Thursday, March 29, 2012

An Italian, Languedoc, and NZ Wine Good Picks

This wine review update includes a really nice Italian, dynamite Southern France red, and an affordable, dependable New Zealand Sauv Blanc.

Piancornello 2009 Rosso di Montalcino - This Sangiovese based wine from Tuscany's Montalcino region delivers for the price point.

I like Sangiovese and enjoy most Italian wines. So many of the cheaper Chianti wines are harsh, unbalanced, and overly acidic. For Italian novice wine fans, the Rosso Montalcino is essentially the table wine of the great Brunello region.

I found the wine smooth with dark cherry, berry,  and earthy characteristics. This is great red wine for pasta. This is also a wine that you can find anywhere from $14.99-$23. Robert Parker gave the Rosso 90 points.

I'd also add for those who have a hard time tracking down particular wines, look for a Rosso di Montalcino. They are affordable and in many ways better than a Chianti at the same price point.

Piancornello 2009 Rosso di Montalcino, $21.99, Recommended.
Paul Mas 2009 Carignan Vieilles Vignes - This is great wine from Southern France. I'm really falling for Languedoc wines and particularly 100 percent Carignan. The grape is a bit of a rascal. It can be fickle for growers and can be quite tanninic and acidic.

The wine has a real terroir-driven taste. You get a mouthful of dirt with this southern French grape. There is really dark fruit like plum and spice like cinnamon. This is dry red wine that  provides wine drinkers something really different.

The alcohol is in check with this wine at 13.5 percent.  The richness of this wine comes from Carignan vines that are more than 50 years old.

If you want to try something different at an affordale price point, look for some 100 percent Carignan from Southern France.

Paul Mas 2009 Carignan, $14.99, Indy's Cork & Cracker, Highly Recommended

Fire Road 2011 Sauvignon Blanc
- This is a really nice Sauv Blanc that consistently delivers for a $12 wine. This is the wine you want for your Salmon or chicken off the grill
The Sauv Blanc is a little lighter bodied than many and certainly not quite as acidic. There is good acid on the finish but not what many would be looking for in a traditional Sauv Blanc.

Tasting notes I found online talked about flavors of gooseberry, which I can't deny, but I get typical crisp lemon and grapefruit citrus.

This is a great choice for about any seafood.

Fire Road 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, $11.99 at Cork & Cracker, Recommended. Can be found as low as $9.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Domaine Serene Delivers Vintage to Vintage

Domaine Serene Tasting Room

I visited Oregon's Willamette Valley in July, 2011, and had one of the best 'wine times' of my life hitting up a number of prominent wineries.

I did a photo essay for Palate Press, blogged each day here about the trip, and wrote a newspaper column about the experience. Part of my wine-writing work got left in a folder for way too long. I had pitched a full video about the experience to Palate Press but they never bought into the idea. So I have some really interesting interviews with prominent winemakers and others who make Willamette a special place.

Obviously, those pieces have set too long. But the information is as fresh today as the day I first heard it. I'm going to share a number of those over the next two weeks. I had a long chat with Don Lange of Lange Vineyards, Don Hagge of Vidon, the two delightful ladies who own/make and entertain at the Republic of Jam and more.

One of our most enjoyable stops on that trip was Domaine Serene. That winery consistenly scores big points from the two leading national magazines and wine critics for its supurb Pinot Noir. The price points are a bit higher than the already significant prices of most Oregon premier Pinot. But you have to taste the wines to understand.

Talking and touring with Serene's Willett
The entry level is "Yamhill Cuvee" at $45, though you might find it slightly lower at retail stores. What you learn when you visit vineyards is how premium producers take extraordinary care in every step of the winemaking process.

During my July visit we met Lucas Willett, Hospitality Director, who gave a great tour and fabulous tasting of the Domaine Serene wines. He also shared what was my first white Pinot Noir. Yes, you read that right.

These videos I'll share over the next two weeks are largely unedited or raw. It puts you in the tasting room and vineyard in a way that a slick edited piece doesn't. I decided to leave the vids as they were shot.

Below is Willett talking about the care Domaine Serene takes in making its wines and also about Serene's very unique white Pinot Noir.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Enthusiastic Floridian Rocking Languedoc

In a long line of unlikely stories, Ryan O’Connell might be near the top of any list. The gregarious 20-something has made waves in Southern France with social media, talk of tourism, and  unabashed enthusiasm.

