Friday, May 24, 2013

Spanish Wine: Rioja

The wines of Spain's Rioja region are varied and always a delight.  From crisp, young whites to fresh rosados to bright and cheery young reds and those with some age and oak influence, the wines of Rioja never fail to impress while showing off their terroir.

The Rioja region lies between mountain ranges in the north-central part of Spain and is separated into three main sub-regions, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alavesa.  Tempranillo is the main red grape, although you will often see Graciano, Garnacha (Grenache) and Mazuelo.  For white wines, Viura is popular, with Malvasia playing a supporting role.

Tempranillo wines are defined four different ways.  Cosecha are young wines, one or two years old.  Crianza wines are in at least their third year, with a minimum of one year in oak.  Reserva wines are aged a minimum of three years, two for whites, with at least one in oak.  Gran Reserva refers to selected wines from great vintages.  They have spent at least two years in oak and three in the bottle.  Whites are aged at least four years. It may sound a little complicated, but the system defines the wines of Rioja well.

Not only do Rioja wines have a generally high level of quality, but they deliver it at very affordable prices.  Most of the wines I will mention here are in the $10 to $20 range.  A few went as high as $30, and some are under $10.

Here are some of the standouts I tasted at a Rioja tasting sponsored by Vibrant Rioja at Fleming's Steakhouse in Beverly Hills on May 7th, 2013.

It's not a Rioja tasting without a stop at the Lopez de Heredia table.  WineWise had these, and the whites are simply outstanding.  The Viña Gravonia Crianza Blanco 2003 is 100% Viura and has four years in the barrel and four in the bottle.  The Viña Tondonia Blanco Reserva 1998 has six years in the barrel and is 90% Viura.  These well-aged whites are really unbelievable.

Ole Imports, distributed by Angeles Wine, had two fresh wines by Cortijo.  The 2012 Rosado is all Tempranillo with brilliant acidity while the 2011 Tinto has 20% Garnacha thrown in, with only three months in oak.  Field blend fans should take note of the El Brozal 2010 - roughly 80% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano and 10% Garnacha, grown together in the 1938 vineyard and co-fermented.  There is an intriguing, savory nose and fabulous acidity.  The VSL Graciano 2010 - the only 100% Graciano I saw at the event - is savory.  It is fermented in concrete and spends only three months in oak.

I found Undiscovered Wines in the far corner of the room.  Rodriguez Sanzo's Lacrimus 5 is all unoaked Tempranillo, fresh and juicy, while their Lacrimus Rex blends Garnacha and Graciano for a dark, vibrant red that was one of my favorites.  The Zinio Garnacha is lovely - a bit more savory than I expected - and the fruity, funky nose of the Heredad Garblo Crianza mixes four red grapes - Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano.

Importer CIV USA had some excellent wines from Conde de Valdemar.  Their Sierra Cantabria Blanco 2011 is 100% Viura, aged three to five months in French oak.  It has a distinctive floral aspect on both the nose and palate.  Their 2011 Rosado is a pink-tinted blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha, from vines pushing 70 years old.  Great acidity is the highlight, with an herbal strand and a nice touch of oak.  Their Crianza 2008 has an exceptional nice oak effect and a savory side that dominates.

Dinastia Vivanco Blanco 2012 is a mix of Viura, Malvasia and White Tempranillo.  The pourer told me, with a laugh, that the last grape is nothing like White Zinfandel.  It is a natural mutation of the red Tempranillo grape and was not discovered until 1988.  This wine displays a huge streak of citrus.  Their Rosado 2012 is Tempranillo and Garnacha, showing a garden of strawberry.  The Vivianco Crianza 2008 has lively, young fruit while their Vivianco Reserva 2005 is a mature blend of Tempranillo and Garnacha.

From Fine Estates of Spain, Jorge Ordonez Portfolio, comes a nearly perfect Sierra Cantabria Rosado 2012, with strawberry, cherry and fantastic acidity in the Tampranillo/Garnacha/Viura blend.  They also poured the Finca Allende Blanco 2009, a 90% Viura/10% Malvasia mix.  The nutty, floral nose anticipates a great, savory palate.

Folio Wine had the unbelievably refreshing Palacio Remondo Placet Valtomelloso 2011.  This unoaked Viura wine has fruit all over the nose and an herbal touch on the palate.  The Palacio Remondo La Montessa 2009 is a Garnacha/Tempranillo blend - heavy on the Garnacha - which spends 18 months in oak, yet is still light, bright and refreshing.  The Artadi Vinas de Gain 2009 is a savory 100% Tempranillo wine.

