Winemaker Marisa Taylor of Rutherford Hill
Today’s lesson is about the much-abused merlot grape and it’s coming from a winemaker who makes some of the most glorious merlot wine we’ve tasted in a very long time.
We met Marisa Taylor, winemaker for Rutherford Hill, at a tasting event for a local TV station. She’s one of the three winemakers featured in Vintage: Napa Valley 2012, a six-part documentary on winemaking. We met her again at the Wine Bloggers Conference in July, where she led a tasting on Napa merlots with P.J. Alviso, Director of Estate Viticulture for Duckhorn Vineyards. It was one of those rare tastings that gives conspicuous consumption a good name. Taylor does not make cheap wine, let us tell you. But it is worth it. So was the chat we had with her after the tasting.
“You can expect a luciousness… juicy,” Tayler said about what to expect when you open a good bottle of merlot. “I think merlot tends to be more of a red fruit flavor.”
That’s tasting more like cherries or strawberries, rather than dark, heavy blackberries. In short, it tends to be a somewhat lighter wine than its blending pal cabernet sauvignon.
“You’ll know it when you taste it,” Taylor said about the red flavor profile. “Is it just darker or, hey, no. It makes me feel happy and it’s nice and rosy and red. In general, I think that merlot is a nice complement, companion with food. And I think that it’s something that will fill your mouth and be full-bodied. And it’s not like a hard… Cabernets can be tannic and tough and just dry your mouth out. And merlot doesn’t generally do that.”
The merlot grape is one of the five traditional components of Bordeaux wine, where it is grown and blended in varying strengths with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot. Outside of France and Europe, it’s frequently made as a stand-alone variety.
The wine, alas, got a really bad rep in the late 1990s when it got really popular and everyone started growing and making merlot. And a lot of it was really bad wine. Then, in 2004, the film Sideways came out, about two guys dealing with their issues while wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley. And in one memorable scene, Miles (Paul Giamatti), the so-called expert of the two, trashes merlot.
But Taylor thinks that the bad old days are gone when it comes to merlot.
“I think bad merlots have been weeded out from that Sideways effect,” she said. “And I think that we are seeing better and better merlots on the market.”
Taylor’s tips for finding a good one? She suggested looking for the appellation, or where the grapes are grown, such as the Napa region Or…
“Look for Rutherford Hill on the label,” she joked.
Which is not entirely bad advice. We tasted their Napa Valley Merlot, 2010, which is at least 75 percent merlot, but this one also has a little bit of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah blended in. Mike noted its dark color – pretty typical of merlot wine – a caramel chocolate nose, with good acids with smooth, abundant tannins, and a nice finish. Plus it’s got great aging potential. It was Mike’s favorite.
Anne, however, preferred the Atlas Peak Merlot, 2010, which was 100 percent merlot. Mike noted a bit of anise and tar (it’s actually a good thing) on the nose, with good fruity, earthy flavor. The tannins were still there. And while Mike thought this had a shorter finish (the taste didn’t linger as long on the tongue), he also thought this one had even better potential for aging.
Now, the Napa Valley Merlot retails at $28, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the Atlas Peak was second least expensive, at a mere $50 for wine club members. Yipes! The rest of the bottles in the tasting all retailed at $95 and up. Oddly enough, the two above wines were our favorites – and that’s before we knew what they cost.
This post is pretty much coming at you from Anne’s voice, since Michael is a Luddite and doesn’t get all that excited about apps and Anne does. The below video is basically a commercial, but it does a lovely job of showing what the app does.
I kind of have to say this upfront, but the timing of this post is our way of entering a contest. That being said, we would not be writing about Quini if we didn’t like it. Because, really, the odds of us winning a contest are pretty much nil. But since we’d be writing about the app anyway, may as well take a shot at that .0000000000001 percent chance of winning.
Frankly, I’ve been pretty skeptical about wine-related apps. We’ve been asked to review several and I haven’t really found any that were truly useful. The vast majority of them want to recommend wines for us and we don’t need recommendations. Plus, when you consider that one of the purposes of this blog is to help you become confident in making your own wine choice, it doesn’t really make sense to encourage using an app to make the choice for you.
But Quini, which was presented at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, intrigued me from the get-go. It’s designed to help you write your tasting notes by using the visual metaphor of a flower. An easier way to take tasting notes? Now, that is actually useful. It’s a royal PITA trying to take notes on a small pad of paper while holding a wine glass, pen, spit cup and maybe even a camera, which is what we’re up against when we go to these major tasting events. Usually I just sit Michael down in a corner where there’s a table and I run and fetch for him. But that’s not as much fun for him since he can’t talk to the winemakers or whoever’s pouring, assuming the crowds aren’t so heavy we’re both ready to run screaming.
