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Paso Robles & More

Went out to Paso Robles (and surrounding areas) this spring. The visit left me with a funny feeling about the region, so I held off on writing this blog post for way too long. Well, here goes.

 

On one hand, I still think Paso Robles offers some great value wines if you’re looking in the $10-20 range. I wrote about the region way back in 2009, and I still agree with most of what I said back then. There are a few touchstone wineries in the area that offer benchmark wines. You’ll find world-class bottles from Tablas Creek and L’Aventure. Big producers and negociant-style bottlers always give good bang for your buck, with plenty of values from brands that focus on selling wine and not building cache. Which isn’t too romantic, but if you’re like me and you’re just looking for wine to drink…

 

On the other hand, there are a host of wineries in the region that focus more on tourism and a captive audience than getting their juice out to markets around the country.

 

See, Paso falls halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the Central Coast region of California. The area is known for hot days and cool nights, exactly the right recipe for ripe and balanced wines. The stereotype is that San Francisco people head up to Napa for the weekend, and L.A. people head on up to Paso. I asked some locals – at wineries, at a BBQ joint, and so on – and they agreed. To Paso’s credit, the region still feels like an agricultural area with stuff to do, unlike Napa’s heavily manicured, Disneyland-for-grownups vibe. So that’s a plus.

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Spent Some Time in California

   Spent some time in California last week, just a couple days mostly in Napa Valley, with a quick jaunt or two to Sonoma. What was supposed to be a relaxing, vacationey sort of trip yielded little time in the sun by the pool with a pretty girl, and lots of winery visits. No complaints here, it was completely awesome, but the next time I want to relax, I’m booking the sofa.

That Napa Sign   Sparing all the tedious details:

   There are all these big wineries, not really corporate but still commercial; agricultural tax shelters built on the valley floor by guys who made too much money somewhere else, producing consistently delicious but safe wines at acceptable tonnage. The only thing missing here is the heart, the myth, the character.

   Then there are classy hillside estates, purchases that represent early gambits in the region that stayed in family hands for a generation, until being sold to global soda companies and flipped to luxury goods conglomerates. These places still produce classy, interesting wines that live up to their deserved reputations. You can touch some romance, just by the fingertips. And if you’re lucky, they might let you taste a library release.

   And then there are vineyards where somebody took a chance and broke into the industry. Because they love wine and want to live it. Where grape growers live on the vineyards with their families, and then make the wine themselves. Where the conversation can shift from the science of winemaking to the myth and to the passion and then back because it’s all the same thing anyway. I like these kinds of places, and their wines, and more importantly, I like these people.

 

   Here are some pictures. Click for a bigger view.

 

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{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}The Valley From the Hills{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}Spring Mountain Garden{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}Hillside Vineyard{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}

{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}Tasting Room Pairings{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}Other California Delights{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}{TAB}

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Napa/Sonoma Crush ’10: 2008 Vintage Report

   Napa is home to about 450 different labels with bottle prices ranging from $10 to $800. The climate in Napa is fairly consistent. It varies much less than wine growing regions in Europe. Although, for the 2010 vintage, most producers are one month behind in their harvest due to record cold weather. Looking “ahead” to the the releases of the 2008 vintage, it is stellar for big Napa reds.

   In April of 2008 in Napa, there was a cool spell that caused frost after bud break. This damaged 20 to 30 percent of the newly formed clusters around Napa. Many great producers actually drop clusters in order to ensure the best quality grapes are produced by the vine. With nature taking care of dropping fruit for winemakers, low yields equals better wine.

   In tasting the same wines from 07 and 08 from a particular producer, the 2008 vintage has always outperformed the 2007. We all know how good 2007 was as a vintage in Napa by looking at the ratings and tasting notes. 2008 as a whole (Bordeaux varietals especially) are richer, bigger and more complex. It’s hard to believe, but every 2008 I’ve had from Napa has been great.

   Kapcsandy is a great little producer making Bordeaux-styled wines from their single vineyard in Yountville. Lou Kapcsandy’s mission statement is to make wine that outperforms the first growths from Bordeaux. He sure has them licked as far as pricing goes, but how about the wines? We have a couple of the 07’s, and the 2008’s I tasted are beyond belief.  The 2009 Rose, 2007 Endre and 2007 Estate Cuvee are available at select Binny’s locations.

2009 Rose – 63% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and the rest Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. This is stainless steel fermented and is made by using the Saignée or bleeding method. It is also aged on its lees for 9 months, giving it a richer flavor. Producers in Bordeaux do make rosé; unfortunately, it is hard to find. This blend has a ripe, mineral driven nose, showing tart strawberry, citrus and toasty flavors. Big for a rosé in the mouth, it has bright acidity, but it is rounded out due to the lees aging. This will be poured for Thanksgiving in my home. It is wonderful and unique wine from Napa.

2007 Endre – 48% Merlot 40% Cab Sauv and the rest Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. For a second label, this is extremely solid. Vintners making Bordeaux-styled blends would be happy with this as their first label. Nose of warm Earth, cassis, dark chocolate, black cherry and fresh flowers. In the mouth, firm tannins, very ripe, but balanced acidity and Earthy tones. Beautiful effort.

