Thursday, December 1, 2022

A Most Extraordinary Wine Tasting

Writers who claim to know about wine without having tasted the wine they are writing about is a mystery to me. It's like saying you know how to ride a bicycle with never having ridden one.

So, it would seem that a writer must then taste the wine. For a writer, tasting is an ongoing necessity and personal education. In the 50 years that I have been writing about wine, I have tasted thousands of wines from various wine regions around the world. 

None was more memorable and educational for me than "The Rewards of Patience," a comprehensive tasting of Penfolds (Australian) red wines, recorded in a tasting book "to provide a wine-by-wine assessment of drinking and cellaring potential."

The tasting took place over three days in August 1993 at the Penfolds main winery in Nuriootpa, Barossa Valley, South Australia.  On the tasting panel were James Halliday and Huon Hooke, both distinguished Australian wine writers and authors; Robert Joseph, noted British wine writer; John Duval, Penfolds (former) Chief Winemaker and myself.  Also present was Andrew Caillard MW, tasting recorder and composer of notes for the "Rewards of Patience" (RoP) book. 

The RoP tastings are held a minimum of every four years, since 1983. In the forward to the 1993 book, John Duval wrote "Looking at 20 to 30 years of winemaking in a structured and disciplined way is a fascinating and educational exercise." 

I agree and wonder, then and now, why no other winery has held similar retrospective tastings of their wines. To mount such a tasting, a sufficient number of bottles need to be laid down from each vintage, but evaluating the evolution of your wines over time is an invaluable way to know if you are going in the right direction.

The five top Penfolds red wines are Penfolds Grange Bin 95, Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, Magill Estate Shiraz, St. Henri Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 407.   The other seven groups of red wines we tasted were various Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Clare Estate Bordeaux-style blend and a Shiraz Mourvedre.

We tasted 140 red wines, aging then in Penfolds cellar, over three days, while standing at a tasting bench,using a similar organization as an Australian wine show (competition. There isn't space enough here to give a comprehensive account of all the wines tasted, so we'll look at what I thought were the highlights of Penfold's two top red wines -- Grange and Bin 707.

Penfolds Grange Bin 95

Penfolds is justifiably proud of Grange, a Shiraz with small percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, first made by the late Max Schubert from the 1951 vintage.(The wine then was called Grange Hermitage, but the French objected to the use of  "Hermitage," so Penfolds went with Grange). 


Grange is a multi-district blend, predominately from the Barossa Valley. Fermented at both Nuriootpa and Magill, it is aged in new American oak for 18-20 months.

We tasted a remarkable 22 vintages of Grange, from the 1955 to 1990 vintages. With the exception of 1986 and 1990, most of the other wines we thought would peak by 2015. Vintage 1986, a concentrated meaty wine with dark cherry flavors, was pegged to peak in 2020 and the 1990 Grange, an intense plummy wine, was thought by the panel to max out at 2025. 

The 1993 RoP tasting was, of course, a one off, with the evaluations and predictions yet to be proven. In the fifth edition of the Rewards of Patience, published in 2004, the 1986 Grange had been projected out to the year 230+, while the 1990 Grange was moved from 2015 to 2040.  

James Halliday described the 1990 as "Flawlessly supple."  And joined his fellow panelists in proclaiming the 1990 Grange "as extraordinary with incredible power and finesse."

The bottom line for a wine of the high caliber of Grange is that there is no "bad" year, just a range of goodness.  And Grange clearly shows the remarkable ability of a great wine to mature in the bottle for many years and to challenge the best wine tasters to predict with any accuracy when the wine, such as Grange, will begin to fade. 

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon

Penfolds other super premium red is Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, a multi-district blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in American oak for 18 months. Bin 707, which first entered the Penfolds inventory in 1964, is among the finest Cabernets that Australia has to offer. 


The combination of American oak and intense berry flavors for the unique character of Bin 707. The 1990 had high-toned plum and blackberry, concentrated layers of ripe berry and licorice.  My comments about the 707s we tasted included "big berry flavors and dominant sweet fruit character."

At the 1993 Rewards of Patience, we tasted through 16 vintages of Bin 707 and decided that most of the wines would be best cellared further.  Outstanding vintages included a remarkably lively 1976, 1983, 1990, 1991 and the 1986 which the panel projected not to peak until 2020.  

Ten years later and with two diffferent panelists (Hooke and Halliday had returned as tasters), the assesment of the wines we thought were keepers in 1983 had changed but not by much.  The '76, '83, '90 and 1991 Bin 707s were still highly rated, although their peak had retreated by about five years, to2015.

The panelists described the 1990 Bin 707 as "rich and ripe wine with plenty of blackcurrant/plum/mulberry/dark chocolate aromas...A great vintage." lists the 1990 Grange at $400 and the currently available vintage, 2018, is $500.  Current Bin 707s are priced at $375 for the 2019 and $400 for the 1990.

Penfolds Grange and Bin 707 are a testament to long aging and to the careful attention paid selecting the vineyard site and matching the variety to the site. The Rewards of Patience book records these factors and is a valuable account of the wine's life and maturity.  

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of sharing a memorable 1999 Bin 707, with my wife and good friends visiting from out of state. The bottle had traveled a lot but didn't seem to be any worse for wear.  Forecasted in the 2004 RoP book to be at its maximum in 2020, our Bin 707 still needed more time to show its full potential.

This account of Penfolds red wines is presented here as information for the wine buyer and collector.  I was priviledged to have served as an international judge at this exraordinary tasting.  My intent is to show how well some red wines age and not to say to the reader, "too bad you weren't invited to the tasting."


Next blog: The Reliability of Old Vines  

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Thursday, November 24, 2022

Sonoma Series: Russian River & Green Valley

The Russian River, in northern Sonoma County, is a natural force that brings life to the people, grapes and wineries along it's 115 mile run to the Pacific Ocean. When full and flowing, the river provides water for thirsty vineyards, as well as a place of recreation for locals and tourists.

