Sunday, December 5, 2010

(Looking For) 2009 Dark Corner Durif

For all that it sometimes feels like cheating I'm generally very happy to have subscribed to the Wall Street Journal's wine club. A recent case brought us a random gem, the 2009 Dark Corner Durif from Sam Trimboli. It's a nice, big red, with far more complexity than you'd expect from a relatively young wine.

I liked it enough that I looked into acquiring a case. Strangely, I haven't been able to find much information on the wine, much less turn up some place where you can actually buy it. A Google search turns up a bunch of wine rating sites referencing the 2009 (and 2008 and 2007) vintage which indicate that its currently unavailable.

So, digging further... the bottle states that Dark Corner is produced by Warburn Estate Pty Ltd., a search for which takes you immediately to the "our wines" page for Warburn Estate Winery. Great, except there's no mention of Dark Corner anywhere. Looking for information about Sam Trimboli doesn't get you much either. I was able to turn up a page at Laithwaites indicating that the gentleman exists (and that his car's license plate says "DURIF") but Dark Corner isn't listed among the wines associated with Mr. Trimboli.

The bottle says that Dark Corner is imported by Lionstone International, but that seems to be a dead end as well. My only conjecture at this point, based on some of the verbiage on their site, is that they might be the exclusive distributed for Dark Corner, which might explain why it doesn't show up elsewhere.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Today's Random Wine: 2009 Grande Reserve De Gassac

One of the amusing games you can play with French wines is trying to interpret the labels without the aid of a guide or inside knowledge. For example, the label on tonight's bottle bears the following phrases:
  • Grande Réserve De Gassac
  • Sélection Famille Guibert
  • Vin De Pays De L'Hérault
  • Par Cave de l'Ormarine GAG
  • 2009
  • Red Languedoc Wine
If I wanted to tell someone what I'm drinking this evening what's the canonical way to go about doing so? Here's how CellarTracker breaks it down:
  • Grande Réserve De Gassac: Producer
  • Cave de l'Ormarine, Famille Guibert: Vineyard
  • Vin de Pays de l'Hérault: Appellation
  • Red Languedoc Wine: Varietal
So, according to them, the canonical name for this wine is something like "2009 Grande Réserve De Gassac Vin de Pays de l'Hérault". Which seems to be about right; Googling "2009 Grande Réserve De Gassac" primarily turns up references to this and other wines from the same estate.

Now, of course, on to the most important question: How is it? Pretty good, but not stellar. Here's the notes:
  • Color: Dark red bordering on purple.
  • Boquet: Almost non-existent, though I'm congested so my sniffer might be off this evening.
  • Mouth feel: Soft, chewy, good body.
  • Taste: Pleasantly tannic
This is definitely a bottle I'd crack open with friends over a good steak.

Monday, June 7, 2010

2005 Château de Lyde Premières Côtes De Bordeaux

In my previous post I mentioned that we've started getting some of our wine from the WSJ Wine Club which, so far, has turned out to be a pretty good deal. The average quality of our wine has gone up without spending a tremendous amount more. I, in particular, have been quite happy with the whites that we've receive so far; they've generally been much better than what I typically drink. Anyhow, a little while ago they were offering a special1 on 2005 Château de Lyde, so the wife and I picked up a case mostly on account of having heard that 2005 was a good year for Bordeaux. Unfortunately it remains to be seen whether 2005 will be a good year for Château de Lyde.

Our first sign that Château de Lyde might not be the greatest Bordeux, had we chosen to research rather than just throw caution to the winds, was that neither it nor it's parent company (Château de Marsan) appear on neither the 1855 Bordeaux Classification nor Lichne's expanded list. So we're not dealing with one of the recognized crus, but at $190 a case that can certainly be overlooked. The wine itself, however, isn't remarkable; my wife and I agreed that we wouldn't have picked it out as anything special in a blind tasting. It doesn't compare favorably to the 2008 Casa del Rio Verde Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva that I'm drinking right now, a random bottle that we got from the WSJ in a case of mixed reds.

One of my primary objections is that its overwhelmingly tannic, and I'm generally a partisan of robust wines. The nice thing about tannins, however, is that mellow with age, so there may be hope for the vintage yet. We're going to put the rest of the bottles up and see if they've improved in a year. Stay tuned.