I met Ryan while attending the 2012 Millesime Bio organic wine fair in Montpellier, France, in January. I met him after discovering his blog and making contact with marketing guru Louise Hurren. Hurren promotes a group of young winemakers called The Outsiders.

A young man in perpetual motion, Ryan O'Connell
O’Connell and his parents are certainly outsiders. O’Connell was a student at Tulane about the time his father was closing down his home construction business.  “I have this crazy dad who after a bottle of wine at dinner says, “one of these days we’re going to sell everything and buy a vineyard.’ I think whatever! Oh, Archie!”

But the senior O’Connell was more serious than his always-smiling son ever imagined. The O’Connell’s, and note the Mrs. Is of French descent, packed up and moved to the Languedoc region in Southern France. The result was O’Vineyards winery.

They were indeed outsiders. “We’ve definitely had our moments,” O’Connell said of being newcomers. “We’re the weird ones in the room. Then we have moments that prove we have been accepted by certain communities here. Some people were awesome early on. Then there are other times you definitely know others aren’t a fan.

“Even if you come from Toulouse, you can feel like you’re from really far away.”

Ryan has worked in exporting and with distributors and restaurants and found it all frustrating. He does work in the vineyard and winery with his father. They do use a consultant in winemaking but continue to take on more of the effort each year.

“Dad does tons of field work and construction on the winery,” O’Connell explained. “Mom does tons of administrative work and feeds us and whatever guests maybe are coming through. I do tons of computer work, traveling, and tasting wines.”

O’Connell sees his biggest challenges as growing social media usage and tourism in the region. “We’re a region with thousands of wineries,” he said. “It’s beautiful here. It’s easy to have a good time visiting two or three wineries. I’m trying to develop as many like-minded people.”

O’Vineyards welcomes tourists and even offers a Bed and Breakfast. Ryan shocked some neighbors when he decided to charge 25 Euro per person for a tour and tasting. But he explains the tour includes two hours with the winemaker and barrel tastings. Traditionally, wineries in the area never charge for a tasting and most wineries require an appointment.

Whether others follow suit remains to be seen but its cause O’Connell intends to pursue. He’s also made real inroads with social media and it all started with his popular blog, “Love That Languedoc.”

Ryan O’Connell gets noticed. And sometimes the notice comes from halfway around the world. He’s currently in California’s Napa Valley learning about the wine business there and Napa’s marketing machine. As one would expect, he’s blogging about the experience as “kid napa.”

Many of the things I’ve written about wine in recent years are about the people. O’Connell makes O’Vineyards a people business, not just wine. He’s bustling bundle of enthusiasm I’d never bet against.

Watch the video below: O'Connell talking about social media and Southern France.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Wisconsin's Wollersheim Winery Gets National Acclaim

Philippe Coquard, owner and winemaker at Wollersheim Winery

Any time a Midwestern winery can gain any top honor at a major, national wine competition it really should be big news. After visiting Wisconsin's Wollersheim Winery early last year, I"m not surprised.

While the San Diego International Wine Competition is not a head turner, it is an international affair with 12 countries and nearly 2000 wines. Wollersheim was named winery of the year and won six awards. Read about it here.

Wollersheim Winery
Check out my blog entry from the day I visited Wollersheim with this link. And this link for the story I wrote and was published on Plate Press - The National Online Wine Magazine about Wisconsin wine. That story includes a short video clip and several comments from Philippe Coquard, owner and winemaker at Wollersheim.

UPDATE: Just found a story from the Sauk Prairie Eagle, Wollersheim's hometown newspaper, about the honors. Read it here.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Catching Up On Recent Great Wines

Time to catch up on some recent wines I've enjoyed. There is a wide spectrum of wines in this group and certainly something for everyone's palate. I'm on a roll lately - these are all great wines!

Lioco Mendocino County 2010 Rose' - I like my Rose' and have made that clear here previously. This is one to try for those folks who turn their nose up at 'pink wine.' Take a sip of this ultra-dry Rose' and you'll forget any physical resemblance to some White Zinfandel. You might even think you've landed in Southern France where the Carignan grape reigns king.

This California wine is 100 percent Carignan and is just delightful. It's old vine grapes which makes for a full-flavored wine. It's color is closer to salmon than pink. It has just a hint of watermelon with more pronounced strawberry - not just strawberry, but strawberry picked fresh from the vine.

This fabulous Rose' would be awesome with crackers and cheese, heavy crusted bread, grilled fish or a mushroom dish. I bought this bottle at Cork & Cracker in Indianapolis. 