Frederick Wildman &Co. Splashed a nice white, the El Coto Blanco 2012 - 100% Viura aged in steel with a sweet, floral nose.  Also unoaked is the El Coto Rosado 2012, all Tempranillo with lovey strawberry and herbal flavors.  The fruit-forward red, El Coto de Imaz Reserva 2005, makes a great everyday wine.  The Baron de Lay Gran Reserva 2004 has dusty fruit and great tannic structure.

Grape Expectations Imports poured the Bodegas Lan D-12 2009, a light and delicious Tempranillo.
Vinos Libres Wine Merchants splashed a taste of the Luis Alegre Koden Semi-Crianza 2010.  Not an official designation, the importer calls it semi-Crianza due to its six months in oak.  It is an elegant and savory Tempranillo.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Friendly Skies Not So Wine-Friendly

Airline wine.  What a disappointment.  Two choices, red or white.  Fox Grove Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon or Red Tree Chardonnay, I think it was, shoved at me by the flight attendant who was a lot more concerned with getting her cart down the aisle than discussing the merits of the wine in her plastic drawer that served as her airborne cellar.  I didn't expect a sommelier 's attention, but it was quite a soulless exchange.  "May I have your credit card please?"  With a swipe of it, I was the proud owner of an Australian Shiraz-Cabernet in a tiny plastic bottle.

Fox Grove Shiraz-Cab is a Southeastern Australia blend of 70% Shiraz and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, clocking in at 13% abv.  I could find little else about it online, and frankly I didn't really want to.  The jug wine formula name (iconic image + nature reference) does not bode well.

An oaky nose with blackberry and cherry aromas leads to a palate that's full and juicy with not much complexity.  There is red berry and black pepper, so at least it tastes alright.  The oak I discovered on the nose is not as pronounced as I feared it would be, but still a tad overdone.  The bite of the tannins are more suited for beef than bar nuts.

It was a welcome return to wine grapes, as my stay in Texas had been heavily populated with fruit wines and Muscadine, not that those options are bad in and of themselves.  I would not, however, seek out this wine if more than two choices were available.  I was left wondering if maybe the Red Tree Chardonnay might have been a more enjoyable choice.  Or a Muscadine.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Texas Wine At IAH

Waiting at Houston Bush International Airport for my return flight from Texas to Los Angeles, there was one more Texas wine for me to try.  CapRock Moscato was $10 by the glass at Bubba's Bar and Grill in Terminal C.

Founded in Lubbock in 1988, CapRock Winery is in the Texas High Plains AVA.  Sold earlier this year - for the second time in three years - CapRock is one of Texas' biggest wineries.  Like many Central and West Texas wineries, CapRock specializes in Spanish, Italian and Rhône grape varieties.

This Moscato has a yellow-green tint and an aromatic nose of flowers, pears and peaches with a slightly herbal note underneath.  I was surprised by the little hint of petrol in the background, very much like a Riesling.  It's on the sweet side and the fruit is the star of the palate.  Sweet peach, nectarine and pineapple juice flavors reside in a nectar-like setting.  It's rather viscous, and completely delicious.

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Friday, May 17, 2013

Summer Wines From Tower 15 Winery

Tower 15 Winery was launched in 2011 by Tim Perr and Scott Knight, the guys behind the Pinot Noirs of Pali Wine Co.  Having already shown what they can do with the fruit of Santa Barbara County, they let their Lompoc-based Tower 15 line explore grapes from the Westside of Paso Robles.  Winemaker Aaron Walker and consulting winemaker Kenneth Juhasz do great work with the Pali Pinot, and they show their expertise with warmer-climate varieties, too.  The iconic label art for the Tower 15 wines is done by by Santa Monica artist Michael Giliberti.

In the same way that the name for Pali Wines is the nickname of Perr and Knight's hometown, Pacific Palisades, Tower 15's name also comes from nostalgia.  Lifeguard tower 15 - along the Pali coastline - has been a family meeting point through the years, and it serves as the inspiration for the label and is a symbol of friendship and good times.

The Tower 15 Sauvignon Blanc 2012 is made from 100% Paso Robles Sauvignon Blanc grapes.  The wine spends three months in neutral oak barrels and was bottled in February 2013.  Retail price is $18.50.

