Monday, February 25, 2013


Syrah/Shiraz is one of the best red wine secrets around.  I say that because, for reasons that are beyond my understanding, this varietal wine has still not caught on, although Australian Shiraz had its day back in the nineties.  So because of its lack of popularity, if you want to try a superior and reasonably priced red for tonight's red meat dish, pick up a Syrah.

Since I love history, lets start at the beginning,  at least as much as DNA testing can determine.  Syrah originated from a mutation of the Dureza grape from Ardeche and the Mondeuse Blanche from Savoy so it actually may have originated in the northern Rhone where the finest examples of type come from today.  In  the year 77AD, Pliny the Elder wrote about the great powerful red wines from Vienne which is where present day Cote-Rotie resides in the Northern Rhone.  What isn't clear is whether that sturdy red was already Syrah or perhaps the antecedent, Dureza.  In any event the apocryphal stories connecting the grape to Shiraz, Iran seem to be unverifiable.

Shiraz, by the way, is the name given to the grape by the Australians following its introduction there in 1831.  Those vines from France and/or Spain were established in South Australian vineyards by 1860 and the rest is history as they say.  Shiraz is by far the finest quality and most popular grape there where it makes a powerful and high alcohol, ripe fruit-driven red that is usually slightly off-dry.  South Africa is the only other major wine producing country which also calls the grape Shiraz.

Elsewhere around the world the grape is called Syrah and the style is more in keeping with the northern Rhone style which profiles flavors of violets, dark berries, chocolate, espresso, black pepper, and plum.  When young the wine is more floral; when aged, more earthy with leather and truffles.  That style may also be powerful, tannic and full-bodied, and yet elegant.  If you can't tell, I like this stuff and complexity in flavors must rank at the top as the quality that separates the best from the rest and Syrah has it.

While the northern Rhone and elsewhere sport a Syrah which is minimally blended if at all, many production regions utilize the grape specifically for blending.  California uses Syrah like Petite Sirah (blogpost 2/9/13) to strengthen weaker wine or to add a lacking dimension to a blend.  Syrah typically adds a fleshy, fruity mid-palate to a blend and a darker color to the finished product. 

Syrah is most commonly blended with Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan, and Cinsault in Europe.  In California, with Barbera, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and unfortunately, into Pinot Noir.  In Australia, with Cabernet Sauvignon and as part of the GSM blend with Grenache and Mourvedre.  Borrowing from the northern Rhone, small amounts of the white grape, Viognier, are sometimes added to Shiraz/Syrah to lighten the product and add Viognier's trademark apricot flavor.

As you might expect, I have an agenda for writing this blog.  At Friday's tasting (March 1st 5 to 7pm) we will be tasting Edna Valley Vineyard Syrah amongst others and that wine so impressed me I would love to see anyone reading this to be here for the occasion.  Syrah plantings worldwide are booming, by the way.  In this country California, Oregon, and Washington State all boast new plantings helping to make Syrah the seventh most popular wine grape in the world.  Here at V&C though, we need to discover how wonderful this stuff really is.

Next week on Thursday March 7th, Gail Avera of the Atlanta Beverage Company joins us with a spread of new California wines.  On Saturday March 9th from 3-5pm David Hobbs of Prime Wines
will be here offering more Californians for our consideration.  On the Friday between the two events I'm sure something will be open then too.  And if you like reading this blog, please be a follower, just so I know I'm being followed.  And if you're in the neighborhood, please stop in.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

2011 Villa Pozzi Nero d'Avola

There's a first time for everything.  Last night's tasting winner was the Pozzi Nero d'Avola from Sicily which was light and fruity and everything a typical tasting crowd would enjoy.  The Kunde Cabernet and Chardonnay also showed well by the way.  So because Pozzi is not a stranger to our tasting table here, I scrolled back to see what I may have written in the past and, lo and behold, on March 3rd of last year we wrote about the 2010 version of the same wine.  So if you want to read about Nero d'Avola see the March 3, 2012 blog.  No need to reinvent the wheel here.

Please join us this Friday, June 1st from 5 to 7pm for the next installment of our ongoing tasting adventure series.  That lineup should include Argentine Malbecs and California reds and whites.  Then on Thursday March 7th Gail Avera returns to the V&C friendly confines to entertains us with a lineup of brand new California wines and then on the following Saturday, March 9th, David Hobbes of Prime Wines will be here to present more California reds and whites.  On the Friday between the two events we will take a night off which means we'll have something open but nothing to write home about.

