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A wine tasting in San Francisco

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I went to a great wine tasting on Friday, “Flights,” put on by ZAP, the Zinfandel consumer and trade group I’ve known and enjoyed for many decades. The event was held in the elegant, posh Palace Hotel, in San Francisco.

A “flight” is a series of individual wines, tasted and evaluated side by side. All of the wines share a common theme. In this case, the theme was that they were all comprised of Zinfandel, or of “related” grape varieties.

These “related” varieties, which included Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet and Carignan[e], are not related to Zinfandel in any ampelographic way. Instead, the relationship consists in the historical fact that Zinfandel was frequently interplanted with the other varieties by [mainly] Italian-American immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries; the wines made from them (the grapes were often co-fermented) are called “field blends.” These old vineyards, once threatened with being torn out for housing development or with being replaced by more popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, have been rediscovered over the years, with the vines lovingly tended. Some of the very interesting wines made from them were included in the tasting.

There were four flights, 13 wines in all. Here are my tasting notes, followed by a brief discussion. My notes follow my traditional pattern: starting with color/appearance, then proceeding through aromatic notes to flavors and finish.

First flight: 100% Zinfandel

McCay Cellars 2015 “Faith Lot 13 Estate,” Lodi. $32, 13.8% alcohol. Bright, clean. Red berries, esp. raspberries. Lots of peppery spice, sandalwood, briary notes. Delicious! Medium-bodied, elegant, claret-like. Good acidity, very well-balanced. Score: 93.

Easton Wines 2015 Estate, Shenandoah Valley (Amador County). $35, 15.1%. Darker, riper than the McCoy. Prune and dark chocolate aromas. Flavors of Dr. Pepper, cassis, tapenade. Full-bodied, a little porty and hot. Score: 87.

Day Zinfandel 2016 Grist Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley. $43, 15.2%. Made by Ehren Jordan, of Failla. A stellar wine, classic Dry Creek Zin. Good garnet color. Complex, alluring aroma: earthy, briary, spicy, tobacco, raspberry, toffee, licorice. Super-spicy, deep, juicy, fabulous complexity. No heat at all, refreshing acidity. Score: 94.

Hendry Wines 2015 Block 7, Napa Valley. $36, 15.4%. Darkest of all. Exotic aromas: wild mushrooms, blackberries, licorice, pepper. Deep, dark chocolate, berry and coffee flavors. Full-bodied, spicy, full-throttle Zin. Long finish. Will age. Score: 90.

Second flight: Carignan.

Ravenswood Winery 2015 Angeli Vineyard, Alexander Valley. $42, 14.5%. 100% Carignan, grown in the hot region of Cloverdale. Very dark color, purple-black. Aromas of meat (teriyaki beef), blackberry, coffee, black raspberry, spice. Very deeply flavored, enormous mouthfeel, yet elegant and balanced. Very good. Score: 92.

Ridge Vineyards 2015 “Geyserville”, Alexander Valley. $48, 14.5%. A blend of 70% Zinfandel, 15% Carignane, 12% Petite Sirah and 3% Alicante Bouschet. Very dark color, very ripe. Chocolate, blackberry, coffee, spice flavors. Tastes hotter than the official 14.5%. Some raisins, prunes, lots of sweet, savory fruit. Very tannic. Too ripe for me. Score: 88.

Bedrock Wine Co. 2017 Papera Ranch “Heritage,” Russian River Valley. $60, 14.6%. From Morgan Twain Peterson, son of the Flights moderator, Joel Peterson. From a vineyard planted in 1934. 49% Zinfandel, 44% Carignan, 7% “other.” Very dark. Complex aromas of spice, licorice, mincemeat, blackberry, blueberry. Insanely rich and sweet, glyceriney. A bit clumsy now, needs a few years to settle down. Score: 89.

Third flight: Petite Sirah.

Turley Wine Cellars 2016 Hayne Vineyard Petite Sirah, Napa Valley. $75, 14.4%. Very, very dark. Big, eruptive aromas of meat, fig, briar, blackberry, cocoa. Full-bodied and stuffed with big, sweet tannins. Leathery tastes and feeling, with more sweetness emerging mid-palate: sandalwood, peppermint patty. Delicious, gulpable. Score: 90.

