December 28, 2005

Tasting 2002 Loire Reds

Another gathering of the loose tasting group of local industry people I fell into earlier this year. This month’s theme was 2002 Loire reds, all tasted blind, all made from the cabernet franc grape.

1. Darkest color, with a very ripe, oaky, smoked sausage and sweet raspberry aroma, some nice tobacco with time but clearly the most new world-esque wine of the bunch. Full and a little alcoholic on the palate, ripe sweet fruit flavors with some chalky tannin, shows the delicacy of the Loire but disjointed now, who knows if it will ever come around. This is the 2002 Domaine de la Butte Bourgueil Mi-Pente, the infamous Jacky Blot’s top-end bottling. Jacky, lay off the new barrels.

2. Medium dark ruby with a stony cherry aroma, some soil, pipe ash, and cranberry in there too. Tastes bright with cranberry flavors, herbs and earth but not much else, stony and drying on the finish, tastes like a decent lightweight Loire red but nothing more. No surprise, it’s the 2002 Marc Bredif Chinon, a low end bottling from a middling quality negociant.

3. Sweeter than number 2, but not as overt as number 1 with nice pie fruit, earth, and stone aromas. Silky and elegant on the palate, with ripe cherry and light raspberry flavors, earthy soil notes with bright acid, nice now and perhaps in the future. This is the 2002 Gauthier, Domaine du Bel Air, “Les Vingt lieux dits” Bourgueil.

4. Dark color, with an oaky sweet aroma, jammy fruit with a creamy note, odd smelling. Drying tannin, clearly the most tannic of the bunch, with stony cranberry flavors, hard wine, over pressed or macerated?, nice leafy after taste but in a weird place now. This is the 2002 Bernard Baudry Chinon La Croix Boisee.

5. Medium/dark color, with a farmy, bretty horse saddle aroma at first, opens with sweet berry fruit and meat, a little Rhonish, more complex still with time. Classic stony flavors, nice juicy red berry fruit with bright acid, young and promising but delicious now. This is the 2002 Bernard Baudry Chinon Les Grezeaux, [comment about this being mid-tier in price compared to the higher end La Croix Boisee moved to the "backroom"]. This was my favorite of the tasting and a decidedly non-mid-tier wine.

6. Medium/dark color, with a jammy, bit oaky ripe aroma, smoked sausage notes, initially a little too much but opens nicely. Cranberry and cherry flavors with a tangy profile, dry tannin, lean on the palate, clearly needs time but promising. By far the favorite of the group, though not quite mine. This is the 2002 Charles Joguet Chinon Clos la Dioterie.

We tasted the wines, then passed around a variety of cheeses that paired nicely, taming the sharp profile of some of the wines and creating harmony with the earthy smells and flavors. Loire reds are some of my favorite wines for their fragrance, though they aren’t typically for tasting on their own. Grill some meat, lay out some earthy cheeses and bread, mix in a spinach salad to keep your colon happy, and enjoy pretty much any of these wines. Though they don’t taste like either, think of Loire reds as Bordeaux meets Burgundy, when the stony, berry flavors of the Gironde meet the fragrance and elegance of the Cote d’Or.

December 23, 2005

A Case of Wine for Christmas

For Christmas, two of my sisters and I went in on a case of wine for our parents, who appreciate good wine but aren’t crazy about it like I am. I got to pick out the wines, so I thought I’d put together a sampling of wines from Oregon and places they’ve travelled to or otherwise seem to like quite a bit.

With the help of my favorite local wine shop, Liner & Elsen, here’s what I picked:

2003 Evesham Wood Chardonnay Les Puits Sec
This is the estate chardonnay from the producer I worked for this fall, which I figured my parents would want to try. Warm vintage, sometimes a lackluster grape in Oregon, but you wouldn’t know it from this beautiful Burgundian-styled white wine, with subtle oak influence and lovely ripe but not overripe fruit. If I could make chardonnay like this, I’d be happy. I like Evesham Wood more for their reds, but this wine was a revelation.

2004 Francios Pinon Vouvray Cuvee Tradition
My parents visited the Loire valley a few years ago and came away with new respect for the chenin blanc grape, otherwise known to most Americans as the main ingredient of white jug wine. I haven’t tried this year’s model, but Pinon is a terrific producer. This wine is typcially only lightly sweet – sec tendre as the French would say – with great minerality or mineral aromas and flavors.

2004 Hirsch Gruner Veltliner Kammerner Heiligenstein Kamptal
This fall, my parents visted Austria for the first time, so I thought some classic, dry Austrian white wine would be in order. And packaged in a screwcap too! Gruner Veltliner is the main wine grape of Austria, grown rarely elsewhere and producing a subtle, refreshing wine that sometimes includes the flavor of really good fresh green peas.

NV R. Dumont et fils Champagne
What case of Christmas wine would be right without bubbly? This small producer isn’t widely distributed but what a tasty Champagne at a reasonable price. Highly recommended if you haven’t tried it. On the crisper side, but with good richness I think from a majority of pinot noir in the wine (along with chardonnay).


2003 Evesham Wood Pinot Noir Cuvee J
Cuvee J is the special selection from the Les Puits Sec vineyard, the fanciest wine in this bunch and a great example of top quality Oregon pinot noir. Again, the 2003 vintage was hot and this wine is fairly ripe and alcoholic for Evesham Wood. But if anyone can make tasty, ageworthy wine from even the hottest years, it’s winemaker Russ Raney.

2003 Belle Pente Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton District
Without other Evesham Wood wines currently available, I went with a couple of selections from Belle Pente, another favorite of mine among Oregon producers. This is a lighter but no less tasty pinot noir meant to drink young.

2002 Belle Pente Pinot Noir Murto Vineyard
As a counterpoint, here’s an older vine bottling (30 years) from the same producer. This one comes from the Murto vineyard in the Dundee Hills, made in a terrific vintage by a skilled but hands-off winemaker Brian O’Donnell. Lovely fragrance with good richness and balance, young and pehaps a touch oaky but good now or in a few years. I like Brian’s touch with pinot noir – never too dark and extracted, always fragrant and spicy without too much oak. He’s also been kind to me as a home winemaker looking for tips and grape sources.

2003 Fattoria Petroio Chianti Classico
The latest release from Petroio, a terrific little producer well known to Portland, where the Italian wine market is surprisingly deep (very deep). Nothing super fancy here, just good, fleshy, mostly sangiovese-based wine that’s like a quick trip to Tuscany in your glass – one of my parents’ favorite destinations.

2001 Felsina Chianti Classico Riserva
Again, a counterpoint that shows more depth, richness, and structure compared to a “basic” Chianti Classico. If I had to pick one producer from Tuscany, Felsina would be it. Just terrific wines, good young and old, well-priced (especially after their former price-gouging importer was cut loose), and like a quick trip to Tuscany, but first class.

2003 Pasquero Sori Paitin Barbera d’Alba “Serra Boella”
My dad has always liked the barbera grape, and this is a great example of the grape from a great producer of everything from dolcetto to Barbaresco.

2001 Domaine Les Pallieres Gigondas
Gigondas in Berkeley, CA? Yes, Kermit Lynch, of the eponymous wine import and retail firm in Berkeley, is part owner of this estate in the southern Rhone valley of France. Pallieres just happens to produce one of my favorite Gigondas, a wine made of mostly the grenache grape with some syrah and mourvedre in the mix. Dark colored wine, with flavors of wild berries, dry herbs, and (as if you don’t know what they taste like) rocks. A nice blend of old world rusticity with new world fresh fruitness, with fine tannins that melt away if you drink with with dinner. I’m getting thirsty just writing about it.

2003 Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel California
A final counterpoint, this is a Berkeley-made wine from winemakers Steve Edmunds in the image of the great wines of the southern Rhone valley. Again, a mix of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre, this too mixes old world and new world styles well, with a nice earthiness amid the fresh pie fruit that California wines (aside from this one) usually have way too much of. Not nearly as tannic as the Pallieres, these are two wines to compare if you’re interested in seeing the similarity and difference between wines from France and California. By the way, the wine name comes from a Bob Dylan song.

So there it is…Merry Christmas and happy tasting.

December 22, 2005

Joe Davis of Arcadian on Grape Radio

Grape Radio. I know, it threw me for a loop, too.

But after winning one of those iPod things in a drawing, I’ve listened to some of the Grape Radio podcasts and been fairly impressed.

No, not by the name (I can’t claim much better though). Nor the cheesy music and amiable if unpolished hosts. But many of the guests in the first year have been top notch. I’m not sure of its appeal to novices – the wine geek factor can be high. Still, Grape Radio is pretty cool, and sailing into uncharted waters of informative, entertaining wine media.

Perhaps controversial, too. The most intriguing episode yet features Joe Davis of Arcadian Winery in central California. Joe is an interesting cat, probably loved by some and loathed by others. He’s vociferous about the greatness of lower alcohol, elegant pinot noir in the face of today’s fashionable high alcohol, dense varieties.

He’s also simply one of the most unscripted people I’ve observed in the wine industry, either in this podcast or on any number of interesting (mostly) threads on pinot noir on the discussion group. Even if sometimes he might regret his candor, one has to appreciate his intent and passion.

Yet, in this episode even Joe’s passion can’t save him from his own words that verge on slander. I was shocked at what I heard him say.

I won’t rehash the whole thing, you can listen for yourself. But let’s just say that, as much as I find myself in Joe’s philosophical camp about pinot noir, and as right as he may be (MAY be) about his concerns for other, less experienced vintners enjoying recent success, he goes too far in calling them out personally for potential issues in their wines based on pure speculation.

Even if his words aren’t slander (I’m not sure they are, though I might feel differently if he were talking about me), Joe’s successful enough, and I hope smart enough, to realize he needn’t worry so much about other vintners nor talk about them in such a way to the media.

But let’s assume Joe’s right. My point isn’t that his opinion is off base, necessarily. Just that he’s not going to achieve his goal, whatever that may be, by calling people out this way.

