A Taste of the Past Thanks to Bedrock and Carlisle

It was an age of innocence, a simpler way of life, a time when a trip to the grocery store would inevitably lead to the purchase of a Cline Zinfandel, Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay, or something really exotic like a bottle of Duboeuf Beaujolais – it’s French you know! Then came this insatiable interest in wine. Now there were varietals that begged to be sampled. From the dark brooding of Petite Sirah to the grassy freshness of Sauvignon Blanc, this growing fascination, while still being financially manageable, was rapidly becoming a minor obsession.

Then a singular event occurred. One that would so radically alter my purchasing and consumption behavior that what was once a vaguely informed lifestyle choice immediately became a heated pursuit. With one sniff, one taste, my once serene world of wine was suddenly turned upside down. I had, quite by accident, experienced my first taste of wine sourced from one of California’s historic vineyards. Known as a field blend, this magical liquid was comprised primarily of Zinfandel, but also contained Carignane, Cinsault, Alicante Bouschet and even a couple of unidentified varietals. The result of this mixing was a kind of winemaking alchemy that left me wanting to stock my makeshift closet cellar with as many versions of this kind of wine as I could find.

This all sounds well and good, but with this wine epiphany came the realization that I could no longer settle for just any old plonk. No sir, now I must dedicate significant time and energy to the chase of these rare bottlings made from vines planted, in some cases, well over 100-years-ago. Of course, this would not be a problem if there were more producers of such wine, but the reality is that there are a finite number of vineyard sources that have survived to this day.

Who exactly do I have to thank, or blame, for this radical shift in my wine consumption? Two names immediately come to mind: Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Co. and Mike Officer of Carlisle Winery & Vineyards. Between these two I have willingly parted with, in my world, significant sums of money to feed this growing habit. Now a word about the wines from these two amazing sources.

Bedrock Wine Co. – Owner and winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson puts his efforts into perspective by describing one of his primary objectives as a winemaker – “To channel the fruit of ancient vines into powerful, elegant, and distinctly Californian wines.” And this is exactly what Morgan does with his California Heirloom Wines, all of which are derived from vineyards that have (thankfully) stood the test of time. These wines are clearly a labor of love that goes well beyond simply being delicious.

Carlisle Winery & Vineyards – Locating and harvesting some of California’s old-vine Zinfandel has clearly been a passion for Mike Officer. As owner and winemaker at Carlisle, Mike offers much sought after bottlings of Zinfandel (not to mention Petite Sirah, Carignane and Syrah) sourced from some of California’s classic vineyards. Mike’s wines, produced in relatively small quantities, consistently stand out for their structure and complexity.

A final thought on these wines and the winemakers. After my introduction to Bedrock and Carlisle, I immediately came to the conclusion that Morgan and Mike are two of the very few winemakers that are willing and capable of conveying their reverence for the heritage vineyards of California. Their wines effectively offer the consumer a taste of what California’s early winemakers may have enjoyed those many, many years ago. I would like to convey my personal thanks to both men for having the courage of their convictions, and for their continued efforts to preserve some of California’s oldest vineyards. Now if I could just get on the darn Carlisle mailing list!

photos and text © 2011 craig allyn rose

The Case of the 2008 Mendocino Lightning Complex

Summer in California—a time for backyard barbecues, lounging poolside, spending warm days at the beach or maybe camping in the beautiful Yosemite Valley. Summer is also the time when Californians experience the annual travails of wildfires. Each year hundreds of thousands of acres burn in the Golden State destroying homes, causing injury and death, and costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

The 2008 fire season would prove to be one of the worst in recent memory as an unprecedented outbreak of thunderstorms traversed Northern California from June 20 to June 21 sparking countless fires. One region particularly hard hit by these storms was the Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte, and Mendocino County area, with some 1,500 lightning strikes registered. All told, at least 600 fires were attributed to lightning strikes across Northern California during the two-day period.

By now many ardent wine consumers have heard about the problematic 2008 vintage in the Anderson Valley. How best to deal with the perception of, or actual presence of smoke taint in certain wines has been a huge challenge for producers in the region.

One novel approach taken by Navarro Vineyards has been to bottle the 2008 Pinot Noir under a second label, Indian Creek, and offer these wines at steeply discounted prices, but only after making it abundantly clear that the wines deviate somewhat from the usual Navarro offerings.

For Navarro’s part, they are to be commended for their effort to educate the consumer, while making their wines available at steeply discounted prices. Calling it their “Wildfire Offering” and asserting that the wines have developed an “uncharacteristic nuance” that is not normally associated with Navarro, customers are invited to make their own determination as to the magnitude of smoke taint, but at prices that go a long way toward eliminating the potential for buyer’s remorse.

As for the wines themselves, I took advantage of Navarro’sWildfire Offering” and purchased a mixed case of Indian Creek Unfiltered Reserve Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. Thus far, and after consuming several bottles of all three wines, I must say that while the smoke definitely does exist, both aromatically and on the palate, I find it to be something of an enhancement.

It’s important to note that the presence of detectable smoke taint in these, or any other Anderson Valley wines, seems to depend to a great extent on the sensitivity of the individual tasting the wines. There is no question that some may find these wines less than satisfactory, or even undrinkable, while others will find the wines to be quite palatable or even enhanced by the smoky characteristics.

Regardless of how you perceive the smoke influenced 2008 vintage from the Mendocino area, a winery like Navarro should be congratulated for their honesty and innovative marketing that allows all of us to experience these wines with very little financial risk.

Review of the 2008 Indian Creek Pinot Noir – NOTE: Indian Creek is the Navarro Vineyards secondary label. Navarro has chosen to bottle its 2008 Pinot Noir, 2008 Reserve Pinot Noir, and 2008 Zinfandel under the Indian Creek label due to the potential impact of smoke on each of these wines. The Mendocino Lightning Complex, which occurred from June 20 to July 19, 2008, consisted of hundreds of wildland fires that burned 54,817 acres and left the Anderson Valley shrouded in smoke.

Much has been written about the influence of smoke on Anderson Valley fruit, especially Pinot Noir, with some consumers and critics claiming that the existence of smoke taint has made some wines from the region undrinkable. Others assert that these wines either show little or no ill effects from the smoke. However, it is clear that there exists a wide variation in how each person perceives the impact of smoke on these wines. The tasting note below features my original impression of the 2008 Navarro Pinot Noir, now labeled the 2008 Indian Creek Pinot Noir…

Tasted at the source and enjoyed this one for its decent QPR. There is a lot of talk about the impact of smoke on the 2008 Anderson Valley pinots, but after tasting this bottling, I am more convinced than ever that the concern has reached an almost hysterical level. This edition of the Navarro Pinot Noir is clearly a notch below the 2007 bottling when it comes to aromatics. That being said, I found that with some time outside of the bottle this wine not only becomes passable, but quite enjoyable. Yes, pinot noir, perhaps more than any other varietal acts as a mirror of its environment, both earth and air.

With that being said, we found this wine to be only slightly smoky, and what traces of smokiness that were detectable actually contributed to the character of this wine. On a final note, it must be said that we each possess differing sensitivity to the impact of smoke on any wine. In the final analysis this is a simple pinot noir that benefits from some time out of the bottle before enjoying. With flavors of muted cherry and a bit of oak, I’m happy to have acquired this wine for the price.

All things considered I am comfortable giving the Indian Creek Pinot Noir a B on taste alone, but when considering this wine as a value play, there is little doubt that this is an A-. Way to go Navarro, I mean Indian Creek!

photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose

A Question of Building Brand Loyalty

I can’t imagine many of you are unaware of the ongoing, and possibly worsening, economic conditions we face in the United States. Unemployment rates remain stubbornly inflated and the housing market seems to only come to life after a treatment of government sponsored electroshock therapy. Sales of new and existing homes offer mixed to negative results nationwide. Local governments have seen their tax base erode in the face of declining property values. In other words, the economy sucks right now.

So what exactly does this have to do with the world of wine? Simply put, the laws of supply and demand seem to be taking an agonizingly circuitous path toward my long hoped for decline in the overall price of some wines. However, for this anticipated price adjustment, one must wait for the consumer to finally feel the pain necessary to curtail continued expenditures on luxury items, including the purchase of premium wines. If this were indeed a logical world, we should expect to see a corresponding decline in the prices of products to meet, and even stimulate diminished demand. Of course, price and demand elasticity must be considered when weighing the factors that influence price and demand in the marketplace.

