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Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Brown Sprit from the Golden State - California Brandy Wants Your Attention

Argonaut brandies launched in July, 2017
“The current view of California Brandy is one of complete ignorance,” says Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, one of only five people in the world to hold the duel titles. Frost and 30 mixologists, writers and distillers, including Paul Pacult, author of five books on American spirits, and Ernest J. Gallo, Managing Director of E&J Gallo’s Spirits Business and little ‘ol me, all came together at the California Brandy Summit in…wait for it…Fresno! Well, that’s only half true. Our day started at the McCall Avenue Distillery, then moved to Yosemite (ah, much better). The goal was to discuss, brainstorm, and, well, basically feud about brandy made from California. (NOTE: The original article with an economic focus was first published in BevRoute, Sept/2017)
Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl
30 writers, distillers, and mixologists gathered together to talk brandy
With apologies to the musical group Looking Glass and their 1972 hit “Brandy,” (a woman), brandy (the drink) is actually distilled wine. Over 25 countries produce their own version of brandy, and the best-known brandy is Cognac dating from the mid 1500s made in the Cognac region of France. The US however has its own history with brandy dating back 300 years and now California wants to take the lead in making American brandy viable once again. Wait. What? Yes, you read that right. The less than half-dozen brandy distillers in California are toying with the idea that American brandy in general, and California brandy in particular, has the potential to go toe to toe with the world’s best brandies.
Brandy’s Dandy But Liquor’s Quicker
Historically American brandy was a highly awarded, highly consumed spirit in the 1800s. Part of the reason for this was wine was unstable for long durations and as Doug Frost suggested, “Brandy is how we drank wine since the 1600s.” Domestically peach brandy was the most profitable spirit and was being distilled in the American Colonies as early as 1645. But brandy has West Coast roots before California was ever a state. The Spanish knew fermentation and distillation hundreds of years before coming to the Americas and they brought that technology with them during the late 1700s employing winemaking and distilling at several of the California missions. In fact, California missions were the only supply chain for brandy, Angelica, raisins and other foods stuff for travelers back in the day, sort of like an early version of 7 Eleven. Once the California gold rush occurred in the early 1850s railroads brought California brandy to the East Coast by 1869. However Prohibition essentially wiped out brandy. It was easier and cheaper to make bathtub gin in a few hours than to make brandy. Additionally brandy production has always suffered from labor costs: you get one grape harvest a year, ferment that, then distill. “It's a labor of love since it's the least economically viable spirit there is,” says Dan Farber, founder and distiller of Osocalis Distillery.
View From The Summit
Talking, trying brandy, talking more, and more brandy
At the summit we discussed various options for promoting California Brandy. “If brandy is not sexy then we are not making it sexy,” said Paul Ahvenainen, Master Distiller at Korbel. “I’d like to see getting lower-priced brandy on the market,” said Marko Karakasevic of Charbay Distillery whose own brandies retail for as much as $350. What to do? 

~Establish a Strong Narrative~
Brandy is a handmade product.
There are estate and single vineyard designations.
Brandy is the base for many cocktails.
Sipping brandy is an ideal after dinner drink.
Create a comprehensive trade group similar to Cognac’s Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC).

And here is where California brandy has a leg up on Cognac – freedom. Cognac is restricted in terms of grape varieties (only nine varieties are allowed) distilling methods, storage and aging techniques, even that distillation must be completed by March 31st after the harvest. California has no limits. Brandy can be made from Riesling, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sémillon, whatever, stored and aged whenever and wherever.

Gallo, the largest winery in California, has taken the lead. But it is a lead that came about almost accidentally “30 years ago we lay down some brandies with no real intention or understanding exactly how they would come to fruition,” Ernest Gallo tells our group. Those brandies, sitting idly at the McCall Distillery in Fresno are some of the ones we taste after lunch and our first brainstorming session. That foresight helped them release their Argonaut brandies in July, 2017 priced at $38 to $50. What’s unique about the Argonaut line is that, in an effort to help consumers to understand what they are drinking, each back label contains the percentage of the grapes used, their variety, the type of still used, and how long it’s been aged. Additionally Gallo acquired the high-end distiller Germain-Robin in August, 2017, complementing their own E&J Gallo brandy portfolio, thereby strengthening California brandy distribution.

