Monday, June 29, 2009

Pinot Days is better than ZAP

Like great sex or a great vacation, my only regret about Pinot Days is San Francisco is that it didn't last longer. I tasted so many quality wines, but I only tasted wines from 26 producers out of about 180.

This Fort Mason event is a nice contrast with another single varietal-focused Fort Mason taste-a-thon, ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers). ZAP is bigger, more crowded and drunker. At Pinot Days, the emphasis seemed to stay on tasting wine even late in the day, and the majority of "public" badge wearers were spitting, not swilling.

Of course, most event organizers would like to have ZAP's problems -- big crowds, ticket sellouts, so many producers that two whole hangars are needed. Pinot Days is on a smaller scale, with just one hangar and about 3500 attendees. Hopefully that's enough to support it, because the quality of Pinots was excellent.

Two exciting trends: 2007 seems to be a pretty good vintage. And the Pinots I tasted were not heavyweight generic reds -- most had light bodies and good fruit, without excessive oak. California Pinot had been beefing up in recent years but this seems a step in the right direction.

My favorite t-shirt at the event read, "Let me put my Pinot in your mouth." Below are my favorite wines.

Failla Peay Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006 ($48)
Bright raspberry initially, great acidity, even a citrusy note. Floral hints. Complex and bright. 94

Merry Edwards Flax Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2006
Intense and complex. Raspberry, cherry, floral notes, hint of eucalyptus. You can smell the alcohol but I didn't taste it. 94

Dutton-Goldfield Sanchietti Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
A pretty wine. Cherry, raspberry, hint of fresh flowers. Very nicely balanced. 93

Failla Keefer Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007 ($45)
Bright raspberry with cherry. Light-medium body. All fruit until a little tannin and earth on finish. Delightful. 93

Morgan Double L Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2006
Dense cherry and raspberry, a little milk chocolate. Tannic. Fruity enough for now, but should age. Long finish. 93

Peay Scallop Shelf Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Very dense flavors in a light body. Cherry, darker fruit. Persistent. Excellent. 93

Roessler Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2007
Light raspberry with savory raw beef note and hint of mint. Complex, long finish. 93

Siduri Sonatera Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Very savory -- soy sauce, mint, cherry, some smoked meat. Fascinating. 93

Woodenhead Humboldt County Pinot Noir 2007
Spicy, dark cherry. Medium body. Tannic but well-managed. Lingering spiciness keeps it interesting. 93

Woodenhead Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Cherry and raspberry, full fruit wine with medium body. Pretty. Long finish. 93

Balletto Burnside Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Cherry and raspberry with some black fruit -- black raspberry. Hint of violet. Dense. very smooth mouthfeel, long finish. Well-balanced. 92

Dutton-Goldfield Freestone Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Dense black cherry with medium body; long finish. 92

Failla Occidental Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006 ($60)
Complex and savory -- raspberry, licorice, milk chocolate. Light-bodied but intense. Tannic on finish. Should age well. 92

Roessler Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Medium-bodied, raspberry and soy sauce initially, cherry flavor that deepens on finish. 92

Siduri Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Cherry, some dark fruit (black plum). Intensely fruity, persistent. 92

Tantara Garys' Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2007
Bright cherry and raspberry with some mint. Very nice wine, if somewhat big. 92

Tantara La Colline Vineyard Arroyo Grande Pinot Noir 2007
Own-root, a Martini clone planted in the '80s. Intense cherry fruit with some minerality. Good depth. 92

Woodenhead Troika North Coast Pinot Noir 2006 ($120)
intense cherry fruit, medium body. Chewy tannins built for age. Hint of mint on long finish. 92

Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Willamette Valley 2006
Intense cherry, some raspberry. Full-bodied. The big style of Pinot, but a good one. 91

Dutton-Goldfield Devils Gulch Ranch Marin County Pinot Noir 2007
Intense, full-bodied, cherry and raspberry flavors, smooth mouthfeel. 91

Dutton-Goldfield Devils Gulch Ranch Marin County Pinot Noir 2006
Pretty, with cherry, raspberry and floral notes. A little more tannic than the '07, but nicely managed. 91

