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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

2011 Sonoma County Harvest Fair, Day 1

The Sonoma County Harvest Fair is The Big Event for local wine growers and producers.  Monday, Sept 26, 2011, was a trade/media tasting day. The main tasting is the weekend of Oct 1-2. 
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Following are wines I tasted listed by varietal. Note that there are multiple categories for many, such as Zinfandel Under $25 and Cabernet $25 to $35. I don't distinguish these categories but you can look up the full results at the fair's website.

Notes are sparse but I did rate them as follows:
EX = excellent, VG = very good, G = good, OK = just okay


Gloria Ferrer 2007 Carneros Brut Rosé, $42. Sweepstakes winner and Best of Class
Clean, good sugar/acid, burst of bubbles VG
Gloria always does a great job with their bubblies. This one's a bit more expensive than most.

Pinot Noir

Balletto 2009 Russian River Vly BCD Vyd, $34. Double Gold.
Not especially distinctive, bit hot on the finish. G

Gracianna 2009 Russian River Vly Bacigalupi Vyd, $48. Gold
Soft and lush. G
They do a great job with Zinfandel. This PN seems to be a similar style to their Zin.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Wilson 2005 Sonoma County Vineman Cabernet, $40. Silver
Undistinguished, drying. OK
Not a good deal for the price.

Bordeaux Blend

Wilson 2008 Dry Creek Vly Roger's Fault, $32. Gold
Very nice for the price.


Trione 2009 Alexander Vly Home Ranch, $28. Best of Class
Rich, ripe, spicy, shows a bit of heat. VG
Yes, Primitivo has its own category this year.


Mazzocco 2009 Dry Creek Vly Thurow, $32. Gold
Soft, fruity, finishes with a little spice and heat. G

Mazzocco 2009 Dry Creek Vly Warm Springs Ranch, $34
Ripe, soft, short finish. G

Mazzocco 2009 Dry Creek Vly Warm Springs Ranch Resv, $52
Lots of spice, some tannin. VG
Nice, but very expensive.

Mounts 2009 Dry Creek Vly Estate, $20.Gold.
Nice fruit with decent acid balance. G
Good food wine for the price.

Mounts 2009 Dry Creek Vly Estate Old Vines, $30. Silver
More of everything compared to the “regular” estate zin. VG
Very good for the price.

Sebastiani 2008 Dry Creek Vly, $24. Best of Class.
Big, brambly, correct acid. An old style Sonoma County Zin at its best. EX
The best bang-for-the-buck wine I tasted. I've found this true with several Sebastiani wines.

VC 2009 Dry Creek Vly, $28. Gold
Soft, peppery. G

Wilson 2009 Dry Creek Vly, $27. Bronze
Bit drying, tannins OK

Wilson 2009 Dry Creek Vly Sawyer, $36. Sweepstakes and Best of Class
Starts with soft red fruit then an explosion of spices. EX
Really amazing wine. I'm still trying to figure how I'd pair this with food.

Wilson 2009 Dry Creek Vly Sydney, $36. Gold
Bit dry, spice, needs time. G

Wilson 2009 Dry Creek Vly Molly's, $48
Soft, fruity, rich, easy drinking. VG

Yes, I tasted a lot of Mazzocco's and Wilson's wines (same owner).  With all the medals they won their table will be very busy next weekend so this seemed like the best chance.  Lots more on the Harvest Fair coming next weekend!

Warning! Petite Sirah will make your glass
look like this!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Grenache Tasting

Actually it was Grenache and Grenache blends as you often see it blended with other Rhone grapes such as Syrah.  In California Grenache has been grown in the hot Central Valley to make jug wines.With the help of the Rhone Rangers grapes like Grenache, Mouvedre, Carignane, and Syrah are becoming more popular as premium wines in the U.S.  Grenache is usually characterized as berry fruit-flavored, spicy and soft (low acids).

On September 23rd William Allen hosted a Grenache tasting at his farm. The tasters rated their top wines and he'll post the overall results on his blog, Simple Hedonisms.
Evening sun at the tasting venue
These were mostly local producers, but not all. The production of the wines is small ranging from less than 1,000 cases down to about 50.  A couple of the guys pouring even said the grapes were crushed by foot.  I was trying not to picture this being done by their feet but by some 18 year old Italian maidens.

