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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pity the poor office admin person at Pezzi King Winery

The Sonoma County Harvest Fair is the big wine awards event in the area. Sometimes I think it might be more just for the local folks, but certain things will get noticed--like this year.

The judges hand out the usual gold medals and best of class awards like most judgings. This event is different in that they have had a Sweepstakes wine. The one wine that the judges thought was the best overall. I'm not sure how they could do this with so many different kinds of wines. It got to be such great PR for the Sweepstakes winning winery that the fair introduced two awards--one for the best white and one for the best red. Still, not everyone was happy apparently so in recent years they added a "best specialty wine" award for sparkling, rosé, and desert wines, I believe. So now there are three Sweepstakes wines every year.

The winners of the 2012 Harvest Fair awards were just announced. and Pezzi King Winery won the red sweeps for a $50 Zinfandel and the specialty category for a $50 late harvest. Wholesalers, retailers, and consumers will be calling in Monday to get their share. The phones will be ringing all day; the voicemail box will probably be full. I'm guessing there won't be enough of these wines to go around. I guess that's a good problem to have.

Just a few months ago The Wilson Family Wineries purchased Pezzi King. Wilson Winery is no stranger to winning big at the Harvest Fair--having won the sweeps in the past. Congrats to Pezzi King. I'm looking forward to sampling the wines next weekend at the Harvest Fair.

NBC News just named the Sonoma County Harvest Fair as one of the best harvest festivals in the country.

Friday, September 28, 2012

It's National Drink Beer Day!

And this is a wine blog for cripes sake! But it's about Sonoma County and Sonoma happens to be home to some of the best brewpubs anywhere. Yes, places like Portland and San Diego have more pubs and are famous for their breweries, but Sonoma has good quality stuff.

Lunch at "The Bear" in Healdsburg, CA

Heading up El Camino Real for beer (U.S. 101) from San Francisco your first stop is in Petaluma for Lagunitas Brewing. They are well known for having the top selling IPA in California. You also want to try the "sumpin" series: Little Sumpin' Sumpin' and Little Sumpin' Wild, their Fusion series beers, and Hop Stoopid. Their pub has indoor and outdoor seating and often has live music.

Next stop to the north is Santa Rosa where you'll find the beer geeks mecca, Russian River Brewery, rated as one of the top brewpubs in the country and home to a seasonal triple IPA that got a perfect 100 points score. When that beer is released there's a line down the street every day and and some folks actually fly in from far away locales for this beer. That's hard core! But if you miss that one its little brother, Pliny the Elder double IPA, also has a perfect 100 score. The pub is usually crowded. The salads and pizzas are good. The beer list always has several IPAs, a bunch of Belgian styles, plus several others. 
Check out the line during the Pliny the Younger release

Next stop up is Healdsburg, home to the Bear Republic Brewery. Their best known brews are Racer 5 and Red Rocket, but don't miss the Peter Brown Tribute and Hop Rod Rye. They have a big restaurant with some outdoor seating. The burgers are top-notch.

Other stops in Sonoma County: Dempsey's, Moonlight Brewing (no pub, just a brewery), Ruth McGowan's, Third Street Aleworks, Sonoma Springs, and Stumptown. The newest is Old Redwood Brewing. I don't know anything about them except their Facebook page says, "Due to overwhelming demand their tasting room is temporarily closed as everything is sold out."

Other breweries in adjacent counties: Anderson Brewing, Calistoga Inn, Marin, Moylan's, Napa-Smith, North Coast, Silverado Brewing, and Mendocino Brewing.

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Celebrate and drink up! I plan on it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Corporate Wineries

Much is made of being a family-owned winery. So much that even some of the huge companies like Kendall-Jackson are happy to tell you they are a family winery. There's a organization, Family Winemakers of California, that consists of one-man operations up through Kendall-Jackson. So yes, KJ is family-owned, but maybe not family-sized.

Many consumers feel better about supporting local family producers just as many feel better if they know the grapes were organically farmed. And the romance of winemaking is tossed out the window when you think of large scale operations where the winemaker spends most of their time in front of a computer screen "making" their wine rather than on the sorting table and the press.