Freeman Akiko's Cuvee Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Pretty and almost perfumey, with light cherry and floral notes. 91

Papapietro Perry Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Light cherry, some licorice and raspberry. Gentle but persistent. 91

Peay Estate Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Light cherry fruit with a savory beef tartare note. 91

Peay Pomarium Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006
Bright cherry, also a savory beef tartare note and hint of mint. Delicate. 91

Testarossa Garys' Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2007
Light cherry with a hint of mint; lightly tannic. 91

Balletto Estate Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007 ($20)
Cherry fruit, a little mint, light body, pleasant. Outstanding value for $20. 90

Balletto Winery Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Dense cherry, fuller body, somewhat tannic. Built for aging. 90

Chronicle Cerise Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2006
Some sulfur in the aroma, but it blows off. Palate is cherry fruit with appealing savory notes and floral hints. The tannins could still use some time, but promising wine. 90

Domaine Serene Winery Hill Vineyard Willamette Valley 2005
Bright cherry, all fruit. Soft and intense, medium-full body, hint of soy sauce on finish. 90

Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($34)
Intense cherry, overripe black plum, a savory soy note. Good value. 90

Freeman Keefer Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Bright cherry, persistent. Light body. Straightforward. 90

Macrostie Wildcat Mountain Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Bright raspberry, a little violet. Nice soft mouthfeel. 90

Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Light raspberry, cherry, some soy sauce. Light body, good balance. 90

Morgan Rosella's Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2006
Raspberry, blueberry, a little vanilla, a savory soy sauce note. Light bodied. 90

Papapietro Perry 777 Clones Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Light body, cherry flavor, seamless. Easy to enjoy. 90

Siduri Keefer Ranch Green Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Raspberry, violet, a green plum note. Tannic but controlled; could use a year. 90

Siduri Rosella's Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2007
Cherry fruit with some savory notes. 90

Tantara Solomon Hills Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Straightforward with good fruit -- cherry and raspberry. 90

Verve Stoller Vineyard Dundee Hills Pinot Noir 2007
Very light raspberry, gentle, floral on finish. Pretty. 90

Woodenhead Wiley Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2006 ($60)
Light bodied with gentle but persistent cherry and raspberry flavors. 90

Good wines a little below the top echelon
Cep Estate Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Chasseur Blank Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Chronicle Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006
Domaine Chandon Carneros Pinot Noir 2006
Dutton-Goldfield Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Dutton-Goldfield McDougall Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Freeman Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Freeman Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Jim Ball Vineyards Boonville Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Macrostie Carneros Pinot Noir 2007
Morgan Twelve Clones Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2007
Papapietro Perry Leras Family Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Puma Road Black Mountain Vineyards Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2007
Puma Road Black Mountain Vineyards Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2006
Roessler La Brisa Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2007
Roessler Red Label Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2007
Roessler Ridges Ollie & Hazel's Block Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006
Rusack Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Rusack Santa Rita Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 2007
Sand Hill Durell Vineyard Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir 2006
Siduri Chehalem Mountain Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Tantara Brousseau Vineyard Chalone Pinot Noir 2007
Testarossa Palazzio Central Coast Pinot Noir 2007 ($35)
Testarossa Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2007 ($55)
Verve Klein Family Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir 2007
Verve Momtazi Vineyard McMinnville Pinot Noir 2007

Not recommended
Cambria Julia's Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Jim Ball Vineyards Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Maboroshi Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2007
Paraiso Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2007
Rebecca K. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2006
Tantara Rio Vista Vineyard Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2007
Verve Rio San Lucas Vineyard Monterey Pinot Noir 2007

Forest Glen Sonoma County Reserve -- Fred Franzia wins again

It arrived in time for Christmas: a bottle of Forest Glen Sonoma County Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, along with appropriate greetings to wine writers from Fred Franzia's Bronco Wine Co.

Bronco, the 4th largest US wine producer, makes only cheap wines: Charles Shaw ("Two Buck Chuck"), Crane Lake, Forestville, Hacienda, Harlow Ridge and dozens of other brands.

