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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Merlot Me, Maybe

“Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy,
so here’s my number, Merlot me maybe.”

Okay, so you might be now singing that pop song in your head. Sorry about that. Anyway…October is the self proclaimed Merlot Month. Really? Does a wine need 30 days in which to prove itself? Ah…with Merlot, yes it does. Merlot has been maligned ever since the film Sideways unapologetically voiced the main character’s opinion, “I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” Ouch. It’s not that Merlot was a crappy grape, but that in California, back then in the early 2000s, it was overplanted creating not only glut, but lousy grapes. I love Merlot. Truly, there are some terrific examples, including Lava Cap (Sierra Foothills), and Robert Hall (Paso Robles) and a host of others. So, may I present a Merlot sampler - a range of wines worth considering this month of October that might reinvigorate your red wine consumption. At the very least, try a new Merlot, even one not on this list.
From Sonoma is the inexpensive 2014 Cannonball SonomaCounty Merlot ($14.99), a nifty little number that is a great entry Merlot for those who like more ripe frit and fewer tannins and change in your pocket. It offers rich jammy boysenberry, black berry, a little black cherry and huckleberry, a sweet oak and a pleasant personality - easy to drink, easy to love, easy on the 401k.
Moving up the scale is Peju’s 2013 Napa Valley Merlot ($38), from a certified organic vineyard in the Rutherford area of Napa, which offers more acidity, tighter tannins and more subtle fruit with notes of blackberry, boysenberry, dark plumb and raspberry, hints of sweet cedar and black cherry.
Then we come to the Duckhorn 2013 Napa Valley Merlot ($54) is the gold standard of Merlot in California. Routinely Duckhorn Merlots provide a tactile, sensory experience with dark fruits if blackberry, boysenberry, huckleberry, pomegranate, charred resin, seamless oak integration and a constant stream of acidity working through the wine make this idea with food.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Blind Man’s Bluff – The Consistency of Wine Writers

In blind tasting through a new vintage of Patz & Hall wines I came back to a specific Pinot Noir in their portfolio; one that seemed familiar and trustworthy. It was a Pinot Noir, but P&H make 8 different Pinot Noirs so how do I know this one was so recognizable? The Pinot Noir was made from Hyde Vineyard, located in Carneros. Patz & Hall makes single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Hyde and has been doing to since 1996. I’ve had many of their wines, but I knew this wine. I’ve tasted it many times before and it was stored in my memory bank. Now, I taste thousands of wines each year, as a professional wine judge, wine writer and wine buyer (Montecito Village Grocery), so why did this stick out? Well, this is what a wine writer actually does – gets to know wines across vintages, soil types and the influence of weather changes. Though I hadn’t seen the label, I was familiar with this wine – it was identifiable, it was from Hyde. “When the grapes come into our winery from Hyde,” says winemaker and co-founder James Hall, “It’s almost like we hear trumpets blare.” And co-founder Donald Patz added, “We just did a tasting of 12 vintages of our Hyde Vineyard Pinot dating back to 1996 and it’s amazing how poised and hauntingly delicate that debut vintage still is.” Of course, you might expect him to say something like that; after all it is his wine. But I have no vested interest in Patz & Hall wines. I’m just scouring the globe for great wines. And the 2014 Hyde Pinot from Patz & Hall is all blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, rich pomegranate, black cherry, cedar and a great acidity. As I have gone through notes that I have written about past vintages and compared those with current lines from the same producer I routinely see, as is true of many of my wine colleagues, is that our pallets are consistent. What's cool about the Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard Pinot Noir is that too is consistent – it is one of those wines that’s a slam-dunk and you won’t go wrong. 1,050 cases were made, my friends. Yes, it’s about $75, and yes, I think it’s worth it. PATZ & HALL

ORIGIN: Carneros, California
PRICE: $75/ 750ML

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Duck(Horn) - The Other White Meat

Napa’s Duckhorn Winery, started in 1976, is known for its exceptional Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. But tucked into their portfolio is little old Chardonnay, that other wine, often overlooked. To be sure, Napa produces a lot of Chardonnay, as does every other major wine region across the globe. Yet, the Duckhorn 2014 Napa Valley Chardonnay is all classic Napa, which means it is smooth, silky and on the nose there is candied pineapple, baked red delicious apple, quince, lemon-lime, sweet almond and cedar, a line of resin on the mid-palate and a breath of mango on the finish. There’s enough viscosity, acidity and oak to make this a very well rounded wine. It’s a surprisingly structured wine, fully fleshed out and very enjoyable to drink. I’ve long been a fan of Duckhorn in part because of their incredible consistency. Now add Chardonnay to a consistent offering and you’re on the right path. DUCKHORN.COM

