Napa Valley Aldo's Vineyard, Biale Winery 030609

The producers of the 2013 Dominican University Global Wine Marketing Conference for University Professors asked me to talk about California’s wines so I decided to conduct a tasting from two unique wineries and discuss how each winery does their marketing.  The wineries were Cornerstone Cellars and Robert Biale Vineyards.  When Dominican’s Robbie Hayes recommended Robert Biale Winery, I realized that Biale wines would be ideal to illustrate something important to me, the story of Zinfandel.

In the wine world, especially among old world enthusiasts and academics, there is a great deal of interest about where vines originate and how they grow in different areas.  Observations and other business factors lead some people to want to pigeon hole a country with one grape which fails to reflect actual complexities of a wine region.  A well-known example of this is Malbec and Argentina.  I have found a tendency among folks from other countries, (often encouraged by wine writers and pundits) to think of  Zinfandel as California’s grape.  In my opinion, it’s counterintuitive to assign Zinfandel (or any one grape) to America, after all we are a nation made up of revolutionaries and individualists.  To be clear, this doesn’t take away from the fact that the name Zindandel is from America and California’s old growth vines is an interesting story.

Here is the information I shared with the professors about California Zinfandel as they tasted Robert Biale Vineyard’s 2011 Black Chicken Zinfandel.

Vintage Notes:  Another chilly and rainy spring, with cool and moderate summer and fall seasons.
Harvest Dates:  9/26
Alcohol:  15.8%
MSRP:  $42.00

Winemaking:  The fruit was hand-sorted first in the field then again at the winery. Open-top fermentation and punched down three times per day. Pressed to Burgundian oak – 25% new. Aged 14 months.

Winemaker’s Tasting Notes:  The 2011 is one gorgeous “Chicken” and is right on the money: lush and dark fruits of blackberry, berry pie, black cherry, white pepper, peppermint, molasses, Oreo cookie, turmeric, vanilla, clove and nutmeg. A mouthwetting snap of acidity balances the round and ripe fruit, and the thin-skinned Zinfandel tannins propel the wine into an elegant and impressive big Pinot Noir style. We expect that this Black Chicken has an optimal drinking range from 2013–2020.

Girl with a Glass Notes:  Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County is the most famous for producing excellent Zinfandel. (There are over 5,000 acres planted in that county.) Napa only has approx. 1,500 (bearing & non-bearing) acres, and while it has ancient vines, it’s over-shadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon. Biale is one of Napa’s “old vine specialists” along with Peterson, Carlisle, Ridge and Turley wineries.  Originally Napa’s vineyards were mostly field blends; some wineries still make their Zins from field blends, others, like Biale’s Black Chicken are 100% Zin but from different Napa vineyards. 

Best resource for following California Zinfandel is ZAP (Zinfandel Advocates & Producers)

Clearing up the Zinfandel Mystery.  Until only recently, Zinfandel was California’s “mystery grape” because its origins were unknown. In 1994, DNA fingerprinting confirmed that the Primitivo and Zinfandel grapes were genetically identical, however, it’s not a 100 percent match. There are clonal differences between the Zinfandel grown in California and the Primitivo in Italy. On wine labels, U.S. regulations require that Zinfandel and Primitivo be identified separately. Studies have also indicated that the grape used for making California Zinfandel did not originate in Italy, but migrated from another origin to various destinations that include Italy. Scientists know that the Zinfandel grape has a European origin. Although further research is required, all evidence to date points to Croatian grape varieties as the origin. The Zinfandel name, however, is truly American—the earliest and only documented use of the name is in America where a Boston nursery owner advertised Zinfandel for sale in 1832. (Source: Wine Institute)

Thank you to Napa Photographer Mary Steinbacher.

(Read my article about Biale & Marketing a Small Production Winery.)

Read Full Post »

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. 





Read Full Post »

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!




Read Full Post »


I’ve been writing this blog for several years now and I’ve have a great time just cruising around sharing my discoveries. travels and food & wine pairings with you. The only way I can keep track of wines I like is to write about them here. I used to write them in a database but I’ve gone public.  I hope you find my notes helpful and interesting.

