Norton Safeweb

Saturday, December 31, 2011

How to be a wine snob

Do you feel the need to:

-- Impress people with your knowledge?
-- Spend a lot of money?
-- Be serious about getting drunk?

If you do then you are a candidate for becoming a wine snob!

Following is a short list of things you should know. Read it, study it, and practice it.   Many are lifestyle changes so this will take some work.

Warning: Don't practice on people you want to impress in case of a faux pas. Instead practice on family or other people that don't matter, maybe in-laws. Don't currently have any in-laws? Ex-in-laws are even better!

1. Where to get drunk
After work instead of stopping at the local watering hole for a cold one go into a trendy wine bar for a glass of Chardonnay (if you're female) or Pinot Noir (unisex).  If you are a conservation gay I'd suggest a Spanish wine--a trendy gay then Pinot Grigio. See yourself as a masculine man's man? Then Cabernet only. No blends, no %#&king Merlot!

2. How to get drunk
You can't just pour a glass and guzzle it down like a beer! You've got to smell it. (Do you have a cold? Drink scotch instead). You have to swish it around in your mouth because the mouth has different areas for acid, bitter, sweet, and some other stuff I can't remember. So apparently it's important to know all this before swallowing. 
Actually, wine is the only beverage where you spend a ton of money for it then spit it out! You may want to invest in a spittoon.
Luckily, after everybody has had a couple glasses and eases up you can guzzle all you want.

3. When you get hungry while getting drunk
Food pairing with wine is a difficult science and art. Few people understand it well.  But once you're a wine snob whatever you say amongst your friends and guests will be right! Isn't this getting easier?

4. Disneyland for adults
You must visit Napa Valley. It's like Mecca for intoxicated snobs. When you go don't visit the hundreds of wineries open to the public where you'll find all sorts of riffraff (even Canadians)! The only wineries worth visiting are those that require an appointment at THEIR convenience. You know, folks who believe they make God's gift to wine.

5. Glassware
There are dozens of varieties of wines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, etc. (These four are the best ones). You need a different kind of glass for each. Don't be caught drinking Zinfandel from a Sauvignon Blanc glass. Jeezuss. If you're going to be that pitiful you may as well use a Mason jar like the Italians. What do they know? They've only been drinking wine for a couple thousand years.

6. Impressive wines
  • Note that the best ones have labels in unpronounceable French or German. Others may have artwork for a label. The label is most important.
  • Look for high alcohol levels--more bang for your buck.
  • Screw caps?  Ugh. Screw caps = Gallo = drunken bums on the sidewalk.
  • Any wine worth touching your lips should have gotten at least 93 points from Robert Parker.   Don't know who Robert Parker is?  Doesn't matter, just be sure he gave the wine a good score.
7. Getting blotto'ed while eating out
When ordering wine at a restaurant:
  • The wine should be from Burgundy, Bordeaux or Napa.
  • It should be from the top 15% most expensive wines on the list.
  • Don't order a screw cap wine! It'll just lead to jokes about the screwing fee.
  • When the waiter brings the bottle and shows you the label just nod approvingly even though you can't read it from six feet away in bad light.
  • Once he removes the cork he'll set it in front of you sometimes partially wrapped in the foil from the bottle (meaning he really knows what he's doing).    Pick up the cork and smell it. The end with the wine stain on it, that is. It'll smell like vinegar, but that's OK. (The other end actually smells better). Look at the waiter and smile showing that you know what you are doing.
  • He'll pour just a bit in your glass. This is for your approval. Note that you are NEVER supposed to disapprove and say you don't want it.
  • Still, you must pick up the glass looking at the edges of the wine against the glass in the dark restaurant. Then swirl the wine vigorously to wash off any soap left inside from their glass washer.
  • Take a little sip, swish it around in your mouth and, this is important, with your teeth clenched draw air into your mouth so you can hear the wine gurgle.   If you're still up to it you can now swallow the wine and nod again to the waiter so he can pour some for everyone else.
  • A good waiter will come around a second time and pour the remaining wine in about half the available glasses. Someone will be left short so you'll want to order another bottle.
8. Impressive words
Key phrases worth memorizing:
  • "Oh boy, another over-malo'ed Chardonnay."
  • "Lots of terroir in this. You can really taste the dirt."
  • "I'm picking up a little sulfur/Mercaptans/Brett." (Your choice). 
  • "My friend Cal, the Sommelier (pronounced kinda like "smellier"), doesn't care for California Syrah."
9. Cults
In the wine world cults are actually good. In fact you should be on a few cult mailing lists. Better yet seek out the "pre-cults" to get a leg up on the less trendy. How do you recognize a cult wine? In California it will be a very small, very expensive Napa operation. The wines are not necessarily great. They are made to impress without having to actually drink the stuff. 
Look for cult winemakers. These folks are rock stars and you can be their groupie!
To help you understand how cults work check out the web page for Screaming Eagle Winery where you're made to feel small for even thinking about visiting to buy a $350 bottle.

