HomeAbout UsWine ReviewsArchivesAdvertiseContact Us


Whitley On Wine

Wine Review Online Radio

W.R. Tish

Leslie Sbrocco

International Wine Center

The Great Wines of America

Wine Style Book

Gold Medal Wines

New York Times 'The Pour'


Critics Challenge

San Diego International


WRO Wine Blog

January 30, 2008

Restaurant Wine Service too Hot to Handle

Since writing about wine service issues following a recent dining-out experience, I've heard from several readers about their own frustrations with wine service in restaurants.

Reader Thomas Sammons writes:

"Too true about confirming the proffered wine's identity (and dealing with clueless staff).  I had this happen recently when at a local restaurant I ordered an Italian wine advertised as "#85 on the Wine Spectator's Top 100 List."  When it arrived I noticed that it was by two years a more recent vintage.  The list at this restaurant does not have that many good choices, so I gambled on the producer and had the wine opened.  Suffice it to say that the wine we drank would not have made the top 100 list for Chianti, let alone Wine Spectator's (top 100 for the world).
"But this restaurant regularly commits a more grievous sin:  Bringing red wine to the table at 70-plus degrees.  And one night I actually had to argue with the waiter that, no, the faux-marble sleeve meant to keep white wines cooler will not take 15 degrees off of a bottle of warm red wine.
"We go through the same routine at each visit:  I order wine, it arrives warm, I request a container to put the wine, water and ice in, they search around for something (they don't have ice buckets!), we finally work something out, and 15-20 minutes later my wife and I can try a glass.  Which is less time than it takes to travel to a place with good wine service.  And it is a good thing that, however strenuously obtained, a glass of wine invariably puts me in a better mood.
You have undoubtedly written on warm wine in restaurants, but it is a subject worth revisiting."

Indeed, this is another of my pet peeves. But Thomas has the solution. Ice buckets for red wine!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:55 AM

January 27, 2008

Peterson-Nedry Gung-ho on Oregon Riesling

When I invited winemaker Harry Peterson-Nedry to be the featured guest on last Friday's Whitley on Wine radio show, I figured we would pass the time chatting about Oregon Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.

A radio interview is a funny thing, though. It goes where it goes and I am not one to put the brakes on a good conversation. Harry is founder and part-owner of Oregon's Chehalem winery and a pursuasive advocate for Oregon viticultue.

So when he told me he firmly believed Riesling would soon be recognized as Oregon's most important white grape variety, it got my attention. He produces a fine dry Riesling at Chehalem, leading by example as it were.

This shouldn't come as a surprise considering neighboring Washington has been turning out the finest Rieslings on the West Coast for a number of years. The cool Oregon climate would seem to be ideal for this grape.

Harry also explained the recent improvement in Oregon Chardonnay, indicating the dull Chards of the past were more a function of poor clonal selection than lackluster effort by Oregon vintners.

Planting the Dijon clone of Chardonnay has made a huge difference in structure and quality, says Harry, and consequently Oregon Chards are light years better than they were.

We never did get around to talking about Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Another time, perhaps. I will give everyone a heads-up when the archive of the show featuring Peterson-Nedry is posted at SignOn Radio. If you're a fan of Oregon wines, this is a conversation you don't want to miss.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:48 AM

January 25, 2008

Whitley on Wine Radio: Oregon's Harry Peterson-Nedry

Oregon's Harry Peterson-Nedry, owner/winemaker of the highly regarded Chehalem winery, will be my featured guest today on Whitley on Wine on SignOn Radio, 2 p.m. PT and 5 p.m. ET. You can listen live or visit Whitley on Wine Radio and sign up for the podcast.

Harry's a veteran of the Oregon wine industry and represented Oregon recently at the International Pinot Gris Symposium in Germany. He will vist for at least the first half of the one-hour show.

I will be joined in the second half-hour by Wine Review Online columnist Sarah Belk-King to discuss gourmet Oregon cheeses, and pairings, naturally, with Oregon wines.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:13 PM

January 23, 2008

Panel Fingers Burgundy 'Best Buys'

Lest you despair that the euro and inflated prices due to powerful demand have rendered good Burgundy beyond your reach, a panel of expert tasters that included Jancis Robinson and Wine Review Online columnists Linda Murphy and Patrick Comiskey has identified a number of bargain Burgundies (relative to the pricing of Burgundies we would not especially consider a bargain).

