Sunday, August 16, 2020

What's Happening in Willamette... Catching Up with Some Iconic Winemakers.

In France, many winemaking families can talk about their history going back five or six generations. In Oregon there is... barely one generation. David Lett, aka "Papa Pinot," arrived in the pre-winey Willamette Valley in 1965, believing Pinot Noir and other grapes could be grown there to make quality wine. And more than one person undoubtedly looked at him like he was crazy and assumed he'd flee with his tail between his legs before too long.

Luckily for us, that didn't happen, and Papa Pinot was right -- the Willamette Valley does not only produce quality wine, it produces outstanding wine. If you're wine-nerdy like I am, this might not come as a total surprise (plus hindsight is definitely 20-20,) as the climate and soils are similar to those in Burgundy, one of the world's best regions for Pinot Noir.

The Willamette industry grew so exponentially and has become so well-regarded that it's easy to forget this place has been making wine only a bit longer than I've been alive. Lett was certainly the pioneer, but there are many iconic producers who arrived early, jumped in with both feet, and who are now pushing the boundaries of the region's potential, figuratively, but also literally.

Rollin Soles of Roco Winery got his start at Argyle, one of the earliest notable Willa wineries (still producing great wines and continuing to rack up the kudos today,) and his experience there gave him an intimate knowledge of the region and the confidence to not only set out on his own but to explore the boundaries of where winemaking is possible that far north. He speaks with the passion and wonder of a 19th-century explorer on the cusp of a great discovery: "When you're at the edge, you can be successful presenting a beautiful Pinot Noir." This "true expression" of Pinot is what inspires him to make wine right at the limit. He has such affection for the vineyards he sources his fruit from, Soles believes they could all produce outstanding single-vineyard wines. (And perhaps that is on the horizon?!)

Soles' 2018 Roco Gravel Road Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is like the sun poking out after a quick summer shower, reflecting stunning prisms off all surfaces. A pale ruby-red color, bright and fresh red cherry fruit -- a little cherry cola situation too -- plus rhubarb, anise, underripe blackberry, with a whiff of spice and earth on the finish. High acidity as expected, with subtle integrated tannins and high alcohol. ~$25

I was curious about the level of alcohol, as I tasted a few more Willa Pinots and saw they all were over 14%. This was unexpected to me, as I assumed the generally cool climate wouldn't seem to encourage so much sugar ripeness to achieve that level of abv. I asked Lynn Penner-Ash of Penner-Ash wine cellars about that aspect of the winemaking.

"It is my belief that the increased alcohols are indicative of our warming growing region. We’ve worked hard to maintain balance and get phenolic ripeness but do have to work to keep the alcohol levels from being out of balance with the wines. We’ve really seen more success these days doing multiple pickings within the same block to be able to keep natural acidity, get phenolic ripeness, and balanced wines. That drives our vineyard managers crazy..." but gives her many more options for blending to achieve balance. (She also credits more efficient yeasts, GO YEAST!)

Lynn was one of Willa's first female winemakers, joining the team at another early winery, Rex Hill, in 1988. Back then there were only 49 wineries; now there are around 780! Talk about exponential growth. Somewhat along Soles' philosophy, Penner-Ash looks to source fruit from all of the unique growing areas dotted around the Valley. Her main goal is to blend these special vineyards together to craft the epitome of "what Willamette is." The Penner-Ash main blend is sourced from ten different vineyards across six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas; sites designated as individual wine production areas sharing similar characteristics.) This practice also gives her flexibility due to Oregon's vintage variability -- if some sites underperform one year, she has other ways to balance out the wine. And much like Champagne houses' signature blends, Penner-Ash looks to keep a consistent style from year to year with her largest bottling, the Willamette Pinot Noir.

The 2017 Penner-Ash Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is like teatime at Downton Abbey, a little dark and brooding, but elegant, with sublime floral perfume. It is a cherry-red color, with smoke and spice, some cocoa/mocha, definitely a more savory style. The acidity isn't so blinding, but still shines brightly, with high alcohol and enough low chalky tannins and body and intensity to carry the fruit flavors over the long minerally finish. A really gorgeous wine. ~$42

Michael Etzel was another early drinker of the Willamette Kool-Aid, founding his winery Beaux Frères in the early 1990s. (Along with his brother-in-law, the wine critic Robert Parker, who has since left the company.) Etzel's son Mikey is now taking on more of the reins, as the second generation of Willamette wine families is finally starting to be ushered in. Some of Beaux Frères' innovation includes an upcoming collaboration with winemakers from Burgundy -- which is intriguing, as folks from old world regions tend to be insular and protective. I, for one, will keep my eyes peeled to see what happens there!

But at home, Etzel is another winemaker who prides the place where he sources his wine; the back label of his 2018 Pinot Noir states TWELVE different vineyards with the percentage of wine from each!

The 2018 Beaux Frères Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a walk in the woods on a crisp fall morning. A ruby-purple color, with bright raspberry, cherry, and cranberry fruit, a dusty purple violet/lavender sheen, a bit of sweet cigar leaf, with zingy acidity, high alcohol, good body and intensity, and supportive tannins over the finish. Maybe a bit of a rollercoaster right now; I'd love to see this in a year or so when all the components integrate a scootch more. ~$58

The Willamette Valley is already regarded as one of the best places for Pinot Noir in the world (they do grow other grapes there; look for iconic cool-climate-loving Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, but also Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Meunier are finding success.) Now that iconic winemakers like these are fully confident in their vineyards, comfortable pushing boundaries, and bringing in the next generation, who knows what the future holds?

