Tuesday, January 26, 2016


Washington States's Wahluke Slope AVA vineyards
Winter. Grey seems to be the predominant color above, and nearby in our moderate climate a green carpet can surface as far as the eye can see(between the raindrops). It is the season of comfort foods and of hearty, full-bodied wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon. But where can a wine lover find value in the king of grapes within a domestic variety that is typically the most expensive wine grape by the ton?

Wine grape prices tend to reflect their land values plus the cost of farming the crop, so within California Napa fruit is more expensive than, say, Monterey county. Down south, Wild Horse of Templeton's Central Coast AVA Cabernet Sauvignon consistently will offer thirsty wine lovers bang for the buck. Regional blending, too, can offer a mixed value, such as Bogle Vineyard's 'California' Cabernet Sauvignon(around $10.). But, what if you wanted to taste identity, to find a value Cabernet that expressed a specific site?  For those values you may need to search foreign soils for this international varietal, such as Chile or South Africa.
Gravel vineyards of Graves, France await spring
Stateside, way further north in Washington state, everyday values there can move to another tier. With more than 50,000 acres planted, supporting more than 850 wineries(10 times more than a generation ago), Washington state is widely represented in the Cabernet value race. With 13 AVA's such as the expansive Columbia Valley, Yakima Valley, Red Mountain, and Horse Haven Hills, Cabernet Sauvignon has become the leading red grape varietal in the state. East of the Cascades, the vineyards sprall, taking advantage of Ice Age soils, ample hours of growing season sunlight and the irrigation richness of the broad Columbia Basin.

Grand Coulee Columbia Basin Project transformed this land, making water management and industrial scale farming a way of life. From its origins in the early 20th century, it remains the largest water reclamation project in the U.S., producing not only power, but hundreds of millions of dollars of agricultural crops each year. Here, pioneer Chateau Ste. Michelle farms more than 3500 acres of premium wine grapes in the Columbia Valley, consistently producing high quality to value table wines. Perhaps equally impressive is venerable Columbia Winery, sourcing oceans of fruit from multiple AVA's, including the Columbia Valley. Yes, children, size does matter.

At a recent quality to value tasting event Washington state was well represented in the under $20 value category. After tasting a broad selection of quaff-able cabernet, a few selections rose like cream to the top. Among them was Columbia Crest H3 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon from Horse Haven Hills. A gamey, dark stone fruit was its aromatic introduction, with dark currant, vanilla and rich earth notes giving way to berry and cocoa.  Within the Washington state value selections there was an almost industrial refinement here, allowing those that were strikingly different to stand apart.

Even Bordeaux shows a value worth seeking out, where bottles of Cru Bourgeois, are grown on a single estate."What distinguishes them from the best classed growths is that they rarely improve much beyond 15 years..." , notes author Jancis Robinson, but who can wait that long? Fronsac AOC and Haut-Médoc AOC remain the most consistent value appellations, but surprises await in some of Bordeaux's outlying regions. After a long history of recognizing merchants and craftsmen(bourg), it was in 1932 the French authority classified 444 of their distinguished properties, but the politics of the era did not allow ratification. Using a basis of consistent quality production and testing, 246 properties were finally awarded the unique classification in 2003, only to be annulled in 2008.  Finally, following a qualitative, non-partial selection procedure, Cru Bourgeois was updated, officially recognized and published in late 2010.
Values can be found in red Bordeaux

Look for quality to value estate selections like Château Grivière Médoc.  One of our tastings favorite selections was Blaigan Cru Bougeois Médoc, a Merlot/Cabernet blend, exhibiting a dark plum hue, with a smoky dried red fruit nose that held some winter spice, and rendered depth and complexity across the pallet to a finish that continued to flavor evolve as it warmed and disappeared in the mouth. Ah, a sense of place, and perhaps the king of values, too!

