Thursday, January 30, 2014

Talking Wine and Waves with John Conover

Credit: PlumpJack Group
John Conover’s a big guy with an unassuming personality. He laughs loudly and often. And if you spend more than five minutes with the guy, you’ll realize that he’s a man who loves life.

Since 1999, John has been general manager at Napa Valley winery PlumpJack, which is co-owned by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco philanthropist Gordon Getty. During Conover’s time, the estate has grown from 1,000 cases a year to 10,000, and PlumpJack’s Oakville Estate offering has developed quite a reputation. Conover is also a partner in Cade, a Howell Mountain estate, which kicked off in 2009. And he has his hands in a third Napa project, Odette Estate, which recently opened at the former Steltzner Vineyards property.

It’s hard to imagine how Conover does anything else. But, like me, John has another powerful passion: surfing. We’re both members of two global tribes (wine nerds and waveriders), so John and I had a lot to talk about when we met a few weeks ago at Civil Cigar Lounge in Washington, DC.

I always enjoy meeting other surfers. We’re a fun- and nature-loving group, and we love putting ourselves in extreme situations just for kicks. John told me stories of surfing through heavy kelp in Santa Cruz and Monterrey, and I traded tales of catching bombs at Salmon Creek, a beach break on the Sonoma Coast, and getting into some shady situations at remote spots in Mendocino. My stories of chasing swell around New Jersey and Delaware beaches couldn’t really compare with his frequent reef pilgrimages to the North Shore, the Mentawais and Indo. But, then again, the guy runs several big-time Napa Cabernet projects, and I’m a writer.

John seems to strike a balance between his wine and his surfing. He tries to paddle out a few times a week. During harvest, when the grapes are reaching peak ripeness and the Pacific is lighting up with swell, things can get a little hectic. (I know the feeling. Try to get me to commit to anything during September. When the Atlantic starts kicking, I cannot be relied upon.)

We tasted through some of his 2010 Napa Cabernets, a vintage we both praised for its freshness and vibrancy. “But,” he added, “just wait until you try the 2012s. And the 2013s.”

I asked John about some of the changes at PlumpJack over the years. He told me he never thought he’d have a double-digit number of employees. “But now I have 40 of the most passionate people in the world.” It’s simple, he says: “Great grapes and great people make great wine.”

The wines, I have to admit, are damn good. And they’re highly delicious. There’s no denying a similar stylistic thread weaves through Cade and PlumpJack. (I haven’t yet tasted Odette Cabs.) “Approachable” is a word Conover embraces, and it’s a fitting descriptor. The 2010s have tons of flavor yet — dare I say? — a graceful presence on the palate. Even so, I’d love to stash some Cade and PlumpJack 2010s away for five or six years, just to see what kind of deliciousness seeps out.

I took some notes on four wines from the evening. Check out my notes below.

2012 Cade Sauvignon Blanc - California, Napa Valley
Aromas of white peach, green apple, honeysuckle and lemon zest. Crisp and clean on the palate, with green apple peel, white peach and apricot flavors. I love the mineral and sea shell components to this wine. In a sea of mediocre Napa Sauv Blancs, this one exudes personality.

2010 Cade Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Cuvée - California, Napa Valley
Smells so floral and fresh, with blackberries, rose petals, vanilla bean and sweet mocha. The palate is full of flavor, but so silky, fresh and downright sexy. Sweet berries, kirsch, vanilla, cedar, cola and root beer flavors abound. So pure and lively, with notes of loam and potpourri on the finish. Seems like one of the most approachable 2010 Napa Cabs I’ve tasted, although it’ll hold up well.

2010 Cade Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain - California, Napa Valley, Howell Mountain
Similar to the 2010 Napa Valley blend, but a bit deeper, showing a bit more fight and grip. Fine tannins, crisp acid, lovely complexity of black and red currant fruit. Notes of violets, cola, mocha, cedar, vanilla and campfire coals. Complex, so full yet pure and easy to drink. A gorgeous Howell Mountain Cab. 100% Cab aged 18 months in 80% new French oak. This deserves some cellar contemplation.

2010 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon Estate - California, Napa Valley, Oakville
Aromas of blackberries, currants, dark chocolate shavings and cedar. Firm but somehow silky tannins, and that lovely 2010 freshness. The wine is like velvet on the palate, with black cherries, currants, vanilla, violets, cola and note that reminds me of sweet and sour sauce. Unashamedly delicious and easy to drink, yet this wine is full of complexity and structure. Drank from a magnum decanted, and it was beautifully expressive, getting more so with each minute.

May your Napa Cabs be delicious and your winds offshore. Cheers!