1 Which, to their credit, genuinely appears to have been a special; I tried to find Chateu De Lyde on their site tonight and it appears that they're all out.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Wall Street Journal Wine Club

In a stroke of amazing coincidence (or a mere affirmation that we're really the same person) my co-conspirator and I gave each other cases of wine from the Wall Street Journal wine club1. We're now in the process of determining whether this little experiment is worth continuing. There are a couple of factors which seem to be arguing in its favor at present:

  1. It's brain-dead convenient. Go to the website, select your case-o-wine, supply a CC, and some time later said wine shows up at your door (adult signature required).
  2. We're getting exposed to the products of small wineries which we probably wouldn't find in our typical wine-purchasing venues, much less be inclined to try.
The main question is whether we're getting good bang for our buck. The "Holiday Reds" case, for example, is $179.99 ($198.98 after tax/S&H) which works out to $15/bottle ($16.67 final cost). That looks to be about the middle of the range; the wine club site currently has cases for as little as $99.99 (a half-and-half of Il Papavero Rosso & Bianco) and as much as $284.99 (the "Holidy Luxuries" mixed case of high-end stuff). Anyhow, $17/bottle is a little above what we're used to paying for our "everyday wine", but well below what we're willing to pay for "good wine". So what do you get from the wine club for $17? We've tried a couple of the bottles we've received and so far so good:
  • 2008 Vina Baccana Pinot Grigio: As I've probably mentioned before I'm more of a red wine drinker; I certainly don't drink enough pinot grigio to distinguish a good one from a great one. That said I did find this to be a quite pleasant wine that I would gladly drink again.
  • 2007 Un Vent de Folie Côtes du Roussillon Villages: This is a very full-bodied wine, a little rough around the edges, but tasty none the less. I suspect that it would benefit greatly from aging for a couple more years. At 16% alcohol by volume it definitely has noticeable kick; they ought to adopt the tagline "A Respectable Way To Get Smashed".
Both of the above were interesting and, taken in conjunction with items 1 and 2 above, make me think that the WSJ wine club is worth pursuing for at least a little while.

1 I was actually going to get her a case from the New York Times Wine Club but strangely enough they don't ship to WA even though the WSJ does.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Balderdash, With Just A Hint of Poppycock

Allow me to make a confession: When I'm sampling a wine and the notes tell me that I should be getting hints of "mint, fresh apple, chilies, tobacco, and tar", but I taste none of these things, I often wonder if its just because my palette's no good. So it was enlightening to read yesterday's article in the WSJ about problems with wine ratings and the general unreliability of tasting notes. It seems that, when wine judges are subjected to controlled trials, they turn out to be much more like us ordinary mortals.

The article demonstrates that the emperor, while not necessarily naked, could stand to put on a pair of pants. For example:
  • When a wine is presented to the same judge on multiple occasions it may receive ratings which vary by ±5 points (or more).
  • Judges often claim to taste as many as 8 distinct flavors in a wine, but it turns out that they can reliably detect only 3 or 4 on average.
  • The same wine may receive markedly different descriptions from different judges.
And so on. In the very least this lends credence to the idea that the perception of a wine is heavily influenced by external factors such as time, place, personal chemistry, etc. Though, were one to be less charitable, there's also an argument to be made that the people who hand out medals are just making shit up.

One item which was mentioned only in passing, but which I think stands to be emphasized, is just how many wines judges may be evaluating at any given time. The article talks about one study conducted at the California State Fair Wine Competition where the judges were presented with approximately 100 wines over the course of 2 days. Sweet jebus that's a lot of wines. I don't care how talented you are or how rigorously you scrub your palette between tastings; if you taste 50 wines in a day they're eventually going to become a blur and the ones at the end are going to be getting short shrift.

This is especially true if you're tasting high-end wines. These wines deserve to be evaluated over a longer period of time. I mean, really... even when I was doing my private tasting for 1 of a Petite Syrah, which certainly wasn't a grand cru, I went back to it a couple times over the course of an hour or so to see how it developed. A really nice red deserves more attention since the character can change significantly once its been out of the bottle for a little while. The nuances which make such a wine enjoyable have got to be lost in the noise at one of these gigantic tastings.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wherein A Terrible Tragedy Leads To Experimentation

Yesterday I went down to the cellar to get a bottle of red and much to my horror and dismay discovered that we were all out of "everyday red". All that was left on the rack was good stuff and, with my better half away for the week (and thus unable to share), I didn't feel like opening any of those bottles. It was a tragedy of incomprehensible magnitude, to be sure, such as is best contemplated at a distaince of some hundred years or so.

So this afternoon, when I found myself at the local Albertson's, I figured I'd pick up a couple of bottles just to tide me over. Albertson's isn't a place where I typically buy wine, since the available selections are usually safe and boring, but today I found something intriguing: Concannon Central Coast Petite Sirah Limited Relase 2006. "Petite Sirah?" I thought to myself, "I don't think I've ever seen a Petite Sirah before". So I bought a bottle to try out.

