Inside the Brand: An In-Depth Look at Cakebread Cellars

Saturday, October 30, 2010

It’s a chilly October morning when I arrive at Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford, California.  Harvest has completed for the most part, and there’s a sweet smell in the air - the smell of grapes being crushed and fermented.  Napa Valley is as busy and alive as it will be any time of the year, and I’m looking forward to learning more about one of the most admired brands in Napa Valley.  Cakebread Cellars somehow manages to be ubiquitous yet elusive, old school yet modern, and above all exclusive yet down to earth.  Over the course of the next few hours, my goal would be to learn what it is that makes their wines special and how they’ve built and maintained their brand over the years.

I spot a pair of sleek black Lincoln Town Cars in the parking lot delivering small groups of enthusiastic, well-heeled visitors to their first tasting room of the day.  The main reception area is a bustling with activity as people confirm various 10:30 am appointments.  Today I’ll be meeting with Dennis Cakebread who, among other things, heads up sales and marketing for the winery.  I wander around looking for the business offices hoping to find him there.  I get a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach as the receptionist says she’s not sure whether Dennis is in today – do I have an appointment?

Moments later, he appears and mentions they’re having a beet crisis.  Beet crisis?  They’d committed to bring beets from their gardens to a wine dinner and they’re not sure they have enough of all the beet varieties.  I got to know Dennis by way of some things I’ve written about Cakebread here on this site so he reached out via E-mail and said he’d be happy to show me around next time I was in Napa.  As luck would have it, I was in Napa a few weeks later so I took him up on the offer.  He also sent out an informational packet including a DVD which I reviewed ahead of time.

Dennis is one of three children of Jack and Dolores Cakebread who started the winery back in 1973.  Robert Mondavi started the 32nd winery in Napa – Cakebread was number 38.  Today there are over 400 wineries in Napa.  When I first became familiar with Cakebread I wrongly assumed it was a newer winery, and suspected the name on the bottle was somehow contrived.  It’s not.  It’s just their family name (other wine brands are confusingly similar).

The family ran an auto repair shop in Oakland, and Jack also had a side interest in photography.  After visiting Napa Valley to do a photo shoot he casually mentioned to the previous owners of the ranch that if they were ever interested in selling to let him know.  The next day they called him up and said they actually were interested in selling, and Jack said yes.  But after talking it over with Dolores he realized he’d made a mistake.  He didn’t have that kind of money and the romantic notion of starting a winery got the best of him.  He went to tell the owner he’d gotten carried away.  The owners liked the Cakebreads and wanted to see the land taken care of, so they came to terms for the amount of the advance he’d received for photographing the book: $2,500.

From then until 1989, the Cakebreads would split time between Oakland and Napa.  Eventually they closed the garage and focused full-time on wine.  Today, the winery is situated on Highway 29 in Napa Valley with a subdued sign and a “Cakebread Cellars” mailbox out front.  The architecture of the winery itself is humble, with redwood siding that rises gently off the earth and surrounding rows of grape vines.

Our tour begins in the shipping area where pallets of Cakebread wines are waiting to be sent.  Dennis stops to chat with a colleague about some maintenance issues and while I’ve got the chance I’m gawking at the wines.  All-in Cakebread produces over 100,000 cases of wine a year.  They’re not small any more, but they’re still very much a family winery.  And they’re not expanding anymore which creates unique challenges in terms of running the winery profitably in light of ever-increasing production costs.

Next, Dennis tried to kill me.  Well, not really but he did play a pretty funny joke with the fermenting tanks.  We climbed up steep stairs to a walkway that rises high above the tanks.  He said, “There’s a right way, and wrong way to smell fermenting wine - do you know the difference?”  I say I don’t so he scouts around to find just the right tanks to show me.  The first tank is white wine that's largely completed fermentation.  I stick my head in the tank and smell some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever smelled.  There are aromas of lemon curd, pineapples, and honey.  “Now try smelling this one.” It’s got some red wine actively fermenting in it.  He draws some air out of the tank with his hand and it too smells wonderful.  Big ripe blackberries, earth, a little tar, and very much alive.  “That’s the right way to smell a fermenting grapes.  Now let me show you the wrong way – stick your nose in there right above the opening in the tank and take a whiff."  I do as he says and my vision immediately goes black.  Imagine taking a huge spoonful of horseradish and stuffing it in your mouth and swallowing it.  Imagine the sensation you’d get as your nose would momentarily suffocate and your eyes would open wide – that’s what it felt like times 100.  Thankfully the sensation lasted for only a fraction of a second so I could enjoy the rest of the visit.  But it was a memorable exercise to point out that Carbon Dioxide in the winery is serious business.  On with the tour!

Next stop was the cellar where oak barrels were being filled and stacked high for aging.  It's chilly - probably just over 40F - and smells of wood and wine.  Barrels are being filled, and some are being stirred - their Reserve Chardonnay, Dennis explains.

