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What I like, and why


I’m told, mainly by my friends in wine P.R., that the topic of my palate is of some interest to winemakers. It’s flattering, I guess, to think that people try to discover trends in my reviews; and certainly, the trends are there to be found. I don’t like table wines with residual sugar. I don’t like dirty, flawed wines. I don’t care for green, unripe tannins.

Beyond that, it’s harder to pinpoint just what makes for a “95” as opposed to an “88.” Words such as “intense,” “complex” and “brilliant” can only begin to describe qualities that are, essentially, indescribable. So I thought it would be worthwhile to look at some of my highest-scoring wines over the last 3 months and try to analyze just what it was about them that I liked.

My highest-scoring wines since June 1 consisted almost entirely of Pinot Noir, sparkling wines and Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. There were one or two Chardonnays and a handful of Syrahs or red Rhône blends. Pinot Noir clearly dominated the field, though. Why? Because of the great distance this grape and wine have come in California; also, because of Pinot Noir’s inherent nobility. Again, “noble” is a difficult word to explain when applied to wine, but I think most readers will understand.

My top Pinots — almost all from the great 2007 vintage — were a pair from Occidental Coast (Occidental Coast and Two Daughters vineyards), a duo from Lynmar (Hawk Hill and Quail Hill Bliss Block), three Faillas (Vivien, Occidental Ridge, Hirsch), two from Dutton Estate (Thomas Road and Karmen Isabella), Etude’s Heirloom bottling, Patz & Hall’s Jenkins Ranch, two from De Coelo (Terra Neuma and Quintus), J’s regular 2007 and a Roessler from Ollie & Hazel’s Block. Except for the Etude, each of these is from the far Sonoma Coast or darned close to it (for example, Green Valley). That has got to be more than coincidence, and it is. It’s fair to say that  the “true” Sonoma Coast is the most exciting place for Pinot Noir in California.

My top sparklers were Iron Horse’s non-vintage Joy!, the same winery’s 2002 Brut Late Disgorged, Schramsberg’s 2002 J. Schram, Mumm Napa’s 2001 DVX and a blush, Roederer’s L’Ermitage Brut Rosé. All are from the North Coast, obviously, and all are from producers with long track records of sparkling wine who never stinted from their devotion to it, through all the vicissitudes of the market. The best of California sparkling wines can stand next to anything from Champagne.

My top Cabernets were from Far Niente (2006 Oakville), Etude (2005 Oakville), W.H. Smith (2007 Purple Label, from Howell Mountain), Atlas Peak’s 2005, also from Howell Mountain, Beaulieu’s ‘06 Private Reserve, Stonestreet’s 2005 Black Cougar Ridge from Alexander Valley, a surprisingly good Hanna 2005 Reserve, also from Alexander Valley, and Corison’s outstanding 2005 Kronos. Some observations: Napa Valley and its sub-regions continue to dominate; no surprise. Howell Mountain again and again proves its greatness. The Alexander Valley Cabs come, of course, not from the “valley” itself but from the high ridges and hills on its east side, which are the western slopes of the Mayacamas. These are world-class wines that easily deserve the highest scores.

The one Chardonnay that crashed this exclusive list was Gary Farrell’s 2007, from the Rochioli Vineyard. Almost nobody gets Rochioli fruit, but Gary Farrell goes way back with that family, and even though he doesn’t own the winery anymore, I guess the new owners still have a deal. The lone Syrah at the top was another one from Failla, the 2007 Estate, from the Sonoma Coast.

Ehren Jordan, Failla’s owner/winemaker, got Wine Enthusiast’s “#1 Wine of the Year” award last year for his 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah. This young man has surged to the top in California. If you’ve never visited his estate vineyard, in the wild coastal highlands above Fort Ross, do so, but bring your four-wheel drive and GPS. You’ll probably get lost, and cell phones don’t work in those tortured mountains.

Tuesday twaddle


Next, the entire Planet Earth!

“The USA will soon have the world’s largest wine appellation,” Decanter is reporting, with its tongue just ever so slightly in its staid British cheek. The happy new AVA baby is dubbed Upper Mississippi River Valley, and it is, Decanter tells us with a touch of malice, “more than double the size of Wales…and fifty times greater than Bordeaux.” (Just to prove I, too, can look stuff up on Google, at 30,000 square miles the appellation is larger than ten American states.)

Of course, an appellation this gigantic is silly to the point of meaningless. The only unifying terroir the TTB apparently could find was “evidence of a glacial retreat 15,000 years ago.” Under the circumstances, they might as well approve a Planet Earth AVA, because after all, we’re all products of the Big Bang. (I guess they couldn’t call it an AVA if it was the whole world, could they.)