Wine Links:  http://www.washingtonwine.org/


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: Home Wine $ellar

Go to the small basement cellar(it is really just racks of stored bottles); find an appropriate bottle of wine(requires inspecting several labels); open found bottle of wine with anticipation, and share with prepared plate; and(hopefully) feel moments of contentment. Especially because wine is at our family table almost every day, it is an earned joy to pull from our home stored bottle inventory for just about every occasion. Included are a small selection of high acid whites and reds, brooding vin rouge of depth and tannic structure, and even a few bottles of viscous nectar's that pair with rich appetizers or desserts. Typically, when visiting a local retail bottle shop or virtual store I will collect several bottles of the same quality wine. Over time a small collection grows across a spectrum of types of wine that are allowed thru bottle aging to develop a more mature character, escaping the thinness and pitfalls of youth. Admittedly, as I have no fondness for most young red wines(Beaujolais & Dolchetto being an exception), and also find a real satisfaction in being able to provide wine for almost every meal without leaving the home.  Gradually, over the years I have afford-ably built a conservative, but diverse home wine $ellar.

What has developed down below is an ever changing global selection of quality to value(sub $20.) wines, perfect for everyday enjoyment that I admit are the joyful result of wishful procurement. Additionally, among the sleeping bottles are a few of advanced age, with many, if not most of the great wines that I have been privileged to enjoy over the years having been offered to me by good friends.  These have been special wines that have changed the way I look at wine as a living thing; the perceptive wine aromas and especially their taste present an ambrosia of the gods beyond what is outside commonly standardized vino perceptions. They have changed the personal lexicon of wine description due to an unfamiliar reminder in what a mature wine can become. These are wines of evolution, bacchanals of breeding and nurturing which many times are like nothing else that routinely graces our table.
Winter pruning in the Loire

Our use of a wine quality assessment, I believe, is based on collected quality experience. To appreciate any wine it is important to know what you are drinking. It is not just the perceived distinction in the profiles of, say, Sauvignon Blanc compared to Verdejo.  Both are influenced by zippy acids and a bright citrus personality, both a complement to light dishes of a little acidity. It is also important to have had the taste 'experience' that would enable an identification of a particular flavor, aroma or perceived secondary trait as a clue to unique character in the glass. It was not until 2007 that I had tasted fresh red currants, thereby offering a memory of the taste distinction from cranberries or tart cherries.  Many grape varieties, too, are chameleon in personality, a reflection of the environs where they were natured and nurtured. Within a comparative single varietal, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is different when tasted against a Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc in large part because they reflect differences in where they are grown.  Any cellar would benefit from both food friendly selections.

As we begin to collect bottles for our cellars, our goal needs to be wines that display harmony and balance in the glass, and I have found that aged wines can offer these qualities more seamlessly. Typically, the recognizable personality traits are there, as you may perceive a reflection of honeysuckle in that golden glass of mature Chardonnay or a hint of plum pudding in an opaque red Merlot, bonded to its structure. Well aged wines of quality will offer those notes in a stream of many other flavor impressions, all offering for your attention.  The characteristic bitterness or astringency of youthful wines will have faded, blending into a more harmonious chord of a mature and developed wine. Sublime and inspiring, a properly aged wine rewards the patient taster, and can challenge to reassess our general perceptions of what wine is, even our everyday wines like those waiting on our expanding racks.

Many of these regional and varietal portraits have been offered in earlier posts here, such as a viewing of Gamay(11/25/14) where you may find a use for the 'red currant' descriptor. A quaffable bottle at a time, acquiring a broad selection of wines in a personal cellar that is dark and cool offers the easy opportunity to have on hand an accessable stored bottle of Chardonnay when it can really dance with a meal like a pasta carbonara, or a planned pairing of the food-friendly Piemonte Barbera with an impromptu antipasti plate. Favorite bottles will wait patiently to be shared with good friends who stop by, whatever their personal flavor preferences for wine may be. Rather than leaving a good time with dear friends, a personal wine collection allows the collector to spend more time enjoying fellowship, and the pride of just walking downstairs to produce a wine that may be savored and talked about in the future.  As collected for future occasions, wine as a living, breathing liquid mystery capable of maturation, is best enjoyed with food, and becomes even greater because your home $ellar is always better when shared. And, that makes it a collection of values, too!

