Cabernet Sauvginon

Putting Napa On The Map

16 May 2019

Napa doesn’t get a lot of coverage on Odd Bacchus. Its Chardonnays and Cabernets are the antithesis of “the unusual and obscure.” Napa is the wine powerhouse of the United States, and it’s as famous as any other wine region. I wonder if there’s a single steakhouse any place on the planet that doesn’t have at least one Napa Cabernet on its wine list (steakhouses in countries that ban alcohol excepted)? No, Napa’s wines are world-famous and very popular.

But it wasn’t always so. Indeed, very much within living memory, Napa was a vinous backwater. The name “Napa,” which nowadays connotes serious wines and serious luxury — there is no shortage of hotels in the valley that charge upwards of $1,000 a night — connoted little of anything to most people as recently as the early 1970s. France produced the world’s greatest wines, and that was that. Napa was small potatoes.

Then, in 1976, Steven Spurrier organized the famous (or infamous, if you’re French) “Judgment of Paris” tasting, as it’s now known. He gathered six Napa Chardonnays and four Premier Cru and Grand Cru Burgundies (also Chardonnay, of course), and had nine French wine critics and sommeliers blind-taste them. He did the same with several Napa Cabernets and top Bordeaux wines. The tasters were shocked, even outraged, to learn that their first choices of wines, both red and white, came from California.

The 2008 film dramatizing the event, “Bottle Shock,” ranks as one of my favorite wine-themed movies. Far better than “Sideways,” the popularity of which continues to mystify me.

In any case, although the French press refused to report on the event for quite some time, the tasting sent shock waves around the wine world and put Napa on the map. The winner of the Chardonnay tasting, Chateau Montelena, had Mike Grgich as its winemaker. His 1973 Chardonnay beat out some of the very best white Burgundies, a feat which still impresses me, considering how much I love white Burgundy.

Although many disputed the statistical validity of the tasting, it left no doubt that Napa could produce world-class wines, and Grgich bore no small amount of responsibility for that. He went on to found Grgich Hills Estate, in partnership with the Hills Brothers Coffee family, and he still has a hand in making its wines.

But most of the winemaking responsibility now belongs to his nephew, Ivo Jeremaz, who, like Grgich, was originally born in Croatia (the Grgich family has a second winery there, which makes excellent Pošip and Plavac Mali). Liz Barrett and I recently had the chance to interview Jeremaz on our web series, Name That Wine, and taste three of his bottlings. He farms his vineyards organically and strives for elegance in the bottle, not just power.

I sometimes poo-poo Napa Cabs and Chards, but I can’t deny that I loved these wines. I was also impressed by Jeremaz’s Zinfandel. Zins can often be ponderous jam bombs, but the Grgich Hills version managed to be ripe as well as light on its feet. I suppose it makes sense that Jeremaz produces a great Zinfandel; the grape originated in his home country. Making a graceful Zinfandel happens in the vineyard, I learned, and it’s fascinating to hear how he does it:

What a joy to taste these wines, and considering the balance and richness they deliver, they’re awfully good values for the money. Good value Cabernet and Chardonnay from Napa? Who would have guessed?

And as for the statistical validity of the tasting… Well, Francophiles kept trying to redo the tasting in the hopes of getting different results. Arguing that French wines age better than American wines, some wine critics repeated the tasting two years later, in 1978, holding the tasting in San Francisco. The three top Chardonnays and the three top Cabernets in this tasting were all American (the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay placed second this time, after a 1974 Chalone).

Lest you think that not enough time had elapsed for the French wines to show their age-worthiness, the French Culinary Institute held an anniversary tasting in 1986. They blind-tasted the same vintages of Cabernets and Bordeaux from the same wineries as in the original 1976 tasting. Napa Cabernets from Clos Du Val and Ridge earned the top two places.

But is 10 years really enough time? Perhaps, given a little longer, the results would be different? Spurrier organized a 30-year-anniversary tasting in 2006, opening up those same Cabernet and Bordeaux bottlings from the same 1970s vintages as before. This time, all five of the top ten slots were awarded to Napa Cabernets. Haut-Brion, for example, came in eighth!

That’s four separate tastings, and in all of them, Napa wines came in first. I’m no statistician, but I’m sensing a trend.

You can read about the tastings in more detail here.

I’ve written about Bordeaux and Burgundy on this site with some frequency. Perhaps it’s time I give Napa a little more of a shot. It certainly was a great pleasure to meet Ivo Jeremaz and taste his Grgich Hill wines, especially since they come with such a memorable story.

Now if only someone would offer to help with those $1,000-a-night hotels…

Note: The wines tasted in this episode of Name That Wine were provided free of charge.

Get Out Of Your Wine Rut

30 March 2019

Looking at the number of grape varieties about which I’ve written — I count some 146 — it seems almost unbelievable that I could find myself in a wine rut, but it happens even to me. It’s easy to pop into my favorite wine store, grab a couple of my standard bottles and scoot, without giving the new items on the shelf much thought. My current go-to wines may sound rather exotic — Félicette Grenache Blanc and Ivanović Prokupac, for example — but I’ve bought dozens and dozens of bottles of each. They’re not exotic to me, they’re just comfort wines.

