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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Anderson Valley Wineries

Spending time in the Anderson Valley area of Mendocino County in California is cool.  Anderson Valley has some of the coolest temperatures and is one of the least known wine grape growing areas in the state.  The cool weather means it's great for sparkling wines, Chardonnay, Pinot and even things like Gewurztraminer and Riesling.   It's also cool because it's not crowded or expensive.

I only sampled a fraction of the wineries open for tasting -- must go back!

I've listed the wineries from my favorites to least.

Navarro Vineyards

I haven't been here in a long time but always held them as a standard for Anderson Valley wines. I've told people that if other American wineries could make Gewurztraminer as good as Narvarro more Americans would drink Gewurz. I hoped they would still be as good as I remembered and they were.

The dry Gewurztraminer and Riesling were good with the Gewurz definitely my favorite of the two. Followed by four Pinots from 2006 and 2007--all good. My favorites were the 2006s -- the unfiltered regular bottling and the Deep End bottling. These seemed to have more flavors and better body. The Syrah has a nice peppery spice to it. The Late Harvest Gewurztraminer wasn't too syrupy or too acidic--it was just right!

Roederer Estate

A sparkling wine house owned by a French Champagne maker. These wines were all very good to exceptional. The basic NV Brut is found in retail outlets everywhere and is a good deal for about $20. I tasted others including a Rosé that was more of a pale straw color than pink and a couple vintage-dated sparklers. These guys do it right.

Greenwood Ridge Vineyards

The Semillon was good, the Pinot wasn't, the Zinfandel from Scherrer Vineyard in Alexander Valley was very good as was the late harvest Riesling.  Semillon is a grape you don't see very often. It's similar to Sauvignon Blanc but maybe a little softer (lower acid) and thicker bodied.  It seems to do best in blends with Sauv Blanc.

These folks have a tie-in with Frank Lloyd Wright so it's a good stop if you're an architectural buff.

Scharffenberger Cellars

Yes, they were related to the Scharffenberger Chocolate guy, but no more though they were selling the chocolates.  In sparkling wines there was a Blanc de Blanc, Brut, Rosé, Extra Dry and a Cremant (sort of a semi-sparkling wine).  These wines were okay but nothing to get really excited about. The Rosé was my favorite.  Also sampled a Pinot Noir that was off--maybe the bottle had been opened too long.

Brutocao Cellars

The wines were average but nothing really stood out as exceptional.  They make lots of different wines so you'll probably find something to your liking. There's everything from a late harvest Zinfandel and  Tawny Port-style wine to a couple Italian-style blends.

Husch Vineyards

The Pinot had nice spices but a bit thin with a short finish. The T-bud Gewurztraminer was too dry; the other at 0.6% sugar was okay.  The Zinfandel and Cabernets from the warmer Ukiah area of Mendocino County were too dry and tannic.   Not particularly good wines.

Standish Wine Co.

The owners are directly descended from Mile Standish of Mayflower and Plymouth Colony fame.  Too bad the wines didn't quite live up to the name.  The Merlot was okay--dense, dark, and fairly complex and not quite ready yet.  The others were not very good including the $70 Pinots.  Many wines had an off smell.

Summing Up

If you don't like crowds and high prices it's worth the trip. The drive is about two-and-a-half hours from San Francisco.  The valley is only about a 20 minute drive across -- assuming you didn't stop anywhere along the way.

Many of the wineries make Cab, Zin, etc. using grapes from from warmer parts of Mendocino County.  For the most part I didn't think most of these were as good as the same wines from Sonoma or Napa though they may be a bit cheaper.  But you come to Anderson Valley for the bubblies, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir anyway. 

In late spring of 2008 there were major forest fires in the area that blanketed the skies with smoke for a month.  Many of the '08s will have smoke flavors in the wines.   It doesn't mean all the '08s are bad--it means be careful in knowing what you purchase.

Anderson Valley Brewery is also here and worth a stop to rehydrate from all that wine. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Legacy of Jess Jackson

Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall-Jackson Winery, 1930-2011.

Not many people have seen success like Jess Jackson has.  First as a lawyer, then winemaker, and horse owner.  He didn't start in the wine biz until middle-age when most are probably worried about their 401k and paying off their mortgage.   Within a couple decades he built a huge wine empire.

