Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Box wines--what's the deal?

A dear reader recently asked us about wine in boxes. Before diving into a reply, click here to take a look at the Santa Rosa's Press-Democrat thoughts on the very subject.
(Short version, they like the Black Box brand, which you will recall is produced by Constellation, as well as jugs that consumers can take to stores and wineries to fill up.)

Wine in boxes is a wonderful idea. The wine is actually inside a plastic bag inside the box. The bag collapses as the wine is dispensed, so the wine remains free of oxygen. An opened box wine can stay fresh for weeks, and is a convenient thing to have on the counter, especially when you would like a glass of wine but do not want to commit to opening a bottle.

Boxed wine is also great from an environmental perspective. A box, barely the size of two bottles, typically holds the equivalent of 4 bottles of wine, so more can be packed into each shipment, reducing the carbon cost of moving the wine around. That cost is further reduced by the very much lower weight of the package. And the package is almost entirely recyclable, although whether the plastic parts actually get recycled is an open question.

The one thing boxes are not (yet) good for, is long term storage of wine. If you buy a box, plan to drink it within the year. This has to do with the nature of the plastic, gas permeability, and details beyond the scope of this blog.

For all of these reasons box, or "cask" wine is very popular in Australia and, we are told, Europe. The box has had trouble catching on here, and producers blame the generally dreadful quality of the "wine" sold in 5-liter boxes, such as Franzia, Peter Vella, etc. We use the quotation marks advisedly. These producers may have cleaned up their act, but at least a few years ago many of the 5-liter beverages were in essence wine-flavored, alcoholic sugar-water. Yum!

In our experiments with boxed wine, we have found that the 5-liter-related stigma may not be the only thing holding them back. We have found that the first releases of the wines is generally pretty good, but subsequent releases show a marked drop in quality. We have all but given up on boxed wine, as a result.

So we turn to you, dear readers. Have you found a boxed wine you enjoy? Or dislike? Do tell which, and why? We eagerly await your reply.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cline visit

Don't say we never did you nothing: we braved the 3-day weekend/valentine's day traffic to bring you the promised report from Cline Cellars.

As members of the wine industry, we rarely visit the "front of the house" tasting rooms. We usually skip the front entrance and head to the back, where we get royal treatment tasting with our fellow winemakers. We cry for you, but only so much. You are always welcome to come taste with us, after all. So, bellying up to the tasting bar..., well, actually, it was so crowded that it was more like we were circling vultures until a thin slice of bar opened up. Any way you look at it, it was jarring to our delicate systems. Remember, we did it for you.

Cline has a nice enough tasting room. We ignored the usual tchotchkes and were greeted by the very helpful Connie. She explained that we could choose any 5 wines among the 3 whites and 8 reds listed on the front side of the tasting sheet, and that the 4 wines on the back could be tasted at $1/per. Pretty reasonable, by tasting room standards, we think. Of course, we pulled rank and got to taste anything we wanted with no charge. Eat your hearts out.

Overall, we liked the wines. Nothing blew us away, even though we were tasting wines that were supposed to be much better than the California Syrah referenced a couple of posts back that inspired us to visit the tasting room in the first place. Why? This is a tough one. We have often experienced what we call the Tasting Room Effect, where wines that we know and love just don't taste as good at the winery as they do at home. Perhaps this is because the wines have been opened too long, the glasses are subpar (as much as we hate to admit it, glasses do make a difference), or we are just put off by the thcotchkes and crowds.

Anyway, we bought a case of wine, following our own advice (see earlier posts) to buy two of everything. So we'll see if the wines show better chez nous than they did at Cline. Yes, you will get reports.

Here's the list: what we did not taste, what we tasted, and what we bought.
2007 Pinot Gris Sonoma Coast, $12

2007 Oakley four Whites (Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Palomino, Malvasia Bianca. Hm, wondering now why we did not taste this. Palomino is the main grape in Sherry. $11

2007 Los Carneros Viognier, $16. We tasted this one, and liked it very much. Classic viognier (floral, pretty, with enough weight to keep drinking it). At this point we have a backlog of whites, so we are only buying whites that blow us away. This was good, but did not make the cut.

2006 Oakley five reds (Merlot, Barbera, Cab Franc, Syrah, Mourvedre), $11.

2007 Cashmere, California, $21. We tasted this blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre (GSM, or as Cline says, "Gimme Some More!"). The G and M come from Oakley, and the S from Sonoma. It was plenty tasty, but not enough to justify the price. Mind you, this is a bargain compared to many similar blends from Napa and Sonoma, but we think most of those pale compared to the typical $10-15 Cotes-du-Rhone, as did this.

2007 Ancient Vines Carignane, Contra Costa County, $16. We tasted this. Carignane is a notoriously tough grape. Tough flavors, tough to make interesting, tough from just about any perspective. This wine was quaffable enough, but not special.

