Monday, September 28, 2009

PWR's First Pick!

We have started our own small wine company, PWR Wines. The PWR stands for the People's Wine Revolution. The purpose of this blog is not to promote PWR Wines, although we strive to produce wines that would fit right in here. That is, wines that deliver high quality at low prices.

But today was our first ever pick, and we wanted to share the news. We found an old, head-trained vineyard in St. Helena planted to a mix of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, with a little bit of Viognier. We only managed to bring in 0.37 tons, barely enough to fill a single barrel, but the fruit looked beautiful on the sorting table. Here are a few pictures of our triumph!

One of two half-full bins ready to go.

Sorting the grapes: removing leaves, etc.

The "full" bin, ready to begin fermentation.

We are now in the thick of harvest and there simply are not enough hours in the day to do everything we want to do. We have a long list of wines and other discoveries to tell you about, and we will in good time. Hang in there, dear readers.

Friday, September 25, 2009

2008 Farro Depié Rosé Campania (Piedirosso)

We pride ourselves on our lack of snobbishness, however oxymoronic that may be, but we never would have picked up this bottle on our own. North Berkeley Wines kindly sent it to us for our consideration.

The wine itself is lovely--round and refreshing, redolent of strawberries and cream, with just a hint of citrus. We like it, but we think it a little overpriced at $17.95. That is just to say that there are other pink wines, not least of which the Chilean pinks offered by the very same North Berkeley, that are at least as exciting and cost less.

We were intrigued to learn that this wine is made from Piedirosso grapes. We first heard about Piedirosso in this thread from the eRobertParker bulletin board. Red wines made from Piedirosso are therein alleged to evoke "lacy femininity" and to have the weight of "paint that found its way onto the canvas without a brush." Both of these descriptors elicited raised eyebrows from faithful reader Lisa.

We have found a few examples of (red) Piedirosso wines, and we enjoyed them very much, even if they didn't provoke as poetic a response. This pink version is also very pleasant, and well worth trying for a taste of something different.

Click on the link below for Foodista's take on Piedirosso.
Piedirosso Grapes on Foodista

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Napa Wineries Worth a Visit

Napa is home to a number of wineries we love to visit, and visitors frequently ask us for recommendations. Of course we try to tailor our suggestions to each person's interests, but there are a few wineries we feel confident proposing to the readers of this blog.

 (photo by Aaron Logan and used under the Creative Commons 1.0 license)

Wineries such as Jericho Canyon, Seavey Vineyard, Schramsberg and Quixote all offer terrific tours/tastings, but their wine prices (and in some cases tasting fees) are too high for us to recommend them here. Okay, the Schramsberg tour is pretty amazing, so we take that back.

Since most visitors to Napa arrive from the South, we'll start with Artesa, in the Carneros region in the southern part of Napa Valley (see (here, here and here for more on Artesa). We generally like their wines but think they could be much better. Still, they are a good first stop on a Napa visit because they offer a wide variety of wines and prices are reasonable (by Napa standards). But perhaps the best reason of all is that the property and views are stunning.

The Hess Collection Winery is in the hills north of Artesa on the southern slopes of Mt. Veeder. It, too, is a beautiful property, although it lacks views. We like HCW wines, but we have not kept up with them. We love visiting the winrey, though, to see Donald Hess's art collection, displayed in a museum spanning 3 stories. This is extremely modern art, and much of it will not be to everyone's liking, but it is sure to provoke thoughtful conversation. There is a tasting fee but no charge for viewing the art.

Between Napa and Yountville you will find Elyse Winery. Elyse produces a wide range of wines, including Cabernet, Zinfandel, and Rhone-inspired blends. The wines are delicious but not cheap. Still, the rosé can be had for only $15.

The next stop working Upvalley would be Mumm Napa, on the east side of the Valley just south of Rutherford. On the spectacular porch overlooking vineyards you can enjoy the bubbles that we think offer the best value in Napa. When you need to cool off, you can pop into Mumm's art gallery to see two exhibits. One exhibit changes every couple of months, and we tend to love or love-to-hate whatever is on display. There is also a permanent collection of Ansel Adams photographs that are simply exquisite. No charge to visit the galleries.

