Friday, January 29, 2016

No Foot Stomping For Lucy Rosé

If you are of a certain age, the phrase "Lucy wine" probably makes you think of a red-haired comedienne stomping grapes.  (Insert Lucy's sneer here.)  This Lucy wine is 100% Pinot Noir rosé from Monterey County's Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. It's a blend of grapes from different vineyard sites on the Pisoni estate. The 2014 vintage was dry - bone dry - but you have to expect that in the middle of a drought. The dry weather stressed the vines and made the grapes small and concentrated. The cool climate affords good acidity.

The wine is fermented in 10-year-old oak barrels, completely neutral. Alcohol sits at 14.1% abv, 627 cases were made and it retails for $18. From each bottle of Lucy sold, the Pisoni family donates a buck to the fight against breast cancer. They have raised over $80,000 for research so far.

This pink wine is really more salmon colored - it has a rich and beautiful appearance. The nose is gorgeous, too, with cherry and raspberry flavors wearing an herbal cloak. A bit of orange peel peeks through, too. Flavors of cherries and strawberries are big and ripe, and the acidity shows nicely. It's a great match with a bacon, egg, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Inkblot Crazy About Beef

Inkblot wines come from Lodi’s Michael David Winery, headed up by fifth-generation growers M. and D. Phillips. As a rule, the Inkblots are defined by darkness. Dark in color and dark in aroma and taste. The Petit Verdot offering started out as a wine club special, now available to the public at around $30. I failed to note the wine's alcohol content before disposing of the bottle, but I am going to guess somewhere north of 14.5% abv.

The nose is rich and luxurious. Cassis and sweet, ripe blueberries stride abreast with sweet oak spice. Vanilla, cedar, and a little bit of mocha come through robustly, but they keep their place alongside the fruit and don’t try to steal the show.  On the palate, this wine means business. It’s a luscious drink, but it's too powerful to be relegated to an easy chair. It wants to work, and what it wants to work on is beef fat. You can enjoy this wine all by itself - if tannins are your thing - but you need to pair it with a thick, marbled piece of steak to really set it free.The dark fruit flavors really do play a secondary role to the tannic structure.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Cinsaut And Counoise - A Great Idea

This is not a regulation Bonny Doon wine, but rather one produced for their DEWN Club, according to head man Randall Grahm. He says it “really shows the potential great elegance of Cinsaut,” a grape that doesn't get nearly enough time in the spotlight.  Neither does Counoise.

In a world where "a great idea" often sounds like "get some cheap Cabernet grapes," it is nice to have a Randall Grahm around. When he has "a great idea" it is usually something like this wine.  Much like musician Ry Cooder’s early ‘70s work seemed to abhor the mainstream like nature abhors a vacuum, so does Grahm march to the music in his own head.  And we are richer for it.

The 67% Cinsaut grapes are blended with 33% Counoise, making it a blend that I have never personally enjoyed - or even heard of.  The wine gets a “California” label designation since the grapes come from all over - Paso Robles, Mendocino and Lodi. 61% of the grapes hail from the esteemed Camp Four Vineyard, with 20% from Alder Springs and 19% from Michael David. 280 cases were produced, it hits 13.7% abv and it retails for $30. Label art is by Grady McFerrin.

The wine looks like it’s trying to become a rosé, but not getting there. It’s on the pink side of red. The medium-ruby hue looks like a light Pinot Noir. The nose of this wine puts me in mind of a Provençal rosé. That may be due to the fact that most of the time when you get to taste either of these grapes, it is in a rosé. Stemmy herbal notes play off the cherry and strawberry aromas, just like in the pink stuff - only more intense. There is a smoky element hovering around the top of the glass. The palate shows wonderfully dark cherry flavors with a smattering of savory spice and an herbal edge. Could this be what Cabernet Franc rosé would taste like? Would someone make one so we could find out?

Friday, January 22, 2016

California Wine Doesn't Have To Be From Grapes - Does It?

The California Wine Company was founded in 2009 by twins Alan and Brian Haghighi.  Wine fans that they were, they asked themselves, “Why should grapes have all the fun?”  There were plenty of other types of fruit around just waiting to be fermented. Never mind that grapes are what you make wine from, dammit! They figured they'd give other fruit a chance.

They started selling their batches at San Diego County street fairs and farmers markets. It caught on, and a company was born. Each wine is made entirely from the fruit on the label, free of coloring or flavoring. Their wines are all natural.

