Archive for March, 2011

White is Right

March 31, 2011

I’ve decided to try more white wines this year, opening myself up recently to the pleasures of unfamiliar grapes transplanted from France’s esteemed Rhone Valley.

The annual Rhone Rangers tasting event, held this past weekend at Fort Mason in San Francisco, featured a wide range of these white wines. Unlike the more common chardonnay and sauvignon blanc or riesling, these wines are made from grapes like grenache blanc, roussanne, marsanne, and viognier.

Sometimes they are bottled separately but often the producers will make a blend of two, three or even all four grapes together.

Try This at Home!

If you like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, then you should experiment with these wines. You might find something that tastes great, like I did.

Take viognier. I’d mostly encountered somewhat wimpy versions of this wine in the past, but maybe I was drinking the wrong labels.

I found a lot to like at the Rhone Rangers gathering. My two favorites were:


Curtis Winery’s address is in Buellton. It’s viognier is grown in Santa Barbara County and in 2009 things came together very nicely.

Curtis Winemaker Chuck Carlson

My first sip of this viognier reveals a slight effervesence. Winemaker Chuck Carlson got that effect when he left a small amount of carbon dioxide with the wine after fermentation was completed. I liked “frizzante” style and the grapefruit flavor, which nicely balanced out the sweet fruit of the grape.

I’d serve this wine at any summer picnic with grilled chicken or fish.

Only 1,000 cases were made. Bottles go for $25 at the winery.

Pride Mountain

A step up in sophistication (and pricing) from the Curtis wine is the 2009 viognier from Pride Mountain Vineyards.

This Sonoma County offering ($42) is bound for glory.

It has a supple silky texture and walks the perfect line between sweet fruit and tart citrus, with sweet peaches in the nose and on the tongue alongside honeysuckle nectar and some honeydew melon.

I think this wine would complement a plate of German sausages, or lightly smoked meats. I also think it would match noodle dishes with cream-based sauces. It also tasted just fine with a dab of cheddar on sourdough bread.

Best Blend

I think the best blended white wine at the Rhone Rangers tasting was the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc from Tablas Creek, a California Rhone-style producer with a direct link to Chateau Beaucastel, one of the real wine giants in France’s Rhone Valley.

Roughly translated, patelin means neighbor or neighborly, according to the folks at Tablas Creek. I think it’s the least expensive wine this award-winning winery makes. Call it the perfect bistro wine, an alternative to pedestrian chardonnay for the by-the-glass crowd at bars and restaurants.

At $20, I’d buy a bottle of this nice, light-bodied white wine.

It comes from Paso Robles and is made from grenache blanc (50%), viognier (33%), roussane (10%) and marsanne (7%). This wine feels good in the mouth. It’s not overbearing due to a nice balance of lighter lemon fruit and acids. The nose has a whisper of lemon zest.

East Bay Tasting This Weekend

If you have an itch to try wines made locally, then check out the East Bay Vintners Alliance annual passport event on Saturday (April 2).The wines are made at 21 member wineries, predominantly located in Oakland, Alameda and Emeryville.

Free shuttle buses will run from BART and the Oakland Ferry Terminal to five East Bay wineries, where 5-6 wineries will be pouring multiple selections ranging from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon to zinfandel, petite sirah and syrah. Click here for more details concerning this event from my last blog.





Festival Season is Upon Us

March 25, 2011

We’re right in the midst of my favorite time in wine country. Festival season.

I’ve got info to share on two wine-tasting events in San Francisco and Oakland/Alameda, but first a quick report on a really nice sauvignon blanc.

A bottle of 2009 sauvignon blanc from Franciscan Estate in Napa found its way into my kitchen (the winery sent me a sample) and I’d actually forgotten about it until a desperate need arose for a white wine to pair with a salmon dinner.

Too lazy to tramp down to the cellar, I frantically searched the kitchen wine cabinet and then sorted through the 12 or so bottles stashed on various tables, counters and shelves.

The Franciscan was the only white in sight, so I slid it into the fridge for a 20-minute cool-down while I pan roasted a delicious filet of coho salmon marinated in olive oil and fresh Meyer lemon juice.

SV Hits the Spot

I like a crisp glass of sauvignon blanc in the summertime, on a hot night or at the beach, and also sometimes with steamed crab. I don’t believe I’d had any memorable SV with salmon before, since chardonnay is generally my “go-to” wine with salmon.

A glass of the tasty Franciscan changed my mind. It paired beautifully with the juicy pink fish, served over a bed of white and red quinoa with a side of sautéed red and dinosaur kale.

