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NorCal Wine Blog

Back Labels I Can Get Behind

The vast majority of wine back labels are a waste of ink and your time. Their branding messages are weak and don’t help with buying decisions or inform your drinking experience. There’s not enough space to tell a compelling story about the winery or it’s owners. Descriptions of flavors are rarely meaningfully different from those on other bottles of the same variety nearby on the shelf.

Calera takes a very different approach with its single-vineyard wines and I love it. There’s no marketing blather or flavor descriptors. The text is focused, objective and its sole focus is to explain how the wine and the vineyard from which it came are distinct from other vineyards, including others at Calera.

This detailed, somewhat scientific, approach is not for every wine consumer. Many of the statistics are too technical for most wine drinkers. Casual sippers may not care at all. But then they are unlikely to be buying a Calera vineyard-designate anyway.

Calera-Ryan-Back-Label
Back label from the Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

For avid wine lovers—and wine professionals—the labels rock, communicating vitals on the wine, vineyard and AVA clearly and concisely. This is particularly valuable for wineries, such as Calera, that market multiple vineyard-designate wines of the same variety. If there’s no clear difference between wines from the various vineyards, why make designates? But few labels communicate those differences effectively.

Another winery with really good back labels is Ridge. They take a more prose-heavy approach but still communicate very clearly on key topics: vineyard location and soils, weather throughout the vintage, yield and production volume, winemaking processes and their effect on the wine’s character, and estimated age-ability of the wine. [Alcohol percentage and percentages of each grape variety are prominently noted on the front label.]

When relevant, Ridge also compares the wine with others in their lineup. For example, the back label for Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon contrasts it with Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon. All of the text is well-written and descriptive but not flowery. I hope other wineries move in this direction.

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.

Napa Valley Premiere - Competitive Juices Yield Record Prices

On Saturday, February 22, 225 one-of-a-kind lots of meticulously produced Napa Valley wine were offered at auction to some of the world’s most passionate and well-moneyed wine sellers and restauranteurs. Four-and-a-half hours later the last gavel fell and a record $5.9 million had been realized, nearly doubling last year’s take which had been an all-time record itself.

2014pnv-6671
The gavel falls on the last lot at the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction.
Photo Bob McClenahan.

The proceeds of Napa Valley Premiere go to support the efforts of the Napa Valley Vintners in promoting, preserving and improving that AVA, but there’s much more on the line. There is pride. There’s reputation. And, to some extent, there’s the promise of winery revenue. Stratospheric auction results aren’t an abstract number. They are to some degree a measure of the winery’s reputation, the star-power of the winemaker. Top results mean a press release and the opportunity to edge the price of all wines upward.

One particularly competitive winemaker stumbled toward me, crestfallen. “I’m a loser!” he said. This from a guy who was actually among the top sellers. But a handful of lots had gone for more than his best. Moments later when the 60-bottle lot of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch sold for a mind-blowing $260,000, he looked like he wanted to throw up. He was now “loser” by an order of magnitude.

For the most part though, Napa Valley Premiere was an “all smiles” event. Dozens of winery-hosted events earlier in the week had drawn trade buyers, top sommeliers and press to the valley. New releases, library wines and the auction cuvees were poured side-by-side. There were big dinners, quiet meetings, cocktail parties, dancing and more.

The after-lunch auction itself was preceded by a tasting of all the lots that morning in the historic barrel room of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. It’s the best meet-and-greet-and-taste that this country’s most important wine region offers with samples poured by the winemakers, proprietors or both for a crowd small enough to enable friendly conversation and detailed questions.

I didn’t taste every wine this time, opting instead for deeper conversations and very detailed notes on a select number of wines which I was reviewing for the St. Helena Star. Alder Yarrow did make it to nearly every barrel though, so keep an eye on Vinography for his commentary.

