Archive for March, 2010

Rhone Rangers on a Roll

March 31, 2010

The annual Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco showcased some great syrah and petite sirah wines, but it was the grenache that really caught my eye and tickled my tastebuds the most.

The 13th annual grand tasting at Fort Mason last weekend featured Rhone-style wines from 102 producers from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

When handled properly, good grenache fills the glass with a nose of spiciness  and a taste of berries and other red fruits. Many producers will combine grenache with syrah (more acid and tannin) and mourvedre (darker colors) to produce a blend that showcases the best characteristics of each varietal.

Carina Cellars Vineyards

I happen to like all three, on their own or in blends, but a few of the grenache wines really stood out, including a bottle from Carina Cellars in Paso Robles.

Carina’s grenache, from the 2007 Tierra Alta Vineyard in Santa Barbara, showed intense red fruit in the glass with a pleasurable edge of plums on the tongue. It’s available ($28) only from the winery.

Frick Winery of Geyserville poured tasty cinsault and carignane — two grapes that you don’t normally see bottled outside a blend — but it was the 2006 grenache that really captured by interest. Made from Dry Creek Valley grapes, the fresh fruit in this wine seemed to leap from the glass to my lips.

Another nice grenache (The Crossroad, $25) was poured by Curtis Winery from Los Olivos. Made in a lighter style from Santa Ynez Valley fruit, this 2006 wine includes 20 percent syrah.

Leslie Preston

I also liked the fresh, uncomplicated 2008 syrah ($29) from Coiled Wines, which are made from fruit grown in Idaho. Winemaker Leslie Preston splits her time between her Napa home and an Idaho co-op where she makes wine from Snake River Valley fruit.

“I think there is a lot of potential in Idaho,” said Preston, who has worked at Clos du Bois, Saintsbury and Stags’ Leap in California. “There’s a fresh intensity of fruit that I really like.”

I was able to re-taste the exciting 2006 Estate petite sirah ($28) from D. H. Gustafson Family Vineyards. This is the first wine made from Gustafson’s stunning hilltop winery near Lake Sonoma (see my earlier blog on Gustafson) and the 2007 version is nearly as good, too.

For a celebrity experience, try the 2007 syrah made by Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery from a Livermore Valley vineyard owned by former Raiders coach and football analyst John Madden. The flavor profile is a delicious mix of cherry, black pepper and a hint of chocolate .

The top syrah on my scorecard were the 2006 Zio Tony Ranch ($75) from Martinelli Winery in Windsor. This one hit all the pleasure points that a syrah lover wants to find — finely integrated tannins, a pleasant spiciness balanced by broad, expanded red fruit.

My second favorite wine overall was the glorious 2007 Espirit de Beaucastel ($50) from Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles. This red blend had all the elements of a genuine Rhone champion. It should. The winery is run by the same family that owns the esteemed Chateau de Beaucastel in France.

The biggest bargain wine of the tasting was the Cotes du Crows blend of grenache and syrah produced by Morgan Winery in Carmel. I’d order a second (or third) glass of this $16 quaffer anytime.

One of the most interesting 2007 grenache-syrah blends I tasted came from a little winery in Oakland called Prospect 772 Wine Company. The $36 wine is called The Brat, a name chosen due to the difficult-to-cultivate grenache grape’s character.

You can taste Prospect 772 wines  — and other wines from more than a dozen urban Bay Area wineries — at the annual East Bay Vintners Alliance passport event on April 10.


Pinot Pig-Out

March 21, 2010

Renown chef Charlie Palmer invited a few of hundred friends, cooks and wine lovers over to his restaurant inside the Hotel Healdsburg for a pork and pinot blow-out this weekend.

It was the fifth annual Pigs and Pinot event, with proceeds going to the local school system and Share Our Strength, a charity that helps feed poor kids.

Click here for a KTVU video of the event or enjoy our slideshow from the Pigs and Pinot competition.

The field was heavy with California wines, especially from the Russian River Valley region, which produced the winner of the coveted Pinot Cup and also the runner-up.

Best Swine Wine

Woodenhead Winery’s 2007 Buena Tierra Vineyard pinot noir won the blind tasting by three celebrity judges — Ray Lisle (wine editor for Food & Wine magazine), Virginie Boone (wine writer for the Press-Democrat) and Rusty Gaffney (founder of The Pinot File).

Williams Selyem placed second with its 2007 Westside Road Neighbors bottling, a wine made from grapes from several Russian River area growers .

Both of the top wines were great.

The Woodenhead ($55) provided a mouthful of restrained red cherry fruit with a hint of spice (cinnamon?). The Williams Selyem ($100) was smooth from the first taste to a long, lingering finish that featured bright cherry fruit with a pleasant hint of earthiness.

Domestic Dominance

California and Oregon were well represented in the wine competition, which  included entries from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France. I was disappointed by most of the overseas entries, but there was a lot to like in the Dujac 2007 Morey-St.-Denis,  a solid village wine from Burgundy’s Cote de Nuit.

The food at this event was outstanding, if you like pork, which was an ingredient in just about every dish from appetizers to desserts.

