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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