Thursday, September 21, 2023

My California Wine Adventures 5

"My California Wine Adventures 4" told of my visits to Heitz Wine Cellars and Joseph Phelps Vineyards, neighboring wineries along Taplin Road in the Napa Valley.  Closing out my first trip to California as a wine writer is my tasting and conversation with the godfather of Mendocino wine. 

John Parducci                    Ukiah Daily Journal

With the Phelps interview now in the bank, Jack and I got back on the road early the following morning, for the drive from the Napa Valley across the western hills that divide Napa and Sonoma, to Santa Rosa and then north to Ukiah. In a day or two, we would retrace part of that route on our return to San Francisco for flights to San Diego for Jack and Denver for me.  

Parducci Wine Cellars is a few miles north of Ukiah, off highway 101. The winery was founded by Adolph Parducci in 1932, making it the oldest Mendocino winery in continuous operation. John and his brother George were in charge of wine making and marketing when we arrived in the late 1970s. But the controlling interest of Parducci Wine Cellars was no longer in Parducci hands. 

In 1973, the brothers Parducci needed operating cash, so they sold majority ownership of the family business to a California teachers investment firm.  It was a decision that didn't sit well with John, and his wife, Margarett, and he grumbled about the issue as we tasted some of the many Parducci wines.  Brother George was at the winery the day we were there but he left meetings with visiting writers up to his brother.  

Understanding John Parducci

I mention this division of responsibilities because it helps to explain John Parducci, a farmer at heart, who always wore his emotions on his sleeve.  John was cranky but sympathetic, angry but gentle and always generous with his time, experience and knowledge.  He was an outspoken seat-of-the-pants winemaker.

Still, he raged at what he saw as the marketing take over of wine making. He was also angry about the lack of recognition for Mendocino as a wine region, the attention to high-priced wine at the expense of affordable wine and he sadly complained about the loss of the old world practice of a glass of wine with a meal.

Parducci's idea of a wine and food event was sitting around the kitchen table enjoying Margarett's cooking with a glass or two of Parducci wine.

Parducci Wine Cellars in Transition

The ownership arrangement with Teacher's Management Institute eventually collapsed, and management of Parducci Wine Cellars temporarily returned to the Parducci family.  Eventually, Parducci Wine Cellars became a brand of Mendocino Wine Company. 

John Parducci passed away in 2014, at the age of 96. In the late 1970s, he was still active at the winery, although John suffered from a bad back.  "When we were planting the first vineyards, I drove the tractor, bouncing around all day and it jarred my lower back," Parducci told me with the look of a man accepting his fate but still complaining about it. 

Over the years, John Parducci fought a number of battles; he opposed the advocates of only bulk wine and won the distinction of being the first person in Mendocino County to bottle a varietal wine. And, he was always looking to the future. 

In the early days of quality Mendocino wine, there was only Parducci Wine Cellars and Fetzer Vineyards and a small number of wineries in Anderson Valley.  John Parducci was a pioneer and the last of the Prohibition era winemakers. He knew what the people wanted and worked his entire life to give it to them.

 A Parducci Wine Tasting

Tasting wine with John Parducci on his home turf was an experience I recall as, "If you like that wine, wait 'till you taste this one."  The tasting took place in a space under the front porch of a house on the property. There was a long bar, dirt floors and a cooler box for the white wines. 


Parducci served as bartender, pulling red wines from a shelf under the bar, or reaching behind him to grab a white wine from the cooler. He seemed to have an endless supply of current vintage and aged wines in this makeshift tasting room.  And, every wine he opened jogged his memory about growing up in the wine business. 

When Parducci was 14 years old, his father sent him east by train to sell grapes to home winemakers during Prohibition.  He stayed with distant relatives in Brooklyn and every day went to the rail yards to sell grapes out of a boxcar.  

"You were just a kid," I said, astonished.  "Were you scared to be on your own that far from home?"

"I was too afraid that I would do something wrong, to be scared," Parducci looked at me and grinned, then he opened a bottle of red wine without a label, poured me and himself some and waited while I took a sip. 

"What is it," he asked, taking a long pull of the wine in his glass?

I wasn't sure, so I said, "It's not Cabernet or Pinot Noir," so my guess is Petite Sirah."  It was one of the first varietal Syrahs in Mendocino. 

John Parducci said the one thing he wanted to see happen, was to put affordable wine in the hands of more people...and he did. 

Full Disclosure: The trip to Ukiah, as well as other California wine adventures, took place more than 40 years ago, so these remembrances are based on interview notes and bits and pieces from my memory, such as it is.


Next blog: Reader's Comments

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Thursday, September 14, 2023

Remembering Mel & Janie

 The other day, I was scrolling through a recent edition of "Wine Industry Network" and stopped at the shocking news of the passing of Melvyn (Mel) and Jane (Janie) Masters, both at the age of 79. I knew the Masters, as colleagues and friends, when we both lived in Colorado and latter in California.

Mel and Janie were born and raised in England and became prominent members of the Denver wine and food scene in the 1980s and later, they helped build the reputation of Jordan Vineyard and Winery.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery

The Masters were an inseparable team: Mel an erudite wine man and Janie a talented chef.  Among his many achievements in wine, Mel Master worked in Portugal in the Port trade, in Burgundy and Bordeaux and in the Rhone Valley. He and Janie then came to Colorado and later moved to California.  Mel was also co-author of a comprehensive book on Rhone wines. Janie had a cooking school in Denver and was a private chef at the Jordan winery.

After California, the Masters set their sights on Manhattan, joining noted New York chef Jonathan Waxman to open Jams (Jonathan + Mel) to wide acclaim.  Then, it was back to Denver, where Mel and Janie opened Mel's Bar and Grill and founded the wine brand, Les Jamelles and Master Wines. Throughout, Mel worked the wine angle and Janie cooked and lent her expertise to successful kitchen crews.

There is so much more to say about Mel and Janie Masters and their contributions to the American wine and food scene, but two personal anecdotes, recalled from a brief visit to Healdsburg and an evening in Littleton, Colorado, will provide a small  glimpse at Masters personal approach to telling the story of wine and food. 

Denver to Healdsburg and Back

Rumors had been circulating for months that Tom Jordan, a Denver oilman, and his wife, Sally, were about to open a new winery, on a hill outside Healdsburg.  The Jordans were Francophiles and it was a French esthetic they brought to Sonoma County, in the form of an elegant chateau-style winery, set in a grove of California valley oak trees. 

As a Colorado based wine and spirits writer, I was about to find out how different the Jordan concept was. One afternoon, my phone rang and it was Mel Master with an invitation.  "Tom Jordan would like to invite you to lunch at the winery," said Mel in his familiar English baritone.  

"That's very nice, but I have no plans to be in California soon," I said a little amused at the idea. 

