Category Archives: California Wines

Sorting out Syrah, Shiraz, and Petite Sirah

If you’re looking for one of the darkest, most full-bodied red wines in the world, reach for a Syrah or Petite Sirah. Syrah is grown in France (Rhone), Argentina (Mendoza), Australia (Barossa, McLaren Vale), Chile (Colchagua and Maipo Valleys), Italy (Lazio, Apulia, Tuscany), South Africa (Stellenbosch, Paarl), Spain (Priorat, Montsant, Yecla), and the United States (Columbia Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, The Rocks, Walla Walla).

Syrah, Shiraz – same, same. Both have the same French parentage Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Whereas, their distant cousin, Petite Sirah, also known as Durif, parents are Syrah and the rarely found Peloursin grape.

Syrah is the grape of Rhone. In northern Rhone, the appellations of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, and Côte Rôtie may blend un to 20% Viognier with the Syrah. Most only co-ferment 5% with the Syrah.

In southern Rhone, Syrah is always blended with up to 13 grape varieties but typically it will be a Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blend.

Rhone’s terroir, where the dry mistral winds blow, has the rockiest vineyards you’ve ever seen. The vines are head-trained and cut low to protect the vines from those winds.

Some of the most elegant and perfumed styles of Syrah are from regions with cool nights and high diurnal temperature swings. The result are powerful wines with fine-grained tannins, redolent with raspberries, black currants, violets, with savory hints of licorice, olives and black pepper.

Before appellation control in France, some Bordeaux may have had Syrah blended  into their wines in weak vintages to make them richer. This practice is no longer allowed in Bordeaux but you can find it in the Languedoc, Australian and American Cabernet-Syrah or Shiraz blends in today’s markets.

In Australia, Syrah is known as Shiraz. Same grape, just a different continent and style. It’s Australia’s most widely planted grape. Traditionally, known for fruit forward wines with lots of vanilla from oak, styles have been evolving.

When phylloxera ravaged Europe in the 1860s, halfway around the world, Australia escaped infection. This island nation has some of the oldest Shiraz vines planted on original rootstock. Vineyards that were planted pre-phylloxera are ungrafted and produce tiny crops of intensely concentrated grapes.

In the 1950s, pioneering winemaker, Max Schubert, produced a dry wine (once called Grange Hermitage until the French put a stop to that) made predominantly from Shiraz. This was unusual because at the time, Australians were drinking sweet port-like Shiraz. It was not well received.

Penfolds’ Grange is one of the most iconic wines in the world and a collector’s dream. As recently as last December, two bottles of the first vintage of Penfolds Grange 1951 sold for more than $81,000 each.

Petite Sirah (aka Durif) is a different variety of grape but genetically related to Syrah. First discovered growing in Francois Durif’s nursery in the mid-1800s, the grape is a cross between Syrah and the rare Peloursin. It was imported to America where it became known as Petite Sirah. Today, it is mainly found in California with pockets in Australia and Washington.

While “petite” does translate to little, Petite Sirah is a small but mighty berry. It has that deep inky color that can stain your glass and your teeth in an instant with its full-bodied flavors of blueberry, plums and black pepper.

There are several wineries that have been growing Petite Sirah for generations. Most notably, Bogle Winery, Foppiano Vineyards, Parducci, Stag’s Leap Winery and Ridge.

Vineyards planted in the late 1800s were done in a field blend style. Field blends were typically a row of this and a row of that, harvested and fermented together. So for the longest time, Petite Sirah was a blending grape.

The Bogle family has been farming around Clarksburg for six generations. Their involvement in the wine goes back 50ish years. The first red grape founder Warren Bogle and his son Chris planted in 1968, was Petite Sirah. For 10 years, the family grew grapes for other wineries, until releasing their own label in 1978.

In 2002, Foppiano Vineyards helped found P.S. I Love You, a trade organization dedicated to the Petite Sirah grape. An Italian family that had been growing grapes for over 120 years, they have over 40 acres planted Petite Sirah.

