Category:California wine

My apéritif with Randall Grahm

randall grahmDallas, finally, seems to be taking to Randall Grahm. The Bonny Doonster sold out a winemaker dinner at the new and much-praised Rapscallion on Monday night, and Dallas winemaker dinners usually don’t sell out unless they feature men who make massive, gigantic Napa-style red wine that costs too much money. Plus, Grahm’s wines are starting to show up on store shelves here, something that hasn’t happened in years.

Grahm’s trip gave us a chance to hold another of our sort of annual visits, where we taste his wines and solve the problems of the post-modern U.S. wine business. This time, we talked before the dinner, which I didn’t stay for since I didn’t want to stop him from schmoozing with the paying guests (schmoozing being winemaker slang for mingling with the customers).

The highlights of our chat and a few notes about three of the wines served with the dinner:

• The California drought cut yields in 2015, but Grahm said that winter rain seems to have helped all but the worst hit areas. One side effect: Many grapes ripened early, so some 2015 wines won’t have as much structure or acidity, and could be more flabby. That’s something I’ve tasted so far, and it has been quite disappointing.

• He says he is “gaining clarity” about how to approach the Popelouchum Vineyard, where he hopes to create 10,000 new grape varieties (last year’s successful Indiegogo crowdfunding project). Grahm is especially excited about using furmint, a Hungarian white grape, and a native Texas rootstock, Vitis berlandieri, that does well in stony soils. Vines are growing on the property, though money remains a problem.

• On so many wineries — that don’t own land or winemaking facilities — being bought for so much money by Big Wine: “It’s like money in the political process,” he said. “Where does it all come from?” That Big Wine is buying producers for nothing more than their brand is difficult for long-time producers like Grahm to make sense of, given that wine is supposed to be about the land the grapes are grown on.

The wines, as always, were top notch. The new vintage of the Vin Gris de Cigare ($15, sample, 13.5%) was less Provencal and more Bordeaux than usual, with a chalky finish, a less crisp mouth feel, and darker, though still subtle, fruit.

The 2012 Le Pousseur Syrah ($26, sample, 13.4%) is what New World syrah should taste like — earthy, peppery, and spicy, with soft black fruit and the tannins to match, while the bacon fat aroma is textbook. The 2012 gets more interesting as it ages, particularly as the fruit softens. This syrah is my favorite Bonny Doon wine, and I’ve even paid for it. That it tastes so fresh and alive after all this time under screwcap should put all that cork and aging foolishness to rest.

The 2011 Le Cigare Volant ($45, sample, 14.2%) is a Rhone-style blend, mostly mouvedre and grenache, that takes this style of wine toward an elegance I didn’t think possible with Rhone blends. It’s also somehow a food wine (lamb?), a contradiction usually only seen in red Burgundy. Look for a long, long wine with sophisticated tannins, layers of flavor that are only just beginning to show, and cherry fruit in there somewhere. It, too, should keep aging — maybe even a decade.

Mini-reviews 83: Muscadet, Masseria Surani, Toad Hollow, Chateau Ste. Michelle

muscadetReviews of wines that don’t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.

Domaine de la Quilla Muscadet 2014 ($13, purchased, 12%): Muscadet is under-appreciated in this country, not only because the name is so different but because the style — clean, tart, and lemony without a trace of softness — isn’t popular. This is an excellent example of Muscadet (made with the equally unappreciated melon de bourgone grape in the Loire region of France), though it would be better a couple of bucks cheaper.

Masseria Surani Ares 2012 ($10, purchased, 13%): Not much Italian style in this red blend from the Puglia region in the bootheel; it’s mostly fruit forward (cherry) in the international style. But as Cellar Tracker user Merky_Waters wrote: “This is a nice break from all the California blends on the market. No earth, definitely fruit forward but not too clumsy and not sweet.” Why someone in Puglia would emulate California is a question for another day.

Toad Hollow Rose 2015 ($14, sample, 11.5%): Better than previous vintages and closer to what it was when this California rose was one of the great cheap wines of all time, but still missing something — and the price increase from last year doesn’t help. You can buy much better roses for $4 or $5 less. Looks for lots of strawberry fruit, but not much else.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Pinot Gris 2014 ($11, purchased, 13%): One more in what is getting to be a long line of bitter, not all that pleasant sub-$15 pinot gris from quality producers. I have no idea why this is, but there is no excuse for making wine that tastes this way. The Chateau Ste. Michelle from Washington state has some apple fruit, but that’s not enough to save this white wine.

Critics Challenge wine competition 2016

critics challengeThree judges canceled at the last minute for the Critics Challenge 2016 wine competition, so the Wine Curmudgeon had to help make up the difference.

