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Mourvedre’s Dark and Terroir-torial Personality

I took a run at the Rhone Rangers’ Tasting  a couple weekends ago (Sunday, April 6). It has moved from Fort Mason in San Francisco to Craneway Pavillon in Richmond. What a spectacular venue. Wall of windows looking across the Bay right at the Golden Gate Bridge. I was there in the afternoon, but sunset must be spellbinding. As is my habit, I picked one variety on which to concentrate my attention.

Compact cluster with wing, thick skin, and triangular leaf-shape that looks like it was cut out with pinking shears.

Compact cluster with wing, thick skin, and triangular leaf-shape that looks like it was cut out with pinking shears.


Mourvèdre has been around for a long time. It is thought to have been brought to Spain by the Phoenicians two centuries before the Muslims arrived on the Iberian Peninsula, and nearly a century before the Islamic Prophet Mohammad was even born (570 AD). The Spanish name for the grape is Monastrell. The grape moved east, and acquired its French name in the late 17th century, which is about the same time Cabernet Sauvignon was spontaneously hybridized in Bordeaux. While not prominent, the grape also moved to California and Australia (where, for a long time in both places, it was called Mataró). It showed up in Australia in 1823 (in Dr. Busby’s importation), and played a role in the Barossa Valley’s production of Port-substitutes for the London market. In California it was part of the collection brought to Santa Clara by the Pelliers in the 1860’s. It was a popular addition (along with Carignan, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Alicante Bouschet) to the field blend vineyards Italian immigrants liked so much in California.


Since the advent of the Rhone Rangers in the mid-1980’s, Mourvèdre has played a more publicly recognized role in the GSM blends of both California and Australia. Bonny Doon’s Cigare Volant was probably the first example to gain notoriety in the US (1983 initial vintage), and Randle Grahm played a pivotal part in explaining that California’s old Mataro vines were the same grape as Mourvèdre in the southern Rhône Valley. Chateauneuf-du-Pape was, of course, the classic example of this blending genre, and the Perrin family’s Ch. Beaucastel was a particularly well-known example in the US. Beaucastel is usually about a third Mourvèdre. That’s a little unusual; Grenache commonly dominates, followed by Syrah. When the Perrins came to Paso Robles to join their US importer, Robert Haas, in a winery called Tablas Creek, it was only natural they would rigorously evaluate Mourvèdre in California on its own. Moreover, they brought their modern French clones with them.

Mourvèdre as a stand-alone varietal flourishes in the Bandol region of the French Riviera east of Marsailles, but west of Monaco, Cannes, and St. Tropez. As such, it gets a lot of exposure in Europe, both as a hearty red, and as a rosé (made by bleeding off part of the juice just as fermentation starts in order to concentrate the color and tannin in the remaining red wine). At one point Bandol wines represented a great bargain. However Kermit Lynch, an importer from Berkeley, put paid to that situation back in the 1980’s. He imported Bandol’s best wine to the US, Ch. Tempier, and quickly drove the price from $16 to $35. Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were complicit in this aggrandizement of Ch. Tempier. It goes nicely with grilled vegetables.


Over the last eight years or so Paso Robles and places like El Dorado County in the Sierra Foothills have been waging a relentless campaign to popularize Rhônish wines. I don’t see it as a zero sum game, whereby a bottle purchased from one area means one less bottle purchased from the other area. I see it more as an attempt to release the tide, which will in turn raise all boats. Furthermore these two regions present different growing conditions, which should eventually show us certain terroir characteristics. That’s an insight to which we can look forward, and I was hoping to tease it out of this Rhone Rangers Tasting. El Dorado is colder, with more rain, and a shorter growing season. Soils in Paso Robles have a higher pH, and more carbonates in them. Could I taste these attributes?

First let’s take a cut at the fruity aromas displayed by 100% varietal Mourvèdres. I’m really tempted to say El Dorado produces something akin to cranberries, whereas Paso Robles produces more of a really ripe black cherry note. Would that wine criticism were that straight-forward and organized. It wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence. Let’s call the distinction a tendency.


