Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Canary Islands

I had a research meeting the other night.  While this entails meeting with my research partners and talking about p values, regression analysis and variables, it also generally involves delicious food and drinking.

We met at a tapas place in Temescal that I've not had great success with on the past several tries.  The wine list, of course mostly Spanish, is fun and quite good, but the food hasn't wowed me.  This time, I had a completely different experience and I don't think it was the wine talking...

The food was fantastic, I'm guessing the menu is just been large enough that I've gotten rather unlucky in what I've chosen to try.  Ginny suggested a wine she loves- from the Canary Islands.  We got a bottle and I have to say, it was one of the most unusual wines I have ever tasted.  My tasting notes said "Ash" "Acid" and "Structured tannin" but the ash was what really hit me on the nose.  Unmistakeable and very much a signature.

The Canaries are seven small Spanish islands situated just over 50 miles off the coast of Africa, in the Atlantic ocean.  They are volcanic, and a very strange place to grow wine.  Each of the vines need to be grown in a hole, protected from the elements, and often on steep, carved terraces and all in volcanic soil.  Consequently, they taste just like their sea-salted leaves and dark, smoky soil.  I remember tasting a cab from up in northern CA at a tiny vineyard when that vintage had been grown during pervasive wildfires that were plaguing the Sierras and the smoke was intense and hit you right up front.  Different from that, these wines offer the distant memory of smoke embedded inside of something much more complex but when you say the word "volcanic" you can't help but think "that's exactly it!"

Canary Island wines were almost impossible to find here in north america, but they are creeping in slowly and getting snapped up fast thanks to some easing of distribution.  If you ever find yourself able to try one, you're in for something quite unexpected.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Wines of Washington

I found myself up in Seattle again this past week for a conference.  The conference kind of sucked, but that was fabulous because I was able to blow it off without remorse and head outside to do other things.  Among them, wandering around down by Pike Place Market, was a tasting room.  I stumbled by a modern-looking tasting room on a quiet Friday afternoon and decided to stop in.  I didn't have any of my industry cards on me, but decided to just check it out anyhow.
I'm glad I did.
Lost River Winery is my favorite kind of place:  family run, local (all Washington) grapes, teeny production, high quality wines and they don't distribute.  And even better- I think they're under-charging for the wines they have.

I came in, looking a little nuts with blue dress pants, sneakers (my feet were killing me) an awkward shirt and a big coat.  I sat down at the bar and the man behind the counter got me a glass.  He was playing Leonard Cohen overhead, apparently he was playing in Seattle that very night!  So, good music and a nice vibe going on.  Something about ghosts was the discussion with a woman named Karen who was  chatting with the man behind the bar.  Karen managed to latch on to me and chat away for the hour I ended up spending in Lost River's Tasting Room that afternoon...  I would have rather talked wine with the tasting room man, but Karen was very...  persistent.

We started with the Pinot Gris.  Teeny production, and $15 a bottle.  If you like a pinot gris, you'd like this- it had nice, balanced acid and was light and crisp.  Of course we all have friends who drink whites on summer afternoons and this would be an easy drinker with friends on the deck.
Next, we went to their "Rainshadow": a Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blend that was surprising and lovely.  It had a lot of acid, but in a very good way.  It bit you back just a little bit, had oak overtones and lingered a bit on the finish.  I could smell Mount Rainier in there somewhere- our tasting room man said "Semillion grows perfectly in Washington."  It apparently does, because you can taste Washington in the bottle...

Next up, they make a Nebbiolo- it wasn't on the tasting menu, but our host poured it for me as he had it open.  I was glad, I really wanted to try it.  Very Italian, traditional tasting!  A translucent, red but dirty red color, it had some barnyard on the nose.  The mouth was all nebbiolo, though- fruit forward and velvety tasting.  Finish was not long, but faded nicely in the mouth.  Much more like a traditional Nebbiolo than a CA nebbiolo- CA wines have that Uber-Jammy fruit that you can cut with a knife- but this is not at all that style.  Much more traditional, and I liked it.  A lot.  $26

Next I got to try the Walla Walla Syrah: yes, made from grapes from Walla Walla and it was what you expected from a Syrah.  The color is intense, deep, opaque purple and the nose is rich, jammy and fruity.  On the mouth, it doesn't disappoint either:  a big Syrah.

Western Red was only $17 a bottle and was one of my favorites on the menu.  You want this wine on a weeknight.  You want to nurture a glass of it in front of a fire with Monday Night Football on TV and your dog snoring at your feet.  It's easy to drink- almost too easy to drink.  It's a medium bodied blend of Cab, Cab Franc, Merlot and Malbec.  Oh, yeah.  Best value on the menu.

The Cabernet was mostly all Cab with just a splash of Merlot and Cab Franc (10 & 5%).  It was what you want from a Western Cab:  big, fruity, jammy, luscious.  And it delivered.  I sipped it slowly and carefully, it's a mouthful with a long finish.  $25- crazy.

There were a few others on the menu but I didn't press, as it was already getting long in the afternoon and I wanted to be gone about 20 minutes ago- but one last wine for dessert...

