Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Scott Harvey Zinfandel Mountain Selection 2011

Scott Harvey makes wines that go great with Thanksgiving dinner.  That's the opinion of Sunset magazine, anyway, who named his 2010 Mountain Selection Zinfandel "the Perfect Zin to pair with a pungent, spicy, fruity Thanksgiving dinner."  It also goes great with dinner the other 364 days of the year.  Add one for leap year.

Harvey has recently released new vintages of three of his Zin's, including the Mountain Selection.  Samples of these wines were sent to me - read about Vineyard 1869 here - and I wish I had received them in time for Thanksgiving dinner.  I had a Hickory Farms Spicy and Savory Beef Summer Sausage for Thanksgiving dinner, and it would have gone great with that.  All spicy and savory and all.

Scott Harvey Zinfandel Mountain Selection 2011 is made with Zinfandel grapes harvested from Shenandoah Valley in Amador County, Syrah from York Vineyard in Fiddletown and Barbera from Golden Vineyard.  It's 88% Zin, 7% Syrah and 5% Barbera.  The alcohol content is not unreasonable, by the standard of the region - 14.5%.  19 months aging in French oak left its mark on the grapes grown in the granite soils of Amador County.

The 2011 vintage in Napa Valley has been cursed by some as too cold, praised by others as just right.  Harvey is in the Goldilocks camp.  "I have always said that when Napa has a cold vintage, Amador has a great vintage."

The wine is dark-colored with a full nose of earthy red fruit getting a spice rack of help from aromas of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon.  The acidity is wonderful and the tannic structure is firm.  It's a very food-friendly wine, but it tastes great on its own.  Big black cherry and raspberry flavors are caressed by oak spices.  The finish is long and memorable, with clove and cassis notes the last to leave.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

French Wine: A Sauvignon Blanc From Burgundy

The Simonnet-Ferve Saint Bris 2012 was on the Whole Foods Market list of the Top Twelve Wines for the Holidays.  Labeled as a Grand Vin de Bourgogne, the white Burgundy is from the Saint-Bris appellation in Chablis.  It rings the alcohol bell at 12.5% and is bottled under natural cork.

Chablis, the northernmost region in Burgundy, produces notable white wines made of Chardonnay grapes, but Sauvignon Blanc?  Isn't that from the Loire Valley?   It is, in fact.  But Sauvignon Blanc is one grape from the Chablis region permitted to use the generic name of Bourgogne AOC.  Also included in that group are Aligote, Cesar, Gamay, Melon de Bourgogne, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sacy, and Tressot.

Sauvignon Blanc has been growing around the village of Saint-Bris-le-Vineux since the ancient Romans were busy leaving broken pottery for us to find centuries later.  The Saint-Bris white wine appellation was created in 2003 and specifically references the area's crisp, cool-climate wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

The wine is a pale straw tint in the glass, with a very grassy nose sporting a big note of lemon peel and grapefruit.  Flinty minerals are abundant, as are tart citrus flavors which last long on the finish.

The folks at a Whole Foods say to pair it with creamy cheese, roasted turkey, fennel and orange salad and butternut squash soup.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Blood Of The Vines: Wine For "The Third Man"

Blood Of The Vines: The Third Man
Wine Goes To The Movies with 
Trailers From Hell and Now And Zin

When we talk about wine, the talk always turns to Pinot Noir.  It’s considered by many wine snobs to be the grape that’s hardest to get into the bottle, but the most expressive of the conditions from which it comes.  If you’d like the full-length lecture, just ask the nearest wine snob.  Make sure you have an hour or so to spare.

When you talk about movies, the talk always turns to film noir.  Film buffs, like wine snobs, love to show off their knowledge a bit.  An evening with a film noir fan leads to many dissertations on how the dark shadows of film noir best express the suspicion and doubt that permeated world events from World War II into the McCarthy ‘50s.  And, if you ask me, the 1960s could have used a lot more film noir.

Pinot Noir means “black Pinot” in French, which helps differentiate it from Pinot Grigio, which means “six-dollar house wine at Italian restaurants.”  Accordingly, film noir means “black film,” a fitting name for movies that live in the shadows and usually embrace the pulp crime fiction style of writing that sprang up in the 1930s.

In “The Third Man,” Joseph Cotten admits, ”I’m just a hack writer who drinks too much and falls in love with girls.  You?”  With an opener like that, it’s no wonder he didn’t end up making the springs on the Murphy bed squeak for their lives.  What woman couldn’t resist that come on?  Even if she did live in the shadows and have a tilty camera angle most of the time.

“The Third Man” makes great use of music, too.  A score by Anton Karas playing the zither provides a creepily exotic backdrop.  “He’ll have you in a dither with his zither,” blazes the trailer.  It’s good that Karas didn’t play the ocarina.  That’s an even tougher rhyme.

Orson Welles' Harry Lime is a black market racketeer in wartime Vienna who cares nothing for the victims of his methods.  He waters down penicillin for sick people.  God knows what he does to stretch a bottle of wine to six servings instead of three.  Oh, and his markup is brutal, too.  This guy should open a restaurant.

Lime cites the war and bloodshed Italy felt under the House of Borgia, while producing Michaelangelo, DaVinci and the Rennaissance.  “Switzerland’s 500 years of brotherly love,” he says, “only produced the cuckoo clock.”  I want an exit line like that.

The Third Man Wine comes from New Zealand’s Waipara Valley, and a lot of wine snobs are hitting up the NZ for their Pinot Noir.  I don’t see a real connection here - other than the name - but the flavors in The Third Man Sauvignon Blanc include... lime.  Cut, print.

Fourth and fifth man wines:

Hoepler’s Third Man Zweigelt comes straight from Vienna - well, southeast of Vienna - I wonder what sector that is?  The label for this great Austrian grape carries an image from the film, and word is it will never remind you of a chase through a sewer.  Can I see your papers, please?