Franzia told me himself once that "No bottle of wine is worth more than $10, in my opinion."

But the Forest Glen Sonoma County Reserve Cab has a suggested retail price of $20 -- way more than the second-most expensive Bronco wine I'd ever seen (some Napa Ridge wines are $12). The bottle is heavy enough to make a great murder weapon -- a sign of ostentation from a company able to turn a profit on a $1.99 wine. Bronco made only a few hundred cases, apparently to prove to wine writers that the company can make great wine if it wants to, though fortunately for you readers a few cases made it into the marketplace.

I wish I had opened it right away, but one thing led to another and it sat in my cellar awhile. I did ask around at a few wine writer gatherings what others thought of it, and everybody I talked to who had gotten a bottle had given it away unopened. Why drink $20 Bronco wine when people send you $75 Napa Cabs on a regular basis?

This week I finally got around to opening it. And it's excellent -- a lot of wine writers must have made their landlord or barber very happy. This is the best $20 Cab I've had from California in a while, and it would do very well in a tasting of California Cabs $50 and under. I can say this confidently because I just tasted top wines in this category this week.

Tasting notes:

Forest Glen Sonoma County Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003: Nice aroma -- ripe blackberries, cherries, plenty of fruit, a little vanilla. Hints of pomegranate and dark chocolate. Just the beginning of an aged wine aroma -- dried persimmons, leather. On the palate, nice forward fruit, ripe cherry and blackberry. Excellent balance with good acidity. The tannins haven't been rendered toothless; they leave a trail down the middle of the tongue, like a train track. Maybe not the most complex of Cabs but great fruit and balance. Just 13.3% alcohol. Great value at $20. 91

The postscript is that I had a glass of it, then headed out to dinner with two highly regarded, more expensive wines -- both of which disappointed. The Forest Glen Reserve was better. I put it in the fridge and pulled it out again last night when I opened a $55 single-vineyard Napa Merlot that got good scores. And once again, the Forest Glen Reserve was better.

Fred Franzia wins again.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sunset Wine Awards: Expensive wines disappoint

Are "Special Occasion Wines" really worth it? How good are U.S. wines in the $30 to $50 range?

Once again I found myself asking that after judging at Sunset magazine's Western Wine Awards.

These awards are different from most in that all wines considered have to be nominated by a wine writer, rather than submitted by wineries that pay to enter. So in theory, it should be a group that ranges from good to excellent.

But that wasn't my experience in judging 51 wines in the $30 to $50 category. And while the over-$50 category has some nice wines, the quality is surprisingly variable there too. (Caveat: I'm relying on the opinion of the over-$50 category's judges, as I tasted just 15 or so of those wines, non-blind, after finishing my panel.)

If I spend $40 for an American wine, I want it to be good. I don't think this was a bad group of wines, but only a few excited me, and nothing made me drop to me knees and thank God for fermentation (though I should do that anyway on general principle.)

Another judge, a sommelier and wine industry consultant, told me this year's group of over-$50s was better than last year's, which he said was difficult to get through because of all the imbalanced, huge, over-ripe wines. I see two reasons: this year had more Pinot Noirs -- a sign of increasing prices -- and fewer "name brand" Cabernets.

So are pricey U.S. wines really that good, as a class? I think not, but we don't complain because they're not openly bad. If you order one $60 wine in a restaurant and it's "nnnh" (my feeling about approximately half the wines, and remember these all came recommended), you drink it and don't complain -- especially if it's a well-respected brand. You're not thrilled, but you're not ripped off. You forget it and move on. But when you taste it blind, without knowing the back story or having someone else praise it, you're forced to confront its mediocrity.

All of that said, I love judging at Sunset. The tasting size is manageable -- more than 60 wines becomes a slog. And we get a nice lunch from their test kitchens afterward, along with any and all of our favorites of the wines we just tasted. That sounds so simple, but it's actually quite rare on the wine judging circuit. I think it adds depth to our understanding of the wines because we get a chance to retaste them with food.

