Sunday, April 30, 2006

New Zealand Appeal

I have to admit it; I'm increasingly smitten by everything Kiwi. I've been bowled over by the New Zealand landscape so dramatically framed in the Lord of the Rings movies. I'm enchanted by the mythic traditions of its indigenous people, as represented in the movie Whale Rider. And, of course, I've been in love for years with the sparkling, tropical fruit flavors of New Zealand sauvignon blancs.

Just to get this out in the open, I realize I'm dangerously close to idealizing a place I've never been. So, could I be looking at New Zealand pinot noirs through "rose-colored" glasses when I say that New Zealand pinots could become every bit the cult favorite that New Zealand sauvignon blancs are today?

I just had an '03 Stoneleigh Marlborough pinot noir, not a premium pinot by any means, last night with dinner. This excellent value wine was terrific in the expected ways, but it also came with a few surprises. It had the ripe, tart cherry and berry flavors I expected from a New World pinot right up front. But after 20 minutes in the glass, it gave off intriguing earth and leather aromas that enhanced my enjoyment of the wine even more.

If you read many wine journalists and bloggers, you'll find that a number eye New Zealand pinots with a bit of suspicion. The faint praise will be qualified with words like "correct," meant to say that the wines are well made in a commercially satisfying, non-distinctive way lacking any soul or terroir -- that elusive expression of place that so many serious wine buffs are looking for from their wines.

It's true that the Kiwis have not been at the pinot noir game very long. But I continue to be impressed. It's true that time will help New Zealand pinot noirs be even better and more complex. But consumers, in general, should not be intimidated into thinking that these wines are not yet worth trying. By the time New Zealand pinot noirs become really trendy, and they will, consumers will be paying more and will have missed out on the bargain that many are today.

Terroir is a wonderful thing, especially in a wine meant to accompany a meal with complex flavors enjoyed leisurely. But sometimes you just need honest, consistently delivered fruit in your wine for a decent price. That's all many consumers need, ever. You could do a lot worse than New Zealand pinots.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Writer's Block

I made a hell of an impulse buy yesterday. I was brousing through a new wine store and a wine label caught my eye and wouldn't let go. It's a Writer's Block zinfandel, sporting an illustration of the Bard himself. I knew I had to have it.

Having written for newspapers, corporations and now a wine blog, this was a label that really sang to me. And, the proprietor of the store sang its praises as well, though I probably would have bought it anyway at just under $20. I love zins and am inclined to take more chances with zins, reviews unseen, than I would many other varietals.

Turns out the proprietor was absolutely right. When I opened this '03 Lake County zinfandel I was immediately impressed by its ripe, forward fruit and spicy finish. I tasted lots of black cherry and chocolate in the first 15 minutes or so, and got a hint of leather later. It's got terrific stuffing. But, at 13.5 percent alcohol, its not a scorcher.

I discovered this interesting wine is actually made by Steele, whose pinots I've been drinking happily for years. I see there is a Writer's Block pinot and syrah as well. I wish I could try them, but this was the first time I've seen the Writer's Block label around here -- one of the perils of being so far from California. I'll be keeping an eye out for them, as I haven't been disappointed by Steele yet.

The back label has a silly but impassioned little story meant to warn that the wine's spellbinding charm has the power to distract and block the most determined writer from writing a word. In the blogosphere, however, Writer's Block is an inspiration, not a distraction.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


At last there's help! Now there's a website that invites users to log information on the site about what their favorite restaurants are charging for corkage fees. It's light on data right now, but over time this could be a great resource.

Why does this get me so excited? I've written before about the relatively common restaurant practice of charging exorbitant corkage fees when patrons bring their own bottles of wine. We all know that corkage fees are meant to discourage customers from bringing wine at all because restaurants make so much on the mark-up of alcoholic beverages.

In fact, I've heard restaurateurs argue they need these mark-ups because of the high overhead costs of running restaurants these days. I don't deny that they face expense challenges -- it's a tough business. But by forcing wine to shoulder a disproportionate share of the cost burden, restaurants have helped slow the development of a wine culture here in the U.S. Of course, there are many reasons why an awful lot of Americans don't have wine with meals. But high wine mark-ups don't help.