Adjacent to the cellar was a variety of rooms where private tastings are hosted.  We stop to check out a new video they’ve just produced for their Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet.  They call it Dancing Bear because they could imagine this bear dancing around their vineyards on Howell Mountain after skillfully climbing the barbed wire fence.  Check it out around the 4 minute mark in this video clip.

The property has been added to over the years, and what I liked about it was the scale and thoughtfully carved out niches.  The gardens, little tasting areas, tables.  It's a beautiful place.  Classic Napa Valley.

We stopped by the main tasting area and grabbed a couple glasses of Sauvignon Blanc ($24/btl) and found a table in a courtyard.  It was the same grape variety with the beautiful aromas in the fermenting tank that didn’t knock me out.  Tasting wines after walking through the vineyards and cellars is one of the great moves in all of marketing as the wines always seem to rise to higher levels at the winery.  Impeccable provenance to say the least, clean high quality stemware, and complete immersion in the winery.

Dennis is a likable guy:  Smart without being a pretentious, friendly but not gregarious, affable but not goofy.  He’s got a quiet confidence about him.  He seemed grateful for the position he’s in and he clearly loves the wines of Napa Valley.  I asked him whether he considers Cakebread a Chardonnay winery or a Cabernet winery – he asked me what I thought they were.  It’s probably just because I drink way more red wine than white (by a 6:1 ratio this year) but I’ve always thought of them as a Cabernet Sauvignon winery.

But I think more people would think of them first as a Chardonnay winery.  According to Wine & Spirits Magazine's 2009 survey of restaurants, Cakebread was the best selling wine brand overall and their Chardonnay was the 2nd most popular (behind Sonoma-Cutrer in the Chardonnay category).

The 2008 Reserve Chardonnay ($55) shows  why.  It is utterly delicious.  Rich with ripe pear aromas and ample creaminess.  A streak of flinty bluestone flavors keeps things serious and brings balance to the wine.  Absolutely stunning.  Textbook Napa Chardonnay.  Highly recommended.

Next up were the Napa Valley Merlot ($54) and then the Cabernet Sauvignon ($61).  The Merlot was showing generous aromas and incredibly enjoyable mouth feel. Their Cabernet did for me what it always does – deliver an elegant distinctive flavor that I have a hard time finding in any other wine (believe me I’ve tried).  On immediate release, for immediate consumption, I think I prefer the Merlot.  The Cabernet would benefit from a little more bottle age to open up.

Their 2007 Syrah ($51) is an inky, purple, opaque wine.  At 15.1% alcohol - it's heart warming.  I had this wine previously and picked it as my favorite out of a line-up of 8 other Syrahs blind.  I think it plays well as a cocktail wine.  Dennis said he sometimes has it after dinner and said he was considering lightening its color up a bit in future vintages.

The last wine we tasted was the 2006 Dancing Bear Ranch ($106).  It’s not necessarily a bigger bolder wine, but it does deliver even more excitement than the Napa Valley bottling.  I would have enjoyed getting to know that wine better by way of a couple glasses over dinner with friends.  Note the different label style which is screened on rather than paper.  Interesting.  Cakebread's regular label is a classic and one of my favorites.  But I like the Dancing Bear Ranch label too.

The tasting itself was a delightfully casual affair with Dennis rifling through a nearby cooler grabbing a little of this and a little of that.  I thought all the wines were great.  The common thread of their line-up, for me, is the focus on enjoyable mouth feel and delicious flavor profiles along with elegant balance.  Most all were food friendly (the possible exception being the Syrah) because they’re slightly higher in acid than normal, but rich and round at the same time.  Like a stereo turned up to “7” playing your favorite song.  Nothing is distorting or out of control and you’re just focused on enjoying the experience.

Since Cakebread is such a popular restaurant brand, and I’ve heard restaurant wine sales are down the past few years, I asked how they were weathering this.  Dennis said they’ve changed their restaurant/retail allocation mix from 70/30 to 60/40 which might explain why we’ve been seeing Cakebread more available in Massachusetts wine shops recently.  If you’ve been interested in buying their wines now might be the best opportunity in a while.  Check for availability in your area or buy online directly from Cakebread if they can ship to your state.

Speaking of shipping laws, I particularly appreciated Dennis’s awareness of the situation in Massachusetts. He serves on the board of the Coalition for Free Trade -and- Free the Grapes.  Let’s hope our legislature can seal the deal in next year’s session and finally enable winery-direct shipment to Massachusetts.  More info on that issue here in this brief history of wine shipping laws in Massachusetts.

Side note: Kudos to Cakebread for having the clearest and most useful wine shipping info page I've ever seen.  I don't need to waste a lot of time to see that they can't ship to Massachusetts and if they could ship to my state I could see exactly what the terms and conditions were.  Well done.