Is smaller better? Is family-owned better than corporate-owned? That can be debated as larger outfits can theoretically have more resources to get better fruit and make better wine. They are more likely to make consistent wine year after year so you know what you're getting. They can also be more focused on the bottom-line for the next quarter rather than the product (look where that got the Big Three auto companies).

So who are the big ones?

"Chateau Constellation" - Constellation Brands headquarters in NY

This famous family has lots of different labels. It used to be if the label said Modesto then you knew it was Gallo (they are headquartered in Modesto CA). Now they have operations elsewhere including a huge presence in Sonoma County.
Some of their well-known wines are Andé, Barefoot Cellars, Frei Brothers, Gallo Sonoma, Louis Martini, MacMurray Ranch, Tisdale, and Turning Leaf.  Gallo has over 50 labels and brands. (By "label" I mean the wines don't come from an independent winery but made in some sort of co-op facility usually; a "real" winery would be Louis Martini, for example).
Yes, this one is owned by Gallo

The Wine Group
A generic name for a San Francisco-based company that started life as Coca Cola's venture into the wine business. Best-known for Franzia box wine.
Some other well-known properties are Almaden and Concannon

Constellation Brands
Constellation is headquartered in upstate NY.
Well-known brands include Blackstone, Clos du Bois, Columbia,  Franciscan, Ravenswood, Robert Mondavi, and Simi plus dozens of others around the world.

They are headquartered in London and are big players in the spirits market.
Some of their big names in wine are Sterling, Beaulieu and Rosenblum.
BTW, if you're looking for a job their website currently shows an opening for a Liquid Innovation Manager in Connecticut!

Treasury Wine Estates
Treasury was spun off from Fosters when they decided to concentrate on their beer biz. Treasury owns about 50 brands from around the world including quite a few in Australia and New Zealand, as you might expect.
Some of the bigger U.S. names are Asti, Beringer, Chateau St Jean, Meridian, Stags Leap, and St Clement.

Based in Napa they started with the Sutter Home White Zinfandel cash.
Other well-known brands are Folie a Deux, Montevina, Napa Cellars, Trinchero, and Trinity Oaks.

Run by the Franzia family, relatives of the Gallos, with about 100 different labels.
Known for Charles Shaw, Forestville,  Napa Creek, Napa Ridge, Red Truck, Robert Hall, and Rutherford Vintners. Fred Franzia was in a bit of trouble awhile ago for using  "Napa" in winery label names when the grapes weren't actually grown in Napa.

From personal experience I've seen where Constellation Brands and Treasury Wine Estates are what I'd call true corporations. In fact, when Treasury first split from Fosters their new web page said something like, "One foot in the vineyard, one in the board room." Luckily, that motto is long gone. It seems that Constellation, Treasury, along with Diageo, seem to be about owning fairly autonomous wineries rather than just having a bunch of labels aimed at different market segments (that is, they are all "real" wineries).

Other big players in the wine business are Brown-Forman, Jackson, and Ste Michelle.

So is smaller better? I can't say. Does buying from one of the local little guys make me feel better? Yes, but that doesn't stop me from purchasing Louis Martini, Simi or St. Jean wines, for instance.

I have watched the change in some of these wineries from local ownership to being swallowed up by large companies--brands like Chateau St Jean, Clos du Bois, Gary Farrell, Folie a Deux, Franciscan, Kenwood, Raveswood, Simi, and others. Did they change over time? Mostly yes, but maybe they would have anyway. Was it for the worse? Sometimes. Especially, it seems, in some of their cheaper "grocery store" wines. I'd guess that's where the accounting-types have their greatest influence on maximizing profits.

In the last year wine sales were up significantly. Per an industry group half of that growth went to Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Grenache Tasting

On 9/21/2012 the Wineyard in Santa Rosa celebrated Grenache Day with a tasting of 15 white, red, and Grenache blends. Grenache is a Rhone varietal you maybe haven't heard much of or heard of at all. It's from the same area of France as Syrah and is often blended with Syrah and other Rhones.

I've listed the wines from my favorites to least in each category, but there were no dogs in the bunch. All were at least “good” wines and very drinkable, but we all have our preferences, right?

Grenache Blanc

White Grenache is often grown in hot climates and makes a white zinfandel sort of wine. These three below are all made in a dry, higher quality style. This was my first time having a white Grenache and I have to say they weren't all that exciting.

