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North Coast Rhone Rangers Build Momentum with Second Tasting

The Rhone Rangers North Coast Chapter is fairly new as an active group. The tasting they held on Tuesday was just their second. Despite that, the event was thoughtfully organized, a pleasure to attend and included a number of excellent wines.

It’s a little surprising to me that there hasn’t been an active chapter of Rhone Rangers until recently. Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Mendocino County all have excellent sites for growing Rhone-variety grapes. Some of California’s best come from those areas. Of course mindshare for varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Grenache Blanc, not to mention Marsanne, is still much lower than that of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or even Sauvignon Blanc. Which makes it all the more important for this to group thrive.

Tuesday’s North Coast Rhone Rangers tasting was held at the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville. The museum was an excellent venue—clean, quiet, temperature-controlled, easy to get to and just the right size. The fresh white walls and attractive art also brought an elegance usually missing for group tastings. That said, I hope that the group outgrows the facility soon.

Fifteen wineries poured at this tasting, a respectable number and a manageable size for attendees. I’d love to see three times that many producers participate. There are more than enough quality producers to make that an achievable goal. However, the chapter only has 34 members at present and just six from Napa. Come on, Napa...

The majority of the producers at this tasting were small. Of the wines poured, about 45, only five had case volumes above 500. Quite a few are below 200.

The tasting also confirmed a trend toward leaner, less syrupy Rhone-variety wines in northern California. Of all the wines poured, only one exceeded 15% alcohol and that just barely at 15.1%. More than half of the wines offered come in below 14% alcohol.

Map: Rhone Rangers North Coast Chapter

 Wines to Covet

I own way too much wine. This is only a problem in that I try very hard not to acquire any more these days. And sometimes I taste wines that I really, really want to buy. Here are the three wines that most made me regret having put myself on double-secret wine-buying probation.

William Allen made just half a barrel of the 2012 Two Shepherds Marsanne Russian River Valley. That’s very sad because it’s an absolutely beautiful wine. The people, probably club members, who get some are going to be very happy and I hope they are able to share with friends (or wine writers). The wine is floral but in a subtle, pretty way. There are hibiscus, peach blossom, marzipan and mineral on the nose and palate. Medium-plus body with satiny texture and a lengthy finish make it elegant yet satisfying in the mouth. $35, Highly Recommended+

My "rosé of the day award" goes to the 2012 Cornerstone Corallina Syrah Rosé Napa Valley, Stepping Stone. It’s flat out delicious. The generous aromas and flavors include guava, peach, strawberry and melon. It has medium-plus body and a silky glycerine feel in the mouth that literally made me come back for more. $20, Highly Recommended.

The red wine which most tempted me to feign temporary amnesia while whipping out a credit card was the 2007 Ridge Petite Sirah Dynamite Hill, Spring Mountain. Though a 2007, this is a current release for Ridge because... Petite Sirah. And, though a Spring Mountain Petite Sirah, it has ample acidity and just 13.7% alcohol because... Ridge. It was dark ruby in my glass with powerful aromas of black cherry, spice, tobacco and cedar. Whole berry fermentation and a few years of bottle age have resulted in moderate tannins with a lightly chalky texture and a Petite Sirah that can be enjoyed with our without food. $32, Highly Recommended.

Wineries to Watch

Kale Wines is the personal project of winemaker Kale Anderson and his wife, Ranko. Kale’s main gig is director of winemaking at Pahlmeyer Winery. Previously he worked at Cliff Lede and Terra Valentine and he interned at Colgin Estate. Ranko poured two wines on Tuesday. The 2009 and 2010 (just released) Syrah Alder Springs Vineyard, Spirit Rock. Both were very nice with excellent intensity and cool-climate Syrah typicity. [BTW, Kale is a Hawaiian moniker (Ka-le). He wasn’t named for the leafy green, so lettuce not hear any jokes about that.]

Petrichor is a great word. It refers to that aroma created by the first rain after a long dry spell. I love that smell and I was fond of the Petrichor Vineyards wines as well. They are small production (173 cases in 2010, 250 in 2011) blends of Syrah and Grenache made by Duncan Meyers of Arnot Roberts winery. The fruit comes from the Jim and Margaret Foley's estate vineyard, north of Santa Rosa. I tasted three vintages on Tuesday, each was unique and all were very good—balanced and attractively savory.

Highly Recommended Wines (and Recommended+), alphabetically by producer

2011 Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Syrah, Stepping Stone, $35
Flavors and aromas of black cherry, leather, black pepper, dry herb, cocoa and earth. Engaging and complex with moderate fine-grained tannins and the ability to improve for 5+ years in bottle.

2012 Cornerstone Cellars Corallina Syrah Rosé Napa Valley, Stepping Stone - see Wines to Covet above.

2010 Donelan Syrah Kobler Family Vineyard, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, $45
Lean but satisfying with savory complexity: black pepper, dark flowers, dried herb and blackberry. Medium-plus body and tannins of fine powder and chalk but—refreshingly—just 12.8% alcohol.

