulations for their input.

If you love Pinot Noir, you'll love the Pasadena PinotFest - even though invariably a producer or two will sneak in a bottle of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.  They serve as great palate-cleansers.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lange Twins Lodi Zinfandel 2010

Zin lovers are frothing at the mouth, chomping at the bit - they can’t wait, already.  The ZAP Festival - Zinfandel Advocates and Producers - is an annual immersion into the world of the Zinfandel grape.  Each year San Francisco turns into Zin City as devotees flock there by the thousands to sample Zin after Zin.

Randall and Charlene Lange, of Lange Twins Family Winery and Vineyards, were kind enough to send me a sample of their Zin, thinking I may want a sneak peek at it before they pour it at ZAP.  If you are attending, they would love for you to stop by the table and say hi to Steven Folb and Andrea Roselli, the lucky team members who will pouring.

The Langes are a fifth-generation farming family.  All nine members of the clan are involved in the operation of the winery, which opened in 2006.

Lange Twins is certified “green” by Lodi Rules Sustainable Winegrowing, California’s first third-party sustainable winegrowing program.  The winery passed an independent audit of their viticultural practices to achieve that honor.  The Langes see themselves not just as farmers, but as stewards of the land.  They appear to take that position seriously.

There is a lot of Zinfandel planted in the Lodi AVA, where the warm days and cool nights prove to be just right for California's heritage grape.  The Langes have some comments on their website about the 2010 vintage, which they say fell under the heading of “challenging.”  They say, “2010’s fruit quality varied not only between appellations but between neighboring vineyards. When a clear blue sunny day was seen in the Clements region, the heart of the Lodi and Clarksburg Appellations were still under fog. This led to specific lots delivering intense flavors, whereas others were not as memorable.“

The Langes say having estate vineyards spread out over the area gave them the opportunity to blend grapes from different vineyards, one of which was planted in 1903.

Winemaker David Akiyoshi learned his trade while working for the Mondavi company.  He believes in true varietal expression and feels that wine’s natural place is on the dinner table next to some food.  Oh, he’s also a restaurateur.  At his School Street Bistro in downtown Lodi, you’ll not be surprised to find that Lange Twins is the house wine.

The Lange Twins 2010 Zinfandel is a potent wine, carrying a 14.9% alcohol number.  The suggested retail price is $15.

The wine shows medium color in the glass - a pretty, ruby red hue - and medium density in the mouth.  The nose gives off quite a bit of alcohol early, so a full decanting is advised.  Big, jammy blueberry aromas are laden with spice.  Vanilla from the oak is there, but I also pick up cedar and a note of cigar.  The tannins are full and firm, even when the bottle is open for three days.  In that time, a brambly flavor comes through.  The palate is full of fruit and spice as well, with a long-lasting finish in which ripe blackberries are the final memory.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

STARS Of Santa Barbara Wine Luncheon 2013

The tenth annual STARS of Santa Barbara event brought the Santa Barbara wine country to Beverly Hills for a show I was pleased to cover.  Look for my notes on all the wines I tasted at the event, coming Friday on Now And Zin Wine.

As a prelude to the event - staged by Ian Blackburn's Learn About Wine organization - I had the good fortune of an invitation to a luncheon which featured eight wines produced by wineries represented at the meal.

The Guests

Mr. Blackburn hosted the affair at the Peninsula Hotel.  I was honored to be at the table with some notable wine industry folks and media people.  Karen Steinwachs (Buttonwood Winery,) Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench Winery,) Kenneth Volk (Kenneth Volk Winery) and Tim Snider (Fess Parker Winery) were there from the production end.  Sommeliers Dana Farner (CUT) and Jeffrey Stivers (N-Naka) joined Bottlerock co-owner Fred Hakim from the retail end.  The press side of the table was filled by Corie Brown (,) Eve Bushman (,) Arianna Armstrong (,) Barbara Hansen (,) Tom Leykis (The Tasting Room with Tom Leykis,) Gary Zabransky (Tom’s producer,) Jonathan Cristaldi (,) and myself. Michelle McCue (McCue Communications) was the sole public relations specialist.

The Menu

Simple and delicious:

Mixed baby lettuces with toasted walnut goat cheese and sweet red onion vinaigrette.
Chicken breast with mascarpone polenta, tomatoes, sweet corn and chicken jus.
Beef tenderloin with potato purée, Bloomsdale spinach, asparagus and red wine.
Assorted breads with sweet butter.
Cheese plate.

The Conversation

Dana Farner commented that she oversees the wine at a steakhouse in Beverly Hills, but it was still surprising that she sells 93% red and only 7% white wines.  She related the story of a male customer - at a table of men - who asked her, “Would you still respect is if we started with white wine?"  The consensus answer around our table was, "probably more."

