Budget Wine: McManis Family Vineyards Petite Sirah California 2013



mcmanis petite sirahMcManis produces inexpensive wines that punch well above their price, and this is no exception.

The classic ripe blueberry fruit typical of Petite Sirah is there, encased in slightly smoky pencil shaving and sweet sandlewood aromas, quite enchanting, almost exotic.

The palate is rich and full with vanilla notes prominent and some sweetness evident. I don’t find the finish lovely. it’s puckering and woody. The acidity doesn’t seem high but the finish nevertheless turns a little sour. The tannins are soft and refined but persistent. The “tell” for cheap wines is always the finish.

Good intensity at a good price and if you like a little ruggedness on the finish you will be enchanted as well.

Long used as a blending grape to provide color and structure to other varietals in weak vintages, traditional Petite Sirah is massive, hard, and chewy with tannins that will rip your face off. Modern winemakers are learning how to tame it, and it is growing in popularity and acreage. Called Durif in France, It is a cross between Syrah and a little known grape called Peloursin, and first planted in the Rhone Valley in the 19th Century.

Score: 87

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

Pair with the most exotic of jazz pianists Abdullah Ibrahim who evokes whole African landscapes in a single chord, with the lovely Cape Town Flower (about 3 minutes into this video)


Stupid Wine Journalism


journalism for dummiesOne of the big debates in the wine world is over the virtues of ripe, alcoholic fruit bombs vs. subtle, restrained wines with lower alcohol. The general public seems to like the fruit bombs, based on what they purchase, much to the consternation of somms and wine experts who prefer wines with finesse.

This week the wine press is all atwitter with results of a study purporting to show that people prefer low-alcohol wines. Under a headline “Science has spoken: Big wine doesn’t mean more flavour” we get this gem from The Globe and Daily Mail:

It appears that haughty Euro-centric wine connoisseurs were right all along: Lower-alcohol wines are more interesting than the big, fat ethanol bombs coming out of California, Australia and Chile. No more arguments, please. Science has spoken.

At least that’s what we’re left to conclude from a fascinating study conducted at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language in San Sebastian, Spain. Researchers used magnetic-resonance machines to peer inside the brains of drinkers as they (the study participants, not the researchers) sipped various wines, some with moderate alcohol and some with considerably more. Contrary to prevailing wine-industry wisdom that most consumers prefer brawn to finesse, the scanner revealed startling images. There was greater activity in the taste-processing regions while the subjects drank the lighter wines. The implication: Lower alcohol encourages stronger attention to aroma and flavour nuances.

I call bulls**t on this “report” and the conclusion the researchers draw may be overstated.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is a technique for measuring brain activity. It detects changes in blood flow in response to neural activity – when an area of the brain is more active it consumes more oxygen and to meet this increased demand blood flow increases to the active area.

No one knows how increased blood flow and neural activity correlates with subjective experience. fMRI tells us nothing about why there is increased activity. In this case, the increased neural activity could have resulted from the test subjects having to work harder to detect flavor in the lighter wines. It certainly does not entail there is more flavor in the lighter wines. (For an account of some of the problems with the interpretation of  fMRI imaging see this)

The abstract from the study seems to me to overstate what can be inferred from the imaging:

Wines were closely matched for all physical attributes except for alcohol content, thus we interpret the preferential response to the low-alcohol content wines as arising from top-down modulation due to the low alcohol content wines inducing greater attentional exploration of aromas and flavours.

“Attentional exploration” is one thing; preference quite another. Sorry folks. Science is not going to tell you what you should drink.

At best we have an example of a journalist not doing her homework. A quick Google search will point you to information on the pitfalls of over-interpreting fMRI imaging.

Wine Maps



France_Belgium_NetherlandsIf you’re a wine geek like me you love maps because the only way to make sense out of wine is to understand the geography of wine regions and its influence on what is in the glass. If the maps are attractive that is a big plus because you can hang them on your wall and use all the money you save on wall coverings to buy more wine.

We don’t need printed maps to tell us where to go anymore. Maps have entered the realm of art. They are about telling stories rather than giving directions. So I rather like these fine art prints from City Prints.

They have prints of everything from ballparks to space flight—whatever your passion you can find it mounted and framed here.

I don’t do ads on my blog, so this is not an ad. I just like what these guys do. Check them out.

