Archive for June, 2010


June 26, 2010

This is a great time to be a fan of pinot noir in the Bay Area which is ground zero for Pinot Days — the biggest winetasting event in the country featuring a single varietal.

A series of smaller events have been held over the past two weeks leading up to the Pinot Days Grand Tasting on Sunday (June 27) at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Tickets are available online for $60 each. Walk-up tickets will also be for sale at the venue, where more than 200 wineries will be pouring their best bottles from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The list of wineries — starting alphbetically with organic producer Adastra from the Carneros region and running to Santa Rosa-based Zepaltas — is heavy on California entries. There’s also a contingent from Oregon, including Archery Summit and Domaine Serene, both leading pinot noir producers in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve attended a few pre-event tastings, including a special media-only preview of some of the top producers.

With more than 1000 different wines to choose from at the main event, there’s no way to taste everything in sight. I look for new faces in the crowd and also hope to find values coming from anywhere, especially some of the smaller wineries currently flying under the radar.

Hanzell Shines

Of course, no big tasting would be complete without a chance to sample the newest offerings from award-winning producers.

Hanzell Vineyards, Sonoma

My top pick from all of the wines poured at Pinot Days is Hanzell Vineyards 2006. Most wineries are pouring 2007s and 2008s, but this four-year-old bottle of $70 juice shines like a beacon with brilliant red fruit and a nose that is intoxicating. It needs decanting, at least a couple of hours, to really hit it’s stride, but it’s well worth the wait!

The fruit comes from a mountainside vineyard about a mile north of Sonoma, first planted to pinot noir in 1953. The estate now contains more than 42 acres of vines, with one-fourth planted to pinot noir and the rest chardonnay.

An old favorite of mine, Scherrer Winery in Sebastapol, is showing well with its 2007 Platt Vineyard pinor noir. The wine is immediately approachable, open and luscious with red cherry fruit and a whiff of sassafras. Winemaker Fred Scherrer sources the grapes for this wine  from a 15-acre parcel that sits at 400-800 feet above sea level, about five miles from the Pacific Ocean near the town of Bodega.

Moving north, to Mendocino, we find the home of Shandel’s Oppenlander Vineyard pinot noir. The 2007 vintage, released just this week, is a marvelous effort. It’s a darker pinot, thanks to some Pommard clone in the mix, with a nice spicy mint element to the nose and on the tongue.

Winemaker John Pepe and Laree Mancour at Pinot Days

John Pepe and Laree Mancour at Pinot Days

Oppenlander winemaker John Pepe points to the wild Mexican sage growing near the vineyard as one reason for the spiciness.There are about 20 acres of vines on the Surprise Valley Ranch property, which also operates as a timber and cattle ranch and is the source of award-winning blackberry jam.

From Z to A

I first heard about winemaker Ryan Zepaltas while tasting wines from Suacci Carciere Winery. He’s the winemaker for this boutique winery and consults with other small wineries.

I liked both versions of this wine from the 2008 vintage. The first, labeled Russian River, is a bit darker and heavier due to addition of about 20 percent whole clusters (stems and all) during fermentation of the juice harvested from the 6.5-acre vineyard. It has great raspberry fruit and a delightful spice-tinted nose.

No whole clusters were used in the 2008 Suacci Vineyard wine, which is lighter in appearance and taste. I sense cherry blossoms on the nose and a nice tartness on the approach to balance the pomengrante and cherry flavors.

Winemaker Ryan Zepaltas

Ryan Zepaltas

Zepaltas makes interesting pinot noir under his own label, too.

His own 2008 pinot noir ($44) from the W.E. Bottoms Vineyard in the Russian River region is outstanding. It’s a dark red wine with strong concentrations of cherry fruit to go with an earthy feel and flavor. It’s ready to go now (please decant this wine and let it sit for an hour to unleash its potential!) but the winemaker also believes it will get better with a few more years of age.

Making Marvelous Wine at Martinelli

I also liked a trio of amazing wines from Martinelli Winery, a six-generation family winemaking operation whose pinot noir and zinfandel programs are world class.

The 2007 Three Sisters pinot noir ($60) exhibits great spiciness with a long, firm finish that shows off great cherry/berry fruit. The 2007 Moonshine Ranch ($70) takes that great taste a step higher and the 2008 Zio Tony Ranch ($60) is just amazingly good with cola/tea flavors against a strong cherry component with a finish that just lingers in the mouth for minutes.

Looking to the Stars

While Martinelli controls hundreds of acres and has been a fixture in wine country for more than a century, Adastra has a much shorter time and space impact on the wine world.

Adastra (which means “to the stars” in Latin) has just 20 acres of vineyards in the Carneros region, where the operation is strictly organic. Owners Chris and Naomi Thorpe bought the property in 1984, thinking it would be a good site for cattle ranching. By 1989, they dropped the cows and began planting vines.

