Wine Reviews: Alma Rosa & KITÁ

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-28-2016

If you know Cali Pinot, you know Richard Sanford. This Pinot Noir pioneer has been exploring the potential of the Santa Rita Hills for more than four decades. In 2005, he and his wife Thekla founded another project, Alma Rosa, which focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The 2013 Blanc de Blancs and the 2013 Brut Rosé El Jabali Vineyard are the first sparkling wines Alma Rosa has produced since the project was founded in 2005. While new to the sparkling wine game, Alma Rosa’s wines show no evidence of a learning curve. They’re bright, crisp, complex and will likely age well.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: A Glass Full of Miracles, by Mike Grgich

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 05-24-2016

Today is the 40th anniversary of the world’s most famous wine tasting. The Judgment of Paris pitted the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy against some underdog Cabernets and Chardonnays from California.

This momentous blind tasting was chronicled in the 2008 Hollywood film “Bottle Shock”, and the far more historically accurate book, “The Judgment of Paris” by George Taber, the only reporter present at the event. This tasting brought together wine experts from France and the United States to blind taste a wide range of wines. White Burgundies competed against California Chardonnays, while Bordeaux reds were pitted against some of California’s best Cabernet Sauvignons. In 1976, when the tasting took place, California wines were already rocking, but they were relatively unknown to the wine cognoscenti.

That all changed when the wines were unveiled. The French loved the Stag’s Leap Napa Cabernet more than Bordeaux, and they chose the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay over white Burgundies. The floodgates burst. The world wanted California wine.

That 1973 Chardonnay was crafted by none other than Miljenko (a.k.a. “Mike”) Grgich, a Croatian immigrant who had worked his way up in the Napa winemaking ranks. Perhaps more than any other individual, Mike Grgich was on the front lines of the Napa Valley wine revolution. When he first game to California in 1958, Mike was hired by Brother Timothy Diener of Christian Brothers Winery, which was the largest winery in Napa Valley at the time. He then took a position with legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards. From there, he bounced over to Robert Mondavi at the point when his winery was really taking off. Then, with Jim Barrett, Mike became a partner and integral part of the newly revitalized Chateau Montelena in 1972. It’s incredible to think that, in just a year’s time, Mike would craft a Chardonnay that blind tasters deemed higher quality than the best white Burgundies.

However, Mike didn’t even know the tasting was taking place. He figured something was up when Chateau Montelena received a telegram saying: “We won in Paris,” followed by a call from a New York Times reporter.

It was a miracle, Mike said. He recounts this event in his new autobiography “A Glass Full of Miracles,” which the 93-year-old published last month. It’s a beautiful and awe-filled foray into the life of a true California wine icon.

“The Judgment of Paris energized the wine world. Not only in California but around the globe, winemakers realized that they too might have the terroir to produce premium wines,” Mike writes. The 1973 Montelena Chardonnay was honored in a Smithsonian book titled History of American in 101 Objects. “It is amazing to me that as an immigrant to this country, I would live to see my Chardonnay considered an ‘American object.’”

This success gave him the last jolt he needed to kick off his own winery, Grgich Hills, which broke ground in 1977. It remains an exceptional source of Napa Chardonnay, Cabernet, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

Grgich’s prose, like his wines, is delightful and lively. Unlike his wines, the prose is simple and uncomplicated, but I mean those words as praise, not criticism. Reading this book, I felt like I was sitting on a couch listening to Mike spin tales of the old days.

Grgich was born in Croatia and raised by a winemaking family. His memories of his pastoral upbringing are wonderful to read. From a very young age, he was drawn to wine’s ability to bring people together. “People like to celebrate with wine in good times, but it also helps them forget in bad times,” he writes. “In fact, it adds pleasure to any day.”

