Saturday, October 8, 2016

Chateau de Jarnioux Beaujolais

This is a particularly nice little bottle of Beaujolais that starts off with strawberry and candy on the nose.  It is refreshingly soft, smooth, and round in the mouth with juicy red and blackberry flavors replete with pepper and spice notes all of which seems more forward than one might expect from this kind of wine.  Even its finish seems forward while still moderately long, much like the flavors on the palate, a both/and meeting of new and old world styles.  The color of the wine is an intense ruby red.

Maison Albert Bichot is the producer of this little gem and they advertise a partnership of winemakers in their employ which one would think should include their vineyard workers.  They not only maintain a palissage canopy season long but also hand harvest the grapes prior to vinification beaujolais, the carbonic maceration which precedes the regular alcoholic fermentation.  In this "beaujolais process" the grapes (still in bunches) are dropped into fermentation tanks without yeast or pressing allowing the weight of the grapes to crush those on the bottom releasing CO2 from the natural yeasts on the grape skins.  This "intracellular soak" creates more fruity flavors before the ten day traditional alcoholic fermentation which gives the wine its color, structure, and alcohol.  All of the above attributes are then enhanced by months of aging in both steel and oak barrels; the steel reinforcing the fresh fruitiness, the oak adding to the structure and spicy complexity.

The wine label's cover art depicts a castle which is the Church of St-Martin in the Village of Jarnioux in the middle of the Beaujolais region.  The village actually lies within the smaller Beaujolais Villages district but since this wine is just designated as Beaujolais, some fruit is sourced from outside of the esteemed area.  The church is a good story though.  It was first built in 889AD but has been restored and added on to in the 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 18th centuries.  It is a spectacular yellow-ish edifice, complete with fortifications, grand staircase and dungeons, constructed using local limestone that is tinted with iron oxide.

On Thursday November 17th we will be featuring the first new vintage of the year, the 2016 Nouveau Beaujolais.  This is a light fruity red that serves as an indicator for the overall quality of the Burgundy vintage.  If the Nouveau is good then get ready to open your pocketbook when the great Burgundies are released.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Chianti, Part 2 -The Fork in the Road

The previous post discussed the gradual evolution of Chianti from being a light, dry red for mass market consumption to being a more modern and sophisticated dinner wine.  Knowing what they were capable of producing, the winemakers of Tuscany drove industry improvements for the past thirty years to the point where the new and improved Chianti could properly reflect its Tuscan calling.

Yet in Lettie Teague's February 17th WSJ article, "Chianti's Struggle To Shed Its Dusty, Banal Image", the claim is made that there is now trouble in paradise.  Part of the problem may be seen as generational as we alluded to in the previous post.  But part of the problem may be due to the dilution of quality by over-expanding the Chianti appellation with accompanying lackluster quality standards for this seriously mass-marketed product.  If the truth be known, the Chianti situation may be emblematic of the contemporary wine industry as a whole.

So the fork in the road would seem to be whether to further define Chianti as one of the finer wines of Tuscany or whether to revert to its historical past as a blue collar food wine.  Actually the situation is and always has been a both/and reality.  Chianti has always included the pedigreed sub-regions.  Today they are named Classico, Colli Aretini, Colli Fiorentini, Colline Pisane, Montalbano, Colli Senesi, Rufina, and Montespertoli.  In fact, Classico is the original Chianti, the single oldest recognized wine region in the world.  But Chianti has also included as much surrounding vineyard land as needed to provide for everyone's dinner needs.  Today, Chianti can basically be sourced from anywhere in Tuscany.

According to Teague, those invested in the Classico region want to subdivide that prime area into generally acknowledged sub-districts differentiated by soils and terroirs and she has no problem with that.  The consumer of higher quality Chianti would then know what style of wine they would be getting.  As for the mass marketers of the rest of Chianti, there is but one solution - advertise!  After all, we're talking about the best all-purpose red dinner wine there is!  Sell it!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Chianti, Part 1 - Not Your Father's Oldsmobile

(For younger readers, that Oldsmobile reference in the title recalls an auto industry sales pitch to younger drivers who had categorized Oldsmobiles as an older person's car.  Since Oldsmobiles no longer exist I guess the ad campaign had limited success.)

The earliest written references to Chianti date to the thirteenth century.  In the mid-eighteenth century the wine was codified by Baron Ricosoli to be a red wine blend of 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo, and 15% Malvasia and that's the way things were for well over a hundred years.  The twentieth century became an evolving proving ground for Chianti as those blending proportions gradually changed with Sangiovese increasing its presence in the blend and the white Malvasia decreasing until today most Chianti is a single-varietal Sangiovese. may be a blend of four dozen grapes!   Leave it to the Italians to change their wine industry laws from already-confusing to even more so!  Legally, today Chianti must be at least eighty percent Sangiovese with Canaiolo being the secondary varietal with five percent of the blend being reserved for "other" grapes.  Up to four dozen!  But no white grapes are allowed anymore.

To understand this evolution we have to go back to the late nineteenth century when the Phylloxera epidemic basically destroyed all vineyards in Italy.  With the industry in shambles, emigration ensued with vineyard workers and winemakers moving to new world environs around the world.  As the Italian wine industry re-planted with a lower labor force, it was the higher yielding Sangiovese clones that they chose to use.  Basically,  mass marketing had come to Italy and the Chianti our World War II GI's came to love over there was that lighter, simpler variety of wine.

So when those guys returned home after the war that was the wine they wanted and in 1967 when Italy created its DOC standards for Chianti, that was what was codified.  That standard stood for a mere fifteen years though before Tuscan winemakers could tolerate the mediocrity no longer and defying convention, threw the rule book out the window and made world class wine with Bordeaux grapes integrated into the mix.  These "Super Tuscan" wines forced the bureaucrats to amend rules that no longer made sense. Not only would the new Super Tuscans be written into the appellation system (Reserve Chianti?) but Chianti, itself, would be improved.

Through it all, whatever style of Chianti has been presented to the American consumer, the wine has continued to be the most popular import on our store shelves.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Monte Rosso Vineyard

I don't know how I got started on this one since I don't even have any Monte Rosso Vineyard wines in the store.  I guess I must have read about it and got curious.  Anyway here's what I learned...

The Monte Rosso Vineyard is a 350 acre plot located at 1,200 feet altitude in the western facing Mayacamas mountains of Sonoma Valley.  It was first planted in the 1880's meaning the labor was backbreaking for man and beast alike and as we know from earlier studies, the Phylloxera menace was just ahead and poised to undo whatever planting was just accomplished.  So after replanting (post-Phylloxera), the vineyard produced well under a couple different names before Louis Martini bought the property in 1938.  It was Martini who dubbed it Monte Rosso for its iron and potassium-rich volcanic mountain soils.

Martini had been purchasing fruit from the vineyard owners for years before his 1938 purchase and shrewd Italian immigrant that he was, he recognized the indelible terroir stamp the produce showed.  To this day it is said no matter what the grape variety in the wine, the Monte Rosso terroir shows through.  One wine industry insider claims he's not sure he can always distinguish Monte Rosso Cabernet from Zinfandel so much as he can taste Monte Rosso terroir in the wine!

I just remembered why I decided to read up on Monte Rosso.  I read somewhere that it is supposed to be the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma and that makes sense given its location.  Monte Rosso is on the other side of the mountain (and county line) from Mt. Veeder of Napa.

As of 2013, Monte Rosso is also recognized as being a part of the new Moon Mountain AVA (American Viticultural Area) which boasts the best Bordeaux grapes in the county.  The appellation's Cabernet Sauvignon of course is the best variety with black olive, anise, lavender, blackberry, coffee, and cocoa all in evidence.  Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Merlot all exhibit dark fruit minimally and in some cases, berries showing a tannic inky consistency.

More than twenty wineries market wines sourced from Monte Rosso Vineyard.  In 2002 Gallo purchased Louis Martini and they market several of those labels with Monte Rosso fruit.  More than forty wineries now call the Moon Mountain AVA home.    

Saturday, September 3, 2016

John Fox

Wine scandals are nothing new.  Recent scandals documented here include those concerning adulterated wines and ownership soap operas that are as much about the industry people as the wines they represent.  We have passed on the many fake rare wines, sham auctions, and suspect ratings that abound.  The fact that there seem to be so many scandals nowadays seems in a weird way to reflect the overall arrival of wine as an intrinsic part of our culture.  And for the ethically challenged, it's an opportunity to cash in on its popularity.  Anyway, the latest involves John Fox, recent proprietor of the Premier Cru wine shop of Berkeley, California.

This post was lifted from Frances Dinkelspiel's August 18th article, "Meet the Wine World's Bernie Madoff" which has to do with the pre-selling of wine that is supposed to arrive up to two years in the future.  Apparently buying from Fox is about as easy a way to get swindled as investing with Bernie Madoff.

Wine futures are the purchasing of wines based on barrel samples before the wine is bottled.  Big players; wholesalers, brokers, retailers and restaurateurs; will commit to purchase large quantities of those wines they deem to be special and will expect delivery in a couple years.  The idea is to beat future mark-ups on the best vintages.  Futures may have been the impetus for Fox to offer "pre-arrival" pricing on high-end European wines in general with offers that were way too good to be true.  And just like every good Wall Street Ponzi scheme, the thing took on a life of its own and the originator prospered greatly before the curtain came down.

John Fox's curtain came down about a month ago when he plea bargained a six and a half year prison term conditioned upon a full courtroom admission of what he had done.  Fox admitted to billing his clientele for twenty million dollars worth of wines that were never going to arrive.  He also admitted to personally embezzling five million dollars, falsifying paper work (purchase orders), and instructing his employees to reinforce whatever narrative he constructed.

Premier Cru was apparently the finest of fine wine shops. (In a separate matter Fox borrowed six and a half million dollars to buy and decorate the store.)  Having filed Chapter 7 in January ($70mil/debt & $7mil/assets) and declaring personal bankruptcy in February ($5mil in homes, cars, club memberships, extra-marital girl friends), Fox had ample time to prepare for his day in court.  The bankruptcy trustees expect to net a little over three million dollars from the sale of assets which will, of course, be as insulting to the victims as Fox's expected early release from prison.  

