Monday, March 29, 2010

That's Italian

The V. Sattui winery in Napa Valley, the most visited winery in the most visited wine country in the United States, is celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Sattui family in the wine busines, and late last week I attended a luncheon in San Francisco’s Italian North Beach neighborhood to help celebrate. It was held at the venerable North Beach Restaurant -- worth trying if you visit San Francisco – just two blocks from where Vittorio Sattui, great grandfather of Dario Sattui, the winery's owner, first established the V. Sattui family wine business in 1885.

It turns out, according to Victor Geraci, a historian with the enviable title of “Food & Wine Historian” at the oral history office at U.C. Berkeley, that Italians have played a pivotal role in founding and cultivating the California wine industry.

During Prohibition, the Sattui family went into the insurance business. But in 1972, Dario Sattui – a true Napa Valley original -- restarted the family wine business while living in a windowless van with his girlfriend -- “soon to be my wife and then soon to be my ex-wife.”

Things were promising back then in Napa Valley. “I had everything going for me. No money. No knowledge. I had a one year plan to make money. If I’d known a lot I would have done it like everyone else and it would have taken 10 years to get a nickel back,” Sattui told the luncheon crowd.

When the V. Sattui Winery opened, “You name it we didn’t have it -- no cash register, no bottling line, nothing but a $15 calculator, a bare bones budget,“ said Sattui, who has taught classes at U.C. Davis in how to start a winery with no money. From the beginning, he only sold his wines direct to winery visitors -- the first in Napa Valley to do so -- and had picnic tables “where other wineries had signs that said ‘Keep Off The Grounds.' " He used to pay customers to sit at the tables when it drizzled to attract people cruising by on Highway 29. “The simplest things worked. Thank God I didn’t really know what to do.

"My dad was a cab driver. I’m just an average guy. I believe that average people -- as long as they don’t realize how average they are --can accomplish a lot. If you try long enough and hard enough, you can only fail so many times.”

You still can’t buy V. Sattui wines anywhere but through this winery in St. Helena with a cult following. The values this cult worships have nothing to do with today's hot new wine but rather with a warm, family atmosphere and a relaxed, non-snobbish approach to quality food and wine.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

What’s in a name?

Would you buy a wine called Bitch?

One that comes with a pink label dominated by the word “Bitch,” surrounded by a border of little hearts with daggers through them?

I wouldn’t. I asked fellow members of a food and wine writers Internet group that question and got a unanimous thumbs down. “Cheap,” “tacky,” “unfunny,” “harsh,” “off putting” and a “turnoff” were some of the responses.

I told them that, supposedly, Bitch stood for “Babe In Total Control of Herself.” No one bought it.

If some people choose wines because of pretty or interesting labels, many also choose wines by their names. There are well-known brand names (Kendall-Jackson), cute or funny names (Goats Do Roam), unappetizing names (Fat Bastard) but mostly just ho-hum names (Fill-in-the-Blank Family Vineyards). In this slow economy, people are hunting for a gimmick (well, some people are always looking for a gimmick) and someone behind this wine from Australia must have thought the name “Bitch” would compel buyers to grab it off the shelf. And it probably does.

As much as I was turned off by the name, I was even more turned off by the sparkling wine, Bitch Bubbly. Sweet, flat-ish, uninteresting. Afterwards, I regretted having drunk a whole glass – and that’s rare.

I hear the Grenache is quite good, and a good value, too. But something about that name makes me not terribly motivated to try it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tease of Cahors

Usually, wine producers don't travel halfway around the world for tastings unless their wines are available in the place they're visiting -- why tease anyone with a taste of wine they can't obtain? But sometimes, as in the case of Cahors, the wine region in southwestern France, producers hit the road to attract importers, restaurateurs and writers, and to build excitement for the wine in a region where it's not well-known.

Argentine Malbec is better known in the U.S. than French -- though Cahors maintains it is the birthplace of Malbec. A Cahors wine must be 70% Malbec to carry the Cahors label. Many are 100% Malbec and, if not, they are commonly blended with Merlot.

