Wine Picks

Paul Mas Chateau

(c) Courtesy of

Earlier this year I decided to get a certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) to add to my credentials. I had mixed feelings about it because I believe wine knowledge is best gained by practical experience: I also knew that I had gaps in my knowledge that could be best addressed (initially) with a course or two.  My major gap was French wines.

I made the decision years ago to specialize in New World wines (what I call re-emerging markets*).  The reasons for my decision: 1) Napa, Sonoma and surrounding areas are my backyard; 2) I’m attracted to the Southern Hemisphere countries; 3) French wine knowledge is unfortunately yet irrefutably an affectation associated with wine snobs; and 4) I find mavericks more interesting than traditionalists.

In three months of classes, I got a crash course in French wine regions that required memorization to pass the test, their history of winemaking, a few cool anecdotes about monks and best of all, that there is an inkling of modernism in the French wine market and I must go there to fully understand it.  (I’ve been to Paris but that’s another story.)

Right after I graduated, Michelle McCue, a Burbank, CA publicist sent me three bottles of Paul Mas’ French wines to try.  Paul Mas, a recipient of many international accolades, could be the poster child for my point of view–take old vines, history, winemaking integrity, and deliver balanced, approachable wines that can be enjoyed now.  Go one step further (which he does) and print the grapes on the back label so wine lovers do not have to know every Château and region in France to know what’s in the bottle.  My review of his wines.


*My definition of re-emerging wine markets is regions that have hundreds of years of wine making history but are just now getting positive attention from the mainstream global wine market.

**The picture is Château de Conas in Pézanas where the Mas family still lives. It was originally built over 1,000 years ago.



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 Clos de Savignac


“It’s fine to say, I like this wine or I don’t, just be able to tell me why.”  New York Times Wine Critic, Eric Asimov

Wine professionals are taught the language of wine evaluation and a systematic approach to tasting. When I judge a wine (professionally or at my own table), I’ve found that I have two favorite questions, “is this wine balanced?” and “do I know I want another sip?”

Three French wines were recently sent to me to sample and they each passed my tests with flying colors. When I sniffed, swirled and sipped they continued to impress me with lovely smells, attractive flavors, and long finishes.  To me, that’s all that is required of a wine.

The bottles were from Jean-Claude Mas, a winemaker from Southern France whose family tended vines and made wine in the Languedoc region even before the French Revolution. (European wine history is pretty cool.)  The winery is Domaines Paul Mas.

Domaines Paul Mas is growing quickly under Jean-Claude’s leadership and at the time of this writing, I see ten different brands on the website.  The wines I tasted were all single vineyards; the links to the winemaker’s notes are below:

Domaines Paul Mas, Chateau Paul Mas – Clos de Savignac, Gres de Montpellier 2011  (A blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache.)

Domaines Paul Mas, Chateau Paul Mas - Malbec, Gardemiel Vineyard 2010

Domaines Paul Mas, Paul Mas Estates – Pinot Noir, St. Hilaire Vineyard

The literature sent to me included this quote, When consumers sip his wines, Jean-Claude’s goal is to create a moment of pure pleasure.  When I read that after I tasted these wines, I thought, wow, he nailed it.  In addition to insisting that his wine taste good, he is a proponent of premium quality from grape to bottle, environmental stewardship, modern equipment and incorporating New World innovation with century-old expertise. (Thank you Jean-Claude for listing the grapes on the back label!)

The distributor is Palm Bay and while the entire Domaines Paul Mas portfolio isn’t available in the states yet, you can give this article to your favorite wine store and tell them to order it.  I’m going to be sending this right over where I shop in Sonoma, Valley Wine Shack.



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8 Wines I Would Buy Again


Wine I would Buy

I’m introducing a bunch of wines to you today as a group.  Lots of fun details, I hope you enjoy and find some that you want to try.

The wines in the picture each have a unique story. Starting from left to right, here they are:

