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August 31, 2007

Papapietro and Perry, Just Two (Extra)Ordinary Guys

HEALDSBURG, Ca. -- Papapietro Perry is an inspiring story, even if the everyman aspect of the tale doesn't quite hold.

Papapietro is Ben. He's the winemaker. Perry is Bruce, whose wife Renae provides the sales and marketing expertise. Together Papapietro and Perry are the Papapietro Perry winery, which specializes in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, although the winery itself is located in the Dry Creek Valley.

Ben and Bruce, the storyline goes, were just two regular guys working in the circulation department at the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, which at one time published both the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner simultaneously.

Ben made a little wine in his garage, which he sold to family and friends. He had no formal education in winemaking, but learned most of what he knows helping Bert Williams -- one half of the Williams Selyem juggernaut and also a colleague at the newspapers -- make garage wines in the 1970s.

Ben and Bruce later worked as grunts helping the upstart Williams Selyem winery during harvests as the famed Pinot Noir producer got off the ground.

Sometime in the mid-1980s, over one of their frequent steak dinners where the red Burgundy and Pinot Noir flowed, Bruce convinced Ben to partner up in a commercial winery venture.

Thus was Papapietro Perry born.

"I had a great basement to do wine in," Ben remembers. "And I thought I could make wine that was as good as anything we were buying. The really hard part was finding the right fruit. No one would sell us grapes.

"So Bert would buy grapes for Williams Selyem and always set aside some for us. Eventually, in about 1990, new plantings started coming in and the supply loosened up. But it wasn't easy in the beginning."

Ben and Bruce and Papapietro Perry soon outgrew the garage and turned to a custom-crush facility in Windsor until they found their current location a few miles outside of Healdsburg in the Dry Creek Valley.

I first discovered this small gem of a winery while attending a tasting event here in Sonoma County about five years ago. I was impressed at the time by the balance and suaveness of Ben's wines. He has resisted the trend toward heavier, riper Pinots and is to be applauded for sticking to his guns.

"I think we figured out we must be doing something right the first time all of our wines got ratings of 90 points or higher in the Wine Spectator," said Renae.

I told Ben I thoroughly appreciated his "Burgundian" style, but I stood corrected. He calls it a Russian River style.

"I've always liked the earthiness and minerality of Russian River Pinots," said Ben. "We've also kind of benchmarked our style. We don't want the wood to be too invasive. We want the fruit to stick out, the vineyard to stick out. We use the same (type) barrel, the same yeast. You do that and you eliminate a lot of variables and you can be consistent in your style vintage after vintage."

I tasted three different Pinots from the 2005 vintage -- the Russian River ($42), the Leras Family Vineyard ($48) and the Pommard Clone ($68). These are exceptional hand-crafted Pinots, but a bit difficult to find except in fine restaurants or through the winery wine club.

But here's the rub. The bit about two ordinary guys starting in their garage and working hard and eventually carving a niche for themselves in the world of fine wine?

There is absolutely nothing "ordinary" about Papapietro and Perry, Ben and Bruce, or the trail of success blazed by these two garagistas.

Try this one: two extraordinary visionaries making extraordinary wines in an extraordinary corner of the wine world. There, I think that just about says it all!

Photo: Renae Perry and Ben Papapietro

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:01 PM

August 29, 2007

Harvest 2007 Could Be Your Vintage, Too . . .

Believe it or not, the 2007 vintage is underway in various parts of the northern hemisphere, a point driven home when I tried to schedule an appointment this week with George Bursick at J Vineyards & Winery.

Bursick, who has taken over winemaking at J following a long and successful reign at Ferrari-Carano, is sorta kind of busy this week bringing in grapes for sparkling wine.

This is the most hectic time of year for winemakers, a veritable sprint from the first pickings of harvest until the last of the reds go into the barrel, usually sometime in early November. It's a great time to be in wine country taking in the sights and smells of wine being made.

Which brings me to an unusual event in the Napa Valley in October. Well, I'm not so sure it's all that unusual anymore, but it's definitely not your everyday spin through wine country, tasting everything they make at seven or eight winery stops until your teeth are purple.

The winemakers at Judd's Hill, Art and Judd Finkelstein, are hosting an event they call "Barrel Blending Day Camp" on Oct. 21 at their winery, Judd's Hill, along the Silverado Trail.

Campers will, following a bit of instruction from the pros, have the opportunity to create their own blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Cost is $135 per head, but you get to take a bottle of your personal blend home with you.

