Monday, April 29, 2013

Gamling And McDuck Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc

Another trip to the movies was improved by wine.  That seems to happen to me a lot, I'm told.  It could be that everything is improved by wine, or it could be that movies generally need a little added excitement.  Maybe I'm just lucky.

We found ourselves at the mall on Pico again, with tickets to see "The Company You Keep" and "Trance."  There was just enough time in between for a bite and a drink.  We'd had a good experience at Westside Tavern before, so it didn't even need to be discussed.

The specials: Lobster Cobb and short rib grilled cheese.  It's a go.  Flipping open the menu to quickly choose a glass of wine, I see the phrases "Chenin Blanc" and "Santa Ynez Valley" adjacent to one another.  I'd better investigate this.

Our waiter tells me the Gamling and McDuck wine is "made by our head bartender, he's right over there."  The waiter motions to the bar behind him and across the room.  "He and his brother and his brother's girlfriend all collaborated on it.  The name of the wine is their nicknames, or something."  He later brought me the bartender's card.  Since he wasn't too busy, I stopped by to do a mini-interview with Dan McClary (right).

As it turned out, the other two-thirds of the company - Gabrielle Shaffer and Adam McClary - are in Napa.  "They are the winemakers," said Dan, "I write checks and act as the Los Angeles face for the wine.  We get our grapes from different sources.  The Chenin Blanc is from Jurassic Park Vineyard, out in the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley.  We used Napa fruit for our Cab Franc."

In an email, Adam McClary told me that Gamling and McDuck is something he and Gabrielle do on the side.  "She's the Viticulturist at Stagecoach, and I make wine and manage a boutique Calistoga winery called Lava Vine."

Oh, those nicknames?  They are their pet names for each other.  Adam explains, "She was in a secret spy club with her neighbor when they were 5 years old, and her secret spy name was Galadrielle Gamling, which I found to be adorably precocious, and she became a Gamling.  I'm McDuck because ... I evidently waxed poetic about Scrooge McDuck's detailed lineage.  Gabe just started calling me McDuck."

So there you have it.  Their sense of humor bleeds over into the company's website.  It shows tasting notes like "The clean, white vinyl interior of Wonder Woman's invisible jet" and "The urge to tell the truth."  I must confess I get neither of those elements, but I still find plenty to like.

2013 will be the trio's fifth vintage of Gamling & McDuck.  They started with 150 cases produced in 2009, and will make about 800 this year.

The Gamling and McDuck Chenin Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley, Jurassic Park Vineyard 2011 is poured for $14 by the glass at Westside Tavern.  Suggested retail is $22.  Alcohol content is quite low, at 12.8% abv.

A greenish tint emanates from the glass while a bountiful nose full of herbal and mineral aromas assures me that I made the right order.  Green melon and minerals appear as the dominant smells.  There is a hint of lemongrass in the bouquet, along with a trace of caramel.  The olfactory show alone is worth the price.  The mineral-driven palate shows citrus - lime and lemon jump out at me - and the acidity is zippy.  The full mouthfeel lends itself to pairing with comfort food and any sort of seafood.

The oak effect is very well played.  I imagine it is responsible for the caramel on the nose and the butterscotch note on the palate.  This wine spent seven months in neutral French oak, on the lees.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Wine Country Illinois - Illinois Sparkling Co.

Illinois wine has its roots in the mid-1850s, when Concord was the big grape.  After Prohibition, it wasn't until 1936 that the Prairie State got its first bonded winery.  Even so, the Illinois wine industry really didn't start moving forward with purpose until the 1980s.

The Illinois Grape and Wine Industry report for 2011, found at the Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association, shows an estimated 175 commercial vineyards in Illinois and over a thousand acres under vines.  There were another 136 "hobby vineyards" of less than an acre each.  Two thirds of Illinois vineyards are located in the southern half of the state.  Their 105 commercial wineries produced 651,800 gallons of wine in 2011.  The report states that 90 percent of Illinois grapes are grown for the purpose of making wine.

Hybrids are the grapes of choice for Illinois winegrowers.  Chambourcin is by far the most popular grape grown in the Land of Lincoln, representing twelve percent of the crop, followed by Norton, Frontenac, Foch, Chardonel and Vignoles.

Nearly half of Illinois wines are made from whole grapes, but only 44 percent of those grapes are grown in Illinois.  Says the report, "Fifty-one percent of Illinois wine is produced from grapes, bulk wine, juice and concentrates, and other non-grape fruits ... imported from other states."  My thoughts immediately went to California, but two thirds of all out-of-state winemaking produce comes from Michigan (35 percent) and New York (31 percent.)  California accounts for only ten percent.

An interesting survey included in the report shows that 24 percent of Illinois vineyards have trouble with the Japanese beetle, and that's the leading pestilence problem, coming in ahead of birds, black rot, deer and racoons.

The Illinois Sparkling Co. makes five sparkling wines, all in the traditional method used by makers of bubbly in a far away place called Champagne.  They use 100% Illinois-grown grapes and the wine is handcrafted at the winery in Peru, Illinois, in the northern part of the state west of Joliet between I-80 and the Illinois River.

Winemaker Mark Wenzel also toils in the vineyards and cellar for August Hill Winery.  He  hopes to put Illinois sparkling wine on the map after spending years on research, trials and getting advice from Champagne producers.

ISC was kind enough to provide me with two of their sparklers for review.


This is a tip of the hat to the French Hybrid grapes used by Illinois Sparkling Co., the grapes they say are “fondly known as ‘frankenvines.’”  A white sparkler made in the brut style from the red Chambourcin grape, this blanc de noir hits 12.5% abv with a dry 1.25% residual sugar.  The Illinois Chambourcin employed here comes from Two Oaks Vineyard in Benton , IL.

The wine is golden in the glass with a white layer of bubbles that dissipate rather quickly.  The nose offers a toasty show of bananas and earth.  The palate has citrus, cranberry, apple and a healthy zap of acidity that leaves a refreshing feel in the mouth.  It's a hit with roast chicken or a handful of almonds.


The sec style is put to work in this wine, which means it is dry.  Not as dry as brut, but not as sweet as doux.  In Riesling terminology, it would rate "semi-sweet" on the sweet-o-meter.  The residual sugar hits 2.3% and the alcohol is restrained at 12.5% abv.  Illinois La Crescent grapes from ISC Estate Vineyard in Peru IL are the big show here, with some Frontenac Gris used in dosage.

This very pale sparkler's bubbles hang around on the rim a good, long while.  A subtle nose of apples and citrus leaves no surprise that the flavors are dominated by apple and lime.  There's only a hint of fresh bread on the palate, while the wine tends toward the sweet side without going over it.  A faint earthiness in the bouquet is hardly noticeable in the taste.  This is a great example of the sort of good things being done in America with the La Crescent grape.  The suggested pairing with spicy Thai or Mexican cuisine sounds like a winner to me.

I didn't try these two, but their I.S.C Brut has 12.5% abv with only 0.8% residual sugar.  It's made from 100% Illinois St. Pepin grapes from Hieland Hills Vineyard in St. Anne, IL.   Dollface is a demi-Sec rosé at 12.5% abv and 3.3% residual sugar.  Its grapes are Illinois Frontenac also from Hieland Hills Vineyard.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wine For Spring And Summer: In The Pink at Whole Foods Market

It’s now the season that makes wine lovers think pink.  I like having rosés year-round - they go great with Thanksgiving leftovers, are well-suited for holiday entertaining and make waiting for the Groundhog seem less annoying.  But the freshness and flavor of rosé wines certainly makes them a go-to choice for spring and summer.

Whole Foods Markets in Southern California have rosé gardens in them - places where you can pluck delightful rosé wines from the shelves, place them carefully in your basket and take them home to help make the spring and summer even brighter.

