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Friday, January 28, 2011

Changes in California Wine

Over the three decades I've been drinking California wines there have certainly been style and quality changes, as to be expected. And yeah, prices have changed a bit, too.  Overall I'd say the quality is better as there are fewer duds now.  

But the style changes are not all for the good.

  Meaning a lack of faults (astringent, oxidized, vinegary, etc).   California wine has definitely improved in this respect over the past 20-30 years as has wine from most major wine-producing areas.  There's a ten-point rating system that you never see anymore as it was used basically to find wine faults, not deal with, "is this wine a 89 or a 91 point wine?"  That ten-point scale is pretty much useless now as most wines would receive a ten (no perceptible faults).

Drinking Window
  Most California wines are meant to drink now, not in a decade or two.  This is especially noticeable with Cabernet as it's the variety generally needing the most time to smooth out its tannic nature.  Most Cabs are much easier to drink young now.  The question to ask here, is this bad?  Is not having to wait a bad thing as the vast majority of people don't age wines?   Some will say (correctly) that there is nothing like a properly aged high-end Cab.   Others will say (incorrectly) that a wine which will age for decades is automatically better than one that won't.

1984 Zinfandel. 13.6% alcohol
  This means the main characteristic of a wine is fruit flavors.  In a red wine this is usually bright red fruit flavors from overripe grapes (high sugars, low acids). Winemakers are purposely going for the big red fruit which leads to ...

  Fruit picked riper has more sugar leading to more alcohol after fermentation.  Alcohol levels have increased a couple percent in the past 20 years.  Many of these wines have a hot, alcohol taste and are out of balance plus are poor choices for a food wine.

  Subtle is out, bold is in.   You can't have a 16% alcohol wine and call it subtle because most of the nuances of the wine have been washed out.

2006 Zinfandel. 15.8% alc
  This is lacking in so many California wines as bright fruit and alcohol predominate.  For instance, Pinot Noir can have characteristics such as tobacco, leather, rose or violet flowers with noticeable acid rather than just getting blasted with a mouthful of cherries and heat.  Zinfandel can be a complex, brambly, peppery, "spaghetti wine" instead of simplistic red fruit flavors.  
  Many California wines have gone from a balance of acid, sweetness, and tannins with herbs, spices, mixed fruits and other characteristics to a mouthful of cherries followed up by heat.  
  Think Dr. Pepper with a shot of tequila.  I don't know about you, but that's not what I want with dinner.

  Some will say, "As long as it's in balance..."   I say, "bullcrap."  Balance is not the only characteristic of a good wine.   This balance often happens because of dealcoholization--removing alcohol by further processing of the wine including adding water.  Once the alcohol percentage is toned down artificially then it in itself may not be a fault in the wine, but this doesn't make it a good wine.

Why We Like Fruit-forward Wines
  American adults were brought up as the Pepsi Generation so that makes it easy to like soft, sweet tasting wines.   It's also tough to drink a lot of tannic or acidic beverages in a day, say when you are out wine tasting or you are judging wines.

What Started the Fruity Style
  Looking  back it seems the 1997 vintage in California may have kicked this off.  It was a hot growing season meaning a lot of the wine grapes were very ripe when picked so the wines were very fruity and easy drinking (easy drinking = low acid).  Robert Parker, and others, loved them.

Wine Trends
  I'm not totally ignorant of the marketing aspect. If people will buy it then they will make it.  But I'm not clear why almost everybody has jumped on the fruit-bomb bandwagon.   I won't even say I've never bought high alcohol wines as I occasionally find one I like.  But after trying three or four of these in a row I find them really boring.
  Things cycle in the wine industry like oaky Chardonnays, White Zinfandel and Merlot.  There's a lot of "follow the trend" in the wine biz.  Merlot was over-planted; now it appears Pinot may have been. So now almost everyone has to make high alcohol fruit-bomb wines.
  Hopefully, more people will get it before too much longer and stop trying to make wine taste like soda pop.  Or maybe I'm in a very small minority of wine lovers.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Bad Wine Names

For some reasons that escape me (I don't have a marketing degree) these names will either never work in the retail marketplace or were made up specifically to draw attention in the market (maybe because the product can't on its own).

A winemaker in the Sierra foothills was pouring a Barbera and Zinfandel blend for me.   It was called Zinberra.  I told him I liked the unique name (and the wine).  With a straight face he said he first tried calling it Barfindel, but it wasn't selling.

