IPNC 06 #2: Out of the Shadow

mikerichmond.jpgBouchaine is a winery that seemed always to be around, but was never exciting. While one of the founders of Carneros as a top pinot noir region, Bouchaine always remained in the shadow of its neighbors Acacia and Saintsbury. While some good wines were made at Bouchaine, other wineries rode the Carneros wave to the top.

Now things are turned around and the same thing that took Acacia to the top is now powering Bouchaine, which has finally taken its place on the “A” team of Carneros producers. What made the wines of Acacia compelling was the talent, intelligence and passion of winemaker Mike Richmond, who has now taken his considerable talents to Bouchaine. 

Meanwhile the once revered Acacia winery has been turned into an industrial production line of plonk pinot by alcoholic beverage super-giant Diageo and now Acacia is involved in hand-to-hand combat with Sanford Winery and other corporate pinot noir producers to see who can sell the most boxes of indistinguishable pinot noir. If you are trying to decide between which of these labels to buy you should flip a coin or buy the cheapest because what’s in the bottle is of little consequence or interest.

At this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC), Mike Richmond presented his first Bouchaine Pinot Noir that he was responsible for from start to finish and a very nice wine it is. The 2004 Bouchaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir is a lovely wine with a graceful balance and an intriguing subtle character. It certainly shows the richer characteristics of California, but is still restrained and complex with a lingering, not heavy finish.

The emergence of Bouchaine as a first class Carneros pinot noir producer reminds us that while great wines are made in the vineyard, you have to know what to do with those grapes when you get them. Mike Richmond obviously knows what to do and, perhaps more importantly when it comes to pinot noir - what not to do. 

IPNC 06 #1: Crème de la Crème - Richard Sanford Rises Again

sanfordrichard.jpgIn a clear case of the cream rising to the top, pinot noir legend Richard Sanford has escaped the corporate world of winemaking, where the $ is more important than the pH, and released his first wines under his new label, Alma Rosa Winery and Vineyards. While it is sad he lost control of his namesake winery in the process, the good news is that once again he is producing some of America’s finest pinot noir wines.

Though Richard may have lost his label, he retained control of some of his best vineyards and from those organically farmed vines come his new wines. Emphasizing both Richard’s commitment to quality and the environment, the entire production of Alma Rosa will be bottled under screw caps bearing the recycling arrows symbol that will be familiar to those who have purchased wines in Europe - you can even return the bottles to the winery for reuse.

At this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in Oregon, Richard previewed his two premiere releases under the Alma Rosa label and both give just what you would expect from him: excellence. These two fine pinot noirs, 2004 Santa Rita Hills (2645 cases) and 2004 La Encantada Vineyard (500 cases) are svelte beauties with great complexity and a restrained finesse all wrapped in a rich, but well balanced California package. 

The once revered Sanford label will now be brought to you by the same folks that give you wines like Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio and Rutherford Hill Merlot and should be avoided by anyone seeking a wine that will generate brain waves as it passes across your palate. However, Bacchus be praised, the great pinot noir wines produced by the real Richard Sanford that have given us all such great pleasure over the decades can still be found - they’re just called Alma Rosa now.

To make the picture complete for all of you old Sanford wine aficionados, Chris Burroughs, the long-haired, cowboy-hat-wearing tasting room manager of the old Sanford Winery made famous by his appearance in Sideways has followed Richard and Thekla Sanford to Alma Rosa and will be pouring wines for guests in their new tasting room. So you’ll find all the heart and soul that made the Sanford Winery great at Alma Rosa, which means at the old Sanford Winery you’ll find…

la gramiere

La gramiereThe romantic pull of winemaking. You see it in the eyes of everyone who visits you at the vineyard. You hear it over elegant dinners and at wine tastings as people dream of having their own vineyard and winery. For most it only remains a dream, but a fateful few take the plunge. Two such lucky souls are Amy Lillard and Matt Kling who are living in Castillon du Gard in France’s Cotes du Rhone wine region tending 4.5 hectares of grenache, syrah and mourvedre and are now into their second vintage of winemaking. While few can personally experience such a life, thanks to the blogging of Amy you can at least live it vicariously. Check out their very entertaining (and sure to turn you green with envy) La Gramiere Blog at the address below. Just reading it alone is increasing my consumption of Cotes du Rhone wines and I hope someday to get a chance to taste theirs – at the winery, of course.

