Monday, June 29, 2009

TN: Cameron Hughes 2006 Lot 75 Cabernet Sauvignon

I've been a bit down on Cameron Hughes' wines lately. It's not that they've been bad, but often times they've been a bit generic and very international in style. So, lots of oak and big, ripe fruit. Tasty, yet one-dimensional. The Cameron Hughes 2006 Lot 75 Oak Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon was a poster child for this monolithic flavor profile when I tasted it about 6 months ago.

Six months later, the Lot 75 is like a whole new wine. If anything, this suggests Cameron Hughes simply releases his wines too early when they're still suffering from bottle shock or aren't fully integrated. The caramel aromas are now in the background, while loads of dark fruit and bell pepper are prominent. The pepper adds a nice complexity for me, though some may find it distracting. On the palate there's plenty of black currant and coffee, along with a bit of creamy oak to round out the mid-palate. This is a big boy with tannins that clamp down on the finish. In sum, it's a compelling wine with just enough finesse and green accents to keep its powerful fruit and structure in balance.

Score: 87-89
Price: $12 from Costco

Saturday, June 27, 2009

WN: A Costco Budget Pinot Battle

The contenders:

On the left is the Cambria 2006 Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir. To its right is the Erath 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir. Both hail from Costco, costing $16 and $14, respectively, which are quite modest prices in the world of Pinot Noir.

The play by play:

The Erath opened up first with an intriguing bouquet of cranberry, strawberry, dust, earth and pine. Although it's not generally a good policy to judge a Pinot contender by its color, the light color, more reminiscent of rosé than a red wine, was the first sign that this wine wasn't really packing a strong punch. Indeed, the attack was non-descript and the mid-palate hollow, though a flourish on the finish was pleasantly earthy and floral. While the acidity, alcohol and tannins were all nicely balanced, there just wasn't much fruit or concentration of flavor on the palate. 13.0% ABV.

The less reticent Cambria replied with a salvo of cherry, sage, earth and a hint of caramel on the nose. The attack and round mid-palate displayed a significant burst of fruit, and the texture was much fuller. It was a Pinot with some body and depth, but not over the top as evidenced by a good balance. The finish is not quite seamless, but a little oak tannin did give it a little grip. It's fair to say the oak influence is a more pronounced in this wine, though its presence is well-measured and serves to enhance the wine. 13.9% ABV.

And the winner, by unanimous decision:

The Cambria 2006 Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir. Maybe I've become accustomed to the fuller-bodied style of California Pinot, but the Cambria is just a flat-out superior wine in comparison to the Erath. It's still distinctly a Pinot Noir, so there's no compromise of varietal charactistic, either, in the interest of producing a more appealing wine. (An oddly dark and syrupy glass of Chalone Monterrey County Pinot Noir my girlfriend ordered at a restaurant, after some research, turned out to be spiked with Petite Sirah.) Oregon has a reputation for producing world-class Pinot Noir. Thus it's surprising that out of the several inexpensive Oregon Pinot Noir's I've tried, I haven't yet found a really good wine. For $2 more, I'll buy local and stick with the Cambria from the Santa Maria Valley. A top quality, albeit very large single vineyard trumps whatever generic Oregon appellation grapes are going into the Erath.

Cambria 2006 Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir
$16 from Costco

Erath 2007 Oregon Pinot Noir
Score: 80-83
$14 from Costco

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What to do when your Weber BBQ is ailing?

Ever so often, I'll read a tasting note and wonder, what the hell is this guy talking about? Take for example the ubiquitous "pain grillé." How does the pain of a busted-up grill related to the stuff in the 750 mL bottle? And more importantly, are you trying to tell me that my Weber BBQ is suffering because its wheel fell off?

As it turns out, no, my grill is just fine. "Pain grillé" is French for toasted bread. But I suppose it does sounds more sophisticated to note that a wine has aromas of pain grillé than of toast. After all, any average Joe knows what toast smells like and might even make toast every day. But it takes the cultivated palate of a connoisseur to appreciate the subtle aromatic intrigue that is pain grillé.