Jeffrey Stivers of N-Naka said his experience is almost the opposite of Farner's - he moves mostly white wines, due to the restaurant’s Japanese cuisine.

Buttonwood winemaker Karen Steinwachs (right, with Kenneth Volk) got a discussion started on politics.  She observed that “the US government does nothing to help people who make alcoholic beverages, while other governments around the world help their winemakers.”  The wine industry folks were in favor of a little help from Washington, if only to make it easier to put a label on a bottle.  She figures, “"If we all drank more wine, we'd have world peace."  Couldn’t like it more.

Steinwachs also commented that “80% of grapes grown in Santa Barbara County go to wineries not located in Santa Barbara County.”  The fruit, she notes, is of such high quality that everyone wants to use it.  And, seemingly, they do.

Kenneth Volk held court for several topics, but he naturally elaborated at length on the grapes he loves.  Volk is a very well-educated man - Cal Poly SLO - and if you ever want to learn something about wine, find him and stand next to him for a while.  He’s a walking class credit in oenology.  He pointed out that someone once said “Ken never met a grape he didn’t like,” then admitted that he likes some grapes better than others.  He did five delightful minutes on what constitutes a heritage variety before someone grabbed the wheel and drove the show onward.

The Wines

The luncheon featured an eight-sample tasting of wines by producers who were present at at the meal.  Prices given are suggested retail.

1)  Buttonwood Zingy 2012 Sauvignon Blanc  $20
Steinwachs told us this one was bottled just two days before.  It’s actually Sauvignon Musquée, and just under 300 cases were made.  "We're probably known more for our peaches than our wine," she said, with an aside about the Buttonwood "Peach Nazi" who oversees their stone fruit.  Seems nobody can get a sample from him.  The wine is very aromatic, with peaches and chewing gum on the nose.  Stivers pinned it down, calling it a Juicy Fruit note, and I'll be darned if he wasn't right.  There’s a green edge to the tropical fruit on the palate. Great acidity made it a natural pairing with the salad.

2)  Epiphany Grenache Blanc 2011  $25
Tim Snider (left) said the Epiphany brand was started as an outlet for (Fess Parker winemaker) Eli Parker's desire to do artisanal wines.  Fermented in 80% steel and 20% old French oak, from gravelly loam, the wine displays an aromatic nose - savory and nutty with a hint of band aid.  Light in the mouth, savory fruit and minerals are joined by a nice acidity.  Bright and fresh.

3)  Kenneth Volk Albariño 2011  $24
Albariño grapes from the Riverbench Vineyard were the first of that variety grown in the Santa Maria Valley, according to Volk.  The nose is very aromatic with fruity flowers, while the palate shows a beautiful acidity and savory, nutty fruit.  Volk is drawn to unconventional grape varieties like a moth to a porch light.  He revealed that he is making a Touriga Nacional, dry, among a boatload of other "forgotten grapes."

4)  Riverbench Chardonnay 2010   $26
Fermented in the barrel, with 11 months of oak aging, This Chardonnay is made from clones 4 and 15, if you're scoring at home.  The nose is full and sweet, and there’s plenty of oak on the palate, too. Flavors of baked apples ride on a nice acidity, but it’s still creamy in the mouth.

5)  Kenneth Volk Pinot Noir 2009  $30.
A blend of grapes from three vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, this one has a beautiful floral nose with minerals and cola poking forward, and fabulous acidity.  Commenting on the notion of whole-cluster pressing, Volk said, "I don't like stemminess."

6)  Riverbench Pinot Noir Mesa 2010  $48.
This wine is darker on nose and palate than the Volk Pinot.  Winemaker Clarissa Nagy said "I think it's the clay, but it may be the age of the vines."  Lovely black velvet on the palate, great with feta cheese.

7)  Buttonwood Cabernet Franc 2009  $26.
Steinwachs calls Cabernet Franc "The Pinot Noir of the Bordeaux family.  It's the fussiest, most finicky grape to grow, and once it's in the winery, it's even more demanding."  Blackburn cited the old-world style of this Santa Ynez Valley wine,  showing a floral, cherry candy nose and black cherry’s dark side on the palate.  Nice acidity.

8)  Epiphany Revelation 2009  $40
A Rhone blend drawn from Santa Barbara County vineyards, Snider says this is Epiphany’s most popular wine.  The Grenache/Syrah mix spent nearly two years in oak.  The nose has big black cherry fruit with a brambly feel.  In the mouth, fabulous acid and great, big flavors of cherry, black tea and minerals.  With all that at work, it still has a creamy mouthfeel.

Snider talked about the resurgence of Syrah.  When he said "Syrah is growing in the northeast," all the media types went for their notebooks.  Eve Bushman (right) went for the social media.  Snider quickly clarified that it was Fess Parker’s sales of Syrah that are growing in the northeast.  Relief all around.

