Winemaker Interview – Sally Johnson-Blum of Pride Mountain Vineyards

Please follow my winemaker interview series! You can find this and other interviews at the following link:

http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2015/03/01/winemaker-interview-sally-johnson-blum-of-pride-mountain-vineyards/

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Shafer Vineyards Wine Tasting and Visit – Napa Valley, Stags Leap AVA

Shafer-Vineyards1

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I was really looking forward to visiting Shafer on this trip. It was expensive, but I wanted to connect with the same winery that had produced those great vintages of One Point Five and Relentless.  I envisioned writing this crazy post that would make you want to jump on an airplane right now and drive directly to the winery.

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Shafer-Tasting-Room

Tasting Experience

As you approach the winery, this is a hilly site that hits you with a luxurious feel of rolling vineyards.  It was a gorgeous facility and the tasting room was well-appointed.  The whole experience was just as the description sounds – expensive, stuffy, high-brow.  My wife and I were tasting with a group of eight consumers.  The group tasted the current releases, including the Hillside Select that had a retail price of $250/btl.  I spoke to several in the group afterwards and they had already moved on, asking me to recommend other sites in Napa.  Not that the wines weren’t good… just that the experience was not engaging and did not leave a lasting impression.  For the price of the tasting and the cost of these wines, you would expect something different.  The Shafer experience is a throw-back to an American wine experience long past.  Today, even the wine drinker able to afford this collection, is looking for a more relaxed presentation.

The Shafer 2014 Releases

2012 Shafer Chardonnay – Carneros, Red Shoulder Vineyard

Lots of citrus on the nose with citrus AND tropical fruit flavors in front on the palate.  The tropical fruit character was a nice change from other Napa Chardonnays.  The lack of malolactic fermentation adds to the perception of very high acidity, which is a nice counter-point to the creamy mouth-feel.  Very Old World winemaking here – lots of new French Oak and a full 14 months on the lees.  A very nice Chardonnay and the second best wine of the day, in my opinion.

2012 Shafer Merlot – Napa Valley

Nose was a bit unusual with a floral character from the 6% Malbec.  Once the carmelized butter hits the nose, you know where this is going… a rich, toasty oak experience.  The wine is fruit-forward with typical plum flavors in front, but the mid-palate catches you off-guard with a very bitter and sharp dark chocolate flavor that makes the wine difficult to drink.  Also, you would expect a little more mouth-feel from a high-end Merlot like this.  The wine’s structure had high tannins and high acidity.

2011 Shafer One Point Five – Stags Leap (100% Cabernet Sauvignon)

I didn’t know what to expect with this.  All the talk of how poor the growing season was in 2011, I was hoping the winemaker had taken an approach aiming to work with the fruit, instead of fight it.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Boysenberry, plum and fresh tobacco on the nose.  The palate was fruit-forward with a little more red/black berries, than currant and plum.  The mid-palate transitioned to pleasant dark chocolate and fresh tobacco, with a very weak finish.  The finish highlights the problem with this wine.  The structure included high acidity, but only medium tannins, missing the structure needed for proper aging.  The balance was good, but the mouth-feel wasn’t there.  I would guess a drinking window of another five years, or less, by which time the balance will be lost.  The tasting offered two impressions:

  • Fruit from a cool year that was picked too early, due to the rain during harvest that year
  • A winemaker that attempted a traditional Napa Cab, instead of one with a silkier, lighter elegance – to match the fruit from such a difficult growing season

2011 Shafer Relentless – Napa Valley (Syrah blend)

The Syrah fared much better in the cooler 2011 year… as you would expect from a varietal that stands up to cooler temperatures well.  Fortifying this blend with Petit Sirah adds plushness to the mouthfeel and deep color.  Minty on the nose with lots of plum in front on the palate.  The mid-palate moves to pleasant dark chocolate with a medium length finish.  What I liked most about this wine was the character of the tannins.  No grittiness, or bite… the mouth-drying tannins were very soft and smooth.  The wine’s structure had high tannins and high acidity.  This Syrah blend will age well.

