Budget Wine: Blackstone Merlot Winemaker’s Select California 2015



blackstone merlotWe’ve all had the experience of meeting someone who seems interesting and compelling when you first meet only to find out their really boring and irritating when you get to know them. That was was my experience with this wine from the conglomerate Constellation Brands.

The nose of plum, coffee and milk chocolate is bold but simple. In the mouth it’s chocolate smooth and fruity like most budget Merlots, with powdery tannins and some obvious sugar that carries through from beginning to end. In the end, this sugary dimension kills the wine. I enjoyed the first few sips but after 4 or 5 it became so cloying I just wanted to spit it out. And the mercifully short finish falls apart with the acidity and fruit occupying separate worlds.

If I were grading only on effort it would get an A for trying to be sexy.

The 2011 vintage was a blend of 79% Merlot, 13% Syrah, 4% Petite Sirah, 2% Tannat, 2% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 11 months in a combination of French and American oak, 80% new. There is no updated information for more recent vintages.

Score: 82

Price: $9

Alc 13.5%

A perfectly engineered hit about sexy like “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” will make this wine live up to its promise.

Wine in the Land of Enchantment



Pockets of brilliance and lots of mediocrity sums up my assessment of New Mexico wines.

It will probably come as a surprise to learn that New Mexico is the oldest wine region in what is now the U.S. When Spanish conquistadors moved north out of Mexico in the 17th Century, Spanish priests followed in their wake bringing vines from Europe to provide wine for communion. The first vineyards, likely planted with the Mission grape, were established in 1629. The wine industry continued to grow even as the Spanish were thrown out and Mexico gained independence, producing 1 million gallons of wine in 1884. But not long after New Mexico became the 47th state in the U.S., prohibition devastated the wine industry and it remained dormant until La Viña Winery (still in operation) began planting French varietals in 1977. Today, New Mexico’s wine region is growing rapidly with 44 wineries in operation. It has the sun to ripen grapes and soils conducive to making wines with complexity and finesse. What it needs is a broader, sustained commitment to quality and good luck from the weather Gods especially in winter.

Vintners in New Mexico have some advantages but face unique challenges. Although most of the grapes are grown in the southern part of the state, especially near Deming where winters are relatively mild, there are some hardy vineyards in the north near Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, and Alamogordo that manage to survive frigid winter temperatures, at least in most vintages. Summer days are, of course, very hot but cool nights slow down the ripening process allowing flavor development and keeping acidity in the grapes. Disease and insect pressure tend to be low because of the dry climate. The viticultural challenges are late frosts and cold winters that will destroy vines not suited for the climate or planted in the wrong location. In some of the higher elevation vineyards, bud break happens the last week of April and harvest begins the last week in August. This is a short, hot growing season that requires skillful management in the vineyard to develop flavor before the sugars get too high.new-mexico-3

The cultural challenges are significant as well. The local population enjoys sweet wines and many tasting rooms feature them, sometimes pouring them first before getting to the dry wines. That is a boon for local traffic and sweeter wines play nicely with their chile-based local cuisine. But for wine lovers used to dry wines, it takes some getting used to, especially because tasting sweet wines first in a tasting menu will cause the dry wines to taste tart and thin in comparison. This is a dilemma for wineries. Some choose to satisfy local tastes; others want to compete for wine lovers more accustomed to drier styles. Some try to do both with varying degrees of success. One wine bar that offers tastings of New Mexican wine serves their pours in double tequila shot glasses—not so good for concentrating aromas. So there are some growing pains here.

Nevertheless, they have the soil and the climate to make fine wines and there is remarkably high quality among the best producers.

The story of New Mexican wine cannot be told without reference to Gruet, the sparkling wine producer. In the early 1980’s Champagne vigneron Gilbert Gruet decided to expand into the new world and settled on land south of Albuquerque as the place to make sparkling wine in the French style. They have since grown to achieve nationwide distribution. In 2014, their production was reported to be 125,000 cases.  Gruet sparkling wine is a great bargain at the low end with some bottles selling for around $12.  But their pricier, premium sparklers are excellent as well if you’re  looking for a celebration wine. If you visit their tasting room, be sure to taste their premium menu—it won’t disappoint. Their non-vintage Sauvage (Brut nature) stood out. It was crisp and taut with abundant apple, lemon, and brioche flavors and a long, chalky finish. However, success brings its own challenges. Their national distribution is putting pressure on their supply of New Mexican grapes especially in challenging vintages. They now import some grapes from Washington, Colorado and California to fill their fermenters although they intend to bring more New Mexican vineyards online to keep up with demand. Now in partnership with the large, Washington-based wine company Precept, with growth and reputation comes the inevitable corporate-style tasting room currently undergoing some remodeling. Will high-yield viticultural and bottom line corner cutting follow? Time will tell but this is a remarkable success story.

