Archive for March, 2018


Rhone Valley Grenache vineyards

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I found these pictures on my very old IPad.  I took them back in I believe 2006.

La Crau in Châteauneuf-du-Pape






 Les Pallières (higher elevation Gigondas with limestone)



Cairanne (lower elevation)


 Côtes du Vivarais (north part of southern Rhone on the western flank)


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A Blind Tasting Just for Fun

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Some would view this tasting as a “leap of faith”. Why come to a tasting where I don’t even know what’s being poured? Just so you know, I have given the wine selections a lot of thought in an effort to shed some different light. AND, I am hoping most tasters will NOT be intimidated by the words—Blind Tasting. Just to be clear, participants will NOT be asked to identify the grape variety, the soil, the place of origin or the vintage. That is NOT the intention of this tasting. What we instead had in mind, was to choose four RED wines, those in the old days we would refer to as “bankers”—typical, well made and serve them blind. That way, we minimize any preconceived opinions. Then, the taster, can more objectively assess the quality in their eyes, estimate how much the wine is worth AND what kinds of foods they would consider having each wine with. To me, it is another really interesting, enlightening way to learn.

Tonight, we featured red wines from 4 TOP producers, just so one can sample something unique, interesting, authentic AND compelling. These tasting also gives these small, family run & owned wine projects a “voice”, amidst the growing sea of wine labels from larger, marketing driven wines.

2014 Carol Shelton Zinfandel “Wild Thing” (California)–We took this opportunity to showcase a really good California Zinfandel AND at the same time feature one produced by a small, true artisan winemaker.  Although there are many Zin labels & wineries available today, Carol Shelton produces ones that are very personal, provocative, well textured AND well balanced.  Nothing showy or flamboyant, just plain good & ones that really deliver quality for the dollar.  This is probably why, over the years, she is touted as one of the most highly decorated wine producers out of California, & mainly for her old vine Zinfandels.  The grapes for her “Wild Thing” bottling come from an organically farmed Mendocino vineyard planted in 1956, wild yeast fermented & bottled unfiltered & unfined. This is benchmark Zin for me.

2014 Charles Joguet Chinon “Cuvee Terroir” (France) —The Loire Valley is where Joan of Arc did her crusades. Yes, a long history of culture, eating, wines & vines. It is true, this iconic wine growing region is undoubtedly more famous for their white wines, such as Vouvray, Sancerre, Pouilly Fume & Muscadet just to name a few.  But as time went on & the growing frequency of warmer, more sundrenched vintages, more & more RED (as opposed to rosé colored) wines became more readily available.  The most notable were produced from the Cabernet Franc grape variety, which manifested itself in a VERY different profile then one would find from other parts of the world.  To show tasters what this meant, we tasted a classic Cabernet Franc based red wine, produced from one of the region’s most iconic producers, There is none like this from anywhere else in the world, although others have tried. 

2015 Faury St Joseph (France) –It really is a travesty to watch the popularity of the Syrah grape variety take a back seat over the past 2 or 3 decades.  Why or how are topics we can discuss at a later date.  The more important task at hand, is how can we all help to resurrect the high standing & appreciation of what this grape variety can really deliver.  In support of that, from my point of view, this is Syrah in all its glory, the way, it was & should be! Grown on steep hillsides in France’s northern Rhone Valley, we offer this taste, so one can better understand where we came from.  

2005 Lopez Heredia Rioja Reserva “Bosconia” (Spain)I must admit, Rioja has over the years fallen off my radar screen. This was that opportunity AND the wine, however, which could show tasters what is possible from these grape varieties, this region AND this family.  Yes, this family has been doing this for 140 years! And, this is a 2005, in all its glory. This will profoundly show tasters what Spanish Rioja can be….and that one doesn’t have to be powerful, opulent or decadently oaky.

Categories : General, Wine, Wine Thoughts
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The 1980’s proved to be a whole new frontier of Californian wines for me to explore.  Where the 1970’s consisted of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon based reds, the new, standout wines of the 1980’s, ventured into other grape varieties such as Chardonnay & Pinot Noir.

1980 VINTAGE–The first eye opening wine from the 1980 vintage, was my first taste of a Kistler Chardonnay.  I remember the 1981 was from Dutton Ranch & I am pretty sure so was the 1980.  In either case, both opened a new horizon for artisan, “boutique” wine AND the Russian River Valley growing region.  The 1980 Acacia Pinot Noir (I believe the 1980 was St Clair Vineyard & the 1981 was the Madonna Vineyard) was also the notable wine I had from this fledging winery.  While also received a lot of clamor for their Chardonnays, their single vineyard Pinot Noirs from the 1980 & 1981 vintages were their most compelling wines for me.  I was introduced to the Vichon wines by my best friend, Nunzio Alioto.  His family & other Californian restaurateurs & investors founded this winery, which was spearheaded by winemaker George Vierra.  Their 1980 Vichon Cabernet Sauvignon “Nathan Fay Vineyard” was their first vintage of red wine & was in my eyes a standout.  This winery also produced a 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon “Volker Eislese Vineyard”, though also quite good, it just didn’t have the magic of the Fay Vineyard bottling.  (As a side note they also produced a wonderfully delicious Chevrier Blanc–later changed to Chevrignon–both blends of Semillon & Sauvignon Blanc which were also stellar.  Sadly, the winery was soon taken over by the Robert Mondavi family & became an after thought–it’s brilliance faded away into the sunset.

