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Getting the Wine Bloggers Conference We Deserve

Malloreigh wearing boxing glovesI attended this year’s North American Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Santa Barbara last week. This was the fifth WBC I’ve attended. Some parts of the conference were truly excellent, many were interesting in the moment but not memorable. Others could and should have been much better in my view. The event is a for-profit venture. Attendee feedback is vital to improvement in future seminars, tastings, excursions, presenters and in the conference as a whole.

Zephyr does solicit feedback from bloggers for future sessions. Not all advice is taken. Some is conflicting, impractical or would cut into Zephyr’s profits. The organizers have made changes over the years based on our comments though.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement. And three of the six best events in Santa Barbara that weekend were actually non-sanctioned gatherings which Zephyr didn’t want anybody to attend. I’m concerned, though, that a negative feedback loop is being created. There was even an article this week, from a blogger who wasn’t present at the conference, that did nothing but regurgitate negative comments from attendees.

Some of the criticism is so virulent, and sometimes personal, that the relationship with Zephyr—who don’t react well to complaints anyway—can only become increasingly adversarial. That won’t lead to better conferences. Likewise, the tenor of gripes about individual panelists is such that only people totally desperate for exposure will agree to participate in coming years..

A few months ago, bloggers rightly called Robert Parker out for posting a scathing forum rant about a Jon Bonné/Eric Asimov tasting seminar he hadn’t attended. His comments were based on partially inaccurate missives from his colleagues. We should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others.

I’m not saying some of the criticism isn’t justified. We should keep that criticism constructive and impersonal though. Before we rip into panelists on blogs and social media, we should remember panelists are people with feelings, reputations they’ve built through years of diligent work, and families and friends who may see our posts. We should remember the panelists came to the conference with goodwill toward us, the intent to be helpful and that the only payment they receive is our goodwill in exchange.

Note: Per comments from Allan of Zephyr Adventures (see below), I have edited this article to remove text indicating that Zephyr  employees are not winee industry people or wine enthusiasts.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: Malloreigh - RetouchAll rights reserved.

Lodi Zinfandel Goes Native

lodi native

Lodi is well-known for Zinfandel. Of particular note are its many acres of old vines. Thick-trunked and twisted after all these years, they look more like short trees than grape vines.

The fruit these centenarians bear is full of character, but their unique traits are sometimes masked by new oak and other winemaking choices intended to please contemporary wine lovers. So, unlike Pinot Noir vineyard-designates often made with a minimum of intervention to expose distinct terroir, even super-premium Zinfandel wines don’t necessarily reveal all the unique characteristics of particular old vine plots. This makes it hard to know exactly how excited we should really be about those vineyards.

The Lodi Native project addresses that problem directly. It presents single-vineyards of distinction from Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA in wines that are skillfully made, but not “crafted.” I tasted the project’s first 6 wines. The differences between each were dramatic. The wines are beautiful. They compelled me to open my wallet, a much harder task these days than it used to be.

What is Lodi Native?

Lodi Native is a serious effort by six winemakers to let heritage vineyards speak clearly through “sensible viticulture and minimalist winemaking”. Each man was responsible for his own wine but also worked with the others from the outset to define a winemaking credo. As wine production moved forward, they consulted with each other on challenges and critiqued all the wines to drive quality and transparency of terroir. Each agreed to forego personal and brand-styles in favor of that transparency.

Here are some of the restrictions on Lodi Native wines:

• 100% Zinfandel from single-contiguous vineyard
  (except when a particular vineyard has a long, recognized history for mixed blacks)
• Native-yeast fermentation for primary and malolactic fermentation
• No new oak or inner staves
• No oak substitutes such as chips or powder
• No addition of water or subtraction of alcohol
• No addition or reduction of acid
• No added tannins
• No added color or concentrates, including Mega-Purple
• No fining or filtration
• No must concentration, Flash Détante or similar extraction measures

This was a risky project. The winemakers couldn’t use commonly accepted measures to counteract issues with the grapes or production. Some winemakers hadn’t relied solely on native fermentation before, so they didn’t know what surprises the peculiar strains in their vineyard and winery would bring. There was no oak “spice box” to cover minor flaws.

In fact, there were originally seven winemakers in the project. One voluntarily withdrew because an issue with harvest resulted in his grapes coming in with too much sugar. He wouldn’t be able to ferment the grapes dry or have a balanced wine while adhering to the protocols.

