Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pinot Noir & Syrah

"I'm shocked, shocked to learn that gambling is going on in here!"  So says Inspector Renault to Rick in the classic film, Casablanca.  Such an expression of shock could apply similarly to the case of Syrah being blended into what many of us consider the pristine varietal, Pinot Noir...or maybe not.

First of all, long before there was a hint of winery indiscretion in California, Burgundy producers would openly traverse to the Rhone Valley in France for a little vin de medicine Syrah for weak Pinot Noir vintages in the world's finest wine production region.  Before 1920 when it became illegal to do so, why wouldn't you beef up your pinot if what you were presenting as your standard bearer looked like rose wine.  After 1920 the "I'm shocked" claim may have been more appropriate considering the illegality, but what's a winemaker to do?

The scandal in California Pinot Noir, however, is really just a tempest in a teapot.  California Pinot Noir is not Burgundy and adding Syrah to it surely won't make it so.  If you wanted to look like Don Knotts, would you take steroids?  Syrah, your steroid in this case, would steer your concoction in the exact opposite direction from the finesse of real Pinot Noir.  But if you want to give the consumer what he/she wants in big, lush, mouth filling red wine, well, Syrah just might do the trick!

Last night at the weekly event, we tasted the 2009 Ceja Napa Valley Vino de Casa, which is labelled on the backside as Pinot Noir and Syrah.  I was informed by vendor, Taylor Moore, that it was 2/3 Pinot and 1/3 Syrah.  The wine both fascinated me and gustatorily satisfied me... and I'm a Pinot Noir snob!  In the nose I got Pinot, but Syrah ruled the roost basically everywhere else.  Honestly, I have never experienced anything like this wine previously.  The wine was thoroughly enjoyable and since Ceja is Mexican-American owned, I successfully imagined enjoying the wine with some red meat Mexican cuisine.

So here's the lowdown on the subject of Syrah-altered Pinot Noir: If you are buying under $15 Pinot Noir and it is relatively mouthfilling, you are probably enjoying some Syrah (or another blending grape) in the wine.  If it's a more expensive wine and you think it is too substantial to be 100% Pinot, it may be a blend.  In California a varietal wine only has to consist of 75% of the labelled variety.  But here's the thing: California Pinot Noir is more substantial than Burgundy to begin with and if a producer can both satisfy the public and the critics by getting the right clone with the right terroir and maximize their efforts in the winery to extract as much flavor as possible from the grape skins, then the wine may, in fact, be 100% Pinot Noir.

I kind of like what blogger Craig Camp says about the subject: "If you're buying cheap Pinot Noir, be thankful the Syrah is in there." and "Make sure the Syrah you are using is just so-so quality so the wine still tastes like Pinot Noir." or even "Think about buying a varietal Syrah (at a lower price) to get an even better wine."

This coming Friday is the Fourth of July.  We will be open and tasting so stop in after 5pm and join us.  On Friday July 11th, Allen Rogers of Atlanta Beverage joins us for a tasting of Spanish reds, whites, and roses and on the 18th, Dmitry Paladino of Ultimate Wine Distributors presents California wines from his portfolio.  So if what we're doing here at the blogspot is interesting to you, please join us here as a follower.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lava Cap, Part 2

Lava Cap Winery is so named because of the higher concentration of lava in the soils there than elsewhere in the Placerville Sierra Foothills region.  Millions of years ago volcanoes east of Lake Tahoe ruled the region spewing lava every which way and perhaps the tectonic plates which caused the volcanoes splintered sending lava-encrusted shards in the direction of Placerville. 

The region also has a climate enviable to most California vineyard lands.  Along with the diurnal shift of warm sunny days and cool breezy nights, the average temperature there is cooler than Dry Creek, Sonoma, and St. Helena and more like Oakville in Napa.  Such temperatures are ideal for Bordeaux varietals.

Lava Cap vineyards include two basic soil types: Mehrten Formation at the lower elevations and Granitic Pluton at the higher elevations.  The varied topography and resultant microclimates allow for twelve different grape types to grow in specific locations.  The estate red grapes include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Merlot, and Zinfandel.  The whites are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Lava Cap markets seventeen different wines, four whites, twelve reds, and a rose.  They purchase Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Muscat Canelli locally.