  1. Maquis Cabernet Sauvignon 2010. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I have been following Chile closely for a few years.  Many imported Chilean wines are made at very old family wineries, this one being over 100 years old.  Known as a grape producer for other wineries until 2005, the Maquis label is all about terroir–conveying a sense of place. It’s only $19 and has a very cool logo that is raised a bit. Wonderful conversation piece as you share this wine with friends.*
  2. Quivira 2009 Elusive. As a big fan of their winemaker Hugh Chappelle, I bought this red blend to see what it was all about. It’s a GSM which stands for Grenache, Syrah, Mourvédre, a classic blend of grapes originating from the Rhone Valley in France. The wine is bold, fruity, balanced and delicious. At $23.99 (discounted at Bottle Barn) it’s a wonderful wine to bring to a special gathering or just enjoy over a romantic dinner. My only problem is that the cursive of the name is so small I thought it said “Eloise.” 
  3. Now here’s a surprise for you, Jacobs Creek, 2008 Reserve Shiraz, Barossa.  This well-known Australian winery promoted their new Reserve line with an innovative campaign where they sent unlabeled bottles to a bunch of wine writers and we had to judge the wines not knowing who they were from. I had no opinion about Jacobs Creek before so it actually made me suspicious that they thought they had an image problem.  Regardless, I liked the Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a perfect opportunity to introduce you to a terrific blog, The Reverse Wine Snob, Jon rates and writes notes about less expensive wines. The link above goes to his review of this wine because it has lots of detail.
  4. Morande 2009 Gran Reserva Pinot Noir.  When I visited Chile one of the most interesting things I learned was that there are cool growing regions.  As often happens, I had misperceptions about an entire country’s wine because I hadn’t been there. I thought all South American wines were grown in that country’s hot regions. For a virtual tasting, Wines of Chile sent me three Pinot Noirs, a grape that doesn’t grow well at all in a hot climate. Each of the samples were quite different from the other. I especially liked this one from from the Casablanca Valley. It has a balanced, seductive light touch that I appreciate in the grape. It’s $17.99, which is considered a good value for quality Pinot Noir.
  5. Balletto Russian River Valley 2011 Pinot Noir. I’ve written about Balletto before and this is their new release that I found at Bottle Barn, a famous local store in Northern California wine country. (You can buy a lot of great wines there and have them shipped, they even have a wine club. I took a chance and spent $18.49 on this Pinot Noir, instead of hitting the winery and tasting it first. It was as lovely as I suspected it would be.
  6. The next three wines are from Cornerstone Cellars. I’m very enthusiastic about their wines. A feature article about them is in the works.
  7. Cecchi 2009 Chianti Classico.  Yeah Italian wine! It’s been awhile since I’ve had a Chianti Classico, until I received and enjoyed this sample I’d forgotten how much I like Italian wine.  When I was first learning how to pair wine and food I must have served Italian wine 3 times a week. It’s a very food friendly wine. This wine is $13 and widely distributed. I happily lived in North Beach (the Italian district) in San Francisco and stayed in Little Italy while visiting New York. The fact that I’ve never been to Italy is astounding to me. It really needs to be my next trip.
  8. Ventisquero Grey 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. I have wanted to write a feature post about this wine since I visited them in early 2011. Finally it’s here. If you collect wine or love incredible value, read this post.

*Check out Wines of Chile and the Thomas Collective in New York; I truly admire their approach to introducing folks to a region’s wine and the fresh, modern approach they convey as companies.



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Chile Cabernet Sauvignon

Many of us have a hobby.  I have friends who love deep sea fishing, searching for plants in the woods or doing puzzles. A hobby brings out childlike curiosity and pure enjoyment in a person.  It releases us from the mundane chores of life and noise of the day.

This wine’s unique label is like a map to understanding my wine hobby.  The brand name, Terroir Hunter could be a movie title.  The place is Alto Maipo, a higher elevation (Alto) wine growing region in Chile.  I see a local viticulturist in old boots, with a walking stick in his hand, exploring acres of dirt and rocks in the Andes.   He looks up at the side of a mountain and sees the outline of natural terraces caused by water draining through rocks and layers of sediment.  Just like the label, his footprints stop and he marks the spot in his mind, “this is the place I’ll plant Cabernet Sauvignon.” He can imagine a mature vineyard and smell the ripening grapes.   Years later, this bottle of wine is shipped across a continent to California, and his dream is shared with me.

Wine Enthusiast Magazine has a wonderful article about Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon. Reading about a region, or better yet, visiting, is part of a wine hobbyist’s activities.

Winemaker’s Notes: Undurrage TH Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is from Pirque, an area in Maipo Alto with an exalted reputation for excellent Cabernet Sauvignon.  This wine is made from a small lot that yields very little fruit. Grapes are carefully sorted to find only the best berries.  The wine underwent cold maceration under anaerobic conditions for five days.  Fermentation took place at 28° – 29°C for 14 days, with three to four daily pump-overs.  The wine was left on its lees and skins for an additional 12 days to further its structure.  It was then racked into French barrels, 25% new where the wine was aged for 14 months.

The 2011 vintage in Maipo, especially in Pirque is considered a cool vintage. The same was true in 2010, which was one of the best vintages in recent times. The sugar, tannin and acidity levels were in balance by the third week of April, only one week earlier than in 2010. 





