Less than a month after devastating fires ravaged Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties, the Wine Bloggers Conference was held in Santa Rosa, one of the hardest hit areas in the wine country fires.
We watched with the rest of the country as the news of the fires came through our various screens. Needless to say, our first concern was for our friends in the area (they were okay), then the countless others who lost their lives, their homes, and their businesses. But as the flames died down, we began to wonder whether Santa Rosa would still be able to host WBC 2017.
The answer came pretty quickly – not only was the hotel able to host, the surrounding associations and wineries were eager to have us. Even better, while no one wants to diminish just how bad the fires were, the vineyards did what vineyards do. They acted as a firebreak, meaning that the fires could have been even worse.
Yes, there were some wineries that were damaged, including a few, such as Paradise Ridge, that were completely destroyed. But the vast majority of the wineries remain intact and open for business.
But they all say the best way to get the region back on its feet is something we like to do anyway – visit and buy wine. Heck, even Sean, from Paradise Ridge, said that they had some inventory that had been stored elsewhere and they could really use the sales now. The site is fully operational and even has a whole section on the fires and how they’re planning to come back.
Since this is the time of year people like to plan vacations, think about Northern California’s wine country.
The business side of wine is not usually that interesting to consumers. But talking to consultant and author Sandra Taylor, whose latest book is The Business of Sustainable Wine, was a complete blast. We drifted a bit off target, dissed producers who put girly labels on wines to try to sell them to women, talked about climate change in France and Europe, talked about the Wine MBA from the Bordeaux School of Management in France (yeah, it’s for real, and Taylor holds one).
“The industry is doing a really lousy job marketing to women,” Taylor said, adding that women buy more wine than men. Then (very cleverly getting us back on track) she pointed out that women tend to be more sustainably-minded. “They want to know it’s a sustainable wine.”
She spent 22 years working as an executive for Kodak and Starbucks, then became a consultant, specializing in helping wine brands be more sustainable, which means using agricultural practices that are kinder to the planet, conserving resources such as water, behaving in a socially responsible way to their workers.
What is sustainable wine?
Taylor did point out that organic wine, biodynamic wine and natural wine all fall under the heading of sustainable wine. Growing grapes organically or using biodynamic traditions, as well as making natural wine (or wine that happens naturally without the addition of commercial yeast or other cultures) are all practices that are considered sustainable. But sustainable practices can include spraying some non-organic pesticides or other chemicals to protect a grape crop, for example. And there is also the social justice aspect of treating your workers well which is part of sustainability. You can grow perfectly organic grapes, but would not be considered sustainable if you treat your workers badly.
Part of the trend, Taylor says, is that climate change is having a negative effect on a lot of wine growing regions. But a lot of it is that the demand for sustainable wine is growing. Some of it, she explained, happened because the retailers were getting worried.
“Basically, retailers don’t want to be embarrassed,” she said. “They’ve had enough bad experiences.”
But also, the growers and producers, themselves, are seeing the benefits of the practices.
“They are convinced that it’s the right thing to do,” Taylor said. “The energy and the waters costs are lower. My costs can go down. It’s better for the health of my workers.”
Consumers want it
The trick is finding a way to let consumers know that this is a good thing when they see “sustainable” on a label. Taylor says that a lot of millennials are already asking for it, whereas some very high-end wines are made sustainably and don’t have it on the label.
She thinks it’s a bigger draw now than it might be in the future when it becomes more common. South Africa, New Zealand, Italy and even France are starting to be more sustainable. Wineries in California and Oregon are getting more involved, and in the Paso Robles area, the industry has made a major effort to get their wineries and vineyards practicing sustainability.
“They’ve done a really good job,” Taylor said about Paso Robles. “Their goal is to get as many wineries as they can under the tent.”
A lot of this is really insider stuff, but the bottom line is, the industry is going to respond to demand. And if consumers demand sustainable wine, that is, buy it, ask for it and tell their friends about it, then winemakers and growers are going to adopt sustainable practices.
