Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What makes up a good wine list?

I just paid a visit to a newly reopened wine bar in Ojai. Clearly, a lot of thought had gone into putting the menu together and creating ambiance in the dining room. Anticipation ran high for a great experience. And then I asked for the wine list. Looking it over, I could only sigh in disappointment.

Sadly, this restaurant’s list was not balanced, and lacked imagination. An example was it had 3 Zinfandels, all from the same winery, but different vineyards. The list had 11 Pinot Noirs, and 10 Cabernet Sauvignons, but only ONE blend, Justin Isosceles and one Syrah. No Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Grenache blends, or old world wines.

I talked this over with the waitress and the owner, two different points of view. The owner felt that these were all good wines, yes most were, and that he liked them and this is what he wanted to offer. My point to him was, people come into a wine bar to experience new things, not the same old things. He had nothing new.

So what makes a list good?
In a word: Balance. Balance of flavors, styles, and price points.
  • Flavor refers to different grape varieties or blends. Pinot noir is a single varietal; Bordeaux wine is produced from a blend of grapes. Each offers a different flavor profile and a solid wine list will feature a variety of flavors.
  • Style includes a multitude of factors such as growing region, winemaking technique, the presence of bubbles, or residual sugar. But on a very practical level, style can generally be equated with weight: full, medium, or light.
  • Price points are just that, and a range is desirable.

These are the pieces of the puzzle. Putting them together, with a nod to the nearby winemakers, a modest wine-by-the-glass template might look something like this:
* Sparkling: Champagne or similar $14
* Light-Bodied White: S.B. County Sauvignon Blanc $7
* Full-Bodied White: Sonoma Chardonnay $12
* Off-Dry White: German Riesling $8
* Light-Bodied Red: Italian Chianti $8
* Medium-Bodied Red: S.B. County Pinot Noir $14
* Full-Bodied Red: S.B. County Syrah $10
* Full-Bodied Red: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon $14

It’s not rocket science, but considering all the work that goes into creating a menu, an indifferent wine list seems an affront to the food! To restaurant owners, I implore you not to treat your wine list as an afterthought—it is an extension of your menu and an important source of revenue. Be prepared to work with multiple vendors and take advantage of their knowledge. You should also consider developing parings of the wines on your list to complement your menu. To wine-loving diners, I invite you to speak up and ask for better. Your food deserves it.



Monday, September 27, 2010

Weekend in Napa Valley

Bev and I flew up to Oakland and rented a car and took off for our Bottleshock tour of Napa on Saturday; Chateau Montelena, Heitz, Praeger Port Works, Freemark Abby, and Sunday we did Grgrich Hills, Castillo de Armarosa, Stags Leap, Frogs Leap and Opus One.

Chateau Montelena was nice, we did end up buying a Riesling, Chardonnay and a Cab. Heitz, I loved- again, bought a Cab there. Freemark Abby, the only winery that had both a red and and white wine in the 1976 Paris Tasting, was very nice too, less expensive wines- bought a couple Petite Sirahs, a Sauv Blanc and a Zin . Praeger, we just drank port.... huge pours.... not a good thing on an empty stomach :). At that point we were done... went to hotel and slept till 6:30pm and then went out to dinner at a very nice Italian place. (A note on our hotel- when we checked in they informed us that the hotel had NO HOT WATER until Tuesday.... there were no other hotels vacant this weekend, so they gave us 30% off the room rate which made it less than $100)

Sunday's tasting started at 9:30 in the morning... ahhhh Grgrich Hills.... what a way to start the morning. I loved them all. Bought a Cab and a Sauv Blanc. From there we decided to drive back up to Calistoga and see the Castle winery, Castillo de Armarosa. I have learned something over the years of wine tasting, the reason wineries have castles is because the wine sucks... $16 for a tour and tasting.... a waste of money. Nice castle, $40 million to build, 15 years to finish.... should have spent the money on a winemaker. We then went to V. Sattui for lunch, which was nice. Then we took off to Frogs Leap, nice tasting wines, bought a rose and dessert wine.

We had about an hour to kill before Opus One so we were near Stags Leap and did a tasting there. Nice move. Great tasting room, great people, awesome wines. I bought a very nice Yountville Cab and Sauv Blanc.

