Battle of Budget Cabs: Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon California NV

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BarefootIt’s time for a battle of the budget Cabs: a head to head assessment of Columbia Crest, Rex Goliath, Mondavi, and Barefoot.

In a blind tasting it was clear which is the worst of this lot—the Barefoot from E. J. Gallo.  It was also the cheapest although not by much. On the positive side, although I found it less enticing than the others, it is nevertheless not a bad wine.

The nose has black and red fruit with earth, smoke, and coffee hints. In the mouth, the juicy fruit upfront shows some chocolaty depth but quickly fades by midpalate, leaving via a short finish with very little lingering fruit and a charred wood aftertaste. The overall impression is thin and watery despite the promising entrée.  Very soft tannins almost indiscernible , and little acidity.

There is nothing distracting or unpleasant about this wine. Its competent and easy to drink but unsatisfying. #3 will be up next week.

Score: 82

Price: $5

Alc: 13.5%

Maybe its the bar band vibe of Duke Robillard but his “Good Time Charlie” seems to bring out the smoke in this wine

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4VzNLvopfc

Is What’s in the Glass All That Matters?

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glass of wineI often hear it said that despite all the stories about family and cultural traditions, drinking ideologies, and paeans to terroir, what matters is what’s in the glass. If the wine has flavor it’s good. Nothing else matters. And of course the whole idea of wine scores reflects the idea that there is single scale of deliciousness that defines wine quality.

For many people who drink wine as a commodity beverage, I suppose the platitude that “only what’s in the glass matters”  is true. But many of the people who talk this way are wine lovers and connoisseurs. For many of them, I think there is something self-deceptive about this full focus on what’s in the glass. Although flavor surely matters, it’s not all that matters and these stories, traditions, and ideologies are central to genuine wine appreciation.

Burnham and Skilleås in their book The Aesthetics of Wine engage in a thought experiment that shows the questionable nature of “it’s only what’s in the glass that matters”. They ask us to imagine a scenario in 2030 in which wine science has advanced to such a point that any wine can be thoroughly analyzed not only into its constituent chemical components (which we can already do up to a point) but with regard to a wine’s full development as well.

Imagine 3D animations of a wine’s development over time tracing in precise detail all the chemical reactions a wine undergoes from fermentation through aging to popping the cork that can generate a recipe for all those stages. Thus, in this imagined scenario,  wine factories can synthetically  produce an exact duplicate of any wine you want. All wines at all stages in their development can be manufactured and sold at a modest price. That 2005 Lafite that sells for thousands of dollars per bottle, you can order it as it tasted in 2025 for about $30. The special bottle of La Tâche purchased at your daughter’s birth and opened for her graduation—no problem, just order another. The vagaries of farming, vintage variation, wine faults and supply limitations now all a part of the misty, dimly remembered past.

And let’s imagine these synthetic wines have been put through rigorous taste tests and it is demonstrated conclusively that there is no discernable difference between the synthetic wines and the originals.

Is that a wine world you want to live in?

I suspect that some people would say sure. If what matters is only what is in the glass then nothing would be lost in the 2030 scenario and much would be gained. There are benefits to a world in which even people with modest incomes can drink great wine.

But I suspect that many of us would demur. I know I would. We know that people value originals and that art works discovered to be forgeries lose all value. We are inherently fascinated by origins as psychologist Paul Bloom has shown. Isn’t part of what we enjoy about wine its connection to a place, the unique conditions of  its production, and the creativity, initiative, and risk-taking of the people who made it?

The fact that wine is a collaboration between humanity and nature is part of its appeal. So is the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what you will get when you open the bottle. As Burnham and Skilleås write:

Having to expect the unexpected may not only be a fact of life in the wine world of today but also something that creates a welcome frisson in the wine lover.

So too does the sense of regret knowing that for special bottles you will never have that experience again. The maturing and decline of a bottle and the fact that all the bottles of a cuvée will eventually disappear symbolizes much about the human condition. These symbolic connections are all severed in the 2030 scenario.

Would these losses be worth the opportunity to drink a 2005 Lafite whenever we want? Would we even appreciate such a wine when perfection becomes the norm?

More deeply it’s worth asking whether human ingenuity could create the remarkable yet subtle differences that the collaboration between culture, geography and nature create?

If these considerations carry any weight for you, then your appreciation of wine goes far beyond “what’s in the glass’’.

Wine Review: Gundlach Bundschu Gewurztraminer Sonoma Coast 2015

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gundlach gewurzGood wines have shape in the mouth, a trajectory of undulating intensities that guide our attention. This one has some of that as it starts with focus and drive, becomes expansive and full in the midpalate and then fades to a dry, astringent finish.

