Sunday, October 31, 2010

Where's The Wine Ephemera?

Just back from Reno, where for the past three days we attended an auction of Western Americana at the Atlantis Hotel Casino. Nearly 2,000 lots were on the block. The stunning catalog was about an inch thick. I was there mostly as curious observer, but as lot after lot sold I couldn't help wonder why virtually nothing related to the history of the wine trade in the West was up for bid. The obvious immediate answer was that there hasn't been much to collect, and that few people early on sensed any value in saving what little there was. Granted, railroading, logging, ranching and mining were more instrumental in the development of the West than winemaking, but I would have thought that in a catalog that thick a few ancient or rare wine bottles, cork pullers, labels, photos or signs would have been listed. Nevertheless, hardly a relic of the industry surfaced.

The closest I came to lifting my paddle was for a lot of four 1888 temperance medals. One said: "The bearer of this medal is a recorded member of the American Young Men's Total Abstinence Society." Another read: "Wine is a Mocker." I envisioned giving them to acquaintances on the wine scene to test their sense of humor and their appreciation of history. They sold for $425, however, beyond my expectations and my budget.

Fred Holabird and Donald Kagin of the Reno auction house Holabird-Kagin Americana assembled the extensive inventory and described the provenance of each item in often detailed and colorful terms. The items and the prices they fetched were often startling, including $2,900 for a lettersheet signed by Annie Oakley, $600 for the gold identification band awarded the world champion racing carrier pigeon during World War I, $5,000 for a one-dollar note issued by the Pinal Gold and Silver Mining Company in Arizona during the 1870s, $30,000 for a pair of small engraved silver ingots dating from the California mining camp of Panamint in the 1870s, and $550 for a circa-1885 photo of Oregon Express Train Engine No. 94 at the C.P. Depot in Sacramento.

But, again, anything related specifically to the West's wine history wasn't to be found. Oh, a circa-1900 photo of Edward Angwin's summer resort on Howell Mountain in Napa Valley drew a winning bid of  $180, while a circa-1890 photo of the Gray Gables Hotel of St. Helena in Napa Valley went for $80, but nothing of either says anything explicitly of the region's wine trade.

The uncertain early years of California's wine industry, the interruption in its growth due to Prohibition, and the relative youth of the trade even today help explain why artifacts relating to grape growing and winemaking in the state haven't yet gained much visibility or value. Collecting of wine is pretty much limited to just that, the collecting and storing of bottles of wine rather than affiliated ephemera. Some collectors, as well as some libraries and museums, are rounding up material concerning the evolution of California's wine trade, from winery newsletters to restaurant wine lists, but little of it is in circulation or otherwise generating buzz. Much of the wine-related material on eBay is so young, available and uninteresting it doesn't draw much attention. It may be several years before people start to realize that those labels, corks and etched glasses that have been accumulating in their garage over the past few decades actually could be valuable both for posterity and for their bank accounts.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Despite Distractions, Time For Wine And Words

Wait a minute. The Giants and the Kings win on the same night? And the moon isn't full? What's going on here? I'll leave that for the sports writers to decipher and explain. For the moment, I'll just savor all the tension and delight those match-ups delivered. For drama, they certainly outperformed tonight's wine, the 337 Wine Cellars 2008 Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, which I picked up the other day at my neighborhood supermarket for $13. The 2007 version of this wine was one of my favorites last year. It bloomed invitingly with suggestions of mocha, black tea and the tiniest but ripest cherries on the planet. Plums were in there as well, along with a few blackberries. Tannins were restrained, complexity subtle. In several respects, the 2008 carries a family resemblance, especially in the wine's ready accessibility, balance and fruit, which in this instance runs more to blackberries than cherries. It just wasn't as pronounced overall as the 2007, but it did have some pretty distracting competition in the Giants and the Kings. At that price, I'll pick up another bottle and give it another try. It is a young wine, and with a bit more bottle age, and perhaps decanting at opening, it will display more flourish. The same could be hoped for the Giants bullpen.

