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Terroir, Schmerroir: Dave Phinney’s “Locations” Wines

21 March 2017

Blends across appellations are nothing to fear…

I can think of no buzzier buzz word in the wine world than “terroir.” How often do we read something about how a wine reflects its terroir or expresses its terroir? The phrases describe a wine that represents where it was made, with clear influences from the local climate and soil in its aroma and flavor. Americans are relative newcomers to the concept — we tend to think in terms of grape varieties. It’s the French who have developed the potential of terroir to its fullest extent, as evidenced by regions like Burgundy, where vineyard site is everything.

Nowadays, everyone is jumping on the terroir bandwagon. You can find single-vineyard wines everywhere from the Okanagan Valley to Central Otago. And the fashion for “terroir-driven wines” only continues to grow.

It takes some guts, therefore, to say screw it, I’m going to make a really delicious wine from Portugal or Argentina or wherever, but about 35,000 thousand square miles is as far as I’m going to narrow it down in terms of terroir. Even in California, most respectable winemakers restrict their bottlings to at least a single region, like Napa or Sonoma. A label that simply says “California” doesn’t ordinarily inspire confidence. Unless, that is, that label is on a wine made by master blender Dave Phinney.

California-based Phinney founded a wildly popular and critically acclaimed red blend called The Prisoner (a brand he sold in 2010), as well as the highly regarded Orin Swift Cellars. Blends from both companies have appeared in Wine Spectator‘s Top 100 lists (and even Top 10 lists), indicating that Phinney “has a knack for mixing and matching vineyards and grapes,” as Wine Spectator puts it.

His new venture, Locations, would seem to be all about terroir, given the name, as well as the first sentence of the winery’s Philosophy statement: “In the world of wine there are compelling Locations that exist where soil, climate and vines interact to produce grapes that uniquely express their Location through wine.” But Phinney goes on to lament that “laws and restrictions [discouraging cross-appellation blending] make it near impossible to express true winemaking freedom.” The goal of Locations is to combine grapes from top vineyards across several different regions in, say, Italy, to create a new and entirely unique blend that represents the country as a whole. So in a sense, these wines simultaneously celebrate and obliterate the concept of terroir.

With a collection of nine bottles of Locations, sent to me by the winery’s PR company, I decided it was time to host a blind tasting. I lined the bottles up, turned them around, mixed them up and bagged them, so that not even I knew which bottle was which. My group, a mix of wine professionals and amateurs, had a spirited debate about which wine came from where. We only occasionally all agreed, but there was general consensus that this was one of the most consistently enjoyable tastings I’ve ever held.

All the wines were red except one, a French rosé, which I left unbagged and served as an aperitif. This 100% Grenache from the South of France tasted full and fruity, with plenty of watermelon and strawberry notes, ample acids, a pleasingly bitter note and some minerality on the finish. My friends called it “delightful,” “surprising” and “f*cking good.” Its weight, one taster noted, makes it an ideal rosé for winter. In America, we think of rosé exclusively as a summer wine, but why shouldn’t we drink it when it’s cold outside? Rosé is delicious any time of year, and if I were in the mood to splurge just a bit, I would certainly pay the $19 price for this example.

Of the bagged wines, there was only one that everyone in the group guessed correctly: Oregon, the very last bottle we tried. Oregon made it easy because it was a varietal wine, a Pinot Noir, and because it came from just one region, the Willamette Valley. I got taut cherry fruit, baking spice and a tart, rather austerely elegant finish, but others noted some cough syrup in the aroma and even a touch of Kraft caramels. “It wants fat,” one taster said, and indeed, it worked quite well with some pizza topped with bacon, onion and mushroom.

All the other wines provoked disagreement, and sometimes disbelief when the country was revealed. In the order we tasted them:

Wine #1: Big and dark, with rich black-cherry fruit, soft tannins, a meaty note and some mocha on the finish. Again, there was a touch of pleasing bitterness. “It tastes way better than it smells,” one friend remarked, though I rather liked its plummy aroma with vanilla overtones. I guessed Italy, thinking of grapes like Negroamaro. Others guessed Argentina and France, but it was, in fact, a blend of Syrah, Merlot and Petite Sirah from various vineyards in Washington. Oops!

Wine #2: “Leather!” and “Cigar box!” were shouts I heard about the aroma, which also had lots of jammy red fruit.  The wine moved from ripe, ripe dark-red fruit to a big pop of spice and some rather chewy tannins. “They’re flirting with my cheeks, in a good way,” one taster said of the tannins. And what a fantastic pairing with that bacon/onion/mushroom pizza — big, bold and beautiful. With that kind of flavor, I guessed California, as did everyone else, except for one Argentina holdout. And California it was! A blend of Petite Sirah, Barbera, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and the Sierra Foothills.

