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July 29, 2008

Prosecco's the Bubbly for Every Day

Just as all that glitters is not gold, all that bubbles is not Champagne. Sometimes that is a good thing.

My bubbly of choice this summer has been Prosecco, the sparkling wine of Italy's Veneto region. Prosecco, I have discovered, is a much better fit for some occasions than much more expensive Champagne.

This is the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week, which you can read either in a newspaper near you or, failing that, online by clicking here.

What I find most appealing about Prosecco is its fruitiness combined with a softer acidity than most Champagnes and New World sparkling wines. There is none of that acid burn on the back of the palate that often intrudes on your pleasure after a couple of glasses of Champagne.

For summertime quaffing or simply as an aperitif, Prosecco is a refreshing alternative to Champagne -- at half the price, or less.

And there are Prosecco styles to fit any palate, from brut to extra dry to demi-sec. And because of the easy price (most top-notch Prosecco hovers around $19 a bottle) Prosecco is a sparkling beverage you can enjoy the year 'round, without waiting for that special occasion.

It's meant to be consumed fresh and young, and every day if you are so inclined.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:50 AM

July 28, 2008

Something to Crow About at South Coast Winery

I remember taking lunch with Jim Carter, owner of the then-new South Coast Winery, several years ago. He stunned and amused me with the bold prediction that his Temecula Valley winery would someday produce a Cabernet Sauvignon every bit as good as any made in the Napa Valley.

I resisted the tempation to chuckle, but I do believe I rolled my eyes. Carter may have had the last laugh, for South Coast recently clobbered all comers at the wine competition staged by the California State Fair and walked off with the prestigous Golden Bear award as the "Best Winery in California."

Some may choose to debate that, but the fact is South Coast -- located about an hour northeast of San Diego -- took more than 20 medals and earned the big trophy fair and square. And I'm not really surprised. These are the same wines that claimed 19 medals at the 2008 San Diego International Wine Competition to tie the much larger Kendall-Jackson Winery for overall honors.

Winemakers Jon McPherson and Javier Flores clearly are doing something right. The two men have been making the South Coast wines since the first vintage in 2003, and both were induced to leave similar positions at Temecula's Thornton Winery in part because of South Coast's exceptional Wild Horse Peak Vineyard.

The vineyard is planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese at an elevation well above 2000-feet, where the days are long and the nights are cool.

I haven't yet spoken to Carter, but he did send me an email and suggested we get together for lunch again sometime in the near future. No doubt there will be a preparation of crow on the menu!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 3:32 PM

July 22, 2008

Elizabeth Spencer, Making Wines That Make Sense

On my recent visit to the Napa Valley I was amused and dismayed by the story of a vineyard owner with a yen to make a "high-points" Chardonnay.

We all know what that means. New oak. Ripe and oily fruit. Full malolactic. Lees stirring. The works.

Nothing wrong with a wine like that, especially if it's what you like to drink. But to make a rich, heavy, high-alcohol Chardonnay merely to bag an eye-popping score from one of the big wine publications seems to me to send the wrong message.

Vintners should make the wines that please them. In the playground of my imagination, the best wines tell a story about the location of the vineyard, the care and attention to detail of the winegrower as he tends the vines through the season, and the sensibility of the winemaker as he or she brings about an expression of those unseen factors in a wine that reflects a specific place and moment in time.

I realize this notion may be a bit too romantic for a wine lover who's merely looking for a good drink. But I think I've found both.

One of my most memorable visits last week was a Saturday morning tasting with Elizabeth Pressler and Spencer Graham at their Elizabeth Spencer tasting room in Rutherford. The wines were exquisite and they were delightful.

Best of all, they make the wines they like to drink. Wines that are fresh and appealing, with mouth-watering acidity and well measured oak where appropriate. I was impressed with the impeccable quality and lovely balance of everything I tasted. These are sensuous, delicious wines from two people who are passionate about winegrowing and have an unwavering vision.

They and their wines (a number of vineyard-designates from Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino) are the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week, which you can hopefully read in a newspaper near you, or access by clicking here.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 7:02 PM

Thinking Outside the Box

Alternative packaging seems to be all the rage in the wine biz. Fueled, it seems, by the success of boxed wines (success being best measured by robust sales) producers have now migrated to wines delivered in aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

The Australian company, Barokes, sent several canned wines to the San Diego International Wine Competition, and one of them, a non-vintage blanc de blancs sparkling wine, even won a medal.

I wasn't much surprised because boxed wines, actually bag-in-a-box wines, have been claiming medals for several years. The packaging is frequently clever and inviting and there's often some fairly good swill in the bag.

