Monday, November 19, 2018

Brut Force: The Further Fantastic Wine Adventures of Felix Hart

Brut Force by Peter Stafford-BowLooking for a holiday gift for a wine lover? Try this madcap romp of a wine buyer mixed up in game of black mail, gun play and organic wine fanatics.

I just finished Brut Force by Peter Stafford-Box and I’m still chuckling thinking about it. In Corkscrew, we were introduced to Felix Hart, a wine buyer for a major supermarket chain. Brut Force continues his legendary escapades delivered with piercing wit, unexpected plot twists and a never-ending fountain of premium wine.

Felix is blackmailed into judging a corrupt wine competition designed to reinforce the primacy of a top Burgundy wine estate’s Pinot Noir. The tasting of French Burgundies versus Pinot Noir from a number of other countries has sales implications in the millions. If it weren’t for the two corpses buried in an unmarked grave, Felix wouldn’t be in such a predicament.

How did the tasting go? I won’t spoil the suspense, but let’s just say the hero ends up hanging from his feet and being dunked headfirst into a barrel of Loire Gamay. Not perturbed by his imminent demise, Felix tells his tormenters that he would prefer Cabernet Franc.

Brut Force is published by Acorn Publishing and is available via Amazon in paperback for $12.99. Interspersed with enough vino to please the wine lover, Stafford-Bow’s razor sharp wit will appeal to anyone who enjoys humorous repartee. Please note that this book isn’t for youngsters or those easily offended. I’m not in either of those categories, so it gets high praise from me.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Phinney’s Department 66 Highlights French Grenache

A trio of French Department 66 wines

Master winemaker Dave Phinney’s greatest success came with a Zinfandel blend. His latest French releases show his fine skills with Grenache.

Phinney Is No Prisoner To The Past

Department 66 is a region tucked deep in the southwest corner of France. A decade ago wine phenom Dave Phinney visited friends there and discovered the town of Maury and its steep hillside vineyards of old growth Grenache.

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Phinney grew to prominence with his runaway best-selling wine, The Prisoner. The Prisoner is an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono. He later sold the brand and assets in a deal that totaled nearly $300 million. Part of the deal was a non-compete clause that prevented him from making Zinfandel-based wines for eight years. Phinney was not deterred, shifting his focus to a different grape.

In 2008 he purchased his first 40 acres of old vine Grenache in Maury. Today that has grown to 300 acres with a winery. He returns to Maury at least once a month during the regular season and seven to 10 days during harvest. The fruit of his labor is Department 66 winery, named after the area’s governmental division.

D66 Grenache is big and boldHillside Grenache, Intense Heat

Maury is roughly two hours east of Barcelona and about 30 minutes from the Mediterranean coast. The area is part of the Côtes Catalanes growing region, a sub-appellation of Roussillon. Old vine Grenache thrives along with Syrah and Carignan. Nutrient-poor soil, strong winds and scorching heat stress the vines, resulting in intensely concentrated grapes.

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We drank through three new releases from Department 66: a Grenache, red blend and a rosé. The winery also offers a top-end Grenache-Syrah blend called Pharaon and a Grenache Gris.

Roussillon was once largely overlooked in the search for quality wines. For years it was known for producing vast quantities of inexpensive, simple wines. That is changing as winemakers focus on quality and incorporate new technology.

The 2017 Fragile Rosé is Grenache based with small quantities of Syrah and Carignan, an unusual blend. This was a nice change of pace after the parade of Provence-style rosé we tasted during the summer.

Fragile is a more substantial style of rosé. Indeed, it weighs in at 15.3% alcohol. There are flavors of strawberry and rhubarb mingled with a nice acidity. SRP is $18.

The 2015 Others red blend is a mix of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre. The flavor notes are of blueberry and spice. There is also a herbal thread, known as garrigue for the bushy fragrant plants that grow on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast. The suggested price is $25.

Not Your Grandfather’s Grenache

We love Rhône wines and Grenache is prominently featured. It can be light and airy and is used to soften the Syrah with which it is usually blended. The Grenache in the hills of Maury, with some vines up to 65 years in age, is much more robust.

Big, bold and assertive describes the D66 Grenache. Spice, cedar and red berry flavors are framed by firm tannins. The wine is aged in new French oak for 18 months and gets an additional five months of aging in the bottle. We decanted D66 for about 30 minutes and also poured it through an aerator.

The initial impression is of a sturdy wine but with a smooth texture. It was “hot” at the onset, but settled down in the glass. At 15.2% ABV, this is a wine that could benefit from a thick steak. SRP is $38.

Dave Phinney has the golden touch. For another expression of Grenache, visit Department 66.

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

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

San Diego County Emerging From Historic Past Into The California Wine Scene

Oceanside San Diego via PixabayKnown for dreamy sunsets and near perfect climate, San Diego is an American favorite. The county is also home to more than 100 wineries.

San Diego: Site Of California’s First Wine

More than 90% of the wine made in the US comes from California. One might be tempted to think that the climb to the pinnacle began in Napa Valley – but that would be wrong.

Domaine Artefact 2016 Rincon del DiabloSan Diego was the first area in California where vineyards were planted and wine produced. Franciscan missionaries tilled the San Diego Mission lands and grapes flourished thanks to the favorable climate and soil conditions. California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, was known for producing high quality wines.

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Bolstered by Italian, German and French immigrants, the wine industry in the San Diego region flourished after the Civil War. In time the promise was squelched by a devastating flood in 1916, Prohibition and then World War II.