10. Getting drunk at home
Your wine collection (remember, this is a hobby--it's going to cost you) should only contain wines that meet certain criteria:
  • You must have wine stored at home in a "cellar." The temperature in your "cellar" MUST be 55 degrees. No other temperature will work!  A cellar is required because the best wines require at least 20 years of ageing before they are drinkable.
  • Each wine should get 90-some points from someone who knows what they're talking about because they know what you should like.
  • Most wines should be either from obscure and expensive French wine houses or California wines that sell only by mailing lists. Don't bother with stuff you can find in a local store.
  • Nothing imported or from Napa should be less than $75 a bottle. Note that there are some areas of California where you can't find a wine costing $75 so it's best to limit yourself to Napa Valley.
  • You can, of course, have a couple bottles of crap laying around for guests who show up knowing you're a wine snob, but don't actually know anything about wine themselves, such as your in-laws.

(And if you already see yourself in some of this don't get too excited. It's all in fun. I see myself too. How do you think I know about this stuff?)

This post originally published 2/26/2010

Friday, December 30, 2011

Wine judging and buying gold medal winners

First, I have never been a wine judge. I have taken a wine judging class at the local college, talked to judges, attended or worked at wine events that are judged. So I'm not an insider, but then I don't have anything to defend either.

Looking at a wine's medals is one way to decide to buy, but what does a medal actually mean?

First, a winery has to actually enter their wine in a judging. Sometimes the wine is picked by the event rather than the winery volunteering the wines, but most likely it's the winery deciding what wines to enter in what events. So a wine may get entered into lots of events, a few, or none. A wine that's available only at the winery and not sold retail or a wine that easily sells out every year is unlikely to be entered as the purpose of the judgings is to win medals and sell wine!

If you have the time and desire there are some things to investigate about individual medals giving at a competition.

1. How many wines were entered and how many received medals. If 80% of the wines got something then what's the point? Actually, the point is marketing. A winery is more likely to enter if they are likely to get a medal.

2. How many gold vs. silver vs. bronze medals were given out? If there were 20 wines in a particular category, 18 got medals, and 12 of those were gold then what's the point? However, if there were 200 wines in a category and two got gold then that could mean something.

How do judges do it? They taste a lot of wine over a few days. Palate fatigue is an issue. Sometime a wine may just stand out (not necessarily in a good way). Even the order the wines are tasted makes a difference. The first and the last wines get noticed. If there's a particularly "strong" or nasty wine whatever unfortunate wine to follow it may be in trouble.

One interesting thing coming out of the wine judging class I took was you got "attaboys" for agreeing with the majority of the other folks and your judgement was suspect if you picked wines others didn't. So to be a good judge your opinion has to go along with the majority. I guess that makes sense. Maybe.

So should you care about medal-winning wines? Sure, it's a place to start. I would look for wineries winning in different competitions over multiple years. Of course, that's if you want to do the research on this. Why do this? Because a wine can easily get a gold in one competition and fail to get a medal of any kind in the next.

Use medals won as one data point to help you choose a wine.

Like you probably have done I sometimes pick a wine on a retailer's shelf because there's a little card under it saying "Orange County Gold Medal Winner!"

This post originally published 12/22/2009

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Alcohol levels in wine

From the label of a 1988 Dry Creek Vyds Zinfandel.
Note the alcohol level.

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. This 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 can be outstanding but the majority are stinkers.

I think/hope most consumers 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, even microbreweries are putting out beers typically 7 to 8% and are now pushing over 10%!

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 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 Tequila. 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!

The post originally published 4/30/2009

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Blending wines. Meritage, etc.

Europe's mostly archaic wine laws remove a lot of the creativity and potential for their wines. In the U.S. we do a bit of this, too. One key problem (it's not just legal, it's marketing too) is to call a wine a Cabernet, for instance, means 75% of the juice in the bottle must be Cab. 

I'm not saying this is a bad law, but it seems to be stifling blends in this country. In general, I love blends. They are so much more interesting. After many, many years of CA Cabernet I'm bored. Give me some Merlot, some Malbec, hell even some Cabernet Franc in there! Cab and Syrah seem to be made for each other.

And not just with Cabernet. How about Zinfandel with Barbera and/or Sangiovese? I've had some odd-ball blends. How about Pinot and Syrah or Barbera and Pinot?

There's the guy that makes a 50/50 Zinfandel and Barbera blend he calls Zinberra because he said, "Barfandel didn't sell." 

Rhone blends... yum! These are starting to show up more in the Sierra foothills wineries (Amador, El Dorado) and they are good. Easy to drink and interesting at the same time--a combination that can be hard to find.

There was a plan to help the popularity of blends in the U.S. Twenty years ago a group came up with "Meritage" for blends because otherwise you are stuck with White or Red Table Wine which means cheap in the U.S. Meritage sounds expensive. It also didn't take off. First, a lot of people can't pronounce it (rhymes with heritage). Second, the group charges to use "their" name, Meritage. So lots of wineries make up their own names to signify a blend. Third, it sets rules around Bordeaux-style blends only (it's limiting).

There's actually a White Meritage, also, made up of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and some other obscure grape. If you've never had a Sauv Blanc/Semillon blend give it a try (if you can ever find one). They're not as austere as typical Sauv Blancs.

This post originally published 2/12/2009

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December 27th. Third Anniversary

That's three years of doing this blog.  What the hell was I thinking?   LOL

I was sure I'd run out of things to write about after a few months. Personally, I've probably learned more things in the three years than I had in the previous three decades of being an avid consumer and working on-and-off in the winery hospitality biz. Somehow I've even managed over 250 posts in those three years.

