A Trio of Top California Chardonnays

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On Thursday, May 22nd, the 5th Annual Chardonnay Day will be here and the burning question is… what will be in your glass? If one wants to get maudlin, it was only four decades ago when Chardonnay was not on the menu. If you asked any retailer in the early to mid-1970s, “what is your best-selling white wine?,” you can be sure the answer would not be Chardonnay. No, the most sold white wine of that era was California Chablis (which in fact, was not Chardonnay at all). We have come a long way!

To some folks (perhaps those in the ABC – Anything But Chardonnay – crowd) Chardonnays taste entirely too similar, and to some extent I would agree. Wineries have become so adept at producing well-made wines that it can be hard to distinguish one from another. Yet differences do exist and the hallmark of the finer producers is high quality and consistency. Over the last half-dozen years, three  successful California Chardonnays that have exhibited these traits include  MacRostie Sonoma Coast, William Hill Estate Winery Napa Valley and Mer Soleil Reserve. What makes them the darlings of the industry is that they have found a place in the market and stayed true to producing wines of high quality and consistent character.

The William Hill Estate Winery Napa Valley is rock solid in its makeup. Drawing from Napa’s cool Carneros and warmer St. Helena regions, the wine exhibits fine core fruit notes and a warm and balanced palate. When I am looking to feed my friends lightly grilled prawns, I often reach for a Sonoma Coast chardonnay and no one does it better than MacRostie. A bit subtler than the aforementioned  William Hill, MacRostie deftly defines the crisp nature that this AVA is apt to show. On the bold and powerful side, I recommend the Mer Soleil Reserve. Creamy and layered, one could easily pair this wine with organic roast chicken (I am a big fan of organic chicken because the flavors are sweeter and more distinctive). This trio ranks among my best choices in the marketplace, and may make one wonder: was Chardonnay always this good? Let’s dial back to the early 1970’s and take a look at the varietal’s place in the market.

One of California’s greatest wine books, The Fine Wines of California by Hurst Hannum and Robert S. Blumberg, published in 1973, listed 32 Chablis (from California) and only 20 California Chardonnays, including, Buena Vista, Chalone, Cuvaison, Hanzell, Charles Krug, Llords & Elwood, Robert Mondavi, Parducci, Simi and Stony Hill. Yet the real story in this era was that Americans were still drinking California Chablis. From 750 ml (called fifths at the time) to 4.0 liter bottles, California Chablis was the show. But Chardonnay’s time was about to come.

As a retailer in the 1970’s, I started moving away from Chablis, instead offering our customers the likes of Beaulieu Vineyard, Simi and Kenwood Vineyards. Over time I moved the clientele to Cuvaison, Chalone and Spring Mountain, among others. The “everyday” group consisted of fresh, frisky and fruit forward wines and the upper tier brought wines into the French Burgundy tier. Chardonnay enjoyed such a great launch pad at this time; it eventually became the white wine that ran the business. As the industry grew up, wineries such as Sonoma-Cutrer and Kistler Vineyards took a bold step and modeled their works after the Old World epicenter of Chardonnay, France’s Burgundy region. Yep, those high-priced vineyards that only the French and American wine aristocracy could pronounce.  Puligny-Montrachet was not in the common vernacular at that time.

Chardonnay, the most important white wine in the world, is ready to party. What will be in your glass on Thursday, May 22nd, The 5th Annual Chardonnay Day? I already have a few bottles in the fridge ready for action. Look forward to sharing some tasting notes with you then!

The Gorgeous 2012 Oregon Pinot Noirs

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I am so incredibly excited! About what, you ask? The 2012 Oregon Pinot Noirs, a vintage the Wine Spectator called, “Ideal conditions produced generous wines; not over the top.” The magazine rated the vintage 92-95 points. I am on a mission to taste 50 or more of the current releases from some of the best wineries in the state. This process will take a couple of months. I will have a full report by the first of July. The following wineries are among my hit list: A to Z Wineworks, Adelsheim, Argyle, Chaehalem, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, King Estate, Ponzi, Rainstorm, RouteStock and Seven Hills Winery. I have a few others that I will include as well. So what about recent vintages?