It started when he couldn't sell his Lake County grapes (I mean, who wants to see a Lake County appellation, right)?   So he made his own Chardonnay, it accidentally turned out slightly sweet, and was a huge success.  KJ Chardonnay is probably responsible for turning more Americans onto wine than any other.

He had a vision that was different from the norm and that made him a billionaire.

The family owns thousands of acres of vineyards and over a dozen wine labels.  It's expected the holdings will be divided up amongst his children.   Some may be sold off.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Developing a House Palate

A house palate means you've developed a taste for, and prefer, whatever wines you are exposed to.

This could be something as simple as you only like oaky Chardonnays, or maybe only French Burgundies, or only fruity New World red wines.   At its worse I suppose, it's a winemaker developing a taste for only what he/she makes.

Maybe you prefer under ten dollar wines--lucky you! Of course, that could be like thinking Hershey's is perfectly good chocolate...and then you have some Guittard or Lake Champlain chocolate.

I've seen it from working in wineries.   After a short time you really begin to like (or is it understand?) the wines from your employer as you get more exposed to them.   Most tasting room employees do not like aged wines--even something four or five years old.   They are used to drinking the current releases only and expect those flavors.

It's not just forcing yourself to try other wines by picking up a bottle of Italian Sangiovese, French Chablis, or Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel.    That's because it'll be different and you may very well not like the new aromas and flavors the first time.   It may take awhile for the wine to become clear to you and your taste buds.

Recently in a wine forum the European winos argured that Brettanomyces adds complexity to a wine.  Brett gives a funky, barnyard, horsey smell.   To me, someone used to New World wine, it's always a fault, not an enhancer.    It depends on what you're used to.

I had worked in one Sonoma Valley winery part-time over many years.   I actually started there in the first place because I really enjoyed their wines.   I've been away for several years and when I occasionally go back to taste I'm underwhelmed by most of their products.   I keep wondering if their winemaking style has changed (it hasn't) or my tastes have changed (maybe).    If I was still working there would I still love the wines?

I have a house palate in that I'm stuck on California wines mostly.   I'm OK with that as there is so much to explore in northern and central California and I have barely scratched the surface.   Am I missing anything by not being a French Burgundy fan?  Sure.   And just think what those Burgundy fans are missing by not exploring Alexander Valley Cabernets or Dry Creek Zinfandels or Russian River Syrahs.

The best way to avoid a house palate?   Try everything!  And with an open mind--that's the hard part.  One suggestion:  As we move into warmer weather it's a good time to give rosés a try.  They aren't all sweet, "girly" wines any more.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A visit with Silver Oak and Twomey Wineries

Silver Oak is a well-known and established high-end Cabernet producer.  They also own Twomey Cellars using this label to produce other wines besides Cab.  The owners invited a number of wine bloggers to a special tasting and lunch.   So this is a full disclosure in that a group of us were being wined and dined in the hopes that we'd write about the wines. 
From the Oakville Estate in Napa
looking upvalley

Silver Oak was probably the first cult wine in that they had a very loyal following that was willing to pay more than your typical price for wine.  With the wine biz being so trendy Silver Oak fell out of favor with the "cultists" but they still have a large following as their release parties are big weekends in Napa.

We tasted through all of the Silver Oak and Twomey just released or soon to be released wines. 

From Twomey:

2010 Napa Sauvignon Blanc
A good balance of fruit and acid, a bit full-bodied and creamy for a SB.  Maybe made to appeal to Chardonnay drinkers--perhaps people who see SB as too tart or too thin may find this one to their liking.  A very good food wine (as are most Sauv Blancs).

2009 Bien Nacido Santa Maria Pinot Noir
Soft, subtle, rich fruitiness, with nice mouth-feel and texture.  An easy drinker with or without food.  A very good wine.

2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Distinctly floral nose, bright red fruits, bright acid, delicate, finished dry. On the austere side compared to the others, but not overly austere as it's very well balanced.  Delicacy, elegance and balance in a glass.  An excellent example of what California Pinot can be.

2009 Russian River Pinot Noir
Fuller-boded than the others, softer finish.  More powerful and a bit sweeter on the nose and in the mouth.

2009 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
Spicy, tart fruits with noticeable acids, medium-bodied, a nice richness. Great balance. Another outstanding Pinot.

2006 Napa Valley Merlot
Licorice on the nose. Black fruits, medium body, medium depth, and medium complexity.  An average Merlot.

The Sauv Blanc retails for $25, the Pinots and Merlot for $50.

