Petit Verdot Goes Gangbusters in Ripley, Ohio—Believe It Or Not

The jury is hereby ordered to disregard the headline and answer the following question:

If you were going to purchase a ton of wine grapes from California, which varietal do you suppose would set you back the most?  Nope, not cabernet sauvignon, whose culty catechumens are willing to spend thousands per bottle; not low-yield viognier, which is unforgiving even in idyllic seasons; not even trendy malbec, which has recently had Argentina crying for Argentina as Left Coast versions win top spots at competitions.

Bailiff, can you read the verdict?  It’s Petit Verdot.

Generally used as a blending grape, petit verdot’s saturated color, hefty structure and exotic bouquet—often reminiscent of peach blossoms, violets and lavender—adds immeasurably to Bordeaux-style wines, and a little goes a long way.  Typically, less than 3% petit verdot is required to lend a noticeable spice to merlot and floral shades to cabernet sauvignon.  Hence, small quantities of the grape are extremely desirable to Meritage masons, and as John Locke pointed out in 1691, ‘The price of any commodity rises or falls by the proportion of the number of buyer and sellers’.

To put this into perspective, in 2008, grape producers in Napa were paid an average of $3,300 per ton for their grapes—(about $2,700 less than it costs to produce them, but that’s a different column).  At $2,100, pinot gris pricing was balanced a bit by cabernet sauvignon at  $4,700.  In 2008, Merlot fell to $2,600, with spot market buyers able to pay as little as $500 for ‘homeless’ fruit at the end of the season.  Other Bordeaux varietals like malbec and cabernet franc sold for around $4,400 per ton, while viognier—which you’d guess would be a top-earner based on Locke’s supply and demand maxim, took home a scant $2,700.

By contrast, a ton of petit verdot sold for $5,600.

So a non-farmer might naturally ask, ‘Why don’t wine growers just rip out the pinot gris and plant petit verdot?  Of course, it’s because prices fluctuate, and in the five to seven years that it would take for your new grape vines to reach full productivity, trends, tastes and prices would have changed (but Murphy’s Law wouldn’t), so you’d likely find that your petit verdot is worth less than your pinot gris would have fetched had you left well enough alone.

Life’s a bitch, and then you farm.

The fact that petit verdot (a somewhat sissified varietal) is difficult to ripen and tends to go all PMSsy during late-Autumn rain plays into the equation as well, which is why it is now almost extinct in its hometown of Médoc.

New Red In Oh-Hi-Oh

Vinifera Relocation Program?  Somehow, some way, petit verdot has found a comfortable landing zone in Ripley, OhioKinkead Ridge—owned by Ron Barrett and managed by partner Nancy Bentley—was first planted to the French ex-pat in 2001.  Prior to that, Ron and Nancy had been involved in wine operations in the Pacific Northwest, but they were ready for purpler pastures, and began a nation-wide search for potential new vineyard  sites.  As a native of Columbus, Ohio, Ron probably got a little syrupy when he discovered that the Ohio River Valley was perfectly suited for the ambitious game plan they had in mind: Planting glamorous grapes from Bordeaux and Rhône while establishing an experimental plot to test even more extrinsic rootstocks and scion woods.

A word on the Ohio River Valley AVA, and a couple of facts you may not know about it (I didn’t):  First, it’s the second largest AVA in America, and second, it is the birthplace of American viticulture, having first produced wine in 1823.  By the time of the Civil War, Ohio was by far the largest wine producing state in the nation.  Its current obscurity is likely because the primary varietals grown there are baco noir, marechal foch, seyval blanc and vidal—hybrids not likely to make anybody’s Top 100 list.

According to Ron, “With few exceptions, these wines match up poorly with suitable vinifera grown on a good site.  In the case of red wine, the contrast is stark.  With the possible exception of Norton (Cynthiana), I know of no hybrid red varieties which rise above the level of California jug wine in quality.”

Ron Barrett and Nancy Bentley

Yet Ron and Nancy recognized that the Ohio River Valley’s unglaciated limestone ridges, rife with wild vitis labrusca, could likely as readily support the noble varieties of southern France.  Beside petit verdot, they have acreage planted to viognier, rousanne, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, cab franc, syrah, and have taken honors at numerous competitions, winning gold at the Finger Lakes International for 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Jefferson Cup for their ’08 Cabernet Franc.

The competition salutes you...

These are worthy laurels to rest on, and indeed, The Kinkead web site indicates that Ron and Nancy are on the cusp of retiring to North Carolina, and includes a for-sale link to the winery.  Ron indicates that in specific, he’s looking for an Italian millionaire—and fair warning, Silvio Belusconi is looking for something to do these days—but, should you make a fair enough offer (based on California grape futures), I guarantee you’ll be in the petit verdot business by this time next year.


Tasting Notes:

Kinkead Ridge Petit Verdot, Ohio River Valley, 2008, about $20:  Get the 2008 and get it now—only 76 cases were made and 2009 was a total climactic blow-out during which none was produced.  (Like dutiful jurors, potential buyers are ordered to ignore this testimony and may not use it in deliberations over the purchase of Kincead).

The world's smallest vigneron is no bigger than a grape... Believe It or Not

Technically, the French would call it a monocépage (100% single varietal) and colloquially, le zèbre (an oddball) since I don’t think a single one of them makes—or would consider making—an unadulterated petit verdot.  It must be a weather thing, since Kinkead’s offering is a fascinating textural smorgasbord, sweet and savory, dense with brambly blackberry, earthy mushroom, graphite, pipe tobacco and plum.  Whether it shows varietal integrity is not in my place to call since I’ve never tried a pure one before; but I can speak to its big tannins, spicy perfume and extracted color.  I found it a bit harsh on the finish; alcohol warm (it’s over 15%) and still clinging to new oak woodiness.

