Tag Archives: Wine Collecting

Italian Wine Tasting

venice pic

Wine Tasting

Alessia’s Italian Ristorante with Vinifera Imports

Mesa, AZ

I enjoy Alessia’s and it had been several months since I had visited last. So, with my wife busy and a free evening on the horizon, I decided to grab a bite and enjoy a wine tasting event. John Carr (Owner) has a good palate and a pretty fair depth of Italian wine knowledge and his wife Shari is a killer chef. If you’re in the East Valley of the Phoenix Metro, definitely make it a point to stop by. The experience won’t disappoint.

Vinifera is not my favorite Italian Wine Importer, but they have several labels I enjoy. I didn’t know the wines being tasted that night in advance, so I was hoping to be surprised.

Wine Tasting Notes

Barberani Ovieto Castagnolo 2014 (white blend)

Most enjoyable wine of the evening. Nose of lemon curd and herbs. Palate was of rich lemon meringue and a touch of spice. Tremendous coating mouth-feel – this wine had spent a substantial amount of time on the lees. High acidity, but balanced enough not to make it over-bearing without food. Well done white wine, that could be drunk on its own, or paired well with fish and pasta in white cream sauce. At $16/btl retail, a good value.

Cascina Chicco Barbera d’Alba Granera Alta 2013

Most disappointing wine of the evening. It was very much a rustic Old World style Barbera and not my favorite approach with this varietal. This was a food wine only. Barbera is capable of so much more, when in deft hands such as Vajra. Black cherry and alcohol on the nose. Completely over-oaked. Palate is not fruit-forward. In front, you get brown butter and smoke transitioning to sour black cherry. Poor, watery mouth-feel and medium-high tannins. Long finish of brown butter, if you like that sort of thing. At $22/btl retail, I wouldn’t rush out and grab this wine.

Fontodi Chianti Classico 2010

Fontodi is an old Italian producer with a long history… and that traditional approach shows. 2010 was a great year in Tuscany for wine and I was hoping for something exceptional. Instead, it was very average. A quality Chianti, but traditional and unexceptional. Nose of red cherry, mushrooms, bramble and rubbing alcohol. Slightly sour red cherry and menthol on the palate. Very high tannins. Medium mouth-feel and high acidity. Short to medium finish. Would be a great pairing with red meat and pasta with red sauce. At $40/btl retail a decent value.

Fontodi Chianti Classico Vigna del Sorbo Riserva 2008

Best red wine of the evening. Very weak nose and definitely needed a little time to open. The palate was more complex than the other wines that evening. Fruit forward with black cherry and a touch of black currant, mushroom, leather and bramble on the mid-palate, with a weak bitter chocolate finish. Medium high tannins and high acidity. Well-balanced and the best mouth-feel of the reds that night. I enjoyed this wine and it is just entering its drinking window, 2016-2021. At $70/btl retail, I would pick a well-priced quality Brunello first.

Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino 2010

Unless you have a nice cellar and ten more years to wait, stay away from this wine. Black fruit and menthol on the nose. Very high acidity and very, very high rustic tannins. Maybe a touch fruit forward, but the acidity and tannins overwhelm everything. Impossible to assess much else. This is an Old World Chianti-style Brunello. All the things I love about Brunello are missing: good mouth-feel, balance, elegance… This wine should not have been bottled as Brunello. The grapes may have originated in a vineyard there, but the style has Chianti written all over it and at $135/btl retail, forget it.

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Filed under Italian Wine, Restaurant, Toscana, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

A Tale of Two Red Cities

In the USA, Walla Walla Valley AVA is fast approaching premier status as a red wine producing region. The highest accolades are coming from Merlots and Syrahs, but the area produces well-made Bordeaux Blends too. From a critic’s perspective, this area is a serious alternative to the Napa Valley region… especially, if you prefer the Napa wines produced before the mid 90’s. Now, there is a choice between two premium “red” producing cities in the U.S.

The over-arching theme in Walla Walla is the pursuit of Old World styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. If you enjoy the popular New World style of heavily-oaked, fruity Cabs coming from Napa (like Caymus and Silver Oak) very few of these Walla Walla wines will find their way into your cellar. Syrah aside, I have chosen three of the oldest producers in Walla Walla as effective examples of the diverse styles of Bordeaux Blends that represent this growing region: Walla Walla Vintners, Seven Hills Winery and L’Ecole #41. I visited all three last month and was fortunate enough to do a deep-dive with each.

