Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Stealth Wine Labels

Monday, January 30, 2017

Santa Barbara County Riesling - Why Not?

Pierre Lafond started the first winery in Santa Barbara County since Prohibition. He did that in 1962, and the second one wouldn't come for another decade. So, Lafond is a big name in Santa Barbara County wine. It's always worth a visit when the car is anywhere near Buellton.

The 2013 Lafond SRH is a lively Riesling, from a land known more for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This Sta. Rita Hills Riesling comes from the cool part of Santa Barbara County, so Riesling should figure bigger here than it does, I've always thought.

The grapes were grown in the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, in the transverse valley that sucks in the cool Pacific air and shuttles it inland. The winery says the Sta. Rita Hills region is the southernmost cool-climate region in the northern hemisphere

If this one is any indication, a lot of winemakers are missing the boat.

The pale wine gives a beautiful apricot and peach aroma on the nose, with just a touch of gasoline coming on. I love that part of Riesling with a few years under its belt. The palate has stone fruit, too, and some truly edgy earth from the Lafond estate.


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Friday, January 27, 2017

Big, Badass California Pinot Noir

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery was founded in 1981 on a small patch of land in Sonoma County's Dry Creek Valley. Don and Rhonda Carano started small, but kept thinking big as they snapped up grapevines over the years. They say they now have 19 estate vineyards in six different California appellations. The company operates as a Certified California Sustainable Vineyard.
Winemaker Christy Ackerman makes all of the Pinot Noirs for Ferrari-Carano. She says she feels "very lucky" to work with Pinot Noir in general, and especially the grapes from the estate vineyards.

The Heritage and Dijon clones of Pinot Noir grapes for this wine came from their Anderson Valley ranches.  Steel fermentation started things off, and French oak aging for ten months took place in 38% new oak, 62% older barrels. The wine underwent full malolactic fermentation, offering the benefit of a creamy and full mouthfeel. It costs $38 retail.

This dark, brooding 2014 Pinot Noir is bigger and badder than I like my Pinot to be, but I’m going to pretend it's something else - say, Syrah - and just enjoy its powerful assets. The black and blue berry aromas show off the cool-climate origin of the grapes with notes of forest floor, motor oil and black olives. The savory show continues on the palate. Big, dark fruit turns to one side and lets the leathery, musty flavors mix with tea and coffee. Happily, the cola note is too shy to get through the door. Big wine, big finish, with the fruit outlasting the savory, but not by much.


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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wanted: More Torrontés

It’s a wide world of grapes out there. There are many grapes in this bountiful vineyard of a world that I have not sampled in the form of wine, many that I have. Many are there that I return to over and over, and many that I ignore for long stretches of time. Torrontés, I’ll try to do better by you in the future.

Sometimes, oftentimes, the premier white wine grape of Argentina does not find its way onto restaurant wine lists. It’s rarely on a "general consumer" type of shelf. When I go to specialty wine stores, it seems I’m always searching down another aisle. Maybe I just need to hit more Argentine restaurants for dinner.

I was at Gaucho Grill in Brentwood recently, about to dig into their superb Argentine cuisine for the first time in a while. Gaucho was once an easy roll on the craps table of dinner in L.A., but they closed the one most convenient to us, and it became geographically undesirable. I’ll just have to drive a little longer from now on.

The Atlas Cumbres Torrontés 2015 from the Lagarde Winery made me realize how much I missed the grape. The wine is made from 100% Torrontés grapes, sourced from a third-party vineyard in Cafayate, Salta, in the northern part of Argentina. There is no malolactic fermentation and and they employ only pure steel tank aging. They also let the wine age for up to two years in the bottle. It carries alcohol at 14.7% and sells for about $12 online.

This Torrontés is lightly tinted and smells of beautiful flowers, minerals and citrus. Perhaps my favorite white wine aroma is that of wet rocks in a stream, and there’s plenty of that here. On the palate, citrus meets peaches amid a low, earthy note that anchors the wine like the best bass player you ever heard. It’s perfect with sea bass and grilled zucchini and blended nicely with Gaucho’s new chipotle-infused chimichurri.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Keep An Eagle Eye Peeled For Great $20 Chardonnay

Adler Fels is reportedly German for "Eagle Rock," which plays into their location "high in the Mayacamas Mountains." From there they look across California, spyglass to eye, searching for the great grapes they want to use. Of course, nobody needs a mountaintop watchman to find those locations. Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Monterey County, Santa Barbara County - they are hardly off the beaten path. Adler Fels makes what they term, "artisan wines with intense varietal character."

