Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Razor's Edge 2006 Shiraz-Grenache

In the final hour of 2008 comes to a close, I'm finding myself finishing off a bottle of the Razor's Edge 2006 McLauren Vale Shiraz-Grenache left over from a party we had at our apartment earlier today. It was something I picked up at K&L Wines in San Francisco for $10.99.

I grabbed this because I really enjoyed the label's 2004 McLaren Vale Shiraz (review here).

When I first pulled the cork on this several hours ago, I wasn't that impressed. But now it's opened up, and I'm getting some nice blackberries, blueberries and grippy tannins in the mouth. Strong black liquorish on the nose. Again, good wine for the price.

Wine Spectator gave this wine 91 points and named it a best buy, saying it was: "Polished, round and expressive. A gorgeous mouthful of ripe blackberry, plum, cherry and exotic spices, with hints of leather and brown sugar. The finish rolls on against superfine tannins. Drink now through 2016."

Happy New Year, everyone!

Ridge Vineyards

During my recent trip to Healdsburg, I stopped by Ridge Vineyards, one of the premier wineries in the U.S. Ridge is most known for its Monte Bello Bordeaux blend, which retails for about $150 and regularly receives laurels for its beautifully complex taste and ability to age decades in the bottle. The 1971 Monte Bello took fifth place in the seminal "Judgment of Paris" in 1976 that put California on the map as a quality producer of wine. It's also the bottle I'm thinking about buying for my daughter now to save for her 30th birthday.

Ridge makes numerous other wines, including estate-and region-specific zinfandels, syrahs, cabernet sauvignons, petite sirahs, and a chardonnay.

The tasting room itself was gorgeous, and very sustainable, constructed with bales of straw sandwiched between wooden walls. We arrived on a chilly, dreary Saturday morning around 11am, and only one other couple was there. The staff was super friendly and we chatted for about an hour while tasting wines. There's a complimentary tasting, a $5 fee for four additional wines, and you can taste the current Monte Bello bottling for $15.

Here are my tasting notes - I visited two other wineries before arriving at Ridge, and also had a glass of the Monte Bello before tasting the rest (I spit everything else though), so my palate was somewhat fatigued

The complimentary tasting was of their 2006 Zinfandel Ponzo Vineyard ($28). Earthy, stinky nose, with pomegranate and ripe red berries in the mouth.

For the $5 fee I tried:

2006 Zinfandel Carmichael ($28) - baked apple pie on the nose, cranberries in the mouth.

2006 Geyserville ($35). Blend of 70% zin, 18% carignane, 10% petite sirah and 2% mataro. Ripe plums, weighty fruit flavors and peppercorn.

2006 Lytton Springs ($35). Blend of 80% zin, 16% petite sirah and 4% carignane. On the nose, cedar, vanilla. nice, complete fruit in the mouth.

2002 Syrah ($36). Herbal, almost "green" nose, with green bell peppers and floral mouth.

As for the Monte Bello, $15 gets you a decent-size pour, about half a glass full. On the nose I found red currants, eucalyptus and a citrusy note. In the mouth this wine displays huge tannins, supported by an expression of pure fruit flavors and an herbal note of dill. The finish had sweet delicious berries. Overall the wine is integrated well, and while it would to taste better with some age, it drinks well now.

International Wine Cellar's Stephen Tanzer, a tough and noted critic, gave it 95 points, describing it as "Deep ruby. Explosively perfumed nose offers a profound bouquet of ripe cherry, blackcurrant, yellow rose, Asian spices and vanilla bean; you could use this for incense. Deep and sweet but remarkably precise, offering powerful dark berry and kirsch flavors supported by substantial, velvety tannins. The fruit plows through the finish with superb energy, depth and clarity, fully absorbing the tannins. A big but wonderfully balanced example of Monte Bello, and sure to reward extended cellaring."

It's hard for me to personally say the bottle is worth $150, as I haven't had many other wines in that price range to compare it to, and it wasn't something so amazing that knocked me completely off my feet. It certainly was an enjoyable, beautiful wine, though I'd like to taste it again sometime to see if I really do want to buy and save one for my daughter (I have time as the 2007 vintage won't be released until spring 2010).

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I probably had the most expensive meal of my life this weekend at Cyrus in Healdsburg. I can't recall another restaurant that I've been to where there's a truffles cart, from which you can get 2 ounce shavings of the tuber on any course for $15. I wanted to get the eight course chef's tasting menu for $130, but Rhonda wasn't interested, and they'll only serve it for the whole table. So instead I opted for five courses of my own choosing. As for wine, I picked the 2006 Gramercy Cellars 'Lagniappe' Syrah from Walla Walla. I was in the mood for a smokey, Northern Rhone style Syrah and thought this might be a good option based on a review that I had read beforehand. It wasn't what I was looking for, but the wine was excellent. Nice, pure fruit in the mouth that tasted complete without any flaws. An easy sipper, I finished the bottle without problem during our two-hour plus dinner. Here's what Robert Parker's Wine Advocate (Jay Miller review) had to say about the bottle:

"The 2006 Syrah Columbia Valley is dark ruby-colored. The nose features spice notes (pepper, sage, and cinnamon), mineral, cedar, leather, plum, and blueberry. Like the Tempranillo, it appears to obtain its structure from acidity. On the palate it is slightly lean with an elegant personality (like a slender fashion model) leading to a moderately long, savory finish. It should be at its best from 2012 to 2020."

The bottle cost $60 at the restaurant, which is a really fair markup from the $38 retail price.

As for the food, my courses included a Chanterelle Consommé with Roasted Chestnuts, Celery Root and Madeira, Seared Foie Gras with Braised Duck Cannelloni and Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Truffled Red Wine Risotto with Parmesan Broth, Lamb Loin with Badda Beans and Cippolini Onion, Vin Santo Sauce, and a selection of cheeses.

The food was excellent, beautifully prepared and presented. It was also a course too much for me - I walked out of there pained from expanding my stomach too much. The restaurant itself is considered one of the best in the country, having received two Michelin stars, and it's certainly the kind of place where the staff goes overboard to impress every dinner. It's hard not to be with a 53-page wine list, the aforementioned truffles, several amuse bouche sent out by the kitchen, and the caviar and champagne cart. I also think it's the kind of place that would be enjoyable with a large party that could share bottles of wine and the chef's tasting course together. Or, if you really want to splurge, the $185 "Grand Tasting of fine and rare wines."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Healdsburg Bound

We're escaping to Healdsburg for the weekend sans child while my mom is here (free babysitter!) and I'm looking forward to trying some amazing wines and incredible dining. We're staying at the Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza, a Four Sisters property.

For dinner, I booked us a table at Madrona Manor, a restaurant recently given 3.5 stars in a review by the Chronicle's Michael Bauer. Key takeaways:

" recent visit shows that (Chef Jess) Mallgren has grown immensely and now produces some of the most innovative food in the Bay Area."

"It's an unlikely setting for a chef who makes powder out of olive oil for one of his complimentary appetizers, whips up foam of Parmesan cheese for soup, cooks an egg sous vide to float in his silken onion veloute, and pours liquid nitrogen into custard to make ice cream tableside," and "Madrona Manor is a bargain splurge."

We also secured an early spot at Cyrus, a two-Michelin star rated restaurant. "The food is spectacular, but what makes Cyrus remarkable is the entire experience: The frozen lemon-and-verjus lollipop that Clemmons sends out for an intermezzo; Alexander's description of an heirloom sake made from a rice considered extinct for 2,000 years; Peyton's waxing on about the Carles Roquefort, a ewe's-milk cheese that is "the last of the homemade Roqueforts" (its producer cultures his own penicillin spores)," according to Food & Wine magazine in a April 2006 review.

I'm sure we'll be lunching around the plaza as well, at Healdsburg Bar & Grill and Bear Republic Brewery, so I can clear my palate with some tasty beer between all the winery trips I'm planning.

In particular, I want to see Dutton Goldfield Winery, whose 2005 Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah ($35.00) was rated one of the most exciting wines of 2008 -- and for $35, quite a deal if true.

I might explore other wineries on the Green Valley Appellation Wine Trail, inlcuding Lynmar and its beautiful new tasting room.

And for coffee, there's local artisan roaster Flying Goat.

Besides that, I'm looking for any suggestions. Any can't miss wineries or coffee shops in Healdsburg area I should check out?