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If you have ever been wine tasting, you have experienced tasting five wines in one sitting.  Now imagine this at every lunch and every dinner for eight days.  The trick of course is to not drink full glasses.  Eat small amounts and sip a bit of wine with each bite.  Wine writers don’t normally use dump buckets during meals but I have been in situations where I have left the table and dumped my glass if we have several wines to get through and I don’t like a wine enough to finish it.  I only have so much room for wine, food or alcohol and it’s better to admit it than not enjoy myself.

As would be expected, in Spain, Cava producer, Segura Viudas served sparkling wines with meals.  I’ve always enjoyed sparkling wines but I rarely served them with meals.  I was serving sparkling wine only when it was the main event.  I would pair appetizers with it, but the food was chosen to complement the wine. With our hosts, I had the opportunity to taste sparkling rosé and white wines with various courses and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. The wines are light, refreshing and lower in alcohol.  I learned that the right (dry not sweet) Cava pairs quite well with various foods. There’s a special bubbly stopper that you can buy to keep an open bottle fresh.

I am still a habitual still wine person preferring lower alcohol white wines and well-balanced reds (if a red has higher alcohol, as long as I can’t taste it, I don’t mind). During my tripSegura Viudas Creu de Lavit was served at most meals.  It’s a still white wine made from a Spanish grape called Xarel-lo.  It’s imported to the states and part of their excellent Heredad Collection.

On a side note, while I expected to be happy when a still red wine was served, I found that it made me much sleepier than the other wines.  My trip to Spain has fundamentally changed my perspective on pairing wine and food, what a surprise!




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Segura Viudas Reserva

My favorite holiday is Valentine’s Day. I like it better than New Year’s Eve or Christmas. It’s better than New Year’s Eve because I prefer intimacy to crowds and it’s better than Christmas because it doesn’t require so much planning. For me, celebrating Valentine’s Day focuses on enjoying a great meal and great wine. My only problem is choosing from the many wonderful options.  

My first option includes this beautiful bottle of Spanish Cava. It’s made by the famous and popular Freixenet (“fresh-eh-net”) Group. I’ve always been a fan of Spanish sparkling wine which is called Cava; it was part of my Valentine meal in 2010 and a musing in 2008.

Gloria Ferrer, located 20 minutes from my house, is part of this company’s portfolio of wineries too. It’s fascinating to take their tour in Sonoma County and learn that it is a Spanish-owned company making bubbly in a traditional way while producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still wines that are all about expressing the terroir of their location–Carneros. Highly recommended for a visit.

I am a big fan of Cava and encourage you to try it. If you can’t find it locally, try The tasting notes there are right on as well.

PS: I will be a guest of Segura Viudas in Spain in March and I can’t wait to tell you all about it!


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Current Favorite Red Wines

Pirovano Barbera

Two easy-drinking reds, La Famiglia Pirovano Barbera Oltrepo Pavese DOC (Whole Foods on sale $10, alcohol 13%) and Lava Cap, Estate Bottled Barbera El Dorado 2009 (Whole Foods $18, alcohol 14.7%).  These are both excellent examples of how elegant yet casual Barbera can be.  The Italian version has plenty of flavor with no harsh edges and the low alcohol pairs nicely with dinner.  The California foothills version is like it’s bigger cousin, same accessible table wine with a bit more attitude. They are both staples in my wine fridge.

In the same food friendly, easy-going red group, I’m a fan of Serrera Bonarda 2008 from Mendoza, Argentina ($20, Imported by I purchased it at Paradise Foods in my neighborhood).  I don’t know anything about this vineyard/producer but it feels like a real find. Well-made food friendly wine.  I’ve written about Bonarda and this is a very accessible example for someone just getting to know the grape.

Fields Family Wines 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel, Sherman Family Vineyards Lodi 2010 ($24) this is my “house red” at the moment.  It’s has a lovely pulled-together quality and I find it enjoyable by itself and with a variety of dishes from pasta and red sauce to roast chicken. It’s not “too” anything; it has excellent fruit, earthiness and complexity disguised as simplicity. Winemaker Ryan Sherman is one to watch.





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Ventisquero Wine from Chile


Vina Ventisquero, located in the gorgeous Maipo Valley  is 25 miles from the Chilean coast and 100 miles from Santiago. According to our guide, the climate changes every 40 miles (I was there in early 2011).  It reminds me of where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it can be 50°F in northern San Francisco and 85°F at my home 22 miles north.  This winery has several brands and grows grapes  in Maipo Valley, Apalta, Colchagua Valley, Peralillo, Casablanca Valley, Lolol, Rapel Valley, and Leyda Valley.