This is a great summer wine, and it's not bad for spring, either.  Three months in neutral oak lends a bit of weight, while the acidity is really the main attraction here.  Fresh, grassy aromas join tropical pineapple, lime and banana on the nose.  The palate also shows the oak's effect, with gentle spices layering the fruit in the flavor profile.  The brilliant freshness remains a player into the finish.  I also note a slightly frizzante quality, with bubbles clinging to the side of the glass for several minutes.

Sunset Rosé 2012

A salmon-pink blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Mourvèdre from Paso Robles, Sunset rosé spends four months in neutral oak barrels.  It was bottled in February 2013.  The retail price is the same as its sibling, $18.50.

Sunset's nose features wonderful, earthy notes alongside the smells of strawberry, cranberry and melon.  As in the Sauvignon Blanc, the acidity takes center stage on the palate.  It's razor sharp at room temperature and only slightly less when carrying a chill.  There is also some bubbling around the rim, as in the white wine.  Flavor-wise, it's a pretty meaty rosé.  It displays a slightly lighter resemblance to the red grapes used to make it.  There's cherry, raspberry, a hint of cranberry and just a little savory undercurrent.  Pair it with a salad for sure, but make it a tri-tip salad.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wine Country Texas - Bruno And George Winery

On my recent trip to Southeast Texas, I had the good fortune to meet winemaker Shawn Bruno at his winery and tasting room in Sour Lake, Texas - just 13 miles west of Beaumont.  Bruno is a very outgoing former actor and former football star at the high school I attended a few years before him.  The school is now just a memory, a victim of consolidation, but it was named after a well-known wine lover, Thomas Jefferson.

When the keeper of the old school mascot passed away, Big Buzz the yellow jacket was entrusted to Bruno.  Alumni will be happy to note that he had it completely restored and is ready to loan it to all class reunions.  You have to pick it up and return it yourself, but that's not a problem in Texas, where everybody seems to have at least one pickup truck.  If you are without one, it's your good fortune that in Texas, everybody wants to help.

Bruno decided to follow his heart and continue his family tradition of making raisin wine.  His great-great-great grandfather, an immigrant from Sicily, made it and Bruno's father and uncles passed the tradition to him.  It was not an easy path for Bruno, though.  He quickly found that it was against some Prohibition-era law to make wine from dried fruit in Texas.  Not one to be defeated easily, Bruno worked for two years to have the law changed to allow raisin wine.  Then-Governor George W. Bush signed the bill in 1999 and Bruno has a declaration of it hanging in his tasting room, along with a treasure trove of family memorabilia.

Bruno and George Winery opened in 2000 and is distributed well in Texas.  Bruno bought out his partner and the wine labels now show "Bruno Collection," although the winery's name still has George in it.  The big liquor/beer/wine chain Spec's carries his product, as do other locations.  The tasting room is not open all the time, but Bruno is more than happy to schedule a tasting by appointment.  Call 409-287-1212 or 409-963-8235 to schedule your trip today.  Don't go in thinking that the tasting will be over in a half-hour or so.  That was my mistake.  Our tasting was a three-hour affair.  One of Bruno's favorite expressions is, "I've got a story about that, too!"

I had a medium-sized group of family members in tow, and we had a great time tasting the wines - so great a time that a big lasagna dinner for the whole family had to be postponed until the following night.  The text that went out to other family members on the way home read, "No lasagna tonight.  Mama's drunk."  It was probably not the first time that a message like that was conveyed in the great state of Texas.

Here's the tasting menu for Bruno and George Winery:

Candlelight Strawberry - Fruit wine made from California strawberries, it shows real strawberry flavor with great earthy and herbal notes.  $12

Big Buzz
White Orchard Pear - Florida pears go into this one.  Floral aromas and the taste of full-bodied pear juice.  Refreshing.  $12

Signature Peach - The peaches come from California, and the wine hits 12-13% abv.  Schnapps on the nose with a big peach flavor on the finish.  $12

Holiday Blueberry - This is Bruno's only fruit wine currently made with Texas fruit.  A very deep blueberry flavor is impressive.  It's not like a juice at all.  Bruno pours this with the sidebar that it's "always a holiday at Bruno and George."  $12

Arapaho Blackberry - Huge blackberry flavor all the way through in this one.  $12

Yellowjacket Raspberry - Named after our high school mascot, the Yellow Jacket has a big fruit expression, and is a hit with dark chocolate.  $15

Shawn Bruno
Cardinal Cranberry - Maine fruit makes up this great holiday wine.  Big cranberry taste is just slightly tart.  A sucker for mascots, Bruno named it for the mascot at the Beaumont university, Lamar.  $12, a top seller.