Oregon is one of the wine world’s most marginal growing regions. Over the past four decades, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris have been the stars, especially in the Willamette Valley. Even adding to the fun are the growers and vintners themselves. If any of you have ever spent quality time with these folks you will have learned that they can be cagey, cantankerous and collaborative. If you are not into it, they won’t even acknowledge your presence (I am only kidding here). But one thing that is undeniable is that the Oregon wine folks are super passionate about what they do. The result is: they live in a growing region that is reserve for the strongest souls in the wine biz. Potentially, the Willamette Valley can have some really difficult vintages. Hearts are anxious and spirits are strong as each harvest comes into view.

I have tasted some 2010′s and 2011’s and there are so many very good wines. The 2011’s are by and large a bit leaner and reticent of recent years. As I begin to taste the 2012’s I am really liking them. The first few have come across a pleasingly plump, yet nicely balanced. Yes, this promises to be a vintage to remember. Seems those guys at the Wine Spectator are very much on target! My current favorite for all to try is the 2012 Argyle. The wine is so pretty and ready to enjoy. This wine is a precursor of what is to come. Stay tuned, you may even be able to forget about Burgundy for a while… Well, maybe not. For the time being, 2012 Oregon Pinots will be the envy of the marketplace. By the way,  May is Oregon Wine Month, wouldn’t this be a great way to celebrate?

Working Moms in the Wine Industry: Happy Mother’s Day to all of you!

Moms deserve so much credit. In most cases they are the ones who spend endless hours raising the next generation and with working moms the load becomes increasingly strenuous. But how about working moms in the wine industry? Does the industry that provides the adult population with some of the greatest libations on earth serve up additional challenges? Alison Crowe, winemaker for Garnet Vineyards and consulting winemaker for additional projects, explains, “The uncertain hours of Mother Nature can wreak havoc on a family’s schedule. Harvest is usually quite unpredictable and everyone has to be extra flexible, kids and parents alike. Since my two boys are so small, I sometimes can take them with me to the vineyards to teach them about the growing season and the natural world, but the daily reality is that it’s tough to juggle activities, to get them ready for daycare, and to get them fed and put to bed.”

Wine industry professionals are also called upon to host winery events, dinners and trade sales calls, which sometimes happen at night and on weekends. Crowe says, “The late nights are definitely an extra challenge of the job and means sometimes I don’t see the kids until they wake up the next day. I’m lucky I have a very supportive spouse as well as in-laws who live nearby; we’ve pieced together a system that seems to work.”

Though “wine country living” may seem like a fantasy to many of us, the reality is perhaps different for the working moms of the wine business. Crowe admits, “Living in Napa you are surrounded by an incredible array of some of the finest food in the world. Just like any parent, however, you have to model the balanced food choices you want your kids to make. Juice is watered down, sweets are limited, but great organic produce, cheese and wine (for the grown-ups) are definitely part of the “treats” that bring a lot of pleasure and enjoyment to gatherings. Lessons about wine, history and cooking are just as important to teach and model for our kids as the numbers around nutrition.” Children often emulate their parents and wine adds another twist to busy career moms. It is not just about having a busy mom, but one who deals in a beverage with and health and social ramifications.

One of the busiest and respected working moms in the wine biz is Dr. Valery Uhl. Besides growing grapes and being a serious student of the industry, she is knee deep in the wine judging circuit as an accomplished wine taster and the Director of the North of the Gate Wine Competition (NOTG). Valery, a physician and surgeon since 1985, gave birth to her son Tristan in 1997 while obtaining her Viticulture Management degree at Santa Rosa Junior College. She took one day off a week from her thriving oncology (cancer) practice  San Francisco bay area and drove 60 miles north to take classes from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM. Recounting the dual career journey, Valery included her son in her global wine travels. Tristan has been to every continent, except Antarctica. Over the years, both mom and son enjoyed working together in the family’s wine business ventures, including their prized T n T Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. As a mom, Valery’s top priority has been to include her son in her wine adventures whenever possible.

I first met Michaela Rodeno at Domaine Chandon when we were both young, and I was so impressed by her kindness and professionalism. She carried herself with great ease and she still managed take excellent care of her family. Michaela, a winery professional of 40 years, comments, “Our children were born in the 1980′s in a time where there were growing social concerns about alcohol. So being in the wine industry, it was important that our son, John, and daughter, Kate, were not excluded from our world. We taught out kids to be our wine waiters (at age 5). Dinner was our only time to be together, so the kids would open and pour the wine, then decamp after eating to leave Gregory and me alone (in peace) to finish the wine and catch up, talk, relax. They were very proud of their skills with corkscrew and pouring adeptness. As a result, they both enjoy a healthy attitude towards wine.” Michaela spent 15 years at Domaine Chandon as Vice President of Marketing and 21 years as CEO at Saint Supery. Please check out her newly published book, From Bubbles to Boardrooms in two volumes. The link is amzn.to/16eT6Xv. She is now running the family winery Villa Ragazzi.