They twins employ a business model called Social Value Enterprise - they say it’s a "new form of employee ownership." In a Social Value Enterprise," they say, "the founders' shares of the business are folded into a trust. Employees are added as beneficiaries after a vesting period." This allows team members to share in the value of the asset that they help create.

They say their wines are fruit forward and not sweet. They advise chilling the wines - the colder the better. They say the cold won't mute the characteristics, but I found that they did mute the aromas quite a bit. They also advise any type of glassware you like - from Champagne flutes to Mason jars.  They advertise that their wines are great with food, so snack away. Just don’t get bogged down trying to find a "perfect pairing."

I have tried wines made from fruit other than grapes on a number of occasions as I sample the wines of the 50 states.  The Now And Zin Wine Country series has brought me wine made from blueberries, apples, pineapples, berries I’ve never heard of - even honey. I have found these different styles of wine to be pleasant at the least, extraordinary at best. Complexity is an issue - usually fruit wines are not complex at all.

Pineapple Mango Sangria

Since sangria is a fruit punch with grape wine as its base, this is not a true sangria. In Europe, the name sangria is only allowed in wine and fruit concoctions made in certain places, like Spain and Portugal.

This pale fruit wine, made from pineapples and mangos, comes as advertised on the nose and palate. The fruit takes the spotlight - it is not complex and tastes just like juice. Acidity is minimal, and it is slightly frizzante in glass. Produced in San Diego County, the wine is recommended by its makers to be chilled before serving - the colder, the better, they say. They also say not to bother swirling and sniffing. "Just drink and enjoy." 11% alcohol, as are the other two.

Pomegranate Wine

This wine is beautiful to look at. It’s a light shade of red that sits between rosado and Pinot Noir. Aromatically, things are not so beautiful. It doesn't really smell like pomegranates, which is alright with me. I don't care too much for pomegranates. The label promises “fruity and tart” but it comes off more as sour to my taste. The palate is slightly more agreeable, but not by much. Acidity is pretty good, but that’s about the highest recommendation I can make. Follow the winery’s advice and serve it very chilled.

Pomegranate + Cherry Sangria

After the experience with the pomegranate wine, I was not too excited about his one. Happily, it hit my palate much better. Again, it’s simple. But it is a very refreshing drink and pretty tasty, too. The cherry comes through much stronger, and the pomegranate only adds an earthy quality to it. It’s about the shade of a Pinot Noir, but there the similarity ends.

Fans of off-the-beaten-path wines should get a kick out of these fruity offerings, but if you are looking for wine, you should probably stick to those made from grapes. If you don’t mind a little alcohol in your fruit juice, these are for you.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Garnacha Gone Wrong

A Virtual tasting event featuring Garnacha wines from Spain hit Twitter recently, with the hashtag #LoveGarnacha serving as a good way to look up the stream. Several Garnacha fans chimed in during the hour, which was moderated ably by @canterburywine. She covered everything from Garnacha Blanca to Garnacha Gris to Garnacha Noir. "There’s 1 other type of Garnacha," she tweeted, "Garnacha Peluda, whose leaves have furry undersides." I wouldn’t think of holding that against them. She was full of fun facts, including the factoid that the earliest known mention of Garnacha was in 1513. Of course, "Garnacha is grown throughout the Mediterranean," she noted, "but it is originally from Aragon in NE Spain."

Care wines are produced by Bodegas Añadas in Careñena - one of Spain’s oldest wine regions. Care underlines the age aspect with its very name - it is the old Roman name for the region.  Of Care’s four estates, Bancales is one of the largest. The estate vineyards are located at altitudes of over 1,600 feet and the stony soil is beaten by the Cierzo, a constant cold, dry wind from the north which exacerbates the dry climate. The vines from which these grapes were taken are 90 years old.

This Care Finca Bancales Reserva 2010 was fermented in steel, then aged in French oak barrels for 14 months, with another 17 months aging in the bottle. 14.5% abv.  The retail price is $20.

Aromas of black plum are a little muted - the savory spice nearly overpowers them. There’s a bit of oak - cedar, vanilla, tobacco - and bit of licorice twist and pepper on the nose. The palate is somewhat unforgiving, with rather jagged tannins and a disjointed feel. Flavors are dark and juicy, but they fall flat and finish tart.

