Friday, November 30, 2007

California Wines Not Cutting it

I spent a couple hours last night tasting through a large selection of some of the bigger names in mainstream California wine. Several of the recognizable names were there, including Caymus (Yeah the special selection stuff), Coppola Cask Cab, Duckhorn and Montelena. I have to say that despite a few finds, the overall results were wildly disappointing.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was a trio of Bennett Lane Cabs. A winery representative was there pouring, and after he finished gushing about how great the wine was, the longer hang time, the neutral oak (are those supposed to go together?) and a "drink it near term" philosophy. I tried the trio: Raisin Puree is what came to mind. In my lowly opinion those wines were cooked.

The overall theme of the tasting was one of uniformity. I didn't taste a single wine that stood out as distinct or interesting. Every single one was just an expression of power. Now there were some good expressions of power in there. The Caymus and the Coppola Cask were very drinkable, maybe even memorable. There was a Heitz Trailside that struck me as well balanced (despite being an extremely powerful effort), and a couple of bottles in the $15 range, like the Alexander Valley, were good values.

The only real saving grace of the evening was the nice selection of whites. I've traditionally shied away from the whites of Napa Valley. It seems like more often than not California wine makers choose to make trophy Chardonnay that tastes like chewing on an oak stave. Every once in a while they get it right, and wines like Ramey, Au Bon Climat, and Silver are born. All three were stellar efforts, and Ramey is like a little island of Burgundy smack in the middle of Napa. Yay for Carneros! Another fine effort came in the form of a Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc. Not the highly acidic version of the wine that is so common, the Duckhorn was made more like those Chardonnays I complain so vehemently about. In this case it works. The crisp acidic "grapefruit" flavor is cut by a mellowing creamy oak. I don't know how else to say it, the wine just tastes good.

I'm hoping this showing of whites is proof that California is moving away from its base and to a more elegant wine making practice. Seems like there is a long way to go in the Napa Cab department, but one can hope.

One thing I certainly learned from this tasting. I'm forming a palate preference. it used to be that when someone asked me that fateful "What kind of wine do you like?" question, I answered "every kind". Now I know better. Its still hard to find a wine I can't appreciate for its style, but now I think I have a firm handle on the profile of a wine that will get me excited.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

More expensive wine?

Bigger Than Your Head is disputing Wine Enthusiast's claim that wine is getting cheaper.

Here's what he says:

So, the issue doesn’t seem to be that prices for wine are going down, but that better wine is available in the $10 niche (or $15 or $20). It’s true that if one bottle of wine costs $10 and another costs $50, the average price is $30, while if four bottles of wine cost $10 and one bottle costs $50, the average price is $18. Those figures add up to more cheap wine on the market on average but not decreasing prices for wine in general. Of course Strum is writing in Wine Enthusiast’s “Special Value Issue,” so he has a bit of an ax to grind, and there’s not a thing wrong with that; it’s his magazine, and many terrific inexpensive wines are reviewed in this issue. I mean, I like to discover a great little cheap wine as much as the next person does.

Anyway, I disagree that inexpensive wines are necessarily getting better; some $10 and $11 wines from Australia actually aren’t as good now as they were 10 years ago; the specter of sameness and anonymity has fallen upon them. I do agree that we need to look to Spain, southern Italy and Argentina for the best values in cheap wines.

I don't have a copy of the editorial, but I think I'll go get one.

Hmm...WE says quality is rising. How subjective is that? What does that mean? More bottles are scored above 90 than ever before? Its easier to get a 90pt bottle for $12 than it used to be? The argument has long been made that scores are inflated, so if the score is inflated than the price is inflated too. If yesterday's 85pt wine is today's 90pt wine, then paying $12 for a 90 pt wine 5 years ago is like paying $12 for an 85pt wine today.

The truth is more likely that the 90pt wine of 5 years ago is now a 93pt wine with a price of $20, and the 85pt'er is $12 and basking in the glow of an inflated score. I didn't get any better wine for the price, likely I got the same wine for more, and the only increase in quality was the thrill I got from drinking a "highly rated" wine.


Its cold in Chicago. I broke out the scarf today, for the first of what I'm sure will be many days of hard winter. I don't know where all these global warming crazies get it from, but I'm pretty sure Al Gore doesn't live in Chicago. ;-) I'm putting away the Sauv Blancs, the Pinots, and the unoaked Chards, and I'm pulling out the Ports, Cabs, and rustic Spanish wines. Its winter! Enjoy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


In the past, I've alluded to having made wine at Crushpad. I got my wine right before Thanksgiving, and I've been through a couple bottles. So here are my thoughts on the experience.

