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NorCal Wine Blog

The New Minerality: An Evolution in California Wine

Minerality is not a hallmark of California wines, nor New World wines in general. When expert tasters find overt minerality in a wine they are trying to identify blind, they narrow their focus to Europe. But, more and more, I’m perceiving minerality in California wines. Why is that?

First, here’s what I mean by “minerality.” It’s a flavor decidedly unlike fruit, spice or wood. The taste may be of salt water, chalk, gravel or metal. It can be a little bitter. It might smell like chalk dust, wet rocks, etc. Minerality of this nature is more common in white wines than red.

Where does minerality in wine come from? That’s a hotly debated topic. Though some people believe it to be true, we can be quite certain wine does not taste chalky because a whole bunch of chalky soil is dissolved, sucked up through vines’ roots and captured in the grapes. The mineral content of a soil does impact a wine’s flavors, but that’s because differing levels of potassium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, iron and other minerals effect the way a vine grows and how the berries ripen. Grapes do contain trace amounts of various minerals but not enough iron, for example, to make a wine taste ferrous. If chalky soil ever makes its wine taste like chalk, it’s because dust stirred up in the vineyard by vehicles and wind can settle on the grapes and find its way into the fermentation tank.

Why do European wines generally taste more like mineral? Europe has limestone and slate, but so do we. France has Chardonnay, we have Chardonnay. Italian tractors probably don’t kick up any more dust than ours do.

I suspect the molecules that create a sense of minerality exist in many wines from both regions, but their aromas and flavors are subtle, easily overwhelmed by stronger ones. Ripe fruit, sweetness, high alcohol, strong spice, oak and oak-derived flavors can be much more potent. Relative strength aside, sweetness and fruit also work to balance bitter flavors. It’s also possible that a few of the flavors call mineral are actually signatures of a certain state of ripeness that disappear when grapes hang longer or get more sun.

White wines tend to have less strongly flavored fruit and oak than reds, hence minerality is more often detected in white wine. European vineyards usually don’t ripen as fully as those here and their table wines usually have less decadent fruit, residual sugar, alcohol and oak than their Californian counterparts.

But California wineries are increasingly producing lean, site-driven wines. Winemakers seek out interesting cool-climate vineyards or simply pick at lower brix because the riper fruit gets the less distinctive it is. Heavy use of new oak, especially in white wines, is declining too. That’s partly because oak masks terroir but also because French oak barrels have gotten extremely expensive.

Neutral oak and concrete tanks are fashionable now. Both expose more minerality than stainless steel. Oak and concrete allow some oxygen transfer thus preserving less dynamic, fresh fruit than air-tight stainless tanks.

The relative lack of minerality in Californian wine used to be ascribed to a variety of factors that didn’t make a lot of sense but, barring evidence to the contrary, were hard to dismiss: general superiority of European vines and vineyards, deeper roots, lack of irrigation (even if their sites get more rain than ours), more characterful earth, etc. Now it appears we’ve had minerality all along. It was just hidden beneath layers of more obvious flavors.

Here’s a handful of the California wines I’ve tasted recently that clearly express minerality.


2012 Jolie Laide Pinot Gris
Aromas of flowers, pear and subtle nectarine. Medium-plus body and lightly textured in the mouth. Flavors of lime, mineral, pear and green apple. Highly Recommended

2012 La Montagne Pinot Blanc Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
Lemon-lime, mineral, green apple, delicate flowers and a hint of white grapes on the nose and palate. Medium-bodied, lightly textured and slightly mouthwatering. Highly Recommended.

2011 Goodland Happy Canyon White (Sauvignon Blanc)
Aromas of lime, grapefruit, mineral and spice carrying through to the palate which also includes tart stonefruit and green apple. Medium-bodied with fine-grained texture and a lengthy finish of citrusy minerality. Highly Recommended.

2010 Thomas Fogarty Estate Chardonnay Langley Hill Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains
Flavors and aromas of smokey mineral, yellow apple, pear, cinnamon and other brown spices. Medium+ body and plenty of acidity. Somewhat savory and salty on the palate, especially throughout the long finish. Very Highly Recommended.

2012 Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc Saarloos Vineyard, Santa Ynez
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. Highly 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.