I just think the process should be more honest. If restaurants don't want patrons bringing their own wine, then let them prohibit the practice -- and see how they fare vs. the competition. But if patrons are allowed to bring their own bottles, corkage fees should be no more than $10 a bottle, in my opinion. Otherwise, they should call it an overhead tax or even a sin tax. Same net effect.

Of course, the practice of allowing patrons to bring their own bottles is really meant to accommodate special bottles and special occasions. So patrons have a responsibility not to bring cheap wines and wines already on the wine list. But if patrons play by the rules, they should not be penalized financially.

At last there's a website that can help.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Sweet Spot

You've probably been in this spot, too. You've got a couple of friends who like nothing but white zinfandel in all its sweet simplicity. What do you serve them? You can always open several different bottles and let them have their white zin while you have something else.

But it's really nice when everyone shares the same wine with dinner, so that you can enjoy the experience together and compare notes. It's also nice when you can help nudge your friends toward something that's better made, that's balanced, and still satisfies their craving for something sweet. Of course it's times like these when you run the risk of coming off as a "wine snob." So, you don't want to make fun of white zin -- it does sort of make a good starter wine for many people. But you do want to help others see what joy is possible when you try matching different wines with different foods.

Right off the bat you could think about serving a riesling, which many oenophiles believe to be the finest white wine grape in the world. Alsatian riesling, with its zesty acidity and balance, happens to be one of my favorites. A French Vouvray, made from the chenin blanc grape, is another good choice. Many have residual sugar enough for those who like their wines sweet but enough dryness and complexity to please the rest.

Another wine I like to break out at times like these is a terrific Pine Ridge blend of chenin blanc and viognier. This wine has a terrific ripe pear and melon aroma with a little sweetness upfront and a pleasant dry finish. I've found it manages to make virtually everyone at the table, with their varied preferences, pretty happy.

I also discovered today that it's a darned good companion for an Easter dinner menu that includes honey baked ham and sweet potatoes. Very enjoyable, indeed. And those two grapes, viognier and chenin blanc, are almost guaranteed to prompt questions and discussion. Yup, there's a lot of ways to the heart of a white zin drinker if you're willing to help light the way.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Destination Washington West

I just read on CNN that Washington -- the one that's mastered wine, not whine -- is anxious to become a real wine destination. They're talking about building up everything from the number of good restaurants for tourists to luxury wine resorts.

I say be careful what you wish for. We all know how much Napa Valley has changed in the past decade or two, how expensive it has become, the traffic. While it's up to the people of Washington to make these choices, I personally enjoyed touring Washington wine country just as it was a couple of years ago. The quality is there already. You don't have to wait. But what's also there and could easily be lost are charming hosts, beautiful pastoral landscapes, a relaxed, unpretentious environment and little traffic.

We checked out a number of Yakima Valley wineries and a number in the Walla Walla area. Both produce some very fine wines. But I found a couple of places in Walla Walla to be making truly exceptional wines. Our favorite experience probably came at Seven Hills winery.

The winery is located in Walla Walla center in an old, restored factory building. It really has a wonderful ambience. We were ushered through a terrific line-up of wines by a very charming, unpretentious pourer who really knew her stuff. The wines really impressed, including a knock-out syrah and some lush vineyard-designated cabernets.

When finished we asked about a tour. The winemaker was out of town, but the cellarmaster was beckoned and he dropped everything to give us a 20-minute tour. He was a very likeable gentleman from New Zealand who confessed to a dislike of sauvignon blanc when I asked what brought him to Washington. He didn't have to do this for us, but he did and helped make the day special.

That won't happen when Walla Walla becomes a "wine resort" and people are fighting for parking spaces and a spot at the tasting bar.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Studious Walkabout

Whether novice or pro, if you want to increase your wine knowledge you've got to taste...a lot. You've got to try as many different wines in as many different styles as you can. Tough job, I know.

That means getting out to winetasting events as often as possible and to your favorite retail stores -- the ones that not only want to sell you something but help educate you. I've discovered many great wines this way, especially great value wines. But if you want to learn about truly distinctive wines, a cut above the typical bargain stuff, it can be tough.

That's why I was pretty excited to attend a tasting this weekend at one of my favorite stores that was featuring a lineup of artisan wines from Australia. Parker of late has celebrated many of these wines. But for a long time, Australian wines -- at least those that we get here in the states -- have been painted with a fairly broad brush. Known for their fruit forward, exuberant personalities, they've never been regarded as the most subtle or complex of wines -- with a few notable exceptions.

