arizona

Robert Craig Winery | Phoenix tasting

This past January I attended a Robert Craig Winery wine tasting held at Garage Wine & Tap in Phoenix, Arizona.  Mr Robert (Bob) Craig was on hand to talk with guests and answer their questions and show case the brand new release of his flagship wine the 2010 Affinity.

a picture of robert craig and weekly wine journal writer Tim Hilcove

Robert Craig & me

If you don’t know Robert Craig, then lets start with a little background:

Robert Craig is responsible for the Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain American Viticultural Areas (A.V.A’s)  He is a Napa pioneer, and started out putting together real estate deals in Napa in the late 1960’s early 70’s. During this time he came across an offer he couldn’t refuse for some potential vineyard land which he later sold to Donald Hess and then stayed on as vineyard manager during the 1980’s.  In 1992 Robert Craig started his own winery and in 2002 he built a state of the art winery and started a small vineyard on  some prime land on the top of Howell Mountain situated right between Black Sears Vineyard and Outpost.  An interesting factoid about Bob is that he was in the Coast Guard in the 1950’s and was stationed off the very southern panhandle of Alaska just a few hours from where I grew up as a kid.   A while back I wrote a 5 part series on Affordable California Cult Wines, Robert Craig was one of them.  Check out that post HERE.

image of Robert Craig wine label

2009 Affinity

SO!  How was the wine you are probably asking.  Very, very good.  I started out with the only white wine made by Robert Craig, the 2010 Durel vineyard Chardonnay.  This is a very nicely balanced Chardonnay, not too much oak, in-fact very little, and not overly buttery.  This is a much more Euro style Chard than a California butter and oak pile-driver.  I mingled with the guests and tried to gauge their “affinity” for the chard and even though most people were there for the reds, they actually were pleasantly surprised by this wine.  I’ve had it before and new to expect good things, and I wasn’t disappointed.  Next up was the ’09 Affinity followed by the brand new 2010 Affinity.

2009 Zinfandel

2009 Zinfandel

Both are stellar, and very approachable right now.  Only minimal decanting might be required and certainly no extra again, although like most fine wines these will improve with age.  I was eager to get into the mountain fruit and so I moved over to an additional tasting station near the back of the restaurant that was serving Robert Craig’s 2009 Black Sears Vineyard Howell mountain Zinfandel, and the ’08 and ’09 Howell Mountain Cabernets.  Robert Parker gave the ’09 Howell mountain cab 96 points.  Most Napa Valley Cabernets scoring 96+ points are in the $300 range. Compare that to Robert Craig’s price tag of $80 and you can easily see why I put him in the Affordable California Cult Wines series.

garage wine and tap interior

Inside the Garage

Near the end of the evening I sat on a bar stool next to Bob and a gentleman approached him and asked a very good question: “How do you make these wines so approachable at such a young age, especially the mountain fruit?”

Bob answered, it’s all about vineyard management.  Picking the fruit at the right time and to a large extent only picking the fruit.  Picking by hand, meticulously sorting out stems and substandard fruit, and also harvesting at the right time.

Currently the 2009 Affinity is at select Costco’s or you can order it online at RobertCraigWine.com

Visit Garage Wine & Tap, it’s a nice venue for tasting wine and its built inside of an old garage in central Phoenix

Tarbell’s wine experience

Most fine dining establishments will have someone on staff to answer specific wine questions.  Some places will even have a Society of Wine Educators (CWE) “Certified Specialist of Wine” or a Court of Master Sommeliers “Level 1” on hand to help customers with their wine choices.  On a recent Wine about Town trip I learned of a Phoenix based restaurant that is sending ALL of its wait staff to the CWE “Certified Specialist of Wine” training.  A couple of years ago I was invited to the CWE exams held  in Phoenix and I got a first hand look at how difficult the certification process is.  Lets just say that if you pass, you’ll know more than enough to get you through dinner rush at most fine dining establishments.

wine decanter photo

Proper decanting is essential to the enjoyment of wine

The restaurant I am talking about is non other than Phoenix acclaimed Tarbell’s.  Located at 32 street and Camelback in the heart of the Biltmore district, Tarbell’s has been serving customers for over 18 years.  Which is quite an achievement in and of itself.
Owner and chef, Mark Tarbell joined us at the dinner table and we seized the opportunity to pick his brain a little.  One of the foundational elements of his restaurant concept is to provide an opportunity to explore wine and food, together.  Tarbell’s wine list is not the biggest in town, its not large magical leather bound book.  Rather, it is an opportunity to excite the palate, without overwhelming the decision making process.
Chef Tarbell pointed out that if you look at the wine list you will see that there are several different styles of the same wine.  There will be a couple of names you recognise and then there are wines that you don’t -but should!  His carefully selected wine list allows you to experience everything that each varietal has to offer.