Russian River Vineyards

Overflowing and raging along its course, the river can do serious damage to vineyards.  One year, heavy rains swelled the river beyond its banks, flooding the vineyards near Korbel on River Road.  Vine roots standing in water for a few days don't worry a vineyard manager as much as the fallen trees that wash down from nearby slopes into the vineyard.  Powerful currents send the logs crashing into vineyard posts and trellises, causing considerable damage. 

Vineyards along the Russian River sport Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, arguably California's best expression of these Burgundian varieties, or at least of Pinot Noir.  In 1973, Joseph Swan made his first Pinot Noir from Russian River grapes, setting the benchmark for the highly regarded Russian River style of Pinot Noir that followed. 

Russian River Valley (AVA 1983)

Cool and often foggy best describes the climatic growing conditions along that section of geography where the Russian River and the Russian River Valley are one and the same. After flowing past Healdsburg, the river moves to the south, then heads west, before emptying into the ocean. 

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were first planted in the 1970s, and within 10 years became the two varieties that most identified the appellation.  Zinfandel also caught on but mostly at higher elevations such as in Martinelli's Jackass Vineyard. For years, the Russian River had more vineyards than wineries. 

But, by the turn of the century, Russian River Pinot Noir emerged to become the best known from California, from wineries such as Gary Farrell, Williams & Selyem, Merry Edwards, Kosta Browne and Rochioli, to name just a few.  

Either by design or by accident, the Russian River wine appellation became the Burgundy zone of California, countering Napa's reputation for Bordeaux-style wines and the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Being like Burgundy wasn't intentional, the comparison was just natural to the Old World standard for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

Russian River Pinots were darker, richer and more concentrated, while Burgundy was often lighter in color and showed more boiled beets and spice.  Ripe black cherries, the ones my mother used to call Ox Heart, best described a Russian River Pinot Noir.  As for oak, Burgundy always seemed to be more integrated with the fruit, while new French oak usually seemed to stand out more in a Russian River Pinot, or at least until the wine had time to knit together.

Green Valley of Russian River Valley (AVA 1983)

Sitting almost at the center of a triangular patch of land, bordered by the towns of Sebastopol, Forestville and Occidental, Green Valley is the coolest vineyard site in the Russian River Valley. 

The sub-region was initially the Sonoma County-Green Valley AVA but later changed its name to Green Valley of Russian River Valley, still a cumbersome name that doesn't help consumers understand and remember the appellation.

Green Valley's reputation as a wine region got its first boost from the Sterling family, among the first to promote Green Valley as a prime site for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with a line of Iron Horse sparkling wines, that would go on to earn an international reputation. 

Thanks to cool daytime temps and morning fog, Green Valley grapes develop crisp acidity and good structure. Green Valley is one of few sites in California where the climate is similar to Champagne.


Green Valley grapes are mostly sold to wineries outside the AVA, but in recent years the sub region has attracted a growing list of wineries, devoted to making still wines, including Iron Horse, Dutton-Goldfield, Marimar Estate, Littorai, Hartford Family Winery and Orogeny. 

A number of places in the Golden State have laid claim to top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but the sparkling and still expressions of the two varieties from the Russian River Valley and Green Valley are at the top of the list. 

Next blog: A Most Extraordinary Tasting

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Friday, November 18, 2022


What Italian wine is produced in the millions of bottles annually and is made in the largest DOC in the country?  If you said Pinot Grigio, you're not even close. 

Prosecco, the wildly popular sparkling wine from northeastern Italy, comes from an area that extends from Vicenza to Trieste, a vast region that qualifies it as Italy's largest wine region by far.  

No other Italian wine, since Chianti, has captured the public's interest like Prosecco.  And its popularity continues to climb.

Making Prosecco

Prosecco is a blend of grapes, with Glera, a synonym for Prosecco (the grape not the wine) at least 85% of the blend.  The remaining percentage is other local varieties and international grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio.

Glera cluster

Choosing the name Glera is an example of government bureaucracy that seems to be unique to the Europeans, and especially the Italians who are fond of a special brand of laissez faire government. 

Once known as "the Prosecco grape," the name was changed in 2009 to Glera.  Why?  European appellation rules state that a grape name cannot be an appellation name and Italian law says it cannot become a DOC for the same reason. Prosecco producers needed the name change to obtain expanded status of the area and thus qualify for a DOC. 

An aside:  The system of Italian wine laws, established in 1963, is known as DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata,) popularly called "Doc."  The DOC system is in line with EU regulations and the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlee) system of France.  DOCG (Garantia) is for Italy's highest quality wines.  Portugal also uses DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada) for their system of wine laws. 

Prosecco Background 

Prosecco is named for a village in Friuli and the wine is made in the regions of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and Veneto.  Sparkling wine, in one form or another, has been made in the DOC area for more than 400 years. 

The Prosecco classic zone includes smaller areas of higher quality that qualify for DOCG status. These include the areas around the hillside villages of Coneglione and Valdobbiadene. Smaller yet is an appellation near the town of Aslo, producing Prosecco Also Superiore DOCG.

Grapes grown on the hillsides are riper, qualifying for the higher DOCG status. The downside, according to some, is because of the steep slopes, mechanical harvesting is not possible.  The upside, however, is hand-picked grapes are usually healthier and advocates of hand picking say,  make better wine.                                                                    

Champagne, the bubbly generally thought to be the ne plus ultra of sparkling wine, is made by the meticulous traditional or classic method of developing the bubbles in the bottle. Prosecco, is made by a tank method (autoclave in Italian), where bubbles are developed in a closed sealed tank.

Prosecco Style 

The Glera grape makes a wine with medium golden color and a sweet fruity aroma of peach, apple and honeysuckle.  Blending Glera with other varieties, namely Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, tempers the fruity aspects of Glera. Inexpensive Prosecco, made from high-yield grapes, tend to be more neutral requiring a dosage of sweet reserved juice. 

The most common Prosecco is Extra-Dry, 1.2% to 1.7% residual sugar. A drier Brut style (up to1.2% RS) is gaining in popularity. Also there is a sweet Demi-Sec with sweetness up top 5%.  Prosecco is bottled as Spumante (sparkling) or Frizzante (semi-sparkling).   