Eight Good Books about California Wine

September is California Wine Month here in the golden state. It’s our annual reminder to do more than just enjoy a few glasses. We think about the significance of the wine industry locally, nationally and globally. We consider new trends, the latest sales and crush statistics, etc.

California Wine Month is also a good time to brush up on our knowledge regarding California wine. Like a nearby tourist attraction you’ve never actually visited yourself, it’s easy to take our local product, its producers and its growing regions for granted. They surround us, their ubiquity breeding nonchalance. Many Californian lovers of wine spend more time learning about the vineyards of France or Italy than those close to home.

So let’s crack a book this month or resolve to take a class. Here are eight of the many books on California wine I recommend.

American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wineries of the United States by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy
Sonoma County-resident Linda Murphy, formerly wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, did the vast majority of research and writing for this invaluable resource. It’s billed as a book on American wine and is certainly that. However, 128 of its 279 pages of text, maps and photos are devoted to California. Books focused on individual regions in California will have more depth, but the breadth and meaty overviews make this one well worth the money.

A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present by Charles L. Sullivan
Sullivan’s encyclopedia is one of my favorite resources and the California wine book to which I most frequently turn for answers. If you want an amusing little challenge, try to think of people, wineries and vineyards that are important in California wine history but not found in this book. It’s not easy. 

The Finest Wines of California: A Regional Guide to the Best Producers and Their Wines (The World's Finest Wines) by Stephen Brook
There is always controversy with books such as these. Why is this producer included and not that one? Some people have complained that Screaming Eagle is not covered. I’m sure other people think the omission appropriate. Nonetheless Brook, a contributing editor at Decanter Magazine since 1996, does chronicle many very important California wineries. The final pages of the book provide excellent synopses, up to half a page each, of every California vintage from 1990 through 2009. As a both a writer and a collector of California wine I refer to it often.

The Wines of California (Faber Books on Wine) by Stephen Brook
This book was originally published in 1999 and there have been some updates. I like the original though, because it’s a snapshot of history—what California wines were like then and how they were perceived. Included in the 685 pages are profiles of 630 wineries, plus vineyards that were significant at that time, and more. Comparing those descriptions to the present day highlights the evolution of California wine. I find that both enlightening and useful. And, since you can get a used paperback (the book is out of print) for as little as 21 cents plus shipping, it’s an inexpensive pleasure.

New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff by Steve Heimoff
Heimoff spoke with a good number of important winemakers and published the transcripts. He’s divided the book into three sections based on which decade a winemaker came onto the scene: 1970’s, 1980’s or 1990’s. The style is casual and, of course, conversational. The reader will get to know the winemakers in a way that’s not normally possible without speaking to them in person. Having done so myself with many of these folks, I can tell you that their personalities, speech patterns, etc. are authentically represented. I can see and hear them speaking while I read the words.

A Vineyard in Napa by Doug Shafer, Andy Demsky and Danny Meyer
This is a personal account of the founding and development of Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley's Stags Leap District. Shafer came to the valley as a high schooler in the 1970’s when his father moved the family from Chicago to get into the wine business. It’s a story about the growth of a premier winery, but also the growth of the industry and the evolution of Napa Valley.

Zin: The History And Mystery Of Zinfandel by David Darlington
This book was originally published as Angels’ Visits in 1991. Our knowledge about the genetic origin of Zinfandel has since grown and superseded that element of Darlington’s book. Wineries have come and gone too. Young winemakers have become... seasoned winemakers. Yet Zin is still an engaging read with interesting background on iconic wineries such as Ridge and Ravenswood. Enjoy it like you would old home movies.

Zinfandel: A History of a Grape and Its Wine (California Studies in Food and Culture) by Charles L. Sullivan
Charles Sullivan is a serious historian. His in-depth research leads to a less page-turny book than Zin but one that is rich with accurate and sometimes surprising detail. Here you’ll find the truth about Zinfandel’s origins, the role played by Agoston Haraszthy and more.

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.

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.


Coravin Reviewed: A “Wine Access Technology”

”I'll bet you I can drink wine out of this bottle without removing the cork?” So begins a party trick. The bottle is then turned upside-down, wine poured into the punt and drunk from it as if from a glass. It’s an amusing trick, but Coravin “wine access technology” has stolen the punchline. Now you really can drink the contents of a wine bottle without pulling the cork.