Beekeeper Cellars 2012 Madrone Spring Vineyard Zinfandel, Rockpile. $NA, 14.75%. Contains 20% Petite Sirah. The vineyard is between 1,200’ – 1,500’. Good, dark saturated color. Impressive aromatics: black currants, raspberries, spices, coffee-toffee, vanilla. Very rich, sweet, fruity, long finish. Will age, but fully drinkable now. Score: 92.

Matrix Winery 2016 Bacigalupi Vineyard Red Wine, Russian River Valley. $38, 15.6%. This is a 50-50 blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. The color is inky black, impenetrable to light. The nose is muted at first, gradually suggesting earthy tobacco, blackberries and spice. Very tannic, and pretty oaky. Oodles of sweet black fruits, cinnamon bun, cocoa, with some overripe raisins and heat on the finish. Needs time. Score: 90.

Fourth flight: Alicante Bouschet.

St. Amant 2017 Alicante Bouschet, Lodi. $21, 12.93%. Good translucent garnet color, so much lighter than the Petite Sirahs. Lovely, uplifted raspberry, vanilla, cedar and spice aromas and flavors. Pinot Noir-like in texture, silky and satiny, with delicate raspberry fruit and refreshing acidity. Very fine, delicate, delicious. Score: 91.

Once & Future 2016 Teldeschi Vineyard Frank’s Block Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. $50, 14.8%. Inky-black color, no doubt from the Zinfandel and Carignane, which constitute 88% of the blend. The remainder is Alicante. Deep, bold, assertive aromas: packed with wild blackberries, earth, tobacco, leather, clove, anise. Full-bodied, lots of sweet fruit, figs and currants. Super-high quality. Score: 92.

Hartford Family Vineyard 2016 Dina’s Vineyard Old Vine Zinfandel, Russian River Valley. $60, 14.9%. Mainly Zinfandel, with 6% Alicante Bouschet and a few drops of other, undefined varieties. The color is very dark. The aroma is spicy and earthy, with notes of blackberries, cassis, blueberries and cocoa nib, as well as some overripe raisins. Dry and tannic, a big, ripe barbecue wine, although a little too robust for my taste. Score: 89.

The surprise of the tasting was the Alicante Bouschets, so out of place among those dark, tannic, heavy wines. What a pity more California winemakers don’t play with it, although who can blame them? The public is hardly ready for yet another obscure varietal. Among the Zins, Carignanes and Petite Sirahs, the Zinfandels showed best. Zinfandel is a noble variety in this family; the others can rise to the occasion, but always show some rusticity.


Woman winemakers in CA? Still not very many

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Reading about the upcoming Women of the Vine Global Symposium, a great event which takes place this April in Napa Valley, made me think of how difficult it was for women to gain a toehold in the wine business, even in “liberal” Napa Valley, as recently as the 1970s.

I was talking just yesterday with Cathy Corison, who related to me how, when she got a job in Freemark Abbey’s cellar, in 1978, Napa “never had a woman hauling hoses before that!” Indeed, it was rare for women to be found anywhere in wineries, except maybe in the lab; at Robert Mondavi, for example, that’s where Genevieve Janssens began, as did Zelma Long.

(It’s only fair to point out that Genevieve was hired by Zelma Long, who by then had become Mondavi’s winemaker—a rare exception at that time to the no-women rule.)

Another tale from that period concerns Merry Edwards, who related to me, in New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, how shocked a winery owner was when she showed up for her job interview. You see, Merry had sent in her resume with her first name, Meredith, which made the owner think she was a man. As she told me the story, this winery owner “practically lost his teeth when I walked in. I said, ‘You didn’t know I was a woman, did you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You never would have interviewed me if you’d known?’ He goes, ‘No.’”

How far we’ve come since then. Some years ago, I heard that the Viticulture and Enology Department at the University of California, Davis, finally had achieved parity of the genders in terms of students majoring in V&E. After 125 years, not bad! Today, of course, it’s common to find woman winemakers (although this article asserts that, in 2014, the percentage of “female lead winemakers” in California still was only 14.8. One can only hope that this percentage will increase).