As to the Kings, they showed more fluidity and endurance than I saw in teams of the not too distant past, at least during the glimpses of the game I caught. Rookie DeMarcus Cousins appeared especially alert, strong and agile. That's Cousins over to the right, with my wife Martha during a Kings meet-and-greet session in midtown Sacramento on a Second Saturday this summer. She's a rookie, too, having just published her first book, "'Wait, What Do You Mean?' Asperger's Tell and Show," a personal and provocative look at adults on the autism spectrum. You can learn more of the book by visiting this Web site.

And speaking of books, I played a small role in one just published, "Opus Vino," a broad survey of the world's wine regions and wineries, some 4,500 of them (DK Publishing, 800 pages, $75, though Amazon.com lists it for $47.25, but that doesn't include shipping, and the book weighs 7.2 pounds). I wrote the sections on Inland California, which means the Sierra Foothills, Central Valley, Delta and Lodi, and on Mexico, which for the most part means the Valle de Guadalupe just outside of Ensenada in the northern reaches of Baja. FedEx just dropped off my copy, so I haven't yet had a chance to read beyond the first few pages. There, however, I was tickled to find myself lumped in with such fellow "new-generation wine critics" as Jane Anson (Bordeaux), Tyler Colman (Beaujolais), Doug Frost (Heartland U.S.), Stuart Pigott (Germany) and Alder Yarrow (Sonoma and Marin). Remember the wine enthusiast on your gift list as the year-end holidays draw near. (I was paid up-front, incidentally, with no residuals in the contract, so I don't stand to gain by sales of the book.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Raining On White Zinfandel

Page-one headline in tonight's electronic version of The New York Times: "Celtics Lose Despite 31 Points From James." Didn't I just watch that game? And didn't the Celtics win? And doesn't Lebron James play for the Miami Heat? Just goes to show that even the great ones can screw up now and then.

Which reminds me, have you read wine-blogger Steve Heimoff's recent dissing of white zinfandel? If not, check it out here. And if you're a white-zin fan, don't let Heimoff's stern criticism of your taste in wine fire up your ire. Sure, he says "white zinfandel is for people who don't understand fine wine, don't care to, and don't need to." He's just using white zinfandel as his gateway to his real target, which is a recent study that purports to show that tasters with a fondness for white zinfandel have unusually sensitive palates, or something to that effect. I also have problems with that study, which actually is more of an opinion poll, but I'll save my comments on that for another day. I want to dwell on white zinfandel for a moment.

As Heimoff, I'm not a big fan of white zinfandel, at least not as it customarily is made these days, which is simple, flabby, sweet and short. But I do remember the white zinfandel of the 1970s and 1980s. Winemakers began to turn the black grape zinfandel into pink wine because the market for traditional red zinfandel had softened so dramatically that vintners often wondered whether it ever would rebound. Their ingenuity in wringing refreshing blush wine from zinfandel rather than give up on the variety and tear out vines has been frequently credited for saving several of California's older and more historic zinfandel vineyards. If not for white zinfandel, we likely wouldn't see on store shelves today nearly as many "old-vine" zinfandels as we do. That may or may not be a good thing, and for the moment we'll also leave that topic for another day.

Some of those early white zinfandels were duds, bone dry and stiff. Others were so well made, which is to say fruity, zesty, balanced and refreshing, that they weren't limited to the picnic basket, but graced the holiday table. Some were even complex. They were difficult to make well, which could explain why the more involved style of white zinfandel isn't likely to be found today. How often I've wished that veteran Amador County and Napa Valley winemaker Scott Harvey would revive the white zinfandel he made at the old Santino Winery in Shenandoah Valley. A touch sweet, a touch spritzy and downright crisp with acidity, it was as versatile at the table as it was refreshing on the palate.

