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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

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mid-October 2011 Harvest Update

We're right in the middle of harvest.  We've had a couple early season rain storms.  Rain slows the ripening process as the grapes take up lots of water.  This puts a harvest that was already running at least a couple weeks late even farther behind.  The later it goes the larger the chance of more rain.

Most of California is at least three weeks behind schedule because of cooler, wet spring weather and now the autumn rains.  The October rains give a potential for rot.  Most of the whites and earlier ripening reds (Pinot Noir) seem to be in.  The remaining thin-skinned grapes may or may not be in good shape when brought in.  Many brought in their Zinfandel just before the last rain at sugars that may be a bit lower than some years, but that's probably a good thing, in my opinion.   Any Zin still out there, however, is susceptible to rot.
In the Russian River Valley
Photo from Article

Later ripening varieties, as Cabernet, aren't as likely to get rot, but as the ripening process keeps being delayed it becomes as issue to whether the proper sugar levels will be reached while the weather is still warm.  The current long-range weather forecast for Sonoma County is for sunny and warm days--that's good news!

Many are reporting a much smaller, but high quality crop, this year. At this point it appears Chardonnay and Zinfandel crops may be down significantly.  It's unfortunate because a lot of Zin was lost last year, also.   It's too early to tell about the Cabernet.

To the south along the Central Coast of California they are pulling in Chardonnay now before it rots.

Oregon reports potentially their worst harvest ever as the spring and autumn cool, wet weather is not allowing the grapes to ripen. In Washington a below zero period of cold weather last winter has caused damage to the vines resulting in a much smaller crop this year.

Farming: Not for the faint-hearted!

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Rockpile Appellation in Sonoma County

The Appellation
(An appellation is a government-recognized wine growing region)

In northwest Sonoma County Rockpile is one of the newest grape-growing areas. Rockpile is in the hills north of Dry Creek Valley and west of Lake Sonoma about 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean.  It's a rugged and remote area of Sonoma Conty with 160 acres planted to grapes. It's best known for Cabernet and Zinfandel, but there are several other red varieties grown. Rockpile's vineyards sit at elevations off the valley floor up to two thousand feet making the area is several degrees cooler than Dry Creek Valley.  It's the combination of rocky soil, proximity to the cool Pacific, and the elevation that makes Rockpile unique. It's an area where the proverbial "stress the vines to make good wine" happens. Intense flavors is what Rockpile wines are all about.
Ancient History

Volcanic explosions over two million years ago covered the area in volcanic rock. Most of the topsoil washed away into the lower valleys a few thousand years ago leaving very poor, but well-drained soil.

19th Century

In the 1850s the first American settler was an interesting character named Tennessee Bishop. When he decided to run for Sonoma County sheriff he first kicked his brother off the property who was hiding out there because he was wanted for murder while riding with Jesse James as part of the Quantrill Raiders. Apparently he realized that wouldn't be popular with the voters. While sheriff he used the county's prisoners to build the Rockpile Road up to his ranch.

Grapes have been known to grow there as far back as the 1870s on Tennessee's ranch.

20th Century

As with much of California the combination of phylloxera (destroys the roots of grape vines) and Prohibition (failed social engineering) killed off grape growing in this area.  Rockpile consisted of remote cattle and sheep ranches until the Park family planted Cabernet in 1992.  Soon others were planting Cab and Zinfandel.


Rockpile became an appellation in 2002.  There are about ten grape growers in Rockpile farming anywhere from a couple acres up to about 35 acres anywhere between 800 feet and 2,000 feet elevation.  There are no tasting rooms.

There are about 15 wineries making Rockpile wines including Carol Shelton, Mauritson, Paradise Ridge, Robert Baile, Rosenblum, Seghesio, St. Francis, and Stryker.

Image from

More info on Rockpile

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

2011 Sonoma County Harvest Fair Summary

Image from
The Sonoma County Harvest Fair is a big event for the local growers, wineries, and residents. I attend every year and taste through lots of wines over two or three days. I've been attending or pouring at this event for over 30 years. It's a great place to find new wineries and to get a general overview of what's going on with Sonoma County wines. This is the venue where I first discovered the likes of Matanzas Creek, Laurel Glen and Gary Farrell wines.

The three previous blog posts contain tasting notes from my three days at the fair.  I'm a red wine drinker so if you're looking for info on Chardonnay... well, sorry.

Some observations:

Medals awarded

The stats:  1,000 wines entered, 874 medals given, 39 Best of Class, 10 Double Gold, 138 Gold. Just over 20% of the medals were gold or better which is a reasonable percentage, but the vast majority of wines got something.  Does this mean pretty much everything entered was really good or do the judges feel if you enter you should get a medal?  It sort of cheapens the bronze winners as it almost doesn't mean anything.

