Posted by: erdehoff | November 2, 2009

Ahhhh, Albariño

Albariño holds a special place in my heart. It’s a white wine with character. I get all excited when I see it on a restaurant wine list, because even a mediocre Albariño tends to easily outclass much of the competition (Sauvignon Blanc et al) – or at lest gives it a run for its money — and it’s pretty food-friendly. Spain, of course, leads the way with this grape, primarily in the Rias Baixas region, but I’m increasingly seeing it grown in California; Bonny Doon’s rendition is perhaps the most prominent example. I wholeheartedly endorse this trend and hope California winemakers keep it up. If you haven’t been introduced to this grape, it’s about time you give it a try – it might be my favorite white. (Well, it’s in the top five, at least. Hey, there are a lot of great white wines out there!)

2008 Bonny Doon Ca’ del Solo Albariño ($20, K&L Wines): Lemony nose with a whiff of grass; swirl to reveal orange aromas. Racy citrus dominates, but with a good balance. Mineral base. Zesty, dry and zippy. You can probably find better values from Spain if you dig around a bit, but Bonny Doon’s Albariño is not a bad deal and deserves credit for being a trailblazer (as Randall Grahm’s wines so often are).

2008 Pazo Serantellos Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain ($12, Whole Foods): Vibrant citrus aromas — candied lemon? — with a strong note of grass. Ever so slightly effervescent; light and buoyant and tangy. It’s like sipping brightness — summer in a glass. Acts like a Vinho Verde but with more backbone (12% ABV). Lemon on the midpalate; sparkles on the tongue. The flavor is a bit brash — more delicacy would serve it well — but it’s still a terrific value. I got a bit more pleasure out of the aroma than I did from the taste, though.

2007 Algareiro Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain ($18, Blackwell’s): Floral nose, honeysuckle, peach; the nose is almost disconcertingly sweet compared to the actual flavors. Tart Granny Smith apple and citrus flavors; vibrant acidity.

2008 Nessa Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain ($15, tienda.com): Sharp citrus and herbal aromas with a touch of minerals. Very characteristic flavors — lemon, lime, grass, herbs. It’s no standout, but it’s fine. It’s possible this bottle was open for a while before my glass was poured, so I may not have gotten a representative sample.

2007 Fillaboa Albariño, Rias Baixas, Spain ($18, wine.com): Nose of citrus, cinnamon, white pepper, touch of grass, lemon zest. Intense lime and grapefruit with vibrant intensity fade to lemon meringue, key lime, white pepper, vanilla. Lively texture. I’d go back to this one.

It may not be summer in the Northern Hemisphere anymore, but a glass of Albariño might make you think it is. I know it does for me!

Posted by: erdehoff | October 3, 2009

My favorite Rhones of the West

Rhone varietals have a sizable foothold in California, thanks in part to the efforts of the Rhone Rangers and wineries such as Twisted Oak, Cline Cellars and Bonny Doon. For some reason I’ve found myself drinking a lot of white Rhone-style California wines lately, so here’s a roundup of the ones that have stood out in my mind:

2007 Beaulieu Vineyard Maestro Collection Marsanne Carneros (Napa Valley): Warm, spicy nose with white pepper, minerals, tea, pear, green apple. Dominant flavors of herbs and spices — pepper, basil, dill, lemon peel, mineral, dust. Very little fruit; exceptionally dry with bracing acidity.

2007 Sol Rouge Gypsy Blanc (North Coast): Nose full of honeyed peaches with a floral tinge. Very dry on the palate; zesty acidity fades to honey and lemon, white pepper, herbaceous character.

2006 Sol Rouge Russian River Viognier: Slightly floral nose with undertone of petroleum. Sharp citrus, steely minerality, hints of stone fruits.

2008 Banyan Viognier, Madera (Sonoma County): Nose has almonds, orange blossom, lemon, herbs. Sweet on the palate with sharp citrus, floral notes.

2008 Cinquain Cellars Haiku (Derby Vineyard, Paso Robles): Very aromatic with floral overtones, a touch of oak, lemon cream. Dry, floral and spicy, with mandarin orange, honey, white pepper, lemon; creamy mouthfeel. I really enjoyed this one.

2007 Anaba “Coriol” White (Sonoma): Floral nose with honey, mandarin orange, cinnamon. Flavors of citrus, orange blossom, vanilla, white pepper, lemon curd. Gorgeous. Biodynamic.

A Donkey & Goat Coupe d’Or 2008 (El Dorado): Lovely spicy floral aromas, orange blossom, lemon curd. Citrus and floral characteristics — mandarin orange, cinnamon, lemon zest, rose petals, honey. Light, spicy and lively.

2008 Cline Cellars Marsanne-Roussanne (Sonoma Coast): Lush tropical aromas, honeysuckle, a hint of grass. Dry with floral overtones, pear, Granny Smith apple, minerals, lemon rind.