This is what they came up with:

Crémant de Bourgogne, 2004, Dufouleur Père & Fils (Chateau St. Martin)   $15.99

Bourgogne Chardonnay, 2005, Maison Louis Jadot (Kobrand Corporation)   $17

Chablis, 2006, Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils (Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.)  $22.99

Pouilly Fuissé, 2006, Labouré Roi (Palm Bay International)     $17.99

Bourgogne Chardonnay, 2006, Domaine Pernot et ses Fils,
Domaines et Saveurs Collection (Domaines et Saveurs Collection)    $30

Viré Clessé, Vieilles Vignes, 2006, Domaine des Chazelles,
Domaines et Saveurs Collection (Domaines et Saveurs Collection)    $30

Saint-Aubin 1er Cru, Le Sentier du Clou, 2006, Domaine Sylvain Langoureau, Domaines et Saveurs Collection (Domaines et Saveurs Collection)    $35

Mercurey, 2005, Château de Chamirey (Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.)   $33.99

Chablis 1er Cru, La Singulière, 2005, La Chablisienne (Gemini Spirits & Wine)   $27.99

Saint-Aubin 1er Cru, Le Charmois, 2005, Champy (Champy)     $25


Bourgogne Pinot Noir, 2005, Chanson Père & Fils (Terlato Wines International)   $21

Bourgogne, Emotion de Terroirs Pinot Noir, 2005, Vincent Girardin (Vineyard Brands, Inc.) $21.99

Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Vieilles Vignes, 2005, Maison Albert Bichot (Maison Albert Bichot)  $17

Mercurey, Domaine de la Croix Jacquelet, 2005, Maison Faiveley (Wilson Daniels, Ltd.)  $23

Bourgogne Pinot Noir, 2005, Domaine Dominique Gallois,
Domaines et Saveurs Collection (Domaine et Saveurs Collection)     $32

Côtes de Nuits-Villages, Vieilles Vignes, 2005, Nicolas Potel (Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.) $29.99

Mercurey, 2005, Château de Chamirey (Frederick Wildman & Sons, Ltd.)   $33.99

Beaune du Château 1er Cru, 2005, Bouchard Père et Fils (Henriot, Inc.)    $34

Pernand-Vergelesses 1er Cru, Les Fichots, 2005, Champy (Champy)    $25

Beaune 1er Cru, Aux Cras, 2005, Champy (Champy)      $35

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:11 PM

January 21, 2008

Great Wine Brands for Belt-Tightening Budgets

With the latest news that consumers are hitting the brakes on spending, now seems as good a time as any for my semi-annual peek at high-quality value wines.

Given the current squeamishness over the economy, I will define 'value' for the time being as wines retailing for about $15 or less. My definition of quality, of course, is highly subjective, but in general I'm looking for wines in this price range to deliver good balance, at least some measure of complexity, and be ready to drink soon, if not tonight.

Once upon a time imported wines had it all over the domestics at these price points, but the weakness of the U.S. dollar abroad has leveled the playing field and given U.S. wineries a competitive edge.

Wines in this category are typically 'branded' wines that are produced in high volume. The best example of this is Gallo Family Vineyards. Gallo may be family owned and family run, but it is a behemoth of a winery; in fact, the largest in the world.

Gallo's brands run the gamut from inexpensive jug wines to its very expensive 'estate' wines, but the 'Gallo Family Vineyards' wines fall nicely into the $15 price tier. I say nicely because these are some of the best wines at the price, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

Gallo achieves quality by purchasing grapes from excellent California coastal vineyards - it has the clout to lock-in vineyard contracts at favorable prices - and not skimping on the tools of the trade, such as barrels. These are consistently better-than-average everyday wines that over-deliver a level of quality that is remarkable for the price.

Gallo is hardly the only high-quality, high-volume domestic producer, however - just the most prolific and easiest to find.

Many of the finest producers of value wines are riding the crest of vineyard expansion in California's Central Coast, particularly the Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. These regions were heavily planted in the past decade, when land was relatively cheap and consumer demand was clearly on the rise.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But too many wine growers had the same idea and a grape glut ensued. The result has been a wave of very good cheap wine from outstanding coastal vineyards between Salinas (Monterey County) and Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County).

Here are four others to look for:

Hahn Estates

This Monterey County producer seemingly defies all logic, cranking out seriously good reds that compete successfully vintage after vintage against much more expensive options in the marketplace of wine. Most Hahn reds - its Meritage being the exception - retail for less than $15 per bottle, but even the pricier Meritage is a steal at $20. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are all winners, and overshadow a reasonably good, well-balanced Chardonnay that seldom gets noticed because the reds are so delicious.

J. Lohr

Proprietor Jerry Lohr is something of an icon in Monterey County and the greater Central Coast of California, establishing a base of operations there long before the region became fashionable. He also made a statement about quality early on, making Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay for the masses without compromising flavor. The 'Riverstone' Chardonnay, 'Seven Oaks' Cabernet and 'Los Osos' Merlot are benchmarks for quality at this price level and have long had status as outstanding 'value' buys. All three are well-balanced food wines that almost never disappoint.