ORIGIN: Napa, California
PRICE: $35/ 750ML
ALCOHOL: 14.9%

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Piemonte, Pecchenino & 90 Points

Italy. Dolcetto. Kinda makes a lot of sense. As a counterpoint to far too many high energy, robust red wines from California with aggressive fruit and high alcohol, may I present the subdued San Luigi Dolcetto from Pecchenino, a fourth generation wine family in the Piemonte region. Wine is meant to be consumed with food and the breadth of this wine was on display when I used it with a habanero bbq pork and Swiss fondue. Ah yes, a food wine - that’s a novel concept thee days. Yes this Dolcetto has minimal oak aging but it offers subdued black cherry, blueberry a slight raisin/prune note, rhubarb compote, lanolin, resin and cedar – frankly a bevy of layered flavors designed to work with your meal, whatever that might be. The tannins are soft, yet firm, there is a slight acidity and all this adds up to be a terrific value.

ORIGIN: Dogliani, Piemonte, Italy
PRICE: $22/ 750ML

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Quick Cognac Primer – Brandy’s Dandy But Cognac’s Quicker

Cognac is still something of a mystery to most people – maybe even more of a mystery is that June 4th is National Cognac Day. Really?  Since I’ve been to Cognac, I thought I’d peel away some of the mystery and confusion surrounding Cognac. Yes it is brandy, distilled wine, and like Port and Champagne it is also a region, specifically in the Western part of France located north of Bordeaux and a three-hour train ride south from Paris. Brandy is made in many places across the globe, but anything labeled Cognac must be made in Cognac. As the old saying goes, all Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac.

At the Martell Dsitillery
Like any product controlled by a trade board, Cognac is no different and there are quirky things that all Cognac producers must adhere to like it is "compulsory" to use copper stills, and all distillation must be completed no later than March 31st at midnight. There are about 260 Cognac houses in France - some very small like the mother and son team of Maison Dudognon and newcomers like CognacLecat (started in 2014), to medium sized houses like Frapin and Camus, to the larger and better known brands like Hennessey(251 years old), Martell (301 years old), Courvoisier, and Remy Martin.

Frapin's old blending room
In Cognac there are wine makers and grape growers in the thousands, some who make the wine and sell it; others who distill their wine and sell the eau du vie to the Cognac houses. It is a vast complex web of relationships in a small market and it involves a tremendous amount of people. My visit took me to many producers, each one with their own story and iteration and style of Cognac, which I do not detail here, or the cool history of Cognac, as that is a much longer story. Cognac typically consists of four specific tastes: floral, fruit, spice and wood. Cognac starts as wine, then it is distilled into eau du vie, then distilled a second time, and then aged…for a long time. And it is this understanding of time that gives Cognac its unique expression, and cost.

Pondering my blend at Hennessy
Olivier Paultes is the director of distillation for Hennessy, the largest Cognac producer in the world. I visited with him and blended my own Cognac, which he liked, but I’m certain he was just being kind. “What you look for is perfect harmony, just like in an orchestra, just like when you cook,” he says. Every morning at 11 a.m. he, along with the rest of the tasting committee, tastes through 50 to 80 samples. I am given multiple Cognacs from which to blend - a 1983 (smooth, clean and spicy with a moderate fruit component), a 1990 (spicy wood, butterscotch, caramel), and a 1996 (clove, apricot, apple with more upfront oak). I ponder, mull, overthink, and assemble my own concoction. Oliver calls my blend the “most round.” Another blend he calls "95% spot on," and of someone else's blend he says, "No, it's not horrible it's just strange," in that French accent which really suggests that, in fact it's not strange, it's actually horrible. Fortunately I am not a master distiller. But what a distiller does, be they from a new Cognac house like Lecat or an old standard like Martell, and what Cognac offers apart from most any other wine or spirit in the world, is an amazing concept of continuum – a life over time whereby age is the perfect compliment to the spirit.

The tasting experience at Camus
Olivier sums it up best. “What's exciting for me personally is that we will be preparing the Cognac of tomorrow; what I have just distilled now will age to be tasted in 100 years.” And that, in part, is why Cognac is worthy of your attention; it is often created for a generation not yet born, an experience far into the future, and a connection with the past that has a sense of pride and patience. VISIT COGNAC

Monday, May 30, 2016

If I Had A Million Dollars - Santa Barbara Wine & Direct Relief

Jenny Dore gives a really big check to DRI
The Barenaked Ladies had a friendly pop hit in 1988 with “If I Had a Million Dollars,” and they imagined all the things they would do with said million like, “Well, I'd buy you an exotic pet. Yep, like a llama or an emu.” They even consider the Elephant Man’s bones as a possibility. Sounds pretty cool but a million dollars can buy so many other things and in the case of the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation, they just gave a million dollars to Direct Relief International. The money was raised from various silent auctions at wine events and over the last 15 years the Vintners Association has raised over $4 Million, all given to Direct Relief. For a small community, that’s pretty impressive.

