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August 27, 2015

Wine Country Travel

 Once an esoteric pursuit embraced only by dedicated oenophiles, wine country travels in recent years have become the passion of millions of Americans drawn by the beauty and romance of vineyard lands and the people behind the wines they love.

"Where do you like to stay?" is second only to "what's your favorite wine?" when I am asked about my travels as a wine journalist.

Consequently I have a deep curiosity about whatever is new or unusual in wine country lodging. A spot that is both is even more appealing.

So it was my great pleasure to visit the Canyon Villa on a recent trip to Paso Robles, California, to judge at the annual Winemakers' Cookoff.

A four-bedroom bed-and-breakfast with rates starting at $275 a night, the Canyon Villa is located 10 minutes from the main square in Paso Robles, heading west out of town toward the seaside village of Cambria. Warm and inviting, it is a Tuscan-style villa in rural Paso Robles, with sweeping views of one of California's fastest-growing wine regions.

What makes this charming spot unusual is the ownership team of Katherine Bloxsom-Carter and her husband William Carter. Chef William oversees the impressive culinary side of the Canyon Villa, which is truly world class, for William is a renowned chef who spent the better part of the past three decades as executive chef at the Playboy Mansion. He studied at UC-Davis, too, and knows his stuff when it comes to wine.

The Canyon Villa has been open for business for all of six months. For information on this hot new wine country B&B, call 805-238-3362 or visit the website at www.thecanyonvilla.com.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:01 PM

August 25, 2015

Franciacorta vs. Champagne

 My good friend Jeremy Parzen came to town recently and staged a small tasting of sparkling wines from Franciacorta. Jeremy is the author of the Do Bianchi wine blog, with a specific focus on Italy.

Franciacorta, for those not versed in Italian wine, is a small wine district in Lombardy, near Milan. Italians have a mighty thirst for bubbly, and it is produced throughout the country, but Franciacorta is the only sparkling-wine production zone in Italy with the goods to rival France's Champagne region across a broad spectrum of producers.

Bubblies from Franciacorta generally have more structure, complexity and finesse than sparkling wines made elsewhere in Italy, although a few producers in Trentino come close.

Parzen is a true believer, and would put Franciacorta on par with Champagne.

"The varied soils, the Alpine climate, it's warmer than Champagne so Franciacorta is able to harvest riper grapes," he said. "I think it's more compatible with food than Champagne. I drink Franciacorta with pizza, with pasta, even with a pork chop. But Franciacorta always has to battle the 'C' word."

While I admire Parzen's enthusiasm and intellect on the top, and see the differences as well, I find Franciacorta has more similarities with Champagne than not.

Both produce the bubbles with a second fermentation in the bottle, a process in Italy called "metodo Italiano." Both have strict rules that dictate the grape varieties that must be used. Franciacorta allows three grapes for sparkling wine production: pinot nero (pinot noir), pinot blanc and chardonnay. Of course, chardonnay and pinot noir are the primary grapes used in Champagne.

Finally, the dosage levels for the various styles, such as brut or extra dry, are identical.

From my own personal point of view, I would put Ca' del Bosco and Bellavista on the same plane as top-notch Champagne. Bellavista was presented at the Franciacorta tasting; Ca' del Bosco wasn't. Other Franciacorta bubblies that impressed me at the tasting were from the producers Monte Rossa and Ricci Curbastro.

While I am not quite ready to join Parzen and anoint all of Franciacorta as the equal of Champagne, I can tell you the quality is second only to Champagne and the cost is far less.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:07 PM

August 7, 2015

Gallo on the Move

The breaking news in the U.S. wine industry recently was the announcement that E. & J. Gallo of Modesto, California, had purchased Sonoma-based brand Souverain and the Asti vineyards from Treasury Wine Estates.

It was Gallo's second eye-popping purchase in the past couple of months. Gallo bought J Vineyards & Winery, best known for its superb sparkling wines and a delicious Pinot gris, earlier in the year. And recently Gallo has added import clients such as Italy's Allegrini, an important winery in northern Italy's Veneto region.

This is the same Gallo that popularized jug wines in the United States post-Prohibition. Gallo has worked mightily to shed the jug-wine image, although it should be noted that in its day, when jug wines were thought by some to be California's only contribution to the wine discussion, Gallo's jug wines were the best around.

In recent years, Gallo has added such premium brands as MacMurray Ranch (Russian River Valley), Louis M. Martini (Napa Valley) and William Hill Winery (Napa Valley). The addition of J Vineyards and Souverain strengthens that hand.

And the hundreds of acres of vineyards that came in the Souverain deal will likely strengthen Gallo's more modestly priced offerings. What must be remembered is how Gallo won the jug-wine wars.

While most wine companies that produced jug wines sourced grapes from California's Central Valley and other lesser grape-growing regions, Gallo always had vineyards in Sonoma County that were used to boost the quality of its wines made from mostly Central Valley fruit.

I liken it to the Burgundy model. The finest Burgundy producers often reserve a small amount of their grand cru wine to blend with their premier cru wine, thus lifting the premier cru offerings. Then some of the premier cru wine would be reserved for the village wines, thus lifting the village wines.

Of one thing I am certain: the most recent acquisition will serve Gallo wines well, now and in the future.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 5:18 PM