Washington’s Gramercy Cellars takes the Third Man out of Austria altogether and transplants him to the Southern Rhone with a GSM - Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre - blend that’s heavy on the Grenache.


I know I’ve linked to this before, but this is a great time to revisit the ol’ YouTube of  Orson Welles for Paul Masson.  It’s still hard to watch Welles try to struggle through a TV commercial for this juice.  Masson let Welles go soon after the great one announced on television that he never drank the stuff, just shilled it.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Growing Old In Lodi: Harney Lane Winery Old Vine Zinfandel

"Old vine" is a phrase that gets bandied about quite a bit in California, sometimes with sketchy justification.  Thirty years?  Twenty?  Fifty?  There is no official standard for defining what constitutes and old vine, but if there were you'd have to think the grapes in this wine would qualify.

The source for the Zinfandel grapes that make up this Harney Lane Winery 2011 Old Vine Zin is the Lizzy James Vineyard in Lodi, CA.  It was planted in 1904, so "old vine" could not be a misnomer in anyone's estimation.  Old vines are said to give better grapes, due to the smaller berries and more developed root systems that allow better access to water.

The wine was included in a Twitter tasting a while back, which you can read about here.  Some thoughts from participants in that virtual tasting are included in this article.

This Zinfandel was just released in November 2013 and carries a hefty 15.9% alcohol content - that's getting up towards Port level.  It spent 22 months aging in French oak, and it wears it well.  443 cases were produced.  A bottle retails for $35.

Virtual tasters noted cinnamon and nutmeg traces, in advance of the holiday season.  "We're pairing the @HarneyLaneWine with Bourbon and Brown Sugar-Glazed Turkey," commented one tweeter.  Another mentioned how the "big ripe fruit balances the 15.9% abv.". It was characterized as a "hedonistic Zin, but has structure to balance out."

These notes are not far off the mark.  The oak does impart plenty of spice, especially on the palate, with a nose highlighted by sage accents on blackberry fruit.  The tannins have a pretty good bite, so you can pair it with the beefiest dishes without worry.  In fact, this wine is best when accompanying food due to its robust nature.

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Monte Ducay Reserva 2009

The holidays bring all sorts of surprises with them.  Getting together with friends you may not have seen in months is one happy by-product of having everyone out shopping at the same time.  And when they bring a wine gift with them, it's even better.

One such wine-bearing friend met my wife at Wood Ranch and sent her home with a bottle for me; how thoughtful!  Produced by the Bodegas San Valero cooperative, Monte Ducay Reserva 2009 comes in a very nice looking paper wrapper over an unlabeled bottle.  The wrapper gives the wine a very high-end look.  However, knowing how the times are these days, I didn't expect that this gift was very expensive.

In the same manner one does not look a gift horse in the mouth, neither does one look a gift wine in the shelf talker.  Well, maybe just a peek.  It sells for under $10.  At that price, it's a pretty fair value, too.

The red Cariñena wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Garnacha.  Cariñena is a DO - Denominación de Origen - in the center of Spain's Aragon region.  Alcohol is quite reasonable at 13% abv and the bottle is closed under a natural cork.

The color is a very dark ruby, with light barely able to get through the glass.  A nose of dark berries, black cherry and cola provide a little more depth than I expect.  The palate is deep and luxurious, with dark fruit and notes that give away the presence of the Cab - cassis and graphite.  There is just a wisp of an herbal flavor lagging behind the fruit, a bit like sage and nutmeg.  This wine offers great value for a bargain shopper who wants some complexity with their deal.

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Friday, January 3, 2014

Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Napa Valley 2011

In Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, brothers Stuart and Charles Smith run the Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery, established in 1971.  The winery was named for the forest of Madrone trees from which the vineyards were reclaimed.

The Smith brothers don’t make a lot of wine, but that is not their goal.  They set out to “make artisanal wines which are distinctive and are an expression of both the vintage and us as vintners, but above all else, are wines which bring pleasure to the senses.”The winemaking process seems more than business to them, seems more like philosophy.  “Every year our wine is made from the same vineyards, pruned by the same people in the same way, cultivated in exactly the same manner and harvested at similar levels of maturity, yet Mother Nature stamps each vintage with a unique set of flavors, senses and character. Vintage dating is a celebration of that uniqueness and diversity.”

The Smith brothers say, "2011 was a very cool and late growing season for the Napa Valley. Late spring rains contributed to a smaller than normal crop. The summer turned out to be one of the coolest growing seasons we can remember, with the one exception of a heat spike in late August. Fortunately, patience paid off and the vintage turned out to be exceptional."

Only 13 acres of their vineyard is dedicated to Chardonnay, and the vines are about 39 years old.

The 2011 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay is estate bottled, with grapes from the Spring Mountain district of Napa Valley.  Alcohol is up there, at 14.2% abv, and the wine is barrel-fermented and aged in new French oak for eight months.

Featuring a petty yellow-green tint in the glass, this Chardonnay offers a nose of apples, peaches and a touch of vanilla spice.  The palate is gorgeous, with nice oak flavors layered over lovely green apple and white peach notes.  A little citrus - in the form of lime and tangerine - lingers on the finish. The wine is not big and buttery, but the oak definitely shows.  Minerality - a hallmark of a cooler vintage - also makes itself known.

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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Wine Country Illinois: Lynfred Winery

The Now And Zin Wine Country series is an attempt to taste 50 wines from 50 states.  Wine is produced in each of the United States, and my mission has led me to try wine from 34 states so far.  The series has been to Illinois before, and now we are kicking off the new year with a return visit to the Land o’ Lincoln for some more Illinois wine.

