Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ronald Reagan

Imagery Estate Winery

Wine and art at Imagery Estate Winery.

Ready for something different? Our friend Greg from Benziger Family Winery invited us to a tasting at their sister winery, Imagery Estate Winery. Imagery is a nice twist on the marriage of art and wine. Dedicated to limited-production, rare wines from uncommon varietials and vineyards of exceptional character, a trip to Imagery will give you a chance to sample the uncommon wines, pinot gris, barbera, tempranillo, mourverde just to name a few.

When you walk into the tasting room, you know you’re in for something different. A stroll by the gift shop will bring you to a large tasting bar where you will be warmly greeted and invited for a tasting. Greg, our friend from Benziger was working at Imagery. He presented us with an opportunity to taste five wines for $10.00. This is not something to shy away from. These wines are crafted in small lots of 200 to 600 cases each. The retail price on these wines range from $26 to $45 with the 2004 Pallas Estate (a Bordeaux blend) priced at $70.

Greg talked to us about the grape varietials that we were not familiar with and poured our choice. We were encouraged to look over the art collection and enjoy our wines. We decided to just kick back and enjoy without taking tasting notes.

The wines I sampled were:
2006 Moscato di Canelli. A white floral and fruity Moscato with flavors of apple and lime. Mildly sweet and medium bodied. This is a favorite in the hot Tuscan summer.

2004 Tempranillo, which is the Spanish grape. A nice rich, lush, dark fruit with a hint of mineral. I’ve had two tempranillo wines before. One I loved, one I called in the stunt palate. This wine was excellent!

2004 Barbera. Known for its acidity and soft tannins, smooth flavors of raspberry and cranberry with some dark cocoa. I wanted to give this Italian grape another try because of the success I had at Bonny Doon. This gave me a chance to see what a 100% Barbera is like. Not disappointing. A great change from Cabs, zins and merlots.

2004 Petite Sirah, a 500 case production. Greg informed me that the vineyard is located in Paso Robles. Another wonderful wine.

2003 Ash Creek Cabernet Sauvignon. Cedar, leather to cassis, blackberry. Great for now or eight years from now.

Put this winery on your short list, when you need a change. The art, the wine, the great values. We walked out with a bottle of the Double Gold Winner, 2003 Sunny Slope Cabernet Sauvignon. Be assured, when we pop this bad boy open, I’ll take better tasting notes!


Monday, October 29, 2007

Getting the Most from your Tasting Trip

Click to enlarge.

We’ve compiled some etiquette points to help you get the most pleasurable experience from you tasting trip. Note that none of these prohibit having fun, getting excited or falling in love. So have a good time, learn lots and go discover that one truly outstanding wine that you have dreamed about. It is out there.

Scents don’t make sense
A huge, big no-no is wearing scent to a wine tasting room. This includes perfumes, after-shave, cologne, scented body lotions, etc. Smell is such an important aspect of wine tasting, and it is courteous to not interfere with other tasters’ (and your) ability to smell the wine.

Adding tobacco notes to your notes
Don't smoke anywhere near the tasting room. Smell is important and no one wants to smell smoky wine aromas. Additionally, smoking before or during a wine tasting will affect your taste of the wines.

Altoids, "Curiously Strong"
Mints and gums before a wine tasting will alter your tasting notes.

Sometimes it hurts…
The tasting table or bar will have a “dump bucket” for unfinished wine. It is acceptable to not finish a glass of wine. (I know, sometimes it hurts. But we all understand.)

Spit like the pros spit
If you have the opportunity to spit, it’s okay. That is what the professional tasters do.

No thanks
It is perfectly okay to pass up wines in a flight if you do not want to taste the full flight.

It's the law.
Tasting rooms will not serve patrons that are obviously intoxicated.

You're not eating soup at your Aunt Martha’s house. Slurp, it's okay.
Wine tasters are making that sound to draw air into their mouth and aerate the wine to enhance the taste. Slurping is acceptable.

Don’t announce what your thoughts of the wines are before everyone has tasted the wine. Allow everyone time to taste the wine and contemplate its flavors.

Don’t ask for a second taste of a particular wine, unless you have indicated that you intend to purchase the bottle of wine.

I can’t hear myself drink
Don’t be too loud and rowdy when with a group of friends. This ruins the atmosphere of the winery/tasting room, and disrupts others’ concentration when they are processing the wine experience.

Discretion is the better part of valor
Refrain from saying any negative comments about the wine, please keep them to yourself, especially if you are tasting wine at a winery. Keep in mind that every wine has its own style. On this trip, I tasted a very expensive, very well respected wine that I actually paid a $15.00 fee to try a flight of two wines to try. I was thinking, “I wished I called for my stunt palate.” This wine was on our short-list because it got a lot of respect from some important opinion leaders. I didn’t like it. No one but Taster A will know my thoughts. Deep in my heart, I know that the wine was technically correct, well balanced, very young, and meant to be aged for a decade.

Thanks, but no thanks
Don’t feel guilty if you do not purchase a bottle of wine. Buy only the wine you like, and do not feel obligated to purchase wine just because you visited a tasting room, especially if you paid a tasting fee. If you spend a good deal of time with the staff, ask a lot of questions, have been given great service, a purchase may be indicated.

When a fee is charged, it is usually okay for two people to share one glass and pay only one tasting fee. We have even be asked if we wanted two tastings or if we were sharing by our pourer.

Goodie basket
Pack some food! There are plenty of places to picnic. Slowing down the day not only keeps your head on straight, but gives your palate a chance to chill out. You’re in wine country, enjoy yourself! Treat yourself to time outside.