After the war, the rebirth of California wine was centered in northern California and areas like Napa and Sonoma. It wasn’t until the 1990s that San Diego’s wine industry began to reemerge.

Acreage and volume of wine produced steadily increased until wildfires destroyed hundreds of acres of agriculture in 2003 and 2007. Farmers used the misfortune as a chance to pivot from water thirsty crops to grapevines, which use only 3% of the water required by a mature avocado tree.

The regrowth is still underway, but San Diego vintners are focused on putting San Diego back on the map as an award winning California wine region. During a recent Wine Studio education program, we had an opportunity to explore the wines of San Diego County.

A Diversity Of Wines and Vines

Vesper single vineyard CarignanWe certainly don’t have anything against Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Heavens no. Often, though, winemakers bend over backwards to produce what they think is most popular, rather than digging into the dirt and discovering what grape varieties thrive best in their locale.

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Our survey of San Diego County wines included Grenache Blanc, a Grenache rosé, Viognier, a sparkling red wine, Barbera, Sangiovese, Carignan, Syrah and a GSM blend. That’s grape diversity, for sure and the grape varieties reflect what’s best suited for the area rich in microclimates.

We sampled a quartet of San Diego bottles during our “Naughty Nine” wine tasting. We had a lot of wine to review and the best way was to throw an impromptu party. A very intriguing winery is Domaine Artefact, which specializes in Rhone grapes. We sampled their 2017 Les Printemps Grenache Rosé (SRP $30), made in the Provence style with tart strawberry and good acidity. Their Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend is called Rincon del Diablo (SPR $45) and is a stellar red, with complex cranberry and earthy notes.

Italian grapes are also well-represented in San Diego County, as wines from Altipiano Vineyard and Winery show. We tasted two high-end reds, the NV Estate Barbera ($58 SRP) and the 2016 Estate Sangiovese Reserve ($65 SRP). The Barbera is light and elegant with a nip of spice. The Sangiovese was our final wine of our tasting party and we enjoyed the bottle out on the patio. The juicy flavors continued to open up as we savored and swirled. Outstanding!

San Diego WinesWhite grapes were also amply represented, with an impressive 2015 Grenache Blanc from Stehleon Vineyards ($23 SRP) and a 2017 Viognier ($23 SRP) from Charlie & Echo, a small independent urban winery. Charlie & Echo had the most unique wine we sampled, a sparkling red blend of Zinfandel and Syrah called Darkstar ($25 SRP). This had notes of blackberries and plum with light, frizzante bubbles.

From Vesper Vineyards we sampled the 2013 Carignan McCormick Ranch (SRP $25). Vesper focuses on single vineyard wines and we enjoyed this at the house of friends with a grilled chicken dinner. It has medium body, great acidity and an explosion of raspberry flavor.

IMG_20181022_132022Our final wine was the Koi Zen Cellars 2016 Paso Syrah ($33 SRP). Koi Zen is a small lot producer and sources grapes from top vineyards. The Syrah grapes come from Paso Robles and it offers nice structure, bold tannins and brambly fruit.

We were impressed with the quality of San Diego wines. The wines are mostly small production using interesting grape varieties crafted by passionate winemakers. There’s a lot to like about San Diego wine country and now’s the perfect time for a wine tasting trip, before the masses discover it. Sip San Diego, you’ll enjoy.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Three Rivers Winery, Walla Walla: A Wine And Culinary Experience

Like the rivers for which it is named, Three Rivers Winery was flowing during our recent visit. The streams of premium wine were accompanied with superb culinary creations.

Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla

The Mystery Winery Revealed

One of the highlights of the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last month in Walla Walla, Washington, is the mystery bus tour. You line up and hop into a vehicle not knowing where you’ll end up. It’s a good surprise because your final destination will be a winery.

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This year instead of a rickety school bus, we were whisked away by limo to Three Rivers Winery. It was an evening of not-soon-to-be-forgotten wine, food and frolicking.

Three Rivers is named for three of the three most prominent rivers in Eastern Washington: Columbia, Snake, and Walla Walla. It was founded in 1999 and is best known for wines made with red Bordeaux grape varieties. It is part of the Foley Family Wines group, which includes a number of prominent California wineries and a trio in the Northwest.

The winery is set on a knoll overlooking surrounding vineyards and nearby Mill Creek. The building includes the production and storage facility, a tasting room and private meeting room. We met winemaker Holly Turner on the expansive porch and enjoyed a glass of the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc.

Three Rivers Winemaker Holly TurnerA Culinary Tour De Force

Our group of about 20 stepped inside the tasting room, which features vaulted ceilings, a stone hearth fireplace, and rustic timber beams. Notes of jazz wafted from a trio as we surveyed a table adorned with grape vines and so many wine glasses that we knew something special awaited.

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Turner began her winemaking work at Chateau Ste. Michelle before heading to Argentina to work at Bodega la Rural. It was her experience there that triggered her interest in Malbec. Under her guidance, Three Rivers has earned dozens of 90-plus scores in the wine press.

The Pacific Northwest is known not only for standout wine, but a vibrant food scene. Executive Chef Matt Antonich was equal to the stellar lineup of wines, presenting a five-course meal of succulent treats.

The wines for the evening are limited production, like most are in Walla Walla, with the majority being under 150 cases. While we enjoyed an excellent 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Three Rivers estate vineyard, the bulk of grapes come from some of the top vineyards in the Columbia Valley, such as Bacchus, Gamache, Seven Hills, Sagemoor and Weinbau. The fine-tuned blending of different grapes and vineyards is truly exceptional.

