Archive for January, 2012

Brown Red Rates Zin Win at ZAP

January 31, 2012

They don’t give awards at the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producers Grand Tasting, but if they did I’d nominate Brown Estate for the top spot in 2012.

I rated Brown’s 2010 Rosemary’s Block Vineyard Zinfandel ($55) as the top wine of the event, which drew close to 200 wineries pouring their most recent releases for the public last Saturday.

The estate-grown wine, from a five-acre plot in Napa’s Chiles Valley, exhibits a solid core of sweet red fruit and that lingered for a full 30 seconds on the palate. It was as smooth and creamy as it was delicious, with a lovely floral nose that was intoxicating. The wine spent a year in oak, half French and half American with 30 percent new barrels.

Crowded Field for Second

Several wines competed for second on my list, including a barrel sample of Acorn Winery’s 2010 Zinfandel from its Alegria Vineyard in the Russian River Valley.

This $40 Sonoma wine did not have quite the concentration and ripe fruit of the Brown Estate, but it did show a bit more complexity. I’d expect it to be even better upon release to the public.

Frank Family Vineyards 2009 Napa Valley Zin was another favorite. This spicy, deep purple wine comes from a Napa winery that’s used to excellence in both its red and white wine programs. The zinfandel showed beautiful, bright red fruit flavors (raspberries and plums come to mind) married with a streak of acidity needed to provide balance.

Gregory Graham‘s 2009 Zinfandel from his Crimson Hill Vineyard in Lake County also showed well at ZAP. Red and black fruits combined for a luscious taste in this $24 bottle that includes five percent petite sirah. Click here to read more about Gregory Graham.

I’m a long-time fan of Paso Robles Opolo Vineyards, but I had never tasted any of their reserve wine until the ZAP festival.

I love the Opolo 2010 Reserve Zinfandel ($45) which is as complete a zinfandel as I have tried from the Central Coast. The finely focused red/black fruits come in a smooth-tasting package with just enough spice to make it interesting. Tannins are seamless.

It’s ready for drinking now, but will surely get even better with another year or two in bottle.

Another first-time taste from a legendary producer caught my eye. It was the 2009 Carmichael Ranch Zinfandel, one of 11 zinfandels made by Ridge Vineyards.  This is a very smooth offering from Sonoma County with no hard edges.

The flavor profile edges into plum/cherry territory and it’s a delightful mouthful of juice that includes eight percent petite sirah.

Valdez Family Winery worked magic with the 2009 St. Peter’s Church Vineyard Zinfandel from Alexander Valley.

The wine, made from a plot of century-old zin vines owned by the Catholic church in Cloverdale, is an exquisite bottle of red wine. It shows hints of mint and spiciness plus rich red fruit from the low-yielding vines.

Two Easy-Drinking Bargains

Sledgehammer’s 2009 California Zinfandel, made mostly from Lake County fruit, is a great buy at $16. It’s fruit-forward, but not over the top with too much sweetness.

Another bargain sipper comes from Chronic Cellars in Paso Robles. The Purple Paradise ($15) is mostly zinfandel with some petite sirah blended to give it a bit more backbone.

Try either of these wines with grilled burgers, pasta or pizza to elevate the meal without blowing your budget.


Zinfandel Zaniness Returns to SF

January 26, 2012

All tastes turn to Zinfandel this week as the world’s largest gathering of fans of California’s adopted grape unfolds in San Francisco.

Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) is in the midst of a week of Zinfandel-focused events that culminates with the Grand Tasting on Saturday.

More than 150 wineries will be pouring samples of their best zins at the SF Concourse at 8th and Brannan in SF. Tickets for the Grand Tasting are $59 in advance and $69 at the door.

For a more formal food-and-wine experience, check online to see whether tickets are still available to the Viva Las Vegas Winemakers Dinner at the St. Francis on Friday (Jan. 27). Tickets to the charity event, which includes a live auction, are $225.

Quick Peek at Some Favorites

I checked out some of the featured wines at a special wine-and-food pairing preview Thursday in San Francisco. I’ll file a full report on the Grand Tasting later this weekend.


I enjoyed two bottles from Kokomo Winery in Healdsburg, both from the 2009 harvest.

The Winemakers Reserve from the Timber Crest Vineyard ($32) was a bit more extracted with nice blackberry/raspberry fruit. Wine Spectator gave it a 92 rating.

The Pauline’s Vineyard Zinfandel from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is blended with a very small percentage of petite sirah, which adds a bit of tannin to the mix and pushes the level of complexity up a notch. There’s nice raspberry fruit, but not overly sweet.

Delicious Dusi, Beautiful Ballentine

Janelle Dusi sells most of the grapes grown on her family’s 100 acre spread in Paso Robles, but she keeps 10 percent of the crop and bottles it herself under the J. Dusi Wines label.

