Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews.

Anderson Valley Wines, 2014

 

 

Our second “Fork ‘n Cork 2014” adventure took us to the remote Buchner Estate in the mountains outside of Booneville to enjoy good food, some time with friends and explore wines in the Anderson Valley, the heart of California’s Mendocino County. Described in a 2013 WineOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Spectator article as the “New Frontier of Pinot Noir”, the region has managed through economic difficulties, a forest fire and obscurity to remain a wonderful terroir for the production of pinot noir, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, Riesling and others.

 

Webpage-photoTwo of the valley’s top rated pinot noir producing wineries listed in the 2013 article, Londers and Breggo, are no longer in business. So, these three days will be about exploring new and established small production wineries that represent the diversity and spirit of the region.

 

Foresight Wines

 

Upon my friend’s recommendation, we drove directly from San Francisco to Foresight Wines, located on CA128 at the south entrance to Booneville. Some good history with another winery sourcing grapes from their Charles Vineyard and the intrigue of a small vintner with long local lineage drew us to Foresight.

 

Bill and Nancy Charles made their mark in the Anderson Valley through lumber and construction before establishing the 15 acre Charles Vineyard in 2000, sourcing grapes to other vineyards with their first vintage in 2006. Today, daughter Kristi Charles and husband Joseph Webb work together to produce small lots of pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and, to my delight, Semillon from their estate vineyard.

 

The tasting began with the bone-dry 2011 Foresight Charles Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($20), from 100% stainless steel tanks with full malolactic fermentation, more indicative of the New Zealand style wines with a lively acidity and hints of citrus and lemongrass.

 

2012 Foresight Semillon Charles Vineyard

2012 Foresight Semillon Charles Vineyard

Rare to the Anderson Valley, Semillon is one of the three approved white grapes in the Bordeaux region of France where it is most often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Also fairly abundant in Australia, I enjoy the soft “stone” that it typically conveys. The 2012 Foresight Charles Vineyard Semillon ($20) leads with a mineral nose and ends with a creamy texture and nice acidity. Unfiltered, fermented mostly in stainless steel, this wine lives up to its 90-pt ratings and was a perfect pair with the shrimp and scallop dish we serve the following evening.

 

 

Joseph the winemaker explained that eliminating any “new oak” influences to pinot noir enable a more true expression of its fruity flavors. The unique 2011

Foresight “Zero” Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($38) uses only oak barrels that are at least two years old, resulting in a wine with a vibrant fruity nose with matching flavors of cherries and dark berries.

2011 Pinot Noir "Zero"

2011 Pinot Noir “Zero”

 

Billed as their house-style pinot, the 2011 Foresight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($46) is a blend of grapes from the vineyard’s four clones. Apparently, 2011 was an exceptionally cold year in the Anderson Valley giving advantage to those easterly vineyards, like Charles, that can still pick fully ripened grapes before the Fall rains. This result is a well-balanced wine with soft spice on the finish.

 

Catering to the need of the “heartbreak grape” to balance both hot and cold, the Anderson Valley offers unique opportunities and challenges to those seeking the perfect pinot noir. It has the largest temperature change, day to night, of any wine-growing region in the world, as high as 50 degrees. Any native knows that the middle of California’s far north gets extremely hot during the summer while the coast is encased in fog. The altitude and the welcome coastal breezes combine, with proper care, push it closer to perfection.

 

2011 Foresight Clone 05 Pinot Noir

2011 Foresight Clone 05 Pinot Noir

The best pinot noir that I tasted on this trip was the 2011 Foresight Clone 05 Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48), 100% Pommard Clone with extended maceration and aged in two-thirds new French oak. The family has learned that this quality clone, in this terroir, does exceptionally well with new French oak. Pinot noir flavors are distinct, but texture and balance of this wine have resulted in well-deserved ratings in the nineties.

A few library wines and a barrel tasting concluded a very informative experience and great new discovery. Among the older wines, the 2009 vintage Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49) was noteworthy with strong hints of star anise (licorice) on the nose and palate.

 

The barrel tasting revealed something special with local history involved. The well-known Londers Winery, no longer producing wine, created a popular pinot noir they called “Paraboll”, a wine that Joe Webb worked on. He is now crafting his own “Paraboll” to honor the Londers wine and, if the young juice in the barrel is any indication, the 2014 Foresight Charles Vineyard “Paraboll” would be something to buy futures in. In fact, I was impressed with detailed approach to winemaking, surely foresight that will lead to long-term, sustainable success.

 

Toulouse Winery

 

Toulouse Vineyard

Toulouse Vineyard

The Toulouse Winery began as a retirement venture for Vern and Maxine Boltz when they purchased, in 1997, a 160-acre parcel near the town of Philo. Today, they farm 320 acres of sustainable vineyards in a terroir that is ideal for pinot noir, but I was also searching for some little known white varietals that also thrive in this climate.

 

In lieu of typical crackers, our host at Toulouse dispensed fennel seeds to prepare and cleanse our palates before tasting each wine. Fennel seeds have a licorice, anise flavor that can also compliment the wine. Serving tasty dried cherries, spiced with sassafras and star anise with the 2010 Toulouse Anderson Valley Pinot Noir was also a clever idea. They complimented the earthy rhubarb and cola flavors of the wine in decadent fashion.

2009 Toulouse Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

2009 Toulouse Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

 

Our initial tasting was a very crisp, nicely astringent blend of Riesling (30%) and pinot gris (70%), balanced and flavorful at a low price. I found the 2011 Lautrec “Can-Can” White Table Wine ($12) to my liking with hints of grapefruit throughout a nice finish. A good quality food wine at this price is difficult to pass up.

 

In my subtle pursuit of unique California white varietals, I have learned that much of the state’s best Gewürztraminer comes from the Anderson

label_gewuerztraminer_2012

2012 Toulouse Gewürztraminer Anderson Valley

Valley. The 2012 Toulouse Gewürztraminer ($24) is a cool climate white wine, sourcing grapes from nearby vineyards and produced in an Alsatian-style, dry and aromatic. It is very floral, with honeysuckle, jasmine followed by nice hints of citrus, stone and tropical fruits.

 

Our group was also impressed with the pale; pink Toulouse Rose’ of Pinot Noir, a dry wine,expressing melon on the bouquet with nice strawberry essence throughout. Of course, we could not leave without tasting the 2008 Lautrec Pinot Noir, their very drinkable fire damaged release with “everything smoky.” Serve it with BBQ ribs right off the grill and see when happens.

 

As I was leaving, a woman stopped and invited me to taste their 2010 Toulouse Riesling Estate ($24) that became one of the most notable wines of the trip. Reminding me of Riesling from the Spatlese appellation in Germany, the wine expressed soft floral bouquet and a nice mouth-feel with stone fruits, pineapple and spice flavors, balanced and dry.

 

Phillip Hill Winery

 

Our third boutique winery, Phillips Hill, started making wine in 2002, producing less than 1,500 cases annually. Aside from their nice wines, I appreciate the effort it took to create an olfactory “smell” room to assist people in identifying typical bouquets and flavor in wine.

 

 

In an “old barn” setting, the tasting started with the 2013 Phillips Hill Chardonnay “Ridley Vineyard” ($30) with a nice mineral element to balance the stone fruits. However, the white wine that stood out was the 2013 Phillips Hill Gewürztraminer ($20) an

2012 Phillips Hill Gewürztraminer

2012 Phillips Hill Gewürztraminer

austere, but fruit forward release with hints of apple and grapefruit that converted a few of our members to the varietal.

 

We soon moved from whites to tasting a flight of the four current pinot noir releases. I recommend all of them, including 2011 Phillips Hill “Boontling” Pinot Noir ($25), named for the local jargon and utilizing grapes from various valley vineyards to create classic pinot aroma and taste. Although the Cerise and Ridley Vineyards are both in the Anderson Valley, they represent two distinct AVA designated

2011 Phillips Hill Two Terroirs Pinot Noir

2011 Phillips Hill Two Terroirs Pinot Noir

appellations or “two terroirs.” The 2011 Phillips Hill “Two Terroirs” Pinot Noir ($40) was the big, earthy wine of the flight, with healthy tannins, spice on the finish and a prosperous future.

 

The final wines were single-vineyard releases, one from Elk, CA and the other from Comptche, five miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.   Both the 2011 Phillips Hill Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) and the 2012 Phillips Hill Valenti Vineyard Pinot

2012 Phillips Hill Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir

2012 Phillips Hill Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir

Noir ($45) expressed the complexities and rich texture throughout and were both exceptional wines. Because of stories of a superb 2012 vintage in the vineyards surrounding Elk, Ca, I chose the younger Valenti Vineyard release that is already showing forward fruit flavors of pomegranate and strawberry along with full spice on the finish. One can only imagine what a few more months in the bottle can bring.

 

Two hours north of San Francisco, Booneville and the Anderson Valley deliver a slower, more remote lifestyle to relax and also discover emerging, innovative wine makers producing unique wines of high quality. The people are friendly, the stories are abundant and the stars exploding in the night sky is worth the effort to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our second “Fork ‘n Cork 2014” adventure took us to the remote Buchner Estate in the mountains outside of Booneville to enjoy good food, sometime with friends and explore wines in the Anderson Valley, the heart of California’s Mendocino County. Described in a 2013 Wine vineyard_1Spectator article as the “New Frontier of Pinot Noir”, the region has managed through economic difficulties, a forest fire and obscurity to remain a wonderful terroir for the production of pinot noir, chardonnay, gewürztraminer, Riesling and others.

 

Two of the valley’s top rated pinot noir producing wineries listed in the 2013 article, Londers and Breggo, are no longer in business. So, these three days will be about exploring new and established small production wineries that represent the diversity and spirit of the region.

 

Foresight Wines

 

Upon my friend’s recommendation, we drove directly from San Francisco to Foresight Wines, located on 128 at the south entrance to Booneville. Some good history with another winery sourcing grapes from their Charles Vineyard and the intrigue of a small boutique with long local lineage drew us to Foresight.

 

Bill and Nancy Charles made their mark in the Anderson Valley through lumber and construction before establishing the 15 acre Charles Vineyard in 2000, sourcing grapes to other vineyards with their first vintage in 2006. Today, daughter Kristi Charles and husband Joseph Webb work together to produce small lots of pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and, to my delight, Semillon from their estate vineyard.