Looking at my notes, I can see that the reds I liked tended to be full-flavored. I don't think of myself as a fruit bomb guy, but I do believe in judging wines on their merits, and maybe that's what the West Coast does best. Winemakers have to work with what the sun gives them.

Here are my favorites from the $30-$50 group. I don't know the eventual winner, as I was just one of four judges. But I'd be happy to pay the retail price for any of these.

Sparkling wine:

Just one entered, but it was a beauty: 2005 Schramsberg North Coast Blanc de Blancs ($36). Complex aromas and flavors of honeycomb, toast, lemon pith. One taster said, "Can we get a second bottle of this? To take home?" 92

White wines:

2007 Ridge Monte Bello Estate Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($40): My favorite in this category, easily. Nicely balanced wine; toast and lemon flavors stay persistent though long finish. Burgundian in its elegance. 94

2008 St. Supery Dollarhide Ranch Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($35): Intense passion fruit flavor and aroma; nice fruit. Mollified acidity will attract some people more than others. 89

Red wines:

2006 Tantara Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir ($48): Juicy black cherry with nice acidity; raspberry and violet notes in aroma. Good balance, good fruit. An easy pleasure. 92

2006 Dutton-Goldfield Morelli Lane Russian River Valley Zinfandel ($40): Intense, juicy blackberry with hint of bramble and a long finish. Not particularly complex, but a great mouthful of fruit. 90

2006 Mazzocco Pony Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($32): A fruit bomb but 3-dimensional, like a blast of blackberry with all the stems and seeds. 92

2005 JC Cellars Caldwell Vineyard Napa Valley Syrah ($45): Another fruit bomb -- very ripe blackberry, rich, soft mouthfeel. Spiciness in the aroma gives it that extra attractiveness. 90

2006 Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Syrah ($32): Balanced and elegant. Blackberry flavors with notes of coffee and orange peel. 91

2005 Snow's Lake County Two Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc ($45): Jammy black raspberry with some pleasantly herbaceous bramble. Nice mouthfeel -- mostly smooth, but a little prickly to give it some presence. Well-integrated. 90

2006 Abeja Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($43): Voluptuous wine. Ripe and rich with good blackberry fruit and a little toast. Lots of tannins but they're very well managed. 92

The wines below were wines from other categories that I enjoyed at lunch, but since I didn't taste them blind in context (plus I had just tasted more than 50 wines) I don't feel right giving them scores. Still, nice wines all:

2007 Macrostie Carneros Chardonnay ($23) -- Burgundian in a good way

2006 Landmark Steel Plow The Kivelstadt Family Vineyard Sonoma Valley Syrah ($29.99) -- I wish this had fallen into my category, because it was fantastic. Another taster called it "the best northern Rhone I've had in a long time."

2007 Kutch McDougall Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($80) -- Maybe the nicest of the pricey Pinots I tasted, but it wasn't my panel. With that caveat, an excellent wine

2006 Dutton-Goldfield Devil's Gulch Vineyard Marin County Pinot Noir ($55) -- Controversial enough to engender continued debate. Some felt it was too powerful for Marin County. All I will say is I liked it with my lamb chop.

2000 Schramsberg J. Schram Brut Rosé ($130) -- Schramsberg is by far the best bubbly maker in the U.S. Elegant, delicious, refined, refreshing. I could drink this every day.

Also, I really liked the 2003 Erba Mountainside Vineyard Napa Valley Merlot ($38), which was at its peak, wonderfully complex and sophisticated, yet smooth and satisfying. However, it turned out to be a ringer, as Erba has released at least two vintages since, so I won't rate it. But if you find some at that price, buy it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Oakland A's Merlot: It's a hit

The Oakland A's can't hit. But they can ferment.

Tonight I finally tried this year's version of A's brand Merlot, once again made from Napa Valley fruit by Markham Vineyards.

Markham president Bryan Del Bondio is a big baseball fan. The winery doesn't make a big profit from producing a few hundred cases of A's Brand Merlot, but Del Bondio does get to go to a few ballgames. Of course, this will be more fun when the A's get some offense. But a nice plastic glass of A's Merlot (a relative bargain at $7.50) does make the current rebuilding season more palatable.