Visit La Gramiere at the link below:

Randall Grahm on Terroir


In one fell swoop of the word processor, Randall Grahm has defined the value of two controversial topics: terroir and biodynamic. In an entertaining and eloquent paper for the Terroir Conference at UC Davis, Grahm has clearly defined terroir, a concept that for some reason so many choose to deny.

Notes Grahm in his paper, “Terroir is a composite of many physical factors – soil structure and composition, topography, exposition, micro-climate as well as more intangible cultural factors. Matt Kramer once very poetically defined terroir as “somewhere-ness,” and this I think is the nub of the issue. I believe that “somewhereness” is absolutely linked to beauty, that beauty reposes in the particulars; we love and admire individuals in a way that we can never love classes of people or things. Beauty must relate to some sort of internal harmony; the harmony of a great terroir derives, I believe, from the exchange of information between the vine-plant and its milieu over generations. The plant and the soil have learned to speak each other’s language, and that is why a particularly great terroir wine seems to speak with so much elegance.”

Somewhere-ness is the essence of what makes wine intellectually and emotional simulating.

Continues Grahm, “A great terroir is the one that will elevate a particular site above that of its neighbors. It will ripen its grapes more completely more years out of ten than its neighbors; its wines will tend to be more balanced more of the time than its unfortunate contiguous confrères. But most of all, it will have a calling card, a quality of expressiveness, of distinctiveness that will provoke a sense of recognition in the consumer, whether or not the consumer has ever tasted the wine before.”

Expressiveness, distinctiveness: words that should be more compelling to wine lovers than opulent, rich or powerful.

On biodynamics Grahm writes, “biodynamics is perhaps the most straightforward path to the enhanced expression of terroir in one’s vineyard. Its express purpose is to wake up the vines to the energetic forces of the universe, but its true purpose is to wake up the biodynamicist himself or herself.”

Let’s repeat that again because its meaning is so significant, “its true purpose is to wake up the biodynamicist himself or herself.” In other words putting the winemaker in visceral contact with their vineyards. It is this connection that produces truly unique and characterful wines.

Anyone straining to understand these two concepts should read and re-read this very meaningful piece. Compliments to for getting Randall’s comments out to the public.

Click here to read the entire paper by Randall Grahm

Randall Grahm on Terroir - Santa Cruz Mountains.

PEE'ing Pinot Noir

Annette hoff cima collina

Winemaker Annette Hoff of Monterey’s Cima Colina is the author of a fine blog and offers some very insightful comments concerning the over manipulation of pinot noir and wines in general these days. In a recent post she comments:

“The way I see it, there are two different classifications of Pinot these days in the US: PCD’s (Pinot for Cab Drinkers) and PEE’s (excuse the acronym: Pinot for Everyone Else). I like Cabernet, and I have nothing against Cabernet drinkers, but what I don’t like is the concept of placing the same expectations one has of Cabernet (dark, rich, and, well, dark, rich) on a wine such as Pinot Noir and, as it turns out, the typical PCD’s are usually dark, rich and relatively non-varietal in character. If you like that, then go to it.”

That’s some great insight. For the complete story and to visit Annette’s Cima Collina blog, follow the link below:

Cellar Rap » Blog Archive » Pinot Noir for Everyone Else.

Doing It In the Vineyard - Sottimano Barbaresco

If you ever need proof that great wines are made in the vineyard, not the cellar, all you have to do is visit the Sottimano family in the Neive commune of Barbaresco. Faced with a string of wildly different vintage growing conditions in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004, the Sottimanos have excelled in each one, not because of tricks in the cellar, but from sweat and toil in their vineyards. In particular, the last three of these vintages offered challenges that many winemakers were not up to facing.