Coravin inventor Greg Lambrecht faced a challenge when pregnancy forced his wife into a wine-drinking hiatus. Drinking a full bottle in one evening was no longer an option. How do you enjoy a glass or two of wine from a great bottle without the remaining quantity losing freshness in the follwing days?

There are various solutions to this problem: vacuum and seal, gas and seal, transfer to a smaller bottle, floating discs, etc. None worked to his satisfaction. Not one to settle for an easy but inferior fix, Lambrecht spent a decade inventing and fine-tuning something completely different. With his background in developing medical devices, he had the skillset to succeed.

The end product, Coravin, allows you to pour wine from a cork-sealed bottle without removing the cork. Coravin not only extracts the wine but fills the void with an inert gas. Argon is both perfectly safe and heavier than oxygen. It covers the remaining wine like a protective shield, preventing oxidation and preserving freshness.

Coravin wine access device
The Coravin in its stand. Photo: Fred Swan

I’m skeptical of wine gadgets by nature, especially those getting a lot of hype. I accepted an invitation to Coravin’s Napa Valley launch party in order to check the device out myself.

The device looks a little like one of those “Rabbit” corkpullers. Except Coravin clips onto the bottle and, instead of inserting a corkscrew, pushing down on the top of the device inserts a 17-gauge needle through the cork. The needle is made of surgical steel and coated with a Teflon-like substance for easy insertion.

Once the needle is in, you press a small button on the device to begin the flow of argon. Then, tip the bottle over to pour wine through the integrated spout. The process takes a little coordination but sounds more complicated than it is. Check out this demonstration I filmed.


Of course the fellow who performed the demo above works for Coravin. He has used the gizmo hundreds of time. It should look easy when he does it. What about someone trying it for the first time? I coaxed him into letting me wield the gadget myself.

It really is as simple as it looks. Pushing the needle into the cork takes very little pressure. You can easily do it with one finger. Pouring is a little awkward at first, but I didn't spill wine or break any glasses. I did forget to extract the needle before unclipping the Coravin, but even that didn't cause a problem.

So the Coravin is functional. What effect does it have on wine? Brand new wines I tasted at the soirée were perfectly fine coming out of the needle/spout contraption. I also tasted a 2008 Martinelli Chardonnay Zio Tony Vineyard first accessed via Coravin nearly four months prior. I'm not intimately familiar with that particular wine but the argon seemed to have done its job. I didn't note any signs of oxidation or other indications of development one wouldn't expect from a four-year old Russian River Valley Chardonnay.

Peter Granoff, a master sommelier and co-founder of Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, has been testing the Coravin for about two years. He told me he's left Coravin-accessed bottles sitting half-filled for as long as a year and not noticed any degradation. "The only time it won't work," he told me, "is if the bottle has a dry, crumbling cork that doesn't reseal around the needle hole." He's only experienced that once.

Coravin has a razor-razorblade business model. The argon gas capsules only hold enough to fully displace about 75 ounces of wine, roughly 15 standard glasses. Replacement capsules cost $9.95 each, assuming you buy them in a 3-pack.

coravin capsules
Coravin argon capsules. Photo: Coravin

That said, if you're storing the bottles upright you don't really need to displace the entire volume of wine you pour. You just need to use enough gas to allow the wine to flow from the bottle. You can probably get 25 or so glasses out of a capsule once you've had a little practice.

If you're going to pony up $300 for wine-pouring thingy, you want it to last. I talked to Mike Rider, vice-president of engineering and operations at Coravin, about maintenance. Here's what I learned:

  • The needles have been tested beyond 1,000 insertions. I think that's enough to keep most people happy for at least three years, probably more.
  • Replacement needles are inexpensive and easy to install.
  • You should rinse the Coravin with warm water after each day of use. Just direct water into the pouring spout.
  • If you've used the Coravin with sweet wine, or have forgotten to clean it for quite a while, you can remove the residue with a little white vinegar.

Among the attendees at Coravin's Napa Valley event was Karen MacNeil, a respected wine educator and author of The Wine Bible. I asked her what she thought of the product. "I just think it's terrific. I love the idea of turning the problem around too," she added. "Instead of finding a way to replace the cork, you just don't remove it. That's the kind of thinking we need to apply to all kinds of problems." Well said.

