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April 30, 2008

Fresh Palate for '08 Critics Challenge: SF Chronicle's Jon Bonne

Speaking of wine competitions, which I have been for most of this month, I have already plunged into final preparations for the upcoming Critics Challenge, the most unusual -- even unique --competition of them all.

We will be adding a fresh palate to our superb lineup of critics for this year's Challenge as Jon Bonne, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, joins us for the first time. Jon produces the Chronicle's weekly wine section, a "must" read for wine industry professionals and consumers alike.

Prior to joining the Chronicle, Bonne reported on wine, food and lifestyle for MSNBC.com, and has contributed to Food & Wine Magazine, the New York Times and numerous other publications.

What makes the Critics Challenge unique, and the addition of Bonne to our panel significant, is the format. All of the Critics Challenge judges are distinguished wine journalists with vast tasting experience and a keen grasp of geographical and cultural influences on wine and wine styles throughout the world.

What's more, you, the consumer, can peruse excerpts from the judges' tasting notes after the results have been posted.

So you not only know who is commending the award-winning wine, you also gain a sliver of insight into their thinking. This is one wine competition you won't want to miss. Keep watching this space for the results, which will go up on Wine Review Online as quickly as we can post them following the May 24-25 event.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:12 AM

April 27, 2008

K-J Strikes Mother Lode with Move to Estate Wines

It's been a while since Kendall-Jackson dazzled me with a wine competition performance. What's surprising about that is the fact that K-J, as it is known, was once the King of competitions.

Back in its heydey, when all of Jess Jackson's winery properties more or less flew under one flag and every wine was given a chance to shine on the competition circuit, K-J was capable of some fairly incredible stuff. Like the time four Hartford Court wines advanced to the "Sweepstakes" round of the Monterey Wine Competition and all had a great shot at Best of Show.

Jackson later split his wineries into separate divisions and the pricier limited-production wines such as Hartford Court literally dropped off my radar. I haven't tasted a Hartford Court wine in years, and can't even remember the last time I saw one on a wine list.

So it seemed to me the K-J presence in general, and in wine competitions in particular, had gone into eclipse. Until last weekend, when the mother ship, the Kendall-Jackson brand, struck the mother lode with 19 medals at the 2008 San Diego International Wine Competition. Any way you spin it, that's impressive.

But I can't say I'm totally surprised. A few years back Jackson ordered cuts in the production levels of the Kendall-Jackson wines, and directed that they be made entirely from estate-grown grapes. That was decisive on a couple of levels. First and foremost, Jackson owns thousands of acres of top-notch Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah vineyards, including many superb mountain sites, in Napa and Sonoma; and some excellent Pinot and Chardonnay vineyards in the Central Coast.

And the estate-only edict gave winemaker Randy Ullom complete control of his grapes from vine to bottle. This is not insignificant, and has paid off in the competition results.

I mean, when I need almost all of my fingers and toes to tally any winery's medals, I figure they have to be doing something right!

Speaking of doing something right, there can be little doubt that Mumm Napa Valley is hitting on all cylinders. This producer of elegant California bubbly snapped up eight medals in San Diego, one for each wine it submitted, including two Golds. Mumm gets an A for quality and an A for consistency.

And if you're looking for stellar performances on a tight budget, check out the Lindemans and Mouton Cadet medal-winners at $9 or less!

