Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Washington State Merlot

On Friday June 28th from 5 to 7pm, Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage will present the wines of Peirano Estates of Lodi, California.  One of the six wines for the tasting will be the 2011 Peirano Six Clones Merlot which is well described by the producers at www.peirano.com.  Actually it's too well described (rich, ripe, cherries...).  It makes the reader salivate.  Please join us for the event.

So I mention this wine first in order to draw a contrast wiith Washington State Merlot.  Ever since the movie Sideways came out in 2004, California Merlot has been taking it on the chin for perceived inferiority and that's a little unfair.  Is there plonk Merlot from California?  Most definitely.  Is most of California Merlot inferior?  Yes, but most wine made anywhere is often no better than jug wine quality which, as a category by the way, is much better than it used to be.  If one starts at the other end of the spectrum, the elite end, and works back, one can draw the line personally where plonk quality starts.  Peirano is from Lodi, not exactly Napa/Sonoma, and probably a good test case for the Merlot quality question.

So what does Washington State offer that California apparently lacks?  Quite a bit actually.  At forty-six degrees latitude, Washington Merlot vineyards receive seventeen hours of sunlight daily during the peak months of the long growing season.  Merlot needs that and the diurnal effect of cool nights to retain its natural acidity and balance.  For Washington that diurnal swing is a forty degree shift.  Washington also has strong winds which stress and toughen the grape skins, amplifying the tannins in the wine.  Relatedly Washington is a dry growing environment whereas California often has to contend with rains at harvest time.  The thin skinned California Merlot grapes then tend to plump up with water at the worst possible time.  Lastly, Washington's basalt-rich soils work just fine for Merlot roots, thank you very much.

So what have we learned here?  The finished product from Washington State is a complex, well-balanced, highly extracted, aromatic and spicy wine that combines new world ripe, forward fruit with old world structure and acidity, making the wine world class at a level most Californians cannot reach.  Moreover Washington Merlot achieves at every price point, a startling contrast to the California plonk. 

Recently Januik Columbia Valley Washington Merlot ($25/btl) became available to us for the first time and rarely has a wine evoked an instant public reaction like this one has.  Mike Januik is a thirty year Washington winemaking veteran with ten years at Chateau Ste Michelle where he made the first ever single vineyard designated red wine with his 1991 Indian Hills Merlot.  He is another example of the advantage personal history in winemaking is affording industry veterans, i.e., he knows where to source his fruit.  Stop in and try Januik and taste Peirano Estate wines with us here on Friday.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


The 2011 Petraio Pinot Grigio was a last minute addition to the tasting lineup last night and it turned out to be very popular indeed.  The wine was simple in style: straw color, light and refreshing in taste, apple blossom and peach in the nose, and light herbs at the finish.  This 100% Pinot Grigio sourced from Umbria is summer wine, pure and simple.

Umbria is a place that pops up frequently in conversations around here.  Most people who travel to the region love the people, culture, and topography.  Towns like Assisi and Orvieto are representative of the church and Italian white wine in casual conversation and along with Perugia, the capitol, form a three-fold picture postcard urging the viewer to come to Italy and become immersed in the history and culture of the place.

Lake Trasimeno and the Tiber River are the only water sources in this landlocked region, the only such place in Italy that doesn't also have a border with another country.  Umbria is actually bordered by Tuscany to the west, Marche on the east, and Lazio to the south.  The topography is rolling hills with fertile plains.  The lake helps to moderate the temperatures of the region and the river along with the tufo (volcanic) soil together account for the fertility there.  The colli (hills) of Umbria are actually the Apennine Mountains and the vineyards are situated on terraces on the hillsides.

Two fine large wine concerns are located in Umbria: Lungarotti and Falesco but the production overall is actually quite small.  Umbria is the fourth smallest wine production region in Italy, having only a third of the production of neighboring Tuscany.  There are only two DOCG wines (both reds) from Umbria: Montefalco Sagrantino and Torgiano Rosso Riserva.  Only 17% of Umbrian wine production ranks DOC or better and 60% of the total production is white wine.