WWV Pic

Walla Walla Vintners

The flavor profile across all releases at Walla Walla Vintners (WWV) had the most dissimilar flavor profile in the area. I met with Bill Von Metzger the winemaker and we discussed the winery founded in 1995 in depth.  Their vineyards (and immediate neighboring sites) located at the Eastern edge of the valley contain the only dry-farmed vineyards I was able to find in this AVA. They originally prepared these estate vineyards for irrigation, but have yet to experience a growing season requiring the additional water. Although, if the Washington drought continues, they expect this may change next year. The WWV 2015 vintage validated once again the impact of dry-farming on my palate. All wines tasted tended to be more concentrated and textured, perhaps squeezing more out of the terroir.

Bill is a locally educated and trained winemaker. In my experience, this can be an impediment to good winemaking. Exposure to a broad sampling of world winemaking styles tends to develop better winemakers. Although in this case, Bill transcends his background… I think, primarily due to his keen curiosity and desire to experiment. I thought Bill showed a deft hand at pursuing the Napa Valley style… at half the price. Of my twenty (or so) tasting appointments in the area, this was the only winery embracing the challenge and successfully producing this style in a cooler Walla Walla climate.

If you enjoy Napa Cabs, try these wines. They may not quite reach the level of the premium Napa producers, but my goodness, not at $75+/btl either. The quality is good and the value is undeniable.

SHW pic

Seven Hills Winery

Seven Hills is the preeminent Old World French Bordeaux style producer in Walla Walla and one of the first wineries founded in the area in 1988. I met with Erik McLaughlin, an executive and manager at the winery. Erik and I discussed the history of wine growing in the region, their philosophy and the resulting growth. Seven Hills produces wines that compare very favorably to Bordeaux labels. All their wines have a lighter, sometimes silky texture with a good acidic and tannic backbone. Refined, balanced and built for aging, but approachable enough when young to be an excellent companion to a steak dinner. The tasting room is in a very urban setting at the winery, with the atmosphere from the 100+ year old building enhancing the tasting experience.

I talked briefly to Casey McLellan the winemaker and founder and I heard from both of them their total commitment to this wine style, regardless of the popularity of New World style California wines over the last decade. A great story and I believe a good business decision. These wines are some of the best of what I call “restaurant style” wines, made to accompany food and at the right price to be fairly affordable after the three tier distribution system delivers it.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, try these wines. Again, these do not quite reach the level of premium Bordeaux producers, but comparable quality is sold at half the price (or less) of their Old World competitors.

Schoolhouse photo

L’Ecole #41

L’Ecole is the most notable example of a winery in the region that best walks the fence between New & Old World styles. Founded in 1983 in an abandoned school house, they have grown substantially into a large commercial winery. I have been drinking their wines since the early 2000’s and do miss the hometown, small business atmosphere from those early days. Is it OK to be nostalgic for the old building facade, before the face lift? Then again, I also preferred the previous cute label too. Yes, (begrudgingly) I understand the idea – “Time and Tide stops for no man”. I met with Ben Dimitri the tasting room manager and we talked about L’Ecole history and past vintages.

It was interesting to discuss the story of the 2004 vintage in Walla Walla. It was the coldest growing season in memory for the area and few local vineyards were able to produce ripe fruit at harvest. 10+ years ago, Washington State was still a fledgling wine region and the largest producer in the state (Chateau St. Michelle) offered the early Walla Walla producers the opportunity to source fruit from their warmer Columbia Valley vineyard locations. What a generous and smart move…  missing a vintage in those early years would have seriously hurt the local industry and slowed their momentum in the market. The topic arose, because I mentioned enjoying a bottle of 2004 Ferguson (lost in my cellar somehow) last year. The bottle handled the 10 years of age well, but was at the outside edge of its drinking window.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, but would prefer an easier drinking more approachable style… L’Ecole is your ticket. Once again, think half the price.

Diversity and Value

If you notice, there are two common themes here: diversity and value. Try these Walla Walla wines. If you are more than an occasional, casual wine drinker in particular, seek them out. These can easily become your choice for the value section of your cellar.

