Wednesday, January 28, 2009

No Quarter?

Note: The tax discussed in this article was eventually dropped from the final budget.

Financially, California is in a mess. Despite a GDP estimated at around $1.7 trillion there's a huge budget deficit. Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed a budget to address this, but as usual tax hikes aren't popular.

One that's proving particularly unpopular in certain areas is a proposed "nickel a drink" tax that would add around 25 cents to the price of a bottle of wine. It's being hotly contested; a group of major drinks producers including Anheuser-Busch, Diageo and MillerCoors have set up a web site against it,

The big question for winemakers is how to react. Should they put up their prices? If they do, that 25c will almost certainly end up being $1 by the time the wine hits the retail outlets. Rather than marking up a wine from $19.99 to $20.24 you can bet it'll go to $20.99, with the extra 75c going to the three tier chain. But if they hold prices then a 1,000 case winery ends up with an additional $3,000 tax bill.

So here's a few suggestions that you might want to try.

1) Ditch those oversized bottles. I've run a one-man campaign against those oversized, heavy Burgundy/Rhone bottles that don't fit in a standard Bordeaux-sized rack. When I buy wine I'm paying for what's in the bottle, not the bottle itself. I was overjoyed the other day when Thérèse Martin of Martin Ranch winery told me that she was switching to smaller bottles for her excellent Santa Clara Valley Syrah. If you really think that you need a hefty bottle to convince people to buy your wine, well you've got bigger problems than a 25c tax hike.

2) Lose the foil. Foil caps are nice, but they aren't necessary. They serve no useful purpose; in fact they can be downright annoying. You can't see how well the cork is holding up, they hide leakage and other problems. Stefania winery decided to go foil free from the very start, and it doesn't seem to be hurting sales for them.

3) Switch to Stelvin, particularly for white wines. Top quality corks are expensive; bad quality corks are a liability. How much do you lose by replacing corked bottles?

4) Simplify your labels. You don't need one on the front and another on the back. Unless you're trying to distinguish yourself on a shelf and attract an impulse buyer then you don't need metallic embossing, bottle numbering, clever die cut shapes or any of that. Here's a clue: we can't afford to impulse buy any more. We are looking at the price tags, not the pretty pictures. On a wine list, all wines look the same.

And here's one suggestion for our cigar aficionado Governor Schwarzenegger: Increase tobacco taxes. Significantly. 87c a pack is peanuts - make it $2 at least. You'll be raising money and saving lives.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Quinta Cruz

Denis Hoey and Jeff Emery When I started this blog, and the accompanying website documenting the local wineriers and vineyards, it was partly in response to the changes in the industry. Many of the area's top vintners have retired or are retiring, with a new generation taking over. Nowhere is this transition more evident than at Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyards.

Under its founder Ken Burnap, SCMV established a reputation for long-lived Pinot Noirs and Cabernets. In their youth they could be harsh, tannic and acidic, but with 10, 20 or even 30+ years in the cellar they would evolve into something special.

Since taking over, new owner Jeff Emery has made two significant changes. The first is a slight stylistic change; the latest vintages are made to be approachable earlier, although still with sufficient structure to merit further ageing. A good example of this is the 2005 McDowell Valley Vineyard Durif, from Mendocino County. Durif, also known as Petite Sirah, is notorious for producing tough, tannic wines that can take years to mature. However this wine has a great nose of Ribena (a blackcurrant cordial) and a fruity flavour with remarkably soft tannins.

The second, and more obvious change is the launch of the winery's sister label. Named Quinta Cruz (Quinta being a Portuguese term applied to a farm, estate or vineyard) it focuses on Iberian varietals, primarily being sourced from the Pierce Ranch vineyard in the San Antonio Valley AVA.

The first wine from the range to be launched is a 2005 Tempranillo (aka Tinta Roriz). It will be followed by a Graciano from Lodi as well as blends entitled Concertina (Touriga Racional, Tinta Roriz and Tinta Cao) and Touriga (Touriga Nacional and Touriga Francesca). As with the Durif, they are all made in a more approachable style but can certainly benefit from ageing. Unusually for SCMW, the range also includes a white wine, a Verdehlo.