This post first appeared in the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Wine Reviews: Portugal, Land of Diversity and Value

This complex and terroir-drived Vinho Verde was the
biggest surprise of the tasting. And it's only $23!
Whether it’s easy-sipping aperitifs, complex oak-aged whites or rich reds, you can find it in Portugal. And you don’t need to spend a fortune. (Vintage Port is the notable exception, but the 2011 Vintage Port in this report is still a steal at $80.) These wines — just a drop in the Portuguese bucket — were received as trade samples and tasted sighted for a report in the daily wine blog Terroirist.  

2012 Gazela Vinho Verde - Portugal, Minho, Vinho Verde
SRP: $7
Slight fizz. Aromas of grapefruit, lime and a slight herbal note. Tangy and fresh, with very fine bubbles. The grapefruit, lemon and margarita salt flavors are bright and easy. Seems like a perfect summer beach wine. (85 points)

2012 Quinta de Gomariz Loureiro Vinho Verde Colheita Seleccionada - Portugal, Minho, Vinho Verde
SRP: $14
A straw-slightly grassy color. Bursting with lemon, pineapple, honeysuckle and minerals on the nose. Starts off with a big dose of acid, but the creamy fruit comes in to back it up (green melon, pineapple, apricot). I like the kick of minerals and the dried honey and white tea aspects to this wine. Crisp, very clean and refreshing. (86 points)

2011 Aphros Vinho Verde Daphné - Portugal, Minho, Vinho Verde
SRP: $23
Nose smells of apricot, white peach, and an aroma that reminds me newly unpackaged rubber. There’s also an oily, hazelnut aroma as well. Crisp, medium+ acid with some richness to the body. Delicious green apple, white peach, lime and fresh apricot, accented with sea salt, oyster shells. Also some nutty, creamy, whipped honey aspects. Clean, floral, mineral-driven. A beautiful Vinho Verde, 100% Loureiro, fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged in old oak and chestnut barrels. Has the mineral and oceanic elements of a granite soil Muscadet and the stone fruit purity of a Mosel Riesling. I’m seriously impressed. (91 points)

2012 Quinta da Raza Alvarinho Grande Escolha - Portugal, Minho, Vinho Regional MinhoSRP: $11
Pale straw color. Aromas of melon, guava, and some sea salt and lime aspects. Tangy on the palate, with creamy honey, green melon, lime. There’s some real pop and punch to this white. High acid but juicy and waxy in texture. A great wine to have with salads. (87 points)

2010 Casal do Paço Padreiro Vinho Verde Afros Silenus - Portugal, Minho, Vinho Verde
SRP: $?
A magenta-purple color. Wonderfully smoky and meaty on the nose, with pepper, dried flowers and pickling spices. Wow, the acid is so tart on the palate, but there’s enough dusty tannin to fight back. Mineral-driven, with black cherry and tart cranberry fruit, backed up by green and black pepper, pickling spices and charcoal. A tingling and tart wine. I love it, and I’d love it even more with some grilled sausage and peppers. From the Vinhão grape. (89 points)

2010 Quinta de Roriz Douro Prazo de Roriz - Portugal, Douro
SRP: $16
Nose shows bright cherries and cranberries on the nose, with some roses, anise and earth. Fully-bodied with tangy acid, chewy tannins tannins. Currant fruit leads the way, and I get a lot of earth smoke and iron. Some anise and sweet lavender on the finish. Tasty stuff for a great price. A blend of red Port grapes including Tinta Barroca, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Amarela. (87 points)

2011 Prats and Symington Douro Post Scriptum de Chryseia - Portugal, Douro
SRP: $25
A light purple color. Roasted coffee and smoke accent the plum and black cherry aromas. Nice grit from the tannins but freshness comes from the acid. The black cherry and plum fruit is pure and crisp, backed up by coffee, rich loam and a pleasant dose of vanilla and cinnamon. The finish is long and delicious. Impressive structure, this wine has some staying power. A blend of 56% Touriga Nacional, 30% Touriga Franca, 7% Tinta Barroca and 7% Tinta Roriz. (89 points)

2011 Sandeman Porto Vintage - Portugal, Douro, Porto
SRP: $80
Dark, lush purple color. Aromas of brandied plums, blackberry jam, charcoal and violets. So full and big on the palate, with prune and blackberry fruit mixed with sweet coconut shavings and chocolate. A deep sense of crushed rocks and granite. Sweet and saucy but still fresh. Long, full, intense finish. So good, but so young. If you got married in 2011, bury some of this for your 30th! The first declared vintage since 2007, and it’s awesome. (92 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

5 California Wineries That Wowed Me in 2013

2013 was a great year, wasn’t it? Over the course of the year I tasted a lot of amazing wines and toured many a beautiful California vineyard. As a writer for the daily wine blog Terroirist, I blind-tasted my way through a lot of samples in 2013, most of which hailed from CA. I found myself gravitating toward several producers who put out consistently awesome wines, regardless of vintage or grape variety.