This is just what you want in a ballpark red: It's rich and smooth, with nice black fruit flavor and no rough edges. I smelled a bit of lumber (oak) but didn't taste any. It went nicely with my French dip sandwich. One could argue that a wine with a little more acidity -- a Sangiovese, for example -- would be good with sausages, garlic fries and the like. But this wine has the advantage of being quite pleasant on its own -- the soft tannins are why people liked "a glass of Merlot" in the first place -- and most ballpark drinking takes place without food.

One year, I hope to toast an A's title with this stuff. Until then, at least the A's have one good thing the Yankees and Red Sox do not. Where's your NY brand Long Island Riesling, Mr. Steinbrenner?

Why is anyone still using plastic corks?

Wine writers tend to mention only two types of closures: natural corks and screwcaps. Plastic "corks" make up about 20% of the market -- twice as much as screwcaps -- but we tend to ignore them.

This is a mistake on all of our parts. There are good arguments to be made for natural cork, and good arguments for screwcaps.

There's really no reason whatsoever to use a plastic closure. They're inferior in every way.

Plastic "corks" let in oxygen at a far higher rate than natural cork, and of course much higher than screwcaps, for which oxygen entry is still an issue. The air entry increases over time, so that if a wine with a plastic cork sits around for 2 years, it probably has already started to oxidize. Thus you should look carefully at the closures on wines in the discount bin or at Trader Joe's.

There are two reasons wineries choose plastic over natural cork: price, and the absence of TCA, the cause of "cork taint" that can spoil a wine.

The cork industry has eliminated reason 1 by producing cheap corks made up from amalgamated cork particles. Industry reps say these are actually less likely to have TCA than more expensive corks because they have more surface area to treat. Without consulting an independent scientist, I can't say whether that's true or not. But they are price-competitive with plastic.

As for reason 2, fear of TCA is a legitimate reason to switch from cork. But why switch to plastic, which you know is going to lead to oxidized wines? That's just trading one flaw for another. If you really fear TCA, use screwcaps.

I admit that I'm ignoring the market reality that many older Americans think there's no romance in opening a bottle with a screwcap. Let me tell you, there's no romance in breaking your corkscrew on a plastic cork, as I have done more than once.

I'm not sure why nobody writes about plastic closures. Most of the big U.S. wine companies use them: Constellation, Gallo, the Wine Group, Jackson Family Estates. Consumers need to tell them that we don't want plastic.

Monday, June 22, 2009

U.S. Albarinos and Tempranillos still fall short

U.S. vintners have figured out how to make many wines as well as in their lands of origin. But for trendy Albarino, there's still a big gap between California and Spain.

I learned this last week at the TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates Producers and Amigos Society) tasting in San Francisco.

Albarino isn't an easy grape to grow. It's vigorous and very thick skinned and requires a lot of tending. That's why they're expensive relative to other white wines; most cost more than $20, but a good Rias Baixas wine is well worth it.

I tasted only one American Albarino that could hang with the Spanish, and that was from Oregon: the 2008 Abacela Estate Grown Umpqua Valley Albarino ($18), which delivered characteristic flavors of crisp lime with a little peach and some minerality, and would not have been out of place in a tapas bar in Santiago de Compostela. Winemaker Earl Jones is a Spanish varietal fan who moved from Pensacola, Florida to southern Oregon to grow Tempranillo. I'm glad he decided to plant some Albarino as well.

None of the other American Albarinos I tasted were worth having. I did sample some other good Span-American white varietals, though:

Bokisch Vista Luna Vineyard Lodi Garnacha Blanca 2008, which I have already blogged about.

Bodega Del Sur Alta Mesa (Lodi) Verdelho 2008: Intense wine with plenty of green fruit -- greengage, green plum, lime. Good acidity keeps it balanced. Great effort from a new winery. 90

Fenestra Silvaspoons Vineyard Lodi Verdelho 2008: Crisp, minerally wine with plenty of lemon fruit from one of the oldest wineries in Livermore. 89

Vina Robles Paso Robles Verdelho 2008: Crisp, peppery, tight wine that would come alive with seafood. Tasting room only. 88

Now if you saw the subject line, and it's the Tempranillo Advocates tasting, you're wondering, Where were the good Tempranillos?

