Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Maxville Lake Winery Brings Napa Luxury To Rediscovered Chiles Valley AVA

Maxville Lake Winery has 100 acres under vine. Photo courtesy of the winery

You are forgiven if you forgot, or never knew, that Chiles Valley is a district in Napa Valley. Nestled in the Vaca Mountains in the northeastern part of Napa, Chiles Valley has flown under the radar. Maxville Lake Winery may change all that through their small production luxury wines.

A Napa AVA Rediscovered

Maxville Lake Winery Associate Winemaker Greg Fitzgerald is quick to point out that Chiles Valley isn’t an undiscovered Napa Valley AVA. He prefers to call it “rediscovered.”

Fitzgerald brings an uncommon perspective to his position. He was a server and a sommelier in some of the West Coast’s best restaurants before honing his winemaking skills. “I like interesting wines with subtle and complex characteristics that can engage your mind,” said Fitzgerald. He has the opportunity to help create such wines in a stunning setting.

“It’s a very remote area and it still has a beautiful rural landscape that’s precious,” said Fitzgerald during a recent interview with Vino-Sphere. The region is named after Joseph Ballinger Chiles, who received the territory in a Mexican land grant in 1841. He was a pioneer and wagon train guide. According to Fitzgerald, that pioneer spirit is very much alive today.

Maxville's wine cave has 2,000 barrel capacity. Photo courtesy of the wineryThere are few other wineries in Chiles Valley, and so the AVA doesn’t have a defined signature style. What it does have is very diverse topography.

Chiles Valley has, well, a valley but also has elevations that rise 600 to 1,200 feet. Hillsides have shale soil that drains well and stresses – in a good way – the vines. The valley has clay loam soil with good water holding capacity.

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The diurnal temperature swing, plus cooling Pacific breezes, allow the grape skins to thicken. That allows greater tannin extractability for richer, more complex wines.

Maxville Lake Winery First Vintage

Maxville Lake Winery bottle capsuleMaxville Sauvignon BlancThe property was first planted to grapes in 1974 and wine was first produced there in 1999. Maxville purchased the land in 2014 and Executive Winemaker Camille Benitah and Fitzgerald began an extensive redevelopment and restoration of the vineyards. Major remodeling of the facility took place in 2016. In June Maxville Lake Winery held its grand opening.

The property is exceeds 1,000 acres, most of it undeveloped. Fitzgerald says the winery is committed to sustainable farming and maintaining this important natural resource. Nearly 1,000 acres have been placed in the Napa Valley Land Trust, ensuring it will never be subdivided and will only be used for agricultural purposes.

Presently there are 100 acres under vine with 56 acres actively being used. Grapes planted are Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Petite Sirah.

The first Maxwell vintage has been released: 2014 Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2015 Sauvignon Blanc. The reds retail for $64.99 and the Sauvignon Blanc is $29.99.

The Sauvignon Blanc is made with the Musqué clone, which is highly aromatic. “It starts with boxwood and grapefruit then develops tropical flavors,” said Fitzgerald.

We sampled it with a chicken and cranberry entree served in puff pastry. Fitzgerald describes the aroma as burnt orange. We picked up on a yeasty flavor, no doubt accented by eight months on lees and regular stirring through the batonnage process. This is one of the most complex and enjoyable Sauvignon Blanc wines we’ve tried. The lush flavors are balanced perfectly with medium acidity.

“We’re happy how it turned out,” said Fitzgerald. “We did some brainstorming and asked what wild things could we try.” The grapes were picked over a two-week period to get different levels of ripeness. The early fruit was pressed whole cluster, while riper grapes were destemmed. Aging takes place in a combination neutral French oak and Acacia barrels (30%) as well as stainless steel tanks (60%) and concrete  (10%). Talk about attention to detail!

Maxville Lake Petite SirahAdvanced irrigation systems allow Maxville to dial in the exact water needs for each vineyard block.“Everything we’ve grown so far is great,” said Fitzgerald. Maxville has a wine cave with a 2,000 barrel capacity. The caves are perfect for aging, with annual temperature variation of less than two degrees.

Seeing Red

For the reds, the winemaking team shoots for elegance and balance, says Fitzgerald. “We want opulent, refined wines that respect the varietal blend.”

Fruit is handled gently and the tanks are heated with glycol to reach fermentation temperature more quickly. A goal is to get early extraction of the phenolics, the molecular goodies that give a wine color, structure and subtle flavors. This results in finer tannins and more developed flavors.

“Our Petite Sirah has been a real eye opener,” said Fitzgerald. The Petite Sirah grapes get a five-day cold soak then undergo the quick, warm fermentation. Only free-run juice is used for the final wine. Malolactic fermentation and aging in 50% new French oak finish this dense, silky wine.