Of the wines I did taste, I found much to love. There was the savory complexity of the Mt. Brave and the dynamically fruited Ovid. Oakville Ranch offered yet another supple, stunningly gorgeous Cabernet Franc. Inglenook’s wine is showing heightened sophistication under estate manager Philippe Bascaules. New label Pulido-Walker debuted with a wine made by Thomas Brown that offered amazingly pure aromas of freshly crushed black currants. Another wine by Brown, for THE GRADE, offered mineral-laden scents and a beautifully creamy mouthfeel. Schramsberg refreshed and delighted with a late-disgorged sparkling wine from the 1993 vintage. I taste thousands of wines every year. Many of them are truly excellent. Nonetheless my pen was shocked to be writing scores such as 95, 96 and 97 with such frequency. 

Quick Stats for the 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction

Auction lots - 225
Total revenue - $5.9 million
Average bottle price - $283
Highest-selling debut offering - Pulido-Walker for $65,000

Top Ten Lots
$260,000 from The Wine House for 60 bottles of Scarecrow made by Celia Welch
$100,000 from Beverage Warehouse for 60 bottles of ZD Wines made by Brandon deLeuze and Chris Pisani
$100,000 from Zoes Restaurant for 60 bottles of Shafer made by Elias Fernandez
$100,000 from Bounty Hunter for 60 bottles of Schrader made by Thomas Brown
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Robert Mondavi Winery made by Genevieve Janssens
$90,000 from Wine Library for 240 bottles of Cakebread Cellars made by Julianne Laks
$85,000 from Wine Library for 120 bottles of Bevan Cellars & Chateau Boswell made by Russell Bevan
$80,000 from Cliffewood Wine Syndicate for 240 bottles of Reynolds Family, Constant and David Arthur made by Steve Reynolds
$80,000 from Imbibe Wine & Spirits for 60 bottles of VHR Vine Hill Ranch made by Francoise Peschon
$80,000 from Total Wine for 240 bottles of Silver Oak made by Daniel Baron

Top Five Bottle Prices
$4,333 for Scarecrow
$1,666 for ZD Wines
$1,666 for Shafer
$1,666 for Schrader
$1,333 for VHR Vine Hill Ranch

Most Represented Winemakers
Thomas Brown - eight wineries
Philippe Melka - seven wineries
Aaron Pott - four wineries

Top Grossing Winemakers
$340,000 - Celia Welch
$302,000 - Philippe Melka
$255,000 - Thomas Brown
$113.000 - Russell Bevan 

Top Buyers
Total Wine & More of Potomac, MD
Bounty Hunter of Napa, CA
Cliffewood Wine Syndicate of Little Rock, AR
Wine Library of Springfield, NJ
The Wine House of Los Angeles, CA
Gary’s Wine & Marketplace of Madison, NJ
Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo, Japan
Beverage Warehouse of Los Angeles, CA
Yakiniku Hiroshi of Honolulu, HI
Meritage Wine Market of Encinitas, CA
Zoes Restaurant of Virginia Beach, VA
HEB of San Antonio, TX.

Specifics on each wine can be found at http://premierenapawines.com/2014/

Download a Full List of 2014 Premiere Napa Valley Auction Wines & Realized Prices

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.

Robert Parker Scores and Misses

robert parker“I want to see all of you succeed,” Robert M. Parker Jr. told more than 40 wine writers in attendance at last week’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood in St. Helena. This was a generous, perhaps surprising, statement from Parker who has frequently— and very recently—traded criticism and low blows with many of the same scribes. I’m convinced he meant every word, the denunciations and the well-wishes.

Robert Parker is full of contradictions, as are we all. But unlike the things you and I say, his every sentence is scrutinized, canonized and simultaneously chastised. He has long been the emperor of wine criticism. He remains so, though the power of that empire declines due to democratization of wine commentary and a recent secession.

As sound bites from Parker’s semi-extemporaneous talk were tweeted and retweeted, Facebooked and “liked,” outside observers responded instantly. “Words to live by!” said one. Parker’s statements resonated with many. But others called him “delusional” and “disingenous.” It’s lonely at the top.

Speaking of which, there were poignant moments. “I was extremely lucky,” said Parker, “I wish you all the success I’ve had. And the climb to the top is what makes it all worthwhile. Once you get there, there’s nothing there.” He’s been “there” for 30 years.

