Saturday, February 24, 2007

Pouilly-Fuissé - What'd you Say?

OK, enough whining and complaining about bad wine, bad expensive wine in restaurants, and bad wine tasting. Back to actually learning something about wine.

Today's lesson is on wine pronunciation. Most wines come from (or at least originated) someplace other than America. Strange, weird places with frighteningly unpronounceable names like "France", "Germany" and "Italy". As a result, wine names and other wine terms are usually in some indecipherable foreign language like "French", "German" or "Italian". Typical of such uncivilized cultures, none of these barbaric peoples know how to properly pronounce their own language.

That's where I come in. My purpose here is to begin to provide a guide to wine pronunciation. Not that I actually know anything about foreign languages. I grew up in San Diego (sandy AY-go) and still pronounce baja “ba-ja”. But I'm betting that, not knowing any better, you'll pronounce things however I tell you to. That ought to be worth some laughs when you pronounce Pouilly-Fuissé as “poo-yay fwee-SAY”. Like any real wine term has the word “poo” in it! “Hahahahaha!! He said ‘poo'!! What a moron!”

I've already taken the French to task about their pronunciation, but the more I learn about wine, the more I've come to realize that French might actually be the easiest of the major wine languages. Sure, at first it doesn't make any sense, but once you learn the rules, French is very consistent. If you know the rules, you can properly (as properly as any cretinous, knuckle-dragging American can) pronounce any French word. And French doesn't have many mouth-filling tongue twisters like “trockenbeerenauslese” or “Montepulciano d'Abruzzo”.

So what are the rules to pronouncing French? Well, like I said, I'm no expert (and I'm sure I'll hear from everyone who actually knows how to speak French), but I'll share what I've learned about pronouncing French wine terms.

If a word ends in a consonant, you typically don't pronounce it.
Petit Verdot = Peh-TEE Ver-DOE
Pinot Gris = PEE-noh GREE
This is true even for words ending in “s”.
Graves = grahv
Côtes-du-Rhône = Coat doo RONE
However, there are exceptions, though I'm not sure what the rules are governing them.
Pomerol = paw-mer-AWL
Pinot Noir = PEE-no NWAHR
The letters “eau” and “eaux” are both pronounced as “oh”.
Bordeaux = bor-DOH
Chateau, chateaux = sha-TOH
Double “l” is pronounced as “y”, somewhat like Spanish.
Pauillac = pow-YAK
Sémillon = say-mee-YAWN
The letters “ch” are always pronounced as “sh”, NOT a hard “ch” like in “chair”.
Chardonnay = shar-doh-NAY
Chenin Blanc - SHEN-an BLAN
The letter “e” at the end of words isn't typically pronounced unless it has an accent on it.
Grenache = gruh-NAHSH
Sancerre = sahn-SEHR
Pouilly-Fumé = poo-yay foo-MAY
The letters “ier” are pronounced “yay”. Yeah, like that makes sense.
Viognier = vee-own-YAY
Sommelier = so-mell-YAY

OK, so quiz time! See if you can properly pronounce the following words (answers at the end of the column):
  1. Pinot Meunier
  2. Sauternes
  3. Chateauneuf du Pape
  4. Bouteille
  5. Chablis
  6. Beaujolais Nouveau
Oh, and Pouilly-Fuissé? It really is pronounced as poo-yay fwee-SAY. Really. I swear.


Today's homework is simple. Try a bottle of French wine. Sure French wines (like top-notch Bordeaux) can be astronomically expensive, but they aren't all unaffordable. But remember, just as with California wine, you typically get what you pay for.

Sadly, there are few places in Chico with any kind of selection of French wines. Creekside Cellars has a few lonely bottles, but not near enough (hint, hint). The best selection, poor as it is, is at Cost Plus World Market.