Some of these winemakers are new-ish, some are just new to me, some have been bottling vino since before I was born. But all of these producers wowed me in 2013 with wines of high quality and distinction. I haven’t tasted the full portfolios from these five producers (yet). But from what I’ve tasted so far, I feel confident enough saying: If one of these folks made the wine, then it’s probably legit. I’m also excited to see more 2012s from these producers, because winemakers from all over the state seem psyched about that vintage. And when you taste the 2012s, it’s easy to see why.

All the wines in this post were tasted and scored blind, unless otherwise noted.

Alta Maria

Alta Maria kicked off in 2004, but this producer was new to me until I discovered their wines in blind tastings in the fall. Alta Maria takes a focused but humble approach to Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Their wines show tangy acid, complex non-fruit flavors and, perhaps best of all, incredibly reasonable price points. It’s rare to find a producer making reliably exciting wines in the $18-$30 range. Alta Maria is one of them.

Alta Maria is the cooperative effort of owner James Ontiveros and winemaker Paul Wilkins. Ontiveros traces his family’s California roots all the way back to the late 1700s, and his family once owned land all over Santa Barbara and Orange Counties. Ontiveros has worked for Kendall-Jackson as a field supervisor and for Gallo, maintaining relationships with growers throughout the North Coast. Wilkins showed off his winemaking skills while working for Alban, and went on to start Wilkins Vinotech, a consulting firm for start-up wineries. Through Alta Maria, these guys set out to, “make genuine, honest and authentic wines that were inspired by the old world regions of France.” And that’s exactly what they’re doing.

2011 Alta Maria Sauvignon Blanc - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Aromas of honeysuckle, lemon-lime, a hint of green herbs and white pepper. Medium-bodied, lots of acid keeps this thing tart and lively. Grapefruit, lots of tangerine, the fruit is backed up by notes of sea salt and fresh green herbs and peppers. Tangy, focused, with some significant complexity. I’m impressed, especially considering the price. 100% stainless steel, no maloactic fermentation. (90 points)

2012 Alta Maria Chardonnay - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($23)
A straw-yellow color. On the nose: tangerine, white cherry, lemon-lime, honeysuckle. On the palate: tangy but creamy, lots of floral notes blend with the tangerine and papaya, some honeycomb and almond elements, minerals and sea salt. Shows a lot of elegance and complexity. Fermented and aged 31 months in French oak. (90 points)

2010 Alta Maria Pinot Noir - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($24)
Aromas of rich plum, black cherries, some pepper and cranberry sauce elements. Juicy and ripe on the palate, with black cherry and tangy plum fruit. Fine tannins and crisp acid make this so pleasant to sip. Some pepper and black olive, too, and the toast is well-integrated. I was surprised to see this was an appellation blend, because it drinks like a single-vineyard Pinot. Great quality-to-price ratio. Aged 17 months in 1/3 new French oak. (89 points)


I’d never heard of Dierberg until I unveiled one of their Pinot Noirs in a blind tasting. After tasting a few of their wines, I’m officially a fan.

They’re bankers by profession, but proprietors Jim and Mary Dierberg had owned a winery before… in Hermann, Missouri. They’d been building up the historic Hermannhof Winery since 1974, but they wanted to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the St. Louis area is less than ideal for growing Burgundian varieties. But they found what they were looking for in the Santa Barbara area. In 1997, they planted the Dierberg Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, which is now home to some downright awesome Pinot and Chardonnay, and a tiny bit of Syrah. The Drum Canyon Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills was planted in 2003 to Chard and Pinot as well.

Winemaker Tyler Thomas, formerly of Sonoma’s Donelan Family Wines, joined Dierberg this summer. I’ve loved Tyler’s wines in the past, and I look forward to tasting his Dierberg stuff in the future.

2010 Dierberg Chardonnay - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($32)
I get some hazelnut and lemon oil notes on the nose, covering the yellow apple and lime. On the palate, this wine has a medium-bodied frame and crisp, persistent acid. The yellow apple and apricot flavors show richness, with notes of whipped honey, walnut and a kind or oily, varnished wood note. Long finish. I’m enjoying the combination of freshness and richness in this Chardonnay. Undergoes 10% maloactic fermentation and spends 10 months in 25% new oak. (90 points)

2010 Dierberg Pinot Noir - Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($44)
Bold aromas of black cherries and plums, along with a bunch of rose and violet aromas, a hint of loamy soil. On the palate, some fine tannins, medium acid and rich fruit (black cherries, currants and a bit of strawberry mixed in). Earthy, with tobacco and a good amount of cedar and mocha. Generous, but showing some restraint as well. Long finish with notes of vanilla and pepper. (90 points)

