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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.

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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!

Ms. Drinkwell’s Top 5: Shoulder Season Wines

13 Oct

boarding-bass-shiraz_1Welcome to shoulder season, that moment between the lows and the highs.  It’s a term used almost exclusively by the travel industry, but I don’t see why it can’t also be used in the context of wine.  In fact, it seems to fit quite nicely given that the wine industry is also a cyclical one with (usually) predictable high and low periods.  Wine sales are traditionally at their lowest during the summer months and peak during the November and December holiday season, which means that now, in October, we’re in the lull.

What’s so great about shoulder season is that it makes you think differently.  Ever dream of Christmas in Hawaii?  So does everybody else.  It’s as common as going into a wine store on New Year’s Eve and declaring that you want a bottle of Champagne.  Everybody wants Zinfandel and Pinot Noir on Thanksgiving and Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November.  They want big, impressive (but not too expensive this year) California reds to wow friends or clients during the month of December.  In wine and in travel, it seems that everybody wants the same thing at the same time, often dictated by the weather or the holidays.  But, what if, as now, there is not discernable weather pattern to guide you, no big holiday to prepare for?  What do you drink?  And where in the world do you go to find it?

Below are five shoulder season suggestions from wine roads less traveled that are both budget friendly (all under $20) and perfect for milder weather.  Welcome to the delicious in-between!
* Importer, where applicable, and approximate retail price in parentheses.

2008 Quinto do Alqueve, Ribatejo, Portugal (Robert Kacher Selections, $12)

quinto do alqueve

So many Rhône varieties, so little time… and so much money.  I’m often disappointed by white Rhône because for all its heady aroma, it’s often flabby and overpriced.  This Portugese pour made from Fernão Pires is from the Ribatejo region, which lies about 40 miles north of Lisbon.  A superior stunt double for the French stuff in terms of quality and price, it offers a nose redolent of dried apricot and linden blossom.   It’s chiffon-soft mouthfeel is at first ripe with pineapple and mango but finishes a squeeze of meyer lemon juice to give it just the right amout of zip.

2008 Cor Cellars Alba Cor, Columbia Gorge, WA ($17)

Alba Cor

Not only is the Columbia River Gorge (the natural border between Oregon and Washinton), well,  gorgeous, it also produces some mighty fine wine, like this 52% Pinot Gris, 48% Gewürztraminer blend.  It’s lychee and rose petal aromas give way to full bodied flavors of clementine and dried nectarine that are stopped just short of sweetness by a backbone of mouthwatering acidity.

2007 Domaine de la Pepière La Pépiè Côt, VdP de Jardin, France (Louis/Dressner Selections, $16)

50_274_274_pepiecot1

A Malbec by any other name would never taste like this.  Marc Ollivier’s very natural (only natural yeasts, no sterile filtration) Malbec, which goes by the alias Côt in the Loire Valley, is an elegant take on the variety.  One you’d never expect if your only experience has been in the form of brawny Argentine versions or even the inky, earthy offerings of Cahors.  No, here in the Garden of France Malbec is treated delicately and the finished product is a nearly clear garnet stunner that’s much more elegant than its drunken chicken label might imply.  Each pour brims with black raspberries, bing cherries, and violets.  Can’t get much lovelier than that.

2008 Palmina Dolcetto, Santa Barbara County, CA ($16.50)

palmina dolcetto

I admit that I have not traditionally been a fan of the Cal-Ital movement, primarily because I have found time and time again that Cali wines labeled as Sangiovese or Barbera are more or less unrecognizable as their stated varieties.  They have no character.  Thankfully, there are a handful of producers like Palmina, who are dedicated to upping the ante in the Cal-Ital game and are doing so with integrity and offering good quality at fair prices.  During shoulder season I like their Dolcetto, a friendly, easygoing wine filled with spicy cherry, rhubarb, and plum flavors that shows the characteristic Italian brightness (i.e. the acidity hasn’t gone down the tubes in favor of squeezing out extra gooey fruit).  Tasty and true.

2006 Bibich Riserva, North Dalmatia, Croatia (Blue Danube Wine Co., $18)

Bibich

This blend of three grapes — Lasin, Plavina, and Babic — drinks like a lusty, dusty spiced Dry Creek Zin poured into a lithe dancer’s body.  There’s a lot of muscle here but it’s lean, meaning this wine’s berry spiced intensity is discovered slowly, one sip at a time, not in a single knock out punch.  A perfect red to ease you into heartier glasses come winter.

Want to Name our Wine? Become a Fan.

6 Oct

What do you do when you want some social media love?  Announce a contest to name one of your wines, hire Guy Kawaski co-founder of Alltop.com to judge it, and make becoming a Facebook Fan of the winery a requirement to enter the contest.  All of which Olson Ogden Wines is doing right now in a contest which runs through October 15.  The winner will receive a case of said wine, which is to be an under $20 “straightforward, easy drinking, and fruit forward, uncomplicated red wine that may be made up of multiple varietals including Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet” and recognition on the label itself.  The catch? entrants must be 21 (of course) and submissions are only accepted on the winery’s Facebook Fan Page.

As of right now, Olsen Ogden has 552 fans on its Facebook page.  How many will they rack up by October 15th?  And, what will this social media stunt ultimately do for their brand?

Napa Valley: Easy to Hate, But Not Hard to Love

28 Sep

Napa Valley SignThere are many reasons to hate Napa Valley: the perpetual traffic jam that is highway 29; Costco sized tasting rooms full-to-bursting with tipsy tourists elbowing each other on the way to the bar; insultingly high tasting fees. ($30 for one 1 oz. pour!? Not for me, thanks.) In fact, just last week, Steve Heimoff referred to the Valley as a “Disney-fied mecca” in one of his posts, echoing Randall Grahm’s sentiment in his new book Been Doon So Long in which he refers to Napa Valley as “the adult theme park.”

