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NorCal Wine Blog

Howell Mountain Spring Tasting Wrap Up

Dwarves, an old wizard and a hobbit “thief” battled ogres, orcs and a dragon to recover the Arkenstone of Lonely Mountain. The multi-faceted gem glittered brilliantly and, in the The Desolation of Smaug, shone like a beacon.

I wouldn’t send any of my readers up against a dragon, but the 2011 Arkenstone Sauvignon Blanc I tasted at the Howell Mountain Spring Tasting on March 19 is worthy of a quest. Speaking of desolation, it’s sold out. Fortunately, there were plenty of other excellent wines at the tasting.

Most of them were Cabernet Sauvignon, of course, and many of those from the notably cool 2010 vintage. I found the vast majority of these Cabs to be lighter-bodied and show more grape-derived complexity than those of more typical years. Accordingly, winemakers seem to have dialed back the proportion of new oak, letting vineyards shine through. Not every wine at the tasting was successful, but all of those below are special and many truly exceptional.

There’s been some debate about whether the more elegant style of 2010 will allow for longer aging. That’s going to vary from wine to wine and I don’t think blanket statements on the topic makes sense. However, I can happily say that all of these wines are drinking very well now. So, age them if you like or drink them while you’re waiting for the firm tannins and oak of other vintages to tame.


Highlights of the Howell Mountain Spring Tasting

(All wines are Howell Mountain AVA and listed in alphabetical order)

2010 Arkenstone “Obsidian” Cabernet Sauvignon, $135
Nose of sweet herb, black currant and black cherry. Long palate with sweet black currant, coffee and dark spice. Medium+ body, tannins of very fine grain and light chalk. Reminiscent of St. Emilion. Very Highly Recommended

2011 Arkenstone Sauvignon Blanc, $60
Powerful nose with bell-like clarity. Flowers, passionfruit and white peach aromas. Intense, nearly full-bodied palate that’s juicy and very long. Flavors match the nose and add grapefruit. Very Highly Recommended

2005 Atlas Peak Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, $65
Rich, developing nose of braised black currant, drying leaves and spice. Nearly full-bodied and long with plenty of light-grained and fine powdery tannins. Highly Recommended+

2006 Black Sears Estate Red Wine, $80
The last wine made for Black Sears by Ted Lemon. Mocha, spice and tart black currant on the nose. Nearly full-bodied with tannins of fine powder and chalk. Long, intense palate that echoes the nose but emphasizes juicy fruit over the mocha. Very Highly Recommended

2010 Black Sears Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $95
Intense nose and palate with mocha, dry currant leaf, and black currant. Acidity shows through the substantial, chalky tannins. Long. Very Highly Recommended

2011 Black Sears Estate Zinfandel, $57 Red, black and blue berries with sweet herb on the nose. Medium+ body with moderate, fine powdery tannins and flavors that match the nose but add the estates signature black pepper. Highly Recommended

2010 CADE Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $80
Very spicy on the nose with an herbal accent. Nearly full-bodied with corresponding texture of fine grain and chalk. Slightly tart black currant and dark spice flavors. Highly Recommended

2010 Cakebread Cellars Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, $115
Bursting with coffee, tangy herb and zesty black currant on the nose and palate. Nearly full-bodied with a creamy, slightly sweet attack then fine, powdery tannins. Interesting and mouth-filling. Very Highly Recommended

2010 Cimarossa “Rive di Cimarossa” Cabernet Sauvignon, $65
An earthy nose with dry herb, moist soil and restrained black currant which show on the palate too. Medium+ body and tannins (fine powder and chalk). Medium+ length. Highly Recommended

2010 Cimarossa “Riva di Ponente” Cabernet Sauvignon, $85
Disciplined ripe black currant, blackberry, spice and licorice nose. Much more intense on the palate with the same notes. Medium+ body, tannins and length. Highly Recommended+

2008 Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon, $200/magnum
Nose of black and red cherry with cocoa. Medium+ body with slippery tannins of fine powder and flavors of mocha, cherries and spice. Highly Recommended+

2010 Cornerstone Cabernet Sauvignon, $80
Intense but disciplined black currant, oak and cocoa. Elegant, fine-grained tannins. Highly Recommended+