"A few Jordan oil exploration engineers are flying to Healdsburg for a meeting with Tom on Sunday, so if you're free, we'll leave from the commercial side of Stapleton at 9 am and return that evening in time for dinner."  Jordan moved his oil company employees around the world in two private jets, known in the company as Jordan Air.

"There's only one caveat," Mel added, "Because the wine (1976 Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) hasn't been released yet, you can't write anything about the wine.  But Tom would like to discuss the wine with you and he's not going to be in Denver anytime soon, so he thought you wouldn't mind this idea."

The next  thing I knew, we were landing at Sonoma County Airport, and heading for the winery. Jordan is open only by appointment, so the long road that winds up the hill is not marked.   

Vineyard manager and interim winemaker, Mike Rowan, was there to show me around the winery and then we were to join Jordan and Master in the dining room, for the tasting and a light lunch and some conversation.  But we would have to wait, because Tom Jordan was upstairs in one of the luxury apartments watching the Denver Broncos on television. A little odd, I thought, but then it was Sunday.

My memory of the 1976 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon was that it wasn't like other California Cabernets.  The fruit was more subdued, the alcohol a little lower and the tannins finer and more integrated. Tom Jordan wanted to make a Bordeaux-style wine in California and he got his wish.   It was a wine sure to get the wine crowd talking.

As we headed back to Denver, I thought about how the release of the Jordan Cabernet would impact the market, and then we were there...just in time for dinner.

An Evening at the Masters

On another occasion, Janet and I were at the Masters for dinner in the Denver suburb of Littleton.  Janie was in the kitchen and Mel was holding court, pouring wine and chatting up the guests. 

Denver at the foot of the Rockies

One guest, a flamboyant Frenchman, was unforgettable, not because he was a great conversationalist, but because, in a way, he became the evening's entertainment.  His name is lost to me, but the impression he left remains clear. Throughout the meal, at the end of each course, he would disappear and then reappear in a different outfit. His one-man fashion show was unexpected, and after the first course, everyone quietly anticipated the next change.

An impromptu wine tasting, by an unexpected person,was the other memorable part of the evening.  The post-dinner conversation had turned to wine tasting when Mel left the room and returned with his young son, Charlie. 

Mel sat down, poured some wine into a clean glass and set it near where Charlie was standing, leaning with one arm resting on the top of the dining room table. 

"Charlie," Mel said, cuing his son. 

The boy, who was probably eight or nine, raised the glass, put it to his nose, swirled, took a long sniff, sipped a little wine, sloshed it around in his mouth, spit the wine in to an ice bucket and quietly described the wine to the amused guests. 

"Thank you, Charlie," Mel proudly said. "You were close."  Charlie smiled shyly and left the room.  

The little parlor game, played by father and son was a clear indication that, for the Masters, the grape didn't fall far from the vine. Today, Charlie Masters carries on Master Wines, in partnership with Winesellers, Ltd. 

Next blog: My California Wine Adventures 5

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Thursday, September 7, 2023



Soave was the first Italian white wine to attain international recognition, and today it is Italy's best known white wine. That achievement, however, was gained under a cloud of public misunderstanding and internal squabbling. 

Some say the misunderstanding and squabbling are the same problem.  Soave producers disagree on the definition of Soave and what part of the DOC region makes "true" Soave.  Thus, a handful of producers, led by Roberto Anselmi, has gone off on their own, while the bulk of the wineries continue under DOC Soave.

Anselmi, and his fellow objectors, believe that the best Soave comes from a hilly area near Verona. Rather then comply with what they see as unreasonable rules  required by the official DOC, they have opted for the broader Veneto IGT.  Established in 1992, Indicazione Geografica Tipica, roughly translates to  "wines typical of the area," and is equivalent to the French Vin de Pays.

On the surface the disagreement may seem to the wine consumer as an internal problem. But anyone interested in Soave would make a better buying decision by knowing the positions of both sides.

Defining Soave 

Named for Suavia, an area near Verona, Soave might, arguably, be seen as the white equivalent of Chianti, since the annual output of both regions is close. Chianti produces the most wine in Italy, Soave is second.  

Italian wine was first regulated in 1963, then updated in 1992, and controversy has dogged it ever since.  Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) was modeled by the Italian government to mirror France's Appellation Controlee (AOC), while coming into compliance with EU regulations. And, like Chianti, Soave is a mass-produced wine that also has a "classico" level. 

Soave was granted DOC status in 1968 and it took another 30 years before Recioto di Soave was elevated to DOCG in 1998 and then three more years for Soave Superiore to move up to DOCG in 2001.  Bureaucracy moves slowly in Italy.

And bureaucracy seems to be behind the confusion with DOC Soave and DOCG Soave Superiore.  In 1927, a classico zone was defined, an area where superior Soave is produced.  Confusing matters, there are four official Soave DOC appellations: Soave Classico DOC, Soave Colli Scaligeri DOC, Soave Superiore DOCG and Soave DOC. All may officially appear on labels. 

Then, with the rising interest in single vineyard wines, while hopefully boosting Soave's reputation, it was decided to subdivide the entire Soave zone into 47 subzones, wherein various single vineyards were identified. 

But, across the board, high yields continued to affect the quality and reputation of Soave, with producers in the hills, where higher quality wines are made, complaining about being lumped in with quantity producers.  

Garganega, a native grape of the Veneto region is, say its supporters, best on its own.  Soave DOC, however, requires at least 70% Garganega, with up to 30% Trebbiano di Soave, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. Most high-end producers prefer 100% Garganega.

On its own, and from the best vineyards, Garganega is redolent of lemons and almonds; and what could be more Italian than that? 

The Sweeter Side of Soave

In Italian, ricioto, denotes a category of dried grape wines.  For Soave, that means Ricoto di Soave, a sweet white wine made from dried grapes. 


The word ricoto comes from the Italian for ear, or orecchio, and it's also the name of a small ear-shaped pasta. The wine connection comes from the original practice of selecting only the lobes or "ears" on a cluster of grapes to make the sweet wine.  Today, most producers of Recioto di Soave use whole clusters of Garganega for recioto wines such as Anselmi I Capitelli.

Other recioto Italian wines include the red Recioto della Valpolicella and the highly prized Amarone. Like Valpolicella, Amarone is based mainly on Corvina. Rounding out the trio of Veneto sweet wines is Recioto di Gambellara, made mainly from the Garganega grape. 

There are scores of Soave on the market.  Here are a few to look for: Pieropan "Calvarino" Soave Classico, Bola, Anselmi Capitel Foscarino and Capitel Croce, Cantina Pra, Inama, Brognoligo, Gini.  Most Soave is priced at about $20 to $25, with single vineyard wines like Capitel Croce, and Pieropan Recioto di Soave, close to $50.