I've discovered new wines and wineries as most consumers have, but also become aware of so many wine trends. Whether it's in varieties (such as Pinot Gris) or in marketing to the younger crowd with sweeter wines.

In the coming days I'll re-post a few of my favorite blog entries from the past. Consider this the holiday reruns!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Foppiano Family Feud

Several months ago Sonoma County's second oldest family winery, Seghesio, sold. While the sale was big news the family infighting that went on over the sale remained mostly private.  No so with Sonoma County's oldest family winery. The Foppiano family feud is going to court.

Foppiano Winery was founded in 1896 by Giovanni Foppiano. His son, Louis J. Foppiano, is 101 years old now. He passed control to his son, Louis M., several years ago. The wine style has pretty much been "stuck in the '70s" so the younger Louis M. (64 years old actually) started to modernize just as the economy went south. They got into debt, his sister accused her brother of skimming money for himself, the sister got fired. Nice. Wouldn't you have loved to have been at their Thanksgiving family dinner table this year?
Louis Jr.
being sued by his sis

Now a county judge will hear the case and decide how to divide things or more likely the brother, Louis M., may have to buy his sister out.  That may be what she wants.  Nothing like a business to turn families against each other. This won't be as important to the California wine industry as the Peter and Robert Mondavi breakup in the 1960s, but it could be the end of another long-time family winery.

The trial should be wrapped up before the end of the year.

Press Democrat article

Update 12/24/11:
The feuding Foppiano factions have agreed on hiring someone to oversee the family trust, that is to control the money. We'll see where this leaves the winery in the coming years.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wines that appeal to the ladies

How can you tell if a wine label is supposed to appeal to younger females?  Apparently, look for "bitch" in the name.

Image from
Image from

Be careful about giving this to her ...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Top 100 from Wine Enthusiast Magazine

Everyone does the "top" lists when it gets near the end of the year. I mentioned Wine Spectator's list a few days ago. Wine Enthusiast takes a different tact in that they call it "special occasion wines they wish they could drink more often." It's not even their top-scoring wines exactly. They look at rating, price, drinkability (is that like Bud Lite?) and availability.
Joseph Swan's Trenton Est.vineyard
Image from

Anyway, coming in at #2 and 97 points is the 2007 Joseph Swan Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from the Trenton Estate Vineyard at $52.  Joseph Swan was making Russian River Pinots since long before they became fashionable. I don't know where you can still find this wine, but their more readily available and less expensive Cvuée de Trois is one of the better deals in Pinot. Their wines are in what you'd call the classic style. They are structured, complex, and ageable. If you like 'em fruity and soft these wines aren't for you.

Some of the other familiar local names on the list are Shafer, Stonestreet, Roederer, Navarro, Fort Ross, Dry Creek Vyd, Merry Edwards, Gloria Ferrer, Marimar, and Franciscan.

Check out the results at including their list of Top 100 Best Buys.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Buying wine as a holiday gift

What should you buy? Specifically, I can't say as the choices are way too varied and what's available to you is different than what I can find. But I can give some general guidelines.

How much do you want to spend is the obvious first question. Some gift-givers mistakenly believe you have to spend a lot on a bottle to get something good.  Finding a very nice wine to give to a wine geek for under $50 is easy. For the occasional drinker finding something under $20 isn't too difficult. Even for the snobbier wine folks you can still find a nice enough wine in the under $20 range as it's the thought that counts, right?

What kind of wine
White, red or pink? Dry or sweet? Start there. If you don't know then think about when they are likely to drink wine. Sipping on a glass on a summer day? White. They eat a lot of seafood? White. Beef eaters? Red. Some of the wine geeky types might only drink red, some folks prefer white, some even say reds give them headaches. If they stick to Chardonnay and Merlot do you feel comfortable branching out to something like Pinot Gris or Zinfandel? Or maybe a sparkling wine they could use for the holidays.

Go to a good wine shop
Yes, you may pay more than the bargain store but you need knowledgeable assistance. Give the sales clerk in the store all the information you can about what you know of the person's wine drinking habits. Let them make at least two or three suggestions then you choose from there.
Etched bottles
are more expensive
but are made for
Image from

If all else fails
And you know nothing of their drinking habits and don't have a good wine store available what do you do? Buy 'em socks! Just kidding. Stick with a lighter white, such as an off-dry Riesling, Gewurztraminer or maybe a Viogner, or a softer red, such as a Pinot Noir or Merlot. Without trying to sound age or sex discriminatory think of who you are giving the wine to because a 21 year old female, your grandmother, and a 50 year old male are all likely to have different tastes in wine. Go to the store and write down what's available in your price range then come home and do some Internet searching on these wines and see what others think of them.

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Top 100 Wines

It's just one more opinion on some of the great wines out there, but in Wine Spectator's list of their top 100 Kosta Browne's 2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($52) came in at #1.  Quite an accomplishment and congratulations!  Fifth on the list was Dehlinger's 2008 Russian River Pinot Noir ($50).

