Wine Education

Arizona Winemakers Talk about Terroir

Arizona Winemakers Talk about Terroir

Arizona  winemakers Maynard James Keenan of Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars, Anne Rancone of Lightning Ridge Cellars, Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards, Rob Hammelman of Sand Reckoner Vineyards, Curt Dunham of Lawrence Dunham vineyards and Cynthia Snapp of Javelina Leap Vineyards all talk about the terroir in Arizona.

The discussion was held at the 2013 Arizona Wine Grower’s Association Festival on the Farm in Phoenix, Arizona.

Take a look at all the photos on my Facebook page !

Twitter:  @WKLYwinejournal

Wine Ratings and Pricing: Where’s the Correlation?

My day job has me traveling quite a bit in the metro Phoenix area.  Whenever I am nearby a wine shop, store or warehouse, I pay a very quick visit.  I walk in on a mission, quickly scanning the brands and the prices while comparing them with the data bank in my mind.  At the same time I make mental notes of prices in relation to points ratings.  I am looking for price points like 94+ points for under 30 dollars.

You’re thinking, Yea right!, but this includes markdowns.  Occasionally, I will find something that comes pretty close.
2005 Columbia Crest Grand Reserve Cabernet, 95 points… $22.
I picked up 6 bottles of the 2005 Marquis Phillips Shiraz 9 for $16 each on markdown… Robert Parker rated it 96-98 points.
Which brings me to this question:  What’s with the ratings? A few ratings really stood out as I scanned some other wines. The following wines had no markdowns.
2007 Simi Chardonnay Sonoma County, 84 points.
Next, the 2005 Ravenswood Zinfandel, scored 84 points by Wine Spectator.
Then my eyes find the 2005 Markham Merlot, at 83 points.
To wrap up the confusion, I glanced at the 2005 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with 82 points from Wine Spectator.
What?  If you’ve seen my other posts on things that bug me, one of them was the big warehouse stores that couldn’t spell, or sell for that matter, a 95 point French wine priced at 33% less than the cheapest online price.  I figured this must be a misprint; time to whip out the trusty smartphone.  Just a side note, I only recently got a smartphone and the only thing I use it for is to price check wine! But even after searching and searching, I can find nothing about this rating.  Most of the online outfits that sell Silver Oak are touting the 92 point rating it received from Wine & Spirits.  I also found that Stephen Tanzer gave it 89 points.  Moreover, when I refined my Google search to only include blogs, hoping to find more objective reviews, all I found was idol worship.
What are the most glaring examples of ratings discrepancies between publications that you’ve noticed? Does it seem like ratings and pricing don’t always correlate?

Affordable California Cult Wines | Robert Craig

Robert Craig Wine label

96 points, Robert Parker

The 5th and final (for now) installment of my Affordable Cult California Wines series brings us to the Howell Mountain District of Napa.  At $50 and up per bottle, this wine is by far the most expensive of series and a lot of people would consider it to be profoundly unaffordable.  However, if you put the price in the context of its appellation, total production, and ratings, it is one of the best values coming out of California.

Let’s start with a quick look at the Howell Mountain A.V.A.  It is home to well known brands like Cakebread, Duckhorn, and Robert Foley.  Robert Foley produces a Howell Mountain Cabernet (available only through lottery) and a Claret.  The 2001 Robert Foley Claret received 99 points from Robert Parker and the 2007 vintage received 98 points.  Unfortunately, these wines only start at $110 a bottle, giving them “Cult” status, but not “affordable cult” status. There is however another Robert in the Howell Mountain district whose wines are more affordable and equally legendary.
Before we get to him, let’s take a closer look at the area.  Howell Mountain became an A.V.A back in 1983, making it the first sub appellation of Napa. The history of vines on Howell Mountain date back to the 1880’s.  Howell Mountain is located in the northeast corner of Napa in the Vaca mountains with the elevation of its vineyards ranging between 1,400 and 2,200 feet above sea level. The elevation means that the vines are located above the fog line, allowing ample access to sunlight, as well as cooler days and warmer nights. There are two types of soil in the Howell Mountain A.V.A: volcanic ash, also known as “Tuff’ and a dry red clay, both of which are not nutrient rich.  As if that is not enough, the terrain is rocky and porous.  This environment places stress on its vines, which fits right in with the “High Risk, High Reward” philosophy of viticulture.  Stressing the vines produces smaller harvests and smaller berries, but the fruit that is produced is considered superior, more concentrated, intense and complex.
Which other Robert am I talking about?  Robert Craig.  The Robert Craig Winery is located in the very north end of the Howell Mountain District. Robert Craig has been making wine for the better part of 30 years.  Craig was actually in real estate-asset managment in the ’70’s and in 1978 he formed a group and purchased a 300 acre vineyard on Mt. Veeder. Three years later they sold the vineyard to Donald Hess. Hess asked Craig to stay on and he became the general manager of the brand new, well-known Hess Collection Winery.  In 1991 Craig also established the Pym Rae Vineyard, and in 1992, with the help of friends, he finally established his very own vineyard.
Robert Craig Winery has recently been receiving rave reviews.  In 2006, Wine Spectator ranked Robert Craig one of the top 50 Napa producers based on the last 15 years of ratings.  Speaking of ratings, how about the ratings from Robert Parker on the 2007 vintage?  Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon: 93 points. Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: 94 points. Affinity: 96 points. Finally, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon: 96 points!  The ‘07 Howell Mountain Cabernet is not yet available on the website, so instead, why not try the ‘06 vintage while you wait?
The blend is 84% Cabernet, 12% Merlot and 4% Cabernet Franc.  The wine saw 20 months in French oak, 75% new.  The alcohol comes in at 14.8% and production was a minute 1,240 cases.

