Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A New Pinot I Wanted to Hate

Given my perchance for Pinot Noir, you’re probably wonder why I would ever hate any PN before even taking a sip. You’ll be more confounded to learn that a Pinot from the producer of the PN in question received Laube’s highest Pinot rating ever, that the producer has a very tightly allocated mailing list and that I’m actually on it. What’s to hate?? OK so the producer in question is the Kosta Browne Winery and their first release of small quantities of their Pinot immediately created cult-like status for the winery. Therein lies the rub, I hate cults, religious, political, social, wino, I don’t want to be part of anything so extreme, so blind to reality and variety, so brainwashed. Plus, truth be told I didn’t like Laube’s smug, look what we at WS discovered, review of KB’s first releases a year or so ago, as if he had something to do with the very high quality of the wines being produced at KB. Get over yourself, James, you had nothing whatsoever to do with Kosta Browne's wine making success. Finally, there are a number of respected critics that find KB’s style—big, bold, fruit forward, to be the antithesis of the restrained, mysterious, delicate Pinots (read Burgundies) that they favor. Put that mish mash together and you get my pre-opening mind set.

So I had a couple of guests over the other night, my brother and our friend Joe, who, along with my wife, served as my guinea pigs for the first bottle of Kosta Browne Pinot that I’ve opened. Tough sledding, I know, but someone had to do it, along with sitting there and eating my food (we also had a bottle of the 200o Beaucastel Blanc, which was lovely, before the KB, and the 2003 Delectus Oakville afterwards, which was also quite good but did not match the KB Pinot). I tasted the wine in private away from them first, writing down my initial thoughts, taking three glasses downstairs to the thirty trio, then returning to the wine again by myself, all in an effort to not be persuaded by anything they said or noted. This is my blog, BTW, so I really don't give a shit what others think in the context of what I taste.

The wine in question was the Kosta Browne 2004 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, which I purchased directly from the winery for about $42. It checks in at a robust 14.7% alcohol. According to the KB website, the 2004 Sonoma Coast is a blend of four vineyards; Kanzler, Guisti Ranch, Pleasant Hill and Dutton-Manzana. Apparently, all of these vineyards lie in and around Green Valley, which is one of the coolest climates in Sonoma County. Seventeen months of barrel aging with 31% new oak. Sorry but I don't think you can find this in the market but if you see it on some wine list somewhere, well do what you have to do.

Tasting Notes: Very dark red, almost indigo in the glass. Nose of ripe black cherries, smoky and sweet mid-palate, fantastically rich and plush, dark fruits, with notes of slate and chocolate supporting great structure. Long smooth finish with blackberries that is almost Cab like. This is not a Pinot for the faint of heart, with its bold flavors and textures but it’s a delicious wine made by craftsmen who really know what they are doing. Bottom line, this is a wine to love not hate and the four of us drank every last drop of it.

Rating: Excellent
Cheers, Barrld

Friday, March 23, 2007

Promotional Madness

Look every wine blogger secretly would be thrilled to become the next big time wine critic, making a living drinking wine every day, regularly tasting some of the finest wines ever made, traveling to a number of the coolest places in the world, never paying for wines to be tried, fame (at times infamy) amongst a multitude of peers; the life and lifestyle are very appealing, at least in a vacuum. Given the importance of blogs to wineries these days, especially those in California, various established bloggistas get on the promotional bandwagon and review wines sent to them for free, as part of a winery's marketing scheme. While numerous wine critics in print swear off of freebies, most notably His Majesty RP, and the Spectator only tastes promotional wines double blind, the blog world, being more democratic (desperate?), accepts wines on promotion for non-blind review. From my casual survey of blogs well established enough to attract regular samples from wineries, especially new ones that are trying to garner a name and marketable good press, adequate disclosure is made that the wine was received for the express purpose of a review following the tasting. Nothing sinister here, journalistic integrity is not at risk.

For me, this puny, modestly read blog hasn’t stirred up too much interest except amongst family and friends. I have accepted the fact that writing for the WS is not in my future, unless it’s in the Letters to the Editor section. To date, all of the wines I’ve reviewed here have come from my personal cellar and have been paid for with my own hard earned greenbacks. That is until now . . . full disclosure everyone.