Slowing down
Most tasting room do’s and don’ts warn about drinking too much wine. On my first tasting trips, I found that I would get a buzz although I only consumed two to three ounces of wine. Then it came to me, breathing in the alcohol vapors were going “straight to my head”. Slowing down the process and taking notes like we have done on this trip has really made a difference.

The Fear of Flying
Flying wine home? Check the www.tsa.gov website for the latest rules regarding alcohol. Many wineries have special gorilla proof wine boxes for check-in baggage and there are some great wine carriers available on-line and at wine accessory stores. At the time of this posting, you can carry on a corkscrew.

Can’t ship there from here
Many wineries have “clubs” and will send wines to you home. Some states will not allow shipments. Our state is one of them. Ask the associate. DO NOT try to bypass the laws of your land. You shipper will be in deep doo-doo and you may lose your wine if you try to sneak a bottle or five into a box and bring it to the post office and you get busted.

Did that a pinot blanc go blank?
Taking notes is a good thing to do! This slows down the process, gives you a chance to remember that very special Pinot Noir and why you thought it was so great. It is really validating when you compare notes and come up with the same perceptions. Then when you buy a bottle or ten and drink that wine five years from now, you can see how it has changed. (Okay, you know that I am not a buy now, enjoy much later kind of guy, but you get the idea!)

Taster A with his hands full still has time to take tasting notes.


El Dorado Kitchen is Tops

We gathered many restaurant recommendations before our trip, and continued to receive them after we arrived as well. Since we aren't the last of the big spenders, we did not try any of the haute cuisine establishments such as the French Laundry, Mustards, etc, etc.

What we did try was one restaurant that was not recommended once by anyone we spoke with, but which we thought was far superior to the much-touted The Girl and the Fig which everyone recommended (ok, 4 out of 4 people recommended it--3 unsolicited recommendations). The El Dorado Kitchen has an inviting atmosphere, great acoustics, and the food was divine. I had plain old free-range chicken and it was impeccable. It was served with ricotta-stuffed gnocchi and braised leeks in a butter sauce. It also had the figs so who needs the girl with the figs anyway? Taster A had a beautiful rabbit dish, and I also had the chevre appetizer and we shared a dessert. Wine? I don't remember the wine...but, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I have retrieved that data from the restaurants wine list online: I had the hyde de villainede la guerra chardonnay from Carneros, and Taster B had the molnar family "poseidon's vineyard" pinot noir, also Carneros AVA. Both were excellent accompaniments to the food we ordered. We will go back again.

Not so much on our "will return" list is The Girl and the Fig. Perhaps a case of inflated expectations. We had a rave review from a patron on the night that we went to EDK: I believe he was french. He kept saying "It's tops." He even told us that the chef was a prick but, that he still had to eat there because it was so good. He had just had the duck confit and it was kiss-your-finger-tips (good). So, the next night, that's where we went. Besides the fact that we were seated on the laps of the couple next to us, and the server gave us 'tude, the food was so-so. Generally, everything was over-salted. I had the duck confit which was served with an arugula pesto. The duck was good (if a bit dry and salty); the pesto was good (again salty); but together, they were yucky. Same with the nice fennel and celery root soup: It was good soup but for the cut-grass flavored chive oil it was doused with. It sounded good but, it didn't work. Overall, we felt the menu was too contrived and dishes were ill-mated. If the food at El Dorado Kitchen was a harmonious symphony, The Girl and the Fig was like trying to listen to Classical while your roommate is blasting Jazz: Like 'em both but, not together (and not with so much table salt--oops, I said that already). If they had just used sea salt instead of table salt, I would have probably found the food much more to my liking.

Read the Wine Spectator's Review of El Dorado Kitchen.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Heitz Cellar, an Unforgettable Flight

We decided to take a trip over to Napa and find Heitz Cellars, a producer to very fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Petit Verdot wines. If you wish to explore truly well crafted wines, make the trip to Heitz. We feel that Heitz Cellars was one of the most important stops we made.

The reason for our trip was to experience wines that were not accessible to us because of geographical distribution, wines that do not fit our budget, and wines that have limited production. Above all, we wanted to experience for ourselves the marriage of terroir and craftsmanship. This one stop satisfied all of these points.

Heitz Cellars has a beautiful tasting room with good acoustics with a friendly host. We were made to feel welcome and invited for a tasting. (This sounds like a no-brainer, but this can set the tone of the tasting experience.)

We tasted:
2005 Chardonnay, Napa Valley
2005 Petit Verdot
2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Trailside Vineyard, Napa Valley
1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bella Oaks Vineyard, Rutherford
1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, Martha’s Vineyard, Oakville

The Chardonnay was crisp, and very well balanced between fruit and oak. This is not your Kendall-Jackson type oak bomb. This wine is more a celebration of the Chardonnay grape gracefully flavored with French oak…but with a very light touch. Aromas and flavors of lemon, apple pear, peach, pineapple, slate, mineral and vanilla. Crisp taste with a short to moderate finish. Just Yum.

The Petit Verdot is a nice fruit forward, tart wine with tree fruit flavors with nice soft tannins. I picked up strawberry, blackberry, cherry, plum, current, earthy notes, smoke and chocolate. Our pourer suggests red Italian sauces, French onion soup and Cajun food.

Next were the featured cabs. As I evaluated each cab, I began to understand what a truly unique winery Heitz Cellars is. Heitz cabs are aged in oak for three and one half years, one year in American oak and the remainder in French. This gives the wines an unbelievably smooth wine with structure for aging.

