Saturday, January 16, 2010

Santa Barbara is much more than pinot noir (and snapshot of Santa Barbara's current releases)

In Sideways, Miles describes Santa Barbara as the pinot noir grape’s “promised land.” But make no mistake: Santa Barbara not just about pinot noir; nor only about chardonnay. In fact, much of the Santa Barbara is not even suited to those particular grapes, but rather completely different ones.

As a growing region, Santa Barbara is made up of four officially recognized American Viticultural Areas (i.e. AVAs); plus at least another four unofficial sub-regions, known to vintners and aficionados by their varying climates, soil types and topographies.

The county’s largest AVA, for instance, is Santa Ynez Valley; which runs along the Santa Ynez River in a west-to-east direction, starting about 12 miles from the coast at the town of Lompoc, extending 28 or so miles until running up against the Los Padres National Forest. At the western end of Santa Ynez Valley is the sub-AVA of Sta. Rita Hills; where due to its coastal proximity, temperatures can run a good 15 to 20 degrees lower on any given day of the growing season than that of the recently recognized (only since Nov. 2009) sub-AVA of Happy Canyon, located at the far eastern end of Santa Ynez Valley.

The drastic difference in heat units alone makes Sta. Rita Hills ideal for growing pinot noir and chardonnay; whereas virtually no pinot noir and chardonnay are grown in Happy Canyon. It may be too hot to produce much more than mediocre pinot noir or chardonnay on the east side of Santa Ynez Valley; but Happy Canyon does happily produce truly fresh, highly lauded white wines from the sauvignon blanc grape, extremely promising red wine combinations from cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, as well as fine examples of Rhône style wines from grapes like syrah, grenache and viognier.

Richard Sanford, Sta. Rita Hills pioneer

Between Santa Ynez Valley’s Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon are the unofficial sub-regions of Ballard Canyon and Los Olivos. Here, vineyards planted on hillsides and benches sit in fairly warm climatic pockets which, like Happy Canyon, are more conducive to Mediterranean climate grapes. A number of California’s most acclaimed syrahs – black, dense, yet unctuous, perfumed wines – are produced in this middle section; as well as perfectly respectable, if underappreciated, reds from the Italian Sangiovese grape. Remember the scenes in Sideways where Miles dumps a bucket of spittooned wine on his face, and jumps out of the car in self-pitying dispair? These were filmed in Firestone Vineyards near Los Olivos, and Miles is running through winery’s 25-30 year old cabernet sauvignon.

North of Santa Ynez Valley is the Santa Maria Valley AVA, which enjoys relatively cool, morning fog shrouded growing seasons effected directly by a good sized coastal gap between Arroyo Grande (in neighboring San Luis Obispo County) and the farming community of Santa Maria: near-perfect growing conditions for pinot noir and chardonnay, as well as Northern Rhône grapes like syrah and viognier. Some of the county’s best known producers – like Au Bon Climat, Qupe, Cambria and Byron – draw most of their grapes from Santa Maria Valley.

Sandwiched between Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley is the unofficially recognized sub-region of Los Alamos Valley; enjoying moderate micro-climates that produce excellent pinot noir and chardonnay, but becoming increasingly known for exceptional Rhône style wines made from syrah, viognier, marsanne and roussanne. Finally, atop the hillsides of the Tepusquet Mountain Range at 400-800 ft. elevations, is the lesser known, unofficial sub-region called Santa Maria Bench; where lean hillside soils and fairly cool microclimates make for especially intense, velvety styles of syrah.

En conclusión: if you are not appreciating the “other” wines being produced in this promised land, you are simply missing out on a lot of pleasure. The following is a report recently published in Sommelier Journal (Nov. 2009) on some of the latest releases from Santa Barbara, culled from conversations with some of the county’s most respected winemakers. Re:

Stolpman Vineyard's Sashi Moorman


No one has farmed in Sta. Rita Hills as long as Richard Sanford, who describes the 2007 vintage as “mild… without the occasional bursts of heat we often experience in summer.” There were no issues in spring, so vineyards carrying modest crop loads “ripened well, the stems and seeds browning before harvest, the acid balance high.” Hence, Sanford’s 2007 Alma Rosa La Encantada Pinot Noir; its raspberry/blueberry fruitiness tinged with brown spices and soft but snappy, sinewy textures.

At the center of Santa Ynez Valley along Ballard Canyon Rd – a fairly warm climate region influenced as much by hillsides composed of beach sand and white calcareous stones – Steve Beckmen reports that 2007 was actually also a “cool vintage” atop his Purisima Mountain estate. For Beckmen, the combination of drastically reduced yields, Biodynamic® farming, and unusually mild temperatures produced “some profound syrah wines.” While structured with tannin and acidity, the 2007 Beckmen Purisima Mountain Syrah leans more towards gushy, fruit-bomb qualities, with violet, dark berry notes true to the grape; whereas from a south facing slope next door to Beckmen’s vineyard along Ballard Canyon Rd., the 2007 Stolpman Estate Syrah, is even deeper, thicker, more viscous in meaty, smoky, lavender and violet perfumed fruit.