The wines I tasted Saturday tell a different story. A representative of the Grateful Palate, an importer only recently working in Connecticut, was there showing off a number of Aussie wines, each one rich but with individual personality. Eschewing the cookie cutter stuff, the Grateful Palate portfolio exhibits lots of terroir and style. The good news is that lots of Australian wines really do have complexity and personality wrapped in rich fruit. The bad news is now we have to read up on Australia's geography and climates to figure it all out.

Saturday was a learning experience, but it was most of all fun. These were all delicious wines, whether you wanted to take notes or note. Here's the rundown:

Trevor Jones, Chardonnay "Virgin" 2004 $19.99: A tank-fermented, non-oaked new world Chardonnay. Rich but not too fat, with good acidity and freshness.

Trevor Jones, Grenache "Boots" 2003 $15.99: A delicious, zesty red packed with raspberry and chery flavors. My vote for value wine of the tasting.

Hare's Chase, Barossa Blend 2004 $16.99: A blend of 70% shiraz, 16% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and tiny amounts of Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon. Aromas of cherry, black currants. Generous fruit, almost lush, but the least interesting in my book.

Marquis Philips, Shiraz 2004 $16.99: Deep purple with powerful berry aromas and vanilla. Thick fruit with lots of spice, pepper. A tad rustic.

Teusner, Shiraz "The Riebke" 2004 $23.99: Nice blackberry and licorice aromas, a touch of anise. Loads of fruit with an impressive underlying acidity. Unique and and very enjoyable.

Brothers In Arms, Shiraz "Langhorne Creek" 2002 $32.99: Opaque purple color with aromas of crème de cassis, flowers and blackberries. Full-bodied, dense and chewy. Built for the long haul. In my opinion, best in show.

Parson's Flat, Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 $42.99: This fruit-forward effort is an extroverted, super-ripe, smoothly-textured, mouth-filling wine that is a lot of fun to drink.

Marquis Philips, Cabernet Sauvignon "S2" 2004 $36.99: This full-throttle Cabernet is loaded with fruit and spice, but is nicely balanced. It also can be enjoyed very soon.

Trevor Jones, Old Tawny Port "Jonesy" NV $11.99: A blend averaging 46 years with a great bouquet of candied fruit with rich vanilla and hazelnuts.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Cork's Evil Twin

According to the San Francisco Chronicle this week, screw caps are one of the hottest trends in wine. I think they're a little late with the news, but the story does show that the use and acceptance of screw caps continues to accelerate as more and more quality wines are turning up under twist-offs. New Zealand wineries, for example, have taken the plunge big-time. It seems like almost everything from New Zealand these days has a screw cap on it.

What this story also says to me is that it's time someone declared synthetic corks a failed experiment that is now over. These plastic corks are not corks at all but an evil twin; something that resembles a cork but is inherently vile, like some kind of cyber-droppings. They sit tightly in the neck of the bottle daring you to pull them. You can almost hear them taunt you as you pierce them with a regular old Screwpull and then watch helplessly as they turn and turn, coming out of the bottle no more than a half-inch. If you're really unlucky, your plastic corkscrew will break. In the end, they give way only to brute force.

To top it off, evidence is beginning to gather that wines with synthetic corks don't age well. They age faster than wines with natural cork, and in some cases the wines over time may take on a funny synthetic taste. And, the research is just beginning.

It's time they were abolished. Screw caps make so much more sense. They are incredibly easy to open, and they make it convenient to seal the bottle back up if you haven't finished the wine. And, hidden benefit here, they may even shame some restaurants into reducing or eliminating exorbitant corkage fees. Charge a fee to unscrew the cap on your wine? Preposterous. If it doesn't reduce corkage fees it will at the very least expose corkage fees as the price gouging practice that they are -- another blog post for another day.

Of course, we all know the synthetics have come along for a good reason -- an estimated 5 to 10 percent of wines these days are afflicted with cork taint. It's caused by natural corks tainted by TCA, a chemical compound that makes wine taste like wet cardboard. It's hard to avoid. So, some kind of solution is in order. My idea: all wines under $20 should be bottled with screw caps. Screw caps and synthetic corks both avoid the problem of TCA, but screw caps are friendlier and more practical.

