December 26, 2008

Los Angeles

I've been visiting Los Angeles for the holidays there's been more wine-related goings on than usual. Most of it surrounds the release of my own wine, noncommercially of course. But lots of people want to try it, so it seems we're opening a bottle of it each day.

On our first night here, my parents opened a bottle of my 2006 Pinot Noir and it tasted pretty good, if a little oaky. The other day, my dad and I had lunch with an acquaintance of his who's in the wine business. Then, the wine seemed very fruity -- cherries -- but a little simple and tart in the mouth. Then more bottles for Christmas Eve at my sister's in-laws, then Christmas dinner here at Fritzsche central. Everyone seems to like the wine, some more vocally than others. It's always an adventure in nerves opening a bottle and I suppose that won't ever end.

Meanwhile, I've had the chance a bunch of other wines. A few nights ago, my brother brought the 2007 Seghesio Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley, with the blue capsule. He was excited that it got a 93 point rating from Wine Spectator magazine and was number 10 on its recent 100 most exciting wines of the year list. Of course, this 2007 didn't taste as good to me as prior bottlings, the bright fruit and spice replaced by darker, sweeter, and noticeably oaky aromas and flavors. Where's the zip and zing?

Then a family friend brought over a bottle of the 2001 Rosenthal Cabernet Sauvignon, grown in nearby Malibu Canyon. I've tried a few of these wines from the early '90s back when they were released, and I simply wasn't impressed. This 2001 isn't great wine, but it's certainly interesting and I found it pretty tasty. The wine is older looking than its years as I recalled the earlier examples. It smelled a bit like merlot-dominated Bordeaux, with smokey oak integrated nicely with berries and roasted red peppers, sweet and pleasantly herbal and savory at the same time. Clearly this is from grapes grown in, if not a warm climate, a place where night time temperatures don't get very low. The structure is very soft, and I wouldn't think of holding this wine too long. Still, it's an interesting drink.

We had the 2006 l'Hiver Syrah from Copain here in California. Alice Feiring mentioned Copain as a California producer of her sense of natural wine, meaning no yeasts, no ML bacteria, not much if any new oak, etc. This bargain bottling was terrific, indeed northern Rhone like as I've since read and void of any oak flavors. There is a smokey element that may be soil or some volatility in the wine. But it was honest, flavory, and juicy syrah for a few bucks less than a twenty. That's a pretty good deal in good California wine.

With Christmas dinner we tried a few other things, including a soft but pure 2005 Nigl Gruner Veltliner Freiheit. Very gruner, with citrus and green pea notes, even a little white pepper if you smell enough. There's also NV Korbel Brut, which again isn't bad at all. Yeasty, citrus, otherwise neutral tasting but not bad at all. Then a 2006 Torbreck Woodcutter's Shiraz, which seemed a little bretty but otherwise fine in a warm climate, not wooded syrah kind of way. May a little rubbery, but maybe we can blame the screw cap for that reduction. Everyone else is.

Tonight, we'll open another of my bottles, with maybe another Oregon Pinot and perhaps an oddball I picked up at Wine Expo in Santa Monica, the 1998 Balgera Valtellina Grumello, a nebbiolo from Lombardy in Italy that is surely dry, tannic, and requiring better glasses than we have to capture the aroma. I just can't resist these kinds of wines, even if I'm sure no one else will like it. We'll see.

December 20, 2008

2003 Produttori di Barbaresco Normale on a cold winter night

It's around 17F outside in Portland, with strong winds, several inches of snow on the ground and drifts well up to my knee. After sledding down the neighbor's driveway with the kids, it's time for a fire, some lasagne, and my first bottle of the 2003 Produttori di Barbaresco.

It's fitting on such a cold night to uncork a dose of bottled sunshine. 2003 of course was the record hot year in Europe, and here in Oregon too as it happens. The wines in so many areas are freaks, in some cases very, very good, by in many cases just too darn roasted, alcoholic, or otherwise distorted from what makes any particular appellation special.

For my tastes, the most successful 2003s are in regions that may not always see the ripest fruit, or grow grapes that tolerate excessive heat a bit better than others. For example, I love Loire cabernet franc in most vintages for their perfume and delicacy. But I find myself loving some wines from the hottest years, such as Joguet's Chinon from 2003, despite their unusal profiles. Same with some northern Rhone whites from '03, like Jaboulet's Crozes Hermitage Mule Blanche white wine that's rich and oily like a dry dessert wine. Maybe they're not typcial, but I've enjoyed them immensely. Am I a hedonist?

