Wine Discovery

Q1 2012: As Wine Goes By....  On a recent rainy day, we found ourselves revisiting Casablanca, as we are wont to do.  (Even when it's not dark and stormy.)  As we swirled and sipped, we began to imagine some of our favorite wines from the past few months as having the attributes of the main characters in one of the greatest films of all time.  Below are the results of our flight of fancy into the silver screen's celluloid stories of yesteryear.  A wine bar could not replace a "gin joint," nor does "We'll always have Napa" strike quite the right note.  Nonetheless, below are write-ups of four fantastic wines, each with a part to play: a noble Champagne; a surprising white; a beautiful and nuanced Pinot Noir; and a deep, dark Napa Cab.  Please let us know what you think, and "Here's looking at you, kid."

"I meant to, but something always held me up."  Victor Laszlo has more famous lines, but none that humanize him so much as this sheepish admission to Ilsa that his desire to stay with her outweighed his dedication to his beloved cause (and to his own safety).  In a cast of complex characters with murky motives, Victor is the straight man: a mostly unflinching revolutionary who takes himself and everything else a bit too seriously.  We see him as the Bollinger Champagne of the set: pure, powerful and reliable to a fault.  On our last trip to Paris, we made the supreme sacrifice of sampling a dozen non-vintage offerings from Champagne houses great and small.  (The things we do for you....)  Bolli was best, delivering a dry, structured and well-balanced Champagne from front palate to finish.  Unique in its yeast flavor profile and an outlier among Champagnes in its use of oak, Bollinger is always the right thing to pick, whether going to a party; staying in for the evening; and food-pairing or not.  Incorruptible integrity, a strong backbone and just a touch of sentiment: just like Victor Laszlo.  See NV Bollinger Special Cuvee for more on this classic Champagne.
 
"I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy."  It's hard to imagine Casablanca without Captain Louis Renault.  He's clever, relentlessly self-serving and brings bemused cynicism to heights arguably not seen before or since.  An adept politician, he knows how to play his cards.  At the core, though, he's a better person than one might expect.  The same is true of La Poule Blanche, a value wine made of Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauv Blanc.  It's deceptive in its combination of sturdiness (derived from a light oak program) and rich, fruit-driven New World aromatics.  Above all, this Languedoc creation is a versatile table wine that can pair happily with salads and seafood, but also will stand up to heartier pastas and poultry dishes.  Skilled Bordeaux winemakers have collaborated to offer a nice white that would be as much at home on your table as at Rick's.  See 2010 Sacha Lichine La Poule Blanche for the details on this wine.
 
"You used to  be a much better liar, Sam."  As with many other lines from Ilsa Lund, this one is hard to read:  How much is it a sweet, left-handed compliment, as opposed to a gentle dig at Sam?  But more than her aura of reflective mysteriousness, Ilsa brings beauty, grace and depth to Casablanca.  She catapults the movie from film noir prototype to a classic for all time.  She's honest enough not to be sure of what's right and wrong, yet never descends into moral relativism.  Goldeneye's Ten Degrees is one of the very best Pinots we've tasted -- bursting with beautifully interwoven threads of bright fresh fruit; while nuanced, dark and even a bit edgy at the edges.  Elegant and ethereal, it's soft as silk while boasting a mouth-watering acidity.  Its finish ranks with some of the much more powerful Willamette Valley Pinots we've tasted.  Drink it with grilled portabella mushrooms, or almost anything you like.  Or better yet, enjoy it all by itself on the right foggy, swirling evening.  See 2009 Goldeneye Ten Degrees Pinot Noir for information about this incredible Pinot.
 
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."  Could Rick Blaine, the dark, cynical hero of Casablanca, capture all that has come before and all that is still to come of his just-redefined association with Captain Renault any better?  Gravity, depth and a nod to the frailty of human relations all in a casual stroll into the gathering fog.  For depth and intensity of that magnitude in the wine world, you might need a Heidi Barrett Cab.  Lamborn's 2007 is a masterpiece.  It hits you quickly with deep, dark black fruit on the front of the palate.  Highly concentrated yet masterfully balanced, this wine offers Old World tannins that are nicely integrated now, and promise to become even more refined over time.  The Howell Mountain vineyards that produced the fruit for this Cab have volcanic soil and sit 2000+ feet above sea level.  The Lamborn family has a great story to tell, not the least of which is their excellent taste in winemakers.  See 2007 Lamborn Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon for more on this leading man of a Cab.

Winter, 2011: Winter Solace.  Take solace from solstice today in a glass of wine!  The wind may be whipping, but our seasonal selections will allow you to drift away in a midwinter dream....  As you hunker down for the holidays, the fireplace is optional, but an over-sized wine glass is a must.  (Bring on the big bowls: half a bottle and room to swirl, anyone?)  Following are the fruits of our labor, hunting down the right wines for your cold weather festivities - a regal Chardonnay; a fantastic red that belies its phantasmic handle; a Napa Valley superstar; and a pale pink bubbly worthy of ringing in 2012.  Please let us know what you think, and here's to a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year!

"Rare & Endangered.  Enjoy While You Can!"  Thus proclaims the website of Spotted Owl Vineyards, a family-owned boutique that graduated from growing great grapes to making great wines.  Their wines sure wouldn't last long in our house.  And although they make more reds than whites, we thought their 2010 Chardonnay was best in show at a recent tasting.  It's unfiltered and fermented only with natural yeast.  The winemaker has struck a masterful balance, preserving the fruit's vibrant acidity while employing barrel fermentation/aging to tease out a smooth, creamy and slightly spicy wine with a pleasing and lengthy finish.  See 2010 Spotted Owl Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay (the homepage for Spotted Owl Vineyards; there is no link to a write-up of this Chardonnay). 

"Mysterious and Hauntingly Seductive."  And Bogle Vineyards doesn't just put that tag line on its website; you can find the turn of phrase on the label of their 2008 Phantom.  OK, so Bogle's marketing department may have gotten overly enthusiastic.  But this red is interesting, reasonably priced and readily available.  It's a blend of Petite Sirah and old vine Zin, with a touch of Mourvèdre.  The wine explodes with bright red fruit on the front palate.  From there, it takes an unexpected turn toward a deeper, darker flavor profile.  The wine boasts mature, softly integrated tannins, likely from receiving over two years in oak.  The finish is mild and pleasant.  Phantom's variety is its versatility: you could pair this wine with pizza or pasta on the casual end, or take it right up the ladder to bigger, richer dinner options.  See 2008 Bogle Vineyards Phantom for detailed notes on this wine.

"From Cult to Classic."  Pahlmeyer has been making good wines for too long (20+ years now) to be called a cult wine.  It's grown from a sensation into a stalwart, consistently showing off the qualities that keep Napa in the same conversation with Bordeaux et al.  There's not a thing we don't love about the 2006 Proprietary Red.  It's big and powerful, displaying fruit that would make a farmer blush.  Luscious is an understatement.  Yet the stiff tannins seem like they could continue to soften beautifully for many years to come.  While it's axiomatic to run for red meat with a wine like this, we think it's hard to beat drinking it all by itself, slowly and happily.  And a side note: we adore the Pahlmeyer bottle (thick and heavy) and label (simple and formal) and hope they both never change.  See 2006 Pahlmeyer Napa Valley Proprietary Red for a look at the tech sheet.

"Beyond the Dream?"  If you read our blogs, you know we love us some Le Rêve (en anglais, that's "The Dream.")  It's a blanc de blancs and the best stuff in the shop at Domaine Carneros, a premier producer of bubblies.  Now, Le Rêve purists may cringe at the thought of sullying their favorite bubbles by blending in Pinot Noir.  We say to them: try the 2006 Le Rêve Rosé.  It's a classic blend of Pinot and Chardonnay, with just enough skin contact during fermentation to allow the Pinot to bleed off a touch of pale pink color into the wine.  With the color comes a delicious, fragile tartness that soon gives way to the creamy, full-bodied characteristics that typify this prestige cuvée.  With 5 years on the yeast, it has structure and gravity, and belongs in the conversation with some of the best rosés we've ever tasted from the Champagne region.  What better way to welcome the New Year than with a glass of this elegant, refined sparkling wine?  Bonne Année!  And see 2006 Domaine Carneros Le Reve Rose for more on this bubbly.

Autumn, 2011: The Hunt for Red October.   Autumn is in the air: days are ending sooner; a chill is detectable on some evenings; and root vegetables' perennial takeover of restaurant menus can't be far behind.  With the turn in the weather comes an undeniable, possibly primordial, march toward red wine.  Below, please find our impressions of a trio of reds fit for your dinner table - a silky smooth pinot; a Chianti with a New World style; and a value merlot from our favorite Trader.  Also, check out Recent Article on Wine Investing, which quotes Dean several times!

July, 2011: "Nothing Toulouse."  From a previous review, you know Toulouse Vineyards knows how to make a nice white.  But Anderson Valley is all about pinot, and Toulouse's 2009 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is one for the winery to hang its hat on.  The aromatics are less ethereal than many Anderson Valley pinots, and explode with rich, ripe cherry notes.  But on the front palate, it's silky smooth, and emblematic of the finest pinots the region has to offer.  As this pinot works its way to the back end, it boasts structure to be expected of a wine that has spent longer in the barrel than this one has.  This pinot will be very versatile with food: on the light side, pair it with pizza and pasta; or take it up the ladder to salmon, lighter grilled offerings, and absolutely anything with mushrooms or a mushroom-based sauce.  See 2009 Toulouse Anderson Valley Pinot Noir (the homepage for Toulouse; there is no link to a write-up of the individual wine).

August, 2011: "Fava Bean Friendly...."  It's hard to drink Chianti without recalling its brief but memorable mention by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs.  But try.  The 2008 I Sodi del Paretaio from Badia di Morrona achieves regional typicity while pleasing New World palates.  This Chianti is made of 90% Sangiovese grapes; 10% Cabernet; and 10% Merlot.  Most exciting is the fresh fruit on the front of the palate, which we associate more with California than Italy.  This burst of cherry and raspberry notes gives way to a more traditional tasting Chanti.  This wine has nice, firm tannins that endow it with a faintly chalky traction on the mid-palate, and a corresponding ability to stand up to spicy, strong-flavored foods.  (A must in our household: we paired it with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, plus raw garlic and green onions, and it worked perfectly.)  See 2008 Badia di Morrona I Sodi del Paretaio Chianti for more on this wine, and on the history of the winery.