We have written about Valpolicella three times here and one of our observations was that industrial wine production downgrades the artisanal production of others, demeaning the identity of the product now being mass produced.  That may be the case here too.  Orvieto is the horse driving the Umbrian wine cart and it has been industrially produced for decades.  Wine consultants and investment money are now coming into Umbria to restore that product to its original quality and to improve wine quality there in general.  Currently Umbrian wines sell for a fraction of Tuscan prices.  That would change, of course, with a renewed emphasis on quality. 

Also on the table last night was Masseria Li Veli 2011 Verdeca, an amazing white wine from Puglia, the heel of the boot.  While I knew the wine was good, shamefully I didn't know what it was.  At www.liveli.it I learned Verdeca is the name of the grape making up this varietal wine along with 10% Fiano Minutolo.  It turns out Liveli is a unique company that makes wines solely from ancient Apulian grape varieties!  Go to their website if you are curious to learn more.

Next Friday, June 28th, we will be tasting a couple of California Chardonnays and some combination of new world reds.  Please join us and become a follower of this blog because at the end of the year we're all going to get together for cake and ice cream!    

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Butterkase and Centerpiece Cheeses

Later this week we will be restocked with German Butterkase (butter-kay-seh), one of our most popular cheeses.  It is a mild, semi-soft, somewhat salty cow's milk cheese from Landhaus, Germany.  While I am sure the buttery flavor of the cheese accounts for its popularity, its texture may be part of it too.  That texture varies from smooth and creamy to even smoother and creamier.  My research indicates some versions are almost spreadable.

The primary application for Butterkase, again according to my research, would be sliced on a sandwich with a glass of beer.  This cheese, however, would also work just fine on crackers with a glass of red wine, which leads me to the subject of cheese trays and the place of cheeses like Butterkase on them.  With a tray it is always nice to use a crowd pleaser like Butterkase as an economical centerpiece.  That kind of predictably popular cheese will always be the one that is disproportionally depleted during an event for the same reason some of us will reach into a bag of salted peanuts until there are no more.  It's just that good.

So by digging into the cheese tray in this manner one could say we are centered on that cheese that draws our attention, be it Butterkase, Cheddar, Brick, Swiss, Gouda or whatever the tray maker uses to fill a tray.  While familiarity often draws us to that cheese, the actual centerpiece on the tray is the one that draws our visual attention, the focal point.  Here are ten cheeses we have sold that would be great centerpieces on a tray.  Lets do this like a Letterman Top Ten List.

10.  Gjetost - Small brown carmelized brick that hails from Norway.  Made from goat and cow milk and served for breakfast or dessert in Europe.  This one is noticeably sweet.

9.   Any Sweet Grass Dairy (Georgia) goat cheese or other small cone or pyramid shaped soft cheese that looks unique.

8.   Ripe Pepper Brie that shows the black pepper and oozing in its presentation.

7.   Morbier - French soft ripening, natural rind cow cheese with ash line in the middle.  It's that line that draws the eye to it but natural rind soft cheeses in general work if they bulge like the Brie above.

6.   Red Dragon - Welsh semi-soft cow cheese with mustard seed and ale.  The red wax cover draws the attention and the mustard flavor keeps it.

5.   Sage Derby - British cow cheese with sage.  The green marbled cheese color and sage flavor are the draw here like the Red Dragon above.

4.   Fruit flavored Stiltons - Again the colors attract you and these sweet cheeses are almost like cheesecake.

3.   Rosey Goat - Semi-hard Spanish Goat Cheese encrusted with rosemary.

2.  Fratelli Putzula Pecorino Pienza -  It's coming in this week with the Butterkase.  2 1/2 # black rind ball with leaves and it comes in a basket!

1.  Stilton or any blue cheese.  If I was an artist and I wanted to paint cheese, I would paint blue cheese.

This Friday from 5 to 7pm we will be tasting: New Harbor New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma Hills California Chardonnay, Sterling Carneros Pinot Noir, Rosenbloom Paso Robles Zinfandel, Navarro Correas Malbec, and Jade Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.  Please join us.

If you choose to become a follower of this blog, no one would fault you.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

2011 Tin Barn Gilsson Vineyard Zinfandel

I am not a Zinfandel guy.  I prefer long, lean flavors with a complimentary acidity and usually a European zipcode.  It's who I am.  Typical Zinfandel jamminess is just the opposite of what I like.