Although their output is huge by American standards, their young staff is dedicated to making vintage specific, terroir-driven wines.  Their brand Grey caught my fancy.  Grey is the Andean word for glacier meaning purity, beauty, harmony, character and impressiveness. That same philosophy runs through the entire organization.  They hire innovative, environmentally-sensitive, caring, gutsy youngish folks (the founder was only 35 when he started the winery) and on their website, they use the words, “positive energy” to describe their philosophy.  I’d say that they “walk the talk” as I met a lot of  talented, happy, friendly people there.

Gray is considered a premium Chilean brand.  They are striving to create benchmark wines, ones that represent the terroir and the grape in Chile.  I find them to be highly-competitive fine wines and I’m planning on buying different vintages to see how they age.  The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is drinking especially fine. At only $25 USD ($270 a case) it’s a no-brainer for folks interested in collecting. It’s a wine that will hold up against $300 bottles of vintage Cabernet Sauvignon. My problem will be keeping it out of my sight so I don’t drink it.





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Blessing of the Grapes Mondavi WInery 2012(Above: To mark the start of the 2012 harvest season, Father Ramon Pons, bilingual Associate Pastor at St. John the Baptist in Napa, blessed the first truckload of grapes to come into Mondavi winery yesterday morning—a tradition imagined by Robert Mondavi in 1966. The blessing was followed by a toast from Margrit Mondavi and a few words from director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens.  Many winery employees joined invited guests for a hearty Mexican lunch.)

Yesterday I attended the blessing of the grapes at Robert Mondavi in Napa. It is a tradition that began in 1966. The gracious artist, Robert’s widow, Margrit Mondavi spoke in the ToKalon cellar…”we always remember Robert Mondavi, and on his cloud, I’m sure he’s winking…” then semi-retired employee and singer Bob “Bobby” Tyson sang America the Beautiful. and Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking spoke. When Margrit introduced Father Pons she misspoke when introducing his church and said, “oh gosh, now I’m sure to be going to hell.” Born in 1926, she’s an absolute delight and had the crowd in stitches.  (NEWSFLASH: her tell-all memoir was just released.) I can not wait to read it.

I tasted in the To Kalon Room (Insider Tip: highly recommend a visit in here, it’s where the reserve and spotlight small lot wines are poured. There is a reservation form on the website but if you decide at the last moment, I recommend just coming in; it wasn’t crowded mid-week, even during harvest.) I had a great time with Janie (a 16-yr pro at Mondavi) and Chris (an engaging 30-something ex-teacher turned novelist and wine collector moonlighting as a wine educator). Every wine I tasted was truly beautiful and well-made. My favorites were:

  • A beautiful Unoaked Chardonnay with refreshing tartness (flavorful yet perfectly balanced) available only in the tasting room ($34) (vintage 2010)
  • 2010 Fume Blanc Reserve, very dry from 1968 vineyards. ($40) Only 1100 cases.
  • All of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons from 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007 & 2008 were delightful to taste with the 2002 being surprisingly bold still and the 2008 notably different since it is from a different vineyard (Stags Leap) and is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • My favorite was the 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve, an absolutely gorgeous wine that I will not soon forget.  One of the best Pinot Noirs I’ve enjoyed from Carneros ever. ($60)
If you love Cabernet Sauvignon and want to enjoy Italian culture in the Fall sunshine of the Napa harvest season,  here’s a party not to miss. Highly recommended.
Highlights: 10 years of Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve tasting with Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens and Master of Wine, Mark deVere in the First Year barrel room.  Italian-themed lawn party in the afternoon.





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Pinot Grigio, Give it a Try

Balletto Pinot Gris

“I challenge you to show me a great Pinot Grigio,” said a wine-loving friend  from California. Well, Dave, here it is, Balletto, 2010 Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley, Estate Bottled, Sonoma County.*

I tasted it while visiting Balletto Vineyards at Passport to Pinot Noir. The owner, John Balletto is a personable and generous man who had to leave a promising sports career and college when his father died unexpectedly. At 17 years old, he and his mother started farming vegetables in Sonoma County. Their business grew to be the largest farm north of the Golden Gate.  John told me he made the decision to turn his vegetable farm into vineyards after three bad floods in 1998. Today, he owns over 500 acres of prime grape growing land. 90% of his fruit is sold to others. In 2006, Balletto Vineyards opened a small tasting room and now sell their own label. You can find it online, by visiting and at Bay Area restaurants and wine shops.

I also highly recommend their 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir and their Zinfandel Their 2007 Zinfandel is better than many Zins from neighboring AVA Dry Creek Valley, which is famous for Zinfandel.

Insider Tip: These wines are excellent value, especially considering their location in the Russian River AVA.  All of their current releases are less than $30 a bottle. If you join their wine club, you get 20% off which make these wines a steal. The Pinot Gris is $18.


*Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same grape; Italians use the former.



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