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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.

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If You Drink Cheap Wine, Drink It Young

8 Apr

Every cheap wine isn’t a good deal.  You already know this.

All of us at one time or another has grabbed a bottle off the shelf because we’re attracted by its low, low price.  We are lured by the hope that this wine will be the steal of the century, the greatest bottle ever at a rock bottom price.  Problem is, it doesn’t always happen that way.  Best case scenario is that the wine is simply boring; worst and all-too-often-the-case scenario is that it just plain sucks.   Yesterday, while reading an article from winebusiness.com called, “Consumers Respond to Grocery Outlet Wines,” I was reminded of all the times I’ve purchased wine based primarily on price, paying little attention to other factors, only to be disappointed later.  In general, winebusiness.com article puts a primarily positive spin on the Grocery Outlet wine selection (which leans heavily on wines in the $3 to $6 range), but it also offers insight into how large outlet stores get their wine at such deep discounts.  This is important information for wine drinkers to understand, but given that your average wine drinker doesn’t sit around reading dry industry publications, I’ve decided to highlight the important parts here in my blog, just in case an average wine drinker happens to read it some day.  Why?  Because understanding how the mechanics of discounted wine works can help all of us make better wine choices in the future, particularly when we’re rummaging around in the bargain bin.

According to Doug Due, Director of Wine for Grocery Outlet, one of the primary ways the chain gets its wine at such low prices is by buying back vintages.  What does this mean, exactly?  As Mr. Due’s explains, this is when “a brand is releasing its latest vintage, such as an ’09, but still has ’07 or ’08 vintages available and needs to move the older “juice” in order to focus on the new one.”  Given that the seller (in this case the winery) needs to move inventory, the buyer (in this case Grocery Outlet) is in the position to negotiate a very low price, allowing them to offer the wine to their customers at a deep discount.  Sounds like everybody wins, right?

Well, maybe…sometimes.  Allow me to explain.  The vast majority (and I mean vast, like 98%) of all wine produced in any region, in any country on earth is intended for early consumption. Early, as in right now, or at least within a year or so of the vintage date.  Now, this doesn’t mean that all those wines turn to vinegar in 18 months, but they’re also not getting any “better” for those extra months sitting in somebody’s warehouse.  Contrary to popular belief, most older vintage wines are not improved simply because they have some age on them. Therefore, drinking an aged bargain wine actually means that you don’t experience it at its freshest, which is arguably when it’s at its best. Don’t get me wrong, many bottles will taste just fine with age; in these (best) cases they just aren’t much different than when they were first released.  However, there are a few types of wine that really, truly should be drunk within that first-year window because after that time they are typically tired and over the hill (i.e. they taste pretty sucky).  These are the wines I would, personally, steer clear of at the Grocery Outlet or any stores that sell back vintage wines at a steep discount.

In the interest of helping you drink better on the cheap, here’s my short list of what to avoid in the back vintage bargain bin:

  1. Dry Rosé
  2. Sauvignon Blanc (particularly from New World producers, like New Zealand)
  3. Unoaked Chardonnay
  4. Pinot Grigio
  5. Gamay (absolutely and especially if it’s labeled Beaujolais Nouveau)

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!

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?

Ms. Drinkwell’s Top 5 – California Wine Edition

1 Sep

i heart wineIn honor of California Wine Month, I’ve put together a short list of some of my favorites, recent and perennial:

Best Chardonnay with the Worst Name
2007 Wind Gap Chardonnay Brousseau Vineyard

There’s a nice story on the Wind Gap website about how the vineyards are planted along wind gaps and how the wind shapes the flavors of the wines, and I’m sure this is all true, but the name is just plain bad.  However, the wine is so good that I developed temporary aphasia upon tasting it.  So what’s it like?  Marilyn Monroe in a bikini –voluptuously built with each curve counterbalanced by acidity so racy it’s practically electric.  And, there’s so much minerality in each sip, it’s like there’s a quarry in the glass.  In my opinion, no Cali Chard has ever tasted as Chablisienne as this one while still managing to capture essence of opulent California style.  

Best Version of a Variety No American Can Pronounce 
2007 La Clarine Farm Mourvèdre Cedarville Vineyard

It’s awkward that I never know how to say the name of this grape correctly (moor – ved, or  moor – ved – druh?).  No matter, I’ll just call La Clarine’s version good stuff.  It reminds me of a solid French country wine — not too fancy, not too polished, not too expensive — and best of all, not too over the top.  The kind of wine you keep reaching for again and again with pleasure.  It’s a much leaner rendition than you might expect coming from this notoriously hearty, big boned variety, and that’s probably why I like it so well.  It checks all the right boxes: violets, leather, dusty blackberry, savory spice, but it’s not heavy handed.  Rather, it’s like the fresh faced girl next door — pretty in its youth without a trace of makeup.

Best New Zin that Could Give Ridge a Run for Its Money
2005 Hunnicutt Zinfandel Napa Valley, Chiles Valley District

I’ll admit to being biased against Napa Valley Zinfandel.  For me, it just doesn’t possess the nuance or subtelty that can be achieved with a well made version from Dry Creek or Russian River Valley.  So when I bounded into work on a recent day to be met by a rep with a lineup which included Hunnicutt’s Napa Valley Zin, I felt pretty confident that an underwhelming tasting was to follow.  Ah, hubris!  I was wrong, of course, which is the great thing about great wine.  It kicks your ass back into line  in the most delicious way, which is exactly what  Hunnicutt did for me with its rose petal, bing cherry, and pink peppercorn potion.  It’s delicate without sacrificing lush texture or lusty fruit.  Quite the impressive balancing act.

Best and Most Thoughtful California Wine Blog
Tom Wark’s Fermentation:  The Daily Wine Blog

OK, OK so Tom Wark doesn’t write exclusively about California wine, but he’s located in California and his “day job” as I understand it is in Public Relations where he is responsible for promoting many California wineries large and small. If you’re not reading Tom Wark’s blog, you should be. Why? In addition to being a dependable (he really does blog everyday!) and articulate voice, Mr. Wark is honest and self-reflective in his posts.  He’s continually striving for ways to connect wine to themes larger than himself, and he won’t sacrifice this aim to cover the hot new trend simply because it’s timely.  This blog — unlike so many others — isn’t gimmicky; it doesn’t exist to gossip or break news.  Rather, it’s a meditation which if you let it, just might teach you something about yourself.  Fermentation is exceptional because its author is at once true to his subject and to us.
I think I want to be Tom Wark when I grow up.

Best Crazy Genius California Winemaker/Marketer
Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon

Clearly this is not breaking news.  Randall Grahm has been making and marketing wine since I was in grade school.  I will forget for a moment that the Bonny Doon website makes me a little queasy with all of its spinning, and that I once submitted my resume for an open position and never received a response.  Anyone who has the balls to sell off two of the most profitable divisions of his company in order to concentrate on producing bizarro biodynamic wines using grapes most California wine drinkers have never heard of (Erbaluce? Albariño? Nebbiolo? Dolcetto?) is impressive (and borderline insane) enough.  But, to sell those wines, lots of them, and make customers fall in love with them (and him) is unthinkable for anyone except Randall Grahm.  Combine with this a recent appearance on Oprah and a forthcoming book and there’s no single person out there who’s doing more to promote California wine than this guy.  Yeah, I know it’s been said before, but the truth is always worth restating.

Want to add to my list?  Bring it on in the comments!