Monday, March 31, 2008

Two Tickets To (Pinot) Paradise

This last weekend was the 4th annual SCMWA Pinot Paradise event. On Saturday there was the "Pathway to Pinot Paradise" at participating wineries and on Sunday there was the "Grand Cruz" event in downtown Campbell.

As anyone who has visited can attest, the Santa Cruz Mountains have lots of narrow, winding roads. It's not like Napa where most of the wineries are along a couple of main streets; here the wineries can be on opposite sides of the same hill and take 20 minutes to get to. Four Wheel Drive vehicles are a pretty good idea.

I'd planned out the Saturday route using the Google Map I created earlier. A great feature of Google Maps is the ability to change your route by clicking and dragging any point - the software recalculates the best way. A not-so-good feature is the inability to print out zoomed maps with the route drawn, or the way that it handles additional destinations; it would be handy if you could click on a marker and say "stop here".

The planned route took me first to Burrell School, then Silver Mountain. From there I intended to head down via Soquel, possibly stopping at Bargetto, Soquel and/or Hunter Hill, before ending in Corralitos at PV, Nicholson, Alfaro and Windy Oaks. As it turned out a late start and underestimating the time at each stop meant the Soquel segment got dropped, so I ended up hitting six of the wineries. The tasting notes will be posted later.

Burrell School had a tasting table in the barrel room. They were pouring two 2005 current releases, plus barrel samples of four different clones from 2006. The regular tasting room was also open.

Silver Mountain had six pinots on offer; 2004 and 2005 vintages of their Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Lucia Highlands, plus a 2005 Muns Vineyard and a 2005 Sonnet York Mountains. They also had the regular tasting bar, pouring two Chardonnays, three Bordeaux blends and a couple of Zinfandels.

Nicholson had three vintages: 2005, the unreleased 2006 and a barrel sample of 2007. There were three additional wines; Chardonnay, Rose of Pinot and Zinfandel.

Pleasant Valley were pouring their current Chardonnay and Pinot. There was also a barrel sample of 2007 Viognier.

Alfaro Family had 4 Pinots and a Rose on offer and Windy Oaks had 3 Pinots plus their Chardonnay, all of which were current releases.

Overall I didn't really feel that the Pathway event offered very much over a typical Passport weekend. Maybe I was unlucky with my choices; Silver Mountain had at least given the chance to taste two vintages of the same wines, but only Burrel School and Nicholson were actually offering barrel samples (of Pinot), which I thought was the point of the event. I'd hoped to have been given a chance to judge the upcoming vintages.

One thing that concerned me was the fact that I didn't see a single other person spitting. Some of the wineries provided clear plastic cups for water but none provided opaque spit cups or what I'd consider a proper spittoon.

Tasting notes will be included alongside the main event notes.

Friday, March 21, 2008

2005 Zayante Zinfandel

Picked up a few of these at K&L recently - they were clearing out their remaining stocks for the bargain price of $10.99.

Robert Parker has criticised the 2005 California Zinfandel vintage generally, saying the fruit didn't ripen properly and giving it a score of 78. Presumably he's tried a lot more 2005 Zinfandels than I have, but if the 2005 Zayante is anything to go by I really don't see the problem. It's got a nice bright colour and a nose of black pepper, with a floral hint. On the palate, one of the first things you notice is a prickle of dissolved CO2. I've noticed that in all of the bottles; it's not unpleasant but slightly out of place - vigorous swirling in the glass or decanting gets rid of it. There's firm acidity and flavours of cranberry and raspberry. Nice finish, with no obvious heat from the 15.5% alcohol. Certainly no sign of any unripe off-flavours. Not one for the cellar, but then in my view there are very few Zinfandels that do improve with age; their primary fruit is their greatest asset.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Want to buy a winery?

Following the death of Chris Gemignani last spring, the family have decided to sell the Generosa Winery. The property is now on sale for $1,600,000 with an option to also purchase the business and inventory.

