Wine Adventurers Club Notes

"Show me the world!" you say? Two international reds monthly!" $39.99/month

Current and Past Club Notes


April 2018

From the land of – and a great producer of - Amarone
2014 MASI ‘CampoFiorin’ – Rosso Verona, Italy

This isn’t Amarone, which is why it doesn’t cost $50 bucks or more.

What it IS, however, is a dry and balanced red wine with connotations of that trophy - for three reasons.

1. It comes from the same place. We are near Verona, mythical home of Romeo and Juliet, and very real source of just-as-amorous Amarone.

2. It comes from the same grape varieties: 70% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, and 5% Molinara.

3. It is an actual BYPRODUCT of Amarone, of which Masi is a renowned specialist. If you’re going to go to the trouble to preserve whole clusters of grapes until February – promoting dehydration while doing all you can to NOT promote spoilage – why not use the pressed-out grape skins for a second wine? Hence, ‘CampoFiorin’. This wine is fermented more typically: The grapes are picked, crushed and fermented all within days – not months. The difference here is the later introduction of Amarone skins to the fermented wine once those come available. You get the best of three worlds: A balanced, lively red . . . a suggestion of high-class Amarone . . . a reasonable price which real Amarone could never accommodate.

The wine before you has seen a lot of work. Let’s examine the actual results: For a four-year-old red the color is nicely intact. The bouquet is indicative of potpourri, hoisin sauce, and lively dark cherries. The mouth is fresh and lively with good acidic nerve (a desired Italian wine virtue) while also saying something about darkness and richness. Rumors of Amarone abound - without the weight of alcohol or price.

This is delicious food wine with a preference for roasted meats or boldly-sauced pastas.

A New ‘Dioro’
2015 Vinsacro ‘Dioro’ – Rioja, Spain

I took the photos above upon my first visit to this bodega in 2005. The facility was impressive as were those rock-choked vines in the foreground, but this terrific and rarely-made wine deserves so much more elaboration.

The region of Rioja could be called Spain’s “Napa Valley” for its international allure. Its hallmark grape Tempranillo might be compared to Napa’s Cabernet Sauvignon for its darkness, elegance, durability, and foodworthy-ness. Just as King Cabernet rarely goes unhelped by Bordeaux co-royals Merlot and Cabernet Franc, et al, Tempranillo also has a supporting cast. In the northern Rioja sub-regions of Alavesa and Alta the native Graciano grape is often called upon for a “Petit Verdot-like” treatment of fragrance enhancement and purple-fication. But this Vinsacro comes not from the north, but takes us instead to warmer Rioja Baja where more varieties participate per an ability to ripen in a more sundrenched situation.

Vinsacro’s most important contributors are not the younger vines in the photograph but plots higher up and somewhat removed from the winery site. These stands of 100+ year-old vines are called ‘Vidau,’ implying an interplanted mixture of varieties intended for an en masse harvest and fermention. Because these plots are still rendered as a whole it’s impossible to declare precise percentages, but we know that normally-predominant Tempranillo is but one voice – and not the solo one - of the choir singing here. At least half of this blend is represented by no fewer than FIVE other grapes: Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan), Graciano, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), and Bobal.

This less than Tempranillo-centric mixture probably disallows the traditional Rioja quality declarations seen on more traditional labels, ‘Crianza’ and ‘Reserva’. Instead, the winery makes one blend with a white label and simply calls it “Vinsacro,” and in the great vintages renders this more limited, black-labeled “Dioro” bottling. I’m sure this producer would quietly call Dioro his “Reserva verging on Gran Reserva.”

Also alternative to Rioja’s tradition of using American oak is Vinsacro’s application of more refined French oak for 12-14 months. Baja, not Alavesa. Dioro, not Gran Reserva. French oak, not American. And great.

There hasn’t been a “Dioro” bottling since the 2010 vintage of which we just sold out. That’s how conservative the producer is with applying the name. - But like so many other European wine regions Rioja was blessed with terrific growing conditions in 2015, warranting the first “Dioro” in half a decade.

We love how this wine is showing right now, yet know there is more to hear from it given some cellaring time. I believe it foresees at least a ten year duration of validity. Considering its stature (it is meant to cost over $50) and durability I’d call this one of those wines warranting a multi-bottle purchase by those who like to check in on the same great wine over its longer lifespan. Add to its aura the recently conferred 92-point rating by Robert Parker’s Spanish wine reviewer and the worthy story of Dioro only grows.

The wine itself, as expressed today from the glass near my keyboard: Opaquely maroon-purple in its deep, youthful color. Vinsacro is fragrant with a mix of savories and fruit senses including loam, thyme, tobacco, coffee, dark plums, and blackberries. A wonderfully-balanced palate feel straddles the fence between indulgence and refreshment, with rich chocolate relieved by a food-preferring citric tang. This wine is a slam-dunk partner for lamb, and a traditional recipe I recently tried would be the ideal and super traditional treatment:

Our convicted advice to you: LOAD UP on this very special, rarely-made Rioja!

March 2018

The Fun
2015 LA POSTA ‘Pizzela’ MALBEC – Mendoza, Argentina

Here’s one of two Argentine reds we’re providing this month. The other requires more thought. La Posta, as the flamboyant label implies, encourages a modicum of thoughtlessness. Certainly, Argentine Malbec’s significant body happening admirably, but the tannins are virtually invisible; this is a plush, easygoing big gulp of red wine!

Laura Catena might be called Argentina’s greatest wine advocate. She was born in Mendoza in 1967, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1988, received a medical doctor degree from Stanford, and is a practicing Emergency Medicine physician at UCSF. Simultaneously she’s the director of Bodega Catena Zapata and has her own Luca Winery in Mendoza, Argentina.

For her La Posta project Laura identifies and promotes a small group of Mendoza growers, with each having a bottling representing his/her/their vineyard. ‘Pizzella’ honors the vineyard of Paula and Pablo Pizzella (Italian names are common in Argentina). This couple manages vines at 3,600 feet above sea level and the resulting fruit (100% Malbec) sees a mix of barrel and stainless steel aging. This combination of treatments keeps the fun, fresh, flowery aroma intact, as well as the jammy yet brisk palate feel.

Enjoy - carelessly!

The Serious . . . along with a Thank You Gift
2015 ALTOCEDRO ‘La Consulta Select’ – Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina

“Dear Stephanie,

I’d like to commit to the 2015 Altocedro ‘La Consulta Select’ for our March Wine Adventurer’s Wine Club. Please send nine cases tomorrow and another nine two Fridays from now: 3-23.

I’m not making this commitment because you bent over backwards to get us a second, fresher bottle to re-try, or because you’re one of our younger wine reps with more to gain from such deals. I’m not doing it for your newborn child (congratulations again!), or because you grew up a block away from my own daughters and were in Mary’s class at Granada High (Sometimes that stuff factor in, of course!).

This wine club placement happens because I’ve had to invest TWO HOURS (e-mail work and two vendor appointments in the meantime) to be sure about this wine. This blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Syrah is built with a certain amount of restraint. While it is invitingly colorful, its fragrance implies nerve, a mood confirmed in the mouth. Rather than being automatically indulgent with thick and soft textures, my palate is shaken awake with the fresh, mineral-driven briskness of acidity.

At first pour I balked: “Fresh” and “Crisp” aren’t red wine terms embraced by The Group. Sure, the most thoughtful Wine Adventure Club members value these effects, but every time I’ve applied a more lively red to The Group there’s a lower response of “re-purchases,” an important measurement of a successful club wine. So I got out a decanter, splashing this juice into a place with more airspace. I waited five minutes and re-tried. Now there was a little more depth to the nose and body in the mouth, but still – that “nerve” made me nervous! The cherry, plum, and baking spice effects were still pierced with rosehip citricity. I read up on the location, 3700 feet above sea level, noting the fact of limestone in the soil. That made sense, considering this palate feel. I admired another fact, the rare combining of the different varieties for a co-fermentation; inconvenient but often beneficial. And I sipped and pondered some more. Finally, I realized: I’m intrigued. There is enough character keeping me wanting more of it. There is enough angst of texture to make my mouth a little upset, wishing for resolution.

THEN, that same morning, an importer of Spanish foods dropped off some olives to try. They were tangy and rich, not unlike Altocedro. I reached for my glass of this red for perhaps the tenth exploratory sip, and the lights went on: This worked. The wine was softened and broadened with the addition of the Spanish olives. One more positive experience was 15 hours later: Having left the bottle open on our winebar overnight I returned for yet another try. Altocedro had softened, demonstrating its need for air.

Altocedro is being ‘clubbed’ because it’s very good AND to point out the value of wine inquiry. Not every wine deserves a second look. THIS wine, with some immediately identifiable qualities, deserved a dozen looks before I REALLY got it. And to further make this point we are providing every Wine Adventurer Club member with a jar of the aforementioned Spanish olives. So much for the budget, but sometimes these adventures are worth it!!

Thank you Stephanie,”

February 2017

Last month: A Rhone-Inspired Super Tuscan. Now: A BORDEAUX-Inspired Super Tuscan.
2015 AIA VECCHIA ‘Lagone’ – Bolgheri and Magliano, Tuscany, Italy

Let me first point out that if this isn’t the most extravagantly indulgent red we’ve ever handed you, it’s also on the lower end of the price spectrum and compensated for by the more expensive Bordeaux we’re also providing.

Also compensating: Great Tuscan CHARACTER. They needn’t all be big!!

Lagone is a combination of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc from western Tuscany. Its club provision is meant to be an informative and delicious Chapter II to last month’s discussion of the rarer Rhone-style Super Tuscan “Casadei”.

It’s also meant to make you hungry. Whether or not you Wine Adventurer club members read these notes, most know to pair such Old World wines with food rather than treating them as a cocktail. Lagone is not half of a wine, but it is meant to be half of an experience. A great meal should share the stage in a very symbiotic duet.