Lynfred Winery is in Roselle, Illinois, in the northeastern corner of the state, a little west of Chicago and a little south of Wisconsin.  Winemaker Andrés Basso works with grapes not only from Illinois, but also fruit from California, Washington and Michigan.

Lynfred’s late founder, former restaurateur Fred Koehler, started making wine at home with his wife Lynn.  The winery calls his interest in wine “a hobby that got out of hand.”  The winery was made official in the 1970s and the awards started rolling in soon after.  No less than Robert Mondavi told Koehler he should get out of Illinois and move to California.  Koehler decided to stay with his roots.

Lynfred Winery Vin De City White,  $10

Billed as American White Table Wine, Vin De City White is a non-vintage wine made from five grape varieties - 32% Viognier, 28% Chardonnay, 23% Pinot Grigio, 9% Marsanne and 8% Roussanne.  The wine is made in Illinois, but it is made from grapes grown in California and Washington.  It is aged in stainless steel for six to eight months and has a 12.5% abv number that keeps the alcohol under control.  Bottled under a natural cork, the label sports a beautiful portrait of the Chicago skyline.

The wine has a light, straw color and a very aromatic nose, both floral and fruity.  Aromas of ripe peaches and apricots mix with honeysuckle.  The flavor profile brings great fruit - apricots, apples, white nectarines - laced with an earthy undercurrent.  A vibrant acidity makes it a refreshing and food-friendly wine.

Lynfred Winery American Sangiovese Reserve 2009  $30

This 100% Sangiovese wine also utilizes grapes not grown in Illinois - they are a product of Jones Vineyard in Washington.  This wine has seen a lot of oak, 30 months worth of American and French oak.  Bottled under natural cork, the alcohol content is 13.9% abv.  It is labeled as “for sale in Illinois only,” which may be due to a state restriction on the use of out-of-state grapes.

Lynfred’s Sangiovese is very dark in color and quite aromatic.  Minty notes of clove, cinnamon and black cherry decorate the nose, while the palate shows every bit of those 30 months of oak.  A large overlay of cedar accompanies the cherry and red berry  flavor.  The acidity is great and the tannins are firm, which led me to pair some food with it.  My holiday snack of seaside cheddar from Whole Foods, Gorgonzola crackers from Trader Joe's and  beef summer sausage from Hickory Farms married with this wine quite well.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Cercius Côtes du Rhône 2011

This Côtes du Rhône bottling was one of the Top 12 wines for the holidays from the folks at Whole Foods Market.  The Cercius Côtes du Rhône 2011 is labeled as Vielles Vignes Red Wine.  If my high school French serves me well, that means old vines.  And old they are - over 80 years and going strong.

The vines bear Grenache (85%) and Syrah (15%) and the wine is a collaboration of winemaker Michel Gassier, Phillippe Cambie and Eric Solomon.  It is imported by Eric Solomon Selections, which stamps the words "Place Over Process" on their labeling, so it is perfect to find them poking around in the Rhône Valley.

The name of the wine tips the hat to one of the features that make the Rhône Valley unique.  "Cercius" is the Latin name for the north by northwest mistral winds that sweep through the region.

The wine looks dark purple in the glass and smells rather heavily of alcohol upon opening.  Aromas of blackberries and cassis do come through, though, and in a clean, fresh way.  The freshness continues on the palate, with a big mouthful of black cherry and licorice.  Alcohol, however, is a bit of a problem.  At 14.5%, it is higher than I would expect from the region, and it gets in the way until the wine has had plenty of time to open up.

Bottled under an artificial cork closure, Cercius has an alcohol content of 14.5% abv and is vinified and aged six months in concrete tanks.  I tried this wine on three successive nights, and it was best on the third night.  The first night it was fruity, but hindered by the heat of the alcohol.  The second night it seemed even hotter, but by the third night it had settled down and taken on a tarry note.

Here is where Cercius really shines: with food.  On the third night, feeling a little disappointed in the wine, I pulled the leftover penne Bolognese from the fridge for a midnight snack.  I had the pasta the night before with a Valpolicella, and it was great.  Now, the dish cold and stiff, the Rhône wine was an even better match for it.  At last, I really enjoyed this wine.

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Napa's Cornerstone Cellars Loves Cool Vintages

Craig Camp, managing partner at Cornerstone Cellars, has given his outfit just what you would expect from a wine guy - more balance.  Once known only for their high-end Cabs, the line now offers everyday wines under the Stepping Stone banner, Oregon Pinot Noir and a killer rosé.  Don't think for a minute, though, that he has forgotten about those high-end Cabs.

Camp talks in his blog about two of his company's latest offerings, a Napa Valley Cab and a Howell Mountain Cab.  He says, "By Napa Valley standards 2010 was a cooler vintage, which means by Bordeaux standards it was a a very good year.  It reemphasizes my opinion that the problem vintages in Napa are the hot ones , not the cooler ones. The cooler weather helped us towards our goal to make balanced wines."

“Our first goal was to craft wines with elegance and finesse while still honoring the power," says Camp.  "It was also our goal to achieve wines with appropriate levels of alcohol. We do not simply want to have low alcohol levels for the sake of that alone by following some pre-set recipe, but to produce wines from grapes harvested at just the right moment, the moment that defines that vintage. We don't want underripe grapes anymore than overripe ones."

Camp says the Cornerstone Cabs are meant to have acidity levels that make the wines refreshing, even in their youth.  But he warns off big alcohol fans.  "If you like massive, oaky cabernet with 16% alcohol (no matter what it says on the label) with high pH and residual sugar you won't like these wines and we can live with that.  Our first goal is to make wines we love to drink and our second goal is to find wine lovers who agree with us.  We are not interested in making wines that try to satisfy the broadest range of consumers possible."

That said - or ranted - it is hard to imagine a wine lover who would find a bone to pick with either of these Bordeaux-style beauties.  I will cover the Howell Mountain Cab in a later article and write about the Napa Valley bottle here.