2007 Ancient Vines Mourvedre, Contra Costa County, $18. This was much more generous than the Carignane, but still did not deliver enough to get us excited. Cline makes a reserve Mourvedre, but they were sold out so we could not taste it.

2007 Syrah Sonoma County, $12. This is the current release of the Syrah we tasted earlier, then called California. We did not taste it, but bought two bottles on faith.

2006 Cool Climate Syrah, Sonoma Coast, $16, and
2005 Los Carneros Syrah, $28. We tasted these two side-by-side, and neither had the spark that so enticed us in the California Syrah we tasted a few weeks ago. The Los Carneros was more interesting, and quite good nonetheless, so we decided to chalk it up to the aforementioned Tasting Room Effect and bought two bottles.

We then tasted 4 Zinfandels side-by-side (Cline makes single vineyard designate Zinfandels from Contra Costa County, but these were sold out at the time of our visit):
2007 Zinfandel, California, $12
2007 Ancient Vines Zinfandel, California, $18
2006 Sonoma Zinfandel, $26
2007 Heritage Zinfandel, Contra Costa County, $34

The entry-level Zin is Cline's best-selling wine. It had a pleasant, classic Zinfandel nose. Nice but unremarkable. The Ancient Vines was a decided step up, and we bought two bottles. The Sonoma Zin, made from fruit purchased from Sonoma Valley, really highlighted the difference between Sonoma and Contra Costa Zinfandel. Our favorite of the four (we bought two bottles), this wine was richer and more complex than the others. The Heritage Zin, essentially a blend of the 4 Contra Costa single vineyard Zins, had real potential, and may be too young to be showing it now. We bought two bottles to find out.

On our way out Connie insisted we try their late-harvest Mourvedre, and advised that we visit Cline's sister winery, Jacuzzi, across the street. Partly good advice. The late harvest Mourvedre would please any lover of ruby port, and would go wonderfully with any rich, chocolatey dessert. Jacuzzi was a major disappointment. The wines are mostly made from relatively obscure Italian varieties, such as Arneis, Lagrein, Nero D'Avola, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto..., but all were disappointing, and about 50% more expensive than their supposed counterparts at Cline.

Cline is very close to San Francisco, and not so much farther from the East Bay. If you can brave a tasting room scene there are worse places to go, and other good visits nearby, such as Gloria Ferrer. But Cline wines are widely available so there is no reason to go out of your way to visit. We enjoyed everything we tasted at Cline and the prices are hard to beat in California. We were hoping for a bit more out of the wines, and once we open at home what we bought today, we'll let you know whether we find it.

Who owns what--a guide to wine brands

That interesting new wine brand you saw at the store the other day--is it an independent, artisanal operation, or is it the brainchild of a megacorporation's marketing department?

Large wine corporations are capable of making good, even great wines, so the mere fact that Brand X is in fact owned by MegaCorp Y does not necessarily mean that the Brand X wine will be no good. But large corporations are rarely adventurous or innovative, at least when it comes to consumer products. Given the choice between a $10 bottle from some genuinely small operation we have never heard of, and a $10 bottle from, say, the E&J Gallo family of products, we will always opt for the former on the grounds that we are much more likely to discover something new, interesting, even challenging.

Below you will find a list of most of the brands owned, produced or distributed by the major players in the wine industry. If there is sufficient demand, we can develop a tri-fold wallet size card for you. In the meantime, use this list as a field guide next time you are out shopping for wine.

As always, your comments are welcome. Have you tried any of the brands below? What have been your experiences? Do you wonder who really owns a new brand you have seen? If you can't find it on the list below, zap us a note and we will do our best sleuthing to get you an answer.

Nota bene: this list was compiled in February 2009. While we strived for accuracy we cannot guarantee that the list is free of errors, and we apologize for any errors herein. Change is rapid in the wine world, and doubtless many of the brands below will have or soon will vanish, change hands, be joined by sister brands, etc.

E&J Gallo owns, produces and/or distributes
Martin Codax (Spain)
Don Miguel Gascon (Argentina)
Alamos (Chile)
Ecco Domani (Italy)
Bella Sera (Italy)
Sebeca (South Africa)
Red Bicyclette (France)
Da Vinci (Italy)
Black Swan (Australia)
Redwood Creek
Gallo of Sonoma/Gallo Family
Frei Brothers
MacMurray Ranch
Napa Valley Vineyards
Indigo Hills
Boone's Farm
Turning Leaf
Peter Vella
Carlo Rossi
Twin Valley
William Hill
Canyon Road
Louis M Martini
Martha Stewart Vintage
Barefoot Cellars

