Wine Spectator's Grand Tour Comes to Boston

Saturday, April 30, 2011

On Thursday May 19th, 2011 Wine Spectator's Grand Tour is coming to Boston's Mariott Copley Place Hotel. The event includes a taste of over 200 wines, a light buffet, and a souvenier Riedel tasting glass.

These wineries pouring at the event caught my eye for one reason or another:
  • Almaviva
  • Caymus
  • Château Cos-d'Estournel
  • Domaine Serene
  • Elk Cove
  • Evening Land
  • Felsina
  • Bruno Giacosa
  • Hall
  • Kosta Browne
  • Château Margaux
  • Château Mouton Rothschild
  • Joseph Phelps
  • Château Pontet-Canet
  • Sokol Blosser
The tour includes stops in Las Vegas and Chicago.  For more information including a full listing of participating wineries visit the Wine Spectator Grand Tour website. Tickets are $200.

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Tasting Report: 2008 Denner The Dirt Worshipper

Saturday, April 16, 2011

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The most notable "buy" indicators coming out of Wine Spectator the past six months have been for big Rhône-styled reds from Paso Robles, California.

The 2007 Saxum James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles was named the Wine Spectator Wine of the Year for 2010. With a $67 release point and a 98 point rating it would seem to be one to seek out. But it was sold almost entirely via mailing list and combined with a 100 point score from Robert Parker (calling it "utter perfection") it was never really in play unless you were on the mailing list. It sells north of $300 at auction these days.

But just behind this wine were a fleet of 95+ pointers from other winemakers in Paso Robles. Some of the names were vaguely familiar - Booker, Jaffurs, Justin. Others I'd never heard of like Herman Story, Epoch, and Torrin. I always enjoy Spectator's pieces featuring up and coming producers. Like this article by MaryAnn Worobiec highlighting seven up and coming Paso Robles producers (subscription required).

Articles like this have provided me with a way of becoming familiar with winemakers when they're small enough to handle customer interactions themselves, their mailing lists are open, and best of all their prices are relatively low. None of these high scoring wines carry a release price more than $100 and many sell for $50 or less. Compare this with Napa and Paso Robles is a value play.

Back in 2007 a similar article about 12 Hot New California Pinot Noir Producers turned me on to Clary Ranch, Zepaltas, and Black Kite. As I look back at that list now - guess which name is there? Rhys! It was right there in front of me for 4 years and I didn't make the connection until just now.  Amazing.

When the 2008 vintage of Paso Robles wines came to market two caught my eye for their quality to price ratio: The 2008 Herman Story Nuts & Bolts (95WS/$36) and the 2008 Denner The Dirt Worshipper (97WS/$45).

My efforts to find some of the Herman Story weren't fruitful (though reading their website is time well spent). I was able to obtain a half-case of the Denner directly from the winery.

The Spectator article identifies Denner as the epicenter of the west Paso wine scene. They produce grapes purchased by other producers like Epoch and Torrin and they also produce wines with their own label. Rob and Marilyn Denner own over 100 acres in Paso Robles and 25-year-old (!) Anthony Yount is their winemaker.

I cracked open one of the The Dirt Worshippers last night. It was a winner. 

What they said:

The Dirt Worshipper is a wine whose sole focus is the expression of cool climate terroir through a Syrah medium. This wine is a blend of 42% Syrah from the frigid, coastal Bassetti Vineyard near Cambria, 53% Denner Estate Syrah from the coolest, latest ripening blocks, and 5% Denner Estate Viognier to perfume this beastly hedonistic wine. Please enjoy! (from the back label)

This hedonistic beauty has upfront aromas of sarsaparilla, vanilla bean and black raspberries. Undertones of eucalyptus and white pepper come through on second emanation. Coffee crusted steak, huckleberry compote and dried Provencial herbs pioneer a precise finish with chalky tannins and great length. 95% Syrah, 5% Viognier. (from winery website) 

What I thought:

2008 Denner The Dirt Worshipper
95% Syrah 5% Viognier
15.6% alcohol
810 cases produced

A massive wine with a silty, muddy appearance. Aromatically complex with dried blueberries, bacon cooking on a Saturday morning, and white pepper. Stunning depth and density. High alcohol and I had some concerns about it being overripe. But it keeps thing under control and I enjoyed it.

