Thursday, July 29, 2021


"And we meet, with champagne and a chicken, at last."  Lady Montagu, The Lover


Summer may seen like an odd time to write about Champagne, but if you enjoy a chilled glass of white wine on a hot summer day, then why not make that a glass of Champagne?

The question is, of course, rhetorical, because it doesn't have to be summer; any day is a good day for Champagne.  

Champagne, cool and sparkling in the glass, as a summer refresher (with or without a chicken), occurred to me one especially hot day during the recent heat wave that struck the Pacific Northwest with a ferocity not seen around here for decades. 

New law forces Champagne to be relabelled as 'sparkling wine' in Russia -  Decanter
"Soviet, er, I mean, Russian shampanskoye is the best!"

A dry dusty feeling in my throat nagged me as I read a wine news item about Russia pulling a fast one on French Champagne producers.  It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a guy who enjoys poking people in the eye, signed a new law that "shampanskoye," the direct translation of Champagne, will now be reserved only for bubbly made in Russia.  

The Latin lettering of Champagne may still appear on the front label, but the back label must say "sparkling wine."

And there's the rub, at least as far as the French Champagne Comite is concerned. For years, Champagne makers have been saying that Champagne is THE "sparkling wine," so why repeat it. 

In situations like this, I'm remembering something comedian Joan Rivers was noted for asking: "Can we talk?"

It's not so much that the French are touchy about protecting a specific wine name; they are, after all, concerned about the use of an important wine name, while waging a battle for decades with folks trying to sell their own bubbly by using the name Champagne.  After all, Napa winemakers would get testy if a cheeky European vintner decided to label their Cabernet Sauvignon "Napa Valley.

Anyway, it's not likely that you'll find a bottle of shampanskoye at your favorite wine shop, so let's talk Champagne. 

Located a short distance from Paris. Champagne is a region with a lot of history. But the region, laboring under the law that defines what is Champagne, Significantly, has run out of land suitable for vineyards within the present appellation.

There has been talk for years about the effects of climate change on the vineyards of Champagne, but for now, only three grapes are authorized: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Each of the varieties account for about one-third of the total plantings, with the edge to Pinot Noir, at approximately 38% of the total. Tiny amounts of Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris still hold favor with one or two houses.

Depending on  the Champagne house, the standard blend is 60/40 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, although some houses add a little Meunier.  Following a standard first fermentation, the new wine is put into a bottle where it will remain through the crucial second fermentation, then given a dosage (sugar addition) and finally  the package is finished with a mushroom cork and foil hood. 

There are six basic styles of Champagne, many of which can be found in wine shops.  Most are made in the brut style, or 0 to 1.5% residual sweetness.

  Free Champagne & Sparkling Wine Infographics | Glass Of Bubbly

Non-Vintage -- The most widely available style and generally the least expensive.  NV is a blend of years based on the current harvest and is considered classic Champagne. 

Vintage -- Must be 100% from the year shown on the label.  Generally, a vintage wine is from a good year. Blend of grapes is similar to Non-Vintage.

Blanc de Blancs -- A "white of whites" wine made entirely from Chardonnay, that is considered to be one of the best Champagnes for aging.

Blanc de Noirs -- A white wine produced from black grapes: "white of blacks."  Made from either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two in a light red color.

Rose Champagne -- Made by blending a little red wine, mainly Pinot Noir.  There are a few houses that macerate on the skins, as in making red wine.

Prestige Cuvee -- These are the most expensive cuvees (best juice from the press) produced by a Champagne house, usually made from the best grapes and aged longer. Think Roederer Cristal and Moet Dom Perignon.

Additionally, there is Brut Nature, a bone dry wine; Extra-Brut, with no dosage, such as "Brut Sauvage" and "Ultra Brut;" and Demi-Sec and Doux, sweet Champagnes that can get up to 5% RS or more. 

For decades, Champagne producers have been trying to persuade the wine buying public that Champagne is an anytime wine, not just for special occasions.  

To that, I say a votre sante!


