Saturday, April 28, 2007

2005 Cruz Alta Malbec

So I just got done telling you in a previous post what a great value Argentinian Malbecs are, and that you should check them out. While that is still a true statement, I must admit I was a little disappointed with the 2005 Cruz Alta Malbec. However, I think my disappointment was mainly due to the very high expectations I had for this bottle before ever cracking it open.

We had opened up a 2005 Cruz Alta Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($12 at Total Wine) a couple weeks ago, and were very impressed. The reserve cab was full-bodied, big and beautiful! It had pretty hefty tannins, but was well-balanced with some lighter berry fruit and some intriguing spice to it. Kris and I both loved this wine, and I strongly recommend it. This is why I was so excited to try one of Cruz Alta's Malbecs, since if they could do Cabs so well I wanted to see what they could do with Argentina's specialty - Malbec.

The 2005 Cruz Alta Malbec was purchased for $10 at Total Wine in McLean, VA. It had a nose of dark raspberries and plum. On the tongue, the dark fruit held up, and there was a nice earthiness to it, but there was also some unpleasant bitterness. We had brought this wine over to the home of our friends, so were without our decanter. The decanter may have helped with the bitterness, as the wine simply tasted too "tight" and we've found that a decanter can often alleviate this.

I feel that I've been a little harsh with this wine - we drank the bottle and enjoyed it, but I was just expecting more and was thus overly critical. However, my overall recommendation is still to skip this particular Argentine Malbec. There are definitely better wines out there for $10, and I'd rather see you spend your wine time and money seeking out a more satisfying Malbec. Definitely check out the Cruz Alta Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon though - it's excellent!

2005 Chateau Montet Bordeaux Sauvignon

"Bordeaux" had always been synonymous with "red wine" in my mind. As I have admitted before, I am definitely a French wine neophyte. Living in California, I was always able to find a Californian (or Oregonian or Washington State) wine to suit the occasion or my mood. Out here on the East Coast, the selection of West Coast wines is a bit stunted, and I've had to begin to expand my wine repertoire.

I was thus surprised to stumble upon this tasty "white Bordeaux". I guess it seems pretty obvious that white grapes are grown alongside their more familiar red Bordeaux cousins of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. But I had never thought of white wine coming out of Bordeaux.

And since I'd never thought about it, I had to learn a bit more about it. I'm a big fan of "full grape disclosure" on wine labels - I want to know which grapes were used in the bottle of wine I'm drinking. Apparently aside from the red grapes I listed above, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscadelle are also grown in the Bordeaux region and used for white wine. Just like red Bordeaux wine, whites are usually (always?) a blend of two or all three of the white grapes listed.

Based on its name (and taste), I'm thinking that the 2005 Chateau Montet Bordeaux Sauvignon is mainly or completely Sauvignon Blanc. This wine was purchased for $8 at Total Wine in McLean, VA. This wine has a very nice, crisp taste. A little minerally, in a sort of Perrier sort of way (without the bubbles obviously), it also had some subtle fruit flavors, probably grapefruit.

We first had this wine with a Steampot dinner (take-out steamed crab, shrimp, other yummy seafood). This wine paired *perfectly*, with that slight citrusy grapefruit adding nicely to the seafood. We liked it so much that this became our 2nd white "house wine", displacing the Banrock Station Sémillon Chardonnay blend that had previously held the honor. The Banrock Station wine is a bit sweeter, which tends to pair better with spicier foods like Thai or Indian, but I really enjoy the "clean", crisp taste of the Chateau Montet Bordeaux Sauvignon.

Overall recommendation - the 2005 Chateau Montet Boreaux Sauvignon makes for a pleasant drinking, clean and crisp summer white. For $8, it has a high quality-to-price ratio, and I'd recommend giving it a shot!

Friday, April 27, 2007

2004 Butterfield Station Merlot

One of the things I like most about wine is that it's meant to be shared. Unlike beer which comes in "single serving" sized bottles and cans, wine comes in a big bottle that's the ideal accompaniment to any sit-down dinner amongst friends.

Kris and I brought this bottle of 2004 Butterfield Station Merlot over to our friend Alex's place for dinner the other night. This wine costs $8 at Total Wine in McLean, VA. (I know what you're thinking - wow, such generous guests... But we were also bringing dinner, and this was just a simple wine to drink while watching Survivor!)

This wine was very briefly our "house red". A year ago or so, Kris and I decided we should find both an inexpensive red and white wine with "middle of the road" taste that would make them easily pair with a wide variety of dishes, or at the very least just not "get in the way" of the flavors of the food. We would buy these by the case, and just always have them around the house to pop open when we wanted a simple wine with dinner but didn't want to spend too much money on it, or if we needed a second, or third bottle when we had company over and a higher quality wine was unnecessary at that point.

The Butterfield Station Merlot is a medium-bodied wine which contains 9% Shiraz, 5% Petite Verdot, and 3% Malbec. It is light ruby in color, lighter than I would expect given some of the "darker" grapes it has blended in. When we first opened it, I thought it had a grapey and somewhat astringent aroma - you could feel the alcohol tingling the inside of your nose. Upon tasting, Kris described it as "smooth and round", with hints of chocolate. She thought it was also tart, something like a sour cherry. Alex thought it was very fruity, especially at the back of his mouth. He said it didn't have a strong aftertaste, which Alex said was a good thing for him. He agreed with the chocolate. I tasted the chocolate and cherries, some dark fruit, maybe over-ripe raspberries. It had very soft tannins, and tasted a bit juicy. That astringency on the nose was kind of bothering me though. I let it sit for a while in the glass, and that seemed to help.

Overall, I don't think this wine is quite worth it for the money. I think Kris and Alex were more forgiving than I was, and would rank this wine as a bit of a better buy. I think this wine makes a really good first impression, which is how it ended up as our house wine for about 6 bottles. However, once you get to know it a bit you start picking up on its idiosyncrasies and annoying habits, and it loses a lot of its charm. So, this is a recommendation against it from me.

Instead, I'd recommend our *new* house red, the 2004 Carmen Merlot from the Rapel Valley of Chile. At only $6, this wine has an excellent quality-to-price ratio - especially when you buy it by the case and get the case discount! This could just represent the general trend of our palates moving away from super fruity wines towards a more fruit/earthy balance, but Kris and I really like to depth and added complexity that the Carmen Merlot brings. I'll write this one up separately the next time we pop open a bottle!

