New wines for the new year

new year winesIf like many people, you are one who enjoys a single brand or varietal of wine, you are denying yourself the joys of what the wine world has to offer. Monogamy is great for relationships but there are too many great wines on the market to stay true to only one. Let one of your new year’s resolutions include trying a few new wines.

Of the approximately 175 commercially produced grape varieties used regularly for the production of wine, most wine drinkers have tasted fewer than 10 in their lifetime. Every wine drinker knows about chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, and pinot noir. Mention barbera, sangiovese, pinot gris, and viognier and a smaller group will nod with recognition. The others fall somewhere between albarino and zweigelt. Mentioning their names can make eyes glaze over faster than an hour of CSPAN 2.

Wine trends come and go. Two years ago following the movie, Sideways, pinot noir sales skyrocketed. Prior to that, consumers could not get enough merlot and heavily oaked chardonnay. The current darlings, riesling and syrah, offer many wine lovers something new even though these are two of the oldest varieties on the planet.

Riesling is a white grape used in most of the best German wine. It grows best in cool climates such as Germany’s Rheingau and California’s Anderson Valley. At its best it offers incredible aromas of peaches, flowers, honey and spice. Naturally high in acidity, it is a great accompaniment to food. Syrah is a black grape native to southern France but excellent examples can be found throughout the new world as well. Great syrah offers notes of blackberry, raspberry, smoke and pepper. Called shiraz in Australia it is that countries most widely planted varietal.

The best way to experience uncommon wine is to attend one of the many wine tasting events hosted by local wine shops. Most offer weekly tasting of several wines, changing their selection each week. Remember that the best wines are those that you like, not necessarily the most expensive or those with the highest point ratings from a wine magazine.

If you still are at a loss as to how to word your New Year’s resolution, you can borrow one of ours: “In the New Year, for better health, we plan to consume the recommended five different servings of fruits or vegetables every day, only two of which will be wine”.

Wine ratings uncorked

Many wine shops use “shelf talkers”, a tag with a numerical rating, given by a prominent wine publication. Wineries use these numbers regularly in their advertising. This number is often accompanied with colorful tasting notes telling you what you can expect when you buy the wine.  Retailers use these ratings to seduce you into purchasing a particular wine. Just what do these ratings mean? Put simply, they mean that someone has tasted these wines and given them a numerical value designed to speak of the wine’s quality. Typical numbers range between 80-100 where the higher the number, the better the wine “should” be.

shelf talkers

Shelf Talkers

The best rating system for my money is one that separates wine into price categories. It is not realistic to compare a $100 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon to one that sells for $10. A Range Rover does not compare to a Mini any better than First Growth Bordeaux compares to “Two Buck Chuck”. Our own expectations change depending on the cost of the wine as well.

What these ratings do not say is that you will like the wine. It is only an indication that the taster did on that given day. Wine taste is subjective and can vary with everything from food parings to your present mood. Professional tasters are keen to weed out flawed wines in addition to looking for varietal and regional correctness and complexity. This ability comes with education and experience. No matter how skilled, however, they cannot guarantee that your palate will match theirs.

Wineries obviously want good ratings as they help sell wine. A few wineries have experimented with software that analyzes the wine for qualities that are known to garner high marks from many of the most important critics in the industry. If a winery, for instance, wants to make a wine that will appeal to Robert Parker, a ‘Mr. Big’ in the industry, the software will tell the winemaker if the wine needs adjustment to the final blend to target his individual preference for a particular varietal. Less contrived wines could potentially be penalized simply because they are not made the in the style preferred by some of the more influential critics.

The most disturbing rating trend we are seeing has wine retailers giving their own ratings to the wines they sell. Using the same 100-point scale and their own tasters… would you believe (catch us before we fall over) the majority of their wines receive high marks! Regardless of the skill of the reviewer, some we know have excellent palates, these ratings become suspect by their application.

Ratings aside, the best way to judge wine is to taste them yourself. Once you have determined the style of wine you like best, ask your wine shop for wines that fit your taste. If your tastes are in line with one of the many published critics, you will be safe to assume that you will like many of the wines they did. As you taste, see how the wines you prefer compare to the “experts” and who knows, you could become the next “Mr. (or Ms.) Big in the wine world.

Recent tastings:

Dutton Goldfield 2007 Dutton Ranch Chardonnay, Russian River Valley: Full bodied and complex with aromas of peach, pineapple, lemon zest and toasty oak.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Creek Valley: Notes of grapefruit, lemon grass and tropial fruit finish with mouthwatering acidity and freshness.

Castle Rock 2008 Mendocino County Pinot Noir: For less than $15, the wine offers a good degree of balance with soft and very fruit forward notes of raspberry, cherry and oak.

Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2007 Santa Maria Cuvee Pinot Noir: Great wine from an exceptional winemaker. Full bodied and complex with flavors of cherry, rose, pepper and a slight amount of oak. Smooth lingering finish.

Tablas Creek Vineyard 2007 Côtes de Tablas, Paso Robles: Balanced and intense aromas of blackberry, strawberry, black olive and cedar with a nice long finish on the palate.

Andeluna 2007 Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina: Dark cherry, plum with a background of toasted oak best deacribe this full bodied  yet balanced malbec.

Livermore Valley, part two

The climate and geography of the Livermore Valley is ideal for growing wine grapes. The valley lies in an east to west direction, exposing it to coastal fog and cool breezes blowing in from the Pacific Ocean. Warm days and cool nights allow grapes to achieve a high level of physiological ripeness during these diurnal fluctuations that are typical of fine wine growing regions. Livermore Valley wine grapes

The wine history of the region is rich with firsts. In 1889 America was awarded its first international gold medal at that year’s Paris Exposition, given to a wine produced in the Livermore Valley. It was also here that the first single varietal wines were bottled in a time where wine was typically labled as “red” or “white”. Most of California’s chardonnay (80%) is made from the Wente clone originating in the Livermore Valley.

Wente Vineyards:

Wente Vineyards is the oldest continuously operating family owned winery in America. C.H. Wente founded the winery in 1883. They survived prohibition by making sacramental wine for churches in San Francisco, allowing them to celebrate this year, 125 years of winemaking in Livermore Valley. Currently, Wente has over 2,000 acres under cultivation in Livermore and another 800 acres in Monterey County. Today’s winemaker, Karl Wente, is part of the fifth generation of the Wente family to manage the operations.

Tasting through the entire lineup of Wente wines is no easy task. The wines are divided into three categories; ‘Estate wines’, ‘Small Lot Wines’, and Wente’s ‘Nth Degree’. The estate wines are readily available in most retail outlets with the others being primarily allocated to wine club members and high end restaurants. The fact that the most expensive wine in Wente’s lineup costs only $60 make them a leader in price to quality winemaking.

Wente Vineyards Wines:

2007 Wente Small Lot Pinot Blanc: Very focused with crisp notes of apple, pear and food friendly acidity.

2008 Wente Small Lot Pinot Noir Rose’: Fresh notes of strawberry and cherry lead to a clean mouthfeel with good acidity.

2007 Wente Small Lot GSM: A blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, the wine is loaded with aromas and tastes of dark cherry and plum. Balanced fruit and acidity make a great wine for roasted meat and BBQ.

2006 Wente Small Lot Merlot: Plums, cherries and hints of oak best describe the aromas of the wine. Smooth tannins with a medium long finish.

2007 Wente Nth Degree Syrah: A big wine offering a nose of dark cherry, blackberry and toasty oak. Moderate tannins leading to a long finish.

2008 Wente Estate Louis Mel Sauvignon Blanc: Crisp and expressive with notes of citrus and lemon grass. Loaded with fruit and acidity, this wine would be great with oysters or as an aperitif.

2008 Wente Estate Riva Ranch Chardonnay, Arroyo Seco: Well balanced wine with notes of stone fruit, green apple and a hint of oak.

2006 Wente Estate Reliz Creek Pinot Noir, Arroyo Seco: A good value pinot noir offering notes of cherry and light berry. Balanced oak and acidity for a pleasingly long finish.

Crooked Vine and Stony Ridge Wineries:

Crooked Vine Winery produces exclusively estate grown wines from their 180 acres of Livermore Valley vineyards. The goal of owner’s Rick and Pam Corbett is to consistently produce award winning wines at reasonable prices. Wines from both labels can be sampled in their tasting room surrounded by lush vineyards.

Crooked Vine Wines:

2007 Crooked Vine Charve: A blend of chardonnay and viognier bursting with notes of honeysuckle, rose, peaches and apricot. Balanced acidity and a clean finish.

2007 Crooked Vine Viognier: Peach and lychee nut aromas with a hint of floral. Clean, crisp finish.

2007 Crooked Vine Zinfandel: Aromas of ripe berry, cherry with hints of vanilla lead to tastes of blackberry, blueberry and black pepper.

2005 Crooked Vine Petite Sirah: A nose of black cherry and mint offering a palate of dark fruit, gripping tannins and a hint of pepper.

Stony Ridge Wines:

2005 Stony Ridge Trifecta: A blend of petite sirah, cabernet and syrah with notes of black cherry, plum and spice. Finishes with a hint of licorice and dark fruit.