Two Shepherds 2011 Saarloos Vyd, Santa Ynez $24. Good acid and spices. Maybe a little hot (alcohol showing).

Sheldon 2011 Vinolocity Sonoma Coast $25. Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Roussanne. Lacks fruit but a distinctive “something” I can't just put my hand on (like I said, these wines are new to me).

Stark 2011 Saarloos Vyd, Santa Ynez $28. More of whatever that is I'm picking up in Sheldon's.

Grenache Noir

Red Grenache by itself can be a little bland so most of these had something else blended in such as Petite Sirah or Syrah.

Mathis 2008 Sonoma Valley $30. Well balanced between the bright fruits, acid and spiciness.

Mounts Family 2009 Estate, Dry Creek $30. Earthy, spicy.

Sheldon 2008 Vinolocity, Santa Ynez Vly $36. A nice wine. The bad news: There is no more of this Santa Ynez Vly fruit for Sheldon after this '08.

Ridge 2006 Lytton Estate, Dry Creek $28. Drying tannins followed by spice. You can really pick out that 10% Petite Sirah.

Sheldon 2011 Ceja Vyd, Sonoma Valley $40. Too soft, too light, or is it just delicate? Maybe I should have had this one first before the ones with Petite Sirah blended in. 12.8% alcohol.

Quivara 2009 Dry Creek $26. Lighter, not much body, a sipper.

Grenache Blends

These red blends are really what Grenache is best at. All Rhone varietals, including Syrah, are better in blends IMO.

Hahn 2011 Monterey GSM $32. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre. My top wine of the night.

Ridge 2008 Syrah/Grenache Dry Creek $32. Syrah, Grenache. A big boy, but a nice one. Give it some time.

Hahn 2011 Central Coast GSM $14. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre. Nice fruit, soft, balanced. Great for the price.

Quivara 2010 Elusive Dry Creek $32. A blast of pepper overwhelms anything else.

Donelan 2010 Cuvee Moriah Sonoma County $40. Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah. Tight, tannic, not ready, but has promise.

Two Shepherds 2010 GSM Russian River, Livermore $32. Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre. Flat. May have been slightly corked. The table was too busy to get back to William and ask him if this wine was okay.


Most of these wines were produced in the hundreds of cases only so the way to find them is probably direct from the winery. The $14 Hahn blend had 18,000 cases made so if you're looking for a bargain you may actually be able to find that one around. Of course, the best way is to come and visit and try them for yourself!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

2012 harvest forecast

Weather-wise this is a crucial time for the grapes (but then when isn't weather an issue for farmers)?  You want temps warm enough to ripen the fruit (this usually isn't an issue in CA), you don't want heat spikes that may damage the fruit, and you don't want rain that can cause rot.

Things are looking just fine for the rest of September.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

2012 looks like a great vintage, but ...

The weather has been near ideal so far (fingers crossed for the later ripening reds). Not too hot and not too cool like the last few years. What could go wrong besides some autumn rain?

When the grapes ripen like they do this year there's a danger from some fruit coming in overripe. That is, it didn't get picked at the ideal time. This can happen with heat spikes. That hasn't been a problem yet this year, but a potential labor shortage can be a problem. The grape pickers are almost always Hispanic laborers, usually legal workers, but probably sometimes not. With the anti-immigration feelings, tighter border control, and the poor economy in the U.S. there has been a dwindling supply of immigrant workers. 
Grape picking at night while the fruit is cool

If there aren't enough pickers to go around when the grapes get ripe then some will sit on the vines too long. They will be past their ideal ripeness when finally harvested.  As the grapes ripen sugar levels rise (as will alcohol levels after fermentation) and acids fall. So you may be left with alcoholic, soft, flabby, uninteresting wines in some cases.

The ideal situation to try to prevent this would be a slightly cooler, dry autumn so things can ripen slowly. Or maybe a better idea is to allow, even encourage, the laborers to come. The labor problem isn't just affecting the grape business, but all agriculture.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Another winery biting the dust?

In the last several months a couple Sonoma County wineries went through family issues publicly. Seghesio Family Winery was sold off against the will of some of the Seghesios and is no longer a family-owned winery. The Foppiano Family Feud actually went to court. An outside company is now running Foppiano. (My previous post on Foppiano from Dec 20, 2011).
Image from

Now Pellegrini Family Vineyards is having their own family feud. The estate vineyards are no longer part of the winery. As the harvest season rolls into full swing they are shuttered up and not making wine this year.

