Friday, July 31, 2015

The Daily Meal's Top 101 American Wineries: 50% of the Top Ten Have Organic Estate Vineyards

The Daily Meal, America's biggest food and beverage web site, named it 101 Best Wineries in America this week - a prestigious group of wineries from across the country. While only 2-3 percent of vineyards in the U.S. are organic, 11 of the winning wineries have organic estates and four more make at least one organically grown single vineyard designate from organic vines.

Even more noteworthy is the fact that, of the top ten, half are wineries with organic estates, the source for their best wines.

As I have said before, if you want the short path to the good stuff, look first at the organically grown fine wine options, for it's there you'll increase the odds of finding treasure.

The Top Ten

1. Tablas Creek

The Perrin family from France - one of the most famous Rhone winery owners, with its Chateau de Beacastel (organic vines) and Famille Perrin brands - and the Haas family from the U.S. partnered to create this Paso Robles Rhone powerhouse, making 18,000 (out of their 24,000 cases) from their 100 acres vineyard.

While their affordably priced Patelin wines are not organically grown (they got their neighbors to plant French clones to increase Tablas' table wine production), the rest of their lineup is all from the organic estate.

Wine critic Robert Parker's been a fan of the Perrin's French wines for many years and heaped a ton o praise on the Paso Robles Tablas Creek wines early on, helping it establish a great reputation from the start. The limestone subsoils on the site are a huge plus, too.

As in the Rhone, all the wines are blended to create a sensuous blend of aromas and flavors - a lesson many in the U.S. could benefit from.

It has two basic wine types: it Mourvedre or Roussanne based Esprit wines ($45-55) and its Grenache or Viognier based Cotes wines ($27-35). Both, of course, are fabulous.

2. Ridge Vineyards*

Is it any surprise to see Ridge on the list? Hardly. Long a favorite for its world famous Cabernet, Monte Bello, most people don't know that its 200 acres in Sonoma and 100 acres in Santa Clara County of organic vines make it the biggest organic grower in each county. But, of course, that's just the icing on the cake.

Its impeccably made Zinfandels (most from old vines), its Monte Bello Cabernet ($165) and Ridge's Estate wine ($50), a star in its own right, already have outstanding reputations.

Within a year or two, Ridge's vineyard conversion to organic certification will be complete and the winery will add the words "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" to the back of the label.

3. Calera Wine Co.

This limestone rich, windy remote site in Central California has been home to fans of Burgundian wines, thanks to its determined founder, Josh Jensen, and his remarkable ambition to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay worthy of their French counterparts.

Jensen is one of California's most decorated winemakers, inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2010 and one of the few American member of the Academie Internationale du Vin.

The estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir ($36-80) comprise 7,000 cases out of its total of 31,000 cases made each year (The Central Coast wines come from non estate vines.) The estate vineyard is 83 acres in size.

7. Heitz Wine Cellars

One of the wineries that is not often in the limelight in Napa, thanks to all the new money, razz ma tazz tasting rooms, and hype of newbies in town, Heitz is a steady eddy. Again, not one to hog the organic limelight, it (quietly) has 275 acres of certified organic vines, making it one of the biggest organic vineyard owners in Napa.

One of the few wineries that can trace its history back to 1963, when it was one of only 12 wineries in Napa, it was the first to put the name of a vineyard on the bottle label. That wine was the Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the most internationally famous of Napa Cabs. Today it still makes the Martha's ($225) (from organic vines) and its more affordable Trailside Cabernet, from Rutherford vines, aging them four years before release (unlike many of its neighbors). That is how a proper Cab is introduced into the world.

The Sauvignon Blanc, Grignolino, Rosé and Port are all made from organic vines, too. The two Cabsn and the four others make up 25+% of the winery's production and are Heitz's signature wines.

10. Robert Sinskey Vineyards*

A Napa winery that was one of the earliest to follow the Pinot path as its first true love, Robert Sinskey Vineyards was a surprise, to me, on this list, because it hasn't gotten its due from wine critics or the industry. But it has cultivated chefs and restaurants.

Maria Helm Sinskey, wife of vintner Robert Sinskey, has helped, too, by emphasizing wine with food. The winery's Stags Leap District tasting room is one of the few (and was one of the first) to feature a professional kitchen.

With 176 acres of organic vines, almost all of them in the Carneros, the winery's known for its Pinots (it makes 6, $38-60) and its Bordeaux blends, especially POV ($40) which made it to Jon Bonné's Top 100 Wines list in 2013.

