Wine Notes

Solo Dieci

Is there any website to hate more passionately in the online wine business than the confusing and irritating Bonny Doon site? Once upon a time it was cute, but no more now that it’s corporate manipulation instead of the genuine weirdness of Randall Grahm. Is there anything more embarrassing than corporate suits trying to act cool? Well, maybe they’re trying to make up for that with their wine. I can’t speak for the other Ca’ de Solo wines, but their 2007 Sangiovese selling for only ten bucks (solo dieci) at Whole Foods is a damn good everyday wine. Does it taste like sangiovese? Not a bit. However, it’s a good honest everyday red wine that goes well with carry out pizza or burgers.

It’s a shame that a good, solid everyday wine like this needs so much hoopla to surround it. Wine like this is all about gulps and good, simple food. Trying so hard to be cool for a ten buck wine is a bit embarrassing. They should just be proud for what they are.

Randall was always ahead of the game, but the corporate types that have replaced him don’t have a clue.


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Snob Buster

I looked down on it with disdain. It was below me. I'd wallowed in that mud before. Why waste the time?

For some reason it always grabbed my attention. I walked by time and time again with the self righteous boredom of a commuter passing the same pan handler every day. Yet there was something about it that caught my eye. Finally, with a sneer I picked up the bottle.  An $8 California zinfandel? I knew what that meant - overripe, sweet purple glop. A perfect example of low budget spoofulation. A glutton for punishment, I picked up the bottle using wine blog fodder as an excuse.

I took a sip. Then another. Could I be having a bad palate day? I took a gulp, then another. I liked it. What was up with that?

The next morning I snickered at myself. What could I have been thinking? Yet my next trip to the store that floor stacking was calling, almost challenging me again. I gave in and bought another bottle. The second tasting not only confirmed my first feelings about this wine, I even liked it better.

First of all it really tastes like zinfandel with a lovely briary, raspberry fruit that tastes like wine, not jam. Then there is the refreshingly medium body at an easy 13% alcohol and zesty touch of acidity that livens up the finish. This is a very nice wine and a nice wine it all it is and I think that's great. The world's full of great wines these days, but a charming bottle of zinfandel for under ten bucks is really hard to come by.

The wine? The 2007 Green Bridge Paso Robles Organically Grown Zinfandel is a real steal ($7.99 Whole Foods). Compared to the bland and/or jammy-sweet cabernet and merlot being sold in this price range it's a miracle. Green Bridge delivers real wine instead of industrial purple plonk. It's varietal in character, balanced and perfect for everyday meals, while offering more than enough character for occasions that demand good wine that won't break the bank. It's too bad more zinfandel like this is not produced. After all, can you think of a better wine to be America's everyday go to wine? How in the world did merlot steal that job away?

Often I like simple easy meals. That doesn't mean that I don't expect the food to be flavorful and fresh. The same goes for the wines I like to drink with those meals. It's great to finally find such a wine so close to home.

Is the (2nd) Fiasco Over?

fiasco in italia Wine trade legend had it that the word fiasco entered the English language when the Italians flooded  the American market with mediocre wines after the war and destroyed their reputation for decades. The fiasco was the the name of the straw wrapped around those bottles of cheap Chianti, which became the symbol of Italian wine in the United States. Cheap, innocuous or worse -the straw covered bottles were omnipresent on tables covered with red checked table cloths and provided romantic light, covered with candle wax, in dorm rooms in the 60’s and 70’s.

Of course, Italian wines long ago recovered from that debacle and are sold at prices on par with the the worlds finest. However, there was a second Italian wine fiasco. The first was them sending bad wine here, the second was our fault. We imported Italian varieties and proceeded to make some very boring wine from them. In the eighties there were a lot of high profile efforts to make expensive wines from Italian varieties in California and the category was even given a name: Cal-Ital. There was a lot of hoopla, but the wines were mediocre and expensive – not a good combination. Even today all too many American sangiovese and barbera wines look ridiculous when compared to Italian wines (or other American wines) selling for half the price. Those that deigned to attempt nebbiolo fell far shorter than ridiculous. What could the possible reason be to buy these American wines at $40, $50 or more when you could buy better Italian ones at $20. What made these Americans even worse is that they had no varietal character. They could have been made from zinfandel, merlot  or cabernet, but were not as good as the wines made from those varieties. Why buy an expensive sangiovese when a zin or cab that tasted better cost less? As you might expect, the Cal-Itals soon went out of fashion.

Is this second fiasco over? It may well be as some exciting wines from Italian varieties are finally being made up and down the west coast. They are distinctly New World, as they should be, while maintaining true varietal character. Cabernet from Bordeaux and Napa may not taste the same, but the family resemblance is unmistakable. Finally you can now say the some thing about a few wines produced from varieties like barbera, sangiovese and even nebbiolo. While most of the better examples seem to be coming from Washington there are a few Californians producing some exciting wines too.

Palmina_Nebbiolo I can think of no more stunning example of this new trend than the 2004 Palmina Nebbiolo, Stolpman Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley. This is a gorgeous wine that is true both to its variety and its vineyard. First of all it is perfectly pale, with a radiant garnet color. Dark purple nebbiolo, like pinot noir, is not to be trusted. On the nose it is powerful, yet elegant and laced with all the classic tar and roses you could want. However, it also shows its pride in its American birth with a round, warm spiced fruit forward personality. The firm classic tannins, that are a hallmark of fine nebbiolo, are very present suggesting that those that age this lovely wine will be well rewarded.

The second Italian wine fiasco is coming to a very happy ending.

Cheating On Your Wife

bigamy-wineI had lied to my wife. Every guy in the room had. This was not the kind of thing you could safely share with a spouse. We gathered in the room with an exaggerated good-old-boy bachelor party kind of conviviality. The level of anticipation was high, perhaps too high. It was still afternoon and it felt a bit strange to be doing this in the light of day.

