Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holidays in Wine Country

I enjoyed two festive holiday experiences in the Northern California wine country last week, one in Healdsburg, the chic Sonoma county town near Dry Creek Valley, and the other at Napa Valley’s Meadowood resort, the home of Auction Napa Valley.

Holidays in Healdsburg is a month of planned activities starting the day after Thanksgiving that includes parties, “Toyland” exhibits, winery open houses, even caroling in convertibles. My favorite is the three-hour “Strolling Dine-Around,” held at 18 restaurants all within easy walking distance of the historic and picturesque Healdsburg Plaza. This is a progressive dinner with four courses served every 45 minutes. So my friend Pauline and I had appetizers at Café Gratitude, which serves organic raw vegan food (we ate a delicious guacamole and sunflower seed pate with flaxseed chips that did not make me miss the more conventional dish); a second course, scrumptious tempura green beans and a green salad at Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar; a main course of risotto and prawns at A Divine Affair and dessert (lemon pot de crème) at Restaurant Charcuterie. It’s a lot of food, so strolling in the winter air (of course, I’m talking about a California winter), was invigorating and whetted the appetite for what was next.

Naturally all these restaurants are wine savvy and have a rich and varied selection of wines by the glass or bottle. You can even bring your own bottle(s). But I wouldn’t recommend it because the corkage policy is complicated. Although the fees are not high, you have to pay anew for the same bottle each time you enter a restaurant, the charge varies from place to place and according to whether it’s a Sonoma wine or not – too cumbersome in my opinion. Once we ran out of the “J” sparkling wine I had brought with me, we ordered Navarro Edelzwicker (an aromatic blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat) to go with the risotto-and-prawn dish, and it was a sublime combination. Next year, when the city of Healdsburg sponsors this event again, I recommend the restaurants either abolish all corkage charges for the night (while encouraging Sonoma County wines) or ban bringing your own bottles. When you are meant to enjoy yourself, simplicity is the key!

So walking between courses is a great idea, but when that’s not feasible, there is an appealing alternative. Pauline and I were driven from Café Gratitude to Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar in a restored vintage Chevy by former NASCAR driver Bryan Germone aka Hot Rod Tours. Bryan was fun, the car was nifty and there was a warm lap blanket in the back seat. Hot Rod Tours also provides a novel alternative to limo tours of the wine country.

The night before, I was invited to celebrate “The Twelve Days of Christmas” at the bucolic Meadowood resort in Napa Valley. For this benefit for Share Our Strength, a popular charity for chefs because it feeds hungry children, the resort invites 12 chefs from around the country and pairs their artisanal meals with Napa wines.

The night I attended, Paul Liebrandt of Corton in New York was the chef. His “modern French” cuisine contained a lot of foie gras, so it could not go wrong with me and the exceptional wines were from Napa’s PlumpJack and CADE wineries.  PlumpJack is the Oakville winery owned by billionaire Gordon Getty and Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, and wine lovers are probably familiar with its intense Cabernet Sauvignon. CADE is their newest venture, a Howell Mountain winery built for its time -- LEED certified and built with the environment in mind. John Conover, partner with Getty and Newsom in the winery, introduced CADE’s Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, which were intense and fruity. Winemaker Anthony Biagi found a way to tame the tannins of his hillside Cab vineyards and bring out some spice in the 2006 Cabernet, which was paired interestingly with a wedge of Brillat-Savarin and a white chocolate coin.
Meadowood is pricey but also one of a kind in Northern California’s wine country: there are only 85 quietly elegant rooms (think Martha Stewart) scattered throughout 250 forested acres with a croquet lawn, tennis courts, spa, pools and a two-star Michelin restaurant. Wine fans couldn’t be in better hands – the owner is Bill Harlan of a little winery you may have heard about, Harlan Estate, and the resort employs a wine director primarily occupied with wine education and events centered around the elixir of Napa Valley.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Greening The Wine Industry

Some of the most exciting aspects of the wine business these days involve the environmental issues of growing, vinifying, packaging and transporting wine for consumers. I have been following these issues avidly for a few years now; what is being discussed and accomplished these days at all levels of the wine business is both dynamic and encouraging.