It looks nice enough in the glass, a dark, rubyish color bordering on purple, but that's all there is to recommend it. It has hardly any bouquet at all; you get a little fruit, a little alcohol, maybe a hint of minerality... but that's it. Half the fun of drinking wine is sticking your nose in the glass and seeing what you've got; in this case you've got nothing. The taste isn't much better; there's an overwhelming burst of heat and tannins which makes it very difficult to suss out any subtle notes in the wine.

I'm not enthralled, but as I've never had a straight-up Petit Sirah I can't say whether that's a characteristic of the grape or just this particular wine.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Fun In Sonoma: Kendall-Jackson's Boutique Wineries

My co-conspirator and I spent the weekend in Sonoma where we got a chance to visit some of Kendall-Jackson's boutique wineries in the area. KJ isn't a name that I usually associate with quality wine, but it turns out that the smaller wineries in their portfolio, which aren't sold under the KJ name, are quite capable of turning out a high-end product. In particular we spent time at Hartford Family Winery, Benziger Family Winery, and Stonestreet; I'll talk at length about each in a moment, but first I'd like make some general observations about the overall experience.

So, where to start? I've said in the past that I didn't think I could tell the difference between a $20 bottle and an $80 bottle of wine, but I'm fairly confident that's no longer the case. There's no magic in appreciating high-quality wine; you don't need to be a super-taster or anything like that. You really just need to be exposed to enough $20 wine and enough $80 wine to realize that there is a marked difference between the two. Going through the tours and tastings at the KJ wineries this weekend was, in large part, an excercise in understanding the differences in process between the two, and why those differences matter.

Kendall-Jackson, by their own admission, is heavily focused on what our guide referred to as a "sense of place". This goes beyond the typical talk of terroir; they're not just concerned about soil composition but also temperature and elevation and the orientation of the vineyards and so on, all the little bits that impart distinct character to a wine. Right now their "big thing", if they can be said to have a big thing, is mountain vineyards. The standard line that I heard repeated on a number of occassions is that vines at higher elevations are stressed by the relatively harsh conditions and produce a reduced yield of smaller berries. This, in turn, increases the skin-to-juice ratio, resulting in a more intense product.

Someone's certainly buying the propaganda. According to the folks at Stonestreet, fruit grown on the floor of the Alexander Valley retails for $3k - $4k a ton but the stuff grown in the surrounding mountains can go for as much as $14k/ton. So, even with a reduced yield, there's definitely money to be made growing grapes at elevation.

But location is really only the beginning. The actual process of growing the grapes and turning them into wine is a laborious process characterized by excess attention at every stage of production. The vines are absolutely pampered; they're given lots of space, hand-pruned, and hand-picked, all of which definitely increases the overall quality of the finished wine at the expense of drastically increased labor cost. Interestingly enough all of the wineries which we visited spent some time explaining their crushing and juicing setups. Everyone either had a manual sorting table or was in the process of putting one in, they all talked about how they eliminated "jacks" (tiny bits of stem) to reduce unwanted tannins and, in general, emphasized how gentle the process was for the grapes. And then there was the usual voodoo surrounding the fermentation and aging process that everyone has come to expect. The main takeaway from the experience is that if you only select the best grapes from the best vineyards and then coddle them through the entire process you're going to end up with a really great wine that costs an arm and a leg.

Its interesting to think about what makes Sonoma different from a wine region like, say, Walla Walla. I've noted previously that Walla Walla takes itself very seriously, and definitely produces some good wines, but there's a certain homogenaity across the wineries in the region. If I may be allowed some mildly-informed speculation I would say that this is, to a large degree, a result of the relative youth of the region. Walla Walla hasn't been doing wine for as long as Sonoma; there are a lot of new-ish wineries that are trying to establish a name for themselves. None of these wineries has quite the sense of self that places like Hartford or Stonestreet have. Their processes probably aren't as refined and, because such knowledge takes a number of growing seasons to accumulate, they likely don't understand their vineyards in the same depth either. When you're established, have refined your processes, know your vineyards in depth, etc. you're in a relatively secure position which provides the liberty to push the boundaries of wine production in search of quality as they're currently doing in Sonoma.