As Ernest Gallo tells me; “What sets us apart is we are California brandy made from California grapes using California wine making techniques, the most ardent structure in the U.S.” Ardent perhaps, and yes I’m a California native, but it will take more than just passion to see California brandy overcome the obstacles. As I talk with Mr. Gallo, I mention that this is really a decade-long project, right? He nods and I can tell there are mixed emotions behind that nod. Yes, he and others are committed to this cause, and also yes, it’s going to be an arduous haul to re-educate the public on California brandy. Sure, brandy might regain the crown it wore in the 1800s. Time is the great equalizer and just like those “forgotten” brandies at the McCall Distillery in Fresno, perhaps this brown spirit might strike gold once again.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

MerlotMe: Time to Start Drinking Your Fu**ing Merlot Again

The self-proclaimed Merlot Month of October gives you permission to start drinking Merlot again. Just like the talented child overshadowed by his elder sibling (Cabernet Sauvignon in case you didn’t follow that), Merlot is getting the attention it deserves and the oft quoted, well-known line from Sideways, may never be uttered again.
Hello My Name Is…
Merlot grapes have been around since, some think, the 1st Century. Who really knows? What we do know is that some French dude in Bordeaux mentioned Merlot for the first time in 1784, the same year in the US that we ratified the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War with Great Britain (I know, right?).
Because of the California Gold Rush and the influx of European immigrants, Merlot cuttings arrived in California sometime in the 1850s but it wasn’t until the late 1980s when planted acreage was increased and Merlot became more significant as a stand alone wine. Now, it’s the second most widely consumed red wine in the US.

2014 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot, Napa
Duckhorn is, without a doubt one of the best and most consistent producers of Merlot in California. Period. Part of that is their decades long attention to Merlot when others shunned it. The other part of that is they are meticulous with their fruit, and it shows. This Merlot is that foolproof wine that balances fruit, wood and age into a terrific bottle of wine. It’s the velvety texture that first grabs you as waves of mature blackberry, blueberry and black cherry fruit cascade across your palate. But it’s also the comprehensive acidity, the proper use of oak as an equal player and the tannic structure that allows this wine to be graceful and self-assured.

2013 St. Supery Napa Valley, Rutherford Estate Vineyard Merlot, Napa
St. Supery opened their Napa doors in 1989, and Merlot has always been a part of the equation. Elegant and refined this is predominately Merlot with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Cabernet Franc, aged for 19 months, roughly half of that was in new French oak barrels. What you get is soft inviting fruit, black cherry, blackberry, ripe plum, dried boysenberry with back notes of wild herbs, Madagascar vanilla, campfire smoke, and hints of anise and mocha. The tannins and acidity are properly aligned in this wine making for a wine of balance.

2015 Shooting Star Merlot, Lake County
Jed Steele has an amazing knack for finding impressive fruit and delivering that fruit in a structured wine that over delivers in quality yet is underpriced. His Merlot, grown in volcanic soils, represents the minerality and richness these soils are known for. You get subdued blueberry, blackberry, plum boysenberry with some cedar and vanilla from the eight months of oak aging, but also fairly tight tannins. This offers mare mature fruit and if far richer that typical Merlots at this price point. This a wine that is so structured and uniform, that the price belies the quality in the glass.

2015 Chelsea Goldschmidt Dry Creek Valley Merlot, Sonoma
Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is bet known for Zinfandel rather than Merlot, yet a few pockets turn out terrific Merlot fruit. This Merlot straddles a line between bright fresh fruit, and undertone of earthiness. Yes there is blackberry, black cherry, blueberry with back notes of plum, sage and wild thyme. But there is also delightful toasted oak giving off vanilla and cedar notes, but this wine has subversive tannins, they seem mild, but they announce themselves mid palate. The acidity rounds this out make for a great food wine. ($19)

2015 J. Lohr Los Osos Merlot, Paso Robles
From the El Pomar district of Paso Robles, the J. Lohr team brings you fresh bright fruit as Paso grapes tends to be more ripe and that’s the case here. The fruit is more berry driven, so you’ll taste blueberry pie, boysenberry cobbler, back notes of black cherry, blackberry with mild tannins and mild acidity. The oak is evident but not powerful and it lays a solid framework for the fruit and for an easy drinking Merlot. ($15)

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

America’s National Vodka Day: Ukraine’s Khortytsa

Ukrainian Vodka and Brandy, both available in the US
I want to dispel the myth, the rumor, the outright fantasy that vodka should be, “colorless and odorless.” If you buy into that, you’ve been duped and are obviously drinking crappy vodka. Not true my friends, authentic vodka has flavor and tastes like something, much of that depending on what the grain was, corn, potato, or other grains. Really quality vodka need not be reduced to a second-class mixer and if you add Red Bull, please for the love for god keep reading!