Hard to stop drinking. Quite nice. 

93/100 WWP: Outstanding 

Outlook:

Based on this experience I'm looking forward to trying more wines from Paso Robles. The 2008 Dirt Worshipper is selling for north of $100 at auction now but the 2009s are coming to market at attainable price points. I'd recommend checking a couple of them out if the style sounds at all appealing to you.

Question of the Day: What do you think of big Paso Robles reds? Is this the next big category in California wine?

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Cool Climate Chilean Reds: A Pinot Noir Value Play?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Wines of Chile hosted an online tasting this past Wednesday night offering bloggers across the US a chance to taste through Chilean Pinot Noirs and Syrahs. The event was moderated by Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer in New York with Chilean winemakers appearing via a live video stream.

The Pinot Noirs were impressive, especially considering their price points. A question I had on my mind coming into the tasting is which iconic Pinot Noir producing regions Chilean Pinot Noir most closely aligns with? The answer from the winemakers was that Pinot Noir is still a relatively new variety in Chile and they're exploring what works best. I think I have an idea based on the four we tasted - check out the conclusions below for more on that.

The Syrah we tasted were smoky, with higher levels of acidity than you'd find in Australia Shiraz for example. Priced between $13 and $29 I thought each was flavorful and had substantial tannins.

Here are my thoughts on the wines:

Pinot Noirs

 
2009 Valdivieso Reserve Pinot Noir
14.5% alc
$16.99

There's an aroma in this wine that reminds me of fresh residential carpeting. Really unique. But once you get past that it's pretty clean, round and enjoyable. Light in body but brings legitimate flavor. Nice slightly sweet spice. Dances lightly on the palate.

85/100 WWP: Good

2009 Vina Casablanca Nimbus Estate Pinot Noir
14.0% alc
$19.99

Aromatically perfumy. Ample fruit. A little smoke. Nicely balanced. Great velvety mouth feel. 

87/100 WWP: Very Good


2009 Veramonte Ritual Pinot Noir
14% alc
$19.99

Nice long finish. I like this wine a lot but it's surprisingly "grippy" for a Pinot Noir which differentiates it from most Pinot Noir made in the US. A great overall package for less than $20. 

88/100 WWP: Very Good


2008 Cono Sur Ocio Pinot Noir
14% alc
$65

Though Cono Sur makes a very good entry-level Pinot Noir you can find for under $15. Only 50 cases of this high-end $65 bottling were imported to the US. That scarcity is unfortunate because this wine is gorgeous. What stands out about it is its purity - not a single off note anywhere in the bottle. Great wine.

92/100 WWP: Outstanding

Syrahs
2009 Tamaya Syrah Reserva
97% Syrah 3% Viognier
13.5% alc
$16.99

A very unique nose. Black pepper to the point it almost made me sneeze. A little volatile acidity perhaps? A little rough going on the palate. Kind of hard to switch gears from the Pinot Noirs to this.

82/100 WWP: Good

2006 Loma Large Syrah
14.5% alc
$29

Major smokeyness on this wine. Have you ever been to Disneyland? It reminds me of the smell you get when the Disneyland Railroad goes through the tunnels. You know - the part with the Grand Canyon and the dinos and all that? Beyond that there's substantial acidity and tannins. Definitely one to pair with food. 

84/100 WWP: Good

2009 Undurraga T.H. Syrah
13.5% alc
$24.99

The "Terroir Hunter". Friendly, fresh, fruity nose compared to the two previoius Syrah. A serious wine. Good dose of acidity. Tannins are present but the wine is smooth. Very nice. 

87/100 WWP: Very Good


2009 Hacienda Araucano Reserva Syrah
14.5% alc
$13

Pretty nose that wouldn't be out of place in a Napa Syrah. Warmer and richer than the prior three Syrah on the palate, but with substantial chewy tannins. Most similar of the bunch to what I'd expect from a Napa Syrah. Nice value at $13. 

