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John On Wine ­ – Summer Wine

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 15, 2014; written by John Cesano
John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

I do not know why wine appreciation breeds elitist snobs, but it does. Frasier Crane and his brother Niles, television’s most beloved pair of pretentious snobs, famously loved wine. They weren’t even aware of their snobbery or pretension, and would argue that elitism is a desirable trait.

I agree that elitism is a good thing, as the alternative is seeking mediocrity or worse, but walking around with a stick up your butt, well, that is far less attractive.

A few years back, when I first wrote a piece about blush and rosé wines, I had no difficulty finding plenty of folks damning all pink and lightly colored wines, and nearly all were simply jackasses.

Sweet wines? Same thing. So many self-professed wine experts dismiss Riesling and Gewurztraminer as “not serious” wines, unworthy of consumption.

This even affects some wine competition judges and magazine wine writers who disdain any wine not red, and any red not Cabernet Sauvignon, and can’t see to rate blush wines on a genuine 100 point scale, creating an artificial high possible mark for these non-serious wines, perhaps a 94 for the best possible example of a rosé or Gewurztraminer.

Some of the best wines, especially best summer wines, are either sweet, or pink, or both. I love Cabernet Sauvignon, but some of the best red wines aren’t Cabernet.

The best tasting wine for me at this year’s big Zinfandel Advocates and Producers event was quite possibly the least serious wine, McNab Ridge’s Zinzilla.

With a name inspired by a Japanese movie monster, and a blend sure to make all snobs turn at least half a nose up – the wine is 50% Mendocino County and 50% Lodi grapes. Folks from Mendocino County will look down on the Lodi portion, folks from Lodi will look down on the Mendocino County portion, and folks from Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley will look down on all of the grapes. Pure snobbery. The wine tastes good, damn good.

The fact that I happened to pair this wine with a perfect pairing cheese, which undoubtedly made Zinzilla taste better, is beside the point. Wine is meant to be paired, and the two things wine pair best with are food and friends. Either can make a wine taste better, both can make a wine taste outstanding.

Anyway, I’m seeing a nice run on our drier Alsatian styled Gewurztraminer as we head into summer temperatures, and I’m looking at baking a ginger cake to pair it with at a near future event. Serving wine with food to friends; that’s what I am talking about.

Blush or rosé wines are some of my favorite wines. I would love for my boss to reverse engineer the Navarro Rosé of Pinot, a near perfect wine, not sweet, but lovely fruit, light, crisp, refreshing. Delicious. Naughty Boy, Graziano, Ray’s Station, Saracina, Campovida, Testa, Seebass, and Carol Shelton all make delicious pink wines from Mendocino County grapes.

The most maligned wine among wine critics is Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel. In truth, I do not like it, but not because it is pink, which is enough for most critics; I do not like it because I found it to be out of balance, spiky acid and synthetic candy fruit notes. Still, drop me into a party where the host is pouring it, and I can sip my way through a glass.

Rather than taste at Sutter Home, I would rather taste at another of the family’s properties, Trinchero Napa Valley, where everything served is delicious; rather than taste Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel, I would rather taste any of many dozens well-made dry pink wines. These are just easier wines to pair with foods.

Speaking of pink wines, while Americans look down at pink bubblies, Brut Rosé, because the wrong notions of pompous wine critics have tainted the general population, in Europe the blush option is most highly sought and the bubblies of color in Champagne cost more than the mere Brut.

I LOVE Brut Rosé, and am thrilled my boss made one. We’re going to release it at our big annual farm party on July 12, and it will sell out quickly. Make tasting it a priority. Until then, Roederer, Scharfenberger, and Terra Savia all have a Brut Rosé available now.

My last wife called me a wine snob, and I certainly am discerning when it comes to wine, but hopefully I’m not a jackass with a stick up my butt. Don’t worry, there are still plenty of them, and they don’t need me to join them.

Drink the wine you like, sweet and pink wines are not just beginner wines, but can be wines worth seeking out this summer. The best wine is the one you have in front of you when your friend is beside you. Make it happen.

Maybe, I’ll be a few seats down, enjoying a non-serious wine too.