In conclusion: Keep bringing it, California.

Posted by: erdehoff | September 12, 2009

Great reds go green

Hall Winery's LEED-certified facility

Hall Winery's LEED-certified facility

Hall Napa Valley makes fantastic Cabernet, as anyone who’s ever tasted it can tell you. They’re hardly the first Napa Valley winery to go organic — it seems like everybody’s jumping on that bandwagon lately. But they are the first winery in California to achieve gold LEED certification. Ed Curry, VP of consumer operations and marketing, was kind enough to show me around last week.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This process (overseen by the U.S. Green Building Council) focuses mostly on the building itself, as you might expect; even when it applies to a winery, the winemaking process is not really affected. Hall farms its vineyards organically (as do many Napa wineries these days), but that doesn’t factor into the LEED certification process. What does? Well, for starters:

* Preferred parking is provided for alternative-fuel vehicles, carpoolers and motorcycles.

* Landscaping is centered on drought-tolerant plants — an especially important step in California, which has been facing a severe water crisis for several years.

* Radiant floor heating/cooling, staggered ceilings and intermittent walls ensure easier and more efficient temperature control for individual rooms in winery facilities.

* Lights in the winery run at two-thirds capacity to save energy; some rooms (although not the ones where they store the wine) rely largely on natural light, which not only saves energy but also creates a better environment for employees (I can attest to this, seeing as how I work in a dark corner that hasn’t seen the sun since approximately 1972).

* Fully jacketed fermentation tanks allow for precise (and more energy-efficient) temperature control, which both saves energy and gives the winemaker greater control over the fermentation process.

The lake at Michel-Schlumberger, which reuses 100% of its wastewater.

The lake at Michel-Schlumberger

* The winery reuses 100% of its wastewater; this is something I’m seeing at more and more California wineries, including Benziger and Michel-Schlumberger (above).

* Recycled materials (at least 10%) were used in the walls of the winery, and the old facility was dismantled and recycled. A good portion of the materials used in the new facility came from within 500 miles of the winery (reducing the fossil fuels required to transport them).

Photovoltaic panels on the roof of Hall Winery.

Photovoltaic panels on the roof of Hall Winery.

* Photovoltaic panels on the roof (left) generate, on average, about 25% of the energy used annually, according to Curry. They cover an entire acre.

A few extra eco-friendly steps that don’t factor into LEED certification:

* All of Hall’s vineyards are organically farmed; while the grapes are hand-harvested, all equipment used in the vineyards runs on biodiesel.

* To deter grape-eating birds, Hall uses owl boxes (to attract predators) rather than streamers (a common deterrent).

Oh, and their Cabernets are fantastic. For wine lovers who care about the environment, the LEED certification is icing on the cake.

Posted by: erdehoff | September 1, 2009

SF Natural Wine Week

When it comes to natural winemaking, I’m pretty much in the dark. I think organic practices are great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a make-or-break selling point for me right now — I generally won’t choose a wine just because it’s organic. And the biodynamic movement (which seems to be organic plus a dash of New Age spirituality) makes me a little leery, but there must be something to it or it wouldn’t have caught on the way it has.

But natural winemaking? What does that even mean? Well, it depends on whom you ask. As Jon Bonné points out in this week’s Thirst column, many winemakers are doing it without even being aware of the term — so it’s probably safe to assume that most consumers know even less about it.

San Francisco Natural Wine Week sought to change that. I had to miss the vast majority of it due to work, but I did manage to make it to Tuesday’s tasting at Biodivino, an Italy-focused wine shop on Russian Hill that I’d never visited before. There were a couple dozen people packed into a very small space (even spilling out onto the sidewalk), so my notes aren’t as thorough as they could be, but here’s how it went down.

Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Bianco 2008 (Etna, Sicily): Herbaceous, vegetal nose. Dry and lean with floral and herbal notes, grapefruit, lemongrass, a touch of minerals. Made from a blend of four native grapes. $20.  (For more information about Tenuta delle Terre Nere, see this post from Skurnik Wines.)

Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosato 2008 (Etna, Sicily): Floral nose with lemon custard and orange blossom aromas. Golden pink color. This is a dry rosé with citrus overtones tempered by soft melon, mandarin orange and a hint of honey. $20.

Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso 2008 (Etna, Sicily): Nose is filled with rich red fruits, chocolate and toasted oak. A very dry red with silky tannins and herbal undertones, cocoa and red berries. $20.

Salvo Foti “Vinupetra” Etna Rosso (Etna, Sicily): Rustic, barnyard aromas with dark fruits. Lovely plush fruit flavors with herbal zest, a touch of vanilla, caramel and meat spices. $73.

