Archive for November, 2009

Good News, Bad News, Good News

November 25, 2009

First, the good news.

The holiday season is in full swing and there will be lots of opportunities to celebrate with some excellent values from all over the wine country.

The bad news?

The economic crisis has hit the wine business squarely in the bank account. There’s a surplus of wine available  — from here and abroad — and the 2009 vintage is bubbling along in preparation for joining the already crowded marketplace.

Mike Grgich, founder, Grgich Hills Estate

Mike Grgich

In a recent Napa Valley Register article, Mike Grgich, founder of celebrated Grgich Cellars, bemoaned the backlog of unsold wines in his warehouse. He’s not alone. Many wineries are scrambling to reduce inventories any way they can.

Now, some good news.

Wine prices are melting down across all categories — from vin ordinaire to formerly triple-digit  “collector” cabernet sauvignon from Napa and Sonoma.

There will always be exceptions, but the laws of supply and demand will dictate an almost unstoppable craving for any exceedingly rare, miniscule production wines that have developed cult status among deep-pockets collectors.

You won’t find Screaming Eagle in anybody’s discount bin.

An empty (yes, empty) Screaming Eagle wooden wine box is offered on eBay for $75. A single bottle of this highly-allocated cabernet-based wine from Napa, depending on vintage, commands four-digit and even five-digit prices.

That kind of mad pricing scheme won’t stop, no matter what the general economic climate, is, but any winery without sold-out inventory is definitely looking for ways to attract attention from a skittery consumer and the simplest way to do that is with price.

Clearing Out the Cellar

I’ve noticed several wineries across the region are clearing out their cellars and offering bargains on even older wines.

If you belong to any winery-sponsored wine clubs, check your mailbox for special offers that include even greater discounts.

A good example is a recent mailer from Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda, offering 30 percent discounts to wine club members during the holidays. Rosenblum is owned by Diaego Brands, a multi-billion-dollar wine and spirits corporation.

But much smaller operations, like zinfandel specialist Robert Biale Vinyeards in Napa, are also reaching out with special offers.

A holiday mailing from Biale offered special sets of library wines and pre-release pricing for the 2006 Hill Climber  Monte Ross Vineyard syrah ($36 for wine club members, $55 to non-members).

Budget Wine Country Destination

Heringer Estates, a family-owned winery in Clarksburg, is offering a two-for-one special on wines purchased at its tasting room on Black Friday (Nov. 27). Go early because the sale price is only good from 9 a.m. to Noon!

Heringer’s main business is farming 105 acres of  their own vineyards and managing another 350 acres for customers.  Most of Heringer’s crop goes to other wineries, but the family keeps some of the fruit to make a few thousand cases of its own brand.

Mike Heringer, winemaker, Heringer Estates

Mike Heringer

I met Mike Heringer, a sixth generation member of his California farming family, at a recent wine event. The talented winemaker told me they grafted over about 25 acres of chardonnay vines to eight more unusual strains of grapes to supply the family winery with fruit that will help differentiate their wines from the competition.

We tasted a 2005 Heringer petite sirah and, after a little airing out in the glass, it shed its rustic tannins enough to expose a vibrant core of rich, black and red  fruit. I’d call it a bargain at $21.

I’m also a big fan of the “bargain” wines produced by Bogle, another Clarksburg winery with a strong petite sirah program, including the latest release (2007) in a string of vintages going back 31 years. This wine is all about juicy blackberry fruit with a spicy edge. You can find it at grocery stores for less than $10.

Bogle’s holiday schedule includes daily tastings at the winery’s light and airy tasting room overlooking the Home Ranch Vineyard — about a 90-minute drive from San Francisco.


New Faces in Familiar Places

November 20, 2009

Some of the best known family names in wine country are just nameplates on the door. Mondavi, Martini and others have been gobbled up by big companies hoping to cash in on the cachet of wine celebrity.

But there are lots of true family-run California wineries that are getting an injection of energy,  appreciation for new technology and modern advances from a new generation of young guns looking to make their mark on the industry.