There’s nothing wrong with comfort wines, of course, but I have a feeling that if you’re reading this blog, you’re interested in escaping whatever sort of wine rut you’re in and tasting something new. The problem, I realize, is that unless you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll have a hard time homing in on the wine that’s right for you. Let’s say you like light and bright Pinot Grigio, but you’re ready to try something else. Are you supposed to look at the list of 146 grape varieties on the right side of this page, and hope that the one you choose to read about will suit you? How would you guess that I would suggest trying, say, Verdicchio, which isn’t even on the list? There’s no way to get there from here.

In fact, most blogs aren’t set up to help people with that sort of dilemma. So on a recent episode of Name That Wine, Liz and I decided to address that problem. We talk about several popular grape varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others, and suggest alternatives that will likely give you the same satisfaction:

Now I just have to figure out what a good substitute for Prokupac is…

A Man, A Plan, A Shiraz, Australia!

12 July 2018

Neil McGuigan

One country I routinely avoid in both wine shops and on wine lists is Australia. It’s a flaw of mine. I’m still scarred from insta-hangover Yellowtail and the ark of critter quaffers that followed in its wake. An all-too-brief visit to Australia a couple of years ago helped set me on the road to recovery, however. I loved the wines, especially from the continent’s cool-climate regions. And my recovery continues apace after a sensational lunch at Chicago’s Wollensky’s Grill hosted by McGuigan Wines.

This much-decorated winery stands in Australia’s Hunter Valley, a region just north of Sydney that The World Atlas of Wine calls “a far from ideal place to grow grapes” because of its subtropical climate. Nevertheless, the book praises “a strip of weathered basalt” in the foothills of the Brokenback Range, as well as “red volcanic soils on higher ground, such as those of Pokolbin…” McGuigan stands in the heart of that region, just east of the Brokenback Range. It has vineyards there, but the winery also sources fruit from a number of other regions, including some of Australia’s fashionable cool-climate spots.

Although popular in Britain, McGuigan has only recently become available in the United States. Look for McGuigan’s black “The Plan” label, which can be Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux-style blend. What sets these wines apart is the the company’s dedication to cleanness and freshness in the wine, according to CEO Neil McGuigan. He’s not interested in making jam bombs:

Food culture [in the U.S.] has grown logarithmically, and where there’s a food culture, a wine culture follows. To go with the food, you need wines that are bright, flavorsome and fresh.

When I hear the words “Australian wine,” the first word that comes to mind is not “fresh.” I love that McGuigan is working on changing that.

We started our lunch with the 2016 “The Plan” Chardonnay, and it certainly got things going on the right foot. It had firm, juicy acids balanced by a touch of creaminess, and some refined Sichuan peppercorn-like spice. It’s a fantastic value for about $12 a bottle. I have trouble thinking of too many other Chardonnays at that price that have the balance of The Plan.

The red McGuigan “The Plan” wines also punched above their weight. The 2016 Red Blend had cheerful notes of vanilla and dark cherries balanced with a spicy lift on the finish. I felt momentarily skeptical of the 2016 Shiraz, which started with jammy fruit and plenty of sweet vanilla, but it maintained balance by finishing fresh and dry. It went in a totally different direction than I was expecting. And I quite liked the plush and plummy 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, which moved slowly from fruit to vanilla to black pepper spice. Each of The Plan wines ranges in alcohol content between 12.5% and 13.5%, which shows admirable restraint in an era when 15% is not uncommon.

The Hand Made Shirazes paired beautifully with steak

We also sampled several vintages of McGuigan “Hand Made” Shiraz, made from grapes grown “just outside Langhorne Creek” in South Australia, not far from Adelaide. Much farther south than the Hunter Valley, and therefore cooler, Langhorne Creek is known for “soft, gentle, mouth-filling Shiraz and succulent Cabernet Sauvignon, according to The World Atlas of Wine. A nearby lake helps keep things fresh: “The so-called Lake Doctor, a reliable afternoon breeze off the lake, slows ripening here so that grapes are usually picked two weeks later than those of McLaren Vale.”

The 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2008 vintages were all delicious, and all different. The 2014 is still young and brash, but the 2012 has settled in, with a more obviously fruity aroma marked by an additional savory note. Its tannins felt more fine-grained and the wine moved from moment to moment more slowly. My favorite was the 2010, which had developed even more of a savory quality in its aroma. The wine had excellent balance and control, with big fruit and big, refined, slow-moving spice. Because it was a drought year, 2008 is something of an anomaly, but it too had wonderfully integrated flavors of dark fruit, oak and spice.

The star of the tasting was the 2013 McGuigan “The Philosophy,” a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon and 44% Shiraz that costs about $125 a bottle. McGuigan has a smart managerial reason for producing this sort of flagship wine. “When you make a $150 bottle,” he explained, “it creates a culture of excellence at the winery, so that a $10 bottle starts to taste like a $12 bottle.”

Is a $125 bottle 10 times as good as a $12 bottle? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that a $125 bottle (ideally) offers something different from a $12 bottle — it offers control, refinement and elegance that require a lot of expensive winemaking technique to achieve. For most of us, a $125 wine won’t be worth the money. But if you want to splurge on such a bottle, “The Philosophy” would be a beautiful choice. It had a dark fruit aroma with a savory undertone, and it developed with confident evenness on the palate. The wine moved with grace from opulent fruit to big oak (the fruit was rich enough to take it) to refined spice to very fine-grained tannins.

It was a joy to drink.

Note: This lunch and the accompanying wines were provided free of charge.

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.

Next Page »