Azienda Agricola COS Rami Bianco 2008 (Ragusa, Sicily): Very fruity nose with melon, lemon curd and honeysuckle. Dry and herbaceous on the palate — I got lime zest, grapefruit, dill and white pepper. Very … pure. I don’t know how else to describe it. $26.

Azienda Agricola COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria 2006 (Ragusa, Sicily): Nose of ripe dark fruits with an herbal streak and a hint of petroleum. Fruit-forward flavors spiked with black pepper and rosemary. $30.

Azienda Agricola COS “Pithos” 2006 (Ragusa, Sicily): This wine is the same as the Cerasuolo di Vittoria, but aged in clay amphorae rather than concrete. The nose is plush and full of bright red fruits — downright juicy. In the mouth, herbal flavors dominate against a background of dark berries, plum and black pepper. Almost austere. Far less fruit-forward than the Cerasuolo. $42.

Ariana Occhipinti SP68 Rosso Vittoria (Ragusa, Sicily): Fruity nose carries grape jelly and blackcurrants. Rich, full, juicy fruits wash over the tongue, followed by currants, raspberries and a slight vegetal streak. $28.

Cascina degli Ulivi “Filagnotti” Gavi 2006 (Piemonte): Nose of lemon custard, orange blossom, Red Delicious apple. Floral on the palate with lemon, rose petal, vanilla, custard. $26.

Massa Vecchia Rosso NV (Maremma, Tuscany): Very plush, ripe nose tinged with pepper and blackcurrant. Herbal flavors dominate. Dry with strong tannins, blackberries, black cherry. $41.

Omero Moretti Sagrantino 2004 (Umbria): Nose carries black cherry, oak and a touch of blackberries. Look for flavors of cedar, pepper, smoke, earth, dark fruits. Strong tannins — cries out for food. $37.

And now, on to Georgia (the country), Village Kisiskhevi:

Vinoterra Tsinandali 2007: Nose has anise, lemon, basil and pepper. Very austere in the mouth, with citrus, herbs, grass and white pepper. Racy — sort of akin to Sauvignon Blanc. A pretty good value at $15.

Vinoterra Mstvane 2005: Fascinating golden color with a touch of orange. This wine sits on the skins in amphorae for six months; then the wine spends two years in French oak. Mellow at first, then gains intensity; that said, it’s very dry and herbal, hardly a hint of fruit. $21.

Vinoterra Saperavi 2003: This wine spends 20 days in amphorae and two years in French oak. Light red color, light body. Rich, fruity nose with a bracing backbone of oak, but the flavor is very dry and oaky with firm tannins. $23.

The bottom line? Nothing knocked my socks off, but I was glad to have a chance to try wines from Georgia for the first time (and they were fairly good; I’d buy the Tsinandali again) and to check out a good sampling of amphora-aged wines. But for natural winemaking to take off, they’re going to need more cohesive standards and stronger marketing — the concept has a lot going for it, but it’s not going to reach the Yellow Tail crowd anytime soon. That said, the organic/natural movement shows no signs of slowing down, so who knows? Here’s hoping the first San Francisco Natural Wine Week isn’t the last.

Posted by: erdehoff | August 18, 2009

Nerd tasting lineup

Shameful confession: Every August, I meet a few dozen of my closest friends for a weekend of geekery at a sci-fi convention. Some people actually participate in the convention, but we also have our own track of seminars on topics of interest to us. Last year I led a wine tasting for the first time. I way overplanned, but it was a hit, so this year I did another one with a tighter focus: Wines Liz Likes That Cost Less Than $20 And Are Reasonably Easy To Find. This tasting was designed for people who don’t know much about wine and are interested in a general introduction. Here’s the list:

Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay 2007 (Napa County, Calif.; $15-$20) – I rarely have anything nice to say about California Chardonnay, but I quite like this one. It’s organic, which is trickier than it sounds; the winery also takes steps to control runoff and recycle water. The nose offers rich pear, pineapple and melon; on the palate, expect a creamy mouthfeel with lemon meringue, pineapple, custard, vanilla, pear, green apple, butterscotch and just the right touch of oak.

I can’t really recommend any other Chardonnays from California – if you hate the typical oaky butter bombs as much as I do, look for “unoaked” or “stainless steel” on the label. Otherwise, turn to France and Chile for purer expressions of this grape.

Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2008 (Casablanca Valley, Chile; $8-$13) – Wine Spectator Best Buy (89 points). Lemon zest, lime, orange, wet stones, faint minerals and grass on the fresh, clean nose. Racy minerals, herbs, white pepper, zesty citrus and ginger are the primary flavors, with lime and grapefruit rising to prominence on the finish. One of my New World favorites – it’s hard to go wrong with Chile’s Sauvignon Blancs these days, frankly. Fermented in stainless steel.