2010 Semillon late harvest:  oh, worth the wait.  $17 a bottle it's a steal.  It's not at all what you expect from a late harvest in a refreshing way.  It's devoid of the cloyingly sweet over the top honeydrop you expect, but it's a little acidic, and less sweet than you're expecting.  But still a desert wine that feels like you're eating that sip.  I enjoyed it.  A desert wine for people who don't love desert wines.  or just an unexpected twist.

What more would there be to love??  A family-run and owned winery that makes finely crafted, teeny production wines that you can only get at the tasting room?  Love.  Of course.  it had to be love.

Flock there.  And savor.  You will.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Albarino: a new white in my flight

I went to a place in Temescal tonight for a research meeting (yes, yes, we did get some work done too) at a place I rather like for its odd ambiance:  Marc49.  They have a great wine list, and of course I love small plates to share.

They have a couple of flight options- actually, an interesting concept in flights- you can pick 3 for $11 or 4 wines for $14 and in any flight you put it together yourself.  So, I had a large wine menu and a flight to put together.  I'm a fan of theme flights, particularly linear ones so you can get a side-by-side tasting.  Anita got 2 whites and a red, and I went for an "Old World" Theme with one white and three reds.

The white I chose was a Spanish "Albarino" a varietal which was new to me.  Like many wines, the exact origin is hard to pin down, but it's an ancient French (Rhone) varietal that the Cluny monks probably brought to Spain in the middle ages.  It's generally made in Spain and Portugese wine production, and used as a blender.

What I was struck by was its nose first- very fetching, it's enticing, crisp and clean and with pepper, and  a faint floral backnote.  On the palate, it was surprisingly big-bodied for a white.  On the palate, it was amazingly acidic- sure, I was having ceviche as a small plate, but the lime I tasted in there was really something.  Ginny and Anita asked how it was, and all I could say was "wow, that's super acidic."  Crisp, clean, super acidic, and a short finish.  The body is surprisingly large when it's in the mouth, although my varietal chart puts it pretty much middle in the body taxonomy "medium" and high on acid.  It was quite nice.

Just for fun, in the rest of my Old-World flight, I went with a Tempranillo made in Argentina (okay, but I think of tempranillo as a muscley-grape) and  this was light with no umph.  Dirty, though, and true to old world style, you can taste the production in the wine as much as the wine itself.
Next, Anita got a Spanish Barbera that was also light, fruity, very very light on the barnyard and good, but light.

My next was a standard Cote-du-Rhone blend that was a real pleaser for Anita.  It was a 2010, super easy to drink, you could put half a bottle of that away before you even blinked.  Easy to drink.  Well blended, not much on the nose and a limited finish, but pleasant enough.

The last in my old world flight was a gamble:  they had a blend from LEBANON on the menu (do you love Marc 49?  Oh, yes you do!)  that was Cinsault, Syrah and Cab.  I liked it- didn't love it.  But it was not old world at all.  Not al all.  Very new- world tasting, fruit forward, bigger in body and higher alcohol much like  we in CA prefer.  Well blended, mostly, although you can pick out the cinsault and the syrah themselves.  I tried to imagine the cab alone but couldn't.  It had the spice and pepper you want from Cinsault- the velvet, the smoothness, and I think this was really enhanced with the Syrah, which of course is going to be adding your big fruits.

Overall, great wine, greater company, and terrific food.  And what do you know?  A cool white I never even heard of.  And a new varietal- if the monastic community were instrumental in its development in the middle ages, of *course* I'm going to love it...  This week, go try a Albarino folks.  You'll be surprised, at least.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Back to Paso...

But this time there was a high-tech DSLR camera and a meteor shower involved. We decided not to camp (I wasn't the one being a wuss) and "roughing it" in nature turned into a need for being in the middle of nowhere to avoid light pollution, so we stayed at The Tree House, a little guest suite they rent way out in the hills at Twilight Cellars Winery.

Exiting the freeway at the familiar highway 46 West, I turned onto Anderson Road to my Paso Faves. Directly to Caliza we went. Nice tasting this time, the room was vacant except for us.  
Pouring their usual Rhone White blend "Kissing Cousins," the 2010 vintage, which was delicious, crisp, citrusy. Mostly Viognier, with some Rousanne and Grenache Blanc this time round. Then the 2010 Sympatico (tempranillo and grenache) was nice and dry, with a firm nose of the terroir one wants from a more muscly tempranillo.
On to the 2010 Cohort: a robust, jammy blend of syrah (55%), petite syrah (20%), primitivo (20%) and a splash of grenache (5%). Estate bottled, another Chronicle Wine Competition Gold Winner- it's estate grapes, with great fruit, deceptively high alcohol content (15%!), and of course Caliza's signature terroir both on the nose and palate to finish it out. Round, balanced, jammy, fruity but with hints of the *very* good side of the barnyard. I love this place!