Wine Tourism

This area has a long way to go as a wine destination, but it was significantly more welcoming than my last visit seven years ago. Premier sous chefs around the country looking to venture out and start a premium cuisine restaurant, please consider Walla Walla. A well-run, properly promoted gourmet restaurant will succeed here, without the competition you would find in other top wine regions. Currently, the food is only slightly better than average, even at expensive establishments. With all the fresh fruit and veggies grown locally, this would be a perfect location for a farm-to-table concept. Producing world-class wines right in their backyard, Walla Walla has to be the next wine destination to hit the foodie scene. I look forward to my next visit and enjoying a much more vibrant restaurant scene.

Walla Walla Premium Bordeaux Style Producers

Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon Winery are the two oldest wineries in the Walla Walla AVA. I have tasted their wines and they are excellent, but priced to match, or exceed their Bordeaux and Napa competitors. These wines are every bit as good, but I find it hard to see the value. Frankly, I would rather drink the established producers I know from Bordeaux and Napa, with much larger production and greater availability. This post was meant to highlight the value in Walla Walla. These producers do not fit into that category.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Cool Climate Wine, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Is There a Standard for Quality in the #Wine Industry?

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Many wine consumers and industry professionals would assert that a “good” wine is any wine you enjoy. So, with a product where individual taste influences demand so heavily, is the concept of “quality” relevant? As I hear from consumers quite often, “I like, what I like”… I read and hear this point discussed often, but in direct contradiction, both the industry and consumers generally accept the role wine critics play as the arbiters of quality. The question has to be asked, if there is no generally accepted criteria with which to make that judgement, is attempting to assess wine quality a complete waste of time? Is there any value in professionals establishing standards for quality in the industry?

Is Measuring Quality Necessary?

There are three major sources* in the world wine industry for education: Wine Critics/Writers, The Court of Master Sommeliers and well-respected University Degree Programs (i.e. UC-Davis). By definition, in order for these sources to write, serve and teach wine, they must clearly establish generally accepted ideas defining quality and recognize trends in the industry supporting it. Are established quality standards really necessary, or even appropriate? I see so much vehement commentary on discussion boards regarding this topic – the idea of general consumer preference versus professional palates driving the industry…

slope

My recent posts have generated comments from within the industry suggesting I am on a slippery slope in asserting that one producer makes better wine than another. I don’t agree. Wine Critics do this everyday. Although effectively, this can only be justified if you establish a consistent, understandable criteria. Somm training does define a generally accepted wine profile for quality. This is based on an important premise: “in an assessment, it is not possible for one wine to taste better than another, but it is possible to be of higher quality**.” Learning to recognize and emphasize structure and balance as the major components of wine quality is emphasized over and over again.

On a personal level, I do enjoy wines that show these characteristics. You could argue that the training influenced by wine service professionals has fashioned my palate, or it may be that as my palate became more experienced, it naturally turned to these types of wines. In the industry, we have a responsibility to bring perspective, educate and in-turn help enrich the wine experience for wine enthusiasts newer to the calling. So, being a passionate wine enthusiast and having some professional training under my belt, I feel a responsibility to act as an industry ambassador in this regard.

There is so much variability and diversity in wine that there can be no absolutes. Consumers can and should drink what they enjoy, but there must also be a generally agreed upon model for quality that the industry can aspire to. Is it fair that Critics, Somm training organizations and Universities establish that model for the general public? I suppose it would depend on your point of view… Although, if personal preference were the only criteria, there would be no common point of reference.

I would be in favor of exploring another model, but I would hope demand would not establish that criteria. So, until we find another way, please don’t kill the messenger… Some wines simply ARE of higher quality than others, regardless of whether they have a large following, or not.

Fairness and Perspective

In deference and respect for all the hard work and commitment from everyone in the industry… I always attempt to be even-handed and often do agonize over fairness. All types of wine should be made for all the different palates in the world and my perspective on wine quality is simple: please, just offer a vision that is true to your product.

(* In the U.S. there is a fourth recognized source: The Society of Wine Educators.)