Bordeaux meets Tuscany in one bottle: The color is youthfully dark. The scent is a beguiling combination of fresh earth and ripe dark cherries. Herbs and flowers ride alongside. The palate is medium in body, but jam-packed with character destined to gracefully unwind over the next three to four years (meaning you should stock up). While fully ripe in flavor, the texture is classically true to the European idea of gutsy, protein-loving structure. Air out Lagone in a decanter and serve it alongside “quickly cooked” beef retaining some pinkness at its center. Thick pork chops would also work nicely.

Bordeaux from a great year, possessing two personalities
2015 CHATEAU BELLEVUE ‘Cé Ma Cuvée’ – Castillon, Cotes de Bordeaux, France

Up and down the price range you’ll have to work hard to find a 2015 Bordeaux that doesn’t beat other recent vintages with more ripeness and heft. This is easily our best look at the region since 2010; a long-awaited phenomenon for those of us missing truly good Bordeaux. Two weeks ago I attended a trade-only tasting event in San Francisco where some of Bordeaux’s most famous proprietors were personally pouring their 2015’s. I was happy to drink those highly-touted totems free of charge, but am just as happy to provide you with a more approachably-priced tintype of this great vintage. Chateau Bellevue provides yet another chance for value, based on your willingness to head out of town just a bit. Certainly the Pauillacs and Pomerols will say more with finesse and durability, but real value can happen in Bordeaux’s satellite regions such as Castillon.

Chateau Bellevue is a small producer we have followed for some time now; a family-owned concern I’ve had the privilege of visiting twice. The curiously-named “Cé Ma Cuvée’ is an abbreviated homage to the proprietor’s two daughters. He relates each to the character of a grape participating in this blend. Céline reminds her father of Merlot – or the other way around; pleasant and calm. I’m wondering if she’s also has the quietly “deeper” personality since Left Bank Merlot can provide this comforting aspect. “Ma” is short for “Marina,” identified by her father as “Tough, with a lot of character”. This personification is applied to the 30% Cabernet Franc presence identified in the nose with brushy brashness and in the mouth with a rustic finish of roasted herbs and spice. The “thorniness” of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc might be recognized. All of this “attitude” – deep/mellow and wild/robust - was preserved and enhanced by 18 months in (unusually) oversized American oak barrels.

This is the winery’s top cuvee, made from its oldest vines and only in the better vintages such as 2015. It is chunky and brawny at the moment but will soften with time. I’d personally gather up a whole stash of Bellevue Cé Ma Cuvée, checking in tonight and for the next 8-10 years. Like all good Bordeaux its best season of drinkability is wintertime, hopefully when the night is dark and stormy and the oven is sending out scents of roasted meats and root vegetables. Man, we could sure use some winter around here!

January 2017

A Rhone-Inspired Super Tuscan? Why not?
2015 CASADEI ‘Sogno Mediterraneo’ – Toscana, Italy

Ah, Tuscany! That bucolic land of ancient, cypress tree-lined estates, wild boars roaming the woods and
(often) headlining at local feasts, exquisite olive oil . . . Florence, Siena, Pisa, Montalcino, and - 0f course - the ubiquitous Sangiovese grape translated by such wines as Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile, Brunello, et al.

Those are the traditional images which persist to this day, but now there is embellishment. Some decades ago a wine producer recognized the market success of bolder wines such as Napa Valley Cabernet and French Bordeaux, inspiring new and unconventional blends. Red-fruited Sangiovese was now blended with more hefty Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and the like resulting in more potent, palate-pleasing and critical-acclaim-achieving wines. These broke the traditional winemaking rules for “Chianti” and “Brunello di Montalcino” and such, so the unofficial “Super Tuscan” name was applied to this new group of wines. Among the most famous are Ornellaia, Sassicaia, and Tignanello; red blends which might entirely omit Sangiovese in favor of the Bordeaux varieties. And here is yet another, newer variation on the Tuscan theme; a wine using neither Sangiovese nor any of the Bordeaux grapes. Instead, “Sogno Mediterraneo” by Casadei is made from 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache, and 20% Mourvèdre – all best known as France’s primary Rhone grapes. This is happening in the lesser-known sub-region of Suvereto, roughly 50 miles southwest of Florence and closer to the coast. We might never have heard of the wine without its connection to Sonoma’s Cline Cellars. Stefano and Anna Casadei met Fred and Nancy Cline in 2012. The two couples formed a nearly familial tie based on their mutual appreciation for wine innovation outside the cookie-cutter norm. Cline has long aligned itself with Rhone varieties like Carignan and Mourèdre in an industry where Cabernet and the like are more clamored for. With ‘Sogno Mediterraneo,’ the Casadei Family bucks their own local trend. With a mutual respect for the alternative, Casadei and Cline work together to represent this wine to the United States.

The wine itself: Red fruit sauce and roasted herbs pervade the scent and flavors, descriptors implying ripeness and friendliness - but this is no cocktail wine. Texturally, it insists on being a serious food mate. Roasted meats and stews, lamb, and ripe cheeses all resolve the chewy feel. That level of grip also enables cellaring, indicated by the bottle I opened Friday still tasting great on Monday. If a wine can so survive it can also thank you for a 5-8 year nap in your wine cabinet.

LOOK AROUND: Our price for this is very good – that’s the wine club difference!!

A Douro that Works
2015 QUINTA de FAFIDE RESERVA TINTO – Douro, Portugal

“A Douro that works?” Yes.

One of our self-imposed mandates is to represent all the world’s significant wine regions, insofar as our customers support the idea, with wine that is actually drinkable. Portugal’s Douro River Valley has challenged this over the years. The fortified dessert wine for which the region is most famous is a wonderful luxury, but not necessarily part of your everyday wine routine. So what about Douro’s dry reds? More often than not they’re too undrinkably gruff, gritty with earthy tannins. A sturdy sense of masochism and/or a heaping plate of linguiça are the only possible remedies, but few will work so hard to love a wine.

So it is with great pleasure that we can finally, confidently provide a dry Douro that WORKS. I tasted this in its unreleased form a whole year ago while paying my first visit to the visually-striking region. It’s finally here in bottled form, and we are probably its only California purveyor.

Here are three of the grapes often used in Port production – Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), and Touriga Franca – combining to function as a great red. The nose gives baked red fruit, as if bubbling up from a hot pie crust, along with a sweet earthiness. The palate honestly declares the region’s rugged schist-soils with a certain element of that characteristic “grit” but a saucy berry effect adds cheer to the experience. Your happified mouth won’t mind chewing on THIS Douro red!

That said, we do recommend you chew on some significant proteins to fully appreciate Quinta do Fafide!

December 2017

A Spanish Coup
2010 VINSACRO ‘Dioro’ – Rioja, Spain

You have a lot of ways to buy your wine. Certainly, the most romantic method involves being well-treated in the wine country itself – whether here or abroad – and loading up directly from the winery. Then there’s the undeniable convenience of grocery stores, the bottom-feeding of Costco, and the impressively advertised programs of BevMo and – now – Total Wines. Being included on your list of sources is obviously vital to our existence. We know we provide the asset of humanity and our selection is also pretty hard to beat - and we are constantly working on our pricing; many a TWS “fringe player” has become more than that upon realizing how competitive we strive to be.

- But there’s only so much competing we can or will do. Our selection necessarily includes some well-known names, but we’d rather be fairly exclusive with our set and thereby automatically “non-competitive.” We’d like to be the only place where you can find this Vinsacro Dioro, a producer unknown to nearly all of you but important to me based on two visits I’ve enjoyed at the bodega. “Dioro” is Vinsacro’s enticing yet sturdy reserve wine which garnered a 92 point rating from Robert Parker. It is meant to cost $40 in some markets far away from here. We did a deal to do better for you.

This producer bucks the trend by subjugating Tempranillo to #2 on the list of ingredients, which sometimes happens in the warmer “Baja” part of Rioja: 50% of this blend is committed to Garnacha (Grenache) along with supporting roles by Graciano, Mazuelo and (surprisingly for the region) Monastrell and Bobal. French oak was the aging vessel type. The rarity of this wine and its pricing: Guaranteed by The Wine Steward!!

Another Hard-To-Finder
2015 MARCHETTI ‘Due Amici’ – Rosso Conero, Marche, Italy

Many of you have attended the Italian event presented each July by our friend Tom Kelly. Tom’s company imports lots of great things - mostly from Italy - which are available year-round. In addition to this well-stocked inventory is a batch of smaller-production surprises Small Vineyards admires and also imports. Their quandary: “To whom do we sell these less-convenient little batches?” The answer comes in the form of a pre-arrival program. This importer, based on Tom’s advocation, chooses The Wine Steward to be its sole East Bay provider of these fringe specialties.

. . . of which ‘Due Amici’ is the latest to roll off the boat and into TWS. Here is a red based on Montepulciano, assisted by Sangiovese. Those names have Tuscan connotations for many of you. On that other, western side of the Apennine Mountains “Montepulciano” is a wine from a place by the same name. Tuscan Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is actually made from Sangiovese.

Ah, but we’re not in Tuscany, but on the Adriatic Sea EAST of the mountains. Here, “Montepulciano” is an actual grape variety just like Sangiovese – but different. Montepulciano makes a more purple-colored wine. Sangiovese comes in “red”. Montepulciano’s way of making you hungry is with tannins (like Cabernet Sauvignon). Sangiovese does it with acidity. Putting the two together actually moderates the effects of each. This is pretty darn friendly stuff as Italian wine goes; something some might actually drink on its own. Pizza and richly-sauced pasta dishes would be great here, too.

November 2017

We bought the rest
2014 DOMAINE des BERNARDINS – Beaumes de Venise, Rhone Valley, France

Come Hell or high water, I’ll be showing this place to a dozen or so Wine Steward friends next May. Just down the road from Gigondas, Vacqueyras, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the village of Beaumes de Venise is historically better known for its dessert wines made from Muscat. Kermit Lynch was the first to show us a red version based on Grenache, but this ancient-looking bottling from Bernardins wins on the merits of complexity and intrigue. Here is a Southern Rhone blend of 65% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 5% Mourvèdre, and 5% Grenache Blanc behaving – to my nose and palate - as if it might otherwise be from the NORTHERN Rhone. Even the darker hue suggests so.