In 1967, the first Foppiano Petite Sirah was released with a vintage-dated bottling. In 1994, new Petite Sirah vineyards are planted on the estate to accommodate demand. The following year, a twenty-year vertical tasting of Foppiano Petite Sirah was conducted in London. In 1999, Foppiano won the coveted Civart award at Vin Expo in Bordeaux for its 1996 Petite Sirah.

Ridge Vineyards was probably the first American winery to put vineyards and percentages on the labels. A veritable winemaker’s notes, if you will.

In 1968, Fritz Maytag purchased a ranch on Spring Mountain in Napa Valley with several Petite Sirah blocks that were planted in the early 1900s. In 1971, Ridge used the fruit to make its first York Creek Petite Sirah. Their oldest Petite Sirah vines on the Lytton Estate were planted in 1901 and the youngest in 2008. The first wine from the property was made in 1972.

Stag’s Leap Winery has one of the oldest blocks of Petite Sirah, planted in 1929. The block is predominantly Petite Sirah, though it includes at least 15 other varietals in small amounts. Year after year this gracefully aging block produces a small lot of wine. They also make a Petite Sirah from estate vineyards that were planted in the 1970s.

 

Staying Home and Drinking Your Cellar

How do you entertain yourself when sheltered at home for weeks? Drink the cellar, that’s what. And cooking up magnificent dishes to pair with those gems. Here’s my feasting report: 

Caymus Vineyards began as a farm in Rutherford. In 1915, the Wagners were producing bulk wines and during the 1940s they were known for their excellent grapes. Their first commercial vintage of 240 cases of Cabernet was in 1972. Over the decades they have produced many award winning, stunning Napa Cabs.

Caymus Special Selection is the flagship wine of the Wagner family and is comprised of the very best barrels of the vintage. The Caymus 1997 Special Selection Napa Cab – rated in the high 90s by many – had been resting in my cellar for a couple of decades. The occasion had arrived.

This 23-year-old wine had that tell-tale ruby color with an orange rim. Definitely the right time to drink it! Showing amazing cassis fruit at first; it faded and all that was left was a rich, smooth, umami and mineral full-bodied wine.

And then the weather turned warm and sunny and bottles of white wine were then brought up from the cellar.

Pacific Rim Riesling was first released in 1992 by Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard (BVD). Grahm released three Rieslings that year. One quite sweet, one medium sweet and one dry! Unheard back then outside of Alsace, France.

It was also an anomaly in the BVD stable of mostly Rhone reds such as Le Cigare Volant (you must read the label), Old Telegram (a play on Vieux Telegraph), and Clos du Gilroy Grenache. BVD released the inaugural vintage (1984) of Le Cigare Volant in 1986, an homage to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Over the years, BVD expanded with more brands – Big House, Cardinal Zin and Pacific Rim Riesling, sourced from Washington State. Then in 2006, a small band of Bonny Doon expats moved to Washington with a desire to craft the best Riesling in America.

In 2010, Pacific Rim became its own winery in Washington. A winery so obsessed with Riesling, there are 12 styles to choose from. The range is extensive – from dry and lean, to sparkling, to light and slightly sweet to dessert. They have a Riesling for everyone and every dish.

The 2016 Horse Heaven Hills Wallula Vineyard Riesling at 11.5% alcohol with bright, citrus flavors, juicy pear and crisp acidity is the perfect wine for Asian cuisine.  So I whipped up a curried cauliflower, coconut, garbanzo bean stew. It was warm, spicy and comforting and the Riesling was a sweet contrast.

Note: if you want to escape into the Dooniverse, read this web page: https://www.bonnydoonvineyard.com/about/history/  It’s highly entertaining and informative about changes to the wine industry over 30 years.

Another juicy Riesling is produced by the Woodhouse Wine Estates in Woodinville. While visiting last fall, I bought a bottle of the 2015 Yakima Valley Riesling because it was so delicious. This lovely wine is also made in the dry style by a winemaker that hails from Alsace. It’s stainless steel fermented, aged sur lie and sees a tiny bit of oak.

It was the perfect wine with the Moroccan potato, carrot and garbanzo stew, laced with cumin and pumpkin pie spice.