Lastly was Opus One. Bev had bid on a tour for 6 people at a fundraiser earlier in the year, and she won it! Beautiful winery. Our tour guide greeted us in the lobby. He took us into the greeting room to discuss the history of Opus One, then we went into the winery, where they were hand sorting through the 20 tons of grapes that came in that morning- we got to see their entire process live, including a brand new optical grape sorter, that uses a computer to sort through the grapes and discards the ‘bad ones’. We toured their barrel rooms, and then into the private tasting of the 2005 and 2006 vintages, where we could have finished off bottles of both. I had a glass of each, but we were leaving for the airport or we could have finished them off. I bought a bottle of the 05 and two bottles of their second label wine, Overture.

We ended up with 18 bottles, and spending less than our budget.

Funny, I have always stayed away from the big wineries, and focused on the small boutique wineries. And in the past I always felt the Napa attitude, we didn't have any of that this weekend, it was totally positive. This time bigger was better… except for the castle.

Next time, you need to join us!


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Vina Moda

On my first visit to Vina Moda a few years ago, winemaker, owner Nathan Vader (no relation to Darth) brought out a wonderful 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. It literally made my knees buckle when I tasted it. I am serious. I still have about 9 bottles in my cellar and according to him, he only has a few cases left. It is worth every penny.

During this visit, we tasted the 2007 Viognier, which at $44 a bottle is high for a Viognier, but for me it was close to perfection. Nathan’s Clockspring Zin was also very nice, but frankly I am getting overloaded with Zins- but saying that at $32 a bottle, this Zin is worth the price. But, like last time I was there, I was again knocked over by another creation at Vina Moda, the 2007 Villa Vallecito Barbera ($36). Winemakers in Northern Italy should be afraid, very afraid. This is a classic Barbera, with intense fruit and enhanced tannic content. You want to know the really bad part? Only 108 cases were produced.

Don’t let the screw-cap closure on these bottles fool you either. (I asked Nathan why he would want such a fine wines in a screw cap bottle; his response was that he did not want to risk the chance of just one bottle being ruined by oxidation)

Their website STILL isn’t up yet with the details of their wine, but it does have their contact information. They are only open for tasting on Saturdays, 12 – 6 pm.

147 Main Street, Murphys Ca.


You can read my previous review of Vina Moda on my website:



Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Wineries of the Sierra Nevada Foothills, Hatcher Winery

Located in the heart of Murphys, under ground! You have to walk down an alleyway, down some stairs and under the main street (I think it is even called Main Street) and you will find a small-darkened room where some of the best wines in the area are served.

Matt Hatcher is the owner and winemaker, and his wine making talents have put Hatcher on the don't miss list of Sierra Nevada Foothill wineries.

All of their wines are under $30 a bottle, (with the exception of their Ice wine at $32) which I feel makes them all a great value.

During my most recent visit last weekend, I enjoyed the 2009 Grenache Rose ($16), it’s light but spicy taste was refreshing and a mouthful for a rose. I really enjoyed its finish. Moving into the reds, the Sewell ($23) this Rhone blend’s is named for the wine makers Dad and it is a worthy tribute. A blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and Cinsault brings out the flavors of orange blossom, dry cherry, and lavender. Dry, well balanced and complex. This was a beautiful wine. Lastly for me was their Petite Sirah ($26); I have to tell you, more and more wineries are doing this varietal well; deep, dark, black fruit. Big healthy tannins balanced with bright acidity. Ripe plum and tart cherry lead to a big finish that is classic Petite.

Hatcher is open from 11:00am-5:00pm Friday thru Sunday and 12:00pm-5:00pm Monday thru Thursday. They are located underground on Main Street in downtown Murphys, (across from Grounds restaurant).



Monday, September 20, 2010

Antelope Valley AVA?

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is weighing approval of a third American Viticultural Area in the High Desert region northeast of Los Angeles. If approved, the Antelope Valley of the California High Desert AVA would join the Leona Valley and Sierra Pelona AVAs established in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

The Antelope Valley Winegrowers Association (AVWA), founded in 2006, was behind all three proposals, supported by nurseryman Ralph Carter, who drew up the petitions. A fourth application for a Tehachapi/Cummings Valley AVA, which would include part of neighboring Kern County, is currently on hold because it does not contain sufficient vineyard acreage.