Ventana Vineyards

Not all of Ventana's offerings fall into the value category, at least not in this price range, but the Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and 'Gold Stripe' Chardonnay do. All three of these wines are winners, beautifully balanced and flavorful at affordable prices. Proprietor Doug Meador, like Jerry Lohr, was a pioneer producer in Monterey County and has always pushed quality, eschewing fancy packaging and wines that inspire sticker shock. His faith in Monterey and the Central Coast has been rewarded consistently with prestigious medals and other honors from a number of California's top wine competitions.

Concannon Vineyards

This Livermore, California, winery is actually located north the geographic boundary of the Central Coast, but with vineyard sources in Monterey and elsewhere I generally think of it as a Central Coast producer. The Syrah, Petite Sirah and the red and white Rhone-style blends are exceptional and stupidly cheap. I mean that in the best sense. Concannon wines are well-made across the board and I can often find them for close to ten bucks a bottle, which is robbing the bank without the guilt!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:22 AM

January 16, 2008

The Wine You Order Not Always the Wine You Get

Dining out over the holidays, I was reminded there is a good reason the server presents a bottle of wine before opening it. Though it may appear to be merely another formality in the oft-times pompous ritual of serving wine, the presentation is for your own protection. It may not be exactly the wine you ordered.

This was driven home to me recently when I asked for the 2005 Nicolas Potel Nuits-Saint-Georges at a restaurant that boasted it had received a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. I had thought the Award of Excellence implied a modicum of wine expertise, but this experience taught me that is a poor assumption.

The waiter returned with a bottle of the 2005 Nicolas Potel Bourgogne, which I promptly rejected. Not because it's a bad wine (in fact it is quite good for a Bourgogne) but because it wasn't the wine I ordered. In the hierarchy of Burgundy classifications, Nuits-Saint-Georges is a village wine and thus a step up in quality from the basic Bourgogne appellation.

There are exceptions, which I will delve into in a future column, but the pecking order is fairly straightforward: Bourgogne, Villages, Premier Cru and Grand Cru; Bourgogne being the floor, Grand Cru the ceiling.

If the waiter had acknowledged the error and gone to retrieve the correct bottle, this would not be an item of interest. It's easy to grab the wrong bottle when two wines are from the same producer and essentially look the same. To my utter surprise and consternation, the waiter insisted he had delivered the wine I ordered.

So we looked at the wine list and, sure enough, it listed the Potel Nuits-Saint-Georges. Yes, yes, yes, the waiter insisted, this is the Nuits-Saint-Georges. No, no, no I said, or words to that affect.

Then he pointed to the fine print at the very bottom of the label, which indicated the wine was produced in Nuits-Saint-Georges. No, no, no, I shot back, or words to that affect. That does not mean this wine is a Nuits-Saint-Georges. That is only telling us the Nicolas Potel cellar is located in the village of Nuits-Saint-Georges.

This is akin to listing the Hess 'California' Cabernet Sauvignon as the Hess 'Mount Veeder' Cab because the winery is located on Mount Veeder.

The label clearly stated Bourgogne - in very large letters. This is the classification, I explained, and it means the grapes could be sourced from anywhere in the Burgundy region. If it had been the Nuits-Saint-Georges, it would say so, in large letters placed exactly where 'Bourgogne' was printed on the bottle before my eyes.

Eventually the owner came out to join the debate. Same drill. He insisted the Bourgogne was the Nuits-Saint-Georges. Then he proclaimed that he sold at least a case of this wine every week and customers loved it, as if consumer ignorance validated his position.

No, I told him, that only meant he had successfully perpetrated a fraud upon the public. I didn't really believe he had deliberately tricked customers. I think he just didn't have a clue. At this point I simply gave up, ordered a Sanford Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir for roughly the same price as the Nicolas Potel Bourgogne, and vowed never to return.

I did learn a good lesson, though: When ordering wine in a restaurant, don't assume you're getting what you asked for. Read the label!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:57 AM

January 15, 2008

My Take: Pawlcyn's Vision Sparked a Movement

As an avid fan of the culinary arts, I've long been mystified by the term 'wine country cuisine.' I find it in funky, homey urban wine bars as well as swank buttoned-down restaurants with a platoon of certified wine experts at your service.

There is no rhyme or reason, nor a clear definition. So I took my inquiring mind to the source, sitting down with the legendary Cindy Pawlcyn on a recent trip to the Napa Valley. Cindy is a Midwesterner --  her first serious restaurant gig was at the Pump Room in Chicago -- who moved to the West Coast in 1980.