If you're thinking of adding a sparkling wine to your holiday wine list, pop a cork on a bottle of Prosecco.    



Next entry: Sonoma Series: Russian River Valley & Green Valley

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Thursday, November 10, 2022

Single Malt & Wine


"Man doth not live by bread only," is an old Biblical saying that aims to teach us that life is about variety. With a little imagination, the same adage might be applied to the variety of drink. 

An article I read recently in the New York Times about Great Britain's fiscal problems battered by the effects of Brexit, the war in Ukraine, an unexpected round of Prime Minister musical chairs, and tanking of the British pound, left me dazed. But amid the turmoil, there was something positive: soaring sales of Scotland's whisky. 

The mixed news from across the pond was, for wine fans, an opportunity to savor the essence of the grain while favoring the substance of the grape.

Wine is enjoyable and nourishing to life, but life would be dull and monotonous if wine were the only drink we had to enjoy.  So at one point in the history of wine, someone decided to add to the enjoyment by distilling wine, making brandy, Cognac, Armagnac, Port and Madeira. 

In Scotland, a northern clime where wine grapes don't grow, man turned to locally grown grains, distilling a clear eau de vie, to fend off the chilly weather, and then later perfected a distillate of malted barley mellowed by time in oak into single malt whisky. 

The Whisky Style

Scotch whisky, such as Dewars and Chivas Regal, is a blend of grain spirits and various styles of single malts: a Highland Bowmore, Lowland Auchentoshian and a peaty island malt like Laphroaig from Islay. 

Pot still and swan neck

A single malt whisky is the product of a single distillation in what is known as a pot still, a copper vessel shaped not unlike a Hershey's chocolate Kiss. The pot still is topped by a long graceful arching pipe known as the swan's neck. Pot stills require recharging after each distillation.

Grain spirits are distilled in a continuous still. The continuous process allows a steady distillation without having to recharge.  Continuous, or Coffey, stills are normally used for bulk spirits.

Pot stills are loaded with a fermented liquid, consisting mainly of malted barley, the term meaning the germination of barley either by mechanical means or manually on a malting floor, a labor intensive process that unfortunately is disappearing.

Once through the still, a high-proof clear liquid is then racked into oak barrels for aging, the length determined by the style of whisky and the evaluation of the master distiller. Traditional single malts are aged in previously used Bourbon casks. A recent innovation has the initial aging in ex-Bourbon barrels with a finishing touch in Bordeaux, Port, Sauternes wood, to name a few.

Single malts fit neatly into three general categories: Highland, the category with the most distilleries and individual styles, such as Speyside and North Highlands; Lowland malts, mainly from the south, are generally considered the lightest; Island malts, a far-reaching category that includes the peaty single malts of Islay and the more subtle but distinctive malts from the northern islands of Orkney and Skye. 

Wine is made by a similar sequence: raw material (grapes) crushed for juice that is then fermented and aged in oak barrels.  The oak comes from forests in France, Slovenia, Russia, Italy, United States and other places. The choice of oak is limited only by the available sources and winemaker preference.   

Whereas wine continues to age in glass, once a single malt whisky is racked from wood to glass, the aging process mostly stops.  The component parts of whisky do, however, blend together in small subtle ways.

 The Whisky Market

In recent years, single malt whisky has gone from a simple distillate of malted barley, aged in oak barrels, to a complex spirit of varying ages, seasoned in barrels that previously held a variety of wines, including red Bordeaux, sweet Sauternes, aged Port and more.  This variety is one of the reasons, whisky exports has grown in the least 12 months by 10.5% over the same period the year before. 

Higher demand in world export markets, including the United States, has spurred a building boom in Scotland with the opening of 20 new distilleries in the past six years, according to the Times article. This surge has brought the total number of distilleries to 141, astonishing growth when I think of the few new distilleries (actually re-opened) in Scotland when I was last there 20 years ago.

Although the Times article didn't mention it, my sense is that a lot of the recent  growth comes from wine drinkers looking for a complimentary drink to wine that has the same variety of styles and flavors.  


If you want to try a single malt, and still enjoy your wine, lift a wee dram of one of these wood-finished (mostly ex-Sherry barrels) single malts:

Highland -- Glenmorangie 18-Year-Old Northern Highland (Sherry), Bowmore 12-Year-Old (Sherry), The Macallan 12-Year-Old (Sherry), The Balvenie (Sherry).

Lowland -- Clydeside Distillery (Bourbon & Oloroso Sherry), Auchentoshan 12 or18-Year-Old (Bourbon),  Rosebank 8-Year-Old (Sherry). 

Island -- Laphroaig 15-Year-Old Islay (Sherry), Ardbeg 10-Year-Old Islay (Sherry), Highland Park 12-Year-Old Orkney/Highlands (Sherry).

Curious readers may have noticed the spelling of the word "whisky."  The convention: Whisky is used for Scottish, Canadian and Japanese grain spirits, while spirits distilled in Ireland and the United States are called Whiskey.

Next entry: The Prosecco Phenomenon

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Thursday, November 3, 2022

Sonoma Series: Dry Creek Valley & Rockpile

In 1983, Dry Creek Valley got its AVA.  It's about time, said some valley winery owners.  After all, Dry Creek Valley has been the go-to spot in Sonoma County for Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel for many years before the 1980s. And Dry Creek old-vine Zinfandel didn't need an American Viticultural Area (AVA) to justify its greatness. 

By the early 2000s, the center for Zinfandel in the Dry Creek Valley had moved up the hill to a spot called Rockpile. The aptly named area is above the morning fog that sometimes creeps into Dry Creek Valley, allowing vineyards in Rockpile to enjoy maximum sun warmth.  

What follows is a capsule look at the Dry Creek Valley AVA followed by the Rockpile AVA and the most significant wines from each area. 


Dry Creek Valley (AVA 1983) 

Dry Creek Valley is slightly north and west of Healdsburg and today has 40 wineries lining Dry Creek Road, which runs from close to H-101 to the Warm Springs Dam that holds back Lake Sonoma.  Normally, full of water, the reservoir is now only about 60% full, the victim of two years of devastating drought. 

