Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Blinders on

Blind Tasting
Three supermarket California Cabernets
Around $10.00 or less (on sale)
Jen’s notes


2003 Turning Leaf Cabernet Sauvignon (Reserve) $3.99
2002 J. Lohr Cabernet Sauvignon $11.99
2002 Concannon Cabernet Sauvignon $6.99


We opened the wines, removing the entire foil capsule as well (figuring that the color and weight of the foil would be a tip-off). Next, we placed each bottle in a paper bag and taped the bag securely around the neck. We took turns mixing up the bottles to make sure that we wouldn’t remember which one was which. Oh, and we wrote a number on each bag which didn’t seem to matter at the time, but it does allow us to keep the reader in suspense until the end of the piece. Finally, we poured a good-sized tasting portion of each wine into its own glass (Williams-Sonoma’s own all-purpose glasses) and took turns tasting each one.


Wine no. 3 didn’t have much nose and had even less taste. Oddly, the wine was both too tannic and not tannic enough: there were plenty of tannins, but they lacked finesse and "oomph." The tannins were not integrated, perhaps because there weren’t any other flavors with which to integrate them. We both observed this lack of complexity and complete lack of flavor; Shane said that the wine was flat, and I thought it definitely lacked fruit, especially for a less expensive wine. In our experience, cheap wines tend to be overly, sweetly fruity, without much in the way of tannins. My final thought before we moved on to number 2 was that the wine made my tongue numb.

Wine no. 2 was the complete opposite. It had a big fruity-floral nose, lots of plummy fruit on the palate, but it didn’t end there. Unfortunately, the fruit flavors were soon overwhelmed by an intense vanilla flavor – enough vanilla buttercream for the Trumps’ wedding cake. The wine was quite oaky as well, with a hint of butter on the finish. The tannins were actually quite nice (unobtrusive, but they did a good job, all things considered). We both thought that the winemaker should have left the varietal flavors alone instead of pasting vanilla over them. There were some good elements here in the fruit and tannin, but the vanilla flavor overwhelmed everything.

Wine no. 3 exhibited pencil lead on the nose and similar graphite flavors on the palate. It had a good dash of peppery spices and smooth, fairly integrated tannins. There were definite fruit flavors here as well. Though not great, this wine was the most balanced and the best of tasting. Shane said that it was "the only one that tasted like a wine."

The results:

Wine no. 3: Turning Leaf
Wine no. 2: J. Lohr
Wine no. 1: Concannon

We both pegged the Turning Leaf quite easily. The other two were a bit harder. We went into this wanting J. Lohr to win handily, but it was not to be. Shane had Concannon and J. Lohr as 2 and 1, respectively, and I had the opposite. However, we both agreed that Wine No. 1, the Concannon, won the tasting.

So, we finished up the Concannon which we actually liked a bit less upon further acquaintance, probably due to vanilla flavors that developed as the wine opened up a bit more. Usually, a little bit of vanilla is fine but, as with the J. Lohr, the vanilla here was not as integrated as it should have been.

We drew two conclusions from our blind tasting: (1) you probably won’t find a good California Cab in the supermarket around the $10.00 mark (certainly not for less than $10.00); (2) folks who are making low-priced/supermarket wines need to step back before adding the new oak wood chips, et al. Heavy oak and pasted-on vanilla do not make up for lack of varietal character. Ironically, Turning Leaf got this part right; they just skipped the varietal character.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Our First Oregon Pinot Noir

2003 Ponzi Tavola Pinot Noir

Shane's Notes

As Jen and I explore the world of Pinots/Burgundies, we are becoming more comfortable with the varietal and are learning what it has to offer. The unfolding quality of the flavors is unique to the varietal and no palate should be deprived of experiencing these accordion-like waves of flavor. The flavors in this particular Pinot unfolded in rather large, loose waves which was a bit disappointing because I prefer a more tightly wound Pinot. However, we both really enjoyed the sweet cherry flavor with nuances of butter, cedar and tobacco. This Pinot has a dry finish which really complements the up-front sweetness. We give this one a mild recommendation.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Our Top Twelve

Shane and Jen’s Top Twelve

Here is a list of twelve wines that we highly recommend. Think of it as a mixed case that will see you through most occasions, from your usual weekday dinner to something more special for a Saturday evening. Just to keep things interesting, we have given ourselves a few ground rules: (1) we will attempt to always list four wines that cost under $15.00, four wines that cost between $15.00 to $30.00 and four wines that cost over $30.00; (2) we will also try to list a variety of types of wines (we’ll even throw in some whites!); (3) no winery can have more than one wine on the list at a time; and (4) we will only list wines that we have reviewed on this site (the title and date of the review are directly underneath the wine).