Everyone finally arrived and one-by-one we passed our wad of cash to the host with a sense of excitement and a tinge of guilt for the pleasures to come. After all, wasn't this money supposed to be going into the college fund or buying that new dresser? This was more money than I could easily afford on my rookie reporter's salary at the newspaper and I could only hope my wife would never find out. Our host took the cash and disappeared into another room.  A second later, radiating sensuality, they swept into the room and were even more beautiful than we had hoped for in our dreams the night before. There were eight of them, one more exotic than the next. Each was wrapped in a skin tight sheath of aluminum foil just begging to be torn off and marked with a letter so each of us could choose their favorite. An electric energy coursed through me as I unpacked the toys I had brought for the festivities: eight glasses and a notebook. Once again I thought of my wife and how ticked off she we going to be if she found out I had spent our hard earned money on, of all things, wine.

This group of liars was cheating on their wives with our mistress - wine. She was stealing our money and time with our spouses, but we could not resist her charms. We had long passed the flirting stage and this was to be our most amorous liaison yet as we were going to taste Grand Cru Burgundy. None of us had ever spent that much money on wine before. We were at the stage where we had learned more about wine from books than with our tongues and were easily influenced by reputation and label. More than once I had convinced myself to like a wine because someone famous said I should. With this innocence and ignorance we began tasting the eight bottles of Burgundy that our host had tightly wrapped in gleaming aluminum foil as we were doing a “blind” tasting. However, this was not really “blind” as we knew that each wine was an expensive and famous Burgundy. We were prepared to be seduced. Each of the tasters had eight glasses and the table was a crowed forest of stemware. After each of the wines had been poured silence settled on the once boisterous group. Each of us focused our entire concentration each wine as we sipped, swirled, spat and furiously took notes. For the next hour the only sound was the occasional moan or sigh when our mistress hit just the right spot.

I can still remember some of my notes now, which went something like this:

A. Light color, weedy earthy aromas...

B. Light color, earthy, dried leather and cheese...

C. Light color, vegital, smoked bacon. plastic...

So it went for the next hour. When everyone finished it was time to compare notes and come up with a group rationalization for why these wines were not the other-worldly experience we had anticipated. They were strange and not very satisfying. We soon came to the conclusion that problem could not be these famous wines, but that it must be us. Our palates were not well honed enough to understand the complexities of these great and famous wines. Those odd aromas and flavors must be that magical ingredient terroir that the French use to describe the unique personalities of each vineyard that make each single-vineyard wine distinct. Those leather, cheese and bacon smells had to be terroir. Now it was our duty to keep learning and tasting until we could come to understand and appreciate them.

As I look back on this event over thirty years ago, I have learned to understand and appreciate the true glories of Burgundy, none of which could be described as weedy, cheesy or sweaty. I have also learned that those wines that made me feel inadequate in that tasting three decades ago would have better been poured down the drain. Those wines were faulted - full of brett and VA. We were just too young and too intimated by the names and prices of those wines to know the difference. Fortunately I soon learned the difference between terroir and wine faults. Wine faults are a major concern of mine as time and time again I run into wines that are loaded with faults that go undetected in many large tastings. All to often I lift a glass to my nose from an almost empty bottle to find it severely faulted with TCA (corkiness), brett or a range of other faults. At the recent Wine Bloggers Conference there was a lot of debate about ethics, but none about knowledge and tasting technique. If wine bloggers want to be taken seriously, it's far more important that they can spot brett and other faults than if they take samples from producers for free or not.

These memories were jogged by a bottle of 2004 Thomas Dundee Hills Pinot Noir that I pulled from my cellar to share with my good friend, winemaker Donald Patz. Always looking to bring something that he probably hasn't tasted (no easy task) I grabbed a bottle of this hard to get Oregon cult wine. Upon pulling the cork we were treated to a perfect example of brett. Needless to say, it was a great disappointment and we left the bottle, still mostly full, on the table when we left the restaurant. Thirty years ago we may have forced ourselves to accept such wines, but today there are no excuses. Winemakers have the finest laboratories available to them and far more knowledge than the winemakers of the past. Brett needs to be recognized and recognized for what it is - a fault that obliterates varietal character and terroir - which are the two most important things for me in a wine.

Not long after that tasting of three decades ago I entered the wine business. We were importing the Italian wines of Neil Empson and doing tasting event after tasting event. Neil and I would open hundreds of bottles over several days. Every time Neil found a corky bottle, which was often in those days, he'd shove the wine and the cork under my nose. Soon I got it and ever since have been hyper-aware of that musty TCA smell. We should all do what Neil did and every time we find a faulted bottle we need to shove it under someone’s nose. While winemakers have no business making faulted wines, we (especially wine writers) have no business missing those faults.

Trading Down at Joe’s

Trader Joe's Paper Bag Sign I gave it my best shot. For the last several weeks I’ve been working through the wines at Trader Joe’s hoping upon hope to find a deal. Yet wine after wine was hopelessly thin, bland industrial plonk or out-and-out faulted. Didn’t anybody ever teach whoever is tasting these wines what brett is all about? Trader Joe’s offers few deals on wine. A “deal” should mean good wine at a low price not crappy wine at a low price. In fact, the $5 wines at Trader Joe’s are overpriced. Without a doubt the best way to find a real wine bargain is to establish a relationship with a local wine merchant that cares about wine and you. That means finding a specialist – someone whose livelihood depends on wine. In other words good luck finding a real deal at Trader Joe’s. You’ll find a lot of cheap wine, some with well known names, but few good values.