2005 Stony Ridge Malvasia Bianca: Relatively rare in California this Italian varietal expresses itself with notes of peaches and honey.

For more information on the wines and wineries of the Livermore Valley, visit

Related Articles:
Livermore Valley, part one

Zinfandel, California’s grape

The first zinfandel vineyards were planted in California in the mid 1800s during the time of the gold rush. Brought by eastern European immigrants wanting to make sure they would have wine to drink, it is one of the oldest wine grape varieties in the US. Zinfandel (or zin) had the advantage of not needing a trellis system to thrive saving lumber and wire for mining operations. Gnarled head pruned vines can still be found in the Sierra Foothills and a few other regions. Some of the vines date back over 120 years.zinfandel

Prior to the mid 70’s zinfandel was produced primarily as a red wine. Ironically, it was the introduction of “white zinfandel” that saved the old vineyards from being ripped out as sales of red zinfandel fell as other varieties gained popularity. White zinfandel, which accounts for 10% of US wine sales, was discovered quite by accident. Sutter Home Winery, in the process of making a dry zinfandel rose’ experienced a “stuck fermentation” where the yeast died before the sugar was fully converted to alcohol. The winemaker liked the result and the rest is history.

Red zinfandel is typically a big wine. To achieve the best flavor the grapes are allowed to ripen fully, increasing the amount of sugar in the berries. Most tip the scales at over 14.5% alcohol with some nearing 18%. The range of styles that can be found is greater than nearly every other variety.
The tasting notes for red zinfandel will vary depending on the climate it is grown. Cooler climate zin will offer notes of raspberry, cherry and plum. Warmer climates can create massive wines tasting of blackberry, prunes and pepper. Try the different styles for yourself and find the one you like best.

The best of the cool climate zinfandel can be found in the few remaining plantings in Napa and more predominantly in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The Sierra Foothills and Lodi offer some of the best of the “knock your socks off” warm climate style. Typically made to drink within five to ten years, most zinfandel does not benefit from long aging.

You are now fully armed to experience “California’s Grape”. Now get out there and Zin!

Major Zins:

2005 Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel, Florence Vineyard, Rockpile, Dry Creek Valley:
Winemaker notes: Inky blue-purple in color, moderate black pepper spice on deep blue-blackberry fruit, whisper of green herbs and smoky oak. Cedary oak spice, very dark chocolate, structured tannins for aging.

2007 Macchia Winery Lodi old vine Zinfandel ”Victorious”:
Dark fruit with hints of brambly spice dominate the nose leading to tastes of cherry, mocha and round tannins. Five dollars of every bottle sold is donated to breast cancer research. Make sure you remove the label to see the second one underneath.

Terra d’Oro Deaver 100 Year Old Vine Zinfandel Vineyard, Amador County:
Winemaker notes: The deep eggplant hue suggests the richness and concentration in your glass. Dark berry flavors are touched with pretty floral aromas and kissed with sweet caramel oak.

Trader Joe’s gems

Trader Joe’s wine isle can make the wine lover feel a bit like a treasure hunter. Most of the wines sold are well priced adding to the excitement of finding wines that stand out from the rest. Two wines that fit this description are profiled below.

San Greal Winery 2006 Red Supper Wine, Mendocino County: Aromas of plum, thyme-spice with black cherry and oak. This fruit forward wine is medium bodied with good acidity and soft tannins tasting of fresh plums with a hint of smokiness. Medium finish. Great with grilled hamburgers.($7)

Chateau Meric 2007, Bordeaux Cru Bourgouis: Medium purple mulberry color offering aromas of spicy cherry, plum, with hints of vanilla oak, green herbs and wet gravel. Very dry in the mouth with a medium body, round tannins and balanced acidity leading to notes of fresh red fruits and wet granite. Great with a gnocchi with mushroom sauce.($10)

Rías Baixas

Nestled in the extreme northwest corner of Spain is one of the most exciting wine regions you have never heard of. Rías Baixas (ree-ahs-buy-shuss) rests in a narrow band of lush green hills and ocean fiords called “rías”, between Portugal and France on the Atlantic border. Rias BaixasThe climate reminds visitors more of Ireland than the rest of Spain.  Unique among great wine regions, Rías Baixas’ average temperature is only 55-65 degrees with an average of 65 inches of rain each year. In contrast, Napa valley receives only 30 inches of rain in a normal year.

Due to the humid, cool weather and geography, grape vines are protected from mould by elevating the vines five or six feet off the ground suspended by granite posts. This trellising method allows air to circulate under the vines to keep the grapes dry. During harvest, workers must use small ladders to pick the grapes.  

