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NorCal Wine Blog

Discovering Mendocino

I’ve just spent three excellent days in Mendocino County with a small group of wine professionals. The “Discover Mendocino 2013” program combined extensive tastings with vineyard and farm visits. It also included substantial time with winemakers, growers and proprietors.

I’ll be making more trips up there in the coming months to follow up on the most interesting stories, gather more info, shoot more photos and do some one-on-one videos. In the meantime, here are quick takes on some of the things that I found most exciting:

The Wines
balo-tastingAnderson Valley and Mendocino Ridge continue to offer Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of excellent quality. That’s particularly true for those wines that embrace cool climate and high altitude vineyards rather than striving for power. The best of these wines are utterly unique, energetic and delicious.

Those regions can also be quite good for Syrah. I found a few that were stunning. One of them in particular made me want to strap the glass to my face so I could bask in its aromas while I went about my day. Seriously.

You also know Anderson Valley is a really good source for sparkling wine. Roederer Estate makes some of this country’s best and most sophisticated bubbly while Scharffenberger offers effervescent values. Napa Valley’s Schramsberg uses some Anderson Valley fruit. Handley, just north of Philo, started as a sparkling wine producer and still offers delicious examples. But there’s a new kid on the block with delicious fizz at a great price. Stay tuned for that.

On the other side of the hills, in Redwood Valley and the greater Mendocino AVA, the Coro program is making progress, generating tasty mixed black blends. It’s the only program of it’s kind in the United States. Coro Mendocino wines must include 40-70% Zinfandel with the balance coming from varieties such as Petite Sirah, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Barbera, etc. Each year’s wines are tasted blind by all the producers together several times during vinification in order to help raise overall quality. Only wines that pass a final, group taste test are allowed to be released with Coro labeling.

The proposed Eagle Peak Mendocino County AVA championed by Masut Winery is in the comment phase. Speaking of Masut, I’ve never seen a magnum of Pinot Noir disappear as quickly as the one Ben Fetzer uncorked Tuesday night.

The People
van-with-barrelsI’ve met nice, hard-working and talented people throughout the wine industry. There’s no shortage of them in Mendocino County either. What’s unusual about the wine community there though is the extent to which it really is a community. The amount of mutual respect, friendship, collaboration and generosity between various wineries is heart-warming. [Pictured at right is Van Williamson, winemaker for Witching Stick wines.]

Part of this is driven by the fact that simply living in the somewhat remote Mendocino is a project. The absence of major stores—outside of Ukiah—fosters an old-style economy of bartering goods and services, borrowing cups of sugar and chainsaws. The county’s underdog status with respect to wine brings its proponents together too. Then there’s the fact that many people move to Mendocino not just to get back to the land but to live someplace where people work together for everyone’s benefit rather than living in what feels like a metropolis of strangers all trying to avoid eye contact.

The Greenest County in America
There are probably few people more frustrated in this country than the Monsanto salesman responsible for Mendocino County. Organic farming is the norm, not the exception. Manufactured pesticides, fertilizers and GMO seeds are not welcome. The first organic winery in the country was in Mendocino County and there are more organically farmed vineyard acres there than in any other. Biodynamic growing is big too, as are keen attention to responsible water usage, carbon-neutral power generation, etc.

Getting Better and Better for Visitors
Reaching Mendocino wine country takes a little time. Hopland is about 30 minutes from Healdsburg which is quite a hike from San Francisco itself. Anderson Valley is an even longer drive via a winding road. When you visit, and you should, you’ll want to stay overnight. That’s a much more attractive proposition than it used to be. Hamlets like Boonville and Hopland aren’t even close to losing their small—okay, tiny—town charm. But there’s a better selection of quality restaurants and places to stay than you’d have found just a year or two ago. More are on the way.

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. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

Review: New California Wine by Jon Bonné

You can enjoy wine in an informational vacuum. Soak in its aromas. Delight in the texture and flavors. But you can’t fully understand a wine without context.

Jon Bonne 1200With his soon-to-be-published book, Jon Bonné fashions a rich tapestry of context for California wine. He weaves history, science and his own extensive visits with producers into essays that are tremendously informative yet energetic and absorbing. It all begins with a brilliantly selected epigraph which speaks directly to the type of California winemaker Bonné is featuring.