So here’s what I don’t understand. Why is it easier for TTB to approve something so big, when they couldn’t even do Westside Paso Robles? I’m not saying they should have — I came out against Westside for the same reason TTB did: It didn’t make any sense. But neither does Upper Mississippi Valley. As my homes say, Wassup wid dat?

I’d love to, but I can’t remember where I left the corkscrew

The big news of yesterday was the headline, trumpeted around the world, that “Glass of wine a day can stave off Alzheimers”

The good, no, make that the great news is that “Moderate consumption of wine could reduce the risk of contracting Alzheimer’s disease among those over 75, according to a study revealed at a conference in Vienna.” The downside, unfortunately, is that “For those already suffering minor memory problems who drank more than two glasses a day, the risk [of Alzheimer’s] was twice that of non-drinkers with similar impairment.” I suppose that includes many readers of this blog, but since active intellectual exercise also helps to prevent Alzheimer’s, I recommend you continue stretching your gray matter by reading me.

A word on Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (and more to come later)

I’m glad Joe Roberts, over at 1WineDude blog, wrote about Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which has been much on my mind lately. Two years ago I wouldn’t have said Napa was home to some of the best SBs in California, but I’ll say it now. Peter Franus, Cockerell, Illumination, Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve (Fumé Blanc), Honker Blanc (from Duckhorn, a steal at $12), Toquade, Cade, Crauford, Alpha Omega, Broman, Girard, St. Clement, the list of great Napa Sauvignon Blancs goes on and on. I don’t know what they’re smoking up in the valley, but the collective Napa consciousness apparently has decided to reinvigorate their efforts at this oftentimes cranky variety. I do have to part company with Joe, however, on his praise of the St. Supery SBs. Too feline for my sensibilities.


What did I do now?

Bordeaux to explore non-Bordeaux varieties? Could happen as soon as this month


Zinfandel from Bordeaux! Sacre bleu! Yet it could be a reality someday. So could a Bordeaux Chardonnay, Syrah, Chenin Blanc and several other grape varieties, if the heretofore hidebound INAO (National Institute of Appellations), the formal body that regulates such things, decides at the end of this month to allow vignerons to plant grape varieties that have long been illegal in Bordeaux. That’s according to this report from Decanter.

Only 14 red and white grape varieties are now permitted to be grown in Bordeaux, under INAO laws dating to 1935. Given France’s history of bureaucratically-mandated viticulture (who could forget Phillip the Bold’s 1395 banishment of “disloyal Gamay” from Burgundy?), if the authorities permit an expansion of the varietal palate, it would be a major departure from centuries of established practice.

It all stems from the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux, the producer organization for AOC Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, who asked the INAO for permission to plant the non-native grapes. “Bordeaux wines are blend-wines. We wish to test new varietals to know if they can enhance the complexity of our wines,” a spokesman from the Syndicat was quoted as saying on the website, VinoWire. The deal, apparently (if INAO allows it to go ahead), is for 4 estates to vinify the new wines over the next 5 years. Then, “if the results are satisfactory,” reports the blog Bordeaux Undiscovered, “the use of the new grapes will be permitted in the Bordeaux regulations…up to 10% in the blend.” No explanation is provided as to how the results will be determined to be satisfactory or not.

Predictably, the trial balloon is raising some hackles among traditionalists, who don’t want to see change come to Bordeaux. Nick Stephens, who writes Bordeaux Undiscovered, calls it “half-baked,” and wonders if the Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux is “attempting to change the character of Bordeaux wines to that of their New World cousins?” On that VinoWire website, a guest contributor and wine writer, Hervé Lalau, said it was “pathetic to hear a spokesman of what used to pass as the wine Mecca speaking of ‘enhancing Bordeaux’s complexity’. Does it lack complexity so much that even Bordeaux people confess it?” Then Lalau asked the big question: “This could be like Pandora’s box. If the INAO accepts these new grapes in Bordeaux, then how could it refuse Cabernet in Burgundy, Sauvignon in Châteauneuf and Sémillon in Sancerre?”

Well, it sounds like Bordeaux is becoming California-ized! I personally don’t see what the problem is with Bordeaux trying out new varieties and blends. Bordeaux has to compete in the international wine market just like everybody else. If they can make better, more interesting wines by tinkering with new varieties, great. Here in California, wineries such as Buoncristiani, Swanson, L’Aventure and Treana have achieved stunning success with Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blends that blow your sox off. Who says that Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur — not the greatest wines to begin with — can’t be better by adding some exotic varieties to the mix?