 

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John On Wine ­ – A tale of two Passports

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, May 1, 2014
Written by John Cesano
John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

It was the best of Passports…

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I attended the 25th anniversary Passport to Dry Creek Valley last week, with my girlfriend and trusted second taster, June, as guests of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley (WDCV). We were greeted at check-in by the new Executive Director of WDCV, Ann Peterson, who may have one of the best jobs in the wine industry, working with great farmers and winemakers in a gorgeous environment, every day.

Dry Creek Valley lies mostly to the west of Hwy. 101, and stretches 17 miles south to north from Healdsburg to Geyserville, two miles wide, in Sonoma County. Continuing a string of sold-out passport events, 6,000 tickets were sold, at a two day weekend price of $120, and allowed visitors the opportunity to visit and taste at 50 winery tasting rooms throughout Dry Creek Valley.

There is no reason to try to visit all 50 wineries even in two days, as there would be less than 15 minutes per winery, with travel between wineries having to fit into the allocated time, and rushing is no way to enjoy a passport event.

June and I visited 17 wineries in two days, a perfect number, giving about 45 minutes per winery. Some visits were shorter, some were longer, all were enjoyable. The great thing is that we could attend next year, visit 17 new wineries and have a completely different experience, equally great; and the same again for a third consecutive year with only one winery repeated in three years with 50 wineries to visit. There is no way I can fit a description of food, wine, music, and scene at 17 wineries here, but here are some impression highlights:

DaVero Farms and Winery stood out because I have a thing for farms and wine, farm stands & tasting rooms, and Ridgely Evers, the owner of DaVero greeted us both warmly. I had met Evers on previous visits, and was surprised at how much growth had occurred. This was June’s first visit and, an animal lover, June was in Heaven at Evers’ biodynamic farm, scratching a pig into a contented lie down. I enjoyed a taste of the DaVero Malvasia Bianca, bright with citrus and white pear flavors, in an outdoor canopy room being made from one tree . Evers has planted cuttings from a single Italian willow in a large circle and is training their growth to create the unique spot to enjoy wine.

Charlie Palmer has been honored by the James Beard Foundation twice, once as “Best Chef” in New York for his restaurant Aureole, and earned a multi year string of Michelin stars for restaurants in both New York and Las Vegas. He also cooked for June and I – ­ okay, and everyone else with a passport who visited Mauritson Wines. We loved the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc paired with brown sugar and bourbon cured salmon with arugula salad, pickled red onions, goat cheese & toasted hazelnuts; and the 2012 DCV Zinfandel with a Zinfandel braised wild board slider and Charlie’s bread and butter pickle.

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Truett Hurst: A glass of Zin Rose in hand, June and I walked down to the Adirondack chairs beside the burbling water, the wind in the trees, insects chirping, birds calling, a kiss shared; ­ truly a magical place. We also had the opportunity to talk with Paul Dolan, Mendocino biodynamic grape grower and partner at Truett Hurst.

Hog Island Oysters at Stephen & Walker with possibly my favorite wine of the weekend, a 2012 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir; Amphora’s ABCs, Aglianico, Barberra, and Chardonnay, and June’s favorite food of the weekend, a chocolate truffle; the lobster roll at Bella; and the weekend’s best music: Rovetti & Meatballs, a fiddle, drums, and guitar ­ blending bluegrass, zydeco, and country – American music; Seghesio’s Zin; Ridge’s Zin; Talty’s Zin; there is just too much that was great to mention.

The views, wide open valley, green on the hills, blue skies, baby grapes on young vines, trees and flowers; slowing down, taking it all in, the scents and sounds too, Passport to Dry Creek Valley is a time to recharge your batteries, get right after working and living in a box, and is a bargain at $120. This is my favorite wine event, any price, anywhere; attending and not working is great!

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…It was also the best of Passports.

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If you missed Passport to Dry Creek Valley, or if you attended but want another weekend to experience more soul cleansing magic, the great news is that the 23rd annual Spring Hopland Passport is this weekend. Seventeen Hopland area winery tasting rooms – a perfect number – will put their best foot forward, pouring all of their wines and offering food pairings for two days, Saturday, May 3 and Sunday, May 4, from 11 a.m. -5 p.m. each day.