I mention the epigraph not so much because its words are particularly revealing, but because of who said it and when. Wine production, here and elsewhere, is in a constant state of evolution. Even if you keep winemaking techniques the same from year to year the wines will change. Vines get older, sometimes sicker and eventually need to be replaced with young ones. We talk about climate change with urgency now because our awareness is high, but California’s growing season had grown already longer and warmer by the 1980’s than it had been in the 1950’s, allowing later harvests and riper fruit.

Of course winemaking techniques have not stayed the same either. They altered due to scientific advancements, influences from overseas producers, better understanding of our own lands, the growing strength of university-based wine programs, changing tastes, economic circumstances and dozens of other factors. Yet, somehow, old is new again and there’s a strong shift away from manufactured wine and also from wines that sacrifice nuance for palate impact. Bonné suggests today’s most interesting and site-expressive California wines are being made by small, passionate (obsessive?) producers who are creating new sites, resurrecting old ones and practicing transparent, vineyard-centric winemaking that eschews chemicals, transformative techniques and aggressive oak—people like those Arpad Haraszthy described in 1891.

New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste does more than chronicle the evolution to revolution though. And, unlike many books, it doesn’t focus solely on elite wineries nor dwell on personalities, family squabbles, a small handful of controversial topics or wineries with photogenic facades. It paints a complete picture—up and down the state, from true coast to the Central Valley’s heart—of the scope of California wine, why it came to be that way and how a swelling wave of neo-traditionalists are taking it to heights that many, including Bonné himself, may have once thought impossible.

The book and its author have a clear point of view, but the writing isn’t polemical. On the contrary, the case is built quietly but progressively through the words and endeavors of the producers themselves. For that matter, the object of the book isn’t so much to convince as to inform.

This winemaking movement is happening and growing, whether he or I or you like it or not. Reading the book will give you a clear understanding of who these winemakers are, what they are—and are not—doing, why they make these choices and how it affects the character of the wine. You’ll come away with hundreds of examples of wines to try so that you can taste the difference for yourself. Then you can be the judge.

I’ve been focused on California wine for quite some time now, have read and tasted widely, and spent a good deal of time at wineries and with winemakers. Yet there are many pages in New California Wine which taught me something new in every single paragraph. I’m pleased that, by design, the book reads well from front to back but is organized such that it can be also easily used for topical reference afterward.

There are three main sections to the book. Searching for the New California sets the stage. It takes us through the history, examines issues related to viticulture, dispels some stereotypes and introduces us to many of the new winemakers. The New Terroir: A California Road Trip dives into the most significant growing regions, from Napa to Santa Barbara, Sonoma Coast to Lodi. We learn what’s unique about each area, who the main players are, what challenges they face and the styles of wine made. For each region there's a short sidebar, Three Bottle Tour, suggesting three wines that can serve as Cliff's Notes to the region for your palate. Wines of the New California highlights exemplary producers by varietal. Each of these sections consist of flowing narrative that builds on the previous sections. This is not a typical compendium. At the end of the book is a small collection of useful maps showing the wine regions and producer locations.

Jon Bonné is a transplant to California. Originally from the East Coast, he came here in 2006, by way of Seattle, full of perspectives based on a rich knowledge of wine from around the world and with a suitcase of concerns about those from California. But, in a short time, he’s thoroughly grasped the state, this new movement and become one of its most influential chroniclers. I can’t think of a better way to close out this year’s California Wine Month than to pre-order New California Wine which will be released on November 5.

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.

12 Things You Should Know about Sake

What is sake?
Sake isn’t wine. It’s not beer or a spirit either. Sake is alcohol made from fermented rice.

Alcohol levels in sake aren’t as high as you might think.
Sake is commonly served in small cups that may remind you of shot glasses, but it isn’t nearly so potent as a shot of whiskey. Sake is usually between 15% and 21% alcohol. That’s similar to robust table wine on the low end and fortified wine at the high end.

morimoto daiginjo
The presentation for Morimoto's delicious Daiginjo at Morimoto restaurant in Napa. Photo: Fred Swan

The biggest differences between wine and sake in your mouth are that sake has much lower acidity and no tannins.
These differences are significant when it comes to food pairing. Because there are no tannins, sake can work with most any seafood. Sake is good with heavier proteins too, but you’ll never need a ribeye to give it a smooth mouthfeel.

