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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What wine should I like?

  This is something most newer wine drinkers ask others they deem to be experts. There are so many wines out there so where do you start?

  The first place to look is at the price range. If you can't see spending more than $20 a bottle that's fine. Just know that will leave out a huge range of premium wines from Napa Cabernet to French Burgundy. On the other end of the scale don't assume you have to spend over $50 to get a good bottle of wine. Even if that were true, every meal and every circumstance probably doesn't call for anything that pricey. Does it make sense to pop open a $75 Cabernet when you're grilling burgers? (Okay, it might to some of us).
Which one of these is best?
First, define "best"
Image from

  There are sweet and dry wines, then there are sweet tasting wines. A dry wine that actually tastes sweet may be a fruit-forward wine--one where the fruit flavors and sometimes the alcohol (alcohol can taste sweet) overwhelm other characteristics. Some wines taste drier, some acidic, some taste more of the soil, some more of an oak barrel, etc.The trick here is: Sweeter tasting wines can seem quite pleasant on the first sip. That dry, maybe somewhat acidic wine may not be as appealing at first, but will be better with food. 

 Think of it as cocktail wines vs. dinner wines. The fruit-forward, higher alcohol wines do best in the "cocktail before dinner" situation. Usually something lower in alcohol and showing some acid backbone goes best with food. So decide how you're going to use the wine.

  I haven't mentioned what variety of wine you should try to zero in on because there is no right answer. Just know it would be a mistake to decide that you only like Pinot Gris or Merlot or whatever. There are many varieties of wine out there to explore from Chenin Blanc to Carignane.

  For red wines, in general, Grenache and Zinfandel will be more fruity wines, Pinot Noir more earthy (though some are very fruity), Cabernet is heavier. In the whites Chardonnay is softer (lower acid), Sauvignon Blanc has thirst-quenching acidity.

  You will no doubt find producers you prefer. You may find appellations you prefer for certain varieties such as, "I really like Russian River Pinot Noir, Dry Creek Zinfandel, and Carneros Chardonnay."
Look for common characteristics in wines you enjoy, such as where it's grown, or certain traits like fruity, oaky, full-bodied, etc.

  The next step is understand how you will use the wine--as a stand-alone drink (a cocktail), with a heavy, meaty dinner, during a warm afternoon chicken BBQ, etc. The circumstance and even the season (a hot day vs. a cold, winter day) makes a difference! 

  If you can't taste before buying then be able to describe what you want in a wine to a knowledgeable wine shop owner.

  As you can see "the wine you should like" can depend on how/where/when you will be drinking it.

  Should you like wines that get high point scores, win gold medals, or otherwise get lots of press? Yes, because some "experts" like these the best. No, because what they want in a wine and what you want are often different. That's important to understand.  I'm often asked by visitors, "What wine do you like?" or "What is your best-selling wine?"  You know what, that doesn't matter. It's like buying a Toyota Camry because it's the best-selling car in the U.S.  Okay, I suppose some people might actually do it for that reason, but you should be smarter with your money then just following the crowd.

  So the wine you should like is the one that fits with your life. Have fun exploring!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The California drought and grape growing

Calendar year 2013 and into early 2014 is a record drought in California. Voluntary and mandatory water rationing is already in effect in January, in what should be the rainiest month of the year.

How might this affect the 2014 wine grape season?

First, many are worried about frost control. When the tender young shoots come out in early spring they are susceptible to frost damage. Sprinklers are often used to coat the vines with water to prevent freezing. The warm, dry winter may mean an early bud break and a longer than normal frost season.

Once the frost season is past many vineyards require water for their vines. Cutting the crop size will mean they can get by on less water. This will hurt growers economically and eventually cost consumers if the crop size is cut either by frost or on purpose because of short water supply.

Various wine associations and county water departments are having discussions on how to proceed this year.

Unless we have some kind of rain "miracle" in the spring it would appear we are in for a short grape crop in 2014. Luckily, this follows two years of large crops.

