Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wine shopping for a civilian

Here’s the dirty secret of many wine writers: we don’t buy all that much wine.

There’s an endless supply of unsolicited samples, and many wineries and importers are happy to send us wines we’re curious about. We do often pick up a bottle of wine for a particular dinner, or a few more bottles of a wine we liked from a tasting. And wine writers are among the most adventurous people ordering from restaurant wine lists.

But while there are exceptions -- Robert Parker is famous for buying wines he drinks at home -- you won’t often find wine writers shopping the way wine-loving “civilians” (to use Jay McInerney’s term) do.

Thus it was a treat for me last week, staying with my friend Myles in New Jersey, to head to Bottle King to help him buy some wine. A big treat. I loved the 30 minutes we spent there, and I’ve got childlike excitement about the wines he bought. I simply can’t wait for his assessment; I want to vicariously recapture my own discovery-of-wine phase.

Myles has only been drinking wine for a few years and doesn’t drink very often. He started with New World reds -- Peachy Canyon Zinfandel was the first wine I poured for him that he adored -- but these days he’s into whites. He doesn’t eat shellfish or spicy food, and rarely eats fish at home; most of his wines will go with chicken, pasta or Chinese takeout. With food, he’s not into exotica, and while he’s willing to trust me to a point, I don’t want to spring a Vin de Savoie on him.

He recently discovered Pinot Gris and likes it -- Trimbach is his favorite -- but he doesn’t like Italian Pinot Grigio. He isn’t a fan of buttery Chardonnay but I suspect that his girlfriend would be if she knew the vocabulary. He thinks he doesn’t like Riesling because it’s sweet. He also thinks he doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc because it’s too acidic and smells like cat pee. And he doesn’t like sparkling wine because it gives him a headache.

As for budget, he’s been shopping in the $15 range, which is a sweet spot right now. He’s willing to go to $20 but starts to make Tuvan throat singing sounds at about $25.

As a point of pride I wanted to get him wines priced below his current average expenditure. I also wanted to expand his horizons. This is practically my mission in life -- if you think Family Guy is cool, you need to watch Robot Chicken. Single finca coffee is more interesting than country blends. Have you listened to Sonic Youth, Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,“ the Standells? That sort of thing. Wine lends itself to that, but you have to know your limitations. I think the Ramones were gods who walked the Earth, but I know I won’t convince a Beyonce fan of that.

So enough chatter: What did we buy?

First I examined the stacks of wine at Bottle King, which is a pretty good suburban all-purpose store (and you can order many of my selections from them here). It doesn’t have the kind of obscurities I might want, but it does have very good prices and at least a few selections from most necessary regions.

That said, I found the cases stacked in the center of the aisles to be nearly all boring corporate wines, the sort of stuff I would only drink on an airplane. I guess it’s not surprising that this is where most people pick up their wine, rather than the shelves. There’s a saying among wine distributors: “Stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.“ The stacks are the lowest-common denominator, mass-appeal wines: the Top 40 of wine. If you’re a top 40 listener, then shop there. Myles is still looking for an obscure Impotent Sea Snakes album (“Too Cool For Rock And Roll,” if you have a copy PLEASE email me.) He needs to shop on the shelves.

I did pick up one bottle from the stacks: Kono Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($8). It was the last bottle, and I forced it on him because it was a good price and because I like that Kono is actually produced by Maori. He didn’t know who the Maori are, so maybe I started off slowly. But what’s $8 of somebody else’s money?

From the shelves, we started with Trimbach Alsace Riesling 2007, on sale for $15. Myles complained that he doesn’t like Riesling but I counted on his positive connection to the Trimbach Pinot Gris to help me cure him of this misconception.

He was in the market for a California Chardonnay for his girlfriend. They had Ridge -- one of my favorites -- for a cool $54. Maybe if they get engaged. I was depressed by the under-$20 options; most were general California appellation, and you don’t get single vineyards for that money. I settled on the Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2006 ($19), a brand I like that claims to be estate bottled, though whether or not that means it’s an estate single-vineyard in California, I can’t honestly say.

I told him he really should compare the California Chard style to Burgundy. He was amenable, but there weren’t a lot of great values in white Burgundy; even village-level wines were over $20. He never had Chablis before so I settled on a Gilbert Pico Chablis 2008 ($18), a brand I haven’t tried. I warned him that these are austere compared to California and should be drunk with food rather than as a cocktail. Still, while I like a good Chablis, this is one of the selections on which I most fear failure.

In contrast, I feel good about putting the Domaine Mardon Quincy Tres Vielles Vignes 2008 ($15) in his basket. I also don’t know that brand, but I think Quincy is a great alternative to Sancerre at a lower price; $15 ought to net a good one. I didn’t tell him it’s Sauvignon Blanc (he doesn’t read my blog); I’ll spring that on him when he likes it.

The Spanish white section was weak, but for the price I couldn’t resist the Dom Bardo Rias Baixas Albarino 2007 ($9). I’m not sure he’ll love Albarino as much as I do, but the risk is low, and sometimes you have to try to expand somebody’s horizons.

My average cost was a little high at this point so I was delighted to see some vinho verdes. I got two: Gazela 2009 ($5) and Casal Garcia 2008 ($5). It’s pretty cold in New Jersey right now, so it’s not ideal vinho verde weather, but the price is right for nights when Myles might want a single glass of wine and would resist opening even a $10 bottle.

Nearby, I also snagged the Skouras White Roditis-Moscofilero 2008 ($8). It would be a bigger hit if he ate more seafood, but at that price it’s a steal even with chicken.

In my discussion of the awesomeness of Riesling and how to look for good ones, I had been depressed to see no Trockens and only a couple of huge-production-looking Kabinetts. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to see a case of Fritz Windisch Niersteiner Spielgelberg Riesling Rheinhessen Kabinett 2007 ($9) near the cash register. Again, not a brand I know, but it’s 8.5 percent alcohol, so he and his girlfriend can drink a whole bottle, which might be a treat.

Just before we left Myles grabbed a half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot NV and put it in the basket. I objected. He said his girlfriend’s birthday was coming up and she liked that wine; otherwise, he wouldn’t buy sparkling wine, as it gave him a headache. I told him that it’s a mass-produced corporate product not even made by the traditional method in that bottle size. I called it the equivalent of Michael Bolton -- that got him where he lives. I insisted that I would find him a better full bottle of bubbly for less than whatever they were charging for the half bottle of Veuve Clicquot, an outrageous $18.

I fingered the Roederer Anderson Valley but instead grabbed the Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ($15), a longtime favorite of mine. He was still skeptical, but this was the selection in which I’m most confident. Anybody who thinks Veuve Clicquot is good value should switch to this wine immediately.