Honestly it’s more complicated than that—from another blog I read that Twisted Oak Winery had a contest to write the “tasting notes” for the back label of its current white Rhone blend. When I perused the website I saw that eager bloggers could send an email about their site and if found worthy a promotional bottle could be sent. I pinged the winery, one thing lead to another and I received a bottle of the Twisted Oak 2005 Calaveras County *%#&@!, a red Rhone-style blend, in a two bottle box, including mostly geek notes about the wine, grape selection, harvest info, sites, data, etc. along with a rubber chicken, which did not have any tasting notes. My son named the chicken "Clucky" and he and my daughter regularly play with it, so I doubt that it will ever see the inside of a pot.

Now the Twisted Oak website is hilarious, very offbeat, bordering on profane (though I don't find it "twisted" in any fashion), and generally nutty. The folks at TO do not take themselves seriously so I kind of wondered how they would treat their wines. As you can see from the note below, it turns out that TO really focuses its efforts on wine making, and they seem to have gotten that part down. Just where is Calaveras County? Didn't Mark Twain chase frogs there or some such thing? Locationally, if you were driving from Santa Cruz to Lake Tahoe as the crow flies you would jog through Calaveras. The TO winery is located in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 2000 feet above sea level, in the heart of California gold country.

Another relevant point--as you know, I'm profligate when it comes to buying wines that catch my fancy. Thus, I would never over rate a wine that I received for free to curry favor with a winery, unless it was DRC. At the same time, one part of me wanted to be really rigorous in my review of the 2005 *%#&@! to show that I was a serious critic and not some sap searching the web for free shit. Then of course I tried the wine and, well, even the most hard headed taster will find it appealing. This is good juice and, if I ever get any room in my now overflowing cellar, I plan on actually buying some for the summer season.

Notes on the Wine: Given the informative "geek sheet" that came with the wine, let me pass on some details--Mourvedre from two distinct vineyards makes up 51% of the wine, followed by 33% Syrah and 16% Grenache, again from two separate vineyards; the majority of the grapes were sourced from Calaveras County. The wine checks in at 14.1% alcohol and costs $28 on the website, though with various discounts and such, you're looking at $23 or so a bottle. The wine spent 11 months in a mixture of new and 1 year old French oak and older American and neutral oak.

Tasting Notes: Garnet in the glass. Perfumed nose of chocolate, blackberry and jasmine, black plum and graphite mid-palate, well textured and meaty, with notes of game and brioche. Good finish with sweet dark fruit, smoke and cardamon. This is a complex, multi-faceted wine that is very satisfying to drink alone and will match very well with meats from the grill and rustic, spicy offerings. Appealing to a variety of palates, this offering will hold its own against some of the better 2004 CdP's on the market today. Bravo.

Rating: Excellent.

Cheers, Barrld

Thursday, March 22, 2007

1999 Red Teeth Part 2

I never really got the Australian Shiraz craze; giant purple fruit bombs that stained your teeth and burned your mouth with their 15% to 16% alcohol. We're talking a "G'day" punch in the mouth. Where's the texture, the nuances, the refinement? I've never had Penfolds Grange, Hill of Grace, Hobbs or any of the others from the $100 plus club from OZ; perhaps that's where one can find an exquisite wine from Down Under. I bought a couple of bottles of the Thorne-Clark Shotfire Ridge Shiraz 2003 for about $20 a bottle and, contrary to the stellar WS review and 93 point rating I found the wine to taste like liquid grape jam with a heavy helping of black pepper. It settled down by the third day on my kitchen counter but who needs to wrestle elegance out of a raging bull of a wine? I should have know from the name that I'd be picked buckshot out of my teeth after every sip.