If you order online today, Thursday, May 1 by noon, you can pick up a two day ticket to Hopland Passport for just $45 each. Visit http://www.DestinationHopland.com/store, and if the store closes then you can buy your passport at any participating winery tasting room during the event for $55.

I believe that Hopland Passport is the best wine weekend event value – well underpriced – in the industry. Participating wineries include Brutocao, Campovida, Cesar Toxqui, Frey, Graziano, Jaxon Keys, Jeriko, McFadden, McNab Ridge, Milano, Naughty Boy, Nelson, Ray’s Station, Rivino, Saracina, Seebass, and Terra Savia.

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The weather looks like it will be perfect, I hope to see you in Hopland this weekend. I’ll be at the place with the farm stand & tasting room, stop by and say “hi.”

 

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John On Wine – ­ A Mendo bubbly fest recap

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on April 10, 2014
Written by John Cesano

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Last Saturday, April 5th, I attended the inaugural Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines. I was not alone, more than 150 people showed up at Terra Savia in Hopland. Many were readers of this column who were kind enough to say hello, some were wine club members of the tasting room I manage, and some were brand new to me ­ but not brand new to having fun as they clearly knew what they were doing.

Alison de Grassi and Gracia Brown, the wonder twins from Visit Mendocino responsible for events and marketing, attended as did Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster. The support for this great event was really impressive. The day was beautiful; I parked a short walk away from the site, and saw workers raking muddy leaves into a pile, the scent earthy, almost mushroomy, and wonderful.

A Gathering of friends

Birds were chirping many different songs in the trees around. The sky could not have been more blue or clear. Terra Savia operates from a large yellow metal building filled with art and custom handcrafted furniture of immense proportion. Within the space, a dozen tables were set up in a circle, each table a microburst of activity, color, and energy as each participating winery created their own presentation space.

Here are a few definitions for bubbly-centric wine terms that may prove useful as you read on: Brut means dry. Cuvee means blend. En tirage means time yeast and lees spend in the bottle before disgorgement. Lees are spent yeast, yeast that converted sugar into alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide during fermentation. Blanc de Blanc means white of white and suggests that Chardonnay is the grape the wine is made from; as opposed to Blanc de Noir, a white wine made from red wine grapes, typically Pinot Noir, but given no time on skin after crush, so no color. A magnum is a bottle twice as large as normal, 1.5 L. vs, 750 ml.

Bubbly Gathering

Graziano poured their Cuvee #10 Sparkling Brut, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc from the 2010 vintage that spent three full years en tirage. This bubbly had the most clear lemon note of the sparkling wines being poured at the event, balanced by a rich yeastiness. Both Greg Graziano and Bobby Meadows poured for the assembled crowd.

Handley poured a 2003 Brut, made from 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay, with flavors of steely mineral lemon and vanilla apple.

Guinness McFadden and Judith Bailey poured the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition double gold medal winning 2009 McFadden Reserve Sparkling Brut, a blend of 50 percent Chardonnay and 50 percent Pinot Noir that spent more than two-and-a-half-years on yeast and lees in the bottle before disgorgement. The flavors are bright, showing apple and grapefruit tempered by brioche and nut.

Nelson poured a nice NV Blanc de Blanc with bright lemon, pear, and apple notes.

I really liked the Paul Dolan NV Brut, a cuvee of 45 percent Chardonnay and 55 percent Pinot Noir, with 100 percent of the grapes from McFadden Farm. Bright, unapologetically crisp, with green apple, grapefruit, and pineapple.

Rack and Riddle poured for sparkling wines. I tasted their NV Brut, showing orange, cream, apple, and lemon; and a Brut Rose that was dry, dry, dry with strawberry over ice crispness.

Ray’s Station’s NV Brut offering was 65 percent Chardonnay and 35 percent Pinot Noir and was fairly broad and round with apple, pear, and bready notes. Although Brut suggests dryness, this seemed a touch sweeter ­ at least in comparison with the wine tasted just before this one. Margaret Pedroni captivated attendees as she described the wine she poured.

Roederer Estate poured from 1.5 liter magnums, which is nicely showy. Their NV Brut tasted of pear, green apple, nut, and lemon; the NV Brut Rose showed lovely balance and flavors of apple and strawberry.