Was it a great wine? For what it was, yes, at least for me, for the pleasure and interest it delivered. Steve Heimoff wouldn't think so. "White zin has its place, but it's not a great wine," he writes in tossing his wet blanket over the entire genre. Granted, white zinfandel generally isn't made with pretensions to be a great wine, as he says. But his posting begs the question: What is a great wine? "There are standards," says Heimoff. The closest he comes to listing them, however, is this remark: "It (white zinfandel) generally costs less than $10, hardly the province of great wine." That's it? Price alone? He suggests that the quality of a wine can be objectively determined, yet doesn't recite any objective benchmark to measure where a wine falls on the greatness scale. Just how does white zinfandel come up so short in his estimation? "A well made dry wine is objectively better than a sweet white zinfandel," he concludes. So, sweetness apparently has something to do with his criteria. Where's that leave Port and Madeira? To Heimoff's palate, dry wines can be great, sweet wines not so much. But that's a subjective opinion, not a conclusion reached objectively. I hope he returns to the topic of great wine so I can be enlightened.

Right now, however, I've got to check The Times to see who won the Rockets/Lakers game. Ah, it's still going on, but this just in, according to a new headline: "Celtics Rain on Heat's Future Parade." Revision can be sweet.

Monday, October 25, 2010

First Review Of Vintage 2010: Great Jelly

Harvest crew at Charles Spinetta Winery before storm
In just being herself - artisan, farmer, cook - Laura Spinetta has come up with a sweetly American way to fill a curious void in the nation's wine appreciation. Other wine cultures have homegrown and original rituals to celebrate the yearly harvest of grapes, but not the United States. In Germany and France, for example, winemakers have entire festivals built around the fermenting juice. On a recent tour in Bordeaux, I didn't attend any such festival, but at virtually every chateau we visited the winemaker pulled some cloudy and fizzy sauvignon blanc or semillon from a fermentation tank and filled our glasses while calling for a toast to the success of the harvest. Almost without exception, the partially fermented wine tasted like pineapple, banana or apple juice, prompting someone inevitably to quip that the vintner should be bottling it as a breakfast wine. The French also, of course, are responsible for Beaujolais Nouveau, the first wine of the most recent harvest, the promotion of which over the years has been a commercial and promotional boon for the region's winemakers.

In the United States, some vintners have tried to emulate Beaujolais Nouveau by releasing their own versions of fresh, young and simple wines within a couple of months of the harvest, but results have been mixed both critically and commercially.

Up at the Charles Spinetta Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, however, Laura Spinetta naturally and routinely goes through a fall exercise that could be the foundation of a distinctly American way to acknowledge the yearly harvest of wine grapes. From the vineyards surrounding the family home, she gathers baskets of grapes just when she thinks they are ideally ripe, which is just before her husband, Charles, and their three sons think the fruit is ideally ripe for their purpose, which is to make wine. She, on the other hand, uses the grapes to make jelly. If the grapes are zinfandel, she makes zinfandel jelly. If they're barbera, she makes barbera jelly. She even does some blending. Her 2010 blend of primitivo and zinfandel is all deep bright color and sweet berry fruit. If the wines from the same vineyards are as forthright, refreshing and balanced as the jelly, the 2010 harvest will go down as successful.

Right now, Charles Spinetta calls this year's picking "the harvest from hell," even though he brought in the last of his grapes just before this weekend's storm, which dumped 3.5 inches of rain on his vineyards. A few days earlier, he'd been fretting, noting that his harvest this year got under way six weeks later than usual, the consequence of a prolonged spring and an unusually cool summer. Even before this weekend's storm his vines had been dampened with showers, though not damaged extensively. "Each of the past five years we finished in September," he remarked while giving a tour of his winery and vineyeards.