We ended up with 11 wines for $126 -- an average cost of $11.50, very affordable for everyday use, even with a couple of more special-occasion bottles thrown in. There was more I wanted him to buy: a Falanghina, a Cremant de Bourgogne, an Oregon Pinot Gris. I wanted him to splurge on a Tokaji Aszu 5 puttonyos for his girlfriend’s birthday. But it’s his money, not mine, and I had fun spending it.

Now I can’t wait for the reviews to roll in. Will he find the Albarino too acidic, the Kono too grassy, the Chablis too flinty? Maybe, but we’ve been friends so long that I was the one who introduced him to George Clinton and rice milk for breakfast cereal and shaving cream in a tube rather than a can. So even if the Skouras is corked, I’ve got some goodwill built up. And that Gloria Ferrer is going to earn me even more.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bitching about airline wine

Today I will fly on Continental for about 12 hours. I'd like to have a glass of wine or two, and for this Continental charges $5 -- even on international flights.

Fine. But if I have to pay $5 for 175 ml of wine, can't it at least be good?

On my way here, Continental offered only one wine, a California Chardonnay called Redtree, made by Ceccheti Wine Co. from purchased grapes. A whole 750 ml bottle of the stuff would cost less than $10 in a store. So why is Continental's markup so high?

And more to the point, why can't they make a better wine available?

Last year I flew coach on Qantas and was served -- for free -- St. Hallett Barossa Valley Shiraz and Tyrell's Hunter Valley Chardonnay. On Air New Zealand coach I was served -- for free -- Allan Scott Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. These are wines with regional character from good wineries, and all would be well worth $5 a glass.

Why can't Continental offer something like that? A Sobon Zinfandel, for example -- they're only about $12 retail for a full bottle and they're excellent. Or how about a Beckmen Santa Barbara County Rhone blend? I would happily pay $5 for a miniature bottle of one of these. Heck, I'd even buy two.

I don't mean to pick on Continental because it's actually one of the best US airlines when it comes to food. American, if I remember correctly, offers sweet wines with cute labels from the Wine Group, also for purchase. Delta, United, US Air, none of them are known for wine selection. I'm only mentioning Continental because it's my airline today.* (And actually, the flight was great -- excellent service, great film selection, palatable food. Just the wine problem.)

If US airlines insist on charging international fliers for wine, I just don't see why they can't make arrangements to have something better. Maybe they could have a reserve tier for $10 a glass. I just spent $10 a glass last night in a restaurant, as I'm sure most international fliers have done, and I might grumble about doing so on a plane, but I would do it for something good -- it darn well better not be FishEye Merlot.

Spirits are a better deal -- $5 for a Bombay Sapphire, Skyy or Jack Daniel's isn't bad. But I don't generally drink spirits with a meal. I would buy both a bottle of wine AND a postprandial liquor if the former weren't so weak. Continental would make even more money from me. Instead, I'll keep my credit card in my pocket until the meal is done.

Sigh. I just hope nobody on my plane beats me to the one miniature of Glenlivet on board.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thinking about drinking in Jordan

I just spent 6 great days in Jordan -- the kingdom, not the winery -- and while I didn't drink much there, it's a lot easier to find wine, beer and liquor than you might imagine for an Islamic country.

A few general observations:

* The only restaurants that serve alcohol are oriented toward tourists. However, you can sit outside at these with a bottle of wine, and nobody appears to take offense.

* Towns of decent size have openly operating wine and liquor shops, with signs in English and contents clearly visible from the street. This is a big contrast to Egypt, where I bought booze from the back door of a pharmacy and was treated with open disdain by the men selling it; probably like what buying condoms was like for married men in the 1950s. In Jordan I felt no stigma.

* That said, I did not personally observe any Jordanians drinking. But I didn't see any scorpions in the desert either; that doesn't mean they're not there.

* Whiskey is the main imported spirit, and you can get it from all the major countries: the US, Scotland, Ireland. The local spirit is Arak, a rather rough anise liquor, but I also tried a pretty decent Jordanian whiskey that was a bit on the sweet side; it reminded me of a sweeter Irish whiskey.

* There is a Jordanian Christian winery, Mt. Nebo. Sorry folks, I didn't try it. It didn't seem more available at tourist restaurants than cheap Chilean or French wine.

* US wine was reasonably well-represented; Gallo was there, and so was Wente (go Wente!) You could easily buy cheap wines from France, South Africa and Chile. I did not see any Aussie wines, surprisingly.

* Of course, the best wine country closest to Jordan is Israel. Israeli wines are quite good these days (I learned this tasting scores of them at the Israeli wine expo*), the country is at peace with Jordan, and it has to be cheaper to truck wine over the border than to ship it from Chile. Yet I did not see any Israeli wine -- or for that matter, any Israeli food products. There are food products from all over the Arab/Islamic world: figs from Turkey, dates from Saudi Arabia, sardines from Morocco. But I saw nothing written in Hebrew.

* I'll be writing a lot here about Israeli wines very soon. One disadvantage for bloggers like me who sell articles to publications is that I need to figure out what angles/stories I want to get paid for. There's probably a meta-article in that, but I'm not the one to write it.

* That said, Jordanians accept Israelis in a way that Egyptians don't seem to, even though they've been at peace a lot longer. Israeli bus tours go to Petra every day but I also ran into several Israeli backpackers who said they felt like Jordanians had gone out of their way to be friendly to them.

* Jordanian food, while safe and competent, didn't exactly make me crave wine. With the exception of one nicely grilled and spiced fish I enjoyed at Blue Bay in Aqaba, I had mostly the same stuff over and over: stale pita bread, hummus, grilled second-rate meat, fool (a bland bean dish, not the object of Mr. T's pity), falafel. The one thing that shines there are the sweets: variations of baklava, with some interesting versions with sweetened cheese. But those call for cardamom-laced coffee, not wine.

* I did my part for Israeli-Jordanian wine relations by quaffing a bottle of Yarden Galilee Syrah 2005 in the Wadi Rum desert out of plastic cups that had previously held sweetened sage tea (the Bedouins are not big on glassware). I can't offer reliable tasting notes under the circumstances, but I will tell you that few bottles of wine have ever felt more special.