Gemignani made what he referred to as California Super-Tuscans, blending Bordeaux varietals with traditional Italian grapes such as Sangiovese. The winery also produced a Pinot Noir.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Featured Wineries at Pinot Paradise

Here's the list of wineries that are due to be pouring at Pinot Paradise. I tasted some of them at Pinot Days in San Francisco last year and was very impressed by what Tony Craig is doing at Sonnet and Silver Mountain, and by Windy Oaks and Alfaro Family.

Several of the wineries only make a few hundred cases, so there are quite a few that I haven't tasted before. I've heard good things about Black Ridge Vineyards, who should be having their first release any time now.

Ahlgren Vineyards
Alfaro Family Vineyards
Bargetto Winery
Beauregard Vineyards
Black Ridge Vineyards
Burrell School Vineyards
Byington Winery & Vineyards
Cinnabar Vineyards & Winery
Clos LaChance Wines
Clos Tita
Domenico Wines
Hallcrest Vineyards
Heart o' the Mountain
Hunter Hill Vineyard & Winery
Kings Mountain Winery
Loma Prieta Winery
McHenry Winery
Mount Eden Vineyards
Muccigrosso Vineyards
Nicholson Vineyards
Pelican Ranch Winery
Pleasant Valley Vineyards
Roudon-Smith Winery
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard
Sarah's Vineyard
Silver Mountain Vineyards
Sonnet Wine Cellars
Soquel Vineyards
Storrs Winery
Testarossa Vineyards
Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards
Trout Gulch Vineyards
Windy Oaks Estate Vineyards & Winery
Wines of Vine Hill
Woodside Vineyards

Planning a Pathway to Pinot Paradise

On Sunday March 30th it's the 4th annual Pinot Paradise event at Villa Ragusa in downtown Campbell.

On Saturday March 29th, 17 of the participating wineries will be open as part of the Pathway to Pinot Paradise. To make it easier to plan the day I mapped the wineries using Google Maps. You can use this to work out the best way to reach the wineries that you want to visit, as unlike some wine regions the wineries are widely scattered.

Be warned that some of the mountain roads aren't particularly well maintained. It might be a good idea to call the wineries ahead of time to check if there's a better route if you don't have four wheel drive. Also please take care; if you don't have a designated driver then be sure to spit - it's a good idea to carry a plastic spit-cup with you as unfortunately some tasting rooms don't encourage spitting.

South Bay Wine Tours is advertising a guided tour with lunch included, so that may be an option. See you there!

View Larger Map

Friday, March 14, 2008

1999 Varner Amphitheater Block Chardonnay

Found this little gem at K&L wines recently; a singleton from a private collection, being sold for under $10, when the current vintage costs $30-$35. Presumably someone thought that a 9 year old Chardonnay would be way past its best, but as the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Varner bottles their Chardonnay in three distinct "blocks"; Bee, Amphitheater and Home. Generally Home is considered the best of the three, but since it's all from the same 10 acre vineyard the quality is pretty close. The oldest one that I've tried was a 1998 Bee Block at about 5 years of age (which was superb).

The colour seemed good through the green glass of the bottle; no obvious sign of oxidation. The cork was fairly saturated but otherwise in good condition.

In the glass it had a pale straw colour to it. On the nose there was butterscotch and vanilla, and a hint of lemon peel. No sign of oxidation. On the palate there was a bracing acidity, more than any other Varner I've tasted. There was also plenty of lemon and minerality, plus that slightly oily mouthfeel that I've noticed in some older Chardonnays. A very nice, crisp wine; shame that there was only one.

So today's tip is to always keep an eye on the "bargain bin". You never know what you might find.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

2004 Kathryn Kennedy Syrah

There's a Kathryn Kennedy tasting at K&L on Friday, but it looks like I'm double-booked and won't be able to attend. I was hoping to try the 2004 Syrah so that I could decide whether to buy more and how long to hold without having to open my own bottle. Ah well.

Picked this up from Whole Foods for about $24, before tax or 10% discount (see previous posts). The fruit is sourced from several small local vineyards around the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA.