2010 Hindsight Bella Vetta Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, $60
Aromas of dusty mineral and brambly black fruit with underlying ripeness. Elegant, acidity-driven palate of sweet oak, spice and slightly syrupy tasting fruit. Highly Recommended

2010 Howell Mountain Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel, $45
Intense blue and black berry fruit, spice, dusty earth and dry herb aromatics. Creamy, medium+ palate with moderate, fine-powder tannins. Highly Recommended

2010 La Jota Cabernet Franc, $75
Pretty black cherry and vanilla scents lead to a nearly full-bodied palate with fine-grained tannins. Rich black cherry, red currant, milk chocolate and spice. Highly Recommended

2010 La Jota W.S. Keyes Merlot, $450/3-bottle gift box, Aromas of cocoa, red cherry and dry forest floor. All about texture (fine grain/powder) and balance on the medium-plus palate. Slightly creamy with mouth-coating flavors of tangy herb, red cherry and cocoa. Highly Recommended

2010 La Jota Cabernet Sauvignon, $75
Tangy black currant and sweet spice nose and palate. Nearly full-bodied and creamy with gentle, fine powdery tannins and lingering juiciness. Very Highly Recommended

2009 Notre Vin Cabernet Sauvignon, $150
A complex and lovely wine with lean currant fruit, spice and faintly herbal overtones. Medium+ body, acidity and tannins of fine grain. Very Highly Recommended

2010 O’Shaughnessy Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $80
Perfectly ripe yet dusty black currant and dry forest floor aromatics. Nearly full-bodied with tannins of fine powder and chalk. Sweet, zesty currant, spice and very attractive dry herb. Very Highly Recommended

2011 Outpost Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, $75
Intense aromas of tangy dark berries, sarsaparilla, dusty earth and sweet herb. Medium-plus body and tannins of fine grain and powder. Long, unique and compelling. Very Highly Recommended

2011 Outpost Estate Zinfandel, $57
Dusty chocolate, sweet dried black fruit and savory herb. Intense, sweet berry fruit and spice on the palate. Creamy attack gives way to fine-grained tannins leading into the long finish. Very Highly Recommended

2010 Piña Buckeye Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, not yet released
Tangy black fruit, dusty mineral and a hint of herb. Medium-plus body tannins (fine powder, chalk). Richly flavored and long with balancing acidity. Very Highly Recommended

2011 Roberts & Rogers Cabernet Sauvignon, $71.50
Interesting aromas of horehound candy, black cherry, spice and herb. Fine, chalky texture with medium+ body and flavors of tangy black cherry, spice and coffee. Rich and toothsome. Highly Recommended

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Of Tasting Notes and Photographs

274px-Sunbaker maxdupain nga76.54Tasting notes are often criticized. People complain about lack of context, too many flavor descriptors, confusing quantifiers (“medium-plus”) and over-the-top enthusiasm. Some consumers are turned off by tasting notes because wine, when they taste it, doesn’t always match what’s written.

There’s only so much a tasting note can do. There will always be missing details. And, because wine and our own perceptions change and are influenced by outside factors, descriptions that are wholly accurate when written will never again be as perfectly precise. Tasting notes are like photographs, portraying a subject at one brief moment in time and without a back story.

A picture can communicate a lot, a thousand words they say, but leaves just as much out. Black and white photos show form and texture, but reduce color to shades of gray. Color images may be more life-like, though bright hues in one area distract from subtle details in another. Depth of field focuses our attention by blurring the foreground or background.

Pictures rarely communicate much context. Only a trained eye can view a photo of a swimsuit model on a beach and know how much time was spent on hair and makeup or what complicated lighting arrangement was used. We don’t know what the temperature was at the beach, or the amount of humidity. Is her hair blowing because it’s windy or because someone trained an industrial fan on her? And then there’s Photoshop.

To me, photographs are actually more compelling because they don’t tell us everything. They make us ask questions and use our imagination or personal experience to fill in details. Some photos are impactful because their focus is so limited. They communicate just one thing, be it color, form or an emotion.

I think of tasting notes in the same way. Good notes are neither a compleat description nor some chemical analysis that might be more accurate than any conventional note but would tell us nothing about the experience of drinking that wine. They are a portrait of a wine at a particular point in time. You get the only the writer’s point of view and see only what they think is important.