Palmer’s barbecued ribs were sweet and juicy, a fine foil for most of the pinots poured during the first night of the weekend that also included a gourmet dinner on Saturday with guest chefs trying to out-do each other with signature dishes along with seminars on pinot noir.

Palmer can cook anything with flair, but he showed a special talent with pork, illustrated by a dish of crisp skinned porchetta with chimichurri sauce.

Guest chefs included Bryan Voltaggio and Kevin Gillespie from the Top Chef television competition plus Roland Passot (La Folie in San Francisco) and celebrity chef Tyler Florence.

Barndiva's decadent dessert

Pork for Dessert?

I found especially creative the dessert concoction presented by Barndiva, a Healdsburg restaurant featuring “progressive” California cuisine. The dense fudgey cubes of decadence blended peanut butter, banana and chocolate flavors. Crowning each bite was a spun sugar tuile speckled with fried prosciutto.

Florence, Fan Favorite

One of the biggest lines formed to meet Florence and sample his cooking. The handsome chef, well known for his work on the Food Network, took time to explain each facet of his porcine creation as admiring attendees queued up for a taste.

“I call it ‘Relationship’ because it reunites the pig with elements of its life,” Florence commented.

Tasty roast pork was laid over a bed of whey flavored with white truffle oil and slivers of earthy black truffle scattered across micro greens. The pigs used in the dish were fed a diet of whey and other organic materials. And, similar pigs are used to hunt for wild truffles in Europe.

Florence makes his own excellent pinot noir (TF, 2008, Split Rock Vineyard, $60), which he poured to complement his dish. Although it wasn’t an official entry in the competition, it was a great match!

The Mill Valley chef will introduce a wider lineup of wines later this year.

When he’s not expanding his empire in food-oriented directions, Palmer is also a winemaker with a $65 pinot noir called “Charlie/Clay.” His partner in the winemaking venture is Dry Creek Valley’s own award-winning winemaker Clay Mauritson.

Click here to read my blog about Mauritson wines.

Cal-Irish — No Green Wines Here

March 12, 2010

With St. Patrick’s Day approaching, I looked around for some wines with an “Erin go bragh” bent and, surprisingly, found an interesting and representative selection that you don’t have to go to Ireland to  taste.

To immerse yourself in Irish wine culture, you should go to the When Irish Wines are Smiling tasting event Sunday at the Rutherford Grange in Napa Valley. Advance tickets are $30 at the door, $25 in advance from Brown Paper Tickets.

Four-leaved clover

Four-leaf clover, for luck

The tasting event, organized by Small Lots, Big Wines, features a dozen  or so wineries from Napa, Sonoma and the Sierra foothills. There will also be Irish-themed entertainment and food, including cheeses imported from the old country.

“Cal-Irish” wineries pouring at the event include:

Brown Estate — A zinfandel specialist from Chiles Valley owned by the Brown family, whose ancestry is Jamaican. I’m not sure where the Irish connection fits in, but they really know how to make good zin and have a good time at Brown Estate. Join the wine club and you could get invited to the winery’s annual Kentucky Derby Party!

Dillon Vineyards — A very small producer of very good chardonnay, grown just south of Yountville.

Fitzpatrick Winery — A winery in the Fairplay appellation (near Placerville) producing a dozen or so red and white wines, mostly priced between $10 and $20 a bottle. Take a look at my recent blog about Fair Play wines.

Harrington Wines — A producer of fine pinot noir wines, sourced from top vineyards across the state.

Irish Family Vineyards — Family owned winery in Calaveras County that produces several cute Irish-named wines — Blarney Red, Blarney White, Kilkenny Red, and Pog Mo Thoin, which means “kiss my a** in Gaelic” — along with the more recognizable petite sirah, chenin blanc, viognier, tempranillo and barbera. Prices generally run $10-$30 per bottle.

Kelley and Young Wines — A new label produced by a husband-and-wife team whose family owns the Robert Young Estate and also farms about 320 acres of vineyards in the Alexander Valley.

McGrail Vineyards — Small Livermore Valley producer of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

Murphy Vineyards — A father-and-son team (Kevin and Peter Murphy) with a background in vineyard management also make fine cabernet, merlot and syrah under their namesake label from grapes grown in Napa and the Sierra foothills.

Obrien Estate — A small family winery in Napa producing an award-winning blended red wine (Seduction — made from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot grown in the Oak Knoll district.) and also makers of a fine merlot, and chardonnay.

Sullivan Vineyards — Another Napa Valley producer of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay plus a few high-end Bordeaux-style, blended red wines.

Taylor Family Vineyard — A small producer on the Silverado Trail in Napa, making cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Twomey Cellars — An award-winning “merlot-only” winery in Calistoga, owned by Silver Oak. Click here to read my blog on Silver Oak and Twomey.

Waits-Mast Family Cellars — A husband-and-wife winemaking effort from a  San Francisco couple (Brian Mast and Jennifer Waits) who produce tiny amounts of top-grade pinot noir sourced mostly from Mendocino County.

