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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.

Drink with Legends, Eat Like a President

President's Day is an odd holiday. Many Americans get the day off work, but there aren't any traditional celebrations or fireworks displays. It falls too soon after Thanksgiving and "The Holidays" for another big family reunion. Mid-February is too cold for barbecues or a day at the beach. There's no scrum at the Hallmark store with people trying to find the perfect card for their favorite... president. President's Day is officially Washington's Birthday, but Abe Lincoln's birthday is just over a week earlier, so George got merged. If it weren't for those desperate car dealership owners dressing up like Washington "to attract people," our founding father wouldn't get any love at all.

All of that being the case, you probably don't have big plans for February 21, 2011, President's Day. But I do. And you can join me as I hobnob with a Who's Who of wine and food. We'll drink great wine, taste foods that have been served at State Dinners and  dishes prepared by celebrity chefs. And we will honor the careers of five people who've had a huge impact not only on California wine, but the global wine business. Doesn't that sound a lot better than a night at home with a glass of whatever's still open in the fridge from Saturday night? Yes, I know that House and The Chicago Code are on. DVR.

The gala event takes place in St. Helena at the Greystone Campus of the Culinary Institute of America (aka CIA). If you've not been there before, it's worth the trip just to check out their facilities.

The occasion is the induction of five new members to the Vintners Hall of Fame. The new inductees are: Joel Peterson (Ravenswood), Dick Graff (Chalone), August Sebastiani (Sebastiani), Bob Trinchero (Sutter Home and Trinchero wineries) and Vernon Singleton (U.C. Davis). For more information about the inductees, see this article.

The featured guest of honor is former White House Chef and CIA graduate Walter Scheib.

Luminaries who have promised to attend include winemakers, vineyard owners, winery proprietors, writers, political leaders and scholars. Here's a partial list: John Aguirre, Gerald Asher, Andy Beckstoffer, Boots Brounstein, Darrell Corti, Randall Grahm, Violet Grigich, Hal Hufsmith, Agustin Huneeus, David Kent, Darioush Khaledi, Robin Lail, Dick Maher, Mike Martini, Carole Meredith, Margrit Mondavi, Gavin Newsome, Joel Peterson, Don Sebastiani, Don Sebastiani Jr., Vernon Singleton, Garen Staglin, Bob Steinhauer, Jack Stuart, Dorothy Tchelistcheff, Mike Thompson, Bob Trinchero, Andrew Waterhouse, Warren Winiarski, and Phil Woodward. There are no velvet ropes at this event. Say "hello," shake their hand, "buy" them a drink.

Festivities start at 4:00 p.m. PST. They include a celebratory reception, featuring wines served at White House dinners, the Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a celebrity chef walk-around dinner in the CIA at Greystone’s teaching kitchens.

Proceeds provide scholarships for the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the CIA at Greystone.

Tickets for the program are $175 ($100 tax-deductible) and may be purchased by visiting For more information on the 2011 Vintners Hall of Fame Induction celebration, please contact Cate Conniff-Dobrich, 707-967-2303 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

For more information on the Vintners Hall of Fame and to view the list of former inductees with their photos and biographies, please visit

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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. Some text from Balzac Communications, used with permission. All rights reserved

U.S. Wine Consumption Increases for 17th Consecutive Year

According to the 2011 Wine Handbook, U.S. wine consumption continues to increase. Total consumption in 2010 was 303.1 million 9-liter (112 bottle) cases, up 2.1% over 2009. Total wine spending was $26.9 billion dollars in 2010. Domestic wineries benefitted disproportionately with a 3% increase. While purchases of imported wine dropped 0.9%, purchases of Australian wines here dropped precipitously, 12.5%.

The publicly released analysis related to this particular publication, created by the Beverage Information Group, isn’t very insightful. They say that “As the US economy slowly recovers, the wine industry is regaining its momentum to mark the 17th consecutive year of case gains.  This positive direction is directly attributed to the improving economy and the resulting increase in consumer confidence.” But, if growth in wine sales has continued for 17 consecutive years, then that trend cannot be attributed to improvements in the economy relative to the crisis of 2008-2009. And if their reference was solely to the increase in momentum, rather than the overall increase, then there must have been more significant thoughts they could have shared. While a shift from near flat to 2% growth is massive on a year-on-year percentage increase basis, the actual dollar and unit growth was not hugely significant.

If you have interest in the full report, which does include detailed information about sales, consumer preferences, ad spending and regional breakdowns, the 2011 Wine Handbook is available for $815 from Beverage Information Group.

Disclaimer: Neither I nor NorCalWine are compensated in any way for sales of the 2011 Wine Handbook.

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 2011 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.

Free: Hospice du Rhone 2010 iPhone App Available

I'm really looking forward to Hospice du Rhone this year. it's coming up soon, April 29 - May 1, in Paso Robles. To help people like me, and you, get up to speed on everything that will go on there, the wineries involved, etc., the HdR organization has put out an iPhone app. This is the first event based iPhone app i've seen.

I downloaded it as soon as it hit the Apple App Store on Monday. There's a lot of cool stuff in there that could well be of use to you regardless of whether or not you go to the event. There's winery and varietal information, Rhone wine quizzes and more. And the price is right. Free!

Sonoma William posted an in-depth HdR 2010 iPhone app review at Simple Hedonisms if you want to learn more.