I reorganized my spice rack looking for pumpkin pie spice. Did you know that you can make your own pumpkin pie spice with what’s in your spice rack? Now I have enough pumpkin pie spice to make more stew, pumpkin pies and to share.

In 1986, local grape growers formed a cooperative in the northwest corner of Spain in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. Bodegas Martín Códax was named after a thirteenth century Galician troubadour who sang of love, the sea and the coastline.

The 2017 Martín Códax Rias Baixas Albariño, aptly named the wine of the sea, has crisp notes of apples and pears, and a great complement to the creamy bowl of homemade clam chowder.

Brett and Marnie Wall established Open Claim Vineyards in 2012 with a 21-acre vineyard near Dallas, Oregon. The family vineyard has supplied Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to several well-established wineries.

The property has been in Marnie’s family for over 20 years. The name, Open Claim, reflects the spirit of the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, a statute enacted by the United States Congress, intended to promote settlements in the Oregon Territory. It worked nicely.

In May 2018, the Walls released Open Claim Vineyards Chardonnay and Pinot Noir produced by renown winemaker, Tony Rynders. Rynders is a driven and brilliant winemaker. In addition to his own Tendril Wine Cellars and Child’s Play Wines, he’s the outstanding winemaker behind many other great Oregon wineries.

This rich, complex 2016 Willamette Valley Chardonnay is a fantastic wine. Partially aged in new French oak, its aromas of lemon zest, melon and pineapple were intoxicating.  A simple dish of fish and sweet potato chips doused in lemon juice was the perfect pairing for this Chardonnay.

Once named Enotria for its abundant vineyards, Italy (thanks to the Romans) has had an enormous impact on the wine industry. From the shores of Italy, the Romans brought grapes and winemaking to Spain, Portugal, Germany, and, of course, France.

Although not in my cellar until recently, you have the opportunity to buy the Pieropan 2018 Soave Classico right now. This white wine, made mostly in the hills near Verona, is a classic. Soave must be made with the Gargenega grape; DOC law requires at least 70 percent must be Gargenega. The addition of Trebbiano di Soave may also be used.

Pieropan 2018 Soave Classico is a wine with a steely mineral character, citrus, peach and apricot aromas and flavors and considerable body. It was fabulous with a Cobb-like salad that I tossed together with leftover Easter ham, white cheddar, grilled asparagus, marinated shrimp and baked goat cheese.

Hope you’re faring well and also enjoying the fruits of your cellar. Cheers!

Wine Gift Ideas – What I Want for Christmas

A long time ago, I complimented a friend on how good she was at her career. And she said something that has stuck with me ever since. “Everyone is good at what they love to do. You’re good with wine, I’m good with kids.” 

It’s true I don’t find wine daunting and absolutely enjoy helping friends, family and readers choose the best wine for the occasion.

Sometimes vintage matters, sometimes price. Thinking about the sheer volume of wine produced worldwide, there are still many, many wines to try that could be a contender for your favorite wine.

For the many holiday occasions in the weeks to come, here are few of my favorite go-to wines, good for gracing a dinner table or gift giving.

Many great wines come from venerable vineyards such as To Kolan or Clos Mouches. With the great pedigree comes a three figure price tag. While looking for affordable wines, look for blends, sometimes of grapes, sometimes of vineyards, and sometimes both.

Many of my choices are venerated producers, ones that have been producing for decades, ones that I trust year in and year out because they have had their vineyards forever, most are very affordable but upper end wines are also available from these producers. You’ll be pleased with the quality/price ratio.

Beringer Vineyards has been producing wine since 1876. With 1,600 acres of vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles, you can be assured this award winning winery has what you’re looking for.

Known for the many firsts in California winemaking such as gravity fed facilities, hand dug cellars and the first to give public winery tours. They have several tiers at several price points, red, rosé or white. This is a two thumbs up for gift giving or the holiday dinner.

Bogle Vineyards is another California winery in the Clarksburg region. They began farming in the mid-1800’s and ventured into grapes in 1968. With more than 1,200 acres of grapes, the Bogle family can offer you rich, luscious reds for any occasion.