Wine #3: “Oh, that’s a big boy,” a taster exclaimed. I got a lot of purple from this wine — dark fruit and a tone of violets in the aroma, and on the palate, some more dark fruit (people called it everything from fresh plums to grape candy), leavened with white pepper spice and a dry, rather tannic finish. We all convinced each other that this wine was from Spain, but it was actually a blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincadeira and Touriga Franca, sourced mostly from the Douro (with a little Alentejo thrown in). So we were close: It was from Portugal.

Wine #4: A transparent garnet color, this wine had a taut red-fruit aroma marked with something savory, something meaty. “Pinot can taste like blood,” one guest suggested. But the flavor made me not so sure: red fruit followed by black olive and black pepper spice, with very few tannins. Olive plus black pepper made me think of the South of France, but everyone else guessed Italy. Sometimes it pays to go against the consensus — it was indeed France! A blend of Grenache, Syrah and “assorted Bordeaux varieties” from the Rhône Valley, Roussillon (near Languedoc) and Bordeaux.

Wine #5: “Son of a bitch!” We all had trouble figuring out this one, with its hooded dark-fruit aroma, ripe dark-red cherry fruit, ample acids, pop of spice and clear, supple tannins. “Zinfandel?” one person guessed. “There’s a squeaky finish on this one. On my teeth!” said another, providing one of the evening’s more enigmatic tasting notes. Somewhat at a loss, we all went for Washington. The wine was from the New World, but in fact it was a blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Uco Valley in Mendoza, Argentina.

Wine #6: We felt some relief when we got to this wine, with its raisiny aroma, raisiny fruit, ample spice and serious tannins on the finish. Everyone loved it, and everyone thought it was from Portugal (except for one obstinate guest who insisted on California). The raisins and tannins reminded us of Port, but unfortunately, no one was reminded of passito. Passito wines, such as Amarone, make use of partially raisinated grapes. And indeed, #6 was not from Portugal but from Italy. Argh! It was a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia as well as Barbera from Piedmont. (I can find no evidence of passito-style drying of the grapes.)

Wine #7: “This has biting tannins, but it like it — rrrrr — it hurts so good,” said one taster. “It’s hot hot hot!” another exclaimed, referring to what felt like a rather high alcohol content. I got lots of dark-red fruit, black pepper, an olive note and a bit of mocha at the back of the throat. I guessed that this delicious wine came from Argentina, and others went with Portugal or France. But of course, you know that it was none of these. Instead, it was a blend of Garnacha (Grenache), Tempranillo, Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and Cariñena (Carignan) from Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain.

All these wines retail for about $17 to $19, making them an affordable indulgence and an excellent value for the money. Different as they were, the Locations wines each had finely tuned balance and a sense of depth, enhanced by fruit that tended towards the darker end of the spectrum, sometimes leavened with something savory or briny. That’s a profile I can get behind.

Dave Phinney asks, “The question is – do you break the rules, and thousands of years of history and tradition, in pursuit of expressing freedom?” There’s a lot to be said for rules when it comes to wine — they’re doing something right in Burgundy, after all — but Locations makes a compelling case that sometimes you should just toss the rule book into the destemming machine and go for it.

Note: These wines were provided for review free of charge.

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Lodi’s Most Important Winery

28 January 2017

I had no idea where the excursion I’d chosen would lead. The Wine Bloggers Conference organizers kept the excursion titles enigmatic, but “Souzãoberry Fields Forever” was clearly meant for me. I signed up, and I discovered Lodi’s most important winery: St. Jorge.

Now, other wineries in Lodi may arguably make better wine, and there are certainly others that are better known. What makes St. Jorge special is its devotion to Portuguese grape varieties, and its unique willingness to bottle these varieties as varietal wines. I know of no other place in the U.S. where you can try varietals such as Souzão, Trincadeiro and Touriga Nacional — all made by the same winemaker from grapes grown in similar terroirs — on their own against each other. St. Jorge’s wines are not only delicious, they offer insight into Portuguese wine that you simply can’t get anywhere else, outside of Portugal itself.

Vern Vierra in his vineyards

But really, who cares about Portuguese wine? Port is unfashionable, Madeira is barely more stylish, and Portuguese table wines are a drop in the U.S. market, representing about 1.1% of American wine imports. This is all true. It is also true that there are two kinds of wine drinkers in this world: Those who love Portuguese wines, and those who have yet to try Portuguese wines. Semi-pronounceable grape names aside, Portuguese wines currently have one of the best flavor-to-price ratios in the wine world.

Lodi’s relatively dry, sunny climate is reminiscent of certain Portuguese regions, but St. Jorge owner Vern Vierra didn’t start the winery because of the similarities in terroir. He had been making beer, he explained to us, and when he went to pick up some hops, he discovered a de-stemmer someone had ordered but didn’t collect. “Because I’m Portuguese, I love a deal,” he said. The discount de-stemmer set things in motion, and the Vierras opened St. Jorge in 2009.