The Adler Fels The Eagle Rock Chardonnay 2015 is made from half Sonoma County grapes, half Monterey County. Winemaker Linda Trotta likes her Chardonnay "luscious and lively." She says she likes to "tease the nuances from the variety" and make wine that stays off the extremes it is known for while exploring the virtues of the variety and the terroir. It’s a $20 wine that tastes much richer. The alcohol level is 14.4% abv.

The wine is a masterful rendition of what Chardonnay can be, what lovers of the variety want it to be and what those who disdain it wish it were. The mouthfeel is full and lovely, with a bountiful acidity considering the lushness. Tropical fruit plays into wonderful citrus peel notes and peaches follow along the trail laid out by the minerals. I admit I feel less adventurous than I want to feel when contemplating a bottle of Chardonnay. This is the kind that makes me glad I pulled the cork.


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Friday, January 20, 2017

Enough Oak To Build A Warehouse

This a tough wine about which to write, because it is designed from the ground up for a completely different consumer than myself. It's off-dry - not my thing - and oaked within an inch of its very existence. It's pleasing somebody, though. I was taken aback by the numerous four- and five-star reviews online for Apothic Red. It's supermarket-priced at right around ten bucks.

The name is inspired by the Greek word, apotheca, which is defined as a repository or storeroom where wine was kept. I've seen wines named after natural beauty, mythological creatures and spaceships in France, I've never before seen one named after a warehouse.

It's very dark in the glass, black almost. A purple ring around the edge is the only thing differentiating the color from, say, motor oil. The nose is amazingly oaky. Fire, smoke, burning things - all these traits come across with the fervor of a four-alarm blaze. Those grapes are there - Zinfandel, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon - but it's like "Where’s Waldo" to find them. Sweet oak is what you taste. And put the emphasis on sweet. This is one of those wines made exclusively for millennials who just got rid of the training wheels last week, so pardon me if I don't seem too enthusiastic. The oak isn't supposed to be the whole show in a wine.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Santa Maria Valley Pinot Blanc

A New Year's Eve day trip to Santa Barbara County brought us, once again, to Sanford Winery's outpost west of Buellton. It was raining in L.A. when we departed in the morning, but the day turned amazingly beautiful once we arrived in wine country.

Sanford's Pinot Blanc is a bit of an oddity on their menu, in that it's not Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. This 2013 was the first vintage of the wine, made from a grape they say can be as hard to manage as the Noir variety. The wine retails for $34.

This wine carries a 14.5% abv number and had no malolactic fermentation at all. Still, it has a nice, full mouthfeel due to the aging in neutral French oak. The Sierra Madre Vineyard, from which the grapes come, is in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. It's one of my favorite wine regions, as the earth and mineral aspects always seem to come through so strongly, especially in the whites.

The cool climate of the Santa Maria Valley also makes for a delightfully refreshing acidity. This one actually is somewhat reserved in that department, but it has enough acid to make for a good pairing with food. The nose and flavors are quite dark and earthy, with a savory mask placed over the fruit to give great complexity.


Monday, January 16, 2017

If You Pass On Pinot Grigio, Try This One

Brothers Luigi, Ercole and Fernando bought what is now the Pighin estate in 1963, and it became a full-fledged winery four years later. Fernando and his wife and kids have run the place since 2004.  The building on the property dates back several hundred years. They say the "vineyards of Grave del Friuli overlook the north shore of the Adriatic Sea."

Kobrand, the wine’s importer, notes the relationship between the name and the soil: "Like the gravelly Graves region of Bordeaux, Grave del Friuli owes its name to the gravel in the subsoil, which forces the roots of the vine to grow deep into the earth in search of water. As the vine struggles, its fruit grows richer, resulting in full, well-structured wine with remarkable minerality."

This Fernando Pighin Pinot Grigio is one of those Pinot Grigios for people who think they don’t like Pinot Grigio. Flat, unimaginative juice this is not. It carries an alcohol number of 12.5% abv, and sells in the $10 to $15 range.