So it was in Piedmont in NW Italy. For the reknown co-op Produttori di Barbaresco, which usually produces a "normale" tan label Barbaresco and then several while label single vineyard bottlings from grapes grown by its several members, 2003 was a year where no single vineyard "riservas" were produced. The normale is the one Barbaresco bottling for the year, and it's dandy, as I'd heard from several sources. It's still available locally, and I imagine elsewhere too. I suggest you try it if the following sounds good to you.

The wine is medium ruby colored, with a classic perfume of the nebbiolo grape. Dried roses, tar, red fruits, leather, and the tell-tale sign of the year's heat -- a bit of raisin. To me, it's a very pleasant nuance of the wine. Tasting this blind, I might guess it's a really nice Valtellina from further north in the Piedmont that tastes like a really good Barbaresco. Valtellina is known for producing wines of nebbiolo in the style of Amarone, where the grapes are dried after harvest and only then made into a table wine that's exceedingly rich and powerful.

The flavors follow the aroma, with lots of ripe tannin that nebbiolo's known for along with ripe cherries, leather, tar, and slightly withered fruit. That's saying it's a little raisiny without, hopefully, the negative connotation of overripe fruit. Instead, it has the extra richness and depth that a more fancy wine might provide, without the price certainly or perhaps the typicity that makes the best single-vineyard bottlings so special. I can see why the co-op made only the normale in this year, but it's a decision that wine buyers and drinkers should take advantage of.

Don't be fooled - this is nebbiolo from the Piedmont. Perhaps it's not the most nervy or elegant of Barbaresco, but this has plenty of elegance and nerve. I think only the geekiest of us would find something wrong with this wine. For most of us, this is terrific Piedmontese red wine that's available for just over $20 if you buy right locally (think six-pack or case discount). Note that there's no new oak marring this wine, or any of the Produttori wines in my experience. What you taste is pure Piedmont.

The aromatic and flavor depth, plus the tannin and acid structure, tell me this wine should last 15 to 20 years. But it's delicious now too. How can you go wrong? I'm looking for a few more, once the roads clear at least.

December 18, 2008

Estezargues wine co-op

Have you heard of the Estezargues wine co-op outside of Villeneuve-Les-Avignon in the southern Rhone valley of France?

I had, but never really paid attention to it. But I was familiar with various Cotes du Rhone bottlings from the co-op that we see here in America, such as Domaine La Montagnette and Domaine d'Andezon.

The latter has been well known for years for its nicely priced red wines, including the somewhat legendary 1995 d'Andezon Cotes du Rhone. I'd heard this was really good, and some years back I tried it blind at a friend's house. Everyone was certain it was a nice Cornas, but no. Just a "lowly" co-op Cotes du Rhone. That wine is probably still drinking nice.

Turns out this co-op is more acclaimed than I ever imagined, and for good reasons. They're making relatively small lot stuff with natural wine principles. Alice Feiring wrote about it in her book The Search for Wine and Love that I reviewed recently. Here's a nice write up from Bertrand at Wine Terroirs, with typically lovely pictures.

The other day I was perusing the wine selection at a local discounter and saw a number of labels from importer Dan Kravitz's Hand Picked Selections out of Virginia. Tough times in the wine business, I guess.

Dan's done a nice job importing from France and Spain for years. Some things I'm not so fond of, but maybe that's my weird taste speaking. Most times you will do really well picking a bottle with Dan's import label on the back.

Back at the discounter, one label in particular caught my eye, the 2005 Terre de Mistral Cotes du Rhone for $7. Sure enough, the fine print shows it's a Kravitz import. And it's from Les Vignerons d'Estezargues. Any time you see "Les Vignerons d'..." you'll dealing with co-op wine. Most times that means it's mass produced stuff, often lackluster, more notable for the marketing effort behind the wine than what's in the bottle.

This bottle admittedly looks a bit similar to that kind of thing, with a colorful, contemporary label. But I grabbed one and it's pretty nice, authentic southern Rhone wine for a great price. This was released more than two years ago, but it tastes fresh as if it has a few more years in a cool cellar.

