New wines for the new year

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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)

Magnanimus comes to West Street Wine

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Last Thursday, Reno’s West Street Wine Bar hosted a tasting of wines from the Magnanimus Wine Group. We arrived early enough to get seats at the front bar allowing us to discuss the wines with Magnanimus’ Director of Sales, Josh Metz. Hosts Rick and Samantha laid out place mats labeled with the wines to be tasted and poured the four wines to be tasted. The wines included a chardonnay, two cabernet sauvignon, and a red blend poured in a progressive order from lightest to full body. All of the wines were made from grapes sourced from northern California’s Ukiah area.West Street Wine Bar

Mendocino County has seen and explosion of vineyard plantings over the last 15 years, quickly becoming one of the most exciting wine regions in California. Magnanimus Wine Group has built a portfolio of wines that include; Talmage, Mendocino Farms, Old River Cellars, and Ukiah Cellars. Their focus is on sustainable, organic or biodynamic farming practices utilizing natural pest control and cover crops between vines, avoiding traditional chemical controls. Each brand is labeled depending on the methods used. We will explain the difference in another article.

We had just come from seeing a movie making the table of cheeses and bread a welcome site. After a quick snack, we swirled, sniffed and sipped the 2008 Ukiah Cellars Chardonnay ($15). It had a nice nose of green apple, lemon zest, and a little oak. We both felt the wine had gone through complete malolactic fermentation before quickly realizing that the cheese was probably affecting our ability to sense the acidity. On second sip, we both concurred that the wine did have some acidity with a profile somewhere between a big buttery oaky Napa style and a crisp clean Chablis style. It is a decent wine for the price.

Wine number two was a 2005 Ukiah Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ($15). Star bright with ruby red color, the wine offered aromas of dark ripe cherry with hints of herbs and eucalyptus. Medium bodied, the wine was a bit sharp up front but finished with pleasant flavors of baked cherry pie. Both Ukiah Cellars wines are sustainably farmed.

The third, and our favorite, wine was the 2005 Old River Road Cabernet Sauvignon ($17). As in the last wine, the wine was star bright but a deeper ruby color than the Ukiah cab. Aromas were very pleasing with mocha spice, cherry and toasty vanilla oak. Well balanced, food friendly wine with mocha and plum notes that explode on the mid to back palates. Old River Road wines are made from organic grapes.

The fourth wine was the 2004 Mendocino Farms Redvine Series blend ($25). Made from a blend of 75% cabernet sauvignon, 15% syrah, and 10% petite sirah, the Redvine series is a big wine with notes of black cherry, plum and hints of spice. Mendocino Farms vineyards are certified biodynamic.

West Street Wine

West Street Wine is located at 148 West Street in the West Street Market. For tasting schedules or more information call (775) 336-3560

Top Bordeaux Under $30

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Earlier this year we attended a tasting of “Today’s Bordeaux presented by the Bordeaux Wine Council to showcase the best Bordeaux wines under $30. Prior to the event, hundreds of wines were tasted by a panel of judges to select the best 100 to be included the 2009 tasting tour. Bordeaux is home to over 40 thousand wineries making it no surprise that the quality of Bordeaux wine is all over the map. The wines proved that a second mortgage is not necessary to enjoy good wines from the region.

Our Favorite White Bordeaux:

2007 Château Beauregard Ducasse, Graves ($20)
70% Sémillon, 30% Sauvignon blanc: Crisp aromas of lemon grass and mineral. Great acidity and a clean finish.
2007 Château Bonnet Blanc, Entre-Deux-Mers ($13)
50% Sauvignon blanc, 40% Sémillon, 20% Muscadelle: Pleasingly dry with hints of green apple, citrus and a slight lactic note. Medium long finish.
2007 Château Coucheroy Blanc, Pessac-Léognan ($17)
100% Sauvignon blanc: Bright citrus with gripping acidity and a medium finish.
2007 Château Lestrille, Entre-Deux-Mers ($14)
90% Sauvignon blanc, 5% Muscadelle, 5% Sémillon: Notes of citrus with hints of grass and apple. Great value.

