Sunday, November 25, 2007

Think Globally by Shopping Locally

Last year, I grudgingly succumbed to the consumerism of the season and wrote a column on gifts for the wine snob in your life. Personally, I've never been a big believer that "the Christmas spirit" = "a frenzy of consumption", but I'm pretty much alone on that one.

In the intervening year, we've had revelation after revelation about the unintended consequences of global consumerism, particularly with respect to the waves of unsafe Chinese goods flooding this country. Fortunately for our health, China is not a wine exporting nation. God only knows what they'd put in wine to cut costs.

To me, this rude awakening of American consumers to the impact of importing goods from far-flung corners of the world (where health, safety and environmental controls are almost non-existent) is a darn good thing.

Maybe it will make us re-examine the meaning of Christmas. Maybe. Maybe it will make us re-examine our obsession with consumption. Doubtful. At the very least, it (and the cost of transportation) may refocus our priorities toward consuming more locally, where we have greater control over freshness, quality and safety.

This Christmas, our family has decided to begin moving in that direction.

We've agreed that all gifts are going to be local in nature. Gift cards will be to local stores instead of global chains (e.g., Lyon Books instead of Barnes & Nobles). Gifts will be from local makers, or at least from California. Nothing from China will be bought or exchanged.

That will be pretty tough on gifts for the grandchildren, since China makes three-quarters of the world's toys. But for the adults it's less problematic. Sure, there won't be any consumer electronics being exchanged, but what about the cornucopia of great foods that come out of the Sacramento Valley? There are wonderful local walnuts, almonds and olives available. And Chico has more than one great local bakery.

Walnuts instead of a Nintendo Wii? Yes, there's no doubt that it will take a little re-thinking of what to give at Christmas, and of what makes a great Christmas gift. But to me, the eternal Christmas curmudgeon, that's exactly what we need to do anyway.

Of course, there's a practical limit to how local we are going to get this year. We've agreed on California as our definition of "local", so we won't be limited to just almonds and walnuts.

Fortunately for me, California just happens to be the premier wine producing region on the entire continent. That made it real easy to say, "Sure, honey, only buying stuff from California for Christmas sounds like a great idea," instead of, "Honey, have you gone completely crackers?!? They don't make HDTVs in California!"

For you, it might be a bit more difficult, but if you want to keep gas prices down, discourage child and slave labor, mitigate environmental damage, and boost our local economy, you might just give it a thought. Or you can go on being a big fat ugly American pig. It's up to you.

So, what do I recommend you get for the wine lover in your life this year?

How about some local wines? In my last column, I rated over a dozen local wines. In general terms, I can recommend a bottle of pretty much anything from either New Clairvaux or Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards. I'm consistently impressed with New Clairvaux's whites, particularly the Viognier and the Albariño, and the Bertagna Barbara is one of the best local wines being produced.

How about a wine club membership at one of our local wineries? I know that New Clairvaux, Grey Fox and Quilici all have wine clubs.

Failing that, how about a gift certificate at Creekside Cellars, Vino 100 or Monks? Yes, yes, Vino 100 is a chain, but it's a franchise, so most of their income stays here. Of course, you'll only be buying California wines with those gift certificates, right?

Beyond the strictly local, there are literally thousands of California wines to choose from as gifts. I can't imagine that I really need to list any, but here's a couple of personal favorites worth thinking about.

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs
A lightly salmon-colored sparkling wine from the Napa Valley (duh), this non-vintage Blanc de Noirs is a quintessential Christmas and New Year's bubbly. About $14. 4 stars.

La Crema 2005 Sonoma County Pinot Noir
For less than $20, this is one of the best Pinot Noirs I've tasted. 4.25 stars.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Top 10 Wines of 2007

Column for Jan 11th.

Each year, every wine magazine, wine blog, and wine writer on the planet lists their top 10 wines for the past year. Not wanting to be left out of any pointless trend, I herewith list the top 10 wines I've drunk in the past twelve months. Of course, I can't really imagine why anyone would care about my favorite wines of the year, but nevertheless, here goes.

10. Allegrini 2000 Palazzo Della Torre
I managed to score the last two bottles of this vintage that CostPlus had, and then repeated the same trick at Creekside Cellars. The 2001, which is still on store shelves is a much less impressive wine in my opinion. This is a wonderful Italian wine, big, dense and earthy, but not so overpowering that it can only be drunk with food. A fantastic deal for about $20 - if you can find it. 4.25 stars.