I shared the bottle with three people. Taylor is a not-religious Massachusetts Jew who had just spent several weeks touring Israel for free as part of a program to encourage American Jews to emigrate. He had never been outside the US before and had never spent more than $10 on a bottle of wine (the Yarden sells for about $30 US). Suzanne is a drifter from Alaska whose degree is in anthropology and is finding herself through travel and odd jobs. She also could not remember having a $30 bottle of wine. Elsa, from Sweden, is just 20 years old and is in Jordan teaching the Bedouin how to farm organically. This is ironic because they already farm organically, but they learned to apply for volunteer labor from an organization called WOOF. Elsa had just arrived and her duties were mostly washing dishes. She's young and beautiful and one of the cousins of Zedane, the Bedouin whose camp I stayed at, is attempting to recruit her to work for him, irritating Zedane. She was feeling guilty about causing a rift and really welcomed a couple calming plastic cups of Yarden Syrah. She was the only one other than me who had had a $30 wine before.

We sat on bedding that we dragged out of the tents, staring up at the stars while I tried to answer questions about what made some $30 bottles of wine taste so much better than the cheapest wine in the store (this had always been Taylor and Suzanne's previous purchase strategy). One of the Bedouins observed us but declined our offer of a cup; he was satisfied with a hookah in his hookah tent. We discussed hopes, dreams and trails followed. It was just such a bottle in France more than 20 years ago that sparked my own love of wine, and I could hear my youthful self in their appreciation of this one.

Please forgive my selfishness in writing this, but part of my pleasure in writing about wine is the thought that maybe somebody out there will read something I write and enjoy wine more for it. I am so jaded about the actual bottles of wine, though; it's nothing for me to open 25 bottles of wine for a tasting and then pour all but one down the drain. Here, with one good bottle selected almost at random -- a gift/sample from Golan Heights Winery winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, but not necessarily the wine of his I would have bought -- I could see and hear a new appreciation for wine develop in some people I shared a tent with. I have to say it was better than writing.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc

Here's an unusual wine I found in New Zealand: Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc!

It's not a freaky experiment by some tiny winery. Lindauer is a brand owned by Montana Wines, the largest winery by far in New Zealand (and in fact, Montana is owned by Pernod Ricard). I don't know how much sparkling Sauvignon Blanc they make, but I saw this stuff everywhere on the South Island, including on some wine lists in tiny local pubs.

The first time I saw it, I bought a bottle ($8 NZ, less than $6 US) in a supermarket and immediately took it back to Tombstone Backpackers to share with the proprietors. I confess that I thought I'd mock it, and $6 is a small price to pay to have a good wine joke to tell.

In fact, I liked it, which shouldn't have surprised me because I love Sauvignon Blanc and I love sparkling wine. Who knew these two great tastes are great together? What's next -- sparkling chocolate?

Anyway, it tastes exactly like a good mass-produced Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc -- passion fruit, some fresh herb, gooseberry -- and has bubbles. As most bubblies in this price range aren't very good, I think it's great value, and am not surprised by its widespread acceptance in Kiwi country.

The wine geek in me wondered how it's made. Most grapes grown for sparkling wine are picked early to maintain their acidity through two rounds of fermentation. But when you pick Sauvignon Blanc early, it's extremely herbaceous. That's why when I bought it, I expected it to taste like sparkling bell pepper (ewwww). But it didn't.

As it turns out, it takes a big wine company with its fingers in many areas to make this wine a reality. The grapes come from different regions, and Montana has enough of them to spare to make this wine without worrying about hurting its main product lines.

The wine is only 85% Sauvignon Blanc, which is picked at 21.5 Brix, not really underripe for Marlborough. Adding 14% Chardonnay and 1% Pinot Noir (both from Gisborne) makes it drinkable bubbly in a number of ways. The Chard was picked at 18.0 Brix, so it both brings down the alcohol (the wine is a reasonable 12% alcohol) and helps boost the acidity. The Chard and Pinot go through full malolactic fermentation, giving the mouthfeel some roundness.

A spokesman for Pernod Ricard said there are no plans to export this to the U.S. anytime soon, so you'll have to fly to New Zealand to try it. But if you are there, give it a whirl. I did, and look at the impression on me!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Deep Purple: Wine, not old rock star semen

If you've encountered a groovy-looking bottle of Zinfandel in your local Target store called "Deep Purple," you might be wondering if there's some connection to the '70s band that recorded "Smoke on the Water."*

* (If you're wondering about my headline, please see the band's 2007 comeback album cover, at left.)

It seems plausible, because the label design is just so nostalgic for the days before progressive lenses were necessary. Without my glasses I could barely tell that the label has pairing suggestions like "Drink me with pizza burgers and brownies." (Hippies weren't too uptight about commas.)

In fact, the name and label were dreamed up by wine industry veteran Terry Wheatley, previously VP of sales & marketing for Trinchero (the folks behind Sutter Home.)

Wheatley and PR guy Tim McDonald , one of the nicest men in the industry,
put together the company Canopy Management. All their wine names are fun: Middle Sister, Promisquous [sic], Monogamy. You'd expect that from a pair whose previous collaboration was a Chilean wine called Oops.

What's new for them is their level of involvement in creating the wine, which is made at the custom crush facility at Adler Fels in Sonoma County. McDonald -- who says one of his first albums was a Deep Purple album he bought in 1968 -- plays a large role in sourcing the grapes.

Most novice wine producers start by making wine they love, or wine they believe they can sell, and then find a market for it. Wheatley and McDonald were too smart for that. They had Target lined up as a client before the wine was ever made. And they made 8000 cases of Zin because that's how much they had orders for.

In fact, the Zin is only a small part of the company's portfolio, which has reached 100,000 cases in less than two years. So you'll be seeing a lot more Promisquouty, or however you misspell it, at a grocery store near you soon.

The Deep Purple wine is Zinfandel from Lodi from grapes purchased on the bulk market. It's easy to make a pretty good wine this way these days because the market for grapes is so weak. Moreover, McDonald has a special, unusual emphasis.

"These days everybody is looking for super-ripe, ultra-ripe Zinfandel. Fruit bombs," he said. "I like my wine more balanced than that. So I can pick up wine that people are having a hard time selling at a good price, and it's just great. Some of this comes from great old-vine vineyards with low yields that just don't kick up the sugars (and alcohol) to what the current trend is. I'm perfectly happy with these. The alcohol is 13.6. You just don't see that anymore."

For $12, Deep Purple is a pretty good buy. I'm tired of reading wine writers (Eric Asimov) complaining that there aren't any good American wines under $20. You just have to look harder. Deep Purple is the way Zinfandel used to be back when Deep Purple had its pick of underripe groupies -- spicy, medium-bodied and savory, with red fruit flavors and an earthy, tarry note. It ain't Ridge, but it ain't priced like Ridge. If it's successful, the quality might go down, because right now McDonald has his choice of bulk wines and doesn't have an onerous production quota. But the '07 and '08 are space truckin' in the cutout bin.