Leaving the valley floor and heading east on Highway 128 past Lake Hennessey will take you to Neyers Vineyards. Neyers offers a wide variety of wines made by the talented Tadeo Borchardt. These are all exciting, distinctive wines that reflect their origins. Not cheap, but inexpensive for Napa, with most in the $20-$35 range (and several at $48). All are delicious, and tasting with hostess Phoebe Ullberg is a delight.

Keep heading east on Hwy 128 and you will soon be at Nichelini. This is a charming place abounding with cats and bocce courts, and the owners have great tales about how they continued to produce wine through Prohibition. They have some unusual offerings such as Sauvignon Vert, and prices are reasonable (again, for Napa). Still, we think the experience of the visit itself is the best reason to go.

Burgess Cellars lies in the hills above the Valley--spectacular views once again--near the town of Angwin. Burgess offers terrific value, at prices that are reasonable for wine this good: the excellent Cabernet retails for $36, and the Merlot and Syrah are $25. Sadly they have stopped producing their Grenache. We shall miss it. Well worth a visit.

Last on our list is Casa Nuestra, on the Silverado Trail between St. Helena and Calistoga. These guys are old school and produce their wine without the modern accoutrements so common throughout Napa Valley. They produce a number of wines, and while prices have crept up of late most are still under $30. Nubian goats welcome visitors, and stepping into the tasting room is like traveling backwards in time. Good times.

Do you have a favorite that's not on this list? Please let us know. Stay tuned for lists for Sonoma and Mendocino before long. Any other requests?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Some North Berkeley selections

Harvest is well under way. A cool summer lulled us into the belief that we would see no grapes until mid-September, and enjoy our first Labor Day off in years, but it was not to be. The grapes are pouring in and we are doing our best to turn them into delicious wine.

Exhausting work, but what better way to relax at day's end than with a lovely glass of a previous vintage's results.

We very much enjoyed the NV Terres Secretes Crémant de Bourgogne Blanc de Noirs ($18.50). At first sip this was pleasant as (most) sparkling wines are. Unlike most bubblies, this wine got better and better until it was gone, at which point it was delicious. Sigh.

We also enjoyed the 2007 Sorbaiano Montescudaio Rosso ($14.95). This blend of Sangiovese and Montepulciano is pretty, but distinctively Italian, with notes of saddle leather (probably low-level Brettanomyces, but in this case appealing). We enjoyed this wine with pasta and prosciutto and bitter greens, with pine nuts and parmesan, judging it an excellent table wine.

The 2008 Nicodemi Trebbiano d’Abruzzo ($12.95) is lovely. Although we frowned at the plastic cork, which we find lead to premature oxidation and are difficult to re-insert, we loved the wine's aromatics, reminiscent of citrus and an herbal bouquet such as garrigue or maquis. In other words, rosemary and lavender, with bits of thyme and more. This was a delightful poolside quaffer. It is the consummate refresher, but it is also interesting in a way that the typical pinot grigio can never be.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pedroncelli Bargains

As summer winds down and harvest grinds on, we've found time to relax with wines Pedroncelli was kind enough to send our way.

We shared the Pedroncelli Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley Mother Clone 2007, $15, with friends. All enjoyed it. The wine exhibited the classic Dry Creek Valley aromas of cherries and spice, and it was nicely balanced, but it did not wow us the way Dry Creek Zin can do. Still a fine wine for the price.

Next up was the Dry Rosé of Zinfandel; Sonoma County 2008, $10. That's right, $10! This is a new name for the wine--we suppose buyers had been expecting something in the White Zinfandel vein, and this certainly is not. We have long been a fan of pink wine made from Zinfandel, and this offering reminded us that we have not had one in a while. Where have they all gone?

This wine is truly dry, truly Zinfandel, and a great refresher for the price. We would be remiss, however, if we did not mention the North Berkeley summer rosé sampler at $99/case, which includes favorites such as Alto Sol Carmenere/Syrah and Nicodemi Montepulciano D'Abruzzo Cerasuolo. But that is a limited offer, while the Pedroncelli will remain $10 (we hope!), and we recommend giving it a shot.