Here are potential benefits I see for consumers in using a Coravin:

  • You can taste whichever of your wines you like without feeling the need to kill the bottle or the worry of oxidation.
  • Consumers may actually drink a little less because they don't have to worry about "wasting" a partial bottle and because pouring with Coravin takes more conscious thought than doing so from an open bottle.
  • Collectors can check the development status of wine in their cellar without having to consume a full bottle. This should lead to fewer wines ruined by excess aging.
  • Pairing different wines with the various courses of a home meal is more practical for couples and singles.
  • If you have friends whose tastes in wine you don't know, you can let them try a few different things and then open the bottle they like.

I also see benefits for the trade in using Coravin:

  • Restaurants and wine bars can significantly increase by-the-glass selections. That can lift both glass and bottle purchases.
  • Consumers may be more likely to buy expensive bottles at restaurants if there's a try-before-you-buy program. 
  • Restaurants sitting on expensive bottles that don't sell can clear them out with by-the-glass sales over the course of a few weeks.
  • Restaurants can use higher quality wines for their food and wine pairing menus.
  • By-the-glass freshness may improve as wines are less likely to lose oxidize after the first couple of glasses.
  • Coravin is much cheaper than expensive auto-pour-and-gas cabinets.
  • Restaurants can offer "half-bottle" options even if they only have 750ml bottles.
  • Winery and distributor sales people can have fewer wasted bottles after pouring samples for buyers.
  • As a wine reviewer, I can try wine samples and then pass the bottles along to other writers rather than dumping the stuff. That's less wasteful and may allow us all to try and review more wines.

As good as Coravin seems to be, there are a few things you should be aware of:

  • If you put too much gas into a bottle, the wine can get a little frothy. That should settle out over time though.
  • Coravin does not work with pressurized bottles (ex. Champagne, Prosecco, sparkling Moscato). Don't even try it. The pressurization could make it a dangerous experiment and the wine won't flow properly anyway. Don't try this at home.
  • The TSA doesn't allow pressurized gas canisters on airplanes. Don't take your argon capsules with you when you fly.
  • Coravin does not work with screwcap wines or bottles with glass stoppers.
  • The more dense the "cork," the more difficult it is to push in the needle. Coravin will work with rubber and plastic corks but isn't ideal and will wear the needle out more quickly.
  • You don't need to remove the foil capsule on bottles before using Coravin. However, I recommend removing capsules from bottles produced in the early 1990's or before as those may contain lead.
  • If you store your wine on its side, you'll need to use more argon than if you leave the bottle upright. However, leaving the bottle upright for a long time risks the cork getting dry which would increase risks of oxidation.
  • I have not heard from anyone who has tried a Coravin-accessed bottle after more than a year, so we don't know the long term effect on aging.
  • In order to pour wine through Coravin you need to turn the bottle nearly upside-down. If the wine has sediment or tartrate crystals, they may wind up in the glass or clog the needle.

I also see two downsides of Coravin that are actually due to its effectiveness. It's now a lot easier for kids to raid their parents wine collection undetected. Selling counterfeit wine by filling expensive bottles with cheap stuff just got a lot easier to do and harder to spot. This could turn out to be a serious problem for collectors.


The Coravin work as advertised. It allows you to pour wine from a bottle without removing the cork. It keeps the remaining wine fresh by injecting argon gas. If stored properly, wines accessed with Coravin will remain good for an extended period of time.

Using Coravin is easy. Anybody with decent manual dexterity can do it. (You may want to lock bottles away from your underage kids, or lock up the Coravin, lest your collection dwindle without you realizing it.)

Coravin is expensive. But, if it lets a serious wine consumer get better use out of their cellar or reduces their visits to wine bars, amortizing the cost won't be be hard.

The Coravin 1000 kit that includes the device, a stand and two capsules costs $299. Additional capsules are $25 for three. Assuming you and a friend combine to drink three glasses of wine a day, that's about 219 Coravin uses in a year. (Once you've poured three glasses from a bottle using Coravin, you'd drink the rest by pulling the cork.) You'll need at least seven supplemental argon capsules. Your total cost per Coravin glass in the first year would be $1.68 (not including tax and shipping). For subsequent years, your only cost would be the gas.

I may well buy one myself.