Robert Craig and I

If the $70 price tag is too rich for your blood, you could pick up a bottle of the 2007 Affinity for only $48!  The Affinity should be much more widely available, with a more accessible but still small 5,700 cases produced.

Want to read about my prior four Affordable Cult California Wines? They can be found below. Let me know if you have had the chance to taste any of these, and if you’d agree with me. Also, do you have any wines that you consider to be “Affordable California Cult” wines? I’d love to know about ‘em!

Anthony Dias Blue talks Wine History

Anthony Dias Blue spoke at the Devoured Culinary Classic in Phoenix and gave a very interesting seminar on the history of wine in America.  Below you will find the 4 part video of the entire talk.

New York’s Finger Lakes takes home “Best of Show” in San Diego

Vineyard Finger LakesWhile many New Yorkers may be familiar with the wines produced in the Finger Lakes a.v.a the rest of the wine going nation was just introduced to the region in a big way last week.

A quick primer: The Finger Lakes are 11 glacial lakes located in Upstate New York spanning the area between Rochester, Syracuse and Ithaca.  The Finger Lakes a.v.a is massive at just over 2.6 million acres however there are only 11,000 acres under vine.Finger Lakes New York In addition the sub a.v.a’s of Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake are located inside of Finger Lakes a.v.a.  There are over 200 wineries located in the Finger Lakes area.  The deep lakes, some over 600 feet deep, create a moderating lake effect and cool climate which is often compared to Germany’s Rhine.

Over 1,600 wines were entered in the 28th annual San Diego International Wine Competition.  A panel of 28 judges including sommeliers, wine makers and wine writers awarded 669 silver medals, 205 gold medals and 66 platinum medals.

3 of those gold medals were awarded to Dr Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars.  Dr Frank moved to New York from Europe in 1951 and by 1962 he founded Vinifera Cellars and quickly put the Finger Lakes region on the map as capable of producing world class wines.  Dr Frank is credited with pioneering grafting European vitis vinifera onto native rootstock.  The three gold medals were for the 2009 Gewurztraminer Reserve, the 2008 Rkatsiteli and the 2010 Riesling semi dry.  You may be wondering what a Rkatsiteli is…it is one of the oldest varietals and dates back to 3000 b.c. in what is now known as Georgia (eastern Europe)

Finger Lakes Vineyard

Winter vines at Casa Larga

Casa Larga Vineyards took home 2 of the 66 platinum medals for their 2008 Cabernet Franc ice wine and their 2007 vidal blanc ice wine.  Casa Larga was founded in 1974 and is now one of the leading producers of ice wines in the region.

And last but not least is Belhurst Estate.  Belhurst Estate took home a platinum medal for their 2009 Dry Riesling, Seneca Lake.  But wait there’s more, this wine also took home “Best Riesling”.  But wait! there’s even more!  This wine also took home the “Best of Show White Wine” award.

Seneca Lake New York

Belhurst Castle

Belhurst Estate Winery is located in a castle over looking Seneca lake.  The Winery is popular tourist destination for the setting as well as the wine.

This year’s San Diego International Wine competition introduced the wine going public to many wines from regions less well known including the Finger Lakes and even Mexico ( read this post on the $5 Rose that won best Rose ) Have you tried any of the New York wines, any from the Finger Lakes a.v.a?

