Monday, April 30, 2012

Indiana Wines Improving, Still Room to Grow

Ignoring hard rain in Central Indiana and a Saturday morning two-hour drive, off I set for Story, In. Saturday morning and the 10th Indiana Wine Fair.

Fortunately, the rain ended nearing the small Brown County town nestled in a valley southeast of Nashville. So I knocked out a video interview as guest of Ole Olson, dean of Indiana wine writers, for his Hoosier Wine Cellar Blog which runs in Bloomington and other Southern Ind. papers. I'll note here on the blog when that interview goes up.

Then it was off to taste some wines. I pretty much decided to stick with whites and Rose' wines and avoid the reds. There are a few good dry red wines made in Indiana, usually blends, but when Hoosier winemakers try to bottle a 100 percent Cabernet they aren't doing themselves or other winemakers any favors.

Jim Pfeiffer of Turtle Run Winery.
The state has two wine fairs each year, the other is Vintage Indiana in Indy, but the Story Wine Fair has grown to be a big event. The rain all over the state didn't keep the vino fans away from the Story Inn grounds. The mob wasn't as big as I remember during my last visit but the crowds were good (as you can see from the photo at the top).

Okay, to the wine. The Wine Fair has a judging competition on Thursday each year before Saturday's event. I went straight to Huber Winery's stand under one of several tents to try the Catawba semi-sweet Rose ($11.99). It was the rated the top wine by a panel of independent judges.

I'm a big Huber fan and the wine didn't disappoint. The judges rated it 98 points on a 100 point scale. The wine had a nice tart and fruity flavor, perhaps a tad sweet on the palate for some but not a sweet wine as compared to many other wines on the festival grounds.

Ted Huber knows how to make wine and he knows the Midwestern palate. This is great Rose for less-sophisticated tastes or new wine drinkers. I liked it, but it bordered almost too sweet for me but that's because of the Catawba grape. Catawba more frequently is used in sweet wines.

Huber wines are some of Indiana's best made. Huber's reds are consistently some of the best.

The second-place wine in the Blush (or Rose) category was Brown County's Vista Rose. It was similar to the Huber offering with a bit more pronounced fruit.

For my palate, neither of those Rose wines was the best I tasted. Just a couple of years ago Jim Butler won top honors at the Indianapolis International Wine Competition for his Chambourcin Rose. I tasted Butler Winery's most recent vintage and it's outstanding. It was dry Rose with lovely hints of cherry and delightfully tart. At $13.99, it's an outstanding Hoosier wine.

I tasted several whites I liked and several insipid offerings. Turtle Run's Jim Pfeiffer makes a $12 Dry Traminette that is one of the best wines made in Indiana. Everyone makes Traminette and almost everyone makes it sweet or semi-sweet. Not Jim! He also knocks out a crazy barrel-fermented Traminette that is just as good from the same grape and couldn't be more different because of the oak. You really have to try it.

All three Rose' wines I tasted prove Hoosiers can make great wine.

One of the day's biggest surprises was a Pinot Blanc from Chateau Pomjie, in southeastern Indiana. The $25 Pinot Blanc comes from estate grown Pinot Noir. The nice woman assured me they really grow the Pinot on their property. I've only had one white Pinot before and that came at the highly respected Domaine Serene in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The Pomjie's Pinot Blanc showed promise. It was really nice and light wine with the distinctive Pinot flavor. The finish had a wee bit of funk but very promising wine.

I dislike trashing any winery's efforts but some things just shouldn't happen. Back to the aforementioned Cabernet. It's not going to work in Indiana. And why would you want to grow the stuff when consumers can pick up good $10-$14 Cabs from the grocery. Indiana can grow Chambourcin and other reds which can be made into great dry wines.

I read that the top-judged red was a Malbec. Hmmmm?? I went to the booth to see the tasting menu said Chilean Malbec. I asked about the source and a server told me they bought 'bagged juice" from Chili. Now ask yourself, do you want to drink anything called 'bagged juice?'

How the judges missed so badly on this wine is hard to figure out. Perhaps the bottle I tasted from was tainted. The wine was beyond bad it clearly had chemical issues.

