Squirrely Wine Blog

American Squirrel Wine Blog Award Winners « Las Flores View Point Squirrel Colony (Camp Pendleton CA)

I cannot describe my surprise at winning the "Best Jazz Writing on a Wine Blog" award from the American Squirrel Wine Blogs Awards. It equaled my surprise in learning there was an American Squirrel Wine Blog Awards.  Some had accused my blog of being squirrely, but I did not realize I had reached such heights. Be sure I'll squirrel this award away to use in leaner times. They must be nuts to give this award to me, but I humbly accept it.

It's reassuring to know that at least rodents can spot a good wine blog as evidenced by the other squirrely wine blogs that share with me this once in a lifetime honor.

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Oysters and Aligote


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.

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.


grapecrusherLast weekend I headed southbound down I-5, but it was no vacation. I was moving from the Willamette Valley to the Napa Valley. I was migrating from pinot noir to cabernet sauvignon. It was less than a ten hour drive, but it’s worlds apart.

Cabernet and pinot may both be wines, but they have little in common other than being red.  Cabernet’s backbone is tannin, while pinot’s is acidity - at least that’s what nature intended. The culture between the Willamette Valley and the Napa Valley is also a contrast. The hippie winemaking ashram of Oregon versus the corporate powerhouse of Napa. For me it is another step on a winemaking  journey: three vintages in Italy, three in Oregon and now on to Napa.

I’ve learned many things on this odyssey. First and foremost is that your palate is not a machine that can be calibrated, but something always in motion. Something that is influenced and defined by the wines you are drinking at the moment. After three years of drinking young nebbiolo, the the wines of Oregon seemed unstructured. After three years of Oregon pinot the wines of Napa seemed bombastic. Yet after a month of drinking them my palate has adjusted and opened so that I also appreciate their power and concentration. As in all art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  The fashion today is to rank wines with an exactitude that is absurd, but true connoisseurs understand that it’s the full rainbow of diversity that makes wine such a compelling beverage.

Wine is a beautiful, creative thing that brings not only happiness, but health and invites us to sit back and appreciate life and each other. Those that define it by points deny this cultural and aesthetic beauty. Those that rank wines don’t give up their aesthetic distance when they taste. I do.

So this is my first week as a full time resident of Napa, a place I’ve visited many, many times over almost three decades. It’s a new start in familiar surroundings.  I hope regular readers will forgive the sporadic posts over the last two weeks during my move and transition into my new job, but now I’m back to the the blogging grindstone. I’ll not be commenting on California cabernet for obvious reasons, but will be increasing my commentary on exciting wines of America’s Northwest as I separate myself from day-to-day relationships with wineries there. As always you’ll find extensive commentary on the wines of Europe, which I love.

IMG_0043 Now you’ll find my professional attentions focused on Cornerstone Cellars, which produces two cabernet sauvignon wines, a Napa Valley and a Howell Mountain, crafted by an extraordinary winemaker, Celia Masyczek. So my blogging focus will be on everything but Napa Cab.

I became a wine professional in 1980. Now as I approach my 30th year immersed in all things wine and food I can only count my blessings. Most of all I treasure the diversity of taste that I have been privileged to experience. That experience has taught me to dig deep to understand the character of wine and those who make it. With the same passion I took on nebbiolo and pinot noir I now focus on cabernet sauvignon.

Appreciating each wine and wine region for both what it is and what it isn’t is what wine appreciation is all about. I’m about to truly appreciate the wines of the Napa Valley.

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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.

From an Acorn a Mighty Wine Grows

acorn logo The wrong Acorn has been in the news lately. The tiny Sonoma winery called Acorn was news to me as I tasted the wines for the first time at the first (annual we hope) Wine Bloggers Conference held in Santa Rosa last weekend. Betsy and Bill Nachbaur’s Acorn Winery is very good news indeed.