On a related note, I've somewhat recently become fascinated with the wines of Chile and Argentina, and I strongly recommend taking a chance and grabbing a bottle the next time you're at your local (or not-so-local if you're a Marylander) wine shop. I've found that the majority of these wines are of very high quality for the price, and typically have much more complexity to them than you'd expect in an inexpensive wine (not to say that they don't produce any top-knotch wines - they do). I'll write up some Chilean and Argentinian wine tips in a later post, but for now I'd look for Argentinian Malbecs and Chilean Carmenères (Carmenère is an old Bordeaux varietal, virtually extinct in its native France which has found its ideal home in Chile; although still widely grown elsewhere and typically used as a blending grape, Malbec has similarly found its ideal conditions in Argentina, where exciting Malbec varietal wines (i.e., 100% Malbec) are being produced).

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sonoma County Partie Deux

This post is continuing my post from April 15th about my Sonoma County wine tasting experiences while living in the Bay Area. This was 6 or 7 years ago, when I knew very little about wine and only recall the "stand out" events, but I wanted to write this mainly as a way of looking back and using my current perspective on wine to better understand the great opportunities I had while living driving distance from California wine country. Yeah, these "background" posts can get sorta long, and don't have any pictures or anything visually stimulating so you may want to just skim and look for the good stuff. I tend to get off onto tangetns quite a bit, so perhaps those will be more interesting. Anyway, today I want to touch on my recollections from tastings in the Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Alexander Valley regions of Sonoma wine country as I covered Carneros, Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek in my previous post.

Russian River Valley
In Northern Sonoma County, the Russian River Valley was first known for its Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, although also produces some excellent Zinfandels and increasingly, Syrahs. This seems a little strange to me, because from my limited grape knowledge it seems that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay always "pair" well in a similar climate, one that has cooler nights (often accomplished by the coastal fog settling in and cooling things down) and a slightly longer growing season, but Zinfandel and Syrah are happy baking in the sun a bit, so I wouldn't expect to find them within the same AVA. Since it has been so long since I was there, I'd guess that the Pinots and Chards came from vineyards in the hills while the Zins and Syrahs must be grown on the valley floor.

The only winery that I visited in the Russian River Valley that left enough of an impression on me that I still remember it today was
Korbel. Up until visiting Korbel, I had never particularly cared for sparkling wine; it's not that I disliked it, but I'd just never found it to be that interesting. Slightly tart, not very flavorful wine with bubbles - big deal. I recognize now that this was likely due to two reasons: 1) The limited sparkling wine I had consumed to this point in my life was all quite cheap (as in, $3 a bottle cheap); and 2) I had typically only drank "one toast's worth" of the stuff before returning to whatever other beverage was at hand, and I had certainly never tasted two (or more) sparkling wines within months of one another, much less minutes. So it came as a bit of a shock to me to learn that there was actually a great deal of variety to sparkling wines, and that they could taste a) quite different from one another, and b) really good!

One of the things I most remember about tasting at Korbel is that they had several little tasting "carts" set up outside along a path leading throughout the grounds. I liked this approach, because it allowed for a little separation between the different groups of people tasting that day, and you didn't get that "cattle at the trough" sensation that so often occurs when too many people are crowded around a small indoor wine tasting bar. The other thing I recall is how we were instructed to taste - instead of sipping at it like still wine, we were encouraged to bottoms up and take it all as one big swig. Probably not the best advice, but it was fun at the time! I remember my favorite being the Korbel Natural. It's very easy to find and probably costs around $13, although I think I'd probably spend a couple extra dollars and pick up a Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine instead (almost as easy to find nowadays as the Korbel).

And now, an educational moment
I used to call U.S. sparkling wines (all sparkling wines, really) "champagne"; in fact, many U.S. winemakers (Korbel included) still market their product as "champagne", or even "Champagne", and at the very least mention "méthode champenoise" (i.e., made using the Champagne method), so it's not suprising that a large number of Americans refer to it in this way. However, "Champagne" has actually been a legally-protected name for the sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France for some time now. The French reaffirmed this legal protection in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 (the larger purpose of which was to officially end WWI). The catch here is the although signed by President Woodrow Wilson, the Treaty of Versailles was never ratified by the U.S. Senate (think Kyoto Protocol); instead, the U.S. ended up making a separate peace agreement with Germany. Thus the legal protections for all things "Champagne" do not apply to U.S. winemakers, many of whom happily exploit this loophole and name their wines after renown French wine-making regions (Champagne, Chablis and Burgundy being the most obvious examples).

And while we're on the subject, lots of countries make sparkling wines: the Spanish have their Cava, the Italians have Spumante, the Germans, Sekt. Just because a sparkling wine isn't truly "Champagne" does not make it inherently inferior - I recommend trying out some of these other sparklers and see for yourself!

Green Valley (technically a sub-region of the Russian River Valley)
My then girlfriend, now wife and I visited Iron Horse Vineyards back in 2000 or so. I believe this is the only winery we visited within the Green Valley AVA. While Iron Horse does produce quite a few still wines, it was their sparkling wines that brought us there for the tasting as our visit to Korbel had made us interested in exploring the world of sparkling wines a bit.

As luck would have it, we arrived on a day where they were pressing Chardonnay. Before our tasting, we were asked if we would like to try the juice straight off the press - but of course! They dipped our tasting glasses beneath the stream of juice flowing out of the press, and handed them to us. Yum! That is definitely the best grape juice either of us have ever had - so good in fact, that I still recall it quite clearly almost 7 years later! At this point, we joked that we were sure there wine was good, but we'd just take a couple gallons of the juice to go, please. Alas, that was not to be, but at least we had the tasting to look forward to.

I only recall Chardonnay and Pinot Noir based sparkling and still wines in the tasting, but there may have been others - I see their website mentions Sangiovese, as well as Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot (the final four being sourced from the T-bar Vineyard in Alexander Valley). Our favorite wine by far was their "Wedding Cuvée", a Blanc de Noirs made from predominantly Pinot Noir. We splurged and bought a bottle, and ended up saving that bottle for almost 5 years - breaking it open to celebrate when I proposed to Kris on a beach in Ventura! Needless to say, it was the perfect wine for the occasion!

Alexander Valley
I recall tasting at several wineries within Alexander Valley such as Chateau Souverain and Murphy-Goode, but it was Clos du Bois that made the biggest impression on me - and it wasn't even because of the wine! Oddly enough, what ended up being a life-altering (albeit in a very small way) experience for me was the way in which they opened their wines: it was at Clos du Bois that I first discovered the world's perfect wine opener.

The perfect wine opener
I don't think I'm alone in that I started off my bottle-opening days using a "winged" corkscrew, often referred to simply as "wings". Why this device has so thoroughly infiltrated most stores, supermarkets and kitchen drawers I'm not sure: it typically has a rather large diameter corkscrew, which really destroys the corks as you try to remove them, and downright pulverizes older, more brittle corks; the corkscrew also never seems quite long enough to fully extract the cork, so you are left tugging at the device once the wings have "closed", trying to pry those last fractions of an inch of cork out of the bottle.