Lioco Mendocino County 2010 Rose', $14.99, Very Highly Recommended

LangeTwins Winery Midnight Reserve - This Cabernet, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec blend is a really very nice big, but still smooth, red wine blend. Considering it's a Lodi, California, blend, many would expect this to be huge fruit and powerful alcohol but its really neither. The alcohol comes in at a relatively modest 13.6 percent while the fruit is silky smooth and nicely balanced.

This juice was honored at a number of California wine competitions and it's easy to see why with its nice fruit and balance. If you like a little bigger and rich, the LangeTwins is nice wine. It is distributed in Indiana.

LangeTwins Winery Midnight Reserve, $30, Highly Recommended

Cantina del Taburno Falanghina - If you don't like this white wine, you don't like white wine. Italy produces some delightful light-bodied whites and this one is right there with  more fruit than many you may have sampled.

Okay, so you've never heard of "Falanghina." Don't feel bad. It comes from a coastal region in Italy north of Naples. The wine is smooth with nicely balanced fruit. I got a lot of pear on my palate but you might find some almond or nectarine.

The best thing I can say about this white is you'll want to drink it. I found it online for $14-$17. I bought this wine at Grapevine Cottage in Zionsville near the higher end of that range. 

Cantina del Taburno Falanghina, $16,99, Highly Recommended

Trivento Amado Sur 2010 Malbec - You want a bargain? You want a bang-for-your-buck wine? Here you go. The Trivento Amado Sur is a great value line from Argentina's Mendoza region. The wine is a really nice balance between 80 percent Malbec, 10 percent Bonarda and 10 percent Syrah.

Argentina has been doing these three grapes in grand style for a number of years. This a  blend that I would use to move newbie wine drinkers away from Cab and Merlot. It's a great introduction to a varietal that has changed the entire perception of South American wines. The taste will give you a rich dark fruit and hints of pepper. The wine would pair nicely with pork or seasoned chicken off the grill.

Trivento Amado Sur 2010 Malbec, Trade Sample, widely available around $11, Highly Recommended

Calcu 2008 Carmenere Reserva   -  I've never been overwhelmed by any Chilean Carmenere. It's different. It has a taste profile different than most wines but I've found most of it pretty average, but drinkable, juice. I was pleasantly surprised by this trade sample of Calcu.

This wine had nice blackberry and spice. It was smooth without a funk or harshness many previous Carmeneres left me tasting. Chile's Colchagua Valley is one of the hottest wine regions in Chile. The Carmenere, Syrah, and Cabernet offerings are worth a try.

This wine would work with grilled meats, probably big enough for that charred steak if you want something other than Cab or a big Malbec.

 Calcu 2008 Carmenere Reserva, Trade Sample, around $13-$14, Recommended

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Why Organic Wine is a Smart Buy/Pick

Telling a kid to eat something because it’s good for them is usually a good way to make sure it never passes their lips.

At the same time, if you suggest trying something that is good for an adult and/or the environment many will assume it must be tasteless or an inferior product.

A January trip to Southern France to the Millesime Bio organic wine trade show proved nothing could be further from the truth. Organic wine is a growing movement stifled by regulation, misunderstanding, and greed.

The story begins in the 1980s when wine labeling laws were enacted in 1987 requiring “sulfites added” be printed on wine labels. The organic wine movement started largely in the early 1980s. The two have been linked ever since. Simply put, there is no relationship.

Sulfites are used in wine to fight bacteria or fungi which can occur in the winery or winemaking process. There are all sorts of old housewife tales and stories about the ills of sulfites in food. But the facts are there are hundreds of packaged foods in your kitchen right now which probably contain sulfites. Wineries have to put a label on the bottle that proclaims sulfites, most products do not.

The profiteering and greed started in the U.S. when some wineries, which had previously worked toward organic standards in the late 1980s and early 90s, realized there was a profit to be made if they insisted organic wine contain no added sulfites. The argument goes that would keep big wineries out of the business.

Wines without added sulfties have a very short shelf life and are often very thin wines. European standards allow mimimum sulfites which makes for better wine that can be aged. By comparison, the U.S. law allows no more than 10 parts per million in sulfites. EU regulations permit 100 ppm. Wines that aren’t organically produce may have up to 350 ppm. So European Union wines must be labeled “made from organic grapes” to be sold in the U.S.

