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Balance - In the Eye of the Beholder

Thomas Riley recently published a thoughtful overview on the current debate about balance, ripeness and alcohol levels in California wine. It’s a difficult, multifaceted issue with intelligent and passionate people on all sides. And there isn’t one right answer.

In a discussion on my Facebook page where I had linked to that article, Rick Davis (winemaker/proprietor at Calstar Cellars) said, “Balance to me means that alcohol, fruit, tannin and acid are in balance. Making a complete wine.” He added that he “find[s] the “lower alcohol” kick nearsighted.” I totally agree with his first statement. I think most everyone would. As for the other, I would just change the malady to tunnel vision.

Balance is, literally, a matter of taste. I don’t mean good or bad taste, though some people would make that argument. Our sense of taste and our abilities to perceive and tolerate acidity, sweetness, bitterness and alcohol strongly influence our determination of balance. Some of these abilities are genetic, some are learned and others are modified by tolerances we build up through our eating and drinking habits.

I drink espresso straight. That either means I enjoy bitterness, don’t have as many bitterness sensing tastebuds as some, have learned to ignore it or some combination thereof. (I used take my espresso with sugar but began avoiding sugar years ago.) My perception of bitterness and avoidance of sugar undoubtedly affects the way I perceive wine. For example, I might more readily notice residual sugar and be less put off by totally dry or minerally wines than someone who uses a lot of sugar.

One man's balance is another man's heat.   Photo: Fluff

Similarly, people who typically drink a cocktail before and/or alongside dinner will generally be less sensitive to alcohol levels in wine. What is the difference between 14% and 15.5% alcohol in a Cabernet Sauvignon for a casual wine drinker whose main drink is Bourbon or a dry Martini? That person may well prefer high alcohol wine. The brisk sales of such wines suggest that to be the case, just as the huge popularity of “dry” wines with considerable RS are in step with America’s heavy consumption of sweetened food and syrupy drinks.

Sommeliers have not only their personal taste preferences but also a need for wines that create balance with food. Playing nicely with food may actually require a slightly unbalanced wine in some cases—heavy tannins to go with some meats or high-acidity to balance a creamy sauce. And high alcohol, even when balanced, can reduce a diner’s ability to taste nuances in food.

Our concept of balance changes over time as well. New or young wine drinkers often prefer slightly sweet wines, obvious oak influence and high alcohol. For many drinkers, myself included, those tasttes can change radically with age, palate training and the focus one puts into tasting a wine. A consumer may now detest the wine he loved 10 years ago.

So any two people may disagree about whether or not a given wine is balanced. Winemakers’ bottlings are tuned to their own palate and that of the management. (Unless the producer is following a recipe to match detailed research into consumer taste preferences. That approach works well for many mass market wines.)

This doesn’t even to get into the issue of whether or not it’s possible to balance high-levels of alcohol. (It is.) Or whether the port-like personality of some of high-alcohol wines—or green flavors in moderate alcohol wines—is “correct.” (It is to the people that like them.)

Taste broadly and with an open mind. Make the wine you want to make. Drink the wine you want to drink. Raise a glass to diversity and don't worry about what other people are making and drinking.


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 Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

J Vineyards & Winery Certified Sustainable by CSWA

J Vineyards & Winery has announced it has been certified sustainable in accordance with the California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance (CSWA) program. That program, established in 2010, features 227 “best practices” with third-party verification. There are now 51 wineries and/or vineyards certified sustainable by CSWA. Included among them are wineries of all sizes, from the small, Santa Cruz Mountains producer Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards to family-owned Honig Vineyards & Winery of Napa Valley to mega-big E & J Gallo.

TearJ has been working toward certification since the inception of the program. "This has been my vision for J since its founding 25 years ago." said Judy Jordan, J Founder and President. "The business practices we have implemented over the past three years are keys to a healthier future."

"For the past two years, we've been diligently working on aligning J with CSWA's commitment to wine quality," said John Erbe, J Vineyards & Winery Viticulturalist. "Our estate vineyards have been planted utilizing the latest techniques in water conservation, wildlife habitat corridors, and soil erosion reduction."