Not really thinking that there may exist an alternative, I went along twisting and yanking and cursing my way through the uncorking process for many years, always rather annoyed that such a small hunk of bark could so effectively bar my entry into the treasures waiting within the bottle. I have since come to think of using wings to open wine bottles as like trying to cook using cheap, dull knives - sure, they'll do the job they were designed to do (cut things), but they'll likely badly mangle the final product in the process (ever try cutting a soft, sweet heirloom tomato with a cheap knife? It isn't pretty).

Enter the the Pulltap Wine Opener. When I saw the Clos du Bois tasting room associate whip one of these out and effortlessly open a new bottle for the tasting room, I realized that wine openers had evolved far beyond the wings with which I was accustomed. There are several aspects which make the Pulltap the perfect wine opener: 1) The serrated foil cutter - easily remove the foil blocking your access to the cork; 2) a relatively thin, Teflon-coated corkscrew - goes in easily without destroying the cork, and since it's Teflon-coated doesn't get stuck on the way out, either; 3) the dual-stage arm - you crank the corkscrew down all the wine into the cork, and use the first stage to life the cork most of the way out and the second stage to finish the job - simple!; and 4) they're cheap! You can buy them at Trader Joe's or on the 'Net for $5 or $6 dollars - forget those expensive wine openers that allow you to re-cork the bottle (that's what Vacu Vin is for). So I strongly recommend picking up a couple of these babies - your bottle-opening will be much more pleasant from now on!

Sayonara, Napa and Sonoma...
After making trips up to Napa and Sonoma for a couple years, we were ready for something different - different wines, different attitudes, and definitely a difference in the number of people crowding into the tasting rooms. That's when we stumbled across the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association's Passport Program. This great program opened up a new world of wine tasting in the Santa Cruz Mountains for us - I'll talk about this in another post!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Shenandoah Blanc

Although there were rumors of thunderstorms, today ended up a nice, warm and sunny day - the perfect kind of day for an after-work "summer wine". This "Shenandoah Blanc" from Shenandoah Vineyards fits the category perfectly. To me, a summer wine needs to be light (light- or medium-bodied), crisp, and slightly sweet, preferably with floral or tropical fruit notes. Somehow, I think Virginia wines know that, since several Virginia whites seem to fit this description. This has lead me to the theory that it is often best to try to "drink locally", if at all possible. Local wines just seem to "fit" that region's climate, or the mood that climate puts you in, or probably both.

I certainly wouldn't want to *exclude* wines from other regions - after all, finding a great wine from a new-to-you region is part of the fascination. But there's definitely a connection between where you live and what you eat and drink, and doing both locally when possible makes you feel a little more rooted in the now. I never used to be a white wine person - while living outside of Santa Barbara, CA, I fell in love with the Rhone-style blends that absolutely thrive in that area. After experiencing my first DC summer, I'm gaining an appreciation for the valuable role the whites (and rosés) can play...

Anyway, back to the wine - the Shenandoah Blanc has a slightly greenish straw color (as you may or may not be able to tell from the picture - I'm beginning to learn how much of an art photographing something so simple as a bottle of wine can be!). It has a pleasant nose, slightly sweet and perfumy. This gives way to a much crisper taste than you might expect yet with the hint of sweetness, like biting into a green apple. The flavor is rounded out with tones of citrus and honey. I appear to have misplaced our tasting notes from the winery visit (we stopped by over Easter Weekend), but I'd guess this wine has a fair amount of Sauvignon Blanc, and probably that perennial Virginia hybrid, Vidal Blanc. And at just $10/bottle, this makes for the perfect summer sipper.

Some of you may wonder about the wine glass shown in the picture - not exactly elegant stemware, eh? Well, remember those cute wannabe-winery dogs (Owen & Iris) from by previous post? Their tails are the natural predators of the elusive wine glass. One misplaced wag can send several of these often coffee-table dwelling glasses flying across the room to their doom. Not so with these beefy wine glasses though - there's just enough weight in the oversized stem and base to give the glass a fighting chance to shrug of an indirect hit from an excited border collie tail. And even if they do take a fall, they're likely to remain on the table rather than becoming a carpet-destroying projectile of red wine and glass. So, they may look a little funny, but these Crate & Barrel Viva wine glasses are really a wine-and-dog lover's dream (oh yeah - they're also completely dishwasher friendly!).

Three Fox Vineyards

On Sunday Kris and I took a special trip out to Virginia wine country specifically to visit Three Fox Vineyards. As always when visiting wine country, we were accompanied by our wannabe-winery dogs, Owen and Iris. As border collies, you might think their goal in life would be to herd sheep, but ours seem much more content herding vines (and greeting everyone at the winery, and chasing bees, that sort of thing). It's always interesting for us to see how different wineries react to the dogs; we've seen the entire spectrum, from having to tie them up outside, to allowing them to wander in and out of the tasting room (and wine cellar, in the case of North Mountain Vineyard & Winery in the Shenandoah Valley - apparently Owen kept visiting their winemaker while we were up in the tasting room!).

This picture is pretty clearly NOT from the winery (it's actually from Assateague) - no, our camera batteries died, so I have no photographic documentation of our visit to Three Fox. Dezel at Virginia Vine Spot has posted some good pics of Three Fox which can make up for our technical malfunction. I just wanted to post a pic of Owen and Iris since they're so cute.

Anyway, Three Fox Winery passed the "dog test" with flying colors! Not only are they "dog-friendly", but owner Holli Todhunter absolutely loved the dogs, and invited them to come back (presumably with their owners!). She said she would like to get a "winery dog" or two, as the scent helps to keep deer and other critters out of the vineyards.

This laid-back approach is definitely the norm at Three Fox, where they have a croquet set, bocce ball and horseshoes set up for their guests' enjoyment, and tasting room staff wear shirts saying "Will Work for Wine". In fact, the "will work for wine" thing is part of the reason Kris and I wanted to visit Three Fox - they take in volunteers to help out in the tasting room and possibly other duties, and we're considering giving it a shot. True, it's about an hour and 15 minute drive from our house, but I think it would be a pretty fun weekend activity once or twice a month or so.