From Silver Oak:

2006 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Soft, fruity, a sweet nose, a bit of oak, thick and rich, harmonious. Easy to drink now.  A slightly better-than-average Alexander Valley Cab.

2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Spicy, fresh fruit, balanced, nice finished. Compared to the AV Cab this one is more structured and more complex.  Outstanding.  This wine shows why Napa Valley is famous for Cabernet.  You can drink this one now or wait a few years.

The AV Cab retails for $70, the NV for $100.

Thoughts on Twomey:

Well-made and balanced wines across the board.  It's very refreshing to find Pinot Noir that isn't overwrought and alcoholic.  The Santa Maria, Sonoma Coast, and Anderson Valley Pinots were all very good--great balance and structure.  The Russian River less so, but this one will appeal to people who like big Pinots, even though this one isn't--as all their Pinots run 13.x% alcohol. Impressive wines. They are young (2009s) so they'll change over time.

The Sauvignon Blanc is a solid wine and gets extra points for coming in a screw cap closure.  The Merlot was disappointing.

Thoughts on Silver Oak:

A huge difference between the two appellations!  Each will appeal to different crowds, but there's no doubt in my mind (for what that's worth) the Napa Cab is just about as good as it gets.

Overall impressions

The wines are clean, well-made, and balanced.  Balance can be hard to find these days as so many California winemakers, for reasons that escape me, keep pushing the envelope on ripeness to make fruit-juicy, sweet, alcoholic, unbalanced wines that turn into an undrinkable port-like substance a year or two after release.  The Twomey and Silver Oak red wines can be consumed now or a few years down the road--not an easy task to accomplish.  Yes, the prices are a bit higher than average, but so is the quality.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sonoma County: An Embarrassment of Riches

People generally visit for the wine and sometimes the scenery.  Living in Sonoma County does have some drawbacks namely high housing prices and general high cost-of-living, currently high unemployment compared to most places, and a fair amount of traffic if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But there are always trade-offs right?  Otherwise no one would be living in Hawaii.

Some things Sonoma County has to offer:
Home to some of the top-rated
beers in the world
Image from

Hundreds of world-class wineries
But you knew that.

Over a half-dozen brewpubs
You probably didn't know this.   Look for beers on your retailer's shelf from Lagunitas, Russian River Brewery, and Bear Republic.

World-class cheeses
Ig Vella has been making cheese in the town of Sonoma for many decades. I stop in every time I go through town.   There are a bunch of other cheese makers, mostly in the western part of the county, with goat cheese,  sheep's milk cheese, Camembert-style cheese, etc.
World-class breads
If there's better bread than Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg let me know.   My local market carries probably three dozen breads from about ten local bakeries.

World-class olive oil
Local French bread dipped in locally grown olive oil.   Mmmm.

Duck Club Restaurant, Bodega Bay
Image from
World-class restaurants
Thanks to all the visitors looking for first-class food to go with the first-class wine there are probably three dozen top-of-the-line restaurants for an area that would normally carry just a couple.

If you have a sports cars, bicycle, or motorcycle Sonoma County has a bunch of two lanes roads winding through forests and vineyards up-and-down the hills.   Most visitors only know US101 and Highway 1 (The Pacific Coast Highway).   If you're the adventurous type try Trinity Grade, Spring Mountain, or Skaggs Springs Road.

Infineon Raceway
Speaking of roads, we even get Nascar in town and make them turn left and right!  Lots of other fun events going on at the track on many weekends.

Sonoma County hosts two great fairs.  The summer fair has everything from kiddie rides to thoroughbred horse racing.  And since it's in the wine country you can have a glass of Cabernet with your corn dog.
The autumn Harvest Fair is mostly about wine (surprise!).  It's a chance to taste hundreds of local award winners.

Old growth Redwoods
Armstrong Redwoods, an old-growth coastal Redwood forest near Guerneville, is worth a trip.  You may not understand why if you've never walked amongst the world's tallest living things. BTW, it's pronounced GURN-vill, not gurn-EE-vill.
Rugged Sonoma Coast

Pacific Ocean
A place to cool off in the summer and a great photo op. There are dozens of beaches, usually separated by rocky cliffs, along the Pacific Coast Highway.  The water is cold, the air is often chilly, and the surf is dangerous in most places.