Christmas Goodies

Got some really nice coffee and wine gifts this year for Christmas. On the coffee side, I found a 4-cup Bodum Chambord (French Press) under the tree to replace my 10-year old single cup maker; as for wine gifts, I got this really cool notebook called De Long's Wine Tasting Diary that has a full pull-out color chart of wine tasting terms;

Robert Parker's 7th edition Wine Buyer's Guide;

and a World Atlas of Wine by industry giants Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson.

I also walked away from a Christmas party with two bottles of Merlot - the 2005 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot from Washington State, and a Cameron Hughes Lot 94 Oak Knoll Merlot.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bonny Doon's Ca' del Solo 2006 Dolcetto

Had the pleasure of visiting winemaker Randall Grahm's new tasting room in Santa Cruz a month ago. The new Bonny Doon digs near downtown is much more slick than the old tasting room, which was buried in the forest and took what seemed like hours to get there via a winding road that took you up, over and down mountains. But it is also super sustainable, with wood from wine barrels and glass from wine bottles used in the facility for booths, lamps and decor.

Grahm has converted his Ca del Solo estate to biodynamic practices, which is hard to explain in a few sentences, but basically combines organic practices (no chemicals allowed) with astronomical schedules for picking and planting. While it's been ridiculed by some as "Voodoo on the Vine" (article here) the winemakers who practice it say it leads to wines that better show terroir. Vinography published a "skeptic's guide to biodynamic wines" in response to the SF Weekly article talking about some of the positive benefits of its approach.

The 2006 Dolcetto ($24) has a nose of sweet cherries, earth, oak and rounded out by a hint of eucalyptus and anise. In the mouth the wine starts off like an Aussie Shiraz with plush red berry notes, though sour cherries soon turn up to give this wine a bitter ending, which is not unusual for the varietal.

The bottle's label likens the Dolcetto, an Italian name that means "little sweet one" to a 280-pound football player dressed in a tutu. I think they have it backwards -- imagine having dinner with a supermodel that spends the entire time swearing like a sailor. Beautiful, sure, yet bracing.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Terroir Coffee's La Esperanza, Huila, Colombia

George Howell at Terroir Coffee continues to produce wonderfully roasted coffees. The La Esperanza is a coffee George calls "among the finest of any Colombian I have had, an exemplary coffee revealing a peak expression of Colombian terroir." It took first place in the 2007 Columbia Cup of Excellence competition, with a score of 91.5, and selling for $19.20 a pound to Terroir and Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Oregon.

As an espresso, the coffee came out with a head like a Guinness, and had flavors of baking chocolate and grapefruit. As a French press, I got a very buttery mouthfeel and nice acidity with some tropical fruit flavors. The coffee was very complex, and I had a hard time discerning particularly flavors, but there was definitely a nice orange component appearing as the cup cooled.

Terroir's website described its flavor profile as: "jammy ripe dark plum saturated coffee, layered with tropical fruits and streaks of honeyed raw sugar cane."

Cost is $21.95 for 12 ounces.

The farmer, Cantillo Osa, started his career as a handpicker, saving up until he could buy his own small plot for coffee nearly two decades ago. He borrowed many heirloom varieties of bourbon beans from neighboring farmers, and his coffees are shade grown. For a lengthier run down about Osa and his farm, click here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Donkey & Goat Winery

I noticed on a list of East Bay events happening this weekend that A Donkey & Goat Winery is holding an open house this weekend, and it reminded me about their wonderful wines I tasted a few weeks ago during a similar opening. Sadly, I didn't take detailed notes at the time, because I really didn't expect to be buying anything. I went simply because it was a small producer in Berkeley, and I like to try as much wine as possible.

The winery's name comes from something the husband and wife team behind the label observed in France while learning how to be winemakers - that some farmers pair a workhorse animal with a nonworking sidekick. In this case, the winemakers saw a hard working donkey being trailed by his buddy, a goat with little to do, so that's how they came up with the name (or so I was told during the tasting a few weeks ago).

They were tasting four wines when I visited, three Syrahs and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape blend (Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache). All were great, complex, layered wines that really blew me away. I ended up buying the CDP blend, called Three Thirteen for $35. I found it to be the most approachable of the wines, just a touch sweeter than some of their Syrahs. Not to say this is a sweet wine, because it's not. It's just that some of the other wines had more leather, spices, herbs and tannins that indicated to me they would benefit from a few years of aging, and my little wine rack in the living room isn't going to provide the most stable humidity and temperature control over the next couple of seasons.

The open house will be on Saturday, Dec. 20 from noon to 4pm at 2323 B Fourth Street, Berkeley, CA (details here). As a bonus, if you don't like the wines, you can always check out's shop across the street. They have a pretty good selection and decent prices as well.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Barismo Kiandu Nyeri

Received this coffee from Boston-area roaster Barismo as a sample. It's full name is
"Kenya 2008: Nyeri Region: Kiandu Lot 8696," from the Mutheka Farmers COOP, and cost $16.95 for 12 ounces.

I found I got the most expressive version of this coffee from an inverted Aeropress (for tons of info and photos about the process, check this link). On the nose I found some really intriguing savory notes that I wrote down as BBQ sauce. Breaking that down further, I ferreted out brown sugar and some orange peal. In the cup I there was high toned fruit, nice acidity, and a dark chocolate finish. Other times I drank this as an espresso, pour-over and French press, I also found a lightly tart orange-rind/grapefruit flavor.

Like I said in my last post about Barismo, these guys are doing some interesting things with vacuum sealed coffees, and are very passionate about roasting.

Here's what Barismo's green coffee buyer/roaster, Jaime van Schyndel, said to me about his outlook and goals: "We want to roast without error. No tipping, no baking, no scorching, no roasting raw. I don't think enough roasters appreciate this and executing to preserve what's in the coffees consistently is widely misunderstood."

That's one of the reasons Barismo has all their coffees vacuum sealed at origin, to preserve some of the flavors and freshness that's lost when green beans are shipped and stored in jute bags.

He also hopes to find new sources for coffee and rediscover farms that have been lost in the system, or are under appreciated. "We can all fight over the Injertos and La Minitas but that's a top down strategy which we feel doesn't effect the total system all that much," Jaime said.

Definitely keep an eye on these guys.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rwanda Cup of Excellence - part 2

Not sure why it's taken me so long to post this, but my article on the Rwanda Cup of Excellence competition came out about a month ago. Link here.

I really enjoyed working on this story, and wish I could have had more space to give all the details about how Rwanda's coffee industry got to the point where it was able to host a Cup of Excellence competition. It was largely due to USAID projects SPREAD and PEARL.

Here's the first few graphs of the article, read the whole thing at the link above:

Clinton, `Rock Stars' of Coffee Help Change Rwanda's Economy

Nov. 19 (Bloomberg) -- As Christy Thorns, the coffee buyer for Allegro Coffee Co., which supplies Whole Foods Market Inc., sniffed, slurped and spit her way through 24 Rwandan coffees on her evaluating table, she discovered a taste she wasn't used to from that country.

``I'm an acidity freak,'' Thorns said in a telephone interview. ``Citrus, stone fruit and peach. And that's what I got.''

The coffees were samples of the top winners in the first contest held in Africa by the Cup of Excellence program, a non-profit organization that hosts the world's largest coffee competitions. Allegro teamed up with Boston-area roaster Terroir Coffee to place the winning bid of $12.05 a pound for the sixth- place winner, sold during an Internet auction on Oct. 23.

The fact that Rwanda's $45 million coffee industry, which represents half of its income, has specialty buyers in the U.S. raving about its quality is news in itself, given how low the country's beans were regarded just eight years ago.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Wine Deals

Man, I wish I had money to blow. There's just so many discounts out there right now. A few weeks ago I was talking to one of the owners of K&L Wine Merchants for a story I was working on, and he mentioned that they were getting in a shipment of heavily discounted Italian wines from a distressed distributor. Today, I got the e-mail newsletter with the details, and these are some eye-popping discounts. I'm not familiar with many, if any, of these wines, so I can't speak to quality, but anytime you can get a bunch of wines normally priced $15-$35 for $5, it's worth taking a shot on some of them. Here are two:

2003 Maria Pia,Castelli di Monte Urano, "Stella Flora" (Was $34.99 Elsewhere) ($4.99)

From the same vineyards as the Sant Isidoro, located about 200 meters above sea level with good sun exposure to the south and west. Comprised of 50% Pecorinio, 30% Passerina, 10% Trebbiano and 10% Malvasia di Candia. Vinification: First fermentation is temperature-controlled in stainless steel with 10-16 days of maceration on the skins. Second malolactic fermentation in new oak barrels for over 18 months. Wine is the aged in bottles for at least 3 months before release.