Judging almost 200 wines over a day and a half? No problem. Four flights of chardonnay, more than 30 wines, on Saturday afternoon? Bring ’em on. Almost that many zinfandels and petite sirahs on Sunday morning? Got it covered.

In fact, it was almost like my old newspaper days, when we were short-handed on a football weekend and had to edit what seemed like a never-ending stream of stories on deadline, punctuated by the mashing of keyboards, the cursing of reporters, and the wailing of copy editors. Which makes a certain kind of sense, since Critics Challenge impresario Robert Whitley used to run the sports desk at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Once more unto the breach, dear friends. …

The difference, of course, is that judging wine — even a lot of wine — is infinitely more enjoyable than trying to rework a too-long, impossibly overwritten story about football into something readable (which, as much as I sometimes miss the newspaper business, I don’t miss at all). Leslie Sbrocco, the other judge at my table, and I had some terrific wine to taste. These are just some of the highlights:

Angels & Cowboys rose ($15, 12.8%), one of the best pink wines I’ve ever had in my life — pleasingly tart, amazingly refreshing, and more complex than most roses. At this price, this Sonoma rose is a steal, and Leslie and I gave it a platinum medal without a second thought.

The Villa Bellezza Tavola white ($16, $10%), a hybrid blend from a Wisconsin producer that was an amazing piece of winemaking given how difficult hybrid grapes are to work with. It was sweet but balanced, with a little candied lemon and a nicely long finish, and without the off-putting acidity and bitterness so many hybrids have. It got a gold medal.

•  ZD Wines Founders Reserve pinot noir ($75), a Napa pinot that had nothing in common with the usual high alcohol, over done pinots from that region. This was earthy and herbal, with lots of cherry fruit and was long and complex, well deserving of its platinum medal. It’s the kind of wine that I usually don’t get to taste, and am always glad when I do. I judge this wine regularly at this competition, and it always gets a platinum, which says something about its quality.

Chacewater merlot ($22, 13.9%), a red wine from the less known Lake County region in California. Given how little I think of so much California merlot, this was that much more enjoyable — delicious, balanced, varietally correct and with red plummy fruit. It got a gold.

The fine print: The competition pays a $500 honorarium and travel expenses.

More about the Critics Challenge:
Critics Challenge 2015
Critics Challenge 2014
Critics Challenge 2013

Dinner with an old Concannon petite sirah

Concannon petite sirahThese days, Concannon Vineyard is just another part of multi-billion dollar The Wine Group and its wine is mostly ordinary grocery store stuff. A couple of decades ago, though, Concannon made some of world’s best petite sirah, a red grape that is little known and perhaps even less respected. I was lucky enough to have a taste of those days when I had dinner with an old Concannon petite sirah.

My pal John Bratcher brought the wine, the 1997 reserve petite sirah; I made sausage parmigiana with my mom’s red sauce; and Lynne Kleinpeter added her keen palate and quick wit.

The Concannon petite sirah, which cost just $25 when it was released in 2001, did not disappoint. That this wine, made in the supposedly less prestigious Livermore Valley from what is supposed to be a lesser grape, aged for almost 20 years with such grace speaks to how silly we are when we assume that something not anointed by the Winestream Media isn’t worth drinking.

The wine’s color was just starting to brown and the cork didn’t come out cleanly. Other than that and a bit of sediment, this was a wine that had aged exquisitely — soft but still delicious dark plum fruit, a hint of spice and earth, supple tannins, and a balance and integration that you can only hope for when a wine ages this long. We took our time with it, making sure it lasted the entire dinner. This was not an experience to be rushed.

John told us that the Concannon family, whom he had worked with, made reserve from a vineyard so old that the grape juice was actually dark and powerful enough to use as ink. This partly explains why the wine aged so well, but it’s also a testament to the Concannons, who wanted to make a wine that would, literally, stand the test of time. Which it did.

Sadly, this Concannon petite sirah isn’t available unless you know someone who was smart enough to save a bottle. And, ordinarily, I don’t write about wine that you can’t buy. But this was such a moment in my wine drinking life that I wanted to share it. My only regret? That this post is the only way most of you will get to taste it.

Photo courtesy of Splash, using a Creative Commons license

Wine of the week: Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc 2014

Kenwood Sauvignon BlancBig Wine’s increasing domination of the marketplace brings with it the idea that brands don’t matter the way they used to. If a brand doesn’t perform the way its owner thinks it should, it gets dumped or sold or ignored, and Kenwood is a prime example. It started as an independent, was bought by the same $100 million company that owns Korbel sparkling wine, and then sold to the $9 billion Pernod Ricard conglomerate a couple of years ago.