Both are highly respected Pinot producers. Dan Kosta and Michael Browne are a bit newer on the scene as they've been around just ten years or so. Tom Dehlinger has been at it for a few decades. Most of Dehlinger's wines are sold via a mailing list.  If Tom was able to do this in 2008, what's generally considered a difficult year, then his '09 could be spectacular as that year is producing some great Pinots.

One of the "secrets" behind Dehlinger's long-time success
is the vineyard manager, Marty.
Image from

Also high on the list at #12 is Seghesio 2009 Alexander Valley Home Ranch Zinfandel ($38), at #19 Carlisle 2008 Russian River Papera Ranch Zinfandel ($43), and at #28 Merry Edwards 2009 Russian River Sauvignon Blanc ($30) that's usually considered one of the best Sauv Blancs every year.

Over in neighboring Napa Valley the Hall 2008 Napa Valley Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon ($90) is in second place.

The best bargains on the list? A $15 French Beaujolais at #21 and a $15 Spanish Tempranillo at #23. There's no bargain California wine on the list until you get to Buehler's 2009 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($18) at #68.  Buehler is little-known, but makes solid wines at almost unheard of low prices for Napa.

Top 100

Friday, December 9, 2011

Sonoma County. One of the world's top travel destinations

"If you’ve visited only the county’s wineries, come back to sample the astounding diversity that makes Sonoma one of America’s travel treasures."

So says National Geographic's Traveler magazine in their Best of the World 2012 article.  Okay, it's a bit of an eclectic list. The only other American location is Pittsburgh, PA. Nothing against Pittsburgh but I'm not sure what it has in common with Sonoma.

Still, it's something the locals know and many are quite happy our neighbors in Napa get most of the publicity and traffic.

It's not everywhere you get views like this ...

or can see and touch 1,500 year old living things like this ...

or get to taste world-class wines while enjoying a world-class view ...

Great wines, restaurants, brewpubs, weather, roads, views, etc. is what Sonoma County is all about.

But we don't want things to get too crowded so let's keep it our secret.   :)

Monday, December 5, 2011

You've never tasted wine

You've only smelled it (mostly).

Foods and drinks are tasted only at a very basic level as your taste buds only understand sweet, salty, sour, and acidic.

Your olfactory senses, however, are very sophisticated and have a great memory.  You sense of smell will combine things into new smells and try to relate them to something in your past. Of all your senses smell is the one with the best memory. You can remember smells from your childhood better than visuals, sounds or touch.

Your sense of smell will block out things after a certain length of time so you can smell new things. This is a sort of ancient defense mechanism so you won't be continually overwhelmed by one smell and can pick up other things. You may have noticed this when, for instance, you're using a strong smelling cleaner or paint. After awhile you don't notice the smell so much.

The same wine can seem quite different to two people as their interpretation from the nose, mouth, and brain will not be the same.  But it's primarily what you get via your sense of smell that determines if you like of dislike what's in your mouth.  When you're sipping wine or eating food it's the smells that get up into your nose while you're swallowing, swishing, or chewing that give you the flavors along with the very basic items your taste buds pick up.

I've seen different reactions to a wine such as Sauvignon Blanc known for it's higher acidity. Some say it's refreshing, some tart, some even say it tastes sour.  There's no right or wrong answer--it's however you interpret the flavors.

And the fact that your sense of smell will block out things after a time means a wine won't smell the same after a time of sampling it with your nose. That doesn't mean the wine has changed--it's just what your brain is now sensing.

Now go out there and find some good smelling wine! 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Siduri / Novy open house

Dec 3, 2011 open house at Siduri Winery in Santa Rosa. It's a chance to try most of the wines they make--and they make a lot! I counted eleven Pinots, seven Syrahs, plus a few other miscellaneous wines. I tasted all of the available Pinot Noirs and a few of the Syrahs.  I ranked the Pinots from favorite to least.  On about my second Syrah I got "over-tannined" and wasn't able to judge them very well.

Really in the holiday spirit!

Siduri Pinots from my favorite to least:

2010 Garys' Vyd (Santa Lucia) $50
Great fruit, spices, finish. Almost perfect balance. Excellent now; this should be a great wine in time.

2009 Clos Pepe Vyd (Sta. Rita Hills) $54
Good fruits, not overdone, spicy, lots going on/complex. Needs time.

2009 Cargasacchi Vyd (Sta. Rita Hills) $50
Earthy, tobacco, less fruit compared to many CA Pinots. Dark cherries, tart. Needs time.

2009 Sonatera Vyd (Sonoma Coast) $49
Nice complexity and spices. Bit earthy with black fruit. A very good wine.

2009 Santa Rita Hills (two vyd blend) $30
Body, spices and acid all nicely balanced. Dark fruit. Great value.

2009 Ewald Vyd (RRV) $45
Softer, rich, lower acid but still enough backbone.

2010 Sierra Mar Vyd (Santa Lucia) $49
Good fruit but just not ready yet. Would like to try this again in a couple years.

2009 Arbre Vert Vyd (Willamette Vly) $39
Medium body, black fruit, lots of acid.

2009 Chehalem Mts. (Oregon) $25
Some sweet red fruit, lots of acid. Lacks body and complexity. Young vines?

Most of these seemed really young yet and I would love to try a number of them a few months from now.

