Category Archives: U.S. Wines by Region

L’Aventure Estate Cuvee Five Year Vertical Tasting

Background

My personal history with L’Aventure goes back to the first winery visit in 2007, when my wife and I were blown away by the amazing balance and elegance Stephen Asseo (winemaker) was able to achieve with these crazy big Southern Rhone style wines. At over 16% (sometimes 17%) alcohol fruit bombs, he was somehow able to get just the right balanced mix of fruit, structure and alcohol to make it all work… and they were fabulous. The Estate Cuvee is the winery’s flagship wine and almost always a mix of the best estate Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in varying percentages, depending on vintage. Asseo was one of the first few in Paso to experiment with eliminating filtering/fining and the wines almost always have that opulent mouth-filling feel. This label is aged in 100% new french oak, integrating better in some vintages than others.

Scoring and Tasting Method

I am done with the attempt to achieve a fair systematic scoring method. So, I will continue to follow the WSET/UC Davis process, but I am done with both the 100 AND 20 point systems. Moving forward, I will only be rating (not scoring) wines with a simple five tier description: Poor, Barely Drinkable, Drinkable, Superior and Excellent. The basis of these ratings will be: balance, fruit character, acid/tannin and sugar/alcohol levels. I will always comment when appropriate on specific characteristics, such as harvest timing, winemaking style, cellaring potential, etc.

2013 – 2017 Vintages

I opened these bottles for a group of friends two hours in advance of the tasting, decanted and returned them to the bottle prior to serving. I poured a personal tasting to write my notes prior to the group arriving. I also opened a 2014 L’Aventure Cote-a-Cote as a comparison. All of the Estate Cuvee wines were generally similar in flavors, so I will not get too detailed with the notes. All of the wines generally tasted of blackberry and black currant fruit and had both high tannin and acid (surprising after the years of bottle age). The differences were primarily in character and balance. After developing first impressions, it became clear, these wines were NOT meant for cellaring. On release, I had thought there was plenty of structure to lay these wines down in my cellar, but I was mistaken and I will tell you why after I provide the tasting notes.

2013 Vintage

Rating: Superior

This wine had a very weak nose, with no fruit apparent. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was complex with savory leather, black tea and dark chocolate. The finish was medium+ in length. The alcohol was a big piece of the profile, but not completely overwhelming. The oak was well-integrated. After nine years in the bottle, the tannin and acid were still both high.

2014 Vintage

Rating: Drinkable

Aromatic fruity blackberry nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was a bit simpler than the 2013, but similar. The finish was medium+ in length. The alcohol was big. The oak showed a bit too much, but was reasonably integrated. The wine filled the mouth more than the 2013.

2015 Vintage

Rating: Poor

Medium fruity blackberry nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was the simpler leather and dark chocolate profile. The finish was long in length. The alcohol was overwhelming. The oak dominated the wine with very strong vanilla and brown butter flavors. The wine texture was very mouth-filling. The oak did not integrate at all in this vintage and this wine was enjoyed the least by us and our guests.

2016 Vintage

Rating: Drinkable

This wine had a weak nose. On the palate, it was slightly fruit-forward. The mid-palate was the simpler leather and dark chocolate profile. The finish was long in length. The alcohol was big. The oak showed a bit too much, but was reasonably integrated. The big mouthfeel was here too.

2017 Vintage

Rating: Superior

The nose was all alcohol, overwhelming any other character. On the palate, it was fruit-forward with blackberry, black currant and black plum. The mid-palate was all savory with leather, black tea and dark chocolate. The finish was very long. The alcohol was a big piece of the profile, but not completely overwhelming. The oak showed a bit too much, with nice sweet vanilla and was reasonably integrated.

2014 L’Aventure Cote-a-Cote

Rating: Excellent

This is L’Aventure’s Grenache dominated Southern Rhone blend (GSM), with: Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah – percentages usually in that order. By the time we reached this wine, the group was a couple hours into the tasting and this wine was very welcome. It was very aromatic on the nose and the palate was fruit-forward, layered and balanced. The oak was very well integrated. The mouthfeel was wonderful: elegant and silky. This label handled the 8 years of bottle age extremely well. A very enjoyable and impressive bottling.

Impressions

When we tasted these wines on release, they all seemed to have enough structure (tannin/acid) to age well, but the balance presenting on release did not last well. The big fruit flavors when bottled dissipated too quickly, changing many of these Estate Cuvee wines into a disjointed jumble after five years. The other challenging element seemed to be integrating all that new oak. In some vintages showing well, in others not so much. I would not suggest holding the Estate Cuvee wines more than five years and would guess, three years would be better. Finally, it is clear the Cote-a-Cote and Optimus bottlings respond better to bottle aging and the one we tasted on this night was excellent!

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Filed under Misc. Red Blend, Paso Robles, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Millennials & Gen Z are Changing the Wine Industry

Courtesy of Wine Access

My wife and I enjoyed our first wine trip since COVID recently. We spent a week traveling through the Central Coast AVA in California, focusing on the newer wineries with higher professional critic scores. Having completed a large sampling, I found some interesting trends.

Demand for Boomer Wine Profiles is Diminishing

I asked a couple common questions of each tasting room manager:

  • Are you noticing changing wine preferences recently?
  • What wines are younger customers preferring and why?