The Wine Group owns, produces and/or distributes
Fish Eye
Big House
Corbett Canyon
Glen Ellen
Mogen David
Cupcake Cellars
Pinot Evil
Herding Cats
Italian Casarsa
MG Vallejo

Constellation Brands owns, produces and/or distributes
Robert Mondavi Winery
Woodbridge by Mondavi
Franciscan Estates
Clos du Bois
Arbor Mist
Mount Veeder
Inniskillin (Canada)
Drylands (NZ)
Kim Crawford (NZ)
Tintara (Australia)
Ruffino (Italy)
Black Box
Nobilo (NZ)
Toasted Head
RH Phillips
Alice White
Monkey Bay
Rex Goliath
Turner Road

Bronco Wine Company owns, produces, and/or distributes
Grand Cru
Silver Ridge
Rutherford Vintners
Fox Hollow
Napa Ridge
Harlow Ridge
Santa Barbara Landing
Fat Cat
Crane Lake
Forest Glen
JW Morris
Quail Ridge
Sea Ridge
Charles Shaw
Napa Creek

Fosters owns, produces and/or distributes
Lindeman's (Australia)
Wolf Blass (Australia)
Penfolds (Australia)
Rosemount (Australia)
Wynns Coonawarra Estate (Australia)
Stags' Leap Winery
St Clement
Chateau St Jean
Bohemian Highway
Festival 34

Trinchero Family Estates owns, produces and/or distributes
Sutter Home
Napa Cellars
Folie a Deux
Montevina (being renamed Terra D'Oro)
Trinity Oaks
Little Boomey (Australia)
Three Thieves
The Show
Wild Bunch
True Earth
Red Belly Black (Australia)
Paul Newman
Sea Glass

Ste Michelle Wine Estates owns, produces and/or distributes
Chateau/Domaine Ste Michelle
Columbia Crest
Stimson Estate
Red Diamond
Col Solare
Conn Creek
Villa Mt Eden
14 Hands Winery
Distant Bay Winery
Vineyard 10

Diageo Chateaux & Estates owns, produces or distributes
Beaulieu Vineyard
Century Cellars
Moon Mountain
FE Trimbach
Barton & Guestier
Edna Valley
Navarro Correas (Argentina)
Alma Viva (Chile)
Sacred Hill (NZ)
Canoe Ridge
Jade Mountain
Archetype (Australia)
New Harbor (NZ)
Stellina di Notte (Italy)

Jackson Family Wines owns, produces and/or distributes
White Rocket
Carmel Road
Hartford Court/Hartford Family
Matanzas Creek
La Crema
Freemark Abbey
La Jota
Pelton House
Maggy Hawk
Highland Estates

Delicato owns, produces and/or distributes
Bota Box
King Fish
Night Owl
Gnarly Head
Chateau Maris (France)
Joe Blow
Clay Station

Terlato Wines International owns, produces and/or distributes
Baglio di Pianetto
Bodega Tamari
Ca' del Bosco
Chimney Rock
Cuvaison Estate Wines
Domaine Tournon
Ernie Els Wines
Glass Mountain
Il Poggione
Luke Donald Collection
M. Chapoutier
Mischief & Mayhem
Peller Estates
Rust en Vrede
Rutherford Hill
Santa Margherita
Seven Daughters

Sokol Blosser
Tangley Oaks
Terlato Family Vineyards

Gunns Limited owns, produces and/or distributes
Tamar Ridge Kayena Vineyard
Devil's Corner

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cline Syrah, and more to come

We recently enjoyed dinner with two faithful readers of the blog, who shared with us one of the wines they bought at the Safeway sale (see below), a Cline Syrah (~$10). The short answer? We were amazed.

We have enjoyed many Cline wines in the past but we never seem to buy them. This may change. Cline is perhaps best known for its Zinfandels and Mourvedres, many of which come from vineyards in sandy eastern Contra Costa County. Before you scoff, you should know that this is also where cult (or nearly so) producer Turley sources many of its grapes. The evil scourge phylloxera does not do well in sandy soil, allowing Contra Costa County vineyards to grow to extreme ages.

This Syrah is labeled California, which means the grapes could really come from anywhere in the state. Most likely the wine is a blend, with grapes from many regions.

But what about the wine? Well, Syrah can be many things, which is perhaps why it is having a hard time establishing itself in the marketplace. One of our favorite expressions of Syrah is Cote-Rotie, in the northern Rhone in France. There the wine is perfumed and sometimes just smelly, but in an interestingly meaty, smoky way. On the palate it is remarkably light. Most new world Syrah, whether from Australia (Shiraz), California, or elsewhere, lacks the smokiness and is heavy to the point of syrup. And the Cline? Very nicely balanced--far from syrupy--and intriguingly smoky.

We liked the wine so much that we are planning a trip to the winery to see what else they have to offer. You will see a full report here.
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