Tag Archives: Napa Valley

Wine Buying Strategies for the Average Consumer

So, let’s say it is Friday and you are Mr./Ms. average wine consumer on your way home from work. You drop in to the grocery store for a few things and a bottle, or two, of wine for the weekend. Your tendency is probably to go to a brand label you know that has proven reasonable value in the $10-15/btl. range, like Yellow Tail, Cupcake, or Woodbridge. Now, let’s say this day you just got a raise, or your just feeling a little adventurous and decide your willing to up your budget to $20/btl. and you look at the 100′ long wall of wine in front of you… and you are totally lost! What do you do? Make a selection at random? by varietal? because you like the pretty label? If you are like me (before the wine training), I eventually gave up and rolled the dice, picking a bottle at random of a varietal I thought I enjoyed. Half the time, I struck-out and had to pour the bottle down the drain. It happened too often to stick to my pride and drink the awful bottle.

If this sounds familiar, just what can you do to be a little more realistic and have a better chance of selecting a bottle you will enjoy? This will require a little advance thought and a little time to walk through the process, but in the end, you will feel like your money is being better spent!

How do You Drink Wine?

Most importantly, think about how you drink wine: with food, or without. Food requires wines with more acidity to cut through and compliment fats, proteins and carbs. Acidity is the component that makes you salivate and a “bite” is usually felt near the back sides of the mouth and tongue. Easy drinking (less acidic) wines may be what you enjoy, but are best drunk on their own. For example, it is difficult to find a Malbec, or Red Zinfandel with good acidity. I am convinced this is the result of producers assuming people have discovered Malbec and Zin as simple, fruity wines that drink well without food. These varietals can present much more character, but aren’t often produced this way. In the end, wine is a business and if a producer doesn’t think they can sell a type of wine, they will simply choose not to produce it.

If you enjoy wine primarily accompanied with food, then one approach can be looking for regions that are known for producing primarily acidic wines, i.e. Chianti (Italy), White Burgundy (France), or White/Red Bordeaux (France).

Special Case: if you are a red meat eater, wines with high tannins should be your choice, as the tannins break-down the fats in the meat and clean your palate between bites. When your palate is cleared, it prepares your taste buds to appreciate the full flavor of the food with each bite. Tannins are the component that makes your mouth feel like Marlon Brando chewing on cotton balls for his next big scene in The Godfather. The cottony dryness is usually felt between the teeth and gums. These wines are fantastic paired with red meat. Examples would be: all Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Sangiovese, French Red Bordeaux. Italian pasta dishes with red meat sauces are also good pairings for these types of wines.

Why Do You Drink Wine?

Do you drink wine for the appreciation of the flavor, or do you just enjoy relaxing with a bottle of wine after work? If you are the latter, just make an effort to learn the better quality growing regions and select something in your price range from one of these areas. In general, wine regions that are known for their quality, or have been growing wine for generations, tend to offer generally better wines. An example would be Napa Valley in the U.S., or Bolgheri in Italy. If you can find a $20 bottle of Cab Sauv from these areas, give it a shot…  it is more likely to be enjoyed, than a random Cab from Lodi, or Mendocino. If flavor is your thing, you are going to be one of those needing to put some effort into learning about wine regions, because that is the only real method for selecting wines by flavor profile.

If you are selecting wine to enjoy with friends, or at a restaurant… some of these same strategies can work. If you are lucky at the restaurant, you might get a server that actually knows something about wine, but in general think of these situations as opportunities to learn more about wine. I have written several more advanced posts on this site to help with a detailed approach to fine wine selection, if you are ready to dive in.

Cheers!

