Tuesday, March 25, 2014


I just watched the 2013 film documentary, Somm, about four guys who endure months of agony in pursuit of the Master Sommeliere credential.  The test is given once a year so you might as well say they endured for a year and since many contenders try repeatedly year after year, some of these masochists endure for years on end, all for the possibility of joining a worldwide fraternity of two hundred or so Master Sommelieres.

Before sitting down to write these reflections on what I thought was really a great film, I read a number of other reviews because frankly, this is my first film review and others' perspectives can't help but guide me.  Much to my dismay, most reviewers I read didn't seem to care for the film.  Interesting.  Being in the wine business for thirty-plus years, I felt there was plenty to criticize involving the subject matter, but as one who likes to enjoy a good flick, I thought writer/director Jason Wise did a fine job with this one.

The film shows how these contenders learn to taste and describe wines while concurrently studying the minutia of the wine industry, often one production region at a time.  I thought Mr. Wise set this out well.  Criticisms of others often concerned weakness in character and relationship development which I just thought wasn't the focus of Mr. Wise's test-centered endeavor.

What I did have a problem with was the placement of a wine rack in an apartment directly in sunlight; an anecdote about enjoying a great wine on a fishing boat (huh?); and using the wine descriptor, "smell of a freshly cut garden hose", which in fairness, is just the latest in a continuing stream of ridiculous wine descriptions.  But who doesn't know how to chill a bottle of wine fast?  And just how do these working guys afford all of the expensive wine they are tasting to prepare for the $2,000+ exam?  And then the biggest blunder of the film, the omission of anything involving food and wine pairings which actually happens to be WHAT A SOMMELIERE DOES!

I still liked the film though.  Much of it reminded me of studying sessions with fellow students (remember the flash cards?) and knowing that you had to know this stuff for the test but at the same time knowing you had to cut up a bit or you would go nuts.  In my formative years in the wine business, something similar went on with co-workers when we would open a bottle and learn from each other as we explored the subject more or less seriously.  As an admonition to film critics and wine snobs may I offer: When studying something, along with objectivity and scholarship, it is best to acknowledge others' perspectives while maintaining a spirit of fellowship.

This Friday at our weekly tasting session we will explore a Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti, Chardonnay, Malbec, and Spanish Garnacha.  Hey, become a follower here or I'll take that test and become elitist all over you.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Tale of Two Tastings

Last night at the weekly event here at the store we tasted three whites and four reds with the whites being light, simple summertime fare and the reds being some combination of the Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  The whites were delightful and actually sold better than the reds but they were also less than half the price of the reds and it's the reds I want to talk about here.

Our tasting lineups are often determined by what I have in the store when Friday rolls around and this time I had four wines in roughly the same price range all using some combination of the grapes listed above.  The 2009 Canoe Ridge Columbia Valley Merlot is 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 Testamento Mendoza, Argentina Red Blend is 50% Malbec and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2010 Stratton Lummis Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot while the 2011 Tower 15 "The Swell" Paso Robles Red Blend is all five grapes: 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 12% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot, and 10% Cabernet Franc.

Purely for objectivity, I decided to bag the wines up in brown paper with a prominant number 1, 2, 3, or 4 on each bag.  Our tasters last night were quite receptive to the plan and played along gamely.  Interestingly enough, there was more diversity in commentary about the wines than I would have expected with everyone expressing a fave other than what was chosen by others nearby.  That doesn't always happen  Often someone makes his declarations known and everyone else follows the leader.  At the end of the evening all four wines sold comparably well with the Argentine slightly outselling the others.

Our group of tasters last night was a vigorous one and at evening's end there was only a small amount left in each bottle.  Rather than waste my "Private Preserve" gas in each bottle, I combined the wines into one bottle.  I figured I was playing with historically proven blending grapes anyway, so what the heck.  I then gassed that bottle and put it away for today's business.  Nothing ventured, right?

