Thursday, October 26, 2023

A Pair of Veneto Reds

Here's a multiple guess question: What two popular Italian red wines are made from the same four grapes? 

a. Barolo and Barbaresco

b. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

c.  Bardolino and Valpolicella

d.  None of the above

Give yourself points if you picked option C.  Both Bardolino and Valpolicella, produced not far from each other in Italy's northeast region of Veneto, are made from Corvina, Rondinella, Corvinone and occasionally Molinara. 

The Negrara grape, once a common part of the blend, has mostly been replaced by international varieties like Merlot. The move has improved acidity, but old timers maintain it has changed the character of the wine. There was a time when adding a French grape to an Italian blend would be considered heresy.

A Veneto wine estate

Bardolino and Valpolicella are not the only noted Veneto wines. White Soave, red Amarone and sparkling Prosecco also claim Veneto as home.  And there is more. In fact, at least a dozen Veneto wines are made in an area that stretches from Lake Garda to the Alps and proudly claims Venice, with its miles of navigable canals, as arguably the world's most romantic city. Well, okay, maybe one of the most romantic, since Paris is a special place for romance.  

There are some basic differences between the two wines: location in Veneto, soils, vineyard practices, production and the choice of a rose (Chiaretto) wine. 


The Veneto region of Valpolicella is famous for wine and marble quarries. One possible translation of the name is, "valley of many cellars," referring to the Fumane, Marano and Negrar valleys.  

When DOC status was granted in 1968, the authorized area expanded, so that today, Valpolicella is much larger than Bardolino, which lies to the west.  At the heart of Valpolicella is Mount Lessini, northwest of Verona. Vineyard soils are calcareous and the climate in the hillside vineyards is cooler.

Valpolicella is made from the same mix of grapes as Bardolino, in a range of styles. 

* Valpolicella is light and fruity, simillar to Beaujolais. The more Corvina in the blend, the greater the body and structure. 

* Valpolicella Classico is an upgrade, made from at least 40% of the grapes grown in the original Valpolicella production zone.

* Valpolicella Superiore requirements call for an additional 1% finished alcohol not to exceed 12% and the wine must be aged in a cellar for at least 12 months.

* Valpolicella Recioto is a dried-grape wine, made from the ripest grapes, those in the lobes or ears (orecchio in Italian), in a cluster.  Mainly Corvina grapes are raisined in special drying rooms.

* Valpolicella Ripasso is made from the unpressed skins of Amarone or Recioto, after fermentation and the new wine has been racked off.  Often aged in new French oak, and finished with a hint of sweetness, ripasso is similar to Amarone.

Dessicated Corvina grapes

* Valpolicella Amarone is a recioto fermented to dryness and with a slightly bitter (amaro in Italian) finish. Amarone della Valpolicella, made mostly from Corvina or Corvinone and Rondinella, must be aged at least five years in neutral French or Slovenian oak and from grapes not affected with botrytis. 

Both Amarone della Valpolicella and Recioto della Valpolicella were elevated to DOCG in 2009.

The classic way to enjoy Amarone is with a chunk of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano and freshly shelled walnuts. A bottle of Amarone will set you back $50 to $80, from Allegrini, Bolla, L'Arco, Masi, Musella and Zenato.


The vineyards of Bardolino are southeast of Lake Garda. Bardolino is made from the same grapes as Valpolicella, with Corvina making up 35% to 65% of the blend. Bardolino is smaller and not as well known in the U.S, as Valpolicella. 

Besides Corvina, there are eight varieties allowed in Bardolino, including the musically sounding grape, Rondinella (10% to  40%), and Rossignolla, a name that bears a resemblance to "Rossignoll," a well known ski manufacturer.  

The other grapes: Molinara, Barbera, Sangiovese, Marcemino, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Up to 20% of any authorized grape is allowed, but Molinara is no longer required in Bardolino.

Bardolino Superiore, made from the same grapes, is allowed an extra 1% of alcohol and must be aged in a cellar for a minimum of 12 months. 


And, there is a Bardolino Chiaretto (rose), Chiaretto Spumante and Bardolino Novello, made in the style of Beaujolais Nouveau. These wines are exported but require a search to find in this country.

