Monday, October 31, 2011

Exhilarating Drive To Exhilarating Wines

Highway 4 east from Stockton to Murphys may not offer the color and drama that moves poets to rapture, but I sure enjoy driving it. The time of year is irrelevant, for the landscape invariably captures the light and life of each season with clarity, even if it is subtle.

But fall is the best. You can count on long shadows, a fresh crispness in the air, and a haze suggestive of gold dust falling on the hills that rise gently from the flatland as you get closer to Copperopolis and Angels Camp. On Friday, however, the haze was more blue than gold, thanks to smoke from a control burn in the forest of the Stanislaus River canyon, locals explained.

Steve Millier, left, John Kautz, at Ironstone
I was on my way to catch up with Steve Millier, winemaker. I was confident no haze would obstruct his measure of the Calaveras County wine trade over the past three decades. Millier came to Murphys in 1982 to work for Barden Stevenot, the godfather of the modern wine industry in Calaveras County. Millier, a 1975 graduate in viticulture and enology at Fresno State, had been working for another trailblazing winemaker in another largely unexplored terrain, David Bruce in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Millier has remained in Murphys ever since as one of the quieter yet more influential and successful disciples of Barden Stevenot, who believed that the landscape and climate of Mountain Ranch, Sheep Ranch, Angels Camp and other old mining and farming hamlets were as capable of yielding fine wine as they were for producing gold and cattle.

In 1989, prosperous Central Valley farmer John Kautz came to Murphys to build what subsequently became the largest family-owned winery in the Mother Lode, Ironstone Vineyards. He gussied it up with a 44-pound specimen of gold leaf, the pipe organ from the grand old Alhambra Theatre in Sacramento, and an amphitheatre where the likes of Sammy Hagar, Willie Nelson and Don Henley perform each summer. But one of Kautz's first and more enduring moves was to hire Steve Millier as winemaker, a role he continues to fill, 22 years later.

Earlier, in 1983, Millier and his wife Liz established their own winery, Milliare, at their home. In 1990, they moved it to a former Flying A gas station along Main Street in Murphys, where the tasting room remains today, one of some 20 scattered through the heart of the settlement. (Murphys isn't yet the Carmel of the Mother Lode, but the concentration of tasting rooms has helped foster a diversified business core of first-rate restaurants, fashion boutiques, art galleries, a branch of the famed Nelson's Candy Kitchen from Columbia State Historic Park on the other side of the Stanislaus River, and the most enthralling plumbing shop in the West, Bathroom Machineries.)

Then, four years ago, the Milliers bought another small local winery, Black Sheep, whose tasting room is across and down the street a bit, in a house that may be a century and a half old, behind a small grove of redwood and fig trees.

Millier is soft-spoken but frank. His answers to question often take a philosophical turn. He's stout and round, the only hair on his head his trademark mustache, now white. He moves easily between the flash and bustle of Ironstone to the calm homeyness of Millaire and Black Sheep. He prefers to let his wines do much of the talking for him, but relishes telling tales of people and incidents behind the vineyards where he buys his grapes. At Ironstone, he oversees production of about 400,000 cases of wine a year. At Milliare, he makes 6,000 cases. At Black Sheep, 2,000.

I'd asked him to pour and discuss his wines that most enthused him, that most represented his signature, that held the most promise for the areas where he likes to get his fruit. He works with grapes from all over the region, and has cultivated long and close relationships with growers throughout the region - Calaveras County, Amador County, Clarksburg and Lodi.

His lineup at Ironstone is long and varied. At peak production around 2004 he was making nearly a million cases per year for Ironstone's various brands. That output has been cut by half as Ironstone backs off from high-volume cheap wines to concentrate on refining its core products. Many of them are still bargains, including Ironstone's single most popular wine, "Obsession," a caressing sweet white made with a grape developed by Dr. Harold Olmo of UC Davis, symphony. Ironstone makes 35,000 cases of Obsession each vintage, the 2010 version of which is as floral and spicy as gewurztraminer, but finishes with an acidity so crisp and refreshing it leaves the residual sugar hanging high and dry; it generally sells for $8.