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Gallo Buys The Prisoner Wine Company

This post is sourced entirely from the article of the same name by Mitch Frank in the June 30th Wine Spectator magazine. I might add that the post is written on August 13th when I finally got around to reading the magazine so it's not really news at this point.

Gallo is always news for this industry though because it is the largest wine company in the world and they do a good job in that rarefied stratosphere.  We have written about the mass marketers of this industry in the past so after a cursory look at The Prisoner's brief history, we'll go right to the transaction.

Dave Phinney created both The Prisoner, a red Zinfandel-based blend, and the Orin Swift brand in 2000.  With immediate success from The Prisoner sales, Orin Swift quickly became a line of varietal wines including Saldo, Cuttings, Blindfold, and Thorn.  In 2010 with annual sales at 85,000 cases, Phinney sold the Orin Swift line to Huneeus Vineyards for $40 million.  Huneeus has an amazing track record of success which we documented in our January 31st '13 blogpost.  In the past six years Huneeus increased sales to the 170,000 cases currently which led Gallo to purchase the line for $285 million dollars.

So what did Gallo buy?  The five brand names above.  There never have been any vineyards or wineries as part of the Orin Swift project.  Everything has been contracted.  Gallo of course has plenty of vineyards already with winery capacity for several new Orin Swift-ian operations.  So the purchase was for the brand names alone.

And that is the way the wine business works in this modern era.  Whenever an independent winery is sold to an industry player it's just the brand that is purchased.  It's called consolidation and it's the same in beer and liquor and cheese and sausage and the prevailing wisdom is to take the mass marketers' money and get out of their way.  They always pay well.  Let them have it.

Gallo has announced that the Orin Swift wines would be made at Franciscan Vineyards going forward which was another Huneeus successful project before ending up with Gallo.      

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Ava Winery

"Test tube wines are upon us."   So says Carson Demmond in his recent Food & Wine magazine article of the same name.  What he's referring to is Ava Winery and if you thought our preceding post about Replica wines and their efforts to copy popular wine styles was alarming, Ava is a copycat of a whole other order.  They choose to bioengineer their creations without fermenting grapes!

So Ava Winery is a winery in name only.  It's actually a lab with proprietary technology that proposes a methodology using various analytical chemistry techniques including Gas Chromatography Mass Spectometry among others to understand the composition of a wine Ava wants to reproduce.  They want to identify and determine the ratios of each of two hundred molecular compounds to each other so they can reproduce a wine's flavors and aromas.

Alec Lee and Marchonn Chua are the evil scientists here and they claim they can turn water into wine in fifteen minutes once the analysis stage is over.  Vegetable glycerin provides the body in the concoction before tartaric acid, malic acid, tannin powder, sucrose, and everclear ethanol provide the more common components.  The finished product will have the same amino acids, sugars, volatile aromatic compounds and alcohol as the wine it is copying.

Like Replica, Ava is transparent with regard to their creative processes with no desire to insert extraneous additives to their product which sounds odd considering what they do.  They are also respectful of wine history, terroir, and the labor implicit in farming and vinification which makes them admirable, again, considering what they are doing.

To date Ava, an American Viticultural Area pun, has only taken orders for their first release.  They intend to sell through their website at the beginning asking $50 per bottle for reproductions of wines that could command thousand dollar prices.  You can get on a waiting list at their website.  Since this is essentially groundbreaking work and bureaucracy being what it is, Lee and Chua expect a lot of hurdles to overcome before getting into wide distribution.

Lee and Chua also see themselves as pioneers of a future time when synthetic foods will be the order of the day.  Perhaps their wares may be found in the Star Trek episode vending machine that delivered the beverage of choice keyed in by the thirsty space traveler.

Saturday, August 13, 2016


A replica is an exact copy or reproduction of something else.

Replica Cellars of Healdsburg, California "unapologetically replicates your favorite wines" (back label) using chemical instruments and a huge flavor data base.  After its initial examination, Colorado-based Integrated Beverage Group, owner of Replica, then turns to independent chemical laboratory, Ellipse Analytics, for further process detailing.

Ellipse identifies, compares, and quantifies macrocomponents like sugars, acidity, and tannins before isolating individual volatile flavor chemicals (microcomponents).  The rest of the process then reverts to the purely subjective: trained tasters delineate the flavor profile of the wine before finally making a blend that mimics the original.  The replica is asserted to be 90% accurate and without extraneous flavor additives.

So what's going on here?  Replica calls themselves "master forgers" with taglines like "Originality is over-rated, especially when it's overpriced."  So are these guys more akin to the oil painting forgers who are themselves artists or are they just counterfitters who use the latest technology?  Or since science and technology are already everywhere in the wine business and copying of wines probably goes back to clay pottery days, is this really just the latest in wink-and-a-nod wine marketing?

The fact that Replica uses no chemical flavorings is telling.  That says they are traditional and maybe even conservative.  Moreover, they say they will not duplicate a terroir-specific wine, which is...   respectful.  Back on March 26th of this year we wrote about Mega-Purple and the other additives mass marketers and less-than-scrupulous others use to make popular styled wines.  If Replica isn't going that route then they are just another mainstream winery.  Pop songwriters used to talk about the "hook" in pop music that would catch the casual listener's attention.  Maybe Replica similarly just embellishes the popular aspect of a given wine.

In the store at this time we have the Replica Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay which are both very good.  If you want to know what each is replicating you'll have to stop in the store.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Top 20 Summer Wines

Lists of this and that seem to be ubiquitous in contemporary American culture and in this industry, wine lists are both continuous and unfortunately, often ponderous. And yes, I know school has started and we think we have turned the seasonal page, but we still have another month of summer so here is our list of this store's most popular summer refreshers, circa 2016.


1. Castelo Do Papa Valdeorras Godello - One of our three best whites of the year.
2.  Zingara Venezie Pinot Grigio - "Freshness" is the adjective for this infectiously enjoyable white.
3. Manu Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc - More restrained in the citrussy stuff and drier than most.
4. Walnut Block Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc -  Even more settled and drier than Manu.
5. Montauto Maremma Toscano Bianco - Well made dry Italian dinner wine.
6. Acrobat Oregon Pinot Gris - King Estate second label apertif.
7. PJ Valkenberg Rheinhessen Pinot Blanc - Light and off-dry, from a company that never cheats on quality.
8. Peramor Rueda Verdejo - Light and dry but flavorful Spanish type.
9. Ares de Medeiros Alentejano White Blend - Portuguese dry seafood wine.
10. La Galope Comte Tolosan Sauvignon Blanc - The best type from that region.
11. Villa Pozzi Sicilian Pinot Grigio - Perennial fruity summer favorite here.
12. New Age Argentine White - With a lime twist it's a Tincho cocktail!
13. Vidigal Portuguese Vinho Verde - Frizzante!  The best of 20 tasted by the New York Times experts.


1. Gerard Bertrand Cote des Roses Grenache-Cinsault-Syrah - This store's best seller!
2. Chateau Beaulieu Coteaux D'Aix-en-Provence - Grenache Rose with a pedigree.
3. Chateau Famaey Cahors Malbec - Fresh, forward Malbec fruit.
4. Rose Pescador from Spain - Light and effervescent.
5. Zaza Campo de Borja - Dark, rich, and flavorful.
6. La Ferme de Gicon Cotes du Rhone - The best buy of the lot if French styling is your thing.
7. La Galope Comte Tolosan - Light and dry French wine.

Summer is the less-is-more season for wine enjoyment and that includes pricing.  All of the above are under $15 and three are under $10!  No reds?  Actually we have plenty and just like the whites and roses, summer reds are a bargain.  Champagne?  Stop in and see!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Elena Walch

It's always helpful to have a story behind the product in the wine business and in this case it's a good one.   Elena Walch is one of the contemporary giants in the wine industry.  She is renowned for her winemaking skills but she is really more of a director, manager, and visionary of her eponymously named winery.  Here's her story...

Elena was an architect in her early thirties when she was hired by like-aged Werner Walch to restore Castel Ringberg, a Renaissance castle built by the Hapsburg dynasty in 1620.  Werner Walch is the largest vineyard owner in Alto Adige in northeastern Italy and the castle lies on his property in the northern, German-speaking half of the region.  This region is also called Sudtirol and has previously been part of Austria.  The southern portion of Alto Adige is called Trentino and both lie in the Dolomite mountain range in the southern Alps, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Elena was new to her craft, having traveled extensively through New Zealand and Australia as a young adult before getting her professional training in Germany.  She was soon to fall in love with Werner and they were married two years later in 1985.  She had been raised comfortably as a city dweller in Milan so it is from her travels that her wine interests are believed to have sprung.  Architecture didn't completely leave her though as she settled into her new lifestyle.  Elena chose to involve herself in the family business by redesigning how that business would be configured and modernized both in the vineyards and the winery.

It should be noted that the family business Elena married into was a fifth generation wine family affair (est. 1869) and Werner was quite traditional when it comes to making wine.  Consequently, going forward, the business effectively became two separate businesses under one winery roof with Werner continuing to make his workman-like vino da tavola with the vast majority of the grapes and Elena making her new modern and internationally-styled efforts from her own vineyards.

  So what exactly did Elena do?  The most widely planted grape in Alto Adige heretofore had been Schiavo, a popular local red variety.  Elena fundamentally changed the direction of wine making in Alto Adige by assessing the terroir there and concentrating her efforts on the international commercially-driven white grape varieties: Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Bianco.  She also made four fundamental changes in the vineyards to facilitate a transition to sustainable farming and made a cooresponding four changes in the winery to reduce the environmental impact of the business.

Additionally she drastically reduced individual vine yields for more intensely flavored berries while at the same time planting vines more densely for more production.  The varietal clones selected were also carefully scrutinized and she modified trellising for her purposes.  After everything was said and done and time had past, her improvements were to become the norm for others in Alto Adige, now regarded as the most awarded wine region of Italy.