Our Favorite Red Bordeaux:

2005 Château Bel-Air La Royere, Premières Côtes de Blaye ($29)
70% Merlot, 30% Malbec: Deep ruby color with a nose of plum, cherry and earth. Round tannins and a medium long finish.
2005 Château Pey La Tour – Réserve du Château, Bordeaux Supérieur ($18)
77% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot: Aromas of cassis, cherry plus a hint of floral lead to a smooth mouthfeel and a lingering finish.
2005 CHÂTEAU DE ROCHEMORIN, Pessac-Léognan ($28)
Blend: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot: Ripe plums, leather and a bit of spice on the nose with a clean pleasant
2005 CHÂTEAU LANDAT, Haut-Médoc ($20)
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot: Cassis, plum and a slight earthy note. Medium tannins and a medium finish.
100% Merlot: Soft and easy drinking wine displaying plum and dark cherry. Slightly short finish.
2006 CHÂTEAU LIEUJEAN, Haut-Médoc ($20)
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot: 2006 did not produce the structure of the 2005 vintage overall but this wine was balanced with fruit notes of dark cherry, mocha and spice. Firm tannins.
2005 CHÂTEAU MAJOUREAU CUVÉE HYPPOS, Bordeaux Supérieur ($19)
55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc: Try pronouncing the name three times fast. Elegant blend for the price offering aromas of plum, coffee and cedar. Medium long finish.

The “Stickies”

2003 CASTELNAU DE SUDUIRAUT, Sauternes ($23)
90% Sémillon, 10% Sauvignon blanc: Not d’Yquem but for the price the wine is classic Sauternes with notes of honey, orange peel, botrytis and balanced acidity.
Blend: 90% Sémillon, 10% Sauvignon blanc: Another good example of a great Sauternes for the price. Honeyed orange and lemon peel and botrytis. The acidiy balances out the sweetness for a very enjoyable wine.

A Quick Trip to Murphys

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A spontaneous road trip yesterday “happened” to take me though the little California town of Murphys . Murphys is the heart of Calaveras County’s wine country, home to over twenty wineries. The town itself has changed little from the gold rush days offering the visitor a taste of history along with many great wines of the region.

Mark your calendar for October 3 for the 13th annual Calaveras Grape Stomp. The event will showcase the region’s wines and restaurants combining the fun of an old time fair with some serious tasting.

Below is a summary of the wines tasted.

Milliaire Winery
Milliaire Winery

Milliaire Winery is owned by Steve and Liz Milliaire. Steve is also the winemaker for Ironstone Vineyards, one of California’s largest wineries. Their family label showcases some of the best small vineyards of the Sierra Foothills. Milliaire’s current releases underscore why they have been one of our favorite Calaveras wineries for years. “Wine Host and Official Wine Taster”, Terry, cheerfully poured through their current offerings and was kind enough to give me a spit cup to keep the ride home safe.

2008 Chardonnay: Crisp, Aromas of apples and stone fruit leading to a crisp clean finish. ($15)

2007 Catherine’s Cuvee Muscat: A blend of orange Muscat and Muscat Canelli made in a semi dry style offering the best characteristics of the variety without being cloyingly sweet. Soft aromas of orange and honey. ($16)

2005 Old Vine Calaveras Zinfandel: The grapes for the Old Vine Zin range in age from 40-110 years. Elegantly styled, brimming with notes of wild blackberry, bramble and spice, the wine is incredibly rich on the palate with soft tannins and a long finish. ($20)

2006 Clockspring Zinfandel: Made from fruit sourced from Amador County’s Clockspring Vineyard, the wine is ideal for those looking for a big, peppery zinfandel. Notes of berry, black pepper and a lush mouthfeel leading to a long spicy finish. ($24)

2005 Ghirardelli Zinfandel: The Ghirardelli Vineyard is the oldest in Calaveras county, planted 110 years ago. A favorite at our table for many years, the complexity of this wine showcases the complexity of old dry farmed vines. Five generations of the Ghirardelli family have tended these vines. Complex and elegant best describe the aromas of dark berry, plum and spice. A long finish and food friendly acidity make this a top pick year after year. ($28)

2005 Sierra Foothills Syrah: A big syrah by any standard, the wine offers aromas of chocolate, ripe fruit and smokiness. While it is drinking well now, it should continue to evolve over the next several years. ($28)

Tanner Vineyards
Tanner Vineyards

Nanette Tanner guided my tasting through their current releases along with the history of the families story of a now four generation presence as farmers and grape growers in Calaveras County. If there were an award for friendliest tasting room, Tanner Vineyards would be a gold medal winner. Tanner Vineyards winemaker is Scott Klann.

