Category Archives: Red Wine

Zinfandel – California’s Claret

Yes, it’s true, all Zinfandel grapes have red skins. The white Zinfandel grape does not exist – yet.

Zinfandel has been a part of California’s history for around 150 years. It was rumored to have been brought into California in 1862 by Agoston Haraszthy, then owner of Buena Vista Winery. He was a member of the state commission on viticulture who brought back thousands of vine cuttings from a trip to Europe. His account of this trip and his work in the early California wine industry can be read in his book Grape Culture, Wines and Winemaking, published in 1862.

However, Zinfandel was never mentioned in Haraszthy’s literature of the time. Instead, there is mention of “Zenfendel” in 1829, by a Mr. George Gibbs of Long Island. Zenfendel resurfaced in Boston a few years later where it was known as “Zinfindal” and grown in greenhouses as a table grape.

After the California Gold Rush, many a forty-niner decided to forsake the gold pan for a plow, sending for plants from the east coast. It’s likely that Zinfindal was included in a shipment around 1852 and by 1859 was documented to be grown in both Napa and Sonoma. In 1862, the same year that Haraszthy’s book was published, the Sonoma Horticultural Society gave a bottle of Zinfindal to a French winemaker at a California winery who proclaimed it “a good French claret.”

Still, Zinfandel was used to make jug wines in the early years and favored by the California winemakers of Italian decent. It reminded them of the wines from Sardinia, Sicily or Puglia. With good reason.

In the early 1990’s, the mysterious Zinfandel was finally DNA fingerprinted. It was found to be the Primitivo grape of southern Italy. But even that was disputed when an ancient Croatian variety, Crljenak Kastelanski, was confirmed to be – through DNA fingerprinting – genetically identical to Zinfandel.

It turns out that Crljenak Kastelanski and Primitivo are related, sort of like twins. Triplets if you count Zinfandel. But differences in vine vigor and cluster size separate Zinfandel from its genetic twins. Other differences such as soil, rainfall and winemaking combine to give Zinfandel its own truly American style.

U.S. regulations stipulate that on wine labels, Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately. Thankfully, there is no danger of having to learn how to pronounce Crljenak Kastelanski on an American wine label.

Today, Zinfandel is California’s third most widely planted grape in 45 of the 58 counties. In 2014, total acreage planted to Zinfandel was 47,827 with San Joaquin topping the charts at 18,718. Sonoma had 5,260 acres; Amador brought up third place with 2,055, Mendocino had 1,930 and Napa, a mere 1,497 acres.

Over 100 years later, California Zinfandel has more than 4,800 labels. A majority of the grapes, though, are used to make White Zinfandel. White Zinfandel at 35 million cases continues to outsell red Zinfandel.

Over the past thirty years, it has developed into one of California’s best reds. However, depending on climate and producer, there are so many different styles ranging from big, rich, ripe, high-alcohol, spicy, smoky, concentrated, and intensely flavored to a light, fruity rose.

The best Zinfandel, for my palate, are not the pink ones.  However, a very long time ago, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with no other wine on the boat, I drank some Sutter Home White Zinfandel. It tasted delicious out there in the middle of the ocean with no store within miles.

But I’ve had many more bottles of the big, full-bodied, robust, rich, intensely flavored Zins that have stained my teeth to look like a geisha’s.

Some of my favorites that come to mind are Cline in southern Sonoma. They have acres of old, Old Vines. Their Oakley vineyards are dry-farmed and head-pruned, as they were a century ago. Hot sun, sandy soil, and cool evening air from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers produce a stunning, concentrated wines.

Also in Sonoma, Dry Creek  Vineyards owns Beeson Ranch, old vineyard dating back to 1896. This head-pruned, dry farmed property produces a very delicious claret style Zinfandel.

Martinelli Winery has been farming the valley since 1880. They specialize in small single lots of great wine. The wines are fermented with naturally occurring yeasts, and kept in barrel for 10 months. They are unfiltered and unfined, and only racked before bottling. This is an intense Zin.