The other large winery in the state is St. Clair. A significant portion of their production is sold out of their bistros in Las Cruces, Albuquerque, and Farmington. They serve a full line up of whites and reds with several price tiers. I can’t comment on their food and their bistros are attractive but their wines were uneven. Their Lescombes line of more pricey limited release wines were mostly competent (except for a dreadful Syrah) but the lower priced reds left much to be desired. Among whites the Chenin Blanc stood out as interesting and refreshing.

Happily, artisan winemaking is alive and well in New Mexico. While too many wineries are focused on becoming tourist destinations and are content to pour wine of average quality or worse we found some real gems that would be standouts anyplace.


Casa Rondeña

Casa Rondeña, located on beautiful grounds not far from downtown Albuquerque, has been in business since 1995, and that experience shows. Inspired by the art and architecture of Spain, winemaker/owner John Calvin makes wines of structure and finesse.  Red wines are their specialty, especially the Bordeaux varietals and Syrah which are offered as blends as well as stand-along varietals. Here is my review of their Cabernet Franc and the blends are equally outstanding.

Milagro Vineyards also excels. This is a small operation producing only around 2000 cases in good vintages with all grapes coming from vineyards owned or controlled by winemaker/owner Rick Hobson. Just a few minutes of conversation with him shows he cares little for big profits, big crowds or marketing hype. It’s all about quality which shows up in every bottle. These are old world-style wines with great elegance and vitality. The reds are held in neutral oak for at least two years before release, an expensive proposition for small wineries, but necessary in order to develop complexity and texture. Here is my review of his Zinfandel.

These two wineries were among the most impressive we encountered this year.

In Southern New Mexico, the area around Las Cruces is developing into a center for tasting rooms and wineries. Winemaking here is less developed than in the North, perhaps due to the wealthier clientele in Albuquerque, but these wineries around Las Cruces show considerable promise. We enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo from Amaro Winery, an urban winery in Las Cruces. They also make a good Refosco, an Italian varietal that gets some attention in New Mexico. But perhaps the best wine from the Las Cruces area was an orange wine, called Queue Tendre, from Rio Grande Winery. An orange wine is made from white-skinned grapes that are left on the skins and seeds to extract some color and flavor and then are aged in oak. Winemaker Gordon Steel doesn’t publish the varietals that make up this wine but it is one of the better orange wines I’ve tasted. With 3% residual sugar it has plenty of sweetness but the tannins from the extraction give this wine a firm texture and racy acidity balances the fruit. The lemon oil aroma was simply beautiful. And near the Texas border La Viña Winery, the oldest, continuously operated winery in the state, makes simple, earthy wines, soul-stirring and satisfying. Their pretty, light-bodied Sangiovese won me over.

This is a region still finding its way seeking the right balance of entertainment venues and wine quality, goals which are not always in alignment. The reds are more highly developed than the whites. But as Rick Hobson told me “just about anything will grow here.” I would like to have a better handle on what is distinctive about New Mexican terroir. But it’s still too early in the game to have distinctive characteristics emerging consistently. “I don’t think we know yet what our terroir is,” said Hobson. Generally, varietals that ripen quickly and withstand extreme temperatures will do well. But they’re still sorting out how soil characteristics and clonal selection interact with climate. It should also be noted that many wineries are serving wines made from non-vinifera varieties that are more cold tolerant than our familiar vinifera varieties. I have yet to develop an appreciation of these wines but these experiments are exciting because, if successful, they greatly expand the possibilities for New Mexican vintners.

As with all emerging wine regions, to reach their potential there must be a critical mass of producers dedicated to, not just making decent wine to sell, but to making the best wine they can. New Mexico is approaching that critical mass. As noted, the challenge is cold winter temperatures. Many vineyards are still recovering from the 2011 winter that destroyed vines and harmed yields.

We were able to taste wines from only about half the wineries in the state. I suspect there are more gems out there to be discovered in our next visit.

Wine Review: TerraVox Lomanto Missouri 2015


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terravoxI must confess to being a vinifera chauvinist. The best wines in the world are made from the grape species vitis vinifera of which all the familiar varietals–Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc.—are sub-species. But vinifera is fussy. It doesn’t survive really cold winters. It is susceptible to rot and disease pressure in humid environments and needs warm days and cool nights to develop structure. In most of the U.S., growing vinifera is a struggle. Thus, outside the prime grape-growing regions of the Western states, there is a long history of seeking out other species or hybrid varieties that can survive in harsh climates. Today, most wineries across the U.S. make wine from vinifera but they are constantly experimenting with non-vinifera varieties or hybrids hoping to find varietals that will make great wine without the liabilities of vitis vinifera.