For more information or to sign up, visit www.napamicrocrush.com or call 707-255-2332 and ask for Judd.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:23 AM

August 23, 2007

Under My Radar No More

Some days, tasting a batch of new wine releases seems a bit too much like work; just another day of drudgery at the office. Then there are days that are pure, unabashed joy. The difference? It's the wine, silly!

I love tasting great wines or I wouldn't be doing this. I am ecumenical in my analysis. Every box I open, no matter the grape variety or country of origin, has the potential to dazzle. Most disappoint. Not in the sense that they are badly flawed; only that they are in no way special.

It's the extraordinary, the exceptional, that keeps me coming back for more, day after day. So I was both elated and puzzled by a recent tasting experience. Elated because I came across several remarkably good wines, all from the same winery, and puzzled because I hadn't made this discovery long ago.

The winery, Patz & Hall, is hardly a new kid on the block. It does have a new winery facility, just opened, in Sonoma, but the wines of Patz & Hall have been around for nearly 20 years.

They've been flying just beneath my radar for 'lo these many years. I remember tasting a Patz & Hall wine in the sweepstakes round of voting several years ago during the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, but I didn't vote for it and promptly forgot about it.

And I've had the occasional glass of Patz & Hall while dining out over the years; again, experiences that made very little impact.

That all changed as I went through their most recent wave of new releases -- three Chardonnays and a Pinot Noir. Those grapes are the house specialty at Patz & Hall, which figures because the Russian River Valley is one of the winery's primary grape sources.

Two of the four wines -- the Napa Valley Chardonnay and the Dutton Ranch Chardonnay -- were exceptional and two -- the Chenoweth Ranch Pinot Noir and the Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnay -- were extraordinary, among the best wines of their type made in California.

Tasting them was a revelation and gave me a deeper appreciation of the work winemaker James Hall has been doing at Patz & Hall for nearly two decades. All of these wines are made in limited quantity, and might be more easily found on a restaurant wine list rather than at a retail wine merchant, but they are well worth the trouble.

And though they are not cheap, they are priced modestly when compared to other wines of comparable quality. Visit the WRO Reviews page for my comments on these four new releases.

PHOTO: James Hall

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:43 PM

August 21, 2007

More Reader Survey Blowback

As we get deeper into our Wine Review Online Reader Survey (see the button, top right) I will offer observations from time to time on interesting trends and reader comments.

The purpose of the survey is two-fold. First, we want our advertising representatives to be able to tell potential advertisers (yes, our contributors like to be paid with more than a handshake and a smile) something about who visits the site. Second, we want to know what you like and don't like so we can incorporate good suggestions into future editorial modifications.

Here's a sample comment mined from the survey today:

"I enjoy Whitley's blogs. However, it seems like the best use of blogs is to create news through a combination of discussing current hot topics in an interactive forum. Whitley's topics are not that hot. And there is no interaction between poster and reader. I am sure this opens a can of worms which you've already considered, but... The wine reviews are fresh, insightful and not formulaic. Articles are insightful and well written; however, I'd like to see more articles about current issues in the wine world, not just features on a grape or a place."

Well, the reader likes my blogging, so he/she is A-OK with moi! And the suggestion that we make the blog interactive is something we've considered. It is, in fact, how most blogs operate. But we've so far opted not to include this feature because of my aggressive travel schedule that sometimes necessitates long gaps between blogs.

And there's the issue of policing possibly tasteless comments if I'm not around and have little or no access to the net as I visit some remote wine region. But I would never say never, so don't rule out the possibility of reader participation in the future.

As for more content on more subjects and coverage of current hot topics, that's something I do see in our future. As traffic and advertising grow and we can afford to spend more on our editorial product, I assure you those things will come.

In the meantime, our mission is to inform and entertain, and hopefully steer you to a few good bottles of wine!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:33 PM

August 20, 2007

Explaining the Wine Review Search Tool

We are only a few days into our Reader Survey here at Wine Review Online, but already I can see that some people -- a couple, really -- are missing out on one of the site's best features: the Wine Review search tool.

I am chagrined to learn that even one person might be unaware of this easy-to-use function in the Reviews section of Wine Review Online.

How do I know? The comments. One reader opined that it would be great if someday he or she could search for reviews by producer, date posted, or scores. Another suggested that it would be nice to be able to find reviews without having to scroll through the entire archive, which now numbers about 5000 reviews, or find wines sorted by country.

Oh my! We have a tool that does all of that and more. And it's easy. First click on Reviews. The reviews displayed are for the current issue only. But in the upper left corner there is a column topped by the word Reviews. Beneath that there are two links: Review Archives and Wine Search.