A Destination Winery

Maxville Lake Winery tasting room. Photo courtesy of the wineryIn April the new tasting room was completed. It has an industrial chic feel, with polished concrete floors, raw wooden beams and a modern feel. Although Chiles Valley may be almost off the edge of your wine country map, Fitzgerald points out that it is only 15 minutes from the popular Silverado Trail, and is a good alternative to touristy Napa.

The property has a spring-fed 26-acre lake. Fitzgerald envisions boat rentals, dinners and tastings at the lake. “We want to give visitors activities and a relaxing experience,” he said.

Maxville Lake Winery is pioneering small production luxury wines in Chiles Valley. With unique microclimates, innovative winegrowing and exceptional winemaking, we expect Maxville to be a rising Napa Valley star.

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Arrogant Frog Delivers French Taste And Value At Dizzying Heights

Arrogrant_FrogPays d’Oc is a picturesque region in the south of France that has low hills, rolling land – and great values in wine.

Simple Pleasures

Arrogant Frog is part of the wine portfolio of Domaines Paul Mas. These are French wines from the Languedoc region where "country wine,” also called IGP wine, is produced.

The wines are crafted to highlight the “Luxe Rural” spirit of the south of France. We recently sampled the 2016 vintages of Arrogant Frog Cabernet-Merlot and Chardonnay. Each retails for $9.99, making them outstanding values.

Climbing to New Heights

20171018_181518We packed the two Arrogant Frog bottles on a recent rustic cabin trip to West Virginia’s Seneca State Forest. The highest point in this remote park is the Thorny Mountain Fire Tower, at a height of 3,458 feet. Recently the Division of Natural Resources converted the fire tower building into a sleeping accommodation – three of our friends opted to spend the night there.

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Our entire group went to the hilltop for a cookout and to check out the scenery. The Arrogant Frog climbed to the top of the tower with me and enjoyed a magnificent mountain panorama. Down at the base of the tower, friends were putting together a bison burger cookout.

20171018_184636Value And Fun

The Arrogant Frog Chardonnay is actually a blend of 85% Chardonnay and 15% Viognier. This adds some white flower notes to tropical fruit and peach flavors. The bottle has a screw closure for easy opening when you are on top of a fire tower – or a more day-to-day setting.

Thirty percent of the Chardonnay grapes get three months aging in oak barrels before being blended with the rest of the grapes, which are finished in stainless steel tanks. This keeps the brightness, but allows for a dash of complexity.

The red Arrogant Frog is a blend of 55% Cabernet and 45% Merlot. This was an ideal blend with the bison burgers. Like the Chardonnay, the Cab-Merlot blend gets a light oak treatment with 25% of the wine being aged four months in oak. The result is smooth with rich blackberry flavor and spicy notes.

As the sun went down we reveled in the changing colors from our spot high in the West Virginia hills. We didn’t have high end crystal glasses, but we enjoyed other luxuries – comradery, stunning surroundings and some pretty good bison burgers.

Arrogant Frog provides an easy-going, elegant style. This is one form of arrogance we can readily embrace.

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Wine Takes Root In Garden State With Bumper Crop Of Quality

New Jersey Wine - We found it to be refreshingly good.

I’m a Jersey guy. Even so, I had no idea that a renaissance of winemaking is underway in the Garden State. Read on as we explore a sampling of quality wines from New Jersey.

Images Of New Jersey – Shattered

Born and raised in New Jersey. That’s me. Over the years I’ve taken a lot of flak and the state has been the butt of many a joke. Say what you will, I’ve always known what many don’t: New Jersey isn’t just the Jersey Turnpike and smokestacks. There are areas of great natural beauty such as the Delaware Water Gap and the scenic southern shores. New Jersey also has a strong tradition of agriculture, in locales that seem worlds away from the major metro areas.

I’ve written more than 1,900 blog posts about wine, many of them featuring regional wines and wineries from states like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Texas, Virginia and even Hawaii. I’m a big booster of regional wineries. There are many well-crafted wines produced outside the “big three” wine producing states of California, Oregon and Washington. You would think I’d know that the wine industry is on the rise in NJ – but it really caught me off guard.

Preparing Crimini Mushroom RavioliA Reserve Cab From The Outer Coastal Plain

I participate in the Wine Studio education program, and our most recent exploration was the wine of New Jersey. With trepidation I opened the first bottle: the 2013 Tomasello Winery Palmaris Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve. My daughter prepared some handmade Crimini Mushroom Ravioli.

On the nose, the Palmaris has herbal notes. In the glass the wine is garnet in color. The ravioli looked scrumptious. I wasn’t sure if the wine would measure up.