@dvinewinetimewould noted a favorite pairing for the wine: chestnut stuffing topped w/ duck confit. That sounds like it would work despite the wine's less-than-glowing attributes.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Monterey Tempranillo: Lee Family Farm

Lee Family Farm is a label created under the parentage of Morgan Winery.  Dan Morgan Lee wanted to be a veterenarian, but wine hijacked his career path.  Lee planted vineyards in Monterey County's Santa Lucia Highlands back in 1996.  Today he uses those grapes for his Morgan and Double L labels.  For his Lee Family Farms bottlings, he sources fruit from other Monterey County growers.

The folks at Morgan Winery quote the Oxford Companion to Wine’s summary of Tempranillo as "Spain’s answer to Cabernet Sauvignon." And it's not a smart-alecky answer either. In fact, I'll take Tempranillo with a steak any old time. This Tempranillo hails not from Spain, but from Ventana Vineyard’s gravelly dirt in the Arroyo Seco subdivision of the cool-climate Monterey AVA. The wine spent 10 months in French oak, about a quarter of it new.  Alcohol is a rich 14.4% abv and the retail price is a tasty 20 bucks.

The nose on the Lee Family Farm Arroyo Seco Tempranillo 2013 is quite savory and rustic. Black fruit is predominant, but some nice cedar notes waft out of the glass as well.  Tobacco, spice and a bit of anise are also around in the aroma package. On the palate, that savory aspect holds strong. The very savory, very rustic black fruit is colored with sage and bramble.

This is a natural to pair with meat right off of a sizzling grill. Thick and juicy meat is what this wine is made for. I like mine a little pink in the middle, if you're cooking today. I can be over in about 20 minutes.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Wine Country Rhode Island: Greenvale Vineyards

Wine production in the state of Rhode Island started before it was a state. In 1663 King Charles II of England included the making of wine as one of the various uses of Little Rhody’s land as an English colony. Bless his heart! The state’s modern day wine industry - as minuscule as it is - began in 1975.

Greenvale Vineyards is located on the Sakonnet River in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. They are just five miles north of Newport, on Aquidneck Island, one of three wineries in the county and eight along the coastal New England wine trail. The same family has owned the 24-acre farm since 1863, but the grapevines didn't start taking root until 1982. The place is on both state and national historic registers, so the sense of time is tangible there.

It is, however, a sense of place that we look for inside the bottle.

Greenvale Vineyards was kind enough to provide us with two of their white wines for the purpose of this article. They also have a couple for red wine fans - a Cabernet Franc and a Meritage.

The 100% estate grown 2013 Greenvale Chardonnay is fully barrel fermented in neutral French oak - aged there, too, plus a couple of years in the bottle. 198 cases were produced and the retail price hits $18.

The pale gold tint shows a little more color than you may expect in a Chardonnay.  The nose is elegant and restrained, with apples and pineapples joining a light touch of oak.  On the palate, that oak gets a little noisier. The wine is reminiscent of an old-line California Chardonnay, buttery and a bit fat with a wonderful, creamy mouthfeel. The difference between California and Rhode Island comes in the minerality - the eastern earth is more pronounced than in those big, ol’ Chardonnays from the West.

The 2012 Greenvale Vidal Blanc is a real winner, too. Vidal Blanc is a French-American hybrid grape that makes an aromatic and fruity wine. 659 cases of this were produced and it retails for $17.

This  golden-tinted Rhode Island White offers a fruit basket for a nose. I stopped noting what was in it and started noting what wasn’t - it was a shorter list. A fairly explosive tropical fruit aroma leads the way, but it shares the stage with apricot, apple, orange, tangerine and mango. There is also a underlying sense of earthiness - not really minerality, but a softer, savory sensation. On the palate, more fruit, what else? It is a bit more defined, focused on apricot and citrus.

What a great wine to have with a shrimp cocktail or a ham sandwich, or just sipping, chilled, on a warm summer day. Count me in on that one.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tempranillo Willing And The Pedernales Don't Rise

Many in the great state of Texas would consider Tempranillo their signature red grape. Texan winegrowers have done a great job over the past decade or so of finding the right grapes for their various terroirs. Mediterranean and Iberian grape varieties are working well, and Tempranillo seems to be a popular favorite in Lone Star vineyards.

