Saturday, April 28, 2007

Butte County: The Next Bordeaux?

A couple of columns back, I said something to the effect that a lot of locally produced wines suck. Yeah, "suck." That wasn't a very nice thing to say, but at least it wasn't stupid or racist like what Don Imus said. As a result, unlike Don Imus, I got to keep my job.

I'm thinking that's a mixed blessing, because I felt really guilty after I wrote that, and I convinced myself that I should try more local wines and do a column on them. Of course, if they, "under perform", I'm bound (by whatever oath journalists take) to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And then I'll even more persona non grata with local wine makers than I am already.

I'm sure some of you are scratching your heads quizzically and saying, "Butte County has wineries? When did that happen?" Well, I'm not sure who opened the first winery in Butte County, but there are in fact several, some practically in Chico.

"But this isn't wine country," you say. Well, that's not really true. Sutter Home, jug wine producer extraordinaire, has several thousands of acres of vineyards in the Sacramento Valley.

"But that's my point. The valley is only capable of producing plonk." I disagree, and anyway, many of the local producers are up in the foothills where the climate is cooler. If you go father south, the Sierra foothills near Placerville and Angels Camp are full of wineries making outstanding wines. And anyway, who's the wine expert here? Oh, right. I am. So shut up! Sheesh!

Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyard 2005 Mestizo

The Bertagna's that make this wine are apparently related to, but not same as, City Councilman Steve Bertagna. Regardless of that (and the rather politically incorrect moniker of this wine), the Mestizo is an extremely drinkable blend of petite sirah, barbera and sangiovese. In many ways, this wine is similar to a nice Chianti. It's relatively light in color, with a tangy, bright, oaky nose. The sangiovese really comes through on the tongue; lightish and tart, but surprisingly smooth and well made. It was an incredible match with pizza. I was very pleasantly surprised with this wine and can genuinely recommend it to anyone. $13 at Vino 100. 3 stars.

Quilici Vineyards 2003 Barbera

Very light in color and surprisingly very cloudy - not a good sign. Strong aromas of oak and smoke, a bit spicy with a hint of cellar funk. Not a bad start. On the palate, however, the true character of this wine emerged with an overpowering tart astringency, a chemcially undertone and a very sour finish. Reminded me a lot of some of the horrible wines we had in Lodi. Sorry, but I just can't recommend this wine. $11 at Vino 100. 1 star.

Grey Fox 2003 Mendocino County Cabernet Sauvignon

When I was first getting into wine, the Grey Fox winery was the first winery that I visited, so you'd think I have fond memories and a strong bias. But I wasn't particularly impressed with anything I tasted other than their syrah port (which was pretty darned tasty). However, I did buy several bottles of their 2003 cab, which I put away for a rainy day.

Well, it was raining, and I got out this bottle. Very typically cab-like on the nose - dark fruit, earthy, mildly spicy, with hints of mocha. Off to a good start!

On the palate it was a bit disappointing. The hint of dark fruits was faint and fading, like memories of summer, while the tannins were strong, dry and assertive. Not a particularly promising combination, since you need big fruit in a wine in order to outlast big tannins. In this wine, the fruit was already fading, while the tannins were still going strong. Drink now, I'd say. Having said all that, this is not a poorly made wine. It's not over oaked (like so many wines from small wineries). Overall, this wine is well made - it just needs more fruit to combat the strong tannins. I'd be interested in seeing what subsequent vintages are like. 2.5 stars.

New Clairvaux 2006 St. James Block Viognier

Wow, what a wonderful wine! I'm constantly impressed with the wines coming out of New Clairvaux, and the viognier is no exception. Not a strongly fruity wine, but with hints of lemongrass on the nose that evolve into more typical floral notes. On the palate, a very dry, full-bodied and complex white wine. Very impressive and highly recommended. Available at Vino 100 or the winery. If you really want a nice local wine, this is one to drink. 3.5 stars.


You know, I think I know why the homework thing isn't working. I never ask anyone to turn their homework in. Well, that's going to change. This week's homework is to try a local wine, and you have one week from right now to send an email to the Beat about your local wine experience. Good? Bad? Ugly? If I don't get a response from you, you flunk wine class.