Surprisingly, the answers were fairly consistent. By the end of the trip, a wine strategy seemed to be emerging. The typical Baby Boomer generation red wine style was not as popular as in the past… fruity, easy drinking (low-med acid/low tannin), lots of toasted oak and 15% alcohol. What I have come to call the “Caymus Profile”. In response to changing demand, a new profile seemed to be emerging…

Wineries are Changing Wine to Match Younger Palates

Most wineries were developing a two tier offering based on generational preferences:

  • Regular Release wines for Millennials and Gen Z at a lower price point and Reserve Release wines for Boomers at a higher price point. The younger generations were looking for Rose and Sparkling options.
  • The more raucous younger customers were visiting tasting rooms on the weekends and the older customers were staying away at those times and visiting during the week.
  • Wines for Millennials and Gen Z were focusing on a new profile: 13-14% alcohol, high acid, low tannin and no oak. I have never seen so many red wines fermented and aged in concrete as on this trip… or so much neutral oak.
  • The old Boomer wine profile (defined above), was being saved for the older guests, more able to spend on the pricier option.

The younger wine profile worked for me, but would not be appropriate for bottle aging more than five years. The tasting managers laughed at me when I asked about wines for cellaring. Hard to argue, as the numbers are clear: 92-95% of all wine purchased is consumed in less than 48 hours. Any wine where the tannin level went up and seemed more ageable… I found myself wishing for oak.

Boomer Style Wines are not Going Away… Yet

We stopped in at a few of the older profile wineries: Justin, Herman Story, Beckmen. A full line-up of the wines I am used to. The Boomer profile has not been my preference, so the last 10 years my red wine purchases from Italy and France have increased. More along the lines of: high acid, med+ tannin, 25-50% new French or Hungarian oak and 13-14% alcohol. This matches my palate better. Oak barrels are expensive and are usually rotated through a max of three vintages and then discarded, while concrete containers can be re-used virtually forever. Red wines aged in concrete will change the cost calculation for wine substantially.

The Future of U.S. Wine

As Boomer generation wine consumption continues to fall, Millennials and Gen Z palates will drive the industry. Younger generations tend to drink more wine without food, than with… so, the wine industry will come under increasing pressure to compete with hard seltzers, ciders and cocktail beverage options. You would think this trend would be driving per bottle pricing down… but the data shows that Gen Z (especially) is much more adventurous in their wine consumption and is actually spending more per bottle than the current average. These are interesting times for the wine industry and some wineries are responding to these new trends – as growth in wine consumption slows in the U.S. Let me know if any of you are noticing these same trends. Happy Holidays!

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Filed under Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

Italian Educational Wine Tasting

Exploration of Premium Sangiovese Wines, Outside of Montalcino

New Communes (sub-regions) Established by Statute in Italy

The trend in Italy the last two years has been to establish new wine sub-regions in existing wine areas. Historic Sangiovese wine growing regions are being significantly impacted. I have not explored Sangiovese in this kind of depth before, outside of Montalcino (Brunello, Sangiovese clone). Certainly, nothing like the effort I have put into Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. These recent changes in Italian wine laws had me wondering: could there be enough unique wine character from Sangiovese to justify this many new sub-regions in Central Italy?

**I had a reader ask me to explain what these new changes were about, so I have added a link to this article from JancisRobinson.com with more detail: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/chianti-classico-caves-subzones.**

Can Italian Terroir Produce Sangiovese Wines Different Enough to Justify The Changes?

I decided to investigate this idea with a group of wine collector friends I meet with regularly. In the beginning of the year, I began looking through all the U.S. wine auctions trying to find 10 year old Sangiovese wines from various Italian regions outside of Montalcino (Brunello). To give this a fair evaluation, 10 years of bottle age seemed as if it might be close to the optimum drinking window for these wines. I wanted to taste the best potential versions of these wines for the comparison. While doing the research, I found a couple of U.S. made Sangiovese wines from respected producers and thought it would be fun to add these to the comparison. The tasting was held in my home just this last weekend and produced interesting results. There were a few disagreements across the group, but generally our impressions were similar enough. Here are my notes and scoring in the order of my best score first. I did not take detailed tasting notes, but did record my overall impressions.

Nobile di Montepulciano – Montepulciano Region, Italy

#1) 2012 Avignonesi Grandi Annate – 94/100 pts

This region is just east of Montalcino. Don’t get it confused with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. That is a completely different region and grape variety. Through history, this area has been well-known for the quality of its wine production, often just called “Nobile”. Thomas Jefferson mentioned this area as his favorite wine region.

Wine Notes

This was very near a great wine, quality on the order of the bordeaux style wines produced nearby in Bolgheri. It was nicely balanced, with fruit, acidity and tannin in roughly equal measure. Just enough fruit to enjoy on its own and just enough acid/tannin to work paired with foods. It was not big and structured like many of the Chianti area wines I have tasted. It had a lighter feel with a perceived finesse. The flavor profile was typical Sangiovese red cherry, but only slightly tart. This was an impressive effort for a 100% Sangiovese. This wine could make you believe Sangiovese deserves a place as one of the world’s great varietals.

Radda – Chianti Classico Region, Italy

#2) 2011 San Giusto a Rentennano Percarlo – 93/100

This is one of the better-known Sangiovese labels, from one of the most respected Chianti Classico wineries. 100% Sangiovese from the selected best fruit of the Tuscany region. This is not your typical Chianti Classico wine. 30+ day maceration, 30+ day ferment in concrete tanks, 20+ months in French oak barrels and 18+ months in bottle in the producer’s cellar. 3.5+ years before release… That attention to detail built an excellent wine, if not a wine that could carry the DOCG label. This wine is a definite example of why Italian IGT does NOT mean an inferior wine. Not sure the value was as special, but the wine was excellent and another great example of what Sangiovese wine can be in the right hands.