There's no shortage of alcohol in this wine, but in a basic Cotes du Rhone, especially on a cold night with hearty food, that's not a bad thing. What I love about this wine? The scent and flavor of nicoise olives, those tiny, smoky, briny, meaty little things that are a must on any Provencal table.

The likely mix of grenache and syrah here also shows bright red raspberry and garrigue mixed in too. (Garrigue is that earthy, herbal perfume of the region.) And there's acidity and tannin, not too much of course but let's be clear. Where most budget wine in the world today tastes like jelly and oak chips, this wine tastes like wine, from a place, that fits on the dinner table, and is nice for twice the money.

Of course, this wine may not be something you come across. But look for the Estezargues name, usually in small print, but worth the search.

December 16, 2008

Wine is maddening

Yes, wine is maddening. Tonight we were having a simple pasta and salad dinner, and we wanted a little red wine to match. Nothing fancy, so I thought...why not give the 2007 M. Lapierre Vin de Pays des Gaules a go? This is the country wine of reknown cru Beaujolais producer Marcel Lapierre, apparently a mix of younger vine gamay and other "experimental" things. Surely it's gulpable with simple noodles, right?

No. Actually my wife called it. This wine tastes like rose. Which isn't a bad thing, expect I was NOT looking to drink rose tonight, even light ruby colored, otherwise red wine that happens to smell and taste like rose. How maddening.

Sure, I could chill it a bit and change my attitude. It would probably be great, as the cherry aromas and flavors were attractive. But it's 22F outside. I need RED wine. So down to the cellar for a half bottle of 2004 Felsina Chianti Classico, purchased a while back when the distributor closed out what is a great vintage of this little wine.

But at first this was a little weird too. Moderately dark in color, instead of the regal Brunello-like perfume I remember, this one showed slightly raisined, volatile aromas that made me make a little face. Maddening!

Ah, with time this wine unwound and was its normal, delicious self. Dark cherry and berry aromas, with classic almond, balsamic, and earth aromas. Then full flavored, lightly tannic and brightly acidic with dark, brooding flavors for a basic Chianti. This one needs more time to relax, but it's really good for its level. In the end, just perfect with the pasta, it just took a while.

And yes, I should have just started there. That's maddening too.

December 13, 2008

My first Dard et Ribo

Last night, I had the chance to taste my first wine from Dard et Ribo, the pair of au naturel winemakers in the northern Rhone that wine geeks froth over. Little or no sulfur dioxide is used in the cellar. The idea, as I understand things, it to maintain wine purity without manipulation.

I wasn't so impressed.

The wine, the 2006 Dard et Ribo Crozes Hermitage rouge, smelled great. Lots of violets, gravel, and blackberry aromas. And the flavors were nice too, with fresh acidity and sweet fruit balanced by a pleasantly floral bitter character.

Then came the finish. Gone were the the wine flavors, replaced by a building medical bitterness that left the most awful aftertaste in my mouth. I first thought there was a bacterial issue in the wine. But then someone tried it and said, "brett."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not into squeaky clean, antiseptic wines that have no character or personality, not to say I'm into dirty wines. Let's just say I don't look at bleu cheese and shudder -- the mold, it takes away from the purity of the cow!

I just don't enjoy an otherwise delicious wine that leaves me with an awful, bitter taste in my mouth. To be sure, plenty of other people seemed to love the wine. And with food (I was tasting this in a wine shop), that aftertaste would likely be mitigated by other aromas and flavors. I just can't say this was really good stuff. I will say... a little SO2 (or a little more) would have helped, in my humble opinion.

We opened another bottle to see about variation. Low or no sulfur wines can vary from bottle to bottle, as you might imagine. Sure enough, the freshly opened bottle was much more pleasant compared to the first one that was decanted for an hour or more. The bitter finish was replaced by a reductive, stinky note in the aroma that blew off quickly. I'm left wondering though if this that second bottle wouldn't bloom like the first one after being open for a while.

I'd like to try some more from this producer. I've enjoyed the low or no sulfur wines from Marcel Lapierre for years. Same with Catherine and Pierre Breton's Nuits d'Ivresse. I'll have to see if other Dard et Ribo live up to the praise I've heard and read.

December 12, 2008


So I was all set to write more about this fabulous Champagne I tried and purchased tonight. But when I just went to Alice Feiring's blog to look for more information about it, I found this post.


