We met Leslie Sisneros at the 2016 Family Winemakers of California Grand Tasting (in the interests of full disclosure, we got into this paid event for free in the hopes that we’d get around to writing something about it or the presenting winemakers sooner than we did). This is a great event, by the way, especially if you’re new to wine. The $75 for the ticket might seem like a lot, but we’ve seen smaller tastings that cost a lot more, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a greater breadth of wines. Plus, you’ve already paid for them all, so you might as well try even the ones you don’t think you like.
But back to Ms. Sisneros, of Murder Ridge Winery. She’s been making wine for over 20 years, but actually fell into making pinot noir.
“It wasn’t my choice,” she explained. “Because I started out at Kendall Jackson and I was assigned the variety. Actually, zin’s pretty hard, too. I guess it’s good when you start out with the hardest wine to make. But I’m always up for a challenge, so I just took it in stride.”
Pinot noir is a notoriously finicky grape and can be very hard to make well.
“There’s all kinds of different pinots,” Sisneros said. “It can go from the lowest priced ones to the premium ones. You’re looking for something that’s fruity and not overly tannic.”
But when you hear people wax eloquent about pinot noir, you’ll often hear them going on about the clone of the grape.
“There’s more people who talk about pinot in terms of clones than any other variety,” Sisneros said. Many grape varieties have their own specific clones, but it’s more of an issue with pinot noir. “It really does make a difference in what clones you plant and where you plant them. It determines the winemaker’s fingerprint.”
She explained that cloning is sort of like taking the natural process of evolution the next few steps further.
“In nature, everything generally mutates so the strongest survive,” Sisneros said. “What the people do is they’ll select a particular plant or several plants in a vineyard. They’ll take a bud culture and they will keep making it genetically the same and it will take generations and generations.”
She said that after individual clone, the other thing that really makes a difference in a pinot noir is where it’s grown.
“You can certainly tell a Russian River pinot noir,” she said. “To me, they’re like night and day. Mendocino pinot is more delicate. Russian River is dark and moody.”
Murder Ridge Winery is in Mendocino County, in a largely wilderness area known as Mendocino Ridge. The winery gets its name from the infamous murder of Joseph Cooper in 1911. Sisneros partnered with wine grower Steve Alden to form the label after having worked with his grapes for several other wineries for whom she’s worked as a consulting winemaker.
To say that Michael was skeptical when Anne brought home samples of the Underwood Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir might be the understatement of the month. Possibly even the year. And to be fair, he was not entirely unjustified either. Usually when you get a really unusual container for wine (in this case aluminum cans), it becomes about the container and not about the wine and that just does not make for a tasty experience.
But Anne is nothing if not adventurous and she found the wine at one of our favorite wine stores, Everson Royce in Pasadena. The nice folks there have only steered us wrong once, and the bottle in question was what we’d asked for. So when the guy behind the counter said that it was good wine and he couldn’t taste the metal unless he drank the wine straight from the can.
We can’t say we were blown away by the wine, but it was darned tasty and pretty much just what you’d want from Oregon pinot noir and pinot gris. And we could taste the metal when we drank straight from the can. We bought our cans for $5 apiece. Each can is basically half a bottle, so if you happen to be on your own one evening and don’t want to waste half a bottle of red, then you’ve got a reasonably priced alternative.
Other good reasons for wine in a can, to take it places like your swimming pool, where glass can be a hazard. Or on a picnic where maybe a bottle of wine might be frowned upon – not that we encourage folks to break the law. As to whether or not the aluminum keeps the wine any colder than glass does, we don’t know. Finally, there’s no reason not to package wine in a can. In fact, restaurants are doing something similar by buying big kegs of wine and serving them by the glass. The kegs use pressure to keep the wines from oxidizing, but it’s a form of stainless steel that houses it all. The only thing you can’t really do in a can is age the wine because it’s completely sealed off from the microscopic bits of oxygen that allows aging to happen.