In a California wine world dominated by squeaky clean, but personality-free wines, the wines of Acorn are packed with personality. Producing wines exclusively from their estate vineyard in the Russian River they once again challenge conventional wisdom on so called “warm” climate varieties. In the cool Russian River Valley, which is known for its pinot noir, the Acorn Vineyard is planted with syrah, zinfandel, sangiovese, petite sirah and other varieties that aren’t usually associated with pinot territory. It seems zinfandel and syrah like a little fog too.

Acorn is doing some things that seem cutting edge in the new world, but actually go back to the very first wines. They are co-fermenting field blends instead of picking and fermenting each variety separately. There is no doubt that varieties that are co-fermented together have different characteristics than a wine made from those same varieties made separately then blended. The chemistry that takes place during co-fermentation is just different.

For example, their 2005 Heritage Vines Zinfandel (1005 cases) is 78% zinfandel, 10% alicante bouschet, 10% petite syrah and the remaining 2% includes carignane, trousseau, sangiovese, petit bouschet, negrette, syrah, muscat noir, cinsault and grenache. All of these varieties were harvested and fermented together. The wine is rich, but with a firm backbone of tannin and acid and loaded with layers of flavors and aromas like coffee, chocolate, porcini and deep ripe blackberries. The 2005 Sangiovese (1022 cases) is easily one of the most interesting New World examples of this variety I’ve tasted. Produced from 98% sangiovese (7 different clones), 1 % canaiolo and 1% mammolo, which is a blend I wish more Tuscan wineries would use instead of overwhelming their sangiovese with the strong varietal character of cabernet sauvignon. This is a decidedly robust, California style wine, but like their Zinfandel it has the zesty backbone to carry the heft. It is interesting to note that while these wines come from an Acorn they are blessedly not over-oaked. They are also not overpriced running around $30 a bottle.

All of the Acorn wines have just the right touch of what I call a rustic character. While being very well made they have just a bit of wildness or sauvage, as the French call it. Rustic does not mean brett or other wine faults, but means that the character of the varieties and vineyard really show through in the wine and are not polished away leaving only artificially gleaming simple fruit flavors. With this edge of wildness, the wines of Acorn are not only delicious, but interesting, which is just the way I like them.

Acorn may be small, but they’re making some mighty fine wines.


Serious Sonoma Syrah

morgan peterson Often when you think of Napa and Sonoma, the big corporate winery showcases come to mind. Palatial wineries costing tens of millions of dollars surrounded by gardens that compete with Versailles and gourmet kitchens better equipped than three star Michelin restaurants. Yet some of California’s most exciting wines are not being made in such wine palaces.

Working in leased space, crammed in with other small producers sharing space and equipment, some young winemakers are making a dramatic new generation of California wines. Some of the most compelling wines I tasted during a visit to Sonoma last weekend were some bottlings of syrah produced by some low tech, but high passion winemakers. I say this is a new generation because these are not the huge raspberry fruit bomb syrahs with little varietal character you enkidu have come to expect from California. These are big wines, just as they should be, but layered in with all that fruit was real complexity as they exhibited that earthy, butcher shop character that defines the finest wines from this variety.

Morgon Peterson at Bedrock Wine Company is crafting some of the most fascinating American wines I’ve tasted in some time. He’s making a tremendous range of single vineyard syrahs and a dramatic sauvignon blanc/semillon blend. Neighbor Phillip Staehle is making some compelling wines under the Enkidu label. His Odyssey Russian River Syrah is proof positive that the best syrah is made in cooler climates than conventional wisdom has called for in the past.

In the picture above, Peterson presses wines using a muscle powered basket press. Yes, he really makes wine that way. There’s a growing group of young winemakers in California who are well educated not only on winemaking science, but on the traditions that made European wines the standard for greatness in the past. They are on the cutting edge of California winemaking not because of their use of the latest technologies, but by their return to the methods of the past. They are making textured, complex wines that don’t bury the characteristics of the variety under excess and manipulations, but that proudly and clearly show their California personality. For me, these wines were nothing short of exciting. As you might expect, very little wine is produced at wineries such as these. I’d suggest you get on the mailing list now.