 Silver 2004 Meritage, Vintner's Reserve California $14.00
 Silver 2005 Cabernet Franc, Grand Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown Alexander Valley $35.00
 Bronze 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vintner's Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown California $19.00
 Bronze 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Grand Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown Sonoma County $26.00
 Silver 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Highland Estates, Hawkeye Mountain Alexander Valley $55.00
 Bronze 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Highland Estates, Trace Ridge Knights Valley $70.00
 Bronze 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Highland Estates, Napa Mountain Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley $70.00
 Silver 2005 Merlot, Vintner's Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown California $19.00
 Bronze 2005 Merlot, Grand Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown Sonoma County $26.00
 Bronze 2005 Merlot, Highland Estates, Taylor Peak Bennett Valley $40.00
 Silver 2006 Pinot Noir, Highland Estates, Seco Highlands Arroyo Seco $35.00
 Bronze 2006 Syrah, Vintner's Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown California $12.00
 Bronze 2005 Syrah, Highland Estates, Alisos Hills Santa Barbara County $35.00
 Bronze 2006 Zinfandel, Vintner's Reserve California $12.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay, Vintner's Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown California $12.00
 Gold 2006 Chardonnay, Grand Reserve, Jackson Estates Grown Monterey County/Santa Barbara County $21.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay, Highland Estates, Camelot Highlands Santa Maria Valley $25.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay, Highland Estates, Seco Highlands Arroyo Seco $30.00
 Bronze 2006 Chardonnay, Highland Estates, Piner Hills Russian River Valley $30.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2007 Shiraz, Bin 50 South Eastern  Australia $8.00
Mouton Cadet 
 Silver 2005 Bordeaux Rouge, Baron Philippe de Rothschild Bordeaux $8.99
 Silver 2006 Bordeaux Blanc, Baron Philippe de Rothschild Bordeaux $8.99
Mumm Napa Valley
 Silver 2003 Blanc de Blancs Napa Valley $26.00
 Silver NV Blanc de Noirs Napa Valley $19.00
 Gold NV Brut Prestige Napa Valley $19.00
 Silver NV Brut, Reserve Napa Valley $26.00
 Silver 2000 DVX Napa Valley $55.00
 Gold 2001 Grand Annee Napa Valley $30.00
 Silver NV Demi-Sec Napa Valley $30.00
 Bronze NV Cuvée, M Napa Valley $19.00

PHOTO: Jess Jackson


Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:47 AM

April 26, 2008

Mendocino Quality on Display

I can remember a time when wines from California's Mendocino County were little more than a big yawn. I can't quite pinpoint the exact moment the tide turned, but Mendo wines are boring no more.

Bonterra, for example, has led the charge in California toward organic, biodynamic and sustainable agriculture. And Bonterra, a division of the Fetzer family of wines, was out front on the issue long before it became fashionable.

Then there's Mendocino County's Anderson Valley gang. In this snippet of highlights from the 2008 San Diego International Wine Competition, staged April 19-20 at the Westgate Hotel in downtown San Diego's Gaslamp District, I've focused on Greenwood Ridge, Handley and Husch only because I'm tackling analysis of the impressive performances somewhat in alphabetical order

Greenwood Ridge took five medals, including two Golds and a Best of Show for its late harvest White Riesling, which is one of the best-smelling wines I've ever encountered. It's well-made, too, with tremendous length and stunning complexity.

Handley, which is probably best known for its wonderful Anderson Valley Pinots and Chardonnays, took a Gold for its 2003 Anderson Valley Brut. Handley wouldn't generally be my first choice in California bubbly, but there you have it. This is a very nice sparkler that wouldn't be out of place in the company of top-notch Champagne.

Husch won six medals, including two Golds, and demonstrated the consistent quality across a range of wines that I've come to expect from this meticulous family run winery.

I also must give a tip of the cap to the Napa Valley's Frank Family Vineyards, which entered three wines and won three medals, including Gold for its Cabernet Sauvignon and a particularly beguiling Carneros Chardonnay.

Then there was Jeff Runquist, who makes nothing but superb wines in small quantities and makes off with a bag full of medals every year. This year he claimed seven. Big Kudos to Jeff for maintaining a stellar record of accomplishment.

I could say the same for Hook & Ladder, Cecil DeLoach's reincarnation following the sale of his beloved DeLoach Vineyards. Hook & Ladder (Cecil was a San Francisco fireman in a former life) also bagged seven medals.