Links: Dr. Konstantin Frank Casa Larga Vineyards Belhurst Estate

San Diego International Wine competition results

Photos courtesy of Meg Colombo

Cameron Hughes Wines | A Revolutionary Wine Business Model

Wine bottlesThose of you that read my blog know that Cameron Hughes wines are nothing new to me.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Cameron Hughes label, do yourself a favor and read the recent Wall Street Journal article titled Taking advantage of the wine glut.

Cameron Hughes has undertaken an innovative business model, buying up the excess supply of high-end winery’s wine at a bargain basement price. The Cameron Hughes label is then slapped on the bottle and sold for a fraction of the price to retailers across the states. Hughes has taken advantage of the current over supply in California to build a reputation for quality, affordability, and entrepreneurial prowess.  The 2008 Cameron Hughes Lot 200 Napa Valley Cabernet really takes his business model to the next level.

Lot 200 Label

Lot 200, $200 Juice?

The fruit for this monster Napa Cab comes from three of Napa’s most prestigious sub appellations: Stag’s Leap, Rutherford and Oakville. On his website Cameron gives just a glimpse of who’s juice this maybe.  He had to sign a 3 page Non-Disclosure Agreement which left very little left to say except that the people he acquired this wine from do not sell a bottle of wine for under $200 and have multiple 100 point scores under their belts.  This wine was available for $27 on the website but sold out in a matter of weeks when Costco bought almost ALL of the 4,000 cases produced!

lot 182 label

Lot 182, 4 years in shiners

Another outstanding value is Lot 182 Atlas Peak Meritage.  As the story goes there was a mix up in this deal and the labels had already been printed when Cameron discovered that this Meritage was actually 90% Cabernet and could have been sold as an Atlas Peak Cab, but c’est la vie!  This wine was purchased in shiners and had been minding its own business in a cellar for 4 years before being released.  It is drinking really well right now, and I use it as my go to “pop and pour” wine.

The Cameron Hughes production model has been able to thrive in a time when California wines have suffered, becoming less fashionable during the shaky economic climate of the past couple years. California 2009 retail wine sales were down about 3%.  Have you tried any Cameron Hughes Wines or any American wine negociants?

More Reviews:

Lot 200

Lot 182

Affordable California Cult Wines | Von Strasser

Von Strasser Diamond Mountain Reserve

The "Reserve" labels will cost you $150+ a bottle, but you can pick up the DMD labels for around $50

The fourth installment of “Affordable California Cult Wines” takes us to the Diamond Mountain District of Napa. Most everyone who follows Napa wines has heard of Oakville, Stag’s Leap and Rutherford Districts but what about the districts that make up the Eastern Vaca Mountain Range in the Mayacamas?  There are five: Atlas Peak, Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain and the newest of the 5, Diamond Mountain District (DMD) which became an AVA in 2001. Although the AVA is 5,000 acres, only 500 acres are planted with vines, most of which is Cabernet, making it the smallest of the Napa sub appellations.   Diamond Mountain itself is named after the volcanic glass crystals found in its soil. With a climate that is moderately warm, it is significantly cooler than the Napa Valley floor during the day, but slightly warmer at night.  As the name suggests, this is a higher elevation region, starting at 400 feet all the way up to 2,200 feet. The wines are generally more tannic than the wines produced on the valley floor. Some of the more well known wineries and vineyards from DMD include Sterling Vineyards and Schramsberg Vineyards. They have great structure and aging potential. Cabernet Sauvignon is the predominant variety but according to The Wine News it is also home to the greatest concentration of Petit Verdot in Napa.