Answers (Note: print upside down at the bottom of the column):

1. PEE-no moon-YAY; 2. saw-TURN; 3. sha-toe-noof doo POP; 4. boo-TAY (“shake your bouteille, shake your bouteille”); 5. sha-BLEE; 6. boo-zho-LAY new-VOH

Wines of the Week

2003 Guigal Côtes-du-Rhône

Côtes-du-Rhônes are the poor brothers to top Rhône Valley wines, like Chateauneuf du Pape and Côte-Rôtie. I've yet to find a Côtes-du-Rhône that I've fallen in love with – typically, I find them a bit on the thin side. But they're a real bargain compared to other Rhône wines. This wine started out a bit thin, but after two hours of decanting, it was nearly as good as the Chateauneuf du Pape, listed below. Intense honeyed aromas, and a great explosion of floral, honeysuckle flavors. Definitely needs decanting. For the price, it's totally worth trying, and it's definitely different than your typical California fruit bomb. Available at Cost Plus for $11.99. 3.75 stars.

2003 Barons de Rothschild Reserve Speciale Pauillac

Ooh...a Lafite Rothschild! That's like a $400 bottle of wine, right? Well, hardly. The top Chateaux of Bordeaux have discovered what American wineries have discovered: you can sell several grades of wine under your label and make truckloads of money. Trust me, this wine has virtually no relation to their top label. This wine started with earthy aromas of damp cellar and stinky cheese, and developed into a wine with dark, dried fruits and an dried herb finish. Very Bordeaux. If you want to taste Bordeaux on a budget, you could do a lot worse. Needs at least an hour of decanting to reach its full potential. Cost Plus had a couple of different vintages of this wine. Though I haven't tasted it, I'd avoid the 2002 on general prinicples, since that was a terrible year in Bordeaux. Available at Cost Plus for $19.99. 3.5 stars.

2001 Guigal Chateauneuf du Pape

Ranked #41 of the top 100 wines of 2003 by Wine Spectator, this is one of the best wines I've ever had. Amazingly smooth, with sophisticated, yet understated fruit. A very complex wine that develops an incredible, mouth-filling floral character when decanted for a couple of hours. You've never tasted anything like this. If you've never had a serious wine, this is a great place to start. It's a waste of time to drink this wine without decanting it. It needs two hours of decanting to reach its peak. Hard to find, but available at Creekside Cellars for $41.99. Ouch! – but worth it. 5 stars.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Whine Tasting

Anyone who has made a trip to Napa – or even Lodi – knows about the peculiar phenomenon called “wine tasting”. In places like Napa, wine tasting is not too different from bar crawling, but instead of staggering from bar to bar on foot, you stumble from winery to winery by means of your three ton, but less than steadily navigated, SUV. I’ve often felt that the more popular wine roads would make easy pickings for the local constabulary, but you never seem to see any police lying in wait. I’m sure the local Chamber of Commerce takes a dim view of tourists, happy on the local joy juice, spending an unhappy evening in the local drunk tank.

Some areas just don’t seem to be good places for tasting rooms. Napa’s mostly OK, since most of the wineries are on the valley floor and the roads are reasonably straight. But if you head up to the Sierra foothills south of Placerville it’s a different story. First of all, it’s all forest, so you have no idea where you are half the time. But the main problem is the windy roads. You have to wonder about the wisdom of promoting regional “wine trails” where fleets of tipsy tourists have to pilot their gleaming Hummers down windy, narrow country roads.

Once you actually get to a winery and manage to park without knocking over the geraniums, you probably enter the tasting room with every intention of leaving even more blotto than you were when you entered. And I think that’s my main problem with wine tasting. Wine tasting is a strange sort of hypocritical ritual. You go up to the fancy bar, ask what they’re pouring and then – if you’re like most people – you just slug down whatever swill they give you. Nobody spits. Few people swirl or smell the wine. They just knock it back, and all the while it’s all presented as some kind of highbrow experience.

As a wine snob, getting hammered on free hooch isn’t really what it’s all about. Us wine snobs are, for some crazy reason, actually interested in wine “appreciation”. Unlike your average wine tourista who seems to just want to get a free buzz, wine snobs want to experience and understand every aspect of a wine, from it’s color and density, to its aromas, and finally to its tastes and textures.

Yeah, I know, you’re playing the world’s smallest violin. I guess I just wish more people would pretend to actually be interested in the wine instead of just it’s alcohol content.