September, 2011: "Merlot by Joe!"  We're always happy to find a drinkable wine in the bargain bin.  (We wish it happened more often than it does.)  The Grower's Reserve Line at Trader Joe's seems to be our favorite grocery store's attempt to capture those of us who hunt on the higher end of the lower-priced wine shelves.  Sometimes the magic works, as with the 2010 Trader Joe's Grower's Reserve Merlot.  It's a soft, fruit-driven wine that delivers lush, dark fruit flavors at a price that will allow you to open a second bottle.  Although the structure is simple, it's a full-bodied, flavorful  wine.  And the finish is velvety and pleasant, delivering more than too many over-priced, mediocre wines.  Apologies that there is no link to offer with more details.  But then again, it won't be hard or expensive to get your hands on a bottle....

June, 2011: Sweet Summer.

06/03/11: "Sparkling Starter."  Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley produces some of the best bubbles this side of the pond.  Champagne Roederer's American property is especially adept at turning out versatile, lively non-vintage bubblies that offer terrific value considering the quality of the wines.  The most recent release of the winery's Extra Dry bottling is front and center.  With delicious aromatics and nice fresh fruit on the front palate, it's light-bodied and perfect as an apéritif.  Only moderately sweet, this wine offers a clean finish, distinguishing it from too many sweeter sparkling wines.  Pair it with simple appetizers, or just quaff a half glass before moving on to dinner.  See NV Roederer Estate Extra Dry for more info on this bottle of bubbles.

06/10/11: "Golden Goose."  A good Riesling can be a study in contrasts.  It's sweet yet light; can combine powerful flavors and nuances; and can be drunk with spicy foods or after dinner.  Toulouse Winery, famous for its ubiquitous goose logo (although we saw no live geese on the property), has produced a Riesling that hits all the right notes.  On the nose, it's lush and tropical.  But the wine is light and lively on the front palate, with hints of spice.  And it offers the clarity so prized in Rieslings.  Best of all, the wine allows a range of pairing possibilities.  From mildly spicy accompaniments to rich entrées, it's quite versatile.  See 2009 Toulouse Estate Riesling (the homepage for Toulouse; there is no link to a write-up of the Riesling).

06/17/11: "Bubbly with Body."  In the Champagne and sparkling world, a demi-sec is one notch sweeter than an extra dry, and typically twice as sweet as the popular brut category.  It's a challenge to make a sweeter bubbly that retains the freshness that make these wines so nice, especially when producing a vintage-dated wine meant to offer enough structure to go with food.  Domaine Carneros's 2006 Vermeil does a great job of striking this balance.  It's sweet without being cloying, and with three years of age at the winery, provides structure that makes it a nice match for spicy Asian food.  Pair it with Thai food, spicy Indian food or stir-fry: this wine has the body to stand up to it, and just enough sugar to offset the heat in the dish nicely.  See 2006 Domaine Carneros Vermeil for more on this wine.

06/24/11: "A Zinful Spin on Port."  Port is a pleasure all its own.  The sensation of allowing a small sip to spread from tip to base of the tongue is unique in the wine world.  And Port's legendary symbiotic relationship with chocolate is another reason to play this game.  But Port means luxury too.  How often do we make the time and space to sit still and enjoy a post-prandial pleasure; or a late night sipping session with good friends and wine-aided conversation.  The latest effort from Meyer Family Cellars offers depth, richness and a lengthy finish.  This wine, made with Zinfandel in lieu of the five traditional varietals used in Portugal, is worthy of comparison to many tawny Ports.  The fruit is beautiful, and the sugar and alcohol levels are restrained and well-balanced.  Finally, this wine will age well, so you can stock your cellar with confidence that you'll be able to enjoy it for years to come.  See Meyer Family Cellars Port for details on this wine.

May, 2011: May Flowers.

05/06/11: "Beg, Bara or Steal."  Just do whatever you have to do, to procure a bottle of the 2004 prestige cuvée rosé from Champagne Paul Bara.  The attack is lighter than the active mousse would lead you to believe, but the Champagne delivers on the nose and on the front palate, with superb and subtle aromatics followed by a controlled explosion of bright, red fruit.  The balance of the blend ensures that the acidity and the ripe fruit dance properly together through the finish, which is persistent.  The wine would be perfect as the first glass of the evening, but has enough backbone to stand up to moderately spicy appetizers too.  See 2004 Paul Bara Grand Rose for more info (this link is to the home page; click on "Spécial Club" to read about the Grand Rosé).

05/13/11: "All-Occasion Bubbly."  We make no secret of our enthusiasm for Domaine Carneros, one of the very best American producers of sparkling wine.  DC's flagship Brut is our go-to on any given evening, and the recently released 2007 is the nicest in several years.  Crisp, clean and classic, you can sip it with comfort food any old time; dress it up for a night on the town with fancy fare; or pour it for weddings and large parties without breaking the  bank.  The 2007 has a bit more Chardonnay and a bit less Pinot than in most years.  As a result, it is defined by its clean, citrus notes.  Elegant and versatile, this sparkler is a great value for the quality it delivers.  See 2007 Domaine Carneros Brut Cuvee.

05/20/11: "From Fire to Wine."  We're sure Cecil De Loach was an asset to the SFFD and a credit to his community during his 16-year career fighting fires in the fair city of San Francisco.  But boy, are we glad he moved north and turned to wine.  The proprietor of Hook & Ladder vineyards has produced a 2009 Pinot Noir that is soft and inviting.  It captures the best qualities of the Russian River appellation at a reasonable price point.  More importantly, it displays an understanding of the land and skills in the tankroom, with generous fruit and an earthy mouthfeel.  It's smooth as silk, food-friendly and well-structured.  See 2009 Hook And Ladder Pinot Noir for more on this wine.

05/27/11: "Top Value Down Under."  The Penfolds wines that find their way into Trader Joe's don't often make our list.  But the 2010 Rawson's Retreat Shiraz/Cab blend is  the exception that proves that rule.  This explosively fruit-forward wine does everything you'd want it to do for pasta with a big red sauce; or for a backyard barbecue.  In addition to being inexpensive and drinkable, it offers surprising depth and complexity along with its big, bold, fruit-driven flavor profile.  See 2010 Penfolds Rawson's Retreat Shiraz Cabernet for details on this wine.

April, 2011: The Spring Line.  Why go to Paris or Milan for the shows when you can accessorize with wine, and much closer to  home?  Swanson's 2010 Viognier is a yellow summer dress, worn off the shoulder.  It can go straight from the beach to  the backyard, and it's the perfect start to a warm, breezy evening: think of it as a slightly sweet stand-in for a cocktail.  Too many California Viogniers are unctuous, but Swanson's offering is clean and simple while delivering a hint of honeyed richness.  See 2010 Swanson Viognier for more information on this delicious, small production wine.

One good Swanson deserves another, and the winery's 2007 Merlot follows the Viognier down the runway.  This wine is your favorite pair of jeans, the only pair that always fits perfectly.  Wear them around the house or dress them up with a lacy blouse; they're always there when you need them.  Similarly, this medium-bodied Merlot is balanced and beautiful at once, well-suited to pasta night at home yet worthy of the corkage fee required to bring it to a restaurant.  With more tannins and grip than fruit notes, and a strong finish, this is a wine of substance.  See 2007 Swanson Merlot.

Next up: the 2005 Rutherford Cab from Provenance.  Think of it as the quintessential designer tote.  It's respectability personified, distinctive but not bank-breaking like its high fashion handbag cousins, dependable, sturdy and elegant enough to turn more than the occasional head.  This Cab offers a satisfying bouquet, notable for its dark fruit notes.  It's smooth and has depth on the mid-palate, reflecting a graceful consistency; and has enough acidity to keep things lively.  See 2005 Provenance Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon for the details (note that this link is to the 2006 vintage; the 2005 is no longer listed online).

The 2005 Le Rêve from Domaine Carneros takes us from the catwalk to Tiffany's windows.  This sparkling wine, one of America's best, is that forbidden cushion-cut yellow diamond ring, surrounded by platinum bead-set white diamonds, that you know you never should allow to tempt you, but, well, what's a few months' salary when it's true love?  This year's model of Le Rêve is our favorite since the 2001 vintage.  It displays all the rich, creamy characteristics that make this wine great, offset this year by a glittering, dazzling brightness that earns it a place at the table with the very best the French send us.  Classic, timeless and a bit of a splurge, this wine is prêt-à-porter today (though never "off the rack"), and also should age beautifully for upwards of a decade from harvest.  See 2005 Domaine Carneros Le Reve for a write-up, and wear it in good health!

March, 2011: "Wish They All Could Be California Wines."  We rarely attend organized wine tastings, preferring the open road for finding new wines; and the comforts of home for drinking them.  But a recent event featuring some of the very best small batch wines we've tasted in a while proved to be the exception that proves the rule.  As we worked the room, and the winemakers, we found four more fabulous than the rest.  First up: the 2009 Chase Cellars Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel Rosé.  This is the only rosé of Zin we've ever tried; as you may know, rosés are usually made from different grapes.  (And White Zin doesn't count!)  It's zippiness personified, with just a hint of the fruit notes we love in our Zins.  This wine screams spring and summer, and would be a welcome, if flirtatious, guest at any backyard barbecue.  See 2009 Chase Cellars Hayne Vineyard Zinfandel  Rose for details (apologies that only the 2007 tech sheet is available online).

From flirtatious to long-term relationship material.  The 2008 Knights Bridge West Block Chardonnay is the best and most distinctive Chard we've had in some time.  The winemaking approach is thoughtful and beautifully suited to the terroir.  This wine was fermented in 100% new oak barrels from two of the best coopers in France.  The lees were stirred weekly for over a year, and the wine is unfiltered and unfined.  Most interesting is that the 100% malolactic fermentation was accomplished with natural, indigenous yeasts.  The result: a wine whose richness is offset perfectly by soft, moderating influences too often absent in mass-produced Chardonnays.  It will pair with a range of foods to which most other Chardonnays wouldn't stand up.  No wine in recent memory connects the dots better from dirt to barrel to glass.  See 2008 Knights Bridge West Block Chardonnay for a description of this unique and wonderful wine.

Showing they can handle red as gracefully as white, the Knights Bridge folks have produced a fantastic Cab.  The 2007 is a big, generous wine that will keep on giving for years to come, and the intensity of the dark fruit flavors define this Cab's identity.  But its tannins are so smooth and silky that it drinks beautifully now too.  We've said it before: there are a lot of Napa Cabs that deliver no more than a "B" performance with an "A+" monetary investment.  Not this one, though; it's worth every penny.  See 2007 Knights Bridge Cabernet Sauvignon.

