YardWine – are you in on the trend?

Most of you are probably aware that during the late Spring and Summer I spend many Tuesday evenings on the Sonoma Plaza enjoying a couple glasses of wine and picnic food (most of the time – of course, last night was burritos) while the kids run around. The event is really the Tuesday Night Sonoma Farmer’s Market, but it is way more than a regular farmer’s market. Most of it, for me anyway, is about socialization and a feeling of community. Sure the fresh flowers, veggies and goods offered by the vendors are great, but so many people flock to the plaza to meet friends and family that evening.

Much like these folks are doing on Friday nights in Rossmoor (Southern California). Dan and Nancy Roddy started the concept of “YardWine” more than 25 years ago. The idea is really simple. Sit in your yard, your front yard people!, open some wine and invite a few neighbors over. Sounds easy, right? I can hear the excuses already: “We’re just so busy right now”, “Maybe next week, we have plans tonight”

Neighborhoods just aren’t what they used to be. And why do you think that is? Because we don’t do the things we used to do. It used to be on Friday nights there weren’t any TV shows worth watching – though I’ll argue there likely still aren’t. We weren’t captivated by our electronic devices. Now we have to come home and feed our fake fish, check facebook 10,000 times before bed, run through all the Pinterest posts, etc. We are so ‘busy’ these days we don’t have time to talk with our neighbors. That is why neighborhoods aren’t the same. And nothing is going to change unless we get out there and change it.

This year my wife bought some Adirondack chairs for our front porch…

 

 

 

 

 

 

My hope was that we would sit out there more this year maybe meet some of our neighbors and enjoy this great area we decided to live in – like we do on Tuesday nights. The reality is that by the time we eat dinner, the kids go to bed (they are almost to the age we can just let them play in front of the house) and we are ready to sit out there it is too windy or chilly to fully enjoy. Likely I should have added that to the excuses above. The wi-fi reaches out there so our electronic leashes are not an excuse for us to stay inside. Although that defeats the purpose of the YardWine concept.

Sonoma has great weather, but one of the reasons it is such a perfect climate for grapes is that it’s warm during the day and cool overnight. It can sometimes get in the way of evening outdoor plans. We still have some ‘summer’ left in us and I plan on sitting out there more this year. Maybe even some of the neighbors will stop by to enjoy a glass of vino with us. Maybe.

Cheers!

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Napa Valley Cabernet, too high in alcohol?

Thanks to my father-in-law for emailing me this article in the Chronicle about Napa Valley Cabernet and it’s ascend to very high alcohol levels in recent years.

It’s no secret (as this article also states) that higher alcohol wines generally bring higher score from the critics. But if you’ve been following this blog, I’m pretty blasé about wine ratings and critics. Why should anyone tell me what to drink based on their own evaluation? And why should I put effort into following what they have to say when their ‘high scores’ just lead to me and you paying a higher price for that now coveted bottle of fermented juice?

I’ve long said the only place ratings should come into play is when you have a specific wine in mind and specific price point and you are standing on the wine aisle. Ratings can help you decide between one wine and another. If the price point is the same, go with the higher rating, right? But I live in one of California’s areas for great wine and generally drink wine from these regions and can decide for myself what I like and don’t like.

Anyway, let me step down from my soap box for a moment (because I could go on for a long time about the above topic and that’s not what I specifically set out to write about, although I’m having fun!).

This article brings up so many topics, it’s almost impossible to cover with just one post. For starters, I love that Randy Dunn has stuck to his core values of making a certain style of wine. So many wineries change what they are doing based on consumer polls and data and swings in purchasing. How can we ever know what to expect in the bottle if the winery changes style and direction with every new trend? We can’t. There are many wineries I have grown to love because I know what to expect from them. Some of them have specific wines that I really like and others that I don’t. I just buy the ones I like. But when I get a wine from a trusted source and it has changed to suit what some marketing person decided was better for their customers that’s where I draw the line.

But see for the general wine drinking public (who by the way is only 14% of Americans on a regular basis) they often times don’t know that the winery changed direction or can’t tell for whatever reason. Or maybe they just don’t care. There are a lot of wine drinkers that just want a ‘glass of red’ and never really think about the wine. So this trend will continue. You can count on it.