Some information that came out of the second annual Green Wine Summit held recently in Santa Rosa, California, that I found interesting:
  • Consumers and the wine trade are confused about the myriad of environmental claims appearing on labels.
  • The sales of organic wines are outpacing the rest of the market
  • Winegrape growers are at the forefront of water conservation efforts.
Keynote speaker Gil Friend, Founder & CEO of Natural Logic and author of The Truth About Green Business told his audience of more than 300 wine industry leaders: “Green wine champions understand that you don't have to choose between making money and making sense. The truth is that businesses, from vineyards and wineries to retailers and high tech companies, can build profit and reduce risk -- and contribute to a better world -- by learning from four billion years of R&D within nature’s living systems.”

The list of wineries serious about environmental issues just in Northern California alone, where I live, is too long to mention – which is good news. But two have come across my desk recently -- from as far away as Bordeaux (Vignobles LaCombe) and as close to home as Sonoma (Merry Edwards) -- that really impressed me with their efforts.

I recently tasted some lovely wines from Vignobles Lacombe of Bordeaux’s Medoc region, and discovered that owner Remi Lacombe in 2007 became the first wine producer in Europe to market his wines as “carbon neutral.” Although the wines were good enough for me to recommend, I felt even more drawn to them when I discovered what Lacombe has been doing to be an environmental steward in his very, shall we say, “traditional” part of the world. Lacombe acknowledges that many stages of wine production release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So he examined closely what he could do to reduce emissions while still continuing a viable business, and worked to offset carbon emissions he couldn’t reduce. La Combe used ClimatePartner, a German consulting firm specializing in climate protection, to calculate the wineries’ carbon emissions. “When you produce around 365,000 bottles (about 30,000 cases) of wine a year like we do, it gives you 1,000 chances a day to send a message to consumers and give them a chance to do something for the planet with us.”

That's the old world. At the western edge of the new world, Merry Edwards, the highly respected Pinot Noir specialist, sent her recent 2007 wine releases to wine writers with a wonderfully articulate tale – minus any promotional hype! -- of how her winery has dedicated itself to sustainable practices. I’m going to take the unusual step of reprinting it here because I think it describes simply and eloquently her commitment to sustaining a healthy environment.

“My first job as a young winemaker was at Mount Eden Vineyards, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Living and working in this remote location taught me firsthand lessons about conservation. Water for two homes and a winery was sourced from a tiny spring which dried up each summer and then had to be trucked in. For years after leaving that mountain, I could not bear the sound of a faucet running.
I brought in winery supplies and hauled out wine shipments, as no delivery company would make the arduous trek up the steep mile-long dirt road. Everything was recycled or composted – a trip to the dump was rare. The barrel and wine cellars were located underground with no refrigeration necessary. A huge garden supplied most of our fresh produce, while a flock of ducks, geese and chickens supplied eggs, meat and sentinels for guard duty.

Flash forward to 1998… to avoid fumigation at the Meredith Estate vineyard site, I hired a company to dig up and box thirty-two oak trees alive. This strategy removed nearly all large roots and associated oak root fungus, thus allowing the trees to be recycled as landscape features. The soil was then raked using a harrow, followed by a team of workers to remove remaining roots. Conserving natural soil microorganisms gave the young vines a healthy start.

A pond was developed to collect rainwater runoff from the steep hillside. It provides water for irrigation and frost protection, while supporting a variety of migratory waterfowl. Within site of the pond are owl houses and hawk perches to welcome these feathered hunters. The remaining gophers are trapped by hand – no poisons are ever used. Our deficit irrigation practices require minimal applications of water, by drip, late in the season.

Our modern vertical trellis system uses stakes formed from recycled car bodies, while the end posts had previous lives as drill stems in oil wells. Vines trained in this manner require far less chemicals than farming methods of thirty years ago. In partnership with our neighbor Gourmet Mushroom, we use the spent oak-based growing medium they generate as a nutrient-rich compost application for our vineyards. Processed grape skins, seeds and stems are also used to replenish the soil.