2011 Dierberg Pinot Noir Drum Canyon Vineyard - Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills ($44)
Aromas of fresh black cherries, wild strawberries, sweet vanilla, some spicy pepper. Medium tannins with rounded edges, the mouthfeel is creamy, and the acid that keeps it fresh. Cranberries and tart red cherries mix with notes of rhubarb, root beer and white pepper. Some notes of caramel, vanilla and mocha, but not too much, and the wine maintains some restraint and elegance. Easy to drink now, but it should get more expressive over the next year. Love the tart finish. (91 points)

2010 Dierberg Syrah Estate Grown - Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley ($34)
Concentrated on the nose with black cherry, pepper, some blueberry, violet, root beer. Firm, gritty tannins, moderate acid. The fruit is creamy and rich yet full of nuance. Black cherry, blueberry and dark plums mix with secondary flavors of black olive, sweet barbecue sauce, mocha, even a bit of a rocky-mineral aspect. Full and pretty, but this also shows staying power. If it had just a bit more acid, I’d be even more excited. Regardless, this is a very pretty wine. (91 points)

Kelly Fleming

Kelly Fleming crafts unique and intellectually stimulating wines from the Napa staple varieties Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Proprietor Kelly Fleming moved to Napa from Arizona in 1998 with hopes of starting a boutique winery. They planted a few acres of Cabernet in a little pocket of Calistoga, and their first vintage, 2002, came out in the spring of 2005. Their Cab is actually 100% Cab, no Merlot or Cab Franc chaser.

These days, Kelly and winemaker Celia Welch have been getting some serious accolades for their Cab. One taste, and I get it. I’d love to try a Kelly Fleming Cab with a decade of age on it.
2012 Kelly Fleming Wines Sauvignon Blanc - Napa Valley ($36)
Clear, light yellow color. Aromas of orange blossom, white peach, honeysuckle, some pineapple. Medium+ body, medium acid, there’s a waxy-creamy aura to this wine. A lot of nice peach and pear fruit, glazed with a mix of honey and almond. Rich and forward, but I like the tang and the floral, herbal and mineral notes on the finish. Impressive depth. Made from primarily the Musque clone, this wine sees a combination of French oak and stainless steel. (90 points)

2010 Kelly Fleming Wines Cabernet Sauvignon - Napa Valley ($110)
Black cherries, currants, coffee, black licorice and toast on the nose, really rich and perhaps a bit foreboding. Firm tannins on the palate meet a moderate dose of acid, combining for a velvety mouthfeel. Lots of blackberry and currant fruit, mixed in with a hefty dose of cedar, sweet oak and mocha. Notes of tobacco and birch beer linger long into the finish. Very rich, but also very well made. Long life ahead. 100% Cab, aged 20 months 80% new French oak. I could see rating this higher in two or three years. (91 points)

The Smith Bros back in the day. Napa Valley bad ass.
Photo: Smith-Madrone.

Founded in 1971, Smith-Madrone’s winery is located on Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena. The operation is run by brothers Stuart Smith, managing partner and vineyard manager, and Charles Smith III, winemaker. They dry farm their estate vineyards, which line steep slopes between 1,300 and 2,000 feet in elevation. Their mountain wines are dynamic, lively and they show a refreshing sense of purity and minerality.

One of my favorite discoveries this year was Smith-Madrone’s 2012 Spring Mountain District Riesling. I’m rarely excited by Rieslings from Napa, but this one stoked my palate with refreshing dryness, intense minerality, high acid and loads of stone fruit and minerals. Some notes on recent Smith-Madrone wines…

2010 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($30)
The fruit smells honeyed and rich, yet these shaved lime peel, sea shell and peanut brittle notes demand attention as well. It all combines in a beautiful aromatic display. This Chardonnay introduces itself by barging through the door, with pineapple, melon, honey, and mixed nuts from the oak. (It spends 8 months in 100% new French oak). But it’s still bright from the acid, which is crucial to have in wines with this kind of intensity. Orange peel, seashell, caramel and hazelnut linger long onto the finish. A brave wine that challenges — and rewards — my palate. (92 points)

2011 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Estate Bottled - California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($30)
Gold-yellow color with viscous legs. Aromas of whipped honey, pear, apricot and nougat, mixed in with a hint of limestone or chalk. On the palate, the yellow apple and pear fruit is coated in nougat, peanut shell and a distinct macadamia nut flavor. There’s a nice kick to the acid, though, offering some balance. I like this lemon zest and chalk note as well. Bold, but not heavily creamy. Interesting because it’s toasty, but still tangy, and offering some mineral and rock accents. Long finish with notes of honeycomb and toffee. Barrel-fermented and aged 8 months in 100% new French oak. (91 points)

2012 Smith-Madrone Riesling Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($27)
A very light yellow color. Aromas of grapefruit, white flowers, some apricot and a distinct crushed limestone note. The acid tingles the palate as the apricot, creamy peach and green melon roll in. There’s an awesome lime juice and rock quarry aspect that reminds me of the Mosel, which I’m not sure I’ve ever said about a Napa Riesling. Very crisp and lively, this likely has some fun evolution ahead of it. (90 points)