Understandably, there is jargon associated with wine as there is with any well-developed field. Describing a wine as tannic, having a round (or hollow) mid-palate, or displaying a lengthy (or non-existent) finish helps to describe the tastes, textures and sensations of a wine. In other cases, certain phrases such as "saddle leather" or "barnyard" are polite euphemisms for aromas that may remind some of straight up cow poop. A leathery Merlot with a lengthy finish is meaningful in the right context even if its not the most common description outside of the wine world.

But then there's turns of phrases that are just tossed out there to throw most everyone off the reviewer's trail. Takes "truffles," for example. How many people have actually tasted truffles? I certainly haven't, but truffles are a fungus like a mushroom that sprouts downward instead of upward. Given how inexact a science extrapolating aromas from a wine is, I suspect "mushroom" would more than suffice as a descriptor other than it just doesn't sound all that luxurious.

"Kirsch" is another popular term in wine reviews that refers to a type of cherry liqueur. Personally, I'd just say cherry liqueur since everyone would understand what that means. Just like if I had said licorice. But it seems "fennel," "anise" and "tarragon" are generally preferred to licorice in tasting notes (though I'm told fennel, anise and tarragon all have varying degrees of licorice flavor).

This confounding practice, however, achieves its absolute pinnacle with the descriptor "stone fruit flavors" because not only is this an unfamiliar terminology, but it also is less precise than virtually any other description the reviewer could have written! Stone fruit is a synonym for a drupe, or fruit with a pit. Peaches, apricots, nectarines, dates, plums and cherries are all stone fruits. But it gets better because bramble berries like blackberries and raspberries are actually aggregates of "drupelets." (This explains why I don't like blackberries very much--I get all those mini-peach pits stuck between my teeth.) Basically, "stone fruit flavors" could mean just about anything from cherries to peaches to even berries. This is one case where perhaps greater specificity would be beneficial.

Of course, you might say, "don't throw stone fruits at that patched-up grillé in glass houses" and you'd be right. The second you write a tasting note, you're in the same racket as those who feign to detect "the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese." But maybe, just maybe, there's a way to be accurate and complete in one's description without veering into the realm of absurdity.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

TN: Havens 2005 Napa Valley Merlot

I've been making some effort recently to find a Merlot that aspires to more than cough syrup and oak flavors. I found one in the Havens 2005 Napa Valley Merlot, but unfortunately it still was disappointing despite clearly being a serious wine.

The bouquet, with a distinct Bretty horsiness at the forefront, was one that a wine drinker will either love or hate. After about an hour of decanting, berry and sweet tobacco aromas emerged, and the funky mixture of smells grew on me a bit. It's definitely an interesting concoction. The palate also needed the air time as it rounded out very nicely while retaining a bit of earthiness. Unfortunately, the finish on this wine was an absolute cliff made all the more dramatic by noticeable heat. The light tannins and moderate acidity made this very approachable, but it's hard to recommend a wine that's both aromatically challenging and culminationally challenged. Ultimately this is an interesting wine, but also a wine that doesn't come together on all levels.

Score: 82-85
Price: $19 from K&L Wine Merchants

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

TN: Iron Horse 2006 Cuvée R

I'll be adding shorter tasting notes more regularly which will be denoted with "TN" in the title to differentiate from the longer posts that add more context to a wine beyond what's in the bottle. These notes will generally cover wines that are less obscure or lack especially unique characteristics, but nonetheless are worth at least a few sentences if not a paragraph or two. Longer posts will be denoted with a "WN" tag for wine note.