Saffron scallops and Three Rivers Reserve ChardonnayWhile reds from Washington State generate the most buzz, let’s give the white wines their proper due. After enjoying the refreshing, floral Sauvignon Blanc, our first course was pan seared Saffron Scallops over Alaskan king crab risotto and Reserve Chardonnay saffron beurre blanc served with the 2016 Reserve Chardonnay.

I would have considered it a fantastic evening if I only had the first course and the Chardonnay! The Chard blended magnificently with the scallops, remaining delicate with just the right oaking.

Later our dinner would be bookended with another white, the 2017 Riesling finished in steel with 3.7% residual sugar paired with a poached green Bartlett Pear served with – get this -- huckleberry mousse and a dollop of vanilla bean Frangelico cream.

Enter The Entrées

The red wines and the culinary team flexed their muscles with the three middle courses – each served with two wines. Our Rocky Mountain Elk Chop was served atop Asian short rib fried rice with a huckleberry Malbec gastrique and a fresh chanterelle elk demi-glace. This amazing dish was paired with the 2015 Walla Walla Syrah and 2016 Malbec. The Syrah dazzled with raspberry, dark fruit and cocoa. It has 10% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot to add to the intrigue. The Malbec shows the high potential for the grape in the Columbia Valley.

After an interesting intermezzo called Lemon Herb Bees Knees (an adult slush mixed with lemon, herbs, local honey and gin) we were treated to the next course: Cabernet Braised Lamb Shank. This dish featured blue cheese corn grits, roasted butternut squash and toasted black truffle squash seeds. Coincidently, this is what we typically have around our house on Tuesdays – as if!

Three Rivers WineryTwo Cabernets were poured for the lamb. The 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon is from the Three Rivers estate winery and the 2015 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon is from the Seven Hills Vineyard. Deep rich and dark, each was a powerful and perfect match for the meat.

Although it sure didn’t taste it, the next dish was meatless Impossible Mole Empanadas. Impossible Burgers are a meatless sensation that feel, taste and even “bleed” like burgers, but are plant based. The empanadas were served with classic red mole, tomatillo verde, and a chipotle lime sour cream.

For this Southwest style dish, two superb reds were featured. The 2015 Svelte is a 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot Blend. The 2016 Trivulet is a 51% Cabernet Franc, 49% Merlot blend. These two wines illustrate why Three Rivers is known for the mastery of blends. The Svelte has coffee, cocoa and spice notes and won over the dinner table immediately. The Trivulet is a treat with blueberry flavors washing over a smooth texture.

This was an astonishingly wonderful wine dinner. Although far from New Orleans, it reminded me of the Cajun world lagniappe, which means giving something extra. Four courses would have been outstanding; our chef went above and beyond and served five. One outstanding wine with an entrée would have been expected and welcome – but we had two premium wines instead!

Bravo Three Rivers! This is a winery to visit and the wines are to savor and buy repeatedly.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Wine, Travel & Food News By Vino-Sphere: November 1, 2018

Aquaman Debuts In Madame Tussauds Orlando

Madame_Tussauds_Orlando___AquamanJoining an unprecedented league of DC Super Heroes, Aquaman will soon take his rightful place in the action-packed experience – Justice League: A Call for Heroes, only at Madame Tussauds Orlando.

Fans will be the FIRST to see Jason Momoa as Aquaman up close when the epic new figure debuts on December 4. Designed in collaboration with Warner Bros. Consumer Products on behalf of DC Entertainment, the figure captures every detail from the title character in the feature film Aquaman, which hits theatres on December 21, and is outfitted in the all-new suit designed for the movie.

In the experience, Aquaman's commanding presence will rise above the streets of Metropolis where fans must unite with an all-star cast of DC Super Heroes to save the world. Madame Tussauds Orlando is an interactive wax experience where guests are guided through immersive themed rooms where they can shake hands with the President, get on stage with pop princesses, or get up close and personal with a Hollywood heartthrob and take the ultimate selfie!

New State-of-the-Art Winery At Doubleback Winery in Walla Walla

New Doubleback Winery FacilityHeading south past the farms and fields along Walla Walla’s Powerline Road, the weathered exterior of Doubleback Winery’s new 14,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art winery and tasting room looks as though it has always been there. But don’t be fooled. Despite all the modern technology, equipment, and innovation housed within its walls, the new winery’s exterior is clad in siding reclaimed from barns that stood for more than a century on Doubleback and Bledsoe Family Winery proprietor Drew Bledsoe’s Flying ‘B’ family cattle ranch in Ellensburg, Wash.

Doubleback closed on the property in August 2016, broke ground in February 2017, and construction was completed in April 2018. This year’s harvest marks Doubleback’s first in the new winery, which was built to meet current needs while allowing for future expansion to accommodate as much as 10,000 cases of annual production for both the Doubleback and Bledsoe Family Winery labels. Key features of the production facility include the following:

· Eight 1,500-gallon stainless steel tanks

· Four 1,000-gallon stainless steel tanks

· Three 950-gallon Italian concrete “tulips”

· Three 750-gallon variable capacity tanks

· Four 320-gallon concrete “tulips”

· Four open-top, portable fermenters

“This is more than the realization of some big dreams and a lot of hard work,” Bledsoe, the former NFL quarterback said. “It’s a tribute to my Walla Walla upbringing, an homage to my family’s agricultural roots, and a world-class production facility all rolled into one.“


Topnotch Resort Package Includes Your Own Family Christmas Tree

Picking out the family Christmas tree is a great way to kick off the holiday season. Topnotch Resort, a AAA Four-Diamond resort located in Stowe, Vermont, now offers an O' Christmas Tree Package for the 2018 holiday season. This offer includes a stay in one of Topnotch Resort's luxury guest rooms, and a tree from nearby Paines Tree Farm where guests take a wagon ride to find the perfect tree.