$3.99 Santa Ema Cabernet Sauvignon, 2002 or 2003
A Bottle of the House Red, Please - March 25, 2005

$7.99 2003 Chateau d’Oupia "Les Heretiques" Vin de Pays l’Herault
Heretic! Heretic! - February 2, 2005

$12.99 Krohn 2000 Late Bottle Vintage Port
Birthday Dinner for Shane - February 5, 2005

$12.99 2003 Red Bicyclette, Syrah, Vin de Pays d’Oc
Three Reds from the Weekend - February 14, 2005

$18.99 Tablas Creek 2002 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
The Great White Rhone - February 28, 2005

$19.99 2001 Rasteau "Prestige" Doumaine La Soumade
A Rhone by Any Other Name - March 3, 2005

$23.00 Rombauer 2002 Zinfandel
Tasting Trip No. 1.0 - February 1, 2005

$27.00 2001 Provenance Cabernet Sauvignon
Catching Up - February 23, 2005

$32.00 Rutherford Hill 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon
Tasting Trip No. 1.0 - February 1, 2005

$34.99 Mer Soleil 2002 Chardonnay
The Sea and the Sun - March 22, 2005

$35.00 Nickel and Nickel 2001 Harris Merlot
Birthday Dinner for Shane - February 5, 2005

$41.00 Sandeman’s Twenty Year Tawny Port
Catching Up - February 23, 2005

A Bottle of the House Red, Please

Santa Ema Cabernet Sauvignon (Chile)
2002 and 2003
Jen’s Notes

This is our reliable house red, available for $3.99 at Trader Joe’s and around $7.00 elsewhere. At $3.99, Santa Ema is an amazingly inexpensive (a prerequisite for your house wine), quality wine. We actually buy this one by the case; it is the perfect wine to have on your average weeknight when you whip up an easy dinner and spend some quality time with your beloved. With the Santa Ema in the wine cellar, you no longer have to make the spur of the moment trips to the local corner store where you usually end up with something overpriced or, worse, overpriced and bad.

This wine isn’t knock-your-socks-off complex, but it does show defined and pleasant berry fruit layered over firm, slightly smoky tannins. It is surprisingly well-crafted and integrated for a wine south of the $10.00 mark (usually, anything at this price point is more like that Two Buck Plonk we all heard about a year or so ago). If you like something a little softer, try the Merlot for the same price.

Another good quality in your house wine is the ability to pair it with food. We have had the Santa Ema Cab with everything from pizza to roast chicken and it has always worked beautifully.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Rhone Rangers - March 19, 2005

Alexander Valley Vineyards 2002 Syrah, Wetzel Estate, $20
Stags’ Leap Winery, 2003 Viognier, $25.00
Stags’ Leap Winery, 2002 Syrah, $29.00
Stags’ Leap Winery, Petite Syrah, $35.00
Guenoc Petite Syrah Port, 2000 (price n/a)
Tablas Creek Vineyard, 2004 Rose, $27.00
Tablas Creek Vineyard, 2003 Grenache Blanc, $27.00
Tablas Creek Vineyard, 2003 Picpoul, $27.00

Shane's Notes

Jen and I attended the annual Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco at Fort Mason. The Rhone Rangers is a nonprofit organization whose self-described purpose is to advance the public’s knowledge of Rhone varietals. Member wineries’ wines must be at least 75% of one of the recognized Rhone varietals for it to qualify as a Rhone Ranger wine. Unfortunately, their criteria does not include any provisions regarding blending. Some French Rhone wines probably are single varietals but Rhones are predominantly blended. Very few wineries at this event produced blended reds with the classical Rhone varietals (i.e. Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan). Most of the wines at this tasting were 100% Syrah which leads me to believe that most of the Rhone Ranger wineries are more interested in trying to capture a portion of the popular Australian Shiraz market than in trying to produce true Rhone style wines.