We continue to use renewable natural cork which in itself is recyclable. Our new winery facility, completed just last year, incorporates many green features. The solar system supplies a substantial part of our electrical needs and soon we hope to be 100% solar powered! A new style of industrial fluorescent fixture has cut lighting needs by fifty percent. Hot water is supplied by efficient, brainy, stand-by gas heaters plumbed in sequence, generating only enough hot water to meet demand. The parking lot is paved with permeable concrete, which allows rainwater to flow directly through this normally impervious surface. Our offices are not painted; instead the interior walls were coated with green certified Tobias Stucco. Our efforts continue – please join us in creating a sustainable future for us all.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Good Reads and Feeds

If you like wine, chances are you like food -- at least I hope so because you need something to absorb that alcohol. I’m always interested in seeing new cookbooks and while I’m skimming them I think about what wines would match well with the dishes that strike me as worth cooking. I also love to give cookbooks as holiday gifts. Here is an eclectic group of recently published cookbooks that caught my attention:

A Tavola! Recipes and Reflections on Traditional Italian Home Cooking
This is an especially useful and enjoyable book for food-and-wine lovers because the authors are a chef and a sommelier who provide both mouth-watering Italian recipes and many wine suggestions to pair with the dishes. There are also tidbits of food culture here and there including interesting reading on the culinary regions of Italy, the history of culinary traditions and Italian holidays and food.
Gianni Scappin and Vincenzo Lauria, $29.95, The Culinary Institute of America Dining Series, Lebhar-Friedman Books, New York.

Pastry Queen Parties: Entertaining Family and Friends Texas Style
The Chamber of Commerce of Fredericksburg sent me this book as a gift after I visited in September -- as if the visit to this charming town in Texas hill country wasn’t enough! Rebecca Rather is a well-known chef and baker in Texas whose Rather Sweet Bakery I dropped by. An entire book on pastry would probably not hold much interest for me, but this book, though chock-full of recipes for both food and cocktails, is about entertaining. It’s divided into the different kinds of soirees Texans like to throw, such as “Gulf Coast Beach Bash” and “Tex-Mex Fiesta,” with anecdotes and party tips that give you a window into the local Texas culture. After skimming through the book, I instantly wanted to make "Beans a la Charra" and "Gangy’s Spoonbread," which I did. There are at least a dozen more I want to try soon.
Rebecca Rather; $32.50; Ten Speed Press, Berkeley.

Clara’s Kitchen: Wisdom, Memories and Recipes from the Great Depression.
Clara Cannucciari, is a 94-year-old Internet star. Telling stories, dishing out snippets of wisdom she gained from living through the Great Depression and whipping up classics like Pasta with Beef Scrap Ragu in her home kitchen, she was filmed by her grandson, and elevated to stardom when he posted them on YouTube. Not only are the Old World Italian recipes in this book intriguing in a back-to-basics way, but they are also accompanied by some disarming (and entertaining) comments such as this one that you’ll find with a recipe for Holiday Fig Cookies: “These cookies are sweet and really good for you when you’re constipated. They really work good. It’s all the figs, I guess.”
Clara Cannucciari, $21.99; St. Martin’s Press, New York.

The Veselka Cookbook
From the landmark Ukranian coffee shop in the East Village of New York, this cookbook introduces you to such exotic comfort food as sweet potato pierogi, borscht and veal goulash. Apparently, this place attracts many New York celebrities and the book sports a cover endorsement from comedian Jon Stewart. I never thought I would aspire to make homemade pierogi, but leafing through this book made me want to try.
Tom Birchard with Natalie Danford. $27.99 St. Martin’s Press. New York.

Friday, November 20, 2009


I’m calling the following finds "oddities," but I don't mean the term in a pejorative way, as in “strange,” but rather in a positive way as in “unusual and intriguing.” We all know that the popular wines in America are Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but that doesn’t mean you should only drink those fine wine varietals. Chicken is delicious, too, but does that mean you eat it every night for dinner? There are over 200 wine grape varieties, for instance, in Portugal alone and many more in Italy and Greece. There’s a whole world of wine out there and discovering new favorites is exciting.