2003 Castel Noarna Bianco di Castelnuovo (Was $28 Elsewhere) ($4.99)

The Bianco Castelnuovo is made from 40% Rheinriesling, 25% Gewurztraminer, 25% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Chardonnay planted in terraced rows descending from the estate's castle. The soil is sandy and loose with lots of lime and the vines are around 10 years old.Fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel and barrels for at least 9 months - no new oak. Partial malolactic fermentation and then bottle-aged at least 8 months before release. Pale yellow with bright reflections, aromas of lemon, clean minerals and white peach. In the mouth, the wine is crisp and refreshing, citrus and minerals support a long finish. Fruity and complex with gooseberry and peaches. This wine can support more substantial foods such as light pasta dishes, soups and stronger cheeses. Also a lovely aperitif with antipasti or crostini.

There's a dozen more included in the e-mail. See the store's entire clearance list here.

There's a ton of deals being offered by wineries as well. It's worth checking out web sites for wineries that you like to see if they're offering a big sale for the holiday.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lulu Carpenter's Cooper Street Blend

This espresso blend is one of those "wow" coffees. I haven't been a big fan of espresso blends lately, preferring to explore how different microlots taste in the small cup. However, I was really impressed with this espresso blend when I had a double shot at Lulu's at the Octagon in Santa Cruz a few weeks ago and bought half a pound.

The label says it's a medium roast color, a blend of Typica varietals from Africa, and has characteristics of "lively tea rose aroma, bright blueberry."

I certainly got blueberries. Sweet blueberries. No bitterness at all in this blend. It was such an intense flavor in this espresso I immediately thought of those super sugary Hostess Fruit Pies I used to think were healthy as a kid because it had "fruit" in the name.

Had the last of this blend today (it was roasted Nov. 19) and it still had that blueberry flavor shimmering through a dollop of foam and steamed milk, with a nice dark chocolate component as well. Really enjoyed waking up the past few weeks to this coffee, especially since I've been battling cold after cold. Its bright flavors certainly helped cut through that morning fog on my palate.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Wine Weekend Extravaganza!

If you're a wine lover in the San Francisco Bay area this weekend, you're in luck - there's tons of fun events going on. It seems like every winery is having a release party, holiday event, or just offering good deals. Check out this link for a from a site called Local Wine Events for a complete list. Here are some that I'm excited about (although will probably only make it to one, sadly).

Tonight, Pleasant Hill Wine Merchants (in Pleasant Hill) will be having it's third annual Big Cab tasting, and for $30 you can try some cult wines from Caymus, Silver Oak, Grassi, Nickel & Nickel, Hartwell, Pina, Stuhlmuller, Baldacci, Mi Sueno and Miner Family Vineyards.

Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV will be in town signing his book at Books Inc. in the Marina at noon, then heading over to Fort Mason for a tasting event. Tickets are $30, and you have to bring a bottle of wine and a plate of food to match. Details here. (I was checking out the Fort Mason website for details about the event and noticed there's an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting there the same day. Oh the irony!)

East Bay vinter Periscope Cellars is having a futures release party at its tasting room in Emerville on Saturday, and knocking 40% off its wines.

Ridge Vineyards, the famed maker of cult cab Monte Bello, is starting its winter wine series on Saturday in Healdsburg, and for $10, you can taste wines from the "Sonoma Zinfandels" Gift Pack: 2006 Geyserville, 2003 Zinfandel Del Carlo and 2002 Home Ranch 1.5L.

VIE Winery
is having a fall release party on Sunday, Dec. 7 in San Francisco. VIE's Les Amours (The Loves) Syrah received a 90 point score from Robert Parker (if you care about that sort of thing). I like VIE because one of the wine makers is Bryan Kane, who is also the guy behind Lake County's Sol Rouge. I met Bryan at ZAPfest earlier this year, and his wines really stood out among the tens, if not hundred, that I tasted. Plus he's a small winemaker and I like to support small production wineries. You can read my review of Sol Rouge's 2006 Lake County Cab here.

If you get to check any of these out, let me know!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions 2006 Riesling, Washington State

Awhile back when I was looking for deals at BevMo, I wanted to indulge in my craving for dry Riesling. There was a lot there to choose from, but I settled eventually on the Milbrandt Vineyards Traditions 2006 Riesling, Washington State, because the label looked familiar, and I thought this meant I read a good review somewhere and drilled its imagine into my brain so that I would flash on it, a la Chuck, if I happened to come across it somewhere.

Besides my shaky memory, this shelf-talker helped push this bottle into my cart:
"90 PTS, BEST BUY, WINE ENTHUSIAST. The '06 Milbrandt Riesling is off dry with delicate floral and mineral aromas; persistent flavors of white peach; papaya and orange blossoms; exotic and delightful."

From the winery's website:
"Our 2006 Traditions Riesling is a great example of terroir and variety. The textbook floral aromas of orange blossom, apricot and white peaches are well supported by the firm acids and hallmark "Evergreen minerality." The palate is lush but lively, and the finish is long and silky."

Well, I bought the wine for about $11.99, and looked it up online to see if I could find where I saw the review. Turns out it was from Gary Vaynerchuck's Wine Library TV (episode here). He wasn't that impressed with it, saying he got stone fruit, dried apricot and blue stone on the nose, followed by good petrol, acidity in the mouth. "Not that much pizazz," was his overall impression, rating it an 85. "It's like the difference between eating a steak at a run of the mill restaurant, and eating a steak at a steakhouse. They're both steak, but you know what I mean? You can taste the difference, the quality."

Overall I liked it, but not sure if I would buy another bottle. On the nose I got tangerine, and thought it tasted somewhat similar to the orange flavor you might get in a McDonald's orange soda. Kind of syrupy, with a touch of sweetness in the finish.

The winery's website says the grapes come from its 452-acre Evergreen Vineyard, which was planted 1998. The property sits on a bluff above the Columbia River, and has "geologically young" soils on top of ancient volcanic basalt beds. (For the winery's pdf sheet with all the details about this wine, click here).

Riesling has become more popular in the U.S. in recent years, as it has nice aromatics, good acidity and pairs well with lots of foods, especially spicy Asian dishes (the grape comes from Germany, where many variations of the wine are made from dry to sweet). There's a lot of buzz about Washington State Riesling, which is another factor why I purchased this.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Query 2006

Forgot to mention in my Thanksgiving wines post that we also had a 2007 Query Gewurztraminer from Monterey County, California. I didn't take notes, but I remember nice nose of apricots, which were present in the glass with other tropical fruits, along with some minerality. The wine finished very dry.

BevMo's Cellarmaster, Wilfred Wong, rated it 89 points, saying: "Delicate rose petal aromas lead the tasty '07 Query Gewurztraminer on it way to goodness; bright and bouncy on the palate with just a trace of sweetness; crisp in the finish."

It's selling for $14.99 at BevMo, and with their 5 cent sale, you can get a second bottle for 5 cents. (I know, I'm starting to sound like a broken record here about the BevMo sale. I can't help it - I stocked up and am drinking those wines now, and you're bound to find these at holiday parties since it's such a great deal).

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Wine Reviews & a History Lesson

For Thanksgiving dinner, I brought two wines: Wildhurst 2005 Chardonnay Reserve (review) which I got at the BevMo 5 cent sale, and a red wine called Winfield Red from Winfield Winery in Cabot, Pennsylvania. I picked it up last year at the winery during Christmas when we were visiting family.

The Winfield Red is a dry "red wine blend." Not exactly sure what grapes were used to make this as it's not listed on the bottle or the website (there's no vintage year either, so it could be a NV). The winery bottles four separate single varietal dry reds, including Noiret, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin, so I'm assuming the Winfield Red is some sort of combo of those.

I bought the bottle last December, and have been waiting for some reason to open it up, but never got around to it. I figured it would be good to open for Thanksgiving with family out here since I remembered it to be light, Pinot Noir-like wine.