The standout in the range, though, is a port-style wine called Rabelo, named after the flat-bottomed boats that traditionally used to carry barrels on the Douro river. The wine is unusual - possibly unique - in that it's a true single vineyard, single vintage port. A portion of the Tinta Roriz grapes are harvested at 17-18 brix, quickly fermented and then distilled by local producer Osocalis to produce the aguardente (in this case, alambic brandy). The remainder of the grapes are harvested when ripe (not over-ripe, as so often happens elsewhere) and fermented, with the fermentation being stopped by the addition of the spirit. The resulting wine is aged for three years in oak prior to bottling. The result is a sweet, light coloured LBV style port that's simply delicious.

In other news, SCMV assistant winemaker Denis Hoey's fledgling Dragonfly Cellars label is going to be relaunched; it appears that a winery in Napa already holds a trademark on the name. The new brand has yet to be confirmed, but will take effect with the 2007 vintage. In the meantime the 2006 vintage, a Malbec and a Durif, are currently in the marketplace.

Donn Reiser, President of Ridge, found dead

Palo Alto Online News is reporting that Ridge president Donn Reisen was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Monday. A tribute from Ridge winemaker Paul Draper said Donn's gift of humor, and his ability to forge long lasting relationships, touched everyone he came into contact with. Hundreds of people across the world, inside and outside the wine world loved him. We will miss him. He left the world a better place for having lived.

A memorial service will be held at a future date.

Update: A more detailed report from SF Chronicle

Sunday, January 25, 2009

2006 Stefania Uvas Creek Cabernet Sauvignon

We had guests over to dinner last night. I was making Tournedos Rossini and wanted a nice cab to go with it, then remembered I hadn't tried one of these yet. It had half an hour in a decanter by way of an aerating funnel.

It has a floral nose of violets and a little smoke, as if there was some Petite Verdot in there (but there isn't). On the palate it's rich and meaty with flavours of brambles. The tannins are smooth, leaving a good finish. The label notes say it'll keep for up to 10 years; not around here it won't.

The wine won a Silver medal at the 2009 SF Wine Competition, which vastly under-rates it in my view.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Varner tasting at K&L Wines

Bob Varner was hosting at K&L wines this evening, pouring a selection of their current releases. The annual release isn't until spring, so it was basically the same lineup that he poured at a similar tasting last April. It was interesting to see how the wines showed and how my views on them had changed almost a year after release.

The Spring Ridge vineyard in Portola Valley is planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Roughly half the Chardonnay is on its own rootstock; the other half, the "Bee Block" is grafted. The Varners take a "non-interventionist" approach to both growing and winemaking; the vines are dry farmed once they are established, the Chardonnay is harvested, crushed and pressed and allowed to ferment without the addition of yeasts; the Pinot is destemmed and also uses only endemic yeasts.

2007 Foxglove Chardonnay, San Luis Obispo County
An unoaked Chardonnay, that's a blend of Edna Valley and Paso Robles fruit. On the nose there's grapefruit and vanilla. On the palate it's smoothed out somewhat and is showing less bright fruit than I recall.

2006 Varner Bee Block Chardonnay
On the nose there's apple, gooseberry and honeysuckle. The palate shows butter, caramel, apple and pineapple, with vanilla oak on the longish finish.

2006 Varner Ampitheater Block Chardonnay
A nice aroma of pineapple and vanilla. More austere than the Bee block; less butter, more acidity and a nice finish of lemon peel and wet stone.

2006 Varner Home Block Chardonnay
Showing less vanilla on the nose than the others; more floral. Lots of fruit, particularly melon and lemon. A long, slightly bitter finish showing oak and again wet stone.

2005 Neely "Holly's Cuvee" Pinot Noir
Definitely the best showing for this wine so far. The nose is bright and smoky, the palate is richer and smoother than past tastings. It's now showing more cherry and less cranberry; the finish is tannic. Leave this alone and it may well come up trumps.

2007 Foxglove Zinfandel, Paso Robles
This wine was made from a vineyard that the Varners were considering sourcing fruit from. The wine was cellared and bottled by them. There's a nice nose of raspberries and cloves; good fruit on the palate but a slightly bitter finish. At 14.6% it's nicely balanced and at $14 it's well priced.

2004 Woodside Estate Zinfandel


I've often said that there's not enough Zinfandel grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Conventional wisdom has it that Zinfandel is best suited to warmer areas such as Paso Robles, Lodi and Amador, and while I don't deny there are some good wines being made out of those areas I generally prefer the wines from Dry Creek and (obviously) the Santa Cruz Mountains. They have the rich flavours while keeping the alcohol down to around the 15% mark, still have enough acidity and while fruity aren't stuck with noticeable residual sugar.