After the luncheon, we headed into the banquet room to taste more of Santa Barbara’s bounty.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Wine Tasting Event: In Pursuit of Balance L.A.

The first couple of months of a new year in Los Angeles always seem to be jam-packed with wine tasting events of all shapes and sizes.  Here’s one that has a bit of a crusade attached to it - crusades are great excuses to get out and taste some wine, by the way.

In Pursuit of Balance - IPOB - will be held on Wednesday, February 6th at the London Hotel in West Hollywood.  The San Francisco event occurs two days previous.  There are two morning seminarsplanned, an afternoon media/trade tasting and a consumer tasting event that evening.  See ticket information for all facets of the event here.

IPOB accents Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers who make wines with balance and food compatibility in mind.  Terroir and varietal identity mean a lot to these folks, and they feel no need to push the winemaking envelope to try and lose those concepts.  They feel that would be like fixing the wheel.  Why bother?  It’s perfect like it is.

My friend Dan Fredman is helping to promote the event, and he tells me IPOB was created by sommelier Rajat Parr (Michael Mina and RN74) and Sonoma wine businesswoman Jasmine Hirsch (Hirsch Vineyards) in an effort to get wine “out of the trophy room and back on the dinner table.”  Fredman promises more of an “evangelical outreach than a normal wine tasting.”

The day kicks off with a seminar examining the relevance and purpose of Chardonnay in California.  This event has the Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jon Bonné, as moderator, and panelists
Gavin Chanin (Chanin Wine Company,) Matt Licklider (Lioco,) Rajat Parr, (Sandhi Wines) and Bob Varner (Varner.)

The midday seminar concerns whole cluster fermentation in Pinot Noir, with discussions of the pros and cons moderated by writer Jordan Mackay, with panelists Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat,) Ehren Jordan (Failla Wines) and Jamie Kutch (Kutch Wines.)

The trade/media tasting fills up the afternoon and the consumer tasting event is in the evening, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m.

The grassroots movement to maintain balance in wine is really catching on in California, where many feel it really needs to catch on.  Although the seminars might be a bit geeky, the wine tasting event will feature wines from the 28 members of IPOB, which is something anyone can enjoy.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Artisan Wine Of Santa Barbara County

There’s a great event coming in mid-February that showcases the small wine producers of Santa Barbara County - the Garagiste Festival, Southern Exposure.  You may already know about the Garagiste Festival, held each fall in Paso Robles.  With two years under their artisan belts, the event has been hailed as a superb introduction to the boutique wineries of the Paso Robles AVA.  Now they venture south.

The inaugural Garagiste Festival Southern Exposure is set for February 16, 2013 in Solvang, CA.  Get details here and make plans to attend.

To promote the event in Los Angeles, a mini-tasting was held in January at Wood and Vine, a very nice restaurant and wine bar on Hollywood Boulevard near, naturally, Vine Street.  Several of Santa Barbara County’s small-production winemakers poured their wares at this small happening and showed why attending the main event is a must.

One of the founders of the event, Douglas Minnick, told me at this mini-affair that a lot of wine lovers from San Luis Obispo came in for the experience.  That’s a switch - wine country coming to Los Angeles for the day!

Here’s what I tasted:

Kessler-Haak Vineyard and Wines
Dan Kessler, Grower and Winemaker

Estate Chardonnay 2009, $29 - Eleven months in French oak feels just about right.  The wood plays beautifully in a well-balanced effort, despite a 15.1% alcohol number.  Grapes hail from the Kessler-Haak Vineyard 11 miles west of Buellton.

Dry Riesling, Lafond Vineyard 2011, $20 - These grapes come from 40 year-old vines, the first that were planted by Pierre Lafond in the early 1970s.  This wine is covered in fruity peach and minerals from nose to palate.

Estate Pinot Noir, Clone 2A 2009, $40 - The grapes for this wine come from one of the cooler areas in the Sta. Rita Hills.  Great cherry and cola aromas and flavors, and only 13.7% abv. .

tercero wines
Larry Schaffer, Winemaker

Grenache Blanc 2010,  $20 - This wine's amazing bouquet is slate-driven, while the palate shows a nutty minerality and wonderful freshness.

2011 Viognier, $20 - Grapes from White Hawk Vineyard are used here, producing a nose laden with honeysuckle and a palate bursting with pears, flowers and a touch of earth.  The acidity is quite nice, too.

Cuvée Christie 2008, $30 - The nose has an abundance of bright cherry and lavender, while cola notes mingle with the cherries on the palate.

Cuvée Loco 2008, $30 - Syrah and Grenache from Larner Vineyard combine for lovely floral aromas and flavors of cherry and raspberry, with a great acidity.