Fourteen specially selected pink wines are ripe for the picking at Whole Foods Markets.  Here they are, along with their retail prices: 
Bieler Rosé 2012, $11.99
Charles and Charles Rosé 2012, $12.99
Chateau Routas Rouvière Rosé, $14.99
Chateau D’Esclans Whispering Angel Rosé 2012, $19.99
Clos Alivu  Rosé, $19.99
Domaine de la Fouquette Cote de Provence Rosé, $17.99
Hitching Post Pinks 2012, $14.99
One Wine Ampelos Rosé, $17.99
Château Pampelonne Rosé, $19.99
Roquesante Rosé Provencal 2012, $12.99
Secco Rosé Bubbles, $12.99
St. Roch Cote de Provence Rosé, $14.99
Vie Vité Cotes de Provence Rosé 2012, $16.99 
The WFM wine folks say these wines will be available through June 2013 at Southern California stores.

Whole Foods Market has worked with a number of Central Coast vintners in recent years to produce special wines for their customers in Southern California.  You see two Central Coast efforts on the list above - Hitching Post Pinks and One Wine Ampelos Rosé.

I was offered a bottle of the One Wine Ampelos Cellars Rosé to review for this article, which is a task at which I was happy to slave away over a period of several sittings.  I have long been a fan of Ampelos wines, and I was excited to find that Peter and Rebecca Work had been commissioned to create a rosé for WFM’s One Wine series.

It is a limited-edition wine, with only 388 cases produced.  Warm and cool climate Syrah from Santa Barbara County make up this rosé, with a bit of dry Riesling and Grenache blended into it.  The blend is 76% Syrah from Cuatro Vientos Vineyard and Ampelos estate vineyard, 18% Grenache from Vogelzang and Ampelos Vineyards and 6% Riesling from Rancho Sisquoc Vineyard.  The percentages are very close to those of their own Ampelos Rosé of Syrah.  Most of the Syrah grapes are picked three or four weeks earlier than the harvest for red wine.  The alcohol comes in at a perfectly reasonable 13.6% abv.

The wine is beautiful as it sits in a glass or a carafe - or simply in the clear bottle in which it is sold.  It's a gorgeous, rich, salmon pink color - a fairly deep tint.  The nose gives earthy strawberry and cherry scents with a green bit of an herbal aroma.  It is the sort of bouquet I always hope for in a rosé.  The palate, too, is alive with red fruit flavors - also earthy, but candy-colored in a way that reminds me of Pixy Stix, or at least I think that's what those fruit-powder-filled straws of my childhood were called.

The acidity is just fine for pairing with a favorite salad out on the deck, but it's also a great wine to sit and sip while the sounds of spring and summer lull you into a restful time in your favorite outdoor chair.  Wake me for a refill, will you?

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Monday, April 22, 2013

J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Little, out-of-the-way restaurants that serve good food are a great find anywhere, but particularly in large cities.  Dining at the latest trendy hotspots in Los Angeles is getting mighty pricey, and the more television shows on which the chef or owner appears, the more it will cost when the check comes.

Little mom-and-pop places are particularly attractive to me for their wine lists.  There always seem to be a wine or two that look very interesting - and they are often priced nicely as well.

On a recent trip to the Westside to see a film at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, we stopped in to an Indian restaurant across the street, Pradeep's.  Good food, good prices, and great spices.  I scanned the wine list, although I find Indian restaurants can usually do a much better job of selecting their wines.

The whites all seemed pretty run-of-the-mill, but the red side offered a Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon that tempted me.  The glass of J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cab is served in the fashion I often find in Indian restaurants, in a tiny glass which is filled to the rim.

The wine's composition is 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 4% Petite Sirah and 1% each of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Malbec.  After stainless steel fermentation, it is aged in toasted American oak barrels for a year.  The alcohol content is a bit low for Paso - just under 14% abv.

The soil of the Seven Oaks vineyard on the J. Lohr estate is made up primarily of gravelly clay with some limestone-based soil.  According to the winery website, 2010 was the coolest vintage in Paso Robles in ten years, with winter rain about 50% above normal.  The winery stopped irrigation of the vineyard in mid-June, expecting a three to five week period before starting the water again.  As it turned out, their vines didn't start to struggle for two months.  They credit this strategy with adding intensity to the flavor profile of this blend of mainly Bordeaux varieties.

It's a deep, dark red color with a nose that's rich with fruit.  The cherry and raspberry flavors are indeed quite intense.  The palate is fruit forward with a mocha note edging its way into the scene. Minerals are very noticeable, the tannins are nice but not in the way and a lingering flavor of mint colors the finish.

Is it good with Indian food?  Nice, because the oak treatment isn't monstrous and the tannins aren't extremely sharp.  The wine settles in very well with the spices of the alu gobi.  The J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cab is $9.50 by the glass at Pradeep's and is listed by the winery at a retail price of $17.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

The Grapes Of Bordeaux In The Soil Of Happy Canyon

Santa Barbara County is known more for Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay than anything else, but in the Happy Canyon AVA - in the warm, east end of the Santa Ynez Valley - it’s Bordeaux that makes them so happy. This pair of wines utilizing Bordeaux varieties were provided by Cimarone Wines.

2010 Cimarone Le Clos Secret 

The grapes involved in Cimarone’s Le Clos Secret are a varied Bordeaux-style blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 9% Merlot and 5% Malbec from Cimarone’s estate property, Three Creek Vineyard.  The alcohol is up at a sun-ripened 14.5% abv and it retails at $40.  Ageing took place in French oak for 18 months.

I mentioned on Twitter the notion that this wine is California Bordeaux.  I mentioned it in humorous fashion, but was taken to task by one of my followers, Regis Chaigne - @rchbx - who happens to live in Bordeaux.  Regis was quick to point out, "Randy, Bordeaux wines are produced in the Bordeaux area.  Nowhere else."
Of course, I know that.  Maybe the offhanded nature of my remark was lost in translation or shortchanged by the 140-character limit, because Regis continued, "I would like the Bordeaux Wines Council to fight the misuse of "Bordeaux" as hard as [Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne] CIVC does with Champagne."
Regis is right, and I stand duly corrected on my flippant use of "Bordeaux" to describe a California wine.  Bordeaux does get misused a lot, although probably not as much as Champagne and Port - to say nothing of the millions of jugs of "Hearty Burgundy" Americans have chugged down.

Le Clos Secret was vinified by Doug Margerum and blended by Andrew Murray, Cimarone’s new winemaker  Murray says, “ "I didn't make this wine, I just blended the components, but I think it is really solid!"  You’d hardly expect him to say anything less effusive, but he actually undersells it quite a bit.

The wine looks very dark, and it smells the same.  Aromas of ripe blackberry weave into cassis, with a sage meets pencil shavings angle that really takes a stand.  It is a bouquet which makes me glad I have at least some of my olfactory sense remaining.

The palate, too, is a barnburner.  Big, dark fruit flavors are cloaked in a brambly duster of eucalyptus and graphite while a chocolate coffee angle bubbles up from a black cherry floor.  It's a show.  Extremely nice acidity and a generous tannic structure keep the wine lively even four days after opening.  The Bordeaux traits are there, alright, but there's no doubt it's a California wine that knows how to swing it.

2011 Cimarone Cabernet Sauvignon

The Cimarone Cabernet Sauvignon is the straight-up varietal version of the Cab they use to make their red blends.  Such a good outcome they have had with the grapes of Bordeaux that they decided to give the king its due.  The 2011 Cimarone Cab is a 100% varietal wine, clocking in at 14.5% abv.  It spent 15 months in French oak barrels and has the spicy nose to prove it.  The retail price is also $40.

The notes claim the 2011 vintage was a "rather challenging, late-ripening year" on the way to explaining that it is not a fruit-forward wine, but complex and layered.  Those who like a fat, plush Cab may be disappointed, but those seeking out a leaner, more nuanced wine will find this bottle to their liking.

The nose displays blackberry fruit which is shrouded in the minerals of the Three Creek Vineyard soil.  Oak has its effect, with anise and cinnamon making an appearance, and an herbal note defined by eucalyptus playing a bit part.  On the palate, the fruit makes a stronger show but there is still a straight line of minerality running through.  There's a tangy acidity and some crunchy tannins leading to a sense of orange peel on the finish.  I am going to keep this wine in mind for the holidays.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

World Malbec Day Luncheon At Lucques

April 17th is World Malbec Day and, for a change, I’m ready for it.  Yesterday I was in good company at the tony Los Angeles eatery Lucques, on Melrose, for a luncheon event put on by Wines of Argentina.  Our host, Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser, briefly shared the floor with Nora Favelukes, of Wines of Argentina, and The Honorable Cristina Vallina, the Consul General of Argentina in Los Angeles.  I told you the place was classy.  Gaiser tasted the crowd through fourteen great and varied Malbecs from Argentina in fine style.