Next blog: Remembering Mel & Janie

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Thursday, August 31, 2023

Paso Robles

                                       Sponsored Ad - Lantern Press Highway 101, California, Historic Route Sign (12x18 Art Print, Travel Poster Wall Decor)

On fabled California highway 101, south of San Jose, the road passes through  Monterey County, past endless rows of field crops, then open countryside studded with oil rigs around King City, and finally, the blacktop rolls across the invisible border into San Luis Obispo County and the temperature begins to rise. 

An aside.  A number of years ago, I was on another trip down 101, bound for Paso Robles.  I had heard that what was rumored as "the largest contiguous vineyard in the world," was near King City, and, as it turns out, San Bernabe Vineyard was on the way. 

Delicato Winery owns San Bernabe and the vineyard is big.  In fact, there are places in San Bernabe where all you see is row upon row of vines, in all directions, as far as the eye can see. 

The vineyard manager kindly offered to show me around, so we  climbed into his truck, and after rumbling up and down a few dirt tracks, I spotted what looked like a monster mechanical grape harvester, resting at the end of multiple rows of vines. The unwieldy-looking machine, appeared to be a mash up of 10 or 12 harvesters, in a kind of Rube Goldberg-like contraption. 

"What is that," I asked the vineyard manager?

He smiled and said, " a big mistake. Some of the vineyard guys thought, if you can pick a single row in one pass with a single harvester, why not multiple rows with a gang of harvesters.  

"Sounded like a good idea on paper, but when the tractor pulled it to the end of the rows, the turn-around space was way too small, so the harvester made one pass and now is a rusting conversation piece."  

Back on 101, the town of Paso Robles is just ahead. Outside my non-air-conditioned VW Beetle, it was blistering hot.  

 Paso History

An anonymous person once wrote: "History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there." To that, I would add that to know the essence of something is to know its history.

Since the late 19th century, when disappointed former gold seekers arrived in the area, looking to improve their luck at farming and grape growing, "Paso," as the area became known, has become a thriving wine region. Today, there are more than 200 wineries, growing 60 varieties, and successfully dealing with the heat. 

Mission San Miguel Arcangel - YouTube
Mission San Miguel Archangel

There is a lot of different facets to the history of Paso Robles, all of which influenced the development of the region's wine business. In 1797, Franciscan friars planted grapes, for sacramental (and personal pleasure) at Mission San Miguel Archangel. Then, in the 1880s, Paso's wild west reputation as an outlaw hangout had the bad guys drinking Red Eye and red wine.  

Moving forward to the 1920s, the famous Polish concert pianist, Ignace Paderewski, planted Zinfandel near Adelaida and in 1955, James Dean, at the tender age of 24, crashed his Porsche Spyder near Chalome, not far from Paso Robles.  

Two Sides to Paso

Since the early 1970s, when pioneers like Gary Eberle began making Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, at Estrella River Winery, east of Paso town, the sprawling east side has attracted winemakers and growers interested in Cabernet, Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties. The region may have been known for high-octane Zinfandel, as far back as the 1930s, but today Cab has eclipsed Zin in planted acreage.

The thing about Paso Cabernet that makes it so appealing is high ripe fruit and low tannin, but still enough acidity and tannin to balance the wines and make them interesting.  It's the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, drawing in cool breezes,  that lower nighttime temperatures, pushing the grapes to maximum flavor.  The diurnal shift is an impressive 50F, more than enough to fully ripen grapes.

On the west side of town, it's a different story. Cabernet and Merlot share vineyard space with a range of Rhone varieties, like Syrah and Grenache. The Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel fame and their U.S. partner, the late Robert Haas, are credited with introducing Rhone varieties at Tablas Creek Vineyard. Since the winery and vine nursery opened in 1989, Rhone whites like Marsanne and Roussanne have surpassed Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in new plantings.

For more than 20 years, Paso Robles Rhone-style wines have been showcased at Hospices du Rhone, held in Paso Robles town.  In April 2024, the next Hospices du Rhone will be held in Walla Walla, Washington. For details, go to 

Connecting with Paso Wines

Paso Robles, midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a good place for an overnight break and a reason to visit a few wineries before resuming your journey.

All the information you need about where to taste wine, dine and stay the night is available at Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance and its "Paso Wine" app that can be downloaded on Apple and Android devices.  Also, go to and read my "Paso Robles Reds" blog, March 16, 2023. 

Next blog: Savoring Soave

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Thursday, August 24, 2023

California Wine Adventures 4

In the last installment (posted August 4), my wine adventures in Colorado ended with tastings of two classic French wines. Then, at last, it was off to California, stopping first at Chalone in Monterey County.  The following adventures in the Napa Valley were at two wineries that have earned legendary status.

Huddling with Heitz

With our visit at Chalone behind us, my photographer, Jack Whidden, and I headed north from Monterey County to the Napa Valley.  I had hoped that my written correspondence with Joe Heitz and Joseph Phelps, had secured our visits to both wineries and set up interviews with the vintners.  Looking back now, it seems my assumptions were a bit naive but hopeful. 

Joe Heitz  (1920-2001)

It was the late 1970s, and email hadn't been invented yet, so the answers to my letters were brief and to the point. Joe Heitz said to come ahead but understand that I don't know any wine writers from Colorado and (I didn't read between the lines) I am very busy!

Nevertheless, we innocently forged ahead, arriving at the El Bonita motel, south of downtown St. Helena. The El Bonita was once one of the few affordable places to stay in the valley. We checked in, dropped our bags and headed back out to get something to eat.

Heitz was our first appointment the following morning, so before eating, we went by the Heitz tasting room on Highway 29.  The small building sat back off the road, amongst the vines. We pulled in the road so Jack could look at photo possibilities, when a dusty red Camaro convertible came roaring down the dirt and cinder lane, stopping at the highway. 

"That's Joe Heitz," I said, referring to the impatient-looking man at the wheel of the Camaro. "Let's say hello and ask about tomorrow." 

Traffic was heavy on 29 and the Camaro was surging as we approached.  "Hello, Mr. Heitz.  I'm Gerald Boyd and this is Jack Whidden.  I wrote to you from Colorado about a visit to the winery and an interview." 

Heitz turned to us, easing the racing motor to an idle, "When," he barked? 

"Tomorrow morning," I said, at the winery." 

"Right," he muttered. Then impatiently eyeing an opening in the traffic, he added,  "You damn writers think we have nothing else to do."  And with that, he was gone, leaving us with cinders on our shoes. 

The following morning at the winery on Taplin Road, we were ushered into a room, and within minutes, Joe Heitz came in, greeting us with a smile, as though we were long-lost cousins.  Three Heitz wines, with two sets of glasses, were set out on the table, but Heitz seemed to be anxious about getting on with the interview. 

So, I politely tasted the wines, Jack busied himself snapping a few photos, while I asked Heitz about the growing interest in Napa wines and the valley as a tourist attraction.  He wasn't happy about the crowds and said he was glad his tasting room was not at the winery. 