Bardolino sub zones further define the amount of flavor and body in the wine.   Sub zones, like La Rocca, require lower yields and chaptalization is forbidden. Unfortunately, sub zones are not always shown on Bardolino labels.

So, the best policy is to know your producer. Reliable Bardolino wineries include Folinari, Tomassi, Zeni, Leonetti, Zenato and Santi.

There's no question that Valpolicella and Bardolino are popular Italian wines. Expand your appreciation of them by moving up to Classico or Superiore. 

Next blog: Confessions of a Former Wine Judge (My Adventures in California Wine 7)

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Thursday, October 19, 2023

Lodi Rising


It's not easy to be competitive today in the growing market that is the California wine business.  But using imaginative marketing and grit, the growers and wineries of Lodi are not just keeping pace with the big boys but Lodi wine is rising in popularity.

The reasons for this boost are many, but foremost are the efforts of small wineries to change the image of Lodi as a producer of quality varietal wines of value, from making wine for other regions to use in their blends and jugs. By the 1990s, the region had turned the corner from mostly producing bulk wines to varietal wines.

Zinfandel is credited for leading the change. Once Zin took the lead, growers looked to other popular red grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Interest also grew for Tempranillo and Grenache. Today, white varieties in Lodi include Chardonnay, Verdelho, Albarino and the trendy Vermentino.

"Oh, lord, stuck in Lodi again." 

The words of that lament, from a 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival song, represented for some the image of Lodi as a backwater area, far from the "real" world.


The region and town of Lodi, in San Joaquin County, are at the north end of California's Central Valley, a vast area known more for row crops, orchards and table and raisin grapes.  Because of the nearby delta, Lodi is in a unique climatic position, cooler than the more torrid southern parts of the valley, making Lodi an ideal spot for growing wine grapes.

Lodi AVA was awarded in 1986, and then in 2006 the region was officially divided into seven sub-AVAs: Alta Mesa, Borden Ranch, Clements Hills, Consumnes River, Jahant, Mokelumne River and Sloughhouse. 

With a few exceptions, though, most wineries prefer to use the Lodi appellation on their labels. Complicating things further, a few of the sub-AVAs are in both San Joaquin and Sacramento counties. 

Historical Change

The history of Lodi wine goes back to at least the 1850s.  The area then was a prolific grower of Flame Tokay, a popular table grape that doubled as a base for brandy. By the 1950s, Lodi wine had mostly shifted to California Sherry and Port, earning the title of "America's Sherryland," that according to Leon Adams 1973 edition of "The Wines of America."

Forty years on and Lodi shifted again, expanding vineyards, but selling most of the grapes to other regions for use in local blends. Meanwhile a number of small wineries came on line sharing an interest in Lodi with big names like Robert Mondavi, Guild, E & J Gallo and Sebastiani. Mondavi grew up in Lodi and after his success in the Napa Valley, he established Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi. 


Today, the focus is on small wineries led by names like Jessie's Grove, Klinker Brick Winery, Bokisch Vineyards, Lucas Vineyards, Michael-David, Borra, Mettler and Rosenblum. 

Lodi On the Rise

Individually, wineries rise or fall on the quality of their wine and an understanding of the market.  Through combined effort, wineries can raise the quality of a region's wine, while giving a boost to the region's reputation. 

With that in mind, the Lodi Winegrape Commission has released "A Rising Tide," an eight-part video series that plays off the saying, "A rising tide lifts all boats." The video shows some of the area's sub-appellations and their wines.  To view "A Rising Tide," go to and click on Videos. 


Next blog: A Pair of Veneto Reds

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Thursday, October 12, 2023

My California Wine Adventures 6


If you can remember back to the late 1960s, and that was a lifetime ago, you might remember the Smothers Brothers. Musicians, comedians and social activists, Thomas and Richard Smothers, known to their fans as Tom and Dick, were on the verge of fame as entertainers. 

In 1967, "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" debuted on CBS, a move that catapulted the Smothers Brothers to stardom, and also introduced performers and writers to American television viewers such as Mason Williams, Steve Martin, Albert Brooks, Pat Paulsen, all destined to go on to fame.