86/100 WWP: Very Good

Conclusion and Recommendations

The story of the night for me was the quality of these Pinot Noir especially given most of them cost less than $20. The Cono Sur Ocio was beautiful but at $65 with only 50 cases imported it will be hard to find - and pricey. The style of these more affordable Pinot Noir reminds me of a clean Sonoma Coast style with higher acidity and more robust tannins.

The Veramonte Ritual, from the Quintessa portfolio, is one to check out given its wide availability. Shop for it on Wine-Searcher.com here.

As a group I wasn't blown away by the Syrah. It's been said it is easier to get rid of a case of pneumonia than a case of Syrah so I wonder: What will differentiate Chilean Syrah on US retailer shelves?

My thanks to the folks from Wines of Chile and the winemakers for sharing these wines and their time with us. Samples for review. 

Question of the Day: What do you think of cool climate Chilean Reds? Anything value plays you'd like to share?

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Book Review: Summer in a Glass by Evan Dawson

Tuesday, April 12, 2011



You know a book is good when you're bummed to be deplaning a cross-country flight before you've finished reading. But that's what happened to me with Evan Dawson's Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes recently.

The book tells the stories of 13 winemakers in the New York State wine region, each extensively researched and told in a narrative non-fiction format. I found the approach particularly effective in conveying each winemaker's story and raising their wines to a higher level of understanding and potential enjoyment. On several occasions I found myself wanting to seek out specific wines described in the book.

If the idea of reading winemaker stories leaves you uninspired I think I might know how you feel. For me, most winery stories sound similar: Guy makes boatloads of money in a non-related industry, dumps it into the sexier wine trade and is now producing wine made with unparalleled standards at unbelievably high prices. That said Summer in a Glass succeeds by relating stories in a way the winemakers themselves might have trouble conveying with a similar level of intrigue.

Perhaps that's because the author is a storyteller by trade anchoring the news desk at Rochester's ABC affiliate. He's also a wine writer who contributes regularly to online wine publications - primarily the highly regarded New York Cork Report. Dawson is the kind of writer I find interesting regardless of the subject he's writing about -- whether it's migraines, Barbaresco or Finger Lakes Riesling.

Impressive On a Number of Levels

First and foremost there's the undeniable charm of being transported to a region like the Finger Lakes. Given its duration and intensity, winter in the Finger Lakes makes summer all the more appreciated and Dawson captures the essence of each season beautifully. It's never in your face with metaphors but the notion of how special warm summer nights are comes through brilliantly.

At its best Summer in a Glass weaves chapters together in near-cliff hanger style showing the interconnectedness of winemakers in the region leaving the reader wondering how each winery will fare.

The work Dawson put into researching the stories relayed is evident and pays dividends. Dawson's wide-open, inclusive personality comes through brilliantly as he embeds just enough of himself in the story to draw the reader in.

One of the most difficult things to do as a narrative story teller, I think, is convey a story about the less-likeable character. It's relatively easy to tell the story of a gregarious German like Anthony Road's Johannes Reinhardt but revealing the essence of a highly regarded but not-so-collaborative winemaker like Hermann Wiemer is a different challenge. As an author you know the subject will read what you've written - and might not be happy with it - but Dawson finds a way to find the best lighting for each personality while painting an accurate picture.

Conclusion and Recommendations

After reading Summer in a Glass in some ways I regret not visiting the region already. But at the same time I feel I now have a reliable guide pointing me some of the best producers in the region and an interest in tasting the wines to compare notes with what's described in the book.

If you're a content creator you might find yourself wondering as you read the book: Could I write something on par with this about another wine region? Regardless of the answer the fact the book has you asking that question is, I think, an inspiring achievement in itself.

I highly recommend Summer in a Glass for anyone interested in good stories about wine, especially in the Finger Lakes, and especially if you're headed there for a visit any time soon.

More info here: http://evandawsonwrites.com

4.5/5 Stars WWP: Highly Recommended

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Taste of the Nation Boston Thursday, April 14th 2011

Friday, April 8, 2011

Coming Thursday April 14th, 2011 to Boston is Taste of the Nation - an expo style event where you can taste food from local restaurants along with wine from around the world. Beer, cocktails and entertainment too.

I attended last year on a press pass and enjoyed the quality and breadth of the offerings. Interesting wines, creative dishes, and festive yet manageable crowds. There was something for everyone and proceeds go to a good cause.