It seems the economic downturn is putting a lot of stress on some folks. It's bad when it happens to business partners. It's worse when it's your family.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Desperate marketing?

I don't know what to think of this one. Truett-Hurst Winery of Healdsburg in Sonoma County has partnered with an alcohol packaging design company and Safeway Markets to sell a specific line of wines in their stores.
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This line of wines in gimmicky packaging "is designed to help consumers pair wines with special occasions." One is called Curious Beasts made for your Halloween drinking. Really. There's also Bewitched, Candells, Chateau Crisp, and others. All bottles are wrapped up in a way to draw attention to themselves.

Truett-Hurst says they will produce 100,000 cases a year. That is a lot of wine.

Why did they do this? It turns out the company doing these labels is owned by a guy who is now a shareholder in Truett-Hurst.

This seems pretty wacky. We'll see what happens.

Story from the Press Democrat

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Chocolate and Wine

September 13th is International Chocolate Day. This isn't just a national holiday, but a worldwide one so it's important to celebrate!

This begs the question: What wine with chocolate? Of course these things are never easy. Dark or milk chocolate, for instance?

You have to be careful because too sweet of a wine can make the chocolate taste sour. The darker the chocolate the more likely it will pair well with Cabernet Sauvignon. For milk chocolate try a lighter red, Muscat or a sparking wine. Of course, there's always Port especially with milk chocolate. White chocolate? That ain't even real chocolate so who cares?

Once you start adding things to your chocolate that will change the matching. Chocolate and caramel try a Sauterne or Tokay (sweet white wine). With coffee flavors you're moving into a Sherry. Fruit flavors, such as cherry, strawberry, and blueberry, you're back with Cabernet or Port. Chocolate with nuts is a Sherry or maybe Cabernet.

See, this is difficult and it will take a lot of experimentation on your part to see what works best for you. So get started!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cult Wines

Why are there Cult Wines?

You don't hear much about cult products other than wine. Okay, that's not exactly true as you maybe don't use the word "cult" in describing them. There are cult beers--ask any beer geek about Pliny the Younger. There are actually cult cars. These are ones that are so expensive that you don't usually see them, such as a Mercedes SLS or Bugatti Veyron.

Wines have a certain mystery, it's very complex to learn about the wines of the world, and there's a snob appeal to being an expert on wine. And trendiness--wines are very trendy--whether it's a winery or a certain type of wine.

So a cult wine can be defined as hard to get and very expensive. It's a trophy. It's purchased for bragging rights. So I guess it could be compared to a trophy wife. :)

Pre-cult Wine

Several years ago in a St. Helena (Napa Valley) wine shop I overheard a couple asking the shopkeeper about getting some pre-cult wines. I have to assume this means getting on the list for the latest expensive Napa Cabernet before everyone else finds out about it.

I find this need for pre-cults really funny. So I just have to make 100 cases of a Cab and charge $400 and I can be a pre-cult because no one's heard of me yet?  I think to get the formal status of a cult wine a score of 98 or better is required, but if I can sell it to the pre-cult crowd first who cares!

So does the wine actually have to be good? No, I think it just has to be in demand.

When I Googled "cult wine" I found an article from the San Francisco Chronicle written in 2008 titled "The new cult wines: ten wineries to watch." Well, I've heard of one of them, but then I admit to not being very trendy. Article

California's First Cult Winery

There's a fairly high-priced Cab producer that still makes their wines that way they did 30 years ago. The grapes are maybe picked less ripe than many and the wines are aged for quite a while in American oak barrels. This isn't very trendy at all. These wines are despised by a lot of wine geeks. I'm talking about Silver Oak. They are what I'd call our first cult winery. They had a very loyal following and actually still do.

Several years ago when I was working at a winery in Napa Valley the Silver Oak new release weekend was a big deal. It was a big party at the winery for the guests. For the rest of us it meant a lot of high-rollers were coming to town. and we hoped for a bit of overflow.