The AVWA membership consists of about a dozen wine grape vineyards and five vintners, distributed among all four of the areas. With an annual production of some 18,000 cases and 90 acres of vineyards, Agua Dulce, the only winery in the Sierra Pelona AVA, is by far the largest. Two wineries operate within the proposed Antelope Valley AVA: 4,000-case Cameo Ranch & Winery and 2,500-case Antelope Valley Winery, both in Lancaster. Cameo Ranch farms 25 acres of vineyards; Antelope Valley Winery has a single acre at its Lancaster estate and more in the Leona Valley AVA, according to its wine club manager and AVWA president, Chantel Kilmer.

According to the petition, the proposed Antelope Valley AVA contains 665 square miles, bounded on three sides by the Tehachapi, San Gabriel and Sierra Pelona mountains and on the fourth by the Mojave Desert.

What do you think about this possibility?



Thursday, September 16, 2010

carhartt vineyard… a small shack with some big wines

Their website calls them the worlds smallest tasting room- I have to agree. Located in Los Olivios, across the street from Saarloos and Sons in the old Conn Creek tasting room is carhartt vineyards.

But don’t let the size fool ya, what you get here is what I feel is near the ultimate in wine tasting experiences. The person pouring the wines is Mike Carhartt the wine maker himself. Ask him anything about the wine, grapes, farming, weather, the theory of relativity, and he has an answer for you. Mike along with his wife Brooke and their son operate this strictly family run vineyard and tasting room.

And the wines of carhartt are very nice indeed. I ended purchasing their Grenache Blanc ($21) that was full of honeysuckle aromas with a nice light citrus taste; Sauvignon Blanc ($21), their Sangiovese ($24), two bottles of his Merlot ($30) and my absolute favorite, the Bordeaux blend with 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cab Franc, 3% Petite Verdot appropriately called “Four Play” ($35). Upon tasting this wine I swear I could have closed my eyes and believed I was in the Saint Emilion region of France. This wine had a velvety texture that I love and is normally felt in much more expensive wines. Defiantly this is a wine to enjoy with a nice meal, and lingering finish that brought joy to my pallet. I bought a couple bottles of Four Play, and I plan on laying them down for a few years.

Next time you are in the Solvang area wine tasting, I suggest you stop by this little tasting room with the big wines and say hi to Mike and Brooke!



Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chronic Cellars… something a bit different

So there I am, I just leave the fancy Justin Gala… driving down Nacimiento Lake Drive in Paso Robles and I see a sign that I have driven past many times, but this time I say hey…. With a name like this, I got to try it.

Chronic Cellars is the baby of brothers/Cellar Rats Jake and Josh Beckett. They started selling their crazy creations in 2008. The prices are a great value, the wines a pretty good too, but what got me was the wonderful names of their wines, and how they got past the legal weenies that watch over the wine label industry I do not know. Take their signature wine for example. Sofa King Bueno. Go ahead, say it out loud…. And again…. Uh huh, yeah, that’s what I thought too. Pretty sofa king funny huh?

Their wines range in price from $14 to $20. From the Sofa King Suite Riesling to the Purple Paradise which is a Zin with a dash of Petite Sirah both going for $14. Their wine club members love these guys and the wines.

Their wine labels are also a work of art.

So next time you are looking for something a bit different, leave your Tastevin in the car and check out Chronic Cellars.



Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wine Spectator Video Contest

I enjoy this contest every year, go over to Wine Spectators web site and vote for your favorite wine video.



Friday, September 10, 2010

Norm did it again…

Have I ever said just how much I enjoy Dark Star Cellars in Paso Robles?

Well, Norm took his left over wine from last years bottling, stuck it in a bottle, slapped a label on it and called it Chain Reaction.

Here is what Norm says on their web site “Now any duffus can sell wine, but it takes an extremely talented guy with the pallet of Bacchus himself to create a blend like Chain Reaction. That guy would be me of course. It’s an incredible, delicate blend of Cab, Merlot, and Syrah with a splash of Grenache and Zin. Pure genius, and very “outside the box”.

Need I say more? The wine is good… real good. It reminds me of the Justin Orphan, but with more flavor, and a better finish. It sells for $18 a bottle, but wine club members get it for $12.60….. yeah that’s right Twelve Dollars and Sixty Cents.

I have been reevaluating my wine club memberships lately, some I have had for many years, the wines have been disappointing- but I have never been disappointed from Dark Star wines. Make them your next wine club membership!

And while you are there, be sure to check out their son’s wines, located right behind the tasting room for Dark Star, you will find Brian Benson Cellars. Brian has a Syrah that spent 40 months in oak barrels that is full-bodied and just the right amount of spice and smoke to make you say, can I have another glass, and pass the steak!