Click on Review Archives and a page appears without reviews. But in the column on the left there is a list of countries. Click on the country that interests you and all of the reviews on wines from that country will display.

The second link -- Wine Search -- brings up a screen with multiple search options. There a reader can search by country or region, varietal, vintage, producer, score, price or reviewer.

There's also a field for keywords, so readers can search by proprietary designation, such as "Insignia" or "Cinq Cepages," or by importer, such as Kobrand or Palm Bay.

And all of the reviews include the date they were posted. This is an invaluable tool for anyone who needs to look up a wine review when considering a purchase, or simply for background on a wine of interest.

Try it! I hope you'll agree with me that it's one of the most useful navigation tools here at WRO.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:47 AM

August 18, 2007

Avignonesi, an Undervalued Gem from Tuscany

I dined last night at an unpretentious Italian restaurant in the Old Town section of San Diego, close enough to my home in Mission Hills to consider it a neighborhood restaurant.

The owners of Jack & Giulio's once had a more upscale place in another part of town, but they've been in this more casual setting going on two decades now. I love the food -- especially when Giulio is working the line in the kitchen -- but the wine list is an underrated lure. It's small, but excellent for such a modest place.

Jack picks the wines and he chooses wisely and doesn't gouge on price. So there I was sitting under the stars, by the fountain, with two beautiful, thirsty women and the wine list. On a warm summer evening I'm inclined to start with the Pieropan Soave, for it's both refreshing and interesting, and complex enough to deal with strong flavors as appetizers begin to arrive at the table.

For a red I have decided to go with an old friend, the Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Avignonesi is one of the greatest producers of Tuscany and the wines -- even this one, from the sun-scorched 2003 vintage -- always deliver satisfaction.

I am reminded that's what great producers do. Be it Chapoutier, Pol Roger, Joseph Phelps, Cloudy Bay, Gaja or Grange, you never come away from the experience disappointed.

Avignonesi is like that. Yet the price of the Avignonesi Vino Nobile ($35 in the restaurant compared to $60-$75 for the Barolos and Brunellos) would never suggest you are about to experience greatness.

This is due largely to the perception that the wines of Montepulciano do not compare favorably to those from Italy's other major viticultural regions. Avignonesi, however, is an exception to the conventional wisdom.

This is not widely known although Avignonesi certainly has its following. The price reflects a basic lack of awareness among consumers about the quality and beauty of this wine.

What a gem! What a price!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:55 AM

August 17, 2007

Wine Broad Takes the Heat Out of the Alcohol Argument

Ever since Napa winemaker Randy Dunn unleashed his broadside against the rising level of alcohol in modern wines, various wine scribes have weighed in with their thoughts, most of them siding with Dunn.

Tina Caputo, the "Wine Broad" in blog life as well as managing editor of Wines & Vines in old-fashioned print life, makes a sensible point in a recent post. She argues plenty of consumers like those overripe fruit bombs -- and there's nothing wrong with that. It's a legit style with a legit following.

Indeed, the surge in popularity of wines from Australia was built on full-throttle, high-octane swill from the Barossa Valley. California vintners came en masse a bit later to the party, but devotees of the style, particularly the controversial Helen Turley, have been pushing the limits on alcohol for the better part of two decades.

I agree there is a place for this overblown, high-alcohol style and even love a few of them myself (though I disagree with Tina about the alcohol levels in California Zinfandel; I believe winemakers have taken it too far and I seldom drink "hot" Zins anymore).

What I'm looking for -- even in a ripe, high-alcohol wine -- is a modicum of respect for balance. If a wine is too heavy or too hot it usually ends up getting poured down my kitchen drain.

But the culprit in that scenario isn't necessarily high alcohol. More likely, it's bad winemaking.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:17 PM

August 16, 2007

Rising Tide in the Douro

Since a recent visit to Portugal I am watching closely the rise of wines from the Douro Valley. I refer not to the world-class Port wines produced in the region, but the mushrooming legion of red table wines that are beginning to find a following.

The Douro Valley is one of the world's most strikingly beautiful wine regions, and perhaps its most rugged. Vines are planted on steep hillsides that elevate dramatically from the banks of the Douro river. First and foremost, these vineyards are difficult to farm. There is very little rain. The soils are so poor there is virtually no other agricultural crop. And daytime temperatures frequently top 100 degrees in the middle of the growing season.

What could be better for the production of exceptional wine grapes? Indeed, the red wines of the region are distinctive and powerful. Many are produced from 70- to 100-year-old vines, with indigenous grape varieties such as Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca and the Spanish variety, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo).