It  kindly (for the consumer) labels all of 27,000 cases of its annual production with the words "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" on the back label.


Other Wineries - Organic Estates

27. Qupé*

Long a favorite, its Sawyer Lindquist vineyard is the beating heart of its finest Syrahs ($35-55). Winemaker Bob Lindquist is widely known as the best Syrah winemaker of his generation and in the U.S.

Its 40+ acre Edna Valley vineyard is certified biodynamic - and so are its estate wines, meaning that Lindquist accomplishes the high wire feat of making wine pretty much strictly from the vineyard - i.e. certified "Biodynamic Wine" must be made using only native yeast and, aside from sulfites, no additives can be used. Applause, please. And now, hand over that bottle.

Labeling: Biodynamic Wine or the Demeter logo appear on the estate grown wines.

About 20% of Qupé's case 25,000 case production is biodynamic.

38. Eyrie Vineyards

I'm not sure why Eyrie is at #38; Oregonians might take offense, as this is one of the true Pinot Noir and Chardonnay treasures in the land. Eyrie, too, needs no introduction. Though it's been farmed organically for decades, it's only recently that it's certified the vineyards organic.

Its Dundee Hills estate vines were the first Pinot Noir vines planted in the Willamette Valley back in the early 1960s.

Today its ethereal estate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay ($31-80) find homes in true aficionado's cellars. And its down home tasting room and winery haven't changed in decades.

One thousand out of its 10,000 cases are from the certified organic estate vines.

42. Spottswoode

This St. Helena winery in the heart of Napa's toniest village is what a winery would look like if Martha Stewart designed one. The most perfect old stone winery, purchased by the Novak family only a few years ago, matches well with the historic Victorian the family settled into in 1972 when its some of its current leaders were children.

One of the first in Napa to become organic, its Cabernet vines were certified in 1992.

Today its Cabernet ($165), farmed on the 40 acres of vines around the house and winery, is still the star of the show (and the only all estate grown wine).

A little more than half of its overall total of 6,000+ cases is the estate Cabernet.

66. Beckmen Vineyards

The Beckmens are known for their outstanding Ballard Canyon Rhone wines - making 17,000 cases (out of 22,000 total) a year from their 165 acres of certified biodynamic vines at Purisima Mountain Vineyard.

They are primarily focused on Grenache (5 clones) and Syrah (7 clones), which are grown over limestone subsoils.

They also make two perennial favorites - both quite affordable - the Bec Le Blanc ($20), a white Rhone blend and their Grenache Rosé ($25). Overall the wines range from $20-55.

87. Neyers Vineyards

One of the smaller wineries in Napa, high up in the hills east of the main valley in Conn Valley, Neyers is an under the radar, top notch choice. Its 2011 Conn Valley Cabernet ($48) got a nod from Jon Bonné as one of the best of the vintage.

It's owned and run by Barbara and Bruce Neyers. Bruce Neyers manages Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant (a French wine importer), tasting French wines often, as you might imagine. Here in California, he has an ace winemaker - Tadeo Borchadt - and sources most of the wines from growers throughout northern and central California.

The two wines from its 12 acres of estate vines in Napa are a Merlot and two Cabernets, and it also makes two single very small lot vineyard designates from the historic Rossi Ranch in Kenwood in Sonoma Valley ($35-85).

About 2,200 cases (out of 15,000+) are from the organic estate.

92. Bokisch Vineyards

A real surprise and a good one: this Lodi winery pays homage to its founder's Spanish roots and is making a place at the table for organically grown Albarino, Graciano and Grenache at surprisingly affordable prices ($18-23). These are also the grapes that should be grown, along with the Rhones, in California's climate, mostly (instead of thousands of acres of Cabernet and Chardonnay in the Central Valley).

The Bokisch bunch need a Randall Grahm to come along and set up a marketing campaign for Spanish varietals - no such luck, so far, but that shouldn't keep us from noticing that they make way more organically grown wines than Bonny Doon does today. (Bonny Doon makes no wine from organic vines, these days.)

Its 84 acres of organic vines produce 2,300 cases (out of 3,000 total). Many of its grapes are sold, but its own wines are fabulous. I've got some of the Graciano in my cellar - an interesting change of pace, if you're looking for something different.