Cheers to a Happy New Year!

Tasting Values:
NISIA Verdejo, 2013 Rueda Old Vines, fresh summer fruits lift from the glass;  zippy, citrus and green melon with a kiss of mineral that dances and lingers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

BRAMBLES: Integrated Nature

Old World BioDynamics

A broad field of gold and bronze with scars of crimson carpet the seasonal Dry Creek Valley landscape. Soft sunlight bathes the dormant vines as swarms of starlings dance waves in the cool air streaming above. It is autumn, and the premium grapevines of this American Viticultural Area reflect the green loss of chlorophyll across their acres of canopy that are today increasingly sustain-ably farmed. At around 1 million acres, the county of Sonoma has targeted being the nation's first 100% sustainable farm region by 2019!  Further, its environment specific programs, such as the approximately 20,000 acres certified as Fish-Friendly Farming, and the growing Demeter certified farms and vineyards utilizing BioDynamic practices, such as Benziger Family Winery and Dry Creek's Quivira Vineyards establish even higher standards.

Traditional bio-diversity in agriculture evolved dramatically in 1924 thru a series of lectures offered by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner, promoting chemical fertilizer, pesticide-free farming. Seen as an entire self-sustaining organism, BioDynamics proposed an integrated, closed nutrient system; essentially a whole farm organism with a close personal connection to the land. Beyond rotating beneficial cover crops, it required beneficial predatory insects, the recycling of nutrients, an integration of livestock, and employing the phases of celestial bodies to positively influence planting and harvesting. Extended to the wine cellar, certification now requires fermentation from native yeasts only, with no adjustments to sugar or acid allowed. It is a holistic approach that at its core is integrated nature.

As may be expected, the philosophical practice is strongly anchored in the Old World, and today there are more than 450 certified viticultural practicioners world wide.  There are currently six(6) BioDynamic vineyards within our Central Coast super-AVA, stretching roughly from San Francisco to Santa Barbara which in total farms than 100,000 acres of vines. Blanketing six(6) counties, it had contained 27 smaller AVA's, as diverse as Santa Cuuz Mountains AVA and Carmel Valley AVA. In the Spring of 2007, numerous petitions from a local 59 member wine industry group began to be filed with the U.S. Treasury Departments Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau requesting changes to the existing demarcations established in 1985(amnended in 1999 & 2006).  Back in 1990 there were fewer than 20 wineries in the region of Paso Robles AVA, and the petitioners were arguing for change.

Historically, it was easy for most consumers of the regions wines to recognize the distinction of the differences from the Costal Range coolness of the western side of the Salinas River as compared to the warmer rolling hills that made up the eastside of the AVA. The bureau's final ruling was published in October of 2014, and the existing Paso Robles AVA of San Luis Obispo county(now home to more than 200 wineries) was sub-divided into eleven(11) defined regions to 'better describe the origin of their wines' or to 'better allow consumers to better identify wines'.  The established divisions are intended to better reflect the areas diverse soils and variations in daily temperature swings and annual rainfall. Jason Haas, general manager of organicly certified Tablas Creek Vineyard(sibling to Perrin's Ch. de Beaucastel of the Rhone valley) and Paso Robles AVA Committee member noted that “ultimately, the new AVAs will allow these newly created sub-regions to develop identities for themselves with a clarity impossible in a single large AVA.”
One AVA has become Eleven
 Downtown Paso Robles is today home to more than 15 winery tasting rooms, and on a recent wine escape there was opportunity to taste many fine efforts,  but I found it difficult to discern what was nouveau regionally distinctive. Certinly world class cuvees were to be found westside in the Adelaida Hills AVA at refined estates like Justin Vineyards & Winery(Wine Enthusiast Winery of the Year) and the stunning DAOU Vineyards(SIP Certified).  Extreem comparison took us to top-rated and fun-loving Tobin James Cellars eastside in the new Geneseo District AVA, where they are sourcing premium fruit from literally dozens of local independent grape growers, but no mention of their 'distinctive' AVA was offered by engaging hospitality staff or even their web site.
Tablas Creek Vineyards, Adlaida Hills AVA
On appearance(the first way we taste), many of these wineries seem distinctive by general location and capital investment. Points of differentiation ultimately will begin to sort out the Paso field, offering inevitable comparisions in the spirit of the TTB guidelines that will 'set it apart'. Consumers will increasingly have recognized broader choices from this area, something that Sonoma County to the north is still figuring out how to market.  Until then, we have the truth in advertising that appears on govenment approved wine labels, and the pledge from an increasing number of sustainable viticultural efforts to produce wines that are distinctively integrated with nature.