castoro logo Yet among all the industrial and/or faulted plonk at Trader Joe’s I discovered a gem. As a lover of Côtes du Rhône, Dolcetto and Barbera as everyday wines I have searched and searched for American equivalents, but with few successes. What’s doubly amazing is that I found such a good wine in a temple of wine mediocrity (or worse) like Trader Joe’s. The 2005 Castoro Cellars Reserve Syrah, Paso Robles is one of the best deals in American wine I’ve ever tasted. Juicy, fresh and just plain delicious with clear varietal personality and all for well under $15 (actual price hidden to protect the innocent). I’m headed back tomorrow to grab a couple of cases because a better everyday American wine I’ve yet to taste. Not a great wine, but a damn good one to have with a burger on Tuesday night or a Friday night pizza, which, as we usually forget in the the United States, is what wine is all about. A good glass of wine elevates a simple meal and our spirits. That’s why they made Bacchus a god. The Castoro Syrah is a very good glass of wine and a great value. Castoro Cellars is to be admired for producing wines that should be easy to make in California, but that most producers seem incapable of achieving.

Trader Joe’s has a few great deals, like the Castoro Cellars Syrah, but the vast majority of their wines are bad deals. To be a bargain, a wine should have to taste good. At Joe’s you’re trading price for quality, which is not a fair trade.

Bocksbeutal Screwed?

Bocksbeutel_bottle A screwcap on a Bocksbeutal? The prophylactic properties of the screwcap take on a whole new meaning in this case as the wine is never impregnated by a uncovered cork. It may in a funny bottle with a funny top (complete with double entendre), but the 2005 Randersackerer Marsberg, Riesling Spatlese Trocken, Spielberg Gutsabfullung Franken, Wiengut Schmitt’s Kinder is a wonderful wine. Besides being a current contestant for long wine name of the year, its linear focus, punchy minerality and long laser-like finish reminded me why riesling is my favorite white variety. The emergence of excellent dry (trocken) wines like this from regions of Germany that were (rightfully) ignored years ago offers a delightful replacement for the now sweet and overly alcoholic wines of Alsace. While those Alsatian wines are wonderful with cheeses, dry German rieslings like this are much better with dinner.

Another stand out dry riesling comes from Austria, the 2006 Offenberg Spitz Riesling Smaragd, Wachau Wiengut Johann Donabaum, which sharpens your palate like a honing steel. Gloriously fragrant and spiced with a hard edge of acidity that focuses everything into a long, lingering whole.  It’s hard to imagine two more pleasurable wines to have with dinner.

Getting back to the Bocksbeutal, it’s great to see more and more producers practicing safe bottling.

Sweet Alsace

crab The Dungeness Crab season along the Oregon and Northern California coast is something I look forward to every year. They’re so succulent that dipping them in butter is redundant.

With this lusciousness in mind, I selected the 2004 Audrey et Christian Binner Pinot Gris for what I knew were going to be some great crabs. The crabs exceeded even my highest expectations and were perhaps the best I ever tasted (I think I say that every year), but the wine only reminded me why I buy so few Alsatian wines these days. The Binner was out-and-out sweet and was cloying with the crab. Cloying was not the flavor match I was going for – rich and concentrated yes, but cloying no. While the Binner would be outstanding with a cheese course, it was terrible with crab.

Alsatian wines used to be one of my go-to wines. They were always balanced with a firm, complex minerality No more, you’re more likely to find ripe apricot than firm mineral in the wines and the various varieties have started to lose their individuality and meld into one unctuous sameness.

The thing that bothers me most about the sweetening of Alsace is they don’t give you a hint on the label except for their ultra-rich dessert wines Vendage Tardive and Sélection de Grains Nobles.  But for everything else, if they’re going  to continue making wines like this (as they surely will considering the high points they get) they should start doing like the Germans do and tell us on the label how sweet they are.

The Binner is a wonderful wine and my remaining two bottles will be finding themselves bonding with some Munster instead of clashing with some crab. It would be a perfect wine if they only put a little more information on the label.

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Stellar Cellars


I was a guest, which is by far the best way to attend tastings like this, although as this was a dinner, it might be better to call it a drinking. Be assured I didn’t spit once. It never crossed my mind. One thing drinking old wines confirms is they don’t make’em like they used to. For better or worse, they’re different – more delicate and less alcoholic. It was a great evening with outstanding food, wine and company. What else is great wine for? Many thanks to Dr. Mike Dragutsky for inviting me to join in. Below are the wines with some short comments.

1990 Cristal Brut, Magnum – A reminder of how great Cristal used to be. Toasty, creamy, long and very complex. Cristal today is a mere shadow of this wine.

1985 Kistler Chardonnay, Carneros – Rich and powerful, but a bit passed its prime.

1995 Puligny Montrachet, Enseigners, Verget, Magnum – Unfortunately showing quite a bit of oxidation already, but still quite exciting with a firm mineral backbone and great length. Drink up soon.

2005 Sea Smoke Pinot Noir, Ten, Santa Rita Hills – A powerhouse pinot with a lot of new oak.

1988 Bonnes Mares, Comte de Vogue – Not showing well at first, this bottle ended up by my place so I got to go back to it several times. By the end of the evening it opened into a graceful beauty with layers and layers of length and personality.

1997 Chateau Pichon Lalande, Pauillac, Magnum and 1997 Chateau Lynch Bages, Pauillac – I’ll comment on these two lovely, elegant and totally mature wines together as they dramatically illustrated how much better wines age in magnum. The Pichon Lalande was much fresher with brighter fruit and depth. These wines show how pretty wines can be from lighter years.

1989 Chateau Pichon Baron, Pauillac – Still velvety and rich with an expansive bouquet and a long seductive finish. Twenty years old is a great place for classic Bordeaux from excellent vintages.

1988 Chatau Guraud Larose, St. Julien – Silky, delicate and perfumed. Really lovely with an almost caressing texture. Drink up now while it’s so pretty.