A good example is the 2004 Woodside Estate Zinfandel. A great nose of smoked bacon and raspberries and some alcohol (it's 15.2%) leads in to a fruity wine with raspberry and clove flavours but no port-like characteristics, no overripe flavours. On the finish there's liquorice and adequate tannin and acidity.

The current release is 2005, with orders being taken for the 2006 vintage. I personally favour drinking Zinfandel within 5-6 years of the vintage; not that Zinfandel can't age, but it's all about that fresh fruit flavour.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

I finally got around to checking up on the results from the SF Chronicle Wine Competition. Now I've never had a particularly high opinion of such competitions ever since I realised that Gold, Silver and Bronze did not equate to first, second and third position; instead they are equivalent to point ranges. But it's always interesting to see what reviewers are saying about wines that you like, and this is supposedly the largest competition of American wines in the world.

As a follow-up to the competition there's a tasting event in San Francisco on Saturday February 28 at Fort Mason.

Ventana Vineyards from the Arroyo Seco AVA in Monterey County won best overall white wine for their 2007 Riesling.

La Honda Winery got Best In Class for their 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, "Naylor's Dry Hole Vineyard", Chalone AVA, which I called a nice, soft, drink-me-now cab with good blackcurrant flavour

Solis Winery was judged Best In Class for their 2007 Fiano, which I recently tasted and called the best non-Chardonnay white wine I've tried in a while.

Sarah's Vineyard achieved two Best In Class awards. The first was for their excellent 2007 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. I was impressed by a barrel sample at Pinot Paradise last year and tasted the finished product recently. It's very good, but give it a couple of years to really shine. They also scored Best In Class for their 2005 Besson Vineyard Syrah. Frankly I'm a little surprised by that as I found it a bit overripe for my taste.

Storrs picked up Best In Class for their 2005 Petite Sirah. Sadly they weren't pouring this when I last visited.

To be frank, working out who won what is not easy. There is a table of medals awarded by winery here, but it's full of errors and missing entries. Here are the ones that I have identified so far; apologies for any that I missed. All wines carry the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA unless noted.