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 the Wines of Rusack Vineyards in Ballard Canyon

Last week, I tasted through the line up of Santa Barbara County wines from Rusack Vineyards. Rusack is located in the pending Ballard Canyon AVA but makes wine from other areas as well. Those include the Sta Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley and even Santa Catalina Island.

The primary Rusack estate vineyard includes 16.5 planted acres straddling Ballard Canyon Road on the valley floor. Its varieties include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc (including the Musqué clone) and Semillon. There is another small vineyard further north and uphill devoted to a new planting of Zinfandel.

Total production in a typical year, including wine made from non-estate grapes, is 8,000-10,000 cases. But typical has been hard to come by in California recently. Rusack made just 6,000 cases in chilly 2011 and 12,000 in bounteous 2012. All the wines are made on-site at the estate. The tasting room is there as well.

The tasting room at Rusack Vineyards on Ballard Canyon Road. Photo: Fred Swan

The patio at Rusack Vineyards looks inviting, even on a foggy summer morning. Photo: Fred Swan

My host for the tasting was Rusack Vineyards winemaker Steven Gerbac. He’s been at Rusack Vineyards for ten years and was very informative about the vineyards, vinification, etc. However, his ascent to head winemaker from assistant has just been in the last year or so. John Falcone, now at Gainey Vineyards, was head winemaker for the wines I tasted.

Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac, August 12, 2013. Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Rusack Sauvignon Blanc Santa Barbara County, $17
Though simply labeled Santa Barbara County, this is more specifically a Santa Ynez Valley AVA blend. The estate vineyard provided 42% of the fruit, nearby Stolpman 35% and Valley View the balance. The grapes, clone 1 and Musqué clone, got a couple of hours skin contact before being pressed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. There was no malolactic fermentation.

Ballard Canyon’s cool evenings and morning fog are evident in the cool-climate aromatics that rush from the glass: green apple, white flowers, limestone, lime pith, grapefruit and nearly-ripe stonefruit. Its fresh in the mouth and a generous medium body with citrus-focused flavors, principally lime, lime pith and grapefruit. There’s some herb and peppery spice as well. The finish is clean with a saline minerality. 13.6% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Chardonnay Santa Catalina Vineyard California, $55
Santa Catalina Island is almost literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s only twenty-two miles south-southwest of Los Angeles, but that distance is all over water. That isolation, along with the island’s small size, low population and lack of cell towers promote what residents like to call “island time.” Grape harvests require a skilled labor and a sense of urgency though, so Rusack flies vineyard workers onto the island and flies the fruit back out.

Rusack's island vineyard is on the windward side. Even during the peak of summer it’s temperatures are moderated by miles of 70° water, cold ocean breezes and persistent fog. The result is Chardonnay with surprising body. That’s due not to high alcohol but the conversion of copious malic acid during ML. Lees stirring prevents buttery flavors from getting out of hand.

The nose is mildly buttery golden apple, yogurt and baking spice. Those flavors lead the palate as well but quickly transition to steely yogurt and, eventually, a taut, mineral finish. It’s a nearly full-bodied wine but there’s still acidity and a light talc-like texture. The Rusack Santa Catalina Island Chardonnay will be released around November of this year. Recommended+.

2011 Rusack Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley Reserve, $32
Gentle baking spice aromas mingle with baked yellow apple, green apple and a touch of pineapple in this Chardonnay made from an even split of Bien Nacido Vineyard and Sierra Madre Vineyard fruit. Full-bodied with a silky mouthfeel, the palate is fruit-focused but refined: pear, yellow apple, pineapple, peach and baking spice. Mouthwatering finish. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Pinot Noir Santa Catalina Island California,
Catalina’s uber-cool climate delivers an earth-forward Pinot here. Spice, sandalwood and dark flowers add interest. The fruit is dark red and earthy. The attack is creamy on the palate with medium-plus body and flavors of earth, brown spice, barrel char (40% new oak it turns out, with medium to medium-heavy toast), dark red fruit and caramel. Not yet released. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Pinot Sta. Rita Hills Reserve, $40
A cold year and Sta. Rita Hill’s wind-tunnel of a growing zone resulted in tiny little grapes and a deeply layered, savory and masculine wine. The tannins, moderate and fine, are more than matched by acidity. The nose offers tangy spice, tangerine peel, drying herb, dark spice, a grind of pepper and whiff of licorice. A sip brings long-lasting flavors of dark fruit, spice and licorice. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Pinot Noir, Solomon Hills Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley, $45
Aromatic and bequiling, a perfume of brown and dark spice, rose petal, tea and clove precedes the blood orange core. The palate is elegant up front and boldly spicy on the finish. Light, fine-grained tannins accompany tangy spice and zesty dark fruit. Highly Recommended +.