I tasted some interesting wines and met some of the new winemaking generation at a wine trends event in Sausalito earlier this week sponsored by the California Wine Institute and the California Association of Wine Grape Growers.

Mauritson Wines

Winemaker Clay Mauritson

Clay Mauritson

My favorite wine of the day was the 2007 Rockpile Ridge zinfandel ($35) from Mauritson Wines in Dry Creek Valley. It was poured by winemaker Clay Mauritson, representing the fifth generation of his winegrape-growing family.

“I like the 2004 (Rockpile Ridge) but I think the ’07 is going to be my new favorite. It’s showing very well,” Mauritson said.

I had to agree.

The wine was smooth and full of zinfandel character, tasting of blueberries with an edgy spiciness flanking finely integrated tannins. (To read my blog about Mauritson, click here.)

Wente Vineyards

The tastiest white wine at the event was the  2007 Nth Degree chardonnay poured by Karl Wente, the fifth generation winemaker at Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley. This limited production wine is blended from two of the estate’s top vineyards.

Karl Wente, Wente Vineyards

Karl Wente

The taste of this lightly golden wine was round and full-flavored on the tongue. It showed a sliver of citrus with hints of melon that developed as the chilled wine warmed up in my glass.

One of the vineyards used for Nth Degree is planted to the renowned Wente clone of chardonnay, which is widely used throughout California . The Wente clone vines are directly descended from vineyard cuttings brought to California from France nearly a century ago by a Wente family member.

“We operate the oldest, continuously operated, family owned winery in the country,” said Wente, who heads the family’s winemaking operations but describes his job as “flavor farmer and tannin farmer.”

Benziger Family Winery

Another family run operation, Benziger Family Winery, is having growing pains — of a sort. A new generation is marching in with aspirations of joining the wine business (Click here to see my blog about Benziger side project, Imagery, where Kathy’s brother, Joe Benziger, showcases his winemaking talents).

The solution is what Kathy Benziger, the last of seven siblings from the winery’s namesake, Mike Benziger, calls “our flaming hoops.”

Any younger nieces and nephews who want to work in the business have got to pass through a series of requirements to earn their spurs. The Benziger “family constitution” requires a college or trade school degree plus working experience outside of the winery.

“It’s really cool to be passing the torch to the next generation and seeing them really get into this business,” said Benziger, who was the East Coast sales manager in New York for more than a decade before returning to Sonoma for a senior marketing position.

Kathy Benziger, Benziger Family Vineyards

Kathy Benziger

“But the millennials think this is easy,” she said. “You have to instill in them that you have to go above and beyond to be successful. You are a family owner and you have to set the very best example.”

The Benziger family, originally from New York, moved to Sonoma in the 1980s to make wine and started the hugely successful Glen Ellen brand, which they sold 16 years ago to Heublein. The family poured the Glen Ellen-winemaking experience, and profit from the sale,  into today’s namesake business.

At the tasting, Kathy poured me a taste of a red wine called “Three Blocks” from the Signaterra collection, a grouping of wines made from specific vineyard sites or special vineyard blocks picked for the confluence of three forces — earth, nature and man.

I liked the soft mint and mild tannins in this $49 Bourdeaux-style blend, which is immediately approachable but could also improve a bit over the next few years. The 2006 is a combination of cabernet sauvignon (64%) and merlot (36%). This wine spent 18 months in French oak and was fermented with native yeast.

More Family Winemakers

For a closer look at some other California family wineries, check out my blog about the Family Winemakers of California tasting event held each summer in San Francisco.

Dolce: Different, Delicious, Decadent

November 13, 2009

Mold has given the world some good things — like penicillin — and some bad things — like spoiled food. Mold is generally a rotten thing in the wine world, with one exceptional example — late harvest wine.

The most famous of these dessert-style wines come from France, Germany and Hungary. But, there is a 20-acre vineyard in Napa where a special type of mold, and some demanding winemaking practices, transform normal sauvignon blanc and semillion grapes into a golden essence called Dolce.