Next blog: Cabernet Franc

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Thursday, July 22, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 16

In the last episode, I was in New York to help launch the Wine Spectator's first Wine Experience. Attendees milled about the Windows on the World meeting rooms, sipped wine, attended conferences and were entertained by guests like Tom Smothers, aka "Yo-Yo Man."  Then, it was back to California.

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A row of "Painted Ladies," viewed from Alamo Square, San Francisco

The big news around the Spectator offices in San Diego was another move, this time to San Francisco. Moving the newspaper closer to wine country had always been in the works, even if the staff didn't know about it.  There was a little resistance at first, but ultimately, everyone decided to stay with the paper. 

So, with the Wine Experience now part of Spectator history, it was time to prepare for the move to San Francisco. 

Americans live in a mobile society, moving many times in their career for job advancement, or just job security.  The cost of living in San Diego was high, but San Francisco was a shock!  Living in the city was not an option and then there was commuting costs, parking and more. 

In short order, we had to adapt to the new offices in Opera Plaza, unpack, while publishing a newspaper and staying current on wine news.  Looming over everything was a necessary update in the mechanics of laying out and printing a growing newspaper.  The Wine Spectator was still old school: typewriters, manual paste up, writing and sizing was time to come into the computer age. 

All of this change caused a lot of stress and frayed nerves.  But staff writers (James Suckling, Greg Walter and later James Laube) were now close enough to wine country for day trips.  

However, we weren't ready for the accusation from California vintners that the Spectator was a "California publication."  

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Barging on Ole Miss

In the early years, the Spectator had a reputation for being too focused on California wine. The common belief then was because of geography, wine writers west of the Mississippi had a "California palate," (I'm not sure where Oregon and Washington figured in this trope.) while those writers east of the Mississippi (read New York-based) had a "European palate."

To get the word out that the Spectator was a magazine about all wine, I began to actively recruit contributing writers. At the time, the British magazine Decanter was the most-read English language wine magazine and the editors were not shy about claiming an exclusivity to the coverage of European wines. 

Nevertheless, the Spectator needed an image change and the fastest way to do that was to bring writers on board who covered the European wine scene.  Among those that were writing then exclusively about European wines for the British market, and who began to contribute to the Spectator were Michael Broadbent MW, Serena Sutcliffe MW, Hugh Johnson, Alan Spencer, Kit Stevens MW and many more. 

American wine writers that joined a growing list of contributors included: Harriet Lembeck, Richard Paul Hinkle, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Craig Goldwyn, Howard Goldberg, Frank Prial, Tom Stockley and Canadian writer and educator, Tony Aspler.

Although the paper was moving ahead, Marvin Shanken, the publisher and I had growing differences of opinion on the editorial direction. He wanted advertising (including cigars) and editorial to reflect more lifestyle, while I felt a moderate amount of lifestyle ads that related directly to wine and no tobacco was the way to move forward.  

Naturally, the publisher prevailed and so the editor moved on.  For me, leaving the Spectator meant a return to free-lance writing.  I was soon contacted by other wine magazines and that's the next episode of My Life in Wine. 

Next blog:  Shampanskoie

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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Sicilian Cornucopia

"He opened a bottle of black wine, a heady, molten wine that situated us immediately in the center of the universe."   Henry Miller


Today, it has become a cliche among wine fans to say that Italy is one continuous vineyard from the cool hillside vineyards at the top of the boot to the warmer expanses scattered near the toe and heel.  

Often ignored is Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and the source of a wide range of wines. 

Sicily is just off the toe, separated from the Italian mainland by the narrow Strait of Messina.  Fact is, the island is closer to Africa than Italy, a  reflection of the character and heartbeat of the island and the Sicilian people. Palermo, the capital city, is a pulsating chaotic blend of Italian, Spanish, French and Arab cultures that somehow seem to have found a way to live together.                                  

Aside -- On my last trip to Sicily, I stayed in a grand old pile of a hotel in Palermo, purported to be where the German composer Richard Wagner composed his opera "Parsifal."  As far as I could tell, though, the guests were not aware that the hotel was also the residence of a Mafia don, who was fond of making grand entrances and exits. 