The Elena Walch winery is located in the village of Tramin which is the historical home of the Gewurztraminer grape.  That is the best wine produced there.  While Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay would be the most commercial wines made there, Elena prefers her Pinot Bianco, which is the one we choose to sell here at the store.   That wine is characterized as straw-colored with aromas of apple, pear, pineapple, and melon and flavors on the palate of citrus, apple, and tropical fruit.  As rich as the description sounds, the minerality therein makes this medium bodied white quite linear and food-friendly.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Alsatian Pinot Blanc

When we hear the word "pinot" we think of Pinot Noir since it is arguably the finest red wine grape there is.  Actually pinot is a family of grapes characterized by an unstable genome, meaning the grapes tend to mutate in the vineyards.  So while Pinot Noir deserves our attention as the overachiever in the family; Pinot Gris/Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meuneur and others have all emerged over time in European vineyards and become commercial types in their own right.  Contrasted with Pinot Noir, however, all of the offshoots are ordinary.

When we hear the word "Auxerrois" (oh-ser-WAH) we think, "Huh?" Auxerrois is another European grape of ordinary stature.  Its singular claim to fame is its sibling relationship with Chardonnay.  Genetically they both share the same parentage resulting from an inadvertent vineyard crossing of Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir and in some French locales they are treated as one and the same type. While Chardonnay ended up with the noble flavor profile attributes, however, Auxerrois was relatively shortchanged.  At its best Auxerrois offers citrus and musk flavors in a full-bodied, low acid package.

So where are we going with this discussion?  I've made it no secret that the Alsace region of France is my favorite for white wine production.  While the marquee varietals like Gewurztraminer and Riesling get the critical acclaim and Pinot Gris has commercial success, both Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois have their own claim to fame albeit one that is easy to overlook: they both have their finest expressions in Alsace.   Prolific to a fault in the vineyard but when attended to vigilantly there and in the winery, these two varieties in combination will complement each other as well as any two white grapes.

But there's more...

Alsatian Pinot Blanc is not a varietal wine.  It is not a wine made from the Pinot Blanc grape type, although it could be.  Alsatian Pinot Blanc is actually a white wine using any or all of the family of pinot grapes allowed in the region, including Auxerrois.  So Alsatian Pinot Blanc may actually have every other allowed pinot grape but no actual Pinot Blanc.  One common style is a Pinot Blanc that is 100% Auxerrois. Alsatian Pinot Blanc usually does contain a goodly amount of Pinot Blanc juice though since Pinot Blanc is the most widely planted grape in the region.

In the store at this time we have the 2014 JB Adam "Les Natures" Alsatian Pinot Blanc which is a fine example of type.  It is a medium-bodied dry white exhibiting almond and stone fruit flavors with minerality in the background.  "Les Natures" refers to their biodynamic certification.  Contrasting examples in the store include the 2013 PJ Valkenberg Rheinhessen Pinot Blanc and the 2015 Elena Walch Alto Adige Pinot Bianco.


So I have been studying up on what I have recently declared to be my favorite cheese, Gruyere (Groo-yehr), and much to my chagrin I have learned I have been quite wrong about a few things.  I have always thought there was an understanding between France and Switzerland that the cheese made on each side of the border could legitimately be called Gruyere.  After all, at the other end of the country, the Basque region overlaps the French-Spanish border with products from both sides using the Basque name.  But I guess that's regional branding as opposed to specific product branding, but you know what I mean.

As it turns out Gruyere is actually a village in Switzerland and after a three year court fight ending in 2001, they have won the naming-rights battle for their cheese.  French Comte, which I have been calling Gruyere for as long as I can remember, hasn't in fact been Gruyere for fifteen years.  Moreover, there are actually two other French cheeses from the Jura region of France that have also been called Gruyere in the past but now must be known as Beaufort and Le Brouere.  France is allowed to market Gruyere but it must have a different appearance (more holes) so as not to be confused with the Swiss standard.

Another factual tidbit I have learned is that Switzerland makes ten times the amount of Gruyere cheese that French Comte makes.  That would have to weigh heavily in a court case.  And Swiss Gruyere cheese has been so named since 1655!

Here's one more noteworthy factoid: Swiss Gruyere is the only cheese to be declared the "Best Cheese in the World" five times at the World Cheese Awards in London.  True to form in the new (August) Wine Spectator magazine, in an article on Comte they say it is "toothsome, nutty, sweeter, fruitier, and grassier" than the Swiss version which says to me they probably ought to stick to wine.

Saturday, July 9, 2016


Funny how things change.  Prior to 2009 when the French wine appellation system was fundamentally changed, Luberon (LOO-ber-on) was considered to be a Vin de Pays, a region of lower quality wine production.  It was then known as Cotes du Luberon.  Now this horizontal belt of land in southern France has been upgraded to top level AOC quality which seems fitting considering its proximity to Gigondas, Vacqueras, Tavel, and Beaume de Venise of the Cotes du Rhone.  Moreover, the Luberon belt separates Ventoux, another recent AOC upgrade, to the north from the Provence AOC to the south. Lying approximately twenty miles north of the Mediterranean Coast and so sandwiched between AOC's, Luberon just has to be an AOC too, right?

 Luberon is also apparently a massif (massive) which in geological terms is a sizable unit of earth crust that moves as a whole like the much larger tectonic plate.  Considering what we learned about the geology of Comte Tolosan in our 6/11/16 post about southwestern France, the geology of the whole of southern France would seem to be somewhat unsettled.

Our subject here is relevant today because we recently brought in a case of 2014 Guyot Luberon Rouge "Les Luquets", a moderately priced blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignon.  Luberon reds at their best offer concentrated, full-bodied, herbal wines that will age well, like a Rhone.  Since Guyot is a prestigious producer, one would expect a wine approaching Cotes du Rhone quality.

 Syrah is always the primary grape in Luberon red blends and it offers color, complexity, tannin, aromatics, and alcohol to that blend.  Grenache offers more body and Carignon brings color, power, and structure.  Any Luberon red blend must have at least sixty percent Syrah and Grenache which should yield a wine with dark fruit, truffle, leather, and herbs.  Since our Guyot is a moderately priced example of type, it falls short of the "big and racy" ideal of production but none the less reaches the flavor profile depicted above.

Luberon has a five thousand year history of civilization with wine making being a big part of it. Today 53% of production is rose; 26% is red wines; and 21% is white.  35% of that production is exported.  Luberon also makes international-style varietal reds and whites that carry an IGP Vaucluse label.

So just as we learned in the Comte Tolosan post, government can act as an advocate for industry in the promotion of wine and that may be the case here.  The Guyot red is a solid example of the historic wine of the region, that is, it tastes the same as it did when it was Cotes du Luberon Vin de Pays.  The 2009 elevation of Luberon to AOC status seems to reflect the growth and sophistication of the global wine marketplace and the need to fill more slots at the top.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Good Wine Is Where You Find It

That's what my good friend would tell me regularly.  My friend was insightfully eclectic with his wine selections and seemed to strike gold more often than not, so his tag line about locating good wine makes sense in that light.

I remember calling a wine consultant at one of Atlanta's largest distributorships many years ago when I was searching for an obscure allocated wine.  He didn't know me or the reason for my call but said the item was depleted from their warehouse but I may find some at outlying Big Star grocery stores.  Being the first Atlanta grocery chain with a fine wine department, Big Star was ahead of its time back in the eighties.  There was a real drop-off in sales, however, once you left the Atlanta perimeter.  Those rural stores couldn't turn inventory that quickly so his suggestion made sense.  What the gentleman didn't know at the time was that I was looking for the wine for a customer in my position as a wine sales person at one of those outlying Big Stars!

Good wine is where you find it.

I remember a cross country truck driver who patronized my store occasionally and he told me he would stop in small retail stores across the country in hopes of finding a deal on fine wine.  He had "Champagne" tastes in red wine.  He said he regularly would find bottles that were either priced wrong or were marked down because they didn't sell at mom and pop stores.  He was a good shopper who took advantage of others' misfortune.  Actually, I think his wine hobby was more like an obsession, come to think of it.

Close-out lists from distributors are a real crap shoot.  I think one of the unsung heroes for all of us is the guy at the distributorship who decides to close something out.  If that guy is on top of his game and dumps a wine at a fraction of the regular price with the wine still holding its own in quality, everyone benefits.  But if that guy waits too long and the wine is too much in decline, well, it ain't pretty.  I guess bad wine is where you find it too!

Restaurant wine lists in general are not where one is likely to find good wine.  Most restaurants get their mass market California varietals handed to them on a platter from the large Atlanta liquor distributors.  As a result, the real artisan wine producers, who actually make food-friendly wines, can't get their foot in the door in most restaurants.  The idea that wines are supposed to complement meals doesn't seem to occur to most restaurateurs.

Unfortunately that is the way things are in general in the wine business circa 2016.  Distribution channels are clogged with "industrial" wines that all taste the same making it nearly impossible for artisans to get their product out to the marketplace.  So you ought to shop at mom and pop stores like this one that offer real wine and if our artisan efforts don't sell they'll get marked down and you can clean up like the truck driver!  Actually since chains don't buy closeouts, shop the mom and pops for those too!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Clarksburg, Part 1

Clarksburg is a 128 square mile AVA (American Viticultural Area) five miles south of the capitol city of Sacramento.  The California capitol lies eighty miles northeast of San Francisco in the northern extremes of the Central Valley.  This area would little interest me if it were not for the convergence of natural phenomena that results in a very counter-intuitive wine-friendly terroir.  If I was a landscape designer I would say the place has "bones"; you just have to dig a bit to find them.

The Clarksburg AVA was established in 1984 and today has 10,000 acres in vines.  Since ninety percent of the wine production is made outside of the region, the Clarksburg Wine Growers Association was established in 1987 to recognize and protect those growers.  Later when wineries actually started making wine there, "and Vintners" was added to the name.  While the area was first settled in the 1850's, grape growing and wine production started about eighty years later, long after the area became known for its fruit and vegetable agriculture.