AIVB President Thierry Julien chatting about organic wines
French winemakers claim opponents of changing the U.S. standards are merely protecting market. Most aren’t afraid to name specific wineries and individuals. But they have become frustrated and even dismissive in recent years while suggesting consumers should focus on the benefits of wines made organically. Essentially, the definition of organic wines should be wines that have no chemicals added – no pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, or other chemicals in the winemaking process.

Such practices are better for the farmer, consumers, and for Mother Earth. The concept enjoys more widespread acceptance in Europe than the U.S.

Theirry Julien, president of Southern France’s organic wine growing association, outlines a progression that happens with organic products.

“You start with baby food then you do bread and pasta,” Julien suggested. “The wine comes toward the end. I’m not at all waging war against other wine growers who produce wine traditionally. The truth is organic wine growers have had trouble supplying organic wine to meet demand.”

He also makes an interesting comparison. European consumers think about what is good for their health while U.S. consumers seem more motivated by what’s good for the environment.

The Millesime Bio featured 587 wineries from 13 different countries. I probably tasted close to 300 wines in a five-day period. I don’t think any average consumer would know they were tasting “organic wines.” While there were a few sub-par bottles, I’d say more than 90 percent of the wines were good to outstanding.

Southern France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region is France’s biggest organic region. The red wines are most often blends of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan. They are tremendous table wines and great values at prices usually at $10-$20 a bottle.

I wrote a more detailed story for Palate Press – The National Online Wine Magazine on organic wines and the fight over the details. Go to and search organic wine or my name to find that story.

Howard’s Picks: Labels to look for include Italy’s Perlage, Domaine Joly (which will soon be available) or check out The Organic Wine Company online for a wide selection of organic wines.

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

More Photos Uploaded from Wine Trip

I discovered yesterday I had two days worth of photos from last week's trip to Napa Sonoma which have not yet been loaded into albums.

Over lunch hour today, I knocked out my weekly newspaper column and wrote about traveling to California's premier wine region as we did last week.

So here is a link to the album featuring photos from Wednesday, Mar. 7. We visited a barrel maker and Erik Miller at Kokomo Vineyards in Sonma's Dry Creek region.

You can click on the photo at upper right to see the albums from the California Wine Country visit and other wine travel I've done in recent years.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Recovering from a Napa/Sonoma Hangover

Okay! Okay! It's not THAT kind of a hangover. At least it's not THAT kind of a hangover now that it's Tuesday.

I flew back to Indiana from the west coast late Sunday night and got through a good day at work. I think the week, jet lag, and late flight all caught up with me last night when I slept solid, straight eight hours.

It was such a great trip and really one any wine fan should make. I visited the premium tasting areas of each winery and that made it a spectacular trip. Obviously, the $75 Pinot Noirs, the $200 Joseph Phelps Insignia, and Robert Mondavi Reserve wines at $135-plus aren't for everyone and not what I normally write about on this blog or my newspaper column.

But if you are going to go to this country's best-known wine making region, you really should taste the good stuff. I have two stories I'm going to be anxious to tell in the coming weeks. The first is about how Kokomo's Erik Miller has made his Kokomo Winery such a success in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley. We spend a couple of hours with Erik after morning tour at a barrel making operation. He is making some great wines at very reasonable price points.

The other story I really enjoyed was meeting Wabash College alum Ted Klopp '67. He owns four vineyards and sells grapes to Kosta Brown, Inman Family wines, and Merry Edwards, among others. We tasted the Merry Edwards wines and visited with Kathleen Inman. It's a unique perspective that will be a fun story to write.

In the meantime, I stumbled across of interesting and fun items in the news yesterday and today. the first was a great piece by the NYT Wine Critic Eric Asimov on decanting.

The second was a YouTube video about a Rube Goldberg-like machine that opens a wine bottle and pours a glass of wine. Check it out:

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Russian River Magic: One Winegrower, Two Winemakers

Kathleen Inman pours her Klopp Vineyard Pinot for me to taste
GRATON, Ca. - There is nothing like talking to winemakers, winery owners, and vineyard managers/owners to really learn about wine.

Ted Klopp, Kathleen Inman, and Merry Edwards bring all the components together to make some of California's Russian River Valley's best Pinot Noir.

Klopp pulls a barrel samle for us to taste.
Thursday morning I tasted the wines of Merry Edwards, who has an almost cult-like following for her small production Pinot Noir and almost magical Sauv Blanc. The next visit was with Kathleen Inman at Inman Family Wines. Then in the afternoon Ted Klopp shared a couple of hours talking about grape growing and working with winemakers to make the best wines possible.

