Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Vintastic Voyage: Napa Valley

Barrel room at Artesa

Disclaimer: These tasting experiences were provided to me free of cost as a member of the media.

There is no shortage of articles/blog posts related to the Napa Valley. BUT, I wanted to share a tested and approved Napa itinerary that I’d recommend to the wine novice and the wine geek alike. This itinerary has something for everyone. I visited the region in early Spring with my friends Neal and Alyse of Winery Wanderings, and found this itinerary to be relaxed and easy to follow.

As an aside, may I recommend that when you plan your wine country getaway, remember that the goal is to have fun, enjoy yourself, and perhaps learn something new about wine. Because of this, I recommend you take a somewhat leisurely approach to things and not try to squeeze in too many winery visits in one day. Generally, 2-3 wineries per day is the max for most people to be able to enjoy the wines, not feel rushed, and not get too drunk! I only recommend 4 wineries in one day for professionals or if you are going to spit out all tastes. Even then, it is still an ambitious schedule.

Here is my suggestion for a full, fun day in the Napa Valley.

Charles Krug
Noon-1:30pm Long Meadow Ranch
1:30pm-2:30pm Gott’s Roadside
3:30pm-5pm Artesa
5:30pm-7:30pm Oxbow Public Market

Charles Krug 

Charles Krug in St. Helena is a great place to start. Come here for Napa Valley history, as they are a winery of firsts being situated in St. Helena AVA, one of Napa Valley’s first AVAs. Charles Krug is the oldest bonded winery in Napa (since 1861) and also is the first tasting room open in California in 1882. In 1963 they became the first Napa winery to import French Oak barrels and were also one of the first California wineries to varietally label wines. Since 1943 the Mondavi family operates Charles Krug with a respect and understanding of how important they are to Napa Valley’s history. Today they produce 90,000 cases annually and it is all sold on-site.

Upon visiting Charles Krug, you have two choices for your visit. They offer a $45 tasting flight and a $75 tasting flight that also includes a tour of the property. The tasting room is open daily from 10:30am-5pm. And a gorgeous tasting room it is. Up until 2006, it was the old barrel room. The space is expansive and stunning. Such a classy, upscale, yet not stuffy atmosphere.

Thank you to Tash for pouring! My highlight from the tasting was their 2016 Malbec at $65 a bottle. The wine showed characters of plum (red and black), vanilla, and spice box. It’s a velvety, smooth wine that you can really melt into. Would be a fantastic BBQ wine. 

Tasting Room at Charles Krug

Proof of their wine history!!

Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch 

Two miles SE of Charles Krug and you land at Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. You come here for a culinary and wine sensory experience. We participated in the Chef’s Food & Wine Tasting (regularly priced at $70) and it was impeccable. A really elevated, yet comfortable experience. True wine country hospitality. We enjoyed 5 mini-food courses paired with wines. They also have a regular wine flight for $30 and a library wine flight for $40. The general store/tasting room is open from 11am-6pm.

Colin (who was a delight) lead us through our tasting. Anyone who says that Pinot Noir is their spirit grape, is good people in my book! Long Meadow Ranch employs a full-circle organic farming system. Each part of the ranch contributes to the health of the whole, including vineyards, olive groves, Highland cattle, heirloom vegetables, and livestock. They have three properties: 650-acre Mayacamas Estate (home ranch located in the Mayacamas Mountains above Rutherford), 90-acre Rutherford Estate (located on the Rutherford Bench), and 145-acre Anderson Valley Estate (Mendocino County). Everything we ate that day was local to the Rutherford Estate and all their wines are estate. 

Wines + Small Bites

Let the Tasting Begin!

Chef Aaron getting things ready!

Neal & Alyse of Winery Wanderings

Dungeness Crab (avocado, citrus)
Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford, 2017 ($22)
This is clearly not the ubiquitous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Cooler climates here. I get green fruit (apples), citrus, and some tropical notes.

Swordfish (cabbage, horseradish)
Pairing: Chardonnay, Anderson Valley, 2016 ($40)
This pairing sang. This wine starts in French oak, then moves to stainless steel. I got an initial waft of a stick of butter on the nose, but it blew off as I swirled and make my way through the tasting. Quite a balanced and structured Chardonnay.