This wine a bright and beautiful yellow-gold in the glass. The nose is fruity and floral, with Meyer lemon and tangerine zest. Stone fruit and white flowers complete a delight for the nostrils. On the palate, there is ample fruit balanced with earthy minerality. The acidity is quite good. I enjoyed mine with lentil soup, and the winery also likes it with fish and risotto.


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Friday, January 13, 2017

Chardonnay That Melts In Your Mouth

JaM Cellars stands for John and Michele, second-generation vintners who happen to run the Napa Valley wine biz.

The blurb for their Chardonnay says, "This wine melts in your mouth," which is only natural for a wine called "Butter." It’s made from 100% Napa Valley Chardonnay grapes and sells for an eye-popping $16.

Butter is a delightful wine, showing a rich, golden color and an expressive, complex nose. It features the exotic side of tropical fruit, mango, guava and, as the folks at JaM Cellars put it, baked lemons. I've never baked lemons, so I can't be sure, but there is some citrus in there, baked or otherwise. The "touch of oak" is probably a little more than that, but it's nothing to fear. It's a nice, uh, buttery, flavor that mixes in quite well with the citrus and peaches. Vanilla finish, beautiful. Acidity, fresh. California Chardonnay, just like you remember it. Only a little leaner. Just a little.


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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Sultan Of Savory Puts Freshness In The Mix

Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm points out that the Réserve is "precisely the same wine as the '12 Le Cigare Volant (normale), but texturally quite different, and with possibly a bit more depth and complexity." Doesn't figure, since this one is aged in glass, not oak.  Grahm feels that the Réserve Cigares "are perhaps more 'meditation' than food wines." It retails for $60 and 840 cases were produced.

After a "short tenure in barrel" the wine spent 20 months in glass carboys, which brings a freshness to it that usually disappears after being soaked in oak. The 2012 Le Cigare Volant Réserve is made from 39% Mourvèdre grapes, 33% Grenache, 26% Syrah and 2% Cinsault.

It's a savory wine, the way I like it and the way Grahm usually makes it. Dark and mysterious, it smells of meat and olives and earth, with a little black fruit thrown in just to make it palatable for everybody else. There is, however, a "cleanliness" to it that in other wines is often obscured by oak. It's just the same way on the palate, with flavors mimicking the aromas. The finish lingers comfortably and provides plenty of anticipation for the next sip. Meditate on a piece of dark chocolate while sipping this.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Chardonnay Under The Sequoias

It's a story we never tire of, isn't it? Family turns 110-year-old Napa Valley barn into a winery, now they're working on their fourth decade as winemakers. Sequoia Grove's 24-acre Estate Vineyard and 50-acre Tonella Ranch Vineyard are both located in Rutherford, in the heart of the Napa Valley. They boast of their terroir, "the superb climate and gravelly-loam soils impart distinct flavor in the Bordeaux varieties."

Company president Michael Trujillo knows the lay of the land, a knowledge that comes with 30-something years of experience. Winemaker Molly Hill is a simple girl - she just wants to make great wine. "Balance to me means nothing stands out—not alcohol, not tannin, not acid, nor fruit nor barrel."

The Chardonnay grapes for this wine come "mostly from Dijon and Wente clones grown in the renowned, cool-climate Carneros District in Napa Valley." Growers like the Haire vineyard, the Ghisletta vineyard, and the Cunat vineyard in Oak Knoll contributed fruit.

The grapes were whole-cluster pressed for full flavor and wonderful acidity. There was no malolactic fermentation allowed, but the wine took on a creamy feel from sitting on the lees, the spent yeast cells, while in the barrel for ten months. Thirty percent of the oak used was new French. Alcohol hits 14.1% abv and it retails for just under 30 bucks.

Sequoia Grove Chardonnay gives a green-gold hue in the glass. It's almost glowing. The nose hit me like a good ol' California Chard, big and oaky, but full of tropical fruit, too. Pineapple, guava, lemon, lime, tangerine - there's a little bit of it all. The wine is barrel fermented, as well as aged in French oak. It has a very full mouthfeel, but the acidity is quite fresh, too. The oak plays prominently on the palate and is abetted by lemony minerality and the flavor of white peaches. Oak stays through a rather lengthy finish, like an old friend who just had another hour open up in the schedule. No need to leave just yet.