Scharffenberger’s NV Brut tasted of dry yeasty ginger, citrus, and apple.

Signal Ridge garnered a lot of buzz from attendees, with tasters elevating the apple, almond and mineral flavored Brut into their top three tastes.

Terra Savia, the host for the event, poured their lovely 2009 Blanc de Blanc, showing bright apple and lemony citrus notes.

Yorkville Cellars doesn’t grow Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, the grapes typically found in sparkling wines, but Bordeaux varietals instead. Previously, Yorkville made a Sparkling Rose of Malbec, the only one I had ever tasted, and it was good. The current release I jokingly refer to as the cuvee of crazy, because the blend was unimaginable prior to it being poured for me: 51 percent Semillion, 24 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25 percent Sauvignon Blanc. The result isn’t crazy at all, but rounder than is typical with the Bordeaux varietal fruit offering up flavors of grapefruit and cranberry.

Bubbly Feast

The food for this event was spectacular, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the event was random pairings of different foods and sparkling wines. Some pairings elevated both the food and beverage, while other pairings oddly diminished the wine being tasted. There will be a Mendo Bubbly Fest next year, and I’ll attend again, but get out of your house and into the tasting rooms of these wineries to taste their sparkling wines this weekend, or soon, and bring a bottle or two home ­ not to serve on a special day, but to make a day special by serving them.

 

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John On Wine – Wine Tasting in March

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on March 6, 2014 by John Cesano

This Saturday, Hopland celebrates St. Patrick’s Day a little early with participating winery tasting rooms serving up a little Irish cheer, and homemade Irish dishes, to pair with terrific wines and big savings from 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. St.Patrick’s Day is the day that Rich Parducci and Greg Graziano are as Irish as Guinness McFadden; everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.

McNab Ridge will serve up Irish Stew, Irish soda bread, and Bailey’s Irish whipped cream.

McFadden will have corned beef and cabbage, cooked in McFadden Gewurztraminer and McFadden organic herbs. Ray’s Station is going with Reuben meatballs, Irish cheese, and Irish short bread. Cesar Toxqui Cellars will have Italian food. Naughty Boy and Graziano will also take part in Second Saturday fun.

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Saturday, March 8 from 1 -4 p.m. ­ Little River Whale Festival benefiting MAPA ­ the Mendocino Area Parks Association, and the Van Damme State Park. This is a passport style event over three hours with eight locations. Tickets are $25 in advance and can be purchased by calling Little River Inn at 937-5942 or $30 at the event. Specialties from eight local gourmet chefs and local wines! Participating wineries include Alder Vineyards, Edmeades Winery, Graziano Family of Wines, Handley Cellars, Lichen, Lula Cellars, and Stevenswood Wines. Dessert & locally roasted coffee by Thanksgiving Coffee at the Little River Market & Deli.

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The Wine Road is a Sonoma County winery tourism group run by Beth Costa and includes the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley, all of which surround the town of Healdsburg. Wine Road puts on the Barrel Tasting Weekends with more than 100 participating wineries in and around Healdsburg.

From the Wine Road website page dedicated to the Barrel Tasting Weekends: “Barrel Tasting is not a food pairing or themed event. It’s all about the wine … many wineries offer “futures” on their barrel samples. This is a chance to purchase wine now, often at a discount, then come back to the winery when the wine is bottled, typically 12-18 months from now. Many wines are so limited, buying futures is your only chance to purchase them. Attendees are encouraged to pack a picnic, as most wineries will not have food for this event. The ticket price includes the opportunity to sample wine from the barrel and in most cases also trying a limited number of current release wines.”

Did you notice that they mention that there is no food at the event and encourage folks to bring an entire picnic of food? That is to counter the only negative attached to the event: it has picked up a bit of a reputation as a drunk fest ­ but a very successful drunk fest. I remember attending more than 25 years ago. Barrel Tasting used to be just one weekend and it was free. Alexander Valley opened up Friday night and I would visit there first, with Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley for Saturday and Sunday. The event was largely attended by folks in the wine industry and wine enthusiasts. The event has grown, and gone from free to $5, then $20, and now $30; and from one weekend to two. With 8,000 folks on the road, racing from winery to winery, trying to taste at over 100 and get value for their ticket price, there are horror stories of inebriation. Imagine it, and the reality is 10 times worse. That said, it really is just a few horribly bad apples gaining all of the notoriety, and the event really is otherwise spectacular. The final weekend of the 36th annual Barrel Tasting are this weekend, March 7-9, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Advance ticket sales have ended, but wineries will sell tickets at the door. For a map of participating wineries, visit http://bit.ly/1cA956P.

