Wine Blogging: There’s Always Something

I’m on the road at the moment – my favorite place to be – and I’m remembering that until this week I hadn’t flown for almost five months, since the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma. That event is 50 percent fun, 50 percent learning, and of course, 100 percent wine.

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[Jeff Hinchliffe, winemaker at Hanna Winery, pouring Saint-Macaire for thirsty wine writers]

So what happens when wine bloggers connect? Here are my takeaways from the confab last November:

  1. I need to drink more Chateau St. Jean. When the elegant wine estate closed for several weeks because of the Sonoma fires, our excursion to the winery was canceled. But they were good enough to donate some bottles, and we partied virtually with their 2014 Cinq Cépages (14.7% alcohol, $85), a divine Bordeaux blend with big tannins, healthy acidity and fragrant with blueberries and cherry cola.
  2. If you’ve driven in Napa Valley, you already know this: avoid Route 29, the primary road that bisects the valley. Not only does it get congested, it’s also where police linger, waiting to pounce on speeding tourists. Take the Silverado Trail instead; it runs parallel to Route 29 and will give you a more tranquil drive.
  3. For a deeper understanding of what’s in your glass, listen to the person who made it happen. Jon Priest, head winemaker at Etude Wines, dispensed a few prize nuggets for anyone who considers producing wine: “If we wanted our wine to express the place,” he said, “we had to learn everything about the soil before we planted a vine.” Later he shared his position on Etude’s signature varietal: “Pinot Noir is Pinot Noir. You shouldn’t blend anything into it. If you have to mix something into it, you’re trying to fix something.”
  4. We learned about some effects of wildfires at Hanna Winery. In short, if the barrel room fills with smoke, not to worry – smoke taint won’t permeate the barrel to reach the wine inside. But if you pour already-tainted wine in a barrel, then empty it and pour fresh wine in, that second batch also will be tainted. The smoke flaws from the first batch will likely spoil the barrel. In the vineyard, ash left in the soil won’t affect next year’s harvest; it only affects fruit that’s on the vine during the fire.
  5. If you’re making wine from Malbec next fall, here’s a little advice from Hanna’s winemaker, Jeff Hinchliffe: “When you have an abundance, turn some into rosé. It makes a killer rosé.”
  6. I wasn’t familiar with Saint-Macaire, so I was excited to taste some from the barrel at Hanna Winery. The obscure Bordeaux grape grows in large, tight clusters and “in the tank it turns into a monster,” Hinchcliffe says. It’s the quintessential Big Sexy Red – dark ruby colored with an aroma of anise that lingers in the taste, along with dark chocolate, lettuce, black fruit and a bit of pink grapefruit. I want to taste it again after it softens.
  7. When you build your own winery, take a tip from Rodney Strong Vineyards and ferment your wine in square tanks instead of the traditional round ones. Square tanks maximize space, often a valuable factor as the business grows.
  8. I learned something even more important from the folks at Rodney Strong: I suck as a winemaker. They sponsored a blending seminar, and we competed in teams of four to concoct the best Meritage wine. We worked with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to reach the best possible balance, adding 4 percent of one varietal here, 10 percent of another wine there, back to soften it with a little Merlot, giving it more backbone with more Petit Verdot. We had to track the exact percentages, and after an hour of calculating and blending and tasting, we were exhausted. Our team placed second.
  9. If you want to sharpen your wine-detecting abilities, a suggestion from Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson: buy liqueurs in various flavors, sip and smell slowly, and take notes. Flavors are more concentrated in liqueurs and you can distinguish specific tastes and aromas more easily than in wines.
  10. Wineries may soon feel the pinch from legalized marijuana: a few studies already show that because of competition from legal weed, people might reduce their alcohol consumption, or stop drinking altogether. I’m skeptical, but we’ll see.

Wine Lingo: Red Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”) = wine produced using two or more red Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Gros Verdot, Carmenère and Saint-Macaire. If any other grapes are included in the mix, it’s not a red Meritage, though you also can find white Meritage made with Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and/or Sémillon. Neither red nor white Meritage can include more than 90 percent of any one grape. The wine style was created in the late 1980s when some American winemakers wanted a name for Bordeaux blends produced in the New World (i.e., not Europe). They attached criteria required of wineries in order to use the word “Meritage” on the label.

Virginia Dare bottle

[Photo courtesy of Emily Straffen]

Vino ‘View: When you need a reliable table wine, 2015 Virginia Dare Pinot Noir (13.5 percent alcohol, $24.99) is a safe bet. As I drank, I eventually tasted dark cherries, plums, black olives and toasted nuts, though I had to stretch to find those layers. One reviewer nailed it when he called it “a simple wine,” but it’s friendly and I would serve it to friends. More exciting is the story of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America in 1587. She belonged to the Lost Colony that disappeared from Roanoke Island soon after; legend says she was rescued and raised by the Native American tribe that might have attacked the settlement.

Cheers!

Mary

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Speed-Tasting Wines – Keep Up!