The Chardonnay Dry Creek Valley 2008, $12, was very exciting, and represents a spectacular bargain for California Chardonnay. It is crisp and lively with brilliant fruit and a lingering, complex finish. Its subtle oak is a lovely complement. Delicious and truly in a different class than any other domestic Chardonnay at this price.

Stay tuned for more on Pedroncelli, and enjoy the last days of summer.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Allegrini Valpolicella

A dear friend visited recently and brought some lovely wines. We enjoyed grilled pizzas on our back porch, comparing the heat of Davis summer evenings to those of Calistoga. A Ridge Three Valleys ($22) helped us through the evening. The wine worked very well, but was not particularly remarkable. Perhaps it was overshadowed by the quality of our conversation.

We might have done better with the other bottle our friend brought. We enjoyed it recently while reminiscing over the visit. The wine was Allegrini 2007 Valpolicella, which as near as we can tell retails for about $17 and is widely available for about $12. This is a wonderful wine. Beautiful and voluptuous, it is ripe without being over the top or overly alcoholic. Tannins are present but well-balanced, and the acidity is refreshing and not out of line.

In fact, our only complaint is that the wine is bottled under a synthetic stopper. We are all for alternatives to cork, but in our experience wines with synthetic closures age too rapidly, and despite notable progress they remain difficult to open, and even more difficult to re-close. This certainly did not detract from our enjoyment. However, should you decide to give this wine a try, we recommend that you not cellar it. Drink up!
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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Food & Wine's cheap wine picks

Food & Wine magazine just published its list of best American wines under $20. We have not tried all of them--have you? We would love to hear your thoughts.

We are very pleased to see that Siduri and Copain made the list, for Pinot Noir and Syrah, respectively.  Both producers do a terrific job, with solid quality throughout their production. Both offer value at all price points, but most of the wines are not inexpensive. They are to be applauded for ensuring the same high quality goes into their more affordable wines.

Kudos to Food & Wine for making such interesting selections. We look forward to trying the other producers on the list.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Keuka Lake Vineyards

Our friend, Staci Nugent, paid us a visit a while back. It's a long way from Ithaca, NY to the Napa Valley, and we were very happy to see her.

Staci is the winemaker at Keuka Lake Vineyards in Hammondsport, NY. She is also an up-and-coming cheesemaker. On the evidence of the gouda-style cheese she brought, she is already quite accomplished. She is in Switzerland at the time of this writing, learning from master cheesemakers.

Wine she has down. Staci very generously brought us her 2007 Goldman Reserve Dry Riesling and her 2008 Vignoles. Folks, these wines are fabulous. The Riesling is classic in every sense. Textbook mineral and stone-fruit nose, with hints of citrus. Great acid and just delicious. The wine shows what Riesling in the Finger Lakes can achieve with a talented winemaker. Well worth the $18 retail price.

The Vignoles was astonishing. The vignoles grape is a cross of American and French grape variteies. The goal with such crosses is to combine the attractive flavors of the French species with the ability to withstand the temperatures and disease pressures of the US. We cannot attest to its vineyard performance but the flavors in this wine show that the goal was achieved. Certainly Riesling-like, but with a very attractive herbal streak. The wine is labeled "gently dry," and we were concerned that it would be overly sweet. Instead, the sweetness is perfectly balanced with the acidity, and therefore barely noticeable, as in a successful trocken wine from Germany. This wine is a steal at $13.

The only bad news is that the wines have limited distribution (NY, CT, DC) and the winery can ship to only a few states (NY, CA, AK, AZ, FL, MN, DC). Good cheer to readers in those states. The rest of you should keep KLV in mind when you visit the east coast.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Interview with David Hinkle of North Berkeley Wines

As devoted followers of this blog know, many of the wines we recommend are available through North Berkeley Wines and its importing arm, North Berkeley Imports. We have been customers of NBW for years because they epitomize the ideal wine store. The staff are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and the shelves are stocked with a surprisingly vast array for so tiny a store, with wines from all over the world that they truly believe in. This last point is key—you might not enjoy every wine on offer, but each one is there because at least someone in the store thinks it worthy, not because a distributor strong-armed or sweet-talked their way into a placement.

