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Columns – W. Blake Gray

Elena Walch: Shaking Things Up in Alto Adige
W. Blake Gray
Apr 29, 2014

As an architect in her 30s, Elena Walch married into the family of the largest vineyard owner in Alto Adige, Italy. She's a strong, driven woman, and Werner Walch may not have known what he was in for. Today, her name is on a wine label, not Werner's. And Elena Walch wines are some of the best known from the region, particularly her delightfully balanced Gewürztraminer, one of the best examples in the world of a difficult wine to do well.

Ten Things You Didn't Know About Freixenet
W. Blake Gray
Apr 1, 2014

Freixenet might be the best-known wine in the world. The Spanish company makes more than 100 million bottles of Cava each year, with more than half of it in the familiar black bottle of Cordon Negro Brut. Most wine companies of its size are corporate. But Freixenet -- which owns 17 other wineries worldwide -- is still owned by the Ferrer family and run as a family business. I recently visited the company headquarters in Penedes, Spain, but I'm not going to try to tell you the Freixenet story per se. I'm just going to share 10 things I found interesting.

Unlikely but Delicious Chardonnays from Urban Auckland
W. Blake Gray
Mar 4, 2014

Kumeu River makes, year after year, some of the best Chardonnay in New Zealand. Nobody in their right mind today would try to plant grapevines on land so close to Auckland; it's worth much more for housing. But the Brajkovich family uses the land to support a true family business: Michael is the winemaker, his two brothers and one sister oversee the vineyards and the marketing, and his mother is managing director.

Blame It on Canada
W. Blake Gray
Feb 4, 2014

Canada doesn't have any need to sell wines in the US. But it wants to anyway. And I do mean Canada the nation. At a recent trade dinner to show off British Columbia wines, I sat with an official from the Canadian consulate. On my left was a guy who makes dessert wine by fortifying grape wine with walnut brandy. That's the image of Canadian wine if there even is an image: A little nutty, but not mainstream. Canada is the 31st largest wine producer in the world, just below Algeria. Japan makes 50% more wine. The US makes as much wine in a week as Canada makes in a year.

Simplifying Sherry
W. Blake Gray
Jan 14, 2014

I'm going to simplify Sherry for you. Or at least, I'm going to explain how simple it now seems to me. I was seeing it all wrong. You see, I was worrying about the classifications and the ages and which ones had flor on them and when the flor died and how many different barrels the wine had been in and…blah blah blah. Here's how they drink Sherry in Jerez, where it's from: "A glass of Manzanilla. Por favor."

Cabbage & Kale to World-Class Grapes
W. Blake Gray
Dec 10, 2013

Every new wine region creates its own kind of wine, a point people don't always grasp. Oregon Pinot Noir doesn't have to be Burgundy; We now have a new kind of Pinot Noir. But with Qupé Bien Nacido Syrah, it's even more striking. The long, cool growing season, safe from damaging fall rains, allows an expression of Syrah that just wasn't possible before. Sure, it can taste of ripe fruit, but there's plenty of freshness and a mouthfeel that's not rich, but precise. And it's consistent, year after year. Same with Au Bon Climat's Chardonnay. You taste these wines today and wonder why anyone ever doubted it would work. But 40 years ago, it was cabbage and kale.

Southwest France on a Charm Offensive
W. Blake Gray
Nov 12, 2013

Southwest France is on a charm initiative across the US. It's a good reminder that at the price, these wines are pretty charming. Here's a story we hear often from France lately: The region has a lot of wine to sell. In the area between Bordeaux and the Spanish border, there are nearly 40 million cases of wine made each year by more than 850 independent producers, plus 23 co-ops.

Clairet: A Darker Shade of Pale
W. Blake Gray
Oct 15, 2013

Faced with an ocean of wine to sell, Bordeaux has come up with a new category. "Clairet" is like a dark rosé, in which the juice is left on the skin for 24 to 48 hours longer than ordinary French rosés to extract more color and a little tannin. "I think Clairet is outstanding," says Régis Chaigne, owner and winemaker of Château Ballan-Larquette. "It's different from what you can taste elsewhere. It's very easy to drink with food. It's fruity. It has the deep color. It's very modern." Clairet is an intriguing idea on a number of levels, both for production and marketing. But it does confront different challenges on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Rollie Heitz: Out on His Own, and Hitting New Heights
W. Blake Gray
Sep 17, 2013

Rollie Heitz wasn't supposed to be the winemaker of the Heitz family. His brother went to enology school, whereas Rollie got a finance degree. "The idea was to work at the family winery," Rollie says. Yet now here he is, making wine, in a converted house down a winding lane just south of Calistoga. Rollie's winery is called Midsummer Cellars and it's tiny, rolling out just 1600 cases a year.