 

The tasting began with the bone-dry 2011 Foresight Charles Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($20), from 100% stainless steel tanks with full malolactic fermentation, more indicative of the New Zealand style wines with a lively acidity and hints of citrus and lemongrass.

 

Rare to the Anderson Valley, Semillon is one of the three approved white grapes in the Bordeaux region of France where it is most often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. Also fairly abundant in Australia, I enjoy the soft “stone” that it typically conveys. The 2012 Foresight Charles Vineyard Semillon ($20) leads with a mineral nose and ends with a creamy texture and nice acidity. Unfiltered, fermented mostly in stainless steel, this wine lives up to its 90-pt ratings and was a perfect pair with the shrimp and scallop dish we serve the following evening.

 

 

Joseph the winemaker explained that eliminating any “new oak” influences to pinot noir enable a more true expression of its fruity flavors. The unique 2011

Foresight “Zero” Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($38) uses only oak barrels that are at least two years old, resulting in a wine with a vibrant fruity nose with matching flavors of cherries and dark berries.

 

Billed as their house-style pinot, the 2011 Foresight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($46) is a blend of grapes from the vineyard’s four clones. Apparently, 2011 was an exceptionally cold year in the Anderson Valley giving advantage to those easterly vineyards, like Charles, that can still pick fully ripened grapes before the Fall rains. This result is a well-balanced wine with soft spice on the finish.

 

Catering to the need of the “heartbreak grape” to balance both hot and cold, the Anderson Valley offers unique opportunities and challenges to those seeking the perfect pinot noir. It has the largest temperature change, day to night, of any wine-growing region in the world, as high as 50 degrees. Any native knows that the middle of California’s far north gets extremely hot during the summer while the coast is encased in fog. The altitude and the welcome coastal breezes combine, with proper care, push it closer to perfection.

 

The best pinot noir that I tasted on this trip was the 2011 Foresight Clone 05 Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48), 100% Pommard Clone with extended maceration and aged in two-thirds new French oak. The family has learned that this quality clone, in this terroir, does exceptionally well with new French oak. Pinot noir flavors are distinct, but texture and balance of this wine have resulted in well-deserved ratings in the nineties.

A few library wines and a barrel tasting concluded a very informative experience and great new discovery. Among the older wines, the 2009 vintage Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49) was noteworthy with strong hints of star anise (licorice) on the nose and palate.

 

The barrel tasting revealed something special with local history involved. The well-known Londers Winery, no longer producing wine, created a popular pinot noir they called “Parabol”, a wine that Joe Webb worked on. He is now crafting his own “Parabol” to honor the Londers wine and, if the young juice in the barrel is any indication, the 2014 Foresight Charles Vineyard “Parabol” would be something to buy futures in. In fact, I was impressed with detailed approach to winemaking, surely foresight that will lead to long-term, sustainable success.

 

Toulouse Winery

 

The Toulouse Winery began as a retirement venture for Vern and Maxine Boltz when they purchased, in 1997, a 160-acre parcel near the town of Philo. Today, they farm 320 acres of sustainable vineyards in a terroir that is ideal for pinot noir, but I was also searching for some little known white varietals that also thrive in this climate.

 

In lieu of typical crackers, our host at Toulouse dispensed fennel seeds to prepare and cleanse our palates prior to tasting each wine. Fennel seeds have a licorice, anise flavor that can also compliment the wine. Serving tasty dried cherries with sassafras and star anise with the 2010 Toulouse Anderson Valley Pinot Noir was also a clever idea. They complimented the earthy rhubarb and cola flavors of the wine in decadent fashion.

 

Our initial tasting was a very crisp, nicely astringent blend of Riesling (30%) and pinot gris (70%), balanced and flavorful at a low price. I found the 2011 Lautrec “Can-Can” White Table Wine ($12) to my liking with hints of grapefruit throughout a nice finish. A good quality food wine at this price is difficult to pass up.

 

In my subtle pursuit of unique CA white varietals, I have learned that much of the state’s best Gewurztraminer comes from the Anderson Valley. The 2012 Toulouse Gewurztraminer ($24) is a cool climate white wine, sourcing grapes from nearby vineyards and produced in an Alsatian-style, dry and aromatic. It is very floral, with honeysuckle, jasmine followed by nice hints of citrus, stone and tropical fruits.

 

Our group was also impressed with the pale; pink Toulouse Rose’ of Pinot Noir, a dry wine,expressing melon on the bouquet with nice strawberry essence throughout. Of course, we could not leave without tasting the 2008 Lautrec Pinot Noir, their very drinkable fire damaged release with “everything smoky.” Serve it with BBQ ribs right off the grill and see when happens.

 

As I was leaving, a woman stopped and invited me to taste their 2010 Toulouse Riesling Estate ($24) that became one of the most notable wines of the trip. Reminding me of Riesling from the Spatlese appellation in Germany, the wine expressed soft floral bouquet and a nice mouth-feel with stone fruits, pineapple and spice flavors, balanced and dry.

 

Phillip Hill Winery

 

Our third boutique winery, Phillips Hill, started making wine in 2002, producing less than 1,500 cases annually. Aside from their nice wines, I appreciate the effort it took to create an olfactory “smell” room to assist people in identifying typical bouquet in wine.

 

 

In an “old barn” setting, the tasting started with the 2013 Phillips Hill Chardonnay “Ridley Vineyard” ($30) with a nice mineral element to balance the stone fruits. However, the white wine that stood out was the 2013 Phillips Hill Gewurztraminer ($20) an austere, but fruit forward release with hints of apple and grapefruit that converted a few of our members to the varietal.

 

We soon moved from whites to tasting a flight of the four current pinot noir releases. I recommend all of them, including 2011 Phillips Hill “Boontling” Pinot Noir ($25), named for the local jargon and utilizing grapes from various valley vineyards to create classic pinot aroma and taste. Although the Cerise and Ridley Vineyards are both in the Anderson Valley, they represent two distinct AVA designated appellations or “two terroirs.” The 2011 Phillips Hill “Two Terroirs” Pinot Noir ($40) was the big, earthy wine of the flight, with healthy tannins, spice on the finish and a prosperous future.

 

The final wines were single-vineyard releases, one from Elk, CA and the other from Comptche, five miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.   Both the 2011 Phillips Hill Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir ($40) and the 2012 Phillips Hill Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45) expressed the complexities and rich texture throughout and were both exceptional wines. Because of stories of a superb 2012 vintage in the vineyards surrounding Elk, Ca, I chose the younger Valenti Vineyard release that is already showing forward fruit flavors of pomegranate and strawberry along with full spice on the finish. One can only imagine what a few more months in the bottle can bring.

 

Two hours north of San Francisco, Booneville and the Anderson Valley deliver a slower, more remote lifestyle to relax and also discover emerging, innovative winemakers producing unique wines of high quality. The people are friendly, the stories are abundant and the stars exploding in the night sky is worth the effort to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Syrah and Cheese Pairing

 

 

 

A well-known “wine sage’ recently told me that California consumers don’t respect syrah. I disagreed, highlighting its adaptability to our diverse regions and, of course, the great Rhone blends coming out of Paso Robles. Then, my friend asked me how much syrah I actually drink.

 

Admittedly, eliminating meat from my diet has minimized syrah as a food pairing choice, but a quick inventory of my cellar confirmed that wineandcheesetasting1some very good wines have been waiting too long for attention. The pride in my collection of syrah wines was not making it to my palate.

 

I quickly resolved to share my finest syrah, pair it with some world cheeses and host a tasting event to support a local high school art project. Contrary to the fairly uncomplicated selection of the wines, the cheeses would require more research.

 

As fate would have it, weeks after deciding to host the event, I received, as a D.E.W.N. member, a bottle of 2011 Bonny Doon Sparkling Syrah ($36), another Randall Grahm experiment. This was a wonderful coincidence that resolved the issue of our welcoming toast in a very unique way. Pairing it with a cheese creates a new thorny issue.

2011 Bonny Doon Sparkling Syrah

2011 Bonny Doon Sparkling Syrah

 

Pairing cheese with syrah is difficult because the grape is so diverse and a limited number of cheeses will stand up to its earthy, spice flavors. Another small disappointment is that the popular triple crème and brie cheeses are out of the question even though they are generally excellent pairs with sparkling wine.

 

Taking a bit of a risk, I chose the Rogue River Blue from the Rogue Creamery in Southern Oregon to pair with our sparkling syrah. As a

Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery

Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery

blue cheese, the Rogue River lacks the aggressive bite and has an exceptionally creamy texture. The fact that the cheese is wrapped with syrah grape leaves soaked in brandy was novel, but would it balance the smoky, candied fruit flavors of the sparkling syrah. The answer will come from the tasters.

 

My desire to showcase the breadth of syrah demanded that we include, in addition to my California selections, examples from Australia and the northern Rhone Valley in France where it originated. My resources at Monopole Wine in Pasadena recommended a syrah/Grenache blend from the Barossa Valley in South Australia and a Northern Rhone syrah. We are ready to complete our pairings

 

Generally, semi-firm cheeses with intense flavor profiles are the best matches for seasoned syrah. Old World cheddars, blues and Spanish sheep cheeses with forceful flavors seem to balance the wine on the palate and add a global perspective.

 

Our guests were reminded to judge each wine for color, texture, bouquet and flavor. The cheeses were unique and were rated individually as well as their compatibility to the wine. Of course, the progression is always a sip of wine, a taste of cheese and a second sip of wine.

 

To my previous point, I was relieved that our “welcome pairing” of the 2011 Bonny Doon Sparkling Syrah and the Rogue River Blue cheese from Oregon worked and was one of the day’s favorites. I typically serve the Rogue River Blue covered in honey as a dessert. Its darker color, buttery texture and more austere creamy flavors make it approachable even for those who avoid blue cheeses. The deep violet color, atypical for a sparkling wine, delivered a blend of candied berries and savory flavors. Aside from 17% Grenache, all of the remaining syrah grapes (83%) were sourced from the Jespersen Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County, a nice transition to our next pair.