Also try: Trader Joe’s Kiwi Cuvée (France; $4); Murphy-Goode North Coast Sauvignon Blanc “The Fumé” ($10-$12); 2008 Geyser Peak California Sauvignon Blanc ($10); Rodney Strong 2007 Charlotte’s Home Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc ($12).

Domaine de Colette Beaujolais-Villages Rosé 2008 (France; $12, Blackwell’s): This is my new favorite summer wine. The hue is a lovely salmon pink. Ripe, fresh strawberries and raspberries on the nose with a faint touch of orange. Unusual for a rosé in that it is very tart and acidic – lemon is prominent, yielding slightly to melon and peach. The acidity is crisp and bracing, though a touch of sweetness provides balance. Light and refreshing.

Also try: 2008 Gustafson Family Dry Creek Mountain Vineyard Rosé of Syrah (Sonoma County, CA; $20, gfvineyard.com); 2009 Vina Maquis Calcu Rosé (Colchagua Valley, Chile; $11, klwines.com); Gundlach Bundschu Tempranillo Rosé ($20, gunbun.com); 2008 Chateau Routas Rosé (Provence, France; $12)

Alamos Pinot Noir 2007 (Argentina; $10-$15) – This light-bodied Argentine Pinot is always a hit when I bring it to tango class. Look for cherry and blackberry aromas mingled with spices; on the palate, expect candied cherry and vanilla up front, with pepper, cardamom and oak emerging on the long, smooth finish.

Also try: 2008 Redtree California Pinot ($10); 2008 Hangtime Pinot Noir (Burgundy, France; $3, Trader Joe’s); Tabali Reserva Especial Pinot Noir Limari Valley 2008 (Chile; $18, specialty stores)

Morgon “Les Pierres Fines” (Appellation Morgon Controlée) Red Table Wine 2007 (France; $6, Trader Joe’s) – This is a light and lively Beaujolais that doesn’t require food but gets along well with lighter fare. The nose carries spices, currants, a touch of earth and heat. In the mouth, look for playful spices, red berries, cumin, cinnamon and white pepper; uncomplicated, but very sprightly. Refrigerate for 20 minutes before drinking.

Also recommended: Waitsmast 2007 Pinot Noir, Wentzel Vineyard (Anderson Valley, Calif.; $42, waitsmast.com); 2005 Bricco del Cucu “Bricco San Bernardo” Dogliani DOCG (Italy; $17, klwines.com); 2005 Bodega Weinert Carrascal Red Lujan de Cuyo (Mendoza, Argentina; $12, klwines.com)

Albero Spanish Organic Red Wine (Tempranillo Barrica; $6, Trader Joe’s) – Warm, spicy and rustic aromas on the nose with a touch of cocoa and tobacco. Red currant, blackberry and plum flavors spiked with pepper and cumin wash over the palate, with the spices growing in intensity as the fruit flavors fade. Lively, with vivid tannins and insistent acidity. Great with gazpacho, paella and lighter meats, but also just fine on its own.

Also recommended: El Coto De Imaz Reserva 2001 (Rioja, Spain; $20 or so, specialty stores); Capote Velho (nonvintage; Portugal; $10, specialty stores); 2005 Vinos de Terruños “LaMilla” Monastrell Jumilla (Spain; $8, klwines.com)

Alexander & Fitch Winery Alexander Valley Merlot 2006 (Calif.; $8, Trader Joe’s) – My go-to Merlot. Reddish burgundy color with ruby glints. The vividly peppery nose gives way to dark berries, plum, earth and minerals. Bright, juicy blackberry flavors leap out at first, followed by pepper and light oak; brief but lively spices flare on the finish. This will stand up well to red meat and more robust sauces.

Also recommended: Finca El Portillo Merlot 2007 (Valle de Uco, Mendoza, Argentina; $10); Teira Merlot 2006 (Sonoma County; $15); 2006 Pedroncelli Dry Creek Valley Merlot (Sonoma County; $14); 2007 Santa Ema “Reserve” Merlot (Maipo Valley, Chile; $10)

Rosenblum Cellars California Zinfandel Vintner’s Cuvee XXXI ($10.99): Aromas of black cherry, red berries, black pepper and vanilla. Berry flavors follow through on the palate, accompanied by a touch of oak along with cinnamon and other baking spices. Medium-bodied with lively acidity; pairs well with pizza.

Also try: Dry Creek 2006 Heritage Zinfandel (Sonoma County; $17.99, grocery stores); La Capilla 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel Reserve (Lodi, Calif.; $20, specialty stores); So Zin 2005 Mendocino County Zinfandel (California; $15, specialty stores)

All wines available at most major grocery or liquor stores unless otherwise indicated.

Posted by: erdehoff | August 7, 2009

Disneyland for wine geeks

The Wine Bloggers Conference was filled with highlights, but one experience stood out in my mind as the best of the best: Conn Creek’s AVA Room. Let me tell you why.