Clarksburg is located in the California River Delta formed by the convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers.  What was swampland a hundred years ago, has gradually been reclaimed as farmland and now, as vineyards.  Most of Clarksburg lies ten feet above sea level.  French drains in the vineyards facilitate the redirection of waters.  It has a maritime climate courtesy of both the river influence and the breezes and fog from San Francisco Bay.  Clarksburg is cooler than Napa and has the much desired diurnal effect of cool nights to complement warm day times.

The soils of Clarksburg are an alluvial mixture of clay and sand transferred there by the Sacramento River from the Sierra Mountains gold mining of a hundred fifty years earlier.

Historic vineyards and wineries of the region include Bogle and Wilson Vineyards, but as we said above, most of the wine production of the region is done elsewhere.  Pine Ridge and Dry Creek Vineyards were in the vanguard of pedigreed northern California wineries to take advantage of Clarksburg fruit when they marketed Chenin Blanc and Viognier thirty years ago.  To their credit they put Clarksburg on the wine map by putting the place name on their labels.

Clarksburg, Part 2

Viognier (VEE-ohn-yay) is one of the handful of grapes worldwide that may be considered to be noble.  When grown in the right terroir with the right winemaking talent, Viognier can be about as good as any white wine, period.  The finest Viognier comes from Condrieu and Chateau Grillet in the northern Cotes du Rhone and there will be no threat to that title since the old vine/older strains of Viognier there don't exist elsewhere.  Notoriously difficult to grow, Viognier is now being attempted everywhere around the world.  We shall await the results.

Chenin Blanc (she-NEEN blahn) is very much the opposite of Viognier.  It is the most ordinary of grapes everywhere but reaches its epitome in Vouvray in the Loire Valley of France.  Since this is a commercial industry, Chenin Blanc plantings are in decline everywhere just as Viognier is on the rise except in Clarksburg where both do remarkably well.  With soils similar to Vouvray, Chenin Blanc has become the signature white grape of the region.

Wilson Vineyards of Clarksburg is in all likelihood the source of most of the Chenin Blanc and Viognier being bottled by wineries outside of Clarksburg.  Started in 1920, Wilson has the industry relationships in place and the mature vines to produce serious fruit.  Our Terre d'Oro white blend is definitely Wilson product as is our White Knight Viognier.  The Pine Ridge and Dry Creek whites are probably from them also.

The premier red grape of Clarksburg is Petite Sirah and the current examples in the store include Handcraft and The Crusher.

Just as a disclaimer, our promotion of the wines of Clarksburg is not to say they are world class.  They're just better than you would think they should be.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Norton, Part 1

Last week we brought in a red and white blend from Morrisette of Virginia, prompting me to reflect upon the historic Norton wine making grape of that state.  Thirty years ago Norton was promoted as the signature wine of Virginia.  It seemed to be the counterpart to what Zinfandel is to California and to my tastes it seemed better than Zinfandel.  Remembering the prominence of Norton in Virginia, I assumed it must be a big part of the Morrisette red blend.

Dr. Daniel Norton, a medical doctor by trade and botanist by avocation, either discovered or created his namesake grape in the early 19th century and sometime around 1830 the wine became commercially viable.  By mid-century the Norton grape was a hit with domestic winemakers and soon thereafter, Europeans recognized its quality.

However, one of the inescapable wine industry truths is that you have to sell it, meaning this is a commercial industry and no matter how good your product may be, the public must respond to it.  Thirty years or so ago, Paul Thomas of Washington State produced lovely dry white wines using fruit other than grapes but if you blinked you may have missed them, they came and went so fast.  In my research I have learned that Norton wines have not sold well compared to the traditional international varieties which have largely replaced it on store shelves.  Now it is predominantly a blender in Virginia where it adds color, fruit, and spice to most any blend.

The good news for Norton though is that it grows well in a lot of other states including Georgia.  In the store right now we have the Tiger Mountain Cynthiana which is genetically identical to Norton but because it develops differently in the vineyard, it may be a clone or mutation of Norton.

Norton vines are very adaptable throughout the American south.  They tolerate low temperatures (to -20) but require a long growing season so the south and southern midwest are where they fair best.  Norton carries the moniker, "Cabernet of the Ozarks", as the premier grape of Missouri, a state that is recognized by the experts for its superior production.  Likewise in neighboring Arkansas the grape thrives but once again it is known as Cynthiana there.

Norton, Part 2

Norton and Cynthiana are identical cultivars, grapevine varieties cultivated for a purpose.  Whether Dr. Norton or some other wine loving adventurer created the type is a moot question at this point.  What is known is that it is a cross of vitis aestivalis with vitis labrusca and then with vitis vinifera vines.  More to the point - Norton is the only non-vinifera grape type that displays the vinifera finesse in flavor profile without new world foxiness.

Norton makes a red wine that is deep in color, rich in body and texture, and characterized by supple spicy/brambly fruit.  Comparisons with Zinfandel abound including coffee, chocolate, and big dark fruity flavors.  Structure is different, however.  Norton has that asset over Zinfandel along with better acidity which means the wine has the potential to age well.

But there's more...Norton grapes are a dark purple in color and contain a high anthocyanin content.  Anthocyanins are the family of compounds called polyphenols which aid the vines in fending off diseases like the fungal problems of the south.  These same qualities translate into health benefits for wine lovers as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, antimicrobials, and anti-carcinogenics.

So where has Norton been for the last hundred years?  In short, it disappeared for most of it.  Liquor and beer are more profitable for this industry than wine.  When Prohibition ended, the alcoholic beverage industry was slow to develop a wine culture in America.  Moreover, during Prohibition, wine grapes were replaced by Concords and others for juices, jams and jellies.  It was only fifty years after the fact that Norton was remembered and then revived.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Comte Tolosan, Part 1

La Galope is a popular French country wine we have been offering here for the last few years.  It comes in red, white, and rose versions and is value-priced between $10 and $13/btl.  Prior to 2009 the La Galope label would have read Vin du Pays Comte Tolosan as the wine's appellation/quality level.  With the demise of the Vin du Pays category in 2009, Comte Tolosan (COM-tay TOH-luh-zah) alone appears on the front label.

Comte Tolosan is an overlay for the very large southwestern corner of France.  It extends northward to the outskirts of Bordeaux, west to the Atlantic Ocean, south to the Pyranees Mountains and east to the Massif Central Mountains.  It's huge!  And it contains eighteen smaller appellations within it!  So why would the French government create such a large wine appellation?  For the same reason California has the Central Coast with all of its smaller appellations.  In fairness to all who are invested in vineyards outside of the esteemed smaller appellations, the commonality in terroir far outweighs the differences.  So they deserve their branding too.

I suspect there is more though.  The modern wine era is all about international grape varieties made in the modern fresh, fruity, and forward style.  California started it all and now everyone is doing it.  Neighboring Spain's booming new world-style wine industry surely must have influenced the creation of Tolosan.  Let's be honest - this is revenue we're talking about.  Government protection/promotion of their native wine industry by using appellation branding makes sense.

Comte Tolosan is one of six IGP's (Indication Geographique Protege) in France.  IGP's like our La Galope wines, by definition, reflect the character of the region they are from, in this case, southwestern France.  The La Galope white is an aromatic, flavorful, and complex Sauvignon Blanc; consistent with the regional model.  The La Galope red is Malbec and it is light, fruity, and soft; again consistent with the character of neighboring reds.  The rose is typical with refreshing crispness.  And the wines are all made in the modern international style.

(Scroll down for Part 2)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

My Five Senses

"Complex deep black fruits with aromas of black cherry, cassis, black tea, cedar, cigar box, cocoa, and baking spices with gripping tannins for structure and weight."  Or something like that.  So reads the website description of the 2013 Cloisonne Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which is probably the best bottle of its kind in the store right now.  While I haven't actually tasted the wine I will take the word of the young man who sold it to me and I'll assume the verbiage above is at least mostly accurate.

If the truth be known, whenever I read a wine description like that, I'm lucky if I taste half of what they're talking about.  Actually most of the above was about the wine's aroma and I'm even worse in that area than I am with taste.  I take consolation by reminding myself that my tasting odometer has serviced me well for the past thirty-five years, meaning I have tasted so many California Cabs I can probably guess the flavor profile without even tasting the wine, which is what I'm basically doing with Cloisonne.

The 2012 Turris Chianti Classico is different.  I tasted it last week with the importer and couldn't get it into the store quick enough to satisfy my desires.  The wine is per-r-fect.  At their website they are less about the verbiage - "elegant red fruits (dark cherries and plum) dried herbs and spices" - and more about what matters with European wine - "high acidity, balanced tannins, persistent finish", i.e., it's a food wine.  What I lack in taste buds and olfactory acumen I compensate for with appreciation for balance and texture in the mouth, which I guess reflect both my sense of touch and my cognitive faculties.

Have I mentioned my red-green color blindness yet?

What I'm getting at here is that wine appreciation doesn't have to be strictly by the book.  One of my favorite old bumper stickers was "Question Authority" and with regard to wine tasting, to me that means, believe in your own palate.  Inevitably, if there is an opinionated outspoken "expert" at any wine event, that individual can ruin the experience for many of the rest of us who have our own experience.  And as for the wine descriptions in print, I'm not so sure that a lot of that isn't just creative writing.  In my opinion the same goes for jazz music critics, by the way.

My Five Senses is a children's book I read to my preschool grandchildren.  They love it and gobble it up like the little sponges they are.  They have yet to develop inhibitions and fears concerning correctness.  If the truth be known, us old wine guys still get apprehensive when tasting with others.  No one wants to be corrected.  We all want approval.  We just need to take a lesson from the kids and believe in ourselves.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Comte Tolosan, Part 2

The Comte Tolosan region used to go by a different name.  Because of its prevalent thermal springs, rivers, and lakes; Julius Caesar dubbed the region Aquitaine, the land of waters.  In fact, Caesar didn't know the half of it.