What you drink while in Ukraine
October 4th in the US is National Vodka Day. In June, 2017 I went to Ukraine in search of vodka and brandy and if there is any spirit most associated with Ukraine it’s vodka. Ukrainian Billionaire Evgeniy Chernyak in behind Khortytsa vodka. He built one of the largest distilleries in Ukraine located in the southwestern manufacturing hub of Zaporizhia producing over 6.5 million cases annually. Their vodka is grain-based though they can use potato under Ukrainian law. They purchase neutral spirits from 52 different distilleries throughout Ukraine then rectify it at their facility, every step monitored day and night. Even their water, which is also from Zaporizhia, incorporates a multi-stage filtration system including sand filtration and reverse osmosis to make it as pure as possible. Wisely, Chernyak hired veteran distiller Vira Morshna, who has developed and patented 177 titles of vodka and liquors at Khortytsa over the last 14 years and as of today she’s been at the game 45 years.
Vira Morshna
There are four vodkas available in the US including a honey pepper, and the high end DeLuxe, shown here in it’s Ukrainian packaging, which is identical to the version found in the US, except for American spellings (average price $25). With this vodka you’ll find notes of mint, cucumber, there’s a slight sweetness, a clean and pure expression, a slight viscosity and weight to it with back notes of bubblegum and sweet resin. This can be sipped neat and I do prefer that. As I tasted with Chernyak after finishing a meal of sausages, potatoes and borscht and drinking more vodka, I mention to him that his vodkas are so clean, pure and flavorful that it would be a shame to use them as mixers. Chernyak barely registered a smile through his stoic exterior. “My dream was that my vodka would be consumed alone. All the major brands have the technology to make vodka, but we put our souls into our vodka and I'm proud that it represents Ukraine.” And while I was in Ukraine I also discovered a pairing I fell in love with – vodka and tiramisu. SO I encourage you to find better quality vodkas, and there are plenty out there, and sample the DeLuxe from Khortytsa.
Typical traditional lunch in Ukraine

Bonus Vodka Pairing
York Peppermint Patty w/ Ketel One Vodka (originally written for The Hollywood Reporter)
The sheer potent mint of the York patty fills the palate and like a good chaser the Ketel One, with a hint of its own minty background, provides a citrusy counterpoint, muting the mint and allowing the resin and eucalyptus flavors of the vodka to come through. This combo is pretty much seamless flavors as if they were made for each other. 

Yes, I had to wear a hair net while touring Khortytsa
At the Khortytsa Distillery

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Sonoma-tober: October in Sonoma Wine Country

Many wineries offer food and wine pairings.
Everyone loves a celebration and wine regions are no different. Sonoma has declared October to be its month. Sleepy Sonoma - it’s routinely in the shadow of its muscular elder brother, Napa, and while the Napa Valley is the de facto region for Cabernet Sauvignon, the vast Sonoma Valley offers greater diversity of grape varieties, specific growing regions and price points.

Sonoma City Hall.
Sonoma County is notoriously large, in spite of the fact that just 7% of all wines made in California come from here, and any visit requires some planning to fully appreciate the region. From mega-large to boutique, to ultra premium to celebrity-owned wineries, Sonoma is known for its unencumbered pace set in a beautiful rustic backdrop. The Sonoma County Airport, also known as the Charles Schultz Airport (named after the Peanuts comic strip author and long time Sonoma resident) is the only regional airport with direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

At the biggest party in Sonoma, the wine auction.
It is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is the calling card for Sonoma. “If those high-end Napa guys want to try their hand making Pinot Noir they come to Sonoma first,” says Mark McWilliams, owner of Arista Winery in the Russian River Valley.