(** My effort to paraphrase an important principal in formal wine training)

Footnote: I find it fun and interesting that recent opinions expressed on this blog have rubbed a few people the wrong way. In response – I am not willing to assess wine like a kid’s soccer tournament… where win, or lose, everyone receives a trophy. I am offering the following disclaimer for those who want to believe I presume to be a formal authority on the wine industry… No, I am not an MS, but I certainly have received more formal training than many wine critics I have met. This website reflects MY study, personal thoughts, opinions and experiences regarding wine. I hope you enjoy my perspective…

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Filed under Wine Critics, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

Is a Trained Palate Necessary to Produce Fine Wine?

old-new world

Old World Wine Styles

I have been doing interviews and visiting with several Washington State wineries this week and the discussion struck a chord, providing an interesting personal realization… not all Owners, Winemakers and Growers have developed a broad understanding of world wine styles. Over the last several years writing about wine along the West Coast, I had assumed I was speaking with professionals that had all spent time developing  a palate and tasting styles from around the world. I now understand, this is not a formal requirement for a degree in Enology and the Somm training I received is really quite a different area of study. This week brought the issue to light for me and helped me to understand why being familiar with world wine styles can be an important element in producing quality premium wines.

There are very specific reasons why different Old World regions in France, Germany, Italy, Spain (etc.) have developed these famous regional styles. The obvious one is to produce wines that pair properly with local foods, but I wanted to explore one other in particular more carefully:

  • The 100’s of years of trial and error with local varietals, learning to accommodate local growing conditions and make the best wine possible.

This is the reason why the world views the best expression of Syrah to come from the Rhone, or the best expression of Nebbiolo from Barolo / Barbaresco, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, Riesling from the Mosel, etc. These varietals have been produced in these regions for generations and for the wine enthusiasts out there who have not taken the time to explore them, start now! Your imagination will be awakened and you will discover whole new horizons you never realized existed. (back on topic though) Take a minute to think about how this issue should impact domestic wine production… you can present the argument that New World wineries are pioneers, working in new regions and developing their own unique styles, but since when is this done in a vacuum?

The best analogy is fine cuisine. Chefs travel all over the world to taste different styles and then return to the U.S. to introduce what the industry calls “fusion” cuisine. These chefs forge entirely new dishes by taking classic styles from around the world and “fusing” them to create new, unique dishes all their own. Understanding the “classic” wine styles of the world is equally as important… to compare and contrast how our New World terroir can be the same, or different, and to blend the best of both worlds to achieve the best expression from each of our domestic wine regions.

the-different-types-of-wine-by-style-and-taste

Is Wine Style Important?

Having interviewed quite a few winemakers over the last couple of years, I have come to understand how important wine style really is. Having a working understanding of tasting fruit in the field and selecting a style of wine that best complements that vintage is critical to producing a quality product. I tasted a Mosel style Riesling on this Washington trip from a winemaker who obviously understood how that should taste and how to achieve it. Has he traveled to the Mosel and studied with winemakers in the region? No. Does this winemaker have a large cellar, a trained palate and have regular exposure to taste aged wines from around the world? Yes.

Terroir Influence

The new Rocks AVA here was made famous by Christophe Baron and his Cayuse label. He persevered through the jeers and disbelief of local winemakers when he planted these vineyards, because he recognized enough similarities between this appellation and the Northern Rhone region to fuel his certainty that this area would produce world class wine. The local industry has come around to his thinking slowly, but the results have been hard to ignore. Tasting other local wines from this AVA, it strikes me as amazing that some of these wineries are not producing wines that express the interesting terroir of this place. Why else make wine here? I wonder, have they not taken the time to train their palates to recognize the Northern Rhone profile this area can produce? Or, is it they haven’t taken the time to research the winemaking techniques that can help to achieve it? Or, will it require the generations of wine experience (like in Europe) to realize it fully? On the other hand, maybe it is a simple lack of belief that this style of wine can sell out every year… Most of these Rocks AVA Syrah’s have a funky, meaty background that enhances the rich fruit-forward character of the wine. I realize this is not for everyone, but I would venture to say, a small AVA like this could never produce enough of this style of wine to exceed the world-wide demand for it.

Conclusion

I am thoroughly convinced, having a winemaker with a BS in Enology is not enough alone to make premium wines. All the involved parties (Owners, Growers, Winemakers) should be able to taste the impact of regional vineyard management and winemaking techniques in the wine. Tasting that impact is a start. It can help to hone a palate. The next critical step is the commitment to study and compare similar wines produced in their classic region of origin. Each and every vintage (warm, cold, or moderate year) has to start in the vineyard tasting the fruit and fine-tuning the vision for the style of wine that will be made. The revelation here is:

  • To make premium wine, it requires more than just enthusiastic commitment to its production. You must have a passion for its consumption!