What Tom and Dick Smothers didn't know then was Tom Smothers would eventually, at the urging of a "presidential candidate," become a Sonoma County vintner. 

Smothers Brothers at the Wine Experience 

Years later, the Smothers Brothers and I met for the first time.  In the early 1980s, I was editor of the Wine Spectator. The magazine was enjoying increased attention by staging events for wine collectors, such as the first "Wine Experience" in 1981, held at the Windows on the World restaurant in New York's World Trade Center. 

On the night of the grand tasting, the entertainment was New York Times humor columnist and avid wine fan, Art Buchwald, and the Smothers Brothers. While chatting with attendees, Dick Smothers, who was working the floor, stopped to say hello. I introduced him to my wife, Janet. He looked at her and said, "You're not the woman I saw him (looking at a surprised me) with earlier." And with a devilish grin, he disappeared into the crowd.

I smiled and said to Janet that it was time for the show, but I hadn't yet spotted   our three entertainers. After looking around the room again, I decided to check the men's room. It was packed to the door with men holding drinks and laughing. Over the noise, I heard Buchwald's croaky voice coming from a stall, bantering back and forth with the brothers. They were busying themselves at the sinks, lobbing unprintable barbs back to a sequestered Buchwald. 

Fortunately, I was able to persuade the guests to leave the men's room so the show could go on. 

Meeting the Brothers at Tom's House

The second time the Smothers Brothers and I met was for an interview at Tom's house in Sonoma County.  I had left the Spectator and was on assignment for Wine and Spirits magazine. 

Directions to the house were unclear, so I looked for landmarks while noticing in the rear view mirror the same two cars had been following me for miles. Finally, I found the house. Tom and I exchanged greetings, when I noticed Dick get out of one of the cars that was following me, and a woman got out of the other.

Tom looked down the sloping lawn, waved and yelled, "Hi, mom!" She looked up toward the house, ignored him and walked away.  I was about to say something, when Tom turned to me, grinned and said, "Yep, that's our mother, the one who likes Dickie best."   


During the interview, Ruth Smothers sat nearby leafing through a magazine, pretending not to be listening to her son's answers.  At one point, I asked how they got into the wine business?  "Pat (Paulsen) was showing Dick and me a new vineyard with vine saplings hidden inside milk cartons," Tom explained. "And all I could think was he wants us to invest in growing milk cartons."   

Instead, Smothers Brothers Wine became an active winery, but eventually disappeared from the market.  Tom Smothers surfaced again as a vintner, with his wife Marcy at Remick Ridge Vineyards. However, they placed the property on the market a few years ago.   Remick Ridge had an exclusive arrangement to sell all of it organically-grown grapes to Arrowood Winery.

The Yo Yo Man 

Even with his busy career of televisions shows and touring, Tom Smothers somehow found time to learn a few tricks with a yo-yo.  His hidden talent became part of the brother's comedy routine and resulted in Tom producing an instructional video, called "The Yo-Yo Man," which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. 


Janet and I were having dinner one night with friends at Cafe La Haye, a popular restaurant just off the Sonoma town plaza. We had just finished eating when we noticed some excited chatter from a crowd just inside the front door to the restaurant. Our waiter said that Tom Smothers was making one of his impromptu appearances as the Yo-Yo Man.

Intrigued, I joined the growing crowd and watched as Tom delighted the diners, performing tricks with a collection of yo-yos he seemed to have in every pocket.  At one point, Tom had two yo-yos going at the same time when he turned, and asked me to hold one of the yo-yos, which he slipped into my jacket pocket. And with that, I became part of the "Yo-YO Man" act...but I didn't get to keep the yo-yo in my pocket in lieu of pay.

If you happen to be in the Sonoma Plaza on a warm summer night, you might just see the Yo-Yo Man "walking the dog" with one of his many yo-yos. 


Next blog: Lodi Rising

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Thursday, October 5, 2023

Consider Chenin Blanc

There was a time in my early years of wine collecting that I now refer to as the "BC" years. That is, "Before Chardonnay."  

And what white wine was I drinking then?  Why, Chenin Blanc! 