So was I. I concentrated on the whites, so I only had time to taste 15 Tempranillos. I liked only one: Curran Santa Ynez Valley Tempranillo 2005, which despite 30 months in oak delivered a light and spicy version of the grape, with good acidity and lingering lip-smacking fruit. (Give it 89)

It's not fair of me to say there aren't any great U.S. Tempranillos after tasting only 15 wines. But I did talk to some sommeliers and wine buyers who concentrated on the Tempranillos and were leaving unimpressed. This is a grape that ought to do well in California -- think how sunny most of Spain is -- and I'm mystified about why it's not.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

What we don't know about Albarino

Albarino is an increasingly popular grape in both Europe and the U.S. It's a sommeliers' darling because of its crisp food-friendliness. And it has the cachet of being a relatively new find -- Rias Baixas, its region of origin, didn't receive official recognition until the mid-1980s.

Because it's pretty new on these shores, our knowledge of it is limited. People tend to compare it to two other crisp, refreshing wines: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. But Albarino is unique, and perhaps we're not drinking it as we should.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Rias Baixas and taste dozens of Albarinos, as well as Albarino-based blends. There I learned that my received wisdom about Albarino -- a fresh, full-flavored, slightly salty and floral grape that's good with seafood -- is only part of the story.

Common mistake No. 1: Albarino, like Sauvignon Blanc, does not age well and should be drunk as fresh as possible.

This is just not true. Part of my impression may have been colored by the fact that 2008 was a difficult vintage in Rias Baixas, and almost without exception the 2007s were better.

That said, Albarino is high in acidity: not as high as Riesling, but high enough to keep it fresh for several years. I found in most cases the 2004s and 2005s were still quite fresh; secondary characteristics don't seem to really blossom until 6 years after harvest. Moreover, in most cases I liked the slightly older wines better. Albarino seems very tight upon release and seems to need a couple of years to express itself. So don't rush to open your '07s, and definitely sit on your '08s a while.

Common mistake No. 2: Albarino should not be aged on its lees or in oak barrels.

Some American wine geeks shy from oak-aged whites because the idea conjures impressions of fat, sweet, woody California Chardonnays. But done correctly, oak aging adds a layer of sophistication to many whites, and now that I've tried a few, I'd have to add Albarino to that group. The grape has enough acidity to maintain its character.

As for lees aging, all of my favorite wines had some degree of it. Lees aging broadens the mouthfeel of a wine that can be sharp and narrow. I'm a big fan now and suggest you look for lees-aged Albarinos whenever possible.

Common mistake No. 3: Small wineries make better Albarinos than big wineries.

It's just not true. Martin Codax, a co-op, is the largest winery in Rias Baixas, controlling 13% of the region's vineyards. Its wines are distributed in the U.S. by Gallo, which gives them an unfortunate image of not being quite as exclusive as some smaller brands.

However, the 2008 Martin Codax Rias Baixas Albarino was easily the best of the '08s I tried. One caveat is also a reason -- it's still aging in tanks while other '08s are already on the market. Martin Codax winemaker Luciano Amoedo, a 9th generation winemaker, is not afraid to experiment, despite the brand's relatively large commitments: he has little tanks all over the place. And he doesn't need immediate cashflow; the co-op is relatively flush. So Amoedo decided the '08s needed a little malolactic fermentation to curb the acidity (many producers did this with the '08s) and more tank time, and tasting the sample, he was completely right.

Moreover, Martin Codax, at $14.99, is probably the cheapest brand on the market. So score one for Gallo.

Common mistake No. 4: Albarino is meant for shellfish only.

It is great with shellfish. But you should try it with grilled pork. Mmm.