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Saturday, March 22 from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. – Saracina’s Old Soul Red Blending Party. I’ve written before about how much fun a wine blending party can be, I’ve attended the Testa Barn Blend Party two of the three years it has been held, and was able to be one of three judges to help Maria and rusty choose a winner last year. Nelson, McNab Ridge, and now Saracina also have wine blending events, and all are worth attending. Saracina winemaker Alex MacGragor will lead folks through the art and science of wine blending, and then set you loose to help fashion or inspire the next vintage of the Saracina Coro Mendocino. Oops, a rose by any other name. I should have said that you have the chance to blend your own version of the Saracina Atrea Old Soul Red.

Everyone who attends and participates is a winner, as events at Saracina are known for being memorably top notch. After the hard work (it isn’t really, it is big fun) of wine blending winds down, you get to relax and enjoy Saracina wines and a family-style lunch of wood-fired pizzas and gourmet sides prepared by farm-to-table chef Olan Cox.

Given the hands-on nature of this experience, space is very limited. Please call (707) 670-0199 to grab your ticket now. Saracina is located 1.5 miles north of Hopland at 11684 South Hwy 101.

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I fly to Phoenix for the weekend. Perhaps, I’ll review coach class airline wine and airport hotel lounge wine for next week’s column. In the meantime, why don’t you get out this weekend and taste some wine? There certainly are ample opportunities for a great wine weekend close to home. Cheers!

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John On Wine – Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on February 27, 2014 by John Cesano

Destination Hopland, the non-profit group charged with promoting tourism for the Hopland area wineries, is sponsoring a new event on Saturday, April 5 and invited participation from sparkling wine producers from throughout Mendocino County. A “Celebration of Mendocino County Sparkling Wines” will be held from noon to 4 p.m. at Terra Savia, 14160 Mountain House Road, Hopland. Eleven local producers will come together at Terra Sávia winery in Hopland to showcase their finest offerings. Great and classic food pairing treats for sparkling wines will be served, like smoked salmon, local oysters, pate, canapés, fresh strawberries, artisan breads and, for dessert, delicious lavender infused sponge cake. Classical guitarist Joel DiMauro will be performing. Participating wineries include:

Graziano Family of Wines

Handley Cellars

McFadden Vineyard

Nelson Family Vineyards

Paul Dolan Vineyards

Rack & Riddle

Ray’s Station

Roederer Estate

Scharffenberger Cellars

Signal Ridge

Terra Savia

Tickets are $55 and available online at mendocinosparkling.brownpapertickets.com.

The folks at Wine Enthusiast magazine taste a lot of wine, well over 10,000 wines each year, I am sure. Last December they announced their Top 100 wines of 2013, and the #1 wine of the year was the 2004 Roederer Estate L’Ermitage. The 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, with 5,825 wines entered, was the largest judging of American wines in the world. The only winery in the nation to win two Double Gold Medals (unanimous Gold from the judges) for sparkling wines was McFadden Vineyard for the NV McFadden Sparkling Brut and the 2009 McFadden Reserve Sparkling Brut.

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Bubbly in Mendocino County is spectacularly good, the quality high, while the prices are remarkably affordable. Far too many people open a bottle of sparkling wine only to celebrate a special event, when a good quality bubbly is an absolute delight when enjoyed as a before-dinner cocktail, or when paired with a host of foods from oysters to salmon bagels and poached eggs with caviar to chicken breasts in a citrus glaze.

Some sparkling wines that will be poured have notes of green apple and grapefruit, unapologetically crisp, while others will showcase a bready, yeasty, brioche character. Lemon, hazelnut, and toffee are notes you might taste in a sparkling wine, or rose petal and strawberry notes from a sparkling rosé.

Cuveé is a word that you will see on more than one label. Cuveé means blend, and a sparkling wine with a cuvee designation is likely a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, with perhaps a small amount of Pinot Meunier.