The night's biggest surprise was the deliciously delectable 2007 Delectus Cabernet Franc.  Does the following sound familiar?  "Well, I've come to never expect greatness from a Cab Franc, and this one's no exception.  Sort of a flabby, overripe...."  That's right, it's Myles from Sideways, in the midst of a snobologue less famous than his Merlot diatribe.  Well, he's mostly right; we've never found a 100% Cab Franc worth writing home about.  They usually smell better than they taste.  But Delectus has delivered a real gem.  It's got all the floral, delicate, nuanced aromatics we love about Cab Franc.  But the wine's firm structure is the real story.  Its backbone kept us on board from front palate through finish, and ensured that the beautiful violet notes had a stage to dance on, rather than disappear from our attention.  No write-up of the Cab Franc is available online, but visit the Delectus Homepage as the wine is worth calling or emailing for!

February, 2011: Four Corners.  California can make things too easy.  Too often, we find ourselves taking the path of least resistance.  In our case, that path goes over the Golden Gate Bridge, up 101 and right to southern Napa and Sonoma.  This month, we've engaged in some globe-trotting from home, to tell you about four wines from four continents - if not four corners of the earth.  Below are write-ups for: a cool Kiwi Sauv Blanc; a titillating Torrontés; a saucy South African Bordeaux blend; and a majestic Margaux.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these wines should you indulge, and to raising a glass with you too!  Cheers!

02/25/11: "When in Doubt, Go Margaux."  Ah, now we're on the "right" Left Bank!  Margaux has long been our favorite when we venture into the Bordeaux Zone.  At their best, these wines boast a soaring elegance as unbeatable as it is indescribable.  The 2004 offering from Château Lascombes proves at least two things: (1) it's eminently possible to find an excellent Margaux without approaching triple digits; (2) if you're willing to wait for it.  We waited a few years for this one, which many said was good on release.  It was worth it: the tannins and the strong oak influence have settled well into a beautifully balanced blend of dark red fruit, with roughly equal parts Cab and Merlot.  Best about this wine was its soft, chocolaty chalkiness.  (Yes, chalkiness in a good way.)  See 2004 Chateau Lascombes Margaux for more on this beauty.

02/18/11: "Wait, Which Left Bank?"  Not one in France this time!  We admire the chutzpah demonstrated in the naming of this wine from Neil Ellis, a South African producer.  The Left Bank is a Bordeaux blend, except for the presence of a good dose of Shiraz.  It's a nicely made red table wine, with bright red fruit on the nose and more grip on the mid-palate than one might expect from a moderately priced bottle.  Best of all is the spicy quality of the wine, especially on the back-end and the finish.  It's a peppy, versatile wine born for backyard barbecues.  And again, bonus points for the cheekiness!  See 2009 Neil Ellis The Left Bank for a description.

02/11/11: "Remember the Alamos!"  Alamos is an Argentinean property known mostly for pumping out endless supplies of drinkable, if unspectacular Malbec, for cheap.  So we thought we'd try one of their whites, and very much enjoyed the 2010 Torrontés.  This is a grape we have little experience with, but many consider it Argentina's signature white varietal.  The aromatics of this wine brim with fresh, vibrant qualities.  On the front palate it's crisp and clean; and displays hints of richness and honey on the mid-palate.  The finish is a short, but emphatic exclamation point where the wine's acidity and a touch of unexpected creaminess converge.  See 2010 Alamos Torrontes for more on this versatile, food-friendly white.  (Note: the tech sheet is from 2007, but is general enough to be accurate.)

02/04/11: "Monkey Business Down Under."  Monkey Bay's 2009 Sauv Blanc is a pleasant surprise from the "deep value" side of the shop.  The color is lemon chiffon, and the nose and palate confirm the eye's first impression.  Citrus and acidity tell most of the story of this wine, which will pair beautifully with simple seafood dishes and/or fresh salads.  The flavor profile offers some of the trademark grassy notes that Marlborough (New Zealand) Sauv Blanc fans swoon for, but the elements of grapefruit and pineapple steal the show here.  We can't resist the temptation to say you'll "go ape" for it, and see 2009 Monkey Bay Sauvignon Blanc for a tech sheet.

01/28/11: "A Port by Any Other Name That Tastes Less Sweet."  Who said traditional port grapes could only be grown in Portugal?  Who said a wine made from those grapes had to be sweet and fortified with brandy?  Well, they forgot to tell the crew that makes the 2008 Rio Tinto for Lee Family Farm (a line within the Monterey's Morgan Winery).  This wine is among the quirkiest we've tasted recently.  The fruit is from Lodi, and includes four of the main grapes used to make Port: Touriga Francesa, Alvarelhao, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz.  But instead of making a fortified, sweet dessert wine, Lee Family Farm produced a dry, sturdy red table wine.  The bold, ripe, dark fruit flavors are the entire story here, with a short French Oak barrel program providing structure to this pleasant and surprising wine.  These California-grown Port grapes display aromas and a flavor profile that are familiar and unique at once.  And the wine is as great a value as it is versatile.  See 2008 Lee Family Farm Rio Tinto for a thorough write-up of this wine.

01/21/11: "Dante's Second Sphere."  (And bonus points – or better yet a glass on the house – to whichever of you nails that allusion first and best: earliest time-stamped email wins.)  The 2007 VJB Dante is a reasonably priced, well-made Cab blend to pair with pizza, pasta and a range of meats.  VJB is an unassuming, truly family-run winery in Sonoma with friendly and knowledgeable folks staffing the tasting room.  In the Italian tradition, their wines are food-friendly; and also are built to drink upon release.  The Dante hits you with bright, fresh fruit up front, and stays true to its simple, sunny self right through the finish.  With enough time in oak to feature some soft tannins, it will stand up nicely to stronger flavors on the dinner table as well.  See 2007 VJB Dante for details.

01/14/11: "We Found Our Thrill on Cactus Hill."  Or, at minimum, our silky-smooth Pinot pleasure.  It's been a few years since we've tried Nicholson Ranch's reserve Pinot.  We're big fans of Ramona Nicholson's approach to sustainability in the vineyards, and to the general philosophy of minimal intervention in the tank rooms.  The 2007 Cactus Hill is wonderful.  It's the softest edition of this wine we can remember, with subdued fragrances that will set the stage for your evening like mood lighting.  Make sure the easy-listening jazz is playing; then swirl, sniff and sip this mild, earthy and versatile Pinot.  Soft cherry flavors mingle with faint spice notes to offer an elegant wine that will pair perfectly with mushroom turnovers or polenta.  And see 2007 Nicholson Ranch Cactus Hill Pinot Noir for more on this wine.

01/07/11: "The Dolcetto Vita."  Every year, we see more California wineries experimenting with Italian varietals.  To this we say enthusiastically, "Va bene," most recently as we paired Madonna's 2008 Dolcetto with a hearty tomato basil farfalle.  This wine is a delight, and a prototypical food-friendly Italian wine.  Dark fruit defines the bouquet.  The front palate simply explodes with cranberry and tart cherry notes.  On the mid-palate, we picked up pepper and spice and everything nice.  The back-end and finish boast unexpectedly powerful tannins: this wine is bigger than we thought it would be, and may well have aging potential.  But it's a fantastic drink-me-now selection too, fit for a crowded dinner table and a night filled with good conversation and cheer.  And shame on you if pasta or lasagna is not involved!  See Madonna Estate 2008 Dolcetto for details on this bello vino.

December, 2010: Five for Feasting.  With the holidays upon us this past month, we're abandoning our usual format.  (After all, man -- and woman -- cannot live on reverse chron alone.)  See below for five wines we recommend for your holiday dinner table: a palate-cleansing bubbly to kick off the evening; a lean and mean Sauv Blanc; an oaky, buttery Chardonnay; an earthy Pinot; and a late harvest dessert wine.  We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the wines featured below, and to sharing a bottle with you too!  Happy New Year!

To kick off the festivities, pop a bottle of the 2006 Ultra Brut from Domaine Carneros.  Does Ultra Brut sound more like a high-octane gasoline brand (or a shaving cream for really tough hombres with even tougher beards), than a category of Champagne and sparkling wine?  Perhaps.  For the record, it's more often called Extra Brut, which portends less in the way of adrenaline and testosterone.  At any rate, it's the driest classification for sparkling wine, with sugar levels that range from nil to .006.  This Domaine Carneros offering is an old world style bubbly: dry and cleansing.  It's softer than some of its peers, perhaps from the effects of four years on the yeast.  We recommend it as a toasting wine to start the evening: 4 ounces all around;  no food (or maybe just some Marcona almonds); bottoms up; and then on to food and wine pairings for the rest of the evening.  Cheers!  And see Domaine Carneros 2006 Ultra Brut for details on this bubbly.

Next, hit your dinner guests with the racy 2009 Out On A Limb Sauv Blanc, from Crosby Roamann, as you serve salads and seafood.  This is the most interesting Napa Sauv Blanc we've tasted all year: stylistically, it's halfway to a Sancerre.  With citrus aromatics, it's more lean than lush.  Unlike too many Napa offerings, this wine is restrained, with fruit flavors that are pleasing, but not splashy.  With some time in neutral oak, it's soft on the palate, boasts a lingering finish, and can even lay down for a few years.  Bold winemaking choices are backed up by a level of meticulousness in the vineyard and tankroom that could only come from a lawyer such as the man behind this wine.  See Crosby Roamann 2009 Out On A Limb Sauvignon Blanc for a write-up and technical details.

From here, move on to the first of two winners from our friends at Bouchaine: the Bouche de Beurre Chardonnay, which lives up to its rich, buttery, mouth-filling name.  (For those of you who eschew the butter-bomb, stick with the Sauv Blanc!)  Bouchaine's offering underwent full malolactic fermentation and makes no apologies for being an over-the-top California style Chard.  The barrel program is 100% new oak as well, and those two winemaking decisions converge to offer a big, deep Chardonnay.  Even on the nose, a creamy quality takes center stage, although underlying aromas of ripe, tropical fruit can be detected.  This wine is smooth and rich from beginning to end on the palate.  Serve it with chicken, turkey, white fish, and salads of substance.  See Bouchaine 2008 Bouche de Buerre Chardonnay for more on this wine.

For a Pinot that will make your guests say "Gee!" (and maybe even "Golly!"), open Bouchaine's 2008 Gee Vineyards bottling next.  It's a classic Carneros Pinot with a bit of pepper and highly concentrated flavors.  Pair it with anything south of a steak.  If mushrooms can be part of the equation (esp. Portabella), so much the better.  Although young, this Pinot is big and earthy, with a dried cherry flavor profile.  Bright fruit dances gracefully with a mellowness that belies the wine's youth.  See Bouchaine 2008 Gee Vineyard Pinot Noir for the 4-1-1.