But first we wanted to taste their wines! They were pouring nine wines the day we visited (it would have been an even 10, but they ran out of "the favorite"). For whites, they had a 2005 Leggero Chardonnay, a 2006 Giacosa Chardonnay, a 2006 Calabrese Pinot Grigio, a 2006 La Boheme Viognier, and a 2006 Appassionata Vidal. My clear favorite of the whites was the Leggero Chardonnay. This no-oak Chard had a great pineapple & citrus nose which leapt from the glass, with both flavors continuing on to the tongue. There was a hint of creaminess to it, but overall it was very crisp and refreshing (the whole "no-oak" thing). This sells for $20/bottle.

For reds, they had a 2005 Il Volpe Sangiovese, a 2004 Il Cigno Merlot, a 2004 Classico Cabernet Franc, and their "port alternative, a 2006 Rosso Dolce Chambourcin (they would have also been tasting a 2005 Alouette Cabernet Franc, but they were sold out). I had another clear favorite on the reds, their Il Volpe Sangiovese. This 89% Sangiovese, 11% Cabernet Franc Super-Tuscan had a nose of fresh berries, cherries and red fruit. This easy-sipping wine had some spice to it, with a brightness and balance that was very enjoyable. This is a good "summer red" - light enough to enjoy when the temperature starts to peak but definitely a red wine at heart. This sells for $22/bottle.

I liked all of their reds actually, which is a unique experience for me at a Virginia winery - oftentimes Virginia reds seem too watered-down, lacking the punch of California or South American reds. It appears as though Three Fox has found a way to create a little bit of Tuscany in Virginia, with the effects carrying over from their Italy-themed tasting room and wine names to the vineyards and wines themselves. Although John Todhunter has only been running his own winery for a few years now, his more than 25 years of winemaking experience really shows through in the final product. I look forward to tasting their Nebbiolo and Sangiovese Reserve once they are released!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Poggio le Volpi 2004 Frascati Superiore

To celebrate the return of Spring to the Mid-Atlantic, Kris and I popped open a bottle of Frascati Superiore. We bought this bottle for $12 at during their French wine tasting blitz (I'll describe this in a separate post). We've also purchased this wine for $12 at Best Cellars in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC (also for $12).

This wine has a great floral nose that just jumps out of the glass at you. You also get hints of honeysuckle and peaches, and that floraly fruit continues on to the taste. It dances across your tongue, with an almost effervescent acidity, and a slightly sweet, almost mineraly finish. This is a great "hot weather wine" - I highly recommend it! We drank it with leftover sandwiches from our lunch at a French bakery - perfect!

A little research reveals that this is an Italian blend of 35% Malvasia di Candia, 35% Malvasia del Lazio, and 30% Bombino. All of these grapes seem mainly confined to Italy, particularly the Puglia region, although they can definitely be found elsewhere. I'd like to provide more interesting tidbits, but I know even less about Italian wines than I do French, so that's all I can add for now. Check back with me in a couple months - hopefully I'll be able to do better!

Overwhelmed at today's tasting

Wow - there were a lot of people at Gaithersburg's French Wine Tasting event today! I think even were pretty blown away by the turn-out As it turned out, there were 11 French winemakers present, pouring a total of 24 wines! I'm not sure how long this link will be remain live, but here's a list of *most* of the wines poured (two winemakers signed up too late to be included on the list).

As a transplanted Californian, I am a French wine neophyte, so I was looking forward to this opportunity to directly compare between wines from different regions of France. Represented were Burgundy, Loire Valley, Northern and Southern Rhône, Cahors & Madiran, Bordeaux, Alsace, and Langeudoc.

First off, I want to mention that Kris and I escaped with only a $265 dent into our bank account - I was very impressed with our restraint, given that we tasted some absolutely fabulous wines! Since I doubt anyone is interested in reading tasting notes from 24 wines in a row, I think I'll mention my general impressions of the event, and will post about the wines as we drink them :)

This was the first tasting I've ever done where I've consciously spit. I admit, I did swallow on some of the truly spectacular offerrings, but I probably only drank the equivalent of one full glass even though I tasted 24 different wines. It wasn't easy - with so many people crammed into a realtively small store, the spit buckets were few and far between. We ended up carrying an extra glass with us as a "spit glass", which we periodically dumped into a bucket as we came across one.

With so many great-sounding wines, I really wanted to be able to fully appreciate them, so spitting was key. The wines were arranged by winemaker, obviously, since the winemakers themselves were present. Although predominantly a "red guy", I'm struggling to appreciate whites and really wanted to give them their fair share of attention. Thus we ended up making two loops - first to taste the whites, then to taste the reds (with one final stop for a yummy late harvest + botrytis dessert wine). This made for a rather long tasting, as we had to wait in line not once but twice for each winemaker, but overall I'm glad we did it because it allowed for a more direct comparison of more similar wines.

My overall impression of the event was that it was a bit overwhelming - between the hordes of people and the often thick accents of the winemakers, it was very difficult to glean much information about the wines I was tasting beyond the descriptions I had printed out from's website. I think the fact that it was a free wine tasting, combined with decent advertising and the most beautiful weather we've had since last fall all came together and created a "perfect storm" of wine consumers descending upon the store. I'm very glad I attended - I left with some great wines! - I just wish I would have had more time to talk with the winemakers and expand my (incredibly limited) knowledge of French wines.

Here's a quick list of the wines we ended up purchasing - as I mentioned, I'll put up tasting notes from when we actually crack open the bottle, not the ones I took during this tasting event:

Whites (see, I'm giving whites a fair chance!)
  • 2005 Dom Jean-Luc Mader Gewurztraminer (Alsace) - $17
  • 2005 Dom Jean-Luc Mader Pinot Gris (Alsace) - $17
  • 2005 Dom Berthet-Rayne Côtes du Rhône Blanc (Côtes du Rhône) - $13
  • 2006 Ch Les Arromans Entre-deux-Mers (Bordeaux) - $10
  • 2005 Dom Berthet-Rayne Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge (CdP) - $27
    **My favorite wine of the day! I just love strong, smooth CdPs...
  • 2001 Ch Mondesir-Gazin Blaye (Bordeaux) - $23
    **Very tasty - a "close second" in the running, but hard to beat a CdP for me.
  • 2005 Dom Renée Bouvier Le Chapitre Bourgogne Rouge (Burgundy) - $20
  • 2004 Dom Le Pas de l'Escalette Les Clapas Rouge (Languedoc) - $20
    **Perfect timing! A Coteaux du Languedoc just in time for this month's WBW!
  • 2005 Dom Le Pas de l'Escalette le 1er Pas Rouge (Languedoc) - $15
  • 2004 Ch Les Arromans Rouge Cuvée Prestige (Bordeaux) - $14
    **We bought two - seems like it could have excellent aging potential.
  • 2005 Dom Berthet-Rayne Côtes du Rhône Rouge (Côtes du Rhône) - $13
    **We also bought two of these - excellent Quality-Price Ratio.
  • 2005 Ch Les Cedres Heritage Cahors (Cahors) - $12
    **Again, we bought two - excellent QPR!
In case anyone's adding up our purchases, we also bought the Frascati Superiore that I just reviewed for $12, as well as a Cateller Cava Brut (sparkling Spanish wine) for $14. All in all, not a bad haul! Looking forward to breaking in to them and writing them up in the weeks / months to come.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Virtual Rosé Wine Tasting!