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Richard Sanford of Alma Rosa

Richard Sanford was one of California’s true pinot pioneers and was one of my first tutors on the great potential of pinot noir in America. I have found his wines to be consistently among America’s finest pinot noirs for decades. Sanford had his namesake winery ripped away from him from one of the Engulf and Devour Corporations of the wine world and today is making outstanding wines at his new winery, Alma Rosa. Richard and his wife Thekla are among the most gentle and artistic souls on the planet and it shows in their wines. I thought this interview with him was well worth sharing:

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.

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.

The Three Faces of Pinot Noir

3facesofeve Poor pinot noir. As the variety most transparent to terroir and the hand of the winemaker it has become a schizophrenic variety producing a full rainbow of styles from all corners of the planet. The staggering range of wines produced makes it impossible and pointless to define which personality is the best expression of the variety.  As usual, lovers of any particular style are absolutely convinced of the superiority of their preferred style.

Most pinot noir aficionados are drawn to the variety because of its capability to produce the most terroir-driven of wines. Vineyards mere meters apart produce astoundingly different wines. Strangely enough, this same love of the wonderful diversity and endless fascination with the nuances of terroir seems to put blinders on many tasters. Instead of being willing to experience the myriad of styles offered by the terroir-sity (take that Colbert), that is the hallmark of this variety, they become stuck in a narrow range of styles with a disdain bordering on the violent for wines produced in other styles, or perhaps more accurately, other terroirs. It seems to be quickly forgotten that the very reason we love pinot noir means by definition that the wines will be, and should be, very different when grown in different places.

It's important to taste wines for what they are, not what we wish they were.  You cannot will a Sonoma Coast pinot noir to taste like Pommard 1er Cru because not only shouldn't it taste like a Pommard, but why would you want it to? The interesting part of pinot noir, and, for that matter all varieties, are these very differences. Of course everyone will have their own personal preferences, but personal preference in taste is not the same as superiority.

Having recently immersed myself (almost literally) in pinot noir for three days during the International Pinot Noir Celebration I could not help but be struck by the wonderful diversity and the exceptionally high level of winemaking that exists in the world of pinot noir these days. Four wines highlighted the range of this golden age of pinot we're living in: the brooding, powerful Littorai Wines, Mays Canyon Vineyard, 2006 from California; the firm, spicy Sokol Blosser Winery, Dundee Hills Estate Cuvée, 2005 from Oregon; the explosively fruity, black current flavors of the Felton Road 2007 from New Zealand; and the closed, biting youth of the Volnay, Vendanges Sélectionnées, Domaine Michel Lafarge, 2005 from Burgundy. These four wines could not be more different or more delicious in their own right. It is their very differences that make them so exciting and make them, well, so pinot noir.

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Wine Notes: IPNC 2008

Tasting all the wines at IPNC is probably impossible and, as at all large events, a challenge. I did my best concentrate and taste as many wines as possible, but I'm sure I missed a few gems. Tasting Burgundy amid the many New World wines was certainly difficult. The tight, young French wines could be easily overlooked among all the lush, forward New World wines. Oregon was particularly lucky as most were showing the fruit-forward, easy to like 2006 vintage wines, which showed very well in such conditions. Below are some of my favorite wines from my tasting notes. Wines from the seminars are listed in separate posts.

Recommended wines from the 2008 International Pinot Noir Celebration:


  • Bindi, Block 5, 2006 - Brilliant, fresh and loaded with up-front fruit.
  • Frogmore Creek, 2006 - Leaner and more compact than expected, nice balance with a long elegant finish.

  • Wiengut Fred Loimer, Dechant, 2006 - Delicate, floral and impeccably balanced. Refined pure pinot noir.

  • Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru, Domaine d'Ardhuy, 2006 - Lush, exotically spiced, but still tight with a firm structure that needs time to resolve.
  • Marsannay, Les Faviéres, Domaine Charles Audoin, 2005 - Lovely spicy lively minerality with zesty sweet tart cherry fruit, needs just a year or two more. Charming and delicious.
  • Beaune 1er Cru, Champs Pimont, Maison Champy, 2005 - Great style and richness, but closed tight as a drum. Very good potential.
  • Beaune 1er Cru, Teurons, Domaine du Chateau de Chorey, 2005 - I have always loved wines from this estate for their refined purity. They consistently make wonderful pinots and this does not disappoint. A classic, refined Chateau de Chorey. Lovely now, but wait a bit please.
  • Ladoix 1er Cru, les Corvées, Domaine Chevalier Pere et Fils, 2005 - These lesser known appellations in Burgundy have become a treasure trove. Perfectly balanced with a firm backbone that needs a few more years to show its best.
  • Bonnes Mares Grand Cru, Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair, 2006 - A contender for wine of the event, but it's a bit expensive for that. A gorgeous pinot noir in a class by itself. Great finesse in a luscious, velvety package. Not nearly ready to drink, wait ten years please.
  • Volnay Robardelle, Domaine Huber-Verdereau, 2006 - Tight, tight, tight. It's so hard to show very young Burgundy, but I think this will be a very good wine in four or five years.
  • Volnay, Vendanges Sélectionnées, Domaine Michel Lafarge, 2005 - A coiled spring of a pinot noir waiting to explode. When the acids and tannins come into harmony what a wonderful wine this will be.
  • Beaune 1er Cru, Bressandes, Domaine Albert Morot, 2006 - A silky pinot noir with great style and length. The tannins are still a bit too hard, but soon this will be a charmer. Very lively.
  • Aloxe Corton, Clos de la Boulotte, Monopole, Domaine Nudant, 2006 - So tight it's not funny. Somewhere under all that structure is a good wine biding its time.
  • Pommard 1er Cru, Philippe Pacalet, 2006 - A stunningly elegant pinot noir with firm tannins that close down the finish. This will be excellent in a few more years.
  • Gevrey Chambertin, Vielles Vignes, Domaine Marc Roy, 2006 - Very tight now, but what promise! One of those wines that is so complex and complete in all its aspects that you know greatness awaits. There's real potential for this to become an outstanding wine.
  • Gevrey Chambertin, Domaine Trapet, 2005 - Very fine, long and complex. Alas this is another wine that was very closed. However, I believe it will age into a beauty.

New Zealand
  • Felton Road 2007 - An explosion of concentrated red fruit essence. The intensity of the fruit almost puckers your mouth with its bittersweet punch. Hard not to like.
  • Pegasus Bay 2006 - Very tight with a mineral and red fruit focus. Excellent length and balance. Very stylish and elegant.  A year or so more will bring out more complexity.

  • Cobb Family Wines, Coastlands Vineyard, 2006 - A very impressive wine. Great complexity and a refined, yet rich character. A very graceful pinot that glides across the palate. An excellent effort.
  • Hirsch Winery, Hirsch Vineyards, 2006 - Wonderful structure and texture with elegant flavors highlighted with just a bit of that funk that works so well in some pinots. I'd love to put some of this away for a few years.
  • Littorai Wines, Mays Canyon Vineyard, 2006 - Here's a pinot that's unabashedly from California and I like that about it. Rich, smoky, oaky and dense, but it all comes together in an hedonistic package that is irresistible. Still closed and unresolved I really suggest at least two or three more years of aging.