Robert Parker set out to be a consumer advocate. Ralph Nader was his inspiration. The clear conflicts of interest inherent with top British wine writers’ also selling wine were his call to action. He set out to create a newsletter with unassailably independent reviews. Parker’s identification of 1982 as a Bordeaux vintage for the ages, in stark disagreement with many critics, brought international prominence that he built upon for the three decades to follow.

Along the way he made and buried wineries. He can’t see that. Producers’ desire to rate highly in his newsletter drove richness in wine, and eventually alcohol, to unprecedented levels. He won’t admit that. He simply said, “I do believe flavor intensity is critical. And I am looking for wines that will develop in five to ten years. Some of the thin, feminine, elegant wines being praised today will fall apart. You need some richness and intensity for development.” Then there were popping sounds as some writers’ heads exploded.

Parker spoke for roughly half-an-hour and took questions for another 30 minutes. Listening was a privilege and a frustration. I was grateful for the opportunity, regretful he didn’t stay longer. Dozens of questions went unasked, as many conflicts unresolved. But Robert Parker did offer valuable insights. Later this week I’ll share them, along with comments from some other writers in attendance.

In the meantime, please enjoy this beautiful video montage of the symposium created by Kaethy and Tim Kennedy of Story Cellars.

 

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 of Robert Parker from erobertparker.com.  All rights reserved.

It's Not Too Late! Downloadable Gifts for Wine Lovers

It’s the day before Christmas and officially time to panic if you’re still short on gifts for the wine lovers in your life. Mail order won’t get the job done in time. A trip to the mall or downtown shopping district means parking blues, hordes of Cinnabon-fueled zombies and lengthy lines at the register.

What you need are downloadable gifts. Here are some great digital doodads for wine lovers:

The World Atlas of Wine - 7th Edition by Hugh Johnson & Jancis Robinson
atlas of wineThe most recent update of this venerable guide to wine was just released in October. While the hardcover book is lovely and looks good on a coffee table, I opted for the Apple iBooks version, $14.99 The 400-page resource is weightless on my iPad, the photos still vivid, and it includes video which you just can't get in print.

The book isn't perfect. Today's world of wine is a big place and, when single regions such as California or Argentina are worthy of 500 pages themselves, a book such as this one can’t cover any topic exhaustively. There is also a minor formatting problem, at least on my iPad Mini, which cuts off a bit of text here and there.

Those quibbles aside, the book is an excellent resource and wonderful to have in hip pocket or purse at all times. Maps are a primary element of any atlas. Here, there’s a “tap to zoom” feature which makes detailed maps, such as the complete vineyard-level layout of Gevrey-Chambertin, very easy to navigate and read. Likewise, a single tap provides larger-than-life renderings of wine labels. The hyperlinked table of contents and search functions are fast and effective. Pop-up regional sidebars offer info on climate, viticultural hazards and principal grape varieties.

The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste by Jon Bonné
91ldTo5opKL. SL1500 Hot off the press, but also available for Kindle, is this book by the SF Chronicle’s wine editor. It provides a great overview of California wine from the beginning to now. Wine recommendations are organized by varietal, perfect for people who don’t know producer names but want to find a killer Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, etc.

Jon Bonné has a point of view which becomes obvious as one gets to the latter stages of the book. The book is best for people who share his tastes or who gave up on California wine years ago due to a perceived lack of nuance, minerality and acidity. If your intended recipient loves mouth-filling, fruit-forward wines and isn’t afraid of alcohol, or needs a compleat compendium of regions and wineries, this book may not be for them. But, for a fresh look at California wine, a guide to domestic bottles with Old World flair and an overview of the most controversial topics in wine, this is your tome.

My full review is here. The Kindle edition is currently selling for $13.29, 62% off the hardcover price.

Wine Cellar Management Software
I’ve tried at least a dozen software packages designed for cataloging and managing a large wine collection. Most of them are horrible. You-couldn’t-pay-me-to-use-the-horrible. There are two very good options though.