It just keeps on coming tonight - amazing what a wine-obsessed insomniac can stumble upon in one evening! My next big find of the night is a "Wine Blogging Wednesday" type event called a Virtual Wine Tasting hosted by Catavino. (I grabbed this cool 1984-esque graphic from Catavino's site: since I don't know what I'm doing yet in terms of blogging etiquette, please tell me if this is a no-no, rude, or in any way bad!)

Back to the tasting - the theme for this virtual tasting was chosen as a way of encouraging folks to delve a little deeper into an oft-neglected portion of the wine world, rosés. It seems that many American wine drinkers (myself included until quite recently) live in a binary wine world: wine is either red or white. Contemplating a glass of pink wine only conjures up memories of the sickly sweet "White Zinfandel"; a difficult mental roadblock to overcome.

Thus I am excited to participate in Catavino's proposed virtual rosé tasting, which will give me a chance to compare a Spanish or Portuguese rosé with a French or Californian one (of which I am just *slightly* more familiar). Or I could go crazy and try a South American rosé - Kris and I tried a 2006 Anakena Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé a couple weeks ago to welcome in what we thought was the beginning of Spring (and then it got cold and dreary ever since - tomorrow looks better though!). It was only an $8 wine, and we were pleasantly surprised by the "happy fruit flavor" (official wine tasting terminology all the way on this blog), and crisp, balanced taste. I've heard of people liking South American Malbec Rosés, so I may have to check one of those out - I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Breaking Tasting News: 10 French winemakers at in Gaithersburg!

Seems like a bit of last-minute notice, but I just received an email from (both the name of the stores and the website) mentioning their exciting double tasting they're having this weekend! has two stores, one in Gaithersburg, MD and one in McLean, VA. One Saturday, the Gaithersburg store will be hosting a free French wine tasting event, with 10 French winemakers at the store pouring 20 wines from Bordeaux, Loire, Burgundy, Rhone Valley, Cahors, Madiran and Alsace! Cool! Then on Sunday in their McLean store they will be featuring 5 Spanish winemakers with an assortment of Spanish wines. is one of but a few exceptions to the general rule that it is impossible to find good wine (at non-inflated prices) within Montgomery County. That said, I have only visited their store twice in the past (to pick up Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday in November! More on this fun wine world tradition next fall...). Thus I don't want to be too enthusiastic in my recommendation of this event, but needless to say I have high hopes. I plan to attend the French wine tasting at the Gaithersburg store, so I'll report back on how it goes!

Wine Blogging Wednesday #33

So after stumbling about the wine blogosphere for the past few weeks, I have found out about this great little tradition know as Wine Blogging Wednesday (WBW). The idea behind WBW is that someone "hosts" by proposing a theme (e.g., Oregon Pinot Noir vs. French Burgundy, or something like that). Folks then go out and find wine to fit the theme, drink them (the fun part!), then either blog about them if they have their own blogs, or post their comments back to the host's blog! Sounds like a great way to discover new wines that you may not have thought to try, as well as hear many different people's impressions on the same or similar wine. I'm all for making wine as fun, open and un-snobby as possible, and WBWs seem designed to do just that!

So, this month's WBW (#33 apparently - is that almost three years of WBWs then??) is being hosted by Marcus of Doktor Weingolb. The theme is Languedoc-Roussillon value wines: all bottles must be in the $15-$30 price range and from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France. To help everyone out a bit, Marcus posted this list of Languedoc-Roussillon producers - looks like there's quite a bit to choose from! This is going to mean another trip into Virginia to swing by Total Wine in McLean, since Montgomery County Maryland is downright draconian when it comes to the wine selection allowed within the County. I just picked up a couple mixed cases from them only last week, but hey: too much wine is never a bad thing!

The wine geek in me had to look up some quick facts about the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, and it's impressive: the region has well over 700,000 acres of land devoted to the vine, and is the single biggest wine producing region in the world! In fact, L-R is responsible for over a third of France's total wine production - and that's a lot. This abundance of production has apparently been a blessing and a curse - originally, this region was known mainly for bulk wine production, creating copious amounts of very low quality wine. This began changing in the late 1980s when new first-generation, often young, winemakers moved into the region, schooled in modern winemaking techniques and passionate about making wines that expressed the potential of their appellation that they knew was there. They began to limit the quantity and improve the quality of their grapes, and their efforts have lead to a steady increase the quality of wines from the region.

So it sounds like this is an excellent opportunity to get good "QPR" wine, as the wine blogs like to say (Quality-Price Ratio : aka "bang for your buck"). Grape varietals which thrive in the Languedoc-Roussillon region are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Merlot, Mourvèdre and Syrah. WIth this kind of a selection, what's not to love?? I look forward to spending what will likely amount to an inordinate amount of time scouring the bottles at Total Wine for the perfect selection for my inaugural WBW!

2005 Milton Park Shiraz

Since Kris and I had both had a long week, we wanted to veg out in front of the TV and not feel guilty about only half-heartedly paying attention to what was in our glass. For better or for worse, the 2005 Milton Park Shiraz fulfilled this role admirably.

I guess I was expecting more - I remember being very impressed with the quality of this wine given its price ($9 at Total Wine) back several years ago when I first came across this wine in California. In fact, a quick Google brings up several reviews, each and every one mentioning its quality far exceeding its price. Here's what the Wine Advocate had to say about it: "A superb value, the 2005 Shiraz Milton Park is unbelievable for this price point. It reveals copious amounts of blackberries, black cherries, tar, licorice, and a hint of oak. Beautifully textured, rich, full-bodied, and lush, it should be consumed over the next 3-4 years." - Wine Advocate (#167, Oct 2006), 90 pts

Perhaps its just because my tastes have shifted a bit since leaving California for the East Coast - I find myself appreciating the earthier, more balanced European (and South American) wines recently over some of the Californian and Australian fruit bombs (I certainly don't mean to imply that *all* or even *most* California wines are like this - but there are plenty out there). I think part of this preference shift is due to simple availability - good California wines are difficult to get over here on the more Euro-centric East Coast. It seems that some wine retailers in the area almost enjoy excluding California wines - some weird way of thumbing their nose at the "Left Coast". And Maryland doesn't allow direct wine shipping to consumers (or even retailers in Montgomery County), so no more California wine clubs. Thus I think you just start exploring what's available, and start developing a taste for it. It's like the Crosby, Stills & Nash song: "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