A sampling out the participating restaurants:
  • Craigie on Main
  • Hamersley's Bistro
  • KO Prime
  • L'Espalier
  • The Oak Room
  • Redbones
  • Jasper White's Summer Shack
From their press release:

Boston’s Culinary Icons Come Together for the City’s Largest Hunger Fundraiser
Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation Boston Hosts 23rd Annual Fundraiser on April 14th

Boston, MA — Inspired by a passion to fight childhood hunger, Boston’s hottest chefs, restaurants and mixologists will gather for Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation® benefit, the city’s premier culinary event. Taste of the Nation Boston, which will be held on April 14, 2011 at the Hynes Convention Center, will raise the critical funds needed to support Share Our Strength’s efforts to end childhood hunger in Boston and across the nation by 2015.

Since 1988, Taste of the Nation has raised more than $73 million for organizations in the United States, Canada and abroad, including more than $1.4 million in Boston alone. Area charities that will benefit from this year’s event include The Greater Boston Food Bank; Food for Free Committee; Cooking Matters, formerly known as Operation Frontline – Massachusetts; and Project Bread/The Walk for Hunger.

WHAT: Share Our Strength’s 23rd annual Taste of the Nation Boston

WHEN: Thursday April 14, 2011 from 6:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST; VIP reception beginning at 5:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Hynes Convention Center, 900 Boylston Street Boston, MA

WHO: More than 65 of the city’s finest chefs and restaurants will participate in the gastronomic event. Along with Andy Husbands of Tremont 647 and the last season of Hells Kitchen, and Jody Adams of Rialto, participating restaurants will include Gargoyles on the Square, Hamersley’s Bistro, L’Espalier, Sel de la Terre, Summer Shack and Oceanaire. Attendees will also be able to sample over 100 different varietals of wine and sample a variety of cocktails prepared by some of Boston’s premiere mixologists.

DETAILS: Tickets for Taste of the Nation Boston are $90 in advance / $100 at door for General Admission tickets are $150 in advance / $160 at the door for VIP and can be purchased by calling 1-877-26-TASTE or visiting www.strength.org/boston  or www.TasteOfTheNation.org.
For more information about Taste call 202-478-6516. To purchase tickets or to get involved, visit TasteOfTheNation.org.

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Kosta Browne, Sea Smoke...Is Rhys Vineyards the Next Cult California Pinot Noir?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A few weeks ago I asked friends on Twitter this question:

Complete this sequence of CA Pinot Noir high-flyers: Kosta Browne, Sea Smoke, ______________.

I got some great answers: Williams Selyem, Sojourn, Roar, Donum Estate, Papapietro Perry, Adrian Fog. But since Twitter is character limited I wasn't able to completely describe the context of the question.

To me, Kosta Browne and Sea Smoke aren't just highly-sought California Pinot Noir producers with reputations for making full-flavored wines. They're textbook examples of shrewd marketing resulting in loyal customers willing to pay a premium for their wines in good times and bad.

Kosta Browne began producing wine in 1997 and their first publicly released vintage was 2000. If you look at Wine Spectator's highest rated domestic Pinot Noirs of all time their wines dominate the list. Although detractors bemoan their prices getting out of hand, the steady climb from $48 in 2000 to $72 for their 2008 single vineyard releases isn't hard to justify in my mind. They're based in Sebastopol, in Sonoma County, and produce wines from other people's vineyards. I enjoyed their 2006 Russian River Valley (92/100) and Sonoma County (93/100) bottlings each purchased at retail for around $60.

Sea Smoke's story is more site-focused yet pinning them down can feel elusive. Unlike Kosta Browne, they don't buy any of their grapes and their Sea Smoke vineyards are planted to capacity creating a famously popular waiting line for their wines known as "The List".  Located in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA in Santa Barbara County, their positioning couldn't have been better aligned with the release of Sideways. Their three Pinot Noir bottlings range between $40 and $80. I saw a bottle of Sea Smoke Ten on a restaurant list for $245 recently. They also produce a One Barrel Pinot Noir (23 cases) that sells for $150. I loved their 2004 Southing Pinot Noir (95), their 2008 Southing (93), and their 2006 Sea Smoke Ten Pinot Noir (93).