The Von Strasser vineyard is home to the second largest planting of Petit Verdot in the Diamond Mountain District. The winery is known for using high doses of Petite Verdot in their blends, sometimes upwards of 44%. While it may seem like a wacky blend to some, Rudy Von Strasser has plenty of wine making credentials to put your mind at ease. His wine career began after graduating UC Davis in 1985 and working as an intern at none other than Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.  Rudy returned to Napa a year later and was hired by Trefethen Wines. From there he went to Newton, and by 1990 he managed to purchase the Roddis Estate Winery located on Diamond Mountain. The Von Strasser brand has a 3 tier system: “Reserve” which is only made in great vintages, “Single Vineyard”, and “DMD”, or Diamond Mountain District.  While the first two tiers can run upwards of $100+ a bottle, the Diamond Mountain District Cabernet is available at a very reasonable $50, direct from the winery website.
The 2006 Von Strasser Cabernet Diamond Mountain District is a blend of 85% Cabernet, 6% Malbec, 5% Petit Verdot, 2% Zinfandel and 2% Merlot. The alcohol is a moderate 13.5%, with a Bordeaux-like structure, along with tart blackberry and cherry fruit encompassed by smoky oak. The tannins are more intense than most Napa Cabs, yet the wine is still wonderfully balanced and has a nice lush mouth-feel.  Wine Enthusiast gave this wine 91 points and they estimate that the wine should continue to develop through 2012, which is just around the corner.  You won’t have to wait too long for this wine to reach its peak.  The wine was aged for 22 months in 100% French oak, 30% of which were new barrels. A miniscule but attainable 2,465 cases produced, making this wine the most accessible in my ‘Affordable California Cults’ series wines. Von Strasser is starting to get some rave reviews and was recently crowned Value Winery of the year (2009) by Wine & Spirits magazine, to go alongside their Wine & Spirits Winery of the Year award, received in 2005. Get your hands on Von Strasser’s wines now, before more wine publication awards send its prices high and its availability low!
Edited by Jon Troutman

Certified Wine Educator Exam steps up the Intensity

Society of Wine educators logoRigorous entrance examinations, hour-long graded essays, and spiked drinks. While you might think I was describing typical Fraternity life at a big U.S. university, it’s actually all part of the Certified Wine Educator (CWE) exam. I was lucky enough to sit in on the exam, administered by the Society of Wine Educators as a guest.

The class typically runs for at about a cool $300, with the actual CWE exam costing $450. The CWE program may be slightly less entailed than both the Court of Master Sommelier and Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) programs, but make no mistake about it… passing the CWE exam is no easy task, I quickly learned.
The program was developed in the late 70’s with a mission to advance wine education through professional development and certification. 1983 saw the introduction of a CWE examination, and has since grown to an organization that recognizes just more than 3,000 worldwide members, only 319 of which have passed all portions of the exam. If that wasn’t enough to showcase its difficulty, this statistic surely will. Only 12% of all applicants pass the CWE on their first attempt, the majority of which spend 1-2 years preparing for. What’s more, in 2010 the CWE has stepped it up a notch, making their exam that much more difficult.
The exam consists of 3 major segments; written, wine identification and a components/imbalances portion. The written part consists of 85 multiple choice questions, covering a range of all wine regions and grapes. This is followed by an essay, which students are given one hour to complete.  A sample question for the essay:
Compare and contrast the major production techniques used to make sparkling wine and Champagne and their relative potential for quality and what factors make Champagne unique compared to other sparkling wines?
It’s no wonder why a staggeringly low 22% of students pass this portion on their first attempt.
The second component concerns wine identification.  You are given 4 white wines and 4 red wines in a blind tasting. You must deduce the provenance of each wine from a list of 10 wines, meaning that there are more potential choices given than wines, requiring exam takers to nail 6 of the 8 wines correctly, with detailed written rationale, to pass.
The third, final, and trickiest portion of the exam is “wine components and imbalances”.  This proved brutally difficult, with only one person in my class passing. Nine samples of wine are provided, one labeled “control”.  Amongst the other 8 glasses is an unadulterated wine identical to the “control” wine, which you must identify.
But wait… there’s more!  The exam also required us to correctly identify the wines with added sugar, sulfur dioxide, vinegar, tannin, oxidation, acid and alcohol.  These modifications are far from obvious. To give an idea, the alcohol added to one of the wine was a 200 proof neutral spirit, at only 114 parts per million.
The CWE exam provided me a lucky sneak peak at their rigorous exam, providing me with a new found realization and appreciation of its difficulty. With the increased difficulty of the testing process, added prestige should come to the certification. Fingers crossed, I hope to be one of the 12% that passes on their first attempt. If not, I’ll at least I’ll have the company of the other 88%.
Edited by Jon Troutman

Affordable California Cult Wines | Shulz Cellars

California cult wineThis is the third installment in a five part series featuring some Affordable California Cult wines. Their track record, quality, and small production make these collector’s items, but their price tags are what really differentiate them in a sea of overpriced California wines.