Frank Family Vineyards
 Gold 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $45.00
 Bronze 2006 Chardonnay Napa Valley $32.50
 Gold, Sweeps 2006 Chardonnay Carneros $40.00
Greenwood Ridge Vineyards
 Gold 2006 MendoVino Red Table Wine Mendocino Ridge $20.00
 Bronze 2006 White Riesling Mendocino Ridge $16.00
 Bronze 2006 Pinot Noir Mendocino Ridge $27.00
 Silver 2006 Zinfandel, Scherrer Vineyards Sonoma County $25.00
 Best of Show Dessert 
 Gold  2006 White Riesling, Late Harvest Mendocino Ridge $25.00
Handley Cellars
 Bronze 2006 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley $32.00
 Gold 2003 Brut Anderson Valley $38.00
 Bronze 2006 Chardonnay Dry Creek Valley $20.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2006 Gewürztraminer Anderson Valley $18.00
 Bronze 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley $15.00
 Bronze 2006 Viognier Dry Creek Valley $20.00
Henry Estate Winery
 Silver 2006 White Riesling, Select Harvest Umpqua Valley $12.00
 Silver 2006 Pinot Noir Umpqua Valley $18.00
 Bronze 2004 Pinot Noir, Barrel Select Umpqua Valley $30.00
 Gold 2007 Muller Thurgau Umpqua Valley $12.00
Hook & Ladder Winery
 Silver 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County/Russian River $24.00
 Silver 2006 Pinot Noir, Estate Bottled Russian River Valley $25.00
 Silver 2006 Pinot Noir, Third Alarm Reserve, Estate Bottled Russian River Valley $30.00
 Bronze 2005 Zinfandel, Third Alarm, Gambogi Ranch, Reserve Russian River Valley $30.00
 Bronze 2006 Chardonnay, Estate Bottled Russian River Valley $17.00
 Bronze 2007 Gewürztraminer Russian River Valley $16.00
 Silver 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Bottled Russian River Valley $22.00
Husch Vineyards
 Gold 2007 Chenin Blanc, La Ribera Vineyards Mendocino $11.00
 Bronze 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino $21.00
 Silver 2006 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley $23.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2007 Muscat Canelli, La Ribera Vineyards Mendocino $14.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay Mendocino $15.00
 Bronze 2006 Gewürztraminer Anderson Valley $14.00
Jeff Runquist Winery
 Gold 2006 R Barbera, Cooper Vineyard Amador County $24.00
 Silver 2006 R Cabernet Franc, Salman Vineyard Clarksburg $20.00
 Bronze 2006 R Primitivo, Nostro Vino Vineyard Amador County $26.00
 Bronze 2005 R Syrah Paso Robles $24.00
 Bronze 2004 R Syrah, Reserve, Three Way Vineyard Paso Robles $40.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2006 Z Zinfandel, Massoni Ranch Amador County $24.00
 Bronze 2005 R Zinfandel, Nostro Vino Vineyard Amador County $24.00

PHOTO: Milla Handley


Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:48 PM

April 25, 2008

Eberle's Competition Courage Pays Off with Nine Medals

I know from years of experience that Gary Eberle, the Godfather of Paso Robles wine, enthusiastically embraces competitions. But it wasn't always so. After I founded the Monterey Wine Competition in 1994, it was a good five years before an entry form from the Eberle Winery crossed my desk.

And Gary was someone I considered a friend (as much as a Maryland football fan can befriend a former Penn State gridiron star), But he came around because he recognized a hard truth: not every wine, not every winery, can count on a review from Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator.

Eberle is one of them that can't and doesn't. Gary knows he makes good wines, and he enters a bunch of wine competitions every year confident the medals will come. If not this week, then the next, or the next.

Last weekend at the 25th San Diego International Wine Competition Eberle walked off with nine medals, including a Gold for his Rhone blend Cotes du Robles. This is only fitting because Eberle is the man who introduced the Syrah grape to the Paso Robles region more than 25 years ago.