It's a Mediterranean Climate meaning not too hot and not too cold.  Typically 50s in the winter; 70s and 80s in the summer.  And it cools off at night even on the hottest days.  The grapes do best with cool nights and we want them to be happy!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Biodynamics. The new religion.

Q: What is Biodynamics?   
A: Biodynamics = Sustainable farming + marketing.

I'm not in the production side of the wine biz but as I understand it biodynamics is a farming method with two parts.   First, it's similar to organic farming and it's hard to fault taking care of the land, right?   Second, as I see it, biodynamics is a religion.   There is NO science behind doing things like burying a cow's horn in the vineyard and doing things based on moon phase or the location of a constellation in the sky (sounds like astrology to me).

So why is BD becoming a big deal in the vineyards?   Well, there are a few respected names that have jumped in and claimed improvements in their wine.   Or maybe they just want to see improvements.   I don't think anyone outside of Benziger has said Benziger wines have noticeably improved since going biodynamic and because of BD.

Since organic farming is sort of a subset of BD the question becomes, is biodynamic farming better than organic farming?   More specifically, is the whole biodynamic thing with burying stuff like cow dung in the dirt better than using just the organic farming side of BD?    Even though I'm not from Missouri SHOW ME.   Until then admit you're part of a cult with a nice side of free marketing built in.
You want to plant based on the phase
and/or what constellation the moon
resides in.    Really!
Image from

And the response is, "Well, no one has been able to prove it doesn't work."   See, this is the religion part--complete faith in something you can't prove.

The other response is, "It helps the vineyards" and yes it does because organic practices are better. No one is disputing that.  It's great that farmers are getting closer to their land and understanding how things work biologically out there. 

So why not just use the parts of BD that make sense instead of going the whole route to call yourself biodynamic?   Well, it's either for the marketing aspect or it's religious zeal.  Times are tough in the wine biz so it's advantageous to set yourself apart.

If you're still not convinced do some searching on the father of biodynamics--a guy named Steiner.   Not a scientist but a self-proclaimed philosopher and clairvoyant.

I like to know the owner cares about the land.   Farming is hard work, but it's not hocus-pocus. 

When I buy wine I'm honestly torn a bit because I appreciate the folks that claim sustainable farming or organic farming, but I have a bit of difficulty buying biodynamic farmed wine. Not that I don't trust it or anything, just that it seems well, weird.    I'm not against BD, I just don't know why I should be for it.

If you want to read more on both sides of the argument try and biodynamicshoax.

Wine is a trendy business.  We'll see how long this trend lives.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Napa in April (photos)

So I grabbed my passport (just kidding) and headed over the hill into Napa.  These photos are from April 8, 2011 on Spring Mountain and in the upper Napa Valley.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

Schweiger Vineyards near the top of Spring Mountain

Vineyards near Charbay Winery & Distillery
on Spring Mountain

Tender new growth on the vines at Duckhorn Winery
Castello di Amorosa

Looking over the valley near
the Trinchero Family Winery tasting room

New growth on the vines at the Larkmead tasting room

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Wine Kegs

And you always thought a college kegger was about beer!

The wine keg business is growing along with wine by the glass sales in restaurants.  Selling via a keg is better than bottles for several reasons:

1. It's cheaper. One German keg maker charges $30 for an eight gallon keg--the equivalent of more than three cases of wine.   Traditional wine packaging costs $20, plus-or-minus, a case.  This keg is single use recyclable steel.  Reusable stainless steel kegs are also available. These reusable kegs are much more expensive so you rent these rather than own.

2. Wine in kegs won't oxidize.  An inert gas takes up the space as wine in drawn out unlike in a partially empty bottle that contains oxygen.

3. It's greener.   Recyclable kegs are better than throwing away glass bottles with paper labels, cardboard boxes, and corks.

Image from Shafer
Schafer is the German company making the use once and recycle kegs.

Who knows? The next wedding you attend might have a keg of Chardonnay and a keg of Merlot!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Perceived sweetness in wine

Americans have a sweet tooth.  Is this bad?  We love Coke.  We like sweet wines, but this doesn't mean we're necessarily getting sugar in our wines.   Maybe I shouldn't say we like sweet wines, but that we prefer a sweet sensation over a bitter or acidic one.

There are several characteristics in a wine that can be picked up by your nose or your taste buds as sweet.