“It’s the consumer who has the most power,” Taylor said.
It was several years ago, at a Garagiste Festival in Paso Robles, that we ran across a vendor hyping self-swirling wine glasses. Of course, our first thought was, seriously? How lazy do you have to be?
That being said, they were rather attractive, with nice big bowls and a narrow mouth, and Anne thought they might be fun to test for a blog post. So she bought a pair in spite of Michael’s protests. Hey, they weren’t that expensive and they are pretty.
We planned to test them, but once we got the glasses home, we discovered that they have a flaw so fundamental, you have to wonder why the manufacturer hadn’t thought of it. You can’t set the glasses down.
Well, you can, but they aren’t very stable. And while they don’t swirl enough to actually aerate the wine, we’re not betting our best chairs that a glass will stay in place well enough to grab a sip while reading the latest Donna Andrews mystery (How the Finch Stole Christmas – it’s hysterical, as usual).
We forget who made them – it’s not important, anyway. The real point is that this is a cautionary tale. Ninety-nine percent of the gadgets and gizwatchies out there meant to “enhance the wine experience” don’t do squat. All you really need to enhance the wine experience is some good food or some good people you care about. Preferably both.
This is important to remember at this time of year, with the holiday gifting season relentlessly bearing down on us. If you have a wine lover on your list, your best bet is to buy that person some wine. If you feel like you don’t know enough to do it well, then either find a good, non-chain wine store, and talk to the nice people behind the counter (and leave if said people look down their long-bony noses at you), or get a gift certificate to a good, non-chain wine store. Or better yet, offer a dinner out with your wine-loving friends.
It’s not about the gadgets and gizwatchies. It’s always going to be about the wine, and that’s what makes it good.
We received a selection of wines from the Idaho Wine Commission and have been slowly writing up the tasting notes. We saved the best for last.
There was, apparently, a mix-up and we got two bottles of the Huston Vineyards 2014 Malbec. Oh, darn. Not. This was really a lovely, rich wine, perfect for a nice meaty meal.
Michael noted the deep ruby, almost black color, and got black fruit (like blackberries) and earth on the nose. It’s a spicy wine, in that there are hints of different spices and some peppercorn, alongside the blueberry flavor. Better yet, the oak is there, but subtle and gentle. It’s a very smooth wine with decent acidity and a decent finish.
We drank one bottle with a steak dinner and the other with our favorite cheese, dried sausage, and olives combo. It paired beautifully with both and was just as nice by itself.
Like most surveys of a region, you’re not going to like everything. It’s how it goes. But overall, we have to say there are some nice wines coming out of Idaho. So, if you see one on a shelf near you, give it a try. It will almost certainly be drinkable. It might even be a gem.
The Idaho Wine Commission sent us a mixed case of the group’s wines, and we’ve been tasting them and featuring some of the winemakers.
Getting wine samples can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a little dicey. So there was some significant relief when we tasted the Cinder Wines 2014 Small Lot Series Sauvignon Blanc. We love sauv blanc and this was one worth drinking regularly.
Michael noted that the color was clear and pale yellow. The nose was lightly scented, but without some of the funkier notes that sauv blanc can get (often called boxwood, gooseberry or cat pee, never mind that no sauv blanc we’ve had has ever smelled anything close to cat pee).
The flavor was dry and crisp, just the way we like it. Michael got some flavors of lemon and pear and noted that it was juicy with clean fruit.
Not only is this a nice sipping wine on a warm evening, it’s a great food wine. We drank ours with a vegetable risotto and it was perfect.
P.S. Happy Beaujolais Nouveau release day. We normally do a post on this fun little new wine at this time of year, but this post got bumped for the Marisa Taylor GoFundMe.com repeat back in September. We still love the Beaujolais Nouveau for Thanksgiving – the lighter new wine works well with just about everything on your Thanksgiving table. But we also like merlot and sauvignon blanc, too.