And how would you like to bat a thousand in your first stab at a wine competiton? The great Burgundy house of Domaine Bouchard entered one wine, a premier cru Meursault, and scored a Gold. Bingo!

Gotta like what's happening in Dry Creek Valley. Dutcher Crossing and Dry Creek Vineyards made out like bandits. What I loved was the consistency across a broad range of wines -- and remarkably affordable pricing given the quality.

Mitch Cosentino's second label, Crystal Valley Cellars, produced a stunning cache of four Gold medals, including two wines that were put forward for the "Sweepstakes" round of voting for Best of Show. A tip of the hat to Mitch, if you will. Better yet, run out and scoop up a couple of those great buys.

Then there was Estraie. Two medals, two Golds. This winery wasn't even on my radar. But it is now!

Charles Krug Winery
 Silver 2004 Generations, Family Reserve, Peter Mondavi Family Napa Valley $51.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Peter Mondavi Family Yountville / Napa Valley $26.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay, Peter Mondavi Family Carneros $20.00
 Bronze 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Peter Mondavi Family Napa Valley $18.00
Crystal Valley Cellars
 Bronze 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon, The Cab California $18.00
 Gold 2006 Tannat Lodi $25.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2006 The Temp, Kirschenmann Vineyard Lodi $25.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2006 Zinfandel, The Zin, M. Cosentino California $30.00
 Gold 2006 Zinfandel, Ancient Vine, Estate, M. Cosentino Lodi $30.00
Domaine Bouchard Pere et Fils
 Gold 2004 Meursault Genevrieres, Premier Cru Burgundy $100.00
Dry Creek Vineyard
 Gold 2004 The Mariner Dry Creek Valley $40.00
 Silver 2006 Zinfandel, Heritage Sonoma County $17.00
 Silver 2005 Zinfandel, Old Vine Dry Creek Valley $28.00
 Bronze 2006 Dry Chenin Blanc Clarksburg $11.50
 Silver 2006 Fume Blanc Sonoma County $14.50
Dutcher Crossing Winery
 Silver 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Proprietors Reserve Dry Creek Valley $28.00
 Gold 2006 Zinfandel, Maple Vineyard Dry Creek Valley $39.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay, Stuhlmuller Vineyard Alexander Valley $32.00
 Silver 2007 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley $21.00
Eberle Winery
 Bronze 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah Paso Robles $28.00
 Gold 2006 Cotes du Robles Paso Robles $20.00
 Bronze 2006 Barbera, Steinbeck/ Christian Lazo Vineyards Paso Robles $22.00
 Silver 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vineyard Selection Paso Robles $18.00
 Bronze 2005 Syrah, Steinbeck Vineyard Paso Robles $20.00
 Bronze 2006 Zinfandel, Steinbeck/Wine-Bush Vineyards Paso Robles $24.00
 Bronze 2007 Chardonnay, Estate Bottled Paso Robles $18.00
 Bronze 2006 Roussanne, Cass Vineyards Paso Robles $22.00
 Silver 2007 Viognier, Mill Road Vineyard Paso Robles $20.00
 Gold 2005 Sortie North Coast $22.00
 Gold 2006 Sauvignon Blanc Sonoma County $24.00


Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:05 AM

April 24, 2008

San Diego Wine Competition: Impressive Performers

I plan to use this space over the next couple of weeks to highlight a number of the impressive performances I witnessed at the 2008 San Diego International Wine Competition.

One of the first to catch my eye was Alba Vineyard of New Jersey! Alba had the Best of Show Fruit wine, yes, but also took a silver for a dry Riesling. New Jersey wouldn't be the first state that comes to mind when I'm looking for a good Riesling.

And what can I say about the Killer B's, Bonterra and Bogle? My goodness, these guys are the Energizer Bunnies of California wine. Just keep on winning and winning and winning. And we love those low, low prices!