This is why certain wineries make such a big deal about the women who were instrumental in their histories. Freemark Abbey points out, with justifiable pride, how Josephine Tychson, who bought the winery in 1881, was the first recorded female winemaker in Napa Valley. The Guenoc and Langtry wineries of Lake County rightly note how Lillie Langtry established the original winery in 1888.

Related to this notion of gender equity in winemaking are the issues of race equity and sexual preference equity. Here in California we do have a number of talented Black winemakers and winery owners, but for some reason African-Americans still seem underrepresented at all levels of the wine industry. I’m somewhat at a loss to understand why. As for the GLBT community, there’s a ton of gay and Lesbian winemakers; not all of them are out of the closet, nor should they be if they don’t want to. I don’t think anyone wants to be known as “the gay winemaker,” any more than they want to be known as “the female winemaker” or “the Jewish winemaker” or any other such descriptor. Winemakers want to be known for their talent and work ethic. As do we all…


When it comes to wine, why do we think less is more?

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In reading about the great Eastern religions, I’m struck especially by the Taoist notion of wu-wei: “inaction.” Joseph Needham, the British sinologist, defined wu-wei as “refraining from activity contrary to nature.”

When I read that I thought of two things: First, it reminded me of the maxim, so popular today in some winemaking and critical circles, of minimalist technique. The allegedly artisanal, or natural, method of winemaking stresses a less-is-more school in which winemaker interventions are kept to a strict minimum. Many wineries promote the concept as part of their marketing. Google “minimalist winemaking” and go through the search results: you’ll see many familiar names.

The other thing I thought was that the concept of “natural law” has been used wickedly by ideologues and religionists for years in order to persecute behaviors which they find objectionable, because they think that such behaviors are “contrary to nature.” Whenever I hear that, it makes my blood boil. Who defines this “nature”? What is the source of this “nature”? Who’s to say what’s “contrary” to it and what isn’t?

Call me skeptical. Many things that are uttered sound good on the surface, but when you scratch below the surface you begin to see the contradictions pile up. A winery may boast of its “minimalist approach” but—not only do we have no real way of knowing what goes on in the cellar—we also have to wonder what’s so minimalist about pruning, using commercial yeast, barrel fermentation and aging, sur lie aging, pumping over, sulfuring, racking, and so on. Tom Wark, some years ago, blogged on this topic, remarking that “Those currently pushing the idea of ‘Natural Wine’ think they may be on to something transformational and important when in fact what they have done is mistaken the tail of the dog for its snout.” (The quote is courtesy of John M. Kelly’s blog.)

I think most people would agree that “doing nothing” is a silly idea, both in winemaking and in one’s life in general. Wu-wei has, of course, been exaggerated in the Western mind over the last century or two (ever since sinology arose as a serious pursuit) into the image of the robed monk sitting in full-lotus on some Himalayan cliff, subsisting on a teaspoon of rice a day. (Who cooks the rice anyway?) In order to live, you have to do things, and doing implies making judgments about what you ought to do, what’s the right thing to do, and how to prepare yourself for the consequences of your action.

These things are obvious. So why are we so attracted to this idea of “minimalism” in winemaking? We would not trust an automobile manufacturer that bragged of its minimalist approach to production. We might have a taste for minimalist art, but we would not condemn a highly-articulated painter—Renoir, say—for his acute detailing. I, myself, enjoy a film or television show that is decidedly not minimalist: True Detective, for instance. And minimalist restaurants that charge $150 for a decorative configuration on a huge plate? Not my style.

But when it comes to minimalist winemaking, people get all wet. I wonder why that is?


When Mohammed won’t come down from the mountain

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So I called up this winery the other day. It’s not too far away from Oakland. I’m putting together another tasting and asked if I could buy a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon and have it shipped to me. The guy—the owner-proprietor, I think—said no. He said it’s not worth his while to “drive down the mountain” to send a single bottle. If I wanted to buy a case, he explained, that would be a different story.

I thanked him and told him I wasn’t looking for an entire case, so goodbye. No $ale. But the incident bothered me and so I put it up on Facebook and asked my friends, “What kind of a business model is that?”