Friday, January 6, 2017

X Marks The Spot For Syrah

I'm sure you have a particular wine brand, or winemaker, to which you gravitate. You can circle around, spinning through wine space, trying every other planetary grape concoction that orbits close enough so you can grab it. You can make as many landings as you like on other wine label asteroids. You always come back to planet Earth. It's a safe harbor, hospitable, a place where you know there may be surprises but they won't be unpleasant.

Mine is Bonny Doon Vineyards. CEO and "president for life" Randall Grahm earned his "Rhône Ranger" stripes years ago when he gave up on Pinot Noir and went after the grape assortment from the Rhône Valley. If anyone ever made a good move, he did right then and there. His wines are dear to me, they speak to me, they're different every year and I can hardly wait to taste whats next.

The 2012 Bonny Doon Syrah from Bien Nacido Vineyard, Block X, is special. Grahm says it’s "one of the best iterations of Bien Nacido Syrah in recent memory." That's really saying something, too. There was a "substantial percentage" of whole-cluster grapes used and it shows with some herbal, minty notes. It carries a wonderfully respectable alcohol level of 13% abv and retails for $50. Only 313 cases were made.

This dark, brooding wine is savory, savory, savory. It's nose gives off aromas of meat, black olives, black fruit, coffee, herbs and a minty note that's downright wispy. Flavors are dark as well, with maybe a little more fruit coming through than in recent vintages, but still dominated by savory notes of bacon, coffee grounds, black tea and licorice.


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Bordeaux Sparkler, Bargain Price

This non-vintage Bordeaux sparkling wine was provided at the Tam O'Shanter in L. A. for bottomless Champagne and mimosas. So, it's cheap - less than $10 - but it's a pretty good bubbly.

The Veuve du Vernay bubbly is dry, it's yeasty, it even has a touch of smoke on it. Flavors of pears and apples and toasty herbs are quite nice, especially for the price.


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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Monday, January 2, 2017

Cool Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

Lazy Creek Vineyards is under the umbrella of Healdsburg's Ferrari Carano Winery. It’s located about an hour north, in Mendocino county's Anderson Valley. It is at this facility is where their full Pinot Noir production is centered.

A recent online tasting session introduced the 2014 Lazy Creek Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir to a group of wine writers, myself included. We were all provided samples of the wine for review. The session was moderated by publicist Chelsea Kurnick and featured winemaker Christy Ackerman. You can see the Ustream broadcast page here.

Ackerman makes all of the Lazy Creek Vineyards wines, and all of the Pinot Noirs for Ferrari-Carano. She says she feels "very lucky" to work with Pinot Noir in general, and especially the grapes from the Lazy Creek estate vineyards.

Ackerman says the thing that makes Anderson Valley special is that it is "cooled by the ocean but at the same time protected from the ocean."  The cooling marine influence, so critical for growing perfect Pinot, is mitigated by the landscape. The best of the ocean is brought home without the harshness of the sea directly.

Owners Don and Rhonda Carano describe Lazy Creek Vineyards as one of the smallest, and oldest wineries in Anderson Valley. They bottle a Gewurztraminer and a rosé, but all the rest are Pinot Noirs.

"The majority of the estate ranch at Lazy Creek Vineyards is planted to 36 acres of Pinot Noir; of special note is an 8-acre block with a miniscule average yield that’s said to be the oldest Pinot Noir vineyard in California. These grapes produce Lazy Creek’s Estate Pinot Noir. All of the Pinot Noir blocks are planted specifically to different clones, including Heritage, Dijon (such as Pomard, Gevry Chambertin and Romanee Conti) and California clones (Swan, Martini, Calera and Clone 37).  The soil and varied terrain on this ranch provide a dramatically different flavor profile for each Pinot Noir block."

The Anderson Valley climate is cool, Pinot Noir cool. The 2014 Lazy Creek Estate Pinot Noir shows a medium dark tint and has a nose of blackberry, coffee and cola. The fruit is big enough on the palate, but it definitely has co-stars in the more savory players. Cola takes a bigger turn in the flavor profile, while a hint of black tea bubbles underneath. It has a great structure, firm but easy, and pleasant acidity. It finishes medium long. It sells for around $60.