Barefoot Wines
A fairly popular, inexpensive wine that doesn't appeal because I don't like the idea of a bare foot in my juice.  Unless it belongs to Jessica Alba maybe.

Big Ass Wine
They got in a legal tussle with the guy making Big Ass beer.  How about a red Meritage called Big Booty Bordeaux Blend?

Pompous Ass Winery
Not to be outdone by the Big Ass folks.  Don't miss their annual Kiss My Ass party.

Cat's Pee on a Gooseberry Bush
Finally, an appropriate name for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Goats do Roam
You see this one on store shelves a lot and it must piss off some snooty Frenchies.

Over-priced Crappa Napa
There are so many wines vying for this name ...

Screw Kappa Napa
This one is real.   Napa juice in a screw top bottle made by a guy from Sonoma.

A white wine blend from Australia with a picture of a foot on the label.  Nothing about this wine makes me want to try it.

Que Syrah
There are many people using this name for wine shops, wine bars, and there's even a vineyard in Sonoma County.  It's such a catchy song, I guess.

Zaccagnini Il Vino Dal Tralcetto Montepulciano d'Abruzzo
How the hell do you pronounce that?

Scheurebe Auslese Ruppertsberger Reiterpfad
I think I ruptured something in my throat trying to say this.

(anybody's)  Petite Sirah
People get confused with they see little in the name.  There is nothing little about a Petite Sirah.   How about calling it Like Sucking on Dirty Sweatsocks Sirah?  

Friday, January 21, 2011

January in the Russian River & Sonoma Valleys (photos)

More recent photos ...  (click on a photo to enlarge)

Russian River Valley

Just west of Santa Rosa

Old vines just pruned

Sonoma Valley

Kunde Winery

Old vines along Highway 12

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January in Alexander Valley (photos)

We made a trip through Alexander Valley in Sonoma County on January 19th stopping at Stryker, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Hanna and Field Stone wineries.

The wine highlights were the Alexander Vly Vyds Resv Zinfandel, the Hanna Bismark Cabernet, and the Field Stone Petite Sirah Port.

Click on any photo to enlarge

From Stryker

Some just pruned old vines

Silver Oak vineyards

Behind Hanna Winery

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Coppola Winery

A trip report on visiting the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in northern Sonoma County.

View towards Alexander Valley
There's been a lot of work and hiring going on there over the past year or so.  There's also been a bit of press on all he's doing with the old Souverain Winery property.  I don't believe everyone is completely enthused with the changes.

Coppola first started with the old Inglenook property in Napa Valley.   He used his movie memorabilia and his name to help sell.   I believe it worked too well in Napa as busloads of people came to check out his movie stuff and not the wine so much.

This new site is a lot farther away from the stop-and-go traffic jam tasting of Napa Valley.   The Coppola name is still everywhere.   The winery has a sit down restaurant, a full bar, a display of some movie items, a gift shop, a gazebo and seating area for listening to music and a swimming pool.  Restaurants are rare as most zoning doesn't allow this. Domaine Chandon in Napa is the only other one I can think of.   But a restaurant has been attached to this winery property for decades so I guess it was grandfathered in.   Even fewer wineries have a full bar.   And even fewer have a public swimming pool (none, I'm guessing).

Pool area.  Not too busy in January.
I believe some of the locals saw what he was doing as getting too far away from the agriculture of growing wine grapes to more of the Disneyland wineries you often see in Napa.

My first impression is that it's well done and not gaudy or too overdone.   OK, maybe just a little touristy.

The bar and restaurant were very busy, there were quite a few people looking at the movie memorabilia, and almost no one wine tasting.  I wonder if this is what he wanted?

On first entering there is a receptionist to point you towards the wine tasting or restaurant or sell you a day pass to the pool.  I saw no one swimming on this January day, but there was a lifeguard on duty.   The restaurant menu looked pretty good and we'll get back to try that sometime.

We did taste several wines and the impression was "Italian style" in that they seemed rustic and a bit acidic compared to your typical California wines.   A good accompaniment to a big plate of garlicky, tomatoey ravioli -- or most things on his restaurant's menu.  You can sample a couple of their table wines for free, or there's a $5 and $10 tasting menu.  They make about 40 wines total and I even saw one on the back bar called "Apocalypse Now" that I didn't try because I was afraid it may smell like Napalm in the morning...