A virtual tasting from Texas Fine Wine, a group of four distinctive wineries committed to making quality wines from Texas appellation vineyards, included Tempranillos from Duchman Family Winery, Brennan Vineyards, Bending Branch Winery and Pedernales Cellars.

Pedernales Cellars Tempranillo 2014

Stonewall, Texas offers a great view of the lovely Pedernales River valley. That is where Pedernales Cellars has helped pioneer the Lone Star State’s embracing of Tempranillo as one of the top grapes to grow there. The Pedernales website crows that the boutique winery is owned and operated by a sixth-generation Texas family and employs "ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable practices."

This Texas Tempranillo is a blend of Tempranillo grapes from the Hill Country and High Plains AVAs. The alcohol content strikes 13.3% abv. For pairing purposes, they like their Tempranillo with grilled rabbit and Alamo-style Texas redfish, as described on the site.

It’s a dark wine, inky, nearly black. The aroma package is brambly and rustic, full of black fruit and oak spice - toasty vanilla, aromatic cedar, smoke. It's also a brawny wine, big on the tongue. Black plums, blackberry and anise color the wine as dark as night. Tannins are big, too, but not so imposing that they upset the enjoyment of the sip.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

Garnacha: Cruz De Piedra

A Virtual tasting event featuring Garnacha wines from Spain hit Twitter recently, with the hashtag #LoveGarnacha serving as a good way to look up the stream. Several Garnacha fans chimed in during the hour, which was moderated ably by @canterburywine. She covered everything from Garnacha Blanca to Garnacha Gris to Garnacha Noir. "There’s 1 other type of Garnacha," she tweeted, "Garnacha Peluda, whose leaves have furry undersides." I wouldn’t think of holding that against them. She was full of fun facts, including the factoid that the earliest known mention of Garnacha was in 1513. Of course, "Garnacha is grown throughout the Mediterranean," she noted, "but it is originally from Aragon in NE Spain."

The wines tasted were Celler Batea Terra Alta Vall Major Blanca, Care Finca Bancales Reserva, Cruz De Piedra Selección Especial, Pdm Moncayo Garnacha and Marin Old Vine Garnacha. @chasingthevine noted that "the wines have an earthy, savory quality that is so different from the fruit-bright purity of California Grenache," which is a great reason to have a Master of Wine candidate in the group.

Cruz de Piedra means “Cross of Stone” in Spanish, and the name refers to the stone crosses that mark the Pilgrim's Road to Santiago de Compostela, which runs through the collective’s vineyards.  Selección Especial is made of 100% Garnacha grapes from bush vines in Calatayud that are up to 100 years old.

The grapes are fermented in concrete tanks, then transferred to new oak barrels, where malolactic fermentation occurs. The wine is in oak for a total of about 17 months. Alcohol hits 14.5%, and the retail price is $10.

It is a dark colored wine, inky indigo with no light able to break through from the other side of the glass. The is a bit of alcohol on the nose, which makes me wonder if it might not be a higher content than indicated. Aromas of blackberry, plum, vanilla and a puff of smoke make for an olfactory delight. On the palate, big dark fruit dominates even with plenty of oak spice trying to take over. There is a savoriness to it that "prettier" Grenache wines don't show. The mouthfeel is full and the tannins are quite toothy. It’s not a gentle wine. - to the extent that sipping it may offer some discomfort to tender mouths.

Better to have it with meat - meat that has fat literally dripping from it. The fat will give the tannins something to do besides prick your taste buds. A heavily marbled ribeye or smoked ribs come to mind.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Bitters, Bottle For One

When people gift wine to someone they know is a bit eccentric in their tastes, someone who likes to try new things, it can go one of two ways. You might like it a lot.  Conversely, you might not. The wine I am writing about today is in the latter category.

So that I don’t give the wrong impression, I like having friends who will take a chance when giving me wine. It offers me the opportunity to try many things I might not have otherwise sampled. Even when I don’t like the wine, it’s still a learning experience.

Cocchi’s Americano Bianco Aperitif is a Moscato-based wine is abetted by a blend of herbs, fruit and spices developed in 1891. It is said to be a staple in Asti. The Moscato di Asti wine is fortified, then flavored with cinchona bark, along with the other ingredients. Cinchona bark is the original source of quinine, and it’s what gives Cocchi a bitter bite and places the wine in the category of chinati. The wine is laid down for a year before its release.