I’ve followed the footsteps of Ridge, who bottle read-ridgevineyard designated Zinfandels. Ridge began in 1886 with 180 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That was done in by prohibition but they reappeared with new ownership and wine in 1962. Winemaker Paul Draper has an unbroken record of hits with his Zinfandels. Look for Geyserville, Lytton Springs, Dusi Ranch, Pagani and Three Valleys. The wine labels are an oenological education for sommelier wannabes.

Rafanelli holds a special placed in my heart. While visiting Sonoma, we popped in on Rafanelli because it was so hard to get in Washington State. It was mid-afternoon and the tasting room was not open yet. We went out front and took pictures of the head pruned vines out front. They had to have been at least 100 years old.

Meanwhile, a school bus stopped in front of the winery and out stepped Shelly Rafanelli. She opened the tasting room door, dropped her books on the table and the tasting commenced. We were treated to some sublime wines.

Other Zin makers to seek out are Ravenswood with a No Wimpy Wine attitude. they have a stable full of intense, rich red Zinfandels. Ravenswood is celebrating 40 years under the leadership of Joel Petersen, who works with over 100 growers.

Another really longtime Sonoma County family is Seghesio Family Vineyards. In 1895, Italian immigrant and winemaker Edoardo Seghesio planted his first Zinfandel vineyard. Seghesio was a key supplier of grapes and bulk wine to California wineries. Around 1983, the fourth generation Seghesios began selling Zin and other varietals under the Seghesio label.

Zinfandel, whether white or red, is a great party wine. Perfect for backyard picnics and family get-togethers. Enjoy these Zins with barbecued meats with sweet barbecue sauces, stewed or roasted beef, strong, rich cheeses like blue or Stilton, duck, hamburgers especially with cheese, lamb, pizza, pork chops, sausage, and it’s also the perfect match with that mother of all family get-togethers – Thanksgiving. Cheers!

Tasting Wines Blind

The focus of a blind wine tasting is on the aromas, flavors and colors. Rather than blindfolding everyone, which gets very messy, all the bottles are brown bagged, numbered and corks removed before presenting to the tasting party.brown bags