The good news is the app does mostly work as advertised. You enter the basic information on the wine you’re tasting, or pull it up from Quini’s database (which we have yet to do, guess we’re not drinking what everyone else is). Then you Open for Tasting (press the button), and go through the basic elements from color to nose to taste and everything in between. But it’s the way you do it. Beyond the basic data, there’s no typing on a tiny phone keypad, just swiping up and down and back and forth on a colored “petal.” You can also check off various nose and flavor elements.
Keep in mind that we were testing the beta Android version, which just has the basic family of flavor elements, such as floral, woody. While I was playing with the web app, which I suspect reflects the iOS version more closely, tapping a flavor family pulled up more specific elements, like rose and orange blossom under floral and a veritable fruit bowl under the fruity family label.
Quini also has a wish list section, so if there’s something you see in a wine store that intrigues you, but you can’t buy it just then for whatever reason, you can presumably enter the wine there and then when you’re trying to remember what it was, you can pull it up. It can do recommendations, which are based on the wines you review and how you review them, but you don’t have to use it. Or you can. Up to you.
We haven’t tried the actual version, nor have we really put the app through its paces at a major tasting. But we will. We will.
Actually, this was from last year’s Wine Bloggers Conference speed tasting event, but it looks the same.
Speed Dating – we mean Tasting continued. When we left you last week, we had just finished some highlights of a round of white wines – all insanely yummy – while attending last month’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Buellton, California.
Today, the Reds. Like speed dating, you’ve got a bunch of folks coming table to table to give you about five minutes to decide if you want a relationship with their wine. Unlike speed dating, in which the objective is to weed out, speed tasting is all about getting as many different wines into your personal portfolio as possible. We got way too many to write about here, but the highlights included:
The Sensitive Evolved One, the 2012 Ferrari-Carano Siena, a red blend with a deep ruby color and a hint of sweetness, making it a great sipper and even better with food.
Cheryl McMillan, who was representing Ferrari-Carano, said that the wine is a blend of sangiovese and malbec, with some petite syrah and cabernet sauvignon. We noted the screw cap and asked about aging (because wine under screw caps supposedly doesn’t age as well), and McMillan said that really wasn’t an issue with this wine.
“It’s made to drink now,” she said. “It’s not going to lay down for very long.”
In other words, a little flirtation, maybe a short fling, but not an extended commitment. Okay. Oh, and another plus – Ferrrari-Carano’s executive winemaker is Sarah Quider, and the gal who actually made it is associate winemaker Rebecka Deike, who does the red wines for the winery.
Next up, consider the attraction of a Bad Boy, one who is all wrong, but so very right in the moment. Now, meet Alexander Valley Vineyards 2012 Sin Zin. And the fact that it’s zinfandel is what makes it so very wrong, at least in Anne’s opinion. Anne doesn’t really like zins, but she liked this one. The Wetzel Family, who own the vineyard and the winery, have been bottling this zinfandel for over 35 years. Michael really liked it as a more subtle zinfandel (making it all the more dangerous), with an excellent balance between fruit and acidity, and a good long finish.
Katie Wetzel, who did the honors of pouring for us, said that the goal is not to make a zinfandel with the heavy jammy notes, but to also keep the fruit character of the wine.
“This zin tends to be in the middle,” she told us.
And where there’s a bad boy, you know there’s going to be a Smooth Talker, and in this case, it’s the Adelaida Touriga Nacional 2010. If any of the wines we tasted were smooth, this one was it, with a nice dark color and an earthy profile. Good luck finding it on the Adelaida website, though. Anne searched and searched and could only find some technical notes buried under the Trade & Media tab. Think this one was trying to slip something past us?
Finally, there’s the one you’ll actually want to make a commitment to, and we are OddBallGrape for a reason – we love those unusual grapes, and the Urban Legend 2010 Teraldego definitely needs a commitment. Why? It won’t be ready to drink for a few years yet. But, oh, the potential!
It’s made by Merilee and Steve Shaffer, a husband and wife team of winemakers.
“I’m the goddess of fermentation, he’s the god of the barrels,” Merilee explained as she poured our wine. Winemaking is not the first business venture these two have had. “We’re serial entrepreneurs. It’s a little like being serial murderers.”
The wine had an inky dark color, a good fruit nose, dense texture, and strong tannins. Yes, give it a few years, then serve with a good steak dinner. Or something beefy and garlicky. This is going to be a very special wine.