We even had a chance to talk about wine aerators.  Dennis showed me a simple "back and forth" trick where you pour a wine back and forth between two glasses a few times and it opens up the wine pretty nicely too.  I'll have to add an 8th option to my next wine aerator blind tasting.

After my visit I was hoping to connect with a friend for lunch but couldn’t quite manage to work it out.  So I stopped off at the nearby Oakville Grocery to grab a sandwich.  I forgot a napkin so I went back in and there was Dennis grabbing lunch himself.  Just a regular guy getting a sandwich in his truck.  That’s one of the cool things about Napa.  You never know when you might be standing next to someone responsible for making one of your favorite wines.

If you have a chance visit to Cakebread Cellars I'd recommend one of their more involved programs rather than just a quick hit and run.  I’ve tried a quick taste and/or short tour a couple of times previously and they really didn’t provide enough time to get to know the winery.

So what is it that makes Cakebread special?  It's everything really.  Having the courage to buy the land when they did.  Slowly building up the winery with sweat equity, family and friends.  Great viticulture and vinification.  The UC Davis son (Bruce) and the Berkeley CPA (Dennis).  Carefully managing the brand over the years.  But above all, I think it's balance and moderation in everything they do.

Getting to know my favorite brands better has been one of the best things about writing this blog.  If you enjoyed this post you might also like this review I did of The Capital Grille.

Looking for other wineries to visit in Napa?  I've also enjoyed Buehler and Lewelling.

Check 'em out:
Cakebread Cellars
8300 St. Helena Hwy
Rutherford, CA 94573
Facebook: CakebreadCellars
Twitter: @CakebreadWines 

Are you a fan of Cakebread Cellars?  I'd love to hear your thoughts on their wines, and any other recommendations you might have for similar wines or wineries to visit.


November 2010 Boston Area Wine Events

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Some notable Boston-area wine events for November:

November 1

6-9p Boston Magazine TASTE | $95 | One Marina Park Drive at Fan Pier 

November 2

4p Skinner Fine Wine Auction  | Free | 63 Park Plaza, Boston 

November 3

5-7p Jonathan Alsop's "Wine Lover's Devotional" Book Signing and Tasting | Free | Sixty2 Restaurant 

November 3, 10, and 17

5p-7p Bread, Salt, Wine | Free | Sixty2 Restaurant, Salem 

November 4

5-6:30p Beaux Freres Tasting | Free | Lower Falls Wine Co.

November 6

4p-8p Grand Tasting | Free | Hopkinton Wine & Spirits
2p-6p The Wine House Holliston 3rd Anniversary Tasting | Free | Holliston Historical Barn, 547 Washington St Holliston 

November 7

2p-5p Federal Era Wine Tasting | $55 | Otis House Museum 

November 10

6:30p-9p Boony Doon Wine Dinner | $75 | Legal Sea Foods, Park Square
5p-10p Ladies Holiday Trunk Show | $5 donation | Healthy Habits Kitchen, Wellesley 

November 11

5p-10p Moms Holiday Trunk Show | $5 donation | Healthy Habits Kitchen, Wellesley 

November 13

3p-7p Grand Tasting | Free | The Spirited Gourmet 

November 14 

3p-6p Higgins Wine & Spirits Grand Tasting | $20 Donation | American Legion, Dover, MA

November 17

7p Sniff, Swirl, Sip, Tweet | Wines Sold by the Glass/Bottle | Various Four Seasons Hotel Locations
6:30p Four Graces Vineyard Wine Dinner | $115 | Blue Ginger 

November 18

6p-11p Wines Around the World Tasting & Gala | $200 | Boston Harbor Hotel
6:30p-9:30p Nouveau Cirque | $20 | Villa Victoria Center for the Arts
6p-8p Barolo Abbondanza | $10 | The Wine Bottega

November 20

1p-4p Horizon Luxury Tasting | Free | Gordon's

November 29

5:30p-8p Wine Tasting | $25 | The Capital Grille Newbury St 

If you spot an error -or- if you'd like your Boston-area wine event included for this or an upcoming month E-mail me: 

Please provide:
Time Title | Cost | Venue
Optional: A link to a landing page for the event on your site


WBUR Massachusetts Alcohol Tax Interview

Monday, October 25, 2010

Last Thursday, Curt Nickisch from WBUR (a Boston National Public Radio station) came over to do an audio interview about Question 1 of the upcoming election which would repeal the 6.25% sales tax on alcohol in Massachusetts.  We had some minor audio difficulties so I hope my part of the 4 minute piece doesn’t get edited out of the story as a result, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the issue before listening to the to the story on the radio myself.