Last night at the store we had a great tasting led by the inimitable Henry Leung of Hemispheres Global Wines.  Five of the six wines on the table were California in origin and the five of the six that I tasted were all very good.  The one that I didn't taste last night was the Zinfandel.  What's the point, right?

Three of last night's wines sold noticeably better than the other three.  The Jocelyn Lonen Napa Cabernet sold particularly well as did the Cattin Alsatian Pinot Blanc, but also the Zinfandel did equally well and I regretted I hadn't tasted it.

I stayed here late last night muttering under my breath as I cleaned up the mess from the party before weathering the monsoon on my ride home.  This morning upon entering the store I sighed at the open bottle of Zinfandel left in a location where it never should have been.  So I capped it, pumped it, and set it aside with unrealistic hopes that it might still be okay.  Expecting the worst, I tasted it in the middle of the afternoon.   M-m-m, that's good Zin.

I have never had a problem with the basic Zinfandel flavor, which unfortunately is all you get with a lot of them.  It's always nice though when that flavor opens up like an accordian and its intrinsic complexity becomes the order of the day and that's what I got with this one.  One review I read said, "raspberry, blackberry, and plum, with baking spices, and vanilla on the finish".   That sounds good but I would add black pepper, I would think. 

A final tasting comment on the wine:  the 15.5% alcohol did not make the wine "hot" like it sometimes does but unfortunately I did get a little of that overly ripe, stewed fruit taste which I don't appreciate.  Oh well.

Gilsson Vineyard, by the way, is in the Russian River Valley AVA.  This appellation is known for it's size (20% of Sonoma County) and the quality of it's mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production.  Gilsson Vineyard, however, is Zinfandel and V. Sattui is it's main customer.  The vines are forty years old and resting in a mostly sandy soil.  The appellation is defined by its foggy forenoons caused by ocean breezes which serve to moderate the temperatures.

Personal Note:  I spent a wonderful day in the Russian River Valley countryside with my father back in 1977.  I get wistful sometimes.  It's Father's Day.  (Thanks, Dad)

Genetic testing in the 1990s has confirmed that California Zinfandel is actually Italian Primitivo.  Italian Primitivo, however, has now been shown to actually be Croatian Tribidrag, or something like that.  Life is great.

Hey, sign on as a follower of this blog so I might one day be rich and famous.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Frank Schoonmaker

We watched "To Catch a Thief" last weekend.  The 1955 Hitchcock film told the story of the fictitious John Robie (Cary Grant) who was a vineyard owner in post-World War II France trying to live down his past as a jewel-thieving cat burglar.  Before that he was a resistance fighter for France in the war.  It got me thinking about Frank Schoonmaker, one of the giants of the twentieth century wine industry and a war hero in his own right.

Some chronology may be helpful first: World War I lasted from 1914-1918; World War II, from 1939-1945; and American Prohibition, from 1920-1933.

Schoonmaker was born in 1905 South Dakota but lived most of his early life on the east coast in the general vicinity of New York City.  His father was a writer employed by the federal government. Young Frank was raised in a multi-lingual Dutch-American home.  After high school he went to Princeton where after two years there he informed his family that he was going to Europe to travel (and live the bohemian life).  Young Frank was a natural writer like his father and kept a journal which he turned into several travel guides published in America at a time when there were few if any available.

In his early travels Frank met Raymond Baudoun, a French wine writer who introduced him to the industry, particularly Burgundy where Frank met the individuals behind the huge negotiant wine companies.  Europe at the time was beset by economic problems on two fronts: the cost of World War I and the loss of American markets for alcoholic beverages caused by Prohibition.  Knowing what he did about Prohibition Era America, the young Frank Schoonmaker in Europe determined that the noble experiment was going to fail and he was determined to capitalize on the repeal.  His next publication would be "The Complete Wine Book" scheduled for release just prior to repeal.