I've got more to say about Rias Baixas, but I'll leave it for another day.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

TTB Follies

The federal TTB agency is supposed to be our government's experts on wine. This bureau is responsible for all aspects of regulating it, and it approves -- or denies -- every single new wine label design sold in the US.

So you'd think that if a winery started making the first US wine from a European fine wine grape, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau would just look up that grape on a big list and say, OK.

You would be wrong.

Bokisch Vineyards just started making a Garnacha Blanca from Vista Luna Vineyard in the Borden Ranch subappellation of Lodi -- first vintage 2008. But the winery had to hold off on releasing it while the TTB considered some unusual, previously unverified words on the label.

Did you know Borden Ranch was a legal AVA? I didn't. The TTB allowed that on a label without question.

Not so Garnacha Blanca.

Garnacha Blanca is the Spanish name for what the French call Grenache Blanc, a wine we've been able to buy in California for several years. And if you didn't know that, geez, you could guess. Or you could look it up in the Oxford Companion of Wine. Or even wikipedia. It might take you up to 2 minutes, if you got a phone call while you were googling it.

Not our federal wine experts, though. Liz Bokisch told me the TTB demanded that Bokisch submit paperwork proving that Garnacha Blanca is a real grape.

"You would think they could look it up, but no, you have to show supporting evidence," Bokisch said.

Eventually the label was approved, and that's a good thing, because it's an excellent wine, with crisp flavors of lemon and pepper. Markus and Liz Bokisch lived in Spain for a while, but I usually find his wines obviously Californian. This is no exception, in that the 14.5% alcohol gives it some heft, but it's well balanced. I liked it better than the more famous 2007 Curran Grenache Blanc from Kris Curran, former winemaker of Sea Smoke. (I did like Curran's Grenache Gris and Tempranillo.)

Fortunately the next winery to make Garnacha Blanca shouldn't have to provide supporting evidence. Especially if they're from a well-known, previously approved area. Like Jahant.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The poetry of spam

Here are the unedited subject lines of my spam from the last couple of days. Think how much easier freshman college poetry classes must be in the spam era.

New items appeared
Marvellous! Tits of Beyonce
Something inadequate about you
Can't find your photos
Cure for cancer
Your tree won't fall down
Feel the love and grow huge
Medically-approved and safe ways to grow size
Get immediate rod reaction
Excuse me for sending it
Stop making noise, please
For Christian users only
Fiesta steel games
Automatic password resending
Did you wrote it?
Here details explained
Check your system

Friday, June 12, 2009

Broke Aussies forced into organic viticulture

Australia's wine industry is suffering hard times largely from an image problem -- that they make only cheap wines, not great high-end ones.

I don't think that's true, but stories like this one show why the image persists. Does anyone down there understand that organic viticulture is trendy?

When I first read it -- Australian wineries are chastised for not "tending" their vines over the winter because they don't have money to spray poison on them -- I was appalled.

Not by the absence of fungicide, of course. What's appalling is that the Sydney Morning Herald reporter and the head of the local viticulture association can't seem to imagine life without chemicals.

Here's a section:

Vineyard owners have been warned that producers with particularly pinched pockets may fail to spray and that disease could spread to nearby vines.

Ken Bray, who heads the Hunter Valley Wine Association's viticulture sub-committee, points to a Pokolbin vineyard untended since the March harvest where marshmallow weed and wheaten grasses now grow mad because the owners have not spent the money to slash.

"It [disease] has been on people's minds since there's been an oversupply of grapes," said Mr Bray. "It's a bit like swine flu. It could spread."

This is so misleading it reads like it was written by Rush Limbaugh. A vineyard that hasn't been weeded is compared to swine flu. A reporter writing about powdery mildew uses weeds as an example.

Throughout the whole story, there's no suggestion that vineyards have been left fallow for the winter for centuries. There's no discussion of potential organic means of mildew control. There's only hand-wringing and this tidbit:

Mr McKenzie knows of an owner in McLaren Vale in South Australia who offered to spray his neighbour's vines for free.