Over on Wine Disorder there's more. I guess I don't check in often enough. "Captain Tumor Man" even has his own blog. As Alice writes, it's definitely for the irony dependent.

I won't offer the platitudes Joe wisely eschews. But someone very close to me is dealing with something similar, just a little lower down the body. And it makes me sick thinking about it, mostly because until recently I've lived in a big bubble about such things. The banality of cancer is hardest to fathom, not suffering from it myself.

Over time, I've sincerely taken some comfort looking at a grape vine with leaf roll or some other disease, or late season corn stalks that become spotted. Perhaps the commonplace nature of disease makes it easier to take, on reflection at least. Wonder how I'll feel when it's my turn.

Anyhow, more on that great Champagne later. Now it's time for the harder stuff.

December 09, 2008

Three dot wine...

I drove over to Michael Alberty's Storyteller Wine Company early this afternoon and heard a great story about David Lett's memorial this past Sunday at the McMinnville Community Center. You can read more at the Storyteller web site, when Michael has a moment to post the latest email newsletter in the archive... What is he, busy selling wine and packing UPS shipments?...

For now, this. Event attendees included just about anyone who's anyone in Oregon wine. As it should be. Lett started it all. Michael quipped that if a bomb had gone off, that'd be the end of the Oregon wine industry as we know it... Happily things went off without a hitch, though there was a Neil Goldschmidt sighting...

So everyone filed into the auditorium and got a pour of 2005 Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Gris Reserve, a special bottling from vines in the original Eyrie vineyard planting. David's son Jason's request? That everyone yell "cheers" as loud as possible so his dad would hear them, in whatever vineyard he's tending these days... Apparently the rafters shook and I'm guessing the message got through...

But the best part it seems to me is that everyone in attendance got a cutting of a pinot noir vine from the original Eyrie south block. With instructions on how to plant it... Talk about a living tribute to a legend...

The Storyteller email with full details on the event went out today. I suggest you get on the list, even if you're on wine probation and can only read... Though it won't take too long before you break down and buy something. Perhaps the 2006 Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Meunier, which is the current offer and something I tried last Friday at the shop. Damn nice wine... A 2006 Oregon red with good natural acidity. That alone should make you buy... but it's really gorgeous stuff...

Meanwhile, I've been pleasantly surprised at the reception for my 2006 Vincent Pinot Noir from the Wahle Vineyard. We had the garage tasting last month, where I opened my home winemaking space for all to see, and offered free tastes of my 2006 wine from bottle and 2007 wine from barrel. Things went remarkably well...

Now the wine is getting out to friends and family, and beyond thanks to some kind souls who are connecting me to interested parties down south and even up in Alaska. One SoCal taster served the wine at Thanksgiving among some other stars of local wine and, in comments that were relayed to me, my wine was a favorite... Can't complain with that, though maybe they'd been drinking...

On the home front, I've been dutifully tasting wines. A stray bottle of 2005 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Tete a Tete, a Rhone blend from the Sierra Foothills of California, was a let down. Yes, this is inexpensive wine. But something's happened here... Years ago, this wine was translucent in color, fresh and peppery. Now it's dark, confected smelling and harshly extracted on the palate... I know better than to judge a producer on its cheapest label. Then again, this is produced in the cellar, not purchased wine. You might think it should show the positive attributes of the producer, even in a scaled-down way. This wine doesn't...

Better in that mold is the NV Broadbent Reserve Porto "Auction Reserve, Lot 1." The clumsy name aside, this is terrific basic Port, in the category that used to be called "vintage character" but is now "reserve"... That's geek code for wine bottled young like a vintage port, but intended for drinking young while its fresh and purple. As I think is true of all Broadbent Ports, this is produced by the respected house Niepoort, but it shows all the attributes of authentic vintage-style Porto at a low price. Berries, lightly sweetened chocolate, tobacco and spice, with moderate sweetness and good length... This is "cheap" wine from a good producer that's true to its roots...

December 06, 2008

Drinking California Chardonnay

Tonight, I finally got around to drinking a bottle of 2005 HdV "de la Guerra" Chardonnay I purchased at the beginning of the year. This is the second label of Hyde de Villaine, the project of Hyde vineyard in the Carneros appellation of California and Aubert de Villaine in Burgundy. It usually goes for $30-35 but I found it on close out at a local Grocery Outlet for $13. Not a bad buy.