The Blind Wine Group hosted a tasting recently of French red wines. Participants each bring a bottle of wine and appetizers for 12. Or in this case, hor d’ouvres for 12. The wines are brown bagged by the host who also buys two of the same wine and puts them into the line up.  The object is to find the duplicate wine in the line up. We have a vote at the end to determine that and our personal favorite.
French red is a broad category. There were 5 regions represented but Bordeaux was the most popular with 4 out of the 9 wines presented.  Bordeaux is a very prolific wine region in south-west France. Anyone with an interest in wine knows this is an influential (think Meritage) and famous (Margaux, Rothschild) wine region.
I love Bordeaux, from the $10 price range to the glad-I-bought-it-when-it-was-affordable variety.  It’s a dry, medium-bodied red that can be a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Malbec. Each chateau’s vineyard is planted with the permitted varietals they’ll use.
Depending on which side of the Gironde your wine is from, it could be either left bank or right bank. Left bank (Paulliac, Ste Estephe, St. Julien, Margaux, Medoc) is Cabernet dominate and right bank (Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Cote de Castillion) is a Merlot dominated blend. This fact never makes it on the label, that’s one of those facts you have to memorize.
Cabernet and Merlot vines grow at different times and rates, which spreads the risk posed by poor weather conditions at flowering or harvest. In years when the autumn is wet, the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest suffers from rot and water-logging, but the earlier-ripening Merlot provides a back-up. When the spring is wet, the Merlot flowers poorly, leaving the Cabernet Sauvignon to take up the responsibility of providing a good harvest.
Thousands of producers ferment a vast quantity of wine each year.  Every producer is classified as a First Growth, Second Growth, and so on down to Fifth Growth. If it’s not a classified growth then it would be a Bordeaux AC which produces about 40% of the red wines of Bordeaux.  
Bordeaux prices range from truly affordable to first growth chateaux that produce some of the world’s most expensive wine. Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2010 will set you back about $800 – per bottle. And that is fairly reasonable compared to Chateau Petrus 2010 which sells for around $3,500 per bottle.
The Blind Wine Group’s Bordeaux offering were all Bordeaux AC, the affordable side of the region. Save one, a 1989 Chateau Clerc Milon from Paulliac, a Fifth Growth and property of Mouton Rothschild. Clerc Milon comprises 100 acres of vineyards around the village of  Milon in northeastern Paulliac planted to 60% Cab, 30% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, and  2% Petite Verdot.
It was tasted first as is done with all older wines. The nose was gorgeous with the classic cigar box aroma opening up to leather, dried herbs, and coffee. A mineral quality added more complexity. The flavors were tight at first and then opened to wonderful concentration and balance. The vintage was an excellent one and the reason why this 24 year old wine aged so gracefully. One famous wine writer said “the difference between the Clerc Milon and the Mouton Rothschild is negligible.” Considering the price, that says a lot.
Other wines tasted were 2010 Haut-Sorillon Bordeaux Supérieur, a rich, full bodied wine with dark ruby color. I loved it. It has a wonderful nose, plummy and woodsy, with a bit of the cigar box. Although a Bordeaux AC, the vineyards are only 5 km from Saint-Emilion. This wine received a silver medal from the Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. $10
The 2009 Chateau Moulin de Mallet also received a medal, a gold one from the 2010 Concourse de Boudreaux.  Also a Bordeaux AC, it probably comes from the right bank with its telltale blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cab. It had really nice upfront fruit which was surprising for a wine of this age, beautiful weight to the mouthfeel and a long silky finish. $11.
2010 Chateau Haut-Mouleyre Bordeaux AC was another silver medal winner this time from Concourse des Grands Vins de France. With its signature Bordeaux nose, ruby color and aromas of Provence herbs and blackberries, this wine is another everyday wine at $7.
The winner with 6 out of ten votes was the Domaine les Grands Bois 2010 Cote du Rhone Villages with a dense purple robe, grapey, cassis aromas and grapey flavors that were rich and powerful. It’s a good thing it turned up last in the line up or it would have overpowered the other wines. Expect to spend about $14.
Of the eleven tasters, only two found the match, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre from the Cotes du Rousillon. The Tessellae Old Vines 2010 sells for around $14.
For the appetizers, the grilled lamb with garlic and basil, the strong cheeses and, of course the homemade bread were the best match.

Easter Ham with Pinot Noir

There was always a big ham on the Easter dinner table.  And for the longest time, I thought all hams came smoked, on the bone with cloves stuck into the scored top and sprinkled with brown sugar.

Until many years later, after reading a recipe somewhere, I ordered a fresh ham from the butcher without knowing what I was getting myself into. When I unwrapped it, I had serious misgivings. It had the bone, it was the right shape but it just didn’t look like ham to me.

I faithfully followed the recipe and served it with a creamed horseradish sauce and a big jug of Navalle Burgundy. Forks were flying and before long there was just a soup bone left.

Fresh ham, it turns out, is a pork roast with a big bone in it. Never brined, cured, or smoked. It’s fresh.

Today, this baked fresh ham will be served3girls with a dried cherry and leek sauce and a Pinot Noir. And I have just the wine for the match! Having recently tried a couple of wines from a winery I was not familiar with – Oak Ridge Winery  –  I can highly recommend this Lodi winery.

Lodi lies between the Sierra Nevada foothills and the San Francisco Bay where the days are quite warm and the nights are cool. The Lodi AVA was established in 1986 but grape growing in this prolific farming region has been going on since the 1850s. Many German farming families formed cooperatives and sold their grapes to outfits like Sebastiani and Bronco.

The winery, opened in 1934, was originally a cooperative for the local growers. In 2001, winegrower Rudy Maggio and his partners, Don and Rocky Reynolds, bought the winery. They produce small lots of hand-crafted wines, and like many Lodi wineries, they’re known for Zinfandel, Old Vine Zinfandel.

While over 50 grape varietals thrive in Lodi, Zinfandel shines. Old gnarly vines, some over 100 years old, sculpted by time, yield small amounts of fruit to create a fabulous wine.