And based on their performances in my other competitions, I have to say Bernard Griffin (Washington) and Bianchi (California) are two potentially great wineries to watch.

Alba Vineyard
 Best of Show Fruit Wine
 Gold NV Forbidden, Sweet Dessert Wine New Jersey $15.49
 Silver NV Blueberry Wine New Jersey $12.99
 Bronze NV Red Raspberry Wine New Jersey $12.99
 Silver 2006 Dry Riesling New Jersey $13.99
Artesa Winery
 Bronze 2004 Elements Napa/Sonoma $22.00
 Silver 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve Napa Valley $45.00
 Gold, Sweeps 2006 Pinot Noir Reserve, Estate Carneros $38.00
 Silver 2004 Tempranillo, Reserve Alexander Valley $25.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay, Reserve Carneros $26.00
Banrock Station 
 Gold 2007 Merlot South Eastern  Australia $6.99
 Bronze 2006 Shiraz South Eastern  Australia $6.99
 Gold 2007 Chardonnay South Eastern  Australia $6.99
Barnard Griffin Winery
 Silver 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley $17.00
 Silver 2005 Merlot, Reserve Columbia Valley $35.00
 Gold 2007 Rose of Sangiovese Columbia Valley $12.00
 Silver 2006 Syrah Columbia Valley $17.00
 Silver 2007 Viognier Columbia Valley $25.00
Bianchi Winery
 Bronze 2005 Pinot Noir, Signature Selection, Garey Vineyard Santa Maria Valley $25.00
 Silver 2005 Petite Sirah, Signature Selection, Rancho Tierra Rejada Paso Robles $24.00
 Bronze 2004 Syrah, Signature Selection Paso Robles $22.00
 Bronze 2005 Zinfandel, Heritage Selection, Zen Ranch Paso Robles $24.00
 Gold 2006 Chardonnay, Signature Selection, Edna Ranch Edna Valley  $19.00
Blackstone Winery 
 Gold 2005 Rubric, Sonoma Reserve Sonoma County $19.00
 Gold 2005 Merlot, Sonoma Reserve Sonoma County $16.00
 Silver 2006 Merlot California $12.00
Bogle Vineyards
 Bronze 2004 California Phantom California $17.00
 Bronze 2006 Chenin Blanc, California California $9.00
 Bronze 2005 Petite Sirah Port Clarksburg $18.00
 Bronze 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, California California $11.00
 Silver 2006 Merlot, California California $9.00
 Silver 2006 Petite Sirah California $11.00
 Bronze 2006 Zinfandel, Old Vine California $11.00
 Silver 2006 Chardonnay, California California $9.00
 Gold 2006 Sauvignon Blanc California $9.00

 Silver 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Mendocino County $14.99
 Silver 2005 Merlot, Made With Organically Grown Grapes Mendocino County $14.99
 Silver 2007 Rose Mendocino County $13.99
 Gold 2006 Zinfandel, Mendocino County $14.99
 Bronze 2006 Muscat, Bartolucci Vineyard Lake County $15.99
 Gold, Sweeps 2006 Chardonnay Mendocino County $12.99
 Silver 2006 Viognier Mendocino County / Lake Co. $17.99


Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:49 AM

April 22, 2008

San Diego Competition Reveals Worldly Best of Show Winners

We concluded the 25th San Diego International Competition late Sunday afternoon with the judging session that determines the big prizes.

The "Sweepstakes" tasting for Best of Show wines is both grueling and exhilarating. Following each vote the wines are unveiled. It is the first glimpse of the wines the judges have been tasting "blind" through the long weekend.

The 2008 Best of Show winners in San Diego represent the world, and are a fair read on the state of play wines from Europe and the Southern Hemisphere have in the U.S. wine market today.

The envelope please:

Best of Show Sparkling -- Henriot Blanc Souverain Brut, Champagne, $33.

