All posts by Wilfred Wong

The hunt for California’s Holy Grail

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You think you need to travel to The Mecca of Pinot Noir to satisfy your appetite for the variety? Well, I have news for all of you starving wine lovers. Though it is hard to deny that a week in Beaune, France would do wonders for the wine soul, I can point to so many places in California where Pinot Noir has gone to the next level. Where? Could it be the Russian River Valley, the Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast? While those places do indeed have some of America’s very best Pinots, today I’d like to talk about the Santa Lucia Highlands.

History tells us that the earliest plantings in this AVA took place in the 1790’s, but it was not until the 1980’s and 1990’s that the area was re-discovered by farming families: Pisoni, Franscioni, Manzoni, Boekenoogen and others. Today there are many artisan productions proving this area’s potential for greatness. At the forefront of the movement is Bernardus, whose single vineyard Pinot Noirs are nothing short of spectacular. While Proprietor Ben Pon had been known for developing a strong case for Bordeaux blends (Marinus) out of Carmel Valley, his more recent launch of Pinot Noir is grabbing  attention from the top critics in the wine world. Wine publications such as the Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate and the Wine Enthusiast, have given the wines superb accolades and high scores.

In my recent tastings I was really wowed by the 2011 single vineyard offerings. The  Soberanes shows great balance and trueness to the varietal. The Sierra Mar takes the varietal on a darker fruit journey and is pretty delicious. The Pisoni is scary good and so young that it could take a year of two before it is ready, though one could roast a leg of lamb and be pretty happy with this wine. The Garys’ is complete and distinctive as it offers a more savory personality. My very favorite is the Rosella’s. This wine is so spectacular that I could easily turn away a fine Gevrey-Chambertin and pour this one in its place. Gentle and bright, yet deceptively powerful, the wine just stays, stays and stays on the palate. It may now be the time to invoke a new saying, “Can Burgundy rival America’s best single vineyard Pinot Noir?”

Kicking off California Wine Month with Zin!

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Though Zinfandel is often called the “California grape,” its origins are slightly further away. Where is origin of Zinfandel? In 2000, Carole Meredith, co-proprietor of Lagier-Meredith and American grape geneticist, published findings that suggested Croatia was the origin of this varietal.  Before this, many in the industry believed Zinfandel was possibly a descendant of Primitivo, the Southern Italian grape. It’s true that Zinfandel and Primitivo are related, but they are both clones of Crljenak,  a native variety of Croatia.

Zinfandel has become “California’s own.” Since the early 1970’s the state’s wineries have produced some of the world’s finest red wines from our beloved Zinfandel. While the research continues, it is clear that California producers have made a stake in the Zinfandel sweepstakes. Whether it is called Primitivo or Crljenak Kaštelanski, California Zinfandel is the prize that is finding itself more often at the dinner table.

“The name Zinfandel was first used in 1832 and established a separate identity for the grape and one unique to America.” (Source: Zinfandel, Producers and Advocates, April 2002). It was not until the early 1970’s that Zinfandel emerged to become the superstar varietal that it is today. Ushered into the limelight by the 1968 Sutter Home Deaver Ranch, a flood of marquee players from the outstanding class of 1973 Chateau Montelena, Ridge Geyserville, Dry Creek Vineyard and others changed the varietal’s place in history forever. Zinfandel was now becoming one of the prizes on the runway.

I drink Zin all the time. My favorite match is pairing it with grilled pork chops. Pork tenderloin with a wine sauce reduction has been one another go to combination. But the ever popular grilled steak with fries works well too. Celebrate 10th Annual California Wine Month and pop the cork on the delicious 2012 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel. The golden state, family and friends will be happy you did.

#CabernetDay from Bordeaux to Coonawarra

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The journey to Cabernet Sauvignon can start anywhere. If you live in the United States, Cabernet is everywhere. Restaurants, retailers, a wine friend’s home, there is no shortage of this varietal. Cabernet is the red wine that runs the show. How did this one varietal become so dominating? Cabernet Sauvignon is a resilient grape that grows and prospers in many viticultural regions around the world. Historically it is a wine that has traveled well. When wines were first exported across the Atlantic to the United States, Bordeaux was one of the best survivors on the long and arduous journey.                                                                                                                                                                      Cabernet and Bordeaux: Bordeaux is one of the most classic wine regions in the world. Cabernet Sauvignon made its mark in the Médoc (Left Bank) region of Bordeaux, where it acts as the principal grape of the blend. Generally combined with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and sometimes Malbec, the ”Médoc blend” became the model of Cabernet Sauvignon blends throughout the world. Despite the imitation of the Cabernet-based Bordeaux blend, no Cabernet is quite like Bordeaux. And when vintners use its prized varietal in their own backyard, the results are diverse and distinct. A wonderful international varietal, Cabernet Sauvignon serves as a foundation to some of the world’s greatest wines. 

As far as one varietal, international wine drinkers can always count on Cabernet Sauvignon. I cut my teeth on California Cabernets (mostly from the Napa Valley) in the late 1960’s. Over the years I have found great examples from Walla Walla in Washington State, Sonoma Mountain, and even Livermore Valley. The Australians make great cabs from the Barossa Valley. I most recently re-discovered Coonawarra, an Australian region known for this varietal. That is the beauty and magic of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is resilient, prospers worldwide, and makes wines that even the most particular of wine lovers will enjoy.