She was the original chef at St. Helena's Meadowood Resort and in 1983, along with four partners, opened Mustards Grill along Highway 29 in Oakville. The rest is history. Mustards is a culinary icon in the heart of the Napa Valley and will celebrate its 25th anniversary in June.

If there is such a thing as authentic wine country cuisine, it would be the hearty American fare served up at this unpretentious one-story roadhouse that has been a magnet for vintners and wine enthusiasts alike since the day it opened.

'At the time there was Auberge and Domaine Chandon, so fancy French,' Pawlcyn says of the Napa Valley restaurant scene at the time.

'I wanted a place where people could come in wearing their winery boots. I wanted a good burger and fun things to eat; really fresh, tasty stuff. And I wanted a place where you could hang out.'

The Mustards menu has always been eclectic and unusual, and inspired copycats throughout the United States, but she clings to the belief that she's merely interpreting traditional cuisine in an eclectic fashion.

'My definition of wine country cuisine is to try to cook as close to the traditional dishes of the region as I can, using fresh local ingredients,' she said. 'And it has to be wine friendly, of course.

'I get ideas all over - from cookbooks, from friends, out in the garden, talking to the fish guy at 3 a.m. I don't think you 'create' and much as you 'recreate.'

The Famous Mongolian Pork Chop is the signature dish at Mustards, and the burger is always a hit, there have been a number of popular menu items over the years that will be reprised during an anniversary celebration in June.

'I've saved all the menus from each year of Mustards since the beginning,' said Pawlcyn. 'I've gone through them and identified all of the big sellers, which we'll put on the menu through the entire month of June - a history of Mustards Grill.'

I asked Cindy if she would change any recipes from the originals?

 'I think I'm more sophisticated now,' she said. 'I've traveled more. I've eaten more. So I may modernize a few dishes. Once you've learned how to cook better, you cook better.'

 I came away from my chat with Pawlcyn yearning to know more about the topic. I do believe school will be in session beginning June 1, in Oakville, at Pawlcyn's historic roadhouse beside the Napa Valley's main north-south highway. If this isn't wine country cuisine, I don't know what is.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:14 AM

January 6, 2008

Michael Franz's 2007 Producer and Wine of the Year

Producer of the Year:  Villa Maria Winery, Auckland and Marlborough, New Zealand.  Quality is rising more rapidly in New Zealand than in any other country in the world (with the possible exception of Spain), and Villa Maria is clearly at the forefront in the historic rise of Kiwi wine.  An innovator in technical matters and an exemplar in terms of quality and price, Villa Maria consistently wins more awards in blind tasting competitions than any New Zealand producer.  To cite but one example of leadership, owner and managing director George Fistonich has bottled all of the company's wines under screw caps since 2004, and Villa Maria has probably done more to educate consumers on the benefits of screw caps and the perils of corks than any producer in the world.

The wines sold in North America are essentially organized on three tiers, starting with 'Private Bin' and ascending to 'Cellar Selection' and ultimately Reserve wines and single vineyard bottlings.  At the Private Bin level, the Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Merlot are standouts.  Among the Cellar Selection releases, Sauvignon Blanc is truly exceptional and Riesling is very strong.  At the top level, Clifford Bay and Taylors Pass Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough are among the world's best; Keltern Vineyard Chardonnay from Hawkes Bay is fantastic, as is the Pinot Noir from Taylors Pass.

Wine of the Year:  Philipponnat, Champagne Clos des Goisses 1996 ($120, ExCellars).  This was the single best current release wine that I tasted in 2007.  When my WRO colleague Michael Apstein gave it wine 97 points before I tasted it last year, I wondered whether his enthusiasm had gotten the better of him.  Nevertheless, I had sufficient trust in his palate (and in this terrific producer and vineyard and in the phenomenal 1996 vintage) to buy a couple of bottles.  And as it turned out, Apstein was--if anything--being stingy.  Although this wine is still just a baby (and indeed it was only released for sale in 2007--at more than 10 years of age!), it already shows marvelous complexities that will unwind into genuine magnificence over the next 15 years.  The youthful forcefulness of the acidity in this wine must be experienced to be believed; it will assure that the wine will remain fresh if well stored for two more decades.  Or longer.  Although opinions on the 1996 wines are not uniform in Champagne, I think that this is certainly the best vintage that I've ever tasted, and my colleague Ed McCarthy is similarly impressed.  I think it likely that, by 2025, 1996 will be recognized as the finest vintage of the second half of the 20th century, and this rendition from the Clos des Goisses vineyard will be regarded as one of the top two or three examples, along with Krug.  One last point:  Whereas some consumers think or assume that Champagne isn't real wine, a bottle like this suggests that it is arguably the world's greatest wine.

Posted by Michael Franz at 12:17 PM