Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Light Crop

- Whether by oversight or in recognition that its initial report wasn't up to its usual standards of detail and balance, "60 Minutes" this week skipped a staple of American journalism, the anniversary story. Twenty years ago, the CBS-TV news magazine aired a four-minute report in which correspondent Morley Safer speculated about why the French have relatively few heart problems despite their high-fat diet. His conclusion, based on mighty thin evidence, had to do with the nature of the cheese that the French eat, or maybe it was because of all the red wine they drink. That last part is all that Americans needed to hear. They began to buy wine by the pallet, and haven't let up. In the meantime, scientists have come to recognize that the "French paradox" - that is, a rich diet coupled with comparatively little heart disease - may be more complex than "60 Minutes" suggested. Other aspects of the French lifestyle not addressed by the "60 Minutes" report could contribute to their well-being. Their fondness for fresh produce, for one. Their tendency to walk or bike wherever they can. Their eating patterns, which include helping themselves to generally small portions, then eschewing seconds. And so it goes. Nonetheless, thanks to that brief televised segment, Americans jumped at the opportunity to take their medicine in a most pleasant way, and they still are.

- This was a tough vintage for California grape growers and vintners, starting with spring freezes and prolonged rains, continuing through an atypically cool summer, and ending with unusually early fall storms. It was a "winemaker's vintage," vintners are saying. In other words, if anything good is to come of it the credit will be due in large part to the skill of the winemaker in overcoming the bins of sorry grapes he or she received at the cellar door. If that's the case, the winemaking monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux at Vina in Tehama County have a talented winemaker in Aimee Sunseri, or maybe they have a higher power on their side, or perhaps both. At any rate, they've released what to my knowledge is the first California wine of the current harvest, just wrapping up in some vineyards. The monks have nothing to apologize for; the wine is clean and quietly distinct. It's the New Clairvaux Vineyard 2011 Tehama County St. James Block Nouveau Tempranillo. It isn't a blockbuster, but nouveau-style wines aren't meant to be. Rather, they're expected to be light, fresh and immediately quaffable. While simple in its fruitiness, the New Clairvaux is a touch more complex and compelling than the standard nouveau wine, principally because of it its suggestion of juicy cranberries in both color and flavor, its satiny feel and its dash of spice. It may not have the spine to stand up to the richer dishes of the Thanksgiving table, but as a bright greeting for arriving guests it will help set the mood for a festive celebration of this year's harvest. It sells for $14 at Corti Brothers in Sacramento.

- And speaking of Corti Brothers, I was standing in the store's wine department the other day, scanning the latest issue of Darrell Corti's periodic newsletter, when I came across a list of recommended barberas assembled from his judging at the California State Fair  and his attendance at the first Barbera Festival in Amador County, both this summer. Of the seven barberas, the one at the very top of the list is the 2009 from Beemer Winery in El Dorado County. Corti praises the wine for its "pretty red color," its "varietal character of notable intensity," and its "excellent acidity and fine body." He also notes without comment that the wine packs 15.5 percent alcohol. I had to ask him about that, and, fortunately, he was standing nearby. In the spring of 2007, recall, Corti kicked off a brouhaha within the international wine community when he announced that his store no longer would stock table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol. The level of alcohol in California table wines has been creeping up in recent years; varietals that routinely weighed in with 13.5 percent alcohol two decades ago now just as routinely carry 14.5 percent alcohol, sometimes as high as 17 percent, far beyond the historic standard for table wines from most of the world's wine regions. The rise is attributed to several factors, from the impact of climate change to the influence of wine critics whose palates prefer wines exceptionally ripe and big, one consquence of which is higher alcohol. Corti snapped when he tasted one high-alcohol wine too many. While such wines can be balanced and captivating, they also often can be cumbersome and harsh. That's what irked Corti, so he put on hold any interest in tasting them. Now, he's clearly relaxed that vigilance. Whether at the State Fair, where wines are evaluated without judges knowing their identity, or at the Barbera Festival, where wines were tasted without their identities being concealed, Corti found several to his liking, including, clearly, the high-octane Beemer. When I pointed at the wine's 15.5 percent alcohol, all he had to say was, "If I make the rules, I can break the rules."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Happy And Helpful, That Was Ralph Kunkee

Dr. Ralph E. Kunkee
I can't claim to have known well Dr. Ralph E. Kunkee, but I admired the intellect, patience and candor he showed whenever I asked him a question of winemaking. More than a source, however, he was a fun guy to be around, however brief and casual the encounter. The good doctor died early Saturday of cancer while under hospice care in Davis, where he'd been a longtime member of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis. He retired 20 years ago, but remained active in the wine culture as a consultant, lecturer and judge on the competition circuit.