Best of Show White -- Nobilo 2007 East Coast Pinot Gris, New Zealand, $13.

Best of Show Red -- Cinnabar 2005 Limited Production, Exclusive Release Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley, $35.

Best of Show Rose -- Bonny Doon 2006 Big House Pink, California, $10.

Best of Show Red Dessert -- Quinta do Vesuvio 2001 Vintage Port, Douro Valley, $55.

Best of Show White Dessert -- Greenwood Ridge 2006 White Riesling, Late Harvest, Mendocino Ridge, $25 (per .375ML bottle).

Best of Show Fruit Wine -- Alba Vineyard "Forbidden" Sweet Dessert Wine, New Jersey, $15.

It should be noted that the Greenwood Ridge Late Harvest Riesling took the overall vote for Best Dessert and the Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port received the most votes for any red dessert wine.

Complete results will be posted here at Wine Review Online soon.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:59 AM

April 16, 2008

San Diego International Wine Competition: The Judges

My days have been cluttered all week with last-minute details for this weekend's San Diego International Wine Competition.

A good bit of my time has been spent at the computer, pouring over this year's entries to double-check vintages, sugar levels, vineyard designations, appellations and the like. That part of my job as Director of the competition is something of a grind.

What I do enjoy is putting together the judging panels. This year we have 11 panels in groups of three, plus our Chief Judge, my colleague Michael Franz, the Editor of Wine Review Online.

I always try to find what I think will be compatible and complementary combinations. For example, at one judging table I've teamed winemakers Dave Stevens and Jon McPherson with Kimberly Charles, a wine marketing executive. They will evaluate the sparkling wines.

Dave, now a winemaking consultant, worked side-by-side for many years with Dawnine Dyer as they produced sparkling wine at Domaine Chandon. Jon, now the winemaker at South Coast Winery, produced bubbly for a number of years at Temecula's Thornton Winery. Kimberly worked closely with the French Champagne house Taittinger when she led the marketing efforts for Kobrand, the importer.

I can hardly wait for the judging to begin. Here are the judging matchups for the 25th San Diego International Wine Competition:

The Judges

Table 1

Thomas Rees, Winemaker, St. Supery Vineyards & Winery
Wilfred Wong, Beverages & More
Ray Pompilio, Wine Appreciation Guild

Table 2

Richard Carey, Winemaker, Vitis Research
Nick Ponamareff, California Grapevine
Mark Lovett

Table 3

Jac Cole, Winemaker, Spring Mountain Winery
Kevin Walsh, Henry Wine Group
Linda Jones-McKee, Wine-East Magazine

Table 4

Gary Eberle, Winemaker, Eberle Winery
Bob Foster, California Grapevine
Kate McHugh, Quintessential Wines

Table 5

Ashley Hepworth, Winemaker, Joseph Phelps Vineyards
Bob Small, Los Angeles Wine Competition
Traci Dutton, Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

Table 6

John Larchet, Winemaker, The Australian Premium Wine Collection
Eric Runyon, Southern Wine & Spirits
Lisa Redwine, Wine Director Molly's

Table 7

David Lattin, Winemaker, Kuleto Estate Winery
Dixie Gill, Premium Port Wines
Mark Deegan, Henry Wine Group

Table 8

Adam LaZarre, Winemaker, Hahn Estates
Sarah Belk King, Wine Review Online
Zubin Desai, The Better Half
George Riffle, Roseville

Table 9

Jon McPherson, Winemaker, South Coast Winery
Dave Stevens, Winemaker, Consultant
Kimberly Charles, Charles Communications

Table 10

Roman Roth, Winemaker, Wolffer Estate Winery
Linda Murphy, Decanter & Wine Review Online
Tim McDonald, Wine Spoken Here

Table 11

Duncan Williams, Winemaker, Fallbrook Winery
Ron Rawlinson, Domaine Alfred
Lisa Weeks, TGIC Imports

PHOTOS: Wolffer Estate winemaker Roman Roth and wine journalist and WRO Columnist Linda Murphy.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:09 AM

April 9, 2008

Russian River Style Points

Sorry for the light blogging the past few days, but I've been traveling and tasting and haven't had much time to sit down with my laptop near a wi-fi signal.