There's a nice spicy, oaky nose to it. On the palate it seemed a real oak monster; though there's good fruit and it's rich and full bodied there's a lot of wood, it's a bit like chewing a stave. There's also a slight bitterness that pops up from time to time on the finish (I've noticed that in a few 2004s) but apart from that it's good. Despite having 15.5% alcohol it didn't seem hot at all.

It's drinkable now, but once the oak and tannins integrate this should be a very nice wine for the price. I plan to grab a couple more and hide them away in the cellar for a while.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Wine TV Show coming in April

There was a camera crew at Ridge who were filming the event. I spoke to the producer,
Carolina Moraes-Liu and learned that they were working on a new weekly TV show about the local wine industry. It's set to air on Saturday mornings on KMTP 32 (site temporarily offline) at 10AM. They already have a few shows about Napa wineries completed and are planning to do a few on the Santa Cruz Mountains, starting with Clos LaChance and Ridge. Should be interesting.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tasting at Picchetti

At the bottom of Monte Bello Road is the scenic Picchetti Ranch, owned by the Mid-Peninsula Open Space District. This 308 acre ranch has over 3 miles of trails. It's also home to California Bonded Winery number 148 - Picchetti Winery.

Over a centuary ago Vincenso and Secondo Picchetti began farming Zinfandel, Carignane and Petite Sirah on this land and founded the winery. It had a turbulent history; following Prohibition some of the vineyards were replanted as fruit orchards, but it wasn't a very profitable enterprise and wine production eventually stopped again in 1963.

The winery was re-opened in 1982 as Sunrise Winery and in 1998 the lease was purchased by Leslie Pantling who changed the name back to Picchetti Winery. The winery produces about 9000 cases a year, with fruit mostly sourced from vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley. The tasting room is open daily from 11AM to 5PM. For $5 you can taste 5 of about 15+ wines, with the charge refunded with purchase.

We called in on the way back from the event at Ridge. Personally I've always found Picchetti's wines a bit hit and miss but there's usually some good ones. We concentrated on the wines from local vineyards. I didn't take much in the way of notes.

2006 Viognier $25
Nice, floral character.
2006 White Pavone $23
A blend of Chardonnay from Santa Cruz Mountains, with Viognier and Gewurztraminer from Santa Clara Valley. Slight sweetness. Very fruity and intense. A good accompaniment to spicy food. Recommended.
2005 Leslie's Estate Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains $29
A nice, balanced wine. Quite oaky and buttery/creamy but with good acidity holding it together. Recommended.
2005 Rose of Syrah, San Benito County $20
Fairly lightweight, with a bitterness on the finish that I didn't care for. Not Recommended.
2005 Merlot, Santa Clara County $27
An easy drinking Merlot, gentle on the oak, with a dusty finish. Fruit sourced from the Dorcich Vineyard in San Martin. Recommended.
2005 Syrah, Santa Clara County $33
Didn't care for this at all. Lots of acidity overpowering the fruit. Not Recommended.
2006 Red Pavone $29
A Bordeaux blend - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, together with an Italian varietal called Lagrein. A pleasant wine with a peppery flavour but I couldn't justify the price tag.
2005 Quarry Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Los Altos $33
This is a smooth, supple cab from a vineyard in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. While pleasant it's not a particularly stunning bargain; I'd go for Mount Eden's Saratoga Cuvee at around $25 every time.
2005(?) Montebello Cabernet Sauvignon $45(?)
The fruit was sourced from the Vidovich vineyard, up next to Ridge; Picchetti have been buying fruit from them since the first harvest in 2000. I've been drinking Vidovich Monte Bello Road Cabernet Sauvignon by the case since I discovered it last year, so it was interesting to compare; this had way more depth and concentration with an interesting eucalyptus/mint note on the finish. Recommended.
2004 Bellicitti Vineyard Zinfandel, Saratoga $30
I'm afraid I didn't care for this. There was just too much residual sugar for my liking. Not Recommended.
2006 Port $37
A combination of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. I'm not a huge fan of domestic Port and this didn't really do anything to sway me.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Barrel tasting at Ridge

Ridge Monte Bello is one of the undisputed "First Growths" of California, with a library of vintages going back over 40 years. In a good vintage it will age superbly; witness the success of the 35 year old 1971 vintage at the "Judgement of Paris" anniversary tasting in 2006. But despite its history and reputation for quality it still has a relatively reasonable price compared to the typical new Napa cabernets; last year the release price was increased for the first time in 5 years to $145, and the futures price from $65 to $80.