I can’t say that I disagree with these sentiments.  In fact, when I am asked by out of town guests to host them on a Napa Valley wine tour there is much internal groaning and dread on my part, but a funny thing happens when I get there, I am absolutely jaw-dropped by the beauty of the place.  Every single time.  A visit to Napa Valley can be enchanting whether it’s your first visit or your 51st —  if you choose to look at it with a glass half full mentality.  Here are a few classics you can learn to love again, promise:

Robert Mondavi Winery – Yep, I’m going there (literally and figuratively).  Why?  Because it’s extraordinarily gorgeous.  Whether it’s your first time or not, drinking in the view of the To Kalon vineyard topped by a piece of wedgewood blue sky through the archway at the front of Mondavi’s mission style complex is undeniably breathtaking.  This is the quintessential Napa Valley experience, for without Robert Mondavi the tasting room and perhaps Napa Valley as we know it may not exist today.  Instead of lamenting how big and crowded and corporate it’s all become, why not bring a sandwich and have an impromptu picnic here while you watch all the giddy tourists go by?  (Whether or not you taste the wine is completely up to you.)

Heitz Cellar – Among the most well-respected Cab producers in Napa Valley, Heitz’s low-key tasting room is an oasis of calm among the chaos of Highway 29.  Those who overlook this winery in favor of its flashier neighbors (and there are many) miss out on one of the most relaxed, laid-back tasting room experiences in the valley.  In addition to the usual suspects, Heitz also offers some unusual ones for tasting, Grignolino and Petite Verdot among them.  Did I mention it’s free?  Yes, you can taste some good, very good, even excellent wines here any day of the week without dropping a dime on the experience.  Who says you can’t get something for nothing?

Mumm Napa – With one of the most informative tours on the production of sparkling wine to be had for free and without an appointment, Mumm offers a very good opportunity to get a little winemaking education.  I have taken many guests here and each has remarked on how much they enjoyed this particular experience and how much they learned at Mumm.  Plus, a sparkling wine pit stop is a refreshing change of pace from the onslaught of big, brawny Cabs that inevitably fill a Napa Valley day.  Okay, the wine tchochkes in the gift shop and the Santana Brut are a little ridiculous, but they’ll quickly fade from memory after someone brings you a glass of bubbly — Mumm has no tasting bar, only table service — while you enjoy the picturesque vineyard view.

Silverado Trail – I have been to Napa Valley many times for no other purpose than to drive this road, which runs parallel to the much more crowded and much less scenic, Highway 29.  Built in 1852, it was the first permanent road to connect Napa to Calistoga to the north.  Today, there are more than 40 wineries along the Silverado Trail, but most are nestled discreetly into the lush oaks and pines that line the road or tucked into small hillsides, making this drive feel much more bucolic and relaxing than a slog along stark 29 to the west.  Here, you still see hand printed signs advertising “goats for sale” and the occasional entrepreuer selling homemade pine cone wreaths from the back of a truck on the side of the road.  Driving Silverado feels a little like the Napa Valley of so many years ago, the one many of us long for but find increasingly difficult to recognize.

There are many experiences in Napa Valley worth having again.  What’s chronicled here are perhaps the most obvious, which are often the most overlooked.  But, what about the others:  the obscure, the odd, the unique, the unexpected?  They’re out there, even in a place as overrun with tourism as Napa Valley.  It’s all about setting out to find them.

Why Are California Wines So Boring?

10 Sep

 

photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr

photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr

 

I don’t want to be a hater.  I don’t want to pile it on to the upmarket California winemakers who, by all accounts, are in world of hurt these days, but there’s a big problem in Cali wine that no one seems to be willing to talk about.  California wines are boring.

Yesterday I tasted two very different wines.  From two different countries.  In two different price brackets.  It’s probably against an unwritten rule to compare them to one another, but it’s also human nature to do so.  I did.

Wine #1 was a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc without claim to a fancy appellation — it was VdP Jardin — retailing at about $15.

Wine #2 was a highly allocated, newly annointed by Mr. Parker 98 point Rhône blend from California, retailing for about $70.

The difference between them?  The Cab Franc had a personality.  It was charming, quirky even, in its two-thirds-of-the-way-to-rosé clear magenta hue with violet, plum, and fresh earth on the nose; mouthwatering raspberry and paprika on the palate.  So much going on for so little money.  The Cali red?  Its minty, dried wood aroma (hello, new oak!) translated on the palate to a massive, polished-to-a-spit-shine vanilla and vaguely berryish flavor.  I’ve tasted wine like this a thousand times before.  Technically perfect, like an air-brushed model on the cover of a magazine, it offers no surprises, no intriguing conversation.  No soul, just glossy packaging.  And, it was hot.  Why, I wondered, would anyone ever buy this when they could have 4+ bottles of the (far more fun and thus IMO superior) Cab Franc?

I taste lots of wine every week and inevitably end up pitting the best and the worst against each other in my mind: the snore of a Sonoma Coast Chard ($40) vs. a gorgeous as all get-out Grüner ($18); yet another big, alcoholic, hardly identifiable as Pinot Russian River Pinot Noir ($50) vs. a surprisingly layered beauty of a Sicilian Frappato ($20).  Unfortunately, in my mental rankings the California contenders typically fall to the bottom of the heap, largely because of the price to quality ratio.  I simply don’t want to pay $40 or $50 for an OK-but-nothing-special bottle from CA when I know I can find several intriguing, even complex, wines under $20 elsewhere.

California is the reason I fell in love with wine in the first place, and yet I seem to be falling out of love with California wine.  It’s sad.

Are charming, exciting, well-priced Cali wines even out there anymore, or are they extinct?