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Was this the mysterious don?

While waiting to go to dinner, I stepped outside and noticed a large black Alfa Romeo sedan, motor running, backed up to the hotel on one side of the ornate portico and a Palermo police car sitting quietly on the other side of the entrance. 

Back in the spacious lobby, all eyes were turned toward the sweeping grand staircase.  I asked a bellhop what all the excitement was about.  He shrugged and murmured something about the don going out for the night.  

Then, the don appeared at the top of the staircase, overcoat draped across his shoulders.  With a nod that he was ready, the don descended the stairs, flanked by four beefy bodyguards. They moved quickly through the buzzing crowd, across the lobby and out the door to the waiting Alfa, which sped into the night with the police car following behind.    


Sicily is Italy's third largest wine producer, behind only Veneto and Emilia-Romagna. Until the 1980s, Sicily was best known for the sweet sticky Marsala and oceans of deeply colored robust bulk wine, much of it (86% today) sold to large wineries on the mainland to give their lighter wines a boost. 

Except for the warmest central parts of the island, the majority of the vineyards benefit from a warm Mediterranean climate.  As a general rule, native varieties, such as Nero d'Avola and Grillo, are the most common, although continental grapes like Chardonnay and Merlot have become very popular.  Like most other wine regions, the push is to find micro-climates where non-indigenous grapes will grow, supplying the wines popular in the international markets. 

Prior to 2011, most Sicilian wine was labeled IGT, a catchall designation similar to Vino da Tavola.  The change elevated Sicily's two most popular wines, the black Nero d'Avola and white Grillo to the newly designated Sicilia DOC. The former IGT was changed to Terre Siciliane IGT, one level lower than Sicilia DOC. 

Aside -- Italy's complicated DOC system, a cousin to the French AOC, deals with geography among other things, but is only an implied indication of quality. However, a few labeling terms will help make more informed buying decisions. 

IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, the category of wines that does not qualify, for one reason or another, under Italian rules for DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status. IGT is the bottom rung of a pyramid, with DOC wines in the middle, topped by a small number of wines designated as DOCG (DOC e Garantita).  Portugal and Romania also use the initials DOC to identify their labeling systems.

Volcano Vineyards: The wines of Mount Etna - Wine & Philosophy
The vineyards of Mt. Etna

When shopping for Sicilian wine, look for both appellations and grape names.  The most popular appellations are Terre Siciliane IGT, Etna DOC and Faro DOC, plus Marsala DOC if you hankering for sweet wine.  

Nero d'Avola is everywhere today, especially from Etna DOC and Siracusa (Syracuse) DOC.  Other native grapes to look for on labels include Grillo and Cataratto for whites, and Nerello Mascalese,  Nerello Cappucio and Nocera for reds.

In 1968, Etna DOC was designated as Sicily's first DOC. The most popular wine is Etna Rosso, based on the two Nerello grapes.  And there is an Etna Bianco.  Similar in style, and based on the same native grapes, is Faro DOC, from the eastern corner of the island.

Finally, although the number of DOC wines from Sicily is low, the movement for more DOC wines is encouraging, especially moderately priced wines carrying the Sicilia DOC designation. 

Sicily produces a cornucopia of lively fruit-forward wines and more are appearing now on the shelves of your local wine store. 

Next blog: My Life in Wine Episode 16

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Thursday, July 8, 2021

Sierra Foothills

"Excellent wine generates enthusiasm.  And whatever you do with enthusiasm is generally successful."  Phillippe de Rothschild, French vintner

 Discover Fair Play & the Sierra Foothills AVA - Priority Wine Pass

In the late 19th century, when gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills of California, a stream of adventurous entrepreneurs arrived in the Golden State seeking their fortune, not by panning for gold, but by providing the necessities to the hardworking miners. 

One of those necessities was wine, a rustic tonic to take the edge off the hard-scrabble daily grind of dig, dig, dig, with nothing to show for all the hard work. 