The Iron Horse 2006 Cuvée R is the latest wine I've tried from this producer, and Iron Horse has another winner in this blend of 91% Sauvignon Blanc and 9% Viognier. At $25 this is at the upper end of what I'd consider paying for a white wine, but it delivers with subtle floral and peach aromas and that unquantifiable delicious factor. The broad, round entry of citrus and peach is followed by a lengthy, pleasurable and very clean finish. With a pH of 2.78, RS of 2 g/L, ABV of 13.1% and none of the overt herbaceousness and cat pee that often plague Sauvignon Blanc or the flabbiness and bitterness that can affect Viognier, this is an elegant, impeccably balanced wine with impressive acidic structure and lovely aromatics.

I believe this is the last vintage of this wine since Iron Horse Vineyards no longer is associated with the T-T Ranch where they have sourced Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier in the past. Definitely worth the splurge for fans of crisp white wines without the oaky, buttery trappings of a typical Chardonnay.

Score: 90-92
Price: $25 from Wines & Makers

Slowing Down a Bit

It seems I've fallen behind in my fictional vocation of wine writing! I wouldn't say I've been busier, but there has been greater diversity in my use of free time lately. In terms of wine tasting, I've gotten into a cycle of drinking decent if not really good wine that doesn't quite fit into my rubric of off the beaten path and in the neighborhood of $20. This is not "The PR for Decent Wine Files" or "The Bragging About What I Drink Files" after all.

Fortunately, there is change in the wind. Some recent purchases have brought in potentially great blogging fodder such as a non-vintage Rhone blend from a Nor Cal winemaker who uses ancient texts as a guide, a Georgian (the nation that gave the world Stalin, not the state that gave us Chic-fil-A) wine, and a 10 year old hybrid Bierzo-Bordeaux blend, among others. And I still have a bit to write up on Paso Robles as well. Stay tuned, folks!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Greatest Cult Wine Ever?

The man on the left is a genius. Not because he can smoke a cigar, fire a shotgun and chug a glass of wine while jumping up and down on a vintage race car. Anyone named Vin Diesel or Chuck Norris can do that. No, this man is a genius because he figured out how to sell a bottle of wine for several thousand dollars.

The amusing part is that, at least initially, Todd Anderson's Ghost Horse wines appear to have begun as a parody of highly priced, extremely limited production wines. The image on the left was apparently prominently displayed on the Ghost Horse World website before it was redesigned. Even now, the website has a little footnote at the bottom reading "The Occult Wine Experience" and shows images of the winemaker living his fantastic lifestyle. This still looks much like an elaborate goof.

Now, since I'm not a journalist, I'm not going to follow up on this beyond what's available on the Web. But there is a very lengthy discussion on a message board that suggests this is for real. If you have a crap-load of expendable income, you can indeed purchase a bottle of this wine. Winemaker Todd Anderson posts repeatedly to discuss his special project, though at times he also writes in character like one might expect his shotgun firing, car jumping alter-ego would.

Whatever Anderson's intentions were initially--an Andy Kauffman or Borat-like put on or a serious high end winemaking venture--it's clear he's homing in on a curious niche. Much wine is marketed as a lifestyle product, but Ghost Horse World sells the lifestyle along with the wine. The wine club link says it all: it simply titled "Belong." Members of the wine club purchase a barrel of wine for about $5k per bottle, and in return, they receive benefits such as travelling with Todd Anderson, staying at the winery for several weeks per year, and access to Anderson's vacation properties. If you can only afford a case of wine for $15k or $27k, Anderson will hand deliver the case and spend dinner with you to discuss his wine. The merely wealthy, however, can apparently buy a bottle of his entry level Cabernet for a paltry $500 per bottle at the winery. $500 doesn't get you very far in terms of buying a lifestyle, it seems.

Based on its contents and the price of production alone, no wine is really worth more than about $50. But scarcity, demand and image apparently can account for an order of magnitude if not two increase in the purchase price. As much as this seems like a clever hoax in the vein of Andy Kauffman claiming the inter-gender wrestling title, I think this is for real. If you know a serious wine snob who can't get enough of $100+ bottles of wine, tell him he hasn't had a Ghost Horse yet. It's so damn expensive, it must be the greatest thing since diamond encrusted sliced bread covered in truffles and caviar!