 

 

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2008 Acacia Chardonnay Winery Lake Vineyard

2008 Acacia Chardonnay Winery Lake Vineyard

California Carneros AVA

Wine Tasting Note:

I have to wonder, am I drinking a different wine than the others leaving notes on CellarTracker? Take note: you definitely have to be more of a White Burgundy fan, than a Cali Chard fan to enjoy this wine. Conflicting thoughts on this one… This wine is wound very tight, like a Crus Chablis might, without enough cellaring. On the pop, the nose is all bitter key lime, grapefruit and brine. Let the wine rest for 15 minutes and the nose begins to blossom a bit. Definite honeysuckle and green apple comes to play, in addition to the other aromas. Now, the alcohol comes forward – another Cali producer over-doing a white with 14% alcohol. The palate is complex. After 30 minutes, the sweet honeysuckle moves to the front and lime, grapefruit and brine moves to a well-defined mid-palate. The oak is not subtle here, but it adds interest by exaggerating the mouth-feel coming from stirring the lees. The wine almost feels like heavy cream in the mouth. The acid level is high. This could easily age another five years. How would you feel about a 15 year aged Cali Chardonnay? The finish is very, very long with a lightly sweet-sour flavor that persists. This is like a better White Burgundy, missing the finesse. This should be drunk with specific foods to tame its wildness. The acidity would hold up well to the most buttery of white cream sauces I can think of, in fact, linguine in a rich white clam sauce is coming to mind! Drinking window easily until 2022.

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

2009 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Clos

2009 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Napa Valley AVA, CA

Tasting Note:

Still fresh on the nose with plum, blackberry, graphite and a touch of alcohol. First pour, closed with a minimum of fruit. You can tell this wine needs time to open. After 30 mins, fruit-forward with subdued plum, black currant and blackberry and a mid-palate of subtle dark chocolate with a very short finish. The acidity is medium-high, but it is the tannin that is interesting. Softer than when young, although chewy and strangely mouth-filling without being very drying. Not unpleasant, but past its prime drinking window. Great value Napa Cab Blend when young. Losing a couple of rating points with age. Drink-up!

As I continue to drink more aged Napa Cab/Cab Blends at all price points, I am able to fine-tune a feel for drinkability and age-worthiness. Hind-sight is always 20/20, but this was a wine meant to drink in a 2012 – 2015 window (3-6 years of age). Looking back, there was not enough balance in the structure to go 10… I am finding the lower cost Napa Cab blends tapping out at around 5 years. The more recent higher quality releases have been hitting a wall at around 10-12 years of age. I have only tasted early 90’s wines that have lasted well, in a 15-20 year window.

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The Legacy of Fine Wine Culture

Is there a “Right” Atmosphere to Enjoy Wine?

I received my Somm training from a mentor that still firmly believed a profession in wine was a “calling”. I have worked hard to train my palate and learn the wine regions of the world to pass that crazy test. After all the work though, I still can’t agree with the formal atmosphere surrounding much of the fine dining wine service industry. Is the defining U.S. wine experience a stuffy, formal affair? Why is there social stigma, or a nervousness regarding wine selection in restaurants? Wine knowledge in the trade should be a tool that facilitates the comfort and enjoyment of clients… instead of a blunt instrument that adds to the discomfort.

julia-louis-dreyfus-wine

Seen the Mollydooker Shake?

I was having dinner with business associates at an Italian restaurant last month and I was asked to order a bottle for the table with a budget of around $60. Unfortunately, the restaurant had a poor Italian wine selection, so I chose the 2014 Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet, usually a pretty solid selection (quality vineyard and a track record for value). This vintage was not as easy drinking as past releases, so I asked everyone to bear with me and I put my thumb over the top of the bottle and proceeded to give it a vigorous shake! Everyone got a kick out of it and we proceeded to drink a moderately softer wine. WARNING I am about to suggest a completely inappropriate wine faux pas… (if this will torture your sensibilities, please skip to the next paragraph) …say you run up against a tightly wound Chianti, or young red Bordeaux, or maybe a 100% Petit Verdot… picture pouring the bottle into a blender. I suggested this approach at the restaurant and everyone immediately started laughing and vowed to do this the next time they had guests over. (Disclaimer here: this is NOT meant for fine wine. It would be better to age these wines for another few years, rather than throw them in the blender). Check out this link: Mollydooker Shake. Young Mollydooker wines can be very high in tannin. A nice stiff shake can do wonders to soften any highly structured wine.