Once selected and cut, the skilled team at Paines professionally wraps, packages and loads the tree onto the cars for a safe trip home. Nightly rates for the O' Christmas Tree Package, start at $199 for a standard room, double occupancy. The package is available 11/9/18 through 12/20/18.

Finger Lakes’ Villa Bellangelo Winery Earns Top 100

In November 2018, the Missick family will mark its seventh anniversary of ownership of Villa Bellangelo, and there is much to celebrate. In an impressive run, Bellangelo earned a spot as a producer of one of Wine & Spirits Magazine's Top 100 Wines in the World for 2018, and has had a series of wines in Wine & Spirits Magazine's "Best Of," category.  Bellangelo's Top 100 honor was its 2015 Berry Select Riesling (with a score of 94). 

When the Missick family moved from California to the Finger Lakes, it focused immediately on crafting authentic, delicious expressions of wines grown on the west side of Seneca Lake.  With a "sense of place," the varietal focus revolved around Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc.  "The beauty of Riesling, is that it has an ability to express its terroir in a way few varietals can," according to winemaker, Christopher Missick; adding "and in the Finger Lakes, we can tease out those expressions in a way no other region in the United States can.”

Bellangelo currently offers a dozen different Rieslings in its tasting rooms.  Missick is also the only full-time winemaker in the world that is also admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Pizza Hut Cooks Up Mobile Pizza Factory

Pizza_Hut_Toyota_Tundra_PIE_Pro_pickup_bedPizza Hut has joined forces with Toyota to develop the one-of-a-kind, zero-emission Tundra PIE Pro, a mobile pizza factory with the ability to deliver oven-hot pizza wherever it goes. The full-size pizza-making truck was introduced at Toyota's 2018 Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show presentation. 

The Tundra PIE Pro features a unique truck bed that has been converted into a virtual pizza factory on wheels—also known as "The Kitchen"—which contains a refrigerator, a pair of computer-guided robotic arms, and a portable conveyor oven. Like the truck itself, all components in The Kitchen are powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell electric powertrain. From start to finish, the pizza-making process takes between six and seven minutes.

When a Pizza Hut pizza is ordered, the first robotic arm opens the refrigerator and removes the selected pizza, places it on the oven conveyor, and returns to close the refrigerator door. The pizza is then sent through a high-speed ventless oven. On the far side, a second arm removes the finished pie, places it on the cutting board, divides it into six identical slices, boxes it up, and delivers it to the customer.

Ancient Wine Geek Gifting Dilemma Solved In Time For Holidays

With the launch of its Garagiste Club, the Gold Medal Wine Club has answered the perennial question: What do you give the wine geek who craves something different and unique? The gift of membership in the Garagiste Club means your closest wine geek friends and family members receive regular shipments of hard-to-find, extremely limited production wines produced by artisan winemakers up and down the West Coast.

“We kept getting requests for a wine club option fit for the enthusiast instead of the casual drinker and that led to the creation of the Garagiste Club,” says Gold Medal Wine Club founder David Chesterfield. “The Garagiste club procures the wines enthusiasts want: something rare, hard to find, extremely limited and produced by critically acclaimed winemakers.”

Examples of the wines Garagiste Club members have received include the 2013 Dolina Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills with only 75 cases produced, a 2014 Thomas Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley with only 65 cases produced, and the 70-case production 2015 Montagne Russe Chardonnay from the Black Knight Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast.

Cointreau Unveils First Designer Cocktail Series

As friends and families gather for the most festive time of year, Cointreau, the celebrated orange liqueur, unveils the first Designer Cocktail Series, a collection of classic libations with an artful twist created by luminaries from the art, culinary and fashion worlds. To craft the Designer Cocktail Series, Cointreau enlisted tastemakers including actress, designer and influencer Olivia Culpo, street artist Bradley Theodore, celebrity pastry chef Elizabeth Chambers and fashion designer and creative director Marissa Webb.

Cocktail connoisseurs can raise their glasses to a medley of festive Cointreau recipes:

  • Red Carpet Cosmo – a stylish take on the Cosmopolitan by Olivia Culpo featuring sweet raspberry garnished with candied ginger.
  • The Gold Street Margarita – a colorful Margarita by Bradley Theodore with a specialty black sesame and gold flake rim inspired by his street art.
  • The Lavender Sidecar – a feminine twist on a Sidecar by Elizabeth Chambers with fresh citrus, accented with a lavender infused sugar rim.
  • The Jalapeño Fizz – a spicy Fizz by Marissa Webb boasting jalapeño infused Cointreau and a cilantro salted rim with jalapeño garnish.

Mendocino Eco-Resort Offers Vegan Thanksgiving

Stanford_Inn_grounds_edited_1The 2018 Thanksgiving menu at the Stanford Inn Eco-Resort draws on locally grown Northern California ingredients with a new twist on traditional flavors. Celebrating their 21st anniversary as the nation's only vegan resort, Stanford Inn Eco-Resort chefs have announced the menu for their annual Thanksgiving feast that is sure to satisfy resort regulars, as well as those looking to establish new traditions for the holiday.