Chenin Blanc on the vine

In the 1960s, the selection of California white wine was limited: French Colombard, Malvasia Bianca, Johannisberg Riesling, (California) Chablis.  And, if you were in the right wine shop, you might find Hanzell Chardonnay or Wente Chardonnay and Weibel Chardonnay.

By 1980, California had only 18,000 acres of Chardonnay, but in the same year, there was more Chenin Blanc grown in California then in France. Today, there is more Chenin Blanc in South Africa then is grown in all of France, that being mostly the middle Loire regions of Touraine and Vouvray. 

French Chenin Blanc

The proper name for the versatile Loire Valley grape is Pineau de la Loire, although it is not related to true pinots like Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.  Chenin Blanc, or simply Chenin, can be found further west in the Loire areas of Saumur and Anjou, but the grape is most closely associated with Vouvray.

Vouvray is 100% Chenin Blanc and the best examples have honeyed-mineral flavors, supported by zesty acidity.  In fact, good acidity is one of the hallmarks of Chenin Blanc, but when the variety is grown in warmer climes, it tends to lack that crisp edge. 

Vouvray is all about fruit and acid, thus oak barrels are rare in Vouvray cellars.  And because Vouvray producers want to retain the grapes natural acidity, most winemakers avoid malolactic conversion, the wine making technique that converts harsher malic acid (think apples) to softer lactic acid, like that found in milk. The problem for Vouvray winemakers is that ML lowers total acidity.

Stylistically, Vouvray is dry, semi-dry, moelleux (medium sweet) and liquoreux (botrytised sweet wines).  The sweeter versions are rare and demand a sacrifice on the part of the grower, to leave the grapes on the vine until they are infected with botrytis, concentrating the juice to a sweet honeyed nectar.

Domaine Huet is the leading producer in Vouvray, but there are many brands available at prices that range up to $50, while most are about $20 to $25. 

Further west along the Loire River and then south of Angers is a cluster of areas known for white wines based on Chenin Blanc, such as Anjou, Quarts de Chaume, Coteaux de l'Aubance, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon and Savennieres. 

Coteaux du Layon is a large area producing demi-sec (medium dry), moelleux or liquoreux wines, all 100% Chenin Blanc; within the area of Layon are two small appellations, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, generally thought to produce higher quality wine. As always, trust your own palate to determine the style and brand you like. 

Other Chenin Blanc

Except for South Africa, the wine world beyond the Loire Valley, has pretty much relegated Chenin Blanc to a minor role, often in favor of more sexy wines like Chardonnay. 


Chenin's brisk acidity attracted South African winemakers, to the extent that the variety became the most planted white wine grape in the Cape wine lands.  In the early years of the SA wine industry, Chenin Blanc was so valued that Afrikaners, used the word Steen (from "hoeksteen"), as the cornerstone of the wine industry.   Today, although some SA wineries still make Steen, most have adopted Chenin Blanc, a name with more traction in the international market. 

Chile is beginning to ship a few Chenins to international markets including the United States.  Other Southern Hemisphere countries with Chenin Blanc are Australia and New Zealand. 

The biggest surge in the United States for Chenin Blanc has been in the Clarksburg area of California.  The region lies at the cooler northern tip of the Central Valley and has become an important place for fruity Chenins with melon notes and good acidity.  Clarksburg Chenins to look for include Sonoma's Dry Creek Vineyard, Kirchhoff, Beringer and Richard Bruno. 

Other California Chenins worth a search include Chappellet Napa Valley, Pine Ridge Napa Valley Chenin Blanc/Viognier and Chalone Vineyard Chalone Estate. In the Santa Maria Valley, look for Foxen Chenin Blanc. 

Washington state does not count Chenin Blanc as a major variety, but L'Ecole No. 41 makes two Old Vine Chenins, Covey Run has an off-dry bottling and Kiona makes a late-harvest Chenin.

Chenin Blanc has been in the Loire Valley for over a thousand years and it was a  popular white wine long before Chardonnay captured the attention of wine drinkers.  Next time you want a white wine, think of Chenin Blanc. 


Next blog: My California Wine Adventures 6

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