The 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is actually a blend of Cabs Sauvignon and Franc with Merlot in the mix.  It's the Bordeaux version of the Rhone's GSM - Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre - but CSCFM hasn't quite caught on yet.  The Cabernet Sauvignon represents 85% of the blend and alcohol stands at 14.5% abv, while the wine has the influence of 22 months in French oak, 65% of which is new.

Camp says this wine “expresses the personality of three exceptional vineyards: Ink Grade on Howell Mountain, Oakville Station in the To Kalon district and Kairos in Oak Knoll.  The power and structure of Howell Mountain combines with the rich velvety Oakville Station and both are lifted by the bright aromatics and freshness of Kairos.  However, Cabernet Sauvignon alone does not tell the whole story in this wine.  Often I find that Cabernet Sauvignon on its own has a big start and finish, but can be a bit hollow in the middle.  Here is where Cabernet Franc and Merlot come in.  A touch of Merlot fills that hole in the middle and brings a beautiful silky texture.  Cabernet Franc is like MSG in a dish lifting and defining flavors.  Together they achieve umami, that elusive savory personality that defines great wine."

Showing a dark red color in the glass, this Napa Cab smells delightful, with blackberry and currant aromas to burn.  Spices, notably nutmeg and clove, come through with a touch of pencil lead trailing behind.  On the palate, that dark fruit barrels forth with the same set of spices and graphite featured on the nose.  A hint of mint stays around for the finish.  The wine has great acidity and fine tannins - "food-friendly" is an understatement.  It's great just for sipping, too.  There is plenty here upon which to ruminate while doing so.

The Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2010 is a Bordeaux blend with a California heart.  At $65, it is on the pricey side.  If, however, you are in the habit of pulling from that rarified top shelf, you may find this a great value.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas From Now And Zin!

Merry Christmas from Now And Zin!

We at Now And Zin are taking a couple of days off to open all those gifts, snack on that stocking full of Macadamia nuts and dine on that roast beast before the Grinch gets it.

May you and your loved ones enjoy the happiest of holidays, filled with joy, wonder and love.

Merry Christmas, and Cheers!  From

Monday, December 23, 2013

Scott Harvey Winery Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel

When people ask me the name of my website, and I answer "Now And Zin," they either think I said "Zen" or expect that all I write about is Zinfandel.  There's hardly a lick of Buddhism here and, while I do make the occasional pass at Zinfandel, it is most certainly not the be-all or the end-all of my interest in wine.

As luck would have it, a shipment came to me from Scott Harvey Winery in St. Helena, CA.  They do Zinfandel there, and they do it very well.

The Vineyard 1869 Zinfandel 2010 is billed as America's oldest Zinfandel.  95% of the grapes come from the Harvey Vineyard in Amador County, planted in 1869.  The other five percent are Petite Sirah grapes from the David Fulton Vineyard in Napa Valley.  The Harvey Vineyard survived both phylloxera and Prohibition to last to its ripe old age of 144 years.

The wine has an alcohol content of 14.5% abv, which is pretty reasonable for a warm climate wine from California.  It spent 29 months aging in French oak.

This wine is colored a light, medium ruby in the glass, a little more like Pinot Noir than Zinfandel.  Aromas of brambly raspberry-tinged blackberry are laced with purple floral notes and a minty herbal quality.  Quite expressive.  On the palate it's as smooth as can be, but the tannins are strong enough to handle whatever it is paired with them.  A brambly essence also rides herd over flavors of blackberry, black cherry and a hint of black currant.  Despite the brambly quality - it always makes me think "rustic" - this wine is extremely elegant.  The 1869 Zin is quite dry, and it goes very well with cheese tortellini under a marinara sauce.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Lodi Wine: Klinker Brick Winery In A Virtual Tasting

The wines of Lodi, California have had my attention for some time.  The region - roughly south of Sacramento and east of San Francisco - produces some big, bold Zinfandels, which I love.  They are also producing some even more exotic grape varieties, like Carignane, Cinsault and Spanish varieties.  More to the point, they are looking for their identity, wondering whether Zin is their “calling card” grape or if a more eclectic approach will define the region.

A recent article by San Francisco wine writer Jon Bonné centered on Lodi’s reputation as a producer of cheap, sweet bulk wines.  He mentions how “grapes” have long been the focus in Lodi, not “wines.”  But some of the growers who contributed so many grapes to so many supermarket wines have been establishing wineries of their own, raising the growing standards in the vineyards and reaching out through various media channels to make the public aware of the work that’s being done there.

One of those media channels happens to be a public relations firm who offered to include me on a virtual tasting session of Lodi wines, an offer I was happy to accept.  The wines described here were provided to me for the purpose of the virtual tasting.Conducting the tasting session were folks from families that have been in the Lodi wine industry for generations.  Stuart Spencer - Program Director for the Lodi Winegrape Commission and second generation Winemaker for St. Amant Winery - co-hosted the virtual tasting with fifth generation winegrape grower and Director of Winery Operations at LangeTwins Family Winery & Vineyards, Randy Lange, and Farrah Felten-Jolley of Klinker Brick Winery.

The trio appeared in the video stream in front of a banner reading, "What you call crazy, we call passion."  Passion is the focal point of what has turned Lodi into a premier winemaking region.  Spencer referenced the fact that most of the Lodi wineries are family affairs, and the wine culture in Lodi comes through years of farming families.

The participants who took part in the tasting chimed in their thoughts on Twitter.  One tweeter said, "Lodi is specifically suited for white Iberian varietals like Albarino and Verdelho," while another commented that "'Sons of Anarchy' is set in a town near Lodi."  That prompted the question, "But do they drink Lodi wines?"  Another speculated, "I'll bet Jemma does!"  Yet another figured, "I'll bet Tara does!"