The Idaho Wine Commission sent us a mixed case of the group’s wines to get the word out that there’s some tasty wine in Idaho. And given what we’ve been tasting, there are. Including this one.
Michael was really looking forward to this one. He loves dessert wines and the Koenig Vineyards Botrytis Single Berry Late Harvest Riesling was everything he likes.
Botrytis is actually a fungus and usually means your grapes (or other fruit) have gone rotten. But the form known as noble rot actually adds to sweet wines, such as Sauternes and this late harvest riesling.
Another thing that makes this wine interesting is that riesling is often made as a sweet wine, but not necessarily a dessert wine. German rieslings are usually off-dry and great with spicy foods. But they aren’t as thick and heavy as a dessert wine, which this one most definitely is.
Michael got strawberry and melon on the nose, and thought it was nicely balanced, without any “heat” from too much alcohol. It also had a rich mouthfeel and wasn’t cloying.
We were given a case of wines from the Idaho Wine Commission as part of their efforts to let people know that there is not only wine in Idaho, but some very tasty wine, at that.
Like many in her profession, Meredith Smith, winemaker at both Sawtooth Estate Winery and Ste Chapelle, actually did something else for a living before deciding she’d rather make wine.
“When I was about 36 years old, I was doing real estate development in Texas,” she said. “I had signed up through a Washington state viticulture program.”
She finished the program two years later, but it was another two years before she quit her job and started out at Sawtooth with a harvest job. Idaho attracted her because she had lived there and had been drinking wines from the region for some time. By the time her harvest job ended, she was the assistant winemaker, taking over as winemaker at Sawtooth in 2012, then adding winemaking at Ste Chappelle to her duties in 2016.
The two wines we got from the wine commission were Smith’s 2013 Trout Trilogy Carmenere from Sawtooth and the 2012 Petit Verdot from Ste Chapelle, two varieties that Smith says you wouldn’t think would do well in her relatively cool climate area, about 3,000 feet above sea level.
“Carmenere surprises me that it does well here,” she said, adding that carmenere and petit verdot are both late ripening varieties. “When I’m harvesting carmenere, it’s October 31, but for some reason it just seems to perform.”
Michael noted the carmenere’s dark color and got a fair amount of spice on the nose. The first taste was a little tart and mid-palate, there was a hint of bitterness. He also tasted some cherry flavor.
The thing is, it’s best as a food wine, but with either milder foods, such as roasted potatoes or vegetables, or something really strong like lamb.
As for the petit verdot, Michael noted the characteristic dark, inky color. The nose was filled with berries, and the taste had some oak, but the tannins were pretty low, making this more of a cocktail wine. It was pleasant, but didn’t really stand out.
We were given a case of wines from the Idaho Wine Commission as part of their efforts to let people know that there is not only wine in Idaho, but some very tasty wine, at that. We’ve gotta be honest – not everything in the case was stellar, but this one was pretty darned good.
The thing with the 2012 Snake River Valley Sangiovese from Williamson Orchards & Vineyards is that it is a food wine with a hey nonny. It’s okay as a sipper, but if you want it to shine, you’ll drink with your favorite pizza or spaghetti bolognese. It is almost a prototype sangiovese and that’s a good thing.
Michael noted its dark garnet color. He thought the nose was pretty oaky but caught some strawberry notes. The body was decent with good acidity and lots of red fruit flavors, including cherry, cranberry, and raspberry.
But again, it needs food, otherwise, it can be a bit in your face. Like most sangiovese.
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.
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.
Michael got graphite and pink fruit on the nose and tasted red fruit, such as cherry, a little dill or spice, and some marzipan. There was good acid and a nice finish.
Let’s be real – you don’t need a transcendent experience every time you open a bottle. And some days, a perfectly serviceable cab franc is what you want. Whether you’d want to pay $18.50 (the going rate for the 2014 cab franc on the website) for perfectly serviceable is up to you and what your budget can handle.