In Honor of Marisa Taylor

A couple years ago, we met winemaker Marisa Taylor, whose makes awesome merlot for Rutherford Hill. We were also privileged to feature her here on the blog. Well, the news is not good. Ms. Taylor is battling not one, but two forms of cancer and her friends have set up a GoFundMe campaign to help the family during this really, really tough time. Given what a great interview we got from Ms. Taylor, we thought we’d run the piece again. In the meantime, here’s the link to the campaign, Go, Marisa, Go.

Winemaker Marisa Taylor of Rutherford Hill
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.

Some Hands-On Wine History Education

Grapes before they become wine - from the Olvera Street vine
Grapes before they become wine – from the Olvera Street vine

When we started, we did not want the blog to be about us. Frankly, we’re not that interesting. Well, we weren’t, until Michael jumped into a wine history project that seems to have gotten all kinds of people more than a little excited.

In Real Life, Michael is the archivist for the city of Los Angeles – an insanely cool job. And as part of that job, he’s been working with Chris Espinoza, who is the director of El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the oldest part of the city. The two have been trying to find ways to connect what they do, since Michael has the paperwork and the history in his vault and Espinoza has, well, a state park, in which is located Olvera Street and one of the oldest buildings (if not the oldest) in the city, dating back to 1818. And way back when the adobe in question was actually being lived in, someone planted three grape vines, one across Olvera Street which was then known as Wine Street, one in the adobe’s courtyard and one just outside the adobe.

And last year or so, Michael asked Espinoza if he could trellis and prune the vines and see

What makes wine happen - yeast and yeast food.
What makes wine happen – yeast and yeast food.

if he could get some grapes off of them. Espinoza said yes, and Michael spent all last year, carefully pruning the courtyard vine, keeping an eye on things and consulting with Wes Hagen, a professional winemaker, who for years made the truly awesome Clos Pepe wines out of the Santa Rita Hills. Clos Pepe is now gone and Hagen has moved on to another venture. But he and Michael did convince the nice folks up at University of California, Davis, to do the DNA analysis on the vines for free and it turns out that these three vines came from the one remaining vine at Mission San Gabriel, one of the 21 missions founded by Father Junipero Serra in the late Eighteenth Century. For the record, the vines are known as “Vina Madre” a cross of the European vitis vinifera and a local Southern California grape called vitis girdiana.

Then in September, as Michael was beginning to harvest the few grapes there, Hagen ratted him out to S. Irene Virbila, the wine critic for the Los Angeles Times. Well, Virbila, being the good reporter she is, smelled a story and wrote it up.

Now, everyone is checking in and offering ideas. What Michael did decide to do is make a wine called Angelica (which we just heard was named for the city of Los Angeles). It was what the winemakers in L.A. were making up through the late 1870s, when Los Angeles was the primary wine growing and making region in the state (take that, Napa). Angelica is a sweet wine that is also fortified by adding brandy or other alcohol to the mix. We have about 25 pounds of grapes, so we won’t be getting very much. But it will be interesting and we promise to add updates in this space as we get them.

We're on our way! The yeast and yeast food being added to the grapes.
We’re on our way! The yeast and yeast food being added to the grapes.

Checking Out a Wine Panel

Before the panel began
Before the panel began

Eight winemakers from around California and even Arizona are on a panel, the topic: “The State of the Rhone Nation.” The result? An extended and wide-ranging conversation covering growing syrah in Arizona to earthquake damage in Napa to the miseries of being an “Other White” on a restaurant wine list. The panel happened at a recent Rhone Rangers tasting event in Los Angeles.

The Rhone Rangers was one of the first varietal advocacy groups. Winemakers got together about 20 years ago to start these groups to help market their wines and educate the public about grape varieties that were then pretty new and strange. While most advocacy groups seem to focus on a single grape variety – ZAP or Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, and TAPAS or Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society – the Rangers focus on the whole panoply of grapes traditionally grown in the Rhone River region of France, but which are also grown all over the world now, varieties such as grenache, syrah, mourvedre, viognier and others.rhonerangers2

We have to concede, the quality of the audio is not very good. Sorry about that. Audio is something new for us at OBG, but sometimes there is nothing like hearing things as they happened, and there’s some pretty good stuff here (even if it’s about 90 minutes long). The next recording will be better.

Thanks for your patience.

The OBG team.

We Found a Hot Deal!

Every now and then we run across an exceptionally hot deal and we figure it’s only fair to share. It’s the Sonoma Landing 2008 Pinot Noir.

The current super-deal is at BevMo, home of the 5 Cent Sale, currently on now. You buy a featured wine at the regular price and the second matching bottle for a nickel. The stock will probably differ from store to store, depending on sell-outs and if the wine came from a smaller winery, or any of thousand reasons why your local BevMo may not have it.

Our local BevMo is selling this bottle for $14.99 plus the second bottle for 5 cents, and given the fact that when Anne did a Google search on Sonoma Landing Pinot Noir, the BevMo link came up at the top, we’re guessing that we’re not the only ones who think this is a terrific deal.

