Thursday, April 23, 2015

EPHEMERA: Poodles and Fires

I’m very relieved. It appears that HoseMaster of Wine™ has not been nominated for a Poodle Award. In fact, I only noticed the nominations were open by accident. I’m not sure anyone cares, it appeared there were far fewer nominations than usual, except those who took the time to nominate their own blog seventeen times. I skimmed the nominations, and was happy to see I wasn’t listed. I don’t want to win another one. I didn’t want to win the first three either. I’d love to win a MacArthur “Genius” grant. I’d be thrilled to be nominated for a James Beard Award, or a Roederer Award, but there’s absolutely zero chance of any of those. I’m more likely to win Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, or Miss Congeniality.

The folks behind the Wine Blog Awards, in their wisdom, eliminated the “Best Writing on a Wine Blog” Category. Their reasoning was that by winning any of the other awards, well, best writing was understood. Morons. I can state without fear of contradiction that nearly all of the “Best Overall Wine Blog” winners, while perhaps deserving of that award, are barely above average writers. What eliminating that category does is diminish the importance of language, the importance of originality and talent. Oh, I suppose they eliminated it for budgetary reasons. You just can’t hand out awards worth absolutely nothing willy-nilly. What are they, made of penury? I won that award the previous two years (so what?), but I will say that the other people that were nominated in that category, all of whom deserved it more than I, are the most talented people nominated, the most original, the most interesting to read. So, yeah, get those people out of here! They’re making us all look bad.

So, once again, I won’t be attending the Wine Bloggers Conference. The keynote speaker this year is Mother Karen MacNeil previewing the second coming of her “Wine Bible.” With any luck, there will be a Poodle Rapture.

I was generously invited to attend a new event in the Sierra Foothills that looks like a pretty cool deal. It’s called Amador Four Fires (not Amador For Fires, which is the prestigious annual convention of pyromaniacs—no wine, but plenty of cocktails, mostly Molotov), and you should check out the website, see if you can attend, too.

There is a lot happening up in Amador County, and it’s been too long since I’ve been there. I love the Zinfandels from Amador, always have. So different than Dry Creek Zin or Paso Robles Zin or Napa Zin. I find the Amador Zins show more high-tones in their aromatics, yet have great richness and power on the palate, a prettiness you don’t get that often elsewhere. The best ones, say from Jeff Runquist or Scott Harvey or Shenandoah Vineyards, can be mesmerizing. I’m hoping to find some new producers as well.

And let’s not forget Barbera! Oh, man, I have a great fondness for Barbera. There’s something about good Barbera that reminds me that what I’m drinking came from the earth. Cabernet, as much as I love it, doesn’t do that for me, nor Pinot Noir. Mostly, they’re too pure, too polished and seductive. Barbera (and maybe old vines Carignane) has that edge, that wildness, that, when it’s right, reminds me just what a miracle wine is, this utterly captivating, intoxicating liquid that grows from the ground. I’ll taste a lot of Barberas.

This looks like a great event. Plenty of Rhône varieties available as well, so I’m going to be one happy taster. They were kind enough to invite me, so consider this a gratuituous and fawning plug. It looks to be a great event, and the price ($75) seems well worth it. If you’re anywhere near Amador on May 2nd, and you love the wines from that underrated region, you should attend. If you see me there, make a point to say Hello. I’m the one wearing the designer hair shirt.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A League of Their Rhône Rangers--Part Two

I don’t recall what year it was, but at one of the Hospice du Rhône Grand Tastings in Paso Robles it was 114℉! It was so hot, the local squirrels were using the Rosés to chill their nuts. It was so hot, you couldn’t tell if the Syrah smelled like bacon, or if that was the fat guy pouring it. Man, it was hot. And at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds, the “air conditioning” was provided by swamp coolers. Yeah, that works. It was like tasting wine in CeeLo Green’s underpants. A lot of really sweaty things rubbing against each other. It was miserable, and yet the Rhône crowd was in pretty good spirits. It’s just a fun crowd. And that was the first tasting I’d attended where, because of the heat, it was the Rosés that stole the show. First of all, they were cold. Second of all, they were good, though we didn’t care about that being good part. At the outdoor luncheon, the Rosés vanished like there had been a saignée Rapture.