You will also see NV on a bottle or three, and this is also a blend, but a blend of different vintages. NV means non-vintage. The folks who produce sparkling wines in Mendocino County scrupulously refer to our bubblies as sparkling wines and never Champagnes. Practically the same thing, but we respect that real Champagne comes from Champagne, France. That said, most of us understand and do not mind when our customers use the terms sparkling wine and Champagne interchangeably.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch into how sparkling wine is made: Grapes for sparkling wine are picked earlier than for still wine, at lower sugar, usually in August. Chardonnay is picked for a Blanc de Blanc, Pinot Noir is picked for a Blanc de Noir, and a blend of the two is often picked for a Brut or Brut Rosé. After crushing the grapes for juice, the wine is made in the bottle, rather than an oak barrel or stainless steel tank.

A little active yeast in the bottle feeds the sugar – this is fermentation and where the alcohol comes from. The fruit notes come from the grapes. The wine spends time with unspent yeast, and spent yeast, also known as lees and picks up some yeasty or bready notes.

By tilting the bottle toward a neck down position, and giving the bottle little turns, the yeast and lees collect at the neck end of the bottle. This process is known as racking and riddling. The neck end of the bottle is submerged in a below zero freeze bath so a solid plug of yeast and lees can be formed and removed.

A second fermentation happens when a small dose of sugar, or dosage, is added to the wine and the cork and cage are affixed to the bottle. A small amount of unspent yeast remains in the bottle and eats the dosage, resulting in carbon dioxide, the bubbles that make sparkling wines so fun. This is how good bubbly is made. I hope you’ll get a ticket to the inaugural Mendo Bubbly Fest; If you do, then I’ll definitely see you there. Cheers!

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John Cesano pouring one of two Double Gold Medal awarded McFadden Sparkling Brut wines.

 

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John Cesano of John On Wine

John Cesano of John On Wine

John On Wine ­ Alcohol: enough is enough!

Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal on December 26, 2014 by John Cesano

 

Alcohol; it’s why we buy wine instead of soda, right? More alcohol must be better in a wine than less alcohol too, I mean it just stands to reason, don’t you think?

This question came to mind after I read a review of San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné’s new book The New California Wine. The review was written by Wine Spectator magazine’s senior editor, Napa, James Laube. Where most every review of Bonné’s book was complimentary, Laube seemed to almost have the knives out as he wrote his piece, “(Bonné)’s hardly enamored with much of (California wine),” is how the piece begins and it doesn’t get much nicer.

Why would one professional wine writer be so uncomplimentary, so unkind, so border-line rude? Wine Spectator reviews and rates wines on a 100 point scale, made famous by wine critic Robert Parker, and like Parker seems to award more points to fruit jam bombs made of Napa fruit with high alcohol levels. By contrast, Bonné seems to prefer wines of greater balance, greater drinkability, more food friendly wines, with lower alcohol.

Before I go on, I abhor numbers. Alcohol percentage, residual sugar, volatile acidity, the numbers that describe a wine only tell a small part of a wine’s story. Residual sugar alone, without a lot of other data may be suggestive of sweetness, but actual perception when tasted may be something different altogether. Wines must be tasted to be judged.

Okay, that disclaimer aside, I agree with Bonné. Many wines have alcohol levels that are just too damn high. Please, I would so much rather have a lighter styled wine that balances fruit and acid, and has a lower alcohol, so I can enjoy it with friends over a nice dinner than have to suffer another painfully hot, high alcohol wine that is so dense with flavor, so big and overpowering that it ruins the food it is paired with.

Whether an Anderson Valley Pinot Noir over 15 percent or a Dry Creek Zinfandel over 17 percent alcohol by volume, there just isn’t a good reason for these wines to be so hot, unless the winemaker was pandering for a high score from Spectator or Parker. Big alcohol wines also tend to garner high medals, I suspect, because judges’ palates are quickly blown out by high alcohol fruit bombs and are unable to fairly judge wines of greater subtlety and reserve, but upon tasting another monster wine break out the gold.