While Zinfandel would be great with this dinner, the wine that I had in mind was their Pinot Noir. Pretty unusual climate for Pinot Noir but there it is. The 3 Girls Vineyard California Pinot Noir is not produced from 80% Lodi grapes to get Lodi on the label.  And it actually has 13% Zinfandel in it!

I’m happy I didn’t know that while I was enjoying this delicious bottle of wine. The latent wine snob in me might have emerged.

Oak Ridge is one of the fastest growing wineries in the U.S. and easily the one with most extraordinary tasting room. It’s made from a 75 year old redwood holding tank. The tank had a capacity of 49,429 gallons of wine or 20,610 cases of wine.

Their very affordable wines can be found at these local markets:

CostPlus World Market – Silverdale

Fred Meyer – Port Orchard

Central Market – Poulsbo

Savage Vine – Kingston

What to Drink – La Carraia Sangiovese

La Carraia Sangiovese Umbria 2010

Umbria is fairly unique in that it is one of two landlocked regions in Italy. The other 18 regions all border on the sea.

But in landlocked Umbria just southeast of  Tuscany, La Carraia was founded in 1976 by two families. One of the founders was an Italian marketing and production entrepreneur. Before long, La Carraia began producing bulk wines for a couple of top estates, Ruffino and Rocca delle Macie.

Today the winery owns almost 200 hundred acres near the heart of the Orvieto Classico region which is planted to the allowed grapes of Grechetto, Trebbiano, Verdelllo, Drupeggio and Malvasia.

This Sangiovese is a brilliant ruby red color fermented in stainless steel with a lot of punch downs, then aged in oak for 3 months. It has loads of  juicy plum and berry fruits on the nose. The plush fruit carries through on the palate with blackberry, plum and hints of herbs and spicy oak. Full bodied with crisp acidity and smooth tannins.

This wine is a bargain at just under $9.

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,

that’s Amore!  from Dean Martin’s song, That’s Amore!

The grand Amore day is just around the corner, and here are a few wine  meat balls    ideas to help you get organized. It’s an Italian theme for a romantic dinner either homemade or an evening out.

One of the loveliest of Italian grapes is Sangiovese. This darkly colored grape gets its name from the Latin, sanguis Jovis or blood of Jove. Jove being the king of gods until Christianity came along.

Italy’s love affair with Sangiovese is proven by the fact that it is the most widely planted red grape variety in Italy. In the romantic Tuscan region, Sangiovese is the grape or the base of some great wines from Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Chianti to Morellino di Scansano.

Ever wondered about the makeup of a Super Tuscan?  Generally, these upscale wines from Tuscany allow blending Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah. These tend to be expensive ($$$) and long lived.

Other Italian wine regions planted to Sangiovese and very affordable are Lazio, Umbria, Marche and the Island of Corsica. Outside of Italy, Sangiovese has put down roots in California, Washington and Australia where its naturally high acidity is an asset in those  hot climates.

Sangiovese is a thin-skinned, slow ripener. So slow in fact, some vineyards aren’t ready for harvesting until well into October. This extended growing season makes for richer, more concentrated aromas and flavors.

The characteristic Sangiovese flavors are dark cherry and black stone fruit framed with savory notes of tomato leaf and dried herbs. There are many clones, the most prevalent Sangisovese Grosso, is known for its high acidity, sweet and savory flavors and mild tannins.

Brunello di Montalcino is Tuscany’s most famous wine. Brunello from the Sangiovese Grosso clone, is from around the hilltop town of Montalcino where the vineyards radiate down the hillsides from the town.

Although it is not release until it is five years old, Brunello is, with more age, fantastically aromatic, smooth with dark fruits and hints of savory herbs. It’s the perfect marriage with Osso Buco, a traditional Italian dish.  This slow and delicious dish of braised veal shanks would surely melt anyone’s heart.

The absolute best Brunello is from Vasco Sassetti. Others to look for would be Biondi Santi, Frescobaldi or Banfi. Brunello di Montalcino averages around $50 to 75.