Without giving away any of my winemaking trade secrets, I figure my proprietary blend ended up being about half Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% each of Merlot and Malbec, and 5% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it.  On Saturday three adhoc tasting groups tasted the wines from Friday and I was totally upfront about the red blend concoction I had assembled.  Two out of three liked the wine while the third thoroughly did not.  At the end of the day I tasted my blend and darned if it wasn't really good.  Sales results, by the way were about half of what I sold on Friday.  As these things go, that was good enough. 

I also got recommendations on Saturday to go public with my new wine.  Maybe I missed my calling...and maybe I should hire an agent.

Friday, March 14, 2014

2012 Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc+Viognier

I haven't tasted this wine.  I'm reporting on it because it's on the shelf here and, of course, I need to sell it but also because of my long history with Pine Ridge Vineyards.  The wine is in the store, by the way, because someone recently asked for Pine Ridge Chardonnay and upon quoting him a price and observing his telling sigh, I told him how good the Chenin/Viognier was for about a third of the Chardonnay price.  That is sometimes the way things happen here.

Pine Ridge Vineyards was founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 about the same time I took my first wine job while studying in northern California.  I didn't taste Pine Ridge wines until sometime in the early eighties and for my naive palate, they instantly became amongst my faves up to that point.  Pine Ridge is known for Cabernet Sauvignon in particular but also for red Bordeaux or Meritage blends in general.  Pine Ridge is also known for its location in the Stag's Leap District of Napa Valley and yes, there is a ridge of pine trees adjacent to the vineyard.

The 2012 Chenin/Viognier blend is 80% Chenin Blanc and 20% Viognier and according to their website features jasmine, honeyed pears, and chai spice in the nose and tropical fruit primarily in the mouth although finishing with white peaches, pineapple, and citrus.  This wine experiences no time in oak so that finish is fresh, crisp, and clean.  Other reviews report aromas and flavors of grapefruit, mango, perfume, honeydew melon, candied pineapple, spring flowers, and cantaloupe.  Some reviewers consider this wine to be off-dry; most use adjectives like crisp and elegant to describe its basic dryness.  Every review scores this wine highly.

Pine Ridge Chenin/Viognier is a refreshingly low 12% alcohol with a medium body and good zesty acidity making it a perfect cocktail wine.  Food pairings would include salads and seafood in general but also spicy dishes, including sushi and Asian dishes, and this wine may be one of the few to tackle curry successfully.

So here's a new installment echoing a recurring theme in this blog: the modern California wine industry illustrates in cases like Pine Ridge just how a wine may evolve based on history and good business sense.  Mr. Andrus originally planted Chenin Blanc in his Pine Ridge estate vineyards back in '78 and bottled his Napa varietal Chenin Blanc through the 1980s.  It was amazingly good.  Then, one would assume because Napa land had become so expensive, growing Chenin Blanc grapes there became impractical so those rows were replanted in Cabernet and other Meritage grapes.

The Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc is now sourced from Clarkesburg in the Sacramento River basin where the loamy, mineral-rich soil optimally nourishes vine roots while the diurnal effect of hot days and cool nights accentuates the acidity of the grapes and hastens the ripening process.  The tropical fruit flavors, however, come from the Viognier sourced a little further south and west in Lodi.  As beneficial as Clarkesburg is to Chenin Blanc, Lodi is similarly to Viognier, and that kind of insightful knowledge is learned over time.  The Chenin Blanc is harvested early for acidity; the Viognier, later for rich, ripe fruit and that's how this game is played.