According to J, their sustainability measures include:

  • Using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and cover-crop programs throughout the winery's ten estate vineyards to protect riparian habitats. IPM methods are also used to build soil tilth while attracting beneficial insects.
  • Replacing all inefficient incandescent lights throughout the winery with new, high-intensity, lower energy lighting.
  • Recycling all paper, corks, and glass used throughout the winery.
  • Reducing water used throughout the winegrowing and winemaking process.
  • The computerization of refrigeration compressors to reduce energy consumption, coupled with energy-efficient cooling towers.
  • Replacing existing water boilers with higher-efficiency heaters that work in stages.
  • Reducing the weight of sparkling and varietal wine bottles.
  • Low VOC paints throughout the winery.

Judy Jordan established J Vineyards and Winery in 1986 to make sparkling wine from Russian River Valley fruit. The first vintage, released in 1991, was the 1987 J Vintage Brut. In 1997 she purchased the winery facilities, south of Healdsburg, and 118 acres of vineyards from Piper Sonoma. J's winery and tasting room remain in that location. Prior to creating her wine business, Jordan had earned a geology degree from Stanford and worked briefly in that field. The daughter of Tom Jordan (founder of Jordan Vineyards in Alexander Valley), she had also grown up around and worked in the wine business. Today, J Vineyards and Winery holds 250 acres of vineyards and makes high-quality sparkling wines and still wines from grapes associated with Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris. {Pinot Gris used to be an accepted component of Champagne.]

The J Vineyards & Winery Visitor Center and Bubble Room is located at 11447 Old Redwood Highway, just south of Healdsburg.

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 Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photo courtesy of J Vineyards and Winery. All rights reserved.

And Then There’s This Blog

There are many different types of wine blogs. Some people write very personal blogs. They share not just their experiences, but their emotions. Others weigh in on industry controversies, or try to start them. Some offer witty commentary on news of the day while others spend weeks doing investigative research.

But there’s another approach. Put 12 off-shore ‘“SEO specialists” with no subject matter expertise whatsoever in a room with a keyword generator and a web-translator. Tell them to write “unique content” in hopes of getting Google results that drive ad views. Sadly, the page quoted below came up in a search I did. So, I guess the strategy works.

Here are some insights on white wine from a site that shall not be named:

”Grapes are personally selected through the obstruct – thus the name. Grapes were relocated through the vehicle into your crusher-stemmer with a long handled fork. Grapes were smashed, constrained and chilly settled prior to becoming racked into fairly neutral French Wine red walnut drums.”

I think the “red walnut drum” thing may start a trend. But will it be in winemaking or lounge music?


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 Copyright 2011NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Impressions from the 2012 Wine Road Barrel Tasting in Northern Sonoma

The 2012 Wine Road Barrel Tasting in Northern Sonoma took place on the first two weekends of March. More than 140 wineries participated, opening both their doors and their barrels to the public. One fee of $40 per person gave wine lovers a glass and a wristband for tasting access to all of the wineries for a given weekend. I tasted on March 10 and 11.

I visited these wineries:

  • Saturday - Freestone Vineyards, Red Car, Siduri
  • Sunday - Stonestreet, Soda Rock, Kendall-Jackson (downtown Healdsburg), Joseph Swan

About the Experience

I enjoyed the weekend thoroughly. On the whole, the wines — in barrel and in bottle — were good. The tasting rooms I visited were well-equipped for the volume of people I saw there. The staff were largely helpful and friendly. I felt welcome and unhurried. Altogether, I sampled 75 wines, 20 of them barrel samples. I’ll only detail the barrel samples within this article.

There has been talk about rowdy behavior and intoxication on the part of some attendees. I have no doubt that it occurred, but I saw none. Attendees at my stops were cheerful but sober and responsible. I know though that the crowds were much bigger at places like Stonestreet and downtown Healdsburg on Saturday than on Sunday when I was there.

The Red Car tasting room has a hip vibe and was the most festive of the tasting rooms I visited.