The Lodi Native Wines

The first vintage for Lodi Native Zinfandel was 2012. A limited number of six-bottle sets packaged in attractive wood boxes are available from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center for $180. If there are extra single bottles, those will be available from the wineries for about $35.

2012 Maley Brothers Lodi Native Zinfandel Wegat Vineyard
Winemaker: Chad Joseph — Grower: Todd Maley

Wegat Vineyard is on Lodi’s west side, an area noted for Zinfandel with spicy characteristics. Its 21 acres hold head-trained Zinfandel on St. George rootstock planted in 1958. The vines here are noted for producing unusually open clusters with small berries. Some whole clusters were used in making the Lodi Native wine to enhance complexity.

The dark ruby wine is a study in cherries. The vivid nose shows red cherries and black, canned cherries, fresh cherries, macerated cherries, dried cherries and tart cherries. The cherrypalooza is decorated with fresh sage, garrigue and array of spice. The palate is intense, focused and quite long with flavors of red cherry, blueberry and a touch of sweet herb. The body is medium+ with notable freshness and just enough fine-grained tannins. 14.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

2012 m2 Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Soucie Vineyard
Winemaker: Layne Montgomery — Grower: Kevin Soucie

Soucie Vineyard is the furthest west of all the Lodi Native sites, very near both I–5 and the Delta. Kevin Soucie’s meticulous care results not just in great fruit but a vineyard that looks like a massive Zen garden, hundreds of bonsai vines in a vast field of sand that’s smooth as a U.S. Open sand trap. The particular block used in this wine was planted in 1916 and features deep, sandy soil that’s so fine as to be nearly powdery. The vineyard is noted for a unique earthy character that ranges from mushroom to dairy yard notes.

The grapes for this wine were picked at two different ripeness levels, the first 50% at just 22 brix, to foster complexity, acidity and ensure that the wine would ferment dry. The nose features spicy, slightly resinous, forest floor, mushroom and a whiff of dill with plenty of sweet-tart berry fruit. The creamy, nearly full-bodied palate is intensely flavored with spicy berry fruit. The moderate tannins are fine-grained, the finish long. 14.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

2012 McCay Cellars Lodi Native Zinfandel TruLux Vineyard
Winemaker: Michael McCay — Grower: Keith Watts

The TruLux Vineyard is also on the west side, roughly located between the Michael David and Van Ruiten wineries. Its exceptionally tall vines were planted in the 1940s on St. George rootstock. It’s wines are said to lean toward loamy flavors.

Medium+ ruby in the glass, this wine offers aromas of earth, spicy dark plum and carob. In the mouth there’s medium+ body, moderate, fine-grained tannins and marked acidity that provides juiciness throughout the lengthy finish. Flavors include tart and ripe blackberries, dry earth and spice. 14.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2012 St. Amant Lodi Native Zinfandel Marian’s Vineyard
Winemaker: Stuart Spencer — Growers: Jerry & Bruce Fry

Marian’s Vineyard is an 8.3 acre plot within the expansive Mohr-Fry Ranch southwest of Lodi. All of the fruit from the 113-year old vines go to St. Amant winery.

This deep ruby wine is softly aromatic, showing dry earth, gentle brown spice and introverted dark fruit. Silky tannins add interest on the creamy, full-bodied palate. Rich flavors of cocoa, savory herb, sweet yet tangy dark fruit and blackberry jam. 14.7% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2010 Fields Family Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Century Block Vineyard
Winemaker: Ryan Sherman

The vines in this 3-acre vineyard in the far to the AVA’s eastern side are own-rooted. They were planted in 1905 on the quick-draining sandy soil of talcum-powdery fineness. This was the first time its fruit was used in a vineyard-designate wine.

According to sommelier/writer/Lodi wine expert Randy Caparoso, Lodi’s east side is associated with Zinfandel of “red berry perfume and higher acidity.” That’s certainly evident in this feminine, Pinot-esque wine. Its attractive nose expresses three aspects of cherry: the red fruit, the blossoms and the leaves. The palate is also more delicate than the west side wines with medium+ body and prominent acidity balanced by very fine, delicate tannins. Flavors include red cherry, sweet spice and sweet herb. 13.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2012 Macchia Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Noma Ranch
Winemaker: Tim Holdener — Grower: Leland Noma

The portion of Noma Ranch Zinfandel that goes to Macchia comes from own-rooted, head-trained vines that are unusually low to the ground. More than 100 years old, they are dry-farmed and yield tiny bunches and berries with yields as low as one ton to the acre, resulting in very concentrated wines.