Lava Cap properties were once a 26 acre pear farm in 1981 when purchased by David Jones.  Incrementally over decades the property grew to the 130 acres with 74 in vines today.  They produce 20,000 cases of wine annually, selling half of that out of their tasting room.  Within that number lies a sizeable contingent of geologists organized to purchase from one of their own.

This Friday, June 27th, between 5 and 8pm, Taylor Moore presents wines from Lava Cap along with Small Vineyards Italians here at the store.  Please join us.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Lava Cap, Part 1

"How different soils affect the development of different flavors in wine grapes isn't known.  It's hard to extrapolate results back to causations because of the many variables in the winemaking process.  Scientifically, you would have to control for all of the variables." -Tom Jones, winemaker at Lava Cap Winery.

If this sounds uncommonly heady to you, welcome to the backseats of the science classroom where I happen to reside.  Actually if it sounds like Mr. Jones must be a geologist or something, well, he is!  Actually all of the Joneses are.  Lava Cap Winery was started in 1981 by Dr. David Jones, paleontologist at UC Berkeley and longtime member of the U.S. Geological Survey.  Sons, Tom and Charlie, winemaker and vineyard manager respectively, are both geologists.  Even mother, Jeanne, is a geologist and... a couple grandsons doing undergraduate work have aspirations toward the same goal.  Strange seen from the back of the classroom.

David Jones contributed to our understanding of plate techtonics with the finding that intact plate fragments which break off upon colliding with another plate, can attach to that plate resulting in unique geological soils separate from what lies around them.  So...if you were particularly interested in highly concentrated volcanic soils for the purpose of starting a vineyard, this approach may be advantageous.  David Jones, a home winemaker in the 1970s, went looking for just that thing and struck gold just outside of Placerville in the Sierra foothills of eastern California and if that place sounds remotely familiar it's because that's where the 1848 gold rush took place.

Back on January 25th of '11 we blogged about Renwood Winery of the same area and I bring up that blog now because in that one we discovered the pathos implicit in the immigrant experience.  The Italian immigrants (and others) carried their grapevines on their backs as they traversed the continent to seek their fortune in gold.  For most all of them that wasn't going to happen and instead California struck gold with the wine industry started by them and others like them.  Most of these immigrants never thought about starting a wine industry with their vines.  It was just about cultural sustenance.

Please join us Friday June 27th between 5 and 8pm when Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock Distributing presents a tasting of Lava Cap California wines and Small Vineyards Italians.

And for gosh sakes become a follower of this blog before it's too late!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Rose of Sharon, Part 1

I planted a Rose of Sharon bush at the corner of my house a few years ago.  I figured it would grow away from the wall and toward the sunlight so I aimed the side with the most foliage toward the house, again thinking it would grow away from it.  And it turned out alright.  So that's my metaphor du jour for what has happened with the modern wine industry.  Let me explain...

Forty years ago wine educators were directing newbies toward European wines in order to show them the classic examples of types that were then being grown in the new world.  The idea was to provide a frame of reference for comparison purposes so Americans would know which domestic producers best toed the line with Europe models.  It was a good plan...but unrealistic.  Again, let me explain...

It's because we're Americans, dammit!  We don't want anyone telling us what this stuff is supposed to taste like!  Much less some smarty-pants wine geek!  Let's get real!

Now if it is a mega-monolithic American wine corporation telling us what it's supposed to taste like, well that's different.  But it's a two way street with marketers and what the corporate wineries really want to do is provide what the consumer asks for with his dollars...and that they do very well.  But the marketers provide no compass, implicit or explicit, directing consumers to quality.  It's just not in their DNA.

Now two final points before moving on: Some wine lovers do use the European frame of reference when purchasing their wines and secondly, our domestic wine industry is not Europe, so we should stop pretending that Napa Cabernet can be Bordeaux and that Oregon Pinot Noir can be Burgundy.  Instead we should celebrate the difference!

This rant, by the way, was meant to lead up to an examination of new trends and numbers in domestic sales but we'll make that Part 2 of the screed.  Stay tuned.

Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage joins us this Friday with a tasting of new high end Italian red blends and Coto de Hayas Spanish reds and whites.  Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock pours Small Vineyards Italians and new California wines on the 27th of June.  Please join us for that one too.

...and if you'd care to, it would make my day if you became a follower here.

The Rose of Sharon, Part 2

The Rose of Sharon is a family of flowering bushes which may not be family at all.  One of the old Hebrew words in the name could be translated as either "pungent" or "splendid", so with that kind of uncertainty in its origins, it's possible none in the common field is the actual Rose of Sharon from the bible.  So, relating to the preceding post, this is my metaphor du jour for the state of the commercial wine industry today, where names for wines lose their meanings because styles diverge so much from the original.