Water Futures


indoor farmsWe’re grasping at straws (and drinking through them as well) here in California as the drought continues with no end in sight, and state-imposed mandatory 25% reductions in urban and municipal use take effect. The problem is 80% of our water goes to agriculture so shorter showers just won’t do the job.

We’re looking for any solution even those that seem incredible. The idea of indoor, urban farms seems implausible at first but this company thinks it will work:

A Dutch firm on the cutting edge of indoor agriculture estimates that producing food for the entire world could take place in a space far smaller than the area occupied by Holland, using just 10% of the water needed by traditional farms. The proposal is not without precedent – Japan already has one prototype urban farm that is 100 times more productive than farmers’ fields…Urban farming in controlled environments lets growers take full advantage of variables like custom lighting, using far-red LED lamps in this case that reduce moisture requirements for plants. Naturally, interior spaces are also free from the uncontrolled variables of weather and pests as well, increasingly reliability.Automatic systems can optimize yields based on crop types, making indoor farms more effective than greenhouses and far more productive than fields. The ever-increasing efficiency and lowering costs of LEDs mean this method will only become more viable over time.

This might not be so far-fetched. We’re already growing fruit year-round under plastic to control evaporation, and of course I’ve had friends who for years grew some funny smelling herbs in a closet under grow lights.

I have no idea if this approach would pencil out in terms of cost. But if the drought continues, desperate times will call for desperate measures.

Wine Review: Chateau de Jau Côtes du Roussillon-Villages 2011


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chateau de jauNestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees in the South of France, Côtes du Roussillon-Villages is a red wine sub-appellation of Roussillon. Roussillon is famous for its sweet wines—Rivesaltes, Banyuls, and Maury. For still wine it struggles to get out from under the shadow of the better known Rhone region in the very competitive global wine market. Quality red wines from this region are relatively rare in the U.S.

Although the region is warm enough to produce fruit-forward wines in a modern style, the traditional style is more austere with distinctive earth and herbal fragrances and a rustic character.

The Chateau de Jau has one foot in each camp. Dark berry aromas with layers of baked earth and thyme that turns to refreshing mint notes over time, the nose is a bit closed but will open up with aeration. Very juicy with fresh, dark red fruit on the palate, it appears lush on entry but adds bitter herbs with bracing acidity midstream, with a dry, medium-length finish. Medium-plus acidity and fine-grained but persistent tannins make this a good everyday drinker that will go well with a variety of foods.

If you’re tired of the sweet, spofulated wines with no structure or character that you find in the supermarket, this wine will satisfy.

A blend of 45% Syrah, 30% Mourvedre, 15% Carignan, and 10% Grenache

Score: 87

Price: $14 Available online at Wine Chateau

Alc: 13%

Pair with some uncompromising, grown-up music like Steve Earle “Back to the Wall”

A sample for review


Budget Wine: Bogle Pinot Noir California 2013



The story of cheap Pinot Noir is a tale of woe. Because the grape is so sensitive to climate and soil type, it grows well only in certain sub-regions of the wine world, which are not necessarily where the grapes for bulk wine are grown. So it is either too sweet and jammy or too thin and sour. But if you are willing to spend $9-$10 on a bottle you can occasionally find one that doesn’t offend. This Bogle is one of those—pleasant, pinot-like, and affordable.

The color tends toward the darker side of the pinot palette indicating there may be a little Syrah or Malbec in this. (According to law, to be called “Pinot Noir” is must contain only 75% pinot noir grapes).

Hints of tea and earth underneath the red and black fruit and a subtle layer of oak give the nose some complexity. For me, a Pinot without earth is like a body with no soul, so it passes that test. The medium bodied palate adds cranberry notes with a mouthfeel that begins with a soft, smooth texture but turns zesty with crisp acidity and surprising tannic grip that gives the wine substance.

It is a little confected but, hey, it’s a supermarket wine. There is plenty of flavor to balance the acidity, and a nicely focused finish. You can’t do better for the price. In fact, it’s better than some Burgundian swill that sells for $50.  Which is not surprising. I’ve never had anything from Bogle that disappointed me.

Score: 87

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5

This wine will pair well with nicely-crafted pop songs with an edge and some intensity on the finish like “Went Away” from the Indie band The Maccabees

Food Pairing Theory on the Ropes?



food pairing theoryFood pairing theory asserts that foods that share flavor molecules go well together. The more flavor molecules they have in common the more we like the pairing—mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, and parmesan cheese share 4-methylpentanoic explaining why pizza is so much loved. Prosciutto and parmesan cheese also share a variety of compounds.