Salvatore's Red Plum - Made with Italian red plums, Bruno was not allowed to state that on the label.  Alcohol regulators thought it would make people think it was an Italian wine.  Bearing an ancestor's name instead, the wine shows an excellent rosé quality.  It's reminiscent of Provence, with very nice, earthy finish.  $12

Other Than Standard Raisin - Other Than Standard is the category this wine fell into before Bruno lobbied for a change that made his raisin wine of higher than 14% legal.  It reaches 16.3% abv.  He can now claim it's a dessert raisin wine on the label.  The wine has actually won awards in the Port category. Vinified in a single fermentation, the wine is not overly sweet - it's nothing like Vin Santo.  It has a nice viscosity and is aged in a steel tank for three to four years.  Made from California raisins, it has a beautiful, rich color while the nose shows raisin, brown sugar and caramel. $12

The Bruno Collection fruit wine is non vintage, as prescribed by alcoholic beverage regulations.

One of the many stories Bruno told us during the tasting concerned an old vase.  It seems that during the construction of the tasting room, the old, green vase - adorned with grapes - was unearthed.  "They didn't hit anything else during all the digging, just that vase," says Bruno.  "I like to think it was divine intervention.  The way the raisin wine happened, there must have been somebody on my shoulder."  The vase still has a place of honor on the tasting bar, even if it is as a dump bucket.  I think his grandfather would be proud.

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Wine Country Texas - Piney Woods Country Winery And Vineyard

A recent visit to my family in Texas gave me the opportunity to try some wine made in my home state.  Had I visited the Hill Country in Central Texas or the High Plains in the north, the pickings would have been more luxurious, but I was in Southeast Texas, where humidity is made and exported to the rest of the world.   That's not a good climate for vinifera wine grapes, but it's perfect for Muscadine grapes.  Muscadine and fruit wines are what they do at the Piney Woods Country Winery and Vineyard.

Alfred Flies (pronounced like "fleece") has been making his wines in Orange, Texas for 27 years.  He retired and got into the wine business, which may not have seemed like much of a retirement to him.  He recently had a stroke, but he is said to be recovering well at 90 years old.  Our pourer, Jennifer Wood, told me Flies doesn’t make it into the tasting room often, and his son-in-law handles much of the heavy lifting for him now.
Red and white Muscadine grapes grow in his vineyard in back of the tasting room, and for the fruit wines he uses only Texas fruit sourced from various parts of the Lone Star State.

Flies, according to the winery's website, "has been honored four times for his contributions to the Texas wine industry, by the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association and has received over 70 wine competition medals. Most recently one gold, two silver and two bronze medals from the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International Competition. Including 6 belt buckles, representing 3 International Best of Class awards and 3 Texas Best of Class awards."

Jennifer Wood
Wood, observing from several trips to Texas wine events, says that Muscadine wines are catching on with millennials, at least in the South.  Millennials are thought to be more adventurous wine consumers, more apt to try new things than their older counterparts.  Judging by what I've heard from wine drinkers in California, an adventurous spirit is necessary for fruit wine and, especially, Muscadine.

Muscadine and fruit wines are nearly always relegated to the back seat of the wine car, if not the trunk.  They are not exactly my cup of, well... wine, so it was nice to taste a few that were worthy of consideration.
Here is what the tasting lineup looked like on the day I sampled them.

Heart of Texas Noble - One of two dry wines the Piney Woods Country Winery produces - the rest are on the sweet side.  This red Noble Muscadine wine has a savory, sour nose and a savory taste with a bitter note.  Oak aged, it has been selected as a wine of the month by the Houston Post.

Texas Moon Magnolia - A semi-dry, white Magnolia Muscadine, this one has a nutty flavor which I am told goes well with turkey.  They say it's a favorite at Thanksgiving.  Flies won the award of Top Texas Wine in 2009 at the Houston International Wine Competition.  In true Lone Star style, the prize was a hand-tooled, silver-trimmed saddle.  Has has also won an armload of belt buckles and a boxful of more traditional medals.

Noble Muscadine Rosé - Semi sweet and refreshing.  I didn't have it with food, but I have found in the past that well-made Muscadine wines are greatly improved in a food pairing.

Pecan Mocca - Made from white Muscadine grown in Flies' vineyard, this is a pretty incredible effort.  With a nose of ground coffee that jumps from the glass, this intense wine tastes like coffee and caramel, with a bit of tiramisu on the finish.  Flavored, and one of their three best sellers.