My first question for Tim wasn't how do you make the wine -- I could have guessed that without asking -- or how did you get Target to carry it. Instead, I wanted to know, "How come the band hasn't sued you?"

Turns out McDonald has trademarked Deep Purple as a wine, and that under US law, there's no possible confusion between products. Despite the recent album cover, one is an aging rock band, and the other is a fresh young wine.

But it turns out that the band shops at Target, because shortly after the wine's release, McDonald got a call from the band's manager, who was very excited about the wine, in a good way. He wanted to know if there were opportunities for joint promotions (no, not THAT kind of joint. Well, maybe not.)

McDonald shipped a band member a bottle of wine, though he hasn't yet heard whether or not it inspired the group to burn down a recording studio. So we might yet see "This Deep Purple concert sponsored by Deep Purple!" Now if McDonald can just use his smooth PR skills to tell them there have to better ways to announce your availability to groupies than that album cover.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wine does not go with chocolate!

How can every food magazine and lifestyle magazine in the world be wrong?

The issue is wine with chocolate. This time of year, as we approach candy producers' favorite holiday, you can see articles everywhere on the topic.

Why? It's simple. Valentine's Day gives editors a theme to assign in February, which is otherwise a bleak, short month, especially for food as so few things are in season.

Every wine writer has had to do a wine-with-chocolate article (yes, I've served that sentence). Many food writers also. More often, you get some general lifestyle writer who really doesn't know either well, but just knows she likes both.

The point is, this is an editor's story, not a food or wine expert's story. If you pay me $1000 to write a wine with chocolate article, I'll do it, because I'm a whore freelance writer. And I know you won't pay me $1000 if I write that wine doesn't go well with chocolate, so I'll go out of my way to find a few examples that aren't terrible.

My friend Sara Schneider of Sunset magazine has done just that here: This is the kind of article I would write, if you paid me. She has played the potential pairs in as positive a way as possible: Darker chocolates, sweeter wines. It's true that this is much better than a Russell Stover box and a bottle of expensive Cabernet. If you like eating squares of 70%-and-higher dark chocolate, and you have some Vin Santo sitting around, that's actually pretty good together.

But she can't ask the basic question, which is this: Why pair wine with chocolate at all?

Does everything you put in your mouth have to go with wine? Can't you enjoy wine with dinner, and chocolate afterward?

Chocolate is not the worst of all foods with wine -- that would probably be chili peppers. But it's on the "difficult" list with artichokes, pickles, peanut butter, asparagus, Jello, etc. I could do a "wine with artichokes" article if I had to (Sauvignon Blanc), but it's unlikely I would ever do it more than once. Wine with chocolate, though, runs every year, everywhere.

While I was at the San Francisco Chronicle we did a huge pairing tasting of chocolates with every wine reputedly good with chocolate: Pink sparklers, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet, Port, Sherry, Vin Santo. I liked Vin Santo best of all; other than an Israeli pomegranate wine I had once, it was the best wine I've ever had with chocolate. Some of the other combos weren't offensive. But our main conclusion was that in almost every possible combo, the wine and chocolate are both better separately, and in more than half the cases they were awful together. And we were using good dark, supposedly "wine-friendly" plain chocolate -- not the filled bonbons most people eat.

So why do you keep seeing these perky "Perfect Pair For Valentine's Day!" stories?

It has become a self-fulfilling story: editors and unknowledgeable writers read the "wine with chocolate" article in other magazines and they just know it must be accurate. There's no money in contradicting conventional wisdom. I won't get paid for writing this unless thousands of people click on the Google ads on the right. I think I get 5 cents per click. So if 20,000 people click on the ad links, I will make as much money as if I had sold out and written another perky "wine with chocolate" article that I could cynically pound out in an hour, because the advice never changes.

I must add that you also see wine and chocolate paired in tasting rooms all over Napa Valley. Why? It's simple -- after the first winery visit of the day, most people are drunk and can't taste well anyway. Chocolate is good; give 'em some chocolate and they'll buy anything. I don't blame marketers for doing whatever they can to sell their wine, but it does help propagate this fallacy.

Folks, if you want to drink wine with chocolate, or artichokes, be my guest. Just know that you're being manipulated by the magazine industry.

If you don't believe me, I challenge you to do this: taste the wine. Pay attention (take notes, even if just to give it a rating of excellent, very good, whatever). Now taste the chocolate. Also, pay attention to how much you like it. Now, taste the wine again. Is it better? Worse? You tell me.

(Next up: There is no Santa Claus, and I'm not sure the Tooth Fairy is actually gay.)

Monday, February 8, 2010

San Francisco loses Crushpad

Crushpad, the business that allows people to make their own wine from high-quality grapes, is leaving San Francisco for Napa Valley.

This may be great for Crushpad and its widespread clientele, some of whom made wine from as far away as Japan -- choosing the grapes, deciding on the fermentation and aging regime, etc., and having Crushpad staff carry out their wishes. (In essence, Crushpad's clients make wine the same way Michel Rolland makes wine.)

Strictly for wine quality, the new location at Silverado Trail Wine Studio in the Oak Knoll District is better because the grapes won't have to travel as far after picking. There's also an outlet for microwineries who get a business license to sell their wines -- the biggest hurdle -- because Silverado Trail Wine Studio has a tasting room.

In fact, for adventurous wine geeks, this puts STWS on the Napa Valley wine map in a big way, as it will soon be possible to taste obscure wines that nobody else has heard of. It's an exciting crapshoot: You might discover the next Sean Thackrey, or you might discover the next Phineas T. Grickleschnuber (don't bother googling the name, I made it up.)

But as a San Francisco resident, I'm really sorry to see Crushpad go. Our city has long been a hub of California wine country, and prior to the great earthquake of 1906, much of the wine was actually made here for reasons that made sense in the pre-air conditioning era. Crushpad had a smart, urban feel, interesting wine events, and it brought us the unmistakable aroma of aging wine.

Crushpad not only brought an urban aesthetic to winemaking; it allowed software engineers in Mountain View to make Viognier as a hobby and check on their barrels with an easy trip to the city. I wonder if Crushpad's move to Napa will actually discourage winemaking wannabes because making wine in wine country, among the pros, is more intimidating than hanging around with a group of smart amateurs who also aren't afraid to admit they don't know what they're doing.

I suppose I'm supposed to feel like Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, happy for Nuke LaLoosh as he moves up to the major leagues. Instead I feel a little used and discarded, like I spent 6 years rooting for somebody who was planning to move on from the start. But even though I'm depressed, I am NOT sleeping with Kevin Costner.