Cabernet and Napa: Most recently, all attention has been on Napa, and rightly so. After the earthquake, wineries have been cleaning up the broken bottles, taking stock of lost wine and taking survey of the damage. Luckily there was no human loss in the quake, but it’s hard to say the same for Napa Valley’s most prized product: wine. As we celebrate Cabernet, the most planted grape in Napa Valley, we encourage you to pick up a glass of Cabernet (or any other varietal!) from Napa and toast your support. Tweet it, Instagram it, share it on Facebook. There’s no better time to #drinknapa! Cheers.

Baseball and Wine: The race to the pennant

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There is a saying every spring when it comes to the boys of summer: “Hope springs eternal.” Doubtful that 18th century English poet, Alex Pope, imagined that his words would be immortalized in baseball “hall of fame” expressions, but we hope he’d be proud. Baseball, the great American pastime, runs from the beginning of March to early October. Most teams have World Series dreams that begin early and  fade or grow as the season heads into the home stretch.

While many turn to beer and other beverages, more and more sports fans are taking the wine route as they root, root, root their teams to their pennant berths. I had a friend of mine, a San Francisco Giants fan, who always broke out a bottle of Sonoma County zinfandel for good luck. As the season came to its crescendo, she would go for the more expensive stuff. Baseball and wine, like any good match, goes together quite well. Here are my picks for the best wines with baseball that I will be pouring as my team heads into October.

I’d like to start with a bubbly, not too expensive but plenty good to whet the appetite and get the rooting lungs going. Just imagine watching the pre-game warm up with a glass of Domaine Chandon Brut from California. Elegant and tasteful, with sharp crisp acidity, this one would match well with sashimi, raw oysters, caviar and the like. Of course, one could just drink it by itself at the sound of the National Anthem. The first pitch is a strike. “What, the ump called it a ball!!!” Let the games begin. Real fans know that the first three innings are a dance between the pitchers and opposing lineups.  As more food comes to the buffet table,  I always make sure to have Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon on hand. You may say, “Wilfred, you are so boring.” Well, I just want to be pragmatic and if I don’t have these two on the back bar, someone will ask for them, I can guarantee that!

Dollars play a part in what I choose and this is the kind of event that I don’t really want to overspend.  Everyone will pour their beverages and plate their food with their eyes glued to the tube or, more likely, there will be a baseball argument of some sort. Food and wine play a supporting role here. My Chardonnay choice: The 2012 Veramonte Chardonnay from the cool Casablanca Valley in Chile. This wine is very good and quite affordable. You can even buy a few bottles extra, in case the game goes into extra innings. Cabernet needs to be easy to drink, yet definitive in its flavors. For this season I recommend the pert and clearly defined 2011 Penley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coonawarra area of Australia. Now get ready for the final leg of the pennant chase. May the best team win!

The World’s Best Wine Values under $15.00

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“I just could not spend another dime, I really wanted a wine that my friends and I could just drink and not talk about!” How often do you feel like this? Far too often I am sure. In my wine world, I taste and evaluate all price points and yes my soul awakens when I can taste and savor a glass of Krug Champagne or ponder over a pour of Château Latour – my pocketbook opens just once when those wines come into my periscope. So how about some wines that we all can afford? Where are the great value wines? The trends have been pointing towards Spain, Argentina and Chile, among other areas in the world. I agree those are the usual places that we should look. That said, when value-hunting, looking in unlikely places can often yield incredible discoveries. I have stumbled across three unlikely places for superb values under $15.00. Let’s take a look at Australia, Italy and the USA.

For two decades Australia has been lying in wait to be re-discovered. A star in the 1990’s this multi-faceted viticultural area has been fluttering in space. This was the country that had brought Shiraz (aka: Syrah) to the fore only to become mired in a “cheap” wine mode. Most recently the Aussies have made incredibly fine wines in all price ranges. The 2011 Wild Oats Shiraz drinks exceptionally well. Supported by some subtle sweet tannins for texture, this wine delivers its ripe fruit flavors all the way through its finish. Yes, this is one of the world’s best bargains in fine red wines.

When wine drinkers hear of Tuscany, they think of Chianti. As one of the world’s most revered regions, this area has found its sweet spot in the $20 to $40 range, but every once-in-a-while, one can uncover a super bargain and that is just what the 2010 Borgo Scopeto Chianti Classico offers. Decidedly sassy and true-to-the-region, this wine plays nicely into the hands of those that want to save a few $$$’s.

One area that one never hears of in the value camp is the USA and how about Oregon, no way! The 2013 Acrobat Pinot Gris is so succulently good. Plenty of ripe fruit and nice acidity, this wine outplays many wines in the $20+ range.

While the expensive and exotic marquis wines get all the ink and a few regions in the world have gained the reputation for their “great wine values,” the best values are often found in the most unlikely of places. As a wine retail veteran of 40+ years, I have learn that deals can show up from anywhere in the world. If you are like me (a bargain hunter) let the world be your oyster. Remember the best pearls are often found after the dirt has been washed away.