Cauliflower Soup (camembert beignet)

Pairing: Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, 2015 ($40)
This has to be the silkiest soup I have ever tried. Delicious!

Sunchoke (prune)
Pairing: Merlot, Napa Valley, 2014 ($35)
This wine has everything I want in a Merlot: a plumminess plus silky smooth tannins. A bit velvety overall. Really nice.

Grass-Fed Lamb (chickpea fritter, beet barbeque)
Pairing: Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2014 ($55)
A big boy red that really worked well with this dish. The wine benefits from a bit of Petit Verdot and Petit Syrah. 

Long Meadow Ranch

After the food and wine pairings at Long Meadow Ranch, it’s time for LUNCH. And what better lunch than a roadside burger stand. I recommend Gott’s Roadside for some “sticking food” to sop up all the wine.


After lunch it’s a 40-minute drive down south to Artesa Vineyards & Winery. If you saw the movie Wine Country, then you’ve seen Artesa, as it was the winery tasting room featured. I had met head winemaker Ana Diogo-Draper at a tasting in Los Angeles. I fell in love with Artesa’s wines, so when the opportunity to visit presented itself, I jumped at the chance. With Artesa, you come for the exceptional wines and stunning, modern tasting room.

Our tasting was a superb experience. The tasting room is bright, inviting, and quite a sight. It is open from 10am-5pm and there are various wine flight options, starting at $35. Anne expertly lead us through the flight, which was exceptional. A highlight for me was tasting their sparkling. We tried the 2014 Codorníu Napa Grand Reserve Brut, Estate Vineyard, Los Carneros ($45). 

Bubbles to start!

Let the tasting begin (again)!

The grounds at Artesa

One of the Artesa tasting rooms

Other wines tasted:

2017 Albariño, Los Carneros ($28)
Stone fruit, tropical fruit, and delicate little white flowers. Medium + acid.

2016 Chardonnay, Los Carneros ($23)
This is their largest production wine that is distributed widely. A fresh and primary Chardonnay. Valley floor fruit that has been through malo and saw some oak treatment.

2016 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyard, Los Carneros, Napa Valley ($38)
Made in the Burgundian style. All hillside fruit. Toasty, nutty, and warming.

2016 Pinot Noir, Los Carneros ($28)

Beautiful, bright red fruit on the nose. More floral and spice on the palate. A lovely entry-level Pinot and at an unbeatable price.

2016 Pinot Noir, Estate Vineyard, Los Carneros, Napa Valley ($45)
Compared to the above, this wine goes deeper and has more intensity of fruit. Quality with a capital Q.

2014 Galatea Cabernet Sauvignon & Tempranillo ($90)
Deep, deep, deep purple in color. Hellooooooooo tannins, but don’t worry, they’re integrated AF. A deep and expressive wine. Definitely a standout among the flight.

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Foss Valley Ranch Vineyard, Atlas Peak, Napa Valley ($90)
Medium ruby color. Tannins dominate.

After your day of wine tasting, a visit to Oxbow Public Market is a great option for a casual dinner. This is Napa Valley’s version of a food hall and there are options to please every palate. And more wine, should you need that! The general hours range form 7:30am-9:30pm (each merchant may have slightly different hours).

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

New Zealand Standouts

I taste a lot of wines day in and day out. Recently, I seem to have lots of New Zealand in my glass. Here is a round-up of some standouts that I highly recommend. Cheers!

Neudorf Sauvignon Blanc 2017 $26 
This wine has a spicy and vegetal note on the nose that carries through on the palate. I get a tomato leaf and olive note. Quite lovely, and unique for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc! 

Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Marlborough 2016 $29
In the style of a white Bordeaux, specifically Pessac-Leognan. On the nose, a savory petrol note; flint. Exquisite. This is, hands down, one of my favorite whites from New Zealand. I have tried it many times and am never disappointed. 

Dog Point Chardonnay Marlborough 2015 $42
Aromas of tree fruit, cream and butter/dairy. Less malo notes on the palate. Really clean, pure fruit with a slight savory note that makes it really interesting. 

Burn Cottage Pinot Noir, Burn Cottage Vineyard Bannockburn, Central Otago $65
A bowl ‘o red fruit on the nose. On the palate: wow, complex with a medium + lingering finish. Super savory. A heady wine that makes you think. 