Please join us here this evening (5-8pm) when Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock Distributing presents the wines of Chilcas, a certified organic producer in the Maipo Valley of Chile.  We will be tasting five reds and a Sauvignon Blanc priced between $12.99 and $50/btl.  Please join us and for gosh sakes become a follower of this blog.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tomme de Savoie

Tomme de Savoie (TUM-day-sah-VWAH) is an unassuming rustic semi-firm farmhouse cheese from the French Rhone Alps.  A tomme is a small round cheese; in this case, seven inches across, two to three inches tall, and three and a half pounds in weight. Savoie refers to the region of origin.  If you access a map, the actual region of production is near the town of Chambery within the Savoie department where, being a farmhouse cheese, it is mostly produced on mountain farms (fermier) in the region.  A farmhouse cheese may coorelate to an estate-bottled wine since it is all produced on one property and that usually results in a superior product.  What we get in this country, however, comes from large cooperatives (frutieres) sometimes run by an alliance of farmers. 

The breed of mountain cow milked to make the cheese is called Abondance and Tomme de Savoie is a by-product of other stronger cheese or butter making.  Tomme de Savoie is made with the lower fat (2-2.5% butter fat) raw milk left over after the creamier stuff is skimmed for the other purposes.  Abondance cows are milked year round with a noticable difference in the end result cheese depending on the season.  In the summer the cows dine on fresh grass; in the winter, dry hay. 

So what makes Tomme de Savoie worth our interest here?  Like an estate-bottled wine, this cheese exudes complexity in its taste related to and within the parameters of its earthy, rustic appearance.  Tomme de Savoie has a thick brown-gray rind which may be mottled with other bacteria-affected colors and that appearance screams "artisan" to even the casual observer.  Inside, the cheese is a pale yellow ivory paste with irregular "eyes" throughout.

Coming from the Rhone one would expect this cheese to complement the wines of the region and this one does but in a way perhaps not expected.  Being a mild skim milk cheese, Tomme de Savoie doesn't possess the characteristic wininess of some centerpiece cheeses.  What it does possess is a panoply of complex aromas and flavors that include: grass, nuts, mushrooms, wet straw, and dried fruit and vegetables, all of which are shrouded in the rustic earthiness of its appearance.  Some say the odors of the cave even accompany the cheese to the table even as it remains mild, soft, and fruity.

While Rhone red wines optimally pair with Tomme de Savoie, the diversity of flavors in this cheese profile make it a suitable companion for many choices including the Chilean Chardonnay on our tasting table today.  Aside from wine, Tomme de Savoie pairs well with sausages, fruits, and breads, not the least of which would be a crusty French baguette.

Amongst the many websites researched for this article, cheesemaking.com was by far the best of the lot and we recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about cheese.

This Friday's wine tasting will feature new world wines for a change.  Eagle Rock Distributing is scheduled for the evening and they have new Chileans that are frankly just outstanding!  Please join us for that one.  These wines are special.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Casarsa Pinot Noir

Can we talk?  You and I both know that cheap red jug wines are not actually good wine but sometimes they're all you need with your burger, cold cuts, or whatever.  That's just reality, right?

Flash back thirty years or so ago when "Ziggy" was a pretty good comic strip about a little round-headed loser who couldn't catch a break in any one of its one-frame installments.  One of my favorites depicted Ziggy sitting at a white table cloth restaurant with his meal before him and the snotty waiter filling his glass and sneering, "This should be perfect with your corned beef hash, Sir."  My response, if it was me, would be, "Yes, it should be fine, thank you.  Now get out of my face."  But I digress...

So the title of this post is Casarsa Pinot Noir, a cheap red Italian jug wine, we have been selling enthusiastically and with great success this year.  Why?  Because it's good, even though we just said above that such wines are not actually good.  This now goes to the subject of Pinot Noir and how an inferior jug red can actually be good because it is Pinot Noir, which is oh so counterintuitive because everyone knows you have to spend big bucks to get really good Pinot.  And if we haven't hopelessly confused you with this subject by now then let's daringly move forward.