For expensive, ageworthy wine, I don't think we have any choice but to take our chances with natural cork. The other stuff does not look good for aging. Besides, my own experience with cork taint does not come close to 10 percent. So far, almost no one is using synthetics for ageworthy wine, so no dilemmas there. Let's keep it that way.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Baseball and Bordeaux?

Today marks the start of baseball season, something that still gives me a charge. All the old hoopla about rebirth and renewal still holds true, at least for a little while each spring as our thoughts turn to sitting outside again in a cozy baseball park while enjoying peanuts and hot dogs

I have to admit, when I think of watching a ballgame on a warm sunny day I picture myself with a cold beer in hand. But up here in the Northeast, really warm weather is probably a month away and warm nights at least two months away. What could be better then than a hearty red zinfandel or a cabernet to ward off the chill on an April or May night?

The folks in San Francisco already know this. While on a Napa Valley vacation last year, the wife and I took in a Giants game at AT&T Park. I shouldn't have been surprised, given that San Francisco is very near the epicenter of California winemaking, by the sight of wine carts in the promenade with very healthy selections of California wines. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, both the Giants and the Oakland Athletics have turned to wine in a big way to please their fans.

Of course, that's wine country. Can wine (we're not talking about wine coolers and white zin here) at ballparks really catch on anywhere else? Admittedly, they're a little different in the Bay area. For one thing, you won't smell hot dogs at the ballpark much. What you will smell is garlic, tons of it. Thanks to the proximity of Gilroy, CA., self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world, garlic fries are everywhere at the Park. I love garlic as much as the next fan, but we're talking eye-watering powerful aromas.

But even if California is indeed different, I think there's hope for wine in other ballparks. And, I have a few suggestions for marrying the sound of wineslurping with the crack of the bat. For virtually anyone, there's Greenwood Ridge's Home Run Red. Now how can you strike out with a wine like that at the ballpark?

For Cincinnati-area baseball fans, the ballpark should definitely be serving Laurel Glen's Reds, a terrific, inexpensive red blend.

Red Diamond wines from Washington State should work nicely for Seattle Mariner fans. And, of course Texas fans would do well to pick up just about any of the Rhone Rangers.

St. Louis fans may have to travel a bit to find it, but Cardinal Red from Virginia would be just the ticket to enjoying a Cardinals game on a cool Midwest night. If you're a fan in Arizona, then by all means break out the Diamondback Vineyards.

Of course, Tom "Terrific" Seaver is now producing his own wines, so if you can get your hands on one of those it's sure to bring back memories of the amazin' Mets.

As a devoted Red Sox fan, I'm not sure what to choose just yet for the opener (they're on the road, but I'll be there in spirit). But it will be red and it will be a winner!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

New Oregon Trail

Recent stories showing that wines with funky labels, especially those featuring critters, sell really well may lead some to conclude that clever marketing is more important than what's in the bottle. To be sure, some bad wines are getting a boost from good art direction.

Hopefully, quality winemakers will hop on board the eye-popping label bandwagon, giving impulse buyers a decent shot of enjoying a good wine. One vintner that does not have to play catch up is Van Duzer, an Oregon producer of wonderful pinot noirs and pinot gris. They not only make great wines, their pinot noir is wrapped in a great label.

At a winetasting party we did last fall, the Van Duzer label was the visual hit of the party. And, the wine inside was as well. We had another bottle of the '02 Van Duzer pinot noir last night with dinner, and I was reminded of how delicious and interesting this wine is.

With its earthy complexity and brown spice notes, this pinot noir is a terrific example of Willamette Valley pinot noir. Oregon's Willamette Valley tends to be cool with its fair share of rain, not unlike Burgundy where the world's most exultant pinot noirs are made in great vintages. Willamette Valley, again like Burgundy, will never achieve the consistency of California's famous pinot-producing appellations, such as the Russian River Valley. But when conditions are right, they make enticing and sophisticated pinot noir that is unique.

I enjoy good California pinot noirs with their generous, ripe fruit. But Oregon pinots are a must for other occasions. Hopefully, creative labels like Van Duzer's will help beat a path to the doors of many great Oregon winemakers. With Van Duzer, at least, there is truth in advertising.