There’s nothing else quite like it in the United States. It’s rare, rich and rather expensive.

I’d serve Dolce after dinner with fine cheese or perfectly ripe fruit. It would also be great with pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving but my favorite foil for dessert wine is foie gras. The texture of the liver and the richness of the wine makes my tongue tingle just thinking about it.



The sweet wine ($85/tenth)  is made from grapes infected with “noble rot,” which by its scientific name is known as “boytritis cinera“. The disease causes wine grapes to shrivel up like tiny prunes, concentrating the sugars in a viticultural tightrope dance between destruction and delight.

Botrytis is a benign mold that comes along when growing conditions allow it to thrive. Other more destructive molds and pests follow later and can destroy a vineyard quite quickly.

Timing is everything. Pick too late, and the bad molds can ruin the harvest. Pick too early, and the fruit might not ripen properly.

“It (botrytis) thrives within the berry after perforating the skin,” explained winemaker Greg Allen, who has been in charge of Dolce since 2001 vintage.

The entire process is frought with risk, Allen explained. One wrong turn, whether it’s weather-related or an infestation of insects, can ruin everything.

In 1987, the entire crop was lost and no Dolce was produced, but for the last eight years, Allen has triumphed to vinify varying amounts of this wine each year — ranging from a few hundred cases to 3,000 cases.

It’s basically a five-year process from harvest to release. The wine may take an exceptionally long time to ferment — anywhere from two to 10 months. It’s bottled after nearly three years in French oak barrels.

Far Niete Winery

Kenneth Rice for Far Niente Winery

Dolce is an independent offshoot of the Far Niente winery, which has been producing award-winning chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon in Oakville since 1979 (See a great piece we made on Far Niente here). The Dolce operation is housed in the same grand winery with the other wines, but everything is kept separate in the cellar and on the books.

The idea for producing a dessert-style wine came up one day when Far Niente management got tired of pouring someone else’s wines after dinner’s featuring Far Niente reds and whites.

But having the idea is one thing. Making this type of wine is something altogether different.

The Dolce block of the John’s Creek vineyard is in the Coombsville area, in the rolling hills on the east side of Napa Valley. Here, fog regularly rolls in without too much wind and the soils are exceptionally well drained.

The process starts in the vineyard, where normally a grower might thin out the leaves on each vine to expose the grapes to more sunshine to improve the ripening process. But with Dolce, it’s reversed.

With late harvest wines, the idea is to protect them from the sun by enhancing the canopy of leaves through different trellising methods. At the time of veraison — when the grapes have grown to full size, but before they begin to ripen — as much as half of the entire crop is removed from the vines.

At Dolce, only one bunch per shoot is left on the plant so that individual bunches of berries will not rub together. By harvest, less than 20 percent of the original volume of grapes is hanging on the vines.

If the grape bunches swing against each other in the wind, there will be bruising and the juice inside the grape could quickly turn to vinegar. If insects, like yellowjackets, swarm through the vines, they can literally suck the life from the berries.

Inopportune rains can ruin everything.

In 1998, with the grapes almost ready for harvest, almost the entire vineyard was covered in plastic sheeting when the forecast predicted an oncoming downpour. That storm dumped 5 inches of rain on the nearly-ready-to-be-picked vines.

Even though winds blew about one-third of the plastic canopy away, this unconventional intervention saved the harvest. The resulting wine — a deeply golden elixir that tastes of rich brioche and caramel — showed exceptionally well in a tasting at the winery earlier this week.

By contrast, the newest vintage — the 2005 — showed much more citrus fruit. There were orange oil tones and a touch of grapefruit spritz in this lighter, golden-hued wine. The 2005 was delicious, and like the 1998, it showed a distinctive and irresistible floral perfume.

By the time harvest rolls around, the botrytis-infected grapes are shriveled up shells of unctous nectar.

A veteran team of harvest workers, using needle-nosed snippers, work through the vineyard, going over and over the vines in the hunt for perfect fruit.