This post, by the way, is also the third of a series about the largest wine companies in America.  We first covered this territory on May 4th of '12 and then again on January 15th of '13.  Each report shows subtle movements on the list of the thirty largest companies as reported by Wine Business Monthly (  This time instead of listing them all, let's look at larger truths and trends.

There are 7,500 wine companies in America today.  With each annual list of the biggest players, the top three stay the same.  Gallo is always number one by a huge margin followed by either The Wine Group or Constellation.  Citing two different industry sources, these three companies sell between 172 and 184 million cases of wine domestically a year with a comparable amount sold abroad also.

Half of all domestic wine sales are done by these three largest wine companies and the thirty largest wine companies account for ninety percent of all wine sales in America. 

In our last report on this subject we noted the presence of companies that had no history to reference in the wine industry, i.e., private labellers for chain stores and virtual wineries on a grand scale.  Last year organic wines impacted the wine company list for the first time also.  This year it's sweet wines that are factoring into the numbers in a big way and it's the millenial generation that is credited with their popularity.

DFV has been a fave here at V&C for some time now.  They seem to value quality at affordable price points moreso than others.  They are the mega-wine company with the greatest growth (28%) this time, driven by Bota Box wines and, in particular, Handcraft varietals which increased sales by 5000%!  DFV moved from eleventh on the list to eighth in the most recent sales figures.

Please join us this Friday between 5 and 8pm as Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage leads us in a tasting of new Italian red blends in the market and if you like this blog, please become a follower here so I don't get discouraged and hang it up!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Seghesio Family Vineyards

Sebastiani, Mondavi, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Duckhorn, and to be more specific for our purposes here today, the Zinfandel makers like Ridge, Ravenswood, and Rosenbloom, all have seen the corporate dollars waved before them and they all have made the ultimate decision to sell.  In 2011 Seghesio, the largest high quality Zinfandel producer in Sonoma County, followed suit.  The reasons for selling are clear: global competition, succession issues, inheritance taxes, and corporate consolidation choking off the distribution channels.  All of these factors are oh-so-real that the smart money screams, "Sell!", and do it as soon as the right big offer comes in.

The stinger for me as a history buff is the loss of something as vitally fulfilling as a great-grandfather's dream gamble come to fruition.  Edoardo Seghesio emigrated from Piedmont, Italy to America in 1886 and went directly to work as a winemaker for Italian Swiss Colony wines in Sonoma County.  He remained there until 1902 but purchased his Home Ranch property in 1895, planted it in vines, and built his winery there in 1902.  In '03 he left Italian Swiss Colony and began selling his own wines in San Francisco.

Then through the ensuing years the Seghesio family added to their Zinfandel empire with many shrewd land and winery purchases which today translate into five proprietary Zinfandel labels: Sonoma Old Vine, Home Ranch, San Lorenzo, Cortina, and the one we tasted here just recently, Sonoma Valley.  Three hundred acres constitute the land holdings today, which is large but short changes the Seghesio history substantially.  In 1919 Seghesio bought Italian Swiss Colony and its 1,100 acres and for a twenty year period between 1960 and 1980, Seghesio made half of all of the red wine made in Sonoma County.

In some ways 1980 may be seen as the beginning of the modern era in the California wine industry.  The cultural changes incorporating wines into the American lifestyle were already becoming apparent and the more ambitious sizeable wine companies were increasingly investing in land and winery assets.  As stated above Seghesio had historically also been into land and winery acquisition.  In 1983, after eighty years of farming and selling their juice to others, the first Seghesio Family Vineyards wines were produced and marketed as such.  Ten years later in '93, Seghesio doubled down on quality with hand farming and small-lot fermentation and the critical accolades abounded.

In 2011 Leucadia National Corporation, an eight billion dollar Park Avenue holding company with interests in insurance and banking, bought Seghesio and added it to their Crimson Wine Group which already included the prestigeous Pine Ridge of Napa Valley, Willamette Valley's Archery Summit, and Edna Valley's Chamisol.  Other labels were created internally.  In 2013 Leucadia spun off the Crimson Wine Group, retaining an 18% interest in the company which exists now as the lone publicly traded luxury wine portfolio in the country.