His academic specialties involved the microbiological spoilage of wine, malolactic fermentation and yeasts. Beyond the classroom, he embraced life with the same curiosity, zest and joy with which he studied winemaking and with which he inspired his students. He told funny stories, he quipped bluntly, he enjoyed a party as if he were student rather than professor. For years, he ran the Bay to Breakers. He toured wine regions about the world, wrote about 150 scientific articles and co-authored two enological textbooks. His research was pivotal as California transitioned from sweet, rough, high-alcohol dessert wines to dry, clean and smooth table wines over the past half century. In 1998, scientists from Washington State University and the Institute of Food Research in the United Kingdom found a new microrganism implicated in problematic fermentations; they named it Lactobacillus Kunkeei in tribute to Ralph Kunkee's many contributions to understanding the microbiology of wines.

For a more intimate measure of the man, check out this posting by Sandra Oldfield, winemaker at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards in British Columbia, one of perhaps more than a thousand practicing commercial vintners influenced by Ralph Kunkee's instruction, research and counsel. In his final days, others added their thoughts to a CarePage set up for him. Read those tributes and give thanks for the selflessness, industry and spunk of this remarkable guy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Italy, Spain Rope Winners In Houston

Wake-up call? Reality check? Whatever. The prolonged sweepstakes round at Rodeo Uncorked yesterday ended with a sweep of the top honors by European wines, breaking the hold California has had on the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo commercial wine competition since its inception eight years ago.

The Grand Champion is the Marchese Antinori 2007 Bolgheri Superiore Guada al Tasso, a "SuperTuscan" blend from the Antinori family's estate on the Tuscan coast southwest of Florence. Though it's an Italian wine, the grapes that went into it historically have been most closely identified with France. It consists of 57 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet franc and 3 percent petit verdot. It had been grouped in the class called "Old World Bordeaux Blends," and was one of 58 wines to be nominated for the competition's highest honors. It got my vote as for both best red wine and Grand Champion on the strength of its graceful opulence, complexity, freshness and length. Though from Italy - something we didn't know - it defined Bordeaux for the lushness of its cherry fruit and its suggestion of underlying olives and herbs. It also carries a Bordeaux price tag, customarily selling for between $70 and $125. The Antinoris did well in Houston. The Antinori Cervaro della Sala 2009 Castello della Sala from Umbria was declared the best white wine in the judging. It's a chardonnay very much in the California style - deeply colored, thick in body, buttery in texture and tasting of ripe cirtric fruit with notes of lemon verbena.

The Reserve Grand Champion - basically, the runnerup - is a Spanish wine, the Cellers Costers del Ros 2004 Priorat L'Obila, another blend with French breeding. The wine is made largely with grenache, but it also includes cabernet sauvignon and carignan. It's inky and firm, but with a fruitiness that shared with the Guado al Tasso lushness and approachability.

Until this year, California wines pretty much dominated the Houston competition, winning the Grand Championship since the judging's inception in 2003. The winner usually was a cabernet sauvignon or a blend based on cabernet sauvignon. That preference among judges continued this year, except that the winning cabernet is from Italy rather than California.

Competition in Houston was stiffer this year. A record 2,444 wines were evaluated, a 40 percent increase over last year's total. Organizers attributed the rise to their efforts to personally contact and cajole distributors into entering more wines. (To qualify for the judging, wines must be available in Texas.)

Next spring, during the month-long run of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, a wine auction will be held, during which a 9-liter bottle of the Grand Champion wine will be up for bid. Last fall's Grand Champion wine, the Alexander Valley Vineyards 2006 Cyrus from Sonoma County fetched $210,000 at the auction. Overall, wine events of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo raised $1.3 million, which underwrite schoolarships for college students studying agricultural subjects.