Lodi boasts some 85 wineries, 60 of which have tasting rooms open to the public.  Over 70 grape varieties are growing there.  Representatives of Lodi Wine were in on the tweets, too.  "When we say "old vine" here in Lodi we're not kidding.  Many old vines are over 90 or 100 years old."  "Lodi is comprised of 100,000-plus acres of premium winegrapes, farmed by over 750 growers."  "Lodi is California's leading producer of Cabernet Sauvignon."  In fact, they say, "Lodi has been growing Cabernet for a long time; we produce more Cabernet than Napa & Sonoma combined."

Klinker Brick Winery's Farrah Felten-Jolley represents the sixth generation of the Felton winegrape-growing family, a status that is not uncommon in Lodi, where so many families have a very long tradition of digging the earth.

Bricks & Mortar Red Blend 2011 is an interesting blend from the Mokelumne area of Lodi:  60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Petite Sirah and 10% Zinfandel, all wrapped up in American oak.  It's a heavyweight, at 15% abv, and it retails for $30.

Tweeters commented on every aspect of the wine.  "The Petite Sirah gives it oomph."  "The packaging really stands out on a crowded wine shelf."  "Dark, rich, legs all day long with big tannins & great plum palate."  "Five spice & slightly minty toasted oak on the nose.  More on the palate + dark berries."

The Klinker Brick Bricks & Mortar is dark ruby in the glass, with a nose that's colored in dark fruit and lively spices, notably vanilla and clove.  The fruit aromas are beautiful - plums, blackberries and a slight raspberry note.  On the palate, more dark fruit and more oak spice.  Pencil lead shows up, but is obscured by a hint of eucalyptus and some mighty delightful cigar box flavors that highlight the spicy nature of the wine.

Four other wines were included in the virtual tasting, which I will cover separately in the near future:

St. Amant Winery Marian’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel 2012
Mettler Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Harney Lane Winery Lizzy James Old Vine Zinfandel 2010
Lange Twins Winery & Vineyards Centennial Zinfandel 2009

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

East Coast Beer With East Coast Seafood - On the West Coast

Connie and Ted's is a Los Angeles seafood place that hits the nail right on the head, according to some East Coast seafood aficionados I know.  The eatery does seafood like it's done "back East," as transplants are fond of referencing.

I loved the food, and the good marks it gets from people who like their seafood authentic are enough for me.

Looking at the beer and wine lists, it is apparent that they look for wines and brews that are more artisanal than mass produced.  By-the-glass wine offerings range from eight to 15 dollars and do not suffer from burnout of having been seen too often, while the beers are largely American small-producer craft brews from California, Oregon and a handful of other states.  The wines come from California, France, Italy and Portugal, for the most part.

The East Coast bias is noticeable only in a few of the beers.  Victory Brewing Company of Downingtown, Pennsylvania contributes a stellar pilsner that fits well with the menu.

Victory's Prima Pils has great color - a beautiful yellow-gold - with a head that is white and frothy.  The German-style pilsner has a nose that carries a bit of hops, but not as much as an IPA.  The 5.3% alcohol is easy to take, and the taste is malty with the bitter hops playing a role.  Some citrus notes come forward, too, but the malty quality is the hallmark.  A little citrus plays out on the finish, and it was a perfect complement to the lobster roll and the New England clam chowder - which is done brothy, not creamy.  I'm told this is how New England clam chowder is rightly done in the northeast.

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Big, Fruity Napa Valley Riesling From Smith-Madrone

In Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain District, brothers Stuart and Charles Smith run the Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery, established in 1971.  The winery was named for the forest of Madrone trees from which the vineyards were reclaimed, vineyards which were first planted to Riesling some forty years ago.

The Smith brothers don’t make a lot of wine, but that is not their goal.  They set out to “make artisanal wines which are distinctive and are an expression of both the vintage and us as vintners, but above all else, are wines which bring pleasure to the senses.”

The winemaking process seems less business to them than philosophy.  “Every year our wine is made from the same vineyards, pruned by the same people in the same way, cultivated in exactly the same manner and harvested at similar levels of maturity, yet Mother Nature stamps each vintage with a unique set of flavors, senses and character. Vintage dating is a celebration of that uniqueness and diversity.”

The 2010 and 2011 vintages in Napa Valley were a bit of a challenge due to cooler weather through the season.  2012 got things back to normal, though.  The brothers explain: “Consistently fine weather from May through September had the Napa Valley winemaking community in a continual state of elation. All in all, the harvest could not have gone much better, as the quality of this wine readily demonstrates.”

While Smith-Madrone’s 2011 Riesling was all about the minerals in their “red and rocky volcanic soil,” coaxed along by the cooler mountain temperatures, their 2012 Riesling is a testament to fruit.  A sample was provided for the purpose of this article.

With ever so slightly less alcohol than last year’s Riesling, and a tad drier, the 2012 hits 12.5% abv with just over 0.4 residual sugar.  The estate wine is bottled under a natural cork.

Very pale in the glass, the nose simply bursts forth with juicy fruit.  Apples, citrus, pear and melon aromas all seem to be trying to elbow each other out of the way.  The promise of the fruity nose is delivered upon with a lovely palate, dry and tangy with brilliant acidity, but also adorned with the taste of red apples and lime peel.  It’s a food-friendly and refreshing white wine.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

The Top Ten (12) Holiday Wines At Whole Foods Market: The Second Four

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for the Whole Foods Market Top Ten (12) list of holiday wines. If you have stopped in to Whole Foods recently, you have probably noticed the display in the wine department and you may have even been tempted to pick up a bottle or two.  Each wine on the list is priced below $25 and each is hand selected by the WFM wine folks as a winner for holiday parties, gift-giving and feasting.  There were so many good wines to choose from, the top ten list became a Top 12 list this year.