Today, Adastra grows chardonnay, merlot and six acres of pinot noir. The 2007 pinot noir is a very good wine ($40) but a bottle of the 2006 reserve pinot noir (Proximus, $56) is outstanding. Made from a mix of Pommard and Dijon clones, this big wine features a hint of spice against a long, dark elegant flavor that is hard to resist.


Summertime Sippers on Tap

June 18, 2010

I don’t need a calendar to tell me when it’s time to switch to lighter reds and sprightly whites.

Summertime sippers are the order of the day as temperatures rise across wine country.

My new favorite summer wine comes from a brand new winery — Urban Legend — in Oakland’s Jack London Square. The 2009 rosato di barbera ($16, 65 cases) is made from a rustic Italian grape that presents a lovely strawberry-centric palate. Click here to read more about Urban Legend

I really enjoyed a pair of low-cost bottles over the past week from different producers who aren’t exactly household names. Well, one of the labels does have some cachet — it’s a second-cousin of the much-publicized “Two Buck Chuck” from Charles Shaw.

I picked up a bottle of Crane Lake petite sirah (2008, $3.99) on a shopping trip to the Berkeley Bowl. I was standing in line at the cash register when I spied a nearby display of bargain wines. Nothing looked particularly exciting, but the Crane Lake label caught my eye.

At that price, I was just hoping for a red wine that wasn’t horrible. In fact, the wine was delicious.

It wasn’t complex, but it was smooth. There was a fruit forward character that belies the sometimes harsh tendencies of this varietal. The petite sirah would work well with barbecue ribs, burgers and other smoky, grilled foods.

I got interested in learning more about the wine, but a quick search of the internet didn’t turn up much background on Crane Lake or its lineage. I dug deeper.

Finally, I located the winery in Ceres. Where’s that, you ask? A quick dash to Google told me it was near Modesto at the same address as Bronco Wine Co. — the bargain-wine conglomerate that owns the Charles Shaw brand that sold for $48/case at Trader Joe’s.

Don’t bother looking for a Bronco Wine website. There isn’t one. The company, which controls more than 35,000 acres of vineyards, makes oceans of wine under Crane Lake and more than four dozen other labels.

Southern Hemisphere Surprise

The second bargain wine of the week comes from Chile. It’s a 2009 chardonnay from Viu Manent ($5.99) that I picked up on the bottom shelf of the wine aisle at Lucky’s. I wanted something different from the usual lineup of grocery store chardonnay, and I got a winner.

Pure luck. I didn’t know the label and am not an expert on Chilean whites, but the wine tasted great. Most California chardonnay at this price point is flabby, but not this wine. It was crisp, clean and flavorful — unoaked — and it was a great foil for a dish of tuna poke and white rice. It would work just as well with lemon chicken or white bean salad.

One More Bargain Red

I’d happily bring a case of Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend zinfandel to a summer cookout and I bet I’d be invited back again!

I received a sample of the 2008 zinfandel ($10) from the winery and it’s another fruit forward bottle made from a mix of grapes from all over wine country. The blend — 77 percent zinfandel, 18 percent petite sirah and 5 percent carignane — tastes of summer strawberries with just enough oak to give it some zip in the mouth. A glass of this wine was even better after a night in the refrigerator. The slight chill accentuates the fruitiness of the juice in a really good way.

Father’s Day Wine Reflections

June 10, 2010

My father was good at many things, but wine wasn’t really a passion for him.

Lancer's Wine

Art Thorsberg was a traveling salesman who sold rakes, shovels, hoes and other garden tools to hardware stores. On the weekends, he and my mother, Ruth, would enjoy an occasional glass of wine. I clearly remember bottles of Lancer’s and Mateus rose — both pink wines from Portugal — sometimes showing up in our refrigerator.

My dad was a bargain shopper, whether it was food, clothes or wine.

When he made business trips to Arkansas, the closest wine-producing state to our family home in West Tennessee, he would bring back bottles with names like pink catawba, alpine rose and niagra. They were inexpensive, medium sweet wines from Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, which is the oldest and largest winery in middle America.

I got my first sips of these wines at home and became intrigued. On my own, I developed a taste for drier styled table wines. I grew up and tasted new bottles of reds and whites from France, Italy and California. I started reading about wine and went to a few organized wine tastings.

Clos du Bois cabernet sauvignon from Alexander Valley — still a very nice wine — was one of my early California favorites.

I wanted to share my growing enthusiasm for fine wines with my parents, but my efforts fell woefully short of success.

On a family trip to Florida to watch spring training baseball, my wife and I took my parents to a fancy steakhouse with the most extensive wine list I’d ever encountered. Bern’s Steak House is still serving up sizzling steaks and fantastic wines in Tampa from a list that includes 6,800 entries from all over the world.

When we dined at Bern’s, the wine list was an actual book that was several inches thick. To keep patrons from stealing it, the book was chained to the table!