Cult Examples

I suppose Screaming Eagle is the one that comes to mind first. Don't even try to get on their mailing list. When you look up resellers that somehow got their Cabernet you see it going for well over a thousand dollars--a bottle. Cripes my first (and second) car cost less than that!

Harlan Estate is another high-end Cab producer out of Napa that is a cult winery, but their prices aren't as astronomical as Screaming Eagle's. At somewhat more normal prices folks like Dehlinger and Kosta Browne might be considered cult as they've gotten good scores for some of their wines and the waiting list to just have the opportunity to buy the wines is long. Or maybe they are boutique wineries.

Some of the Frenchies might be considered cult wines also. Chateau Petrus is certainly famous and the wines are very highly rated, but I don't know if there's a waiting list to put down a couple thousand dollars or more for a bottle. Okay, I suppose there probably is a feeding frenzy when the next release becomes available. I mean, if it costs that much it must be really good!

The Future

Will there be cult wines in 30 years? Well, will there still be people wanting to show off? Will there still be rich guys who want to make $500 bottles of wine as a hobby? Will they all be going to China?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Why Pinot Noir is headed for #1

Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are number one and two in American wine sales. It's been this way for a very long time. Third is Pinot Noir and fourth Pinot Gris (or Grigio). These last two are relative newcomers to challenging the top dogs.

Twenty years ago white wine outsold red by a large margin. Then the news stories about the health benefits of red wine started with the famous French Paradox story on 60 Minutes in 1991. It's still being debated whether red wine is really a fountain of youth, but the consumer has spoken as about half of all sales are red wine now.

So that's well and good, but why should Chardonnay and Cabernet be unseated? Many Chard lovers are a bit tired of it's typical "over-done" style. Pinot Gris is lighter, fruitier, and cheaper (no oak barrels required).

Cabernet Sauvignon will be knocked off as Americans eating styles change. We're moving from steak and potatoes to lighter and more complex fare. "Lighter and more complex" sounds like a comparison of Pinot to Cabernet, huh? There are styles of Pinots that match well with everything from salmon to pizza to beef tenderloin along with the traditional lamb, dishes with mushrooms, etc.
Miles & Jack taking their Pinot Noir seriously

Pinot Noir sales shot up after the movie Sideways popularized the wine. Sales seem to be sustaining so it wasn't just a short-term trend after the movie's release. What might hold back Pinot from taking over the #1 spot? Price because (1) It's difficult to grow and make compared to other reds and (2) supply-and-demand even though Sonoma County has been on a Pinot Noir "planting frenzy" for the past several years. Typically, premium Pinot Noir seems to be running $45-50. You can find good ones under $25, but it's not easy. In the lower price range Kenwood, MacMurray Ranch, and Mark West are good values.

In Sonoma County Delinger, Hanzell, Joseph Swan, Rochioli, and Williams-Selyem are some of the best-known producers that were specializing in Pinot long before it got trendy. Other folks getting lots of buzz are Kosta Brown, Martinelli, Merry Edwards, and Sojourn, but there are many other great ones out there. Have fun exploring!

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay overlooking the Pacific Ocean
Image from

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Midwestern Drought--Good for the Wine Grapes?

The 2012 drought in the central part the country has caused major concerns mostly for crops grown in the Midwest--corn, soybeans, etc. Crops sizes are way down and prices up.

One crop that may do really well is the wine grapes. Missouri sits right in the middle of the area hit hardest by the drought. To a lesser extent Michigan and Ohio wine growing will be affected. So why is the drought good? Wine grapes don't generally depend on growing season moisture. Rain can actually be bad once the clusters have formed as rot can set in. Rain water gets drawn up into the grapes and they increase in size, but not in flavor.

The West Coast's weather, where the vast majority of wine grapes are grown, is essentially in drought conditions every year as there's little or no rain from May through October.

The crop size in the Midwest will probably be smaller as the grape size will be smaller because of less moisture. This means more intense fruit flavors. It sounds like potentially one of the best years ever. That's a generalization as every vineyard and variety of grape will react a bit differently. Some vines that are used to summer rains may be stressed and may not recover fully next year.

Pay attention to the other fruit crops and you'll get an idea of how the grapes may do this year and next. The concern is deciding if this is a one year phenomenon or a longer-term climate change issue. If it's related to climate change then the growers will have to adjust.