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Filed under Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Making #Wines to Drink Now, or Cellar?

The sun barely illuminates the land under a thick fog of red smoke as seen from Highway 97 just south of Okanogan Friday August 21, 2015.

What a crazy week to have scheduled a wine tasting adventure in Washington State! Forest fires everywhere! The entire state is one big campfire… Flying into Spokane, we descended through a wall of billowing smoke. Driving down to Walla Walla the smoke cleared somewhat.

Later this week, my wife and I will be joining trade tastings and interviewing winemakers, but today we wanted to relax and stop at a couple of wineries of interest – as wine tourists. We stopped in first at K Vintners and then Five Star Cellars today and two interesting questions came to light: (tasting notes coming in future posts)

  1. Should winemakers be producing wine to drink now, versus wines to bottle age?
  2. Does making wine specifically to be drunk with food play well in the broader U.S. market?

I will tackle the first question now and the second in a follow-up piece.

Drink Now?

I was floored today. These were two respected Walla Walla producers recognized by critics and neither was focusing on structured wines more capable of aging in your cellar.

K Vintners

After one tasting experience, I am quite sure I could recognize any of their wines blind. This is not meant to suggest I did not enjoy a few of these wines, but more to emphasize their singular dimension. All of the wines are quite clearly made in a single style, utilizing similar techniques: noticeable French oak, high to very high acidity, very light and a minimum of mouth-feel, minimal finish, low to medium tannins and fruit forward.

Five Star Cellars

We tasted two vintages of their flagship wine, a Bordeaux blend called “Stellar”. The 2008 was good, showing high acidity, medium tannins and a palate of plum, blackberry, apple pie spice, graphite and touch of earthy minerality… but the 2009 was so much better, similar to the 2008 – but adding higher tannins and a fuller mouth-feel. The owner David Huse actually apologized for the additional structure. After a few minutes of conversation, it was obvious he believed their goal was to make easy drinking wines and that 2009 just didn’t fit into that focus.

Price Point, Wine Quality and Structure

I get it. Wineries have to sell their wine and in case you haven’t seen the numbers, somewhere between (depending on the study) 80 to 95% of all wines purchased in the U.S. are drunk within a week of purchase. Since we are throwing out statistics, how about this:  90% of all bottles purchased in the U.S. cost less than $12 USD. The wines we were tasting today all retailed for $40-$70/btl. Where am I going with this? Are these wineries correct in thinking that the majority of wine drinkers spending over $12/btl. want drink now, easy drinking wines? I have spent the last 20 years listening to feedback from wine enthusiasts and while very few are looking for the other end of the spectrum – rustic, cheap Chianti style wines, MOST do prefer red wines with good structure. How else could Napa Valley be able to sell so much Cabernet Sauvignon at an average price of $64.77/btl (2014 Wines & Vines) direct-to-consumer? It is certainly not because these wines are easy drinkers!

Winemaker’s View?

So how does the winemaker feel about this issue? I ask this question during interviews all the time. The answer too often is: “business sometimes dictates we make a wine for broad appeal”. At some wineries, this discussion is a non-issue. The winemaker makes a wine profile focused on quality in the classic sense and they find their market. Others I have interviewed, spend time with their customers and really understand the product their clientele wants… and then there are those that “think” they know what the average consumer wants. The perceived pressure to produce easy drinking wines in the U.S. is huge. For large volume wineries over 50,000 cases of production this discussion is irrelevant, but for the 60% of wineries in the U.S. that produce less than 5,000 cases, it is THE discussion to have. There is a place for all styles of wine in the market. My surprise came from visiting recognized, critically acclaimed wineries with this kind of thinking.

Wolf howling

Howling at the Moon!

If there is one thing I can definitively take exception to in the industry, it is this idea that wine enthusiasts (spending more than $12/btl) want flavor in red wines and don’t care about structure. Okay, I agree there are not many folks like me in the U.S. who will maintain a large enough cellar to buy young structured red wines and regularly drink 5-10 year old vintages. At the risk of boring readers by saying this again: STRUCTURE is what differentiates good wine! Red wine can taste like black, red, or blue fruit, have earthy minerality, or even exotic flavors like tobacco and tar, but these matter little without the primary structural components: Acidity, Alcohol, Tannins, Phenolic Development, Mouth-Feel (texture) and Balance. When wines are missing any of these elements, they can be unpleasant to drink, or more commonly – just boring.