The first sip was solid assurance that it would. The body is medium to light medium with refreshing notes of cranberry. The blend is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The grapes are 85% estate grown and all come from the Outer Coastal Plain.

The Outer Coastal Plain is no more than 35 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, which provides a maritime influence on the vines. The temperature in the OCP is similar to Rutherford Valley in Napa in terms of degree days, one of the world’s great wine regions. A shorter growing season promotes moderate alcohol and results in approachable, food friendly wines.

This is a very good wine! I was pleasantly surprised with the great winemaking ability shown in this bottle. Each grape variety was fermented and aged separately. The wine is then blended together and aged once more. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation. It retails for $40.

Tomasello is a third generation winery that was founded more than 80 years ago. Today there are more than 50 other wineries in the Garden State. We sampled several other Jersey wines and its clear that good things are happening in my native state.

Garden State Growth

In the mid-19th century, wine flourished in New Jersey. Prohibition, outlawing the consumption of alcohol in the US, was enacted in 1919 and dealt a crushing blow to the wine industry nationwide. The wine industry remained small in New Jersey until the 1980s. In 1981 the NJ Legislature passed the Farm Winery Act, which exempted low-volume family wineries from restrictions and allowed them to open outlet stores. By 1988, the number of wineries had more than doubled to 15.

In 1984 the Garden State Wine Growers Association was founded and this coalition of wineries, vineyards, grape growers and other industry-related companies have amped up the marketing and created special events. One of their most visible creations is the New Jersey Wine Country Passport. Passport users get their passport book (or app) stamped at each winery. Once a passport book is completed, the holder can receive a pair of free tickets to any GSWGA wine festival and be entered in a drawing for a grand prize trip.

Sharrot Barrel Reserve Chardonnay with fish entreeDiverse Wines, Surprising Quality

There are more than 90 different grape varieties grown in New Jersey – everything from Albariño to Rkatsiteli. We enjoyed a sampling of several wines:

William Heritage 2016 Outer Coastal Plain Chenin Blanc – A limited production (209 cases) of one of our favorite grapes. Finished in stainless steel tanks, this wine has tropical flavors. This family-owned winery has been named New Jersey’s Winery of the Year three times. SRP is $18.

Sharrott Winery 2016 Outer Coastal Plain Barrel Reserve Chardonnay – This is a wine that Chardonnay lovers will embrace. The barrel aging and sur lie process are evident and contribute to a fine wine to accompany fish or poultry. We enjoyed it with fish fillets, risotto and herb garlic pull-apart bread. A deal at $24.99.

Unionville Vineyards 2013 Pheasant Hill Syrah – I was speechless on this one. I had no idea that the winemaking in New Jersey has elevated to the point that we can enjoy a single vineyard Syrah like this one. What a treat. Medium in body with earthy tones, it has a tart flavor and is lighter in style than a typical Syrah. Retail is $32.95 from Unionville Vineyards, which farms six vineyards spread across three counties. They have a range of unique soils and macroclimates.

New Jersey, hold your head high. We found these wines to be engaging and they certainly exceeded all our expectations. You can go home again, and it is pretty tasty when you do!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Mercer Trio Delivers Value And Flavor From Atop Horse Heaven Hills

Mercer Horse Heaven HillsThe Mercer family settled in southwestern Washington in 1886. For more than a century they’ve been stewards of the land in what is now the Horse Heaven Hills AVA.

Family Tradition

The Mercer family has a long tradition of family farming that spans five generations. Our family has a tradition too. For holidays like Thanksgiving we get together, cook way too much food, watch football and generally have fun.

This year it was our turn to host the holiday festivities in our new home in North Carolina’s Triangle area. We had plentiful poultry and also volumes of vino. Our holiday entertaining was made easier by a threesome of wines from Mercer.

Heaven For Horses – And Wine Lovers

Washington state has huge wine regions. Columbia Valley alone has 33,000 acres under vine (some does edge over into Oregon). Mercer has large holdings totaling 2,000 acres in Horse Heaven Hills, Columbia Valley and Yakima Valley. In Horse Heaven Hills, Mercer vines represent 18% of the total plantings.

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We’ve been devoted fans of Horse Heaven Hills for many years. It’s the home of many of the state’s top rated wines. The steeply sloped hills and tempering wines create just the right environment for flavorful grapes.

As part of our Thanksgiving gathering, the Green Dragon’s sister was visiting. This was the perfect opportunity to uncork the 2015 Mercer Sharp Sisters Blend. The bottle has a photo of Carma Sharp-Mercer and her sisters. Our present day sisters gave two thumbs up to this blend of 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Syrah, 18% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, 10% Grenache and 2% Carignane.