The wonderful vineyard soil of the region today was actually made possible by geological processes started hundreds of millions of years ago when Europe was a volcanic mess!  The two mountain ranges on the east and south of the region created the second largest sedimentary basin in France with its middle tilting and forming a funnel toward the Atlantic.   The well-draining rocky soils are perfect for vines and the ocean-fed maritime climate moderates any temperature extremes.

So the basin was created during the Triassic and Permian Ages, 200-300 million years ago.  Since then alluvial soils have filled in the rock bottom to about 11,000 meters and the deepest trench follows the course of the Garonne River northeastward toward Bordeaux.  Not surprisingly most of the Comte Tolosan vineyards are located centrally along the Garonne River over the abyss.

Land of waters indeed, Julius.

Saturday, May 28, 2016


Tetilla is a mild cow's milk cheese from Galicia in the far northwest of Spain.  Before the creation of the DO (denomination of origin) laws, Tetilla was made in just three neighboring towns.  Now with the maturing of the worldwide cheese market it is produced throughout Galicia.  Tetilla received its DO in 1993 and its EU protection (DOP) in 1996.

Tetilla is unique for its shape.  It's like a 1 1/2# Hershey's Kiss (sans foil wrap and chocolate color).  The name of the cheese means small breast, which it also resembles, as well as appearing to be somewhat like a slightly flattened pear.  It is that appearance that catches people's eye.

The cheese is mild compared to others and that limits its appeal to a lot of us.  If given a chance, however, Tetilla offers an inviting aroma of fresh butter and cow's milk.  Tetilla's flavor profile includes buttery, slightly bitter, tangy flavors wrapped in an enticing creaminess that one could imagine pouring over asparagus or some other veggie or melted over a baked dish of some kind.  While the cheese is soft-ish, it can be carefully sliced for sandwiches.  Tetilla is considered to be a dessert cheese in Spain so pairing it with apples or some other fresh fruit sounds good also.

Tetilla is a pale ivory-straw in color with a thin natural rind.  The paste is even and compact with thick moist fattiness.  In hot and humid Galicia, Tetilla is served with Manzanilla Sherry or Albarino or some other light dry white wine.  By extension a light red or rose should also work well.

(Blogging means not having to footnote sources which is both liberating and a little unfair to those who do the research ahead of guys like me.  Every once in a while a resource seems to be so good a "shout out" seems necessary. is one of those websites that everyone should know about if just to have it at hand for researching the next Spanish cheese you bring home.)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The San Andreas Fault

As everyone knows, southern California is going to fall into the Pacific Ocean any day now so we thought it would be timely to report on the cause of it all.  The San Andreas Fault is the eight hundred mile long tectonic "seam" between the Pacific and North American plates.  That seam is actually quite sizable beyond its length.  At its widest it is one mile across; at its deepest it's ten miles down.  We'll have to trust the geologists on this since the only markers above ground are bodies of water that line up perfectly over the fault and some mountain ranges which we'll get into later.

The eight hundred mile length extends from the gulf of California, which separates the Baja Peninsula from mainland Mexico, to offshore northern California.  If it were a straight line it would exit the state just south of San Francisco.  As it is, it has a couple crooks in it but otherwise it is remarkably straight.

Technically the San Andreas is a "transform" fault which means the two plates are side by side or horizontal to each other as opposed to a subduction fault which involves one plate going over another.  That is the more destructive type.  In the San Andreas case, the Pacific plate is moving north (and west) at a clip of two inches a year.  The North American plate is also moving north but much slower so the seismic rubbing of the two against each other is almost continuous and, for all intensive purposes, eternal.  Geologists have figured that the total movement of the plates has resulted in a three hundred fifty mile change in terrain which means this has been going on fifteen to twenty million years!

So the normal rubbing results in the "creeping" northward of the Pacific plate but that creeping is more in the way of fits and starts as opposed to smooth sailing.  Some of those seismic "fits" just barely register on the graph while others like the 1906 and 1989 San Francisco quakes resulted in disaster.  As for southern California, 1857 was the last time they were hit with a quake so they're w-a-a-y overdue. The 1994 Northridge quake we remember was related to a different fault.

So why are we interested in this now?  Because we just got in the 2013 Firestone Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Ynez Valley which exists as a direct result of San Andreas seismic activity.  That valley is a lengthy east-west valley in southern Santa Barbara county.  The north-south mountain ranges separating the Central Valley from the coast make perfect sense as a result of the San Andreas fault.  It's like when two people in bed rub up against each other creating a ridge in the quilt over them.  The east-west valley, however, also makes sense if either or both individuals kick the covers toward the foot of the bed.  The fits and starts of seismic activity create valleys like that too.

Firestone Vineyards also benefits from being located over the Pacific plate west of the fault.  The North American plate geology to the east in southern California is uninteresting, to say the least.  The Pacific plate features an easy draining shallow ancient marine sediment like much of Europe.  On top of that, the valley opens up to the ocean providing a trough of cool breezes making Santa Ynez Valley cooler than most of the state.  Firestone is one of a hundred wineries taking advantage of these optimal conditions in Santa Ynez Valley.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Elyse, Naggiar, & the Sierra Foothills AVA

Elyse Winery ( was established in Napa Valley in 1987 by Nancy and Ray Coursen, transplants from Boston.  Their history is available at their website.  We became interested in Elyse after tasting and subsequently purchasing three of their wines.  The structure, fruit, minerality and fineness (finesse) of these three wines so impressed us we decided to take a look at Naggiar Vineyards in Nevada County where much of the fruit was sourced.  That, in turn, led us to a brief look at the Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area), home to Naggiar, and then to new insights regarding the future of that region.

The three wines we purchased included a very impressive white, 2012 L'Ingenue (naive girl), which was sourced entirely from Naggiar.  It's a Rhone-style blend of 45% Roussanne, 24% Marsanne, 23% Viognier, and 8% Grenache Blanc.  The Elyse website characterizes their wines individually and uses philosophical language like "big but balanced" and "vineyard-driven" to emphasize their point of view.  We thought the white was the best of the three.

The 2012 C'est Si Bon (It's so good!) is a red Rhone-style blend of 47% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 14% Syrah, 7% Cinsault, and 4% Counoise.  The 2011 Nero Misto (mixed black) is 42% Petite Sirah, 42% Zinfandel, 7% Carignane, 4% Syrah, 2% Barbera, 2% Grenache, and 1% Mourvedre.  C'est Si Bon is 100% Naggiar fruit; Nero Misto carries a California label designation, which reflects the Elyse desire to source fruit based on longstanding grower relationships.  The website includes a map proudly showing where their growers are located within Napa along with a nod to Naggiar, the outpost in the Sierra Foothills.

The Sierra Foothills AVA was established in 1987 but the vineyards actually began in the 1850's when European immigrants arrived with vines in tow.  They came for the gold rush, of course, but they ended up starting the wine industry.  Napa and other esteemed wine venues were developed years later.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is the third largest in California after the Central Coast and North Coast.  It contains five smaller AVA's within it: Shenandoah Valley, El Dorado, Fair Play, Fiddletown, and North Yuba.  It also spans parts of eight counties: Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolcemne, and Mariposa.  Two hundred fifty wineries call the Sierra Foothills AVA home.

The Sierra Foothills AVA is actually a segment of the Cascade-Sierra Mountains.  Since the foothills face west, the border to the east is the actual mountain range.  On the west the border is the Central Valley AVA.  Producing 70% of California's grapes, the Central Valley would be the largest AVA if it weren't subdivided.  By contrast, Sierra Foothills produces just 5%.

Ray Coursen of Elyse Winery clearly likes the quality of Naggiar fruit.  It is the only vineyard he uses outside of Napa.  Naggiar is located in Nevada county towards the northern end of the Sierra Foothills, where we have learned the best quality comes from.  As underdeveloped as the area is, it seems only a matter of time until it's discovered by all kinds of winemakers.    

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Grower Champagne, Part 1

"Consolidation" is a huge movement in both the wine and cheese industries.  When the industry giants come calling on the little guys with dollars in hand, the prevailing wisdom is to take the money and get out.  It's not rocket science, as they say.  Just trying to compete with the big guys is like beating your head against the wall anyway so take the money and go.

For those who choose to stay in the game, part of the reasoning has to be altruistic; artisan production is frankly superior to the mass production of the conglomerates.  If a small independent producer can keep the doors open he will inevitably provide a better product for discriminating American consumers, even if that row is a little tough to hoe at times.

This trend toward consolidation seems to be the case everywhere except in Champagne, France where the movement is in the opposite direction.  Champagne is a wine production region dominated by large negotiant companies (Maisons) that mass market brands that offer up a "house style" of sparkling wine.  Easily ninety percent of the production of Champagne is made by the behemoths who can source their juice from close to two thousand different vineyards.  Even the vaunted Dom Perignon falls into this category.  Now the peasants with pitchforks are coming after the aristocracy as growers are now making and bottling their own sparkling wines.

Perhaps I overstate the case with the pitchforks imagery.  Anyway, for the past twenty years an increasing number of grape growers now make and market their own estate Champagnes.  They number about five thousand growers who produce 3,700 brands, which while seeming like a lot, actually amounts to about three percent of the total production of Champagne.  Less than ten percent of that production comes to America.

So, are these Champagnes better than the giants?  Yes, in most cases.  By definition, estate wines are subject to the weather every year so there are better vintages and lesser vintages.  Most traditional Champagnes are made by skillfully blending vintages resulting in an average quality that is remarkably good.  So why would a grower choose to make his own wine?  Because, of course, he knows he has superior fruit so why cheapen what he has by blending lesser juice into it.  As a matter of fact, the entire grower movement is a reaction to under-flavored, non-distinct mass market Champagne.  

Grower Champagne, Part 2

So the growers in the estate Champagne (Growers) movement want to show off the quality of their production.  Essentially what that means is the wines are "terroir-driven".  Like all estate bottled wines, single barrel whiskeys, and assorted micro-brews; there is an "authentication/idiosyncracy of place" as the motivator for this production process.  For Champagne makers, that usually means the product is a drier, brut nature-style which shows off terroir better than do the mega-producers' blends, which are often less dry.