Peach - This fruit wine is sweet and made with northeast Texas peaches, but it smells like Muscadine.  the palate is tart and very peachy.

Baked Peach - Another peach of a fruit wine, this one is actually baked at 90 degrees for 90 days - Flies' effort at simulating Madeira.  Spicy cobbler on the nose and palate.

Blackberry - The most straightforward of the bunch, it's tart and fruity.  Not too complex, but very tasty.

Sweetheart Magnolia - White Muscadine again, with a sweet and fruity pear-like palate.

Ports of Texas - A Port-style wine made from red Muscadine and fortified with brandy.   Oak aged with a hint of chocolate.  Only 14% abv.

Texas Sweet-Tooth Cherry Chocolate - If you like your sweet wine completely unbridled, this is for you. It's so sweet it will make your teeth hurt.  Chocolate is infused in this dessert wine which tastes like a cherry tootsie roll pop.  The nose is straight out of Russell Stover.  Billed by the winery as a "compete dessert," hat's how it strikes me.

Light Ruby Port - Not as sweet as Port usually is, but it does hit 16% abv.  The savory note works in its favor.  Aged in oak and brandy-fortified, it gives a hint of whiskey.

Amber Port - Vermouth-like and getting closer to Port-style alcohol at 18% abv, I like the citrus streak.
Texas Tawny Port - This is a fairly amazing Muscadine effort at 19% abv, blended with brandy.  Spending six to eight months in oak, the wine actually looks older.  A ring of brown shows at the edge of the glass.  The oak and higher alcohol really masks the Muscadine flavor. Caramel and brown sugar flavors are a real treat.  (Texas has tightened the restrictions on the use of "Port," I'm told, so the labeling will have to be changed this year.)

Orange Wine - A natch for a winery in a town named Orange, it's actually made from Texas Satsumas.  A tart edge and finish and nectar-like.  Surprisingly, there is not a great citrus play here.

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Friday, May 10, 2013

Breakfast of Travelers

The TSA checkpoint at Los Angeles International Airport was a breeze.  Really, just a couple of minutes.  The big delay was at the food court upstairs while waiting for my flight.  Fortunately, I arrived at the airport about three hours early, so I had plenty of time to wait for that breakfast sandwich.  I needed it.

Also fortunately, there was wine.  Yes, in some cultures 9:00 a.m. is a little on the early side for an alcoholic beverage.  Not so at the airport.  Wine.  The breakfast of travelers.

I filled the time with people-watching and texts to my family members in Texas about the flight number, expected time of arrival and general happiness and joy that I was finally visiting the ol' Lone Star State after a lengthy spell away.

At BOA's little steakhouse express, B Grill, I ordered the breakfast sandwich and was told to sit down, it would be brought to me in the seating area.  The waitress dutifully checked on me a number of times, and finally determined that I had been waiting too long for a breakfast sandwich.  She repaired the broken chain of command and my egg and sausage sandwich came out quickly.

The Napa Cellars Sauvignon Blanc 2011 allowed me to wait patiently.  Straw-colored, with a nose of pears, tropical fruit and an herbal note that's not grassy, the wine proved very refreshing.  A nice acidity opened my eyes, and the fresh-yet-savory palate was a perfect complement to the long-awaited sandwich.  Winemaker Joe Shirley did an admirable job - he made a wine that's good with breakfast.

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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wine Country Texas - Llano Estacado Winery

The Texas wine industry got an early start.  Missionaries in the 1600s planted grapes for sacramental wine.  Horticulturist Thomas Munson used rootstock from wild Mustang grapes in Texas to give European grape growers a way to recover from the Phylloxera epidemic which devastated the wine industry in the 19th century.  For that, the French government honored him.

As is the case state by state in the US, Prohibition killed off the wine business in Texas.  It didn’t begin its recovery until the 1970s.  Even today, many Texas counties are still saddled with Prohibition-era laws restricting the sale of alcohol.

Llano Estacado Winery is one of the first modern day Texas wineries.  It’s located in the Texas High Plains AVA, one of eight American Viticultural Areas under the Lone Star.

Texas has already made a few appearances in this small section of the Internet - here, and here, f'rinstance - but it's a big state and deserves another.  Anyway, since I made a trip to the Lone Star state recently, you'll get a eyeful of Texas wines in the coming weeks.