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A special thank-you to for providing these wines and organizing a virtual tasting with the winemakers. 

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Saturday, June 6, 2020

EM DUBS, the Application -- Or, the Journey to Master of Wine Begins

I never wanted to be a Master of Wine.

Seriously, my entire wine career, even with people dangling the possibility in front of me, suggesting I would be suited for it, and the fact I love to study things I love, reaching the "Highest Designation Possible" was not a goal I ever aspired to.
  • I'm competitive... but I have a streak of lazness. 
  • I'm smart... but my knowledge doesn't always flourish in context. 
  • I have a great palate... but not an encyclopedic one. 
But then I spent a year and a half pursuing and attaining the rigorous WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits, completing it as fast as one possibly can (I somewhat insanely took three exams on the same day,) never failing a single question, and earning three highest Distinction grades and two Merits over the six units all the while pursuing my performing career (three leading roles in plays and musicals over that period, plus countless auditions, readings, and classes,) and dealing with some major health issues of my parents.

Once the dust settled and I had time to reflect on my experience with Diploma, I realized that not only did I pretty much OWN it (in spite of a great deal of stress,) but I really wanted so much more than I got from that program. It was an intense period, but I suddenly felt in an unfulfilled vacuum. I pretty much toasted passing the damn thing and swearing I'd never ever ever study again... and three days later was researching the MW application process.

The Master of Wine is hard. Super-hard. As of this writing, there are only 394 Masters of Wine in the entire world. More people have BEEN TO SPACE than have passed the demanding, exhaustive program. Just about every single MW has spoken of blind fear and feelings of being a fraud at multiple points along the journey. It usually takes 5-6 years for someone to pass all aspects of the program, but only a few hundred are accepted each year, and only around ten people graduate each year. Often fewer. Hello, attrition. What would ever make me think I could do this? What kind of hubris does the Minx HAVE?!?

You know that competitive streak of bullet point number one above? I recently realized I never wanted to try to become a Master of Wine because I never wanted to FAIL at it. The fact is, statistically speaking, I probably will fail. Plenty of people smarter and more focused than I certainly have. But what happened in my post-Diploma aha moment was I realized I had to TRY.

Even if I never earned those post-nominal initials, I wanted to play with the big kids. I wanted to be able to ask smarter questions, to put things in context, to meet winemakers and hear things in their own words, to taste theoretical concepts in the glass, to understand the ramifications of minute choices... after 25 years in this business and countless certifications I do consider myself a wine expert, but I wanted to be one of the BEST experts. And I know now that even if I don't achieve the final goal, pursuing this program will make me the best expert I can possibly be.


Step 1: Apply -- this involves filling out an online form including a short biography, a summary of your role in the industry (you have to be working in the wine business, although they say they will entertain applications of non-professionals on an individual basis.) You have to have earned the WSET Diploma or its equivalent, you need to provide statements on how you would contribute to the IMW (Institute of Masters of Wine) community, and describe practical ways you'd study and prepare for the exam. As many others have advised, you shouldn't go into this half-baked; well-thought out answers will go a long way. You also need a recommendation from a Master of Wine. It costs around $400 to apply. This year the application was open from around May 1-May 29.

Step 2: Take the Application Exam. Once my application, fee, and recommendations were received, I got an email with details about how to take the exam. It's carried out online, and is divided into Theory and Practical (tasting) portions. Just like the actual exam, only a FRACTION of its difficulty!! Meaning, for the application exam you're expected to assess four wines, the categories of which you're told in advance. For the actual MW exam, it's THIRTY-SIX wines tasted blind. The application exam theory questions are unknown, though drawn from past MW exams, and you get three options under the broad themes of Viticulture, Vinification, Handling, or the Business of Wine to choose one to answer. This year, the last day to complete the application exam is July 10 so I still have a few weeks to study!

(In case you're curious, my study consists of choosing a past question, taking notes on how I would answer it, reading and doing research to flesh out those notes, then writing a 30-40 minute timed essay. I'm up to 3-4 per week now. I'm trying to cover all the major topics so will hopefully have already answered one that shows up on my entrance exam?! FINGERS CROSSED.)

Step 3: Find out sometime in September or October if you're in. All of the webinars and advice have said that the application exam is truly an assessment of potential; you're not super-dinged if you make a wrong statement as you would be on the real exam. I feel that if I get a question I've prepared for, I will be able to write an articulate essay full of facts (and examples, they LOVE examples.) But 90 minutes to plan, outline, and write an essay is not a lot of time, I've found. I'm going to get calluses on my fingers for crossing them so hard...


If accepted, hooray, you're in Stage 1. You'll need to go somewhere for a week of course days (I want to travel internationally but obviously national routes will open first post-Covid, so chose the North American option, hoping it'll be possible!) and you'll be assigned an MW mentor, and there will be other touchstones and guidelines, but this program is self-study so it's pretty much: AMF-YOYO. (Adios, My Friend, You're On Your Own.)