1961 Chateau Bouscaut, Graves (Pessac-Leognan now) – Just a beautiful old wine that is still showing a touch of fruit freshness amid all the coffee, porcini and spice. With that nice touch of that earthy minerality that defines Graves. Long and graceful.

1988 Petrus, Pomerol – Wine of the night. An elegant, graceful wonder. Svelte and incredibly long and complex. A wonderful wine.

1979 Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Pauillac – The definition of elegance. A perfectly proportioned wine. Subtly complex and endlessly interesting. As usual, a perfect Bordeaux.

1977 Taylor, Oporto – Will this wine ever mature? Still young, fruity, dark, sweet and powerful. Just plain great Port that will age forever.


pizzacheezy As a unabashed lover of good pizza, I have often ranted about how hard it is to find a decent pizza in the United States. It’s much easier than it used to be, but it’s still tough. It’s odd that while pizza and Chinese restaurants may be the easiest to find, that it’s also harder to find good Chinese food and pizza than anything else.

What ruins most American pizzas is that we put much too much crap on the top. I guess that’s to be expected in a country where, as Bill Maher noted a few weeks ago, our favorite hamburger topping is another hamburger. We destroy pizza by putting two much cheese on it, which turns it into a mushy, stringy chewy glop. Oddly enough they usually put really bad cheese on pizza. It confuses me how adding more of something bad would make people think it was better.

We have the same problem with our wines, which we also bury under too much “cheese”. The cheese in this case is over-ripe, over-extracted and over-oaked. These things have the same impact on a wine that too much cheese has on a pizza. The once crisp crust is turned into mush.

I was reminded how bad most pizza is as, having moved this week, I was still without my pots and pans so I grabbed a carry-out pizza at Whole Foods. This was not a great pizza by any means, but it was a very good pizza and better than 99% of the pizza sold in this country. That the pizza at a grocery store is better than a pizzeria, whose specialty is pizza, is inexcusable. The crust was wonderfully crisp even though I took it home to eat. A bottle of wine I grabbed to go with it was also wonderfully crisp and unburdened by any “cheese”.  The Barbera Oltrepo Pavese from Cantine Pirovino is less than ten bucks and is mercifully non-vintaged, as more wines in this price range should be. It is young, fresh and bright with a wonderful bite of acidity that was just as crisp as the crust. I really enjoy simple, pretty wines such as this with simple, but delicious weekday fare. As with cheese, more is not always better.

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The Thin White Line

pey martin riesling They said it couldn’t be done. Yet it is being done. California is emerging from the excesses of the previous decades (who isn’t) and presenting a leaner, meaner attitude in their wines. By lean and mean I mean acidity and a glorious lack of residual sugar. Perhaps Pilates is good for all types of fat.

Just today I had two crisp, mineraly and very dry white wines from California and they were as good examples of the genre as you’ll find anywhere.

Facing down a half dozen pristine oysters the 2006 Brander Sauvignon Blanc Natural from Santa Ynez was master of its domaine. It was clean and fresh as you could want, yet the Brander was not that simple cat pee punch produced in  New Zealand as on top of that zest was a lovely touch of honeydew melon and ripe pears. Brander Natural is a rare example of a new world sauvignon blanc that can actually challenge Sancerre or Pouilly Fume for both guts and glory.

More difficult to find, but well worth the search is the 2007 Pey- Marin, The Shell Mound, Riesling from chilly Marin County. Here’s a high strung dry riesling that is not a bad copy of Alsace, but an interesting wine in its own right. Like the Brander, on top of all the structure and bite is a deliciously ripe fruitiness that belongs only to California. At only 11.8% alcohol it hits some of those high notes you thought only German riesling could hit.

There used to be a line that could not be crossed in California without wines being branded as thin. Thankfully those days seem to be gone as producers like Pey Marin and Brander produce lean, mean fighting machines such as these.

Warning: Chardonnay Review Below

chardonnay I know, I don't believe it either. Yet here I am writing positive notes about an American chardonnay. It's hard to think of a more boring category than American chardonnay, which tends to fall into two groups. One is cheap and sweet and the other is expensive and, well, sweet and oaky. In my opinion the only areas really producing interesting chardonnay year in and out are Chablis for top quality wines and Macon for value. There are wonderful wines produced from this variety in the Cote de Beaune and many New World wine regions, but they tend to be the exception to the rule.

I tasted one of those exceptions with a ridiculously rich home-made chicken pot pie last weekend. The 2004 Chardonnay Dijon Clones, Willamette Valley, Côte Sud Vineyard from Domaine Serene is an excellent chardonnay. I never tasted this wine in its youth, but it has matured into a beautiful chardonnay that integrates richness with a firm backbone that is perfectly overlaid with smoky vanillin from the oak. What pulls this wine together is the hard minerality and firm acidity that keep this this wine from falling into this variety's tendency towards flabby sweetness. Former Domaine Serene winemaker Tony Rynders definitely had the right touch with this chardonnay.

I am not intentionally, anymore anyway, part of the ABC (anything but chardonnay) crowd. However, as I think about it I realize I never even look at the chardonnay sections as I run my finger through a wine list. This has happened over the years as chardonnay began to bore me more-and-more and other white wines, particularly riesling, excited me more-and-more. Oddly enough, many rieslings I love and chardonnays I don't have similar residual sugar levels. However, what divides them are the very dissimilar pH levels. Sugar without acid just doesn't work unless it's for the wine-by-the-glass program at Fridays.  


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Real Pinot for Pinot People


Todd Hamina is an opinionated winemaker. Like all opinionated winemakers he can be controversial. He also happens to be making some outstanding wines. This should not be surprising as the politically correct usually make politically correct wines, which is just as boring in the wine world as it is in the real world. Todd had a solid winemaking foundation moving through important Oregon cellars such as Patton Valley and Maysara before founding his own label, Biggio Hamina, with the 2007 vintage. The results of that education are evident in his new wines.