But I do have to say that I truly enjoy wine tasting at winery tasting rooms, particularly in less known – and less crowded – areas like the Sierra foothills or parts of the central coast.

Napa isn’t even on my list of places to visit any more for a number of reasons. It’s too crowded. It’s too glitzy. They charge exorbitant fees for tasting (up to $25 for a “basic” tasting – even more for a “reserve” tasting of their better wines!). The people pouring the wine are usually hired hands who know next to nothing about the wines. To me, that doesn’t add up to a great wine tasting experience.

On the other hand, in many of the lesser-known regions, you might be the only people in the tasting room. Tastings are almost always free. And very often you find your glass being filled by the winemaker him- or herself, instead of some ignorant part-time employee that who only knows whatever spiel they were trained to regurgitate on demand. There’s nothing like learning about a wine from the person who made it. It’s the highlight of the visit to any winery. I’ve met some truly wonderful people at wineries – and tasted some fascinating wines.

If you haven’t been wine tasting at a winery, you must try it. But please remember that there’s no shame in spitting (particularly if you’re driving). In fact, you can claim that you’re a world famous wine expert. Somebody might actually believe you.


I’m going to start a new section to this column: homework. Oh boy!! Each week I’m going to give you something to do. Most weeks, it will be pretty harmless. It will almost always involve drinking wine. How bad could that be?

This week’s homework assignment: Go taste the wines at the New Clairvaux winery in Vina ( The New Clairvaux winery is part of the New Clairvaux Abbey, just off Highway 99, about 15 minutes north of Chico. I’ll probably do an entire column on New Clairvaux sometime, but suffice to say that they are at present the best local winery (yes, there are several). New Clairvaux is absolutely worth a visit. The monks are very nice, and if you’re lucky, winemaker Aimee Sunseri will be there giving tours and barrel tastings.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Stuck in Lodi

Ever since Creedence Clearwater Revival sang about being penniless in Lodi, the sleepy farming town of Lodi has had a bad rep. But Lodi is one of the biggest wine producing regions in the state, and has over 100 years of wine growing history, stretching back to the heyday of the Flame Tokay grape. Even today, the Lodi area produces more wine than Napa and Sonoma counties combined.

But in the wine industry, as in the music industry, Lodi’s reputation has not fared well. Known as the northern capital of the bulk wine industry (Modesto is the southern capital), Lodi is home to Sutter Home and Woodbridge. Lodi has justly earned a reputation as a cheap wine Mecca.

But all that's beginning to change - or so I keep hearing. Lodi is the new boutique wine capital, with small wine makers popping up everywhere. Suddenly, poor old disrespected Lodi, butt of hick farming town jokes, is hip. Even the stodgy old AAA is blowing Lodi's horn, with a cover article on the Lodi wine country in a recent issue of their member magazine. Well, anyone who knows me knows that I'm all about what's hip. If the AAA, with its geezer drivers, thinks Lodi is hip, then I must really be missing the boat! So, I hopped in my AAA-insured Mercury Grand Marquis and tooled down Highway 99 to find out.

Downtown Lodi is actually pretty cute - if you can tell much on a Sunday morning when the only thing open is the Starbucks. But they've obviously put a lot of effort into revitalizing the central downtown area; brick intersections, nice streetlights, even a few fancy restaurants - all make downtown Lodi actually fairly appealing to look at.

But downtown is not where the wine action is in Lodi, so off I headed to the north end of town and the Lodi Wine & Visitor's Center ( The Visitors Center is a nice new building that looks like a cheap knockoff of a Napa Valley winery. Inside, there are a few rather lame exhibits. The real draw is the "wine shop" which is really a large tasting room. The people pouring wine were very nice, but I made the mistake of saying that I was interested in wines with subtlety and complexity. Our pourer just laughed. "You came to the wrong place," she said.

Boy, was she right. None of the wines we tasted were even halfway interesting. Not a great start, but it was early and we had a lot of wineries to hit. Back on the road, swerving slightly now, we headed for the best-known wine maker in the region: Michael-David. Never heard of them? OK, how about "7 Deadly Zins"? "6th Sense Syrah?" "Earthquake Zin?" Michael-David makes them all.