I haven’t found any non-vinifera wines that truly impress but that is in part because I’m not used to tasting them. But as wine lovers we should be open to trying them. The successes will make our future much more interesting.

One of the most comprehensive attempts to find, catalogue and ultimately cultivate non-vinifera grapes was carried out by Texas viticulturist T.V. Munson who developed the Lomanto grape in 1902 as a hybrid of Salado and Malaga (AKA Semillon or Pense). Vox Winery in Kansas City has taken on the project of making wine from some of these traditional varieties under the TerraVox label, including this Lomanto.

Dense purple in color, the initial impression on the nose is bold, intense blueberry with equally prominent layers of earth and eucalyptus. The earth/eucalyptus pair is quite unusual in that they are not mere hints or nuances but share center stage with the fruit.

On the palate the entry is rich and juicy but develops a pronounced lemon character midpalate as the sweet fruit fades and sourness takes over on the finish. The tannins are extremely soft so the tart flavors are exposed causing some puckering. The lemon character in a red wine is again unusual but it grows on you. The texture is soft and tranquil really quite lovely. And when I paired it with a roasted tomato salsa, the match was extraordinary. It’s also one of the few wines that will really pair well with catsup. This wine needs tomato like Astaire needs Rogers.

I know you’re asking “well is it any good or not”. Compared to what?

The mouth feel is promising, the bold, in your face aromas intriguing and impressive, if only the lemon character was dialed back a bit. I have never tasted a wine like this; originality has value. This won’t make anyone forget Pinot Noir but the point of revitalizing these long forgotten varieties is that they expand the expressive range of wine and give it more things to be. It will take winemakers decades to figure out how best to grow and vinify these varietals.

It’s time we got curious about non-vinifera grapes. This is my first encounter with Lomanto so no score can be offered. But I look forward to trying more.

Score: N/A

Alc: 13.1%

Price: $35

As Elvis says “Would it kill you to show us a little sweetness?”

Top Fine Wines from 2016


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wine toast 2I taste a lot more wine than I end up reviewing because I like to taste under controlled conditions when writing reviews and most winery visits or public tastings are not conducive to the kind of concentration I need.

Unfortunately, I’m not really good at keeping track of what I sample. So end-of-the- year reflections on my favorites from 2016 are subject to all kinds of selection bias including giving more weight to wines I have tasted recently.

The wine that is sticking in my memory right now is the 1999 Napa Valley Cabernet from Corison Winery. This wine is 17 years from its vintage date. Yet it tastes as fresh as if it were bottled yesterday and gives the additional satisfaction of a lovely, velvet texture and aging characteristics that produce great complexity.

Early in the year, I enjoyed an Andre Brunel Les Cailloux Cuvee Centenaire 2007 that had all the meaty, balsamic, olive-scented glory we expect from top-of-the-line Chateauneuf du Pape.

The Opus One 2013 Bordeaux-style blend is gorgeous although still a bit young. It is opulent but not overbearing and is developing silky elegance and aromatic complexity as the cedar notes are just beginning their transformation to cigar box.

And as usual Bonny Doon gets my award for most original wine.  Aged sur lie in 5 gallon, glass carboys for 23 months, the textured mélange of earth and herbs in their Rhone-style blend  Cigare Volante Bonbonne Reserve 2009 will have you scratching your head in wonder.

This wasn’t a year for pursuing Pinot Noir and none appear on my list of favorite reviewed wines below. But the 2007 Russian River Pinot Noir from Winesmith was stunning, delicious, and well-preserved.

So much for my faulty memory.

As to the wines I had the opportunity to write about, the following earned the highest scores:

Modus Operandi Cellars Antithesis 2012 Red Blend Napa Valley  95 pts.

Casa Rondeña Cabernet Franc New Mexico 2014 93 pts.

Kemmeter Wines Riesling Seneca Lake 2015 93 Pts.

Xurus Cabernet Sauvignon Sonatina Vineyard Lake County 2009 93 Pts.

Col Solare Red Wine Columbia Valley 2006  93 Pts.

It’s good to see two American wines from lesser-known wine regions on this list. And it should come as no surprise that most of the wines receiving mention here have significant age on them. You cannot make great wine without time.

