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Mendocino Sparkles

”We’re trying to be a picnic wine, not trying to be fancy,” Signal Ridge Vineyard owner Roger Scommegna told me as I sipped his non-vintage Signal Ridge Bubbles last Sunday night. “There are already world-class sparkling wines here, like Roederer Estate. We’re trying to be Mendocino-like.” His demeanor is totally Mendocino, as is his sparkler. But despite being priced for picnics, Bubbles will be just fine for the dinner table or fancier affairs.

signal ridge vineyard
An aerial photo of the Signal Ridge Vineyard, Mendocino Ridge AVA. Photo by Signal Ridge.

There were a few Mendocino vintners last week who mentioned wanting to disgorge sparkling wine from the golden-moments-only mindset. “People will drink a $15 to $20 still wine any day of the week,” Zac Robinson, proprietor of Husch Vineyards and president of Mendocino Winegrowers Inc., observed. “But they think sparkling wine at the same price needs a special occasion.”

He’s right. Sure, there are people without that bias. I’ve got friends who go bubbly more often than not. But they’re a very small minority.

I suspect much of the blame lies with the highly successful marketing of France’s Champagne houses. Over the past few decades they have just about convinced people that no celebration is complete without sparkling wine. That, coupled with the preceding reputation of Champagne as a drink for royalty and upper class soirées, has had the unintended consequence of tying sparkling wine so closely with festivities as to make it seem inappropriate for everyday drinking.

I view Scommegna’s comments to be aimed at opening minds, not capping his wine’s potential. Brisk sales of relatively inexpensive Cava and Prosecco have been busting the stereotype already. Driven by those bottlings and the growing market for crisp wines of moderate alcohol, sparkling wine is starting to become “a thing” with “new California winemakers” now. Soon, you’ll be seeing a lot more releases by producers, from Mendocino to Santa Barbara, who have previously been focused solely on still wine.

Here are four sparkling wines from Mendocino County—all methode traditionelle—I enjoyed last week. (My tastings last week didn’t include Roederer Estate or Scharffenberger Cellars so their wines aren’t included in this article.)

signal ridge bubblesNV Signal Ridge Bubbles Brut, $25 ($99 for a half-case)
Bubble is a mélange of chalk, lemon, green apple, stone fruit and delicate spice on the nose. A sip brings a creamy mousse with a light touch of sweetness that quickly subsides leaving a clean mouthfeel with flavors of lemon pith, green apple, spice and steely minerality. I like it quite a bit and, at just $99 for a half-case, it really can be an every day wine. Single bottles sell for $25, so six-pack is definitely the way to go. Recommended+

2006 Handley Cellars Brut Rosé, Estate Vineyard Anderson Valley, $40
A richly creamy mousse gives this sparkling wine body that feels medium+ but is well-balanced by juicy acidity. The delicious aromas and flavors include dried ginger, cream, yellow apple, lemon curd and strawberry. Highly Recommended

2003 Handley Cellars Brut, $ inquire, tasting room only
Zippy acidity coupled with flavors of toast, chai spice (especially cardamom) and green apple. Very good now but capable of building complexity with further bottle age. Because this wine is nearly sold-out it’s sold only at the winery and not available for tasting. Recommended+

NV McFadden Farm Cuvée Brut, $25
This 50-50 blend of organically-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay spent two-and-a-half years on the lees. (It’s billed as NV but is essentially a 2009.) A little riper and sweeter, but with plenty of acidity, the McFadden Farm sparkling wine will be a versatile partner for food. Flavors include creamy pear, pear skin and baking spice. Recommended
(You might enjoy this recent SF Chronicle review of the McFadden Farm tasting room too.)

Interpreting my wine ratings

 

Disclosures: The FTC has tightened its guidelines with respect to online ads, reviews, blogs, etc. in response to people who are passing paid ads off as personal recommendations or who accept samples of expensive hard goods in exchange for reviews. My lengthy disclosure here is meant to address those guidelines.

The reviews above reflect my personal experience with the product. This is not a paid ad, nor do I accept ads or compensation for reviews from wine producers. Reviews may cover products that I have purchased, received as samples, or tried under other circumstances I consider to be good tasting conditions. Receiving a product as a sample does not obligate me to review it positively (or at all) and I do not consider samples to be compensation or “free wine.” I have purchased plenty of wine over the years and have more of that than I can drink. Samples are opened for review purposes, not added to my personal cellar or taken to restaurants.

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Signal Ridge label photo by The Bubbly Girl. All rights reserved.

Quick Sip: Waterstone 2008 Pinot Gris Napa Valley

Pinot Gris is a grape, descended from Pinot Noir, that is used to make white wines. The varietal is often called by other names, depending on where it’s made. In Germany, it is typically called Grauburgunder. That’s just a direct translation of Pinot Gris, as is Italy’s Pinot Grigio. In Switzerland, and sometimes France’s Loire Valley, it’s called Malvoisie. There is more Pinot Gris grown in Italy and Germany than in France. However, it is one of the three “noble grapes” of France’s Alsace and some of the very best versions come from that area.