My favorite, however, was the Ironstone 2010 Lodi Cabernet Franc, a youthful, upbeat and vividly herbal and fruity take on the varietal. Early on, Millier and Kautz anticipated that cabernet franc would become their flagship wine, but things haven't worked out that way. Millier speculates that consumers might often get it confused with cabernet sauvignon, and look for parallels that aren't there. And he recognizes that interpretations of the varietal vary widely across the state, perhaps leaving customers confused about what style they will get, so they back off from it altogether. He's kept working at it, however, and urged largely by wine merchants in the United Kingdom, where the wine has been well received, has taken it into a lighter, fresher and more fruit-driven direction. It isn't Beaujolais Nouveau - it's darker, deeper, broader and longer - but it has the same spunk and snap. And it customarily sells hereabouts for $10.

At Milliaire Winery, he concentrates on producing small lots of wine exclusively from vineyards in the Sierra foothills. His style runs to wines hefty and rich yet agile on their feet; he takes patient care to seize the character that each of the many vineyards he works with provides. The zinfandel off Clockspring Vineyard in Amador County, for one, is celebrated for its black-pepper spice, but whereas other winemakers may squeeze the equivalent of two twists of the grinder from the grapes Millier goes for three or four. The biggest surprise in his current Milliaire lineup, however, is the 2009 Mokelumne River Pinot Noir. A pinot noir of this much assertiveness, body, spice, complexity and equilibrium is virtually unheard of in either the foothills or Lodi. The banks of the Mokelumne River, a sub-appellation within the Lodi American Viticultural Area, have a rich loaminess in which pinot noir apparently thrives, though few have discovered it so far. The red wines at Milliaire customarily sell for between $22 and $28 the bottle.

Over at Black Sheep, Millier continues the winery's original focus on forthright zinfandel, but he's also mixing up the selection with such newcomers as the rarely exploited cinsault and the increasingly high-profile grenache. His 2009 cinsault, from a vineyard outside Modesto, is light but spirited, with an alluring spiciness to its suggestions of cranberries and raspberries. The 2009 grenache, from a Calaveras County vineyard, is surprisingly aromatic, and while it is dry it delivers enough sweet fruit to suggest otherwise. Black Sheep reds generally sell for $14 to $24.

While visiting with Millier, and during subsequent visits to other wineries in and about Murphys, I learned that very few Calaveras County wines get beyond the immediate area. Most of the area's wineries are family businesses turning out just a few thousand cases a year. They've learned that the concentration of wine sales in the hands of a few major distributors in recent years has left them with little voice in the marketplace outside of their own neighborhood. The large distributors best represent major brands with thousands of cases they can place, not small operators with a couple of hundred cases of this and maybe 50 of that, explains Millier. As a consequence, most of the wineries at Murphys sell just about everything they produce through their tasting rooms and wine clubs. Millier is tickled that his Black Sheep cinsault is poured at the highly regarded restaurant Girl and the Fig in Sonoma, but he also appreciates that 75 percent of his Black Sheep wines are sold directly at his cozy tasting room.

That shouldn't be an issue for adventurous wine enthusiasts. The drive up to Murphys just can't be beat.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let's Hear It For Older Wines

Over at the online wine magazine Palate Press, fellow blogger W. Blake Gray ponders 10 things he learned during a brief stint of working directly within the wine trade. At the very top of his list is this: "Old wines are more unattractive to wine shops than old people." (It needs to be noted here that Blake's experience in the wine industry didn't involve working in a wine shop. If it did, he might better appreciate that wine-shop proprietors generally appreciate old people, or they should. Old people often have traveled widely, broadening their palates to such an extent that they welcome the diversity that a well-stocked store offers, including a range of well-aged wines. Of course, that experience also likely has immunized them to the hollow if hyperventilating hyperbole in which many wine merchants indulge, which could explain their alleged antipathy to the elderly. And then there's all that disposable income that several old people have accumulated.)