Food pairing pairing theory is attractive because it is a reductive explanation—one simple rule can guide the construction of recipes and new flavor combinations can be easily created by identifying ingredients that share flavor molecules. Although handy for creating recipes, I’ve always had some doubts about the theory. It appears to explain some classic pairings well but  I wonder how many exceptions there are, how many popular flavor combinations don’t fit the model. I’ve never seen a systematic study of this question.

But it turns out there is evidence that food pairing theory holds only for North American and Western European cuisines. The cuisines of Southern Europe and East Asia use ingredients that don’t share flavor molecules. And now we have more evidence from a recently published study by Jain et al—Indian food apparently also falls into the anti-pairing camp. From the abstract:

We study food pairing in recipes of Indian cuisine to show that, in contrast to positive food pairing reported in some Western cuisines, Indian cuisine has a strong signature of negative food pairing; more the extent of flavor sharing between any two ingredients, lesser their co-occurrence.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the simple reductionist theory of taste is just not going to explain taste preferences. The anti-pairing hypothesis suggests it is contrast that we seek but surely not any contrast will do. Perhaps there is no underlying system to flavor preferences at all.

But at any rate this research suggests it is Asian and Indian food we should look to in order to fully understand the complexity of flavor.

Why Are Wine Drinkers Trading Up?


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supermarket winesWine economist Mike Veseth reports that sales of higher-priced wine are increasing.

Last week I wrote about the unexpected state of the U.S. wine market today, where sales of wines above about $9 are strong and growing while the below $9 segments are stagnant or in decline. Thinking back to the dismal state of the wine market a few years ago, with trading down and heavy discounting, the current situation comes as a big surprise.

What accounts for the transformation of the U.S. wine market?

Mike entertains a variety of theories and is skeptical that any of them fully explain the numbers. Millennials may be spending more per bottle but they were never large drivers of the market to begin with. Wine at the lower end may be deteriorating in  quality discouraging consumers from buying it but there  is no conclusive evidence of that. The theory he seems to prefer is that wine producers are devoting more attention to branding thus attracting loyal customers who are willing to pay more for their favorite brands.

Not being an economist I will leave the economics to Mike. I have no idea what’s going on. I will say that if you’re buying wine of the bottom shelf in the supermarket, there is lots of very ordinary wine there—not bad just ordinary. With the availability of craft beer (and phony craft beer) in the supermarket competing at the price level of cheap wine, it wouldn’t surprise me if some consumers are making other choices. But that wouldn’t explain why sales of wines above $10 are increasing.

So let me throw out another hypothesis. As America’s food revolution and our interest in taste deepens, more people are able to tell the difference between quality levels and are deciding its worth a few extra dollars to get something they will really enjoy.  That’s an optimistic hypothesis but today I’m having one of my optimistic days. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Wine Writer Jumps the Shark


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jumping the sharkThe debate about alcohol levels in wine is not only tedious. It is causing otherwise sane people to lose their grip on reality. I’ve enjoyed Mike Steinberger’s essays on wine and food in the past, but his recent article for Wine Searcher is disturbing. The article starts out promisingly enough,deploring the grossly overpriced and overhyped Sine Qua Non (a rosé sold at auction for $42,780 last year!) which routinely gets astronomical scores from Robert Parker.

I’m not being dramatic when I say that I literally can’t stomach them. I’d think twice about dumping the wines in my sink for fear of damaging the pipes.

The complaint from Steinberger and many others, in addition to the excessive price, is that Sine Qua Non and other wines of their type are too ripe and too alcoholic. Nothing new about this accusation—this debate about Parker’s palate and over-ripe grapes has been going on for decades; and Steinberger concedes he and his low-alcohol partisans are having no luck convincing the rest of the wine world that they are right:

Personally, I’ve made my peace with this kind of polarization. The evidence is overwhelming – tastes vary dramatically, and one man’s nectar is another man’s rotgut. That’s just the way it is, and I think it’s part of what makes wine such a compelling topic and rewarding hobby.