WFM also sponsored a pair of Twitter tasting events featuring their holiday wines, which were fun, interesting and informative.  The first one was back before Thanksgiving while the other just happened, just in time for Christmas.  The December lineup featured singer/songwriter/musician Mat Kearney chatting about his Napa red blend, Verse and Chorus.  You can check out the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #WFMWine.

Here is a list of the twelve wines.  My thoughts on the first eight wines are given, and I’m including the WFM descriptions on the other four to help steer you in the direction you want to go. “*” indicates a wine available only at Whole Foods Markets.

Here are the four wines were covered in December 2013

*Roger d’Anoia Cava, Spain $9.99
This Cava - the Spanish term for sparkling wine - is produced by Freixenet, who have made more bubbles than Lawrence Welk.  The grapes used for it are exotic for most American eyes: 60% Xarel-lo, 30% Macabeo, 10% Parellada.

Frothy big bubbles dissipate quickly.  A lovely nose shows a fruit spread of apples, nectarines and tangerines.  On the palate, things are fresh and refreshing.  The sparkler is fruity without getting too sweet and there is not a trace of funk in it.  It is a pleasant wine - maybe even a little simple for some - but it should be a hit as a holiday aperitif or with a cheese plate.  With only 11.5% abv, the alcohol won't wear anyone out.

*Skouras Anassa 2012, Greece $11.99
From the large peninsula of Peloponnesos comes a white wine that is breathtaking.  Peloponnesos is connected to the northern part of Greece by only a narrow isthmus and a bridge, so it is very nearly an island.  George Skouras established his winery in Argos in the 1980s and uses grapes grown in his vineyards as well as fruit from neighboring growers.

Anassa is made from 70% Moscofilero and 30% Viognier grapes and is bottled under a screw cap.  Alcohol is quite moderate at only 12.5%.

This straw-yellow wine smells outrageous.  Huge salinity, great citrus, minerals galore - white wines from Greece are simply amazing, this one particularly so.  Some floral notes add complexity to a noise that needs no help in that area.  On the palate, more savory saltiness joins a wide swath of Meyer lemon and a mid-tempo acidity.  It can't miss with fish - the fishier the better - and it turned a handful of roasted, unsalted cashews into a banquet.  Since Kalamata is over on the other side of Peloponnesos from Argos, you might serve it with a olive plate.

*Santa Julia Innovacion Bonarda Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Argentina $9.99 (1 liter)
This wine is a big ol' bargain.  This one liter bottle gives you an extra glass of wine - two if you are a restaurant.  Three if you are the really cheap, lousy restaurant down the street with the tiny pours.

Bonarda is a great grape.  It should probably be the national grape of Argentina instead of Malbec.  The grapes for this wine come from Mendoza and are sustainable farmed.  The wine is labeled as "vegan friendly."

Dark in color and rather brooding on the nose, this wine shows plummy aromas over a layer of tobacco.  The palate is rich and smooth, with a tart raspberry edge.  It's a great wine to sip, with soft tannins and only 13% abv.

*Mat Kearney Verse & Chorus Napa Valley Red 2012, California $24.99
This rich Bordeaux-style wine is the product of a collaboration of musician Mat Kearney, Peju Winery and the John Anthony family.  It’s a blend of 87% Merlot and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, all grown in the Napa Valley.  The 15.1% alcohol number sounds high, but doesn't play that way.  Billed on the "record label" which adorns the bottle as "Long Playing, High Fidelity," you'll want two glasses so you can enjoy it in stereo.

The wine shows a nice, dark ruby in the glass and displays great aromas of plums and cherries enveloped in vanilla.  The palate has gorgeous red fruit unfolding into layers of pencil lead, eucalyptus, mocha, cinnamon and nutmeg.  It opens up beautifully and shows wonderful hints of tar with a bit of time.  If this wine doesn’t bring the holidays home to you, be ready for a visitation from three ghosts on Christmas Eve.

These four wines were covered in November 2013

*Grace Lane Yakima Valley Riesling 2011, Washington $9.99
Washington state is known for, among other grapes, Riesling, and here is one from Yakima Valley that registers "medium-dry" on the Riesling scale and barely hits 12.1% abv in alcohol.  Yakima Valley was Washington's first American Viticultural Area, and is part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA.  Nearly half the wine grapes in Wahington come from this beautiful region in the southern part of the state and the grow a lot of other fruit there, too.  Not to mention hops - 80% of America's supply of that crucial beer ingredient are grown there.

The Grace Lane Riesling is a very light, clear golden color and features great aromas of Granny Smith apples and peaches with a fairly healthy dose of minerals.  It smells crisp and fresh, and it tastes the same way.  The acidity is nice, but not really razor sharp.  On the finish, the minerals linger long and the "medium" part of that "medium-dry" kicks in.  Riesling is a great wine to put on the Thanksgiving table - or Chistmas, for that matter - due to its versatility.  You can pair Riesling with just about anything successfully, even when it's not bone dry.

*Tablao Navarra 2012, Spain $7.99
Navarra is in the northern part of Spain, between Rioja and France.  In the Navarra region, a tablao is a cafe where they play flamenco music.  Now flamenco is energetic and vibrant enough to grab me all by itself.  Tablao, the wine, brings similar fire and spice.  It is based in 81% Tempranillo grapes with support from 9% Garnacha, 8% Merlot and a 2% splash of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Produced by Bodegas Pagos Dearaiz, Tablao is influenced by French wine, to be sure, but its boots are made of Spanish leather.

