Category Archives: What We’re Drinking

Hola Garnacha #GarnachaDay

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When did Grenache/Garnacha become such a big deal? In the youthful days (the early to mid- 1970’s) of my wine career, I remember drinking Ridge wines with then winemaker and now winemaker/CEO Paul Draper at the winery on Monte Bello Road, sipping Grenache in cool mixed red blends. I always found those wines compelling and fun, but what did Grenache contribute to those wines? Was it just a part of the bigger picture? Could this grape stand alone and be successful and also play nicely in a mix with other varietals? The winery writes, “Ridge became involved with grenache quite by accident when, in 1972, we first harvested the nineteenth-century vines on the eastern hills of Lytton Springs. Though we didn’t know it then, one of the hills—planted in 1902—had a high percentage of grenache interplanted with small amounts of zinfandel and petite sirah.” Yeow, the grape had history in California.

In January 1995, I was on a tour de Spain with a group of U.S. retailers. Led by a pioneer U.S. importer of Spainish wines, Jorge Ordoñez, my colleagues and I endured what we commonly say the “death march” of the wine business (when you travel abroad and visit wineries non-stop for a week, including long rides on buses and trains and even planes). I have endured these trips in France, Australia, Italy as well as Spain. This is where we all learn to sleep on buses and enjoy our music playlists.

This Ordoñez trip was quite fine, but one of the most memorable moments for me was my accidental discovery of Garnacha as a stand alone varietal. We stayed at the rustic Remellluri Winery in Alvara, Spain. The Riojas were outstanding, but the taste of glory came when Jorge asked me to join him in the kitchen to try this experimental wine that winemaker Telmo Rodriguez of Remuelluri had made. I looked at this bottle, with some skepticism. Hand-written, “T.R.S. Muestra “Navarra,” I had no idea what this was, but it was good and super delicious. Jorge then grinned and whispered, “You don’t have this wine (to sell).” All of this wine was earmarked for the U.K. He simply wanted me to do is to taste it and comment. Well, I eventually persuaded him to send a palate to the U.S. and he did. That first Spanish Garnacha was then labeled, 1994 Alma Garnacha (Navarra) and started me on my Grenache/Garnacha journey.

Where to go? First of all, I sold all of the Alma immediately to my customers at a small San Francisco retailer, moved onto a bigger retail position with a new company and immediately began to travel the wine world. I never lost sight of Garnacha, and my new position opened up a whole new world of the varietal. My palate spent lots of time in southern Rhône where I had opportunity to taste unblended Grenache in all of its red-fruit glory.

Today my first love goes to Spanish Garnacha, where the grape has become one of the world’s greatest red wine values. Often vibrant and soulful and enjoyed without discussion, but as a chief storyteller, I am prone to talk and this grape is now front and center in my discussion points. Our team recently took part in a Granacha Tweet-Up #lovegranacha and all of us agree that we love a good Granacha! Not only the red versions, but the white, the rose and even the sweet! No matter your preferred wine style, it’s possible you can find a Garnacha to fit it!

While I will always have a soft spot for the GSM’s and other wines that include Garnacha, I am biggest on pushing the world to discover this red wine for the everyday dinner table. I encourage you to bring the 2012 Los Rocas Garnacha to your next get-together. Hola Garnacha!

Rating Wines: Is it art or Science?

WWglassWhen I was in my 20’s and had just gotten a taste for wines, I thought, “Wow!” This is fun! I also  had the perfect forum to launch my wine-loving career. My family owned and operated Ashbury Market, which was a mere two blocks from the infamous Haight-Ashbury corner. What a place to begin what would become a lifetime of tasting wines. In those early days, there was very little in terms of written material on wines. Yes, information on classic wines (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Porto, etc.) from the UK writers and merchants were available and excellent for study. As a wine merchant in the United States in the mid 1970’s, how did I sell what I bought? This is a very good question.

I began by writing 3 x 5 shelf-talkers and taping them up in front of the bottles I wanted to sell. I rotated the signs and chose only select bottles to  highlight special wines. As time went on, more wine became available and customers wanted to know more. Of course since our shop was so small, I was usually available for hand-selling. By the time we reached the early 1980’s, the wine selection became overwhelming and ratings became more and more important. I had to change our methods of marketing wines.