2007 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District ($42)
Dark and brooding on the nose, with blackberries, cassis, toasted oak and hints of sweet mocha. Dry, tight tannins on the palate. The heavily toasted oak bursts onto the scene early and stands its ground until the finish. Luckily there’s a good dose of blackberries and plums fruit, which is powerful enough to tame the oak just a bit. Violet, soil and tobacco leaf flavors (almost undetectable upon uncorking) become vibrant with just 15 minutes of air, and more and more so over the course of a few hours. That sweet mocha flavor lingers long onto the finish. Good stuff, but must be a fan of the toast. Includes 2% Merlot and 1% Cab Franc. Aged 22 months in new American white oak. (88 points)

2009 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Bottled - Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $45
Dark ruby color. Aromas of plum sauce, black cherries, sweet vanilla, caramel, some nice forest floor and peppered steak. On the palate, medium acid and firm, gritty tannins. Currants and plum fruit lead the way, followed by some kicking spices, charcoal and an herbal, maybe a pickled beet note? Sweet vanilla and cedar, but not too much, and theyre matched by the fallen leaves and soil notes that come out strong on the finish. I love this tart pickle note. A unique wine with equal parts guts and nuance. Seriously impressive stuff thats built to last. Includes 8% Merlot and 8% Cab Franc, the wine was aged 22 months in new American white oak. (92 points)

Vie Winery

I’ve tasted some Vie wines over the years, but in 2013 a bunch of their wines graced my palate. While on a trip to San Francisco, I stopped by the Winery Collective in Fisherman’s Wharf. Seeing a flight of Vie wines on the list, I knew immediately I was in the right place. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it out to Vie’s winery on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, but I’ve heard is worth the visit. Upon returning home to DC, I tasted a bunch of Vie’s wines in blind tastings for Terroirist, and they wowed me blind just as much as they did sighted.

Vie sources Rhone varieties from high-quality vineyards throughout the state, from Santa Barbara (White Hawk, Thompson) to Napa (Beatty Ranch in Howell Mountain) to Mendocino County (Alder Springs). Vie is the product of Bryan Kane and a small group of wine nerd friends. Winemaker Todd Seaver has been crafting Vie wines since 2005, and he’s got a solid track record. According to Vie’s web site, Seaver’s “primarily aim is to create full wines with palate weight and good body, that have a sharp, bright acidity and sing with food.” I’d say he’s doing pretty well, although some of the young Syrahs may require a serious brisket or lamb shank in order to “sing.”

2011 Vie Winery Roussanne - California, North Coast, Lake County ($29)
Aromas of white flowers, honeycomb, white peach and some mineral and lime accents. Richly-textured on the palate but it shows tangy acid. Flavors of orange peel, mango and notes of lime, along with vanilla, toast, caramel and honey. More focus and tang than the 2009 I tasted recently. (90 points)

2012 Vie Winery Belle-Amie - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($18)
Looks like the color of a cherry Jolly Rancher candy. A kick of pepper is the first thing I notice on the nose, followed up by rose hips, watermelon and wild strawberries. The palate displays a big, creamy feel along with persistent acid. The watermelon and strawberry fruit tastes fresh and ripe, there’s also this lime and grapefruit aspect that keeps it snappy. The white pepper and herbal undertones work great. Full, complex, but the acid makes it food-friendly. An impressive rosé from a reliable producer. Mostly Mourvèdre, with Grenache and Syrah. (89 points)

2007 Vie Winery Syrah Les Amours - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($30)
Tasted sighted at the Winery Collective tasting room. Age does wonderful things for Vie’s wines. The purity of fruit on the nose is impressive, plums, black cherries, mixed in with rose petals. Firm tannins on the palate, fresh acid, the combination is really silky. Lots of plums, black cherries, along with smoke, pepper, potting soil and rose petal notes. Long finish. Seems to be in a great place right now, and seems like it could easily improve for three or for more years. (90 points)

2010 Vie Winery Syrah White Hawk Vineyard - Central Coast, Santa Barbara County ($45)
Smells really smoky, like barbecued meat over the grill, on top of tons of fruit: blackberries, rich blueberries and plums. Big and bold on the palate, but solid tannin structure and some fresh acid. Blueberries and black cherries lead the way. I like the mix of brandied plums and root beer with the peppered steak and charcoal flavors. Rich, but there’s enough balance that it’s easy to drink. Really delicious and seductive stuff. Fermented with 3% Viognier. (92 points)