Okay, by now I envision many of you nodding off in complete disinterest, so enough of economics 101. Let me attempt to explain to you why I find myself punching out this screed. Yesterday was a lovely Monday here in San Jose. Warm weather made this Labor Day one worth getting out of the house to enjoy. No better time to check out a local winery’s tasting room here in the San Francisco Bay Area. For the sake of being at least cordial, I will refrain from naming names and simply say that this tasting room is bright, tastefully decorated, and features some of my favorite wines. In fact, the winemaker is, in my estimation, one of the brightest young producers in California. His wines are exceedingly well crafted and well worth a reasonable premium.

How could there be anything to grouse about with every aspect of this experience pointing to a truly pleasurable time sipping beautiful wines cultivated from vines just a few miles from where we stood? Here’s where the economics of the moment come into play. Upon entering this lovely space we notice immediately that we are the only folks in a room featuring two tasting room hosts, one working diligently on the point of sale system, or playing a riveting game of solitaire. No matter, he was essentially non-existent and clearly much more interested in what was displayed on the screen of the iMac.

His partner launched our tasting with one of our favorites from this producer. She then set about opening other bottles. Our conversation consisted of possibly 40 words being exchanged between the two employees and my wife and I. This is not to say that these folks were in any way rude, just disinterested. Then came the shocker for us. At the top of the tasting menu it indicated that there was a $10 tasting fee per person. The fee would be refunded after purchasing $100 worth of wine. Even this didn’t particularly bother me, but what struck me was the fact that I did indeed make a $100 plus purchase – not making it to $200 – so we still were required to pay one of the $10 tasting fees! Even if I get to a $199.99 purchase I still need to pay for one of the tastings?

This is the moment that I suddenly realized that this was way too similar to my time cruising the Silverado Trail in Napa. There was that time my wife and I stood at the tasting counter of a well-known winery only to have a tasting room employee tell my wife that that flavor of melon she was experiencing was absolutely incorrect, and this after paying $10 per person to taste meager quantities of five wines ranging in quality from average to decent.

Now I know and completely sympathize with the plight of the winemaker. Heck, some of my best friends are winemakers, but to stick it to a customer that has just purchased several bottles of wine, and still applying a tasting fee strikes me as being an incredibly poor strategy. Even if economic conditions in this country were significantly improved, I would still hope that the savvy winemaker would use common sense while trying to nurture a profitable relationship with the customer.

So here is where the rubber meets the road. I was set to join this particular winemaker’s wine club prior to our visit to the tasting room. I looked forward to receiving the new releases, sharing them with others, and encouraging them to pursue these outstanding wines. I was on the verge of being a self-appointed evangelist for this winemaker. Then came the moment of truth – in a matter of seconds I went from an enthusiastic consumer willing to part with my hard earned money, to feeling nickel and dimed by representatives of a winery that probably would have been just as happy if we had paid our $10 tasting fees and left them to their “work” on the computer.

The moral of the story is indeed a simple one. There are approximately 1,200 wineries in California, with many of these producers working insanely hard to offer the finest possible wines to their current and potential customers. Certainly the small boutique producers, once proven, can ask premium prices, but in so doing there is very little to gain from losing potentially loyal, long-term customers by hanging them from their ankles and shaking another $10 from their pockets. Will I ever purchase wines from this producer again? Sadly, but honestly, I probably will not considering there are just too many gifted, hard working, winemakers out there that deserve my support.

For those wineries out there that realize you don’t exist in a vacuum – to you I raise a glass –  a glass of YOUR wine!

photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose

Cool Temps Delay Harvest

Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for decades, and being something of a weather buff, this summer has been one of the strangest in recent memory. Yesterday’s (Tuesday, August 24, 2010) high temperature in San Jose was officially 95 degrees F and today’s forecast calls for a high of 103! If not mistaken, I believe that is only four days so far this summer that the mercury has broken the 90-degree mark here in the South Bay. Not your typical summer to be sure.

So what does any of this mean for Northern California’s winemakers? With so few warm days are we on the cusp of seeing a radical departure in the quality or style of wines produced from the 2010 harvest? As with anything in life there are very few sure bets and even Northern California’s reputation for a relatively predictable climate is subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

The fact is that no one can say exactly how things are going to turn out when all is said and done and that’s one of the primary reasons I love wine. The element of surprise, as much as it must drive the winemaker absolutely bonkers, reminds us that our powers of prediction remain inconsistent at best.