Alfaro Family Vineyards
Gold: 2006 "Billy K" Merlot
Bronze: 2007 "A" Pinot Noir
Bronze: 2006 "A" Syrah
Gold: 2006 Reserve Merlot
Gold: 2006 Trout Gulch Vineyard Pinot Noir
Bronze: 2006 Trout Gulch Vineyard Chardonnay
Big Dog
Silver: 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (San Francisco Bay)
Silver: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Port (San Francisco Bay)
Bonny Doon
Gold: 2006 Ca del Solo Dolcetto (Monterey)
Bronze: 2006 Le Cigare Blanc (Central Coast)
Bronze: 2007 Le Vol des Anges (Arroyo Grande Valley)
Burrell School Vineyards
Bronze: 2005 Estate Merlot
Gold: 2007 Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands)
Silver: 2006 Mercury Rising (California)
Bronze: 2006 Trebbiano (Paso Robles)
Clos LaChance
Gold: 2007 "Glittering-Throated Emerald" Chardonnay (Monterey)
Gold: 2005 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Central Coast)
Silver: 2006 "Black Chinned" Syrah (Central Coast)
Bronze: 2006 "Buff-Bellied" Zinfandel (Central Coast)
Creekview Vineyards
Double Gold: 2006 Syrah (Santa Clara)
Gold: 2007 Chardonnay (Arroyo Seco)
Cumbre of Vine Hill
Gold: 2006 Hicks Family Vineyard Pinot Noir
Fernwood Cellars
Bronze: 2007 Vanumanutagi Chardonnay
Bronze: 2006 Small Vineyard Merlot
Bronze: 2006 Machado Creek Petite Sirah (Central Coast)
Silver: 2006 Petit Sirah (Central Coast)
Bronze: 2005 Sangiovese (Central Coast)
Bronze: 2005 Carignane (Santa Clara)
Gatos Locos of Vine Hill
Bronze: 2007 Chardonnay (Mokelumne River),
Bronze: 2006 Syrah
2005 Belle Farms Pinot Noir
Hunter Hill
Silver: 2006 Estate Syrah
Bronze: 2007 Syrah/Grenache/Mourvedre (California)
JD Hurley
Silver: 2005 Merlot
Silver: 2006 Zinfandel
Bronze: 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley)
Bronze: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
J. Lohr
Gold: 2007 "Fog's Reach Vineyard" Pinot Noir (Paso Robles)
Gold: 2006 "Hilltop Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles)
Bronze: 2006 "Arroyo Vista Vineyard" Chardonnay (Arroyo Grande Valley)
Bronze: 2005 "Carlo's Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Jason-Stephens Winery
Silver: 2006 Dorcich Vineyards Syrah (Santa Clara Valley)
Bronze: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley)
Bronze: 2006 "Dorcich Estate" Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley)
La Honda Winery
Best In Class: 2006 "Naylor's Dry Hole" Cabernet Sauvignon (Chalone)
Double Gold: 2006 Lonehawk Cabernet Sauvignon
Bronze: 2006 "Windsor Oaks" Cabernet Sauvignon (Chalk Hill)
Loma Prieta Winery
Gold: 2007 Saveria Pinot Noir
Gold: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
Mann Cellars
Bronze: 2005 Mannstand Vineyard Malbec (Santa Clara County)
Silver: 2006 Zinfandel (Fiddletown)
Silver: 2006 "Hammer" Syrah (AVA not stated)
Silver: 2005 "Heart Arrow Ranch" Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendocino)
Bronze: 2007 Viognier
Bronze: 2006 "Oleta Vineyard" Grenache (Fiddletown)
Martin Ray Winery
Gold: 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Monte Verde Vineyards
Silver: 2006 "Muritabo" Syrah (Central Coast)
Bronze: 2006 "Villa Palma" Merlot (Central Coast)
Gold: 2005 "Stan's Zin" Moniz Vineyard Zinfandel (Santa Clara)
Silver: 2006 "Lyn Zin" Zinfandel (Santa Clara)
Bronze: 2005 "Table Two" Syrah/Sangiovese (California)
Perrucci Family Vineyard
Silver: 2006 Sangiovese
Silver: 2006 Merlot
Gold: 2007 Pinot Noir
Bronze: 2006 Cabernet Franc (Monterey)
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard
Gold: 2005 "Bailey's Branciforte Ridge" Pinot Noir
Gold: 2006 Shepard Vineyard Durif
Silver: 2006 Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir
Silver: 2005 McDowell Valley Vineyard Durif (Mendocino)
Sarahs Vineyard
Best Of Class: 2007 Pinot Noir
Best Of Class: 2005 Besson Vineyard Syrah (Santa Clara Valley)
Gold: 2007 Estate Pinot Noir (Santa Clara Valley)
Silver: 2007 Chardonnay
Silver: 2007 Estate Chardonnay (Santa Clara Valley)
Satori Cellars
Gold: 2006 "Halelujah" Cabernet Sauvignon (Washington)
Bronze: 2006 "Ta Da" Syrah (Santa Clara County)
Bronze: 2006 Estate Petite Sirah (Santa Clara Valley)
Bronze: 2006 Estate "Bluehand" Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara County)
Savannah Chanelle
Silver: 2007 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)
Bronze: 2006 "Gunsalus" Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)
Bronze: 2006 "Armagh" Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast)
Silver Mountain Vineyards
Silver: 2006 Tondre's Grapefield Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills)
Silver: 2006 Muns Vineyard Pinot Noir
Silver: 2006 Miller Hill Pinot Noir
Silver: 2006 Wiedeman Syrah (Central Coast)
Solis Winery
Best In Class: 2007 Estate Fiano (Santa Clara Valley)
Silver: 2007 Estate Chardonnay (Santa Clara Valley)
Silver: 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc (Santa Clara Valley)
Bronze: 2004 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley)
Gold: 2006 French Camp Petite Sirah (Paso Robles)
Silver: 2007 "La Sirena" (California)
Bronze: 2006 Zinfandel (Santa Clara County)
Silver: 2006 Amber Ridge Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley)
Silver: 2006 Kruse Vineyard Pinot Noir (York Mountain)
Bronze: 2006 Muns Vineyard Pinot Noir
Bronze: 2006 Tondre's Grapefield Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills)
Soquel Vineyards
Gold: 2007 Saveria Vineyard Pinot Noir
Gold: 2007 Bald Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir
Silver: 2007 Lester Family Pinot Noir
Silver: 2006 Garvey Family Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Silver: 2006 Uvas Creek Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley)
Silver: 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon
Best In Class: 2005 Petite Sirah
Double Gold: 2006 Wildcat Ridge Pinot Noir
Gold: 2007 Chardonnay
Gold: 2007 Stu Miller Vineyard Chardonnay
Gold: 2006 Pinot Noir
Gold: 2005 Lion Oaks Zinfandel (Santa Clara County)
Silver: 2006 Le Manoir Pinot Noir (Monterey)
Sycamore Creek
Double Gold: 2007 Zinfandel (Santa Clara Valley)
Gold: 2006 Vanumanutagi Chardonnay (Santa Clara Valley)
Bronze: 2005 Uvas Creek Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Clara Valley)
Therese Vineyards
Gold: 2005 Syrah (Santa Clara Valley)
Gold: 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
Thomas Fogarty Winery
Silver: 2007 Gewürztraminer (Monterey)
Silver: 2007 Pinot Noir
Silver: 2004 Vallarga Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Bronze: 2006 Chardonnay