But World War II ushered in a brutal fascist occupation, which also disrupted and destroyed the winemaking cultures of coastal Croatian communities. When the partisans drove out the fascists, Croatia quickly transitioned to a Communist dictatorship. After years of such chaos and destabilization, Grgich had to leave. With no freedom to move about or move ahead with his aspirations, Grgich fled the country. He had heard that California was paradise, and he knew he had to get there. Somehow.

I’ll leave the story of his escape and travels to Mike, who tells it beautifully, but suffice it to say: his is an exceptional and inspiring story of a poor immigrant who refuses to let his dreams go unfulfilled.

If you’re at all interested in those thrilling years of Napa Valley’s evolution, this book is full of great stories and history. Also, for the Zinfandel lovers out there, Mike tells of his role in tracking down the mysterious origins of Zinfandel to its birthplace in Croatia, which is my vote for the coolest and most fascinating stories of a researching a grape’s heritage.

The book is essentially self-published by Grgich’s daughter, Violet, but it’s put together very well and includes a host of great color pictures. The hardcover sells for $40 from Violetta Press, the Grgich Cellars’ website (with a discount for club members), and Amazon.

 

Wine Reviews: Worldwide Roundup

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-21-2016

We receive a lot of samples from all over the world, but sometimes there aren’t enough to fit into a single tasting or under the same umbrella. In the past, I’ve called these catch-all reports “Odds & Ends” but these wines aren’t odd, and they’re not at the end of any list I would compose.

So, without further explanation, here are a slew of reviews of wines from all over world, made in all different styles.

These were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: California Chardonnay

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-14-2016

For the California Chardonnay newcomers, or those looking to expand their palates and try different kinds of Chardonnays, welcome to the club. There are more diverse California Chardonnays today than ever before, and no matter what kind of style you like, there is a Cali Chard out there for you.

I love exploring lesser-known varieties and interesting blends from all over California, but there’s something about these wines that never gets old for me. Are some of them bland or over-oaked? Sure. But, for me, those well-priced delicious bottles and the more expensive gems I come across are worth the effort of exploring some of the less exciting wines. A lot of my wine friends have moved on from Cali Chard, as if it were a gateway drug one consumes before moving onto the hardcore stuff from Chablis and the Cote de Beaune. But I never outgrew the stuff, partly because California Chardonnay is a constantly evolving field, reinventing itself over and over again, interpreting incredibly diverse sites into unique and compelling wines.

Since my last report on California Chardonnay, I’ve tasted through a bunch of wines, most from the 2014 vintage, although a few late-released 2013s are still hitting shelves.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single-blind. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Lodi, California

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 05-07-2016

Credit: Lodi Winegrape Commission

What the hell is going on in Lodi?

This historic region, which stretches between Sacramento and Stockton, is home to more and more thrilling wines, year after year. They keep shocking me with their quality and value. It’s getting a bit absurd.

While vineyards were first planted here in the mid-19th Century, the 20th Century saw Lodi develop a reputation as a fruit basket for bulk wines. And, yes, tons of Lodi Zinfandel (and other grapes) were blended into tons of crappy wine. But to dismiss, or simply ignore, the wines of Lodi is to miss out on a whole lot. Today, Lodi is California wine’s big tent freak show of awesomeness.

Adventurous consumers and beverage buyers have so much to explore: small producers, incredibly varied grape varieties, old vines, funky blends, organic or “natural” stuff. And, due to a variety of factors (like cheaper vineyard land and decades of indifference from large media outlets), the price to deliciousness ratio is excellent.

Lodi wines are getting credit like never before, but this is no accident. The Lodi Winegrape Commission, the region’s trade group, has been preaching the gospel of Lodi wine for about a quarter century, but they’ve really stepped it up in recent years. With their $1.8 million budget, they put together tastings and trade events to showcase the 750 growers they represent. And small producers like St. Amant, Fields Family, m2, Macchia, McCay Cellars and Borra have turned this region’s rich history and diverse grape varieties into a compelling case that Lodi wines can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the big boys.