P.S. Here’s the URL for Tom Wark’s American Wine Blog Awards. If you like my blog, you might consider nominating it in one of these categories, or all three:

– Best writing wine blog
– Best industry/business-oriented wine blog
– Best overall wine blog


California’s great white hope, or how to spot a coming trend


Here are some of the California whites I’ve been tasting lately: Albariño, Verdelho, Torrontes, Vermintino (AKA Malvasia Bianca), Tocai Friulano, Gruner Veltliner, Cortese, Edelzwicker and Muscat Blanc.

Who woulda thunk? We’ve certainly moved beyond the Usual Suspects, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc! Not to mention Chenin Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Grenache Blanc

It would have been impossible for me to have tasted this wide a variety of white wines even five years ago, because few wineries, if any, were making them. For example, in 2002 there were less than 100 tons of Tocai Friulano crushed in the state. Last year, it was over 400 tons. Ditto for Verdelho, 169 tons in 2007 versus a paltry 14.8 tons in 2002. Six years ago, there were about 950 acres of Muscat Blanc planted. Last year, it nearly doubled, to 1,700 acres.

So what’s up?

Partly, I guess, it’s vintners looking to hop on the next variety train before it leaves the station. After all, look what happened with Pinot Grigio. But it got me thinking about how to identify the early warning signs of a coming trend. I went down to our big BevMo store in Oakland and asked the guy who works the floor what was happening with white wines. Not much, he said. It seems that retail stores are not the leading indicators of trends. Nor, apparently, is the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Grape Acreage Report; the 2007 edition doesn’t even list Gruner Veltliner, Edelzwicker, Torrontes or Albariño as growing in the state, even though I’ve been drinking them! So I’m concluding that one early indicator of a coming trend — maybe the best one — is what wines are being discovered by critical critters like me (and being reviewed favorably, I might add).

If there is a new wave of whites, it’s great news. It indicates that the A.B.C. movement (“Anything But Chardonnay”) is working. Growers and vintners are thinking that the American consumer is ready to try new things, and they’re responding by making new kinds of wines.

Here are some of the more interesting of these new whites I’ve had lately. The italicized numbers are my Wine Enthusiast scores:

88 Cambiata 2007 Albariño (Monterey); $24
87 Dancing Coyote 2007 Albariño (Clarksburg); $11
90 Lee Family Farm 2007 Silvaspoons Vineyard Verdelho (Alta Mesa); $15
88 Stevenot 2007 Verdelho (California); $14
87 Stevenot 2007 Gran Reserva Torrontes (California); $22
87 David Noyes 2007 Pagani Vineyard Tocai Friulano (Sonoma Valley); $20
87 Von Strasser 2007 Gruner Veltliner (Diamond Mountain); $40
88 Navarro 2007 Edelzwicker (Mendocino); $13
88 Gianelli 2007 Vermentino (Tuolumne County); $18

P.S. Please check out my new blog post at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.

Que sera Syrah?


I was visiting Ryan over at Paul Marcus Wines, in Oakland’s Rock Ridge district. I asked how Syrah was selling and he made a long face that didn’t require any words to explain.

“In fact,” he said, “I was dusting the shelves the other day and there was more dust in the Syrah section than anyplace else.” (Ryan said Spanish reds are his hottest sellers now.)

Ryan’s quip accorded with numerous complaints I’ve heard from winemakers and winery owners that they can’t sell Syrah. Which is strange, because Syrah would seem to have everything going for it: It’s a pretty French word (like Merlot) that’s easy for Americans to pronounce. It usually makes a good wine and occasionally a great one in California. And it costs less than Cabernet Sauvignon. So why aren’t people drinking it?

Ryan speculated consumers may be confusing Syrah with Shiraz and thinking that Syrah is a big, hearty, robust and rustic wine, as Aussie Shiraz can be. If that’s how people view it, then they’re correct not to spend upwards of $20 or $30 for a bottle of something they think is boonie plonk.

Planted acreage of Syrah has been rising over the years, but not as dramatically as other premium red wine grapes, such as Pinot Noir (double since 1999). There’s 50% more Pinot Noir planted in California than Syrah, whose total statewide acreage, believe it or not, is only a little more than double that of Grenache.

And in the prime coastal areas new Syrah plantings have practically halted. Napa, Sonoma, Monterey, Mendocino and Santa Barbara have added only paltry amounts in the last 5 years. Purchased Syrah grapes actually declined in value last year, falling from $680 a ton to $660 on average. Compare that to Pinot Noir ($2,028 a ton), Cabernet Sauvignon ($998) and even Petite Sirah ($882). In fact, 42 other red varietal grapes cost more to buy in California than Syrah!