2010 Shafer Hillside Select – Stags Leap (100% Cabernet Sauvignon)

By far, this was the most enjoyable wine of the tasting.  Very fruity plum on the nose with a touch of tobacco and menthol.  A blackberry and plum fruit-forward palate with a very long, luxurious dark chocolate finish.  Beautifully balanced with soft tannins and a nice acidic backbone.  The wine was soft, but not particularly vibrant in the mouth.  A very refined style and the best wine of the tasting.  An excellent Napa Cabernet, but at $250/btl, difficult to justify the price.  I wonder where the 2011 vintage will take them?

Understanding the Shafer Message

Once the wine tasting was complete, the group discussed wine availability with the attendant.  This is where the whole experience goes awry.  So, apparently Shafer is a winery 100% committed to the three-tier distribution system.  They sell-out through distribution most years.  Only 15-20% of production is used for on-site tastings, or sold direct to the consumer… and they make sure you know it.  Limited availability is stressed.  I have no idea what message they are trying to craft for the consumer, but it comes across as being very detached.  I have tasted at many wineries whose total production is committed to allocation, having no wine to sell, but at least there… they apologize and help people to understand how the tastings are pulling wine away from previously allocated purchases.  I recognize supply and demand issues as well as the next guy, but at least they could be apologetic regarding the circumstances…

Conclusion

In the past, I have purchased Shafer wines via wine brokers.  The wines maintain value, but do not seem to appreciate much on the open market, so many 5-10 year old vintages can be acquired at roughly the same price as current releases.  Without a feeling of connection to the winery, my future Shafer purchases will be based solely on QPR (quality to price ratio) and in most years, that will be a hard sell.

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Filed under Napa Valley, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Winemaker Interview – David Ramey of Ramey Cellars

Winemaking Aristocracy

Please follow my winemaker interview series! You can find this and other interviews at the following link:

http://winemakerinterviewseries.net/2015/01/05/winemaker-interview-david-ramey-of-ramey-cellars/

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Chardonnay, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes, Winemaker Interview

The Best Red Wine Varietals in the World?

Kid Wine Quality Cartoon

Can One Grape Variety Be Better Than Another?

This statement is likely to irritate a few folks, but in my opinion, one can make an argument supporting this thinking.  It also plays squarely into my pet peeve in the industry – lack of focus on evaluating structure, balance and texture in wine.  So, which varietals capture these characteristics better than others?  Let’s tackle red varietals…  Balance is definitely most affected by the winemaker, so we will drop this from consideration.  Structure and texture come primarily from the fruit, making it easy to focus the discussion on these two areas.  Which varietals produce the most structured, textured wines in the world?

What is Structure?

Structure is the “backbone” of the wine. It is what gives the wine an impression of being complete, or without missing components.  In red wine, the components of structure are: tannins, acidity, alcohol and phenolic development.  The opposite of a structured wine is a “flabby” wine, or one missing these components.

What is Texture?

Texture is more nuanced.  The mouth perceives texture in ways you would not expect.  For example, higher alcohol wines can appear to be heavier bodied in the mouth, but intellectually that may be hard to accept.  Texture is influenced by the same components as Structure, but instead of the amount, it is more about the character of these components.  With Tannins, it is about the attack of the tannins in the mouth.  Are they dusty, grainy, fine, soft, mouth-filling?  With Acidity, it is a yes, or no proposition. Is there enough acidity to make the mouth water?  With Alcohol, it is about adding body with just enough bite to affect Structure, but not too overpowering to throw off the balance.  Phenolic development is the wild card.  Some varietals can develop the type of phenolics, when properly extracted during winemaking, to leave a slight coating on the interior of the mouth that is quite pleasant.

Terroir and Its Affect

As usual, Terroir factors into everything when discussing wine.  In this case, making the evaluation much more difficult.  Cabernet Franc dominated wines from Bordeaux and Napa come close to being included on this list, but when produced in areas like Chinon, fall far short.  Malbec dominated wines from Cahors could easily qualify, but from Mendoza not so much.  Merlot from Bordeaux’s Right Bank would be a shoo-in, but from Central California… ugh!  Why?  Because these varietals are heavily dependent on optimum terroir to express themselves properly.  Another way to explain it:  these are fickle varieties that must be grown in the right location and nurtured properly to produce quality wine.