The Champagne appellation, itself, is divided into alternative districts devoted to the two primary grapes of Champagne, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Montagne de Reims and Vallee de la Marne in the center of Champagne and just north of the Marne river are the best Pinot Noir districts.  Just south of the river and south of Epernay lie the Cote des Blanc and Cote de Sezanne, the great Chardonnay districts.  It makes sense for growers in these districts to market their wares through the Grower Champagne movement.  In their optimal environs the pinots tend to accentuate the complexity of the Pinot Noir fruit while the Chardonnays show a crisp, pure minerality.

Eighty-eight percent of the vineyards of Champagne are independently owned; they number about 1,900 parcels total.  There are seven categories of Champagne related to production arrangements.  We have said that more than ninety percent of Champagne is made by the Maisons, the large negotiant houses.  Less than three percent are Grower Champagnes.  The other categories are hybrids, of sorts.  Since villages are meeting places for growers; either the village, itself, may claim production or a co-operative within the village can effectively become the Champagne producer.  Unions of growers can also produce as a unit.  Private labels made by industry or restaurant/retail stores can also be labelled as producers.  For identification purposes, all of these alternatives should be depicted on the Champagne label with two capital letters; examples include NM for "Negotiant Manipulant" or Maison and RM  for "Recoltant Manipulant" in the case of Grower Champagne.

So going back to the main question about Grower Champagnes, are they better than the Maisons?  Objectively, yes they are...and they are growing in number and popularity.  And they don't have the advertising costs worked into the finished product price that the big guys have.  Now here's a "be careful what you wish for" thought - could there be a "tipping point" in the future where the popularity of Grower Champagne could drive up prices to the point where the non-vintage Maisons become the better buy?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Wine Shop Report

On Wednesday March 2nd in the Food section of the New York Times, Eric Asimov tells us how important it is for us to cultivate a close relationship with a good wine shop in an article entitled How to Pick a Wine Store.  Using his criteria we will grade ourselves.

1.  Sunlight and Temperature - We've now been in our current location for just six months so we haven't experienced the summer heat yet.  We understand the situation though and set the store thermostat at 67 degrees and set the layout to keep the wines away from the front glass.  We installed curtains and shades to further reduce the harm of heat and light and while it's still not where we want it to be, we look forward to the challenge of summer in Georgia.     Grade A

2.  Inventory - Asimov makes a few contradictory statements about wine shop inventory - "Good wine shops offer a great assortment of distinctive bottles" and, comparing it to restaurant wine lists, "...a smaller more focused selection will be less intimidating."  He also says good values in the $15-$25 range are desirable and that mass-market wine selections represent the "junk-food aisles of wine".  I like that and I think we're okay here.     Grade A

3.  Service - Asimov says, "Hospitality is more than a warm greeting.  Sales people should be able to anticipate questions from customers, gauge their desires, ask in-depth questions, and recommend conscientiously."  With thirty'five years in the business and having been trained by the legendary Jim Sanders, "the father of the fine wine business in Atlanta", we know what we're talking about and yet daily we are confronted by the misinformation propagated by the California wine industry.  Not having the most out-going personality and not wanting to offend, we still try our best to serve our customer community.      Grade B

4.  Direction - By this we mean directional signage in the store: shelf talkers, categories, maps, other literature.  Asimov says wine sales people need to be aware of "the insecurity that comes with shopping for wine".  This is an area that needs work here.     Grade C

5.  Point of view - In researching his subject Asimov went to several stores finding something unique or quirky in each.  Having the best cheeses for fifty miles around with a fifty year old jazz soundtrack in the background, makes me think we fit right in!     Grade A

If we tally up all five criteria, we average a solid B and that's not good enough!  We're going to improve the signage and service or our name isn't Vine & Cheese!

Thanks for reading and stop in and give us some feedback!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Vine Cliff Winery

With the Atlanta marketplace offering so many good examples of so many types, it takes a lot for me to get excited about any given wine.  Especially at the higher end of the retail price spectrum where  I expect them to be good.  Vine Cliff Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, however, managed to exceed any preconceived expectations I might have a lot! When I learned of its Oakville Bench eastern Napa location, amongst neighbors like Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan Estate, and Schrader, I realized this wine is probably as good as those at half the price!  

History doesn't hurt when you're blogging about wineries either.  Founded in 1871, Vine Cliff is one of the oldest Napa wineries and the first to plant Bordeaux varietals!  With five hundred acres in vines, Vine Cliff was the largest in the county.  So why haven't we heard of this property before now?  Because for almost all of the twentieth century it has been a ghost winery; unoccupied, dilapidated, and because of its dry and rocky location, seriously questionable as an ongoing profitable business.

But it was very successful at one time, before the phylloxera epidemic at the beginning of the twentieth century took it down.   When Nell Sweeney bought the (now) one hundred acre estate in 1985, she replanted many of those old vineyards with the same varietals as were originally there only to have to replant in 1990 with phylloxera-resistent rootstocks when the modern era bete noire arose again.

Vine Cliff now has twenty-five acres in vines. Besides their home estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vineyards, they have Chardonnay in Carneros, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc in Calistoga, and Cabernet Sauvignon on Howell Mountain.  All are planted in select clones for low yielding, low vegetal growth, low tannin, powerful fruit.

When nineteenth century Vine Cliff was at its peak it produced 17,000 cases of wine a year.  Twenty-first century Vine Cliff makes 6,000.  So who buys a hundred year old winery in ruins and removes hundreds of tons of rocks to create hillside vineyards only to reduce the yield by two-thirds?  Someone committed to making serious world class wines.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

2014 Vidigal "Shocking Green" Vinho Verde DOC

We've written about Vinho Verde here before so this time we'll try to focus on this one particular example. Vidigal was one of several Portuguese labels that were introduced here several years ago by a small upstart distributor that knew good wine but over-estimated the size and sophistication of this market.  Ironically Vidigal now resides with a large ongoing Atlanta liquor distributor which unfortunately never developed the internal corporate wine culture to exploit the quality of this fine niche item.  Vidigal just can't seem to catch a break here.

When we tasted Vidigal many years ago we were impressed by its breadth and flavor profile.  Let's make no mistake - we're talking Vinho Verde here, the Gatorade of wines.  Bad Vinho Verde features fizziness as its flavor profile.  When I asked the vendor last week how this vintage is showing, he said it's sort of like Pinot Grigio and I can live with that.

"Petillance", "frizzante", "spritzig", and "effervescence" all mean fizziness in one language or another and all describe that dominant Vinho Verde characteristic.  Technically, Vinho Verde does not exceed one bar CO2 so it isn't sparkling.  Vinho Verde means "green wine" which translates as "young wine" in Vinho Verde parlance since it comes in versions as disparate as red and rose, along with late harvest and sparkling versions, and even brandy.  While the fizziness used to be the natural emanation of its youth, it is now carbonated for the worldwide market.

So why is Vinho Verde relevant today and, actually, why was it ever?  That answer is obvious when looking at a map.  The Vinho Verde DOC lies right in the northwest corner of Portugal on the Atlantic Ocean and bordering its counterpart, Rias Baixas of Spain.  In short, these are seafood wine production regions.  Portugal actually has the highest seafood consumption of all of Europe and the fourth highest in the world.  Moreover, this western part of Portugal features a Mediterranean-style olive oil and vinegar over fresh seafood cuisine along with its version of the seafood stews of Spain across the border. Vinho Verde, it turns out, works just fine for the local dining purposes!

So why is it relevant here?  Because of the season!  This is the perfect outdoor summer quaff!  Vidigal has the high acidity of its youth along with the benefits of three important Portuguese grape types: the floral aromatics of Loureiro (50%), the light crisp steeliness of the Trajeduro grape (40%), and the minerality of Arinto (10%).  It's also relevant because no less of a resource than the New York Times has said that Vidigal was the best Vinho Verde tasted out of a field of twenty.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Black Forest Ham

Well, this is a first.  We've been blogging for five years and we've never covered a meat as our subject matter.  We did smoked fish once.  We tried to do sausage a few times but you know what they say about sausage making -- The less you know, the better!

Anyway, Black Forest Ham turns out to be just the opposite. is the trade group website and it's an informative "breath of fresh air", which is ironic considering we're talking about smoked meats here.  The site really tells you all you need to know and more.  And with pictures!  What we'll do here is jot down some high points.

     1.  Black Forest Ham has a 200 year history.
     2.  It must be made in the Black Forest region of Germany.
     3.  It is a raw smoked boneless ham.
     4.  Pine needles and sawdust provide the smoke flavor.
     5.  Spices include salt, pepper, coriander, garlic, juniper berries, and perhaps others.
     6.  The process includes a prolonged immersion in brine followed by dry curing at 5 degrees centigrade.  The smoking and aging steps round out the total three month process.
All butchers who work on Black Forest Hams must be licensed and the pigs' breed and age are mandated.  The finished product must show the manufacturers trade association seal on the label for legitimacy.  The entire process and guarantee of quality have been protected by the European Union since 1997.  There is even a Black Forest Ham museum open to the public to lend historical credence to the product.

So why is this relevant for us?  Because Subway markets a Black Forest Ham sandwich and the grocery stores stock Boars Head and Hillshire Farm Black Forest Hams in their deli cases and none of it is the real thing.  Real Black Forest Hams have a low salt content and little fat while at the same time being rich in minerals and the B vitamin group.  American hams used for this purpose are unregulated and use artificial smoke and color which is why Europe wants its place names off of American product labels.

The Black Forest Ham we have in the store would pair well with German or Alsatian Riesling or Gewurztraminer, Dry Rose, or a nice red Cotes du Rhone.  And good beer too, of course!