Finally, send 'em home happy with a Port style wine from Cooper Vineyards: the 2006 Dicembre, made of half Zinfandel and half Barbera, which thrives in Amador County.  This dessert wine is neither as sweet nor as high in alcohol as most.  (In fact, we've had a standard-issue Zin or two with higher alcohol levels!)  These moderating qualities make it a step more versatile than Ports and other late harvest offerings.  We paired it with Mission figs instead of something in the gooey, chocolaty and decadent zone....  There is no tech sheet online for this wine, but see Cooper Vineyards Wines for a list of current releases, including the Dicembre.

11/26/10: Better Late than Early.  You know from our 04/30/10 post that we're big fans of Le Rêve, the best bubbles Domaine Carneros has to offer.  Well, make that second-best.  For the second year in a row, the winery has released a stepped-up version of their beloved blanc de blancs.  With over 9 years on the yeast, the 2001 Le Rêve Late Disgorged is a powerhouse.  The aromatics are a baker's dream, taking you from rising dough to biscuits hot from the oven.  The attack is fresh, crisp and clean.  Unlike last year's edition, the 2001 L.D. is dominated by a spicy, razor-sharp citrus streak that runs from the mid-palate through the long finish.  Like any great blanc de blancs, this wine is born for food-pairing, e.g., finger foods, a chopped salad and rich seafood.  Especially shellfish.  Especially scallops.  There's no tech sheet for this selection on the Domaine Carneros site, but see Domaine Carneros Home Page for information about the winery.

11/19/10: If Horses Could Fly....  It's exciting to find a nicely made Napa Cab for a very reasonable price.  The Flying Horse 2005 Cab fits the bill, which is especially impressive given the winemaker's use of 100% French Oak, with over half those barrels new.  With fresh red fruit on the front palate and a pleasing tartness on the back-end, this is a bright, simple wine.  It's a light-bodied Cab, yet delivers enough depth and tannins to please fans of the bigger reds.  The wine's acidity makes it more of a match for hearty, tomato-based sauces than for giant steaks.  And the finish is short but pleasant.  See Flying Horse 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for a write-up and technical details.

11/12/10: A Holiday Chardonnay.  For a smooth, well-balanced classic California Chard fit for the feasts of the season, try Cuvaison's 2008 offering from the winery's Carneros location.  This property, revamped and re-developed in the last 10 years, is one of the most modern facilities in  the area.  The winery is also a leader in green initiatives and making wines sustainably.  Tropical and citrus notes converge on the nose, tempered by a subdued hint of oak.  After the attack, fresh fruit gives way to a rich, layered smoothness on the mid-palate.  (Likely from a significant amount of malolactic fermentation.)  The wine was aged in small, French oak barrels: the vanilla characteristics resulting from this treatment are especially evident on the back-end and in the lingering finish.  This wine is born for savory appetizers and sides; "power salads;" poultry dishes; white fish; and just about anything with avocado in it.  Best of all, it's a great deal for what the wine delivers.  See Cuvaison 2008 Carneros Chardonnay for more information on this wine.

11/05/10: "Just Like A Prayer."  OK, Madonna Estate is a small, Carneros-based winery that has nothing to do with the aging pop star.  But a sip of their 2009 Riesling could make you feel "Like a Virgin," and two glasses might just push you over the "Borderline."  But unlike the "Material Girl," this Riesling is a true blonde, with crystalline clarity.  The aromas are floral, and ethereal as a gentle breeze.  With an easy-going mouthfeel and light acidity, it pairs nicely with fresh fruits, Asian appetizers and grilled shrimp.  Don't underestimate the finish, which is long, if light.  At 1.2% sugar, it offers a hint of honey without being cloying.  See Madonna Estate 2009 Carneros Riesling for details on this wine.

10/30/10: A Toast to the Holiday Season!  What better way to kick off the holidays than to raise a glass of well-crafted bubbly?  The 2006 Blanc de Noir from Domaine Carneros is worthy of the occasion.  Chardonnay and pinot noir are the two marquis grapes in most bubblies.  Chardonnay tends to offer refined, elegance -- with crisp, zippy citrus notes front and center.   Pinot noir provides softness, mouth feel and body.  Very few sparklers are constructed entirely from pinot noir, but we're glad to have found this one!  With aromas of pear and a hint of richness, it's the perfect wine to kick off your Thanksgiving gathering.  This blanc de noirs (white wine from red grapes) is simple and approachable, with an easy-going finish.  But it's also nuanced, with more structure than others in its peer group.  So, beyond serving as a simple toasting bubbly, it can stand up to appetizers and side dishes alike.  See Domaine Carneros 2006 Blanc de Noir for a write-up of this sparkling wine, which is produced in small lots and not distributed.

10/23/10: The Oak Standard.  Silver Oak is an iconic institution, and the 2005 Napa Valley Cab lives up to the winery's lofty standards.  Not having visited since the re-model, we were pleasantly surprised by the coexistence of grandeur and coziness in the facilities; as well as by the friendliness and knowledge level of the tasting room staff.  This Bordeaux blend is more approachable than most of its peers at this point of its development.  That said, the wine could be majestic if given time, and is projected to go out 25 years in the cellar.  It's characterized by soft, red fruit on the nose.  Soft tannins are present from beginning to end, and the wine is beautifully balanced.  Prototypical Napa fruit, light pepper and soft, silky spices mingle on the palate.  With a long, easy finish, this wine will be more versatile for food-pairing than stiffer Cabs.  See Silver Oak 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for the 4-1-1.

10/16/10: Hide Your Dollars (2/2).  St. Supéry's 2005 Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon is for those of you who want a big, bad red on the Thanksgiving table: whether or not it plays nice with the food.  This wine shows its Napa bona fides with aromas of ripe, dark fruit.  On the mid-palate, cedar, oak and faint hints of pipe tobacco combine to deliver a full-bodied richness worthy of cold, rainy autumn nights.  With back-end tannins that are still quite strong, the finish could use some softening, and this wine would benefit from many more moons in the bottle.  Nonetheless, it's very nice right now and offers a well-rounded smoothness, despite its relative youth.  See St. Supéry 2005 Limited Edition Dollarhide Cabernet Sauvignon for more information on this wine.

10/09/10: Red All Over.  Alicante Bouschet tends to show up more often as the answer to a trivia question than on the table.  (It's one of only a few red grapes whose fruit is red, as well as its skin.)  The Cooper Vineyards 2007 Alicante Bouschet is a great red to have on the Thanksgiving table.  It's got delicious, light fruit character, and thus will please red drinkers who prize bright acidity.  And it's medium-bodied, making it versatile enough to pair with main dishes and side dishes alike.  The finish is modest but noticeable, with just enough grip.  There is no page dedicated to the 2007 Alicante Bouschet, but see Cooper Vineyards Homepage for general information on the winery.

10/02/10: Hide Your Dollars (1/2).  You know by now that we love a good Sauvignon Blanc.  We've reviewed lean racy ones; as well as tropical, fruit-driven examples of this grape.  It's rare to find one as out-of-the-box, and as well crafted as the2009 Dollarhide from St. Supéry.  It offers notes of lush guava on the nose, and blooms into a rich, full-bodied wine on the mid-palate.  The Dollarhide is one of the only sauv blancs we've ever tried with a (partial) oak barrel fermentation program.  The resulting depth is as satisfying as it is unusual: sauv blanc's usual calling card, acidity, is notable for its absence in this wine.  The long, rich finish feels more like a blend than a wine made entirely from sauv blanc.  It's a bit pricy, but worth it.  See St. Supéry 2009 Dollarhide Sauvignon Blanc for the details.

09/24/10: Pretty in Pink.  Few things say summer more elegantly than a simple, pretty rosé.  Elizabeth Spencer offers a noteworthy, small production rosé of pinot noir that's perfect for pairing with pizza, pasta and -- believe it or not -- donuts with caramel and fleur de sel icing.  (Thanks to Victor, the sommelier at Elizabeth Spencer for this rec, which proved prophetic!)  This wine is easy on the eyes, presenting with a pale, clear, onion skin hue.  Hints of sour cherry characterize the aromatics, and the impression on the front palate is clean and focused.  Soft acidity dominates the middle and back end, forming a nice backbone for food pairing adventures.  Best of all, this wine features a lean, agile structure and more of a finish than most rosés.  Don't be afraid of the pink!  And see Elizabeth Spencer 2009 Sonoma Coast Rosé of Pinot Noir for details (NB: the tech sheet lists the 2007 vintage, not the current one).

09/17/10: Cuckoo for Kono!  Summer waited until approximately this weekend to grace the Bay Area with its presence.  So we figured we'd venture down under for a summer sauv blanc to serve as a counterpoint to our selection from a fortnight ago.  The kiwis delivered.  Kono seems like an unusual company that produces seafood (mussels, specifically) and wine (sauv blanc, specifically).  Describing itself as a Maori entrepreneurial venture, Kono sells its wines in Trader Joe's, and offers fantastic value.  "Grassy" is the adjective most often associated with New Zealand sauv blanc, but the aromas here are tropical and mild.  A streak of vibrant acidity runs from the beginning to the end of this wine, and the finish is crisp as can be.  So it pairs perfectly with shellfish, and with field greens finished with a slightly spicy vinaigrette.  See 2010 Kono Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for more on this wine.

09/10/10: Take a Leap.  Mondavi is a big name and a big business.  The entry-level wines are ubiquitous, and there's plenty of buzz (good, bad and ugly) about them, as well as about the man whose hand shaped much of what Napa is today.  Call him a pioneer and a visionary; call him a profiteer and a mass producer -- either way, the late Robert Mondavi casts a long shadow.  In light of all this, it's easy to lose track of some of the beautifully made premium wines from Mondavi.  The 2007 Stag's Leap Signature Blend is one example.  The 60% Merlot, 40% Cab blend is a classic Napa red.  It offers subdued aromas of fresh fruit and cedar trees.  It's gentle and simple up front, with an easy-going mouth feel.  But it's more than a "drink me now" California wine.  The Signature Blend's real character manifests itself in the rich, ripe red fruit flavors on the mid-palate.  The tannins are a bit green now, but they provide a platform that makes us think this wine will evolve into a serious one over time: with balance, structure, beautiful acidity for food-pairing and a generous finish.  See 2007 Robert Mondavi Stag's Leap District Signature Blend

09/03/10: A Suave Sauv Blanc.  We know that many of you are "ABC" ("Anything but Chardonnay") types when it comes to white wine.  While we do enjoy a well-made Chardonnay, we also love us some sauv blanc.  It's such a great match with the lighter dishes that tend to take center stage on warm summer and fall evenings.  Sequoia Grove's latest release impressed us.  With citrus-driven aromatics, it's crisp and zippy up front.  That said, it's not as lean and racy as some of its French cousins; in fact, it offers a bit of richness on the mid-palate and finishes nicely.  It's reasonably priced and ideal for casual food pairing.  Try it with a tossed Romaine salad with snap peas and chunks of avocado!  And see 2009 Sequoia Grove Sauvignon Blanc for more.