Our first stop was at the Merry Edwards winer at Graton. Ron Hayes, who  has worked with Edwards for nine years, poured the wines and shared his considerable wine knowledge. The entry level Russian River Valley Pinot ($42) was nicely balanced, medium to light bodied Pinot. The Meredith Estate Pinot ($57) was the powerhouse of the lineup. It had bold Pinot fruit, a smooth mid-palate for powerful wine, and a lingering finish. The 2009 Klopp Ranch Pinot ($57) had a little less power but a longer finish - my favorite of the line up. We tasted an Olivet Lane Pinot ($60) that was similar in elegance and style to the Klopp.

Ron also pulled a 2007 Tobias Glen Pinot ($54) to show the wine's aging ability. He suggested the entire lineup would age nicely for up to 10 years. The Tobias was also a winner with a soft balanced Pinot palate with a very Burgundian mouth feel.

Obviously, these are not value wines. This is boutique wine made by one of California's most honored, recognized, and darn best winemakers. The product proves it. Edwards has a reputation for meticulous attention to detail. In our afternoon visit to Klopp, he talked about Edwards frequent visits to the vines to check on growth, taste fruit, and give Ted all the feedback necessary worth of Pinot Noir at these prices.

The second stop Inman Wines with owner/winemaker Kathleen Inman. A charming host and winemaker/grower concerned about sustainability and the environment, poured her lighter style Pinots for us. We tasted several of her wines and a couple of those choices in the 07 and 08 vintage. She buys grapes from Ted Klopp and grows her own in the adjacent Olivet Grange Vineyard. I liked both styles and but found the Klopp Thorn Ridge Ranch Pinot a bit more to my taste. The fruit was slightly bigger but all of her Pinots were well made with silky mouthfeel an a beautiful finish. Inman's Pinots all sell at the $56 price point.

I liked Inman for her modest and practical approach to running a winery. She farms with sustainable methods, adds very little sulfite and only if necessary. She's not interested in being certified, she's interested in making wine the right way and taking care of the environment. She built her winery and small tasting room using totally recycled materials. She could have had the building certified for it's unique use of materials, like recycled car steel, for the siding but again didn't want to pay the thousands of dollars for certification. The point for Kathleen is simply to do things the right way.

Talking grapes and wine with Ted Klopp
Klopp was generous, knowledge, and funny during our two-hour afternoon visit. A native of the Midwest and Wabash College graduate spent most of his career in higher education at Marin College in California until changing lifestyles.

He bought the ranch north of Graton and inherited apple and pear trees. Neighbors, consultants and friends told him he would be 'crazy' if he didn't plant vines. He took their advice and now supplies multiple wineries. He makes a little wine at home himself we sipped while sitting on a nice porch with a beautiful vineyard view.

Klopp loves that Merry Edwards comes by regularly to check the crop. He appreciates Inman's questions about his farming practices.

I have enough material for stand alone newspaper columns on Klopp and Inman. I hope to have those up in the very near future.

Late in the afternoon we visited Arista Winery near the river and tasted through their very well done Pinot Noir. We didn't think much  of the wine made from the Russian River Valley fruit but loved the Russian River valley line and one line made with grapes from Mendocino County.

Rochioli, an iconic name in California Pinot, was not disappointing though some might be a bit put off if they don't know about the winery in advance. They make some of the best high end Pinot in the U.S. They only pour three wines in the tasting room. We tasted Chardonnay, a nice Pinot Rose', and a single Pinot Noir. Most of their Pinot Noir wines are reserved for club members. It's a club that has a long waiting list just to BUY their wines. It's not Pinot for today or tomorrow - it's a bottle you buy and put a way a couple of years to enjoy at it's best.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Day Two: Barrel Making, Dry Creek, and Chateau St. Jean

Toasting barrels at Radoux, Windsor, Ca.
SONOMA COUNTY, Ca. - Is there anything better for a wine geek than waking up on a Thursday morning knowing you're going to spend the day in the Russian River Valley tasting Pinot Noir?

In planning for this trip I wanted to make a visit to Kokomo, Indiana's Erik Miller. Erik is owner winemaker for Kokomo Vineyards in the Dry Creek region of Sonoma. We finally got together on a quick phone call and he invite Drew and I to join members of his Wine Club at a barrell making demonstration. Of all my wine experiences in the four years I've been wine writing, I'd never seen the process.

