Archive for February, 2011

Tasting Winners

February 24, 2011

Good things often come in “twos.” Like Starsky and Hutch, corks and corkscrews, and two cabernets that hail from one small but impressive Napa district.

Prime Cellars 2007 cabernet sauvignon from the Midoriya Hills Vineyard took a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

I’d describe it as fruit forward (slightly tart, red cherry) with just the right touch of oak for my taste. The tannins are in balance. This $55 bottle took a Best of Show award at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition in 2010.

The Burly 2007 cabernet ($60) is another SF Chronicle medal winner (silver) with fruit from the Simpkins Vineyard, believed to be one of the earliest vineyard sites in Napa County.

This is another ready-to-drink red wine with red currant and blackberry fruit, unobtrusive tannins with just a hint of spice on the nose. I bet it gets even better over the next few years.

Coombsville Connection

Burly and Prime share a common base  — the Coombsville district.

While this is not an “official” appellation, there is an application pending to designate Coombsville as a separate AVA (American Viticultural Area). It’s no secret that many good Napa-based blends include fruit from this area, which is just east of the town of Napa. Harvest comes later here than in most other sites in the famed valley, allowing grapes to hang on the vine longer and potentially develop more complexity.

I wrote about a broad sample of wines from the Coombsville district after a special tasting last year.

Here’s a link to that story.

Tasting the Competition

I picked the two Coombsville wines as co-favorites from a crowded field at the SF Chronicle Wine Competition public tasting. The competition drew more than 5,000 entries, mostly from California. The tasting was held last week when award-winning selections from the contest were poured at Fort Mason.

Here’s a link to the top SF Wine Competition award winners.

Cloudy Skies, Quality Cabernet

Tasting day was chilly and wet, with grey skies and rain for a backdrop. But, there was a lot to like at this crowded event. In no particular order, here’s a list of the most interesting wines I sampled.

The 2007 cabernet from Frank Family Vineyards is delicious. With deep red color, this wine pumps out volumes of saturated flavor in classic Napa style. There’s a hint of mint on the nose of this $45 silver medal winner that leans toward blackberry and dark fruit on the tongue. The most complete wine of the tasting, in my opinion.

The 2007 cab from Oakville Ranch Vineyards is another fine example of Napa fruit that got a 93 rating from Robert Parker and a silver medal at the competition. I’d have nudged this wine into gold status for its cassis and red fruit flavors, perfect touch of moderate toasted oak and lovely aroma.

Petite Sirah

I enjoyed the very smooth 2008 petite sirah from Cahill, a small producer in Sebastapol which won a double gold for this $32 entry. The wine is smooth, contrary to petite’s tendency toward harshnesss. The grapes come from Alexander Valley.


I also liked the Clos du Bois 2007 reserve merlot from Alexander Valley ($21.99). I’ve been a fan of Clos du Bois for decades and have some of their older vintages in my cellars. This typically great merlot rates high for its great blackberry and cherry taste with mocha highlights.


La Casque is a winery I’d never run across until this competition. The 2009 viognier from the Cooper Vineyard in Amador County is a tasty California iteration of this primarily French varietal. The taste reminds me of Bosque pear with a faint trace of honey. The smell is divinely fresh and clean citrus. There’s a bit of marsanne, another French grape that’s sometimes mated with viognier, producing a bit fuller bodied product.

Pinot Noir

The words diva and pinot noir don’t normally conjure up visions of Salinas, but I discovered a good-tasting connection to the Central Valley outpost at this tasting.

Diva Cellars from Salinas won Best of Show designation for their 2008 Monterey pinot noir ($24). The wine has a classic red cherry core and it’s ready to be enjoyed now.

“You start with great grapes,” explained Dan Franscioni, whose family operates the winery. “It all comes from that.”

Caution: Shed Ahead

Of all the wines I tried — and I hardly made a dent against more than 1,000 available selections — the best buy was a wine called Tractor Shed Red. Cerruti Cellars is the producer of this versatile California blend, which is 60 percent sangiovese. The remaining 40 percent is split equally between zinfandel and merlot.