2010 Bonny Doon Syrah Jespersen Vineyard

2010 Bonny Doon Syrah Jespersen Vineyard

 

Since the 2007 vintage, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm has introduced four 100% syrah wines, each sourced from hand-selected vineyards throughout the state. All of the grapes for our next wine, the 2010 Bonny Doon Syrah “Jespersen Vineyard” ($45) come from the same vineyard as the sparkling syrah. I matched the wine with the smoky Idiazabal, a semi-firm, raw sheep cheese from the northern Spain Basque region near the Pyrenees Mountains.

 

Idiazabal ewe cheese from Spain

Idiazabal ewe cheese from Spain

The “Jespersen” syrah is more fruit forward then others with slightly pronounced berries and plum flavors supported by an earthy mouth-feel. Idiazabal is best when it is mature, but not over-aged. The smokiness and buttery texture are subdued enough to enhance, not deflect the flavor of the wine.

Carrying on with fruit forward syrah, our second pour was the luscious 2007 Halliwell Syrah/Grenache ($30) from the Barossa

2007 Halliwell Syrah-Grenache

2007 Halliwell Syrah-Grenache

Valley in South Australia. Syrah and Grenache are two grapes whose flavor profile is significantly changed by the heat from “down under.” The fruit flavors in syrah emerge to the surface more than in the moderate Rhone Valley climate. In fact, the unblended syrah wines are

such distinctive “fruit bombs” that the Aussies renamed them Shiraz.

 

Staying within the continent, I selected the Windsor Blue cow cheese from New Zealand, a full-bodied 2006

Windsor Blue Cheese from New Zealand

Windsor Blue Cheese from New Zealand

Supreme Champion that remains creamy, buttery and as delicate as blues come. This was, possibly, my favorite paring of the day.

 

Destined to be the challenging pair of the tasting, the 2008 Twisted Oak Syrah/Viognier ($32) from Calaveras County and the English Barbers 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar became the overwhelming

favorite of the group. Always big and earthy, this particular wine has some age to it and, fearful of its tannins, I decanted it for a few hours. The result was a big, earthy wine, boasting flavors of both bacon and caramel that was perfectly balanced throughout.

 

2008 Twisted Oak Syrah Viognier

2008 Twisted Oak Syrah Viognier

This wine needed the oldest cheddar in the United Kingdom, known for intense, deep flavors and the “Barbers 1833”

Barbers 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar

Barbers 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar

pushed the pair over the top.

 

Next, we went all French with the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Syrah ($35) from the northern Rhone Valley and Ossau-Iraty,

an ewe cheese from the southern Basque region north of the Pyrenees Mountains. While the 92-pt wine and cheese both expressed diverse flavors from black olives and pepper to currants, licorice and caramel, they were exceptionally composed with a healthy earthiness.

 

In an appellation that takes its name from both the Ossau Valley and nearby Iraty Forest, local producers have

Ossau-Iraty cheese from southern France

Ossau-Iraty cheese from southern France

perfected a cheese that is nutty and salty enough to enhance the right bottle of wine. In reverse, the wine augmented the caramel notes of the cheese. This was also one of my preferred pairs of the day.

2009 Crozes-Hermitage Syrah

2009 Crozes-Hermitage Syrah

 

From one of the best and most respected vineyards in California, Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley, Randall Grahm sources grapes for, arguably, his best single vineyard syrah. Those who are familiar with California syrah and pinot noir know that the Bien Nacido Vineyard has been sourcing grapes to top winemakers for years. It is an honor and a good marketing tool to display their name on your label. I chose another French cheese, Tomme de Savoie to pair with the 2007 Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard ($55) because of its earthy, meaty qualities that were compatible with

2007 Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard

2007 Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard

this powerfully elegant wine, sensible and spicy.

Tomme de Savoie

Tomme de Savoie

 

We concluded the tasting with the 2011 Longoria Syrah “Vino Dulce” ($23), a dessert wine fortified with brandy that was aptly paired with chocolate. We recently discovered this complex, yet yummy port-style wine while visiting the well-known Santa Barbara County winemaker’s Los Olivos tasting room and it served as the perfect ending.

 

I asked each participant to evaluate each wine independently. Of course, with 15 tasters, conversation played a role in determining 2010-Syrah-Port-web-2everyone’s top two preferences. While not the diversity of opinion I expected, the overwhelming choice for top wine was the 2008 Twisted Oak Syrah/Viognier from Calaveras County. I had tasted this wine a few years ago and found it a bit young and acidic, but with good potential. As a precaution, I decanted the wine for nearly two hours before serving which enhanced a syrah that had already evolved into power and elegance. The 2009 Longoria “Vino Dolce” dessert wine was a distant second place followed by the Halliwell Syrah/Grenache from Australia.

 

As for the cheese, the Rogue River Blue and the Windsor Blue, both moderate flavored cheeses with exceptional creamy texture and balanced flavors were the top choices followed closely by the Barbers 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar, the top release from England’s oldest cheddar region.

 

As for me, I created the pairing and am, obviously, partial to all of them. However, amidst the busy tasting, I did feel a connection between the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Syrah and the Ossau-Iraty, both from France and with the most diverse flavor profile.?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

 

I order most of my gourmet cheeses from igourmet.com that delivers huge selections with high quality to your doorstep on a designated date. With some research, good syrah can be found at larger outlets, but if you get serious about the grape, there are shops like Monopole that can walk you through those, foreign and domestic, that will give you the “best bang” within your budget.

 

 

 

 

 


Randall Grahm and his Bonny Doon

 

Photos by Karen Norton

 

Randall Grahm is iconic. He is a piece of any discussion of the history of California winemaking. Known as the original “Rhone Ranger”, it all started from his desire to create the perfect pinot noir and believing it could be done in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He began with a thirty-acre parcel in the small burg of Bonny Doon, sharing its Scottish heritage with the other small enclaves like Ben Lomond, Loch Lomond and Scott’s Valley, which have been part of the Santa Cruz Mountains persona forever.

Randall Grahm

Randall Grahm

 

He still loves the mineral elements and austerity of the great Burgundian wines, but is best known for introducing Rhone varietals and blends to California with Grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault and others. The diversity of his palate, along with a willingness to take risks in the name of creativity has afforded Randall an adventurous appeal with wine lovers over the years.

 

Having chosen to divest myself from the restricted nature of most wine clubs, I am proud to have been, in good standing, a member of the Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network (D.E.W.N.) for nearly twenty years. With good wine as a given, Bonny Doon Vineyards will often introduce me to new varietals and blends, often produced from vineyards in the most obscure locations, each with a story brought to life through Randall’s arcane tasting notes, carefully selected labels and screw cap bottles, that he fervently contends are superior to cork. I enjoy his newsletters knowing that they will require multiple readings to fully comprehend. Reading them with a glass of wine helps.

 

logoAn opportunity to taste some current Bonny Doon releases with Randall brought me to Monopole Wine in Pasadena on a Tuesday evening. Always embracing variety and pushing some envelope, no two Bonny Doon tastings are alike and while most of the selected wines were familiar, this one would be special.

"The Flight"

“The Flight”

 

 

One of Bonny Doon’s most acclaimed wines begs the question, “What is a Vin Gris?” It is a rose’ wine formed by limited contact with skins,

2012 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare

2012 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare

made, not as a byproduct of red wine production, but artistically created with fine grapes blended together in the optimum manner. The acclaimed 2013 Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare ($18) is a blend of seven Rhone Valley grapes, red and white, that balance the dominant Grenache, with the help of some post-fermentation “batonage”, to make a simple wine with extraordinary creamy texture and flavors that don’t “fatigue the palate.”

If you like pink or “salmon” wines, this is a must.

 

Some time ago, as a loyal D.E.W.N. member, I was sent two bottles of something called “Querry Cider.” Admittedly not a fan of hard cider, this one was of interest not only because it was sparkling but also comprised of natural pear, apple and quince, fermented in their natural yeasts. Quince is a small pome fruit from a deciduous tree that resembles a pear and taste like a “pearapple”.

 

All of the ingredients are fermented together with mesh bags of milled quince hung in the tanks. The resulting 2011 Bonny Doon “Querry” Sparkling Hard Cider ($16)  is low alcohol, crisp, bone-dry and ready to refresh us all on a warm summer day.  As Randall says, “I never thought I’d see…a pome as lovely as Querry.”

2011 Bonny Doon ?Querry? Sparkling Hard Cider

2011 Bonny Doon ?Querry? Sparkling Hard CiderQuerry Sparkling Hard Cider ($16) is low alcohol, crisp, bone dry and ready to refresh us all on a warm summer day. As Randall says, “I never thought I’d see…a pome as lovely as Querry.”

 

A discussion of the need for more austere wines prompted Randall to open a bottle of his 2012 Heart Has It’s Riesling ($18), the label adding evidence of his hands-on involvement from soil to shelf and all in-between. With only nine percent alcohol, this wine resembles a German Kabinett-style Riesling, crisp, acidic

2012 Bonny Doon "The Heart Has It's Riesling"

2012 Bonny Doon “The Heart Has It’s Riesling”

with pleasant earthy, mineral nuances.

 

San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonne’ described the 2012 Bonny Doon “Clos du Gilroy” ($20) as “uncomplicated delicious” while Wine Spectator magazine called it one of “10 Bold California Reds” with a rating of 91 pt.   Actually coined as “the wine formerly known as Clos Du Gilroy”, the grapes for this Grenache (75%), syrah (17%) and mourvedre (8%) blend now come from the Alta Loma vineyard in Greenfield, CA and vineyards in Santa Maria and the Sacramento Delta.

 

Described by its maker as “liquid cranberry sauce,” the Grenache dominant wine, fermented in all stainless steel, is peppery like syrah and a nice complement to spicy Asian foods

2013 Bonny Doon "Clos du Gilroy"

2013 Bonny Doon “Clos du Gilroy”

 

There is nothing ordinary about the 2011 Bonny Doon “Contra” ($18). Firstly, it primarily consists of old vine carignane from the Sacramento Delta communities of Antioch and Oakley in Contra Costa County, east of the San Francisco Bay. These are hardly recognizable vineyards unless you are searching for carignane and mourvedre vines in California.