Anyway, the Milton Park Shiraz is definitely very drinkable, and although frighteningly dark purple could be a good choice to break out for friends who are just getting in to wine as its simple fruit and tannins remain soft and approachable. I feel that its a solid wine - I was just hoping for more. But I'm still struggling to recognize the difference between a poor wine and a well-made wine which I simply dislike. I'd be interested in hearing other opinions on this - I think that's a difficult milestone to reach in wine tasting, and I will take all the pointers I can get!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Zinfandel vs. Primitivo

Tonight's bottle of wine magically turned into two, when, after tasting the 2005 Caleo Primitivo Salento, my wife Kris and I decided we just had to do a side-by-side comparison with a California Zinfandel. Since we purchased the Caleo Primitivo for $8, we found an $8 Zinfandel in our collection - the 2005 Ravenswood Vintner's Blend Zin. Both wines were purchased at Total Wine in McLean, VA.

"Why would you want to compare an Italian Primitivo with a Californian Zinfandel?", you might ask. Well, if you're asking, it's because you sagely decided to skip the long introductory posts on this blog, and thus missed my rant on Zinfandel / Primitivo / Crljenak Kasteljanski. The point of the rant was that Zinfandel and Primitivo have now been proven to be the same grape. So it only made sense to try them side-by-side and note any differences or similarities.

As it turned out, there are a LOT more similarities than differences. Both had a very similar nose of raspberries and spice: the Zinfandel displayed more pepper while the Italian was more an unidentifiable melange of spices (I'm new at this whole describing-what-you're-smelling thing, so it's probably just me not having a sufficient "mental scent library" to nail down the spices in the Primitivo). Both the nose and taste of the Ravenswood were more fruit forward and brighter. The Primitivo was a smoother, more balanced, more complex, and a bit more "brooding" than the happy Californian. As the glass opened up, the Primitivo took on more complexity, while the Zin stayed relatively the same.

Bottom line: If you're a Zinfandel fan, it's well worth your time to explore some Italian Primitivos. Given that both the Zin and Primitivo were the same price ($8), I'd buy this Primitivo again hands-down over this Zin - although these wines are so similar that we had a somewhat hard time telling them apart when tasting "blind", there's just a lot more to like in the Primitivo.


Crush, a new 13-minute-long wine documentary, just debuted at the 10th Annual Sonoma Valley Film Festival. Filmmaker Bret Lyman follows winemaker Richard Bruno of Don Sebastiani & Sons through the end-of-season harvest and crush, letting the story be told through gorgeous visuals and simple narration. The movie is very much cinematic, with the portrayal of the human element of the story far outweighing any academic explanation of the processes being filmed. Definitely worth 13 minutes of any wine lover's time!

So what's up with the name?

Dead languages are cool. True, they aren't too helpful when you're traveling, but they just sound cool - Carpe diem! Veni, Vidi, Vici! - see what I mean? And blog names should sound cool too, don't you think? Seeing as how I took a whopping one semester of Latin in undergrad, I figured that made me perfectly qualified to butcher Latin in the attempts to come up with the name for my wine blog. Which is exactly what I did with the help of a Latin - English dictionary.

So the idea here is that word Vinvenio has two parts: I initially intended for the "in" part to overlap, forming both "vin" and "invenio". I think the meaning behind the "vin" part of the name is fairly obvious; "invenio" means "to come upon, find or discover". Perfect, methinks, since this blog is all about finding/discovering new things about wine!

I then got a little concerned over what would happen if someone broke the word down the middle to form vin+venio. See, "venio" reminded me a bit of "venial", so I was thinking "uh oh, I don't want folks to think this blog is about forgivable or excusable wines". Again, Latin-English dictionary to the rescue, informing me that "venio" meant "to get into a certain state, to fall into". Phew - I'm fine with getting into that wine state of mind! Thus Vinvenio was born...

(And in case you're wondering, the bumper sticker says "If you can read this you are over-educated".)

Monday, April 16, 2007

2004 Bogle Petite Sirah

I don't know about you, but I was getting pretty bored with that background stuff! I still want to finish it though, but I think I'll just intersperse it in amongst the fun stuff :-)

So tonight's bottle was a 2004 Petite Sirah from Bogle Vineyards in Clarksburg, CA. If you've ever had a wine made from Syrah before (or Shiraz as the Aussies call it - it's the same grape), you may be thinking "OK, this must be some strange "small" form of Syrah". Actually, Petite Sirah (note the "i" in Sirah, and not the "y") is a different grape altogether. It seems likely that "Petite Sirah" is actually the grape "Durif", which was itself a cross between Syrah and another grape. So although Syrah and Petite Sirah may sound similar, they taste completely different!

The first thing you'll notice about Petite Sirah when you pour it is that it's dark - really, really dark. It's almost impossible to write about a Petite Sirah without using the term "inky" - for something this slippery and opaque, no other adjective quite works. That's actually why we chose a Petite Sirah for tonight - the skies were dripping, dark and dreary, the wind was screaming past the house, and you just wanted a wine you could wrap yourself up in like a nice warm blanket. Petite Sirah can do that.

The 2004 Bogle Petite Sirah had a nose of cherries and dark berries - blackberries maybe. Upon tasting there was a distinct "jamminess" that I find pretty indicative of California Petite Sirahs. The wine was big yet smooth, with plenty of fruit and oak. It had a fair amount of tannins (also a Petite Sirah trait) that in this case unfortunately weren't in balance with the rest of the wine. This may mean that the wine could benefit from cellaring for a while, mellow those tannins out and soften it up.

We bought this wine for $11 at World Market, which can be a surprisingly good place to pick up wine at a decent price. The selection is really the biggest drawback, but it's definitely large enough to keep you occupied for a while!

Other people may do this too, but we think we came up with a particularly clever way to keep track of how much a wine costs and where we bought it - we simply write it onto the back label, usually near the bar code, with a fine point sharpie (the WM in this case is for "World Market"). It's small enough that guests probably won't notice it if it's sitting on the table, but quite helpful if you're pulling out a "second bottle" and know that your guests won't appreciate a $20 bottle at this point.

The final word on the 2004 Bogle Petite Sirah is that it served its purpose well - we were in a lazy mood and just had a Boboli pizza for dinner so no need for a fancy wine pairing, and this thick, juicy wine was great for after-work pre-meal sipping. That said, there are definitely better values to be had at $11 a bottle, but probably not in Petite Sirahs (I have the comparably-priced Concannon Petite Sirah in the cellar which I'll break out for comparison purposes next time the mood strikes which, given our weather forecast, could be quite soon).