1998 Cabernet Sauvignon “Martha’s Vineyard”
Heitz Cellars

AVA: Oakville
Alcohol: 14.2%
Price: $110

Color: Ruby red
Intensity: Deep
Aromas: Strawberry, blackberry, cherry, violet, smoky
Flavors: Strawberry, blackberry, cherry, current, jam, mint, eucalyptus, anise, black pepper, Allspice, cedar, sandalwood, tobacco
Body: Full, dry
Acidity: Moderate
Tannins: Suede
Finish: Long

Like all Heitz cabs we tried, the oak and toast are subdued. Well aged tannins balanced with fruit and mint. The fruit still shines through as when it was young, but shows great maturity. This was a privilege to be able to taste.

Valley of the Moon

CLick to enlarge. (c)2007 SmellsLikeGrape

Ah, another perfect day in Sonoma. Benziger was such a treat. I was a little worried driving up that it was going to be a winery theme-park for adults. My fears were unfounded, although we did pass up the vineyard tram tour. Benziger Family Winery has a gorgeous spot right adjacent to the Jack London State Park. It's very hilly and scenic.
The tasting was very enjoyable. Our pourer gave us time to sniff and sip the selections without making us feel uncomfortable. He commented more than once that he was happy to see us taking notes. The place was really hopping which gave it a great energy yet, we enjoyed the calm of our cloistral reserve tasting alcove.
One of the best things about Benziger really, is the fact that besides the usual palate-cleansing wafers, they offer dark chocolate samples to enjoy with some of their chocolate-friendly wines. I could have stayed all day.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Joaquin's Inferno; a Trip to Benziger Family Winery

On the 10th of October, I wrote a about Benziger Family Winery and their Sonoma County 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon. Benziger is located in Glen Ellen, California on the north end of Sonoma. During high traffic periods, use the less busy, Arnold Road which parallels Highway 12. This will take you through a scenic area and past the small shops in town.

California Quail
A trip to the Benziger Family Winery has much to offer. We suggest that you pack a picnic lunch to enjoy on the grounds. There are tables under the canopy of ancient eucalyptus and oak trees. The chatter of Acorn Woodpeckers and California Quail entertained us as we snacked on cheese, crackers and strawberries after our tasting. The grounds are lush and well maintained in a natural setting.

The Tasting Room
In the tasting room, you will find a well stocked gift shop and a generous amount of tasting bars. Greg, one of the servers, offered us a choice of two flights, The current offerings flight and the high end "Biodynamic, Reserve and Single Vineyard Tasting" flight. This high end flight listed eight wines of which five could be chosen. The tasting fee was $15.00, but this was well worth it.

We have enjoyed Barzinger wines at home, so we were eager to try the reserve wines that range from $29 to $80 per bottle. This was indeed going to be a treat. On the list was Benziger's flagship blend, 2004 Tribute. In 2001, Tribute was their first Biodynamic wine. It is an absolutely wonderful, intensely flavorful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and classic Bordeaux varieties.

Greg escorted us to a second tasting room off to the side of the gift shop for the reserve tasting. This removed us from the hustle and bustle of the main tasting room. There were a few smaller tasting bars set up to accommodate parties of one to four comfortably and allowed Greg to focus on us, our interests and our questions.

The difference with this flight of wines is that these are the reserve and single vineyard offerings. These wines are made in small lots, on the order of hundreds of cases. As a result, these wines are sold only in the tasting room and to club members. All of this may sound like wine snobbery, but keep it in perspective. We are interested in learning more so we can share more. And lets face it, the more you know, the more successful you will be when you go to the wine store or when you are handed that skinny black book by the waiter.

Greg asked us what our interests were. We are interested in Sonoma red wines, and the purpose of this trip is to learn more about the region's wines. We like Cabs and Zins, we don't know much about Pinot Noir and would like to try them.

Here is a tip.
When traveling as a couple, it is okay with most tasting rooms to try different wines and to try your spouses wine. (As a courtesy, I will ask the server first so that I do not put the winery in a position where a law might be violated.)

Between the two of us, we tasted the following:
2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Shown Farm
2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Obsidian Point
2004 Tribute
2004 Estate Zinfandel, Joaquin's Inferno
2004 Petite Sirah
2005 Port, Sonoma Valley

Greg, our server, was very gracious, made great suggestions on pairings, told us stories about the vineyards and helped put Benzinger's wines in perspective with comparable wines around the world. He also spent extra time with us.

I cannot say enough about what we see going on at Benziger Family Winery. If time permits, we may return to try the other flight. With this, I wish to share my tasting notes for the 2004 Estate Zinfandel, Joaquin's Inferno.

Zinfandel, "Joaquin's Inferno"
Benziger Family Winery

AVA: Sonoma Mountain

Color: Dark ruby
Vintage: 2004
Production: 89 Cases

Total Acidity: 0.69
Alcohol: 15.5%
pH: 3.68

Aromas and Flavors: Jam light smoke black pepper, allspice, cherry, choke cherry, elderberry, boysenberry, pomegranate
Body: Full
Tannins: Suede
Finish: Long and spicy

Summary: This wine is one that you want to take some time with. Aromas evolve from the glass and come off in layers. The finish is long, fruity, tannic, then goes spicy. This makes for a fun glass of wine and will have you going back to your glass to see what comes next.

Greg told us about the vineyard that became know as Joaquin's Inferno. The vineyard is behind the visitors center and has a very steep slope with about a 200 foot elevation gain to the top. Joaquin is reported to hate that Zinfandel vineyard because it is so steep he has fallen several times. Thus, the wine was dubbed Joaquin's Inferno in his honor.

Comparing Zins at Ravenswood Winery, Sonoma CA

Our first day in Sonoma was a blast! This is our first trip to the Sonoma Valley and compared to Napa, it seems really laid back, with a little more "old West" charm. Walking around the historic square is fun but, we are here on a mission! We decided to take on Ravenswood because it is close to downtown (easy to find), and because Matt Kramer gives Ravenswood a good review in New California Wine. To be honest, I have seen Ravenswood in our local liquor stores for years and never picked up a bottle because I assumed it was another mass-produced wine marketed as a boutique wine that may or may not be any good.