"This is our biggest and most requested meal of the year! It is popular with our local community as well as those traveling from across the nation to enjoy our Thanksgiving feast," said Jeff Stanford, co-founder of Stanford Inn Eco-Resort. "This dinner dates back to when we launched the Ravens and were so thankful to be in such an amazing coastal environment with a focus on service for our guests and the planet.”

2018 Thanksgiving Menu at Stanford Inn's Ravens Restaurant

Starter:                       Trumpet Royal and Zucchini Fritter with Caper Remoulade
Soup:                          Garden Turmeric Minestrone
Salad:                         Artichoke Heart, lambs greens (mache) with avocado ver jus
Choice of Entrees

  • Almond encrusted tofu with chestnut stuffing, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy and seasonal vegetable - seared Brussels sprouts and cranberry orange sauce.
  • Creamy polenta with chanterelles and port reduction drizzle, served with broccoli rabe and shallots, garlic and pistachios.
  • Thanksgiving tamale filled with ground walnut/cauliflower adobo; served with cranberry and pine nut quinoa pilaf and avocado, cucumber & tomato timbale.

Choice of Desserts:    Apple cobbler, pumpkin pie; trifle

BACA Wines To Host Holiday Drive Event In Napa

BACA Wines, a modern California Zinfandel brand spearheaded by Director Jennifer Brown and Winemaker Alison Frichtl Hollister, has announced plans to host a Holiday Drive event at HALL St. Helena on December 1. This event will serve as the kick-off for a month long holiday drive campaign benefiting NEWS, a Napa-based non-profit that provides support to survivors of domestic violence and abuse. 

Entrance to the event, which includes a wine tasting and light bites, is a donation-based contribution to NEWS through the Eventbrite by selecting a Game-centric monetary value. The donation system is modeled with four different levels of donation named after games. For example, the DOMINOS donation is $30, with the next donation level being JENGA, a $50 donation, and so on. Each individual donation will translate to one complimentary tasting per person.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Wairau River 2016 Pinot Noir, Marlborough

Wairau River 2016 Pinot NoirPinot Noir is a traditional favorite for Thanksgiving. Here’s a top Pinot pick from New Zealand.

When the frost is on the pumpkin, our thoughts turn to autumn and the Thanksgiving meal. Around here, that means thinking about the best bottles to enjoy with the holiday meal too.  Rising to the top of the list is Pinot Noir.

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New Zealand isn’t always top of mind when thinking of Pinot, but we recently opened a bottle that reminds us that this country produces more great wine than just Sauvignon Blanc. The Marlborough region, is on the northern tip of the South Island and is protected from strong sea winds. Some of the best vineyard land is along the Wairau (why-raow) River, on flat plains where shallow and stony soils promote good vine growth.

The Rose family established their estate vineyards on the banks of the Wairau River in 1978. The wine blends three estate vineyards: Home Block, Spring Creek and Winery Block. The Southern Alps mountain range runs the length of South Island and dissipates the prevailing winds from the west and creates a “rain shadow” in the region. There is plentiful, but not intense, sunshine. That allows the grapes a long, slow ripening period.

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In the glass the Wairau River Pinot is a violet color of medium depth. The aroma is of ripe cherries.

Aging is in French barriques for 10 months. That adds some nice complexity, but doesn’t detract from a supple texture.

There are subtle flavors of raspberry embellished with threads of earth, leather and oak. The finish is short with spice notes.

At a $24.99 SRP, this is a tasty value in New Zealand Pinot Noir. It has the hallmark lighter body and complex flavors of the grape variety wrapped in an elegant package. It’s a marvelous pick for your Thanksgiving Day turkey and the savory side dishes.

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Fun Bubbles Up With Sparkling Wine From La Vieille Ferme

Clink! La Vieille Ferme Sparkling Réserve RoséThe name may mean The Old Farm, but La Vieille Ferme has some very modern ideas. Take these two sparkling wines just launched in the US for example.

The Contemporary Method

Something new is up on the Old Farm. La Vieille Ferme is a Southern Rhône winery that has been popular with French wine lovers for more than four decades. It is operated by Famille Perrin, owners of the high end Chateau de Beaucastel. The Perrins also have played an important role in popularizing Rhône grape varieties in the US as partners in the founding of Tablas Creek winery in Paso Robles.

La Vieille Ferme Sparkling Réserve Brut - frothy mousseFor five years winemakers at La Vieille Ferme have been working on introducing a line of sparkling wine. The result is La Vieille Ferme Sparkling Réserve Brut and the La Vieille Ferme Sparkling Réserve Rosé. Each retails for $16.99, a scrumptious value for French sparkling wine.

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Rather than the traditional method used for Champagne and Cava, which has a second fermentation in the bottle, this duo of sparklers is created in a new way. The new process, called “Méthode Contemporaine” by Famille Perrin, involves introducing CO₂ into the wine just before bottling. The CO₂ is recovered during fermentation and then stored. It is reincorporated before bottling using a membrane contact system.

Phew. That’s a lot of science to contemplate. Luckily we found no difficulty in enjoying these two loveable wines.

La Vieille Ferme Sparkling Réserve Rosé created with the Contemporary MethodThe Réserve Experience

We served the wines on two different completely different occasions. One was a wine dinner and the other a dinner with wine. (You are now getting a sense of how we roll.)

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At our wine dinner, the Réserve Rosé was served as an arrival wine with a variety of appetizers including the Green Dragon’s famous tomato bacon crisps. It is a blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Pinot Noir – a very representative Southern Rhône trio of grapes.