My Top Budget Wines of 2016


domaine de vaufugetHere are the best budget wines (under $12) that I reviewed in 2016. The top score this year in the budget category was an 89 achieved by this lovely Vouvray. The rest were all given a score of 88 so they are in no particular order.

The Champ:

Domaine de Vaufuget Vouvray 2014  89 Pts.


The Runners up:

Banfi Chianti Superiore 2014

Banfi Centine Toscano IGT 2013

Bogle Vineyards Essential Red 2014

Trapiche “Oak Cask” Malbec Mendoza 2014

Bodegas Mas Que Vinos Ercavio Tempranillo Tierra De Castilla 2013

Loscano Torrontes Private Reserve Cafayate 2014

Domaine Bousquet Finca Lalande Cabernet Sauvignon Mendoza 2013

Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir Monterey County 2013

Bodegas Iranzo Spartico Organic Tempranillo Utiel-Requena NV

Bodegas Breca Garnacha de Fuego Old Vines Calatayud 2013

The Chefs Speak Out


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the chefs speakLucky Peach in their issue on fine dining interviewed chefs from around the world on the state of fine dining. Here are a few insightful excerpts but the whole piece is worth reading:


Rene Redzepi, chef of Noma in Copenhagen on fine dining today:

In fine dining, there can be a lot of the same, and that’s a problem the guidebooks created. Although they increased the standard, they also made everything very formulaic: you needed a slab of foie gras and pigeon or beef on the menu. Today, it’s different. Fine dining restaurants will have to showcase more of the natural world to stand out—we’re going to have to be explorers. A lovely piece of steak or a nice piece of lobster won’t be enough—everybody can get that. At Noma, for instance, we’re vegetarian six months of the year.

Ben Shewry chef of Attica in Melbourne Australia on what draws him to fine dining:

In one word: freedom. That’s why I’m drawn to it. That’s why I run the business the way I do, because I feel like I have the freedom to decide whatever I want at the restaurant. People come to see our expression of cooking and hospitality; they don’t want to see another person’s or another organization’s expression.

Josh Skenes of Saison in San Francisco on availability:

We have to accept that if you’re going to cook really great food it can’t be on a really large scale, right? I don’t even like how big Saison is now. The quality of the products we have here is as good or better than anywhere in the country, but even for me, I still want, you know, better shit, because there is better shit that exists in the world.

Yannick Alleno of Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen on the future of fine dining:

To prepare the French cuisine of the twenty-first century, because it’s going to be very strange. Socially, it’s going to be a very disturbed century, so we as cooks should prepare for that. It’s going to be very different in ecological terms. French cuisine is still really stuck on the codes of the nineteenth century; it’s not ready yet for the twenty-first. It’s important that we reflect.

Liz Benno, who worked at Craft and for Mario Batali:

I would like to see fine dining not be bashed as much as it has been. It should be treated differently from casual dining, especially in the reviews. It’s different, and it needs to be treated differently. To have nine courses at Per Se, different for each person depending on which tasting menu they choose, be given two stars—the same as Superiority Burger… There’s a huge difference. Casual restaurants should be just as appreciated, just differently.

David Kinch, chef of Manresa in Los Gatos, California on the purpose of fine dining:

I want people to come in and leave everything, including their cellphones, and their angst, and their anxieties, and leave their entire frantic outside world—that’s what fine dining does. Talk to this person in front of you, enjoy that glass of wine, how it matches this dish that we worked on all day. Appreciate what we do, because you’re paying a lot of money, and it’s a failed business model if we don’t deliver the perception of the value. You go to the latest hipster places that everybody says are replacing fine dining—it’s loud, it’s noisy, and everyone is on their phone anyway.

Anita Lo, chef of New York’s Annisa Restaurant on the economic climate for fine dining restaurants

Things have to change. Our industry is broken in many ways, it’s incredibly hard. Everyone seems to be trying to do their fast-casual concept and a lot of these higher end restaurants are closing and it’s very sad to see.

We can’t find cooks anymore. The problem is money. New York has been the culinary center of North America on some level, but it can’t continue the way it’s going. We’re losing restaurants. I find it outrageous that someone like Bill Telepan can’t make it—he’s a really great chef with a big name. They raised the minimum wage for waiters, and his restaurant couldn’t handle it. For a tiny little restaurant that just doesn’t make sense. I’m a liberal and I totally get why you need policy for places like Denny’s. But was that really necessary for a high-end place where waiters are making decent money from tips?

We’ve tried out a no-tipping policy, and it hasn’t been great. We’ve lost a lot of diners. I think people just don’t get it—they have sticker shock and don’t really get what it means.

