Archive for the ‘Wine Picks’ Category

I have to admit that when I stopped writing my newspaper column on ‘value’ wines, I looked forward to a break from tasting inexpensive wines produced by beverage-industry behemoths. It’s not that I think price always reflects quality—years of tasting several wines a month priced under $10 actually convinced me that often enough, the opposite is true. It’s just that for every low-priced gem I discovered, I suffered through two or three wines that weren’t worth the $9.99 (or $4.99, or sometimes $1.99!) I had paid for them.

Then one night last week, I was really craving a glass of Pinot Noir, and there was only one in my wine fridge: the 2008 North Coast Pinot Noir from Clos Du Bois ($15). Now it’s true that Clos Du Bois is a very recognizable supermarket brand owned by Constellation, the world’s biggest wine company. But this lovely wine was a valuable reminder that, just as pricey doesn’t always mean good, big doesn’t always mean bad. This smooth sipper bursting with red fruit was a little fuller-bodied than is characteristic of its varietal, but it was satisfying nonetheless. While warm summer days are still with us, try it with grilled chicken.

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During my years of writing a newspaper column about bargain wines, Ironstone Winery got a lot of ink—in large part because they often source grapes from Lodi and sell several wines for $10 or less a bottle. Now that I have a reason to write about higher-end wines, I thought—a little wistfully—that my days of reviewing Ironstone were behind me. Not so: I recently received samples of several of their reserve wines, mostly made with grapes from the Sierra Foothills and priced above $25 a bottle.

My favorite of these was the 2006 Ironstone Reserve Meritage ($45), a blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (80 percent ), un peu Petite Verdot (10 percent) and five percent each Cabernet Franc and Malbec. With strong notes of cedar, vanilla, and menthol, it was a deeply satisfying sipper—and would make a great beach-bonfire red.

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Recently earning raves in my household was a 2007 Merlot from Napa Valley’s Shafer Vineyards. I found the aroma on this wine oh-so-very Napa, evoking cedar and pencil shavings, while my husband noted blackberries and plums. He commented that the Shafer was bright and ripe with great acid and good balance, and I agreed — although we parted ways on its finish, which I found smooth and delightful. Peter complained that it was just a little too hot (high alcohol) — although at 14.9 percent, the alcohol content is actually pretty modest for a Napa red.

At $48 a bottle, the price of Shafer’s Merlot is fairly modest as well, coming from a winery whose Cabernet Sauvignons range in price from $70 to $215. Interesting bit of trivia on that topic: Shafer’s vineyards are overseen by David Ilsley, whose family business, Ilsley Vineyards, happens to be right next door. The Ilsleys’ land abuts Shafer’s reknowned Hillside Vineyard (the two properties aren’t even separated by a fence), whose grapes produce the highly acclaimed $215 Cab known as Hillside Select.

Now, the scuttlebutt in the Stags Leap District that is home to both these wineries — at least among devotees to the concept of terroir — is that Shafer Hillside Select and Ilsley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($55) are nearly identical wines with a $160 price difference. While this theory doesn’t do justice to the obvious talents and varied techniques of Shafer winemaker Elias Fernandez or Ilsley winemaker Craig MacLean, you can’t argue against the Ilsley Cab as a great value.

Just like that Shafer Merlot.

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The big news in the wine world this week is the announcement of winners in the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. This competition pitted nearly 5,000 wines, hailing from more than 1,500 U.S. wineries, against each other in blind tastings held last week in Sonoma.

The competition divides its winners by varietal and price, bestowing Bronze, Silver, Gold, Double Gold, Best in Class & Judge’s Choice, and Sweepstakes awards. This year’s geographically diverse and budget-friendly Sweepstakes winners, earning the highest award bestowed, were as follows:

Sparkling wine:
J Vineyards & Winery, Russian River Valley
J Brut Rose ($34.99)

White wine:
Keuka Spring Vineyards, Finger Lakes, New York
2008 Gewurztraminer ($16.99)

Pink wine:
Bray Vineyards, Shenandoah Valley, Amador County, CA
2008 Barbera Rosato ($17)

Red wine:
Graton Ridge Cellars, Russian River Valley
Paul Family Vineyard 2007 Estate Pinot Noir ($30)

Dessert wine:
Watermill Winery, Walla Walla Valley, Washington
2008 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer ($14)

Hmm, where’s Napa on that list? Don’t feel too sorry for the Valley… Napa wineries took home no fewer than 8 Judge’s Choice awards. And, as I’ve noted here before, the results of competitions like this one always have to be sipped with a grain of salt. I know of at least one wine that was sold under two different labels and somehow manage to earn both a Silver and a Bronze in the same category.