My trip was to southeast Texas, but this wine - Viviano Superiore Rosso Texas - came to me from a clear across the state.  It was kindly provided for review by the aforementioned Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock, Texas.

Llano Estacado was founded in 1976, a few years after Texas Tech University began experimenting with planting grapes under the hot, west Texas sun.  They had some good luck with that grape thing.  In the eighties, President Reagan served their wine at the White House.  In the nineties, they shipped to Europe and Russia and were served to Queen Elizabeth when she visited Texas.  In 2005, Llano Estacado was served at President Bush's Inaugural Ball.  They must be doing something right.

Viviano has sixteen vintages behind it, and quite a lengthy list of medals and awards earned along the way.  The blend is 73% Cabernet Sauvignon from Rising Star Vineyard and 20% Sangiovese from Newsom Vineyard.  Syrah, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc finish off the blend.  The wine retails for $35.

Medium dark ruby in the glass, Viviano's nose is powerfully aromatic, largely due to the oak treatment, two and a half years in French and American oak.  I would have guessed at least three years in oak, judging by the black cherry aromas that mingle with mocha, cedar, chocolate and tobacco.

On the palate it's absolutely delicious, with the same sort of complexity promised by the bouquet.  Blackberry and cherry lead the way in the fruit department, with anise, cola and black tea shadings getting into the action.  The tannins have a bit of bite in this wine, which could easily pass for a real Tuscan blend.

The tannic structure makes me expect an alcohol content higher than the 12.7% detailed in the winemaker notes.  Despite the restraint of the alcohol, this wine is dry as a bone and ready for a big slab of beef, anytime.

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Monday, May 6, 2013

Whole Foods Markets - The One Wine Brand

Wine lovers in Southern California - and in other wine regions in the US - get some very special treatment from Whole Foods Markets.  That grocery chain has worked with a number of Central Coast vintners in recent years to produce special wines for their customers.  Six wines from the cellars of notable Central Coast winemakers have recently been added to the shelves at WFM.

Whole Foods Market partners with Santa Barbara County and San Diego County vintners to bring another vintage of the "One Wine" custom blends.  Teaming up with vineyards including Ampelos Cellars, Fallbrook Winery, Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Winery and Margerum Wine Company, Whole Foods Market Southern California stores are stocked with the latest from this collaborative label for a limited time.

The latest edition of One Wine labels include a Pinot Gris, a white blend, and a variety of rosés and red wines.  So far, Whole Foods Market's One Wine collaborations have delivered 29 handcrafted wines from Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles and Temecula wine country.  Vernon Kindred, winemaker at Fallbrook Winery, sums it up best:  "This entire process has been more than just creating a new wine - it's been a celebration of culture, location and the fruits of our labor."

I spoke recently with Roger Fawcett, the Southern Pacific region wine buyer for Whole Foods Market.  He was ebullient on the topic of the WFM One Wine program.

The One Wine brand began five years ago as a line called A Collaboration, in which several winemakers combined to create a special wine to be sold at Whole Foods Market.  Fawcett told me that One Wine grew from the relationships WFM already had with winemakers in California’s Central Coast.  The idea of producing a wine different from the ones they already offered appealed to the winemakers and they were off and running.

Fawcett likens the process of selecting the blends for the One Wine line to that of an artist selecting colors from his pallette.  “We were able to cherry-pick the best of the best barrels out of the cellar to paint the best picture we could.  Thanks to our relationships with the winemakers, we were able to negotiate great prices for such amazing juice and bring some incredible blends to our customers at prices lower than if they were bottled under the name of the winery.”

The process of finding the right blend for each wine is a team effort.  Fawcett says WFM team members gather in a room full of beakers to blend, taste and cast votes on their favorites.  The winemakers are involved, too, and he says it is sometimes the winemaker who submits the winning blend.  That doesn’t seem too surprising.

Fawcett says the experience benefits the team members the most.  “They get to see the nuances of how it’s blended, and how adding one percent of this or two percent of that makes a huge difference in the outcome of the wine.  They can then communicate this knowledge to our customers.”

There are over 200 Whole Foods Markets nationwide in which beer and wine can be sold, and Fawcett says that in Southern California there are a dozen which carry spirits.  He adds that SoCal shoppers now have over almost twenty Whole Foods Market stores in which wine bars are located.  A few of them even offer cocktails.

Southern California is a natural region for a project like One Wine, but Fawcett explains that other areas are similarly blessed with a local wine industry.  “Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, New York State, Texas and North Carolina all collaborate with their respective wine communities in their own ways.”