Budget Wine: Banfi Chianti Superiore 2014



banfi chiantiThis is not your standard bottom shelf Chianti. It’s a riper, darker-fruited Chianti, with some raisin notes and a layer of milk chocolate–but also plenty of prominent earth notes and tobacco to redeem it. With aeration the more typical sour cherry flavor becomes more apparent.

In the mouth, the introduction is bold with an impression of sweetness but the midpalate turns angular and hard with a very dry, course finish featuring tart sour cherry and spice. This is an interesting evolution from plump to austere leaving an overall impression of rusticity. Tannins are sandy and acidity ample enough to give the wine life, albeit a life that ends in tragedy.

Superiore on the label in Chianti simply means the grapes come from one of the non-Classico sub-regions of Chianti and the wine must be aged nine months, of which 3 months must be in bottle. This version from Banfi was aged 4-5 months in French barrique and includes 10% Cabernet Sauvignon as well as a bit of Canaiolo with the Sangiovese.

A unique expression, riper with more oak treatment and sort of brash especially as it finishes, it’s not classic but stays close enough to the real thing to give satisfaction at its price.

Score: 88

Price: $11

Alc.: 12.5%

Corey Harris’s Santoro has the right mix of earth and blues to resonate with the spirit of this wine.

Misleading Headline Case #692

newspaperNPR that bastion of objective reporting published the following headline on the Salt for a story that ran on All Things Considered as well:

“How Much Is Too Much? New Study Casts Doubts On Sugar Guidelines”

It makes you think that triple scoop of Baskin Robbins may not be so bad for you after all, doesn’t it.

The headline is utter nonsense. First of all, we find slipped into a sentence in the second paragraph that this is an industry-funded study. Hmm. I wonder why they decided to publish and promote this?

But more importantly, when you read the study it shows nothing of the kind. This so-called “study”, which is just a meta-study of the real science and involves no new data, shows that the science behind choosing a specific guideline about how much sugar should be a part of one’s diet is uncertain.  Should it be 5% or 10%? The science isn’t fine grained enough to be sure.

Well of course that’s uncertain. It would be enormously expensive and time consuming to do studies that would sort out with high probability the precise healthy level of sugar in our diets.

But the fact that we don’t know what the precise guidelines are does not entail there should be no guidelines at all. This bit of elementary logic seems to escape the attention of the vaunted reporters and editors at our flagship news outlet.

And did the reporter investigate to see if this meta-study left out important contrary research that might be relevant? No e

Of course, specific guidelines are going to be a best guess. That is the best medical authorities can do until we get much more data.

But nothing in the underlying data casts doubt on the role of sugar in obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.

When the history of the post-truth society is written (should there be a future in which people care about such matters) it will be media organizations that will be justly held responsible.

No one has any good reason to read or listen to these people who claim to be journalists.

Wine Review: Engracia Saint Laurent Carneros 2014


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engracia-st-laurentSaint Laurent is a grape you probably have never heard of unless you travel to Eastern Europe. I first encountered it in Prague last summer where it is sold to Americans as a local, cool climate substitute for Cabernet Sauvignon. It is the most widely planted grape in the Czech Republic and is prevalent in Austria but I had never seen it in the U.S. until I came across this small producer in Sonoma who has, as far as I can tell, cornered the market in the U.S.

Dark berries and cranberries meld while intense coriander highlights and violets give the wine warmth. These are focused aromas against a hazy vanilla background–quite mysterious, a bit like Syrah in its fruit-spice-floral mix. The palate opens with bursts of high toned yet restrained acidity resting on a lovely, soft velvet texture with some ingratiating oiliness, really an intriguing textural contrast.  The palate flavors show bright red fruits morphing into blood orange as it evolves in the mouth; the tannins are very fine forming a bed of light powder under the more persistent, tangy acidity. This achieves a lovely balance of incisive, taut top notes and a tender, seductive foundation, like a perfect marriage of the best aspects of Syrah and Pinot Noir. And the alcohol comes in at 12.5%, almost unheard of in California red wine.

The grapes are sourced from the Ricci Vineyard in Carneros.

Not much is known about the origins of St. Laurent although the speculation is it’s a natural mutation from Pinot Noir originating in France. Engracia owner and winemaker Mike Faulk has done an outstanding job with this little known grape which has a reputation for being difficult. If other producers can unlock more of it’s secrets (and more vineyards decide to plant it) it has a real future in the U.S.

This bottling will be available soon from Engracia; in the meantime try their lovely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Score: 92

Price: N/a

Alc: 12.5%

The gentle, floating-on-air quality of Letting Go by Nitin Sawhney captures the textural dimensions of this wine.