Shai Cellars
Shawn Shai Halahmy, Winemaker and Proprietor

Adome 2009, $30 - 65% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon Santa Ynez Valley fruit from Tierra Alta Vineyard and the Jack McGinley Vineyard, respectively.  The wine spends 18 months in French oak and shows big, beautiful fruit with a touch of graphite and black pepper.

Grenache 2009, $25 - This is actually a Rhône-style blend from Estelle Vineyard that includes 15% Syrah.  It is aged for 18 months in French oak, and shows delightfully earthy cherries.

Adome 2010 - The next vintage of this brand will again feature 65% Syrah with 35% Grenache, in place of the '09's Cab.  I tasted a barrel sample that was showing brilliant fruit.  It should be even more complex when it's released later this year.

Frequency Wines
Almond Wasserman, Winemaker

Tierra Alta Syrah 2010, $26 - This brilliantly expressive wine would be worth the price just to smell it, if it didn't taste so good.  Chocolate, coffee and earth dominate the nose, while bright fruit flavors and a refreshing acidity take care of the palate.

Central Coast GSM 2011, $32 - Here's a CDP-inspired blend of 60% Camp 4 Grenache, 20% Colson Canyon Syrah and 20% Rancho de Cielo Mourvèdre, from Paso Robles' west side.  Earthy cherry aromas lead to black cherry flavors draped in minerality.

Camp 4 Grenache 2011, $38 - A nose of floral cherry and a palate of cherry and raspberry highlight this wine, made from grapes grown in one of the Santa Ynez Valley's most desired locations.

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Monday, January 21, 2013

Wine Country: New York Finger Lakes - Shaw Vineyard

Steve Shaw has the unenviable position of having a name which restricts a Google search for his product.  He is buried under a mountain of results for someone named Charles.  Shaw Vineyard and Winery, however, does not make bulk wine, and their bottles do not cost two bucks, although they do offer great value for the money.

After communicating with Steve Shaw, Jr. - the sales representative for the wine his father makes - only through emails, he came out west to pour his wares in Glendale, CA.  I finally had the chance to meet him and taste his wines in January at 55 Degree Wine, in their funky wine cellar downstairs from the store.  Shaw was there to spread the word about his family’s wines, but also to raise interest in East Coast wines in general.

The elder Steve Shaw has been growing wine grapes for 30 years.  He learned winemaking techniques during the 1990s and founded his label in 2002.  His production facility and tasting room are located on the western side of Seneca Lake, in New York’s Finger Lakes region.  He, and his son, are true believers in the Finger Lakes terroir.

The younger Shaw (at right) tells me their red wines are bottled nearly two years after their neighbors.  They like what the extra time in the barrel does for their reds.  French oak and American oak from Pennsylvania are used, along with some experimental use of Hungarian oak.

The credibility of the Finger Lakes area started with Riesling, and it’s still the region’s main grape.  But Shaw is quick to point out that they are not just a one-trick pony.  Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and even Cabernet Sauvignon also figure into the Shaw plan - along with Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc.

Shaw says all their wines are vegan-friendly, with no eggs or fish product used in the fining of their wines.  All their wines are estate - the main property is on Seneca Lake while grapes also come from a second vineyard site on Keuka Lake.

How far west do New York state wines usually go?  “Buffalo,” is Shaw’s retort.  He goes on to explain that most New York state wine is actually sold between Albany and Buffalo.  95 percent of the Shaw wines are sold in-state.

Shaw says their white wines are inspired by Alsace, Germany and Austria, while their reds harken to Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.  Here’s the tasting menu from the Shaw Vineyards and Winery tasting:

2006 Chardonnay
From a very cold vintage, this unoaked Chardonnay hails from the Keuka Lake property.  The wine sees no oak, but it does sit on the lees for two years.  All that contact with the spent yeast cells brings a creamy, full mouthfeel to the wine.  Beautiful tropical fruit graces the nose, while flavors of peaches and citrus peel are joined by a nice, easy acidity.  An earthy finish adds to the complexity.  At $15, a steal.

2007 Gewurztraminer
The Seneca Lake fruit makes for a very aromatic nose - I get the mental image of piney woods, or peaches and pears grown in a pine forest.  The palate is fresh with pineapple and guava.  Acidity is not a huge player in this wine, so it sips beautifully.  $19

2011 Sauvignon Blanc
A very slight grassiness can hardly keep pace with the fruity nose.  This is creamy, for a Sauvignon Blanc.  A soft, sweet edge shows peaches and citrus.  Again, the acidity does not figure largely, but the wine as flavor to burn.  $18

2010 Li Bella Pinot Grigio
Beautiful peaches and pears on the nose, with the same on the palate.  A medium mouthfeel and gentle acidity is wrapped in a package of slightly higher residual sugar than the other Shaw whites, around 1.4 percent.

2008 Riesling
Here’s another wine that sat on the lees, this time for three years.  The nose is very aromatic, with petrol coming through forcefully.  I pick up that slate minerality on the palate, too.  Minerality trumps the fruit, and a beautiful acidity rounds it out.

