Archive | February, 2010

1998 Wynn’s Riddoch Cab

Shaded canopy = v strong herbaceous nose. Bottle-age gives great complexity against evergreen backnote.

Tasted in Art & Science of Fine Wine class in Menlo Park (see Class Descriptions). Wine sells for around US$100, but would be hard to find in an American retail store. I use this wine to illustrate a lecture point on pruning and trellising decisions. The wine is very unusual, and not everybody likes it, but personally I always find it enormously impressive.

Background Wine Education

     1998 Wynn’s ‘John Riddoch’ Cabernet Sauvignon is from Coonawarra in the state of South Australia. Many people consider Coonawarra to be Australia’s finest Cabernet district. It is about a day’s drive south of Adelaide, and perhaps two day’s drive west of Melbourne. In short, it is way-the-hell-and-gone away from civilization. The first time I visited, in 1980, the only pub in town was still divided into separate men’s and women’s sections ~ smoke in either. Of course that was nearly two generations ago. The point is Australia has a very meager viticultural labor force under any circumstance, and Coonawarra’s isolation exacerbates the situation there.
     Things have changed somewhat in more recent vintages, but in 1998 anything a machine could do to replace manual labor was something the vintners of Coonawarra employed machines to do. That would be the polar opposite of (say) Chile, where men do so much of the work machines do in Australia. Up through at least the 1998 vintage, in Coonawarra the vines were frequently hedged rather than pruned. ‘Hedged’ implies something akin to a military haircut. Continue Reading →

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Class compared 1994 + 1995 vintages. Clear advantage 95. Better acid, much more distinct bouquet. Steak house wine.

Wine Classes

     Tasted in Art & Science of Fine Wine class held in Menlo Park (see Class Schedule). Beaulieu 1994 and 1995 Private Reserve Cabs are priced around $150 per bottle (if available) in most fine wine stores. Reference year-to-year California growing conditions on this website under Useful Wine Info – California Vintage Reports.

Wine Education Background

     Beaulieu ‘Georges de Latour’ Cabernet Sauvignon is a classic of the American landscape, and has been for a very long time. Originally crafted by the legendary Andre Tchelischeff, from grapes grown on Napa Valley’s Rutherford Bench, the wine was famously aged in 100% American oak. That gave the wine a considerable relationship with Bourbon Continue Reading →

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Inexpensive Chardonnay

2008 Fess Parker: intense fruit, conc in mouth, honey-butter overtones, AND under $20. Fried chicken w/ yams.

Wine Market Background

     In class I often extol the virtues of Sauvignon Blanc by pointing out there are several world-class examples priced between $15 and $19. I then exclaim, “There’s no such thing as world-class Chardonnay under $20!” And I do believe that statement to be true. At least it used to be. Which is not to say there haven’t always been a handful of eminently pleasing Chardonnays priced under $20. It is just that competition amongst Chardonnays has always been so much more intense than it is in other white wine varieties. In America, Chardonnay outsells both Pinot Gris (Grigio) and Sauvignon Blanc individually by a factor of four or five. Good Chardonnay can easily command $20 to $40 a bottle, and great Chardonnay commands $50 to $100. The only reason for a winery to price a very fine Chardonnay under $20 would have been when they needed to sell 50,000 cases of it, or if they had very limited confidence in their sales and marketing capacity. Of course, this Recession economy is creating many unusual, and enjoyable surprises for buyers.

Wine Education

     There are several justifications for the expense of a good bottle of Chardonnay. First, the grape itself is not particularly distinctive. It doesn’t have the unique aromatic signature of (say) Gewürztraminer. Nor does it have the strong flavor of (say) Sauvignon Blanc. That means concentration is doubly important and, in Chardonnay, that translates to lower yield. Lower yield means higher price per ton. Whether one gets three tons per acre in Sauvignon Blanc, or five tons per acre, the distinctive flavor is still going to be fairly obvious. Not so with Chardonnay. Taking a Chardonnay vineyard from three tons/acre to five tons/acre would have an effect Continue Reading →

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Madroña 1996 Riesling

Hi elev. Grt nat acid. Super at age 12. Very long. Honey + Babcock peach. Sushi roll w/ tempura flakes.

California can do world-class Riesling. Not many, and not every year. Still, a handful of producers have proved the potential over decades. The hardship is their best examples are better with six or seven years of bottle age. And consumers just don’t get that concept. The result is a population of soda-like, eminently forgettable, Rieslings from the rest of the CA pack aimed at the mass market. Riesling should not be a mass market wine. Let the masses drink Pepsi. Or Arbor Mist.