The big winners

The Harvest Fair gives a Sweepstakes Award to the best wine. Actually, it's gone from one to three Sweepstakes Awards now. One white, one red, and one specialty wine.  I guess the specialty category is for sparklers, rosés, and dessert wines.  I'd also guess it's a bit political deciding what variety in each of those broad categories will get the sweeps.  How do you really compare the best Pinot, the best Cab, and the best Zins?  In years past it seems the fair may have been making a "statement" with Sweepstakes Awards going to Sauv Blanc, for instance (Chardonnay's poor cousin).  Anyway, this year's big winners:

Kenwood Vyds $16 Pinot Gris 2010
Wilson $36 Sawyer Zinfandel 2009
Gloria Ferrer $42 Brut Rosé 2007

I sampled the Zin and the Brut Rosé.  Both were excellent.

Best new winery finds

J Rickards. I've seen the label but never tried the wines before. Their Alexander Valley old vines Zin was excellent and ageable.

Mounts Family. I first ran across them at a Grenache tasting a couple weeks ago (see blog past dated Sept 24) and enjoyed their wine.  Their old vine Zin is also excellent and at a decent price, $30.

Other new names I'll keep any eye on:  Lost Canyon and Munselle

Favorite wines

Hauck Zinfandels. The Dry Creek Zin was excellent. The Dry Creek Reserve was really excellent.

J Rickards old vine Zin

Sebastiani Dry Creek Zin

Trione Block 21 Cabernet is elegant ... and $64.

Wilson's Sawyer Zinfandel, the red wine Sweepstakes winner.

Best bang-for-the-buck wines

I didn't try a lot of really cheap wines because each tasting ticket was $2 whether you were sampling a $10 wine or an $80 wine.

J Rickards Alexander Valley Ancestor Selections Zinfandel at $22. If you like not so fruit forward Zins that you can age a bit this is a good one --if you can find it.

Sebastiani Dry Creek Zinfandel at $24.  Okay, not terribly cheap but better than most of the Zins costing ten bucks more and I'd guess you could find it on the store shelf for $20 or less.

Wines I'd like to lay down and try again in a couple years

Chalk Hill Red (Bordeaux blend)
Graton Ridge and Watkins Family Pinot Noirs

Current state of Sonoma County wines

Pinot Noir can be a bad deal because you can easily spend a lot to get a mediocre wine.  There are good Pinots out there at fair price but they're in the minority.  Too many showed heat on the finish from too much alcohol.  Come on folks, pick them earlier and give us more complexity, not just soft, red fruit.  Pinot is not Zinfandel!

Speaking of Zin ... Zinfandel is what Sonoma County is all about.  The majority of the ones I tried were really good wines. Many of the top medal winners were the big, (red) fruit forward style that is so popular.  A few of these I find really nice, but after tasting several they get boring in that they are simple and all seem about the same. Besides the Hauck, J Rickards, Mounts, Sebastiani, and Wilson Zins already mentioned there were ones from Hawley, Mazzocco, McClain, Meadowcroft, and Munselle that were also excellent.

We don't seem to quite have Syrah figured out as some are just too drying.  I was hoping for more Rhone blends but there weren't many available.  Maybe in the coming years.

Sonoma County has made amazing strides in the past couple decades with the new wines available and their overall quality.  It gets better every year!

Harvest Fair's web site

Monday, October 3, 2011

2011 Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Day 3

My third and final day of tasting at Sonoma County's big wine event, the Harvest Fair.
Part of the Sunday afternoon crowd

Sonoma County's Pasta King, Art Ibleto, spent his 85th birthday dishing out spaghetti and polenta for folks at the Harvest Fair as he does every year. Thanks Art!

Following are the wines I tasted on Oct 2nd. Two previous posts list the wines I tasted other days. Note that there are multiple categories for some varietals such as Pinot Noir under $25, $25 to $35, and over $35.  I didn't distinguish these breakdowns below.  As before I rated the wines as follows:
EX = excellent, VG = very good, G = good, OK = just okay
Kids' grape stomp. Start 'em young!

Bordeaux Blends

Chalk Hill 2008 Chalk Hill Estate Red, $70. Gold
Dusty, tannins, needs time. VG

de Lorimier 2005 Alexander Vly Est Artisan, $40. Best of class
Soft, rich, good body. VG

Deerfield 2006 Sonoma Vly Rancho Salinas Meritage, $75. Gold
Peppery. VG


Rodney Strong 2007 Alexander Vly Brothers Ridge, $75. Best of class.
Ripe, medium body, good tannins, lingering somewhat rough finish. OK

Rodney Strong 2007 Alexander Vly Rockaway, $75. Gold
Ripe, fruity, spicy, tannic finish, needs time. VG

Owl Ridge 2007 Sonoma County, Sonoma Summit Vyd, $48. Double gold
Nice fruit. VG

Pinot Noir

Armida 2009 Sonoma Vly Durell Vyd, $45. Gold
Bright fruit but in balance, softer, good finish. Pleasing but a bit simple. VG

Graton Ridge 2009 Russian River Vly Paul Family Vyd, $50. Gold
Lots of flavors, could age a bit, good structure. VG