It’s a tedious and tremendously labor-intensive process that takes a week, maybe two in some years, to remove only the most perfect individual grapes.

In a regular harvest, a single worker might pick 400 pounds of fruit an hour. With Dolce, one worker might get only 10 pounds of grapes an hour.

This season, the harvest was completed in one week. As the fragile grapes are moved from the field to the winery, the winemaker processed the fruit in multiple batches, working to get the first step of the magic process under way as soon as possible.

Each batch is treated separately and later blended together in a meticulous process to achieve the right balance of fruit, aroma and taste.

The wines are ready to drink when released, but spending more time in the bottle produces some delicious improvements that seem to mount over time.

The Far Niente winery, which features a serious of spectacular underground caves dug into the hillside property, is open to visitors by appointment only. With a $50 tasting fee (waived with the purchase of any wine) there are no crowds here and a visit becomes an elegant experience not to be missed.

Wine club members get free tastings and also are invited to the winery’s annual open house every February when the Far Niente cabernet sauvignon is released.

Wonderful Wine With a Woman’s Perspective

November 6, 2009

I discovered Jocelyn Lonen wines almost by accident, but it’s the kind of accident I’d like to repeat over and over again because the wines are so good and reasonably priced.

The winery is an all-women affair. Brandi Jocelyn Pack manages the winery with a lot of help from winemaker Alison Green Duran, who also makes wine for the Hill Family Estate. Brandi’s mom, Susan Curtis, is a partner and Angela Herrera Lockhart is the national sales manager.

I was introduced to the winery at a tasting earlier this week at the Alameda Wine Co., where I found Angela pouring two reds and a white.

Brandi stepped into a leadership role after the death of her father, winery founder Lonen Curtis, who succumbed to brain cancer in 2004.

Brandi Jocelyn Lonen

Brandi Jocelyn Lonen

“This was our  dream… but I had no idea what I was doing,” Brandi said. “But, it’s really been an interesting process. I threw myself into it and tried to learn everything I could.”

The winery produced a terrific 2006 cabernet sauvignon, ($35) with a large portion of the grapes coming from the prestigious Stagecoach vineyard on Atlas Peak.

Here’s how Brandi describes it:

“I like upfront fruit, strawberry/cherry fruit,” she said. “I like the big California cabernets, with their big-bodied style. My parents tried to get me into French wines, but it’s so foreign to my palate. I just love that big, lush California cabernet and that’s what we are going for.”

The  2007 Jocelyn Lonen chardonnay ($26) is another winner. I enjoyed this wine for its butterscotch undertone and tropical fruit flavors plus a long, creamy finish. The reserve cabernet franc ($60) is delicious, but less than 100 cases were made and you’ll  have to join the Jocelyn Lonen wine club to get a bottle.

The wines are made at a custom crush facility. While there is no physical winery to visit, there are plans for a Napa tasting room to open next spring.

Warning: Wine Holidays Ahead

Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda is holding its annual holiday open house on Saturday (Nov. 7) from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets   are available online for $35 or $60 at the door. In addition to the wide array of Rosenblum wines open for tasting, there will be music and appetizers, including zinfandel ice cream. Rosenblum’s reputation was built on top-grade zinfandels (their 2007 Rockpile zin won a 90-point score from Wine Spectator), but they also make some highly rated syrah and petite sirah wines.

Just a hop, skip and a ferry ride away from Rosenblum, at Dashe Cellars in Oakland, they will be celebrating the holidays on Saturday with a different twist — a paella party.

Dashe, located just off Jack London Square, will be showcasing some of the winery’s award-winning zinfandels alongside giant servings of paella prepared by well-known chef Gerard Nebesky.

The event runs 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. On tap for tasting will be barrel samples of the 2008 vintage along with some very special zins from the 2007 vintage, including wines made from the Florence and Louvau vineyards.

Ask for a taste of the late harvest zinfandel from Dashe, which won high praise in a recent review by the Wall Street Journal.