About the Barrel Samples

Freestone Vineyards poured two barrel samples. Both were components of what will be their 2011 Pinot Noir. They will age another 11 months in barrel before blending. The Pastorale Vineyard component is from 777 and Calera clones with 11% whole cluster. It’s nose was sweet and fetching: baking spice, red cherry and vanilla with a hint of earthiness. The palate is medium-bodied with fresh acidity. The Quarter Moon Vineyard barrel is based on clone 459 with a whopping 100% whole cluster. That leads to a fuschia color with tart raspberry and strawberry flavors complemented by brown spice. The acidity is generous but so are the drying tannins. It will be a useful partner with the fleshier Pastorale, but isn’t endearing on its own.

Red Car offered a “barrel sample” of rosé which was light and fresh with an almost orange hue. There was also a barrel of 2011 Red Car Dreamland Platt Vineyard Pinot Noir. It’s medium-minus in color with flavors of raspberry, sweet tart and some resin from partial whole cluster fermentation (usually about 10% at Red Car). There are additional aromas of vanilla and spice. The acidity is brisk. It’s a promising sample and one can see its developmental arc resulting in something quite similar to the delightful 2010 Dreamland Pinot Noir.

Red Car proprietor and winemaker Carroll Kemp also poured reserving wines, inlcuding his 2010 Dreamland and 2007 Heaven & Earth Pinot Noirs.

Siduri offered up a grand assortment of wines. With their broad selection and revealing representations of terroir, the tasting was like a stroll through a gallery of vineyards. Siduri showed just one wine in barrel to the public though, the 2011 Siduri Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir. Sexton is a new vineyard for Siduri. It is on Sexton Rd. off of Bodega Highway. The wine is focused with raspberry flavors and a hint of wood framed by very moderate, light-grained tannins and acidity approaching medium-plus. The finish is generous. Very nice.

After the light-footed Pinot Noir and silky Syrah which made up most of my Saturday tasting, Sunday morning at Stonestreet Winery gave my tongue some new sensations. The Bordeaux-varietals and blends from their estate vineyards on Alexander Mountain are excellent but built for lengthy cellaring.

The 2010 Stonestreet Legacy is a multi-vineyard blend consisting of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petite Verdot, 4% Malbec and 2% Cabernet Franc. Focused aromas of black currant and currant leaf announce the Cabernet Sauvignon while a background of dark chocolate and smoke make reference to the French oak barrels. The body is medium-plus with notable acidity and prominent, chalky tannins that coat the mouth but aren’t drying. Pure flavors of black currant, blackberry and currant leaf persist for nearly a minute. This is a very good wine and will be accessible upon release but will improve for at least a decade in the cellar. It will be released in September, 2013.

The 2010 Stonestreet Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon will be released in December, 2013. It’s the company’s flagship wine and 300 cases will be bottled. It is a single-vineyard wine coming from the highest of all the Stonestreet estate blocks at 2,400 feet. In the glass, the wine is dark ruby with deep aromas of black currant, currant leaf, black cherry, mocha and redwood. The wine is medium-plus in body with flavors that echo the bouquet until silenced by strongly drying, chalky tannins. This wine will want cellaring for several years after release, but will reward the wait.

From Stonestreet I headed down Hwy 128 a short distance to Soda Rock Winery, having never been there before. Re-opened in January 2011 by it’s new owners, Ken and Diane Wilson, it is still under-going restoration and renovation. However, it’s already an airy and attractive place with an old-timey feel. It appears to be geared for events and was a popular stop for carloads of attractive 20-somethings.

Soda Rock offered four barrels of it’s own wine and two from Pezzi King. [Pezzi King had just been purchased by Ken Wilson.I found the 2010 Soda Rock Primitivo the most attractive of the Soda Rock sips with purple berry and vanilla flavors carried by moderate tannins with very fine texture. The 2010 Pezzi King Harris Kratka Vineyard Zinfandel was also fun with bright blueberry and blackberry fruit.

After Soda Rock, I made a stop at the Jimtown Store for lunch. I had a good time looking through the mix of food items, knickknacks and antiques in the general store while waiting for my Flying Goat Coffee espresso and a reuben sandwich. Once fortified, I drove into Healdsburg and quickly found a parking spot on the square. A short walk took me to Kendall-Jackson.