Are wines made by women different?

Wine Entre Femme: an international think tank of women in wine

That was the title of an event I more or less crashed last week, because Brigitte Rulier-Loussert, proprietor/winemaker of Chateau Dalem -- who makes, IMHO, the best wines I've tasted from Fronsac -- told me about it.

Are her wines "feminine"? Only if you consider ripe fruit and rich tannins "feminine." Not only are Brigitte's wines good, they're also on the New World side of the equation (which, considering the fierce tannins in old-style Fronsac, is not a bad thing.) I don't think they're overdone; not at all. But tasting them, I don't think I would guess a woman made them.

It's a popular media myth that women make more well-balanced, food-friendly wines than men. I can debunk that with two words: "Helen Turley." I also think fine winemakers of full-bodied wines -- like Heidi Peterson Barrett and Carol Shelton -- would be a little insulted if you told them they made "women's wines."

However, that doesn't mean there's not a place for this event, and it's because of something Brigitte said to me. Looking around the room at a dozen female American winemakers, another dozen female winery proprietors and a bunch of sales reps (many were daughters of women winery owners or winemakers), Brigitte said, "We don't have this in France. There I am unusual. To see this many women who make wine together, it is a great thing."

I looked for some unifying theme to the event, other than the gender of the people behind the table, but didn't find one. Some white wines were crisp and refreshing; others were blowsy and overoaked. I tasted some beautifully elegant red wines (most are listed below) and some clumsy ones, and some that were so tannic they were almost painful.

Then I went straight to my dentist's office, where I expected to get chastised for coming in with gums full of Sauternes. Unexpectedly, she didn't mind; I guess my breath was sweeter than usual.

Here are the stars from the tasting:

Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($70): Cathy Corison (in the photo above) has never adapted her style to the ultra-rich Cabs favored by Robert Parker, which has kept her price from going stratospheric. Given the dead market for $150 cult Cabs these days, that's probably a good thing. This beautifully restrained wine reminds you of how delicious and food-friendly Cab can be: Black cherry and raspberry fruit, some fresh herbs, solid acidity, elegant structure. You could drink it now, but the 2000 she was pouring beside it showed that it will reward waiting. I'm not an anti-Parker guy, but if you are, you really need to try this, it's what you're looking for. 95

Chateau Dalem Fronsac 2005 (NA): Pretty cherry and black currant fruit with lovely floral notes, well-managed tannins and great balance. This is as good as Fronsac gets, from an excellent vintage. 93

Chateau Dalem Fronsac 2007 (NA): Ripe blackberry with well-managed tannins. Should cellar a little while to develop its secondary characteristics, but a very well-made wine. 91

Dalla Valle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($150): Nice cherry and raspberry fruit with excellent acidity. An elegant wine that should age well. 92

Grace Wine Hishiyama Vineyard Koshu 2008 (NA): Koshu is a large, thick-skinned, bland-tasting grape that is well-adapted to Japan's challenging weather, which includes nearly a month of muggy rain in the middle of summer. This might be the best Koshu wine I've ever had: crisp, fresh and refreshing lime with some apricot. A good food wine. From Yamanashi prefecture, the home of Japan's wine industry, where most wineries stubbornly grow Bordeaux varietals even though they can't handle the weather. Let this wine be a lesson as to what they should try. 90

Haskell Vineyards Aeon Stellenbosch Shiraz 2007 ($40): Ripe and wild wine that makes you think of the jungle, even though this part of South Africa is as European as Africa gets. Blackberry, black cherry and raw meat. 91

Haskell Vineyards Pillars Stellenbosch Shiraz 2007 ($60): Winemaker Rianie Strydom says that after winning a 3-way wine competition with Australia and New Zealand, this wine will all be allocated soon, and I believe her. This is even gamier than the Aeon, with nice cherry fruit, good structure and fine acidity. Might be a wild ride for Americans, but I saw a few French women -- accustomed to Syrah from Hermitage -- go gaga for it, and I'm on their side. 91

Lail Vineyards J. Daniel Cuvee Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($125): After corporations bought out the historic Inglenook estate and destroyed the name's reputation, Robin Lail wound up with one of the original vineyards, and has been proving ever since that it's one of the great pieces of terroir in California. This was the best wine I tasted all day: potent black cherry initially, with some cocoa and dried herbs and coffee on the long finish. Great balance and elegance. Yum. 97

La Sirena Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($150): Heidi Peterson Barrett is starting to get a little cynical with her marketing. She's making a red blend called Pirate Treasured, in a squat rum-like bottle with a cool case, that I think is a nice version of Red Truck at $50 a bottle. I prefer her wines when she's serious, as she is here: Black cherry and cocoa with noticeable tannins that give it an edge and some violet on the finish. 92

La Sirena Barrett Vineyards Calistoga Syrah 2005 ($80): An elegant wine with blackberry fruit, ripe tannins and notes of cocoa and coffee. 91

Chateau Sigalas Rabaud Sauternes Premier Cru Classe 2001 (NA): Rich honeycomb and apricot. Great mouthfeel. Though very rich, only moderate sweetness and good acidity keep it from being cloying. 92

Spottswoode Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($130): A tannic wine with good dark cherry fruit, some leafy fresh herb and a hint of dark chocolate on the finish. This is an old-school Cab that will take at least 5 years to approach, and more likely 10. I'd like to be able to taste it then, when riper Napa Cabs have fallen apart. 92

Tierra Roja Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($115): Named for the red dirt in the vineyard, this is a well-balanced wine with black cherry fruit and a distinctive black olive note. 91

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Free tickets to Dark and Delicious!

This contest was closer than the game, with Andrew nudging Jennifer by a single point. Sorry, Jennifer. Andrew, can you drop me a line to identify yourself? You might want to make your blogger profile public briefly so I can verify it.

Thanks to everyone for participating, and congratulations New Orleans. Whodat!

I've got two free $60 tickets to give away to Dark and Delicious -- and I'm going to give them to you!

(At least, one of you).

Here's the scoop. Dark and Delicious is an annual event pairing Petite Sirah -- the teeth-staining, nearly-black wine beloved by fans of the full-bodied -- with food made by local purveyors.

This year there are 42 wineries taking part, and 27 food companies. A full list is here on the event website, but be sure to try out Petite Sirah veterans like Rosenblum Cellars and Stags' Leap Winery and East Bay foodie favorites like Wood Tavern and Yoshi's.

The last time I ran one of these contests, I asked people to write something. This time, all I want are some numbers.