Master Cooper Francis Durand
I certainly came away from our visit to Tonnellerie Radoux, Windsor, with a new appreciation for those oak barrels. The variables in how coopers can mix the oak and watching the hand craftmanship was fascinating. That mixture of oak plays such an integral role in how the oak win interact with the wine for the final product.

Radoux's Master Cooper Francis Durand led us through the plant demonstrating each step of the process. This will be a future newspaper column but really enhanced my knowledge of oak and it's sophisticated role in winemaking.

After the hour-and-a-half tour, we hopped in the car and drove the 20 minutes up Ca. Highway 101 and Dry Creek Road to Kokomo Winery. Eric greeted us with fourth-generation vineyard owner and manager Randy Peters.

There is no better education than walking the vineyards with the grower and winemaker for those who really want to know more about wine. We visited several blocks of the vineyards at the winery, talked about the dry Sonoma winter, pending bud break, and all of the things to get a wine geek all geeky.

Chatting with Erik Miller, Gary Peters at Kokomo Winery
In the tasting room Drew and I enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc, a Cab, a really nice Pinot Noir made from Gary's grapes near the Sonoma Coast, and two Zins. The 2009 TimberCrest Zin was one of nicest I've tasted in a long time. Dry Creek is known for its Zinfandel. But the area can also grow almost any varietal, it's that variety that intriques Miller.

We had a great chat with Erik and Randy which will turn up in a future newspaper column or two.

And yes, for those who don't know, Erik did name his winery after his hometown of Kokomo, Indiana.

Our final stop of the day was a hastily arranged visit to one of Sonoma's best, Chateau St. Jean located betweent he cities of Sonoma and Santa Rosa on CA. 12.

The manicured vineyards of Chateau St. Jean
Our friend and host Stephen Pavy, Joseph Phelps Winery, put in a call to the St. Jean tasting room and a couple of tasting room hosts led us through a really nice tasting of their reserve wines. Newbies need to know or keep in mind even wineries like Chateau St. Jean, which is available in Indiana and all 50 states make premium wines with limited distribution or available only at the winery.

We tasted a great Pinot Gris, two Chardonnays, a couple of Pinots, and their signature Bordeaux style blend Cinq Cepages 2008. The highlight for us was the Sonoma County Reserve Merlot ($90) and Sonoma Reserve Cabernet ($90). The Cabs in Sonoma are generally a little lighter than the Napa powerhouse Cabs. But the beautiful balance and silkiness of these wines would  please most any palate.

Chateau St. Jean is a great stop and any Sonoma trip should include a visit. The grounds are truly stunning. They have a tasting room for their other wines which range in the mid-teen to $20 pricepoint.

So it's off to the Russian River Valley this morning.. We start our day with two of the grand ladies of California wine. Our first stop is at Merry Edwards and second at Inman Family wines. Kathleen Inman is going to pour for us her Pinot. Ted Klopp, a Wabash College grad, provide Pinot grapes from his ranch to both producers. We'll see Ted this afternoon.

If we don't run out of time, we hope to pay a visit to the iconic Rochioli Vineyards later today.

NOTES from the road: I do have many more wonderful  photos taken by Wabash College senior Drew Casey who is along with me on the trip. The loading times are taking forever! I did get all but one or two photos from Tuesday up this morning. Just click on the photo image at upper left and scroll down to Napa Day photos. I hope to get yesterday's up this evening.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

California's Biggest Stars Shine Bright

Stephen Pavy, far right, with two of his hospitality staff and me, far left, at Joseph Phelps
NAPA VALLEY,Ca. - Brands, labels, and market awareness means someting in consumer goods. Usually such awareness is because of quality, longevity, or proven success.

We wash our clothes with Tide, buy Campbell's soup, and eat Oscar Meyer cold cuts. We do it because these companies have consistently delivered high quality and reliable product.

I write those three sentences and realize I'm about to compare wine to bologna but there is some truth in the concept at least.

Today was our "Napa Valley" day and we made four winery stops. We stopped at V. Satui Winery in St. Helena, at Napa's north end, and later in the day at the picturesque Rutherford Hill Winery along the Silverado Trail in Napa. They were very nice stops I'd recommend to any Napa visitor - first timer or veteran.

But the day was really stolen by the iconic brands - Mondavi and Joseph Phelps. When I travel to various wine regions I consistently find opinions I'll share with readers here and my newspaper column. My opinions are shaped first by the wine but second, and nearly as important, by the people behind the tasting room counter. A great product keeps the customer coming back but when you visit in person the authentic smile, enthusiasm and product knowledge make it easier to spend the big  bucks on these iconic wines.