He sounds like a dad criticizing his kid, which would be weird enough. Actually, it’s like he’s talking about someone else’s kid, which is too weird. If you’re so concerned, and especially if you’re so right, go talk to the person, especially when it involves someone’s passion and livelihood.

And that’s not code for “be politically correct.” No, be smart. At the least, be polite. As with making pinot noir, less is usually better.

Still, it makes for intereting listening. For a counterpoint, check out earlier podcasts here and here.

UPDATE - Check out this thread on Looks like there will be a follow up interview in January with Joe and some of the people he spoke about in this interview. I'll definitely be listening.

December 21, 2005

2003 Sakonnet Fume Vidal Reserve Southeastern New England

A friend gifted me this white wine from Rhode Island, made from the vidal blanc grape. I have to say, I’m woefully inexperienced with hybrids and other non-vinifera grapes and wines. Of course, that’s probably because what experience I have has left me largely unimpressed.

I had heard of Sakonnet Vineyards but never tried any of their wines. They apparently have a good reputation and, judging by this bottling, it’s well founded.

The “Fume” in Fume Vidal refers to oak aging, which this wine shows in its smoky, toasty oak aroma that reminded me at first of chardonnay, bad chardonnay. But with time the oakiness seemed balanced by a mix of fresh aromas that reminded me of pinot gris, riesling, and muscat. There were aromas of flowers and honey, with some earthy petrol notes and nice purity.

The flavors were also oaky at first, but with time there was a nice honeyed taste and a touch of white grapiness that I’m guessing is classic for the variety. The wine was lightly sweet but lively with good acidity, holding up well over two nights.

Overall, I’m impressed. This was an interesting, elegant wine and makes me want to seek out more vidal. Given its honeyed character, I’d love to taste late harvest wines from this variety. It’s definitely something to check out further.

November 07, 2005

Home winemaking 2005

I wasn’t planning to make wine at home this year. After setting the goal of working harvest at a winery and then lining up a good position, I figured I wouldn’t bother making my own stuff.

Then the opportunity presented itself, unfortunately due to the rain and the subsequent break in the harvest. I suddenly had time, and after a few calls I had lined up some pinot noir from Courting Hill vineyard in Banks, west of Portland on a beautiful south-facing slope.

The vineyard elevation is 350-480 feet, similar to the estate where I worked. There, pinot noir grapes in the last week of September were beautiful, well above 23 brix and delicious with moderate browning of stems and seeds.

After the rain, I would have liked to wait to pick, but working at the winery was my priority. I wanted to be available for any good picking day for the next few weeks, if not a few bad ones so I could do cellar work. So I picked on Sunday morning, October 2, in showery weather two days after the big rain that turned summer to fall.

What did I get? 204 lbs. of pinot noir at 22 brix, diluted probably but still not as ripe looking as the other fruit I’d seen before the rain. More green in the stems and occasional seed. I tried to find the ripest fruit in the upper block where I could pick. The Courting Hill site is pretty far north for Willamette Valley pinot, so it might have been smart to pick later to get as much ripeness as possible. But I saw lots of grapes from many vineyards after I picked, and 22 brix would be right in the ballpark of what you’d expect to see. I can’t say there weren’t vineyards with higher brix in October, but I wonder how many got to 24.

I crushed and destemmed on site into a Rubbermaid bin. There was no rot or other disease, but I added approximately 70ppm SO2 as I learned at the winery. The sulfur at crushing is intended to protect the must as it soaks for a few days before fermentation starts.

I would have added less if none at all, as other winemakers suggest. But as with many decisions I made with this wine, I chose to practice the techniques I was learning – many of them from Germany and France, and largely intended to let terrior speak through the wine.

I learned about Jayer’s methods in Burgundy, adding more sulfur at the crusher to allow for a cold soak, to extract color and flavor before alcohol is present from fermentation. And allowing extended maceration, typically up to three weeks from crushing to pressing, with the intention of allowing the tannins to grow longer and smoother than you might get in a wine pressed earlier.

So I practiced. After picking Sunday and adding some dry ice to really cool the must down, I let the must soak until Thursday night when I inoculated the bin with a pail of must I had started with some liquid Assmanhausen yeast that morning. Fermentation took off within two days, and I put a heater near the bin out in the garage to keep the air temperature up – and hopefully the fermentation temp up – due to the cold weather.

The ferment peaked a few days later with a cap temp of 86F before punching it down into the juice. The juice peak was 85F, but only for a short while. The temp was probably only over 80F for a day, after I turned off the heater one morning when the day was supposed to warm up significantly. It never happened, and when I got home late that night the must was down to 77F. I turned the heat back on for the rest of the week, but the temps were slowly downhill from there. I wanted more heat to cure the wine a bit, give it some depth and hopefully burn off some of the greenness I expect in the wine. A bigger fermentation is the solution, so that’s on the docket for next year.

Early in the week I chaptalized a bit, to raise the brix by .5 but mainly to extend the fermentation. I added plain table sugar to a small amount of juice, then stirred that into the bin. The wine was essentially dry by Friday, but I let it sit until Monday night before pressing. The total skin contact time was 16 days. With a bigger fermentation, I would have waited longer but I was concerned about oxidation and allowing too much volatility into the wine.

Fermentation smells followed the arc I noticed on pinot noir fermentations in the winery. The crushed must smells sweet and a bit green, like most crushed grapes. The early fermentation shows lots of CO2. Then you move into the more maturing smells of wine, rich fresh and preserved fruit along with yeast. After the fermentation peaks, there’s a "roasty" period where you get coffee and other roasted scents. The best lots from before the rain were really nice during this period, just beautiful to smell. Then as the fermentation ends there is some volatile acidity pungency from the shallow cap, more vinous smells that wines pressed too early seem to lack (in favor of sweet candied fruit). In my wine, I noticed all of these stages. Actually, I was most excited by my wine during its own "roasty" period. The smells were very ripe but earthy and vinous. The wine is still very young and is expected to go through many phases, but I’d love to see that quality back in this wine before its bottled.

I pressed with a small stainless steel press rented from a local homebrew supply shop. I ended up with a 50-liter barrel and two 1-gallon demi-johns of wine for topping. The barrel I also got used from a guy at the shop. It’s four year old Slovenian oak, a small cask and perhaps prone to oxidation. It’s in my basement, which is cool and somewhat humid, but not a perfect cellar environment. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

So far, the wine tastes a bit harsh and astringent though it does have some pinot noir fragrance, so I do have some hope. I’ve seen wine change dramatically over time before bottling. But I don’t expect too much from this year’s wine. It’s a nice experiment, one I’ve executed pretty well to this point but too bad about the less than ideal ripeness and the small fermentation size. I’m not sure where I’ll get the money to make a full barrel next year or where I could do it. But I’m going for it and now I think I have every reason to expect I won’t f#*! things up.

November 06, 2005

1999 Clos Roche Blanche Cabernet Touraine

I once suggested that this wine is all cabernet franc, but was advised that who really knows whether or not there's cabernet sauvignon in there as well.

But I am certain this wine, labelled simply "Cabernet," is not nearly as tannic as I remember it from its younger days. It smells classic without much intensity, with musky herb and berry aromas and more than a hint of soil. Yet in the mouth it's a little flat and tired, even if the flavors aren't more than beginning to mature. It's not old, just dull but still a nice drink with dinner and worth the $10 it cost me a few years back.

Working Harvest

So what do you do?

That’s the question I got this fall more than I expected when people found out I was working harvest part-time for a local winery.

The next question was invariably - do you really stomp the grapes with your feet?

Generally, no. The grapes are machine crushed and destemmed for the most part. It isn’t uncommon even these days for people to get into a vat of fermenting red wine to mix the solids and juice, and spread out any hot spots created by the fermentation. But that didn’t happen here.

What you do working harvest is work your tail off. Dump countless 35lbs. trays of grapes onto the sorting conveyor, if not pitchfork grapes that arrive in half ton or larger bins. Sort endlessly. Move the bins of crushed grapes into the winery to soak and then begin fermenting. Punch down fermenting red wine with a metal rod with a disk on its end, when the grape solids are pushed up by carbon dioxide from the fermenting juice forming a cap that can be one or more feet thick. Clean and rinse picking trays, bins, tanks, hoses, fittings, buckets, pumps, conveyor belts, barrels, things over and over again. Stir lees in the chardonnay barrels, clean the presses, sweep the floor, hose down the floor, punch down again. Crush more grapes and do it all over again.

That’s essentially it, broken up by times of waiting for grapes to arrive or for someone to get back from an errand to do something that requires a group.

Along the way I asked as many questions as I could manage. What’s "ripe?" How much sulfur dioxide to use at crushing? How long to cold soak the crushed grapes before fermenting? What analysis do you really need to do? How do you do it? What do you look for during fermentation? How often do you punch down? What odd smells during fermentation are normal and what are signs of more serious problems? How long do you wait until pressing? How clean do you really need to be? How often do you rack? When do you sulfur the wine again? How do you know when to bottle? All things I have some experience with (and even more opinions on), but how does a professional do things?

And I paid attention to how you might manage the whole thing. What is the typical sequence of events to do all the tasks of harvest? How do you work with the growers who seem to talk up the quality of their grapes and are often anxious to have you harvest as soon as possible, only not this week because we don’t have picking crew. How do you manage your space in the winery, and your available bins, tanks, and barrels that need to hold everything you bring in from the fields? Most of all, considering the Oregon climate, how do you make picking decisions, especially with constantly shifting weather forecasts and more folk wisdom than you can imagine from anyone in the industry.

What did I get out of the deal? Lots of exercise, lots of knowledge, and some fun with a very humble, extremely honorable boss who really knows what he’s doing (and often not going to do) in the wine cellar. Not to mention some cash in my pocket and some nice wine at a good price for my efforts.

All this from a phone call out of the blue that I made to the producer almost a year ago saying, essentially, I respect your wines very much and although you don’t know me I’d like to work with you to learn how to really make wine in Oregon. I didn’t exactly achieve that goa, yet. There are more harvests to come no matter where I work. But this was the start of something very interesting, and combined with my ongoing experiments with home winemaking, I’m excited.

