Budget Wine Review: Line 39 Petite Sirah California 2014



line 39Aromas of blueberry pie, damp leaves sprinkled with dust and pencil lead, and hints of meat give a voluptuous first impression with dark chocolate emerging on the palate.

For Petite Sirah this is remarkably smooth and luscious, a very unusual expression of this varietal. Velvet and medium weight are not traditional descriptors for Petite Sirah but they fit here, and the persistent, drying tannins on the medium length finish are never grippy. The wine is very linear and does not have the structure that fans of Petite Sirah expect. But if you enjoy supermarket-style Merlot and you’re looking for a change this will ring your bell. Great QPR and a wine so rich, comforting and polished you’ll want to curl up in front of a fireplace with an R&B ballad like Aaliyah’s At Your Best.

Score: 88

Price: $11

Alc: 13.5%

Cabernet Envy is Bad for the Soul and Bad for the Industry


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big bottleTwo articles caught my eye recently about storied wines that are getting hard to sell. Several Italian restaurants in New York and Chicago report declining sales of Chianti as Super Tuscans and riper wines from emerging regions in Southern Italy gain in popularity. But the cited explanation for the decline is a conundrum. Some say it’s because customers prefer softer, riper wines with less acidity that are easy to drink. Others claim that Chianti has adapted to this new style by adding soft, easy-drinking Cabernet and Merlot to the blend and has lost its traditional appeal. Can they both be right?

Along the same lines, California Syrah was booming in the 1990’s but has now fallen on hard times with many wineries abandoning the grape because consumers won’t buy it. Here, the explanation seems a bit more straightforward:

Statewide, we all witnessed the Syrah boom of the 1990s,” says viticulturist Greg Adams, winemaker for Baker Lane Vineyards in west Sonoma County. “A planting frenzy was ignited by a few quality-focused producers, and being a high-bearing variety, every farmer seemed like they needed to get in on the Syrah gold rush before their neighbors did, only to spark an unsustainable growth of a relatively marginal grape variety….The way this translated into the marketplace was with an ocean of average, overripe Syrah, which ended up being discounted due to an unmarketable oversupply,” says Adams.

There is a common theme here isn’t there? Consumers demanding more ripeness and bigger flavor. Wineries chasing the latest trend give it to them. But then the consumers get bored because over-ripe wines are, well, boring and so they lose interest.

You can blame the wine industry for chasing a fast buck but that would be like blaming lions for being predators. The real problem is consumers who think every wine should taste like Cabernet, and then wonder why they get bored when every wine tastes like Cabernet.

Wine drinking is like portfolio management—diversify!


*Yes. I know Cheval Blanc (pictured) is elegant Cab Franc and Merlot but I liked the picture.

Poor, Stressed Wine Drinkers Battered by Wine Experts



stressed wine drinkerMore drivel about wine and subjectivity, in this case, from a Professor of Oenology no less. In an article for US News and World Report entitled “You Aren’t Wrong About Wine” Anna Katherine Mansfield writes:

There’s no denying that sommeliers and and their ilk go through extensive training in order to match descriptive words to wine qualities, but that doesn’t mean that their description of a wine is right for you, or that you’re wrong if you don’t agree with it.

And after detailing the litany of reasons why people differ in what they taste and can describe in a wine, she offers balm to stressed out consumers worried about their tasting deficiencies:

This Valentine’s Day, pick a wine you already know you like, or one that you can taste at the store or winery before you buy, because all you really need to enjoy a glass is your own nose, your own palate, and good company to share it with.

Up to a point, this is good advice. Obviously you can enjoy a wine without analyzing it, and if you’re buying a wine for Valentine’s Day, wine appreciation probably isn’t the main thing you’ll have on your mind.

But the entire thrust of the article is that there are no standards by which to judge wine and everyone’s opinion is equally valid regardless of experience.

The problem is that if how a wine seems to you is your only consideration in judging wine quality, and there is nothing independent of your current opinion that your judgment must answer to—in other words if there is nothing to get right or wrong about a wine—you have no reason to explore wine further. You already know everything there is to know since there is nothing beyond your current sensations to discover.

Obviously this is a recipe for boredom and ignorance. The very idea of growth and development assumes that there is something you don’t know that requires further inquiry. (One would expect a university professor to know this. Go figure)

The article begins with a complaint about how often the taste of the wine does not conform to the tasting notes on wine bottles, which she argues are presumably written by experts. Well no. Tasting notes on wine bottles are written or at least vetted by marketing departments interested in selling wine. They use whatever descriptors will convince you to buy. So I wouldn’t take them as the standard.