Legal complexities, including possible trespassing offences, face grape-growers who might be tempted to spray neighbours' vines without permission. It is not great for relationships, either, Mr Bray said.

Hell yeah, it's bad for relationships if you walk into my yard and spray fungicide about.

While I'm not a fan of what the US calls "organic wines" (click here to read why), I'm a firm believer in organic agriculture of all types, including for wine grapes. But whether or not organic grapegrowing makes better wines, the point is that many American consumers believe it does. Organics have an upscale image, exactly what Australian wine needs.

One can forgive a business reporter who probably covers topics other than agriculture for not realizing that. But Ken Bray and Wine Grapegrowers of Australia chief executive Mark McKenzie ought to know better.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Beetles taste better in boxed wines

Wines in a box are already a great idea for many types of consumers -- ironically, usually the exact people demographically who scorn the idea.

Now there's yet another piece of evidence in their favor. It turns out that if a winery grinds up Asian lady beetles -- accidentally, we hope -- into the wine, the results taste better out of a bag-in-box.

You probably think I'm making this up, but it was in The Economist, which is about as respectable a source as one can get without a byline.

I'll spare you the chemistry details. I'd rather talk about the types of people who should be drinking their beetles 'n wine from a box.

If you buy one type of inexpensive wine by the case, and are happy drinking the same brand every day for a week, you ought to be buying wine in a box. It's cheaper and it lasts far better once it's open.

If you only want one or two glasses of wine per night, but you drink every night, you ought to consider wine in a box.

That said, both of those groups of consumers tend to be over 40 -- the exact consumer group that, in the US, is most resistant to wine in a box as somehow not as romantic as a bottle with a cork closure.

Folks, there ain't no romance to generic cheap wine. Get over it. If you're paying $7 a bottle or less for wine, it's already machine-harvested and completely machine-processed to save on labor costs. Whether you like it or not, it likely has some Asian lady beetles in it. You might as well neutralize their alkyl-methoxypyrazines. (That's technical talk for making beetles taste better.)

They'll never be as delicious as green-bottomed ants, though. But that's a topic for another day.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A spoonful of happiness

Order a coffee in certain parts of Spain and you might be fortunate enough to get a plastic packet of something more interesting than sugar.

Called "Gotas del Marques," it's 5 ml of aguardiente de orojo -- the Spanish version of grappa. You're supposed to use it to "correct" your coffee.

"This is the future," says Jorge Pelaez. "It's such a small amount, you can take it on the plane. You can have one when you're out driving around and if the police stop you, it's OK."

Pelaez is director of sales and exports at Marques de Vizhoja, one of the larger wineries in Condado de Tea, a subregion of Rias Baixas in northwestern Spain, just across the Mino river from Portugal. Pelaez's father Mariano owns the winery, which has 82 hectares of vines, and Jorge is always thinking of innovative ways to promote his products.

Starting next week, every pilgrim to the ancient cathedral at Santiago de Compostela will get a free cup of Marques de Vizhoja's wine. Dozens of pilgrims still arrive every day with aching joints after walking for days or weeks. Currently their only payoff is the sight of the cathedral (impressive enough to be on the back of 1-Eurocent coins). When I visited, most travelers' immediate reaction was to look behind them, either to have their success viewed by others or to wonder, "Is this really the end?" A small glass of Albarino at that moment would be perfect.

"It's expensive for us, but the memory is priceless," Pelaez said. "People will take back from them the memory of the cathedral and the tarta (a cake with a Christian cross in it), and now the memory of our wine."

The Gotas ("drops") are not free -- each packet costs 12 Eurocents wholesale. Thus you won't see them at everyday Spanish cafes, but order a coffee at a tourist hotel, for example, and you might get this little packet of happiness.

How is the stuff? Well, it's aguardiente -- strong, straightforward alcohol. It's not the best grappa I've ever had (that would be Sassicaia before they outsourced grappa production) but it's perfectly fine if you like an occasional belt of such firewater. And it does add a smile to your coffee.

Pelaez said the packets are actually being made in California now. Can we get Maker's Mark in this size, please?