I wasn’t sure how the Contemporary Method would stack up in the bubbles department. Upon uncorking and pouring, we were delighted with the froth and fine bubbles. The wine has fresh flavors of red raspberries with a touch of citrus. Grapes are planted in limestone soils which result in energetic acidity.

Bubbly always creates a festive mood. This was served on a warm day and also delivered a wave of refreshment to our guests who had driven more than an hour to the party.

La Vieille Ferme Sparkling Réserve Brut and swordfish steakThe Réserve Brut was popped during a dinner with my brother and sister-in-law who were traveling from upstate New York to a music festival in Florida. Green Dragon outdid herself with a meal of swordfish steak with mango chile glaze, garlic shrimp and cilantro rice.

Froth on the Réserve Brut was creamy beyond expectation. The wine is 100% Chardonnay, something I’ve come to appreciate in a sparkler. The wine is rested on the lees with regular battonage (stirring) that adds a nuttiness and round flavor. Vibrant flavors of lemon and grapefruit made this an exceptional match with the swordfish.

We wish the Réserve Brut came in a larger format bottle! It was gone too quickly.

Elegant or casual, big occasions or small, the new sparkling wines from La Vieille Ferme are good choices. The value is quite remarkable for quality French sparkling wine. Food friendly, they can stand alone or be paired with a wide range of appetizers or entrees.

Grab a bottle or two of La Vieille Ferme. Get ready, set, pop your corks!

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Duckhorn Vineyards and L’Ecole No. 41 Earn Title of Masters of Merlot

Top quality Merlots have depth and intensityMerlot shines in a workshop featuring two top producers. Here are seven good reasons you should love Merlot.

Merlot Mastery

Merlot can make serious, structured wine. Don’t be hornswoggled by a seeming sea of simple Merlot out there. At its best, Merlot is no mere pairing partner for Cab or a soft tannin sissy.

Some top bottles of Merlot were showcased during the recent Masters of Merlot workshop at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. Acclaimed Merlot producers Duckhorn Vineyards of Napa Valley and L’Ecole N° 41 of Walla Walla Valley were featured.

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Duckhorn was founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976 as one of the first 40 wineries in Napa Valley. They produced their first Merlot in 1978 from the famed Three Palms Vineyard. Duckhorn is considered a pioneer of luxury Merlot in the US. Other labels include Decoy, Paraduxx, Goldeneye and Canvasback, the latter being focused on Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon.

L’Ecole is a third-generation family-owned winery located in a historic school building. It was the third winery established in Walla Walla Valley. It is one of the most prominent and visible Washington State wineries with national and international distribution. The estate includes the Seven Hills Vineyard, one of the oldest and most renowned vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley.

Duckhorn and L'Ecole Merlot featured in tastingExcellence Across The Years

Most Merlot is designed to be drunk young, but quality bottles, like those from the Right Bank of Bordeaux or top US producers gain complexity with age. They are prime for drinking at the five to 10-year mark. Our tasting included seven glasses of Merlot spanning a decade. In addition to being able to taste three different vintages of Merlot, it was a chance to compare the characteristics of Napa Valley and Walla Walla Merlot.

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Kay Malaske, Duckhorn’s trade relations manager, and Constance Savage, general manager at L’Ecole, reached into their library to serve up the 2008 vintage. The 2008 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot is 86% Merlot with 9.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3.5% Petit Verdot and 1% Cab Franc. It has smooth, integrated tannins with herbacious notes of green pepper and tones of French oak. The 2008 L’Ecole N° 41 Walla Walla Valley Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Merlot is 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cab Franc. The same blend is used in each of the three L’Ecole vintages we tasted. This has a nice acidity and fresh tannins. The color is brick red and there is a floral note to the bouquet.

This was an eye-opener. The complexity and finesse in these decade-old bottles was surprising for a US Merlot. There’s a lot of life left in those bones! I guess that was the point of the tasting.

Masters of Merlot Tasting at WBC18The 2012 vintage is the prime drinking window, in my opinion, for these top tier Merlots. The 2012 L’Ecole N° 41 Walla Walla Valley Estate Merlot  has a delightful flavor mix of cigar smoke, cocoa nibs and black raspberry. Twenty-six percent of the grapes come from the historic Ferguson Vineyard. The 2012 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot (88% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Malbec)  is an elegant wine with notes of herbs du Provence and lavender.

One of the most popular restaurant Merlot’s is the 2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot. At a $56 SRP, it is a mouthwatering value. The blend of 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot, is silky with coca and cherry flavor notes. The 2015 L’Ecole N° 41 Walla Walla Valley Estate Merlot  offers wild cherry notes framed with fresh acidity and earthy flavors. At a $36 price point, it is an undeniable bargain.


The crowning moment of the tasting came with the 2015 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot Three Palms Vineyards. This is a 91% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.5% Petit Verdot and 0.5% Cabernet Franc blend. The Three Palms Vineyard is synonymous with Duckhorn and the winery has sourced grapes there since 1976. In 2015, Duckhorn purchased the vineyard whose warm, upland location is considered ideal for Bordeaux varieties.

The Three Palms Merlot is on a whole different level than the other outstanding Merlots we tasted during the workshop. The balance is perfect with expansive flavors of fresh black fruit. It is awash with layers of fruit and minerality. It retails for $98 and the quality exceeds the price tag.

Lesser grapes get only a day, but Merlot gets a whole month! October is Global Merlot Month and our latest tasting certainly validates the celebration. Mature, serious Merlot has a wider range of flavors and complexity than its simpler incarnations. Washington State Merlot changed my mind on this topic about eight years ago when I first tasted Northstar Merlot, a brawny powerhouse of a wine. After that, I could never look at Merlot the same.