In respect to their white wine grapes, Tom Stolpman and his winemaker/viticulturist Sashi Moorman both describe 2007 as “perfect,” and pushing the envelope with their dry farmed, close spacing, they produced a 2007 Stolpman L’Avion (90% roussanne/10% viognier) of stunning qualities: huge, round, fleshy with glycerol and waves of exotic fruit (mango, honeysuckle and ginger flowers).

In the cooler confines of Santa Maria Valley, Bob Lindquist describes 2007 as an “outstanding vintage,” marked by a long, cool season allowing grapes to ripen to ideal acid/pH balance at sugars 1 to 2 degrees Brix lower than normal. Lindquist’s 2007 Qupe Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Roussanne weighs in at a mere, levitating 12.6% alcohol, with a lemony crispness, minerally texture, and the classic white flower/marzipan/vanilla bean varietal fragrance.

Finally, since Santa Barbara is best known for pinot noir, it is important to note that we will soon be seeing a number of the earliest releases from the 2008 vintage. Pinophiles, gird thyselves: the ’08 pinots will be everything a proverbial Miles would want. Farming in Santa Maria Valley, for instance, Costa de Oro’s Gary Burk tells us to expect wines “characterized by a smooth and even ripening curve.” The grapes from Burk’s Gold Coast Vineyard came in with “beautiful balance and precise pinot noir flavors,” adding that “this vintage reminds me of 2005, where we had equally balanced and age-worthy wines.” In fact, the 2008 Costa de Oro Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is already plump and buoyant with juicy pinot fruit, its luxurious, velvet texture riding on graceful acidity, and prominent spice and earth notes.

Costa de Oro's Gary Burk

Thursday, January 14, 2010


There is a 'NEW WORLD' of 'OLD WORLD' flavors and nuances in the numerous 'Wines From Chile' I recently tasted at the TEdwards (Tom Byrnes) Open House tasting in NYC.

Jorge Perez, a wine searcher, for TEdwards in South America, has created a portfolio of wines from Chile that rival all other importers/distributors in America.

Jorge Perez may be the new Becky Wasserman or Kermit Lynch.

His talent is obvious....and his wine legacy begins.

Jorge explained the vastness of size that Chile represents. There are over 250,000 acres of vineyards that stretch from the Pacific Ocean through the Andes Mountains to the Atacama Desert, producing wines that benefit from sunny days, cool nights and a variety of soils.
This Mediterranean climate, plus top-notch winemakers produce some of the world's greatest wines, still at affordable prices. The result is greater diversity and a large selection, of both reds and whites.


These magnificent wines are the project of visionary Antonio Garces Silva, a pioneer of the San Antonio Valley, which is a sub-appellation of the Leyda valley. Rolling hills and a clay/granite blend make up the terroir for winemaker Jose Ponce Sanhueza.

2008 Amayna Sauvignon Blanc Leyda Valley at $18 in your wine shop captures the essence of the grape. The wine was crisp, mineral and herbaceous with hints of straw and hay.

2007 Amayna Pinot Noir Leyda Valley at $24 was my favorite wine at the tasting. This Burgindian style Pinot Noir was velvety, with hints of cherry, smoke, strawberry and vanilla. (Put this wine in your cellar for the next 5-10 years.)


Cartagena vineyards are located only 2.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Conceived in 2000 by winemaker Maria Luz Marin (owner of Casa Marin), the vineyard has been described as the most daring and innovative vineyard in Chile. Surrounded by steep coastal mountains in the extreme western San Antonio region, the unique microclimate produces pure and structured wines with integrity.

2008 Cartagena Gewurztraminer San Antonio Valley at $16 rivals wines from Alsace. The crisp, intense, lychee, spicy wine is a must for spicy food or as an elegant wine for the summer.

2006 Cartagena Pinot Noir San Antoinio Valley at $23 a bottle is a treasure of a Pinot Noir. The wine is very earthy and fruity with hints of smoke from the oak.


Alvaro Espinoza has only an acre where he grows his Cabernet and blends it with Syrah and Carmenere from his late father's vineyard. Located in the Maipo Valley, Alvaro makes only 400 cases of wine a year.

2007 Antiyal Alto de Maipo Valley, is his biodynamic blend. At $45 a bottle, this plummy, smoky, herbacious wine is made to honor 'the ancient traditions and cosmic vision of the people of the earth'.


We had the opportunity to have a Vertical Tasting of Domus Aurea Cabernet Sauvignon's from 2007 to 2003. These wines from the Maipo Valley are world class Grand Crus and are considered some of Chile's finest wines.


Pablo Morande, Casa Julia's winemaker, planted his first vines in 1982. He is considered to have brought Chile's wines to the rest of the world. He is a pioneer who is regarded as 'Chile's finest. Twice, he has been voted, ' Winemaker of the Year.