The darkest of the six Lodi Native Zins, this Macchia effort is opaque with a ruby-purple hue. Subtle aromas of dark berries, dark spice and ripe black cherry peak from the glass. The palate is much more outgoing: full-bodied with moderate, very fine tannins framing heady flavors of ripe black cherry, plum, spice, cocoa and oak char. (No new oak is allowed in Lodi Native, but once and twice used barrels can still yield flavors.) 15.0% alcohol. Highly Recommended

Conclusions

The Lodi Native project has achieved its primary goal in the very first vintage. The wines very clearly show the differences between some of Lodi’s most-prized heritage vineyards. And, despite a commitment to sacrificing ideal balance and maximum deliciousness to achieve that aim, the resulting wines are very, very good. They show that, when taken from fine, lovingly-farmed vineyards and made with care, Zinfandel needn’t be sweet, thick in the mouth or dressed in new barrels to captivate. Bravo!

For more on the project and wines, including her signature drawings, see Elaine Brown's article at Wakawaka Wine Reviews.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Study: Researchers Discover New Taste

290px-Eating a Georgia peachResearchers in Australia claim to have discovered a new taste category. The human tongue's sensitivity to sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami flavors has been well-known for decades. Umami was the last of the five to be accepted scientifically as a basic taste. It is the sensation of savory flavors based on glutamates and nucleotides found in foods such as meat, mushrooms and soy. Its official recognition in 1985 unleashed a flood of conversations in the world of food and drink.

Now a new study has tongues wagging again. The research, conducted by staff and graduate students at Yarra University, Melbourne have identified something they call omimi. Omimi doesn't involve newly discovered taste receptors nor chemical triggers. Stimulating the known taste receptors in certain complex combinations and at varying levels of intensity opens up sensitivity to this new taste sensation.

“It’s like a combination lock on a door to another dimension of flavor,” said Dr. Sue-Ann Sauer, one of the study's co-authors, during a teleconference announcing the study’s release. “We can reproduce it, but don’t yet have a full understanding of the mechanism behind the reaction.

The study is not conclusive and it's authors warn both further investigation and peer review are required. "We are already beginning a new phase of trials,"said Ian Debacon, head of research in the Department of Food Science at Yarra University. "Fortunately, the new flavor profile is quite pleasant and we have no shortage of volunteers for current and future testing."

Debacon's optimism is understandable given published comments from some of the first study's volunteers. "I've signed up for other research in the past, because I need the money," said undergraduate Sheila Havanatha. "Most were boring or even painful. This was amazing. I put the flavor sample in my mouth and I couldn’t describe the flavors. All I could say was, ‘Oh, my, my! I want some more.’"

Inspired by Havanatha's exclamation, the research team dubbed the sensation omimi. The study has stimulated more than test subjects. Funding for additional research has poured in from domestic food and beverage companies and some as far away as France. They all want to learn how to stimulate the new taste sensation identified at the Australian university whose acronym, YUM, has never been more appropriate.

Enjoy your April 1st.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014 NorCal Wine. Photograph of Grayson by Bruce Tuten. All rights reserved.

He Wasn't Talking To You, Mr. Outrage


Jon Bonné wrote a book. People love it. People hate it.

Some people who love it continue to enjoy the “lean, fresh and balanced” California wines they’ve already been drinking, perhaps a bit more proudly now that a respected writer is so publicly in their camp. Others who love the book are giving California wines a try for the first time in decades, or for the first time in their lives. They’ve grown up on lighter wines, probably Old World and probably from neither Bordeaux nor Chateauneuf-du-Pape. For any number of reasons, these folks have been unaware that some California wines suit their palates. I believe Jon Bonné wrote his book for these people.

320px-Angry tigerAmong the people who hate “New California Wine” are those who don’t like the wines it champions, who don’t make wines in that style, or who write about wine from the opposite point of view. They have been writing in blogs, magazines and message boards about about how horrible the book is, how it’s trying to fix something that isn’t broken and how unprofessional Bonné is for expressing his opinions.