Following are my personal results listed from my favorites to least:

Mounts Family 2008 Dry Creek Estate Grenache (Grenache/Syrah).  Good fruit, just a bit of spice and tannins. $30

Sheldon 2005 Santa Ynez Vly Vinolocity (Grenache/Syrah). Very good fruit and spices with a near perfect balance on this aged wine. $30

Mounts Family 2008 Dry Creek Estate "The Terraces" Grenache  (Grenache/Mourvedre). Amazing black fruit, not ready yet, but should be a great wine. $40

Baiocchi 2009 Fairplay, El Dorado Entre Nous (Grenache/Syrah). Great peppery spicy up front. Full-bodied and heavy--must be the Syrah in the blend. $39

R2 2009 Santa Ynez Vly Rhapsody (Grenache/Carignane/Syrah/Mourvedre).  Great red fruit but still young and tannic. This will be a very good wine. And I forgot to ask if they made a D2 wine (get it -- R2 D2). A bargain at $24.

Thumbprint 2008 Ramazzotti Vyds, Dry Creek Vly Grenache (100%). Good structure, oak, spicy finish, a bit of heat. Needs to age. $36

Mounts Family 2009 Dry Creek Vly Estate Grenache (Grenache/Syrah). Cool blue fruit, mouth drying, not ready yet. $30

Sheldon 2007 Santa Ynez Vly Grenache (100%) Very good fruit, big finish, bit drying. A great deal at $25.

Quivira 2008 Dry Creek Vly Elusive (Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre/Petite Sirah). Big, tart, spicy. $28

Sheldon 2003 Santa Ynez Vly Vinolocity (Grenach//Syrah). Bit drying, good acid. $30

Ridge 2005 Dry Creek Vly Lytton Estate Grenache (Grenache/Petite Sirah/Zinfandel), Big, drying, more like a Petite Sirah. $28

Ridge 2007 Dry Creek Vly Lytton Estate Syrah / Grenache. Medium spices and tannins.  Needs time. $30

Quivira 2009 Dry Creek Vly Grenache (Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah). Tart. $26

Stage Left Cellars 2006 Santa Maria Vly Grenache (Grenache/Mourvedre). $48

Wind Gap 2008 California Rana (Grenache/Mourvedre/Syrah). $45

Wind Gap 2009 North Coast Orra (Grenache/Mourvedre/Counoise). $28

It was a lot of fun trying these as I'm not too familiar with Grenache-based wines and not too familiar with many of these wineries. The first two, the Mounts Family and Sheldon stood above the rest, the R2 stood out as the best bargain.

Just to prove you should never rely on one person's opinion on wine my wife was along and her three favorites were the Thumbprint, the '05 Sheldon, then the R2.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Four Russian River Valley Tasting Rooms

On a warm top-down day I made four stops at some favorite wineries in the Russian River Valley appellation.  Listed are the wines I purchased from each.  All of these wineries are small operations--the best kind!  The wineries in this area tend to specialize in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel.
Harvest in underway at Pellegrini
80 tons of Pinot Noir in 48 hours!

Harvest Moon

2006 Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($34).  Soft, fruity, acidic, lighter bodied. Will definitely stand up to food. I would generalize their wines as somewhat elegant with an acid backbone not usually found in CA wines.


2007 Russian River Valley, Olivet Lane Estate Reserve Pinot Noir ($45). The $20 Russian River Pinot was good for the price. This one was exceptional.  They also had a nice Cabernet and Cab blend.


2009 Russian River Valley, Dutton Ranch / Stoetz Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel ($30).  Young and chock full of flavors, complexity and potential.

Red Car

2007 Sonoma County, Cuvee 22 Syrah ($55).  The best of the three Syrahs I tried though all were good.  Rich, complex and easy drinking.  They make many small lot wines under several labels.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Pennsylvania's Wine Kiosks are Outta Here!

In PA alcohol sales are completely controlled by the state--everything from purchase from the winery, distillery, or brewery to sale to the consumer. Too much power in the hands of a few bureaucrats?