2008 Pinot Noir
This wine ages for 36 months in oak, but the effect of the wood treatment is not the least bit overdone.  The Shaw Pinot is unfiltered and unfined.  The nose displays a sackful of cherry candy, so it’s a surprise to find the palate showing tons of minerality.  Good acidity.  $30

2007 Cabernet Franc
An earthy, cherry bouquet accompanies a palate full of minerals and cherries.   Three years in oak again leaves no sign of a heavy hand - the wood is used to perfection.  $35

Keuka Hill Red Blend 
This mix of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot spends four years aging in oak barrels.  Again, the wood seems perfectly utilized.  A candy-like nose and a palate of beautiful, earthy blackberry, cherry and cola notes are topped with great acidity

It was so nice to meet some other wine geeks who attended the tasting.  Dr. Patrick Farrell is a Huntington Beach Master of Wine, while Ben Mason writes about wine under the banner of Hipster Enologist.  Wine writer and consultant Denise Lowe bills herself as the Goddess of Wine, and noted Southern California wine educator Dr. Joel Fisher stopped in for a taste of the Finger Lakes.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Sierra Pelona Valley Wine Festival

The first annual Sierra Pelona Valley Wine Festival, which was scheduled for January 26, 2013, has been postponed until April 20, 2013. In an email release on January 25th, event host Reyes Winery sent this message:

"Last night, the Sierra Pelona Valley Vintners Association announced the postponement of their 1st Annual Sierra Pelona Valley Wine Festival and Early Morning Vineyard Hike benefiting the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital that will now be held on Saturday, April 20, 2013."

Winemaker and event organizer Robert Reyes said, "We must put our guests’ safety first. The ground is deeply saturated from the recent storm, which is predicted to continue for the next couple of days including the day of the event. These conditions pose too great a risk for our guests and make the much anticipated Vineyard Hike next to impossible. We will look forward to seeing everyone in April. I am certain we will have some very special additions to announce in our exciting lineup of activities.”

The email continues, "The Festival will honor all tickets and exhibition fees collected for the event from exhibitors and guests. Those wishing to retain their tickets for admission into the April 20, 2013 event can do so, and all requests for refunds will be honored."

This missive about the 1st annual Sierra Pelona Valley Wine Festival may cause you to wonder, “Where is this wine festival, and how do I get there?”

In case you don’t know - don’t worry, lots of folks don’t - the Sierra Pelona Mountains are not only a scant 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, they are home to one of California’s more recently established American Viticultural Areas.

The Sierra Pelona Valley Vintners Association will hold their very first wine festival on Saturday January 26, 2013.  The festivities will occur at Reyes Winery, 10262 Sierra Highway in Agua Dulce, CA.  The official hours are 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but if you feel like making a real day of it, there’s an early morning hike organized.  Winemaker Robert Reyes will lead you up to the 4,000-foot level for a hawk’s eye view of the valley and the vineyards.

Reyes is not only hosting the event, leading the hike and pouring his wines - he will also have some of his own artwork on display, along with the works of several other local artists.

Robert Reyes is making some impressive wines at his frog farm-turned-winery - read about a few I tasted at last year’s Beverly Hills Wine Festival.

The Sierra Pelona Valley Wine Festival provides a great reason to get out of town for awhile on a beautiful Saturday - but it also provides a great way for Los Angelenos to explore the wine that’s right in their own backyard.

Here is the reason for the postponement, taken from the Reyes Winery website.

Who will be pouring:
Agua Dulce Winery
Alonso Family Vineyards
Antelope Valley Winery
Bacelar Wines
Coruce Vineyards
Chavez Vineyards
Diosa Tequila
Donna Harris Wine Biz
High Desert Cellars
Mike Rinn Wines
Mascari Vineyard in Bouquet Canyon
Mi Rancho Tequila
Montalvo Tequila
Naked Rebel Winery
Oreana Winery
Pulchella Winery
Reyes Winery
San Antonio Winery
Steve Hemmert Vineyards
Two Hearts Vineyards
Vampire Winery
Winehouse Vineyards
88 Tequila Co.

There will also be gourmet food samples:
California Bakery
Cheers At All Corked Up
Gourmet Blends
Dove Chocolate Discoveries
Gourmet Tamale Factory
Le Chene French Cuisine
Naked Juice
Mario’s Catering
Natcheryl Organic Café
PKs Chocolates
Pinch Me Seasonings
Roman Holiday Wine Lounge
Salt Creek Grille Catering
Truffles n Toffee
The Whole Wheatery

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bodega Vinae Mureri, Xiloca 2009

Spanish wine is a favorite of mine, and I love Garnacha in particular.  It’s a nice dining experience when the restaurant offers some Spanish choices on the wine list. Bow and Truss is such a place.  

