Friday, May 15, 2009

The Velvet Hammer

My perusal of Charles Smith wines continues with The Velvet Hammer, a 2007 Merlot from Columbia Valley, Washington. Charles Smith is the crazy-haired guy who used to be a promoter for Danish rock bands, then decided to make wine in Washington State more than a decade ago.

I've tried and reviewed his Kung Fu Girl Riesling and Boom Boom Syrah! so when I saw this on the shelf at Farmstead Cheese and Wine in Alameda, I grabbed a bottle (for $15.99, I think).

Love the name and graphic. Also nice to see, on the back of the bottle, was this motto: "Land to Hand, Vineyard to Bottle," an ode to producing wines that taste like, well, wine, and not toasted oak and vanilla. Or as Smith says on his site: "The intent is to create wines to be enjoyed now, but with typicity with regards to variety—that is merlot that tastes like merlot—and to the vineyard—wine that tastes like where it was grown. The wines are full of flavor, balanced, and true to their place of origin."

I've largely been disappointed with cheaper American wines lately, as they tend to taste over-made. Some people criticize me for criticizing these wines - after all, why pick on a bottle that costs less than $15? Well, for most drinkers who chose to imbibe every night with a meal, this is probably your sweet spot, price wise. So why not ferret out the values, finds and nicely made wines in this price range?

It's not hard to find, if you know what to look for. Loire Valley reds, in my shopping experience, hit the mark. Washington State also seems to put out a good amount of these wines. Wine regions in California far removed from Napa Valley and expectations of being a "big massive trophy bottle" can also surprise.

Some of the things I look for on the bottle is a description of limited interaction between the wine maker and wine. Organic, biodynamic, no filtering or fining, carbonic maceration, etc etc etc. These are a few of many terms you might see on a bottle expressing to you, the buyer, that the liquid held in the bottle in your hand wasn't treated like a commodity beverage.

Now not all these wines are great. In fact they can be hit or miss, and just because the grapes were grown with limited chemicals doesn't mean it wasn't picked too ripe or stored in oak for too long. But with a sea of choices in front of you at the wine store, these are some hints as to what might be an interesting purchase.

Back to the Velvet Hammer. It was a dark burgundy in color, and murky in the glass. Slight nose of spices and dark red berries, and in the mouth showed lovely cloves, nutmeg, wild blackberries and cedar notes. This wine was mostly spice for me - cool spice - not the kind that sear the tongue, but ones that seem to chill the palate.

The winemaker's website says this of the wine: "Balanced, rich and explosive. Think red plums, bittersweet cocoa with hints of smoke and cedar. SO SMOOTH, SO NAUGHTY, AND SO VERY, VERY NICE." (MSRP: $12).

This wasn't an amazing, mind blowing wine. It didn't move me to sing it's praises like some other recent bottles I've had (like this one). But it was a nice wine, and, if you're used to too many overdone American Merlots, is a nice contrast. Plus for $12-$16 a bottle, won't kill the wallet.

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