Since its widespread availability came just a few years ago, it has become a favorite ingredient in cocktails made by craft bartenders, owing to the quinine content. The makers of Americano Bianco indicate that bartenders like to use it instead of Lillet, which they say lost its quinine bite after a 1986 reworking of the recipe. The alcohol hits 16.5% abv.

The Giulio Cocchi website - it’s COKE-ey, by the way - offers this advice: "In Piemonte it is served chilled on ice, with a splash of soda and a peel of orange."  The site also notes that Americano is from "amaricante" an Italian term for "bittered." It is the name of the category of aperitif wines, much like "vermouth." Gentian, the main botanical ingredient, gives it both floral and earthy notes - in abundance, I might add.

It has the color of apple juice and a nose that really shows off the botanicals used in making it. It carries a nearly overpowering aroma that is half floral, half medicinal.  There is a strong earthiness to it as well. The palate won't go unnoticed either, that's for sure. It is a bit shrill on its own. I found some tonic water in the fridge and mixed it - or cut it - and it did tone it down some, although it actually doubled down on the quinine. I feel good that I have probably staved off a malaria outbreak in the household.

I generally like mixer alcohols - like vermouth - on their own, but Americano Bianco won't be on my shopping list unless I suddenly become a craft bartender. And that's not likely.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

We'll Always Have Morocco

Morocco. On The Road To Morocco. Morocco Mole. Casablanca. Yes, Casablanca is in Morocco. Yes, Morocco is in Africa. For those not up on their Moroccan pop culture, here are the answers: "On The Road To Morocco" starred Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Jokes, songs and Lamour. Morocco Mole was Secret Squirrel's sidekick. With the fez and smoking jacket, he was a dead ringer for Peter Lorre. That leads us to "Casablanca," in which Peter Lorre says, “Help me, Reeek! You must help me find some Moroccan wine!” Well, we’ll always have Paris.

Morocco - the country - runs along the northwest edge of Africa. One thing you probably don’t know: they produce more wine than any country in the Arab world, and nearly all of it is consumed within Morocco. I am very glad some of those stray bottles found their way to me.

I participated in a virtual tasting event featuring a handful of Moroccan wines, all from Domaine Ouled Thaleb. They were provided to me for the purpose of this tasting session. One thing I know: I am going right over to that Moroccan restaurant and convince them that they need to have some of these wines on the list.

Domaine Ouled Thaleb is about ten miles northeast of Casablanca, facing the Atlantic Ocean in the Zenata region.  Winemaking goes back 2,500 years there, so the fact that this winery has been operating since 1923 leaves them looking like a little kid. In the US, a 99-year history qualifies as practically ancient.

The host of the virtual event was @canterburywine, who got the ball rolling with an eye-opener: "Half of the wine country in Morocco is on same latitude as Santa Barbara! Not THAT far south!" She continued, noting that Morocco is "the only country besides Spain and France to have both Atlantic and Mediterranean influences. Diverse terroirs make Morocco an ideal place for creating high quality wines and it’s what sets it apart from other North African countries. 25 different kinds of wine grapes are cultivated in Morocco."

The winery employs sustainable farming practices, with no herbicides or fungicides used, and all plowing and weeding is done strictly by hand. Our event leader noted that most of the field work is done by women.

I want to thank the importer, Nomadic Distribution, for making this wine available in the US. I know that people are usually hard-pressed to break out of their routine. It’s not hard to imagine average folks pushing the glass away when they are told the wine was made in Morocco. But you and I are not average, are we? Pop the cork and let’s get on the road to Morocco!

The 2014 Ouleb Thaleb Moroccan White Blend is made from 60% Faranah grapes and 40% Clairette, aged in stainless steel tanks.  The Faranah grape is indigenous to Morocco, but the Clairette is French, probably a holdover from the country's days as a French colony. In fact, when phylloxera devastated the French vineyards, they looked to Morocco as a good place to grow grapes. Our virtual host pointed out that we are lucky to have the Faranah grape still around today. "This is the ONLY native grape from Morocco," she says. "Native grapes were uprooted in the seventh century." Alcohol in this wine is quite restrained at only 13% abv. It retails for $14.

This pale golden wine smells inviting. The nose gives floral notes, grapefruit, apricot, and a grassy, minty herbal quality. The palate offers these items filtered through a wonderful bit of salinity. There is even a sense of the floral there, and the citrus notes lead directly to a refreshing acidity. I suspect this would be a great wine for someone who thinks Sauvignon Blanc is too grassy.