At a tasting of 21 Cahors producers in San Francisco today I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Cahors Malbec. The wines, as a group, were deeply saturated in color (they call Malbec the "black grape"), pleasantly herbal, fruity, and most of all, they were not the tannic monsters I was expecting -- even recent vintages like the 2007. I tasted wines from the 2002 to the 2008 vintages and found none unpleasantly or powerfully tannic. I enjoyed the wines -- and that's saying a lot since my own tastes run more to tart and snappy whites (Cahors makes no white wine) and earthy, crisp reds.

Only one of the wines, Chateau La Coustarelle, is available in California. But many others can be found in Texas, New York, Washington state, and others.  Wines I particularly enjoyed, and labels to look for, include Chateau Vincens, Domaine Les Roques De Cana, Mas Del Perie, Domaine Le Bout Du Lieu and Chateau Armandiere. Prices are generally reasonable. One of my favorites, Le Vins des Noces from Domaine Les Roques De Cana (not yet available in the U.S.) sells for only 10 Euros, or about $14.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

High on Italian Wine

If you haven’t heard of Italy’s Alto Adige (pronounced Alto Ah-dee-jay) wine region, join the crowd. I’d passed through this German-inflected area of Italy many years ago, but wasn’t familiar with its wines, so I was thrilled to attend a 90-minute seminar on its main wine varieties and distinctive geography today in San Francisco, followed by a walk-around wine tasting of almost two dozen producers from the area.

The Alto Adige wine region, one of Italy’s smallest winegrowing areas, is also its northernmost bordering Austria and Switzerland and lying south of the section of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites. Though not as widely known as many other wine regions, it certainly is no new kid on the block -- winegrowing was thriving there in 700 B.C. What I love about discovering wine regions like Alto Adige are the grape varieties I have never encountered, such as the rich, indigenous Lagrein, and interesting blends such as a fragrant Reisling-Moscato-Chardonnay-Pinot Bianco blend.

To read more about what producers in the area are doing, see my story on

Following are several of the wines I tasted. Some I liked more than others, but all were eminently drinkable. Some seemed like good buys, while the price tags on a couple raised eyebrows around the room. I’m passing them on anyway because value, like taste, can be a highly individual thing.

These wines are available in the U.S. and I have noted the importers/distributors.

2008 Alois Lageder Pinot Bianco Haberle, $20.
Pale straw color with a hint of green, rich aromas and flavors of tropical fruits and a medium-weight, silky texture in the mouth. Not buttery or heavy like many Chardonnays; a medium acidity level means it won’t be too tart for people turned off by the sharpness of a Sauvignon Blanc. An appetizing 13% alcohol. Distributed by Chambers and Chambers Wine Merchants.

2006 Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg, $28
From a wine cooperative made up of many small producers, this elegant, lean wine with a medium body and sensuous mouthfeel had a completely fresh, clean taste even though it’s from the 2006 vintage. Another nice alcohol level of 13%. Available through Banville & Jones Wine Merchants.

2008 Tramin Gew├╝rztraminer Nussbaumer $40
The dark, honey color of this wine suggested the rich aromas and flavors to come. Bursting with aromatics, the wine suggested sweetness, but finished dry. A surprising 14.75% alcohol level (I guess they need super-ripe grapes to get all that flavor in the glass). Available from Winebow, Inc.

2005 Abbazia di Novacella Pinot Nero Riserva Proepositus $60
Dark and rich in color, aromas and cherry flavor, this wine has richness but is still leaner than most high-end California Pinot Noirs. Intense ripe fruit suggested a touch of sweetness but the wine was dry. Nice, lush mouthfeel, and a moderate 13.8% alcohol. Vias Imports.

2008 Cantina Bolzano Lagrein Perl $24
Garnet in color, unusually lean, elegant and crisp for a red wine, tasting of dark red and blue berries, this wine also has an appealing 13.5% alcohol. Imported and distributed by Martine’s Wines, Inc.