What’s strange about this issue for me is that I’m not really trying to sway anyone’s opinion or urge anyone to vote either way.  I consider myself independent and moderate politically.  I’m not even really that politically-minded come to think of it.  I am, however, disappointed with the lack of useful information provided to date on this issue by traditional media outlets.  So far, the collective coverage I’ve found was long on opinion and short on information which is the exact opposite of what I’m looking for.  What I’m looking for is some information that I could use to make an informed decision.

For example, the most common reason supporters give for keeping the sales tax on alcohol is that the revenue raised goes to programs that help residents with behavioral health problems.  I’ve heard conflicting statements on this important point as to whether the money goes exclusively to this cause.  It’s entirely possible that the state has no means for separately collecting and disbursing funds in this manner and the claim is a total fabrication.  I honestly don’t know whether it’s true or not.  What I would like is someone with more familiarity with the state’s finances to do some research and fact check the claims I’ve heard and then share that information.

On the other side of the argument, retailers say their business is suffering.  Yet we hear the tax has raised more revenue than anticipated.  That alcohol sales are brisk.  How about some data from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue showing sales trends by volume and dollar over the past few years?  Overlay it with location and we’d have something to think about.

But instead we get high level rhetoric boiled down to a useless opinion built on a shaky foundation.  Maybe this is the way politics always work, and maybe that’s why I usually focus my attention elsewhere.

For my part, I compared current Massachusetts excise taxes to other states and found they were on the average-to-low side.   The Twitter account representing those in favor of maintaining the tax chose to share that data out of context with no attribution.  I didn’t appreciate that because I shared my (admittedly simple) research in the context of an overall story on the issue that doesn’t come through in isolation.  Why didn’t they do their own research?  What if my interpretation was incorrect?

I fear this vote is coming down to an either/or decision:  Support behavioral disorder programs -or- support package store owners.  If that’s the case, those in favor of repealing the tax are in trouble.  But how did the discussion come down to that?

What the discussion should be about is determining the appropriate level and means of taxation (excise vs. sales) in the context of our state’s overall budget.  I think knocking down the general sales tax rate from 6.25% to 3% (Question 3) is a pipe dream.  Others disagree.  Why don't I favor reducing the state sales tax to 3%?  Because the state sales tax rate was at 5% and things seemed to be working just find at those levels for a number of years.  Just as with alcohol sales tax it seems to me that something should need to change (other than the economy being in the tank) to justify changing taxation levels.  The state needs to spend less when times are tight just like the rest of us.

So where does that leave us?  My thoughts are on other things that conspire against Massachusetts wine consumers.  Things like stifling interstate shipping laws, a general lack of consumer-friendly competition annoyingly held in place by the three-tier system and other antiquated Massachusetts laws.

Stay tuned for more on that in the future.

In the mean time, here’s a link to the story on WBUR.


Event Report: Fall 2010 Wine Riot

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Me (middle) with Wine Riot founders Morgan First (left) and Tyler Balliet (right)
Just back from the Second Glass Wine Riot and I'm pleased to report the event continues to grow and impress as it matures.  This is at least their third time in the South End of Boston at the  Cyclorama and each time it seems to be even more orderly and well-run.  It's certainly a credit to event founders Morgan First and Tyler Balliet who recently landed on Inc's 30 under 30 list for their innovative work connecting Millenials with wine through events like Wine Riot.

I mentioned their mobile application ( earlier this week as an impressive addition, and it worked well for me during the event on my iPhone.  The wines near the top of the list surprised me a bit.  The list was dominated by white and sparkling wines, and I usually expect big, bold reds to be most noticeable in format like this.  Perhaps it had to do with the crowd at the Wine Riot.  Take note gentlemen: I'd estimate it as a 4:1 ratio of ladies to gentlemen and the crowd was very young.  Alas, I'm a married man (and not so young anymore) so the most I'm interested in is getting those lovely young ladies to follow me on Twitter or read this wine blog.
Diana Magner and Lindsay Douglas with crowd-favorite
Lambrusco, Si Soave Italia
Oh yeah, back to the wine.  Where was I?  The crowd favorite of the event was a Lambrusco - a fruity red sparkling wine from Italy - specifically a 2009 Giorgio & Gianni Lambrusco which retails for just $6.99.  I don't think I've had a Lambrusco since a bottle of Riunite about 15 years ago.  It tasted like fruit juice.  But you know what?  It's tasty stuff and I wouldn't mind having some around to pour for guests who don't normally drink wine.

A wine I tasted at the event that caught my attention was the Educated Guess Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  I've tasted that wine a half-dozen times and each time I've had a favorable impression.  Great $20 Napa Cab - highly recommended.  I'm thinking it might be the Belle Glos Meiomi of Napa Cabs.

Brett Vankoski and Kevin Mehra, 90+ Cellars
The 90+ Cellars Tasting Lounge was in full effect and their presence at the event was quite noticeable.  They're another Boston-based wine company that's grown around the same time as the Wine Riot focusing on delivering premium wines at a discount.  They had a line-up of 5 wines they were pouring for guests to vote on to determine which should be labeled and offered as a 90+ Cellars/Wine Riot wine.