2010 Donelan Syrah Walker Vine Hill, Russian River Valley, $45
Yin to the Donelan Kobler Family’s yang. Ripe cherry richness, brown spice and leather reined in by moderate tannins of fine powder.

2009 Kale Syrah Alder Springs Vineyard-Spirit Rock, Mendocino County, $40
Loads of black fruit, especially black cherry, on the nose along with a grind of black pepper. Black cherry, pepper and cocoa nib on the palate of medium-plus body. Concentrated and lengthy.

2010 Kale Syrah Alder Springs Vineyard Spirit Rock, Mendocino County, $45
Cooler than 2009, the 2010 vintage tends to emphasize savory over sweet. The 2010 Kale Syrah leads with earth, leather and black pepper but there’s a backdrop of black fruit and spice. Just released this month, the wine rates Recommended+ now but a little time in bottle should bring even more goodness.

2009 Meyer Family Cellars Syrah Yorkville Highlands, $28
Game meat, sweet herb, red plum, red rope and oak are the aromas and flavors in this full-bodied wine with moderate alcohol (13.70%). Good length.

2009 Meyer Family Cellars Syrah Reserve “High Ground,” $40
The deluxe edition of Meyer’s Syrah is both darker and more savory. Earth, leather, black pepper and ripe dark fruit are mated with moderate tannins of fine powder.

2009 Petrichor Estate Les Trois Sonoma, $48
Okay, “Les Trois” is mildly confusing as this is a blend of just two grapes, Syrah and Grenache. Perhaps it refers to the triad of flavor, acidity and texture, because this wine’s got that covered. Petrichor’s inaugural release is juicy and medium-plus in body with tangy dark fruit, dry herb and spice. The tannins are moderate with the mouthfeel of fine powder and talc.

2010 Petrichor Estate Les Trois Sonoma, $48
Earthy dark fruit, spice, licorice and dry herb. Medium-plus, light-grained tannins suggest this wine has room to grow. Give it a year or two.

2011 Petrichor Estate Les Trois Sonoma, $TBD
There was some hesitation in pouring this fine for me as it’s at least eight months from release. They need not have worried though. It’s quite good, full of earthiness, spice, garrigue and black pepper. Something to look forward to.

2007 Ridge Petite Sirah Dynamite Hill Spring Mountain, $32 — see Wines to Covet above

2009 Ridge Syrah Grenache Dry Creek Valley, $32
A 50-50 blend with flavors of cherry, plum, oak and spice. Moderate tannins of light grain and talc. Try it with some tender, meaty ribs. (Recommended+)

2011 Stark Grenache Blanc Santa Ynez AVA (Saarloos Vineyard)
Some people buy Stark wines because they’re fans of the (rapdily dwindling) clan on Game of Thrones, or of Ironman. That’s cute, but the wines can stand on their own. Gentle aromas of pear, lime and white flowers. Medium+ body and a little juicy. (Recommended+)

2012 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc Saarloos Vineyard, Santa Ynez, $35
Grenache Blanc essentially launched this brand and William Allen continues to set the bar for that variety. Focused notes of white flowers, tangy stonefruit and spice lead into a juicy palate with medium-plus body. There’s a light texture, fine and powdery, plus persistent saline minerality.

2012 Two Shepherds Marsanne Russian River Valley, $32 — see Wines to Covet above

2011 Two Shepherds Syrah Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $35
Syrah from the cool side: black pepper, dark cherries and garrigue. Body and tannins are medium to medium-plus with a fine, powdery texture.

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.


Cool Wine Stopper!

Did you ever find a partially-consumed bottle of wine in the fridge but not remember when you put it there? If so, this is your wine gadget. Mad designer George Lee of le mouton noir & co. has created it so that you can hide your forgetfulness with high-tech coolness. It features gnarly gnurled dials that let you tune in the date of stoppering.


My thinking is that if you can’t remember how long it’s been there, the wine is probably best put in a vinegar barrel rather than your glass. That said, this one great looking wine stopper. [via gizmodo]

Black sheep George Lee has designed some other tableware that exhibit elegance with a dollop of twisted practicality. My favorite is this tea cup that keeps the tea bag in place.



A bit more fanciful is this jigsaw puzzle salt and pepper set with “storage spaces.”



I also love his spinning postcards. If you like the one below, check out his website to see more.


If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Icons for popular sharing services are at the right above and also below.

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 outour 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 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved. Photos from, and presumably property of, le mouton noir & co.

Tasted—5 Rhone Variety Wines from Clos Solene

I was in Paso Robles last weekend for the Cabs of Distinction events (more on that soon). There I met up with Guillaume Fabre, production manager at L’Aventure winery where he’s worked since arriving from France in 2004. As of 2007 he’s also been producing Rhone-varietal wines under his own label, Clos Solene. I stopped by for a tasting of his current releases on my way out of town.