November 03, 2005

Good article on the place I worked

The other day I heard about this article on about the winery I worked at this fall. There's even a picture of me, looking typically lost and useless. I'm the guy in the blue sweatshirt about halfway down.

Avalon is based in Corvallis - it's actually a wine shop right in downtown, but more and more of its business is web driven. Their prices are on the high side, but they connect lots of people to Oregon wines and sometimes feature good content, like this article. It's not perfect but definitely rises above the norm in detail and wine geek interest. Check it out.

October 31, 2005

Harvest 2005 – Old School in the Northern Willamette Valley

Harvest this year was my favorite yet. That’s not hard to say, considering my one prior harvest – very part-time at that – at a California winery in 1999, along with ongoing experiments with small batches of homemade wine here in Oregon since 2001. But this year I made a break through and worked harvest many days for an artisanal wine producer of pinot noir and other varieties. And I’m homebrewing a small barrel of pinot noir that I’m excited about.

Unfortunately, the weather in the northern Willamette Valley didn’t exactly cooperate. It wasn’t a total washout, though I’m sure the press will pitch it that way. Still, a dry and moderately warm growing season ended promptly on September 30 when the clouds rolled in, around 2 inches of rain fell, and cool weather rolled in for good. In Portland, we barely hit 70F for the whole month of October and saw on and off rain, nothing as dramatic as September 30 but enough to keep winemakers on their toes. This was old school Oregon, like the harvests you hear about from before 1998, which began a recent string of pretty straightforward harvests.

The winery I worked at likes to pick earlier than later, striving for ripe but not overripe grapes that produce food-friendly wines without too much alcohol. Sure enough, pretty much everything that came in before the big rains on September 30 looked perfect. At this winery, that meant nearly half of the total harvest and all of the estate fruit. So things started very well.

Then the skies opened and harvest was on hold for a few days until we dried out a little bit. When picking resumed under generally clear but cool skies, the grapes still looked good but came in wet. Sugars in many lots after the rain were lower by 1 to 2 brix, or percent sugar, compared to lots picked before the rain. While flavors in the initial lots remained good, as harvest continued over two more weeks, lots from increasingly higher elevations seemed slightly less ripe, as if they had needed another week or two of better weather to reach full potential. Rot was only a minor issue issue, probably due to the cool weather and healthy condition of the grapes before the rain.

All in all, October was not ideal, but what are you going to do. 2005 will of course produce some nice wines, especially if your tastes run to more elegant, nuanced wine. After the recent warm years where burly, alcoholic wines have become the norm, I’m also curious to see what local producers – especially the newer ones – turn out of this old-school Oregon vintage.

More soon on my harvest experience, and my homebrewing.

September 28, 2005

Harvest is Here

After a dry and moderate summer, the grape harvest in the Willamette Valley is in full swing. I'm working at a local winery as many days as I can fit in without getting fired from my "real" job. So I'm more than a little busy. For once I have a good excuse for not updating my blog much, but stay tuned. I'll try to give updates on how things go, own continuing experiments in homebrewed wine.

September 23, 2005


Since I began making wine in 2001, it turns out that I’ve harvested my grapes on the exact day my beloved San Francisco Giants play their last game of baseball for the year.

In 2001, it was a limp last day of the regular season in early October, the Giants wrapping up a marginal season with a meaningless game. In 2002, it was the heartbreaking but inevitable last game of the World Series in late October, the night after the then Anaheim Angels staged a stunning comeback that made Game 7 a fait accompli. Only the beauty of a golden harvest kept my spirits up that day.

And on it goes. I call my philosophy of when to harvest grapes Giantdynamics, which has to be less controversial than the current debate raging over biodynamic agriculture and grape growing.

Biodynamics is based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century. It is a hard concept to sum up, but essentially it is farming organically with a spiritual component of sometimes bizarre rituals and time-tested pagan farming practices including planting and harvesting by the phases of the moon.

Of course, modern science vs. traditional “organic” farming approaches already provides plenty of fodder for ideological debates. Should we use all kinds of synthetic fungicides and pesticides in the fields, or should we farm more naturally to create and sustain a beneficial ecosystem that might reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic products? Doesn’t sound like much when you sum it up, but the daggers fly whenever this topic comes up.

Add in a nice dose of Steiner’s anthroposophy to the mix and you’ve got intellectual meltdown on all sides. Witness the biodynamics thread current raging over on discussion forum.

Personally, I’m interested in biodynamics more for the results and what techniques might truly have a positive effect on grape quality. But I won’t rule out the more mystical elements of biodynamics, no matter how crazy they sometimes appear. One thing’s for sure – we never know as much about the world as we think we know. Stranger things in our world have turned out to be true than whether or not burying a cow’s horn full of manure under the proper phase of the moon will yield a healthy crop. Who would have thought the world could be round without everyone on the lower half falling off?

So I’m curious to see if someday we can know more about what parts of biodynamics really work, if not all of them, and why. While I may not immediately run out and practice biodynamics in absolute, more power to those that do, including some of the leading wine producers in the world.

Heck, I’m too busy practicing Giantdynamics, which suggests that harvest should take place a week from Sunday when the Giants likely wrap up another disappointing season with…hopefully a win.

August 18, 2005

One More Ride on Thunder Mountain

I guess it figures that I had to go to southern California – in fact, Orange County, as in the OC or behind the Orange curtain – to find the potential deal of the year.

No, I didn’t get a free ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at the Magic Kingdom. Rather, red wine from Thunder Mountain winery out of San Jose that I found on serious discount at Trader Joe’s in Costa Mesa last weekend on a short family trip.

The story is that Thunder Mountain founder and winemaker Milan Maximovich passed away two years ago. Wine internet junkies would know him as Milan in Santa Cruz, one of the first people I “met” in the wacky world of internet wine discussion.

Milan knew fine wine and loved the stuff, and it turns out he knew how to make fine wine too. I remember first trying his wines in the late 1990s, among them a ’95 Bates Ranch Cabernet from the venerable Santa Cruz mountains vineyard. When tasted next to Ahlgren’s 1976 model from the same source, both wines were terrific, bookends of a sort portending a nice future for Thunder Mountain.

Then there was Milan’s cult dessert wine, made from Santa Rosa plums and the finest non-grape wine I can recall tasting at a couple gatherings over the years. This I believe never made it to market, though not for lack of quality.

After Milan’s death, his family tried to carry on with the winery for a while before liquidating the inventory. Trader Joe’s bought big and passed along a bittersweet deal – they’re offering 2000 Thunder Mountain Star Ruby and Doc’s Vineyard wines for $7.99 a piece. These were originally $40-$50 wines and, while I’m not spending that kind of scratch for wine, certainly to my taste would be better deals than a lot of domestic stuff out there in the same range.

These Thunder Mountain wines come from the Cienega Valley, an obscure California area east of Salinas over the Chalone and Gavilan Mountains, south of Hollister (I know, where’s that?). I recall driving through there a few years back on my way to the Pinnacles National Monument and thinking it looked in places like a drier, much less crowded Stag’s Leap District from the Napa Valley. This is old California, off the beaten track and a place I recall Milan speaking of fondly.

The 2000 Thunder Mountain Star Ruby is an equal blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, though I don’t have exact information on the vineyard source. Prior Star Rubys came from the Bates Ranch, but this is all Cienega Valley. It’s a deep crimson with strong oak, olive, and mineral aromas hiding the fruit. In the mouth it’s tight like you’d expect from Bordeaux of the same age, all promise. A steak dinner overcomes the wine’s tannin, making a tasty match. Still this is nice wine that simply needs time to blossom. Cellar easily for ten years and then some.

The 2000 Thunder Mountain Doc’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon comes from own-rooted vines planted in the 1940s. These are some of the oldest, if not the oldest, Cabernet vines in California, ungrafted and old school in every way. The Doc’s has a similar dark color with strong cassis aromas and low oak notes with some black olive that many of Milan’s reds seemed to show. In the mouth it’s full and rich but elegant with nice structure yet still some baby fat., with the depth that I think only old vines can give. This wine is much more approachable than the tannic Star Ruby, but its balance and crisp acid structure suggests to me equal aging potential in good cellar conditions. It’s delicious now too.

Apparently Trader Joe’s has had these wines for a few months, so availability may not be so great.. And while the style isn’t for everyone – god help the ghastly labels – if you’re in California check out your local branch. For this money, you’d be crazy not to at least give these a try. As for the god of thunder on the labels, I have only one word – decant.

Farewell Milan, thanks for the memories.

August 02, 2005

For the Love of Port

If you haven’t already heard about the newest site for Port and Madeira geeks, check out Roy Hersh’s For the Love of Port. The name is cute, but the site is very serious about the fortifieds of Portugal and Madeira.

I first heard about Roy several years ago when he showed up as the Portolover on Robin Garr’s Wine Lovers’ Discussion Group. I’ve always liked Port and, being a value-conscious guy, always liked how cheap it is relative to other great, ageworthy wines. I could tell immediately that Roy’s knowledge would be a good thing for me. I loved reading his notes of legendary Ports, but I got more buying advice from his acumen for finding great Port deals. Madeira too, which I’ve only come to try and begin to appreciate based largely on Roy’s enthusiasm.

As he lives in Washington, I’ve had a few opportunities to meet and taste with Roy here in the Portland area. The first meeting alone blew my mind. It was at Magnum Madness a three years ago where he brought a 1935 Sandeman Vintage Port. What a generous gift and delicious wine, light ruby colored, fragrant and deep aromatically and elegant, with a silky texture and a lovely fruit and nut flavor, tobacco…that’s enough. This was a hallmark wine for me, and yet it wasn’t a truly blockbuster Port. So what, such is the greatness of wine and the kindness of strangers.

Roy is now hosting trips to Portugal – the next in late October – with Mario Ferreria, who has an extensive background in Port. The weeklong jaunts aren’t cheap, but then again I don’t doubt that it will be the Port week of your life. Actually, the itinerary alone could make your liver hurt. But if you’re a Portolover, or think now’s the time to become one, go for it.