I also tasted a Silver medal white that that had a lovely onto-on-the-palate light apricot to dissolve into an off-putting sour (not tart) finish.

Indiana wine has come a long way. Do not let one bad wine or winery skew your judgment against midwestern states' wines. Support the state industry! There are plenty of good ones and still plenty of bad ones. But do your homework and you can buy wonderful Indiana wines!

Here are the judges picks from the 2012 Indiana Wine Fair:

Dry Red - Gold: Harmony Winery, Malbec, NV (89 POINTS); Silver: Huber Winery, Heritage 2008; Bronze: Oliver Winery, Zinfandel 2009

Sweet Red
- Gold: Best Vineyards, Concord NV 87 POINTS; Silver: Indian Creek Winery, "Cardinal Red" NV; Bronze: River City Winery, "Colonel's Legacy" NV

- Gold: Huber Winery, Catawba NV (BEST OF SHOW, 98 POINTS); Silver: Brown County Winery, "Vista Rose" NV; Bronze: Monkey Hollow, "Pasture Limit" NV

Dry White
- Gold: Huber Winery, Vignoles (88 POINTS); Silver: Cedar Creek Winery, "Butterfly Kiss" NV; Bronze: Turtle Run Winery, Traminette NV

Sweet White
- Gold: Oliver Winery, Creekbend, Vignoles 2010 (88 POINTS); Silver: Best Vineyards, Catawba NV; Bronze: Buck Creek Winery, "Der Champion" NV

- Gold: Chateau Pomije, "Late Harvest" NV (86 POINTS); Silver: Huber Winery, Black Raspberry; Bronze: Cedar Creek, "Harvest Moon Cab" NV

- Gold: Winzerwald Winery "Cherry Red" (96 POINTS); Silver: River City Winery, "Market House Elderberry"; Bronze: Cedar Creek Winery, "Peach Paradise"

NV - Non-Vintage.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Indiana Wine Fair This Weekend in Story

Live music, food, wine make for a big crowd and fun day in Story

You literally have to belly up to the bar to get a taste.
Regional and state wine fairs have become big events across the Midwest. Indiana wineries participate in two major wine fairs each year.

The first is the Indiana Wine Fair this weekend, 12:30-7 p.m., April 28, at Story, Indiana. Story is located in Brown County, east of Nashville. You can find directions and lots of information on the Indiana Wine Fair website.

I counted 26 Indiana wineries participating but there may be more. Admission is $20 and you get a souvenir wine glass from the historic Story Inn. For that $20, you can taste the wines of the Hoosier State. With a designated driver in tow, you can tastes as many as you like.

A lesson on learning to taste and spit is appropriate if you really want to sample a lot of wine.

I like these events. They're fun and exciting. The other big Indiana wine show is Vintage Indiana held each summer in downtown Indianapolis.

Don't miss Huber Winery, Butler, and Turtle Run. Several Hoosier winemakers have really stepped up the quality in recent years. These three wineries are consistent, quality-driven wineries. Also a note of caution on the same topic. Frankly, there are some wineries where the product just isn't up to par. Don't let one bad taste ruin the experience or make you think all Indiana wine is swill. Go visit the names you know or have heard of first, then go exploring.

Take time to visit the Inn. It has a fantastic restaurant.
For fairness sake, I'll share two warnings about Story. It's down a very winding state highway and there is limited parking onsite. The wine fair runs shuttles from Nashville that make things a bit easier. All of that information is on the website linked above.

It's been at least two or three years since I last attended this fair. It's crowded. I mean, it's really crowded. My best advice is to come early or late.

I intend on visiting this year and meeting up with lots of Indiana wine friends. It's a beautiful drive, great scenery, and a wonderful way to taste a lot of Indiana's ever-improving wines.

Just bring some patience with your smile!

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Monday, April 23, 2012

Languedoc's Virgile Joly Gaining Notice

The first time I met Virgile Joly in France at Montpellier, I thought 'this guy has something that would sell wine' in the back of my mind.

