Tuesday, February 22, 2011

North on Hwy 29

The center of the North American wine world revolves around the valley that surrounds the town of Napa. Some of the world's most expensive, critically acclaimed, and what I can only assume delicious wines are grown and produced in the towns and hills of this viticultural paradise. While every wine region in the U.S. is chasing after California, every wine region in California is seeking the prestige of Napa Valley.  While the wines of Napa tend to be high in quality, and equally priced, other North Coast wine regions offer exceptional quality and value when compared to the Hellenic Napa Valley. Nevertheless, wines from Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley and Anderson Valley struggle to meet the expectations of their big brother.

Despite being even less heralded than those other wine regions, two big name wine producers have found inspiration a few miles north on Hwy 29 from the Napa Valley. Lake County is home to five American Viticultural Areas in addition to the broad North Coast AVA designation. Three of these, including the Red Hills Lake County AVA, border Clear Lake. Clear Lake is California's largest freshwater lake and has been dated to be almost 500,000 years old. On the southern shore of Soda Bay is one of the more prominent landforms, Mt. Konocti. Just south of the dormant volcano, deposits of previous eruptions yield both red gravelly and sandy loam volcanic soils.

The current benchmark producer of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has to be Schrader Cellars. Fred and Carol Schrader are the proprietors of the darling of Wine Spectator. They employ celebrity winemaker Thomas Rivers-Brown, proprietor of Pinot Noir powerhouse Rivers-Marie, to craft 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines from two of Napa's most famous vineyards, the Beckstoffer To-Kalon and Georges III vineyards. With these high-pedigree grapes, they craft six single-clone and "ultimate-blend clone" wines.  Prior to 2010, no American winery had ever received the exalted100-point distinction. Despite this history, Schrader received two 100-point ratings for two of its 2007 Cabernet Sauvignons. In addition, the other four 100% Cabernet Sauvignons from 2007 received scores above 96 points. With the publicity of these scores and those bestowed on Schrader by other critics, prices and demand have skyrocketed. Luckily for the mere mortal wine lovers, Schrader started the Double Diamond program in 2002. Again, teaming up with Beckstoffer Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are sourced from the Amber Knolls Vineyard in the Red Hills Lake County AVA just north of Napa Valley on Hwy 29. The Double Diamonds (Amber Knolls Vineyard and Napa Valley Bomber X) are Schrader's consumer-friendly, entry-level offering.

Perhaps the most renowned international winemaking consultant, Stéphane Derenoncourt works with wineries in 10 countries, most of which are centered around the French town of Saint-Émilion. In 2009, Derenoncourt released his first California wine. His eponymous wines are made in partnership with Montesquieu Wine Group and are focused on vineyards in the Napa Valley. However, the red soils of the Beckstoffer Red Hills Vineyard in the Red Hills Lake County AVA appealed to his ultimate commitment to terroir and led him to make a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from this unlikely region. While Derenoncourt's Napa wines approach the prices commanded by Napa's top wineries, the Red Hills Cabernet is much more affordable even though may be difficult for wine lovers to buy due to production volume.

I spent the past few nights exploring the Red Hills Lake County offerings from some of Napa's most sought after producers. While I most definitely count myself among the mere mortals, these two wines offer a glimpse of what winemaking royalty has to offer. I will definitely keep my eyes open for other wines from Lake County.

2006 Derenoncourt California, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Lake County AVA, Red Hills Vineyard

The packaging doesn't get much prettier than this beautifully simple linen label. The wine was poured into a duck decanter and sipped over several hours. Dark red color. Nice aromatic nose though not overly fruity and hints of cedar. With silky and smooth tannins along with flavors of cassis, dark raspberries, pencil shavings along with crisp acidity and good minerality you will not confuse this with an overblown Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is exceptionally balanced and elegant. Even though the label says 15.7% abv, I hardly noticed any heat. I am looking forward to the 2007s being released next month! 15.7% abv Purchased $40. Very Good/Excellent (tasted 2/15/11)