9. La Crema 2005 Sonoma County Pinot Noir
This may not be the best Pinot in the world, but the problem with Pinot is finding something halfway decent under $20. A solid Pinot is going to set you back $40-60. Well, for about $17, this wine delivers. Wonderful hints of Pinot funk on the nose, matched with a delicate finesse on the palate. For the price, this wine is a deal and well worth seeking out. 4.25 stars.

8. Jackson-Triggs 2004 Vidal Ice Wine VQA
Ice wines are made by leaving the grapes on the vine all the way into winter and until they freeze hard as rocks. In the process, a lot of water is removed from the grapes, leaving behind an almost pure syrup. A beautifully clear golden yellow color, this has clear notes of honey, apricot and peach. I love this stuff. Not cheap, though. A 187ml bottle (a quarter of a regular wine bottle) runs about $20. 4.5 stars.

7. Windwalker 2002 Lady in Red
Windwalker is probably the best winery in the Fair Play region of Eldorado County, and Lady in Red (a classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec) easily the most complex and developed wine they produce. Easy to mistake for a Napa Valley Cab. An incredible wine. 4.5 stars.

6. Cloud 9 Composition
I had a glass of this at Monks, so I don't know the vintage, but this was a fine, fine wine, and tasted like a classic Napa Valley Cabernet, with massive dark fruit backed by great depth and complexity. A strange cross-regional blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Verdot, and Barbera. Big, smooth and classy. 4.5 stars.

5. Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927
This stuff is the nectar of the gods, a fantastically dense and sweet Montilla sherry, with a flavor like honeyed raisins. If you like great port, you might just love this. Is this wine really from 1927? Well, a few drops of it are. A solera is a way of blending wine, where a bit of this year's wine is blended with last years, a bit of that is mixed with the wine from the year before that... and so on. The last barrel in the chain contains a little bit from every vintage since they started making the wine - in this case, 1927. 4.5 stars.

4. Terre Rouge 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah

Terre Rouge is hands down the best winery in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, consistently producing the most refined and complex Rhone-style wines of any winery in the region. And even though this isn't their top-of-the-line Syrah, it's my clear favorite. Wonderfully earthy flavors, layered with well-developed dark fruit flavors and a mellow complexity. Fantastic. 4.75 stars.

3. Napa Redwoods Estate 2002 Alden Perry Reserve
This is a truly fantastic wine - deep, dark and complex, with ripe black fruit flavors, hints of chocolate and mocha, and well structured tannins. Wonderfully dense and concentrated. Made from 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Merlot, this is what a Napa Meritage should taste like. For about $50 a bottle, this isn't a cheap wine, but it certainly demonstrates the level of quality you can get from Napa Valley at that price. 4.75 stars.

2. Guigal 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape
This is one of my favorite wines of all time. Amazingly complex and floral, this wine just keeps developing aromas and flavors the longer it's open. Simply stunning, and a treat every time I've had it. Made of 80% old Grenache, 10% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre and other grapes, this wine demonstrates the incredible finesse that Grenache-based wines can have. I think Creekside Cellars still has a bottle or two of this wine. Not cheap at $42, but worth the experience at least once. 5.0 stars.

1. Rodney Strong 2001 Symmetry
An absolutely stunning effort. This wine took me completely by surprise. I was expecting something good, but not this good. Amazingly rich black berry, black cherry and roasted mocha flavors, with incredible structure and a silky smooth finish. In a league of its own. A Meritage blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, this is top shelf stuff. Of course, at $55 a bottle, you damn well better get wine of this quality. Mind blowing. 5.0 stars.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Locals Only

More than once in this column I've bashed local wines. Well, I wouldn't say "bashed" exactly. Let's just say I've "critically evaluated" local wines. Yeah, I like that.

As a result, I'm probably not the most popular wine critic in town with some of the local wineries (we're going to skip over the fact that, as far as I know, I'm the ONLY wine critic in town).

So it was with some trepidation that I went to Vino 100 a few Fridays ago for their "Locals Night" tasting, featuring wines and wine makers from six local wineries.