We’re accustomed to matching food and wine based on acidity levels. Since acidity in sake is relatively low, you’ll want to avoid pairing it with high acid foods like tomato sauces and dishes with a lot of citrus or with very creamy or chalky cheeses like Brie or soft goat cheese.

The three most important things to consider when pairing sake with food are palate weight, flavor profile and flavor intensity.
Because sake is higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than most wines, sake tends to have a smooth and relatively heavy mouthfeel. In my experience sake body ranges from medium+ to full. For a harmonious pairing, select sake that is similar in weight to your food. The higher the sake’s alcohol and sugar content, the more body it's likely to have.

Like wine, sake can be simple, with just one or two obvious aromas and flavors, or very complex with five to ten things going on. Even in a complex sake though, there’s often one category of flavors that dominates: tree fruit (apples, pears), light fruity aspects (lemon/lime pith, melon, cucumber), floral notes, umami (savory flavors like meat, mushroom and salt) or, in some aged or unpasteurized sake, oxidative flavors like toasted nuts and dry cheese.

Most sake flavors are derived from the rice, the strain of yeast and the mineral content of the water used. Some sake is strongly flavored with fruit extract though. Flavors include various berries, yuzu, plum and lychee. This type of sake tends to be sweet and is best enjoyed after-dinner.

Like wine, sake ranges from dry to sweet. Consider the level of sweetness when pairing sake with food.
There are three main ways to make sake that has residual sugar.

  • Stop fermentation before the yeasts have consumed all of the sugar.
  • Use yeast that dies naturally at an alcohol lower than can be produced by the amount of sugars available.
  • Add fruit extract for sweetness and flavoring.

Sake flavor profiles are unique and quite different from wine.
To me, the primary aromas and flavors of sake are gentler than those of a wine. Instead of lemon or lime zest, I smell citrus pith. Instead of biting into a crisp green apple, I smell a bowl of uncut green apples. I get peach blossom rather than peach. An exception is licorice which can be nearly as assertive in sake as in wine.

One aroma/flavor I frequently find in sake is petrichor. To me it’s almost an entire category of aromas like minerality is for wine. Petrichor is the scent of rain falling on dry earth. I love that smell and it differs depending on the season, what kind of surface the rain is falling on and what plants and flowers are nearby.

Today I tasted more than 50 different sakes. Within them I found a whole spectrum of petrichor. There was warm summer rain on a dirt path, light rain on a sidewalk and on a street. One smelled like mud from a heavy rain, another was rain in a flower garden. Very nice.

Sake is made from special rice.
The rice we eat is usually long and cylindrical. Sake rice is short and pudgy. More importantly, the bulk of its starch is concentrated in the center. Sugars derived from that starch fuel the fermentation process. Sake brewers can create different flavors and textures of sake by using most of each grain or by grinding them down until just that starchy core is left.

There are different grades of sake, based upon how much the rice was ground (aka polished).

  • Futsu-shu doesn’t require any milling at all. The whole grain—not including the husk—can be used.
  • Honjozo uses rice that has been polished until only 61-70% or less remains.
  • Ginjo means that just 51-60% of the grain was used.
  • Daiginjo is made with rice that was ground down until 50% or less of the original grain remained.

The more the rice is polished, the more expensive the sake. This is partly due to the extra processing but mostly because so much rice is discarded. It takes roughly twice as much rice to make daiginjo as futsu-shu.

dassei sake
Dassai Sake offers ultra-premium daiginjo made from rice polished to 39% and 23%. Photo: Fred Swan

Many sake are fortified with a very small amount of distilled alcohol.
Adding alcohol adds to the body of the sake. It can also help extract more and different flavors from the rice. It’s a totally legitimate and respected practice. Junmai designates a sake to which no distilled alcohol was added.

With very few exceptions, vintage is not a key factor in a sake’s flavor.
Weather can have an impact on rice growing, but it doesn’t have the big carryover effect on flavors that it does with wine. Occasionally, a producer will sell specially aged sake from a particular year. For the most part though, sake producers aim to have consistency from one batch to the next.

Sake is ready-to-drink when you buy it.
Even though vintage isn’t critical, sake bottles list the production date. That’s to help you know when you should drink it. Most sake should be consumed within one year of purchase.

If you open a bottle but don’t finish it, cap it and put it in the fridge. It will be good for up to three weeks.