Those of us who cut our teeth on European wines many decades ago often accept today's supercharged wines with grudging respect and wistful memory of those more elegant, balanced wines of our past. I ran into Todd today and tasted some of his first releases and I can only say that I was blown away by his wines, which took me back to a day when wines lived by verve not power.

I was so impressed with Todd's wines that I bought two bottles almost out of disbelief. When I retasted them with my dinner I liked them even better than I did before. These are genuine wines made without regard to current fashion that were only guided by the vision of the winemaker and nature. Love them or hate them they're Todd's wines, a personal statement.  I loved them.

The 2007 Biggio Hamina Melon de Bourgogne, Deux Vert Vineyard just astounded me.  Firm and bright with zinging minerality and a long clean, truly dry finish, this is the first American Melon that I've tasted that will actually remind wine drinkers of the great wines of Muscadet, where the only really great examples of this variety have been produced. When I tasted this wine, from the excellent Deux Vert vineyard in the Yamhill Carlton AVA, I could only think what a shame it is that these fine grapes have been wasted in previous vintages by less thoughtful winemakers, but I'm thrilled that someone is now finally taking proper care of them. I would confidently show this wine to the most devoted Muscadet drinker.

The 2007 Biggio Hamina Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is nothing short of a profile in winemaking courage as few have the guts to make real pinot these days. This is real pinot noir for real pinot noir drinkers. Those that prefer pinot that tastes more like syrah won't like this wine and should leave it for the those that love pinot for its natural, refined personality. The color is  a delicate, inviting translucent garnet. It's rare to see pinot this color anywhere these days and I applaud Todd's courage to let real pinot characteristics show through in his wines. Pinot does not naturally have a lot of color and you can bet the dark wines you see these days are made by some sort of cheat. Enzymes or other varieties are all to often used to add an unnatural depth of color to pinot noir. If you can't read through a glass of pinot, something is amiss. The nose is lifting and fresh with earthy truffle and orange zest spice layered over lively bitter cherry fruit. The finish is long and clean. I could only think of excellent pinots from lesser Burgundy appellations like Marsannay and Fixin when I drank this beauty.

Both of these wines are an astounding 12.5% alcohol, which makes them almost freaks these days. Tasting wines like this makes you realize what a critical issue alcohol is as you can taste so much more in these wines simply because all the nuance is not overwhelmed by alcohol. For delicate varieties like pinot this issue has gone out of control as high-alcohol pinots are just boring and pointless to drink because they don't taste like pinot anymore. If you want a big wine get something from a big variety like syrah, not a delicate variety like pinot.

Another astounding fact about these wines is that they are also both $20 or less a bottle. I know, like you, I thought such wines did not exist in America. Actually for all practical purposes they don't, but now at least two do. Hopefully, soon there will be a lot more.

Todd will be releasing some single vineyard pinot noirs, syrah and pinot blanc from the 2007 vintage and I can't wait to taste them. If these wines are any indicator they should be something very special indeed.


A Pleasant Surprise

Hess Cabernet capsule 011 One of the most consistently disappointing categories of wine is moderately priced California Cabernet. That range from say $15 to $25. Most just have no reason for existence as they have more to do with $10 grocery store cabernet rather than $50 bottles. Not that you can find top quality California Cabernet in the $50 range anymore.  Bordeaux has always had a many Petit Chateau and Cru Bourgeois that delivered excellent value, but nobody in California seems to want to get into the mid-price business. Everybody wants to be Screaming Eagle if they have the grapes or not.

So I tasted the 2006 Hess Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino, Lake, Napa with little optimism, but I was in for a pleasant surprise. Certainly not a great cabernet, but it is a very nice one and at $15 is a very good value. While definitely forward and ready to drink, there is just enough tannin to remind you that it is truly cabernet and to let you keep it around for a year or two. The blend is 88% cabernet, 8% syrah and 4% merlot harvested from vineyards in Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties. At 13.5% it’s medium-bodied by American standards. Hess Chef Chad Hendrickson offers this recipe suggestion to pair with this wine:

Herb Marinated Skirt Steak with Point Reyes Blue Cheese and Sweet Onion Relish, Balsamic Reduction

Skirt Steak

1 lb. Skirt steak, cleaned, defatted

½ Tbsp. Thyme, chopped

½ Tbsp. Oregano, chopped

½ Tbsp. Sage, chopped

½ Tbsp. Garlic, chopped

2 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil

To taste Salt and Pepper

Point Reyes Blue Cheese and Onion Relish

1 oz. Extra virgin olive oil

1 cup Sweet onions, small dice

½ cup Pt Reyes Blue cheese, crumbled

1 Tbsp. Chives, sliced ¼” bias

1 Tbsp. Balsamic Vinegar Reduction

To taste Salt and Pepper

Method for the skirt steak

Season the skirt steak with salt and pepper. Set aside. Combine the herbs, garlic, and olive oil in a bowl. Add the steak and toss to coat with the herbs. Set aside for 4 hours.

Method for the Sweet Onion Relish

Heat a sauté pan over high; add the oil and onions, season with salt and pepper. Let cook stirring periodically until caramelized. Adjust seasonings and keep warm.

Grill the skirt steak to desired doneness. Let rest for 5 minutes, and then slice ¼ “thick on a bias (against the grain). Fan the steak on a plate.

Heat the onions over medium until warm, toss in the crumbled blue cheese and chives.

Place on top of the skirt steak. Drizzle the balsamic reduction around the plate.

