Back in the Summer of 1869

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 10-22-2012

A full century before Byan Adams got his first real six string, Croatian immigrants were planting 10 acres of Zinfandel in Amador County. That history lives on in liquid form as the 1869 Zinfandel from Scott Harvey Wines.

“Old Vines” — or Vieilles Vignes in French — is published on wine labels quite often, but there exists no legal definition in either country as to how old the vines have to be to use the term. The older the vineyard gets, the smaller the yield, the deeper the roots, and (hypothetically), the better the wine. So while there’s no legal cutoff for the term, I’d say the 143-year-old vines in Vineyard 1869 qualify.

Even more impressive than the fact that the vines are still healthy and producing beautiful Zinfandel clusters after so long is what the vines had to survive to make it this far. They not only survived the outbreak of phylloxera, a destructive root-feeding louse, which reached the west coast in the late 1800’s, but have continued to thrive even with its prevalence in the region since. The vines probably owe thanks to the unusually sandy soils of the site, which phylloxera  struggles to survive in.

After phylloxera, the biggest man-made obstacle arrived in 1920 as alcohol prohibition was enacted throughout the United States. During the 13 years that alcohol was effectively illegal, a handful of vineyards in California managed to survive either by producing wine for religious regions or shipping the grapes to the east coast for home winemaking, which was not banned under the amendment. According to the back of the 1869 label “moonlit nights of unregulated distillation” helped the vineyard survive. I supposed there was a third reason some vineyards survived. Read the rest of this entry »

Discovering Monterey County, Part I

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 04-20-2012

Monterey county might be California’s most overlooked wine county. Not only is it in the shadow of Napa/Sonoma for bay area wine spots, but its southern boundary sits right up against the Paso Robles AVA. So hot right now, Paso. This leaves Monterey in somewhat of a no-man’s land, albeit a beautiful one.

The county varies drastically in climate and terrain. The tourist viewpoint often doesn’t extend beyond the peninsula which grows fairways, not wine, and the stunning views of Big Sur on the coast. It’s the inland (that’s a relative term here) valleys where the vine thrives and the pace of life is closer to Kansas than San Francisco.

Santa Lucia Highlands

I admit I don’t have the highest opinion of Monterey wines, thinking it of somewhat of a producer of fine bulk wines, if that makes any sense. It’s better than Fresno, but rarely reaches the heights of Sonoma.

Or does it? I have decided this spring to give the county the fair chance it deserves, and there was no better way to start this tour than a helicopter ride over the Salinas Valley to get a better understanding of the geography and its influence on what goes into the bottle.

Jackson Family Wines graciously offered a ride from the small airport in Monterey proper to their Panorama Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco AVA. Arroyo Seco is in the larger Salinas Valley along with a few other AVAs, and I’ll be focusing on this piece of the county first. Read the rest of this entry »

Highlights from Rhone Rangers SF

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 03-28-2012

Fort Mason was the stunning setting for the Rhone Rangers San Francisco Grand Tasting

The Rhone Rangers is an organization devoted to one of the best causes in the wine world: promoting the creation and enjoyment of Rhone style wines. While Napa Cab still dominates America’s high-end wine market, there’s obvious potential in California and elsewhere for the production of noteworthy wines from Rhone varieties.

Syrah and Viognier are certainly in the lead for red and white, respectively, but Grenache, Roussanne, and a handful of others are up-and-coming in the California wine world. I attended the Rhone Rangers San Francisco grand tasting on Sunday — here are my highlights from the dozens of wines I tried:

Favorite white: 2010 Donelan Venus, Sonoma County (pre-release) — This is a Roussanne-based wine with some Viognier blended in. The Viognier definitely adds a boost to the aromatics. The nose explodes with peach, guava, pineapple, and lemon over a wet stone aroma with just a touch of oak. My favorite thing about this wine is how well it combines Viognier aromatics and Roussanne structure, skillfully avoiding the dreaded flabbiness that plagues many Viogniers. At $45 this isn’t a nightly quaffer for most, but it’s worth the money for a great white wine experience.

Favorite red: 2009 Stolpman Hilltops Syrah Santa Ynez Valley — Stolpman caught me by surprise one day when I wondered into their Lompoc “wine ghetto” tasting room in Santa Barbara County. The Syrahs blew me away with their resemblance of Cayuse, the cult Walla Walla winery with a supposed seven year waiting list. Unfortunately my favorite of that tasting, the Originals Syrah, was sold out, but the Hilltops is a worthy successor. This is a savory Syrah with a smokey, bacon fat nose over top plum and blueberry flavors. The Hilltops runs at a cool $48, but they also have their gorgeous Estate Syrah at $30 and the 2010 Originals at $38 for more affordable versions.

Most unexpected wine: 2009 Lagier Meredith Mondeuse Mount Veeder — Carole Meredith is a well-known grapevine geneticist, and according to her Mondeuse is “Syrah’s crazy uncle”. She couldn’t find the vines to purchase at a commercial nursery, but knowing that UC Davis had a couple of them which she had identified, she used cuttings to propagate a small vineyard of Mondeuse on Mount Veeder. The grape is grown in the alpine Savoie region of France, where the climate is significantly cooler than Napa Valley. It is extremely interesting to taste a California version; the wine is hardly recognizable as coming from the same grape as Savoie wines. It has voluptuous amounts of blackberry and boysenberry fruit with a great mineral-driven finish, and the fact that it was poured after the Syrah surprisingly seems correct. This wine is from only the vines’ third year, so I’ll be curious to try this in the future as the vines begin to mature.