Taming The Wild Boar

The Merlot for the blend comes from Dead Canyon Vineyard and the Cabernet Sauvignon from the Eagle & Plow Vineyard, which is the source for Mercer’s new ultra premium wine. This wine offers ripe blackberries with a dash of vanilla. Like many Washington state reds, it overdelivers with delicious fresh fruit flavors.

We enjoyed the Sharp Sisters with a wild boar sausage, mushroom and cheddar appetizer. The pairing was spot on.

The 2015 Mercer Malbec comes from the acclaimed Spice Cabinet Vineyard. It has 22% Cabernet Sauvignon and offers more complexity than expected with earthy tones and coffee interwoven with lush blackberry. The wine gets 18 months in a blend of old and new French oak and malolactic fermentation to a lush, full body.

The 2015 Mercer Sauvignon Blanc was enjoyed as we recovered from the weekend full of holiday guests. The wine is yellow-green in the glass with a grassy aroma. While the wine is crisp and refreshing, the flavor profile was much different than expected. It veered more toward the grapefruit and less toward the tropical fruit. It is bright with good acidity and was an enjoyable wine for unwinding.

This trio is part of the Mercer Estates range, the mid-level for Mercer. The Malbec and Sharp Sisters retail for $25 and the Sauvignon Blanc for $12. The wines are an appealing value. In particular, the Sharp Sisters was a favorite of ours. It’s a wine worthy of a multi-bottle purchase and could become your “go to” red.

Full Disclosure: These wines were received as a marketing sample.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Left Coast 2015 Latitude 45⁰ Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley


Good things come from the 45th parallel north. Case in point, this new vintage of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

In Distinguished Geographic Company

Left Coast Cellars Estate is one of the largest contiguous vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, spanning 350 acres, with approximately 150 acres under vine including Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier, Syrah, and Viognier. Pinot Noir is king in Willamette, and more than 60% of the estate is planted with Pinot.

The line of the 45th parallel north runs through the estate vineyard, like many of the great vineyard properties of France. Left Coast Cellars is a rising star in Willamette Valley, so we were anxious to “travel” to Latitude 45⁰.

Attack Of The Clones

There are about 40 different Pinot Noir clones. Clones are made from cuttings of a vine. Although genetically uniform, slight genetic variations occur. As a result, clones can have different characteristics that result in different quality and taste. In the world of Pinot Noir these subtle differences are to be celebrated!

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For Latitude 45⁰, Left Coast Cellars used Dijon Clones 114, 115 and 667. Dijon 115 is a popular and important clone in California Pinot production.

In addition to dialing in the clone selection, Left Coast Cellars benefits from its cooler micro-climate, owing to its location at the head of the Van Duzer Corridor. The Van Duzer Corridor is an east-west valley that creates a break in the coast range of mountains that shields most of the Willamette Valley from the Pacific Ocean. This break allows cool marine breezes and ample fog to penetrate deeply into our part of the Willamette Valley. That coolness helps preserve the acidity and brightness of the grapes.

We’re fans of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. In our reckoning, no place does it better. The Latitude 45⁰ has aroma of tea and cinnamon. On the palate it has a starts smoothly and then becomes more bold. There are notes of dusty strawberries with touches of leather and spice. The aging regimen is 18 months in French oak, 75% new.

The 2015 Left Coast Cellars Latitude 45⁰ Pinot Noir retails for $38. It is one of four Pinots produced by Left Coast. Latitude 45⁰ is eminently enjoyable and should pair well with braised meats and root vegetables. No matter your location, we recommend a visit to Latitude 45⁰ in your near future.

Full Disclosure: We received this bottle as a marketing sample.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Plonk Wine Club Focuses on Hidden Gems

Plonk Wine Club offers small batch discoveriesWant to enjoy small-batch artisanal wines without sifting through dozens of humdrum bottles?  Read on.

Top Tastemaker Unleashes Talent

Etty Lewensztain is a bona fide wine talent. She was named to the Wine Enthusiast “Top 40 Under 40 Tastemakers List” and Wine & Spirits “30 Under 30 List of Top Young Talent in the Wine World.” That’s nice for her – but even nicer for you, because she wants to share her expertise.

Plonk Wine Club is the brainchild of Lewensztain. Based on our experience, “plonk” it isn’t. It’s a great gift idea just in time for the holidays.

Plonk is a somewhat dismissive term for inexpensive, unremarkable wine. The Plonk Wine Club, on the other hand, has assembled some wines designed to mesmerize the adventurous wine lover. We recently sampled a Plonk shipment and have become fans.

