Wine Review: Bonny Doon A Proper Claret California 2013



bonny doon a proper claretGerman literary critic and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel wrote that “Irony is the clear consciousness of an eternal agility, of an infinitely abundant chaos.” When we take a perpetually ironic attitude towards something it opens an infinite distance between what it is and what we take it to be. The “face value” is inconclusive, complete sincerity unachievable. And so I take this wine label as a statement of irony. It can never be what it claims to be, i.e. a proper claret.

“Claret” is the British nickname for Bordeaux blend, although the term was first used as such in the 1700’s when Britain was at war with France and the British were looking to Portugal for their wines. How ironic—a proper claret may be Portuguese. Furthermore, “claret” used to mean light-colored, despite the fact that Bordeaux wines are dark red. Hmm.

Even the word “proper” has its own ironies. Just as when the Brits say “With the greatest respect” they think you’re an idiot, when they use “proper” they don’t mean “characterized by propriety” but mean “really” or “completely”, an excellent thing of its type. So something could be properly improper, as in “a proper lout”. You see what Schlegel meant by “infinitely abundant chaos”?

So I take Bonny Doon’s A Proper Claret to be properly improper. Strictly speaking a claret or Bordeaux blend must include only currently permitted Bordeaux varietals—the Cabernets, Merlot, Petite Verdot, and Malbec.  This wine has been improperly invaded by Rhone varietals: 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 15% Tannat, 13% Petit Verdot, 8% Syrah, 1% Petite Sirah.

The bright, rich cherry and plum fruit is not classic Claret; it’s California all the way although thankfully there is no hint of prune or raisin characteristics. The earth undertones are “proper Claret”, but the mint, floral, and thyme notes would lead me away from Bordeaux in a blind tasting. But as the winery tasting notes suggest “it is lean, neither overly alcoholic (weighing in at 13%) nor overly extracted, nor overly oakèd”. Indeed, and here we come to the heart of the matter. It is balanced, with strong acidity, and with fine tannins that have a bit of grip—all properly Claret although I have yet to taste a young Bordeaux with tannins this ripe.

It’s the mouthwatering acidity that makes you think European. I needed a high acid wine to go with my churrasco-style steak with chimichurri sauce I served on the 4th of July and this wine was outstanding holding up well to the vinegar in the sauce.

Randle Grahm, proprietor and winemaker at Bonny Doon, is not above a little irony and humor with his wine labels. Don’t worry if this is a “proper claret”. Just drink it. At this price an outstanding wine.

Score: 88

Price: $13

Alc:  13.5%

Alanis Morissette is enthusiastic about irony. I have no idea if she would find A Proper Claret” as delicious as “a traffic jam when you’re already late”

Budget Wine: La Paca Garnacha Calatayud 2013


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la pacaContinuing my exploration of bargain imported wines from Trader Joe’s, here is a very approachable Garnacha (Grenache if you’re French) for $7. Ripe strawberry and dark fruit aromas are complemented with modest vanilla and earth undertones and a pleasing black pepper note that is characteristic of this hot inland region in Northeastern Spain. Medium intensity on nose and palate, and a medium body, it has a soft fruity opening, then a mid-palate mineral lift as the fruit drops off, and becomes slightly woody on the finish with some bitter herbal notes. The finish is refreshing but short and lacks tannin but the fruit/acid balance is good.

A new world preface with an old world conclusion, the transitions in this wine are interesting, and it takes your head in a variety of directions. A great price for an interesting wine.

Score: 87

Price: $7

Alc: 14%

This marriage of old and new worlds is accomplished in the music  realm by the Gypsy Kings, known for fusing rock and pop sounds with Flamenco:

If You Like Wines with Finesse, Be Afraid


heat waveFrom Dr. Vino comes this bad news:

Burgundy, which is known for producing wines more winsome than boxum, will have four days in the 100s (39C+) this week–and the balance in the 90s. Yikes. Searing temperatures are expected in Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello and Britain as well to name a few places starting with “B.”