Neudorf Pinot Noir Tom’s Block 2014 $28 
This wine has juicy red fruit on the nose, plus a nice spiciness. A true, classic Pinot that is more structured than one would expect. Layered….more interesting as you get into it. 

Mills Reef, Elspeth Syrah Hawke’s Bay 2016 $46
Aromas of red & black fruit, black pepper, baking spices and black licorice. Plus a woody note. Varietal character on the palate: deep fruit + meatiness. Feels very honest, true….simple. 

Vidal Syrah “El Legado” Hawke’s Bay/Gimblett Gravels 2014 $60
The first vines on this property were planted in the 1900s. This wine gives classic Syrah markers including red fruit, pepper, and a faint animal aroma. Quite lovely.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

In Wine, Is Sugar Bad?

There is sugar in any bottle of wine. Period. The question is, how much sugar?

In the wine world, we talk about “gateway” wines that people tend to start with in the beginning of their wine journeys. When people start drinking wine, they tend to start with sweet wines. Things like: Port, Moscato, and sweet Rieslings. Generally, as a person’s palate progresses, they learn to appreciate things besides sweetness, such as tannins, acid, and complexity.

As wine drinkers learn more, they tend to eschew what are perceived as “beginner” wines, such as those mentioned above. When I am working with a group in a tasting or a class setting, those who have some wine knowledge under their belt tend to make blanket statements such as “I only like dry wines...nothing sweet”. This, I find, is the perfect time to drop some wine knowledge.

What I have learned is that when a beginner/novice wine consumer says “sweet”, they generally mean fruity. And when they say “dry”, they generally mean tannic. I have tested this time and time again. As a general rule, most wines that I pour in my classes are dry. Occasionally there might be a sweet wine, or a dessert wine, but generally I am pouring a flight of dry wines. People frequently exclaim that a CA or a NZ Sauvignon Blanc is sweet…..when what they are actually smelling and tasting is the fruit forward characteristic of the grape, and perhaps the ripeness of the fruit from the generally warmer climate. People are astounded to realize that this wine is dry. It is, by far, the #1 most common takeaway that people walk away with in my classes. The same goes with red wines.

“Fruitier” grapes are commonly thought to be “sweet”. An Argentinian Malbec is a perfect example. In contrast when I pour a tannic wine (say a Cabernet Sauvignon), they think THIS is the dry wine. When I tell them they are both dry, they get a bit confused. This is another perfect time to drop some wine knowledge. I explain to students that tannins are naturally occurring in the skins, stems, and seeds of grapes. And that tannins give a drying sensation in your mouth. How can a beginner truly understand the feeling of tannins? Steep a cup of tea with a tea bag. Wring out the tea bag. Stick the tea bag in your mouth and bite down. THIS, my friends, is tannins. Then when they go back to the red wines, they can understand and feel that same drying sensation with the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Back to sugar. So how do some wines have more sugar than others? It’s all about residual sugar (RS). Here is my elementary explanation about how grape juice becomes wine:

1. Insert grapes/grape juice in tank
2. Add yeast (what I call Pac-Mans) to the juice
3. The Pac-Mans eat sugar (in the grape juice) and multiply, creating CO2 and alcohol
4. Once the Pac-Mans eat all the sugar, the fermentation is done and the Pac-Mans die
5. IF you want to create a wine with RS, you stop the fermentation BEFORE the Pac-Mans finish eating all of the sugar, thus leaving some sugar in the wine.
6. You do this by cooling the temperature of the tank. Alcohol will not ferment if the liquid is too cool.

So what constitutes a dry wine vs a sweet wine? See my chart below. Note that most all table wine falls in the bone dry/dry categories. The main exception is domestic, commercially produced wines in which sub-par fruit is used. To make up for that, they tend to increase the RS (12-15 g/L as a loose range) to mask the shitty grapes.

Bone Dry <1g/L RS
Dry 1-10 g/L RS
Off-Dry 10-35 g/L RS
Sweet 35-120 g/L RS
Very Sweet/Luscious > 120g/l RS
*I pulled these numbers from WineFolly and they seem to be in line with the levels I recall from my WSET studies.