I did make a foray into the Aussie world at random when I was sitting minding my own business at a 2001 Christie's Beverly Hills auction. A flurry of activity on some previously lots created one of those weird auction lulls when it seems that no one is paying attention. A case of Henry's Drive 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Padthaway came up and no one bid on it. Being a helium hand, my paddle shot up at the opening bid which was less than the low range in the catalogue. No one else bid so it was "SOLD" to paddle #284, aka me, for about $24 a bottle. Honestly, I had no idea what I purchased and thought that I was buying a Shiraz instead of a Cab. As Homer would say, "DOH!" A couple of key strokes later I read the story of this South Australian winemaking region, the mail carrying stage coaches, etc. etc. Sparky and Sarah Marquis, later of Marquis Phillips and the well publicized fallout with Dan Phillips, accusations of theft/mismanagement/embezzlement abounding, made this wine back in 1999 and they did a fine job of it.

Tasting Notes: Dark red/violet in the glass, black plums and currants on the nose, some classic cab notes of liquorice, cloves and leather. Good acidity and balance. No need to hold this one any longer as it's peaked. In a blind tasting I would have guessed a northern Rhone rather than a South Australian cab. Curiously no alcohol content was listed on the label, I wonder how that slipped through the cracks.

Rating: Very good, quaffable.

Cheers, Barrld

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Red Teeth Circa 1999--Part 1

I really didn't get into collecting wines until about 10 years ago, when my palate was in its infancy and my acquisition strategy was unformed (as compared to now, where it's almost entirely random and profligate). I picked up two completely different reds from very distinct sources at about the same time and, by chance, ended up drinking them back to back a few weeks ago. The serendipitous connection aside, the wines confirmed that good juice comes from a lot of places and that a diverse cellar with finds from all points of the globe can be quite wonderful. Enough waxing poetically, here's one of them, with the whole stinking story to boot:

Bethel Heights Vineyards. We were up in Portland Oregon for a wedding in the spring of 2001 (before the kids) and went out to dinner at a restaurant called Bluehour in the Pearl District--kind of snooty but good food. The story gets longer--I asked the wine guy for an Oregon Pinot recommendation and he brought out a bottle of St. Innocent Brickhouse Vineyard from 1998 I believe. It was a delicious wine and since we were free the next day, the wife indulged me and we went in search of St. Innocent Winery, which turned out to be located in a drab industrial space in Salem. We were the only visitors to the tasting "room" which was merely an office with an empty folding table; no one to be seen. After a minute, a young girl who appeared to be 16 greeted us then went to the refrigerator and brought out a half dozen bottles for us to try. Everything was quite good, from the Pinot Gris to the Chard to the Pinot Noirs that she offerred. We started to talk about buying wines and to show interest in knowing more, as compared to the usual glug and gallop crew, so our server went and got the winemaker and owner, Mark Vlossak. We learned that Mark was a negotiant in the Burgundy style of producer and owned no grapes, trucking everything into this dump, uh I mean site for processing etc. Mark brought out some of the better Pinots, thank you! and showed us around. No one else showed up during our entire visit and the teenager disappeared too. We were touring the fermentation space, which was full of spotless stainless steel vats, all empty as he had just put his 2000s into barrels, when the door of one of the vats opens up and out popped a little blond girl.

"So, that's the secret." I said, being so inclined. "Shhh!" Mark smiled, "let's keep it between us, OK?" We got a laugh out of his daughter's hide and seek antics and ended up buying a shitload of his wines for some real good prices, with an extra discount from Mark the winemaker, now friend for life. Plus we picked up some St. Innocent baseball caps for free! Net of it all, I asked Mark what one winery would he visit if he only had time to visit one more winery, which was all the time we had given our extended tour of St. Innocent. "Bethel Heights!" he said and off we went, with a great story, some fine wine (being shipped to our house in California) and a second quest to find good affordable Oregon Pinot Noir.