There are good reasons to be skeptical about strange packaging. But there are also good reasons for giving it a try.
What odd packaging for wine have you tried lately?
Truth be told, we’ve never been big fans of the whole pay for play phenomenon – where companies send bloggers their products in exchange for a nice blurb or review. Blame it on Anne’s journalistic background, where there was this virtual firewall between the content and the advertising sides of the business. Or there was supposed to be.
And then, one of Anne’s colleagues from Generation Fabulous. Chloe Jeffreys, hooked up with a publicist for Mirassou wines and Chloe asked Anne (and the other GenFab women) to help out. Well, gee. If there’s wine involved, we’re always ready to lend a hand.
So while we don’t normally accept wine samples for review, we thought what the heck, and since Mirassou is widely-available and retails for around $12, why not write it up as a calibration tasting?
What, you ask, is a calibration tasting? It’s a way to kick sand in the metaphorical face of wine snobs who think that there is only one way to taste wine. Reality check, no two tongues (or noses) experience flavor in exactly the same way. So if Mike is tasting cherries and you’re thinking, “I’m tasting raspberry. What’s wrong with me?” there is absolutely nothing wrong. Yours and Michael’s tongue just perceive the given wine in different ways. And let’s not even get into what Anne does or does not taste. So a calibration tasting is where we write up what Mike tasted and you compare it to what you tasted, so you know that when Michael tasted cherries, you’re most likely going to taste raspberries and then when we do tasting notes, they will make more sense to you because you can substitute what you taste for what we write.
Okay. So the wine re received for review was the Mirassou 2011 Sunset Red blend, and it is an interesting one, too. For one thing, it’s a blend of pinot noir, merlot and zinfandel. Now, you won’t see it on the label too often, but it’s not all that unusual for winemakers to add a bit of zin to punch up the fruit flavors in some wines. Keep in mind, wineries can call a wine by a single variety name, such as cabernet sauvignon, as long as at least 75 percent of the wine came from that grape. So there could be up to 25 percent zinfandel in that cab sauv, but the winery doesn’t have to say so.
That being said, nobody, but nobody blends pinot noir. For one thing, it’s too expensive. Or folks are just too persnickety about the variety. It doesn’t mean that pinot noir can’t be blended or shouldn’t be blended. It just very rarely is. Which is something that makes the Sunset Red stand out right there.
What we got was a very nice party wine, with a dark color. The nose also presented with some black or blue berry. In short, both color and nose were zin-like without the icky jamminess that Anne so violently despises. Flavor-wise, Michael picked up on cherry, vanilla and berry flavors and some nice acidity, although that eventually opened up after an hour or so and lost the acidity in favor of more fruit and creamy richness. All in all, it was a very nice party wine, in that it tastes really good by itself, but it can still (especially when first opened) stand up to a nice salad and grilled steak.
We love Riedel glassware. The stuff is gorgeous. It’s light and beautifully crafted. It just feels elegant sipping wine from it.
However, we’ve always been rather skeptical about their claim that their variety-specific glasses actually make a significant difference in the flavor of each different wine. So we decided to test the glassware and found out one rather interesting thing, but overall? To quote one of our fave TV shows, Myth busted.
The tasting came about because we were generously included in a special unveiling of the Malbec glass, put on by Argentinian winery Graffigna. Both of the malbecs they served, the Centenario Reserve and the Grand Reserve, were amazing, dry and lush. We couldn’t help but lust after a good steak from the Pampas while drinking them. The wine was served in the new glass, alongside a Burgundy glass and a cabernet sauvignon glass.
The idea, we were told by Riedel’s Regional Sales Manager Melissa Hawkins, is that the shape of the bowl and the opening of the glass direct the wine to the part of your tongue that tastes the wine’s best attributes. In fact, we started with water, and while Anne didn’t think the water tasted all that different or was that much more refreshing out of the Burgundy glass, there were others who did.