Most of the wineries along Dry Creek Road and Westside Road opened their doors starting in the early years of the 1970s. David Stare, founded Dry Creek Vineyard in 1972, the first new winery since the Repeal of Prohibition.  DCV's Sauvignon Blanc and old-vine Zinfandel, set the standard for more wineries to follow. 

More recently, New Zealand native Nick Goldschmidt has been making a line of wines from Dry Creek Valley grapes.  The Goldschmidt Vineyard range of wines is extensive, including from Napa and Sonoma, Argentina and New Zealand. 

Recently tasted were Chelsea 2019 Salmon's Leap Dry Creek Valley Merlot: medium berry nose with notes of vanilla and cedar over spicy oak; medium berry flavors, good acidity, integrated smooth tannins.  A serviceable Merlot at $25. 

Gracepoint 2019 Dry Creek Valley Carignane: deep ruby color, slightly closed in nose, alcohol (15.7% alc.) tingle in the nose, bright mouth-filling cherry-cola flavors, French oak, slight alcohol sensation in back of throat, tactile with good length. This Carignane (U.S. spelling of Carignan), $60, is a taste experience oddity demanding food that will stand up to its big fruit and alcohol.  It reminds me of an early style of Late Harvest California Zinfandel. Get pumped up before carrying this wine home from the store; you'll need the arm strength as this Carignane comes in the dreaded big heavy glass bottle.

A culture of grape growing and wine making have been part of Dry Creek Valley since the 1800s.  Prohibition put a serious dent in the valley's wine making, with the growers pulling out vines to plant wheat and walnuts.  Italian families, like Pedroncelli, that had been in the valley since before Prohibition, survived the lunacy of Prohibition by selling their grapes to home winemakers and making sacramental wine.

Today, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon vie for most planted.  The evolution of Zin style has been up and down. At one time, the Zins were big and alcoholic (reaching above 16%), tasting more like berry jam than wine. Fortunately that style has receded into memory and the wines are better balanced, especially from old vines, more interesting and nuanced and above all, showing lower alcohols. 

Six Dry Creek Valley Zinfandels of note: Ridge Lyttton Springs, Nalle Vineyards, Ravenswood Winery, Dashe Cellars, Dry Creek Vineyard, Pedroncelli Winery.

Rockpile (AVA 2002) 

Northwest of Dry Creek Valley and above Lake Sonoma is Rockpile, a hilly area that specializes in Zinfandel.  The first vines were planted in 1992, so there are no old vines, a marker for intense California Zinfandel.  But Rockpile Zins are plenty big and intense on their own. 

While Zinfandel is the banner grape of Rockpile, the region is also known for Syrah, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Touriga Nacional, a Portuguese grape used in the production of Port wine. 

Like many areas in Northern California, the wine history of Rockpile is divided into two eras of grape growing. In 1884, a Swedish immigrant first planted grapes in the area that would eventually become Rockpile. However, the wines were only available in Sweden, so hard times and transportation time and costs, put a stop to the venture.  

Mauritson Independence-Rockpile vineyard

Today, the Mauritsons, descendants of the enterprising Swede, have taken up the challenge of grape growing on Rockpile. Mauritison, the largest producer of Rockpile wines, has 10 different Rockpile vineyards and produces seven Rockpile Zinfandels, a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon, two red blends and a Rockpile Port.

Although there are no wineries on Rockpile, such noted Zin producers as Seghesio Family Vineyards, Mauritson Family Wines, Jeff Cohn Cellars, Rosenblum Cellars and Carol Shelton Wines purchase Rockpile Zinfandel grapes. Carol Shelton's Rockpile Reserve Zinfandel from the Florence Vineyard is bursting with berry flavors, substantial but soft and integrated tannins and good length. 

What's next?  Single Malt Whisky and Wine 

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Thursday, October 27, 2022

Lake County


Heading north out of Calistoga, along a narrow twisting road that dips across low hills, then dropping down to Middletown, you arrive in Lake County, the smallest wine region in California's North Coast.  

Prohibition dealt a devastating blow to the small wine industry in Lake County. Recovery started back in the 1970s and today 24 wineries are gathered around Clear Lake. Grape growers have carefully selected sites, based on terroir, that are ideal for growing wine grapes. 

The result of this selection are eight Lake County AVAs: Red Hills Lake County, High Valley, Big Valley District, Kelsey Bench, Benmore Valley, Upper Lake Valley, Guenoc Valley and Clear Lake.  All Lake County AVAs are under the broad North Coast AVA. 

An Aside:  One of the major differences between American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and French Appellation Origine Controlee (AOC) is an AOC designated area may plant and use only prescribed varieties, such as Pinot Noir in Burgundy. American wineries have no such restriction and thus may plant and make wine from any grape they think will thrive in their area.  Consider the range of grapes grown in Lake County.  

Such viticultural freedom is not valued by all French winemakers. Some believe it is better to concentrate your talents on perfecting one wine (Pinot Noir in Burgundy) then trying to make a line of wines.  American winemakers who make a excellent variety of white and red wines obviously don't agree.

Lake County is a hidden treasure, like Anderson Valley in neighboring Mendocino County.  Hidden is a fanciful way to describe Lake County, as it actually isn't hidden, but more like off the beaten path and for some people that live in Lake County, that's just the way they like it.

The feeling in Lake is that Napa Valley is too touristy, Sonoma, although more spread out, is still too busy for some.  Lake County, especially around Clear Lake where most of the wine action takes place, is laid back. Lake County winemakers are just as serious about growing grapes and making wine, but at a slower, more thoughtful pace.

Most of the major vineyards in Lake County are within the shadow of Mt. Konocti, a dormant volcano and the source of the distinctive rocky red soil that supplies the nutrients for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah, Mourvedre and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The other major influence is the tempering effect of Clear Lake, the largest fresh water lake entirely within California.