Now Bethel Heights is a real winery, with acres of grapes, a beautiful tasting room on a hill overlooking its vineyards, a picnic area (ubiquitous but lovely) and all the other consumables and comforts that you expect to find when you go to taste wine. It's about 20 minutes from Salem heading generally north and we found it rather easily with Mark's precise directions, though I suspect we would have struggled had he trekked out on our own. We tasted through a bunch of whites and reds, basically closing the tasting room down. We bought some Chards and Pinots and picked up this beauty, the Bethel Heights Vineyards 1999 Pinot Noir, Nysa Vineyard, Willamette Valley. I bought this wine from the winery direct for $30 and it checks in at a balanced 13.2% alcohol. Now I'm not sure how Oegon Pinots are supposed to age but 8 years may be pushing past the peak of some of the better selections from there. The Nysa seemed a bit mature when I opened it, though it livened up in the glass after a few minutes and was at its best after about an hour or so. Here are my notes: Nose of prunes and minerals, smoky mid-palate with blackberry and pomegranant notes. Earthy, and refined, its tannins are long gone. Cherries on the finish. This vintage needs to be consumed very soon.

Rating: Very good, quaffable.

Cheers, Barrld

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Glug, Glug, Glug

Here's a few more quick reviews of the wines I pounded through in the last 6 weeks or so, three very different whites from the same grape, for your consideration.

Melville 2004 Chardonnay Clone 76 Inox, Santa Rita Hills. I've reviewed Melville wines previously and noted that Greg Brewer is the mastermind at work here. Melville grows its own grapes too, something that is becoming relatively rare, with so many virtual wineries out there buying grapes from the 15 wines in the K block, elevation 1,111 SW, you know what I mean. The idea of farmer cum winemaker is more appealing to me, at least in theory. At any rate the Inox is made entirely in stainless steel and never sees a speck of oak, doesn't even look at a barrel. I guess the idea to get more of a classic Chablis grand cru thing going here but, while I enjoy an Inox now and then, it has never evoked images of a good Fevre to me. The wine checks in at 14.9% alcohol, suggesting a long hang time (do I hear over extracted??). I picked this bottle up direct from the winery and paid something in the mid-$20s. Here are my notes: Green/straw in the glass, with effervescence. Yes I mean some bubbles, weird, but not the first time for a bottle of Inox. Apricots and peaches on the nose, juicy, some minerality with tropical notes and pineapple ice at the finish. Melon aftertaste. Not enough acidity for me, making the wine a bit cloying.

Rating: Good.

Landmark 2003 Lorenzo Chardonnay, Russian River Valley. I'm a member of the Landmark Vineyards club and have accumulated a number of Pinots and Chards from the winery over the years. While the wines are quite consistent, and the Overlook version of their Chardonnay is a consistently great value, my tastes have moved on and it's time to quit getting this juice. I bought this bottle with the club discount for the low $40s, too expensive in hindsight. The wine checks in at 14% alcohol and, as with the Inox, was grown, produced and bottled by the folks at Landmark. The notes: Strawgold in the glass, lemon zest on the nose, vanilla and apricots with integrated oak throughout. Rich and syrupy with good acidity but not really structured or complex for me. A pleasantly tart finish with floral notes. Some life here but given the quality of wines out there, this should be a $25 wine.

Rating: Very good, quaffable.

Domaine Latour-Giraud Meusault Genevrieres, 1er Cru, 2002. I picked this wine up through my grey market connection in London when the dollar was stronger and paid about $40 a bottle all in, which turned out to be a fine deal. This wine claims the ever present 13.5% alcohol, though I think it's accurate if not a bit high. I wanted to love this wine as much as some of the critics do, but it falls just a bit short of being a great great white for me. Anyway, here are the notes: straw gold in the glass, flowers and lemon-lime nose, zesty, green apples and honeydew mid-palate, great balance and mouth feel, well textured with only an OK finish with more citrus tones.

Rating: Very good/excellent.

Cheers, Barrld

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Drive By Reviews

As previously noted I drink wine all the time, every day, any chance I get. My only other choice of alcohol is beer while watching sports in a bar, something that I will do this coming Thursday as UCLA plays its first NCAA Championship Tournament game at 4:30 and I must watch the Bruins, probably at Barney's in Santa Monica. Go Bruins!