2007 Casa Julia Carmenere and 2007 Casa Julia Caberenet Reserve at $14 a bottle are great wines to purchase to start your journey into the wines from Chile.

Other wines of interest from Chile include the wines from NUYEN, ECHEVERRIA, and VINA

TEdward Wines are distributed throughout America. You can read or watch videos about their wines at . They can be reached at (212) 233-1504.

Another Chilean wine resource is . Wines of Chile is located at 221 Centre Street in NYC. Their phone number is: (212) 219-9360.

Attached to their office is 'Puro Chile', a New York based, private, wine and gourmet shop carrying products only from Chile. They can be reached at (212) 925-7876 or at

Watch out, Argentina!!!!!!!!!


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dumb, da dumb, dumb (wine journalists), and snapshot of the finest current Oregon pinot noir releases

As someone who's penned newspaper wine columns for over twenty years, I think I can say this: newspaper wine columnists write the dumbest things. So wine lovers beware: particularly the piece written by a Chicago Tribune writer, which I read this morning (Jan. 13, 2010) in The Denver Post (which brings up another old beef of mine: why reprint dumb columns from newspapers in other cities, when there obviously are plenty enough good, or better, wine columnists living and working in your own town?).

In any case, the offending piece is titled: Oregon or California pinot noir? Taste test decides. Decides what? In the piece, the columnist opines, "California used to be the undisputed American star in the world of wine. But, increasingly, Oregon has been stealing the limelight, to the Golden State's sometimes obvious chagrin." Says who? I spend about a third of my time in California, talking with California wine lovers and producers; and although over the past two decades they've been very much aware that very fine wine is made in Oregon, I have never, never heard anyone express "chagrin." Wine lovers and producers may have preferences, but by nature they are a pretty catholic lot: they appreciate good wines from everywhere it's made. Vinous conflicts of the sort reported in this piece are pretty much imaginary; at least in respect to "Oregon vs. California pinot noir": existing only in the minds of reporters prone to senseless sensationalism.

The story goes on to report the results of a question posted in Facebook and Twitter, asking "who made better pinot noir: Oregon or California?" The splits were "sharply split and decisive." Predictable enough. Then the piece reports the results of a recent "California-Oregon smackdown," in which "three Oregon pinots were put up against three from the Russian River Valley." Conclusion: "and the winner is... California." Gee whiz, three measley pinots from Oregon vs. three pinots out of hundreds and hundreds from California? Sort of like taking three random kids from one high school and three from another high school, having them play ping pong and then coming to conclusion that one high school is better at ping pong than the other.

It's not that wine lovers, or lifetime wine professionals like me, don't find comparisons valid. We compare similar wines from different regions all the time to learn the differences, and even to determine what we ultimately prefer. The dumbness, virtually always, is in conclusions that wines from one region are "better" than the other; or in the case of wine columnists, leading readers to such errant conclusions. As with all aesthetically crafted products, wine preferences are decidedly personal; and stating that one preference is superior to another is a decidedly dumb thing to do.

Oregon's Ken Wright

To the Chicago Tribune writer's credit, he did make some valid observations of the six pinot noirs tasted in his particular smackdown: "In general, the Oregon pinots were lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and cleaner on the palate than the Californians, which were dark, smelled more like hay and mushrooms and had more powerful fruit." But as someone who makes a living doing these comparisons, I have to say this: you could select three different Oregon pinot noirs and three different California pinot noirs for another smackdown, and easily come up with the opposite conclusion -- that Oregon pinots are darker, having more powerful fruit and smell earthy, whereas California pinots are lighter in color, fruitier in the nose and "cleaner" (whatever the hell that means) on the palate. The growing conditions and winemaking styles that produce these differences in the two states have become so numerous and varied, it has become virtually impossible for even experienced pinot "experts" (this word, always a state of mind), much less average pinot lovers, to make out the differences in "blind" or "double-blind" tastings.

In fact, it's been like that for well over ten, nearing twenty years now: pinot noirs in both California and Oregon are more varied and sophisticated than ever! So why report that one might be "better" than the other? My conclusion: by assuming the lowest common denominator awareness of wine lovers who read this chaff, the writer plainly insults his own vinous intelligence. Whatever the case, readers deserve a lot better than this; and to the editors of The Denver Post, I just have to ask: if you're too lazy to write your own wine columns, could you at least do a better job of weeding out the junk from other newspapers?