Nearly every winery in Lake County makes Cabernet Sauvignon, but a lot of the winemaking energy and excitement is going into so-called alternative red wines like Tempranillo and Mourvedre, the latter known sometimes by old-timers as Mataro.

Here's a look at the four most important Lake County AVAs and what wines they have to offer:

Red Hills Lake County AVA (2004) could be the sub-appellation of Lake County with the most promise. It has the soil and southwestern position along Clear Lake.  Cabernet Sauvignon and other red varieties are favored by the growing number of wineries in the Red Hills appellation. 

Red Hills vineyard cloaked in autumn color

Clear Lake AVA (1984) is one of the coolest wine regions in California, cooler even than Carneros and Santa Barbara. Half of the appellation is the lake itself,  a major influence on surrounding grape growing.  Sauvignon Blanc is the major variety. 

Big Valley AVA (2013) has a long viticultural history going back to the 19th century.  Today, there are dozens of vineyards and six wineries in Big Valley, with Sauvignon Blanc the major grape. 

High Valley AVA (2005) has vineyards at 1,600 to 3,000 feet planted in red volcanic soils. Cabernet Sauvignon is the major variety. 

Clear Lake not only benefits vineyards, but it supports a thriving water sports industry, attracting players from Napa and as far away as the Bay Area.  Visiting a wine tasting room is a nice diversion after a day on the water, but if you can't get to Clear Lake, ask your local wine merchant for the refreshing wines of Lake County. 

Next blog: Sonoma Series: Dry Creek Valley & Rockpile

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Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Scent of Cash Flow

Next month an annual wine event, anticipated by some and ignored by others, will take place.  On the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais wineries will release their new wine into Paris bistros and major world markets. 

                                        Beaujolais nouveau Stock Photo

For most Frenchmen and the many wine drinkers around the world anticipating the grapy goodness of Beaujolais Nouveau, November 17 can't come soon enough. But there are those who take a dim view of the Beaujolais Nouveau promotion, reflected in this snarky comment I once heard from a Frenchman: "the scent of cash flow."

Over the years, Nouveau (new) has had its ups and downs.  The popularity Nouveau enjoyed throughout the '80s, waned in the '90s, but has finally stabilized. Today, whether or not you're a fan of Beaujolais Nouveau, it is here to stay.

Americans finding a place for Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais-Villages on the Thanksgiving menu has helped. Beaujolais Nouveau is one of the few wines that can stand up to the array of flavors and textures commonly found on an American Thanksgiving table.  But more on that match later.

The Beaujolais Difference 

The region of Beaujolais is in east-central France, south of the Maconnais region of Burgundy. Administratively, Beaujolais is considered part of Burgundy, but the two regions are quite different in terms of climate and soil types, not to mention grapes.

Beaujolais is a red wine made from the Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc grape, commonly referred to as Gamay.  At one time, Gamay was permitted in Burgundy, often drawing comparisons to Pinot Noir, the red grape of Burgundy. A minuscule amount of Beaujolais Blanc, made from Chardonnay, tastes similar to Macon.

                                                   Signboard with Mont Brouilly in Beaujolais, France Signboard with Mont Brouilly in Beaujolais, France gamay grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Beaujolais-Villages is narrowed further with ten wines known as Beaujolais Crus. In the French system of classifying wines, sites such as villages and specific vineyards, are recognized as being the best of the breed.  For Beaujolais, the best are these Beaujolais cru (vineyard) wines: Moulin-a-Vent, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, St- Amour, Chiroubles, Chenas, Julienas, Morgon, Fleurie and Regnie. In 1988, Regnie became the most recently added Beaujolais Cru.  

Today, mature Beaujolais Grand Cru (Gamay), like Moulin-a-Vent, is sometimes favorably compared to a Volnay or Pommard (Pinot Noir) from the Cote de Beaune. A step up are Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais-Villages Blanc. The red wine is roughly between Nouveau and the cru wines, in quality and price.

Credit Carbonic Maceration

The very essence of Beaujolais, and in particular Beaujolais Nouveau, is the result of a wine making technique known as carbonic maceration.  Whole clusters of grapes are placed in a tank, carefully so as not to break the skins of any of the grapes, in an oxygen-free atmosphere, usually by using carbon dioxide.  

The use of carbonic maceration allows each berry to become a mini-fermenter.  However, achieving 100% CM is impossible since the grapes at the bottom of the tank are crushed by the weight of the grape clusters at the top of the mass, starting a natural fermentation.

Nearly all Nouveau is made by carbonic maceration, but CM is not used in the production of Beaujolais cru wines.  Carbonic maceration is also not generally used for white grapes.

Expect to pay about $15 or less for Beajolais Nouveau and $14 to $18 for a cru wine.  Here is a half-dozen Beaujolais producers to watch: Domaine Jean-Michel Dupre, Domaine Laurent Gauthier, Chateau de Julienas, Yvon Metras, Antoine Sunier and Georges Duboeuf.

Beaujolais and Food

For Americans, the time to break out a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais-Villages, is at Thanksgiving or Christmas.  A traditional holiday meal usually consists of turkey and a variety of side dishes with a range of flavors and textures. Some people forgo the bird in favor of baked ham or prime rib.


The choice of meat is easy to match with a wine, but problems arise when choosing a wine that won't battle with cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole and seasoned dressing (stuffing?) to name but a few side dishes. 

And my last piece of advice for holiday wine and food pairing is to save that special bottle for an occasion when the food is more likely to merit it.  

Enjoy the day and the meal and make it easy on yourself by opting for Beaujolais Nouveau. The up-front fruity flavors, soft tannins and moderate acidity go nicely with the cornucopia of flavors of a holiday meal.  

Next blog: Lake County: A Hidden Treasure

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Thursday, October 13, 2022

Sonoma Series: Alexander Valley & KnightsValley

For the next several weeks, the 19 AVAs in Sonoma County will be featured in the Sonoma Series. Most of the attention will be focused on Sonoma's major regions like Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley and Carneros. 

Sonoma is one of California's most important wine counties. In the late 18th century, missionaries build a series of coastal missions along what is now California, ending their work in the town of Sonoma.  