Predict the final score of the upcoming Super Bowl, and you and a friend can nosh and drink Petite Sirah until you pass out or the event ends, whichever comes first. You don't have to know anything about football -- just pick a common score like 28-17, and maybe you'll get lucky. You do, however, have to tell me which team you expect to win by that score.

The details:
Dark and Delicious
Friday, Feb. 19, 2010, 6-9 p.m.
Rock Wall Wine Company
2301 Monarch St., Alameda, CA

Unlimited wine and food tasting is included.
Parking is free. But consider taking public transport.
I am NOT RESPONSIBLE for you drinking too much Petite Sirah, getting behind the wheel and becoming a burden on the state legal system. Click here to learn how to drink like a pro.

Contest details:
Put your predicted final Super Bowl score in the comment section below; i.e., New Orleans 14, Indianapolis 10. If more than one person picks the final score correctly, I'm going to award the tickets to whoever posted first, so take a look at the previous posts before making your choice. Only one entry per person. If you post more than one score, only the first one counts.

If nobody gets it exactly right, the winner will be the person off by the fewest total points. Ties will go to the first person to post. So don't think too long -- make your prediction now!

You don't have to register for anything to enter, but if you're not logged into gmail or blogger to ID yourself, I leave it up to you to let me know some way to identify you if you win.

Deadline for entries is noon Alameda time on Feb. 7, Super Bowl Sunday.

Good luck, and remember, nothing goes with football like a nice glass of hearty red wine -- and it doesn't get heartier than Petite Sirah.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Valentine's Day alternative: Sparkling red

Looking for a sexy, unique wine for Valentine's Day?

How about a sparkling red? It's dark and sensuous, bubbly and delicious, and it's probably a special experience your mate has never had before.

I'm not talking about cheaply made Cold Duck. I'm talking about -- for the most part -- Australian sparkling Shiraz, high-quality wine that's taken seriously by winemakers down under.

Fine restaurants all over Australia stock sparkling reds. The Aussies like to have it with turkey, and it is a perfect Thanksgiving wine, mainly because it's so food-friendly. Because it's full-bodied, it's great with red meat, but because it's sparkling, it won't overpower fish and even plays nicely with shellfish.

The best of these wines are all from Australia, and there's really only one good place to order them in the US: the Internet shop JJ Buckley Fine Wines, which is where wine buyer Chuck Hayward went after leaving the Jug Shop in San Francisco. Best known for his sparse patch of long red hair flying in all directions, Chuck actually looks like a sparkling red. He's this country's biggest advocate of these wines, so fans of the genre have to follow wherever he goes.

Looking at JJ Buckley's list, the Fox Creek Vixen is always good value at $17.99, but it might not ship in time for Valentine's Day. The Majella is generally a big, ripe, fruity style, and good value at $22.99. Consider splurging $39.99 for the 2001 Galah; compared to Champagne prices, that's not expensive, and the last vintage I tasted of it was very impressive.

There is only one domestic producer of decent sparkling Shiraz that I know of: Geyser Peak Winery. You can also order this over the Internet.

You need to order now so you can get one in time for a Valentine's Day surprise. I'm a big fan, and I put my wallet where my palate is: Recently, with a few minutes in a Sydney wine shop on a stopover, I bought only four wines, and three were sparkling reds unavailable in the US. I won't tongue-tease you by describing the deliciousness of the one you can't have. Instead, I urge you to make sweet love to the one you're with.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Posh online auction for Napa Valley wine fans

The Young School is a Montesorri elementary school in St. Helena where the kids of winery owners and other left-leaners who've struck it rich and moved to Wine Country study.

Like all schools, it needs fundraisers to help pay for -- well, I'm not sure, because they're too young for field hockey trips.

But in any case, where most elementary schools would hold a cupcake sale, the Young School can call on parents and alumni to donate a 3 liter bottle of some unattainable wine, or dinner at a Wine Country restaurant, or a trip to a Giants game on a yacht.

Moreover, since it's a tech-savvy elementary school, you can bid online from anywhere for these prizes. Bidding ends Saturday, so act soon.

While I don't know what I'd do with 6 liters of Harlan Cabernet (force feed myself like a foie gras duck?), there's always something worth picking up at this auction. At the time of this posting, the Howell Mountain collection was looking like a good bargain, and the Lang & Reed dinner at my favorite St. Helena restaurant, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, was pretty good value as well.

If you buy the Giants game package, wave to me -- I'll be out behind the center-field bleachers, waiting in line for a Cha Cha Bowl.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Burgundy 2008: A sneak preview

Burgundy had a challenging year in 2008, with lots of rain all summer. Fortunately for vignerons, dry and sunny weather in late September rescued grapes that, according to Jancis Robinson, many were thinking of not even bothering to pick.

The cool temperatures throughout the year meant high acid levels, which might actually boost longevity. However, red wine producers in particular had a tough time getting their grapes ripe enough to deliver good fruit flavors.

Frederick Wildman & Sons, one of the top Burgundy importers in the U.S., brought barrel samples from 8 Burgundy producers to San Francisco this week for a preview tasting. Few of the wines are available right now, but they give a good snapshot of the vintage.

A few observations:

* Whites are generally better from '08 than reds.

* In particular, whites that are usually fleshy -- Puligny-Montrachets and Meursaults -- seem to benefit from the intense acidity. These wines are drinking well enough now but might continue to develop for a decade or more.

* The producer really, really matters in '08. Wines from Maison Olivier Leflaive in particular were strong across the board.

* Fabien Moreau (Domaine Christian Moreau winemaker) thinks Chablis actually had a good year in '08, with plenty of richness and good minerality. I didn't taste enough Chablis wines to comment, but I will stipulate that he knows more about it than I do.

* Some producers were able to make good village wines, but the ones I liked weren't cheap.

* Despite the world wine economy, '08 does not seem like a good year for bargain-hunting in Burgundy. I'll see if I can find a few at a much larger tasting next month, but in the meantime, if you're pre-ordering, don't stock up on the cheaper ones.

Before the tasting notes, a note on pricing: I only have the wholesale price in California, not suggested retail. I'm going to assume that wines will sell for about 1.5 times wholesale bottle (not case) price. Please be advised the prices I'm listing are estimates based on that.

Domaine Olivier Leflaive
This is winemaker Franck Grux's 19th vintage at Leflaive, and he is much more involved than the usual negociant. Rather than buying finished wines, Grux vinifies grapes himself from many appellations. The winery also owns 30 acres of vineyard in Puligny, Chassagne and other areas, giving them an unusual amount of control. In 2008, this was a huge advantage.