Look for the 2009 J. Dusi Zinfandel ($35) is you want an approachable red wine that’s fruit forward with enough acidity to balance out the brambly zinfandel character. You can taste her grapes in wines made by several other high-profile producers, including Turley, Tobin James and Four Vines.

Another 2009 reserve wine, from Ballentine Vineyards in St. Helena, stood out from the crowd.

The Ballentine Block 9 Reserve ($31) is blended with 4.5 percent Petite Sirah to produce a wine with high-tone raspberry fruit and a dusty back beat that was delicious.

Fresh and Affordable

Two lower-priced wines also caught my eye and taste buds.

The 2010 Deep Purple Zinfandel, grown in Lodi, sells for $12. It’s a fruit bomb with lovely blackberry aromas that lead to a lip-smacking finish.

The 2008 Old Vine Zinfandel from CalStar Cellars in Sonoma, also made from Lodi fruit, follows the same pattern, but with a slightly higher-level taste profile.

There is gobs of blackberry fruit, balanced with enough acid to produce a delightful mouthful of balanced taste in a $15 bottle.

Cavalcade of Cabernets Coming Up

New releases from four Napa Cabernet Sauvignon specialists are coming up next weekend, with special events planned at Silver Oak, Bennett Lane, Girard Winery and Consentino Winery on Saturday, Feb. 4.

Silver Oak is pouring its 2007 Napa cabernet at two locations — its Oakville winery and its winemaking operation in Geyserville. Tickets are $40 and $30, respectively.

Girard is charging $20 for tastes of its 2009 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon at its winery in Yountville.

Consentino, also in Yountville, will offer a pre-release taste of its reserve Cabernet.

Bennett Lane will be offering tastes of its 2009 Cabernet and 2009 Reserve Cabernet for $25 at the winery in Calistoga.

Rock-Solid Rosenblum

January 22, 2012

If you tried a different Shauna Rosenblum wine every day this month, you’d still have five left over to uncork in February.

Prolific ain’t the half of it. She makes 36 wines — red, white, sweet and sparkling — at Rock Wall Wine Company in Alameda. The winery is located in a giant hangar on the old naval air station, not far from where her dad, Kent Rosenblum, created world-class zinfandel at Rosenblum Cellars.

Shauna Rosenblum, Rock Wall Winemaker

I dropped by Rock Wall  recently to meet Ms. Rosenblum and try three of her current-release petite sirahs — two from Napa and one from Mendocino and all from the 2009 vintage.

They will be poured along with wines from 55 producers at the petite sirah extravaganza called Dark and Delicious held at Rock Wall on Feb. 17. Click here to purchase tickets for one of the best wine tasting productions in the Bay Area.

Carver Sutro

This $40 bottle has a Napa lineage. The Carver Sutro grown near Calistoga is from a vineyard that dates back to the early 1900s when the land was farmed by Italian immigrants.

This deep, dark wine is silky smooth, no mean feat with this often-tannic grape, and there are flavors of rich blackberries along with a bit of mint.

Gamble Ranch

The Gamble Ranch, to Rosenblum’s taste, is like a “chocolate brownie with cream.”

It’s also from Napa. The vineyard, near Rutherford, dates from the 1960s.

I liked the cocoa highlights and house texture of richness that stops short of “over-the-top.”  Flavors of black cherry and plums work well alongside manageable tannins that provide enough stimulating bite to sustain interest in this $35 wine.


The Rucker’s was the least expensive ($22) member of this trio and my favorite.

This fruit-forward Mendocino wine was easy to approach and paired well with a bowl of chicken cacciatore. Rosenblum described it as having chocolate overtones and I can definitely agree that it’s on the cocoa side of the flavor wheel.

Variety Matters

Rosenblum is bringing out new wines all the time, including a new “Super Alameda” blend called Romancer that debuts right before Valentine’s Day.

Romancer is a blend of equal parts malbec, mourvedre and petit verdot that debuts on Feb. 10 with a party at the winery.

A big star already is the Rock Wall Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands ($25). This tropical-scented wine rolls Asian pear flavors around the tongue in a style that won Best in Class honors at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Ahoy, Norton

Another debutante waiting to be unveiled is a tiny batch of wine made from Norton, a red grape that was hot back in the 1840s when the Midwest was the nation’s wine-growing sweet spot.

Norton is being re-discovered on a relatively small commercial scale outside California with some vineyards in places like Virginia and Texas yielding interesting table wines.

The Rock Wall Norton is sourced from a three-acre California vineyard that yielded less than one ton of juice. I’ll keep you posted on the release date.

Sipping at Altitude

January 14, 2012

Outside a few good restaurants and hotel wine lists, you have only one really good wine tasting stop to make on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.

Apres Wine Company is a tasting bar/restaurant/retail shop tucked into a strip mall about a 20-minute walk  along Lake Tahoe Boulevard from the casinos.