Explanation: The southern Rhone villages including Beaumes de Venise are known for Grenache-based wines which more often express the “redness,” not the purple-ness, of the fruit idea. Kirsch, raspberries, and cherries are common descriptors for these. This Bernardins follows the local grape recipe, but behaves otherwise; appearing darker with a purple-brown balsamic cast, smelling darker with incense and olive tapenade, tasting darker with compelling licorice, cured meats, black cherries, and smoke. These descriptors are more often attributed to Northern Rhone wines. The reds from up there use but one red (purple!) grape – Syrah – and the less-sunny situation along with prevalently granite soils express a cool-weather version of the varietal that’s hard to duplicate. Now, Northern Rhone reds (and perhaps this imitator) aren’t automatically everyone’s cup of tea. We call such challenges “arrival wines,” which must be tried a few times in different environments before the “Hey, I get it!” light comes on – if it ever will. To those who are young in this learning curve, we sympathize but we don’t apologize; we’re doing our job here. The more inquiring wine mind will at least have its healthy sense of wonder indulged, with the most imaginative of you asking, “What should I eat with this?” Truly, this is a food wine, and whether or not my Northern Rhone allusion works for you, grilled lamb certainly will – as will a Burgundy-style glass.

Another Village, Another Wine
2015 BLACK SLATE ‘Vi de la Vila’ – Priorat, Catalunya, Spain (usually)

Many of the same folks who will accompany me in May to France’s Rhone region will add a few extra days to their itineraries so they can also see THIS remarkable place. We are a 1.5 hour’s drive south of, and a little inland from, Barcelona – and a whole world away from that cosmopolitan city based on a hotter / colder continental climate and a formidable farming situation. One is hard-pressed to locate a tractor in Priorat; such a convenience is of little use in this land of virtually no level ground. The local soil is less dirt and more mineral – an infertile slate so often remarked upon (and probably just as frequently cursed) it has its own name: Llicorella.

Historically, Priorat was a land left to but peasants, where a meager living might be scratched out of the steep, unyielding terrain. While grapevines have survived here for centuries the international renown for Priorat’s wines is but a few decades old. The local wine industry required the scrutiny of outsiders for its crop to be better respected. The nerve-instilling slate has always been there, the grapevines have always yielded a tiny but intense crop, but until recently quality winemaking was the missing link to Priorat’s new success. Importers such as Eric Solomon have had a huge positive impact on this scene, and ultra-wines (with ultra-prices) all of a sudden became the norm.

. . . Yet Priorat has thankfully experienced one more wine revolution: The emergence of a more affordable product. Ten years ago there was no such thing as $20 Priorat, but the everyday wine drinker can now savor the place on his or her own financial terms. Here, from aforementioned Eric Solomon, is one of a series of Priorat reds providing great value while still accurately representing the various neighborhoods of this unique wine realm. The village of Gratallops is thought by some to be the heart of Priorat. Certainly, the place is wonderfully smelled, tasted, and – most importantly – FELT in this bottling. Yes, the texture of this Grenache / Carignan / Syrah blend is the Priorat Difference, borne by a vital fourth ingredient, the Llicorella slate!

Indulge this flavorful yet nervy red with a boldly-flavoured meal. Grilled meats should do the trick!

90 points from both Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and International Wine Review, by the way!

October 2017

Two Looks at Tempranillo
2008 DEHESA la GRANJA by Alejandro Fernandez – Vino de la Tierra de Castilla y León, Spain

This wine stinks – at first!

Tempranillo is one of those wines subject to the quality of reduction. Is ‘stinky’ a QUALITY? Yes. The reason why you can enjoy this nearly-decade-old red is because it wasn’t over-oxidized during winemaking and barreling. All it needs now is a breath of fresh air to reveal its well-preserved nature. Swirl this for a couple minutes and the more mature yet fully intact smells and flavors of Tempranillo reward you for understanding.

It’s happening right here at my desk. The sense of ‘poop’ has left the building. Now I’m finding a nearly-Bordeaux-like panoply of sweet leather, stewed plum, dry thyme, and graphite in the nose. The palate is soothing and rich with dark fruit followed by serious acids and tannins. Address this final effect with food. In this part of Spain such wines would never be drunk alone. A favorite treatment would be lamb in one of two forms; a chop quickly grilled or a shank slowly roasted. Either has the capacity to ‘lubricate’ your palate and prepare it for this generous yet grippy wine.

If you’re a Spanish wine geek you might note this boldly rustic red’s resemblance to the Tempranillos of Toro and we’d applaud your observation: This vineyard resides just outside that appellation’s boundary. The great Alejandro Fernandez brought cuttings here from his famous Pesquera estate in Ribera del Duero. This less expensive real estate allows for a lower-priced wine value which often sees 90+ ratings from the likes of Robert Parker, while comparing with the more pricey places of Toro and Ribera del Duero.

Here is a true “wine club wine” chosen for those who read their notes and react to them. To review:

Point #1: Understand “Reduction”; why it is good and how to cope with it.
Point #2: Honor wines like this with the right food pairing.
Finally: Rejoice in your accessing a fully intact OLDER wine for a nominal price.

The flip side of Tempranillo
2015 PAGO de los CAPELLANES ‘Joven’ ‘Roble’ – Ribera del Duero, Spain

This wine is grown less than 50 miles from the “nearly Toro” described above. Once again, the grape at play is Tempranillo. So how is it a “flip side” of the former? Youthfulness.

This is a full seven years younger than Dehesa. ‘Joven’ translates to ‘Young,’ meant to tell you this is the winery’s less serious, early-released rendition of Tempranillo. ‘Roble’ is Spanish for ‘Oak’. Some ‘Jovens’ never see a barrel, so the additional term indicates this one did (five months in French casks). Like the Dehesa la Granja, Capellanes sports an abundant display of dark fruit. The DIFFERENCE of youth is a fresher version of fruit plus provisions of violets and just-ground coffee bean.

This was the best-selling wine at the Ribera del Duero / Rueda event held here earlier this week. Folks obviously appreciated its affordability but more importantly recognized how much wine they were getting for its low price. Of the two lamb treatments described above I’d choose the quickly-grilled chop for this, following my rule of thumb of addressing young reds with rapidly-rendered steaks and such, and doing older reds with slow-cooked (roasted or braised) proteins.

We’ve heard the wholesale price for this is rising soon. Our retail rate will have to reflect that with a hike of its own.

September 2017

We’re squeezing this in
2014 LUCA ‘Paraje Altamira’ MALBEC – Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: What a remarkable coup it is, your paying 39.99 for this month’s pair of bottles – and that includes the sales tax. I hope you believe we are doing well by you!

Let’s explore an idea: The Evolution of Argentine Malbec and its market. This wine type arrived here in full force barely two decades ago. Within three years of its introduction it had become known to all bargain-hunting wine lovers as a surprisingly affordable, big-impact dark red. This craze induced an Australian-Shiraz-style devaluation with different brands duking it out for market share and the bottle price dropping lower and lower. For a little while the quality of this “fighting varietal” remained intact, but Argentina’s wine industry couldn’t sustain the provision of its better fruit and newer barrels for its cheaper provisions. Fifteen years later: $10 Argentine Malbec ain’t what it used to be.

- And that’s okay, since this sends the cheapskates looking elsewhere and lets the serious wine lover look upwards again, wondering if there’s something beyond big dark fruit and generously-lavished oak to Argentine Malbec. This wine meant to cost $30 or so positively replies. You who smell your wine: Do it now. There’s more intrigue than just plain blackberry fruit happening here, certainly! How about the texture? This soothes the palate while exciting it. How about appeal to the intellect? This ‘Luca’ intrigues the mind with terroir chatter: Would a special neighborhood (Paraje Altamira) of an important sub-region (Uco Valley) of a significant wine place (Mendoza) of a great wine country (Argentina) have been discussed ten years ago?

. . . And the critics are also evolving. Ten years ago the kind of wine getting a 91-point Parker score might have cost half as much but would have declared a third as much character as this thoughtful beauty. Witness the new kinds of things said by the reviewers, per The Wine Advocate:

“There is a big jump in quality from the 2013 to the 2014 Malbec Paraje Altamira that matured in 500-liter oak barrels for eight months. There is much more freshness here, the fruit is a mixture of red and black and there are violets and some spices. The palate is juicy and soft with clean flavors that are easy to drink. The nose grows in the glass to become more floral. Delicious Malbec.”

Has Argentina’s wine scene scene moved past adolescence? This wine suggests so!

Another great 2015!
2015 DOMAINE de PIAUGIER – Sablet, Cotes du Rhone Villages, France

Having visited this humble winery in the little village of Sablet, once with Importer Charles Neal and once with a daughter, I have since recommended the experience to many of our Rhone-trotting customers. Sofie and Jean-Marc Autran are very personable and generous with their time and tastes, and the product is very good for the reasonable price. If you are headed in their direction I’ll put in a good word for you, and it’s also my hope that they will welcome a group of us from next May’s (sold out!) river cruise.

Sablet is just a couple miles down the road from Gigondas. Both towns share beautiful views of the dramatic Dentelles de Montmirail and are but a short drive from iconic Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Like all the neighboring villages including Rasteau, Cairanne, and Vacqueyras, Sablet’s most planted grape is the Southern Rhone workhorse Grenache. Perhaps “workhorse” is the wrong name, though, as “she” is responsible for the cherry charm in this wine. Pretty Grenache is responsible for 75% of this blend, and that component never saw a barrel, instead spending its pre-bottle days in the less oxidative environment of cool underground concrete vats (these are lined with fiberglass, by the way). The remaining 25% is devoted to Syrah which did see some wood, but most of that was used and thereby neutral in flavor.

While this wine should age well for at least five years, I believe it’s ready for action right now so long as you pair it with food. The endearing fruit and herbes de provence (“garrigue”) qualities, along with a delicate “snap” of tannins, definitely activate the appetite! My favorite treatments are grilled meats such as lamb, pork tenderloin, or chicken treated simply with olive oil, cracked black pepper, coarse salt, and a flick of dried thyme – or the whole herbes de provence ensemble.

We hope you enjoy this great wine from great people!