World Malbec Day doesn’t really celebrate Malbec worldwide - it commemorates the introduction of the French grape into Argentina.  In 1853, April 17th was the day the governor of Mendoza reshaped his country’s wine future by asking Frenchman Michel Pouget to bring some new vines over to try out in Argentina.  Malbec was one of those vines, and the rest is history.  Now known more as an Argentine variety than a French one, Malbec is Argentina’s grape of choice.

This event was the only one to mark the day on the West Coast, but Favelukes commented that their tour included seven events in five states.

Gaiser, perhaps overcome by his allegiance to the San Francisco Giants, compared Malbec to baseball.  He said, “Whatever you do to it, you can’t change its soul.”  That, he said, is probably why the grape was used as a blending variety in the Rhône Valley at one time.  He swears that Malbec is as good as any Bordeaux grape at expressing its terroir.

The big region for Malbec in Argentina is Mendoza, and Gaiser credits the dry, hot conditions there for the grape’s success.  “The rain shade provided by the Andes mountains makes Mendoza incredibly dry, and the summer days are hot with a big thermal amplitude, or diurnal shift - the difference between hot afternoons and cool overnights.”

Gaiser’s comments were quite informative, but he wisely let the wines do most of the talking.  Chef Suzanne Goin presented a truly wonderful lunch for pairing with the Malbecs that were poured.

Upon entering Lucques, I was handed a rosé, Finca Las Nubes Rosé of Malbec, of course.  After lunch, it stood as one of my favorites.  This wine is from the Salta region, in the northern part of Argentina, and is made by one of the most respected winemakers in the country, José Luis Mounier.  He’s known as “Mr. Torrontes” in his homeland, but he certainly knows his way around Malbec.  The rosé has a very deep red tint and includes a 10% splash of Cabernet Sauvignon.  The fruity nose is almost perfumed, while the bright acidity reflects the lack of oak.  Strawberry, cherry and cola notes drape a graceful minerality.

FLIGHT ONE: served with rare lamb loin and baby carrots

All four of these wines come at a lower price point.

Finca Flichman ‘Reserva’ Malbec - Blackberry, cherry, cranberry and black pepper aromas converge on a floral aspect on the nose.  After a bit, caramel comes into play.  The palate features tart fruit and minerals.  The wine has great acidity.

Bodega Lagarde Malbec - From the Lujan de Cuyo region of Mendoza, this wine is 100% Malbec.  A lower elevation site, the fruit is ripe, the minerals are assertive and the tannins are smooth.

Alamos ‘’Seleccion” Malbec - This is a wine many American diners are familiar with - it turns up on lots of wine lists, especially those dominated by lower price points.  The floral nose with a smokey edge is beautiful.  Ripe fruit and great structure make it winner with the lamb.

Bodega Ricardo Santos Malbec - From the lower-elevation Maipu region, this wine sees  French oak for six months.  The acidity is the calling card here, it’s great.  Flavors of red plums and cherries battle to a finish where a hint of raspberry comes forward.

FLIGHT TWO: served with Chicken Paillard and mushrooms on a bread pudding

These four wines move up a bit in price, in the 20 to 40 dollar range.

Finca El Origen ‘Gran Reserva’  Malbec - The hot, dry Uco Valley is home for this wine.  It shows a beautiful nose of mocha and black cherry, with big tannins.

Gascon ‘Reserva’ Malbec - Imported by Gallo, this Malbec has 3% Petit Verdot mixed into it.  60% of the wine is aged in French and American oak, while 40% is aged in stainless steel. It gets 15-18 months of ageing before bottling.  A bit of funk shows on the nose, and it wears its minerals on its sleeve.  Smooth tannins and a huge savory side put me in mind of France.

Navarro Correas ‘Alegoría’ Malbec - One of the stars of the event, this wine is quite complex, with a savory, cranberry-laced nose and a palate that shows more of the same.  Great tannins, a nice touch of oak and brilliant acidity make this the food-friendliest of all the food-friendly Malbecs offered here.  At $18, it’s a steal.

Bodega Domingo Hermanos ‘Domingo Molina M2 - Another 100% Malbec wine, this Salta product has 40% of its contents aged in French oak.  The suggested retail price of $35 seems a little high after the Navarro Correas.  Mocha and spice on the nose and a sleek, supple, mineral-driven palate certainly do deliver, however.

FLIGHT THREE: served with braised beef short ribs with turnip greens

The final wines allowed our hosts to break out the big guns.  These are higher-end wines in which the complexity is turned up a notch.

Nieto Senetiner ‘Nieto Terroir Blend’  Malbec - From the Lujan de Cuyo region of Mendoza, this 100% Malbec has a savory bouquet of mocha and dark fruit which is introduced by a big floral show.  In the mouth, it’s very dry with great acidity and minerality.

Salentein ‘Numina’ - A big floral nose with a hint of chocolate is an instant winner.  The nice level of acidity and the streak of minerality come as a bonus.

Luca ‘Beso De Dante’ - A $41 blend of 60% Malbec and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine is aged in French oak for 14 months.  Quite ripe in the nose with great structure and fruit, this was a favorite of mine.  It paired beautifully with the beef.

Familia Zuccardi ‘Zuccardi Zeta’ - Minerals are the rule here, so much so that some at my table were a bit put off by them.  Very dry.

Renacer ‘Renacer’ 2008 - Another favorite here, this 100% Malbec was cited by Gaiser as one of the finest varietal representatives of the grape he has tasted.  Aged 24 months in new French oak, the wine carries a staggering 15% alcohol number.  The nose has it all - mocha, caramel, smoke, fruit, flowers and a box of chocolates.  The fruit on the palate ranges seamlessly from blackberry to raspberry to a cranberry/mocha finish.  The acidity is refreshing and the tannins are just about perfect.  It didn’t beat out the Luca for pairing with the beef, but it was a delectable sip and complemented the dessert cookies perfectly.

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Monday, April 15, 2013

Redwood Creek Chardonnay 2011

I generally stay away from wines which bear a formulaic name like this one does.  I don’t remember who characterized this type of wine naming, but it seems to be most popular on wines produced in Modesto, California.  The idea is to have a two-word name, the first word being an iconic symbol and the second being a natural reference.  It could be Rabbit Run, Cauliflower Gully, Cedar Brook, Forest Glen or Black Mountain.  In this case, it’s Redwood Creek, a part of the Gallo empire.

Winemaker Cal Denison - an outdoorsy-looking fellow - has crafted a reasonably nice Chardonnay with an unfortunately nondescript name.  I enjoyed a glass of it at the Callender’s Grill on Wilshire Boulevard.  I tend to show up there quite a bit, not because its such a great bar, but because it’s geographically convenient.  It’s just down the street from my favorite Starbucks, which has become an office-away-from-home for me.

It is one of the cheaper wines on the Callender's  list, but it’s pretty good for the $5 happy hour price. Much appreciated is the good pour from the longtime bartender there.

The wine is medium full in the mouth - brisk and refreshing, actually.  A light acidity is just enough to provide a spark, but not enough to bite.  Tropical fruit and lemon peel come forth on the nose, while the palate shows pears and a bit of citrus with a hint of green apple.  The oak is not at all overdone, something that is unusual in a cheap wine.  Lots of oak is no substitute for good grapes.

While this wine won’t be giving anyone thrills and chills, it’s a solid effort at a lowball price point.   If you try just a little bit, you can probably find it in a supermarket for five or six bucks.  The hotter the day, the better it will taste.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Paul Mas Wines of Languedoc

The Paul Mas estate was founded in 1892, and over the years they have expanded their holdings in the Hérault Valley, in the Languedoc region in the south of France.  They now have 2400 acres under vines.  Jean-Claude Mas is in charge these days.  He is a fourth generation winemaker who helped his father and grandfather at the age of three.  All three of the wines tasted here are from the Paul Mas Estate Single Vineyard Collection, and all three exhibit the characteristics of their unique terroirs.