Tarbell's phoenix

Angus aged 35 days NY Strip with Pommes Frites

To start I decided to try something completely different.  If you’ve read my blog or this column you’ve probably noticed a tendency toward California cabernets (and a soft spot for ARIZONA wines)  So I went with an inexpensive white wine 2008 Picpoul de Pinet Coteaux Du Languedoc.  I have enjoyed reds from Languedoc in the past and thought I’d try a white. It was a nice, light and refreshing wine that went well the starter salad.  And at $7 a glass it was an exceptional value
For the dinner wine, I decided to enlist the help of General Manager, Matt Lockwood.  I explained what I’d been drinking lately, and wanted to try something a little outside the box, yet still have something that was going to pair well with the red meat we were going to order.
After several suggestions that I had already tried, he suddenly remembered something.  “You have to try this, you’ll LOVE it”

arizona wine blog

2009 Arietta “Quartet”

He suggested the 2009 Arietta “Quartet”.  This was a fantastic suggestion. The wine was different enough to be interesting, and yet still within the bounds of what I thought would be palatable with steak.  The wine is a Bordeaux style blend of 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Cabernet Franc, 17% Merlot and 4% Petit Verdot.  Only 1,100 cases of this wine were produced, so it was a real treat to get a chance to try it.
For dessert I had Tarbell’s “Beloved Chocolate Mouse” paired with a Taylor Fladgate port.  This was another amazing pairing, that is impossible to describe in words–you’ll just have to try it for yourself!

Interview with wine negociant Cameron Hughes

If you’ve ever bought wine at Costco, you’ve most surely come across Cameron Hughes Wine Lot Series.  Cameron has built a formidable brand out of rescuing high end “orphans” and repurposing them for the value driven consumer who appreciates high quality wine.

Cameron was recently in Scottsdale, Arizona for a wine dinner at Tommy V’s Urban Grille, with tickets being sold exclusively through select Costco’s.  I managed to sit down with Cameron for a few minutes and asked him about his business model, production levels and future plans, as well has his prognostication for what wine region may be “hot” in 2013.

Cameron Hughes Wine website

Photos from the wine dinner on the Weekly Wine Journal Facebook Page

Arizona Winery Burning Tree Cellars | Interview

Another interview in a series of interviews I did with Arizona wine makers at the Festival on the Farm. Corey and Mitch, co-owners of Burning Tree Cellars, spoke with me for a few minutes about their wines

Maynard James Keenan | wine maker interview

I had a chance to sit down with Arizona wine maker Maynard James Keenan at this year’s Arizona Wine Grower’s Association “Festival on the Farm”. Mr Keenan is the owner of Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus cellars.

Arizona Stronghold website
Caduceus cellars website
Arizona Wine Grower’s Association website

Video interview with Arizona wine maker Tim White

I got a chance to sit down with Arizona wine maker Tim White at this years Festival on the Farm.  Tim is the director of wine making at Arizona Stronghold Vineyards.  Arizona Stronghold took home multiple awards from this year’s Arizona Wine Grower’s Association competition including:

Arizona Grower’s Cup, Gold for red.  And a clean sweep in the white category, winning Gold, Silver and Bronze!

Video interview:

Arizona Stronghold website

Arizona Wine Festival at The Farm 2012

Annual AZ Wine Festival Set for Nov. 17

PHOENIX  –  The Arizona Wine Growers Association will celebrate a year of rising national acclaim by raising a glass with the public on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2011, at The Festival at The Farm.

arizona wine tasting

Festival on the Farm

Set among the pecan groves of Phoenix’s intimate The Farm at South Mountain, the fourth-annual festival is a way to sample the best wine from across Arizona, all in one place. More than 30 local wineries are expected to attend, representing growing regions from the Verde Valley in the north, Sonoita and Elgin in the south, and Willcox in southeastern Arizona.

As a nod to Arizona wine’s rich history, the festival is an officially-sanctioned Arizona Centennial event. The festival is from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and is limited to 1,000 guests. Tickets are $75 for the public (online and at the door) and $60 for AWGA members.