I've always believed a great story or interesting personalty sells wine and keeps people coming back for more.

iPhone shot I took at Millesime Bio
Joly was the focus of a book, Virgile's Vineyard, that first brought his name and winery, Domaine Virgile Joly,  to prominence. Virgile's English is pretty good and he makes great wine. He just recently contracted with Paul Chartrand, Chartrand Imports, Maine, to bring his wines to the U.S.

Joly's name popped up in my email inbox three times this morning.

First, through a serious of communications, Chartrand  expects to have Joly wines for U.S. distributors by early summer.

Second, Terre de Vins magazine just published its list of the top 20 organic wines from a Languedoc tasting and the top wine was the Virgile – IGP Herault, Domaine Virgile Joly 2005. (100 percent Grenache Blanc)

I really found that interesting because for the story I wrote for Palate Press about organic wine, I called the same wine the best white I tasted at the Millesime Bio. Unfortunately, that section of the story was edited but I did post it to this blog.

Third, I get a number of emails daily about wine news and business. One of those featured this link to Ken Payton's great Reign of Terroir blog and a feature on Joly.

It's nice to know others are taking notice!

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Celebrate Earth Day With Organic Wines

As we delight in warmer springs, stay surprised by drier winters, and brace for blistering summer, it makes one wonder what we're doing to Mother Earth!

Earth Day, celebrated on this date annually, is a time to reflect and think about the products we eat and drink and how they're produced. After attending in January the Millesime Bio in Montpellier, France, I've become a fan. I'm not a fanatic but a big fan of the wines, the Languedoc, and the importance of buying food products - and wine - from producers who care about what they're doing to their soils, steams, and air.

Organic wine does not use chemicals - pretty simple isn't it?

You can find organic wines in the U.S., mostly from California along with biodynamic wines. In your wine shop you might have to make an effort to find a bottle. Too often the organic wines are stuffed in a corner with Kosher wines, state wines, and "other" bottles.

French wines are labeled "made with organic grapes." The French do add minimum sulfites while U.S. producers do not.

That is a discussion for another time and you can read more about it in the story I wrote for Palate Press after returning from France.

But for today think about organic wines. Try a few. If you have trouble finding them then I'll direct you to my friend Veronique Raskin's wonderful The Organic Wine Company website. The  Bousquette, Mas Janiny, and Ventoux wines are a great starting point. Keep your eye open for wines imported by Paul Chartrand, also a friend, and one of the leading organic wine importers in the U.S.

Frankly, I'd challenge you to set up a blind tasting and see if you or your friends can taste any difference.

Most organic wines are wonderful. And, they're wonderful for Mother Earth.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Two Really Good Whites & a Great Red Under $20

Pinot Grigio has never been one of my favorite wines. I have never found them very interesting or particularly satisfying. There may be as much bad Pinot Grigio on the market as any other varietal. They are often flabby or flat or thin - just choose your adjective.

But I have two Pinot Grigios as great price points worth your trouble. When the grape is done right, this is a refreshing and lighter white wine for entertaining and lighter meals.

Ca' Montini Terre di Valfredda 2010 Pinot Grigio - This might be, no probably is, the best Pinot Grigio I've ever had. This Italian winery was founded in the 1700s in the Veneto region. This is a family winery known for its Pinot Grigio and it shows up from the first sip until the last drop.

This Pinot Grigio provides a full-flavored wine for the palate. It's golden in color, fragrant with flowers and has a nice hint of lemon with a bit of a sour fruit finish. You'll get a bit of terroir and minerality.

The distinctive bottle will standout on the shelf and prove itself as a distinctive wine to serve your guests this summer season.

Ca' Montini Terre di Valfredda 2010 Pinot Grigio, SRP $14.99, Trade Sample, Highly Recommended.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2011 Pinot Grigio - I've become a fan of the Mondavi Private Selection label because it offers good wines for a very affordable price. The Private Selection is available in many liquor stores, supermarkets and any where you might expect to buy value wine.

One of the real attributes of the label is that the different wines are consistently well made. This isn't your typical $10 swill. Now, it's not going to please your taste like a $20 wine either but I'd suggest it competes with the highly competitive $12-$16 market.

Mondavi draws upon vineyards in Monterey, San Benito, and Santa Barbara to make this 12.5 percent alcohol white wine.