Franciscan friars brought with them a black grape, known in Chile as the Pais that in time became known in California as the Mission grape, an important variety  until Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920. 

Following Repeal, the wine industry turned a corner with expanded plantings of Vitis vinifera varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon that were the standard in France. The intent was not to emulate Bordeaux Cabernet-based reds, but to create a unique California style.  

Sonoma Series begins with profiles of Alexander Valley, an early benchmark for Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, and Knights Valley, one of Sonoma's smaller AVAs.



Alexander Valley (AVA 1984)

Looking back at the rise in popularity of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, it's a bit ironic that one of the major forces behind the success, was a Napa Valley icon. And this at a time when he had already established Beaulieu Vineyard as one of the major wineries in the Napa Valley, if not California.

Andre Tchelistcheff, the Russian-born enologist who once claimed that Pinot Noir was one of his favorite red wines, led the Beaulieu team in creating BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. 

In 1976, a couple of years after Tchelistcheff retired from BV, Tom Jordan hired Tchelistcheff as consulting enologist at Jordan Vineyard and, in turn, he  recommended that Jordan hire Rob Davis, as Jordan's first winemaker. Together, Davis and Tchelistcheff developed and fashioned Jordan's first 1976 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Alexander Valley grapes.

The Alexander Valley is a short distance northeast of the gateway city of Healdsburg, a mecca of wine tasting rooms and smart restaurants. Before Prohibition, the area was known more for prunes and hops than it was for grapes, although a few black varieties like Alicante were planted for bulk red wines.  

Not until 1970, with the rebirth of Simi Winery, did Alexander Valley enter the modern age of winemaking.  Chateau Souverain followed and then in 1976, Jordan Winery and Vineyard brought elegance to the winery scene, on a hilltop outside Healdsburg. 

By 2013, there were 50 wineries in the valley and by the 1990s, Kendall-Jackson and Gallo, purchased large tracts of land.  Alexander Valley had arrived as the source of one of California's premiere Cabernet Sauvignons.

Despite the solid reputation for AV Cabernet Sauvignon, some Cab fans still leaned more toward Napa, where Cabernets are more berrylike than herbaceous. The occasional trace of an herbal character in AV Cabernets can still be found, but AV winemakers have worked their way around the problem.  

Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc has had limited success, while AV Chardonnay has taken its place in the lineup of desirable California Chardonnay.

Noteworthy Alexander Valley wineries include Simi, Jordan, Peter Michael, Seghesio, Robert Young, Geyser Peak, Lancaster, Silver Oak.

Knights Valley (AVA 1983)

At the far southern end of Alexander Valley and the far northern end of the Napa Valley is a small enclave known as Knights Valley.  Visitors would be excused if they thought that KV was part of Napa County, because since the 1960s, Napa's  Beringer Vineyards had farmed a large vineyard there and for years were about the only vineyard owners in the valley. 

A tasting of Peter Michael red wines

In 1982, British businessman, Peter Michael, purchased land and planted a vineyard, hired a string of star winemakers (Helen Turley for one) and released a line of highly acclaimed and expensive wines with French names, like Les Pavots, a Bordeaux-variety red blend. 

A varied range of grapes is planted in Knights Valley, although the reputation of the valley rests on Cabernet Sauvignon.  Beringer has had a Knights Valley Cabernet since the 1974 vintage, Peter Michael's red blend and Kendall-Jackson sources a Cabernet Sauvignon from its Knights Valley vineyards. 

Compared to many of the major wine regions in the world, Alexander Valley and Knights Valley are relative newcomers.  But in that time great progress has been made in the vineyards.  So far, Peter Michael is the only winery in Knights Valley. 

Today, both valleys are producing distinctive Cabernet Sauvignon and red blends that are considered among the best of California's stellar red wines.  

Next blog: It's Nouveau time!

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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Eucalyptus Part 2

There is a lot of talk circulating in wine circles about terroir: what is it and how does it affect wine?  Terroir is one of those untranslatable French terms that Americans grapple with. And opinions differ about how terroir applies to a vineyard environment and if the influence of terroir moves through the grape to the wine. 

Not to worry; this is not an essay on terroir. But it is an attempt to understand how external factors (eucalyptus trees near vineyards) can influence the growth of grapes and the taste of wine, even with or without the intervention of winemaking.    

Sometimes, people buy a bottle of wine without knowing anything more about it  than, "It's a wine I know and like."  Fair enough, but a more discerning drinker will ask about the wine's provenance, the background that helps round out a tasting experience.

A vineyard in Monterey County


The Folly of a Bad Decision

Which brings us to the former Mirassou Vineyards and Monterey County. In a previous blog (9/17/22) on Monterey wines, there was mention of the so-called "Monterey veggies" and how similar that distinct flavor was to the eucalyptus component in some red wines, a notable example, some say, being Heitz Martha's Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the late 1970s, Joe Heitz told me that he had never detected eucalypt flavors in wines he made then in the Central Valley.  Not long ago, I opened a Heitz 1999 Martha's Vineyard Cabernet and marveled at how well the wine had matured.  But I didn't smell or taste any eucalyptus in the 1999 Martha's I had.

I did mourn the fact that a case of the '99 Martha's was not gathering dust in the back of my wine closet.  

Thinking back to that conversation with Joe Heitz, I remembered another event about vineyard soil imparting a distinct flavor to wine. In the late 1970s, Steve Mirassou, a member of the noted Mirassou wine family, and a friend of mine, was then in Mirassou sales, when the whole Monterey veggie brouhaha broke in a newspaper wine column. 

Mirassou Vineyards, then in San Jose, farmed an 80-acre vineyard in northern Monterey County, called San Vicente Vineyard. The vineyard was planted next to three windbreaks of eucalyptus trees.

"I remember parking my pickup truck next to the windbreak to help the guys move sprinkler pipe," recalls Mirassou.  "When I came back to my truck there was sap from the trees all over the windshield.

"It dawned on me then that the first five or six rows of vines would probably have a lot of sap on eucalyptus tree can 'flavor' 50 acres of grapes," he explained. 