What seemed more apparent though, was a distinction between fruity examples, and what the pourers liked to call “earthiness.” One winery even had an example of each. Oz Clarke, the British song-n-dance man turned wine personality, comments that a ‘barnyard’ character serves as signature for Mourvèdre. It is certainly true Ch. Beaucastel was famous for that smell over a great many years. I’m sorry, that’s brettanomyces, a microbiological infection. It comes from winemaking practices; not from a grape varietal. We can argue coherently about whether it adds complexity when present in small amounts, but full-blown examples smell like a day at the racetrack, and that’s a fault. I find the phrase earthiness completely disingenuous. It implies minerality. Brett has nothing to do with minerality; it has more in common with stinky cheeses. One common byproduct of a Brett infection is 4-ethyl-phenol, which you would recognize as the solvent that makes bandages sticky. ‘Adhesive’ and ‘mineral’ may seem like somewhat similar characteristics in wine, but it is wrong to conflate them together.


A truly distinguishing feature between Mourvèdres is heft: alcohol, body, tannins, pigments, overall mouth-feel. These are all positive contributions Mourvèdre makes to a blend, but they can easily become too extreme in a stand-alone model. They can also seem coarse. Paso appears able to produce these ingredients routinely; El Dorado much more rarely. So one may fairly posit the best Mourvèdre vintages in El Dorado will be warm ones, but wait. Mourvèdre has a thick skin, and relatively small bunches. It shrugs off late season rain. That can be an enormous advantage in the Foothills. Holly’s Hill has their 2011 Mourvedre Classique for sale ($25). It’s excellent. Very fruity, in the cranberry mode, and medium-bodied. 2011 was one tough year for the Foothills: snow on 4 June and four inches of rain on 4 October. But Mourvèdre could be left on the vine to continue ripening after the rain was over. Skinner also has a Foothills Mourvèdre, albeit 2012, and it too is clean, balanced, cranberry fruited, and medium bodied ($24).

Mari Wells Coyne, consultant atDavid Girard Winery in El Dorado County near Coloma

Mari Wells Coyne, consultant at David Girard Winery in El Dorado County near Coloma

Both Holly’s Hill and David Girard are good examples to evaluate. They both make at least two stand-alone Mourvèdres, as well as a blend or two. Mari Wells, winemaking consultant at David Girard, likes Mourvèdre in the Foothills. David Girard Vineyard is only about a mile from Coloma (site of Marshall’s gold discovery on the south fork of the American River), and they make a point about drawing parallels to conditions in France’s Rhône River Valley. The Mourvèdre Girard makes from their head-pruned vines is their most expensive wine (2010 vintage $54). It’s a mouthful, with lots of oak, concentrated flavors, a chewy texture, and good acid balance. No one is going to call this wine flabby.

Paso just starts from a different place. The Tablas Creek ($40), even in 2011, is a big, blowsy wine that smells like Bing cherries harvested for juice after the fresh fruit market is closed. Cypher made a nice Mourvèdre in 2011 ($55). It’s stylish, has an herbaceous thread woven through it, but remains resolutely big-bodied and plush on the palate.

For contrast, consider Cline’s 2012 Ancient Vines ($20) offering sourced from the sandy Delta soils of Oakley. It’s fat, but still possessed of fine complexity. Or Bonny Doon’s 2010 Old Telegraph ($45), a wine simultaneously fresh and fruity in the nose, but dense and brooding on the palate.


Given Mourvèdre’s long association with the east coast of Spain, it makes sense to look to Jumilla, and Valencia, and Penedes for a traditional food match. The easiest one, and a real good one, is Serrano jambon (dry-cured ham), olives, some smoky cheeses, and crusty bread. That’s not exactly opening up new pages, but it works right down to the ground.

Another item is equally traditional, and much less frequently seen in the US. Make a paella with kid goat and escargot. It’s delicious. Plenty of saffron, lots of garlic, some dried ancho chiles, Japanese (narrow) eggplant, handful of golden raisins, and about a pound of pork sausage. Get the goat at a Mexican market. Cut it up into cubes. Clean the snails in hot water (not boiling), and only put them in the dish at the end, like you would with clams. The dish is communal and very hearty. So is the wine. Mourvèdre’s ample extract helps to focus the rich flavors and rounded textures of the food. The density of the wine’s taste is a match for the strength of the food’s impression. Everyone can have a second glass and another scoop of paella. This combination is particularly good when it’s cold outside. I generally use disposable paper bowls, and finish with citrus wedges. Easy peasy, after the shopping is done.