Then, of course, we had the tasting with the wine, itself, and sure enough, everyone began remarking on how the malbec really did taste better in the malbec glass. Hmmmm. Well, we wanted to see if we could replicate the results at home, and one of the publicists (whose name we do not want to drop so she doesn’t get into trouble) kindly gave us a Burgundy and a cabernet glass to take with the malbec glasses they’d already given us.
Why were we so skeptical in the first place? Truth be told, we had tried a similar test a few years ago when we found some variety-specific glasses (not Riedel) on sale at World Market. After all, some of our friends had raved about how the wine really did taste different. But something just wasn’t adding up. We certainly didn’t notice any great difference in the wine we tasted in the different glasses we had.
Now, we suspect there may be someone out there reading this and thinking, “Well, obviously, they don’t have very sophisticated palates.” And we say, go put some clothes on, Mr. or Ms. Emperor. Let’s start with the basic mechanics of the bowl shape and opening directing the wine to your tongue. We checked in with Anne’s cousin, Jim Mason, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, and while fluid dynamics aren’t his specialty, he knows and understands them. His thought? The whole bowl shape and opening thing doesn’t make sense simply because you can’t control the opening of your mouth each time you drink. In addition, Anne can’t figure out how something is going to direct a fluid to the perfect place on your tongue when everyone’s tongue is a different size – can you say Gene Simmons?
But what the heck, we tested it with the actual Riedel crystal. We used the three wines the glasses were made for. Okay, we used California pinot noirs for the Burgundy glass, but that’s what was available. Michael did the tasting and they were all blind. He could see which glass was which – kind of hard to not notice that. But we did two of the tests in a darkened room so that the lighter color of the pinot noir wouldn’t give it away. We used several different brands of wine, including the Graffigna Centenaro, all of which are widely available.
The first test was several flights, with a different wine in each glass, randomly assigned. The idea was that Michael should have been able to tell the variety each time he got a glass with its matching variety in it. Essentially, did the right glassware make the wine pop? There was only one flight out of six where he was able to guess each variety correctly, and none of them were in the correct glass.
We tried again, this time, making sure that at least one of the glasses held the correct variety, and we invited some friends of ours, Dale LaCasella and Jim Vitale, to try it with us. Again, the theory was if the “right” glass made a difference, they’d be able to find the wine that was in the correct glass because it would taste the best. Not even close. Michael, Dale and Jim did get a taste of each wine in its correct glass as a test flight, so they’d know what they were looking for. Didn’t help. They could neither guess the variety and the wine they liked the best was seldom in the correct glass.
Finally, as Anne’s wonderful daughter pointed out, there should be a test with all the same wine in each flight, making the glass the only variable. Here is where it got interesting. There was one glass that did stand out, but interestingly, it didn’t matter what wine was in it. And when we went over our notes, time and time again (not every time, but at least 75 percent of the time), the wine tasted best in this glass – no matter which wine it was. It was the Burgundy glass, which features a wide, round bowl and a relatively narrow opening.
We think we know why. It’s because smell is such an important part of taste. The round, wide bowl creates a larger surface area of wine exposed to oxygen, which then picks up the aromatic elements in the wine. But because the opening is comparatively small, the aromatics are more or less trapped in the bowl as opposed to being dispersed through the air, and you can get more of them into your nose, which then enhances what your tongue receives.
So why did everyone at the tasting, including Michael, all get so excited and swear that the malbec tasted best in the malbec glass? Simple crowd dynamics. First, we were told it would. Then as the tasting went on, someone agreed out loud, then someone else, and so forth and so on, so eventually even Anne was buying into it. No one was lying or faking it. They’d just bought into what everyone else was saying because that’s what we humans do when we’re in a group.
As for buying Riedel, as we said, we love the stuff, but there are some serious downsides to it. First up, it is insanely fragile. You look at these glasses wrong and they break. In fact, the cabernet glass that we used in our tasting broke before we could get a picture of it. Secondly, it is very expensive. We did find a pair of the stemless glasses for almost $30 at Target – that’s $15 a glass. For something that breaks very easily. Burgundy glasses on the site run as much as $125 a glass. Not in our budget. But if it’s in yours, there’s no reason not to buy it. It is lovely stuff. You just don’t need a different glass for each variety of wine.