However, I put my prejudices aside and gave all the wines a fair tasting. We started with Alexander Valley Vineyards and true to their style, their 2002 Wetzel Estate Syrah is a decent wine for the price. As Jen pointed out, it is not assertive but it is smooth with a nice smoky, vanilla taste. The list price is 20 dollars and it would be a good deal at 15 dollars.
We were anxious to try the Stag’s Leap wines and were disappointed with their first two offerings. Their 2003 Viognier is soft and has some nice floral notes but it is a bit flat and lacking in flavor. A sip of their 2002 Syrah flooded our mouths with harsh tannins. There may have been some flavor underneath the tannins but I never found it. Perhaps this wine will improve with age. When it was time to try the Petite Syrah, I couldn’t resist having a little fun with the Stag’s Leap representative. I asked her if Petite Syrah was truly a Rhone varietal and she good naturedly stuck her fingers in her ears (I will tackle the American style Petite Syrah controversy in a future article). We are glad she finally pulled her fingers out of her ears and poured us some because their Petite Syrah was one of the best wines we tasted. It has rich flavors of plum and dark chocolate coated with smooth pepper. Unlike their Syrah, this wine has firm tannins but they stay in the background and never interefere with the flavors. It’s expensive with a list price of 35 dollars but it is worth the money.

We didn’t have any plans to stop by Guenoc but as we passed their table, I noticed they had a port on display. I immediately walked up to them and seriously/jokingly informed them that port was not a Rhone. The Guenoc representative said their port qualifies as a Rhone because it is made from 100% Petite Syrah. Setting aside the Petite Syrah controversy, I simply said that a wine made from Petite Syrah is not a true port. With good natured exasperation, she simply recommended that I try it. Unfortunately, I did. It was slightly sweet without much flavor. Neither Jen nor I would drink it at any price.

Tablas Creek is one of our favorite wineries (See "The Great White Rhone" and "Another Winner from Tablas Creek" for our reviews on the Rousanne and the Cotes de Tablas Blanc) and we couldn’t wait to sample their offerings. They brought ten wines – five blends and five single varietals. As we were in line to taste our first wine, we noticed a lady from another winery (she wore her name tag) sipping a Tablas Creek. She exclaimed, "Oh my god, this wine is amazing!" We felt that way about all ten wines we tasted. Jen says that the Rose is one of the best she has tasted. It is light, slightly toasty and flinty with a beautiful raspberry underpinning. The tannins are barely noticeable but just enough to provide a backbone. If we used a 100 point rating system, this Rose would receive a 95. Their Grenache Blanc is a subtle wine exhibiting nice flavors of peaches and nectarines. It is very smooth and the finish is extremely long which is one of our favorite attributes in a wine. The Picpoul is an uncommon varietal and their Picpoul is unlike anything we have tasted. It is sweet without being syrupy, and I just enjoyed swirling it in my mouth to let my tastebuds revel in the honey and marmalade flavors. The wine has that typical Tablas creek flinty, toasty finish. Jen thinks it’s most remarkable characteristic is a slight nose and taste of a drier, lighter style of Port.

We sampled all of Tablas Creek’s offerings and tasted a few other wineries’ offerings as well but our tasting notes end here. We always drink the wine so we can analyze the finish (our rationalization), and at a huge tasting event like this one, we eventually reach a point where our tasting notes are specious due to an alcoholic haze. The last hour was a blast but I don’t remember much and yes, we took a taxi home.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Sea and the Sun

Mer Soleil 2002 Chardonnay

Shane's Notes

California Chardonnays always seem to provoke the argument of whether malolactic fermenation is a legitimate wine making technique. Many wine snobs refuse to touch any Chardonnay with even 1% malolactic fermentation while some wine drinkers always look for the 100% "butter bomb" malolactic Chardonnays. In response to the purists, it should be pointed out that malolactic fermenation is simply a natural, secondary fermentation and unbeknownest to quite a few of these snobs, most of the red wines that they drink have undergone this process. While it is true that a heavy, buttery flavor can completely smother the natural citrus/green apple flavors of the varietal in a poorly made malolactic Chardonnay, the buttery flavor can be a nice complement to the varietal flavors in a well made malolactic Chardonnay. I actually prefer a well balanced malolactic Chardonnay because the varietal could definitely use some help in the flavor department. Jen prefers the racier, non malolactic French Chardonnays.

The Mer Soleil is 40% malolatic and it is a beautifully crafted wine. The slight buttery flavor is very smoothly integrated into the other flavors of the wine which include citrus (with lemon being predominant), tropical fruits and a touch of honey. The wine is slightly acidic and there are just enough tannins to hold the wine together. This wine is a great example of how malolactic can enhance rather than ruin a Chardonnay. Even Jen admits that she would drink it again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Could Be the Perfect Port!

