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Everything’s Coming Up Rosés

14 May

Earlier this week, I attended RAPwine‘s (RAP stands for Rosé Avengers and Producers) Pink Out! event in San Francisco.  In the interest of full disclosure, I was invited to the Trade/Media tasting, which was provided free of charge.  RAP also held a consumer tasting later in the day, and tickets for that cost somewhere around the $40 mark.  It was a sellout.

When I was just starting out as a wine merchant (a little less than a decade ago now) we offered free daily tastings at the shop where I worked.  At regular intervals in the Spring and Summer, we’d pop open a rosé for the daily tasting.  I hated working the tasting bar on these days.  Not because I hated rosé.  (For the record I loved it and still do.)  But because I hated rejection.  On those days, when I offered a free taste of pink wine, 99% of customers who walked through the door would turn me down.  Many did so by recoiling in horror at the suggestion, many scoffed, others laughed and asked “are you kidding?”  I remember very clearly the face of one man who looked at me with a combination of pity and disdain.  On rosé days, I always went home feeling drained and dejected.

For the record, I blame White Zinfandel — Sutter Home, Lancer’s, Mateus, whatever.  Because of its ubiquitous presence at every airport bar, office party, and Oliver Garden in America social wine drinkers clearly went through a period of White Zin induced PTSD, unable to unlock the mechanism in their brains which, when it saw pink, immediately thought sweet; unable to understand that it didn’t always have to be that way.  One thing I learned from attending RAP’s PinkOut! tasting?  We have definitely recovered.

Recent studies have shown that over the last couple of years, during a down economy when the wine industry as a whole has been struggling to stay afloat, rosé producers have been enjoying a renaissance.  In fact, sales of imported rosés were up 28% last year.  A huge number given economic conditions.  When researchers talk about imported rosés, they’re really talking about France, and when talking about French rosés, they’re really talking about Provence, which accounts for about 40% of all the pink wine produced in that country.  It also sets the standard for what a blush can really be — pale-hued, mouthwateringly refreshing, with elegant minerality and subtle fruit.  Interestingly, at the PinkOut! tasting, only two Provençal rosés were on offer.  The vast majority of wines were from California.  Interesting, given that 10 years ago very few CA producers (but for the Sutter Homes, Beringers, Gallos and the like) were even making rosé.  A fact borne out by my own simple research.  As I worked my way around the tasting, I asked every winery representative I met how long they had been producing rosé.  The vast majority told me that it was their second or third vintage.

Not that that’s a bad thing.  One of my favorite wines of the day was one called Lorenza ($20).  A pink wine produced by the mother-daughter team of Melinda Kearney and Michele Ouellet at Intersection Wine Company from a blend of Mourvèdre, Carignane, Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah.  In only its second vintage, this wine showed the kind of charm, restraint, and elegance I tend to favor.  It wasn’t a hot pink hued wine bursting with ripe berry fruit.  Rather, it was a cool, crisp pour without even a whisper of residual sugar.

Speaking of color, I’ve focused a lot here on pale pinks, but the fact is that rosé comes in every hue from carnation to magenta, and I was a little surprised at the number of wines at the PinkOut! event that tended toward the latter.  While scanning my notes, I noticed that I wrote the words fuscia and hot pink quite a few times to describe a wine’s color.  This made me wonder if more domestic rosés tend to fall into the darker end of the spectrum?  Seems to me that it would be a possibility given American red wine drinkers’ penchant for dark wines.  Maybe the same follows for pinks?

I’m not typically one to advocate for trends, but in the case of pink wine I’ll make an exception.  Drink more pink…regardless of whether you like it salmon-hued or fuscia.  Just promise me it won’t be Boone’s Farm.

The Best Bubbly Comes from…New Mexico?