Our package included:

2016 Matetic EQ Coastal Sauvignon Blanc, Casablanca Valley Chile

2015 Lusenti Gutturnio Frizzante, Emilia-Romagna, Italy

2016 Macchialupa Beneventano Falanghina, Campania, Italy

2015 Santomas Refosk, Koper, Slovenia

Pick A Plonk

The wine club is focused on organic, biodynamic and truly authentic wine. Club members can choose from a number of options ranging from two bottles to a case, shipped monthly. You also have choices on the type of wines you receive: mixed, white, red, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. You can go monthly and cancel whenever you choose. If you lock in a longer duration, you get a discount. A four-bottle mixed red and white plan is $95 per shipment, but goes down to $90 if you commit to a full year.

This is a great opportunity to try wines you wouldn’t normally experience. One of the Sauvignon Blanc choices, for example, is a Rogue Valley Sauv Blanc by Leah Jorgensen. Only 120 cases were made.

Fantastic Voyage

The selection we received is eclectic and cool. Casablanca Valley is an exciting region for white wines in Chile. The flavors are crisp and distinct from the New Zealand version. I’ve been wanting to explore the whites from this area. The Matetic EQ is organic and biodynamic.

Falanghina is one of hundreds of native Italian grapes that you won’t find outside of the “boot.” The Lusenti Gutturnio Frizzante is made with Barbera and Bonarda. To add to its uniqueness, it is a red wine finished in a slightly fizzy “frizzante” style designed to drink ice cold.

If those three wines weren’t intriguing enough, perhaps you’d like the Santomas Refosk. Refosk is a grape I’ve never had before – and I’ve tasted more than 100 different varieties. We served this Slovenian wine at a recent dinner party and several guests rated it above a pricey Napa Cabernet. It’s expressive with notes of blueberry and a healthy dose of pepper.

If you enjoy traveling the globe by the bottle, or discovering treasure wines closer to home, Plonk Wine Club is recommended.

Full disclosure: We received this wine as a marketing sample.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Holiday Gift Ideas: Trio Of New Cookbooks

Cookbook Gift Ideas

Looking for a gift for the foodie in your life? Try these tasty cookbook selections.

Taste Of Home 365 Days of Cookies

Yes, the title grabbed my attention. 365 Days of Cookies sounds like heaven to me – although my waistline and wife may not agree.

This cookbook is published by Trusted Media Brands, although cooks will be more familiar with the Taste of Home magazine, which has a circulation of 2.5 million. The book features gorgeous full color photos and a lay-flat spiral-bound format.

There are cookies for all occasions, including Waffle Day (March 25), Rootbeer Float Day (August 6) and, of course, Groundhog Day (February 2). The book is divided into seasons with an ample selection for each. The “most wonderful time of the year” gets special treatment with its own section. Also appreciated are a sprinkling of specially marked “short and sweet” recipes for when from-scratch baking doesn’t fit your schedule.

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Some of the selections include: Watermelon Slice Cookies, Pumpkin Spice Cookies, Vanilla Glazed Apple Cookies and Cranberry Swirl Biscotti. The classics to holiday masterpieces are all covered. The 448-page hardcover book retails for $24.99 and might be the sweetest gift of the season.

A Taste Of Latin America by Patricia Cartin

Patricia Cartin’s new book, A Taste of Latin America: Culinary Traditions and Classic Recipes from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico & Venezuela (176 pages, Imagine Publishing) covers a land steeped in history and tradition. Organized by country, each section includes historical background and influence for each nation’s cuisine as well as a look at local customs and ingredients.

There are attractive full-page photos and the range of recipes will appeal to novices as well as seasoned chefs. We like that each dish includes a bold listing of the preparation time and difficulty level. Each dish also has the phonetic pronunciation so you’ll not only cook like a local, but you’ll be able to properly say the dish’s name.

There are tempting options for main dishes, vegetables, sides and desserts. Some selections are Charquican, (a Chilean beef stew), Bolinho de Chuva (cinnamon doughnut holes from Brazil) and Papas a la Huancaina (Peruvian potatoes with spicy sauce).

Cartin is a native Costa Rican and has cooked for the president of Costa Rica at university receptions and she shares her knowledge in this easy to read and use hardcover book. Suggested retail price is $18.95.

Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadian Food by Simon Thibault

Pantry and Palate combines narrative by Thibault and stunning photography by Noah Fecks to explore the culinary traditions of Acadia. Acadians were among the earliest Europeans settlers in Canada. They arrived in the 17th century and settled in what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Most were expelled from their lands by the English in the 18th century, with the majority fleeing to Louisiana where their cuisine evolved into what we now call Cajun. Thibault takes us through a personal journey of discovery. Sparked by old family recipes in aged notebooks he explores the Acadian foodways, an expression of history, culture and identity.

“Memories of taste are the most powerful,” says Thibault, “and they are linked to our memories of love.” He lovingly explores what he terms the humble, homey, occasionally homely, and very comforting cuisine of Acadia.