Novy Syrahs:

As I said I didn't rank these because of being hit by big tannins mostly from the 2009 Gary's Vyd ($29).  But I did like the 2009 Susan's Hill Vyd best ($34).  The 2008 Simpson Vyd at $25 was a good deal.

I purchased the Garys' Vyd and Sta. Rita Hills Pinots plus the Simpson Syrah.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Winter 2011-12 events in Sonoma County

This is the off-season in the wine country. If you don't like crowds this is the best time to visit.  It could be 70 degrees and sunny or it could be 50 and raining but who cares if there's Cabernet to warm you up!

January in the Russian River Valley

December 2011

Many wineries have their own holiday open house events on the weekends leading up to Christmas. Check with your favorites and see if they have anything going on. I've seen listings for December holiday-related affairs at Alderbrook, Arrowood, Gloria Ferrer, Gundlach-Bundschu, Korbel, Matanzas Creek, Seghesio, and Sonoma-Cutrer.

Wineries are closed on Christmas Day; some will close early on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve.

January 2012

Almost all wineries are closed on New Years Day.

14-15 Winter Wineland. It's the 20th years for this open house of wine, food, and art at many wineries in northern Sonoma County. Info


3-16 at Russian River Brewery. No it's not about wine. This is the annual release of a triple-IPA called Pliny the Younger rated as the #1 beer in the world. Expect to wait in line to get in the door.

4  Micro-Winery Collective Open House. Seven wineries in Santa Rosa you've never heard of.  Info and tix

11  Sweet 116. Six wineries on or near Highway 116 in the Sebastopol area having a Valentine's event. Info on Facebook

For Valentine's Day several wineries put on chocolate and wine pairings or even host a lunch or dinner. Check with your favorites to see if they have anything going on.

17-20 Cloverdale Citrus Fair includes a wine competition. Info

17-20 VinOlivo. Sonoma Valley winemakers' dinners and tastings. Info


2-4 and 9-11 Barrel Tasting. This event has gotten so big it takes two weekends and is still crowded. An open house of northern Sonoma County wineries. Some smaller wineries that aren't normally open to the public show off their wines; other wineries just use this as an excuse to throw a big party. There's nothing like a barrel sample of a five month old Dry Creek Petite Sirah!  Info

17-18 Savor Sonoma Valley. Not to be outdone by the northern Sonoma County Barrel Tasting event Sonoma Valley has its own the weekend after. Just when you thought it was safe to dry out! The Barrel Tasting event is all about drinking; this one has food, too (and is more expensive). Info

Monday, November 21, 2011

Recharging in Sonoma and Napa

So you've got the electric vehicle now but have "range anxiety" meaning you must plan your travel for places with recharging stations.  You may as well have some fun while recharging! These places say you can plug in while you're visiting.


Case Ranch Inn B&B
This is the way to wait while
you're recharging.
Image from

Inman Family Winery - A solar-powered charging station! Totally "free" fuel!


Clif Family Winery

Hall Winery

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November in Dry Creek Valley (photos)

Nov 16, 2011 in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County
(Click on a photo to enlarge)

Along Dry Creek Road

From Yoakim Bridge Road

Along Westside Road

Westside Road at Raymond Burr Vyds

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dumb Wine Names

Cruising through the latest Wine Spectator reviews of sparkling wine I found a couple that really stand out, not necessarily in a good way.

"The cute marketing works for Goats Do Roam from South Africa"

Flying Goat
Blanc de Blanc Goat Bubbles
I don't know about you but I'm not putting anything called goat bubbles in my mouth. Besides Wine Spectator only gave it 87 points and probably ten of those are for the name.

"From the school of redundant marketing school"

Barefoot Bubbly Brut Cuvée Sparkling California Champagne

Gallo must feel they have to hit their customers over the head with every term known to man.  Any one of those words would be enough for most people. I hope.

OK! I get it!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why wine is the best drink

There's plenty of information the the health benefits of red wine

Aids digestion
Wine stimulates stomach acids and red wine counters some of the fats in red meats.

This may increase your good cholesterol so is good for a healthy heart. You can, of course, get antioxidants from things like cranberries and kidney beans but what fun is that?

Even though no one can pronounce this compound it is thought to reduce bad cholesterol.

Moderate levels of alcohol may help raise the good cholesterol and lower the bad.

Good wine
The right glass of wine will make any meal taste better.
A good glass of wine will make anyone a happier person!

Wine is better than:

The high alcohol levels can sneak up on you. Everyone has embarrassing tequila stories, right?

Bloats you up. Gives you a beer belly. However, hops have been shown to have some nutritional value so that's another reason to drink a quality IPA instead of Bud.  Once again, choose quality over quantity.

Too sugary. No nutrition. Just makes you fat (regular soda) or give you cancer (diet soda).

Yes, water.  The ancients used wine to purify water to make it drinkable.  The alcohol from a little wine in some water collected from a stream would kill off the bad bacteria. From the Bible,
"Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

November in Sonoma Valley (photos)

Some fall color starting to show.
First three photos are from behind St. Francis Winery.
(Click on any photo to view larger images)

From Benziger Winery

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thanksgiving dinner wine

Come November every year people want to know what kind of wine they should serve with the Thanksgiving feast.

Of course, the food is what matters when selecting wine so I'm assuming the traditional turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes.  All of that falls into a similar savoy flavor. It gets a bit more difficult when you add things like sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.