August 01, 2005

More from the Manning's

Another gathering the other night at the home of Marshall and Carolyn Manning, this time to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. As Marshall put it, think of Magnum Madness but only smaller. So I whipped up a trip to the New Seasons market deli for green pea and Gorgonzola salad in honor of Marsh, who avoids most (all?) vegetables. And taking orders well, I contributed one in a slew of wines from 1995 to honor the host couple, a Charles Joguet Chinon Clos la Dioterie Vieilles Vignes.

This crowd likes its white wines, especially on a warm evening like this. So a cooler in the backyard was the place to start. Moving quickly to try things before they were drained, I poured the 1995 Pinson Chablis Mont de Milieu from magnum. On first sniff, I thought I smelled apple Jolly Rancher™ candies, but that passed quickly to reveal nice maturing but still fresh minerally, waxy Chablis, plain and simple. Tangy and fairly long on the palate, nice wine with time to age yet.

Then the 1995 Pierre Luneau Le "L" de Pierre Luneau Muscadet, which smelled young and clean with clear Muscadet flavors. I was more taken by the 1995 Château de l'Aiguillette Muscadet VV, a recent release locally that smelled like a nice chenin blanc but tasted rainwatery and minerally, delicious and a steal at $12.50. Casa Bruno is the local importer. A NV Gruet Brut was its typically nice self, fresh and clean bubbles with a soft but dry flavor.

Not taking notes at the time, I know I am forgetting a few others, so on to the 2004 Domain Sorin Cotes du Provence Rosé, a classic southern French rosé with minerally strawberry flavors and a nice perfume.

And onto the reds, again there were more than I tried much less recall. But the highlights included the 1995 Joguet Chinon Dioterie that I brought, a fragrant earthy rocky cabernet franc with great balance and length, delicious with grilled lamb even if later wines were more classic matches. Such as the 1995 Domaine Tempier Bandol La Tourtine, which I actually tried earlier before the vultures ate the decanter it came in. Young, tight Bandol with lots of funk – good funk mind you – but great promise. What did it taste like? Bandol, which is harder still than most wines to describe in simple words. Try again in 8 or 10 years with that grilled lamb.

Back to Beaujolais, this the 2001 Chignard Fleurie from magnum. Nice cherry, leaf, and earth flavors but overwhelmed by the company even if I couldn’t help another quick taste at the end of the night. It’s a fresh, delicious wine from importer Kermit Lynch, and someone at this gathering made the good point to not overlook Lynch’s Beaujolais producers beyond the "Gang of Four" of Breton, Folliard, Thevenet, and Lapierre. Look for Chignard, Chanrion, and Diochon, among others.

Then a flurry of bigger reds that ultimately blew my taste buds away. The 1995 Bosquet des Papes Chateauneuf du Pape was my favorite wine of the night, essence of grenache-dominated southern Rhone wine, still young but so fragrant and full of sweet cherry, stone, and assorted meat flavors. Yum. A pair of 1995 Brunello, first a funky if not a little corked La Fortuna Riserva. Then a stunning and young Librisi Brunello that opened all night long. Tobacco, cherries, soil, old wood, just lots of interesting things going on. A poster child for why old school Brunello is still king, or should be. Then to the right bank of Bordeaux, first the 1995 L’Arrosee St. Emilion that was tasting a bit tight and hard, especially after such rich, expressive wines. Likewise the 1995 Grand Mayne St. Emilion which wasn’t corked despite what critic Robert Parker says about this producer in the mid-90s, but was stern and unfriendly to this taster. Back to the cellar for you.

There was more, a nice 1995 Recioto di Valpolicella (producer??) that smelled like there might be some rimage Banyuls mixed in (for the dark chocolate notes). And a 1995 J.J. Prum Spatlese – was it Whelener Sonnenuhr? – that was lightly sweet and pure after some initial sulfur. And a 1995 Gevrey Chambertin (again, producer??) that smelled nice but tasted tight, and some other random things.

But I was done. So down again to the bus for an adventurous ride home through the Portland night to live again for another gathering. Thanks Mannings, well done as usual.

July 12, 2005

Tasting More New Releases from Oregon

Another tasting at Liner and Elsen, the best wine shop in Portland hands down. Four local producers with the winemakers pouring the wines, no charge. Oregon still has something other wine areas don’t, intimacy. The wines today were mixed, only one really nice white but some delicious, if flashy, pinot noir. But talking with the winemakers, one thing is clear – these wines are made with heart and passion.

Thibaud Mandet from Willakenzie first poured the 2004 Pinot Blanc, a lean, lemony smelling wine but a weird possibly lactic flavor. The 2004 Pinot Gris was better, but still showed little dimension amid the typical alcoholic heat of the grape. The 2002 Pinot Noir Pierre Léon smelled like French oak barrels and tasted a little too much like them too. The 2002 Pinot Noir Aliette was less smoky with black cherry flavors and caramelly oak sweetness. The 2002 Pinot Noir Emery is the biggest aromatically, with a silky texture and a long toasty finish that pleases. Mandet described the vineyard differences for each wine, with the Emery being a blend of barrels. I like these wines despite their style, they don’t necessarily suggest aging well but who knows?

Mark Vlossak was pouring from St. Innocent, talking passionately about the nuance in his wines. The 2003 Pinot Gris Shea Vineyard showed some barrel notes with a yeasty almost beery flavor, very strange to this taster. The 2003 Chardonnay Anden Vineyard showed too much French oak on the nose, though Vlossak suggested a connection to Chassagne Montrachet. There was some mint on the nose, I thought. Overall it seemed a bit raw, but perhaps worthy of aging. The 2003 Pinot Noir Temperance Hill smelled pretty with black cherry flavors and wood spice mixed in, simple but tasty. Vlossak suggested barbecue, which sounded very good to me. And the 2003 Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard, this was damn good Shea, which usually gives overly soft, flaccid wines. This smelled broadly but with nice floral elements, and tasted similar with a firm but gentle texture and good length. This is nice Oregon Pinot Noir.

Jay Somers from J. Christopher poured the 2004 Chardonnay "Cuvée Lunatique" that is labeled "no oak/no malo." It was a pretty, clean wine with fat, clean apple chardonnay flavors, perfectly fine but just that. The 2004 Sauvignon Blanc Croft Vineyard was another story, captivating with a lively grassy melony sauvignon aroma and a clean, crisp flavor and lime finish. Terrifically tangy wine. The 2003 Pinot Noir Charlie’s Vineyard smells simple with black cherry notes but tastes nice with big but winey flavors and a nicely chalky texture of young wine. The 2003 Rosso Applegate Valley is a mutt and tastes sweetly fruity in a happy way, but is ultimately tiring to drink.

Finally, the winemaker at Brooks, whose name I forget and who has taken over for the late Jimi Brooks. The 2004 Riesling was nondescript, somewhat neutral wine with little riesling character. The 2003 Pinot Noir Janus was translucent in color but showed lots of barrel in the aroma and flavor, lots of caramelly notes. The 2003 Pinot Noir Rastaban is a hyper barrel selection, afreak show sort of wine, but it’s really interesting for the style. Big wild berry aroma, impressive stuff with large scaled flavors, chalky and gentle tannins but some alcohol on the palate. Not an elegant wine for sure, but delicious. Of course I missed the final wine, the NV Riesling Late Harvest Tethys, but I heard it was sweet and petroly, which sounded nice.

July 08, 2005

Review: A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss

I just finished reading the recently released book A Very Good Year by Mike Weiss, the story of one vintage of Ferrari-Carano Fumé Blanc from its origins in the vineyard through the winery and into the marketplace. Fume Blanc of course being a marketing term typically used in California for oak-aged Sauvignon Blanc.

Weiss is a fine writer who, despite being an admitted wine neophyte, captures pretty accurately the trials and tribulations of modern wine production in California. Yet the book is puzzling more for its inspiration than its delivery. The story of Ferrari-Carano is hardly inspiring. Rather, it’s essentially the story of a con, where the producer goes to great lengths to create the illusion of hand crafted, limited production wine produced in an setting of old world grace when the truth is anything but.

Wealthy from the “gaming” industry, Don and Rhonda Carano brought their vision of El Dorado from Reno, NV, to Sonoma County, CA, in the 1980s. The quickly established a reputation for noteworthy white wines, particularly Fumé Blanc that has since become ubiquitous in fancy restaurants the world over. Years have passed and now there’s a Villa designed by Rhonda for quasi-high class hospitality. But there’s conflict underneath the easy appearance of wine country living.

Weiss admirably tells this story through the people of Ferrari-Carano. We meet the vineyard manager and his crew of Mexican laborers who travel north each year from their homes in Mexico. We meet the winery staff, led by an exacting if slightly paranoid head winemaker. And we meet some of the operations staff, and of course the owners, Don and Rhonda. But even with some unexpected drama during the year, not much really happens and this reader at least is left wondering – why a book about Ferrari-Carano at all?

Maybe if the Caranos truly focused on quality instead of telling a fake “story” that leaves out the mechanical harvesters, manipulative winemaking practices, and year over year mediocrity, or should I say consistency, they’d have more to be proud of and less seemingly to hide. I’d start by cropping less than 7 to 8 tons of grapes per vineyard acre. It’s no wonder they fret endlessly about quality and end up canceling their plans for a “Reserve” Fumé Blanc when most of their production is, in one former winemaking assistant’s word, crap.

I commend Weiss for writing neither a puff piece for the wine industry or some two-bit hachet job. He clearly wants to expose the reality underneath the romantic façade of wine production, and he succeeds. But why not tell the story of a bottle of handcrafted wine through a more honest vehicle? Or tell the story of the wine business through a more compelling example? Ferrari-Carano is neither, instead it’s just another wine you can find more and more at discounters that the industry uses to make average wine go away.