A Surprise Standout: Aussie Riesling
W. Blake Gray
Aug 13, 2013

"Where is this Riesling from?" It's like the high-school class of your nightmares. We're all sitting nervously in an auditorium, hoping not to be called on -- and we're all wine "experts." Master Sommeliers hedge like crazy: "I think it's Old World, though it has some New World characteristics." This scene repeated itself over and over in July at Riesling Rendezvous, a major international conference held recently in Seattle. He thinks it's German, but it's from Canada. She says it's definitely New World, and it's from Austria. Only one country's Rieslings were as consistently distinctive as they were delicious, and though they were so distinctive that they were the easiest ones to guess about regarding location, it might still be the last country you'd guess: Australia.

Rethinking Cognac
W. Blake Gray
Jul 23, 2013

I just spent three days in the Cognac region, immersed in the stuff, and not once did I get a snifter of it to drink straight. Not once did we have a glass of Cognac after a meal. The locals like Cognac as an aperitif. And they don't drink it straight: they like it with sparkling water on ice. Or, best of all, they like it in a cocktail created for Cognac, the Summit. That said, maybe it's not relevant how people in Cognac drink the local spirit, because from the beginning it has been meant for export. Only 3% of all Cognac is consumed in France. It's one of the most international spirits -- a staple of airport duty-free -- and yet it also seems to have a very limited audience.

Kathleen Inman: Rising on Restraint
W. Blake Gray
Jun 25, 2013

Kathleen Inman is not a proselytizer; you have to talk to her for a while before you learn the depth of her convictions about what makes a good wine. She's not into unusual varieties: She makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. She doesn't make orange wines or no-sulfite wines or wines that taste weird. Because of this, she has managed to fly under the radar. But California sommeliers know who she is: One of the first people to make wines in the more restrained style that is quickly gaining popularity.

Pinot and Popcorn in San Francisco
W. Blake Gray
May 28, 2013

Most wineries smell like wine. Ed Kurtzman's winery smells like popcorn. Kurtzman makes Pinot Noir, Syrah, etc., from grapes from up and down the California coast. But he doesn't toil among the vines; he works in a converted warehouse in San Francisco that used to be called the Stone Tile Depot. The owner subdivided the huge building about a mile south of AT&T Park in one of San Francisco's few remaining industrial areas. Kurtzman and his wines rent one side, and Thatcher's Gourmet Popcorn rents the other.

High Tech Greek Wine With Old World Sensibility
W. Blake Gray
Apr 30, 2013

Angelos Iatridis makes wine in northern Greece with as much high-tech precision as anyone in the world. So when you taste them, knowing that, they're a shock. Sure, there's ripe red fruit in the Xinomavros. But the unifying thread is minerality; one wine, his Old Vines Reserve Xinomavro 2009, tastes like plum juice squeezed from a stone.

A Surprising Turnaround by Alsace's Pierre Sparr
W. Blake Gray
Apr 2, 2013

Wines are much better lately at Pierre Sparr, and the reason is backwards from what you normally read. Five years ago, the Alsatian winery was a small business that had been in the Sparr family for 300 years. Pierre Sparr rebuilt the winery and vineyards after World War II, and his sons took over from him. By the early 2000s, the winery had slipped. It was buying a large proportion of its grapes from a local co-op, but the poor quality of the wines, and thus difficulty in selling them, was hurting the farmers as much as it was the Sparrs. So the co-op, Cave de Bebleneheim, made an unusual decision: To buy the Pierre Sparr winery and brand.

Greek Vinsanto Explained
W. Blake Gray
Mar 5, 2013

On the Greek island of Santorini, nobody could believe it. Greece was joining the EU, protector of place names - and that meant Italian wineries would steal their name. This happened in 1981, so they've had time to come to grips with the fact that sweet wine from Santorini must now be called Vinsanto, one word, to distinguish it from the Italian dessert wine Vin Santo. The Italians simply got there first. But the Italian name is only a name, whereas Greek Vinsanto is terroir-driven and long-lasting: one of the world's greatest dessert wines. Quality controls ensure that you really can't go wrong with a bottle of Vinsanto - assuming you buy the one with the awkward spelling.