And the problem may not be limited to Europe. I’m heading to Willamette Valley in Oregon this week where Pinot Noir is king and the temperatures are predicted to creep into 100’s there as well for the next week.

Wines made from grapes that have been exposed to excessive heat tend to have dominant raisin aromas, taste excessively sweet and lack acidity. They become one-dimensional and lack complexity and balance. This is especially true of varietals such as Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo that do best in cool climates.

One week of hot weather, especially early in the season, will not necessarily lead to disaster but it’s not looking good for the 2015 vintage, and scientists predict we can expect such heat waves to occur more often.

Lovers of fine wine may be in for a rough patch. It will take many years to develop vineyards in Norway.

Bored With Fruit


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spoiled-fruitPatrick Comiskey at Lucky Peach is reporting an incipient revolution in California winemaking.

No doubt, in California we love our fruit:

In modern winemaking, fussily sorted fruit samples are vinified in squeaky clean cellars into wines of seamless elegance, influenced in part by the autocratic and antiseptic predilections of Robert Parker, the influential critic who has privileged fruit above all other elements. The result was an industry defined by homogeneity, at the expense of funk.

I doubt that Robert Parker is fully responsible; our weather and tastes would naturally lead us in that direction. But the general point is dead on. Up and down the state from the cool climate of Sonoma coast to the hot, inland Central Valley, to the sea-ventilated hills of San Diego, fruit is king, especially now that winemakers are backing off the oak just a bit. Sure some winemakers are better than others at extracting fruit flavors and capturing the distinct terroir of their vineyard but most seem to be aiming for the same thing—to show the fruit in its most pure expression. There is nothing wrong with that but when everyone is doing it, it becomes rather pointless.

And yet for a small but growing number of California winemakers, mere fruit is not enough. “It’s the one thing we have too much of,” says Kevin Kelley of Salinia Wine Company, in Santa Rosa. “I’m much more interested in minerality, in salinity; those things are hard to find in fruit-forward wines.” Abe Schoener of the Scholium Project speaks pugilistically about the process, of “beating the fruit out of the wine.” Howell is more philosophical. “We’re not doing this to preserve fruit,” he says, “we want to transform it.”

Barnyard, blood, meat, mushrooms, flowers, leather, spice, minerality—wine can show a whole range of flavors other than basic fruitiness. Why not let them flourish? Of course that requires playing around with brettanomyces, flor, excessive oxygen, volatile acidity, and all the little critters that inhabit the nooks and crannies of a vineyard or winery. Abe Schoener of the the Scholeum Project is positively enthusiastic about them:

Schoener addresses the problem of fruit in a multitude of ways; he maintains his winery, for starters, in an almost defiantly untidy state, eschewing the use of soaps or solvents—even hot water is used as a last resort. The hope is that the walls and the tanks and barrels will all support an active population of microflorae which will contribute to the wine’s flavors….

“The molecules that produce fruitiness, I want those in my wine,” he says. “But I want something to happen to them.” So he’ll extract to extreme levels (think of steeping tea), or he’ll expose the wine to more oxygen than is typical, so that those fruit flavors morph into something more savory—toward mushrooms, tobacco, and other articulations of umami.

I know it is heresy and I may be drummed out of the wine business for saying it, but I’m bored with fruit. I hope the rebellion catches on. Bring on the funk.

Wine Review: Sommavite Brunello di Montalcino 2009



somavite brunelloWhen Brunello is good it is very, very good.  Made from the “Grosso” clone of the Sangiovese grape, it produces fuller, richer flavor than other variants of the grape. The grapes are sourced from an area near the town of Montalcino in Southern Tuscany where it gets warmer than Chianti to the North producing riper grapes with smooth tannins; and appellation rules require at least 5 years of aging in barrel and bottle before release. Great grapes, warm weather, and aging, along with a commitment to quality, usually mean good wine and high prices.