If you are ready to take off your Merlot “training wheels” and taste the grape as it was meant to be, Duckhorn and L’Ecole N° 41 are superb choices. When you become ecstatic, remember to use the hashtag #MerlotMe.

Monday, October 15, 2018

New Book Brings “Power Rankings” To World’s Greatest Wine Regions

43 Wine Regions Michael BiddickFor sports fans, power rankings help sort out the contenders from pretenders. Combining various metrics, pundits can rank teams from worst to first. What if that same idea were applied to wine regions?

43 Wine Regions – A Practical Guide

Michael Biddick is a certified sommelier with an impressive background in information technology. He has a graduate degree in information systems from Johns Hopkins and was contributing editor and writer at InformationWeek and Network Computing Magazine. These might seem like disparate interest areas, but Biddick has melded the two in his latest book, 43 Wine Regions subtitled “A Practical Guide to the Top Regions and Vintages Around the World” (Mascot Books, 144 pages, $24.95).

The book, released earlier this month, is a compact summary of the aspects defining the wines produced in some of the most famous growing areas in the world. Biddick crunched the numbers on climate data, consumer reviews, critic scores and quality systems to come up with his list of the world’s 43 best wine regions.

Biddick evaluated 197 wine regions on four dimensions: Composite Vintage Score, Weather and Climate, Producer Quality & Control, and Sensory Evaluation for the period 2000-2016. Each region could score a maximum of 100 points with the weighting as follows: Vintage (48 points possible), Weather and Climate (16 points), Producer Quality & Control (32 points) and his own sensory evaluation (4 points). Regions scoring 50 points or above made it into the book.

Vineyards in Penedes. Photo by Dave NershiInfographics And Data Visualization

Unlike the power ratings and national rankings devoured by sports fans, Biddick doesn’t organize his results starting with #43 and culminating with the top pick. Rather he organizes the regions geographically and presents a table of his data as an appendix. Some people (like me) may get the itch to go straight to the rankings.

Each chapter begins with a summary of a country followed by one or more regional profiles. In general, the country profiles present a good overview of a country’s wine history, regulations, wine styles and other interesting tidbits. The regional profiles consist of two pages, one an infographic and the other a narrative discussion of the region.

The infographics pack in quite a lot of information ranging from climate, vintage ratings, major wine grapes and classifications. The narrative blends Biddick’s expert insights with facts about the region.

Are These The Top 43 Regions?

The book provides great capsules of more than 40 great wine regions. 43 Regions is an excellent place to start for wine lovers just beginning to expand their horizons and wondering which wines to taste next. The reader who is familiar with most of these regions will want to focus in on how her or his favorite region stacks up against the rest of the world.

This book isn’t intended to be an in-depth examination of any one region. For example, one page about Tuscany or Bordeaux only grazes the surface of regions about which volumes could be written. Don’t buy this book as your only travel guide to France, for example, but do buy it to find a new favorite wine region or get some insight on those you already love.

Some of the results are head-scratchers. For example, the Middleburg AVA of Virginia is ranked higher than Barossa Valley, Australia, which didn’t even make it into the book. I’m a fan of Virginia wine, by the way, but that does not compute. Likewise, Portugal’s Vinho Verde is rated higher than Oregon’s Willamette Valley and South Africa’s Stellenbosch region. I enjoy a glass of Vinho Verde, but to me it falls magnitudes below Willamette or Stellenbosch.

Of course, many of my favorite regions do get spotlighted and it was enjoyable to get the authors take on these areas. Are the results of 43 Regions controversial? Perhaps so, but in a good way. It’s bound to uncork many a debate over glasses and bottles of wine.

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Friday, October 12, 2018

Washington State’s Red Mountain Region A Towering Giant In Red Wine Artistry

Ciel de Cheval VineyardAt just over 4,000 acres, the Red Mountain AVA is the smallest and warmest wine-grape growing region in Washington. Don’t be fooled by its tiny size – it is producing powerful, world-class wines.

Awakening Giant

JJ Williams likes to call Red Mountain an “overnight 40-year success.” Director of operations for Kiona Vineyards, JJ’s grandfather John and friend Jim Holmes planted the first vineyard on Red Mountain in 1975.

At the time, Washington State was considered mainly suitable for cool climate white grapes. And so it was that the first vineyard on Red Mountain, on a southwest facing slope in Southern Central Washington was planted to Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Much has changed since the ‘70s, as we discovered during a recent Wine Bloggers Conference pre-conference excursion hosted by the Red Mountain AVA Alliance. The first Red Mountain wine was produced in 1978, when grapes were sold to Preston, whose winemaker was Rob Griffin, now of Barnard Griffin Winery. The depth of color and intensity of the fruit was a revelation. Red Mountain, a sub-region of the Yakima Valley AVA, is now known for premium reds and is almost “planted out.”

Red Mountain panoramaToday Kiona has three Red Mountain estate vineyards, including the acclaimed Heart of the Hill Vineyard. Col Solare, a joint project between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Italian icon Antinori, put Red Mountain on the map with powerhouse Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Hedges Family Estate, established with a land purchase in 1989, accelerated the growth and reputation of the region.

The Five Pillars Of Red Mountain

So what makes Red Mountain unique from any other wine-producing region? Why do superlative red wines spring forth like gushing fountains? It comes down to what Red Mountain wine people call the five pillars.