Über Bargains

05_Barth_Spatlese Riesling is regal. For me there is no doubt it is the greatest white variety. You can debate the reds, pinot or cabernet, but when it comes to great white wine only riesling is king. Yet in a bizarre twist of fate, the greatest white variety is not the most expensive. Vapid pretenders like chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc routinely sell at higher prices. While there are wonderful rieslings coming from Austria, Alsace, Oregon, New York and Washington, the wines of Germany still dominate the category and they are staggering values. Easily the best wine values from any region or variety, German rieslings offer great wines at moderate prices, which is a rarity these days. The only thing holding riesling back is the bizarre resistance of Americans to wines with any sweetness. It's hard to think of a stranger problem in the land of Coca Cola and sweet chardonnay.  On top of that, with alcohol levels topping out at around 12% and often much lower (see below) these are wines that not only taste wonderful at the table, but spare the headache the next day. With its almost perfect balance, if you don't like riesling, I have to think you're really not tasting what you're drinking.

If there's a bottle of riesling in the refrigerator it will always be the bottle I grab. Here are some recent rieslings I have really enjoyed.

Rheingau, Rüdesheimer Magdalenenkreuz Riesling Spätlese, Wiengut Leitz, 2006 (8%) Screwcap finish - A brilliant wine with acidity and sweetness in perfect harmony. Seductive and addictive. Those that out-of-hand reject any sweetness in their wines are totally out of touch with their palates in my opinion. It's all about balance, not statistics. The fruit sweetness in this wine walks a tightrope of acidity. Really gorgeous.

Phalz, Forster Ungeheuer, Riesling Kabinett Trocken (dry), Weingut Lucashof, 2006 (12%) - A laser beam of a wine. Racy, mineral structure with haunting ghosts of ripe peaches. Fresh crab is calling.

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Kabinett, Alte Reben (old vines), Wiengut Albert Gessinger, 2004 (8.5%) - A perfect example of the almost spiritual aspects of fine riesling. High toned, intellectually challenging and touched with a precisely balanced sweetness. Each sip demands another.

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Wehlener Sonnenuhr, Riesling Kabinett, Estate Bottled, S. A. Prüm, 2005 (9.5%) - This wine is easy to find and reasonably priced. Why is anyone drinking low priced California chardonnay, which has about the same level of sweetness, with none of the acidity. Lush and fruity with racy acidity and that petroleum touch of a great riesling.

Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Piesporter Gärtchen, Riesling Spätlese Feinherb (off-dry), Weingut Blees Ferber, 2005 (12%) - Feinherb may mean off-dry, but with acidity like this everything is relative. Simultaneously rich and delicate as only dry riesling can be. I kept thinking of fresh rainbow trout with every sip. Note that at 12% alcohol this is considered a full-bodied wine in Germany, but it's a ballerina by American standards. A Truly Fine Wine Selection

Rheingau, Riesling Spätlese Trocken, Weinguth Barth, 2006 (12%) Vino Lok finish - Want to confuse someone who has learned what Spätlese means by reading books? Just give them this wine No sweetness here as the electric acidity races through ripe, stone fruit flavors. How can a wine that smells and tastes so sweet be so dry? A Truly Fine Wine Selection

Vignerons Oregon Style

arcane 2006PinotNoirReserve In todays ever more corporate world of winemaking, the old image of the small wine farmer, or as it is called in French, vigneron, seems a quaint part of winemaking history. However, there are still really winemakers crafting small amounts of outstanding wines in somewhat simpler surroundings than the winemaking temples constructed by the big name wineries. In fact, Oregon is full of them.

The green, rolling hillsides of the Willamette Valley are a patchwork of tiny growers and winemakers with productions measured in hundreds of cases instead of thousands.  Buying wines from these small producers can be like walking through a minefield, but when they’re good, they’re very good.

Two such pinot noirs recently tasted are the 2006 Dalla Vina (soon to be re-christened Terra Vina due to a lawsuit) Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (146 cases) and the 2006 Arcane Cellars, Dundee Hills, Kelly Vineyard, Pinot Noir Reserve (105 cases). These excellent wines are spiritual cousins. Both are balanced, elegant wines with a classic, translucent garnet color, a spicy nose layered with black truffles, bright fruit and that essence that the Italians call sottobosco, or undergrowth in the forest. After the hyper-clean fat, cherry fruit style of so many New World pinots, these wines are a real treat. As they are both under 14.5% alcohol, emerson gris you can still actually taste the nuance in these wines.

Great wines from small producers is not limited to red wines as proven by the 2007 Arcane Cellars Del Rio Vineyard Viognier (95 cases) and the 2007 Emerson Vineyards Pinot Gris (only $15 by the way). As someone who has rarely tasted an American viognier that I liked, finding them too blowsy and without backbone, I was stunned by this firm and dry Southern Oregon effort. I’m starting to get the idea that Southern Oregon may be a New World home to viognier. The Emerson Pinot Gris is both refreshing and a refreshing change for its bracing dryness, unlike so many other Oregon pinot gris wines that try to make up for lack of body and flavor with residual sugar. On top of it, it may be the best value in Oregon gris that I’ve tasted.

It’s always risky to buy wines from small producers as often you end up with faulted wines. Yet, the best small producers often make better wines than bigger wineries with better equipment and far greater resources. While buying wines from small producers that you’ve never heard of can be like playing craps, sometimes you win the jackpot.

Striking a Match

matchbook Several decades ago I met an enthusiastic young couple with a new winery located in the Dunnigan Hills of California's Yolo County. No one had heard of Yolo County in those days or, for that matter, these days. Yet, that young couple, John and Lane Giguiere, built their new winery, R.H. Phillips, into a national brand that reached 750,000 cases in sales by the time they sold the brand in the year 2000. What made the Giguieres so successful was that they made wines that were great values and then took them to market in some of the most fun, innovative packaging in the industry. The labels got people to try the wines, but once they tasted what was inside they were hooked because of the quality. Having not tasted the Phillips brands after their departure, I have no idea if that tradition has been continued.