Wine Notes

This was a very similar wine to #1 above, but not quite as refined. The finesse was evident here too, but not quite the same mouth-feel and therefore one point less.

Montecucco – Maremma Region, Italy

#3) 2010 Amantis Birbanera Montecucco Rosso Riserva – 93/100

This was the surprise of the evening for me. Over 60% Sangio, 20% Merlot and a few percent of these: Canaiolo, Colorino, Petit Verdot. This area is viewed as “up and coming” and is just Southwest of Montalcino. Maremma is the younger brother of the Bolgheri region and the area has been making great value IGT bordeaux style blends for some time now.

Wine Notes

This was nothing like the first two wines, complex and layered with high acidity. Fruit-forward but not extracted, this hit the sweet spot for an Old World wine that could appeal to a New World palate. Of course, they had the luxury of blending varieties here and that can make a difference with the right winemaker. With reasonable value, I will be keeping an eye out for this producer in the future.

Napa Region, USA

#4) 2011 Biale Sangiovese Nonna Vineyard – 91/100

The two most well-known Sangiovese wines in Napa are this and the Del Dotto bottlings. The winery was kind enough to sell us a bottle from their library specifically for this tasting! This winery operated through prohibition and this particular wine has a family history, the vineyard was planted by the current owner’s grandmother.

Wine Notes

This was the softest of the wines tasted. The mouth-feel was excellent and was definitely still fruit-forward after 11 years in the bottle. It was light on acidity at medium-minus and had medium tannin. This was an enjoyable wine. It had just enough Old World character to identify as such. This is another of those wines that may have been better a few years ago. Not past its drinking window, but perhaps nearing it.

Montefalco – Umbria Region, Italy

#5) 2012 Adanti Montefalco Rosso Riserva – 91/100

This area is in Umbria and while the area is known for its Sagrantino DOC, it has its own denomination for its Rosso DOC that must be no more than 25% Sagrantino and no less than 60% Sangiovese. This bottling also had 20% Merlot. This was a powerhouse wine, even after 10 years in the bottle. The Sangiovese dominates, but the Sagrantino pulled it towards a Southern Rhone type feel. I really enjoy Sagrantino wines and if you haven’t tried one, you should track down a good example to enjoy for yourself.

Wine Notes

This was a bold, fruity wine, with medium plus acidity and tannin. Old World wine drinkers may find this a bit too extracted for their palate, but this was balanced enough not to feel hit over the head with too much oak, or too much fruit like many modern day Napa Cab Sauv’s.

Colli Fiorentini – Chianti Region, Italy

#6) 2013 Torre a Cona Badia a Corte Riserva – 89/100

This is a highly regarded sub-region of Chianti that now has its own denomination. This bottling is typically 100% Sangiovese. The area is North of Chianti Classico and attempts to focus on lighter, aromatic versions of Sangiovese.

Wine Notes

This is another wine that may have been better had we opened it a few years ago. Lighter styles of wine can sometimes be limited in their capacity for bottle aging. This wine was a reasonable representative of a typical Chianti, but was too disjointed. It showed too much tannin and acid for its age and the fruit and mouth-feel weren’t there to round out the package. Would have been great with a tomato based pasta dish, but was lacking on its own.

Walla Walla Region, USA

#7) 2011 Leonetti Sangiovese – 89/100

This is a well-known premium bordeaux style producer in Washington state. Their Sangiovese label is grown and produced every year in Walla Walla and this was the most expensive bottle of wine in the group. The wine is 87% Sangiovese and 13% Syrah.

Wine Notes

This reminded me of a better than average typical Italian Chianti. Very “one-note”, but definitely varietally-correct. Not as soft as the other U.S. wine we tasted. Would have been a good food wine, but certainly nothing special to mention.

Greve – Chianti Classico Region, Italy

#8) 2010 Podere Poggio Scalette Il Carbonaione – 88/100
This winery is well-respected for its Tuscany styled IGT blended wines. This bottling was 100% Sangiovese from several vineyards located in Greve. Not sure why this needed an IGT designation, instead of DOCG. This area now has their own regional denomination.

Wine Notes

This was an uninspiring average Italian Chianti. With age, it had lost its fruit and was thin with nothing to balance out the acid and tannin. Not undrinkable, but given the choice, would prefer a different wine.

Observations & Conclusions

The differences between these wines had more to do with winemaking style and blending varieties, than the Sangiovese fruit itself. Although, there was enough diversity to claim we experienced various different styles of Sangiovese dominated wines. There is more to “terroir” than just soil and climate. If other contributing factors define these regions as unique, so be it. There is a clear marketing advantage to differentiating these wine “communes” and promoting a specific regional style. It will remain to be seen whether all these new sub-regions will be justified in the long-run, or the average wine enthusiast will just find it too confusing to care. I have mentioned DOC, DOCG and IGT classifications several times in this article. If you would like a quick explanation, here is a link: Wine-Searcher – Wine Labels Italy

Here are a few conclusions I drew from the tasting:

  • Sangiovese fruit alone may not show enough diversity at the premium level to support this many different style designations. Although, the Brunello clone grown in Montalcino is certainly a cut above the others.
  • Sangiovese is a fabulous blending grape. It carries structure with it, high acidity and tannin, if the winemaking style allows it.
  • In the U.S., we do produce Old World style Sangiovese wine that compares well with the Italian labels.
  • Finally, generally Sangiovese wine can be made with finesse. Not sure what I was expecting, but I did not anticipate the subtler wines we found in this tasting.