Sending it Back: What's the Ettiquette?
W. Blake Gray
Feb 5, 2013

I still remember the first wine I ever sent back in a restaurant. I have never taken a wine education course and at the time I didn't know what TCA smells like. But I knew something was off about the Cabernet we ordered: It smelled like wet cardboard. Fortunately for me it was outrageously corked, not subtly corked -- an 80-year-old with a headcold could have called it right. But nobody else at the table did, and one woman tried to talk me out of sending it back, saying, "It isn't that bad, we can drink it." The manager asked if I was sure. My heart was pounding; I wasn't sure. I asked him to taste it. He said, "I'll take it back if you insist," and brought another bottle -- and that wine smelled the same. This was a wine from the '90s; maybe the problem was TCA in the winery, because wineries didn't know then not to clean with chlorine products. Maybe it was a bad batch. Ultimately, we ordered something else.

A Personal Take on Wine Cellaring
W. Blake Gray
Jan 9, 2013

Last week I visited the off-site cellar where I put wines in deep storage. I hadn't been in nearly two years. Each time I visit, my plans for what to drink when I'm as old as Robert Parker tend to evolve. When I first rented the climate-controlled storage locker, I filled it with wines I liked and didn't plan to drink immediately. Almost every wine was red. And most wines were from California. I had a wide varietal mix, with plenty of Cabs, Merlots, Syrahs, Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs.

Striking Quotes and Quaffs from Champagne
W. Blake Gray
Dec 11, 2012

For three months, I've been sitting on two interviews from Champagne for different reasons. I love the wines by both Taittinger and Perrier-Jouët. Taittinger makes one of the best entry-level large-production Champagnes, while Perrier-Jouët makes one of the best wines I tasted all year. My problems with using either interview were these. Perrier-Jouët cellarmaster Hervé Deschamps, a gracious man, is a humble craftsman, good at a job that he loves but not given to bragging about it. He's just not a great quote. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, by contrast, unleashed a torrent of anti-US sentiment, leavened occasionally by sudden praise for Eisenhower or Obama.

Jordan: The Self-Assured Route to Excellence
W. Blake Gray
Nov 13, 2012

Despite being consistently one of the most popular wines in restaurants in the United States, Jordan is not easy to write about. It's not a wine geek's winery: Jordan makes only the most common varieties in the USA, namely, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But it's not a score-worshipper's winery either. Jordan keeps its wines below 14% alcohol, and has suffered for it in critics' ratings. The wines aren't cheap enough for value wine columns, at $52 (Cab) and $25 (Chard), but they're not exorbitantly priced either.

The Remarkable Rebound of Schloss Vollrads
W. Blake Gray
Oct 16, 2012

Schloss Vollrads might be the oldest winery in the world, but it's only still around to celebrate the 800th anniversary of its first bill of sale because local banks wanted to save it. A previous 900th anniversary year didn't go well. The Greiffenclau family -- doesn't that sound like something out of Harry Potter? -- owned the property in Rheingau, Germany from the year 1097.

A Vinous Reality Check and a Life Lesson from the 16th Century
W. Blake Gray
Sep 18, 2012

Andrea Contucci lives in a home his great-great-grandfather's great-great-grandfather thought was old. Amazingly, he also makes wine in the same cellar beneath it. Contucci runs the last winery in the city of Montepulciano, and it's right in the town square. It was built in the 1530s in the way landowners lived then, with living quarters on top and a winery down below. There's a below-ground-level door for barrel delivery that opens upward onto the piazza. Contucci can hear people chatting in cafes while he works.

Recollecting Livermore Valley
W. Blake Gray
Aug 21, 2012

It's amazing how easy it is, when talking about top California wine regions, to forget about Livermore Valley. It's not like Livermore Valley wine is in airport duty-free shops -- oh wait, there's Wente Chardonnay, and I think I see a bottle of Concannon Petite Sirah. OK, well it's not like Livermore wine wins major awards. Except best red wine overall out of 5500 total wines entered at this year's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (a McGrail Cabernet Sauvignon). I could go on: The first major award won by ANY California wine was a Livermore white at the 1889 Paris Exposition. And yet, here we are. What was the last Livermore Valley wine you had? Or more significantly, read about?