Schoonmaker, using his contacts in Burgundy and elsewhere, also planned his "Frank Schoonmaker Selections" importing company which he incorporated upon returning to America before opening his second front in the war for the future wine business in America.  This time Frank went to California and approached Wente, Concannon, Almaden, and others selling himself as a consultant capable of increasing their sales with just a few marketing adjustments and ultimately as someone who could greatly increase their sales by representing them with his company.

In his employ at the time was Alexis Lichine, another giant of the twentieth century who happened to have a biography very similar to Schoonmaker's.  It is believed Lichine was more of the salesman while Schoonmacher was the businessman.  Between the two of them they embellished wine labels with additional verbiage to attract what was anticipated to be a more sophisticated public and they coined the word "varietal" to describe the new wines they were marketing.  It is hard to imagine now but Americans of this era were an unsophisticated lot not just because of the lost time during Prohibition but because liquor was the alcoholic beverage of choice before Prohibition. 

Frank Schoonmaker Part 2

Frank Schoonmaker never went to business school.  He never studied winemaking.  He never finished college.  He was never even in business before forming his own company.  Instead of becoming a giant in his field and the most important figure in the wine industry for a generation, he should have fallen on his face.  Instead, because of his strongly inquisitive personality he taught himself how things should be done and then hired competent people to do them.

In 1964 "Frank Schoonmaker's Encyclopedia of Wine" was published and it along with Hugh Johnson's "World Atlas of Wine" formed the go-to tandem for inquisitive young wine guys like me in the 1970s.  The encyclopedia was an enlarged version of Schoonmaker's "Complete Wine Book" from forty years earlier with the entire volume done solely by Schoonmaker.  It has been revised many times since then by different editors.

So we started by talking about Frank Schoonmaker, the war hero.  In the late 1930s Schoonmaker was approached by officers of the OSS and he agreed to write reports detailing what he knew of German troop positioning in western Europe.  He became a secret agent.  Schoonmaker was ostensibly traveling in Europe anyway writing and practicing his wine business and because he was stationed in Spain he could mail reports to America from there more safely than elsewhere.  Some of those reports became crucial in isolating German positions before the allies landed in southern Europe.   After the war Schoonmaker was known affectionately as "le Colonel" in France, the rank he was awarded by our military after the war.

In 1975 Frank Schoonmaker Selections was liquidated after changing hands a few times between liquor and food conglomerates.  Its final incarnation was as the representative of Souverain and Rutherford Hill wineries under the misguided ownership of Pillsbury.  Frank Schoonmaker died in 1976.

Edward Kirsch is a retired wine salesman who lives here in North Hall County.  He also happens to be one who was fortunate enough to be included on one of Frank Schoonmaker's European excursions as a young man.  He would attest to the strength of Mr. Schoonmaker's all-business personality.

Please join us here on Friday the 14th from 5 to 7pm, when Henry Leung on Hemispheres Global Wines joins us with a tasting of two whites and four reds, one European and five California wines, accompanied by Henry's excellent commentary.

Become a "follower" here if you would like.  You don't have to, but it would be nice.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Castilla-La Mancha Part 2 (scroll back for Part 1)

Both Lodi in California and Languedoc in France along with other bulk wine production regions around the world have been pigeonholed as second rate producers historically.  Castilla-La Mancha also.  But whereas investment money pours into these kinds of places with great regularity, the goal here seems to be production work without aspirations for grandeur.  Coorespondingly, almost all of the Manchego cheese of the region is industrially produced with artisanal output existing on the margins.  The well-made wines of Castilla-La Mancha are all very international in style with fresh crisp fruity whites, roses, and reds along with more complex yet commercially styled reds also. 

The blended red wines of Castilla-La Mancha are considered to be the best quality wines of the region.  The grapes used in these include some combination of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Garnacha, Alicante Boushet, Monastrell, Syrah, and Bobal.  Protocolo red is however 100% Tempranillo; the rose is 50% Tempranillo and 50% Bobal; the white is 60% Airen and 40% Macabeo.  Until the rose surpassed it in this store this year, the red has always been the best seller.  The production of the rose includes a 24 hour cold soak maceration at 16 degrees centigrade, a process we wrote about in Part 3 of the Rose series immediately preceding this one.