Certified BioDynamics of the Paso Robles AVA:
  •  AmByth Estate, Templeton
  •  Pine Hawk Vineyards, San Miguel
Salute', and a Happy Thanksgiving!


Friday, October 30, 2015

BRAMBLES: Tasting the Passion

'Reality is an illusion that exists due to lack of wine'. W.C.Fields
Vineyards of Sonoma Mountain AVA
Routinely, it is offered that of the hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, the top 10% by volume, produce almost 90% of the wine within this vast, diversified agricultural region. This is a landscape holding countless micro-climates and more than 30 soil types, yet the majority of wines produced too often lack a distinction of place.  Assuming that the volume brand leaders base their market success, in part, on continuity and consistency of their wine product, they produce a homogenized wine on what can only be described as an industrial scale.  It is then among the remaining producers of Sonoma County that can offer consumers a distinctive taste of passion.

The bucolic county of a million acres, currently farms more than 60,000 acres to premium wine grapes, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers.  Diversely, this represents only about 6% of its total landscape. By recent estimates, it supports more than 1800 grape growers, of which almost 50,000 acres are sustain-ably farmed.  Defined American Viticultural Areas began being uniquely recognized in 1981, and by 1985 there were seven(7). Today there are seventeen(17) Sonoma AVA's. In theory, each offers defining and unique characteristics that can be recognized as part of its heritage and consistency.  
Wild mustard in Sonoma County dormant vineyards

To the Coast Miwok, it was the beginning of the world, but today it is known as the Sonoma Mountain AVA(1985).  Fog-free, high altitude vineyards planted in freely draining soils of mixed volcanic materials contribute to make this a unique, distinctive growing region. Near its crest sits one of the oldest homesteads on the mountain, and one of the tallest Pinot Noir vineyards in Sonoma County. The 26 acre Platinum-rated Van der Kamp vineyard is on the dormant volcanoes north face, and offers its premium fruit to a handful of grateful artisans. LaFollette 2011 Van der Kamp Pinot Noir, displays an opaque plum robe in the glass with a brickish rim, presenting dried, dark tree fruits and earthy notes in its smoky aromas that preview a firm body; a body linear and refined, with a finesse that is developed, focused and deliciously lingering on the palate. Distinctive!

Diversely, just over the north county line in the Mendocino Ridge AVA(1997) and situated on an eroded sandstone plateau near the coast, 2000 feet above the Pacific, is the isolated 26 acre Manchester Ridge vineyard. LaFollette's 2012 Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir sits surprisingly opaque and dense in the glass.  Generous aromas of dried cherries and wild strawberries lift from the glass, a gateway to the round restraint, the opulent and ripe, the rich and sultry. It is a juicy Pinot Noir, with nuance of violets and wet earth, that exquisitely  lingers on the palate. Distinctive II!
Sonoma Coast AVA
Made by the same hand in the same cellar, there is a uniform thread in the style and fashion of these acclaimed vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs.  Each echos a place, and even the distance from that place, if only we take the time to listen.  Even as other vintners source premium fruit from these sites, the vignerons signature, and what the French describe as terrior distinctively assemble in each glass for us to explore.  It is the taste of passion.

Upon reflection, there is a sensibility to this distinction of place.
Old world tradition, tells us that French wine prestige is all about the land; a single celebrated, unchanging plot, and it must be exalted. even revered. It is uniquely a foundation of the concept of terrior.  In Germany, the world leader in production of the noble grape Riesling, the prevailing dictate is that any vineyard site is available to blooming as a great land, but that it must be created. As a New World endeavor, American vintners(and consumers) are still working with the concept of the distinctive place consistently reflected in the glass.  But, when it is understood, when it is translated to the bottle, you often can get a distinctive taste of the passion.

A special thanks goes out from wine lovers to the dedicated men and women of the harvest who make such enjoyable moments possible. Cheers!

Friday, September 25, 2015

BRAMBLES: Harvest Wine Events

Field of Harvest Dreams: Pomace
Harvest signs are everywhere on these warm, late summer days.  Trucks of assorted sizes, configurations, and loads dot the local highways and byways in a seasonal procession.  Casual drives across this Sonoma landscape offer the distinct aromas of the season, one green pocket at a time.  New to the local mix of agricultural perfumes are the notes of the recently pressed juice and solids of freshly harvested grapes(must) and the separated, solid remains of the following grape fermentation, pomace(marc).  In these local AVA's(American Viticultural Area) there is once again the last of the early morning fruit harvesting and the beginnings of another season of harvest dreams. It is nearing the end of a repeated annual cycle that started early in the calendar year with local vines awaking from their required winter dormancy. It is harvest, and a time to celebrate.

Every week here there are numerous and varied wine events around this beautiful county to explore and celebrate our local agri-industry.  The recently lauded Sonoma Wine Country Weekend remains the longstanding grand scale standard-bearer, of course. Small events dot this landscape too, including the newly inaugurated Grenachistas celebration by Sonoma's delicious Suite D's. From the annual August Bodega Seafood, Art & Wine Festival, to the upcoming Kendall Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival(Sat. 09/26), there are countless ways to dig in and enjoy the diversity of the contemporary local wine culture.

For many, a lingering question may be 'why go to a local event? For the neophytes, it can be the desire may be to find something new, to learn more about wines, or to support local businesses and to gain some of that delicious insider knowledge. Those of us that crave socialization will have the scheduled opportunity to interact with others of the same or similar desire, or to join what may be perceived as a 'free' meal and a joyous party. Many who are passionate about the lifestyle may thrill to the idea of enjoying(celebrating) a lively and broad wine experience, or even evaluating scores of diverse wine stylings. But any celebration, wine events included, are amplified by the size and nature of the gathered crowd.  We all love to be part of a happy group, and wine lovers are no exception. It has been that way almost since there was wine, and that is a long time!

What better opportunity than the season of harvest to celebrate with friends, new and old.  An annual chance to renew the worn spirit and reward those local efforts that brought us the delicious bounty we will enjoy currently and into our future. It is the nature of wine, after all.  And another delicious reason to celebrate another California Wine Month.

Taste of Atlas Peak (Sat. 09/26) http://www.atlaspeakappellation.com/specialevents.html
Sonoma Valley Crush (Fri. 09/25-Sun. 09/27)  http://www.heartofsonomavalley.com/
Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival (Friday 09/25-Sun. 09/27)    http://www.valleyofthemoonvintagefestival.com/
Sonoma County Harvest Fair (Fri. 10/02-Sun. 10/04) 
Food & Wine Affair (Sat. 11/07-Sun. 11/08) https://www.wineroad.com/events/wine-food-affair/