Sunday, October 14, 2007

Almost Live from New York

Last week I went to Rochester, New York, on a junket paid for by your tax dollars. Lucky me.

Upstate New York is actually a real live, serious wine growing area, particularly the Finger Lakes region, about 45 minutes south of Rochester. There was no way I was going to pass up a wine tasting opportunity, so I got to Rochester early and spent a day sampling the local wares.

First of all, regardless of the quality of the wines, the Finger Lakes are incredible. A series of long narrow lakes (the longest is nearly 40 miles long) set in glacial depressions, they are surrounded by beautiful rolling, forested countryside. Though not mountainous by California standards, the views from the hillside wineries were breathtaking. I got there just as the fall colors were starting to turn, and could tell that it must be amazing at it's peak, particularly set against those gorgeous lakes.

And the lakes are the whole reason that this is a wine making area. Apparently, the deep lake water moderates winter temperatures enough so that the vines can survive and produce wine grapes.

But what kind of wine do they produce? A lot of these east coast states produce absolutely vile, sickly sweet concoctions made from indigenous grape varieties or mulberries or some other damn thing. Being a California ("Cali" in east coast parlance - apparently, right coasters have difficulty pronouncing anything with more than two syllables.) wine snob, I wasn't about to be down with some weird pink syrupy crap.

Well, guess what? They do make some of that nasty, undrinkable syrupy fruit stuff. I shudder even to think about it. I visited the New York Wine and Culinary Institute at Lake Canandaiqua (unmissable and well worth the visit if you are anywhere in the area, BTW), and tried some Montezuma Winery Cranberry Bog.

You got it - a cranberry wine. Think of Boone's' Farm Strawberry Hill, but made with cranberries. Cloying. Gawd awful. According to the staff, this is one of the most popular wines they sell. No comment on what that says about their clientele. Zero stars. I'm still washing my mouth out after tasting that.

Another "area for improvement" are their red wines. Now I have to admit that they've come a long way since I was there last year (either that, or we've learned which reds to avoid), but if you're used to "Cali" reds I highly recommend giving their reds a miss. Supposedly their strong suit is Cabernet Franc, but most of the ones I tasted were seriously flawed.

A good (bad??) example was the Osprey's Dominion 2004 Cabernet Franc. A very light wine, extremely over-oaked to hide the flaws and lack of fruit flavors. A strong, almost overwhelming vanilla aroma gave me a headache. Tart and bitter. One star for not actually making me vomit.

Another example of how far they have to go on their reds was the 2004 Red Newt Finger Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon... with a residual sugar of 0.5 percent. Say what? A half a percent sugar? That means it's a lightly sweet wine. A sweet Cabernet?? What planet are you people from?!? Oh, and the taste of this wine? Do you really have to ask? Minus 2 stars for being so weird that I had to try it (against my better judgment).

OK, so is the Finger Lakes a total wash? No. In fact they actually make some great wines here, but you have to winnow them out from the seas of sweet plonk.

Probably the greatest wines the Finger Lakes make are Rieslings. Yep, those light, tart wines that go great with Asian food.

But you do have to be careful, because these right coasters just love their sweet wines, and that goes for Rieslings as well. But if you search hard enough (and move up to the higher grade stuff), you can find some real gems. I'm a particular fan of Fox Run Rieslings, which run from fairly sweet to completely dry.

My favorite from this trip was the Tierce 2005 Dry Riesling (made by a consortium of Fox Run, Anthony Road and Red Newt wineries). This was a truly dry wine. No overwhelming fruit flavors, but great structure and acidity. Very complex and well designed. This was the best wine I tasted on the trip. 4.0 stars.

One other thing they do well in upstate New York are ice wines. These are wines made from grapes left on the vine and allowed to freeze in the winter. The freezing removes a lot of water from the grapes, leaving behind an intensely sweet and concentrated juice. The resulting wine is intense and super sweet - and not for everyone. Personally, I love to sip it or pour it over ice cream.

One standout ice wine from this trip was the Mazza Chautaugua 2005 Lake Erie Vidal Ice Wine. Yummy! Extremely sweet and honeyed, with strong notes of apricots and muskmelon. Very dense and intense. 3.75 stars.