Anyway, I have stray partial notes from five or six wines consumed over the last month or so and, instead of featuring only one wine around a theme of the moment, I thought to mix things up and give snap shots of a couple of pleasant tastings. Here you go with two of them:

Kaena Wines 2003 Grenache Camp 4 Vineyards, Santa Ynez Valley. This Rhone varietal clocks in at 14.9% alcohol (I wish they were more precise!) and a minor claim to fame is the fact that the winemaker lived in Hawaii, which accounts for the Hawaiian name and its label's floral design. Couple of points here; living in Hawaii teaches you nothing about winemaking, period. Kaena Point is actually a very spiritual place in the hierarchy of ancient Hawaiian beliefs, serving as a sort of gateway to the spirit world and such. "Ka'ena" means to boast or glorify. I guess I don't see the connection to wine.

Anyway, Laube applauded a recent Kaena release so I suspect that the winery has some traction. I bought this particular choice through the Santa Barbara Futures program a few years ago for around $24 a bottle. I've taken a bottle to one of our neighborhood dinners and the guzzlers gave it a thumbs up so it passed that test at least. Only sparse notes, probably due to someone shouting "DADDY!" mid sip. Lots of dark red fruit, like raspberries, a bit tart and gamy, missing the loam and leather from a better Rhone but quite drinkable, perhaps at a BBQ. "Truly handcrafted wines" on the back label is irritating; did he grow the grapes in the cupped palms of his hands?

Rating: very good, so-called Hawaiian link and label hype aside.

Sometimes I buy wines for on a whim, stash them in a corner and don't come across them until months later, usually by accident. I like Amarone well enought though I don't have a very good food match for it. I enjoy the wines from Masi, at least the ones I can afford. I just have no idea when or why I bought more than one bottle of the Masi Costasera Amarone Classico 2001, and I'm not sure how much I paid of course though I suspect it was low $40s. What do you do with Amarone, esp. a young one? Drink a glass here and there I guess; this is more a sipper than a gulper, esp. at 15% alcohol which I suspect is a plug and that we're talking 16%+ here, given the heat it throws off. Nose of raisins and blackberries, dense and chewy mid-palate, bitter chocolate finish with a bit of a hot, rustic edge.

Rating: Good.

Cheers, Barrld

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Quick Note

Check out my Pinot and Alsatian blogs from previous dates, long story.

Cheers, Barrld

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Crazy Alsatian

At first biodynamic agriculture just seems to be an extreme version of organic. Eschewing chemical fertilizers and pesticides, using cover crops, finding natural predators to vineyard pests, it all sounds so back to nature. But, just like I'm not about to have a bite out of a picnic table with Eule Gibbons (may he RIP), I don't find the the astrological calendar to be particularly compelling as it relates to my daily life. Perhaps that's my main problem. You see the biodynamic-philes take action to block the the cosmic powers of various planetary and inter-stellar alignments and make planting and harvesting decisions based the location of the Scorpio constellation and such. Real Age of Aquarius stuff.

Surprisingly, a number of the top producers in France are fully biodynamic, including Domaines Leflaive and Leroy in Burgundy, among many others. Anne-Claude Leflaive's wines have grown in stature and, sadly, price since she fully converted her acreage to biodynamics in 1997. Who knows? That leads me to Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace. Olivier has a lot going for him, he's young, good looking, he speaks French, which surely helps him meet women, he holds a MW and he runs and owns a large share of the one of the better Alsatian producers. Olivier Humbrecht is a biodynamic zealot as well and was (is?) president of the Biodyvin, a French biodynamic cult, uh er organization. All joking aside, I really do like DZH wines, its Pinot Gris, Riesling (especially the bone dry version from a number of ethereal vineyards in Alsace) and Gerwurtz all offer a quite good value to quality ratio. Of course the Domaine's VT and SGN are world class on the desert wine front, though I've tried none of them. Who knows how the wines here would taste w/o all of Olivier's bio-voodoo?

So I picked up a half dozen bottles of the Domain Zind-Humbrecht 2002 Zind, a blend of 50% Auxerrios Blanc, 35% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Blanc at retail for about $25 a bottle. The wine checks in at a ubiquitous 13.5% alcohol. Each vintage Olivier mixes the various varietals to his pleasure so at times the Zind is dominated by Chard at others by PB; the Auxerrios is more for structure than anything else, with a neutral asparagus, fresh cut grass flavor profile and high acidity. There is a story as to why he chose the name Zind instead of the dominant varietal but you can look that up if you're interested in the byzantine workings of a French AOC.