Pairing wine and food is a serious matter with the wine folks at WFM - take a look at the wine section of their website and you’ll find quite a few recipes there, too.  Fawcett says the loca-wine movement came long before the locavore movement, but that WFM is ready to satisfy their customers’ desire for locally sourced wines.  “Wine drinkers want good quality wine and in Southern California, we are lucky enough to have access to some great wine growing regions.

“We really strive to satisfy our customers and concentrate on what they’re asking for.  We get great feedback from the customers.”  Engagement with the customer is also important - WFM sponsors real-time Twitter tastings (#WFMWine) periodically which are lively and entertaining.

Whole Foods Market stores where wine is available have specials on tap featuring rosés for Mother’s Day and Cabs for Father’s Day, while some of the locations with wine bars are even planning some winemaker dinners.  Fawcett says the average price of a five-course winemaker dinner at a WFM location is about $30, and that includes the wine.  “It’s a great way to get people in and educate them on wine in a way that’s enjoyable and affordable.”

The six newest One Wine creations are available at WFM stores in Southern California for a limited time:

One Wine Ampelos Cellars Rosé ($19.99; sale price $17.99)
One Wine Fallbrook Winery Tuscan Blend Red Wine ($19.99; sale price $15.99)
One Wine Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post Winery Red ($14.99) and Rosé ($14.99)
One Wine Margerum Wine Company Pinot Gris ($19.99; sale price $15.99)
One Wine Margerum Wine Company White Table Wine ($19.99; sale price $15.99)

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Friday, May 3, 2013

Italian Wine Class: Chianti Tasting Event

The Chianti tasting event, staged in April 2013 by the Consorzio Vino Chianti, was a nice event, really nice.  Nice people, nice wine - really great wine, actually - and a nice, fancy Beverly Hills locale to call my home base for a couple of hours.

Forty Tuscan wineries pouring their best juice in a swanky hotel is not a sucky way to spend an afternoon.  It was just the good stuff.  There were no squatty bottles swaddled in straw baskets, waiting to be emptied out and covered in candle wax by a sorority sister.  Everything was nice.  Except that I now have to write about Italian wine.  It's not, unfortunately, my strong suit.

I love drinking Italian wine - I even love tasting it at events where I spit out every sip I take.  Understanding the intricacies of Italian wine classification, however - and boiling it down to a clearly digestible morsel - is the stuff from which migraine headaches are made.

The Chianti region is a good representation of the state of Italian wine classification.  I see a listing of the subregions of Chianti and it makes my head spin to read it.  The thought of actually trying to disseminate that information literally chips away at my will to live, and I’d really like to make it through the night.

Geography, history

Briefly, the eight subregions of Chianti are Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Rufina, Chianti Classico, Colli Aretini, Colline Pisane, Montespertoli, Montalbano and Colli Senesi, which is the largest of the sub-zones and includes the Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano areas, just to throw a little curve into the mix.  By the way, there are peripheral areas not included in the subregions, and the wine made from those regions is simply called “Chianti.”  This is usually about where the road starts to blur for me.

Chianti has certainly been through a lot of changes.  The wine of Chianti was a white wine in the 14th century.  Some 400 years later the blend was dominated by a red grape called Canaiolo, with Sangiovese and Malvasia playing second and third fiddles, respectively.  An 18th-century Italian statesman came up with a Sangiovese-based version of Chianti, and it was adopted by the Italian government.  Now, Chianti must contain at least 80% Sangiovese and is sometimes allowed as a 100% varietal wine.

Many of the small producers at this Chianti tasting event are looking for distributors.  After tasting their wines, I can't hide my surprise that they aren't already represented.  Importers should check the list below for undiscovered delights.

The Best Table

The highlight of the event was the table occupied by Campo del Monde.  Stefano Mantellini poured me through four wines, each better than the previous one.  His Chianti 2008 and Chianti Riserva 2008 are both blends of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The former spent three months in oak, while the Riserva saw ten months in wood barrels.  His Chianti Superiore 2007 is made up of Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Abrusco grapes which are organically farmed.  The nose on this wine is very intense - almost Port-like - and has wonderful acidity and a tart finish.  The Chianti Riserva "Ruschieto" 2006 is all Sangiovese and is aged in steel tanks.  The savory flavor is a knockout and the acidity is made for food pairing.

I thought that a Riserva Chianti had to be aged in wood, but Mantellini told me it's the Chianti Classico region which has that restriction placed upon it.  Chianti does not, and he takes full advantage of that loophole with his "Ruschieto."