People ask us all the time where can they go to learn about wine. Well, aside from reading OddBallGrape.com on a regular basis, wine events, such as Grand Tastings and festivals, are a great opportunity to learn. You can taste all sorts of different wines and better yet, at many of these events, you can talk to the winemakers and learn what went into the bottle.
Now that may seem like a lot of work when you just want to taste something. But as we were reminded over the past weekend, the more you learn about wine, the easier it is to figure out what to buy for, say, that snooty boss or disparaging in-law. Or for your own table.
And this is the time of year to do it. Why? Because all this is one of those rare times when there isn’t all that much work to do in the winery. And if your vineyard is pruned, not much to do out there, either. Which means all the winemakers are now out and about trying to sell all that wine they so lovingly made.
A case in point is the Pasadena PinotFest taking place on February 11th at the Pasadena/Altadena Country Club. While it is Pinot-driven, many of the winemakers who will be there also make other wines. Keep in mind, a lot of these producers are small family-farm businesses, so an event like this is another way to get closer to your food and drink, if that appeals to you.
Outside of our Los Angeles area, there is the annual Family Winemakers of California tasting event in Del Mar on March 11th. This is open to the public as well as the trade and this is where several hundred winemakers will be pouring many hundreds of different wines. The common denominator is that all of them are small family-owned businesses making it a way to Occupy the vineyard, as it were.
But for OBG fans, it’s time for the first Webster’s Fine Stationers tasting of 2012! Coming up on Friday, February 10th – note the different day from our traditional third Saturday of the month event – we will be featuring a Valentine’s Day theme, and there may be even more cool surprises, so stay tuned.
What makes it special: A pinot noir that’s not from the Santa Rita Hills.
Plays well with: pork, lamb, salmon, cheese.
The 2007 Flying Goat Pinot Wine comes from San Luis Obispo, a little farther up the California coast from where Norman Yost makes his wines in Lompoc.
The nose has a spicebox aroma – think asian five spice powder ingredients such as licorice and cardamon. The color is the same gorgeous ruby red of a certain pair of shoes made in Oz (or more accurately the MGM costume shop).
But just check out the mouth feel and flavor: a medium density filling the mouth with cranberry, strawberry and raspberry without the cloying sweetness those flavors sometimes bring to the party.
The acids present quench the thirst and clear the palate for the next bite of something tasty. Don’t drink this one alone. Share it with a good meat dish. You could drink it by yourself, but we don’t that would make you too popular.
Tasting events are an amazingly cool way to find out about a lot of wine at one time. Most feature a region or even a single grape, such as Pinot Days, dedicated to the heartbreak grape that is Pinot Noir. Based in San Francisco, the organizers have also taken the show to Chicago and, for the last two years, Santa Monica, California. Michael was lucky enough to get involved as a volunteer for the recent Santa Monica show, which also allowed him to attend the event and mingle with the winemakers.
Imagine a beehive of four thousand people inside a large metal airplane hangar. Tablecloth draped tables with signs for each label present. Most are staffed by the winemakers themselves, sometimes the marketing staff. One ounce pours of as many as three hundred pinot noirs by seventy-five producers from California, Oregon, Washington and one from Tasmania this year.
Sustenance in the form of bread and cheese made the task of tasting every pinot almost manageable. Okay, not even close to manageable. Don’t even try tasting everything. It’s physically impossible. Some of the lines for one or two cult labels can take a half-hour and the entire tasting is only 4 hours. Besides, how much fun is it when you can’t taste the flavors of a great glass of wine because you’ve already tried 30 others? Moderation, please.
Pinot fans are given to superlatives and plenty of rhetoric. But the winemakers themselves are not. They’re more interested in telling the wine’s story and sharing its’ history, which you’ll read about in the weeks ahead.