But when you find that a tasting note by an independent critic does not conform to what you taste in a wine, the best thing to do is taste again and again in order to taste what the critic does. In the end you might not succeed because as individuals we sometimes do differ in what we can taste. But more often than not you will discover something about the wine that you didn’t taste before investigating.

The point of this is not that you want to train to be a sommelier but that you want to maximize your enjoyment of the wine. Quality wine always has more to give than what we are aware of in the present moment. The point of wine education is to enhance experience, not to diminish it.

This tendency, when writing for the public, to flatter everyone’s untutored opinion is neither good for the consumer nor good for the wine industry. It encourages the industry to produce mediocre wine and the public to accept it without question.

Wine Review: Dominio Pingus Ribera del Duero 2001


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pingusTake a small annual production of around 500 cases, add quality fruit from very old vines, and a high Parker score upon initial release and you get—a cult wine. Pingus certainly qualifies. Danish winemaker Peter Sisseck left Bordeaux and came to Spain to develop Hacienda Monasterio’s wine project, but was besotted by the old vine Tempranillo (tinto fino) he found while exploring Ribera del Duero. He snapped up the vineyards, started his own label and entered his wine in the 1996 Bordeaux en primeur tasting where Robert Parker gave it a score of 96-100, commenting that it was one of the most exciting wines he had ever tasted. Now you rarely find it for under $800 per bottle.

Happily my wine tasting group was able to secure a bottle.

The secret of their success, aside from wonderful vineyards, is low yields—under 1 ton per acre compared to the generally recognized standard of 3.7 tons per acre and well under even the best Bordeaux chateaux. 2001 was the first year in which the grapes were certified bio-dynamic. At the time Sisseck was using 100% new French oak for 24 months, although in recent vintages he has been dialing back the oak treatment with primarily 2nd use barrels.

The test of a fine wine is in the finish and the finish on this wine is gorgeous—smoky, long and lifted with tannins the texture of cashmere. The nose is rich and powerful with blackberry and smoke dominant. Floral, red fruit and balsamic notes unfurl as the wine sits in the glass. As is often the case with great wines, the complexity emerges gradually over time. On the palate, the wine is dark-fruited and laced with roasted meat notes but the expectation of weight and concentration isn’t quite fulfilled. Surprisingly buoyant and elegant, it’s expansive at midpalate but never throws a big punch seamlessly wending its way to that ravishing finish.

Generally speaking, Spanish wines are defined by oak with vineyard expression playing a less important role. But a finish like that is made in the vineyard not in the barrel. This is about very carefully tended old vines, low yields, and precise berry selection.

It naturally invites comparisons with Ribera del Duero’s other renowned wine—Vega Sicilia Unico (which I reviewed in 2015). The Pingus is 100% Tempranillo while the Vega Sicilia is blended with 20% Cabernet. That is a crucial difference. Memory is an unreliable guide but Vegas Sicilia Unico had more complexity and power which is to be expected given the addition of Cabernet.

Another apt comparison is with another pricey product from Northern Spain–Bodega Numanthia-Termes “Termanthia” from Toro. The 2005, which we also tasted at this sitting, was huge, concentrated, and alcoholic with robust oak expression and soft tannins—a lovely wine but lacking the finesse of the Pingus.

At these prices one wants perfection. In the end, I was only modestly disappointed in the Pingus. I needed more midpalate depth for the experience to be complete but the elegant finish almost made up for it.

Score: 95

Price: $719

Alc: 14%

Spare, elongated melodic contours will highlight a finish like this.

Wine and Cannabis


pot and wineI keep coming across stories in which people in the wine industry are worried about the effect legal pot will have on wine sales. This article in Wine Searcher summarizes the very thin data available on the topic thus far:

Anecdotal evidence from a handful of sources I spoke to in Colorado implied that wine sales seemed to be on the rise since weed was legally first sold in 2014. It seems to be a bit of the “Amsterdam affect”, with visitors indulging in both a pre-dinner smoke and some nice wine during their meal.

According to the Washington, DC-based Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) analysis of government data, the evidence is inconclusive. “If we compare 2011, the year before voting in either state [Colorado and Washington], to 2014 the last year for which complete National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism data is available, per capita consumption of wine is up 1.74 percent in Colorado and down 0.5 percent in Washington State. This compares to the US average,” of an increase of 1.17 percent, according to a DISCUS analysis cited by David Ozgo, the group’s chief economist.

The marketing director for Duckhorn Vineyards said:

“Being able to toast life’s special milestones and enjoy wine with great friends and a terrific meal is quite different from the marijuana experience.”