The NoHo Arts District area of the San Fernando Valley is crammed with attractive dining options to accompany the theater options there. We stopped in to Bow and Truss before a screening of Les Miserables at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre.  

There’s a bit of a courtyard seating area in front of the eatery, and inside it’s all concrete floor, brick walls and wood nearly everywhere else.  From the kitchen in the rear, comes a blast of shiny aluminum. I ordered a Spanish Garnacha to pair with the pork belly tacos.

Bodega Vinae Mureri is located just a short distance outside the Calatayud region, in Aragon.  Its wines bear the designation of Vina de la Tierra.  This area is just as known as Calatayud for its high-altitude, old-vine Garnacha.

The Vinae Mureri Xiloca carries an alcohol content of 14.5%, is 100% Garnacha and sells at retail for around $12.  It cost $8 by the glass.  

Big, dark cherry notes burst from the glass as if they have been imprisoned there.  A meaty, beefy aroma supplements the fruit and a little essence of barnyard creeps in, too.  On the palate, cherries, cola and dusty minerals prevail in a wash of complexity.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Another Wine Surprise From Trader Joe's Bargain Rack

I keep tasting Trader Joe’s wines that are made in Santa Maria, and I keep finding them to be excellent wines for the price point.  Comique Révolution 2010 is another that exceeded my expectations.

Produced by Santa Maria’s Central Coast Wine Warehouse - an outfit now known as Central Coast Wine Services which produces other wines available at Trader Joe’s - I gave it a try based solely on the attraction of the name “Santa Maria.”  It’s one of my favorite wine locales in California’s Central Coast.  I don’t know that the grapes are sourced there, but it does bear the mark of the Central Coast AVA.

There is very little of value on the label - just some prose and tasting notes.  The wine carries an alcohol content of 14.2% and sells at Trader Joe’s for five dollars.

The label has no information on the grape varieties used, but the Trader Joe website tells me this is a southern Rhône blend of Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne - grapes I don’t expect in a wine that sells at this price.  the website also mentions in a roundabout way that the Central Coast Wine Warehouse is a collective of grape growers turned winemakers.  Steve, Nicholas and Marshall Miller are the owners, while Chris Brown is the director of winemaking.

The wine’s color is a pale yellow, and the bouquet is quite inviting.  Aromas of white flowers, peaches and tropical fruit are pleasant, if not terribly forceful.  On the palate, the wine shows medium weight and bright, fresh acidity.  There are flavors of stone fruit, but the taste is centered around a vibrant minerality.  Earthy, nutty tones are at the forefront, while spices and citrus peel dart in and out during the sip.  I guess the spice is a result of oak treatment, although I could not find any technical sheet to confirm that.

As I have said before about wines of this type, it’s not knocking anybody off their feet.  But spending half a sawbuck for wine that delivers what this one does is what I call a good deal.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

If you do a Google search for "cult cab," you find the word "Napa" coming up a lot, but Sonoma?  Not so much.  Winemaker Richard Arrowood produces Sonoma County wine grown on his Amapola Creek estate property.  It's on the western side of the Mayacamas Mountains, the range separating Sonoma Valley from Napa Valley.  

Arrowood has been at the winemaking game since the mid-1960s.  During his time with Chateau St. Jean, he created some of Sonoma County’s first single vineyard Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons.  He and his wife founded Arrowood Winery in 1985 and Arrowood remained on as head winemaker after selling to Mondavi, even through other ownership changes.  In 2010 he left his namesake winery to focus on his Amapola Creek label.

He sums up his winemaking philosophy as “prevention, not intervention,” and he tries to keep things as simple and as green as possible.

The Amapola Creek vineyards are farmed organically, and are licensed by the California Certified Organic Farmers group. In addition, the winery generates its own power from solar panels and keeps the grounds looking good with recycled water.

The 2007 Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon is the winery’s first vintage, with grapes taken from their China Wall, Bob Cat Run, and Fox Trot Meadow estate vineyards.  The Sonoma Valley grapes are 97% Cab with 3% Petit Verdot blended in.  The wine has an alcohol content of 15% and retails for $70. It is unfined and unfiltered.  The bottle I sampled was purchased by a family member as a Christmas gift for me.  For that, I offer heartfelt thanks, Christopher and Abbey!  

This is one inky, dark, intense Cab.  Absolutely no light gets through the glass with this wine in it.  The nose comes on like a Shiraz - very concentrated blackberry and currant aromas practically knock the glass out of my hand.  The faint sense of pencil shavings is what would make me guess Cabernet, but the fruit is the story here.  The palate explodes with dark berry flavors, too, and a fairly strong minerality rides shotgun.  Tannic structure is aggressive enough to tame a steak - even better, lamb - but it doesn't ruin the sipping experience.