These government liquor barons spent millions on retail wine kiosks. It's sort of a vending machine except you have to blow in a breathalyzer to complete the sale. Really. It's funny that they don't do that if you want to buy a gun in PA.

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These bureaucrats believe they are immune to criticism so through all the complaints over the past year from consumers and retailers they kept installing the wine kiosks.

So they have sort of seen the light but are blaming it on the vendor of the machine.  Why? Because they want the vendor to cover their million dollars in expenses occurred during this fiasco.  Meanwhile the vendor is suing PA for breach of contract.  Your tax dollars at work.

Time for the good people of Pennsylvania to put the Liquor Control Board out of business.

Story from

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alcohol labeling on wine

With all the noise being made about rising alcohol levels on California and other New World wines (and some Old World wines) "buying by alcohol percent" may be happening with some consumers.   I know I've started looking and will sometimes form opinions on a wine before even trying it.   This is something most wineries and retail sales folks would prefer you didn't do.
A 15% alcohol Pinot.
Or is it closer to 16%?
So what can you tell by reading the percent alcohol number on a wine label?   Does it really give you an idea of what kind of wine you're getting?    Well, maybe a little bit.

A wine labeled 14.5% alcohol doesn't necessarily have 14.5%.   There's a fudge factor allowed by the government mostly to cover variances in what actually shows up in the bottle as labels have to be ordered well before bottling.  

But this fudge factor is huge.   A wine labeled 14.5% could actually be 15.4%.  The law is a little convoluted as the rules and taxes are different for wines below and above 14%.   This law is old and from a time when table wines were pretty much always below 14%.  In fact, wines under 14% don't have to state the alcohol content though most do.

So not only does this mean you may really be getting a much higher (or lower) alcohol wine, but if you're comparing two, say one labeled as 14.5% and another at 15% you can't really assume the latter is higher in alcohol.   The numbers are reported by the wineries to the gov't so they're trusting the producers to be accurate.   Is there any cheating going on?  I don't know, but I would guess any gov't checking would be for wines labeled at 14% and just under to see if they really belong in the lower tax bracket because the gov't mostly cares about their money.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Wine vs. Cars

There are wine enthusiasts (sometimes called geeks) and there are auto enthusiasts (not usually called geeks).   There are those who see their vehicle as just an appliance rather than something they enjoy or even lust after.  Think Camry owner vs. Porsche driver.   With wine some just ask for a glass of white wine and don't worry any more about it.  Others want to know the vintage year, country and appellation, vineyard, what sugars the grapes were picked at, etc.

Wine enthusiasts can worry about the most seemingly minute detail of a bottle.  They worry that Syrah was added to the Pinot Noir.  They worry that the Sauvignon Blanc wasn't fermented completely dry. They spend time trying to figure out if they should drink a particular Cabernet in 2015-2017 or if it'll go past 2020.   Oh yeah, they worry if their wine cellar isn't exactly 55 degrees.
Camry. The generic Chardonnay
(or maybe White Zinfandel?) of cars
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Gear heads pour over tire tests before buying a new set.   As they do with brake pads. I can't quite see the Toyota Corolla owner going to the aftermarket for the best fade-free track pads even though they put out dust and squeal when cold.  They would think there's something wrong with their brakes.

Some folks taste a youthful wine with tannins and say, "Eww, that's too dry" without realizing aging potential, but then they don't care.  Fewer and fewer wines are now made for long-term aging.  The style has gone for mass market appeal as wine has gotten more popular. Just as most cars can't even be had with a manual transmission any more.

Wines can be very trendy like Pinot Grigio.  Cars can be too like the Mini Cooper. Pinot Grigio is slightly sweet and fruity, not very distinctive and not too expensive.  The Mini is small, not especially cheap, and has a reputation for high maintenance costs. But people love 'em!

Let's establish some links between wine and cars:

  • Camry = (cheap) Chardonnay. Both are as generic as they come
  • Mazda3 = Sauvignon Blanc. Zippier and cheaper than a Chard. One-tenth the sales.
  • Mini = Pinot Gris. Trendy for unknown reasons.
  • VW Beetle = White Zinfandel. Girly car/girly wine
  • Accord = Merlot. Boring unless you go top-of-the-line.
  • Mustang = Zinfandel. Youthful, high alcohol.
  • Subaru = Syrah. Never quite mainstream no matter how hard it tries.
  • BMW = Pinot Noir. Sophisticated, a bit stuffy, expensive and not always worth it.
  • Mercedes = (high-end) Cabernet. Really stuffy, for old folks. You can brag to friends.