Their portfolio has expanded of late to include a diverse range of wines from all over the world (their first wines were primarily domestic) and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape was one of the 5 wines up for consideration.  I hear they're working on a Barolo as well.  The star of the 90+ Cellars area was an "under the counter" Oakville Napa Cab you might be able to find on retailer shelves for between $20 and $25 if you look hard enough.  The original label sold for over $65 and it shows - very nice stuff if you can find it.

Brian Blomerth, Triumvir
An intriguing new discovery for me at this year's event was Triumvir.  They're a small producer of Russian River Pinot Noir from the same Amber Ridge vineyard that well-regarded producers Siduri and Kosta Browne have sourced fruit from.  The only wine they've submitted for rating to Wine Spectator (their 2007) garnered 92 points.  Only one barrel was produced so attendees were uniquely privileged to try their wines. They use the custom crush facility Crush Pad to produce their wines which as I learned from Brian Blomerth from Triumvir has relocated from San Francisco to Napa.  Adding to the intrigue, the guys from Triumvir are from the East Coast.  Definitely a producer to watch.

I felt the food offered at the event was quite compelling and affordable.  I had a chance to try a slice of The Swellesley from Upper Crust Pizzeria ($3) which included chorizo - a hard to find commodity in the Boston area.  A pair of pulled pork sliders from Red Bones ($5) satisfied as well.  I appreciate the food offered at this event as it provides a nice break from the wine tasting which can become a blur after a few tables even if you're spitting everything.

The Second Glass is eyeing replicating the Wine Riot in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington DC in the coming year.  Stay tuned for developments on that front.  All in all, another good time at the Second Glass Wine Riot.  I'd encourage you to check 'em out next time they come around in your area.

As a matter of disclosure I should mention I attended the event with a press pass, and the folks at the Second Glass gave away a pair of tickets to the event on this site earlier in the week.  I'd like to thank them for their support.


Win 2 Tickets to Morton's Napa Tasting Event

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Wine Riot ticket giveaway earlier this week.  We've got another one for you today...

There's a lot of wine events this time of year - here's another one for your consideration.  Morton's The Steakhouse Back Bay Boston location is offering a Five of This with Five of That event this coming Monday.  They've partnered with Ruby Wines to Host a Monthly “Uncorked” Tasting Series and this month's theme is red wines from Napa - one of my favorite categories.

I attended an event in this series earlier this year and wrote up my thoughts.  I hope that gives you an idea of what to expect.

Morton's has offered up a pair of tickets to giveaway on this site!  To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment on this post -or- E-mail me saying you'd like to be entered in the contest: 

To increase your chances of winning, tweet a link to this blog post and you'll get a 2nd entry.  Click here to pre-populate a Twitter status update (you'll have a chance to edit before sending the tweet).

Get your entries in by 11:59pm on Friday, October 22nd 2010 and I'll do the drawing Saturday morning.  Good luck! 

Morton’s The Steakhouse Back Bay invites Boston wine lovers to indulge their palates with selections from Ruby Wines alongside pairings of Morton’s signature dishes. Gusts enjoy samples of five wines paired with five hors d’oeuvres.  This month’s tasting features red wines from Napa Valley. 

Monday, October 25
6:30 pm – 8:00 pm 

$40 per guest, inclusive of tax and gratuity 

Required. Please call 617-266-5858. 

Morton’s The Steakhouse (Back Bay)
699 Boylston Street
Boston, MA

Valet parking and nearby parking garage available.

Visit the Morton's Back Bay event page for more information on this event and to make a reservation.


We received 5 comments (entries 1-5), 4 E-mail entries (entries 6-9), and 5 entries via Twitter (entries 10-14).  I generated a random number between 1 and 14 and the winning number drawn was 3:

Congratulations to the 3rd comment received which was from Beverly!  I'll follow-up via E-mail.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this contest.  If you're interested in attending the event Monday night, you can check with the restaurant at 617-266-5108 to check availability.


How To: Win a Pair of Tickets to Wine Riot

Monday, October 18, 2010

Coming this Friday and Saturday to Boston is the Second Glass Wine Riot.  It's an expo style tasting of over 250 wines along with tasty food and an overall great opportunity to learn about wine through tasting.

I've attended a couple Wine Riots in the past and they've both been a very good time.  The most recent Riot included an innovative new featured I was particularly impressed with (see image at right) which was the ability for participants to rate wines they're tasting via the mobile web browser on their cell phones.  How many times have you been at an event like this where everyone is asking "Which wines are good?".  With a solution like this, participants voice their opinion of the wines they're tasting with a simple "Two Thumbs Up | One Thumb Up | Meh" rating scale and then you can check in real time what wines are crowd favorites.  Very cool.  Innovative, simple, and useful.  Fun too.