Look for the Phantom Red, a blend of mostly Petite Sirah and Zinfandel with a dollop of Merlot and Cab. Their perennial award winning Petite Sirah is so intense and concentrated. And it’s no wonder, as this was the first red grape founder Warren Bogle planted in 1968.

The Old Vine Zinfandel is from 75-year-old, gnarly head-trained, dry farmed vines that produce small, concentrated clusters of fruit, resulting in deep, glass-staining, concentrated wines.

J. Lohr Estates is another California winery that I can highly recommend both their reds and whites. A huge grape growing operation in the Central Coast, they have more than 3,600 acres in Monterey and Paso Robles. The Seven Oaks Cab is sourced from Paso Robles and is a crowd pleasing, attractively priced wine.

The 2017 Riverstone Chardonnay is a fabulously balanced Chardonnay for professed oak lovers and understate-the-oak lovers like me. It was the favorite Chardonnay in our blind wine tasting and around $15.

The J Lohr Wildflower is an unusual but delightful wine to give to any wine lover. It’s made from a red grape called Valdiguié from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. Whatever choice you make, know that J Lohr wines deliver much quality no matter the price.

The Hess Collection is another well-established California winery that over delivers quality for the price. High on top of Mount Veeder, Donald Hess first acquired 900 acres in 1982. What is incredibly impressive, he set aside over 600 acres as undeveloped land to support wildlife corridors, fish friendly farming practices and biodiversity. Wow. The Hess Collection and Select Reds are blends that are rich, balanced and awesome.

Rodney Strong Vineyards was my first Chardonnay love. A former Broadway dancer, Strong moved to California and took up winemaking. His Sonoma County winery was founded in 1959 and transitioned from a jug wine source to vineyard designated wines. I’ll always remember the Chalk Hill Chardonnay 1979 while camping at Scenic Beach State Park. It was perfect with a grilled steak and corn on the cob.

Casa Santos Lima is a family owned company dedicated to the production, bottling and selling of Portuguese wines. Almost 1,000 acres of vineyards, produce award winning Portuguese wines. A wine to buy by the case, would be their recent release of Colossal, a blend of Touriga Nacional, Syrah, Tinta Roriz and Alicante Bouschet. It’s big, rich and could age beautifully for a few years. Best part – it’s around $10.

Other wines to consider: For Malbec lovers, Alamos from Mendoza is so good with black raspberry, toasty oak and a smooth finish. All for under $10. For pasta night, Badia y Coltibuono Cetamura Chianti. This bright wild cherry and herb flavors is the perfect match for lasagna or spaghetti with meatballs.

Spanish wines should also be on your list. Along with South American wines, they’re very affordable, best buys even. I’m always on the lookout for Jorge Ordonez or Eric Solomon imports. Both have outstanding reputations for sniffing out small, many times decades old vineyards that produced intense, affordable wines.

Evodia Garnacha is one such wine, a custom cuvee made for importer Eric Solomon of European Cellars. This immensely juicy, dark-fruited red comes from ancient vines on a high plateau in Spain’s Calatayud region. Under $15.

Bodegas Borsao Tres Picos has long been a favorite of mine. Imported by Jorge Ordonez, ($16) it’s filled to the brim with black cherries and spice from old vines in Spain’s Campo de Borja region. Bodegas Borsao is from a cooperative formed in the mid-1900’s with 375 different wine growers!

All wine is at its best when shared. Share what you love with those you love. Always remember, it’s the thought that really counts. Happy Holidays!

Kitsap Wine Festival 2018

The Kitsap Wine (and beer and cider) Festival is fast approaching. For the tenth year, it continues at Harborview Fountain Park on Bremerton’s inviting waterfront.

Since it began in 2008, the festival has featured live music, delicious bites from local restaurants and, of course, mostly Washington wines (and lately local beers and ciders). This is a great opportunity to explore and discover new and emerging wines without a trek into the crazy traffic across the pond.