The other thing to keep in mind is what will Uncle John and Aunt Mary like?
Image from

Often the recommendations are for everything from Gewurztraminer to Zinfandel.

I like an off-dry, a Brut style, sparkling wine. Bubbly goes well with lots of foods from salty to spicy to acidic.

Other options are Chardonnay as they tend to be a bit soft (lower acids) and maybe a bit buttery just like the stuffing and potatoes. These Chardonnays will match with everything mentioned except the cranberry sauce.

Another is a drier Rosé as these have pleasant fruit flavors and nice acidity (the good ones do anyway) plus the bright fruits and festive color will please your auntie.

Some recommend Pinot Noir but I haven't had a lot of luck finding one that's a good match. I think you'd want something softer and lower alcohol than most California Pinots such as a Beaujolais. Zinfandel?  I just can't see this as a match to a turkey dinner.

Some Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris may work pretty well. Most have a crisp acidity helps cut through some of the buttery, fatty flavors of the meal.

I'd recommend an off-dry sparkling wine or a dry to off-dry Rosé.

Now what about the pumpkin pie? I'd go for a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc ( as a Sauterne) or a Muscat-based dessert wine.

Oh yeah, remember to sit up straight at the dinner table so you can eat more!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Climate change and California wine grapes

Scientific studies have suggested we're in the beginning stages of a global warming. With all the concern over rising sea levels with potential coastal flooding, food shortages, and so on there are some people getting paid to worry about California's wine grape crops.

A study by Stanford University says up to half of the land now used for premium wine grapes could be lost as soon a 2040 if the predicted two degree temperature increase happens.

California's premium grapes are grown in coastal areas of the state.  Not necessarily on the coast, but close enough to get a cooling influence from the Pacific.  Climate, along with soils, are the two key elements to growing great wine.  So the thinking goes if we heat up it'll be too warm for grapes where they're grown currently.  Such as, Chardonnay and Pinot will no longer grow well in places like Carneros and the Russian River Valley.  And Cabernet in places like the middle of Napa Valley and in Alexander Valley.
Morning fog in the vineyards
Well, I ain't no scientist, but I'm not convinced these areas under a cool coastal influence will actually get warmer.  

The global weather is driven by the difference in temperatures in different regions of the land and on the water.  The coastal areas of California have a climate dependent on hot weather in the central part of the state.  As the Central Valley heats up in the summer with temperatures often hovering around 100 degrees this hot air naturally rises.  Cooler, denser air from the ocean is pulled in to replace it.  Or what's known locally as our morning fog.

Fog hugging the California coastline in summer
Image from

This cooler air coming in off the Pacific is the defining characteristic of the growing season climate in California's premium grape region.

So the question is, will the coastal areas heat up equally with the interior or will this rising hot air / cool ocean air engine actually be stronger?  These global warming studies seem to take a macro view in that everywhere will heat up more-or-less equally.  Wouldn't it be interesting if the coastal areas get cooler as more ocean air is being drawn in because the central part of the state is heating up?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wine for the Millenials

Now that the Millennials are mostly in their 20's (drinking age) you see marketing directed towards them and wine is no exception. The problem with California premium wine ($20+) is it's too expensive for most people in that age group.

Also, a culture brought up on Pepsi doesn't easily move to dry wines with acids and tannins. This is why we've seen the popularity of White Zinfandel, oaky, buttery Chardonnays, and more recently the soft, fruity Zinfandel (and Pinots and Cabs).  Most of these are still out of the price range of a 25 year old except for the White Zin but that is way past being trendy. Somewhat sweet Pinot Gris is fashionable right now but it's a girly wine apparently.

One wine that's shot up in popularity among the younger and new-to-wine crowd is Muscat in various new forms (see earlier blog post on Muscat).

Those who are big into wine (aka wine geeks) are always on the lookout for The Next Big Thing. This may be some new, trendy and expensive Napa Cabernet (the next cult wine) or maybe trying to decide if Tempranillo or Viognier will ever really catch on in the U.S. But The Next Big Thing will make the wine snobs gasp, shriek and choke on their cigar smoke because it'll be cheap, somewhat sweet red wines.

If the 20-somethings can find an $8 bottle of wine with a youthful looking label and the sweetness to appeal to their cola-drinking history then it'll take off.  I don't mean really sweet dessert wines; these will be sipping wines--something for the trendy wine bars to sell even. It's not Boone's Farm or Thunderbird and it's not Dow's Port--it's in between in quality and price.  That will be the trick--making a decent quality and affordable slightly sweet wine. I expect there's enough worthy red wine grapes in the Central Valley of California to make this work.

It won't be just the 20-somethings either as I can't count the number of times in a tasting room when I've been asked by a middle-aged Midwesterner if we have any sweet red wines. And the answer has always been "no."  Non-dessert style sweet reds have always been looked down upon as cheap and crappy bulk wines--just as rosé had the same reputation until recently.

The wine biz admits to White Zin being sweet and probably will too with Pinot Gris.  They never fessed up to sweet Chardonnays like the one that made Kendall-Jackson rich.  When these sweeter reds come they will have to admit to leaving sugar in the wine to attract the right consumers. Or maybe they'll call them "off dry" or "fruity."