Wine Tasting

     The 1996 Madroña Riesling was tasted in a Varietal Series class, which are held the second Friday evening of each month in Nevada City, CA (see Wine Education Vacation). It’s a great way to start off a romantic getaway in the mountains. Nevada City is the cultural centerpiece of the Sierra Foothills ~ live music, good food, palpable history, original art, quaint shopping, wonderful scenery. And several good wineries to discover. Call it The Liquid Gold Country.
     One portion of the class compared this bottle-aged Madroña with two older Rheingaus: a 1992 Robt. Weil Spätlesen and a 1988 Domdechant Hochheimer Hölle Spätlese Halbtrocken. The Weil had the lightest color and the most acid. Its aromatics were all green apple, even at 17-years-old. It continued to develop throughout the weekend, and was even more fragrant on Sunday. The Hochheimer smelled more of caramel, but also had some Pippin apple in the flavor, and it was the least sweet of the group. Neither German wine walked on the Madroña. Both German wines had less than 10% alcohol, while the Madroña had 12%. That’s not a recommendation. But the Madroña also had a lifted fruitiness and a very refreshing acidity. Most importantly the Madroña had completely shed the blocky rough edges of its youth. Once it got a little air, the wine had a burnished luminosity that was just delicious.

Background Wine Education

     As a general proposition California is never going to be a great a producer of Riesling. Washington makes more of them, and quality is usually better in Canada or upstate New York. In the 1960’s there were hundreds of (pretty mediocre) Rieslings made in California. Remember, that era predated White Zinfandel. The number of CA Rieslings dropped to just a dozen or two by the turn of the century. Most of California is just too hot. Riesling here tends toward nicely fruity, but flabby sweet, or else awkwardly alcoholic.
     Nevertheless, California is a really big place. There are lots of extreme climatic and topographical opportunities within CA’s borders. Both the highest point (Mt. Whitney) and the lowest point (Death Valley) in the contiguous U.S. are located in California, and they are not even two hundred miles apart. Two ways to gain more delicate structure, better natural acid, and more pronounced aromatics in CA Riesling are: (1) grow the grapes close to the Pacific Ocean; or (2) grow the grapes at higher elevation. The two best practitioners of these techniques are, respectively: (1) Greenwood Ridge Vyds; and (2) Madroña Vyds.

Winery Descriptions

     Greenwood Ridge is technically in the Anderson Valley AVA of Mendocino County, but the vineyard is actually up on a promontory south of the valley overlooking the coastal village of Elk. Greenwood Ridge gets a lot of rain and fog. It ripens slowly, and retains a lot of acid. Usually finished with around 2% residual sugar, the Greenwood Ridge Riesling always improves over 6-7 years in the bottle. It becomes more aromatic. Madroña can argue its case for highest vineyard in CA at about 3,500 feet of elevation. It is up the hill above Placerville in El Dorado County. They get snow in the vineyard every year, and share the characteristic of high rainfall with Greenwood Ridge. What they don’t share is diurnal fluctuation (difference between low temperature at night and high temperature during the day). Greenwood is cool all the time; Madroña is cold at night and hot in the middle of the day during July and August. Even with a percent or so of residual sugar, Madrona Riesling is a hard wine when it’s young, brusque and unforgiving. It softens with bottle-age, and shows its aromatic features more easily.

Food – Wine Match

     To be impressive in age, Riesling must have strong acid. Some tension between that acid and a bit of residual sugar is nice to give the wine focus. Sushi is a very broad category, but all of it shares an affinity for the cleansing effects of a clean acid bite. I have a local sushi place, in a not-too-distant strip mall, run by a couple young, pierced and goateed Americans, by all appearances under-employed musicians. They’re clearly well traveled. They do a roll with spicy tuna and shrimp tempura inside, wrapped with fresh salmon and avocado. They top it with a sweet mustard, with hot sauce, and with tempura ‘crunchies.’ Traditional? Perhaps not. But a spectacular match with an old Madroña Riesling. As the wine ages, its peachy fruit aromatics take on a noticeable honeyed tone. That character is matched by the tempura. The wine’s slight sweetness modulates the hot sauce, and the acid cuts through the oiliness of the salmon, the tuna, and the avocado. Wonderful match. Rolls are half-price between 2:00 pm and 4:00 on weekdays. For my birthday I plan to eat three of them, with a bottle of wine and a nap.

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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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