I am of the opinion, and I’ve been in lots of arguments about this over the years, that the best Rosés are made from Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Sangiovese. I don’t like Pinot Noir Rosé. I find it almost unfailingly insipid and boring. It’s the press release of Rosé. There is the occasional compelling Rosé from another variety, and once in a while I taste a Pinot Noir Rosé I like, though I’ll deny it, but I’m drawn to Rosés from those three aforementioned varieties. At the recent Rhône Rangers tasting, the Rosé I liked the most was Tercero 2014 Rosé of Mourvèdre. Weirdly, I thought it smelled a bit like Sauvignon Blanc, but in an earthy vein. It has that feral Mourvèdre character, but it also shows terrific strawberry and watermelon flavors. This may not be for everyone, but if you like traditional Bandol Rosé, give this wine a chance to age a bit in the bottle, don’t serve it too cold, and it will speak to you.

Of the red Rhône varieties, it’s Grenache that owns my heart. I’ve written before about my love for Chateau Rayas, which is nearly 100% Grenache, and whenever I ask a winemaker who focuses on Grenache what wine they model their Grenache after, it seems like Rayas is inevitably their response. I’ve yet to find a domestic Grenache in Rayas’ league, at least in that remarkable Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s best vintages, but great Grenache is glorious stuff. There were a couple of Grenaches I quite liked at the 2015 Rhône Rangers tasting, but I didn’t taste one that truly captured my heart.

Law Estate is a newish Paso Robles property with Scott Hawley making the wines. Scott has his own label, Torrin, which has something of a cult following for Syrah. He clearly understands Grenache as well. The Law Estate 2010 “Beguiling” was beautiful, but perhaps a bit too polished for my liking. I guess I mean that I like Grenache with a bit of wildness about it, an edge, not so seamless and, well, slick. At that point, the wine is less about place and more about winemaking. I suspect the wine will get high scores, and I certainly understand why, but while I’d recommend it, I think it’s quite good, I wouldn’t buy it for myself. Yeah, I know, damning with faint praise. (The Torrin Syrahs, while not at this tasting, are quite good, and I have bought them—which is damning with HoseMaster praise.)

Whereas I would happily buy the Skinner 2012 Grenache. How often do we mention a wine that is fun to drink? Too often we fret about big wines, “profound” wines, wines that will amaze us and impress our friends—the Law Estate might do that for you. The Skinner 2012 Grenache has all of the grape’s bright, sweet red fruit, cherry and raspberry, but with a subtle bit of what they would call “garrigue” in France—that ineffable aroma of an herbal landscape. (I’m tempted to say the Skinner Grenache is a garrigueste wine, but that’s far too vague and stupid. Or exactly too vague and stupid, depending on what you think about my writing.) I looked, and the 2012 Skinner Grenache is sold out on their website. But sign up and buy the 2013 when it’s released; it will be terrific, I’m sure, and well worth the $26. I’ve liked every bottle I’ve tasted from Skinner, and loved many, if not most. If you love Rhône varieties at very fair prices, man, start buying Skinner.

Do I even have to mention the Tablas Creek 2012 Grenache being delicious? No, didn’t think so. Though I think, for my palate, Tablas Creek does Mourvèdre better, I’d happily stash some of their 2012 Grenache in my cellar. The sweetness and energy of the fruit is irresistible.

Grenache might own my vinous heart, but I do also love Mourvèdre. When I taste one I like, I can’t resist breaking into song. “Mataro! Mataro! I love you Mataro!/You’re only a day away.” (I hate that joke, almost as much as the red fright wig I don when I sing it.) Mourvèdre has a savory character that is unusual among grapes, that umami thing, a character I find delicious, even as unsavory a character as I am. And there were two particularly brilliant, and several damned fine, Mourvèdres I discovered at the tasting.

Maybe the single best wine I tasted all day (and I sampled but a mere pittance, about 70 wines, of what was available, so forgive me my hyperbole) was the Skinner Vineyards 2012 Mourvèdre Estate El Dorado. Winemaker Chris Pittenger is one talented guy. Much of his career he focused on Pinot Noir, with time spent at Williams Selyem, and four years working at Marcassin. Bob Cabral and Helen Turley AND John Wetlaufer?! I’m guessing Chris used to be six inches taller. Yet it’s those Pinot Noir guys who seem to grasp the delicacy of Mourvèdre’s aromatics. They aren’t easy to get right, it seems. But the Skinner Estate Mourvèdre is pitch perfect (and from what must be pretty young vines). Blueberries dominate the high notes, but then all the savory components chime in—that garrigue again, olive, balsamic, soy sauce, maybe fennel. It’s that captivating mix of sweet (very sweet blueberry) and savory and it comes across that way as it dances across the palate. It’s $58, but at this level of quality, that’s a fair price. I know it will age beautifully, it has the sort of balance one admires in a ballerina, a balance earned with hard work and talent, and I hope I get to rendezvous with it again one day about fifteen years from now. It was tutu delicious.