Consumers have largely taken to boxed wines for their convenience and storability (they don't take up much space given the volume, sometimes up to 3 liters, and the collapsing bag protects the wine from premature oxidation) but are quick to point out they actually like the stuff, too.

Canned wines and wines delivered in plastic bottles provide a different sort of convenience for the consumer, however. For one thing, there's no heavy glass, making them lighter and easier to carry in a backpack or picnic basket.

And if you're at the beach or around the pool or the hot tub, cans and plastic bottles eliminate the danger of breakage.

So I was intrigued enough to road test a couple of wines -- a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir -- en plastique made by Yellow Jersey from grapes grown in the Languedoc region of southern France. I did this live and on the air for the Gourmet Club, one of two radio shows I host for SignOnRadio.com, and I enlisted co-hosts Maureen Clancy and Caron Golden as taste-testers.

All of us were a little underwhelmed. These wines retail for about $11 each and aren't as tasty as the better (and less expensive) wines I've experienced from a box. But the potential is clearly there.

As a sailor and a cyclist, I can see a day when the appeal of the lightweight packaging and the ease and convenience of tossing a couple of plastic bottles into a sack might overwhelm me. But I think I'll wait until the wine itself is just a wee bit better.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:40 AM

July 18, 2008

Merlot the Best Value in Napa Valley Reds

Long before the movie 'Sideways' made it hip to diss Merlot, the wine industry had its own jaundiced view of this red grape variety from Bordeaux.

The Napa Valley's Louis M. Martini winery claims to have been the first American winery to make a varietal Merlot, and that was sometime in the 1970s. Until then Merlot was largely thought to produce an 'incomplete' wine and was used exclusively for blending, typically to 'soften' young Cabernet Sauvignons and make them easier to drink upon release. (Note that a Cabernet can contain up to 25 percent of another grape variety and still meet the legal requirement to be called Cabernet.)

This was taking the 'Bordeaux' philosophy to its extreme. The Bordeaux region historically utilized numerous red grapes varieties, with varying ripening patterns, to guard against the failure of any one crop. Merlot is the favored second grape, right behind Cabernet Sauvignon.

What New World vintners sometimes forget, and many consumers don't even realize, is that some districts of the Bordeaux region treat Merlot as the primary grape variety; and the most exclusive and expensive Bordeaux, the famed Chateau Petrus, is for all intents and purposes a Merlot.

I was given cause to reflect on the conventional Merlot wisdom as I plowed through a recent tasting loaded with expensive Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, most of which I rated highly. What caught my attention, however, was the smattering of Merlots I sampled that day.

They were all very good, and three of them were made from Napa Valley grapes. The best of the bunch was the succulent 2004 Truchard from Napa's Carneros district. But the 2005 Chappellet and 2005 Clos du Val also were rock solid wines that I could easily recommend. What was most striking, besides the quality, was the price.

The Cabs I tasted that day ranged in price from $70 to $140, with a slew in the $90 range. The Truchard Merlot? $28.  The Chappellet? $32. The Clos du Val? $26. Given the terribly high price of coveted red wine from the Napa Valley, America's most prominent wine region, the three Merlots stood out for value.

Maybe I have 'Sideways' to thank for this happy state of affairs. Merlot may not be chic, but when it's good it's really good. And even I can afford it.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:01 AM

July 16, 2008

The Beauty of a Wine Dinner

There are many different ways to learn about wine.  You can join a wine club, read a book or a blog, belly up to a wine bar, go to an Internet site such as Wine Review Online, subscribe to a magazine or newsletter, take a class--all of these can be informative ways to expand one's vinous horizons.  I was reminded a few nights ago that one of the most fun as well as educational ways to expose one's palate to a good selection of wines is to sign up for a wine dinner at a local restaurant.

In this case the event was held at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Baltimore, in partnership with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, for a dinner billed 'A Tale of Riesling in 9 Courses.'  About sixty guests paid $85 each for the whole shebang: food, wine, and guidance from a couple of educators from the winery who spoke about each of the wines as they were poured.  Having been in this position myself on occasion, I know that the challenge for the speakers is to gauge remarks about the wines accordingly as the noise level in the room increases apace with the amount of wine consumed (true professionals, these two did a great job, keeping their remarks brief and concise, yet managing to slip in enough information to satisfy most of those guests who really did want to learn something about the wines).

Oceanaire's chef and operating partner Benjamin Erjavec had clearly devoted time and attention to tasting the wines, and then a period of trial and error in the kitchen creating recipes that would maximize enjoyment of both the food and the wine.   'At first, I couldn't' imagine a whole dinner based on Rieslings,' says Erjavec.  'But then I tasted them, and I couldn't believe the variety, the complexity and how well they lent themselves to so many different dishes.'