I would have tried it sooner but, as good as it looked on the shelf, I found myself a little scared to drink California chardonnay once it was in my cellar. Will it be an oaky mess, with no acidity and a flat flavor that tires the palate? Tonight, with baby lentils, roasted red pepper, and feta as a main dish, I thought it might be a nice match and went for it.

At first, it smelled like...well, California chardonnay. It seemed ripe and toasty and a little generic. But with time and the scents of cooking food in the kitchen, and later on the dinner table, the wine really came alive. There was Lovely pear fruit and toast on the aroma, then a round texture and pear, toast and saline flavors with nice length. There's acidity but not exactly what you might find in a French example. Still, it matched the lentils very nicely.

I'd recommend this highly if it was still available locally, and the price was still so low. Of course, that deal is long gone. But the next time someone -- possibly me -- tells you California chard is awful stuff, tell him or her to try this. I'm impressed.

December 03, 2008

Reading Feiring

I'm never too up on things here. Nevertheless, I just got through reading Alice Feiring's sort of recently published book, The Battle for Wine and Love. It's a damn good book, well worth reading even if you hear strong opinions to the contrary elsewhere. I took it on my recent Thanksgiving trip and it did what great wine writing does -- it made me thirsty. I also envied her writing ability. All the more reason for a drink.

People seem to have lots of opinions about Feiring. So much fuss for so petite a person. Her pen is razor sharp though, and that's part of the fun. Yet some people don't get the passion behind her writing. And some people can't help but take her words too personally. Easy for me to say, I'm obviously not mentioned. Maybe next time Alice? Actually, never mind. I'm good.

The book's subtitle is OR How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and it's essentially about Feiring's struggle to find the authentic wines she adores in a world she sees ruined by Parkerization. If you don't understand that, read the book to learn more. Suffice it to say that Parker's not a fan, and not only is she banned from participating on his onling wine discussion group, her last name will not even appear on the site. Write the words "Alice Feiring" in a post on the board and all you get is Alice.

Which is a fine name, nothing to be "saddled with" in my opinion, to use the author's phrase from the book. Would she prefer Tiffany or Jasmine?

But how weird is that? Her name is essentially against the law there. What would Woody Guthrie say about that?

Where this book really succeeds for me is the writing and the narrative. Feiring's writing is like the red wine she loves. Authentic to the source, translucent, fragrant, pure, acid at times but balanced and long, not in pages but thoughts and ideas. This book made me question assumptions I have about wine and winemaking, and even though I'm not in agreement with Feiring all the time, that's not the point. She writes it herself. She's looking for wines that have something to say. This book has that. You don't have to agree to get that.

The narrative is another high point. Again, like her favorite wines, it's all about texture, what I might compare to high thread count bed sheets. You can just feel the fabric, and you want to climb in and bury yourself. The story arcs and characters are wound and unwound brilliantly. The voice so clear. There's terrific irony and self-deprecation throughout the book, which some readers and reviewers seem to have missed. The book is tremendously funny. I actually laughed out loud repeatedly, no kidding.

To me though, if the book has a flaw, it's that all this wonderful writing leads us to a phone call with Parker. It's just not so interesting to me, maybe because I know the story well. And I wonder how interested non-wine geeks are by this point in the book. Of course, I read books about all sorts of things I couldn't really care less about (the race to the spice islands in Nathanial's Nutmeg, anyone?), but really good writing carries us far beyond our lack of past or future interest in the specifics. The Nutmeg was a delight.

Maybe I just don't have the gripe Feiring does with Parker, the weird name deletion thing aside. Even she shows mixed emotions about who he is as a person, referring to him as "a warm, personable man" on their first meeting. She later compares his to Moses (!), "wiser than other men." Her essential hope is that he be held to "a higher standard," to "embrace his power and use it for the good of the wine world." This is great stuff, true and funny and honest at once. Parker's not so bad. It's his influence. He might do something about it, but obviously he sees things differently.

Yes, the wine world has changed in the past twenty years. Yes, it's wise to, as Feiring suggests, "look to the grandfathers" if you want a taste of something authentic. Then again, thanks to people like "Big Joe" from the book, I have access to wines I never had even ten years ago. Things are complex. The world is closing and opening at once. You'll find yourself doing the same with this book.