That would be my dream dinner for Valentine’s Day so here’s another ideal scenario: Spaghetti and Meatballs. Picture two Dalmatians at a Chianti Classicocheckered tablecloth out the backdoor of an Italian restaurant sucking down the same noodle. It’s a classic scene and an entrée best served with a bottle of Chianti Classico.

The traditional Chianti blend was 75 to 90% Sangiovese with a bit of Canaiolo (10 to 30%) and 10 to 30% Trebbiano and/ or Malvasia.  Today, a new law has reduced Canaiolo to 10% and permits up to 10 % non-traditional grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot.

Chianti Classico is situated between Florence and Siena, the inner zone within Tuscany’s Chianti district. Isole y Olena, Gabbiano, and Ruffino are all likely candidates for the seductively simple spaghetti and meatballs with a lovely price point right around $15.

And for that sweet ending to a luscious meal, Ann Vogel’s recipe for Tiramisu must be accompanied by Vin Santo. It’s a style of Tuscan dessert wine made from dried Malvasia or Trebbiano grapes. The best way to describe it – it’s like the kiss of an angel.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


What to Drink – La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir

La Crema 2012 Monterey Pinot Noir

La Crema Winery is really into cool. They have some of the coolest vineyards, Russian River, Carneros, Monterey, Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley. All perfect places to grow those Burundian grapes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

They believe the wine is in the details. When grown in the vineyardscool climate vineyards, fruit develops wonderful aromatics and lush flavors with a crisp, firm structure.

The Monterey appellation begins just north of the Monterey Bay and extends south to Paso Robles. This 90-mile-long valley is cooled by ocean winds. The cool climate, abundant sun, strong winds and low rainfall lower the yield, and provide extended hang time which makes for a concentrated flavors and aromas. Also ideal conditions for cultivating the bright acidity that’s the hallmark of a proper Pinot Noir.

The 2012 vintage was a good one. The fruit ripened slowly, with good concentration and fruit character that can only come from extended hang time.

It’s both savory and sweet, showcasing aromas and flavors of pomegranate and blackberry. Framed by sweet herbs and bright acidity, it’s juicy with smooth tannins, a perfect food wine.

This is the wine when everyone is ordering a different entrée which may explain why it was voted Most Popular in a national restaurant poll.

La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir sells for under $20.

What to Drink – Que Sirah, Syrah

Whether it’s Sirah or Syrah, they’re pronounced the same.

These are two grape varieties, are not, however, related even though they taste very similarly. The spelling is one of the small differences between these two grapes.

Petite Sirah is unique to California, the land of Pink Chablis and a jug of burgundy. Petite Sirah got its name because it looked the same a Syrah only smaller, more petite. so they called it Petite Sirah.

The flavor of Petite Sirah is rich, spicy, and full-bodied. All those aromas, flavors and colors are in its skin. And because this grape is so petite, its skin to pulp ratio is high, therefore, more aromas, flavors and color than say, a Cabernet grape.

And that thick skin of the Petite Syrah delivers the classic teeth staining Petite Sirah with rich aromas of blueberry, spice, chocolate and flavors of blueberry and black pepper.  Yum!

Try these longtime producers:

  • Michael David’s Earthquake Petite Sirah which is intense from an old Lodi vineyard planted around the same time of San Francisco’s great Earthquake of 1906. With over 15% alcohol and that tooth staining color, this wine is that purple. Around $20.
  • Bogle Winery California Petite Sirah is sourced from vineyards around Clarksburg and Lodi, and aged in American oak for 12 months. This wine is so impressive with its inky, dark and glass staining features. There are blackberries and blueberries and a concentrated, rich note of toasty oak with hints of mocha. All for $10.
  • EOS Paso Robles Petite Syrah is inky purple in color with the blueberry and black pepper nose and flavors. Very full bodied with more intense fruit, followed by toasted oak and mocha. Mostly Petite Sirah, 84% so it’s legal to put it on the label, blended with a dash of Tempranillo, Grenache, and Syrah. $20 although the 2010 is selling for $6 at Grocery Outlet. Bargain alert, bargain alert…


What We’re Drinking – Argentinian Malbec

llama_malbec_brand_smLong ago, my Aussie friend, Justine shared her wine buying philosophy – never buy a wine with an animal on the label. Ever.