2008 Endre – This wine is an indication how good 2008 is going to be in Napa. The nose shows deeper, richer and riper flavors than the ’07 Endre. In the mouth, bigger and more fruit, with beautiful, underlying Earthiness. Cannot wait until this is released!

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Grand Vin – This is my second time having this wine; the first after the 100 point Parker rating was released. This wine is extremely special, and more than anything, it needs time. It shows deep coffee and mocha flavors in the nose, which also shows cedar, cassis, blackberry and warm Earth. In the mouth, perfectly balanced, with toasted wood flavors and a caressing finish. What a bottle. It’s pretty darn hard to come by, too.

2007 Estate Cuvee – 46% each Cab Sauv and Merlot, the rest Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. Even though it’s around $140 per bottle, this wine has value. It’s better than the big name Bordeaux-styled Napa blends. Nose of ripe cassis, cocoa, dusty, woody aromas and dried herbs. In the mouth, beautiful texture, ripe and berry flavors with a super long finish. It’s a great bottle.

2008 Estate Cuvee – How could they get it better than the ’07? Lower yields played a big part. The 08’s richness, power and finesse make this THE best blend I’ve ever had. This, to me, was the wine of the day. Can’t wait to get my hands on some!

   Below are some other high-end Napa wines I got the chance to taste:

2007 Joseph Phelps Insignia – Shut down at the moment. The nose isn’t showing much. However, the texture is silky and despite not showing much fruit, this will be a good bottle in several years. Binny’s just received this, get it while you can.

2007 Lail “Blueprint” Cabernet Sauvignon – Another “value” Cabernet of 07. This has 25% Merlot as well. Big nose of tart blueberry, cassis, licorice and vanilla. In the mouth, big, fruit forward, nice tannins with a super long finish. IMO, this and the 2007 Lewelling are at the top for ’07 Napa Cabs under $50.

2007 Lail Cabernet J. Daniel Cuvee – Big, mineral driven and herbaceous nose with cassis, vanilla, licorice, blackberry and black cherry. In the mouth, rich, mouthcoating tannins, stony minerality and nice ripe ’07 fruit. Solid wine, here.

2007 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon – Herbaceous and powerful nose of cassis, sour blackberries and wet stone. Firm and tannic in the mouth. Fairly disjointed at the moment. This needs a long decanting if drunk within the next few years.

2007 Larkmead Cabernet Sauvignon - All estate grown fruit near Calistoga. Super-ripe nose showing cassis, sweet cherries, blackberry liqueur and vanilla. In the mouth, ripe and velvety. Tannins are present, but not astringent. Another great ’07 Napa Cab!

2007 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill – This has a nose of scorched Earth, coffee, mocha, sweet blueberries, cassis and dark cherries. Full bodied, with very ripe and dark fruits, along with toasty wood and vanilla flavors on the palate. This is a standout Cabernet.

 

Please contact your favorite Binny’s location for availability of the underlined wines above.

Are Domestic Syrah Styles Too Extreme?

 From the mid 90’s through the first part of this decade, Australian wine was all the rage, increasing in sales more than any other wine import in almost all categories. It was fueled in large part by value brands such as Yellow Tail, but expanded to include higher price points, mainly due to the huge popularity of Shiraz and Shiraz blends. As their popularity increased, the wines became bigger, thicker, more powerful and intense. Big, extreme wines tend to stand out in tastings, and often receive high ratings from wine critics. Then, a few years ago, Robert Parker gave Mollydooker Carnival of Love 99 points and Enchanted Path 96 points. The wines were so in demand stores had to take waiting lists for the wines, and Australia was on its way to taking over the wine world.

   But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Slowly at first, but then increasingly a backlash started against these fruit bombs. Among the complaints were that the wines were too alcoholic and lacked freshness, were one dimensional, out of balance and did not go with food. Certainly all Australian wines are not like this, but with Mollydooker as the poster boy for big, over-extracted wines, Australian wine sales plummeted. So what happens when you are losing your market share and even cutesy names like Laughing Magpie and Blue Eyed Boy don’t help? Well, I guess you are left with “look what happens when you shake my wine!”

   At the recent Hospice du Rhone tasting in Paso Robles three of us from Binny’s were able to taste many California Syrah and Syrah blends. For the sake of argument, lets devide these wines into three styles.

Syrahs that were old world in style, medium bodied, with good balance and complexity. Qupe’s lineup of wines seemed a good example of this style.

Syrah that was powerful and new world in style, but not over the top. These wines, while big, still had nuance and style, and would go with a hearty meal. I would include Foxen, Beckmen and Stolpman in this category.

Wines that are extremely powerful, thick and alcoholic, lack freshness and would not go well with food. Many of these wines are very popular right now, they stand out in tastings and tend to get high marks from wine critics. In California, they call them rock stars.