Recipes include Fricot aux Poutines Rapees (Chiken Fricot with potato dumplings), Clam Pie and Fring Frangs (potato pancakes). You’ll also find Thibault’s amusing tale of cooking a pig’s head and why he thinks you should cook one too. This fascinating book retails for $34.95, published by Nimbus Publishing Limited in the trade paperback version.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Boutique Wine Sampler Set To Make Splash In California

The Santa Barbara Boutique Wine Sampler is now available

Small Bottles, Big Idea

The Boutique Wine Sampler is small in size, but really, really big in concept. The product is targeted at wine lovers and is launching in Costco stores in California. It focuses on a collection of small production wines in a small format – and we predict the impact will be huge.

We had a chance to speak with Bob Sweeney, who co-founded the Boutique Wine Club with Tim Jones. Boutique Wine Club developed the product to fill an important need. “You have consumers who are seeking high quality wine and can’t get it,’ explains Sweeney. “You also have winemakers with no access to the market. They don’t have a tasting room and they aren’t in restaurants.”

Drawing on his experience in the wine industry as a leading tour operator, he decided that a sampler pack done right would allow small producers access to a wide market. Boutique Wine Club buys the wine from the wineries and packages it in 375 ml bottles, half the typical bottle size. The labels are identical to the full-sized bottles (okay, they are smaller) and are printed under a license with the wineries.

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We like the BWS for a number of reasons. First, we’ve tried other wine sampler packs that feature 50 ml bottles. Sorry, but that is a third of a glass of wine – not enough to get a decent taste and certainly not enough to share. The Boutique Wine Sampler bottles have two and a half glasses each – much better. Also, the Boutique Wine Sampler is focusing on fantastic wine regions, including two of our favorites for starters, Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. Five thousand units of each package were produced.

Sip Santa Barbara Then Pop Paso Robles

The Santa Barbara AVA collection includes the following wines and is now available in select Southern California Costco stores and some California Fresh Market stores:

•           2016 Stolpman Ballard Canyon Syrah

•           2017 Larner Rosé of Grenache

•           2016 D’Alfonso-Curran BADGE Pinot Noir

•           2015 Blair Fox Petit Sirah

•           2016 Carr Cabernet Franc

•           2016 Andrew Murray E11even Chenin Blanc

The Paso Robles AVA collection includes the following wines and will be available in select Northern California Costco stores in early December:

•           2015 Cass Winery Malbec

•           2014 Brian Benson Cellars Kandy Red (50% Zinfandel / 50% Grenache)

•           2017 Alta Colina Grenache Blanc

•           2014 Midnight Cellars Estate Zinfandel

•           2016 Bodega de Edgar Tempranillo

•           2016 San Marcos Creek Rosé of Grenache

The Boutique Wine Sampler 375 ml format is great for group tastings

Why We Like It

During his time as wine tour operator, Sweeney tried to figure out the players in the winemaking business. His network enabled him to pull together a great group of wines. “We are looking for winemaking giants playing small or up and coming winemakers,” he said.

Ballard Canyon is a dynamic Santa Barbara AVA that is making amazing Syrah. Stolpman Syrah is superb. We featured a Midnight Cellars red blend at an event we organized and it was a crowd favorite. Knowing that these two wineries were included is an indicator of the collection quality and sold me on this project.

How can you not love sampler packs that include Tempranillo, Grenache Blanc, Cab Franc, Petit Sirah and Chenin Blanc? The website BoutiqueWineBox.com features interviews with the winemakers accessible via a QR code, so you can watch the videos when buying the wine or hosting a tasting party.

The suggested retail price for the Boutique Wine Samplers is $69.99, but Costco agreed to reduce their margin in order to make it available for $49.99. It’s a great bargain for consumers and also a sweet deal for wineries trying to gain new customers.

“When you consider that each box will have two to 12 people tasting it, you have a chance to have 50,000 people taste your wine,” said Sweeney. He noted for comparison that a top tasting room might get 1,000 people a week.

Plans for sampler packs aren’t limited to Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. Napa and Sonoma are ripe for their own collections, said Sweeney. From there a thrust northwards to Oregon and Washington is possible.

As the sampler packs grow in numbers, you can mix and match bottles from different regions. A nationwide push with a four pack is also a possibility.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Dry Creek Vineyard: Sonoma Winery Visit

Dry Creek Vineyard is celebrating 45 years of family winemaking. We did some celebrating of our own, making the winery our first stop on our recent trip to Sonoma.

Vino-Sphere tasting team outside Dry Creek Vineyard tasting roomA Winery Of Firsts

Dry Creek Vineyard is a groundbreaker in many ways. It was the first new winery established in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley following Prohibition and founder David Stare paved the way for a winemaking rebirth in the area.