There’s nice cherry fruit alongside some good acids to balance everything out. A glass (or two) of Tractor Shed Red ($12) would complement any spicy tomato dish, grilled beef or pork sausage, especially on a chilly evening.


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.

Wine Whips Art

February 12, 2011

I’d planned to write this week about the wine design exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but a nice wine bar got in the way instead.

Took a quick look at the “How Wine Became More Modern” exhibit, which was cool, but after 15 minutes I was wanting some wine to drink, not just contemplate as art.

A quick peek inside the museum’s cafe convinced me I needed to look elsewhere for a special wine experience. I didn’t need to go far.

A quick dash across Third Street, then a two-minute stroll to the Press Club (20 Yerba Buena Lane), put me in prime wine-tasting territory.

Six wineries are featured in the Press Club’s underground tasting salon, which vibrates each evening with dj-provided tunes as customers move between couches and the tasting bars in the 9,000 square foot club. There are pouring stations for each individual winery, plus a common bar pouring everybody’s wines.

Plans are to begin rotating the wineries featured at Press Club in April, but no word yet on future lineups.

There are no actual wineries nearby — no vineyards to see, either — but the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the St. Regis Hotel are neighbors and the rest of San Francisco is at your fingertips.

Featured wineries include Chateau Montelena Winery, Fritz Winery, Hanna Winery & Vineyards, Miner Family VineyardsMount Eden Vineyards,  and Saintsbury.

“We consider ourselves an urban tasting room,” said Alphonso Cross, the Press Club Experience Manager “We bring Napa to an urban wine experience.”

Five-ounce pours range from $10-$33. Bottles go from $40 to $130. There’s a bar menu with cheese, breads and snacks plus a few heartier selections. I enjoyed the creamy Humboldt Fog and the more complex Beechers, Reserve Truckle (cheddar).

Reds dominate the wine list, so I skipped the whites and focused on a 2008 Mt. Eden pinot noir from Santa Cruz and the Hanna 2009 Two Ranch Red from Sonoma County.

Caroline Furrer pours at Press Club

The Mt. Eden “Saratoga Cuvee” is made from purchased grapes. I’d call it a mid-weight pinot with tart black cherry fruit and a hint of clove on the nose. It paired well with the Humboldt Fog.

The Hanna is a mongrel blend. At 47 percent, zinfandel is the biggest contributor and accounts for some of the prunish flavor profile.

I’d describe it as a middleweight contender whose moderate tannins made it fit in better with the cheddar. Other grapes in the mix include cabernet sauvignon (16.8%) and merlot (13.5%) plus lesser amounts of syrah, petite sirah, cabernet franc and pinot noir.

Zinfandel Takes Center Stage

February 2, 2011

Every year, about this time, thousands of zinfandel devotees assemble in San Francisco for a chance to taste the latest offerings from the best producers in the country.

This past Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) grand tasting, held at Fort Mason.

ZAP Media Room Bottle Lineup


More than 200 wineries poured more than 1000 different wines at this event. Out of the 127 wines that I tasted, here are my favorites:

A for Acorn

The Acorn Winery 2008 zinfandel from heritage vines on their Sonoma estate is a $32 keeper. It’s slightly jammy, but not over the top. The mouthfeel is smooth and the flavors run to the plum side of zinfandel. There are some blackberry fruit highlights mixed in for good measure. This wine got better with each sip and I think it would improve with a bit of bottle age or aeration.

The 2008 Dawn Hill vineyard bottling from Baldwin Wines, a small Sonoma producer, was a stunning example of dry-farmed zinfandel grown near Sonoma Creek. This $28 bottle tasted of fresh raspberries and was very smooth and easy to drink. It’s predecessor, the 2007, won gold medal honors at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in 2010.

I also enjoyed two wines poured by D-Cubed Cellars, a Napa winery with a steady hand when it comes to zinfandel. Both the 2007 Napa Valley blend ($27) and the 2007 Korte Ranch (32) showed well with a streak of wonderful cherry fruit that wouldn’t quit.