The meager sunshine in 2002 made many producers give up and sell their wine off in bulk. Not the Sottimanos, who reduced yields down to one bunch per vine and the resulting wines were lovely and charming. These wines are highly recommended for those without the cellar or patience for aging wines ten years or more.

In 2003, the sun would not stop shining, turning the steep Langhe hill vineyards into ovens that shrivelled and burnt the grapes. Ever in touch with the environment, the Sottimanos kept their yields high and did not remove as many leaves as usual. While most other producers offer over-ripe, overly-alcoholic wines from the vintage, the Sottimano wines are refined and balanced with a forward elegance and alcohols under 14%. Once again, they found just the right amount of crop for the year.

In 2004 nature offered too much of a good thing and the vines went into high gear, producing as many grapes as possible. Most producers had to take huge saigneé percentages (taking juice out of the fermenters to increase concentration) if they did not want to make Barbaresco rosé. However, the Sottimanos did not take a drop of saigneé out of their tanks as they had once again aggressively reduced their yields. In fact, they went as far as cutting the bottom half off some of their bunches. Yet again, they will produce one of the best wines of the vintage.

Father and son, Rino and Andrea Sottimano are making great wines with their backs, not with technology. That these are naturally conceived wines show in their superb balance and character. Nature is not something you overwhelm, but a spirit you need to learn to live in harmony with. If you don’t, you will always lose the battle. The Sottimanos always seem to win.

The new releases 2003 Sottimano Barbaresco single vineyards:

Fausoni – Bright garnet with touches of ruby. Very clean and spiced with touches of burnt blood oranges, bitter licorice and sweet cherry. Very lean and firmly tannic at this point. Its medium weight does not make you think of the boiling hot 2003 vintage. The finish is dominated by tannin, but sweet tarry notes are starting to emerge.

Currá – Stylish and delicate in a powerful nebbiolo sort of way. Spicy aromas with hints of wild-flowers over bittersweet tar. Quite lean and tannic at this part, not showing any over-ripeness. Very refined, but still very closed. Firm tannins finish with just a touch of oak.

Cottá – Richer, more powerful showing a deep earthy nose layered with sweet tar and bitter cherry. A real powerhouse while keeping its balance. Again there is no sign of over-ripe fruit. A great classic nebbiolo throughout. A decade or more of aging is going to be well worth it. The finish is still very closed and brooding.

Pajoré – Brilliant light ruby with garnet touches. Bright clean dark fruit aromas blend with wild-flowers, lavender, spices and a tangy tarry highlight. Very refined and elegant, but don’t let that fool you as this wine should be aged for at least eight years before pulling the cork. A great combination of power and refinement. This nebbiolo just dances across the palate before delivering a tannic crack of the whip.

My previous notes on the Sottimano wines:

2002 –

2001 –

An Oregon Grand Cru

privelogoS.gifPrivé Vineyard, a small patch of pinot noir vines on Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains yields a scant 250 cases between its north and south parcels. The upper section dubbed Le Nord yields only 165 cases, while the lower Le Sud offers a meager 85. There can be no doubt that this vineyard is of “Grand Cru” stature. Privé Vineyard was created by Mark and Tina Hammond and few vines or wines receive more hands-on loving care. The results are wines of stunning balance and complexity.

As you might imagine, quality of this magnitude is no longer a secret and getting on the Hammond’s mailing list is just a bit harder than finding the Holy Grail. I can only tell you to get on the waiting list now for these wines are the real thing.

The current release of 2004 Privé Vineyard, Le Sud, Yamhill County Pinot Noir is simply breathtaking and I feel ashamed to have opened one of the few existing bottles before it attained its full potential. An almost perfect blend of power and restraint, the depth and range of flavors already offered makes one pause and contemplate again and again as you savor every sip.

My other two bottles will wait three or four more years, when I know I will be moved to write about this extraordinary wine again.