So the basic take aways from the Finger Lakes region are: Avoid the reds unless you want to try some weird, undrinkable swill. Focus on the whites - particularly the Rieslings and Gew├╝rztraminers - but be prepared for a lot of sweet wines. Move up to the premium offerings for the most dry - and most drinkable - stuff. And avoid the fruit wines unless you are a complete masochistic idiot.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Good n' Cheap

The cover of October 31st Wine Spectator (yes, I subscribe to Wine Spectator, live in a huge mansion of a house, and drive a brand new SUV, but I swear I'm poor as a church mouse - those things being the main reasons why) screams in 120 point type "GREAT VALUES - 250 Top Picks - $20 or Less!".

Two hundred and fifty rockin' wines for under $20?? I am all over that action, no doubt about it. Good and cheap is exactly where I'm at. But as you well know if you bother to read this column regularly, "good and cheap" is almost an oxymoron when it comes to wine.

So (swear to God) I clutched my Wine Spectator in my greedy little hands and marched into the local Safeway and CostPlus stores prepared to score some killer wine bargains. Semi-surprisingly, they actually had several of the wines listed in the article. Here-in I review several of them for your libationous edification.

Yellow Tail 2005 Southeast Australia Shiraz "The Reserve"
This is not the $5.99 a bottle cheap stuff (which actually ain't half bad for the price). "The Reserve" is the next step up, but still under $10. Lots of dark, roasted fruit on the nose - blackberry, black cherry, with hints of roasted coffee and eucalyptus. On the tongue, big and smooth as silk. Truckloads of huge ripe fruit flavors. Not layered or complex; just a fruit-lovers paradise. Rich and well integrated, this stuff goes down smooth. WS: 90 pts. Me: 3.75 stars. $9.43 (Safeway).

Columbia Crest 2004 Grand Estates Columbia Valley Merlot
I've never been a big Columbia Crest fan. Their wines are generally pretty generic and blah. But Wine Spectator liked this one, so what the heck. A whammy of vanilla on the nose, with hints of chocolate, mocha and black fruit. The smooth vanilla flavor carries over to the taste, but becomes a bit too dominant. Sadly, very little fruit on the midpalate (OK class, what's the wine tasting term for this? That's right, "hollow". Very good!), and a slightly awkward finish. Not worth bothering with. WS: 90 pts. Me: 2.5 stars. $6.99 (Safeway).

Geyser Peak 2005 Alexander Valley Chardonnay
If you read this column, you know I'm not a chardonnay fan, but this wine wasn't objectionable. Light and buttery on the nose, with a touch of hay. On the tongue is was bright and creamy, with a smooth finish and a surprising - and not unpleasant - touch of sweetness. Wonderful lack of oakiness. I could actually drink this. WS: 86 pts. Me: 3.0 stars. $7.98 (Safeway).

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Columbia Valley Riesling
Dry on the nose,with strong aromas of grapefruit and lemon peel. Faint hints of apricot, hay and herbs. On the tongue there's an explosion of flavor, and a surprising and pleasant frizzante (fizz). Yum! Just slightly sweet, with bright lime flavors, along with hints of pineapple and papaya. Good acidity cleanses the palate and keeps the wine from becoming cloying. Best served well chilled (freezing cold). Very tropical and fun. We have a winner! WS: 86 pts. Me: 4.0 stars. $5.99 (Safeway).

Perrin & Fils Cotes du Rhone Reserve 2005
Very bright, acidic aroma, with a hint of red berries, dust and (there just isn't any other description for it) pork chops. Very light on the tongue, with good structure, but faint fruit and rather firm tannins. The lack of fruit flavors is typical for a cheap French wines. Overall, something of a blah wine; not bad but not too much of anything. WS: 87 pts. Me: 2.75 stars. $11.99 (CostPlus).

Bodega Norton Malbec Lujan de Cuyo Reserva 2005
Rich and drak aromas, with hints of roast beef. Deep and mellow. Not as profound on the palate, with bright red fruits. A bit acidic with mild tannins. A bit disappointing for the price. WS: 88 pts. Me: 2.75 stars. $14.39 (CostPlus)

The Riesling was the big winner here, but actually none of these wines were hideous. Wine Spectator often gets ripped for overrating plonky wines, but these were all passable, particularly for the price.