The other brilliant Mourvèdre I tasted was the (no surprise) Tablas Creek 2012 “Esprit de Tablas.” Now it’s only 40% Mourvèdre (with 30% Syrah, 21% Grenache and 9% Who Cares?), but I think the Mourvèdre is what makes the wine. It has Mourvèdre’s unmistakable meatiness at its core, but is also loaded with plum and blackberry fruit, with a sweet and savory finish. It’s just a pleasure to drink. That’s one of the things about great wines. Your first impression of them is simple and intense pleasure. Analysis flies out your ears, your mind goes blank, while all of your pleasure measures go off the charts. Great wines have a sensuality that cannot be faked, like the best lovers, the ones you think about even years later and want to be with again. You don’t care how they do it, you just want it done to you again. (Makes you want to give them a score, doesn’t it? Somewhere out there is a woman who’s reading this and thinking, “That guy was an 85 in bed—not bad for being so cheap.”)

I think that it’s the great wines, and I try not to use the word “great” very often when it comes to wine, that are the wines that make a mockery of the worthless and stupid 100 Point Scale. I don’t have a huge problem with all the countless wines rated 89, or 92. Many of them are sort of the same. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. I know what an 89 smells like. It smells like failure. When it comes to the great wines, the numbers are transparently stupid. It seems incredibly idiotic to me to lump all of the great wines in the world into 99 or 98, and assume that has meaning. It’s insulting to the individuality and greatness of the wines. Rayas equals Chave Hermitage equals Grange equals Petrus equals Romanée-Conti? That’s like saying Einstein equals Van Gogh equals Twain equals Beethoven equals Astaire. Genius and greatness defy categorization, and that should be respected. I’m wasting my breath, of course, the 100 Point Scale is too simpleminded to die, and the simpleminded will forever keep it alive.

Where was I? Oh, Mourvédre. I very much liked Tercero 2011 Mourvèdre Santa Barbara County. Where the Skinner Estate was all power and richness, the Tercero is damned lovely, an exotic beauty that shows the floral side of the variety. Yet it still has the savory element, that mushroomy meatiness, that so often characterizes the grape. It’s much lighter on its feet than the other two wines, the Tablas Creek and the Skinner, and I love that about it, its dark-skinned beauty. It just seemed like a fun wine to drink. And it's even more amazing given the difficulties of the 2011 vintage. Maybe it's the thick skin of Mourvédre that helped it through a rainy harvest. I know a lot of winemakers who could use that thick skin.

Brecon Estate was a new winery to me. The Brecon Estate 2013 Mourvèdre Paso Robles was very impressive. It’s quintessential Mourvèdre, a wonderful example of the variety. I don’t think any knowledgeable wine person could taste this wine and not know immediately it was Mourvèdre. The wine is very polished, though I’m not sure that’s praise, and what I loved about it was the beautiful intensity, the mushroom and forest floor edges to the blueberry fruit, and the savory finish, which was nearly as long as this boring post. Next time I’m in Paso Robles, and it’s not 114℉, I’m going to have to visit Brecon Estate, see what else they’re up to.

I hadn’t meant to babble on so long. I haven’t even touched on Syrah. So I guess there will be a Part Three. Crap.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

A League of Their Rhône Rangers--Part One

I always loved attending the Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles. It was the least snooty wine weekend I’ve ever been around. Maybe it’s something about the Rhône varieties that makes the crowd far more fun-loving and unpretentious. Cabernet Sauvignon celebrations are always the least amount of fun. It’s usually a self-righteous crowd, moneyed, and more interested in being able to brag to their friends that they’ve had the latest vintage of whatever the latest cult wine might be. Cabernet people always start their conversations with, “Have you tasted Hunchback Ridge (or whatever new Cab producer that wants $150 for their first release)? Aaron Pott makes it. It rang my bell.” Very tiresome crowd. Pinot Noir celebrations are not a million laughs either. Just like the variety, it’s a thin-skinned crowd—very sensitive and prone to bunch rot. The Pinot Noir crowd pontificates a lot more. Everyone understands Cabernet, it’s the Robert Ludlum of grapes—something to drink when you don’t want to think. But Pinot Noir, they imply, is closer to poetry, and requires prettier language, and endless explicating. And it’s much, much harder to create, they insist, than any other variety. Though the Pinot Noir crowd thinks Rod McKuen was a great poet, though he’s no Suzanne Somers. Rhône lovers tend to drink and just have fun.