Paul Mas Chardonnay Saint Hilaire Vineyard 2011

This unoaked, 100% Chardonnay retails for $14 and carries a 13.5% abv number.  The grapes hail from Mas's Saint Hilaire Vineyard near Limoux, in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains.

It's a straw colored wine with a yellow-green tint and a lovely nose of subdued, sweet tropical fruit, pears and peaches.  A streak of minerality runs through them all.  The palate shows a fruit plate with a savory edge.  Honeydew, cantaloupe, orange, green apple and pineapple flavors are laced with slate-like minerals.  The acidity is not extremely bright, but there is a nice citrus zing and the sensation of wet stones that carry through the lengthy finish.

Paul Mas Picpoul de Pinet Coteaux du Languedoc 2011

One of my favorite grapes from the south of France is Picpoul de Pinet.  This beautiful white wine is 100% Picpoul from the vineyard which lies along the Etang de Thau, which is said to be famous for oysters. limestone and red soils.  It also retails for $14 and has a very manageable 13% alcohol content.

A light golden color in the glass, this crisp white shows a nose of apples and citrus, followed by flavors of the same on the palate.  Minerals play a huge role in this wine, with the lemon zest riding high through the finish.  The limestone soil is apparent in this wine, with the mineral sensation of wet rocks in the forefront and a wonderful salinity on the finish.  Pair with shellfish or any kind of seafood - it's made for that.

Paul Mas G.S.M. 2011

This is a classic Rhône Valley blend of 35% Grenache, 35% Syrah and 30% Mourvédre.  It's not, of course, from the Rhône.  The grapes are grown in Les Crés Vineyard, in the pebbly soil of the upper Hérault Valley, protected by the Cévennes mountains.  Twenty percent of the wine was aged in oak barrels for six months.  It retails for only $16 and has an alcohol content of 14%.

The wine plays its fruit against its funk, although I use the term "funk" mainly in an alliterative sense.  The nose is half devoted to dark berries and half to a delicious savory aspect.  The palate has blackberries and black olives dominating the flavor profile, with the savory tastes edging in front of the fruit.  The three elements contribute equally here - fruity Grenache, spicy Syrah and dark Mourvèdre.  It's a wine that will pair wonderfully with red meat or sharp cheeses.

As good as the Paul Mas Chardonnay is, it is overshadowed by the edgy Picpoul de Pinet and the savory G.S.M.  All three wines deliver a ton of quality at an easy-to-swallow price, and the whites are especially perfect for the season as the weather turns warmer.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A French Wine Puts Oz To Shame

For a little badly needed R&R after a very tough month, Denise and I went for a tried and true escape.  We went to the movies.  Happily, the movie was playing at a theater with a wine bar attached.  As Kris Kristofferson once asked, “You been readin’ my mail?”

We were thinking of the recently passed Roger Ebert.  We both respected him greatly for his social positions, although I must admit I always agreed more with Gene Siskel when it came to movies.  While waiting for “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” the waiter/bartender in the Metallica t-shirt asked me what would make my day.  I thought an Albariño would brighten the Saturday afternoon nicely, but Metallica told me they had expended their allotment of that grape.

“Here’s another dry one,” he offered, pointing to the E. Guigal Cotes du Rhone Blanc on the daily specials list.  “I don’t know how to pronounce it, but people say it’s good.”  Well, who am I to argue with people?  Eleven dollars by the glass?  Bring it on, good sir.  Congratulations on knowing your limitations, and may all your dreams be metallic.

Domaine Guigal was founded by Etienne, furthered by son Marcel and now his son, Phillippe, represents the third generation toiling in the Côte Rôtie appellation of the Rhône Valley.  The white Côtes du Rhône is a masterful blend of 55% Viognier, 20% Roussanne, 10% Clairette, 10% Marsanne and 5% Bourboulenc, all vinified in stainless steel tanks.

The 2011 vintage of this wine clearly displays the limestone and granite soil of the estate.  Wet rocks and minerals define the nose, almost to the exclusion of fruit - not that it's a bad thing.  My wife says she can smell the French sunshine in it.  I get lemon and a slight floral note on the nose and lime zest on the palate.  The acidity is quite refreshing.  I wish I had been able to have this at lunch with my calamari and scungilli salad.  Forget Oz, Guigal was the great and powerful one on this day.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

A Pair Of Bonny Doon Wines: Le Cigare Blanc

Le Cigare Blanc is the white version of Bonny Doon Vineyard’s masterful homage to Châteuaneuf-du-Pape, Le Cigare Volant.  For the uninitiated, that red wine is named to honor a decree issued in a village in that famous wine region which banned flying saucers from ever landing there and ruining the vineyards.  The region has never encountered the need for enforcement of that decree.  The light-hearted aspect of the name sits at the crux of Bonny Doon winemaker/owner Randall Grahm's sense of humor, a sensibility that permeates his writing and his labels.  As "president-for-life" of Bonny Doon, it is his wit that marks the wines and the marketing effort behind them.

Le Cigare Blanc Beeswax Vineyard 2011

This blend of 62% Grenache Blanc and 38% Roussanne is Grahm’s tip of the hat to the white blends of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  He e explains on the label, “Resistance is futile,” and he is correct.

The grapes come from the Beeswax Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco AVA of Monterey County and are
biodynamically farmed.  2011 was a particularly cool vintage, so the wine offers great flavor at a modest alcohol level of 12.5% abv.  1,650 cases were produced and they all are contained under what Grahm knows as a Stelvin closure.  You may know it as a screwcap.

The wine underwent a complete malolactic fermentation, so the mouthfeel is full and rich.  Aging took place in French oak barrels, and the suggested retail price is $28.

Le Cigare Blanc has a golden tint and a nose of apricots and cantaloupes, with a nutty little backbeat.  A quince flavor leads the way on the palate, with a savory quality - an almost salty quality - that intrigues me greatly.  Despite the intensity of the fruit here, it is the salinity that stays with me as a reminder.  The acidity is razor sharp and ready for whatever food you'd like to have with a white wine.  This wine's complexity is - to me, anyway - literally dazzling.  As much as I admire Grahm's red wines, Le Cigare Blanc may well be my favorite of the Bonny Doon line.

Le Cigare Blanc Réserve 2010

The Réserve version of Le Cigare Blanc is labeled as en bonbonne, meaning the wine is aged in a carboy - a big glass jug.  Grahm feels this type of aging allows the wine to retain its freshness over a number of years.

The 2010 vintage is the second for this version of the wine.  The fruit again comes from Beeswax Vineyard, while the mix is 56% Grenache Blanc and 44% Roussanne.  Easy on the alcohol again, too, with 12.4% abv.  Bonny Doon produced only 498 cases, and the screwcap closure is used, as in all of Grahm's bottlings.  He says you can tuck this one away until 2020 without a worry.  According to Grahm, it tastes younger every time he samples it.  The unfiltered wine may appear partly cloudy in your glass - it did in mine.  It is sold only to DEWN club members at a retail price of $50.

It is highly interesting how two wines of such a similar nature can be so different.  Clearly, the aging process tells the story of these fraternal twins.  The Réserve - aged in glass - shows a very different bouquet than its wood-aged counterpart.  Strong floral scents  mingle with orange peel and a bit of almond on the nose, while the palate is youthful and breezy, with plenty of citrus.  The two wines do share certain qualities, though.  The bracing acidity and the savory taste are here, with that lovely salinity lasting long into the finish.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Bonny Doon Wine With The Grapes Of Italy And Spain

Winemaking is a tough enough profession, but a winemaker who can make world-class puns at the drop of a hat while doing the Sunday New York Times crossword and microblogging on Twitter is a man to be admired.

Besides the Rhône-varietal wines Randall Grahm is known for, he also likes to dabble in some other grape nationalities, too.  He has done some interesting things with Riesling, and the two wines featured here show his work with Spanish and Italian grape varieties grown in the Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo estate vineyard.  They were provided to me for review.