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rabbit's Foot Meadery

Hidden in an industrial unit off Tasman Drive, a short distance from the Great America theme park in the heart of Silicon Valley is the Rabbit's Foot Meadery. Now you should know that this is a wine blog and that Mead is not wine. I just wanted to clarify that right at the start, so that there's no confusion. Mead is a drink made from honey; it can be dry or sweet, weak or strong. The name conjures up images of druids and vikings, but its history goes back over 4000 years; it may even be as old a drink as beer or wine. It was made by Ethiopians who call it Tej. It's mentioned in Hindu scriptures. You can add various flavourings to it to produce strange sounding brews such as metheglin, pyment, melomel or cyser. And as I said, nowadays it's being made in an industrial unit in Sunnyvale.

The Rabbit's Foot tasting room is open weekdays from 1PM to 6PM, and occasionally on Saturdays. And yet it's quite possibly the nearest thing to a proper pub that I've found anywhere in the US. For one thing, it's the only tasting room I can recall that had a dartboard. For another it seems to be populated solely by people who know the owner and who can switch the topic of discussion from the weather to politics via almost any topic imaginable.

There's a wide array of drinks available, all with at least some honey in the mix. For a start there are several meads, both traditional and flavoured. Then there are several cysers/ciders and finally there's a range of honey beers.

We began with a Dry Mead, Dry being a relative term; this has around 1% residual sugar, so it's more of an off-dry by wine standards, and 13% alcohol. The mead is matured for 2 years in new American oak barrels and has acquired a sherrylike quality. You can certainly taste the flavour of the honey in it.

This was followed by a Pear Mead. The dry mead is mixed with table pears (as opposed to perry pears, which are much higher in tannin and acidity) as well as a blend of spices. It seemed slightly dryer than the Dry Mead and tasted more of the spices than of pears.

Next came a Sweet Mead. At 3% residual sugar it's significantly dryer than most late harvest wines. On the nose there was a distinct floral/wintergreen characteristic, with a real flavour of honey on the palate.

Lastly there is a Raspberry Mead. This is a dry mead to which whole raspberries are added and left to macerate. It has a real bright raspberry favour without being heavy or artificial. In some ways it resembles a Belgian Lambic fruit beer, though without the sourness.

Rabbit's Foot also make two other true meads known as Melia and Mead Of Poetry, but they weren't available for sampling. The Melia apparently is sweeter still and resembles a dessert wine. The Mead Of Poetry is aged for 7 years in new oak, and is said to have a port like character. A new barrel is due to be bottled soon, so I plan to return to sample it.

After the Meads came a range of Cysers. These are a blend of apple juice and honey. The alcohol content is much lower than the Meads, making them drinks that you can enjoy by the pint. The regular Cyser comes in both still and carbonated forms; the still had good apple flavours with a fair amount of acidity. The closest thing I've tried was a French cider from Normandy.

I then tried sparkling cysers flavoured with cherry and peach. The cherry had really good, bright cherry flavours, again reminiscent of a Belgian Kriek; the peach was a little lacking, like the syrup from a tin of peaches (though not as sweet). But then I'm not a fan of Peach Lambics either. The Cysers are being marketed as Ciders, which of course isn't strictly accurate; Cider should be made solely from apple juice, but it seems that consumers were put off by the unfamiliar term.