This is Novas, a Chardonnay from Emiliana, a brand I’ve written about before.  I met them at an industry tasting years ago when one of their representatives peaked my curiosity about their mission to care for the environment and people. At that time I had not studied Chilean wine or visited Chile.  I found the idea of a large organic, sustainable company promoting it’s wines with great pride and outspokenness, refreshing.  With this company, there is a notable absence of defensiveness that I get from some organic brands.  As well, Emiliana’s brand doesn’t come across as pompous because it’s organic; instead their brand exudes confidence like it’s the most “natural thing in the world” to approach wine and business that way.  And most important, their wine tastes good and is well-made.

The 2010 Limited Selection Novas Chardonnay is clean and reminds me of a cool sea breeze.  I am very picky about Chardonnay and I’ve found that some very nice ones are being grown and made in Chile. When I visited Chile’s coastal region in 2010, I learned about the Humboldt current and how vintners were being lured to this area to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Since then I have sought out wines from these areas. Emiliana delivers consistently nice wines that I am proud to serve to my friends.  I’m glad that they are widely available and well-priced at around $15. Additionally, they have a terrific website for folks who want to learn more about a biodynamic and organic winery; it even includes an interactive vineyard.

Read Full Post »

Pinot Noir

June 9 & 10, 2012 See ya there!

I don’t know. It’s the heartbreak grape. Difficult to vinify. For me, it’s a metaphor for the process of art. You struggle and suffer against seemingly insuperable microclimatic odds, and only when everything comes into a … perfect confluence can you really alchemize something transcendent. And it doesn’t happen often. But, forsaking money, and with no apparent concern for one’s well-being, like artists, true artists, Pinot vintners persevere for that one preternatural moment. Which, when imbibed, is then only but a memory, nothing really tangible, like a book, or a painting, or a movie, admittedly. But … unsurpassable in all other sensory delights in that one sublime, albeit ephemeral, moment.  Miles, from the play Sideways by Rex Picket (reprinted with permission)

The scene in the Sideways movie of Miles sitting on the porch in the late evening with an attractive Sommelier is forever etched in my memory.  His over-the-top musing was fascinating, like watching a train wreck. I wondered how can people be so silly in describing wine? Simultaneously I was intrigued about Pinot Noir.

What Rex wrote is true, it’s a delicate varietal and desires perfect conditions. I’ve written quite a lot about the grape including my Pinot Trio Tour in Germany, visiting oceanside Pinot vines in Chile, picking the winner at a Carneros Chef Smackdown pairing contest and more. I”m attending the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference because it’s in Oregon and I want to learn more about their Pinots.

Next up in my year of Pinot Noir is the 1st Annual Passport to Pinot Barrel tasting weekend, June 9 – 10, 2012 in the famous Russian River AVA. I highly recommend this event for Pinot Lovers. It will be super fun, educational and you will no doubt find some new favorites.  See you at the wineries!



Read Full Post »

Photo Courtesy of Bonterra

Bonterra loosely translates from Italian as good earth.  Bonterra Winery’s good earth seems to bring out the best in their grapes.  I can not remember a time when I was more pleasantly surprised by a group of wines.  Added bonus…they are $13.99 for whites and $15.99 for reds, have a lovely fresh label and are widely available in the states and overseas.

I first opened the 2009 Chardonnay and thought, wow, this is lovely.  I like to keep Chardonnay in my fridge for a week to enjoy a small glass with Hubby in the evening after work.  I’ve experienced other organic wines turn ugly quickly even though I always use a VacuVin, but the slight changes that occurred with Bonterra’s wine were not unpleasant in the least. I am very picky about Chardonnay and I really love this wine. It has all of the elements of a thoughtfully-made, restrained Chardonnay: 70% of the fruit went through malolactic fermentation in French and American oak. It was then blended with 30% fruit from stainless steel tanks and finished off in neutral oak. For me, that is a winning combination; the malo cuts out the bitter acidity that I find nasty in “naked” Chardonnays and grapes from the the stainless steel tanks keep the wine from being overwhelmed by oak flavors.

I was also thoroughly surprised by the delightful 2008 Merlot.  Blended with a bit of Syrah, Zinfandel, and Carignane, it’s a very special wine in that the grapes were subjected to a rare 50-year frost with a long growing season which resulted in (low-yield) concentrated fruits. Events like this showcase a winemaker’s ability and palate. Winemaker Robert Blue turned a potential disaster into a must-try Merlot.