Thursday, September 9, 2010

Website updates!

I have updated my winery review section of my website, added Ventura County and Williamette Valley! Check it out



Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Got $25 Million? Mondavi is for sale!

The 56-acre Napa estate of the late Robert Mondavi and his widow, Margrit, has gone on the market for $25 million.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wine labels…. The good the bad the ugly…

Happy labor Day!

So you bought some wine to celebrate Labor Day, did the bottles label affect your purchase? Marketing specialist will tell you that the quality of the package can make or break a product. That goes along with wine. I remember working with Rob and Barbara on their Magnavino label. One evening they brought over about 6-7 samples of what he was looking for. Was the border better with two lines or one thin line, now about dots and lines as a border…. In the back of my mind I kept thinking, damn the wine better be good (it is) or it doesn’t matter what the bottle looks like (it looks great).

Design Juices in the UK posted the 50 most exquisite wine labels on their web site, what do you think?

Does the label appearance make a different to you when buying wine? Post your comments here, and what is the best looking wine label you have ever seen?



Friday, September 3, 2010

Graveyard Vineyards wines and dry rub

Last month during my visit up to the Paso Robles area I returned to Graveyard Vineyard to sample their latest creations. Driving through their gates, I saw the smiling face of Paula, waiting to show us their latest wines.

The personality of the people pouring the wines can actually make or break the wine tasting experience. In this case, Paula knows what she is doing- she is knowledgeable about the wines and the wine making process and also has humor and an excellent personality- she is easy on the eyes too :).

We tasted everything from their wonderful house wine, the Tombstone Red ($14 a bottle); to their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, that wine is what I look for in Cabs, huge, meaty, great tannins, and finish. This is a wine that you can drink and enjoy tonight, or lay it down for 5-7 years, and watch it grow and develop into something real special. I love this wine and at $38, I think it is a bargain and holds up to some of the finest Napa Cabernets!

While we were checking out, Paula placed a little something in our shopping bags; it was a Dry Rub that is an old family recipe. Well, this past weekend I decided to give it a try. I put some of that bad boy on some pork spare ribs, oven cooked them for about an hour and a half, then put them into a plastic bag, and poured in some teriyaki sauce and left in the fridge overnight. The next night I put them on the Bar-B-Que, heated them up and poured us glasses of Graveyard Mortal Zin (OMG)… (Those of you that know me know that I am pretty picky when selecting and buying Zinfandels…. There is a bar set that is pretty high). I have to tell you the pairing of that wine and those ribs WERE TO DIE FOR! The Mortal Zin goes for about $22, and is worth it. Graveyard only makes 150 cases of this too. (Why am I telling everyone this? I need more!)

You’re next trip to the Paso Robles area, do not forget to venture up to San Miguel, you won’t be disappointed!



Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tackitt Family Vineyards

During my last visit up to the Paso Robles area I had made a return visit to Tackitt Family Vineyards at the request of winemaker Leon Tackitt. My last visit was unfortunately a disappointment for me. A few weeks before my recent visit I received an email from Leon requesting that I come back and sample their wines again.

I am glad I did. Tackitt Family Vineyards is a small, family owned winery. The kind I strive to find that makes well-crafted wines. Their signature wine is Gew├╗rztraminer. The original vines for this varietal were planned in the 1970s, and to this day still produce one of the finest Gew├╗rztraminers you can find anywhere in California. At $19 a bottle you cannot go wrong.

Unfortunately during my trip, Leon was not there to walk me through their tasting list, but his father; the vineyards farmer, was there instead. I did enjoy talking to him.

Another wine I enjoyed and purchased was the Bravo Zulu, and Zinfandel/Barbera blend that brings the spiciness of the Zin to the heartiness of the Barbera, a wonderful blend. Only 83 cases were made of this wine, I would suggest getting some before he runs out! I loved the Barbera notes on this wine and think next year he should do a straight Barbera… just for fun.

The final wine I loved and purchased was the EOD Red blend. EOD Cellars wine that is specially bottled to support the Wounded EOD Warrior Foundation. All of the net proceeds of your purchase price will go directly to the foundation. EOD is for the Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, of which Leon was a member of and the recent Academy Award winning movie Hurt Locker was about.

Check out Tackitt Family Vineyard, next time you are in Paso Robles, they are north a bit, in San Miguel. Tell them I sent ya!