Other Wineries - Single Vineyard Designate Producers

11. Littorai (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Mays Canyon/$70)
55. Tensley (Syrah from Turner/$42)
67. Jaffurs (Syrah from Ampelos and Kimsey Vineyards/$46-50)
72. Bergstrom (Pinot Noir from Temperance Hill/$72)


And Some Questionable Inclusions...

Why St. Supery? (And do people really think sustainability is worth mentioning in describing their winery? Or others? Do these wine "experts" know what "sustainable" means?) Whetstone? A couple who makes 400 cases of Rhone wines in Colorado? There is a very uneven quality to some of the choices, as if it was indeed selected by committee (which it was). There is definitely a sense of wanting to redefine the best in America as coming more from outside California with wineries from Texas, Maryland, Virginia, and New York (both upstate and Long Island) on the list. Is it also a reflection that restauranteurs would like to source locally? Or from wineries wealthy eaters aren't likely to know (Whetstone)?

The wines also range widely in style from those produced for big, bold palates (Caymus Cabs, for instance) to what some might call the whisper lights (Matthiasson, Evening Land).

The Importance of Marketing and Communications

The list does let us know who's been marketing well to the restaurant people, and who hasn't, apparently.

It's notable that Tablas hit the number one spot. Their wines are great, but it's worth noting that they are also the best communicators of any of the wineries on the list. Their web site is top notch and well organized. And Jason Haas' excellent blog keeps everyone up to date on every detail of the enterprise.  Once in the digital world, before the winery was started, he's the best example of a winery blogger with purpose and consistency - and I would say it shows in the results.

Too many wineries look at their web site as a place where they only make 3-5% of their sales, so what's worth bothering about that for? They don't see the vital importance of the web site as the primary customer experience for most of their buyers. They don't really understand brand and brand stories, other than adding their name to in the name "XYZ Family Vineyards" and talk about how they are stewards of the land. Often they do not even farm most of the vineyards they make wine from so that last point is a little hard to understand. (Unless you're Benziger, and you actually set standards for what you want your growers to do, including using a lot less pesticide, insecticide, fungicide and herbicide.)

Notable Omissions

Many of the usual and wonderful suspects were not included, ostensibly to make room for smaller, off the beaten path wineries. Maybe those are the wineries that restaurants like - both for price and for obscurity. Still some huge gaps resulted, in my mind, by not including some of these greats:

Amapola Creek - Sonoma Cabernet rock star
Brick House - Oregon Pinot classic
Campovida - if they were looking for little known wineries with some great wines, and small lots only, they could have looked in Mendocino...clearly Campovida has not been marketing to these guys
Chappellet - why St. Supery (with its mostly Pope Valley vines) when you could have had Chappellet (with its all Pritchard Hill vines)?
Cowhorn - a southern Oregon Rhone treasure; maybe it's too pricey for their lists; or maybe Cowhorn is already fully subscribed
Dashe Cellars - Zins to rival Ridge's, according to Eric Asimov of the New York Times; and in my book, notable for its Les Enfants from organic Mendo growers, which, at $20 a bottle is one of the great table wines to know
Inglenook - this was a real oversight - I would have put this in the top ten; perhaps an inconsistent past was the issue (or prices that don't get the wines into many restaurants)

Ehlers Estate, Grimm Cellars, Hamel Family, Lumos, Soter Vineyards, Turley Wine Cellars - I could go on and on about at least two dozen more great wineries that didn't make the list.

All in all, an interesting exercise. And yet...all lists have their eccentricities.

Congratulations to those who made it onto the list - and to all the others who shudda. Keep up the good work.


*Wineries that label their wines with organic or biodynamic certification. (All the wines listed are from certified organic or biodynamic vines; only the starred ones say so on the bottle labels.)

Why Is Whole Foods So Lame About Organically Grown Wine?

Is it just me, or...? I never "get" why Whole Foods, the country's second largest retailer of organic food (Costco is in first place at the moment) with $3.6 billion in organic sales, is so lame about selling organically grown wines.

Marketing their values (really, our values) signs around the store tell us Whole Foods stands for...

Does this sign need to add..."Except when it comes to wine"?
A large barrel sign overhead said, "We seek out and promote organically grown foods." Another sign above nearby says, "We practice and advance environmental stewardship." Another banner says, "We care about our communities and our environment."

But look at the products in the wine area. I'd venture to say that more than 99% are not from organic vines. And aside from 2 major brands (Frey and Bonterra), and a few minor brands (Lucinda & Millie, and a few others) that are in one section (variously labeled at different stores Eco-Friendly or, at Novato, where I was last night, No Added Sulfite [which is not true for the wines that were there], there's no way to find the others. Not a little green label, not the word organic, nothing.