We have talked up NBW so often in this blog that we thought it would be fun to take a look behind the scenes. We interviewed COO, wine buyer, and the “mastermind behind North Berkeley Imports,” David Hinkle, to learn what makes the store so great. He graciously chatted with us for almost an hour on a wide range of topics.

David Hinkle's career began at a small wine shop that also had a restaurant, wine bar and wine school in Harvard Square. He has 25 years’ experience working with producers in France, mostly in Burgundy.

He learned quickly to relentlessly explore each cellar he visited. Tasting a wine from a barrel, he would ask if there were other wines of the same appellation or quality level. Often, David would discover that a group of barrels of a given wine was in fact several similar but different wines lumped together by the winemaker for convenience. One lot might have been picked slightly later and riper, another might have gone into only old barrels and another only new. Or a winemaker might already have a blend of various wine lots in mind, and that blend might for convenience include lots considered too small to bottle separately, even if they did not fit well in the blend. David would identify the special barrels in these lots and persuade the producer to bottle that wine separately. Quality, not convenience, is the key.
A case in point is the Bourgogne Rouge “Roncevie” from Domaine Arlaud, a wine we have long appreciated because it overdelivers on quality for the price. The 2007 retails for $22.95. When North Berkeley started working with the Arlauds, four wines were made from the Roncevie parcel, which lies just outside of (and is rumored to have been unjustly excluded from) the Gevrey appellation. The four wines differed in vine age and harvest date, were aged entirely in tanks rather than barrels, and were sold off in bulk. One year NBI arrived just after the harvest and persuaded the Arlauds to fill four barrels with wine from the oldest vines. Everyone was happy with the quality. Since then the focus on the vineyard and identifying exactly which part of the vineyard produces the best wine allows the blend to be as much as 200 barrels (about 5,000 cases). It stays in barrel longer than even the Arlauds’ Premier and Grand Cru wines.

We asked David how NBI discovers new producers. He explained that while it is always great to get a producer with a reputation for good quality, it is difficult. NBI cultivates younger, lesser-known producers, and supports them so they can achieve high quality. Finding these growers often involves going from village to village knocking on doors and asking to taste wine. They taste bottled wine and compare it to the newly made wine in barrel to see if raw potential was being lost through poor management decisions that could easily be changed, for example, by using different barrel producers, or changing the bottling date.

Everywhere that NBI works, including California, the goal is to find special appellations or regions with great potential that have not yet been discovered. An example from France is Chorey-les-Beaune, in Burgundy. There NBI found growers with great vineyard sites and shared the enological wisdom they had accrued over the years of working with producers in more renowned regions of Burgundy. This was not always appreciated by the more established producers.

NBI visits all their producers as soon as possible after each harvest to taste the raw material and listen to the growers. This is the chance to select lots for special treatment, such as leaving a wine in tank or putting it in barrel, removing a lot from a blend or keeping it from being sold off in bulk, or bottling at a different date to capture the wine at its peak.
We have long been impressed with NBI’s selections of wines from Chile. David says that Chile lacks a homegrown wine industry and is instead geared toward producing industrial quantities of wine. However, with its raw materials of special sites Chile has the long-term potential to produce world class wines. Consumers have the advantage now because the best wines are tremendously undervalued. The best wines are still getting better every year, thanks to improved clonal selection and the maturing of vines on great sites. (Most vines in the top vineyards are still very young.) Widespread irrigation allows the growers to create balanced wines that lack the high alcohol so prevalent in California wines.

In Chile David was introduced to the trio of Alvaro Espinoza, Sergio Reyes and Juan-Carlos Faundez, who are responsible for the GEO Wines portfolio. Espinoza and Faundez are winemakers with broad international experience eager to show Chile’s potential. Chono and Alto Sol are two of the brands in the GEO Wines portfolio that we have raved about previously. David believes that the country’s best wines will ultimately be Carménère-based blends, and that despite today’s great opportunities for bargains worldwide, no one will best Chile on quality-price ratio.