08/27/10: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Zin?  We'd been told Amador was Zinfandel country.  But not until crossing just over the El Dorado County line did we get what we came for.  In contrast to some of the light, restrained Zins we'd sampled, the 2007 Mount Aukum El Dorado Zin huffs, puffs and blows the house down.  With rich, ripe dark fruit on the nose, it's a highly concentrated wine with deep, full flavors.  With good structure, a fair amount of residual sugar and a smooth finish, it stands up to almost anything you might pair it with.  Finally, this Zin is well-balanced, a wine-making accomplishment given the rich fruit and relatively high alcohol level.  At $26, it's also reasonably priced.  Also worth mentioning is that this winery offers some of the most beautiful, unspoiled views in the wine world.  Sitting outside sipping Zin at 2500+ feet above sea level, higher than the hawks, is one heck of a way to finish a trip.  See 2007 Mount Aukum El Dorado Zinfandel.
 
08/20/10: A Primitivo by Any Other Name?  If you love a good international thriller centering on horticultural DNA -- and really, who doesn't -- read up on Primitivo.  This Italian varietal has been confirmed as identical to a clone of Zinfandel; and also to the few remaining vines of a Croatian grape found on the Dalmatian Coast that predates both Zin and Primitivo.  The name of the grape refers to its tendency to ripen early, by the way.  Enough on academic matters.  Drytown Cellars offers a rich yet lean Primitivo that is focused and consistent on the palate.  With hints of cocoa and mild tannins through the finish, it's an everyday wine ($18) born for pairing with pasta: try it with penne, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil.  And see Drytown Cellars Wine List for a brief description of their 2008 Amador County Primitivo, as well as all the other wines produced here.  Also, props to the folks at Drytown both for having a dog-friendly tasting room, and for supplying additional canine friends along with the premises!

08/13/10: Barbera d'Amador!  The 2008 Barbera from Cooper Vineyards is a revelation.  This producer's flagship wine is a shining example of a well-crafted California Barbera.  (One of the most widely planted grapes in Italy, especially the Piedmont region, Barbera was grown in California for cheap jug wines for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.)  No such here: the Cooper Barbera offers beautiful red fruit on the nose and gets better from there.  It's slightly spicy on the front palate, and then settles into a smooth, lushness on the mid-palate.  Particularly noteworthy is the nice balance struck among the wine's fruit, acidity and soft tannins.  At $25, it's a superb, all-purpose food-pairing wine to take you from primi piatti right up to the dulci.  See Cooper Vineyards Wine List for a write-up of the 2008 Barbera, and the winery's other releases.  The hospitality offered by the folks at Cooper deserves extra praise.  It's rare to find a busy, bustling tasting room where owners work hard, side-by-side with staff.  Also, everyone was friendly and service-oriented; knowledgeable without being intrusive; and passionate about their wines.  All this, plus snacks on the house and a willingness to accommodate canines.  Cin cin!
 
08/06/10: Last Things First.  Why not start our tour of Amador County with a dessert wine?  The 2006 Mokelumne River Petite Sirah Port (fortified with Petite Sirah brandy) greets you with an unusual, musty-but-in-a-good-way bouquet.  Petite Sirah is an interesting choice for making Port, which is more often Zin-based in California.  This wine delivers nicely, with abundant richness and depth, as well as a countervailing restraint.  This tension makes it more versatile than pairing only with sweets, despite the wine's high sugar level.  The tasting room folks paired it with ice cream; although it bears mentioning that ice cream pairings were offered with all the wines we tasted, not just the dessert wine!  See Convergence Vineyards Wine List for a write-up of the 2006 Petite Sirah Port, as well as the winery's other releases.

07/30/10: A Wonderful White from Black Stallion.  Black Stallion is a winery to watch.  A new kid on the block offering small batch wines that see no distribution, it boasts a beautiful facility and grounds; friendly staff; and most importantly, a superb winemaker.  Elaine St. Clair, previously at Domaine Carneros, is down-to-earth and friendly, with modesty that belies her talent.  We strongly recommend a visit.  We also recommend the Pinot Grigio as a delightful summer wine.  It's different than most in its peer group.  While it has the zippy, clean, floral bouquet of a classic Pinot Grigio, this offering is distinguished by its depth and balance, not by lean acidity.  This may owe to the use of a small amount of neutral oak barrels to complement the usual stainless steel fermentation program.  Thus, this Pinot Grigio is more versatile than others: take it beyond the usual salad and white fish pairings to richer, more nuanced dishes.  At $22, it's reasonably priced as well.  See 2009 Black Stallion Monterey Pinot Grigio (apologies for pointing you to the 2008 vintage here; the 2009 was just released this week).
 
07/23/10: Liquid Bliss Zinfandel!  Zin enthusiasts tend to draw bright lines between big, brash, unapologetically high-alcohol "fruit grenades" on one hand; and the moderate, restrained and elegant Zins that seem to be more in style now on the other hand.  (Loving both archetypes in this cosmic clash, we take no ideological stand here.)  That said, it's a treat to find a wine for all palates.  Our friends at Gun Bun have done just that, crafting this Zin from low-yielding vines.  Though its aromas are subdued, bright notes of cherry and lush red fruit are easily detectable.  Given enough air and time before drinking, it's enticingly smooth up front, and surges through the mid-palate, back-end and finish with soft tannins and lightly spicy characteristics.  At $38, it may be a notch too nice for backyard quaffing.  But it's a perfect match for Korean barbecue, or almost any concoction involving tomatoes and garlic.  Or try it with dark chocolate after dinner to be officially transported to the "Decadence Zone."  Happy trails, and see 2007 Gundlach Bundschu Zinfandel for all the details...
 
07/16/10: Why Go Merlot When You Can Take a Cab?  It's easier said than done to find a nice Napa Cabernet for under $50.  Sequoia Grove's 2006 entry-level Cab ($34) delivers the goods with money to spare for victuals.  This wine is a lean, well-balanced blend of fruit drawn from vineyard blocks throughout Napa.  It has characteristic dark fruit and a hint of gnarled wood on the nose.  Although drinking nicely now, it should improve in the next few years as the tannins soften and the wine comes together.  It's stiff enough to stand up to steak; and has the fruit-driven finish to pair well with a hearty pasta marinara.  You should be able to find this bottle in wine shops and restaurants throughout the U.S.  See 2006 Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for a write-up.


07/09/10: A Kosher Wine from a German Grape for Thai Takeout?  You write the punchline to that stand-up set-up; we'll enjoy Hagafen's 2009 Mayeri Vineyard White Riesling with spicy Asian and Indian food.  Hagafen Cellars is best known as one of Napa's few wineries producing kosher wines.  This Riesling brims with intense, tropical aromas.  It's palate-coating and rich, without being too, and is light on alcohol at about 11%.  The finish is pleasant and smooth.  With plenty of residual sugar, it will pair nicely with Pad Thai, Ma Po Dofu and perhaps even a mild Vindaloo.  This Riesling is distributed nationally (although it may not make it to all wine shops), and is reasonably priced at about $20.  See 2009 Hagafen Mayeri Vineyard White Riesling to read about the details.

07/02/10: All About Alsace!  Great Alsatian white wines are fortuitous freaks of nature.  They combine full-bodied heft, honeyed richness and insistent acidity in a way that no other whites on the planet do.  Domaine Albert Boxler's 2007 Pinot Gris is a revelation, delivering on the promises of Alsace at a reasonable price point ($25-$30).  A small family winery with a 300+ year history, Boxler has outdone itself with this wine.  The aromas are flowery yet modest, not really imparting the depth and richness of the wine -- think Catherine Deneuve of yesteryear, in a conservative skirt, showing just a little leg.  On the front end, this wine offers tropical fruit flavors and is as thick and rich as honey, though with only a touch of sweetness.  Ripe, layered peach and apricot notes impress on the mid-palate, with a smooth, warming quality.  The finish is a cymbal crash, with aftershocks of flavor and a lingering acidity that qualified it as a true "hers and his" food-pairing wine for us.  (Hers: white salmon marinated in olive oil, herbs and spices.  His: whole grain and bean veggie burgers.  Hers and his: corn on the cob and grilled zucchini with onions and plenty of garlic, finished with fleur de sel.)  See 2007 Domaine Albert Boxler Pinot Gris for more information, and apologies for not having found a picture of the 2007 label, which does not include the "old vines" designation.

06/25/10: Au Revoir, Les Bleus; Bonjour, Mon Rouge!  (Or "Noir," perhaps.)  With the French having bid a hyperbolically melodramatic and geopolitically humiliating adieu to the world soccer stage this week, we can all return our focus to one of their other national pastimes, producing wonderful wines.  Domaine de Piaugier's 2007 Sablet, a Villages, is one such.  (See http://www.cellartracker.com/wine.asp?iWine=713709&iNote=1463412 for more information.)  This is a classic Rhône, composed of 75% Grenache and 25% Syrah.  Its fruit-forward character gives it an edge over its peers, as the 2007 vintage benefitted from better ripeness than usual.  But these bright red fruit notes do not come at the expense of the spice and soft tannins that Rhône enthusiasts prize.  We drank a bottle with homemade guacamole and everything we pulled off the grill on a cold, foggy, swirling, San Francisco summer evening that was warmed up considerably by this bottle of wine!

06/18/10: "Déjà Julia All Over Again."  With so many wines to try, and so little time, we don't often return to one we reviewed in a previous vintage.  (See our 10/02/09 posting below.)  But the 2006 Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir from Cambria was such a convivial confluence of quality and value that we couldn't help going back to the well.  Well, the 2007 (see http://www.cambriawine.com/?GCID=S16193x020&KEYWORD=cambria%20pinot%20noir&gclid=CJyfl6Supp0CFSReagodHliCyA#/wines/pinot-noir/julias-vineyard/, and please be aware that this description is for the 2008 vintage, as the winery apparently has taken down its 2007 write-up already) is good enough to turn heads, if not quite drop jaws as the 2006 did.  The 2007 is lean and modest.  With faint, bitter cherry aromas and a nuanced, spicy character on the front and mid-palate, this wine is a satisfying match with appetizers, and can stand up to subtle pasta pairings as well.  While the finish is unremarkable, all things considered, it's well worth the price of admission (i.e., $20-$25).