At any rate, Blake goes on to explain that consumers are skeptical about old wines because old wines make the store look out of touch. "It doesn't matter if a 2005 red is still approaching its peak; most stores don't want to buy it and can't wait to get rid of it."

Coincidental with his posting, I'd stopped by the Sacramento grocery store Corti Brothers. While browsing about the wine department, I spotted a stack of the Harbor Winery 2002 Napa Valley Narsai David Vineyard Merlot, whose price sticker said $13.79. How could I pass that up? After all, four savvy longtime participants in the wine trade - winemaker Charles Meyers of Harbor Winery in West Sacramento; all-around San Francisco Bay Area food-and-wine personality Narsai David; Berkeley graphic artist David Lance Goines, who designed the label; and grocer Darrell Corti - all had a hand in getting the wine from Napa Valley to Sacramento.

I took it home, opened it and poured it with a dinner of short-rib stew on creamy polenta with a side of roasted green beans, onions and walnuts, and a salad of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil. Let me tell you, this happenstance pairing was pretty darn great. The wine's color was more bright than faded, the aroma was all sweet plums and a hint of the kind of airy attic that prompts more adventurous exploration than intimidation, and the flavor ran to cherries and berries with a dash of spice. The texture was supple, the tannins far in retreat, yet it had the backbone and fruit to stand up to the richeness of the short ribs, spicy with paprika. The wine isn't approaching its peak; it's there. I just may have to get back to Corti Brothers before long to grab some more.

Yes, wine-shop owners may hesitate to stock older wines out of fear that they make the store look dated. More likely, merchants don't want to deal with consumers who return to complain that this or that aged wine didn't taste like the young wines they customarily drink. That's true, they won't. Age adds folds, lines and shading that wine doesn't possess in its youth. Thus, many proprietors won't have much to do with them. Fortunately, some still recognize that aged wines, while different, can offer and deliver compelling and rewarding stories.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Yep, It Can Get Hot In Paso Robles

As I review my tasting notes after sampling wines in Paso Robles the past two days I'm struck by the high proportion with surprisingly elevated alcohol levels. Here's a cabernet sauvignon with 15.6 percent alcohol, a mourvedre with 15.3 percent alcohol, a syrah with 15.3 percent alcohol, a primitivo with 15.2 percent alcohol, a zinfandel with 15 percent alcohol. These are not aberrations. Wines with 14.5 percent or more alcohol account for most of the wines we've tasted so far. And they aren't all red wines. A roussanne clocked in at 15.8 percent alcohol, a rose also at 15.8 percent alcohol.


What's going on here? Again, I've listened to winemakers say that to get wines to speak loudly and impressively they've got to get their grapes really ripe. California wines are California wines only if they fairly shout with fruit, and to get them to stand up and proclaim their fruitiness means harvesting the grapes when they are so mature that they are just a day or two from ending up in a Sun Maid box of raisins. If Paso Robles growers and winemakers didn't let their grapes get so saturated with sugar, one vintner said today, they'd end up with wines that were, well, relatively French like. Let that sink in awhile.


Understand, I don't much care about a wine's stated alcohol level, just as I don't much care about whether a wine was blessed with 97 points or 89 points from some highly regarded critic. They're just numbers, open to all sorts of manipulation and interpretation. I rather base my estimation of a wine on how it tastes to me, and hope to convey those impressions to other wine enthusiasts in a lingo that is accessible and helpful. I've tasted, enjoyed and endorsed wines with relatively high alcohol levels. If they've been balanced, lively, fresh and long, among other qualities, that's been fine by me, regardless of whether they have 13 percent alcohol or 16 percent.


The frequent knock on high-alcohol table wines is that they taste hot, as if they have been fortified with a jolt of brandy, and that they are clumsy, heavy and sweet. Some of those high-octane wines I've tasted in Paso Robles could indeed be faulted on those grounds. Mostly, however, the high-alcohol wines simply haven't been as well enunciated as they could be. It's as if the alcohol is some sort of rigid barrier, preventing rather than amplifying the expression of fruit and place that winemakers are striving to grasp.