I just love this quote from Randy Dunn:

“I’ve been in many conversations with people that have been selling their wines for $150 a bottle for 15 years, and I was at $65 or something. They go, ‘What are you doing? You’re making us look like fools,’….And I said, ‘You know, I’m quite profitable at this level.’ Here’s a concept called greed.”

Interesting, he’s making them look like fools. I’m all for capitalism though. If they can sell it at that price (and trust me $150 is starting price for many Cabernet wines in Napa Valley) good for them, but they are certainly past the price range I’m comfortable in. At that price I’ll buy a nice Irish Whiskey or Scotch and drink it over an entire year. I have heard people say, “What’s the difference between a $150 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle of wine? ….$100.”

There’s also this concept in here about how the higher alcohol levels have led to the wines all tasting the same. I think I’ll have to do some research to further discover the real answer on this, but it used to be that you could easily distinguish the different growing areas of Napa Valley – mountains vs. floor, east facing regions vs. west, Rutherford Dust comes to mind. I guess I could see how the higher alcohol could mask some of these unique characteristics by making it all about the alcohol and less about the sense of place. That terroir is so important to me. I want to taste, smell and hear (you mean you don’t listen to your wine?) and feel where the wine and grapes came from.

I’m very curious (and will keep following this story) what the research Mr. Dunn is doing will suggest about how to taste wines of lower and higher alcohol. It makes sense that if you taste a higher alcohol wine first, the lower one will taste watery, or at least lighter. If that is the case, if his wines are tasted alongside the higher alcohol versions from Napa Valley then he never will see those higher ratings. Either way, I look forward to tasting his commitment to a standard and ability to not conform with the ever-changing wants of the general public.

Cheers!

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Filed under Alcohol Content, Napa, Napa Valley, Wine, Wine Study, Wine Tasting, Winemaking

Champagne and Sparkling Wine Methods

So, I’m taking some wine business classes right now and we just had to write about the different methods sparkling wine and Champagne producers use. It occurred to me while writing that most people probably don’t even know there are multiple ways to achieve the similar (or not so similar) result of bubbles in the wine. I’ll share parts of the paper below…enjoy!

Method Champenoise vs. Other Methods for Sparkling Wine Production

 Many of us think of Champagne or Sparkling Wine as a beverage for special occasions, toasts, weddings, New Year’s Eve or anniversaries. If the bubbly beverage is being poured if must be an extraordinary event. Most probably never think about how those tiny bubbles got there in the first place, but there are several methods and the processes and finished products are as different as Chardonnay and Coca-Cola.

First, let’s tackle the traditional Method Champenoise. This wine is generally made with high quality Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier or Pinot Blanc grapes from cool regions. In the Champagne region of France the first three are almost exclusively used. In California Pinot Blanc is generally used instead of Pinot Meunier. In all sparkling wine production the grapes are picked earlier than still wine to retain higher acidity and to have sugar levels that are low. As grapes mature on the vines acidity drops and sugar increases, so it is important not to pick too late. From here the grapes are pressed and the juice fermented into still wine. The next step is really what sets Method Champenoise apart from the other approaches. Sugar and yeast are added to the tank to start the second fermentation. Immediately this wine is added to bottles where the fermentation will occur over the next 30 days. This process called tirage sets the stage for the quality of the wine. The bottles are sealed with a stainless steel cap (like a beer bottle) and left to age sur lie – on the dead yeast cells – to create richness, depth and flavors. This part can take anywhere from 1-4 years depending on the producer.

The dead yeast cells do create some solids that must be dealt with prior to the final closure (typically a special cork) can be affixed. The process to remove the yeast cells is called riddling. This is most commonly done by machines nowadays, but it used to be done by hand. Riddling requires the bottles to be placed at an angle with the neck side down so the lees can collect near the cap. Prior to the installing the final cork and cage closure, the neck of the bottle is frozen, then the wine is heated slightly to push the yeast out. All of this is labor and time intensive leading to a higher cost, however from a wine-lovers viewpoint the outcome is far superior to other methods and well worth the extra money that is paid.