Here's an addendum to the preceding blogpost (2/21/13):  Two of our best (and best selling) wines of the past couple months are products of the Niven Family Wine Estates: Tangent Albarino, which you can read about at blogpost 10/16/12 and Baileyana Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which we recommended with abandon during the holidays.  And so it goes.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Edna Valley Vineyard

Edna Valley Vineyard (EVV) is known for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  This bare fact I have known for thirty years.  What I did not know and what I still don't fully understand is the network of interconnected entities responsible for the production of those wines.  Learning about EVV and, of necessity, that huge American Viticultural Area (AVA) known as the Central Coast is akin to digging in a bottomless pit where every spadeful you come up with reveals new players in the game you thought you understood.

Jack and Catherine Niven planted their Edna Valley vineyards in the 1970s.  Niven Family Wine Estates is their corporate moniker with their Paragon Vineyard Company occupying space within that entity.  In 1980 Niven formed a partnership with Chalone for the purpose of sharing production and marketing.  In 2005 Chalone was purchased by the wine giant, Diageo, with EVV in tow.  In 2011 the wine giant amongst giants, Gallo, bought EVV and announced what they always announce, "We won't change anything.".

Have I confused you enough?  Here is more.  Gallo bought EVV's sixty-two acre vineyards along with the winery name.  EVV sells 300,000 cases of wine a year.  With just a little common sense and a modicum of internet research one can ascertain that EVV buys from several other large players in the Central Coast but that information is largely proprietary and we don't know who most of those are.  Going forward though we know that Gallo will be providing for all of their winery needs, having purchased the Central Coast wineries, Bridlewood in 2004 and William Hill in 2007.

The reason we bring up EVV for this blog is, of course, because we tasted their wines, liked them, and purchased them for the store.  We have the 2011 Cabernet and 2009 Syrah which are wonderful examples of type and they aren't even the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir EVV is known for.  Both sell for $12.99.  We also have other examples of Gallo's shrewd recession era purchasing in Washington State's Columbia Winery 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.99) and 2009 Pinot Gris ($9.99).  While we haven't tasted those, we have it on good authority that they are quite good also.

So lets back up a moment here.  What Gallo brings to the table, aside from a lot of cash, is promotion and marketing both nationally and internationally.  Paragon will stay on for a while for appearances but Gallo will quintuple production at EVV using their vineyard assets and the quality will probably slip a little over time...but maybe not. 

This Friday the 22nd from 5 to 7pm we will be tasting Baron Fini Italian Merlot, Ruta 22 Argentine Malbec, Kunde Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and house favorite Villa Pozzi Italian Pinot Grigio and Nero d'Avola.  Please join us.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Cork Taint

Friday night at our tasting one of the wines on the table was noticably tainted and should have been promptly removed from the lineup.  That's my job.  David Rimmer, our presenter, and I had just met one week earlier and our uncertainty in our business relationship as much as anything resulted in that wine being left to be tasted all evening by the assembled flock.  Saturday morning I called David, we  discussed what happened, and he replaced the tasting bottle with a fresh one for Saturday which doesn't change the fact that nothing was done on Friday.  Mea culpa.

Here are three points about that tainted bottle before moving on:

1.  There are degrees of taint in wines with minimal taint being open to a "how much is too much" discussion.  This particular bottle was "too much", although we still sold several bottles that night.

2.  Taint in wine has a way of dissipating for the taster with ensuing sips (olfactory habituation) unless the degree of taint is "too much" and in this case I, personally, couldn't get past it.

3.  There is such a thing as systemic taint in wineries where the contamination is widespread in the winery environment making all bottles sourced there tainted which is why opening a second
bottle is very important to ascertain the extent of the problem.  This time the second one was fine.

So what is cork taint?  Eighty percent of all taint is caused by a chemical compound called TCA or 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole, which most often infects the cork but may just pass through the cork from an infected environment.  Unfortunately, it cannot be detected until after the wine is made, in the bottle, and sealed. 

In contaminated wine the taster first gets an aroma of moldy newspaper, wet dog, or damp basement before tasting what one can only imagine an infected cork would taste like, maybe musty and moldy.  Sorry, I can't describe it any better.  The wine is literally spoiled by its presence, but on the positive side, cork taint is harmless to our health.