Denis Mortet

Denis Mortet, a winemaker of uncontrollable passion and dedication has decided to leave us. His impact on Gevery Chambertin will be felt for many, many years. Sometimes passion must be too much to bear.

A sad day for Burgundy and pinot noir lovers throughout the world.

There are some things for which words are truly inadequate. 

Barbaresco Rabajà Giuseppe Cortese

The incline of the hill is steep and every speck of the grayish soil bakes in the hot sun. The entire slope is a wave of vines and the southwest/south exposure means not a leaf misses a moment of sunshine. This is the famed Rabajà vineyard located just outside of the town of Barbaresco. Certainly this vineyard was created to produce exceptional nebbiolo and a vineyard of similar potential in Burgundy would be considered a Grand Cru. However, there is no such official breakdown of vineyards in Langhe; just an informal acknowledgement among those in the trade as to what the great vineyards are - an acknowledgment clearly defined in the selling price of the wines, grapes and land.

The sun drenched calcareous and clay-heavy soils of Rabajà produces Barbaresco wines with a unique combination of power and elegance that makes them approachable in their youth, but rewards those who cellar their bottles with wines of great complexity and refinement.

From vines in the very heart of this special vineyard come the Barbaresco wines of Giuseppe Cortese, a small producer making a fine range of wines only from their own grapes. In addition to Barbaresco Rabajà, Cortese produces the excellent Barbera d’Alba Morassina and Dolcetto d’Alba Trifolera  from a vineyard area just to the south of Rabajà. The wines of Cortese have been improving consistently for years and in recent vintages they have been releasing some very fine wines. Giuseppe Cortese, after decades working as an agronomist for other top producers, founded his own estate and now with the next generation - son and daughter Pier Carlo, an enologist, and Tiziana - they are making this estate a must for collectors of traditionally styled wines from the Barbaresco zone. While the fermentations have a slight modern touch, their Barbaresco does not see a small barrel, spending the years in large casks of 17 to 25 hectolitres ranging in age from new to nine year old. Only the Barbera Morassina sees barrique and with excellent results, once again showing the affinity of the high acid/low tannin barbera for small French oak barrels in controlled doses.

Barbaresco Rabajà Riserva, G. Cortese, 1996 ($75) Bright light ruby with garnet. Quite translucent. Exotic earthy nose with ripe plums, burnt orange, porcini and tar. On the palate it is complex, powerful and still very tight. The finish is very long with layer after layer of tar, ripe plum and bitter chocolate tied together by the substantial tannin. A stunning wine in a classic style that is a worthy addition to any collection, this wine needs five or more years to open even though it spent three years in cask and another three in bottle before release.

Barbaresco Rabajà, G. Cortese, 2001 ($45) Bright light ruby with orange and garnet hints. Quite translucent. Elegant, floral nose with rose petals and violets blended with a buttery tar. Full structure on the palate with layers of complex flavors: dried leaves, tar, orange spice, warm tar and ripe plum flavors all of which continue into the long finish that has a touch of cassis to balance the considerable tannin. A wine with excellent aging potential. 

Milano in Marche

Ampelio Bucci seems to embody the elegance and style of Milan. Yet, he is making an impact in that most un-Milan of places, the rugged hills, mountains and coastlines of Le Marche. Since the 1700's the Bucci family has lorded over their estate in Le Marche, but despite the long family history, only under the current generation have their vineyards been raised to greatness. The aptly named Ampelio (coming from ampelos, ancient Greek for vine) has transformed this estate into one of Italy's most interesting white wine producers and a leading producer of Rosso Piceno.

The large property, almost 1,000 acres, not only produces fine wines, but sugar beets, corn, wheat, sunflowers and an extraordinary extra virgin olive oil from the ancient Carbonella olive. Since 2002 all the crops on the estate have been officially certified as organic by the EEU. Ampelio has taken extreme care in his vineyards, refusing to tear up old vines even though their production is severely reduced meaning his yields are less than half that allowed by the DOC. Old vines from extraordinary vineyards farmed with great care of course produce exceptional grapes and Ampelio is to be highly commended for choosing a winemaking approach that brings these essences from the vine to the bottle. No barriques, only large well-used barrels touch his wines. The resulting verdicchio wines literally sing with complexity, richness and fresh acidity. His efforts clearly show the potential of verdicchio from the right vineyards in the right hands and decidedly make the point that barriques and their resulting oak flavors add only confusion to the richly honeyed flavors of verdicchio.