White Flower Sparkling Riesling, It may exist, but I have not yet been exposed to an American Sparkling Riesling. Pacific Rim, the Riesling specialist, has just introduced White Flowers Sparkling Riesling from Washington State. Lovely and soft, with flower aromas and a clean, dry finish, this wine contains only 11.5% alcohol, a selling point in my book, and as a lovely alternative to more common bubblies, would be fun to introduce to your friends. And at $16, it's a bargain, too.

Blanc de Pinot Noir. I had also never heard of a white pinot noir still wine, and neither had two longtime Pinot Noir producers I know from the Russian River Valley of Sonoma. This was as intriguing to them as it was to me. This White Pinot Noir wine from Pinot Noir specialists Adam and Dianna Lee, came about as a result of a visit to Champagne 15 years ago. “One of our stops was Krug, where we got the opportunity to taste still, white Pinot Noir that had been resting in oak before going through the second fermentation to become champagne. Even though it was fairly acidic, you could taste the amazing quality of the grape. Ever since then, we’ve wanted to try it,” says Diana Lee. The Pinot Noir comes from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where the couple also sources fruit for its Siduri Pinot Noirs. This unique wine has a lovely fleshy color, with just the barest hint of pink, the weight and richness of Chardonnay but with firm acidity. Priced at $24, the Novy Blanc de Pinot Noir is available through the couple’s “warehouse winery” in Santa Rosa, California, and at some restaurants and wine shops nationally.

Samuel Adams Utopias. This “extreme beer,” the 2009 batch of Samuel Adams Utopias, is an effort to elevate American beer drinkers’ appreciation for full-flavored beer and change the context for beer. It’s 27% alcohol (an average beer is about 5%), rich, dark and uncarbonated, and meant to be served at room temperature in a snifter glass. The recommended pour is two-ounces as it is meant to be savored like vintage port or cognac. Utopias is brewed in small batches, blended, and aged at the Sam Adams Boston Brewery. Since its first release in 2002, it has held the title of ‘world’s strongest beer’ in the Guinness Book of World Records. Wine geeks take note: Samuel Adams Utopias is brewed with several different strains of yeast, including a variety typically reserved for Champagne. The limited-edition 2009 batch is bottled in numbered, ceramic brew kettle-shaped decanters and is $150. I told you it was extreme.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Some Sparkling Alternatives

I want to make it perfectly clear that I do not recommend saving sparkling wines for the end-of-the-year holidays or special occasions only. Breakfast is enough of an excuse for me to break out the bubbly. But with the holidays coming up  (when the vast majority of sparkling wine is sold) and the recent news that the Champagne region of France will produce 40% less of its scrumptious elixir, there’s even more reason to discover affordable alternatives such as Crémant and other sparkling wines from France, Prosecco from Italy, and Cava from Spain.
Prices for Champagne have always been relatively high and Champagne makers want to keep it that way; lowering production means they can ensure that champagne remains an expensive luxury. Bully for them and for anyone who can afford to pay upwards (sometimes way upwards) of $50 a bottle. But for the rest of us, there are attractive options. My debut post on this blog was about the lovely Crémant de Bourgogne I tasted on a trip to Burgundy in June and some Crémant d'Alsace that was sent to me. I was lucky enough to taste more mouth-watering Crémant de Loire last week in the Loire Valley as well as some wonderful sparkling Vouvray. Producers I will be looking for at home in the future include: Cave Louis de Grenelle, Les Caves Monmousseau, and Château Moncontour.