Tablao is the kind of red that could make me feel festive any time of year.  Practically black in the glass, the nose is a big rig full of raspberry and black cherry, with a compact car of leathery cigar tobacco anise and nutmeg on its tail.  Lively on the palate, the dark side of cherries is displayed prominently.  There is a spicy element running through it with great tannins structure and lip-smacking acidity.  I'd put this on the table next to the holiday rib roast.  It's pretty awesome with a handful of pistachios, too.  At 13.5% abv, it keeps alcohol in check for what could be a day of over-imbibing.

*H & G Priorat 2008, Spain $13.99
The Spanish wine region of Priorat is in the northeastern part of the country and joins Rioja in the DOCa classification, the highest level of quality in Spanish wine.  Priorat is known for its black slate and quartz soils, a rich terroir of volcanic origin.  Garnacha is the main grape there, and Grenache - as we call it in other parts of the globe - is always a great choice for pairing with food.  Alcohol is fairly high, at 14.2% abv.  H & G is a California-based winery which produces wine from various parts of the world.

The wine is colored very dark purple/black.  The nose shows blackberry, raspberry, licorice and lots of minerals.  The palate is full of spicy cherry and blueberry with a leathery note.  Nice acidity and good tannic structure round out what is a great tasting experience.  A lovely floral aspect on the finish makes for a good memory to take from the sip.

*Les Hauts de Bel Air Bordeaux 2011, France $10.99
The Sichel family bottles this bold red six months after harvest on the right bank of the Garonne River.  The grapes used are two Bordeaux favorites, 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Alcohol is quite reasonable at 13% abv.

The winery says, "Maison Sichel has a longstanding partnership with a number of Grands Crus Classés (classed growths) and takes an active role in the marketing of more than 150 of the most prestigious Bordeaux châteaux."

Les Hauts de Bel Air shows a pure, fruity nose of red berries.  The palate is all fruit, too, youthful and vibrant.  Nice tannic structure and ripping acidity beg for a standing rib roast.  The mouthfeel is light and juicy and it won't weigh down an already full table.  The wine displays the power of a Bordeaux with the freshness of a Beaujolais.  I can taste the turkey already.

Here are the other four wines, to be covered here separately.  The notes are by Whole Foods.

Simonnet-Febvre St. Bris Sauvignon Blanc, France $12.99
“The micro-climate in the Saint-Bris appellation allows for the sauvignon blanc grapes to express their full aromatic character as well as the minerality of the terroir. The exuberant nose is characterized by freshly cut herbs and delicate fruits with a hint of red bell pepper, and the elegant finish has a lovely minerality.”

Novellum Chardonnay, France $10.99
“This zesty white has honeysuckle and white peach aromas, and anise, fennel and a hint of oak show in the lengthy finish.”

Allan Scott Marlborough Pinot Noir, New Zealand $14.99
“This wine is rich and dark with black cherries, violets and a pleasant earthiness on the nose. It has a velvety, harmonious finish with smoky oak, subtle spice and raspberry flavors.”

Cercius Côtes du Rhône, France $14.99
“This blend of 85 percent grenache and 15 percent syrah is beautifully textured, lush and decadent with an aroma of smoky eucalyptus and berry and deep notes of kirsch, plum and stewed fruits and plum and a hint of leather in the long finish.”

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Chardonnay In A Little Box

Boxed wine holds no special attraction for me, as most of my consumption is at home, where I love the heft and feel of a wine bottle.  I don’t carry wine around with me very often.  In Southern California, I don’t believe alcoholic beverages are even allowed on the beaches - or anywhere in public - but I have seen folks tipping plastic cups of wine at outdoor concerts and at the Hollywood Bowl.  In each case wine was for sale on site, and there may be restrictions on bringing your own wine into the venue.

Vendange Chardonnay is an Australian non-vintage wine in a 500ml Tetra Pak box, completely unbreakable and portable.  It's "bottled" in California and can be taken anywhere very easily..  They say the contents will yield three glasses, but it's more like two if you like a generous pour.  The retail price of four bucks certainly makes for an attractive offer.

The packaging  touts convenience, freshness and earth-friendliness while promising a taste that’s "full-flavored & fruity with hints of apples, pears & toasted oak."  The ecological angle is bolstered by the notice that the Tetra Pak is 90% less wasteful than regular wine bottles and 97% recyclable.

Personally, I rather like opening a bottle of wine.  The act of wielding a corkscrew and using it properly satisfies me.  You get  no such opportunity with the Vendange.  The twist-top closure automatically slits the inner foil container when opened, so no special tools are needed.   Alcohol content hits a moderate 13% abv.

Once out of the box, the nose shows the advertised fruit and the oak has a surprisingly light touch.  On the palate, fruity and fresh is a good description, with medium acidity and a slight oak flavor that becomes a little more strident on the finish.

Vendange is not the great Chardonnay of the ages, but you weren't expecting that when you got change back from a five.  It will suffice anywhere drinking is permitted, but glass bottles are not.  The question is, how badly do you really need to drink?

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Blood Of The Vines: Wine Pairing For "Cat People"

Wine Goes to the Movies with Now And Zin and Trailers From Hell

A man marries a woman who is afraid she will become a killer cat if she has sex with her husband.  That's right, she thinks if she lets herself become a panter, she'll turn into a panther.  Maybe a few glasses of wine would mellow her out, but this wasn't what the guy was thinking when he coined the "lady in the parlor, tiger in the bedroom" metaphor.

Okay, so, way back in the forties we have this very good reason to live together before marriage.  We also have "I've got a headache" taken to an extreme.  I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley - or any dark area, for that matter.

"Cat People" - the 1942 original, in glorious and shadowy black and white - was shrugged off as a cheap horror flick by critics of the day, but since then they have started calling it a "smart little drama," after a few glasses of wine, no doubt.

I’m not a cat person, and when I think of cat people, I think of that crazy lady down the street who has about 27 of them living in her one-room apartment.  Come to think of it, I wouldn’t want to meet HER in a dark alley, either.  Let’s pair some wine with “Cat People.”