Monday, September 12, 2011

You know you are a wine geek when ...

You spit out your mom's Chardonnay in her kitchen sink declaring, "It's too heavy on the French oak."

The typical wine snob
Be aware!
You swirl your Starbucks before drinking.

Your monthly wine purchases equal your rent. (You can't quite save up enough money for a down payment on your own home).

On your weekly trip to the local wine retailer you notice he's posted the wrong score for a particular wine.

While visiting Omaha on business you are aghast at the choices offered by the hotel bar and vow to never do business in Omaha again.

You have a "Turley for President" or "Turley is an Idiot" t-shirt.

You spend 30 minutes telling your friends about the Turley / Parker connection until they glaze over and finally run away.

You tell your friends to drink dry rosés during the summer even though you won't.

You complain about spending $75 to put 20 gallons of gas in your SUV, but will gladly spend that much for 750 ml of Napa Cabernet.

You can't believe Obama poured that Sauvignon Blanc at a White House dinner.

You've walked into a roadside diner in central Ohio (or Wyoming or Mississippi) and asked to see the wine list.  When given a blank stare you say, "Okay, what do you have in a Santa Rita Hills Pinot?"

You drink wine at baseball and football games.

You own more corkscrews than you do shoes.

You've paid more for a corkscrew than you did for any of your shoes.

When friends invite you to their wedding you ask what the wine choices will be so you know whether or not to bring your own.

When out to dinner you order a bottle of wine before looking at the wine list then pick the meal to go with it.

You are about to order a glass of wine at a small Italian restaurant until you find out they serve it in a tumbler not a wine glass.

You have your own set of Riedel stemware (one for Bordeaux, one for Burgundy, one for Zinfandel, etc.) and don't think it's weird bringing your set of wine glasses out to dinner.

"Sometimes when I reflect back on all the wine I drink I feel shame. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the vineyards and all of their hopes and dreams . If I didn't drink this wine, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. 
Then I say to myself, "It is better that I drink this wine and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver."
   Jack Handey, American humorist

Friday, September 9, 2011

Consolidation in the California wine industry

The number of actual family-owned wineries seems to drop by the day as many are gobbled up by other companies.   The good news in this is that more small owner/winemaker operations are always springing up.

The bigger takeovers make the news and people hear about changes with Constellation and Treasury and the other big guys.  But there are smaller, private companies and individuals that are buying up wineries.

The Boisset family of France acquired Deloach when it was in financial trouble then more recently a long-held family winery in Napa, Raymond (they make great Cabs, by the way), and the historic Buena Vista Winery.

Three guys with years of experience in the business end of the wine industry started Vincraft and have acquired Kosta Browne and Gary Farrell.  Poor Gary Farrell Winery seems to have changed owners once a year in the last decade.  I hope things settle down for them.  Vincraft is also part owners of Kistler.
Hawley Winery of Sonoma Co.
Where John and sons do most of the work
Image from

Vintage Wine Estates, started by the owners of the high-end Dean and DeLuca stores, own Girard, Windsor Vyds, and recently got Cosentino from bankruptcy.  Cosentino has had a number of hard years of mismanagement, but Vintage Wine has brought back the founder, Mitch Cosentino, so maybe things will turn around.  They own several other small brands, also.

Bill Foley has an impressive collection of medium to high-end wineries including Chalk Hill, Firestone, Kuleto, Sebastiani, plus some others.  Chalk Hill is an amazing estate started by Fred Furth, an anti-trust lawyer in the AT&T breakup.
Hartford Winery
Part of the Jackson über family
Image from

The Astencia Wine Group has been in financial difficulty because they bought at peak prices.  So they are the sellers of Buena Vista and Gary Farrell.  They still own Geyser Peak plus a few smaller labels.

Recently the private holding company Roll Global bought a small winery in Napa then Sonoma's Landmark Vineyards.