Tasting note for the Five Star Cellars 2009 Stellar (Bordeaux Blend) that was supposedly not as “good” as the 2008:

The nose hints at the level of extraction with blackberry, plum and currant fruits, a touch of alcohol, fresh tobacco and earth. The palate follows with a dense fruit-forward attack that is very lively in the mouth, with high acidity and high tannins.  The vanilla comes through from the oak, but doesn’t overpower. The tannins have a plush, granular texture producing a big mouth-filling wine with a very long finish. This wine is fast approaching its optimal drinking window of 2016-2018. It is only missing a defined mid-palate… a 91 score without. This would have earned a 94-95 score with more complexity.

A grand effort by a small Washington State winery. I sincerely hope they change their focus to making more wines like this…

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Cellar, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Why Do Wines Taste Different? – Part 2c: Soil Types

“Voodoo Magic” in Wine?

Voodoo Juice

(Unrelated Copyrighted Trademark used to illustrate the idea)

Winemaking can be complex chemistry, artistic expression, or a mixture of the two, depending on the winery. That first “science-based” option is certainly the most accessible and also the reason so many winemakers have chemistry degrees. This approach (topic of the first piece in this series) utilizes empirical processes that have a direct, identifiable impact on the wine. Climate (topic of the previous piece in this series)  is another easy to recognize factor when tasting wine (with training), but these last two pieces in the series are about the “voodoo” in the wine: soil type and  vineyard management. I doubt many consumers would recognize the importance of this topic and most high-production bulk wineries rarely care, but for an estate winery under 50,000 cases of production… it is the key to differentiating an individual wine label . That is why you see so much maneuvering in the U.S. to establish new AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas). Winery owners are trying to attach special significance to the fruit source (vineyard location). Developing a unique wine profile is critical to marketing strategies for these producers. As a consumer, I am usually only interested in the “voodoo”, if I have visited that vineyard at the estate. Analysis of soil and vineyard management is just too dry a topic to review without some sort of personal connection. Does the appellation factor into your choice in wine? Do you look for “Rutherford”, or “Margaux” on the label, before you select your Cabernet Sauvignon/blend?

Soil Types

I am reasonably sure no one is interested in a chemistry primer on soil composition, so I will try to move this discussion towards general soil categories. These vineyard site characteristics can have recognizable effects on quality and flavor. Let’s bypass mineral composition and move directly to key factors affecting the vines. There are many different vineyard soil types: Silt, Sand, Loam, Clay, Gravel, etc. There are even more specific sub-types: Calcareous, Schist, Shale, etc. Although, these soils all have just a few tangible characteristics that have well-known effects on the vines.

Water Drainage and Free Organic Matter – Soils that do not drain well, or are too fertile produce horrible wine. When vines grow vigorously, the berries are larger, the juice after press is less concentrated and the resulting wine is one dimensional. Examples: Poor Soil – Loam, Silt. Better Soil – Gravel, Sand.

Soil pH – Basic soil (higher pH) is the key here – think regions like Champagne, Loire, West Paso Robles and other locations with calcareous soils high in calcium carbonate. All the anecdotal evidence for this shows basic soils produce acidic wine – a key component to the structure of quality wine. I won’t bore you with the theoretical chemistry, but evidence seems to confirm this idea. Better Soils – Calcareous, Chalk, Marl.

Soil Depth – An impermeable layer should not be less than 40″ below the surface for dry-farming of the vines (dry-farming should be the goal).

Water Retention – This may sound contradictory, but the best vineyard sites have both good drainage at the site AND good water retention in the soil. These characteristics exist and are excellent for dry-farming vineyards (no irrigation).

Varietal Soil Preferences

Interestingly, when specific varietals are grown in an area over long periods of time (decades+) successfully, the vines seem to adapt to the terroir. This optimization has never been formally studied, but general observations abound in the world wine community supporting this idea. Currently, vineyard root stock for each varietal is available in many slightly different clone options adapted to different climatic and soil conditions. The growers choice of which clone to plant can be a make, or break business decision. Areas like Burgundy, where Pinot Noir has been grown for more than 500 years, have allowed the vines to adapt naturally and you can tell the difference in quality.

Grape varietals often have their own soil preferences:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon produces the best wine when grown in Gravel and Volcanic soils.
  • Merlot produces the best wine when grown in Sandy Clay.
  • Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produces the best wine when grown in Chalky soils.