Alas, the Hospice du Rhône had to fold its tent, pass its last Guigal stone, take its job and Chave it. I miss it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. I have some indelible loss of memories from that great event. I was so drunk after the dine around one year, I couldn’t find my hotel room. I was on foot, fortunately, staying at the Paso Robles Inn at the head of the town square. I knew where I was staying, but I couldn’t figure out what room I was in. It’s those fucking credit card keys they have now. There’s no room number on them. Sure, the name of the hotel is on the key, but what good is that? I know what goddam hotel I’m staying in, I need to know the room number. I tried about four different buildings—I knew I was on the second floor of one of them, in the corner room—and finally, through sheer luck and the presence of the God of Drunken Fools, I magically unlocked a door and fell into bed. Though when I woke up, the bed had transformed into a rug. Luckily, my clothes were in the bed, comfortably sleeping.

Instead of Hospice du Rhône, now there is the annual Rhône Rangers tasting. It’s a great event, sparsely attended, it seemed, especially compared to most of the 300 Pinot Noir tastings now being held, and I worry that the tasting’s days are numbered. It felt like the Trade and Media far outnumbered the paying public, which can only be frustrating for the wineries. The last couple of years, the tasting has been held in Richmond at the Craneway Pavilion. (What’s a Craneway? Oh, about fifteen pounds.) It’s a spectacular venue, an old Ford Motor Company assembly plant, I’m told, rather appropriate for the Edsel of wine tastings. The venue is airy and uncrowded, floor to ceiling windows with a view of the Bay and the City, the high ceilings keeping the noise level to the low rumble of a Mustang idling. The location might discourage the high and mighty in San Francisco from attending, but that may be a good thing. It’s one of the few tastings where I never feel crowded or jostled or deaf. If you live in the Bay Area, you should go next year. Maybe get on the mailing list at It’s well worth the price of attending, which I didn’t pay. “I’m Media, you know. People read my blog. I’m somebody. Really. I am. Please believe me.” (For those of you who don’t know, this is the Blogger’s Mantra. The attention-barking of us lonely Poodles.)

I am an unabashed fan of the Rhône varieties, white and red. And I find that the people who dedicate their wineries to these varieties are incredibly passionate. Cabernet and Pinot Noir make some of the great wines on the planet, but so does Syrah, and so does Mourvèdre, and so does Grenache. But it’s hard to get rich, or attention, making them in the United States. I often advise people that if you want to buy great wines that will be jewels in your cellar for foolishly low prices, buy great Syrah or Grenache or Mourvèdre, and stay away from Cabernet and Pinot Noir, for the most part. You can buy world-class Syrah from California or Washington or New Zealand or France for $50, maybe $75. I mean great wines, not just good wines. You cannot say that about Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, or much Pinot Noir from anywhere. This isn’t news to anyone who knows about wine. When friends and I would get together to taste older wines from our cellars, back when I had friends, many of them would bring old Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet. I would bring an old Hermitage, or an old Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Rhône wine would very often be the favorite wine of the night. You just have to get over the notion that some wines have more prestige than other wines, that Cabernet is somehow superior to Syrah. That’s nuts. That’s a notion bought and paid for by the traditionally wealthy folks who live in places like Bordeaux and Napa Valley, a notion still promulgated, with their overly generous scores, by much of the wine press, for no apparent reason. Who the hell cares about Bordeaux En Primeur prices any more? Who cares about the fundamentally insane scores given to barrel samples tasted at the Chateaux? It’s about as antiquated a tradition as there is in any profession, the equivalent of a medical convention about leeches. Leeches being a wonderful metaphor for many of the wine press attending. But I digress.

I would imagine that selling wines from the white Rhône white varieties is challenging, sort of the tofurkey of wine. (Is there toficken or tofeef?) There’s the unfamiliarity of the varieties to begin with. Most people think Roussanne was a big hit single for The Police. And Viognier was the first white Rhône variety with any measure of following in California, and the vast majority of those were lousy and turned people off to white Rhônes. Is there a harder wine to find in California than a really delicious Viognier? Maybe really good Nebbiolo, but not much else. Marsanne doesn’t show up too often, though Qupé has always made a nice version, and Picpoul Blanc is very uncommon. (Though I just had a wonderful 2014 Picpoul from Gramercy Cellars that possessed a gorgeous nose of lemon meringue and almost Gewürztraminer spiciness—get some of that if you can!) I have an inordinate fondness for Grenache Blanc, especially those that have a sort of lime zest and mandarin orange character. Love those. I thought some of the most interesting wines at the Rhône Rangers tasting were the white wines.

I guess this is where I should mention my usual disclaimer. Big public tastings are the worst places to evaluate and rate wine. I spent far too much time at the tasting chatting distractedly with friends (so many folks wanted to talk about my “Dear Jon” post that I was getting embarrassed and anxious), and not enough time tasting in a focused fashion. So I undoubtedly missed a lot of terrific wines. And I undoubtedly misjudged some that I tasted. But the wines I’ll mention were able to crash through all of that noise and capture my attention. Something, I’m not sure what, to be said for that.