The winery is set up to try to keep you there all day (a few other large wineries are now trying to do this, too).  You can start with lunch (about $15 per entree), get a day pass to the pool (about $10), pay extra if you want a private changing/shower room, get drinks and snacks poolside (two margaritas $18 plus tip), do some wine tasting ($5-$10),  take a winery tour ($20), stick around for an evening concert.   It should be easy enough for two people to drop over a hundred bucks.   Maybe that's what he wanted!

A cool spot to visit.   I might even check into the wine club.  They've gotta have great summer parties.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Aging wine

Q: What about aging this expensive bottle of wine to make it taste better?

A: How do you know it'll be better after sitting around gathering dust for a few years?

That's a real predicament.
Is this stuff still any good?

Some wines will age nicely, but the vast majority will not.   So how do you know?   The best answer is based on the track record of a particular wine.   Wines like high-end French Burgundies and Bordeaux's from the best years will age decades, but we're probably talking less that one-tenth of one percent of the wines out there.

Most wines are made to drink young, say within a couple years.   Other wines that may have been made to age don't really last.   Some because they are so tannic that the fruit goes away before the tannins die down and you have a mouthful of dryness.  Others, especially many New World wines, don't have the acids (the proper pH) to age.  They just get dull and uninteresting.

As far as aging white wines or rosés I would say don't.   It's highly unlikely one would improve.   With California reds it's a real crap shoot going more than five years past the vintage date as most CA wines tend to be high alcohol and lower acid and don't age well.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.  It's generally considered that the only California wine that has a chance to improve with age is Cabernet, but I've had ten year old Cabs that are over-the-hill and I've had some wonderful 15 year old Merlot and Zinfandel.

Besides the wine, storage is key to aging wine and very few of us have the facility to do it properly.   You need a constant cool temperature with no light and relatively high humidity.   Many people say 55 degrees, but there's absolutely nothing magical about that temperature.   Before refrigeration wine was stored underground where the temp. is usually about 55.   If you store it at a colder temperature the wine will age slower, at a warmer temp. it'll age faster.  Light damages wine.   Humidity is needed to keep the corks from drying out.

Aged wines are different.  You may find you just don't like them regardless of how well a particular wine may age.

How can you tell a young wine is going to age well?   I call it "structure" which has to do with tannins, acids, concentration and complexity.   Sometimes I can taste a young red wine and say, "Wow, this is going to be really good in about ten years."   Of course, I could be totally wrong.

So, how about buying an already aged bottle of wine? Folks occasionally look for a wine from their birth year or their child's. The person trying to sell you the wine is, of course, going to tell you it was aged perfectly. Are you going to trust your money on that? Maybe ask them to show you a photo of the wine in its storage location.

I find having most reds sit in storage for a few months or a year will probably help the wine if you have a decent place to store it.    I drink aged wine often and, in general, whites are best within a few months of purchase, Pinot, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel within five years of the vintage date, and Cabernet within five or ten years.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Best Napa/Sonoma wineries for taking pictures

Everybody wants photos of their trip with maybe some interesting architecture or views.  Here are suggestions of camera-friendly wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.  There are other numerous hillside wineries with great valley views that require appointments to visit. These listed here are all open to the public daily.

Artesa - Beautiful underground building with nice views over Carneros.
Bartholomew Park - Historic building in the middle of a 400 acre park.

Beringer -  Old and historic buildings and caves.

Castello di Amorosa - Get a pictures of yourself in a castle without spending thousands of dollars on travel to Europe.  Nice views over the valley.

Chateau St. Jean - Besides their beauitful grounds, the approach from the road with the vines, buildings and hills is great.
Chateau St. Jean
Chateau Montelena - Japanese-inspired grounds and a cool hillside entrance.

Clos Pegase - For art and architecture lovers.

Darioush - The Persian palace in Napa.

Domaine Carneros - A French chateau sitting on a hilltop.
Domaine Carneros
Ferrari Carano - Best "high maintenance" landscaping around (requires lots of water and work), but is incredibly well done.
Gloria Ferrer - Photogenic approach through the vineyards to the winery sitting on a bluff in front of the hills.

Korbel - Old and historic winery, train station and redwoods.