The List

Which grape varietals consistently produce the most structured, complex and textured wines in the world?

Cabernet Sauvignon – The Grand Daddy of the Noble Grape family.  Produces wines like this in virtually every location it is grown.

Carignan – The unsung “lost” Bordeaux varietal. Produces great reds.

Tannat – Holy Cow! The biggest structured red on the planet!

Anglianico – One of the oldest grape varieties in the world and the least appreciated.

Syrah – I have run into a few that have been flabby, but 95% have been solidly in this category.

Honorable Mention

Nebbiolo – The quintessential structured red variety, but only when grown in Barolo and Barbaresco.  The most ageable of all the red varieties.

Corvina – Doesn’t apply… might be included as Amarone. Made from grapes that are dried first, before being made into wine.

Sangiovese – Inconsistent in the Chianti regions and only reaches its fullest potential in Brunello.

Touriga Nacional – This is the Grand Papa grape of Portugal and is rarely grown anywhere else.  Which is the reason it did not make the list.

Tempranillo – THE Spanish red varietal produces huge wines in Spain, but falls far short, most everywhere else it is grown.

Petit Verdot – The ultimate blending grape.  This would have been a good addition to the list, BUT when bottled on its own… is almost undrinkable.  I am convinced it is impossible to make a balanced Petit Verdot.

Additional Thoughts

I am sure folks will want to know why this, or that varietal is missing:  for example Pinot Noir. Pinot makes the most beautiful, nuanced wines in the world, but definitely not the most structured.  Any others that you do not see here are either, more obscure varieties that I have not tasted, or are varieties that are too dependent on location and winemaking style to produce structured, textured wine consistently.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Follow-up to: “Cabernet Sauvignon Blend Comparison”

A few comments from readers outside the U.S. highlighted the cultural bias I showed in this piece.  So, for my readers outside the U.S., I decided to write a follow-up with that in mind…

Bias Cartoon

I have written before about cultural differences and how it affects wine culture and wine jobs around the world.  It is difficult to shed the result of our up-bringing.  My point has always been – evaluating the quality of a wine is the same around the world, but whether it is enjoyed with or without food… or which foods pair best to local palates – are not simple questions with easy answers.

Cultural “Liberties”

I took many cultural “liberties” in the previous piece, assuming a shared understanding.  Also, I SHOULD have offered an evaluation regarding the best wine-food pairing…  As a starting point, keep in mind, all four wines were essentially Bordeaux style blends, the wines were similar in profile and this style of wine pairs well generally with red meat.

When I hold a tasting of varietally similar wines like these, it definitely allows a focus on evaluating structure and balance vs. flavors/aromas.  A more technical approach, but one I prefer. If you read my tasting notes, I ALWAYS discuss the structure and balance of the wine – regardless of the pairing.  I tend to evaluate wines based on how well they are made vs. how much I enjoy them.  This is the FIRST concept I was taught in formal Sommelier training.  The French wine was BY FAR the best balanced wine at the table.  So, in a tasting of similar style wines, it offered the best wine-food pairing of the four.  Which wine did I enjoy the most without food?  The 1993 Beringer Private Reserve.

In my opinion, this “Cultural Bias” is the biggest challenge that a wine professional can face when trying to bridge the chasm between Old and New World locations:  accommodating the local wine culture.  This affects every discipline in the wine industry, affecting how the wine is made, how it is marketed, serving decisions…  Perhaps, this thinking explains the importance of an involved U.S. importer to a European producer.

Cultural Differences

In the U.S., it is more common to enjoy wine without food.  One of the challenges I had to overcome in my training, but it also affects how I approach evaluating wine for my U.S. audience.  I believe there are a few ideas differentiating wine drinkers in the U.S. from many other locations around the world:

1) A significant share of the wine consumed in the U.S. is enjoyed before, or after dinner, without food.