Pear is the dominant aroma, with hints of lychee, lime and gardenia top notes, and apricot lurking in the background. Complex and intoxicating, and as the wine warms in the glass, sly petrol emerges at the margin.

The palate is lush with lanolin but crisp, buoyed by great acidity holding the ebullient fruit in balance with a medium-length, bitter finish, showing grapefruit. Flinty minerality just as the finish begins to unfold keeps the characteristic bitterness from becoming distracting.

The personality is exuberant and expressive, but quite dry and poised.

It makes me fall in love with Gewurztraminer all over again.

From estate grapes, 90% fermented in stainless steel, 10% in neutral oak with about 15% of the grapes frozen and then thawed before pressing to add weight and texture.

Score: 92

Price: $20

Alc: 14.3%

Ambient is the music of Gewurztraminer. Its flavors pop and sizzle like looping, arpeggiated synth runs, although if you’re a classical music fan, Debussy will do fine. The ambient sparkle of DJ Spooky’s  Dementia Absentia brings out the polychrome dimensions of this lovely wine:

Let Consumers Know if You’re Using Synthetic Cork

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syn corkThe Drunken Cyclist’s Friday rant last week raises an important point about transparency and the wine consumer’s knowledge of what they’re buying.

In 2012, he purchased a case of quality, mid-priced Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, 2010 Couly-Dutheil Chinon Les Chanteaux, from an importer. He stored it properly, and opened a bottle on New Year’s Eve. The bottle was badly oxidized. Opened another, same problem. He opened them all—all oxidized and undrinkable. Loire Valley Chenin Blanc ages well, especially Loire Valley Chenin, where there is a long tradition of age-worthy wines. Somebody screwed up badly.

There are many links in the chain from bottling line to popping the cork that might be to blame but the Drunken Cyclist rightfully focuses on the cork, a synthetic cork made by Nomacorc:

I have bashed the use of synthetic “corks” before, and this only reinforced my disdain. While some might see synthetics as an economical alternative for short-term storage, I know of no one (other than the manufacturer, possibly) that would claim it is good for keeping a wine any more than a year or two (at most).

This is controversial. Some synthetic corks make a seal so tight that too little oxygen finds its way into the bottle and wines won’t age properly. But you can purchase synthetic corks from quality producers that allow small amounts of oxygen into the bottle thus allowing the wine to develop as expected. The problem is that synthetic corks are extremely sensitive to changes in ambient temperature, more so than traditional corks. In warm temperatures, they will swell and be difficult to remove. In cold temperatures they will shrink allowing too much oxygen into the bottle. Even if the wine is stored in a cool cellar, frequent minor temperature fluctuations can cause the cork to continually expand and contract breaking the seal and allowing too much oxygen in. This won’t matter if you’re storing the wine for only a few months. But over 4-5 years, a synthetic cork damaged by temperature fluctuations will spoil the wine.

You could argue that age-worthy wines should never be enclosed with a synthetic cork. But they do have their place. They are much cheaper than regular cork and they eliminate the problem of cork taint that can also ruin wine. Since the vast majority of consumers drink wine shortly after purchase, it is understandable that some wineries  think it is their best option. But as the Drunken Cyclist points out

There was, however, absolutely no way for me to know that the bottle was closed with such a device. I assumed, since I paid about $25/bottle, that this was a quality wine, ergo could be held for more than a couple of years. I have long felt that since producers continue to use the obsolete foil on top of the bottle (it is pretty much useless), they should have to disclose what type of closure is underneath. Had I known these wines were stopped with a synthetic, I doubt I would have purchased the wine, let alone hold on to them for a few years.

This is the important point especially as economic considerations are likely to expand the use of synthetic corks. Use synthetic corks if you must, but label the bottles or expose the cork so consumers seeking wines to age will know the kind of enclosure they’re dealing with.

Budget Wine: Côte Mas Rouge Intense Pays d’Oc IGP 20015

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cote masI love it when a wine makes sense. This screams contemporary south of France, ripe but rustic. Some euro funk with wild herbal notes, fennel, smoke, and a whiff of road dust help keep the exuberant fruit in check. In the mouth its ripe, juicy and stout, full of blackberry bramble with a mineral seam and firm, medium-grain tannins. The finish is  mid-length, the texture a bit unyielding, tough enough to get down and dirty with the “delta boys”. A hint of aggression underneath a big smile.

A rustic wine but with lots of life and personality for 7 bucks.

A blend of Grenache noir 45%, Carignan 25%, Cinsault 15%, Merlot 10%, Syrah 5 % aged in stainless steel for months.

You don’t want music that robs this wine of its heart. Steve Earle’s Copperhead hits the right emotional pitch– a quintessential alt country tune for a quintessential alt country wine.

Score: 88

Price: $7

Alc: 13.5%

The End of Restaurants?

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closedThis is a disturbing story.

