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Friday, March 26, 2010

Three Decades of Change

I am all for progress; it's change I can't stand.
-Mark Twain

Having lived in Sonoma County for thirty years I can spot the changes to California wines and the tourist industry around it.   Most things have changed in that time as expected except for me, of course!

CA Wines

Obviously, they were a lot cheaper in 1980 as was everything else.   I'd say wine has pretty much tripled in price, but then so has a new car, and don't even start on housing costs.

When an acre of vineyards in Napa passed the $10,000 mark it was a big deal.   Several years ago it passed $100,000.   If you ask, "Why didn't you think to buy a couple acres back then?"   Well, I didn't have $20k then just like I don't have $250k now.   But it was a heckuva investment for somebody.

Most wines circa 1980 fell into two categories:
  • Dry and tannic reds requiring several years of aging, but once they aged they were usually worth the wait.
  • Whites were either Chardonnay or sweet and simple.
Then and today Chardonnay and Cabernet are king with a lot of Zinfandel in Sonoma County, too.  But thirty years ago the other varietals you found were Riesling, Gewurztraminer, French Colombard and Chenin Blanc in whites and Petite Sirah and Charbono in red.   Yes, there were others, but those seemed to be the big ones.   I know there's still Petite Sirah around, but not as much (percentage-wise anyway, not sure about acreage).

Zinfandel sales started to slide in the '80s.   Many vineyards would have been yanked and replanted had it not been for the rise of White Zinfandel.  Sutter Home and Beringer still make lots of White Zin but the grapes come from cheaper growing regions in the Central Valley of California now.

Pinot Noir?  Some but planted in the wrong places and most people didn't know how to make it.  Probably Pinot got treated like Cab or Zin in the processing.  It just wasn't very good.  Kenwood's Jack London Ranch in Sonoma Valley had Pinot planted--right next to the Cab, Merlot and Zin.  It was way too hot for Pinot.

Syrah?   No. Other Rhones?  Never heard of them.

Sauvignon Blanc was just starting to come into its own in the early 1980s.

Merlot was around, but mostly blended into the dry, tannic Cabs.   Merlot sales took off in the 1990s with the French paradox story on 60 Minutes that basically said you could eat all kinds of fatty foods and smoke as long as you had a couple glasses of red wine every night.

Remember, red wine and dark chocolate and you'll live forever!

Wine Making

Wine styles have definitely changed going from trying to copy the French to trying to sell wine (what a concept)!   Wines now are generally more fruity, less tannic, less acidic, less drying, and have more alcohol.   Is this better?   I don't know.

So what happened?  Most reds weren't too drinkable on release--they needed time to develop in the bottle.  Mostly they were just too tannic when young but boy did they develop some nice complexity a few years later.  But it was no secret that the vast majority of wine sold in the U.S. was being consumed within a couple days of purchase so why not make wine that soft and drinkable right away?

Early on this led to a bit of residual sugar being left in some wines.  Over the years vineyard and cellar techniques changed from picking the fruit riper to removing some of the alcohol during processing.  (Riper = more sugar = more alcohol).

I'm a believer in less is more.  The more processing required the less I'll probably like the finished product.  If you have to pick the grapes so ripe and have to add water back in then take out some of the alcohol then something is wrong in my opinion.  Not all wines are this way, just a small percentage.

In the "old days" what I considered the bad wine was usually too tannic and too astringent where now what I consider bad is usually too one-dimensional fruity and too hot (from the alcohol).   That is, in the '80s a bad wine was like sucking on a sweat sock.  Today it's like drinking a Dr. Pepper with a shot of tequila in it.

Are wines, in general, better today then back then?  I'd say yes as I believe the percentage of bad wines out of California is much lower than it was back then.   They've learned a lot!


Of course there were a  lot fewer wineries and tasting rooms then--a LOT fewer.   Imagine driving through Napa with only a few stops available such as Mondavi, Louis Martini, Inglenook, Beringer, and Charles Krug?   And--hold on--no tasting fees in Napa Valley!   Somewhere in the mid-80s tasting room fees were invented over in Napa along Highway 29 because it was getting too easy to stop at a dozen wineries.  It was for crowd control and drunk control, now it's become a revenue stream.