Wineries to check out include Belfair’s Mosquito Fleet Winery which placed in the top 3 of the Seattle Times’ 50 best wines of 2017. Other Washington, Oregon and California wineries to become familiar with are California’s Ava Grace Vineyards, Port Angeles’ Camaraderie Cellars, Davenport Cellars is back, Eaglemount Winery & Cidery from Port Townsend, Walla Walla’s Eleganté Cellars, Bainbridge’s Eleven Winery, Port Angeles’ Harbinger Winery (bring the Barbera!), Hoodsport Winery (Island Belle?), Long Cellars (Petite Sirah and Dry Riesling, please) , Masquerade Wine Company  (Syrah, sirah, please, oh please)  Michael Florentino Cellars, Naches Heights Vineyard, Nota Bene Cellars, the one year old Port Townsend Vineyards, Scatter Creek Winery (Key Auntie?), Silvara Cellars, Stina’s Cellars ( bring the ice wine!!), Red Mountain’s Terra Blanca Winery (I love you,  Onyx), Trinchero Family Estates, Williamette Valley Vineyards, Wind Rose Cellars (Dolcetto? Primitivo?) and the Winery Alliance of Bainbridge Island.

For several years now you can also buy your new favorite wine at their on-site wine shop. Proceeds from the Kitsap Wine (and beer and cider) Festival benefit Olympic College Alumni Association programs supporting student success.

WHEN:  Saturday, August 11, 2018 from 2 p.m. to 5:15 p.m.
WHERE: Harborside Fountain Park, adjacent to the Bremerton ferry terminal
PRICING: Event passes for the Kitsap Wine Festival are on sale now. All guests must be 21 years or older to attend. Event pass pricing is as follows:

§  $60, June 1-August 10

§  $75, August 11

PURCHASE: Visit kitsapwinefestival.com to purchase tickets

Grape Harvest Challenges – 2017

An ideal grape growing season would be 7 months long with a frost-free spring for the tender new shoots emerging. A long, mild summer with warm days and cool nights for measured grape maturity, a balance between fruit sugars and acidity.  Harvest at the end of September would be rain free with warm, sunny days and cool nights.

However, hot, dry summers have shortened the grape growing seasons by weeks for several years now. And unseasonable storms brought on by climate change shorten the growing season to the detriment of the wine industry.

Typically, higher, cooler elevations were picked in October, now picking is in September and moving into August. The wine growing season is changing.

Devastating spring frosts, isolated hailstorms and prolonged heatwaves have been presenting more of a challenge. Wine producers around the world debate and plan for the impact of extreme weather – more hardy rootstock and better placement of varietals. Some even plant multiple clones in one vineyard. Some clones may be heat resistant and some may be mildew resistant.

France and Italy are the top wine producing nations in the world often trading first place for tonnage harvested. But for both countries the 2017 grape harvest has been greatly affected by weather extremes. The spring frosts in Bordeaux, Loire and Alsace reduced the crop size.  Then August hailstorms further decimated what survived the frosts. This year’s harvest was reduced to the size of the 1945 harvest.

Bitter cold struck the right bank of Bordeaux twice within a week in April, ravaging the fragile shoots and buds that had emerged prematurely during the mild temperatures in March. To combat the frost, Bordeaux winemakers set fires in oil drums, and then positioned them carefully between the rows of budding grapevines. Giant fans were also deployed to battle the cold to move the cold damp air.

In Italy, several regions also experienced frost and then a heatwave nicknamed Lucifer, left grapes vulnerable to drought. The brutal summer sun shut down the vines and the crop size was reduced drastically. Vineyards with mature vines that had deep roots were able to tap water with roots that had grown over the years deep into the ground. Younger more shallow roots could not survive as well under these climatic conditions.

California is the third largest wine producing region in the world. That industry also has felt the heat with drought and heatwaves. And then the heartbreaking, devastating wildfires hit Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino wine country during harvest.

In 2008, California wildfires burned 1.3 million acres and the state experienced record levels of air pollution. That year, the wildfires left many California vineyards with smoke-tainted grapes.

Harvest was in full swing when the devastating fires broke out in Napa, Mendocino and Sonoma last Sunday. While 90 percent of the wine grapes have been harvested, there were still grapes in the vineyards to be picked.