Then, Heitz got a little annoyed when I asked about the presence of eucalyptus in his best known red, Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. He said there was a lot of misinformation about Martha's supposed eucalyptus character, supposedly due to the gum trees that surround the famous vineyard. 

"That's a lot of crap," he growled. When I worked in the Central Valley, we parked gondolas full of grapes in the shade under eucalyptus trees, with nuts falling off the trees into the gondolas and we never had a whiff of eucalypt in our wines." 

We thanked Joe Heitz for taking time to talk with us and headed up Taplin Road to Joseph Phelps Vineyards.

Phelps and the Colorado Connection

I first met Joseph Phelps when I interviewed him in Denver for a magazine article I wrote, titled "The Colorado Wine Barons."  Besides Phelps, the other "barons" were Tom Jordan, Jordan Vineyards and Ray Duncan, Franciscan Vineyards.

When we met again at the Phelps winery, I found Joseph Phelps a friendly and robust vintner; an encouraging demeanor that's welcomed in an interview subject. It was evident that this successful businessman from Greeley, Colorado, who had made his money in bridge and highway construction, was just as comfortable at the helm of his Napa winery. 

Joseph Phelps (1928-2015)

Phelps construction company built the Souverain of Napa winery and then in 1972, Joseph Phelps decided to build his own winery on vineyard land he already owned off Silverado Trail. Phelps was among the first monied people, not from a wine background, to buy into the burgeoning Napa Valley wine business. 

Heitz also had the foresight, or some good advice, to hire German-born Walter Schug as the first winemaker.  Later, Phelps brought on Craig Williams who succeeded Schug as winemaker, staying on at Phelps for more than 30 years. That continuity and consistency was also evident in Phelps wines.

One of the first things that Schug did was to plant Syrah in Phelps' new vineyard and I wondered why a Rhone variety in a Cabernet-dominated valley. Phelps said that Schug saw the potential for Syrah and he believed it made a better wine than the more popular Petite Sirah. Joseph Phelps Vineyards, of course, would become known for Syrah as well as the Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend, Insignia.

In the late 1970s, there were many old vines still in the valley, especially varieties like Alicante-Bouschet, Mataro (Mourvedre) and Carignane. So, Syrah, the great French variety from the Rhone Valley, was a shot across the bow to the old timers, but Syrah never became as popular as Cabernet Sauvignon. 

A few years after Joseph Phelps Vineyards opened, I scheduled our visit. Phelps and Schug brought out a few wines, including reds still in barrel. The vines had not yet matured enough to produce complete wines, so the winery was still not ready yet to release a full line.  

My notes from the visit do not include detailed comments on the wines I tasted, but I did note that the Cabernet barrel sample was deeply colored and packed with ripe berry flavors.  

Admittedly, I had little experience then tasting barrel samples, so the impressions of Heitz and Phelps were more about the people and the wineries, than the wines. Time and experience helped improve my abilities as a wine taster.  

After Napa, my next California Wine Adventure was in Ukiah, and a visit with a Mendocino County legend. Later, there's a glimpse at the early years of The Wine Spectator, the former Marine who founded the publication and the New York investment banker who took it from a struggling tabloid newspaper to a major wine magazine.

Next blog: "Paso"

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Thursday, August 17, 2023


In the early 1970s, when I was trying to get my head around wine, Zinfandel was the first California red wine that got my full attention.  Burgundy was my first love, but when I tasted my first Zin, a whole new taste experience opened up. 

Ridge Vineyards was making elegant Zins then, but the wines were budget busters, so I looked at more affordable Zins from Shenandoah Vineyards in Amador, Storybook Mountain and Sutter Home in Napa, Parducci in Mendocino and the eccentric Monterey Peninsula Winery, producers of a Zinfandel they touted with a back label (or was it an innovative side label?) that suggested the Zin was a good choice with a Zen macrobiotic casserole! 

Those were heady days for California wine and for me. A Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had bested the field in the famous 1976 Paris tasting and the respected television news magazine "60 Minutes" ran a story about the "French Paradox," with bon vivant correspondent, Morley Safer, announcing to the world that wine was good for your health.  

Those two events catapulted California wine to new heights and gave me an appreciation for Cabernet Sauvignon. But the new craze for California Cabernet moved Zinfandel down my list of red wine least for a while. 

Tasting Zinfandel

Of course, the rise of Cabernet meant that all red wine would, henceforth, be measured by Cabernet Sauvignon. And for many American wine drinkers, like me, that included the all-American red wine, Zinfandel.  

Fans of Cabernet Sauvignon are content with its angular structure, harder tannin and shy fruit flavors. Cabernet is a hard wine to like when young and collectors are used to waiting for their wine to take years to come around.  

Old vine Zinfandel

Zinfandel has no such drawbacks. A young Zin is all about loads of ripe, almost jammy, blackberry flavors, supported by good acidity, albeit hiding behind the fruit.  And, yes, high alcohol, a red flag of sorts that bothers Zin critics, but is excused by Zin fans as it is what it is. In other words, love the Zinfandel, love (or at least tolerate) the alcohol.

Today, Zinfandel producers work to keep the percentage of alcohol down to an acceptable 13%-14% level, although they are quick to remind consumers that the nature of Zinfandel tends to higher alcohol. When alcohol levels began to creep up, a number of reasons, such as changing vineyard practices, use of new clones and, of course, climate change, were given.

Zinfandel by the Numbers

The very active Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) has a useful web site ( packed with everything you need to know about Zinfandel, including the 11 regions in California where Zinfandel is grown and produced. And there's a section on old vines and Legendary Vineyards, like Lytton Springs, plus a directory of the hundreds of Zinfandel producers, including Felline, a Primitivo maker in Puglia, Italy.

Primitivo Connection

One of the most enduring stories about Zinfandel is where it comes from. The tale is circuitous, moving around eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin. 

The short account claims there is evidence of the presence of the Zinfandel grape in 6000 BC in the Caucasus mountains. From there, the journey moves to Croatia, then the Puglia region of southern Italy were researchers found the Primitivo grape to be genetically identical to Zinfandel. 

Old vine Primitivo

Further, records show that Zinfandel likely entered the United States through a nursery on Long Island, New York. The NY nursery imported grape cuttings, including one labeled "Zinfendal," from a nursery in Austria which probably got the grapes from Croatia.

Looking for Zinfandel 

California leads the world in Zin plantings and production. Where else is Zin grown? My son the winemaker does not count Zinfandel among his favorite red wines. But then, he makes wine in Washington state and there isn't much Zin in the Evergreen state.  There are small amounts of Zin in about a dozen other states, including Colorado, Texas, Ohio and Arizona. 

Worldwide, Zinfandel can be found in Mexico, Chile, Brazil, South Africa and Western Australia, where Cape Mentelle makes a big, rich Zin, that can at times, taste like Zinfandel, while at other times, tastes more like a big red wine.