In the crowded confines of their tasting area, a shiv to the ribs, wine critic falls to the floor in a pool of blood, who would know who held the knife? Or worse, a glass of "Special Reserve", aged eighteen months in arsenic-laced oak barrels. Monday morning, wine critic doesn't show up for work, no way to tell which winery did the job.

So yeah, I'm no sissy, but I was scared for my life when I went in there. Fortunately, everyone was extremely nice, and my Kevlar vest saved my life more than once.

For all I know, you were there too. I went early to beat the crowds, but by 6:00 the place was literally packed. There were probably 60 people trying to crowd around 6 tiny little tasting tables. In a way, it was actually kind of ridiculous trying to pack all those people into the back of the store when the whole front area was empty. If Vino 100 is going to do these kinds of events - and they're going to be this successful - they really need to expand the tasting area.

The big question, of course, is "how were the wines"?

Quilici Vineyards

Let's start with Quilici. A few months back I “critically evaluated” their 2003 Barbara. It actually was a pretty terrible, borderline undrinkable, wine. I gave it one star, and was being kind. Fortunately, the 2004's are literally night and day. Quality has stunningly improved, to the point where I can actually recommend a couple of their wines.

Quilici 2004 Sangiovese – This was one of the best wines of the evening. Very meaty, with good acidity and balance. This wine hit all the classic characteristics of a good Chianti right on the head. 3.0 stars.

Quilici 2004 Barbara – Very funky, delicious, earthy aroma. Tart, with strawberry notes and just the tiniest hint of residual sugar. 2.75 stars.

Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards

Next up were Bert and Carol Bertagna. A young and very fun couple, they were probably the newest to wine-making of the wineries at the tasting. But that didn't mean that their wines weren't worth drinking.

Bertagna 2005 Sangiovese – Very light aroma with hints of raspberry. Very smooth flavors, light in body, simple, but extremely pleasant and drinkable. The casual wine drinker will love this, as will just about anyone. 3.0 stars.

Bertagna 2005 Barbera – Wow…amazingly complex and fascinating aroma. Hints of toast and bacon, with a pure creaminess running all the way through it. I know it sounds like creamed chipped beef on toast, but this was wonderful. On the tongue it starts out tart, but evolves rapidly in complexity and depth and finishes smooth. A phenomenal effort, but probably not for everyone. 3.75 stars.

Bertagna 2005 Mestizo – I've already reviewed this wine in a previous column, but it's worth mentioning again. A very smooth, pleasant and mellow wine. Not fantastically complex, but well made. 3.0 stars.

LaRocca Vineyards

The LaRocca's weren't there, but their wines were. Unfortunately, these were easily the most “critically evaluated” wines being poured that night. Though their Chardonnay was actually drinkable, the rest were, sadly, not. Here are my actual tasting notes:

LaRocca 2005 Sutter County Zinfandel – Stinky, sulphur, burnt match. Horrible taste, burnt rubber. Undrinkable. 0.5 stars.

LaRocca 2006 Sutter County Merlot – Spicy, with a hint of rubbing alcohol. Off balanced, burnt/cooked flavor. 1.5 stars.

LaRocca 2005 Sutter County Cabernet Sauvignon – Musty, bad musty, petrol and mold aromas. Bad musty, mold flavors. 1.0 stars.

Grey Fox Vineyards

Grey Fox was the first winery I ever visited (aww...isn't that sweet). Their wines have been kind of up and down in my view. Often the best bets are their varietal ports.

Grey Fox 2003 Merlot – Very light aroma, with some floral notes. Lightish on the tongue as well, with decent body, red fruits, and a smooth finish. 2.5 stars.

New Clairvaux

In a way, New Clairvaux has become the “rock star” local winery, mostly because they came right out of the gate a few years back with some solid wines and haven't looked back.

New Clairvaux 2007 Viognier – That's right - 2007. This wine is still in tanks, so it's not even a finished product, and by the time it's bottled, it will be much more mellow than this bubbly, exuberant youngster. Still, what an incredible fun wine! Seriously tropical flavors, very clean and crisp with hints of green apple and pineapple. And the light fizziness was fun as well. 3.25 stars.

The awards for the night are as follows (like me handing out “awards” has any real meaning):

Best red wine: Bertagna 2005 Barbara
Best white wine: New Clairvaux 2007 Viognier
Best wines overall: Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards
Most improved winery: Quilici Vineyards

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is Riesling Really That Unreasonable?

