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Noble, with a Only a Hint of Rot
By Linda Murphy
Dec 4, 2012
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year (thank you, Nissan and the late Andy Williams, for that earworm):  Holidays, celebrations, family gatherings, delicious food, great wine and good cheer.  It’s also a time for stress, rushing around, nasty weather and economic uncertainty going into a new year. 

It’s “Noble or Rot” column season, too, when I find myself waxing and whining about vinous developments.  I’ve always been a bit bah-humbuggy about Christmas, the December holiday my family celebrates; I much prefer summery Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.  Perhaps it’s the fall-winter chill combined with a chronically malfunctioning wall heater, the heavy rains that find every little leak in my roof, and the depression I feel when darkness falls at 5 p.m. instead of 8, that bring out the cranky in me.

Yet this year, I don’t have all that much to complain about, or at least no energy to do so.  Hurricane Sandy and the lingering effects of Katrina leave me thankful that the weather in California is mild compared to the rest of the country.  I still have my parents, ages 81 and 79, despite Dad’s health scares.  After years of being the only serious wine drinker in my family, my sister and her two mid-20s daughters have caught the bug.  I now have an avid audience when I open bottles and pop corks at family get-togethers, and Mom and Dad have gained new interest, too.  When it’s just the two of them, they drink Franzia out of a box, but when their chick wine posse arrives, they enjoy the good stuff, too.

Enough with the personal blather, and on to the 2012 edition of Noble or Rot?:

Noble: Gerald Boyd.  An original columnist at Wine Review Online, Gerald also wrote, over a nearly 50-year span, about wine and spirits for numerous publications, including Wine Spectator, The Wine News and Wine & Spirits Buying Guide (later named Wine & Spirits magazine).  He’s just retired from wine writing, and while I am sad to see him go, I could only hope that I would retire one day with the resume of accomplishment that is Gerald’s.

For 12 years, he was the staff wine writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, widely read and appreciated for not hesitating to speak -- and write -- his mind.  When The Chronicle launched a section devoted to wine in November 2002, Gerald didn’t want to be trapped at a SF desk five days a week (he’d moved to Sonoma County by this time), be always in production mode, managing people and attending myriad meetings rather than reporting and writing about wine.  He declined to pursue the Chronicle wine section editor position, and it was my good fortune to get the job in February 2003.

Gerald continued to contribute to the wine section during my term, and I appreciated not only his vast knowledge, but also his passion for teaching the finer points of wine and spirits.  His stories deftly informed a newspaper audience that ranged from beginners to aficionados, and in my early years in the wine business, Gerald’s words enhanced my own knowledge. 

Bon voyage, Gerry.

Noble: That many wineries have lightened the weight of their wine bottles, to not only reduce their carbon footprint and production costs, but to also lessen the cost for consumers who have their wines shipped to them.

In a column a few years ago, I took wineries, including Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Vineyard, to task for overly hefty bottles.  DVC, in fact, had only one monstrously heavy wine bottle, used for its Endeavor Cabernet Sauvignon.  I’m happy to report that DCV proprietor Kim Stare Wallace has dialed back on weighty bottles, as have many of her peers.  Some consumers might still think that the heavier the bottle, the better the wine, but wine critics, sommeliers, retailers and wholesalers and know differently.  It’s what inside that counts, and what one should be paying for.

Noble and Rot … Or Not: Vintners in many regions of the Midwest and Northeast succeed admirably at producing rich icewines and botrysized late-harvest beauties.  Their typically chilly fall climates allow them to leave grapes on the vine well into November and December, so that the fruit can accumulate high sugar content, and result in extraordinary rich dessert wines.

However, the 2012 vintage brought exceptionally warm weather to these parts, virtually baking away most chances for icewine production.  Lovers of these unctuous sweeties might weep, yet the drought conditions brought grapes meant for table wines to full ripeness and delivered intensified flavors not often found in cold climes.  May Eastern and Northeastern wines made from 2012 are said to be atypically juicy and full-bodied, although they are likely to be in reduced quantities, as the warm 2012 season limited yields.