2010 Syrah- also amazing and another Chronicle Gold winner- it's not *quite* the 2006, which was just, gosh... orgasmic. This is another winner, however, for all of those who want a serious Syrah to sink their teeth into more than drink in little sips like wussies. Great body, more rogue tannins than structure, and the signature earth and all that amazing body you want from both Caliza and Syrah made here!

Nobody knows me without Larry, and without Charmey. We came down twice a year and they all know who I am when I walk in with Larry and the Pug, but this time it was just me, with an unknown guy. I love Brett, and I love a Designated Driver, but he's bored as he doesn't drink, and I do prefer to share my hedonistic enjoyment.

We went next onto Booker, who were still open (they sell out early every year)- but left after even debating about walking through the door at all. You feel a little bit of your soul get sucked out every time you walk into their uber-sleek tasting bar with their 20 something plastic breasted, gorgeous blonde models pouring, with the clientele being their peers. Hipsters- people with 80,000$ cars and high heels trying to walk on tiny gravel, men who make fortunes and women who look good on their arms. I was debating about stopping at all, but when I was accosted with the usual "scene" coupled with poor service, we walked right back out and went to familiar territory.

Midnight Cellars is one of my 3 wine clubs, and I love them. We were, as we often are, the only folks in the tasting room upon arrival. No new vintages bottled for the wine club since my last shipment (ah, well), but I did a full tasting and put together a custom case for myself with many upgrades this time. Always jammy wines, with higher alcohol content (they usually are about 14.5%), and this very subtle attention to old world Italian technique that's evident in the product I can never put my finger on, but is signature Midnight- we had a typically good time shooting the breeze with the new tasting room staff. Alas, Nicole went her way- she will be missed every time I go down there.

Case on hand, we went to my other local-boy-done-good Fave, Grey Wolf. It was, as it often is in there, packed, so I had to elbow my way into the counter and make a space to taste. We got a good pour, if from staff who were a little stretched, as usual. The vintages they're pouring now seem to have rather unfortunate labels (not the nice sleek black ones from last year!) and of course I went back for more of the almost dizzyingly spectacular Lone Wolf as I have recently drained the last of my 2009 case.
The Jackal (2010) is all Zin with a splash of Syrah. 14.5% alcohol, it goes down smooth, a little too easy to drink, and a wine you can chew on.  Big, unapologetically California Zin.

The Big Bad Wolf is another Zin/Syrah blend with slightly different concentrations but what a different wine- 14.5% again.  It's over the top what you want from a California Red Zin- huge, big, fruit, dark, grapey goodness. A jammy slam on the tongue! The Big Bad, as it must, hits hard and lasts long. Finishes with surprising subtlety. In like a lion, and out like a lamb this one.

Innuendo 100% Zin- also 14.5% alcohol. Again, totally different. You miss the Syrah, a wee bit. It's not quite the typical Zin you're expecting, over the top, fruit stuffed in your mouth, and a heavy, deep but often fast finish. I would have thought this one less alcohol, it doesn't quite have that taste to it- this is on the drier side, still very fruit forward, but with an unexpected dryness as it hits the mouth that is  unusual from a Zin. You get the heavy fruit in the mid-palate, mid-taste, but it finishes drier.  Not surprisingly with the driness, it finishes longer.  The fruit goes on a little while and mingled with the dryness on your tongue, a fight to the last. Subtle, but it's there.

After Grey Wolf, I left with a case of the 2010 Lone Wolf (no possible comparison to the 2009, that was just spectacular), and went to dinner.  My other usual fave in downtown Paso- Pappy McGregor's for some pub grub and hearty beer.  

After eating, we drove out to Twilight Cellars, who I thought I had visited in the past, but no, I've never been here. A winding, long road up way into the hills- we knew this was going to be great for Brett's night sky pictures. I hoped we would get some great streaking meteors!

We got up the hill (Daou cellars was also up there, but it was 4:50 and we had to check in, and there was no time for more tasting) and went into Twilight. I could have sworn I had been there before, but not a chance, this was totally new. It really is up the hill, in the middle of no where, with a tasting room. The husband and wife team are the owners, vintners and tasting room staff, along with what looked like a crazy bored teenage daughter.

We checked in. The husband and wife, winemakers and owners are nice enough, but tended to bicker the whole time which made us feel a little awkward. I made a reservation for Saturday through Sunday, but she had mistaken that for Fri-Sat, and I'm not sure who made that mistake, but I ended up being blamed. I don't make too many mistakes like that... 

None the less, the Tree House was available tonight, and they gave us the key and we checked in. And I did a tasting of their wines. Honestly, at this point, I had been to enough wineries that you really would have had to amaze me for the wines to be note-worthy. These I recall today as being okay, decently made and structured for everyday drinking, but not sophisticated or too complex. We did our tasting and went up to the room.  For $150 a night, it's fabulous if you want privacy, and charm.  No dogs, unfortunately, but it's a great spot for a little romance and silence among the birds and vines.  The AC works, there is a TV with satellite, plenty of space in there for two and a little kitchenette.  The owners don't stay on the property over night- home must be elsewhere, as we were completely alone after the tasting room closed.  The crush pad is up there on the hill, and at night it's pretty dark and all the noise you hear is the whirr of the AC unit.