It’s not easy to properly taste up to a dozen wines in an hour, especially if the wines are fine and complex. Racing past their nuances means missed opportunities; you want to detect the subtle twists of winemaking and terroir that set them apart from your everyday bottles.

But speed-tasting sessions – one for whites and rosés, the other for reds – were popular highlights of the Wine Bloggers Conference earlier this month in Sonoma. So we sharpened our palates, filled our water glasses and plunged in. Here are a few favorite reds:

 

 

Look out! We started with 1000 Stories Zinfandel, Batch 35 and wondered for a moment who brought the whiskey! At 15.6 percent alcohol, the intensity of this 2015 bottle, made with Mendocino grapes and bourbon barrel aged, took us by surprise. We tasted charcoal and dried herbs (helped along by 17 percent Petite Syrah), with dark plums on the finish. At $18.99, this wine also was the most affordable of the bunch.

The 2015 Gracianna Reserve Pinot Noir was fairly high-alcohol, too, at 14.8 percent. The winery only produces 150 cases, so most of their sales happen in their tasting room in Healdsburg – but at $72 a bottle, they’re wise to keep it exclusive. The aroma of pecans greeted us as we raised our glasses, then red fruit dominated the taste, which grew deeper as we kept tasting. (News flash: at that price, we didn’t spit.) The Pinot Noir is unfined and aged in neutral French oak.

“Wine is a journey,” reads Donelan’s website – but last month the Donelan family’s journey took a big detour: their Santa Rosa vineyards were lost to the fires that ravaged Napa and Sonoma. But the winery itself survived and the vines will be replanted. For now, their 2013 Cuvée Moriah Red Wine (14 percent alcohol) is worth the $50 price tag. It’s full-bodied, almost thick, with lively raspberry and cherry tastes and smooth tannins. Take time to find the nuances in your glass; this wine has finesse.

 

 

Here comes more alcohol: the 2014 Conundrum Red Blend is one smooth customer at 15.1 percent, and don’t be fooled by the $25 price tag. The winery’s motto is “both serious and playful” – hence the conundrum – and it carries into the wine, with tastes ranging from red berries to dark, smoky plums. No wonder; the grapes in the mix include Zinfandel and Petite Syrah.

Then there’s inky, sultry 2014 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon. One sniff and you know you’re drinking a California Cab, strong and smoky. This is a true Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot from Napa’s steep, rocky Stags Leap District. We tasted black licorice, black raspberries, cloves and a bite of black pepper, with the slightest hint of prime rib on the finish. Big, sexy, dark – think Poldark, baby – a bargain at $78.

Lastly, we loved that one of the tastiest wines on the table hailed from the Midwest, a 2015 Stonehill Winery Norton from Missouri. Norton is the official grape of the Show-Me State, and at $19.99 this bottle is another affordable choice. It’s a full-bodied, potent wine  – more than you’d expect from its moderate alcohol level (13.3 percent) – with a strong smell of buttery, movie-theater popcorn and dark berry, plummy taste. As I set down my glass, a faint fig taste lingered.

Trinity Hill PN

Vino ‘View:  Need a break from California wines this holiday season? I just tried the 2015 Trinity Hill Pinot Noir Hawkes Bay (13 percent alcohol, $16.99). New Zealand reds are different from those produced in this hemisphere – zestier, not as big – and this one smells of ripe watermelon, taffy and cherry. I tasted cherries, chocolate chip cookie and slight cinnamon; the tannins are mild, watch for a black pepper bite at the end. Two years after its release this bottle still needed decanting to bring the flavors together, then it’s a great turkey-dinner wine. Drink it now or in the next two years.

[The Trinity Hill Pinot Noir was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

Wine Bloggers On the Move

You probably think all we did at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma was sit around and drink, right?

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Actually, that’s pretty close to the truth. Sometimes we even cleaned up and moved our hootenanny to a place with class, and one night it was a tasting at the iconic Stags’ Leap Winery on Silverado Trail in Napa.

Not to be confused with the also-iconic Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. also on Silverado Trail in Napa. For 13 years the rival wineries slugged it out in court until they decided one of them would move the apostrophe and they could be friends. Their winemakers sealed the deal in 1985 by collaborating on a wine they called “Accord.”

The first Stags’ Leap grapes were planted in the late 1800s by the Chase family (of Chase Bank). The winery is nestled in the shadow of the The Palisades Mountains; in the yard behind the manor house stands a cactus the size of my kitchen, a spiky sentinel that not even the most wine-ripped intruder would challenge.

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Stags’ Leap greeted us with a glass of their 2016 Viognier – lush, just crisp enough.

Monday I’ll share one of the Blogger Conference’s most exciting events: a speed tasting where winemakers showcase their finest – 12 wines per table, five minutes per wine, sharpen your palates!

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Vino ‘View: We wanted to crack a big sexy red for sweater weather, and Concannon  2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles (13.5 percent alcohol, $20) was a great choice. It brings a mouthful of body and a bit of jam, but the tannins were smooth and the alcohol didn’t overwhelm. Expect classic California Cab flavors – dark berries, black cherries, slight caramel, accented with healthy acidity. Cozy up with this bottle.

[This bottle was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary