Archive for September, 2010

Tracking Down “Value” Pinot Noir

September 24, 2010

Like the California condor, a good, inexpensive pinot noir with true varietal character is an endangered species in the Golden State despite a virtual sea of low-cost wines to choose from. But there are exceptions, as noted below.

I put together an impromptu line-up of five wines ($20 or less) for a blind tasting this week. Three bottles were tasting samples from California wineries. The other two were recommended by local retailers — the Wine Mine in Oakland and Farmstead Cheeses and Wine in Alameda.

There wasn’t a stinker in the bunch, although I liked two bottles more than the others.

Five Value-Priced Pinot Noir Wines

Blind Tasting Lineup of Pinot Noir

Here’s the breakdown:

Wine 1 was a delightful garnet red. It showed a subdued “soft” cherry nose with a bit of barnyard aroma. I picked up a light “clean” cherry taste. This wine developed some complexity after a bite of sourdough bread and butter. I was surprised by some minerality — graphite mostly — that showed up at the dinner table after a mouthful of grilled onglet (a French cut of steak) cooked medium rare with roasted tomatoes, steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes.

I liked this enough to buy it and try it again. It was the Cupcake Vineyards 2008 Central Coast and it retails for just $8, making it the least expensive entry in the field.

Wine 2 picked up a hint of sassafras and cola in the nose with a deeper garnet color than No. 1. Nice honest fruit (cherry) up front that mellowed nicely on the tongue and even managed to linger a bit after swallowing.

It was a nice match for the mellow meat dish and it was my second favorite wine of the day.

Aritst Christo's "Running Fence," Sonoma County, California 1972-1976

Christo's "Running Fence"

The wine is Windy Hill 2004 Sonoma Coast, $12.50 at Farmstead Cheeses and Wine. The vineyards sit on a hillside made famous by the artist Christo who created an 24.5-mile fence of white canvas that ran through the property to the Pacific Ocean. The previous vintage was just as good, if not a tad better. This is a winery to watch! (Update: Farmstead’s Jeff Diamond has dropped the price of this wine to $10!)

Wine 3 showed a nice red color with a broader aroma that featured cola and light cherry accents. It had nice red fruit upfront, but it doesn’t develop much complexity. A bit hot on the finish, but it was redeemed by a faint flash of raspberry. This was the Robert Mondavi “Private Selection” California 2009, which retails for about $10.

Wine 4 is the darkest red of the lot with a reluctant nose that didn’t reveal much after 10 minutes in the glass. Plummy, but not overpowering. A nice little hit of tannin and the taste shows a little spice on the finish. I was surprised to learn it was the Saintsbury Garnet vintage 2009 ($19.99 from the winery and often marked down a few dollars less at retail locations). This wine, the winery’s entry-level offering of pinot noir, comes from grapes grown in the Carneros District.

I have enjoyed  Garnet many times, through multiple vintages. Steady quality quaffer, in my opinion.

Wine 5 was second darkest in color, just behind No. 4. It also showed a rather reluctant nose with a slight whiff of sour cherries. The cherry theme, albeit subdued, followed onto the tongue. This wine was thin, but it opened up with food to reveal more texture, some cranberry and a bit of star anise. This wine turned out to be the ringer of the bunch, suggested by my friend David Sharp at the Wine Mine. It’s the 2008 Vin de Pays des Côteaux du Verdon, made by Maison Louis Latour. Retail price is $11.

You can taste the Valmoissine, and 4-5 other pinot noir and syrah wines, at the weekly $1 tasting at the Wine Mine (5427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) this Saturday (Sept. 25) from 2-5 p.m.


Ridge: 50 Years of Success in Wine Country

September 17, 2010

There may be older vineyards in California, but none have produced the steady stream of high-quality wine like Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The winery is best known for its magnificent cabernet sauvignon-based blend of Bordeaux varietals that garners solid praise from critics and consumers who like the restrained power of the dark red juice produced from the ridgetop vines.

Monte Bello Vineyard

The 2007 vintage of Monte Bello is primarily cabernet sauvignon (79% ) with merlot (10%), petit verdot (9%) and cabernet franc (2%). This is a classic blend, ready to drink upon release but it is built to age gracefully over years, even decades. The wine ($135/bottle) is restrained, both in taste and bouquet. This wine is not an oaky blast of fruit, but a smooth, silky “food” wine that just keeps developing more interesting flavors with every sip. There’s a hint of mint and cassis on the tongue with restrained red fruit , finely grained tannins and a pleasant interplay of mineral elements — thanks to the unique blend of soils in the vineyard.

The wine is made from selected lots — 63 batcheds are fermented individually  — and only the highest quality juice makes the final blend. The “leftover” juice is used for the  Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Red. This “baby Monte Bello” wine is treated differently in the cellar. The blend —  52 percent cabernet sauvignon and 48 percent merlot — is aged in both new and used barrels to produce a softer style wine that retails for $30.