Ok, so what does the term “low sugar” mean? In my opinion, this is mostly a marketing term. It gives an indication to the consumer that this wine falls in the low range of dry, or might even sit in the bone dry category.  Personally I don’t count my calories or sugar intake when it comes to wine. I’m in the biz, I taste (and generally spit) a lot of wine, and the level of sugar (from a nutritional standpoint) doesn’t appeal or apply to me. However, someone watching what they eat/drink or counting sugar intake, might be interested in that term and might seek it out in a wine. The key piece to remember is that a term like “low sugar” is not regulated. Someone at 1g/L might say their wine is “low sugar” whereas someone who makes a wine at 9g/L might call their wine “low sugar”. And the consumer won’t know the difference unless they seek out the tech sheet to get the details.

I recently interviewed Amanda Scott, who is the founder of Thomson & Scott, a line of Champagne and Prosecco that bills itself as ultra low sugar, vegan, and organic. Amanda is leading the “transparency in wine” movement by creating a company that asks consumers to demand what's in their bottles. In fact, she is the (self-proclaimed) first person in the industry to publicly call out for it. Amanda thinks it is a no-brainer and is shocking that in 2019 we have no idea what is in our wine bottle. I tend to agree!

Thomson & Scott produces top quality Champagne and Prosecco with as little intervention as possible in the production process and highlights its vegan and organic credentials. According to Amanda, wine labelling is sparse in its detail and misleading in its description. Currently, the wine industry doesn’t have to say what goes into making the products we drink. Amanda wants to change that. She was raised on a vegetarian, no sugar diet by her health-conscious mother, and has always had a keen interest in what’s in her food.

Amanda feels that because her organic Prosecco is of such beautiful quality to begin with, less sugar is needed to balance off the acidity. It is possible to make a zero-dosage (no added sugar) Prosecco; but, since Prosecco traditionally has a certain fruit-forward, easy-drinking quality that fans have come to expect in its flavor profile, 7g/L felt like exactly the right amount. This is roughly half of what many Proseccos come in at. In their Champagne portfolio, they do have a zero-dosage option.

I also asked Amanda a tough question about her use of the word “skinny” in her branding:

Brianne: Talk to me about the use of the word "skinny" in marketing and on the label. Bethenny Frankel has been very successful with that word being central to her Skinnygirl brand. However, our society is moving to a place of more inclusivity and body positivity, and the use of words like "skinny" can sometimes be frowned upon. Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think marketing this product to the US market will be different than marketing it to the UK market?

Amanda: “Skinny” was used in our case in the same way as Skinny Cappuccino or Skinny jeans - in a fashion sense about the item in question, not about any individual. To help amplify our message in a hugely male dominated, often old-fashioned, financially-focused industry, I knew I needed to be provocative. Using the term “skinny” has been a vehicle for me to put the spotlight on sugar added to wine. Pure and simple. Our brand is Thomson & Scott. Marketing in each respective country will always be different and deeply nuanced. That said, London brands have a history of trend-building internationally, and so our core values remain regardless. The US market in many ways is culturally ahead on understanding that wine can be high quality and yet also fun. That’s certainly part of our broader mission, and something we in the old wine world can take inspiration from.

There you have it! In conclusion, I do not frown upon the use of terms such as “skinny” and “low sugar”. The terms are not regulated and companies/brands are able to use them as they see fit in order to reach their target consumer. Two words such as “low sugar” can help a consumer make a decision quickly and efficiently. I also appreciate the ability to use language that helps reach your target market and that helps connect your brand to the product at hand. The key here is that people not abuse this freedom. What we don’t want is to end up with mass produced, commercial wines claiming all sorts of health benefits and what not. As an industry, we have to hold ourselves to higher standards and call out when our peers are using language to manipulate the consumer's perception of what exactly is in the bottle.

I did have the opportunity to try the Thomson & Scott wines at a press event in Los Angeles in March. The Prosecco retails for $24.99, while the Champagne comes in at $49.99. Both lovely wines and I did notice a marked dryness, especially with the Prosecco, which is generally too sweet for my taste. Bravo Amanda. May the “transparency in wine” movement progress far and wide!

What are your thoughts on low sugar wines? And on transparency in wine labeling?

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Picks for National Rosé Day

Disclaimer: these wines were all received as samples.