After a year you sit the Stage 1 Assessment Exam (mine would be June 2021.) If you pass, you're on to Stage 2: The Big Kahuna, or, All the Marbles. More course days and touchstones, lots of travel and tasting, and sitting the ACTUAL MW EXAM in June of 2022. I think only 3% (or is it .3%?!?!) of students pass both Theory and Tasting the first try. So another year goes by and you sit whatever you failed again. Wash, Rinse, Repeat (you have 6 attempts, I think, before they kick you out.) Hopefully you eventually pass both, and next you write a research paper. Honestly, I have five ideas already, but you can't write the paper until last!! The paper usually takes a year to 18-months but can take up to five years. So, assuming I make it, I could earn my MW as early as autumn of 2023, or as late as ~2033. HOLY CRAPPPP.

Oh, and by the way, you can expect to spend about $14,000 on course fees (more if -- and when -- you retake bits,) and an additional $35,000-45,000 on sourcing wines, travel, accommodation, etc., over the length of your program. (And many say that's a conservative estimate.) That's a LOT of dough, but PHDs cost 5x as much, so... #shrugemoji. I have financial support from the family wine business, thank goodness, and there are some scholarships available, but honestly, the cost is what eventually drives a lot of people out of the program.

Well, that's it. I put off finishing my notes on "advantages and disadvantages of stem inclusion in winemaking" to write this, because I found others' personal experiences very helpful in ultimately deciding to do this (though many seem to have abandoned their "MW Journey" blogs... either from departing the program, or SIMPLY NO TIME!!) And I also wanted my friends, fans, and family to understand this epic undertaking a little better.

I'll try to touch base with more personal blogs over the course of this thing (and not getting accepted will make it a SHORT course! But I'm hopeful.) I already am having more fun preparing for the entrance exam vs. 99% of my Diploma study. So that, I think, bodes well.

Shoot me any questions you might have, and I'll try to answer them! And please stay safe and well.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

TOP 25 UNDER $25 OF 2019!!!!!

My dear Wineaux: my annual “Top 20 Under $20” is so popular (thank you!) I’ve been pondering for a few years now to stretch the budget to $25. Merely because there are SO many extraordinary gems in the $20-25 range, and, frankly, if you’re gonna drop $18, 19, 20 on a wine, a few more bucks is NOTHING, amiright?It’s all about the value, whether it’s five or twenty-five, so enjoy this expanded edition. Tell me what you think about these wines, and if you find other budget-loving faves!


2014 Cerro Chapeu Sust Brut Nature, Uruguay
Folks, Uruguay is where it’s AT! Wines from this South American country are exponentially rising in quality. Take this floral, yeasty, citrus, tropical, exotic fruit-ed sparkler from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. It spent 36 months on the lees. Dense and herby, this is refreshing and concentrated. What an eye-opener! ~$22

2018 Ch. Peybonhomme L’Amour du Risque, Bordeaux France
This is a Pètillant Naturel from Bordeaux, which makes it kind of a unicorn. (I could put it under "orange" below, but its zesty froth seems bubblier than usual for a Pèt-Nat, so here it goes!) Melon, orange rind, ginger ale, great presence and quaffability, just really tasty, and I could probably suck down the bottle in one minute. ~$22

NV Jacqueline Leonne Rosé Methode Champenoise, New Mexico
From the folks at Gruet, this is another New Mexican bubbly direct to Total Wine. This rosé is elegant, with attractive flavors of strawberry, lime, and herbs. Great value! Slurp this one up all year round, but especially in summer. ~$17

NV Cleto Chiarli Pruno Nero Lambrusco, Italy
I love a Lambrusco; gone are the days of those sicky-sweet red sparklers from central Italy. This is dry, relatively low alcohol (11%,) with velvety blackberry jam, violets, and a pleasant mossy dirt scenario. Totally quaffable, refreshing, and delish. Yummers! ~$17

2018 Garzón Albariño Reserva, Uruguay
Yup, another Uruguayan wine made the list. Spain’s Albariño really shines here, with dusty florals, light white peach, chewy stone fruit in the mouth, and a grippy texture from a little oak contact. Interesting wine, with a great, balanced length. This winery only started in 2009 and is already a standard-bearer. Watch out! ~$17

2017 Trapiche Costa & Pampa Albariño, Argentina
Look at this: another Albariño NOT from Spain! Trapiche is the leading wine-making group in Argentina, but that doesn’t mean this is mass-market at all. Basket of mountain flowers, tart green fruit, but really cheeky and nice, plus its juicy, steely acid keeps it driving. Whiff of petrol, some salinity. Delish. ~$20

2018 Ch. Peybonhomme Les Tours Le Blanc Bonhomme Blaye Ct. du Bdx, France
(I just realized that Peybonhomme has TWO wines that cracked the list, I don’t think that’s ever happened before! Bravo, team.) 50-50 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon. Interesting nose! Pear, almost oxidized/sherry thing. This sees some barrel fermentation, which adds a creamy/honeyed character. Nice weight, still light and fresh but different personality. Kind of love this! Long finish. Great value at ~$14.