Bonny Doon Nebbiolo 2009

Grahm’s love affair with the grape of Barolo has either come to an end or reached a hiatus, as far as growing it is concerned.  The ‘09 vintage of Bonny Doon Nebbiolo is the last from the biodynamic Ca’ del Solo Vineyard in Monterey - at least for a while.

Grahm thinks Nebbiolo is “one of the true genius grape varieties."  He says, "there is a remarkable soulfulness to the best examples of the variety, and this particular one, I submit, stands among the very best.”

In previous vintages, Grahm's Nebbiolo grapes were partially air-dried to concentrate ripeness. He says the finale year for the vineyard provided a warmer growing season, so air-drying was not employed.  All the grapes used here are estate-grown Nebbiolo.  Alcohol kicks in at 14.4% abv, and only 508 cases were made, for Bonny Doon’s DEWN wine club members.  Sealed under a screwcap, it goes for $45.

The wine has a medium-dark tint in the glass and smells quite brightly of red plums and blueberries.  The fairly noticeable whiff of a fresh pack of Kools - my dad’s brand when I was growing up - provides an interesting angle to the bouquet.  On the palate, a youthful fruit expression is up front when first poured.  Then, over the course of an evening, its mood turns darker and a bit more savory.  With so much going on, it’s a great wine to contemplate.  It’s also a great wine to accompany a meal.  The tannins are firm enough for your grandma’s meatballs, but not at all harsh.

Bonny Doon Sparkling Albariño, Central Coast 2010

This 100% Albariño sparkler uses grapes from Jespersen Vineyard (84%) and Ca’ del Solo (16%.)  It comes under a crown cap closure, requiring a churchkey like a beer or soda might.  You should remove the cap very slowly, since the contents are under pressure and the bubbles like to free themselves quickly when they have the chance.  Alcohol content is quite low - 12.5% abv - and only 617 cases were produced.  It’s also available only to Bonny Doon’s wine club members.

Those bubbles - when they are freed - are quite large on top of the pale golden liquid.  The nose smells a bit of toast, but more of fruit.  A zesty lemon-lime component frames the aroma of peaches quite nicely.  The refreshing acidity is a delight, and flavors of citrus linger on the finish.  Grahm suggests you try this with Korean barbecue, and that’s a great idea.  It should also make a nice pairing with any number of other dishes, or sipped on its own as a toasting vehicle.  $32

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Grenache And Syrah From Bonny Doon

Randall Grahm is credited with being the original Rhone Ranger, a pioneer in making wine from the grapes of the Rhone Valley, as expressed through California terroir.  His affinity for Grenache is a credit to his sensibilities, and a gift to those of us who love the variety.  His various efforts in the field of Syrah are, arguably, unmatched in California.

I don’t quote from press releases often, but in this case I will.

“Asked about this first vintage, Grahm commented, 'It was a different day in California, Rhône varieties weren’t exactly easy to come by and no one really knew what they were all about.'  He joked, 'Could Grenache actually produce a red wine?  Syrah was grown in someplace called “Côte-Rôtie.  That had to be blazing hot.' 

Grahm is set to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rhone Rangers on March 22, 2013.  No one in California is more deserving of that honor.

These samples were provided by Bonny Doon for review.

Bonny Doon Clos de Gilroy 2011

The fruit used for this wine does not come from Gilroy- the California town known as garlic capital of the world - and that results in my favorite of Grahm’s many puns: “Clos, but no Cigare.”   It’s an homage to that tiny town that one can smell from the freeway.

The fruit - 83% Grenache, 7% Cinsault, 6% Syrah and 4% Mourvèdre - actually comes from nine Central Coast vineyards, largely the estate vineyard in Soledad and the Alta Loma Vineyard in Greenfield.  The fruit is destemmed and cold soaked to improve color and flavor.  Grahm calls it a cool climate Grenache with bright fruit and a hint of black pepper.

The nose is certainly bright enough, with cherry galore and a hint of tart raspberry.  The savory aspect - a hallmark of Grahm's wines - comes in the form of an almost smoky mineral shading.  On the palate, the cherry flavors are draped a little more heavily in that funky earthiness.  A minty aspect also appears in mid palate and remains on the finish.  I’m an easy touch for Bonny Doon wines anyway, but I particularly like the way this one drinks.

The winemaker notes - in Grahm's own humorous way - advise pairing with “grilled meat or vegetables, roasted poultry or the aioli platter (naturellement).”  It’s also a big hit with garlic naan from my nearby Indian restaurant.  The wine carries a 13.3% abv number, and 767 cases were produced - for wine club members.  It is bottled under a screwcap - get over it.  $18

Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido X-Block, Santa Maria Valley 2009

This big, bold, 100% Syrah comes from Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, possibly the best source for grapes in the huge Central Coast AVA.  Grahm believes the Syrah clone planted in Bien Nacido’s X-Block is identical to the strain from France’s Côte Rôtie region.  The cool climate of that part of the Santa Maria Valley  allows full aromatic expression of that clone.
Even for a cool climate site, this is a cool vintage.

If Clos de Gilroy offers bright colors, this Syrah turns and runs from that.  It's dark.  Dark in color, dark on the nose - savory meat notes rival the trod-upon blackberry - and dark on the palate, with the standard Bonny Doon savory streak taken to an extreme.  There is a rather refreshing acidity, and a hint of green - possibly a result of some whole cluster inclusion in this wine.

Grahm says if you pair this wine with roasted lamb, you won’t be sorry.  Please decant, or at least let the glass sit for half an hour or so for full enjoyment.  Under the screwcap is a 13.3% abv wine, of which 843 cases were produced.  It was made for DEWN wine club members.  $42

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Clos La Chance Wines

The life of a wine writer looks pretty good - from a distance.  It's nice that I get to attend many fine wine tasting events, and nicer still that most of the wines I taste are pretty good.  It is tough, though, to make value judgments on wines at these events when I  have all of thirty seconds or so to see, swirl, sniff, sip and spit while trying to jot down something that sounds different than what I jotted down at the last table.

Clos LaChance is one of those wines I have experienced only at tasting events under those less-than-desirable circumstances - until I received samples of their wines from a publicist.  While he didn't introduce me to the Clos LaChance wines, he did give me an opportunity to write about the winery at greater length than I have in the past.

Bill and Brenda Murphy own and operate the 150-acre San Martin estate, which is sustainably certified by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.  The production facility is sustainable, as well.  The Murphys take seriously the honor of being "stewards of the land," but they also see their efforts producing a legacy for generations of Murphys to come.

Head winemaker Stephen Tebb and his staff have done a wonderful job, and I'm happy I had the chance to taste the wines from Clos LaChance.

What's in a name?  LaChance is Brenda Murphy's maiden name.  And the hummingbird on the label?  The winery is located at 1 Hummingbird Lane.

Clos LaChance Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast 2009

This wine provides an interesting blend from the Central Coast: 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, 2% Merlot.  Nearly all the grapes are from the Clos La Chance estate vineyards - five percent come from CK Vines, an arm of Clos LaChance.

This is a Cabernet with a - pardon my rudeness - a big old' honker on it.  This nose overwhelms the sniffer with fruit aromas that are not a bit shy.  Ripe blackberry, plums and black cherry would be a treat by themselves.  Here, they get lots of help from the spice rack.  Clove, cinnamon, sage and nutmeg converge in a heady cedar box of smells.  It's a party for the olfactory sense, probably abetted by the Malbec.  The extra-spicy profile could also be due in part to the use of American oak in the aging program.  20 percent of the oak used is American, and five percent of it is new.  Of the French oak, 30 percent of it is new.  The wine spends 16 months aging in oak barrels.

In the mouth, blackberry and black cherry cola lead the way, while clove and a just a hint of orange peel linger on the finish.  The firm tannins provide ample framework for meat, but are not too stiff - the wine is a very pleasant solo quaff.  Alcohol is a manageable 13.5% abv and suggested retail is $15.