True, but what’s the matter with both? One beverage director in Aspen noted:

“…the quantity of wine ordered may be lesser and of better quality as discerning guests who smoked at home might drink less wine when they are out.”

Bingo! If you like wine with complexity and finesse a little sensory enhancement is just what you want. And why waste a good joint on a bad bottle? I’m sure there’s a marketing department somewhere ready with a line of Sativa Syrah and Purple Power Pinot.

The wine industry is justifiably anxious about labor supply issues and climate change. I wouldn’t worry about legal pot.

The Harvest 2018


birds eating grapesIf you care about wine and food you should care about this issue.

“President” Trump has begun to carry out his campaign promise of deporting millions of undocumented workers. Here’s some facts he probably doesn’t know:

The statistics:

There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, of which 5.8 million (52 percent) are Mexican (down from 12 million in 2009). Source: Department of Homeland Security.

The highest percentage, about 16 percent, of all undocumented immigrants work in the agriculture industry. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

Without undocumented immigrants in the workforce, fruit production would decline by 30 to 61 percent. Source: American Farm Bureau Federation.

The “idea” behind this brutal policy is to save jobs for American workers. Here are some more facts he probably doesn’t know.

In 2011, the North Carolina Growers Association had 6,500 farm jobs available, all of them in or next to counties with unemployment rates greater than 10 percent. Only 268 of the roughly 500,000 unemployed applied. Fully 90 percent of them were hired, but only 163 showed up to work on the first day, and only seven workers completed the growing season. Source: Joint report of the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development.

Your beloved bottle of Chardonnay will soon skyrocket in price if you can find it at all since the grapes will now be picked by birds.

The Art of Wine: Opus One


opus-oneArt has a reputation for being cut off from everyday life, existing in a separate realm of sumptuous galleries, cloistered museums, outrageous prices, and snobbish patrons. That view of the art world ignores all the local art in communities throughout the world which is accessible and can be enormously satisfying, but such is our fascination with celebrity and money that we think of the art world in those terms. I suppose it is then fitting to kick off this inaugural post in a series about the art of wine with a winery that perhaps best represents the celebrity and ostentation of the art world—Opus One.

Opus One certainly has pedigree. It began as a partnership of Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac, France, and the renowned Robert Mondavi who helped build Napa winemaking from the ground up—a marriage of French aristocracy and American immigrant grit. They made their first vintage in 1979 using the Mondavi facility, moving to their current location in 1991.

Visiting Opus One  is indeed like visiting a modern art museum. The building is a massive, cream-colored, laterally-elongated, modern mansion that seems to grow naturally out of the hill on which it’s perched. Mondavi likened it to a space ship, but the central courtyard bounded by colonnades on each side and an interior adorned with limestone mantels and opera chairs is an intriguing amalgam of old and new.

Upon entering the hushed foyer with classical music playing gently in the background you are greeted by a “concierge”, a charming, yet formal woman whose job it seems is to check your reservation and escort you to the tasting room—in other words a greeter.

In the contemporary, but understated tasting room, bathed as always in classical music, you walk to the bar where a charming yet formal young man gives you an information packet, explains the very limited options for tasting, and pours your wine which you can then take to a nearby couch served by a coffee table, or weather permitting, to an adjoining courtyard. The formal young man was slightly more knowledgeable than a moonlighting college student when I asked him questions about the wine, but only slightly.

Opus One makes two wines: their flagship Cabernet-based blend and a non-vintage second wine called Overture. The cost without the tour is $50 per glass for a healthy 5 oz. pour of their flagship wine; the Overture was available for tasting as well.

All of this is a bit precious and pretentious and is clearly designed to project an image of old world, aristocratic, class and sophistication. But it does have an aesthetic purpose. We were able to sit quietly and undisturbed for a considerable length of time and think about the wine. The atmosphere invites contemplation which is not true of many winery tasting rooms (or art museums for that matter). If you spend much time exploring the art world, pretention is part of the landscape. Why should the wine world be any different? Yes, great wine can be appreciated without the trappings of luxury; but some of the connections to a different time and place would be lost without them.

What makes Opus One worthy of mention in a series on the Art of Wine? As you know if you’ve been reading my work on the aesthetics of wine, I think fine wines that are intended to provide a distinctive aesthetic experience are works of art. Opus One surely qualifies as fine wine. But in particular, it’s an iconic wine that succeeded in bringing a European, classical, wine sensibility to the warmer climate and richer soils of Napa. In 1979, it represented the coming of age for Napa wines which could not only compete on the world stage with Bordeaux but enter into an equal partnership with the most storied wine region in the world. Artworks not only represent their subject matter but make statements about them as well. Opus One not only represents the blending of these two glorious wine traditions but speaks eloquently of this merger of two sensibilities, striking a balance between opulent, generous, accessible California fruit and the restrained, steely, elegance and finesse of Bordeaux. It tastes like what it means and that is the essence of fine art.