The goal of a note is simple. Illustrate the wine just clearly enough for you to decide whether or not to try it yourself. You might be attracted to someone in a picture, but you can’t really know them until you’ve met.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. The 1937 photo "Sunbaker" by Max Dupain is in the public domain because it's Australian copyright has expired.

Rhone Rangers Tastings and Rhone-Variety Wines Tasted

Spring is my favorite season. The weather is lovely, neither too cool nor too warm. And baseball brings the crack of the bat, aromas of grass, leather and petrichor, along with World Series hopes for my beloved Oakland A’s.

MourvedreSpeaking of Petrichor, they and sixteen other wineries will be pouring fine Rhone variety wines this Sunday in Yountville from 2pm to 4pm](–10229367313). I wrote about last year’s tasting, which was excellent. With wineries such as Ridge Vineyards, Donelan Wines, Two Shepherds, Stark Wine, La Sirena, Cornerstone Cellars and—the list goes on—I’m sure Sunday will delightful too. For $20, the price of a single glass of wine at many restaurants, you can’t beat this Rhone Rangers North Coast Chapter Grand Tasting.

On February 8, there was another North Coast Chapter tasting at Campovida in Jack London Square. It was a fun event, set at the cool little tasting room in Oakland’s revitalizing waterfront warehouse district. The set of wineries was a little different than those that will be in Yountville, but there is a little overlap.

Some of my favorites from the Oakland tasting that you may also find this Sunday include the Highly Recommended:
2011 Stark Wine Viognier Damiano Vineyard Sierra Foothills
A very pretty Viognier, lightly floral with delicate stonefruit and a fine, powdery texture. It’s so good, I bought some bottles to use in my classes on the Sierra Foothills.

2012 Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley
Floral with saline minerality and a yummy hint of of banana cream.

2011 Miner Family La Dilgence Marsanne Stagecoach Vineyards, Napa Valley
Full-bodied and finely-grained on the palate with aromas and flavors of marzipan, under-ripe nectarine and vanilla

2011 Arrowood Viognier Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley
White flowers, barely ripe peach and delicate spice with a full-bodied and fine-grained palate.

2009, 2010 & 2011 Cornerstone Cellars (Stepping Stone) Syrah, Napa Valley
An engaging trio that conveys the beauty and complexity of Syrah while also showing that vintage does make a difference in Napa Valley.

craneway 3
The new Craneway Pavillion is modern, spacious and offers killer views of San Francisco.

Sunday’s Yountville tasting is not the lone Rhone event this Spring though. Range over to Richmond—there are complimentary BART shuttles AND private ferry service—for the 17th Annual Rhone Rangers SF Bay Area Celebration of American Rhones on April 6.

The day starts at 10am with two consecutive seminars, both led by Luke Sykora of Wine & Spirits. A very fine wine writer, Luke is also eloquent in person and quite knowledgeable on California Rhone wines. I look forward to sitting in on both “The Rise of the Rhone Garagiste” and “Grenache, the Most Widely Planted Rhone Wine Grape in the World.”

The Grand Tasting begins at 3pm for General Admission, 1pm if you purchase a Sunday PassUse passcode PW-GT for $5 off the general admission price or PW-SUNPASS for $10 off on the Sunday Pass.

There will be nearly 100 wineries pouring at the Grand Tasting. The list includes some of the pioneers of California Rhone variety wines, such as Qupé, Tablas Creek Vineyard, Zaca Mesa and Ridge Vineyards. All of California’s important Rhone variety growing regions are represented. So is Southern Oregon which is of emerging importance. I hope to see you there!

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

How Critics Taste Wines - Glassware

Stemware companies will tell you that the glass a wine is served in can make a big difference it smells and tastes. They’re right. The shape, thickness and micro texture of a glass determines how aromas hit your nose and the wine lands on your tongue. That being the case, stemware can color critics’ impressions of wines too.

This is the second article in my series about the wine tasting methods of prominent wine critics. The first article covered blind tasting. Today’s focus is stemware.

Most stemware designed for tasting high-quality wines is good. There can be significant differences between designs, but those discrepancies are much less significant than when comparing a serious wine glass to a thick-walled ornamental goblet, a mason jar, a plastic cup, or even the normal-looking but clunky glasses used in restaurants without serious wine programs—all of these are awful and no professional critic would use them for critical tasting.