Califonia wines weren't entirely shut out from high honors. The award for best red wine went to the aptly named Niner Wine Estate 2008 Paso Robles Twisted Spur, a richly textured blend of grape varieties traditionally associated with France's Bordeaux and Rhone Valley regions. For the award, the winery gets chaps. The wineries that produced the Grand Champion and Reserve Grand Champion get saddles.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Qupe Isn't Just Santa Barbara Any More

For three decades, Qupe Winery has been synonymous with Santa Barbara County, in particular Bien Nacido Vineyard. You'd hear "Bien Nacido" and automatically you'd think "Qupe," or vice versa. They're so closely affiliated that in 1989, when Bob Lindquist, owner of Qupe, teamed up with his old pal and mentor Jim Clendenen, owner of Au Bon Climat, to build a joint winery they put it right in Bien Nacido Vineyard.

Thus, when tasting through Qupe's current releases at a gathering in Sacramento the other day, I was struck that my two favorite wines weren't from Bien Nacido Vineyard at all, but from some place called Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in the Edna Valley of San Luis Obispo County. Oh, most of the Qupe wines from Bien Nacido Vineyard were their old reliable selves, which is to say forthright in smell, fresh and true in flavor, and gracefully balanced from first sip through lingering finish. They included a sleek and persistent blend of half chardonnay and half viognier from 2010 called "Bien Nacido Cuvee;" a 2008 chardonnay under the banner "Block Eleven" that was powerfully built yet agile; and the 2006 "Hillside Estate" syrah, positively jammy with mouth-filling fruit.

Yet, the two wines I will be watching for in wine shop and on wine list are from the Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard in San Luis Obispto County. It's a hilly 40 acres that Lindquist and his wife Louisa began to plant only in 2005. This is no old-vine vineyard, but the composition of its soils, its exposure and its long and cool growing season, coupled with the couple's biodynamic farming, is yielding wines of astonishing depth, breadth and complexity.

The Qupe 2009 Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Syrah ($35) is a righteously meaty take on the varietal. It attacks nose and palate with intense fruit flavors punctuated with several dashes of dark peppery spice. It's a rarity among syrahs in that it is so forthright while also remaining so diplomatic. You can drink it now and be completely satisfied, but later you'll kick yourself for not hanging on to it for another few years just to see how magnificent its expression will develop. Better stock up on several bottles. It's totally syrah; its complexity comes from the sort of breeding and manipulation you don't find on wine labels - five clones, three blocks of grapes, harvesting spread across an entire month, fermentation in 14 separate lots, and months later a blending of only the most dramatic barrels.

The Qupe 2009 Edna Valley Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Grenache ($35) is the poster child for the potential of grenache in California, showing that almost entirely on its own the varietal has the stuff to persuade legions of winemakers to fall in line. It isn't grenache alone - 13 percent syrah from the same vineyard was added - but it seizes with authority and spunk the variety's strawberry, cherry and black-pepper attributes like few other renditions in the state. An herbal thread and a touch of astringency in the finish will take some getting used to, but once that appreciation of those characteristics is acquired it will be an addiction impossible to shake, as if anyone would want to.

Both wines are at the Davis Food Co-op, and 58 Degrees & Holding in Sacramento will be bringing in the grenache before long.

Lindquist certainly hasn't turned his back on Santa Barbara County, but by branching out into Edna Valley he's showing with steel and flair that there's more to San Luis Obispo County's wine landscape than Paso Robles.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Familiar Theme, New Wrinkle

Advice on buying bargain wines has been a staple of the wine-writing craft for years, originating long before today's persistent economic woes, which has pumped new life into the genre. Today, let's look at the latest entry in the field, George Taber's "A Toast to Bargain Wines: How innovators, iconoclasts, and winemaking revolutionaries are changing the way the world drinks" (Scribner, 311 pages, softcover, $15).