Domaine Olivier Leflaive "Les Setilles" Bourgogne Blanc 2008 ($20): Toasty with nice lime fruit and a short finish. Solid Tuesday night roast-chicken wine, if this is your price range. 89

Domaine Olivier Leflaive "Les Deux Rives" Chablis 2008 ($23): Lime fruit with scratchy minerality; a little sweet on the finish. 88

Domaine Olivier Leflaive "Rabource" Rully 1er Cru 2008 ($30): An interesting spice blend (white pepper, star anise) enlivens the lime fruit of this wine. I'd like to try it again in 2 or 3 years. 91

Domaine Olivier Leflaive "En Remilly" Saint Aubin 1er Cru 2008 ($37): Lime fruit but a little funky on the nose. Short finish. 87

Domaine Olivier Leflaive Chassagne-Montrachet 2008 ($49): Toasty and a little boozy, surprising for this vintage. 86

Domaine Olivier Leflaive "Clos Saint Marc" Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru 2008 ($80): Intense wine with lime fruit, eyewatering acidity, some peach notes and minerality on the long finish. Needs time to settle down, but very promising. 92

Domaine Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 2008 ($53): Ripe and fleshy, but balanced. Lime, peach and apricot fruit with intense acidity and minerality on the finish. Also needs some time, but could be a long-haul keeper. 94

Domaine Olivier Leflaive "Champ Gain" Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru 2008 ($92): Intense peach and lime fruit with pretty floral notes. Great acidity. The minerality feels like sand at the end of the finish. A wine that makes you pay attention. 96

Domaine Olivier Leflaive Meursault 2008 ($45): I know it's hard to see a $45 wine as a bargain, but this one is. It's mouthfilling, full-bodied and intense, with lemon-lime fruit and some peach, yet the great acidity of the vintage keeps it balanced. Wonderful wine, my favorite of the day. Should get even better with a little bottle age. 97

Domaine Olivier Leflaive Corton-Charlemagne 2008 ($150): Lime fruit with a floral note that intensifies. Soft finish. You can do better in this price range. 89

Domaine Armand Rousseau Pere & Fils
These are highly allocated wines, and this truly was a sneak preview as they won't be sold to retailers and restaurants until 2011. They're worth noting because as a group, these were the best red Burgundies I tried.

Domaine Armand Rousseau Gevrey Chambertin (NA): Dense cherry and raspberry fruit with a nice layer of spiciness, yet light-bodied and lively. 92

Domaine Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru (NA): Cherry fruit with a leafy, herbal note and hits of spearmint. Light body, chewy tannins. 90

Domaine Armand Rousseau "Clos des Ruchottes" Ruchottes Chambertin Grand Cru (NA): Lovely cherry and pomegranate fruit with a black olive note; savory on the finish. Light-bodied and interesting already; who knows what flavors might develop over the next year? 94

Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin Clos de Beze Grand Cru (NA): Beautiful cherry fruit with some raspberry. Noticeable but well-managed tannins and a long finish. 93

Domaine Jacques Prieur
In 1997, winemaker Nadine Gublin (that's her in the photo) was the first woman elected Winemaker of the Year by the Revue du Vin de France. She believes that organic viticulture -- as well as the late warm spell -- helped save her crop in '08, because she watched the sugars rise before the flavors ripened. When she finally started picking on Sept. 28, she ordered the crews to finish in a hurry, and they did, picking the Pinot Noir first and the Chardonnay after -- which might account for the fact that at this point the whites are ahead of the reds.

Domaine Jacques Prieur "Champs Pimont" Beaune 1er Cru Blanc ($70): Tight, tingly acidity gives an edginess to the lime and white pepper flavors. 90

Domaine Jacques Prieur "Clos de Mazeray" Meursault ($85): Very toasty wine with nice lime fruit and lovely floral notes on the finish. 93

Domaine Jacques Prieur "Les Combettes" Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru ($133): Toasty, yet with plenty of lime fruit and acidity. Well-balanced. 90

Domaine Jacques Prieur "Champs Pimont" Beaune 1er Cru ($61): Cherry and raspberry fruit with floral hints. On the light side. 89

Domaine Jacques Prieur "Santenots" Volnay 1er Cru ($102): Tastes like Christmas, with cherry and red plum fruit and plenty of Christmas spices (allspice, clove, cinnamon). 92

Domaine Jacques Prieur Clos de Vougeot ($185): Strong, tannic, medium-bodied wine with decent cherry fruit, but hard to see it as value in this price range. 88

Domaine Jacques Prieur "Les Bressandes" Corton ($208): Pleasant enough raspberry fruit but it seems a little watery, especially for this price. 89

Domaine Christian Moreau Pere & Fils
Winemaker Fabien Moreau told both Stephen Tanzer and Allen Meadows that '08 was excellent for Chablis, with concentrated sugars and acidities for great richness and minerality. If he's right, and he might be, I might be scoring these wines a little on the low side, because good Chablis will definitely taste better 5 years from now. One thing is for sure -- these wines are not models of restraint.

Domaine Christian Moreau Chablis 2008 ($28): Surprisingly toasty for Chablis, with sharp initial acidity and lemon-lime fruit. Softer on the finish. 89

Domaine Christian Moreau "Vaillon" Chablis 1er Cru 2008 ($40): My favorite of this lineup, making it quite good value. Crisp, taut wine with lime fruit and limestone acidity, and a little peach and spice on the finish. 92

Domaine Christian Moreau "Vaudesir" Chablis Grand Cru 2008 ($75): Intense lime fruit is impressive, but the hot finish is a turnoff. 87

Domaine Christian Moreau "Valmur" Chablis Grand Cru 2008 ($75): Eyewatering acidity with plenty of bright lime fruit and a long finish. Put this away for 5 years at least. 91

Domaine Christian Moreau "Les Clos" Chablis Grand Cru 2008 ($75): Riper, fleshier lime fruit that's softer than the others. 88

Domaine Des Perdrix
One of the best properties of the Antonin Rodet empire, Perdrix has 25 acres of holdings in the Cote de Nuits.

Domaine Des Perdrix Nuits-St.-Georges 2008 ($80): Nice raspberry fruit with pleasant spiciness, but it fades rather quickly. 89

Domaine Des Perdrix "Aux Perdrix" Nuits-St.-Georges 1er Cru 2008 ($100): Again, nice cherry and raspberry fruit and spiciness, but a short finish for this price range. 90

Domaine Des Perdrix Echezaux 2008 ($208): Solid cherry fruit, medium body, with noticeable tannins. Fairly long finish. Should reward a few years in the cellar. 91

Chateau de Chamirey
The largest producer of white Mercurey has plenty of vineyards to choose from, and that's an advantage in a troublesome year like 2008.