Secondly, the careful selection of secondary grapes is an education of diverse California appellations in one bottle.

 

2011 Bonny Doon "Contra"

2011 Bonny Doon “Contra”

Carignane, a Spanish/French grape that is planted throughout the Mediterranean region, adds concentrated fruit and berry flavors, but looks to others for complexity and balance. In the Rioja region of Spain, carignane, known as mazuelo, blends effectively with tempranillo. Here, while Randall explains that carignane vines “must be old to be good”, it leans to mourvedre and a small exotic

array of grapes from Monterey County, San Luis Obispo and the Santa Maria Valley. The concoction is mixed together with some oak chips in stainless steel tanks.

 

The result is a complex, reasonably priced red wine that will stand up to red meats, even spicy BBQ ribs and, as we were reminded, “all Bonny Doon wines pair well with pork products.” This wine is very drinkable now with some decanting, but Randall estimated that it could age well for another 12-14 years.

 

“Claret” is the English word for “Bordeaux,” an alien blend to Bonny Doon, produced here through Randall’s predilection for a more austere wine. He declares that “there is this false belief that new Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley must be 14% alcohol,” defending his “anti-fruit bomb” stance in favor of wines, lower in alcohol, that work better with food.

 

Influential wine critic Robert Parker has maintained such a high regard for the so-called high-alcohol “fruit bombs” that some say he has created new expectations for winemakers. While acknowledging that big wines fit some palates, Randall’s problem with Parker is that he doesn’t see any other viewpoint but his, which inhibits diversity and leads to a

2012 Bonny Doon "A Proper Claret"

2012 Bonny Doon “A Proper Claret”

“homogenization of winemaking.”

 

Thus, the more suitable 2012 Bonny Doon “A Proper Claret” ($16) is a unique blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, tannat and petite sirah with moderate tannins and a

nice licorice quality that can be enjoyed now. An abnormally high ration of petit verdot enhances the silky texture and floral hints while the tannat, native to the French Basque region, adds tannins to repress and balance the dominant cabernet sauvignon. This is an exceptional wine for the price.

 

Known as their flagship wine, the 2009 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant ($79) and its predecessors, have carried the “State of the D.E.W.N.” message since the first vintage in 1984. A classic Rhone blend of syrah, Grenache, mourvedre and cinsault, Randall abandons all decorum when he describes it as a “Burgundian Chateaunef du Pape” (Rhone Valley) wine. He explains that wines from the Burgundy region have more feminine qualities, perfumed and floral and both are present here.

 

2009 Bonny Doon "Le Cigare Volant"

2009 Bonny Doon “Le Cigare Volant”

The “batonage” process allows the juice to mix with the yeast lees, giving the wine a silky texture and earthiness. It’s extended time in the bottle gives balance and length that can be enjoyed now or for years to come.

 

The prominent labels pays homage to an actual 1954 local ordinance that prohibits all flying saucers or “flying cigares” to penetrate any air space over the vineyards of Chateaunef du Pape. To date, the ordinance has worked.

 

Not part of this tasting, I highly recommend any of Bonny Doon’s four single-vineyard 100% syrah from the highly respected vineyards, Bien Nacido, Alamo Creek, Jespersen and Chequera.

 

Every wine tells a story, but most from Bonny Doon are like novels, revealing some little known varietal originating from a strange vineyard or appellation, delivered with humor, witIMG_4118 and the passionate skill to make it a bestseller. Feeling the need to get beyond varietal wines, Randall Grahm lives by his credo that “we need to make original wines…we will never get it as good as the Old World.” I think we can get close.

 

 

 

 


Richard Longoria Wines

 

 

 

Our first 2014 Brown’s Valley Fork and Cork Society event took place, over three days, deep into the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, specifically the Vineyard House of the Koehler Winery. With a restricted membership, the Society consists of three couples whose friendship and love of food and wine exceeds forty years. Amid a misty early Spring rain, we set

Longoria Tasting Room in Los Olivos

Longoria Tasting Room in Los Olivos

upon this gorgeous property, tasked with producing one dinner and breakfast each, sampling some local wine and food, finding scenic locations to get our “steps” in and quietly prepare for evening

The "Fe Ciega" Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills

The “Fe Ciega” Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills

cut-throat sessions of “Balderdash” and “Wizard”.

 

Balancing our desire to enjoy the property and explore local wines mandated the choice of one high quality winery that personifies the diversity in the region, specializes in food-friendly wines and is located nearby. My choice was a no-brainer and, luckily, Longoria Wines and their quaint Los Olivos village tasting room were available and willing to host our group.

 

My introduction to Richard Longoria Wines began through my passion for pinot noir, when years ago I first tasted his “Fe Ciega” Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills appellation.

 

Established in 1998, the site of this vineyard is as unique of any in the state. The Spanish words for “Blind Faith”, the Fe Ciega Vineyard

2011 Longoria Pinot Noir "Fe Ciega" Vineyard

2011 Longoria Pinot Noir “Fe Ciega” Vineyard

is located on the north side of the imposing Point Conception, above Santa Barbara, that forms the only east-west coastal mountain range in California. This natural feature and proximity to the Pacific Ocean make it ideal terroir for pinot noir.

 

The 2011 Longoria Pinot Noir “Fe Ciega Vineyard”($48) embodies elegance from the very fruit-forward, spice-driven aromas through the velvety texture long on the palate.

Oak plays a significant role in creating this wine, much of it new and thirsty. Its compatibility with salmon also makes the “Fe Ciega” a personal favorite and one can find it paired with fantastic dishes at local restaurants like Los Olivos Café and Sides Shoes and Hardware.

 

Longoria produces four additional pinot noir varietals including the accessible Longoria Pinot Noir “Lovely Rita” Santa Rita Hills ($32) and a single vineyard release from the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard.

 

Richard Longoria has been a winemaker, mostly in this region, for forty years. After a brief stint at Buena Vista Winery, his passion for pinot noir and food-friendly wines led him to this area and the Firestone Winery where he met and later married his wife Diana, who handles business operations for Longoria Wines.

Chardonnay Block at Koehler Winery

Chardonnay Block at Koehler Winery

 

Richard spent over a decade as winemaker at Gainey Winery near Solvang before starting his own small label in 1982, going full-time with the present winery in 1997.

 

With an extensive resume, a very special vineyard and long-time friends in the region, Richard has set high standards for the wines that bear his name. The results have been fruitful as Longoria Wines consistently receive outstanding reviews in major periodicals.  On this rainy morning, Diana Longoria and an associate were on-hand to carefully guide us through their story and their wines.

 

Lottie and Mojo making friends with the sheep

Lottie and Mojo making friends with the sheep

A classic cool climate chardonnay from four different Santa Rita Hills vineyards, including Rita’s Crown and Fe Ciega, the grapes for the

2011 SRH Chardonnay “Cuvee Diana” ($40), named for Richard’s better half, are harvested, oak-barrel fermented and aged separately. The

2011 Longoria Chardonnay "Cuvee Diana"

2011 Longoria Chardonnay “Cuvee Diana”

best of each lot are carefully blended before bottling to meet Richard’s goal of fragrant aromas, good texture and complexity with the mineral elements of a classic Burgundian wine.

 

This is my preferred chardonnay style, no stranger to oak with some butterscotch on the nose and enough acidity to pair well with seafood, and yes, more seafood. Longoria produces two additional “chards” including an exclusive from Rita’s Crown Vineyard.

 

Rose’ wines have been back in vogue for the past decade and the new ones have no relationship to your mother’s favorite white zinfandel. The 2012 Longoria Pink WineCuvee’ June” ($18) , their granddaughter, is a dry, not sweet, complex blend of Grenache and syrah resulting

2012 Longoria Pink Wine "Cuvee June"

2012 Longoria Pink Wine “Cuvee June”

in a very nice food friendly rose’. Only 62 cases of this stainless steel fermented “pink wine” were produced making it in high demand.

 

Longoria has been one of the few wineries in this region to diversify and experiment with Spanish varietals like tempranillo and albarino, both increasingly popular with consumers seeking alternatives to varietals. Their 2011 Longoria Tempranillo Santa Ynez Valley ($36), with small amounts of syrah and merlot and aged in 100% American oak, 45% new, has a nice spice on the nose and toasty rich fruit flavors with manageable tannins.

 

The top tempranillo aficionado in our group gave it a “thumbs up.” The warmer climate and terroir of the Santa Ynez Valley seems to adapt well to the tempranillo profile and we can anticipate the planting of more vines.

 

The 2011 Longoria “Blues Cuvee” ($30) and its predecessors first attracted my attention through the label artwork, always depicting a jazz or

2011 Longroria "Blues Cuvee"

2011 Longroria “Blues Cuvee”

blues musician. Primarily a Bordeaux blend today, Richard originally created it as a single varietal Cabernet Franc, so ahead of its time that it preceded demand by California consumers and, hence restaurants. Needing to spark sales for this wine’s survival, he re-established it as a “Cabernet Franc/Red Table Wine. Later, Longoria’s love of blues music led to the artistic label that changes every two years and the wine that no one wanted suddenly became high in demand.

 

More than a story, the “Blues Cuvee’ delivers a highly complex bouquet with very balanced flavors and tannins.  Cabernet Franc still comprises slightly more than

Longoria "Blues Cuvee'"

Longoria “Blues Cuvee'”

half of a blend with Bordeaux partner’s cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and, a Rhone Valley guest, syrah. Not one for restraint, I forced myself to take a bottle

home.

 

Speaking of syrah, many Santa Ynez Valley vineyards like Clover Creek in the warm Happy Canyon appellation have become a friendly home for syrah grapes. It is without hesitation that I recommend the Longoria Syrah Clover Creek Vineyard 2011 ($28) as a fine localized representation of the varietal. According to the winemaker, the vineyard is adjacent to the Santa Ynez River and has a cooling effect on the vines that seems to draw the fruit and berry flavors to the surface.

2011 Longoria Syrah Clover Creek Vineyard

2011 Longoria Syrah Clover Creek Vineyard

We also made a note of the long and balanced finish with no hints of harshness.