Wine marketers in Sonoma County and other premium wine areas have been going after this age group for awhile with social media and in other ways.  The issue has been it's still consumers in their 40s and 50s that buy $20-up wine. New wine drinkers don't generally understand dry beverages.  That's not new as buttery Chardonnay and White Zinfandel often have been "starter" wines for many. But if you want the 20-somethings to become steady buyers you need a line of cheaper, softer, sweeter wines. Or you can wait for Gallo to take over that market, too.
This one's got the name B LOVELY
the label FLOWERS and BEES
the price UNDER $10
Image from

Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to learn about wine--wine tasting parties!

Wine is confusing and intimidating--just listen to some of the language and technical data being spewed out.  And some of that stuff is even in foreign languages!

Tasting different wines and listening to others talk about them is a great way to learn.  Maybe you have a local wine shop that puts on tastings.   This is cheaper and easier to learn than just buying random bottles when you want something for dinner that night.

But the best way is to have your own wine tastings.   Gather up friends and/or coworkers once every month or two and have a wine tasting party.   This can be as simple as everybody brings a bottle and you all try the different wines.  Or it can be as difficult as the host puts on a dinner party with wines made to go with each course.

I'd suggest something in between.

  • Figure out a theme for the tasting and there are plenty to choose from, such as "Unoaked Chardonnays," "Willamette Valley 2009 Pinot Noirs," or "2008 Burgundies under $40."  
  • Let one person be in charge of collecting the wines for the tasting.  When you let everyone bring a bottle you may wind up with something really expensive next to a bottle someone just picked up at the grocery store and one bottle maybe too cold or too warm to show well.  Usually about five to eight different wines is good for one tasting. You can squeeze 20 tastes out of one bottle so try to keep the attendance there or below. 
  • It's good to at least have water and neutral-tasting crackers available (nothing with too much salt) or bread.  Be careful with cheese as it can change the taste of a wine significantly.
  • Once the bottles are assembled just before the tasting begins have someone remove the corks and put the bottles in bags and number (1,2,3...) or letter (A, B, C...) them.   Each taster should have a placemat with corresponding numbers or letters for each glass.  Preparing the wine bottles this way is tasting them blind meaning you don't know what you've got and you won't be prejudiced.
  • Pour the wines then taste and rank them.   You can use a point system or just make "1" your favorite, "2" your second favorite, etc.   At the end gather the scores and average them between the group then unveil the wines.
After you've done this a few times you'll start to see your preferences in wine.   It will make buying wines easier.   This is a fairly inexpensive way to taste a broad range of wines.

Some variations on the theme:
  • Guess the varietal - Do a blind tasting of different varietals and see who can best guess which is Merlot, which Zinfandel, etc.  
  • Throw in one "ringer."  That is if you're tasting "Russian River Pinots" put in one from Burgundy.  Or if you're tasting "$50-up Bordeaux" put in a $20 one. If it's "$10 Chardonnays" put in a $40 one.
  • Put in the same wine twice and see if both rank next to each other or not.
This is a great way to learn about wines.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Healdsburg CA -- Drink City

A number of small towns in the northern California wine country have become tourist destinations.  Yountville in Napa was probably first.  In Sonoma County the towns of Sonoma, Healdsburg, Graton, and Occidental have moved away from little farm communities to places catering to the tourist dollars.

Healdsburg has seen quick and large changes in the past couple decades.  The Hotel Healdsburg with a Charlie Palmer restaurant right on the town square was the game-changer.

Healdsburg, population 11,000, sits between the Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valleys, all well-known areas with the wine crowd.  There's a cute town square with the downtown going out about a block or two in every direction from the square.

Pounding 'em down in downtown
Image from
The town is in the local news again because the city planners just approved a new downtown wine bar.  What's the big deal?  The small downtown area has about a dozen wine tasting rooms, a half-dozen  wine bars, almost two dozen restaurants (most of these serve alcohol), and a brewpub.   All of these establishments are within easy walking distance of each other. Another dozen tasting rooms are within a few blocks.  A wine and food paradise, no?

That's a lot of juice in a concentrated area.  So the questions are: Is this bad?  How many is too many?  The total number of customers is down with the recession and the number per establishment dwindles as more tasting rooms and wine bars come into town.  Several businesses have left in the past few years but more keep coming to take their place thinking they can somehow do better.  And more licenses are pending now.

The city government has said "let the market decide how many is too many." I think that's already obvious but the city wants the revenue.

On one side you can say, well, I can get a room in town, park my car, and never have to drive.  On the other hand you can come into town and spend six hours tasting your way through town, hit a wine bar afterwards, then dinner (with wine), then drive home.  Considering most tasting rooms are open somewhere between about 11 am and 6 pm drinking until you can't legally drive is pretty easy if you don't watch yourself.

Healdsburg is a town saturated in alcohol.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Vineyard Designated Wines

American wine is labeled with the location, or appellation, of the grapes.  It breaks down like this, from largest area to smallest (with examples):

State (California), county (Sonoma), gov't recognized appellation (Sonoma Valley), then finally vineyard (Monte Rosso).

Vineyard designated, or single vineyard wines, are in the premium range and are all the rage.  This is probably because terroir got to be such a trendy topic in the wine world. Terroir = characteristics of the land, soil, geography, and climate, that give a wine it's distinctiveness.