The festival will include:

  • A wine tasting with 31 participating Arizona wineries.
  • A picnic lunch prepared by The Farm Kitchen. There also will be tasty treats from other local Arizona favorites.
  • A high-energy live auction for great prizes.
  • Educational seminars including food & wine pairing with Chef LaPrad from Quiessence and Curt Dunham, winemaker from Lawrence Dunham Vineyards.
arizona wine maker

Curt Dunham, wine maker at Lawrence Dunham vineyards

“Whether they are a novice or an aficionado, this is a can’t miss event for wine lovers to meet the folks behind the rising Arizona wine movement,” said Peggy Fiandaca, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association. “Come sip the wine from our state’s beautiful wine regions all in one place, in one of the most wonderful settings Phoenix has to offer.”

The festival is preceded by a special event on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. The “Celebration of the Arizona Wine Growers” is an opportunity to mingle and meet winemakers from across the state. The event is 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Quiessence Restaurant at The Farm at South Mountain. The winemaker celebration is open to the public but capped at 150 guests.

Arizona wine

Quiessence Restaurant

This special evening includes an awards reception followed by a specially prepared appetizers using local produce by Quiessence Executive Chef Greg LaPrad. Each of the appetizers and desserts are paired with the winning wines from the 2012 Arizona Grower’s Cup and Winemaker’s Medal competition. Each of the winning wineries will be present to discuss their wine and winemaking philosophy. The cost for this special evening is $75 per person.

The Arizona wine industry is one of the fastest growing value-added industries in the state creating jobs and wealth while preserving sustainable agriculture statewide. In 1980 there were less than 10 wineries in Arizona. Today there are more than 60 bonded wineries, with many more in the development phase. The number of vineyard acres has grown dramatically, and many new vineyards and wineries are planned. The Arizona Wine Growers Association (AWGA) represents these family businesses and supports grape growers and wineries statewide through education, representation, advocacy, and promotion of Arizona wine and sustainable grape growing.

Arizona wine has an estimated economic impact of $38 million, according to a recent study funded by the Arizona Office of Tourism and completed by Northern Arizona University. The state’s wine is surging in popularity, earning national acclaim from Wine Spectator to Sunset Magazine to USA Today. Arizona wine also has been served at James Beard House dinners and poured at the White House.

Learn more, join the AWGA or get your tickets now at www.arizonawine.org

Arizona Wine Industry Celebrates 2012 Harvest

 Arizona Wine Industry Celebrates 2012 Harvest

Grapes on vines PHOENIX – The Arizona wine industry is celebrating a better than expected wine grape harvest this year. With yields up and grape quality above average, the harvest left many wineries scrambling to find more barrels, tanks, and workers to bring in their crop. “It is a nice problem to be having this year after several years of devastating crop loss due to weather” said Curt Dunham, winemaker/owner of Lawrence Dunham Vineyards. In Arizona’s oldest wine region, the anticipation for a good growing season was very high and the harvest exceeds expectations. Ann Roncone, winemaker/owner of Lightning Ridge Cellars in Sonoita, explained “I’m thrilled to actually have some estate white grapes this year. We lost about half the crop from an April 18th frost. But half a crop is much better than the last two years, where April frosts completed wiped out our two white varietals (Muscat Canelli and Malvasia).”

arizona wine

2012 harvest underway

Many vineyard owners reported that the monsoon season came early this year; starting in earnest in mid-June bringing quite a bit of rain for June and July in southern Arizona. Also, there were fewer new bugs to battle. The biggest challenge this year was keeping the nutrient levels just right. Vineyard managers reported Phosphorus and Potassium deficiencies creating difficulties during the growing season. Oak Creek Vineyards and Winery in Northern Arizona’s Verde Valley region reported their best harvest ever from their 12 year old vineyard. According to Florian Wahl, Oak Creek winemaker said, “We harvested our grapes with brix (sugar levels) at nearly 26 plus which we anticipate producing rich, smooth wines with nice alcohol.” Kief Manning, winemaker at Kief-Joshua Vineyards in Sonoita/Elgin area said “The cool summer temperatures coupled with plenty of rain has resulted in a hearty harvest this year.”

arizona wineArizona is receiving a lot of attention in recent years as the number of vineyard acres are expanding, wine production is increasing, and the quality of Arizona wines are being recognized. There are now over 63 bonded wineries in Arizona up from nine in 2000. However, wine grape acres have not kept up with the demand sending Arizona wineries to purchase grapes from outside of the state. Peggy Fiandaca, President of the Arizona Wine Growers Association, said “The 2012 harvest will help Arizona producers begin to keep up with demand. The opportunities of the Arizona wine industry are great, and there is no reason that the wine industry cannot be the next billion dollar wine region like Washington and Oregon.”