Aside from avoiding the losers above, the most important thing for reviewers is consistency. It’s okay if the glass they use isn’t optimized for the specific variety being tasted. Problems only arise when the same variety of wine is tasted in different types of glasses within a flight or on a number of different tasting dates. Critics try to judge every wine on it’s own, but comparisons to benchmark wines for a variety and region are important. For example, Lisa Perotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate uses the same glass she did when was studying for her Master of Wine test. She has a mental library of many thousands of wines all tasted in the same glass, making those comparisons straightforward.

Within the realm of glass shapes and sizes, one is particularly common among critics: the Riedel Riesling Grand Cru/Zinfandel glass. It is the Swiss Army knife of stemware. In their book, Secrets of the Sommeliers , Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay wrote, “if they were restricted to only one glass from which to taste all wine for the rest of their lives—red and white—a majority [of sommeliers we polled] named the Riedel Riesling glass as their vessel of choice.”

Riedel Riesling Grand CruFor reviewers,, the compact design—just a 13oz total capacity—is convenient too. Large flights of wine take up less space on the table leaving plenty of room for a notebook or computer, and you can fit more of them in the dishwasher. With the relatively short stem and lightweight bowl, these glasses are also less likely to tip over or snap at the stem than big red wine glasses.

Among reviewers who use this glass, or a very similar design, for tasting virtually all wines are Ray Isle of Food and Wine, Lisa Perotti-Brown, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, Doug Wilder of Purely Domestic Wine Report and Joe Czerwinski of Wine Enthusiast. Echoing the sommeliers, Jon says it “does the best job of showing the widest range of wines.” It’s even better for sparkling wines than are traditional flutes which, Rajat Parr says, “should be abolished.”

Within that style though, there is variation. Lisa uses the Riedel Sommeliers Zinfandel/Riesling Grand Cru which is ultra-thin, mouth-blown crystal, stands 8 7/8" tall and has a 13 3/8oz bowl. They run $79 a stem. Ray is at the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes using the stemless and inexpensive Riedel O Riesling/Sauvignon Blanc tumblers . Stemless glasses do make swirling difficult though.

Jon uses the Riedel Vinum Riesling Grand Cru/Zinfandel glass which is half-an-inch shorter and has the slightly smaller bowl. They are mechanically blown, a bit more durable and retail for $59/pair. For home tasting, Jon sometimes uses the Cost Plus Connoisseur Zinfandel glass, which he says is virtually the same as those from Spiegelau (a good brand, now owned by Riedel.) These are a great deal at $36 for a set of six. Doug Wilder prefers >Eisch, whose Superior SensisPlus line of glasses are lead-free.

Joe Czerwinski uses the Riedel Vinum Gourmet glass . He says they have an even shorter stem to reduce breakage. That’s important at a place like Wine Enthusiast’s New York office where there are so many reviewers. Many hundreds of wines may be tasted each week. On that note, Joe adds that “they fit in the top rack of the dishwasher too.” (Riedel, by the way, says on their website that all of their glasses are dishwasher safe.) Wine & Spirits’ San Francisco office uses a glass that’s scaled down even further and has slightly thicker glass for yet more durability.

There are critics who take a different approach though. Among them are Dan Berger of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Virginie Boone of Wine Enthusiast, and I. We change glass styles to match the variety of wine being tasted.

We all use something similar to the Riedel Riesling glass for most white wines. Beyond that, Virginie says she uses “Bordeaux stems when appropriate; Burgundy when appropriate.” Dan Berger and I use an even wider range of glasses.

Dan and I use Burgundy bowls for both Pinot Noir and oaked Chardonnay. He uses Eisch red wine glasses for all other reds. He told me he finds Eisch more break-resistant than Riedel, which supports claims made on Eisch’s website. I use the Riedel Vinum Riesling or Riedel Restaurant Riesling for some reds, particularly Zinfandel, the Syrah glass for Rhone variety reds and the Cabernet Sauvignon glasses for Bordeaux variety reds.

The Riedel Restaurant series of glasses which Virginie and I have are glass rather than crystal. Virginie says, “I can put them in my dishwasher and yet they don’t retain the smell of dishwasher fluid or anything else.”