Do I even have to mention how good the Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc is? What a beautiful blend of Roussanne (75%), Grenache Blanc (20%) and Picpoul Blanc. This might be the most interesting white wine in the state. One day I’d like to have an older version because I suspect that they will age splendidly. The ’12 is delicous, with pineapple and ginger, a Key lime brightness, and a very lush and appealing texture. This wine is never a surprise, but is instead a touchstone of white Rhône wines in California. I often taste at Tablas Creek first or second at a Rhône Rangers tasting in order to calibrate my rusty Rhône palate. They set the bar, I think, and particularly with their whites. Their 2013 Grenache Blanc is also a classic, with a quince and lime blossom nose, and great energy. Tablas Creek must make its famous parent, Chateau de Beaucastel, proud.

Many years ago, I attended a tasting of Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape at some ritzy Beverly Hills hotel. Upon arrival, they served us their rare and remarkable Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes.” I don’t remember the vintage, though 1990 seems about right, but it was the first time the Roussanne had been shown in the United States. We were there to taste the Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, which had received its usual gigantic Parker score, but all anyone could talk about was the Roussanne. We all wanted to buy it for our wine lists, but we were told they had only imported a tiny bit for their tastings. They weren’t sure the Roussanne would sell in the US. We strongly insisted otherwise. That first taste of their Roussanne “Vieilles Vignes” was one of my wine Ah-Ha moments. I’ll never forget it. It has become an expensive bottle, but if you ever have the chance, you should certainly buy a bottle and taste it. One of my favorite white wines on the planet.

There were two Roussannes at this year’s tasting that I liked (though, of course, the aforementioned Esprit de Tablas Blanc is mostly Roussanne). I didn’t see much Roussanne at the Rhône Rangers this year, which is too bad, but probably linked to how difficult it is to grow, and how shy yielding the variety is. Hard to grow, hard to sell, not the greatest combination. Sort of like, hey, he’s not very good-looking, but at least he’s poor. Which explains my unpopularity. I loved the Roussanne that Lagier-Meredith makes with Aaron Pott under their Chester’s Anvil label. It’s the Chester’s Anvil 2012 Gretna Green, a wine largely Roussanne with a bit of Viognier. And the only thing I understand about the name is the “2012.” If your Gretna is Green, it could be about to fall off, and you don’t want that. And, if I’m not mistaken, Chester’s Anvil is right next to Chester’s Stirrup, so ‘ear’s looking at ya. Anyhow, I found this Roussanne to be lovely, a great example of the variety, with honey and tree fruit aromatics and a weighty texture. Just delicious. Nice bottle for $30. I also have a fondness for Bill Easton’s Terre Rouge Roussanne—the 2011 was what he served this year. It’s more classic white Rhône than the Chester’s Anvil, that same honeyed aroma, but with more quince and apricot, and built like a brawny white Hermitage. And $25? Man, that’s a great deal. Bill Easton seems to have a consistently nice touch with Roussanne.

Viognier is like an orgasm—I can’t wait for the next one, but only once in a while is it really satisfying. But, really, it’s Viognier that launched the Rhône Ranger movement in California back when Mat Garretson and John Alban started crusading for the then little-known variety. It wasn’t that long ago, back in the ‘80s, Viognier was confined to Condrieu, with a few hectares in Côte-Rôtie. When Mat and John began stumping for the grape, their first few releases were all the buzz in the biz. Viognier started turning up everywhere, but few winemakers seemed to understand the variety at all. That initial excitement seems to have faded—it is white wine, after all, and it’s the rare serious wine dweeb who spends much time thinking about great white wines for his cellar. White wines are passing fancies, the one-night stand of wine lust, but, hey, an orgasm is still an orgasm, great or not.

The best Viognier I tasted this time around was Ranchero Cellars 2013 La Vista Vineyard. Now this is gorgeous Viognier. One measure of Viognier for me is how much I want to smell it, how often I want to stick my nose in the glass and inhale deeply. I stuck my nose in this glass like it was other people’s business. It has a glorious perfume of apricot, honey, pear, and quince. Great foreplay for the taste. The Ranchero Cellars Viognier even gets the texture right, that wee bit of oiliness but tempered by vibrant acidity. I loved this Viognier. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted Alban’s Viognier, one of the touchstones of California Viognier, but this will do nicely. You want to smoke a cigarette when you’re finished. Or, being a guy, fall asleep.