Finding Zinfandel from any of these places, except California, may be difficult, but don't give up, Zinfandel from anywhere is worth the search.

Next blog: California Wine Adventures 4

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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Albarino & Alvarinho

When I first became aware of Spanish wine, in the late 1970s, there were two choices: Rioja and Sangria.  The market in Denver was flooded then with bottled Sangria and everyone seemed to have a personal recipe for mixing red wine with fresh citrus fruits.  

White and red Sangria

Serious wine collectors did not want to be seen in public holding a glass of Sangria, but they welcomed what was thought by the cognoscente to be the "Bordeaux of Spain."  

The claim was not so far fetched.  In the late 1800s, the twin destroyers -- powdery mildew and phylloxera -- mostly wrecked Bordeaux vineyards, causing growers and winemakers to head over the Pyrenees to Rioja and Navarra, where the devastation had not yet destroyed the vines, and hopefully continue to make red wine.

In those days, Spanish white wines were mainly of local interest. It was common then for vino blanco to be made in an oxidative style, usually caused when wines  stayed far too long in large oak casks or concrete tanks.  It took almost 100 years for the style of Spanish white wine to modernize, mainly in Rioja and among the producers of sparkling wine in Catalonia.  It was a struggle, though, between the old guard and the newer generation.

The era of popularity for Albarino came later, probably in the 1970s, when the wine world was awaking to the demand for fresher white wine that wasn't aged beyond recognition. Now, 50 years on and we have a whole different approach to making white wine in Spain, a thrust that many say can be attributed to the rise of Albarino.

Iberian Albarino

Albarino is an aromatic white grape grown mainly in the Spanish part of the Iberian Peninsula that juts out along the western edge of Continental Europe. The main area of propagation is Rias Baixas, in the district of Galacia.  Known for its cool climate and ample fresh seafood, Galacia is popularly called "Green Spain."  


Over decades, Albarino has developed a thick skin as a defense against the damp climate in Galacia. That thick armor protects the grape, allowing it to develop high natural acidity, layers of flavor and respectable alcohol for a white variety.

Albarino is mostly fermented and matured in stainless steel, although some wines are aged for short periods in oak.  Occasionally blended with other indigenous Spanish grapes, like Loureiro, both varietal and Albarino blends age better than most Spanish whites.

Here are five Rias Baixas Albarinos and one Napa Albarino to get you started: Vinos a Tresbolillo, Lagar de Pintos, Zarate, Martin Codax, Granja Fillaboa, Hendry Estate, Napa Valley.  Expect to pay between $20 and $25 for Albarino.

Iberian Alvarinho

Across the Minho river from Galacia, Albarino is known as Alvarinho, for this is Portugal and we have left Spain for a different look at the same grape. The iconic Portuguese white wine, Vinho Verde, "green wine," is so called not because of the color of the wine, but as a reference to the wine's early drink ability. 

You are likely to see Alvarinho spreading across the expanse of a pergola in the Vinho Verde region and even further south in Dao.  The advantages of using a pergola is it opens the vines and clusters to more air, reducing molds that develop in humid climates.  Designed like a high arbor, a pergola also provides space on the ground, under the pergola, for the cultivation of other crops.

Alvarinho clusters on a pergola

Alvarinho tends to crop heavy, producing grapes that rarely exceed 9% alcohol, a characteristic of Vinho Verde white wine.  Although there is some experimentation with barrel fermentation, Alvarinho is best suited to controlled fermentation in stainless steel, yielding fresh apricot flavors and bracing acidity, just the right combination for summer drinking. 

Portuguese Alvarinho, mainly from Vinho Verde, include Quinta da Raza, Vale dos Ares, Quinta da Aveleda, Muros de Melgaco. Vinho Verde is priced from $13 to $20.

Albarino or Alvarinho, the choice is yours, so treat yourself today to one (or both) of these refreshing Iberian wines. 

Next blog: Zinfandel: An American Wine

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Thursday, August 3, 2023

California Wine Adventures 3

The second episode of my adventures in California wine (posted July 14), was about my early years in Colorado writing about wine for a newspaper and a handful of local magazines. The third episode wraps up the Colorado times with comments on two unique tastings and then continues on with a first visit in California at the remote Chalone Vineyard and its classical-music loving founder and winemaker.


At some point in every wine lover's life comes an opportunity to join a local wine club. It's a convivial opportunity to share wine experiences, taste new wines and enjoy fraternal companionship.

My unexpected invitation came about in Colorado when I was invited by a wine distributor I knew to join the "Grapenuts."  Well, I thought, that's the same name as a breakfast cereal I had in the kitchen cabinet.

"Is this a gag," I asked in my most indignant voice? There was a pause...then, the voice I recognized, but with a noticeable edge, quietly said, "No, it's the name of our wine club."

How could I turn down an invitation to become a "Grapenut?" 

And so, I joined a small group of fellow wine aficionados at the distributor's home to taste a flight or two of wines from a member's cellar or wines we purchased from a local wine store.  The idea was to select a wine which the members were not familiar with but that would be a pleasureable learning experience.

At one memorable meeting the distributor presented a small flight of red Burgundy from the Dr. Barolet Collection, an eye-opening experience and one that set me on a quest to learn as much as I could about the seductive charms of Burgundy wine.  Dr. Barolet was an eccentric medical doctor who practiced in the city of Beaune and, over a lifetime, amassed a jaw-dropping collection of Burgundy, many of which were sold to private collectors after the doctor's death. 

I don't remember all of the wines, although there was a Beaune from the 1930s,  the rich texture of Pinot Noir, supported by supple tannin and impeccable acidity remain in my wine memory. 

Rumors have circulated for decades that Dr. Barolet would "dose" those wines he felt needed it, with Cognac. If so, the brandy in the wines I tasted only helped the Pinot Noir age longer and the wines still tasted like Burgundy to me.

Unforgettable Sauternes in Denver

Another taste experience in Denver that is still fresh in my memory, was at a late afternoon showing of some of the wines that would be offered that year at the Heublein Auction of Rare Wines. 

In the late 1970s, the Heublein auction was a major wine event that attracted many wealthy wine collectors. Pre-auction tastings were open to the public, for a fee. Before each public tasting, a special tasting was set aside for the press to wander, sample and interview. 


At the pre-auction tasting in Denver, Heublein showed a few select vintages of Chateau d'Yquem, grand premier cru Sauternes, the tres plus ultra of French sweet wine, that Heublein was selling at auction for a private collector.

Private cellars often have multiple bottles of the same vintage wine and that was the case with the collector's 1929 Y'quem. When word got around that Heublein would open a '29 Y'quem to sample, the press cued for a thimble full of the famous wine; a once in a lifetime opportunity to taste a rare bottle-matured, I quickly got in line. 