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Filed under Chianti Classico, Italian Wine, Napa Valley, Sangiovese, Toscana, Walla Walla Valley, Wine Collecting, Wine Education, Wine Marketing, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Top Rated Wineries – Sonoita AVA, AZ

Banfi Vineyard Stock Photo in Italy

This is a beautiful pic of an Italian vineyard, without VSP trellising. Somehow, this producer manages to make great wine. Thinking outside the box and regional differences are not necessarily a bad thing… as Arizona wineries may show you.

I advocate for balanced and restrained wines in every category. This style is a passion for me and I hope for others as well. I will be making the case for why these wineries are some of the best in their respective regions. It will be addressed one American Viticultural Area (AVA) at a time. Since my most recent tour and interviews were in Arizona, we can begin there.

Sonoita AVA – Sonoita, AZ

Stock Photo of Sonoita Grasslands, Arizona

Sonoita AVA is a high-altitude (4,500-5,000 ft), warm climate wine growing region. The soils are mostly types of sandy loam, with a high pH character – both in the soils and water. The terroir (growing environment) mirrors many wine regions in Southern Italy and Spain, but the elevation adds a significant wrinkle. Historically, the area began with trying to produce Bordeaux style wines (Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.), but a better understanding of the growing conditions and trial and error have moved the vineyards towards French Southern Rhone (Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, etc.), Spanish (Tempranillo, Graciano, etc.) and Southern Italian (Aglianico, Sangiovese, etc.) red varietals. Today’s white varietals are also warm climate: Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, etc. The individual grape varieties are not the important part of this story though, as many AZ wines are blends and the varietals often change by vintage due to the many new plantings in the area. The next varietal up will be Greek Assyrtiko – the climates are similar, although the soils are quite different. Maybe… it will be the next big find, like Petit Manseng was in the last few years.

The List

These four Sonoita wineries make wines the closest to my palate. Although other wineries there make good wine, these producers deliver consistent quality and have winemakers with palates similar to mine. Does that make them the best wineries in this region? Possibly, but that judgement also depends on your taste. None of these wineries are making the fruit-forward, high alcohol, slightly sweet, low acid/tannin red blends that have become more common today (i.e. Apothic brand). These Sonoita wines are a serious attempt at chasing the premium wine category and they all succeed in some fashion. Whether or not you agree, this list is certainly a great starting place for an introduction to the region. In no particular order, they are:

Callaghan Vineyards

Callaghan Tasting Room Entrance

Winemaker – Kent Callaghan the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker is a man of historic proportion to the local industry. His family has consistently nurtured the growth of the Southern AZ wine scene through their generous help and support to the local wine community and his accepted role as technical resource for the area. Since 1991, he and his family have been producing wine in Sonoita.

Wines – The first Callaghan wines I tasted date back to the late 90’s vintages. I have never tasted a Callaghan release that was not a quality wine. Their wines have been served at the White House during several administrations and generally have received enough notoriety to say they set the quality standard for the area. The wines always deliver the character of the local terroir, while offering the best contribution to his vision for premium wines. While the Callaghan wines have not necessarily been restrained over the years, they have been balanced and both age-able AND approachable young. This character is what makes the wines special and is a testament to Kent’s knowledge in the vineyard and winemaking skill.

Wines to Try – All. Look for blends and single bottlings of Grenache, Mourvedre, Graciano and Tannat for reds and Malvasia Bianca and Petit Manseng for the whites and enjoy.

Rune Wines

Rune Outdoor Tasting Area

Winemaker – James Callahan is the owner and winemaker here. He also makes the wine for Deep Sky Vineyards (also on this list), but Rune is where his palate and sensibility really shine through. James makes wine I consistently enjoy. He has had extensive experience in several different wine regions and more importantly, has developed a diverse and educated palate in his travels. His emphasis is on building the entire wine profile, that includes balance and mouthfeel, in a restrained style. These are the kind of wines that appeal to wine enthusiasts and foodies. Attention to the nuanced details really shines through, perhaps because of the more understated approach.

Wines – It is rare you can taste a winemaker’s vision in the wine. If you enjoy medium-bodied wines that aren’t too high in alcohol, consider a visit. James has a vision for the impact of his wines and they deliver.

Wines to Try – The Syrah is the flagship and is good, but find the Grenache and Viognier. They are representative of the best of the region and capture a real fine wine experience.

Twisted Union Wine Company

Twisted Union Entry from Parking

Winery – This winery’s story is about the large ownership team, not an individual. All with experience in a different aspect of the industry, together they bring a total skillset to the organization that somehow… just works. The group is only together 4-5 years and is already producing a quality product. I am looking forward to what their future endeavors bring. This is a beautiful facility worth visiting to enjoy the space. For an area with limited accommodations, they offer two very spacious and well-appointed rooms for local stays. The vineyard is still a work in process and will likely be re-planted in the near future. A producing estate vineyard will be an important addition.

Wine – These are well thought-out wines. Since the vineyard is not producing yet, they acquire fruit from the local area and California, with an eye on blending for quality. The wines produced are balanced and have a sensibility worth exploring.