With most of the harvest fermenting away, a wildfire roaring close by, closed roads, electricity and cellular service down, winemaking in California faces new challenges. Without access or electricity, fermentation is running rampant. But at least some still have wine fermenting and a building to do it in.

Wineries and vineyards have burned as a result of the fires, including Nicholson Ranch in Sonoma and Frey Vineyards, a pioneer in organic and biodynamic wines, in Mendocino County.

Among other damaged wineries, White Rock Vineyards, established as a winery at the foot of the Stag’s Leap in 1871, burned to the ground; Signorello Estate, a family-owned winery along the Silverado Trail, was also burned to the ground, Santa Rosa winery Paradise Ridge is an ashen pile of rubble on a blackened hillside.

Some wineries were more fortunate, in Santa Rosa, Ancient Oak Cellars reported a house and two outbuildings were destroyed but fortunately the majority of the bottled wines and all of its wine in barrels were safe in other locations.

Many wineries are still standing but have sustained landscaping damage. Kenwood Vineyards, BR Cohn, and Chateau St. Jean reported fires damaging the grounds surrounding the wineries. With power out, the wineries are finding it difficult to take care of the wines fermenting away in stainless steel. With many vineyards on the fire line, assessing crop and vineyards damage is still an unknown.

At least 35,000 acres in Sonoma and 12,000 acres in the Atlas Peak fire has burned, there are no reports yet about the number of vineyard acres that may have burned.  In addition, time will tell if smoke taint will be an issue.

Gallo, who owns the famous Stagecoach Vineyard off of Soda Canyon Road in Napa Valley, has not been able to get updates on the vineyard’s status. Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet is highly prized by dozens of top Napa wineries.

When the fires broke out, the 2017 grape harvest had been in full swing, somewhat ahead of schedule. Winemakers were rushing to pick during a September heat wave since the sugar levels had spiked and grapes ripened almost overnight.

Now questions remain about the extent of damage the fires will have on California’s wine regions. It appears Cabernet, which was not quite ripe yet, will be in very short supply.  As will Pinot Noir in the Mendocino region, which hadn’t been harvested before the wildfires.

Big and small, top drawer and everyday wines, this is a devastating loss to the area’s residents and businesses.

In our own backyard, a hot summer and the ever present wildfires may have influenced the flavor of the 2017 harvest in ways that we wish it hadn’t. But it seems likely that Washington wines will be in high demand considering the challenges in France, Italy and California.

Washington, second behind California in wine production, has almost 900 wineries that contribute approximately $2.1 billion to the state economy. Last year, 350 growers harvested a record 270,000 tons of grapes and produced 17.5 million cases of wine.

Even with the spikes in temperatures and the threat of wildfire damage, Washington’s harvest began in late August, a bit later than the previous two years.

Production for 2017 is estimated to be less than 2016. For instance, at the sixth week mark, about 40% of the Washington grape harvest is in. Data from the Washington Wine Report regarding tons harvested by Oct. 2nd:

2015 – 540,000 tons   (82% complete)
2016 – 419,000 tons   (67% complete)
2017 – 211,000 tons   (~40% complete)

The waiting game in the vineyards may make harvest a nail biter, but the purple hands at the wineries gives us hope for the coming vintages.

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!

What’s your Game Plan for Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving celebrations differ from one home to the next. turkeyStill there are certain flavors, traditions and approaches connected with our most food focused holiday that strikes a chord in all of us.

Whether you go with the traditional turkey with sage and onion stuffing, giblet gravy, candied yams, and cranberry sauce; put a cultural twist on it, with a chipotle rubbed bird, red chili gravy and cornbread chorizo stuffing; or go the vegan route with a mound of riced potatoes shaped like a bird and glazed with browned butter with all those wonderful vegetable side dishes, Thanksgiving is a dinner you can sink your teeth into. But what to drink with it has been debated for many decades.

Every Turkey Day, the family sommelier faces the perplexing question: do I go with something sweet that can stand up to candied yams and tart cranberry sauce and keep Mom happy? Or go with Beaujolais Nouveau because it’s available now, red and fruity? Decisions, decisions.