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Calif & Pac NW class

3-session fine wine class, San Francisco, 19 – 20 – 21 Mar. Two hours each session. Objective; not promo.

San Francisco Vacation

Bruce Cass Wine Lab Weekenders are three-session, fine wine classes at historic Fort Mason in San Francisco with plenty of free time for participants to see the sights, and to partake of the abundant SF culture. Call it a Wine Education Vacation in America’s most romantic city. Trees have been sprouting flowers for three weeks in San Francisco. Grape vines will start pushing buds by the time class starts. Temperatures are in the mid 60ºs; with frequent sunny days and crystalline clear skies ~ a formula for the most magnificent views.


Wine Event Description

     The California & Pacific Northwest Weekender is three seminar sessions each with sophisticated lecture and slides, plus 12-15 high-quality wines in each session adroitly chosen, and painstakingly acquired, to illustrate points from the lecture when tasted side-by-side. Retail value of all the wines tasted is nearly $2,500. Total class fees are $259 single; $479 couple.
     This class will cover all the important growing regions of America’s Left Coast, explaining how they differ in climate and topography, and how those differences show up in the flavor of the wines. Moreover, additional emphasis will be placed on differences in regional lifestyle, which result in price disparities and varied food matches. Handouts will recommend places for visitors to stay and eat when touring these districts.
     Find full course outlines and examples of previous course wine lists on the Wine Lab website. Also find convenient places to stay in San Francisco, entertaining restaurants, and fun leisure activities in the Bay Area. You can even print out maps for San Francisco Wine Bar Walking Tours.

Future Wine Classes

     Weekender wine classes are taught several times each year in San Francisco. After Calif & Pac NW this March, Fundamentals of Taste & Smell will be taught May 21 – 22 – 23. [It will be repeated August 13 – 14 – 15 in Nevada City, about an hour east of Sacramento, up in the Sierra Foothills.] Then a specialty class, comparing the best wines from the Old World with the best from America and the Southern Hemisphere (Europe vs. New World) will be held in San Francisco on Halloween weekend in October. That’s right. Halloween in San Francisco. Everybody should do it once in their life..

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Lovely to see a guy who actually made his fortune in the wine biz out-dazzling all those Napa folks who made theirs in high-tech.

Background Wine Education

     Definition: three-tiered distribution system = winery sells to a distributor, who in turn sells to a restaurant or retail store, who in turn sells to the consumer. Three transactions = three tiers. Federal Excise Tax is collected from the winery at the first transaction; State Excise Tax is collected from the distributor at the second transaction; Sales Tax is collected from the restaurant or retail store at the third transaction; Bob’s your uncle.
     Tied-House-Laws, enacted by various states right as Prohibition ended in 1933, prohibit a single entity from holding both a distributor license and a retail license at the same time. Almost all of these states require that alcohol-for-sale go through all three transactions in their state. During Prohibition the Mob was very well vertically integrated: they produced the booze, and distributed it themselves to their own retail outlets. So the goal of Tied-House-Laws was to dis-enfranchise the Mob. No problem. The Mob said, “We’ll just hold the distributor license, and thus control a primary choke-point on the pipe bringing alcohol-for-sale into the state.” California is fairly unique in that it does not have Tied-House-Laws.
     Selling wine direct-to-consumers is often a very important strategy for small wineries. It makes tremendously good sense on several levels. First, the winery gets to keep all the retail dollars. That means they only have to make half as much wine per dollar of revenue compared to a winery selling through the three-tiered distribution system. Second, because they get to communicate directly with each customer, the winery can impart much more information about their wine. This story is at least half of the total package when it comes to a customer’s enjoyment of the product. And finally, wineries selling direct-to-consumer get the opportunity to contact a customer several months after that customer has made a purchase to ask, “Would you like to buy another bottle?”