Two Shepherds' Debut Vintage

With so many wineries present I wasn’t able to taste wine from everybody, but among those I did make it to a few caught my attention. Petrichor, a new single vineyard project with Duncan Arnot Meyers (Arnot-Roberts) as winemaker has enormous potential but the wines could use more bottle age. Two Shepherds — the project of wine blogger William Allen — continues to make waves, and he had one of the most popular tables at the tasting. I highly recommend securing a bottle of the 2010 Viognier before it is gone. (David White wrote about the Two Shepherds wines yesterday.)

This tasting confirmed my belief that Rhone style wines from California continue to be underrated and under-priced relative to their Bordeaux and Burgundy-inspired counterparts. California Syrah in particular can be one of the best values on the shelf, but I expect this won’t always be the case as the market will eventually catch up to the quality.

The 14 Days of Younger

Posted by | Posted in Beer | Posted on 02-16-2012

Beer: it’s the drink winemakers drink when they aren’t drinking wine, which happens a lot more than some might imagine. There is a phrase in the industry, “it takes a lot of good beer to make a great wine,” but sometimes it takes a lot of wine to make a great beer. Such is the case at Russian River Brewing Company in my current hometown of Santa Rosa, California; at least  for their barrel aged sours such as Temptation — aged in used Chardonnay barrels.

Normally, I’d opt for one of these barrel-aged beers, but not in the first two weeks of February. That would be a total waste at this special time of year known as the “14 days of Younger.” While I typically couldn’t care less about scores, ratings, badges, and the like, I must admit that living within walking distance of the brewery producing the beer currently rated number one out of every beer in the world on Beer Advocate is pretty sweet.

Having heard the hype, I had to swing by on the first day of the 14 to try it out. This was a bad idea. The line was almost literally around the block, and I have a feeling that not many people were going to be giving up their spots at 6 p.m. on a Friday. The next day proved even more daunting. There must easily have been more people in line than living in the state of Delaware. Regardless, I finally made it in at 11 a.m. on Tuesday. And 11 a.m. on Wednesday. This stuff is good.

Now for the beer: Russian River Brewing Company Pliny the Younger (2012 release): The Younger is a triple IPA, none of that wussie double stuff of his Elder equivalent. The nose is pure oranges and hops that smell as if they’d just been picked fresh from the highest peaks of the Cascades. Normally I’m not a huge IPA drinker, nevermind triple IPAs, but the balance between fruitiness and hoppy bitterness on this is astounding. Coming in 10.7% alcohol and IBUs that probably can’t even be measured, balance isn’t the first word that comes to mind. But the Younger pulls it off, and it pulls it off in style.

Unfortunately, today, February 16, is the final of the 14 days of Younger. I can only hope the end of the world holds off until I get to taste the 2013 version, and for anyone who thinks February is a bad time to visit wine country, I beg to differ. Not only was it 65 and sunny yesterday, but early February in Sonoma County is also beer country; beer so good that I forgot about wine for a brief moment, and that doesn’t happen very often.

Tahoe’s Après-Ski Wine Spot

Posted by | Posted in Wine Events | Posted on 01-26-2012

So far, this winter season around Lake Tahoe has been the year with no snow. Luckily for ski-starved travelers, there is still plenty of good wine to be consumed while sitting and hoping for the fluffy stuff. And the best place around the lake to sit and consume wine is definitely Après Wine Company, aptly named for a wine bar immersed in a ski town.

The bar celebrated its third anniversary this past New Years’ Eve — which is quite fitting, considering the owner, J.P., takes enormous pride is his collection of grower Champagnes available for purchase. I was lucky enough to taste one of them — the 100% Pinot Noir Pehu Simonet Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru. And it was one of the best Champagnes I’ve ever tasted. Maybe I was in a good mood or it was the high elevation, but I found the wine to be a raspberry explosion of the grandest caliber.

It so happened I was visiting the bar on a Tuesday during their weekly Tuesday Tasting series. That week, they were pouring five southern hemisphere wines, and pairing them with small bites for $20. Among the five wines, my favorites were the 2006 Errazuriz Chardonnay from Casablanca Valley, Chile and the 2008 D’Arenberg Shiraz “The Love Grass” from Mclaren Vale. Perhaps I was biased on the Chardonnay, as the front label emphasizes its native fermentation, but I found it’s limey minerality to be something rarely found in new world Chardonnay. And I’ll be purchasing this if I see it in the future.

The Love Grass Shiraz inspired me to create a new years’ resolution, since I had not done so already, of drinking more Australian Shiraz. I wouldn’t want those over-ripe plum and blackberry flavors every night, but this sure hit the spot as they so often do when consumed in moderation. Maybe 2012 will be the year of the Shiraz comeback, and just maybe the weather forecast will finally hold true and Tahoe will become the ski resort town it’s famed to be.

Exploring K&L’s Champagnes

Posted by | Posted in Wine Reviews | Posted on 11-04-2011

Everyone has heard of Dom Perignon and Cristal, but not many of us are willing to drop $200 on a bottle of Champagne. Last Sunday, K&L Wines held its annual Champagne tent tasting, featuring a wide range of prices and styles.

I’d never had the chance to try most of the high-end cuvees, so I decided to try the big-name Champagnes and then find a reasonably priced alternative in the same style.

There were four of these “luxury” wines available to taste when I was there – and below the fold, I’ve done my best to explain their style as well as a reasonably priced alternative for a similar experience. Read the rest of this entry »