Good point. If we all liked the same wines, wine would be boring with nothing to talk about. But the frustration of failing to convince his fellow wine lovers must be getting to him. He then goes on to say:

Critics, of all people, have an obligation to take a stand, and if you truly adore the subtlety and elegance of La Tâche, it is impossible to believe that you can derive equal pleasure from wines like Krankl’s The 17th Nail in My Cranium (it’s a Syrah that weighs in at around 16 percent alcohol). These are wines that offer completely conflicting notions of balance and quality – and, no, it doesn’t matter a bit that they are made in different regions and from different grapes. In fact, I’d say that any critic who gives whopping scores to SQN and then turns around and does the same with DRC is not really a critic; he’s a shill or – worse – a cynic, deliberately not coming down on one side or the other for fear of offending his audience or costing himself potential readers/subscribers.

Huh? This is absurd. For those unfamiliar with the jargon, DRC refers to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, producers of La Tâche arguably the finest Pinot Noir in the world—elegant, full of finesse and subtlety, and relatively low in alcohol. La Tâche is radically different in style from Sine Qua Non. The former is seeking elegance and finesse, the latter raw power and concentration. Why can’t I admire Sine Qua Non for its power and La Tâche for its subtlety?

No doubt, these high-scoring, over-ripe, over-the-top new world wines such as Sine qua Non and Saxum are garish and exaggerated, trying too hard to be hedonistic.  I couldn’t possibly drink more than one glass in an evening. I prefer Burgundy Grand Crus—it’s not even close. But the Sine Qua Non is still an achievement; it is one of the better wines of its type and I can recognize it as such. Steinberger is claiming that wine critics in principle cannot maintain the objectivity to judge wines they don’t prefer according to their merits.

Think of how ridiculous this sounds. According to Steinberger if I prefer impressionist paintings I must therefore despise cubism because they are radically different styles of painting, and the features that make impressionist paintings lovely are nowhere to be found in Cubism. Moreover, I could not judge Picasso (in his Cubist period) as great a painter as Monet, since I prefer Monet’s style, without being disingenuous and cynical. This is absurd. Part of developing critical expertise is developing the ability to judge merit without wholly succumbing to mere personal preference. Personal preference cannot be eliminated from the equation—why would we want it to be. But good criticism should teach us something about the wine, not just about our likes and dislikes.

Someone striving to look beyond personal preference to find something intriguing about a wine other critics praise is neither a shill nor cynical—it’s called curiosity. It is hard to think of anything more cynical than the view that there is no such thing as expertise, only prejudice and corruption.

Wine Review: Seufert Winery Pinot Noir Zenith Vineyard 2009 Eola-Amity Hills AVA


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seufertWe spent a week last fall in the Willamette Valley tasting our way through the offerings from about 30 wineries, many of them internationally acclaimed with gleaming new tasting rooms in idyllic settings,  overlooking lovely rolling hills dotted with small farms and acres of grapevines. But the best Pinot Noir we found was from this storefront winery in Dayton, a sleepy little town, featuring one traffic light and a few restaurants. Seufert Winery is a small room stacked with barrels, winemaking equipment, a makeshift tasting bar and features the winemaker’s 5 yr. old daughter chatting up the guests. It also includes a lineup of single-vineyard wines that, to my palate, are among the best in the valley. They have the earthy complexity and silky mouthfeel that I look for in Pinot Noir—if I were blind tasting these wines I would guess Burgundy Grand Cru.

One reason these wines are special is that winemaker Jim Seufert holds back his wines refusing to release them until they are ready. This is an expensive proposition for a small winery but it guarantees every wine sold is drinking at its speak. So the current lineup of available wines will include many back vintages like this 2009 that was still available last Fall.

Light ruby in the glass but with some copper highlights just beginning to show signs of age. The nose is well-developed with pungent mushroom and coffee aromas and a touch of caramel beginning to overshadow the dark cherry aromas. A hint of volatile acidity gives character to the wine reminding me of some aged Barolos. The evolution on the palate is lovely—an introduction of silky, plump fruit swells and tightens as the acidity kicks in, surrendering to a long, sensuous finish on soft, gentle tannins. The mouthfeel is dead on—what Pinot Noir should be.

These are small production lots so particular vineyard designate wines may sell out quickly. But all five versions of Pinot Noir I tasted had the fully-developed, earthy quality and graceful mouthfeel that I find so intriguing.

Score: 93

Price: $35

Alc: 13.7%

For silky, earthy accompaniment, the very sound of Pinot Noir, there is none better than Miles, “There is No Greater Love”






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