To my palate it has hints of grapefruit and lime with really moderate acidity. But this wine as a great value. You might be surprised how refreshing a $10 wine can be!

Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2011 Pinot Grigio, SRP $9.99, Trade Sample, Recommended

Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir 2007 Tautavel - From the Cotes du Roussillon in Southern France this easy drinking, fruit forward, red is a nice bottle of value wine. I got chocolate and black raspberries on my palate so when I find two of my favorite things - be it dessert or a red wine - I'm going to like it a lot.

Wine Spectator gave the wine a surprising 91 points. But some of the citizen review sites like Snooth and CellarTracker were not quite as kind. CellarTracker contributors gave the wine an average of 88 points but many of the comments were dismissive of the wine as "just okay."

The wine is made of 50 percent Grenache, 35 percent Syrah, and 15 percent Carignan. It's definitely a "ripe fruit" style of wine with hints of spice. 

I'm not sure I'd go as far as 91, if I used such a scale, but I think it's great drinking wine at a good price. If you haven't had much of the Languedoc-Roussillon appellation, this wine is a great introduction.

Gerard Bertrand Grand Terroir 2007 Tautavel, $14.99, Recommended

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Trivento Golden Reserve Darn Good #Malbec

Today is World Malbec Day and it's easy to join the celebration because I'm a fan!

I've been recommending Malbec to beginning wine drinkers since I started writing about wine four years ago. Malbec is generally easy to drink, rich, nicely balanced, and affordable.

The Trivento Golden Reserve 2008 Malbec is one darn nice glass of wine. This wine is inky dark, with a wonderful nose and a nice rich body on the palate.

I had the wine with two pork chops I braised then baked. One chop had just salt and pepper while the other had a dry rub and sweet BBQ sauce. The Malbec was a wonderful pairing. Many people think of malbec for grilled meats and big beef dishes, but I think the wonderful silkiness of good Malbec is a great date with a moderately seasoned piece of pork.

This wine gives you dark berries, plum, maybe some chocolate, and plenty of earthy tones. In other words, it's my kind of wine.

The tannins are well balanced with a very nice lingering finish. The alcohol comes in at 14.5 percent. Robert Parker gave this wine 90 points.

This is a fine bottle of wine for the price point. The suggested retail is $21, but I received the bottle as a trade sample. There are a lot of great Malbecs around $13-$17. Here is one with a bit more richness than many for just a few more bucks. I'd highly recommend the Trivento Malbec.

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Part Two of Don Lange July 2011 Interview

I've posted two videos from my July 2011 visit to the Willamette Valley in Oregon and now posting the second part of a fun interview with Don Lange.

Don started Lange Estate Vineyards & Winery in the late 80s, so he while not a pioneer few would argue he is an iconic figure when you way Lange Winery's accolades and name recognition.

Don was a last-minute stand-in for his son Jesse. Lange is a former songwriter and performer who seems to really enjoy life. You'll pick up on some of that in this short clip.

As previously noted, these clips are rather raw and informal. The videos were originally shot to do a more extensive piece. That didn't happen so I'm sharing them now. It's really some great stuff.

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Top Wines From Your Supermarket Shelf

As much as I’d like friends to quiz me about a great $50 Pinot Noir, most of the inquiries are about supermarket wines.

I’ve written many times in the previous 90 columns about such wines and what I think is most palatable. I’m a fan of Mirrasou, Mondavi Private Selection, Smoking Loon, and a few others. All can be found for $10 or less at most markets.

One of the reasons I’m still writing this column is to share information and hopefully a little wine education. I see a lot of wine-related news every week. Most casual vino consumers aren’t going to be interested in the wine-geeky stuff I consume. But every now and then there is wine news that I think is not only interesting but helpful.

If you are a supermarket wine buyer, wouldn’t you like to know what others are buying and most consumers think are top brands?

A consumer research group, Symphony IRI, annually reports its Top 30 momentum wine brands. The report bases its chart on sales data, volume and dollar sales, volume share in the price range, and other measures.  More than 100 brands met the minimum sales of 100,000 cases to be considered.
In a report on , the survey showed Cupcake wines repeating as the top such wine in the country. Next came Barefoot, Apothic, Liberty Creek – those previous three all owned by Gallo – then St. Michelle’s 14 Hands and Menage A Trois.