My memory was right, I found cherries and stems on the nose, with a very light Beaujolais flavor in the mouth - sweet cherries on the attack and a tart green finish lacking tannins. It was enjoyable, and I think I paid less than $15 for it.

I was really impressed with another wine served at dinner, the Donovan-Parke 2007 Pinot Noir ($16.99 at BevMo and still under its 5 cent sale).

Not sure what I was getting on the nose, but the only way I could describe it in my notes was "Cheez-Its." It was savory, salty, and reminded me of cheese. Take that for what you will. In the mouth I found bing cherries, lots of black pepper on the midpalate - as if I had dipped my tounge in a pepper shaker, and a finish of sweet strawberries. I might be picking up a bottle or two of this wine to try again. I really enjoyed it.

I was talking to my girlfriend's grandfather, Jim, 90, who has a farm in Lodi where they grow a variety of things including my favorite, pomegranates. We started talking about wine, and he told me had grown Tokay grapes on his farm more than a decade ago, from 100-year old vines. What a tragedy, I thought, given that "old vine" wines can command a premium nowadays, especially since a lot of the very old vines were torn up during prohibition. He said he used to sell the grapes to Gallo, but the roots became infected with a fungus, and the government had outlawed a fungicide they used to kill it. So, they pulled up the vines. So sad.

I thought it was kind of bizarre that they had Tokay grapes, since my only reference to the name was for a sweet white wine grown in Hungary. But after some research, I found that the famous sweet white Hungarian wine is actually named after the town where it's from - Tokaj -and the grape varietal is actually Furmint. There's also Tokay d'Alsace (Pinot Gris) and Tocai, an Italian varietal grown in Friuli-Venezia Giulia region. All of these are different varieties.

So, while doing some further searching online for Tokay in Lodi, I saw that the varietal Jim probably grew is called Flame Tokay, which has been planted in Lodi since the turn of the 20th century (more background here). The variety is used both for table grapes and wine, as it has high sugar content and acidity, although it appears it has a "neutral" flavor that doesn't lend to high quality wine production.

I also found out that Lodi had a Tokay Carnival more than a century ago in 1907, which was an "elaborate three-day event that was officially Lodi’s first community-wide grape harvest celebration," according to the Lodi News-Sentinel. While that event was a one-time affair, the community did start to hold a Lodi Grape Festival every September since 1934 (with a five-year break during WWII). Now, most of the Flame Tokay production is gone, made way for more popular varieties. I didn't expect to learn much about wine during Thanksgiving dinner, but a simple conversation ended up teaching me about a part of California's wine history that I never knew about. So glad that happened.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Barismo's Guatemala Nimac Kapeh (Atitlan Region)

After I wrote a review of Ritual's Kenyan Kiandu, Muthecka Co-op coffee (review here), I received an e-mail from Jaime van Schyndel at Arlington, Massachusetts-based roaster Barismo saying he has the same coffee but at a different roast level, and offered to send me some to review. Barismo sent me that coffee and this one, the Guatemalan Nimac Kapeh (Atitlan Region). I'm reviewing the latter first.

I received this coffee three days after it was roasted, and have been drinking it for more than a week now, prepared it several different ways. Each preparation showed a different facet of this coffee, though I preferred a pour over the best.

Wet pour over grounds had an interesting scent of lavender (more of a hint, actually). In the cup I found red apple acidity, toasted wood notes, some red fruits and it finished with lavender and pink grapefruit components.

As a French Press prepared coffee, I found a stronger chocolate profile, with coco powder leading the toasted wood and baked apple pie notes. There was also an interesting beefy flavor, sort of like the juices you'd find on your plate while cutting into a medium-cooked steak.

In the small cup, my espresso machine highlighted different spices in these beans - along the lines of nutmeg and cinnamon, followed by deep layers of currants and milk chocolate.

Like many Guatemalan coffees I've tried, this isn't a powerhouse. It's not going to bowl you over with huge flavors like an Ethiopian or Kenyan coffee would. But it has nice subtle layers and has a complexity that would be lost in those other coffees.

The other thing I noticed in this coffee was the roast notes as a toasty, wood-like flavor. Unlike overroasted coffee, these notes didn't overwhelm the other flavors, it added a nice layer to the cup, much like oak barrels can, if used sensibly, impart added structure and flavor in wine.

Barismo describes the coffee's flavor profile this way:
"Tea like, floral, and a mellow soft red fruit acidity.If I knew enough people had tasted Teaberry gum, I'd use teaberry to describe this coffee but you just have to trust me on that one."

"Dry Aroma(the grounds): Soft Cherry
Wet Aroma(brewing): Cherry Blossom
Hot Cup: Dark Oolong Tea, Ripe Cherry, Soft Red Fruit
Aftertaste: Brown Sugar
Cool Cup: Raspberry and Red Fruits"

The coffee sells for $14.95 for 12 ounces - a nice price for a coffee of this quality.

The coffee was vacuum packed at origin, meaning that it wasn't exposed to the elements during transportation like coffees packed in jute bags are. This is a really great development for the coffee world, and Barismo stores all of its green coffee beans in vacuum-sealed packages (whether they were shipped that way or not, though they are trying to get all of their coffees vac-sealed at origin going forward). What this does is slows down the aging process, keeping the beans fresh until they want to roast them.

I was e-mailing Jaime about this, and he described the problem with "unprotected" green coffees stored in jute bags:

"Aroma fades first, then acidity turns, then finally sweetness gives way to hard wood. You can compensate up to a certain point. As far as the moisture problem, we approach our roasting drastically different than the traditional roaster, so I am not sure many people can gather much from our notes. The best way I can describe it is that you can push a vac packed coffee harder to get more from it and the coffee can come out rounder and deeper in it's flavors. The same profile to an older coffee in jute would show the baggy or 'agey' notes."

I've had coffee from specialty roasters here in San Francisco where the aging was evident. I won't name names, because I don't have proof, but these coffees should have had bright acidity, lively flavors, and instead tasted dull. You could tell something was missing. This wasn't the case with both of the coffees I had from Barismo. I'll have more about them in my next coffee review of their Kenyan offering.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Henry's Drive 2006 Dead Letter Shiraz

Accolades, accolades, accolades. Henry's Drive Dead Letter Shiraz has certainly racked them up. 90 points, Wine Spectator. Best Wine of tasting, Wall Street Journal wine columnists. Parker - 90+ for past vintages.

I had a glass of this wine at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant's wine bar this summer, and wasn't overly impressed. I discounted my opinion because the wine was warm, and I've discovered this year that it's not only OK to chill your red wines, they actually taste better cooler, rather than warmer, than room temperature.

After reading the WSJ column about this wine, I wanted to get a bottle. The article reviewed mid-priced ($20-$50) Australian Shiraz, and the writers were left wanting. They did like the 2005 Dead Letter Office Shiraz, however, ranking it "Best of Tasting," with their second highest rating of "delicious," and describing it as: "Rich and complete, with layers and layers of inky yet juicy fruit. Not even a hint of flab. Could age very nicely for quite some time."

Tasting notes from Henry's Drive describe the 2006 version, the third vintage of this wine, as: "Juicy rich aromas immediately strike the nose with a wide spectrum of
fruits including raspberries, cherry and plum intermingle with milk chocolate,
vanilla bean and roasted coffee. Evidence of the multi-regional blend can be
seen with the fresh minty flavours of Padthaway and the chocolate tones
of McLaren Vale. The layers of creamy tannins form the foundation of this wonderfully opulent, fleshy and fruit driven wine. The palate is succulent with subtle, spicy integrated oak and traces of black pepper." (link to pdf with more info).

I wasn't going to pay $30+ for this wine. But when BevMo included this wine in their 5 cent sale (buy one bottle full price, get a second for 5 cents) I jumped at the chance to have a couple of bottles to try again at home.

This past Friday I felt like popping open a big, fruit-forward wine for the weekend, and naturally I thought of this Shiraz. The wine pours like syrup, and feels creamy in the mouth. Flavors of pure ripe fruit, blackberries and plums, with some spice on the finish. I tasted cardamon. As it warms, the alcohol comes out much more and the finish gets a little hot.