Thus, instead of worrying about pretention we should celebrate this icon for its meaning as well as its flavor.

But is the wine really that good? We were fortunate on the day we tasted because they were pouring their 2011 as well as their 2013 which made for an interesting comparison. 2011 was a very difficult year, with cool weather throughout most of the summer and excessive rain during flowering that disrupted fruit set. The weather in 2013 by contrast was close to perfection.  A good wine should bear the marks of its vintage and in this case the difference was very apparent in the glass.

The 2013 was dense with expressive dark and red fruits but set off by plentiful herbal aromas and black olive. It has a bright rather than brooding aspect with chocolate and crushed rock emerging with time in the glass. The palate is rich and viscous upfront and maintains its roundness and depth even as fine-grained, satin-like tannins take the stage, which then fade rapidly through the soft, elegant finish. What it lacks in length it makes up for in sheer charm and polish. The oak is extremely well done, already well-integrated and never a distraction. The blend is 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Petite Verdot, and 2% Malbec.

The 2011 has less exuberant fruit and is more deft than dense. The cassis with cranberry undertones and floral notes are pleasing but upstaged by prominent thyme and bay leaf. Cocoa, earth and toast are beginning to emerge so there is ample complexity developing as the wine ages in the bottle. On the palate, the wine opens gently with a delicate touch. The tannins have softened considerably but the finish lacks length and seems to fall apart a bit as the tart acidity is exposed and the texture becomes firm and less yielding as it evolves in the mouth. This is a good wine but surely not extraordinary although it may surprise us and age quite well. The blend is 71% Cabernet, 11% Merlot, 9% Petite Verdot, 8% Cabernet France, and 1% Malbec.

Opus One uses high density planting in their vineyards, more typical of Bordeaux than California, which produces smaller berries with higher skin to juice ratios. The grapes are harvested in lots, sent through their optical sorter, and then dropped directly via gravity into fermentation tanks where the lots are fermented separately using a mix of propagated yeasts found in their winery and vineyards. The wine is aged in new French oak from several coopers; the 2013 saw 17 1/2 months in oak. It then spends about 3 years in bottle before release.

In the end, these wines are really about polish. They exude refinement and grace and, if those qualities are the most important to you, Opus One will be compelling. They lack the pure power of Harlan and I prefer the paradox of delicate, feminine nose and massive structure of Screaming Eagle. A more precise comparison might be Corison with whom Opus One shares the goal of classic elegance and herbal penumbra.

It is worth pointing out that Napa’s “cult” Cabernets, if you can find one, sell for several hundred dollars more than the $300 price tag of Opus One, and with an annual production of around 25,000 you can actually get your hands on a bottle without too much trouble. That in itself is an accomplishment in a wine world in which the very best are often out of reach.

Dieters Whistling Past the Graveyard


diet fadsEating all foods in moderation is a good idea as a general rule and there are sound environmental reasons for avoiding excessive meat consumption. But this article in The Atlantic entitled “Eating Toward Immortality” brilliantly nails the culture of dieting that can become an obsession and a moral crusade:

The heroes of contemporary diet culture are wellness gurus who claim to have cured themselves of fatness, disease, and meaninglessness through the unimpeachable purity of cold-pressed vegetable juice. Many traditional heroes earn their status by confronting and defeating death, like Hercules, who was granted immortality after a lifetime of capturing or killing a menagerie of dangerous beasts, including the three-headed dog of Hades himself. Wellness gurus are the glamorously clean eaters whose triumph over sad, dirty animality is evidenced by fresh, thoughtfully-lit photographs of green smoothies in wholesome Mason jars, and by their own bodies, beautifully rendered.

Why all this focus on “clean eating”?

At a fundamental level, people may feel a twinge of guilty for having a body, taking up space, and having appetites that devour the living things around us. They may crave expiation of this guilt, and culture provides not only the means to achieve plentiful material comfort, but also ways to sacrifice part of that comfort to achieve redemption. It is not enough for wellness gurus to simply amass the riches of health, beauty, and status—they must also deny themselves sugar, grains, and flesh. They must pay….Overwhelmed by choice, by the dim threat of mortality that lurks beneath any wrong choice, people crave rules from outside themselves, and successful heroes to guide them to safety. People willingly, happily, hand over their freedom in exchange for the bondage of a diet that forbids their most cherished foods, that forces them to rely on the unfamiliar, unpalatable, or inaccessible, all for the promise of relief from choice and the attendant responsibility.