I mean, this is Syrah, one of the world’s most noble grape varieties. And people won’t drink it?

There are signs the industry is concerned about a Syrah slump and is gearing up to do something about it. In May, Gallo sponsored a Syrah Symposium in Santa Ynez, and they’re planning on investing in it in coming years to promote both it and Syrah; I know for a fact they want this Symposium to become a Very Important Event. At one of the Symposium seminars, I was struck when several of the panelist-winemakers blamed the wine media for Syrah’s failure to win hearts, minds and wallets. “You guys have to do a better job of educating consumers,” one said.

Well, it’s not the media’s job to promote any one variety, and besides, we in the wine press can only do so much. We can’t force consumers to buy a wine they don’t want.

But I’ll do my part by recommending the best Syrahs I’ve had lately. The numbers in italics are my Wine Enthusiast scores.

95 Novy Cellars 2005 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands); $27
95 Sonoma Coast Vineyards 2004 Syrah (Sonoma Coast); $45
95 Failla 2006 Phoenix Ranch Syrah (Napa Valley); $42
95 Signorello 2005 Estate Syrah (Napa Valley); $36
94 Kendall-Jackson 2005 Highlands Estate Alisos Hills Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $40
94 Rubicon Estate 2004 RC Reserve Syrah (Rutherford); $62
94 Kenneth-Crawford 2004 Lafond Vineyard Syrah (Santa Rita Hills); $32
94 Château Potelle 2005 V.G.S. Syrah (Mount Veeder); $75
93 Rusack 2004 Ballard Canyon Reserve Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $36
93 Luko 2005 White Hawk Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County); $52

To look or not, that is the question


There are different ways to taste wine and different reasons for each. Double blind tasting is where you know nothing about the wine. I’ve even heard of some people blindfolding themselves so they can’t tell the color! (I recall at least one study showing that people can’t distinguish between a red and white wine if they can’t see it.)

Single blind, or just plain blind, tasting is where you know something about the wines, but they’re in bags and you can’t tell which is which.

And then there’s open tasting. This is where you know exactly what the wine is, because you’re looking at the label, and you can read. It calls to mind the old saying, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.

Open tasting has the advantage of context. You know this is 2004 Harlan, or whatever. You know the vintage, the producer, the history of the wine, the vineyards. The experience of tasting the wine is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that Harlan (or any winery) represents. With each tasting, the picture becomes clearer. Tasting out of context can rob you of all the information you need to make a proper judgment. I’ve likened blind tasting to reading the script of Citizen Kane without seeing the movie. Would you be able to identify it as a great film?

In addition, for critics, sometimes there’s no other way to taste a wine except open. Some of the more cult-type wineries insist on having the critic come to them and taste open, often with the winemaker and/or owner. I think most critics agree that this is not an ideal way to taste wine (although we all do it out of necessity), the reason being that a wine usually tastes better at the winery, what with all the hospitality and joy of being in wine country.

Adherents of double blind tasting argue that its primary advantage is a psychological one: If you know nothing about the wine, you can’t possibly have any prejudices about it, for or against. It’s usually double blind tastings that generate eye-popping headlines like TWO BUCK CHUCK BEATS PETRUS.

Wine tasters tend to be absolutists about the different kinds of tasting, with fans of double blind insisting it’s the only honest way to go. Eric Asimov, over at the Times, has argued cogently in favor of open tasting, or, at least, single blind tasting, and I’ve heard for years, from pretty good sources, that Parker has been known to taste open. My own preference is right down the middle: single blind tasting. At home, I know what wines I’m tasting because I’ve chosen them and set them up. (Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to afford an assistant.) But I bag them, switch the corks around, and leave them alone for an hour or two. If you know me, it is perhaps not surprising that, by the time I’m ready to taste, I’ve frequently forgotten what it was that I opened!

I’ve had my triumphs with double blind tasting. The pinnacle was a few years ago, when I nailed a ‘78 Clos du Val. ( I guessed the Reserve, it was the regular, but I still felt pretty good.) But more often my experiences at guessing have been embarrassing failures of the kind that Bernard Ginestet describes, in Emile Peynaud’s excellent book, The Taste of Wine. “I myself have experienced moments of glory where everything seemed obvious to me, and I have also drunk the cup of humility to the dregs when, unable to interpret any clue at all, I have ended up making enormous blunders.”

Which of course brings up the late, great Harry Waugh’s immortal reply to the question, Did you ever mistake Bordeaux for Burgundy? Answer: “Not since lunch.”

How do you taste?

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