California grows a lot more than wine grapes, of course. Expect to see higher prices and short supply with many fruits and vegetables this year if things stay dry.  It's mostly conjecture at this point so there's no need to get too worked up -- unless you grow wine grapes for a living.

Article in the Press Democrat:  Worried vineyard owners

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sustainable Grape Growing in Sonoma County

 Sustainable farming in the broad sense is getting what we need now from the land without harming it for future generations.

 The Sonoma County Winegrowers represent 1,800 growers. Within five years they want 100% sustainably grown grapes for all vineyards in the county. This will be the country's first sustainable wine region.  All vineyard land will be assessed to see what is needed and a plan created to move to sustainability (many vineyards are already there). A third party will determine certification. It's quite a project. 


Solar panel array at Rodney Strong Vineyards
 They became sustainably certified in 2010
Image from

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Local backlash in cutesy wine towns

Healdsburg and Sonoma are the two most well-known towns for visitors to Sonoma County. Both are easily accessible from local highways, both are small and walkable with town squares. Both are also full of hotels, retail shops aimed at tourists, restaurants, and have lots of drinking establishments--mostly tasting rooms and wine bars. Each town has about 15 winery tasting rooms in their town centers.

Some of the local population isn't happy with all the growth and being a hub for drinking. Healdsburg has mostly focused on the number and size of hotels, not on tasting rooms. But if you've ever been in Healdsburg on a big wine event weekend it takes on the look of a mini Mardi Gras.

Sonoma has an organized coalition called Preserving Sonoma that is essentially battling with local businesses. It's almost too little too late for both towns as there really isn't much in their town centers for the locals except maybe a chance to use all the great eateries on weekdays when they're not filled up.

Article on the latest in the town of Sonoma, "Too Many Tasting Rooms?"


Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 wine predictions

Here's what's gonna happen in the wine market this year. Yes, I have insider connections that have guaranteed this stuff. As an added bonus they even gave me the name of the Kentucky Derby winner!

February 2014

A new study shows the daily consumption of four glasses of sparkling wine will eventually lead to pregnancy.

March 2014

China buys Napa Valley after a protracted bidding war with Disneyland.

April 2014

The California drought (is this part of global warming or not?) means the grape farmers can't water their crop.Worse yet, what's going to happen to the marijuana crop?

May 2014

Duck Dynasty wine gets 94 points in the Wine Spectator.

June 2014

The bottom falls out of the China wine boom as they turn to craft beer and gin.

July 2014

Wine Spectator loses 30% of its subscriber base in the Northeast. Mississippi sells its first ever copy of the WS. Still, Guns and Ammo sells a copy in Mississippi every 3.2 seconds.

August 2014

Australia dumps 50 million gallons of wine originally destined for China on New Zealand.

September 2014

Napa releases its first $100 cult craft beer. Dentists and lawyers immediately buy up the entire stock forcing the brewery to start a mailing list with a three year waiting period.

Oct 2014

The lack of water to dilute the fruit on the vines leads to what's hailed as the highest quality harvest ever. As Robert Parker puts it, "The flavors are incredible. And all without residual sugar!"

November 2014

With the lack of water for irrigation California announces the 2014 grape crop is 40% lower than expected. Many people go, "Hmmmm."

December 2014

After a short skirmish Northern California separates from Southern California. SoCal becomes HollywoodWorld; NorCal become Bordough (rhymes with Sourdough) hoping to cash in on bigger wine sales. France immediately sues. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Sonoma County farmer passes

Trentadue Winery in the Alexander Valley lost its founder.  Leo Trentadue passed away earlier this month at the age of 88. He spent his life in agriculture except for the his time in the army during WWII. Leo started on the family's apricot farm in the Santa Clara Valley (now part of Silicon Valley).  He and his wife moved to Sonoma County's Alexander Valley about 55 years ago to a ranch planted to plums and grape vines.

Alexander Valley is well-known amongst wine folks. When Leo Trentadue and is wife moved there it was an unknown, remote area. He was one of the first to plant new vines in Sonoma County after Prohibition. He helped put Alexander Valley on the map.