While the labels are similar, wines labeled only Bucci are the regular cuvees (and lovely they are), while wines labeled Villa Bucci are reserve wines from the oldest vines and best vineyards.

As excellent as the red wines of this property are, it is their exceptional and age-worthy Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico wines that make them stand out in the crowded world of wines. Their unique flavors, textures and complexity make delicious companions to the finest meals. They are among the world's finest white wines.

2000 Villa Bucci Riserva, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore ($35)
Bright light gold. Smooth crème brulee aromas open into toasted hazelnut, vanilla with touches of ripe oranges. Rich, yet firmly bitter on the palate. Creamy, nutty flavors blend with a lively touch of bitter orange and ripe mangos. The firm flavors dominate the full, but structured finish. An extremely balanced and complex wine that I recommend aging a few more years to allow all the components to grow and blend.

2002 Villa Bucci Rosso Piceno($35)
Bright light ruby, just translucent. An elegant, layered complex nose with touches of bitter and sweet plum, black cherry, blood oranges, spices and fresh mint. Exceptional balance and refinement on the palate as bitter cherry flavors dance with chocolate, sweet plums, spices and cranberries. The finish is long, and lively with each of the aromas and flavors repeating themselves. A lovely wine that is ready to drink now and over the next 5 or 6 years. Villa Bucci Rosso Piceno wine is 70% montepulciano and 30% sangiovese.

A Nobile Character

boscarellipaolalucaniccolo.jpgThe complaint of where to find true Tuscan sangiovese character in wines frequently comes up in this era of heavily oaked Tuscan sangiovese wines that are often blended beyond recognition by the addition of too much cabernet sauvignon. One answer may lie in Montepulciano and it is hard to imagine a more complex example than the extraordinary 2001 Vigna del Nocio from Poderi Boscarelli.

Vino Nobile may have a grand name, but it seemed the winemaking revolution that swept Tuscany in the 1970's overlooked Montepulciano. Some producers, notably Avignonesi and Poliziano tried to push the region forward, but the lack of an easily identifiable style of Vino Nobile and the loose regulations of the DOC meant that there were a lot of mediocre wines sold making the name far less "Nobile" in the eyes of many consumers.

There is also a lot of confusion caused by the name of Montepulciano and the wines of the Vino Nobile zone do not use any of the grapes from the vine of the same name. The montepulciano vine is responsible for some very good wines in Marche, Abruzzo and Puglia, but you won't find a drop of it in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. In the case of Tuscany, Montepulciano is a lovely hilltop medieval village located east of Montalcino near the border with Umbria. As in Montalcino, the unique characteristics of the sangiovese vine in this region inspired its own name and the Montepulciano branch of the sangiovese family is called prugnolo gentile. The DOCG regulations remain very loose here and still allow for up to 20% of other approved varieties and a maximum of 10% white varieties. Fortunately the regulations amended in 1999 also allow for 100% varietal sangiovese wines. Obviously there still can be a lot of variation in style even within these new regulations.

The concept that prugnolo gentile is "the sangiovese" of Montepulciano is another concept that is dying in the face of the ongoing refinement of clonal selection of sangiovese in central Italy. As vineyards are being replanted throughout Montalcino, Montepulciano and Chianti Classico the types of sangiovese vines selected are from clones that have been identified as providing certain characteristics and superior wine and more attention is devoted to these variables than to if the vine is "brunello" or "prugnolo gentile". Thus on a technical sheet for Vigna del Nocio they list the blend as "80% sangiovese/prugnolo gentile" as it is blend of various selected clones of sangiovese with prugnolo just being one of the clones in the mix. Banfi claims they identifed 650 "clones" of brunello when they started their research in Montalcino and from this it is clear that claiming wines are made from "brunello" or "prugnolo gentile" are no longer very precise statements. The fact of the matter is that all the top wines of the best zones are now increasingly being made from a selection of the finest clones of sangiovese available without regard to the zone of their birth.