I liked this wine, but think it's overpriced. I wouldn't pay $33 for it (current BevMo price) though if you want to try it, BevMo still has it basically half off for its 5 cent sale (link here). I'll probably save the second bottle for a party - it's one of those wines that is enjoyable and fun, and would please a crowd. Though if you really want a similar experience at a third of the price, check out the Razor's Edge McLaren Vale Shiraz (review here).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Cool Coffee & Wine Photos from Life Magazine

Life Magazine just put its archive of photos and etchings dating back to 1750 on google images for free, accessible to anyone with an internet connection. That's 10 million images, 95 percent of which have never been seen before, available to sift through, ponder over and gape at. I started playing around with the archive today, and found images of my hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts from the 1950s, and my college, Holy Cross in Worcester.

Then I searched for what I could find under coffee, espresso and wine. The photo up top came under my espresso search (one of only three available, unfortunately). The image was taken in October, 1966 by Fred Lyon in Bari, Italy. The caption reads: "Waiter using espresso machine in restarurant (sic) at Cafe Partenopea." All I could think was, wow, a 6-group head manual espresso machine - that barista must have arms of steel!

Then I searched wine. Much more content here, about 200 images. This one in particular caught my eye:

Yes, that's right - Chateau Lafite wines dating back to 1799. A whole book was written about a 1787 bottle that was supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and sold at auction: "The Billionaire's Vinegar: The Mystery of the World's Most Expensive Bottle of Wine." (It might actually be a fake). On the Lafite website, they have this to say about the cellar where these wines rest: "Today, samplings for tastings are rare. Rather, the cellar is a place which inspires humility against the passing of time and witnesses the regularity of Lafite wines."

Anyway, if you want to waste a few hours digging through history, check out the archive here: (link).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Beaujolais Nouveau at Kermit Lynch

Yesterday I needed to get out of the house and just roam around, and I decided to take a trip to Kermit Lynch's store in Berkeley. Lynch is one of the giants in the wine world. He started importing French wine to the U.S. and selling it out of his shop in the 1970s, and has brought many great winemakers to the market here. For a more in depth profile, check out this New York Times piece from last year about him (link).

His shop, located on San Pablo Ave., looks like an old barn from the street, with weathered wooden boards adorned with a simple sign. Inside, boxes and boxes of French wine are stacked in rows waist high, with written descriptions telling shoppers what they can expect.

This particular weekend happened to be when Beaujolais Nouveau arrives. The young wine, made from Gamay grapes, is released the third Thursday of November to celebrate the end of the harvest. The wine is 6-8 weeks old, has been hand harvested and subjected to carbonic maceration, or a process that creates light, fruity wines with little tannins. The wines aren't meant to be taken seriously, and there are usually parties arranged for their arrival. Many winos criticize the whole affair as just a marketing gimmick, and I've never really been to one of these events before.

So when I pulled up to Kermit Lynch's place and saw the parking lot full of red-and-white checkered tables, a crowd of people drinking wine and a band with an accordion player, I figured it was to celebrate the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau.

I walked around inside the shop for quite some time, reading all the shelf talkers and trying to see if any of the names jogged my memory. One did - the Marcel Lapierre, Morgon ($22). I just read a posting about this Beaujolais (some can, and are aged if they aren't pasteurized) on Dr. Vino's blog (link) and had a bottle in my hand ready to purchase, but I eventually put it back (my wine rack is full right now, and I've been trying to cut back my purchases overall or limit myself to bottles under $20. I might come back and buy this at some point, but guilt got the better of me this time).

So, after all that agonizing, I went outside to get a glass of wine and just enjoy the beautiful fall day. The sun was out, a slight breeze took the edge off the heat, and everyone seemed to be in a good mood. At the bar I asked for a taste of one of the Beaujolais Nouveau offerings, and wham! it really punched me with sour tarts. Too much, I thought, so I ended up ordering a glass of 2007 Cote de Brouilly, Cru Beaujolais, Domaine Thivin. It was still tart, but more substantial than the initial one I tried. Being alone meant that I could find a single seat at one of the tables, while everyone else in groups and couples circled around looking for an opening.

Quite a nice time, I have to say. As a parent I don't get much time to just be alone with my thoughts, but I certainly stole some time to enjoy a glass of wine outside on a beautiful day.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lulu's at the Octagon

I'm in Santa Cruz for a day to interview winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon for an article I'm working on, and headed over to Lulu's at the Octagon, one of the slicker specialty coffee shops in the area. Owner Manthri Srinath is very passionate about coffee and espresso (check out this exchange between him and the blogger who writes the caffeinated rantings site who gave Manthri's other cafe, Lulu Carpenter, a mediocre review).

I've spoken to Manthri in the past and he certainly cares a lot about his cafes and the quality of coffees and espressos they make. That's why he has been willing to spend a lot to get the best equipment. At the Octagon he has a Clover for brewing coffee, and a 3-head La Marzocco Mistral for espresso. The Clover, as I've discussed in previous posts is a super expensive, super precise machine created a few years ago to help better prepare a cup of coffee. It was the darling of the specialty coffee world until Starbucks bought the company that makes the Clover earlier this year.

The Mistral is like the Ferrari of the espresso world. Handmade in Italy, it features "exposed, naked saturated brewing groups and dual-boiler technology and is intended for trendy, radical locations," according to the La Marzocco site. If that doesn't get you hot, I don't know what will. Normally, these machines, which have to be specially ordered, come with just two group heads, but the barista today informed me that Manthri had the company build him a three-head machine instead.

I ordered a double shot of their Cooper Street blend, and was told it's a blend of Ethiopian beans. I didn't expect much since I've been less impressed with espresso blends recently. They're blended to be smooth, inviting, and in my opinion, offer less excitement than single-origin shots. However, this was something really special. I didn't have anything to write on in the cafe to capture what I was getting, but it lacked any trace of bitterness and had a high-toned fruitiness that I assumed came from naturally processed coffee beans (where the coffee cherry is allowed to dry in the sun, giving the bean inside a sometimes mustier, softer fruit flavor profile than a washed coffee, which is brighter with acidity).

I wasn't planning on buying any beans, but had to get a half pound of that blend, and I can't wait to fool around with it on my set up at home. I also walked out with a moka brown espresso mug and saucer. These are cute little cups that you see at all the specialty cafes, and are hard to find in stores.

I bought a cup of one of their Colombian coffees from the Clover, but after drinking that tongue-covering espresso, I couldn't really pick apart the subtleties in this cup.

If you in Santa Cruz and want a top-notch coffee experience, I suggest visiting Lulu's at the Octagon. It's in downtown in a beautiful building, and the coffees and espressos are a cut above what you'll find at many specialty cafes.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Primaterra 2007 Primitivo

Primitivo is the Italian name for Zinfandel (both are genetically related to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kaštelanski). I love Zinfandel; it's one of the first varietals I really identified as something I could always enjoy for it's big, brash fruitiness, touch of peppery spice and overall easy drinking wine. Zinfandel is the party grape, best embodied by the yearly ZAP fest - the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers tasting that takes place at San Francisco's Fort Mason.

If you think wine tasting events are snooty, then just come to this event (next one is Jan. 28-31, 2009). Imagine hundreds of wineries pouring thousands of wines in two large warehouse-like settings, packed with people. Madness ensues. The whole crowd erupts in cheers when someone drops their glass on the floor and it shatters. Sure, some of the people here would fit in nicely at this site, but overall everyone seems attractive and friendly. Actually, the place is filled with beautiful people. Oh how pretty. I've been urging my single friends to check this event out.

I stumbled out of my first ZAP fest like three years ago in a wine buzz that didn't wear off for days. The next time I attended this event, I went as a journalist for the press preview (held a few hours before they let the zoo animals in) and made sure to spit instead of sip. I left sober, content with all the wines I was able to evaluate and generally happy not to be waiting in line like everyone else (you may be thinking "borrrrring!" but I really love wine, and to be able to taste dozens of bottles and decide which ones I might purchase in the future makes me excited. Plus I'm a parent now, so I'm not really allowed to have too much fun as it is anyway.)

So, back to the subject at hand, the Primaterra 2007 Primitivo. I bought this for under $10 at Cost Plus World Market. I was searching for cheap interesting wine, and I had tried a Primitivo at the Golden Glass tasting in San Francisco this summer (mostly Italian wines). I really enjoyed that wine, it had the nice fruit and spice I'm used to in an American Zin, but was restrained in an "Old World" way.