Recognized as the first winery to plant Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek Valley, the winery also pioneered Bordeaux-style blends. In fact, Dry Creek Vineyard was the first to use the term Meritage (with its 1985 vintage) and the first to coin the term “Old Vines” to describe pre-prohibition Zinfandel vineyards.

That’s a lot of firsts. Enough, in fact, to make it our initial stop in wine country earlier this month.

Satisfying A Thirst For History

Dry Creek Vineyard is certainly a suitable name for this iconic winery, but in this dry valley, the winery is an oasis of flowering plants, growing vines and sustainable farming. We went through the front entrance, which has as much ivy as the outfield at Wrigley Field, and into the tasting room.

DCV Tasting RoomHigh above sun shone into the tasting room through a stained glass window featuring a sailboat, a signature image for Dry Creek Vineyard. Meanwhile we were treated to a glass of chilled Dry Chenin Blanc and Fumé Blanc, both 2016 vintages.

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As we enjoyed these crisp, refreshing wines, Sara Rathbun, the DCV marketing and communications director, related some of the rich history of the winery. Dry Creek Vineyard was the first winery in Sonoma to put “Fumé Blanc” on the label – a fact I found even more interesting as a downed a glass. The DCV Fumé is one of my favorite white wines.

The estate was formerly a prune orchard. Thankfully founder David Stare ripped up the prune trees and planted grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, which he was told would never grow. Stare not only pioneered Sauvignon Blanc in Dry Creek Valley, he pioneered the Dry Creek Valley appellation itself.

We contemplated an interesting history display while we enjoyed the 2014 DCV2 Four Clones Zinfandel and moved into the vineyard. The wine incorporates four distinct clones (Bradford Mountain, St. Peter’s Church, Primitivo and Dupratt) on St. George rootstock to preserve the heritage and authenticity of these old vineyards.

Value And Spectacular Specialization

Dry Creek Vineyard is committed to sustainabilityWalking in the vineyard garden (which is also an insectary) we also sampled another standout Zin, the Heritage Zin. Together with the Fumé Blanc, they are a pair of great values that overdeliver enjoyment and craftsmanship.

The Heritage Zin is the result of a special project wherein old vines from a pre-Prohibition vineyard were grafted onto young phylloxera-resistant rootstock. The result -- a “young” vine with “old vine” Zinfandel characteristics.

We had a chance to savor four different Zinfandels, displaying the DCV mastery of this signature Dry Creek Valley grape. In addition to the Four Clones and Heritage Zin, we tasted the 2014 DCV7 Wallace Ranch and 2014 Vogensen Ranch Western Slope single vineyard Zins.

Each of the three single vineyard Zins retails for $40. Each had its own unique flavor profile – and fans in our tasting group.

DCV Winery TastingThe Four Clones had an amazing balance between acidity and dark fruit. Wallace Ranch had notes of caramel and cola while the Vogensen Ranch offered raspberry, floral and anise flavors.

Triumphant Trio

Crisp, refreshing whites – check. Superlative single vineyard Zins – check. Now we were ready for another strong suit for Dry Creek Vineyard: Bordeaux-style reds.

One of our favorite red wines, and one we readily recommend to friends, is The Mariner. The Mariner is a Meritage and the 2013 vintage is a blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot and 8% Cabernet Franc.

Just as the trusty Mariner pilots the ship through rocky waters, so the winemaker is the captain of this wine, picking just the right blend.

Dry Creek Vineyard The Mariner - award-winning MeritageThe 2013 vintage is another winner, with blueberry and vanilla and a dash of spice. Enjoyed at a picnic table on the beautify winery grounds, there are few finer wine experiences.

Something completely new to me was the special 45th Anniversary 2014 Cabernet. This is made in the style of founder David Stare, with a 3% dollop of Spencer Hill Zinfandel added to the wine. American oak is used in another nod to the winery’s roots. The bottle is badged with a retro label featuring the original winery logotype.

This anniversary bottle is only available to wine club members or at the winery. It is a rich, rollicking wine – flowing smoothly on the tongue with a lingering finish.

We were then treated to a rock-star wine: the 2014 Endeavor, the winery’s high end Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes are grown in the Lytton Springs district of Dry Creek Valley and it includes 10% Petit Verdot. The terroir has a distinctive stamp, resulting in notes of cedar, strawberry and toast. This is a wine to savor. Dry Creek Vineyard has been quite innovative in their packaging, and Endeavor takes it to a new level with a striking yet subtle painted design.

An exclamation point was added to mark the end of our visit: a taste of the 2009 Mariner. Far from being a crusty old seafaring soul – the Mariner has mellowed with time. The years have polished the tannins, rounding all the edges into a smooth luxe experience. This almost makes me wish I had aged all my Mariner bottles. Almost, because each was quite delicious and enjoyed with the best of friends.