While the big firms in Montepulciano have grabbed most of the spotlight, a small gem has continued to shine brightly since being founded by Paola Corradi in 1962. Poderi Boscarelli has always been dedicated to quality and produced some this region's best wines year after year. While traditional in style, they have introduced innovations that enhance the quality of their wines without giving up the character of their vineyards. The barrels used for Vigna del Nocio are 500 and 1,000 liters - not 225 liter barriques and the oak used is both Slovenian and French. The 15% of merlot in the blend fleshes out the lean character of the sangiovese without overwhelming it. The Vigna del Nocio is a must-have for serious collectors of sangiovese.

Karate and Cabernet

ROBERT KAMEN started to make his own wine with the dedication of Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) in The Karate Kid, a bit of the reluctant hero like Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) in The Fifth Element, a touch of the romantic like Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves) in A Walk in the Clouds, a shade of the offbeat humor of Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon 3 and the single-minded intensity of Liu Jian (Jet Li) in Kiss of the Dragon.

That Robert Mark Kamen should incorporate all of these personalities into one person is not strange at all, because he is, in fact, them. These characters are all part of Kamen's fertile imagination as he invented all of these roles. Kamen was the screenwriter for these well-known movies and many others. It fact, it was the magic of movies that created the role of winemaker for him.

Like the unwitting hero of a movie, Kamen was led into the world of winemaking without knowing he was being drawn into the plot. Upon selling his first script to Warner Brothers in 1980, Kamen headed up to Sonoma County to celebrate with friends. That day, while hiking through the mountains of the Sonoma Valley, they came to a remote hillside overlooking the valley and Kamen fell in love. "We went to this remote, rugged, overgrown mountainous land strewn with rocky volcanic outcroppings and I fell in love with the place," said Kamen. Yes, it was love at first site, the property happened to be for sale and Kamen headed directly to the real estate agent's office. The agent promptly relieved Kamen of his still warm check from Warner Brothers and in an unanticipated plot twist Kamen found himself a winegrower.

It would take Kamen over twenty years to make his own wine from his land. Although his first script, which financed the purchase, was never made into a movie, his next script, Taps, staring Tom Cruise, was. This was followed by the hugely successful Karate Kid movies. All this success did not make Kamen forget about his steep, rugged piece of the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains. He kept investing in his vineyard, teaming up with the now-famous organic viticulturist, Phil Coturri, to create an outstanding cabernet sauvignon vineyard that produced grapes sought after by Sonoma's finest producers.

In 1995, Kamen's movie, A Walk in the Clouds, was released. In that movie, Kamen had written a scene where the movie's hero, Paul Sutton (Keanu Reeves), saves a family's precious grapevines from total destruction in a fire. "People kept telling me that was wrong," says Kamen. "They told me that vineyards don't burn." In an ironic twist on his own script, he received a call from Coturri the following year telling him that his vineyard was on fire. The fire destroyed a third of his vines and his home. "It was a difficult moment," said Kamen. "It made me reevaluate everything."

"Everything happens for a reason," believes Kamen, an accomplished martial arts practitioner and student of oriental philosophies. Using these strengths he decided to rebuild the vineyard. "We replanted with tighter spacing, better vine selections and rootstocks," said Kamen. "The vineyards became stronger and better than before."

Today there is a 40-acre vineyard planted predominantly with cabernet sauvignon and small amounts of merlot, cabernet franc, and petite verdot. The difficult growing conditions plus stringent vineyard work has reduced yields to about 1.5 tons per acre. This is an extremely low yield, but grapes produced at this level have intense, complicated flavors. "It was finally the quality of the grapes that made me decide to produce my own wine," notes Kamen.