I tended to agree with the crowd at the last event - that the 90+ Cellars Shiraz/Viognier was a really nice wine.  90+ Cellars has a unique slot at the upcoming Wine Riot which is a Tasting Lounge.  There you can taste not only their current releases, but you can taste wines they're considering for future bottling and help them decide on one of next year's 90+ Cellars wines.  The wine will be bottled and sold as a 90+ Cellars/Second Glass Wine Riot wine to commemorate the event.

The event is split up into three segments: Opening night (Friday night), and then two riots on Saturday.  I approached the good folks at Second Glass (the folks who put on the Wine Riot) and they agreed to give away a pair of tickets for the event here on this site.  Two tickets for Saturday's Riot One which runs from 1p-5p: a $90 value.

To enter, leave a comment below saying you'd like to be entered in the drawing.  If you'd rather keep it on the down low, drop me an E-mail asking you'd like to be entered:

Get your submission in by midnight eastern time tomorrow night (Tuesday, October 19th, 2010).  I'll do a random number drawing and announce the winner Wednesday morning.  Good luck!

Thanks to Second Glass for sponsoring this give away - it is appreciated.

To purchase tickets for the event click here.

Update (October 20th, 2010):

I did the drawing by generating a random number.  I numbered the comments 1-7 in the order they were received.  4 E-mail submissions were numbered 8-11.  I then asked for a random number between 1 and 11, and the winning number was 2:

Congratulations to the second comment we received which was from Sara C!  I'll follow up with her and connect her with the good folks from Wine Riot to receive her tickets to the event via E-mail.  Thanks for participating!

If you didn't win tickets, you can still buy tickets online.  I definitely recommend buying tickets ahead of time because this event does sell out.

Check back tomorrow for another giveaway for a Boston area wine event, this time for one of the top steakhouses in town.  Thanks!


Rediscovering an old friend you thought was gone

Thursday, October 14, 2010

One of the great quality-price-ratio wines to come to market the past few years was the 2007 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel.  Even though it was produced in very high quantities (68,000 cases) it sold quickly.  The wine retailed for only $24 - a 93 point Wine Spectator rating provided the initial push.  When it landed in the Wine Spectator Top 10 "most exciting" wines of 2008 that seemed to seal the deal.  I haven't seen the wine available at retail in almost two years.  Until today.

Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, MA continues to climb in my personal list of favorite stores to visit.  They're not the cheapest place in town but nor are they the most expensive.  More importantly, each time I visit I find a bottle or two of interesting wine along with expert recommendations and stories that are priceless.  Last time I was in there they had some half bottles of Felsina Fontalloro on sale and this time they had the 2007 Seghesio Sonoma Coast also in half bottles.

Given the staggered release schedules of various California varietals (Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon) wines from the 2007 vintage have been entering the market for the past couple of years.  Perhaps it's kind of obvious if you sit down and taste them alongside 2006 and 2008, but 2007 is an incredible California vintage across the grape varieties I enjoy most.  You can taste the difference.  There's just something about the vintage that elevated the wines from a lot of producers.

Back to the wine.  I couldn't resist the opportunity to crack one open right away to see how it was showing.  Like a friend you haven't seen in years that's still every bit as fun and kind as you remember them, this wine is still showing extremely well.

The wine still has chalky tannins that are surprisingly apparent considering it's Zinfandel.  What I've always loved about this wine is that it's so full of flavor and sure to please guests, and at the same time it has layers of complexity that reveal themselves if you pay attention.  It successfully avoids veering towards over-ripe/stewy aromas and flavors.  Instead it offers earthy, yet tart, chocolate covered cherries.  It's vibrant and fresh.  Conceals 15.5% alcohol amazingly well.  Highly recommended.

Still a favorite and I'm glad I was able to track some more down.  It had disappeared from my stash long ago.  The only problem you might find with this wine is that there are only 375 ml of wine in the bottle.

Where to Buy:
$12.99 for a half bottle at Lower Falls Wine Co in Newton, MA.  I bought a case and left 9 bottles remaining.  Run don't walk.

Check 'em out:
Lower Falls Wine Co.
2366 Washington St
Newton, MA 02462-1440
(617) 332-3000


Massachusetts Alcohol Tax Repeal: Why Deciding How to Vote is Harder than You'd Think

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On November 2nd, 2010 Massachusetts voters will have a chance to decide whether to repeal the sales tax on alcohol which was introduced in 2009.  Alcohol went from being exempt from sales tax to being taxed at 6.25% as part of a general sales tax increase from 5% to 6.25%.  A "Yes" vote on Question 1 would repeal the alcohol sales tax, a "No" vote would keep it as is.

Alcohol has always been taxed in Massachusetts -- as an excise tax when alcohol trades hands from distributors to retailers and restaurants. I assumed that Massachusetts must have a sky high excise tax rate.  Not so.  As I did some research on this topic I found some data that surprised me: 
Head on over to BevSites to read why deciding how to vote on this question is harder than you'd think...