And now, back to recovering. Actually, we’re hoping to catch up with several of the above folks in the future to ask them about wines, grapes and winemaking.
Getting ready for speed dating, um, speed tasting/live blogging at WBC14
You’re in a hotel ballroom, the noise level is rising like the tides, and just when you get to like one, the next one shows up. Is this any way to build a relationship?
Well, the nice folks at the Wine Bloggers Conference thought if speed dating works for singles, it could work for wine. And, really, it did, but it was a challenge.
Oh, wait. What’s the Wine Bloggers Conference? It’s exactly what it sounds like – a conference or convention for people who blog about wine. And if you’ve ever Googled “wine blog,” you know that there are about 50-bajillion of us out there writing about our love of wine, and wine, and what we eat while drinking wine, and more wine. So mid-July, about 350 of us got together at the Marriott in Buellton, California, to talk about writing about wine and, uh, to taste wine. Which we did. A lot of it. Buellton, by the way, is smack in the heart of the Santa Barbara County wine region, kind of between the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Rita Hills.
So imagine a couple hundred people in a hotel ballroom, the chatter (and noise) increasing by the glassful, while each winemaker and his or her representative had five minutes to serve six to 10 people and tell us about the wine. We did two sessions over the two days of the conference, one for whites and one for reds. Fortunately, this wasn’t about weeding out because all of the wines were fabulous. But we now have a chance to use all those pretentious descriptors, like flirty, that don’t really mean anything as we bring you some of the highlights.
In fact, we’ll begin with The Flirt, herself – the Yorkville Cellars 2011 Cuvée Brut. A real bubbly personality. Literally, it’s a bubbly, and it was poured by Yorkville’s owners Deborah and Edward Wallo and their son Ben. Michael noted that it had a nice light toast color with good bubbles, bright acidity and a clean finish. It’s made from semillion and sauvignon blanc grapes, which are not your usual bubbly grapes.
“We like to play around with different varieties,” Deborah told us. Or was it Ben?
Then we got to the Cheap Date – Bandit Pinot Grigio, which comes in a one-liter box for $8. Yes, the box is recyclable. Michael noted that it had a neutral nose and tropical fruit taste with some sweetness, possibly making it good with spicy food.
But the white that we were most likely to make a commitment to was the Consilience 2012 Santa Barbara Viognier.
“If they try it,” said Consilience’s PR person Dan Fredman, about when people will buy an unusual wine like viognier. “Once they taste it, then they become evangelical about it.”
Well, we’re evangelical about this one – Michael noted that it had the traditional floral nose, with golden color and a light, clean fruit flavor. Good as a sipper and great as a food wine. Yum.
Next up – The Reds
One of the things we love is discovering really fun places that have great wines – especially places you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them. Which is why Anne was so anxious to check out Traxx, at Los Angeles’ Union Station.
Now, Union Station, at 800 N. Alameda St., is already one of those gems even most Angelenos don’t know about – although we’ve all seen it hundreds of times in films, television and commercials. It opened in 1939 and was built not only during the heyday of rail travel, but at a time when Los Angeles was just coming into its own as a major city in the U.S. The architecture is grand, with a mix of Hispanic mission style overlayed with an Art Deco sensibility. And it’s all been recently refurbished, thanks to the big 75th Anniversary celebration on May 3, National Train Day.
Traxx, which opened in 1997, took over the old restaurant, putting the bar part of the restaurant in what used to be the station’s telephone room – one of those nice places with phone booths where you could make a phone call while waiting for your train. Now, it’s a place where you can get a nice glass of wine while waiting for your train.
We both commute through Union Station regularly, Michael to get to his day job, and Anne to her errands for various clients. It took a bit of arm-twisting by Anne to get Michael into the bar after work one night recently. But in Michael’s defense, stopping for a drink means getting home to dinner and relaxation that much later. Not fun when you’re already pooped from a long day at work.
Still, it was one of those days, and the bar wasn’t too busy, although there were plenty of commuters kicking back for a drink before their trains left (there’s a pretty busy system of commuter trains to the further reaches of Southern California that come and go from Union Station). There were also a few tourists. The atmosphere was a tad on the noisy side and the bar has the inevitable television sets playing, but not blaring.
The wine list was very interesting, but sadly, we don’t remember what specifically we drank. We weren’t there to report on it, just to check it out before going home. It was only later that we thought about writing it up here. You can find a wine list posted here, but Anne didn’t recognize anything on it. Which means they change things up as the wines are released – and that’s a good thing. The important thing is that the white was served nicely chilled, and the service was prompt and polite. Wines by glass run between $9 and $16, and most of them were local to California, many from the Central Coast and Santa Ynez Valley.