Lost Canyon 2009 Russian River Vly Saralee's Vyd, $45. gold
Medium fruit, some tannin, seems well made. VG

Sandole 2009 Russian River Vly Oehlman Ranch, $34. Gold
Bit thin, lighter, but nice and easy drinking. G

TR Elliot 2008 Russian River Vly Burgonet, $42. Best of class
Medium fruit, medium body, other flavors. VG

Watkins 2009 Russian River Vly Crinella Vyd, $34. Best of class
Structured, not fruit forward, dry, bit astringent, needs time. G


Alexander Vly Vyds 2007 Alexander Vly Big Barrel, $45. Silver
Nice fruit and spice. VG

Hughes 2007 Sonoma County Savannah Vyd, $40. Gold
Some red fruit, pepper, tannins, dry, needs time. G

Jus Soli 2008 Sonoma Vly Romano Vyd, $24. Best of class
Softer, lighter body, nice pepper finish. VG


Christopher Creek 2009 Dry Creek Vly, $27. Gold

McClain 2007 Alexander Vly, $28. Gold
Nice fruit. VG

Meadowcroft 2009 Sonoma County, $28. Gold
Medium body and fruit. VG

Italian varietals

Armida 2009 Dry Creek Vly Estate Il Campo Field Blend, $39. Best of class
Zinfandel & Petite Sirah. Red fruit, nice spicy, can't taste the PS.  VG
No, I'm not sure how this wine fits into an Italian varietals category.

Other reds

De La Montanya 2009 Russian River Vly Calandrelli Vyd Tempranillo, $38. Gold
Red fruit and tannins. G

Apple display. Sonoma grows something other than grapes!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

2011 Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Day 2 of 3

Last year's "World Championship"
Grape Stomp winners
Who'll it be this year?
Image from
October 1st and 2nd are the fair's big days for tasting the top award-winners from this year's Harvest Fair.  Think of a huge Quonset hut type of building, with a thousand people choosing between hundreds of wines. These are all Sonoma County grapes.  With so many wines available you have to go in with some kind of tasting "theme" as trying only double gold winners, trying reds from wineries you've never heard of, Pinot Noirs only, etc.  Not all wineries enter so some big (and small) names are missing.

I fell into Zinfandels quickly as Sonoma County is all about Zin.

Here's what I tasted on Saturday. Tasting notes are sparse as it's not easy trying to write anything down in this environment.

I rated the wines as follows:
EX = excellent, VG = very good, G = good, OK = just okay

Sparkling Wine

Gloria Ferrer NV Carneros Blanc de Noirs, $20. Gold
Clean, refreshing. Good for the price. VG

Gloria Ferrer 2004 Carneros Royal Cuvee, $32. Silver
Nice, fine bubbles. G

Pinot Noir

Clean Coast 2008 Sonoma County $15. Best of class
A second label from Susie Selby. Part of the profits go to Gulf Coast clean up efforts.
Rough finish. Didn't care for it good cause or not.


Trione 2007 Alexander Vly Bock 21, $64. Gold
Rich, soft, elegant. EX


Hawley 2009 Russian River Vly Ponzo Vyd, $28. Gold
Fruit, pepper, needs another year at least, needs ravioli!  VG

Hauck 2009 Dry Creek Vly, $28. Gold
Nice spice. EX

Hauck 2009 Dry Creek Vly Reserve, $38. Gold
Starts soft then spices, full of flavors, balanced. EX

J Keverson 2008 Sonoma Co Buck Hill Vyd, $29. Best of class
Lighter, easy drinking, would be a good food wine. G

J Rickards 2008 Alexander Vly Ancestor Selections, $22. Silver
An old time Sonoma style Zin with tannins, depth and fruit underneath. Needs five years. VG

J Rickards 2008 Alexander Vly Brignole Vyds Old Vines, $28. Gold
Fruit and tannins in balance, will age. EX

Keating 2009 Dry Creek Vly Buchignani Vyd, $28. Gold
Didn't like it.

Moshin 2008 Dry Creek Vly Carreras Vyd, $35
Nice structure but tight. Finished hot. Needs to age but will it with the alcohol showing? OK

Munselle 2008 Alexander Vly Osborn Ranch, $28. Double gold
Black and red fruits, some spices, balanced. VG

Ramazzotti 2007 Dry Creek Vly Ricondo, $30. Gold
Heavier, fuller-bodied. Maybe a good steak wine. G

Veritas Ridge 2009 Dry Creek Vly, $28. Gold
Nothing. No fruit, no spice.  Bad bottle?

Watkins 2008 Sonoma County, $28. Gold
Heavier, bit drying (a Petite Sirah blend). Dark fruit. OK

Wine of the day

Hauck 2009 Dry Creek Reserve Zinfandel

There were many more outstanding Zinfandels: The other Hauck "regular" zin, Hawley, and both J Rickards zins. The Trione Cab was excellent, also.