Clos La Chance Estate Zinfandel Central Coast 2010

This Zin is a fairly dark purple in the glass and has a rustic, brambly side showing on the nose.  Aromas of cherry and raspberry come forth with hints of sage and eucalyptus following.  The flavor profile leans heavily on fruit like blackberry and raspberry, plus a jazzy little kick of clove and elderberry.

The wine’s alcohol content is 14.5% abv, but it drinks smoother than that.  Look for this one to be a hit by the barbecue grill with steaks, sausages or pork chops.  The suggested retail price of this Zinfandel is $15.

Clos La Chance Chardonnay Monterey County 2011

An unoaked Chardonnay, this one really lets the grapes do the talking.  The nose is alive with tropical aromas - pineapple and a hint of banana.  The fruit steals the show on the palate, too.  Gentle grapefruit flavors join the pineapple with a burst of lemon to boot.  The finish is long, and it’s the grapefruit flavor that hangs around the longest.

The wine’s acidity is quite refreshing and the 13.5% abv number is moderate and mild.  Food pairing is a natural.  I think it will complement shellfish wonderfully.  At a retail price of $11, this Chardonnay is a great bargain, too.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dr. Beckermann Liebfraumilch 2011

This Liefraumilch is a German white wine made from Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Kerner grapes.  The designation Qualitätswein means it is a quality wine.  It’s very low in alcohol - only 9.5% abv - and it is usually found on the cheap.  This wine was selling at Trader Joe for only four bucks.

Pale gold in color, the wine’s nose smells of sweet flowers - honeysuckle - with pears, apricots, peaches following.  The palate is sweet as well, a full mouthfeel, flavors of the aforementioned fruit with a mineral undercurrent.  It has a very nice acidity, especially when the sweetness is taken into account.

It’s not a wine that’s going to knock anyone off their feet, but it should prove a very pleasant companion out by the pool.  It should even match up nicely with a salad or a shrimp cocktail.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Greek Wines From Santorini

Santorini is a Greek island of incredible beauty and rich history.  Located in the Aegean Sea, about 120 miles southeast of the Greek mainland, it is the largest island in an archipelago.  Santorini’s winemaking history is said to date back to 3,500 B.C. although a cataclysmic event interrupted that history.

An incredible volcanic eruption around 1600 B.C. is responsible for the island’s terroir, not to mention the black sand beaches.  It took over 200 years for life to begin again on Santorini after the cataclysmic event.

The volcanic soil - known as aspa - has almost no organic matter, but it’s loaded with minerals, which shapes the island’s wine.  The lack of clay in the soil makes the vines immune from Phylloxera, so the vines of Santorini are likely the world’s oldest ungrafted vines.

The vines (above) grow in the volcanic soil and are trained in the shape of baskets, to protect them from the wind.  They don’t get a lot of rain, but the rain that does fall is taken in by the porous, rocky soil and held until it’s needed in summer.  Abundant fog also helps out, and the salty spray of the ocean delivers its own special salinity to the grapes.  Cooling winds from the north cover the island in summer, helping the grapes to retain their naturally high acidity.

There are only about half the number of vines on Santorini than there were in the 1960s, due to the  the difficulty of growing them and the popularity of the island as a tourist destination - the land is more valuable when developed.  The younger residents seem to be losing interest in grape growing and winemaking.  Every 75 years or so, the yield of the vines becomes so low that they are cut off at the root to allow new vines to grow.  It takes several years for a new vine to develop.

The wines of Santorini are mainly dry, white wines which have a trademark minerality and a crisp citrus element.  If you are the least bit interested in white wine, you owe it to yourself to try the wines of the island.  Vinsanto - a sweet wine tinted red - is also made there.

I had the opportunity to taste several wines produced on Santorini, provided for review by Wines from Santorini.

Artemis Karamolegos Nykteri 2010 

The Karamolegos Winery was founded in 1952 by Artemis Karamolegos.  He got the passion for winemaking from his grandfather.  Although a new and modern winery was built in 2004 to employ modern winemaking technology, the traditional ways are still their guiding light.

Labeled as Santorini Dry White Wine, the alcohol content is 13.5% abv.  This wine is a blend of 90% Assyrtiko and 10% Aidani.  the estate vineyards grow at an altitude of 150 meters, in the island’s volcanic soil.  The wine is fermented in oak barrels, and is aged on the lees in barrels for two months.  The retail price is $19.

The wine has a golden yellow tint in the glass - it looks rich and beautiful - and there is a lovely savory note on the nose.  Aromas of apricot and wet stones lead to flavors that are also mineral-based, with the taste of apricots just getting through a curtain of salinity.  Citrus on the finish, along with a very nice level of acidity, makes this a great wine to pair with food.  It's great with pepperoni pizza and really livens up a plain old tuna salad most excellently.

Sigalas Assyrtiko 2011

Paris Sigalas started making wine at his family’s home.  His winery is now a modern facility in the same village.  Sigalas was a mathematician, but grapes overtook numbers in his life.  It all adds up, though, because Sigalas is known for his wonderful efforts with the Assyrtiko grape.  He has devoted his life to preserving the winemaking traditions of the island he calls home, and protecting the viticultural practices used there.

His Assyrtiko wine carries an alcohol number of 13.5% abv, and is a blend of 75% Assyrtiko and 25% Athiri grapes, both indigenous varieties on Santorini.  The aromatics of the Athiri are complementary to the mineral driven profile of Assyrtiko.  The grapes are grown in the vineyards of northern Santorini, in the black lava soil.  The wine is fermented in stainless steel to allow the full expression of these amazing grapes to come forward.

In the glass, this wine has a yellow tint, but not quite as golden as the previous selection.  The nose is simply amazing, with the expected minerals, peaches and apricots joined by aromas of salty ocean spray - the salinity is gettin' real, up in here.  On the palate, the salinity stays strong, and a citrus zing makes for a tingly mouthful.

Santowines Vinsanto 2004

In the realm of Santorini’s long winemaking tradition, SantoWines is a relative newcomer - founded in 1947.  Visitors to the tasting room are treated to unmatched views of the Santorini caldera formed by the collapse of land in the destructive volcanic explosion.

Santowines’ Vinsanto is made from 85% Assyrtiko and 15% Aidani grapes.  The fruit is dried in the sun for eight to ten days, then fermented for two or three months before the aging process - the wine spends 36 months in oak barrels.  The alcohol content is only 10.9%, and the oak effect is quite pronounced.

This marvelous dessert wine has a color somewhere between brick red and whiskey brown.  Its nose boasts raisins, molasses and brown sugar.  That sun-dried, raisiny quality comes across on the palate, too, along with a crisp acidity and a bit of lemon zest on the finish.  The mouthfeel is oily and rich.  It is a recommended pairing with a traditional Greek dessert like baklava, but it also fits beautifully with cheese cake, a creamy cheese or even just a handful of nuts.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Cabernet Franc Saves The Night

We hadn't been to Vitello's Restaurant in a while, so Denise and I were taken aback by the new look at what was once a tried-and-true, old-style Italian-American eatery in the San Fernando Valley.  The restaurant was sold quite a while back, and the owners apparently took their time about making changes.

The changes they made to the old Rat-Packy restaurant really brought it into this century.  Gone are the red leatherette banquettes.  Gone are the old straw basket Chianti bottles.  Also gone, unfortunately, are the old recipes.

The very modern-looking redesign is nice enough.  Muted green fabric has replaced the red leatherette, the tablecloths are gone, swanky music is piped in through the sound system and there's a tree in the middle of the main room decorated with tiny white Christmas lights.  I suppose, since they are now used year-round nearly everywhere there is a tree in Los Angeles, that they are called "decor lights" or something like it.

The trouble is, some of us are clinging to the few remaining old-line, East Coast-style Italian restaurants with a death grip.  They are disappearing, these old haunts, and it's hard to see them slip away one by one.  If the ghosts of Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Bishop should materialize in Los Angeles, they will now have one less place to "try the veal."

I don't know whether or not the recipes at Vitello's were a part of the deal when the place sold, but even if the previous owners took the cookbook with them it should have been easy to find a new one.