It would also be great for someone with a bowl of peel and eat shrimp in front of them. Salad pairings are a natural. I would love this with a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Sauvignon Blanc is all Sauvignon Blanc, 100%, fermented in stainless steel tanks and retailing for $18.

The wine has a grassy note, but it's not the high grassy note of New Zealand. It's not the grassiness you smell when you have just cut the grass. There is more of an herbal edge to it, like the smell you get when you are pulling up weeds. Does that clarify for you? Good. I think my palate is coming unhitched from my brain. What I think I'm getting at is, there's an earthy sense to the grassiness here. On the palate the tropical fruit is definitely shaded by earth. It gives a wonderful display of pineapple, citrus and apples with just the right amount of earthiness. This wine, too, is a great one for someone who thinks Sauvignon Blanc is too grassy.

Domaine Ouled Thaleb's Moroccan Chardonnay is a delight. The Chardonnay grapes grown to make this wine come from dark, black clay soil called Tirs. The grapes are from higher altitude vineyards at the bottom of the Atlas Mountains.  The wine was fermented in concrete tanks and aged there for six months, in contact with the used-up yeast cells. No oak is involved here, and the alcohol number is 13% abv. It sells for $18.

This unoaked wine - 100% Chardonnay - smells great. It has a rich, golden tint and a  little Champagne-like funk on the nose. I have only encountered that quality once before in a still wine, and it was in a Chardonnay from Uruguay. In this Moroccan Chardonnay it is not as pronounced, and it might be taken as salinity. The fruit aromas offer nectarines, peaches, pineapples and a touch of lime. In the mouth, fantastic acidity makes a refreshing sip. Tropical fruit flavors dominate - papaya, mango, pineapple - and there is an earthy quality that is expected after the aromas telegraphed it. The wine finishes citrusy, but it doesn't last very long.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Rosé is a 2013 pink wine made from 60% Syrah grapes, 30% Grenache and 10% Cinsault. The 13% abv alcohol level is quite manageable, as is the $14 price sticker. Aging took place in stainless steel.

This rosé wine pours up more orange than pink. In fact, it's a rather deep and rich shade of salmon. The nose has bright cherry and strawberry aromas with an herbal influence and a dash of spice that really makes things interesting. Flavors of cherry dominate the palate with some nice spiciness peeking through. The herbs that are present on the nose disappear on the flavor profile leaving the fruit fully in control. Acidity is nice, but not exactly Provence-esque.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Red Blend is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Grenache grapes and feels to me more like Grenache than Cab. Aging took ten months in oak barrels and the 13% abv alcohol number is very restrained. The retail sticker is $14.

Dark and brooding are the aromas here, with blackberry and cassis trying their best to smother the notes of black pepper and earth. Oak spice is there, but not burdensome. The palate of this inky wine shows blackberry and plum, with the earthy, mineral-driven flavors coming on a bit stronger than on the nose. There is a rustic, dusty sagebrush feel to it, and the acidity is the only thing that’s bright about this wine. Tannic structure is good.

I want the Moroccan Red Blend with lamb, sausage or venison. Anything dark or gamey is going to fit with this wine perfectly.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Médaillon Red is a 2012 blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Syrah, this wine is aged 12 months in oak, one third of it new. Alcohol is only 13% abv and it retails for $18, a steal, considering what's in the bottle.

It looks like ink and smells a Rhône blend. Black fruit, licorice, coffee, a touch of funk, a hint of oak - and a strong earthy presence. If I were tasting blind and a little bit drunk, I might guess Hermitage. The palate is as dark as the nose. Cassis, plum and blackberry get a healthy coating of minerality. The tannins are strident enough for whatever you’d like to throw at them. I'd like to throw some merguez sausage at them. The finish lasts a long time. For $18, are you kidding me? Gimme a case.

For Ouled Thaleb's Moroccan Syrah, the grapes are all Syrah from that dark black clay soil of Rommani Vineyards. As with the Chardonnay, fermentation happened in concrete tanks, but this one saw 12 months in oak barrels. It retails for just $18.

It’s a dark wine, almost inky, with a fantastically funky nose. The dark fruit sort of waves as it goes by, while the smell of meat just stands there and stares at you. There is a hint of pepper, a dash of mint, but that smoky, meaty smell really dominates. On the palate, a dark, brooding plum and blackberry combination put up a little more of a fight against the earthy, meaty flavors. It’s really a great tasting wine.