Top Winery Descriptions

     Historically there are three really impressive direct-to-consumer winery operations in California, all using different techniques, and all aimed at separate slices of the market. Windsor Vyds features a very aggressive telemarketing program. Their hook is you can get your name on the label if you buy two cases. Clearly their target market is businesses looking to give a bottle of wine as a gift to clients. Windsor is just south of Healdsburg in northern Sonoma County. Navarro Winery is in the Anderson Valley, on the ocean side of the mountains, in Mendocino County. Run by a husband and wife team with extensive advertising experience (she a former copywriter; he the former owner of Pacific Stereo), they have always aimed higher up the wine-knowledge pyramid using a sophisticated direct-mail program. Their short postal mailings are masterpieces of homespun, intelligent information with an understated, one-color, New England seed catalogue look to them. For example, a picture of a young cat tentatively picking its way amongst bottles and glasses, with a caption which reads,”Don’t pussyfoot around. These bargains won’t last.”
     Sattui Winery is in Napa Valley, just south of St. Helena. Certainly the biggest financial success of the three, Sattui has always aimed at the mid-section of the consumer pyramid. Started in the early 1970’s, Sattui’s first loan application to Napa Valley Bank based his business model on a simple, yet brilliant concept. “We will be the first property with picnic facilities on the right-hand side of Hwy 29 as people drive north into St. Helena,” the paperwork said. Customers could buy a bottle of wine, a sandwich, and sit under a shady tree. The wines were all from Sattui. So Dario (nee Daryl) got 100% of retail on the wine, plus full retail on the sandwich. Heavy traffic on Hwy 29 paid dividends ~ it has always been a nightmare to turn left across Hwy 29. And it keeps on giving. Today there is a large branch of the famous New York delicatessen Dean & DeLuca right across Hwy 29 from Sattui. But Dario posts conspicuous signs saying, “No pedestrian traffic across the roadway.” He’s right. It is mildly dangerous. But his self-interest couldn’t be more obvious.

The Wine Story

     A couple weeks ago I went to a ‘futures’ celebration at Sattui. I’ve always been a fan of his Preston Vyd Cabernet Sauvignon, but I’d never actually toured the facilities, choosing instead to shop for deli supplies at the Napa Valley Olive Oil Mfg. Co. on Charter Oak St, and to picnic in a small park by the Napa River. For some reason I assumed the Sattui event would be a sit-down meal with a thorough (call it ‘tutored’) explanation of the wines. Wrong. That’s not his clientele. My first ah-hah moment came as I drove into the winery. His guests were tailgating with bottles of beer in the parking lot. Okay. Good time crowd. Sattui had more than 50 wines on offer, with buffet-style food service. Fifty seems like a lot of wines, but consider the business model. It is like an extensive delicatessen, restaurant, souvenir shop and wine store all mushed up together. Only every wine is a Sattui wine, so they produce one (or seven) of every category imaginable.
     The game with this loyal clientele is discounts. If one purchased multiple mixed cases, one could realize 25% to 30% off the stated retail prices. And Dario himself was on-hand to strongly urge immediate purchases. “Tomorrow prices go back to normal,” he cautioned the crowd. I‘m a little skeptical. Twenty-five percent off a mediocre California Riesling priced at $20 doesn’t seem a huge savings to me. Nor does 25% off a 2009 Merlot priced at $45 when you pay now, but don’t take possession of the wine for another two years. As with most large, walk-around ‘tastings’ careful comparison of the wines was not the order of the day. Spittoons were everywhere, but for the most part unused. The pour staff was friendly, good-looking, and largely ignorant of where half the single vineyards were located. That said, they did gamely make up plausible fictions to cover their lack of background. A good time was had by everyone. And the cash registers sizzled amidst lively debate about which combinations would result in the deepest ‘discount.’ I met several charming people, enjoyed myself thoroughly, but went home empty-handed. Next time perhaps I’ll wear an athletic mouthpiece, artistically enhanced so my teeth announce, “Let’s party” when I smile.
     Dario Sattui meanwhile has earned enough money over 35 years at this game to build a separate venture called Castello di Amorosa further north on a hillside in Napa Valley. It is modeled on a 12th century Italian castle. See picture below. Pretty good biz, especially for one built on the concept of the picnic.