Finally we moved on to the beers. Each of the beers gets around 25% of its fermentable sugars from honey. If you didn't know that you probably wouldn't guess; I didn't detect any noticeable honey flavours in any of the beers, which makes me wonder what the point is, other than a gimmick; I doubt that it's a cost saving. As with the Cysers the beers are all brewery conditioned, which means that the CO2 gas is added after they are filtered and stabilised. The brewers are considering making cask conditioned products and I hope they do.

First came Biere de Miele. This is a Kölsch style beer, which means that it resembles a Lager except that it's brewed at a warmer temperature, using a top fermenting ale yeast. Frankly this is a really good beer; honey or no honey it's a good example of what I remember a Kölsch to be - fruity like an ale with a light hop flavour. Very nice indeed.

Next came Honey Red, an Irish red ale. Not my favourite beer style, but a good`example of it nontheless.

Diabhal is a Belgian style ale with 8% alcohol. It's got that unmistakeable Belgian beer character, but there's a bit too much residual sugar which I'm not so keen on.

Finally, Hel is a spiced beer, flavoured with coriander and orange peel. At a whopping 10% alcohol it's stronger than many German table wines. The spices remind me of Anchhor Brewing Co's Christmas Ale, though it's way stronger in flavour as well as alcohol.

Behind the tasting room there's the shining stainless steel of the brewery and meadery. Yellow tape on the floor marks the border (for tax and licencing reasons) btween the two. There are two separate bottling plants, one for the still meads, the other for the sparkling beers and cysers. Off to the side are the barrels of mead and the kegs of new beer.

Most of the products are sold by the bottle, and several are available at BevMo. The draught cysers and beers are also sold by the pint. Tasting is free. Given the number of products offered it's probably wise to take public transport; the 55 bus stops at the corner of Tasman and Birchwood, or the Mountain View to San Jose light rail is just a short walk away.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cellar Sale at Clos LaChance

I read a "tweet" from Clos LaChance yesterday, announcing that they were holding a Cellar Sale this weekend, with wines going for $3-$7 a bottle. Well with the economy the way it is I could certainly use some bargains so I decided to check it out.

Clos LaChance produce around 60,000 cases annually from their 150 acres of estate vineyards. Although the winery is located in San Martin, in the heart of Santa Clara Valley the wines are generally labeled with the Central Coast appellation, presumably on the grounds that it's a more recognisable name nationally.

It seems that the winery had teamed up with a company called WineStyles who have a chain of stores that appear to sell their own labelled wines. Most of the wines being sold - by the pallet - carried these labels.

Crisp ($4) A 2006 Sauvignon Blanc. My tastes tend to run to new Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs, with the fresh, vibrant fruit and acidity. After a year or two they tend to smooth out a bit and lose that edge; this seems to be what has happened here. A decent wine, but not to my tastes.

Collaboration ($4) A 2006 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, made to promote the charity Share Our Strength. I preferred this to the previous wine; the Semillon gave more complexity. Bought some.

Silky ($4) A 2006 Chardonnay, unoaked. My local Safeway used to carry Clos LaChance's Emerald Throated unoaked Chardonnay, and it was a retty good bargain, often on sale for $7-$8. This is the same thing; bags of fresh, tropical fruit. Bought some

2006 Bronzy Inca Chardonnay ($5) This is the oaked counterpart to the Emerald Throated. Having just tasted the previous wine I felt that the oak had diminished the fruit without adding much in return.

2005 Hayes Valley Merlot ($5) Quite a bit of structure, not showing much in the way of fruit. Possibly just a bit closed right now, but since I'm buying to drink now I passed.

Fruity ($5) A 2004 Merlot, similar to the Violet Crowned. A soft wine with plenty of fruit that's drinking nicely. Seemed like a real bargain at the price; I tried to buy a case but only ended up with 4 bottles.

Collaboration ($7) A 2005 Meritage, companion to the white. Quite heavily oaked compared to the others, this still showed plenty of raspberry and blackberry fruit. Bought some.

Unlabelled ($3) A 2006 Merlot, made to promote random charitable causes. I think the idea is that the charity slaps its own label on. Like the Hayes Valley it was structured and not showing much fruit, but had some potential. Hard to turn down at $3 a bottle, but you have to draw the line somewhere.