August 2017

Holy S---!!!
2015 CHATEAU DE SEGRIES ‘Cuvée Réservée’ – Lirac, Southern Rhone, France

Hoping this is more titillating than offending, I can’t help suggesting with a wink that you closely examine this bottle’s label. Have fun with that, and in the meantime I’ll describe the fun happening within!

Lirac is a village next to Tavel and across the Rhone River from Chateauneuf du Pape. This particular producer has long been important to us, providing a slam-dunk Rhone drink vintage after vintage. This is a small, family-owned concern with family ties to Mordorée, the winery featured in this month’s World Class Wine Club.

50% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Cinsault, and 10% Mourvèdre are your only ingredients, besides the clay / limestone soil and the Mistral-blown herbes. NO oak happens here; only large-format cement tanks are called upon for storing the pre-bottled wine.

Ah, but there’s ONE more “ingredient” making this one of the most deliciously sappy Segries Liracs we’ve ever brought in: Vintage 2015. Here is an ultimate example of the goodness of this particular year. We’ve been waiting since 2010 – maybe even longer – for this kind of thing to happen in our mouths. I strongly suggest you drink a bottle of this immediately with some thoughtfully-grilled fare. We predict it will make you as happy as the lady on the label! 92 points from Robert Parker

“BAM!” done right
2015 THORN-CLARKE ‘Terra Barossa’ Shiraz – Barossa Valley, Australia

Both of this month’s Wine Adventurer Club offerings were discovered by the same importer, Francis Kysela of Kysela Pere et Fils. To know that this wine finder is responsible for the bottle in your hand just flip it over: Like all the Kermit Lynch imports, there’s a very identifiable company logo to be found on the back label.

Fran’s finds have appeared on our shelves for years now. Whether a Kysela pick comes from France, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Germany, or – in this case - Australia we’ve come to expect an endearing fruit expression along with “truth of place.” That assurance of quality and value keeps us allied, and what also preserves a sense of grateful loyalty to this provider is the exposure he’s afforded me in the form of trips to Portugal, France (twice), Argentina, and Spain (twice as well). Many of the wines and associated tales I’ve shared with you over the years were accumulated this way.

On top of that: Nearly every year Fran hosts a grand tasting for industry members at his Winchester, Virginia warehouse. I’ve been lucky to attend this “Mondovino” affair no fewer than ten times. Dozens of the producers he represents fly in from all parts of the wine world to pour nearly four hundred different offerings (great beer and sake happen, too). Spending five or six hours under that warehouse roof has me tasting 135 of these on average and scribbling a note or two about each. These are reviewed and enlarged upon as I fly back to the Bay Area, and then I incrementally order my faves for our shelves, special events, and wine clubs such as yours.

Now, not every Kysela wine is a TWS preference. I get it: Different markets have different tastes and Fran aspires to appease them all. – So you worthy patrons have two levels of screening going on here. HE chooses lots of things which are good for lots of different people. Then WE choose from THAT selection per what we think most of YOU will like.

This Shiraz hasn’t decorated our shelves in many a vintage but used to be a frequent offender here. Thorn-Clarke does the rare job of delivering Barossa Valley generosity while barely containing it. The Wine Spectator awarded this 91 points, saying:

“Fresh earth, toasted cumin and black tea flavors are dark and dense, with black licorice and thick tannins forming the backdrop to blackberry and plum compote notes. Persistent on the finish. Drink now through 2028.”

To that I’d add, “Yum!” and “Nice find, Fran!”

July 2017

“Top ‘o the mornin’!”
2015 BODEGAS MAXIMO ABETE ‘Tres Partes’ GARNACHA – Navarra, Spain

It is 6:30 a.m. on Wine Club Friday and I’m just now starting to write July’s notes. (Procrastination always served me well when writing essays at Cal, though I wonder what might have happened had I started my projects earlier once in a while). I rarely write about the month’s twelve different wine selections without an open bottle of each on my desk. Deciding how to start July 2017’s long day at the keyboard is a no-brainer: Ever-approachable Garnacha will be my sunrise service.

The world’s most planted red wine grape is called “Grenache” in France, “Cannonau” in Sardinia, and – until recently – “insipid, color-deprived, slightly-sweet plonk only a blue-haired grandmother could love” in the United States. Why the American misunderstanding? American exploitation. For upwards of a century California’s Grenache vines were induced to produce well more than ten tons per acre, because they could. Fertile soils, optimistic pruning, and indulgent irrigation gave impressive yields of enormous clusters with barely-colored, thin-skinned berries. This crop’s final destination? An oversized bottle with – sometimes - its own handle: Plonk. White Zinfandel’s predecessor. Jug Wine.

In the Old World irrigation is often unfeasible or not permitted by local wine law. Grenache / Garnacha must struggle in poorer soils. Yields may occur at two tons per acre or less, and THAT’S when this grape has its say. Unlike Petite Sirah or Tempranillo, thin-skinned Grenache / Garnacha will rarely be intense in color, but it needn’t be pale pink and watery. Thoughtfully farmed, it does what’s happening in the bottle before you: A warm climate version of Pinot Noir, if you will. If you have a Burgundy glass, put it to work here. The broader bowl fully shows this red’s sniffy attributes. An enticing perfume of flower petals, fresh berries, and dried herbs rewards the patient swirler. On the palate refreshment is the delivery, especially welcome at this warmer time of year when red wine might otherwise be eschewed.

If you wanted to make a darker, richer wine while still capturing Garnacha’s red fruit charm you’d invite collaborators Syrah, Mourvèdre, and/or Carignan to the blend. That’s what happens in Priorat, France’s Southern Rhone, Australia, and many other Grenache-graced regions. – But it’s nice to know the grape unembellished once in a while; to anticipate prettiness, not pomposity. Chirpy briskness, nervy fruit, a flirtatious tongue pinch of nearly-harmless tannins . . . and a loyal friend of grilled pork tenderloin, this is an ultimate less-is-more wine experience, by my gage. Perhaps it’s fitting that this particular “solo act” comes to us from Spain’s Navarra region, neighbor to more prestigious Rioja. Want darker? Want richer? Uncork this month’s other bottle, the Malbec. Want unashamed delicacy? Get out your Pinot glass and stay here.

2015 KAIKEN ‘Ultra’ MALBEC – Uco Valley, Mendoza, Argentina

With no apologies, but a smidgen of concern for some of your preferences, last month we provided a particular version of the Malbec grape – French Cahors. While that wine required your thoughtfulness, this month we compensate with an Argentine no-brainer.

Malbec is popularly identified as one of the five primary red grapes of Bordeaux. However, that region represents it as but a minor player these days. Bordeaux’s temperamental climate was an un-ideal host for this variety with its susceptibilities to poor-cropping and mildew, and when much of its Malbec was destroyed by frost in 1956 it was largely replaced by more reliable Cabernet, et al. Today’s Malbec Old World stronghold is farther south in Cahors, last month’s sturdy, food-needy provision.

- But Argentina is the country embracing Malbec as its “national” grape. Its rapid rise to popularity in export markets can be credited to a more New World style of dark fruit affability. For the price, this Kaiken ‘Ultra’ is a very nice demonstration.

The color: A glowing purple/maroon. Plums, cardamom, and a certain evergreen sense of “forest” are easily identified in the forbearing fragrance. The mouth is full-bodied yet refreshingly “crunchy” - the trick to a big red keeping the palate engaged. Your tongue will react to this acid / tannin-driven delivery of dark fruit with a longing for protein. Is it any wonder that the Land of Malbec is also the world’s specialist in asado-style grilling?!

June 2017

Our Duty to YOU . . .
2012 CHATEAU HAUT-MONPLAISIR ‘Prestige’ Malbec – Cahors, France

Choosing the wines for your club presents a bit of a challenge, like the dilemma of which hat to wear. One of our “hats” is the mandate to bring you authentic examples of international wines. The other is our wish to indulge your preference: Over the years we have seen the general palate of your group more attracted to darker color, riper fruit, and heavier, richer textures. Sometimes these two hats are conveniently the same; authenticity and generosity can coincide, as with last month’s provision of Deóbriga Rioja. Many of you validated this by coming back for more!

But now we approach Cahors, a wine region historically known for more taciturn Malbecs which vaguely mumble about dark fruit but more loudly grumble with dry earthiness. The wines of Cahors are “true” in that they are faithful to place and local preference, but do they indulge the palate of a wine club member half a world away? Our hope is that you, we, and the wine itself can concede a little.

YOU must be true to your wine love, open-mindedly declaring, “Show me the whole world regardless of my personal preferences!” Every comprehensive wine book mentions the Southern French place Cahors. Are you curious enough to consider its virtues, and give it the time of day with the proper setting?

WE take it upon ourselves to advise you on that setting and tell you what to expect, and – primarily - to find you a good example of the type. Our contribution:

“Cahors” is the place. “Malbec” is the grape. Historically you’d only see the place name – not the grape - on the front label and you’d be consulting your wine encyclopedia for elaboration. Cahors is a wine region culturally influenced by its proximity to Bordeaux. It is also the home of foie gras and cassoulet, the hearty stew of meat and beans, both of which require a bolder, more chunky red for an accomplice.

You may wonder, “This sounds like a winter wine. Why are you showing it in the middle of a June heat wave?”

Good point. The reds of Cahors are more suited for cold, rainy nights, Edgar Allen Poe stories, and the corresponding, sturdy fare. – But we had to be opportunistic; this wine was just presented to us and will sell out before the leaves begin to fall and storm clouds gather. So we suggest an alternative use. Consider this wine’s stylistic kinship with the sturdy reds of Greece. Steal a page from that country’s cookbook: Grill up lamb sausages and find some Halloumi (a grill-friendly Greek cheese we don’t yet carry) to keep it company on the grate. Once plated, involve some olives, perhaps a mix of types. How’s that for a Mediterranean-style summer food solution?

Finally, I suggested that the wine itself must also make a concession, and this Chateau Haut-Monplaisir does just that by transcending the less attractive tendencies of traditional Cahors. If we’d shown this fifteen years ago it would have been a very different wine experience, one that probably shouldn’t have been allowed out of its homeland. Until recently most of the wineries in this less-advanced part of France repeatedly used bacteria-ridden casks, lacked temperature control, and omitted other modern winemaking practices which assure a more stable and well-preserved product. Once a wine only a Cahors grandmother could love, this place has finally conceded with a bit of modernization. Authenticity remains intact, but the funk is gone. Honestly-structured fruit can shine.