Recommended: Louis de Grenelle NV Saumur Rosé Brut “Corail" $19, and Langlois Chateau Crémant de Loire Brut Rosé $20.
Recommended: Zonin Prosecco ($14.99) from Italy. A fun wine that can be drunk with virtually anything including cheeses, fish, chicken and lighter dishes.
Recommended: Among Cavas, the reliable bubbly from northeastern Spain, I recommend Segura Viudas’ Reserva Heredad (in an ornate gift bottle for under $20) and Aria Brut Nature ($12), as well as Cristalino Brut Cava (under $10).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Cult Above

Bryant Family Vineyard makes one of Napa’s -- and the world’s -- truly top tier Cabernet Sauvignons; it’s one of Napa’s cult wines. It’s the only wine Bryant makes and they do it with the utmost care and skill. Barbara Bryant, co-founder and former owner of the winery, has fused her love of wine, food, vineyards and people to produce the new and beautiful Bryant Family Vineyard Cookbook, the proceeds of which go to one of her beloved charities, the Bowery Mission in New York. You’ll see my name in the book, but only because I assisted Barbara with her introduction. The book belongs to Barbara, her co-author Betsy Fentress, and the nation’s top chefs who admire the wine and gave their recipes for Barbara’s cause. This is a truly wonderful gift book, because it is all about giving.

The Bryant Family Vineyard Cookbook, $50, Andrews McNeel Publishing.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Six Beers Over Texas

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Texas Hill Country, about 1 hour from both San Antonio and Austin. I went there in search of Texas wine (more about that later) but want to write here about a unique B&B in the lovely German-inflected town of Fredericksburg, named recently by Money magazine as one of the 25 best places to retire in the United States.

Maybe the magazine meant retiring for the night because I learned there are 300 B&B’s in this town of only 11,000 people. There may be more B&B’s per square foot there than anywhere for the more than 1 million tourists it attracts each year. But what I like about this B&B is its novelty: When you stay at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company, you get a queen bed upstairs and a four-beer sampler each night downstairs in the brew pub. This Bed & Brew offers a nice way to unwind after a day of antique or art shopping, visiting museums like the National Museum of the Pacific War, taking a Texas cooking class at Fredericksburg Culinary Arts or even a day of wine tasting. The beers all come in at about 5% alcohol so it is a winding down.

The beer menu at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company is ever-changing but there are usually a range of six types on hand and the menu features many German dishes and some down-home Southern items like deep-fried pickles (surprisingly good).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Sublime Sauvignon

I don’t expect to win any popularity contests by recommending pricey wines right now, but I’m going to do it anyway. Economic times are hard and there’s been a flood of endorsements for “value” wines for everyday drinking. But we are all still living our lives, aren’t we? Still honoring loved ones at such special occasions as anniversaries, birthdays and other milestones?

Coveted $350 bottles from tiny Napa producers may well be anachronisms, I don’t know, but sometimes even in hard economic times you still want – maybe even need – to treat yourself or someone else. Two Napa Valley wines I tasted recently really impressed me with their high-quality and distinction. They also surprised me because they were both Sauvignon Blanc, a wine that’s not normally costly. While I don’t recommend drinking these wines everyday (for me personally they would be too rich and weighty), if Sauvignon Blanc is a favorite of yours (as it is of mine), or fits into a celebratory menu you are planning, these two not-so-value-oriented wines are real treats:

Recommended: 2006 Gamble Heart Block Sauvignon Blanc $50. This wine is rich and intense, not nearly as tart as many SB’s out there. So if you normally like Chardonnay and think Sauvignon Blanc is too zesty and sharp for you, this may be one to try. Alcohol is moderate at 13.7%. It has a rich weightiness in the mouth and you’re still tasting it long after you’ve swallowed it.
Highly Recommended: 2007 Rudd Sauvignon Blanc $45. More like a French Sauvignon Blanc than a California model. Again, a richer Sauvignon Blanc than normal. Wonderful floral aromas and many juicy, fruit flavors.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Good Read: Bordeaux

If you are a Bordeaux fanatic, you will want to check out the latest book on France’s illustrious wine region, What Price Bordeaux? By Benjamin Lewin. Bordeaux is steeped in history and tradition, and Lewin presents the salient facts of its past and present in a straight-forward yet interesting way. He also poses and answers many provocative questions about the area. One of these: Are the huge price increases of the last decade for Bordeaux’s first growths the boom before the bust? With climate change, tougher worldwide competition and the long-lasting reduced spending habits that may result from our current economic setback, it’s a good question, one with significant implications for Bordeaux’s future.