Miso dressing on the chopped salad tastes OK, but it should be Italian.  The garlic bread doesn't look like garlic bread.  It's dark toast, with a lot of stuff on it besides butter and garlic.  Garlic bread isn't broken.  No need to fix it.  The chicken cacciatore, I don't even want to think about any more.  I don't know what kind of sauce was on it, but it wasn't tomato.  It seems as if the food is prepared by people who don't know what Italian-American food tastes like.  It's on par with the kind of cuisine one gets at an airport.

The food wasn't the end of the trouble, either.  Between the salad and the entree, our server was instructed to kick us off our two-top so it could be placed with a four-top to accommodate a larger party.  I don't mind moving, but I don't recall a restaurant ever asking me to do so.  Our server - who apparently knew a lot more about the restaurant business than the owners - was obviously mortified.  She offered us several different extras, on the house, which we politely declined.  She did take 20% off the check for our trouble, however.

Even so, we didn't feel that our dining dollars were very well spent.

With all that, at least the wine was good.  Vitello's wine list seems to be the one thing that changed for the better.  There are quite a few interesting choices by the glass, and a good number of bottles from which to choose.  It's a bit unusual to find a Cabernet Franc by the glass on a Los Angeles restaurant list, so I was happy to find it there.  Of course, their customers who liked the old cheap Chianti and cheap Pinot Grigio may not be too happy about it.

Napa Valley producer Cosentino is responsible for the Cab Franc that saved the evening for me, although it's not a Napa wine.

Cosentino's 2011 Cabernet Franc carries the Lodi appellation and a 14.3% alcohol number.  The grapes are 76% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Merlot.  The wine spends 20 months in oak - French and Hungarian - a quarter of which are new barrels.

The familiar Cab Franc spices and herbs grace the nose, while a beautiful green edge touches the blueberry and cherry flavors. There's a surprisingly light touch of vanilla and clove.  The wood is used to really great effect in this wine.

Hopefully, Vitello's can breathe some life into the food service the way they have done with the wine.  Until then, for me, it's a stop which will be reserved for happy hour only.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wine Country: Iowa - Schade Creek Vineyard (And Winery?)

Schade Creek Vineyard has appeared in the Now And Zin Wine Country series before, as have some of their recent troubles with the Waukee, Iowa city government.  The status of the winery is up in the air as of this writing, which led to the question mark in the headline.

Kurt and Jana Schade (pronounced Shady) have been battling the city council for their very survival as a business since the city embarked on a crusade to keep their winery and tasting room closed.  This article, from Waukee Patch in 2012 also highlights some of the struggles Schade Creek Winery has had with the city.

Although the Schades didn’t hold out much hope for a victory against City Hall when I spoke with them recently, I have my fingers sincerely crossed that they can get back to the work into which they have poured their life savings - the work of making people happy by way of their wines. 

In the middle of their struggle, the Schades were kind enough to supply me with some of their wines so I could revisit a few of them and taste some of their other offerings.  Schade Creek’s wines are not labeled with a vintage, but it appears these releases are new, and some are different from the previous vintage.  Their wines sell for about $12 per bottle.

Winemaker’s Reserve
The Schades' 2012 Marechal Foch is Iowa's version of Pinot Noir.  The Foch grape is a cold-hardy orb which ripens early.  That makes it a near-perfect grape to grow in Iowa.  Medium dark ruby in the glass, the wine lets enough light through to suggest a delicate sip.  The bouquet is a beautiful Pinot-like mix of flowers, cranberry, raspberry and coffee.  In the mouth, it's lively and fresh, with an invigorating acidity and great tannic structure.  The cranberry and blackberry flavors are draped in a gentle earthiness that makes it feel like a wine of the nighttime.  The Schades tell me the intensity of flavor from those small berries "is likely due to the drought we experienced last summer.”

Ghetto Fab
This rosé, called a blush in the Midwest, is made from 100% Steuben grapes.  The skins remain in contact with the pressed juice long enough to impart a medium-garnet color.  It looks a lot like a Spanish rosado, or a White Zinfandel.  The nose bears the Iowa earth, with vibrant strawberry and watermelon aromas peeking through.  On the palate, it's the same story - fruit nestled in minerality.  A citrus play arrives late and stays on the finish.  The racy acidity is razor sharp, which means you can pair this wine with a lot more than just a salad.

Soul Mates
This is a half-and-half blend of Golden Muscat and Steuben grapes.  There’s honeyed apricot on the nose, and an earthy aroma permeating it.  It’s full and a bit sweet in the mouth, and the acidity is brilliant.  The flavor profile runs from tropical fruit to peaches and back again, with a lovely Sweet Tart finish.  The Schades recommend pairing with pork and big, bold cheeses.  It also pairs nicely with avocado   They say it’s a great choice for people who love Pinot Grigio, and I think that hits the nail right on the head.

Vineyard Sunrise
Made entirely from the Schades' Vignoles grapes, the nose offers a fresh display of flowers and herbal notes, with an underlying sweetness of apricots.  On the palate, the semi-sweet wine carries lovely flavors of peaches and a terrific level of acidity.  The winemaker notes suggest a pairing with beef or lamb.  I don't know that I would go that far, but it would the perfect wine to pair with garlic shrimp or big cheeses.

Another 100% Vignoles effort, the white wine with the friendly name is crisp and semi-sweet, with a nose of earthy apricots and peaches and a tart, tangy palate.  The Schades recommend it for those who like Sauvignon Blanc.  They also say it goes nicely with salads and shrimp. 

Wine O’Clock Somewhere
This lighthearted wine is 100% Edelweiss. The Schades say the past year’s Edelweiss turned out a bit sweeter than usual.  This wine has an earthy/sweet nose, with honeyed fruit highlights.  The palate shows a great level of acidity, which makes the wine very refreshing and food-friendly.  The full mouthfeel and fruit-driven palate make this an excellent wine for sipping, or for pairing with salads or other light fare.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A Trio Of Italian-Style Wines From Castello Di Amorosa

I've written written before about the wines of Castello di Amorosa - the Calistoga castle that's a replica of a real Tuscan castle.  If you visit, it's hard to miss.  There aren't a lot of castles in the neighborhood.  This one took 14 years to build. It even has a torture chamber.  Presumably, the wine served there is very different from the wine served in the tasting room.

Castello di Amorosa uses estate fruit for all their wines, some of which are Italian varieties.  They kindly supplied me with samples of three of their wines which tip the fedora to their Italian heritage.

Gioia Rosato di Sangiovese 2011  $24
Pronounced "Joy-uh," this 100% Sangiovese rosé is fruity and fresh and a lively deep pink to boot.  Its nose is fresh and vibrant with cherries and plums.  The palate bursts with strawberries and raspberries, and a streak of earthy minerality.  A dynamite acidity laces it all together.  This wine looks big, but actually comes across as a light-middleweight.  The mouthfeel is crisp and refreshing, so it’s a great choice for salads, sandwiches or sipping on the porch this spring and summer. The alcohol content won't weigh you down - only 13.1% abv.  The wine is aged in stainless steel tanks.

Napa Valley Sangiovese 2009  $30
This varietal offering has medium density and is deep purple in the center of the glass, turning lighter at the edge.  The nose is enormous, laden with black cherry and blackberry with floral notes for good measure.  It's a bombastic bouquet, and it's fitting on such a heavyweight wine.  Frankly, it drinks more like a young Napa Cab - big alcohol, big tannins and fruit a lot darker than I expect in a Sangiovese.  The 14.5% alcohol content shows vividly upon opening, but after a night uncorked, it settles down quite a bit.  There's a lot of influence from the 18 months of ageing in French oak barrels which this wine receives.

La Castellana 2008  $68
A Super Tuscan-style blend, this one is made from 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot and 16% Sangiovese - all estate fruit.  The nose bears a lot of heat after opening, which burns off in a couple of hours.  The 14.6% abv remains noticeable, though.  The wood leaves its mark here, too - 20 months in French oak.  Intense aromas of blackberry dominate the smells, with a bit of tar and eucalyptus creeping through.  Huge fruit blasts through on the palate, too.  The tannins are firm and the acidity is mouth-watering.  On the third night after opening, the tar was so deep and rich I might have mistaken it for a Syrah.  The winemaker notes suggest a pairing with wild boar, which sounds great to me.