7 May

photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Did you know that New Mexico is the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.?  Yeah, me neither.  But I did know that Gruet Winery, arguably the best sparkling wine producer in the country, is located there.  Over the years I have sold Gruet’s wines in my jobs at various wine store, and I have been happy to recommend (and drink) them.  They are not difficult to find (currently distributed in 48 states) and represent a great value in bubbly, starting around $14 a bottle.  For me, there is no better producer of domestic sparkling wine than Gruet, due in large part to its awesome cost-to-quality ratio, something that is sorely lacking in domestic fizz — particularly here in California, but more on that later…

Last week, I took a little vacation to our country’s oft-overlooked 47th state, and though this was not a “wine trip,” per se, I did  stop in at Gruet’s tasting room in Albuquerque to taste their wines at the source.  Sort of.  Gruet’s vineyards are located 150 miles south of its tasting room, in Truth or Consequences, NM, but the wine itself is made at the facility in Albuquerque, as it has been since the  first vintage in 1987.

First, a little history.  The Gruet family (from France, natch) were not New Mexico winemaking pioneers.  The first wine grapes were planted in the state around 1629 by monks who smuggled over some Mission grapes from Spain in order to make sacramental wine.  By the late 1800s, New Mexico was officially wine country, producing more than three million liters of wine per year.  So what happened?  Why isn’t New Mexico the wine powerhouse it once was?  Two things:  Prohibition in 1919 followed by the Rio Grande’s extensive flooding in 1926, the combined effect of which destroyed many of the state’s oldest and largest vineyards.

So in the early 1980s when the Gruets were traveling through the Southwest, the wine tradition in New Mexico was just beginning again.  During their trip they met some European winemakers who were having success with vineyards they had planted south of Albuquerque so the Gruets (who had been making Champagne in Champagne since the 1950s) decided to plant an experimental vineyard there, too.  And, it worked.  At, more than 4,000 feet in elevation, the Gruet vineyards are among the highest in the country, and this is to their advantage, as daytime temperatures in New Mexico can be very hot.  But at night, at this elevation, the temperature drops as much as 30 degrees very consistently, allowing the grapes to rest, mature slowly, and ultimately make very good wines.

So back to my visit.  The Gruet tasting room is a dated-looking faux château, located on a highway, in an industrial park, next to an RV dealership.  Check your idyllic wine country notions at the door.  They won’t be fulfilled in this setting.  Time to get on with the business of tasting wine.  Here in California, I often see Gruet’s NV Brut, Blanc de Noirs, and sometimes its Rosé.  These were all on offer, but I was more interested in some of the wines I hadn’t seen back home, namely:

NV Sauvage ($13.75) – A brand new release from Gruet.  This sparkling is made from 100% Chardonnay to which zero dosage is added.  Dosage is the mix of wine and sugar that is traditionally added to bubbly just before it is corked.  This slightly sweet (levels vary) mixture helps to balance the high acidity that typically exists in sparkling wines.  Non-dosed fizzies are becoming trendy these days.  I happen to like this style, but it can be too tart for some.  Although its worth mentioning that Gruet’s version is well-balanced, fresh and crisp, without being austere.

NV Extra Dry ($13.75) – Another new release also made from 100% Chardonnay.  This time there is dosage added, and for Extra Dry, the level of sweetness is typically on the higher side.  Extra Dry is kind of a misnomer, in that on the scale of sparkling wines, it is generally sweeter than a Brut.  How’s that for confusing!  Given my predilection for the drier styles, I typically veer away from Extra Dry for my personal consumption, which is exactly why I wanted to taste this wine at Gruet.  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of the sweetness I expected, I was met with ripe green apple with just a hint of creaminess.

2006 Blanc de Blancs ($25) – Unlike still wine, vintage sparkling wine  (vintage = a date on the label) is rare (it’s not made every year, only in the best years) and it takes a lot longer to make.  Thus, the price of a vintage is usually quite a bit higher.  So to see a vintage for $25 a bottle is a relative value.  This Blanc de Blancs — literally white from whites, which means all Chardonnay is in the bottle — was aged for three years before its release.  I found it to be very elegant and lemon citrus flavored with a light hazelnut toastiness.

2003 Grand Rosé Vintage ($32) – This blend of 92% Chardonnay and 8% still Pinot Noir (the latter gives the pink color) was the most vinous (i.e. tasted the most like regular wine) of the things I tasted.  There’s a little touch of smokiness on this bottling, as the still Pinot Noir that goes into the blend comes out of French Oak barrels.

