Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In defense of Two Buck Chuck

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(Note: Please be sure to read the comments to this post - there's more interesting information there, some of which contradicts what I wrote. Dave)

There's an article doing the rounds at the moment that's trashing Trader Joe's Charles Shaw wines. Personally I didn't think there was a need to; I find they vary from poor to undrinkable myself, and won't have them in the house. But some people will drink anything - look at how much Budweiser gets sold every day. I'm not going to link to the publishers; that just encourages them.

However the article contains a good deal of misinformation which really deserves to be addressed. I should point out that I haven't visited the factory winery myself, but there are some things that are common to just about all facilities, from the smallest to the most industrial.

Are there rats, birds and insect bits in the wine? Well, rodents don't tend to live in vines 3 feet off the ground, and if they did they'd certainly get out of the way as soon as a tractor came close. Gophers tend to be the biggest pest in vineyards; they live in the ground and attack the roots, not the fruit. Similarly with birds; in fact most winemakers net their vines to prevent birds from getting access. The odds of wildlife getting caught by the harvester is very small indeed - but not zero.

No winemaker that I know of, even at the highest level, will search through the grapes to ensure that there are no insects or frass present. It's just not going to happen. Some wineries have what's called a shaker table - it's effectively a long tilted metal table that vibrates. The vibration moves the grapes from one end to the other. Insects and other detritus will typically fall off in the process; the whole clusters will move through to the crusher-destemmer. Top wineries will have human sorters who will remove any leaves and clusters that don't look healthy or ripe.
Wineries that need to process large amounts will still need some kind of conveyer system. Bugs will have plenty of time to get away, but obviously some won't.

Having travelled along the conveyer the clusters enter the destemmer. This is a rotating drum with holes in it; the grapes fall off the stems and go through the holes. Very unripe grapes will remain attached to the stems and come out of the other side. If a bird or rodent did make it this far it will be ejected too. The grapes then fall through into a crusher that breaks the skins, and from there are transferred into the fermentors.

So it's possible that a trace of animal material can make it into the bins. And as I said, that's true of just about every winery I know. It's also true of just about every food production method I know; that's why there are legal limits on the amount of foreign matter allowable in just about every food there is; it doesn't mean it's necessarily there, but it does mean that the food isn't considered to be contaminated by it. In the case of wine however that matter will get removed when the wine is pressed - and if for any reason it didn't, then it would be removed by the racking and filtering. that goes on when the wine is finished.

The article also states that the wine is sweetened with grape juice and sugar. Well there is nothing illegal about adding grape juice to wine - if there was then Tokaj, one of the world's greatest sweet wines would not exist. Adding sugar is illegal in California - as is adding water except under certain circumstances - but why would you sweeten with sugar when you can use grape juice? (The adding of sugar is called chaptalization, and is permitted in some countries when the wines don't have enough fermentable sugar to start with. )

There are plenty of legal additives such as Mega Purple that wineries can use to improve the perceived quality of their cheap wines. They don't have to disclose them, though some wineries have started to and I greatly encourage that.

So while I don't encourage anyone to drink Two Buck Chuck if they can possibly avoid it, there's no reason to believe the false claims being made against it. If you really want to avoid something nasty in your diet then look out for partially hydrogenated oils - that stuff is seriously bad for you.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mindego Ridge

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This looks like an interesting new project. The site is a 10 acre vineyard in La Honda, producing around 600 cases of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winemaker is Ehren Jordan, formerly of Turley and owner of Failla, and a former San Francisco Chronicle Winemaker of the Year. The first release from the 2013 vintage isn't until November, so now would be a good time to head over to their web site and sign up for their mailing list.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The 101 best wineries in America

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Web site The Daily Meal has come up with their list of the 101 best wineries in America, and not surprisingly several of them are from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

At #54 that have the legendary Mount Eden - should have been higher of course, but that's fine.
Just above at #52 is Woodside's Thomas Fogarty.
Inside the top 20 at #18 we find the idiosyncratic Randall Grahm and his Bonny Doon Winery.
And taking the #1 spot is Ridge. Congratulations!

For the full list see The Daily Meal.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

2010 Big Basin Estate Syrahs

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Since 2002 Bradley Brown has been producing excellent estate Syrah; intense wines that deserve - nay, demand - cellaring. As the vines have aged and other Rhone varieties have been planted the range has expanded.  The latest release features two siblings that are very different from each other.