The property is lovely, and the tasting room had a really good atmosphere. We liked the fact that we could just stand there and enjoy the wines without a staff person hovering over us (I get a little self-conscious about going through my tasting ritual while a "professional" is watching).

All the wines in the "Vineyard Designate" tasting flight were good. I tried the 2002 Estate Merlot which was nice and would pair well with a risotto with prosciutto dish. One really cool thing was having the opportunity to taste three Zinfandels from three different vineyards. We tried the '05 Dickerson, the '05 Belloni, and the '05 Big River. Big River was my fav. I loved it because I could pick out a lot of different aromas (sometimes you wonder if you know what you're doing when you keep getting cherry, plum, and smoked meat...) It had a certain Moroccan flair; with hints of cumin, cardamom, and black pepper (Ravenswood refers to it unapologetically as the "Fruit Bomb"). The wine had the usual jammy, cherry, raisin, etc, as well as, strawberry. Yum yum. See Taster A's posting for full tasting notes.
The other surprise was the 2004 Pickberry (73% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Sauvignon) which had some very distinctive aromas/flavors as well. I wrote one note, which was the unusual flavor of a malted on the palate. Nice stuff.

Oh, I never put in my two cents about Boony Doon Winery which Taster A posted an entry on last week: The surprise of the day there was the 2005 Piemontese Blend. Please try this if you ever have the opportunity. It is unlike any wine I've ever tasted (in a good way). The bottle has a very imaginative label design: If you pour a glass, close your eyes, take a sniff, and then look at the label, I think you will be amazed by how well the design represents the wine. I would call it "Transcendental Victorianism."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

No Wimpy Wines

Arriving in Sonoma

Upon our arrival in Sonoma, California, we were anxious to get started on our tasting journey. A quick stop in the center of town is where you will find a square with lots of shops, eateries and tasting rooms. We needed to get our bearings, so a walk around the square was in order. We need maps!

Pick up a free copy of Wine Country This Week, from the Information Center. You'll get an idea of what is going on in the California wine scene and get some great ideas on where to go and what to do. You can pick up a copy of the Sonoma wine guide, it does have a map, but if you try to use it, your navigator will be arguing with your driver. Plus, if the winery did not purchase advertising, it may not have a dot on the map. (This may be my perception.)

So what should you do? Go to Sonoma Wine Hardware (map) on Broadway. Inside you will find a glossy map of Sonoma and Napa. On the back it has just about every winery listed and their tasting hours with addresses. The inn that we stayed at had a map published by Sonoma County. Between these two maps, you will be able to get around the Sonoma and Napa wine regions.

Our pourer at Ravenswood Winery.
Our First Tasting, Ravenswood Winery
As I mentioned, we were anxious to get in our first tasting. But it was getting on towards 4:00 by the time we arrived. Since we had our "free map" from the info center, we didn't pick up a copy of the map from Sonoma Wine Hardware. It was then that we were hopelessly looking for our first target. We did find an easy target, Ravenswood Winery (map).

We chose Ravenswood because we know that we can purchase their wines in our region. They have two flights, the regular production wines and the "Vineyard Designate Wines". The latter will cost you $15.00 however it will give you an opportunity to try some wines that you may not be able to access in your locations. Many are sold exclusively through their wine club or at the winery. (We got to keep the glasses.)

Ravenswood Winery's slogan is "No Wimpy Wines". Their wines are big, bold and distinctive. We also were able to compare the wines from the Alexander Vally, Russian River, Sonoma Valley and Pickberry Vineyard. This is really fun because terrior does matter in quality wines.

The Tasting Room is well appointed with good acoustics. I prefer tasting rooms that you can have a pleasant conversation with the server or with my friends. If I cannot hear myself think, I have a hard time figuring out what is happening with the wine.

The staff was wonderful. They answered questions, told us about the vineyards, about the history, and generally were having a great time. They let us take notes, take time to appreciate their product and were very helpful. They enjoyed teaching us about their products. It was a fun atmosphere where we could be students learning to taste. And they appreciate working with people that are truly willing to learn.

Here are my tasting notes from just one wine from the flight.

Big River Zinfandel
Zinfandel 100%
Growing Area: Alexander Valley

Vintage: 2005
Price: $32.00 Retail $25.60 Club
Color: Ruby Red
Intensity: Dark
Aromas and Flavors: Jammy spicy cedar, raisin black pepper, choke cherry, elderberry, dandelion, strawberry, mint
Body: Full
Finish: Moderate
Tannin: Suede to leather

Summary: Just what you would expect from a well crafted Zinfandel. The wine evolved in the glass, on the palate and offered new perception surprises, one after another. I spent a good 10 minutes with my one ounce pour. Walked around the shop, talked with our server and just let the wine evolve. The Alexander Valley is a premier growing region for bright, complex Zinfandel grapes. Yeah, we brought a bottle home with us.

Tasting Room Tips

Keeping tasting notes is not only fun, but when you try to remember which wine you liked, it can be important. Taking notes is a good thing. The tasting room folks know you will be visiting other rooms and really appreciate it when you make an effort to remember their wines. Our Ravenswood server recounted to us a visitor he recently had return from a year ago. The visitor asked, "Can you help us remember what wine we bought from you last year?" The server asked helpfully, "What can you tell me about what you bought?" "Oh", replied the visitor, "It was a red wine." "Well, that is about 80% of what we sell. What else can you tell me, was it a Cab, a Zin?" "Oh, I don't know, it had a white label with three black birds in a circle." Great, they just narrowed it down from 80% to 79% of the wines ever sold by Ravenswood!