If these characteristics fade—as they should with a few more cellar years—and the wine holds its fruit, you’ve got a home run, not only for the winery, but for the AVA.

Posted in Ohio, Ohio River Valley, Petit Verdot | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Twist Makes Me Shout

I normally don’t review water—for three good reasons.  First, I’ve never been poster child for ‘Find A Happy Medium’ campaigns, and considerable research has led me to believe that if you drink too little water, you die, and if you drink too much water, you also die.

Recycling day at the Kassel's

But thirdly and most importantly, the whole water culture sucks.  Not to put an Andy Rooney spin on it, but when I was a kid, getting a glass of water was easy: You got a cup, walked to sink, filled it up from the tap, et voilà.  For my kids, it’s a full-blown Broadway production.  I have to get in my car, drive to Costco, pay seven bucks, drive home, carry the heavy box into the house, pour them their stupid water, then deposit the empty bottle in my blue recycling box which I have to take to the curb every friggin Tuesday evening.


The phrase ‘Did you get a water?’ did not exist when I went skipping off to grade school—‘water’, as I recall, had no article attached to it.

Native Turunggare speaker

But Rules, Like Solemn Vows, Were Made To Be Broken

When I waited to the very last second to sign up for college, I discovered that all the useful language courses like Japanese and German were filled; all that was left was Assyrian,  Dongxiang, Uzbek and Turunggare (which is only spoken by five people on the planet—four of whom believe that World War II is still going on)…

…and then there was Advertising.

Since I was unable to get into Med School where I had intended to major in Diseases of the Rich, I opted to aim for a Business degree instead—and therefore, learning the language called Advertising seemed to be the logical choice.  And I must say, this course prepared me for the real world as much as my Bachelor’s in Convincing Inbred Rubes to Build Another Wal-Mart Right Where the Community Home For Disabled Vets Now Stands degree.

Domaine de Pegau, Chateauneuf-du-Pape

I use it in wine reviewing almost daily, where ‘Smells like horse shit’ becomes ‘Styled after the earthy wines of Sicily and Southern Rhône’; ‘The idiots picked too early’ becomes ‘Slightly vegetal with notes of green pepper on the mid-palate’ and ‘Reeks like a charnel house clogged with burnt flesh’ becomes ‘Contains empyreumatic odors of smoke, toast and roasted meats.’

I’ve also discovered that as facile as I am at writing in Advertising, I am equally adept at translating it: Hence, this column.

When I received an email from Molly Maguth of Behrman Communications touting ‘Twist’—a new bottled water—I actually began to hyperventilate.  Never before had I seen such a masterpiece of copy since the spin-doctors wrote, ‘It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is’ for Bill Clinton’s Grand Jury testimony.

I will repeat the email in toto, with my linguistic notes below for you folks fluent in the argot of ‘Truth’ and ‘Reality’, but not so much in ‘Advertising’.

Ergo (asterisks mine):

‘Originating from the pure wells of the Pacific Northwest*, TalkingRain Beverage Company has redefined natural water* yet again with a fresh, flawless, crisp spin on water.’

*1)  Pesticides, nitrates and pathogens have contaminated much of the Pacific Northwest’s groundwater.  According to Public water supplies are regularly tested under the Safe Drinking Water Act; however, private wells are generally not tested on a regular basis since testing is not required. 

*2) Water’s chemical formula is H2O.  Not sure much redefinition is required.


‘Simply put*, Twist is zero-calorie*, naturally sweetened, non-carbonated, preservative-free, antioxidant-rich all natural premium water available in a medley of fruit flavors sure to please the palates of any water connoisseur*.’

*1) This is ‘simply put’ how? It took  30 words to say ‘The stuff tastes like lemons’.

*2) Water without calories?  Now there’s a concept.

*3)  Head’s up, marketing team: Little M’wbwe Kakuma, dying of thirst in a Darfur refugee camp, may be a ‘water connoisseur’, but I assure you,  Ralston Throckmorton III—or whichever Gold Coast ‘premium water’ demographic you’re targeting—is not.


‘Bottled in a sleek euro design* for shelf and table top appeal, Twist delivers the quintessential essence of fruit flavor and healthy hydration*.’

*1)  Euro design = Looks more expensive than it is, but requires a hotshot packaging engineer, making it more expensive than it needs to be.

*2) Healthy hydration = Drinking water is good for you.


‘The watersmiths* at TalkingRain, located in Preston, Washington*, instill its water with the perfect blend of juice, green tea extract and fruit essences.  Bypassing artificial ingredients and sweeteners, twist drinks are rooted with a touch of stevia* for extra allure and sweetness’.

*1) Watersmiths?  Who thought that one up? Some Madison Avenue copywritersmith?

*2) Preston is a mill town, and the logging industry is the primary cause of water pollution in Washington.  In fact, Preston sits on a tributary of the Snoqualmie River Basin, about which the Washington Department of Ecology says, ‘Higher nutrient levels and low dissolved oxygen levels in these tributaries may be associated with high fecal coliform inputs.’

*3)  ‘Rooted’? Are you sure this is the correct predicate?  Not sure how a beverage can be ‘rooted’, but anyway, stevia imports were restricted by the FDA because ‘toxicological information is inadequate to demonstrate its safety’.  I’m allured, aren’t you?


‘After 20 years in the premium beverage business, TalkingRain Beverage Company wanted to make water exciting*, sexy* and popular*’.

*1)  It’s hard to get ‘excited’ over something that covers ¾ of the world’s surface.

*2)  The only time water is sexy is when it’s in a hot tub filled with Jessica Alba.

*3)   Any budget for an ad campaign intent on making ‘popular’ a product without which you will die within six days is probably ill spent.


Open Note to Behrman Communications and Ms. Molly Maguf:

Fish out of water

Now, I since I am no doubt in hot water with you, let me just say that this is actually a watered-down version of what I originally intended to publish; after all,  I’m a wine critic, so when confronted with this task, I was a bit of a fish out of water.

At least we proved the old adage, ‘You can lead a scribe to water, but you can’t get him wet’.

But I’ll test the water:  If you’re interested, please continue to send me the stuff that really makes my mouth water:  wine samples.

That is, if I didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water and we can look at this column as water under the bridge.


Posted in GENERAL | Tagged | Leave a comment

Quivira Mourvèdre: Waste Not, Want More


In these days of symbol scrimping, font frugality, typeface saving and character conserving, when we are all responsibly turning our keyboards down to 62° (I won’t waste an ‘F’ for ‘Fahrenheit’ since it should be obvious—what do I look, Canadian?), it’s sort of disheartening to see a winery that wantonly wastes letters.

Yes, Quivira, this means you.  Brownie points for carpooling your name since we know that ‘Q’ never goes anywhere without that poky little midget ‘u’, but really, is calling your wine ‘mourvèdre’ entirely necessary?  What do the ‘u’, that dopey accent grave or the silent ‘e’ bring to the party?

And Don’t Get Me Started on Quivira’s Winemaker… 

Hu Chapel

I’m sorry, Hugh Chappelle, but seriously??  In this imploded economy, where waste not, want not is policyspeak, you feel compelled to splurge on ‘p’s, ‘l’s and ‘e’s in your last name?  With kids going to bed solecistic in China?  For shame, sir—these are expenditures that our grandchildren will have to subsidize.

Peet Kite

And (mention this to your boss, too), if you guys were really Earth First, you’d spelled ‘Hugh’ and ‘Kight’ the way they sounded, and then there’d be enough ‘g’s and ‘h’s for the rest of humanity.  You don’t want us Fundamentalist Christians praying to ‘Od in Eaven’, do you?  That’s a one-way ticket to ell.

And if all that isn’t bad enough, a vineyard called Wine Creek Ranch Estate Vineyard?  Come on, fellas—five names, already?  Three of which (ranch, estate and vineyard) are pretty much the same thing?  Do we even want to go there?

We Don’t…

Therefore, I’ll talk about the winery instead.

The thriftily named 'Ned'

Situated in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, Quivira was founded in 1981 by Holly and Harry Wendt and purchased in 2006 by Pete and Terri Kight.  Both couples adhered to a simple dream: To build upon ecologically sound agricultural principles to produce world‐class wines.  Currently comprised of four vineyards, all within the Dry Creek AVA (Wine Creek Ranch, Goat Trek Vineyard, Katz/Absner Ranch and Anderson Ranch), there’s a total of 93 acres planted to zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, various Rhône varieties (including mourvèdre) and a number of oddballs like counoise and sauvignon musqué.

In an effort to increase ‘fruit saturation’—an eno-term meaning intensity of flavor and depth of color—Quivira’s vineyard manager Ned Horton looks at the smaller picture.  Under his persnickety watch, focus has shifted from acre to acre to plant and block, and up to sixty percent of the grapes are culled.

Mor-ved on the vine

Nowhere did this priority re-alignment prove more vital than in the cultivation of mourvèdre.  As a varietal that tends to ripen late even in ideal conditions, the heavy rain that often characterizes late Autumn in Sonoma makes a successful harvest a challenge.  Thinning the fruit to one cluster per shoot helps, but the labor intensity requires pushes this wonderful wine to the top echelons of Quivira pricing.  Still, at $32 retail, it’s a gem.

Tooting Their Own Cowhorn

Demeter certified in 2005, sustainable farming is at the core of the Quivira agricultural philosophy.  In the past, I’ve scoffed at biodynamics as pseudo-pscience, mostly for it’s pspirituality, which calls for some pretty weird preparations (animal manure buried in cowhorns at the Autumn equinox in order to capture the universe’s etheric and astral forces); but I have never taken issue with the essential wisdom behind the witchcraft.  That is, that a farm should be self-sustaining and able to create and maintain its health and vitality without the addition of commercial fertilizers or pesticides.  I believe that winemakers like Hugh Chappelle and Pete Kight who take to heart a rigorous methodology tend to produce better wines—with or without cowhorns.  The self-described ‘obsessiveness’ that they  employ to monitor soil conditions and the phases of the seasons have paid quality dividends vintage after vintage, and if they want to credit Rudolph Steiner (biodynamic’s founder), more power to them.  I don’t think that Steiner was a crackpot—far from it.  I think he was a snake-oil huckster on par with Pat Robertson and Amway’s Jay Van Andel.

That Said…

…It’s Chappelle and Kight who are making the spectacular wines, not me.  All I do is drink them, take down notes and praise the hell out of them in writing.

Od in Eaven

Still, as a sort of cheapskate biodynamic columnist who believes in word conservation, sentence management and a self-sustaining alphabet, I take exception to overly-verbose, word-depleting practices among non-scribes, who may or may not need to use these letters again in their lifetime.  But, sure as Od is in His Eaven, I will.

Hugh Chappelle says:  “Successful natural winemaking requires an integration of vineyard and winery where farming practices are optimally aligned with the desired qualities of the finished wine.”

I’d have said: ‘Take care of Momma and she’ll return the favor.’

Tasting Notes:

Quivira Mourvèdre, Wine Creek Ranch Estate Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, 2009, about $32:  Whew; that was a mouthful.  So is the wine—with a bigger nose than Gérard Depardieu, it’s redolent with dark, foresty fruits like blackberry and wild raspberry, spiced with white pepper and pipe tobacco; the palate fairly bursts with rich cassis notes, smoke, roasted coffee bean and yeasty graham cracker.  Eighteen months in large foudres and small barriques lends a toast and elegance to a long, leathery, lingering finish.  A year or two in the cellar should produce an even more complex wine.

Posted in CALIFORNIA, Dry Creek, Mourvedre | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Michigan Viognier: Domaine Berrien Sounds The Clarion

If Paris In The Spring was a coin, the flip side would be Michigan in November.  Post-Halloween—in boondocky counties like Berrien especially—everything deteriorates into the sort of dreary dystopia imagined by Huxley and Wells.   Cornstalks turn colors not seen outside autopsy rooms, pumpkins rot on porch steps, paint peels from abandoned farmhouses, rain dumps down as For Sale signs go up, Happy Hour at the Dew Drop Inn runs from 3 -5 PM, leaving twenty-two subsequent hours to contend with.

So yesterday, naturally, this is precisely the spot where I chose to get lost.  And not just lost—severely, howlingly, expletively so.

Driving blindly through rural farmland, the first thing you notice are that there are no street names, no gas stations, no CVS stores or even random escapees from prisons or assisted living joints that you could ask for directions.  You also notice that there’s nothing on the radio except born-again babble, really bad country music and oldies stations with a penchant for that most hideous of all musical genres, ‘70s soft rock. But then—just as the conviction, ‘Sooner or later this stupid road has to hit an Expressway’ fades to ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here…”— you (in this case me) see a sight that ultimately corroborates St. Anselm’s ontological proof of God’s existence.  No, not an I-94, Next Right sign…  Even better: Grape vines.

Agrarian Domaine Berrien Saves This Lost Barbarian

And there it was, shining like a lighthouse beacon upon a storm-ravaged shore: sweet refuge; Domaine Berrien Cellars, home to Lake Michigan Shore’s favorite Rhône Rangers, Wally & Katie Maurer.I stumbled upon the Domaine Berrien Tasting Room with less than fifteen minutes to closing time, having just missed the syrah punch-down, and by default, the punchdowner—Wally Maurer had by then skedaddled back to the homestead.  Katie was there, however, and was more than happy to lead me on a palate promenade through the winery’s latest releases (tasting notes follow) and share a bit of Domaine Berrien’s history, suddenly making my need for speed seem silly indeed.

Tom and Abigail Fricke

The eighty acre spread that is now Domaine Berrien was first planted to grapes in 1992 by Katie’s parents, Tom and Abigail Fricke after they’d bought the land from a cherry grower.  Tom had been a partner in Wally’s cellar winemaking and both had a keen onward-and-upward philosophy, but the Maurers were then trapped in Chicago, living out a quotidian nightmare while dreaming of the weekends they could spend at the farm.

Meanwhile, rather than dive into a full-fledged winemaking operation, Tom Fricke was content sell his surplus grapes to local vintners while continuing his travels and enological research. What he discovered was astonishing: As Katie recalls, “He became convinced that the microclimate of Berrien County was similar enough to that of Northern Rhône to make the cultivation of syrah, marsanne, rousanne and viognier possible.” In fact, the property is situated at elevations of around 900 feet, making it one of the highest points in the county. Plus, the phenomenon known as ‘lake effect’ provides an extended growing season that allows red wine grapes to fully ripen.

“Our vines are located on south-facing hills and trellised north/south,” Katie continues.  “That brings even sunlight to both sides of the vine, translating to quality and complexity in the finished wines.” Such fortuitous terroir allows the couple to slap a somewhat ambitious addendum on their label: ‘Estate Grown’.  This is a legal mandate ensuring that the grapes within the bottle are grown ‘on land owned or controlled by the winery within the boundaries of the labeled viticultural area.’  (TTB, 27 CFR 4.26)

Wally Maurer

Wally Maurer writes, ‘All of our wines are made from grapes grown in our vineyards and all of our winemaking and bottling takes place right here on site as well.  This gives us the control over the grapes and we make decisions all during the growing year that maximize the quality (not quantity) of our grapes.  This gives us a higher probability of producing the most premium wines.’

Alas, both Abigail and Tom Fricke passed away in 2007, but they stuck around long enough to see Domaine Berrien founded in 2001, after Wally and Katie chucked in Chicago for the sticks of Berrien.  I know, I know—friends don’t let friends buy vineyards.  But in this case…

…Deep Sandy Loam Wound Up Being Pay Dirt

Katie Maurer

“Our first vintage produced only 750 cases of wine,” reports Katie, “but it sold out quickly.  Now we’re up to 4,500 cases, all made from grapes grown here on the property.  We were the first winery in Michigan to release a commercially grown and vinified syrah, and I have to say, it was due to Dad’s foresight and vision.  Along with my Mom, his memory lives on in the vineyards.” Among the wines sampled, not all were Rhône expats; Domaine Berrien’s ‘Crown of Cab’ is considered their top selection—it contains all five allowable Bordeaux varietals for reds.  My review of the 2006 ‘Crown of Cab’ was somewhat less than stellar, but what do I know?  Anyway, this time around, the vintage over which I kvetched with Katie was 2008, and it redeemed itself considerably.

And yet, for my tastes, the wine that packed in the most surprises was the 2010 viognier—a recalcitrant little minx if ever a varietal were.  Before New World wineries like the Maurer’s tried their hand at viognier, scarcely 35 acres remained in France, its motherland.  Part of the deal is that it is low-yielding and difficult to grow, being especially sensitive to damp mildew in wet climates… like Berrien County.  Even so, Domaine Berrien is producing a neat, aromatic viognier that is loaded with nuance and depth. Not only was I impressed that Wally and Katie are able to successfully farm this fractious fruit, but that they can get away with selling it for under $16 a bottle.

Jen Bixby

“Well,” responds Jen Bixby, Domainatrix of the DB tasting room, “when you’re pushing a varietal that doesn’t have a lot of shelf exposure, it’s all about education, education, education…” Jen offered me some valuable education, too—nothing to do with the wine she pours, though.  It was how to navigate my way back to a homeward-bound  highway.

And you know what?  With a new winery to write about and a gentle viognier buzz floating around my central nervous system, Michigan in November winds up being a pretty spectacular place after all.

Tasting Notes:

Viognier on the vine

Domaine Berrien Viognier, Martha’s Vineyard and Tom’s Vineyard, 2010, around $15.50:  I have a sharp tongue, but it’s usually pretty good at picking out   residual sugar percentages.  With Domaine Berrien’s 2010 Viognier, my mouth was still full when I blurted out 2.3%, which was not only rude and messy, but wrong.  An instant later, the whole floral, fruity, fantabulous quaff dried out.  In fact, this vintage was picked at 22.8° brix.  Below 22° brix, viognier is a bore and hardly worth bottling, and though the .8° may seem a negligible uptick in sweetness, a mysterious viognier trait is how quickly the aromatics and sugars develop after that magical plateau is reached.  The art of producing top-flight viognier is recognizing precisely when to harvest—something that Wally Maurer apparently has down.  The wine is scrumptious, with subtle honeysuckle, orange blossom and pineapple on the nose, followed by an extremely fruit-sweet mid-palate (which I mistook for residual) juicy with tangerine, grapefruit, apple and a touch of anise.  Finishes tart and a trifle quickly; being cold fermented in stainless, there’s no oak to throw a farewell party once the wine’s in the gullet.


Domaine Berrien Cabernet Franc, Abigail’s Vineyard, 2009, around $15.50:  Not a bad output for a very challenged vintage.  The wine lags a bit in fruit, but there is a solid core of recognizable cab franc cranberry and raspberry with a bit of bell pepper to indicate the short season.  Bright acidity balanced by a bit of malolactic cream; the wine sees a full year in casks and ten months in the bottle before release.

Domaine Berrien Pinot Noir, Martha’s and Katherine’s vineyards, 2007, around $15.50:  I tasted this wine last year, and it has undergone a nice aromatic evolution since then; it glows with tart cherry and violet and finishes with a toasty bite from French oak.

Domaine Berrien ‘Crown of Cab’, Abigail’s Vineyard, 2008, around $19.50:   Far more fruit-forward than the ’06, this Crown featured rich with soft slate, blackberry, smoke and earth winding through well-integrated tannins and hints of dark chocolate.

Domaine Berrien Marsanne, 2009, around $13.50:  Bright citrus and stone fruit dominate the nose; the palate is light but pure with apricot and lemon grass as the dominate flavors.  Certainly a great introduction to this varietal for the eager neophyte.

Domaine Berrien Rousanne, Martha’s Vineyard and Tom’s Vineyard,  2010, , around $13.50:  The wine’s first impression is of a surprisingly full-bodied white; various scents of mango, grass, rose petals and mineral lead to a dry, refreshing finish.

Posted in Lake Michigan Shore, Michigan, MIDWEST, Viognier | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The House of Wine Awards, 2011: Amy

When your ten-year-old asks you what ‘irony’ means, here’s what you tell her:

“Amy Winehouse will go down in history for giving detox a bad name…”

The July death of the twenty-something drugstress—who may have been on the rock-ravaged road to recovery—was apparently the result of alcohol withdrawal.

This little-known phenomenon happens when a confused brain ratchets up hormone production to compensate for its missing  supply of Ketel One, flooding the body with abnormally high levels of serotonin, epinephrine and dopamine.  According to Betty Ford Clinic director Dr. Harry Haroutunian, “About half the people who come off steady and regular alcohol use will have some manifestation of the syndrome.”

At least we know why she said ‘No, no, no’ when they tried to make her go to rehab.

Among the myriad tragedies for fans and family that her crazy but probably timely death begets is that Amy Winehouse herself will miss out on Billecart-Salmon’s fabulous Champagne tasting at Thomas Gibson Fine Art on Bruton Street in London this Wednesday, November 9, at 6:30 PM.

The tasting (£19.00), will include samples of Billecart-Salmon Brut NV, Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV, Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru, Cuvée Brut Sous Bois NV and Vintage 2004 Extra Brut.

Gerald Laing

Accompanying the fizz fest will be an exhibition Pop Art exponent Gerald Laing.

Billecart’s bubbly blow-out is dedicated collectively to  John Barrymore (whose last words before succumbing to cirrhosis were, “Die?  I should say not, dear fellow…”), Brendan Behan (who claimed, “I only drink on two occasions—when I’m thirsty and when I’m not” before dying of drink-induced diabetes), Jack Kerouac (whose writing style became ‘stream of unconsciousness’ when he croaked of an internal hemorrhage caused by his favorite breakfast: malt whiskey) and Billy Holiday (who died of liver disease after having squandered her earnings for drink—at the time of her demise, she had $0.70 in the bank…)

"Pair me with a Taittenger, PLEASE"

I Know What You’re Saying…

…Why would a respected, two-hundred-year-old wine house lend its name to a celebration of these pathetic sots, each of whom ultimately proved that their thirst outranked their talent and that chug-a-lugging had more value than their children?  And (despite being named for an anadromous trout), why would the family-owned Billecart-Salmon donate product to said bacchanalia when it was the very commodity they produce that killed off these luminary lushes?

The answer is that they did not.  All the above, except for the date and place of the Champagne tasting, is pure made-up claptrap.  In fact, the Mayfair tasting is dedicated to Amy Winehouse, the only one among the artists mentioned that died from NOT drinking.

If your ten-year-old is still unclear on the concept of ‘irony’, let her read this.

Tasting Notes:

None.  By sponsoring the Amy Winehouse Pop Art Expo & Champagne Tasting,  Billecart-Salmon forfeited any claim to having taste.

If You MUST:

Pop Art Expo & Champagne Tasting

Ministry of Wine is glad to welcome you to an exhibition dedicated to Amy Winehouse by Pop Art exponent Gerald Laing, during which you will enjoy an exclusive champagne tasting.
James Thomas, from Billecart-Salmon, will guide you through their fantastic range and you will try the following champagne:
- Billecart-Salmon Brut NV
– Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé NV
– Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
– Cuvée Brut Sous Bois NV
– Vintage 2004 Extra Brut

Tasting price: £19.00
Date: Wednesday 9 November
Time: 6:30pm until 8:30pm
Thomas Gibson Fine Art
31 Bruton Street
London W1J 6QS

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Napa Cellars Wines: Generically Delicious!

I know, bubeleh; I know.  After earning your MBA from the Carnegie Mellon School of Business and your Ph.D from MIT, after a brief teaching stint at Stanford Graduate School (for which you wrote three textbooks on macroeconomics) and your subsequent position on the President’s Council of Advisors and later, as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, you’ve decided that you’d rather have my job.  A wine writer.

Guess what, boychickel…  You can bloody well have it.

Vos iz?  A problem? You don’t know from grapes?  Or phenolic bioflavonoids, like quercetin-3-glucoside?  But you do, as the following exercise shall demonstrate:

I will list four wines, and then, in no particular order, a set of vintner’s tasting notes.  You tell me which Napa varietal goes with which winemaker description:

The wines:

  1. Napa Cellars Chardonnay, 2010
  2. Napa Cellars Zinfandel, 2008:
  3. Napa Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, 2010
  4. Napa Cellars Merlot, 2009

Joe Shirley

The notes, from winemaker Joe ‘You Can, In Fact, Call Me Shirley’ Shirley:

  1. Zesty aromas of grapefruit and mandarin orange followed by orange blossom and passion fruit on the palate. A warm climate wine, it displays bright acidity on the well-rounded finish.
  2. Warm and inviting aromas filled with blackberry, plum and a faint touch of raspberry.  Savory hints of olive round out the beautiful nose.
  3. Bright brambly fruit, berry cobbler and classic spice on the nose are complemented by juicy raspberry, baked cinnamon apples, and dried cherries on the palate.
  4. Rich, buttery, spicy and toasty, boasting beautiful aromas that conjure scents of home-baked apple crisp.  The flavors are lush with ripe pear, apple and a touch of tropical pineapple and guava.  The wine is delicately balanced with a long and sweet toffee finish.

See that—it’s easy.  It goes like this:

  1. = Sauvignon Blanc
  2. = Merlot
  3. = Zinfandel
  4. = Chardonnay

You’re not such a shmeggegie after all, are you, tchatzhkellah?


What Was All That About?

Fair question.  It’s this: I have been reviewing California wines for more than twenty years, and so generic have the above varietal descriptions become that most winemakers and wine writers could do them in their drink-induced sleep.  They are of some use at blind tastings, where—using these profiles—you can generally pick out a given varietal quite easily, thus allowing more time for the esoteric guesswork of vintage, AVA and label. But for a consumer looking to evaluate a wine’s unique profile before purchasing it, it must become rather pointless to read the same ol’ same ol’ in tasting notes.

Lychee nuts

And I’m as guilty as anybody.  In trying to define the often indefinable, it’s easy to fall back on hackneyed descriptors rather than really digging deep.  For example, I—like many of my bro’s and sisters in scribedom—have used ‘lychee’ ad nauseum to characterize gewürztraminer, but truth told, I’d seen that odd Middle Eastern fruit in other reviews first and had to figure out where I could buy one in meat-and-taters Detroit to find out what a lychee actually tastes like.  Guess what?  I found one, and it tastes exactly like Alsatian gewürztraminer.  Okay, so the representation is accurate, but to be really true to myself I’d have to quit the wine biz, become a Israeli fruit critic and described lychee nuts as having ‘a bouquet and palate strongly reminiscent of a 2010 Hugel Gewürztraminer’.

Likewise sauvignon blanc and gooseberries.  I’d wager that not one American wine critic in ten is really all that familiar with the nuance flavors of gooseberries—I know I’m not, and I used to have a gooseberry bush in my backyard.  But it pops up endlessly in reviews. And don’t get me started on ‘cat pee’.  Every bit as ubiquitous as ‘gooseberry’ in tasting notes, there’s actually a New Zealand sauvignon blanc called ‘Cat’s Pee On A Gooseberry Bush’ .  But, what component of cat urine makes it unique from, say, dog, gerbil, ferret or human urine?   I suppose it’s down to marketing mitigation; ‘cat pee’ sounds sort of cute—almost dainty—whereas if you wrote that the wine ‘tastes like a houseful of piss’, you might start getting nasty-grams from your editor.

Loire River's humble and fog-free beginnings

Even stranger is the common, and likely psychosomatic portrayal of Pouilly-Fumé—and by default Fumé Blanc—as ‘smoky’, no doubt because ‘fumé’ is French for smoke.  But I have tasted both extensively and never once picked out anything like smoke—they tend to be mineral-focused wines possessing a certain stone character that can be called ‘flinty’, but flint is three degrees of separation from smoke—you use flint to make sparks, which makes fire, which makes smoke.  Anyway, I’ve read that the fumé name comes from the smoke-like mist that often arises from the Loire River—or the grayish dust that sometimes settles on the grapes.  Qui sait?

‘Barnyard’, ‘damp straw’, even ‘manure’ are fair evaluations for a lot of hot-climate, bret-tinged reds from Southern Rhône, Italy and Spain—these feral pheromones sometimes hit you in the muzzle with a blunt farm tool.  But, ‘wet saddle leather’, which shows up as often?  Far be it from me to judge the private lives of my fellow wine critics, but moi, I try to keep my nose as far as possible from anywhere a jockey’s sweaty ass has been.

On To Napa Cellars…

Gott Hangover?

Napa Cellars—one of twenty-six siblings scrambling for alpha position within the Trinchero Family—is known for wines that can be called , without debate, textbook examples of the archetypal paradigm known as the quintessentially emblematic Napa style.  Founded by Rich Frank and Koerner Rombauer in 1996, the winery nestles in the heart of Napa, surrounded by Oakville vineyards, and, on the Trinchero website, surrounded by labels with diverse genealogies.  That includes wines by dead people with familiar names (Newman’s Own), wines from living people with past participle names (Joel Gott), wines with French names (Folie à Deux), wines with sexually-innuendoed French names (Ménage à Trois), wines with dopey names (Red Belly Black) and wines that are just plain dopey (fre—which has had the alcohol remove via centrifugal force).

In contrast, ‘Napa Cellars’ is—like Pat Nixon’s respectable Republican cloth coat—a sensible, utilitarian kind of a name, and by golly, the wines are level-headed as well.

Shirley gets up early

Since 2007, that’s been down to  Joe Shirley, a winemaker whose impressive pedigree was launched at Sonoma Cutrer in 1997 and augmented at Trinchero’s Napa winery.  According to his boss Bob Trinchero (whose dubious legacy is having invented white zinfandel), Joe is a sensory-driven and artistic winemaker.  But Joe sees himself as a more earth-driven fellow.  He claims, “I spend a lot of time in the vineyards making harvest decisions. I find that every extra hour spent at harvest-time has way more impact than an hour spent in the cellar in the winter.”

I dig him for that.  So, in the digging—along with the delving and the mining, I am going to use Shirley’s framework of notes (above), and try to unearth some of  elusive and subtle flavor and aroma notes that burrow through the familiar song and dance.

And I promise not to use such descriptions as require a trip to Piggly Wiggly’s pricey produce aisle.

Tasting Notes:

Napa Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 2009, about $17:  This unmistakably California sauvignon blanc has zesty aromas of sweet alfalfa and Key lime followed by geranium, sesame seed and baked apple on the palate. A warm climate Sauvignon Blanc, it displays bright acidity on the well-rounded finish.

Napa Cellars Chardonnay, Napa Valley, 2010, about $20:  Tantalizing aromas of fig, peach pie and baby powder integrate seamlessly into luscious flavors of lemon zest, pineapple, and honeysuckle.  This creamy chardonnay is soft up-front while nuances of butterscotch and walnut linger on the balanced finish

Napa Cellars Merlot, Napa Valley, 2008, about $20:  The 2008 Merlot makes a beautiful first impression with a brilliant, clear garnet hue.  Aromas of wild blueberry, cinnamon, horehound and mint lead to a very well balanced palate. Firm acidity supports fruit on the mid-palate with notes of dried dill, pomegranate and crème de cassis.

Napa Cellars Zinfandel, Napa Valley, 2009, about $20:  Bright forest berries, loam, and classic zinfandel cinnamon and clove on the nose are complemented by candied apple, Raisin Bran, and hot chocolate on the palate. Petite sirah was added to enhance the color and fill out the mid-palate. This classic Napa Valley Zinfandel displays grippy tannins and nuances of peppercorn, blackberry jam and espresso bean flavors lead to a finish with creamy toast on the finish.

Napa Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2008, about $25:  This Cabernet Sauvignon has a beautiful nose with layers of Bing cherry, flint and new leather with hints of roasted allspice.  The tannins build a nice core structure with a round mouthfeel. Toasted almond, dried blueberry and Coca Cola flavors lead to a finish with well integrated oak.

Posted in Cab/Merlot, CALIFORNIA, Chardonnay, Merlot, Napa, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Amazing Wine Facts With Which To Bore Your Friends, Annoy Your Neighbors and Pick Up Hot Babes

They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play with myself, they asked me—in no uncertain terms—to get the hell out of their villa.

Well, those callous, holier-than-thou sophisticates actually did me a favor.  Socially ostracized from my gated community, I was forced to re-invent myself—this time as a wine writer.  Overcoming the shame heaped upon humiliation submerged in embarrassment, I began to find methods other than exposing myself to ‘break the ice’ at cotillion balls (no pun) coming-out (no pun again) formals and cocktail (third time’s the charm) parties.

I learned every single thing I could about wine, devouring statistics as eagerly as an autistic kid memorizing Major League Baseball ERAs.

Lady Doña Clitoreña

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:

It is Paris, Nuit Blanche 2011.  While ambling through the contemporary-art scene in the Versailles Château, I spy Her Most Excellent Lady Doña Clitoreña Vagintiña, 1st Duchess of Coochuela, Countess of Cervixia and Lady of Bojingo.  She’s wearing a lime-green Donatella Versace bias-cut evening gown, and she looks ravishing—but if I ravish her, I serve serious jail time.  So instead, I sidle up in my white, silk-collared Dior Homme waistcoat and whisper seductively in her ear:

“Did you know that the average yield from an acre of vineyard is four tons—although this can vary greatly depending on the grower?”

A pair of coopers from Lexington, KY

It piques her interest, so I follow up with:

“Three reasons why more and more producers are going ‘American’ with their oak? Cost, cost and cost. A barrel from south-central France’s Limoges is currently upwards of $800, while a barrel made by some mullet-wearing inbred in Kentucky can be as low as $300.”

Then I slip in for the kill:

“It takes about five hundred grapes to make a single bottle of wine.  So if you figure maybe 100 grapes in a cluster, that’s five clusters per bottle.  Can you imagine such a mesmerizing eventuality, my voluptuous Valenciana vixen?”

And I’m in like Flynn.


This technique, my brothers, is foolproof; so in the interest of furthering our creepy Cro-Magnon cause, I will outline a few more handy wine facts that should loosen-up your tied tongue whenever you’re trying to score with someone multiple light-years above your social station and who intellectually outranks you by triple-digit IQ points.

(Incidentally, all these useful bonne bouches—and more besides—can be found in my self-help best seller, ‘How To Pick Up Slutty Heiresses Other Than Paris Hilton’).


Scam-lines to try out the next time you run into a morselette of royal lineage:

  • “This may surprise you, Cupcake, but a vine must be about three years old before it can produce useful grapes.  And five before it reaches full production…”
  • “Unlike you, Angel Puss, who I would not guess to be a day over eighteen, a vine may be thirty years old before it reaches its peak of performance—about the time when you’ll be hitting that ol’ looks wall and will need to be traded in…”
  • “How many vines are planted per acre, Doodle Bug?  So glad you asked.  Depending on the vintner, between 500 and 1300…”
  • “Did you say South Beach Diet, Love Muffin?  You’ll be pleased to note that although a five-ounce glass of dry wine may contain 125 calories, none are ‘fat’ calories and there is but a gram of carbohydrates in each…”
  • (L) What 9% of Napa looks like. (R) What the rest of Napa looks like

    “Since you have a Ph.D in Applied Physics from the Cambridge College of Mathematics, Sugar Booger, I’m sure realize that the 45,158 acres planted to vineyards in Napa represents only 9% of its total land area…”

  • “Oh, and Snuggle Bunny, while we’re on the topic, 58,000 represents the number of acres  in Napa Land Trusts that can never be developed—more than 20,000 of these are in conservation easements, and 38,000 in agricultural preservation…”
  • “Look, beeotch, I already told you about how many grapes it takes to make a bottle of chenin friggin blanc.  Oh, how many bottles per barrel?  Sorry:  Three hundred…”
  • Bye, Bye, Berlusconi

    ’Oh say can you drink, til the dawn’s early light..?’  Damn straight I can, Schnooky-Lumps, ‘cause I’m a burgundy-blooded American.  In terms of wine production, we Yanks may lag a bit behind Italy, Spain and France—any and all of whom we could nuke to quarks in a cocaine heartbeat—but as of 2010, we skedaddled past those frog-eating Gauls in terms of wine consumption.  Okay, so our population is three times bigger, so what?—if I want any lip out of you, Poopsy-Woopsy, I’ll call your plastic surgeon…”

  • “And finally, Tootsie Pie, the real kick in the most superficial of our three gluteal muscles—the maximus—is that the largest corporate holder of Napa vineyards is not even American. The company is called Diageo and it’s owned by those slang-slinging, eel pie-eating, Lucozade-slurping Brits…”
  • “…What’s that you say, Rumpy-Diddle? I offended with you with that last remark because not only are you British yourself, but your title is Her Royal Highness The Princess Twatolyn Throckmorton of Crapstone, Duchess of Crotch Crescent, Countess of Wetwang?  Well, lookee here, you Holiday Skin-wearing, Benny Hill-watching, Bebo-posting, scurvy-prone Redcoat: We kicked your arses out of Yorktown in 1781 and we’ll sure the hell kick ‘em out of Carneros, too.  P.S., buy a bloody toothbrush…”

Are you suspect?

There you have it, malchiks—and if these gems can’t help you score a nubile scion-ette from the extended family of some King or Queen regnant, my gay-dar is gonna blow a 112 Hz cathode tube.

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