   A winery that seems to be a rock star in the making is Booker, and we visited them while we were in California. The wines were definitely fun to try, and we bought a bottle of 2006 Alchemist (85% Syrah/15% Cab) to bring to dinner that night . It is listed at 15.5% alcohol, rather high for wine. At dinner we opened the Alchemist, and also ordered a 2004 Rhone that would retail for about half the price. We all ordered a beef dish, and sat down with the French Rhone (this one was mainly syrah) and the California Syrah. As tasty and fun as the Booker was at the winery, for me it just didn’t work with the meal. The wine seemed heavy and monolithic, as opposed to the Rhone, which was nicely balanced and complemented our dinner.

  To be fair, not everyone at the dinner had my problem with the Booker, and wine and taste is always subjective. There is plenty of California syrah in every style to go around, and on the whole the overall quality is excellent. Consumers should also know that there is more quality California Syrah under $30.00 than Napa Cab or Sonoma Pinot Noir. This trend should continue as long as winemakers remember wine is made to be drunk, not to win wine tasting contests.

Napa/Sonoma Crush ’10: Value Wines

  I found a lot of value priced wines in Napa and Sonoma. This time of year is busy and stressful in wine country with grapes coming in for crush. It was great to see grapes coming in. They are sweeter than I thought they would be when I tasted them. Tasty little treats, though.

   Cuvaison was my first stop in Napa. Most of their grapes come from Carneros in southern Napa, though they do source some Cabernet and Zinfandel from Mount Veeder. The Cuvaison Carneros Chardonnay is well priced and very well made. It is classic Napa Chard, remaining clean and not overly oaked. Cuvaison was featuring the 2007 and 2008 Carneros Pinot Noir side by side. The ’07 is very ripe, with cherry and sweet berry flavors. The ’08 has a little bit more guts and structure. Both are good value Pinot Noirs.

 

Cuvaison’s Carneros Estate


   Elyse was a great visit. The 2006 Morisoli Vineyard Zinfandel does not drink like your standard Napa Zin. Tasting this, you can tell it is a single vineyard. It has this briery, Earthy flavor along with a nice amount of ripe fruit that is hard to explain. You’ll just have to try it! The ’07 Barrel Select Petit Sirah shows bright, rich and dark berry flavors. It is very complex for a $30 bottle and will play nicely with a hearty Autumn meal.

   Besides finding value wines in Napa and Sonoma, which I did find, I wanted to seek out well made Rhone varietals. Copain in Sonoma met both of my needs. They led off with their 2009 Viognier from the Anderson Valley. A lot of California Viognier can get overly big to the point where the wine bites back. Not the case from Copain. This has ripe stone fruit flavors in the nose and in the mouth. It is very clean and would be great on your Thanksgiving Day table. Next was a Roussanne from the James Berry Vineyard. Unfortunately, they only made a couple hundred cases. This was the only white wine I purchased during my trip.

   On to the 2008 Copain Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Anderson Valley suffered a big wildfire in 2008, just before harvest. We tried the 2008 Duckhorn Decoy Pinot Noir, which has a little smoky note to it. It isn’t terrible, however. The Copain is a little bit heavier than most similarly priced Pinots. It has dark cherry, raspberry and cola flavors. This is a tough Pinot to beat around $20. I tried two different Syrahs from them as well. The entry level 2008 Syrah is very well made, with Earthy, peppery flavors. The 2007 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah from Mendocino is underpriced at $33, in my opinion. It has bright fruit flavors of Bing cherry, chambord and fresh black pepper, and is well balanced. This wine can pair with anything off of the grill, but I’m going to try it with roasted leg of lamb. Copain is a surprisingly value driven producer, very impressive.

   Another value driven brand you can find at Binny’s is Burgess Cellars from Napa. The view from their estate on Howell Mountain is scenic to say the least. The entry level wines we carry include the Merlot ($18.99), Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.99) and Syrah ($18.99). The Merlot drinks better than most in the same price range: well structured, balanced and not wimpy. The Cab is very nice as well, with good fruit flavors, considering the cooler 2006 vintage. Again, well balanced and well made for a bottle under $25.  The Syrah is put together nicely as well, with dark fruit and Earthy flavors. I cannot say enough about how well priced these wines are.

   The treat from Burgess is their 1996 Library Release Cabernet. Burgess holds back 500 cases of their Cabernet for re-release. Not many producers (if any) hold their wine for later sales. I did not expect to taste a 14 year old wine during my trip. Upon looking at the wine and tasting it, it didn’t look like a 14 year old Cabernet, nor did it taste like one. The Howell Mountain fruit source, plus good storage conditions, gives the wine a little bit more longevity. Burgess was bringing in some Cabernet Franc grapes as I walked around the vineyard. The owner (Mr. Burgess, I called him) was on a forklift, lifting up a container of grapes being poured into a de-stemmer. I guess this is how Burgess keeps its prices so low.  

 

Burgess Cellars Howell Mountain Estate


   Next time, the opposite end of the spectrum. There were a lot of mid-range and higher-end wines I tasted and enjoyed. (It is Napa after all)  I will also report on the 2008 vintage of Napa. All I have to say is start saving up!

   The above wines are not available at every store.  Please contact your local Binny’s for availablility.

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