Wines to Try – The reds here are good, but the whites are exceptional: look for the Malvasia Bianca and Viognier. Although, the special wine at this tasting was the Roussanne. I am not usually a fan of Roussanne in general, but this bottling was special – balanced, with just the right acid level and an accompanying soft mouth-feel. A profile I often search for in a white wine.

Deep Sky Vineyards

Deep Sky Tasting Room Building from Vineyard

Winemaker – James Callahan is the winemaker here too. We established James’ credentials in the Rune Wines description, but at Deep Sky the sensibility is different. Bigger wines with higher alcohol in a more age-able style. The same balance is there, but with serious structure adding higher tannin and acidity as a solid backbone.

Wines – This is the AZ home for Malbec. The owner Phil Asmundson (Sci-Fi writing fame) also owns another winery in the Uco Valley in Argentina. This is a special opportunity at their tasting room to try the Argentina and Arizona Malbecs side-by-side. They are different, reflecting the different location and terroir. Deep Sky offers other varietal wines and with James at the production helm, you know they are made well.

Wines to Try – The Malbecs of course. These are best with a few extra years of bottle age on them, but well worth the wait.

Dos Cabezas Wineworks

Dos Cabezas Tasting Room Bar

Winemaker – Todd Bostock is the owner, vineyard manager and winemaker here. He has had some success in the past acquiring distribution for Dos Cabezas wines in and out of state, but the three-tier distribution system (topic for another article) leaves very little room for a small winery to make a profit. Todd has been busy changing the game plan, focusing on moving their distribution to direct-to-consumer retail sales. The tasting room in downtown Sonoita has added a larger food menu and is pairing dishes with food-friendly wines – focusing on the tasting experience. Their specialty is gourmet pizza, but other food dishes are also available.

Wines – The wines here are terroir driven and represent the region well. The thought in developing the profiles is clear, blends are the answer to making approachable, food-friendly wines with structure. Todd has a deft hand at building wines to drink now, or age. These blends are a broad mix of varietals, attempting to use the strengths of each varietal to compliment the other and build the profile to match Todd’s vision for the wines. The vintage variation is managed by adjusting the percentage mix to take advantage of the strength of each year’s fruit crop. The latest adventure has been a fun release of sparkling rose in a can. It is amazing how versatile sparkling wines are. They accompany a wide variety of foods so well!

Explore Something Different

Hops & Vines

Hops & Vines Tasting Room Area

Winery – The founding story and the two Owners here provide reason for consideration and addition to this list. Megan Stranik and Amanda Zouzoulas originally started this winery on a shoestring. Today, the continuing operation is limited to re-invested profits, with an eye on maintaining a down-to-earth atmosphere. The winery concept was built on lampooning the sometime high-brow attitude in the wine industry. The tasting room reflects a light-hearted attitude sorely missing from many wine circles. Hops & Vines is making the world of wine more accessible and have opened the eyes of an entirely different community of potential wine drinkers.

Winemaker – Megan makes some very good wine, with very little to work with. She has her challenges and sometimes encounters factors outside of her control, but I enjoy her wine sensibility. I am not sure how the local industry perceives her, but she deserves to be taken seriously. Her palate is educated and they are making restrained wines of a much higher caliber than their party atmosphere would suggest.

Wines – You can either have fun with these labels, or look past the marketing and try some serious wines. Visit their tasting room and taste through them. I am sure you will find wines you enjoy. I did.

Overview

Sonoita AVA is still evolving and has not really “found itself” yet. I originally came here with the expectation of tasting some good reds, but the big surprise was the quality of the white wines! As of today, roughly 10% of the wine produced here is white, but that is changing. The story that drives many decisions in the wine industry here is two-fold: 1) The lack of pure growers and well-managed vineyards, and 2) The barrier of entry to estate winery ownership caused by the high cost of vineyard development. The end-result is generally more demand than supply. While not a problem necessarily, it does have the potential to bring down the overall quality of the wines in the area. I will be very curious to see where the next few years take this wine region. It seems to me, all the components are in place for serious growth and overall improved quality. The future is looking bright for all of Arizona’s wine regions!

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Filed under Arizona, Sonoita, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Winery Owner on Your Bucket List?

Zarpara Vineyards – from AZ Central

Minimal Barrier to Entry

Are you a successful professional and serious wine enthusiast dreaming of owning your own winery in an established AVA, only to find the start-up costs in California are insane? Have you investigated California vineyard properties costing $75K per acre, or more? No one individual with business ownership experience would ever consider an opportunity with near zero ROI in the first five years and a 10-15 year payback. Well, hello AZ at $1-2K per acre!

Even still, an estate winery start-up is not cheap: $30K+ per acre to prep the soil, purchase and plant the vines, plus VSP trellising system and five year wait for mature vines, etc. Considering it normally requires a minimum of 1,500 cases of production output ($400-500K revenue) for the beginnings of a profitable winery business, add the major risk of variable climate/weather and you will have to bite-off a huge chunk of both savings and determination to go down this road… but if the countryside lifestyle, the great industry people, connection to fine wine & culinary culture and rubbing elbows with the rich & famous makes it worth it, AZ is your destination!