As to where to find local wines, Vino 100 has the best selection of local wines in town, or you can head out to the wineries and do your tasting there. Here's a few that you can check out:

New Clairvaux (
Grey Fox (
Odyssey Vineyards
Quilici Vineyards (
LaRocca Vineyards (
Long Creek Winery (

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The White Savage

Summer is coming. As I write this, it feels like it's already here. But the forecast is that it'll be raining when you read this. So, summer is coming. Eventually.

And when summer finally does arrive, your average Chicoan will trade in their wine bottle for an ice cold Summerfest. But it doesn't have to be that way. It's true that hot weather isn't red wine weather, but there are plenty of cool, refreshing white wines out there to keep you inebriated all summer long. One of my personal favorites is sauvignon blanc.

Sauvignon blanc (SO-veen-yon BLAHN) hails from the Bordeaux and Loire Valley regions of France, but is grown in most wine producing regions of the world. California and New Zealand are particularly known for sauvignon blanc. The name roughly translates to "wild white" - from "sauvage", the French word for wild. But though the sauvignon blanc grape may be descended from wild grapes, it's not a wildly flavored wine. In fact, it is one of the lightest wines out there. Poorer sauvignon blancs can be weak to the point that they look and taste like water.

Flavor-wise, sauvignon blancs typically aren't hugely fruity. Where a Riesling might hit you over the head with a truckload of apricot and green apple, sauvignon blancs are often more herbaceous, with grassy notes. The most infamous characteristic of some sauvignon blancs is a pronounced aroma of cat pee. Yum! Pour me a tall steaming glass o' that!

In reality, of course, sauvignon blanc doesn't actually taste like cat pee (though it's a valid point that I don't really know that for a fact, even though I've owned several cats). Typically, sauvignon blancs are dry (not at all sweet), and have light citrus and herb notes, and a nice tart acidity that makes them very refreshing on a hot summer day. For my money, I'd rather have a sauvignon blanc than a chardonnay any day, but then I don't make any bones about not liking most chardonnays.

Geyser Peak 2005 California Sauvignon Blanc

This sauvignon blanc bucks the trend with strong sweet aromas of nectartine, apricot and lemon peel. Smells very refreshing. On the palate, it's a bit tart, but with no hint of the sweetness on the nose. Citrusy, lemon peel flavors dominate, to the point of being almost too strong. However, the tartness and acidity gave it a backbone that goes fantastically with food. Not a sipping wine; definitely a food wine. Available at Cost Plus. 3.25 stars.

Kim Crawford 2006 Marlborough New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand is the "in" place for sauv blanc these days, and Kim Crawford is a nearly ubiquitous label. Much milder nose than the Geyser Peak, with just a hint of green apple and citrus. On the tongue, it's a more full bodied wine, with notes of apricot and spice. Not as bitter as the Geyser Peak, but not as complex or refreshing either. Available at Cost Plus. 3 stars.

Chateau St. Jean 2005 Sonoma County Fumé Blanc

The name “fumé blanc” was made up by Robert Mondavi for an oaky sauvignon blanc that he produced – “fumé” meaning smoky in French. The name has stuck, but the meaning has gotten blurred. Some fumé blancs are pure sauvignon blanc, and some are blends of sauvignon blanc with other white grapes like Semillon.

The Chateau St. Jean is one of the blends, but it has much more typical sauvignon blanc characteristics than either of the first two wines. A bit herby on the nose, with less fruit than the first two wines. Definitely more grassy and hay-like. On the palate the herbaceousness carries through. Crisp, and full-bodied, with a smooth finish. Nice. Available at most grocery stores. 3.25 stars.

Chateau Marjosse 2003 Entre Deux Mers

This french sauvignon blanc from Bordeaux is very different from any of the other wines. More full-bodied and a deeper yellow. On the nose, clearly a more serious wine with less fruit and a more straw-like aroma, with a touch of dried peach and just a hint of that yummy cat pee. On the palate, very dry, firm and complex, slightly tart with a hint of grapefruit on the finish. Overall, this wine is in a different class than the others and can hold its own as a sipping wine or as a food wine. Available at Vino 100. 3.5 stars.


If you've never tried a sauvignon blanc, head out to your favorite wine shop and pick up a bottle. Stuff it in the back of the fridge and wait for a nice hot summer day. Then pull that puppy out and salud!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ali vs. Frazier

I like perusing the wine selection in Costco. In their premium bin they actually have some very nice wines. Though the selection changes daily, you can always count on finding Dom Perignon, BV Georges de Latour, and even an occasional nice Bordeaux like Chaueau Haut Brion – for the bargain basement price of $250 a bottle. For the most part, however, their selection is heavy on California wines, and that's fine.