And the place was mobbed when we got there. The tasting bar looked like a dead zebra surrounded by feasting vultures. People were literally elbow-to-elbow fighting for space. When we finally poked and jabbed our way to the bar, we decided that this stuff must be damn good, so we went whole hog and paid to taste their full line of wines, from the cheap stuff all the way up to their $30 a bottle flagship cab.

Words can't describe how bad these wines were. As we were learning, the Lodi "style" of winemaking means producing over-heated, over-cooked, and over-oaked fruit and booze bomb wines. These are wines with no finesse, no originality, no character, and no creativity. Sadly, these were about the best wines we tasted that day.

Our last best hope to taste some decent wine was at the Vino Piazza in Lockeford, about 15 minutes east of Lodi. This former bulk winery has been converted into homes for about a dozen boutique wineries. Dutifully, we went from tasting room to tasting room, trying to find a way to gag politely on the vile concoctions we subjected ourselves to.

By the end of the day, I realized that the wines in Lodi all have virtually the same two deadly flaws.

First of all, the grapes are over-ripened to try to get the most fruit flavor and alcohol out of them. What happens when you leave grapes in the sun too long? That's right, you get raisins. And nearly every Lodi wine we tasted had a strong raisiny or cooked flavor. That’s fine in a port, but it’s a serious flaw in a cabernet.

And what do wine makers do with flawed grapes? They try to cover the flaw with lots and lots of oak. Used in moderation, oak can mask minor flaws in a wine. But if a little is good, more is definitely not better. Drinking these wines was like sucking on an oak 2x4 dipped in wine.

But the real problem is that people love this stuff and down it like water. I have a problem with that. Maybe I was wrong in my last column when I said "we’re not as stupid or ignorant as you think". Maybe we are. Wine - good wine - is fun. It's an incredible world of tastes, flavors, styles, people, places, and most of all, infinite variety. But bad wine is just a way to get drunk.

You don't have to drink bad wine, and you don't have to think that bad wine is good. And most of all, you don't have to pay $30 a bottle for good wine. I’m going to keep trying my damnedest to prove that to you. Just don't get stuck in Lodi.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Truth - 100% Ad Free

People occasionally ask me how I landed a gig writing this wine column. Was it my encyclopedic knowledge of wines? My finely honed writing skills? No, it was nothing like that. I got this job the Chico way: nepotism.

As a result, I never really bothered to actually read the paper or learn much about its editorial bent. I had a cush job with a fat paycheck, so what did I care? But for some reason (boredom), that changed this week and I actually flipped through the paper.

First thing I noticed was the editorial “poem” about the raise given to Dr. Zingg, President of Chico State. Suffice to say, it wasn’t flattering. Now, I actually really and truly know Dr. Zingg, so my point here is not to comment one way or another about the virtues of the poem. For the record, I have no opinion one way or another (I have a day job, and if you follow the org chart up far enough, his name and mine are connected, if you get my drift).

My point is to contrast that poem with what the Chico New & Review wrote about Dr. Zingg. Dr. Zingg is a nice guy – I know this from personal experience – but what the CN&R wrote could only be characterized as fawning. Their three-paragraph piece praised his leadership with words like “skill”, “flair”, “style”, “grace” and “sincerity”. Skill? Fine. But “flair” and “style”? He’s an administrator, not a hair stylist, for God’s sake.

Where the CN&R regularly fawns (I’m beginning to like that word) over local businesses and only pretends that it’s not salivating over another Walmart, the Beat regularly skewers self-important local business organizations and decries the imminent demise of Chico at the hands of the big box companies. Editorially, reading the Beat side-by-side with the “Snooze and Abuse” has been something of a revelation.

So what does this have to do with wine? Nothing per se. But I’m beginning to see the editorial differences between the Beat vs. the CN&R. The CN&R kisses up to everyone in Chico and gets tons of ads; some from obscure local businesses that I’m not sure actually exist. The Beat alienates everyone in Chico by trying to tell the truth and gets – at best – a dozen ads.