Sake doesn’t have to come from Japan.
Sake is a very traditional Japanese beverage, but the word just means “alcohol.” It’s not a protected place name like Champagne or Port. There are some sake breweries in the United States. One, Takara Sake, is located in Berkeley. It has a tasting room plus a little museum. I highly recommend visiting them.

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.

Tasting Report: 14th Annual Mt. Veeder Appellation Tasting

Despite intense morning rains, the turnout for Saturday’s Mt. Veeder AVA tasting at Hess Collection Winery was excellent. The outdoor event was saved by good preparation and hard work—organizers stretched a multitude of tarps over the arbor—and by good timing. Torrential downpour became random sprinkles as soon as corks were pulled.

And there was plenty of corks to pull. 28 wineries participated, most pouring multiple wines. Cabernet Sauvignon and related blends were the most common offering, but Syrah, Chardonnay and several other varieties—even Pinot Noir—were represented.

Overall quality was very high with most wines falling into my Highly Recommended range. As was the case last year, reds showed considerable diversity due to the Mt. Veeder AVA’s complex nature. A multiplicity of soils, facings and slopes means no two growing areas are alike. The rugged topography makes large, contiguous vineyards nearly impossible too.

Climate unites Mt. Veeder’s scattered growing areas. High altitude and relative proximity to the ocean results in one of the highest rainfall AVAs in Napa Valley. Similarly, the warm days are moderated by regular daytime breezes and cold nighttime air.

Three common threads appear in the red wines: medium+ body, elegant ripeness with cool-climate accents and, most obviously, structure of fine-grained or fine powdery tannins. This is consistent across varieties. While that makes abbreviated tasting notes seem repetitive, the typicity is welcome and reflects refreshingly light-handed winemaking.

Mt. Veeder is also yielding very attractive white wines. The fruit is always ripe and the wines never mean, but most are perky and supple. Chardonnay works well, as does Hess’ Albariño. An experimental, under-the-table Marsanne/Roussanne from a producer that shall not be named was very appealing. I’d like to see more of that in the future, and perhaps Grenache Blanc.

I asked Yannick Rousseau whether the day’s rain would have any adverse effects on Mt. Veeder’s 2013 vintage. He didn’t think so. White wine grapes have been harvested already and most reds need a couple more weeks on the vine, enough time to dry out. If there’s a risk, it would be for ripe Zinfandel.

2010 OShaughnessy Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. VeederWines of the Mt. Veeder Appellation Tasting

The wineries at the tasting were presented in reverse alphabetical order this year to give the back-of-the-alphabet folks a break. I’ve done the same here. Due to flow of the crowd, I tasted from both ends toward the middle. Regrettably, that meant I missed out on Mayacamas and Meadowcroft.

Y. Rousseau 2010 Chardonnay Milady Mount Veeder, $36
A great way to start the day: lemon, green and yellow apples, baking spice and a spray of white flowers. Lovely balance of fruit and acidity. Highly Recommended.

Y. Rousseau 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Le Roi Soleil Mount Veeder, $65
Medium+ body and tannins (fine-grained) with attractive flavors of black currant, blackberry, cocoa, spice and dark flowers. Lengthy. Highly Recommended.

2012 Yates Family Viognier Mount Veeder, $38
Rich with sweet honeysuckle and nectarine. Very long finish. Recommended+

2009 Yates Family Alden Perry Reserve Red Blend Mount Veeder, $65
Dusty black currant, spice, chocolate, oak and vanilla. Fine-grained tannins. Recommended+

2010 Vinoce Cabernet Franc Mount Veeder, $60
Oak, dusty and spicy fruit, tobacco leaf. Moderate fine-grained tannins. Recommended.

2010 Vinoce Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $75
Dry herb, dark fruit and spices, oak. Medium+ body and tannins (fine talc). Recommended.

2006 Veedercrest Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $125
Veedercrest ages their Cab for 48 months in French oak and two years in bottle before release. Very chocolatey with cedar, red cherry, oak and coconut. Medium+ length. Highly Recommended.

2009 Trinchero Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Cloud’s Nest Vineyard Mount Veeder, $70
Ripe dark berries, cocoa, spice and oak flavors with medium+ body and tannins (light powder). Long finish. Highly Recommended.