Take Lodi Native, for example, a cooperative project that brings together a half dozen of the region’s best producers to harness the real treasure of this region — gnarly ancient vine Zinfandel. The wines are made with native yeasts and no new oak, so the unique terroir of these old vineyards (some are a century old) shines through gloriously. I’ve been floored by both the 2012 and 2013 iterations of Lodi Native, and I can’t wait to see what they bring in future vintages.

A lot of the most interesting wines (like the Lodi Natives) hail from the Mokelumne River sub-appellation. This area is home to so many unique and old-school vineyards. Bob Koth planted his Mokelumne Glen Vineyard to a dizzying array of German and Austrian grape varieties in the 1990s, after being blown away by some Riesling on a trip to Germany. He now farms what is surely one of the largest and most diverse collections of Northern European grape varieties in the New World. We’re talking about grapes like Kerner, Bacchus, Dornfelder, Zweigelt, and a bunch of others we native English speakers have trouble pronouncing. The Mokelumne Glen Vineyard produced its own estate wines from 1998 until 2009, but now the fruit is sold to producers like m2, Borra, Ramey and Forlorn Hope.

But Lodi is a very hot place, so the choice to plant cold climate varieties struck me as odd. During a recent online tasting and video chat, I asked Markus Niggli (winemaker at Borra Vineyards and Markus Wine Co.) how these grapes do in Lodi’s climate.

Markus, originally from Switzerland, had worked with a lot of these grapes in his home country, and he said the two climates are obviously and drastically different. But, he added, the reason these grapes work in Mokelumne River is the large diurnal temperature swing, which is especially noticeable in this riverside vineyard. When the temperate drops some 40 degrees overnight, it allows the grapes to cool down, resulting in wines that boast high ripeness while maintaining some refreshing acidity.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve tasted through a bunch of wines from Lodi, including the Mokelumne River Vineyard wines, a few from Ryan Sherman’s awesome project Fields Family, and a trio of reds from Mettler Vineyards.

These wines were all received as trade samples and tasted sighted (except for the Fields wines, which were tasted single-blind along with a bunch of other California reds). Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Wakefield

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 04-30-2016

The Taylor family kicked off their winery in 1969, after scoring a 430-acre vineyard near the Wakefield River in Southern Australia’s Clare Valley region. These wines are known as Taylor’s in Australia but, due to trademark restrictions, they’re labeled as Wakefield in the Northern Hemisphere.

At more than 1,100 feet above sea level, the Taylor vineyards get plenty of sun but receive the benefit if large diurnal temperature swings. The resulting wines are rich in flavor but structured and vibrant. The St. Andrews wines come from the estate fruit grown in their terra rossa soil, while the Jaraman wines are blended with fruit from other sites. Wakefield also produces two stunning high-end wines, the Pioneer Shiraz and Visionary Cabernet, from the best plots in their vineyards. (I reviewed these wines in November 2015. Spoiler: they are amazing.)

Today, the Taylor’s/Wakefield winemaking team is composed of Mitchell Taylor (Managing Director), Adam Eggins (Chief Winemaker), and winemakers Chad Bowman (who joined in 2003) and Phillip Reschke (who joined in 2013).

I received these wines as trade samples and tasted them sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Rosé Season in Full Spring

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 04-23-2016

It’s that time of year again! The trees have blossomed, my email inbox is filling up with “Rosé sale!” offers, and all my favorite wine shops have scooted the pink stuff toward the front of the store.

I drink the pink all year round, but with longer days, more sunshine and warmer weather here in the mid-Atlantic, I crave rosé more than ever. And during spring and summer, I love exploring the new releases from all over the world, made from all kinds of grape varieties and blends. Add in the generally modest price tags, and I arrive at the conclusion: we should all open some rosé right now.

Odds are you, like me, have your go-to favorites. I dig pinks from Bandol, Marsannay, and a bunch of California Rhone-style interpretations. But good rosé increasingly comes from pretty much everywhere people make good wine. If a lot of winemakers and working in a region, odds are someone is producing a kick-ass dry rosé. This has been one of the most encouraging developments in the worldwide wine trade since I began seriously exploring wine about 12 years ago. And I hope the pink parade continues for years to come, because these wines deserve a spot on any table or wine list.