I’d heard about the AVA Room a month or two before the conference and had really wanted to check it out on my next trip up to Napa, but work got crazy and I never had a chance — so I was ecstatic when our bus pulled up at Conn Creek. We didn’t have time for the full experience, but it was a hell of a taste.

Conn Creek's AVA Room

Conn Creek's AVA Room

The room has nineteen barrels of wine. Fifteen are single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from all over Napa Valley; each of the other four barrels contains one of the classic Bordeaux blending varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Each of the Cabs is accompanied by a photo and description of its vineyard of origin along with (this is so cool — yes, I am a nerd) a soil sample. Basically, you taste them all.

Normally, visitors take part in a guided barrel tasting, then create their own Bordeaux blend, bottle it and take it home. Our experience was more casual: We were there for dinner and were sort of left to our own devices, so we concocted our blends in wine glasses (meaning that, sadly, Cuvée Liz lives on only in my memory). Still, although it was just a taste of the full experience, it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was especially fascinating to compare the Cabs to one another and to see how each addition changes the character of your custom blend. I could have spent all day there and never gotten bored. (I think I mentioned that I am a nerd?)

This is the kind of experience I’d like to see more wineries offer: hands-on education, the chance to put yourself in the winemaker’s shoes for a few hours. Perhaps it won’t appeal to the average tasting room visitor, but if you’re fascinated by the process of winemaking and you find yourself in Napa Valley, you may find the AVA Room worth a visit.

Details: Reservations required. $95 per person (wine club members save $30). Offered Thursday through Tuesday at 10:30 and 2. Photos courtesy of Conn Creek.

Posted by: erdehoff | July 29, 2009

Wine Bloggers Conference wrapup

What a weekend. I spat out more good wine in those three days than I’ve drunk in three years, and that’s really saying something. My taste buds were nearly dead by Sunday. I learned a lot, made quite a few new friends (especially Bay Area wine lovers, which is great because so few of my friends here are into wine), and came home with plenty of ideas for future posts.

I know wine blogging is somewhat controversial. Some — such as those in the traditional wine media, of whom Robert Parker is the most prominent example — see it as the domain of unprincipled amateurs. I’m sure there are a few who fit that description; there always are, no matter what the subject matter is. But while I and many others are happy to embrace the “amateur” label, I don’t think it’s fair to label wine bloggers as a group unprincipled — especially those who clearly disclose when the wine they’re reviewing is a sample. Same goes for bloggers who write about cosmetics, books, electronics or any other subject. And I think most bloggers don’t get samples or special access. The wine bloggers I met this weekend are people who are truly passionate about wine, who love learning more about it, who want to share their enthusiasm with the world. Very few of them (if any) make money from their blogs, and I think most of them blog about wines they paid for out of their own pockets. By and large, they’re in it because they love it. That’s the impression I came away with. I know it’s why I’m here.

Enough with the Deep Thoughts. On to the good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s start with the highlights.

  • Conn Creek AVA Room: In a weekend filled with terrific experiences, this one was the best. I’d read about this a few months ago and really wanted to try it, so I was thrilled when we ended up here for dinner. I’m happy to say that Cuvée Liz is fabulous. Hey, until I get it bottled, you’ll have to take my word for it.
  • Portuguese wine tasting: I’m a fan of Portuguese wines, but they can be hard to find, especially by the glass, and I’m not on the kind of budget that can absorb a $15 bottle of wine a few times a week. This tasting opened my eyes to a lot of red wines that are not easy to obtain in the American market — mostly reds, because I’m already all over the whites (hint: it’s hard to go wrong with Vinho Verde at a summer party). Unfortunately, there were like 50 of them, so you’ll only get tasting notes about a few. (Hey, there was hardly space to write. Trust me, I kept track of the awesome wines.)
  • Sonoma wine tasting: This event felt small, intimate and casual, but my favorite thing about it was that so many of the wineries in attendance don’t have tasting rooms — it was great to sample lesser-known wines and meet the people who make them.
  • Napa wine tasting: This one (at the gorgeous Quintessa winery off Silverado Trail) was a bit overwhelming, to be honest, but there were some true standouts and a number of very solid offerings. There were far too many winemakers there to sample them all, though — I think I got through maybe half of the wines on offer, if that. Wish we’d had a bit more time to check them out.
  • Meeting the people behind the wine: I always love talking with winemakers and viticulturists because they can tell me the story behind what’s in my glass. I enjoy hearing their perspectives, especially when they head up small wineries — those perspectives are harder to find.