Finally, we asked David to share some advice for consumers. Rather than suggesting a few brands or wine styles, he recommends getting to know a particular merchant. Start by giving the merchant one or more examples of wines you have enjoyed. The more information you can provide about why you liked the wine the better. Allow the merchant to suggest six to twelve, or even one, bottles based on your example. Taste through those wines and, most importantly, return to the merchant with specific feedback. What did you like or not like about each wine? As the merchant comes to better understand your preferences and the relationship develops, you will discover new and exciting wines. Not only will you do better than you would grabbing bottles on your own, but you will develop a relationship with the wine shop staff, which is all part of the fun.

We thank David for taking the time to talk with us, and we hope that you find our conversation enlightening. We are sure that David would be happy to answer any questions you have. Do visit North Berkeley Wines if you can, and remember that the NBI selections are widely available in other stores and states, too.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Wine in CANS!

Yes, we love alternative packaging. The bottle was an amazing invention 400 years ago, but it's time to move on. Cork has made tremendous progress in recent years, but a corked bottle this weekend reminded us that cork's time has come and gone as well. If any of you buy the argument that cork stoppers are ecologically important, we ask why you don't demand them in all of your beverage containers. Why should wine alone bear the burden of maintaining an artificial, if rich, ecosystem? Yes, we can continue this rant with anyone interested. But on to the real point...

We have had wine in cans, and it is good. Wine in cans is hardly new, as this article from the San Francisco Chronicle demonstrates. But the article hardly gives the impression that earlier canned wines were associated with quality.

The wines from Wild Pelican should turn that around. These wines are simply fabulous. Not "fabulous for wine in a can," but fabulous. And it comes in cans.

We read about the Wild Pelican wines in Mutineer magazine, and requested samples that were very generously provided by Tim Jacobi, of Gima International, the US distributor for the wines. Mr. Jacobi provided a great deal of information along with the wine, most of which is also on the Wild Pelican website.

But we get ahead of ourselves. How about the wine? Mr. Jacobi sent samples of two of the three Wild Pelican products (and we will be eagerly seeking out the third). The red is a Tempranillo from the D.O. Cariňena region of Spain. It is redolent of bing cherries and cherry pie, with hints of baking spices. Smooth and silky, this is very pleasant even if it does not scream "Tempranillo."

The white blew us away. It is a Chenin Blanc from South Africa's Western Cape. Chenin Blanc's home may be France's Loire Valley, but the South Africans have grown it for hundreds of years and made it their own. This instance is absolutely classic, and very aromatic with scents of green apple and gooseberry. There is some slight carbonation (it's not fizzy) that lifts the fruitiness, and mouth-watering acidity. This wine demands food, and would be perfect for a picnic.

The third wine, which we have yet to try, is a Grenache-Shiraz rosé from the Languedoc-Rousillon (France). We love rosé, as well as Grenache and Shiraz, so we have high hopes for this wine.

Mr. Jacobi advises that the roll-out of the product will be measured. The plan is to build a loyal following in key areas in the eastern and central US before releasing the wines in California. You readers on the eastern seaboard are lucky.

Prices will vary based on state taxes etc., but Mr. Jacobi expects individual cans to sell for $2.09-$2.49, with 3-packs and 6-packs costing slightly less per can. Note that the cans are 187-mL (1/4 of standard wine bottle), so at these prices a bottle equivalent would cost up to $10. It makes sense to have a small package given that there is no way to re-close the can once opened, though it might be nice to have some larger options available, too. The wines are well worth $10/bottle--the convenience, weight and environmental benefits are all bonus.

Okay, so the wine is good, now what about the packaging? The can weighs a mere 8 grams, compared to almost 200 grams for a glass bottle of the same volume. The wine is not exposed to light, which can be quite damaging, even through green glass bottles. Cans are allowed where glass containers are forbidden, and while Wild Pelican won't say it, the cans are easy to smuggle into places where wine might not be allowed at all. Finally, while we are not overly concerned with packaging aesthetics, this package looks and even feels good. No one, we hope, will feel sheepish bringing this wine to a party or opening it for friends.

Keep your eyes open for Wild Pelican, and let us know what you think when you find it.

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