Recommended: What Price Bordeaux? By Benjamin Lewin. $34.95. Vendage Press, Dover, 2009. Available through the Wine Appreciation Guild,

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tea is for Terrior

Even though wine and tea are my two favorite drinks, I never thought about what the two had in common. Tea was certainly closer to coffee than wine, wasn’t it? So I was a little surprised to learn, while researching and writing a story on tea for Wine Enthusiast magazine, that there are so many commonalities between these two beverages.

Wine and tea are alike in many ways: growing tea bushes and grapevines in the right climates and conditions is crucial, and there’s an art to blending both for a final sublime product. Tea connoisseurs even taste tea similarly to the way wine aficionados sample wine. Both wine and tea can be variously described using many of the same terms, including “well-rounded” and “full-bodied,” and both can pair well with certain dishes while clashing with others. Like top wines, some of the finest teas even come in packages that list varietal of tea tree, harvest date, and where the leaves were grown ---- because appellation is as important in the world of tea as it is with wine. There are even “tea sommeliers” at several top class hotels like the Boston Park Plaza.

Most surprising to me is that, according to Joshua Kaiser of Rishi Tea in Milwaukee, under some pretty precise and unpredictable conditions, tea can act as a stimulant in a similar way to alcohol. For more on this topic, including recipes, see my story in the October issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine, out now.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Kudos to Combier

The world’s first “triple sec” -- the super-premium Combier Liqueur D’Orange from France is now available in California, where I live. It’s made from all-natural ingredients: hand-selected orange peels from the West Indies, sugar beets from Normandy and a secret ingredient from the Loire Valley.

What does this have to do with wine? Though many sangria recipes call for the orange liqueur Cointreau, I usually use triple sec. As in any recipe for food or drink, the final product is only as good as the ingredients you use. So I’m looking forward to my next batch of sangria made with a good red wine and this fragrant, delicious liqueur, which I sampled straight, over ice.

Recommended: Combier Liqueur D’Orange, a triple distilled all-natural liqueur. $39.99 (750 ml. bottle).
Labels: orange liqueur, Combier, sangria, Cointreau.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Enjoy What You Enjoy

I once gave a friend a case of Napa Valley red wines, all priced from $25 to $40 a bottle. After she'd had the wines for some time, I asked her how she was enjoying them. She seemed a little reluctant to talk about it and I discovered after a little prodding that she, her husband and some neighbors who enjoyed drinking wine together had conducted a blind tasting of some of the wines I had given her plus the infamous "Two Buck Chuck." The winner? You guessed it.

I would suspect that most wine experts/professionals/writers would roll their eyes at anyone preferring Two Buck Chuck, but I thought, if a $2 bottle of Central Valley wine satisfied them more than a $40 Napa Valley Zinfandel, more power to them (and to the producers of Two Buck Chuck) – think about how much more money they would have for vacations, flat screen TVs or whatever brings them bliss. It wouldn’t be my choice, but if it works for them…

I also knew that my friend -- like someone who graduates from a thin, soggy McDonald's hamburger to a made-to-order restaurant burger of quality beef and real cheese -- would taste her way through my case of quality wines and probably have a greater feel for the nuances and layers of flavor in such wines as well as some curiosity about what other wines taste like. She might actually trade up after the experience. Someone who graduates from McDonald's to a better burger might never try the $30 foie gras-stuffed burger at the pinnacle of hamburger cuisine, and my friend may never ascend to Bordeaux First Growths or Burgundy Grand Crus, but she would probably appreciate wines beyond Two Buck Chuck someday.

And even if that’s not true, she’s enjoying the wine she and her friends like -- that’s what important. Sometimes I wish my tastes would be satisfied by a $2 bottle -- it would make my life easier and my wine drinking habit much less expensive.

What do I think of Two Buck Chuck? It’s like a McDonald’s hamburger: a quick, easy way to sate your hunger, but you’re not exactly left yearning for that next bite… or bottle. But if I needed an inexpensive wine to serve at a fundraiser, I’d be buying it by the case.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why Write a Blog?