Ravenswood was a wonderful tasting experience. A fun tasting room with some nice wine accessories and a great staff. Ravenswood has some great big wines. We are grateful that we can get them locally in our area.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Of Cigars and Women

We find ourselves out in San Jose, California on a long awaited vacation. Our first stop is with Taster B's parents. It was suggested that we take a trip over the Santa Cruz Mountains and visit Bonny Doon Vinyard. It was there my life was changed forever.

The tasting room at Bonny Doon Vinyard is a large scale, yet highly personal experience. There were approximately five to eight tasting stations staffed by college students. The place with busy with about thirty or so patrons. Our server was Cameron, a philosophy major from Santa Cruz. (Go Banana Slugs!) "I find that wine and philosophy go well together," exclaimed Cameron. That gentle statement was like saying "That atom bomb is real dynamite."

The tasting fees were $5.00. The flight of five wines started with an impetuous white, 2006 I, Aurora. A blend of Viognier, Loureiro and treixadura, wild ferment. Tastes of Citrus, mint and melon. Next came the 2005 Pinot Noir "Transfusion". Another great wine with cedar tannins, black berry, black cherry, smoky, suede to leather texture with a spicy finish. Just yum!

Then Cameron rocked my universe. Bonny Doon has imported Monferrato, Denominazione De Origine Controllata ROSSO. This wine is from the Monferrato hills in the Piemonte region. The tasting sheet describes, " We are exited to release another highly aromatic blend from our good friend Luca Ferraris in the Piemonte region of Italy. The blend, rather untraditional, is primarily Ruche' (70%), accentuated with 20% Barbera with a touch of Syrah."

Cameron poured our tastings, I pulled the glass up to look at the deep purple color. I did the quick double swirl, closed my eyes and stuck my nose into the bowl of the glass. Instantly I saw a beautiful young girl with chestnut brown hair walk into my bookstore. Here eyes were blue. She is the type of girl that you would like to take for a long summer's evening walk along Boulder Creek and spread a blanket in the evening's meadow to look up at the stars. The mountain air filled with the fragrance of vanilla from the ponderosa pines and scents wild flowers waft in the summer breeze blowing up the canyon. At that point, you would know that life would be changed forever.

I opened my eyes and came back into present time. I looked at Cameron, looked at Taster B and said "Oh my God!"

(c)2007 SmellsLikeGrape
Piemontese Blend
Monferrato Di Origine Controllata (1)
Producer: Luca Ferraris

Vintage: 2005
Alcohol: 14.0%
Price: $18.00

Ruch'e 70%
Barbera 20%
Syrah 10%

Color: Purple
Intensity: Dark
Aromas: Rose, violet, licorice
Flavors: Allspice, clove , black cherry, rose
Body: Medium to full
Finish: Long and spicy
Tannin: Starts out silky and works toward leather

I never knew wine could be like this. There are a few moments in life that change one's perceptions. This was one of them. In our Wine Spectator tasting course, they talked about floral aromas. I just thought I wasn't able to perceive them. This wine demonstrates that not only is it possible, but they can jump right out of the glass. This wine smells like roses. You must experience this for yourself. This is a wine that is truly capable to evoke strong emotions. A real joy to hold in you hand.

And cigars? The flight continued with the 2003 Le Cigare Volant. Bonny Doon has a long tradition of blending Le Cigare Vilont. A damn good wine with great backbone to age for years. Taster B's father fist tasted this wine back when Randall Grahm would pour in the tasting room himself. It is a blend of Mourv`edre, syrah, Grenache and cinsault.

Finally a desert wine Recioto of Barbera. A very delicious way to end the flight. We enjoyed the tasting room. The staff was pleasant and helpful. Bring a white napkin because we were having trouble judging colors against the dark wooden surfaces.

(1) Post script, 12 Jan 08
Since we have posted this, we have been wrapping our wits around Italian Labels. Monferrato D.O.C. is a relatively new C.O.C introduced in 1995 for red, white and rose’ Dolcetto, Casalese and Freisa from a wide area overlapping the Asti region. Rosso simply means red. Use the label "Italian Labels" to see me muddle through more Italienglish wine labels.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Smells Like Grape in a past life

Thursday, October 18, 2007

You Takes Your Chances

Taster B and I were out for a Sunday drive to see the foliage that is starting to develop in our area. We drove by a specialty deli that carries a few select wines. We had not been there for over six months. I couldn’t resist popping in to see what was on the shelves.

Then something caught my eye. In a French bread basket on the floor in the corner was a collection wines labeled as “Past Vintage, good for Cooking $5.00”. Oh, I love a wine bargain. But a bottle of bad wine is just a bottle of bad wine.

What to do? The wine shop is comfortable and cool. The wine shelves are not in a sunny area. The wines in the shop are displayed lying down. The exceptions are the wines on special which were displayed in the cases. Chances are that this past vintage wine had a good life here in the deli. The wines on display are of a varied and interesting selection. The deli owner obviously loves wine too. The fast selling wines upright in the case are fine. They move quickly and will be fine.

This looks like a good chance to pick up a bargain. With all this in mind, I decided to take a chance. In the basket were several white wines and a couple of reds. Now, a 2000 Chardonnay may be way past prime, but we selected a 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon.

We all have heard that wines improve with age. This is not true for all wines. Fruit forward, crisp white wines can go past prime. Even red wines must have good tannins to start with. To age well, a wine needs structure; fuit forwardness and short tannin molecules give way to longer chain molecules as the wine ages and mellows. Cabernets age well, so let’s take the chance. If this wine is indeed past its prime, it will do well in the sauce pot.

But what of our bottle? Did I make a good decision or did I buy next week's stock pot fodder?