One other digression and then, I promise, I'll actually get to the wines/wineries. Right now I'd like to talk a little bit about water consumption. KJ has some sort of "green" initiative that its pursuing throughout its properties and several people spoke about the efforts that various wineries are making to reduce the amount of water they're using. In listening to these folks, however, I got the sense that KJ is pursuing the "green" strategy largely for its own sake rather than as a way of reducing costs. If California wants people to conserve water they should just stop subsidizing it so heavily. It's just stupid to make a resource artificially cheap and then hope that voluntary conservation efforts will prevent that resource from being overused. I'll get off my soapbox now; let's talk about the wineries and their wines.


Mr. Hartford is an especially gregarious chap and clearly wants his guests to have a good time. So as soon as we were off the bus we were greeted with glasses of Four Hearts Chardonnay, presumably the 2006 vintage. We didn't do a structured tasting of this one on account of the fact that we were all milling around eating hors d'ouvers and chatting, but I can confidently say that it was very good. While we were enjoying the Four Hearts Mr. Hartford took us on a tour of the facilities and spoke about the Hartford approach to winemaking. They, perhaps moreso than other wineries we visited, emphasize the importance of treating the grapes and wine gently at all stages of production. Rather than receiving their grapes in two-ton containers they get them instead in forty gallon (I believe that was the measure) crates, which Mr. Hartford claims reduces mangling of the fruit and promotes a superior product. Their crushing facility is oriented towards small batch sizes, they have a manual sorting table, etc., a setup which appears to be de rigeur for serious winemaking in Sonomoa.

But they take additional steps during fermentation and aging which appear to be unique to Hartford. They make it a point to harvest the fruit at low temperatures and, rather than initiating fermentation right away, the grape skins and juice go through a "cold soak" for a few days to extract color and flavor. Fermentation temperature is tightly controlled and procedures such as breaking up the cap are all done manually. But the most interesting bit about Hartford was their aging facility. The barrels aren't packed tightly together on racks like they are in the other wineries we visited. Rather, Hartford has a multi-story structure similar to a library stack that holds a single layer of barrels on each level and has walkways between every two rows. The benefits of this arrangement, says Mr. Hartford, are that each barrel is immediately accessible, making it easy to taste the wine as it ages, and that the barrels generally only have to be moved at the beginning and end of the aging process, which is gentler on the wine.

So, does handling the wine with kid gloves result in a better product? I can truthfully say that I enjoyed the Hartford wines the most out of all the ones that we sampled, though part of this may be an artifact of the circumstances surrounding the acutal tasting of the wines. One of the problems inherent in wine tasting is that, after you've visited two or three wineries, everything starts to become a blur. So it was to Hartford's advantage that, rather than being just another whistle stop on the tour, we had a long, sit down dinner which provided an appropriate amount of time to sit and think about the wines. Apart from that, however, I do believe that the Hartford wines were the best of what we were offered during the tour.

So here's the rundown of what was on offer:

  • 2007 Hartford Court, Stone Cote Chardonnay: A really good, dry Chardonnay. Light, inoffensive nose with a vaguely floral character. Color like light/diluted honey, slightly hazy because Hartford doesn't clarify their wines. Mild alcohol heat with an agreeable oak character and a crisp, quick finish.
  • Hartford specializes in Pinot Noirs and we were offered two exceptional examples with dinner. These wines were definitely the highlight of the evening as well as the entire trip.
    • 2007 Hartford Court, Fod Dance Pinot Noir: A dark, opaque purple wine which smelled like berries and raisins. It was intense, almost like a port.
    • 2005 Hartford Court, Hailey's Block Pinot Noir: This wine is named after Mr. Hartford's daughter1 and was the best of all the wines I tasted during my time in Sonoma. I ended up buying a bottle which, at $55, represents the most I've ever spent on a wine. It's has a ruby color, is bright and peppery, and has an unusually rich mouthfeel.
    Both pinot's were very good, but the Hailey's Block was definitely the winner.
  • 2007 Hartford, Hartford Vineyard Russian River Valley Zinfandel: By this point in the evening I'd had at least six glasses of wine already, so my palette was, shall we say, "unreliable". Nevertheless, the zin was very good as well, possessing a lovely bouquet with hints of tobacco.

I should also mention that the dinner was exceptional as well, far better than I've generally come to expect from a catered function. After dinner Mr. Hartford brought the chef out to talk about the process of creating a dish around a particular wine. The chef was rhapsodic about the entire thing, going on at length about the qualities of the wine and how they were matched to specific ingredients. While I was listening to his spiel I couldn't help but wonder how much of what he was saying was performance and how much he actually believed. Regardless, the audience was sucking it up with a straw; he could have said just about anything and the people listening would have nodded and felt like they were ingesting fundamental truths. It kind of makes you wonder, when we spend so much time discussing food and wine and the mystical interplay between the two, whether we're just engaging in a kind of mutual or mass delusion? When the chef says that he picked out the scallops to highlight the "oyster-shell minerality" of the Chardonnay is he just making shit up or is he actually describing the process that he follows? And does it really matter?