Along the way, and especially after Korbel bought it, quality suffered. Production was almost doubled and what had been a decent grocery store brand became the kind of wine I write cranky things about. Fortunately, Pernod Richard saw something that Korbel didn’t, and this vintage of the Kenwood sauvignon blanc ($12, sample, 13.5%) shows progress toward returning the brand to cheap wine quality.

The Kenwood sauvignon blanc tastes like it should, which I didn’t expect. Look for California grassiness, some citrus and tropical fruit, and a finish that is almost unpleasant but that ends so quickly that it doesn’t get in the way. Hopefully, more improvement will follow, and Kenwood will once again become the kind of wine you can buy in a grocery store without a second thought. It should also be around $10 in most supermarkets, another bonus.

One sign, though, that Big Wine will always be Big Wine: The back label suggests pairing the Kenwood sauvignon blanc with “spring roasted vegetable salad and herb-roasted fish.” My question? If I’m buying $10 wine in the grocery store, will I roast vegetables or fish (and especially fish)? I realize those pairings are there to give a cheap wine an upmarket cache, but do they really think they’re fooling anyone?

What’s wrong with California expensive wine?

California expensive wineNothing, actually. But what happens when one of the world’s top wine writers picks only a handful of California labels as her best expensive wines in the world for 2015? If you’re a California expensive wine devotee, it’s time to panic, and many did on Twitter and elsewhere. If you have a little more perspective, Elin McCoy’s choices speak to how much great wine is made in the world, and how even those who buy pricey wine sometimes don’t understand the need to try something different.

McCoy’s list of the 50 best wines for $50 or less in 2015 had just seven wines from California. Excluding the six Champagnes on the list, that meant 7 of 44 — just 16 percent of the best expensive wine in the world — came from California. Is it any wonder so many howled so loudly? It’s one thing when I criticize California for making such ordinary, grocery-store cheap wine. But expensive wine? That’s the Napa and Sonoma reason for being, and if those regions don’t dominate lists like this, their supporters figure something must be wrong.

But as McCoy said when I asked her about it, “Those seven wines were more than from any other place but France, so I guess I don’t feel I neglected California too much.” And, she added, the list doesn’t have any wines from Chile, Argentina, and Washington state, which also make great wine.

Hence perspective, something too many American wine drinkers lack. Because it’s not enough to have 17 percent — it must be 50 or 60 percent or even more. Because, dammit, expensive California wine is the best wine in the world. Everyone knows that. And if you don’t, you don’t know anything about wine (and no, I’m not going to link to the blog posts that say that — no need to start the new year with a flame war).

Which is that lack of perspective. I’ve written many times that California makes the best wine in the world, cheap or expensive, but only when it wants to. The rest of the time, it’s content to make wine other people think it should make, be it a focus group or the Winestream Media. And if anyone complains, we get the speech in the previous paragraph.

Or, as one noted wine competition judge told me when we discussed this, “California wines have gotten boring, for the most part. Same ole, same ole, year in, year out. … I can appreciate the box they have built for themselves. Why mess with success? But no one wants to discuss it because we are all so close to those people and that industry, but the reason I love Old World wines so much is that they are interesting, with unexpected, often delightful, surprises. And every year, they are different.”

And difference brings perspective.

Wine of the week: Pinot Patch 2013

pinot patchRegular visitors here know one of the Wine Curmudgeon’s favorite laments: That it’s almost impossible to find $10 pinot noir that tastes remotely like pinot noir (or $20 or $30 or $40 pinot noir that tastes like pinot noir, but that’s another matter). There are several decent $10 wines that say pinot on the label, but they’re more fruity red blends than anything else.

So I was quite pleased to meet Aaron Inman, whose family owns Romililly Wines, which makes Pinot Patch pinot noir ($11, sample, 13.5%) because that’s one of the reasons for being for the wine — to make a quality, affordable pinot that tastes like pinot. This California red has berry fruit, but not so much that it tastes like a fruity red blend, as well as that hint of earthiness in the aroma that pinot should have. Best yet, the tannins are zingy and not harsh, so that the wine doesn’t remind you of cabernet sauvignon.

Yes, it’s a simple wine, but it doesn’t insult you by pretending to be something that it’s not. In $10 pinot, that’s a victory for the good guys. Drink this with any red meat (burgers on the grill?) and be glad that Inman gave up engineering in favor of winemaking. And check out the picture on the Pinot Patch website of the young Inman and his brother Jesse on their bikes. Those are the kind of people I want making my wine.