The Personal Wine Curator 3.0 ($49.99, PC or Mac) is a purpose-built, standalone application that is powerful but easy-to-use, flexible but doesn’t require configuration, and speeds data entry with both a wine database and “duplicate entry” function. The program suggests drink by dates as well as food pairings. It can manage multiple cellars and supports printing and scanning of bar codes. There is also an add-on mobile option ($29.99/yr.) that will both back up your data to their server and allow you to access your database via smart phone.

wine curator

The second good option is a two-tool solution, CellarTracker plus Cor.kz. Most people know CellarTracker as a crowd-sourced repository of wine reviews. However, it has a cellar management tool and currently boasts an online hoard of 46.5 million user bottles. The CellarTracker cellar manager is focused on basic inventory, prices and scores and is much less feature rich than The Personal Wine Curator. It doesn’t offer wine maturity tracking or wine pairing. But you can use CellarTracker for free, though they request a voluntary payment and require at least $36/year for automatic valuations and access to some of the “pro” wine scores.

Cor.kz is an iPhone/iPad/Android app that connects with CellarTracker over the internet. It costs $1.99 and lets users access their CellarTracker inventory as well as the full database of reviews. It is integrated with Facebook and Twitter, so users can easily share comments on what they're drinking.

For a full-featured cellar manager, go with The Personal Wine Curator. If your wine-loving friend just needs an inventory of what they have, is interested in comparing their notes to user reviews or likes to share comments on wine via social media, try CellarTracker.

Happy Holidays!

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 2013. Cover art and screenshots are the property of their respective holders. All rights reserved.

4 Great Gifts for Wine Collectors

Finding great gifts for wine collectors can be a challenge. Giving wine is dicey since collectors are often very particular. Instead, choose something which shows you support their love of wine and went the extra mile to learn what serious collectors can really use but may not have.

Durand - The Very Best Corkscrew for Aged Wines

1 the-durandThere’s one thing all prized, old bottles of wine have in common, old corks. They can be a real problem.

Some corks break into pieces when you try to pull them with a regular corkscrew. Others aren’t solid enough to hold onto the screw. Those problems can be solved with an ah-so, a device with two flat prongs that slide between the cork and bottle. Sometimes the  the ah-so just pushes the cork into the bottle though.

The Durand is a corkscrew and ah-so in one. The screw holds the cork while the two metal prongs secure it from the sides. No more broken, crumbled or lost corks! $125

coravinCoravin - Pour Wines by the Glass Without Removing the Cork

Sometimes you want to taste a wine, but not drink the whole bottle. You can reseal an opened bottle, but you still have to finish it within a day or so. Coravin lets you extract  as much wine as you want without removing the cork.

The Coravin system inserts a hollow needle of surgical steel through the cork. Then it pushes inert, food-safe argon gas into the bottle. This allows the wine to flow and also keeps oxygen out of the bottle.

It sounds complicated but is easy to use. And it really works. Sommeliers, wine bars and collectors love it. See my full Coravin review here$299

The Wine Check - The Safe, Convenient Way to Fly with Wine

the wine checkSerious wine lovers like taking their own wine with them on vacation and bringing bottles back from overseas winery visits. The Wine Check is the best way to check a case of wine as luggage.

The Wine Check's internal box has 12 individual styrofoam cavities which isolate bottles from both cold and heat while also protecting against breakage. The outer bag is tough, water-resistant and has wheels and a pull strap for easy mobility. There's a large, flat pocket which is perfect for holding winery brochures and a corkscrew.

I get a lot of use out of mine, and not just for domestic and international flights. I take it with me when I drive to wine country so the bottles I buy don’t get hot sitting in the car. (If you like a one-stop shop, you can also buy The Durand in The Wine Check’s online store.) $75

Travelwell 12-Bottle Limo - an Excellent, Compact Carrier for Local Travel

I received Travelwell Polyester Bottle Limo 12 Bottle Wine Case as a gift myself and am very happy with it. It holds 12 bottles, but half of the padded dividers are movable so you can carry odd-shaped bottles or use the carrier as a cooler. The bag is well-constructed with a sturdy, telescoping handle and a pair of smoothly-rolling wheels on each back corner. There are big, flat pockets on both sides and another one in front with slots for cards, etc.

The compact design—half the size of The Wine Check—is very convenient. I wouldn't suggest using it as checked luggage though. There's not enough padding and insulation for that. The telescoping handle would be liable to get damaged too. $78.25

wine carrier

 

 

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 2013. All rights reserved.