Thanksgiving wines shouldn’t be intimidating. This is not the time to pull out that bottle you’ve been cellaring for a while. Serve something familiar, homey and delicious enough for those neophytes to be satisfied and thoughtful enough for wine lovers to appreciate.

Pairing wine with roasted, brined or deep fried turkey is a piece of cake but short of a dessert wine, nothing is sweet enough to do battle with yams blanketed with toasted marshmallows.

Dry, high alcohol wines will perish with all that sugar and salt. And white wines need a decent amount of acidity to cleanse your palate. Uncomplicated, fruity wines with a little residual sugar are the best recourse for matching with these courses.

Some of the better partners for Thanksgiving dinner, in my opinion, are Alsatian whites, German Rieslings, Grenache blends from France or Spain and Tempranillo from Spain or the West Coast. Pinot Noir, contrary to some opinions, has never worked for me with all those strong flavors dished up at Thanksgiving- unless, of course, it’s in the bubbly.

Balance is the key for the perfect pairing. For a white, think Riesling or one of those soft, slightly sweet Pinot Gris. For reds, fruity and friendly, low alcohol Zinfandels, Tempranillo or even Carmenere would work well.

sparkling glassEvery holiday dinner should begin with something celebratory and good. At my table, nothing says celebrate better than a bottle of bubbly. The pop of the cork signals the start of the celebration. And it’s off to the races from there.

Given the tradition of the day, here are some American bubblies with good acidity and a core of fruit to consider:  Chateau Ste. Michelle’s extra dry which is actually slightly sweeter in style than a brut despite its description; Oregon’s Argyle brut or Washington’s Treveri Cellars would grace any table. Treveri produces several Columbia Valley sparkling wines you should try. Three that would be perfect for this occasion would be their sparkling Riesling, Gewurztraminer or Syrah. You will be impressed! These sparklers range in price from $10.49 to $23.

white wine glassWhite wines to serve, could be California’s Oak Grove Pinot Grigio which is soft, fruity with crisp citrus flavors. Or Wine by Joe Pinot Gris from Oregon that has wonderful flavors of citrus, pear, and green apple with refreshing acidity. Both are under $10, so stock up for the holidays.

But Riesling is really the best white to serve.  And Washington makes second best – after Germany, of course.

Pacific Rim Riesling from Columbia Valley is a delicious off dry, richly fruity wine packed with peach, apricot flavors with a hint of wet stone. Milbrandt Riesling scored high with its fresh, lively stone fruit flavors and juicy acidity. These guys have been growing from in the Columbia Valley for generations. Latah Creek Columbia Valley Riesling is filled with flavors of green apple, ripe pear and spice with a crisp finish.

Jones of Washington Columbia Valley Riesling is an orange blossom special touched with pineapple and fresh picked apples. He also makes an estate Pinot Gris from the Ancient Lakes AVA that would perk a lot of  interest at the table.

Two Mountain Winery Rattlesnake Hills Riesling is another crisp refreshing wine with a nice balance of pear, citrus, and minerals on the palate.

red wine glassRed wines are trickier than white but if you make sure the alcohol is around 13% or less and there is a modicum of fruit, your chosen one will be a hit.  With that in mind here are a few grape suggestions: Lemberger, Tempranillo and Baco Noir.

Lemberger, a dark-skinned grape from Austria, is typically fruity with ripe plum and black cherry and a hint of pepper. It does well in colder climates where it goes by a more mellifluous name of Blaufränkisch.

Look for Kiona Vineyards and Winery on Red Mountain, the largest grower of Lemberger in the United States. Others include Alexandria Nicole Cellars, FairWinds Winery, Kana Winery Olympic Cellars, and Whidbey Island Winery. Priced between $10 and $22.

I had hoped to recommend another grape of Spanish origin from Washington and California that would be fabulous with dinner, but they all went past the affordable for a big dinner party price. So I’m taking you to Spain for delicious, affordable and the perfect reds for Thanksgiving.

The best made and priced would be the Campo de Borja Borsao Red  from La Mancha, Spain. With its intense, smoky, black cherry and spicy flavors, this wine is a blend of mostly Grenache and a dollop of Tempranillo this wine is a deep ruby/purple color.