Wine Worth the Money: 2006 Kobalt Cabernet Sauvignon

There are a lot of conversations these days that include phrases like “with this economy” and “in these troubled economic times.” Clearly, few of us are spending money as freely now as we may have two or three years ago. Whether a person’s income is actually lower or they just feel more comfortable spending less and saving more, conspicuous consumption is out and frugality is fashionable.

Wine purchasing habits have been impacted by this. Restaurants are selling fewer expensive bottles. “By the glass” is now much more popular because, even if it’s a bad deal by volume, one can simply drink less and thus spend less. In wine shops, people who used to buy truly expensive bottles have cut their average bottle price by as much as 75%. For other folks, $8 bottles are the new $20 bottle.

Despite all of the saving, bargain-hunting and prudent moderation, every now and then people want to “break out.” Maybe there’s a big birthday or anniversary. Maybe you bought AAPL at $80. Maybe you had big money on the Ducks over Cal. Whatever the reason, sometimes you’re feeling flush and you’re ready to spend big on a bottle. But no matter how badly you want to spend, you don’t want to spend badly. As with many things, the price of wine is based at least as much on the law of supply and demand, production cost, and brand power as it is on quality. You want to buy wine worth the money, not just pay for someone’s expensive real estate.

California Cabernet Aging Potential - It’s Not About the Years, it’s the Character

People, especially Americans, put undo focus on some numbers. Every week news outlets tell us which movies had the biggest box office revenue. They don’t tell us what the films are about or if they’re any good. Morning shows tell us who is celebrating a 100th birthday. We don't learn what those people are like, what they accomplished or who loves them.

Contemporary California wines, Cabernet Sauvignon blends in particular, are often dismissed as wines that won’t age well. They are too high in alcohol, have too much sweet fruit, not enough acidity, etc. The complaint is frequently dismissive. “Sure, people like them, but they won’t age.” The subtext being that the wines are therefore inferior and so, perhaps, are the palates of those who drink them.

I was thinking about this as I sipped my way through the Taste of Oakville yesterday. 47 wineries from one of this country’s premier AVA’s were pouring their current releases. More than a few of them get that “won’t age” label. But some producers popped library wines, giving me the opportunity to see exactly how those wines have aged. Obviously, nobody was going to offer a wine that hadn’t held up, but the wines still gave a glimpse at the longevity of their general styles.

Before I get into how the wines were doing though, lets ask two questions, 1) What do we mean by “won’t age?” and 2) Who cares? The last question is at least half serious.

To me, saying a wine won’t age means one of two things. The first is that the wine simply won’t get any better than it is during the first three years or so after release. It won’t develop interesting tertiary flavors, the fruit will go away, etc. This may seem like a damning indictment but in reality the vast majority of wines made are not intended to improve with bottle age. Beyond that, most wine drinkers—including those buying expensive, genuinely age-worthy bottles—drink their wines fairly young. So the answer to the second question in this case is that most people don’t care most of the time, but people who love a good well-aged wine may care a lot.

The second meaning of “won’t age” is more a matter of degree. The wine will age, it just won’t last as long as a reference Bordeaux or Burgundy, or an iconic California wine from 30+ years ago. Here, the answer to the second question is that virtually nobody should care and one could argue it’s actually a good thing. A good thing? Yes.

As much as we love numbers, history and the cool factor of drinking something bottled before Paul McCartney met John Lennon, it should be the wine’s character that matters. Enjoy the complex aromas, developed flavors and elegant mouthfeel of the aged wine. Don’t dwell on how long it took them to appear. And, if you’re on the far side of 50, you may appreciate not having to wait another 40 years for your new purchases to reach their peak.

All that said, how were the Oakville Cabs aging? Nicely, by and large. They are indeed developing tertiary flavors faster than wines from days gone by. However, these contemporary wines had the virtue of having been drinkable upon release. Many long-lasting wines from days of yore were not. In addition, the best of today’s library wines look like they’ll last a good while longer.

Here were my favorite library wines from the 2013 Taste of Oakville (by vintage):

RMW Reserve CabSauv Lg2006 Far Niente Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon - Drying leaves, black currant and vanilla. Full-body, moderate acidity and medium-plus chalky tannins. A very good wine today from a vintage that may lack aging potential overall. Drink soon. Highly Recommended+.

2001 Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve - Slightly raisined black currant, drying leaves, spice and chocolate. Nearly full-bodied with moderate acidity and a good measure of fine, powdery tannins plus some chalk. Quite long. Drink now through 2020. Very Highly Recommended.

1995 Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon - Intensely flavorful with lightly raisined black currant, forest floor, spice and graphite. Nearly full-bodied and juicy, very fine grained tannins. A gorgeous wine. One of my two or three favorite wines of the day, young or old. Drink now through 2023. Very Highly Recommended

1986 Johnson Turnbull “Selection 67” Cabernet Sauvignon (6L) - Drying leaves, dried currant and spice. Medium-plus body, acidity and tannins (fine powder). Just 13.2% alcohol. Holding up well but smaller format bottles would likely be past peak. Drink now. Highly Recommended.

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

At the Food & Wine Magazine American Wine Awards

Last night some of America’s best winemakers met at the Meadowood Resort in Napa Valley for a very exclusive event. They were there to receive awards for making what Food and Wine Magazine considered to be the best American wines of 2009. I was there to cover the event so that you can have a feel for what went on.

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