Yesterday's tour ended last night with a dinner at the home of Gary and Marcy Eberle. Gary Eberle has been making wine in Paso Robles for nearly four decades. His fellow vintners universally credit him with introducing and setting the standard for Rhone Valley varieties in the Paso Robles area. In his eagerness to make his guests feel welcome he did something that was actually pretty wicked. He pulled from his cellar two of his early cabernet sauvignons. One was from 1981, the other from 1982. Both were brightly colored, both were sleek in build and both were surprisingly complex and compelling, though both showed their age, politely called bottle bouquet. Some guests favored the 1981; I preferred the 1982 both for its somewhat intensified complexity and for its more forthright expression of olives, a trait that lingered in both vintages. The 1981 had just 13.1 percent alcohol, the 1982 only 12.6 percent alcohol. Yet, both were elegant, representative of the variety, and clearly capable of bringing satisfaction to the table; in the case of the 1982, for several more years. If they are French-like, well, I can live with that, and quite happily.


The lesson: High alcohol isn't needed for a wine to express itself, live long and provide pleasure. In talking of how vintners have come to convince themselves that high alcohol is needed in table wines to have something remarkable to say of California, Eberle was his usual disarmingly candid self. Winemakers let themselves be seduced by the lure of high scores handed out by critics who favor wines of weight, concentration and jammy fruit, regardless of their alcohol content, and that's the prize they have been chasing, said Eberle, including himself in the throng of vintners pursuing high points. Now, he's dialing back on ripeness in his grapes, and is working toward reducing the alcohol levels in his wines to around 13 percent and 14 percent. "These wines have 30 years in them and they're still not over the hill," he said of the 1981 and 1982 cabernet sauvignons. In short, he's listening to the lessons he sensed three decades ago, not to critics whose high points spring from a style of wine that may be impressive today but may not successfully carry many wonderful memories a decade or two from now.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Paso Robles, Where Blends Rule, Or Do They?

Ordinarily when I visit the vineyards and wineries of San Luis Obispo County I drive. This time, however, I flew. As it turns out, flying is slower for getting from Sacramento to San Luis Obispo than driving, nearly seven hours for the former, four to five for the latter. The difference was due in large part to a two-hour layover at LAX. On the upside, however, the views of the California coastline from 12,000 feet between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo are enthralling and enlightening.

I'm now in Psso Robles. I have, frankly, an agenda. I'm increasingly convinced that the next great thing in California winemaking will be the rise in popularity and esteem of blended wines marketed with proprietary names. Paso Robles, I believe, is the epicenter of that development. That's my storyline, and nothing I experienced in my first few hours here has persuaded me otherwise.

The evening began with a reception at the posh Hotel Cheval in downtown Paso Robles. I gravitated, understandably, to the blended wines being poured by the glass at the hotel's horseshoe-shaped bar. I was not at all let down in my choices, a wonderfully aromatic and abidingly floral blend of gew├╝rztraminer, malvasia bianca and marsanne marketed under the proprietary name "Genesis," and an exceptionally complex and rich yet lively and approachable mix of syrah, viognier and grenache called "Elephant in the Room." (It's important to note here that the marketing of domestic wines in the United States depends largely on varietal designations - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and the like. In hopes of capturing the fleeting attention of wine enthusiasts, vintners keen on blended as opposed to varietal wines are relying on imaginative, often mysterious and hopefully compelling names like "Genesis" and "Elephant in the Room.")