06/11/10: A Royal Value from the Baron.  Baron Herzog's 2007 Old Vine Lodi Zinfandel (see http://www.shopherzog.com/Product/Wines/Baron_Herzog/2007_Baron_Herzog_Old-Vine_Zinfandel,_Lodi_07BHZN.html#FullDescription) is a satisfying, versatile table wine.  Too often, budget-friendly Zins are made with high alcohol levels, over-the-top fruit flavors and too much residual sugar.  This wine boasts the virtue of restraint at a low price point.  The nose offers dark, ripe fruit with a hint of vegetation.  The initial impression on the mouth is warming and pleasant.  This Zin is not complex, but delivers simple, consistent flavors from beginning to end; with a finish characterized by easy-going tannins.  Pair it with almost anything: hard cheeses; hearty, tomato-based pasta dishes; stews and grilled meats.

06/04/10: Mendocino meets the Loire.  Credit Elizabeth Spencer with another brilliant white wine that's perfectly suited to the approaching summer months.  Seehttp://www.elizabethspencerwines.com/wp-content/themes/esw/docs/2008cheninblancmendocino.pdf for a write-up of their 2008 Mendocino Chenin Blanc.  France's Loire Valley is the best-known region for this grape, which makes a happy second home in South Africa (where it's usually called "Steen").  It's not widely planted in the Golden State, but judging by Elizabeth Spencer's efforts, perhaps it should be.  Mendocino's coastal climate has yielded fruit that balances Chenin Blanc's natural vibrant acidity with gorgeous aromas of ripe fruit.  It's very clean on the front palate, making it a nice late afternoon sipping wine, and a match with light salads (think butter lettuce with vinaigrette and fresh cracked pepper).  On the middle and back-end, the wine displays superb depth and richness without being unctuous.  These qualities allow it to complement shellfish and other seafood dishes.  If your experience with Chenin Blanc is limited, try this one to familiarize yourself with the varietal!

05/28/10:  "Cherry Ridge Jubilee."  Dutton-Goldfield is a new winery to us, and we're glad we visited.  The focus is on honest farming, stewardship of the land and a commitment to crafting quality, small batch wines from very specific patches of dirt.  Though most of Dutton-Goldfield's wines are Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, our favorite was the 2007 Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah (see http://www.duttongoldfield.com/taf/store.taf?_function=detail&sku=07SyChr).  The fruit comes from one of the few warmer spots in the area, and the winemaking team has offered up a bright, fresh Syrah.  Notable for its dark cherry character; wispy, yet insistent tannins; and rich finish, it's a nice example of a California Syrah that offers just enough of the "lean and mean" aspects of the French style to keep Old World types happy.

05/21/10: J RRV LD?  OMG!  Teen text talk may be annoying, but the 1998 Late Disgorged J Vintage Brut from J Vineyards (seehttp://www.jwine.com/Wines/Sparkling/Vintage%20Brut,%20Late-Disgorged/J%20Vintage%20Brut,%20LD/14_1998/Notes.aspx) left us close enough to speechlessness that we were reduced to acronyms.  This sparkler from  the Russian River Valley, aged more than eight years on the yeast, is the best that J has to offer.  It features powerful aromas of baking bread, and an attack that is soft and weighty at the same time.  On the mid-palate, it offers subtle notes of citrus and baking spices, with a silky smooth finish.  This is a rich, full-bodied bubbly capable of standing up to just about anything you'd want to eat with it.

05/14/10: Nothing "Petite" about It....Our recent visit to Swanson Vineyards was one of the most gracious and enjoyable experiences we've had in Napa.  They offer seated, guided tastings by appointment only in their uniquely decorated Salon, and superbly selected small bites with each wine they offer to guests.  The wines were decanted properly; the hospitality was warm and witty; and the level of wine knowledge was high.  In short, we can't think of many better ways to pass an hour.  The 2005 Petite Sirah was best in show:http://www.swansonvineyards.com/assets/client/File/teksheets/05ps-tek.pdf.  It's the most impressive Petite Sirah we've tasted in recent memory, with aromas that are both powerful and elegant at once.  Deep, dark fruit-driven flavors make a strong impression on the front end, and the significant oak treatment balances the wine's intense fruit with soft tannins throughout the mid-palate.  The finish is long and strong, providing the wine with enough backbone to stand up to almost any food pairing we can think of.

05/07/10: "The Gold Standard."  We don't often drink sweet wines, but Bouchaine's 2008 Bouche D'Or ("Taste of Gold") merits making an exception.  (Seehttp://www.bouchaine.com/shop/product_78.html, although the tasting notes don't do it justice.)  This is a superb late harvest Chardonnay, and more reasonably priced than many dessert wines.  With a touch of Riesling, it features beautiful, rich fruit-driven aromas.  On the palate, it has weight and depth, and will pair perfectly with fresh fruit.  Notably, the winemaker has allowed this cool climate Chardonnay fruit's natural acidity a co-starring role with the rich sweetness.  (Too many Napa vintners try – and fail – to emulate the style of the great dessert wines of the Sauternes region.)  We enjoyed it with a simple vanilla cake, and suspect it would do well with pound cake also.  For those of you inclined to drink it with dinner, pair it with very, very rich entrées.

04/30/10: "Life Is But a Dream."  Le Rêve, "the dream" in French, is Domaine Carneros’s prestige cuvée and perennially one of America’s best bubblies.  (Seehttp://www.domainecarneros.com/blanc-de-blancs.)  A blanc de blancs that competes with the world's best Champagnes and sparkling wines (e.g., Cristal, Dom Pérignon and Grande Dame), Le Rêve is built from the best Chardonnay of the vineyards.  We broke into our cellar and led a guided vertical tasting of the 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages recently!  Rich, creamy and full-bodied, Le Rêve ages gracefully for up to 20 years from harvest.  The Chardonnay’s citrus-driven finesse and the roundness from extended aging combine to offer a balanced wine harmonized by dueling sensations on the palate.  Recommended foods begin with soft, mild cheeses; cashews; and dried apples or pears.  Caviar, scallops and oysters are favorite matches.  Dinner pairings include rich seafood dishes; chicken with cream sauce; and pastas with white sauces.  The '01 is drinking beautifully now, with its character resting on a classic Carneros Chardonnay harvest.  With hints of spice and an emerging richness reflecting its age, this wine is vibrant and robust at once.  The '02 is characterized by citrus aromas and a smooth, creamy mildness.  Its subtle attack gives way to a consistent presence on the palate, from beginning to middle to end.  The finish is pronounced and persistent.  The '03 may be the most complex of the three, with strong notes of fruit and spice on the nose.  On the front palate, it’s crisp and clean, with layers of flavor that emerge on the mid-palate and the back end.

04/23/10: "All In."  The Domaine Carneros 2008 Dijon 115 (sorry not to have found a link -- this is a very small production wine) is the first Pinot Noir in an adventurous "Clonal Series."  Winemakers emphasize blending when crafting Pinots, in part to mitigate risk and ensure consistency from one year to the next.  Some clones of a given grape varietal may do well one year; while others may not, often for reasons known only to Mother Nature.  This wine is thus an outlier, because it's constructed entirely from one specific Pinot clone.  Think of it as a risky, artistic flourish by the winemaker.  The Dijon 115 clone traces its lineage to the Burgundy region, and has adapted well to the breezy climate and clay-dominated soil of the Carneros region.  It achieves more ripeness in California than in Burgundy, and offers pronounced, brambly aromas and a dark fruit flavor profile in this unique wine.  It also has pleasant, earthy undertones and tannins that are a bit green now, but which should soften nicely in time -- and are much improved by a thorough aeration if you don't want to wait.  It's capable of standing up to more food pairings than most Pinots: bring on the olive tapenade; the garlic mushrooms; and just about anything you might choose to grill!

04/16/10: "Balancing Act."  We won't try to resolve Chardonnay's great "To Oak Or Not to Oak" debate.  (Not today, anyway.)  Suffice it to say that passions between advocates of opposing camps can run as high as they might at a Rachel Maddow-Glenn Beck Friday Night Smackdown.  Pine Ridge's 2007 Dijon Clones Carneros Chardonnay (http://www.pineridgewinery.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=category_detail&category_id_int=16041) could keep all parties and all party-goers happy.  The aromas are beautiful, lush and tropical.  Key to this wine's appeal is the winemaking team's use of a moderate oak treatment combining new, 1-year-old and 2-year-old French oak barrels.  That approach lends weight and depth to the wine while allowing the bright fruit flavors and lively acidity to shine through.  (No malolactic fermentation, so no "buttery" notes.)  The finish is worth waiting for!  We paired a bottle with cous cous, dolmas and a chopped salad with a light vinaigrette.

04/09/10: If you can't say "Gundlach Bundschu Pinot" three times fast, you shouldn't be driving.  But if you're not driving, why not have another glass?  "Gun Bun," 150+ years old and still family-owned, is one of our favorite wineries.  Its history tracks such momentous events as the phylloxera devastation; San Francisco's 1906 earthquake; and one of our least favorite pieces of legislation, Prohibition, which closed the winery for decades.  The people at Gun Bun are beyond friendly; the tasting room is casual yet festive; and the number of different wines produced guarantees something for everyone.  The 2007 Sonoma Coast Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir is for us!  (Seehttp://www.gunbun.com/index.cfm?method=storeproducts.showdrilldown&productid=7cc45e83-1cc4-fbb6-2318-8b1816cf8336&isMarketingURL=1&.)  The low vineyard yields and the small lot approach to vinification have resulted in a deep, concentrated pinot with soft but distinct tannins.  It's got a very pleasing smoky, slightly spicy quality and is capable of standing up to a wider range of foods than most medium-bodied pinots.  Think pizza, pasta, duck, salmon and even lightly grilled meats -- and make sure mushrooms are involved somehow!  Comprised mostly of three classic Dijon clones, it's less a fruity California pinot than an old world style wine, with structure and a lingering finish.

04/02/10: Score one for Sonoma.  Napa wines get more press than their Sonoma County counterparts.  Not coincidentally, they tend to cost more, often without good reason.  No one would dispute that the best Napa Cabs represent California at its finest -- see last week's posting.  But savvy wine types know to hunt down better values on mid-priced wine in the heart of sleepy Sonoma.  Enter the 2005 Wild Oak Cabernet Sauvignon from St. Francis Winery: http://wildoakwine.net/trade/presskit/2005wo_cab.pdf.  This is a lot of wine for the price, with distinct character reflecting terroir and the relatively small production.  It features dark, red fruit on the nose; a rich, velvety mouthfeel; and firm tannins that should continue to smooth out for the next few years.  That said, you can put it on the table tonight -- better if decanted and/or aerated -- and stand it up to just about anything, from a hearty marinara to a hunk o' hunk o' burnin' meat....