Gallo wines held down the number-eight spot with a familiar name, Fish Eye.  Bogle came in at 11th, Columbia Crest was 14th, J Lohr was 17th, Almos 18th, Mark West 19th, chateau St. Jean 20th, Woodbridge 22nd, Sutter Home 23rd, Yellow Tail 26th, Gnarly Head 27th, and Sterling 30th.
Overall, the survey reported, most of the brands had strong growth by improving quality and marketing. Prices were also down per bottle over 2010. 

If you looked at the entire list of 30 labels, what most folks might find surprising is one company owns seven of those brands. What shouldn’t be surprising is that company is the giant Gallo label.
What does all this mean? Not much if you’ve tried the wines and didn’t like them. But if most of your buying is from the supermarket, these labels are easy to find. Obviously, the brands sell well and many supermarket wine shoppers find them to be good wines.

Higher Priced Wines Re-gaining Market Share

At the other end of the spectrum premium wines are coming back. After the economic downturn of 2008, several Central Indiana retailers said they couldn’t move a bottle of wine that cost more than $20-$25. 

During the first quarter of 2012, wines at $20 or more grew in sales 24 percent over last year.
People still love their Cabernet and the bigger prices are also making a comeback. Cab sold more than any other varietal in the top price categories. When you look at those $20-plus wines, most are Cabs. Pinot Noir continues to rock wine drinkers’ worlds with a 32 percent gain over a year ago for wines above $20.
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Languedoc Tasting Educational for More than Retailers

CHICAGO, IL. - Tasting Languedoc wines on the 33rd floor overlooking Lake Michigan isn't a bad way to spend a Tuesday afternoon.

Retailers sample Languedoc wines at W. Lakeshore, Chicago
That was just what I did April 3 in downtown Windy City participating in one of three U.S. L'Aventure Languedoc tastings with U.S. distributors of Languedoc wines. The event is geared mostly for retailers and other buyers but it's educational and interesting to hear what retailers are looking for and what importers, winemakers, and Languedoc leaders think retailers should be looking for when promoting Languedoc wines.

I'm starting to get more invitations of this nature but it's hard for me to justify taking a day off work, the cost of parking, the drive, hotel, etc. But meeting a good friend for dinner was enough for a little 'what the heck' trip to Chicago.

I spent a week in the Languedoc in January learning about organic wines. The wines I tasted were made almost exclusively with traditional methods and presented by 10 different distributors.

I left again convinced of the tremendous quality for value the Languedoc offers winos.

The reds are full bodied and rich, the unusual whites are crisp and often soft on the palate. The Roses, right next door to Provence, are soft but perfect for summer sipping.

I'm not a big sparking fan and left generally unimpressed with the sparklers, but one strike is a pretty good batting average.

What most impressed me, though, was the education session put on by the Benson Marketing Group which promotes Languedoc wines. Account executive David Cohn told me his company likes to include an education component and not just a wine tasting. He's right. I'm sometimes shocked how little retailers know about a given region or its wines. Now, no retailer can be an expert of all the world's wine regions but a specialty tasting like this one makes sense when it includes an education component.

Two retailers joined Frederic Jeanjean, President of the Languedoc AOC, to talk not just about the wines and the region, but also how the wines should be promoted or presented to consumers.

Languedoc wines are a great value, most drinking well above that magic $12-$16 range you'll pay.

Nice view of Lake Michigan, Navy Pier from 33rd floor.
Barbara Glunz, from one of Chicago's oldest wine shops - the House of Glunz, urged retailers to learn more. "I think people come to us because they want to learn something," she said. "People love a wine with a story. And if they learn something they'll want to come back to see what else you know."

Discussion including pronouncing the French names, the always-controversial topic of French wine labeling was part of the 45-minute session.

"We don't want to copy the other appelations," Jeanjean said. "We want to be unique. Even though we were one of the first regions of the world to produce wine with the Romans, we are young. This is our Renaissance period."