There are two other methods that are used to create sparkling wines. The first called The Transfer Method basically uses the same process as Method Champenoise, but uses special equipment to remove all the wine from the bottle and filter out the yeast before replacing the wine back in the bottle. This process is not common and is being phased out in favor of Method Champenoise.

The other method is called Charmat and is different from start to finish. The first difference is in the grapes that are used, generally high production grapes like French Columbard or Chenin Blanc and grown in warmer areas to capitalize on larger crop sizes. Those grapes are harvested (earlier as usual) and made into still wine. Then that wine is pumped into specialized temperature controlled pressurized tanks for secondary fermentation. The huge difference here is of course that the second fermentation is not taking place in the bottle. Once that fermentation is over, the sparkling wine is then put into bottles for minimal aging and sent into the market. The producers of these wines feel that their method works well for their target market and I guess at the end of the day that is what’s important. To me though they are as different as Chardonnay and Coca-Cola.

Cheers!

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Filed under Champagne, New Year's Eve, Sparkling Wine, Wine

Paso Robles Wine Country

Thanks to my in-laws a couple of weeks ago my wife and I managed a weekend away and decided to make the trek to Pismo Beach. Thanks to a friend we stayed at Pismo Lighthouse Suites, a well-appointed hotel right on the beach. Great place to stay and an excellent view….

 

 

 

 

 

 

With only one full day down there, of course we went wine tasting! I had heard about good wines from Paso Robles, but I think most people would label the region as still ‘up and coming’. With the five wineries we visited, I would venture to say that the area is no longer up and coming, but rather has hit full stride! At each stop there wasn’t one wine that I would have labeled as ‘not good’. There were certainly a few that weren’t my style, but all the wines I tasted were of high quality.

Our first stop…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peachy Canyon was our first stop. We know the area is known for Zinfandel and we are huge Zin fans. This winery was listed as one that offered multiple Zinfandels. They had three on the list, but 6 more available just for wine club members. All were tasty. They also offer live music on Saturdays during the summer and have a huge picnic area and lawn. Cool stuff.

Second up was Turley Wine Cellars….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Turley traces its roots back to St. Helena in the Napa Valley and I recognized the name. We tasted 4 wines and all were very good, so they were packed into the cooler. Turley offered a more upscale experience with a large bar, many staff members and a retail shop as well.

After that a short trip to Zin Alley where we tasted wine along with the owner and winemaker. A very cool experience tasting right in their cellar, right up my alley….

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not much to look at, but the wines were very good. We actually ended up going home with a Syrah blend. Funny since Zin is in their name.

Right down the hill from Zin Alley, was our favorite stop on the trip, Cypher Winery. I was a little skeptical as some of their wines seemed gimmicky…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With names like Anarchy, Heretic and Zin Bitch I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was blown away with quality, elegance and power of these wines. We just drank the Heretic and I was equally impressed while drinking it at home. Which brings up another topic that I’ll have to write about. Many tourists get caught up in the romance of wine country and dream up that the wines are better than they really are. Then upon returning home they are disappointed in the wine they purchased. Sorry for the tangent, back to the wine. We also picked up the Chardonnay even though it was un-oaked. I’m usually a fan of some oak on my Chard, but this one really stood out.

Our last stop was Lone Madrone. We were drawn to it because of its Celtic logo…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are any number of things that attract tourists (and locals) to wineries. Sometimes, it’s as simple as a logo or bottle design. This one looked like a symbol we had seen while traveling through Ireland a few years back. The symbol dated back more than 5000 years. The wines were as good as any we had on the trip. The Chenin Blanc was a highlight as was the Hard Apple Cider they produce.

All in all it was a fantastic introduction to the wine country in and around Paso Robles. We can’t wait to return and discover some new favorites.

Cheers!

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Filed under Visiting Wineries, Wine Country, Wine Tasting

Wine smells, seriously…

The other night my wife and I were sitting on the couch enjoying a bottle of Merlot and I started smelling the wine, then she did and next thing we know we are going back and forth about what we smell in the wine.