2010 Vie Winery Syrah Las Madres Vineyard - Sonoma, Carneros ($39)
A heavenly nose, mixing currant, plum and blueberry fruit with campfire smoke, rich earth, also some savory undertones and clove. So pure and lush on the palate, with velvety tannins and moderate acid. Lots of blueberry and black currant fruit, along with a complex blend of earth, smoke, roasted chestnut and clove, just a hint of meat underneath. This wine has an effortless kind of beauty to it, and it’s hitting all the right notes for my palate. A long evolution ahead. Using 20% whole cluster fermentation, this Syrah is co-fermented with 3% Viognier and aged 18 months in 25% new French Oak. (93 points)

2010 Vie Winery Zinfandel Beatty Ranch - Napa Valley, Howell Mountain ($39)
Blueberry, strawberry rhubarb pie, smoke, red licorice, sweet flowers… what an aromatic display. Rich and plush on the palate, with chewy tannins and some acid for balance. A mix of blueberry and strawberry combines in this tart yet bold display of fruit. Notes of black pepper, sweet pipe tobacco, earth and clove linger onto the finish. Beautifully bold, this wine also delivers serious complexity and the capacity for improvement in the cellar. Wow, what a great example of old-vine Howell Mountain Zinfandel. (93 points)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Poetry of the Wine Label

Far too many wine labels are full of purple prose. You know the stuff, rolling hillsides kissed with abundant sunshine, grapes crushed by the calloused hands of a conscientious winemaker. Or the back label telling you what kind of toasted bread you should taste on the finish or what kind of sauce you should drizzle on your seared scallop pairing. 

But as an avid reader, writer and wine-drinker, I appreciate when producers take a thoughtful approach to placing words on the bottle. I admit calling wine label language poetry might be a stretch. Writing on a wine bottle is, after all, a pitch for a product. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be good. Wine is emotive, and sipping a glass of wine encourages us to analyze it, and enjoy it, through language. In this era of instant communication through so many different media, the wine bottle itself is often the most intimate line of contact between producer and consumer. And some producers make the most of that opportunity.

Back in September, I enjoyed a
2010 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley’s Sokol Blosser. These folks combined a description of the vineyards with a declaration of their wine philosophy and a restrained tasting note. And they organized the label language in a manner that could be called poetic:

A nice mix of rain and sun. Warm breezes. Fog.
The fruits of sustainable farming. 16 months in
French oak. Flavors of black cherry, licorice, and
Blackberry. Smooth tannins. Deep affection.

When it comes to creative wine label language, sometimes less is more. I’m often wary of back labels with an essay’s worth of words. There seems to be a correlation between the shittiness of a wine and the length to which the label waxes about its deliciousness. One of my favorite examples of wine label writing is also one of the shortest. 

Last year I enjoyed a 2000 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir from Lane Tanner. This 13-year-old Pinot was full of spice and pickle notes on a tangy, medium-bodied frame. Mature for sure, but still lively. After a sip or two, pleased with my selection, I checked the back label. It read, simply: “This wine is a very smart choice.” Indeed it was. 

Cinquain Cellars of Paso Robles embraces the wine label as a medium for creative writing. The winery is named for a short poetic form which consists of five lines of two, four, six, eight and two syllables apiece. The husband-wife team behind this outfit, David and Beth Nagengast, chose the following cinquain to sum up their wine vision:

pruned, picked, and pressed,
all by hand, on our land,
we share our art form and passion,
with you.

Alliterative, concise, it’s not profound, but I like it. David and Beth also solicit poems from their customers every year, and they use the best on Cinquain’s wine labels. Here’s one from their 2011 Hames Vineyard Petite Sirah from Monterey County.

The grapes
Pour their story
Speaking in lusty notes
With a voice of velvet pleasure

Winemaker Bill Frick, of Frick Winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, has been writing poems on his wine labels since 1977. “I prefer an abstract way of describing wine,” Frick told RW&W. “Every one of my wines and vintages has its own unique poem. The inspiration for the words comes from the character of the wine, the scenes, ideas and what is happening here around the vineyard and winery.” Here are some of my favorites…

1985 Pinot Noir
Red velvet, blue beard, old leather satchel full
of wild mushrooms and straw.
The rain starts but the cave is near. 

1985 Napa Grenache  
Grin when you say Grenache.
A serious jester juggles red jelly beans. 

1993 Syrah
the mountain is so close
you can’t see it

“Many people don’t notice the poem,” Frick says. “Those who do are enthusiastic and want to read more bottles. Some are not sure and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ Sometimes customers remember a specific wine only by the poem.”

Facebook posts are also poetic in nature, while providing basic information about the producer.

I spied the Frick tasting house through leafless brush.
A bright winter day. No one was there because it’s Tuesday.
Frick Tasting House open weekends 12-4:30.

Here’s another one, a clever Rhone-themed poem:

Winegrapes as verbs…

To syrah downtown is my wish.
Rainy days make me counoise.
The best place to viognier is in a box seat.
I carignane when I see a sad movie.
She will cinsaut when the sun sets.
Every time I mourvèdre I think of the you.
I grenache when the news comes on.

