Posts Tagged ‘dominus estate’

Hedging Bets With Cal Wine

September 10, 2011

With financial markets doing a crazy up-and-down dance around the globe these days, now might be a good time to invest in blue-chip California wines as a safe haven.

There’s definitely some upside potential and, even with a downturn, you can always drink your liquid assets.

 California Wine Month 

September is also California Wine Month, according to a proclamation from Gov. Jerry Brown that encourages citizens to pick up a glass and support the industry that rang up $18.4 billion in retail sales, employs more than 330,000 workers and drew 20.7 million tourists to the Golden State last year.

Here’s a list of special Wine Month activities, including several in or near the Bay Area.

Overseas Pricing Pressures

Globally,  more wealthy collectors in Asia are flexing their monetary muscle to acquire “trophy” wines from France like Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Le Pin and Ausone — all from Bordeaux.

When, not if, those collectors make a serious move on the California market, look out!

Hong Kong-based auctions — signaling the entry of “new money” from Asia — have pushed up prices for older vintages of top-ranked Bordeaux wines but haven’t helped light a fire underneath unreleased vintages of blue chip wines entering the sales pipeline.

The 2010 futures have been weak and the next vintage, from the 2011 harvest, is just now being picked or is still ripening in the vineyards.

The Wine Spectator Auction Index actually fell back a bit (3.6%) in the second quarter, after reaching a record high earlier this year. The index measures prices at auction of 32 blue chip wines from France, Italy, Portugal and California.

Blue Chip California Wines

All  California entries in the Wine Spectator index are cabernet-based wines from Napa that retail for more than $100, sometimes a lot more than $100. They include Araujo Eisele VineyardDominus EstateHarlan EstateHeitz Martha’s VineyardJoseph Phelps InsigniaOpus OneRobert Mondavi Napa Valley Reserve and Shafer Stags Leap District Hillside Select.

For most California cabernet producers, the latest vintages in retail distribution will be 2008 or 2009, depending on aging requirements.

On a lower price level, quality can be great from many Napa producers.

For example, I just tasted a really good bottle of 2008 Franciscan Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon ($27) sent to me by the winery for review. It had a lovely mocha backdrop with red berry fruit and finely integrated tannins. The wine improved overnight, with the flavors melding together nicely.

Mondavi will introduce its 2008 Napa Valley Reserve next Saturday (Sept. 17) with a special tasting from 2-5 p.m. at the winery in Oakville. Tickets are $75 in advance and visitors will be treated to the new release plus older vintages of reserve wines and a special tasting menu prepared by chef Jeff Mosher.

Screaming Deal

The highest priced Napa wine is usually Screaming Eagle, which can retail for $2000 (or more) per bottle after release.

The exclusive Napa winery’s sister winemaking operation, Jonata Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley near Buellton, offers a more “reasonably” priced selection of red wines from $50 to $125 per bottle.

The 2008 vintage from Jonata is due to be released next Wednesday (Sept. 14).


Merlot on My Mind

February 18, 2011

An impromptu invitation took me to Walnut Creek the other night with the chance to taste some high-caliber Napa merlot with roots in Russia, Bordeaux and Livermore.

Swanson Vineyards Merlot

The Swanson Vineyards 2007 Oakville merlot ($38 at the winery) feels firm in the mouth. It opens up on approach, revealing a core of silken fruits — black cherry and raspberry.

There’s a generous dose of mocha on the palate and a not unpleasant whiff of red bell pepper. Tannins were present, proper and not intrusive, thanks to the addition of 20 percent cabernet from the nearby Schmidt Ranch vineyard.

I tasted the wine at Il Fornaio in Walnut Creek where the restaurant hosted a wine dinner featuring Swanson selections and an appearance by winemaker Chris Phelps.

Muscular Merlot

Swanson is a merlot specialist operating in prime cabernet sauvignon territory where neighbors like Opus One, Silver Oak Cellars and Caymus take center stage.

When winemaker/consultant Andre Tchelistchef, whose expertise helped lift quality standards for the California wine industry, advised winery owner W. Clarke Swanson Jr. to purchase the 100-acre vineyard property in 1985, he  followed his advice.

When the Russian told Swanson the property — in the heart of Napa’s world-renowned cabernet corridor — was better suited for merlot, he took up the challenge, replanted the vineyards and set a course to be one of the premier producers of merlot in the state.

It’s the Clay

The soil composition at Swanson is a good match for some of the top vineyards of Pomerol, home to Bordeaux’s finest merlot-based wines that thrive in loamy soil with a healthy clay component. The Napa River, which runs along one edge of the Swanson property, left clay deposits that today help retain moisture and also serve to cool the vineyard soil when summer temperatures heat up.

Bordeaux Background

Phelps, who grew up in Livermore, cut his teeth in the winemaking trade in Bordeaux. He made wine at Château des Laurets after completing oenology studies at the University of Bordeaux. He got his undergraduate degree (in French) at UC-Davis, where he also studied winemaking.

Chris Phelps, Swanson Winemaker

While in France, Phelps worked for the Moueix family, owners of Chateau Petrus — Pomerol’s premier winery. He later returned to California to work at their Napa Valley outpost — Dominus Estate — where he spent a decade as winemaker. He then went to Caymus for several years before setting up shop at Swanson in 2003.

His approach with merlot is definitely Bordeaux-inspired. Phelps uses 30 percent new oak. Half the wine ages in French barrels and half in American oak.

The 2007 merlot is approachable upon release, but I think it would benefit from short-term aging. The 2006 Swanson merlot, served at dinner with a lamb entree, was a bit more open than it’s sibling, but just a shade less complex.

More Swanson Selections

Swanson is not a one-note melody. They make a wide range of small production wines, including a good $75 sangiovese, a delightful pinot grigio for summertime sipping plus a lovely estate chardonnay.

At the tasting, I enjoyed Swanson’s 2007 Alexis ($75), which is 90 percent cabernet and 10 percent merlot.

The cab comes from the Schmidt Ranch Vineyard on the western side of the valley, near the famed To Kalon vineyard pioneered by Robert Mondavi Winery. The wine — which sees only French oak — showed nice cherry fruit on the nose and a lush mouthfeel spiked with cassis and finely integrated tannins.

Winery visits can be arranged by appointment. One-hour formal tasting sessions are $60.


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