Now this may not seem like a big deal to many of you, however, with two kids (and 5 animals) in the house we don’t get as much ‘sit around and smell the wine’ time as you would think. Sure, it’s a huge passion of mine, and my wife enjoys it too, but daily life often gets in the way of really thinking about the wine and trying to place what aromas are coming out of the glass.

This particular bottle was about seven years old and comes from a cooler part of Sonoma County. Cooler climates generally lead towards darker fruits and there were plenty of those: Dark cherries, boysenberry and plums. This one also brought in tons of earthy character like hay and dirt. And some very unique smells like metal, granite and blood. Yup, that’s right, blood.

Some of you might be grossed out (and that’s okay), but you smell what you smell. And might I add that your brain can only recall aromas that you have smelled and identified before and my wife who is a veterinarian by trade (remember the 5 animals) is used to being around blood and can certainly identify the smell.

It all comes back to experience. One of the most difficult things in wine is sensory recall – being able to name the aromas levitating from the glass. It takes concentration and not being drunk. It takes patience. And most of all it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice. And that is the fun part, right?

Cheers!

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Lackluster June Rain Leaves Vineyards Okay

Last year is a wine growing year that likely many vintners and growers want to forget. June was plagued with rain during bloom causing fruit set to be irregular leading to uneven grape clusters. So when the weather reports called for rain on Monday I was thinking it was June 2011 all over again. Turns out the highest rainfall amounts recorded were 4 hundredths of an inch or barely heavier than a thick fog.

I stopped and took a picture during the rain to check on the grape clusters…

These little clusters were in the middle of bloom, but it didn’t matter because the rain wasn’t strong enough to get in the way of the self-pollination. Did you know that wine grapes are self-pollinating? The grapes do not need an outside source (like bees) to pollinate. I’ve always thought that was a cool fact about wine grapes.

All is still going well for the 2012 growing season and the forecast for the next 10 days show sunny skies and temperatures in the low 80’s, just the right temperature to move this vintage along at a steady pace.

One more note about the rain (if you can call it that) from Monday. It was very windy on Tuesday meaning that any ill-effects of the cooler, damp weather were pretty much erased. Wind is exactly what is needed to dry the vines out after the drizzle.

More updates as we move through this season.

Cheers!

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Filed under 2012 Growing Season, Sonoma, Wine

Traveling Tuesdays – Robledo Family Winery

Well, I’m back in it! It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to get out and do some wine tasting, but I jumped back in this past week with a visit to Robledo Family Winery in Sonoma. When I first announced that I was doing Traveling Tuesdays, the tweeter (is there such a thing?) for Robledo jumped right in and asked if I was coming for a visit. So, four months later, I finally made it.

I had been once before, but it was nearly four years ago, so many things had changed and I didn’t really remember what the wines tasted like. The story is one of truly pulling oneself up by their bootstraps: With $30 in his pocket and a dream, Reynaldo Robledo came to the U.S. to start a new life. Except for a trip back to marry his wife to Mexico, Mr. Robledo spent all his time in California. He acquired a job with Christian Brothers in Napa Valley and eventually became a manager with the company.

Eventually, he was able to purchase 13 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley’s Carneros region, followed by many acres in Sonoma and Lake counties as well. The family now owns nearly 400 acres of land in the three areas and produce more than a dozen varietals. They remain one of only two latino-owned wineries in all of Northern California and are quite successful.

Walking up to the tasting room, there is this outstanding water feature along with expansive vineyard views and, of course the most important flags…

The tasting room itself is a little difficult to find, but after trying a few doors I found it. Once inside the room is quite large and able to accommodate many guests at one time. We were greeted by Luis Robledo, one of 9 kids of Reynaldo – 9 kids! All the family are involved in the winery in one capacity or another. Luis mans the tasting room, but I’m sure he does much more than that.

The tasting started with a delightful Sauvignon Blanc…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I ended up going home with half a case of the Sauvignon Blanc. I was getting low on bright, refreshing summer wines and the price and flavor were right for the warm months ahead.

Luis also poured Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc to round out the tasting.

Oh and a white port!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were many more wines available, but they will have to wait for another visit which will definitely happen again.

Cheers!

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Filed under Sonoma, Traveling Tuesdays, Wine, Wine Country, Winemaking