Gruet makes a bit of still wine, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but unbeknownst to me until my visit they also produce a very small amount of Syrah.  I tasted the 2007 Syrah ($25).  This bottling is the winery’s fourth vintage of the Rhône grape variety, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of being heavy and tannic, this wine was lithe and elegant with a nose of violets and rose petals followed by smooth blueberry notes on the palate.

I left Albuquerque more than satisfied with my visit to Gruet, and with a single nagging question:  Why doesn’t California produce good-quality, affordable sparkling wine like this? For my money, the Roederer Estate Brut NV from Anderson Valley is the best cost-to-quality ratio I can find in my home state, and it’s $20 — a full $5 more than Gruet’s Brut NV.  My other CA choices (almost all of which are owned by large Champagne houses) are variously overripe, overly sweet (due to high dosage that’s out of balance with the wine), and overpriced.   My suggestion:  California bubbly producers should take a few cues from New Mexico.  It is, after all, the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.

Aromatic Whites Put Spring In Your Sip

15 Apr

Photo: q8 via flickr

Spring is in the air — literally.  A couple of weeks ago, as the season was just beginning to take hold, I got very sick.  The culprit?  Pollen.  Outside my house, the shop where I work, in every parking lot and on every curbside was pollen, piled upon itself until it resembled yellow snowdrifts.  The arrival of Spring can be an assault on the olfactory sense, but it’s this most aromatic time of year that makes perhaps the strongest argument for being a seasonal wine drinker, someone who matches the wines that they drink to the seasons.

We are all guilty, occasionally or often, of reaching for our perennial favorite wines without regard for the weather, dinner companion, or food pairing.  This is not a crime.  We like what we like.  However, there are certain events that seem to warrant a wine choice to match — birthdays, anniversaries, picnics, etc.  I believe Spring is one of these occasions, too.  When gray and rainy winter finally gives way to daffodils and poppies and birdsong and sunshine our senses are awakened and refreshed.  It’s a great time to expand your sipping horizons with a few unusual, aromatic whites, which as a category, offers the perfect pairing with Spring’s vibrant bouquet.  Go ahead, take a chance on one of these:

(Prices are approximate.  Importer’s name is in parentheses where applicable.)

2009 Bedrock Wine Co. Compagni Portis Vineyard Heirloom White, Sonoma County, CA, $20

A truly unique and unusual field blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Trousseau Gris, Berger, and some others, this wine is bursting with spicy floral notes.  Don’t let the blend of grapes scare you, this is not a sweet wine.  Rather, it is crisp (due to vinification in stainless steel), devoid of residual sugar, and has a beautifully silky texture.

2008 Patricius Tokaji Furmint, Hungary, $18 (Blue Danube Wine Company)

Tokaji?  Isn’t that a dessert wine?  Well, yes, but not in this case.  Tokaji is the name given to wines that come from the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja in Hungary.  The grape variety is Furmint, which can be made sweet or dry.  We’re dealing with the latter in this wine that is a super-fragrant fruit basket.  It’s redolent of fresh pear, lime, mango, and a little peach all sprinkled with a touch of spicy cinnamon.  Mouthwatering.

2008 Luis Pato Maria Gomes, Bairrada, Portugal, $16 (Vinos Unico)

Sounds like a person, but Maria Gomes is actually a grape variety, albeit one most have never heard of.  Sort of like Grüner Veltliner crossed with Muscadet, it has both a peppery, mineral streak and a creamy lemon-grapefruit quality that is at once crisp, refreshing, and complex.  Delish with fish.

2009 Crios de Susana Balbo Torrontes, Cafayate, Argentina, $12 (Vine Connections)

This wine is so floral, you’d swear you just stuck your nose in a bouquet of fresh lavender and not a wine glass.  On top of that, there are flavors like peach, Bartlett pear, and tangerine.  And, it’s all backed by great acidity, which makes the wine feel very fresh and light.  Almost no grape is quite as perfect a fit with Springtime as Torrontes.