"And the Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Reisling and Chardonnay that we produced from the San Vicente Vineyard were all absolutely delicious,"  Mirassou said.

He explained that the whites didn't have a eucalypt character, "because unlike the red (varieties), the whites are pressed and only the juice is fermented.  The reds are fermented with the juice and the skins and the skins are coated with the eucalyptus oil."


Mirassou said the only problem (we had) was with Cabernet Sauvignon.  "And it was unfortunate for us (Mirassou Vineyards) that in the late 1970s, as Cabernet Sauvignon went so went your reputation." 


Recalling the marketing nightmare that came with that kind of vineyard problem, Mirassou added, "No one cared about how good your reasoning was at that time. Had we focused on Pinot (Noir) and grafted it over to Cabernet (Sauvignon) then we would probably still be in business as Mirassou."  The Mirassou brand is now owned by Gallo and most of the San Vicente Vineyard is now a subdivision.

In Steve Mirassou's opinion, the San Vicente Cabernet was so spoiled from the off  smell and taste that the wine was undrinkable.  Anthony Dias Blue, then writing for the Los Angeles Times, picked up on the Mirassou Monterey problem and wrote about it in his wine column. Blue faulted Mirassou for planting Cabernet Sauvignon in a part of Monterey County better suited to row crops.

"My sales team and I were getting crucified in the market at the time," recalls Mirassou.  "I went to my uncle about the problem and his comment was 'Well, maybe, but I kind of like it!'" 

"Would you like 60,000 cases of it?" I replied, astonished.

Steve Mirassou said that the encounter with his family was as far as he ever got in his quest to replant a lot of late ripening varieties in the San Vicente Vineyard, so he quit and eventually started Steven Kent Winery with his son, in Livermore. 

 Some 40 years later, Mirassou's memory of the event remains clear about the impact of eucalyptus on San Vicente Cabernet; a very different account from Heitz's memory of wine and eucalypt character in Central Valley wines.

The take away for consumers

The recollections of Steve Mirassou and Joe Heitz, although years apart, point to the problem of subjective impressions about wine and how that may influence a person's buying habits. 

Both of the observations are just that, observations and not based on science. Hopefully, Heitz's and Mirassou's impressions will inform your next wine tasting evaluation and purchasing decision.


Next blog: Sonoma Series: Alexander Valley & Knights Valley

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Thursday, September 29, 2022

Focus on Malbec

Who knew that Malbec, a mostly unknown grape, had the power to help transform the wine economy of a South American country? Although approaching obscurity in its homeland, Malbec went west and became an international wine juggernaut. 

                               Red grapes. rows of a vineyard in autumn malbec grape stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

The Malbec story started in Bordeaux, but gained notice as a single varietal in an obscure corner of France. Back in the day, when England was importing a lot of wine from France, English wine drinkers liked their reds big and dark, so they turned to Cahors.  Malbec became known in England as the "black wine of Cahors."

Unfortunately for Cahors, the rustic red never reached the same popularity as the more refined Bordeaux.  Still, there are Cahors reds in the market, such as Ch. la Coustarelle and Ch. Armandiere.

Malbec was a team player in Bordeaux, but not a known one. Ironically, many of the people that liked Bordeaux were not aware that Malbec was contributing to their enjoyment.  This was especially true in light years when Cabernet Sauvignon needed a boost in color and flavor density. 

There's a line of five red grapes that make up the so-called "Bordeaux blend." For the majority of chateau blends, the order of importance is  Cabernet Sauvignion, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot.  Malbec is not the least important red variety in Bordeaux, but it's close. Lately, the value of Malbec (and Petit Verdot) has slipped in Bordeaux.

Malbec goes west

Malbec was destined for greater things when the grape found a new home in Argentina. Today, Malbec is the most planted red wine variety throughout Argentina, accounting for about 20% of the total. 

The first Argentine Malbecs were structurally bigger and riper than Cahors. To be clear, Cahors looks big and ripe, and by Bordeaux standards it is, but there is a refinement that defines the character of Malbec. The Argentine style evolved to more subtlety with berry and spice flavors, while Cahors continued to search for  for more refinement.

Argentine winemakers favor Cabernet Sauvignon, the third most planted red variety in Argentina, as the first choice for blending with Malbec.  Bonarda, the second most planted red grape, is a variety that has been shown by DNA profiling, to be the same as Charbono, a grape once popular in California in jug wine blends.

The Argentine take, then, on Malbec was to blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, make the wines less plummy/jammy and finish with lower alcohol. This approach allowed Malbec to be oak aged, elevating it to a top tier status.

Region by Region

Here's a region-by-region summary of Argentina's main spots for Malbec, along with a few notes on other wines that are doing well in these areas.

Argentina has a tiered system of appellations, starting with provinces, such as Mendoza, then departments which are in turn sub-divided into districts and then single vineyards.  Any of these appellations, such as the department of Maipu, can appear on wine labels.

Major provinces include Mendoza, San Juan, Salta, La Rioja and Rio Negro. Malbec is a popular variety in most of these provinces and is especially important in the Mendoza departments of Lujan de Cuyo, Maipu,Valle de Uco and Tupungato. In 1993, Argentina established its first "controlled appellation" for Malbec, combining the departments of Lujan de Cuyo and Maipu.  

Mendoza is where it's happening for Argentine Malbec.  Mendoza is a large province, with such important districts as Lunluna and Tupungato. Valle de Uco (Uco Valley) is a newer district with high promise for Malbec and Chardonnay. The wines are full-bodied with good natural acidity. 

San Juan, the second largest wine region, is north of Mendoza and at lower elevations. Long the producer of large amounts of sweet pink wine from the Cereza grape, San Juan has transitioned to a variety of whites, including Viognier and some experimental Malbec and Syrah. 

La Rioja, the oldest of Argentina's wine-producing provinces, specializes in the white Torrontes Riojano, an aromatic dry white, popular at home, but still building export interest. Torrontes Riojano, a cross of Muscat Alexandria and Criolla Chica (California's Mission grape), is one of four known Torrontes grapes in Argentina. 