2) Americans are looking for a less formal and relaxed wine experience.

3) When paired with food, wine flavors should enhance food flavors, rather than just complement the flavors.  Wine is not often consumed primarily to clear the palate as is common in Europe.

In closing, I was asked for a better description of the food prepared and enjoyed with the wines. So, here it is:

Beef Short Ribs – braised with a balsamic reduction for 3 hours in a pressure cooker.  They were rich, meaty, and very tender.

Mac & Cheese – a uniquely American comfort food.  This is an extremely rich pasta dish made with butter, cream and lots of cheese.  In this case we made the pasta from scratch vs. pre-packaged.

Succotash – another uniquely American dish.  A mixture of corn, butter beans (we subbed cannelloni) and okra (we subbed zucchini) in a light butter sauce with salt pork flavoring.

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Cabernet Sauvignon Blend Comparison

See a follow-up to this post at:  https://coolclimatewine.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/follow-up-to-cabernet-sauvignon-blend-comparison/

Tasted Friday, December 26, 2014

INTRODUCTION

I selected one each Bordeaux, Napa and Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon blend to pair with dinner for this get-together. We invited friends over for a meal of braised beef short ribs, home-made mac & cheese with gruyere & cheddar sauce and succotash. All the wines paired extremely well with the meal served.

The Le Petit Haut Lafitte was the standout of the night. This was extremely well-balanced, with good structure and had a very pretty, refined character that spoke of a well-made wine. A mix between Old and New World with a fruit-forward palate.

The surprise of the night was the ’93 Beringer. Wow, what a great aged Napa Cab. Just an excellent bottle-aged wine. This wine was made to age well and actually has a few years left in it, if anyone has this in their cellar… it isn’t dead yet!

FLIGHT 1 – CABERNET SAUVIGNON BLENDS (4 NOTES)

All great choices and enjoyed by all!

USA, California, Napa Valley

After one hour decant. This was the most surprising wine of the night. At 21 years old this bottle was singing! The nose showed plum, blackberry, black cherry, graphite and earth. The freshness of fruit on the palate was nothing short of amazing for a ’93. The palate followed the nose with beautiful fruit. The structure was spectacular for an aged wine, with medium-high tannins, good acidity and well-integrated alcohol. Nice mid-palate of tobacco that added complexity, but the mouth-feel is what got me. The balance was good and the tannins had a great velvety texture that filled the mouth. It needed more layering of flavors and a stronger finish to move in to the exceptional category though. This wine actually has a few more years under its belt! This is my first Napa cab sauv that has stood-up well to 20 years of bottle aging.

France, Bordeaux, Graves, Pessac-Léognan

After one hour decant. This was the most spectacular wine of the evening. It was extremely well-balanced, with a refined, classically old world character… while still being fruit forward. The wine showed great QPR and is a substantial effort for a second label. Plum, blackberry, creme brulee, tobacco and earth were on the nose. The palate follows the nose. The wine is very accessible for only five years in the bottle. I would suggest your prime drinking window to be 2016-2018. I don’t believe this wine will age successfully beyond that. Everyone at the dinner agreed this was the best wine of the evening. With medium-high tannins and strong acidity the structure was spot-on. The alcohol was noticeable, but did not dominate. This contributed to a superb pairing with braised short ribs. This is the best value I have tasted from Bordeaux in a long time.

USA, California, Napa Valley

After 30 min. decant. Popped this half bottle looking to see how close this wine is to its drinking window. This needs another few more years. The nose is full of plum and rich red tomato. The palate is fruit forward with plum and blackberry moving to a hint of tomato. Nice spicy character leaning towards cinnamon and clove. The wine had medium-high tannins with very high acidity. It was slightly hot and not integrated enough yet to be well-balanced. This was definitely starting to move towards a soft mouth-feel. I enjoyed this now, but believe it will be much better when I pop the next bottle in a couple of years.