Dinner followed at the restaurant Artisan, where three of the five wines were blends with proprietary names. Two were by Tablas Creek Winery, whose founder, Robert Haas, was on hand to talk of the wines. In short, Tablas Creek is one of a handful of wineries instrumental in putting Paso Robles on the map of modern fine-wine regions, and the Haas family has done it with unappolegetically blended wines. Tablas Creek models most of its wines on the historic blends of France's Rhone Valley. After two decades of focused effort it is producing such remarkable emulations as its 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, at once plump with melons yet also angular with minerality, a blend of grenache blanc, viongier, roussanne and marsanne, and its 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel, a mix both earthy and elegant of mourvedre, syrah, grenache and counoise. The 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc carries a suggested retail price of $20; the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel long has been sold out, with Haas bringing it to dinner to demonstrate how well it has aged.

When asked how he convinces consumers to pop for proprietary blends for which their frame of reference is shaky, Haas succinctly said, "One by one." In other words, wine enthusiasts interested in exploring proprietary blends best had find themselves a trusted wine merchant or sommelier, then let him or her sell them on the merits of this or that blend. That's the way it's been with proprietary blends, and that's the way it will remain until Americans come to recognize that the whole can indeed can be greater than the sum of its parts.

Myself and several other wine bloggers and writers are in Paso Robles as guests of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, which is keen on getting out the word about the area's fast-growing wine trade, now up to about 220 wineries. We'll visit several of them today. I suspect we'll find a few other proprietary blends that have something profound to say of Paso Robles.

Like Wine, Inductees Age Well

Each fall, officials of the Vintners Hall of Fame on the Napa Valley campus of the Culinary Institute of America announce a newly elected class of inductees. Just as predictably, the selection is criticized in some quarters for failing to reach far enough back in California's wine history to pick candidates whose monumental contributions have faded from memory with the passage of time. Too many of the elected candidates, so goes the grousing, are relative youngsters whose contributions, however notable, often have been built from the solid foundation laid by the overlooked oldtimers.

This year's class of seven inductees should quiet at least some of that criticism. The youngest is 70. Two are in their 90s. Four are deceased. They are:

- Joe Heitz, a winemaker best known for the Martha's Vineyard cabernet sauvignons he made under his eponymous Napa Valley label. Less well known is that between 1958 and 1961, just before establishing his winery, he drew up the enology curriculum for Fresno State College, a program that to this day is distinguished by its practical hands-on teaching.

- Peter Mondavi Sr., owner/winemaker of Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley. Few California vintners have been as progressive and daring as Mondavi. In 1937, while still a university student, he researched cold fermentation, and his subsequent use of the technique and of sterile filtration improved, virtually overnight, the cleanliness and crispness of California white wines. His legacy includes several firsts, including the first chenin blanc to be released as a varietal in California.

- Myron Nightingale, whose long and illustrious winemaking career culminated at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley, where he gained celebrity not only for propelling the old estate into a new era of respectability but for mastering in a laboratory setting the noble mold botrytis cinerea, responsible for yielding marvelous late-harvest dessert wines.

- John Parducci, a Mendocino County winemaker since 1940, whose many contributions to the trade include the first french colombard released as a varietal and some of the earliest vintage-dated California wines to appear on the market. Mostly, he's known for his relentlessly experimental and adventuresome ways and for his commitment to turning out solid wines at accessible prices.

- Richard Sanford, who when he got out of the Navy in the late 1960s began a quest to find the ideal location in which to pursue his passion for pinot noir. He settled in the chilly Santa Rita Hills of western Santa Barbara County, and there, first at his Sanford Winery, then at Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards, proved that the area could produce many of California's more expressive Burgundian-style pinot noirs.

- Albert J. Winkler, chairman of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis from 1933 to 1957. Before, during and after that stretch, he as responsible for so much pivotal research concerning grapevine physiology that his principles concerning trellis systems, pruning techniques and vineyard placement still resonate across the state's vineyards.

- Eugene Hilgard, who arrived at the University of California at Berkeley in 1874 to head the College of Agriculture, and over the subsequent quarter century lobbied convincingly for the teaching and research that has transformed an ailing wine industry into the success it is today.

If a theme other than age runs through this year's class it's that these inductees reaffirm the value of striving for ever more understanding of grape growing and winemaking, in particular on college campuses. There and beyond - in field and cellar - they took risks, built upon their successes, and shared their discoveries selflessly with others in the trade, both here and abroad. The California wine trade is immeasurably strong and vibrant for their contributions.