A while back I saw something I had never seen before, or even imagined was possible: a Kirkland Bordeaux. Kirkland, if you've ever bothered to notice, is the Costco house brand. That's right; Costco is bottling French Bordeaux under their house label. Ummm…

After I stopped laughing and managed to convince Costco security that I, a) wasn't a threat to their clientele, and, b) had money, I took a closer look. By God, that's what the label really said. “2003 Kirkland Signature Pauillac Bordeaux.” “Signature”, no less! Oo-la-la!

But who would buy Costco brand Bordeaux? Costco Bordeaux is a little like a Ronco space shuttle. It doesn't sound like such a great idea. I'm really not sure what market segment they were shooting for, but they hit the “snotty wine columnist looking for something to bash” market right on the head. “I gotta get me some of this!” I thought to myself. But at $25 a bottle, I restrained myself from buying a whole case, and left the store with a single cherished bottle.

For those of you who don't know, the Pauillac (pow-YAK) is probably the single most famous wine-making region of Bordeaux, of France, and therefore of the world. It's home to names that even you have heard of, including Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. Dark, intense, cabernet sauvignon grapes are the primary ingredient in Pauillac Bordeaux. Snazzy – and expensive – stuff. Did that sort of pedigree run in the purple juice of Chateau Kirkland? I didn't know, but I was going to find out.

To make it interesting, I decided to do the classic face off: French Bordeaux vs. California cabernet. I had my Bordeaux; for my California cab challenger, there was only one place to go: Trader Joe's. I mean, really, what better wine to take on the Costco house brand than the infamous Two Buck Chuck? So I scored myself a bottle of 2002 Charles Shaw California Cabernet Sauvignon and headed home.

I couldn't wait to pop open these bad boys, but I figured I'd do this right. So I got out a couple of decanters and poured each bottle into its own decanter to breathe. I still promise to do a column on decanting (someday) but the short version is that letting the wine breathe for several hours in a decanter allows it do develop flavors and aromas. It's particularly effective on very complex wines, but it works even on the cheap stuff. OK, maybe not on Carlo Rossi Hearty Burgundy, but on most reds it's well worth decanting. Just trust me on this, OK?

So, I decanted the wines, but decided to have a small taste right out of the bottle, like your average Chateau Kirkland and Charles Shaw buyer would do.

Let's just say that they were both hideously vile. The Two Buck Chuck had the aroma of dust and strawberries and was very bitter on the finish. The Kirkland wasn't any better; if anything it was even more bitter. Undrinkable. 0.5 stars for both. Blech!

But after three hours both wines had “evolved” considerably.

The Kirkland had developed a slight and pleasant earthiness on the nose, with hints of blackberry and raspberry. Nice. On the palate it had lost the bitter finish, but it was replaced with really huge dry mouth-puckering tannins. Ouch! And that was about it. Not much fruit…not much anything. Nada. Zip. Bupkis. That was a hell of a long way to go for nothing. I was expecting to either discover an amazing bargain or (much more likely) a spectacularly nasty concoction more suited to spraying on cockroaches than to washing down a nice steak. But nothing? A big letdown. 1.5 stars.

The Charles Shaw fared better. The dust was gone from the nose, leaving clear red fruit notes. On the palate it wasn't particularly deep or complex, but I don't know what the heck you're expecting for $1.99. Mild fruit, balanced tannins. A bit hot on the finish, but not objectionable. Amazingly, this was an OK wine. I rate it “drinkable when there is absolutely nothing else to drink”. 2.5 stars.

Actually, the Charles Shaw cab was SO good (or at least sufficiently better than godawful) that it has inspired me to review the entire Two Buck Chuck line, which I think includes the cab, a merlot, a shiraz, a chardonnay, and maybe even a sauvignon blanc. Look for that in a future column. In the meantime, I'm taking suggestions. Any subjects that you want me to expansively expound upon with a dazzling display of educated erudition? Any wines that you'd like me to taste (sorry – I already did Thunderbird)? Let me know.

Oh, and by the way, if you want to see me doing the Costco vs. Trader Joe's taste off, you can watch it at: .