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Wine Country Washington: Interview With Bob Betz, Betz Family Winery

The Now And Zin Wine Country series continues with wine from the state of Washington.  The overview of Washington wine’s historical perspective and the tasting notes of the wine sampled will come later.

I had the good fortune to chat by phone with the gentleman who agreed to supply the samples, Bob Betz, of Betz Family Winery.  The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Betz Family Winery makes a limited amount of high-quality wine using fruit from neighboring vineyards in the Columbia Valley AVA.  Betz describes his focus:  “It’s all red - we don’t make any whites - and they are Bordeaux varieties and Rhone varieties.  We have Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot.  And from the Rhone side of it, we make three different Syrahs that are all single-site Syrahs, and a southern Rhone blend that is Grenache-dominant.  We blend Cabernets from Red Mountain, the west end of the Yakima Valley and the Horse Heaven Hills area along the Columbia River.”

Is Grenache widely planted in Washington?  “No, it’s not,” Betz says, “but we’ve been making it for ten vintages.  There was Grenache planted in the ‘50s, and in the ‘70s and ‘80s we were making rosé out of it; it was probably the best rosé in the country, with fabulous color and density and a crisp edge.  Well, we learned a lot about making red wine from it, and I am a Southern Rhone nut.  We blend in Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Counoise with it.”

Betz confesses, “I used to whimsically say that all wine would be red if it could, and while the majority of the wine I drink is red, give me a good bottle of Gruner Veltliner or Riesling or Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.  We started with all red, and never say never, but right now it’s all red.”

His love of Gru-Vee led to a bit of a oenological experiment on his property.  “We planted 150 Gruner Veltliner vines right in front of the winery, but we have yet to make a wine from them,” say Betz.  “The acid is so, so powerful that it’s not gonna happen.”  Knowing how sommeliers love acidity, I suggested he make a lot just for them.  “No, this is even too much for them,” he says.  “We make about 20 gallons of juice every year and we have to dump it.  1.2, 1.3 grams, whew, it’s heavy stuff.  Since we had no on-site vineyards, I just wanted to show people who visit that wine is a part of the earth.  You don’t just turn a spigot and get wine.  This vineyard is there to remind people where it comes from.”

I have been told that Washington Syrahs are great.  “Yes,” he exclaims.  “What we appreciate up here is the cooler growing season, especially once we hit post-véraison, [the onset of ripening] where our daytime temperatures are not so high, our nighttime temperatures are pretty low.”

Betz harvests mainly in September, but with Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, he may let the grapes hang on the vine a bit longer.  “There’s not a lot of photosynthetic potential left in late October to early November here in the Columbia Valley, but we see a little increase in sugar accumulation, so we like to let them hang longer when we can.  Both of these varieties seem to like that lingering development.

“Two of our three Syrahs are from pretty cool sites.  One is from Red Mountain, a warm site, one is from the far west end of the Yakima Valley where it cools down pretty dramatically from mid-September, and then one right in between, the coolest of the sites at much higher altitude.”

I asked Betz if he thinks there is a single grape the Washington wine industry can hang its hat on.  “No” was the quick answer.  “Just about the time I get all wrapped up in Washington Riesling, or Chardonnay, or Syrah or Cabernet, I taste something really compelling and realize we’re doing a better job at deciding site/variety marriages than we were even ten years ago.  There are sites where great Riesling is being grown, some warm sites where Cabernet Sauvignon comes from, and Syrah from both types of sites.”

Since a little history is always part of tasting wine from one of the American states, I asked Betz to encapsulate Washington wine history.  “Vinifera grapes [wine grapes of European origin] were planted in Washington back in the 1800s,” he says, “but our real history starts about 1950 or so when two wine companies decided they had had enough of loganberry and olallieberry and currant wines, and decided to give vinifera grapes a try.  Eventually the two companies merged and became Chateau Ste. Michelle.  In the mid-1960s Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery began popping vinifera into the ground.”

Betz has been in the wine business a long time, and he spent a significant part of that time in the service of Chateau Ste. Michelle.  Betz says, “Having been there for 28 years, I have a great deal of respect for what they do and how they do it.  Making four thousand cases of wine is one thing, making four million is... wow, I’m in awe.”

“A guy named Walter Clore was at Washington State University, and he is really the father of Washington wine, but Ste. Michelle’s influence on Washington wine cannot be overstated.  I don’t say that as an ex-employee, I say it as a competitor.  We wouldn’t be here without them.”

He took a few seconds to muse about his time making Betz Family wine.  “This is our 17th vintage in the Columbia Valley.  We had the first winery here that was built from the ground up, specifically to be a winery.  People made wine in garages before that.”

Betz is selling the winery, and he makes it sound like he’s okay with that.   “I’ll be released from day to day operations, so someone else will worry about forklift fuel and insurance policies.  I’ll get to focus on winemaking.”  In other words, Betz is not in the market for a rocking chair.