Taber is an old-school journalist who relishes the reporting as well as the writing of a story. In his wine writing, he seems to love the legwork of reporting - reading, interviewing, traveling, double- and triple-checking anecdotes and facts - at least as much as the palate-work. Just about all that needs to be said to point readers to bargain wines can be summed up in around 150 pages, which is more or less what Taber devotes to that angle of the story he has to tell. He dedicates just as much space, however, to the "innovators, iconoclasts, and...revolutionaries" of the book's subtitle, folks responsible for challenging old shibboleths about winemaking, wine marketing and wine appreciation. They not only are making value wine more accessible but they're helping make consumers more comfortable with their choices.

Those people include Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine who has conceived a "taste profile" that he's convinced will help consumers determine wines better suited for them than traditional reviews and ratings, and Taber includes in the book Hanni's taste-sensitivity test to help buyers better meet their expectations in buying wine. He profiles Robert Hodgson, the California researcher whose multi-year study of judges at the State Fair in Sacramento calls into question the significance of commercial wine judgings. He reviews the immense if often underappreciated impact of California's Franzia family on the accessibility of value wine to the multitudes. And speaking of multitudes, Taber also looks closely at the forces awakening and shaping the wine trade of China, already the world's sixth-largest producer and fifth-largest consumer of wines, and positioning itself to be a much bigger player, despite a frequently unreceptive climate for growing grapes.

Aside from his timely report on China's wine industry, much of the first half of the book is old news to seasoned wine enthusiasts, though Taber's authoritative voice and brisk pacing add fresh perspective to each chapter in the first half of the book.

As to bargain wines outlined in the second half, I have no argument, based on my experience with many of the same releases. A bargain wine to Taber, incidentally, costs $10 or less; he also lists, however, a few "splurge" wines, priced about $25. These are grocery-store and wine-shop prices, not restaurant prices. His specific recommendations are grouped by varietal or style, followed by chapters about what he considers the top value brands from 12 wine-producing regions, such as Santa Julia and Crios of Argentina, Yalumba and Hardys of Australia, and Cousino Macul and Veramonte of Chile. In his estimation, California's top-10 bargain brands are Barefoot Cellars, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Charles Shaw, Delicato, Fetzer, Gallo, Oak Leaf, Sutter Home, Three Thieves, and Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi. Wait, that's 11, right? Well, Taber does have a few nit-picky errors in the book.

Taber is ecumenical in his approach, finding many bargain wines to his taste from California as well as regions more often associated with value buys, such as Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Chile. Of local interest, he includes two varietals from Bogle Vineyards at Clarksburg, the chenin blanc and the sauvignon blanc, but, curiously, not the petite sirah, of which Bogle is the largest producer in the country. Just two other of the 10 chenin blancs he lists are from California, and both, like the Bogle, originate in the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta - the Dry Creek Vineyard and the Pine Ridge.

As timely as Taber has attempted to be, the book comes up short in addressing the impact that "social media" and "crowd sourcing" is having on the wine trade. To be fair, however, the rise of wine reporting and criticism in cyberspace still is in its infancy, perhaps too young for its influence, range and duration to be evaluated studiously. Nevertheless, Taber sounds smitten with wine bloggers, writing, "This group is able to avoid the conflicts of interest that haunt its predecessors, and many in this group advocate inexpensive wines." Get that? The implication is that oldtime wine writers for magazines and newspapers not only have been unduly influenced by the trade, they haven't given due respect to bargain wines, even though value wines have been the subject of scores of articles and columns over the past several decades. I see no evidence that the new wave of wine writers and critics is devoting any more attention to bargain wines than the old, nor are they any less susceptible to the enticements of vintners. Taber points to Gary Vaynerchuk as  "the most important member of the wine blogosphere" Vaynerchuk is the instigator and star of the online video series "Wine Library TV." Later, however, Taber also notes that "the focus of (Vaynerchuk's) attention is generally on the high-priced, premium wines that give him the best profit margins in his store." When it comes to conflict-of-interest, they don't come much more blatant than that.

With "A Toast to Bargain Wines," Taber has turned out a fast, smart and supportive overview of high-value everyday wines very much in the extensively researched and even-handed vein of his earlier wine books, which include "Judgment of Paris" and "To Cork or Not to Cork."