Noble: Wine critic Robert W. Parker Jr. will be inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame on Feb. 18 in St. Helena, Napa Valley -- an honor long overdue.

Think what you will of Parker’s palate and 100-point scoring system, but his influence on California wine is inarguable.  His reviews of California wines, and those of other regions, including Bordeaux, resonate with retailers, restaurateurs, Parker’s Wine Advocate subscribers, wine-related chat boards, and ultimately, consumers.  Wineries use his reviews as their most powerful marketing tools, and some, for better or worse, altered their wine styles to suit Parker’s tastes.  He was that influential.  And I say “was” in reference to California, because Parker has handed Golden State wine reviews to Antonio Galloni in the last year.

I found Vintners Hall of Fame voters’ reluctance to endorse him in years past to be puzzling.  Was their veto based on professional envy, because they hadn’t achieved his power? Were the voters, who are largely wine writers and past inductees, holding against Parker his taste for rich, potent wines, which they themselves might not embrace?

Wine Review Online columnist W. Blake Gray is the chairman of the Vintners Hall of Fame electoral college, which conducts the balloting.  After Parker failed to make the Hall in previous years, Blake withheld Parker’s nomination in 2011, to give it a rest, as it were.  When Parker appeared on the ballot in 2012, more reasoned heads prevailed and voted for his induction. 

I am not a Parker devotee, nor am I an opponent.  I know what I like in wine and say so; Parker does the same thing.  Readers pick and choose, and the fact that so many have chosen Parker has, finally, not been lost on Vintners Hall of Fame voters.  Bravo for them. 

Noble: Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast on Oct.  29, causing massive flooding and leaving millions without power for days.  Wine grapes had already been harvested along the Eastern Seaboard, and the vineyards, being inland, suffered little, if any, serious damage.

Rot: However, Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn N.Y., was nearly destroyed by the storm, located as it is on Pier 41.  The winery was flooded, with barrels sent crashing and equipment ruined.  Red Hook’s Mark Snyder and his California-based partners, Robert Foley and Abe Schoener, are attempting to rebuild, and they welcome any support.

To help foot the repair bills, Red Hook offers “survival kit” wine packs for sale: Place orders by calling 347-689-2432.  Anyone doubting the quality of Red Hook’s wines should look no further than Bob Foley’s successes at Pride Mountain Vineyards, Switchback Ridge and Robert Foley Vineyards, and Abe Schoener’s acclaim as a producer of non-interventionist, “natural” wines.  Each uses grapes grown on New York’s Long Island, and the wines are top-notch.  
Noble: Clarksburg AVA Chenin Blanc.  The Clarksburg AVA, located northwest of Lodi on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta of California, covers parts of Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties.  Its growing conditions are similar to Lodi’s, with nighttime cooling breezes mitigating the usual daytime heat.

Chenin Blanc loves the climate and clay soils here, and the wines produced -- at great-value prices -- have crisp apple and pear flavors, tinges of citrus, tropical fruits and spice, and are light-medium to medium-bodied, juicy and refreshing.  Among the delicious Clarksburg Chenin Blancs I’ve tasted recently are the Picnic Wine Company’s 2011 Blue Plate ($11); $12 Dry Creek Vineyard’s 2011 Wilson Vineyard ($12); and the Clarksburg Wine Company’s 2010 ($16).

Noble: There are certain wineries that send samples to me that I welcome with glee.  I see the return address and tear open the box, knowing that I will find excitement.

One producer that induces this reaction in me time and again is Dutton-Goldfield, in the Russian River Valley AVA of Sonoma County.  Its Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Syrahs and Zinfandels, made by Energizer Bunny winemaker Dan Goldfield, are focused and refreshing, as Goldfield has no fear crackling acidity in his wines.  Appellational and single-vineyard bottlings alike share this trait, and the vineyard designates -- among them Rued Vineyard Chardonnay and the Freestone Hill and McDougall Vineyard Pinot Noirs -- are special.  Goldfield has also shown a light on Marin County viticulture, vinifying terrific Pinot Noirs for a handful of producers, including Stubbs, DeLoach and, of course, Dutton-Goldfield.