If you spent the time to read all of this I’d call you a true wine student, deserving to be stretched by an honest, place-representative wine like this Cahors. Hats off to you! - Jim D

Friendliness from Northern Italy
2013 ZENATO ‘Alanera’ – Rosso Veronese, Italy

Certainly you have heard of the great wine Amarone. Based on the Corvina grape grown near Verona, it is unique in its winemaking with the fruit, once picked, foregoing crushing and pressing until the clusters have dried for about 120 days. Not until January or February does this semi-dehydrated crop head for the fermentation vat. The result: A very dark, concentrated drink which costs a pretty penny due to the labor intensive process and evaporation of potential wine.

“Alanera” is made by an Amarone producer and utilizes a similar grape recipe: 55% Corvina, 25% Rondinella, 10% Corvinone, 5% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. It costs significantly less than Amarone because 50% of the fruit is treated conventionally (i.e. quickly and efficiently) by being crushed and fermented right after harvest. And what becomes of the OTHER 50%? It is allowed to dry - just like the Amarone-bound fruit but for about half the time. The result is what we often call “Baby Amarone,” a red exhibiting some of the enrichment of the far more expensive wine.

A deep ruby color invites you to indulge in a big sniff, rewarded with intense cherries, sottobosco, and sweet dark earth. The palate feel is generous and juicy with lively acidity. Fully ripe fruit and even a sense of chocolate happen in the mouth.

If the evening is hot, serve this at a cool cellar temperature and savor it with grilled pork. In the winter it’s a great mate for roasted meats. Enjoy!

May 2017

Two Sides to Every Story . . .

This is beautiful, based on your perspective. The Wine Spectator’s perspective? #52 on their annual ‘Top 100’ List, and a 91 point rating. Not bad for an under $20 Spanish wine, right?

But is it what you expect from Rioja?

Bright, lively, fun, juicy, vigorous, evocative of fresh cherries, herbs, campfire smoke, baking spices, orange slices, and raspberries . . . there’s a lot going on here and it all happens on a vibrant, tangy, youthful frame. This is certainly NOT traditional nor is it ageworthy, necessarily. La Montesa is a celebration of fruit and spice, with a Carpe Diem attitude of carelessness.

91 points? In the end that’s up to you, but we have loved this wine for years based on its whimsical, gulpable way. It is a great warm weather red, providing lift to the weight of bbq and otherwise.

By the way, while much of the vast Rioja region is devoted to Spain’s noble Tempranillo grape, this Rioja uses just 15% of that typical variety. Palacios Remondo is situated in warmer Rioja Baja where more democratic Garnacha (Grenache) prevails. This wine is 85% Garnacha, which explains its endearing charm.

Rioja’s traditional flipside
2011 DEÓBRIGA ‘Selección Familiar’ – Rioja, Spain

THIS is the other kind of Rioja. The traditional. The age-able. In fact, I’d say this 6-year-old wine isn’t yet in its prime. Certainly, it’s enjoyable now but this more classic style has a propensity for mellowing over a very long period. Drink some now, buy some for later, and buy some more for MUCH later!

Deóbriga is the work of a smaller winery and “Selección Familiar” is its name for an unofficial, proprietary category in their line of bottlings. Apparently it comes from the barrels deemed too good for the winery’s “Reserva” but also doesn’t meet the 12-month barrel aging requirement for that classification. While Reservas and Gran Reservas often spend two or three years in oak, this wine saw just 8 months in 80% French and 20% American barrels. Another point of interest: “Selección Familiar” is comprised of 80% Tempranillo and 20% of the native Graciano.

The shorter time in barrel means this wine saw less than the usual amount of air, as transmitted through the semi-porous staves – which asks something of you: Give it some more. Whether you drink this now or later, the wound-up beauty will unfold with a bit of decanting. The wine’s other request: Roasted lamb shank, if you’re up for the project!

April 2017

Give it air, time, or both . . .
2014 DOMAINE CORNE LOUP – Lirac, Southern Rhone, France

Three months ago I visited this winery in Lirac, across the Rhone River from more famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape. We tasted Corne Loup’s beautiful but not-yet-released 2015’s (all the ‘15’s in Europe will be beautiful) but I wanted to remember the experience sooner by getting this 2014 to you. As it turns out, the wine wants you to wait. It is formidably dark and inward right now, as Rhone reds go, but should loosen up given a little patience from you. Can’t wait? Just give it air and protein, and appreciate a heftier, darker-than-usual Southern Rhone red wine experience.

Why the grimness? Some of that is 2014, a vintage with more body and ripeness than troublesome 2013 but still less gracious with the syrupy kirsch we expect from a ripe Rhone. Structure is the consolation prize; I think we have something actually age-able on our hands here. Another contributor to the gutsiness of this wine is the cepage, or grape recipe. Many southern Rhone reds use about 70% Grenache (the charmer) and add in – perhaps – 20% Syrah (the darkener) and 10% Mourvédre (for complexity). Lirac producers tend to “up” the Syrah component in their blends, as this one does. The color readily declares this. So does the impact.

Finally, I think the winery has a certain “serious” way with its wines in general. Up until now all we’ve carried from Domaine Corne Loup is their Tavel. This is no wimpy rosé, but a significantly-bodied food version. It is also cellarworthy, and I don’t regret having several bottles of the 2015 vintage in the cooler downstairs. Is a Corne Loup “theme” forming?

At first pouring the aroma is murky with aspects of teak. Give it air - as we asked - and blackberries, raspberries, and roasted herbs will emerge. Savor the smooth, softly-rich entry on the palate then beware the grippy finish: Told ya so! Better get that pork tenderloin off the grill!!

The lost Bordeaux grape, done right!
2013 SANTA CAROLINA ‘Reserva de Familia’ CARMÉNÈRE – Rapel Valley, Chile

Here’s a new vintage of a wine we’ve shown your club before, and it nails it once again. Succeeding with Carmenere is a challenge, but success happens with greater frequency these days. Originally from Bordeaux, it was hardly re-planted there after the scourge of the root louse Phylloxera in the mid-1800’s. However, it got to Chile in the meantime where it was thought to be Merlot for over a century, and treated accordingly. Of all the Bordeaux grapes Merlot is the first to ripen in the early Fall. Later the Cabernet is picked, then Cabernet Franc, and so on. For a hundred years or so Carmenere was carelessly harvested along with its Merlot neighbors. The resulting wine? Exceedingly under-ripe with bell pepper green-ness and a burnt rubber eccentricity attractive only to the most gloomy of wine drinkers.

An ampelographer can be thanked for changing Carmenere’s fortune. One of these specialists who identify a variety based on the leaf shape and size finally made the correct identification in the 1990’s. Carmenere, finally recognized, began to be treated as a different-than-Merlot grape with inquiries into its particular needs. It turned out this “Lost Bordeaux Grape” requires a very long season to fully mature in flavor. It should be the LAST of the Bordeaux grapes to be harvested!

Barely a quarter century after this turning point we are seeing better, correctly ripened Carmenere. The green pepper of the past has modified to roasted red pepper, joined by black fruits, smoke, and a round palate feel.

Wine Spectator recently awarded this 90 points with the observation:

“Juicy and rich, with finely sculpted flavors of dark currant, red plum and boysenberry, backed by medium-weight tannins. Chocolate and spice details fill the plush finish, which features accents of dried green herbs. Drink now through 2020.”

We recommend Indian curry dishes or lamb as ideal partners. If you want to keep it simple, just serve it alongside a medium-rare ribeye!

March 2017

Southern love . . .
2014 ANTICO SIGILLO – Primitivo di Manduria, Puglia, Italy

Primitivo is genetically identical to our Zinfandel. That said, within that there are clonal mutations and – perhaps more importantly – a grapevine’s reaction to where it’s planted. Consider: Would the exact same clone of Pinot Noir perform identically when grown in two very different places? Wouldn’t climate, soil, and orientation apply its variations to the finished products? Doesn’t geographical separation encourage divergence? - And what of cultural consumer preference? Wouldn’t Italians with their tradition of wine at table invoke more liveliness compared with our aim for a more nummy, cocktail-ish Zin?

With these questions in mind let’s head for the heel of the boot . . . Puglia, that is!

This is a Wine Spectator Top 100 wine.

. . . and that publication reports, “There’s a rich, mouthfilling quality to this medium-bodied red, offering a velvety mix of spiced cherry, mulberry and herbed olive, with accents of mocha and graphite. Plush tannins show on the juicy finish. Drink now through 2021.”

I would also point out the sultry warmth of baked and dried fruit (dates, dried cherries . . .). The palate feel is broad and nearly lacking in focus, but if you chill this wine down to so-called “cellar temperature” it will find its center of brisk, food-craving acidity. I can imagine smoked pork chops performing brilliantly here!!

I got to visit another BdV producer in January,
So you’re bound to see ‘Bernardins’ soon!

The next of several 2015 Rhones!
2015 DOMAINE de DURBAN – Beaumes-de-Venise, Rhone Valley, France

Last month we showed you a “simply good” 2015 Sablet. Now let’s take a 12-minute drive south and east, passing through tiny Gigondas and Vacqueyras, to the just-as-unknown village of Beaumes-de-Venise. Like the places we just zoomed by, “BdV” makes red blends of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre but is actually more famous for its lightly-fortified, super-fragrant “Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise” dessert wine. Try some when we get it in, perhaps along with an apple and pear tart!

- But this is about the red: In our 17 years of wine retail The Wine Steward has shown no more than THREE different rouges from this little village, and the Kermit Lynch import Domaine de Durban was our first ever example. Their 1999 was the first to impress us with its heft and peppery kirsch per the very reasonable price. That wine cost no less than $16 way back then, so today’s slightly-hiked price isn’t all that severe, is it? Take this as a NOW red for its boldness and a LATER wine considering its ageability; that’s a lot of wine for your wine club price of . . .