The Primaterra has an alcohol level of 13.5%, which would be mocked and laughed at by its American Zin cousins for being a teetotaler. I've actually stopped buying Zins for the fact that many of them are super alcoholic (15%, 16%, 17%!) and taste like heavy, liquored fruit. Not so enjoyable.

This wine, from Puglia (Apulia - the heel of Italy's boot) is labeled Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) - the second rank of Italian wine above table wine, and similar to France's Vin de Pays (country wine - also one step above table). It's appearance is inky dark with purple tinges at the edges. On the nose I get raisins, dried fruits and figs. These scents are present in the glass, and there's a real baked fruit quality and heavy raisin component. I also got blackberry jam and raspberry liquor.

The raisin taste indicates these grapes had a long hang time and were super ripe when picked. Its a flavor you're going to find in big American Zins. It also usually indicates a high alcohol level, since the riper the grape, the more sugar present, and higher sugar levels means more for the yeast to convert to alcohol. So I'm not really sure what's going on here. The website doesn't have much more info either on how the grapes were grown, except to say they were grown at 200m above sea level and that 40% were aged in new oak, 60% in stainless steel.

My friend Rob tried this with me a few days ago and got marzipan and vanilla.

Overall, I'd skip this wine. It's cheap and not bad, but not really that interesting.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Wildhurst 2005 Chardonnay Reserve

I have been craving a rich, buttery Chardonnay recently but I haven't had much experience with the varietal, and I know a lot of critics have complained that many bottles are overwrought with heavy oak flavors.

I went to BevMo this weekend to take advantage of their 5 cent sale (buy one bottle full price, get a second one for 5 cents), and after stocking up on some highly rated Aussie Shiraz wines (Henry's Drive Dead Letter Shiraz was my main target -- the Wall Street Journal's wine columnists said it was the best of their tasting of Australian Shiraz priced $20-$50) I decided to take a gander down the Chardonnay isle.

Big mistake. I got lost in a sea of bottles. The problem with a large wine shop such as BevMo is also what makes it appealing -- the sheer size of their offerings. Being a large company allows them to offer amazing deals on some bottles, but if you don't go in with a plan, you can drive yourself mad trying to choose what to get.

After passing through the Chard isle several times, I picked out the Wildhurst 2005 Chardonnay Reserve. I paid $12.99, but got a second bottle for 5 cents, so basically I paid half that per bottle.

I actually visited Wildhurst's tasting room last summer in Kelseyville, Lake County, and ended up buying a Zinfandel that I really enjoyed, so I thought I'd stick with the winery that I knew rather than getting something random.

On the nose I found pears, and gamy scents. On the attack, I got pears, peaches, wet stone and lemon. Some clover spice on the finish and a little petrol.

I was a little disappointed with this wine. It's not a bad wine, it's just not what I was looking for. Didn't have the stature I was seeking.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sean Thackrey's Pleiades XVI

I first read about Sean Thackrey in a glossy magazine years and years ago and was so intrigued by the man, his methods and the description of his wines that I started to seek them out whenever I went into a wine shop. Unfortunately, I was living in NYC at the time, and almost always the response by wine shop owners was "who?"

In California, however, he is much better known by the smaller shops. You ask if they have any of his wines, and their faces light up while they wistfully describe how it tastes. Two different wine shop clerks who have had the Pleiades XVI both described how unique its nose was, how they just wanted to spend hours sniffing it. They also said it went down way, way too fast.

Thackrey claims to own the largest collection of ancient texts on winemaking, and he tries to incorporate some of these methods into his practice. For instance, he lets the grapes "rest" after picking them for 24 hours, something that he claims dates back to ancient Greek poet Hesiod. He also lets his juice ferment in open-top vats under the stars and eucalyptus trees, something that fell out of favor hundreds of years ago, according to a wonderful profile in the San Francisco Chronicle (link).

It doesn't hurt demand that Robert Parker awarded Thackrey's 2001 Sirius Mendocino County Eaglepoint Ranch Petite Sirah 96 points.

Pleiades is Thackrey's cheapest wine, a field blend of a variety of grapes possibly including Syrah, Barbera, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and Merlot (I don't think the exact mix is known). I bought a bottle for $19 from's Berkeley shop in August, and was going to drink it relatively soon when I got an e-mail from Thackrey (sent to those on his wine list) that said e is not planning another bottling of the wine "any time soon." So, in the "save" drawer the wine went.

The wine quickly sold out, as it usually does, and I couldn't get another bottle until last week when I bought the last bottle at Farmstead Cheese & Wine in Alameda for about $25. I decided to open this bottle for a small gathering of friends Friday. To get it ready, I kept it in the fridge for a few hours, then took it out and decanted it for at least an hour before the guests arrived.

On the nose I got sweet tar, cherries and some fresh herbs. In the glass, the wine had a nice cool-eucalyptus flavor throughout. Red fruit berries lie beneath. Overall, everyone loved this wine, and I wish I could have had more time to savor it, ferret out every strand of scent and flavor, but this wine wasn't especially made for that. We drank it with plates of cheese, bread, hummus, grapes and salami. A perfect party wine, and how it should be enjoyed. On the label it says: "The object of Pleiades Old Vines is to be delicious, delight the jaded, and go well with anything red wine goes well with."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Massif d'Uchaux 2005 "Arbousier"

Man I love this wine. I had to restrain myself every night from finishing the bottle. Several glasses would disappear before I had to forcibly remove the bottle from my sight so I wouldn't keep refilling my glass. This Cotes du Rhone Villages AOC wine is a blend of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Carignan and clocks in at 13% alcohol. I paid $11 for it, and it's a steal.

In appearance, the wine had shades of light purple on the edges. A quick sniff shortly after opening it gave way to scents to barnyard funk, including a new rubber component. This faded slightly over the next few days and while still present, the nose had a sweeter smell. I wrote down "maple syrup followed by sweet cherries" the third night I had this wine.

In the glass, the wine seemed a bit flat at first, but opened up nicely with some time, and presenting layers of sour cherries, violets and a bit of bark.

This is a great sipper, a wine that goes down easy and impresses you the whole time. It's not overweight with alcohol or oak, and I wonder how much time, if any, it spent in barrels. There's a website on the bottle, but it doesn't say much beyond what's on the label, so I can't tell for sure about how this wine was produced.

This wine would go great with many different plates, though something lighter in fare would match best. My best match up was a sautéed chicken with olives, capers and roasted lemons dish served on a bed of sauteed baby spinach. (Recipe from Food & Wine magazine).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

2004 Razor's Edge McLaren Vale Shiraz

It's hard to resist a great label, and Razor's Edge certainly has that. It's not one of those cutesy critter labels that are derided so much by winos, it's a strikingly bold design of black and red and could have been a poster for the "Sweeney Todd" film.

Normally I try not to let labels influence me when I'm shopping for wine, but sometimes it's hard to ignore a standout. And to be honest, when you're staring at shelves and shelves of wine, some things just catch your eye. I still check out the details before buying, and if there isn't enough info about it or it's priced too high, I won't buy it, but in a sea of wines priced between $10-$20, marketing can triumph.

I have been eying this wine for a few weeks, maybe more, at the local Nob Hill supermarket in Alameda. When they reduced the price to $10.99 from $13.99, I decided to get a bottle (yes, $3 isn't a big deal, but I've been trying to keep my purchases around $10 per bottle for my day to day drinkers in order to save some money. You know, the whole next great depression happening and all).

The bottle I picked up from the shelf had a small tear on the label, and I was worried that indicated it had been banged around during shipping/stocking. I began to put it back for another one when I noticed the vintage -- 2004. All the other bottles were from 2006. I looked to the back of the shelf and couldn't find any others from 2004. Kinda weird. So I kept it, figuring I'd rather have a slightly aged Shiraz from Australia than a newer one, and also thought to myself I can come back next week and get the 2006 if I like the 2004.

Well, I certainly liked this wine, and bought another bottle, this time the 2006, a week later (I'll review that some time soon, hopefully). Its appearance is black as night with crimson edges. On the nose I got sweet tar and honey, and in the glass, I found lots of tannins, heavy black plum flavors, and a bit of heat, though not as much as other massive wines like this. Some tar and dirt flavors on the finish.