For the wine consumer with more than just a passing interest in the alchemy that is winemaking, the variables, including weather, are all part of the story as told by the finished product. While this may seem of little consequence to the majority of casual wine drinkers there are a more than a few folks, myself included, that look forward to seeing the seasons reflected in the wines that inevitably find their way onto our tables and into our glasses.

While the jury is out on exactly how the 2010 vintage will be reflected in the wines from Northern California’s vineyards, hopes are high that the cool days of August will result in a finished product that shows some restraint in terms of alcohol levels. For better or worse, California wines have earned a reputation for frequently being fruit bombs that forsake balance for a consumer-friendly, all fruit – all the time, drinking experience.

While the fruit bomb label might be overused, there is no question that the 2010 harvest, late as it may be, will produce wines worthy of debate, description, discussion, and I look forward to trying as many as I can!

photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose

Part II – Urban Wineries = Outstanding Quality!

As promised, it’s time to conclude my report on the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance 5th Annual Urban Wine Experience that recently took place in Oakland’s Jack London Square.

To refresh memories, this yearly event features a slew of urban dwelling winemakers that for the most part call the East Bay home. Some of these producers practice their craft in warehouses, while others occupy space on the once bustling property of the Alameda Naval Air Station.

What makes this a truly special event is the simple fact that the majority of the participating wineries are producing exceptional wines that one would never expect to have been created within the confines of the San Francisco Bay Area’s urban sprawl.

While most of these urban wineries source their grapes from growers located in typical regions – Dry Creek Valley, Carneros, Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Napa Valley  – only one of the urban wineries in attendance cultivates their own grapes on their own patch of land, Prospect 772. According to the Prospect 772 website, founders Ron Pieretti and Wendy Sanda, discovered their ideal grape growing site in 2001 on a 25-acre parcel of land located in Calaveras County. Today Pieretti and Sanda cultivate various Rhone varietals that are blended into three wines, each with its own distinctive moniker, The Brat, The Brawler, and The Baby Doll.

Our tasting was limited to 2007’s The Brawler (score A), a big, masculine Syrah that we thought was one of the best wines poured at the event.  This is a wine that lives up to its name with layers of dark fruits and a complexity that demands it be paired with grilled sausage or even braised lamb shanks.

Next up on the tasting parade was an offering from Eno Wines, the 2007 Pinot Noir “The One” produced from vines grown at the Fairview Road Ranch in the Santa Lucia Highlands (score A). This is an outstanding effort that shows off lovely plum and cherry aromatics with plum and spice coming through on the palate leading to a beautifully smooth finish.

Our final stop on a day that featured so many outstanding wines was Dashe Cellars. In the interest of transparency, I will admit that I am a huge fan of the wines produced by the husband and wife team of Michael and Anne Dashe. Combining their substantial experience and skills in winemaking, Michael and Anne have succeeded in producing consistently outstanding wines of great character and quality.

Today Dashe Cellars produces a range of topnotch Zinfandels as well as a Dry Creek Valley Grenache, an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and a lovely Mendocino dry Reisling made in the Alsatian style.

In a perfect finish to our day’s tasting, the fine folks at Dashe served up a taste of their 2009 Les Enfants Terribles Dry Creek Valley Grenache that left us all smiling and racing for the door to make it to the Dashe Cellars Tasting Room just a few blocks away before closing time! In fact, this Grenache, features aromas of fresh picked cherries bolstered by gentle hints of strawberry and mild spice – mainly a bit of pepper. The flavor profile is well defined with brighter red fruits, ranging from raspberries to strawberry that are supported by a touch of earthiness and minerality. The finish is a real feature to this wine in that is surprisingly long and rewarding (score A).

So if you find yourself in the San Francisco Bay Area do yourself a favor and check out the member wineries of the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance. You won’t be disappointed!

photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose

Part I – Winemaking in Oakland?

Something fascinating is happening just an hour south of Napa’s Cabernet vineyards and overcrowded tasting rooms. In one corner of the San Francisco Bay Area megalopolis, in nondescript warehouses and on abandoned U.S. Navy property, grapes are being transformed into world-class wines by winemakers that are very serious about their craft.