A writer's main job is to come up with words to adequately describe an experience in which the reader can vicariously participate.  So, here goes.  Deep complex bouquet of honey, ripe apricots, sweet spices and a subtle hint of beeswax. Rich, unctuous mouth-coating flavors echoing all those things I smelled.  The 1929 Ch. Y'quem was one of the most complex and delicious wines I've ever had.  

An hour later, I returned to the table where the Y'quem was poured. The glass, of course, was empty but the dried wine still clung to the inside and when I took a long sniff, it was as though there was still wine in the glass.  Amazing!

Wine On the Mountain

My first trip to California, courtesy of Uncle Sam, was an assignment at the USAF Satellite Tracking Station in Sunnyvale.  My knowledge of California wine then was limited, but I was eager to learn. An account of the visit to David Bruce Winery is  in "California Wine Adventures 2," July 14, 2023 post. 

In my off-duty time, I worked a side gig as a wine writer.  I snagged a magazine assignment to write about California wine, so an Air Force colleague (now a civilian photographer) and I headed for Napa and Mendocino.  We had an appointment at Chalone Vineyard, in the Gavilan Mountains, high above Soledad, Monterey County, to interview Owner/Winemaker Richard Graff. 

Graff said to arrive at any time, so we left San Diego, arriving in Soledad in late afternoon. After checking in to a motel, we headed up the winding road to the winery. The sun was setting but there was enough light to see the number on the mailbox at the end of the lane. It was very quiet as we approached a Quonset hut, with one small lighted window. The door was unlocked, but there was no one around.  So, I left note and we headed back to the motel.   

Chalone Pinot Noir vineyard in Gavilan Mountains

The following morning Soledad was buried under a thick blanket of fog.  We had only one day at Chalone and I was worried about getting photos for the story.  As we rolled up to the Quonset, a rangy dog loped up to the car, lifted its leg and christened one of the VW's hubcaps. It was a humorous distraction but not as much as the classical organ music coming from the hut.   

Richard Graff stepped to the door, pushed it open and, smiling behind a neatly trimmed black mustache, greeted us with an out stretched hand. I told him about our visit the night before and he explained that he was in Soledad filling the tank truck with water. It seemed that not only did Chalone not have its own water, but it didn't have electricity either. 

We looked around the winery and then tasted a few wines.  Graff didn't have any whites to show, but we did taste his Pinot Noirs.  The depth and complexity of the wines reflected the mountain vineyards.  Rich and packed with ripe fruit, the Chalone Pinots recalled the Burgundies from the Barolet collection I had tasted a few years earlier in Denver. 

Cabernet be dammed, I was a true convert to Pinot Noir.

With the visit to Chalone lingering in our memories, Jack pointed the VW north and we headed to the Napa Valley and appointments at Heitz Cellars, Joseph Phelps and then on to see John Parducci in Mendocino.

Next blog: Albarino and Alvarinho

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Thursday, July 27, 2023

Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?

Wine competition -- Two words that can draw both praise and criticism.  Praise for competitions was common once, but today, the need for and value of wine competitions is drawing mounting criticism. 

In recent weeks, there has been chatter in the blogosphere about the need for wine competitions, so I thought I would add my personal comments and observations.  I started judging at organized wine competitions in 1978 and have since served as a wine judge at competitions in California, Texas, New York, Washington, Belgium, Italy, Chile, Australia and China.

What follows then are my personal observations, based on my experience as a judge, of the state and value of wine competitions to both the wine consumer and wine trade.

Wine Competitions: Then and Now

The history of wine competitions is hard to pin down.  Some records show that the concept originated in Europe. Europeans vintners, however, did not see the need to pit one wine against another in an organized contest, and only started holding  wine competitions after noticing the popularity of them in California and Australia. 

A flight of wines waiting to be tasted

There are two exceptions that happened not far from each other. Billing itself as the "oldest international wine competition in the world," the Ljubljana International Wine Competition was first held in 1926 in Ljubljana, Slovenia; not exactly a major wine hub, then or now. The LIWC's reputation suffered when it was rumored that all entered wines won a medal. The best I can tell, the last LIWC was in 2018.

Banco di Assagio dei Vini d'Italia, founded by the Lungarotti wine family in  Torgiano, Italy, opened in 1981, with Italian judges. Later, Banco di Assagio brought in international judges. I judged there for a few years and remember it being a good look for a writer at a lot of Italian wines in one place. Since Italian sommeliers and members of the Italian wine trade made up the bulk of the judges, there was the feeling among international judges (never verified) that the Italians were swaying voting in favor of certain Italian wines.

Wine competitions in the United States likely started long ago with the California State Fair wine competition in 1854, in Sacramento. The competition stopped for a few years but was resurrected as the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition (LACFWC), under the late Nathan Chroman, an LA attorney who also wrote about wine for the Los Angeles Times.  The state fair organization restarted its wine competition and is now one of the largest in California. CHECK THIS

The popularity of California wine encouraged the organization of two other wine competitions, including one sponsored by the San Jose Mercury News and a select competition in Orange County.  LACFWC operated as a standard wine competition judged by qualified judges from the wine industry, sommeliers, consumers and wine writers.  Orange County used only wine makers and wine industry members as judges, while the Mercury News competition judged the same wines twice, once by "professional" judges and then by consumers.

At about the same time, a string of U.S. competitions were held, or started up,  including San Francisco International, Northwest Enological Society Wine Competition (Seattle), Eastern Wine Competition (New York), San Diego Wine Competition and competitions that looked only at rose wines, were judged only by women, only by sommeliers and more.  


In recent years, many new wine competitions popped up, most aiming to be different from the original reason for having a competition -- to "improve the breed," by looking at a group of like wines in a controlled "blind" setting.

Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?

Critics of wine competitions say that they are simply money makers, ways to make money from wine and to bring attention to the person or entity that runs the competition. Some U.S. competitions are owned and run by individuals, usually not directly connected to the wine industry. 

Other competitions are properties of a government entity such as the Los Angeles County Fair or the State of California. The latest addition is the famous Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada has announced it is adding a wine competition to the events, to promote Canadian agribusiness.

That's the nuts and bolts of wine competitions.  And that doesn't answer the question: Do wine competitions really improve the breed?  That is, do winemakers look at the results of wine competitions and how well their Chardonnay did against hundreds of other Chardonnays, then have their own comparative tasting to see why the judges gave a gold medal to a competitor's Chardonnay while giving a bronze medal to their own Chardonnay?  Probably not. 

Successful marketing means successful sales.  Being able to boast that your wine won an award often trumps the results of a practical tasting in the winery. Winemakers are fierce individuals who often work in isolation toward a personal idea of how a wine should taste. 

Quiet!  Judge at work

It is important to remember that a wine competition is a single test at one point in time, judged by a select group of people under unique circumstances, thus the same wine entered in different competitions, as is often done, will likely get different results. 