Recorded evidence shows that vines were growing in the foothills, alongside mine encampments that sprouted up like Angel's Camp, Murphys and Fair Play.  Miners were thirsty and there seemed to be no shortage of amateur winemakers to help the miners slake their thirst after a long day panning or wielding a pick and shovel. 

Those days, of course, are part of California history.  But while the gold soon disappeared, Sierra Foothill wine making expanded.  The political region sprawls along the western edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, including these six counties: Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Nevada, Mariposa and Yuba. The Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area (AVA) also takes in all six of the counties, but in wine terms, it's really just Amador, El Dorado and Calaveras AVAs. 

Did You Know? -- American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the United States system of permitted geographical designations.  The AVA system is roughly similar to the French Appellation Controlee.

Within Amador County are two AVAs: Fiddletown and California Shenandoah Valley, both famous for Zinfandel.  Fair Play and El Dorado are the two AVAs in El Dorado County, noted more for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay then Zinfandel.

California Shenandoah Valley AVA (1982/1987) -- In Northern Virginia, close to the Nation's Capital, is the Shenandoah Valley AVA, established well before the California Shenandoah appellation.  There was a bit of a dust up when California's Shenandoah filed for AVA status, but Virginia had historic precedence, thus the state name on the front of the California Shenandoah AVA. 

Another example of contentious appellation differences was the use of the name "Champagne" by California wineries.  After years of objections by the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), established California sparkling wine producers, such as Korbel, were allowed to use the name "Champagne" on their labels so long as the winery identified their wines as "California Champagne." 

Amador, and indeed vineyards throughout the foothills, are known for old vine varieties like Zinfandel, Grenache, Barbera and a few others.  Known single vines and whole vineyards in California have been documented at 125 years old. The term "old vine" has no legal definition and TTB, the federal regulatory agency responsible for labeling, has decided not to legally define the term, claiming too much variability.  However, the general acceptance is that any vine older than 40 years can be considered an old vine. 

Amador County Zinfandels are well known for their concentrated berry flavors, owing in part to the efforts of wineries such as Shenandoah Vineyards and Montevina and to the persistence of Sacramento wine retailer Darrell Corti, who urged wineries to bottle old-vine Zinfandel. 

Calaveras County AVA -- Calaveras is a sub-region of the larger Sierra Foothills AVA.  Centered around the historic town of Murphys, are about 20 wineries, including Newsome-Harlow, Stevenot and Ironstone Vineyard, producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah, plus a range of wines from Italian and Rhone varieties. 

                        Wineries in the Sierra Nevada Foothills

El Dorado AVA (1983/1987) -- El Dorado is a part of the Sierra Foothills AVA, one of the largest in California. Vineyards are planted at elevations up to 3,500 feet, in a rolling topography of hills and valleys. The cool mountain breezes and varying topography allow for microclimate conditions, just right for Zinfandel, Barbera, Syrah and a variety of Rhone varieties. 

Fairplay AVA (2001)-- The vineyards of this appellation in El Dorado County are higher than those in Amador County, reaching up to 3,600 feet.  These conditions allow for a cooler leaner style of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling. There are 32 wineries in the Fairplay AVA, including Gros Ventre Cellars and Cedarville Vineyard.

Fiddletown AVA (1983/1987) -- Some of the settlers that had come west looking for gold stayed on and eventually planted vines along with other crops. The vineyards of Fiddletown, considered "The Heart of the Motherlode," are planted at 1,500 ft. to 2,500 ft.

Zinfandel is the signature Fiddletown grape, but the area is also known for Grenache, Barbera and Petite Sirah. There are just a handful of wineries, including Fiddletown Cellars and Damas Vineyards.  Ridge Vineyards, in the hills of Santa Clara County, established a reputation for distinctive Zinfandels, sourced from many vineyards, among them Fiddletown.

North Yuba AVA (1985) -- In a couple of ways, the Yuba County AVA is the outlier in the Sierra Foothills.  The appellation has less vineyard acreage than the other AVAs and it has only one winery, Renaissance Vineyard & Winery, which is a story in itself. Following some experimentation with different grapes and types of oak for aging, Renaissance established a reputation for award-winning dessert wines.