This agile wine showed a lime-centric core wrapped in layers of melon and a touch of something pleasingly tropical.

It’s a definite keeper at $17 a bottle.

Damn the Torpedoes, Festival Season Ahead

I’ve already reported on the 2011 versions of ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates and Producers) and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and there’s a lot more wine event action ahead.

Rhone Rangers Report

This weekend, the Rhone Rangers hold their yearly grand tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

There are events on both Saturday (March 26) and Sunday (March 27). Here’s a link to details, with the featured tasting scheduled from 2-5 p.m. Sunday. Prices are $45 at the door.

This group is focused on promoting American wines with strong ties to the Rhone Valley of France. Rhone-style wines can be made from 22 different varieties of grapes, including syrah, grenache, mourvedre (all red) and viognier, roussane and marsanne (all white).

If I were picking California’s leading Rhone-style wine producers I’d be sure to include these two Central Coast stars:

Tablas Creek, which is owned by the same family that owns one of the Rhone’s greatest estates — Chateau de Beaucastel.

And, Zaca Mesa, a delightful winery in Los Olivos that started planting vines in 1973.

Both wineries will be pouring at the Rhone Rangers event in San Francisco.

East Bay Action

The East Bay Vintner’s Alliance puts on its annual Passport event next Saturday (April 2). Tastings are grouped at six urban wineries in (naturally) the East Bay.

Tickets are $40 and that includes a free shuttle bus between the wineries, BART and the Oakland Ferry Terminal.

There are 21 wineries pouring samples. Public transit is definitely the way to go, unless you’ve got a designated driver!

Tasting stops include: JC Cellars and Dashe Cellars — which share a building near Jack London Square in Oakland; the brand new Cerruti Cellars tasting room in Jack London Square; Periscope Cellars, an Emeryville producer that has moved its tasting room to a new location at Linden Street Brewery in Oakland which I wrote about in one of my earlier blogs; Rock Wall Wine Company, located in an old airplane hangar in Alameda; Rosenblum Cellars, which still has a tasting room next to the Alameda Ferry Terminal; and Urban Legend, a small winery located in an old commercial building on Oakland’s 4th Street.

For a full list of participating wineries, click here.

What’s Next?

I’ll be reporting on lots of wine tasting events over the coming months, from Monterey to Mendocino. Here are a few of the major attractions on my radar:

April — East Bay Vintners Association Passport

May — Santa Lucia Highlands Gala

June — Auction Napa Valley 2011, TAPAS Festival (Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society),  Taste of Mendocino

If you have a favorite wine festival, tasting or other wine-related event coming up over the next few months, please let me know about it.


On the Road Again

March 19, 2011

I look at restaurant wine lists as an adventure waiting to unfold, offering something new, different or just unusual to try.

My adventurous spirit got a workout on a business trip to Texas and a vacation in Arizona over the past few weeks .

Texas State of Mind

First, Texas.

Did you know they grow wine in Texas, especially in the Hill Country outside Austin?

Just up the road, along Highway 290 in and around Fredericksburg, they grow Texas wine. I didn’t have time to explore the area, but I did taste one of the most popular wines, Becker Vineyards Iconoclast cabernet sauvignon.

The 2009 vintage is excellent. The wine reminded me of a mellow Sonoma County cab, with a bit of herbal/green pepper on the nose, soft tannins on the tongue and moderate red fruits on the palate. A nice find at $10 a bottle.

Becker Iconoclast


Fine Dinner Wine

I found two wines to recommend from the list at Eddie V’s, a Gulf seafood restaurant near the Arboretum in Austin.

Most of the participants at business dinner started with martinis, but I wanted to find something that all of us could enjoy — an all-around satisfying white wine that would be interesting with ample fruit and complementary to a wide range of fish dishes.

I picked the 2007 vintage of Mer Soleil Silver chardonnay.

This wine, from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, is all about fresh tropical-tinged fruit. It doesn’t spend a minute in oak during production. The fruit is balanced by a line of minerality and enough acidity to make it a good match for seafood.

While there was  whole section of triple-digit-priced California reds — all wines you’d see on any good list — I turned to the waiter for help in picking something I’d never tried before. He recommended the Elizabeth Spencer cabernet sauvignon from Napa.

The Elizabeth Spencer was delightful — plum fruit and black pepper — and moderately priced at $70. That’s about twice retail, and fair for a white tablecloth establishment.

On to Arizona

I spend a week every year in Arizona vacationing with four friends I’ve known since high school. We watch spring training baseball, play golf, and enjoy an early taste of spring in the desert.

With dinner out every night, there’s ample opportunity to taste some great food and wine. This year was no exception.