This week took me to a tasting of 30 Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs, hosted by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers at Russian Hill Winery. The agenda was the 2006 vintage, which was a bit unusual in the Russian River because of its duration and crop size.

"We had bud break in early April and didn't finish the harvest until November 30," said grower Saralee McClelland Kunde, who added it was the heaviest crop load she had seen in her 30-plus years as a grape grower.

I was generally impressed with the quality of the 30 wines presented, but was most intrigued by the diversity in style.

Winemaker Oded Shakked of Longboard Vineyards (he actually gained his fame as the longtime winemaker at J Vineyards & Winery before striking out on his own) addressed this in the discussion following one of the flights.

"Ten or 12 years ago I would have said it was easy to define the Russian River style of Pinot Noir," he said. "Not so easy today."

The Russian River was once known for its rich, more darkly fruited Pinots, a flavor profile Shakked characterized as blueberry/blackberry. In comparison tastings with, say, Carneros Pinots, the Russian River Pinots stood out starkly against the more red-fruited cherry/strawberry Pinots of Carneros.

Several developments come into play to explain this evolution of Russian River style. More vineyards have been planted in more varying soils and microclimates. Different clones (the Dijon clone being the dominant new one) have come into play. And viticulture and winemaking have evolved as more winemakers have pushed the envelope to explore other possible interpretations of the classic Russian River Pinot.

So the tasting of the 2006 vintage proved illuminating as it unfolded, with beautifully scented, red-fruited, spicy Pinots taking the stage alongside more traditional dark, rich expressions of the same grape. Delicious wines that were lighter in body but more fragrant alongside weightier wines that were more traditional for the area, with massive layers of fruit and power.

I think this is a good thing. In fact, I am sure of it.

PHOTO: Oded Shakked of Longboard Vineyards, Mike Sullivan of Benovia Winery, Saralee McClelland Kunde of Saralee's Vineyard, and Ellen Mack of Russian Hill Estate Winery address the media at a tasting of 2006 vintage Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 10:37 AM

April 4, 2008

Magazine Says Brunello Investigation Focused on Illegal Grapes

There's more on the embargo of the 2003 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino by Italian authorities. An Italian magazine, L'Espresso, reports the dispute involves the possibility that grapes other than Sangiovese may have been used in the production of Brunello.

The practice of blending mixed grape varieties is common in other parts of Tuscany (Chianti, for example, may contain small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet or approved Tuscan red-grape varieties) but strictly forbidden by the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino.

Brunello must be 100 percent Sangiovese. In separate and apparently unrelated news, Italian authorities also are investigating the possibility that some cheap Italian brands have been altered or tampered with.

I'm not sure if the cheap Italian wines are exported to the U.S. market, but one quarter of the  more than half a million bottles of Brunello under investigation had been bound for the United States.

Brunello is one of Italy's most important red wines, rivaled in price only by Barolo, Barbaresco and a handful of the so-called "Super Tuscans."

From news reports:

"Italian authorities are investigating incidents of adulterated wine, prompting the government on Friday to play down fears of another health scare like the one that hit mozzarella cheese last week.

A news magazine revealed that police were investigating the cheap end of the market for adding harmful chemicals into wine.

In a separate investigation at the luxury end, 600,000 bottles of vintage Brunello di Montalcino have been seized by investigators who suspect winemakers used grapes other than Sangiovese, the only ingredient allowed in the Tuscan wine, a favourite of U.S. connoisseurs, L'Espresso magazine reported."