Is Wine Fun?

Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to a wine enthusiast’s home for a wine dinner with four other couples. Very expensive, quality aged wines were being served. Out of the blue, one guest suggests we go around the table and have each person share an impromptu personal tasting note for each wine being served. Really? Afterwards, I overhear comments about a previous wine party my wife and I hosted and the numerous wine-ignorant guests in attendance. That day I made myself a promise, I would always try to help others relax around wine and make the experience comfortable and unpretentious. I have become a reverse wine snob.

I am thoroughly embarrassed by trained professionals in the industry who feel it is necessary to overwhelm a client with their wine knowledge and lecture on the importance of selecting… just the right wine. When an attendant at a winery tasting room, or a Somm at a fine dining restaurant approaches me, I am usually faced with one of two types:

  • An under-trained wine steward who has not tasted their own wine inventory
  • A pretentious jerk, who wants to tell me which wines I should prefer

I am not sure which is worse? I hate to tell people I am formally trained… then, they either get defensive, or are intimidated and clam-up. When I am dining out at an establishment with a large cellar, I always search the lesser known “nooks-and-crannies” for the best value. Most of the time, I get annoyed looks, but all with me have a great time. I was at Cowboy Ciao (Scottsdale, AZ) dining with an associate last year (GREAT wine cellar, by the way). From previous discussions, I knew he preferred big, highly structured Napa Cabs. I asked him if he had ever tried Aglianico? I suggested to him, I could find a really enjoyable bottle of Aglianico there for under $40/btl. I got a serious look of disbelief. We proceeded to run the waitress ragged… I selected three different bottles that had spent time in their cellar – one was a 2006, I believe. It took our server 20 minutes working with the wine steward to track down one of these bottles (she was a good sport)! I had them decant the wine… AND he thoroughly enjoyed it! Fine wine doesn’t have to cost $125/btl and be called Caymus, or Silver Oak. Servers should encourage more discovery. Their clients would enjoy the broader wine experience.

Who decided that wine was not supposed to be fun?

Next Wine Vacation

I hope at least some of you have tried a wine vacation. If you haven’t, you should. Very few experiences provide better food and drink, more inviting scenery, or more romantic atmosphere… but they can be fun too! Napa is always the ultimate U.S. wine experience, but it is expensive and can be a bit stuffy. For something on the more fun side, try the Central California Coast, Oregon, or East Washington state. Ask around once you arrive and seek out the less pretentious, relaxed tasting venues. If you want an interesting experience, try Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles, CA. Hit them during one of their events in particular and be prepared to have a rockin’ good time!

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Filed under Restaurant, Sommelier, Wine Cellar, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Baldacci Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap

Baldacci

Baldacci Family Vineyards

Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon

Stags Leap District, Napa Valley

Tasting Note:

Beautiful Napa Cab in the middle of its drinking window! Drinking Baldacci Stags Leap Cabs over the last 20 years, I am struck by how they always over-deliver at their price. This bottle cost $46 in 2010 and is drinking like a $70+ Napa Cab! Blackberry and black currant on the nose with tar and leather. Still fruit-forward after 8 years of aging, with blackberry and black currant in front, transitioning to a mid-palate of dark chocolate, leather, underbrush and tar. The wine has a lengthy, slightly hot finish. Gorgeous rich mouth-feel, full and sensuous. The tannins have resolved well and are just under the surface. The acidity is high, but this paired perfectly with a rib-eye steak. Without food, the acidity would have been a bit much. The signature Cab character of graphite and tobacco are missing, but regardless, my wife and I really enjoyed this bottle with steaks for dinner!