2011 Spotted Owl Chardonnay Mount Veeder, $45
Lightly-textured with medium to medium+ body and flavors of poached pear and spice. Recommended.  

2011 Spotted Owl Pinot Noir Mount Veeder, $50
Pinot Noir wouldn’t be in my top ten expected red wines from Mt. Veeder, but I’d be happy to drink this nonetheless. Earth, brown spice, red cherry and toast flavors with body and fine tannins just north of medium. Medium+ finish. Highly Recommended.

2008 Spotted Owl Syrah Alexandra’s Cuvée Mount Veeder, $45
A nicely balanced Syrah of medium+ body with minty black fruit. Highly Recommended.

2009 Spotted Owl Cabernet/Syrah Mountain Cuvée Mount Veeder, $45
Black currant and cocoa flavors with medium+ body and fine-grained tannins. Very good length. Highly Recommended.

2009 Spotted Owl Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $85
A savory, earthy Cabernet with black currant and cherry, spice and dry herb. Medium+ body with loads of fine-grained tannins. Well-balanced, flavorful and very long. Very Highly Recommended.

2010 Rubissow Merlot Mount Veeder, $38
Medium+ body and tannins of light powder. Flavors include minty, dark red cherry, herb and vanilla. Recommended+.

2010 Rubissow Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $60
Full-bodied with plenty of fine, powdery tannins. Nicely ripe black currant, dry herb and cocoa. Highly Recommended+.

2007 Rubissow Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $125
Built for cellaring and a little tight on the nose now, the flavors are a good balance of oak, black fruit and dark flowers. Medium+ body and tannins, long finish. Very Highly Recommended.

2005 Robert Craig Cabernet Sauvignon, inquire at the winery
Cedar, red currant and currant leaf. Nearly full-bodied with matching tannins of fine grain and chalk. Long. Highly Recommended+.

2010 Robert Craig Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $70
Almost full-bodied with plenty of fine-grained, drying tannins. Ripe blackberry, black cherry, vanilla, sweet spice and caramel. Medium+ length that will gain generosity as the tannins resolve. Highly Recommended+.

2005 Renteria Cabernet Sauvignon Tambor Vineyard Mount Veeder, $120 (1.5 liter)
Highly aromatic with notes of cedar, black currant and forest spice. Medium+ body and fine, mouth-coating tannins. Long and well-balanced through. Very Highly Recommended.

2007 Renteria Cabernet Sauvignon Tambor Vineyard Mount Veeder, $50
Outgoing, ripe red and black cherries, spice and vanilla. Nearly full-bodied with medium+ fine, mouth-coating tannins and notable acidity. Very highly Recommended.

2008 Renteria Cabernet Sauvignon Tambor Vineyard Mount Veeder, $50
Black cherry, sweet oak and spice in a nearly full-bodied wine with medium+ tannins (fine, mouth-coating) balanced by acidity. Highly Recommended.

2007 Random Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon (25% Cab Franc) Mount Veeder, $50
Medium+ body, loaded with a mix of fine, light and chalky tannins. Cedar, red and black currants and blueberries. Medium+ length. Cellar or grill a rib eye. Recommended+.

2009 Random Ridge Forunata Sangiovese (and a splash of Cab) Mount Veeder, $35
Minty dark fruit, tangy red cherry, dried rosemary and spice. Medium+ body and tannins (drying, fine grain and powder). Medium length. Decant or cellar. Highly Recommended.

2007 Progeny Cabernet Sauvignon Special Selection Reserve Mount Veeder, $150
A powerful, nearly full-bodied wine with a wealth of fine and light-grained, drying tannins. Oak dominates the black fruit and spice now but will fall into balance with the cellar time this wine deserves. Long finish. Very Highly Recommended.

2009 Paratus Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $70
Plush black currant, oak, spice and resinous herb. Just about full-bodied with corresponding tannins (fine-grained and drying). For the cellar. Highly Recommended.

2010 O’Shaughnessy Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $100
Full of delicious ripe and tart black currant, spice, sweet herb, oak and chocolate. Medium+ body and surprisingly fresh with scads of fine, drying tannins. Quite long. Very Highly Recommended+.

2009 Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Elevation 1,550 Mount Veeder, $80
Earthy spice, forest floor, dry herb, black cherry and cocoa. Medium+ body and drying tannins of fine-grain and talc. Highly Recommended.