The Trentadue family owns one the the oldest vineyards around. It was planted to obscure varieties like Carignane and Alicante Bouschet in the 1880s. Most people would have cleared it out and replanted years ago, but not Leo.

He opened Trentadue Winery in 1969--several years before the California wine boom began. They make some solid red wines and have a popular venue for wine country weddings.

The family in 1969 when they opened the winery
Image from

Monday, January 13, 2014

Latinos in Wine

It would make sense that you'd find Latino winemakers in California as much of the work in the vineyards and in the cellars has been done by immigrant farm labor plus first and second generation people from south of the border. But for a long time it's been mostly, well, white males with a few females finally making inroads. (See previous post on women winemakers).

Some of the more successful ones might be Robledo Winery and Ceja Vineyards. Both operate mostly in the Carneros region of southern Napa and Sonoma. The Robledo story starts with a teenage immigrant going to Napa Valley and working in the vineyards for 30 years before starting his own vineyard management company then buying vineyards and finally opening a winery. The Ceja story is three generations of vineyard work before opening their own winery. The family also has a new craft brewery.

Ulises Valdez
Image from
Quintessa in Napa is owned by a successful businessman from Chile.

In Sonoma County one of the newer ones is the Valdez Family Winery. Valdez came to the U.S. in 1985 looking for work with no plan of ever managing hundreds of acres of vineyards let alone have his name on a winery. Valdez's Chardonnay was served at a White House state dinner with the president of Mexico.

A local wine tour company offers bilingual Hispanic Winery Tours showing there's a desire amongst Latinos to learn about their own wine heritage and successes.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Winter Wineland January 18-19 in Sonoma Counrty

There aren't a lot of wine country events during the sleepy winter months. Winter Wineland is the biggie for Sonoma County.  The event is sponsored by a northern Sonoma winery association, the Wine Road. This covers essentially the Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valleys.

Winter Wineland is a ticketed event that gets you into about 130 wineries. Okay, you probably can't get to all of them in two days so you may have to be selective. Everyone participating will be running some sort of wine sale. Some will have the winemakers available to talk with, some will have food, music, theme parties, cellar tours, etc.

The Saturday and Sunday of the event is during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

Get your tickets at the Wine Road website.

Some suggestions:
  • Get tickets, hotel reservations, and dinner reservations in advance. Tickets may sell out, hotels may fill up, you may wind up having dinner at In-N-Out!
  • Get lodging in Santa Rosa, Windsor, or Healdsburg to be centrally located.
  • Plan each day to cover one area, such as Saturday in the Russian River Valley and Sunday in Dry Creek.
  • This is a great chance to look for wineries that aren't normally open to the public, but are for this event.
  • Bring a lunch or plan a restaurant stop during the day! Seems simple, but a lot of people forget about eating until about 2 pm when they are way up in Dry Creek Valley somewhere.
  • This affair runs from 11am to 4pm each day at participating wineries. Some of these wineries will be open before or after these hours for regular tasting.
Hope to see you then!

January in the Russian River Valley

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Changing of the guard at B.R. Cohn Winery

B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma Valley is known for Cabernet, olive oil and the Doobie Brothers.

Bruce Cohn is the manager of the Doobie Brothers rock band. He wisely invested in Sonoma County real estate 40 years ago and opened the winery 30 years ago. Almost from the beginning of the winery he hosted a yearly concert in his vineyards with the Doobies and other big-name bands from that era. No rap music allowed though that could change.

Bruce has been grooming his oldest son, Dan, to take over the family business. Dan and his siblings grew up in the winery and it appears he has worked in most all aspects of the wine business. Have you started seeing B.R. Cohn wine on your local store shelves in just the last few years? That's Dan's doing as sales manager. Dan is now CEO. Bruce will still be active in the winery, but appears is retired from the day-to-day activities. Dan's brother and sisters also work at the winery.