This is a big wine, and not one that matches so well with food, in my experience. It's so rich and filling that it showed up the meals I had with it. A light dish wouldn't stand a chance of imparting any flavor in your mouth with drinking this wine, and a heavy meal like braised lamb might just seem like two titans battling it out for space in your stomach. This morning I thought it would probably go well with a plate of stinky blue cheese and maybe some nuts. It would likely standout in a tasting for its mouth-coating abilities, and is certainly one you want to slowly sip and enjoy on a cool fall night or fridged winter evening.

In looking online for more information about the brand, I found out on its distributor's site, Joshua Tree Imports, that 2004 was the wine's first vintage. Apparently it was labeled a “Best Value Wine” by Wine Spectator and as one of the “Best Buys from Australia” by Robert Parker, according to the site. I would certainly endorse those laurels. Great, cheap, bold wine that's enjoyable and nice to have on a shelf at your house to whip out when you're up for something big.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

PT's Rwanda Bufcafe

From just a quick assessment of this coffee, I got nice hazelnut notes on the palate, balanced by semi-sweet chocolate. I've been nursing a cold for a few days, so I'm not trusting my taste buds too much right now, and I'll probably re-review this coffee when I'm not full of phlegm.

The roaster, PT's Coffee, says this about it:
"A sweet honeysuckle aroma combines perfectly with this coffee's pronounced acidity. Strong notes of passion fruit and green apple shift elegantly to an earthy herbacious finish with a creamy body that leaves a long, pleasing finish."

It was rated 91 by Ken David's, with a blind description of "Lush tropical fruit mixes with citrus and flowers in the aroma. Bright acidity; smooth and silky mouthfeel. The fruit and floral aromatic characteristics continue elegantly into the cup, ending cleanly with a slight hint of chocolate in the long finish."

Like I said, can't really taste too much right now, but I wanted to write about it today for a different reason. I like PT's Coffee, they have some great offerings, especially their Ethiopian Beloya offerings.

But I wanted to talk a minute about how this coffee came to me. I used to belong to a coffee club run by Great Coffee. The company checks out's monthly reviews, and sends members one of the coffees that Ken Davids' ranked high that month. I was a member for about a year, and in that time, was sent a lot of different coffees from a variety of roasters. But after a while, I noticed that the coffees often arrived at my door long after they were roasted.

As I became more of a coffee geek, I realized that coffees often taste the best within the first two or three weeks after they were roasted (some insist that beans are ideal for espressos within 3-5 days after roasting). So I decided to drop my membership because I figured I can get enough fresh roasted coffee from the numerous and high quality roasters in the SF bay area.

BUT I still get e-mails from about deals they have. The most recent one offered two half-pound coffees, the PT's Rwanda Bufcafe, and Coffee Klatch's El Salvador 100% Bourbon, for a total of $10, shipped!!!! Shipping has been expensive this year, so the free shipping really got me to sign on for the deal. I placed my order on Oct. 31, and it arrived yesterday, Nov. 10. To my dismay upon opening the box, I saw that the Rwandan coffee was roasted on Oct. 15, basically a month ago, and the Coffee Klatch El Salvador has no roast date whatsoever on the package.

I know this post may sound incredibly bitchy to some people, but there's a real difference between coffees that are fresh roasted and roasted a month ago. My two Terroir coffees that I've been drinking for the past month were roasted on the same date, and I've seen their vibrancy slowly fade the past week or so. I'm disappointing to get these new coffees so late in their lifecycle, despite the price I paid.

Oh well.

Friday, November 7, 2008

2004 Sonnino Chianti Montespertoli

Purchased this bottle a few months ago on sale from Grail Wine Selections for $12 (normally $20 on their web site). Combination of 80% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 5% Trebbiano and Malvasia.

This wine had a light cranberry color, with a nose of cherries, bacon fat and blackberries. In the mouth I got juicy concord grapes and a heavy gamy component. Tannins don't appear until late, but they do kick in and provide a lasting impression.

Erin Martin at Grail Wine Selections sent me some background on the vineyard:
"Another cool thing about the Sonnino is the fact that is it from Montespertoli, which is a TINY little DOC zone in Chianti – their smallest, in fact – about 20km SW of Florence. Castello Sonnino owns about 30% of the land in Montespertoli, so it is incredibly rare to see a wine from there imported into the US. Very unique and special. Plus, the owner is a baron – very cool."

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bitch 2007 Geranche

(found the label image on google, so it's from a different vintage)
I usually don't buy wines with cute labels, and while this did get a chuckle, I passed it by for more serious fare. "Not so fast!" the wine clerk told me. "It's actually a good wine - Parker gave it 90 points!"

I figured I'd give it a shot for around $11. The bottle, produced by R Wines, was made with grapes from 20-80 year old vines in Eastwood, Australia. It clocks in at 15 percent alcohol and wasn't aged in oak.

The wine appears very light and clear, with a nose of cran-apple. Same flavors in the mouth, with the addition of cherries.

The producer's website says: "Ripe quince and lifted spice with a rich juicy concentration. Intense perfumed characters come from the sandy loam and dark berry characters from the heavier red-brown soils."

Overall, it's a silly label for a decent cheap wine that had me pouring more per night than I intended. Good for lighter meals, or just plain drinkin'.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

California Wine Party's Cab Franc/Merlot (TJ's wine)

Trader Joe's cheap wine is always hit or miss. I've found a lot of hits from wines produced overseas, and a lot of misses from U.S. bottles. Unfortunately, my latest purchase was a dud - the 2006 California Wine Party's Cab Franc/Merlot from Paso Robles.

Jason's Wine Blog listed it as his #2 favorite Trader Joe's wine in August 2008 (see ranking here, longer review here).

I'm a big fan of Cab Franc, and just experienced some wonderful wines of that varietal from the Loire Valley produced by Catherine & Pierre Breton. While those wines were much more expensive, around $20, I was still hoping to taste some of that fragrant rose petal the grape is known for.

Instead, I got burnt wood, oak and vanilla on the nose, some red berries in the mouth but overall, seemed over made.

This isn't an unpleasant wine or a bad wine. I'm certainly going to drink it, but it's not much different from other cheap American wines I find at places like Trader Joe's. They all seem to be in this style that emphasizes oak and vanilla. Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV rails against this style, which he derides as the "Oak Monster" (and recently said during one of his postings after sniffing a bottle that he felt like he had a 2x4 shoved up his nose). My complaint with this style is that it's all the same no matter what kinds of grapes used. Very little fruit shines through, very little individuality makes it into the bottle.

Maybe it seems like I'm overreacting for this $5 bottle of wine, which I say isn't bad. I guess part of it is the fact that I wanted to really enjoy this for election night, and that I've read good reviews on it. But overall, it just deepens my impression that U.S. wine makers, looking to bottle cheap wine, have a preset idea of what they want their wines to taste like. I'm sure it's good business. I'm sure lots of people like this wine, and others like it. But if you're really looking for something unique and cheap, it's really worth checking out wines from other countries.

Clover@Starbucks3 - Kenya Kiamariga

In my past two trips to Starbucks for its Clover-made coffee, I've tried their Tanzania Blackburn Estate (review) and their Ethiopian Nardos (review). Today I went for the Kenya Kiamariga, a new offering that's not yet on its Clover website. The in-store write up on this coffee said it has "flavors of candied tangerine and star fruit (that) anchor this coffee, with a floral aroma."

I certainly got some nice juicy acidity, but this coffee is ruined by the roast. It starts off really nice, with the citrus-like acidity building and building...until it turns into a mess on your palate of burnt char flavor. Also has a tang similar to sweet tart candy. Unfortunately the dark roast sits above all of these nice flavors like a heavy blanket, eventually smothering any chance they had of expanding their breadth on your tongue.

At least it was free - Starbucks is giving away free coffee to everyone who voted today - even its Clover coffees.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Terroir Coffee's Kenyan Ndiara Estate, Kirinyaga

Terroir described this Kenyan coffee as "An exceptionally sweet powerhouse coffee exploding with blackberry and crisp distinct notes of ripe blueberry," and said it stood next to its Mamuto Kenyan offering. The Mamuto is an amazing coffee, receiving a 97 from Ken David's Coffee Review, the leading coffee review site.

How could I resist? I still had money left on a gift certificate my mom got me for my 30th birthday this summer, so I got this and the La Esperanza from Huila, Colombia (which I will review in a future post).