We napped then went out for a meteor shower (a very slow one) and to take pictures of the night sky with Brett's new camera. He doesn't drink, so this was an arrangement where I could taste wine, get out into the middle of no where, and he could take pictures.

At 11pm, we went out onto the hill where the road junctions with Daou winery and there was a kind of plateau in the hill. Brett set up shop, and we both sat (or lounged in the car, as I did, wishing I had bought a convertible) and took pictures, or just watched the night sky. I saw about 6 meteors, one spectacular and vertical, the rest fast and small and horizontal. Brett got a lot of amazing pictures, but none of the meteors. Ah, well. We packed it up about midnight, and took off in the morning early back for San Mateo and SF.

I love winey weekends. And I always love my usual standbys. I'm a creature of habit, but when you expect the best, you have a hard time with the rest. :)  That said, I miss tasting with a fellow hendonist with whom I can share the experience, and prefer to explore a couple of the new places (they have a hard time keeping up with so many new wineries opening down there, they have to change the tourist maps every year!) each time.  So much wine, so little time!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Paso Again?

Oh yes, it was time to head back down to Paso again and pick up my spring wineclub at Midnight, so we packed the pug in the car and headed back down south for some fun. There was an art festival going on in the main square, so hotels were all full and we just managed to pick off the last room in Paso that was dog friendly (albeit incredibly shabby, unbelievably overpriced and a smoking room to boot!), and headed out into the becoming-familiar 46 West for a few stops. The objective was not to pick up and go: I wanted to stop, taste and enjoy. Get to know the place and the wines better. I think we made some serious headway toward meeting this objective on this trip. Let me share...

The first stop was our little patch of heaven on Anderson Road: Caliza at the end of the road. The now familiar site of winemaker/owner Carl Bowker pouring behind the bar greeted us when we walked in, as well as the same woman who poured for us last year. We noticed they started up their wineclub, and released the 2007 vintages of the Azimuth, Companion and Syrah, as well as a rose for 2008. We got a couple of glasses and had a taste of the Pink which is indeed a pink blend of grnache, tempranillio and syrah new for 2009. It's drier than one might expect, although I suppose one can hardly expect something ordinary and grandma-sweet to come out of Caliza. Onto the 2008 Kissin Cousins, their white Rhone blend with Viognier, Rousanne and Grenache Blanc. Accolades are no stranger to Caliza, and this one was awarded 91 points by Wine Spectator. I can see why, it's delightful. The 2007 Companion was totally different from the 2006, as the blend is different, but the same earthy savor and lush richness that I recall from all of Bowker's wines. I had high expectations from the Azimuth, my favorite from 2006, and the blend for the 2007 is again completely different. Once again, I was blown away. I think I like the 2006 better, but still ended up buying a bunch of the 07s to stash, as this has some serious longevity in that bottle.

The next stop was the much anticipated Booker. Booker is right next door to Caliza, and like Caliza, uses much the same varietals since their estates are on the same hill, right next to eachother. The blends are even similar. Now Booker has a reputation, of course, for being a real paradise for wine snobbery, those drinkers who fancy themselves serious oenophiles flock here and Booker has a waiting list two years long before you can even get in the club, and they are so small production that they sell out every year and close the tasting room shortly after opening. The Azimuth and the Alchemist are practically the same blend, and pretty much the same grapes (we're looking right at them) but what one notices with Booker is the soft, refined elegance of the winemaking in all of their wines. The reds are big, wonderful and rich, and after trying the Fracture, Vertigo and Alchemist, the Alchemist was my favorite.
The overall experience wasn't great, however. There were a bunch of 30 somethings from the city in there and one musclehead repeating that he was in the club about 14 times so why didn't his shipment come through? And the two women behind the counter pouring, while very nice to my dog, said they don't comp tastings for anyone outside of Paso when I plopped down my Imagery card, then recanted and said "Oh, okay. I like you guys." The pours were very hands-off, and any questions I asked were generally ignored or got some uneducated, base answer. These two twenty-something beauties were long on skin and cleavage but short on knowledge and the overall atmosphere felt a bit full of itself. Our tasting coming to a close and our glasses going long stretches of empty before the next taste, a tattooed man came in and helped pour, and I tuned out the club at the other end of the bar as he poured and gave a great lesson on Booker and the wines to several newcomers at our end of the room.
We bought just under a case, got charged for the tastings anyways, and left when the winery dog, Brutus, started humping the pug and the pug wanted to rip him to shreds right there in the tasting room.
I think Larry said it best when he looked at me over the Azimuth with aquamarine musclehead dissed-clubmember whining in the background and said "Caliza is just a bit more rogue, and I like that in a wine."