I won’t spoil the story (too much) except to ask, where did the title come from? It wasn’t a very good year at all, and despite being a perfectly decent summer read for the average bear, this isn’t a very good book. But strangely enough, if you want to read it for free and don’t have a blog to which publishers now apparently send review copies, check out for the original San Francisco Chronicle 39-part series titled “Grape: The Making of California’s Wine” that was repackaged into this handsome Gotham Books edition.

June 28, 2005

Tasting New Zealand Pinot Noir

I’ve been tasting lately with some local winemakers who like to branch out from the usual Oregon fare. This month’s line up featured the wines of New Zealand, tasted blind as usual and discussed together as a group after sampling. One taster is a Kiwi working here for the growing season, the others bring experience from many of the top Oregon producers. And then there’s me, the home brewer looking in from the outside.

I’ve tasted a number of New Zealand whites over the years, but only a handful of reds. So I was excited and overall impressed by what I tasted. Lots of pure flavors and consistency from wine to wine, even if none of them particularly inspired me. These are nice drinking wines, possibly good for aging, probably tasty with a nice meal. The downside the $25-$40 price range, but who knows, maybe that’s just enough to make it feel special.

Two whites to start. The 2002 Pegasus Bay Rielsing Waipara – apparently the gold standard of NZ riesling – was spatlese sweet with a grapefruit aroma and some light diesel notes. In the mouth it was auslese sweet with fat grapefruit and lemon flavors and more diesel. It was nicely fresh but not a brand new wine, with a full texture and a nice finish.

Next the 2004 Villa Maria Pinot Gris Cellar Selection, a greenish tinted, super clean, leesy minerally smelling wine with lime and some alcohol showing. Flavors of salt, minerals, light yellow fruit with a steely edge, light in the middle and finish with obvious alcohol, I should have guessed the grape as it seemed very much like a fair Oregon pinot gris.

The first red was the 2001 Martinborough Pinot Noir Martinborough Terrace. Spicy wood aromas with pure black cherries and some pleasant stalkiness. Silky in the mouth with tart cherries, spice and a bit of French oak char. Turns a little bitter on the finish, but smells and tastes more full with time. I thought this was a pretty good Oregon pinot.

The 2002 Martinborough Pinot Noir Martinborough Terrace had the brightest color and a woodsy almost plasticy aroma with some greenish stemmy notes. Bright and tart on the palate with simple cherry fruit and a slightly harsh bite, this needs time.

The 2000 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir Martinborough showed some voliatile plastic notes but opens nicely with earthy, woodsy spicy cherry aromas. Similar in the mouth with tangy cherry flavors, gains silkiness with time, this was my favorite overall despite being more acidic than the others.

The 2002 Felton Road Central Otago Bannockburn Vineyard was the darkest, with a clean caramelly and sweet black cherry aroma. On the palate were silky berry and caramel flavors, all smooth and integrated but a bit too glossy for my tastes.

And finally the 2002 Patton Valley Pinot Noir Estate Willamette Valley. Interestingly, this Oregon wine was the group favorite by a slight margin over the Felton ROad. Spicy berry and cherry aromas, more caramelly with time, gingerbread, oaky but not aggressively so. Silky caramelly red fruit and spicy earth flavors, tangy on the finish, this is nicely "made" wine but not my style.

And two parting contributions. The 2003 Cameron Pinot Noir Dundee Hills has a dark but translucent color and smoke, ash, and cherry aroma. It’s bright and pretty, not oaky so much as earthy. Very silky on the palate, a bit glossy with a rich but still winey red berry flavor, brightly acidic with tangy on the finish. Nice stuff.

Finally the 2003 Holloran Riesling Le Pavillon Vineyard, a pale wine with a clean light diesel and peach aroma. Medium sweet on the palate with tangy peach, orange, and lemon flavors, strong acidity with a hint of creaminess, but a nice honest riesling that should age a while.

June 10, 2005

Thiese Catalog

Like you came here to find this out. Still, I feel it's worth noting that at last you can get the latest Terry Thiese catalogs for your own reading pleasure.

Yes, they are catalogs, available no less on web site of the Terry Thiese Selections importer. But believe it or not you need to pay to get a hard copy. $15 a piece. Of course I'd never really pay money for a catalog. But this one's probably worth it.

You don't just get truly thoughtful writing on the latest wines of Germany, Austria, and Champagne, about which Terry writes passionately, certainly subjectly, and more intelligently than most out there. You get good wine writing, plain and simple.

So read it and taste some white wine.

June 01, 2005

What I Been Drinkin'

In the past few years there's been less time and money for wine drinking, but I still get in a fair mix of things. Especially on the value end of things. Here's what I been drinkin' lately:

2002 Trimbach Pinot Blanc Alsace
I try to resist the following sort of declaration, but Pinot Blanc is boring. This bottling from Trimbach, long known for its minerally whites of all varieties, seemed like a shoe-in for Pinot Blanc of the year. 2002 saw a favorable harvest in Alsace, but Trimbach would surely produce a crisp, ripe, and lively Pinot Blanc. Unfortunately, no. The aroma is nice, with minerally seashell and ripe yellow fruit smells. But in the mouth it’s limp and dull, with fat, round, and simple flavors. Not much zip, not much length, still it’s not a bad drink. Just boring, even for $8.49.

1999 J.M. da Fonseca Periquita
The venerable Portuguese classic, no small production hand made thing but a classic and well worth the same price you probably paid for it 20 years ago. Dark ruby color. Fragrant earthy strawberry, tobacco, and balsamic aromas. There are some sweaty horse notes as well, but in a clean way if that makes sense. This is old school wine. Similar flavors, with a soft texture but unexpectedly bright tangy acid. Could it be acidified? Good enough length, this is still a deal for $5.49 but you have to dig the funk a little bit.

1996 Joseph Roty Bourgogne "Cuvee de Pressionier"
This wine comes from the Les Pressionier vineyard in the Burgundian village of Gevrey Chambertin, apparently in a section entitled to village status where the producer deems it Bourgogne. This bottling can be a nice source of inexpensive, authentic red Burgundy. Unfortunately, this bottle seems damaged somewhat, perhaps by heat but perhaps not. Some leakage is evident when I take off the foil covering. Sure enough, the cork is soaked through with wine. But neither of those things means the wine will be bad. And sure enough, the color looks nicely ruby, and the perfume is classic Burgundy, with an earthy black cherry, gravely aroma with some nicely integrated wood toast and even an ashy quality that reminds me of some Oregon pinot. Yet the wine is tart on the palate, even sour with the flavor completely stripped, but it’s not extremely dried like a heat-damaged wine. And the aroma, while not intense, is gorgeous. Hard to figure this one, but too bad and it cost $20.

2001 Evesham Wood Pinot Noir Seven Springs
Evesham Wood is a favorite producer of mine, and it is known for producing elegant, silky pinot noir that ages well and, when mature, delivers aromatically like few other Oregon pinots. Big words, I know, but that’s how I see things. Even young, the wines are attractive as they typically favor balance over youthful exuberance. As such, while I find them delicious, I can see how some people used to more powerful wines might find Evesham Wood’s a bit too lean. But I love them, and when I find them on discount I want to back up the truck. Here’s one being cleared out by the producer, who recently updated its label design and probably had too much 2001 pinot noir to begin with. Nice translucent but rich red color. Moderately fragrant cherry, cranberry, light toast, and some clean soil aromas, all seamless and elegant. Medium bodied with silky cherry and spice flavors, juicy but finishing a little lean and simple. Not a blockbuster and never will be, but pretty wine that will probably age well and might surprise with its development. Ridiculous bargain at $13.99.

May 31, 2005

On Wine Value, and a Bargain Southern Rhone Red

I suppose it’s right and good for a fan of anything, as I am of wine, to have a few pet peeves about his hobby.

Some are minor, like how people misuse the word varietal. As in "that’s my favorite varietal" or "how many grape varietals are in that blend?" It’s variety, in both cases. Grape varieties can be varietal just like comics hopefully can be comical. But saying "that’s my favorite grape varietal" makes about as much sense as saying "he’s my favorite comical."

Which makes me think of the annoying myth where you have to be sophisticated to appreciate wine. Apparently that’s not true at all, what with the wine crowd constantly effusing about favored grape varietals.

Yet some peeves are more serious. Perhaps the worst, because it seems to be reason number one that people give me for why they aren’t into wine, is that you have to spend a lot of money to get good wine. It’s simply not true.

Oh, but here comes a related peeve. Yes, yes, yes, you’ll constantly read in the wine press about great values from the world over. But they’re usually high volume, mass marketed brands that, given what they offer, don’t seem to be a nice way to spend $10 at all. Gallo of Sonoma, Kendall Jackson, Georges DuBoeuf? Yes, all likely to be found almost anywhere in the US. But good value? Maybe if you’re really into Hostess doughnuts and fast food. For the most part, these and virtually all the other big brand wines have as much distinction as the Red Lobster.

No, value in wine is admittedly a more complex, personal, and to some degree a local concept. Now I’m the first to admit I love, and love to taste, wines that cost a whole lot more than $10. But if you are interested, you can drink and even cellar terrific wines for an average of $10 a bottle, pretty much anywhere you live.

Sure, it doesn’t hurt to live near regions that produce wine you like. There are always some local values you won’t find elsewhere. But retailers almost everywhere discount good wine that they simply can’t sell. And you can’t overlook buying and shipping wine from retailers across the country, just like you do from Land’s End or There are high quality retailers out there with some amazing deals on wines that are worth your time and money.

One little blog entry can’t convey all the ways to find discount wine. I’m passionate about the subject, and I will write more about where you can find great deals. But here’s my personal favorite. Bargain bins. Of course, they vary widely by region, and truth be told I’ve never found as consistently great bargain bins as we have here in Portland. But even if you’re not a manic bin browser like me, keep your eyes open for unusual things your local retailer might want to get rid of. Stay away from suspect wines – leaking out the top, faded labels from too much light exposure, low fill levels, etc. All bargain hunters must learn some painful lessons with dicey purchases, and wine bargain hunters are no different. But it’s fun and often worth the search. And if you’re like me, you might get to the point where you turn down bargains because you simply find too many.