The winery and tasting room was a delight to visit. With its Mediterranean-style architecture and fountain-cooled patio, it embodied the fantasy of gracious living in wine country. The vineyards surrounding the winery appear to be thriving, too, despite the minimal use of irrigation. “I’m training the vines to go deep for water and nutrients,” Vierra explained, “and you can see that the leaves are bright green, so the vines must like what I’m doing.”

I like what he’s doing, too, as you can see from the tasting notes below. You won’t find any blends in the list — St. Jorge bottles only varietal wines. “I want the variety to have the respect it deserves, to shine on its own,” Vierra told us.

Dinner at St. Jorge

If you’re a wine professional, a wine blogger, or anyone with more than just a passing interest in wine, I can’t recommend a visit to St. Jorge too highly. Tasting the portfolio is education you’ll be hard-pressed to obtain outside of Portugal itself.

2011 Verdelho Seco Silvaspoons Vineyard: Verdelho, not to be confused with Spanish Verdejo, occupies many of the vineyards on the island of Madeira, but it also produces delightful table wine, as in this case. It smelled a bit perfumed, with notes of stone fruit and hay, and it tasted of tropical fruit and warm ginger spice. Vierra allegedly sneaked one of these vines into the country in his luggage, and it was obviously a risk worth taking.

2014 Verdelho Vierra Estate: Though this wine was younger, it was less perfumed. It smelled more of dusty orange peel and apricot. I loved the white-peach fruit and the ample minerality. A touch sweet, but balanced.

2011 “Maria” Silvaspoons Vineyard: This wine is also 100% Verdelho, but Vierra vinified it in the style of Madeira. A grape grower apparently let his grapes overripen, which meant a wine made with them would be sweet without enough acids to balance. Vierra bought the grapes at an excellent price. “I’m Portuguese, so I didn’t want them to go to waste.” Waste them he did not. The wine had a wonderfully caramelly aroma overlaid with fresh green tobacco. It felt big, rich and spicy, and I relished the long tobacco finish.

2014 Trincadeira Vierra Estate: The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that Trincadeira is particularly susceptible to rot, which means that it “only performs well in the driest of climates.” It’s no surprise that it’s a success in sunny Lodi. This first Trincadeira vintage from the Vierra Estate looked almost inky in the glass, and it had plenty of rich purple fruit. But after a pop of spice its tannins dried my mouth right up, before lifting into a finish of baking spice.

2014 Touriga Vierra Estate: Also called Touriga Nacional, this grape variety is the one you’re most likely to encounter as a varietal wine. If you’ve had a sip of Port, you’ve almost certainly sipped Touriga Nacional (at least as part of the blend). I noted a perfumed nose of dark fruit and flowers, and one of my fellow tasters called it “musky.” On the palate, the cool, clear dark fruit moved with real elegance to supple tannins and spice. The spice gently built, so that it arrived without my even noticing, and it persisted in the long finish. Delicious.

Vern Vierra giving a taste of Zinfandel from the barrel to Josh Likes Wine

2014 Souzão Vierra Estate: At last, the namesake of the excursion. The Oxford Companion notes that this grape’s high acidity makes it popular in Port blends. Souzão (also spelled “Sousão”) must express itself a little differently in Lodi, because this wine felt dark and dense. It had a rather raisiny, porty aroma, but I tasted dark fruit and mocha more than zippy acids. The wine dried up towards the finish, moving into a note of hay and spice. Very pretty.

2011 Vinho Tinto Doce: St. Jorge’s version of Port had the classic rich, raisiny aroma and flavors of raisins and chocolate. A surprising note of exotic spice poked its head above the richness, followed by firm tannins. The spicy finish lasted a good 30 seconds. What a delight.

St. Jorge also makes wines from international grape varieties. I especially liked the sexy Sangiovese, the aroma of which reminded me of a high-end spa, and the graceful and rich Syrah, with its fragrant fruit and supple tannins. These are the icing on the Portuguese custard tart.

The Vierra family has created a truly special winery in Lodi, where it’s not only possible to taste delicious wine, but also to learn about important lesser-known grape varieties hard to find outside of Portugal. And even there, the chances to try a range of Portuguese varietals all in a row are exceedingly rare.

For more insight into the wines of St. Jorge, I highly recommend reading this post from one of my favorite wine blogs, Josh Likes Wine.

Note: The wines described in this post were provided free of charge.

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The Federalist At “Hamilton”: Wines Fit For A Founding Father

29 October 2016
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda at the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton

A cast party seemed like an odd venue in which to taste wine, but as a recovering theater major, I have a soft spot for musicals. Getting a new one off the ground can be tough, especially if it’s a wordy period piece, and I decided that if my blog post about the partner wine of the musical can also help promote a good show, then so much the better. So I accepted the invitation to the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton.

Serving glasses of a wine named The Federalist during the intermission of a musical about Alexander Hamilton would seem gimmicky if the quality were less than excellent. After all, who cares if the wine’s name ties in to the theme of the show if it doesn’t taste any good?