Environmental science writer
William L. Fox has a passion for soil and terroir, which led him to write wine labels for some Oregon winemakers. As author of many nonfiction books, 15 collections of poetry and the former editor of the West Coast Poetry Review, the guy knows how to turn a phrase. But when he looks at a wine label, Fox doesn’t want to see flowery tasting notes. He wants to get a sense of the place. “I’m not interested in someone telling me what they think the wine tastes like, but rather the elements out of which it comes,” he told RW&W.

In a 2011
interview with Edible Geography, Fox described what he aimed for when writing up a wine label: “You could combine a Weather Channel report with a USGS geologist’s field report with a geomorphologist’s soil analysis, and you still wouldn’t quite have it.” Sure the wine label presents a challenging medium, but when it’s done right, Fox says wine label writing can have a powerful impact on the reader. “I do still go to the store and read the back labels. I chortle sometimes, and other times I’m in awe,” he told Edible Geography. “I’m the same way with books, as an author. That’s what a wine label is — a small book.”

Of course, the language on the label matters little if the juice doesn’t back it up. If the wine sucks, I don’t care if you put an unpublished Bukowski poem on the label, I’m not going to be happy. But if the wine tastes good and expresses a sense of place, well-chosen words can make the experience even more rewarding.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wine Reivews: Grab Bag of California Reds

I taste a lot of California Cabernets and Pinot Noirs for the daily wine blog Terroirist. These popular varietal wines get a lot of attention, and rightly so. But today I’ve lumped together some "other" California reds, Zins, Merlots and a few red blends. Hearty, bold reds like these can make even the coldest winter day bearable. All these wines were received as trade samples and tasted blind.
SRP: $18
Medium purple color. Aromas show red currants, wild raspberries as well as tobacco and some herbal-spicy notes. Dry tannins provide structure and medium acid keeps it together. I like the cranberry and tangy raspberry notes, as well as the pepper, dill pickle and tobacco flavors. It’s ripe, yet subtle at the same time. Actually, this wine could be called elegant, and I can’t remember the last time I used that word to describe California Zinfandel. 79% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah and 1% Merlot, aged 10 months in 20% new French oak. (88 points)

If you like Zin, Grgich Hills is such a reliable bet.
2010 Grgich Hills Zinfandel Estate Grown - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $35
Bright medium ruby color. On the nose, I get a whole lot: smoke and charcoal, vanilla and earth, black currant jam, paved street and asphalt, some pepper. Full and glycerin-like on the palate, with black currants and prune fruit. Lots of secondary flavors: earth and iron and mineral, bell pepper and black pepper, asphalt and rocks. Delicious and complex stuff, but I bet this could benefit from a year or two in the cellar. (90 points)

2010 Vie Winery Zinfandel Beatty Ranch - California, Napa Valley, Howell Mountain
SRP: $39
Blueberry, strawberry rhubarb pie, smoke, red licorice, sweet flowers… what an aromatic display. Rich and plush on the palate, with chewy tannins and some acid for balance. A mix of blueberry and strawberry combines in this tart yet bold display of fruit. Notes of black pepper, sweet pipe tobacco, earth and clove linger onto the finish. Beautifully bold, this wine also delivers serious complexity and the capacity for improvement in the cellar. Wow, what a great example of old-vine Howell Mountain Zinfandel. (93 points)

A lineup of Ravenswood wines is a beautiful thing.
2011 Ravenswood Zinfandel Dickerson - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $35
Clear light rub color. Black cherries in the nose, not as expressive as the Old Hill or Belloni. Nice tanginess to the acid, lighter tannins, but nicely drying. Red currants and plums, tangy, some clay-earth notes. A bit lacking compared to other Ravenswood Zins perhaps, but tasty. 100% Zin, 19 months in 25% new French oak. (85 points)

2011 Ravenswood Zinfandel Belloni - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $35
Ruby color. Creamy fruit on the nose, red raspberries, black cherries, violets and roses. I like the tangy acid on the palate and the silky tannins. Full of flavor, with plums and ripe raspberries and roses, all fresh and seamless, with earth and smoke and rose accents. Dare I say elegant? A lot of complexity, but it seems ready to drink now. 75% Zinfandel, 25% “mixed blacks” 19 months in 25% new French oak. (91 points)

2011 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Hill - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $60
Clear bright ruby color. Spice-toned nose with raspberries, red cherries and sweet red licorice. Fine tannins and medium acid on the palate. Raspberry and red plum fruit dominates, and there’s a lot of spice, earth, chestnut and eucalyptus. A nice brisk finish. Pure and lively. 75% Zinfandel and 25% “mixed blacks” aged 19 months in 30% new French oak. (90 points)