Vineyard manager Pete Seghesio says midsized brands are especially in trouble going forward.  One can only assume that distribution is the issue and that the clout that is wielded by the corporate players is formidable.

On Friday June 20th between 5 and 8pm, Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage will offer up new high end Italian Red Blends along with his always popular Coto de Hayas Spanish wines.  On Friday June 27th Taylor Moore of Eagle Rocks pours tastes of his popular Small Vineyards Italians along with new California wines.  Please join us.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wine and Chicken

Well this is interesting.  I've been selling wine in Gainesville, Georgia, the chicken capitol of the world, since 1986 and I never thought about the wealth of wine ideas the bird has set before me.  I always thought Chardonnay or Pinot Noir were my options but now I'm starting over with a blank slate and no preconceived notions thanks again to Lettie Teagues of the Wall Street Journal.  On March 29th of this year in an article entitled, "The Wine Lovers' Chicken Conundrum", Teagues reminded us that chicken is essentially a neutral food before it gets its preparatory adornment and is capable of accommodating a number of different wines, again, depending on how the bird is being prepared.

So here's the rule: Lighter simpler foods go with lighter simpler wines and heavier stronger foods with heavier stronger wines.  With a few exceptions, of course.  So let's book'em, Danno, and do this thing:

Remember the bland chicken soup mom fed you when you were sick as a kid?  Let's go with Vinho Verde with that one.
How about Progresso or something of similar quality?  Pinot Grigio, Gruner Veltliner
What about chicken soup like what they have in Spain?  Viognier, Torrontes
Roast Chicken?  I still say Pinot Noir.
Fried Chicken?  Man, it's wide open!  How about Riesling for now.
Chicken Casserole?  Since we said Pinot Noir above, let's say Barbera here.
Chicken in a tomato sauce?  Pick your Italian poison; Chianti, by any other name.
Pizza with chicken and everything else.  Trebbiano for a white; Nero d'Avola for a red.
Chicken Tacos?  Spanish Monastrell?
Other Mexican Pollo?  Other Spanish reds!
Breasts on the grill.  Cabernet Sauvignon but not a monster.
Blackened and spiced breasts on the grill.  Bring in the monster.
Smoked!  Gewurztraminer for a white; Cabernet Franc for a red.

Hey, this is fun.  Let's keep going.

Chicken flavored Alpo.  Franzia in the box!

Okay, we'll stop there.  But wasn't it fun and interesting.  Depending on preparation basically any wine fits the bill!

One more thing...remember Roses go with everything!

Here's our current Friday evening 5-8pm tasting schedule:

     June 13th: California and Washington State reds and whites
     June 20th: Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage with new Italian high end red blends
     June 27th: Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock with Small Vineyards Italians and new California reds.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Realization

Back on October 5th of last year we blogged about MD 20/20 Electric Melon, then followed that one up on October 25th with another on MD 20/20 Blue Raspberry.  Then we decided to leave the subject alone since the posts weren't really about wine but the beverage predilections of the American litterbug.  If you feel like scrolling back, I thought those posts were great...but you have to understand my very dry satirical sense of humor. 

So recently I was out bicycling with Jack the dog, picking up bottles and cans by the sides of the roads and I came to a major new realization, but wait a minute, you probably can't envision the bicycling thing.   Jack rides in his milk crate on the handle bars.  I hang plastic grocery store T-shirt bags from the milk crate and fill them with aluminum cans and plastic bottles we pick up from the roadsides.  Glass bottles go into the box with Jack, who is none-too-happy about the arrangement, and we keep Clermont and the surrounding areas picked up that way...and we entertain the locals who observe us in the act!

So what's my new realization?  Let me first set the stage by profiling the local litterbugs.  They love Bud Light beer and Coke!  They r-e-a-l-l-y love their Bud Light and Coke.  They like a lot of other stuff but you can generally assume they are amenable to advertising, which is pretty amoral on things environmental, and that just leads into a lifestyle of throwing it out the window.

So here's my realization: Up to this point, the only empty wine bottles I find by the road have been of the wino-wine varieties, with just a few exceptions, mainly Gallo brands. epiphany!  This is an untapped market!  What we have here is an obvious opportunity to upgrade the tastes of our friends in the litterbug community and create a new fine wine industry revenue stream in the process!

So how on earth do we do that?