Today’s inspiration? A $14 wine that I found in a bargain bin for $8 that tastes like a $20+ wine. When you find something like this, you know you’ve spent your time well.

2001 Andre Brunel Cotes du Rhone Villages "Cuvee Sabrine"
This southern Rhone red wine is a typical blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvedre, and the producer happens to make wine for the widely noted Chateauneuf du Pape property Les Cailloux. It offers a dark ruby color with a lovely perfume of the southern Rhone – red berries, black pepper, stones, and the classic garrigue or mixture of earth and herbs that you might notice on a walk in this area of France. In the mouth the wine is gorgeous, with rich stony fruit, pepper, and clean earth flavors. There is bright acidity, fine tannins, and a fairly long finish with some alcoholic warmth.

Overall, the wine is a little slick compared to the traditional producers, made in a more modern style that preserves the fresh fruit character of the grapes. But there’s simply question where this wine comes from, and it is delicious over two nights (I only saved some in the name of science) with food and on its own. This was the best wine under $10 I’ve had in a long time and it will hold for a few years even if it doesn’t develop much. It’s great as it is, and for $8 it might as well have been free.

May 18, 2005

All day I dream about Scotus

Enough please with the recent Supreme Court of the United States decision on interstate wine shipping.

Now I’m the first in line to cheer the removal of restrictions on interstate wine trade. I currently live in one of many essentially free trade states in this nation. Wineries sell and ship wine directly to consumers here and in other states that allow shipping. Wine shops too, if they choose. And the wholesale trade still gets its share – wineries will always need agents to handle at least part of their distribution, most for the larger wineries that couldn’t possibly sell more than a fraction direct.

But what about the kids? You know, the ones the wholesalers say will abuse free trade by ordering alcohol on the…gasp, internet. Kids here in Oregon, believe it or not, aren’t getting liquored up with hooch they score online. There are way too many easier, cheaper, and faster ways to party, all of them qualities kids appreciate most.

And so the recent Supremes ruling opening the floodgates for interstate wine shipping. Hooray! What? That’s not really the whole story? But that’s what everyone’s saying.
Even the New York Times editorial staff said so on Tuesday. They noted the end of "unfair barriers…to the free flow of wine across the state lines." They even pile on by saying how the ruling will have "considerable effect on the wine industry and its customers, particularly in the booming areas of online shopping and small specialty vineyards." Sounds like free trade for everyone.

But, no. The ruling really says that, in states that allow in-state wineries to ship directly to consumers, such as Michigan and New York, it’s unfair to prohibit out-of-state wineries to ship directly. That’s wineries, not online or old fashioned wine shops that still presumably face restrictions. And that means states can choose to eliminate all direct shipping, which is just what Michigan might do. For the affected states, the wholesalers generally have a whole lot more power and influence than fledgling wine industries. Who do you think will win?

To its credit, the NYT did mention that states might "choose" to ban all shipping. But that was buried in the editorial, in the aftermath of their initial frothing. And they didn’t mention the wineries only part of the ruling.

So the ruling is a step, a positive step even. But it’s only a step. Save the toasts for bigger news, like when wineries and wine shops are really free to ship to anyone. Just like the guns and ammo sellers.

May 03, 2005

A Nice Summation of Vintage

I go back and forth on the worth of vintage generalizations. They have some value, but the exceptions often pile up enough to invalidate the rule. You mean they are good wines from "bad" vintages? Yup. And even some major clunkers in so-called "great" years. See the of the '98 southern Rhones, lauded everywhere but often top heavy with alcohol even for their idiom.

So we have the freakishly hot '03 vintage in the Loire Valley and the damp, cool, more typcial '04 vintage. Check out this post on Wine Therapy by Paris-based contributor Rahsaan, who writes nicely about two top producers of Vouvray, Huet and Foreau.

Pay special attention to SFJoe's reply. He offers as pithy a summation of the two vintages as I've seen, and suggests the kind of nuance you should be able to find in the wines of any year:

"The 2004s reflect the vintage very accurately. You can feel the rain on your neck while you taste them the same way you can feel the sweat on your brow from [the] '03s."

Nicely said.

May 02, 2005

Edmund Burle Does It Again

I hear the southern Rhone Vally wines of 2003 are overripe and underripe at once, with the summer heat shutting down flavor development, dehydrating the grapes to concentrate sugar levels, but leaving a mix of raisined and leafy green flavors with lots of harsh tannin. Reports from those who've tasted the wines seem mixed, and so far I've had mixed results.

However, I tasted the 2003 Edmund Burle Cotes du Rhone over the past couple nights, and this is a great little wine, as usual, and a nice bargain on sale for $8.46 locally. Not sure where else you can find this wine, but local importer PS Wines brings it in to Portland. This '03 from Burle is classic rustic, wild grenached-based Cotes du Rhone. The color is ruddy ruby and it has an exotic aroma full of stones, pepper, and cherry with nice dried herb notes. The flavors are full and round on the palate with lots of fine tannin and a typcially stoney flavor. It is dry on the finish, so this wine needs food to show its best. And I'd drink this younger despite the structure, because the flavors seem so broad and ripe that I don’t think they have much evolution before they simply wilt. But what a tasty, honest wine and how delicious it was with burgers.

May 01, 2005

Manning Magnum Madness Mad-riffic

The exile has ended. Élevage is back after a long though unrelated diversion in the aftermath of Manning March Magnum Madness.

So how was the best wine house party in Portland? Terrific as usual, with lots good folks and good food, and a vast amount of undeniably good wine. The only downside, beside the unusually hard rain that fell all day and night, is not being able to try everything. And I didn’t get to say hello to some people that I wanted to see. Such is life. The highlights listed here implicate the amount of wine consumption, and consider that I tried to hold back and spit a reasonable amount to keep my head straight. Which didn’t exactly happen. At least I was riding the bus. On to the event.

Before my first taste, I cut up my Seigle de Thiézac and Pane Francese, both of which turned out pretty well. The siegle was especially tasty with Eddie Robinson's homemade paté. I ended up hanging out around the food taste much of the night as I tasted through the line up of wines.

I started at the white wine table in the Manning dining room. This table was perhaps the star of the event with a terrific array of quality sparkling and still wines. I loved the NV Ariston Champagne Aspasie Brut Prestige, a big Champagne I’ve never heard of with rich, barrel-aged aromas and flavors with good acidity. The NV Billecart-Salmon Champagne Rosé was nice as well, with a pale color and delicate red fruit flavors. For comparison, I tried the 1994 Argyle Brut, a Willamette Valley sparkling wine that tasted good as usual but simple with citrus and yeast flavors. I like Argyle wines, but they never show much complexity. The 2001 Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet Champ-Canet was a big change of pace, with nice slightly maturing white burgundy flavors of apples, toast, and cream. The 2003 Donnhoff Oberhauser Brucke Riesling Spatlese showed the ripeness of the ’03 vintage across Europe, with sweet Auslese-like richness and lots of broad flavors that taste great now. The 2002 Fritz Haag Brauneberger Juffer Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese showed lots of petrol for a young wine, but was otherwise fairly tight and young. Drink the Donnhoff and hold this one. Finally, a curiosity, the 1989 Maresh Vineyard Riesling Red Barn, from Oregon’s own Dundee Hills. Thanks to my buddy Jim Maresh for sharing another nice example of his family’s wine from the ‘80s. Youthful color, diesel and lemon aroma, nicely flavorful with maybe Spatlese-level sweetness. Not German in complexity or soil flavors, but tasty stuff and Oregon at the core.

In the living room, I found the first table of reds, this one featuring mostly wines from pinot noir and gamay. I brought the ’03 Lapierre Morgon and found a ’99 from the same producer to compare. The maturing ’99 was a favorite on the night, with nice peppery earthy Burgundy-like complexity and elegance. The ’03 was more primary and large, maybe even a little alcoholic, again showing the heat of the vintage. Still a good drink though. Another favorite of mine was the 2002 Cameron Pinot Noir Clos Electrique, which only reinforced my feeling that Cameron is one of the top 5 producers of Oregon wine. This wine shows the depth and richness of the ’02 vintage here in the Willamette Valley, but the alcohol remains in check, flavors are complex, and there’s not a lot of noticeable oakiness. This is a classic in the making. John and Kay Eliasson of Oregon’s La Bete winery were here, and John brought a 1985 Pinot noir he made as an amateur from grapes grown near Estacada, OR, far from the heart of wine country today in the Cascade foothills. And wouldn’t you know it, this mature, delicate wine was delicious with nice earthy flavors and some hints of fruit, more than alive though starting downhill. I’d happily drink this with dinner. More Oregon pinot noir, this time it’s the 1996 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir. This bottle seemed a bit old, not dried out but soft and simple with easy cherry flavors. The 1999 Amity Pinot Noir Schouten Vineyard shows again how underrated this and other pioneer producers are today. Nice, polished but honest pinot noir from a long, late vintage known for great balance and complex flavors. This wine, like many tonight, was opened way too soon. Same with the 1998 Chehalem Pinot Noir Rion Reserve, a bigger wine from a sunnier vintage but still young, fresh, and delicious. Breaking the Oregon pinot streak, the 1993 Podere Il Palazzino Chianti Classico Riserva Grosso Sanese seemed young and rich for this lighter year in Chianti. Without seeing the full label I thought it was a super Tuscan with some cabernet in the mix, but indeed this is all sangiovese as once vociferous taster pointed out. Nice stuff with a long life ahead.