Column for February 22nd.

Lately I've been on a serious Indian/Thai food jag. I love that stuff. I just love it. Seriously, I wanna mainline curry. You got it - melt it down on a spoon, pour it into a syringe, and shoot it up. Snort it. Smoke it. Whatever. Just gimme. I could eat breakfast at Sophie's, lunch at Cocodine and dinner at Priya every day.

There's probably something seriously wrong with me, but I don't care. I want to dip some naan in a nice lamb korma sauce. And I want to do it RIGHT NOW!

The only problem for this winoholic is - you guessed it - what wine to pair with my delectable Thai or Indian feast.

Well, that's easy. In my not so humble opinion Riesling is THE wine to pair with Indian and Thai food (mmmm... Massaman curry). Why? A good Riesling is very balanced but also very acidic, and that acidity acts as a great counterbalance to the food, cutting through the spiciness without overwhelming or masking the food's flavor. The light sweetness of some Rieslings can contribute to that effect.

The problem is finding a decent Riesling in Chico.

I mean really, what could be so hard about just one place in town stocking a few decent Rieslings? Let's see...

Trader Joes... I was there yesterday (and I blame them for this rant). A wall o' Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? Absolutely. Sweet plonky Liebfraumilch and Piesporter Michelsberg? Sure 'nuff. Riesling? Two bottles. Seriously.

CostPlus... a couple bottles of sweet, cheap, low end German swill is about it.

Vino 100... sadly ditto. Just a couple of sticky sweet bottles.

Creekside Cellars... I think they have one, and it's from California.

The best Riesling I've bought locally I found at Safeway. I mean really, what's up with that?

I just can't believe that there isn't the demand. A good dry Riesling should go well with a wide variety of seafoods, light chicken dishes, cheese, as well as the Masala and Paneang that I lust for.

I think part of the problem is that it's very hard to know what's in the bottle until you taste it. Rieslings run from virtually bone dry to so sweet that they're denser than syrup. And it doesn't always say on the outside of the bottle how dry or sweet the wine on the inside is (or if it does, its in impenetrable German). And there is nothing more disappointing than opening a bottle expecting to find something crisp and dry only to discover corn syrup.

The Germans came up with an oh-so-typically complex grading scheme for Rieslings, but in the interest of brevity, we'll skip the bulk of it.

Of the 847 different classifications of German Riesling, Kabinett is the driest and best to pair with food. and Spatese (spaht-LAYS-uh) is a bit sweeter but still OK, depending on your taste. Beerenauslese (beer-en-oss-LAYS-uh) and Trockenbeerenauslese (say-THAT-three-times-fast) are super sweet, dense and complex wines that you flat out can't get here, so don't even worry about it. And even if you could get them, you couldn't afford them.

The key thing to look for on the label of German Rieslings is the word "trocken", which means "dry". "Halbtrocken" means "half dry", and "half dry" means "really, really sweet", so you're going to want to avoid that, unless you think white Zinfandel is just a little bit too dry for your tastes.

Of course, all of these wonderful German tongue-twisters go straight out the window when you start talking about non-German Rieslings. And you can't find any decent German Rieslings in Chico anyway.

So what's a Tandoori hound to do?

Bottom line is that you're going to have to take some chances on getting some too-sweet wines, and you may need to turn to the Internet if you want to score some decent Rieslings.

Best bets? Washington makes some great Rieslings. Chateau Ste. Michelle is actually making a name for themselves in the world of affordable Rieslings. And you can find them in any grocery store. Australia is also starting to make some respectable Rieslings. Aussie Rieslings tend to be completely dry, so they're worth a try if you can find them.

And as I reported a couple of columns ago, the Finger Lakes region of New York is kicking out some fine offerings as well. Emailing or calling the wineries and asking about their driest offerings might not be a bad approach, even though you're still basically shooting in the dark.

Personally, I would express my disappointment in Riesling selection to my local retailer in the hope that they will try to stock a wider, better, and drier selection.

Recent favs:

Tierce 2005 Dry Riesling (Available from Fox Run Vineyards)
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Columbia Valley Riesling (available at Safeway)
Plantagenet 2006 Riesling South Australia (wonderful and dry, available at Creekside Cellars)