But the ultimate explanation for diet fads:

This is why diet culture seems so religious. People adhere to a dietary faith in the hope they will be saved. That if they’re good enough, pure enough in their eating, they can keep illness and mortality at bay. And the pursuit of life everlasting always requires a leap of faith.

I’m sure this article will drive some people crazy; the comments are worth reading because they hilariously confirm the author’s thesis. Obviously, some people have food allergies or specific ailments that require a diet. But most dieting is carried out by relatively healthy people who simply have some vague notion that it’s good for them, despite the constant turmoil in the relatively young science of nutrition that is plagued with the uncertainties of studying an enormously complex organism.

I suppose there is nothing wrong with a little whistling past the graveyard; after all who doesn’t like music. But in the end we’re all going to die and I doubt a kale shake in the morning will delay it much. If the self-denial of dieting makes you feel better by all means go for it but we can do without the moralizing that too often comes along for the ride.

Budget Wine Review: Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2014


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columbia crest cab sauvWe have a winner in our budget Cabernet competition. The Columbia Crest was the best of this bunch but only narrowly beating out Mondavi. The results were:

1. Columbia Crest  88

2. Robert Mondavi Private Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2014  87

3. Rex Goliath Cabernet Sauvignon NV  83

4. Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon NV 82

Columbia Crest is a Cab for Cab lovers. The others were bright and fruity; only the Columbia Crest approached the dark, almost angry aspect we expect from Cabernet. Fans of the “dark” and “black” wines now flooding the market will enjoy this Cabernet without all the cheesy marketing.

Aromatic with ripe, dark and red fruit, chocolate and caramel hints that promise some intensity if not complexity. In the mouth it’s very juicy but dry with persistent creaminess that carries all the way through the modest finish. The dark toast notes were a bit over the top with some bitterness in the oak register, also apparent on the finish. Medium weight with low acidity, it offers just enough tannic support to remind you this is Cabernet. There is quite a bit of the barrel showing which is what gives it the dark mood but it gets distracting.

Some critics are scoring this in the low 90’s. It’s not that impressive but for the price this is a solid wine.

80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc. The wine spends 12 months in 65% older and 35% new oak barrels, both French and American.

It should be noted that the top 2 scorers in this face off were the most expensive wines, double the cost of the Barefoot. In this case you get what you pay for.

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

Something smooth, middle-of-the-road and utterly paranoia-inducing creepy evokes the duality of this wine

Jefford Needs to Get Out More



bubble boyIn an otherwise reasonable post about whether wine scores should take into account the price of the wine, Decanter’s Andrew Jefford makes a comment that makes me question his sentience if not his sanity.

If you are rigorously honest about the level of attainment of the world’s finest, then the wines of “up-and-coming” regions, even the most successful, would be condemned to scores of less than 70 points, since they are comprehensively adrift of the quality summits. By any universal scale, few wines of regions of ordinary attainment could hope to score much more than 80 points. It would be hard for any wine from a non-classic region (or a ‘non-noble’ grape variety) to obtain a perfect score, or even a score in the high 90s.

Huh? The wines of up-and-coming regions condemned to scores of less than 70? This is complete bullshit. Firstly, most publications never publish scores below 80 because wines that drop below 80 are flawed and virtually undrinkable. Even very ordinary supermarket wines made from generic grapes harvested from California’s Central Valley routinely score in the low 80’s. To claim that the best wines from Virginia, New York, or Arizona are unworthy of lowly $5 plonk in the supermarket is just tripe. He seems unaware of what his own publication is doing. Decanter recently gave Belwether’s Sawmill Creek Vineyard Dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes a 94, a score which it richly deserved!

I travel extensively through these emerging regions in the U.S sampling the best wines I can find and I almost always find some wines worthy of scores in the low 90’s. Granted the best of Virginia or New York may never compete with Lafite or La Tâche, although given the progress they’re making this cannot be ruled out. In any case, 100 point wines should be exceedingly rare if the 100 pt. system is to have meaning. But making wine worthy of scores in the mid 80’s is now routine for most emerging regions with some exceptional producers doing considerably better with their best cuvees.

I have always admired Jefford for his writing talent, thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm for wine. But I’m afraid his bubble has become impenetrable . Perhaps he pines for the “good old days” of a rigid wine aristocracy before the rabble learned the mysteries of fermentation.