Cork taint is also largely a product of our modern times.  Natural airborne fungi come into contact with chlorophenols which are industrial pollutants in pesticides and wood preservatives which, in the presence of moisture, convert into chloroanisole.  Since we're talking about an airborne vehicle, systemic contamination is understandable.  The attachment to cork localizes and presents the effect to the wine.

How much is too much?  Since two to five parts per trillion TCA is humanly detectable in wine, perhaps the screwcaps really are the way to go afterall.

Please join us on Friday February 22nd from 5 to 7pm when we taste another round of interesting new wines, and I promise, no cork taint!  And if you like what you read here be a "follower" of this site.        

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Wine & Salami

Life is a miracle to begin with, right?  And then on top of that you have these times when all of the stars are aligned perfectly, as they say, and you experience a slice of heaven to which, all you can say is, "I am not worthy!".  Perhaps I over-dramatize.

Monday of this week was a good day business-wise but in the middle of the afternoon one of my vendors walked in with four Tuscan reds including the great 2007 Caparzo Brunello di Montalcino.  Whew! Shortly after he arrived I received a food order out of Chicago that included a couple of Bende Hungarian Salamis and without hesitation I proceded to dissect one to enjoy with that Brunello.  Double whew!  Man, when it is right, it is indeed right!

Then on Tuesday another wine vendor opened up an inexpensive Spanish red and of course I brought out the salami and again the combination was magical.  This particular vendor is a trained chef, so just like tasting wine with a sommelier, I felt validated by his pronouncements about the combination.  These happenings give the struggling small business guy hope and validation that there is more to this endeavor than selling just any commodity.  This can be real special.

Now, just so I feel like I'm giving you something substantive, here is a brief dab about Brunello.  Brunello di Montalcino is a vineyard that surrounds the town of Montalcino 120km south of Florence in Tuscany.  Brunello is the diminutive of Bruno which means "brown" and was the name of the grape there until ampelographers in 1879 decided the grape was, in fact, Sangiovese.  Recently we blogged here about Italian Barbaresco and the modern history of Brunello is similar; Biondi-Santi owned the production of Brunello until the advent of the twentieth century when that elite wine was democratized (sort of) with other players getting into the act.  Caparzo is now in the store and priced at $50/btl.

The inexpensive Spanish red from Tuesday was Finca del Castillo from La Mancha but I'm not so sure that the real story isn't the importer, a company that is composed solely by sommeliere-credentialed principals.  Intrigued?  I am.  Perhaps their most successful wine is the always reliable, Kris Pinot Grigio.  Again, in the past we blogged about bulk wine production here and we learned that 60% of Spanish wine is sold in bulk.  I believe that fact, combined with the recession, explains why these inexpensive Spanish reds are so good.  Finca sells for $7.99/btl.

The salami is, of course, different than wine and it is sort of a commodity but a commodity with a secret recipe, although Hungarian Paprika would have to play a prominant role.  You can learn as much as I know by going to   What do they say about not wanting to know too much about how sausage is made?

On Friday February 15th from 5 to 7pm, David Rimmer of Artisan Vines will be pouring his great european offerings here and, you know what, there just might be some Hungarian salami on the table.  David is a veteran of this business and a self-defined "Georgia country boy" so expect information and entertainment.  Please join us.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Petite Sirah

I just posted on facebook, "Who would have thought Petite Sirah would be so popular?".  Last night's California wine tasting here featured two Petites along with a Cabernet, Barbera, and two whites.  Two Petites in a tasting, itself, is kind of freakish in my opinion, but apparently it was just fine for the attendees who gobbled it up!

Because my tastes lie with the Europeans, this event could have proved disturbing to me except that California Petite Sirah really is "best of kind" wine.  It's far from noble, lacking race and breed, not to mention length in its flavors, but it certainly surpasses similar efforts from elsewhere around the world.  By the way I have tasted the great ones too, the ones that improve for twenty years in the bottle.  Just a few months ago I was offered Helen Turley Petite from that distributor but as a merchant I just don't think I can sell $80 or $100 Petite where I am.

Here is some history so you don't think I am just another opinionated wine butt.  The other name for Petite Sirah is Durif which was discovered and named in 1880 by French botanist Francois Durif.  Apparently a vine in a Peloursin vineyard near Montpellier became pollinated by Syrah resulting in the new hybrid which was opportune because Durif proved to be resistant to the common Rhone region downy mildew problem.  Unfortunately the grape itself didn't show any special tasting assets and because the grape is small (petite) and closely bunched, gray (bunch) rot presented as a new problem.  Durif grapes are now practically nonexistent in France.