  1. The Slope – The gentle southwest-oriented slope of Red Mountain orients the vineyards to prolonged sunlight and warmth. This allows for the development of ripe tannins – a calling card for Red Mountain grapes.
  2. Low Rainfall – Red Mountain gets about 5.8 inches of rain a year, less than Phoenix, AZ. It almost never rains during fruit set and harvest. Grape growers can closely control how much water the vines receive. The dry climate dramatically lowers the possibility of mold and mildew.
  3. Consistent Winds – The wind blows up the valley in the morning and down the valley in the afternoon. The regular gusts of warm air keeps the grape clusters small and concentrates the flavors of the fruit.
  4. The Dirt – The main soils of Red Mountain aren’t found elsewhere in the state. Wind-blown Loess silt was brought in by prehistoric floods. The soil also has high alkalinity and calcium carbonate. The excellent drainage allows roots to reach deep to get necessary nutrients and moisture.
  5. The Heat – Red Mountain experiences more growing degree days than any other region in the state. Due to its high latitude, it can get up to 17 hours of sunlight in a day. This creates ideal temperatures for ripening while the cooler evenings allow the grapes to retain their acidity – crucial to a balanced wine.

Well, the five pillars are nice – but what about the wine itself? Stepping inside the Kiona tasting room, we were about to experience it full-on.

Red Mountain Versus The World

JJ led us into a private tasting room and we were greeted with a smile-inducing sight: Eight glass of premium Cabernet Sauvignon laid out at each place around the table. Red Mountain was taking on some of the best wine regions in the world.

Red Mountain in the WorldThe tasting was actually called “Red Mountain in the World.” I prefer to think of it as Red Mountain vs. The World, in a smack-down reminiscent of the recent UFC bout between Conor McGregor and some mean-spirited Russian dude. This tilt had four rounds, with a quartet of Red Mountain wines each taking on a leading wine from another top region.

Round 1 – The 2012 Chateau de Pez St. Estephe Bordeaux (an almost 50-50 blend of Cab and Merlot with a dash of Petit Verdot and Cab Franc added) danced around the ring in ballerina-like fashion with a perfumed nose and well-balanced taste. SRP about $50. The 2015 Hedges Red Mountain La Haute Cuvée came out swinging like a heavyweight champ with earthy and tannic notes. The 100% Cab (SRP $60) is bold and tart. Winner: St. Estephe in a split decision.

Round 2 – Stepping into the octagon next was Italian Brancaia (2013 vintage, $55), a Super Tuscan blend that has garnered critical acclaim. There were notes of mushroom and raspberries, but the Italian style was not a match for the power of the 2015 Col Solare ($75, 100% Cab). This is a dark brooding wine with licorice notes and a finish that took out the Super Tuscan with an elbow blow to the head. Winner: Col Solare

Round 3 – This match pitted two fan favorites. Hailing from Napa Valley, the Chappellet 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) has great acidity, with flavors of earth and wet leaves. Drying tannins on the finish. The Fidelitas 2015 Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is elegant and refined with rounded flavors and just the right touch of tannins. It got full approval from tasting team member “The Cabernetor.” Fidelitas got points with the judges for multiple leg kicks. Winner: Fidelitas in a split decision.

Round 4 – With a strong finish, the international team could turn this tag-team competition around. Representing Australia’s McLaren Vale was the 2014 Hickinbotham Trueman Cabernet ($70). Trueman has a fresh style and was light on its feet due to well balanced acidity. Red Mountain was represented by the 2014 Hightower Cellars Cabernet ($40). The Hightower evaded a leg-lock with flavors of beautiful red fruit, mint and a touch of bell pepper. This is an elegant wine with 10% each of Malbec and Merlot. Winner: Hightower

Red Mountain AVA ExcursionThe Decision: Two wines into the blind tasting, the signature style of Red Mountain became apparent. Living up to its nickname of “Muscle Mountain” the wines were bold and assertive with popping fruit flavors and towering tannins. The point was well made: Red Mountain wines compare favorably with the best wine regions in the world. (The international team had a hard time accepting the decision and attempted to throw a steel dolly through the window of the excursion bus as we were leaving.)

Magic On The Mountain

Our excursion included a visit to the Hedges Family Chateau for dinner and a freestyle tasting as well as a horse-drawn ride through the Ciel du Cheval Vineyard.These are two spots recommended to any Red Mountain wine lover.

The evening at Hedges provided a welcome introduction to the many outstanding wineries of Red Mountain. At Ciel de Cheval, we had the opportunity to view firsthand one of the country’s great vineyards during a wagon ride with legendary vineyard manager Dick Boushey.

Ciel du Cheval has 109 acres under vine in 36 separate blocks. Each block has its own irrigation controls and is farmed separately. Weather systems throughout the vineyard provide detailed data for making cultivation decisions.

The prehistoric Missoula Floods left the vineyard with a unique mixture of soils. Over the years attempts to grow  wheat or raise sheep failed. Fortunately, grapes don’t like good soil and the first grapes were planted in 1975. In line with the prevailing thinking at the time, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer were planted. Once the sterling qualities of Red Mountain grapes were discovered, vines were pulled and replanted primarily to reds.

Today there are 36 different customers for Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, including top brands like DeLille Cellars and Col Solare. The vineyard has also sprouted its own wine label, Côtes de Ciel, producing handcrafted small lots offered through a downtown Walla Walla tasting room.

Red Mountain is small, but a mighty force in the world of wine. If you haven’t yet experienced Red Mountain wines, we encourage you to sample these compelling and powerful wines.