2008 Double Diamond, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Lake Country AVA, Amber Knolls Vineyard

I was disappointed to pull out a composite cork from the bottle, but the juice is what is important. I poured half of the bottle into a decanter and corked the rest and put it into the fridge for the next night. Dark opaque purple in color. The moderately powerful aromas of cassis, blackberries and cigar box fill the glass. Once the wine passes my lips, a bit of disappointment sets in. Plums, blackberries, tobacco and smoke flavors are followed by a slightly vegetal and ashey back palate. It seems a bit disjointed and unbalanced; not unenjoyable but not meeting my expectations considering the pedigree of the name on the label.  14.5% abv Purchased $45. Good (tasted 2/17/11)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Unique terroir

While most people are not cognizant of the fact that there is a high-quality wine industry present in Colorado, those who are will be quick to point out that it is centered on the western side of the state in and around the town of Palisade in the Grand Valley. A majority of the approximately 100 wineries located around the state have their vineyards or buy grapes from growers in the Grand Valley. Despite Palisade being the locus for vineyards, the Front Range (in and around Denver), is actually where about half of the state's licensed wineries call home. Why so far away from "wine country?," most people ask. The population of the Grand Junction Metropolitan Statistical Area is approximately 146,000, whereas the population of the Denver-Aurora-Boulder Combined Statistical Area is over 20 times larger with about 3,110,000 people. The consumer market is larger along the Front Range, so wineries find it easier to market their products when closer to a larger audience.

Unfortunately, the climate of the Front Range is not conducive to growing Vitis vinifera. However, while several growers are experimenting with French-American hybrids, one winery has produced traditional vinifera wines from a small vineyard in north Denver. J. A. Balistreri Vineyards buys most of their grapes from western Colorado, but occasionally bottles limited-release wines from grapes harvested near the winery in Denver. Julie Balistreri told me that they did not get any Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Denver Vineyard in 2009 or 2010, but when they do, as in 2008, they have fun making a barrel or two of unique wine.

Most Balistreri wines that I have tried (and I have not tried all of their offerings) tend to be big, bold and fruit forward reds and whites fermented on their skins. The wines are single-vineyard designated and bottled and labeled one barrel at a time. Each individual barrel number is hand-stamped on the back of each bottle. This approach provides an interesting way to experience terroir and barrel variations.

2008 J. A. Balistreri Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Barrel 193, Denver Vineyard, Colorado

This Cabernet Sauvignon differs in style from many of Balistreri's reds. It is an opaque dark red color and stains the glass as you swirl it. It is not especially fruit forward, yet dark fruits, mainly cassis and dark strawberries, are noticeable. Old-world aromas of earth, leather and truffles are also present. This mouth-filling wine has medium-plus tannins combined with dark chocolate, black cherries, smoke and tobacco on the palate. The finish is a nice, medium length. The 15% alcohol is not noticeable. Overall, this is a nice, balanced Cabernet that is not overly concentrated and very traditionally styled. It is not going to change your life, yet it is a fun curiosity with an interesting narrative. 15% abv Sample $24. Good (tasted 2/09/11)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Is Antonio Galloni's Bitch in pre-production?

With the Robert Parker's announcement this past weekend that Antonio Galloni will take his place reviewing California wines for The Wine Advocate, I thought that this video from two years ago has some renewed relevance. Enjoy.

Robert Parker's Bitch from Josh Hermsmeyer on Vimeo. Check him out at Pinotblogger.

Written, Directed and Produced by:
Tina Caputo
for Vineyard & Winery Management.

PO Box 2358
Windsor CA 95492

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Influence in the wine world

With the news this weekend that Robert Parker was changing the line up of reviewers for his Wine Advocate, the wine-writing world has been full of speculation on what these changes will mean to the wine industry. Robert Parker will no longer review current releases of California wine but rather will focus on wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône valley and retrospective tastings of aged California wines. David Schildknecht will no longer review wines from Burgundy's most famous regions, Chablis and the Côte d’Or, but will continue reviewing wines from France's other non-Parker regions along with Austria, Germany and the eastern United States. Picking up the slack will be Parker's heir-to-be Antonio Galloni by adding Burgundy and California to his Italy and Champagne beats. Who would have thunk that switching reviewers for only two (albeit important) wine regions would have caused a major collective head scratch.