I got involved with Crushpad through Alan Baker's Cellar Rat blog. Alan started the Pinot 2.0 project, and made a general invitation to anyone who wanted to participate to buy a case of wine as futures, and help out in the process. I went back and forth on the idea, wondering if dropping a few hundred dollars on wine I'd never tasted, from a vineyard I'd never heard of, made by winemakers with no real reputation, was a good idea. In the end I decided what I would learn in the process would be well worth the price, even if the wine ended up being plonk.

Throughout the process our group, led by Alan, discussed how we wanted the wine to be made, we made decisions like what strain of yeast to use, how much oak to use, and what the name of the wine should be. We got updates on what was happening to the wine throughout the process, when it was pressed, when acid or sulfur was added, and the like. Overall it was a very eye opening experience that taught me a lot about what goes into making a bottle of wine. It was, as I had hoped, a valuable experience.

The wine came the Thursday before Thanksgiving, and I immediately opened a bottle. It is good wine. Not the best wine I've ever had, and probably not even the best $30 bottle I've ever had, but its good. Its classic pinot. I have a hard time picking individual notes from the nose, but it smells like pinot should smell: earthy, sexy and underlined by some nice fruit. In the mouth it is clearly young, and it will take time for the flavors to develop. I'm hoping this wine is dormant right now, because that would mean its only going to get more interesting.

Would I do it again? Well I have the chance to do it again, and I don't think I'm going to. I just don't know what more I could learn from it this time around. If I was in the bay area, I might consider trying it again, but then I would likely have had a very hands on experience with the wine had I been closer to Crushpad.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Christmas Comes Early

Last year in August I signed up for the Cellar Rat's Pinot 2.0 Project. I've been waiting over a year for the wine to arrive, and today I find myself waiting like a kid on Christmas Eve. The wine is supposed to arrive at my office tomorrow. That means on Thursday I get to bring it home. I think its safe to say I'm giddy. I've been watching the FedEx tracking page intently since it shipped. According to FedEx its last known location was Reno, but I can taste an update coming any minute now.

I had some reservations about this whole project when I started. Would the wine be good, would Crushpad still be in business, what was then a long year away. Well Sunday's tasting party laid my fears to rest after I tasted a brilliantly made 2006 Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir. I'm as excited as ever about the wine. Now if it would just hurry up and get here dammit.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A weekend of wine

The weekend of Nov 10th Chicago was literally awash in wine events. I was out of town Saturday, but Sunday saw me devoting an entire day to tasting wine. The Midwest Wine Expo ran from 11-4, but that wasn't enough to satiate my taste buds, I also hopped over to Enoteca Roma for a Crushpad party.

The wine expo was phenomenal. I don't think it would have been possible for the event to have been better planned, better staffed, or better attended. If you didn't go, you missed out on a great event. It surpassed my expectations in almost every area.

I've been harping on Bordeaux for a long time. Its no secret to readers that I have a soft spot for the wine. It seems every time I open a bottle I learn something new. So I was happy to see that the expo included not three, not four, but five tables of Bordeaux wines. And if that wasn't enough, there was an entire seminar devoted to the region, hosted by someone who may have been one fo the best wine speakers I've ever heard, Shields Hood.

Bordeaux wasn't the only wine at the expo though. Attendees, at least the ones who noticed it, were treated to a multi table array of Spanish wines. Garnacha Ltd. put on an impressive display of wines, foods, and pictures from all over Spain. After spending half an hour tasting through their wines, I'm more interested in visiting the Iberian Peninsula than I've ever been.

The surprise of the day though was the complete lack of Pinot Noir. Be it Califronia, Burgundy or New Zealand, I was shocked at how little Pinot Noir was being poured. On top of that what little Pinot there was on the tables was uninspiring. I don't know what it was, maybe my palate was blown by all those big cab blends I'd been drinking, maybe I just don't like Pinot that much, or maybe all the good Pinot in town was over at Navy Pier that weekend. I considered titling this post "Pinot is Dead", but that seemed a little dramatic. There is no denying though that it was a no show for this year's Midwest Wine Festival.