I always tell inquistors that the Robert Mondavi winery is a must stop. Mondavi had either the first or nearly the first tasting room in Napa Valley. He personally shaped the American wine industry and single-handedly made Napa the wine tourist destination it is today.

Visitors can opt for the $5 tasting of Mondavi's lower end labels. I've written about those in a couple of newspapers columns and singled out the Private Selection label as a great value buy.

Mondavi's gracious hostess, Sanda
But today I opted for the $30 premium tasting of six wines and was overwhelmed. A big part of the positive experience was Sanda Manuila, wine education coordinator, a Swiss native, and the most charming hostess you could ever have pour you $100-a-bottle wines.

We started with the Mondavi Fume Blanc Reserve. I've had the $20 bottle and loved it. This was my first chance to taste the $40 Reserve and its was simply fabulous with intense and rich fruit with just the right amount of acidity.

Sanda poured Drew and I a 2010 Pinot Noir sold only at the winery under the PNX label. It was rich fruit, nice acidity and beautiful balance.

We then worked our way through four of the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve wines. Wow! Each one offered a different level of smooth but bold Cab taste and balance of acidity depending on the time spent in oak barrels. These wines are far beyond the price point I usually feature here or the newspaper column. But if you go to Napa, you owe it to yourself to taste these wines. The four we tasted ranged from $135-$165. These big Cab's scream ... 'Classic Napa Valley Cabernet."

Obviously, these wines aren't for everyone and the price point may make readers just shake their head. Try the Mondavi Napa Cab for about $28 and you won't be disappointed.

Joseph Phelps has become an iconic brand on the strength of its Insignia blend which has long been a critic's favorite. It has been a 90-point-plus wine virtually every year since its initial release in 1974. The current release is a 2008 and comes at $200 a bottle. It's the ultimate in luxiuous red wine from one of Napa's top producers.

Drew and I were fortunate enough to be hosted by Indiana native and Phelps' Director of Hospitality Stephen Pavy. Stephen turned us over to Geraldine for a wine seminar. If any place has a right to be a bit haughty, patronizing, or condescending, it's might be Phelps. But Pavy's staff was helpful, drew us into the wine conversations, answered questions and were quite frankly charming.

We tasted the Phelps $32 Sauvignon Blanc, Freestone Chardonnay and Pinot Noir before moving to their signature Cabernet. The 2009 Cabernet at $55 is one of the best I've tasted at the price point. Stephen actually treated us Monday night to the Cab before Tuesday's visit to the winery. It has concentrated fruit with great back end acidity. This will shake some readers but I often refer to wines tasting above their price points. This $55 Cab tastes like a more expensive wine.

The tasting highlight though was the chance to sip the signature Insignia. The critically acclaimed wine scored off the charts with our palate but what would you expect from a  $200 bottle of wine? It definitely lives up to it's reputation!

The Phelps name is synomous with Cabernet but not the huge producer some might think. The winery produces 55,000-60,000 cases of wine annually.

Our other two stops were great but frankly the service was more perfunctory than genuine - at least until I pulled out my wine writing business card. I don't always do that until after I've tasted.

Now all of that being said, I'd recommend V. Satui in St. Helena to most visitors. It's a very unique stop in that they don't distribute their wines beyond the winery. That's almost unheard of in Napa. The wines are all done in a lighter style and I thought the wines were good. The Gamay Rouge wasn't to my taste but is Satui's biggest seller. It has wonderful Gamay flavor and 1.5 percent residual sugar. That sweetness makes it a big hit with the tour bus crowd.

Rutherford Hill Winery has a beautiful facility, wine storage caves, and some great views of Napa. The wines were consistently okay with the highlight being their reserve Merlot. The 2007 Merlot was as good as any I've ever tasted, but as a Merlot skeptic I had to ask myself if I'd really fork over $57 for Merlot. Would you?

We had a really great day in wine country. Wednesday we start our day at a barrel maker with Eric Miller of Kokomo Winery. We intend to explore the town of Sonoma in the afternoon.

My travel companion Drew Casey has some marvelous photos from today's adventure beyond the three I've included here. I hope to get those up Wednesday.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Day of Long Flight, Great Bubbles, Downtown Sonoma

SONOMA, CA. - There remains something a bit magical, pleasing, and special about Sonoma and Napa Valleys. One can lose that feeling, perhaps, after visiting vineyards/wineries in other parts of California, France, and Italy.