Onto Midnight, where our familiar face Nicole from the tasting room greeted us on entry. She's very knowledgeable about the wines, and is generally a good pour. She remembered me when we came in, and said "You're here to pick up your wine club, right?" Then made mention of the last time we were down there and got us two glasses. Midnight Cellars is an old farmhouse, the tasting room in the middle of a living room that feels like your mother's living room- a little outdated in the decor, flowery and light, and comfortable. The wines are not winning any medals for being aggressively big reds, but wine high points for good customer service, Nicole who has an uncanny memory for faces, and deliciously approachable, drinkable wines you may (or may not) mind sharing. We went down the whole menu, chatted and enjoyed being in a more intimate environment. We talked about the nesting birds under the eaves and watched a mother sparrow feed a teeny little beaked head peeking out from the bracken nest while we sipped on the 2005 Necatris (love that stuff!) and the new Zins. Nicole customized my case a bit, and by the time we left is was just me, Larry, the pug, Nicole and the other woman behind the bar.

Smiles on faces and a second case now in the trunk, we turned right back onto 46 and just up the hill a stone's throw away, we stopped in at Grey Wolf. I have a little foil opener from Grey Wolf, although I don't ever remember being there before. We pulled into what looks like another old teeny farmhouse on the top of a hill, with great landscaping that Charmey promptly decided to do some business in. I didn't catch him in time to move him to some less conspicuous place... And in we went. The tasting room was bustling. It's teeny, and the space is definitely a bit Little-House-On-The-Prairie-ish, but up to the bar we went. We got a very warm welcome, a couple of glasses, and went through the menu. Grey Wolf is another family owned winery, and they make some great tasting, easy drinking wines. We went down the menu and what really stood out for me was the "Red Table Wine": the 2009 Lone Wolf blend of Cab Sauv, Zin, Grenache and Syrah and at a whopping $15 a bottle it's one of Paso's best values overall in my book. We bought another case, most of it the Lone Wolf, after finishing the menu and our lovely pour. Last stop of the day, we drove into the driveway of this sterile, brand-new huge complex called "Niner" but left when we thought they appeared to be closed or closing for the evening. We were on the fence about going back. Instead, we stopped into Red Soles just as they were closing, but they were still pouring for a not-too-quiet crowd in there. The woman behind the bar was so wonderful to us- "Oh! Sure, you can taste, but I closed the register, so I just can't sell you anything. But I'm happy to pour for you if you like." We cracked up, agreed that we would come back if we wanted to buy anything, and got started with a couple of glasses. The tasting room here is small, and the other woman behind the bar was the owner Cheryl Phillips. She noticed the pug, who was barking at a couple of the rowdy guys behind us, and disappeared into her barrel room (just behind the bay door in the tasting room) and grabbed him a red Red Soles bandanna, left over from a private dinner event they had the night before. We put it on the Charmer, who loves to wear anything, and instantly warmed to this intimate, beautiful tasting room with wines as lovely as the women pouring for us.

It was the end of the day here, and while we did a lot of spitting, it still catches up with you. We loved the wines- estate produced, lots of blends, lots of big flavor and easy drinking here. We tried several and while there were some we wanted to buy, kept our promise and left empty handed and very satisfied.

Now, when I was up at Imagery a few weeks ago, a customer came in and we got to talking about wines, and some Paso wines specifically. He gave me a few tips on where to find a Lagrein down there, and the names of a few places I might want to check out. We plotted our course on the map for the following day. Nicole has recommended Caparone for some earthy, "hands-off" wines, and Malloy-O'Neill was on the list for having a Lagrein. RN Cellars, another one my customer recommended, is appointment-only, so we missed them. I also noticed that there was a biodynamic appellation in Paso- so we HAD to go there.

First stop was down on 46 W at Donati Family Winery, where we were not the first people in the tasting room at 10:30am. There was a professor of asian studies in there, talking about dogs and an attack cat that she had living in her house who used to slice the necks of dogs passing by in stealth mode like a ninja. She was colorful. We got a really nice pour here. They had a couple of late harvests that we liked a lot, and Larry took home a bottle of the late harvest Cab Franc.

After Donati, Larry imposed a 5-winery limit on our outing for the day, since we had to drive back to San Francisco, and I appointed him driver. We decided to try out AmByth, the biodynamic winery in Paso on the way over to the 46East stops. On the way, we tried to stop again in Niner, and the not so-good feeling we had of entering some kind of mall were entirely justified... we parked and brought the dog into the massive main building, and were greeted with an uber-sleek slate interior that was massive and cavernous with a very posh crowd gathered at the tasting bar, and stopped to check out a display about their wines on our right as we entered and almost immediately were met by a rotund, nicely dressed manager who let us know that since food was prepared on the premises, no dogs were allowed inside. We smiled, said "Oh, sure," turned around and walked straight out the doors we had just entered never to come back to Niner again. This seemed to be great justification to the bad feelings we both had percolating inside as soon as we drove through the gates.

Toting themselves as "super premium" wines, Niner is what we anticipated it was: some hugely wealthy guy's foray into winemaking upon his retiring from the business world. Not exactly family run, time honored, "gritty" winemaking here. "Super premium," in my opinion, isn't something that you can dub yourself: it's something we dub for you. Niner didn't even make it to my base list, let alone any kind of accolade.