Cool. It’s all beginning to make sense.

I can alienate people, and I bet I can help get that ad count into single digits in the process. All it requires is telling the truth. For some reason, a lot of local businesses hate that. Let’s start with local restaurants.

Actually, let’s start with a chain restaurant to soften the blow a bit.

Last week for some inexplicable reason, my partner wanted to go to the Olive Garden. Normally we eschew such places in favor of locally owned establishments, but we were over by the Mall, it was a Monday, and Sierra Nevada and Kramore Inn were both closed.

Now, the Olive Garden just won a “Persons of the Year” award from Wine Enthusiast magazine for their efforts to educate Americans about wine by offering a “wide” selection of wines as well as giving free tastes of wine to every customer. Laudable…at least until you take a look at their wine list.

Remember the column I did on the really, really, really cheap stuff? Yeah, the one where I drank Thunderbird. Well, Olive Garden carries the worst of the wines I tasted. That’s right, they feature the Riunite Lambrusco right on the menu - the stuff that I said smelled like “an intriguing combination of raspberry fruit rollups and paint thinner”. It sells for $2.99 a bottle at Albertsons, but the Olive Garden has the huge hairy balls to sell it for $4.50 a glass, or $15 for a bottle! That’s a 400% markup! 400%!!! For crap that makes better furniture polish than wine!

And you know what? The Olive Garden isn’t that different from any other restaurant in Chico. I know that I’ve bitched about this before, but the biggest rip off in town is a bottle of wine purchased at any “fine dining” establishment. No matter how bad the wine is, you’re going to pay 100% to 300% markup in virtually any restaurant in town. It’s complete highway robbery.

Most restaurants in this town assume that you’re a wine idiot (you certainly are if you buy a bottle from them) and offer crap, generic, boring wines at usurious, outrageous prices. Come on! I can buy Sterling Vineyards and Beaulieu in the grocery store! Offer me something I can’t get elsewhere, and offer it to me for a price that makes me want to try it!

Quit being lazy and quit buying your wines at Costco. Learn something about wine dammit, and offer us some interesting, good wines, at good prices! We’re not as stupid or ignorant as you think. Sure, Chico’s a hick town where franks and beans are considered haute cuisine, but not all of us are ignorant of wine. And we’re not going to let you rip us off.

So, what can you do to throw Chico restaurateurs up against the wall? I’m glad you asked.

  1. Get educated. Go to a restaurant and take note of their wine list (or look it up online). Then find out what their wines retail for. The next time you eat there, tell them exactly what their wines cost retail and exactly where else you can buy them in town. Straight out tell them their wines are over-priced and that you know it.
  2. Bring in a bottle of wine that’s on their list and ask to pay only the “corkage” fee. Typically, restaurants charge $10-15 to open a bottle you bring in. But if you bring in a bottle that they sell, odds are that they’ll make much less on the corkage fee than they would selling you the wine. They really, really HATE this. They may get nasty if you try this, but it sends a message.
  3. Bring a bottle of Two Buck Chuck. Sure, paying the corkage on a bottle of Trader Joe’s finest will turn it into a $14 bottle of wine, but that’s still cheaper than what you’d pay for a bottle of the generic swill they’re selling. And nothing sends a clearer message than Two Buck Chuck.
  4. Bring a bottle of something that you like, happily pay the corkage fee, but make a point of telling them that you’d love to buy off the list if it had anything interesting or reasonably priced on it.
  5. Ask them why they don’t carry your favorite wine, French wines, Italian wines, local wines, anything other than the generic garbage they get from some distributor. Tell them you’d appreciate it if they expanded their selection. Be specific about what you’d like them to carry, so they know that you know what you’re talking about.

This Valentine’s Day, my partner and I are going to Spice Creek. But we’re bringing our own bottle. I haven’t even looked at their wine list, and honestly, I’m pretty sure I don’t have to. So be forewarned, Spice Creek, when you see that bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape come in the door, and remember that I personally know the president of Chico State!