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The "Sonoma Story"

This post continues with my long-winded wine tasting resume that I feel compelled to lay out before I can get into the guts of what I want this blog to be, namely my journey towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of wine, and my continual quest for enjoyable "everyday wines" (i.e., those that can be consumed on a nightly basis without going broke in the process!).

So as I described yesterday, Napa was great when I was a grad student and could visit during the week. Once the real world crept in via a 9-5 job (more like 8-6, being a consultant), wine tasting trips were relegated to the weekends, and Napa become a distinctly less-fun place to be. Enter Sonoma County - take a different bridge , add on 30 minutes or so to your drive time from the East Bay, and voila: you're in a totally different wine world! Just compare the map of Sonoma County wineries to the map of Napa wineries: I think you'll notice a distinct "linearity" to Napa with the majority of wineries sprouting directly off of Hwy 29 or Silverado Trail, while Sonoma appears more like a braided river channel (to me anyway, but I'm an enviro-geek... perhaps "spiderweb" might be a better general descriptor) with a couple major roads (notably the 101) weaving through it. This makes Sonoma a little more challenging to successfully navigate between the wineries and string together a pleasant day's tasting. It's this challenge that keeps some of the masses away, and makes for a much more pleasing experience.

Anyway, my Sonoma tasting experiences are at least six years old at this point, so the memory is a bit dim. And keep in mind that while I was definitely enjoying the wine tastings at this point, it was on a purely "gut-reaction" level - I'd either like something or I wouldn't, I couldn't really describe what it was about a wine that made me like or dislike it, and I had very little intellectual background as a reference to understand how one type of wine differed from another.

With that as the caveat, here's what I can recall from my Sonoma experience. First off, Sonoma County is divided into several American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) although I wasn't aware of this at time. The wineries that I visited during my several tasting trips were located in the Carneros, Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek, Green Valley, Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley. I think I'll cover the first half of these in one post, and continue with the Green Valley, Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley tomorrow. So, here's the scoop on the first half:

Carneros is the southern-most region of Sonoma, and the first one you hit coming up from the Bay Area. It's a pretty small AVA, with only a handful of wineries.
  • Gloria Ferrer: Gloria Ferrer "Champagne Caves" (thus labeled, much to the vexation of the French I'm sure) specialize in sparkling wines, but also offer a variety of still wines. (If you're new to wine-speak, "still wine" just means "normal" wine - wine without any bubbles like sparkling Champagne-like wines). Anyway, Gloria Ferrer offers a tour of their "Champagne Caves" (which in reality is a glorified basement used to keep the wine cool while aging in the barrels - that said, it *is* pretty interesting to tour, but I think "cave" is a bit of a stretch), and describes how the process of creating sparkling wine differs from other wines. My wife and I brought her parents here on one of their visits to the Bay Area, and ended up being their favorite stop of the trip! Gloria Ferrer produces some great sparklers, which can be found just about anywhere across the U.S. I recall our favorite being the Royal Cuvée.
  • Other Carneros wineries visited included Cline, Schug and Roche. Although I can comment on some of their wines I've had more recently, looking back on it none of these wineries left much of an impression on me.
Sonoma Valley
The Sonoma Valley region is the next stop up from Carneros. This region is home to several big-name producers, many of which I visited upon multiple occasions. The stops I remember:
  • Gundlach Bundschu: Lovingly known as "GunBun" (likely to prevent the non-Germanic inclined from slaughtering their name), this unpretentious winery even sells (sold) Hawaiian shirts with their logo on the back. In keeping with the theme of taking the "stuffiness" out of wine, the GunBun folks pulled a "train heist" of the Napa wine train, holding up the train on horseback and serving Sonoma wine on the *Napa* wine train! Quel horreur! I love any winery that challenges the notion that wine has to be serious to be appreciated - wine can be enjoyed on many levels, but at least one of those levels should be "fun"!
  • Ravenswood: As I mentioned in my previous post, Ravenswood probably ended up becoming my favorite Sonoma winery. Absolutely obsessed with Zinfandel, they make break-out-of-the-bottle big, juicy wines. Although they make a couple non-Zins, they joke that they just love that grape so much that everything sort of ends up tasting like Zin anyway. Nullum Vinum Flaccidum - No Wimpy Wines here! They definitely live up to their mantra. And what's great about touring the winery is they take this "No Wimpy" concept to a hilarious extreme: almost *everything* in the winery is labeled as no wimpy this, no wimpy that. Examples: No Wimpy Restrooms, No Wimpy Water Fountain, No Wimpy Pen... you get the picture. Basically, the only thing serious about Ravenswood is their wines. They have crafted three categories of wines, from the everyday Vintners Blend to the moderate-production County Series and the select Vineyard Designates wine. One thing I find interesting about Ravenswood is that they use native vineyard yeasts for fermenting their wine - slightly unusual for such a large producer, whom you may think would be more concerned about consistency over the possibility of added complexity (as well as possibility of a ruined batch).
  • Kenwood: Kenwood made its biggest impression on me with their Jack London Series of wines. Even if you haven't heard of them before, you'd probably recognize them - the "labels" are rather stunning, with a a large wolf's head and all text etched directly onto the bottle. I recall the Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon to be particularly delicious.
  • Other Sonoma Valley wineries that I know I visited but don't have anything memorable to report include Arrowood, Benziger**, Chateau St. Jean, Kunde** and Wellington.
** Quick note: While going to these websites to snatch their URL for the blog, I noticed that both Benziger and Kunde have really well developed sustainable vineyard / organic and/or biodynamic farming practices in place (so does Grgich Hills, from my Napa post). Getting "sustainability" into all aspects of grape growing and wine production is a major interest of mine - this is the perfect intersection between my "real job" as an environmental professional and my passion for wine. I plan to do a full-blown posting on this in the future, but for now here are links to Benziger's, Grgich Hills, and Kunde's sustainable winery initiatives.

Dry Creek
Dry Creek Vineyards was the only winery I believed I visited within the Dry Creek region of Sonoma County. To be totally honest, I think I visited them mainly because I love their labels - all sailing-inspired paintings. That was more than enough of a reason for a sailing wino like me to drive up and check them up! Sadly, all I can recall from that single trip was that their gorgeous grounds made for an excellent picnic.