The evening started off with guests being handed glasses of 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling as they arrived.  Glass in hand, we all made our way around the room stopping at various tables to sample raw oysters and clams spiked with Gremolata and Riesling Mignonette.  The wine's dry, crisp character connected beautifully with the disarmingly briny oysters (demonstrating the way the cool saltiness of shellfish balances beautifully with light, dry wine).

The second course, served after we were seated, was a simple yet stunning salad of jumbo lump crabmeat highlighted by mint and lemon zest, with marinated Belgian endive.  When this salad met Ste. Michelle 2006 'Eroica' the result was a symphony of harmonious tastes and textures, and was a good illustration of how rich foods taste even better in the company of rich wine.  Onto course number three: shrimp, a seared scallop, and a bite of spicy sausage--all bathed in creamy fennel and Sambucca sauce, served with Ste. Michelle Riesling 2006 (the touch of sweetness in the wine was a fine foil for the spicy element of the dish).

And so it went, course after course, each one served with an appropriate wine partner.  As might be expected, some of the matches worked better than others.  For example, the 2007Columbia Valley Riesling struck me as a tad too sweet for a bacon-wrapped lobster medallion, whereas the sweetness in fruit-driven 2006 Indian Wells Riesling tamed the whack of spice in shrimp jambalaya.  The most surprising and felicitous partnership of the evening may have been the 2006 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Riesling, which positively danced on the palate with chipotle-rubbed baby back ribs--it was a duet of intricate flavors and levels of sweetness, tartness, and spiciness.

At the end of the evening, I glanced around as the convivial crowd was draining the last drops of 2006 'Ethos' Late Harvest White Riesling.  The buzz of conversation was cheerful as many people discussed the different wines, and the pros and cons of some of the pairings.  Chef Erjavec later summed up the experience best: 'It's wonderful to be surprised by a wine. After that first tasting I realized I had a very outdated image of what a Riesling can be.  That's the beauty of a wine dinner.  We all learn something new.'

Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 9:18 AM

July 13, 2008

Napa Valley Discovery: the Secret of Quintessa

RUTHERFORD, Ca. -- Down through the years I've enjoyed many vintages of Quintessa, one of the Napa Valley's ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignons, but never fully understood the unusual characteristics of the estate, which are ultimately as important to the final product as the care and skill of the winemaking team.

Quintessa lies between the Silverado Trail and Highway 29, the two main north-south arteries that run parallel through the Valley near the village of Rutherford. The Napa River slides through this district on its way to the San Pablo Bay, and the famed Rutherford Bench is the terroir that anyone with an understanding of the geography of the region would associate with the Quintessa wines.

I've driven past the gates of Quintessa a thousand times, but never stopped for a visit until Friday, when I had scheduled a tasting appointment and tour with winemaker Charles Thomas, a legendary figure in the Valley who's made the wines for Robert Mondavi, Rudd and Cardinale over a storied career.

We hopped into a Range Rover and headed off into the vineyards, and to my surprise we started to climb a steep hill. When we reached the top we were high on a ridge line that looked down on the Silverado Trail on one side, down on the Rutherford Bench on the other.

Silly me, I had long assumed the vineyard land between the two highways was flat -- or nearly flat -- in this part of the valley. What's worse, I typically lodge at the Rancho Caymus Inn in Rutherford and even after all these years I had no idea there was a huge hill behind me, between the Inn and the Silverado Trail.

"It's deceptive," said Thomas. "From Highway 29 it just looks like the start of the hills on the eastern edge of the valley. From the Silverado Trail, you don't get the perception of elevation."

Why is this important? Well, there are three distinct exposures to the sun in the Napa Valley.

One is the eastern range of mountains, including Howell Mountain and the Pritchard Hill area. Vineyards there catch the late afternoon sun, are generally above the fog line and the result is typically more darkly fruited, jammier wines with sweet tannins.

The second is the valley floor, with more fertile soils and more even sun exposure. The wines tend to have bright fruit and a fleshy, supple, juicy character.

The third is the western range of mountains (Mount Veeder, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain) and the vineyards there catch the morning sun. While generally above the fog line, vineyards there produce grapes that typically express more cool-climate character (red fruits, harder tannins) due to their closer proximity to the Pacific and the fact they are shaded by the western peaks late in the day.

Because of the ridge line that rises 500 to 600 feet through the middle of its estate, Quintessa has the benefit of all three exposures, making it unique among wineries located between the mountains on the valley floor.

This is one reason -- and there are others, such as the three distinct mother soils, but that's another story for another day -- for the remarkable complexity, texture and personality of the Quintessa wines.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:29 AM

July 9, 2008

What Works, and Why? Wine with Greek-Style Shrimp

It is 9:00 a.m. as I write this, and I happen to be a person who is not big on breakfast.  Yet the very thought of fresh sautéed shrimp with crumbled feta cheese and a little kick of spicy pepper is enough to make my mouth water.