2007 Vermentino: Planted with clones from Northern Italy, the vermentino is an interesting wine with aromas of mineral, lemongrass and a bit of nuttiness. Mouth watering acidity would make the wine pair well with spicy Thai or fresh oysters. ($18)

2008 Vermentino – Viognier: My favorite of the two white wines I tasted, the vermentino – viognier blend is a crisp wine with notes of pear, citrus, apricot and floral nuances. Great acidity and a lingering finish. ($20)

2006 Syrah: If you are looking for a big syrah, this is one place to start. Plum, blackberry and spice best describe the nose leading to a mouthfeel of soft round tannins and berry. ($24)

2006 Petit Verdot: Not usually bottled as a single varietal, petit verdot is usually a love it or hate it wine. Inky dark with massive tannin structure, the wine offers notes of chocolate, leather, ripe plum and spice. ($28)

2005 Mélange de Mère: Translated as ‘Mother’s Blend” , the wine is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and petit verdot. Berry, spice and a hint of chocolate blend to make a well structured wine that would pear well with lamb or grilled steak. ($27)

2006 Petite Sirah: Named for the varieties small grape clusters, petite syrah is anything but petite. Dark and deep with a nose of blackberry spice and an underlying floral note. ($35)

Twisted Oak Winery; Are you Twisted?
Twisted Oak

Twisted Oak Winery’s mission, other than making good wine, is to make the wine tasting experience fun. We have visited hundreds of tasting rooms but this is the only one we know of where rubber chickens are used in the decor. Proudly displayed as a visitor enters, is the glass encased “Golden Rubber Chicken” in honor of the region’s history of gold production. Mark Twain may have written the story of “The Celebrated Rubber Chicken of Calaveras County” if he had not been exposed to jumping frogs first. Twisted Oak’s tasting room staff are always among the best.

2008 Sivaspoons Vineyard Verdelho: Last time we recommended Twisted Oak’s verdelho, it was sold out before the column was published. Pear, peach and apricot dominate leading to more subtle aromas of green apple and flowers. Great food friendly acidity and a clean finish. ($16)

2006 Calaveras County “The Spaniard”: A blend of tempranillo, graciano, and grenacha, The Spaniard is a complex wine with deep berry notes and hints of baking spice. Wonderful mouthfeel with balanced tannins and acidity. A bit pricey but a good choice for those still gainfully employed. ($49)

2006 Calaveras County Petite Sirah: One of the best examples of the grape I have tasted this year. Deep rich color loaded with dark ripe berry aromas and just enough tannin to turn your eyeballs backwards. ($24)

Fermenting a Wine Competition Controversy

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The Journal of Wine Economics has released a pair of studies done to evaluate the consistency of major wine competitions. The reports were compiled by Prof. Robert T. Hodgson, retired professor of statistics at Humboldt State University and winemaker. The first report is titled: “An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 U.S. Wine Competitions”. The report states that, “many wines that are viewed as extraordinarily good at some competitions are viewed as below average at others”. The report concludes that wines that receive gold medals in one competition may score differently or receive no award in a different competition.

The second report titled, “An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition”, examines the consistency of judges over a four year period at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition.

The State Fair competition is the oldest wine competition in the United States, judging an average of 3000 entries per year. The method for the study was based on triplicate samples of a subject wine in each flight the judge tasted. In a typical flight of 35 wines poured for each judge, three of the glasses contained the identical wine from the same bottle. The judges had no knowledge that the study was being conducted. It should be noted here that the California State Fair requires judges to pass an extensive test on sensory evaluation to qualify to judge as well as meeting experience criteria.

The findings of the report showed that ten percent of the judges were able to replicate scores within a medal range; gold, silver, bronze or no award consistently. Another ten percent gave scores ranging from gold to no award for the same wine in the same flight. The remaining 80% fell somewhere in the middle.