Cabernet Sauvignon
Quail Creek

Growing Area: California
Vintage: 2000
Alcohol: 13.5
Price: $5.00 Closeout

Color: Ruby Red
Intensity: Medium
Aromas: Raisin, earth, smoked meet, tobacco, toast
Flavors: Cherry, plum, jam, eucalyptus, anis, black pepper, smoked meat, oak, smoky, cedar, coffee
Body: Medium
Finish: Moderate
Tannin: Suede

Summary: Purchased as a “Past Vintage” wine, this represents what can happen to a wine at home that sits on the shelf. Anyone who builds up a cellar can have this happen. The same thing happens at the wine shop. I’m glad I made this purchase. The tannins were smooth, smoky and suede-like. The finish was pleasant and spicy. The flavors were developing on the palate in layers. Surprisingly nice and was fun to explore.

Pairing with B-B-Q, grilled meats.

Verdict? I’m glad we rescued this bottle. The last third of this bottle will definatly enhance the beef stew.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Green Wine

See the wine at www.benziger.com.In these days, there is a movement towards slow food, local eating and sustainable farming. Quality producers are finding that sustainable farming practices may seem to be a little more labor intensive, but the payoffs are worth while. After all, chemicals are expensive, monoculture planting can result in plague that can wipe out a harvest, and pests can have free rein of the winery. Pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers infiltrate ground water supplies, drift in the air and can be hazardous to workers.

Over the last 20 years, growers have been returning to agricultural practices of 100 years ago. The energy costs are lower, the chemical costs are lower and the potential for the true expression of the land can come through.

Where this may sound like a bucolic utopia, the realities can be different. It does take work and it does take commitment. In California, many growers are working in this direction balancing the desire to make a positive change with the realities of growing on land that has become dependent on chemical interventions. And ripping up good producing vines to make room for less profitable plants…you’d better have a good vision of where you are going.

The cold hard facts are that it takes about 1000 lbs of grape to make a barrel. And about 250 cases of wine per barrel. Figure three tons per acre and eighteen months to get the grape in the bottle. And you get one shot per year. You just don’t gamble.

Many growers in California are going in a sustainable direction, but it will not happen overnight. However, in the long run, the results can be very positive. For instance, if your yield does go down, then one strategy is to create a better grape that will fetch a better price from a quality winery or that can produce a higher quality bottle.

It is becoming common to grow crops that build up soil and harbor predatory insects between rows of grapes. These crops can be harvested as saleable produce or returned to the soil to condition it. This creates an additional revenue stream for the vineyard.

One winery that caught our attention is Benziger Family Winery. The Benziger family has been developing a sustainable vineyard over the last twenty years. We are fortunate that we could purchase one of their wines in our “ship wine here at your own risk” state. I’m pleased to say they have an enjoyable product and we will be repeat customers.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Benziger Family Winery

Cabernet Sauvignon

Appellation: Sonoma County
Vintage: 2004
Alcohol: 13.5%
pH: 3.78
Price: $12.99

Color: Dark purple
Intensity: Deep
Aromas: Jammie black cherry, current, elderberry, light mellow oak, hay
Flavors: Cedar, anise, black cherry, blackberry, cinnamon, earthy, plum skins, chocolate, mint
Body: Full
Finish: Moderately long
Tannin: Soft, suede

Summary: This wine produced a nice balance of fruit flavors with spice and wonderful integrated tannins. Take your time with this wine. It will give you something new with every sip. We served this wine at an optimal 65 to 70 degrees F and as the wine opened up, it did the Dance of the Seven Vales. Cedar, dark fruit, chocolate…it was an adventure.

This wine was aged in primarily American oak with some French for 18 months. Visit www.benziger.com/ to learn about this family endeavors.

This wine would do nicely with steak, roast beef, lamb, grilled food and chocolate deserts. Taster B and I found ourselves nibbling on some dark chocolate finishing this bottle watching a movie. Yeah, this is the good stuff.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Burgess Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 - Taster A

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon 79%
Merlot 8%
Cabernet Frank 4%
Malbec 2%

Appellation: Napa Valley, California
Vineyard location: Burgess Winery Vineyard - St. Helena
Vintage: 2003

Alcohol: 13.9%
Price: $30.00

Color: Dark ruby red
Intensity: Deep
Aromas: Blackberry, black cherry, plum, flint
Flavors: Toasty, anise, allspice
Body: Medium to full
Taste: Moderate to low acidity with medium suede tannins
Finish: Long
Tannin: Suede feel

French oak barrel aging.
100% malolactic ferment

Summary: With the aromas, I expected the wine to be more fruit forward. But with the age of the wine, the fruits tend to balance out. This wine had a pleasant light toasty forward taste of cedar and flint with the fruit notes and a pleasant spice finish. The wine had legs like Betty Grable.

We paired this with pizza. Oh, yum! This bottle was so good. We didn’t have much left over. I think it would compliment beef stew, rack of lamb, stake fajitas and game.

Burgess for the details!


A New Wine Shop and a New First

We've shed some tears over the fact that we cannot have wine shipped to us directly in the state where we currently reside. So, we were pleasantly surprised to find a real wine shop disguised as an everyday liquor store recently. Since we've been reading Sniffing the Cork by Judy Beardsall, we keep an eye out for good wine-retailer indicators such as the temperature of the store, how the bottles are stored and displayed, and how much dust has collected. This place passed the test. Not only that, but they had the biggest selection of high-end wines that we've seen since we've moved here. We don't actually buy those $75 bottles of wine but, it is fun to look at them.
We were interested in sampling a particular vineyard from St. Helena in Napa, so we set about looking for something that fit the bill. In the process, we discovered that you don't find many single vineyard bottlings under $35. We finally settled on a 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon from Burgess for $29.99. This is the first bottle of wine (outside of a restaurant) that we've ever paid more than $20 for. (Oh boy, this hobby could get expensive!)
We finally got to open it the other night and we agreed it was worth it. I didn't take very good tasting notes but, here's what I have:

Burgess Cabernet Sauvignon
AVA: St. Helena (alas, no vineyard designation)

Vintage: 2003

Alcohol: 13.9%

Color: Dark ruby red
Intensity: Deep
Aromas: Plum, oak, leather, banana
Flavors: Cherry, spice, leather
Body: Medium
Taste: Moderate to low acidity with medium suede tannins
Finish: Long

Summary: This was a well crafted wine I thought. It had an almost milky feeling in the mouth, and the only criticism I would give is that they might have let the malolactic ferment go a smidge too long. It reminded me of sweet blackberry. Overall, a nice balanced wine.