February 2017

We’re lucky to bring this to you
2014 VALL LLACH ‘Embruix’ – Priorat, Spain

This tends to receive 90 or so points from the more credible critics every year, and the same folks tend to list it as a “$27” wine. As you can see by scrolling down, your membership numbers have enabled a deal to bring it to you for less.

Long a Wine Steward favorite, ‘Embruix’ is the epitome of Priorat for a lower-than-typical price. Priorat got expensive about fifteen years ago as it burst onto the scene and immediately seduced the worldly wine buyer with its international styling. Besides effective marketing, the lofty pricing is more validated by how desperately difficult it is to tend a grapevine in this region. Priorat is but an hour-and-a-half’s drive from mild-climated, cosmopolitan Barcelona – and a half a world away in weather and topography. Historically, only the poor would farm here in this extremely inconvenient, hot and steep-terrained place. Everything in Priorat happens on an incline, including the scraggly old Grenache and Carignan plantings whose roots deeply traverse the cracks of infertile slate in search of a modicum of sustaining moisture.

The heat insures ripeness, expressed by Grenache with framboise and by Carignan with a deeper, chocolate earthiness. The blue-grey slate known as ‘llicorella’ delivers a paradoxical ‘coolness’ to the scent and palate, and a very apparent mineral effect encouraging your visit to the grill for a lamb or pork project. It is not unusual for ‘international’ varieties to be invited into Priorat, at least as minor supporting roles. Such is the case with ‘Embruix’ (‘bewitching’ in Catalan): 42% Garnatxa (Grenache), 24% Carinyena (Carignan), 22% Merlot, and 12% Syrah.

Together, this quartet sings red flowers, damp rocks, kirsch, and sweet earth to the nose. Juicy red fruit plus the dissonance of unavoidable acids and tannins are the message for the mouth. As we said before, you’ll want to grill some juicy form of protein to go with this wine. Without that you may be in for a rather puckery experience. With the meat, you’ll see how food and wine pairings are meant to make each better than it would be alone.

You’ll be seeing a lot of 2015 from us!
2015 DOMAINE NOTRE DAME des PALLIÈRES ‘l’Olivet’ – Sablet Cotes du Rhone Villages, France

More than just a good red wine, this first of the French ‘15’s is symbolic, emblematic, and prophetic. Nearly all wines “French” will be more delicious than those from other recent vintages: This little Rhone red is just the start of what’s sure to be a long and flavorful provision from TWS.

In 2012 my daughter and I spent three nights at a good hotel in Gigondas. On one of those mornings I woke up, tied on my running shoes, and ran to Sablet and back. Sure, I run the very occasional half marathon, but these two wine villages just east of Chateauneuf-du-Pape aren’t very far apart. And yet, these three just-mentioned places are all represented in separate bottlings by Notre Dame and several other producers. Such a maker might also head three miles west for grapes from Rasteau, and southeast to Vacqueyras for yet another village bottling.

We say “Burgundy” parenthetically since some writers include Beaujolais in that region while others do not. Well, I would: Beaujolais is a southern extension of that place geographically and stylistically, and my approach to this wine includes a Pinot Noir-style glass and an anticipation of delicacy and graceful profundity. ‘Sounds like “Burgundy” to me!!

I tasted this wine in October and immediately declared it a wine club wine, hoping we’d see it before Thansgiving so you’d appropriately enjoy it with your turkey dinner. Shipments from France were delayed and it has only now arrived – just in time for your January rotisserie chicken or sausage dinner!

The Beaujolais sub-region of Burgundy (sorry, naysayers!) has a tiered wine quality system somewhat like the Rhone Valley to the south. The basic product is “Beaujolais,” with “Beaujolais-Villages” denoting a theoretical quality uptick. Then there’s the better stuffe, identified by neighborhood (Cru) names. There are ten such Crus in Beaujolais and I will now try my hand at remembering them all without consulting Wikipedia:

Cotes du Brouilly, Brouilly, St Amour, Julienas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Regnie, Morgon, Moulin-au-Vent . . . Damn! - I’m forgetting one, so to Wikipedia I go . . . Ah yes, the rarely-seen Chénas! Why all these names? Because each one of these little neighborhoods has the ability to project a slightly different image of the Gamay grape, depending on soil and exposure to the sun and so on. A Beaujolais geek (I aspire to be one but have a long way to go) would want to perceive these regionally-distinct images. So what’s different about Chiroubles? It’s the highest in elevation and possesses granitic soils (as do several others).

From what I’ve seen, Beaujolais is just as much about quality of vintage, and producer as it is about place, and that’s why we don’t presume. We TASTE, and we really liked THIS: I love the significant body of this selection. You can feel the granite construction or revel in the cherry fragrance or forget about the diagnosis and pull out that roast chicken from the oven and get to work.

January 2017

Braise it, Baby!
2010 ATTILIO GHISOLFI – Maggiora, Barbera d’Alba, Piemonte, Italy

750 cases of this wine were made, meant to sell for at least $25 per bottle. Inventory in the USA sat around unsold and we recently got the chance to buy all that remained for a lower wholesale cost allowing you a better rate. All of that is kind of boring but a necessary reminder: We are always chasing down flavorful value on your behalf.

What we have landed for you here is a 100% Barbera (the grape) grown in the single vineyard of Maggiora within the region of Piedmont in Italy’s northwest. (Preheat your oven.) If we’d shown you this very wine at full price two years ago you’d have witnessed more rosy florality and acidic nerve. That’s a young Italian Barbera projection, but this time around we’re giving you something more “cellared” and developed. (Pull out the cutting boards.) The wine has become more meaty / chewy with time, and the vivacious acids have settled down to sauciness. (Find the corkscrew.) This club experience is all about what good wines can become – if they’re good!

We encourage you to cook for this wine experience, as already implied. A forecast of heavy rain is preferred. Temperatures below 45 degrees. Clattering pots and pans. Sizzling onions and garlic in olive oil in one pan. Flour, salt, and pepper-dredged meat dropped into another for browning. Mirepoix. Parsnips. Polenta. A long, slow, aromatic braising . . .

To the table, where you’ll pour this: Savory scents of brown sauce and dried beef. Dried cherries. Dried rose petals.


It’s finally here
2014 JEAN LORON ‘Le Moulin’ – Chiroubles, Beaujolais, (Burgundy), France

We say “Burgundy” parenthetically since some writers include Beaujolais in that region while others do not. Well, I would: Beaujolais is a southern extension of that place geographically and stylistically, and my approach to this wine includes a Pinot Noir-style glass and an anticipation of delicacy and graceful profundity. ‘Sounds like “Burgundy” to me!!

I tasted this wine in October and immediately declared it a wine club wine, hoping we’d see it before Thansgiving so you’d appropriately enjoy it with your turkey dinner. Shipments from France were delayed and it has only now arrived – just in time for your January rotisserie chicken or sausage dinner!

The Beaujolais sub-region of Burgundy (sorry, naysayers!) has a tiered wine quality system somewhat like the Rhone Valley to the south. The basic product is “Beaujolais,” with “Beaujolais-Villages” denoting a theoretical quality uptick. Then there’s the better stuffe, identified by neighborhood (Cru) names. There are ten such Crus in Beaujolais and I will now try my hand at remembering them all without consulting Wikipedia:

Cotes du Brouilly, Brouilly, St Amour, Julienas, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Regnie, Morgon, Moulin-au-Vent . . . Damn! - I’m forgetting one, so to Wikipedia I go . . . Ah yes, the rarely-seen Chénas! Why all these names? Because each one of these little neighborhoods has the ability to project a slightly different image of the Gamay grape, depending on soil and exposure to the sun and so on. A Beaujolais geek (I aspire to be one but have a long way to go) would want to perceive these regionally-distinct images. So what’s different about Chiroubles? It’s the highest in elevation and possesses granitic soils (as do several others).

From what I’ve seen, Beaujolais is just as much about quality of vintage, and producer as it is about place, and that’s why we don’t presume. We TASTE, and we really liked THIS: I love the significant body of this selection. You can feel the granite construction or revel in the cherry fragrance or forget about the diagnosis and pull out that roast chicken from the oven and get to work.

Happy Thanksgiving?? Sure, I’m always thankful for you thoughtful wine clubbers!

December 2016

Sometimes “Slight” is Right . . .
2015 MONTE TONDO CORVINA – Veneto, Italy

Last month’s Spanish reds, Pasanau Priorat and Atalaya from Almansa, were handed to you with more courage. We know many wine drinkers judge their reds based on the visual impact of dark color and the satisfying effect of a big, muscular mouthfeel. Those two wines delivered on those merits. This wine – charming, coy, and evasive - refuses to conform.

Think of good red Burgundy or Cru Beaujolais as you approach Monte Tondo Corvina and eat with it accordingly. Serve this at cellar temperature (or a slight chill if the day is warmer) and match it with rotisserie chicken, turkey breast, or quail. Expect a quaffer - not a whopper - and all will be well.

Corvina is a significant grape in the Veneto, grown near the city of Verona. When dried for several months it plays the leading role in the great Amarone. To taste it on its own, “un-raisined,” is a rare treat. Flowers and citrus and botanicals and black pepper abound in the nose (try this in Pinot glass for full effect) and the palate feel is nervy and refreshing.

One final allusion may seal the deal for the wary. This is another provision of Tom Kelly’s Small Vineyards, as evidenced by the gold sticker on the bottle neck. Tom’s the guy in the hat who has adeptly shown you a great night of Italian wine for the last four Julys in a row. Imagine HIM eloquently describing this: You’re converted!

If Corvina’s for the Turkey, Bordeaux must be for the Roast!
2010 CHATEAU TEYSSIER – Montagne Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux, France

This may meet more winter wine expectations (though I’m tellin ya: It’s Corvina for the turkey!). There’s nothing like dark and solid, sometimes a little grim red wine to match the chilly and damp mood of this time of year (the happy holidays notwithstanding!). This is less for quickly grilled steak and more for the slow-cooked (braised) meats; whether short ribs, pot roast, or osso bucco. Garlic mashed potatoes? A small mountain, please. Wild mushrooms atop? Sil vous plait! Root veggies? A quandary: How to have parsnips without the rutabagas, the turnips, the carrots, the onions . . . Okay, mix ‘em up!