Napa Valley's Black Cat Vineyard quotes Mark Twain: “If man would be crossed with a cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”  Try their Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon.  Then you'll be one of the Cab People.  Meow!

Get your claws on these:

Panther Creek Cellars - This Oregon producer has more Pinot Noirs that a cat has lives.

Hazlitt 1852 Red Cat - It should be a black cat, but this one is not afraid of water, at least in a hot tub.

Hello Kitty Wine - You had to see this one coming.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Mosby Sangiovese Santa Barbara County 2006

A little year-end clearance in my wine rack has me trying some wines that have languished there through no fault of their own.

Winemaker William Mosby - you can call him Bill - caught the winemaking bug during his college days.  As he states on the winery website,  "I fermented anything I could get my hands on."  We are all glad his hands quickly found some grapes.

It's the Italian grape that gets Mosby going.  His mission at Mosby Winery and Vineyard is to make "fine Cal-Italian wines from estate-grown grapes" in Buellton, CA.  In the land of Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Mosby's vineyard bursts forth with grapes like Dolcetto, Lagrein, Cortese, Traminer and Pinot Grigio.  He also makes a bit of grappa and wild plum and raspberry spirits.

Subtitled on the label as Vigna Della Casa Vecchia - what did the TTB have to say about that? - the Mosby Sangiovese hits 14.4% abv on the alcohol scale.  I don't remember what I paid for it several years ago, but the '06 is going for $26 now, according to an online search.

This dark ruby wine has a gorgeous nose as deep and rich as its color.  The floral element is huge and the dark berries are ripe and succulent with a spicy/herbal note kicking in.  On the palate, blueberries are joined by spices and herbs with a late touch of strawberries.  The lively flavors belie a dark and brooding tarry sensation that flows through the finish and grows stronger the course of two nights' sipping.

Mosby recommends pairing his Sangiovese with "roasted poultry, beef and, of course, pasta."

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Foley Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills 2009

Here is another example of waiting a tad too long to enjoy a white wine.  In this case, the forgotten bottle of Foley Chardonnay 2009 has felt the effects of age, but it actually appeals to me greatly in its present state.

From Santa Barbara County's Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard, this Chardonnay was wonderfully fruity in its youth.  Today, the years have left their mark.  I'm not disappointed, though, and I'm glad the bottle languished in the rack so long.

Owner William Foley II is living the dream, and the dream is "to produce world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County."  His Rancho Santa Rosa Vineyard is a former thoroughbred horse ranch in the Sta. Rita Hills appellation of the Santa Ynez Valley.  It is planted primarily to the two grapes that capture his fascination, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Winemaker Leslie Mead Renaud gets the most out of the grapes produced in the limestone soil of this vineyard.

This Chardonnay has a gorgeous golden color, rich and inviting.  The aromas of pineapple and apricot are just touched by oak.  A nice vanilla note is a testament to that, and minerals are in abundance.  On the palate, the apricot is pronounced, and a smoky note is draped over it.  I am reminded of the wonderful white wine of Spanish producer Lopez de Heredia, whose whites are routinely aged for decades before release.

The alcohol content of 14.3% packs a bit of a wallop, but it's not an unusually high number for this area.  The wine's gorgeous palate is complex, the acidity is lively, the minerality is rocky and the finish is long and savory.  Oak treatment involves new French oak for 16 months, and 75% of the wine underwent malolactic fermentation.  Holding back a quarter from malo preserved acidity while still allowing for a nice, creamy mouthfeel.

It's hard to forget a wine like this is waiting to be opened, but it can be a good thing if it does slip your mind for a bit.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Firestone Sauvignon Blanc Santa Ynez Valley 2009

Usually an almost-forgotten bottle of wine pulled from the rack brings back a flood of memories associated with its acquisition - the visit to the winery, a great sale at a cool wine shop, a gift on a special occasion.  None of that is clicking in with this bottle of Firestone Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Santa Ynez Valley 2009.  I think it may have been something grabbed up at a time when Denise was interested in trying different kinds of wine in cooking, and it simply was never opened.

Discovering a forgotten jewel is always reason for high expectations, as most of the wine in my rack never gets the chance to show its age.  This one does and, while fascinating, it has gone past its prime.

Firestone Vineyards was Santa Barbara County’s first estate winery, established in the early 1970s on land purchased by tire magnate Harvey Firestone.

This 100% Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc wine is made from Firestone Estate grapes, from the Santa Ynez Valley.  The 13.5% abv number is quite reasonable, especially from an area where higher numbers seem to be the rule.  It sells online for less than $10.

The wine has a very rich appearance.  It is so deeply tinted that it looks like apple juice.  I might normally expect some oak with a white wine this golden, but the wine was produced entirely in stainless steel tanks, aging there for eight months.  Obviously, bottle aging has been going on a little longer than I had planned.

Winemaker Paul Warson says it is crafted to be fruit-forward and crisp, which I know it is when opened promptly.  That's not the case now.

This wine's nose of tropical fruit is smothered by a pungent smokiness, even a hint of whiskey in the glass.  On the palate, more extreme smokiness mixes with full acidity.  The wine has obviously undergone an extreme change over the years, and it's one I find quite interesting.  I am a big fan of smoky aromas and flavors in wine, and all foods in general.

Is it a good change?  Sauvignon Blanc - particularly California styles - are generally designed to be drunk young, within a couple of years.  Four years isn't exactly a stretch for aging a wine, but for this steel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc it appears to be too long.

The acidity is still strong, but the wine doesn't have the freshness it once did.  It can probably be written off to oxidation, even though it was bottled under a screwcap.  So, it looks like I let this one linger too long in the wine rack.  The aromas and flavors are definitely off, but the transformation it has undergone is amazing, from an educational standpoint.

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