I'm getting paranoid about how long these initial posts keep getting - long, and totally visually un-interesting since these trips were well before digital cameras were the norm, and I'm not even sure I could find old pics to scan even if I wanted to. So I apologize for that - it'll get more interesting soon! I'll finish up with Sonoma County tomorrow, then head down to Santa Cruz and Monterey later this week. Santa Ynez and Paso Robles will come next, hopefully moving in to my current location of Maryland and my experiences thus far with Virginia wine country. After that, we can put the past behind us and move gloriously on with the present - I've got a lot I'd like to cover!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

My humble beginnings in Napa...

I feel like I should finish off my "wine resume" before I get in to a regular blogging routine - just to give you an idea of where I'm coming from oenologically speaking. It is my ultimate goal to post my musings on my "wine of the day", our new favorite "house wine", and whatever random vino trivia I've stumbled upon. But I feel it's important to give a complete picture of how I got to where I am, and thus why I (currently - for I've found that my taste is constantly shifting and evolving) enjoy the wines that I do. So to continue my big "first post"...

While in grad school at UC- Berkeley, I started off my wine tastings at countless Napa wineries right off the "main drag" of Hwy 29: Robert Mondavi , Heitz, Cakebread, V.Sattui, Sterling, Domaine Chandon, Beaulieu (BV), Grgich Hills, Prager Portworks, and probably several others that have since disappeared from my memory (in my defense, it *has* been almost 8 years since then... wow, tempus fugit). My recollections of these early wine tasting adventures:
  • Robert Mondavi wines are what initially hooked me onto wine back in my undergrad at Eckerd College. This was rather fortuitous, since Mondavi was the first winery I ever visited, and they have (had? It's been a while...) a truly spectacular and highly educational tour and tasting. I remember having a guided tour through the winery with the guide explaining every step of the process, even stopping at a large video screen to watch a video about how the oak barrels were created - great! At the time, they made you sign up for a tour before you got to taste any of their wines. I liked this "wine education requirement" - I hope they've kept it.
  • V. Sattui was memorable in that the winery has an excellent gourmet deli and cheese shop - we would always stop by V. Sattui and pick up picnic supplies, either for consumption on their beautiful grounds or elsewhere down the road. Also memorable to me was their Madeira, which used to be only sold out of their winery, but I see is now available online! Too bad I live in Maryland, specifically Montgomery County which is a wine lover's purgatory (more on this topic in a later post). Just as memorable as the fantastic Madeira was the poem they attached to each bottle of it sold - I was able to find it online here.
  • I visited Sterling Vineyards mainly because of a gimmick - the vineyard is perched atop a hilltop, and they have an aerial tram to transport visitors from the parking lot up to the winery proper. It's not a particularly long ride, so not really necessary, but fun! As for the winery itself - they had a "self-guided" tour with signs posted at various spots when I was there; that didn't really do it for me. I also don't remember any wines from them in particular, but I do remember the view - it was fantastic! Sitting out on their terrace and looking down into the valley, watching the fog creep over the coastal range in the distance... spectacular.
  • I'm not so sure I knew this at the time, but owner and winemaker Miljenko "Mike" Grgich of Grgich Hills is Croatian. This is much more relevant to me now as my wife and I are also budding sailors (have taken a couple cruises to the British Virgin Islands and are working our way up the American Sailing Assocation (ASA) ladder of sailing certifications towards getting our bareboat chartering certification - ASA104). What would possibly be my absolute dream job is running a sailing & wine tasting combo chartering company, possibly out of Croatia. I am vicariously in love with the country - miles and miles of Adriatic coast, a near-perfect climate, tons of great islands to explore, and coastal wineries to boot! I sincerely hope to sail Croatia in the not-too-distant future. But I digress - Grgich Hills. So Mike Grgich is Croatian, and noticed that Zinfandel, "California's grape", tasted an awful lot like wine made from a grape from his homeland, Plavic Mali. He convinced Dr. Carole Meredith of UC - Davis to investigate. Italy's Primitivo had long been suspected as a parent or clonal variety of Zinfandel - and it has now been confirmed by Dr. Meredith that Zinfandel and Primitivo are in fact the same grape. But that still doesn't answer the ultimate question of origin: Primitivo is a relatively recent addition to Italy's crop of Vitis vinifera - it has only been documented in the boot of Italy for a couple of hundred years. After several years of searching (must have been rough fieldwork - wandering around Croatian vineyards, sampling wines and testing grapes - tough life), an almost extinct native Croatian grape called Crljenak Kasteljanski was determined to be the parent of Zinfandel/Primitivo. The holy grail of Zinfandel! So true wine geeks now refer to this grape as "ZPC" - Zinfandel/Primitivo/Crljenak. I do not aspire to such heights of wine snobbery however, so it'll always be Zinfandel to me...
  • I visited Prager Portworks twice while in my Napa wine touring days; the first time was at the urging of Sarah, a college friend of mine (and hardcore knitting blogger) who at the time had a binary view of the world of wine, separating all wine into either "yummy!" or "not yummy...". At this point, anything relatively sweet earned the "yummy!" rating, while everything else was distinctly "not yummy". The first time I visited Prager was before I had gotten hooked on V. Sattui's Madeira, and thus was unprepared for a serious port tasting. I tasted the two or three unfortified wines Prager offered, and called it a day. Sarah, meanwhile, happily tasted their ports, declaring each and every one high on her yummy-scale. Fast-forward a year or so, and my discovery of the value of fortified wines. Visiting Prager a second time, I eagerly partook of their port and left very impressed by the vast differences between ports crafted from the different grapes grown on their estate. If you are even remotely interested in learning more about port wines, Prager is a must on any Napa visit.
Ah, the good old days. Well, those happy days of Napa Valley tastings started to get a bit strained after graduating from grad school, starting in on a "real job" and only being able to visit the wineries on the weekends. On the weekends in Napa, Hwy 29 is (maybe was - don't know if improvements have been made) utterly choked with cars, and more importantly, buses. These tourist-toting buses descend upon tasting room after tasting room like a swarm of locusts, monopolizing the time, space and attention of the tasting room staff up and down Napa. You're lucky to be able to elbow your way to the tasting table, much less quiz the staff on where the grapes for the wine were grown, how it was made, or why it tastes the way it does.

It was right around this point that my wine education took its next step, in the direction of Sonoma County. Sonoma is very similar to Napa in terms of quality of wine, only with much windier and indirect roads leading to more far-flung wineries and significantly fewer tourists, and a distinctly more laid-back approach to wine appreciation (as evidenced by what would become my favorite Sonoma winery - Ravenswood; in fact, I still have a button stuck into my office cork board from Ravenswood - Nullum Vinum Flaccidum - No Wimpy Wines). Since this post has gone on far too long already, the "Sonoma Story" will have to wait until my next posting.