Doesn't that seem odd?

I talked to the wine dept. sales person at the Novato store last night (after attending a CCOF North Coast chapter meeting held in the dining area there; I don't generally shop there but patronize my local farmers markets) about a new product that was prominently displayed on an end Sangria. Unlike wines, which generally say "Made with Organic Grapes," it had a label saying "Made with Organic Fruit" - as this sangria has a lot of added organic fruit juices. (More on that later).

I asked him why the store isn't making organic more prominent. He gave me the old saw, that organic certification cost too much for the little guy. Unlike most wine dept. sales people who said that, he actually quoted me a number. "It costs $1,500," he said.

I told him I wrote about organically grown wines. It actually costs far less to be certified - about $7 an acre. He was unimpressed, even though I told him I had just written an article about this for a leading wine industry publication.

He told me that the Whole Foods direction was endorsing and moving toward sustainability. "We're saying you should 'know your grower'," he said.

"Know your grower? Aside from telling you how green they are and following the sustainability media training program messaging, what is your grower going to tell you?" I asked.

Meanwhile, Gallo, a certified sustainable winery by the Wine Institute's CSWA program, is out there  in Petaluma, at their Two Rock Vineyard (bordering Highway 101, the Washoe Creek Golf Course and neighboring homes), spraying one of the worst old school pesticides, an organophosphate called chlorpyrifos, all over the 400+ acre vineyard where Gina Gallo's favorite Chardonnay (Gallo Family Vineyards Chardonnay) comes from.

To see this spot on Google Maps, click here; to sit it on Every Vine, click here.

Chlorpyrifos is known to increase the risk of slow brain development and autism in children and, in adults, of getting lung cancer, Parkinson's Disease and other auto immune disorders. It is also highly toxic to bees.
Location of Gallo's Two Rock Vineyard in Petaluma in Google Maps tiltup
Government officials have moved closer to banning it over the years and, just this month, the EPA announced this month that's it banning it altogether due to its water contamination dangers.

Gallo applied Lorsban, one of the brand names for chlorpyrifos, on the Two Rock site at least 28 times, using more than 147 gallons of the toxic substance there.

Meanwhile, Gina Gallo's quoted in the press as saying how much she really likes the biodynamic eggs that come from her husband's 17 acre biodynamic vineyard on Olivet Lane in the Russian River Valley.

"You should be sure to get the growers' pesticide use reports," I suggested to the wine department sales person who was suggesting that sustainability was a positive. No response.

A quick look around the wine section revealed only the most minimal of organic choices - Frog's Leap (which is organic but doesn't label its wines, not even on the back of the label) and Grgich Hills Estate. I also found a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc from Medlock Ames. All were expensive.

Less expensive options ($14-22) were the Terra Savia Chardonnay and Meritage (Bordeaux blend), one Sauvignon Blanc from Mendocino from Elizabeth Spencer, a Pinot Noir from Jeriko (Mendocino),  and a red blend table wine from Horse and Plow.

It's sad to think that in the middle of wine country, where 8% of Napa's vineyards are certified organic and 25% of Mendocino's are, that Whole Foods can only stock less than one percent of its wines from organic vines. It must drive the organic growers, especially in Mendocino, crazy. Their grapes are going into Kendall Jackson wines and other big brands for a song because "no one values organic."

Meanwhile, out front, the organic sangria was proudly on display. A huge end cap that must have cost its distributors a tidy sum.

Eppa, a new brand from the Deutsch Family, is the latest product from the folks who brought you Yellow Tail (the #1 selling wine in America). It's got organically grown wine and organic fruit juices inside. Do they think organic won't sell? Doesn't look like it.

Or is the message here, organic will only sell when people think it's a fruit juice?

Why is Whole Foods so backwards about organically grown wines? They could make the market jump up a notch in a nanosecond - if they wanted to. They could have their own wine brand made totally from Mendocino's organic bulk wine. They could have several in house brands, if they wanted.

Whole Foods could even lobby the government to change the organic wine standards so the "no added sulfite" wines no longer confuse the category, which is the primary factor why the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world in consuming and producing organically grown wine. (Globally, organically grown wine, both at the low and high ends, has grown from 2% to 5% of the market. The U.S. is the only wine producing region where there has been no increase; producers and marketers attribute this to the confusion about no added sulfites.)