Along the west side border of Napa, just off of the Mayacamas mountain region, is the Mt. Veeder region. Responsible for a small fraction of the Valley’s wines, Mt. Veeder doesn’t receive the love and attention that some better known counterpart regions, like Oakville and St. Helena, but it is quietly turning out world class wines from its high elevations. It should come as no surprise, since people have been growing grapes on Mt. Veeder since the 1860’s. Despite the rich history, it wasn’t until 1993 that Mt. Veeder became a formally recognized AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Located north of Carneros and west of Oak Knoll, Yountville and Oakville, the mountain is rugged, steep, and faces the cool Pacific currents. The berries of Mt. Veeder are relatively small due to the cool fog and high elevations, which results in wines of intense fruit flavor and smoother tannins. Of the 15,000 acres that make up the Mt. Veeder, only 1,000 acres are planted to vineyards.  Some of the vineyards are on slopes as steep as 30 Degrees – you could ski down these bad boys!
Though few people know much about Mt. Veeder, it has quietly produced many well known wines, including Hess and Mayacamas Vineyards. Add to that list Schulz Cellars, which was formed in 2005 by John and Michelle Schluz.  Their path to owning a wine company includes significant sales background rather than just a pure wine making background.  John spent 10 years in sales with Franciscan and Michelle spent 5 years in sales with up-and-coming Cliff Lede.  Currently John does sales consulting for a number of ultra premium Napa wineries and Michelle is the Direct to Consumer marketing manager for Arrowood winery and Matanzas Creek Winery.
This winning combination of sales and wine making experience was a recipe for success. The Schulz’s were lucky enough to befriend John and Ashely Derr who own Lampyridae Vineyard, located at about 2,500 feet, near the summit of Mt Veeder. The highest vineyard in the entire Mayacamas range, Lampyridae is Latin for firefly, which is what the lights of San Fransisco look like at night from the vineyard.  This vineyard doesn’t have a shabby background, as it is also a contributing component for Beringer’s (legendary) Private Reserve Cabernet.  The high elevation vineyard produces smaller even more intense fruit with bolder tannins.
So with those two backgrounds in mind, I present to you:
2007 Shulz Cellars Mt. Veeder Zinfandel
This is 100% Zinfandel, aged in 50% French and 50% American Oak (50% of which was new oak) for a total of 18 months.  The alcohol rings in at a tolerable 14.7%, not nearly as high as many neighboring zinfandels out there.  In my last post I talked about the Venge Scout’s Honor.  This wine is almost the polar opposite.  If you don’t like the ripe Lodi style of Zinfandel then you will probably love this wine.  It has a formidable nose of clove and spices, and an intense palate full of cherry, blackberry, and big, chewy tannins. Available for under $30, this wine tastes that much sweeter. And with only 175 cases produced, it’s justified its title as an affordable California Cult selection.

Does Non Vintage Wine Mean Lower Quality?

Over the past half century there have been many awe-inspiring vintages. These specific years have produced wines regarded as the ‘best ever’, including 1947, 1959, 1961, 1982, 2000 and 2005. But what happens when a wine doesn’t come from a specific year? Except in the case of non vintage Champagnes, such as Veuve Clicquot, what if there is an absence of a date on the labels of red and white wine.

I recently attended a wine tasting of a wine company’s new releases. I breezed through the new offerings rather quickly, just sniffing swirling and spitting. I didn’t spit it out because the wine was particularly bad, it’s just that I had at least 9 wines to try, it was 11am and I had to drive 120 miles to get back home. I was paying so much attention to the wine itself that I never noticed the absence of a vintage on the bottles.
When the wine maker revealed to me later that all of the wines were non vintage I was quite surprised and very confused. I couldn’t tell if that was why I was not blown away by the flavors, or if the flavors would have been like that regardless. To be fair, the wines were decent, and my perceptions probably had a lot to do with getting 2 hours sleep before driving 120 miles to taste wine.
For me, red wines that do not have a vintage conjure up images of very inferior sub-standard wine, non vintage = Red Flag! Am I a wine snob because of this? Can a wine still be decent, or even very good without having a specific vintage? Is non vintage the hallmark of plonk wine? Where does non vintage wine come from? Is it the leftovers from several different years that a vineyard/winemaker just wants to make some extra money on? Or are they actually happy with the final product? Is every case different?
Some winemakers argue that producing non vintage wines allows for the winemaker to take what is best from every vintage and build upon their strengths and be more creative. It is not making an inferior wine, but making the best possible wine he or she can from the grapes. While going non vintage is nontraditional, theoretically it does make some sense. Right?
I have a lot of questions and almost no answers. Help me to understand, dear reader.
Edited by Jon Troutman