Monte Bello Chardonnay

Part of the Monte Bello vineyard, about 18 acres, is also planted to chardonnay which is very good in its own right. It was a treat to find it at a tasting earlier this week.

I got to sample seven Ridge wines, including the unreleased 2008 Monte Bello chardonnay, at Wine on Piedmont , a nifty little wine shop on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The tasting, seven wines in all, cost $5 — a huge bargain. The store also has an outstanding craft and imported beer selection, including one of my favorite IPA-style beers, Racer 5, from Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg.

This finely textured, golden-hued chardonnay — which has not yet been officially released — is aged in air-cured American oak barrels. Only 250 cases of the 2008 vintage ($60/bottle) were produced. Just 2 percent (five cases) have been allocated for retail shops in the East Bay, so the supply is definitely slim. The rest of the grapes from this vineyard are made into the Santa Cruz Mountains estate chardonnay, which I haven’t tasted… yet!

Ridge Winemaking Team (left to right) Eric Baugher, Paul Draper, David Gates & John Olney

It felt smooth on my tongue with a citrus-tinged nose and tropical fruits with sweet oak accents . Like the Monte Bello reds, this wine is aged in American oak, which helped refine the mix of flavors. The wine came alive with a bite of baguette topped with a slice of mortadella.

Zinfandel Joins the Party

Ridge also produces a string of award-winning zinfandels at a second winery location in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. This is not your big, brambly, brawny California zinfandel that shakes your tastebuds and demands attention. The Ridge style is more sublime, understated and cool on approach and ultimately fits in better at table with a meal.

Of the four 2007 infandels opened at the tasting — Pagani Ranch, Lytton Springs, East Bench and York Creek — I liked the most fruit-forward of the bunch the best.

My favorite was the Pagani Ranch, made from a Sonoma County vineyard that has been producing stellar fruit for more than a century. Yes, t’s really made from 100-year-old vines, grown in a cool climate area near Kenwood, along Highway 12. Small amounts of other grapes, primarily petite sirah, are included in this tasty field blend that also has drips and drabs of alicante bouschet and mourvedre.

The wine is understated on approach, but the rich fruit shines through. It’s unmistakenly zinfandel, but it doesn’t bowl over your tastebuds. It caresses them.

Sports Stars Shine in Wine Country

September 10, 2010

Does anyone really buy a product, like a bottle of wine, just because it carries a celebrity endorsement?

I’m not usually swayed by star power, but I was curious when I heard about two Livermore Valley wines that carry the name of superstar golfer Annika Sorenstam.

Annika 2008 Chardonnay

The 2008 Annika chardonnay ($40) is made by fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente from grapes grown on the Wente Vineyards estate, which just happens to border the wine pioneer family’s golf course.

The Course at Wente Vineyards is a real test of golfing skills. The hilly par-72 layout was designed by Aussie golfer Greg Norman. The PGA star, by the way, also has a lineup of red and white wines from Napa and Australia bottled under the Greg Norman Estates label.

The Annika chardonnay, like its namesake, is a bold and rich example that beams golden in the glass. It’s lush tropical fruit and apple flavors follow a pleasant, citrusy nose. I’d match it with rich dishes, especially anything with a cream sauce.

The chardonnay’s red stablemate is a smooth 2006 Livermore Valley syrah ($60) that is blended with 25 percent cabernet sauvignon from Livermore and Napa valleys. It starts with a sweet strawberry nose that leads to red cherry fruit highlights on the tongue with just a hint of cocoa on the back end.

Wente & Sorenstam

Sorenstam got into the wine trade after meeting Carolyn Wente, who helps manage the family winery operations, in 2008. That was the year before the LPGA star retired from competition to focus on her other business interests.

Click here to watch our video interview with Sorenstam.

More Stars in the Vineyard

NFL football announcer John Madden (who coached the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl victory in 1977) owns a 20-acre Livermore vineyard called “Madden Ranch.” Madden supplies grapes to several wineries, including Fleming Jenkins, a Los Gatos-based winery owned by world renowned figure skater Peggy Fleming and her husband, Dr. Greg Jenkins.

Another NFL luminary, former San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy, owns Policy Vineyards in Yountville where winemaker Thomas Brown makes a high-end cabernet sauvignon. The first vintage from the 10-acre Napa Valley vineyard was harvested in 2006. The current vintage available through the winery, Casa Piena, is a 2007 cabernet that sells for $150/bottle.

There’s a clutch of other sports stars involved in the Napa Valley wine trade. Two of the best-known figures include PGA legend Arnold Palmer (who has his own Arnold Palmer Wines label) and race car driver Mario Andretti (who owns the Andretti Winery in Napa).

Note to Readers

Would the name of a celebrity or sports star entice you to buy their wine? Have you tried any of these wines? If so, what did you think of them? I’d like to know what you think and will post comments in a future blog.