Lots of comments, as usual. I suppose I think more about these marketing and sales issues since I’ve worked at Jackson Family Wines than I would have when I was at Wine Enthusiast. I thought the winemaker’s attitude was pretty dumb (not that he was rude about it; he wasn’t. In fact, he couldn’t have been nicer. He simply explained that he was way up in the middle of nowhere). The bottle price, by the way, was $27.

What did my Facebook friends say? You can read all the comments here. Most of them roundly criticized the guy. Jeff Stai, from Twisted Oak, wrote I’m way up in the mountains and I’ll sell you a bottle. wink emoticon.” He added Today’s one bottle sale is next month’s five case sale.” Bill Smart said the guy’s business model is “One that is not going to last for very long?” (Bill did put it in the form of a question.) Chris Sawyer said the business model is a “case study [in] how to inflict bad mojo on your brand.” Sean Piper said “If you ever buy a bottle of my wine I’ll personally hand deliver it to you.”

And yet, the guy had his defenders. Neil Monnens wrote, “More power to him…Imagine you are his friend or family and he leaves you to go down the mountain to sell one bottle of wine to someone…it’s not worth it. Good for him.” Victoria Amato Kennedy wondered “What was the profit margin on the one bottle after factoring in gas/shipping costs/time?” I understand that, but I would have paid whatever shipping cost the guy charged me. The fact of the matter is, he was too lazy to drive down the mountain. As Patrick Connelly wrote, “Bad customer service = increasing selling difficulty.”

If I had a little family winery (which this was) I’d drive down the mountain! How hard can it be? It’s summertime, no rain, easy-breezy. Besides, even if it’s a 30-minute drive to the UPS Store, aren’t there other things the guy can do while he’s in town—buy groceries or supplies, call on an account, have a nice meal, see a friend? I’m sure that people who live up in the mountains always have lists of stuff to do when they’re in town.

As I’m constantly reminding people nowadays, you do what it takes to sell your wine. Establishing customer relationships is one of those things. Although I didn’t identify myself to the guy, how did he know I wasn’t buying the wine for a Parker tasting? I could have been some rich Silicon Valley venture capitalist looking for a house Cabernet. You never know. Sending somebody a bottle of wine can sometimes change your life in unexpected, great ways. But first, you have to be willing to come down from the mountain.


A 40-year retrospective tasting with the Richard Arrowood

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Last Wednesday’s historic tasting of 40 years worth of wines produced by Richard Arrowood was not only a testament to the oeuvre of one of California’s greatest living winemakers, but a refreshing reminder—if one were needed—of how well Sonoma Valley wines, red and white, can age.

Richard invited a small group of us to the tasting of some 60 wines. We gathered at his idyllic Amapola Creek Winery, in the hills above Sonoma Valley, just below Monte Rosso Vineyard, then motored further up the mountain to the home he shares with his wife, Alis, where the grand event took place.

Richard began his career at Korbel in 1965, created a series of famous, great single-vineyard wines at Chateau St. Jean in the 1970s, and then presided over his own Arrowood Winery (which eventually passed into the Jackson Family Wines portfolio.) He launched his Amapola Creek venture in 2001.

Space precludes me from writing about each of the sixty wines we tasted, but I will provide overviews of each of the flights, and include the top wine/s from each. Richard, in his introductory remarks, said one of his purposes was to show how well these wines can age. Indeed, the tasting illustrated that, many times over. All wines bear a Sonoma Valley appellation.

Flight 1. Chateau St. Jean Zinfandel.

These were all from the Wildwood (now Kunde Estate) and Glen Ellen (Moon Mountain) vineyards.

1976 Chateau St. Jean Wildwood Vineyards Zinfandel. Crowd favorite. Sweet blackberry jam, violets, bouquet garni, cocoa nib, espresso. Alcohol 13.9%. Score: 91.

Flight 2. Chateau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon.

These were from the Wildwood, Glen Ellen, Laurel Glen (pre-Patrick Campbell) and Jack London vineyards.

1977 Chateau St. Jean Laurel Glen Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Good color. Spice. Cassis, black currants, cassis liqueur. Amazingly rich, sweet, still so fresh and vibrant. Superb. 13.9%. Score: 94

Fight 3. Arrowood white wines.