Futures? Yes, Ridge is one of the few California wineries that makes its wine available on a futures basis. You pay for the wine now and it will be delivered in two years when it is released. In return you get a substantial discount off the release price. And since you wouldn't want to open the wine for a few years anyway it could be said that you are getting two years of free storage.

Today was the first Ridge Monte Bello barrel tasting. The focus is on the four varietal components; there's an opportunity to taste each in its own right, then as the first assemblage or blend. Later, in May, there's a second tasting which gives a chance to sample the final assemblage.

Barrel tasting is an interesting experience. For winemakers it's a chore; they need to taste through every barrel to decide - at such an early stage - whether or not it makes the cut. For the rest of us it's an opportunity to see behind the curtain, to be a part of the process. It also gives a first chance to see what the much heralded 2007 vintage might be like.

The barrel tasting events are always popular, and the place is heaving. It's free to members of the Monte Bello Collector list, $40 to non-members. You have the option to purchase a commemorative Ridge glass ($5) or a huge Spiegelau ($10) but since I have more glasses than I need I just went for the complementary option.

First a warm up - a couple of already released wines.

Table 1: 2004 Monte Bello Chardonnay
After the success of the 2005 Santa Cruz Mountains (95 points and #2 wine of the yera by Wine Spectator) I had hoped that they would be pouring the 2005 Monte Bello, but apparently that's still a couple of months from release. This is a delicious chardonnay, with stone fruits and lots of crisp acidity. Should certainly repay cellaring for a few years. I just have a hard time with the $60 price tag when I can find great wines like Varner and Mount Eden at half the price.

2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon
The lots that don't make it into Monte Bello go into the Santa Cruz Mountains blend. It's intended to be drunk much younger than its big brother, but for a wine that has been on release for a year this was surprisingly tight and tannic; it needs to be locked away for at least 5-8 years.

Then on to the components:

Table 2: Merlot 13.5%
The first component poured was the Merlot. It had an almost smoky nose. On the palate there was bright acidity with some sort of red fruits - raspberry, possibly cranberry. Good structure.

Cabernet Franc 12.5%
A huge contrast to the previous sample, the nose was faint and dusty. On the palate there was a wall of tannin; none of the characteristic tobacco, graphite or any fruit to speak of, just a hint of violets. None of the Cabernet Franc made it into the first assemblage, though it may come around by May.

Table 3: Petit Verdot 12.9%
This was just beautiful. Lovely floral nose, massive fruit on the palate, fine tannins. I could have drunk the whole bottle. It's such a pity that Petit Verdot is rarely bottled in its own right. All the Petit Verdot was included in the assemblage (Ridge has about 1.2 acres of Petit Verdot)

Cabernet Sauvignon 13.1%
The final - and largest - component. Although it's only been in oak for a few months (as have the other components) the oak was showing much more here than on the others. Great fruit, plenty of structure, big chewy tannins on the finish.

Table 4: 2007 Monte Bello First Assemblage 13.1%
72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot

As expected, the whole is very much greater than the sum of the parts. It had a very pretty nose; on the palate it was very elegant, with blackcurrant and a strong minerality - slate or graphite. Good acidity, bags of tannin and a good finish. And as usual the alcohol level is kept in check at around 13%.
The pourer likened it to the 1997 vintage in its youth.

Finally the just-released vintage:

2005 Monte Bello
The nose on this is just awesome, it jumps right out at you. On the palate there's so much sweet, dark fruit, it just keeps going. Despite its youth it seems remarkably drinkable, but clearly it has a long and glorious future ahead of it. I believe that Josh Reynolds rated it a 95.

So there you have it. With the exception of the backward Cabernet Franc all of the components showed great potential. 2007 looks like being another classic vintage, not just for Monte Bello, but potentially for the Santa Cruz Mountains generally.

More photos online at Flickr