2008 Coronica Malvasia, Istria, Croatia, $20 (Blue Danube Wine Company)

From a part of Croatia that is characterized by its colorful green hillsides, spotted here and there with blossoms and olive trees, this wine says, “go outside and roll around in the grass.”  Round and soft with aromas and flavors of peach blossom and apricot, this wine is light, but manages to have a pleasant (but not heavy) creamy texture at the same time.  Like Spanish Albariño with an Eastern European accent.

Daniel Boone Was a Man…Who Loved Wine

18 Mar

Fess Parker, best known for playing both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, died today at age 85 at his home near Santa Barbara, CA.  Much like his most famous characters, Mr. Parker was a pioneer.  In 1989, long before the movie Sideways brought Hollywood fame (and lots more tourists!) to the region, he planted a small vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley with the intention of selling his grapes to local producers.  It wasn’t long, however, before his little vineyard project became a full-fledged winery.  Indeed, Fess Parker Winery is billed as Frass Canyon in what is arguably Sideways‘s most famous scene, when Paul Giamatti’s character Miles drinks the contents of the spit bucket in the fictional Frass Canyon tasting room. Today, Fess Parker Winery has more than 700 acres of vineyards and produces a score of wines.  And, Mr. Parker’s contribution to Santa Barbara’s wine tourism scene doesn’t end there.  As a real estate developer, he built a posh inn and spa in the town of Los Olivos as well as the eponymously named Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort on the Santa Barbara waterfront.

Having once lived and worked there, I have a real fondness for Santa Barbara wine country, and it’s evident to me that it wouldn’t be where it is today without Mr. Parker’s many contributions.  So tonight I’ll raise a toast to Fess Parker with a Santa Ynez Valley Chardonnay.  Here’s to the King of the Wild Frontier!

Forget Green Beer, Make Mine Green Wine

17 Mar

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and while many of you will indulge in an ice cold beer tinted green by McCormick’s food coloring, I’ll be drinking green wine.  And by green wine I mean Vinho Verde, a light, low alcohol, slightly fizzy white from Portugal whose name literally translates as “green wine.”  But, it’s not green.  Not in terms of its color, anyway.  The green in this case refers to the wine’s youthfulness.  Vinho Verde is not the kind of wine you lay down in your cellar and fret over how many years you should wait until its perfectly aged and ready to drink.  Happily for the impatient among us (that’s me!), it is best when it’s super fresh and meant to be drunk immediately after you purchase it.

Given its name, Vinho Verde is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day beverage choice for those, like me, who would rather forgo the Guinness or green Bud Light, but there are also a whole slew of reasons to consider reaching for the VV well after the holiday has ended.  Here are my top 5:

1.  A good green wine can be had for very little green.  There are lots of great Vinho Verdes to be had in the $7 to $11 range.

2.  Vinho Verde’s alcohol level usually hovers around 10%, meaning you don’t have to worry about getting buzzed on a single glassful.

3.  Although it’s not fully sparkling like Champagne, Vinho Verde does have a small amount of fizz.  This spritz makes the wine feel exceptionally fresh and lively.  Not to mention, it’s just plain fun.

4.  It’s the perfect picnic wine — light, fresh, great with finger foods, and easy to love.

5.  Vinho Verde’s flavor profile — crisp green apple and crunchy pear with a twist of lime — makes it a perfect Spring and Summer sipper, meaning you can enjoy it well beyond St. Patrick’s Day.

The 3 Words Every Wine Consumer Wants to Hear

5 Nov

 

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photo courtesy of Paul Goyette

 

A colleague of mine, who’s an intelligent and affable guy who knows plenty about wine, spends a lot of time with customers patiently listing the attributes of the wines for sale.  He waxes poetic using vivid descriptions like, honey-dipped rocks, bruised apples, dusty plum compote, raspberries rolled in crushed granite, and pepper skin to describe the wines’ flavors.  He’s enthusiastic, he’s creative, he knows the wines very well, but in the midst of all that talk of fruit and rocks, he often forgets to say the three little words that every customer wants to hear, “this is good.”

That’s right.  It’s that simple, and that complicated.  And, it doesn’t just apply to wine.