Italy, Tuscany, Toscana IGT

After 60 min. decant. This improved with more time in the glass. Fruit on the nose was of cherry and plum with vanilla and herbal mint. The nose was too hot to really enjoy. The palate followed the nose. Medium-high tannins and high acidity for good structure, but not well-balanced. The alcohol was very noticeable. The other characteristics were a little out of kilter. I will save the next bottle for a couple of years, hoping it will come together.

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Filed under Bordeaux, Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, French Wine, Italian Wine, Napa Valley, Super Tuscan Blend, Toscana, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

The New American Way – Intolerance?

I want to thank everyone for their recent comments regarding my latest post.  Many of you copied me on links to other commentary about the same event from last February.  My piece was more about why a trade periodical would place the topic of “cheap” wine served at the White House on a 2014 Top Ten Most Important Wine Events list.  Although, working my way through the other posts (especially Dr. Vino) highlighted strong opposing viewpoints and spilled over into party politics…  prompting me to share with you my greatest concern regarding the future of our country…

tea_party-perception_vs_reality

Pervasive Intolerance

Shock jocks and political commentators have changed the framework for debate regarding important issues in this country and it has spilled over into every aspect of our lives. Polarized views, intolerance and failure to compromise are now the hallmark of the American Way.  Our government is full of misguided politicians that believe the U.S. governing process is about catering to the extremes of each party (viewed as their core constituency), rather than the larger, more moderate middle.

Growing Apathy?

I don’t know about all of you, but doesn’t it seem like this current direction is actually building apathy and resignation within the general public, NOT engaging more people in the process?  The internet seems to encourage this kind of extremism on all sorts of issues, including… in this case wine?  I write about wine.  There couldn’t be a more varied topic, especially in relation to the diverse personal tastes that can influence opinions.  There is no right, or wrong.  The topic should generate discussion, NOT strong opposing viewpoints.

How Do We Change This Direction?

I wish I knew the answer.  Perhaps, it is more required education in ethics, values and the arts in college curriculums?  I wish I had the answer… Since when did tolerance go out of style?

I apologize for such a negative topic on such a festive occasion, but I didn’t want to leave the response to comments for after the Holidays…  BTW, most of the activity on my blog originates with click-thrus from the other sites I post on.  Merry Christmas everyone!

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Obama Serves Hollande “CHEAP” U.S. Wine

This title is quoted verbatim from the “The Drinks Business” online magazine as one of the Top Ten Most Important Wine Stories of 2014… see the whole article here:

http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2014/02/obama-serves-hollande-cheap-us-wine/

Trade Periodicals Trashing Their Own Industry?

What is wrong with a periodical that would publish a piece like this?  This is the attitude that validates the snobby reputation holding the wine industry back here in the U.S.  The beer or spirits industries would never generate a piece like this…

angry-obama

Your Reaction

How did you react when you read this? Personally, I started steaming out the ears…  Does wine have to be expensive to be good?  UGH, no of course not!  The wines selected by the White House were fine.  Did they need to serve Harlan Estate, Cayuse, or Bond at $200-$500/btl. to show a representative selection of U.S. wines?  If The Drinks Business had done some background research, they would have found the winemakers at these wineries all to be ex-pats from France who have been successful in America.  That is the more important message here.  Obama hit the nail right on the head.  While I may not agree with all of Obama’s politics, he does seem to demonstrate an excellent grasp of how to build a message.

Someone Had to Refute this Piece

There should have been more outrage from the industry regarding this.  Please join me in sending an email to this periodical and expressing your displeasure with this kind of reporting.  You can send an email to:  info@thedrinksbusiness.com.

This piece not only missed the entire intent of the Obama staff and why they chose these wines, but also violated the most basic tenet of our industry:  there is excellent value in wines all over the world!  I am so tired of the high-brow approach to wine prices.  The wine world does not revolve around premium wines from Bordeaux, France and Napa, CA only!

U.K. versus U.S.