The American restaurant business is a bubble, and that bubble is bursting. I’ve arrived at this conclusion after spending a year traveling around the country and talking to chefs, restaurant owners, and other industry folk for this series.

In a series of articles for Thrillist, Kevin Alexander makes the case that our very own golden age of restaurant dining is coming to an end. The reasons are many. For starters, there are too many similar, hip restaurants competing for the same customers. Everyone wants in on the Food Revolution. But new ideas are hard to execute and sell, and the plethora of wanna-be pretenders are soaking up too many dollars. In addition, all those restaurants need chefs so there is a real shortage of qualified people to work in kitchens and that drives labor costs up. And that in the end is the real problem.

Across the nation, restaurants like AQ — chef-driven, ambitious, fine-casual dining spaces that straddle the gap between neighborhood fixtures and destinations — are the ones closing their doors most quickly, mainly for a reason above: labor costs. And it’s happening everywhere — research firm NPD Group reported that in 2016 the number of independent restaurants in the US dropped 3%, while chains increased, and said the majority of those independent restaurants closing were sit-down. The reasons the costs are going up are complicated, involving a mix of laws and taxes and other inherently unsexy things.

As Alexander points out, everyone supports better wages and benefits for restaurant workers. But it’s becoming apparent, according to Alexander, that restaurant margins are too small to absorb higher labor costs so something has to give. And inflated, unrealistic consumer expectations are also part of the mix:

One of the unintended consequences of the Golden Age of Restaurants was unreasonable customer expectations for virtually every eating experience. “Customers now think life should be one endless brunch,” says New Orleans’ chef Cullen. “With freshly made bottomless mimosas.” It is no longer impressive that things are local, farm-sourced, and handmade — it’s expected. But, as Cullen explains, the rise of the Golden Age “scratch kitchen” (in which everything is made in-house), long a point of pride for fine-dining kitchens, isn’t usually financially realistic in the more casual kitchens.

And consumers expect all this without increases in prices.

Right on cue, of course, in larger cities the big money guys with their food delivery apps are swooping in hiring chefs and stealing customers from the sit-down restaurants.

And so gradually, but inexorably we will see fewer sit down restaurants and more “hip iterations of fast-casual restaurants, with smaller menus, counter service, and a skeleton crew of front- and back-of-the-house staff.” Of course, the Michelin-starred will survive and flourish along with the uber-efficient low end, fast-casual establishments. But, like the rest of society, the middle-class where a lot of the creativity in the food scene takes place is being hollowed out.

What’s the solution? Well we could start by recognizing that always seeking the lowest price has consequences. Quality is expensive. But don’t hold your breath waiting for that recognition to take hold.

In the end, the solution will be the one we always latch onto—technology. Welcome to the golden age of robot chefs.

Review: Briceland Vineyards Humboldt County

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bricelandWhen you think of California wine, Humboldt County doesn’t immediately come to mind. But nestled within the redwoods and pot farms there are about 150 acres of wine grapes and over 25 wineries in this sprawling county that is home to the Willow Creek AVA. They’ve been making under-the-radar wine here for close to 40 years and Briceland Vineyards has been there for most of it. Founded in 1985 by Joe Collins and Maggie Carey who were instrumental in helping to launch winemaking in the region , son/step-son Andrew Morris and his wife Rosie now own and operate the winery, which produces around 2000 cases per year, with 75% of their production sourced from a variety of small vineyards in the county. From the cool, coastal-influenced vineyards in the south to the warmer, inland valleys in the north affected by central valley heat, and a mountainous topography to break up any settled pattern, there is great diversity and many microclimates in this region, and Briceland’s lineup reflects some of this diversity with their site-driven, hand-crafted wines.

I recently had the opportunity to taste through several of their Humboldt County wines and I spent a very pleasant evening with a 2014 Syrah.

This Syrah has an intense, complex nose showing plum, violets, smoky bacon, and black pepper with chocolate undertones. Aeration exposes a mint note.

In the mouth it is dense with a slight oiliness discernable and firm tannins. It’s all very warm and comforting—what else could bacon and chocolate be? These are oak derived flavors but there is no hint of woodiness. Although the acidity does not seem prominent, there is a lifted, mineral quality in the mid-palate that draws your attention to the top notes giving the wine a fresh aspect as it finishes.

A delicious and very interesting Syrah, unusual because of the lifted quality and the boldness of the meat and smoke that nevertheless feels integrated. I’m in love. Score it a 92.

Here are my quick, first-impression notes on the rest of the line up. The Pinots are especially noteworthy for their vineyard expressions but every wine was superb. Humboldt is now on my radar.