On Saturday, July 31st, in Oakland’s Jack London Square, the public was invited to taste wines produced by 19 urban wineries at the East Bay Vintner’s Alliance 5th Annual Urban Wine Experience. Attendees were treated to an amazing array of wines made in many styles, and all paired with a local restaurant offering tasty morsels to accompany the tasting.

While we made our way from table to table, chatting with fellow tasters and meeting winemakers, it became increasingly clear that these urban wineries were far more than just hobbyists gathering to share their wares. We were being offered pours of Grenache, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Riesling, Petite Sirah, and blends, most of which were showing beautifully.

Our tasting experience started off with a bang as we sipped our way through theofferings of JC Cellars – one of my favorite producers at the event – including their 2008 Daily Ration (score B), a non-vintage blend that actually comes in a jug! Yes, I said it comes in a jug, and when you have polished off the contents you are encouraged to bring it back to the winery for a $20 refill! Oh, and did I forget to mention that it is probably one of the best daily sippers I have ever had?  Our Daily Ration was followed by the 2008 vintage of  The Imposter (score A), a stout blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Carignan, Grenache, and a dash of Viognier! To say that this wine is big and bold might just be the understatement of the year. This is a wine that will benefit greatly from additional time in the bottle, but with a bit of time in the decanter, it will certainly not disappoint if you can’t resist popping this one for next Saturday’s big barbecue!

Next up was Carica Wines, featuring a wonderful discovery, the 2007 Kick Ranch Syrah (score A). This wine, an outstanding expression of Syrah, features absolutely riveting aromas of blackberries, ripe plums, and cherries that are matched beautifully by flavors of chocolate with a hint of pepper.

There is no question that this is a beautifully crafted wine that can be enjoyed now, but will reward patience if you can leave it alone for a couple of years. Of course, that’s easier said than done! Charlie Dollbaum, owner and winemaker, was also pouring the 2008 Kick Ranch Sauvignon Blanc (score A-), a wine that features classic Sauvignon flavors of bright citrus backed by refreshing acidity.

With three substantial reds and one delicious white wine under my belt, it was time to seek out something a little different. Bring on Aubin Cellars and the 2008 Verve French Colombard (score B). Served chilled, this was a refreshing change of pace, with nice hints of citrus on the nose. There is some sweetness to this wine that is not at all over the top, but makes for a perfect summer sipping wine. Unlike the other wines being poured at this event, the Vereve French Colombard grapes are harvested at Domaine de Mirail, located in theGascony region of France. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the elegant 2007 Verve Carneros Pinot Noir (score A-). This is a Pinot that hits all the right notes with a complex nose of raspberries and hints of leather. On the palate there are clear flavors of dark berries, especially cherries all backed by smooth tannins. According to the Aubin Cellars website this Pinot Noir can be had for a song, or $12 if you can’t carry a tune!

That’s it for now, but in the next installment documenting this outstanding event we’ll taste the wines of Dashe Cellars, Eno Wines, Prospect 772 Wine Company.

all photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose

This Wine Has Gone to the Dogs!

Alsace or Austria, in California, oh come on! But wait, Don and Lindsay Schroeder have made that a reality with their wonderful Chien Wines! Producing a remarkable Edelzwicker consisting of 40% Reisling, 40% Pinot Blanc, and 20% Gewurztraminer, this brilliant blend sees each varietal blended in separate stainless tanks. Such attention to detail definitely shines through.

I feel quite fortunate to have discovered Chien Wines while doing a little sleuthing on the web. Once I came across the Chien Wines website I knew I had discovered something special. One pour of the 2008 Santa Barbara County Edelzwicker and you quickly realize that Don and Lindsay have created a special wine that stands out in a sea of mediocre offerings.

According to the Chien website, the 2008 Edelzwicker was bottled in early February of 2009, and it is only now beginning to come into its own. When we  first tasted it we were both struck by the intensity of the citrus fruit and the genuine zing of acidity that made this an instantly intriguing wine.

It is not often that we come across a blend done with such a deft hand and we look forward to what Chien Wines has in store for us in the future!

Grade for this wine is an A! However, there were only 278 cases produced, so you may want to place your order before this one is sure to run out!

photos and text © 2010 craig allyn rose