 

Once again, syrah was featured in what turned out to be a pleasant surprise of the tasting. The 2010 Longoria ”Vino Dulce” Syrah Santa Barbara County ($23), a port-style fortified wine, expresses the same complexities as any Clover Creek Vineyard syrah, equal to, yet different.

 

For me, the first test of any rich port-style wine is the bouquet. The “Vino Dulce” aromas of baked cherries and typical spices are clear, but then we are asked if we can sense the chocolate. One more sniff, nose in the glass and we say, “oh yes, definitely cherries and chocolate,” surrendering to the power of suggestion.

 

This full-bodied dessert wine has a velvety texture and the soft cherries and spicy flavors are integrated and balanced which generally translates to “smooth”. One more taste, paired

2010 Longoria "Vino Dulce" Port-style wine

2010 Longoria “Vino Dulce” Port-style wine

with a piece of chocolate and we were treated to a nice long finish to the wine and the tasting.

 

Our group, consisting of six adults, Mojo, a standard “party” poodle and Lotti, a soft-coated Wheaten terrior, found the large 3 BR/3BA, pet friendly Vineyard House at Koehler Winery to our liking. They also have smaller units available, all in a beautiful, vineyard setting.

 

Los Olivos is an ideal place to relax and sampling a flight of Richard Longoria releasess is a great introduction to the diversity of a region that consistently creates wonderfully balanced, food-friendly wines.

 

 


California Family Winemakers

 

Attending a large event like the California Family Winemaker trade show, March 9th in Pasadena can, at times, be disconcerting.  With too many wineries, too many people, these tastings lack the intimacy, the discussion it takes to truly understand the wine.  With a crowded room and nearly 160 wineries pouring their new vintages, the time for a proven “take-a-way strategy was now.sm_IMG_0111_SMV-1

I scan the booklet, select a few wineries that represent the top end and try to discover new and re-discover old wines that are, in my judgment, worthy of our palates. Great wineries like Fiddlehead (Santa Rita Hills), Ken Volk (Santa Maria Valley) and Adelaida Cellars (Paso Robles) were on-site but removed pic_vyd_pisoni2because I had recently tasted and written about their new vintages.

After tasting their available flights, red and white, the following wineries produced specific wines that rose to the top.

Thomas Fogarty 2011 Gewürztraminer

Thomas Fogarty Winery 1981   

 

Founded in the late 1970’s by Stanford neurosurgeon Dr. Thomas Fogarty, the winery that bears his name is one of those special Santa Cruz Mountain wineries, near Woodside, CA that we discovered some years ago.  Very good wineries like this legend get lost

2011 Thomas Fogarty Gwerztraminer

2011 Thomas Fogarty Gwerztraminer

in the rapidly changing and increasingly competitive California wine market

In the late 1980’s when Fogarty forged into the new red varietal boom with pinot noir and meritage, we soon forgot that their Gewürztraminer is, annually, as good as any from California.

The Thomas Fogarty Gewurztraminer Monterey County 2011 ($18) has that pleasant combination of floral and tropical fruit flavors and the nice hint of star jasmine on the nose. This is one of the few Fogarty wines with grapes sourced from outside his estate vineyards.  Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands, south of Salinas, seems to be ideal terroir for this soft white wine.

2009 Novy Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands

Siduri/Novy Family Wines 

 

Novy Family Wines is a spin-off of Siduri, who have made high quality pinot noir from the top vineyards for many years.  Novy

Novy Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands

Novy Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands

Family Wines follows this tradition while focusing on fine syrah.  The 2009 Novy Santa Lucia Highlands Syrah ($28) sourced from the appellations finest “Garys’, “Rosella” and “Susan’s Hill Vineyards,” has full dark fruit and spice driven flavors that are balanced and long-lasting in the mouth. The grapes from each vineyard are fermented and separately then the best barrels are selected for the final blend.

Novy produces several 100% syrah wines and they are all exceptional for my palate.

Rocca “Vespera” Red Blend NV 2009

Rocca Family Vineyards

 

Years ago, I had an opportunity to discover Rocca Family wines in their, then downtown Napa tasting room. I specifically remember the good, medium-priced cabernet sauvignon from one of their two estate vineyards, Grigsby and Collinetta.

After tasting two very nice single vineyard cabernet sauvignon releases, I was drawn to the Rocca “Vespera” Red Blend 2010 ($50), a cabernet sauvignon dominant blend with 12% each of petit verdot and petite sirah and a touch of syrah.  This

Rocca "Vespera" 2009

Rocca “Vespera” 2009

combination trends toward “big and bold” and this wine does not disappoint. It has a very aromatic bouquet, very forward flavors of dark cherries and berries with a pleasant texture and balance offering a bit of restraint. Although fairly pricey, it is a special wine and only 215 cases were produced.

 

2009 Westerly “Fletcher’s Red” Blend

Westerly/Santa Ynez Valley

 

A new collaboration between proprietor Roger Bower and winemaker Adam Henkel, Westerly Wines produce both red and white wines that focus on the coastal Santa Rita Hills and the warm, inland Happy Canyon appellation in the Santa Ynez Valley, both in north Santa Barbara County.

Westerly "Fletcher's Red" 2009

Westerly “Fletcher’s Red” 2009

Their flagship 2009 Westerly “Fletcher’s Red” Blend ($75), consisting of merlot (46%), Cabernet Franc (29%), cabernet sauvignon (15%) and syrah, (10%), each fermented separately, exudes nicely focused fruit flavors and, with full malolactic fermentation, is soft enough to drink now.

The 2011 Westerly Cote Blonde ($50), a blend of Rhone varietals syrah (95%) and viognier (5%)is also recommended.

Over 650 individual wines to taste, all from California Family Winemakers, and these are the best based on my unscientific and, somewhat, subjective methodology.


Lyle’s Totally Subjective Top Ten Films of 2013

 

Indicative of the 2013 movie year, I found myself struggling to get to yes on a final list that reluctantly omitted several superb films.   While very good writing is the heart of very good films, the actors were up to the task in 2013.  For Academy members to choose between Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Amy Adams for Best Actress is ludicrous given that each delivered truly memorable performances.  Selecting a Best Actor among the nominees will be equally difficult.

My top film of 2013 has it all, a heart wrenching true story, a terrific script by Steve Coogan and an unforgettable performance by Judi Dench in the title role of “Philomena”.

1.  “Philomena “– The back-story of Philomena Lee, a real Irish woman who’s 3-year old child from a 1950’s teenage pregnancy was taken, against her will and sold for adoption by a Catholic convent to an American family, was revealed through an association, years later,  with a

Philomena

Philomena

BBC journalist who is helping to locate her now adult son in the U.S.  It has plenty of drama, epiphanies for both characters and an unexpected closure.  I just enjoy watching Judi Dench act and Steve Coogan was a good match with his script as well as on-screen.

2.  “The Great Beauty” – Admittedly, it will take a few more viewings for me to understand this film enough to semi-intelligently discuss it.  However, like a fine wine, I know it is going to be extraordinary once that happens.  Meanwhile, Paolo Sorrentino’s film reveals a man, near his 65th birthday, that is dealing with the

The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty

recent understanding that his effort to lead a narcissistic, uncomplicated life, void of close relationships, may have been a mistake.  Jep, played by Toni Servillo, takes us on his inner journey, with many surrealistic, metaphorically wrought images all set within a wonderful postcard called Rome.  I can’t wait to watch it again.

 3. “Nebraska”  -  Alexander Payne has become one of today’s most reliable writer/directors, with films like “The Descendents” and “Sideways,” creating real characters that, from time to time, have crossed our paths.  We meet Woody (Bruce Dern) and Kate (June Squibb) Grant and their odd family and friends as Woody and his youngest son journey from Montana to Nebraska to collect a bogus fortune.  Shot in black and white, this is a story of a man growing old with regrets, moving through a torturous past toward some simple legacy.

 4.  “American Hustle” – David O. Kelley continues as one of the best directors of this time with an enjoyably convoluted story that is centered on the

American Hustle

American Hustle

reluctant partnership of a con man and the FBI in taking down members of the New Jersey mafia.  Aside from an intense script, the superb ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner made the film exceptional.

 5.  “Dallas Buyers Club” – Matthew MCConaughey’s portrayal of real life character Ron Woodruff who, seeking experimental Mexican drugs for his own AIDS virus, began smuggling them into Texas and distributing to local patients under the name, Dallas Buyers Club, is worthy of an Academy Award.  In addition to his drastic weight loss, the character fit McConaughhey’s style of sarcasm and wit perfectly.  This film wasn’t always fun to watch, but the performances, including that of Jared Leto were compelling throughout. This is the year that Matthew needs to get Oscar tickets for his parents.

6.  “Blue Jasmine” – Although the Bernie Madoff theme is over used, once again Woody Allen creates another modern script, attracts fine veteran actors and allows them to develop their character.  Cate Blanchett is brilliant in the title role as a woman

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine

having difficulty separating fantasy from reality as well as her complicity in a  “riches to rags” situation.  Sally Hawkins earned her Oscar nomination while Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Caravale were outstanding in another clean drama/comedic effort from one of the best filmmakers of any time.

7.  “In A World” – Inspired from the age of Don LaFountaine and other men in Hollywood who made careers from their voices, recording radio film promotions, the creatively odd comedy, “In A World”, is about a woman rising in a male dominated craft, fueled by the fact that one of its threatened patriarchs is her father, played by

In A World

In A World

veteran actor, Fred Melamed.  Lake Bell wrote, directed and delightfully starred in this small indie film that takes you out of your comfort zone and unveils a narrative set within a diminishing Hollywood community.

8.  “Her “– My first impression of “Her” was that it was new and different.  It focuses on a man who develops a relationship with an intelligent computer operating system (IOS) in a film written perfectly for the talent of Joaquin Phoenix.   Uncomfortable with normal human attachments, Theodore begins to fall in love with his IOS at a time when he is deciding whether to sign his divorce papers.  Of course, if “IOS”

Her

Her

relationships take off, there will certainly be high demand for the Scarlett Johansson app.  I also appreciated the subtle detail in depicting a futuristic Los Angeles.