In Sonoma Valley there was Kenwood and St. Jean.  Up in Dry Creek you had the old timers like Pedroncelli, Foppiano and Simi plus newer start-ups like Dry Creek Vineyards.

Around the town of Sonoma Buena Vista has always been there and Gundlach-Bundschu had restarted.  G-B was down a little, tiny winding road in the middle of nowhere with the tasting room sharing space with the lab in a corner of the cellar.   

When the wine train started up in Napa Valley, to much criticism, the Bundschus decided the train's guests needed a little Sonoma wine.  One day a few of them dressed as Western bandits and staged a "raid" on the train and poured G-B wines for the semi-startled tourists.   Imagine doing that now.  Somebody would probably think they were terrorists or some damn paranoid thing.

Kenwood Vineyards

Early on I became a fan of Kenwood Vineyards. In the early '70s three guys out of college purchased the Pagani Bros. winery and turned it into Kenwood Vyds.  At the old Pagani Winery you brought in your own jug to be filled from the barrel.  Your choice was white wine or red wine.  By the '80s it was rare to find anyone doing this but Valley of the Moon was one that still had this option.

Kenwood started an "artist series" program for their reserve Cabernet.  I believe it was retailing for about $25 at the time!   Their first label contained a nude figure on a hillside.  The feds must approve wine labeling and they said no.   The artist was P.O'ed and did another with a skeleton on the hillside.  After he calmed down he redid it with a blank hillside.   For the 25th anniversary of that first artist series they got the nude drawing approved.  Progress.  A few "Naked Lady" bottles got out into circulation and are valuable.  I've seen the skeleton label at the winery but don't know if any bottles got out.  This actually worked out well for Kenwood as they got lots of free publicity for this (and free is the best kind).

The '78 Charles Mingus label was even more fun.  I had it explained by winery staff that it is actually a picture of the vineyards out front of the tasting room.  It's so colorful because the artist smoked a joint, poked himself in the eye, then painted.   I can't vouch for this story but I like it so much it's worth repeating.

I had gotten to know the Kenwood tasting room manager and was able to visit their wine library a couple times and sample some older Cabs and Zins.   A really good experience at the time because I had nothing that old at home at the time.   Kenwood made about 20 wines then and all were available for tasting--for free, of course.    

Lake Sonoma at the north end of Dry Creek Valley
It wasn't there in 1980--just a Corp of Engineers wet dream!


The biggest changes are probably to the town of Healdsburg.  Other towns have grown faster in population, but the downtown area of Healdsburg has really changed.  It was an old, slightly scruffy farm town.  More like Geyserville is now only bigger.  Watch out Geyserville, you're next!

The Healdsburg downtown is almost exclusively geared towards visitors.   About the only thing left as-is would be John & Zeke's, one of two old bars left.  Not that the change was bad, but I had an old-time resident tell me once, "I can't even buy a pair of underwear in Healdsburg anymore!"


This yearly Zinfandel-only tasting in San Francisco is huge with hundreds of wineries and thousands of guests. I attended sometime in the '80s and remember a photographer wanting a good crowd shot so he called for everybody to gather around together to make the place look full while he took a picture.

A couple years ago I poured for a winery at ZAP and when leaving I looked around at the hundreds of guests streaming and and said to myself, "Wow, 90% of these people are drunk. I'm getting the hell out of here before they get on the road!"  Of course, I may have been one of those tipsy people in the past.

Wine Road Barrel Tasting

This started as a free open house where wineries let you sample wines from the barrels before they were bottled and you could by futures on them.   There were a few dozen wineries, mostly in Dry Creek Valley, participating.   Then it went to five bucks and they gave you a glass. A good idea so the small wineries don't have to wash glasses.   Then it was ten bucks.   Now it's $20 in advance; $30 at the door for a weekend that begins on Friday and runs through two weekends now.   It's hugely successful as far as the number of people attending.

What's not so successful for the wineries are two things.   One, sales are not what they used to be.  Futures are a thing of the past.  It's now a big party.   And two, because of the party atmosphere they have to watch for drunks and people generally getting out-of-hand.   There have been no major problems, like a traffic death, but this is a ticking time bomb.