Kunde - The vineyards on the hill behind the winery are a great spot for picture-taking. 
Kunde in autumn
Opus One - Amazing architecture and nice views.

Paradise Ridge - On a hill looking towards the coastal hills.

Sbragia - Views of the Lake Sonoma dam and down Dry Creek Valley.  Grab a glass of wine and a seat on the large deck overlooking the valley.

Sterling - Sits on a hilltop overlooking northern Napa Valley.

Stryker - Beautiful building and views.  And wine.  The architecture and scenery here have an almost calming, kind of a pleasant, feeling that can feel really nice if you've just come from the madhouse of Napa Valley.

What's the best time of year to take photos of the vineyards?

Over the winter, about December through March the vines are bare, but the ground underneath can be vibrant green and may have flowers in early spring.  This can have a dramatic effect.  The grapes start showing up in mid-summer, but they really show well in Aug-Oct just before they're picked. The leaves turn color about November 1st, plus or minus.
March in Sonoma Valley
July at St. Francis Winery

October at Storybook Mtn. Vineyards

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Bubblies: So now that the holidays are over ...

Image from
People want to drink Champagne/Sparkling Wine/Bubbly, whatever you want to call it, for the winter holiday season.   Once that's over then it's back to Chardonnay and Cabernet.   Why?   Don't people enjoy the effervescence in their wine?

Or is it more not realizing how good sparkling wines can be at other times -- even with dinner!  Or after dinner.

The drier sparkling wines are often good with salty and spicy foods.   Salty can be appetizers like cheese and salami and main courses such as ham.  Also, with most traditional white wine dishes.  There's nothing like crab cakes and bubbles!   Fruit or nut-based desserts often go best for a slightly sweeter bubbly.   People have asked, "What kind of wine should I serve with the salad course?"  I say either sparkling wine or just have water.

In the warmer months of the year when many turn to lighter and more refreshing wines like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir a sparkling wine would definitely fit, also.  (Higher acid wines are often considered more refreshing and sparkling wines are definitely higher acid).

Maybe the issue is because it's different.  There's Brut and Extra Dry, there's a unique way to open the bottle, and aren't you supposed to have special glasses for drinking?   Well, the best way to start is:
1) Buy a non-vintage Brut that says "methode champenoise" on the label that sells for less than $25.
2) Just twist and pull the cork slowly (while not pointing the bottle at your eye)!
3) Drink out of any wine glass or even a Pilsner beer glass.
4) Try it with lighter foods especially anything a bit fatty, salty, or spicy.  You'll be surprised.

In California there are great deals in sparkling wine.  Yes, you can pay $75 and more if you look hard enough, but you can find very good ones for much less.   I would recommend staying away from the non-methode champenoise wines, those that are bulk-processed and usually cloyingly sweet.   Besides not being so great going down these are usually the wines people complain about when they say, "Champagne gives me a headache."

In the past few months I've found excellent sparkling wines for under $25 from Gloria Ferrer, Mumm Napa, and Roederer Estate. For a few more bucks Iron Horse, J, or Schramsberg.  I haven't had this one yet, but the '05 Domaine Carneros Brut has gotten a lot of buzz and is under $25.

End note:  I try to be proper and not call it Champagne if the sparkling wine is not from that area, but damnit, it just sounds right!  Maybe I should say to hell with the French and the wine snobs!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Favorite wines in 2010

Ok, I only scratched the surface of what's available locally, but here are my top wines from the past year.

At $25 and under:

Gloria Ferrer NV Carneros Blanc de Noirs

MacKenzie 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir

Mark West 2008 California Pinot Noir

Taft Street 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Pedroncelli 2008 Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone Zinfandel
Moderately priced wines, $25 to $50:
Gloria Ferrer 2002 Royal Cuvee Brut
Davis Family 2008 Russian River Valley Soul Patch Pinot Noir
Russian Hill 2007 Russian River Valley Tara Vyds Pinot Noir
Gracianna 2008 Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vyd  Zinfandel
Robert Rue 2006 Russian River Valley Wood Road Zinfandel
Sky's the limit (over $50):
Stemmler 2007 Carernos Donum Pinot Noir
Pride Mountain 2006 Napa/Sonoma Merlot
Some of these vintages, such as the Mackenzie, Stemmler and Pride Mtn, may no longer be available.