We ambled over this middle-of-nowhere road with more sheep than people, onto this crazy odd little two lane country road also in the middle of nowhere. No signs. Constantly checking and re-checking the map, we saw signs for a few other wineries, but no AmByth. We then looked closer at the paragraph about them in the Paso brochure and it's appointment only. Since we were basically somewhere near, and had wasted a good 40 minutes trying to find the place, we called them. I'm so glad we did.

"Hi, we were looking for AmByth winery."
"Oh! Yes, this is AmByth."
Larry: "We were hoping to be able to come in for a tasting."
"Well, the owners are out of town in Spain right now, but I'm watching the estate and I can help you, can you give me about a half an hour and I'll meet you there?"

He gave us the numeric key for the gate, and let us know that indeed, that dirt private drive where the lovely chestnut mare was grazing in the paddock at the end of the road was the road up to the estate. We had a half an hour to kill, so a few hundred feet away we stopped at Pomar Junction Winery. It looked a little hokey, with an old caboose in the yard, and we discovered that it's not a family winery, which was a bit of a turn off, and the wines were pretty forgettable. After wasting our 20 minutes, we drove back up the dirt road, more confident this time, and found the estate gate to AmByth as promised. The code opened the gate, and we drove past the couple of cows laying under the nearby tree for a bit of shade. Up a steep hill on the dirt road we drove through the windy path through the vines until we reached the house on the very top of the hill, with amazing views of Paso all around us. We parked, and a lovely man carrying a tray of snacks gave us a very warm welcome at the back door and ushered us into the Barrel/Production/Storage/Tasting Room at AmByth. We met the massive black family dog named Zorro, and Charm was already too tired to make much fuss, so he plopped down on the cool floor as Brian introduced himself and got us started.
AmByth is a Welsh word meaning "Forever" and was started by Phillip and Mary Hart. They are a teeny production estate winery, all biodynamic, and all charm. We were completely seduced. Brian walked us around the estate, showed us the estate, the vines, and talked about the wines. Phillip and Mary have a very small production, and don't yet use any outside labor to help with production, they have good friends like Brian who come by and help with the harvesting and general winemaking. They recently started a wine club and they have a wonderful blog about their estate, wines and farming practices.

One of the funniest things on the trip was the discussion with Brian about where we'd been in Paso so far, and a bit about our experiences. We mentioned that we tried to go into Niner, without much detail and we knew this was the right place when Brian said "Did you feel like your soul got sucked out as you went through the gates?"
Lol! Why yes, we did!

We tasted down the menu, and it hit me there and then like some kind of lightening bolt: this is what it is to be biodynamic. I have long wondered at my ability to just pick out Imagery and Benziger wines from any other wines... there is something in the nose, in the color, in the mouth and on the finish, some quality that permeates the wine like nothing else and is a kind of signature to the wines that is so specific... it's the biodynamic production. AmByth wines were all the same way: not the same quality, not even close, but you can smell the cows laying under the tree on the way into the estate, you can smell the earth, the terroir, the heat in Paso and the bees all in one very distinct signature that permeates every wine in a way that each one in unmistakeably AmByth. We were charmed, delighted, and left with not just a great feeling but a wine club membership and the feeling that whatever was going on here, we wanted in.

Each wine was seductive, earthy, wonderful: the Mouvedre, the Grenache, the Venustas and the Validas.

Back on the road, we drove up to Maloy O'Neill to try their wines, specifically the Lagrein that I drove all this way to get to. The estate is really lovely, they have a pretty tasting room and we bought a really cool wine poster with basically all the grapes in order of genetic lineage.
The experience here wasn't all that great. They have a million wines, but I have a bias against places declining to pour things that they'll sell to you. Why can't I try it? So they only had a few of their more basic wines open, they didn't welcome us and they didn't offer to open or let us try some of the more premium wines, even after I let them know I was industry. So my impression wasn't all that positive, and the wines were basic and generally forgettable. The Lagrein was open from a group they had the previous day, so she did pour that for us, but that was the only one not on the tasting menu we were offered. We left, unimpressed. If you do 100 things, can you really say you do all of them well? I'm not sure. Smaller production, super fine, and "gritty" still gets my vote.

Ah, Paso. And there is so much, much more...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Orgasmic Delights of Cinsault

Drinking Imagery's 2006 Cinsault is about as close as I believe I will ever come to actually drinking velvet. It is this very rich, full-bodied lush wine that is bursting with dark fruit and some surprising tannins in there which give it uncharacteristic structure for cinsault. I get bits of lavender, vanilla, plum, blackberry, cinnamon and just the faintest hint of earth.
It glides over the tongue and coats it in this soft, delightful and utterly addicting way and has a finish that I want to last for days.

The cinsault grape is an interesting one- one of the most prolific grapes in France, they grow more of it there than Cabernet Sauvignon. The French love their cinsault so much that it's one of the crops they actually brought to Algeria when they colonized there. It's traditionally used as a Rhone blender, it grows nice and easy and can produce huge crops. The quality of course, is low when the grapes are not carefully controlled since the quantity is so high, quality must be managed carefully. It's known to be a pretty hearty, drought-resistant grape which is why it grows so well. It likes to be on hills. It does well with other hilly-grapes like mouvedre.