This sounds like it should be a successful turning over of the reins unlike some of the other local family wineries--Deloach and Viansa are examples of the children not having the same success as their parents.

Bruce Cohn, besides the autumn concerts to benefit charity, puts on classic car shows that also benefit local charities. He has a pretty nice collection of old cars himself. Bruce got into the olive oil business almost 15 years ago at the very beginning of the California olive oil boom.

Bruce has done well for himself. Let's hope the kids have the same business smarts.

Article from the Press Democrat

On another note: One of the smaller corporate-owned wineries in Sonoma County, Alderbrook, has been sold. The Terlato Group out of the Chicago area kept the name, but has sold the property. The new owner is a local. What you'd call a wine & beer executive, I suppose. He owns vineyard property in the county. Hopefully, this will be good for Alderbrook (whatever their new name will be) as they've been through several owners.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wine trends for 2014

As we head into a new year it's fun to predict what 2014 will bring in the adult beverage industry. The easiest way to predict is just to look at what has happened recently. From that you can guess as well as I can on what trends will continue for the coming year.

Some of the top Sonoma/Napa area events for 2013

Acquisitions - Wineries and vineyards are changing hands at a more rapid pace as the economy improves. When the Chinese buy it's in the news, but most new ownership is American groups already in the wine business. Although there have been folks from places like Chile move into the local wine scene. Gallo and Kendall-Jackson are buying up vineyard property.

Wine quantity - 2012 and 2013 were years of large crop sizes. I wouldn't call it a wine glut, but this should help keep prices steady. By the way, in Australia, grape prices are taking a nosedive as the export-dependent Australian industry is working its way out of the worldwide recession.

Treasury Wine Estates - A multinational corporation that owns Beringer, Chateau St. Jean and many other local wineries may be in trouble. They made the news a few months ago for dumping a huge amount of wine then dumping their CEO.

New vineyards - Artesa Vineyards, owned by a Spanish wine company, has been trying for several years to put in a new vineyard in the highly-regarded Sonoma Coast appellation. The neighbors and environmentalists have been fighting to stop the clear-cutting of old second-growth forests.  A local judge recently ruled against Artesa, but you can bet they're not done trying.

National events for 2013

Wine drinking - American consumption is up for 19 straight years and shows no signs of slowing.

Drinking local - Almost 60% of wine consumed by Americans is domestic.

What we drink - Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are still numbers one and two, but the biggest growth is in sweet wines, white and red.

Who owns the market - Half of the top twenty wine brands are owned by Gallo or Constellation. These are wine labels such as Barefoot, Carlo Rossi (Gallo) plus Clos du Bois, Mondavi, Woodbridge (Constellation).

Beer and spirits - The market for high-end craft beer and expensive spirits is growing rapidly though it's not a huge percentage of the overall market.

What will 2014 bring?

I'm taking the easy way out: Improving economy means more wine sales and some of the big players continue to buy up some of the smaller ones.

One trend I'd personally like to see continue: Alcohol levels in many wines and beers go down to something reasonable. Wines with 16% and beers with 11% alcohol aren't my style. If I'm just looking for a buzz then a couple shots of a good reposado tequila is faster!

Have a safe and prosperous new year.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Visiting Sonoma County in the winter

The really popular season in the wine country, and the most crowded, is July through October with December through February being the slowest. So the obvious reason to visit in the winter is there are fewer people in the wineries, the restaurants and the hotels. Rooms are usually less expensive and the winery folk have more time to chat. You should be able to find rooms at the last minute, especially on weekdays.

The biggest thing keeping people away might be the winter weather, but winter in coastal California is not necessarily like winter in many places. It can get cold, but that's relative. In Sonoma County's main city, Santa Rosa, the average high temperature is 59 degrees, the low 39 degrees, for both December and January. These are the rainiest months with each averaging about six inches of precipitation.

So you can decide, is the chance of being wet and chilly worth the risk of having wineries to yourself? For me, any wine tasting trips I take to Napa Valley are usually on rainy Tuesdays in January. It's perfect!

February in Dry Creek Valley