Stalking Cabernet Greatness in Lake County
W. Blake Gray
Jul 24, 2012

I'm standing in a big pile of red dirt in 103 degree weather, and it's windy. My eyes are burning but I'm trying to man up and do the job of grasping why Andy Beckstoffer is adding to his 1200-acre Lake County vineyard portolio. But man, it's hot, and I'm miserable. And then, one of the other writers on this little junket points to a man driving an earth mover, pushing more of the red dirt into the air, and says, "I wonder how hot it is in the cab of that truck." People think writing about wine is all fun and games, but my visit to Lake County was hard work. But I thought it was important work, because Lake County is trying to position itself as the next great Cabernet Sauvignon area in California.

Mind Behind: Phillip Corallo-Titus of Chappellet
W. Blake Gray
Jun 26, 2012

Chappellet isn't the trendiest name in Napa Valley. Their wines are big but not the biggest. The wines around them, over winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus' 22 years, have gotten that much bigger. But Chappellet has changed a lot over the last two decades, and the results are obvious in comparative tasting. Recently I had a taste for Napa Cabernet so I did what only Bill Koch or people who get free bottles sent to them are privileged to do: Open nearly $2000 worth of wine at once to drink a few glasses. Of the dozen bottles, I had two clear favorites: Heidi Peterson Barrett's Au Sommet 2009 ($250), and Chappellet Signature 2009 -- which, at $49, was the cheapest bottle on my kitchen counter.

Heirloom Cinsault from Bechthold Vineyard
W. Blake Gray
May 29, 2012

Eight years ago, Al Bechthold was selling grapes from his Lodi vineyard for $250 a ton to people wanting something lively and aromatic for red blends. He knew the vineyard had been planted by his wife's great-grandfather in 1885 with money he made from charging gold miners 25 times the ordinary cost for supplies. But nobody thought the grape variety, which he believed was Black Malvoisie, was anything special. Boy, was everyone wrong.

Sashi Moorman: Raising Dough and Lowering Alcohol
W. Blake Gray
May 1, 2012

Following Sashi Moorman around the Lompoc winemaking ghetto -- an industrial park in western Santa Barbara County that changed in the last five years from dead bus storage to wine tasting rooms -- you would think he owns the place. Moorman, who makes wine for four wineries, seems to have keys to everywhere. He wants to taste a Pinot Noir he makes in this former storage room, then a Syrah he makes in an identical building over there. He's a compact bundle of energy, climbing barrels to show how he fills one to the brim with actual grapes, rather than just their pressed juice.

Peering into the Future with Tony Terlato
W. Blake Gray
Apr 3, 2012

Tony Terlato says Syrah will make a comeback. You have to listen to Terlato; this is the man who introduced Pinot Grigio to the US. Not only that, he says his company, which both imports and produces wine, is responsible for one of every eight bottles sold over $14 in the US. But at 77 years old, Terlato will need some luck to see Syrah shed its current image as the most cobwebbed section of the wine shop.

Image and Reality in Vinho Verde
W. Blake Gray
Mar 6, 2012

By making the best cheap wine in the world, Vinho Verde created an image problem. It's hard for consumers to take seriously single-variety wines from the same region that sells reliable $5 bottles, especially because one virtue of some Vinho Verdes is that they don't have a lot of complexity. For $5, you get something thirst-quenching, slightly fizzy, low in alcohol and unchallenging: A poolside wine. Against that backdrop, it's a revelation to taste Vinho Verde's single-variety wines, particularly Loureiro and Alvarinho. They're as good as any white wines in Portugal -- full of character, with floral notes, plenty of fruit and that distinctive thirst-quenching acidity.

Wine Wake-Up Call
W. Blake Gray
Feb 7, 2012

We all know wine is a business, not a romance, but it's still a major wake-up call to visit the US wine industry's biggest annual get-together, the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. You know what's big? Chocolate-infused wines. Sweet red wines. Muscat, the cheaper the better. Flavored sake sales are up 30%. Eeek!