The last time I worked the Barrel Tasting was in downtown Healdsburg.   There are a dozen wineries within a couple blocks.   Mid-afternoon on a Saturday I finally got a break and stepped outside.   It looked like Mardi Gras!   Roving groups of folks whooping it up having a good time.

I later talked with a relative of the Healdsburg brewpub's manager.  Apparently it was a bad night for them, as he had to toss out several groups that were obviously intoxicated.

Sonoma County

Napa, Sonoma and many other grape-growing regions in California are known to many people.  Thirty years ago it was just Napa.  When working in wineries in the '80s and '90s I occasionally had folks tell me they were in Napa when we were actually in Sonoma Valley.   They didn't know the difference as California wine country equaled Napa.

Of course, this is all based on what I remember from thirty years ago.  I make no claim to the validity of my Zinfandel-clouded mind.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Oh no, another barrel tasting!

The first two weekends of March hosted the Wine Road Barrel Tasting Event with well over 100 wineries participating from Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys.   This weekend was Sonoma Valley's turn.   I made a few stops on Sunday.


They have a small tasting room in Kenwood with their production done in a Sonoma warehouse.  This is the first time I've had their wines.  They seem to be mostly about Syrah and Petite Sirah though my favorite was the Bedrock Zinfandel from a nearby 120 year old vineyard.  As with most old Zin vineyards this one is field-blended with Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouchet, Carignane and God knows what.


One of the bigger facilities and it was a popular stop for folks.  I've had their wines many times, but this was the first time I've been in their caves--what a huge maze of tunnels!   But the aisles are narrow with wine barrels up both sides.  I wouldn't want to be the one maneuvering a forklift hauling barrels through there.  

They were only pouring a few or their many wines.  The Rhone blend, Vallee de la Lune, stood out but I have a thing for Rhone blends anyway.

This is a good stop if you want something besides the regular wine tasting.  They offer special tour/tastings with everything from a hillside mountain tour with one of the Kunde family where you can bring your dog to a "Bottle Shock" tour showing you where scenes from the movie were filmed.

The Kunde family has been on the same large ranch for many generations.  They were recently in the news for selling off ("partnering" they called it) a percentage of the hospitality side of the business, but not the vineyards, to a marketing firm.  The recession is hurting everyone.

Little Vineyards

It's a little family (four kids actually) with a little tasting room where one of the sons had his little jazz band playing (ok, I stop the "little" jokes now).  This was my first experience with these nice wines.   The red blend, Band Blend Track 4, at $17 retail is a great deal.  I bought several.

Just one more... Since the name Little Feat is already taken maybe the band could be Little Feet (used for stomping the grapes)?  Okay, I'll stop.


An Aussie winemaker specializing in Syrah and Cab/Syrah blends (imagine that)!  I hadn't  been to their facility before but have had their wines a couple times previously.   Besides the Syrah, the Hillside Zinfandel was also good.

St. Francis

I'm quite familiar with their wines but we had to stop for the triple chocolate brownies.  They had a '09 barrel sample Zinfandel from the vineyard of Mike Lee, the original owner/winemaker from Kenwood Vineyards.  Good stuff!  They didn't know yet whether it would be a vineyard-designated wine or blended in another Zin.   Hopefully, it will be on its own.  

Only problem was when I bellied up to the bar with one other couple and four staff members behind the bar I couldn't get waited on.  At least the cellar staff with the barrel samples was nice.


VJB was founded by an Italian family who immigrated here to first open a restaurant in Santa Rosa.   The winery's name is the initials of a son who passed unexpectedly in his 30's.

My first tasting here in a long time and they have some nice wines.  The Montepulciano stood out. It's an Italian-style red at $50.  The Dante, a Cab/Sangiovese blend, was also well done and retailing for a more reasonable $32.

An Aside

There is a lot of wine available at these events.  You have to be smart enough to control your intake -- someone apparently didn't.   On Saturday, at a winery to rename nameless, as the employees were leaving at 5 pm a slightly frantic sweet young thing came up telling them she'd "lost" a girlfriend a couple hours ago.  She had just sent her boyfriend to find her (that sounds like trouble).   She was afraid maybe her friend had passed out in the vineyards somewhere.  Oh well, I guess she eventually showed up.  Maybe she was in the bathroom.   Maybe she didn't go back out wine tasting Sunday.   And the sweet young thing was standing around with an unzipped fly while she's telling her tale.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bud Break!