While Parker may have more influence in the wine world than any other single person, he is still only one individual out of millions in the industry. And while the 92-point score on the shelf talker may distract consumers from what is actually in the bottle, there are too many other influential people in the wine world. Combine that with the fact that consumers are growing ever smarter, savvier and more adventurous with their purchase decisions, I believe that this change will be highly insignificant everywhere but outside the $100+ über premium wine that only a handful of consumers (are they really consumers when they don't consume?) buy.

With the proliferation of wine bloggers (and people who read wine blogs), consumers are, I hope, being introduced to a wider variety of wine professionals. The people who are actually responsible for finding and importing wines are perhaps more important that the reviewers. When people see names like Terry Theise, Neal Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, Joe Dressner and Robert Kacher on the back of a wine bottle they should know what kind of wine to expect. I myself am still learning the styles of the wines that these guys import, but I know that each strongly believes in what he has decided to put his name on (as opposed to simply an impersonal rating).

The Wine Advocate, The Wine Spectator and other similar publications aren't out searching for the next big wine region or style; they're mostly reviewing wines currently popular in the market. I see a growing interest in new wine regions, such as Colorado, that are off reviewers' radars. Passionate importers, distributors and wine bloggers that find and share the next exceptionally interesting wine region will have more impact on consumers' palates than whether Robert Parker or Antonio Galloni is tasting California cult wines.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

"Smart" wine buying

The ways in which we buy wine are changing. Think back ten years ago. How did you buy wine then? You probably walked into your local wine shop, liquor store or grocery store (well, not if you live in Colorado), scanned the shelf talkers or spoke with a knowledgeable salesperson and made your purchase. There weren't really any other ways to buy wine then. Today, the Internet has opened many new doors for wine buying. Internet retailers like Wine.com, online wine auction communities such as WineCommune.com and WineBid.com and direct to consumer sales via winery websites have increased the realm of possibilities to many new consumers. You can research tantalizing possibilities while comparing prices as you sip your coffee (time for a refill!) all from the comfort of your couch at home. Shopping for wine has never been easier!

However, there is something about actually going to a wine shop and physically inspecting the bottle of wine in your hands before you hand over your hard-earned cash. Fortunately, the convenience of online shopping is still available due to the proliferation of smartphones! When going into stores with eclectic inventories or less than knowledgeable staff, your phone can be an invaluable asset. Using a barcode scanner, accessing tasting notes and price comparisons is easier than ever. Looking wines up on CellarTracker and Wine-Searcher gives the consumer more information than they've ever had in the past. Finding a 1995 Nicolas Joly Savennières Roches-aux-Moines Clos de la Bergerie for $11: score. Reading about the 2009 Grand Bateau: helpful (though having the new Smart Bordeaux app on my Android phone would have been even better).

Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry is keen on using phones as shopping tools; as I found out when the old shopkeeper yelled at me for attempting to steal his "proprietary" price information. He didn't exactly use that term (his English vocabulary was less sophisticated than that) but I easily gathered that he was not hip to the new technology. After I attempted to explain that I was not trying to undermine his business, he sort of apologized as I purchased the one bottle that I did not need to look up on my phone. I found several bottles of Canyon Wind Cellars 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon hiding on the bottom shelf below some big name California cabernets. I've had many bottles of current vintages from this winery and knew that they make wine with potential to age. I took home one bottle to make sure that it has held up under the unknown conditions of this little store before I buy more.

2000 Canyon Wind Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Grand Valley AVA, Colorado

Popped and poured a little into my glass, half the bottle into a decanter and the other half was recorked and put in the refrigerator for the next night. This 11-year old Colorado Cabernet Sauvignon is a deep, dark red with a brick red rim. On the nose the first thing that I sense is the a bit of alcohol. At 14.2%, it isn't that high for today's standards, but it is quite noticeable in this bottle. Rich dark fruits like red raspberries and black cherries meld with cigar box aromas to create a nice distinctly Cabernet nose. The tannins are almost chalky in the mouth. Flavors of tobacco, cedar and faded dark fruits show that his wine has held up well and will continue to drink well in the coming years. While the wine did not change much in the decanter, it did not fade the second night either. The alcohol was a bit too noticeable for me, but overall this was a well-made and well-aged wine, especially for the price. 14.2% abv Purchased $21. Good/Very Good (tasted 1/27/11)