Don’t expect a super-silky texture or transendental sense of place. This is  a very food-friendly glass with balanced raspberry and cherry flavors, good acids, lighter mouthfeel, a good finish and very little overt oak influence. The alcohol is only 12.5 percent, which means two people can enjoy a bottle over dinner (like we did) and not feel it too badly.

The shocker? Apparently, Sonoma Landing is one of the Bronco Wine Company labels – which makes sense since the company also has a Napa Landing and a Santa Barbara Landing. Bronco also makes the infamous Charles Shaw wines, better known as Two-Buck Chuck, because Trader Joe’s sells them for $1.99.

We’ve often said that if you didn’t know you were drinking Two-Buck Chuck, you’d probably like it. Or at least like it a lot more than you would think. Some of the varietals are pretty awful. But the chardonnay is pretty darned good (that’s the one that gets all the medals), and the cabernet sauvignon is pretty consistently decent, too.

Which is the long way of saying that just because Bronco made the o8 Sonoma Landing Pinot is no reason to scoff at it. It’s a darned tasty wine at an even nicer price when you pick it up during the BevMo sale. If you can get there fast enough.

Jason Haas – Tablas Creek Rosé Heaven

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek and nice pink stuff

We’re having an insanely good lunch at the Hospice du Rhone on the last day of April – duck confit, goat cheese, roasted veggies (food was catered by The Girl and The Fig, of Sonoma, California), and it’s the rosé lunch, partly sponsored by the Synidcat de Tavel, where they make some of the world’s greatest dry rosés.  Every table had five Tavels to share.

So what does Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Winery, go around and do?  Plops down random bottles of the Tablas Creek 2009 rosé.  Thank you, Jason.  Was that good stuff!  And given that we had the best of an entire region to compare it to, it compared quite favorably.  We can’t say that any one of the wines was better than the others because they were all fabulous.

Anne then got out her trusty voice recorder and caught Haas sitting down for a chat about making rosé.  As he noted, it’s a pretty simple process.

One of the nice things about the rosés is that they’re very straight forward to make,” Haas said.  “You make your decision as to which lots you want to use. You bleed ’em off. You stick them in stainless steel and they’re done three weeks later.”

Well, actually, there are two ways to go.  Keeping in mind that most grape juice is white, red wines and rosés get their color from the grape skins.  Red wines are fermented with the grape skins and the juice.  Juice that becomes rosé sits on the skins for only a day or two.  Then, if that particular batch of wine is only going to be rosé, the grapes are pressed and the pink juice is made into wine.  Or, if the winemaker wants to punch up some of the fruit flavors in a more typical red wine, some of the juice is bled off after a day or two and either tossed (feh) or made into rosé.

So which way do they do it at Tablas Creek?

“It’s actually half and half,” Haas said.  “We have a section of the vineyard that we dedicate to making the rosé. We co-harvest and co-ferment about four rows of mourvedre, grenache and counoise. And use that as the base of the rosé. It’s actually our original nursery block that we planted to get more vines to plant the rest of the vineyard. So that’s the base of the rosé, and then we supplement that with mourvedre and grenache saignées from other lots of the vineyard. [Saignées are]bleed offs from the fermentation.”


The bleeding off, however, is not about the reds, Haas said, “Because we really like rosé. It would honestly make our lives a lot easier if we didn’t have to do it. But we love the rosé so much that we always scour the cellar for lots that we feel like we can bleed a little bit of wine off without making them too intense.”


The result was yummy.  Stay tuned for tasting notes to come.

Hospice du Rhone 2010


Instead of John, George, Ringo and Paul - you have Pierre, Francois, Yves and Yves

Oy.  We’ve finally recovered from a busy weekend at the Hospice du Rhone (and the following week, which was busy but not for wine-related reasons).  HdR is a two-day festival celebrating wines made from the 22 varieties of grapes commonly grown in the Rhone Valley of France.  It’s one of the older variety-related tastings/gatherings in California and has become one of the most respected, as well.


We’ll be posting more on our experiences soon.  But in the meantime, here are a few of the highlights of the weekend:

During the Syrah Shoot Out, the producers all blind taste and vote on the best syrah there.  And we got to taste it!  Yum!

Meeting winemaker Amy Butler, who is a kick and a half.

The fund-raising auction – what a hoot that was.  As soon as we figure out how to post an audio file, you’ll get to hear auctioneer Todd Ventura in action.

The Rose Lunch – not sure what tasted better, the duck confit or the myriad Tavels (from the Tavel region and, by definition, are roses).

Guerilla tasting some viognier.

Chatting with and meeting with all the different winemakers – what a treat.

And finally, tasting all the wines – including several actual Rhones (Cotes du Rhone, Cote Rotie, Chateauneuf du Pape), from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and from the U.S., including Washington State and believe it or not, California.

Is it any wonder we were completely blown on our backsides?

Fess Parker Has Left the Winery

When the news broke yesterday that actor and winery owner Fess Parker had passed away, we knew we had to write about it. That’s because Anne met Parker  when she did a profile on him for the May 2004 issue of Wines & Vines magazine.