We Love Santa Barbara Wines!
Based in Goleta, Direct Relief International (DRI) is a medical relief organization, active in all 50 states and in 70 countries, working with more than 1,000 health clinics across the U.S. to assist in emergencies and providing said clinics with free medications for people in need. And DRI has impressive charity ratings, including a 100% fundraising efficiency rating from Forbes and the No. 1 spot on Charity Navigator’s list of the “10 Best Charities Everyone’s Heard Of.” That’s important as we’ve all heard of charities that have ended up being less than charitable. The 2016 Santa Barbara Wine Auction, a joint effort by the Santa Barbara Vintners Foundation and DRI, exceeded everyone’s expectations. On a warm May day Jenny Williamson Doré (of Foxen Winery) presented a check in the amount of One Million Twenty-Two Thousand Dollars to Direct Relief’s President, Thomas Tighe. Nice job. “Because of their extraordinary efficiency, Direct Relief will leverage this money into more than $30 million in medical aid,” said Vintners Foundation president, Steve Fennell of Sanford Winery. “The vintners are proud to support the efforts of this outstanding organization headquartered right here in Santa Barbara County.”  

Which gets to the heart of the issue. No matter what our profession, no matter what our limitations, all of us, as individuals, families, associations, companies or corporations can all be involved to some degree in making the world a better place, alleviating suffering and simply being kind. That you can accomplish this and drink Santa Barbara county wine is mere icing on the cake. So get out there, taste new wines, support Vintners and DRI and help improve the world.


Monday, May 23, 2016

The Donn Abides – The Passing of Donn Chappellet

I didn’t know Donn, at least not personally. We had never met. He lived in Napa, and I in Santa Barbara. He started a winery and I started wine writing. My most recent mention of Chappellet wines was May 13th, in a Tweet about the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, which hit over 1,000 impressions. Donn Chappellet passed away on May 22nd at age 84 – too young by my estimation.

I have included Chappellet wines in a variety of articles; for The Hollywood Reporter,, and most recently for Planet Experts about wineries that support earth-friendly practices writing, “In Napa, Chappellet Vineyard began in the early 1980s (long before the term ‘sustainable’ was even used), to plant cover crops for soil conservation and erosion prevention. In 2012, their 102-acre vineyard earned its organic certification from the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). Chappellet has a 20,000-square-foot solar photovoltaic system that generates 100% of the winery’s energy needs. They also installed a state-of-the-art water processing system that allows the winery to return nearly 100% of their processed water (about one million gallons each year) to the vineyard for irrigation.”

I included Donn in my’s Second Annual “Top 100 MostInfluential People in the U.S. Wine Industry,” listing him as #94, writing, “Chappellet was the first winery to pioneer high-elevation vineyard planting, establishing mountain-grown Cabernets as some of California’s most coveted wines. The winery has also served as an incubator for some of California’s legendary winemaking talents, including Phil Togni, Joe Cafaro, Tony Soter, Helen Turley, Mia Klein, Cathy Corison and current winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus. Chappellet has been lauded by every major wine magazine.”

“Dad was the kindest, most thoughtful person,” son Cyril Chappellet said in a press release. “He was our rock, our mentor, and an inspiration, not just to our entire family, but to so many others as well. He was also humble beyond belief. Despite everything he accomplished, he never took the credit. He always preferred to give others the stage. Along with my mom, my dad created the foundation that our family has been building on for the past 50 years. He believed that the best was still yet to come for Chappellet. Now it is our turn to honor that dream, and his wonderful legacy.”

And what better words can be said of someone’s passing – the idea that the best is still out there, perhaps just beyond reach, but likely within reach of another generations. If you haven’t had any of Chappellet wines, do try one, from their Chennin Blanc, or Malbec, Petite Sirah or Chardonnay to the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon ($60), and raise a glass to a man you never met, one who made the world better in a number of ways you never knew about – something we can all strive for. Godspeed Donn.

In lieu of flowers or gifts, please consider donating in the name of Donn Chappellet to the Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County or to the St. Helena Hospital Foundation.

Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County
PO Box 2571 Napa, CA 94558

St. Helena Hospital Foundation
10 Woodland Road
St. Helena, CA 94574