2009 Mount Veeder Winery Reserve Red Wine (96% Cabernet) Mount Veeder, $80
Medium+ body and fine-powdery tannins. Flavors of earthy spice and very ripe black currant. Recommended+

2010 Mt. Brave Malbec Mount Veeder, $75
Malbec built in a Cabernet style with bold flavors of earth, spice and caramel surrounding a core of lively purple fruit and blue berries. Nearly full-bodied with fine-grained and talc-like tannins. Strikes a balance of friendliness and structure. Highly Recommended.

2010 Mt. Brave Merlot Mount Veeder, $75
Luscious earthy spice, licorice and dark fruit. Medium+ body and tannins with very good length. (The wine was decanted for four hours.) Very Highly Recommended.

2010 Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $75
A powerful yet balanced wine with dark, earthy spice, plum and black currant. Nearly full-bodied with fine-grained tannins. (The wine was decanted for four hours.) Very Highly Recommended.

2009 Mithra Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $230
Full-bodied, rich and delicious with spicy dark fruit and fine-grained tannins. Very Highly Recommended.

Meadowcroft - Not tasted

Mayacamas Vineyards - Not tasted

2006 Marketta Chardonnay Mount Veeder, $36
A delightful Chardonnay with medium+ body, light-grained texture and flavors of smokey mineral, pear, toast and lemon oil. Highly Recommended.

2006 Marketta Red Blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec) Mount Veeder, $85
How did a Bordeaux get into a Mt. Veeder tasting? Spice and black currant with feral overtones and fine-grained tannins. Medium+ body. Very Highly Recommended.

2012 Marketta Chardonnay Mount Veeder, $36
To be bottled in two months: Spicy baked apple, dried lemongrass and just-ripe pear. Full-bodied. Highly Recommended.

2009 Lampyridae Communication Block Red Wine Mount Veeder, $50
A Syrah/Cabernet blend showing chocolate, black currant, blackberry and oak with medium+ body. Recommended.

2010 Lampyridae Communication Block Red Wine Mount Veeder, $50
Aaron Pott took on the winemaking in 2010 and this cuvée is also 100% Syrah. A gorgeous wine with earthy spice, white pepper and leathery dark fruit. Medium+ body with moderate, fine-grained and talc-like tannins. Very Highly Recommended.

2010 Lampyridae Communication Block Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $100
Dark spice, earth and black currant. Medium+ body and tannins (fine-grained) and length. Highly Recommended.

2010 Lagier Meredith Syrah Mount Veeder, $48
Disciplined but flavorful with plum, dark berries, dusty earth and white pepper. Medium+ body and drying tannins of fine-grain and talc. Medium+ length. Will be even better with decanting or age. Highly Recommended+.

2011 Lagier Meredith Tribidrag Mount Veeder, $4
Zinfandel by any other name would taste as sweet. And Tribidrag is, in fact, another name for Zinfandel. Black pepper, dark berries and a hint of peach on the nose. Medium+ body, moderate talc-like tannins and a lengthy finish. Highly Recommended+.

2012 Lagier Meredith Rosé Mount Veeder, $20
Crisp peach, pear and fresh berries. Recommended+.

2012 Hess Pinot Gris Small Block Series Mount Veeder, $28
Nearly full-bodied with apple, pear, baking spice and nectarine. Long, tasty finish. Recommended+

2012 Hess Albariño Small Block Series Mount Veeder, $28
Grapefruit, nectarine, spice and white flowers. Mouthwatering. Highly Recommended.

2009 Hess Collection 19 Block Cuvée Mount Veeder, $40
A complex blend of Bordeaux varieties delivering spice dark berries and black currant, chocolate and oak with medium+ tannins (fine grain and talc). Recommended+

2010 Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $55
Leafy black currants and spice. Medium+ body, fine-grained and chalky tannins. Recommended.

2010 Godspeed Vineyards Chardonnay Mount Veeder, $30
Straight-forward but pleasant with ripe yellow apple and baking spice.

2006 Godspeed Vineyards Trinity (Malbec, Cabernet & Syrah) Mount Veeder, $45
Resinous dark fruit and spice.

2008 Godspeed Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $50
Black fruit and cocoa with drying, fine-grained tannins. Recommended

2009 Foyt Family Wines No. 77 Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $85

2011 Fontanella Chardonnay Mount Veeder, $34
Green pears and spice, medium acidity. Recommended+

2010 Fontanella Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $54
Black fruit, dark spice and oak. Well-structured with fine-grained and chalky tannins. Lengthy. Recommended+.