Yes, Parker’s Santa Inez winery has been roundly (and sometimes justifiably) satirized and criticized for populist, mediocre wines that only sold because of his name. But not all of his wines were that bad. Some were even pretty darned good. We haven’t tasted them in a good long time, so can’t say where they are nowadays.

But there is no question Parker used his name to sell wine. Why not? The name had value,  and he was fully conscious of it and made a point of using it. More to the point, he purposely became the face of the winery that his children actually ran, not to mention the two hotels he owned and his other businesses. Behind all that folksy charm (and he was charming), the man was one savvy businessperson.

He told Anne in their interview that he  asked Walt Disney for 10 percent of the merchandising money from the Davy Crockett series that made him famous and got it. Granted, the merchandising industry was still in its infancy. Disney had been making some nice change off Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck toys since the 1930s. However, Parker’s request was remarkably astute for the time – and he had no way of knowing that sales of coon-skin caps were going to go through the roof.

Fess Parker Winery certainly isn’t the biggest, nor the oldest winery out in the Santa Ynez Valley. But it’s always been one of the most popular and probably has been a significant drawing point that got people out of nearby Solvang and out touring the surrounding hills and other wineries, particularly when the industry was relatively new. That’s why Anne went out there the first time.

We tended to avoid the place after that because it is one of those slick operations that we don’t really care for and the wines weren’t good enough to get us past that. And it was also usually crowded, and we hate that. But maybe it’s time to check in again – after the fuss has lessened. In the meantime, we raise a glass to Fess Parker and say our prayers for his soul and his family.

You can find Parker’s basic obituary here on the Yahoo site – both Yahoo and picked up the Associated Press obit.

Call Us Elites

Oh, man. Wine bloggers all over seem to be having all kinds of fun over a February 13 tweet from wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. The tweet reads, “lots of top wine merchants are heavily discounting once very expensive Aussie shirazs..out of fashion among the anti-flavor wine elites, 10:05 AM Feb 13th via web.” Seriously, that’s the cut and paste we did from Parker’s Twitter page,, although you do have to scroll down and hit “more” to find it by now. Or you can just click on the date link above.

We laughed our backsides off when we heard about it. Robert M. Parker calling someone else (with a sneer no less) elitist? Say, Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle. You know, it costs $99 a year to subscribe to his website <>? His main publication, The Wine Advocate, is $75 per year, and in his defense, you do get a lot of issues (something like 80). Nonetheless, it’s hardly what anybody would call accessible. And populist is about the last word that springs to mind when you think of Parker.

The big hoo-haw, of course, is that Parker is well-known for his preference for heavily fruit-forward wines. The anti-flavor part of his comments reflects the reality that subtler, more complex wines don’t tend to leap out of the glass the way he prefers. And a lot of folks love taking pot shots at him because he is incredibly influential.

What bothers us is his attitude that his taste is the only one that counts. If you don’t agree with him you are either anti-flavor or you don’t know anything about “good” wine. Feh. But on the other hand, we’re also bothered by people who like to shoot Parker down for his preference for strong, fruity wines. There’s far too much “my taste is better than your taste” elitism going on in the world of wine as it is.

It’s time to get over it. Seriously. There is a place in the world for fruit bombs – usually with barbecue or something spicy, such as Indian or Thai food. Or just to drink alone. In fact, that’s one of the reason we call such wines cocktail wines. They don’t generally go well with food, except for sweet and/or spicy, but they are quite nice for sipping on their own. But there is also a place for the subtler, more complex, rich-tasting wines that do go with food. There’s even a place for white zinfandel.

So, go ahead and share what you think about the whole issue? Do you think Parker’s influence is waning? Is it even an issue? The comment box is below.

Rounding Up the Paso Rhone Rangers

Well, we’re back home and mostly recovered from checking out the 30-odd wineries present at the 2010 Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience, which happened this past Sunday.

It was a particularly good day for us. We caught up with some old friends, discovered a new-to-us boutique winery and that’s before we got to the event tasting!

The Rhone Rangers is a national education and advocacy group of about 200 wineries and other folks dedicated to educating the wine-buying public about wines made from the 22 varieties of grapes that come from France’s Rhone Valley. The principal grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvedre on the red side, with viognier, roussanne and marsanne on the white. The wine we Californians are producing do tend to heavier and fruitier than, say, a Chateauneuf du Pape (one of the major producing areas in the Rhone Valley, it’s pronounced shah-toe-nerf doo pop and means the Pope’s new castle).

But one of the things we’re getting excited about is that more and more wineries are working toward developing a food-friendly style that’s closer to the original French style. And we certainly saw that at Sunday’s event, put on by the Paso Robles chapter of the Rhone Rangers.

Imagine two rooms, with tables ringing the walls, and behind each table is someone from a winery pouring wine into your glass and trying to talk over the noise in the room and answer questions, while you’re trying to balance a wine glass, your notepad and pen, and… It’s a real blast.

We did get in on a press pass because these events are about selling wine and introducing people to some of the smaller wineries that are not as easily found on the magic maps. As for who we tasted, well, we’ll be posting those over the next few weeks. But if you want to check out the Rhone Rangers, click here for their website. And, no, we did not taste all the offerings, nor can we get to every event out there. Our livers would never forgive us.