In the cellar, he pulled a sample of his nearly finished rose from the 2010 vintage. A fruity and firm blend of zinfandel and orange muscat, it is expected to be released in time for the year-end holidays. Whether in wine or jelly, the Spinetta family knows the appeal of sweetness. The rose is just a little sweet, but two-thirds of the winery's sales are for their definitely sweet "fun and yummy" wines, such as a proprietary zinfandel called Zinetta. They also make dry wines, including petite sirah, primitivo and barbera. For now, they're continuing to hang their commercial success on the wines and on the art gallery that Laura Spinetta oversees in the tasting room. Charles Spinetta, however, acknowledges that the family is "toying with the idea" of making the jellies commercially. But for the time being, Laura Spinetta makes them solely for family and friends. If she can be persauded to put them up for sale, and other wineries also get into the practice of releasing new jellies just as the harvest commences, a decidedly American wine tradition could be established. Eventually, maybe wine competitions will have a division for varietal jellies.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Suisun Valley, The Elusive Appellation

Blue Victorian Winery flanking primitivo grapes
Fairfield - gateway to jelly beans, beer...and wine? Indeed. Just off Interstate 80 at Fairfield is a compact wine region yet to be discovered by motorists speeding through town. If they pause at all, it's likely to check out the Jelly Belly plant or the Budweiser factory along the south side of the freeway. On the opposite side of the interstate, however, is the heart of the Suisun Valley wine appellation. It isn't new. It's been officially designated as an American Viticultural Area since 1982, though wine grapes have been grown and processed in the area since long before then.

Still, as Northern California wine regions go, Suisun Valley has yet to be discovered. Earlier this week, as my granddaughter took her licensing exam before the State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology in Fairfield, I killed time by wandering about the country roads north of Interstate 80, hoping to find a few wineries open. I did, but just a few. Monday, even a Monday that was a holiday for some people, isn't the best day to taste wine in Suisun Valley, I discovered. Several places I would have liked to visit, especially the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative and Winterhawk Winery, were closed. Make a note: The Co-op, 4495 Suisun Valley Road, where the wines of five local wineries are poured, including Winterhawk, is open only noon-5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

More frustrating was that by the time I visited four wineries I still didn't have a confident reading on the varietal or style of wine that ultimately will give Suisun Valley its identity. In the past, I've tasted some craftily made merlot, petite sirah and even pinot noir coming out of the area, but Monday I didn't find much to excite me. Oh, Wooden Valley Winery & Vineyards continues to excell with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, Ledgewood Creek Winery & Vineyards produces a pretty and refreshing grenache rose and a complex and solid merlot, and Blue Victorian Winery had a respectably fruity syrah, but where were the exciting petite sirahs that henceforth had generated the most buzz about the valley's potential? Maybe they aren't poured on Mondays.

This weekend, incidentally, should be a good time for wine enthusiasts to discover Suisun Valley. The valley's Fun Family Farm Days, a harvest festival with pumpkin patches, barrel tasting, winery tours, produce stands, hay rides and the like, will be from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. About 10 wineries are to be open and pouring tastes. For more information, go here. Please let me know of standout varietals or blends you find.

Our granddaughter, meanwhile, who graduated from high school in May, passed her exam and now is a licensed cosmetologist, ready to help finance her way through college. We celebrated at the Fairfield branch of Fresh Choice, without wine.

Friday, October 8, 2010

95 Bottles of Wine Vie To Get On The Wall

By my count, 95 wines made up last night's tasting in the far back reaches of the Corti Brothers grocery store in Sacramento. They were spread out on a big table in two flights, first the reds, then the whites. This is an exercise that store owner Darrell Corti and store director Rick Mindermann conduct once a month or so to choose wines to stock in the store's cramped wine department. Winemakers and distributors eager to get their wines placed, and to hear what Corti has to say of their wines, which may be painful yet constructive, ship the store releases from all over the world. Last night's tasting, for example, included wines from Hungary, Turkey and Greece, as well as countries and regions with higher wine profiles - Italy, Spain, France and the United States, mostly California, naturally.