Krohn Colheita 1994
Shane’s Notes

Jen and I absolutely love the Krohn LBV, so we tried the 1994 Krohn Colheita over the weekend. The Colheita Ports are tawny style ports crafted with grapes from a single vintage. Colheitas always list the date of the Vintage and the date of bottling on the label so you can determine how long they have been aged. This particular Colheita has been cask aged for 10 years, and ten year Tawnies usually taste like a hybrid of Vintage and Tawny Port. This Colheita has a reddish color and the dominant flavors include sweet berries, hazelnuts and caramel while hints of figs and lurk in the background. This is a complex Port with a smooth texture and soft tannins. With its mild sweetness, this Port avoids that cloying sweetness that frequently ruins the inexpensive ports (Unfortunately, $20 is inexpensive for a Port). This is truly an incredible deal for the price.

Monday, March 14, 2005

A Pinot and a Rhone

2002 Goldeneye Anderson Valley Pinot Noir
Jen’s Notes

From the lovely folks at Duckhorn comes this fruit bomb of a Pinot. The Burgundies (made from the Pinot Noir grape) we tasted at K&L were anything but fruit-forward (See "A Whirwind Journey through Burgundy"). We’ve heard that the New World Pinots, however, are sometimes quite different; not merely forward but actually brash, saucy and, dare we say it, downright naughty. In the Goldeneye, Shane attributed this to the ripeness, even possibly over-ripeness of the grapes. I agree that the grapes used in the Goldeneye probably were more ripe than their Burgundian cousins, but I liked the wine anyway.

Immediately upon opening, the wine filled our immediate environs with the scent of strawberries – so sweet it might have been strawberry shortcake. The first sips echoed the nose perfectly; all I tasted were ripe strawberries. After things settled down a bit, I detected notes of earth, leather and spices underneath. The tannins were silky smooth and led into a long finish spiked with vanilla and caramel.

The flaw with this Pinot is that the flavors didn’t unfold like they did in the Burgundies. The flavors were certainly nice and balanced, nothing jarring or out of place, but they didn’t tease the palate with that shape-shifting quality possessed by Burgundies (While I still recommend the Goldeneye, this flaw combined with what he perceived to be an over-ripeness of the grapes was too much for Shane and he does not recommend this wine). To go back to the "naughty" analogy, Burgundies are a sly, old-school striptease, and the Goldeneye was more like a lapdance. Both are perfectly fine, but sometimes, you want a little subtlety.

2003 Domaine de Verquiere
Cotes du Rhone
Jen’s Notes

We initiated our new Riedel "O" Syrah glasses (birthday present to Jen from Shane's folks) with this baby, and it was a lot of fun. This is a lighter-bodied Cotes du Rhone with lots of raspberry scents on the nose and big flavors of tart raspberry fruit on the palate. There were hints of cherries and black fruit in there, too, and smooth, subtle tannins underneath. The fruit flavors ripened and deepened in the glass, and finished clean. We both recommend the Domaine de Verquiere as a good wine for the price.

Several Ports, None in a Storm

Warre’s Warrior Special Reserve
Fonseca Bin 27 Reserve
Ficklin Vintage Port, 1994

Shane's Notes

The characteristic sweetness of Ports is produced by adding brandy to halt the fermentation process so that relatively less of the sugar in the wine is converted into alcohol. According to the Port and Douro Wines Institute in Portugal, Ruby and Tawny are the two styles of red Ports. These wines are both initially stored in casks, but the Ruby Ports are removed from the casks sooner than the Tawnies. Thus, the Rubies primarily age in the bottle while the Tawnies age in the cask. The Tawnies are aged in the cask for a minimum of 7 years and the 10 and 20 year aged Tawnies are the most popular with oenophiles. The cask aging imparts an amber color and nutty flavor to the Tawnies as a result of the interaction of the wine with the inside of the cask. The amber color and nutty flavor are barely noticeable in the 7 year Tawnies and are predominant in the 20 year Tawnies.