2011 Rusack Sangiovese Estate, $32
California Sangiovese does not often resemble that of Tuscan producers. Our fruit is frequently too ripe, the body to heavy and the oak too obvious—though the latter is not uncommon in Italy either. Ballard Canyon’s mild climate is well-suited to making a more traditional Sangiovese and that’s what I found at Rusack. The nose and palate evince earthy, leathery cherry and plum accented by spice and dark flowers. The body is medium-plus and balanced by both acidity and grippy, light-grained tannins. Best from 2014 - 2018. Try it with a thin ribeye steak cooked directly on hot coals. Recommended +.

2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County, $25
Syrah is the variety that put Ballard Canyon on the map. Rusack’s estate vineyard hold three clones: old-vine Estrella, 174 and 877. Petite Sirah, less than 10%, is added to the blend to bump up the fruit profile. The results are delicious. The wine is deeply-colored and highly aromatic with plum, leather, grilled meat, sweet and savory herb plus a scattering of black pepper. Nearly full-bodied in the mouth, there are fine-grained and powdery tannins. The flavor profile is predominantly savory with dark fruit, old leather, dark spice and earth. This is a great buy at $25. Drink now through 2018. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Reserve Santa Barbara County, $36
Dark and purplish this wine is a best barrel selection of Syrah intended to show a somewhat riper style while keeping plenty of savory flavors. Pardon the laundry list, but the nose is complex: dry earth and grass, grilled game, toast, white and black pepper, dark fruit and spice plus a little camphor. It starts creamy in the mouth, follows with very fine, chalky tannins and then finishes clean and juicy. Flavors are aligned with the nose: dark fruit and spice, licorice, game, savory herb and leather. Now through 2018. Very Highly Recommended.

Rusack Zinfandel
This is going to be an interesting project to watch. There’s an island called Santa Cruz, the largest off the coast of Santa Barbara. It's interior valley used to be home to a big winery. Long abandoned, some vines still grow there untended. Among them was a unique clone of Zinfandel that Rusack now calls the Santa Cruz Island clone. Rusack took 87 cuttings and has planted them on Catalina and in Ballard Canyon.

The propagated vines are still quite young. I’m looking forward to trying upcoming vintages when the vines are bit older, especially those from Ballard Canyon which I suspect should be a good area for complex and balanced Zinfandel.

2010 Rusack “Anacapa” Ballard Canyon Estate, Santa Barbara County, Sold Out
This is Rusack’s red Bordeaux-variety blend. It’s 46% Cabernet Franc with even doses of Merlot and Petit Verdot making up the balance. There are cherry, red currant, cocoa, sweet spice, drying leaves and coconut on the nose and palate. Body is medium-plus and the moderate tannins very fine-grained and a little chalky. Recommended.

2010 Rusack Late Harvest Semillon “Soul of the Vine,” Santa Ynez Valley (all Rusack Estate), $45
When I visited Santa Barbara County last week, a substantial portion of the vines were covered with bird netting. Starlings love ripening grapes. But Rusack had an even finer mesh over their Semillon. It's bee netting. Botrytis is encouraged to form by using gentle overhead sprinklers on warm days. The Noble Rot sticks its little fingers into the grapes, sucking out moisture and turning the grapes into super-sweet, flavorful bee bait. Hence the nets.

Juice from those concentrated grapes is fermented in stainless steel tanks (which I would not want to clean) and then aged in French oak for 14 months. The wine is a vivid lemon-gold in color, the scrumptious nose offers brown sugar, baked pineapple, tart apricot and baking spice. Sweet sips taste of pineapple upside-down cake. Generous acidity keeps Soul of the Vine from being cloying. Highly Recommended.


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Disclosures: The FTC has tightened its guidelines with respect to online ads, reviews, blogs, etc. in response to people who are passing paid ads off as personal recommendations or who accept 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 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.