Monday, April 16, 2007

Vino Down Under

I love Australians. I'm not sure why. I guess it's because they're like big, happy-go-lucky Americans with cool accents. They're like Americans who don't have to carry the weight of being American around with them. They don't have a history of exploitive, self-serving and destructive foreign policy to weigh them down, so they seem happier and more innocent than most Americans. Maybe they wouldn’t appreciate the comparison (particularly these days), but to me Aussies are the coolest.

And, of course, I’ve always wanted to go to Australia. When I started getting into wine, I discovered that there was a whole ‘nuther reason to go. They make wine in Australia!

And I thought Australia was beer country. But the Aussies have been making wine for over 200 years. True, a lot of it was cheap, over-sweetened fortified plonk for the Brits (who have a notorious sweet tooth when it comes to wines), but eventually Australia began to produce some serious wines, worthy of global attention.

It was probably the 1980’s before quality wine making really started to take hold down under, but the Aussies were quick studies and started producing some top-notch wines. For some reason (that I wasn’t able to discern after doing a two-minute Google search on Australian wine history) the grape that Australia is most well known for is syrah.

No, no, no, you say. Australia is known for shiraz, not syrah. You say potato, I say potahto. Australian shiraz is made from the French syrah grape that hails from the Rhone Valley. The grape that makes stunning (and pricey) Hermitage and Cote Rotie wines, and provides the backbone for Chateauneuf du Pape. The grape that makes some kick ass California wines, particularly in the Sierra foothills and Paso Robles regions. The grape that is my favoritist in the whole wide world.

Yeah, that one. For some weird reason, the Aussies renamed the grape when they imported it. Don’t ask me why – Google kept mumbling some nonsense about Persians. I think Google’s been doing drugs again.

Whatever, syrah/shiraz is far and away the most widely grown grape variety on the continent. Top locations for shiraz in Australia include the Barossa Valley, the Clare Valley, the Yarra Valley, and Coonawarra. Most of these are near Adelaide in South Australia, the IN destination for the Australian wine traveler.

Whereas French syrah-based wines tend to be deep and complex, Australia shiraz’s tend to be big, loud, friendly and forward – like Aussies themselves. They’re usually, very fruity, spicy, jammy wines that anyone can drink and enjoy. In reality they are so different from the earthy, complex French syrahs or the dense California syrahs, that there really is no way to compare them. Autralian shiraz is a thing unto itself.

Yellow Tail 2006 South eastern Australia Shiraz

OK, I’ve already tasted this one in a previous column, but this is the one wine that everybody buys. I could hardly do a column on Australian wine without at least mentioning the yellow label. Huge spice on the nose. Wow. Cinnamon, allspice and tons of nutmeg. It’s almost like a pumpkin pie! A touch of floral aromas that evolve into vanilla and caramel. Damn! That’s yummy! On the palate, massive amounts of dark, simple fruit and spice. That nutmeg is overpowering. Maybe not for everyone, but this sure does goes down smooth. No wonder people love this stuff! 3.5 stars. Yow! $6.99 at every grocery store on the planet.

Jacob’s Creek 2003 South Australia Reserve Shiraz

Dark aromas of bramble, roasted coffee and a bit of toast, evolving into what I refer to as “aromatic esters”, kind of a banana smell without the banana, if that makes any sense. Not much fruit on the palate. Noticeable tannins. Very disappointing, actually. Not much going on. A big pass. 2.5 stars. $11.99 at Cost Plus.

Yalumba 2001 Barossa Shiraz

Seriously funkadelic on the nose – strong notes of earth, smelly cheese, and barnyard. Yeah, baby – very Burgundy. Definitely not for everyone, and definitely not very Australian – but very interesting and unusual nonetheless. On the tongue, a bit of spice, subdued blackberry fruit. Nowhere near as interesting as the nose. Eh. 2.75 stars. $14.99 at Cost Plus.

Jim Barry 2004 Clare Valley Shiraz “The Lodge Hill”

OK, now we’re cooking with gas. On the nose, a delightful spiciness that develops into serious aromas of camphor, eucalyptus, oregano and a touch of citrus peel. Sounds more like an herbal tea than a wine, but this complex spiciness is more than offset by a base of dense dark fruits. On the palate, strongly spicy, carrying over the camphor flavor, counterbalanced by dark rich flavors of blackberry and black cherry. A bit of a floral flourish on the finish. Easily the most complex and interesting of the bunch – fruity, but miles from simple plonk. 3.75 stars. $22 at Vino 100.