9.  “The Wolf Of Wall Street” – I heard comments like “over the top” and Leonardo joked when the Golden Globe classified the film, not inaccurately, as a comedy. As he ages, Martin Scorese just wants to have fun.  Here, he takes a true story of gross corruption and indulgence and magnifies it beyond comprehension.  For

The Wolf Of Wall Street

The Wolf Of Wall Street

Dicaprio and Jona Hill, this film had to be a total blast to make. The “delayed qualude country club” scene will instantly become classic and this film achieved the goal of any comedy; it made me laugh out loud.

10. “Captain Phillips/The Past” – Coping to a cop-out, my reluctance to exclude either of these thoroughly converse films from my list led to them sharing this spot.  Most audiences knew the story of Captain Phillips before

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

the film started, but director Paul Greengrass takes us into the middle of the struggle and allows the audience to feel fear, rage and compassion, mostly in the confines of a very small, crowded vessel.  The story of Barkhad Abdi, a Minneapolis cab driver cast in the role of a Somailian pirate who now has a reserved seat at the Oscars is as intriguing as the one that omits Tom Hanks from the list of nominees.  If I ever need to be rescued from danger, my preference would be the Navy Seals.

Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi follows up his superb, “A Separation”, with a complex film of how past

The Past

The Past

relationships can reveal new issues as a husband (Tahar Rahim) returns from Iran to Paris to finalize a divorce with his soon to be ex-wife (Berenice Bejo).  The plot is pealed away, layer by layer as we begin to understand the characters and the core of their behavior.  Like a good novel, I await Farhadi’s next film.

 

Honorable Mention:  Fruitvale Station,  Starbuck,  12 Years A Slave,  Blackfish,  Saving Mr. Banks, Populaire,  The Hunt

Best Short Film/Live Action:  “Aquel No Era Yo” (That Wasn’t Me)

Best Short Film/Animated:  “Mr. Hublot”

 


Brunello di Montalcino Wines

 

 

 

In the heart of the Tuscany wine region, south of Florence, Italy sits the small medieval village of Montalcino, perched on a hilltop in the province of Siena, surrounded by 3,000 acres of vineyards.  Brunello, translated “brown grape”, references the darker color

Montalcino, Italy

Montalcino, Italy

of the sangiovese grape when grown in the diverse local soils of clay, limestone or volcanic matter.  Brunello di Montalcino

Vineyards in Montalcino, Italy

Vineyards in Montalcino, Italy

describes the 100% sangiovese wines that emerge from this unique area, the first to be granted Italy’s DOCG wine region designation in 1980.  Today, over 200 winemakers produce vintages that peak the interest of consumers/collectors throughout the world.

My interest in exploring these big earthy red wines peaked when we were invited by the Consorzio Del brunello_consorzio_logoVino Brunello di Montalcino to attend a private tasting at the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills introducing the region’s 2009 vintage.

This 2009 vintage of Brunello di Montalcino was a four, not five-star release like 2007 or 2006.  Production in 2009 fell by 20% mainly due to two factors:  higher than average temperatures in June-July and late season rains that either rushed or delayed the harvest.  Ironically, these factors were present in some recent California vintages.

It is a known fact that Brunello di Montalcino wines in most instances need years to mature. The experts tell us that the unique conditions of the 2009 vintage resulted in fresher grapes, softer and rounder with less tannins, more ready to drink.  The impacts of extraordinary summer heat and untimely, late rains led winemakers to “drop” or sacrifice any damaged fruit to enhance the grapes that survived.  While this process of natural selection results in a lower yield, the fruit flavor is often more concentrated and rich.

While Italy is no stranger to fine blended wines, one grape seems to be enough for the Montalcino region.  Most believe that the sangiovese grape produces more complex and better-textured wines going solo.  Brunello di Montalcino wines vary within themselves and with the diverse terroir that exists, one grape is definitely enough.

Brunello di Montalcino Paraisone Colle Degli Angeli

Brunello di Montalcino Paraisone Colle Degli Angeli

Aside from high tannins and acidity, traditional Brunello di Montalcino wines are often described as earthy with aromas and flavors of sour cherry.  This description always begs the question. “What does “earthy” taste like?”  The  “earthy” descriptor in wine can refer to the smell and taste of damp earth or the dusty flavor that is apparent in rich, highly tannic wines.  However depicted, one will know it when smelling and tasting the wine and, most likely, will either love it or hate it.

The diverse soils of the Montalcino region most certainly will add earthiness to the wines, but other traditions enable these large brown grapes to fulfill their potential.  Maceration, the process of leaching color, flavors and tannins from the skins to the juice, is much longer in these wines, adding rich, dark color, flavor and age worthy tannins.

Cautious with anything that may affect the balance of the wine, Brunello di Montalcino wines are aged three to five years in Slavonian oak that is less forceful than French oak.  In addition to the typical aging, experts feel a good wine from this region needs 10 years to mature.

The end result is rich, friendly and full-bodied wines, 35% of which are exported to awaiting U.S. consumers. Hence, consortiums are formed and events for media and trade are hosted.  The following 2009 wines were selected for this tasting.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009-Barbi ($49)

 

The Colombini family has been harvesting grapes from their Montalcino vineyards since 1790.  Still run by the family, the Barbi1 winery balances old traditions with modern technology such as a cold maceration process called “cyro maceration” that is intended to enhance the aromas of the wines.

From elevated vineyards with rough topography, this is a warm, friendly wine with a bouquet and flavors of sour cherry, a nice minerality, healthy tannins and, of course, a damp earthiness.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG – Camigliano ($50.)

 

Grown in low elevation vineyards located in the far west of the zone, Brunello di Montalcino from the Camigliano Winery generally has lower acidity and tannins with a higher fruit character.  Fermented in stainless steel after a long maceration process, the juice spends two years in French oak and another in the bottle before release.

Following nice sour cherry on the nose, the flavors are quite full on the palate with high fruit character and balanced tannins, making it more ready to drink.   Elegant wines such as this with high, balanced tannins are, according to our sommelier, indicative of a Brunello di Montalcino four-star vintage.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009 – Capanna

 

Grown in soil heavy with limestone, this wine is currently expressing overly high tannins and acidity, evidence that it is still too young and needs to age another four to five years.  With extended maceration and full malo-lactic fermentation, odds are that those who can be patient will be rewarded with an elegant wine.  Tannin management is important with Brunello di Montalcino wines and this one needs more age and experience.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009 – La Magia

I found the La Magia release to be one of more complex and interesting wines of the tasting.  It has a perfumed, herb and spice

Brunello di Montalcino La Magia

Brunello di Montalcino La Magia

nose, round and complete.  After 36 months in oak and another year in the bottle, our sommelier still felt that the wine needed 10-18 months more time to mature.

There is a consistent effort among these winemakers to manage the tannins and balance their wines. Similarly, California winemakers and consumers seem to be moving away from the large “fruit bomb” wines toward those with more balance. With this in mind, I noted a thread through local Brunello di Montalcino winemakers when one commented, “Over fruitiness can become the enemy of complexity.”  European wines, for the most part, are blends where “the whole is larger than the sum of its parts” attitude drives their success.  Here, winemakers must deal with the complexities of a single grape.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009 – Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli

To make this wine, grapes from four lots or “crus” in the northeast of the zone, are harvested separately at different times

to assure best conditions and also vinified in different batches.  Taste analysis determines the best batches for Brunello di

Brunello di Montalcino Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli

Brunello di Montalcino Paradisone Colle Degli Angeli

Montalcino and others for the local Rosso or Sant’antimo wines.

This wine had solid, but well-managed tannins and the complex, balanced flavors made it one of the best pours of the entire tasting.

Brunello di Montalcino DOCG 2009 – Sassodisole

The Terzuoli family has been farming this land, now called Societa’ Agricola Sassodisole, since the beginning of the 17th Century  Despite the intimidating earthy aromas, this wine had the softest balanced tannins with concentrated fruit flavors of any wine at the tasting.

Brunello di Montalcino Sassodisole

Brunello di Montalcino Sassodisole

Age is a factor for this wine that spends one year in stainless steel followed by three years in Slavonian oak and another in the bottle.  It was my favorite at the event and one that is highly recommended.

Brunello di Montalcino wines, including some of the ones we tasted, can with very little research be found at various wine outlets. Look for the 2006, 2007 or 2009 vintages to determine if these bold, earthy wines are your cup of tea.


Why Tempranillo?

 

With all the hoopla over the emergence of Rioja wines from Spain, let us be reminded that the “backbone” of their wine is the tempranillo grape, known in some circles as Spain’s cabernet sauvignon.  Both grapes provide deep red juice, both emerged primarily within great blends and California later focused on their individuality. The comparisons end there because the tempranillo grape is expanding globally and is becoming a wine of preference for many U.S. consumers.

Paderewski Vineyard, Templeton, CA

Paderewski Vineyard, Templeton, CA

Early 1970’s archaeological unearthing of a mosaic of the wine god, Bacchus, solidified the premise that tempranillo has been in Spain since 800 BC.  Today, there are over 500,000 acres under vine in Spain, Portugal, USA, Australia with small amounts in South America and South Africa.

The appeal of tempranillo evolves differently for different people.  In Spain, it blends brilliantly with graciano, grenacha and mazuelo, in Australia with syrah and Grenache, both native to France’s Rhone Valley and, in the USA it comes every which way including solo.

The tempranillo grape has been described as both thick and thin-skinned but by personal observation, it is larger than most wine grapes.  Also compared to sangiovese, tempranillo delivers, beyond the profound cherry and plum flavors, deep leather and

Bodegas Mugas Selección Especial 2009

Bodegas Mugas Selección Especial 2009

spice tones that result after extended exposure to oak.

Tempranillo finds its full potential in Spanish wines from Rioja and Ribero del Duero because of extended aging and exposure to oak.  It is also highly influenced by cool climate that spawns more acidic, age worthy wines, while warmer temperatures produce those that are darker and more fruit forward. In California, single-varietal or highly dominant tempranillo blends find their best terroir in warm Calaveras and Amador counties, in the Sierra Foothills where the summers are extremely hot.

Clearly, the tempranillo grape’s finest manifestation is blending with graciano, mazuela and granacha to create the superior blends from the Spanish regions of Rioja, Ribero del Duero where it is known as tinto fino and Penedes, south of Barcelona, assuming the name “ull de liebre.”