  • Adelsheim Vineyard, Elizabeth's Reserve, 2006 - This wine is so balanced, elegant and refined that you may want to drink it now, but wait a few years and you'll be rewarded. I wish more Oregon producers would respect elegance and complexity as represented by this lovely pinot.
  • Belle Vallee, Grand Cuvée, 2006 - Rich and fruit-forward, but with plenty of complexity. Belle Vallee continues to offer some of the best values in Oregon pinot noir.
  • Broadley Vineyards, Marcile Lorraine Vineyard, 2006 - This was my wine of the event. An almost perfect pinot noir that combines elegance and power in the way only pinot can. Outstanding complexity and length. A stunning wine that absolutely grabbed my attention amid all these great wines.
  • Coelho Winery, Paciência, 2005 - The best pinot I have tasted to date from this winery and they seem to be headed in the right direction. The firm structure suggests a few more years in the bottle before enjoying.
  • Domaine Drouhin Oregon, Willamette Valley, 2006 - Style, style and more style. An Audrey Hepburn of a wine that is certainly the most elegant Oregon pinot I have tasted from the fruit-forward 2006 vintage.
  • Panther Creek Cellars, Freedom Hill, 2006 - A solid step forward for Panther Creek and the nicest pinot I've tasted from them lately. A bit on the oaky side, but a lot of people like that. Rich, smooth and forward enough for drinking now, but it will be a lot better next year.
  • Raptor Ridge, Raptor Ridge Estate, Aldalfo's Block, 2006 - A rich, big pinot with more than enough backbone to carry its weight. Expansive and dramatic, but nowhere near ready to drink. Probably not a long-term ager, but please wait a year or two as a lot is going on in this wine that needs to evolve to show its best.
  • Scott Paul Wines, La Paulée, 2006 - With a tip of the hat to Burgundian structure, the fruit-forward character of the 06 Oregon vintage soon shows itself. A lovely wine of beautiful red fruits with just a touch of chocolate and black truffles. Delicious.
  • Sokol Blosser Winery, Dundee Hills Estate Cuvée, 2005 - Like the Adelsheim and Drouhin, this is a beautiful, elegant wine. Certainly delicate by today's pinot standards, but here is a wine that embodies the refinement and delicacy that makes pinot noir unique. A really pretty pinot noir.
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IPNC: Day 1 Morning Seminar

Sustainability without sacrifice was the title of this International Pinot Noir Celebration seminar. A title that is perhaps a bit off the mark as New Zealand winemaker Nigel Greening noted that the real sacrifice is not farming sustainably, which is something we all will end up paying the price for in the end.

Fight one was led by Burgundy winemaking superstar Dominique Lafon and Master of Wine Jasper Morris, while flight two featured winemakers  Frédéric Lafarge (Domaine Michel Lafarge), Ted Lemon (Littorai), Nigel Greening (Felton Road), Ted Casteel (Bethel Heights) and Michael Dhillon (Bindi).

While a good tasting and seminar it ended up being more focused on biodynamics than a general look at the various sustainable models. Lafon made one comment I think all winemakers should keep in mind, “My wine should not be to show off my skills as a winemaker or the skills of my cooper, but to show the character of my appellation.”

Flight #1 - Domaine Comtes de Lafon

  • Meursault, Desirèe, 2000 - Expansive aromas and flavors with an underlying tightness. Crème brûlée with a citrus punch. Great firm, mineral textures. Still very young.
  • Volnay Santenot du Mileu
    • 2004 - Very bright fresh and lively. Touches of fresh porcini peek out from under the ripe red fruit flavors. Needs a few more years to limber up. Outstanding quality.
    • 2003 - Big and rich as you would expect from this super-hot vintage, but well made. Under the lush, velvety ripe black fruit favors is a firm enough backbone to hold it all together. Needs more time to resolve everything, but not more than a few years.
    • 2000 - It takes a few years in the bottle for Burgundy to really become Burgundy and this wine has arrived. Touches of black truffles, roasting pork and new leather are layered with the zesty orange spiced red fruit, which all lead to a great finish. A very nice wine from a difficult year.
    • 1997 - Another hot year and the ripe characteristics show in the touch of prune layered in along with the wild mushroom and lush dark fruit flavors. I think it’s best to drink this wine up.