Incumbent Governor Deval Patrick (D) is in favor of maintaining the sales tax, challengers Charlie Baker (R) and Tim Cahill (I) are in favor of repealing it.

Update (November 3rd, 2010): "Yes" voters narrowly approved of this question meaning the alcohol sales tax should be repealed.  More here.


October 2010 Boston Area Wine Events

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trying something new here on the Wellesley Wine Press - a listing of upcoming Boston area wine events.  If you're not aware of it already Local Wine Events does a fabulous job connecting those wanting to promote wine events with those interested in attending all over the globe.  Increasingly, I've been receiving requests to mention events here as well - but specifically in the Boston area.  Rather than publish a new blog entry for each event I thought it would be more useful to publish and maintain a list for each month.

Here are some that caught my eye for October:

October 14

6p-8p Joe Dressner | Free | The Wine Bottega

October 16

2p-5p Grand Tasting | Free | Ball Square Wines
1p-4p World of Wine Tasting | Free | Wine Nation
12-5p 3rd Anniversary Tasting | Free | Winestone 

October 18

7p-11p Robert Mondavi Dinner | $105 | Stonehedge Inn

October 19

6p-8p Tuesday Tastings | $19 | pairings

October 21

7p-8:30p Around the World Wine & Food | $40 | Healthy Habits Kitchen

October 22

7p-11p Wine Riot | $55 | Cyclorama
5p-8p Hangtime Wines w/Jeff Slavin | Free | The Spirited Gourmet

October 23

1p-5p and 7p-11p Wine Riot | $45 | Cyclorama
1p-6p 1 Year Anniversary Grand Tasting | Free | Wine ConneXtion

October 25

5:30p-7p Wine and Hors d´oeuvres | $30 | The Capital Grille Newbury St.
6:30p-8p Uncorked Napa Reds | $40 | Morton's Back Bay

October 30

1p-5p The Great 2007 Napa Cabernets | Free | Wine ConneXtion
1p-5p Grand Tasting | Free | Gordon's

October 31

1p-5p Fine Wine Flea Market | Free | Bin Ends Wine 

If you spot an error -or- if you'd like your Boston-area wine event included for this or an upcoming month E-mail me: 

Please provide:
Time Title | Cost | Venue Name
Optional: A link to a landing page for the event on your site


Value Alert: 2007 Waterbrook Reserve Merlot

Monday, October 11, 2010

Washington wines have a good reputation in my book, but my experience is admittedly limited.  From a quality-price-ratio perspective, Washington crushes Napa.  However, the selection available here in Massachusetts is sparse.

The 2007 Waterbrook Reserve Merlot is one I've had my eye out for since Wine Spectator gave it a Smart Buy designation and a 92 point rating.  They said:

Ripe, pure, focused and beguiling for its balance, offering blueberry, raspberry and plum fruit at the core, layered with hints of red pepper, clove and peach fuzz as the finish extends extraordinarily well. Drink now through 2017. 3,030 cases made. –HS

With a release price of $22, it's an attractive QPR wine on paper.  I picked up a single bottle of this at VinoDivino over the weekend.  Here are my notes: 

2007 Waterbrook Reserve Merlot
14.5% Alcohol
3,031 Cases produced
$22 Release price

Aromatically vibrant immediately upon opening.  22 months of aging in 32% new oak imparts caramel aromas on top of warm black cherry preserves.  The initial attack on the palate is straight fruit, but spice quickly dominates.  Keep it in your mouth a while and nice acidity is revealed.  Medium length of finish.  Nice stuff.  Pair it with beef stew on a chilly autumn evening.

90/100 WWP: Outstanding

Where to Buy in Massachusetts:
Want to go in on a case or two of this wine?  Drop me an E-mail and let me know how many bottles you'd be interested in:


2008 Blue Fin Petite Sirah: A Sobering Offering from Trader Joe's

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Just when I was feeling rejuvenated about Trader Joe's as a fun place to shop for value wines I come across a stinker like this one.  The 2007 picket fence Pinot Noir they had at $8.99 was uncharacteristic for their model because it's a wine that retails for $30 and is sold at other wines stores for much more.  A more common find at TJ's is the exclusive label rock-bottom-priced cheapie like this Blue Fin.

A while back I tried a bottle of Blue Fin Pinot Noir and thought it was surprisingly drinkable.  That being the case, and since I've enjoyed a number of affordable Petite Sirah lately, I thought to try a bottle of their Blue Fin Petite Sirah.  Unfortunately I don't think the Petite Sirah is good.  At all.