Speaking of which, the following is a report I recently filed for Sommelier Journal (Nov. 2009 issue) on some of the finer pinot noir releases recently coming out of Oregon, based upon tastings and conversations with vintners just before the 2010 harvest. Not that that I think Oregon makes the greatest pinots in the world, mind you. But they are certainly among the finest; something anyone with common sense, two eyes, a nose and a palate that enjoys the taste of good wine would have to say. Re:


Pinot noir has become synonymous with the relative cool climate grapegrowing regions of the Willamette Valley AVA (i.e. American Viticultural Area), stretching along the Oregon coast from Portland to Eugene; and consumers can now look forward to the more serious releases from the rainy, thus oft-maligned 2007 vintage. The better producers, says Penner-Ash winemaker/proprietor Lynn Penner-Ash, shouldn’t be “penalized” because “some winemakers can’t make wine in a cool, wet year.” As one of Oregon's most respected vintners, Penner-Ash pulled out all the tricks learned from her twenty-plus years in the Willamette, picking before, during and after the rains that persisted throughout the month of October. Her pièce de résistance and top-of-the-line, the 2007 Penner-Ash Pas de Nom, is simply amazing – plush, powerful, exotically scented.

For Joshua Bergström, the 2007 vintage was more a matter of patience and circumstance. “We waited six weeks from the time the rains started,” says Bergström, picking towards the end of November. For Bergström, Biodynamic® growing also is the difference. Less dependent upon “chemical diet,” Bergström’s plantings retain acidity, minerality and depth, with lower alcohol, in both “cold and hot vintages,” as evidenced by the deep, generous, pliant 2007 Bergström Dundee Hills Pinot Noir.

For the dry farmed, Biodynamic® certified Brick House Vineyards, according to proprietor Doug Tunnell, 2007 was “the most aromatic vintage in memory… during the harvest the entire winery smelled like a candy confectionary,” resulting in pinots like his 2007 Brick House Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir: hauntingly perfumed, in the fine, delicate style associated with this estate.

Is it a coincidence that other Biodynamic® producers were so successful in the challenging conditions of 2007? The 2007 Beaux Frères Upper Terrace Pinot Noir is tasting like a banner year (certainly, among the winery's finest vintages ever): a silk tapestry of spiced strawberry and smoke. More proof-positive that you should never pay attention to premature, knee-jerk vintage assessments of the establishment wine press (i.e. dumb, de dumb, dumb); but rather, wait for the wines to actually go into bottle before tasting them, and drawing your own conclusions.
Seven Springs' Isabelle Meunier

Further south in Willamette Valley's Eola-Amity Hills AVA, winemaker Isabelle Meunier describes her deep rooted Seven Springs Vineyard (owned and managed by Evening Land Vineyards) as “bullet proof… impervious to rain, unaffected by heat.” The 2007 Seven Springs La Source Pinot Noir was picked during “good days” at the start of the October rains, yet few pinots from anywhere, any year, are as fine and luscious, bursting with wild raspberry, anise, rose petal and blueberry jam. Yet, not to be undone, the single vineyard Eola-Amity Hills bottlings by Cristom’s long respected winemaker, Steve Doerner, are also wildly successful; epitomized by the 2007 Cristom Jessie Vineyard Pinot Noir, a sweet, electrifying mix of red and black berry fragrances, smoky spices, dried cherry skin, and savory, gripping, round and muscular textures.

Since high demand Willamete Valley pinot noirs are often allocated or even pre-sold, it’s a good idea to get a handle on the upcoming 2008s. Perhaps no Oregonian makes wine in greater demand than Ken Wright, who says ‘08 was very cool, almost bleak, especially after a “significant rain the first week of October.” But this was followed by “twenty-two gloriously warm days that gave the grapes the opportunity to assemble everything… tremendous structure, and very agreeable, complex, delineated flavors.” A market indicator: the 2008 Ken Wright Carter Vineyard Pinot Noir, displaying ringingly bright, concentrated wild berry fruit tucked into densely layered textures, begging for more time in the bottle than usual for Oregon. Wright advises us to expect 2008 to be “not be as fleshy as ’06, ’02, or ’94,” but punctuated by an energetic acidity that “reminds me of ’88.”
Del Rio's Jean-Michel Jussiaume

But Oregon is not only about Willamette Valley. There are, in fact, a number of bright, effusive 2008 Pinot Noirs coming out of Southern Oregon (an AVA lying south of Eugene, extending down towards Cave Junction and Ashland along the California border) now entering the market. Del Rio Vineyard’s bright, youthful new winemaker, Jean-Michel Jussiaume, produced a 2008 Del Rio Pinot Noir that is lithe and flush with wild raspberry and strawberry, reflecting a loose-cluster year, lightened by a poor spring set. In Illinois Valley, in the far western reaches of Rogue Valley, Ted Gerber says his higher elevation Foris Vineyards never have “acidity issues.” In ’08, a “fabulous fall” ushered “ripening all the way through October,” yet allowed for picking at lower sugars (i.e. moderate alcohols). The 2008 Foris Maple Ranch Pinot Noir is alive with berryish fruit, yet deep, tight, compact.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Official Google Blog: Chat on Translator Toolkit

Official Google Blog: Chat on Translator Toolkit

Parker's First Ten Tweets: Evening the Score...

This is too funny! (Created by The Wine Whore)

I was stoked to find out that none other than the famous, or should I say infamous, Robert Parker has joined the world of social media. Since every word that dribbles from his keyboard is sure to be as fine as an aged bottle of Lafite, what better way to welcome him to the world of Twitter than to score his tweets using the following 100 point scale: (look familiar?)