A while back we wrote about California Barbera and how those Italian immigrants in the 1800's carried their vine cuttings on their backs from Italy to their destinations in California.  Durif's history is similar with French immigrants being the carriers this time.  Also we wrote here about Carmenere in Chile where labelling problems caused the misidentification of that vine for a century.  Today it is believed Petite Sirah vineyards are only 90% accurately composed of Petite Sirah with the remaining 10% being Syrah, Peloursin, or Beclan (?) which leads to what I think is the ultimate truth about Petite.

Petite Sirah is or should be a blending grape which it was for the first eighty years of its California existence.  Concannon and Souverain were the first varietal labellers of Petite in the 1960's.  Before that it was strictly a blender into jug red wine, which unapologetically was California's claim to fame up until the modern era.  Now Petite continues to be blended primarily with Zinfandel but also with Barbera and others where it adds a dimension to the blend that otherwise would be lacking.

Petite Sirah has a high skin to pulp ratio, offering flavorful tannins (and color) to a red wine that may be weak in the middle.  In Zinfandel it cuts into excessive jamminess and adds firm texture to the mouthfeel.  The Petite flavor profile is spicy plum primarily with black and blue berries, licorice, tar, and smoke.  The bouquet is black pepper and herbal.  The color is inky dark and the wine is tannic and acidic.  You begin to see what this would add to a lesser red wine and, yes, this is definitely a red meat lover's wine.

Next Friday David Rimmer with Artisan Vines joins us here from 5 to 7pm with an outstanding selection of new samples for us to try.  David has a long history in this business and should fill everyone's entertainment quotient for the evening.


Monday, February 4, 2013


This one should be short.  I was certain I had already written about Gewurz here already but I guess I was thinking about the series on the Alsace from a year ago (1/7/12-1/21/12), the Alsace being the undisputed champion of quality Gewurz.  And the reason for writing about the grape at all this time would be its presence in last Friday's tasting lineup where it proved once again that the best wine on the table can be the worst seller of the evening.

Gewurz is strictly a win-lose proposition.  You either love it or you don't, so there is something in it that must not resonate with some of us.  Gewurz has floral aromas of roses, nutty aromas of lychee, and fruity aromas of passion fruit, grapefruit, and peach stones.  It has a flavor profile that includes: honey, pumpkin spice, allspice, cinnamon, apricots, and pears.  "Gewurz" means spicy so food affinities would include asian cuisine (including curry), wild (oily) game, smoked fish, barbecue, Mexican cuisine, chicken wings, and all of those Alsatian sausages, kraut, pates, and ham.  The cheese most cited by the critics for this wine is Muenster.

Traminer is the name of the family of grapes that originated in or near the village of Tramin in southern Tyrol in northern Italy.  That grape has an unstable genome that has resulted in frequent mutations through history perhaps creating the popular varieties Muscat and Viognier amongst a legion of lesser known types.  The parent of them all may be Savagnin Blanc (not Sauvignon) with written documentation going to 1000AD.

Gewurztraminer migrated to Alsace in the nineteenth century and then around 1870 or so the Phylloxera epidemic (Blog 6/11/11) took a hand in its fate.  "Gewurz" is obviously a German word but the German Gewurz is decidedly less aromatic and spicy than the Alsatian.  It is believed that when it came to grafting the new vines onto the American rootstocks Alsace got a different (and better) version of Gewurz than Germany did.

Gewurztraminer has a long growing season and likes cooler climates so its early budding is potentially problematic with the threat of frost and because of its naturally high sugar content (must weight), its late ripening  presents similar potential problems at the other end of the season.  To further complicate the situation, Gewurztraminer is unduly susceptible to multiple diseases during the growing season.

In Alsace Gewurztraminer may be fermented dry, off-dry, sweet, or very sweet.  Some producers do them all!  Twenty percent of all vineyard land in Alsace is devoted to Gewurztraminer and it is acknowledged by acclamation to be that region's finest wine and, in fact, noble by world standards.  The one we had on Friday was Dopff & Irion from Riquewehr and it was the dry floral version. 

This Friday (5-7pm) we will be tasting California reds and whites here at the store that may include efforts from Bliss, Raymond, First Press, The Crusher, Trinchero, Ste. Michelle, and Peirano Estate.  Please join us.