Bottom line: Eureka! There IS good wine under $10! Get a copy of that issue of Wine Spectator and treasure it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pilgramage to the Holy Land

Those of you who aren't devotees of the temples of Global Mass Consumerism (heathen infidels! - may you burn in the 7th layer of hell for all eternity!) may not be aware that Costco (may their beneficence always shine on us!) has opened a new church store here in Chico. But it's true; behind the old Costco stands a gleaming new temple to mass consumption.

As a devoted believer, I hastened to pay homage at my first opportunity. Ostensibly, I went to worship at the printer cartridge aisle, but I knew I couldn't resist taking a peek at their new wine selection while I was there.

The parking was crazy as ever; worse in fact, now that there was a large open area in front of the doors with criss-crossing traffic and people dropping off worshipers. You'd think that people going to worship would be more charitable to their fellows, but I guess Global Consumerism isn't a very charitable god. The ushers at the door checked my Costco believer card, but my eyes were already focused on the grandeur beyond.

As befits any temple or church, I was in awe the moment I entered. I felt that I had truly entered a holy place. A phalanx of HDTVs greeted me as I made my way, slack-jawed in wonder, into the cavernous temple. Huge racks of consumer products soared three stories into the air, and disappeared into the dim distance. Two huge refrigeration units towered at the far end of the store like twin white Kaabas, chilling frozen pizzas and mozzarella cheese. Verily, this was a true consumer mecca.

I knelt in humility and prayed that my credit limit was worthy of such riches.

I paid my perfunctory respects to the print cartridge aisle (ten times as many cartridges as before, Consumerism be praised!), and then I spotted the wine aisle.

I almost trembled with reverence and anticipation as I approached.

It was huge; nearly twice as long as the old wine case and taller. And the wine selection! I fell to the floor and prostrated myself before riches I never thought I would ever have the honor to see in person. I had made it, it was becoming clear, to the Promised Land.

Here’s just a partial list of the wonders revealed before my eyes:

Dominus 2003 - $100
Opus One 2003 - $130
Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2004 - $159
Chateau d’Yquem 2003 - $159 (375ml)
Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2004 - $165
Chateau Margaux 2004 - $166
Penfolds Grange 2002 - $200
Clarendon Hills Astralis 2004 - $250

Now, Costco has always had a few bottles of high end wines; a couple of bottles of Chateau Haut-Brion ($158) here, a few bottles of Dom Perignon there. But two full cases of Clarendon Hills Astralis? That represented $6000 of wine sitting right in front of me! I could literally reach out and touch a dozen of the most highly-acclaimed wines on the planet.

Truly I must have died and gone to Heaven, where world-class wines flow like milk and honey.

But then a heretical thought entered my mind: Who the hell in Chico is going to buy all this premium juice? Are there really enough rich, snotty Chicoans to buy up 30 bottles of Chateau d’Yquem at $159 a pop?

Counting up the number of bottles in stock for just the wines listed above, I came up with a total retail value of over $26,000! And that’s just the ones I chose to list. There were dozens of other pricey wines on the racks as well.

Admittedly, most of these are “good” prices for these wines. 2004 Mouton Rothschild typically goes for between $190 and $250 a bottle. So $160 is a pretty darn good deal (in as much as $160 could ever be a good deal for a bottle of spoiled grape juice).

I'm just not sure that there are enough people in this podunk valley town to buy all this pricey vino. And truth to be told, as much as I love wine, and as much as I am a true devotee of the Church of Costco, these wonderful, sacred, holy wines were too rich for my own wallet. I was not worthy of such bountiful riches, and CapitalOne knows it.

In the end, my tithe was limited to a bottle of 2005 Yangarra Estates McClaren Yale Shiraz ($18.69) and a bottle of 2005 Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.59) - testament to the sorry state of my financial soul.

I know the gods of Global Consumerism are disappointed in me, and I promise to devote my days and nights and weekends to working tirelessly to become worthy of such fine goods. Praise be!