At one point I was surprised to hear Mindermann tell another guest that maybe just one or two wines being tasted might be chosen for the store's bins, the screening is that rigid. After attending several of these sessions over the years, I've concluded that in picking a wine to add to his inventory Corti looks for releases that represent primarily diversity, quality, a story and value. He doesn't have much patience with wines high in alcohol, heavy with oak, fierce with tannins and unrepresentative of grape and region.

I use the tastings largely to find local wines to write about in the weekly column I contribute to The Sacramento Bee. At last month's tasting, for example, we sampled seven wines from Casque Wines, a small Placer County producer that is starting to generate buzz for the forthright clarity and harmony of its releases. Of the seven, Corti chose one for the store, at least initially, the Le Casque 2009 Amador County Calotte Blanc, which he is selling for $18, I discovered last night as I browsed about the wine department just before the tasting. This is one of several Casque wines I also especially enjoyed at last month's tasting. The 2009 Calotte Blanc is a delightfully refreshing and willful blend of viognier, roussanne, vermentino and marsanne. In its vibrancy and harmony I found it strikingly similar to the Vina Robles 2009 Paso Robles Huerhuero White 4, an equally spicy blend of vermentino, verdelho, viognier and sauvignon blanc, which we declared the best white wine at the Central Coast Wine Competition in June. Both wines represent the craft of blending with authority and charm.

The 2009 Calotte Blanc, incidentally, also is available at Lakeside Beverages in Granite Bay and Carpe Vino in Auburn.

But the 2009 Calotte Blanc was at last month's tasting. Wines that got my highest marks at last night's tasting were the Guimaro Winery 2008 Ribeira Sacra Mencia, a Spanish red packed with black pepper and great length; the Dashwood 2009 Marlborough Pinot Noir, very light in color but vibrant with suggestions of watermelon and strawberries; the Schug Estate 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir, beefier, fruitier and longer than the Dashwood, but in terrific balance; and the Athair Wines 2007 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, which like the Dashwood is deceivingly light in color, yet on the palate is athletic and persistent, with fresh fruit flavors running to berries and cherries. Whether Corti will carry them, and at what price, remains to be seen.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Bordeaux, From The General To The Particular

During my trek about Bordeaux last week I grew increasingly fond of the modestly priced wines designated "Bordeaux" and "Bordeaux Superieur." Numerous times, I was startled when a winemaker said the strikingly harmonious wine we were sampling cost just 5 or so euros in France, the equivalent of about $7 here, though shipping and distribution fees in the U.S. would boost the final price tag at least a few dollars. At the same time, however, I grew frustrated in hearing Bordeaux producers say that many of the wines we were enjoying were unavailable in the United States, or that their distribution pretty much was limited to regional markets keen on French wine, most notably the Eastern Seaboard and Texas.

Though the California wine market runs largely to California wines, understandably, the state's wine enthusiasts long have had a broadly eclectic palate, and today the sale of New Zealand, Italian, Spanish, French and other foreign wines remain strong in the state. It will take some looking, but wine consumers with a palate for distinctive wines at accessible prices should keep an eye out for the French wines simply labeled either Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur.

A few broad tips:

For one, when approaching Bordeaux wines be prepared to recalibrate your California palate to appreciate wines that generally are leaner, drier, sharper, less oaky and more subtle than what you are accustomed to. Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines aren't fruit bombs. Fruit is there, but only occasionally is it bombastic. Often, oak won't be part of the equation at all. In their youth, they can be a bit more tannic than California wines of equal age. They aren't sipping wines, but are styled to go with food, which tempers the tannins.

Secondly, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines most often are red wines, but don't ignore whites, roses and the category called "clairet," which customarily is a bit weightier and fruitier than roses but softer and less intense than more deeply colored releases. Also consider the Bordeaux style of sparkling wine called "cremant," made like Champagne and equally as vigorous and refreshing. While Bordeaux is recognized largely for its red wines, winemakers have made tremendous strides both in the vineyard and in the cellar to secure a market for these other styles.