2014 Vini Mura “Sienda” Vermentino di Gallura Superiore DOCG, Sardinia
(Ok, including this is NOT fair because I sampled one of the last FOUR bottles left of this wine in the world, sorrynotsorry. But it was just tops, and maybe you’ll run into one of its relatives!!) Yellow and white flowers, whiff of petrol, weighty, textured, like a sun-baked afternoon on the beach. Spicy finish. Solid acid and light tannins from oak aging and 15 days skin contact. Creamy, heady. Delish. Love. ~$20

2018 Bodegas Etchart Cafayate Gran Linaje Torrontés, Argentina
More deliciousness from Argentina, here from the oldest operating winery in Cafayate, and the country’s “signature” white grape. Very pale, water-white color. Gewurztraminer-like nose, with its super-aromatic rose petals. Nice grip and weight, good tang. Floral and little bitter, but really super-duper tasty! ~$25

2018 Contra Soarda Vespaiolo, Veneto Italy
Cool indigenous variety of Veneto in NE Italy; named for the wasps (“vespa”) that would feed on the ripe grapes. This old variety used to make sun-dried-grape “Passito” wines, now its modern table wines are really compelling; bruised pear, overripe peach, barnyardy funk, like an ugly-sexy Mick Jagger in a glass. Fans of Grüner Veltiner will be interested. ~$20


2018 Dom. Glinavos Paleokerisio, Greece
I don’t order the list anymore, but if I did, this would probably be my #1. I always love an orange wine (which is really just a white wine with skin contact, so they tend to have an orange-ish hue, plus tannins from the time on skins.) But this one’s just special all-around: it is 1) slightly sparkling 2) skin-contact 3) from indigenous Greek grapes 4) that has a hint of sweetness. Whaat? That little residual sugar balances the bitterness gorgeously, and the slight fizz and festive fruit make a party in your mouth. The value can’t be beat, and I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t fall in love with this wacky yet approachable gem. ~$13/500ml


2018 Muri Gries Lagrein Rosato, Italy
From Alto Adige in northeastern Italy, this wine proves that rosé is not just for summer! It’s bright pinky-red and is bursting with red cherry-berry fruit, fresh florals, plus savory herbs, salinity, and a hint of balsamic. It is so tasty you should probably just go ahead and get two bottles because it’ll be gone before you know it. ~$16

2018 Lange Twins Winery & Vineyards Aglianico Rosé, Lodi CA
Lodi is the region of 100 grapes. Truth! Pretty much any grape grows stunningly there, and Aglianico of southern Italy is no exception. The deep garnet-y pink hue of this wine may turn off some used to the paleness of Provence rosés, but Aglianico is a thick-skinned, dark grape variety so it makes a powerful rosé! No wimps allowed here, with super SHPICY rose petals and raspberry-strawberry fruit. Yum. ~$20 

2018 Amity Vineyards White Pinot Noir, Oregon
I put this as a rosé though they call it “white,” but, to me, a white wine from red grapes is “rosé,” but let’s not worry about semantics! Oregon is a perfect home for Pinot Noir, and this is made from some of the oldest vines in the state. There is white peach, underripe strawberry, and also lush tropical fruit (melon, pineapple,) with a tangy salinity to balance it. Tasty and intriguing. ~$23

2018 Channing Daughters Rosato of Cabernet Franc, New York
Ironically, I’m out on Long Island as I put the finishing touches on this post, and here’s a wine from a stone’s throw away! I typically love Channing Daughters wines, and this pale pink rosé of Cab Franc is elegant and floral-perfumey with pink grapefruit, spiced watermelon, and a minerally underlayer. Num, num, num. ~$17

2018 Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy Sancerre Rosé Maimbray, Loire France
From France’s Loire Valley, touted as a blanc de noir still wine, this is tart yet juicy, with a pleasant whiff of smoke, berries with herbs, ooh, just tightly wound fruit wrapped in a lightly tannic and fresh acidic embrace, with a grippy, nicely balanced finish. ~$22


2016 Clos Martinet “Menut” Priorat, Spain
This Garnacha from Spain is simply amaze. Blueberries and ripe blackberries JUMP out of the glass, with a nice brambly funk to balance the fruit. Add Dr. Pepper, milk chocolate, bushels of lavender and violets, and a firmly present but not overbearing structure, and I couldn’t keep my hands offa this. Garnacha can get alky, but while this wine’s 15% alcohol is up there, it doesn’t feel “hot” or put you to sleep. Fruit-lovers will faint. YUMMERS. ~$22

2017 Domaine D’Andezon Côtes du Rhône Unfiltered, France
This Southern France Syrah-based red blend is teeming with blackberry, dark plum, and blueberry fruit, bushels of purple flowers, a hint of dark chocolate, and some rock dust minerality. It’s powerful, but also tempered by its lifting acidity and excellently balanced tannins. The finish goes on and on. And on! ~$14

2017 FP by Filipa Pato Baga, Bairrada Portugal
Really interesting nose of smoke, chalk, mocha, purple flowers and lavender, lil’ barnyard funk... but juicy-tangy and fresh in the mouth, very quaffable, purple-y cheekiness but subtlety well-structured. (I botched a question about Portugal’s Baga grape on my very first wine exam, you know I won’t do that again!) ~$17

2016 Montes Alpha Carmenère, Colchagua Valley Chile
This Carmenère (a grape long-confused with Merlot,) from Chile is smoky and spicy with dense red fruit, aromatic lilac, mocha and dried herbs, but is smooth to drink, with balanced acid and soft tannins. Extra points cus it’s sustainably dry farmed (!) from a reputable producer who has an array of tasty wines (including the more $$ Purple Angel.) ~$21

2016 Mettler Family Pinotage, CA
Even though this is another Lodi wine, and I know global grapes shine there, I have never had a Pinotage NOT from South Africa, so I was understandably wary. Welp, color me pleasantly surprised! This was super-complex and gorgeously balanced; blueberry, mocha, violet florals, with tangy acidity and light, grippy tannins. Intriguing all around. ~$25