1.  Sugar.  Residual sugar (R.S.) left in wine when all sugars are not fermented into alcohol.  Sometimes R.S. is left in a wine because it's a dessert wine.  Sometimes it's done to soften a wine and make it easier drinking.  The threshold for picking up a sugar sweetness is wine is supposed to be over one-half of a percent R.S. left in a wine.  The classic wine in this style is the Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.  It's left a bit sweet on purpose, people love it, but KJ won't admit to the R.S. because table wines aren't supposed to be sweet according to some expert or another.

2. Fruit-forwardness.  Wines where fruity flavors are prominent may seem sweet because we expect fruits to be sweet.  If you're picking up red cherry or strawberry flavors or smells in a wine it seems as a sweetness because we all know these red fruits are sweet. (OK, except for sour cherries).

3. Alcohol.  This shouldn't be discernible in a beverage unless it's overdone or unless you're having, let's say, a straight shot of vodka.  Unfortunately, some wines show alcohol as heat in the finish (the aftertaste) if it's really overdone, but alcohol can also show as sweetness.  For example, this is why 16% alcohol Zinfandels seem to taste sweet.

4. Oak.  "Sweet oak" is a descriptor you find in some wine descriptions.  Oak can impart flavors like coconut and vanilla and give an overall sensation of sweetness.

5. Low acids.   Wines, like any fruit, have naturally occurring acids.  If the acids are too low the wine may come across as sweet just because there's no balance of acids and sugars.  Think of Red Delicious apples vs. Granny Smiths (sweet vs. tart).

Wine people will usually say sugar left in wine is bad if you are making a table wine to be used with a meal.  Or if you are making a "serious" wine (other than those meant for dessert).    But if fruity, alcoholic, or oaky wines can seem sweet should this also be bad?   Doesn't seem so as people buy fruity, high alcohol, oaky, low acid wines all the time.   But you're not supposed to buy a dinner wine with residual sugar?

It shouldn't really matter how the perceived sweetness got there.  Sweet is sweet to your taste buds so if these other sweet sensations are OK then so should a bit of R.S.   There's a dirty little secret in the wine biz as there are wineries leaving sugar in wines on purpose, but they won't admit it because it's "wrong."   While visiting a small northern Sonoma County winery the owner/winemaker said he left some R.S. in his Sauvignon Blanc.  First thing I thought of to say was, "Thanks for admitting that!"   He was probably do that to balance out the high acids of Sauv Blanc. 

And balance is what it's all about.

Friday, April 1, 2011

White Zinfandel and Merlot Sales Soar!


White Zinfandel sales skyrocket as America loses it's French-style snootiness about wine.

Americans are known to love Pepsi, Coke, and A&W Root Beer and have finally come home to White Zin as sales increase dramatically. “We have a sweet tooth," America proclaims! Sutter Home and Beringer rule for now, but there are micro-wineries getting into the mix including a new Diamond Mountain White Zinfandel Reserve going of $150/bottle, if you can find it after Parker gave it a 96.

The true marketing genius though, is shown with the new 2010 vintage of Barflys and James Nearly White Zinfandel that comes in a box decorated with various pop stars.   Says 16 year old cheerleader Allison (last name withheld) of Kearney, Nebraska, "I love seeing my favorite boys on the boxes and I love the little sippy straw that comes with the box.  I shared this with the team before the game last weekend and I think the team captain really likes me now!"

Likewise, Merlot has made a big comeback after being beat down by the mediocre not-quite-gay buddy movie “Sideways.”  Merlot is king again. And the softer the better. "It's a great commodity wine,” says the Wine Speculator magazine. Many Merlots are again getting that soft Central Valley fruit California is so well-known for and many are easily getting scores in the upper-80s again.

Most experts believe the reason for Merlot's rise is because people are getting tired of “off” flavors of tannins, green spicy things, and blueberries. “I just want wine, I don't want to think about it," says a prominent Manteca retailer.

Suggestions (from Napa, of course):

White Zinfandel
Screaming Crow, a little pricey at $900, but it'll impress you neighbor, the doctor
Shiffer “Cliff-side Select”
Cane Cinco, uses the Big Five grapes found in the best field blends. Besides Zin there's Petite Sirah, Carignan, Alicante Bouchet, and Thompson

Three Buck (Up)Chuck Reserve, a high-end version of the two dollar stuff you usually see.
Delicrapo. This one's actually from Lodi, but with their agriculturally polluted water this one has a complexity you don't often find.
Quackhorn. The name is synonymous with the best in Merlot.


Yes, this was posted on April 1st, why?