The class of 2012 was chosen by 87 voting participants of the hall's electoral college, made up of earlier inductees and members of the wine media. (That is, six of the seven were selected by the electoral college; Eugene Hilgard was voted in unanimously by the hall's nominating committee early in its deliberations.) The newly elected will be inducted Feb. 20 during a reception and dinner at the CIA's Napa Valley campus, on the northern reaches of St. Helena. The event is pricey - $175 per person - but proceeds in part underwrite scholarship funds for students in the CIA's professional-wine-studies program.

For the record, I'm one of 11 members of this year's Vintners Hall of Fame nominating committee. For more information about the Vintners Hall of Fame, go here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Fiddling With Zinfandel, Among Others

Caves at Helwig Winery, site of the competition
Fiddletown is one of the country's smaller and more isolated American Viticultural Areas, but the wines it yields don't lack for diversity, as long as they are red. This was evident again the other evening at the annual Fiddletown Wine Competition. Just 18 wines bearing the Fiddletown appellation were entered, and while they all were red they represented a wide range of varietals - montepulciano, petite sirah, barbera and grenache, among others.

The biggest class with five entries was zinfandel/primitivo, not surprising, given that Fiddletown long has been recognized for producing pretty and lithe zinfandels vibrant with fresh raspberry fruit, snappy acidity and peppery spice. It also was the competition's strongest class, yielding two of the four gold medals to be awarded, including the judging's only double-gold medal. (Double golds are awarded when all the judges of a panel concur that a wine warrants gold.)

That wine was the Sobon Estate 2009 Fiddletown Zinfandel ($22), which came off a bit richer and riper than standard interpretations of the varietal from the appellation. Nevertheless, it was bright with fresh raspberry fruit, firm but not unforgiving tannins, and notes of spice ranging from pepper to cinnamon. The wine weighs in with 15.2 percent alcohol, but doesn't taste hot. The fruit is from the historic head-trained vines of Lubenko Vineyard, dating from around 1910.

The other gold in the class went to the Fiddletown Cellars 2009 Old Vine Fiddletown Zinfandel ($19), a take not only zesty but seamless and graceful, the precise definition of the varietal when it originates in Fiddletown.

The other gold medals went to the dark and earthy Scott Harvey Wines 2008 Amador Mountain Selection Syrah ($20) and the rich and juicy Calabria Vineyards 2009 Fiddletown Petite Sirah ($18), well laced with the varietal's telltale black-pepper spice.

I especially liked a few other wines in the competition, all of which got silver rather than gold: The lively, long and remarkably spicy Legendre 2009 Deadman Fork Vineyard Syrah ($19, but sold out); the edgy yet refreshing Thomas Fogarty 2007 Fiddletown Barbera ($30); and the aromatic, forward and sweetly fruity Martella 2009 Fiddletown Oleta Vineyard Grenache ($26).

The competition, managed by Brian Miller and Deirdre Mueller, who also originated and coordinated this summer's Barbera Festival, was at Shenandoah Valley's new Helwig Winery, which didn't enter any wines.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Laura Spinetta, Shenandoah Valley Pioneer

The personality of a tasting room can say as much of the aspirations and values of a winery as its wines. Whenever you walk into the tasting room of the Charles Spinetta Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley you sense right away that this is a hands-on family business with each member pursuing their chores with as much joy as pride. Charlie, the patriarch, could be behind the counter, cracking wise while pouring tastes for touring wine enthusiasts. His wife, Laura, could be just across the aisle, in her work station, painstakingly framing paintings for the wildlife art gallery upstairs. Their three sons would be here and there, tending fermentation tanks in one wing, moving around pallets of cased wines in another.