You get the idea. Bordeaux alone is a forlorn Scrooge of a wine (though I’ve been known to go there in my overstuffed chair). With the right company it relinquishes taciturnity and accommodates.

This is a rare find: A 2010 Bordeaux not yet sold out. Perhaps the best vintage of the last decade, 2010 furnishes all the fruit of the jubilant 2009’s and supplies structure to boot. Even at this $20 level you’re witnessing some seriously chewy wine guts on your palate, but there’s plenty of berry and blackcurrant fruit at play as well.

From Bordeaux’s Right Bank comes a Merlot-based impact red acting younger than it actually is with flamboyant cherries, freshly-turned dark, damp soil, and sweet leather. Juicy and simultaneously chunky on the palate; this wine knows where it’s from. It’s all a matter of knowing where to take it!

November 2016

As threatened . . .
2013 PASANAU ‘Ceps Nous’ – Priorat, Spain

Insider industry chatter:

I hate buying a glass of wine at a restaurant because I know how they work it. A typical eatery wants to pay for the whole bottle with the first glass sold. Most consumers don’t share my insight so they buy into this, but it bugs the hell out of Yours Truly so he more often just orders a Martini or a beer instead.

THIS wine appears (or did, it may now be off the list) as a BTG (“by the glass”) menu entry at Walnut Creek’s Parada, a good Peruvian restaurant. I have ordered many glasses of Pasanau there because, regardless of the distracting equation to which I’m privy, this wine says a lot for the money. Sometimes value is truly perceived by the palate!

Here is a blend of Grenache, Merlot, Syrah, and Mazuelo (Carignan) providing dark, plummy and caramel-y warmth for a terrific price. This amount of big, dark delivery is unusual for the type; Priorat of any kind normally costs more.

Also unusual is the significant critical acclaim for a wine at such a price. Wine Spectator weighs in with a 92 point rating, proclaiming:

“Savory and spicy notes of licorice, cigar box and cardamom frame a deep core of plum and kirsch in this expressive red. Firm tannins and balsamic acidity impart a solid structure. Drink now through 2023.”

Food pairing: If you’re not enjoying the delicious fare at Parada we suggest you put your grill to work and do skewers of marinated poultry and/or meats to complement this wine. – And buy the wine HERE to keep your BTG at a minimum!

We taste with our eyes
2014 LA ATALAYA del CAMINO – Almansa, Spain

I’d like you to pay special attention to the appearance of this wine as your pour it. It is red-black, impenetrably-saturated in density. It is remarkable. Then smell it, cautiously: Deep fruit and wheelbarrow scents happen abundantly. Now, a furtive sip: The idea of concentration remains intact with tobacco and stewed plums, and now it’s time to wonder if there are sausages on the grill or in the skillet!

15% of this blend from southeastern (“Moor-ish”) Spain is Monastrell, better known as Mourvèdre. That grape happens a lot down here. The larger, 85% component? A cross created in the south of France over a century ago: Alicante Bouschet, known here as Garnacha Tintorera. This is one of the world’s only red grapes containing red juice (nearly all others flow clear) and the resulting wine product is therefore incredibly impacted with color. I worked with Alicante Bouschet myself back in the 90’s at Livermore Valley Cellars. As many times as we ran this variety through the press I continued to be shocked by the color being expressed.

Alicante’s parents are Grenache and Petit Bouschet, another creation of Nurseryman Henri Bouschet (who like his name, apparently). You’ll find a little mixed into old vine Zinfandel vineyards here in California, and a bit in the South of France and even Tuscany, Italy. More of it happens in Almansa, Spain and surrounding environs. Here, it gets ripe enough to shake off its greener “stewed tomato” flavor tendencies to become more broadly appealing.

Enjoy this black, mouth-coating wine with food that’s correspondingly robust in flavor and protein content . . . Like I said: Sausages!!

October 2016

As lovely as the label . . .
2013 LA BUENA VID de MAS QUE VINOS – Rioja, Spain

We’ve shown you enough of Spain’s most famous wine type to demonstrate there are many variations of the concept. Rioja can be traditionally made: Tempranillo with long stays in American oak barrels. Alternatively, it can be a bargain joven, seeing nothing but temperature controlled stainless steel tanks before a very early bottling, meant to promote lively fruit-forwardness. From the southern part of Rioja it might even be based not on Tempranillo but on more “democratic” Garnacha (Grenache) for a nearly Rhone-like expression.

La Buena Vid, as I’ve been tasting it for several vintages, tends to be none of these. As its label suggests, it is not classic but (perhaps?) neo-classic. It uses 80% Tempranillo and 20% Graciano, the Rioja native I like to call “The Petit Verdot of Rioja” as it plays a similar blending role and contributes a mysterious, murky darkness. The vines are sixty years old and trained the old way, as head-pruned bushes. After a temperature-controlled fermentation it spent 14 months in USED French oak barrels to keep the more traditional new wood flavors at bay. It is comfortably mouthfilling, and becuase the 2013 Rioja vintage was a cooler one there is acidic nerve happening as well.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate admired this with a 91 point rating and the remarks:

“. . . it has red rather than black fruit, and is obviously young with some lactic aromas that need a little more integration. The wine has a very fresh palate that combines the natural acidity of the Graciano with the character of the fresher growing season. This is very expressive and drinkable, really pleasant.”

While I often recommend lamb with Rioja, why not do a winter stew this time? I know I’m in the mood!

Fasten your seatbelts . . .
2013 ACÚSTIC – Montsant, Spain

We are taking you to a donut-shaped wine region about 90-minutes’ drive southeast of Barcelona, and a world away in appearance. This is hot and rugged country with hardly a flat surface; you’d never know you were one coastal range away from the placid Mediterranean coast. The soils here range from clay to quartz to “licorella,” a blue grey slate which predominates in neighboring Priorat (the “donut hole” within Montsant’s “donut”).

Acústic is meant to portray the “sounds” of these soils through their vines and resulting wines. While slate is certainly felt and even smelled here, another feature is especially expressive in this Catalan red: The Carignan grape variety, locally known as Carinyena, represented as 70% of this blend. Garnacha (Grenache) is the other player at 30%, known for adding raspberry lift and charm. - But back to the main player: Carignan is a known bruiser. Its rugged expression is a liquid reflection of the challenging Montsant topography. Carignan delivers brash power and guts to a Catalan or Southern French blend; the bass notes; the gritty, grimey underside. The way to address this bullying wine expression is to stand up to it. Counter those intense flavors of dark fruit and earth with big, muscular proteins. Meat off the grill is the idea!

This 2013 is not yet rated, but the former vintage of Acústic received an impressive 91 point rating from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

September 2016

We’re kickin’ it!
2013 TENUTE LUCE DELLA VITE ‘Lucente’ – Toscana, Italy

The concept of Luce, of which “Lucente” is an alternative project, was born in the early ‘90’s, co-inspired by Vittorio Frescobaldi and Robert Mondavi. As we all know, the Mondavi Empire as it once gloriously was is no more, but the Luce Ideal perseveres and scions of each family remain involved: Lamberto Frescobaldi now controls the brand’s destiny and Robert’s son Michael Mondavi is its importer to us.

We are pleased to point out that profit-paring Wine.Com’s price for this is 24.99. Ever-aggressive K&L Wine Merchats has “Lucente” for 19.95, with no further discounting. Apply YOUR wine club discount to our rate and you’re paying a mere 18.89 for a wine made in Montalcino by a famous Brunello producer.

Most importantly, we’re always doing our best to bring you real wine value. Beyond the very nice price we think our obsessive wine tastings have yielded you a lovely red here. This combination of Sangiovese and Merlot, aged twelve months in mostly French oak, delivers a beautifully-colored expression of pure fruit. Elaborating on that: The nose has showy blackberries and morello cherries, plus damp earth and a cooling graphite sensation. Aired out a bit, Lucente starts to reveal the local sotto bosco (underbrush). The mouth is juicy with citric attack and simultaneously “comfortable” with sweet, early dark fruit. Tuscany and its key grape Sangiovese make themselves felt in the mildly grippy finish, and the slice of pizza currently on my desk is capably resolving that.

This can be enjoyed now with proteins of all kinds or be held for a few years to reveal dried flowers and earth, and a softer feel. We suggest stocking up on this wine in order to witness Lucente in all its beautiful phases – and to appreciate true wine value.

Give it lots of air . . .
2014 DOMAINE de la VERDE ‘Prélude’ – Vacqueyras, Rhone Valley, France

Welcome to Rhone 2014! This is our first provision from a very good vintage and you should look forward to several more. My early impressions of ‘14’s wines: Honestly-sized and traditionally flavored. By contrast, the Rhone Valley’s workhorse grape Grenache gave winemakers major fits in 2013, and nearly every rendition portrayed a less-than-friendly green streak. Let’s be grateful for everything being in the right place one vintage later!

Coming to a bottle of Vacqueyras – if you’ve done so before – has you anticipating a $22+ bottle price and a certain amount of fruit weight and – often - some saddle leather qualities borne by a certain yeastie-beastie named brettanomyces. This microbial invasion can happen anywhere, but seems to happen in Vacqueyras at a much higher rate, as if the whole village is accommodating the bug like some preferred local Pokemon.

THIS rendition surprises with a “weight” that’s lower than usual; de la Verde is more brisk than dense. I’ve had a bottle open for three or four days and rather than reprimanding me for the abuse the wine appears to be THANKING me for the extra air. “Saddle leather”? This winery must have cleaned up and kicked that alternative, only sometimes-welcome, alternative yeast out of the place. Finally, what about the anticipated $22 rate? Nope: Another nice surprise.

If ‘de la Verde’ isn’t as unctuous as the Vacqueyras experience you’re more used to, it is also microbially “cleaner” AND much lower in price. Our pal Charles Neal tracked down this new discovery and we’re pleased to be among the first in the USofA to carry it.

We recommend smoky and charred proteins straight off the grill as accompaniment!