Other thoughts: I'm already noticing a trend here. I seem to smell ripe banana in everything. Hmmm...

Monday, October 8, 2007


In the film Mondovino, the highly paid French wine consultant Michel Rolland was flown to all corners of the wine world just so he could tell his clients to “Micro-oxygenate”. When asked what it was, his reply was simply that if he told us, we wouldn’t need him. Thus the mystery, “What is micro-oxygenation?”

In the early 1990s, Madiran winemaker Patric Ducournau developed micro-oxygenation in South Western France to help solve problems with Tannat-based wines. Tannat is a red grape with tough tannins that needs to be oak aged to soften the tannins. Producers using stainless steel tanks found the grape difficult to work with.

An oak barrel will allow small amounts of oxygen through to the wine and soften tannins. This softening is not possible in stainless steel. The technique builds optimum structure, reduces herbaceous or vegetal characters, and stabilizes color.

The equipment is simple in concept. Bubble up oxygen through the wine. The process as it turns out, is more delicate than that. But not that much. Let’s take the mystery out of this topic. During primary fermentation, the yeast is exposed to lots of oxygen to keep the fermentation process going. This is macro-oxygenation. Immediately after alcoholic fermentation, the winemaker begins the micro-oxygenation. The equipment uses special ceramic bubblers placed in the bottom of the tank create tiny bubbles. The flow and bubble size are adjusted so that the bubbles dissolve in the tank before they reach the top. This allows the winemaker to simulate the oxygenation process during barrel aging. See The Science of Wine from Vine to Glass by Jamie Goode, University of California Press.

Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? It depends on you philosophy about wine. If you believe that wine is a product of nature and you enjoy exploring the marriage of grape and wood, then you may frown upon this intervention. If you feel that producers should make the best wine possible by any means disposable, then this technique if for you.

Now that you’re in the know, watch Mondovino. And when in doubt, “Micro-oxygenate!”


Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Evil Empire

We decided to watch Mondovino again to see if we could stay awake this time now that we are earnest students of wine. We rented it the first time a few years ago (right after Sideways) because Netflix said that people who liked Sideways also enjoyed Mondovino (lol). The biggest impact it had on us after our first viewing was to steer us away from Mondavi wine (not that we were buying Mondavi before we watched it).

The viewpoint of the film-maker is very compelling. Of course, he has a very definite viewpoint which colors the portrayal of certain characters in the film (IMHO) so I took it with a grain of salt. The American wine-makers featured in Mondovino were cast in an unflattering light which highlighted their corporate-profit-maximizing-at-the-expense-of-culture bent. Among the soiled were Mondavi (Robert, and sons), representatives of Wine Spectator, Robert Parker (to some extent), some damn American stealing grapes from a vine in Bordeaux, and the Francobaldi family. The impression of Napa that you get from this film is one of vacuous, soulless people who are single-handedly destroying the very soul of wine (not saying it isn't true in some cases). While, I don't think that making money as a wine-maker is intrinsically evil, I definitely came away with a lot of admiration for the French vintners (oh, they make $, I'm sure) that were featured.

One observation that I believe was made in the film, is that there is more Catholic guilt associated with making money in France that sways some of the prejudices you see there. I don't know if that's true but, it's an interesting idea. I wouldn't want to see vineyards that go back for generations, in a village that actually manages to hold on to it's bucolic charm bull-dozed to put up a Mondavi billboard no matter how many shares of MOND I owned.

Favorite quote from Mondovino: "micro-oxygenate!" (haha! I like to tease Taster A by telling him I'm going to ask if they micro-oxygenate next time we go to a winery)

Read an interesting interview with film-maker and sommelier Jonathan Nossiter.


Flight of Whites (Wine School Assignment #1) Taster A

Vintage: 2004
Alcohol: 12.5%
Price: $16.99

Color: yellow to green
Intensity: medium
Aromas: lemon, grapefruit, apple, pear, melon, allspice
Flavors: lemon, grapefruit, mineral
Body: light
Acidity: crisp
Sweetness: dry
Finish: moderate

Summary: This was my first taste of Riesling since the ‘80s. I left the region because I found the wines to be on the sweet side and like so many others, found the Chardonnays of California.

The aromas exploded out of the glass, the citrus was fresh and vibrant. The aromas came off in layers as the wine opened up…apple…melon…pear…it has a nice crisp taste, dry and light bodied. Images of summer picnics, chomping on cheese and crackers on a Sunday afternoon come to mind.

Sauvignon Blanc
Lockwood Vineyard
Monterey AVA
Vintage: 2005
Alcohol: 13.5%
Price: $11.99

Color: Straw
Intensity: Pale
Aromas: Lemon, grapefruit peach melon orange blossom, hay, nutmeg
Flavors: Lemon, grapefruit, mint, clove, allspice
Body: Medium
Acidity: Crisp
Sweetness: Dry
Finish: Moderate

Summary: This wine looked very elegant in the glass. The wine exploded with citrus aromas and as the wine opened up, layers of citrus, peach, melon aromas evolved. Sipping the wine gave flavors of citrus and spice with a very mild mint flavor developing. This wine was chosen because it was not barrel aged…meaning it would be a expression of the grape. This adds variety in the market place, one that I welcome. I would pair this with light fish such as flounder, a good cheese-and-cracker wine.