Look, I understand the wine only costs $3.99.  The problem I have with it is that it doesn't encourage us to try other Petite Sirah that are still quite affordable.  Step up to the $10-$15 range and you can find some fantastic Petite Sirah.  But why would you after trying this one?  It's not delicious, rich or redeeming in any way.  It's not similar at all to other California Petite Sirah that for me can be excellent more affordable alternatives to Napa Cabernet.

In my opinion, this wine was a real killjoy.  It wipes the smile I had on my face while shopping at Trader Joe's right off and makes me afraid to troll in the sub $5 range again.  Even the Charles Shaw Cab is way better in my opinion.  Steer clear of this turkey (or try it to see what bad wine tastes like).

Here are my notes:

2008 Blue Fin Petite Sirah
12.5% Alcohol
$3.99 at Trader Joe's

Artificial grape dominates the aromatic profile of this surprisingly thin California Petite Sirah.  A little wood echoes in the background.  I was glad it delivered limited flavor, because the flavor profile it exhibited was undesirable.  Stewy vegetables smashed together with ambiguous slightly-sweet fruit.  An abrupt finish which I was grateful for.  One of the worst non-flawed wines I've ever had.

55/100 WWP: Not Recommended

Better options in Petite Sirah for around $10:
Further reading about Blue Fin:


Morton's and the Mondavi Families: Celebrating the Legendary Blend

Monday, October 4, 2010

This Thursday October 7th, 2010 Burke Owens from Continuum Estate in Napa Valley will host a special event at Morton’s Seaport.  Check out the information below and visit the Morton's event page for more details. 

A toast to the past, present and future

Join Morton's and the Mondavi Families during this extraordinary event benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation®.

For the first time, the 2nd and 3rd generations of the Mondavi Family will come together to host an unforgettable wine dinner. Learn more about their family tree.

Broadcast live from the Carriage House of Charles Krug Winery in Napa Valley, guests will have a front row seat in the comfort of Morton's private dining rooms.

Enjoy incredible wines paired with four courses of brand new Morton's cuisine and an exclusive auction. View wine pairings and menu.

The esteemed hosts of the broadcast include...
Mr. Peter Mondavi, Sr. - President, CEO & Co-Proprietor of Charles Krug Winery
Mr. Peter Mondavi, Jr. - Co-Proprietor of Charles Krug Winery
Mr. Marc Mondavi - Co-Proprietor of Charles Krug Winery
Mr. Michael Mondavi - Founder and Coach of the Michael Mondavi Family Winery
Mr. Tim Mondavi - Partner of Continuum Estate
Ms. Marcia Mondavi Borger - Partner of Continuum Estate

Guests will be invited to bid on a silent auction that includes a trio of premium wines from Charles Krug Winery, Continuum Estate and Folio Fine Wine Partners, with 100 percent of the winning auction bids benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation®. View the tasting notes for these incredible wines.

Learn more about an upcoming online auction that will feature an invaluable 27-Liter blend from the Mondavi Families, with 100 percent of the winning auction bids benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Smoked Salmon Wedges
Tenderloin Crostinis
Miniature Crabcakes

Paired with:
Charles Krug - Peter Mondavi Family, Napa Valley, Sauvignon Blanc, 2009

Harvest Green Salad,
topped with Sea Bass and
Roasted Caper Vinaigrette

Paired with:
Isabel Mondavi, Sonoma Carneros, Chardonnay 2008

New York Strip Sirloin
Baked Sweet Onions with Gruyere
Roasted Tomato stuffed with Leaf Spinach
Roasted Yukon Gold Potatoes

Paired with:
Continuum, Napa Valley, 2007
M by Michael Mondavi, Animo Vineyard, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
Charles Krug - Peter Mondavi Family, Napa Valley, VS Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 

Cappuccino Cream

Paired with:
Charles Krug - Peter Mondavi Family, Napa Valley, Zinfandel Port, Lot XIII

Cost is $175.  For more information visit the page for this event on the Morton's website.


Healthy Habits Kitchen: Around the World Wine & Food Workshop

Friday, October 1, 2010

Here's an interesting Wellesley/Wine event for your consideration:

Join Healthy Habits Kitchen and Higgins Wine & Spirits for the Around the World Wine & Food Workshop on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 from 7 – 8:30 pm.

International wines have taken center stage in recent years. Learn  about little-known, affordable wines from different countries and how to pair them with everyday meals. We’ll greet you with a glass of sparkling wine and you’ll enjoy four unique food and wine pairings for both a satisfying dinner and an educational evening.

DATE: Thursday, October 21, 2010
TIME: 7 – 8:30 pm
LOCATION: Healthy Habits Kitchen, 36 Washington
Street, Suite 2, Wellesley
COST: $40, $10 of which is redeemable towards meal
kits purchased that night. As an extra bonus, receive
$5 off any bottle of wine purchased that evening.

RSVP is required by October 15 and space is limited. Register by calling at 781-235-6325 or online at

Click here to download an event flyer.



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