Southeastern Arizona is the third major wine grape growing region and one of the fastest in the amount of acres being planted. “We have just completed an amazing 2012 harvest,” according to Curt Dunham, owner/winemaker of Lawrence Dunham Vineyards. “We finished harvesting September 27th picking the last of the Petite Sirah. Our estate harvested over 12 tons which averages out to about six tons per acre – an amazing yield especially for such a young vineyard.” Dunham said, “We are literally up to our elbows in deep purple must and have been scrambling to find places to not only ferment the grapes but to store the finished wine after pressing.”  “The Arizona wine industry is excited about the 2012 growing season. We have a new state-of-the-art custom crush facility in Willcox, Arizona, new vineyard acreage planted, and wineries producing highly rated Arizona wines. All of these accomplishments are boosting Arizona’s image as a quality winemaking region,” said Peggy Fiandaca, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association.

*Press release and photos courtesy of the Arizona Wine Grower’s Association

New Wines at Flemings steakhouse

scottsdale wine bar

The from inside the wine room looking out

Every September Flemings prime steakhouse & wine bar introduces a plethora of new wines to their already robust wine list.  Flemings boasts 100 wines by glass and this year they added or changed out over 60 new wines (too many to list here).  I had the pleasure of dining at Flemings this October to re-familiarize myself with their wine list and also re-sample their fabulous Prime steak!

After a quick peruse of the menu my guest and I settled on the “wicked Cajun shrimp” appetizer which consisted of lightly breaded shrimp in a spicy creamy sauce.  Of course, the fresh baked bread and butter came along as well. We were careful not to fill up on bread because as anyone who frequents a prime steakhouse knows, you have to save space for that steak!

scottsdale wine bar

Robert Craig Winery’s “Affinity” is one of the wines you will find on the reserve wine list, one of my favorite!

I ordered the Filet Mignon.  The most tender of all steaks.  When ordering we asked our server to what extent a medium rare was medium rare.  She explained that if I normally enjoyed medium rare, then tonight I would probably enjoy medium rare plus.  I’m pretty sure if you order medium rare plus at most steak houses they’ll say “plus what? plus a baked potato?”

I have to say, and this is not because the meal was complimentary*, THIS was the best tasting steak I’d eaten all year.  And I eat a lot of steak.  Just slightly crisped on the outside, juicy pink on the inside, still on the rare side, but not blue or cool on the interior, just absolutely perfect!

To compliment the steak, I had to choose a wine.  With 100 wines by the glass to choose from this because a difficult task.  Once again our server came to the rescue and recommend a wine flight.  Any 3 of the 100 wines by the glass can be on the wine flight.  So I chose Kelly Fleming’s Napa Valley cabernet, Ladera Napa Valley and Hall Napa Valley.

Kelly Fleming, wife of Paul Fleming-founder of Flemings and PF Changs, made a really nice cabernet.  It was the ripest and smoothest of the three.  Next up was the Ladera, 2009 Napa Valley.  Ladera’s Howell Mountain Cabernet is one of my favorite and I was interested to see how their Napa Valley selection compared.  Well it stood up just fine.  Not as much of the tart rich mountain fruit as their Howell Mountain offering – much more of the ripe valley floor, and classic “napa earth”.  It’s difficult to describe this, when I’m not actually a “professional” wine writer, but it’s just something you’ll know after you’ve experienced enough Napa cabernets.  You put your nose in the glass, and you immediately know you’re in Napa.

arizona wine blogger

Me: too full to order desert

The Hall 2009 Napa Valley, was the biggest and boldest of the three.  Which by the time I was halfway through my steak and sautéed mushrooms was exactly what I needed. This wine powered through everything and excited my already overloaded palate.  Rich, smooth, intense cocoa, casis and spice, I would say this wine is a great value even at restaurant prices.

Once again, a visit to Flemings never disappoints, the only disappointing thing was not having enough room to enjoy desert!

*Disclosure: This meal was provided by Flemings