The 2002 Zind is liquid gold in the glass and opens with a nose of pears, honey and vanilla. Zesty and sweet/tart mid-palate, notes of white peach and meyer lemon dominate. A sweet, syrupy and a bit cloying finish make this a fine wine to have with friends on a hot day out doors but one glass is enough.

Rating: Very Good.

Cheers, Barrld

Monday, March 5, 2007

Rating Wines

Look we all know that HRM Parker invented the 100 point scale for rating wine; if you don't believe me just ask His Highness. Give that I'm a subscriber to his Wine Advocate, it seems that he has long forsaken 85% of his scale, given that he only rates wines in the 85-100 range in print. Hmmm, odd result. Why not just use a 15 point scale then?? Alas, turn to the folks across the pond and Robinson, Jefford, Johnson, Spurrier and their English ilk use a 20 point scale but then add half points. Look either it's a 15 or a 16, get over yourselves. Finally (I'm almost off the soapbox), the WS has to grudging give credit to Sir Parker and his development of the erstwhile 100 point scale, as Shanken and his groupies adopted it after much hemming and hawing. To its credit the WS does issue ratings occasionally as low as 50 but I've never seen a wine receive a score below US Grant. To ask the obvious, why not adopt the 1-50 scale then?

The reality is that if we ever turned tastings on their head, asking the critics to pick the 98, 96, 93, 92, 90, 89, 87 and 83 from eight wines that they had previously given these scores to, there is little doubt in my mind that most would fail more than 50% of the time. The numbers are so subjective and of that moment as to make them no more than a vague estimate of one taster's biased notion of how a particular wine tastes at a specific moment amidst a defined selection of it competitors. At any rate, why not use a scale that everyone can at least understand, if not envy?

Which brings us to my attempt to qualify something that may not submit to qualification:

[starting from the bottom]
  • plonk--this is swill, industrial waste escaping the remediation pond. Think the white version of 2 buck chuck, which has an essence of lighter fluid to it;
  • OK--passable at a barbecue when you need something to down when surrounded by the attractive guests of your neighbor. Never to be poured at home, nor presented to friends in the form of a gift. After 2 glasses switch to hard liquor or water;
  • Good--Yeah, this is wine. Someone made an effort to process grapes to juice is a professional manner, even if 19 million cases were made. Certainly drinkable at one of those professional networking functions where you get too many cards from folks you would never in your wildest dreams call or those informal cheese board mixers at the lodge you're visiting during ski season. Finish, smile, forget about it.
  • Very good/quaffable--Ahh Miles and his demons. A wine of this description rises to the level of crafting; a talented hand is involved in the process of vines to blossoms, grapes to fermentation. This wine can be enjoyed with distinction, at any random dinner party (w/o wine geeks present) it stands out and pleases, even though you know it lacks subtlety and complexity and you're dying for something with a bit more bite to it.
  • Excellent/tasty--Here's one of those things that make you go "MMM!" Broad based and full of fruit, structure and backbone, this rating only falls on wines that you would love to have again and mention to your friends in the form of a boast--"Well I had the ____ last evening with roasted pork loin and it was the bomb." Nothing is really missing in this selection and your friends will think you sage if they ever receive one of these offerings as a gift.
  • Superb--Easy here, we're in the octane zone. The stuff of legends as in "back in 2005 I had a _____ and nearly flipped. We dragged the sommelier over and he shot a load in his shorts after just a quick swirl." You get my meaning; this has to be profound, the top of a varietal class that you've done with a passion. If you know pinot and that Rochioli is the best pinot you've had in some time, well you know how to rate it. Hoard these beauties, drink under the cover of darkness, approach with stealth and no one within earshot of your cork pull.

So that's the scale. No numbers, they are meaningless in the larger scheme of things and no one, not even the best, can explain the difference between a 94 and a 95 or an 18 and an 18.5 or even a 73 and a 74. I dare them to try.

Cheers, Barrld