2009 Fields Family Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Konrad’s Vineyard Mount Veeder, $59
Full-bodied with light-grained and chalky tannins. Spicy, wild blackberry flavors and surprising acidity. Highly Recommended.

2010 Fields Family Cabernet Sauvignon Dr. Konrad’s Vineyard, barrel sample
Almost full-body with light-grained tannins. Cocoa, spice, black currant and currant leaf. Highly Recommended.

2010 Chateau Potelle Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $75
Spice, black fruit and medium+ body and fine-grained tannins. Recommended+.

2010 Chateau Potelle Cabernet Franc Mount Veeder, $39 (375ml)
Almost cologne-like masculine aromas of exotic and foresty spice hover around a core of dark red cherries. Medium+ body with substantial, fine-grained tannins. Highly Recommended.

2010 Chateau Potelle Merlot Mount Veeder, $39
Leafy and spice with tangy red fruit. Medium+ body, fine-grained and chalky tannins. Recommended.

2009 Anthem Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, $95
Spice, underbrush and dark fruit. Medium+ body with drying, fine-grained tannins. Recommended.


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.

New Research: How Our Brains Categorize Aromas

You smell. I do too. Scientists can’t tell us precisely how though.

The physical structures that allow us to sense aromas are well-known, but the way we parse and categorize olfactory information is much less clear. Our sense of smell isn’t connected to the brain through the same pathways as our visual, auditory and tactile sensors. It’s not even connected to the same part of the brain.

A trio of researchers has just published a paper that may improve our understanding slightly. The study is called Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization. It’s authors are Jason B. Castro, Arvind Ramanthan and Chakra S. Chennubhotla—a neuroscientist, a computational scientist and an expert in computational and systems biology.

As you may have gathered from the title, it’s written for researchers and experts not the general interest reader. The article assumes considerable prior knowledge, is replete with specialized terminology and features several pages of text such as “we first examined the structure of H, the matrix of odor weights obtained from NMF (recall that H corresponds to an odor), and defines a point in 10-dimensional descriptor spaced spanned by W.” The paper is freely available online though, so you might read it skim it look at the colored charts.

Here’s the gist of it:
As we pick up an aroma, our brain rapidly identifies a number of attributes for the scent. Unlike our sense of taste which we know to resolve just five flavor dimensions (sour, sweet, salty, bitter and umami), there are many potential attributes for smell. They have not been fully identified, prioritized or explained. And the number of these dimensions for any particular aroma is very large which makes analyzing or categorizing the totality of an aroma extremely complex.

The authors applied mathematical algorithms, used in other areas of science to simplify complex, multi-dimensional data, to olfaction. This enabled them to do two things. First, it proved that this particular analytical approach [non-negative matrix factorization] is effective with respect to analysis of smells. Second, the researchers were able to identify what appear to be the ten principal qualities or categories of aromas, each category linked to a number of molecules that generate such aromatics.

These basic categories each have many incarnations but, for simple identification, might be labeled by their most prominent members: fragrant/floral, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), putrid/decayed, chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, popcorn, pungent and lemon/citrus. Here’s a table showing those categories and the most important members of each.

If you’ve seen wine aroma wheels or aroma categories used by sommeliers or WSET, then the table will look quite familiar. There are interesting differences though. For example, citrus and non-citrus fruit are clearly delineated but non-citrus such as cherry, pineapple and banana are all in the same category. There is also overlap. Cut grass falls into woody/resinous but also citrus. Some attributes are more general characteristics than analogs to physical objects. For example, floral, citrus, sweet and fruity categories can all result in an aroma being described as “light.”

10 vectors
From Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization

Further studies using this mathematical technique may break a lot more ground for industries such as wine and perfume. The current analysis was based on a standard set of aromas used by researchers. It may not have included specific notes of interest to us, like oak and aspects of minerality. And it clearly wasn’t a goal to prioritize wine-centric aromas in any way.

I look forward to follow up efforts. Better understanding how our brains naturally categorize wine-related aromas will help us become better analytical tasters. It will also guide us in communicating aromas to consumers in the way they will most readily grasp.


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