Illinois wine distributors, Terlato,  owns Alderbrook, Chimney Rock, Rutherford Hill, and Sanford plus others.

Heck Estates, owned by Gary Heck of Korbel
Kenwood, Lake Sonoma, Valley of the Moon
Where he's turning brands into labels (same production facilities, same winemakers)

Trinchero, the Sutter Home family
Folie a Deux, Montevina, Napa Cellars

Not a consolidation but the latest sale I'm aware of is Limerick Lane, a small winery that's been around quite a while and known for their Zinfandels. Their equipment and property sold to a local person.  The sale didn't include the liquor license so it sounds like the Limerick Lane name is gone.

Some of these companies are based locally and run by people familiar with the local wine business; others are not.   It's hard times in the wine industry as with many other businesses and the sell-offs won't end anytime soon.

Following is a list of the big guys and some of their major holdings (not a full list).  With all the changes it'll probably be out-of-date by the time you read this.

Spirits maker Brown Forman
Fetzer and Sonoma Cutrer though these are reportedly for sale.

World's largest wine company, headquarted in NY, Constellation Brands
Blackstone, Clos du Bois, Franciscan, Mt Veeder, Ravenswood, Robert Mondavi, Simi

Headquartered in London Diageo at one time owned Burger King
Beaulieu, Chalone, Sterling

Gallo owns lots of labels for wines made at their Modesto plant, plus Gallo Sonoma
They bought Napa's iconic Louis Martini Winery a few years ago

Jackson Wine Estates, the Kendall-Jackson family
Arrowood, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Hartford, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode
Hartford and La Crema were started by Jess Jackson, the others were purchased

Treasury Wine Estates was formed when Foster's spun off their wine brands. Treasury is reportedly for sale (plus Foster's is in the middle of a hostile takeover)
Beringer, Chateau St. Jean, Meridian, St. Clement, Souverain, Stags Leap

Monday, September 5, 2011

2011: Vintage of the decade?

Is 2011 going to be a vintage year in California?   Of course, just ask anyone in the local wine biz!

In the past wine experts (mostly wine writers actually) have proclaimed various years as great vintages--1997, 2001, and 2007 come immediately to mind.  In fact, some jumped right on the bandwagon calling 2001 the vintage of the century!

So what about '11?  Winemakers will probably get a fuzzy idea as the look at the grapes coming in during the harvest but will have a better idea a few months later when everything is crushed, fermented and settled in.   What everyone seems to be saying now is the season was delayed by at least a couple weeks because of the cool, wet spring plus the crop size will be smaller because of the wet weather.  None of that is bad for quality.  In fact, a reduced crop size is good for quality if not for the grape growers pocketbook.

The weather seemed to be pretty much "standard Sonoma County" once the late spring rains ended. Summer was warm, but not hot, during the day with cool nights and mornings.  Seems pretty near perfect.

Of course, the other issue is not all of California is the same and not all varieties will act the same in a given year.  For instance one particular vintage might be great for Central Coast Pinot and not so great for North Coast Cabernet.   In 2010 Chardonnay and Zinfandel seemed to get hit particularly hard by the weather in Sonoma County.  But even then it doesn't mean 2010 will be a bad year for Chard and Zin as long as the winemakers aren't using the substandard fruit (I saw lots of Zinfandel cut off the vines and left to rot in the autumn of 2010).

So is the 2011 vintage going to be great?   Absolutely.

A bin of nice looking grapes at Field Stone Winery in '09

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sept 1st in the Russian River Valley (photos)

September 1, 2011.  Almost harvest time!  A few grapes are in, mostly for sparkling wines, but it looks like things will start cranking up next week after Labor Day.

Click on any photo to enlarge 

Pinot Noir at Deloach Vineyards

Long rows of vines at Hook & Ladder Winery

Syrah at Russian Hill Winery

From Russian Hill towards Mt. St. Helena

From Russian Hill looking south towards Sonoma Cutrer Winery

An old hop kiln from Russian Hill Winery
Before grapes Sonoma was known for hops

Chardonnay at Rodney Strong Vineyards

Syrah at Rodney Strong

and finally

Lunch at the Bear Republic Brewery
in Healdsburg