Benziger is notable for being the only winery in Sonoma certified as "biodynamic" by Demeter. They use an intensive, whole-ecosystem approach in the care of their vineyards which seems similar in many respects to the holistic farming methodology made popular by Polyface Farms. There's definitely something to the idea of treating a vineyard in this manner; Benziger doesn't use herbicides or pesticides, but even a layman could tell that their vines are ridiculously healthy. Every once in awhile, however, one of the staff would say something about biodynamic farming that seemed... ummm... less than empiric. Consider this blurb from the tasting notes for the 2005 Oonapais:
The four Aristotelian elements: earth, water, air and fire believe by ancient civilizations (and supported by today's science [Ed. note: O'rly?]) to make up all objects in the universe are the icons and benchmarks of this wine. We believe that every place on earth has a different combination of earch (soil), water (bonds a plant to its environment), air (light) and fire (warmth). When these elements are united in ideal ratios, the fifth element (spirit) appears - the ultimate expressions of our connection to the land.

In isolation this might be dismissed as marketing mumbo-jumbo, but then there's things like the "biodynamic pyramid" which make me think that the Benziger folks may be drinking deeply of the kool-aid. When I saw that I told my co-conspirator that human sacrifice was the next logical step for Benziger to consider as a way to further improve its vineyards.

Moving on... Benziger presented two wines for us to taste, the Signaterra San Jacomo Chardonnay (a new release, doesn't look like they have a link on the website for it yet) and the 2005 Oonapais. The Chardonnay was pretty good: pale yellow with the slightest greenish tinge, a subtle aroma of tropical fruit and melon, and a citrus-y taste without a whole lot of oak character. But the Oonapais was somewhat disappointing. It had a great color, a very deep red, with a nose like raisins and green bell pepper with maybe a hint of flint. But it didn't taste like much of anything; it was all alcohol heat and tannins. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one; I suspect it might have benefitted from decanting. But they definintely weren't putting their best foot forward; after the formal tasting we went to their wine shop and had a couple of really good pinots. I expect that Benziger wanted to show off the Oonapais because its Demeter-certified as a biodynamic wine, but honestly I don't care about that if the wine's no good.


There's something about Stonestreet which appeals to the scientist in me. These guys have spared no expense in their efforts to squeeze every last bit of ethereal goodness out of their vineyards; their stated goal is to produce the best wine in the world. Each row in every vineyard has a bar code which allows them to track that row's fruit through the entire production process. Based on some things that the tour guide said it sounds like they test each individual cluster of fruit before its harvested. Either that, or they're doing a tremendous number of spot checks throughout the harvesting processs. The OCD really comes to the surface in their barrel room. Apparently most coopers make 3 or 4 different barrel profiles, but Stonestreet has worked with World Cooperage to produce forty (yup, 40) different barrel profiles to best complement each of its wines. What you're dealing with here is a frighteningly rigorous application of the scientific method.

So does this approach make better wine? I can't say. On one hand you've got people willing to pay $100 a bottle for Christopher's Cabernet Sauvignon but, on the other hand, the wines that we tasted at Stonestree were frankly mediocre. We were presented with three wines over lunch, the 2007 Alexander Valley Chardonnay, the 2006 Alexander Mountain Estate Fifth Ridge, and the 2005 Alexander Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, none of which were all that distinguished2. Between that tasting and my experience at Benziger I spent the first half of the day thinking that I'd just screwed up my palette due to overindulgence the night before. Talking with other people on the tour afterwards it became clear that they'd had the same reaction; the wines really just weren't that good.

We had the same problem here that we had at Benziger; for whatever reason they weren't putting their best product on display. That strikes me as a failure on the part of both Benziger and Stonestreet. I can understand not wanting to waste the "good stuff" on the hoi polloi, but some of the people on this trip were money. I saw them drop hundreds of dollars at Hartford without even blinking, and they certainly would have done the same at Stonestreet and Benziger given the opportunity. Meh... sales fail, not my problem.

1 Who, incidentally, was present at the dinner, and should be commended for her decorum and demeanor in the face of a bunch of strangers who wanted to talk to her.
2 One of the other people on the trip went so far as to call them "mediocre".