1. Jupiter Pet Nat Ishi Pishi Vineyard Humboldt County

Jupiter is a red, seedless Muscat grape. These grapes are grown organically. Apple and floral notes and quite “leesy” with pleasant, bitter herbal notes on the finish. Medium-bodied and textured in the mouth. An interesting, refreshing wine, a successful experiment.

2. Sauvignon Blanc Humboldt County 2015

Aromas of Meyer lemon, wet stone and pineapple with floral notes. Medium bodied, quite rich for this grape. A bit short on acid compared to the standard Sauvignon Blanc profile but delicious.

3. Viognier 2015  Ishi Pishi Vineyard Humboldt County

Stainless steel fermentation with full malolactic. Floral with pronounced papaya notes. Medium body with racy acidity. Some bitter fennel on the finish. An excellent California Viognier.

4. Chardonnay Humboldt County 2015

Unoaked. Dazzling purity. Lemon zest with pronounced pine notes and hints of butter and herbs. Green tea and a slight bitterness on the finish. A lovely, cool climate Chardonnay.

5. Rosé of Pinot Noir NV Humboldt County

Quite dark in the glass with aromas of hibiscus and orange zest complementing the raspberry fruit. Excellent acidity. Very dry, crisp but with surprising texture. No malolactic fermentation or oak.

6. Pinot Noir Humboldt County 2014

Candied fruit, perfume, and spice, a smooth entry with an intense finish, firm tannins, more herbal than the other Pinots.

7. Pinot Noir Ronda’s Vineyard Humboldt County 2014

From a westerly vineyard facing southwest, about 1000 ft. in elevation. Black cherry, allspice and floral notes with some density, structured with higher apparent acidity than the others.

8. Pinot Noir Alderpoint Vineyard Humboldt County 2014

   A warmer site. A gorgeous, ethereal nose with black cherry, spice, and a heath bar or caramel note. Fresh, with great complexity, structured with high acidity but light and lifted, full of finesse on the palate. A gem. My favorite of this lineup of fine Pinot Noir.

9. Pinot Noir Phelps Vineyard Humboldt County 2014

Cherry, plum and spice notes with some caramel, dense and structured with bright acidity and firm tannins.

10. Zinfandel Humboldt County 2014

Red raspberries, and cherry, set off by bay leaf. Low alcohol and high acidity for a Zinfandel. Elegant and well put together with a long finish supported by fine-grained tannins. A gorgeous wine.

Updated 1/10/17

Reviews based on industry samples

American Wine: A Tale of Two Industries

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small wineryThe U.S. is now home to over 9000 wineries, up from about 250 wineries in the early 1980’s. When you check out the wine aisle of the supermarket it would appear that a good percentage of those 9000 are represented there, but that is an illusion, the result of clever marketing. Supermarkets and large retailers like Costco or BevMo, buy wine from large distributors who for the most part work with wineries large enough to keep the store shelves stocked. You have to be big in order to play in this league. In fact, only about 65 wineries have a case production over 500,000 per year. And according to Wine Business Monthly’s 2015 summary, the top 30 producers make 90% of the domestic wine by volume sold in the U.S.

35 out of 9000! Most of those bottles with the cute labels on supermarket shelves are made by just a few companies that make a homogenous product and depend on marketing to differentiate their wines. Although most of that wine is drinkable, there is nothing distinctive about any of it. You have only the illusion of choice at the supermarket.

Yet, there is a whole other wine industry out there. About 7000 of the wineries in the U.S have a yearly case production under 5000. Unless your supermarket or big box store has a distributor that makes a special effort to stock local wines, you won’t find these wines on the supermarket shelf. Yet they constitute the vast majority of people making wine in the U.S. And in order to compete they have to offer a unique product. If they make wine similar to what you buy in the supermarket why would anyone go to the trouble of seeking them out? This is where you find innovation and distinctiveness, in the small wineries that are now emerging all over the country in every state.

And this is where you find people making wine because they love to do it. Few people get rich making small lots unless they can sell their wine for hundreds of dollars.

The problem is that most of these wines are not available to most consumers. Although most states now allow wineries to ship direct-to-consumer, each state has different regulations governing the sale and shipping of wine across state lines, and it is costly and time consuming for small wineries with limited staff to navigate these regulations. The complexity of these regulations is one primary reason why Internet wine sales have never taken off.

Happily, VinoShipper, is emerging as a viable platform for giving consumers access to some of these wines. VinoShipper maintains their own shipping licenses for most states. Wineries can transfer wines to VinoShipper and ship under their license avoiding the hassle of dealing with each state’s regulatory regime.

But coverage remains spotty. It is still the case that to sample the most interesting wines in the country you have to get in your car and go to the winery. But if you’re a wine lover, that’s a hardship you must endure. If you’re a wine lover, you value distinctiveness and difference, and so you owe it to yourself to get out and sample these wines that will never find their way to a supermarket shelf.