The downsides:

  • Much as I enjoyed the vineyard walk at Michel Schlumberger, oh my God was it hot out there. We were baking, and there wasn’t much shade to be found. I enjoyed seeing how the soils changed from block to block, but mostly I was focused on not passing out. (What? I live in San Francisco. I often forget the sun exists. We don’t do heat here.) When we did a rather rushed wine tasting at the end, I was too wiped out to get into it, although taste-bud fatigue after a weekend full of wine probably had something to do with that. And nobody’s to blame for the heat. Still, I wish we’d had more time there to explore the wines.
  • I got a lot out of the wine business panel I attended on Saturday — representatives from four wineries of wildly different sizes discussed the challenges and opportunities they face because of their production capacity — but it would have been nice to taste the wines they were talking about.
  • Internet difficulties persisted at the hotel all weekend. It was especially bad during what was supposed to be a group liveblogging session at which nobody could get reliable Wi-Fi access; I wrote my tasting notes in Word and pasted them in for later posting. Not sure if this was the hotel’s fault, but I hope the hotel hosting next year’s conference is better prepared to handle the traffic.

The downright ugly:

  • I quickly learned that it was easier to carry my own spit cup so I wouldn’t have to elbow people out of the way to spit into the bucket (and the splashback from the bucket was no picnic, especially for someone wearing glasses). However, it was perhaps inevitable that at one point I forgot which hand held which cup. I took a sip, thought, “This is a really weird blend, what the hell?” and then realized my mistake. Well, at least it was all my spit.

All in all, if a mistaken swig from a spit cup was the worst mishap of the weekend, I figure I got off easy (especially since I didn’t get a hangover — good Lord, did I spit out a lot of wine).

I’m seriously considering the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Lisbon in October. And I’m happy to say I’ve already signed up for the June 2010 conference in Walla Walla, Wash. Bring it!

Posted by: erdehoff | July 24, 2009

Live from the Wine Bloggers Conference!

I’m writing this from Table 8 at the Wine Bloggers Conference. We’re about to get the liveblogging under way…

This conference combines nerdity with drinking. I am so happy to be here with my people! Internet access sucks, though, so this might be intermittent. I’ll do my best. Live tasting starts in 5 minutes! It’s “like speed dating for the wine industry” — each winery get six minutes to introduce its wines, and we get a minute to post our thoughts. I have a feeling the crappy Wi-Fi might mean I make one big update rather than a bunch of shorter ones.

2:35 Aaaaaand we’re postponing while they try to fix the Wi-Fi. Apparently there was a DNS attack on the hotel.

3:33 Back up! Starting with Cline Cellars, one of my favorite Sonoma wineries. Their tasting room is always fun to visit. They’re known for their Rhone wines, and today they’re pouring their 2007 Ancient Vines Mourvedre. Fruit for this wine comes from nine different vineyards dating to as far back as 1920. Rich, chocolaty nose with a lot of dark fruit character. This is a big wine (15% ABV). Dark fruits and tobacco up front, plus a hint of oak; intense with active acidity. Black cherry and cedar on the finish.

3:42 Internets down again. Next up is Tandem‘s Manchester Ridge Chardonnay from Mendocino Coast, at an elevation of about 2,000 feet. Tropical nose with melon, pineapple, cream and floral aromas. Nicely balanced acidity, and I’m tasting cream, apple and lemon. Wild primary and secondary fermentation. I’m not a California chardonnay fan, but this one’s not bad at all — they used oak wisely here (only about 18% new oak — French oak, or “freedom oak,” ha ha), allowing the floral aspects to develop.

3:50 Foggy Bridge Chardonnay 2007 — one of Foggy Bridge’s first releases. A lot more oak in this one; pretty dry, with green apple and lemon verbena aromas and a lot of oak on the palate. They use 50% malolactic fermentation; they’re going for a lighter, crisper style, but I’m not sure it’s quite there yet. 100% organic (though not yet certified), and they use one label instead of two to save paper. 190 cases made. This winery had planned to open a tasting room in the Presidio but ran into planning difficulties and is looking for another spot in the city.

3:54 Clif Family Winery 2006 Syrah “Gary’s Improv.” Recognize the name? Same family affiliated with Clif bars. Intense red fruits on the nose and a little chocolate; very lively on the tongue — active tannins with a touch of spice and cedar. Really dry; I want a steak now, please.

4:00 On we go. Benovia Winery Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007 — this is their second vintage. Ripe juicy cherry aromas leap out of the glass and follow through on the tongue — gorgeous cherry, cinnamon, white pepper and a little earth. The cherry flavors dominate at first, but wait a bit and the spices will really develop. 370 cases made, $55. Native yeast fermentation; minimal intervention.

4:06 El Molino High School (!) 2007 Lions Pride Pinot Noir — why didn’t my school have this?? Awesome. Students at this Forestville public school learn how to grow grapes, harvest them, give them to a celeb winemaker, sell the results to raise money for scholarships. Students created artwork for the label, but they can’t touch the stuff once the grapes leave the vineyard. Pity — but hey, more for us! Baked cherry and blueberries on the nose; oak, blackberries, pepper, a flash of heat. $35, 150 cases this year.