2015 Terras de Baco VR Alentejano, Portugal
From indigenous Portuguese grapes Trincadeira, Aragonez, and Castelão, this powerhouse has rich flavors of raspberry, mocha powder, blackberry, a little herb stem, and is tannic and HEAVY duty. For FIVE BUCKS. (See, this balances out the $25 ones!) Definitely needs meat/cheese, or it might knock you over. Wowzers. ~$5

2006 Château Simard, St-Émilion, France
Um, seriously, a killer 13-year old Bordeaux for around twenty bucks?!? Whaaaat? Gorgeous nose of lavender florals and spice box dust, with lush fruit on palate, and tannins that are smoothing out but still quite supportive. There are values to be found in Bordeaux, but it takes a lot to search them out; here is the needle in the haystack for sure! ~$21

2018 Alpha Crucis “Titan” Cabernet Sauvignon McLaren Vale, Australia
Yes, Australia and Shiraz are like Bert and Ernie or Mac and Cheese; they just go together. But when you branch out a bit, you can also find genius. This Oz Cab tastes like it cost two or three times as much, and delivers dark fruits, cedar, graphite, and violets. Dense and huge, but elegant. Not overly tannic but solid support; this is exactly why I stretched the budget this year! ~$25

2017 Raul Perez Bierzo Mencia Ultreia Saint Jacques, Spain
Mencia is a great grape for wine lovers – it typically exhibits blue-black fruits, violets, and maybe a mocha chalkiness, but has lovely fresh acid which keeps it from getting too heavy. This is a field blend with Bastardo and Garnacha Tintorera, plus some white grapes to boot, which keeps the focus on crunchy blueberry/cranberry fruit and heady florals, supported by bright acid and subtle, linear tannins.  ~$20

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There you go, friends! Did I whet your whistles? What did I miss? Post below and tell me about some incredible-valued wines YOU sipped on during 2019.

There might have been a lot of unfamiliar grapes, places, and styles above, but I exhort you (as I always do!) to add "Branch Out My Wine Exploration" to your New Year's Resolutions for 2020. One of my FAVORITE things about wine is that there's always something new to discover! I wish you and yours a happy, healthy holiday season, and warm wishes for 2020.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

JHUZZH Up Your Turkey Day With These Amazing Wines!

It's that time of the year... all the wine writers' Thanksgiving recommendations! There are a lot of great ones out there, sure, and by all means heed whichever suggestions you want, but let me REALLY break it down for you:

Thanksgiving food is boring. Seriously, without that pop of cranberry, and maybe some green(ish) beans, the entire meal is a neutral palette. Nothing has spice or personality. So your wine has to jhuzzh up the entire feast… without overwhelming it!

This means pretty much any wine that’s not too heavy or overly fruity with gobs of acidity will do the trick — which gives you a LOT of options!!

Here are some of the Minx’s personal faves:

Kind of a no-brainer. A) it’s a holiday, so let's celebrate! Plus b) the zippy acid and lively bubbles will complement every single kind of delish beige mush on your plate.

SAVE: NV Gruet Blanc de Noirs, New Mexico
A blend of 75% Pinot Noir and 25% Chardonnay, this fizz will have a scootch more round red fruit and depth, while still maintaining its freshness. Plus, it’s from New Mexico, so… ‘Murica! ~$17

SPLURGE: 2004 Dom Ruinart Rosé Champagne, France
This was the “meatiest,” most savory Champy I’ve ever had. (Might be due to an unusually high percentage of still red wine added in? Either way…) Utterly captivating. Roasted orange peels, iodine, fresh herb garden, sweet summer strawberries, toasty brioche, candied ginger, dried rose petals… total splurge, but worth every penny. ~$325

But get a good one. Chard is a kind of neutral grape, but it can sing if coaxed into its own by a deft winemaker. A more mineral-driven, lean style (say Chablis) will vibrate through the meal like a plucked high piano string, while one with more oak influence will bring out the spice of the sweet potato and pies.

SAVE: 2017 Charles Smith Eve Chardonnay, WA
I tell you over and over to snap up Smith’s value offerings because they always deliver! This Washington State Chard ticks all the boxes — fruit, acid, bright but with depth — at a price that can’t be beat. ~$10

SPLURGE: 2015 Kistler Les Noisetiers Chardonnay, CA
Big and round with buckets of rich fruit; peach, apricot, pear, a meadow full of white flowers, some baked apple pie… perhaps a hint of grilled pineapple and some dried herbs  too  this Kistler Chard with a few years of age will be a meal unto itself. ~$65

I also love a Grüner Veltliner or Furmint for Thanksgiving; they can have savory notes like celery and white pepper or ginger and spice, and both have strong acidic backbones. 
SAVE: 2017 Evolúció Tokaji Furmint, Hungary ~$12
SPLURGE: 2017 FX Pichler M Smaragd Gruner Veltliner, Austria ~$80

How many times do I have to say it? Rosé is a red wine in a white wine’s body — the best of both worlds! You could literally have ANY quality rosé on Turkey Day and you’ll be happy. I might pop these:

SAVE: 2018 Anthony Road Rosé of Cabernet Franc, NY
This Fingerlakes producer coaxes the perfect balance of red cherry fruit and herbs out of Cab Franc; supremely quaffable all year round. It's so slurp-worthy, I'm drooling just writing this. ~$16

SPLURGE(ISH): 2018 Hersly “Mae” Rosé, CA
100% Merlot, from a small single vineyard in Calistoga, this juicy, vibrant rosé is packed with fruit, yet has plenty of structure to hold it all together. The Herslys are a husband-wife team producing some seriously good juice; this, their first rosé, is named after their sushi-loving dog Mae, who is featured on the label. (She was a rescue, so portions of the sales of this wine go to support animal rescues and shelters!) ~$28

Here’s where the fun happens! Yes, Pinot Noir is the classic high-acid, zesty, cherry-berry and herby-earthy, low-tannin red, and you can find great examples from the Willamette Valley in Oregon or from New Zealand, not to mention the rhapsodic icons of Burgundy. But why not try something a little different this year?