Someone asked me recently why I wanted to start a blog. I have enough to write about with magazine stories and other assignments as well as enough to do in my life outside of wine, food and travel writing, but I told them that I wanted to do something a bit different.

For instance, I’m tired of the predictable seasonal cycle of wine stories: I’m talking about the inevitable stories on rosé in the spring, Pinot Noir at Thanksgiving, Cabernet with chocolate on Valentine’s Day, and Zinfandel at summer barbecues. I think drinking good wines should be championed all year round instead of following this rigid – and unoriginal -- system that so many publications seem to embrace.

I also cringe at the thought that so many people follow a handful of wine critics. If a certain magazine or newsletter awards 90 to 100 points for a wine, there’s a stampede of customers into the local wine shop with a crumpled copy of that publication under their arms. At least that’s the way it used to be. I understand it’s changing and I hope so, because in wine, as in life, it’s important to think for yourself. Readers should be encouraged to experiment and discover their perfect wines instead of looking for gold medals or scooping up 95-point wines preferred by a critic who might be 20 years older or younger, or who possesses a completely different palate.

Quality is important, but a well-made wine may not be to your liking just because it's well-crafted and backed by a healthy promotional budget. A heavy, unctuous, 16% alcohol wine that you could stand a spoon up in may win a gold medal at some wine competition but it is not going to appeal to me most of the time, no matter who tells me it’s good. And I know I’m not alone.

As a wine writer, I believe it’s important to empower consumers to choose what they like --- from Two Buck Chuck to Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – whatever fits their tastes, their budgets and their comfort levels.

So I won’t numerically rate wines, but describe them in terms people can understand. I will not stick to predictable schedules of wine admiration but write about wines as I encounter them – a good wine is a good wine all year round, isn’t it? I will write about issues in the wine world and stories behind the wine as much as I describe what’s in the glass because I believe those stories give a fuller appreciation of the wine than what we call “tasting notes” -- those often obtuse wine descriptions that, while they may be technically legitimate, may also be meaningless to the untrained wine drinker -- which is to say most wine drinkers

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Sense of Place ...

I lived in the Napa Valley for five years from 1998 to 2003 and entered wine writing there so it’s the wine region I know best and write about most often. Recently I wrote a story for Decanter, the British wine magazine, about how Napa is attempting to stay relevant and attractive not only in a weak economy but in an increasingly competitive world wine market.

It’s not the first time Napa has faced hard times, it happens cyclically, in fact, and this time it comes when American wine drinking is at an all time high. In the past, high-end wines like Napa and Sonoma were relatively unaffected. But as we all know by now, consumers are looking for value wines to help salve their financial wounds these days. Napa makes a plethora of very good wines, as well as some incredible wines, but they have not been particularly known for good value for some time now. I don’t know what the average price of a Napa bottle would be (I tried to find out, but found no one who was anxious to say), but I would guess it is $40 or more, with many Cabernets in the $100-and-up-range.

I’m sure the present fall-off in sales is causing some discomfort at the ultra-premium or luxury brand levels, but Napa, the centerpiece of U.S. wine production, is not about to go out of business. So what are Napa producers doing to stay in the game?
Emphasizing terrior, or Napa’s unique sense of place, has always been both a strength and a selling point, and it is no less so today. After all, Napa cannot be duplicated anywhere else. It’s micro-climates, great variety of soil types and other growing conditions make Napa the high-quality wine growing region it is. Thirty or so years of good publicity hasn’t hurt either and for the last decade, making a point of Napa’s unique terrior and its steadily growing army of expertly trained and talented winemakers and viticulturalists has been a big part of that publicity campaign.

For more on what Napa is doing to stay fresh and vital in the wine marketplace, see my story in Decanter magazine’s California supplement, which comes with the September issue, out now.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When in New York...