Several trips to Greece have left me deeply enamored of Greek cuisine, which deserves to be far more widely enjoyed in North America.  Greece's marvelously tart yet deeply flavored feta cheese is among this cuisine's most distinctive and compelling ingredients, yet it can prove a bit tricky for wine pairings precisely because of its distinctiveness.  How should you know which wine to select to pair with a dish incorporating it?

Turn to "Wine With…."  This feature by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas, which has been published on Wine Review Online since we launched the site nearly three years ago, is perhaps the wine world's most useful and interesting source for advice on selecting wines that really sing with a whole range of dishes.

What I most love about what Paul and Marguerite convey in their feature are their insights into the underlying reasons why certain wines work--or don't work--with particular dishes.  When experimenting with a broad set of wines in a single food context, they often hit upon surprising results, but never stop short with a mere report on the outcome.  Rather, they draw you into the interior of the taste experience in a way that teaches you underlying principles that can prove helpful whenever you need to choose a wine to flatter a particular ingredient, flavor or texture.

So, if your ears perk up at the sound of a dish like Greek-Style Shrimp and want to know what would be great to drink along with it, check out this week's 'Wine With…'

Posted by Michael Franz at 9:20 AM

July 4, 2008

A-B-C's of the Critics Challenge

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition is the commentary that flows from the judges -- accomplished wine journalists all.

Each year, following completion of the Challenge in late May, I pore over the judges' tasting notes and post excerpts on the web alongside the corresponding award winner.

Here is but one example, from judge Leslie Sbrocco:

Clos Du Val   
 Critics Platinum 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District $70.00: What draws you into this stunning wine first is the herbal complexity layered with perfectly ripe fruit flavors and integrated oak notes. Curvaceous and supple, the texture is pure velvet. - Leslie Sbrocco

Because there are thousands of wines entered and the judges have a tendency to be loquacious, the editing and posting of the comments takes a considerable amount of time, especially coming, as it does, at the same time as the annual Wine & Roses charity wine tasting and the wrap-up and subsequent move of the competition office into storage for the summer.

I am pleased to announce that the judges' tasting notes have now been edited for brevity and have been posted in the archives of our Featured Articles section.

Click here to read and enjoy!

Judges for the 2008 Critics Challenge included WRO's very own Mary Ewing-Mulligan (as Chief Judge), Ed McCarthy, Michael Apstein, Michael Franz, Marguerite Thomas, Paul Lukacs, Leslie Sbrocco, Linda Murphy, Patrick Comiskey and yours truly (as co-Chief Judge) along with our dear friends and colleagues Nick Passmore, Elin McCoy, Rebecca Murphy, Stephen Brook and Jon Bonne.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:45 PM

July 3, 2008

Alternative Sipping Selections for the Fourth

After listening to colleagues Michael Franz and Paul Lukacs riff with Kojo (you can click here and listen) about their wine preferences for the Fourth of July, I couldn't resist the temptation to add my own two cents to the discussion.

While I agree in principle that lighter reds -- those lower in tannin and alcohol, such as Italy's Dolcetto or France's Beaujolais -- might work best with a plate of barbecued meats on a warm summer day, I wonder about the rest of the July 4th experience -- away from the picnic table.

In my neighnorhood, folks gather hours in advance of the fireworks to sun or wade through the surf or just hang out under an umbrella with a trashy novel and a cool, refreshing adult beverage.

What of these times? What would Robert drink? Heh, heh.

Well, for starters, that Leth Gruner Veltliner I had Wednesday night before the Shakespere Festival at The Old Globe would be high on my list. It was not only crisp and refreshing, but exhibited more heft than is typical of Gruner, and was slightly rounder and softer. The sort of wine you could sip for hours.

Then there is Prosecco, currently all the rage. This festive bubbly from northern Italy is fairly priced (between $12 and $20) and absolutely perfect with tapas or antipasti. Two of my fave producers are Adami and Bisol, and I generally prefer the bruts to the extra dry Proseccos, but in the slightly sweeter realm of extra dry (I know, it seems like a contradiction) the Prosecco from Cartizze, the only cru in the region, is generally well-balanced and a bit more complex despite higher levels of sugar.

Finally, I might want to add a rose or two to the mix. They're fabulous quaffers on a hot summer day, and extremely versatile with all manner of food, from olives and goat cheese to spicy sausages or barbecued salmon.

Two I am almost never disappointed with are the Bodegas Julian Chivite Gran Feudo Rosado, from Spain's Navarra region, and Chateau d'Aqueria Tavel Rose from the south of France.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:04 AM