I hope The Drinks Business does not reflect wine attitudes in the U.K.  Wine should be accessible.  This is especially good advice for European wine producers who want to capture more of the U.S. market.  Without much exposure to the wine industry in Europe, others will have to comment on the culture there, but I can assure you in the U.S.  –  even the most ardent collectors are mostly down-to-earth people who enjoy a relaxed wine atmosphere, without the hype.

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2009 Domaine de Causes La Lande Cavagnac

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Domaine de Causes La Lande Cavagnac

France, Cahors

Wine Tasting Note:

Second opportunity to taste a French Malbec from its place of origin.  The best Argentine Malbecs are bigger and rounder than this, but I enjoyed the more classic approach as a counterpoint to the Argentine version… more acidity and tannins, less fruit and a lighter texture.  I would recommend this as a representative example of a different style of Malbec.

30 minute decant.  Deep violet tinted purple color. The nose is weak, mostly a menthol and alcohol character.  Fresh blackberry on the attack disappearing quickly and moving to black currant and tar on the mid-palate with a medium length bitter finish.  I enjoyed the mouth-filling tannins and medium-high acidity.  The texture started silky then quickly becomes watery.  The structure was good, but the balance was off.  Nevertheless, a good selection to pair with red meat and rich red sauce pastas.

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Filed under Cahors, French Wine, Malbec, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Passion and the Human Endeavor

Life Speaking
I recognized long ago that I am a little different.  I work hard to find passion in all the major endeavors in my life.  Without it, I am lost, unfulfilled, totally aimless.  The marketing and business development fields can be cold and calculated, but I am unable to function this way.  When I craft a message, it must resonate with me FIRST, then appeal to the market… being able to enthusiastically engage with clients, groups, an audience… comes from inside and passion is the key driver.  Often I am terribly misunderstood by co-workers and clients, thinking I am a hard-charging, aggressive businessman.  I am truly just passionate about what I do.  I BELIEVE strongly in a well-crafted point of view with an associated message.  This relates to both my career and my pastimes.

Why Start a Blog?

I have a PASSION for FINE wines.  No, not the less expensive stuff that I and so many other people drink daily/weekly, but the wine that reflects the talent and/or art of the maker and evokes emotion when enjoyed.  I am a formally trained and certified Sommelier (some test that was, whew!).  Hopefully – with the knowledge to investigate effectively topics within the industry that are relevant and interesting.  So, please join me on this journey, as I delve into the wine industry and try to capture the stories of the people and their vision behind the labels.
very-controlling-person-new-yorker-cartoon

Finding an Audience

When starting a Public Blog, most choose to write about a pastime, or profession, but just as important as choosing the topic – is deciding the context.  Will the audience, or writer drive the content?  Can a writer control the direction?  Am I being a control freak by tailoring an approach to topics I find interesting?  When I first started this blog a few years ago, I thought it would be written for the average consumer and I would “bring wine education to the masses”, but I soon realized I was developing an audience among industry professionals and a large percentage were from outside the U.S.  So, as the readership grows, I have re-assessed and decided to step with both feet into wine writing with a different purpose in mind.  I am writing now for a range of readers beyond the casual wine drinker: Wine Enthusiasts, Wine Collectors, Winery Managers, Wine Distribution, Tasting Room Attendants, Somms, Wait Staff, Chefs and someday perhaps Winemakers.  If the typical wine drinker finds the deeper dive of interest too, then so be it.

The Message

In keeping with the audience, moving forward, this site will focus on the wines and wineries associated with the top 10-20% of consumer dollars spent on bottles over $20USD.  For anyone who has read a few of my posts, it is fairly obvious that is where my interest lies.  So, I am just aligning the blog more closely with my interests and hoping the readership continues to grow and finds the content worthy of the time spent reading it.

Thank YOU

I appreciate all of you that have stopped by this site in the past year, or two and found something of interest.  It is difficult to feel justified as a writer, unless someone is reading your words.  I can accept that committing to this direction for the blog may not have the potential to find the largest audience, but it DOES follow my passion.  A trade-off that seems well-made…

HAPPY HOLIDAYS and BEST WISHES FOR A HAPPY, HEALTHY NEW YEAR!

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