    An extraordinary tweet of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic tweet of its variety. Tweets of this caliber are worth a special effort to read, retweet, and share with others.

    90 - 95:
    An outstanding tweet of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific tweets.

    80 - 89:
    A barely above average to very good tweet displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.

    70 - 79:
    An average tweet with little distinction except that it is a soundly twittered. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous tweet.

    60 - 69:
    A below average tweet containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive self promotion and/or false information, arrogance, or possibly dirty name calling.

    50 - 59:
    A tweet deemed to be unacceptable.

Without further adieu, let's get to his tweets:

Twitter updates from Robert M Parker, Jr / RobertMParkerJr:

    10) RobertMParkerJr: Malbec made in Mendoza, Argentina
    Thursday, January 07, 2010 10:46 AM

Come on Parker?! Are you really expecting to rock our world with this piece of wine knowledge? Are you just learning this wine factoid for yourself? This tweet deserves a 75 for lack of any meaningful wine info.

    9) RobertMParkerJr: Jayson Woodbridge is taking his winemaking team and flying them around the world, and actually making wines on site from top quality fruit.
    Thursday, January 07, 2010 10:46 AM

Are they paying you to fly around with them? Better yet, when can we expect your glowing review of their wine? I like informative tweets but this one seems more like a paid advertisement than anything else. This tweet is an 69.

    8) RobertMParkerJr: Layer Cake is the work of Jayson Woodbridge proprietor of Hundred Acres, Napa. his desire to produce $15 wines with taste of $50.seems close
    Thursday, January 07, 2010 10:41 AM

This tweet was imbalanced, dry, and lacking character... I give it a 65.

    7) RobertMParkerJr: Just emailed subscribers-Super Value- Layer Cake 2008 Malbec (91pts) $15. tastes like $50 bottle
    Thursday, January 07, 2010 10:36 AM

Super value? You may have given this wine a 91pt score... but I give you a 50 for this tweet. Not only is it self promoting, but in my opinion, Layer Cake is NOT a 91pt wine... I mean, seriously?! I'd give this tweet a lower score, but I'm using Parker's scale, which for some reason only STARTS at 50.

    6) RobertMParkerJr: RT @AntonioGalloni: new article on Ornellaia vertical is live...1985-2006, all from magnum #wine
    Wednesday, January 06, 2010 5:47 PM

You get credit Mr. Parker for a RT. Well played, sir. I score this tweet an 82.

    5) RobertMParkerJr: @nealmartin try Bulldogs...
    Wednesday, January 06, 2010 5:34 PM

If you read back to @nealmartin's thread, you'll find that the question Parker is answer is "Who did you sleep with last night, Mr. Parker?" I give this one a 70... shame on you... say NO to animal love!

    4) RobertMParkerJr: Balt.area?super TRADITIONAL homemade southern Italian food @Vito's Cafe 410-666-3100.BYO had 2003 Clos des Papes with veal parm excellent
    Wednesday, January 06, 2010 10:08 AM

Wow, due to the grammatical errors in this tweet, I can only guess that this was twittered while driving, having sex, or doing something else distracting. Clearly below average... Score of 60.

    3) RobertMParkerJr: Be on the lookout for my next subscriber email blast...
    Tuesday, January 05, 2010 10:07 AM

Oh, okay Mr. Parker... I can't wait for you to SPAM us! While I am anxiously waiting, please enjoy your 60pts for this tweet.

    2) RobertMParkerJr: Check out, "Happy New Year- the past is prologue", post on Bulletin Board.
    Sunday, January 03, 2010 1:09 PM

Where's the link? Alright, I know this is only your first tweet but come on man, if you are going to promote yourself, at least make it easy to get to the article. 55pts.

    1) RobertMParkerJr: Ok. I'm going to give this a shot. I'm not making any promises about how often or how long I will use it.
    Sunday, January 03, 2010 1:02 PM

Ok, so say you're Robert Parker and you want to announce yourself to the world on Twitter. What would you say? This was actually a great first tweet. I don't say that because there's any promise of good material here. I say it because it offers a glimmer of hope that Parker will soon cancel his twitter account, uninstall Tweetdeck (if by some chance he figured out how to use it in the first place), and resume communicating through his familiar method of Morse code. 85pts.

So there you have it... be sure to check back for my review of the next 10 tweets from the amazing mind of the man himself, Robert Parker.


(This message brought to you by The Wine Whore)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dreaming on (favorite drinking reds)

I have this recurring dream. It's almost mid-day. We wake up late, and haven't yet eaten. So after stopping at a tiny charcuterie for some sausages, marinated olives, a round of local bread – tasting of freshly risen dough, crusted on the outside, silky on the inside – and a bottle of wine, we follow a winding brook at the foot of a steep hill outside the village, in search of a table in the sky.