Knowing such things as judge qualifications, their relationship with the wine industry and the percentage of wines awarded medals versus the number of wines entered, are all indications of how well the competition is organized and run. The awards from some competitions I observed in recent months in print and online, do not list the judges names, but simply show the top winners. 

It's also helpful to know that some wine competitions are metal mills and do not take pains in recruiting qualified judges, while others are selective about judges and conduct the competition as a true consensus judging.

Still, if the competition is careful with its rules and procedures (as the Calgary Stampede claims its competition will), then wine competitions will continue to have value to both the wine industry and the wine consumer. 

Next blog: California Wine Adventures 3

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Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Pleasures of Riesling

Riesling is one of the world's great white wines. Some say that Riesling even surpasses Chardonnay in greatness.  So, why is Riesling such a hard sell, lagging so far behind Chardonnay in sales? 


According to Drizly's sales data for the last 12 months, two California Chardonnays made the Top-10 white wines: Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve (8th) and Josh Cellars (10th).  Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio dominate Drizly's Top 10 list. There are no German Rieslings or other varietal Rieslings in the Top-10, but Drizly's does mention that Black Girl Magic California Riesling is one of the fastest growing white wines. 

An aside. The Black Girl Collection of wines is from the McBride Sisters Wine Company in Oakland, California.  McBride Sisters is a Black-owned wine company, started by half-sisters, one born and raised in Monterey, the other in New Zealand. They met in New York and soon realized they shared a love of wine, which led to forming the company.  

Drizly is an online marketplace for beer, wine, liquor and any beverage with alcohol. Drizly offers home delivery service.

There are numerous reasons why Riesling sales are slow. Despite the thousands of written (and spoken) words, practically guaranteeing Riesling's versatility from dry to sweet, consumers still consider Riesling only a sweet wine. 

The reason may be that too many American wine drinkers still talk dry but drink sweet. Or, perhaps it's because the U.S. market is still suffering from a hangover from when California and New York wineries cranked out oceans of white wine labeled "Riesling" that were likely made from anything but Riesling? 

Also obvious (at least to me) is the German wine industry has not marketed Riesling strong enough in the face of surging Chardonnay sales. Some sources claim that Riesling and German wine sales are on the rise and the German wine industry claims to be making more dry Rieslings with every new vintage.

So, perhaps a fresh look at Riesling, the grape and the wine, may encourage some readers to pass on Chardonnay long enough to enjoy the many pleasures of Riesling.

Riesling: The Grape

Germany has the distinction of being the northern-most wine region in the Northern Hemisphere.  Riesling (Reece-ling), a cold weather variety benefits from this northern exposure and over time, Riesling vines have developed harder stems than other white varieties and that means a stronger chance of surviving a harsh winter.

Riesling is a low-alcohol grape that produces a high level of acidity and residual sugar. This combination allows winemakers to make a wide range of wines, from dry to sweet. When the world wine community was promoting dry while wines, and consumers were turning to Alsace for drier Rieslings, German Rieslings were off-dry or noticeably sweet.  

Concentrated sweetness

Wine marketers and consumers complained about the sweetness levels of German Rieslings, prompting German producers to counter with trocken (dry) Rieslings. This proved problematic for the American wine drinker as they rejected trocken Rieslings as unpleasant to drink, especially as an aperitif, which often did not include food.

At last count, there are 60 Riesling clones, all different from each other, although the differences are small. Mainly the clones vary in aromatics, from very subtle to a few clones so aromatic that they could easily be mistaken for a different grape, like Muscat. 

Riesling is an early ripening variety and when it is cultivated in warmer climates, like some parts of California and Australia, the grape loses much of its unique mineral and floral aroma and flavor characteristics, and the wines lose acidity and taste flat.  Where the climate is more temperate, like California's Anderson Valley, Riesling retains its crisp acidity and fruit salad flavors. 

Riesling: The Wine

Riesling does not take to oak, especially new oak and when it is aged in oak uprights, Riesling loses a lot of its charm.  Thus, stainless steel and Riesling is an ideal pairing.  Fermenting Riesling in stainless, brings out the grape's ample and attractive aromatics and flavors.  

Characteristic flavors of drier Rieslings are mineral, earthy, smoky, floral, green apple, even spice.  Riper wines lean more to stone fruits like peaches, apricots and pineapple, sometimes with a lime/citrus note. 

German Rieslings usually finish with alcohols between 10% to 12%, while those from warmer areas can register about 12%.  Rieslings have mouth-watering acidity, but when total acidity is low, the wine tastes a little flat and syrupy. 


The German system of quality for white wines, based on grape ripeness, is precise and worth knowing. At one end are Qba wines (quality wine from a specific region). The alcohol of Qba wines can be increased by the addition of sugar, known as chaptilization, named for the Frenchman who devised the procedure.  Chaptilization in German is susssreserve or "reserved sweetness." 

Above Qba are wines made from riper grapes known as pradikat (The steps, from driest to sweetest are: Kabinet, Spatlese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein (Ice Wine). The driest German wines are labeled trocken. The majority of pradikat wines are Kabinet and Spatlese.

Elsewhere, notably California and Australia, Rieslings are sold as varietal wines and may have a sweetness notation on the front or back label. However, despite efforts by some California wineries and wine writers to provide more information about residual sweetness, many wineries continue to bottle without it. 

Dry or sweet, German or Californian, select a style and enjoy the many pleasures of Riesling.

Next Blog: Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?

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Thursday, July 13, 2023

California Wine Adventures 2

In the first "California Wine Adventure," my introduction to wine covered a lot of ground, from France to South Carolina, Colorado and California.  Chapter 2 delves more deeply into my experiences as a Colorado-based wine writer looking for my first California wine adventure.


Here's the scenario: In the early 1970s, as the country was about to embrace wine in a big, unprecedented way, and I am in Colorado trying to launch a career as a wine writer, when all of the exciting things about wine were happening in California.

Wine writing in the United States then was in its infancy, with only a handful of people like Robert Misch, Alexis Lichine, Ruth Ellen Church and Robert Balzer contributing wine columns to large metropolitan newspapers in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  My plan was to join them as a wine writer, although I soon realized that it would be an uphill climb.

U.S. markets for wine writing in the early 1970s included newspapers, in-flight magazines, city magazines and what were then known as "buff" magazines, including those for wine buffs. 

The Denver print market was promising, with two newspapers, a city magazine and a small listener's guide that featured articles about music, food, art and wine, put out by the local classical music radio station.

KVOD Guide was edited by a good friend of mine who asked me to write a lifestyle piece for the guide that would somehow connect classical music with wine. It just so happens that Denver's leading wine shop, Harry Hoffman Liquor, was selling a German import with a likeness of Ludwig van Beethoven on the label. I did a little research on the wine, made a few connections and submitted my story, complete with a copy of the wine label that I had successfully soaked off the bottle...after I drank the wine.