From Valencia, the El Prado Red is another blend this time Tempranillo and Cabernet. It’s a medium bodied with raspberry and current flavors. And from Rioja, with 100% Tempranillo is the Cune Rioja Crianza. The toasty, cherry flavors are smooth and satisfying.

Also from Spain but made in Prosser is the Red Diamond Temperamental. Red Diamond sources grapes from the best locations around the world. This Spanish blend offers flavors of berries and plum has a silky smooth finish.

Garnacha de Fuego Old Vines from Calatayud is another intensely flavored wine that emphasizes fruit. Mostly black cherry but there are plum and raspberry with smooth tannins and a long finish.

The best thing about these wines is the price – all under $10 and most around $7. So, stock up on these affordable wines, because there are more holiday dinners in your immediate future.

Have a warm and happy Thanksgiving.

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

Orange Muscat with Pancakes

Pairing breakfast with wine is not the way to start the day unless of course, it’s a Sunday, a brunch and a celebration. And then, we generally gravitate to the celebration wine that always works with breakfast type foods – sparkling wines.
But rather than another sparkling wine with this Aloha breakfast that Ann Vogel is suggesting, let’s look at it as a bit like a dessert rather than breakfast. And the rule of thumb for pairing desserts with wine is the wine is must be a bit sweeter than the dessert.
If you think about it, pineapples and coconut syrup, pancakes with nuts, have all the ingredients of a pie. Or a pineapple upside down cake. Or some of the ingredients of grilled pineapple with a side of coconut ice cream. So, which wine with pineapples and coconuts?
There are few wines as sweet and floral as a Muscat.  Muscat is in the Vitis Vinifera family along with Cabernet, Syrah and Chardonnay.
There are many varieties of Muscat that range in color white to black. Muscat is very much like Gewurztraminer in the aroma department; it’s very fragrant with a distinct floral aroma.
A few of the most popular muscats are Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains which is used to produce Asti Spumante from Italy’s Piedmont region. In France, a fortified wine called vin doux naturel is made from this variety of muscat.
One of my all time favorites is a Muscat Liqueur from Australia, very hard to come by but worth seeking out. It’s very PX like with aroma of coffee, fruit cake, raisins and toffee.
Spanish Moscatel is also fortified, made from the Muscat of Alexandria grape. Moscatel de Setúbal is a fortified wine from Portugal, usually served in bars or as an aperitif.
I first tasted Muscat Ottonel many years ago at a little winery in Oregon called Eyrie; it was dry and very aromatic. And there is Muscat Canelli, with quite a few vineyards in Washington, BV’s Muscat de Beauleiu is made from Muscat Frontignan , Moscato Bianco, Muscat de Frontignan, Muscat d’Alsace, Muskateller, Moscatel Rosé, and Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise. Those are the white skinned grapes, but most are caramel colored in the finished product.
For darker skinned grapes, there is Muscat Rose à Petit Grains, Moscato Giallo, Moscato Rosa. These produce light fragrant rose scented wines.
 in California and Cyprus, dessert wine is made from the Black Muscat.
And then there is the Orange Muscat. These dessert wines have something of an orange aroma and a delightful sweetness to them that just pairs naturally to the pineapple and coconut.
Quady Winery out of California has been “keeping it sweet” since 1975. They make a number of dessert wines including port and a variety of muscats.
Their Essensia is an orange scented wine fortified to 15% alcohol and aged for 3 months in French oak puncheons. Its vibrancy makes it an excellent accompaniment to desserts such as the pineapple pancakes.
But even better is their Electra. As stated on the website, this little sweetie is “light as springtime, delicately sweet, refreshingly crisp, a bouquet of flowers with the taste of peach and melon.”
The wine is filtered at bottling when it is at 4% alcohol which makes it the perfect wine for an Aloha breakfast.
Quady is distributed by Unique Wines. Essencia 2012 is $20 for a full bottle and $15 for the half. Electra 2012 is $10 for the half bottle. Enjoy!

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.