Some varietals seem to do well in many different soil types, but manifest radically different flavors:

  • Sauvignon Blanc has tropical fruit flavors when produced in Marlborough (New Zealand) and lemon and/or grapefruit flavors when produced in Napa Valley (California).
  • Zinfandel tends toward Strawberry flavors when from Dry Creek (Sonoma County), but can have strong jammy blackberry and blueberry notes when produced in West Paso Robles (Central California Coast).

Vineyard - Larkmead Vineyards

Estate Wineries Embracing Vineyard Variation

A few years ago the head winemaker Dan Petroski at Larkmead Vineyards offered the best explanation I have heard for optimization of variable growing conditions at a single vineyard site. In recent years, Larkmead has invested heavily in their belief that soils and micro-terroir make a difference in the quality of the wine. Their estate vineyards (108 acres planted) have been separated into 40+ separate vineyard blocks, some quite small (against typical industry thinking). Some of these vineyard sections were re-planted to change row direction and take advantage of improved sun orientation and drainage characteristics. The blocks were separated based on soil testing and observation to define clearly different growing conditions. Where this gets really interesting is their further investment in numerous smaller stainless steel fermentation tanks. For those who say terroir impact on wine is a fallacy, they need to taste the lot to lot differences side-by-side at an estate winery using this vineyard strategy. This system of wine production allows the winemaker to take advantage of distinctly different wines and offer them as separately bottled vineyard designate releases, or blend the individual blocks to achieve a better, more complex product.

My Previous Recommendations

Now, let’s put this information to use (remember the “voodoo”). In past pieces, I have suggested that certain growing regions tend to generally produce better quality over-all. Let’s explore a few reasons why…

Valley Floors (in the flood plain) – These locations tend to have a high percentage of silt, but not always. For example, the right bank of the Garonne River in Bordeaux has sandy clay soil (premier Merlot region in the world). Putting aside complex locations like Bordeaux and speaking in generalities, valley floor locations produce simpler wines that often are missing structure… especially when grown in warm climates, examples: Puglia, Italy or Inland Valleys, California. There are some interesting exceptions though. Certain varietals (like Tempranillo) can grow in these locations (i.e. Ribero del Duero) and thrive, but I would be careful if you are searching out quality. Know your varietals and their optimal growing regions, unless you are comfortable experimenting with hit, or miss results.

Mountain/Hill Sides – These locations tend to be virtually barren, with well-drained schist, slate, granitic (etc.) topsoils. In many cases, wine grapes are the only crop these soils can support. Again, this seems contradictory, but these regions can offer perfect conditions for many different wine grape varietals. Examples of Mountain/Hill type optimal growing regions: Syrah – Northern Rhone, Nebbiolo – Barolo, Riesling – Mosel, Cabernet Sauvignon – Spring Mountain.

Examples of a few optimal growing regions by varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon – Napa Valley, Left Bank Bordeaux; Merlot – Right Bank Bordeaux, Spring Mountain; Pinot Noir – Burgundy, Willamette Valley; Syrah – Rhone Valley, Barossa Valley; Malbec – Mendoza, Riesling – Mosel, Chenin Blanc – Loire Valley, Swartland, Stellenbosch.

Magic-pot-witchcraft

The Voodoo

No one really knows for sure what specific chemical composition is changed due to these soil factors. Neither is it known the process by which these soils change the character of the wine, but I can tell you, a trained palate can taste wine blind and describe the type of terroir it originates from.

Next…

Is this topic never-ending? Yes! The potential for exploring variability in wine character is quite literally endless. Although, I will endeavor to finish this series in my next piece with an evaluation of Vineyard Management and its impact on wine.

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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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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

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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Breaking Down Winemaking Styles

During a recent trip to Napa-Sonoma, California, I had the opportunity to interview several winemakers and talk with tasting room managers in the premium wine segment.  The discussion produced a large amount of material, but a few ideas stood out. One question continued to run over and over in my mind:  does a winery begin with some sort of vision for the final product?  If so, how does it come to be…

Is Wine Style Part of the Business Plan?

 

**INSERT Dilbert cartoon HERE** ©Scott Adams

 

Folks, I am not able to include this Dilbert cartoon, but you simply must click on this Link and check it out.  Funny stuff and right on point for this commentary.  This cartoon was excerpted from: Washington Business Journal, “Is your vision statement for real?”, Mar 17, 2011, Link Here.  Good read!  Unfortunately, even non-profit commentary use must still respect creative property!