Ravenswood has been making bold, deep Sonoma reds since
the late '70s. This Carignan-based blend is a great example.
2011 Ravenswood “Icon Mixed Blacks - California, Sonoma County
SRP: $75
A purple-magenta color. Smells of blueberries and raspberries, charcoal smoke, sweet black licorice. I’m surprised by the tangy acid, which checks the juicy black cherry and wild blueberry fruit. Firm tannic power, lots of loam, red clay and granite flavors. Full and fleshy but quite easy to drink. I love the pepper and soy sauce notes on the finish. An old school Sonoma blend of 47% Carignan, 26% Zinfandel, 22% Petite Sirah and 5% Alicante Bouschet. 19 months in 40% new French oak. (91 points)

2010 Ravenswood “Pickberry - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Mountain
SRP: $50
A darker ruby-purple color. Dark aromatics of caramel and brown sugar on top of plums, charcoal, violets, bell pepper and smoke. Grippy on the palate, with firm tannins and flreshy fruit. Mushroom and leather notes mix with the black cherry and blackberry fruit. A blend of 53% Merlot, 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cab Franc and 2% Malbec. Aged 20 months in 40% new French oak. (87 points)

SRP: $18
Bright purple-ruby color. Smells like sweet plums, caramel and a coconut and bourbon note. Rich and jammy on the palate, with smooth tannins and medium-to-low acid. Sweet plums and blackberries mix with vanilla and smoke. More of a party red than a food-friendly wine. Not sure what’s in here, but I’m guessing Zin and Petite Sirah. (85 points)

2012 Magnolia Court Merlot - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
A bright purple color. Smells a bit hot, some roasted plum, coffee and a spicy-cedar note. Tannins are rounded out enough, and there’s a bit of acid as well. Nice mix of red plums with richer, blueberry fruit, all full and ripe. Some notes of earth and pepper. I get this flavor that reminds me of vanilla and fig cookies on the finish. I liked this better than their 2012 Cabernet. (86 points)

2010 Gundlach Bundschu Merlot Estate Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Sonoma Valley
SRP: $30
On the nose, dark currants and raspberries, also some blueberry tones, earth, roasted coffee. Firm, grippy tannins provide a lot of structure, but the acid shows some balance. The black cherry, currant and blueberry fruit is pure, delicious and full of flavor. Complex flavors of dark chocolate, espresso, vanilla and dried leaves. A young wine that would benefit from some unwinding, but this is a lovely Merlot. 8% Cab, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. (90 points)

Review: 2009 Grgich Hills Merlot Estate Grown - California, Napa Valley
SRP: $42
Love the aromas: I get fresh red currants, roses and violets, tobacco, even some peppermint? Surprisingly grippy on the palate, with firm tannins and moderate acid. Darker fruit (more like black currants and black cherries) along with some tobacco and graphite. A good amount of cedar and mocha, but overall I think it balances out. Long finish with notes of potting soil and vanilla. Very nice, but this is another one for the cellar. (90 points)

2010 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Franc “Stepping Stone - California, Napa Valley
On the nose I get lots of deep black currants, black cherries, and some loamy, tobacco notes. Very rich, but this has firm tannins and some tangy acid. The blackberry and currant fruit is creamy and rich, laced with chewing tobacco, mint and toasted oak and charcoal. But it’s not overblown, as this maintains freshness and a bit of mineral. Long finish. Opulent now, but you could definitely hold onto this for a bit. (90 points)

2010 JL Giguiere Tempranillo “Matchbook” - California, Central Valley, Dunnigan Hills
SRP: $15
On the nose, smoke and charcoal mix in with black and red currants and dark plums, after a bit of air it showed more rose and tobacco aromas. Fine tannins, medium acid. The plummy, currant and raspberry fruit is velvety and tangy, backed up by cherry wood, hazelnut and dark roasted coffee. Some tobacco leaf and smoke on the finish. A blend of 83% Tempranillo, 10% Tannat and 7% Graciano, aged in a mix of French, Hungarian and American oak, 20% new. Very good for the money. (89 points)

2011 Palmeri “Dark and Brooding - California, Sonoma County
Clear, medium ruby color. Aromas of cassis, black cherries, rose petals, cedar, some roasted coffee. Medium tannins, a little dusty, some moderate acid for freshness. Fleshy black cherries and dark plums are mixed in with chestnut, cedar and soil notes, a nice kick of sweet pipe tobacco and vanilla on the finish. Powerful and rich, but it maintains and silky feel. Drinking well right now. Despite the “dark and brooding” moniker, this is very lively. They don’t say what varieties are in here, but it sure drinks like a Cab-Merlot-Cab Franc-Malbec blend. (90 points)

SRP: $20
Smells like barbecue sauce, plums, blackberries, smoke and some coffee. Fine, silky tannins, low acid. The palate shows residual sugar-coated raspberries and blackberries, along with notes of coffee, toast and caramel, a hint of spice. Fun, but it drinks more like a cocktail. (81 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.