Most of the bottlings from old vines are 'field blends' that combine two or more of the indigenous varieties that have been inter-planted in the same vineyard. Yet despite the presence of these old vines, the table wines from the region are a recent development.

The oldest and most successful of these is Ferreira's Barca Velha, which was first made in 1952 at Quinta do Vale Meao in the Douro Superior, close to the Spanish border. Barca Velha is only made in exceptional vintages. Though Barca Velha is no longer made at Quinta do Vale Meao, Francisco Olazabal has carried on the tradition of table wines at the estate with his son, also Francisco, who is the winemaker.

The new leadership has now produced four vintages, with outstanding results. Further from the Spanish border and closer to Pinhao, the heart of the Douro region, is Quinta do Crasto (pronounced crash-toe), a small, family run winery recently rejuvenated by the Roquette brothers, Tomas and Miguel. Their top wine is a single-vineyard field blend, Maria Teresa, but I also fell in love with their promising single-varietal Touriga Nacional, which I tasted in July.

The Nieport family, more widely known for its colheita tawny Ports and Vintage Ports, has recently dedicated a number of quintas (farms) to the production of table wines. Nieport is considered a leader in this trend.

From my limited tastings during a brief visit in July, it is clear to me that these are some of the most exciting new red wines in the world. It's only a matter of time before the whispers become a buzz, and then a roar.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:53 AM

August 4, 2007

Wine and Winery Evolution, A Case In Point

My friend Ira Gourvitz purchased the Fallbrook Winery north of San Diego about ten years ago and has been pushing the envelope on quality ever since.

A case in point is the Fallbrook Sauvignon Blanc, which has improved steadily. The 2006 is perhaps the finest yet, though I'm not sure I would have predicted that when I first tasted the wine at the Monterey Wine Competition in March.

It didn't medal in Monterey and I wasn't surprised. The wine had been bottled the week prior to the competition and appeared to be light and thin when I tasted it a couple of days after we annouced the winners.

The wine evolved dramatically over the next couple of months, however, and earned a Platinum award at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition at the end of May.

I served the Fallbrook 2006 Sauvignon Blanc  earlier this week at the Critics Challenge Platinum dinner at San Diego's Le Fontainebleau restaurant. It was beautiful with the Day Boat Scallops, exhibiting exceptional fruit complexity (hints of citrus and melon, but with a dominant overtone of white peach) and more palate weight and length than had been evident in March.

This pairing received excellent support from the Critics Platinum crowd, but to me it demonstrated how quickly a young wine can evolve in the bottle, positively blowing away all previous notions.

You aren't likely to come across the Fallbrook Sauvignon unless you visit San Diego and dine at one of the top restaurants that carry the wine, such as Oceanaire Seafood Room, but my point applies to all young wines in general -- don't be too quick to dismiss them, for they could be completely different with another month or two in bottle.

Photo: Fallbrook winemaker Duncan Williams.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:26 PM

Passmore's Got A Brand New Blog!

Our buddy Nick Passmore just launched his new blog, Nick on Wine, and it's chock full of good things, from Nick's always hip Wine of the Week (NWOW for brevity), to brief commentary on all things vinous, as well as archives of Nick's articles for a myriad of publications.

Nick's musings, always entertaining and insightful, are some of the wittiest on the web. Don't miss it.

By the way, Nick's first NWOW on the new blog is a Merlot from Chile. Hey, the boy has quite a bit of courage, too!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:24 AM

August 2, 2007

Not Just Any Port In A Storm

One of the pairings that struck my fancy at last night's Critics Challenge Platinum dinner at San Diego's Le Fontainebleau restaurant was the Dow's 1992 Colheita Tawny Port that we served with a black mission fig dessert.

The colheita had been aged 12 years in cask before bottling in 2004 and still retained the subtle fruitiness of a young tawny. The dominant fruit characteristic was indeed fig.

I've always been a bit of a snob about tawnies and generally opt for those with more age -- 20, 30 and even 40 years -- and, thus, more complexity that is a result of the evolution of secondary aromas.

There are many occasions, particularly when served with a fruit-based dessert, in which a younger tawny with primary fruit flavors is the right call. In fact, with older tawnies I often prefer a pairing with savory cheeses rather than sweet desserts, but that's a matter of personal taste.

Next time you're out -- or when you're enjoying a fruit tart or apple cobbler at home -- consider pouring a slightly chilled young tawny, and perhaps you, too, will have the same reaction I did -- a sort of "Wow, what have I been missing?" moment.

It was the perfect ending to a beautiful evening.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:01 PM