Chateau de Chamirey Blanc 2008 ($34): This wine is all about the minerality and the balance, as the fruit is in the background to flavors of toast, anise and chalk, with floral notes on the finish. 91

Chateau de Chamirey "La Mission" Mercurey 1er Cru Blanc 2008 ($52): Initially toasty, then turns minerally and chalky, with some lime fruit. A model of restraint and balance. 90

Chateau de Chamirey Rouge 2008 ($34): Very bright and ripe raspberry, though a little sweet. 88

Potel-Aviron Cru Beaujolais
Unlike much of Beaujolais, winemaker Stephane Aviron eschews carbonic maceration in favor of traditional fermentation, just like the rest of Burgundy. He takes his wines seriously and you should too.

Potel-Aviron Beaujolais-Villages 2008 ($14): Lively raspberry and red currant flavors with savory notes on the finish. Very good value in a red that will go with fish and other typical white-wine foods. 89

Potel-Aviron Cote de Brouilly Vielles Vignes 2008 ($17): Very nice wine with raspberry fruit, floral notes and good tannic structure. 91

Potel-Aviron Julienas Vielles Vignes 2008 ($17): Red currant fruit, salty and tarry. 87

Potel-Aviron Fleurie Vielles Vignes 2008 ($22): Ripe red plum with some red currant and a hint of tar. Sticky tannins feel (but don't taste) like peanut butter on your tongue. 89

Potel-Aviron Morgon Cote du Py Vielles Vignes 2008 ($22): Spicy wine with nice lavender note, but tastes a bit leathery and prematurely old. 88

Potel-Aviron Moulin-a-Vent Vielles Vignes 2008 ($22): Excellent food-friendly wine with red plum and cherry fruit, some allspice and pepper. The medium body seems to lighten on the peppery finish. 91

Chateau Fuisse
Most wines from Pouilly-Fuisse are blends from different areas, but owner/winemaker Jean-Jacques Vincent prefers to highlight the terroir of individual regions. Even though I didn't love all of the wines, they are all very different, and that's interesting.

Chateau Fuisse "Les Combettes" Pouilly-Fuisse 2008 ($53): Chunky lemon fruit that's a little sweet. 87

Chateau Fuisse "Le Clos" Pouilly-Fuisse 2008 ($53): A little fat, this wine has lemon fruit but seems ungainly. 87

Chateau Fuisse "Les Brules" Pouilly-Fuisse 2008 ($53): Best of the lineup this year, this wine has strong minerality, restrained lime fruit and a focused finish. 91

Chateau Fuisse Pouilly-Fuisse Vielles Vignes 2008 ($53): Nice initial lime fruit and good minerality on the midpalate, but I don't love the sharp finish. Might soften with a year of bottle age. 88

Vincent Selections
A joint project of Antoine and Jean-Jacques Vincent, affordable wines made from purchased fruit -- but with control over the vinification that probably saved them in 2008. Good value.

JJ Bourgogne Blanc 2008 ($14): Simple lemon fruit with good acidity. Nice food wine at a good price. 88

"Marie Antoinette" Pouilly-Fuisse 2008 ($23): Well-balanced, restrained wine with nice lime fruit and good acidity. Good value. 89

A story nobody tells

I love this story: A longtime grapegrower decides to stop selling their grapes to a winery because they're not getting enough to make ends meet. So they go into the winemaking business and start bottling it themselves.

I have written this story in various publications. It has all the elements foodies love: Farmers fighting to keep their farm. Little guy getting out from under the heel of big company. A wine with a sense of place, made from grapes nurtured by committed owners.

Whenever I get a whiff of this story, I try the wine. It's like boy-meets-girl, they fall in love, end happily ever after. I never get tired of it.

At ZAP last weekend, I finally realized that the other side of the story is far more common (boy meets girl, they divorce and fight over custody). A grapegrower stops selling their grapes and makes their own wine -- except their wine is nowhere near as good as it was when handled by an outsider. And there's no market for it because nobody's heard of it, and who wants an obscure $25 wine that's not any good?

There's a subset of this story, which I think particularly applies to Zinfandel. Pioneers like Kent Rosenblum crisscrossed the state, finding particular vineyards in previously unheralded areas (Contra Costa County, Mendocino County) where the grapes were so spectacular that they became great single-vineyard wines. So because a great single-vineyard wine can come from anywhere, vineyard owners tend to think any vineyard can produce a great single-vineyard wine.

Unfortunately, that's a logical fallacy that is responsible for one disappointing Zin after another. I have lost track of the number of times I've heard a small Zinfandel grower say, "We used to sell our grapes to Ravenswood, but now we're making our own wine." If Ravenswood winemaker Joel Peterson didn't think it was worth making a single-vineyard wine from, the vineyard owners should have listened. Very often, grapes that make a nice element in a blended wine aren't that interesting on their own.

Think about it this way -- Petit Verdot, a Bordeaux varietal, is in some of the world's most expensive and best wines. But when was the last time you had a good Petit Verdot?

There's also the problem of winemaking. Even if their names aren't known, never underestimate the skills and training of the winemaking team at a place like Gallo. If a grapegrower can actually line up an established, superb winemaker for its grapes, fine. But often they just get a neighboring winery's winemaker (or assistant winemaker) to do it. Just because somebody makes wine at small wineries doesn't mean he's going to have the talent of the big boys. They might get lucky, or they might not.

There's a reason nobody ever tells this side of the story. It's sad. And it's not a solution to the farmer's original problem. If Constellation or Gallo isn't paying enough money for grapes, and they're not good enough to make a single-vineyard wine from, then what?

My best advice is to shop the grapes around to a different large winery, preferably one in the area. After successfully turning themselves from grapegrowers into a winery, Michael-David Winery started 7 Deadly Zins in part to help their neighbors in Lodi sell their grapes, and that's now one of the most popular Zinfandels in the country. If you have blending grapes, find somebody to blend them.

I'm sorry to write a depressing post. But after ZAP, I feel guilty for all the times I've written the happy version of this story, because I (as one tiny part of the wine media) probably helped play some tiny role in convincing some grapegrowers that they should strike out on their own as wineries. It's akin to a sportswriter suddenly realizing that high-school basketball players are not studying because they're sure they're going to make it to the NBA.

Some grapegrowers DO make it as wineries, and I will continue to celebrate them. But please keep in mind that for every one that does, there are dozens sitting quietly behind tables at trade shows like ZAP, hoping somebody will spot the hidden brilliance in their wine that they themselves see.