I hope to post about specific Betz Family wines sometime next week.

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Taste The Great Wine Of Santa Barbara

For those of us who like to attend wine tasting events in Southern California, January can be an action-packed month.  There’s a lot of sniffing, swirling and sipping going on around Los Angeles.  The year can’t get off to a much better start than with the one provided by the STARS of Santa Barbara wine tasting.

The STARS series is staged by Ian Blackburn’s wine education outfit, Learn About Wine.  Blackburn is a wine educator who offers a Nebuchadnezzar full of palate-expanding classes and wine tasting events in Southern California all year.  His events are typically dressy affairs held in elegant surroundings and offering a huge array of top-quality wines for sampling.  He puts a lot into each of his events, so it's likely you'll get a lot out of them.

The 10th Annual STARS of Santa Barbara event is set for Wednesday, January 23, 2013 from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m.  The event is once again slated for the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.  Tickets start at $59 for general admission, $95 VIP ticket that includes early admission.  Those prices may rise as the event fills up to its capacity of 150 attendees.

If you are familiar with the Santa Barbara County wine scene, you’ll no doubt recognize many of the names on the list of participants:

STARS of Santa Barbara 2013 Participating Wineries:

Alma Rosa
Andrew Murray
Clos Pepe
Flying Goat
Grassini Family
Hillard Bruce
Jaffurs Wine
La Fenetre
Liquid Farm
Refugio Ranch
Reeves Ranch
Sanford Winery
Santa Barbara Winery
Silver Wines
Star Lane Estate
Zaca Mesa

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Napa Valley producer Smith-Madrone is run by two brothers named Smith.  The "Madrone" part of the winery's name comes from some of the trees that populated the Spring Mountain property when they planted the vineyards in 1971.  Stu and Charles feel that Smith-Madrone sounds better than "Smith-Douglas Fir, Smith-Manzanita, Smith-Oak and certainly Smith-Poison Oak."  Their steep, mountainside vines are dry-farmed at an altitude of between 1,300 and 2,000 feet.

Stu Smith was kind enough to send samples of his three latest releases.  The Smith-Madrone Riesling and Chardonnay have been covered already in this space.  Today, we’ll try the Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

The fruit from which this wine is made comes from vines that have been around for 36 years, and they are at the very top of the property.   The Smith brothers get a little geeky when talking about the dirt - “red ‘Aiken’ soil which is derived from weathered volcanic materials and sedimentary rock.  The underlying geology, the Franciscan mélange, is just 500 miles long and was created by the Continental Plate grinding off the top of the Pacific Plate as it subducts under the Continental Plate.”

Now put your textbooks away, and we'll taste some wine.

The Smith-Madrone Cab is actually a Bordeaux-style blend, at 97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Merlot and 1% Cabernet Franc.  The wine is aged in new American white oak barrels for 22 months and is unfined and unfiltered.  1,434 cases were produced, and it sells for $45.

This Napa Cab is inky dark in the glass and explosively aromatic.  Big, ripe blackberries and plums hit the nose first, followed by oak spice and cedar.  The use of American oak puts a brash spin on the nose and the palate.  It is amazing how different the effects of French and American oak are in wine.  Flavors of dark fruit walk hand in hand with notes of eucalyptus and cardamom.  A bit of graphite emerges on the finish, which is lengthy and memorable.  The wine's tannins are somewhat brawny and should prove worthy of beef in a pairing situation.

The wine leaves me feeling that it's a Zinfandel-lover's Cab.  It wears a Stetson, not a chapeau.

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay 2010

Napa Valley producer Smith-Madrone’s Riesling was written up here recently.  Stu Smith and his winemaker brother Charles were kind enough to send a sample of their Chardonnay as well.

The steep mountainside estate vineyards in the Spring Mountain district were first planted in 1971 and are primarily dry-farmed at an altitude of between 1,300 and 2,000 feet.

This 100% Chardonnay is made from the fruit of vines planted by the Smith brothers 38 years ago.  It is completely barrel fermented and aged in 100% new French oak for eight months.  The alcohol content stands at a robust 14.4% abv, with only 703 cases produced.  The wine retails for $30.

Immediately noticeable is a nice golden color in the glass.  The nose shows pineapple, apricot and peach aromas.  Oak spice is present, but it is also pleasant.  The French oak shows well on the palate as a smokey taste, and it blends very nicely with the fruit flavors.  Apricot and citrus meet butterscotch, but there's no flab here.  A racy acidity adds a zip I don't often find in a Chardonnay.

I wish I had had a bottle with me when I ordered pineapple tamales at Loteria!  Try this Chardonnay with cashews, hummus or a creamy cheese and you should be pleased with the pairing.  I was.

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