Pinot Noir is really a wine wholly different from all others.  All other international wine varieties are mass marketed after a model that the market has established as the paradigm for all others.  So if you pick up a Cabernet from your local merchant, you expect to enjoy that familiar Cabernet-like flavor.  Zinfandel, the same.  Merlot. Whatever.  Pinot Noir though is different.  If what you notice with your first swig of a new Pinot is that it tastes like Pinot Noir, that should leave you wanting more.  Tasting like the grape variety the wine is made from is just not good enough with Pinot Noir.  You see, good Pinot Noir improves in the glass and not only is that a rare feat for other types, but within the category, few Pinots actually accomplish the kind of transcendence we're talking about...which makes it a very frustrating wine to enjoy indeed.

It's kind of like a Thelonious Monk jazz number.  Monk would construct a piece around a mere fragment of a melody and then dissolve that melody collaboratively through improvisations with his supporting musicians into something wholly other.  Pinot is capable of a similar kind of magic...but, in reality, rarely.  Casarsa is actually a pretty basic red jug wine but with a caveat: the wine improves just enough in the glass to make a wine newby rethink what wine enjoyment is actually all about...and enough to remind an old codger why we got into this pursuit in the first place. 

This Friday between 5 and 8pm, Ted Fields of Domaine Wine Distributors will pour tastes of his fine Italian and French portfolio as his business partner, Chef Andrew Tokas, mans the cheese table, pairing each wine with the appropriate cheese.  Please join us for that special event.  And, for gosh sakes, become a follower of this blog so I don't end up having to live under a bridge someplace. (That didn't make sense, I know.)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

2012 Espelt Garnacha, Part 2

In my last post on this subject, I actually never said anything specifically about the 2012 Espelt Garnacha currently in the store.  Let's correct that now.  The nose is dark berries, bitter chocolate, black pepper, and smoke.  The color is an inky ruby.  On the palate the wine is juicy and sweet with a chewy texture with pungent blackberry and blueberry flavors.  After being open a while licorice and minerality emerge.  All of the above descriptors are from Stephen Tanzer who, along with Robert Parker, grade this wine 90 points.

Parker, by the way, cites black fruit, kirsch, lavender, and strawberry in the flavor profile and notes that in the mouth the wine is medium bodied yet dense, rich, and round and finishes smoothly and softly.  Parker recommends it with meats, pasta, and Cheddar(?) and Manchego cheeses; Tanzer just says rich foods.  Parker says to enjoy this wine in the next two to three years.

I also found a Spanish vintage chart that declared the 2012 vintage in Emporda to be "very good" like most vintages through the years in that part of the country.  Only five vintages since 1970 were graded "excellent" according to that chart.

The 2012 Espelt Garnacha is 100% "Old Vine" Garnacha which is aged 3-4 months in new French oak before release.  On 8/24/13 we blogged about Garnacha/Grenache if you want to know more about the grape.

The Espelt vineyards were planted in 1920 in the province of Girona in the Emporda D.O. The soil is sand and gravel from decomposed granite located one mile from the Mediterranean Sea.  60% of Emporda wines are full-bodied, well-structured reds made from Garnacha, Tempranillo, and Monastrell; 20% are whites; 16% are roses; and 4% are dessert wines.  Half of the wine produced is bottled for export and half is sold locally in bulk.

Today Espelt Garnacha is a very special value in red wine but it wasn't always so.  The Emporda D.O. was established in 1972 but that was an optimistic governmental stamp of approval.  For most of the twentieth century Catalonian wines in general were made in large cooperatives and sold cheaply in bulk.  It wasn't until the late 1990's that investment money poured into the region funding the craft winery/bodega revolution that created the modern Espelt and others.

On Friday March 7th between 5 and 8pm, Ted Field of Domaine Wine Distributors will be here with more Europeans for us to try.  Moreover, Chef Andrew Tokas, friend and business associate of Mr. Fields, will man the cheese table, making sure the right cheese will be there for each wine.  Please join us for that special event.   And for gosh sakes, become a follower of this blog.  Don't you know how popular this thing is!?