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No longer a bargain, but damn the best taste great. M. Haggard could drink Zin; still have cred. Serve w/ pork. No utensils; sleeve napkin.

Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleadings I denied…

Wine Background

     Zinfandel prices have risen dramatically since the early 1990’s when the first one costing double figures appeared. Higher prices mean more expense can be lavished on artistic production. That means better barrels, but it also affords the opportunity to harvest by hand with several passes through the vineyard.
     Zinfandel has large clusters, and it is notorious for ripening unevenly. Many people believe the grapes need to get well past 24ºBrix to exhibit the variety’s signature boysenberry aroma. But that much sugar pretty much guarantees alcohol in the mid 15’s, and acid that will require a supplementary adjustment. No problem for us cult-Zin cowboys, but what of those sissies who demand balanced table wines?
     One answer is to pick a quarter of the crop aiming for 22.5º-23ºB. That fraction of the finished wine will supply a crisp core, a solid backbone, for refreshing length and bottle-aging potential. Then make a second pass through the vineyard a week later aiming for half the total crop at 24º-24.5ºB. That fraction will be the foundation wine: good texture; good flavor; complex aromatics. Then get the final quarter of the crop a week to ten days later at 26º-27ºB. This final fraction will have wonderful berry-like intensity. By itself the final fraction would be alcoholic and flabby, whereby in the blend it will be structurally saved by the initial fraction, and still contribute a spectacular burst to the nose.
     No one could profitably sell such a wine for $8.95 a bottle. No matter. I’d happily pay $25 to $35 a bottle for it, and I think most critics would as well (possible exceptions being Messrs. Parker and Laube).

Wine Event Description

     The 19th Annual Z.A.P. festival was held last weekend in San Francisco. I went hoping to find a couple new, or little known, producers making bargain-priced gems. No such luck. Although I do have to plead palate fatigue. [Note proper spelling, all you wine copywriter aspirants. It’s not pallet, as in something moved by a forklift, nor is it palette as in the board on which painters hold their pigments.] I tasted about 60 wines, walked several miles, and eyeballed an unusually large number of tall women in short skirts with boots. That’s a worthwhile three hours, but it’s well below 10% of the wines on offer at ZAP.

Wine Recommendations

     Noteworthy in the value category were Sierra Foothills wineries Cedarville and Miraflores, along with St. Amant which is a Lodi winery closely bordering the Sierra Foothills’ 800-foot contour-line boundary. Cedarville is about 2,500 feet of elevation, and their Zin reflects this more restrained, more elegant pedigree. It has nice fruit, but more in the red than black spectrum, and more of the eating-out-of-hand persuasion than the stewed or jammy flavors often encountered elsewhere. At $17 you couldn’t beat the price of Cedarville Zin with a police baton. St. Amant makes their best Zin from very old vines grown on sandy Hanford Loam soil at Mohr-Fry Ranch. It is riper and more effusive than Cedarville, but doesn’t step over into the realm of short and bimbo-ish, as so many Lodi Zins are wont to do. St. Amant is also attractively priced at right around $20.
     Perhaps the biggest bargain at the ZAP festival was the 2006 Heritage Zin made by Jerry Seps from Storybook Mountain Vyds. This is the wine produced every year by a different ZAP winemaker from the collection of exceptional old vine cuttings taken from around the state, then grown as a research project in Oakville. Dr. Seps (he formerly taught History at Stanford) is a very talented winemaker whose own wines command $40 and $50 a bottle. The Heritage Zin though, sells for $25 a bottle, and was being offered for $18 on the day of the ZAP festival. That opportunity alone was worth the cost of admission ~ consider hem lengths a bonus.