Any wine event where the winemaker is there is worth the experience and the crowds. Winemakers seldom staff tasting rooms because they’re too busy making wine. And, trust us, having the person who made the wine pour you a sample and tell you about it is a blast. You can ask them anything from the most basic beginner question to the most obscure geek stuff, and they love it.
And if the high price of a tasting event like Pinot Days is beyond your budget, try volunteering. It’s a great way to support the program and you can almost always get in plenty of tasting time. Michael had an entire convention of great wine and fascinating winemakers at elbow’s distance for the price of a few hours of sweat equity. Nothing but the best for the readers of OBG!
When we asked actor Jane Seymour for her wine FAQ, she didn’t have one.
“You know, I grew up with wine. My mother was a wine merchant. I tasted Givery Chambertin at, probably, eight,” said the actor who is currently reprising her role as Prudence, the Martha Stewart clone in the Hallmark Channel movie Perfectly Prudence.
Like other Europeans, Seymour said, it’s not unusual for young Brits to taste wine long before it’s legal, even there.
But not only is she into wine, she’s even got her own label of pinot noir, JS, which she’s making with vintner Jim Palmer, of Malibu Vineyards, whose Santa Barbara vineyard is next to her property there.
“We did if for fun,” she said, but it sounded a little like they’re going beyond simple fun. “We blended it personally.”
Nor does she have any particular favorites.
“I love great wine and I’m always open to tasting everything,” she said. “I don’t care what it costs. Invariably the cheaper ones sometimes taste better to me.”
We did ask if folks ask her questions about wine when they find out she’s into it.
“No,” she said. “They open their cellars. They get excited and open a bottle they wouldn’t ordinarily.”
More proof that we don’t hang in the right circles.
Type: Dry red Made With: Pinot Noir grapes Plays Well With: Salmon, pork or grilled beef.
This is a wine that is all about balance – no mean trick when it comes to the notoriously finicky pinot noir grape.
Winemaker and founder Joshua Klapper started with some amazing fruit – from farmer and winemaker Peter Cargasacchi’s vineyards in the ever-so-hot Santa Rita Hills. Cargasacchi has his own Point Concepcion label (which we have had the good fortune to taste), but does sell a fair amount of his crop to several local vintners – including La Fenetre. In fact, one of our dream tastings would be side-by-side comparisons of wines from Cargasacchi’s many clients next to his own decidedly yummy version.
Klapper’s wine had some berries and a slight whiff of rose petals. Taste-wise, the acidity was bright, but not harsh and the texture in the mouth was silky. But the best part was the balance. We may not be talking angels on the head of a pin, here, but there was just enough fruit, just enough acid and just enough tannin to make this wine perfect for sipping with a really good dinner. Maybe some salmon in paper pouch with plenty of garlic, lemon and herbs. Or perfectly grilled pork chops.
Type: Dry red Made with: Pinot Noir Plays well with: Strong cheeses, red meats
The Vergari 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is a premium example of a California pinot noir. Which is not to say that it is a copy of a Burgundian wine. The California style generally has riper fruit which can sometimes be a problem in France. Actually, it can be a problem with Californis wines, too. Riper fruit can translate into jammier characters and higher alcohol – qualities not becoming for a food friendly grape like pinot noir.
Not so with the Vergari. It’s a crafted wine that pays attention to the details and doesn’t let the fruit get smothered by alcohol, oak or residual sugars. The color is the dark ruby typical of a California pinot. The nose is full of berries, cherries and a cola character which seems unique to pinot. The first taste shows good acidity and even some spice – a characteristic that often gets buried in the fruitier pinots. The weight in the mouth is substantive but not heavy or too thin. A good finish rounds out this excellent dry wine that cries out for food. Stronger cheeses, roasted beast of almost any type and level of doneness would be mandatory. Alcohol is a modest 14.2 percent – well, modest by California standards.