Third, watch especially for reds from the 2005, 2007 and 2009 vintages, which over the past decade produced the most consistently balanced, lively and lengthy wines I tasted.

That said, here are a few specific Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines I can recommend without qualification:

- Chateau Recougne 2005 Bordeaux Superieur: What a marvelously elegant merlot-based wine, which long after the glass is empty continues to echo about cherries, plums and tobacco. In France, you can pick it up for just 10 euros.

- Chateau Penin 2007 Les Cailloux Bordeaux Superieur: Totally merlot, and not shy about saying it. This is an unusually dark, juicy and complex Bordeaux Superieur, with a texture delightfully supple and a whiff of smoke not often encountered in the region's wines.

- Chateau de la Vieille Chapelle 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: A blend of 80 percent merlot and 20 percent cabernet franc, this invitingly perfumey wine speaks of plums, anise and cherries, all draped on a sturdy frame.

- Chateau de Parenchere 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: Made in the "classic" style, meaning no oak influence whatever, this is all fresh fruit, mostly cherries wrapped around a minerally core. There's 1 percent malbec in the blend, evidence that Bordeaux's forgetten variety is staging something of a comeback. The rest of the wine is 65 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 4 percent cabernet franc.

- Chateau de Parenchere 2007 Cuvee Raphael Grand Vin de Bordeaux: While lean, this is a wine with which Californians easily can identify, given its 16 months in French oak casks and the brightness of its cabernet sauvignon and merlot fruit. Despite the ripeness of its fruit, it comes in at just 13.5 percent alcohol.

- Chateau Couronneau 2008 Bordeaux Superieur Cuvee Pierre de Cartier: An amazingly complex wine that sells in Europe for just 10 euros. It's at once frisky yet lush, its sweet fresh fruit running to blackberries and plums, with a dusting of cocoa. It's also warm, with 14.5 percent alcohol, unusually high for the style.

- Chateau Pierrail 2008 Bordeaux Superieur: Merlot and cabernet franc don't often come with this much power and grace, especially at less than 10 euros the bottle. But also keep an eye out for the Chateau Pierrail 2009 Bordeaux Superieur, a shade richer and spicier than the 2009.

- Chateau Lamothe Valentine Par Valentine 2009 Bordeaux: For a change of pace, a white, and one with enough weight, smoke and sweet fruit that chardonnay lovers could fall for it. It's a blend of 85 percent sauvignon gris and 15 percent muscadelle.

- Chateau Lamothe 2008 Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux: I'm a sap for eucalyptus and mint in my Bordeaux-inspired wines, and this is shot through with it. And with just 12 percent alcohol, it's a blend (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc) you could drink at lunch.

- Chateau de Brondeau 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: Sleek and spirited, with a merlot foundation that carries an undercurrent of herbalness to compliment the variety's red-fruit flavors.

- Chateau de Bel 2009 Bordeaux: One of the more exotic and more modestly priced wines we tasted (7 euros). While it is solely merlot it's both broad shouldered and almost feral in its attack of juicy fresh fruit.

- Chateau Le Grande Verdus 2007 Bordeaux Superieur: A brilliantly colored blend of 60 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent cabernet franc, here's a take at once forthright yet accessible, its fully ripe fruit presented in a package that is all about equilibrium and pleasure.

- Chateau Bellevue 2009 Bordeaux Rose: Looks, feels and tastes as if it could have come out of the South of France, it's that dry and refreshing, but it's all Bordeaux cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec.

- Chateau Ballan-Larquette 2007 Bordeaux: I had to do a double take in looking at the bottle, but the sticker on it did indeed say the wine won a gold medal at the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition. Probably for its approachability, as well as its freshness, balance and intriguing notes of tobacco leaves still drying in the barn.

In the Sacramento area, the best bets for finding these or other Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur wines likely will be the BevMo chain of wine stores, Total Wine & More in Roseville, and Corti Brothers in Sacramento.