SAVE: 2017 Hillinger Zweigelt, Austria
An Austrian specialty, Zweigelt is a crossing of St-Laurent and Blaufrankish (< also good for Turkey Day!) Like a lighter Pinot Noir, expect spicy cherry notes, maybe a bit of cinnamon. Lip-smaking! ~$16

SAVE: 2015 Pietro Caciorgna Etna Rosso Ciauria, Sicily
Red wines from Sicily’s Mt. Etna region are based on Nerello Mascalese, which thrives in the volcanic soil there. This has crunchy red fruit and great woodsy earth and herbs, buoyed by rose florals. While fresh and invigorating now, it also has serious staying power (grab a few bottles, and see how it evolves next year!) ~$22

SAVE: 2016 Avancia Mencia Cuvee de O, Spain
Mencia is one of those grapes you wonder why everyone doesn’t know about it already. This one is like a bowl of blackberries dusted with mocha powder and black pepper that you eat in a freshly-tilled field. More on the oomphy side, but still kept fresh by its acidity. ~$15

No matter what you decide, I hope you spend a wonderful Thanksgiving with your friends and family. Let me know what you end up popping, and how you enjoyed jhuzzhing up the big meal! 


Wednesday, October 9, 2019


Friends, this is no revelation about a burgeoning wine region or indigenous grape variety... this is a revelation that quality white wines from the southern region of Campania in Italy not only CAN age, but are even BETTER with age. 

Who'd a-thunk? Not this Minx.

First of all, Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo are not grape varieties that most wine drinkers are familiar with, unless you happen to live next door to an Italian wine bar. As with many Italian varieties, they are indigenous to that part of the country, along with around 100 others; check out this great map I stole from that shows the main pockets (the two varieties in question are in the more center grouping:)

Image result for campania wine map

Secondly, most white table wines are meant to be consumed within a few years of release, that's just the nature of the beast. (I tell my wine students to be wary of a white that's 5-10 years old on the shop shelves because it's probably been sitting gathering dust way too long and will be B-A-D, bad.)

NOT THESE BABIES. I am seriously considering running out to every store in Manhattan in the vain hope that they might have one of these still lying around! That is the one caveat -- stores likely won't sell the older versions because they do typically get drunk up earlier. So, listen to the Minx's sage advice:

  • You should buy a case right now of a good vintage.
  • Enjoy a bottle every now and then.
  • But put six bottles in the corner of your cellar and forget about them.
  • Set a reminder on your iPhone for 2029.
  • Then start popping one a year for the next six years. 

YOU 👏🏻 WILL 👏🏻 NOT 👏🏻 REGRET 👏🏻 IT👏🏻!

And... you can afford to do this little experiment, because these wines are available for about $16-19 bucks. The return on this investment would make Wall Street envious!

Let me show you what I mean...

Recently I tasted three vintages of Azienda Agricola Petilia & Solina's Greco di Tufo. The 2015 was linear, clean, with fresh notes of lemongrass and light apple, juicy but lean. The 2014 had a delectable nose of green plum, with a minerally, herby zing, and it developed a lemony richness in the glass. But the 2009 had gorgeous perfume of dried mountain flowers, was dense and complex, with layers of flavors of straw, citrus, fruit, and in no way seemed ten years old.

I also had a flight of Donnachiara's Fiano di Avellino. The 2013 had caramel apple, lemon, high tone herbs, ginger, was a bit savory, with sneaky-uppy acid, and a little bitterness on the finish like that of menthol/ eucalyptus. The 2009 was not a great vintage for Fiano, so this one was a bit oxidized, though still sound, with a steely-brassy feel; less "taut," though had good tingly acid and a long finish. But the 2007 had a gorgeous nose of yellow flowers, brown butter, lemon curd, with spry acidity, and a juicy, honeyed richness. My notes say, "wow -- stunning." Again, no earthly clue that this was a TWELVE year old white table wine.

Both winemakers happened to be women, which I appreciate tremendously, and there is a history of grapegrowers-turning-winemakers in the southern half of Italy so they both come from a long family line. The Petilia wines are a bit harder to find in the U.S., though Donnachiara has good availability. They both also make plenty of other wines (Petilia does a Greco and Donnachiara does a Fiano, for example, but both portfolios also include the iconic Campanian Taurasi -- a red wine from Aglianico that [less-surprisingly] can also age well -- among many others.)

So the point is: knock aside your perceptions that slurpable table wines are only meant to be consumed immediately, as I have, and try and get your hands on some of these killer bottles to set aside. If you have the patience (I know, it's HARD,) the rewards will pay off tremendously... in a decade or so!


Sunday, September 22, 2019


Bear with me if I sound like a broken record, but you know I go nutso over wines from less-common locales, and here's another one! I have long enjoyed wines from Israel, but two recent tastings catapulted the country to the forefront of my mind; the quality is amazing, the potential is HUGE, and the value is incredible. So banish those thoughts that Israel only makes grape-juicy Kosher wines already and get with the program!