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Monday, January 4, 2016

Tasting Malibu: Dolin Dinner Pairs Pistola

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. When you least expect something to knock you off your feet, there it is.

The wine dinner invitation had come weeks before a major upset in my work schedule, and by the time the day had rolled around, I was looking at a dinner at which I would have a serious lack of sleep with a road trip set for very early the following morning.

I tried to beg off, but the publicist insisted I would be okay. Tenaciousness is in a publicist's DNA. So at the prescribed time I showed up at Los Angeles restaurant Pistola for an introduction to Malibu vintner Elliott Dolin and his wines. I’m glad it worked out that way.

First of all, the group in which I was included was fantastic. I got to rub elbows with Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, wine writer Patrick Comiskey and Alain Gayot, editor-in-chief of Gayot Publications. With Gayot, I rubbed elbows in the literal sense. I was seated next to him for dinner, and we talked about - of all things - wine from places like Iowa, Indiana and Texas. Serendipity.

Elliott Dolin is in at least his third professional life as a vintner. His real estate work keeps him busy - busier than his time as a professional musician kept him - but it’s easy to tell that when wine grabbed him by the lapels, it had no intention of letting go.

Dolin and his wife, Lynn, planted a Chardonnay vineyard at their Malibu home in 2006 because they thought it would look nice. Those roots grew into them as well as into the Zuma volcanic soil. “Hey since we have all these grapes…” Serendipity. Now Dolin Malibu Estate Wines is a leading producer in the recently established Malibu Coast AVA, helping bring a little respect back to Los Angeles County, once the leading wine production area in the state.

Winemaker Kirby Anderson came on board to create the Dolin line.  Dolin says, “Our vineyard manager, Bob Tobias, arranged a meeting with Kirby, a highly respected winemaker on the Central Coast. I could tell he was a perfectionist like me, so we decided to bring him on as winemaker for the 2010 vintage.”

It was a move Anderson was ready to make. “I came in thinking Malibu was a frivolous place to make wine and best suited to hobbyists, but making wine at Dolin quickly straightened me out,” he says. “I can now say with certainty there will be great things coming from Malibu. The land is there; the weather is there; the funds for high-quality farming are there. The only thing missing with most Malibu wines, until recently, was the commitment to make it a serious game.” Now, that’s there too.

And Dolin is a great salesman. That, with the cachet of a respected winemaker, meant he was able to purchase fruit from vineyards that would normally never consider supplying to a new producer. The 2014 debut of the Dolin Estate Central Coast Pinot Noir line, shows some of the best sites in the Central Coast and Malibu Coast.

The Food and the Chef

Chef Vic Casanova has done a great job with his menu at Pistola. I have been a fan since Gusto opened, and it’s always a joyous occasion when we can squeeze into that tiny eatery for dinner. At Pistola, there is a lot more room, but the Italian fare is just as brilliant. This evening our dinner started with antipasti: charred Mediterranean octopus, Beluga lentils, caramelized shallots, salsa verde and lemon agrumato. In agrumato, the olive oil is not infused with lemon, the citrus is crushed with the olives on a stone mill. This was paired with the Dolin Estate Chardonnay and the Rosé of Pinot Noir. Next, the pasta: spaghetti carbonara with guanciale,  onion, black pepper, egg yolk, scallions and pecorino. It was paired with the Pinots. Secondi: stracotto, beef short ribs braised in Barolo, Polenta, roasted root vegetables and horseradish gremolata.

The Wines

The Dolin wines tasted at dinner:

2013 Dolin Malibu Estate Chardonnay, Malibu Coast ($39)
The nose features a very nice oak effect, with peach and tropical fruit aromas, especially pineapple. On the palate, that beautiful oak is not fat but it definitely shows. Very well balanced wine. Dolin’s Newton Canyon Chardonnay is similarly gifted.

2014 Dolin Rosé of Pinot Noir Central Coast ($22)
Strawberry plays large on the nose with a hint of apples, while the flavors run from strawberry to raspberry. Nice, fresh acidity and balance. The wine was whole cluster pressed. It’s great with charred octopus. The label art won an award, by the way. The design was done by Dolin’s wife.