I took her seriously because when we had this discussion, we were sipping Veuve Clicquot. (Just so you know, Justine, I did not buy this wine, but I did enjoy the heck out of it despite the animal on the label.)

Llama is the name and the animal on the label of Belasco de Baquedano Winery’s Malbec.  Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, this dark colored wine is from 100 year old vines. Its extracted color stained my glass, and that’s impressive. The intriguing aromas of black cherries and minerals had intense juicy cherry and blackberry flavors set off to perfection by the balancing acidity with a lush, smooth texture and hint of licorice on the finish.

Practically all of the world’s Malbec is grown in Argentina. Successful Argentine growers know this French varietal produces inexpensive, delicious Malbecs from the higher elevation vineyards.

Malbec used to be the favored Bordeaux blending grape but not so much anymore. France has less than 15,000 acres now with the bulk of those vineyards in the Sud Ouest – a ways from its roots in Bordeaux. Higher elevation than Bordeaux but nothing compared to Argentina’s high elevations.

There is also a smattering of Malbec in Washington and California but if you total up the world’s Malbec vineyards, Argentina dominates. Malbec just plain loves the climate Mother Nature bestows on the Mendoza Valley. But Mendoza is vast, and that means different climates in the huge area can produce different flavors and aromas to the same grape variety. Some may have the dark fruit notes while a hundred miles away, more minerals and subdued fruit just like its cousin in Bordeaux.

This fine wine sells for around $10 and worth every penny.

What We’re Drinking – Milbrandt Vineyards Clifton Hill Vineyard The Estates 2010

Not too long ago, an old friend stopped by with a bottle of wine in hand. That put a smile on my face. And I was delighted to visit and taste this winery’s Syrah.

I recalled that brothers Jerry and Butch Milbrandt were farmers first, the same as many wineries in Eastern Washington, having worked their family’s Columbia Valley farm for 50 some years growing row crops and orchards. Then in 1996, a couple of big wineries recruited the Millbrandts to grow grapes. They began planting vineyards in 1997.

Today, Milbrandt Vineyards has more than 2,300 acres of grapevines; most of their estate vineyards are located in two AVAs in the Columbia Valley, Wahluke Slope AVA and Ancient Lakes AVA.

The high quality of their fruit became so well known and in such demand, the Milbrandts were selling tons of their grapes to many Washington wineries. That was the impetus for building a custom crush facility in 2005. And then in 2007, they launched their own  wines.

The 29 acre Clifton Hill Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope AVA near Mattawa was planted to Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah in 1999. Now a fully mature vineyard, it produces an intense purple-black colored Syrah with a ton of black fruit flavors sprinkled with a hint of herbs and great balanced acidity. This is a big wine with surprising finesse. Expressive and classy, it has a wonderful long smooth finish.

Distributed in Washington by Unique Distributing and sells for around $23.


Casa Santos Lima 2011 Lisboa Espiga Vinho Tinto

Mary writes

Remember when we said it was a good thing when there is a lot of real estate listed on the label pinpointing to specific vineyards?  Well, this wine, or vinho in Portuguese, doesn’t really have a lot of real estate on the label but it looks and tastes like one.1341229378espiga_red

This highly colored wine is made from a blend of 40% Castelão, widely planted all over Portugal,  15% Tinta Roriz, also known as Tempranillo, 15% Touriga Nacional, the base grape in port and %15 Syrah grapes.

Castelão is a hardy little grape that does well in desert like conditions – dry, sandy and hot – that are the norm around the Lisbon area.

The color is an extracted bright ruby from a long, cool maceration. Bright red fruits dominate the nose. It has concentrated dark cherry and blackberry flavors, and pleasant acidity with light toasty oak notes. It ends with smooth tannins and a fruity finish.

This well balanced wine has good aging potential and sells for $8 to $10.

Imported by Cavatappi Distribuzione, Seattle.