Thursday, March 31, 2011

Unpredictable weather, predictable wines

Spring starts early in New Orleans.  While members of my family in Pennsylvania and New York continue to face icy temperatures and threats of snow I get days of brilliant blue skies and pleasant warmth. 
As the temperatures climb and humidity increases we know that intense storms follow.  The other night I set out for a meeting about my daughter's school with the threat of rain looming large.  Precipitation began in earnest shortly after the meeting commenced and quickly became powerful enough to necessitate a microphone so that people could be heard.  Not long after that the meeting came to an abrupt halt with an announcement that the street was flooded.
I dashed out into heavy rain and pelting hail, ran to my car, jumped in and began my escape. I quickly pulled up onto the sidewalk to wait it out.  About an hour later I managed to complete the twelve blocks of travel to my home as the rains abated and roads ceased their impressions of rivers.  
The unexpected severity of the storm reminded me that some wineries do a fantastic job of delivering consistent quality year after year with no unpleasant surprises.  Their top notch wines coupled with the comfort and ease of their favored variety provide reassurance.

Seghesio Zinfandel, Sonoma County 2009 - This comes from estate vineyards, mostly Alexander Valley with some Dry Creek Valley as well.  After the feeding frenzy created in 2007 by an appearance at #10 in the Wine Spectator's Top 100 some feared drastic changes in pricing or quality.  But this family traces their Zinfandel and Alexander Valley roots back the late 1800's and took it all in stride.  It helps that this was their 4th appearance in that number since 2000.  
I don't remember them ever openly discussing the blend, but the addition of some Petite Sirah would be a good assumption.  Barrel aging for 10 months in 75% American and 25% French oak, with a pleasantly reasonable 20% new oak (American).  The wine impresses.  The aromas are big and dark and the fruit is not overwhelmed by the wood.  The palate sensation is wide and deep; this is a big wine but far from monolithic.  The most striking character is wild blackberry, a scent and flavor I long for in Zinfandel that proves all too elusive.  While I applaud their consistency, especially with this bottling, the 2009 stands out.  As the price remains reasonable, expect another appearance in the Top 100.  It drinks beautifully and will be hard to resist but will certainly age well for 3-5 years.  $22-$24 

Ridge Zinfandel East Bench, Sonoma County 2008 - Pure, 100%, Zinfandel from benchlands between Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley.  This is a new project for Ridge, only the third vintage with the vines planted in 2000.  I see signs of good things to come, despite the youth of the vines.  Twelve months in all American oak of which 25% is new, 50% one to three years old and the remainder four and five year old.  The oaky influence is much stronger here than with the Seghesio; the wine exhibits a nougaty element on the nose.  The wine is very juicy, quite lovely and much richer and darker on the palate than the eight year old vines (at time of harvest) would imply.  I am much more impressed than with the previous two versions of this wine. Fans of easy access, dark Zins will find this wine lush and gulpable with no unpleasant edges.  The wine lacks some complexity, no doubt due to the young vines, but provides pleasure immediately.  There may be some reward for another year or two cellar time for the woody aroma to better integrate but I'm not sure the risk of losing some of the forward fruit is worth it.  $25-$27

Ridge Zinfandel Lytton Springs, Sonoma County 2007 - The 2008 has just been released and should filter into the market shortly. Perhaps their best known, and respected, wine.  71% Zinfandel, 22% Petite Sirah and 7% Carignan aged in American oak for 15 months. Unfortunately, the website has new release information only so I am unsure of the percentage of new.  A legendary wine in Zinfandel circles, this wine almost needs neither introduction nor explanation.  I find the wine to always need time, but colleagues and friends argue that point with me.  I enjoy Zinfandels with a little time in bottle and think serious ones, such as this, almost require two years after release.  This bottle reminded me why.  The wine is opaque and thick and very chewy.  I find the tannin to be more apparent than I like in Zins so I would wait. It will reward.  Some more red fruits show than in the East Bench and I always find this Zin more like a Cabernet in structure and in subtlety of fruit compared to other famous Zinfandels.  $30-$35

Predictable wines need not be cookie cutter.  Each of these reflects vintage variations but offers a reliability to be envied by many others, especially Zinfandel producers.  
Sitting in the car, soaked for an hour or so left enough water to create a nasty mildew aroma.  Hey Ridge, about making an air freshener that smells like Zinfandel!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Early Morning Entertainment

Enjoying the great weather this time of year makes exercise easier. While hoofing it around Audubon Park this morning I overheard a conversation among three women that made me want to linger. "So, that's the sauce. What do you think?" "Maybe New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc," came the reply. Trying to slow a bit did not result in any more tidbits but I smiled for a good long while. It was 8:30 in the morning and I'm not sure which part made me happier; people planning a meal at that hour or matching wine.
Food drives this city in a way I have not witnessed anywhere else. Many of us carry proof of this around with us. Planning the next meal over one currently on the table demonstrates the norm but planning it while exercising impressed. Working on wine pairings at this early hour really floored me.
A toast to their meal and a hope the pairing worked!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Winemakers

Apparently I'm behind the times, stop the presses. My DVR focuses my TV time and I often miss stumbling across interesting content. I found a re-airing of a reality series about making wine. Unfortunately, I can't find the full content available online but some is here.
The first season entertained me greatly and it clearly shows the level of interest about wine versus food. It aired on PBS making it kryptonite for huge swaths of society. Lack of wide commercial advertising kept it further below the radar. Questionable production quality and lack of instant cash prizes or fancy trips keep it relegated to lower status. The sound quality in the cave is suspect, at best; adding music to these scenes caused much rewinding of segments.
A few wineries, large corporate producers, underwrote the airing and the filming took place in Justin winery in Paso Robles. [Justin led the U.S. market with the use of QR codes on wine bottles, bravo!] Some regional wine groups assisted as well and product placement pales in comparison to Top Chef, for example, where Buitoni gets mentioned constantly. Of course, the trade off is that Buitoni funds the $200,000 prize for the winner.
In the wine world, the prize is being able to launch your own brand. In this case, approximately 2,000 cases of a new label blended and designed by the winner. Sure, it's cool to have your own wine but winning the contest isn't real work. Instead of a large infusion of cash, the lucky winner earns long hours, frequent flyer miles and the likelihood of seeing your treasured wine closed out. Or you might end up with enough house wine for a decade or more.
They did have the requisite petulant punk, "I've been buying French wine for long enough, someone should send me to France." I'm not sure what qualified the host, other than a fancy sounding name, Brian von Dedenroth; the wine industry is unable to help itself from snooty pretension.
Difficult questions for the contestants during a challenge kept me entertained. The participants mostly got them wrong and the show answered many of them on the screen, but not all, which I found frustrating.
Just checked on posts for 45 RPM, the winner's wine, on the intertron and, as surmised, the wine met with tepid reviews and was eventually in the Trader Joe's pipeline (read closed out) and available for $60/case elsewhere instead of $15+ per bottle. Wine reality shows need a new category, "Reality Check." I'll take the cash prize instead of the "magnanimous" offer of a brand launch every time...

Supposedly a new season in due out in the fall. I will update.