Tempranillo from these Spanish regions, especially those with some age and exposure to oak, contributes soft tobacco nuances to accompany the dark berry and cherry flavors that often linger throughout a long finish.  These and other attributes including reasonable pricing have attracted American consumers, which has prompted more winemakers to experiment with the grape.

While the Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004 (95 pt/$63), Wine Spectator magazine’s 2014 Wine of the Year, may still be scarcely available, expect to find excellent Rioja wines like the Bodegas Mugas Seleccion Especial 2009 (95 pt/$40), a typical tempranillo dominant blend with texture that makes one feel like they are chewing the ripe flavors of fruit and dark berry. Bodegas Mugas produces a dozen different wines, more than half of which are exceptionally good.  They export

La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva

La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva

60% of their vintages to the US and they can be found with a little research.

More of that Rioja ripe concentrated fruit can be found in the aged La Rioja Alta Vina Ardanza Reserva 2004 (94 pt/$35) and R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Red Reserva 2002, both with tremendous balance and expressive flavors I tasted firsthand last Spring.

R. Lopez Heredia Vina Tondonia Red Reserva 2002

R. Lopez Heredia Vina Tondonia Red Reserva 2002

Australia is a big country comprising all the mainland of the Australian continent. Their wine regions extend like a strap, east to west along the entire southern mainland with hundreds of microclimates.  While not diminishing the other great varietals grown in Australia, winemakers found their signature wines through the French Rhone syrah grape, renaming it Shiraz.

Taking another lesson from the French, the Aussies are now putting their unique touch on famous Rhone blends of syrah, Grenache and mourvedre by substituting tempranillo for mourvedre with good reason. While both grapes will add structure to the blend and are compatible with grenache, the warmer summer climates in southern Australia can extract more concentrated fruit flavors from tempranillo to enhance the blend.

The tempranillo grape is also expanding in Portugal where it is used extensive in fine ports and red blends, assuming the name, “tinta roriz.”  The dry, Quinta do Passadouro Douro 2010 (91 pt/$25), a blend of tinta roriz, touriga nacional and touriga franca, has been reviewed as a full flavored wine for a value price.

Driven Cellars Tempranillo Amador County 2009

Driven Cellars Tempranillo Amador County 2009

Among California vineyards, tempranillo plantings, once called valdepenas, are expanding, mainly in warmer regions like the Sierra Foothills, Paso Robles and northern Napa Valley. While California can replicate a good Rioja blend, we seem to be consumed with producing single-varietal wines. The full complexity in structure and flavor of California tempranillo is present in the 2009 Driven Cellars Tempranillo Amador County ($25) in the heart of Gold Country. From the Rioja earthy aromas through the long finish with a bit of chocolate, this was clearly my take home from this eclectic winery.

My personal favorite California tempranillo is a blend from Calaveras County vineyards near Angels Camp.  Any vintage of the Twisted Oak “The Spaniard,” a tempranillo-dominant blend with graciano and granacha, from Twisted Oak Winery near Angels Camp, seems to best

Twisted Oak "The Spaniard" 2008

Twisted Oak “The Spaniard” 2008

characterize the deep color and balanced flavors of an aged Rioja blend. Aptly named a “gentle giant” for flavors that are both bold and smooth, the current 2009 vintage is a beautifully structured, classic “Spaniard” release that, unfortunately, is sold out. Fortunately, the readily available 2009 Twisted Oak Tempranillo Rolleri Vineyard ($28) is also a very nice wine.

A visit to Calistoga in the northern Napa Valley led to the discovery of the 2009 Vincent Arroyo Tempranillo ($28) with strong, but balanced fruit flavors. The 2010 vintage is also sold out due to the boutique Vincent Arroyo Winery’s reputation for producing fine, accessible wines.

Vincent Arroyo Winery Tempranillo Napa Valley

Vincent Arroyo Winery Tempranillo Napa Valley

The addition of tempranillo to a traditional southern Rhone blend, exemplifying new experiments from the “Rhone Rangers” of Paso Robles led to one of the top rated wines of 2013.  The Epoch Estate Blend Paderewski Vineyard Paso Robles 2010 (93 pt/$40), adding only seven percent tempranillo to the syrah, Grenache and mourvedre blend creating juice described by Wine Spectator as “ripe, rich, fruity and complex.”

Plantings of tempranillo vines have expanded to the Umpqua Valley AVA in southern Oregon, the Yakima Valley AVA in Washington and to another US region some are calling our best terroir for tempranillo:  the Texas Hill Country. Vineyards, wineries and tourism are developing in the area near Fredericksburg in south Texas and the top red varietal is the heat loving, ripe tempranillo grape. Among several wines from the region, the 2011 Pedernales Cellars Texas Tempranillo Reserve is most noteworthy, having been awarded a Gold Medal in the 2013 San Francisco International Wine Competition.

Pedernales Cellars Texas  Tempranillo Reserve 2011

Pedernales Cellars Texas Tempranillo Reserve 2011

Tempranillo has become increasingly popular in California, becoming a red wine of choice because of its structure and full fruit flavors.  With the success of Spain’s Rioja region in recent years, the tempranillo grape’s stock is up in California and worldwide.  If vineyards of tempranillo expand in new regions like South Africa, it may become a household name for wine consumers.


Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of 2013

Wine Spectator magazine releases their annual Top 100 Wines list gradually, two per day for the first week and the remaining 90 wines a week later.  Early results revealed prolongation of the epic Napa Valley vs. France battle, more presence from the Pacific Northwest and some sightings of Italy and Spain.  Actually, the Rioja region of Spain made a significant statement through a wine and winery that I nearly visited last Spring.

#1 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004

#1 Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004

HOORAY FOR RIOJA!

In May, we spent a few days visiting Haro in northern Spain’s famed Rioja wine region.  The Haro Wine Loop allows one to access 5-6 different wineries by foot. We walked by the CUNE Winery on my way to an interview at R. Lopez de Heredia, later choosing Bodegas Mugas as our last stop. Had we opted for Cune, we would have, most certainly, tasted the Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva 2004(95pt/$63), Wine Spectator’s #1 most exciting wine of 2013.

Cune is an acronym for “La Compania Vinicola del Norte de Espana”, translated “The Northern Spanish Wine Company”, founded in 1879 at it’s current Haro location, by two brothers whose descendents still operate the business.  The “Imperial Reserva”, a

CUNE Winery in Haro, Spain

CUNE Winery in Haro, Spain

tempranillo-dominant blend, began in the 1920’s as a special bottling for an English market and has become a thriving red wine ever since.

The designation of this Cune blend is recognition of the world-class wines that have emerged from the Rioja region into U.S. markets for decades. We find seven Rioja wines on the 2013 list, a few that I have actually tasted.  Rioja wines are usually very aromatic, full-flavored and deliver long finishes.  However, the most noteworthy attribute of Spanish winemakers is their commitment to aging.

Aside from the 2004 “Imperial Blend”, other Rioja wines on the 2013 list include the #22 La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva 2004(94pt/$35) and the incredible # 29 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Rioja White Gravonia

La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva

#22 La Rioja Alta Rioja Vina Ardanza Reserva

Crianza 2003 (93 pt/$36), vintages much older than the norm for other 2013 releases.

While many Rioja wines boast aging of at least two years each in the barrel and bottle, the fact remains that many wineries delay release for nearly a decade after harvest.  In May, we tasted the 1998 vintage “Vina Tondonia” white wine, an unheard of release age compared to other regions of the world.  By comparison, California whites are typically consumed within 18 months from release.  Many Rioja white wines are not released for ten years and proclaimed drinkable for another decade.

Some Rioja wines have an earthiness; others are very fruit forward, but aging, undoubtedly, contribute to the complex, fully balanced flavors. Balancing Old World tradition with modern technology, Rioja sits among the world’s finest regions and continues to deliver fine, aged wines to the U.S. market at competitive prices.

NAPA LEADS THE WAY

The Napa Valley contributed 14 wines, the most of any region.  While half of the wines were their classic and pricy cabernet sauvignon releases, the remaining half, surprisingly, included five different varietals.  In past years, most of the top California pinot noir releases originated from nearby Sonoma Co. In 2013, half of the, California pinot’s come from the Carneros region in the Valley’s southwest section, nearest and most influenced by the San Pablo Bay inlet of the San Francisco Bay.

During the past Century, the Carneros has suffered vine-killing disease and has overcome a reputation for bad soil and atypical weather to become synonymous with good wine, primarily because its terrior is understood. Coastal influences certainly

#31 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard

#31 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard

contributed to the success of the single-vineyard #31 Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2010 95 pt/$65 or the #59 Donum Pinot Noir Carneros 2010 95pt/$72, a wine that has become a leader in the Carneros pinot revival.

Even with the new diversity, the cabernet sauvignon grape is still king in the Napa Valley.  There are seven Napa Valley Cabs on the 2013 list, led by the #4 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford 95 pt/$92 and the #9 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve 2010 96 pt/$135, both in the top ten.  Originally planted in 1880, Hewitt re-planted the 60-acre

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford

#9 Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford

vineyard with cabernet sauvignon grapes and now produces one of the valley’s best, especially compared to others under $100.

Notwithstanding that the #72 Shafer Relentless Napa Valley 2010 95 pt/$72 returning to the list after the previous vintage was named 2012 Wine of the Year, varietals like syrah, zinfandel and chardonnay have, in recent years, thrived in other California regions.  However, the diversity of Napa Valley is on full display in 2013.

From a small vineyard above the valley floor, a former UC Davis professor is the source of the #30 Lagier Meredith Syrah Mount Veeder 2010 and a famous “Zin” vineyard near St. Helena

churned out only 200 cases of the #90 Carlisle Zinfandel Napa Valley Hayne Vineyards 2011 93pt/$48. Based on

Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2010

#5 Kongsgaard Napa Valley Chardonnay 2010

their reputation for creating balanced, elegant chardonnay, it’s nice to see the #5 Kongsgaard Chardonnay Napa Valley 2010 95pt/$75 listed among the best wines of this year.

THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Ten percent of the wines on the 2013 list stem from Oregon (4) and Washington State (6).  The #3 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Evenstad Reserve 2010, a leader among the state’s consistent high-quality pinot and a list veteran, the #10 Quilceda Creek Cabernet

#3 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad 2010

#3 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad 2010

Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2010 95pt/$135, both made the top ten.

The emerging Walla Walla region is showcased by the #11 Reynvaan Syrah Walla Walla Stonessence 2010 98pt/$70, the highest rated wine and the #27 Spring Valley Uriah Walla Walla 2010, a merlot-based blend.

#10 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

#10 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

The #17 Alexana Pinot Noir Dundee Hills Revana Vineyard 2010 94pt/$42 proves dominance throughout Oregon, but the price of the #55 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir Oregon 90pt/$18, a hybrid of 60 vineyards yielding over 130,000 cases, intrigued me enough to purchase a few bottles.

 

FRANCE, ITALY & PORTUGAL

The wines from France and Italy, vintage to vintage, have a major presence on the list due,in part, to the broad range of their regions.

While Bordeaux led France’s typical high quality releases, the southern Rhone Valley premier appellation, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, arguably the world’s finest, placed the Grenache-based #7 Domaine du Pegalu Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee

#8 Château du Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010

#8 Château du Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010

2010 97pt/$120 and the classic #8 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2010

Domaine du Pegalu Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reserva 2010

#7 Domaine du Pegalu Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reserva 2010

96pt/$120, that used varying amounts of all nine grapes permitted in the region.  Of note, the neighboring Gigondas appellation produced the Grenache-based #15 Olivier Ravoire Gigondas 2010 94pt/$33 that appears to be a good value if you can find it.

Among the mighty, Provence has emerged as an important French region producing fine rose’ and, having attended their showcase tastings in Los Angeles, I anticipated their eventual inclusion on the list.  The cinsault, syrah, Grenache blend #84 Jolie-Pitt & Perrin Cotes de Provence Rose’ Miraval 2012 90pt/$28 comes from the Provence estate of Angelina and Brad in partnership with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel fame. This designation makes it the world’s finest rose’ for 2013.

The big, earthy, sangiovese-based Tuscan wines have an ongoing love affair with American consumers.  However, the Piedmont region, producing nebbiolo-based Barolo blends positioned itself convincingly with five wines including the #6 Guiseppe

#6 Guiseppe Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato

#6 Guiseppe Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato

Mascarello & Figlio Barolo Monprivato 2008 95pt/$110 and the #16 G.D. Vajra Barolo Albe 2008 94pt/$42, Italy’s top rated wines.  The moderate price of the #18 Poggerino Chianti Classico 2010 93pt/$25, an authentic Tuscan sangiovese, enticed itself on to my wish list.

Four Portuguese releases, two ports and two red blends were incorporated into the list. For those seeking value without compromising quality, the #37 Quinta do Passadouro Douro 2010 91pt/$28 is a blend of three native grapes from the Douro region and a wine to make note of.

Aside from these trends, we now anticipate seeing wines from Germany, South Africa and South America appear annually.  One particular wine, the widely available, moderately priced #36 Bodega Norton Malbec Mendoza Reserva 2011 92pt/$20 is a full-flavored wine that has made numerous appearances.

This snapshot of 2013 has me wanting to explore more wines from Walla Walla, Piedmont and, of course, Rioja. Fourteen countries and four U.S. states have contributed to this 2013 who’s who of wine, evidence of its global impact.

 


The White Hill Towns of the Andalucia

 

Photographed By:  Karen and Lyle Norton

 

While visits to Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla are a must when traveling in southern Spain, our decision to spend three days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucía Mountains left us with a memorable experience that exceeded expectations at all levels.

Our image of old Spain is, in many regards, based in Andalucía.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and unbelievable landscapes.  With the larger cities of southern Spain on the horizon, our focus for the next few days was Ronda and the other pure, picturesque whitewashed hill towns, each sustaining their own unique village lifestyle.

Learning a few days earlier that the Ronda Avis office had closed, thus terminating our reservation, we were able, through the help of a hotel clerk in Madrid, to secure an early 21st Century “Ford something” from a local entrepreneur.

Ronda, Spain

Ronda, Spain

We arrived by train in Ronda, which was intended just to be our headquarters for daily excursions to the hill towns.  Rain required a taxicab straight to our hotel, but our desire to walk and to see some of the town before dusk led us back out, requiring an umbrella and rain coats.  While on this walk we soon discovered that Ronda was not only our base, but also the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.

"El Tajo"

“El Tajo”

Directed to Plaza se Espana and the New Bridge, built in 1751, which leads to the entrance of Old Town, we first passed by Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century.  Then, as we approached the “Puente Nuevo,”  the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view.  A ravine, nearly 400 feet deep and 200 feet wide that divides the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, from the new town (cir. 1485) “El Tajo” is spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, natural landscapes and buildings perched at the base of its cliffs, but the view of the bridge, reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls was as spectacular as any span I had ever seen.

This first visit was a stunning preview to Ronda and sparked our desire to hike down the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail for the best views.  However, we had a car reserved for the next morning and the hike would have to wait until we had explored the other white hill towns.

GRAZALEMA

DSC00973

Grazalema, Spain

Amid a steady rain, we received our car and were soon driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the winding incline that assured us we were on our way to Grazalema, the first white hill town. Grazalema, Zahara and the Pileta Cave, three stops on our visit, are all located within the park.

Grazalema is a cozy little village, nestled into the hills, surrounded by large, spectacular rock

Rooftops of Grazalema

Rooftops of Grazalema

outcroppings.  Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window flower boxes spilling over with bright flowers line the narrow streets that all lead to a small public square, which was fairly empty on a rainy Sunday morning. With quaint shops and remarkable views, Grazalema is a popular base for Spaniards who hike in the natural park.

Driving over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass to Zahara was my most “white-knuckled” in memory. Twisting, slick roads at high altitude, with no protective barriers, in a strange car with manual transmission all shared responsibility for the increase in my heart rate. We did find respite at the summit with the large mountainous saddle rendering views of the Zahara Reservoir.  More winding roads lie ahead as we began DSC00978our dissent down the mountain toward the second village.

ZAHARA

Zahara spreads out below an old fortified Moorish castle that once constituted its boundaries.  Once a stronghold for the Moors, Zahara played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482.  The hike from the village up to the castle is good exercise and renders some impressive views of the region.

Zahara, Spain

Zahara, Spain

Our brief time in Zahara was spent exploring the cobble-stoned streets between more whitewashed

View of Zahara Resevior

View of Zahara Resevior

buildings, finding interesting shops and numerous vista points.  In a small church off the town square sits the Virgin of Dolores, an iconic statute that is celebrated throughout the year.

The quiet solitude of Zahara reflects a simpler lifestyle, the locals going calmly about their business in a friendly manner.  If arriving or leaving Zahara via route A-374, a stop at the Zahara

Flowers in Zahara

Flowers in Zahara

Reservoir turnout is recommended for great panoramic views of the town.

Route A-374 soon turns into A-384 and we are on our way to Arcos de la Frontera, our final white hill town stop of the day.

ARCOS DE LA FRONTERA

The old town of Arcos narrowly spreads itself across the hillside cliffs, seemingly a totally different place than the lower village.  For me, the best part of Arcos is the views of old town shimmering in the late afternoon sun.

Arcos

Arcos

Plaza del Cabildo, the center of old town is bookended by the Church of Santa Maria and the parador, a former governor’s palace. After a surprisingly nice dinner in old town, we drove back to Ronda, anxious to explore our local environs more thoroughly.

BACK TO RONDA

Our base, the Hotel Maestranza, is located on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, directly across the street from the bullring. Aside from the experience of standing in the middle of the ring, smaller than imagined, there was a wonderful museum including centuries old costumes and, more recent

Ronda Bullring cir. 16th Century

Ronda Bullring cir. 16th Century

photos of Ernest Hemmingway who was a part-time resident here. The picturesque arena, perched on the cliffs was intriguing, but the canyon spoke to us.

Crossing the bridge, stealing another glance at the gorge, we are soon in old town with more narrow streets and whitewashed buildings.  The building entrances innocently face the street.  Only once inside do you realize they are built directly on the cliffs of “El Tajo.”

Panoramic of Ronda

Panoramic of Ronda

As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of the bridge, cliff-top buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora continued to change the deeper we descended. Dozens of photographs later, we ascended the trail back to old town and began to explore the ancient La Cuidad area, including the remnants of early Arab cultures.

View of Arab Bridge

View of Arab Bridge

Up from the gorge, we traversed through the Moorish Quarter and its amazing history, walking toward “El Tajo,” moving down past the Old Bridge, which was built around 1616, and an old city wall to the Arab Bridge, marking the ancient entrance to Ronda.

A short distance past the Arab Bridge lies the remains of the Arab Baths whose location was not an accident.  After a long journey, the baths provided the necessary place to cleans one’s body before prayer.

Arab Baths

Arab Baths

Our ascension back up the opposite side of the canyon to Plaza de Espana left us with many scenic views and an appetite.  We found a restaurant perched on the canyon wall and settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. During lunch my wife informed me that we had to be at the entrance of Pileta Cave by 4pm.  What and where, I inquired.

A history buff, Karen had discovered that Pileta Cave is

Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back 25,000 years.  Soon, we were back in our car, driving past cork and olives toward the small town of Benaojan, a benchmark on the way to the cave.

Entrance to Pileta Cave

Entrance to Pileta Cave

Descending into a cave is never really pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp, and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I felt responsible for the six people between the next lantern and me. However, the rewards were astonishing and sometimes hard to comprehend. This is prehistoric finger-painting at its best with many definitive drawings of horses, cattle and, uniquely, a large fish.

Touring the Pileta Cave was an amazing end to an amazing three days. Ronda and the White Hill Towns

"El Tajo"

“El Tajo”

of the Andalucía surpassed all of our expectations and became one of the most memorable stops during our month in Spain.  The next morning we were on a train headed to Cordoba and Sevilla with the conviction that we would one day return to Ronda to further explore the area and relax in the atmosphere of true Spanish hospitality.

 

 


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