It's a little funny that in one sense Israel is absolutely "Old World" -- it's one of the very first places ancient people grew grapes. But it's certainly "New World" in guts and style.

Here are some things to keep in mind:
  • There really is no clear "signature" grape of the region. In fact, Grenache was first planted only about ten years ago and is making some of the world's best already! As knowledge, experimentation, and technology grow, so will the quality and variety of Israeli wines.
  • Many bold Israeli reds are actually super-approachable, meaning they're not overly-structured and require years of cellaring before you pop them. These are meant to be drunk now!
  • This is a group of winemakers who are forging forward, breaking conventions, and doing it all with passion and a strong intellectual and environmental basis. They are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and non-religious to boot. 
  • There are only about 35 commercial wineries, but around 250 boutique ones, and this number is rising as grape-growers peel off to make their own wines. Some of which are already achieving "cult" status!

Here are some of my standouts from those recent tastings:

2018 Five Stones “D vs G” White (David v Goliath) 
Appellation laws are fairly relaxed in Israel, so they have a lot of options for experimentation with blends. I initially had a "hmmmmm" reaction to this 60% Gewurztraminer 40% Sauvignon Blanc blend, as who thinks to put those two grapes together?! And I did feel it kind of butted itself in the head, BUT boy how it would go with the spiced and spicy food of the region. Typical "grandma's boudoir" Gewurz notes of dusty rose perfume with litchi, accompanied by SB's green, linear acidity. Outrageously long finish. I definitely warmed up to it! ~$30

2017 Recanati Winery Reserve Marawi 
Marawi is one of the indigenous varieties of the area now getting resurrected. This was first commercially released in 2014, and is the tricky story of a Palestinian grower who sells the grapes grown in his backyard to an Israeli company. (His name isn't released because they have had death threats on both sides, yikes.) Recanati also has their own vineyards, and produce a Roussane/Marsanne blend and an old bush vine Carignan, all farmed biodynamically. This had yellow fruit, sweet brioche, juicy apricot, lanolin, honeysuckle, and a little spice with smoky, flinty minerality. Long yet mild finish. Little Chenin Blanc-like. 1 year in French oak. ~$34

2011 Somek Carignan
This is from a single vineyard with 40-year old vines. The Someks are 5th generation winemaker-grapegrowers, so this is a family vineyard since 1882; the winery itself was founded in 2002. The family does it all, including marketing and distribution. This Carignan is aged 24 months in French oak and 2 years in bottle. Definitely earthy, terroir-driven. Cola, hi-tone blueberry, mocha dust, minerally, with licorice, brambly berries, wild sage, a little spicy, and has tightly wound, balanced tannins over a super long finish. Continues to be tangy after 7 years! And it's still kind of a baby. This will be fascinating in a few more years! ~$35

2016 Hayotzer Lyrica
Arza, Hayotzer's parent company, started in 1847! Here we have a GSM blend (40% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 25% Mourvedre.) Soft red and pink flowers, crunchy red fruit, white pepper, smooth and sexy, plush but juicy, whiff of smoke on finish, not super-complex but really tasty and I wanted to slurp it uuuup. ~$40

2016 Gvaot Masada
Shiva Drori, Gvaot's winemaker, is interested in the academic side of making wine; he does DNA testing, studies wine at a high level, and brings that information back to the vineyards and winery. The Masada is a blend of 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 22% Petit Verdot, from rocky, steep, mountainous vineyards, with a huge diurnal swing; the elevation and diurnal keep the temperature in check and preserve the grapes' freshness and acidity. At my tasting, I thought this wine glass was not properly clean, muting the wine's aroma, and so this showed merely dusty on the nose. But in the mouth there was loads of tightly wound purple fruit (that PV really jumps forward!) leading to a big and structured, but balanced wine. Wow. ~$75

2016 Covenant Syrah
Covenant brought winemaker Jeff Morgan from Napa over to consult, and that has led to its growing cult status. This wine is 90% Syrah with a dash (10%) of Cabernet Sauvignon. It presents as liquid red fruit, spicy and juicy and lush and sexy, pepper, light savory notes, super balance of fruit/savory/spice/oak use plushness, wow! Lifted tang on long finish. Chewy. It brings voluptuousness without blousy-ness. ~$75

2016 Tura “Mountain Peak” Red
Another cult comes from the husband/wife team Vered and Erez Ben Sa'adon (she's the winemaker.) The Mountain Peak red is a blend of 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petit Verdot. Cassis, cedar, herbal liqueur, pyrazine, good acid once again, tangy juicy outrageously long finish. This is definitely a creative take on a CS-based Bordeaux-style blend. ~$75

2016 Segal “Unfiltered” Cabernet Sauvignon
The Israeli cults just keep on coming! Winemaker Avi Feldstein has boldly produced an unfiltered Cab since the days when that was a kind of blasphemy. This is a super-interesting wine, with cassis liqueur, bright red fruit, mocha, toasted coconut, a bit of shortbread. Wow. Really “red,” dense and intense. Long finish. Big but plush/approachable. Segal is owned by the large company Barcan — "big kids" in Israel sometimes acquire or start small wineries to have a garagiste offering. ~$60