That dynamic and the warmth it radiated will be different now with the death Wednesday of the family's exuberant matriarch, Laura Spinetta. She'd put up a valient struggle with a stubbon illness, seeming never to relinquish one bit of the positive spirit with which she embraced life. We last saw her two months ago, at the annual barbecue of the Amador County Grape Growers Association. She was as upbeat as ever, urging us to try her brownies on the dessert table. And for the last time, as it turns out, we again shared a hearty laugh provoked by our memories of an amusing incident when we were part of a group touring Italy several years ago. Her quips and her laughs were spotaneous, genuine and catching, giving lift to any moment.

Last fall, when I stopped by the family winery to check on the progress of the harvest, she gave me a jar of jelly she'd just made. It was a blend of primitivo and zinfandel from the vines about the family home. Each autumn, just before her husband and sons calculated that the grapes were ready to pick for wine, she'd grab bunches of the fruit, figuring correctly that they were just at the right maturity for a jelly bright and sweet. She was a marvelous cook, as well as craftsman, farmer and artist.

She and Charlie were married in 1965, making their first home at McCloud in Siskiyou County. He was in the timber trade. He still was when they relocated to his home county of Amador in 1972. Three years later they settled in Shenandoah Valley as one of the area's first pioneers to see potential in a revival of the region's historic though slumbering grape and wine industry.

They had fun building their twin business of grape growing and winemaking, rearing their sons, and being engaged in the community - church, school, county fair. She was a real farmer, capable of completing any and all chores with spunk and glee, including gardening, sewing, baking, volunteering as a music teacher at the local school. Her family will miss her most, but the entire Shenandoah Valley and Plymouth community is experiencing a profound loss. May her questing and sharing spirit live on in the couple's three children and three grandchildren.

A funeral mass will be at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Sutter Creek at 11 a.m. Tuesday, with a reception to follow in the church hall.

Friday, October 7, 2011

First, Read, Then Shop

A couple of hours after I posted the item just below, a nice driver from DHL stopped by the house to drop off a copy of the newly published "1000 Great Everyday Wines From the World's Best Wineries" (Dorling Kindersley, 352 pages, $25).

The theme of the book fits right in with yesterday's post, in that it is a comprehensive guide to high-value wines. I wasn't expecting a copy, but was pleased to get it, in that I was one of 19 contributors rounded up by editor Jim Gordon to write of wines we think provide "sophistication, authenticity, and regional character" without costing more than "the price of an entree at a good restaurant."

"They were not to select specific outstanding vintages that may be sold out or fluctuate in price, but to endorse brands, varietals, and types that are consistently high quality and affordable," writes Gordon in the book's foreword. We weren't instructed to limit our choices to wines released at or below a specific price, but in scanning the book I think it's generally safe to say that few cost more than $20 per bottle. My contributions, for example, include Boeger Winery's Hangtown Red (usually around $11), Bogle Vineyards pinot noir ($13), C.G. Di Arie's verdelho ($18) and Sobon Estate's Old Vines zinfandel ($12).

In flipping through the book, I find the sections on Bordeaux and Burgundy especially exciting, and I'm tempted to head out to wine shops in search of several of the suggestions just as soon as I get this posted. It's also gratifying to see some old favorities from Italy (Fattoria di Felsina's Chianti Classico Berardenga, Castello di Volpaia's Chianti Classico), Austria (Laurenz V's gruner veltliners), Argentina (Familia Zuccardi's Santa Julia Malbec Reserva), Chile (Leyda's Pinot Noir Las Brias Vineyard), Australia (Jim Barry's The Lodge Hill Shiraz) and New Zealand (Mt. Difficulty's Roaring Meg Pinot Noir) in the roundup.

Beyond a brief description of each of the 1,000 wines, the book includes helpful sections on such topics as how to read old-world and new-world labels, pairing specific styles of wine with food, the proper serving of Champagne, biodynamic grape growing, and alcohol levels.