A few wine bloggers have parlayed the studies into an evisceration of the wine competitions in general advocating that the study proves these events are of no use to the consumer. Before we outlaw wine competitions outright, it may be helpful to look at some of the other variables involved with judging wine at these competitions.

If we look closely at the judging process (in reputable competitions) it is easier to see why wine judging will never be an exact science or perfectly consistent. Judges at these competitions take their responsibility very seriously. No judge wants to award a gold medal to a bad wine. While your palate may not always agree with their evaluation, it is not due to lack of commitment on the judges part to fairly evaluate each wine.

A gold medal does not guarantee that a particular individual will like the wine any more than does a high score from one of the major wine publications. I often taste wines recommended “experts” that I do not find appealing at best. These scores and awards only say that “someone” liked them on the day they were tasted. Your own palate is the only final judge and that will vary depending on thousands of variables such as mood, menu and situation.

During a wine competition, a judge sits on a panel of three or four judges, each tasting the same wines in each flight. A flight of wines typically has between 30-40 wines. Each judge evaluates every wine independently, giving a score between “no award” and “gold”. Some competitions simply average the individual scores and others allow the judges to discuss each wine once all judges have finished tasting.

Some varietals are easier to evaluate than others. Aromatic white wines, sauvignon blanc, riesling, etc, when tasted at room temperature will amplify faults and varietal characteristics better than a flight of monster petite sirah or zinfandel. Background aromas of 40 volatilizing glasses of wine have to be filtered out by the judge in the process as well.

Once the flight is tasted, the glasses are cleared and another flight of 40 wines is placed. The process is repeated four or five times in a typical day of judging. You could argue that fewer and smaller flights of wine would improve consistency, which I think it would, but you would end up with competitions that wineries could not afford to enter due to the cost of running such an event. The compromise is using panels of judges over individuals which does improve consistency, albeit not perfectly.

Every judge has faced the awkward situation of giving a wine a gold medal that all the other judges gave no award. Each has also experienced giving no award to a wine that others gave high marks. While not a common occurrence, it can be attributed to the order the judge tasted the wines. They may have tasted a really bad wine just previously or a wine where some component masked a flaw in the current wine. Again, this is the benefit of panels.

Have you ever purchased a bottle of wine that tasted great in the winery only to wonder what you were thinking when you opened the bottle at home? When we taste several wines in a day, our palates and noses become fatigued regardless of how great a taster we are. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration to taste 100+ wines in a day and keep your mind and palate in tune. Simply stated, wine judges are somewhat limited by being human.

The point of all this is that all wine evaluation is subjective. No one but you can determine what you will like and dislike. Wine publications and blogs that use point systems are no different than wine competitions except that I do not expect the writers to allow themselves to be tested on consistency. They could be exposed to being human after all. The only guarantee you have when you purchase a gold medal wine or one that received 9.5 from a blogger or 94 points from a magazine is that they liked the wine on the day that it was tasted and recommend it.

Ribbons and points are just two of the tools you can try when looking for wine. If you find a reviewer that consistently recommends wines you like then by all means, follow them. It shows that their palate is similar to yours. The best way will always be to taste them yourself.

It should be noted that I serve as a professional judge for some of the competitions used in the study. While I do not doubt the validity of the numbers used in the report, I believe that these numbers do not tell the whole story. I have not received compensation nor been encouraged to publish this post.

Robert Biale Vineyards

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Robert Biale Vineyards It is always a great experience when we discover wines that we have not tasted previously. It is even better when it is a wine that creates memories. The Biale family has been growing grapes in the Napa Valley since the 1930’s, beginning winemaking operations in 1991, producing zinfandel from the estate’s oldest vines. Purchasing Biale wines is a process of patience, something very uncommon for zinfandel. The wines are allocated to those on their mailing list as well as some of the best restaurants in the country.

The 2006 Aldo’s Vineyard Zinfandel is one of the best renditions of zinfandel we have ever tasted. Smooth and elegant, the wine explodes with aromas of dark cherry, blackberry, pepper and spice. Smooth tannins and balanced acidity show this wine was made for food. ($Allocated$)

C. G. DiArie Vineyard and Winery

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C.G. DiArie 2006 Sierra Legends C.G. DiArie 2006 Sierra Legends is a blend of 55% Syrah, 25% Primativo, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. The wine has a lovely ruby red color with aromas of berry, cassis, plumb, spiced coffee and vanilla. Medium bodied with round tannin structure in the mouth, the wine finishes with a long cherry-plum finish and wonderful food friendly acidity.