I recently had the pleasure of visiting several wine bars around the country, and one that particularly stood out to me for its innovative spirit is Clo in New York’s Time Warner Center. The fun factor is high here, and it’s a great place to drop by for tastes of old favorites or new discoveries (I had never heard of Gelber Muskateller from Austria, for instance, but I liked it) before or after savoring some jazz at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola -- which is what I did on a recent trip to New York.
What makes it novel is that guests sit at a communal, interactive table with a multi-touch projection menu allowing you to explore wine regions, grapes, flavor profiles and producers for all the wines on offer. Andrew Bradbury, Clo’s creator, developed the eWinebook, an electronic touch screen wine menu at Aureole Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and in Clo he has fused his love of wine, technology and design into one impressive space. I say “space” specifically because Clo is not even a room with walls that reach the ceiling; rather it has curved walls that create an intimate space in the middle of the 4th floor at Time Warner Center. From what I was able to piece together from talking to two young French women who work in the wine industry in London and were visiting Clo the same night I was, “clos” means an enclosed space in French. A server then told me that the owners dropped the “s” so people wouldn’t be worried about how to pronounce it.
See my story on Clo and four other wine bars around the country (in San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta) in the October issue of Cheers, the beverage magazine.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Crème de la Crèmant

Several months ago I received an unsolicited bottle of Rosé Crémant d’Alsace from a producer I was unfamiliar with, Lucien Albrecht. I’m a fool for rosés, so it was a safe bet that I would like it. But I did not – I loved it. Like Dom Pérignon, I felt I was "tasting stars." Effervescent strawberry stars. And the bottle was just $20, which was amazing because this is wedding reception-worthy wine. And at 12% alcohol, it’s a wise choice to serve at a gathering where much imbibing and merriment may be transpiring (many California wines, even whites, can be as high as 15-16% alcohol and though it may not sound like it, that’s a BIG difference). The Lucien Albrecht rosé crémant is made from 100% Pinot Noir, is dry and crisp, with a soft coral color. Nothing looks better sitting on an outdoor table glinting in the sunlight surrounded by light summer foods. It is made using the same method as a Champagne, or "methode traditionnelle" – but cannot be called one because it doesn’t come from the region known as Champagne.

Shortly after I tasted this wonderful wine, I traveled to Burgundy and coincidentally tasted several sparkling wines from that region. The Crémant de Bourgogne I tried was from two producers, Vitteaut Alberti, a small family firm, and Veuve Ambal, one of the larger Crémant makers in Burgundy. They were all lovely – not as tightly focused and precise as great Champagne, but refreshing and pleasant, a great foil for oily, salty foods, and all priced from$10 to $20. I looked into it and found out that Crémant de Bourgogne has taken off in France and in the U.S. lately. The appellation Crémant de Bourgogne was created in 1973, and is the generic term for sparkling wines of all colors from the Burgundy region. For years overshadowed by the region's many famous and coveted AOC wines, it has become, in the space of a few years, one of Burgundy’s leading lights with sales constantly rising. A new sales record was reached in 2008, at the same time that demand for many other wines was falling. In fact, the export manager at Veuve Ambal told me when I visited that the winery could hardly keep up with the recent explosion in demand. Exports of Crémant de Bourgogne rose more than 14% in 2008 over the previous year despite a difficult economic climate. And exports to the United States rose 6% while overall imports of French wines fell during the same period by 8%.

However, France remains the leading market for Crémant de Bourgogne wines – they know a good thing when they drink it.

But back to Domaine Lucien Albrecht. Last week I received more Lucien Albrecht in the mail: Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and another Crémant , this time a Brut. Yum; right up my alley since I am beyond tired of Chardonnay, Merlot and Co. Even the bottles were intriguing: tall and slim, they are like Gisele Bundchen compared to the heavy, round turrets that contain many Napa Cabernets.

Lucien Albrecht has one of those intriguing backgrounds that Americans can really appreciate – the family winemaking business goes back 18 generations! And Lucien himself was one of the founders of the appellation, Crémant d'Alsace.

Highly recommended: If ethereal, subtle and refreshing wines are what you crave in summer -- or all year-round – to go with salads, light cheeses, fish and shellfish, check out the wines of Domaine Lucien Albrecht.