These were from the Alary and Saralee’s vineyards, both in Russian River Valley.

2009 Arrowood Saralee’s Vineyard Viognier. Tropical fruit, green melon, honey. Rich and exotic. Tremendous power. Great job balancing Viognier’s exoticness with structure and dryness. Drinking well now. 14.4%. Score: 94.

Flight 4. Arrowood Malbec and Syrah.

Except for the Sonoma County-appellated Malbec, these were all from Saralee’s Vineyard.

Arrowood 2004 Malbec. Good dark color at the age of nearly eleven years. Fruit drying out. Dried blackberry, grilled meat bone, shaved dark chocolate, cassis. Softly tannic. Tons of sweet black currant liqueur. Beautiful now. 14.5%. Score: 93.

But I want to praise a pair of Syrahs, the 2006 Saralee’s and the 2002 Saralee’s. Both scored 92 points.

Flight 5. Arrowood Cabernet Sauvignon.

These were all from the Monte Rosso Vineyard, or were Richard’s Réserve Spéciale bottling, except for the 1990 and 1991; I don’t know the grape sourcing on the latter two.

This was an incredible flight. It was hard to pick a “best,” but I went with the Arrowood 2005 Monte Rosso Cabernet. Good dark color. Heady, lots of black currants, cedar. Very rich, heady, sweet, opulent. Superb now and will age for many years. 15.8%. Score: 95. Concerning the alcohol level, the wine was not in the least hot.

Runner-ups: A pair of Réserve Spéciales, 1994 and 1993. Both were gorgeous 20-year old Cabs. I scored both at 94 points.

Flight 6. Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.

These were all from Richard’s estate vineyard, just below Monte Rosso. All the wines are eminently ageable.

2005 Amapola Creek Estate Vineyard Cabernet. Beginning to show bottle bouquet and development. Softly tannic, supple, rich in black cherries and mocha. Balanced, complex. Will drink well through at least 2025. 15.5%. Score: 94.

Flight 7. Amapola Creek Zinfandel.

Eight were Zins, mainly from the estate vineyard, with a few from Monte Rosso. Richard put a Petite Sirah in among them.

Amapola Creek 2008 Monte Rosso Zinfandel. Monte Rosso Zins, for me, can get too high and hot in alcohol, and the flavors can turn raisiny, even pruney. But the ’08 was the best of the lot, despite the heat waves of the vintage. I called it “claret-like” (an appraisal Margo Van Staaveren, sitting next to me, shared). Tons of fruit, spice and cocoa, balanced and elegant, yet always with Zin’s powerful, briary character. 15.1%. Score: 92.

Flight 8. Various Rieslings.

These were from Arrowood and Chateau St. Jean, and covered the vintages 1975-2009. The wines were from the vineyards Richard made famous with his Rieslings and Chardonnays of that era: Robert Young and Belle Terre, joined, later, by Hoot Owl and Saralee’s.

Tie for first:

1975 Chateau St. Jean Belle Terre Vineyards Johannisberg Riesling Individual Bunch Special Select Late Harvest (10.6%), and 1975 Chateau St. Jean Robert Young Vineyards Johannisberg Riesling Individual Bunch Special Select Late Harvest (10.0%). Score on both: 96. It is impossible to praise these very old white dessert wines enough. Possibly I scored them too low. In fact, the entire flight of eight wines was a masterpiece. It’s a pity people don’t drink more of these white late-harvest stickies, especially as they achieve the glories of senior citizenship.

For an extra treat, Richard invited a group of his former assistant winemakers over the years. They included Milla Handley (now Handley Cellars), Margo (Chateau St. Jean), her husband Don Van Staaveren (also from the old St. Jean days, now at Three Sticks), Heidi von der Mehden (Arrowood, now Merry Edwards) and, representing a younger generation, Erich Bradley (who was at Arrowood, and now is at Sojourn and Repris). Apologies to others who were present whose names I have not mentioned.

Richard's WMsA prestigious gathering of distinguished winemakers

ArrowoodRichard and my former colleague, Virginie Boone, of Wine Enthusiast

Richard Arrowood surely will be inducted one of these days into the Vintners Hall of Fame!


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