In the U.S. organic food sales are climbing 11% a year. They were nearly $36 billion in 2014. In Europe, organically grown wine consumption has been steadily increasing at 11% a year.

Sticking strictly to the retail front and choosing simply from excellent, high quality, existing U.S. brands, Whole Foods could have a $10 and under organic section in the wine dept. and a $20 and up organic section - if they wanted. They could double shelve these wines both by varietal and in the organic section.

The question is, what's holding them back?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Health and Happiness: 2 Napa Wineries (With Great Wines) Devoted to Funding Medical Research

I spent a long time in the health and medical field - at least 15 years in health information - and I often find that people interested in what I am doing - highlighting organic vineyards and wines from organic grapes - are nurses and doctors (and organic gardeners).

A number of doctors have started wineries (Bob Sinskey, the late ophthalmologist and founder of Robert Sinskey Vineyards, comes to mind as does the Novak family in Spottswoode) in which their heirs converted to organic in the vineyards.

But two wineries in Napa, both of whom farm organically, should be recognized for their dedicated pursuit of both pleasure and philanthropy devoted to medical advances: Ehlers Estate and Staglin Family Vineyards. Both are 100% estate and both are farmed 100% organically.

Both are also the product of small, contiguous estates - not far flung collections of vineyards marketed under one umbrella. All the wines come from one site, one place, one vineyard manager, one winemaker. And both produce outstanding wines, vintage after vintage.

Ehlers Estate: Heart Research

"One of the gems of Napa Valley" - Los Angeles Times

Owned by a French foundation, Ehlers is one of the wineries named for its 1880's founder Bernard Ehlers, a Sacramento grocer. who made a fortune selling tools to miners. (Many grocers owned wineries back then.)

Today it's ever so ably managed by Kevin Morrissey, who spent his internship at Petrus (Merlot country in Bordeaux), where he developed not only his winemaking skills but also his fluent command of the French language. Both of these stood him in good steed when a recruiter came a calling to spirit him away from Stags Leap Winery (where he made 80,000 cases of wine a year) to the boutique and artisanal environs of Ehlers Estate (8,000 cases a year).

With 39 acres in vine, the old stone winery sits amid the vines, smack dab in the middle of Napa Valley just north of the town of St. Helena. It's an area where volcanic soils dribbled down from the Vaca mountains (the range that borders Napa Valley's eastern edges).

There's a small knoll on the property, from which a few blocks of wine are made into the Cabernet Sauvignon named J. Leducq ($75) in honor of the man who restored it in the 1980's and subsequent decades.

Sylviane Leducq and Kevin Morrissey
Jean Leducq made a fortune in the linens and uniforms business. In the 1970s he suffered from a heart attack, an affliction which had killed both his father and grandfather in their 50s. He sought treatment at the Mayo Clinic where he received the relatively new treatment of heart bypass surgery. After the surgery he lived into his 80s.

In 1987, Jean and his wife Sylviane bought 7 acres of the original Ehlers holdings. Gradually over time they reassembled the original, contiguous estate, rather than buying vineyards elsewhere in Napa Valley.

In 1996, grateful for what medical advances had done to extend Jean's life, Jean and Sylviane Leducq founded the Fondation Leducq in France in 1996, to give money for heart research.

The winery's profits go to the foundation's work.

In 2000, the Leducq's started making wine on their Napa property under the Ehlers Estate winery name.

Sadly, just two years after the Ehlers Estate launched its first wine, Jean Leducq died, leaving Sylviane to run the foundation. In 2009 she was awarded the French Legion of Honor for their medical philanthropy.

Sylviane died in 2013, but the work of the foundation continues. Since it started in 1996, it has donated more than $300 million to cardiovascular research.

The Wines

You don't have to know the incredible back story of the Leducq's to appreciate Ehlers Estate wines.

The wines very ably stand on their own two feet.

I am an unabashed fan - and I am not alone.

The Merlot ($55) is exceptional, prompting both Alder Yarrow and Robert Parker to comment on its outstanding qualities over various vintages. Is it inspired by winemaker Morrissey's Petrus internship? Who can say.

The Cabernet Sauvignon (both a regular bottling, $55, and a reserve one, $110) are both very good, and the Cabernet Franc ($60) is another great find.

Tours to Ehlers are by appointment only and are well worth the effort. The seated tastings take place in the historic stone building.

Wine Club Recommendation

I don't recommend that many wine clubs as I can't say that the wines across the board are universally wonderful or that the wines aren't available elsewhere for less than club prices.