Higher Ed Degree Programs, Research and Incubators

There is a program accredited by Yavapai Community College offering a two-year Oenology degree located in the new Verde Valley AVA run by Michael Pierce (trained/experienced AZ winemaker) that has been in operation for a few years now. They currently have 15 acres of planted vineyard and are producing roughly 1,500 cases of student-made wine. The Agricultural Extension at University of AZ is also now getting serious with research surrounding climate and fruit production for the local wine growing industry. Maynard Keenan helped to start the custom crush and industry incubator facility “Four Eight Wineworks” in the Verde Valley AVA. A real place where winemakers can cut their teeth. By the way, if you have not seen Maynard’s wine movie “Blood into Wine”. Track it down. It is a fun intro to the AZ wine industry.

Continuing AZ Legislation to Encourage Wine Tourism

AZ now has a significant retail wine footprint in the Sedona-Grand Canyon tourist area, with many new projects for wine tasting rooms in planning. The recent legislation allowing licensed in-state wineries to have two satellite tasting rooms instead of only one, has caused a boom in planned tasting rooms for construction in the Sedona-Cottonwood area.

Crazy AZ Wineries and Distribution

I have been writing about California and Washington wineries for more than 10 years and I have not found one that decided to self-distribute without a major Direct-to-Consumer sales footprint via an established tasting room experience. Without a tasting room, or commercial distribution agreement, the wine business can be a pretty lonely affair. In AZ, I found two, both with high quality wines. Break-even with this scenario seems impossible, but you need to understand the special nature of the AZ wine industry. There are several contributing factors: 1) Current advantages from state statutes making it more difficult for out-of-state competition (licensing/tax barriers) and creating sales advantages for in-state grower/producer/local self-distributors, 2) The 3-tier distribution system bloating retail pricing by including two additional mark-ups, and 3) In-state wine demand exceeding supply. These two wineries load-up personal vehicles and deliver cases of wine to customers at their homes on periodic runs through the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. It took me weeks to get my head around this wine business model.

AZ Wine Identity

The area is finally starting to find a wine identity and is slowly coming around to the realization: the best wines use what the terroir gives. Forced wine styles do not work consistently well and because of this the local industry has been experimenting with lesser-known warm climate varietals native to the Rhone, S. Italy and Spain. Some of these wines are fabulous, surprisingly enough – especially the whites. Don’t be scared by varietals you may not recognize, because the whites (Viognier, Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng, Picpoul Blanc) and reds (Tempranillo, Graziano, Syrah, Grenache, Aglianico) are tasting as good as many popular California wines. The blended wines are definitely the best expression of AZ terroir. When the wine industry began in AZ in the late 80’s, the few vineyards that were planted attempted to plant Bordeaux varietals and the results were of mixed success. Although, a friend of mine and trained wine judge Jay Bileti (yes, AZ has trained wine judges too!) and I were recently given a Sonoita Vineyards ’89 Bordeaux style blend from their library that we enjoyed with a wonderful meal of Ossobuco made by his wife Lynn and it was very good!

Talented Winemakers

I interviewed several talented winemakers in the last few weeks. They are making wines of unique character and style. With fruit-forward, balanced profiles that would stand-up to any evaluation as “premium wines”, anywhere in the world. The last time I tasted through the state about eight years ago, it was difficult to find a winemaker able to make consistently good wine, although there were a few: Kent Callaghan, Maynard Keenan, Eric Glomski were examples. In my opinion, the strength of the AZ wine identity will be blended whites & reds. Leading you to the idea: fortune will smile on winemakers with classically trained palates, able to leverage that knowledge to deliver the best possible product from the local terroir. This was an absolute necessity to take AZ wine to the next level.

Critical Mass

AZ has definitely reached the critical mass juncture. The local wine industry and it’s future is exceedingly bright. The resources are in place to support a vibrant and successful wine community. The past several weeks of AZ winery tours and interviews have generated a significant amount of material and brought many insights into the AZ wine industry. Many more articles to come!

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Filed under Arizona, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Marketing, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel

Changing Arizona Wines

Lisa Callaghan – Callaghan Vineyards

A friend and wine judge (Jay Bileti) and I spent four days of intensive touring through the Southern Arizona wine country about 10 days ago and were pleasantly surprised. The quality of wine overall had significantly improved since my last serious visit to this area eight years ago. This visit produced tasting notes on many premium wines and a large selection of well-made value wines.

We tasted roughly 30 different varietals and numerous non-traditional red and white blends. There is still much searching for identity and character of terroir here, but producers are closer to consistent quality product than ever before. Warm climate Rhone, Southern Italian and Spanish varietals seem to produce the best wines here: Viognier, Petit Manseng, Malvasia Bianca and Picpoul to name a few whites and Syrah, Grenache, Tannat, Aglianico, Tempranillo and Graziano on the red side. Don’t be scared off by the unusual grape varieties. There is high-caliber wine making going on here and the most successful wines are the blends. The identity of the Arizona wine industry will likely become the home of high-quality non-traditional white and red blends. Some of the white wines (who would have guessed) in particular could be served in the premium category anywhere in the world.

Just like any California wine area, if you are a serious wine aficionado, you will want to do your homework before deciding to visit these up-and-coming AVA’s. I would be happy to make some recommendations, if you would like to drop me a note. With the warm climate, I was surprised to find the most successful wines were those made with less intervention and in a more understated, balanced profile. For those that like the big fruity wines, there is still plenty of that wine style to taste.

I will be writing about the winemaker interviews and research that has been going into my evaluation of the wine, wine industry and terroir here and I look forward to introducing you to what I believe will be a top quality wine location in the years to come. I followed the Paso Robles, Walla Walla and Santa Barbara regions on their rise and in many ways, Arizona is on the same path.