Are wines from a specific vineyard better?   No

Are vineyard designated wine more expensive?  Yes

Now that some readers will think I'm full of it, let's first address the fallacy of single vineyard wines being better than others.  By saying "No, they are not (necessarily) better" I mean there is nothing about a single vineyard wine in itself that inherently makes it a better wine.  It may be more interesting because it's from a specific location. The vineyard manager and winemaker may have taken better care of the vines because they're going for a top notch wine. Often only vineyards that can produce the best are used for single vineyard wines.  That may all be true. Or it may not.  It's about as risky as buying a more expensive wine because it says "Reserve" on the label.

One problem with single vineyard wines is year-to-year variability that you don't see if you're blending from a larger region.

Some vineyards get a reputation for producing great wines just as some wineries, winemakers, or certain vintage years do.

Which is better? The one that's from a
single vineyard or the one that just says Sonoma County?
But the Sonoma County one is Old Vines. Hmm.

And about the price. You can pretty much expect to pay more for single vineyard wines.  Why is that?  If it truly is a better wine because more care went into the vines and grapes then I can see why. But just because it's from one vineyard instead of two or three or more isn't logical, but consumers believe it to be true.

You will usually pay less for a wine labeled with a very large area, such as California, vs. one labeled with a very small area where all the wine comes from one vineyard. It's just the way it is probably because this works with Old World wines.

Estate wines mean a winery controls the whole process from vine to bottle. These also tend to cost more but I think it's easier to believe an estate wine could actually be better if the winery has high standards.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Zinfandel, "California's Own"


Zinfandel is often called "California's own grape."   That's sorta true in that CA is pretty much the only place you see it today. The history is a bit more convoluted as DNA testing by UC Davis has traced it back to Croatia.  Zinfandel showed up on the East Coast in the 1830s and the West Coast in the 1850s. It's the same as Primitivo or, more specifically, Primitivo is now thought to be an earlier ripening clone of Zinfandel.  Zinfandel was almost wiped out in Croatia by the Phylloxera epidemic over a hundred years ago.

Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel
Thought to be Sonoma's oldest vineyard
Image from
Zinfandel was planted in Sonoma by Italian immigrants in the 19th century.  It was pretty much always blended as a jug-type wine.  Much of the old Zinfandel vineyards are actually field-blended meaning the Zin vineyard actually contains some other grapes planted along with Zinfandel--things like Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Aliconte Bouschet.

Zinfandel fell out of favor in the late 20th century in California with the boom in varietal labeling rather than jug wine blends.  Chardonnay and Cabernet were the kings of California wine.  If it hadn't been for the "invention" of the wildly popular White Zinfandel we'd have lost a lot of Zin vineyards as they would have been uprooted and planted with something else.

A Side Note

Finding Primitivo as an earlier ripening clone of Zinfandel and less prone to bunch rot is an interesting discovery.  The 2010 and 2011 harvests in Sonoma County have been tough on Zinfandel. Maybe some growers will be looking more at Primitivo.


Zinfandel comes in three distinct forms.   First White Zinfandel as mentioned.  As a red wine there are the traditional and ripe styles.

A restrained, food-friendly Zin
Image from
I call it traditional because this is the way all Zin was made up until about a dozen years ago. Traditional Zinfandel is picked less ripe and therefore has less alcohol compared to the Ripe style.  A couple notes on the alcohol: (1)  Zin is usually higher than other reds even when it's made in more of the restrained style. (2) The ripe Zins can have the alcohol level manipulated to bring it down.

The traditional Zins are heavier, but more restrained, more structured, will age, and are better as an accompaniment to food.  These Zins can have black and red fruit flavors with usually a peppery spice and something I call "brambleberry" that I can't actually describe well but I know it when I sense it. Some typical Zinfandels in this style are those from Dry Creek Vineyards, Kenwood, and Ridge/Lytton Springs. Otherwise, you can guess at a Zin being more restrained if the alcohol is below 14.5%.  If you see them listed at 15% or higher then you are definitely into the ripe version.

A big boy
Image from
The ripe Zins are softer and easier to drink with pronounced red fruit flavors. These are pleasant wines, but often simple wines.  Sometimes they are hot on the back of the throat from the high alcohol level. In my experience these Zins don't age. They will accompany some foods such as anything done in a sweet BBQ sauce.  Some Zins in this style are Rosenblum and Wilson. For less expensive ones look for Zinfandel from Lodi.

Is one style better than the other?   That's up to whatever you like. I prefer the restrained, traditional style because I usually age red wines and I expect my Zinfandel to go with a nice tomato-based, maybe slightly spicy, pasta dish or grilled meat.

If you've maybe sampled a couple of Zinfandels and have been turned off don't give up!   Look for different styles.  And look for Zin from "Zinfandel-Central,"  Dry Creek Valley.

Friday, October 14, 2011

October in Dry Creek Valley (photos)

Morning of Oct 14, 2011
Click on any photo to enlarge

Morning sun at Lytton Springs

Along Westside Road

Morning sun along Westside Rd

Some not doing so well. This may be Zinfandel, not sure.

Next vine over even worse

Some autumn color showing

Geyser Peak "peaking" over the trees