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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Alcohol levels

From the label of a 1988 Dry Creek Vyds Zinfandel.

Out to dinner last night at a popular restaurant in Healdsburg. A nice, local wine list, but a $20 corkage fee (a little high).

They offered one Zinfandel by the glass and I figured that would go well with the Pork Chili Verde with Polenta.

By now I should know to check the alcohol level of any Zinfandel I'm not familiar with before purchasing. It was not the kind of wine to have with a meal unless you like having shot of tequila with your food. The overriding characteristics of the wine was alcohol in the nose and taste. I thought the waitress may have noticed I left my wine glass full when she handed us the check, but she didn't say anything so I didn't either.

I've been to a wine bar in Santa Rosa a couple of times trying their Zinfandel flights of three small producers--always wines I've never had before. It's great to try new stuff, but I've found most of what they pour unpleasant because of the high alcohol levels. There was one Zin from Alexander Valley that I couldn't even drink.

Why do the winemakers / marketers feel we need alcohol levels of 15.5% plus? I can't figure this trend. I've had a few of these high alcohol monsters that have enough fruit to mask the alcohol, at least while the wines are young, but these are few and far between, and usually very expensive. A few of these wines are outstanding while the majority are stinkers.

I think/hope most are looking for fruit, spices and other complexities in their wines and a balanced product that you can enjoy by itself or with a meal. That shouldn't be too much to ask.

It's not just Zinfandel; I've had a few hot Pinot Noirs, too. Pinot should never push 15%. It's no longer Pinot when it does. Heck, the microbreweries are putting out beers typically 7 to 8%.

I've talked with Europeans and others who drink European wines and when they sample California, especially zinfandel, they call it "strong" meaning they are tasting alcohol.

In the vineyards we go through period trellising trends. You can pretty much tell when a vineyard was planted by the trellising system used. Currently we seem to be using a Burgundy style, I guess it is, where the fruit is fully exposed to sunlight. That's great for even ripening, it's great for cloudy areas, I'm not sure why we need to cook 'em on the vine here in sunny California. I realize the old head pruned Zinfandels must be a royal pain as Zin is notorious for uneven ripening (and sometimes pruney tasting wines). OK, I'm no vineyard manager so maybe someone can explain this to me.

If I want a glass of alcohol I'll buy Patron. If I want a dinner wine I'm expecting the alcohol to be buried under the other characteristics of the product.

I do love my Zinfandel and Pinots. Just keep them under control!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The upcoming season

Not the grape season, but the tourist season. The biggest months are May, and July through October. Yeah, June is kind of a "sleeper" month. It seems like summer, but everyone is busy with weddings, graduations, or whatever. It's a good month to visit if you like decent weather and semi-light crowds.

The 2009 season is not shaping up to be a good one. That's no secret, huh? Business is down (the number of visitors) and sales are significantly down.

What's that mean to you? A great time to visit if you're not wound up in the fear factor of The Next Great Depression looming. I was in Hawaii in February, normally their busiest month, and hotel reservations were off 60%. This meant no lines anywhere and even some good deals.

You should be able to find some good deals on lodging, if you book ahead, and at many wineries. In Napa and Sonoma I've seen some waiving tasting fees. I've also occasionally seen someone raise their fee to cover expected shortfalls. That's what happens when you put the accountants in charge!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A few April winery visits

I spent a Saturday afternoon visiting a few local tasting rooms. I was mostly on a hunt for Pinot Noir.

Dutton-Goldfield and Balletto share a tasting room and wine-making facilities. I've had Balletto Vineyards Pinot before and liked it. It's a more fruit-forward style and is the bargain of the day at about $24. Dutton-Goldfield's Pinots ran in the $50s and they had several different ones open. I wound up with a bottle of the McDougall Ranch from the Sonoma Coast appellation.

Sheldon has a tasting room in Sebastopol. It's very small production so you've probably never seen the wine. He's old school or more accurately old school European-style. That is, it's the opposite of the current fad of fruit-forward, soft/low acid wines. His wines are stark, clean, and all require bottle age. Actually, I'm not quite sure what you'd wind up with five years down the road. It would be interesting to try one with a few years bottle age.

Merry Edwards is a pretty well known premium brand--mostly for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noirs. I didn't try the SB, but sampled a few Pinots mostly priced in the $50s. I wound up with a Russian River Valley blend that was less expensive and an estate Pinot. They have a new facility and aren't well set up for visitors. Hopefully, they'll work that out.

I wanted to stop by Joseph Swan, an old time Pinot producer in the area, but missed a turn on the road. Maybe next time.

Other recent Pinot purchases are from Gary Farrell, Artesa, Landmark and Thumbprint. Gary Farrell made outstanding wines at one time. The wines went downhill, but have made a recent comeback. Gary sold off his namesake winery a few years ago, but has another wine project starting up. Artesa is a beautiful facility in the south end of Napa (Carneros). Most of their wines are excellent. Thumbprint is a very small producer with a tasting room in Healdsburg. He does more Cabernet blends.

Most of these guys Pinots retail in the $50 range. Ouch. I guess that's why I'll take Russian Hill over most.

I wonder how they're all doing with these $50+ wines. This is supposed to be the price range that isn't selling well in this economic climate. On the other hand Pinot is the "in" wine.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Barrel Tasting (and other special events)

Sonoma County hosts three weekends of "Barrel Tasting" in March. Do you get to taste barrels? NO, luckily. But maybe wine that hasn't made it from the barrel to the bottle yet. What's the point? From the wineries point-of-view it's usually to get visitors to buy futures.

I've been going out to the Russian River Barrel Tasting for a number of years. Besides the price going from free to $30 the other big change is the crowd. It's a lot younger (and for some reason I keep getting older).

There's lots of talk in the wine marketing areas about the Millennials (aka the young crowd) and their interest in wine. I can't decide if it's wine specifically or just wanting an excuse to party. Looking around downtown Healdsburg late Saturday afternoon during the Barrel Tasting event looked a lot like I'd expect Mardi Gras to look. Lots of people in their twenties having a really good time!

Many wineries don't know what to make of this. On one hand they don't buy nearly as much as middle-aged people with disposable income; on the other they are the future wine buyers. Of course, most accountant-types want to see the money now and aren't interested in who's buying what in 2030.