Federalist Sonoma County ChardonnayAs we entered the party, I wasted no time in scooping up a glass of the 2015 Federalist Sonoma County Chardonnay. In general, Sonoma has a cooler climate than Napa, because the county is closer to the cool ocean currents off the coast. Cooler temperatures often result in higher acidity, which means that Sonoma Chardonnays are less likely to be blowsy and overripe than Napa Chardonnays.

And indeed, this Federalist Chardonnay was a well-balanced beauty. It suckered me right in with its aroma of buttered popcorn and a bit of tropical fruit. The fruit tasted rich and ripe, and there was an overlay of oak. Some people despise butter and oak, I know, but in the right proportions, they can be gorgeous flavors. Especially when they’re balanced, as they were here, by ample acids and a shaft of white pepper spice. This wine sells for about $14-$16 a bottle, which is a fantastic value for the money. Comparable white Burgundies cost twice as much.

I also tried the 2014 Federalist Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, which I approached with no small measure of skepticism. At this summer’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, I tried a handful of Cabernet Sauvignons, and I found only one I could actually recommend. Now, I’m pleased to report, I have two. I enjoyed the cool, clean, rich fruit, the lively and rustic acids, the perk of white pepper spice and the supple tannins. It had some finesse, this Cabernet, and again, it’s surprisingly affordable at around $17 a bottle. Another fine value.

Federalist Dueling PistolsI noticed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and the star of the production on Broadway, standing not far away, and I took the opportunity to ask him about Federalist wines and their partnership with his show. I had just started my question when Mr. Miranda took the opportunity to give me a pithy quote: “I have to go over there now,” he said.

Well, he’s more of a whiskey drinker in any case.

His speedy departure gave me a moment to try the third wine offered at the cast party, the 2012 Federalist Dry Creek Valley “Dueling Pistols” blend of 50% Zinfandel and 50% Syrah. I was especially excited to try this wine, because I can’t recall ever trying such a blend. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Sonoma’s “Dry Creek Valley still has a reputation for some of the finest examples of [Zinfandel],” and certainly this wine gave me no cause to dispute that assertion.

The “Dueling Pistols” smelled of rich, ripe fruit and tobacco — one of my favorite combinations. I absolutely loved its opulent fruit leavened with zesty spice, ample tannins and more of that wonderful tobacco on the finish. This wine is rich, dark and very sexy. It costs more than the others, around $35-$40 a bottle, but every penny you spend is repaid on your tongue.

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone with a bottle of “Dueling Pistols”

Heading back to the bar for more, I turned around to discover Mario Cantone, of Sex and the City fame. He knew the Federalist wines well, since he spends quite a bit of time in Sonoma, and he agreed that the Chardonnay in particular is “delicious.”

The lead of the Chicago Hamilton production, Miguel Cervantes, approached us as we were chatting, and it turned out that he had never tried any of the Federalist wines. My quick-thinking friend Liz Barrett of Terlato (The Federalist’s distributor) offered to get him a glass so that he could give one a try, and she returned with a sample of the “Dueling Pistols.”

Mr. Cervantes proved quite adept at describing his experience with the wine. He gave it a smell, and said, “Oh yes, I like bigger, spicier wines.” After giving the “Dueling Pistols” a sip, he said, “I like the dry start — it’s not a Kool-Aid start like some Syrahs.” He took another taste and continued, “It gets in there dry, and then it’s a big old kick-you-in-the-face finish. I like it a lot.”

Me too. After trying this superb Zinfandel/Syrah blend, I have to wonder why we don’t see that combination more often. It really works. And even at $35 or $40 a bottle, the “Dueling Pistols” goes down a lot more easily than the price of a Hamilton ticket.

Note: The samples of these wines and the tickets to the cast party were provided free of charge.

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When To Decant, When To Aerate, And When To Just Back Off

15 October 2016
My empty, dusty decanter

My empty, dusty decanter

Dinner last week at my parents’ house got me thinking about decanting. I brought a 2009 Brunello di Montalcino, to pair with the beef tenderloin my father was whipping up. We opened it and poured ourselves small tastes, not only because of the wine’s youth (seven years, while old for most wines, is fairly young for a Brunello), but because wine streaked the cork from top to bottom. Air might have come into contact with the wine, oxidizing it.

Fortunately, the wine remained intact, but the tannins still felt tough and the fruit tasted tightly wound. Because we planned on eating in about 15 minutes, I decided it was time to decant. Or, more accurately, since my parents don’t own a decanter, we decided it was time to attach a little plastic nozzle to the bottle which helped aerate the wine as it was poured.

The wine unwound a little faster than it would have just standing in the bottle, and it ended up pairing beautifully with the beef in mushroom gravy. The ample but taut red fruit combined with lively spice and somewhat softened tannins to clear the palate after each rich, beefy bite.

I follow this procedure — tasting a little bit first — with any wine that I suspect might still be in the throes of youth. There is no other way to determine whether a wine needs to be decanted or not. You may very well find other wine writers who tell you that such-and-such wine always needs to be decanted, but don’t believe them. Even if they have an authoritative-sounding book.