The challenges of any industry can be incredible. In the wine industry, working moms have the added burden that centers on the subject at hand: “Wine.” What say you? Let us salute all the working moms in the wine industry.

Wine and the Working Mom

If you’re a mom, you’re working. You may do it at home, you may do it at home and at an office, but you’re working. Virtually all the time. You may be knee-deep in diapers and nap scheduling, or maybe you’ve moved on to shuttling to school, practice, doctor appointments, or maybe you’re trying to figure out what the heck goes on inside the mind of a teenager. But you’re there, working, in the thick of it. And you probably (because you’re reading a wine blog) think about wine. Possibly often. Possibly even before happy hour.

“Don’t forget to get you mom a bottle of wine for Mother’s Day. After all, you’re the reason she drinks.” 

The connection between wine and motherhood is everywhere. It’s like an  inside joke between every mother who has called it “mommy juice,” or talked about “wine that tastes good in a sippy cup.”  The Facebook page “Moms who need wine” has over 683,000 likes. That’s 683,000+ moms who can relate to wine as a necessity in their role as mom.

So do we NEED wine?
Makes us all sound a bit lushy, doesn’t it? It’s not really the wine we need. It’s definitely part of it, but wine reflects a lifestyle and that’s what I think moms need.   As a company, we try to promote the wine lifestyle through innoeleanorWinevation. As a mom of 3 young girls (5 and under), the wine lifestyle means slowing down.  The end of the day is a time to unwind,  decompress and relax, whether it’s from being at an office or herding kids. Or both. And I (and others) like to do that with a glass of wine. Beyond the calming effects of the alcohol, those sips are about taking time away from frantically picking up or unpacking school stuff. It’s about slowing down and taking a break. With the kids, without the kids, over dinner or in a bath. Wine helps us enjoy life, and more than anyone, Moms need to remember to do that! So when you “need” wine, remember you really need to slow down. Sip and savor the wine. And your crazy, busy, joyful life.

So Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there! I hope you celebrate with a delicious glass of wine :) And if you have a mom, go get her a nice bottle! She needs it.

Wine should not be so difficult: A trio of great values!

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Wine should not be so difficult; we professionals sometimes take the subject a little too far. We go into acidity, pH and alcohol. Some of us even talk about volatile acidity and brettanomyces. Certainly, these are subjects we can get into, if anyone wants to learn more. But wine is about enjoyment. When I started drinking wines at age 21 (or maybe a bit earlier when I took a sip of some Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet out of my dad’s glass when he wasn’t looking) it tasted good to me. I was just mimicking what the French did with their children to get them acclimated to the world of food and wine. Tasting.

One of my wine missions in life is to bring good values to the wine-drinking public. Heck, anyone can buy the most expensive wine in the world, with a reasonable expectation that it may be pretty good. But to find bona fide values in the marketplace takes more than just knowing brands. So I want to share with you three delicious wines that most of us can afford. This trio hovers in the $10.00 to $15.00 range – what we call great values.

The Hess Select brand is one of the wine world’s hottest and recognized values and the Chardonnay, from Monterey County, drinks exceptional well.  Ripe fruit abounds, and its easiness on the palate puts it a cut above the rest. I can see this one as a superior cocktail party wine and one that a working chef can enjoy before the meal is served.

Over the last few years, Red Diamond has become a great American standard for good wine. My favorite of the line is the Cabernet Sauvignon. Smooth and delectable, could be a treat for the backyard cook at the grilling station.

Loosen is an extraordinary international name and the Loosen Bros. Riesling Dr. L from the Mosel drinks with grace and style. A well-defined Riesling, this wine shows telltale apple and flowers in its flavors, and is elegant on the palate. For those fearful of Riesling, this one will take you to the head of the class.

Wine does not have to be complicated.  Don’t fret if you are not following the right protocols – just enjoy!

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