"I was really thinking about what I was doing just growing grapes," observes Kamen. "In screen writing you write many scripts that are never made -- just growing the grapes was the same thing. As a screenwriter the idea is to get the movie made. The reward is to see it on the screen. It's the same with growing grapes. The final reward is to see the wine in the bottle. The appeal is the symphony of the whole process."

Kamen brought in winemaker Karen Bower Turganis to complete the team and in 2002 they released their first wine, 907 cases of the 1999 Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. His second release, 1605 cases of 2000 Kamen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, is a gorgeous California Cabernet. The 2000 vintage, like the 1999, is 100% cabernet sauvignon. It was aged for 22 months in barriques (60 gallon barrels) of various French oaks. It is a brilliant dark ruby wine filled with the aromas of spices and dark ripe fruits like boysenberries and plums. On the palate it is rich, creamy, and smooth with round, bright cherry vanilla flavors blended with a touch of cassis. The texture and balance of the wine stand out with the foundation of the wine more based on the firm and fresh acidity than the soft integrated tannins.  As you might expect, the Kamen wines are not cheap pushing beyond the $50.00 a bottle mark.

Defying the powerful West Coast pull of both winemaking and movie-making, Kamen has remained a New Yorker. This has kept his palate firmly in touch with the European style of winemaking. "The first wines I loved were Bordeaux and Burgundy," explains Kamen. "I'm looking for restraint and my palate leans away from the large California style. Sure in California we have more ripeness and bigger flavors, but we make our cabernet in a style that is restrained by Napa standards. We want to balance the ripeness of California with the restraint of Europe."

In the movie The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi karate-chops the tops off three beer bottles. Daniel Larusso says to him, "How did you do that? How did you do that?" Mr. Miyagi replies, "Don't know. First time." Well maybe that happens in his movies, but when it came to making wine, Robert Kamen knew exactly what he was doing right from the first act.

Touché Ruché

Ruché just doesn't taste like it comes from Piemonte. It is a graceful wine, elegant and floral with a body more defined by its lively acidity than its soft, round tannins. If there is a wine in Italy to relate to fine Beaujolais it is most certainly not the tart dolcetto, which is often referred to in that context, but the refined smoothness of ruché can be more than a little reminiscent of a Fleurie or Chènas. Of course, ruché is not Beaujolais and has its own distinct character, but as most people have not tasted this delicious wine it is a fair way to set a point of reference.

Ruché now sports its own DOC, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato, and this small zone in the hills just outside of Asti is responsible for all the production from this rare variety. Now that DOC status has been awarded to this region you can expect to see production expand perhaps making ruché easier to find. This is one of those wines that one sip is likely to inspire gulps and case purchases. Ruché is pure forward fruit flavor.

Ruché is a bit of a mystery vine. Local wisdom says it is an ancient variety probably indigenous to the Monferrato hills. Even the origin of the name is unclear with some claiming it came from the name of a local monastery while another source points to a resistance to a particular vine disease. Whatever the case, little documentary evidence exists and the history of ruché is more folklore than fact.

Cantine Sant'Agata is making an exceptional assortment of ruché wines and excellent wines from Asti's two other important red wine vines: barbera and grignolino. Founded in 1916, the present generation, Franco and Claudio Cavallero, produces 150,000 bottles of wine from their own vineyards, which total 30 hectares. Other than a small amount of chardonnay all their vines are indigenous and all their wines are of excellent quality and value.

2003 Cantina Sant'Agata, Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato, 'Na Vota ($19)
Brilliant ruby with a just a touch of purple, quite translucent. Smooth, forward ripe cherry vanilla nose with a bitter tinge. a touch of cassis and lovely hints of wildflowers and violets. Firm and fresh on the palate with flavors that expand and grow mirroring the forward yet complex fruit and flowers of the bouquet. In the finish the cassis dominates carried by a refreshing acid zip. The warm 2003 vintage produced particularly rich versions of lesser known Piemontese varietals like ruché. grignolino and freisa and you should keep an eye out for them as they are now in the market. They also offer a special selection ruché, Pro Nobis, to continue the Beaujolais reference, it is to regular ruché what Moulin-a-Vent is to normal Beaujolais.  It has all the characteristics of the 'Na Vota on steroids. I will confess I prefer what I consider the more balanced 'Na Vota, but I am probably in the minority on that choice with most consumers preferring the chunky Pro Nobis.