2007 Muscat ($5/375) Though I enjoy sweet wines I rarely buy Muscats as they tend to be simple and one-dimensional. However they do tend to pair with fruit desserts much better than Sauternes so it's handy to have some in, and this was a better example than many, particularly for the price. Bought some.

Friday, January 16, 2009

1990 Cronin "Joe's Cuvee"

Regular viewers will recall that I've posted about this wine before; I picked up a few for a song at K&L early last year. The last time we opened one in November during a local blackout; three of us drank it by candlelight and chatted. (I didn't take any notes.) It was a strange yet fun evening.

On Thursday I had planned to go to a Cronin tasting in Palo Alto, but had to cancel at the last minute. So instead I decided to open one of my own.

As with previous bottles the cork was saturated almost through, and quite soft and spongy. It had the "old wine" smell; leather, cedar, slight mustiness. As before, it's the acidity that strikes you first, but as you see through that the fruit shows; particularly in the second glass there are raspberries, cranberries and brambles. Still a decent bottle, though a bit more mature than I remember the previous ones being. Then again, being paired with pizza perhaps affected it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Solis Winery

Solis dates back to before Prohibition. Back then it was owned by the Bertero family, who grew Zinfandel and Carignane. The property stayed in the family until the 1980s when it was purchased by the Vannis. Over the years they have planted several French and Italian vines both at the original site and a second nearby vineyard that is jointly owned and managed.

I last visited Solis around 5 years ago; their wines were clearly way ahead of many other Hecker Pass wineries at the time. All the wines carry the Santa Clara Valley appellation, and most are Estate. Tasting is free.

2007 Fiano Estate, Santa Clara Valley $18 Fiano is an ancient Italian varietal, grown mainly in the Campania region of southern Italy. If I hadn't been told that I'd have sworn that this was a Viognier. Floral nose; crisp, fruity palate and a nice finish. Good acidity too; the best non-Chardonnay white wine I've tried in a while. Value Recommended
2007 Vino Roseo, Santa Clara Valley $12 A sweet rose made from Sangiovese. While it has some complexity and nice flavours, it's too sweet for my tastes.
2005 Merlot Estate, Santa Clara Valley $24 A little on the oaky side, this had good black fruits with a subtle hint of black olive or bell pepper. Nice finish.
2007 Zinfandel, Santa Clara Valley $18 It's easy to let Zinfandel get too ripe and end up with a fruit bomb that's got 15.5%-17% alcohol. It's much harder to get Zinfandel that's properly ripe, having good acidity without unripe green flavours and still under 14% alcohol, so this was a pleasant surprise. Good raspberry flavour with white pepper notes.
2004 Syrah, Santa Clara Valley $20 Hints of earth and mushroom on the nose. On the palate it's fruity with soft, integrated tannins.
2005 Cara Mia (Meritage), Santa Clara Valley $30 90% Merlot, blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Good fruit with a hint of espresso and vanilla. Give it a year in the cellar to integrate.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sarah's Vineyard

Sarah's Vineyard Hecker Pass is well known as a grape growing area, though for a long time the emphasis has been primarily on low costs and high yields, resulting in many unremarkable wines.

In 1978 Marilyn Clarke purchased a 10 acre property on Hecker Pass Road. She planted Chardonnay and named the vineyard after the previous owner. Over the next two decades she established a reputation for distinctive, ageable wines.

On Marilyn's retirement in 2001 the property was purchased by a former Silicon Valley engineer, Tim Slater. Tim has since invested heavily in the property; the old buildings are being renovated and extended, there's a brand new lab with state of the art analysis hardware, a compact bottling line and numerous other gleaming pieces of stainless steel. The landscaping is also being improved, with the addition of a picnic area with pizza oven and two regulation bocce courts. The tasting room is now open daily; its proximity to the Gilroy Gardens theme park no doubt helping to increase traffic.

These gnarly Chardonnay vines have been retrained in a different direction using a 3 wire trellis In the vineyards some of the older Chardonnay vines have been replanted, while others have had the trellising replaced and the orientation changed, leading to some interesting looking twisted vines. In stark contrast to many of the sprawling vineyards nearby the vines are trained in neat rows using the 3 wire VSP trellis. Currently around 18 acres are under vine, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There are 10 additional acres that will be planted in the coming year with rhone varietals, both read and white.