I discovered this oasis of wine on a weekend getaway to the mountains for some R&R after the holidays.

Lots of interesting wines for sale in the shop, including about 50 different tasting selections. About half are self-serve, using the Enomatic dispensing system.

Enomatic Wine Dispenser

I love these dispensers. They work with a smart card that you buy from the shop and then use to activate the multi-bottle dispenser.

There is also a traditional bar at Apres, but all the wine is dispensed from Enomatic dispensers, which use an inert gas to protect the contents of each open bottle from spoiling. The company promises fresh wines for up to 30 days after opening.

I had the opportunity to taste seven different California Chardonnays — all that were open on a recent Friday night.

Cattle Ranch Conversion

I enjoyed the 2008 Boekenoogen most of all. It’s a delicious wine I’d never seen before from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County.

The vineyards were planted on a working cattle ranch that founder John Boekenoogen realized  in the late 1990s had great potential for grapes.

He was right.

The wine ($35 retail)  is medium gold in the glass. It’s not a see-through wine. There’s some nice body to it.

The wine starts with a core of rich fruit. There are tropical pineapple highlights and some nice spice (clove?).  Just the right touch of oak freshens up the nose and there’s a bit of vanilla, too.

This Chardonnay partnered well with a plate of bacon-wrapped figs and apricots stuffed with goat cheese, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and topped with a basil chiffonade. A $5 order of four pieces disappeared almost immediately and I just had to have another.

Stellar Sonoma Standby

I have never been disappointed with a bottle of Sonoma-Cutrer white wine, so I was very interested in trying the latest vintage of their Russian River Ranches bottling.

The 2010 does not disappoint. It’s lighter in weight and color than the Boekenoogen. The flavor profile features more of a lemony tang that develops over time into more subtle hints of grapefruit.

This $20 Chardonnay — the winery’s entry-level bottling — is made from a blend of estate vineyards in the Sonoma Coast appellation.

Input Here

I’m expanding my Chardonnay horizons this year and welcome our input on new wines to try.

I’d love to hear your suggestions. Post a comment here, if you like.

Chardonnay, A Look Back and Forth

January 8, 2012

I’m determined to uncork some great California Chardonnay in the coming months, but before I look too far ahead maybe I should revisit some wines that made a good impression in earlier tastings.

While  I have focused on white wines from time to time, most of my interest has been on the red side of the wine spectrum — Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah and others.

My goal for 2012 is push deeper into the Chardonnay pool and hopefully hook a few winners.

Three S’s

Summertime, seafood and shellfish all go better with white wines, including Chardonnay, which is the most widely planted grape in California.

In most cases, Chardonnay is not combined with other wine grapes, but there are exceptions.

Sometimes, two or more varietals will be mixed with Chardonnay to create a blended still wine. Sparkling wine -is often made from white-skinned Chardonnay alone but sometimes Pinot Noir is added to the mix.

Good Look Back

Some of the tastiest Chardonnays I’ve sampled in the past year or so were from Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County.

A visit to the winery for a private tasting was sensational, turning up three recommendations. A return trip is definitely coming in the weeks and months ahead.

I’ve also enjoyed many bottles of Chardonnay from Sonoma Cutrer, a premium producer which draws some of its  fruit from the Russian River AVA (American Viticulture Area).

There are many other interesting names in the Sonoma Chardonnay club, including Flowers, Kistler Vineyards and Walter Hansel Winery  among many others– all of which I have enjoyed.

There is a whole cadre of smaller producers working with fruit from the Sonoma Coast appellation that will also given further scrutiny.

On the Napa side of the world, there are many well-known Chardonnay producers with names like Mondavi, Far Niente, Beringer and Franciscan.

The Chardonnay that put Napa Valley on the fine white wine map was a 1973 vintage from Chateau Montelena, winner of the historic Paris Tasting of 1976.

Further South

Ridge Vineyards is known world-wide for its impressive lineup of red wines, especially the highly respected cabernet sauvignon from the Monte Bello Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

They also grow Chardonnay in that vineyard and the Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay is often a great wine. Click here for my take on the current release.

One of my “go- to” reasonably priced white wines is a Chardonnay from Edna Valley on the Central Coast. The style reflects a core of tropical fruit with sweet oak highlights. It’s been a consistent performer over the past two decades and I can’t wait to try the latest release.

Geographically in between Ridge and Edna Valley sits Chalone Vineyards, a pioneering producer of Burgundian-style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Limestone deposits under the shallow soil of the Chalone AVA in Monterey County are often compared to the chalky soils of Burgundy’s where some of the world’s most expensive Chardonnay is produced.

More Choices

Napa and Sonoma often grab the most consumer attention, but astute wine lovers know that good bargains and great-tasting Chardonnay come from a wider territory.

I’ll also be looking at other viticulture regions — Lodi, Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo and Mendocino County — for more good choices in Chardonnay.