4:12 Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2005. Whoa. Inky dark purple. Did someone say earthy? Holy shit. Earth and spice dominate the nose, but keep sniffing and you’ll get blackberries and other dark fruits. This is a big boy (15.4%). Reeeeeeeally spicy and … this sounds wrong, but it’s dirty and I like it that way. These tannins stand up and make you their bitch. Not that I’m complaining. $75, 1,800 cases made (200 left, so hurry up).

Crap, my table’s spit bucket is about three-quarters full and we’re only halfway done (if that)!

4:18 Cornerstone Cellars 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet; grapes are grown at 1800 feet (coincidentally, 1800 cases made). 100% Cab. “The goal is not to make a wine that’s ready to drink” — stick this in your cellar. Nose of plum, dark berries; really chewy and young, with chocolate, blackberry, intense tannins that suck the moisture right out of your mouth. Long, slow fermentation. Do what the man says: Hang onto this one for a while — four or five years, according to winemaker Craig Camp. $100, 600 cases.

4:24 Benziger Signaterra Three Blocks Sonoma Valley Red Wine 2006 — 64% Cab, 36% Merlot from three vineyards. Nose of chocolate, pepper, earth and minerals. Really dry with very active tannins, oak, cedar, pepper, cumin; retails for $49, 5,000 cases made (the largest by far in the Signaterra line). This winery, by the way, has a really fun tour — be sure to stop by if you’re in Glen Ellen. They explain the biodynamic concept well.

Oh thank God, they emptied the spit bucket!

4:30 Matthiasson Napa Valley White 2008 (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Ribolla Gialla): Really floral nose, candied lemons, mandarin orange, melon, brown sugar; gentle on the tongue at first, but then the acidity explodes (in a good way), tempered by slightly sweet fruit flavors. 30% new oak. $35.

4:36 OMG WTF Joseph Phelps 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This one is seriously dark. Nose full of rich red fruits and spice, black pepper, cedar. Mmmmm. Dark fruits, pepper, earth and a bit of minerals on the palate. Cellar for up to four years, but it tastes pretty great now — much friendlier at this point than the Cornerstone Howell Mountain Cab from the same year. $54.

4:43: I hate to pour out a Joseph Phelps Cab, but we’re moving on to our final wine of the afternoon (not of the day, much more to come — hence why I have to pour it out): Bonny Doon‘s Le Cigar Volant 2005 ($32, 1500 cases). ZOMG, Randall Grahm is here! Pardon me while I geek out. This is Grahm’s “homage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape.” Beautiful fruits on the nose; lovely velvety mouthfeel, with satiny fruits and smooth spices. I don’t know how to describe this one aside from “smooth.”

That’s it for now. Stay tuned — Sonoma tasting at 5:45; it’s by the pool, so I’m not sure I’ll be posting live (certainly not from my laptop), but I’ll try to update my Twitter feed via BlackBerry.

Posted by: erdehoff | July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately — work has been getting the better of me. I should have more time to post in the next few weeks. In the meantime, happy Bastille Day! Here are a few of the French wines I’ve tasted recently:

“Les Pierres Fines” Morgon (Appellation Morgon Controlee) Red Table Wine (Louis Verge) 2007 ($5.99, Trader Joe’s): Youthful nose full of warm spices, currants, a touch of earth and heat. I tasted lively young spices, red berries, cumin, cinnamon, white pepper; very sprightly. I keep coming back to this one; chill it for 20 minutes or so and it makes a great summer red, and it doesn’t need food.

Cotes du Rhone, E. Guigal Chateau D’Ampuis 2007 ($10.99, K&L): Dry nose with citrus and a touch of pepper. Bone dry; active acidity. I didn’t love the balance of this wine.

Chateau Routas (Murray Family Rouviere) Rosé 2008 (Provence) ($12, Blackwell’s): Aromas of summer fruits, rose petals, flowers, a touch of new oak. Nicely balanced — dry with just a touch of fruit/floral flavors. Bright red fruits, a touch of lime, grape, strawberry, a bit of honey and raspberry.

Sincérité Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Loire Valley) ($10/glass, Internos): Very chalky, dusty nose; hints of pineapple, mandarin orange. Tastes cool and very dry, with clean citrus, a touch of grass and herbs, minerals, wet stone.

Granfort Merlot 2007 Vin de Pays D’oc: Earthy, stony nose, full of gravel and pepper. Rich fruits give way to well-balanced spices grounded in earth and gravel, with cumin, cinnamon and pepper. I love this wine. I go back to it again and again.