I had arrived a little late and missed some early favorites like the 1985 Veuve Clicquot Champagne Rosé Reserve Brut. Now after lingering at the first table of reds, I saw I had already missed some of the best things from the second red table. First and most painful, the 2000 Produttori di Barbaresco Riserva Rabaja. Nevertheless, I ventured downstairs to the "bigger" red table and found some more things to sample. First up was the ’00 Les Pailleres Gigondas, which I also tasted at last year’s event. What was a grapey monolithic but nice Gigondas has opened some to reveal more red fruit, pepper, and stone flavors. This is a terrific wine with at least 10 years ahead of it. The 1996 Prunotto Barolo Bussia was predictably tannic and hard but showed lots of promise. I don’t have much experience with this producer, but, although I’ve heard lots of grumbling from others about how the house style is new wave, this bottle showed nice Barolo character. Just let it rest for 5 or 10 more years, especially in magnum. Next were a couple of California cabernets. First the 1999 Heitz Bella Oaks Vineyard, which tasted nice if predictably young and wound up. It took a back seat to the 1991 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon Private Reserve, which is a terrific example of this long, cool vintage. Oaky as the house style goes, but with enough stuffing, as they say, to balance it out. Cassis, herb, and graphite flavors that echo Bordeaux but with the ripeness of Napa.

I turned out not to be too interested in the other "big" wines, so I made my way back upstairs to find a dessert wine frenzy all over the house. Big bottles, little bottles, already empty bottles…again my slow pace cost me tastes of some precious wines. But at this point, even with my moderate pace, I was winding things down. Still, I managed a few more tastes. The 1971 Quinta do Noval Colheita, a vintage tawny port, was gorgeous with nice sweetness and length. The 1996 Huet Vouvray Le Mont Moelleux 1er Trie was less intense than I expected for this bottling, but that’s picking nits. No white wine for me ages more slowly than chenin blanc, and this wine is typically a classic example. Open again in 20 years. There were two different bottlings of the ’80 Mas Amiel Maury, an early bottled vintage-port-style wine and a later-bottled example that saw two decades of cask ageing. Both were delicious, and nicely savory for all their sweetness. Usually I find Maury too sweet compared to its sister wine Banyuls, but these bottlings were superb. And finally my other contribution, the NV Broadbent Madeira Terrantez Old Reserve that is at least 50 years old and perhaps 70. Wow, this was terrific. I had tasted a little of this one in the afternoon as I decanted it, and found it to be moderately sweet with lots of hard to describe complexity and the typical bright acid of Madeira. Tasted even better to me later on and it showed a wonderful unique fragrance. Wish I had bought more of this when I found it on close out for $24. Even the full retail of $48 is a relative deal here, for a wine that will last in an opened bottle almost indefinitely. And to think that the Madeira experts I know say this is good stuff but not great. I need to taste more.

So that was that. I said final goodbyes, munched a little more food and trundled down to the bus stop in the rain. Thanks again to Marshall and Carolyn for hosting and to all for bringing such fantastic wines. I look forward to next year, if the Mannings are willing.

March 26, 2005

Preparing for Magnum Madness

There's an annual event here in Portland known as Manning March Magnum Madness. Manning referring to Marshall and Carolyn Manning, local wine people who always seem to be hosting can't miss wine events. March Madness refers to the annual US collegiate basketball tournament that produces some level of hysteria among our citizenry. And Magnum of course refers to 1.5L bottles of wine, perfect for larger gatherings. The event is held at the Manning residence in Portland and is open to any good natured person with a magnum of something fun if not special. It always draws a crowd.

So Magnum Madess is tonight. I have my bottle, the '03 Marcel Lapierre Morgon, a cru Beaujolais from Berkeley-based importer Kermit Lynch (who incidentially has just joined the 21st century with a website of his very own - well done Kermit). And I'm bringing some of my home-baked bread. Two kinds in fact, Pane Francese, which is Italian-style French bread, and Pain de Seigle, a rye bread that's actually the Seigle de Thiézac from Joe Ortiz's book The Village Baker. And in a weak attempt to match the generosity of the hosts, I'm also bringing a bottle of NV Broadbent Madeira Terrantez Old Reserve. Although it is officially nonvintage wine, the shipper estimates the wine is at least 40-50 years old if not from a single vintage in the 1930s.

Should be interesting to say the least. I'll report on the results should I return in one piece.

March 23, 2005

Tasting Some 2000s from Produttori del Barbaresco

This past Saturday I went down to Pastaworks on Hawthorne here in Portland for a little tasting of Produttori del Barbaresco wines with Aldo Vacca, Produttori’s Managing Director.

Produttori del Barbaresco is one of the top grape growers’ cooperatives in the world. Typically, co-ops pump out industrial quantities of mediocre wine. They are common in Europe as a steady outlet for grape growers who want to farm rather than produce wine. Over the years, more and more growers have been bypassing the co-op to produce their own wine, often with tales of how their special parcels were wasted in the co-op blending process. Yet many co-ops continue to thrive and the evidence is littered on supermarket shelves the world over.

High quality co-ops like Produttori del Barbaresco aren’t common, but perhaps they should be. In areas like Italy’s Piedmont, home to Barbaresco and its sibling Barolo, vineyards typically aren’t enormous and individual vineyard holdings can be divided over many growers. Think of Burgundy, but with vineyards scattered around hillsides over a larger area. So it makes sense that there would be a gathering place for growers to combine their produce to craft larger amounts of high quality wine. Production for many of Produttori’s finest bottlings is still relatively low, so I think of how tough some of the growers might have it on their own.

So on a whirlwind tour of America, Aldo Vacca is graciously spending his Saturday afternoon pouring single vineyard bottlings from the 2000 vintage. 2000 has a sterling reputation as a warm vintage producing riper wines than the norm. Everywhere I look I see the Wine Spectator’s “100 point” rating for the vintage in this part of northwest Italy. (Don’t ask me how one settles on a point rating for an entire vintage, no less a perfect rating.) These wines back up the reputation, both as a warm vintage that is very good if not great. In fact, tasting these wines left me a bit speechless – no mean feat. The wines are just that good and the prices, thanks to direct importing locally, are pretty darn cheap for the quality much less what you might pay in other towns across the US.

Herewith, the requisite tasting notes:

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco
This is the normale bottling, a blend of some declassified wine from the single vineyard crus with the bulk coming from other holdings throughout the region. I tasted this a few weeks ago but add it here for comparison. Nice though atypically fruity Barbaresco with firm acid and tannin structure, some fragrance but not actually that impressive right now. For the money – low $20s locally – and the likelihood it will age for a few years, it’s still a good deal. Aldo says there are usually around 150,000 bottles made, which translates to approximately 12,500 cases.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Pora”
Sandy soil, typically a more precocious wine. This year is no exception. Forward and lush, fragrant fruity aroma with some nice floral and tar notes, round in the mouth and actually tasting really good now. Not very tannic, this is for earlier consumption but probably will last longer than it appears.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Moccagatta”
This bottling typically shows some mint or other pleasant green note, but that’s harder to find in such a ripe year. Gorgeous wine, the most typical and my favorite of the line up for its potential. Shy aromatically at first, then classic berry, rose, and tar aromas. Firmer structure than the others, both tannin and acid, with nice flavors and just a hint of spearmint. Needs time.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Montefico”
Less than 5,000 bottles of this made, compared to around 15,000 with the other crus here. This wine is the most tannic as Barbaresco typically shows in its youth. Nice cherry and tar flavors, long and savory with great promise.

2000 Produttori del Barbaresco “Montestefano”
The big boy is bigger still in this large-scaled year. Tasted blind, I might have guessed this is a really good Chateauneuf du Pape. The aroma is roasted and warm, with an opulence missing in the other wines. I really liked this wine, but it’s not typical Barbaresco. Full and rich on the palate with some alcoholic heat, long and warm with a mélange of fruit and earth flavors. The wine has structure but it’s hidden underneath the wine’s fat profile. Very nice stuff.

Prices? Pastaworks is charging $35 a bottle for these, with at least one other retailer locally priced down to $32. Not chump change, but if you want top quality wine that can age, these prices are bargains.

March 09, 2005

A Tale of Failing (So Far) to Break into the Oregon Wine Industry

File this one under "getting schooled."

Lately I've been trying to get a little part-time job in the local wine industry. You know, schleping boxes or pouring wine for people in tasting rooms. Anything where I can make a little money, learn some more about the wine industry, and maybe make some contacts for my one day dream of producing and selling my own wine. But it's not as easy as it seems, and sometimes, given one recent experience, I wonder why I would wish the potential horror of working for idiots upon myself.

A few weeks back I see a listing for a tasting room position at a local winery, and I send in my resume with a chipper email saying something about how much I'd love to be part of the team, etc. I get a reply pretty quickly saying I'll have a phone interview in a few days. So the time comes and the interview goes well enough. But predictably the job doesn't pay much, in fact less than I'd even expected. How much? How about $8 an hour.

So I'm thinking to myself, why not do something more fun for free if I just want to learn more and make contacts? I mean, the money isn't ever going to be good and I have a fulltime job. It really didn't help things when the interviewer person rattled off some garbage about how the clones from this winery's vineyards were part of the select few asked to provide cuttings to replace all the French vineyards wiped out in the '70s. I think I missed that little element in French wine history.

Anyway, I kept my mouth shut and thought that, at the least, I'll just turn down the job. But wouldn't you know it, I can't even make the cut for $8 an hour. I get an email a week later saying I don't have the "marketing prowess" or "tasting room experience" to be one of the lucky 3 out of 75 applicants to get the job. This from a winery with a tasting room allegedly so slow I was encouraged to bring a book for down times between visitors.

So that's a little slice of the Oregon job market. I'll be fine, but what about the other 71 rejects? Could there really be that many people as insane as I was for applying in the first place? Are they blogging about their inner frustration? Will this tale of woe have a happy outcome? Stay tuned.

March 05, 2005

Portland Gets a Square Deal on Wine

Portland has a significant new wine shop, something called Square Deal Wine Company. It’s on NW Thurman, just west of NW 23rd in a lately hot little district with the old Food Front and the fairly recent St. Honore Boulangerie.

Dan Beekly is the brains behind Square Deal. The shop features nearly exclusively the selection of French and some Italian, German, even Austrian wines imported by Fleet Street Wine Merchants, an east coast outfit new to the west. Most wines sell below $30 with lots of $10 and $15 options, so you can taste through Europe for not a lot of scratch.