Anyone hoping for a happy return on their investment in wine just might want to start shopping by popping for a copy of "1000 Great Everyday Wines." Though the suggested retail price is $25, Amazon.com is selling it for $16.50 and Walmart.com is selling it for $15.28. I was paid up front for my involvement, incidentally, and don't stand to profit by sales of the book.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wine Playoffs Are Here, Cheap Division

First, the New York Times this past weekend published an infographic in which 20 wine merchants, sommeliers and restaurateurs revealed their best buys in wine to serve at a cocktail party, pour with barbecue, pair with paella and the like. The wines were to cost $13 or less, presumably in shops and not restaurants.

Of the 20 recommended wines, not a single one was from California. France led the pack with eight choices, followed by Austria and Spain with three each. Two were from Italy, and one each was from Germany, New York, Oregon and Greece.

These results prompted wine-writer Tyler Colman to explain in his blog Dr. Vino that California wines didn't show up in the chart because "precious little" inexpensive wine is estate made in the state, and that the wine authorities surveyed for the Times "don't exactly champion tanker wine," by which he means wines "often assembled from far-flung vineyards in steel tanks so large they could double as nuclear silos."

Fair enough. Much of California's cheaper wines are from Central Valley vineyards, and processed into wines that have little to say of varietal or place; they can be cheap, but only occasionally are they exhilarating. Reader comments following Colman's remarks generally support the endorsements of the Times panel while repeating the familiar complaint that California wines tend to be overpriced and that those that are cheap are dull. An exception noted by two readers, incidentally, is the petite sirah made by Bogle Vineyards of Clarksburg, which customarily sells for $9 to $11.

Coincidental with this discussion, the Wine Enthusiast just released its 100 "best buys" for 2011, culled from the staff's tasting of more than 16,000 wines this past year. Unlike the list in the Times, the Wine Enthusiast roundup includes several wines from South America, Australia...and California. Indeed, 18 of the 100 are from California. To qualify for consideration, all the wines on the list are to carry a suggested retail price of $15 or less.

Top California Buy
Several of the California releases on the Wine Enthusiast list are no doubt "tanker wines," made with grapes not necessarily grown on a winery's estate. Nevertheless, quite a few bear specific and prestigious appellations, including Livermore Valley (Concannon 2009 Conservancy Chardonnay, $15), Dry Creek Valley (Pedroncelli 2008 Bench Vineyards Merlot, $14) and Yountville (Cameron Hughes 2007 Lot 157 Cabernet Sauvignon, $15).

Three are from the Sacramento area - No. 67, the Renwood 2008 Red Label Sierra Foothills Syrah, $12; No. 5, the Delicato 2009 Domino California Pinot Grigio, $7; and No. 3, the Bogle Vineyards 2010 California Sauvignon Blanc, $9, the highest ranked California wine in the compilation (Bogle's petite sirah, however, didn't make the cut). The No. 1 wine is the Pacific Rim Columbia Valley Riesling, $10, not to be confused with versions labeled "dry" or "sweet," but just "riesling."

At any rate, I don't seem to have much problem finding bargain wines of aesthetic merit for the column I contribute weekly to The Sacramento Bee. Today's column, for example, is on Jed Steele's Shooting Star 2010 Lake County Sauvignon Blanc, an unusually vivacious and complex interpretation of the varietal, and its suggested retail price is just $12. It may not be an estate wine, but it has as much if not more authority than many sauvignon blancs that are.

Other similarly inexpensive but singularly expressive wines I've written about this year include the richly fruity and finely layered Boeger Winery Lot No. 39 El Dorado Hangtown Red ($11), the lean and lively Loredona Veineyards 2009 Lodi Viognier ($11), the frisky and supple Kirkland 2008 Amador County Old Vine Grandmere Zinfandel ($12), the sunny and snappy Shenandoah Vineyards 2010 Amador County Chenin Blanc/Viognier ($14), the bright and layered Colby Red 2009 California Red Blend ($10/$12), and, yes, the lithsome and buoyant Bogle Vineyards 2008 California Petite Sirah ($9/$11). Cheap California wines with something sharp to say of vineyard, varietal and aspiration can be found; often, they're right under our noses.