The wine paired perfectly with grilled herb encrusted steak and fingerling potatoes.


C.G. DiArie 2008 Rose’
C.G. DiArie RoseThe C.G. DiArie 2008 Rose’ is a dry wine made from a blend of tempranillo, syrah and a touch of zinfandel to tone the color down a bit. The nose begins with a notes of citrus and strawberry with a background of baking spice. Good acidity and a finish reminding us of a light mocha. A great sipping wine for the remaining warm evenings.


Surviving a Large Wine Festival

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Wine Festival

Navigating through a large wine festival or charity wine tasting can prove to be a challenge for many consumers. Halfway through these events it is not uncommon to see many people struggle to maintain a vertical posture as they weave from table to table to taste more wine. Following a few simple tips can help make your experience more enjoyable and memorable.

Begin with printing a list of the wines you are most interested in tasting since these will be the tables you want to visit first while your palate is still fresh.

Next, and the most difficult for many consumers, is to bring a small cup to spit the wine into once you have tasted it. Each table will be equipped with a dump bucket allowing you to pour excess wine and yes, the contents of your spit cup. It is common practice at trade tastings to spit wine directly into the bucket but we still prefer the more discrete (and sanitary), Dixie Cup.

Lastly, it is likely not possible to taste every wine being poured so pace yourself and enjoy the event. Take notes on the wines you liked the best and spend a little time speaking to the winemakers or winery representatives about their wines or winemaking in general. These events are a great way to learn.

Take a healthy dose of patience with you when you attend. Everyone is there to taste wine and some tables will be more popular than others. Most of all, enjoy yourself.

Happy Tasting

What is it About Wine?

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Browsing through the wine blog world makes it obvious that for many, wine is much more than a simple beverage. I have yet to find the same sort of passion from someone writing about soda! Those of us who appreciate wine for all the little nuances each taste offers can easily get caught up in a web of sensory fulfillment that borders on passion.

For me, wine exploration is a pursuit that fulfills both an intellectual need and the need for simple enjoyment at the same time. Each vintage has something new to offer and the vast number of wines available means that there will always be something I have never tasted before.

The experience begins before the bottle is even opened. The anticipation of what will be found under the cork (or other closure) for a wine nut like me can stir a little bit of excitement at the beginning of the process. Will I like the wine? Will there be obvious flaws in the wine? Will this be the best wine I have ever tasted?

Once the first glass is poured it is time to swirl it around and look at its color and clarity. While not necessarily the most critical factor since most commercial wine now receives some form of filtration to remove sediments, it can imply how careful the winemaker has been in protecting the wine from too much oxygen contact.

Aroma is by far the factor that speaks of the wine’s character. The first smell identifies any faults in the winemaking process. Brettanomyces, a yeast that can give the wine aromas ranging from band aid to barnyard depending on the particular strain is the first deal breaker for me. I know some people tolerate this and some even enjoy it but my nose sees this a serious flaw. Corked wine is not the fault of the winemaker and can be rectified by exchanging the bottle for a good one. Less common in commercial wine is oxidation and bacterial spoilage found in some “home made” wine.

A wine’s aroma should represent the varietal listed on the label. Cabernet should not smell like merlot and pinot noir should not smell like Gamay. For my taste, chardonnay should not smell like the juice from a toasted oak tree but that is for another post. Many low to mid cost wines have become so homogenized through blending and manipulation that even the best palate can have difficulty determining the varietal in a blind tasting.

Wine should speak to where the grapes were grown. California pinot should not have the same characteristics of red Burgundy any more than Washington syrah should smell like Côte-Rôtie. It does not make one regions wine better than another, just different.

Now that the time to taste the wine has finally arrived, it is all about balance. Acidity, tannin structure, sweetness and “mouthfeel” are what separates a well made wine with one that has been manipulated to cover up any flaws in the juice. Winemakers routinely adjust acid, which is fine, but too much manipulation can make a wine seem contrived.

Wine appreciation has been a wonderful journey that I hope will continue for many years. I would love to hear what you look for when tasting wine.