But Ehlers is one that I do recommend. Their wines are consistently great - vintage to vintage and varietal to varietal. The club parties look fantastic (judging from the pictures - I can't say I've attended one) and one can visit the winery gratis with friends, and enjoy the club grounds (wonderful picnicking) and bocce ball court. For Ehlers wine club members, life is good.


Staglin Family Vineyard

This Rutherford winery is very much worthy of its own, separate post, so look for more about it in Part 2 of this series.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Trendspotting in Berkeley: Organic Royal Blenheim Apricot Jam

I've been a jam maker in recent years, and it was then that I became acquainted with the Royal Blenheim apricot conspiracy - i.e. a group of fruit aficionados who know a good thing when they taste it.

Today's find: this quick pic from La Fournée, one of the classiest of many classy bakeries in Berkeley. La Fournée is located across the street from the Claremont Hotel.

You know organic is a true trend when the poshest bakery lists this on its blackboard of today's goodies:

I'm waiting for the day when the wine lists conform to this vision of the proper eating and drinking sphere.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Rutherford Cabs - Presenting the 2012's at Day in the Dust


The 2015 Media Tasting: Rutherford Day in the Dust

If Day in the Dust conjures up images of vineyard tours, banish the thought. Yesterday's annual tasting, the Rutherford Day in the Dust - Rutherford dust, that is - brought out the vintage Napa's vintners have been living for - the 2012s. It was a great year and a huge relief to those who suffered through the 2011s.

Not that the 2011s were universally bad, but it was a "lesser vintage" for most.

The 2012s were not only a better vintage for quality, they were also a huge increase in quantity, with yields up 40% overall. Some vineyards in Rutherford were up 50%.
Among the 1994s: the Niebaum
Coppola (now Inglenook) Rubicon,
the winery's first vintage under
organic certification (21 years ago)

The media tasting, held at Inglenook, led off with 14 wines from the 2012 vintages selected for wine press to taste, preceded by a six wine flight of 1994s. 

Though educational as to the lasting power of Rutherford appellation wines, the 1994s might not have been the best way to begin, spoiling tasters with the delicate perfumes and tastes that a 20+ year old Cab can bring. When the 2012's were presented, veteran wine writer Dan Berger humorously whined, "These aren't wine yet. These are just babies."
The 1994's
Peju's Reserve Cab ($115)
is organically grown; it placed
third in the overall rankings.

With 45 wineries in the appellation, one might have expected to see the appellation wineries broadly represented. That would be incorrect. The press were invited to taste 14 wines, chosen by a group of somms, that included 3 from Frank Family Vineyards and 2 from Freemark Abbey, wineries located in other appellations that source some fruit from Rutherford. Some other wines had ratings in the mid 80's from Parker, Wine Spectator, et al. (I'm not sure where these somms were from?) 

Inglenook winemaker Philippe Bascaules
Missing were many of the wines that I follow: Caspar Estate, HALL, Neal Family, Staglin, and Tres Sabores. (Dana would also be a notable wine from Rutherford from organic vines, but since it make so little wine and sells it to a small group, it's understandable that their wines would not be included.)

It was hard to conclude that these were all the best wines the appellation had to offer. But let's not quibble.

Fred Dame, who was running the tasting, said a number of wineries declined to contribute wines, saying their wine clubs had already bought most of the 2012 Cabs.

The 14 wines were tasted blind, and then scores from an assorted group of scorers were tabulated. 

My favorite, the 2012 Rubicon, $210, (which received a 95 from Parker, I found out later on; Jon Bonné was also enthusiastic about it) came in seventh, which I thought was extremely odd. (Not that Parker is my arbiter of taste, but he is a data point). It certainly wouldn't be the first time a scoring exercise seemed off the mark. (In this case, way off.)

The wine that placed first on the group list was the one I'd described thusly: "fruit bomb." My (blind) tasting note on the Rubicon: "Starred. Great potential. Fruit without the bomb. A beautiful wine.' Oh well, what do I know...

"These wines are going to do very well in the hospitality industry," said Dame, a Master Sommelier., of the 2012's. "They're big, rich, and approachable young." 

Wine writers Paul Franson and Dan Berger compare notes
at the media tasting

Rutherford Dust Society, media tasting

The trade tasting, on the other hand, featured a much broader assortment of wines, but without the opportunity to really take them in in the way a seated tasting does. Nonetheless, there were some lovely Cabs and a few other discoveries.