No, not like this

In some places the first real sign of Spring might be apple blossoms, or tulips, or where I grew up, it was the ice flowing out of Lake Huron.   Ugh.

In Sonoma it's bud break for the grapevines.  After a week of warm, sunny weather things are bustin' out.

March 19th in Sonoma Valley

These old vines along Madrone Road in Sonoma Valley aren't budding yet.  Maybe they're pruned later?  Maybe the old guys just take longer to get moving.

This is the time of year the vineyards guys have to worry about frost.  You can't lose those tender buds.  Wind, water, and heaters can be used to prevent damage.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Wine Bias

We all have it.

Hating all (region) (varietal). Fill in the blanks, like California Chardonnay or Italian wines.   Or how about wine from Idaho?   Ewww, that can't be any good.

Some will only drink Cabernet from Napa and it has to cost over $75.   Some people are easy to talk out of their money.

Wine out of a box?   Yuck.

Some people still think only the French can make world-class wines.  It's amazing this one is still around.

Screw cap means it's a cheap wine. As does a synthetic cork (but less so).   The natural cork is a horrible closure but for some reason it's considered the best.  I guess it's tradition.

Buying a wine because you like the label. Nice colors, nice design. Makes you wonder how Dehlinger sells out!

Is the foil covering the cork necessary? No, but it looks good.

Is the punt in the bottom of the bottle necessary? No, but a flat bottom signals cheap.

Chianti! That's that stuff in a straw-covered bottle.  I drank that in college then put a candle in the bottle.

Small family wineries are better than corporate wines.  Except that Clos du Bois, Simi, Hartford, and Arrowood are all owned by the big guys.

How about organic or biodynamic wines? Can they be as good as "regular" wines?

OK, so wine biases could sometimes be turned around into wine preferences such as, "I prefer French Chablis" or "I prefer the Cabs out of Napa." But it's hard to justify preferring real corks to synthetic corks as there's no data to back up natural cork as being better than synthetic.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Wine Road Barrel Tasting

This Springtime ritual has grown into a major drink fest especially in Dry Creek Valley.   We went out on the last Sunday of the event to a few small, local wineries in the Russian River Valley that are new to me (except for Russian Hill).  All were good finds.

Old beer truck at Robert Rue Vineyards
The barrels were all empty unfortunately

Inman - A really small operation in a rented warehouse space but they are moving to a new facility with a tasting room.  We sampled three different Pinots.   The Russian River blend was very good and at a great price.  The Thorn Ridge had great body and needed some time in the bottle yet.   The Olivet Grange was outstanding.  The vineyard-designated Thorn Ridge and Olivet Grange were a little pricey running in the low $50s but are exceptional wines.

Robert Rue - A small producer of what I'd call traditional Sonoma County Zinfandel--the way God meant it to be.   It's a very old vineyard and a field blend along with Carignane, Alicante Bouschet and Petite Sirah.  The 2007 had great structure and fruit but no where near being ready.   The 2005 and 2006 were outstanding and screamed out for a plate of cheesy, garlicky ravioli.   Damn fine Zinfandel.

Russian Hill - This winery is already well-known to me because it's been one of my go-to wineries mostly for Pinot but also for Syrah.   I had discovered Russian Hill on a Barrel Tasting weekend several years ago.  Very good wines at a fair price; can't ask for more.

Windsor Oaks - A huge estate with a mile-and-a-half dirt driveway.   Total wine production isn't very high but they make a lot if different wines.  We sampled a Pinot, Malbec, Zinfandel and a Tuscan blend (mostly Sangiovese).  All were quite nice.  Prices were mostly in the $30s which is okay for Pinot but maybe a bit high for Malbec and Zin but the quality was very good.

Days like this remind me why Sonoma County is the best place in the world for wine grapes.   Within a few minutes drive I'm drinking world-class Pinot Noir then the best Zinfandel on the planet.  Not to mention top-of-the-line Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. all within a short distance.    No where else is this possible.  Mother Nature and lots of hard work make this happen.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Springtime in Sonoma Valley

Pictures taken March 11th in the Glen Ellen to Kenwood areas of Sonoma Valley.
I didn't see any bud break yet but it must be close!

Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen

Kunde Vineyards along Highway 12

More Kunde.  They have lots of vineyards in northern Sonoma Vly.

Old vines along Highway 12

Close-up.  How does such a nasty looking thing
put out good wine?

Click on the photos to enlarge.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What would John Wayne drink?

Rather that try to come up with poetic terms for describing the nuances of different varieties just to confuse the novices maybe we should look at different wine as, "What would John Wayne drink?    In the old days in the movies it was a cocktail and a cigarette as wine was too European-snooty for Hollywood.

So, what would John Wayne drink if he's not drinking whiskey?  
Petite Sirah (that's as masculine as a wine gets).

What would Marlon Brando drink?
Pinot Noir (something deep and brooding)

What would Marilyn Monroe drink?
White Zinfandel, unless a rich guy was buying her Champagne.

Humphrey Bogart?
Cabernet Sauvignon probably. Definitely not Merlot.

Mae West?
Chardonnay seems to fit.  It's kind of a blonde wine.

Audrey Hepburn?
Champagne (not California sparkling wine)

James Dean?
Seems like a Zinfandel kind of guy to me.

Lauren Bacall?
I believe she'd be a red wine girl.  Maybe Cabernet (she'd split a bottle with Bogey).

Steve McQueen?
Mourvedre (because he's too cool to drink what everyone else does).

Judy Garland?
Whatever is open.

Okay, so who would drink Merlot?   Well, it seems like kind of a Ben Affleck wine to me.   What do you think?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Reasonably Priced Pinot Noir, part 2

Part 1 of my search for Pinot Noir in the $20 range was posted here on Feb 7, 2010.   I'm finding there are some decent Pinots for less than the "standard" $45 outlay with the current price pressure on (almost) all wines.  

The prices listed with each wine are suggested retail / what I paid.   The wines are listed from my favorite to least favorite.

Who knows, there might be a Part 3.

2008 Mark West California, $13 / $9

The label says this wine is Cellared and Bottled by Mark West Winery meaning they didn't actually make the juice, but purchased it from others.   So I guess there's even an over-supply of Pinot now.    Their website looks as though they want to appeal to the younger folks that can't afford to pay $50 for a bottle.   It also says the grapes are all Dijon clone Pinot from coastal California vineyards.

A deep plumy, chocolately nose with bright blueberry and red fruit flavors up front with darker fruit to finish.  Not a lot of complexity or depth, but at this price who cares!  A good wine, and for the price a very good wine.

2006 Cambria Julia's Vineyard Santa Maria Valley, $25  / $18

This wine received the highest accolades from Wine Enthusiast magazine.   Let's see if they know what they're talking about.

It has dried herbs-lots of dryness-and acid-too much acid, and they forgot the fruit except for a hint of sour cherry.  I dunno, maybe it was there a couple years ago.  Not too bad with a meal, but not very pleasant on its own.

2006 Laurier Carneros, $17 / $10

The bottle listed alcohol as 12.5%.  Pretty low these days.

The wine was thin and nondescript.  I wouldn't call it pleasant or unpleasant, but I also had no idea I was drinking a Pinot if it didn't say so on the label.  I also won't finish it as I was no longer interested after one glass with dinner.

2006 La Czar Russian River Valley, $30 / $13

The store's sign for this wine said it was originally selling for $30, but they got a great deal on it this time. So this one may be kind of a "ringer" and we may never see this price again. La Czar's website lists it for $35. Maybe they are just dumping the '06 as some wineries are already selling '08s.

This was a disappointing wine.  I guess I had my taste buds set for a $30 wine.   Thin body, not a lot of fruit.  The lack of fruit would be okay, but the wine finished with unpleasant oak and acids.   Not a wine I'd want to drink again.   No wonder it was selling for $13.   

Summary from Parts 1 and Part 2

I suppose the best way to rate these Pinot Noirs is by asking myself which ones I'd buy again.   This is pretty easy.  It would be the French Rabbit, Kenwood, MacKenzie, and Mark West.   That's four out of the nine I sampled.  Not so good of an average, but all except the Kenwood (that I've had before) were picked "blind" off the store shelf.

So it means even with a "hot" grape like California Pinot Noir you can find bargains, but you have to be careful as there are a few turds out there with the good finds.