The selection is largely unfamiliar, even to the hardcore geek. Yet there are a few recognizable names. Among them, Prince Poniatowski of Vouvray and Francois Chidaine who has taken over the reigns at the old Clos Baudoin. Legends both, young and old. Which is a good sign. Evidently the selection will broaden somewhat with time. But as a friend suggested to me, Square Deal will have to hold tastings or other events to give people exposure to wines with which most people are completely unfamiliar. I think the wines might very well appeal to the foodies here.

Each bottle is carefully labeled with the guarantee that the wine was shipped at 56F. And the shop is cool to ensure the wine doesn’t roast on the shelf before you come in. Those are great things, so often overlooked in the wine trade despite the rhetoric on the importance of keeping wine cool. I just hope the cooling bill doesn’t sink them.

So I asked Beekly to pick out the best $10 red in the shop. He grabbed the 2003 Cave Jaume Cotes du Rhone. The shop carries a few higher priced wines from this same producer, which I had never heard of previously. So I took it home and found it to be delicious, if fairly light and herbaceous for many tasters weaned on thick and rich American wines. This little grenache-based wine has perfume, and its slightly tart flavor balances beautifully with roasted food. And that’s just what a good Cotes du Rhone should do.

So score one for Square Deal. I’ll go back and try some more, when I find some scratch of my own.

February 22, 2005

Oregon Wine Magazine

Anyone ever read the Oregon Wine Magazine? This is a long running monthly newspaper-like publication that at times mystifies me with its folkiness, but on occasion delights with true insights into the people behind Oregon wine. The lastest example is the February 2005 edition, which features a terrific interview with David Lett.

Unfortunately the editorial staff neglected to include the NAME of Lett's groundbreaking winery, The Eyrie Vineyard. At least until the very end of the multi-page article. Sure, "Papa Pinot" is the legend of Oregon wine, the first to come north and plant vinifera exactly 40 years ago this month. But if you want to preach beyond the choir, don't you want to drop the assumption that everyone knows Lett's winery? Maybe I ought to offer my copyediting services.

Still, that's a relatively minor quibble. The article is classic David Lett, full of strong opinions and no compromise to current fashions in wine. That is, wines made from grapes verging on the overripe, wines that gush fruit flavors but have little flavor complexity, length, or nuance. Wines that hit you over the head, then disappear on your palate. Of course, one man's disaster is another's cellar treasure, so Lett offers one opinion, albeit a strong one. If you don't agree, at least consider his advice - when everyone is planting the hot grape of the month, you should be ripping it out to stay ahead of the curve. If that's not your farming style, I think the lesson might be that when almost everyone seems to be making pinot on steriods, it might be time to take your own winemaking back to Lett's model. Pick ripe but not overripe, age in older wood, ferment with patience to create a wine that's brightly acidic and built for development in the bottle. Who knows, maybe such wines will return to the mainstream, no matter how crazy that sounds today. It's worked for David Lett.

Oregon Wine Magazine isn't on the web, but apparently you can request a free copy through the Oregon Wine Press website -

Cour-Cheverny Found

Just an update to say the 2000 Cazin Cour-Cheverny Vendanges Manuelles is available around town in Portland for $12.99, if not less. So no one tell me this is another "wine you can't find." If only the sweeter, demi-sec Cuvee Renaissance from any vintage were ever available. Now there's a "wine you can't find."

February 11, 2005

Cour-Cheverny? White Wine No One's Ever Heard Of

Well, a few people have heard of it. Francois Cazin might head the list. He's the Frenchman behind the best Cour-Cheverny I've tasted. Add Joe Dressner and Denyse Louis, the pair behind Louis/Dressner Selections, which imports Cazin's "Le Petit Chambord" wines to the US. I had previously tasted Cazin's regular Cheverny, apparently made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It can be a crisp, delicious white wine. But the subject here is Cazin's Cour-Cheverny, made exclusively from the obscure Romorantin grape found in this part of the Touraine.

I first came upon the 1999 Le Petit Chambord "Cour-Cheverny" Vendanges Manuelles two years ago. The 1999 vintage in the Loire valley has essentially been panned by even some of the most dedicated lovers of Loire whites. But this wine shows once more how limiting vintage generalizations can be. Yes, the conditions for winemaking were challenging. But this wine exemplifies how every vintage produces worthy wine. On release this Cour-Cheverny seemed like a mix of Chenin Blanc, with a nice lemon, honey, and straw aroma and flavor, and Riesling, with a hint of petrol on the aroma. After some bottle age, the wine now shows even more petrolly, oily character of a top Riesling, with a more intense honeyed note than before. This is Romorantin. Fragrant wine that shows a variety of scents over time, light bodied but full flavored with a persistent, crisp finish that refreshes the palate. My only quibble is a sense of dilution in the wine, though it makes me think of beautiful music that could be better still if it were a touch louder. The cost for this wine in 2003 was just $10. Now, with the US dollar down sharply against the Euro, you might expect to pay a bit more for a current vintage. But what a splendid wine, well worth looking for and certainly still a huge bargain in handmade, off the beaten path wine.

February 07, 2005

Thinking about Pinot Noir

I’ve been reading a great new book called North American Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Haeger. This book offers lots of thought-provoking comments about, naturally, Pinot noir and the wines it makes not only here in north America, but in Burgundy as well. I can’t say I agree with Haeger’s opinions all the time. As one might expect, he defends North American Pinot noir from critics who claim the wines are too fruity or too alcoholic or not ageworthy compared to the great wines of Burgundy. Not to mention too oaky. These are valid arguments in the cases of some North American producers, who clearly show that Pinot noir here need not taste like Syrah or zinfandel. But for me, the wines of north American Pinot noir are too often just what the critics say – too fruity, too alcoholic, and, even if they are ageworthy, too boring to warrant the gamble that they will blossom into something worthwhile. So isn’t that a huge generalization? Sure, but it reflects my experience along with the growing number of exceptions, especially here in Oregon.

I could write volumes about the thoughts this book leaves me with (I’m still reading). But for now, I was struck by Haeger’s distinction of how Americans and Burgundians use a different vocabulary to describe their wines, something I believe exemplifies the differences in the wines themselves and, by extension, the differing intents of many old and new world producers that make the generalization above more true and hopefully less controversial. Haeger writes that Burgundians are more likely to talk about "elegance" and "finesse" in their wines, while Americans might refer to "opulence" and "fat." More significantly, he suggests that, while Burgundians might say pinot noir is essentially about "perfume," Americans more likely point to "mouthfeel." Haeger writes that his own tasting notes on Burgundies more commonly use terms like nuance and elegance than do his notes of north American Pinot noir. Yet he goes on to write, "It is not entirely clear why so-called elegance should be easier to achieve, or more often achieved, in Burgundy." He then suggests that perhaps the answer lies in the ability, due to Burgundy’s northerly climate, to get ripe flavors in the grapes at lower sugar levels (thus less alcohol). Perhaps more significantly, he suggests, the differences are due to the North American winemakers’ disinclination to tolerate the lower alcohols of Burgundy. Talk about provocative. Definitely check out this book.

For me, the distinction of Burgundy is…terrior, or the combination of soil, climate, and exposure that makes a particular vineyard, or even a part of a vineyard, unique. That’s hardly a unique opinion, but for some reason – likely that it can’t be explained by science, or at least not yet – terrior is still discounted far too easily by those who write about North American wine. Burgundy has something unique that makes its wines unique. Haeger makes the point well – winemakers around the world are using the same techniques, barrels, and other equipment as the Burgundians. What’s the one thing no one can match? Terrior.

February 04, 2005

2002 Oregon Pinot Noir

I went to a wine store tasting the other day that featured 2002 Oregon Pinot Noir, mostly. Overall, these are some nice wines, though it's hard to get a real sense of any wine, especially pinot noir, in such a short period of time. Speaking of vintages is always difficult too, but 2002 in the Willamette Valley was an ideal year, if perhaps giving some wines too high in alcohol. The beauty of the growing season was the nice harvest weather that lasted so long. You really should have been able to pick pretty much whenever you wanted, so the results in that way might reflect the winemaker's intention more clearly. Go for the fences with a huge ripe wine, or pick early for better aromatics?

Cameron Ghertz Vineyard
A new vineyard designate from Cameron, with a different label design. This wine showed some sulfur and earthy cherry aromas with a nice fresh fruit and earth flavor, finishing with a fresh citrus tang. It’s not complex but tastes good, though it probably needs some time in a decanter to lose the stinkiness.

Ponzi Willamette Valley
An Oregon classic, I can see why this garnered a big rating from one wine magazine. Dark yet still translucent color, which is nice. But the aroma is annoyingly oaky, with the scent of sawdust. Oak and nearly blackberry flavors on the palate, tastes like oaky pinot noir and it’s good for that idiom. But this is the least interesting wine here.

Torii Mor "Deux Verres" Reserve
Nice wild berry and spice flavors with earthy notes and good tannic structure. Needs time and perhaps too tannic for its own good. But I like this wine’s grip, especially because I usually associate this producer with overly glossy-textured offerings that leave me cold.

Chehelam Stoller Vineyard 2001
The only non-’02 in the line up, it shows typical Stoller softness and pure cherry fruit. Not a lot of structure, more like a chubby slice of cherry pie. Good pie, sure. But this is not compelling wine, much like I find Stoller vineyard bottlings from other producers. Fat and happy, crowd pleasing wines at their best, but I’ve yet to taste one I really like.

Adelsheim Elizabeth Reserve
A blend of three Chehelam mountain vineyards and the Goldschmidt vineyard in the Red Hills. Adelsheim seems so uncool, they must have an uberhip underground following somewhere. No one seems to talk about Adelsheim but they produce fine pinot noir that should appeal to lovers of old world wine. Look elsewhere if you seek candied sweet oaky pinot. Distrinctive floral and red berry aroma, a little sauvage. Nice bright pure fruit and earth flavors, nice and long, my favorite here but more suited for food than casual sipping. Should last many years.

Cristom Eileen Vineyard
Brighter red fruit aromas than the previous few wines. Some mineral and nicely complex berry and earth flavors, medium bodied with good acid and a young, unevolved profile. Nice wine that should also last many years.