I worked for a winemaker who used to make gorgeously flavorful wines, good bodied wines, gold medal winning wines, and rarely did she produce a wine at or above 14 percent alcohol by volume. These were the easiest to sell wines I’ve ever experienced. People ordered, but most importantly they reordered, and in quantity, because the wines were so good.

Sadly, she has turned to the dark side, and is putting out some wild beasts, up and over 15 percent alcohol today. More attention, higher ratings, easier golds; From some quarters, anyway.

Joel Peterson, a few years back suggested the three most common flaws of Zinfandel were too much alcohol, too much oak, and too much sugar. As the big boss man behind Ravenswood, a famous Zin house in Sonoma, Peterson should know. That said, both Peterson and his son Morgan Twain Peterson crank out some pretty huge wines.

The wines of inland Mendocino County are not uniformly low alcohol, but many are. Whether from cool climate Russian River adjacent or mountain shade properties in or near Hopland, or the higher altitude fruit grown at the north end of Potter Valley, there are some absolutely delicious wines grown and produced in our area. Zinfandel, and Coro Mendocino ­ the Zinfandelcentric blend I mention often, under 14 percent alcohol; Pinot Noir without a barnyard funk or filled diaper aroma; Chablis-like bright and unoaked Chardonnay; and Cabernet Sauvignon that you can take your time getting to know instead of a Cabernet that is so forward you feel like pressing charges. This is some of what we do so well here, and what some folks – notably the wine critics who seem to get a little too much wood over wines with a little too much wood and alcohol – don’t seem to get.

Wine Enthusiast magazines’ Virginie Boone visits inland Mendocino more often, and perhaps familiarity breeds understanding, because she rates many of our wines about two to five points higher than the folks who don’t visit as often over at Wine Spectator.

Jon Bonné tastes wines from all over, often, and has placed a light, low alcohol, almost Beaujolaisesque Zinfandel made entirely from inland Mendocino grapes on one of his annual Top 100 Wines lists.

I get a chance to taste a lot of our wines, and I may have developed a strong preference for what we do, because on a recent visit outside the county, I found wine after wine just too big for me to enjoy. I love Wine Spectator magazine for the articles, but personally I prefer Wine Enthusiast magazine and Jon Bonné’s San Francisco Chronicle reviews of our wines. I find I am more often in agreement.

Want high alcohol? Go to a bar. Want a food-friendly wine you can enjoy with food? Consider a wine from the area, with under 14 percent alcohol for a start. As always, the best way to find out whether you like a particular wine or not is to go wine tasting. Many local winery tasting rooms offer complimentary wine tasting and are open up until New Year’s Eve – although a few that sell bubbly will be open at least a half of that day too.

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EDITED TO ADD ONLINE: I received the following comment tacked on to another recently archived column in response to the newspaper version of this week’s column:

“This is regarding your UDJ article published today (12/26/13). I was going to email you but didn’t see an email listed. In any event, I have to agree with your general assessment of the multitude high alcohol wines out there. Which is why I drink mostly sparkling! I have worked for Roederer Estate for six years and have learned that sparkling is incredibly versatile with food as well as being on the lower end of the scale at 12%. One last thing, in reference to Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 of 2013, did you know Roederer’s 2004 L’Ermitage is rated number one? I believe it’s the first time a California Sparkling has garnered the top spot, so worth mentioning.
Cheers, Julie in Ukiah”

I could not agree more. Fantastic comment, great observation, and well deserved acclaim for the 2004 Roederer L’ Ermitage, and yes, you are right, this is the first time that a sparkling wine has topped Wine Enthusiast magazine’s annual Top 100 Wines list.

I had just written for Destination Hopland that there are bubblies to be tasted at Graziano, Jeriko, McFadden, Nelson, Rack & Riddle, Ray’s Station, and Terra Savia; but county wide Roederer, Scharffenberger, Yorkville Cellars, and Elke over on Hwy 128, and Paul Dolan up in Ukiah, all have to be added to the list. As a county, we may have the nation’s greatest concentration of premium bubblies, and they are indeed both enjoyably lower in alcohol and spectacularly food friendly when paired with the right foods. Taste this week, choose a favorite, and stock up for New Year’s Eve!

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I do love bubbly, and I would love to have them all to taste for a future column, maybe in advance of Valentine’s Day next year.

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