But for many American wine lovers the Mecca has and probably always will be this area an hour north of San Francisco.

We tasted through about two-thirds of Ferrer's lineup
I'm here for the week to do a little writing but mostly as a vacation. Wabash College senior Drew Casey is along with me to further explore his interest in wine and, luckily for me take photos. Check out the few shots he took at our one brief stop last night here.

We arrived in San Francisco shortly after lunch, took the BART train into downtown, picked up our rental and headed north. We made a brief stop at the Golden Gate Bridge, which was a big foggy, but we'll return there Friday.

We had one planned stop and that was Gloria Ferrer's just outside the town of Sonoma. I have been in the area twice before but had never made the stop. From now on I'll repeat the advice of regulars in the area and recommend the Gloria bubbles as the best place to start or end a wine country visit.

Ferrer's sparkling wines are available in all 50 states and around the world. They are very well balanced, with elegant fruit and just the right amount of bubble. And by that I mean, many sparkling wines can be almost effervescent - not to my taste. It's also important to note the price points for Ferrer's sparklers are affordable, ranging from $15 for the widely available Brut, to her most expensive bottle of Carneros Cuvee, aged 10 years, for $50.

We wrapped up a short afternoon with a walk around Sonoma Square. Today its off to Napa Valley to Joseph Phelps, Robert Mondavi, and Chateau Montelena - might as well start with the real Napa wine.

Two "wine writing" stops of note this week. Tomorrow morning we'll venture north of Santa Rosa and join Eric Miller and members of his wine club to see a wine barrell made from start to finish. Miller is owner of Kokomo Winery wines and is, indeed, from Kokomo, Indiana.

Thursday afternoon will include a visit to Ted Klopp, who graduated from Wabash College in 1967, to his Pinot Noir vineyards.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Organic Wine Story Up on Palate Press,

Palate Press has published my story about organic wines, organic wine regulations and reflections of French winemakers on the controversies.

The story went up overnight and will be on the site about one week. The piece was a result of my week-long visit to Montpellier, France, and the 19th annual Millesime Bio - organic wine trade show.

Here is a direct link to the story.

I also provided a quick summary of what I thought were the top wineries I tasted during the show. Unfortunately, due to space considerations that section was cut. Here is it below:

The opportunity to sample the wines of 587 growers was a unique three-day experience. Sometimes wine writers and other professionals forget consumers seldom get the opportunity so sample so many great wines. I went to the Millesime Bio on a press trip open minded but not knowing what to expect. While a certain number of wines were certainly sub-par and undistinguished, the vast majority were great wines. No consumer, nor few experts, would have any idea these are organic wines or feature substantially lower sulfite levels. Additionally, the Languedoc wines are generally great values.
Most of the labels mentioned below are imported to the U.S., but not all. Most of the sites have an “English option” but not all. A few of the best labels I tasted and consumers might seek out include: 

DomaineHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""Joly – The wines of Virgile Joly were the most consistent I tasted. He is a rising star in the Languedoc and is a great spokesman for organic wines. For my palate, Joly’s 2011 Grenache Blanc was the top Languedoc white blend of the show. 

DomaineHYPERLINK "" Carle HYPERLINK ""Courty – Frederic Carle’s Cuvee Marion, named after his daughter, was the best red blend. It was a beautiful combination of 70 percent Syrah, 10 percent Grenache Noir, 10 Carignan, and 10 percent Mourvedre.

DomaineHYPERLINK "" HYPERLINK ""Cabanis – Jean Paul Cabanis poured his wines one evening at dinner. His property dates back to 1932, not old in Southern France but with a delightful history. He produces three reds, two whites and a Rose’.

Chateau de HYPERLINK ""Cazeneuve – The wines from this beautiful Chateau setting, near Montpellier, are more rustic than many I tasted and at a slightly higher price point. Andre Leenhardt’s 100 percent 2008 Mouvredre was a fabulous bottle of wine at 35 Euro.

Clos Du HYPERLINK ""Gravillas – John Bojanowski, a Louisville native, and his wife Nicole are championing Carignan at his St, Jean de Minervois region winery. He does a 100 percent bottling of the Southern France grape that is a knock out. 

A few more options include: Mas Janiny, wines from Terroirs Vivants, Mas Laval, Italys’ Perlage label, Chateau. Bonnet, and two more from Italy – Casina Di Cornia and Antica Enotria.
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