Wine Critique

     Some stars at ZAP shine more brightly than others. And some don’t shine at all. I always find it entertaining to compare the standard-bearing warhorses of the past to new challengers. The comparison is not blind, of course, and I readily admit a fondness for the brands such as Ridge, Rosenblum, and Seghesio who have been around through the tough times. They are not cheap, as they were in the 1980’s when I drank so much of them. But today they make such reliably great wine, that I always look forward to tasting their new releases.
     Many new entrants seem to operate in an imaginary world separate from the sweaty rabble of the marketplace. How else to explain nouveau riche winery owners today asking $40 a bottle for their very first release, which smells like damp hay and feels like sandpaper in your mouth.
     Zinfandel is a grape that rewards experience, particularly with any specific vineyard. It takes more than a couple vintages to learn a Zin vineyard’s tricks. A good example from ZAP were the three 2007 wines offered from Hartford Court in western Sonoma County. In the past these wines from very old vines have seemed pinched, minerality taken to a raspy extreme. Not so the 2007 wines. While different from each other, all three had a family resemblance of deep, well-integrated marionberry roundness. The slight alkaline edge, which says old vines to me, merely served to pull them back from unseemly generosity. All three were wines which simultaneously expressed the enthusiasm of California’s warm summers, and the gravitas of a multi-generational vineyard lineage.

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Online Wine Fundraiser

Interesting items: lunch with a congressman; abalone dinner; father-son golf class.

Benefit Auction of Wine Experiences

     The 11th Annual Young School Benefit will be held this Saturday (6 February) at Quintessa Winery in Napa Valley starting at 5:30 pm. Much of the action will occur online. Catalogue and proxy bidding forms can be found at the Forever Young Benefit website.
     Founded in 1991, Young School is a private non-profit, non-denominational, Montessori-derived program for children ages 6 through 12 years old. Young School operates as a ‘one-room schoolhouse’ in quarters rented from a church. It follows a ‘tutorial’ approach to education, where children are tasked on their abilities and interests. The School has a 12-1 student-teacher ratio, and is respected for its rigorous academics, complemented by frequent field trips, enrichment in foreign language classes, and music programs, as well as community outreach. Distinctive about The Young School is the fact students spend their recess and P.E. time outside as a group, with all ages interacting equally and enthusiastically. The Young School is pledged to keeping its tuition low to offer an affordable alternative for a classics-based, high teacher-student ratio school.
     The School’s non-profit tax ID number is 68-0338995.

Wines and Experiences on Offer

     There are so many benefit wine auctions these days, the general category can certain not be considered newsworthy. In many instances purchasers are blatantly seeking publicity. Which I suppose is a just reward for paying thousands of dollars to a good cause in exchange for a $50 bottle of rare wine. And, of course, there is the opportunity to rub shoulders with a large gaggle of equally well-heeled individuals.
     What makes the Young School Benefit newsworthy is the creative, and diverse set of wine-related experiences which go on the auction block. To wit:
     — Tasting experiences and wines from Abreu, Araujo, Arietta, Aubert, Bond, Castello di Amorosa, Harlan, Kongsgaard, O’Shaughnessy, Drinkward-Peschon, Phifer Pavitt, Dunn, Outpost, Retro, Turley, Barnett, Cain, Frias, Guillliams, Hollywood & Vine, Juslyn, Peacock, Pride, Schweiger, Sherwin, Stony Hill, Togni, and many other fine vineyards).
     — A trip to Washington D.C. including lunch with Congressman Mike Thompson in the Members’ Dining Room, passes to the House gallery, tours of the Capitol and Supreme Court and accommodations at the Henley Park Hotel and a dinner at BLT Steak.
     — A day of visits to local artisanal food purveyors and dinner at Amy & Jerry Giaqunta’s home, prepared by Deborah Pollack of Local Eden with a dessert finale by Bouchon Bakery’s chef Matt McDonald, co-hosted byAnne-Marie Failla and Ehren Jordan.
     — An abalone dinner in Storybook Mountain Winery’s redwood grove, with abalone freshly caught and prepared by a Young School teacher, complemented by Storybook’s wines.
     — A pheasant hunt with architect Peter Collins and vintner Stu Smith.
     — a yacht trip to a San Francisco Giants game with the co-founders of Alpha Omega, Robin Baggett and Eric Sklar.
     — Several events for children, including a ride in St. Helena’s antique fire truck and a father-son golf class at Napa Valley Country Club.

     Tickets to attend in person are $100/person, only in advance, from the website or by calling (707) 967-9909. The catalogue is also online, and people can proxy-bid from anywhere in the world. Last year the biggest bidder was sitting at home in New Jersey. See also

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