Flight #2

  • Volnay, 1er Cru, Les Mitans, Domaine Michel Lafarge, 2005 - Absolutely pure pinot noir essence. Tight, fresh, alive and electric. Way to young to be drinking now. A very fine wine.
  • Sonoma Coast, Haven Vineyard, Littorai, 2006 - This wine was difficult at first, but after an hour in the glass opened into a very interesting wine. Quite oaky with the resulting smoky, toasty flavors and aromas. With air the wine broadens adding a meaty, savory touch to the deep, rich black fruit character. Needs 3 or 4 years to better integrate everything that’s going on.
  • Central Otago, Block 3, Felton Road, 2006 - Pure dark fruit essence. This wine is intensely fruity with an almost pungent explosive bittersweet cassis fruit. Very distinctive and interesting.
  • Eola Hills, Flat Block Reserve, Bethel Heights, 2006 - Lightly oaked, very perfumed with orange zest, violets and wild black cherry characteristics. Great balance and very long in the finish. Rich without being overdone.
  • Victoria, Original Vineyard, Bindi Wines, 2006 - Bright and fresh with a distinct cherry Kool-Aid powder smell. Smooth and velvety. Becomes more appealing with air.

The star of out of the dozen or so pinots poured at sumptuous lunch following the seminar was the South Block Reserve, Bethel Heights 1999. This is a wine at its absolute peak with great complexity, rich wild red fruit and those wonderful earthy characteristics that  pinot develops with age.

A Little Sad

mondavi It was a little sad. Our host pulled out a bottle of 1992 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and poured it around the table and we all immediately raised our glasses to the memory of Robert Mondavi, who recently passed away. The wine was lovely, everything a mature cabernet should be with a firm elegant character, a wonderful cigar box nose and that long, linear, intellectual finish that defines the variety at its best.

The sad part was not the passing of Mr. Mondavi, who lived a full and meaningful life into his nineties. It's hard to think of someone who lived a fuller life and no one left a bigger imprint on the American wine industry. The sad part was a wine blog post I read earlier in the day that grumped away about all the coverage of his death, wondered what the big deal was all about and why he should care. Writing a wine blog and not knowing about Robert Mondavi is like writing a blog about American history without knowing who George Washington was. How can a wine writer that doesn't understand the immense impact of Robert Mondavi provide meaningful commentary on the American wine industry? They can't and that's a little sad.

Understanding the sublime art that great wine can become is more than pulling the cork and giving it points. In every bottle of California wine that achieves greatness there will always be a bit of Robert Mondavi. To not understand that is to not fully know or appreciate that wine. It is the human spirit that raises wine from a beverage to an emotion.

We can be assured that there have been thousands of corks pulled from treasured old bottles of Robert Mondavi's wines in the last week and tens of thousands of glasses raised in his honor and memory. I can't think of a better tribute.

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Marriott Blues

I admit I really out of it when it comes to California wines. I just don't drink them as there are so few I enjoy. There are also California wines I love like: Calera, Alma Rosa, Edmunds St. John, Iron Horse, Corison and Spottswoode to name just a few. However as the number of wineries I really enjoy are indeed few, I don't pull many corks from bottles of California wine.

Forced into a hotel restaurant dinner due to the late hour of my arrival, I decided to try to be open minded and give The Golden State another shot and ordered a glass of 2005 Clos du Bois Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, which my host for the evening, Marriott, was offering for $15 a glass and $50 a bottle. I mean, at that price it must be pretty good, right?

The first sip was smooth enough, although there was little varietal character. My taste buds now awakened, the second sip revealed much more. This wine tasted, for lack of a better word: cheap. It was like the awful under $10 California Cabernet stacked up at your local grocery store. My righteous indignation meter was off the charts. How could Clos du Bois dare foist such a mediocre wine on consumers at such a price!

Upon returning to my room I checked to find the retail price of this rip-off only to find this wine sells for around $13 a bottle. That means Marriott is paying about $7 a bottle (or less). What we have here is rip-off build up. First of all, this weak effort by Clos du Bois would be overpriced at $4 a bottle, but, perhaps, the Marriott has even more to be ashamed of as, instead of offering their guests a decent glass of wine for $15, they offer only wines they can cut a deal on.