I’m not normally one to celebrate and capitalize on any National _______ Day. BUT, today is National Rosé Day and if ever there is a day to celebrate, today it is! I won’t open this piece by boring you with statistics about how much rosé is now being consumed in the US. Let’s just say that it is A LOT. It’s almost as if 2-3 years ago everyone woke up from their White Zinfandel/Blush PTSD haze and decided that pink wine was cool again. That, and the fact that a new generation of wine consumers in their early 20s are looking for light, easy, and affordable ways to drink and be sophisticated. Rosé provides just that. Today I tasted seven rosés (tough job) that I find to be tasty and affordable. Enjoy!

Jean-Luc Colombo 2018 Cape Bleue Rosé ($12.99)
Crafted in the classic Provençal style, Cape Bleue is a blend of 67% Syrah and 33% Mourvèdre. This wine is made in the Méditerranée IGP region of southern France that covers part of Provence and the Rhone Valley. Use of the Méditerranée IGP allows for less stringent winemaking rules and grape usage. This wine is like a rosé fruit basket of strawberries, watermelon, and grapefruit with a little bubble gum thrown in. Plus a hint of garrigue (dried herbs) that the area is known for. At $12.99, it’s also quite wallet-friendly. And no residual sugar, which makes me happy, as I prefer my rosés dry AF! 

Portillo 2018 Rosé ($10.99)
This guy wins for the best price in the bunch at $10.99 a bottle. My family is from Argentina, so Malbec sits near and dear to my heart. Portillo, located in the heart of Argentina’s Uco Valley, in Mendoza, is home to some of the highest elevations on the planet. Made from 100% Malbec, this rosé is versatile and food-friendly. I get a tad bit darker fruit on this wine….mainly plums and cherries. Also, I think there is a SLIGHT residual sugar to this wine, that really suits it. Good acid, super refreshing, and a steal of a deal. 

Bertani 2018 Bertarose ($15.99)
Created by an Amarone producer, Bertarose is a unique blend of 75% Molinara and 25% Merlot. Molinara is one of the classic grapes used in Valpolicella wines. The other 2 main Valpo grapes include Corvina and Rodinella. Bertani (the winemaker) discovered the delicate character of the Molinara grape was well-suited to rosé and the addition of Merlot rounds the wine out. A much more floral nose on this rosé. I get notes of whiteflowers (i.e. elderflower) plus bright, juicy strawberries and tangerine notes. This is a quaffable “pool friendly” wine to enjoy on a hot summer day. 

Peter Yealands 2018 Sauvignon Blanc Rosé Marlborough ($14.99)
The lightest color of the bunch, this New Zealand rosé is produced from the country’s signature Sauvignon Blanc grape with just an added splash of Merlot for color. This is an interesting one. I can’t say that I have ever had a rosé that was predominantly Sauvignon Blanc. For the Sauv Blanc drinker, this would be a home run if you wanted to try something new. 

Mas de la dame La Gourmande Rosé ($19.99)
Mas de la Dame translates to “farm of the lady”, a nod to owners Anne Poniatowski and Caroline Missoffe, the dynamic female duo behind the winery. Certified organic by ECOCERT, Mas de la Dame’s La Gourmand Rosé is a blend of 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Mourvèdre and 10% Cinsault. I get loads of citrus fruit on this wine, such as tangerine and ruby red grapefruit. Also, strawberries and raspberries and a faint floral note to really round it out. This is a pleasing and quite feminine wine, ironically made by female winemakers. 

Sosie Wines 2017 Rosé of Syrah ($25)
This wine comes from Sonoma’s Bennett Valley, a fog shrouded valley that draws cool breezes from three directions, trapping cool air for most of the day. A nice deep pink color with a copper/orange hue, and notes of tart cherries, strawberries, and nectarines This wine is the most structured of the bunch. 

Champagne Pommery Brut Rosé Royal ($50)
If you want to splurge on some pink bubbles, here you go. This Champagne is the classic Champagne blend of Chardonnay (34%), Pinot Meunier (33%), and Pinot Noir (33%). A beautiful pale pink color with persistent bubbles sets the tone. Fresh red fruit leads (strawberries, raspberries) as well as some stone fruit (peach/nectarine). A delightful, balanced rosé Champagne that would make even the most discerning wine lover happy. Not all rosé is built for the #roséalldaycrowd. This is a fine example. 

Thank you to Taub Family Selections, Calhoun & Company, and IT-PR for these samples. Enjoy the rest of your National Rosé Day!