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Filed under Arizona, Sonoita, U.S. Wines by Region, Willcox, Wine Tasting

2015 Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve

Producer: Justin Vineyards

Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon

Appelation: Paso Robles AVA, Sub-Appelation of Central Coast AVA, California

Vintage: 2015

Score: 92 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 17 pts. – 20 pt. Scale

Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase

Tasting Note

This wine continues to improve with bottle age. Alcohol dominates the nose with blackberry and plum. The palate follows and adds black cherry. The fruit is very fresh and almost sweet, without residual sugar. Alcohol content is well integrated on the palate. There is high acidity and medium tannins. The finish is medium+ in length and very fruity. The fine-grained tannins provide a very soft mouth-feel after only six years in the bottle. This is a fairly balanced approach that could continue to improve in the next 3-4 years in the bottle. The last five Justin vintages (or so) have done a decent job of threading the needle between a New World taste, with an Old World sensibility. Still more fruit forward than I would prefer and the fruit over-powers any attempt at complexity.

Paso Climate

The climate on the West side of Paso offers very hot days and cool nights. This area is much warmer than most of Napa Valley. These conditions can produce very rich, over-ripe and flabby cab sauv, if the producer is not careful. That is the reason this AVA has traditionally been viewed as a Southern Italy and Southern Rhone style growing region and the majority of vineyards are planted in hot climate varietals, like zin, syrah, grenache & mourvedre. Justin is one of the few Paso producers that has been able to produce quality cabs. The purity of fruit on the palate IMO is one of their hallmarks and I would guess, they are sorting the fruit heavily to achieve the correct fruit profile. Some Zin producers in Paso and Lodi actually sort to find the dried, raisin-like berries. This generates a more jammy wine profile. I would bet Justin does the opposite and drops all the raisins, opting for a fresher fruit profile. I need to visit their winemaker and discuss their process. I hope to be able to post an interview in the next year.

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Chasing Napa Cult Status

Producer: Vineyard 7 & 8

Release: “7” Label

Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon

Appelation: Spring Mountain AVA, Sub-Appelation of Napa AVA, California

Vintage: 2007

Score: 91 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 16 pts. – 20 pt. Scale

Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase

Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

I am always conflicted when judging these premium Napa cabs made to chase after a “cult” profile. So many American wine enthusiasts enjoy this style of wine, that I feel as if I am not being fair in my evaluation. If you have tasted Caymus, or Silver Oak, you have been introduced to the lower price point for this New World style of wine that can run upwards of $1,000/btl (Harlan Estate for example). These super fruity, high alcohol, smooth drinking red wines often struggle to get past the downside of over-ripe harvesting and winemaker manipulation. At the higher price-points, sometimes the producer succeeds, but more often not. If you would like to taste the premium Old World opposite, you could try Sassicaia from Bolgheri, Italy ($200/btl), or Pontet Canet from Bordeaux, France ($150/btl). I am not a big fan of the Napa new oak (vs. neutral oak) dominated wines. The richness in the fruit and texture is often achieved at the expense of the freshness of the fruit. My favorite vintages of these labels are the cooler ones, like 2011. The cooler vintages tend to either tone down the over-the-top profile, or they are unpleasant (like 2011 Shafer cab). It is bewildering for me, why so many hold this style of wine in such high esteem. I much prefer a clean, fresh, light to medium weight, under-manipulated Bordeaux-style wine over these any day. These labels often taste like the wine equivalent of a fruity rum cocktail to me.

Tasting Note

Your impression of this wine will be very dependent on whether you have an Old World, or New World palate. The 7&8 estate vineyards are located at the highest point on Spring Mtn., but this wine doesn’t drink like a typical mountain fruit cab. The Pride Mountain vineyards are right next store, but proximity is where the similarity ends. If you enjoy this approach to winemaking, this bottle would probably merit a mid-90s score. The nose is full of alcohol, with little else. The fruit does not taste fresh and the new oak did not integrate well. This wine is still very fruit forward after 14 years aging in the bottle, with black currant, blackberry and black plum on the palate. The profile is fairly simple tho. Only a touch of dark chocolate on the mid-palate adds complexity. The wine has medium+ acidity and medium- tannin. The tannin has mostly resolved at this point and the wine is very smooth. The finish is medium length and tapers off leaving alcohol as the last impression. There is no noticeable residual sugar. This style of wine is off balance for me, with a texture and richness that approaches a stewed fruit profile. I can acknowledge that many wine enthusiasts will enjoy this wine, but in Napa, I much prefer aged Pride, or O’Shaughnessy mountain cabs instead. This has enough acidity to pair well with rich foods, but tended to overwhelm the steak my wife and I paired it with.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain, U.S. Wines by Region, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

2013 Berringer Cabernet Sauvignon Knights Valley

Producer: Berringer

Varietal: Cabernet Sauvignon

Appelation: Knights Valley AVA, Sub-Appelation of Sonoma County AVA, California

Vintage: 2013

Score: 91 pts. – 100 pt. Scale, 16 pts. – 20 pt. Scale

Provenance: Buyer Cellared Original Purchase

Decanted for 30 mins. before serving. Nose is a bit muted. Touch of blackberry. Palate of fresh blackberry, black currant and black cherry. Missing a mid-palate – fairly simple profile. Moderate oak. Medium-plus finish of blackberry and a touch of dark chocolate, but nothing nuanced. Tannin is medium-minus, with medium acidity. Very soft mouthfeel, especially noticeable when drinking without food. Nicely aged lower cost NorCal Cab Sauv. Very enjoyable on its own, but with the bottle age, missing a little structure to stand up to the coffee rubbed prime rib we paired it with. This label is one of my favorite daily drinkers, but I would say – at 8 years in the bottle – a couple years too many. Won’t wow you, but solid value and very enjoyable.