Winemakers Brooks Painter and Peter Velleno have produced some commendable wine.  Hear Castello di Amorosa’s consulting winemaker Sebastiano Rosa talk about the origins of Super Tuscan blends, and his history with wine, on the Castello di Amorosa SoundCloud site.

Castello di Amorosa wines are sold only at the castle or through their website.

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure Wine Event

It was a perfect mid-February, Southern California Saturday for a trip out of Los Angeles.  We enjoyed sunny, warm weather as we headed north on the 101 Freeway toward Santa Barbara wine country.  We didn’t have to do much work - our car knows the way very well.  We were bound for the Garagiste Festival: Southern Exposure, amidst the windmills and wine bars of Solvang.

The Garagiste Festival began in Paso Robles, an effort to spotlight some of the many small-production winemakers in that region.  The festival’s name comes from the French word that describes small, maverick wine producers operating in garages instead of chateaux.  Most of the producers who pour at the Garagiste events have no “winery” - they buy grapes directly from choice vineyards and turn them into wine in unheralded, low-overhead locations.

Stewart McLennan and Doug Minnick are co-founders of the Garagiste Festival, Lisa Dinsmore is the Event Director and Melanie Webber handles the public relations.  Billing their new festival as “the first and only event dedicated to celebrating and promoting the artisan winemakers of the Santa Ynez Valley,” the team has set their sights on further expansion.  They envision Garagiste events held all year long in various parts of California.  I can’t wait to hear where the next new entry will be.  They should all be as well-received as the first two.

The winemakers and wine tasters aren’t the only ones to benefit from the California Garagistes.  In January, Cal Poly’s wine and viticulture program got a check for $10,000 from the Garagiste Festival’s Paso Robles event, and the Southern Exposure version promises more to help pave the way for future winemakers.

The Artisans and Their Wines

Winemaker Ron Hill’s (right) 2009 Babcock Vineyard Pinot Noir ($44) shows black tea and cola notes, while his 2009 Grenache ($30) and 2009 Syrah ($35), both from Alisos Vineyard, are dark, funky and loaded with acidity.  His new Syrah rosé (barrel sample) has a nose exploding with candy and flowers.  It’s due for release in March or April.

Altman Winery
Winemaker Andres Ibarra crafted a 2008 Chardonnay ($16) with gorgeous, smoky fruit from La Presa Vineyard and acidity to burn.

Paul Wilkins makes wine for Alta Maria Vineyards and Native9, but he can’t get enough of it.  Autonom is his solo project, focusing on very limited-release Rhone varieties.  His 2009 “Law of Return” Grenache ($44) sports a 5% splash of Syrah and shows cherry and a hint of funk on the nose.  Nielson Vineyard fruit is lovely.  The 2009 Rhone Cuvée ($32) allows the Laetitia Vineyard Syrah to drive, with 30% Grenache riding shotgun.  Earth and bacon await.

C. Nagy
When Riverbench winemaker Clarissa Nagy (left) has some alone time with winemaker husband Jonathan, they make more wine.  The 2011 Bien Nacido Pinot Blanc ($25) is a pure joy, the 2010 Garey Ranch Pinot Noir ($48) is huge and dark and the 2010 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah ($30) shows some Southern Rhone funk.  Look for the 2012 Viognier in May, with tangy White Hawk fruit.

Center Of Effort
Named for a sailing term describing the most efficient point on a sail, COE gets winemaking direction for its Burgundian wines from Mike Sinor when he’s not busy at Ancient Peaks.  The 2010 Pinot Noir ($40) is extremely aromatic and bold on the palate.

Cordon Wines
Winemaker Etienne Terlinden (also of Summerland) says of his 2011 French Camp Zinfandel ($23), “I do this Italian style, picking the grapes earlier for a higher acidity level.”  It shows spice and vanilla on the nose and a slight bramble on the palate.  His 2010 White Hawk Syrah ($26) gives a lovely herbal scent with very dark blackberry flavor.

La Fenêtre
Winemaker Joshua Klapper (right, pouring in lower left) always seems to have the busiest table at every wine event where I see him.  I took the photo from the stage above him, in case I couldn’t get any closer.  Happily, I did squeeze my way through for a taste of his 2010 Bien Nacido Chardonnay ($39).  Eighteen months in French oak - 20% of which is new - imparts a butterscotch essence to the already smoky fruit.

Soft-spoken winemaker Kevin Law is not exactly a “born promoter,” preferring to let his wines speak for themselves.  A pair of Pinot Noir - 2011 Arroyo Grande ($28) and 2010 Presqu'ile Vineyard ($44) - are impressive for dark aromas and fruit.  Smoky on the former, fruity on the latter.  His 2010 Santa Barbara Syrah ($26) is dark as well, with a beautiful layer of acidity.

James Ontiveros worked hard to reclaim a portion of the land that came to his family as a Mexican land grant nine generations ago.  It’s mainly a cattle ranch now, but he has his dream of an eight-acre vineyard.  His 2009 Pinot Noir ($64) is very dark and laced with smoke.  The 2010 Pinot ($64) seems better integrated.

Refugio Ranch
Ryan Deovlet makes the wine for the Gleason family, and the 2010 “Tiradora” Sauvignon Blanc ($28) shines with just a hint of grass and great acidity.  The 2009 Barbareno ($42) is two-thirds Syrah, one-third Petite Sirah - extremely aromatic and loaded with blackberry.

Roark Wine Co.
If there’s anything to be said for being different, you can say it about Ryan Roark (left).  He makes Chenin Blanc, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.  Oh, and something called Pinot Noir.  I love the savory edge on his 2012 Chenin Blanc (barrel sample) but his 2011 Malbec ($28) is all perfume and spice - lovely.  Roark told me his 2011 Cabernet Franc ($28) had no sulfur added to it.  When I asked if he was making a “natural wine,” he shot me a look that said he’d rather not open that 750ml bottle of worms.  He left it at, “I didn’t put anything in that wine.”  It is kinda dirty, kinda rustic, kinda spicy and kinda delicious.

Ryan Cochrane Wines
I like a guy who hits you with his clones while pouring the Pinot Noir.  Ryan Chachrane’s 2011 Pinot Noir sports clones 113, 116 and 667 from Fiddlestix Vineyard.  There's mocha on the nose and black tea on the palate.  Cochrane worried that the twelve barrels he made last year wouldn’t be enough even for garagiste status - but it was.

Seagrape Wine Co.
After Karen Steinwachs (right) turned around the wine program at Buttonwood Farms, they let her make a little something for herself.  Her 2011 Zotovich Vineyard Chardonnay ($25) has smoky tropical fruit defining it, while her “Jump Up” Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($32) has an almost bracing acidity.  “That’s the Sta. Rita Hills,” she says.  “Natural acidity.”

Shai Cellars
Shawn Shai Halahmy poured an outstanding 2009 Grenache ($24) which has a big bouquet mixing cherry candy and coffee, with a nice tart edge on the palate.

Storm Wines
The 2011 Santa Ynez Sauvignon Blanc ($22) produced by Ernst Storm is a four-vineyard blend with lovely fruit and a slightly grassy note.  The 2012 Presqu’ile Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (barrel sample) shows a little more green.  Storm’s 2009 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($40) carries the familiar smokiness of that area along with a floral element, while the 2010 John Sebastiano Vineyard Pinot Noir ($50) is fruitier.

Tercero Wines
Every year about this time, Larry Schaffer is eager to share his newest rosé with me.  True to form, the 2012 barrel sample is a funkfest on the nose.  “That’s the McGinley Vineyard Mourvèdre talkin’,” says Schaffer.  Dry and delicious, it will be bottled in March.  The Tercero 2011 White Hawk Vineyard Viognier ($20) is loaded with floral aromatics and the acidity hangs in there despite the lushness of the mouthfeel.  His 2009 Larner Vineyard Syrah (barrel sample) has logged 40 months in oak and has an enormous nose to prove it.  Schaffer saw my reaction and smiled, “Yeah, I’m an aromatics kinda guy.”

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