First we need to reach out to any litterbugs we may know.  Care should be taken though, if you think the individual may not exactly be open to the proposition.  I always worried about kids who were told in school that littering was a no-no.  I imagined them going home and getting their ears boxed in by inebriated dad when they told him to stop littering.  Those kind probably don't need to be in the fine wine fraternity anyway.

Secondly, we need to reach out to strangers, like in store parking lots, if they look like they could be a potential litterbug, you know, a little rough looking.  Wait a minute.  Cancel that approach in light of the previous paragraph.

Now here's the way to go: Anheuser Busch and Coca Cola are mega marketers who make a ton of money off the sales of their stuff that ends up as such an unsightly mess by our roadsides.  My first thought was to tax them to help pay for the cleanup of their containers.  Then, the realization: Why not utilize their assets to upgrade the tastes of our littering friends, i.e., have them advertise decent wines on their six or twelve packs or whatever.  It could read, "Hey buddy, try a bottle of Napa Cab with that (Bud or Coke)."  The marketing talent these guys have is truly amazing.  They can sell ice to eskimos, as they say.  You just need a slogan, jingle, and a pretty girl and...Voila!  And don't forget the receptivity of this targeted consumer!  I think this thing will work!  Heck, Gallo will probably want to play too considering the benefits they might reap!

To my knowledge the littering numbers have remained pretty constant through the years and I don't expect them to diminish any time soon so we might as well make the best of it.  Maybe we could even sell some Govino acrylic wine cups for the connoisseur on the go!  I guess they too would end up on the roadside though.

Here's the tasting schedule for the next three weeks: Friday, June 13th, domestic reds and whites from California and Washington; June 20th, Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage with new high end red blends from Italy and Coto de Hayas reds and whites from Spain; and June 27th, Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock with Small Vineyard Italians and new California reds.  All events start at 5pm and end at 8pm.  It's a "flow" thing so come when you want!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How to Shop For Wine

I seem to be finding blogging inspiration in the columns of Lettie Teagues in the Wall Street Journal.  I have always liked her stuff but now, with me in this blogging role, she provides me with a diving board, should I choose to belly flop into a given subject.  On April 5-6, 2014 her column was entitled, "Ask the Shopkeeper to Dictate What You Sip", which is obviously right up my alley.

The difference between a chain grocery store and a small retail wine shop is obvious.  In the chain store the wines lining the shelves are all mass produced and marketed as safe bets proven to satisfy the popular palate.  The mega-wine companies that make them do a good job and having been in the grocery wine business twenty-five years ago, I believe the quality may be better today than when I worked it.  But you probably wouldn't ask anyone for recommendations there because, frankly, there isn't that much difference between the different labels on those shelves.  If the truth be known, many come from the same place.

At one time I was thinking about getting into the liquor store business.  Since I think I know how to sell beer and wine, I asked a couple of suppliers what I should stock liquor-wise.  One fellow recommended I walk into a couple local stores and see what the large displays were and assume that those are the way to go.  It's not rocket science.  So if you were to walk into my shop today, you would see most of the floor space filled with stacks of European and South American wines while relegating the domestic wines to the bins along the periphery.  That's an oversimplification but the truth is my tastes run to the imports.  The domestic bins are full, by the way.

So if this store looks a little foreign to the uninitiated shopper accustomed to grocery store fare, it's my job to engage them with customer service.  In order to secure the right wine suggestion, appropriate questions are in order: "Is this to go with a meal?" "Are you buying a gift for someone?" or  "If this is a cocktail wine, what do you usually like?"  Not assuming anything, it is only prudent that I would always err on the side of a conservative suggestion.

As a wine buyer myself, here's a trick I have learned: If the seller is knowledgeable, look for legitimate emotion in his voice.  If he gets animated when he talks about a wine, it's probably pretty good.  At least he feels that way.  Now since I have a heritage from stock that immigrated from the far northern climes, we don't typically show a lot of emotion, but you know what I mean.

Lettie Teagues, in her column which was our diving board for this post, went to ten wine shops in three major cities, purchasing two $30 bottles recommended in each.  Being an insider in the trade with the requisite palate, she ultimately had problems with close to half of the wines she purchased, meaning she liked most of them with one becoming "my new favorite wine".  Teagues is a professional wine writer in the field so I guess that's about what you can expect.

Next Friday's tasting will feature several California wines, which as a category, seem to have the most aggressive pricing currently.  Please join us between 5 and 8pm and become a "follower" here so all of that all-nighter term paper torture in school will have mattered after all.