 

The Vision

In the over $25/btl retail segment, I would say the wine itself easily contributes 2/3 (or more) to the brand identity.  Can you develop a brand, without developing a vision for the product?  I find this kind of discussion fascinating…

Is it important for employees and customers to understand that vision?

Should a Winery Have a “Wine Style”?

Every winery has a story to tell that differentiates them from the thousands of other producers in the marketplace.  That story is the cornerstone of each label.  So, what does this have to do with winemaking? Everything!  The questions posed in these interviews uncovered a glimpse into that underlying vision and ultimately how they wish their wines to be perceived by both their own organization and the consumer.

Why would an owner choose the difficult premium wine segment of the market in the first place?  There must be a calling, or a passion driving that decision?  Framing that story in a way that can capture a wine enthusiast’s imagination… is a message worth crafting.  So, where could wine style fit into this picture?  In this price category, more than any fancy, gimicky label design, or strategic marketing plan, the wine itself defines the brand.  If this thinking is sound, then the style of wine produced IS the winery’s identity.  Following this logic, finding a way to bring the story behind making the wine directly to the consumer is absolutely critical to building the brand.  If you look at wineries in this way, what stories do they have in common?  After interviewing enough winemakers / owners, you start to see commonalities.  In my opinion, the choice of wine style seems to manifest in one of three different ways:

1.  Begin With the Quality of the Fruit  –  Wine should express the character of the fruit and Terroir

  • This is the winemaker as viticulturist view.  Requires an emphasis on the wine growing.  With a complementary view of nurturing the vines to produce supreme quality fruit.  This is best implemented in an estate winery situation.

Impact on the Wine – Tends to add complexity and layering of flavors.  These wines often have a more defined mid-palate. This style is frequently made to be fruit-forward and emphasizes clarity and freshness.  This approach will usually drive good structure, but may not emphasize balance and often has a varietally correct flavor profile.  This style is typified by the winemaker as farmer – often with formal training in biology, botany, or agriculture and the winemaker leans heavily on learning his trade through internships and experience.

2.  Begin With Analyzing the Fruit  –  Better wine through better chemistry

  • This is the winemaker as technologist view.  Monitor and measure everything.  Wine is a mixture of chemical components and the optimum desired profile can be identified and reproduced.

Impact on the Wine – Brings more consistent quality.  These wines tend to focus on correct ratios.  There is rarely a desired component missing, but the product can often lack finesse.  Tannins, acidity, alcohol, phenolic development all carefully measured to arrive at the optimal formula generally accepted by the industry.  This style is typified by the winemaker with a UC Davis MS in Enology, who has taken the technological training completely to heart.

3.  Begin at the End  –  Start with a clear vision for the final product

  • This is the winemaker as artist view.  Where the winemaker is the star and bringer of quality.  This demands a winemaker as leader, who can leverage a history of experience, knowledge and technique to drive the wine to match his vision.

Impact on the Wine – These wines tend to be either elegant and composed, or knock your socks off with a focused over-the-top approach.  Focusing on the elegant approach…  Whether, or not the fruit is up to muster, these winemakers find a way to make the wine balanced and have great mouth-feel.  These most often are classically styled wines, with good structure, acidity, tannins and texture.  Flavors and aromas are less of an emphasis.  This style is typified by the winemaker as the leader and star – having a decade, or two of experience, always knowing the right decision to make, regardless of vintage variation.

Most wineries mix some combination of these ideas, but one of these philosophies typically shines through.

Does One Style Produce Better Wine?

The answer is most definitely no, but the wines within each style category do tend to have similar characteristics.  I enjoy wines in my cellar from producers that fall into all three categories, depending on my mood.

As a consumer, does identifying the story behind your favorite winery matter?

This time the answer is most definitely yes.  If you are like myself and many of the wine enthusiasts I know, we enjoy quality wines, but like to vary flavors and styles.  You may recognize these different styles in your favorite wines.

I have always found this to be sound advice:  “The key to finding new wines you are likely to enjoy, is to track the winemakers and vineyards.”  Pay attention to this information for your favorite wines and it will help you find other labels worth trying.  Connecting to the story behind your favorite winemakers and favorite vineyards can make your wine appreciation much richer.

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