2012 Dolin Pinot Noir, Sta. Rita Hills ($32)
Grapes came from the John Sebastiano vineyard on the eastern edge of the Sta. Rita Hills. It has a darker color than I expect with a Pinot, and a nose that is loaded with black tea and smoke. Tea carries into the palate and joins the raspberry flavors. Lovely acidity.

2012 Dolin Pinot Noir Rincon Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley ($45)
Light color marks this one, and the nose is an expressive mix of raspberry, cola and tea. The palate is elegant, yet strident. Great acidity

We also tried a couple of red blends that are still unreleased:

Red Blend 1 - Merlot-based with fruit from Newton Canyon. A little more than half the oak used is new. The nose is full of black pepper and dark fruit with a billowing smoke presence. Blueberry and pepper on the palate.

Red Blend 2 - This blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is all Malibu fruit with a muted blackberry nose and some graphite on the palate. Red fruit flavors come with a great earthiness.

Dolin’s line also includes vineyard designate Pinot Noirs from Santa Maria’s Bien Nacido Vineyard and Solomon Hills Vineyard. The wines may be purchased directly at

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Friday, January 1, 2016

Bordeaux Via Dry Creek Valley

When you think of Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley AVA, Bordeaux may not spring to mind right away. You may think of Zinfandel, and with good reason. The wineries of Dry Creek Valley produce oodles of lovely Zin, even some pink versions that are as dry as a bone. You might fancy a Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek Valley - It is, after all, the flagship wine for Dry Creek Vineyard.

But Dry Creek Vineyard also has a Bordeaux program. Winemaker Tim Bell has plenty of great fruit with which to work. On their website, DCV notes that “Dry Creek Valley may well be California’s undiscovered Cabernet country.” The region actually does have more acreage of Cabernet Sauvignon planted than any other grape variety. The winery notes that DCV Cabs lean to the dusty and earthy side of the grape’s spectrum, and that’s fine for me. The rustic feel, herbal notes and complex spiciness are what make red wines interesting, to me.

Dry Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley 2012

The grapes were taken from hillside and benchland vineyards and represent everything Bordeaux-esque they could pick  - 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec, 3% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. The wine was aged for 20 months in French and Hungarian oak barrels, most of which were neutral, only 20% new oak. The alcohol content sits at 14.5% abv and the wine retails for $25 per bottle.

Pour this ruby wine and just let it sit there a while. Take your time and you will be rewarded as the cherry and black raspberry nose takes on smoke, cedar, graphite and cigar aromas. It really opens up to be a massive bouquet. The flavors are certainly fruity enough - plums, blackberries and blueberries - but there are so many shades of complexity it's hard to not be taken aback. Anise gives way to vanilla, which gives way to sage, nutmeg and black pepper. That herbal, spicy feeling lasts into the lengthy finish.

Dry Creek Vineyard Meritage Dry Creek Valley 2012

This Bordeaux-style blend is composed of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, 25% Merlot, 8% Malbec, 8% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. Alcohol tips in at 14.5% abv. The wine retails for $45.

The winemaker notes inform us that we can expect this wine to age well for a decade or more. The winemaker notes also tip the DCV hat to Mother Nature for providing “the incredible growing conditions we were afforded in the 2012 vintage.” Sure, the weather’s always nice in California, right? (Pause to allow winegrowers to snort.) Well, apparently in 2012 everything actually came together just the way it says it should in the grape-growing textbook. And the wine certainly reflects that good fortune. The aging took place over 20 months in French oak barrels. Just over half of that wood was new.

The front label carries on the tradition of sailing imagery, although it’s not so peaceful a look at the sea as we are accustomed to seeing on the Dry Creek Vineyard labels. This sailor looks like he definitely has a peg-leg and an eye for the white whale. The quote is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The winery explains the name: “We called this wine ‘The Mariner’ because just as a mariner navigates his ship, so too must a winemaker navigate his way through a vintage.”

The wine is very dark; light barely passes through it. On the nose, nothing is spared. Deep red currant, blueberry, anise, pencil point, cedar, cigar - it’s all there in abundance. The palate is bold and brawny, to use two descriptors which always seem to go hand in hand. The tannins will attack that tri-tip steak and send it back to Santa Maria. It’s a lively wine, not just aggressive. It practically sparkles in the mouth. Blackberry and licorice meet that oak spice and the acidity is lip-smacking perfect. The finish falls away a little more quickly than I thought it would, but it’s a lovely taste while it lingers.

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