Here are some labels I tasted and thought were standouts:

Chateau des Karantas Languedoc - The Karantas wines from the La Clape region are affordably priced and really nicely-balanced, full-bodied wines. They are distributed by Carroll Distributors in Indiana.

Gerard Bertrand Wines - Bertrand was named European Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast and tasting a couple of the wines proved the accolades. I tasted my first-ever PicPoul wine at the Bertrand table and enjoyed the light and soft white.

Les Deux Rives Corbieres - Lex Deux Rives wines were consistently good from the white, rose through the Chateau d'Aussieres Corbieres which was the best red blend I tasted all day. This is another label widely distributed, including Indiana.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Chatting with Oregon Pinot Noir Icon Don Lange

I wrote in an earlier post that I had done several video interviews while in Oregon last summer. The intent was to create a video feature for the national online magazine, Palate Press. That idea never materialize and it's way past time to get some of these marvelous interviews up on the blog.

I've stopped at Lange Estate Winery during all three of my Willamette Valley trips and even as I explore new Oregon wineries, Lange remains a favorite.

On previous trips I had met Jesse Lange who oversees most of the day-to-day operation. I had another appointment set up with him last summer but he had to cancel. I've got to know the folks in the tasting room and they responded they were trying to get 'the Don' to talk with me upon arrival.

'The Don' was Don Lange, Jesse's father, and the founder of Lange Vineyards. The Lange family came along after Erath, Adelsheim and those Willamette Valley pioneers, but the Lange name remains one of the icons in the Valley and Dundee Hills.

Lange makes some of the best Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in Oregon. The name is known across the country.

It was great fun to finally meet Don and sit down to chat. I've left the videos largely unedited to give the view a feel of being there listening to us chat. There is a second video with Don coming in a few days.The audio on this video is a little low. It was boosted as much as possible without causing distortion. Just crank up your audio and it should do okay.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Difference Between 2-Buck Chuck & $50 Pinot

(NOTE: This post and the one below are my last two wine columns. Occasionally old age seeps in and I forget to post these to this blog. All of my columns - all 90 to date - can be read at the link Grape Sense on the right hand side of this page.)

Among wine novices the differences between $6 wine and a $100 bottle remains a mystery.

One of my favorite anecdotes on that comes from a speech at a Central Indiana Kiwanis Club. I talked for about 10-15 on wine basics and then one member asked about $50 wine and why that’s better than a cheap bottle. I knew the guy was a golfer. Somehow and someway I came up with one of my best adlibs.

“I know you play golf, right,” I asked. “Well tell me, why do you use a $250 driver when Wal-Mart has drivers for $40?”

It got a laugh but also made the point. More expensive products of any type are usually more expensive based on brand, marketing, craftmanship, and better quality raw materials. The same can be said of wine. There are many factors contributing to price.

While standing in a Paso Robles vineyard in 2010 the grower explained part of his vineyard was for his higher-end Merlot. Another part of the vineyard’s grapes were sold to a bulk wine producer. The grape grower annually ‘drops fruit” or simply cuts clusters from the vines. Just like a flower or fruit in a garden, when you give the vine less produce the result is richer and better product.

But the price has to go up. Dropping fruit reduced the growers harvest to about 2-3 tons per acre. The vineyard for the bulk wineries produces up to 7 tons of grapes per acre. Prices vary by region and prestige, but it’s fair to say for a region like California’s Sonoma County the average price for one ton of wine grapes is around $2,000. Wine prices start to make some sense when you do the math.

But let’s not stop there. Chardonnay is California’s most-planted grape so it can be purchased around the $1,200 a ton mark. Cabernet or Pinot Noir grapes from the best areas can command more than $3,000 a ton. (Statistics from Sonoma

Though there are many variables, here are some fun statistics: 1 ton of grapes can produce two barrels of wine. Each barrel holds 60 gallons or 25 cases equaling 300 bottles.

Grapes for better wines are handpicked, sorted, and treated like new born babies. Bulk or mass-market wine can be machine picked, machine sorted, and blended or aged in huge vats and barrels. The big-price wines are aged in small lots. I like to think of it as getting more love and attention.