Like most entrepreneurs, once they attained their success, they longed to get back to what got them into the business in the first place. For the Giguieres this meant getting back to, "making wine again, instead of making sales forecasts." Their new venture, Crew Wine Company, is taking them back to their winemaking roots in the Dunnigan Hills, with some side trips to the Russian River and Mendocino. The several brands under the Crew umbrella include: Mossback, which features pinot and chardonnay from the Russian River; Sawbuck, which offers chardonnay, cabernet and malbec for around $10; and Matchbook, that is built on the Giguiere's estate vineyards in the Dunnigan Hills.

There is a growing buzz for Spain's most important variety, tempranillo, up-and-down the West Coast. Oregon's Abacela Vineyards has been making an outstanding tempranillo for years and there's even a new trade association for tempranillo producers called the Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society or TAPAS, which just had their first convention last August in Napa, where more than thirty American tempranillo producers shared their wines and exchanged ideas. The Giguieres and their Matchbook wines are in the forefront of this New World tempranillo revolution offering two excellent wines from this variety that, as you would expect from them, are also good values.

Their 2006 Matchbook Dunnigan Hills Tempranillo is just simply delicious. Round, deeply fruity with just enough tannin to hold its edge, this is a wine that just draws you in and invites another sip. There's big fruit here, but it's no simple fruit bomb. At only $15 a bottle, this tempranillo is a great bargain. The 2005 Matchbook Dunnigan Hills Tinto Rey (43% syrah, 40% tempranillo, 7% malbec and 6% petit verdot) is a bigger, more powerful wine with the syrah showing through in the gamy, butcher shop highlights in the nose and on the palate. It's deep and rich with a bitter chocolate backbone to balance the extracted, ripe blackberry fruit. While these wines are big, they're not monsters. Both are under 14% alcohol and are the better for it as these are two wines you can really enjoy with food. Match these wines with chops, steaks and sausages hot off the grill.

The name Matchbook came from John Giguiere's childhood tendency to play with matches. With their new brand Matchbook he may have started another fire.

Tualatin Treasure Hunt

wvv There seems to be an accepted treasure map for pinot noir. You follow the clues and the dotted line and, arrive at the "X" and the treasure will be yours, with a little digging. The components of the map are simple and the endpoint is always a small, artisanal producer. However, it seems this map can sometimes blind us to treasures somewhat easier to attain.

So it was with only moderate expectations that I opened a bottle of pinot noir from one of Oregon's largest producers. After all, big guys don't make great pinot noir: right? Apparently that's just plain wrong as the 2006 Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir, Tualatin Estate Vineyard, is easily one of the very best Oregon pinot noirs I have tasted from the difficult 2006 vintage, or any other recent vintage for that matter. This is an exceptional American pinot noir that, unlike most, doesn't just offer simple rich dark cherry fruit, but exhibits real complexity. Starting with a perfect pinot hue of translucent ruby and the slightest touch of garnet, it then offers that most seductive of pinot noir noses: smooth wild strawberry fruit is laced with those funky, earthy aromas like mushrooms, truffles, dried leaves and, yes, a bit of the merde the French so lovingly refer to when discussing the nuances of Burgundy. What this wine is, most of all, is interesting as it's not dominated by simple ripe fruit, alcohol or wood, but the terroir of their Tualatin Estate Vineyard. The wine is unique because the vineyard is unique and, most of all, because winemaker Forrest Klaffke lets it retain its distinctive personality. This is an outstanding Oregon pinot noir that will please those that cut their teeth on Burgundy instead of California.

The 2006 vintage was difficult for Oregon's winemakers with all-to-many making wines exhibiting candied fruit characteristics and unbalanced alcohol levels. This wine is an exciting exception to that rule.

Picnic Pair

willamettevv Somebody just asked me what I was doing on Labor Day. I thought it strange they ask so far in advance, then glancing at the calendar realized it's this coming Monday. How did that happen? Where did summer go?

As we approach the last picnics of the season, I just tasted two wines that are picture perfect picnic wines. Both are from the 2007 vintage and produced by Oregon's Willamette Valley Vineyards. Better yet, they're both priced less than $20. Their clean, crisp and just off-dry Riesling is an absolute charmer. Flowery with a tart citrus bite balanced by a hint of sweetness, this is a wine you can drink with almost anything - or nothing for that matter. At only 10% alcohol, you can actually enjoy a few glasses without worry. Their Whole Cluster Pinot Noir always makes me wonder why more producers don't make this style of wine, which is clearly inspired by the bright, fresh wines of Beaujolais. Using whole clusters of grapes fermented by carbonic maceration, Willamette Valley Vineyards has produced an explosively fruity, silky fruit-forward wine. This is no fruit-bomb, but a zesty, refreshing pinot noir that lends itself to gulps instead of concentration.

In a world where everyone seems to be trying to make Romanée Conti and sell wines priced in the stratosphere, its great to see wineries like Willamette Valley Vineyards pay equal attention to simpler, pleasure-driven wines that can be enjoyed on an everyday basis.


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Heart of Stone


Scott and Lisa Neal are lost on a windy, dusty gravel road in the foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range. They didn’t mind being lost as they were more explorers than tourists. Fate was with them as they soon chanced upon a for sale sign behind which spread out what they were looking for: a place to plant a vineyard. It was a promising site with rolling hills, a rainbow of soil types and the warm protection of the lovely, inappropriately named, Muddy Valley. So in 1998 Scott and Lisa started to plant their vineyard. They didn’t yet have a name, but fate was soon to step in again. During a walk on their new property Lisa spotted a large boulder that, with closer examination, revealed its unique heart shape. So Coeur de Terre Vineyard was born and an appropriate name it is as everything about Scott and Lisa’s vineyards and wines truly come from their hearts and the earth on which they live.