How does this happen? Well Clos du Bois is owned by Constellation Brands, which describes itself as " a leading international producer and marketer of beverage alcohol brands" (that's inspiring) and "the largest by volume wine producer in the world" (doesn't that excite your taste buds). Besides wine this massive company sells beer and spirits. Conglomerates like this come in and set up all sorts of cross-brand deals with national chains like Marriott and often incentives that, shall we say, don't meet the letter of the law have been known to change hands. However (ahem), I'm sure this did not happen in this case.

Brands like Clos du Bois are industrial wines at their worst. They are bad wines and bad values that exist and sell only because of the marketing muscle and money behind them. They also exist because national chains like Marriott are too lazy or too cheap to put in place decent wine programs.

You can be sure you'll find the folks from Constellation and Marriott partying down together in Vegas as this year's WSWA convention. After all, what better place is there to cut a deal than in Vegas.


Drinkin' Those 88's

michel schlumberger chardonnay Not being a big fan of California wines these days, I did not expect much when I pulled the cork, but the wine soon converted me. It was certainly rich and full-flavored, but there was an underlying structure and a lot more to grab your attention than simple fruit. This was a damn good cabernet as it was very varietal and had personality, but best of all, the second glass was even more interesting and enjoyable to drink than the first. My instincts led me to check out the pointy rankings awarded this wine by the major critics. Sure enough, I was right as the point rankings hovered in the high 80's with the top wines hitting that magic number 88.

The reality is that many (if not most) of the wines that are really wonderful to drink with food are rated in the high eighty point range by The Wine Advocate and The Wine Spectator and other major wine publications. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for this service as their reviews are keeping high alcohol, oaky, over-extracted wines designed for pointy reviewers instead of dinner at the highest prices, while the very best wines are held to more reasonable price points. While those suckers are out there taking out second mortgages to grab the latest Screaming Eagle, we can grab up cases of wonderful wine for what they pay for bottles. The dangers of buying these highly rated wines with scores as high as their pH can be found in this previous post.

Somehow we need to shift our concept that the very first sip of a wine tells you more about its character than the second glass. Considering that's not likely to happen in a Wine Spectator world, we'll just have to save money and enjoy the fact that many of the best wines don't make it into the hallowed 90 point range. The point about these points is clear to anyone who knows anything about statistics. That is while there is statistically no difference between a 90 point wine and a 88 point wine, there almost certainly will be a difference in price.

These particular 88's came from the Dry Creek Estate Vineyards of Michel-Schlumberger, a brand name that must cause their marketing director migraines and proves that naming a winery after yourself is not always a great idea. I first visited this estate years ago when it was simply Domaine Michel, but with the arrival of current owner Jacques Schlumberger, of the famous Alsatian winemaking family, the name morphed into its current hyphenated form. However, this is bonus points for frugal consumers as the combination of a clumsy name with under 90 points reviews is a positive boon when the wines are this good.

  • Cabernet Sauvignon, Deux Terres, Estate Bottled, Dry Creek Valley, 2004 - A lovely structure with great balance and well integrated tannins. While it will improve for years, this wine is approachable now. I found my nose drawn to the glass again and again as I tried to identify each refined nuance. While decidedly a California wine, this is a wine made by someone who loves great Bordeaux.
  • Merlot, , Estate Bottled, Dry Creek Valley, 2004 - Here is a wine that reminds how good a merlot can be. Fragrant and soft while maintaining an edge that keeps the wine alive and delivers a long, complex finish.
  • Syrah, Estate Bottled, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 - Appropriately big, but not over the top.  You won’t confuse this syrah with grape concentrate. Meaty and oaky with a firm structure and more than enough fruit to carry the alcohol. I liked this wine quite a bit as it’s so hard to find a California wine that knows how to be big with dignity.
  • Chardonnay, La Brume, Estate Bottled, Dry Creek Valley, 2005 - Loaded with rich fruit, yeasty lees, mineral and light toasty oak aromas and flavors all tied together in a tight package. You have to wonder why more California chardonnay does not taste like this. Proof that chardonnay can be both rich and structured.