Ever logged onto Yelp to find a mechanic or hairdresser?  Taken a look at TripAdvisor before booking that hotel on the beach in Maui?  Read an Amazon review before deciding whether or not to drop $250 for the new Kindle?  You’re not alone.  In fact, you’re one of millions.  TripAdvisor alone has about 12 million unique visitors each month.  The reason why is easy enough to intuit.  We’re looking for a guarantee of quality before we spend our hard-earned cash on a hotel room, a book, or a bottle of wine, and what better way to find out if something is worth our money than to go to the source(s) — people who have already experienced the product we are considering and can tell us whether or not their experience was a good one.  Which begs the question, don’t these people need to be experts in hotel rooms, books, or bottles of wine in order for their opinions to have real merit?  The answer is, no.  At least according to James Surowiecki, the New Yorker staff writer behind the “Financial Page” column and author of the book The Wisdom of Crowds.  His theory is that a large group of people with some knowledge is smarter than a small group of “experts.”

Mr. Surowiecki’s position is good news for wine blogs like Palate Press, which taps a large number of bloggers/columnists for content, and for sites like CellarTracker, which allow users to view a multitude of wine reviews, opinions, and scores both from other users and from mainstream “experts.”  Obviously, given the popularity of user reviews and the fact that the web makes them very easy to access and share, the notion that a group is smarter than the experts is not very good news for established wine critics like the ubiquitous Robert Parker.  But, it also seems to indicate that those wine blogs which amount to little more than post after post of wine reviews by a single author aren’t necessarily the way to go either.

If Mr. Surowiecki is correct and groups are smarter than experts, will shelftalkers bearing an excerpted description and numbered score from RP or WS become a thing of the past?  Will the traditional wine review, whether in print or online, live on in the future?  Will there be a place for wine experts at all?

Maybe the definition of what’s good is for all of us to decide.

Why Wine Gadgets Are Totally Unnecessary

28 Oct

Wine EnthusiastAdmittedly, I am a minimalist.  I drive a 15 year-old car; I do not wear makeup on a regular basis; I prefer all the surfaces in my house to be free of knicknacks; and I am generally opposed to the idea of collecting things.  It follows then that I should be wary of wine gadgets.  Just so happens that I am.

Over the years, I have been given a few wine gadgets as gifts — one of those decanters with the really wide base, a Rabbit corkscrew, handblown glass bottle stoppers, etc. — and I’ve found all of them to be more trouble than they’re worth.  The decanter was impossible to clean, requiring special brushes and silver beads (sold separately, of course) for the purpose.  The Rabbit killed a couple of softer corks and broke entirely when I inadvertantly used it on a synthetic one.  The glass stoppers while very pretty were pretty much useless when it came to storing an open bottle in the fridge, given that they made it too tall to fit in anywhere.

Several months ago, after fielding a bunch of  Vinturi related questions from customers and friends (and having more or less no idea what the Vinturi was during said fielding), I went to the source of all things wine gadetry, the Wine Enthusiast catalog, where I learned that the Vinturi is a contraption that aerates wine as you pour through it.  Silly me, I thought this was easily accomplished by using a decanter, but apparently (according to the Vinturi people) decanting is “time consuming, cumbersome, and inconvenient“.  Considering that both require the same action of the participant (i.e. that you pour the wine into them) I’m not sure how one can be more time consuming or inconvenient than the other.  But, I digress.

giant white wine glassThe Wine Enthusiast catalog overflows with things I never knew I needed, and definitely don’t want like a push button corkscrew, a hand blown decanter that looks like a swan, something called the Chef du Vin pocket wine tasting tool that instantly softens tannins the moment it’s dipped into wine, an aerating pewter wine funnel, and my favorite, the Giant White Wine Stem Cooler, which is essentially an ice bucket in the shape of a three foot tall wine glass.

For me, drinking wine is a simple, humble (and sometimes humbling) act, one whose pleasure can only be diminished by such embellishments.  To enjoy wine you only need your palate, your curiousity and three simple tools:  a double-hinged corkscrew, an ah-so (for older bottles), and a simple upright decanter.  For those of you who can’t live without the gadgets — more power to you, and the multi-million dollar industry you’re supporting.  As for me, I’ll stay low-tech and drink my wine the way god intended.  From bottle to glass with no Vinturi in between.