For a complete list of award winners, visit http://www.winejudging.com/medal_winners.htm.

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We interrupt these Zinfandel musings for an important message from the Federal Trade Commission. As you may know, the FTC recently announced new rules requiring bloggers to disclose any free goodies they receive, if and when they choose to write about said goodies or the companies that make them.

When I read about these rules in the paper, my first thought — probably a common one among those of us who’ve had longish careers in print media — was “it’s about time those pesky bloggers got held to a higher standard!” Then I realized “oh yeah, I’m now a blogger who receives free stuff.” So these rules actually apply to me.

And while I still think the aim of this mandate, which I assume is to call out biased and misleading coverage of everything from Malbec to mascara, is an admirable one, I do see the inconsistency that its critics have been grousing about. Print media, you see, is held to no such standard. It’s up to individual publications to form their own policies on freebies, and the most respected ones have earned that respect by ensuring the impartiality of their writers.

The down side of taking the high road is, of course, financial. When I first began writing about wine for a newspaper, a perfectly adequate “wine allowance” was built into my fee. In accordance with my editor’s wishes, I made my no-freebies policy known and was able to keep my nose clean. Then the recession hit, ad sales went down, and my fee was cut — twice. Had I not changed my policy (with my editor’s blessing), I would have basically been paying to write my column. Instead, I continued to taste wines blind and never felt obligated to praise a wine I didn’t like. And because no regulatory agency had ever opined on the matter, my readers were none the wiser.

Today, I still accept free wine, but I always try to make it clear to the purveyor that accepting is not the same as promoting. In my column, which appears in another publication, I still speak freely about wines I don’t like. In this blog, I probably won’t mention the dud wines I’ve just tried — but that’s only because it seems like a waste of space. You surely care more about what’s good than what’s bad.

In that spirit, here are three recommendations I can stand behind. The reds were sent to me for free; the Riesling was purchased by my husband. (Cheers to the FTC.)

2006 Red Right Hand Shiraz-Grenache-Tempranillo blend ($12) and 2007 Zeepard Shiraz ($16). These hearty Australian reds are just the thing for weathering a storm, and their price tags make them a guilt-free school-night purchase. Both would be a great accompaniment to meat dishes, but the Zeepard’s more nuanced flavors make it a delightful wine to enjoy without food as well.

2007 Targovishte Riesling ($6.99). My winemaker husband Peter, who is incredibly skeptical about most wines under $10, can’t stop gushing about this off-dry, crisp, and subtly effervescent Riesling. He praises its light fruit, floral, and vegetal notes and its great acid and balance. A fine choice to go with your Thanksgiving turkey — especially if you’ll be cooking for a crowd.

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I mentioned in my last (and so far only) post that my husband is a winemaker, so during the harvest months of September and October, his long work days begin before dawn, and his weekends are nonexistent. You can therefore imagine the twinge of panic we felt upon learning that our first child’s due date was September 3 of this year — a date that can often mark the harvest period’s beginning.

Well, it turns out that our happy and healthy new daughter, Willa, sensed the urgency and decided to arrive a month early — which accounts for the long lag between that first blog entry and this one. Her considerate timing afforded Peter a few calm weeks with her before harvest chaos descended (which happened, at his winery at least, on September 4th).

My return to the blog coincides with the October issue of Marin Magazine hitting the stands, arriving in mailboxes, and appearing online. I plan to devote the next couple of posts to ‘outtakes,’ if you will,  from “Original Zin,” the article I wrote for the October issue about Zinfandel, California’s signature grape. But let me quickly address here one correction:

A sentence in the story’s introduction refers to Zinfandel as the second-most-planted grape in California. While it’s true that Zin is the second-most-planted *red wine* grape in the state, after Cabernet Sauvignon, both Thompson and Chardonnay have it beat in the non-wine and white wine categories, respectively. My apologies for the error.

Finally, with all due respect to my beloved Zinfandel, I want to mention a great-value Cab I recently discovered. The 2007 Bon Anno Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley, has an aroma of leather and dried cherries, with big, ripe, flavors and soft tannins on the palate. At $20, it’s a rare — and delightful — Napa bargain.

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