03/26/10: Opus One?  Let's make it "Opus Three!"  It's not often that one -- rather, that we -- get to taste three consecutive vintages of California's best-known high end wine.  This weekend offered just such an opportunity, and we didn't turn it down.  Opus One is the Bordeaux blend brainchild and joint venture of the late wine legends Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.  (It's known affectionately to some as "Bob and Phil's Big Red.")  The winery puts inordinate amounts of care and attention to detail into making this wine: it wouldn't surprise us to learn that the vineyard workers were responsible for reading bedtime stories to each individual grape, every evening from the formation of the berries to the crush....It's difficult to provide meaningful opinions on these vintages only 6, 7 and 8 years from harvest -- Opus is meant to be enjoyed up to 20-30 years out.  That said, the 2004 is wonderful right now, with deep, concentrated fruit flavors that reflect the low yields of that year.  The 2005 is more subdued, but also excellent.  And the 2006 -- while young and unintegrated now -- shows some real promise for the years to come, boasting some superb individual aromas and flavors.  See http://www.opusonewinery.com/, and suffer through the insufferable introductory music (or not) before clicking several times to get to the "Vintages" portion of the site.

03/19/10: A Serious Assyrtiko.  If you have never tried this native Greek white grape, we encourage you to pick up a bottle of the 2008 Assyrtiko from Domaine Sigalas.  (See http://www.sigalas-wine.com/proionta01_en.html, and be aware that the label on our bottle also includes the name of the grape).  The winery is located on Santorini, one of the most beautiful islands on earth.  Santorini's volcanic soil has been home to this ancient grape for an estimated three centuries!  The wine offers pleasant, fruit fragrances and a combination of minerality and richness on the palate.  We thought we detected a hint of oak, although the tasting notes neither confirm nor deny this suspicion.  The grape's prototypical acidity is present from beginning to end, and the finish is longer than that of other assyrtiko's we've sampled.  Pairings?  Come on, you could write this as well as we could.  It's born for olives, feta and simple seafood dishes.  The thought of enjoying a glass with mezzes while watching the legendary sunset from the village of Oia on Santorini is almost enough to make us close the shop, sell the house and head for the Cyclades....

03/12/10: Kampai!  Ozeki Nigori is one of the better unfiltered sakes we've tried recently.  (See http://www.ozekisake.com/index04_07.html.)  It's got the pleasant bite and tangy, fermented qualities you'd expect on the front palate.  What distinguishes this sake is its rich, creamy, full-bodied character and smooth finish.  It was a perfect foil for the spicy small dishes we paired with it, and it would go nicely with anything pickled or preserved too.

03/05/10: Chocolate and peanut butter worked fine, but mixing red and white in a still wine?  Leave it to the Aussies -- see http://www.yalumba.com/vintage.asp?p=154&b=199&l=1163&v=4104 for a description of Yalumba's 2006 Barossa Shiraz Viognier.  It's the only Shiraz we've tasted that features a splash of Viognier (5% to lend some "florality").  We're not confident we picked up much in the way of an identifiable hint of Viognier.  That said, this wine has nice, earthy aromas and is food-friendly, with appealing peppery, spicy aspects to it.  With a light oak influence and soft back-end tannins, it also offers a more restrained fruit flavor profile than many Australian reds.

02/26/10: "Own the Podium!"  Kunde's 2008 Gewurztraminer (see http://www.kunde.com/wines/wine.asp?w=896) is as light and graceful as Kim Yu-Na; with the athleticism of Mao Asada; and all the moxie, grit and pluck of Joannie Rochette.  Paler in color than we expected, its aromas are beautifully peachy and floral.  The first impression on the tongue is ethereal, but the wine shows edginess and a backbone on the middle and back end.  Finishing with a flourish, it lingers on the palate and strikes the balance of being pleasantly fruity and not cloying.  It's a dream pairing with medium-spicy stir-fries and other Asian dishes.

02/19/10: Too often, sauvignon blancs are pigeon-holed.  Wine types are quick to tag them as being either in the French style (crisp and racy) or in the New World category (floral, aromatic and lush).  Fair enough: the best Sancerres are typified by crisp fruit flavors and a streak of acidity that runs the length of the palate; while more often than not, offerings from California, New Zealand and elsewhere smell (and sometimes taste) like Jamba Juice concoctions.  However, false dichotomies be damned -- Schug's 2008 Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc (http://www.schugwinery.com/schugwinery/catalog/view_product.jsp?product_id=1130&cat_id=1) defies any such check-boxery.  It's truly the best of both worlds, and thus flexible enough to go with light appetizers; almost any salad; lighter chicken dishes; and of course seafood.  Perhaps the marriage of the "lean and mean" with the "fruity" is a result of the skillful blending of grapes grown in two very different Sonoma microclimates, as the Schug tech sheet claims.  Whatever the reason, it's a great choice for the dinner table.

02/12/10: A white pinot noir?!!?  Mon Dieu!  For something completely different, try the 2008 Pinot Clair from Domaine Carneros.  (Seehttp://www.domainecarneros.com/2008PinotClair.)  With no skin contact during fermentation, it's one of a very few white still wines made entirely from red grapes.  As such, it presents challenges and rewards for those of us who fancy ourselves part of the "Wine Police" squad.  The deep, golden color recalls Alsatian whites.  Musky, herbal aromatics foreshadow a weighty, full-bodied wine and the initial impression on the palate doesn't disappoint.  On the back end through the finish, this wine mushrooms into several directions that left us shrugging our shoulders and unable to come up with a better description than, well, white pinot noir....

02/05/10: If you can still find it on the shelves, Ruffino's 2006 Il Ducale is the best ten-dollar red we've tried in a while.  (See http://ruffino.com/pagine/pagina.aspx?ID=P2006023&L=EN.)  It's a blend: 60% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot and 20% Syrah.  For you Chianti lovers, it features the classic herb-based aromas and pleasantly bitter tannins you'd expect.  The other grapes in the blend provide softness, dark fruit flavors and focus.  The wine is beautifully balanced and a pleasure to drink, from the first impression on the palate through the aftertaste.  This is the best of both worlds at a low price point: a modern, fruit forward wine with old world traction on the palate and an impressive finish.  It will go nicely with a meal from appetizers (sharp, hard cheeses); to main course (pasta with marinara sauce); to dessert (dark chocolate).

01/29/10: What to drink with a simple green salad?  (Those of you who know us may hear that first sentence as "What's tonight's first bottle?")  Not much of a web page to offer you -- http://www.snooth.com/wine/villa-borghetti-grigio-luna-2008/ -- but Villa Borghetti's 2008 Grigio Luna turned out to be a nice find.  This wine delivered what we hoped for from a low-priced Pinot Grigio.  With a pleasant, lightly fruity nose, it's crisp and clean, and has enough acidity on the back of the palate to allow it to stand up to the first course. Salute!

01/22/10: For an interesting table wine, try the 2009 Zarafa Sauvignon Blanc from Mountain River Wines.  (See http://www.mountainriverwines.co.za/, and from this page, click on the link to the Sauv Blanc to call up a .pdf containing a tech sheet.)  This wine hit us as an odd combination of the primary elements we tend to associate with French and California styles.  On one hand it's lean, bracing and characterized by a sort of minerality; on the other, it offers aromas of tropical fruits and is somewhat lush on the palate.  Give it some time to open up and some exposure to air, which smooths out the wine and reduces its faint initial sour flavor.  Also, it's better with food than solo: try pairing it with a green salad or a simple seafood dish. 

01/15/10: Sticking to the post-holiday value wine theme, we turn to a humble Chianti: Marchese de Petri's 2005 Riserva Il Valore.  (See http://www.cellartracker.com/wine.asp?iWine=733788.)  This is a good wine for the price.  It offers notes of mature, dark fruit on the nose and makes a mellow, balanced impression on the front of the palate.  It's food-friendly and is distinguished by subtle hints of spice.  Though simple and light-bodied, this Chianti features soft tannins that provide pleasant traction on the back of the palate and linger through the finish.

01/08/10: How do you follow four consecutive sparkling wine reviews, culminating in a New Year's Eve bubble-splurge?  With a properly penitent, back-to-basics value wine review.  Sola's 2008 Sauvignon Blanc is our pick.  With some semillon blended in, it lacks the leanness that typifies even California sauv blancs.  But this fullness is pleasant and adds versatility.  Sola has produced an entirely drinkable table wine that pairs nicely with simple meals -- e.g., salad and broiled fish.  Given the single-digit price point, that's welcome news.  See http://www.solawinery.com/wines.html for more info.  But beware that (a) the wine is not yet posted online; and (b) the projected percentages of grapes used vary from what the label states.

01/01/10: Happy New Year!  We rang in 2010 with multiple bubblies -- all in a day's work.  Best in show went to Champagne Taittinger's 2003 Brut Millesime, giving Taittinger the honor of closing the last decade for us (last week) and opening the new one.  See http://www.taittinger.com/brut-millesime-2003.html., and once again, bring your best French.  This Champagne, a 50-50 blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, offers floral aromas defined by fresh fruit and subtle yeast notes.  Soft and light-bodied up front, this wine shows true character on the back of the palate, where its depth and stucture merge perfectly, giving way to a distinctive finish.

12/25/09: With apologies for the holiday tease, this week's pick is Taittinger's Les Folies de la Marquetterie.  It's not exported, so you'll either need to visit, or tap your very own "French Connection" to secure some.  This Champagne -- see http://www.taittinger.com/folies.html (and be sure to bring a translator if your French is rusty) -- offers fruity, citrus-based aromas that portend a simple, light-bodied bubbly.  Don't be fooled -- it's richer and more substantial than most non-vintage bubblies.  It has a pleasing bite on the back of the palate and a persistent finish too.  Feel free to keep it simple by pairing it with appetizers, or take it up the ladder to match with fish or meat, especially if cheese or a cream sauce is involved.  Cheers and happy holidays!

12/18/09: Tis the season, so let's stay with bubbles and move from California to France....Champagne Jacquesson's Cuvee 733 -- seehttp://www.champagnejacquesson.com/en/fiches/cuve733.pdf for a bilingual write-up -- is the sixth in a series of numbered annual releases.  (This year's edition is based on the 2005 harvest, with older reserve wines blended in.)  It's got an active mousse and a simple, pleasing hoppy aroma.  The strong "attack" -- bubblespeak for the first impression of the effervescence on the mouth -- indicates that this wine may be best enjoyed young.  Dry and refined on the palate, it offers more character than most non-vintage blends.  The finish is smooth as silk.