Enjoy these photos from the trade tasting:

Bascaules offered up tastes of the
2012 Inglenook Cask Cabernet ($75); Parker
gave it a 93+ pt. score; and I thought it was
a beautiful wine, especially for the price ($52 for
club members); luckily quite a bit of it was made
(10,000 cases) 
Dan O'Brien from Long Meadow Ranch with the winery's
first red wine from inside the Rutherford appellation: the 2013 Merlot
Holding down the fort at Heitz were these
lovely ladies (sorry, I forgot to write down their names)
providing tastes of the 2009 Heitz Trailside; their 2012
won't be released for several years. This is a wonderful
wine. I would like to taste it again, sitting down
and concentrating more.  
Two lovely people from wineries that were among
the first in Napa (as well as Rutherford) to have
organic vineyards: Enrique Herrero, the vineyard
manager at Inglenook, and Julie Johnson,
proprietor and winemaker at Tres Sabores;
these two properties have a boundary in common on
Rutherford benchland under the Mayacamas and both
make wines worthy of your attention; the dry farmed Tres Sabores
Perspective Cab (restrained, not a fruit bomb) lists for $80;
it's from vines planted in 1971 (only 200 cases made)
Postscript: Later on the day I posted the post above, Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences newsletter landed in my inbox. (An excellent newsletter, by the way, and well worth subscribing to.)

Here is his description of the tasting, which expands upon some of the impressions I wrote about: 

For one thing, all the wines were released far too early to make any meaningful judgment. Decades ago we all waited for four year for Cabs to be released; today it's barely over 2 and 1/2.

The even was coordinated by Fred Dame, a longtime Master Sommelier (MS) and a skilled taster. He used many other MSs to rank all the candidates for Wednesday's tasting. The MSs passed on wines they thought didn't make the grade. 

But no one stated what specific attributes the wines had to display to qualify for the tasting - or what deficiencies the also-rans had that denied their admission to the event.

As a result, "Sommelier Palate" dictated which wines were blessed enough to be thought of as the best in Rutherford. And what is this undefined Sommelier Palate?

Well, for one thing, it is a generally younger-taster profile. Most of the MS folk in the room yesterday were between 35 and 50, and all got their impressions of what a Great Cab was in a post-Phylloxera Parker-dominant era when weight and softness were viewed as king - and when food friendliness, aging and varietal character were less important.

The result can only be a self-fulfilling prophecy: all the anointed wines were pretty much the same weight and density, with little in the way of distinctiveness allowed.

I have long suspected that Napa Valley producers and the societies formed to promote them do not like the word "distinctiveness" to be used when referring to their wines - not even when it's regional character. What are the real differences between Cabs whose appellations are Rutherford, St. Helena, Oakville and Spring Mountain? Are there any differences now that high alcohol, low aide and hang time are all the rage?

Some of the best wines I tasted yesterday were Cabs served at the larger, walk-around portion of the tasting. Some of these wines were submitted to the MS group and were not picked. 

Yet to me a number were exemplary of a great vintage of Napa Valley Cab, even though they were not dense and succulent. 

Dame summed up the tasting when he said the wines "taste good" (is this a requirement for a Cabernet to be great?). And he added, "In terms of the hospitality industry, these are great wines." 

The comment gave me the distinct impression that he was talking of sales: they would sell. But the dependent clause that starts the quote says nothing about consumers. 

Funny. I thought that's who the tasting was really staged for.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"TV" Worth Watching: Sonoma Legends Video with Biodynamic Pioneer Mike Benziger and George MacLeod

Mike Benziger is often seen in the role of Biodynamic evangelist. While that's wonderful - and needed - it's also a great pleasure to hear his own story, told in intimate detail, in this new video series, Sonoma Legends, sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance.

This is not yet another tedious winery video talking about family, tradition and terroir, but amazing life stories from people who've spent a lifetime in Sonoma in the wine industry and who collaboratively created the Sonoma wine culture that exists today.

The next video in the series (coming in a few months) features organic vineyard expert Phil Coturri in conversation with Sonoma vintner Richard Arrowood, renowned for his Moon Mountain District Cabernets (and his earlier Sonoma Valley Cabs) - which come from vineyards Coturri has farmed organically for several decades, both at Arrowood and at Amapola Creek. Coturri, a pot smoking leftie, and Arrowood, whose politics are the opposite of Coturri's, agree on one main thing - that organic farming yields more flavorful and nuanced wine grapes and wines.