Coeur de Terre is one of the undiscovered gems of Oregon winemaking. The passion and precision with which the Neals are pursuing their dream of making great wine is impressive to say the least. In my opinion they have the potential to be one of Oregon’s most interesting and distinctive wine producers. From their lovely new winery and tasting room to their vineyards, which are planted in blocks by soil type and exposure, everything at Coeur de Terre shows their deep connections to the art, nature and science of winemaking.

One of the most promising things about Coeur de Terre is their decision to expand their plantings based on a massal selection. Today, most wineries buy all new vine stocks based on clone and rootstock from commercial nurseries who start the vines and do the grafts. However, despite all the attention to individual clones of pinot noir, most winemakers agree that site always trumps clone. In other words, each clone reacts differently to each site, which makes some sort of an exact clonal stew recipe for great pinot noir a ridiculous fantasy. What you have to do is observe each individual vine, regardless of clone, to see which ones love the micro-climate of your site. A massal selection means that you take cuttings from the most successful vines on your site instead of relying on individual clones purchased from a nursery that may or may not be right for your vineyard. It seems obvious that it would be best to plant your vineyards based on individual vines, regardless of clone, that clearly thrive on the unique micro-climate of your vineyard, but very few vineyards choose this course. This is the laborious process that the Neals have selected to propagate the best vines for their unique site throughout their Coeur de Terre Vineyard. It should be noted while this practice is rare in the new world, it’s not exactly cutting edge as it is the traditional method of propagating wines in Burgundy, a region that has made more than a few exceptional pinot noirs over the centuries.

coeur The current releases from Coeur de Terre are all excellent wines that are well worth laying down as they will certainly improve with bottle age. By today’s standards they are moderately priced and good values. The 2006 Riesling has excellent structure and a brightly fruity dryness. Notes of petrol are just starting to peek out behind the young, fresh citrus aromas and flavors. I think this will develop into an outstanding riesling with a few years in the bottle. The 2006 Estate Pinot Noir is one of the better balanced 06 Oregon pinots you’ll find. It is rich, but firmly structured as you would expect from the McMinnville AVA. Its bigger brother, the 2006 Renelle’s Block Pinot Noir, is a bolder, more powerful version of the 2006 Estate. Both show ripe black fruit with hints of cassis layered over coffee and bitter chocolate highlights. The Renelle’s Block is still a bit closed and brooding and really requires two or three more years of bottle age to show all it has to offer. The 2006 Estate is certainly enjoyable now, but will be much better in a year. It should be noted that production of all of these wines is in the hundreds of cases, not thousands, so supplies are limited and you can expect them to sell out.

Scott describes their wines as, “time and place in a bottle.” I would add soul to that list, for Scott and Lisa have also put their souls into their wines.

IPNC 2008: Sparkling Soter

ipnc 08 soter vineyard james leads tour 7-25-2008 1-52-23 PM Twenty or thirty years ago Champagne was a sure bet. All the Grand Marques made great wines and it was only a matter of whose style you liked the best. Those days are long gone and now the big brand Champagnes are some of the worst wines deals you can buy. During this same period a bubbly revolution occurred worldwide and today Champagne is no longer the only source for the finest quality sparkling wines. Now American brands like Iron Horse, Gruet and Argyle offer wines that out-sparkle most of the big Champagne brands in both price and quality. You can now add Oregon's Soter Vineyards to that list.

Last Saturday my group at the International Pinot Noir Celebration found themselves at Soter Vineyards for lunch and a seminar on sustainable agriculture. Every morning of IPNC a fleet of buses spreads out over the Willamette Valley taking groups to seminars and sumptuous lunches, but you don't know where your going until you get there. Your destination really doesn't matter as every event is exceptional.  Our lunch was prepared by Chef Peter Birk of Seattle's famed Ray's Boathouse and served in Soter Vineyard's beautiful new entertainment center with a spectacular view of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA and the Coast Range.

Gouda wafers and smoked sablefish

  • Soter Vineyards Blanc de blancs, Beacon Hill Vineyard, 1997 - Yes, you read the vintage correctly. Soter is releasing this wine after ten years en tirage. This is simply a stunning sparkling wine. Rich and creamy with a deep toasty complexity and a never ending finish. A classic selling for an almost unbelievable $55 a bottle making it an outrageous value, but you'd better hurry with only 190 cases produced.

Alaskan weathervane scallops, arugula, strawberries, fresh corn

  • Soter Vineyards Brut Rosé, Yamhill-Carlton District, Beacon Hill Vineyard, 2003- Close your eyes and think you're tasting a beautiful, light delicate pinot noir. Now add bubbles and you have this seductively fruity wine. Rich and assertively pinot in character with a mouth-filling, juicy fruitiness layered with a light toasty/yeasty highlight. This wine was so delicious our table begged our waiters for more (and more and more...).

 Sockeye salmon, black tea custard, roasted plums

 Oregon chukar, confit of Walla Walla onions and local mushrooms

  • Soter Vineyards Pinot Noir, Mineral Springs Vineyard, Yamhill Carlton District, 2006 - A preview of the yet to be released 2006 Mineral Springs. As you would expect from the vintage, this wine is very fruit-forward with an expansive, deep red fruit character and gentle, silky tannins. A generous and satisfying pinot noir that should develop into a lovely wine over the next several years. You can drink this charmer while you're waiting for the 2005 to mature.mineral springs vineyard 7-25-2008 2-31-56 PM

 Summer fruit tart (made with berries picked on the estate by the Soter family that morning)

  • More of the Brut Rosé, graciously supplied to our table by Megan Moffat, sommelier at Café Soriah in Eugene, which, by the way, was wonderful with the fresh berry tart.