Thus, I never seek out Brunello when looking for inexpensive wine. They are almost always well over $50 and even at that price the quality can be uneven. Vintage variation matters in Italy where regulations prevent manipulation of the wine in bad years. And the aging process is inherently a crap shoot. You never quite know how a wine will develop over time. To make matters even more complicated, some producers are wedded to old-school winemaking in which wines are intended to age for 25 years and may not be ready to drink for 10-12. Thus even $80 bottles can be disappointing.

So how good could a $20 bottle be? As luck would have it, quite good. The nose is typical Brunello—dark cherry tinged with dried flowers and prominent herbal notes,  on a gentle layer of dusty earth. Subtle vanilla notes indicate this is a “new school” Brunello aged in small oak barrels that soften the wine quickly and make it drinkable in its youth. Bold yet supple and silky  on the palate with medium acidity and soft tannins, the finish is a little short but the wine has depth and focus.

This doesn’t have the complex, delicate, ethereal aromas of the very best Brunellos and the tannins are softer than most so I wouldn’t put it down for 20 years. 2009 was a scorching hot year in Tuscany and the wines from that year are probably a bit evolved. But at this price it is worth buying a few bottles to lay down for 5-7 years.

I couldn’t find out anything about this winery. This wine is available in the U.S only at Trader Joe’s as far as I can tell. This suggests TJ’s buys excess juice from a large, quality producer and puts their label on it. But I’m only speculating. In any case, an absolute steal. Highly recommended.

Score: 90

Price: $20

Alc: 14.5

Brunello is a slow blues wine to be savored and sipped while reflecting on the bitter and the sweet. This calls for Cowboy Junkies “Postcard Blues”

Budget Wine: Rosa dell’Olmo Barbaresco 2010



rosa dell oro barbarescoBarbaresco is Barolo’s little brother, made from the same Nebbiolo grape varietal but less tannic, more delicate, and less expensive. But usually not this inexpensive! When I saw a Barbaresco for under $10 at Trader Joe’s I thought it was another too-good-to-be-true bargain.

But this is actually quite good. Dead on Nebbiolo aromas of dried flowers, sour  cherry, and lots of earth, positively filthy in a good way. The very  same flavors predominate on the palate but they are simple and without much depth. Furry tannins, typical in a young Babaresco and high acidity with thin fruit at the midpalate makes the texture a little rough. The finish is long but tart with some bitterness, again typical of less expensive Italian wines. For this price this is a great introduction to one of Italy’s great wine regions.

Score: 87

Price: $9

Alc: 13.5%

You will want to drink this with music that is earthy but austere, bittersweet like Nina Simone’s version of “Since I Fell For You”

Eat Local Foods for Aesthetic Reasons


farmers marketI’m all in favor eating local foods when possible, but I continue to be unimpressed with arguments that we could replace our industrial food supply with locally-grown products. The authors of this new study argue:

“If you drew a 100-mile circle around each city in the U.S. and then you looked at the capacity of the existing farmland, you’d find that 90 percent of the people could be fed within those circles,” says Elliott Campbell, an associate professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Merced who co-authored the study.

Even if we take this study at face value it seems flawed. I don’t have access to the original paper but if comments by other scientists are to be believed, the conclusion isn’t warranted by the evidence:

“They’re estimating how many calories silage and hay can be produced within a given radius of the cities,” Sexton says. “That’s fine if Americans are just consuming calories, but Americans consume food products.”

In other words, the study didn’t measure how many tomatoes, oranges, or cucumbers could be grown in a 100-mile radius of cities—it measures calories from cattle feed. While that might be a useful study for academic purposes it has no relation to real-world food consumption. The conclusion is just misleading. It should be palpably obvious that most regions in the country cannot grow food all year round and many foods cannot be stored over long periods. A winter diet of potatoes and beets might be virtuous but it will neither be tasty nor nutritious.

Moreover, there are many efficiencies that are gained by having regions specialize in what they grow best according to Steve Sexton with the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University :

The case for specialization is perhaps nowhere stronger than in agriculture, where the costs of production depend on natural resource endowments, such as temperature, rainfall, and sunlight, as well as soil quality, pest infestations, and land costs. Different crops demand different conditions and vary in their resilience to shocks.

There is a good case to be made for locavorism—when compared to industrial agriculture local food tastes better, it is usually more healthy, and there are good community-based reasons for supporting your local farmer. In other words, the argument is primarily an aesthetic argument—local foods give more pleasure.

So we should support locavorism where possible without rigidly insisting that our food supply be entirely local.

Salvatore Dali: Wine Expert


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daliI had no idea Surrealist painter Salvatore Dali wrote a book about wine. As you might imagine it was—different. The prose was written by his editor and other figures in the wine world, but Dali contributed the ideas and, of course, the art.

Of the more than 140 illustrations by the artist, most are reprinted sketches and details from earlier paintings; of the original pieces made for the book, most were produced by slightly altering the work of other artists, adding touches like the aforementioned torso drawers and penis-wine bottle spout, which were appended to a traditional nude by Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academy painter. But hidden within this oddity is a revolutionary system for thinking about wine that foreshadows our current move away from bloodless ratings, as well as a critical renaissance for an artist who spent nearly 40 years of his prolific career as a has-been.

Although the discussion of wine regions is “mostly forgettable”:

It’s the second section, “Ten Gala Wines,” that hits the home run, blowing minds in the way Dalí masterpieces like “The Persistence of Memory” do. Writer Louis Orizet (a viticulturist and politician in Beaujolais), with help from Georges Duboeuf (a driving force behind the marketing campaign for Beaujolais Nouveau), sets out to explode wine criticism by categorizing wines by their emotional resonance, rather than prosaic features like geography or varietal….

The text divides the wines of the world into sections like “Wines of Light,” “Wines of Purple” and “Wines of Generosity,” using diverse metrics like production method, weight and color to find emotional kinships, resulting in eccentric groupings (Madeira, California, Roussillon in  “Wines of Generosity”; Beaujolais, Hermitage, Bandol in “Wines of Purple”) that are obtuse even while they make perfect instinctive sense.

He also calls to task writers who attempt to quantify the intensely personal experience of taste, asking, “What bearings should we use to further our knowledge when so many flatterers are set against so many critics? How shall we find our way through the quarrels between those who prefer young wines and those who defend older vintages?”

It is interesting to see how a person of such imagination and vision understood wine. We certainly need a new way of talking about wine, one that precisely describes the objective components but also captures the impact wine has on the imagination and emotions. Perhaps wine writing should not be left entirely to the wine writers. Yet most wines are not produced to resonate emotionally. Generic industrial wines don’t exactly conjure nuanced sentiment or quivering palpitations of the heart.

Does a renewal of wine writing await a revolution in winemaking.

Wine Review: Paloma Dulce Red Wine Cesar Toxqui Cellars Mendocino NV



paloma dulce cesar toxquiOne of the joys of traveling around the country tasting wine is finding unusual gems tucked away in office parks or warehouses. This is one I discovered last fall while poking around Hopland in Mendocino County. I’m not sure what to call it. It is more or less a ruby port-style wine, sweet, fortified to 19% alcohol, and made from red grapes, primarily Merlot with some Zinfandel, Syrah, and Sangiovese in the blend.

It has the ripe berry and mocha flavors of a port but sherried caramel notes, tamarind, and nut aromas give the nose a unique, funky aspect . Port-like on the palate up front, but while port has a syrupy expansion at mid-palate, this wine stays crisp, refreshing, and silky with good acidity and fine tannins on the finish. It comes off as a hybrid of Oloroso sherry and ruby port but more refreshing then either. It’s sweet enough to go with dessert but it’s an enjoyable sipper as well.

Born in Mexico, winemaker Cesar Toxqui got his start in the Fetzer vineyards and learned winemaking at night school and on weekends. It’s an inspiring story. He mans the tasting room and is happy to explain his approach to handcrafted, small production winemaking.

An original, what you would expect from Hopland, unusual winemakers with vision trying to find their way.

Score: 90

Alc: 19%

Price: $18

For this inspirational story and unique wine we need that most inspirational of songs “Don’t Give Up” featuring Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush


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