Salta vineyard in the Andes

Salta is in the far northwest, with vineyards at high elevations.  California's Donald Hess' Colome comes from a vineyard at 10,000 feet. Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon are the leading reds, with Argentina's unique Torrontes Riojano the favored white.  Salta wines are growing in popularity even though many of them are still tiny quantities. 

Rio Negra first planted vines in 2013 and since has been growing steadily. The southern province is in Patagonia, an untouched scenic region, home of large herds of cattle and sheep - and now vines. Malbec, the leading red, is made in an aromatic style with less concentration than Malbecs from Mendoza, reflecting the province's cooler climate. 

Argentine Malbecs worth a search include Catena and Catena Zapata, Salentein, Weinart, Famalia Zuccardi, Terrazas de Los Andes, Alta Vista, Norton, Colome, Luigi Bosco, Trapiche. 

Malbec Outside Argentina

In other parts of the world, such as Australia, California, Chile, Washington state, Malbec has a presence, but still stands behind Cabernet Sauvignon, both at the winery level and in retail shops.  The modest success of Malbec in the world is, no doubt, due to Argentina's wholehearted adoption of the variety. 

Across the Andes in Chile, winemakers took notice of Argentina's success with Malbec and soon began to add Malbec to their line of red wines.  Chilean Malbec (Montes, Mont Gras, Clos de Luz, Caliterra) tends to be bigger and more tannic and usually part of a Bordeaux blend.

The few Australian wineries that make Malbec, Like Jim Barry and Henschke, usually use it as a blending component with Cabernet Sauvignon.  

About 50 Washington wineries are making a varietal Malbec, like Canoe Ridge, Barnard Griffin and Three Rivers, but most Washington Malbec goes into blends with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  B.R. Cohn, Mt. Brave and Assisduous are among the growing number of California varietal Malbecs.

Who knew there was so much to say about Malbec?  A growing number of consumers know and are looking to Argentina, Cahors and Washington state for their next bottle of varietal Malbec. 

Next blog: It's in the Soil

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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Australia Series: The Other Regions

The bulk of wine produced in Australia comes from four states: Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. To read about them, consult the Index on the opening page of any of my blogs. 

The last installment in the Australia Series, is an overview of the wines of Tasmania, Australian Capital Territory and Queensland.  The combined output of these three regions is small, yet each offers something unique or different.

Tasmanian devil Tasmanian devil tasmanian devil stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images
Tasmanian Devil

Tasmania is an island off the southeastern coast of Victoria.  Named for settler Abel Tasman, "Tassie," as it is fondly known, has experienced the problem that few winemakers want to go there, because the island is thought to be a backwater and maybe a career killer.  But making wine on Tasmania poses challenges a winemaker may not face elsewhere and that makes it attractive. An array of micro climates and terroirs pose the biggest challenge. Tassie wineries, though, have built a solid reputation for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and sparkling wine, mainly from Pipers River and the Tamar Valley.  Brands: Pipers Brook, Tamar Ridge, Apogee, Morilla Estate, Clover Hill.

Australian Capital Territory is an odd duck in Australian wine. For one thing, the area is known as both ACT and the Canberra District, after the capital city of Canberra. But, because of strict land use rules, the small group of ACT wineries operate outside the borders in Yass Valley and around Lake George. A handful of tiny wineries make Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a little Shiraz.  Wines to look for include Clonakilla, Helm and Lark Hill. Many of the ACT wines are hard to find even in major Australian markets. So ask your local wine merchant to special order them.

Bunch of grapes on vine in Amiens
Queensland cluster

Queensland was a wine powerhouse in the late 19th century.  The northern region went through a series of ups and downs, but now seems to be on an up turn. The most significant wine area is Granite Belt, a small sub region on the southern border with New South Wales. However, the higher elevation, means spring frost can be a problem. Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are the main whites, with Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon the best reds. The larger wine sub region is South Burnett Valley, with most of the wineries along the coast and around Brisbane. Wine tourism is the popular attraction.

Final thoughts on Australian wine

This series brings to a close an overview of Australian wine. But there still is a few things to say about the past and future of Australian wine in the U.S. market.

Wine drinkers with long memories will remember a charming Aussie named Paul Hogan who extended an invitation to Americans to come to Australia and they'll put a "shrimp on the barbie."  The popular TV ads, that ran in major U.S. markets, were a follow up to Hogan's mega hit movie, "Crocodile Dundee."  

Although Hogan's pitch was on behalf of Australian tourism, the ads and the movie helped to open the flood gates of what seemed like an endless flow of Australian wine that soon became the new wine sensation in America. 

For a time, American wine drinkers enjoyed well-made Aussie Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz (Syrah) and were re-acquainted with the pleasures of Semillon as a varietal wine.  

For many, Australian wines were a lot like those from California, yet they were different, especially Shiraz.  American wine drinkers had gotten used to leaner Syrah from the Rhone Valley, aged in French oak and then along comes brawnier Aussie Shiraz, aged in American oak.  The Aussies had shaken up the American wine consciousness. 

It wouldn't be the last shaking from Down Under.  Aussies took over pop music and movies, Russell Crowe and Nichole Kidman were everywhere and American movie goers had a hard time deciding if the actor they were seeing with a convincing accent was American or Australian. 

Wine drinkers were just as puzzled.  Australian wines, of course, had their own personality, but to the casual wine consumer, Aussie Chardonnay and California Chardonnay were like close cousins: warm climate fruit and French oak tended to blur the differences.

From the earliest days of the Aussie invasion, price was the leveling market factor. Australian wine was beating California wine at most price points, until it wasn't.  In time, Australian wineries raised bottle prices high enough that consumers thought  why should they pay a premium price for an Australian wine when a comparable California wine was on the shelf for less.  

Today, Australian wine offers a good quality/price ratio.  Trying different wines is always a good policy, especially when wineries throughout Australia offer such a wide variety of wine.  

The Sonoma Series is next, with the first installment scheduled for October 14,  featuring Alexander Valley and Knights Valley.

Next blog: Focus on Malbec

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