Saturday, April 2, 2016


Saint-Remacle de Wavreumont is a monastery in eastern Belgium close to Germany.  It was built in 1950 as a replacement, of sorts, for the Saint-Remacle Abbey which now lays in ruins nearby. The structure, itself, is a very modern appearing building and the twenty Benedictine monks who live there devote themselves to physical work and worship.   In 1996 when local cheese maker, Mark Rosen, requested the monastery's ancient Trappist cheese recipe it was freely given by the monks.  The cheese was no longer being made there and the Benedictines considered it a gift to the local community economy.  The cheese is now marketed as an "homage" to the monastic traditions.

Today Le Wavreumont (vahv-ru-manh) is made by Mr. Rosen at Fromagerie des Ardennes in the French-speaking community of Werbomont.  The milk is sourced from Pie Noire cows at three local dairies in Montbeliard, Normande using renowned lush east Belgian pasturelands.  The cheese is certified organic and not pasteurized.

Wavreumont is a three inch tall, eight inch diameter wheel that is "cornered" at the bottom but rounded at the top.  The wheel has a natural sandy tan-colored, brine-rubbed rind.  The paste is semi-soft pale yellow when made from winter milk (hay) and orange-yellow otherwise when the cows are pasture fed.  It has irregular small eyes throughout.

The cheese has aromas of peanuts, cream, and egg.  The flavors display a fresh, rich, sweet creaminess with a touch of yeastiness.  The finish shows nuts, grass, and butter.

While wheat beers are recommended for this Belgian cheese, Alsatian white wines and most Pinot Noirs should work here.    

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Dr. Olmo, Rubired, and Mega Purple - Part 1

When we think of the giants of the California wine industry, we tend to think of the "front men", the stars of the industry; the winemakers, winery owners, and perhaps the writers who make it all understandable for the rest of us.  If we dig a little bit deeper we get to the pioneers who stood at junctures in industry history and through their individual impact, changed the future of wine in America.  Dr. Harold Olmo, U. C. Davis viticulturist, was one of those pioneers, a modern one whose lifespan overlaps most of ours.  

During Dr. Olmo's almost fifty year career he traveled the world studying grape types and advising natives of far-flung corners of the world as to what they should be planting where.  He studied ancient and obscure vines in the Middle East and cataloged clonal varieties of popular commercial grapes here.  Many cuttings from around the world ended up being rooted in his U. C. Davis quarantine area for further study.  Along with thirty grapevine hybrid creations now called Olmo grapes, Dr. Olmo is directly responsible for the popularizing of the Chardonnay clone that makes most of the popular styled California Chardonnay today.

In 1958 Dr. Olmo created Rubired, a Teinturier cross of Alicante Ganzin and Tinta Cao, two varieties that are themselves the result of crossing grape types.  Teinturier grapes have a red pulp.  Most red (and white) wine grapes have a clear pulp. Wine color is derived almost exclusively from the grape skins.  Teinturier grapes are considered to be too tannic for wine making but work well for making food colorings and dyes.  Rubired was cultivated as a high yielding hot climate grape thought to be potentially useful in a port-styled blend.

Mega Purple is the commercial name for a grape concentrate marketed by Constellation, one of the largest wine companies in the world.  The grape juice that makes the concentrate is Rubired.    

Dr. Olmo, Rubired, and Mega Purple - Part 2

Mega Purple is one of several competing brands of grape concentrate that sell for upwards from $100/gallon.  Ten thousand gallons of Mega Purple alone are sold per year.  Twenty-five million bottles of wine per year contain some miniscule percentage of Mega Purple.  Not surprisingly there is a Mega Red with competing brands in that category also.  As the industry leader, Mega Purple's sales figures are easier to obtain than others so the total production of this kind of product is probably known only to industry insiders.

While Mega Purple's primary purpose is to add color to wine, that isn't its only benefit.  Mega purple is a syrup so it offers texture and weight.  Also as a grape concentrate it is 68% sugar so it must be added prior to fermentation so the wine doesn't end up too sweet.  Inevitably Mega Purple imparts an enhanced fruity character to a wine which, when added to all of the other characteristics above, goes a long way toward covering the shortcomings of less than stellar grapes.  In fact Mega purple covers major flaws like pyrazine and brettanomyces, two of the worst qualities a finished wine can display.

What's wrong with that?  Absolutely nothing if you're a mass marketer of vin ordinaire who wants to provide a palatable product for all of the thirsty American wine lovers who have earned a glass after another hard day at work.  Constellation and all of the other mass marketers of economy wine never had it so good.  This is progress.  Who cares if vineyard distinction is lost if the overall quality level is raised.

But if you're aiming higher and competing with high-minded competitors who take what the vineyard gives them and do their best to make wine the old fashioned way, then Mega Purple is cheating. Either that or else this whole industry needs to re-define itself and that may be what is going on in California today.  The bag of wine making tricks has been greatly expanded in this modern era to include oak chips and staves, chemical extracts and essences, powdered tannins, tartaric acid, gum arabic, and different strains of yeast for a multitude of different purposes.  At least Mega Purple is made from grapes.

Perhaps it all comes down to what your understanding of wine is.  As a thirty-five year veteran of this industry I remember all kinds of wines judged to be flawed by standards way above my pay grade.  Over time I have come to agree with most of those pronouncements but at the same time, some of those "flawed" flavors added to many wine profiles and made them more distinctive to my way of thinking.

Only twenty percent of the annual Mega Purple production goes into wine making, by the way.  One might wonder where the rest is going.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


There are the noble grape types and then there are all of the rest, as the man once said to me.  Chenin Blanc decidedly belongs to the latter category but with the same caveat shared with many other types - in the right terroir it performs admirably.  So why is it any different than the noble Pinot Noir which is a stinker in most venues but sublime in Burgundy?  It isn't any different and therein lies the fallacy in the noble/ignoble hierarchy.  Virtually all vinifera grapes just need to find the right terroir to excel.

Vouvray (voov-ray) is a 5,000 acre AOC (1936) located in the Touraine district on the north side of the Loire River.  It is just east of the city of Tours, a hundred forty miles east of the Atlantic Ocean, almost half way to Burgundy.  It is also the home of the finest Chenin Blanc in the world and for that reason no other grape is allowed there.

What makes the Vouvray terroir so perfect for Chenin Blanc?  Soil primarily.  The calcareous soil (tuffeau) of Vouvray developed ninety million years ago during the Cretaceous Period.  At that time the area was a seabed comprised of everything that fell to the floor from above and, of course, sand.  Today this rocky soil provides a perfect balance of drainage and water retention for grape vines.

Chenin Blanc grapes also thrive in the northern climate of the Loire Valley, which is partly maritime and partly continental.  When it's more maritime (cool) the wines tend to be drier and when more continental, the wines end up sweeter.  Also when it's cool more sparkling wine is made there and when it's warm, more lush dessert wines are made.

Ampelographers have determined Chenin Blanc got its start in the ninth century in Anjou, fifty miles to the west.  With that long of a history you could imagine that every possible style of wine making was explored.  Today six styles prevail:

                             1.  Sec - the driest at .4% residual sugar
                             2.  Demi-Sec - off-dry .4-1.2%
                             3.  Moelleux -  noticably sweeter 1.2-4.5%
                             4.  Doux - very sweet 4.5%+
                             5.  Petillant - slightly sparkling
                             6.  Mousseux - fully sparkling

In a typical year 52% of production will be sparkling and 48% still, but percentages change with the weather.  The typical yield for a Vouvray vintage is one million cases.  No wines see any oak or malolactic fermentation.  The typical flavor profile includes some combination of honey, nuts, ginger, fig, apple, apricot, white flowers, or candied fruit.  The aroma shows rose, quince, acacia, or green apple.

The wine color is straw yellow when young and more amber as it ages and aging is something Vouvray does very well.  Sec (dry) Vouvrays can hold for fifteen to twenty years while sweet Vouvrays can last a hundred years.  A good average for Vouvrays from superior vintages is forty years.  So what accounts for this ageability?  Acidity.  Chenin Blanc grapes have a naturally high acidity which acts as a preservative when the wine is laid down.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Thermal Amplitude

Funny how we get sidetracked while researching blog subjects.  We began with an investigation of Piattelli Vineyards 2013 Premium Reserve Malbec, number forty-four on the Wine Spectator's 2015 Top 100 list.  Having a couple cases of that one in the store, we found their story to be moderately interesting and their website to be exceptional compared to others but we found their location in the Lujon de Cuyo appellation in western Mendoza to be of greater interest.  Then we stumbled upon the term "thermal amplitude" and really got an education as to why Mendoza Malbecs are so good.

The Lujon de Cuyo appellation in the upper Mendoza valley in western Mendoza was Argentina's first legislated wine appellation (1993) and today boasts many hundred year old vineyards. Argentina's long (by new world standards) wine production history began with immigrants from southern Europe in the early 1800's.  Cuyo is the historic name for Mendoza and it hosted many of those early wine making immigrants.  In 1830 one thousand hectares there were in vines.  By 1910 vineyards numbered forty-five thousand hectares.  Clearly a nineteenth century wine boom was happening in Argentina.

The conditions in Mendoza that were so inviting to immigrants included rocky alluvial soils (sand over clay) in a semi-arid, continental climate desert - at a thousand feet elevation!  Worldwide, a thousand feet is usually the elevation where grapevines cease to grow but our intrepid pioneers planted their euro-vines and Malbec quickly ascended to the head of the class.  Today two-thirds of all Argentine plantings are Malbec.

Our Piattelli Lujon de Cuyo Malbec vineyards lie at a 3,152 foot elevation!  Benefits at that level include increased intense sunlight and automatic organic certification since no pests live at that elevation. Other radical differences from Europe include the flat lands of Mendoza which only rise gradually in altitude, the furthest thing from European hillside vineyards.  As these elevations increase, the soil becomes more granular and less fertile from organic matter forcing the vine to struggle for its existence while the temperatures become colder at an average of one degree per one hundred feet of elevation.  Pure irrigation water is amply available from the melting snows further up the Andes.