August 2016

Let’s give you the dark stuff . . .
2013 MENDEL MALBEC – Mendoza, Argentina

Malbec is certainly known to all of you. Though technically a Bordeaux variety - and most advocated varietally by France’s Cahors region - many became aware of Malbec’s potent, dark message via the interpretations of Argentina. Would you have known of it fifteen years ago? I doubt it.

Argentine Malbec’s rise to popular acclaim has been rapid; too rapid in some ways. Recognizing a wine with American crowd appeal and eager to exploit the fad, large production leading to sub-par quality predictably happened. Latecomers to the wine type are unaware of what $10 Malbec USED to taste like, before the wood chips and flavor extracts arrived in Mendoza.

This wine is certainly not $10, but it remembers the truth of Argentine Malbec. Fragrant with grimy coffee grounds, fresh asphalt, and reluctant blackberries, your nose tells your mouth, “Your turn!” The texture is the tell: A nearly Cahors-like set of tannins supports the ripe fruit, making Mendel anything but the sloppy grocery store type. This is significant Malbec, built for meat and / or cellaring.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate agrees with a 92 point rating and the remarks:

“The 2013 Malbec is produced with the grapes from an ungrafted vineyard planted in 1928 in Mayor Drummond in Luján de Cuyo at some 980 meters altitude and another one in Perdriel. After hand-sorting the grapes, the wine macerated in 50- and 80-hectoliter tanks for three weeks. It matured in a combination of new, second- and third-use French oak barrels for 12-14 months. You feel the hand of a winemaker in this textbook Malbec. It should go an extra mile in bottle with the freshness of the year. 60,000 bottles produced.”

Smell the fun . . .
2015 ALLEGRINI – Valpolicella, Verona, Italy

When you announce to your friends that you’ve just opened an Italian wine does one of them dive under the table for cover, another suddenly claim an Italian wine allergy, and the other flee the room shrieking hysterically? Italian wine can do that to those who have yet to EAT with the wine type. Meant not as a solo cocktail but as a reciprocating mate for food, some folks just haven’t gotten that yet!

For those rookies there is northern Italy’s Valpolicella (that’s the name of the wine region near Verona). Here, the grape varieties Corvina, Rondinella, Oseleta, and other rather un-California types thrive and combine to make a very internationally famous wine called “Amarone”. Heard of it? Allegrini and its Veronese neighbors make it, and from the exact same grape varieties they also make THIS. Amarone sees a different treatment of course, with the grape clusters being dried for several months before crushing and fermenting. Made more traditionally, “regular” Valpolicella shares the juicy friendliness of its far more expensive counterpart and – frankly - I’d rather drink five bottles of THIS instead of one bottle of the $80 alternative!

If I down-sold Valpolicella’s authenticity by promoting the casual consumer’s attractivity, you purists should return to the conversation. This wine is authentic and place-correct. Its fragrant perfume of frantic cherries and sweet meats – plus the endearing citric juiciness - have popular appeal of course, but we “thinking drinkers” are happy to participate: This wine also has the “smarts” of acidic freshness and tannic structure.

Let THEM happily indulge, cocktail-style. WE will eat with this!!

July 2016

Supple, Suave, Elegant . . .
2010 VIVANCO CRIANZA – Rioja, Spain

We have shown you more “stupendous” Rioja with darker color and more obvious oak treatments but none have dipped this far in price. Vivanco is more modest in heft than some, yet satisfies by the whole glass. About five minutes into the experience of this wine you’ll realize here’s yet another example of wine not having to be big to be good. It knows its role like good Chianti from Tuscany, the Sangiovese-based red inherently medium-bodied and meant to mate with a good meal rather than overwhelming it.

Rioja Crianza’s aging requirement: A minimum of twelve months. In Vivanco’s case, sixteen months of napping in used French and American oak barrels were afforded this 100% Tempranillo. Because of the older barrels this longer period added no additional oak flavor; it only served to further soften the wine with a little more oxidation (Tempranillo depends on that). The result: Aromas of damp leather, moist tobacco, graphite, and smoky cherries leading to a palate of juicy citric liveliness and plummy plushness.

Wine Spectator Magazine calls this a $21 wine, awards it 90 points, and reflects:

“This plush red shows plum and blackberry flavors, ripe and sweet, with vanilla and toasty notes. The light, firm tannins and juicy acidity keep this lively. Fruit-forward yet balanced, in the modern style. Drink now through 2019.”

We like it, too – for less!

The Final Vintage of an Intriguing Beauty . . .
2008 MARCHESI di GRESY – Monferrato, Piemonte, Italy

Do you have a Pinot Noir glass? Preeminent stemware producer Riedel would call that its “Burgundy / Barolo” stem, suggesting it’s the perfect set of acoustics for not only Pinot but Piemonte’s Nebbiolo grape. With its more pale color and – when aged - sultry potpourri and strawberry scents, Nebbiolo fascinates both nose and palate especially when singing from that glass shape.

. . . So let’s start there with this 8-year-old red. Here’s a great reminder of what good wine will give you with a little patience. I’m talking about the time we waited to open it (fortunately, the winery kept it for us until now) AND the recommended practice of smelling it over and over again over a long, thoughtful period. Poured at my desk a half hour ago, this showed dusky/musky qualities at first. Incessantly swirled and revisited, I’m now discovering uncloaked fruit and chocolate. In the mouth the wine has widened and become more supple, whilst remaining juicy with endearing, mouthwatering acidity. Roasted and braised meats, along with mushrooms, polenta, risotto, and soft, smelly cheeses would all have their flavors enhanced with this alongside.

From the land of Nebbiolo’s more majestic examples – Barbaresco and Barolo – comes something with a similar effect for far less; yet another treat which needn’t be “big” to deliver intrigue and profundity. This is Marchesi di Gresy’s final bottling of this particular wine, and we took a large position on it hoping you’d order more (please do – we had to order about 8 extra cases to get you a better price!!).

By the way, this Piemontese beauty isn’t made of Nebbiolo. . . . Remarkably, it is 100% Merlot.

June 2016

When Shiraz works!
2013 RUBUS SHIRAZ – Barossa, Australia

Fine wine has its market trends and Australian Shiraz has certainly felt this. Before consumers were identifying the value of inexpensive Argentine Malbec they were reveling in the ripe fruit delivered by Shiraz from Down Under. Money followed money as investors bought in. Cheaper and cheaper versions arrived on our shores, all competing for the best bang for the buck – and the cutest critter on the label. The wine – and its quality - saw a devaluation unparalleled by any other type. The once-wowed consumer burned out on this newest invasion of uninspired Aussie reds which were paradoxically overripe yet green with acidification. The Shiraz market dramatically tanked.

While it’s not our main mandate to rescue the reputation of once-credible, now-maligned wine types, it IS our job to point out quality where we detect it. It happens here, in a more rare, fully functional Shiraz. What’s my meaning? Barossa Valley Shiraz is never shy; it is, by character, generous. Ripe fruit is an expectation, a given. In the case of this Rubus, functionality happens because the texture agrees with the flavor. Absent is the clashing limey-ness exhibited by those grocery store “critter label” Shirazes. Dark fruit, along with a delicate dab of Barossa’s intrinsic menthol (think chocolate mint) is supported with a gracious mouthfeel.

Why did everything go right this time? A quality producer, better vineyards, and a great selector of wine all contribute. This is actually the product of Thorn-Clarke, whose reds nearly always succeed at giving you big fruit that’s not stupid, and their vines are better-tended. “Rubus” occurs on several different bottlings from all over the world, but each is the carefully selected “negociant wine” of Master Sommelier and Importer Fran Kysela. “Rubus” is Kysela’s own stamp of approval, whether you see it on a Pinot Noir from Marlborough or a Napa Valley Cab.

Wine Enthusiast Magazine also endorses with an “Editor’s Choice” 92 point rating:

“Rubus is a label for wines selected by the fine American importer Fran Kysela, MS. The 2013 is a full-bodied, velvety-textured Barossa Shiraz, offering a rich, luxurious mouthfeel. Cedar and mocha notes are apparent, but there’s ample underlying plummy fruit and a long, plush finish. Drink now–2020.”

Kysela recommends you enjoy his selection with lamb shank, Osso bucco, beef steak or roast duck. Knowing this gourmand personally, I can see him trying all of those in one sitting. Kysela tries everything!

Finally . . .
2014 KASTEELBERG PINOTAGE – Swartland, South Africa

I just did a Google search for “Image / Disgusting Pinotage” and the photo above appeared as one of the offerings. Yep. My own image contributions for the topic would have included a tin of BandAids and a smoldering refinery. Starting a positive wine write-up with such negative suggestions is bad wineselling mojo, but let’s be honest about this: How many good Pinotages have you ever had?

This South African grape’s poor batting average provokes another query: Should this cross of Pinot Noir and Cinsault created less than a century ago be allowed to exist?! Shouldn’t we rip it all out and put us out of its misery? And now you’re asking: “Why does The Wine Steward feel compelled to curse me with a bottle of a classic non-performer?”

Because we found you an exception. Unlike other examples produced in the gazillions of cases (who drinks all those??) this is a far more finite 550-case lot. After a three-day cold soak the fruit was carefully fermented with temperature control, and the young wine was then moved to one-, two-, and three-year-old barrels for a 1-year nap. This was shown to me at Importer Fran Kysela’s grand Mondovino industry tasting event at his Virginia warehouse. I attended both sessions (one week apart) this time around and tried over 250 different wines between the two. From the Kasteelberg I could sense both of Pinotage’s parents. Pinot Noir was evident in the medium body and Burgundy-like earthiness. Lesser-known Cinsault (a minor Rhone grape, and vital to Provence rosé) chimed in with Asian spice and plum. I knew we finally had a club wine representing Pinotage.

Wine & Spirits Magazine confers 91 points on this affordable, elegant yet slightly rustic red saying:

This emphasizes the cinsault parentage of Pinotage in its bright, savory red fruit. It feels cool and clean, finishing with zesty fruit-skin bitterness, the kind of friendly tannins that will play well with a range of charcuterie."
- Wine & Spirits Magazine (February 2016), 91 pts