It's known as "hermitage" in south africa, in 1925 Professor Perold cross-bred with a petite syrah which produced the first original south-african varietal: pinotage.
By itself, cinsault is not known for its tannins, which is why the blending gives it structure and some measure of longevity.

Go out and enjoy some cinsault. Let its fruit suck you in, delight you and cast a spell on you. Look for it in any Rhone blend and you will notice the fruit it adds to the wine. Try a big, luscious high-end one like Imagery's cinsault, and you will fall in love as I have.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What a Winey Weekend

Thanksgiving was Thursday. I waffled until Wednesday, a bit ticked off that everybody seemed to have something to do other than come to my house for a meal on the holiday, but finally decided to bite the bullet and cook a nice traditional meal for myself and Larry (okay, the pug ate a lot, too) on Thursday.

I had to pick up some wine clubs at Imagery, as well as some bottles for x-mas ( i decided last year that all everybody is getting from me from now on is wine. Easy). So Friday morning we drove up to Imagery with the pug in tow. We arrived in the morning, and it was already crazy busy with lots of cars in the usually deserted parking lot even a couple of ominous limos... there were people visible on the patio which was odd as well. We arrived to find it bustling like crazy with the heart of Sonoma Valley event weekend where some 35 wineries are hosting open houses Saturday and Sunday. It was already very busy. I went in in search of a few cases I ordered in the Employee Wine Sale, and packed those into the car along with half a case of my wine cubs and several additional bottles for gifting. My grandmother loves chardonnay, and this year she's getting a bottle of the Imagery White Burgandy which is the Imagery answer to a tired chard: it's a white Burgandy style blend of Chard, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Meurnier. It's a really lovely wine and is definitely not your mother's chardonnay. The blanc adds some acidity and the meurnier adds floral sweetness and a very aromatic nose. I got a bottle of the Mourvedre which is big, bold, fruit forward and luscious for folks who perhaps don't care for anything earthy. And really, this is so successful that I'm not sure it would be possible not to absolutely love this wine. I grabbed a couple of those for folks I am not sure if I need gifts for, just in case, and bustled around in the packed tasting room and patio.

We met a very friendly woman on tour with her family and an 11 year old very, very sweet pug named Isabelle, and she offered to take Charm out to the lawn and keep him company for us while we took care of our business. How sweet! We got the wine packed into the car, tasted the 06 Wine Club exclusive Barbera (everything you love about Barbera- it's wonderful), the Pallas Cabernet and the Pallas Estate (my favorite, with the malbec rounding out the cabernet and adding a softness to the palate and a roundness to the nose that lingers on the finish in a most pleasing fashion) as well as this new release that wasn't there when I worked back in October- the Tuscan Blend- (fabulous- I need to get back to taste more of this for sure- mostly Sangiovese) before we took off for some lunch and then home.

Saturday I convinced my long suffering boyfriend to head back down to Paso Robles to pick up my other wine club case at Midnight. Back in May when I signed up for Midnight's club, I had the brilliant, nicely buzzing, serotonin-induced sense of well being to decline shipping, opting to pick up since who wouldn't want to take an occasional 6 hour road trip down to Paso for wine?

We did. We went back to familiar Anderson Road off 46West, pug in tow. First stop was Midnight where we weren't the only folks in the usually quiet tasting room, and got a nice tasting while they assembled my wine club case. We went down the tasting menu while we were there, why not? The 2008 Aurora is Midnight's white blend: 54% Viognier, 21% Marsanne, 17% Rousanne and 8% Grenache Blanc. Alcohol 14.6%. The nose is full of ripe fruit, acidy and floral backnotes and the palate is delightful: vanilla, a little spice, some jasmine, pineapple and just a faint hint of earth.
The other winners on the current menu were the 2005 Reserve Zinfandel (15.2% etoh), hugely fruity and much bigger than the estate Zin of the same vintage. It's 2005, but it's got some time to go in the bottle over the next 5 years to mellow out a bit and round.
The other winner was the 2004 Mare Nectaris, a Bordeaux-style blend with all the usual "Big 5s" in a Bordeaux, it's got a lot going on. It's still young, and a little bit bitey even for an 04 and is probably going to need to sit at least 5 years before it really starts to soften and open up. Decant is now, for sure, or aerate, but this one is a library keeper.

We turned left on Anderson Road, intent on trying another winery back there on the same road, which was closed and sold out. Behind that was the best find in all of Paso so far: Caliza Winery. It was their one-year anniversary, a very young winery in a little cute Tuscan-style store front that's pretty small but nicely styled. They make only 1,000 cases a year, and this is only the second year the store has been open and their wines poured. We met a couple of pug lovers in there, and the pug was on his best behavior for sure. They only had 4 things on the menu, but what a delightful surprise- all 4 of them. 2008 Kissin' Cousins is a white blend of 48% viognier, 30% grenache blanc and 23% rousanne that was crisp, had a lot of pear and nectarine on the nose and the palate, and had a pretty and soft finish. We loved it. Really pretty, elegant white.

The 2006 Azimuth wins the Shelby award for best red of Paso, hands-down. It's a blend of 51% Syrah, 19% grenache, 14% mourvedre, 8% tannant and 8% alicante bouschet. It's incredible and blew me away. The nose just had so much going on where nothing smacked you in the head and all of it just needed to be opened, decanted, sipped and lingered over. Vanilla, cloves, dark berries, coffee and a little chocolate is what I got. The palate is also that complex: lots going on. Like things that are masterfully crafted, I couldn't pick out any specific varietal by itself, but the symphony in there was pretty impressive. Again, lots going on. Big, but so blended and soft already that it's impressive. The finish just lingers and lingers. This wine is amazing now, will last another 10 on a shelf, and is a wine to be reckoned with.

The 2006 Companion is a cab blend, and the 06 syrah is similarly wonderful and has a very grassy, unusal nose for a syrah. We loved them all. I loved them all, but I especially loved that Azimuth. I couldn't believe this tiny little gem of a place was real. If you like big wines and great surprises, run, don't walk to Caliza.
The best part of the tasting was in the middle of it, we met the owner, Carl Bowker. He came out to say hello, an unassuming man with sandy brown-blonde hair and a ready smile in a plain white tee shirt and jeans. He walked us through the companion and the syrah, and invited us back to the azimuth and the companion again. You have to love walking into a tiny store front to meet the winemaker himself, it's like when Joey comes in on a Saturday and pours for a few minutes. It's really great. He walked us through his process, where his grapes come from, and the aim of being 100% estate soon. What a wonderful experience.

We should have just quit when we were ahead. We went to the Disney replica of Cinderella's castle also on Anderson Road across from Dark Star known as Eagle Castle Winery. Crossing the moat, we fought past a couple of large tour groups with a guide, snapping pictures on the way. The medieval castle is over the top. Truthfully, I'd live there. It's pretty wild, if a little too perfect. They have a divine smelling dining room as you enter the heavy carved faux wood doors on the right which will pair with wines well, and on the left is the tasting room. I was totally shocked as the smell of firewood, smoke and a little incense met my nose as soon as we walked into the massive tasting room... there is an actual wood-burning fire burning full blast in the corner of the tasting room!! They had to be kidding me- why pollute the wine? You need to avoid smells with wine that can flavor and mask- unless of course your wines are so forgettable that masking isn't a bad idea. I believe this was the case here. We got a pour with meagre to no customer service- an employee who was far too busy with the folks next to us chatting not about the wine but about travel and nonsense. We tried the whole menu and all of it was completely forgettable. And Honestly, all I kept smelling was smoke, and it permeated the taste of all the wines such that we ended up just taking off. I was really shocked that they would be burning real wood in the fireplace in a tasting room. Crazy.

Last stop on the winey road was a place a friend has recommended to me in the past: Eberle Winery. It's through the little (and charming) town of Paso Robles, and up onto 46 East, where there are several of the big-producer, non family owned wineries in the area, so not the same ambiance as the little winding roads on 46W, but who cares if the wines are good?

The Eberle tasting room is bustling and huge. We walked in and it was about 4pm. I put my card down on the tasting bar for a very busy younger guy who said "okay, complimentary tastings are 5 off this menu..." and walked away. They have a lot on the menu. I was smiling a bit- being "in the industry" my card from Imagery gets me comp tastings and usually the whole menu is open. A new woman came over as the younger guy was rather busy, and got us started. There were a couple of whites and we were just starting on the lighter bodied reds when the tasting room manager came over and introduced herself, asked what winery I was from in Sonoma and had we been to Eberle before. I have her my low-down on Imagery, and said that a friend recommended we try Eberle while we were down there, so this was our first time there. A minute later, a woman came up behind us and said "Grab your glasses, the last tour is starting if you'd like to join us in the caves."
Yes, we'd love to join you in the caves!! I want to live in the caves!
A fun tour. They have a lot of caves in a labyrinthine pattern down there, and a big central space with tables set up for parties and dinners which I understand are a real experience. There is also a small and elegant private tasting room down there where one of the staff can pour personally for your party of 2-8 people. That would be very cool to experience. Midway through the caves, Charmey tired but at my heels like a loyal dog, we stopped and got a wine refill- Larry and I got the Cab/Syrah blend which was the best thing on the Erberle menu for sure.

Back in the tasting room, I was delighted that they took such good care of us at Eberle. The wines are light to medium bodied staples that are reasonably priced and good for everyday table drinking. Their biggest red was no longer available, so I was most disappointed to miss their best-crafted red, but the cab/syrah was solid and delicious. And really, they took very good care of us at Eberle so I had a really nice experience.

A few more cases laden, we headed back to the Bay Area early Sunday morning. While I need to drink more and buy less wine for sure, I like the opportunity to get down there and explore Paso's finest. And boy, I can't wait until Caliza gets a wine club.

Cheers fow now afficianados!