Vin Santo

After he poured me through his list, he waved his hand over a bottle with a wax seal on it and told me to come back later and make it my last wine.  I did.  It was a Vin Santo aged for seven years, a wine his family has made for decades.  Mantellini carefully scraped the wax seal away from the Port-style bottle, wiped the cork, opened it and ceremoniously poured a delight.  The nut-brown wine made of dried grapes smells of raisins and caramel and offers notes of coffee and toffee on the palate.  Another taster beside me could only utter, "God," as he walked away.  It is a heavenly sip.

Another exceptional Vin Santo came from Villa Artemino.  It's the color of scotch, with a nose like whiskey and a beautiful, semi-sweet taste.


Certain descriptive words kept appearing in my notes - cherry and smoky came up a lot - but the one I couldn't get away from was "great acidity."  Chianti is a Sangiovese-based wine, and that's a particularly good grape for acidity.  It's what makes Chianti such a good wine to pair with food.

Many of the producers at this event poured wines which were aged in stainless steel or cement.  These wines showed a wonderful freshness and, even though some were rather young, were ready for a prime-time food pairing.

Fattoria Le Sorgenti Chianti Colli Fiorentini "Respiro" 2011 prompted a "wow" moment for me.  Smoke, smoke and more smoke on the nose, with a dark and smoky palate - from a wine aged in steel tanks.  Marco Goracci said his lower-elevation vineyard yields the Sangiovese for this varietal wine.

Fattoria Poggio Capponi poured a 2011 Chianti which is a blend of Sangiovese, Colorino and Canaiolo aged in cement.  It's beautifully fresh on the palate.

I would never have guessed the Fattoria Valacchi Chianti 2011 was aged in steel, not oak, with the smoky red fruit it offers.

Three-to-four year-old wines were the rule, although a couple with some years on them sneaked into the room.  The Azienda Agricola Casale di Giglioli Chianti Riserva 2004 was silky smooth on the palate and aromatic, too.  The 2010 is still young, but is well on it's way.

The Castello di Oliveto Chianti Riserva 2010 has two years in the barrel and shows an incredible savory note on the nose and palate.

La Querce Chianti "Sorrettole" 2011 puts Merlot in with the Sangiovese and Colorino.  It has a smoky black cherry palate in which the supporting grapes really shine.

Here are the wineries which are in need of an importer.  They all poured remarkable Chiantis at this event.  An importer looking for a rising star may want to dig into this list:

Az. Agr. San Gervasio
As. Agr. Corbucci
Castello di Oliveto
Fattoria di Casalbosco
Fattoria Lavacchio
Fattoria Le Sorgenti
Fattoria Valacchi
Podere Alberese
Soc. Agr. Venatoria Tacinaia
Streda Belvedere
Tenuta Bossi - Marchesi Gondi
Terre di San Gorgone
Villa Travignoli

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ravenswood Napa Zinfandel 2009

After a hard afternoon of slaving over a hot iPad at Starbucks, I  called on an old reliable wine to soften the blow.  At the Callender’s Grill happy hour, the Celtics and Knicks were going at it on the TV while shop talk and vacation plans were discussed around me.  I had my own vacation plans to think of - a trip to Texas to visit my family and the promise of some Texas wine and food with loved ones I had not seen in far too long.  I'll let you know about that Texas wine in this space soon.

The Ravenswood Napa Valley Old Vine Zinfandel 2009 seems to be a blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Carignane sourced from various vineyards in the Napa Valley, with a nice happy hour price of $6.75 by the glass.  It’s very dark in the glass and makes its presence known right away.  The nose is big and juicy, with blackberry, black cherry, cedar and spice exploding from the glass.  I think of the Ravenswood tag line, “No wimpy wines,” and figure this must be what they mean.

The palate is lush with dark fruit, and loaded with spicy cinnamon, vanilla and white pepper.  It’s very smooth in the mouth, with firm tannins surfacing on the finish.  It certainly washed the happy hour sliders down properly.

While waiting for my wine, I noticed a tap at the bar for Bass Stout.  When did Bass get tired of being the lighter side of a Black and Tan?  Fairly recently, apparently.  The bartender said it’s a brand new entry in the beer field.  It's not quite as thick and full as Guinness and lacks the creaminess of the venerable Irish stout, but it hits pretty darn close.  Barkeep told me this Callender's (Wilshire, Miracle Mile, Los Angeles) is one of the first places to carry it.

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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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