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Knights Valley, Sonoma County, Wine by Varietal, Wine Collecting, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Earth, Wine and Fire Wine Dinner Review

Background

If you don’t have a Fleming’s in your town, or have just not had dinner at this restaurant chain before, bear with me. I will try to provide some reference. Fleming’s is a high-end steakhouse, similar in style to Ruth’s Chris, but not quite as expensive. They have been running a four course wine dinner special (branded as the title of this review) paired with Wagner Family wines (Caymus label) and my wife and I decided to give it a try. There were two options: Earth – vegetarian and Fire – meat. We selected Fire. Our overall experience was one step down from true gourmet, but very enjoyable. This is the full detail.

Salad Course

Dish: BURRATA WITH NORTH ATLANTIC LOBSTER

Wine: 2018 SEA SUN, CHARDONNAY 90 pts. (100 pt. system) or 16 pts. (20 pt. system)

Wine Note: Sweet citrus nose with lemon-lime mousse on the palate. High acidity and a fair amount of oak. If you like stainless chardonnay, this is not your wine. My wife and I prefer Old World style oaked chardonnay, so the very fruit forward profile was a little out of character. Nice mouthfeel. I would guess, the winemaker allowed some extended lees contact. Enjoyable chard for our palates and the acidity paired very well with the burrata. Some aging potential, if you like to lay down your wines.

If you have never had burrata, it is a soft cheese a little like mozzarella in flavor, but creamy and richer. Love the stuff and the fresher, the better. This burrata was excellent, but it was the other components that were a little disappointing. The lobster did not seem really fresh (we ARE in land-locked AZ, I suppose) and needed to be poached in butter. Lobster flavor was a little off and weak. The parmesan cheese crisp flavor (on top) almost over-powered the more delicate burrata below. Still… pretty enjoyable and an excellent pairing with the acidic Chardonnay.

2nd Course

Dish: COCONUT-CRUSTED PORK BELLY

Wine: NV RED SCHOONER, MALBEC 89 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15.5 pts. (20 pt. system)

Wine Note: Fruity nose with a little burn from the alcohol. Palate is filled with red and black fruit – black plum, blackberry and boysenberry. Medium acidity and medium minus tannins. A touch of residual sugar. Lighter, smooth mouthfeel. Very easy drinking red with a bit of structure. Successful for the style of wine it was meant to be. Drink now, don’t hold.

The pork belly was very tasty and the grits were fabulous! Our restaurant added goat cheese, instead of cheddar (on the website) – fantastic idea. The vegetable medley included (not shown below) was seasoned with spicy chiles. I pushed my veggies aside, in order to really enjoy the grits. The fruity, sweet wine was needed to pair with the leftover spiciness from the veggies. Turned out to be a pretty fair wine pairing with the fat from the pork belly and spice.

3rd Course

Dish: FILET MIGNON & BONE MARROW

Wine: 2019 CAYMUS VINEYARDS, CABERNET SAUVIGNON – NAPA VALLEY 87 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15 pts. (20 pt. system)

Wine Note: OK, you Caymus fans out there, I get it. Easy drinking Cali cab, but I just can’t do it. There is so much oak, as the joke goes, I could set the dang wine on fire. Fruity nose, but lacking freshness due to the over-powering oak. Blackberry and black currant on the palate, with some dark chocolate in the middle. Medium minus tannin and medium acidity. Simple wine flavor profile. I am sorry, neither my wife, or I could finish this wine. Just not a good match for our palates.

The filet was seasoned well and perfectly prepared. I have had better bone marrow. It needed to have more of the fat rendered out. Altho I will say, the filet with a bit of bone marrow on top was a pretty tasty bite.

Dessert Course

Dish: ORANGE OLIVE OIL CAKE

Wine: NV EMMOLO, SPARKLING – CALIFORNIA 89 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15.5 pts. (20 pt. system)

Wine Note: Citrus fruit on the nose. Palate of primarily lemon with a touch of tropical fruit. This is a cuvee style sparkling with a small amount of residual sugar. High acidity. Nice mouthfeel with a medium length finish to round it out. This could be more interesting with some bottle age. Has enough of a backbone to enjoy in 3-5 years.

If you have not had olive oil cake – no, it does not taste like olive oil, but it IS very moist. I have had the orange version before and this was quite good. The tart lemon coulis drizzled on the plate was a nice addition. The citrus flavor in the cake paired very nicely with the sparkling wine.

Dining Experience and Rating

In general, this was a serious white tablecloth experience. Great service from our waiter, she was friendly and engaging. One of the managers stopped by twice to check in on us. I felt like there was a genuine interest in making sure the experience was enjoyable. I felt a bit rushed tho. This is the kind of meal that takes time to work your way through. I understand they want to turn tables, but for this kind of bill, you expect the time to have an experience. I would score the experience at a 92/100, or a 2 of 3 star equivalent. The meal was very good (especially the steak), but could have been better and the service was really excellent.

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Fine Dining, Food Pairing, Malbec, Napa Valley, Restaurant Review, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes