Monday, November 4, 2019

Review: Calera 2016 Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir Mt. Harlan CA ($75)

Recently sold to Duckhorn, Calera is arguably the most iconic Central Coast Pinot Noir brand. The brand was founded by visionary Josh Jensen, who looked far and wide for a cool climate spot with limestone akin to that found in Burgundy. Jensen wound up creating wines that weren't brazen imitations of Burgundy, but wines that stood on their own and were a new California take on Pinot Noir: restrained, structured wines grown on relatively lean soils that gave the wines a genuine sense of place and point of view. Calera's wines have been revered by California wine connoisseurs since the early 1990's, but a fortunate mention in a popular Japanese manga comic book about a sommelier catapulted Calera to fame in Japan in the late 1990's. Calera's wines are still extraordinary, the single vineyard wines quite rare, and certainly not cheap. Only 375 cases of the 2016 Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir were produced. It is made from vine cuttings Jensen brought to the US from Domaine de la Romanee Conti after he worked there and at Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. The vines that made this wine yielded a mere 1 ton per acre (3 to 5 tons per acre is common for many high quality wines. This is delicious. It's savory, fruity and structured at the same time, with sweet summer tomato, raspberry, red currant, blueberry fruit notes and a lovely, citrusy, salty minerality that undergirds everything. Balanced, structured and complex, it's worth the hefty price tag. (95 Points)

Monday, September 30, 2019

Review: MacRostie 2017 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($25)

I really can't say enough about the wines Steve MacRostie and Heidi Bridenhagen are making at MacRostie these days. Their Pinot Noirs, Syrahs, and Chardonnays are all beautifully on point, lucid, and precise, combining the beauty of North Coast California fruit with freshness and vivacity. This, their entry-level Chardonnay, has been a consistent bargain over the last five years. It has bright peach and citrus fruit, a creamy mouthfeel, and a zesty, lemon-and-herbs finish. (92 Points)

- Tim Teichgraeber

Review: Sonoma-Loeb 2017 Sonoma County Pinot Noir ($35)

A really solid wine from a strong vintage overall, this North Coast Pinot has subtle, flattering herb notes on the nose with a touch of spice notes that suggest some stems might have been intentionally included in the fermentation. It's fresh, not overripe, with blueberry, raspberry and orange zest notes, medium-weight in the mouth, and it finishes with taut black tea and licorice notes. Maybe it doesn't have as strong a personality as some single-vineyard offerings, but the wine is immediately likeable, genuinely complex, and has enough structure to age well. Jump on it. Highly recommended. (93 Points)

- Tim Teichgraeber

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Prosecco for the Holiday Season

Last year Prosecco surpassed Champagne as the most popular sparkling wine in the world after many years of steady growth in the US. According to Fortune Magazine, Prosecco sales have even grown 40% in France thanks to it's comparative affordability. The US is the number one market for Prosecco outside of Europe.

Of course Prosecco and Champagne are not exactly the same thing.

Both come from regions rich in history and tradition. In fact, Prosecco was just recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in part because some of the very steep (up to 70 degree slopes), sometimes terraced vineyards in the Dolomite foothills. Those vineyards make the highest quality wines from Prosecco, and they aren't cheap to buy, or to farm.

Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle (Methode Champenoise).

Prosecco must be made at least 85% from the semi-aromatic Glera grape.  A few other local grapes, and some international varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can make up the other 15%. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco undergoes a secondary fermentation in tanks rather than in the bottle, a process known as the Charmat bulk process.

A lot of Prosecco's sales growth has derived from the fact that Prosecco D.O.C. can be quite inexpensive, often selling for around $12 or less. But there is another level of quality... Prosecco Superiore D.O.C.G. is the highest quality Prosecco. Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is the designation denoting the highest quality wines in Italy, and the designation comes with substantial rules governing ingredients, yields, alcohol levels, and minimum aging.

Prosecco wines carrying the D.O.C.G. designation, including those from the 'cru' of the hillside Cartizze sub-region, are going to run you around $25 to $50 a bottle, and they're a serious step up in quality from some of the lesser D.O.C. bottlings. Only about 16 out of 100 bottles of Prosecco carries the D.O.C.G. designation.

Mionetto, one of my favorite Prosecco D.O.C. producers recently released a couple of these outstanding D.O.C.G. wines: a lovely Cartizze, and the 2016 vintage Cuvee Anniversario Prosecco Superiore D.O.C.G.

The Mionetto 'Luxury' Prosecco Superiore Cartizze D.O.C.G. ($35) has great effervescence, with pretty pink lady apple, lemon zest, and pear flavors, a bit of warm yeast notes and a crisp minerally finish reflective of the rocky hillside site.

The Mionetto Cuvee Anniversario Prosecco Superiore D.O.C.G. ($22) is made in an 'Extra Brut' style, meaning next to no sugar was added prior to the second fermentation. This has been a trendy category in both Champagne and Prosecco for a few years.

For my taste, Brut Champagne is perfectly crisp, with just enough roundness. Extra Dry, the next sweetest category is usually a bit sweet for me.

When it comes to Prosecco, I think Glera needs a tad more sweetness to show its aromatics, so I usually prefer Extra Dry Prosecco.

All that said, this Cuvee Anniversario Extra Brut Prosecco D.O.C.G. from Mionetto is very well made and a terrific value at just $22 a bottle. It's bracingly dry from start to finish with pretty green apple and limestone notes and has very fine bubbles. It will go better with seafood than it will with pastry dishes.

- Tim Teichgraeber

And here are a couple of other Prosecco D.O.C.G. sparkling wines worth seeking out...

2castelli Prosecco D.O.C.G. Brut

La Farra Prosecco Superiore D.O.C.G. Extra Dry. Superb.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Review: Prats + Symington 2015 Prazo de Roriz Douro Red ($18)

This well-established winery and brand is a joint venture between Bruno Prats of Bordeaux and the Symington Family (Graham's, Dow's, Cockburn's, etc...) of Portugal's Douro Valley. I can't say enough about all of the wines made under this brand, from the flagship Chryseia ($60) to the brilliant Post Scriptum ($27) and this lovely, very affordable Prazo de Roriz, which punches well above its weight for an under-$20 red. It has bold, fresh red fruit and dried flower notes, and the rocky Douro landscape lends it great tension and structure. Blended from traditional Douro grapes, it's a wine that delivers plenty of class as well as a genuine sense of place. Highly recommended. (91 Points)

-Tim Teichgraeber

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Dry Creek Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley ($29)

I honestly think this winery is making the best wines they ever have, and this new Cabernet speaks loudly to that proposition. A blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot is plain delicious, and loaded with beautiful raspberry and cassis fruit, but it's much more that that. It's bright and clear on the nose, has beautifully-layered notes of madrone, cocoa, coconut, lavender, and cinnamon. The wine's seamless, complex and lengthy with subtle gravelly notes. At this price, it's a steal. Keep an eye on this brand. (93 Points) 

- Tim Teichgraeber

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Humboldt Distillery's Abe Stevens

I recently sat down with Humboldt Distillery's founder and distiller Abe Stevens to talk about the state of craft distilling and what he's been up to lately, including the creation of a cannabis sativa / hemp seed-infused vodka called Humboldt's Finest.

Humboldt Distillery founder Abe Stevens

Abe Stevens is a fifth generation Humboldt County native (a topic probably deserving its own book), who also happens to be very well-traveled. He attended University of Chicago earning degrees in chemistry and biochemistry. He moved back west to the East Bay before he was yanked cross-country to New York to work for pharma powerhouse Chiron.

When he lived in the East Bay he played a lot of poker at the Oaks Club in Oakland and discovered he had a pretty good head for the game. In New York he played illegal underground games and eventually wound up playing poker professionally for a few years, including, naturally, the World Series of Poker.

When it came time to settle down and raise a family, Stevens decided to cash in his chips and move back to the sleepy coastal town of Fortuna in Humboldt County and immerse himself in distilling. He founded his distillery in 2012. "I always appreciated the redwoods and the natural beauty of Humboldt County," he told me, adding, "I'm glad I got in when I did."

Stevens' first release was a hit - a certified organic, sugar cane-based vodka that has earned great scores from critics and a double-gold medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, by far the most exacting American spirits competition. (A double-gold medal means that the panel of judges, usually 3 judges, unanimously agree that the product is first-rate). The accolades and the quality of the product have helped Stevens to gain entry into some major retail accounts in California, like Whole Foods, BevMo, and Total Wines.

Today Stevens also makes a spiced rum that is flavored with all-natural vanilla, allspice and a few other proprietary seasonings. It's a refreshing alternative to some of the spiced rums out there that are full of artificial or highly refined flavorings.

Humboldt Distillery's latest release is the hemp seed-infused Humboldt's Finest vodka. Don't worry - the vodka is THC free and has no psychoactive effects. It is made with legally grown industrial hemp, and is legal in all 50 states.

Humboldt County is part of the famed 'green triangle where most of California's pot is grown. Abe says people just kept asking him when he was going to make a weed-infused booze, so he figured he had to keep experimenting until he developed a recipe he could be proud of. Humboldt's Finest also received a double-gold medal from the SF International Spirits Competition in 2017.

"A lot of people expect a skunkier profile," explained Stevens. Abe says he was looking for a 'fresh leaf' quality, not a strong weedy flavor. "A lot of people compare it to gin, actually," Stevens says, explaining that both juniper, the main botanical in most gin, and cannabis, both share a key terpene: alpha pinene. The development of Humboldt's Finest took a lot of experimentation, and when it comes to the exact infusion technique, Stevens plays his cards pretty close to the vest.

Interestingly, Stevens says the legalization of weed in California has put a big dent in the profits of clandestine Humboldt County growers. "When it was illegal, they would get $3,000 to $4,000 a pound, and now they get $500."

I'm not a pot smoker, and I was worried that the aromas of the hemp-infused vodka might be a little bit off-putting. They aren't. It really smells somewhat like gin, if a bit more directly piney with a hint of anise.

In cocktails, think of Humboldt's Finest vodka as an alternative to gin. It herbaceous notes pair well with spring/summer ingredients like lime, cucumber, and basil, and it even makes a fine bloody mary.

If you're in the neighborhood, tours and tastings of Humboldt Distillery are by appointment. Just call the number on the website.

-Tim Teichgraeber