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).