The list featured killer bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, treasures from Italy and Spain along with some of the most famous labels in the American wine industry. I pored over page after page of exciting possibilities, licking my lips at the liquid pleasure to come and  practically giddy with anticipation.

Trying to be nonchalant, I told my parents to order any bottle they wanted. No restrictions. It was on me.

My mom and dad, both products of the Great Depression, looked back in horror. They had no idea what to choose from such an enormous list and the prices, even though they weren’t paying, were daunting.

I offered multiple suggestions, but nothing struck a harmonious chord at the table.

This was frustrating. Here I was, ready to write a blank check for the wine dinner of a lifetime, and my parents hung back.

There was nothing on the list they were really curious about.

It was, however, a great list. And, it did have something for everyone. Even my parents.

Instead of a First Growth from Bordeaux, a beautiful pinot noir from the Cote-d’Or, an older Italian barolo or a stunning California chardonnay, they got something they really liked.

Mateus Wine

My mom and dad were treated to the most expensive bottle of Mateus rose’ they had ever had. It was the biggest bargain on the list.

I had wanted to impress my mom and dad with my knowledge of wine and my bankroll. I had also wanted to an exotic food and wine experience with my family.

What I got instead was a lesson in taste and maturity and it’s stuck with me through the years. I understand now that just because I think something is good, doesn’t mean everyone will agree. And that’s alright. If cost doesn’t matter, your taste still does.

Although it’s not to my taste, I think I’ll find a bottle of Arkansas wine and pour a glass in honor of my dad on Father’s Day.

Is Your Dad a Pinot Noir Lover?

If your dad is a fan of pinot noir, the world’s biggest gathering of pinot noir producers will be held in San Francisco later this month. The Pinot Days main event — a tasting of wines from more than 500 producers — is scheduled for June 26 at Fort Mason. Tickets for the grand tasting are $60 in advance. Several smaller events — winemaker discussions, food/wine pairings and special “mini-tastings” at various Bay Area wine shops and restaurants — are also part of the week-long celebration of all things pinot noir.

Share Your Experiences

Do you have any family wine experiences you’d like to share? Drop me a note. I’d love to hear about them.

End of an Era at Rosenblum

June 4, 2010

One winery opens its doors while another is closing the door on an era in Bay Area winemaking.

I wrote a recent blog about the new Urban Legend Cellars winery that opened in Oakland this spring. I didn’t know at the time that another urban legend, Alameda’s Rosenblum Cellars, will be closing its doors.

According to news reports, Rosenblum will move to Napa. No timetable has been disclosed.

I anticipated something like this happening after Diageo, a wine/beer/spirits conglomerate, purchased Rosenblum for $105 million in 2008. Once the new owners looked over the physical property — the winery is housed in a leased ship repair facility just across the estuary from Jack London Square and the port of Oakland — they probably figured consolidation with winemaking facilities in Napa made economic sense.

It’s part of an overall cost-cutting move by Diageo, which announced last month that it will trim close to 100 jobs — mostly in hospitality and tasting room operations. Rosenblum’s satellite tasting room in Healdsburg will be shuttered, but the main tasting room in Alameda will survive — for now.

Napa’s gain, maybe, but it’s definitely a big downer for Alameda. The Island City lost the Navy base in 1997 when the admirals relocated the facility’s nuclear aircraft carrier to another port in Washington state, but Alameda was still home to one of the leading zinfandel producers in the world.

Kent Rosenblum, Alameda winemaker and zinfandel specialist

Kent Rosenblum

Kent Rosenblum, a veterinarian by training, gets a lot of credit for the whole urban winery concept. Today, there is an association of 21 urban wineries, the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance, that traces its lineage directly through Rosenblum. Several of the urban winemakers worked with and for Rosenblum. Another family member, Kent’s daughter Shauna, is an urban winemaker herself. With some help from her famous father, she heads Rockwall Wines, which opened in 2008 in an old airplane painting hangar at the Alameda Navy base.

The elder Rosenblum started making wine with friends in Berkeley in the 1970s. In the next decade, he moved the operation to Alameda, where the list of wines grew by leaps and bounds with special emphasis on zinfandel and Rhone-style red wines.

The plan was to bring in good grapes from selected growers in different areas to Alameda where the transformation into wine was completed. The result was a truckload of gold medals and high ratings from the critics over the decades.

Now, the production is likely to shift to Diaego’s facilities at Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) in Rutherford, where the emphasis is on cabernet sauvignon like the 2005 Georges de Latour Private Reserve, a $90 bottle that earned a 95 rating from Wine Enthusiast.

Racetrack Wine

The East Bay Vintners Alliance is helping celebrate the Belmont Stakes at Golden Gate Fields on Saturday (June 5) with a winetasting event next to the winner’s circle. Tickets are $20 for five tastes of wine that’s made by the 21 member wineries. Fine food sampling plus live music and an art exhibit round out the infield celebration.