Bonné wasn’t talking to them. He doesn’t think the whole California wine industry will change. He doesn’t think the sun will get colder, California rainier or that people who love rich, opaque, mouth-filling wines are going to suddenly switch to Trousseau Gris. What he wants is for “his” wines to get a little more attention and to find an audience. His book isn’t intended to destroy the California wine industry but to expand its sales by appealing to people who would never buy the opulent wines that Robert Parker, James Laube, et al praise.

Bonne’s been called self-serving. For expressing his opinions? If the book had diverged from the views he’s been expressing for years in order to grab attention, I could see that. It doesn’t. He's taken the perspectives for which he's known and sandwiched them between two pieces of stiff cardboard. And he isn't claiming to have "saved the world from Parkerization."

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I like wines of both styles. I’m a personal friend of neither Jon Bonné nor his detractors. But I’m fed up with critics who appear to think they’re the only ones allowed to express opinions. I’m surprised they don’t realize that, by sounding off against “New California Wine” in vehicles with substantial reach, they are only drawing more attention to that which they hope nobody will buy. And, as Robert Parker said just before launching into attack mode, I’m disappointed in the lack of civility.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Angry cat photo by Guyon Morée All rights reserved.

 

How Many Wines do Critics Taste per Day?

bloggers-at-ridgeThe wine critic has decided whether or not to taste blind and has selected glassware. How many wines will she taste in a day?

I frequently hear people suggest that wine critics' judgement is impaired because they taste 100 - 200 wines in a day. They don’t. If for no other reason, time just doesn’t allow it.

Wine competitions tend to have the highest tasting volumes. That’s a different type of evaluation than review tastings. When judging in competitions, you’re filling out a grid and jotting a score. There’s no need to write lengthy descriptions, or even the wine’s name, and you’re not asking questions. According to Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Decanter competition in which he participates may do 70 - 80 wines per day. I know of competitions which do up to twice that.

But, if a critic is at a winery for review purposes, she’s tasting, writing detailed notes and also asking questions. That takes time. In a very well-orchestrated regional tasting Richard Jennings (RJonWine.com and Huffington Post) and I did in Santa Maria, all the wines and winemakers came to a single location. We didn’t have to waste time driving around. Aside from a lunch break, the only delays were for rotating winemakers and pouring new wines. Winery staff even did the pouring for us.

That tasting still took most of the day and we only did 40 wines. If we’d asked a lot fewer questions and run even longer hours, maybe we could have done 80. It is possible to do that, but it’s not at all common practice. I have not spoken to Robert Parker about this, but he doesn’t write or talk any faster than the rest of us.

[The photo above shows a typical tasting setup for a group of writers at a winery, Ridge in this case. There are four to five glasses for each writer, a dump bucket, water, a white paper to help in judging color, and then laptops or notepads.]

In terms of volume, the biggest regular editorial tastings are panel tastings wherein a publication brings in a few experts—sommeliers, winemakers, other writers—to taste along with the critic. [This is a great practice because everyone brings their own perspective with unique references, descriptors and thoughts on quality. The final decisions are those of the critic, but they may be influenced by the panel.]

Jon Bonné told me, “I generally have limited our panel tastings to 50 wines maximum, which I think is probably still high.” I taste in panels for Wine & Spirits Magazine which are essentially the same, though one editor may participate in two panels a day. But those are for preliminary, thumbs up or down judgements, deciding which wines go to an editor for official review. The final tastings wouldn’t include nearly as many.

When tasting at home, writers set an even more leisurely pace. There’s no staff at home for opening the bottles, pouring, dumping and clean up. And we can’t be tasting all day, every day. We have to save time for writing, editing, correspondence, etc.

Lisa Perotti-Brown of Wine Advocate told attendees of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers that, when tasting at her home office, she tastes in flights of 10 or 12 wines and does two flights per day. Jon Bonné tastes in flights of four or five wines and might do a total of 20 or 25 evaluations. Joe Czerwinski of Wine Enthusiast tastes at the office and rarely does more than 30 wines per day. Virginie Boone, also of Wine Enthusiast but tasting at home, has been doing 10 - 15 daily. She expects to ramp that up to 20 for her new beat of Napa and Sonoma. I don’t usually do more than 24 wines in a day myself.

The common complaint that wine critics taste too many wines in a day to be able to evaluate them properly is based on an incorrect assumption. Trained critics can taste a lot of wines when need be. However, for a variety of practical reasons, the typical number they go through is from 15 to 40.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.