2010 Big Basin Old Corral Syrah 

The 2010 Old Corral is a dark, brooding wine featuring 13% Grenache and 1% Viognier. There's a deeply rich nose; lots of dark fruit - plum and blueberry, with herbal tones. Lots of young tannins back up a nice fruit core. It's almost painfully young at this stage; needs at least 3-5 years cellaring and will reward more. Highly recommended.

2010 Rattlesnake Rock Syrah

Blending just 11% Grenache into the Syrah somehow gives a lighter wine than the Old Corral. The nose is floral, almost soapy; it comes across more like a white wine than a red. Where the Old Corral showed black fruits the Rattlesnake Rock leans towards the red; more cherry than plum, with smoky, meaty notes and great structure.  Again. this is a wine you shouldn't plan to touch for a while. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

2012 Cinnabar Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains

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Since the sale of the old vineyards off Highway 9 to Mount Eden, George Troquato has been sourcing fruit from all over the state, particularly Paso Robles and Monterey. However he still produces a couple of wines from local fruit - a Pinot Noir from Lester Family Vineyard, and a rather nice Chardonnay.

The fruit for the 2012 Chardonnay was sourced from two small vineyards high above  Los Gatos; the 40 year old Wright’s Station Vineyard - http://www.wrightsstation.com - and the nearby 25 year old single acre Skyland Vineyard on Skyland Ridge.

A fairly typical Santa Cruz Mountains style of Chardonnay; citrus and tropical fruits on the nose; plush apple, lemon and vanilla on the palate. There's French oak but it's not excessive.

$38 at the winery tasting room in Saratoga.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

2010 Martella Syrah, Camel Hill Vineyard

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Michael Martella has been making wine in the Santa Cruz Mountains for over 40 years as former head winemaker at Thomas Fogarty, and since 1999 under his own label from purchased fruit. I'll confess that in the past I haven't been the greatest fan of his label; I've found his "Hammer" Syrah to be aptly named and not really to my taste.

So I was pleasantly surprised by this latest Syrah from the Camel Hill Vineyard in Los Gatos, which displays finesse rather than raw power. The nose is lovely, showing black fruit and leather; on the palate there are gorgeous fruit flavours backed by good acidity and tannin. Recommended.

Monday, June 23, 2014

2011 Big Basin Pinot Noir, Lester Family Vineyard

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The Lester Family Vineyard is located in Corralitos, towards the southern end of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, at an elevation of around 500 feet. The vineyard is planted to seven different clones of Pinot Noir; primarily Dijon clones 667, 777 and 115, but also Mount Eden, Wadenswil, Mariafeld and Jackson. Since 2002 the fruit has been used by several local wineries and has produced a variety of structured, age-worthy wines.

2011 was a tough vintage; a cool summer that also had rain in June and October. While this was bad news for late ripening grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, the cooler weather didn't affect Pinot Noir quite so badly; so while it's by no means a classic vintage, good wines can be made even in bad years - and this is one of the finest 2011s that I've tasted.

The nose is beautiful and expressive; floral with plenty of savoury cherry. On the palate it's long and smooth, with fine tannins; a lovely complex interplay of fruit, herb and meaty flavours. Overall I think this is one of the best wines I've had from the Lester Family vineyard. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fellom Ranch

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Montebello ridge has long been known as an ideal place to grow Cabernet. From the earliest plantings at the end of the 19th Century to the present day the area has hosted dozens of small wineries. And while the mountain top is now dominated by one of the finest wineries in the world, there is still room for lots of smaller vineyards and wineries such as Vidovich, Naumann, Relyea-Wood - and Fellom Ranch.

Looking south from the vineyards
In 1929 Senator Roy Fellom purchased a 250 acre ranch on Monte Bello Road. A few acres of land had been planted with vines by the previous owner, Paul Cena and the family traded the grapes with a neighbour, Andrew Mikulaco, who paid them back in wine.  

In the early 1980s Senator Fellom's son and grandson decided to replant the vineyards and open a winery. Around 10 acres were terraced and planted, almost entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon, with a small block of Petite Verdot. The winery was bonded in 1987.

I recall first encountering Fellom Ranch Vineyards at a Santa Cruz Mountains vintners festival in the mid 1990s. At the time they had a barrel sample of their Saratoga Zinfandel which so impressed me that I ordered a case. I was invited to the release party at the winery - up near Ridge, a half mile from Monte Bello Road down a winding single-track lane called Flintlock Road, and thankfully was able to persuade a friend to act as a designated driver.

Bud and Brookes Fellom
The wines could occasionally be found at local retailers and restaurants, but they gradually became harder to find and I haven't seen any since the 1999 vintage. When I first started writing the blog and wiki I contacted the winery and saws told that they were temporarily closed to visitors, but planned to re-open. Due to family legal issues the winery remained closed until last fall. I heard about the opening in time to visit on the spring Passport day.

Roy 'Bud' Fellom III is the current owner and winemaker. Assisted by his family he has been making wines continually since 1987, though in recent years he got disillusioned in dealing with wholesalers and distributors and decided to concentrate on sales direct from the winery.

The temporary closure has certainly impacted production - at present they are down to 400-500 cases annually, but plan to get back to their earlier peak of 1500-2000 cases. The winery no longer has the lease on the Saratoga vineyard that produced the Zinfandel that I enjoyed so much; instead they source fruit from a number of vineyards both locally and as far afield as Shennadoah valley and Paso Robles.

The winery should be open at weekends during the summer months for tasting and sales - the web site is www.fellom.com


2012 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains.
Sourced from an unnamed vineyard over by Cooper Garrod this is fairly typical of the more restrained Santa Cruz Mountains style - plenty of lemon, pear and chalk with some tropical fruit notes. Recommended. $20

2011 Pinot Noir, Central Coast
From vineyards in the Paso Robles area the nose is floral, with strawberry and preserved cherry. Smooth flavours of chocolate and cherry - an easy drinker, similar in style to those from Carneros. $22

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, Douglas Crest Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
From a nearby vineyard opposite Vidovich this has a perfumed, floral nose and nice berry flavours. There's some good acid and soft tannins. Doesn't seem like a candidate for cellaring, but tasting very nice right now with a little air. Recommended. $25

A magnum from the first vintage
of Fellom Ranch estate cabernet
The winery were also pouring two barrel samples from the 2013 vintage:

2013 Zinfandel, Shenandoah Valley
A bright raspberry nose with a hint of VA. Lots of sweet raspberry fruit; quite a bit of residual sugar - more than I care for, but the other tasters seemed to enjoy it.

2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains
Similar in style to the Zinfandel; nose and palate showed blueberries with some apparent residual sugar.


And finally there was a magnum of the estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the maiden vintage:

1987 Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate, Santa Cruz Mountains, from a magnum
Lovely old nose, with lots of leather, cedar and herb. Nice acidity. Still has plenty of good blackcurrant fruit supported by lots of secondary notes. 1987 was a very good, ripe year and this wine has held up beautifully. showing the true potential of the site. A real treat.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oral History of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winemakers

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In the early 1990s the writer and historian Charles L. Sullivan was comissioned by the Bennion Trust to create an oral history of winemaking in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Over a period of two years he interviewed many of the prominent winemaking families in the region, and compiled a 700 page document which provides a fascinating insight into the state of the appellation at the time as well, as the history over the previous century.

The book was self published by the Bennion Trust and was only available to those in the know who purchased a copy directly from Fran Bennion herself. $40 got you over 350 sheets of velobound copier paper.

Some years ago I contacted first Mr Sullivan and then the Bennion Trust, offering to host a copy of the manuscript on the internet, to bring it to a wider audience. The original source material was still in existence on early Apple Macintosh disks, and could have been converted to a modern format without too much difficulty. The offer was politely declined at the time, but I recently learned that the trust has since gone ahead with publishing a version of the project online.

At the present time it's still incomplete. All of the interviews are viewable as PDF scans; they are readable, but are not currently indexed or searchable. The quality is perfectly readable and I've successfully processed some of the pages with OCR software. The appendix - which consisted of various photographs and commercial documents from Ridge - are not yet present, nor is the original map of the appellation drawn by Jan Sherrill.

You can view the project at drbenniontrustfund.org

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Montallegro

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I got an email today from a wine retailer thanking me for the blog - he'd used some of the information from a post on Montallegro on his web site. It turns out that he has an allocation of the 2006 Montallegro Cabernet for sale at $30 a bottle, which I think is a very good price. You can check it out at PrinceOfWine.com

By coincidence I opened a bottle of the 1999 Montallegro just this last weekend. It's a lovely Cabernet with a nose of campfire and brambles. The palate is what I expect from Saratoga Cabernet (think Mount Eden, Kathryn Kennedy, Cooper Garrod etc.) - lots of blueberry, blackcurrant and earth. There's still plenty of slightly bitter tannin; it's drinking well now but I'm sure it'll continue to improve over the next few years. Recommended.

Now where's my credit card...