Next comes marketing and reputation. You can search the cost of a bottle of wine and find a lot of different explanations. But it’s fair to assume that a single bottle of wine can cost from a few dollars to $40 or $50 to produce. France’s Revue de Vin De France reported just a couple of years ago that Dom Perignon Champagne costs about $30 a bottle to produce. But the world’s best-known bubbly retails for  nearly $200.

J. Lohr and Louis Martini make really good $15 Cabernet  and its available at Kroger. Robert Mondavi Reserve wines sell for $135-$165 a bottle. Mondavi is a wine made with better products, more craftsmanship, and a big name with a big marketing budget.

Is there a huge difference in the taste? Frankly, the differences are for more discerning palates. If poured an expensive wine, I believe even a novice will note it’s pretty good and clearly better. But how much is that worth for most wine drinkers?

Helping the average drinker find $12-$15 wines that taste like $20-$30 wines is why I write Grape Sense.

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Napa/Sonoma Still Reign Supreme

Oregon’s Willamette Valley is one of the great wine vacation destinations in the U.S. Washington’s Walla Walla region is emerging behind its rich and soft red wine blends. If wine travelers insist on California travel check out the Zins, Pinot Noir and interesting blends of Mendocino County. If you like your wines big and bold at an affordable price, try Paso Robles on the Central Coast.

But if you’re really into wine and want this country’s most unique – and expensive – wine vacation, sooner or later you have to go to Napa and Sonoma counties north of San Francisco.

Wine and wine tourism finds its roots in this country’s most famous wine valleys. I recently spent a couple days there, the first time in five years, and still find it the Mecca for wine lovers.

The area comes with a word of caution for the average wine tourist. Sonoma County lodging and restaurants are not inexpensive. And Napa Valley makes Sonoma look cheap!

Anything above a national chain motel, and there aren’t many of those, can run into the hundreds of dollars nightly. Those national chains can be found at competitive rates ranging from $100-$150 a night. The nicer inns and lodges go for $250 and up. Things won’t be quite as expensive in Sonoma but close.

There are pizzerias, bistros, and burger places in the two counties which are affordable. The real experience is to shop the local groceries, most of which have deli counters where you can pick up great sandwiches. The finer dining establishments compete with any in the world. The French Laundry, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and many others offer world-class dining.

But people go for the wine and there is no place quite like Napa. Robert Mondavi winery is the heart of this Mecca of American wine. The late icon gets and deserves so much credit for bringing American wine to the world and bringing the world to Napa Valley. His mission-designed winery is a must stop. There are two tasting rooms. The first is for most tourists and wine consumers where you can taste his entry level wines for a modest fee. The reserve tasting is $30 per person. But in this region the pours are generous and a tasting can easily be shared between two persons. Don’t be shy; the tasting room folk are comfortable with sharing.

I recently tasted through five of Mondavi’s high-end Cabernet bottles in the reserve tasting room and thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the wine. The price points ranged from $135-$165. Another highlight is Joseph Phelps winery on the other side of the valley. Phelps makes the iconic Insignia blend which is the closest thing to Bordeaux this side of France. It’s a Cabernet driven wine with other traditional blending grapes. It has consistently been one of the valleys most highly-rated wines for 20 years. It also sells at $200 a bottle.

Okay, those prices may create sticker shock for many and they should. But you can go to tastings and enjoy these wines then you start to understand price differences.

The average tasting room fees range $10-$20 for a normal tasting. If you want to taste the really good stuff at the premier label wineries, be prepared to shell out $25-$50 per person for the experience. A few of the wineries even require reservations just to taste. All wineries in the region have very nice websites which spell out fees, hours and locations.

Recommendations based on personal visits:

Napa: Mondavi, Sawyer Cellars, V. Satui, Andretti, Miner, Joseph Phelps.
Sonoma: Chateau St. Jean, B.R. Cohn, Kokomo Vineyards (and visit Hoosier native Erik Miller), Gloria Ferrer (sparkling wines).