In that series we listed all of the foods rose wines compliment.  Here's one we forgot: Mexican cuisine.  When we started reading up on Spanish food pairings we were dumbfounded by just how food-friendly Spanish wines are.  Go to www.worldsofflavorspain.com if you want to see for yourself.  Basically, any nightmarish food/wine pairing dilemma can be overcome using Spanish wine and lets credit the noble history and culture of the Spanish people for this one.

On Friday June 14th from 5 to 7pm, Henry Leung of Hemispheres Global Wines will educate us on his latest smorgasbord of fine California and European wines.  Please join us for what is always a fascinating experience with one of the industry's best.  And become a "follower" of this blog.  It won't hurt you to participate in this way.

Castilla-La Mancha

Castilla-La Mancha is a 30,000 square mile autonomous community in the middle of the Iberian penninsula of Spain.  The region constitutes 15.7% of Spain's total land mass.  It is a vast plateau with elevations from 1650-2300 feet above sealevel.  The environment is both harsh climate-wise and bleak because of its winds and lack of precipitation. Consequently this least-populated region of Spain is occupied by only two million people representing only 4.4% of Spain's total population.

The Spanish constitution of 1978 guarantees autonomy to nationalities, cultures, and traditions that historically embody a community's sense of identity.  Autonomous communities are entitled to self-rule making Spain not a federation but a highly decentralized unitary state.  Castilla-La Mancha is one of seventeen such communities in Spain along with two autonomous cities.  The hyphen in the regional name signifies a bridging between two distinct communities that were united in the constitution.

So why are we interested in this place?  Of course our business being wine and cheese probably explains everything.  Manchego cheese, as identified with Spain as Parmesan with Italy and Stilton with England, comes from Castilla-La Mancha and Protocolo, one of our best selling wine brands, hails from there also.  For that matter 15% of Spain's olive oil production comes from Castilla-La Mancha so naturally, cubed Manchego in olive oil would be another product we love to sell and for all of you who tilt at windmills in your lives, Don Quixote also came from there!

Prior to Spain joining the European Economic Community in 1986, Castilla-La Mancha was known for bulk wine and brandy production.  As we have seen elsewhere in Europe, after admittance to the club, modernization of industry soon follows.  The modern wine industry, mostly located west and southwest of La Mancha, now produces three million metric tons of grapes, a whopping 53% of Spain's total production.  While this is similar to the production of Languedoc in France and Lodi in California the pretense of each is not in evidence here. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Mischaracterization and misunderstanding may be the best explanation for the current status of rose wines in America.  From the early eighties until the late nineties, rose sales were large in the form of White Zinfandel and Blush wines.  These pleasant cocktail wines unfortunately damaged the trajectory of our budding native wine culture by sidetracking our curiosity in other new wine tastes in favor of the sweet pink stuff.  And the sweet pink stuff, pleasant as it was, was a far cry from what the category actually represented.

Roses, in all likelihood, are amongst the oldest of wines.  If wine originally was made from the stomping or squeezing of grapes, the color that we recognize in red wine today would have been much paler.  Our reds today are the result of an extended period of maceration of grapes leeching phenolics including flavors, tannins, and coloring agents from the skins, seeds, and stems.  The maceration period of grapes in winemaking  is actually a soaking of the grapeskins in the must thereby forming polymeric pigments in the must.  Roses are made by a number of methods all of which cut short the lengthy process used to make red wines.

If the truth be known, reds from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and all of the great production regions of Europe were all lighter colored in earlier times.  We have blogged about Ripasso Valpolicella, a wine created in the 1950s using the skins of Valpolicella grapes a second time to make a richer red wine than traditional Valpolicella.  On April 27th of this year we blogged about Amarone, the great wine made from dried Valpolicella grapes further concentrating the flavors and colors in the wine.  In that blog we discovered that Amarone was created accidentally when the light sweet and slightly frizzante Recioto wine was allowed to ferment too long, more evidence of the transition to darker red wines.

The great British wine expert, Hugh Johnson, wrote that in the middle ages the Bordeaux that the British loved was rose with the red wine of the times being considered to be inferior.  Conversely, Champagne used to be thoroughly pink in olden times before white became fashionable.  In current wine tastings in which tasters are poured wines in black glasses so they can't distinguish color, roses are usually the most popular.