Why do I use so many different glasses? There are a few reasons.

  • I like to give wines their best opportunity to shine and I do think that the shapes make a difference for some varieties.
  • I have grown accustomed to using that variety of glasses over many years, so my mental references are consistent.
  • Wineries and trade tastings tend to use such glasses, so my home tasting experience and those I have in the field are consistent.
  • I like to try to mirror the tasting situation avid consumers might have. If they buy into Riedel’s marketing, that’s going to mean a lot of different glasses.
  • I’ve owned the glasses a long time and don’t have breakage issues.

However, the bottom line is that, for reviewing wines or honing your own palate, the most important thing is using the same, clean, good-quality stemware consistently.

  • If you only want to deal with one type of glass, that’s fine. Go with the Riedel Riesling style.
  • To save money, and perhaps improve durability, consider the Cost Plus Connoisseur version or, if you have access to them, Riedel Restaurant.
  • If you want a broader selection, you still only need three types: Riesling/Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux and Pinot Noir/Burgundy.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

More Thoughts on Blind vs. Non-Blind Tasting

Another Reason for Tasting Blind

Girl with a glass of wineThere’s one reason I didn’t mention in my recent article that magazines taste blind: advertising. Wine newsletters, and most blogs, do not accept ads from wineries. Magazines depend on them. This creates considerable opportunity for conflict of interest. The same is true outside the wine industry too, be it music, consumer electronics or automobiles. [Newspapers reviewers don’t always taste blind, but winery ads are an infinitesimal portion of their revenue.]

Magazine publishers talk about “the separation of church and state,” essentially a firewall between the ad and edit sides of most magazines. By and large, this works. There are always advertisers here and there who complain to their ad reps about a bad review, lack of coverage, etc. The sales guys simply say that they don’t have any ability to sway coverage and that ends it. Sometimes a company will pull their ads, but that’s rare.

The potential for influence is there though. The practice of selling a winery ads in the same section in which a positive review or article about that winery appears leads to consumer and industry suspicion. Without blind tasting there would be even more concern about high scores being more likely for big advertisers.

That said, it seems wine reviewers are often held to a different standard than critics in other product segments. Reviews of CDs and concerts aren’t blind. The reviewer always knows who they’re listening too, who the publisher is and the music is received as a free sample, not purchased in a store. Likewise, restaurant reviewers know where they are going, who the chef is and who owns the restaurant. The same is true of reviews for movies, cars, etc.

Surprise Winners in Blind Tastings

Wine and restaurant reviewer Michael Cervin mentioned in a comment on my last article that, in judging situations, he’s sometimes seen people be surprised by the wines to which they’ve given good scores. I’ve noticed this as well. There’s no question that, sometimes, the engineered yumminess of an inexpensive wine wins people over in blind taste tests. Quality in high-volume wines gets better every year.

I’ve also noticed a certain amount of self-selection from wineries when it comes to contests vs. print/online reviews. Wineries which would never submit their product to a newsletter, or even a magazine, will enter into big blind-judging competitions. I can easily think of four different reasons for this.

  • Some producers are concerned their wine won’t make the first cut with reviewers.
  • It’s more cost effective to pay a small fee and send a few bottles to one contest than it is to ship dozens of individual bottles all over the country.
  • Contest results are non-points based. A gold medal is a gold medal, and even bronze sounds better than 84.
  • Medals and ribbons look impressive hanging from bottles in a tasting room.

The Difficulty of Judging Typicity in Fully Blind Tastings

I think knowing the variety while tasting is important. Otherwise, blind tastings can occasionally result in inappropriate ratings due to lack of information. If the goal is just to find tasty beverages or the best among unconventional blends, that’s one thing. But, if the wine is varietally labeled, it should be varietally correct to merit a high score. Varietal labels set expectations for consumers. It’s a reviewer’s job to determine whether or not the wine meets those expectations.

This may seem like an edge case, but non-varietally correct wines appear more frequently than you might imagine. Just the other day I was at a group tasting, blind, of Chardonnay from very reputable producers. One of the wines was enjoyable but did not smell at all like Chardonnay. It smelled and tasted of apricot and botrytis. There was a little residual sugar and fairly high acidity. Had we not known what it was supposed to be, we would have all thought it to be a good-quality Riesling.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.