I hope you got a chance to check out the festival; and if you didn't, well next year you should. This is a first class event, and if you are at all into wine, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Like I said, the festival wasn't enough. After a few solid hours of sipping, I headed over to Enoteca Roma. Crushpad put on quite the party. The event was mostly to court perspective clients, and to give them a chance to mingle with people who were already making wine. They had a few wines there to try, including a very tasty Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot. This was the wine I was hoping for, and still am hoping for, out of the Wentzel Vineyard Pinot I helped with. I'm hoping to get back to Enoteca Roma for a normal evening at the bar. I'll post something when I make it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Making the Most of the Expo

I've noticed a spike in traffic this week due to people looking for info on Binny's Midwest Wine Expo. Last year I posted a primer about preparing for a tasting. This year I wanted to take some time to cover my plans for the tasting. I'm not above whoring content for better search results, but for the sake of good taste I'll call it catering to my audience.

First some notes about preparation. Nobody wants to think about being responsible when they go to a wine tasting. A big tasting like this is like Disney World for adults, so we tend to act a little like children. There are a few things you can do though to make sure you get the most out of your experience and don't end up puking in the bathroom or getting thrown in the drunk tank.

First off eat a good meal before you show up. Oak Brook has tons of great restaurants that will be happy to serve you Sunday brunch. Go to one of them! Second spit. I know, I know, its gross. There are 700 wines at this tasting. You CAN NOT drink a 1oz sample of each of them and live to tell about it. That would be almost 30 bottles of wine (no thats not a challenge). Spit, you'll be much happier. Besides, your mother spent your entire childhood telling you spitting was bad manners. At a wine tasting its anything but, take the opportunity to stick it to your Mom.

Off my responsibility soap box, and back onto the fun box. How do you taste all the wines you want before your taste buds are so overwhelmed that can't taste any wine at all.

If you don't take anything else from this post, take this. At least take a look at the Expo Book(PDF) before you go. It has all the wines that will be poured, along with price, and the tables they will be on. Do a little planning and figure out if there is anything you really MUST taste. You would hate to get to the good stuff last when your palate was so blown out that you couldn't taste it, and even worse, you would hate to find out that someone ran out of your favorite wine.

Another opportunity to maximize your fun is to attend a seminar. Take a look at the expo book, and see if any of them interest you. These are a great way to quickly up your wine know how. I'm zeroed in on the Bordeaux Seminar (regular readers will not be surprised by this). Should be a good one.

As far as the specific wines, I think that there will be a good representation of Bordeaux there, and it looks like a fair number of quality California Pinot bottlings will be available. There are also a couple of what look to be some really interesting and good value Spanish wines. I'm hoping to take the opportunity to try some Italian wines, since thats a region I've mostly ignored throughout my wine drinking life.

If you are planning to attend the festival, maybe I'll see you there. Have a great time, and remember to drink responsibly.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


So, I've officially been saved. My weekend out of town has been whittled down to Friday and Saturday. What does that mean? Midwest Wine Expo here I come.

Also, I've been invited to attend (and I'll hopefully make it) a Crushpad tasting at Enoteca Roma. The tasting is only for people who made wine with Crushpad, or for those are thinking about it, and requires an RSVP. They are going to be at Pinot Days as well. You can find more info on all that here.

I will be posting later about my experiences with Crushpad. I get my wine some time next week. So far its been a fun experience, but I'm withholding judgment until the finished product has passed thru my lips.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Here come the Holidays

Well, love it or hate it, its Christmas time again. Here in Chicago we are getting our first real taste of winter today. Temps will drop into the 30's tonight, and by tomorrow we have an overnight low of 26. My wife makes the arrival of the holidays official by tuning her radio to 93.9's all Christmas music, all the time, playlist that began just this week.

In the wine world we know the holidays are just around the corner because all the wine shops are hosting their annual holiday, Thanksgiving, or Christmas wine tastings. Keep an eye on the calendar, as I'll be posting several of those tastings up there.

One of my favorite things about the Holidays is how closely linked they are with wine. Despite its inability to pair well with any wine, Thanksgiving is the ultimate wine meal, Christmas Dinner just begs for a good red Bordeaux, and despite my dislike of sparkling wines, I don't think it should be legal to pass on a glass of bubbly at New Year's. There is no getting around it, this is the season of wine.

For me, this is a time for family. I think it is safe to say that my favorite thing in the world is to sit around a table eating with family. I don't think it is possible to derive greater pleasure from any activity on earth. Well, okay, it is possible, but only by putting a few bottles of wine on the table. I'm already looking forward to those meals. I'm picking out the wines to bring home, and dreaming of all the good food and company to come.