Chateau Puy Arnaud Maueze Cotes de Castillon 2004: Licorice, anise, raspberry on the nose. Powerful dark red fruits, pink peppercorns, tar, oak.

Domaine Adele Rouzé Quincy, Loire 2008: Tropical nose with hint of petroleum, grass, lime. Concentrated citrus flavor with structured minerals and limestone. Lovely.

Robert Klingenfus Riesling (Alsace 2007): Floral nose with green apple, notes of honey, petroleum, diesel. Racy minerals on the attack with crisp lemon and apple; lean structure, but not flat, backed by minerals and chalk. When I revisited this one, it wasn’t as dry as I’d initally thought, but the bottle wasn’t fresh, so the jury’s out on that.

Vive la France!

Posted by: erdehoff | June 22, 2009

California sauvignon blancs

I make no secret of my dislike of California chardonnay, or at least the oaky butter bombs that have come to represent that term. Perhaps because of that, it took me a while to warm to the state’s sauvignon blancs, which could not be more different — in a good way.

I have long been a fan of New Zealand’s sauvignon blancs — the grassy/vegetal/mineral character they tend to show really works for me. But in the past year or so, I’ve noticed that the winemakers of Marlborough are, for lack of a better phrase, trying too hard. You know how some makers of bargain California chardonnay will soak their wine in oak chips in lieu of using more expensive new oak barrels? I’m not sure what the sauvignon blanc equivalent is, but to me it feels like many Marlborough winemakers — particularly in the under-$20 category — are doing it. Popularity has done their wine, like California chardonnay, few favors. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large I’m ready to move on.

I’ve enjoyed sauvignon blancs from Chile (Veramonte’s is a reliable favorite), Argentina and France; still, it seemed a shame to live in the heart of California wine country and not give the local juice another chance. And for the most part, I’m happy to report, I was pleasantly surprised. Here are a few of the wines I tried. All retail for under $20, many for less than $10. Happy sipping!

VinTJs Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($6, Trader Joe’s): Tropical fruits dominate the nose, with a dose of candied lemon, mandarin orange, and the slightest whiff of grass. Intense citrus flavor fills the mouth and persists through the finish, complemented by orange blossom and kiwi notes. It’s hardly complex, but this one is a great buy.

Geyser Peak California Sauvignon Blanc 2008 ($9-$12, widely available; cheapest at Trader Joe’s): I keep coming back to this one. Sharp citrus nose with grass and wet stone. Tangy on the tongue with racy citrus flavors and a subtle mineral backbone; nicely dry. Not a hint of oak — stainless steel all the way. Almost austere.

Murphy-Goode North Coast Sauvignon Blanc “The Fumé” 2007 ($10, Safeway): Ah, the power of social media marketing. I had never heard of this winery, but their brilliant “A Really Goode Job” promotion put them on my radar, and I got curious. Glad I did; I’ve bought this one three times now. Its aromas are intensely tropical, with mango, pineapple and maybe a hint of kiwi, and notes of lime. In the mouth, it’s lean and racy; teasing tropical fruits are underscored by citrus, with minerals lingering in the background.

Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards “Charlotte’s Home” Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County (on sale for $11.50, Safeway): Aromatic doesn’t begin to describe it — tropical fruits leap out of the glass even as you’re pouring, marked by mango, pineapple, even a touch of honey. Lime emerges at second sniff. Zesty and playful citrus flavors right up front, then gives way to creamy lemon, cantaloupe, minerals and grapefruit with a touch of vanilla. Nicely balanced acidity.

Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Estates California Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (on sale for $6.98, Safeway): Bright citrus character emerges on the nose at once, backed by faint grassy notes. Zing! Sharp lemon and lime up front with a fair amount of heat (13.5% ABV). A bit vegetal; I don’t get the melon/tropical fruit flavors the label boasts about, but the citrus character is backed by a touch of minerals. Not very complex, but a decent summer sipper for the price. Serve closer to room temperature for better flavor.

Dry Creek Vineyards Sonoma County Fumé Blanc 2007 (on sale for $11, Safeway): Wet stones leap off the nose, hinting at rich minerality to come; aromas of lemon zest and lime. Sleek citrus up front with notes of mandarin orange and grapefruit, plus bracing minerality and a hint of white pepper. A bit more acidic than I like — a little too harsh. I prefer the reserve, which (if I recall correctly) takes a smoother, more subtle approach.

Clos du Bois Sauvignon Blanc North Coast 2008 (on sale for $6.98, Safeway): This one was the only true disappointment in the bunch (and for $6.98, it wasn’t a huge letdown; still, I won’t buy it again). Nose boasts lemongrass, melon, mango, lime, wet stone. Mouth-filling citrus and grass give way to sweet melon and kiwi; slightly sweet finish. Acidity is vibrant up front but fades too quickly.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to, uh, check on that Geyser Peak. Just to make sure it’s still good.

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