P.S. I was glad to see that Vino 100 opened only 8 days after a thirsty SUV crashed their party and took out a whole wall of wine bottles. Although the decor still looks a bit, uh, 'unfinished' in places, drop by and give Debby your condolences. They still have plenty of wine and it appears that their entire stock of New Clairvaux was spared.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Tasty Tastings

The Chico ER is worthless (big surprise to hear that coming from a columnist for a struggling weekly). I don't watch TV news, but a couple of people told me they saw a TV news story about old lady driving through the front window of Vino 100. So I went to the Chico ER website and spent about 15 minutes trying to find word one on the story. Nada. A Google search turned up only two media sources that mentioned the story: the KNVN website and - guess what - the Chico Beat. Isn’t the ER supposed to be the daily news source for Chico? Kudos to KNVN and the Beat for actually covering local news. Sheesh.

Anyway, my sincere condolences to Debby Stewart and the crew at Vino 100. I saw a photo of the accident on the KNVN website, and I know that old lady took out your entire collection of Riedel stemware (that's the fancy stuff that costs up to $80 a glass). Ouch! There were a couple of real nice decanters in that window display as well. What a shame.

Of course, an accident like that could make great fodder for a person like me, but things like that are a bit less funny when you know the people involved, so I’m going to pass.

What I’m not going to pass on is an opportunity to write about the two “wine tasting shops” (for lack of a better phrase) that we have here in Chico: Vino 100 (sporting a brand new front door, I hear) and Creekside Cellars.

The tough part about writing this particular column – and the reason that I’ve put it off so long – is that it’s difficult to be the sarcastic, snobby wine writer without saying something that might cause these people to spit in the next glass of wine they serve me.

See what I mean? Of course they would never do that, but it’s difficult to balance journalistic honesty with a desire to get free tastes of wine. But I’ll do my best.

Vino 100 and Creekside Cellars are very similar in basic concept. They’re both a nicely appointed shops with wine bottles lining the walls and small tables to sit at and taste the wares. A selection of wines are available for tastings at certain times. Call them to find out when and what they'll be tasting.

The local Vino 100 ( on Mangrove next to Sports LTD, is run by the enthusiastic Debby Stewart, and is based on the noble concept of “one hundred great wines for $25 or less.” Indeed, though I haven’t counted, they certainly have at least that many varieties of wines. In addition, they carry far and away the widest selection of locally produced wines of any place in town. Sadly, many of these local wines suck (see, now I’m in trouble), but I think it’s truly wonderful that Vino 100 is supporting local wineries and giving them exposure to consumers. I honestly think that the more people try local wines, the more incentive these wineries will have to produce better wines.

Creekside Cellars (, just around the corner near Morning Thunder, is owned and operated by Brenda and Dennis McLaughlin. They have a somewhat more eclectic (and in some cases much more expensive) selection of wines that Vino 100. Aside from the wine selection, the big draw at Creekside Cellars is the cheese case. They have a small but incredible selection of local and international cheeses. The aged Gouda is the crack cocaine of cheeses. Seriously. They have a huge wheel of the stuff. Someday, I’m going to break in at night and steal it.

Though I like wine tasting at both, it’s always amused me how different they are atmosphere-wise. Vino 100 is more Rock n’ Roll and baseball, while Creekside Cellars is more Classical music and cricket (OK, the cricket metaphor doesn’t work, but you get the idea). Thursday nights at Vino 100 can definitely take on a party atmosphere, while any night at Creekside Cellars won’t be much different than visiting a nice restaurant.

And that’s fine. Depending upon your mood you can go to either place. If you want a quiet evening, go to Creekside Cellars. If you want to socialize and have a good time, go to Vino 100.

What about the wines? Personally I've tended to like the wines I’ve tasted at Creekside Cellars better, but then Creekside Cellars isn’t afraid of serving a $50 bottle of wine. On the other hand, Vino 100 has an amazing willingness to try some offbeat wines you’d never get to taste otherwise. Some of those are hits and some are misses, but if you are the experimental type, Vino 100 might be more your taste.

In the end, they’re both worth visiting. You’ll get to try new wines from new places, and trying new wines is the only way to learn what wines you like.


Come on, do I really have to spell it out? Not the sharpest tool in the shed, are we? OK, OK. Your homework is to visit both Vino 100 and Creekside Cellars. Not just one – both. Tell them that Tony sent you. But please, visit them on separate nights. I don’t want you driving through anyone’s front window.