I started with the University of California at Davis and their 20-point scale. The scale taught me a disciplined method to separate the qualities of wine when tasting. I still did not post scores in our little shop. As I passed the 10-year mark of retailing wines, I started competitive tastings. My life was now a series of comparative tastings and wine judging, and this served as a solid foundation to understanding the scoring of wines. I began writing for publications. Three of my first were Wine Country International,  Bay Food (a local Berkeley, California paper) and Vinums Australia. This was the 1980s, and all outlets required that I develop a 100 point scale. My model was the Australia Roseworthy College scale. This was just the beginning. At this time I was tasting about 4,000 wines annually. My number would max out at 10,000 wines annually in the early 2000’s.

So what is the Wilfred Wong scale?
Armed with on-the-floor retail knowledge of what customers would buy, like, and buy again, I learned that any scoring system had to work for the everyday person and not just the wine aficionado. Since the early 1990’s when I solidified my 100 point scale, I have seen my system remain consistent. I approach the wine for what it is supposed to represent. It is not tied to the price of the wine, yet some realities exist. A value wine would be hard pressed to get 100 points just as an ultra-priced wine always wants to achieve the 90 point threshold. I take my ratings seriously, but not myself. Having structure and experience is the starting point of where this all begins. Just as the elite tasters, Robert Parker, Jr, Antonio Galloni, Stephen Tanzer and others, serious raters of wines are acutely aware that it begins with the science and ends with the art. Below is my 100 point scale.

0-50: Poor, incredible amount of flaws- In the early 1970’s wine judges would often encounter these kinds of wine. Today, this category is rarely seen.
51-69 Wines here have noticeable flaws that are real and not just imagined or perceived. I sometime see these wines from immature winegrowing regions.
70-79 Clean, innocuous and really simple wines and super premium wines, with very low keyed aromas and flavors. Usually confined to “jug” wines and often seen from areas outside of the major global growing regions. Often from areas that have never sold their wine internationally.
80-84 Clean, simple, boring wines, commercial like canned soup.
85-89 Very commercial, to pretty fine. This is the place where most of the nationally traded wines end up. I also put wines in the 88-89 point range when they are over-oaked and contain too much sugar, fancy stuff that just missed the grade.
90-94 There are lots 90 point wines that are fat, rich and big. They are often made in a production line way, but with close to an top grade grapes. But this also includes the delicate, yet complex – wines that are not huge, but balanced and layered. When I venture into the 91-94 area, I find the wines pretty special.
95-100 World class wines, typically in excellent vintages. Often single vineyard bottlings; in many cases I will prefer the winery’s single vineyard bottling to their reserve offerings.



Ancient Peaks – California’s newest wine appellation

Domaine Romanee Conti. Chateau Grillet. Santa Margarita Ranch. Okay, so maybe the last one does not ring a bell, but it should! Nestled in the southernmost reaches of Paso Robles lies a single vineyard AVA – Santa Margarita Ranch.  The Margarita Vineyard that inhabits this AVA stands out as the only vineyard located within its own namesake region. This unique vineyard and AVA is the home of Ancient Peaks winery.

santamargaritaWhy should you know about Ancient Peaks? Well, besides the fact that it produces elegant and complex wines, there is a history to the place. First farmed by the Franciscan missionaries in the 1780s, the land took a progressive turn when the Robert Mondavi family saw great potential and planted vines in the region in 1999. Eventually, he sold the land back to the owners and as of now, three families own this winery, vineyard and AVA, which gives them complete control over producing wines distinctive to this unique pocket of California. They are entrepreneurs, ranchers and wine-lovers.

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Last Winery on Earth – Welcome to Two Paddocks

Talented ukulele player, animal and nature lover, winery proprietor, and accomplished actor, Sam Neill is a super cool guy.  His winery in Central Otago, New Zealand, is called Two Paddocks, and these small production wines made by rock star winemaker Dean Shaw are top-notch examples of what can be achieved in this most southernly wine region in the world.  I met Sam and Dean in New Zealand earlier this year, and while I was already a fan of Sam’s acting career, I immediately became a raving fan of the Two Paddocks wines.

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Top 5 Champagnes for Bastille Day!

It’s Bastille Day! La Fête nationale, The National Celebration, The French Revolution!

I can’t help but think of Champagne on a day like this, and what better way to celebrate than pop a bottle of bubbles and yell “Vive La France!”

Here are my top 5 Champagnes that could have been used to celebrate the revolution!

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