2014 Golan Heights Winery Yarden “2T” 
Golan Height is one of the coldest areas in Israel, and much like the U.S.'s Old West, there are wild horses galloping along wide volcanic plains. This is one of the country's more classic wineries, and here they're showcasing how Portuguese varieties can shine in Israel. A blend of 69%Touriga Nacional and 31% Tinta Cão sourced from 2 vineyards in Golan Heights: Springs Vineyard at 700 meters elevation, and Geshur Vineyard at 400m. Aged 18 mo in 40% new French oak. Smoky, spicy mocha, black plum, blackberry, black cherry, lots of peppery spice on finish. Good combo of juicy, approachable fruit, some more savory notes, and balanced acid and subtle tannins on long, balanced finish.  ~$33

2014 Tabor Winery Malkiya Single Vineyard CS 
Tabor was founded in 1999 by four families of growers that have working there for five generations. This Cab is from a single vineyard at 726 meters elevation with Terra Rossa (the most famous soil of Coonawarra in Australia,) under topsoil, and lots of limestone rocks they refer to as “a lot of stars.” Viticulturist Michal Ackerman found this area and she convinced them to make wine there! Her vines' roots go down 20 feet so they have access to water and unusually for Israel don’t need irrigation. She’s also planting Malbec and Chenin Blanc in the Negev desert, so watch for those.  These Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are hand picked, they use only free-run juice, and it is aged 18 months in new French oak with an additional 1 year in bottle. Smoky, cassis, cedar, cloves, wow, VERY tasty, with the red fruit coming out more on the palate. Tightly wound, and it releases layers of flavors over an incredibly long, balanced finish. Would be fun to blind taste this on some smarty somms! ~$60

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I don't know about you, but I am definitely planning to seek out more of these amazing wines from Israel. At the high end, maybe $60-75 bucks seems like a lot, but you'd be paying $150-300 for a similar wine from Napa, so these actually are a steal! Ask your merchants and somms about providing more quality wines from Israel; they may appreciate your "insider" know-how, but they also need to know you're interested in trying these stunning offerings. (Seriously, there was hardly a dud in the bunch, and I sampled over FIFTY wines.) I look forward to my next "visit" to Israel, for sure!


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Diverse Treasures of LODI

I have long believed that the wine region of Lodi in California holds a tremendous amount of possibility; it seems that every single grape in the world grows well there. Sure, you'll find Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and a host of other familiar names, but there is also everything from Albariño to Zinfandel; over 100 vitis vinifera grapes are grown in the area. And yes -- that is pretty darn unusual!

Lodi, located inland from San Francisco Bay, has a mild Mediterranean climate, and benefits from cooling breezes funneled in from the Pacific Ocean. Its local geography is so diverse, they can grow grapes from all over the globe in numerous plots and pockets boasting various microclimates. The winemakers of Lodi are leaders in sustainable winegrowing as well, and there is a palpable sense of them working together to advance the reputation of the region (not battling it out in competition.)

One may never master the incredible array of wines produced in Lodi, but a recent tasting reconfirmed the absolute deliciousness at every turn. Notes on some favorites are below (and I have added the "home base" for the varietals used just for funsies.)

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2017 Belle Blanc
2018 Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards Ingenue:
Very intriguing!! Blend of the white Rhône varietals 35% Clairette Blanche, 35% Grenache Blanc, 20% Bourboulenc, 10% Picpoul Blanc. But don't worry about the grapes, just enjoy the dense, rich aromas and flavors of nectarine, straw, and ginger, layered over balanced acidity, leading to a tangy and intense wine. I admit I pre-judged the wine because of the abnormal bottle, but it delivers the goods! $32 (S France)

2018 Lange Twins Winery & Vineyards Aglianico Rosé:
This deep garnet-y pink may turn off some used to the paleness of Provence rosés, but Aglianico is a thick-skinned and dark grape variety so it makes a powerful rosé! No wimps allowed here, with super SHPICY rose petals and raspberry-strawberry fruit. Yum. $20 (Italy)

2016 Mettler Family Pinotage:
I have never had a Pinotage NOT from South Africa, so I was understandably wary. Welp, color me pleasantly surprised! This was super-complex and gorgeously balanced; blueberry, mocha, violet florals, with tangy acidity and light, grippy tannins. Intriguing all around. I shared it with a bunch of chefs I'd just done a wine class for and it was hands down wine of the night for them! $25 (South Africa)

2016 PRIE Winery Ancient Vine (1900) Block 4 Speaker Ranch Carignane:
Image result for michael david inkblotLose the wine-geekiness and just slurp up this delish bottle. Bright crunchy red and black cherry fruit, zingy acid, some spice and a whiff of florals. Just keep my glass full, please. $29 (S France/Spain)

2016 Michael David Winery Inkblot Cabernet Franc:
Y'all know I love a sexxxy wine, and this fits the bill! Dark, rich, dense, blackberry pie, cocoa/mocha, graphite, bit of herby earthiness, violets. Cab Franc can sometimes be a little too light or a little too green, and this has a dose of 8% Cabernet Sauvignon and 7% Petit Sirah to ground it. Intense and rich with subtle tannins. $29 (Loire)

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Perhaps the amazing diversity of Lodi's wines will make it harder for the region to be given its due, as there is no recognizable specialty. But this diversity is precisely what makes Lodi wonderful. (And the price-per-quality ratio isn't bad either! While there were no "bargains" per se in this lineup, the quality here absolutely justified the cost.) So next time you want to try something a little unusual, by all means give Lodi a look -- I look forward to hearing about your discoveries, from Kerner, to Marzemino, to Zweigelt, and beyond!

Wines provided for review by