Kendall-Jackson had one barrel to taste, the 2010 Highland Estates Hawkeye Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard, on Alexander Mountain, provides Cabernet Sauvignon purity reminiscent of the Stonestreet wines, proud flavors of black currant, black cherry, redwood, spice and cocoa. However, the Highland Estate tannins, while still chalky, are gentler and promise earlier accessibility. The wine is also more fruit driven, lacking the currant leaf aspect. It’s a very good wine that also has crowd-pleasing potential.

On the way home, I stopped in at Joseph Swan Vineyards (no relation). Their setup was the most fun. They had six barrels open, each providing samples via a shiny glass wine thief. Spitting and dumping was accommodated by large wood, sawdust-filled boxes on the floor. There was no place for me to sit my glass down, so I couldn’t take notes.

I do remember my favorite from among their wines though. It was the 2010 Joseph Swan Trenton Estate Syrah. It is dark and medium-plus in body, supple with deliciously earthy and leathery dark fruit flavors. Another standout was the 2010 Tannat Matthew’s Station Vineyard. Tannat is best-known as an inky, astringent and often rustic wine from southern France. I sipped the darkly-tinted barrel sample suspiciously. The flavors were also dark but they and the texture were polite, even urbane. “Hey, that’s pretty good,” I said to myself. If you’d like to aopdt a fully-housebroken Tannat, give this one a try.

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 Photos by Fred Swan. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

A Big Day for Petite Sirah

Yesterday, I attended the 10th Annual Petite Sirah Symposium. I came away with excellent technical information and historical perspectives, tasted several wines I can happily recommend and made some new friends. And I poured a magnum of history myself.

Petite Sirah has a long history in California. An Alameda County acreage report from 1885 identified it by name. Concannon Vineyard released the first varietally-labeled Petite Sirah in 1964 (from the 1961 vintage). Today there are nearly 850 producers of Petite Sirah varietal wines. Acreage has climbed to 8,354, the most since a dramatic, but short-lived, spike in the 1970’s. Growth in planting has been gradual, but steady and seemingly sustainable, for nearly 20 years now.

The attractions of Petite Sirah — deep color, mouth-filling dark fruit punctuated by exotic spice, firm yet approachable tannins — make it ideal for the way most Americans eat. The wine is happy to tuck into burgers and ribs, grab a burrito, call out for pizza or bring home Chinese. More and more, it’s showing up in restaurants featuring other ethnic cuisines: Thai, Moroccan, Persian, Ethiopian, Greek. Steak will be just fine too though.

For those people who like aged wine, Petite Sirah is a good candidate. Some of my favorite bottles of it have been Concannon wines with 10 years or so in the cellar. Just for fun, I brought a magnum of venerable wine to share at yesterday’s lunch.

I had purchased the 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah recently from K&L Wines. They had gotten it in the acquisition of a private cellar not too long ago. A good friend and fellow lover of old California in a bottle, Rich Meinecke, pointed it out to me online and I snapped it up right away. Thanks again, Rich!

A magnum of 1965 Concannon Vineyard Petite Sirah Livermore Valley.      
Photo: Melanie Gameng

Jim Concannon, Fred Swan & John Concannon at Concannon Vineyard, July 31, 2012.
Photo: Melanie Gameng

It was fun to be able to share the wine with so many people passionate about Petite Sirah. Jim Concannon remembered 1965 as a good vintage and showed the bottle to friends. Clark Smith came pretty close to identifying the vintage blind and called out a lemony flavor he often gets from aged Livermore Petite Sirah. It brought back memories for acclaimed winemaker Nils Venge who worked at Concannon for a time in the early 1960‘s.

This particular bottle’s was in its golden years but was an enjoyable companion for our barbecued ribs. We drank it happily and enjoyed it’s evolution in our glasses. Bottled at just 12% alcohol, this Petite Sirah still had plenty of elegant tannins, neatly balanced by acidity and rich, baked fruit. And there were attractive spice notes, a touch of earth and more — including Clark’s lemon which I'll make a point of looking for in the future.

After lunch, we headed into the barrel room to taste current releases of Petite Sirah from numerous wineries. Stay tuned for my report on that. It will highlight some truly delectable bottles.

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 Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.