If you’re a Pinot fan, journey into Sonoma’s Russian River Valley: Merry Edwards, Inman Family Vineyards, Gary Ferrell, Davis Bynum, Arista, and Rochioli.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

3 Wines: Awesome, Darn Good, & a Stinker

For three-and-a-half years I have not written much about wines I didn't care for after sampling or purchasing. I've read more and more where I'm not doing anyone in service in doing that. I've come to agree.

I have written about not liking a particular wine and why others might like it, and occasionally really went after a bad bottle. But it's been very rare I write about wines in a negative tone. From now on, I think it's necessary to do that when warranted. Sometimes it might be bottle shock, a wine going bad, or other outside factors. I'll try to note that to the best of my ability. But sometimes the wine just doesn't taste right, like the review you'll read below.

Now, just because I don't like a wine doesn't mean you might not love it. On the other hand, occasionally I've tasted some stinkers I would tell readers/friends to stay away from.

With that aside, sometimes we all come across a wine that is just wonderful and beyond expectations. Sometimes we find a wine that keeps us trying new things and reminds us why we became wine enthusiasts in the first place. This first review is such a wine.

Awesome - Abadia Retuerta 2006 Seleccion Especial - I like this wine so much I don't even know where to start. This wine (a 2005 actually) won the The International Wine Challenge Award for best red wine. This wine consistently gets 90-92 points from the major wine magazines.

Dark, rich fruit like cherries, plum, and flavors of licorice, spice, coffee, and vanilla sweep over the palate in a smooth and extremely well-balanced manner that few wines match. It has very concentrated fruit with unbelievable balance from sip to swallow.

The wine comes from what is known as Spain's Golden Mile between Tudela de Duero and Penafiel. The Abadia Retuerta wine normally retails around $23-$24 but it can be found in the $17-$18 range. It's a tremendous value at $24. If you find it, buy it.

Abadia Retuerta 2006 Seleccion Especial, $17-$20, Very Highly Recommended

Darn Good - Ancient Peaks 2009 Renegade - This 2009 was an inaugural bottling for this wine. It's a typically big Paso Robles combo of 46 percent Syrah, 31 percent Malbec, and 23 Petit Verdot. All of the fruit comes from Margarita Vineyard in the Central Coast appelation. This vineyard is at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, just 14 miles from the Pacific.

The wine gets 18 months in a combination of oak. It's a big smooth wine. On the palate, I got smoky flavors like coffee, chocolate with big fruit. Not a fruit bomb as it opens up, the wine's power dark juiciness is balanced by good acidity and well-balanced tannins. For a wine of this power and flavor, the alcohol comes in at a palatible 14.5 percent.

The winery released just over a 1,000 cases of this wine so you're going to have to look to find it.

Wine geekiness aside, if you like big flavored red wine with good balance Ancient Peaks Renegade is a very, very good bad boy!

Ancient Peaks 2009 Renegade, SRP $23, Trade Sample, Highly Recommended

Stinker Alain Paret Cotes-Du-Rhone Valvigneyre 2009 White Wine - I was upset when I tasted this wine. It's 100 percent Viognier, a floral grape that provides wonderful aromas and often a tad of sweetness on the palate.

First, I really like the whites of France and particularly from the Rhone Valley. The wines are usually blended but when I had a chance to pick this wine up for $10.99 from a distinguished producer I jumped on a couple of bottles.

I thought a lot about this wine. It was disorganized, a little two tart for a floral wine, and just not very pleasant. I had the wine stored for awhile so I don't think it was bottle shock. It just was not very palatable. 

Alain Paret Cotes-Du-Rhone Valvignevre, $10.99, Not Recommended.

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Off to Chicago Tuesday for More Languedoc Wines

Ever since my January trip to South France's Languedoc region I've become a big fan of the area's wines.

The January press trip was to the Millesime Bio, an organic wine fair in Montpellier. I learned a ton about organic wines, US and France law on organic wine, and the wonderful wines of Southern France.

So when an invitation came via e-mail a few weeks ago to attend a trade tasting of Langeudoc wines I signed up and jumped at the opportunity. There is a brief basic seminar on the wines of languedoc then an all-afternoon tasting opportunity.

I'll be using Twitter and Facebook to do a few updates and try to get something posted Tuesday or Wednesday night a little more comprehensive.

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