These wines have an appeal that goes beyond what's in the bottle and beyond the label. There's an elusive quality about them. Perhaps contrived but you see it in brands like Scarecrow. Where is Scarecrow? What is Scarecrow? "It's not a place - it's a state of mind."

Opening wines like these announces to wine geeks it's a special occasion. When you're having a hard time getting your hands on a bottle you're tempted to pay a premium at retail or at a restaurant for a chance to try them. So adding a brand to this list isn't to be taken lightly.

And before I go much further gushing on about how much I adore these brands I want to acknowledge: One man's ceiling is another man's floor. Just like going to Best Buy and looking at stereo gear - the best things they have there aren't even up for consideration for a true stereophile. Same with wine. Hard core domestic Pinot Noir hounds are off looking at micro-production brands I've never even heard of.

And that's great. I'm not there yet and what I'm talking about here is a broad awareness in the wine community of brands that through hard work, quality production, savvy positioning, and a little luck obtain favored producer status that lasts a long time. The idea here is to catch one of these brands on the way up - when prices start around $30.

Until a couple months ago I had no familiarity with Rhys (rhymes with "piece"). A friend had an allocation and asked me if I'd like to try some. Then I read this. It's a love letter to Rhys Vineyards from highly esteemed Slate wine writer Mike Steinberger on par with the ode David Pogue wrote for the Canon S95 in the New York Times. It's impactful to me when a journalist writes such a striking endorsement for a specific brand.

Still, I read Steinberger's piece with skepticism. It goes on and on about terroir and praises the low alcohol levels of Rhys' Pinots - was I going to like these wines? Or was I going to have to squint and struggle to see the charm of these pieces of art?
My first taste of their wines came in the form of their Alesia label - the 2008 Alesia Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Other than the cork and a brief mention on the back label you wouldn't otherwise know it was produced by Rhys (it says "Produced & Bottled by Alesia Wines, San Carlos, CA") - they reserve that designation for wines produced from their own grapes.

Their focus is very much on site and letting the grapes speak for themselves rather than the winemaker guiding the style in a particular direction. That being the case it's understandable they'd want to distance their flagship wines from those produced from purchased grapes. In fact, 2008 is the last vintage they're producing Alesia Pinot Noir.

Though this wine was produced from grapes grown in the Sonoma Coast AVA (a more common area for Pinot Noir production) Rhys' own vineyard are in the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA.

I've heard the Alesia wines provide a reliable window into the Rhys style. As in: If you like Alesia wines you'll love Rhys wines. The alcohol level clocks in at a reasonable 13.9% (some of their Pinots are less than 13% alcohol) so it feels like a good will attempt to ween the high alcohol by volume crowd from their (our?) 15%+ expectations.

Here are my notes:

2008 Rhys Alesia Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast
13.9% Alcohol
$35 Release Price

My expectations were running high as I tried this wine for the first time - which could have set me up for a big disappointment. Fortunately, based on everything I've read about Rhys Pinots this wine absolutely delivered what it promised to be: A balanced, site-driven wine that points a light in a new direction for California Pinot Noir.

There's a laser-beam focus to the presence of this wine and a fresh, vibrant personality that's utterly appealing. Ample acidity reveals itself first as a slight pucker then later as a subtle citric quality. This mixed in with classic Pinot Noir markings of strawberries, a little earth, and perhaps slightly more substantial (if ultra-fine) tannins than I've seen in rounder new world Pinots. There's a wet river rock aspect that wouldn't be out of place in a red Burgundy.

Overall, a beautiful expression of Pinot Noir. 

92/100 WWP: Outstanding
(and I could easily add a couple bonus points for the back story and overall experience)

So I'm not saying Rhys is producing Pinot Noirs that are stylistically similar to Kosta Browne and Sea Smoke. Not at all. I'm suggesting you might want to jump on their mailing list if you're interested in catching a rising star. And check out the articles on their press page for more information. 

 Further Reading:
Question of the Day: Who are some California Pinot Noir producers you'd put one this level? I'd love to discover more producers to check out from your suggestions.

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