Here are a few examples of some crisp new rosé. These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: California Cabernet & Merlot

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 04-16-2016

This crew of wines included some real beauties. As is usually the case, I find that the best wines aren’t cheap. However, I also find the most expensive aren’t always the ones I like the most.

Of course, it all comes down to personal preference and — when talking about California Bordeaux varietal wines — a lot of it comes down to your tolerance for oak. The Shafer is a massive and oaky steel-toed boot to the palate, but I love it because, somehow, it all comes together. However, I found some other wines with far less new oak tasted overdone and charred.

This report includes wines from four recently available vintages (2010-2013), which reflects tremendous variation in style and aging ability.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted single blind. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Capture

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 04-02-2016

captureCapture Wines is a California North Coast project aimed at producing Bordeaux variety wines from high elevation sites in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino Counties. It was founded by Denis Malbec (what a last name!), who grew up around a little shack you may have heard of, Chateau Latour. His father was Latour’s cellar master, and Denis took over in 1994. But he moved to California, founded Capture, and began seeking Napa and Sonoma sites for high-end Bordeaux varietal wines.

The Jackson Family purchased Capture Wines in 2014, and they seem to be sticking to this relatively narrow focus with their range of wines. Graham Weerts now oversees winemaking for Capture, with the help of Sam Teakle, who has worked in South Australia and France.

The label’s two Sauvignon Blancs are blended from Sonoma County and Lake County fruit. They’re not cheap, but they definitely deliver for the price. I found the Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon to be very impressive and worthy of a long sleep in the cellar.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Wine Reviews: Sicilian Value from Vento di Mare

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 03-26-2016

IMAG3328$12 Italian wines — it’s a minefield I rarely enter any more. See, as a 21-year-old, I spent way too much of my hard-earned dough searching for good Chianti and Pinot Grigio for $10 to $15.

I was living in Brooklyn and, having grown up on the Jersey Shore, random bottles of cheap Italian wine seemed the natural place to go. Now that I was pulling down decent cash at Kinko’s, and saving money by sleeping in an illegally-rented basement in Brighton Beach, I had some extra money for the first time in my life. So I spent a lot of it on cheap Italian wine. Surely those classy-looking bottles at the corner store would be delicious and pair well with my homemade eggplant parm — right?

Bueller?

For a while, I wondered if something was wrong with me. Why were these wines so lifeless?

Truth is, there are plenty of good, inexpensive Italian wines. But the bottles you see on every shelf and grocery store in America (with the kitschy labels and castles and Renaissance sketches), some of these wines can be so boring you’ll wish you bought grain alcohol and grape juice.

But, as is the case in most every wine-producing country, someone, somewhere is producing wine on the cheap worth getting excited about. These usually hail from the lesser-heralded regions, from grapes you may not be familiar with, and — damnit — Safeway may not carry them.

If you find the good ones, it’s worth the effort. I was recently impressed with the overall quality of this Vento Di Mare brand of wines from Sicily. For $12 a pop, I’d gladly buy up any of these wines to open at big family gatherings.

Actually, I tested these wines out on my family. I tasted through the Vento Di Mare lineup before my Ma was passing through town on her way to a sister’s weekend in Pennsylvania. After tasting and writing about these wines, I sent the bottles with her so she and my four aunts could enjoy them. They drank these wines that night with charcuterie, cheese and crackers, veggies and dip, baked ziti, ravioli — you get the idea. The next week, I got a postcard, signed from all of my aunties. “We loved those wines! They made the food and fellowship so much better!”

See? This is what I was looking for when I was scouring shelves for cheap-o-vino. Wines that cost little money, but were delicious with food and enjoyed by everyone at the table. If you’re looking for something like that, you may want to seek out Vento Di Mare.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. Read the rest of this entry »