Classical music is a major part of my life, and the wine and classical music concept was fun to write about, but I had set my sights on a wider wine audience, so I contacted Wine World, a wine magazine out of California with national distribution. 

My goal was to improve my wine writing creds, so I looked around for a Colorado wine story and found Gerald Ivancie, an eccentric Austrian-born dentist, who had opened Ivancie Winery in 1968 in downtown Denver. 

In the beginning, the fulfillment of Ivancie's dream depended on using California grapes shipped across two mountain ranges in refrigerated trucks.  And he hired Warren Winiarski as his wine making consultant.  Winiarski was then a grape grower in the Napa Valley, who would later open Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. 

California grapes were a high-ticket expense for Ivancie, so he only used them for two years, then switched to grapes from maturing vineyards around Grand Junction. Today, Colorado boasts over 100 wineries, drawing from vineyards mainly on the Western Slope.  

What made Ivancie wines unique in Denver was the market was beginning to build interest in California wines and Ivancie was the only commercial Colorado winery to use California grapes.  It was a good story, but Ivancie wines, including a rare (for the early 1970s) Pinot Noir, were too expensive and they languished on the shelves of Denver wine shops.

Nevertheless, the Ivancie story in Wine World was good for me as it opened the door for more assignments, so my friend and former Air Force colleague, Jack Whidden, who was the photographer for the Ivancie story, planned a trip to northern California. 


But before heading to California, I made a pitch to the editors of the Rocky Mountain News, since the Denver Post had a weekly wine column.  Sensing that wine interest was on the rise, the editors agreed and I was on my way to being a wine columnist.  The "Rocky," as it was known, stopped publishing in 2009, a fate too many newspapers experience today.

At the time I started writing for the Rocky Mountain News, a major overhaul of Larimer Square, the historic part of Denver, was just taking shape and Colorado businessman, Ray Duncan, owner of Napa Valley's Franciscan Vineyards, thought  that a Franciscan tasting room would fit in nicely.  And I though that it would be a good story for the Rocky.

Colorado's nascent wine industry was yet to take off, so the addition of a wine tasting room in downtown Denver would add variety to the attractions for bigger things to come.  In the early 1970s, Ivancie Winery, Colorado Mountain Vineyards and Plum Creek Winery, spearheaded the proposed expansion.

With the interest in wine exploding in the early 1970s, California winery owners and winemakers were eager to tell their story. So I managed invitations to visit John Parducci, Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino, Joe Heitz, Heitz Wine Cellars, Napa Valley and Richard Graff, Chalone Vineyard in the Gavilan Mountains of Monterey County.

In Chapter 3 of "California Wine Adventures," to be posted August 4, 2023, I recall joining a Colorado wine tasting group with the same name as a breakfast cereal, fondly remember my first taste of a memorable Sauternes, and pay a visit to a musical winemaker on a California mountain.


Next blog: The Pleasures of Riesling

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Thursday, July 6, 2023



By most estimates, there are about a half dozen top Italian red wines: Taurasi, Brunello di Montalchino, Chianti Classico, Barbaresco, Amarone. And last, but not certainly not least, say a legion of fans, is Barolo

There are a number of reasons why wine fans consider Barolo special. Maybe it's because Barolo the wine comes from a place named Barolo.  Perhaps it's because the name rolls off your tongue so easily. Or, it could be that Barolo is from Italy, practically everybody's favorite vacation spot.  

All good reasons, but they miss the most important point: the wine itself.  Here are four tributes from wine people on why they think Barolo is special. 

The late British wine writer Cyril Ray wrote sparingly in 1967 about Barolo, in his award-winning book "The Wines of Italy," but he clearly described the differences between Barolo and Barbaresco. "Considered rather superior to its close relative Barbaresco, because of its greater capacity for aging in bottle, (Barolo) is usually very slightly the fuller and heavier." 

Bill Traverso, a Californian who has sold many a bottle of Barolo, echoed Ray with these words: "Barolo is one of Italy's great wines due to its sense of place, structure, age-worthiness and complex flavors."

"...the first Barolo I tried overwhelmed me; as I recall, it took four or five experiences before I saw the light," wrote Burton Anderson in his seminal 1980 book,"Vino."  Anderson described Barolo as an "extraordinary" wine.

And in his book "Italian Wine," here's Victor Hazan on Barolo: "...Barolo has always been the one red wine to turn to in Italy when one looked for grandeur, for a wine able to temper force with refinement." 

The Heart of Barolo 

Across the top of the boot, from Liguria to Friuli, Italy is a complex land of broad green plains, deep lakes and soaring mountains. The fertile expanse contains no fewer then seven wine regions.  Barolo is in land-locked Piedmont, hemmed in by Liguria, Valle d'Aosta, Lombardy, Trentino Alto-Adige, Veneto and Friuli.


Barolo and Barbaresco are varietal wines, made 100% from Nebbiolo, Italy's top red wine grape. Other Piemontese red wines that use Nebbiolo as a base, such as  Gattinara and Ghemme are required by law to blend Nebbiolo with an "ABC" trio of grapes: Arneis, Bonardo and Croatina, and a few others.

The character of Barolo varies by vineyard location. The heart of Barolo, where Nebbiolo grows at its finest, are the communes of Barolo and Castiglione Falletto, plus La Morra, Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba.  These five communes produce 87% of all Barolo.

La Morra and Barolo wines are softer, fruitier and tend to age sooner.  Monforte and Serralunga Barolos are more intense, structured and age slowly. Castiglione wines split the difference.

Additions to the list were made in 1966, but today the five original districts are considered the true Barolo. In the same year, Barolo was granted DOC status and in 1980, it was elevated to DOCG.

Italian regulations for DOCG require a three year minimum aging, of which 18 months must be in "wooden barrels."  Barolo Riserva requires five years of aging, 18 months of which must be in wood. 

"Wooden barrels" is a non-specific requirement that allows for winemaker discretion about the type of wood to be used.  French oak is the preferred choice today, but Barolo wineries have a history of using chestnut for barrels or large upright casks. However, chestnut vessels are often coated on the inside to temper  the wood's strong tannins.                                


The color of Barolo is never opaque, but like Pinot Noir, is medium ruby, with an early tendency to evolve to brick-red. Barolo smells of ripe black cherries and roses.  And with age, Barolo takes on scents of anise and tar.  Barolo is a powerful concentrated wine with ample tannin and bracing acidity.

There are hundreds of different Barolos in the market today. That means, of course, popularity has pushed prices into the stratosphere and that's not an exaggeration!  Most Barolos are in the $40 to $60 price range, but many are priced in the hundreds...a 1.5 liter of 1967 Mascarello is going for $1,000.

Here are eight reliable Barolo producers that more or less fit into the $40-$60 range: Vietti, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Giuseppe Mascarello, Paolo Scavino, Giacomo Conterno, Giacomo Borgogno, Vajiri, Elio Grasso. 


Next blog: California Wine Adventures 2

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