A Few Numbers About Sonoma County Wine Country
60 different grapes are planted in Sonoma.
17 appellations.
85 % of the wineries are still family-owned.
425 wineries operate in Sonoma.
60,000 acres of grapes grow here.
1812 – the first grapes went into the ground at Fort Ross.
54,000 – people are employed fulltime in the wine biz.
$5.2 – million dollars raised for local charities.

There is a staggering diversity of wines made in Sonoma and I’ve included a few below to give a sense of that diversity. This by no means is a comprehensive list, but hopefully gives you a taste of what Sonoma offers. The best thing is to check it out for yourself - SONOMA.
J Vineyards Russian River Brut Rose’
Made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, the bubbles are light and bright and the acidity is ideal for a sparkler. This salmon colored wine is radiant strawberry, kefir lime, plum, rhubarb, rose water, raspberry with back note of tangerine and nectarine. This is a lively, vibrant wine ideal with a variety of foods. ($45)

Migration 2015 Russian River Valley Chardonnay
The Russian River Valley is the de factor growing area for Pinot and Chardonnay in Sonoma and this Migration shows why Chardonnay is so expressive here - great tropical fruit and nice acidity. There is kiwi, lime, lemon custard, graham cracker crust, nectarine, and honeysuckle. This Chardonnay saw time in stainless steel, new and neutral French oak. ($55)

MacMurray Ranch 2015 Pinot Noir
Actor Fred MacMurray started his own ranch in the 1940s, and today the ranch is home to wine grapes. This wine offers rounded flavors of black cherry, blueberry and mild strawberry, with a medium acidity running through it, complementing the side notes of boysenberry and plum, mild vanilla and an earthy finish. ($38)

Frei Brothers 2014 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley: This is all Zinfandel except for 2% Petit Sirah and is an easy drinking Zinfandel without being a jammy one-trick pony. The barrel aging of this wine for 6-months helps mellow it out and give it some depth. You’ll get a mild acidity with plenty of blueberry compote, blackberry jam, rhubarb, macerated plum with backnotes of clove, vanilla and black pepper spice. ($20)

Monday, September 11, 2017

The 300 - Chianti Classico

Chianti Classico celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2016.  To celebrate I tasted two of Ruffino’s both wines are named for the Duke of Aosta, (that’s him on the labels) who made Ruffino the official wine of the royal family after journeying across the Alps just to try them. Now that’s dedication. Like any defined wine region Chianti has many strict rules that govern the wine from there, such as Chianti Classico where wines must be aged for at least a year, be a minimum of 80% Sangiovese, have a maximum yield of 7.5 tons/hectare (just under 2.5 acres), so you’re yields are about three tons per acre, right in the middle of that sweet spot. Italian wine can be a little confusing, but know this - Chianti on a label is different than Chianti Classico. My focus here is classic Chianti.

The Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico Riserva ($24.99), first produced in 1927 is 80% Sangiovese, 20% Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Fermentation, aided by racking and punch downs, took place in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats for 10 days, followed by another 10 days of maceration on the skins. The wine underwent secondary malolactic fermentation to enhance its texture, then was aged for 24 months in oak, stainless steel, and concrete vats. The Riserva Ducale spent an additional three months in bottle before release. So what’s in the bottle? There’s soft mild fruit, cherry, raspberry, rhubarb with savory tobacco, white pepper, and herbaceous underpinnings. The limited oak does not over power yet helps make this more round in the mouth, filling all the edges.

The 2011 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Oro Chianti Classico Riserva Gran Selezione ($40.99) was first made in 1947 is 80% Sangiovese, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot fermented as separate lots. The wine was aged for about one year in traditional large, neutral oak Slovenian casks. After a year, the wine was transferred into small barriques for another 12 months. Neutral oak allowed the blend to fully integrate and develop a more elegant and complex flavor profile without being altered. The wine then spent four months in bottle to allow it to settle before release. With the Oro you’re immediately hit with classic Sangiovese, cherry, rhubarb, violet, cherry, and plum. There’s a light sweet vanilla that hugs the edges but allows the fruit to shine through.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

When the Moon Hits Your Eye – The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine

People think I'm Italian. I'm not. I’m something of a global mutt, but I do like to drink and write about Italian wines, and as a wine buyer, I’ve always had some cool Italian wines in my wine departments. For many people Italian wine is a confusing, convoluted subject. Just like France there are a myriad number of rules that govern what wines can be made with which grapes and what percentages, not to mention that some of the names are long, laborious, tongue twisters. Good for us that Dr. Wine has come out with yet another volume, the most comprehensive, about Italian wines. The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wines 2017, authored Daniele Cernilli, AKA Dr. Wine, breaks it all down. I recently had lunch with the Good Doctor in Santa Barbara, tasting through several Italian wines he was showcasing, and I can tell you firsthand, Doc knows his stuff. As a brief side note the eight wines he brought were terrific and I found two of them the 2016 Torre Rosazza Pinot Grigio, and the 2012 Velenosi Roggio del Filare (a blend of 70% Montepulciano and 30% Sangiovese) to both be exceptional.

Dr. Wine
The book is broken down by region, starting with Abruzzo and ending with Veneto. He discusses each region and gives specific detailed info on them, then lists the wineries as well as their best known wines, all rated by points, price and an overall star rating of the winery a, “historical evaluation based on the reliability and prestige of the winery.” As comprehensive as the book is, it is all text; you’re not getting pretty pictures and maps, sidebars of places to eat or anything else. You’re getting Italian wine. This also allows this tome to be so inexpensive for its size (over 500 pages). Every wine lover needs to know and understand the great wine regions of the world. Sure, this won’t make you an expert, but it will give clarity to Italy’s many growing regions and, better still, if you’re traveling in those regions, this will hone your visits to some of the best wineries they offer.

The Ultimate Guide to Italian Wine 2017
Published by MD Communications, Rome
581 pages/$20
Italian and English Versions

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Sacred and the Profane - Why Write About Wines You Cannot Try?

I am asked constantly about why I include tasting notes in articles I write about wines that most everyone will never be able to try, let alone afford. Valid question. For example at Champagne Bollinger in 2016 not only did I taste through an amazing lineup that included the highly regarded 1955 vintage, but also the 1928 and the 1914, and no, those are no longer on the market and you can't find them anywhere. Earlier this year I met with Rupert Symington and tasted through many of his Ports including the 1970 and 1980 Vintage Ports. In the last few weeks I sat down and tasted the 1975 Georges De Latour from BV and their 2013 Rarity - sold in magnum with only 1,500 bottles made (at $1,250 a magnum.)

I understand it is maddening for some people, but we are curious creatures. We possess a desire to know things; even things we have no intention of doing. It’s why we read about travel to places we probably will never visit, or watch TV specials about divers who uncover hidden treasures when we don't scuba dive, or look at our computer screens of images from far beyond space into distant galaxies where no human ever been.

We are creatures of habit, but more importantly we are creatures of curiosity. We want to feel like we are a part of something greater. I am part of a large wine community and I’m curious when my colleagues get to taste through Madeira from the late 1800s, or others are faced with a vertical of exclusive Napa Cabernets. I too drool over these experiences and I live vicariously through my friends who are wine writers, publishers, and sommeliers. Yes I am privy to some astonishing things, and many things I never get to try. Just because I will never drive a fancy high-performance vehicle doesn't mean I don't wonder what it might be like (I came close on the autobahn, but that was a rental car). It’s the same with wine.

So when it comes to the 2013 Kata Cabernet Sauvignon, the reality is most of you will never buy this at $165. Does that mean you’re not curious about it? Does it mean it should remain in the purview of the wealthy and exclusive? No, it should not. A little background: The fruit - 80% of which is Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% being Petite Sirah - comes from the Beckstoffer Bourn Vineyard in Saint Helena, which dates from 1872. Only 20 barrels of this were made.

It is as seductive, beguiling and moody as any wine I have come across. It offers typical Cabernet fruit (Napa typically provides rich dark berry fruit with secondary red fruit notes) but it is also wrapped in a cloak of noir-like elements - shadows and fog, light and dark, a sense of poetry, literally as Robert Louis Stevenson suggested, in the bottle. This is a wine to savor, one that transports you, carries you to another place, one that ignites the senses. Some wines do this. Most do not. The Kata Cab is truly a wonder. I hope that whatever opportunity comes your way - an amazing wine, a trip to faraway lands, coffee with an old friend - that you seize upon it. Our lives are often, at least partially, defined by these moments.