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Best Value Wine Destination in the U.S.A.?

value pic

I was recently involved in a discussion regarding preferred wine tourism destinations among serious wine drinkers / collectors. Napa Valley is consistently drubbed for its utter lack of value. Average tasting room fees are $25 – $40/pp… to access top quality, it is not uncommon to pay $75/pp. Now granted, these wineries are so gorgeous – Napa Valley itself creates its own ambiance, but let’s move past honeymoons and anniversaries and talk year-in and year-out wine tourism destinations. My wife and I have vacationed in Napa at least 10 times in the last 20 years and while it was previously my favorite location, it is now third on my list behind the California Central Coast and Sonoma County. To make things worse, Napa tasting rooms have steadily become more impersonal, making me feel like one of the massive herd, or a bother, rather than a valued guest.

Yes, my favorite wine destination is the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties area in California!

Destination Comparison

Cuisine / Restaurant SceneWinner Napa Valley

The Central Coast is improving, but still has catching up to do.

Tasting Rm FeesWinner Central Coast

1/3 to 1/2 the cost of Napa.

Tasting Rm AtmosphereWinner Central Coast

The Central Coast is a big winner here. I have been getting tired of the attitude in Napa. The tasting rooms are so much friendlier almost anywhere else. I miss 10+ years ago when wine tasting was casual and inviting!

Lodging ValueWinner Central Coast

1/2 the cost of Napa with several resort quality properties to choose from.

Quality of WineWinner Central Coast

Slight edge, not because any single wine is superior, but because overall – the wines approach Napa in quality and the selection is amazingly diverse. There are top quality producers of Syrah, Cabernet Sauv, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay here… in Southern Rhone, Bordeaux and Burgundy styles. All of this diversity is driven by an area with crazy climate variability.

SceneryWinner Napa Valley

Maybe not as cozy as Napa Valley, but the hill and mountain regions west of Hwy 101 are very picturesque.

BeachWinner Central Coast

No Beaches near Napa. This region has Pismo Beach.

Winery ArchitectureWinner Napa Valley

Napa has a big edge here, but some wineries are starting to spend big money in the Central Coast area.

l'aventure winery

l’aventure winery

A Paso Robles Vineyard & Winery

Morro bay pic

Morro Bay, CA

Central Coast Winery Suggestions

(arranged from South to North)

Santa Barbara County

Carr Vineyards – All wines are good, but their 100% Cab Franc is special and reasonably priced.

Jaffurs Wine Cellars Quality Southern Rhone style wines that offer great value.

Brewer- Clifton Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Their Chardonnay is Burgundy style and fantastic!

Qupe – Beautiful, refined Syrah by a master winemaker.

Andrew Murray Vineyards The best value quality Syrah in the U.S. hands down.

Melville Winery Great values in Burgundy style Pinot Noir.

San Luis Obispo County

Laetitia Vineyard & Winery – Fine quality sparkling wines in a broad selection of styles.

L’Aventure Winery – Balanced Hedonism Incarnate (is that possible?). These wines are massive, powerful… and perfection.

Peachy Canyon Winery No winery makes more different single vineyard Zinfandels. If you are a Zin Master, you must visit Peachy.

Tobin James Cellars Their tasting room is definitely the most fun in the area!

Justin Cellars This is your bastion for Bordeaux style wine in the area. Their Cab Sauv and Merlot blends are very good! These wines are approaching the quality of the best in Napa.

Herman Story Wines THE BEST Southern Rhone Style Wines in the United States at prices that will cause you to do a double-take.

Other Wineries of Note Some of best wineries in the world are making amazing wine here, but are expensive and difficult to arrange access:  Alban Vineyards, Saxum Vineyards and Sea Smoke Estate Vineyards.

New Destinations My wife and I will be traveling to Walla Walla, WA this fall, six years after our last trip. I am hoping this location has much to show! I am looking for my next wine destination to add to our list! I will update our findings on this site after our trip!

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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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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

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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