A John Given Selection-Imported by John Given Wines (Northeast and other states)
Imported by Siema Wines (southeast and other states)

Living On the Edge - Damijan Podversic

damijan_cellar.jpg2001 Damijan Ribolla Gialla, Collio ($35)

In the Gorizia hills of Friuli on the border with Slovenia winemaker Damijan Podversic makes some of the most personal - and sure to be controversial - wines made anywhere. Damijan ferments on the skins in upright wood fermenters using only natural yeast. This may not sound so controversial, but indeed it is as he is making white wines not red. The results are white wines so concentrated with flavor and tannin that if you close your eyes you would be absolutely convinced you were drinking a red wine. Actually, you feel like you are drinking a red wine even when you have your eyes open. Podversic joins Gravner and Radikon, also from this region, in producing wines that really have no other equivalent in the world of white wines. What is it about Friuli that inspires such radical winemaking? While all three of these producers produce extreme wines, they are extreme in different ways and very distinct from each other. This orange/gold wine should be served at cool room temperature. It is intensely flavored and bone-dry with warm orange spiced flavors bolstered by a strong dose of tannin. Like this wine or not you have to admire the courage, intensity and creative independence exhibited by the winemaker. This is a must "brown-bag" for your tasting group that will drive your friends crazy and spark some serious debate. Ribolla Gialla is one of the indigenous vines of the Friuli region with records of its existence predating 1300. While this wine is a long way from a typical Ribolla Gialla it is a wine that stretches the imagination and brings a wonderful grape variety into the spotlight.

Warning: Serving Damijan to Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio lovers could be dangerous as, for them, this wine is the vinous equivalent of electro-shock therapy.

A Jens Schmidt Selection: Imported by Montecastelli Selections

The Greatness of Wine from a Poor Vintage - Sottimano 2002


Andrea Sottimano rushes into the small tasting room of his family’s winery in Barbaresco. He is covered with dust and sweat, removing his hat he smiles disarmingly and says, “sorry, I’m late”.

You know right away that this is no gentleman farmer’s estate. Andrea was, as always, out in the vineyard working their vines. At the Sottimano estate they take the phrase “great wine is made in the vineyard” to a new level. Each of their vines is treated like a Bonsai tree in a Japanese garden. Nothing is too much for these vines to ask.

The ultimate proof of their skills and dedication in the vineyard sits in the glasses in front of me as Andrea pours the full range of their 2002 vintage. This was a year so difficult that many producers gave up, selling their wines off in bulk. The Sottimanos did not give up, but attacked their vineyards with a vengeance, reducing yields to ridiculous levels. This intensity extended beyond simply reducing bunches as they even dropped the lower half of the remaining bunches to the ground.

If you’re wondering why they do this it can’t be for the money. The Sottimano Barbaresci sell for under $75 – or less than many Napa Cabernets that harvest many tons an acre more than they do. This is a work of passion and they have even reduced pricing to encourage consumers to try their 2002’s. If you don’t have a cellar to age your Barbaresci the recommended eight or so years before they mature, these wines are a must buy as they offer pure nebbiolo pleasure in a package ready for drinking sooner rather than later. This is not to say they will not develop nicely with several more years of aging.

The 2002 Barbaresci from Sottimano are not the greatest Barbaresci you will ever taste, but they are an amazing accomplishment and will provide delightful drinking while you are waiting for their exceptional 2001’s and 1999’s to mature. In another testament to their skills in the vineyards, their 2000’s offer more complexity than the simple charming, forward wines offered by most producers.

Click below for my Sottimano new release tasting notes