The residual morning chill is still sharp in the air as our shoes crunch over some loose, schistous rocks, but we quickly begin to warm as we steady our footing, making headway up the slope. The landscape is a primeval mix of twisted scrub, giving off resiny, herby smells as we brush against them, along with lethal, gigantic sized agaves shooting up their thirty foot spikes.

Finally, the passing brook leads us to a small pool. We feel like jumping in, but when we dip our hands into it we're almost shocked by the stinging cold. So tucking our pack behind a rock and weighting our bottle beneath the water, we head off around a bend to catch a fuller view of the civilization below. The sun is now just post meridian, beginning to bathe the town’s distant red roofs and winding streets in swaths of brick and gold, and beyond it the earth appears to rise and dip with misshapen squares of scattered farms and homesteads, separated by taupe toned rock walls making lines like a Navajo blanket. Imbued by the entire fantasy, I look at my smiling partner and whisper those three magic words…

Shall we eat?

And if I'm not yet snapped back into reality by a ringing phone or knock at the door, this is where the dream really starts to cook. The garlic and spiced sausages jolt the palate, and the bread cracks and flakes; but it's the steely cold wine – which is red (isn't real wine red?) – that really gets me. Since we're shooting it directly from the bottle, we're not exactly savoring the "bouquet." However, the taste is like pure, undulating velvet – smooth, seamless flavors of some kind of sweet, purple stone fruit, mingling with cracked pepper and brown spices – and the aromas rush into the head from behind the palate, even long after the wine is swallowed. Better yet is knowing – this is my dream, mind you – that the wine was cheap, and there's a lot more where it comes from.

Which is why, when you think of it, I've probably remained in the wine business virtually all of my adult life. While dreams are nothing more than wishes, the reality is that there are always such wines to be found; despite the often overwhelming plethora of bottles and brands, at increasingly painful prices, that assault you every time you walk into a store.

When I first started in the business one of my biggest inspirations was the late, great Justin Meyer. He was one of the few winemakers (and I’ve met hundreds) who, when he would start to speak, my pen came out because I knew he would say something memorable. Looking at some old notes recently, I came across one of Meyer’s balder statements: “Americans pay too much for their wine.” This probably didn’t mean much to me before because I always believed people should spend whatever they feel like for a bottle of wine.

But now, over twenty five years later, I think I understand what Meyer was saying: there’s simply no correlation between the pleasure you receive and the price you pay when it comes to premium quality, commercial wine. Like Meyer, I’ve probably drunk too many wines that cost only $10 that I enjoyed a lot more than wines costing over $50 or $100. It doesn’t stand to reason, but my palate makes it so; especially taking in the factors of the foods I eat and the companions I keep. In many cases, better than a dream…


Perhaps this explains those waking dreams: reminders that it’s the taste of the wine, stupid, not the 95 points or whatever is written on the wall or whispered through grapevines, that counts at the table. I’m sorry to say, but the dumbest thing a wine lover can do is believe everything he reads or is told.

Over the years my list of new “favorites” – which are invariably red (isn’t that the first duty of good wine?) – has never ceased to grow; and I suspect, even if they weren’t to his exact taste, Justin Meyer would have approved. Why? Because no one gave permission (call me stubborn, but I refuse to read reviews), yet they stimulate the pleasure centers all the same.

The following fave-raves might also give you an idea of the stunning range of deliciously different wines that might broaden your culinary perspective or, better yet, fit right in with the foods you’ve enjoyed all along. A good dozen choices, plus a lagniappe:

Jesse’s Grove, Earth, Zin & Fire (Lodi, California) – I was recently shocked - when presenting this in a professional wine/food matching seminar - by how the Earth, Zin & Fire effortlessly outperformed a top pinot noir, riesling and chardonnay in variant food contexts, with meats of all colors. Thus, I’ve come to rely more and more upon Lodi grown zins like this for democratically priced, zesty reds to embellish one of my all time favorite meals: meatless spaghetti in souped up, sweet onioned, herbalicious sauces under mounds of grated Parmigiano. Oh, but this is also the perfect barbecue wine, too: mild yet tingly acidity and restrained tannin only elevate bouncy raspberry/blackberry jam aromas and flavors, tinged with cracked peppercorn – just for thing for grill branded, caramelized meats slathered in sweet, gingery soy or sweet/spicy/vinegary marinades. But when in doubt, cook the spaghetti and, to sweeten up the pot, pop a Lodi zin.

Parducci, Petite Sirah (Mendocino, California) – The current owners (Mendocino Wine Company) have not only turned this venerable old winery into the greenest in California (if things like organic grape growing, carbon neutrality, use of biodiesels and biodegradable packaging means something to you, Parducci has been leading the way), they have revived the brand in the area it counts the most: totally fresh, delicious wines, like this unbelievably well priced ($9-$12) petite sirah; exuding a sweet blueberry concentration spiked with pepper, and a dense, full, round, fleshy, purple robed body wrapped in moderate tannin and understated oak. Matching foods? You name it; starting with meatloaf in fresh mushroom gravy (in Hawai`i, we’d add an over-easy egg and steaming white rice), or anything having to do with steak: grilled, pan roasted, blackened, Louisiana Lightninged, smothered in onions, drenched in melted herby butter, bang up against a banister, or singed under your wife’s tanning lamp – really, all you need to do is make sure there’s something meaty to make this round, fleshy red wine work its magic.