Georges DuBoeuf, Powerlifter
W. Blake Gray
Jan 10, 2012

Georges DuBoeuf tastes 200 wines a day, almost every day. I stand in awe of this and asked how he does it. But first, let me put that number in perspective. Robert Parker, arguably the most prolific professional wine critic, tastes about 100 wines per day. DuBoeuf does that literally before lunch. The Wine Spectator's official tasting system is for its critics to sit down with 24 wines at a time, to keep their palates fresh for crucial decisions. DuBoeuf, who has his own money riding on his decisions, says he needs to taste 10 wines just to warm up.

Face Down in a Wet Rock Garden
W. Blake Gray
Dec 13, 2011

New Zealand Riesling is one of my favorite under-appreciated wine categories, and a major reason is minerality. Frequently I smell chalk, white stones, and other mineral notes in these wines; it's rare when I don't. Minerality is a loaded term for chemists and wine researchers, because it can be a catch-all for any non-fruit aromas. In New Zealand Rieslings it's often not elusive; some smell like you fell face down in a wet rock garden planted with stone fruit trees.

Breaking Barriers in Virginia
W. Blake Gray
Nov 15, 2011

Virigina wine has yet to cross the $100 a bottle barrier, but Rutger de Vink will make that happen soon. He has the same winemaker as Chateau Latour, and the former winemaker for Screaming Eagle recently told de Vink to go to three digits already. De Vink now asks $88 for RdV, a Merlot-dominant Bordeaux blend, and $55 for his second wine, Rendezvous. The prices are breathtaking in a state where, until recently, mere adequacy was a worthwhile goal.

Three Cheers for the Feudal System
W. Blake Gray
Oct 18, 2011

Barone Ricasoli's wines are a delicious argument for the superiority of the feudal system. In the 1500s, the Ricasoli family owned the entire region of Chianti Classico, says company director Massimiliano Biagi. Their wine was a favorite of northern Italian royalty for centuries. But in the 1970s, the family separated the company into vineyards and winery/brand, and sold the latter to Seagram's. The Ricasoli brand went through several owners while the wines deteriorated, with some of the 1 million annual cases eventually being made in giant plastic vats. By the 1990s, Hardy's owned it, but was losing a fortune.

Gruet: New Mexico's Standard Bearer
W. Blake Gray
Sep 20, 2011

If Gruet isn't already on your go-to list for affordable sparkling wine, it should be. The quality-price ratio for its non-vintage Blanc de Noirs ($14) is as high as it gets; I don't know a better traditional-method bubbly under $15. About 80% of Gruet's 130,000 annual cases of wine are sparkling. But that still leaves more than 25,000 cases of still wine -- a lot more than plenty of well-known wineries.

Newsflash: Empire Makes Wine
W. Blake Gray
Aug 23, 2011

For a powerful family company, particularly one whose founders are legends of the silver screen, Hearst has not recently been a brand name seen often. Example: did you know Hearst is America's leading source of tips that 'He's cheating on you,' or 'ways to spice up your love life?' Hearst owns (and makes a great deal of money from) Cosmopolitan magazine, which is not a secret, but the company doesn't feel the need to put its name in the title. Thus it's a little surprising that last year, Steve Hearst -- great-grandson of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst -- entered into a joint venture to put the family name on wine bottles.

Rising in Russian River: Jeremy Baker
W. Blake Gray
Jul 19, 2011

Running a formerly famous Russian River Valley winery is Jeremy Baker's fourth career, and he's only 37. Baker, a Toronto native, started out as an extreme skiier, taking people heli-skiing. But he hurt his back, so he started a restaurant. He had access to financing because his father Thomas Baker is a successful acquisitions lawyer in Canada, but it was Jeremy who grew the business from a food-court bistro to a nine-restaurant chain. He sold that and worked in wine distribution and sales for five years, all the while thinking about buying a winery.

Jacques Lardiere of Jadot: Playing the Hand He was Dealt
W. Blake Gray
Jun 28, 2011

One of Burgundy's most important winemakers, Jacques Lardiere, said something to me over lunch not long ago that you would simply never hear in the U.S., or possibly anywhere else outside of Burgundy. Now let me tell you something important: When buying Louis Jadot wines, you really better pay attention to the vintage. At Louis Jadot, however, vintage variation is not a factor to be wrestled against but rather the reigning philosophy -- for better and worse.