Santa Barbara AVA
Vintage: 2005
Alcohol: 13.5%
Price: $12.99

Color: Yellow
Intensity: Medium
Aromas: Lemon, fig, vanilla, oak, smoky, bacon
Flavors: Lemon, grapefruit, pineapple, hay, stone, clove, allspice, coffee
Body: Medium
Acidity: Moderate to crisp
Sweetness: Off-dry
Finish: Moderate

Summary: This wine was selected for its oak aged qualities and that is very apparent in the wine. The color is rich and stately in the glass. The oak influence in the wine defines character of this wine. The oak permeates the glass as you draw the aromas in. There is no doubt that this wine is all about the marriage between forest and vineyard.

Growing up in the woods of New England and having been a wood worker, I know a bit about oak. Green oak has a distinctive pungent smell to it. Upon sniffing the wine, I was taken back to my days of splitting wood for the family fireplace.

The flavors of citrus started to come alive as the wine opened up and the oak aromas toned down. The pineapple and spicy notes came through as the wine aged in the glass. Those who want to experience a oak crafted chardonnay will truly enjoy this with poultry, heavier fish such as haddock or salmon, or with heavier cheeses.

Those who are looking for a true expression of the grape may frown upon this choice, but give it a try. I’m not a huge fan of heavily oaked wines, but I truly enjoyed being taken back to an earlier time in my life when the air was filled with the smell of oak yielding to steel.

Final thoughts about the flight
Drinking three bottles of wine in one night is not a reality for us, consequently, we had some leftovers. Throughout the week, Taster A took care of the Riesling, I adopted the Sauvignon Blanc for my own. The Kendall-Jackson we shared.

I would highly recommend doing a tasting course at home. When we are out tasting in public areas, we tend to be less candid and not take as much time as I’d like to try a wine.

There are guidelines for tasting rooms that the staff must follow. Most rooms will give a one ounce pour. I find that sometimes makes it hard to let the layers come out. Professional tasters may be able to do the job quickly and get twice as much out of the wine, I have to work at it. It takes me time to identify what’s going on. At home, I can pour that extra ounce out. In a tasting room, that is generally frowned upon. Take your time and develop your skills.

See Kendall-Jackson's Barrel Page!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Flight of Whites (Wine School Assignment #1)

We bought our wines for the first tasting. Wine School gave us a price range of $12-$15 per bottle, and a few dollars more for the Riesling. We've done wine tastings before in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Russian River, Napa, etc, but this was the first time we ever had a list of things to look at and evaluate. We have to note the color, the intensity of color, aromas, flavors, body (aka mouth-feel), taste (acid/sweet), and the finish in terms of length. Also, it was our first time tasting wines in a side-by-side comparison. It was kind of a challenge for me to pick out the aromas and flavors (Taster A finds this easier to do) but, it was fun! Here's what we got along with my tasting notes:

(note: these are not listed in the order that we tasted them: it was actually Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, then Chardonnay last)

Santa Barbara AVA
Vintage: 2005
Alcohol: 13.5%
Price: $12.99

Color: Yellow
Intensity: Medium
Aromas: banana, oak, butterscotch
Flavors: butter
Body: Medium
Acidity: Moderate
Sweetness: Off-dry
Finish: Moderate to long

Summary: Good everyday wine. Very tasty if a bit heavy on the oak. My impression during the tasting was that this wine would be very good with Peking duck. This was my favorite wine during the tasting.

Sauvignon Blanc
Lockwood Vineyard
Monterey AVA
Vintage: 2005
Alcohol: 13.5%
Price: $11.99

Color: Straw
Intensity: Pale

Aromas: honeysuckle, mineral, mushroom, vanilla, slight butter
Flavors: grapefruit, hay

Body: Light
Acidity: Crisp
Sweetness: Dry
Finish: Moderate to long

Summary: I had mixed emotions about this one. I found the aroma of mushroom very pungent and compelling yet, when I tasted the wine, it just tasted a bit odd. It was interesting but, I don't think I really liked it. Like when I was a kid and I wanted to like artichokes because they were fun and different, but I just couldn't handle the taste. Maybe this one will grow on me like artichokes did. If I were serving this wine, I'd pair it with fish tacos or Greek food. This was my least favorite of the three.

Vintage: 2004
Alcohol: 12.5%
Price: $16.99

Color: Green
Intensity: Medium
Aromas: apple, orange blossom, mint
Flavors: lemon, slightly smoky
Body: Light
Acidity: Moderate to crisp
Sweetness: Dry
Finish: Moderate

Summary: This was a pleasant surprise since I didn't think I liked Riesling (I'd only ever tried the sweet stuff). This is a good 'wine and cheese' wine. This actually wasn't my favorite during the tasting but, tasting all three again after they'd been open for a day, this is now my favorite of the three (the Kendall-Jackson seems offensively oaky to me now).

Friday, October 5, 2007

Wine Class

Okay, for starters, we decided to do the Wine Spectator Wine School "Tasting 101" course. It's actually a fun little course. We learned about the 4 S's: See, Swirl, Sip, Summarize. (We can think of at least 6 S's: See, Swirl, Sniff, Sip, Swish, Spit/Swallow, Summarize).
Our first assignment is a flight of whites. We are to get a California Chardonnay with evident oak (shouldn't be difficult), and Sauvignon Blanc from CA/OR with no evident oak, and a dry Riesling from either Germany, France, or CA.