This coffee took some time to build on me. It didn't blow me away at first, but I have really come to admire it. It has great juicy acidity. In a pour over, I felt like I was biting into a piece of fruit with every sip. I described it in my notes as having "the acidity of cranberry juice, but more of a lime-tangerine flavor." This coffee has a nice body, rolling around in the mouth, with addition flavors of red apple and lime.

As an espresso, this coffee had high fruit notes in the nose, and seemed a bit high strung in the mouth. Hazelnut, green apple and cherry flavors.

Terroir has priced this at an introductory rate of $20.95 for 12 ounces(normally $22.95).

Friday, October 31, 2008

Terroir Natural Wine Merchant & Catherine Breton's "La Dilettante" 2007

Last night Terroir Natural Wine Merchant and Bar hosted an event for winemakers Catherine Breton, of Domaine Catherine et Pierre Breton, and Jean Montanet, of the Domaine de la Cadette. It was my first trip to Terroir, but certainly not my last. It's the kind of wine bar you just want to hang out in for a long time. Wooden crates of wine are laid out on the floor and the walls, bursting with bottles and straw; a record player fills the room with jazz, as candles and exposed light bulbs illuminate the space just enough. An upstairs lounge area with couches overlooks the bar and shop below.

I counted at least 30 people there last night, and overheard one guy say to his friends: "I've never seen it this packed before..." with another replying "I don't like it like this."

Terroir is out of the way - it's on 1116 Folsom Street off of 7th in San Francisco, so I'm not sure how they do for foot traffic, but I have seen write ups about the bar and shop in several publications, so I'm guessing it's probably building a wine geek following for focusing on organic, biodynamic wines.

The shop had six or seven wines for us to try last night. While al were interesting, I thought it would have been a little awkward to pull out my tasting book in the middle of the crowd and jot down notes. I'm a professional journalist, so this sort of thing shouldn't bother me by now (I've been working in the field for eight years) but my natural inclination is to not stick out or draw attention to myself, and I often have to force myself to get out of my shell and speak to people when I'd feel much more comfortable observing things from a corner.

Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is that I only took notes on the '07 La Dilettante because it's one of the wines that Catherine produced by herself, it was the most interesting of the tasting, I talked to her for a few minutes about how she made it, and it's what I was able to write about in my notebook as BART sped me home that night.

So, onto the notes -

This wine, made with Cabernet Franc grapes, had a dirty funky nose. I got burnt rubber, tar and barnyard scents. These aren't negatives, these can be good things to smell in a wine, if you like that sort of thing. I do, and was surprised by how different the wine tasted on my palate. I call it a "double-take" wine, because while the nose is super funk, the wine itself tasted like rose petals and strawberries. Tannins were light, and this was a very enjoyable easy drinking wine.

Catherine said she used carbonic maceration to make this wine, which is a gentler process of pressing the grapes. Basically the grapes are put in a vat and carbon dioxide is pumped in. The gas spurs fermentation within the grape (as opposed to grapes being crushed) and the weight of the grapes and the pressure from the gas slowly presses the grapes. It leads to wines that are light and fruity with less tannins, which is why it's the method mostly associated with making Beaujolais. (For more on carbonic maceration, there's an interesting wiki page on the subject here.)

The shop was selling this wine for $21 last night, and they might sell it by the glass at the bar as well.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Maipe 2008 Torrontes

Picked up this wine for under $12. It's very light in color, almost completely absent of a hay-like tinge. The nose was a gorgeous combo of peaches and pineapple. On my palate I found wet stone and pink grapefruit flavors.

The wine comes from Mendoza, Argentina. For some nice photos and background about the vineyard, click here.

I've had two torrontes so far and have really liked them. I've only recently begun to expand my white wine drinking, and this grape has already impressed me mightily. The aromatics are so exciting - your nose is filled with massive sweet fruit flavors as if you're sticking your face into a bowl of fruit salad. What's even more exciting is how different it can taste. So far, in my limited experience with the grape, the flavors on my tongue tend to be more toward minerality and stone than the massive fruit I got on the nose (though it's still there on the palate). If you have a chance, pick up a bottle of the stuff and take it for a spin, it's quite a fun ride.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cru 2006 Two Vineyard Pinot Noir

The grapes for this wine come from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, an AVA known for producing high quality, high priced Pinot Noirs. The long, cool 2006 season helped make this into a soft, acid-light wine, according to the Cru Website (looks like Cru is owned by the Mariposa Wine Company).

I tried this wine at a tasting, and found a little funk on the nose, leaning toward veggies/dried herbs. In the glass I got nice, light cherry fruit flavors and a touch of vanilla at the end. An easy drinking wine that for the price is pretty good considering what other Pinot Noirs out there taste like.

I generally avoid buying bottles of Pinot Noir for my everyday drinking because unless you're going to spend $40 or more, there's a good chance you'll be assaulted by a massive, overdone wine with posing as a Pinot. The Cru Two Vineyards is not one of those wines - it is more Burgundian.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kenya - Kiandu, Muthecka Co-op

Grounds smelled like herbs, roots, maybe fresh cut grass. In the cup, I found a nice balance of acidity and body. Honey, chocolate and melon flavors on the palate. Slight cinnamon finish.

From the Nyeri district of Kenya, which is known for quality coffee. Roasted by Ritual, and provided as a sample. Can't find a link right now on Ritual's Website, so maybe they're sold out.

I found another coffee for sale with this name from Barismo in Arlington, Mass. Interesting description of the flavor they got from the coffee (yams!). See it here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

2006 Luna Beberide Mencia Bierzo, Spain

The wine was dark purple in appearance, with a nose of dried coffee grounds, basil and nutty to boot. In the mouth, I got violets. This wine didn't have strong tannins so it didn't have a big structure. Finishes with a little bit of heat. Overall, a nice sipper, but I didn't think it was anything too exciting. Paid about $13 for it.

The previous vintage received high marks all around from Wine Enthusiast (90 points) and was named a "best buy" by Robert Parker, according to the write up on K&L Wines.

The Bierzo DO is located in the northwest region of Spain, and the grape Mencia was once thought to be related to Cab Franc, but DNA analysis has since ruled that out.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Clover@Starbucks 2

After drinking too much wine Thursday night at a company party, I found myself feeling pretty awful on Friday morning (although I did discover a great Loire Valley Cab Franc, reviewed here.) Had a french pressed Colombian La Esperanza from Terroir Coffee, which I'll review later, but after lunch I was still feeling out of it, so I decided to hit up Starbucks again and try one of their other offerings from the Clover.

Last time I had the Tanzania Blackburn estate (review here) but yesterday I wanted something with a little more citrus, so I went for the Ethiopian Nardos. At first I didn't get much complexity, tasting the roast more than the coffee. As this cooled, though, the lemony flavors started to come out, and this became stronger the cooler it got. At one point I wrote down that I was getting a lemon jolly rancher taste. Sweet nose as well.

I liked this coffee overall, and if I was traveling and couldn't find a specialty shop, would probably get a Clover coffee from Starbucks. Doesn't need milk or sugar to make it drinkable. Still, while these coffees have been interesting so far, the company needs to roast these lighter to take advantage of the wonderful beans they are selling.

Maramonte 2005 Syrage Lot 7

The Syrage I tasted at Farmstead Cheese & Wine at one of their weekend tasting events was a cab/syrah/cab franc blend, retailing for $20. The grapes are from Napa and Sonoma.

The wine was inky dark in appearance, with a nose of strong spices such as cinnamon and cardamon. I was really impressed with how this wine smelt. In the glass I got lots of red fruit leaning on cherries. Overall the wine had a nice structure and seemed like it could age another decade in the bottle. Pretty good value for such a big wine.

The producer, Mara Wine Group, has released the 2006 version of this bottle, and it is a different blend - this time Syrah and Merlot.

I found this description of the wine I tasted from an online shop:

"Maramonte Wines created Syrage Lot 7 to go beyond the one grape/one wine philosophy. This allows our winemaking staff the latitude to build intense wines of balance to meet the consumer’s desires. Syrah is our pedigree, contributing balance with 18 months of oak aging from Sonoma County vineyards. By using the king of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, also from Sonoma County, we added structure, finesse and backbone with the royalty of Bordeaux origins. 20 months in small French barrels. The tight concentration of raspberry, cherry and violets from our North Coast Cabernet Franc gives Syrage our signature balance, as evidenced in our prior releases. 18 months in American and French oak."