I first tasted Clos Solene at a Rhone Rangers Paso Robles Chapter event several years ago. Guillaume poured just one wine then, a Roussanne, but it was gorgeous and easily one of the best wines that day. Subsequently I’ve tasted with him twice, both times in the barrel room at L’Aventure where he makes his wine. Recently, Clos Solene took a big step forward, opening a downtown Paso Robles tasting room with three other producers.

Paso Underground features the wines of Aaron (excellent Petite Sirah), Clos Solene, Edmond August (Rhone varieties from Paso’s west side) and Turtle Rock Vineyards (not to be confused with Turtle Rock Ridge of Ramona Valley). The room has just opened, so tastings are by appointment. The address is 1140 Pine Street but its dedicated entrance is actually through a gate on the back side of the block next to the party patio at Villa Creek restaurant.

Clos Solene uses only hand-picked westside Paso fruit, principally from the Russell Family Vineyard right next to the L'Aventure Vineyard in the Templeton Gap, a funnel for cool Pacific breezes. Clos Solene white wines include Saxum, Booker and James Berry grapes. The de-stemmed berries undergo a cold soak for most of the wines, red and white. Barrel fermentation is also a common thread and Fabre gets hands-on with that, vigorously rolling barrels several times a day to mix fruit and juice.

My tasting notes follow this photo of Guillaume Fabre pulling samples from his barrels in 2011.

Photo: Fred Swan

2011 Clos Solene Essence de Roussanne, Paso Robles - $60
This winsome wine of 100% Roussanne from the Saxum and Booker Vineyards opens with pretty aromas of pear, stone fruit, white flowers and a squeeze of sweet citrus. The palate is nearly full-bodied but supple with flavors of nectarine, white flowers, sweet citrus and spice that glide effortlessly across the dance floor. The best Roussanne I've had in some time. 7 months in French oak, 20% new. 100 cases made. Drink now through 2015. Highly Recommended+

2012 Clos Solene La Rose, Paso Robles - $35
La Rose was made saignée-style from Russell Family Vineyard Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. The fermentation was cool and the wine saw no oak. A pretty, light coral pink color and scents of strawberry and raspberry lead to the lithe palate of medium body with light, talc-like tannins and red berry flavors. Good length. 50 cases made. Drink now through 2014. Recommended+

2011 Clos Solene La Petite Solene, Paso Robles - $55
The 2011 La Petite Solene and 2011 Harmonie, poured sequentially, stand in marked contrast. La Petite Solene is 70% Syrah, 30% Grenache and spent 15 months in once- and twice-used French oak. The ruby red wine has a gorgeous, ebullient nose of blackberry, black cherry and that thick raspberry syrup you find inside some chocolates. Fine-grained tannins and acidity, both just north of medium, preside over delectably ripe black cherry and spice on a palate of medium-plus body. Satisfyingly long. 50 cases made. Drink now through 2018. If you decant, do it immediately before consumption.Highly Recommended+

2011 Clos Solene Harmonie, Paso Robles - $80
Like La Petite, the 2011 Clos Solene Harmonie fruit comes from the Russell Family Vineyard. This time, however, the blend is 41% Grenache, 27% Syrah and 22% Mourvedre with 15% of the barrels new. The result is a much more masculine wine. The nose, earth and blackberry, shows confidence but not the big smile of La Petite. The palate is again medium-plus in body and has just slightly less acidity but tannins that are a step heavier and create a lightly chalky texture. The tall, dark and handsome flavors include black cherry, blackberry, and tangy dark spice and will open up further if you serve them a plate of duck. 100 cases made. Drink now through 2020. Very Highly Recommended

2011 Clos Solene Sweet Clementine, Paso Robles - $60/375ml
I suspect Sweet Clementine could be habit-forming. It's a sweet, fortified wine made in the style of Banyuls (at least 50% late-harvest Grenache Noir, no Muscat, fortifying alcohol added during maceration). In this case, the wine is almost all Grenache with just 3% Syrah. It was barrel-fermented and aged for 14 months in French oak barrels, 50% new. The nose and palate are full of lively, fresh red berries, cherry and brown spice. The considerable sweetness is checked by mouthwatering acidity and moderate, talc-like tannins. The wine is limber in the mouth, not at all syrupy or cloying. The classic pairing for this type of wine is a chocolate dessert and I can't argue with that. But it would be just as good with a savory-sweet dish like duck with cherry glaze or molé sauce. Or all by itself... 50 cases made. Drink now through 2016. Very Highly Recommended

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 adds off as personal recommendations or who getting samples of expensive hard goods in exchange for reviews. My lengthy disclosure here is meant to address those guidelines.

The review above reflects my personal experience with the product. It is not a paid ad, nor do I accept ads or compensation for reviews directly 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.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook 

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

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.