The winemaker’s handling of Bonterra’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is just my style. It’s a food friendly, flexible Cabernet Sauvignon.  Folks who don’t want a tannic big red wine, this is your Cabernet Sauvignon. It has plenty of structure and flavor but I found that it pairs nicely with basic Mediterranean or Italian food. I would even recommend a high-quality pizza and salad with blue cheese. A non-stuffy Cabernet Sauvignon – nice!

Bottomline: The fact that the winemaker is making fabulous wines from organic farming is interesting to me as an oenophile and it’s fun to show others what organic wines can be, but you don’t have to be “into organic” wines to enjoy these refreshing, flavorful and delicious food friendly wines.  


Read Full Post »

WIne Wrtiers: BLake Grey, Karen MacNeil, RIchard Auffrey, Ben Narasin, Alana Gentry (in the hat)

Because I love tasting wines from around the world, I have purchased many  Chilean wines (as well as received samples).  My big news is that I am blown away by how much the quality of Chile’s red wines has risen just in the last year. The first time (2009) I sat through a Carmenére tasting, I ended up recommending a Sauvignon Blanc to my readers. Even though I’m a huge fan of Chilean whites* and Pinot Noirs, I was less than enthusastic about Chile’s effort to promote Carmenére as their signature grape.

Don’t get me wrong, Carmenére is no backwoods weird varietal; it enjoys a fine pedigree. Here’s a fun fact from Carmenère is yet another grape that was eventually exiled from the Bordeaux blend. In the late 1800′s, Carmenère was brought over to Chile from France, and it never turned back. For a while, Chilean growers thought this grape was Merlot and labeled their wines as such. But in the early nineties, thanks to DNA testing, vineyards were revisited and the grapes correctly labeled, and Carmenère was discovered to be the backbone of many Chilean wines. 

Without further commentary, I’m happy to recommend the following Chilean Carmenéres. Happy shopping!

  • Santa Carolina Reserva de Familia, Carmenère  2009 ($10)
  • Natura, Carmenère 2010 (Made by Emiliana) ($10) This wine is organic, I’ll be writing a post about organic wines soon.
  • Paso Grande Valle Control, Carmenère 2010 ($10)
  • Montes Alpha Colchagua Valley Carmenère 2008 ($15)  Montes Alpha makes consistently good value wine.
  • Margues de Casa Concha Carmenère 2009  ($16) Made by Concha y Toro, another big name and easy to find.
  • Carmen Gran Reserva, Apalta Carmenère 2009 ($17)
  • Novas Limited Selection Carmenère / Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) This is what I call a Saturday night wine – complex, smooth, drinkable now. Very nice wine.

Most of these wines are widely distributed thus easy to find. I hope you enjoy them.

*Chilean White Wine post coming soon~ I’m tasting a bunch of Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs this month.

Picture taken in Chile on the Wine Writer’s Trip sponsored by Winebow. I’m in the hat and that’s the famous Karen MacNeil who wrote The Wine Bible next to me.

Read Full Post »


Mourvédre* and its cousins are a hot commodity in the USA right now.  Mourvédre is one of  22 grapes known as Rhone Varieties.  Fortunately you don’t have to go to France to taste these interesting wines.   American-made wines are featured at tastings sponsored by the Rhone Rangers each year.  The 2012 San Francisco Celebration of Rhone Wines featured 500 wines from 100 wineries mostly from California (lots of Paso Robles wineries).

The three most common white Rhone grapes grown in California are Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.  Marsanne and Roussanne are often blended together.  One of my favorite blends is Viognier with Chardonnay.  Popular Rhone reds are Syrah, Grenache and Mourvédre.

These grapes are naturally bold and flavorful. Like Petite Sirah, they are very distinct; for instance, if you taste rich honeysuckle nectar, it is most likely a Viognier.  Syrah is frequently paired with BBQ, rich sauces and meat while a lesser wine would be over-powered.  While an occasional full-bodied Syrah will find it’s way to my table, my favorite California Rhone wines are restrained the fruit ripeness is controlled and enough acidity is present to create a balanced wine that doesn’t leave my teeth purple or my tongue honey-coated.