Wine Folly CoverLast year, for example, when I reviewed the otherwise commendable book “Wine Folly” by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, I discovered, in large font and all capital letters at the top of page 27, the title, “AERATING WINE TO IMPROVE FLAVOR.” The introductory paragraph described decanting as “magic,” and farther down the page, there was this criminally misleading assertion: “All red wines can be aerated.”

This is nothing short of absolute nonsense. Decanting an old wine is the vinous equivalent of asphyxiating your grandmother with a pillow. I still smart at the memory of a foolish waiter at a Chicago BYOB restaurant breaking the cork on a 1986 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, pushing the remaining cork piece into the bottle, and then decanting it through a coffee filter. When I saw what he was doing at the waiter station, I stopped him in his tracks, but the damage to the half of the wine he decanted was done. It fell flat, lacking the liveliness of the portion remaining in the bottle.

But it’s not just old wines that will suffer from decanting. Try decanting this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau, and you’ll get an even nastier surprise than usual when you taste it. In the unlikely event that it had some structure in the first place, you’ll have aerated it into oblivion. You also won’t do yourself any favors by decanting an expensive but delicate Pinot Noir, nor that unoaked red that precisely maintains its balance.

Taste first. If the wine tastes unpleasantly tight — if it makes you pucker a bit and/or the tannins rasp the buds right off your tongue — decant if you’re in a hurry, or simply let it stand open a bit. If you automatically decant, you’ll miss how the wine develops and changes in the glass over time, and that’s one of wine’s great joys.

VelvThe decant-first-ask-questions-later philosophy is so insidious that entire companies have devoted themselves to finding ways to introduce ever more oxygen into your wine, as I discovered at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California. The latest aeration contraption, demonstrated for us at the conference, is called Velv™.

(Full disclosure: Velv™ sponsored a lunch for conference attendees.)

As the Velv™ website describes, “Unlike decanting and aeration methods that rely on ambient air, Velv™ Wine Oxygenator uses 99.5% pure oxygen to bring wine to its flavor peak in just minutes.”

It’s not actually air that changes a wine’s flavor profile. Oxygen, specifically, is what causes the chemical reaction in the wine. But air is only 20.95% oxygen, which suddenly makes a decanter seem wildly inefficient compared with the pure and ruthless Velv™.

This wand-shaped device has a canister of oxygen in the handle, and at the tip, a “micro-diffuser” that you stab into your glass or bottle of wine. The machine forces tiny bubbles through the diffuser, ensuring that the wine has maximum contact with the oxygen.

I observed the Velv™ in action at the conference, and as I watched, I heard the sales representative say the most remarkable thing to one of my fellow bloggers: “After six minutes, [the Velv™] took all the gravel and the dirt and the ugliness out of a Bordeaux.” I stood there, mouth agape, as I transcribed the conversation in my notebook. I wonder what that Bordeaux winemaker would think about all that “ugliness” — some might call it character or complexity — being removed from his or her wine.

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

The Velv table at the Wine Bloggers Conference

I later related the conversation to a friend at the conference, who asked, “Why would you want to turn a Bordeaux into a California Merlot?”

California wines, incidentally, did not escape the violent bubbles of the Velv™. The sales representative went on to enthusiastically describe how the machine “…can also blow the oak and butter out of a big Chardonnay.”

Of course, the other way to avoid oak and butter flavors, which some people legitimately dislike, is to purchase an unoaked Chardonnay. Most wine shops carry at least one these days. Then you’ll be able to taste the wine as the winemaker intended it to taste, and you’ll have saved yourself $250 to $300.

The Velv in action, inserted into a Menage a Trois

The Velv in action, inserted into a Ménage à Trois

Distressing sales pitches aside, the only way for me to determine the effect of the Velv™ was to experience it for myself. The sales representative poured me two tastes of a 2013 Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, one velved and one not.

He recommended trying the velved version first. It still had lots of dark fruit to it, and more surprisingly, the tannins still dried my tongue right up. I thought they might feel a bit softer after all that oxygen.

Then I tried the non-velved Cabernet. Wow. The fruit was all there and the tannins felt similar, but the wine tasted spicier. The Velv™ had removed that key component of the Cab — the spicy quality in the middle — and with the spice intact, the wine felt more balanced. I much preferred the Mondavi with its midsection not blown to bits with the Velv™ blunderbuss.

In short, should you decant your wine? Probably not. Should you spend $250 on a device to literally gas your wine? In the name of all that’s good and holy, no.

I’m sorry, Velv™ sales representative. I guess I owe you lunch.

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The German Side Of Lodi

14 September 2016
Dornfelder growing in Lodi's Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Dornfelder growing in Lodi’s Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

After visiting Lodi, California, about a month ago, I can confirm that it’s hot. Hot, sunny, dry and flat. The soils range from sandy loam to loamy sand, and both types feel, more or less, like glorified dust. Zinfandel, famous (infamous?) for producing jammy fruit bombs, is the signature grape.