Generalizing about Sierra Foothills wine is meaningless, but one thing that can be said is that the region is known for robust and fruit-packed Zinfandels and attention getting Rhone-style wines.  When considering California wine, give yourself a break from the North Coast and head for the hills. 

Next blog: Sicily: A Verdant Island of Contrasts

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Thursday, July 1, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 15

 In Episode 14,  I made the long  drive in late 1979 from San Diego to Pomona , to judge wines at the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition.  After assaulting my palate for three days, it was back to San Diego to prepare for the first Wine Spectator Wine Experience in New York City. 

Staging a gathering of wine enthusiasts, with informative and educational seminars on topics of interest to wine fans, and tastings of iconic wines, was not a new concept, but holding the event at the world famous World Trade Center in New York City, set a new standard for wine events.

Yet, Marvin Shanken, owner and publisher of the Wine Spectator, believed the first Wine Experience needed a unique draw, something that would set the Wine Experience apart from other wine gatherings.  So, he reached out to noted New York Times humor columnist, Art Buchwald and Dick and Tom Smothers, creators and stars of the popular television show, "The Smothers Brothers" and owners of Smothers Brothers Wines.

Art Buchwald

Daytime seminars, covering a range of wine topics, were held in the meeting room, with commanding views of lower Manhattan and New Jersey.  The panorama was clear, with little to no haze, permitting some spectacular views of the East River, Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island.  The outside attractions created n unanticipated competition for the attention of the seminar attendees. 

One of the big draws was a presentation by Dr. Maynard Amerine, then an emeritus professor at UC-Davis and a highly respected consultant to the California wine industry.  The large number of wine trade attendees leaned in as Dr. Amerine talked about the state of California wine production and how it compared with wine making he had encountered on trips to Europe. 

Maynard Amerine

At one point, Dr. Amerine described a fact-finding trip he and some colleagues took to Spain and their visit to Vega Sicilia, one of Spain's most valued wine estates, in Ribera del Duero.  In answer to a question from the audience about the quality of the wine, Dr. Amerine paused then described Vega Sicilia wine as "a dog's lunch."

You could have heard a pin drop, then nervous applause as Dr. Amerine returned to his seat.  The learned man's low opinion of such a revered wine got the crowd buzzing.

That evening at the grand tasting in Window's spacious ballroom, Buchwald and the Smothers Brothers mingled and kibitzed and sipped wine and kibitzed, to the delight of anyone within earshot. Tom Smothers, aka "The Yo-Yo Man," attracted a small crowd of admirers, wowing everyone with tricks on a yo-yo he just happened to have in his jacket pocket. 

Tom Smothers, aka the "Yo-Yo Man" and brother Dick

As folks became more comfortable with each other, there was a change in the crowd that I hadn't noticed.  But Marvin did.  "Have you seen our guests?" he asked me, nervously scanning the crowd.  "Not lately, but I'll look around," I replied. 

Walking past the entrance to the restrooms, I heard loud laughter coming from the men's room.  The place was packed with laughing men, jostling to move closer to the stalls and sinks, while trying not to spill their wine.  Art Buchwald was standing by the sinks, glass of wine in one hand, gesturing and bantering back and forth with Tom and Dick Smothers, who were in different stalls.  It was a spontaneous performance, in an unusual place, that regaled the crowd with gags and humorous asides that are better left unsaid here. 

With one successful Wine Experience behind us, plans were soon underway for the next one, in San Francisco.  But for me, it  was back to San Diego and the routine of putting out a newspaper every two weeks.  

First, we had to move the office to an industrial area on the other side of the city.  Turns out, that move was temporary.  Marvin Shanken had been negotiating for office space in the newly constructed Opera Plaza, a few blocks from City Hall in San Francisco.  He was a strong believer in "location, location, location" and this move put the "Wine Spectator" one step closer to what Marvin felt was the newspaper's logical place in California wine country.   

Next blog:  "There's wine in them there hills!

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