Interestingly organic and Biodynamic growers play a prominent role in this new video series - far more than their relevant weight in the region.

In terms of numbers, three out of the initial four interviewees have relied on organic farming practices to create many of Sonoma's finest wines. For a county where so few acres are certified organic - 2.4% (or 1,400 acres out of 58,000) - that's nice to see.

Mike's story has so many interesting twists and turns - enjoy the show! And thanks to the SVVGA for creating and sharing these histories.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

New: Virtual Visits with Google Maps

Google's rolling out a new feature it calls Views in Google Maps, integrating pictures even more into the user experience.

Applying this tool to wineries, it's now possible to preview wineries before you go - or visit ones you've not yet been to.

Frog's Leap winery in Rutherford in Napa Valley is one of the wineries you can see online. Since you have make a reservation to visit this winery, and you can't always get in during the summer, it's nice to have the option to check in and get a glimpse.

See the whole winery section featured on Google here.

I put green boxes around the wineries featured here that have organic or Biodynamic vines in some of their wines.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Little Beach Reading: Wine Murder Mysteries

That great pastime - beach reading - calls for a certain type of book. Nothing too heavy and yet nothing completely banal. Beach reading must be intriguing and engaging enough to distract you from your everyday cares and woes.

Luckily the world of lightweight mysteries centered on wine is rapidly expanding. Ah, you can breathe easy, knowing that wine lovers everywhere can sit on blankets over the sand and imbibe the literary equivalent of a rosé.

Three authors have French wine series that invoke different wine locations and winemaker characters in French locales. A fourth author, whose book I have yet to read, has written a novel featuring a biodynamic winemaker in Sonoma.


Following in the tried and true footsteps of long time Provence novel writer Peter Mayle (an Englishman who lives in Provence) who sets his light reading novels in Provence, M. L. Longworth has set her four light novels in Provence as well.

Death at the Chateau Bremont, Murder in the Rue Dumas, Death in the Vines, and Murder on the Ile Sordou (the last takes place off the coast of Marseille) are all based in Aix en Provence. The main protagonist, Antoine Verlque, is a judge; his girlfriend is a law professor.

"Longworth's voice is like a rich vintage of sparkling Dorothy Sayers and grounded Donna Leon," said Booklist of the first book.

I would add a food writer in there, too. Her engaging books have lots of tantalizing descriptions of local cuisine. It might be best to pack some small morsel of fine cheese (and wine, if you can) into your beach basket, unless you think a soft serve ice cream cone from the beach shack will tide you over. You may find yourself searching for "French bistros" on your cell phone once you start reading.

Longworth knows Provence well, living there with her family since 1997. The book explore deep French history and Provencal customs in the background, which may sort of give you a feeling of "I did go somewhere this summer."


Parisian based Balen and Alaix, who resides in southwest France, cooked up what is now a 22 book series on the Winemaker Detective character of Benjamin Cooker, a critic who writes an annual wine guide. Cooker is quite different from Parker. For one thing, he's half French and half English and is married to a French woman.

Though he lives in Bordeaux, the various books take him to Burgundy, the region where Cognac is made, and other wine areas in France.

Slightly reminiscent of Inspector Morse in his tastes - he has a Mercedes, enjoys cigars and enjoys other slightly Continental tastes - Cooker is a man of heart and soul as well as logic. He loves his wife, his daughter and his dog.

The authors let us know they prefer the French mystery write Simenon's slow expository style to staccato, fast paced, action mysteries (think Daniel Silva), and attract readers with a taste for the former.

The books are short - typically around 150 pages - and generally take me no more than 2 hours to read. Perfect for an afternoon in a beach chair.

For those who enjoy to watch their winemaker detective adventures on the screen rather than on the page, there are also audio versions of the books, and, best of all, a French TV series (subtitled in English) called Blood in the Vines that is available either by DVD or streaming. The TV series is a fast and loose adaptation of the books, so if you've read the books, don't expect the plot and characters of the videos to be the same. Pas du tout.

Reading the novels won't clue you in, as the plots and characters in the TV series have been altered from the books.


A novel, not a murder mystery, Laura Dave's story 800 Grapes - about a Sonoma winemaking family has gotten a heap of praise from Glamour, Marie Claire, and other media. I have it, but haven't read it yet. But that could change this weekend...

There's a video interview, an audio excerpt (from the audiobook version) and an excerpt all on the publisher's web site.