Dry Creek Vineyard has a remarkable history. It was a treat to drink it in first hand at the winery. We suggest you make it a stop on your next visit to Sonoma. Even if California isn’t in your travel plans, you can enjoy a taste of the family tradition at your nearest wine shop.

Monday, November 20, 2017

California Wine Strong: A Postcard From Wine Country

View from Hanna Winery in Alexander Valley. Photo by Dave Nershi

We took a 10-day trip to California wine country. We returned with many bottles, scores of photographs and two pads of notes. There is much to say and show about Sonoma and Napa – but nothing is more important than this post.

Eyewitness To Disaster

George Rose is a former LA Times photographer who now devotes most of his time snapping bucolic shots of Napa and Sonoma vineyards and wine estates. At 8:30 on the night of October 8, he was on a shooting assignment with a group of sommeliers but things were about to change in a hurry. He noticed a glow over the hilltops and less than three hours later, the most destructive wildfire in California history was raging, aided by Diablo winds gusting to more than 70 miles per hour.

JP at Lambert Bridge in Dry Creek shows remains of a fire-melted metal platter.Part of a panel on the California wildfires at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, CA, George switched to journalist mode and became an eyewitness to disaster. For three straight days he shot photos and posted 78 original stories. A fire such as this was never seen before. The fire covered 15 miles in four hours.

The toll is staggering. There were more than 40 deaths and 100 injuries. In Sonoma and Napa counties, 37,000 acres were burned. Sonoma County bore the brunt, with 12,000 homes destroyed or damaged.

For a region that depends on wine production and wine tourism, the fires delivered a staggering one-two punch – personal loss and severe damage to the region’s main industry.

We visited 11 different wineries and met staff from more than a dozen more. With each conversation we learned of the personal impact: burned homes, displaced friends and family, and uncertainty about the future.

Pierre Bierbent, winemaker at Signorello Estates and also part of the panel, was at the winery when the flames caught. He grabbed a hose and with other workers tried putting out the fire until fire crews forced them to leave. The Signorello tasting room, known for its scenic views from Napa’s Atlas Peak hills, burned to the ground.

Despite days of anxiety for Pierre, there was a glimmer of sunlight. The 2017 vintage, already in tanks and barrels, is undamaged.

“We’re Here, We’re Strong, We’re Optimistic”

Patsy McGaughey, communications director for Napa Valley Vintners, had to retreat with her staff from their office, which lost power. The team contacted each member winery to check on the safety of the staff and the status of the wineries. They were puzzled as to why state fire control websites failed to list the percentage of containment. They were to learn later that the racing fires urged on by “wicked and weird” winds had caused emergency crews to focus solely on evacuations in the beginning days of the fire.

The real story doesn’t end with the fire’s containment. It starts there.

Burned hills rise behind the vines at Kenwood Vineyards“We’re here, we’re strong, we’re optimistic,” said McGaughey. She noted that the fires had burned the hillsides, but not the valley and displayed stunningly beautiful aerial photos of Napa Valley shot in the days after the fire.

There’s never a good time to have a devastating wildfire, but thankfully 90 percent or more of the 2017 vintage had been harvested before the flames started. One poignant photo by George Rose shows a harvester machine working in the vineyard at night while a wildfire glows behind the ridge.

Winemakers in general are optimistic about the quality of the 2017 vintage. Grapes left on the vine were mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, a hearty, thick-skinned variety. McCaughey points out that there are many unknowns about the effects of smoke on wine. Wine lovers should have no fear of 2017 wines from Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino counties – winemakers will use rigorous and repeated lab testing to make sure there are no ill effect.

Winemakers worry that the 2017 vintage might get a bad rap by consumers. “Only the best and highest quality wine will go to market,” said McGaughey. “It’s our reputation at stake.”

California Wine Strong

This is the audience participation part of the story. The fires certainly were devastating, but even as the wineries and related industries and employees attempt to recover, they are being hit with another blow – a downturn in winery visits, hotel stays, tours and diners in restaurants.

What you should know:

  • Tell your friends that the Napa Valley and Sonoma are OPEN FOR BUSINESS.
  • Tourism is the lifeblood of the local community.The road to recovery is only possible by visitors returning to Wine Country
  • Virtually every winery, restaurant, hotel, B&B, tour operator and transportation company is OPEN FOR BUSINESS.

Pierre sums it up well:

  1. Come to wine country.
  2. Enjoy a bottle of California wine.
  3. If you want to contribute to wildfire relief, do so.

Let’s pour out a little love to one of the world’s greatest wine communities.