Hours, menus and more information are here, at the restaurant website. If you’re in L.A., it is well worth checking out and pretty easy to get to, even if you don’t drive, since both the Red Line and Gold Lines are here, not to mention a host of buses. Contrary to popular belief, L.A. does have public transportation and it works pretty darned well. If you’re not in L.A., then the lesson is that fun places to drink wine are all around us. You just have to be willing to check them out. Even if it means getting home from work a little later.
This one begins with a shout out to our friends at the Pasadena Enterprise Car Rental office, mostly because it was Tanya whose question suggested this post.
You see, Tanya and Anne were chatting about wine tasting. Tanya had recently been up to Malibu and we’d just gotten back from a weekend in Santa Barbara and Lompoc. And Tanya was a little surprised when Anne said she’d been spitting a good part of the weekend.
Okay, spitting your wine out after you’ve just tasted it does sound really gross. It’s not that bad, especially if you remember to bring a small cup to spit into (like we forgot, oops). Or you can just taste some of the wine and pour the rest out into the spit or dump bucket that should be on the tasting room counter, which relieved Tanya no end. She was thinking it was rude to not drink what you were poured.
The thing it’s not at all rude to pour or spit your wine out. Because the bottom line is that while wine tastes really good, it can also get you plenty drunk, or if you have Anne’s tummy, really sick. And if you’re having a good time with friends, it’s easier than you might think to get a snootful. If you pour or spit, no one is going to think you don’t like the wine (even if, perhaps, you don’t). Folks are just going to think you don’t want to get drunk, and the folks behind the counter in the tasting room are seriously down with that.
Drunks are no fun to deal with – one of the reasons we prefer to avoid party weekends or wineries with multiple limos parked outside. In fact, on of the rudest things you can do in a tasting room is let yourself get polluted. So pour or spit. You’ll be fine and able to taste that much more wine, too.
William Allen in action
It’s kind of a long story why this particular post got kicked repeatedly to the back burner when we actually tasted William Allen’s awesome syrahs last June at a Rhone Rangers tasting event. The Rhone Rangers is an advocacy group touting wines made in the style of France’s Rhone Valley. Rhone-style wines usually mean syrahs, mourvedres and grenaches or a blend of those three also known as GSM.
Allen’s wines, under his label Two Shepherds, really stood out because while the syrahs were nice and meaty, they were also well-balanced and smooth, unlike several of the other wines we tasted that day. But what makes Allen even more interesting is that he is not a full-time winemaker. He works a day job as an engineer to pay the bills while building his winemaking business.
“I don’t have much of one,” he joked about his life. “The most challenging time of year is harvest.”
And given that he’s leased blocks of grapes from seven different larger vineyards in five different counties, you can imagine he’s putting in some very long hours when it’s time to bring the grapes in. He also works with a custom crush facility, Inspiration Vineyards and Custom Crush.
But it works for him for the time being. He told us that he doesn’t have to put in the huge overhead most wineries require to do business for winemaking facilities, vineyards, storage and bottling equipment.
“It’s all money in advance,” he said.
The Two Shepherds are the two goals Allen works toward. One is Shepherding the Palate – Allen is also an active wine blogger and works actively with the Rhone Rangers to promote Old-World style wines. That usually means wines that are more balanced and subtle than many of the traditional California-style wines. The second shepherd is Shepherding the Grape – using minimal intervention to make his wines, including native fermentation (not adding yeast to get the sugars in the wine to ferment), and doing little more than protecting the wine from harm as it goes through the various processes on the way to us, the consumers.
The only problem is that he doesn’t really have a tasting room, but he will make appointments to taste at the Sheldon Winery in Santa Rosa, California. You can also buy his wines on the website TwoShepherds.com.
So Fox Networks is getting all excited about Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, the re-boot of the Carl Sagan mini-series from the 1980s, and Anne gets invited to the gala premiere screening and party (good food, decent wine). Fox is premiering this new mini-series on Sunday, March 9 at 9 p.m., and National Geographic Channel is premiering it on Monday, March 10 at 10 p.m., with it also airing on pretty much every channel Fox Broadcasting owns.
The mini-series features Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, of the Hayden Planetarium, and during the post-screening Q&A, Dr. Tyson noted that he enjoys wine.
“I drink wine that’s a little bit more expensive than it should be,” he joked.