Luchador, Shiraz (South Australia) – The only thing suspect about this wine is its silly (okay, “fun”), gimmicky lucha libre labels, depicting masked Mexican wrestlers (there are now four variations of such). But there are tons more that this wine has going for it: most notably, massive, forsooth macho, amounts of flavor, beginning with an exuberantly aromatic mix of blueberry, blackberry and Brie-like notes in the nose, and ending with thick, roly poly, cherry bomb fruit qualities in the mouth, unimpeded by dense, rounded tannins. Everything a good Aussie Shiraz should be, including a decent price ($15). As Steve Miller once said, somebody give me a cheeseburger!

Jose Maria de Fonseca, Domini (Douro, Portugal) - Since Port has fallen out of favor internationally in recent years, the Portuguese have been producing more robust, vigorously flavorful, outrageously well priced table reds exactly like this: made from the same grapes that go into classic Port, resulting in all the richness of Port, sans the alcoholic fortification. In the case of the Domini: a blend of touriga franca, touriga nacional and tinta roriz. Black color and opulent nose – sweet black fruits in a box of vanillin oak – and if you dig a little deeper, a taste of leather and stony, granitic terroir on the palate, merging in a fleshy, medium-full body, thickened by round, polished tannins. While retailing between $12 and $18, a vinous experience at any price.

Heron, Sexto (Terra Alta, Spain) - Laely Heron is an enterprising woman better known for her sourcing of some of the sexiest merlot based reds known to man, from France’s Languedoc region. Heron blended this uncommonly deep, substantial red from six grapes (hence, Sexto) grown in the high elevation, rugged, off-the-beaten-track terroir of Catalonia’s Terra Alta, just off Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Dry farmed, old-vine grapes like garnacha (33%), carineña (30%) and tempranillo (20%) give the wine wild, juicy qualities; cabernet sauvignon (6%), and syrah (5%) add undeniable power; and the rare lledoner pelut noir (6%) tops it all off with a sinewy, pungent tumescence. For $12-$14, sexto may never been better!

Laely Heron

Bodegas Zabrin, Atteca (Calatayud, Spain) – This wine would not be so ridiculously good if not for its ridiculously good price ($13-$15 in most retail markets). Made from 80 to 100 year old vines of garnacha (a.k.a. grenache, the workhorse grape of Southern France), the nose is hugely rich and sweet (like cocoa dusted berries) and enlarged by smoky French oak; soft, round, medium-full, spiced berry qualities on the palate, tied down by firm tannins, making for a good, savory yet dry finish.

Clos la Coutale, Cahors (South-West France) – Depending upon which side of the country you’re on, this wine will set you back anywhere from $14 to $20. So you may want to buy two bottles, because it’s truly difficult to just drink one: a simply gorgeous combination of weight and ease, with seriously plump flavors filled out by round yet meaty tannin. This is a blend of mostly malbec (giving a blackberryish juiciness) with tannat (adding muscle and the feel of density), and just a smidgen of merlot (perceptively lush notes oozing out between the grains). Some nights, I think I’ve sat and cried over this wine’s majestic confluence of sensations. Okay, maybe not. But no serious dreamer of velvety reds should live without this.

Emiliana NOVAS Carménère/Cabernet Sauvignon (Valle de Colchagua, Chile) – The carménère grape typically yields a wine scented, for all the world, like Tabasco and jalapeño-like peppers. But in this organically grown wine, the grape is fleshed out by the firm tannin and minty berry qualities of cabernet; its medium-full body filled to the brim with plump fruit wrapped in smoky oak, while nuanced chile spices add interest rather than distraction. I once found this to be a seamless match with a mildly peppery arugula salad, tossed with Parmigiano, pine nuts and a soft, winey vinaigrette; but you should think things like rare beef sandwich with a pungent mustard or horseradish, pulled pork with a mess of sweet vinegared, salted frisée or cress (peppery greens help to round out the red wine tannins); although if there’s some truffle oil in the cabinet, well then, splash away!

Pircas Negras, Malbec (Famatina Valley, Argentina) - Malbec may be one of the "lesser" black skinned grapes that originated in Bordeaux, but in the high elevations of Argentina it is considered the “king”; and like any good king, it truly rocks across the palate with amazingly thick, juicy, massively muscled yet satiny smooth qualities, suggesting smoke, scrubby herbs, and sweet, wild raspberry. This brand (imported by Organic Vintners and qualifying as vegan) is a rock solid introduction to Argentina’s world of malbec; and if you haven’t yet experienced the thrill and value of it, then you’re in for a treat – especially for the $10-$11 price.

Bodegas Agapito Rico, Carchelo (Jumilla, Spain) – Carchelo is what you see on the label of this unusual blend of the mourvèdre (called monastrell in Spain), merlot, syrah and tempranillo grape varieties that I've been enjoying for well over a decade. The best way to describe it is that it gives $24 worth of flavor for a $12 price. Another way is to think of being fed meltingly rich, chocolate covered raspberries by lacy, satiny, black silk gloved hands. Any questions?

Bodegas Bretón, Loriñon Crianza (Rioja, Spain) – This is one of many fine examples of smooth, pungent, soft-as-suede $12-$13 tempranillo based reds coming out of Rioja today. The nose is punctuated by the red plummy, burnt leaf and beef consommé-like qualities of the grape, and there’s a feminine feel to the wine’s long, willowy, light to medium weight and tannins. All adding up to something of exceptional food versatility – easy enough for grilled fish, yet beefy enough for any meat, white or red, especially when coming off the barbie (since charring brings out the smoky nuances of the Loriñon).

Planeta, Cerasuolo di Vitoria (Sicily, Italy) – Sicilian reds made from the thick, black nero d’Avola grape have been popping up everywhere in recent years; but for the average Joe, the hard, bitter qualities of those wines are an acquired taste. The Cerasuolo – made from only 60% nero d’Avola – is fattened up by 40% frappato, effectively transforming the wine into a bowlful of plump cherries, while adding gingery nuances in the aroma and flavor; the nero d’Avola asserting its usual deep pigmentation and cracked pepper spice. At $16-$20, this makes an exotic, dense yet easy drinking red, especially with peppery charcuterie and lush, semi-soft cheeses with the usual fruit preserves. Throw in a side of lobster (think Chinese black bean sauce), a pound of cayenned crawfish or pulled pork with or without the barbecue spice, and you’ll find that few wines are as food resilient as this.

Alex Sokol Blosser

Sokol Blosser, Meditrina (Oregon, Washington & Paso Robles) – At $18-$22, this proprietary red stretches it insofar as “everyday” pricing; but oh, how it throttles the senses: ripe, sweet, plump cherry fragrances tinged with wild raspberry, flowing fluidly across the palate in waves of zesty sensations, redolent of berries and cherries. The current (fifth) edition of this nonvintaged blend is composed of Dundee Hills (Willamette Valley) grown pinot noir, Columbia Valley syrah, and Paso Robles zinfandel; proving once and for all, that when it comes to satisfyingly good drinking wine, it ain’t never the meat, it’s the motion.

Friday, January 1, 2010

WINTER is the TIME to drink WINES from the FINGER LAKES by Philip S. Kampe

New Year's has just passed and one of my New Year's resolutions is to drink Finger Lake wines during the winter, rather than limit them to summer and the typical wine pairing with spicy food.
Typically, winter is the time to drink the heavier and heratier wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Shiraz (Syrah). As winter wears on and there is a chill in the air, it is the time to consider drinking what we know as summer wines. Summer wines in my neck of the woods means mostly white wines that vary from a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc to Albarino to Rieslings.
There is this mystique about drinking summer wines in the winter. And the wines from the Finger Lakes fill the bill. I believe there are 59 vineyards in the Finger Lakes. The wines price points vary, but, are all reasonable. Dollar for dollar New York's Finger Lake wines are an exceptional value.
The wines I treasure are from numerous vineyards. You should be able to find most of these brands at your local wine shop. If not, please ask your shop keeper to order them for you.
The best known winery from the Finger Lakes is DR. KONSTANTIN FRANK . His award winning Rieslings , especially the 2007 Dry Riesling, are all standouts. Try Dr. Konstantin Frank's Gewurztraminer, which is exceptional.
Another winery that is well known and one of my favorites is WAGNER . Wagner produces Dry Rieslings, Semi Dry Rieslings, Select Rieslings, Gewurzreaminer and late harvest wines. All of their wines are wonderful and fairly priced.
There are many smaller vineyards whose wines stand out. Look for wines from HERON HILL , GLENORA , WHITE SPRINGS and CHATEAU LAFAYETTE RENEAU . These producers create affordable wines.
2010 is here and it is time to sample these great wines in the winter. Make it your New Year's Resolution.....
If you need more information on the Finger Lake Vineyards, visit or call 800-813-2952.
Make another Nre Year's Resolution to visit the vineyards in 2010. There are three major wine trails in the Finger Lakes: Seneca ( 35 vineyards) ; Keuka ( 8 vineyards) and Cayuga ( 16 vineyards).
Learn about the wines in the winter and visit the vineyards in the summer and harvest season (September and October).
Maybe I will see you there.
Philip S. Kampe

How Hungarian Cabernet Franc Changed My Life by Philip S. Kampe

My Dad was known to his friends as ‘Cab Franc.’ You see, his name was really Joseph and all of his social time with visiting frien...