Livermore — A Bit West of Ireland

Concannon is a good Irish name and it’s also the name of a good winery in Livermore that makes a wide range of fine wines.

James Concannon founded his namesake winery, now owned by the Wine Group of San Francisco, in 1883 after leaving Ireland to make his fortune in America.

The Concannon Vineyard winery has been active ever since. It’s best known for releasing California’s first varietal labeled petite sirah back in 1961. The Concannon petite sirah is an inexpensive “go-to” wine when you need a good daily sipper that sells for $10-$12 in supermarkets and wine shops.

They are throwing a founder’s day bash at Concannon on Saturday (1:30-3:30 p.m., March 13) to honor the winery’s founder, who was born on St. Patrick’s Day! No charge to attend. Small fee for tasting. Picnicking is free on the grounds around the winery, which is surrounded by petite sirah vineyards.

Visit Napa, See Paris

Eiffel Tower, shot from the Trocadero

Eiffel Tower

A new photography exhibit, featuring images from the award-winning book, Paris Icons, will open a week from Saturday (March 20) at Mumm Napa winery. The exhibit includes 50 pictures that emphasize the spirit of France’s most famous city. Author Leslie Little, and photographer James Scholz will sign copies of the book at the event, which runs 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the winery’s photo gallery.


Buyer’s Market Opens Up

March 4, 2010

The forecast calls for a broadening wave of bargains across wine country. While the slow general economic comeback holds demand down, prices are dropping left and right.

A trend like this forces producers, distributors and retailers to battle ever harder for buyer’s attention. They use lowball prices and special offers to try and make their cash registers spin.

Lately, I’m seeing deeper and more serious discounts.

Wine-selling websites like, online sales by retailers like K&L Wine  Merchants in San Francisco and affinity sites like bottlenotes trumpet values left and right. Wines from around the world often sell for less (at higher quality) than competitively priced California wines, so shopping around makes a lot of sense.

For consumers in a buying mood, pick a market and you’ll find a lot of great values across the full price spectrum, including some of the recent wines I’ve tasted that are listed below.

Global Sip Trip in SF

I recently attended the “Around the World in 80 Sips” event at Crushpad in San Francisco. The title implied a global sampling, but only 25 percent of the participating wineries were from California.

Here are my top picks from the tasting, in three special categories:

Top Value ($10-20)

These wines should cost more, but don’t.

The Sablet Cotes du Rhone Villages 2007 from Domaine du Grand Bourjassot is a fine example. There are a lot of  Rhone Valley values in the market today, including this red  blend (grenache and syrah) from the southern Rhone Valley that retails for $13.95. It’s fresh and tasty, with enough bite to stand up to red meats and cheeses. The wine is very approachable today and should hold at this level for a few more years.

Top Quality ($20-$50)

These wines show special qualities normally found in higher priced bottles.

I have been meaning to try the wines from Scholium Project for years and got my chance at the Around the World event where I tasted the 2007 Choephoroi, a $45 chardonnay from the Los Olivos vineyard in Suisun Valley. This isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s a full-throttle golden wine — tasting of the earth and minerals — given a Greek name, Choephoroi, that means libation bearers.

Click here to read an earlier blog about Suisun Valley wines.

A lot of thoughtful winemaking takes place at Scholium Project, housed at the Tenbrink Winery in Fairfield, where dozens of imaginative wines are made from numerous sources around wine country. The 2006 Tenbrink Babylon ($36) is a delicious blend of mostly petite sirah and syrah with some mourvedre and malvasia tossed in for good measure.

Over-the-Top ($50+)

These are wines of wonder that defy limits of any kind.

I liked all three wines that winemaker and winery founder Cathy Corison poured for me. The Corison vintage 2002 and 2006 estate cabernets ($70) are drinking great and the 2005 Kronos, a single vineyard wine made from gnarly old vines that produce only small amounts of fruit, is glorious. You can spend more, much more, for Napa cabernet, but why bother?

Winemaker Cathy Corison in her Napa vineyard

Cathy Corison tending her vines

All of Corison’s cabernets are aged in small French oak barrels. The Kronos ($98) is an elegant wine that balances the power of cabernet with a delicacy that makes the wine approachable while young yet capable of aging for years. Blackberry flavors mingle with black cherry and a touch of cassis to showcase a wine that just kept revealing more nuances the longer it stayed in the glass.

Corison has been making her own red wine in Napa since 1987. Before that, she honed her skills as winemaker for Chappellet Vineyard, Staglin Family Vineyard, York Creek Vineyards and Long Meadow Ranch.

Look South, America

I’m picky when it comes to malbec, a great red wine grape grown mostly in South America. I’ve tasted an ocean of these wines, but found most to be just “OK, but not great.” I found a lot to like in a nice little $10 bottle of Argentine malbec that I tasted the other day.

It’s the 2007 vintage from Navarro Correas and this fruit-forward malbec is lip-smacking good with gobs of red fruit and a nice touch of tannin. I enjoyed a glass with a spicy chicken burrito and then matched it the next night with a plate of pasta smothered in an Italian sausage, tomato and onion sauce.