12/11/09: Bubble up!  Roederer Estate (Louis Roederer's California property) has been producing wonderful, moderately priced bubblies for years.  The Brut NV is the winery's flagship, and the latest edition doesn't disappoint.  Crisp, zippy and light-bodied, it is true to its cool climate Anderson Valley origins.  It also reflects the Roederer house's traditional emphasis on Chardonnay as the backbone of its best-known blends.  It's a bit drier than many American sparklers, and will serve nicely as an aperitif -- or as a wine that will beat expectations at a large event.  See http://www.roedererestate.com/TechSheet.php?Wine=113 for more information on this enjoyable sparkling wine.

12/04/09: Gundlach Bundschu's 2006 Estate Vineyard Merlot -- see http://www.gunbun.com/merlot -- is the perfect, hearty red to get you through cold winter nights and holiday gatherings that at times, cannot be avoided.  Reasonably priced, it delivers depth of flavor with dark red fruit mingled with hints of mocha and espresso; a firm structure; and a notable finish.  Given the combination of fruit and grip on the palate, it's a versatile food-pairing wine -- although we won't blame you if you choose to take care of a bottle all by itself.

11/27/09: It may be a day late to star as the Thanksgiving pinot noir, but the 2004 Evenstad Reserve is perfect to pour throughout this entire holiday season.  In the Willamette Valley tradition, Domaine Serene's flagship pinot is deep, dark and long through the finish.  With concentrated, layered fruit flavors that are maturing nicely as the years go by and true depth, it's more in the Burgundy style than it is a New World pinot.  Give it a little air and some time to breathe, and it will stand up well to almost everything on the dinner table.  See http://www.domaineserene.com/wine_Evenstad.htm -- and note that this write-up is for the 2006 vintage.

11/20/09: Pepper and spice, everything nice.  The eponymous Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir -- see http://www.domainecarneros.com/EstatePinotNoir -- is the winery's flagship red, and the only one that tends to see any significant distribution.  The 2006 is a classic, balanced Carneros Pinot that's drinking beautifully now.  It offers a subdued aroma of mid-summer cherries, soft and vibrant fruit on the front palate and a silky yet persistent texture.  Medium-bodied overall, it offers enough structure and a finish sufficient to keep fans of bigger and bolder reds happy.  A great choice for holiday meals, it's extremely versatile and food-friendly -- pair it with pizza or pasta on the casual end; match it with duck and salmon as no-brainers with this style of Pinot; or take it up the ladder with lighter grilled or smoked meats.

11/13/09: Chateau St. Jean's 2008 Sonoma County Chardonnay (http://www.chateaustjean.com/stjean/catalog/view_product.jsp?product_id=1524&cat_id=1001) is a candidate for any big Thanksgiving gathering.  Its soft, simple notes of ripe pear on the nose give way to mild, lush tropical fruit on the front palate.  The wine mushrooms into a rich, creamy mid-palate that will make it versatile and food-friendly.  The finish is pure butter, with the malolactic fermentation dictating the length on the back of the palate.  Chateau St. Jean does a nice job on wines at all price points, and this one is a nice value.

11/06/09: Louis Jadot's 2007 Rose Beaujolais hits the mark as a versatile rose for the fall season.  It's an eminently "sippable" aperitif and also will pair nicely with a light pasta dish like prima vera.  This dry rose has a fresh, floral bouquet and offers bright fruit and crisp acidity on the palate.  Gamay -- not our favorite grape in its full-blooded red incarnations -- makes a very pleasant impression in this rose, and the price is right as wine shops clear this vintage from their racks.  See http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_6jYAnDGvxt4/SuiXqMssbcI/AAAAAAAAAFY/W1o-Jpesa3c/s1600-h/DSC_0098.JPG for a picture of the label.

10/30/09: Yes, it's a perennial fruit bomb.  Yes, it's ubiquitous.  And yes, its name is a saucy marketing gimmick.  Still, Menage a Trois from Folie a Deux (seehttp://www.folieadeux.com/mat/red.html) always has a place in our hearts and in our kitchen cabinet -- if not quite in our cellar.  Why?  It's a drinkable table wine that pairs nicely with simple, hearty comfort food and it's priced in the single digits.  Blending Zin with Merlot and Cab is unusual, but it works in this wine.  The 2008 is a bit more restrained than previous vintages, offering versatility without sacrificing its trademark "juiciness."

10/23/09: Alfred Gratien makes a second appearance with its superb and relatively affordable blanc de blancs ("white of whites," shorthand for an all-Chardonnay Champagne).  This wine is rich, complex and full-bodied.  Although the nose is elegant, this bubbly offers more power than finesse, making it sort of a red wine drinker's Champagne -- don't be afraid to stand it up to a rich seafood, poultry or pasta pairing.  The wine's structure and depth may reflect Alfred Gratien's use of oak barrels, an unusual approach in crafting Champagnes, which almost always rely exclusively on stainless steel fermentation and bottle aging.  This blanc de blancs compares favorably to much more expensive offerings from the likes of Krug and Bollinger.  See http://www.alfredgratien.com/web/uk_champagne_blanc_de_blanc.php?PHPSESSID=44f82379db725eb728531edde555bd41.

10/16/09: When you know Robert Hall as well as we do, you call him Bobby.  This Paso Robles winery consistently turns out pleasant, food-friendly value wines.  The 2006 Cab (see http://www.roberthallwinery.com/index.cfm?method=products.productdrilldown&productID=52E4693F-E0A0-68A4-ED30-5701D6FA3919 -- and note that the write-up is for the 2007 vintage) fits the mold.  It offers simple, fresh fruit on the front of the palate, followed by a lush mid-palate and a soft finish with mild tannins.  Give it some air and a little time to unwind, and it will go as nicely with a good book as it will with pasta with a heavy marinara sauce.

10/09/09: Just what the doctor ordered.  Dr. Loosen's 2007 Blue Slate Riesling Kabinett delivers the goods at a very reasonable price point.  It's an exemplary Kabinett (considered the lightest type of Riesling, with relatively low alcohol and sugar levels), boasting the mineral notes of the slate-dominated soil in which the grapes are grown, and for which the wine is named.  Beautifully floral on the nose and slightly sweet, it pairs perfectly with spicy Asian dishes.  Especially rewarding is the wine's persistent depth, complexity and finish -- these qualities set it apart from others in its class and mark it as a wine of distinction.  See http://www.drloosen.com/PDFs/DrLoosenEstateKabinett2007info.pdf for more details.

10/02/09: If you love pinot noir, you know it's rare to find a well-made pinot at or around $20.  This is so for lots of reasons (crop yields, tank room risks, etc.) that one could collectively describe as "Pinot being Pinot."  Cambria's 2006 Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir hits the mark as a very nice wine at a very reasonable price.  Its initial, restrained fruit aromas give way to a lightly spicy, earthy flavor profile with just enough structure to allow for food pairings with pasta, pizza and more.  See http://www.cambriawine.com/?GCID=S16193x020&KEYWORD=cambria%20pinot%20noir&gclid=CJyfl6Supp0CFSReagodHliCyA#/wines/pinot-noir/julias-vineyard/ for more information (please be aware that this description is for the 2007 vintage, as the winery apparently has taken down its 2006 write-up already). 

09/25/09: We stand guilty of serving a wine before its time.  The 2006 Chateauneuf-du-Pape from Clos De L'Oratoire Des Papes (see http://www.klwines.com/detail.asp?sku=1039948) shows almost as much promise as its 2005 predecessor.  But this wine needs more time before it hits its stride.  The nose offers the classic, deep notes that characterize the finest CDP's.  But despite a lengthy decanting, the wine was tight and stiff, with the fruit tasting green and the tannins too rough and dominating the finish.  At a bargain price point though, it's well worth laying a few bottles down for cold, rainy nights several years out.

09/18/09: Pink Bubble Paradise!  Alfred Gratien's Cuvee Paradis Brut Rose -- see http://www.alfredgratien.com/web/uk_cuvee_paradis_brut_rose.php -- is the finest rose Champagne or sparkling wine we've ever tasted.  (Caveat: we'll be in the Champagne region this autumn, so that proclamation could change.)  Dry, lean and boasting distinctive yet restrained fruit, this Champagne is perfectly balanced.  It's magnificent and almost athletic, from its pure, clean aromas; to the crisp attack; through the mid-palate; and finally to a lingering finish.  It's not widely available, and the Alfred Gratien house seems to be less known in California than on the east coast.  Accordingly, it's also a bargain compared to some of the much better known prestige cuvees in its class.  Pick up a bottle for a special occasion -- you'll be thrilled you did!

09/11/09: Every dog has his day, and sometimes fun and a good cause trump wine snobbery.  Cima Collina's 2006 Howlin' Good Red is an unusual blend of Merlot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, et al.  It's unapologetically big and jammy, making it a nice match with any sweet, smoky or tomato-based sauce.  (BBQ, mole or chipotle, anyone?)  It runs a bit hot with the alcohol at times too front and center.  But it's a perfectly good food-pairing wine and will stand up to just about anything you could pair it with.  Plus, the profits go the Monterey County SPCA: bonus points!  Read more by visiting Cima Collina's home page and clicking on the last wine, in the lower right-hand corner: http://www.cimacollina.com/wines.html

09/04/09: Asian and Asian fusion dishes cry out for pairing with a nice Riesling.  (And/or with bubbly, but that's for another week!)  Pacific Rim's 2007 Dry Riesling -- seehttp://rieslingrules.com/wines/dry-riesling/index.php -- fits the bill while keeping the bill under control.  It's a crisp, clean wine with citrus notes and acidity that complements savory and mildly spicy Thai and Chinese stir-fry meals.  It also offers enough of a finish to keep fans of more structured whites happy.

08/28/09: "Anything you can do, I can do better."  The just-released 2007 Avant-Garde Pinot Noir from Domaine Carneros surpasses its 2006 predecessor in all ways.  Its aroma is lush and full, and its approach to the palate offers just the right mix of brightness and softness.  Fans of the Carneros region know that the 2007 harvest received very high marks.  This wine's impressive debut is an early indication of good things to come from this vintage.
 
08/21/09: We love a light-bodied pinot noir for simple summer evenings.  Whether just sipping or food-pairing casually with pizza, pasta, etc., the 2006 Avant-Garde Pinot Noir from Domaine Carneros is a great choice.  Fresh fruit on the nose; soft and balanced on the palate.

08/14/09: It's August and the mercury is rising.  Keeping cool with a bright, crisp white is the order of the day.  For a step up from your average quaffing wine, try Elizabeth Spencer's 2008 Sauv Blanc.  It's the best of both worlds.  The crisp, clean and lean notes of a French style are apparent on the nose.  Its floral, fruit-driven character and lingering finish is "like, totally California, dude."  Read more about this small production gem at: http://www.elizabethspencerwines.com/docs/2008sauvignonblancmendocino.pdf

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