Goodness Runs in the Family

Fields Family Wines showed again why Lodi continues to be a hotspot for good zin. A bottle of 2007 old vine zinfandel from the Sherman Family Vineyard, showed a smoothness and almost pinot noir-like femininity that belies the area’s reputation for big, high-alcohol wines. Ryan Sherman, whose family owns the vineyard, is also the winemaker for Fields. Controlling the yields, which can easily reach 6-7 tons per acre if left unchecked, helps keep this $24 wine under control and in good form.

Another family-run outfit — Frank Family Vineyards — earned its reputation as a premium cabernet producer, but they did a great job with zinfandel in 2008. Their Napa Valley zinfandel ($34.50) was one of the smoothest tasting wines to pass my lips at the ZAP get-together. It blended a nice nose of blackberry and violet with black fruit flavor and a peppery nuance that gave the wine just enough zip to stand up to a grilled steak or red-sauced pasta. Click here for our video of a recent visit to Frank Family Vineyards.

The Rued Winery is also a family affair that has been in the California wine business for 125 years (six generations!). They farm a lot of chardonnay plus a bit of merlot, cabernet and pinot noir, but it is their wine made from a four-acre plot of zinfandel grown in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma that caught my attention at ZAP. There’s a bit of baking spice on top of some delicious blackberry fruit that tastes great for this $25 bottle from the 2008 vintage.

Wines For the Future

Several wineries offered barrel samples of wines not yet ready for release. Two stood out as wines with outstanding potential.

Bedrock Wine Company’s 2010 barrel sample of old vine zinfandel from the famed Monte Rosso Vineyard in Sonoma is a great wine that’s going to be even greater. It’s a field blend with 70 percent zinfandel and 30 percent mixed red grapes. It is fruit forward (think sweet blackberry) with a touch of mint on the nose and on the tongue. No word yet on pricing, but check with the winery for timing of this release.

Robert Biale Vineyards 2009 Black Chicken, a deep, dark zinfandel, is going to be a great wine. It’s already good as a barrel sample with ripe blackberry and raspberry flavors plus a nose of sweet fruit. It will cost $40 upon release. I’ve had several vintages of this wine, which has yet to disappoint. Check with the winery on release dates.

Two Famous Chefs, Two Great Wines

Not everybody who’s good in the kitchen, is also good in the vineyard. But, don’t tell that to Pat Kuleto, famed restaurant designer, and celebrity chef Michael Chiarello.

Kuleto Estate Winery made a fantastic 2008 Napa Valley zin ($35) that featured ripe, sweet fruit and rich red berry flavors.

Chiarello Family Vineyards’ 2009 “Giana,” named for one of the famous TV chef’s offspring, is a delightful wine that comes down on the plum side of zinfandel. It’s a smooth-tasting red wine ($35) that earned a 93 rating from Wine Spectator.

Stack of baguettes for ZAP wine tasters


Central Coast Star

I have also enjoyed the zinfandel from Opolo Vineyards on the Central Coast. It’s an extra-friendly establishment, with an emphasis on personal hospitality that’s refreshing. Even better is their just released 2009 Mountain Zinfandel. This $28 wine, made from grapes just up the hill from the Paso Robles winery, featured a hint of cranberry alongside raspberry flavors tinged with spices. Opolo’s Summit Creek 2008 zinfandel offered a different take on what this grape can do. This is a decidedly more masculine wine that pushes the jam factor up a couple of notches, but not too far to make it over-sweet. Delightful!

Best Buy in a Box

Bota Box offered a 3-liter box of California zinfandel for $19.99 — that’s $5/bottle for some pretty good juice. The wine was a moderate red color and it was tasty, leaning toward raisins and plums in the mouth, but not too sweet . There’s just enough acid to balance the taste out. I’d gladly pair this with barbecued pork ribs, burgers, pizza, or a ham and cheese sandwich.