The bottle aged Rubies are dark red and the best of them possess a deep flavor that can only be described as a rich, sweet, jam-like, slightly raisiny/fig-like/chocolatey flavor. The four Ruby Ports (in ascending order of quality) are Ruby, Ruby Reserve (aka Vintage Character), Late Bottled Vintage (aka LBV) and Vintage. The website for the Port and Douro Wines Institute doesn’t even bother to describe Rubies and only mentions that Ruby Reserves are a blend (mixing wines of different vintages) of younger wines. The LBV’s are crafted from grapes of a single vintage and are bottled between their fourth and sixth year of cask aging. The Vintage Ports are also single vintage wines and are bottled after only two to three years of cask aging. They are made from only the best grapes and are made only in "declared" years when the quality of a vintage is determined to be good enough to merit producing a Vintage Port. Depending upon the vintage and whom you ask, the Vintage Ports should be aged from 15 to 30 years in the bottle before drinking.

The Warre’s Warrior and the Fonseca Bin 27 are both Vintage Character Ports costing between 15 to 20 dollars. We decided to try them to see if these cheaper Ports still provide an authentic Port experience. Alas, we were definitely disappointed; both wines had the typical Port sweetness but lacked flavor and complexity. With each wine, the quick burst of sweetness was eviscerated by the tannins, and I didn’t taste any of the jammy/chocolatey/fig-like flavors that are in a good LBV or Vintage Port. The Port and Douro Wines Institute recommends LBV’s while glossing over the Vintage Characters and Jen and I agree. We recommend the Krohn 2000 LBV for under 15 dollars for an inexpensive but amazing Port experience.


A few weeks ago, Jen and I went to dinner with a friend of mine and his wife. My friend told me that he and his wife were just becoming interested in wine and that they were really excited about a few of the wineries in Livermore. He told me that one of the Livermore wineries produced an excellent Port. Unable to resist some good-natured ribbing at my friend’s expense, I said "Ports only come from Portugal." I was smiling because I was only joking. Jen is the purist who believes that the terroir of certain regions imparts a distinctiveness to the flavor of the wine which cannot be reproduced by any other terroir which leads her to believe that a Port can only come from the Douro region in Portugal and that Champagne can only come from the Champagne region in France. In our "discussions," I always argue that "Port" and "Champagne" merely describe styles of wine making and as long as the proper varietals and wine making techniques are used, any winery should able to use the terms.

About fifteen minutes after making this comment, Jen and I ordered the 1994 Ficklin Vintage Port for dessert. Neither of us had heard of Ficklin, but we ordered it because it was the only "Vintage" Port on the menu. We were pleasantly surprised. We tasted the typical, jammy sweetness and while a little raisiny and not very complex, the Port displayed signs that complexity could develop with bottle age. After suffering through two Vintage Characters, we happily drank this legitimate Port. A few weeks later, I looked at Ficklin’s website and could not conceal my amusement upon discovering that Ficklin is a California Port!!! I emailed a mea culpa to my friend, and Jen and I both accepted Bacchus’ divine retribution for being wine snobs.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Another Winner from Tablas Creek

2002 Tablas Creek Roussane
Jen’s Notes

In our dual quest to experience Rhones and their California clones, as well as to try the renowned wines of Tablas Creek, we snapped up one of three remaining ’02 Roussanes at the San Francisco K&L. We eagerly anticipated our second wine from Tablas Creek (see "The Great White Rhone" for the review of our first one) and knew we were in for something special once we poured it into our glasses. The wine exhibited a beautiful, luminous gold color and smelled like a bouquet of honeysuckle. The first sips were mouth-filling and smooth, giving up flavors of ripe apricots, honey, tropical fruit and some floral notes. These flavors became rounder and deeper mid-palate, with a hint of mineral underneath, before flowing into a long, satisfying finish. Shane and I agree that Tablas Creek is crafting some of the best white wines in California.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

A Rhone by any other name....

2001 Rasteau "Prestige"
Domaine la Soumade

Shane's Notes

One sip of this Rhone almost knocked me out my chair. This is a powerful red with strong flavors and strong tannins. I definitely recommend decanting this wine and letting it aerate for at least 15 minutes to soften it. This wine is a blend of 80% Grenache, 10% Syrah and 10% Mourvedre, and I really like the Rhones that are crafted with a high percentage of Grenache. This particular wine exhibits a panoply of flavors including cassis, dark chocolate, cedar and spices. The beautiful, silky texture of this wine caresses your taste buds and the flavors resonate long after the crisp, peppery dryness washes over your palate. This wine is ready to drink now but will be even better with some bottle age, and I would love to taste it again in five years. This is an incredible Rhone for the price; just kick up your feet and enjoy this one.