Albarino VinesOver 90% of the wine made in Rías Baixas’ is from the region’s native albariño grape. This small, thick skinned white grape is perfectly adapted to the region’s growing conditions, making a wine high in acidity and full of flavor.  Winemakers extract additional flavor and body from the grapes by allowing the juice and grape skins to macerate for several hours together before fermentation. The use of oak barrels is traditionally very rare although a few adventurous winemakers are beginning to experiment with barrel fermentation and aging.

Albariño is a wonderful match for spicy and oily foods. Very few wines can stand up to Thai food but albariño’s acidity cuts though these foods beautifully.  Albariño is best served chilled to drink as an aperitif or with anything from fajitas to oysters.

Pazo San Mauro, 2007 Albariño, Rías Baixas Apple, citrus and floral aroma’s, balanced acidity and a long finish. ($17)
Artesa, 2006 Albariño, Carneros; One of a handful of California wineries growing albariño. Peaches and apricots dominate the nose with hints of citrus and oak.  ($20)

Livermore Valley, part one

Prior to Prohibition, the Livermore Valley was considered California’s leading wine producing region. The Volstead Act of 1922 devastated the wine and liquor industry by outlawing the sale of alcoholic beverages prompting owners to uproot the vineyards, replacing them with fruit trees and other economically viable crops. When the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933, it was too late to revive the once thriving industry.

Fast forwarding to 2009 we see a resurgence in vineyard plantings along with more than 40 wineries once again calling the valley home. Most are small, family run operations offering a good selection of wines in a friendly atmosphere. It is best to visit on a weekend as most tasting rooms are closed Monday through Thursday.


Our tour of the valley began at Eagle Ridge Vineyard nestled in the eastern hills shadowed by the wind turbines of the AltamontEagle Ridge Winery Pass. Our host and owner, Jim Perry, guided us through his current releases while explaining the exciting growth of the region’s wine industry. Here, the people in the industry are still willing to help each other when needed knowing that the health of the industry is less about the individual and more about building a reputation for good wine.

Eagle Ridge Wines:
2007 Pinot Grigio: Easy drinking style with notes of apple, nuts and food friendly acidity.
2006 Cabernet Sauvignon: Plum-berry, cassis, cocoa and a hint of spice
2005 Petite Sirah: Big wine loaded with pepper and black fruit. Balanced acidity, tannins and toasty oak lead to a nice long finish.


Les Chenes Estate Vineyard

Our next stop found us at Les Chenes Estate Vineyards. Richard and Candice Dixon built and own Les Chenes Estate Vineyards as a way to live their love of wine and each other. Les Chenes specializes in Rhone varietals in addition to Primativo. Visit early as the tasting room is only open four hours each day Friday through Sunday. Their wines show an attention to detail that comes from harvesting quality grapes.



Les Chenes Wines:
2006 Roussanne: Crisp and refreshing with aromas of melon, white peach and pear. Wonderful acidity and finish. ($22)
Gargouille (Red Blend): 55% Mourvedre, 35% Syrah and 10% zinfandel this complex wine is loaded with notes of chocolate, coffee red currant and spice. ($25)
Deux Rouge: 20% Cabernet sauvignon, 80% syrah offering black fruit, subtle earthiness and smooth tannins. ($24)
2006 Reserve Syrah: Delicious wine redolent of red and black fruit, pepper, tar and cedar. Aged in French oak barrels for 34 months, the wine is full bodied and smooth in the mouth. Incredibly long finish. ($28)
2007 Paulazzo Vineyard Primitivo, Late Harvest: Off dry and rich with notes of blackberry and spice. ($36)


Bent Creek Winery

Tasting room number three was Bent Creek Winery sitting in the rolling foothills southeast of town. Oak trees and vineyards surround the winery accentuating the spectacular views of the valley from the estate. Producing 3500 cases of wine each year, Bent Creek epitomizes the boutique wineries common to the Livermore Valley.

Bent Creek Wines
2008 Mendocino County Sauvignon Blanc: Light bodied with fresh aromas of citrus and bright acidity. ($15)
2006 Livermore Valley Zinfandel: Elegant style zinfandel with intense aromas of cherry, plum and a hint of spice. Balanced mouthfeel with a long finish.
2005 Bent Creek Vineyard Syrah: Deeply colored syrah loaded with black cherry, berry and spice nuances. Round smooth tannins lead to a lingering finish. ($24)
2006 Livermore Valley Red on Red: 33% Cabernet sauvignon, 67% syrah. Aromas of roasted coffee and dark fruit stand out this favorite of the tasting.
2006 Livermore Valley Petite Sirah: A monster of a petite sirah with ripe cherry, berry and pepper. Complex and balanced. ($27)