Rose, Part 2

White Zinfandel was not the first rose to become exceedingly popular in the modern era.  GIs returning home from Europe after World War II had developed a taste for European wines including roses.  Wine companies in Portugal took advantage and marketed Mateus and Lancers Rose here with great success until they were killed off by the White Zin craze. 

White Zinfandel and the generic blush category were a noticeably sweet 2.5% residual sugar which coincided time-wise with a youthful wine culture generationally raised on soft drinks.  Packaging of these wines also reflected an immature culture with small four packs of the wines merchandised in stores with another hot category of the times the wine cooler which ironically was usually malt-based...so these were not serious products.  Now White Zinfandel has finally fallen in popularity with the rise of drier roses.  For even more White Zin irony consider this:  White Zinfandel's popularity probably saved a lot of old Zinfandel vines that were slated to be uprooted for Merlot, Cabernet, and other vines that could be more commercially viable twenty-five years ago.  Those old vine Zinfandels in the right hands today are proving to be quite delectable in their own right.

So essentially what is it that makes rose popular?  For those of us who view wine as food and a part of the dinner table, rose is the quintessential dinner wine, i.e., it goes with anything.  You have hot and spicy cuisine?  Garlicy Italian?  Barbecue?  Stews?  It's rose.  Any kind of salad?  Rose.  Surf and turf?  Rose goes with both.  Picnics?  Come on.

Now how about as a cocktail?  In the nose you may get aromas of grapefruit, banana, red currant, strawberry, raspberry, almond, cut hay, or linden.  Common rose flavors may include:  strawberry, raspberry, cherry, and maybe, citrus or watermelon.  What's not to like about that?

Rose, Part 3

One contribution the California wine industry and UC Davis Oenology have made to modern rose production is the cold soaking of grapes in a maceration at temperatures under 20 degrees centigrade.  This practice benefits aromas through ester formation and flavors by limiting microbial and oxidative actions in the fermentation process.  Roses from California, like many of their reds and whites, are light, fresh, and forward.  Cold soaking maceration has proven so successful it is now practiced in Europe and worldwide.

Traditionally rose has been made in three ways:

1.  The Saignee (bleeding) method uses the weight of the grapes in the tank to crush those at the bottom and that free run juice is used to make a pale rose.  99% of all grape juice is clear-to-gray.  This juice would just barely be pink. 

2.  The historic pressing method uses pressure to crush the grapes followed by up to three days of maceration.  The color of the juice is darker in this rose and that is the winemaker's marker for moving forward with fermentation.

3.   The blending method utilizes both red and white wines to make a rose.  This practice is not common in Europe except in Champagne where even Rose Champagnes include white wine.  In the new world White Zinfandel and other blushes often include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, or Muscat in small amounts.

Grenache (or Garnacha) is the historic great grape of rose in Europe.  The finest French rose comes from the Cotes du Rhone; the finest Spanish is from Navarre.  In both countries the Grenache grape is usually blended with the traditional companion blending grapes of its region with the end result being Grenache-based.

The premier rose of Europe is the Rhone's Tavel Rose with Provence, a much larger region dedicated to rose, being a close second.  Both regions require 60% Grenache in their blends.  The relative bargain in Rhone roses is from Lirac just north of Tavel.  The bargains in Spain, which may be producing the best roses in the world, are everywhere.

Tonight, Tuesday June 4th, from 5:30 to 7pm Jon Allen with Georgia Crown Distributing joins us for a tasting of Cabernets and Zinfandels from California.  We will taste Rockpile and Maggie's single vineyard Zinfandels from Rosenbloom and Sterling Reserve and Hewitt Napa Cabernets.  The wines range in price from $50 to $150/btl.  We ask for a $25 fee per person for this event which is applicable toward a $100 purchase.  On Friday of this week we will have our regular weekly tasting from 5 to 7pm.  One week later on June 14th, Henry Leung of Hemispheres Global Wines joins with his usual array of superior imported and domestic finery.  Please join us.

If you like the blog please become a "follower" so I won't feel like I'm so alone.  And thanks for reading.