Each trip includes at least one visit to a steakhouse where meat is the prime attraction. One of our favorite go-to spots is the Capital Grille in Scottsdale. This successful, upscale eatery — part of a nationwide chain — has a great wine list that always manages to supply something worth drinking.

This year we selected a cabernet from La Jota and the 2004 Howell Mountain bottling turned out to be delightful. This great Napa wine was big enough to match the intensity of the Grille’s best steak. I liked the blackberry flavors, the oak that balanced everything out and the touch of mocha on top.

The only Capital Grille I’ve tried is in the Promenade off North Scottsdale Road, just a short drive from the TPC of Scottsdale, home of the Phoenix Open.

If you want something less expensive, the pizza just a couple blocks away at Picazzo’s is great. They serve amazing, thin-crust pies, great salads and offer a decent wine list. Everything is organic and there’s a selection of gluten-free items.

Bistro is Best

One of my favorite restaurants — in Scottsdale or anywhere — is the Atlas Bistro.

This small, refined restaurant always manages to surprise and delight me on every visit. There is no wine list. You can bring your own wine — a rarity in Arizona where BYOB is prohibited in restaurants with a liquor license.

If you reach the restaurant empty-handed, Atlas Bistro patrons can choose from thousands of bottles from the retail wine store — AZ Wine — located next door. Service is low-key and unhurried.

If you can’t get a dinner reservation, or just want to hang out, AZ Wine has a wine bar with special tastings and entertainment offered regularly.

Little Birds, Big Wine

The biggest hit at dinner was smoked quail. The serving of two little butterflied birds over lentils and greens was perfect. Juicy, with just enough applewood smoke flavor to cap a delicious dish. My appetizer of veal sweetbreads was tasty, also.

Although we tried several different wines, I thought the quail paired best with a domestic malbec, the 2007 from Clay Mauritson in Dry Creek Valley.

The red wine is sourced from the Buck Pasture vineyard in the rugged Rockpile appellation of Sonoma County.

I sensed tart red berries on the approach and more red fruits as the wine opened up a bit to reveal a nice peppery accent. Only 157 cases were made of this wine, which sold for $41 at the winery where a friend picked up a bottle for me a present before it sold out.

Thanks, John!

The Next Generation

March 5, 2011

Wine-making is often a generational affair with a large percentage of California wineries operating as family businesses — big and small.

Survival, in many cases, hinges on whether the next generation can sustain, or create, success.

The new crop of family winemakers is already engaged and starting to make their mark on the wine industry.

Fortune and fame have been made on the legacy of wine country’s hallowed names and generally speaking the business has been handed down from fathers to sons. Daughters are making inroads, too .

Under a Spell

At Spelletich Cellars, Seattle natives Timothy and Barb Spelletich have been making wine in Napa Valley since the 1994 vintage.

Daughter Kristen caught the wine making bug and is producing her own line of inexpensive wines under the Spell label.

“This is everyday wine and all of them are less than $20,” Spelletich told me as she poured samples of her wine at the New Generation event in St. Helena, part of the annual Premiere Week festivities.

The Spell cabernet sauvignon presented bright cherry fruit with mild tannins.

The Spell 2006 zinfandel is an even better buy at $16. Made from Amador County fruit, it tasted of plum jam with just a hint of eucalyptus on the nose.  There were 250 cases produced.

Smooth Sipper

On a more refined note, the Spelletich 2005 reserve merlot is a delicious discovery. Their 2005 reserve Napa cabernet is nothing to sneeze about, either, but I didn’t get a chance to taste that wine, which got a 90+ rating from Connisseur’s Guide.

From the first sip of merlot, I got a lip-smacking mouthful of luscious plum fruit that lingered on the tongue. This wine got even better when paired with a chunk of buttery brie on a slice of sourdough bread.

Frias, Broman Stand Out

The 2007 Napa merlot from Frias Family Vineyard is another serious effort with fruit sourced from Spring Mountain.

There’s 20 percent cabernet in the dark purple mix.The cab provides enough backbone to counterbalance all the lovely merlot fruit in this wine.

The 2005 Broman Cellars Napa cabernet sauvignon is nearly opaque with a charming initial tartness that gives way to nice red fruits and finely integrated tannins. I was ready for a second glass, before I’d finished my second sip!

Broman Cellars acquires its cabernet grapes from some of the valley’s finest growers, including Andy Beckstoffer’s Dr. Crane Vineyard in St. Helena and George III in Rutherford. They also have a two-acre cabernet vineyard of their own, just off Deer Park Road in St. Helena.