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:39 AM

April 2, 2008

Shipments of '03 Brunello Embargoed in Dispute

"The Dish" over at WhitleyOnWine.com has the scoop on the dispute that is rocking the world of Brunello di Montalcino.

Seems the magistrate of Siena has put the kibosh on all shipments of the '03 vintage until the matter is resolved. Brunello that already has been exported will not be affected.

I just got wind of this from the folks at Castello Banfi, but apparently all Brunello producers fall under the magistrate's order. I haven't been able to raise any comment because everyone who is anyone in Italian wine (most everyone, at least) is attending the opening day (and by now, the opening night, which could mean they've already bellied up to the bar at Bottega del Vino!) at Vinitaly in Verona.

I plan to follow this story closely because a) I love Brunello and b) it is one of the most affordable "collectible" reds on the market today. Stay tuned.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:53 PM

April 1, 2008

Market-Driven Wine Quality Need Not be Expensive

I read with more than a passing interest the recent duke-out by Wine Review Online columnists Michael Franz and Michael Apstein on the thorny issue of wine pricing. Perhaps it is time for me to throw another log on the fire.

I am a free-market guy and have long held that markets should be allowed to establish the price of any commodity. I sincerely believe this is the reasonable approach. No one is twisting your arm to overpay for a bottle of wine.

Yet I wince at some of the prices I see. And I sense there is a gathering backlash, particularly from restaurateurs and retailers who do voluminous business in fine wine.

While having lunch a couple of weeks ago at the restaurant Milles Fleur in the San Diego suburb Rancho Sante Fe, one of the priciest zip codes in the United States, the proprietor and my longtime friend Bertrand Hug grimaced and shook his head when the topic of wine pricing was broached.

It came up because in the bull session over lunch it came up that another friend, restaurateur and retailer Ed Moore, had been quoted to the tune of something like "I'm getting sick and tired of all these $100 wines!"

My apologies if Ed was misquoted, but I think that sentiment is certainly growing.

"My customers (some of the richest folk in these parts) are comfortable with wines on the list at between $60 and $80," said Bertrand. "If I have to list a wine at more than $100, it just sits there."

Of course, Bertrand's cost is much lower than the wine list price, so he's saying that the wines that sell to his sophisticated clientele have a retail value of between $25 and $40. That's a nice range and one that offers plenty of terrific options.

I'm reminded of this because I had a small tasting this week of Cabernets, Bordeaux blends and Syrah that yielded a number of recommendations that you will be able to find this on the Wine Review Online Reviews page. All of the wines I really liked came in between $17 and $36.

The 2005 Sebastiani Secolo, the '05 Stuhlmuller Estate Cab, the '05 Clos du Val Cab, and a couple of different Syrahs from C. G. Di Arie, which are lovely if you can get past the funky and confusing labels. Those are just a handful of the excellent modestly priced reds I plowed through.

So why bother with the $100 wines? Why do I review them? First, let me agree there are too many. But wine enthusiasts, many of them our readers, buy them and deserve an honest evaluation even if some of these wines aren't what I might rush out to purchase.

In many cases, the price the market has established is both a function of quality combined with scarcity. What comes to mind are first-growth Bordeaux and Napa Valley legacy wines such as Spottswoode Cabernet, Shafer Hillside Select and Joseph Phelps Insignia.

Those wines fetch handsome prices because they've established their bonafides over many vintages and they are rare. I don't have a problem with that. What's hard to swallow -- quite literally -- are some of the wines from newer estates that charge outrageous prices because they believe that will bring instant cachet. And because they have to.

No one who bought a Napa wine estate over the past ten years got it on the cheap. Such purchases were pure speculation and only pencil out based on selling the estate's wine at a very high price point.

You should feel no obligation to bail out those folks. You can enjoy great red wine from the Napa/Sonoma region, and even, in some cases, Bordeaux for price points well below the $100 mark.

And that's a fact.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:55 PM