But it reminded Anne that she did get a wine FAQ from Dr. Tyson a couple summers ago that we never ran for some reason. Maybe we were waiting for this event. More likely life just got in the way. Oh, and Dr. Tyson didn’t really have a question.
“As an academic, any time such a question exists I then find the answer myself,” he said.
But we did have a question for him, because at the time, there were a bunch of scientists who were saying that terroir, doesn’t really make sense. Now, terroir is the French word for earth and you hear it a lot in wine circles, and in that context it’s the concept that the earth the grapes are grown in makes the wine subsequently made from those grape taste unique. In short, wine made from cabernet grapes grown in Bordeaux, France, tastes different than the wine made from cabernet grapes grown in Tuscany, Italy, or anywhere else in the world. The catch is, certain scientists say that it can’t be because there’s no way that different minerals or elements of the soil are going to get into the grapes from the ground.
Well, Dr. Tyson believes that terroir exists, even within districts within France.
“From Pauillac to St. Emilion, same grapes, but the wine tastes different, so there’s terroir going on there. Period,” he said. “Why even debate that?”
That doesn’t mean he understands how it works – perhaps no one does.
“I don’t care what the mechanism is, but what’s true is that different plots of land produce wines that taste differently,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy to accept what I know is true without knowing why it’s true. You get the same blend, the same winemaker and there’s two different plots of land and the wine tastes different. That’s terroir. I’m good to go with that.”
And we are, too.
We tasted Breathless Sparkling Wines a couple years ago at the Family Winemakers tasting event and loved them. Turns out there was a good reason why – they’re made by a friend of ours, Penny Gadd-Coster. Not only does Penny have her own label, Coral Mustang, since 2007 she’s been Executive Director of Winemaking at Rack & Riddle, a winery and custom crush facility in Hopland, California. (A custom crush facility is a place where people with grapes can go to make wine commercially without buying and/or building a whole winery.)
Breathless is owned by Rebecca Faust, co-owner of Rack & Riddle, and her two sisters Sharon Cohn and Cynthia Faust.
So when we wanted to find out how to pick a good bubbly for Valentine’s Day, it only made sense to talk to Penny about Breathless, and other sparklers.
Sparkling wine, of course, is the generic term for wine that has bubbles in it – or intentionally made with bubbles in it. You can sometimes get bubbles in wine that’s not supposed to have them, but that’s a different issue. Champagne is the stuff from the Champagne region of France and you really shouldn’t call wine Champagne unless it’s actually from there. Never mind that darned near everybody does, including us.
Penelope Gadd-Costeincluding us, and getting that right is one of the rare things we get snooty about.
Penny explained that there are some differences between Champagne and California sparklers.
“Probably from a California or a Western U.S. standpoint, the difference is fruit,” she said. “You don’t get that out of most French Champagnes, so that makes them a little bit unique. We can ripen the grapes a little bit more and bring out those flavors.”
Like most French wines, Champagne has a little more acid and will often taste a little chalky, unlike sparkling wines from California.
“You compare these to a French Champagne and they’re a lot more fruit forward,” Penny said. “They can have the acidity, but you actually know that there’s chardonnay in there, that there’s pinot noir in there.”
Oh, yeah, French Champagne and most California sparkling wine are made from either chardonnay – called blanc de blanc, or white from white (grapes), or pinot noir – called blanc de noir, or white from black (or red grapes). All grape juice is white, red and pink wines get their color from soaking the juice in the skins before fermenting them.
For that special night out, if you’re not getting an actual Champagne, Penny recommends looking for the words “méthode champanoise” on the label. This means it was made like they make Champagne in Champagne, France. The wine is fermented and bottled, then goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. Other bubblies are made by the charmat process, which means they shot the fermented wine through with carbon dioxide, basically, like they do with sodas.
“The made in the bottle wine is going to be a lot more elegant,” Penny said. “You’re going to have nicer, smaller bubbles. You’re going to feel more elegant.”
She did point out that méthode champenoise tends to be more expensive because it’s a lot more labor intensive. Nor are charmat-style bubblies that bad. They can be perfectly nice. But we are talking special occasion here.
As for what to serve with your bubbly, well, anything your fuzzy little heart desires. That’s the great thing about sparkling wine, it literally goes with just about everything. Penny suggested having a sparkling rosé if you’re serving a heavy meat dinner, such as a standing rib or steak. If you’re doing something a little on the spicy side, then you might want the slightly sweet bubbly labeled “extra dry.” No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
In any case, bubbles make it special and that’s what you want for Valentine’s Day – or any other special occasion. Even if it’s just surviving another week.