I’ve also had the fortune to visit German wine regions such as the Rhein and Mosel valleys, and I can confirm that they are cool, wet and frequently quite steep. Slate permeates the Mosel’s soil and some of the Rheingau’s vineyards, with loess and marl also appearing in the latter. Riesling, the best examples of which display steely nerve and focused acids, is the signature grape.

In short, the terroirs of Lodi and Germany have about as much in common as avocados and schnitzel. Lodi is one of the last wine regions on Earth I would expect to find German grapes.

And yet, there they were in the Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, growing in tidy, defiant rows. The appeared to be flourishing, in fact, like German tourists on a permanent holiday in Mallorca. Even I, someone who regularly seeks out the unusual wines, felt flabbergasted at the sight of Dornfelder grapes ripening happily in Lodi’s semi-desert.

Vineyard co-owner Bob Koth, a former winemaker and paratrooper, explained how he grew to love German wines while visiting his daughter, who lived there for a time as a Fulbright Scholar. He came back wanting to grow German grapes, and that’s exactly what he did, sun and loamy sand be damned. He and vineyard co-owner May Lou Koth eventually converted a pear orchard into Mokelumne Glen Vineyards, where they now grow some 48 different German and Austrian grapes.

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Mokelumne Glen Vineyards

Most of the varieties, including true oddities such as Oraniensteiner and Affenthaler, are grown on an experimental basis. So far, nine grapes — Bacchus, Gewürztraminer, Kerner, Rieslaner, Riesling, Weissburgunder, Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder and Zweigelt — have done well enough to justify larger plantings.

Unlike in Germany, ripening the grapes is never a concern. The trick is to pick them after they fully ripen but before the juice turns flabby.

Still, the whole idea struck me as frankly insane. Could wines from these grapes possibly be any good? I sat down in a shady glen near the vineyards with a dozen fellow wine bloggers for a tasting. Winemakers from four different wineries poured (Mokelumne doesn’t produce its own wine).

German varietal wines of Lodi2015 Sidebar Cellers Kerner Mokelumne River: As we tasted this wine, Bob exclaimed, “This is the only place west of Michigan that grows Kerner!” I believe it. The Oxford Companion to Wine mentions plantings outside of Germany in England, Japan and South Africa, but says nothing about Kerner in the U.S. (you can read more about Kerner in this post). This example had a green, spicy aroma. There was a sense of richness, with its ripe fruit balanced by grapefruity acids and plenty of spice. Delightful, and priced well at $25.

2015 Holman Cellars “Uncharted” Bacchus:  I started this blog in 2011, and yet this was my first time tasting its namesake grape, Bacchus! This cross of Müller-Thurgau with a cross of Silvaner and Riesling doesn’t often appear as a varietal. According to The Oxford Companion, “Unlike the more aristocratic and more popular crossing Kerner, however, the wine produced lacks acidity and is not even useful for blending…in poor years since it needs to be fully ripe before it can express its own exuberant flavors.” The Companion also notes that warm-climate examples can be “flabby.”

Lodi Bacchus should by all rights be a real Jabba the Hutt of a wine, but this example had ample lemon/orange acids to balance the rich fruit. I got notes of fresh herbs, like bay and sage, and even some minerality on the finish, both of which also contributed to the balance. Against all odds, I really liked this wine. It offers a lot of flavor for its $25 price tag.

Winemaker Markus Riggli

Winemaker Markus Riggli

2013 Borra Winery Markus “Nuvola” Gewürztraminer: The name of this wine comes from its winemaker, Swiss expat Markus Niggli, and the Italian word for “cloud.” A warm-climate Gewürz sounds like a terrible idea. As The Oxford Companion notes, “Many wine regions are simply too warm to produce wine with sufficient acidity, unless the grapes are picked so early… that they have developed little Gewürztraminer character.” That character is unmistakable — perfumed and spicy, commonly with a strong note of lychee.

Some Gewürztraminers are too perfumed for my taste, in fact, and if you agree, this is the Gewürz for you. The aroma had more of an undertone of flowers — lily of the valley, to my nose — along with notes of dried herbs. The fruit tasted quite peachy, and it even veered into caramel territory, but balance was restored by a shaft of ginger/white pepper spice. The finish felt sweetly chalky. I’m not sure this qualifies as a classic Gewürztraminer, but I liked that the perfume didn’t slap me in the face. A good value for $19.

We also tasted two blends of Kerner, Bacchus, Riesling and Gewürztraminer by Borra Winery, the 2015 Markus Nativo, which tasted delightfully cool and clean, and the 2014 Markus Nimmo, which included a higher proportion of Gewürztraminer. It tasted creamier — almost buttery — but refined spice and a long mineral finish kept it balanced. $19 and $22, respectively.

Hatton Daniels Zweigelt2015 Hatton Daniels Zweigelt: You may not have heard of this dark-skinned grape, but as The Oxford Companion explains, “It is widely grown throughout all Austrian wine regions and can increasingly make a serious, age-worthy wine, even though most examples are best drunk young.” This Lodi example had a classic Zweigelt aroma of ripe red fruit and earth. I wouldn’t call this light-bodied wine “age-worthy,” necessarily, but I liked its cherry fruit, notes of leather and meat, and the quick burst of acids. Some tannins on the finish kept things grounded. $25

I suppose that 50 years ago, it would have seemed crazy to the people of Cahors, France, that their Malbec would grow exceedingly well — dare I say even better — in Mendoza. Now Argentine Malbec is in every corner liquor store. So perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked to discover perfectly lovely examples of Kerner and Gewürztraminer in the wilds of central California. The grapes behave differently there, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make tasty wine.

I’m sure people thought Bob Koth was crazy when he said he wanted to grow German grape varieties in Lodi. Some people probably still do. But the proof is in the pudding.

These tastes were provided free of charge as part of the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference.

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13 Notable Quotes From Lodi’s Wine Bloggers Conference

20 August 2016
Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

Wine bloggers at work in Lodi

I just returned from 2016’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California, and as you might expect, people had all sorts of insightful things to say about wine, food and life in general. I gathered up my favorite gems, so that you, too, might learn from our collective wisdom.

The most important 13 quotes of the conference, in no particular order:

1. “This is your wine now. You know, you can come and stroke it or whatever you have to do.”

2. “They love the winemaker. I’m crap, but they love the winemaker.”

3. “Gewürztraminer is the Pamela Anderson of grapes.”

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can't remember which)

Vino Noire and Josh Likes Wine talking about either goat ragù or waterboarding (I can’t remember which)

4. “Riesling is not Kleenex.”

5. “Can you waterboard someone if they’re OK with it?”

6. “It tastes good for Chardonnay.”

7. “I’m going to extend my arm.”

8. “This would go great with some goat ragù.”

9. “After six minutes, [this aerator] took all the gravel and dirt and ugliness out of a Bordeaux.”

10. “Do you have your syringe?”

11. “Gary [Indiana] has that drive-by feng shui.”

12. “Lisa is our tasting room entertainer. …Man, she is really good.”

13. “I think it’s fundamental to remember that we all love alcohol.”

Amen.

If you were there in Lodi and have a quote or two of your own to share, feel free to do so in the comments section!

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Red Wines Of Lodi: Speed Blogging Part 2

14 August 2016
Wine photographed not during speed blogging.

Wine photographed not during speed blogging

In one of the Wine Bloggers Conference seminars, a presenter admonished the audience about the previous day’s speed blogging performance. “I saw a lot of you taking random photos during speed blogging,” she observed, during her talk about Instagram. “Make sure you have a nice background.”

I took an instant dislike to this woman, who, though she had attended the speed blogging session, had clearly not experienced it. Speed blogging is always one of my favorite parts of the Wine Bloggers Conference, because it’s such a challenge. The seven or eight bloggers at each table are trying to get as much information out of the wine presenters as possible, while simultaneously assessing each wine and writing something intelligent about it, all within each five-minute wine speed date. Composing fluffy bottle shots with flowers and candles and such is not within the remotest realm of possibility.

And it’s no picnic for the presenters, either. They’re faced with a table of stressed bloggers who don’t make eye contact (we’re buried in our laptops and phones). We shout a barrage of questions ranging from the simple (Vintage?!) to the irritating (What’s your Twitter handle? Wait — what’s your Twitter handle?) to the borderline rude (Who are you? Who? Oh, the owner?). Meanwhile they’re trying to pour the wine, explain the wine, pass out information sheets about the wine, and give us each a chance to photograph the wine, ideally with a nice background, of course.

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi's Rous Vineyard

Century-old Zinfandel vine in Lodi’s Rous Vineyard

In short, it’s barely controlled chaos, and I absolutely love it. In order to successfully speed blog, I have to find a place of serious focus, shutting out all the noise and confusion around me in order to give each wine the attention it deserves. Learning to focus that way has helped me in all sorts of loud, overcrowded tastings (one of the most common kinds).

After having been in Lodi since Wednesday evening and trying dozens of local reds, this speed blogging event was not particularly surprising. But it was particularly delightful. The reds here tend to be richly fruity and concentrated, with enough spice, acids and tannins to balance. It can be a truly gorgeous combination.

2013 Harney Lane Old Vine Zinfandel Lizzy James Vineyard: Lizzy James really is an old-vine vineyard — it was planted in 1904, sixth-generation winery owner Kyle explained. Aged in 100% French oak, this Zin has a gorgeously rich raspberry and vanilla aroma, cool and clear fruit, with forceful white pepper and plenty of heady alcohol. Ah yes — it’s 15.5% alcohol! And yet it’s balanced. It’s a bit of a monster, this wine, and I love it. At $36 it’s not inexpensive, but now I regret not buying a bottle at the winery when I had the chance.

Lange Twins Nero d'Avola2014 LangeTwins Nero d’Avola: Joe Lange himself poured this Italian varietal, and it’s unfortunately the second-to-last vintage. The Lange family had to rip up the vines after the 2015 harvest because of a couple of serious vineyard diseases. What a lovely dark cherry aroma, enhanced with some purple flowers. There’s a nice calm characteristic to the fruit, and classy, restrained spice with enough oomph to balance. It’s a steal at $20, and based on what I’ve tasted at the conference this week, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase any LangeTwins bottling of any of the 23 or 24 varieties they make.

2013 Prie Winery Cabernet Sauvignon: This Cab comes from the east side of Lodi (they talk a lot about east side and west side here, which have sandy loam and loamy sand, respectively). The aroma smells of pure, clean fruit, and indeed the fruit comes through loud and clear on the palate, but it loses some power after that, fading slowly into spice and surprisingly soft tannins. I haven’t found the Cabs of Lodi especially compelling, I must admit, and this one hasn’t convinced me otherwise. $29

Paul pouring Inkblot

Paul pouring Michael David’s Inkblot

2013 Michael David “Inkblot” Cabernet Franc: The first Cabernet Franc of the conference! Each vintage of Inkblot showcases a different variety that wine drinkers might not expect, such as Petit Verdot or Tannat, or in this case, Cab Franc, as the marketing manager Paul explained. It contains 10% Petit Sirah to round things out, and my goodness, it works. The aroma is heady and dark, the fruit is big and lush on the palate, and it moves to a blast of tannins followed by an elegant shaft of spice on the finish. It’s certainly drinkable now, but I would love to lay a bottle down for five years to see what happens. The $35 price seems perfectly reasonable.

2013 Peirano Estate “The Other” Red Blend: A blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 10% Syrah, this wine has an unexpected aroma, with almost jammy dark fruit combined with an underripe green-pepper quality. Though now that it’s been in my glass a few moments, the fruit has started to overpower the vegetable. There’s plenty of rich fruit — even in a $12 wine from Lodi, there better be, followed by black pepper spice and soft tannins. It’s perfectly drinkable, and not at all a bad value for $12.

2014 Klinker Brick Cabernet Sauvignon: Steve Feldman, the winery owner, shared with us Klinker Brick’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vintage, which retails for $19. It has a deliciously rich aroma of dark fruit, a midsection of classy spice and firm but not aggressive tannins on the finish. This is a Cabernet I can really get behind — the first Lodi Cabernet I’ve really loved. It coats the mouth with ripe, chewy fruit, and it’s a superlative value.

Now that's what I call a background. The OZV red blend and the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

Now that’s what I call a background: the inimitable Glynis of Vino Noire

2013 Cultivar Cabernet Sauvignon: I don’t usually write about Napa Cabernets, because they are exactly the opposite of unusual and obscure, so it’s a nice change of pace. I like its heady dark fruit aroma and up-front fruit on the palate. It makes a quick pass through some spice in the midsection before giving me a slap of tannins, followed by some slow-developing black pepper spice. I suspect it needs another year or two to round and soften. I quite like it, but I would much rather spend $19 on the Klinker Brick than $29 on this one.

2013 Oak Ridge Winery “Moss Roxx” Ancient Vine Zinfandel: Steve, the international marketing manager, poured some the OZV red blend before this, which I unfortunately didn’t have time to taste. I can barely handle one wine per speed taste in this event. Two, for me, is an impossibility. I skipped the OZV in order to move right to this Zin from vines which average 105 years in age. I love the rich red-fruit jam aroma, cool ripe fruit on the palate, classy white pepper spice and notable tannins on the finish. A delight for $22.

2013 Ehlers Estate “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the flagship Cabernet of this Napa winery, with fruit from St. Helena. It’s actually 85% Cabernet with 5% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. I loved the perfumed dark red fruit aroma, ample but classy white pepper spice in the middle and clear but supple tannins on the finish. It’s beautifully made, and if I were rich, I might even consider buying it for $110.

2014 Troon Vineyard Blue Label Malbec, Rogue Valley: Troon Vineyard is not located in Argentina, as you might have guessed, but in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Oregon gained fame for its Pinot Noir, but those grow mostly in the Willamette Valley — the Rogue and Applegate valleys are near the California border in a relatively dry area at 1,600 feet of altitude. The wine certainly smells ripe, with ample dark fruit and a touch of vanilla, and it tastes rather delicious,with ripe dark fruit, plenty of spice, notable tannins and some underlying freshness. I would never have guessed that a Malbec could work in Oregon, but Troon Vineyard has proved, without a doubt, that it can. $29

Read about Speed Blogging session #1 — Lodi whites, rosés and bubblies — here, or for more red wine Speed Blogging action, read last year’s red report here.

These wine tastes were provided free of charge.

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