Here's where we'll turn things over to for an understanding of thermal amplitude.  "During photosynthesis in daytime, carbohydrates are taken into the vine's reserve organs including the grapes, themselves.  At night respiration takes place without photosynthesis consuming some of the carbohydrates.  A lower temperature (at night) means a greater thermal amplitude and a lower amount of components consumed during respiration. This results in a more intense grape expression with a richness of components that affect color, aroma, and palate structure."

When we think of tannins in wine we think of the burning quality in the mouth from young wine.  Actually tannins may be monomeric or polymeric, having one or more dimensions, and the high altitude intensely sunlit Mendoza vineyards decidedly yield the latter.  Malbec grape skins there are thick and heavy with tannins while the wines still end up being soft and round.

Our recent Cousino-Macul blogpost now gains relevance in light of this foray.  Maipo Chile is just over the Andes from Mendoza.  Their incredible Cabernets mirror in a very different way what Argentina does with Malbec.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Why Doesn't It Taste Like... Part 1

So you taste the wine in the fancy restaurant, at the mountain cabin, or in Europe, Napa, Rio de Janeiro, or wherever and surprise, surprise, the wine doesn't taste as good now that you've bought it locally.  What on earth could be the problem?

Some form of this situational mindbender is regularly presented to the guy in the wine store, like he can account for all of the factors responsible for your disappointment.  In fact, there's a slew of monkey wrenches gumming up the works here.  Let's separate them into tangible and intangible categories.


The obvious reality is that you are no longer in Rio or wherever.  You are in America, that most capitalistic of countries, and you are stressed out for all of the same reasons the rest of us are, financial reasons being somewhere in the forefront of all of our collective consciousness.  You aren't feeling the breeze through your hair in the mountains or wading in the water on the beach and you sure aren't in some quaint Alpine village sipping the wine with the traditional foods they have always been paired with.   You are here now and your baggage has arrived ahead of you.

Moreover, unless you are in the wine business, you are probably moderately insecure about your wine knowledge, like this silly tasting business is something important and a must-master cultural touchstone.  Let's demystify.  While there really is a deep, deep well of objective wine knowledge that is there to be plumbed if that is your desire, there is also the pure enjoyment of the beverage.  In America (and everywhere else) when we taste we bring into the present our mood based on what happened prior to pulling the cork.  Weather and traffic, anyone?  We bring our expectations (see paragraph 1) into a present that already includes distractions like sights, sounds, and smells in the air and, of course, interpersonal exchanges both positive and negative.  In light of all of the above, how can the wine taste like you remembered it?

And just how reliable is your memory anyway?

As we taste more and more different wines we do accrue reference points for categorizing and evaluating wines, perhaps giving us a false sense of security in an ever changing wine landscape.  And while we profess to be hard at work perfecting our palate, why is it that when we think about enjoyable wine we keep going back to the one that was in the paper cup at the ballgame that day.

Why Doesn't it Taste Like... Part 2

There are actually many tangible reasons why the wine you enjoyed so much somewhere else tastes differently when bought at the local wine shop.  Here are ten - starting with the obvious and going to the, uh, not-so-obvious.


1.   Bad bottles - There are such things as bad bottles or as happens in our mass market economy, unfortunately, bad batches.  They happen.  Wine can be damaged in the wine making process.  With the mass market stuff, they can even be made at several different facilities, so of course, the wine will be different.

2.  Vintage changes - Maybe the one you bought at the retail store is a different vintage or as above, a non-vintage mass market batch change.

3.  Stemware - Could it be that the restaurant where you were introduced to the wine used a nicer stem?  Maybe the dish detergent there was superior to what's at home.

4.  Wine Temperature - A good restaurant knows optimal temperatures for different wines.  Americans are known to serve their reds too warm and their whites too cold.

5.  Decanting - Even retailers fall for this one.  We taste the samples that have been open a while and, boy, do they taste good!  Then we open the wine in the store for a customer and...uh-oh!

6.  Food pairings - We covered this somewhat in Part 1.  If you thought the wine you had in the restaurant was magical, it may have been due in part to the food.

7.  Wine storage - The restaurant may do this better than what we do at home.  A temperature and humidity controlled dark secluded area is optimal for wine storage and if chilling your wine is necessary, do so just before serving.  

8.  Bottle shock - Some types are more susceptible than others.  If you have the luxury of holding wines after purchasing them, that seems to help.  If it's European wine, hopefully the distributor has already done that before you purchase it.

9.  Transportation and storage - This is my hot button issue and there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it, except to not purchase brands we know have been abused in the past.  Make no mistake - some caretakers in the wine transportation/storage/delivery process abuse their product and that extends to the retail customer who forgets the wine in the car in the heat of summer.

10. Brand replacement - If your "foreign" wine tastes different here in the states, that may be because it actually is a different wine.  This isn't as unusual as you might think.  Some large European wine companies export a wine style they think Americans may like more than the traditional Euro version.

So if the wine tastes different it's not all in your head.  Consider the character, Miles, the classic headcase in the movie, Sideways, who was still able to enjoy his wine even as beset with problems as he was.  Then go put on your big boy wine tasting pants and raise a glass and celebrate the difference!  L'chaim!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Masi Modello Delle Venezie

Masi is perhaps the finest of the large Italian wine producers.  Modello translates into "mode" so Modello Delle Venezie could be translated as "in the style of Veneto".  Veneto, by the way, is not Venice but "Tre Venezie" or three Venices which are old administrative regions in northeast Italy dating from the early twentieth century.

This wine is an IGT (Indicazione Geographica Typica) red "delle Venezie" which means it is typical of the region of production.  In today's wine map of northeast Italy, delle Venzie overlays Veneto, Friuli-Venezie Giulia, and Trentino-Alto Adige, basically covering the whole northeast corner of the country.

The IGT category was created in 1992 to provide cover for the state when the success of Super Tuscan wine producers called into question the basis for the existing Italian wine law.  At the time, Super Tuscans were commanding prices significantly higher than the DOCG Tuscan reds.  Because they used grapes disallowed in Tuscany, those Super Tuscans had to be labelled as table wine, the lowest quality level at the time.  The IGT creation allows the inclusion of grapes in blends that favor a uniformity of style under the natural conditions of a region.

In the case of our Masi wine, the grapes are Rabosa, Refosco, and other indigenous types so the IGT may be gratuitous in favor of Masi's prestigious bearing or considering that the international varieties are allowable up to 10% in IGT Delle Venezie red blends, Masi may be getting state leeway to alter the blend if need be.  The list of state sanctioned grapes here is long.  To keep things in perspective 70% of wine production in this region is Pinot Grigio so a red blend like this might require some flexibility.

Masi possesses 170 hectares in seventeen hillside vineyards in Veneto.  They have had the same ownership since the eighteenth century and because of that longevity, Masi has historic relationships with neighboring grape growers.  Because this is Valpolicella country, they favor the "appassimento" method to concentrate wine flavors and that seems to be in evidence here in this medium bodied, ruby colored red.

The flavors here include ripe cherry with plum and delicate spice.  Like all Italians the flavors are long and the finish is dry.  The Masi winery is thoroughly modern so this wine is made in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks using a malolactic fermentation.  This is a "drink now" pizza and burger wine but being what it is, it may complement soup, sausage, pork, and pasta.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Sometimes I like to listen for voice inflections as wine salespeople offer their wares here at the store.  Honesty tends to win out over hyperbole in a sales pitch when the pitch of the voice is in play.  This time our vendor seemed to want to rush past the 2011 Cousino-Macul Finis Terrae Red Bordeaux Blend as if to get to something else that was good from Cousino-Macul but her voice betrayed her.  My follow-up question for her was, "What did you like about Finis Terrae?", to which she said, "layers (of flavors)" which, of course, frees up all kinds of images of Cabernet depth and complexity.  In short, I was sold.

That wine is in the store right now, just in case I may have piqued any curiosity out there.  According to just a couple wine writers I checked, those layers include aromas and/or flavors of black currant, blackberries, raspberries, violets, cigar box, cedar, tobacco, mushrooms, and spice.  Sounds just like a premium fruit-driven Maipo Valley Chilean Cabernet should taste.  Here are some more descriptors: full-bodied, unfiltered, dark red color; and those layers of fruit, by the way, are velvety in texture and display finesse in their subtlety.  Fine wine, I'd say.

So having sold Cousino-Macul for as long as I have, I thought it was about time I learned something about the company.  Established in 1856, Cousino-Macul is the oldest continuously family-owned winery in Chile.  They, along with a handful of others, parlayed their mineral mining wealth into travels through Europe and one thing led to another and grapevines ended up following them back home to Chile.  And these grapevines weren't just any grapevines.  For Cousino-Macul, the Cabernet and Merlot came from Pauillac in the Haut-Medoc of Bordeaux, home to the finest Cabernet in the world.

The Chilean wine country is a belt across the waist of that long thin nation.  Using that metaphor, the Maipo Valley is in the middle of the wine country so I guess it's the belt buckle and that's where the industry started in the 1850's.  Most early vineyards were further south than Cousino-Macul and I never found out how they happened to locate where they did.  It's fortuitous though because that area is now referred to as the Alto Maipo (Upper Maipo) and it is the most desirable region for making fine Bordeaux blends in Chile.

Cousino-Macul is in the northwestern corner of the Alto Maipo, literally abutting Santiago, the nation's capitol.  It is at the top of the Central Valley which has a ridge to the west that admits the cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean Humbolt Current while limiting harsher winds off the ocean.  The real treasure in an Alto Maipo venue though lies immediately to the east where the mighty Andes tower upward. Vineyards in Alto are already at a desirable altitude but what the Andes do for them is icing on the cake.

The diurnal effect of temperature changes as applied to grape growing is a subject we have discussed here many times.  In short, grapes ripen better when a cool evening accompanies considerable daytime sunlight.  What the Andes do for Alto is to block the morning sunrise intensifying the cold morning temperatures before giving way to the rest of the day's extended sunshine from the west.

Finis Terrae is a brand launched by Cousino-Macul in 1996.  The name means "end of the earth" and the red bordeaux blend is only made in the best years.  Food pairings include steaks and other stronger red meat dishes and aged cheeses.