The tasting room is well back from the road. There's a $5 fee, which is waived with purchase. 5 wines are poured with two additional wines available to club members and polite bloggers.

The winery uses French oak almost exclusively. The flagship wines are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both Estate and Santa Cruz Mountains. There's also an unoaked Chardonnay called Steel Blue and some Central Coast blends. The winery also purchases fruit from the nearby Besson vineyard and occasionally from outside the area.

Jennifer is the tasting room manager 2007 Estate Chardonnay, Santa Clara Valley $30 A pleasant, fruity chardonnay that isn't too heavy on the oak. Good flavours of apples and tropical fruits, with a chalky mineral note on the finish.
2007 Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains $30 Similar in style to the Estate, but with a little more acidity and more concentrated fruit. Very good.
2007 Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Clara Valley $35 Nose of bright sweet, spicy fruit that follow through to the palate. Drink now.
2007 Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains $35 Darker than the estate, with a nose of chocolate and cherries. Good structure; should continue to improve for at least 2-3 years. Excellent.
2004 Merlot, Besson Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley $20, or $144 a case. Besson is the closest vineyard to Sarah's and has some older, gnarly, sprawling vines. The Merlot is overripe and port-like with a 16% alcohol. Not really my thing.
2005 Syrah, Besson Vineyard, Santa Clara Valley $24. The Syrah is better than the Merlot and does at least show some Syrah character, but again it's overripe and high in alcohol, with a rather tannic finish.
2005 Zinfandel, Amador County $25. Ripe raspberry fruit backed by some white pepper and vanilla.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Merlot's parents: The Missing Link

There's an article in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research that claims to have discovered the genetic parents of the Merlot grape. (The full text of the article is available to subscribers only.)

Scientists had already known that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were siblings, having a common ancestor in Cabernet Franc (the name means "true Cabernet"). Cabernet Sauvignon is (not entirely surprisingly) a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, but the other parent of Merlot was unknown until now.

The researchers have discovered that it's a previously unclassified grape that they have named "Magdeleine Noire des Charentes". It was first discovered growing on the slope of a hill in Brittany; more recently four separate domestic plantings have been discovered in villages around Poitou-Charentes, hence the name.

The researchers also identified the parents of Carmenère (Bastardo, or Cabernet Gros and Cabernet Franc), Merlot Blanc (Merlot and Folle Blanche, a grape mainly used to make Armagnac), Malbec or Côt (Magdeleine Noire des Charentes and Prunelard, a near-extinct grape grown near Tolouse in south-west France, long believed to be related to Malbec and known locally as the Red-Stemmed Côt) and Mourtès - whatever that is, I can find no references anywhere (Magdeleine Noire des Charentes and Penouille, an unremarkable black grape from Bordeaux).

Saturday, January 3, 2009

2007 Thomas Fogarty Monterey Gewürztraminer

When it comes to white wines I like them either dry or very sweet, such as Sauternes or Tokaj. But sometimes the food is cooked with fruit and has some sweetness to it; for example sweet and sour pork. Food like that calls out for a wine with a bit of sweetness, such as Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer.

Fogarty's Gewürztraminer is a great example of the style. It has a terrific nose of honeysuckle and lychee that continues on the palate. It's fruity without being sweet, and there's enough flavour and acidity to stand up against sweet or spicy oriental and indian food. It's also good with cheese and is a good value; you can typically find it between $10 and $13. In fact the only thing I don't like about it is the bottle; it's the tall, narrow, Alsace style that doesn't fit well in a cellar or refrigerator. But that's OK since it's stoppered with a screwcap, so doesn't need to be laid down, and isn't intended for cellaring.

2005 Picchetti Merlot, Santa Clara Valley

Considering that it's one of the most widely planted grapes in the world, it's surprising how little Merlot I drink. It isn't that I have anything against the varietal, it just tends not to do that much for me. Case in point is the 2005 Picchetti, sourced primarily from the Dorcich vineyard in Santa Clara Valley.

It's a pleasant, easy drinking wine. The nose shows alcohol (it has 14.9%) and coffee. It's fruity without my being able to identify anything specific; just generic black fruits. The oak shows much more than I remember from the last time I tasted it, offering a strong coffee/dark chocolate finish. No point in cellaring, it's ready to drink now.

Overall there's nothing wrong with this wine; it simply didn't excite me. According to CellarTracker I paid $27 and I can think of plenty of other wines in that price range that I'd rather have.