Here are producers that I recommend:

Two Shepherds.  Winemaker William Allen is an on-the-move tech executive, a committed wine blogger, a marketing evangelist for Sonoma wine events and a darn good winemaker. His first bottling was in 2010 and he is quickly ramping up to deliver 2011 to meet demand. Tip: Get on his mailing list.

Inspiration Vineyards & Winery.  Jon Phillips’ wines are food friendly and terroir-driven. He makes a small amount of Chardonnay-Viognier (190 cases), bright, elegant Viogniers, a very French White Rhone Blend and several other varietals mostly from the Russian River/Dry Creek area. Tip: The tasting room is open Thursday – Monday, no appointment necessary and if it’s not during harvest, you’ll probably meet the winemaker.

Cline Cellars.  Drinking wine out of the barrel with Charlie Tsegeletos was a seminal moment in my wine loving journey. His enthusiasm for winemaking and wine education remains unbridled even after 30+ years. His 2010 Old Vine Mourvédre is a steal at $20 and his Mourvédre Rose is always a winner. Tip: Join the Pendulum Club, (the only club I belong to) the people are wonderful, the deals are great and the winery is a lovely home-away-from-home.

Hope Family Wines. Founder Austin Hope and winemaker Jason “JC” Diefenderfer make some great Rhone wines in Paso Robles. A larger winery with five very well-priced labels (Troublemaker, Treana, Liberty School, Candor and Austin Hope) has something for everyone. I especially like Troublemaker Blend 3, a red Rhone blend made from multiple vintages ($20).  Tip: Read more about Troublemaker online.


*It was about 10 years ago when I first heard the fun folks at Cline Cellars teaching people how to remember Mourvédre (here’s how to really pronounce it).




Read Full Post »




I enjoy wine from all over the globe, but many German wines that I receive* are too sweet for my palate.  I’m always excited to get a Silvaner because the best ones are dry (the opposite of sweet) and pair perfectly with Springtime seafood and salads.  I served this 2009 Graf v (von) Schönborn with fresh white shrimp, cilantro, garden limes, chopped red onions and a little salt and pepper over broccoli/carrot slaw. The wine is light in body, low-alcohol (12%) with stone fruit and a bit of lime. Absolutely lovely and easy drinking.

When I visited Germany, I advocated to wineries that reaching more American wine lovers requires making their labels more user-friendly.  This producer gets it.  Here’s what the wine label would look like if the usual German “rules” were followed.

2009 Graf von Schonborn
Schloss Schonborn Hallburger Schlossberg 
Kabinett Trocken
Franken, Germany
Seriously. Great for geeks but too much information at once for wine enthusiasts who are learning about new grapes and wines.  This wine has all the necessary details on the back of the label. (By the way, the green marks are my notes indicating I’m going to review the wine.)
* This wine was provided as a sample.


Read Full Post »


MacPhail Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

MacPhail Winery, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

Part 2.  Read the back story and meet the wine…

Interview with James MacPhail, Winemaker, MacPhail Family Winery 

When did you start making wine, what was your position and with whom?  I started making my own wine in 2001 (it was a Merlot).  I was working at Pelligrini at that time – and that’s where Merry Edwards was making her wine before she built her own place.  I worked for both producers doing everything and anything that was asked of me.  There really wasn’t a name for it.  I guess “cellar rat” is the closest thing.

When did you start your own label?  2002

When did you partner with Hess? If you mean when was I contacted to be the winemaker for Sequana, that would be in the spring of 07.   If you mean when did Hess and MacPhail Family Wines come together, that would be June of 2011.

 How did that come about?  For 2007, I was on the list to be interviewed for Sequana. I went over with 3 bottles of my Pinot – no resume – and met with Dave Guffy.  We hit it off.  I got a call the next day and was offered the position.  If you mean 2011, that happened at the Taste of Vail event with CEO Gary Bulger – over a beer.

What are your favorite things to do when you are not making wine?  Sleep in, be with my family, go places and relax and soak up the sun.  Swim.  Go out with friends and try new places.

Do you have any goals or dreams in the winemaking business that you have yet to meet? If so, what are they?  I’d love to make wine in Argentina, do more research about this business; I’d like to teach.  It’s a never-ending quest.

Thanks James (& Kerry!), I finally got the answers to my burning questions. Regarding Argentina, interesting…everyone knows it’s my favorite place in the world (besides home). 

Read Full Post »

Next »

site development by kevin mcgrath