1981 VINTAGE–the 1981 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir was the first wine I had from this true artisan, old school winery.  I believe 1981 was also the first vintage we were introduced to the Tepusquet Vineyard wines from the namesake vineyard down in the Santa Maria Valley.  They produced a lively, crisp & refreshing Vin Blanc & a lighter, tasty Vin Rouge, which we subsequently used as the house wine for the Kahala Hilton.

1982 VINTAGE–The most prominent standout red wine from the vintage was the 1982 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon.  While we had previously tasted a 1978 & a 1979 from this winery, the 1982 was its first shining moment.  1982 was also the first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon I had from Spottswoode.  “Insiders” were already ear marking this winery as a “can’t miss”.  The 1982 Calera Pinot Noir “Reed” was the first vintage we had from this now iconic winery.  There was hints of minerality & wonderful acidity/vitality which made it standout from its peers.  Winemaker/owner Robert Stemmler had his moments of brilliance with the fickle Pinot Noir grape variety, especially early on.  The 1982 Robert Stemmler Pinot Noir was the first of his wines we encountered.

1983 VINTAGE–A friend, his wife & I were dining at Le Castel restaurant on Sacramento Street in San Francisco  Joining us was another couple (both considered wine experts) who brought the 1983 Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay “Les Pierres”.  Knowing his taste, I found it unusual he would bring a California wine to share.  The wine was so captivating, we were on the phone the very next morning hoping to get an appointment to see & meet with them.  The 1983 Calera Pinot Noir “Selleck”–while I had other bottlings & vintages from this relatively new face, this particular bottling from Calera was the one that captured my fancy & imagination.  It had something to do with the wine’s minerality!

1984 VINTAGE–was the first vintage I tasted of Byron Pinot Noir.   This wine reiterated the potential Santa Maria Valley of the Santa Barbara appellation had.  It was much lighter in weight & had more minerality than those Pinot Noirs I experienced from futher north.  I believe this was also the first vintage we were able to get the Etude Pinot Noir too.

1985 VINTAGE–I was really quite mesmerized by the 1985 Mount Eden Chardonnay.  It was quite the masculine, classy Chardonnay thoroughbred, which was really unique & unlike anything Californian I had previously had.  Upon further investigation, I couldn’t help but think, who had the vision to plant this vineyard 1000 to 2000 feet up in this remote, desolate, rocky, mountainous terrain, back in 1943?  At the time, I thought the Estate Chardonnay was far better than the Pinot Noir & Cabernet bottlings.  Legendary Master Sommelier, Fred Dame introduced me to his friend named Clark, who would in turn introduce me a whole new horizon of California wines.  The first was the 1985 Sarah’s Vineyard Chardonnay, which featured a very classy gold label & really upscale packaging.  The Chardonnay was in turn very classy & majestic, (AND much better than their Merlot).   In subsequent vintages, I recall the fruit coming from the Santa Clara appellation, a whole new scene for wines, at least for me.  A gentleman by the name of Mac McKelvey, who lived on Maui where he started his own Maui based wine distributor introduced me to the 1985 Ventana Chardonnay , which reiterated to me the wonderful potential the Monterey area had for the Chardonnay grape variety.  The 1985 BR Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, although not spectacular, introduced us to the winemaking magic of then winemaker Helen Turley.

I should mention here, sometime between the mid to late 1980’s, I was introduced to the Draper & Esquin portfolio out of San Francisco.  I was initially searching them out for their Italian wines–Gaja, Jermann, Ca’ Ronesca “Ipplis”, Monsecco & Ca’ Rome wines–but also grew quite fascinated with their Californian wine selections as time went on.  The 1985 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon “Sonoma Mountain” was something special, as was some of the single vineyard Zinfandels from Ravenswood & the Santa Barbaran grown Syrahs from Qupe.

Also in the mid to late 1980’s–I was introduced to the Chardonnays & Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat, Ojai & Whitcraft & these wineries changed the game what these grape varieties could be out of California.  It took us a while to get these wines to Hawaii.  In the case of the Au Bon Climat wines & winemaker Jim Clendenen, because of looming governmental potential restriction on Italian wine imports, I was actually trying to get some of Clendenen’s Italian look-a-like wines which were mostly grown in the Santa Barbara appellation which he marketed under the Il Podere dell’Olivos label.  As it turned out, superstar Hawaii chef, Roy Yamaguchi, worked his magic at a Los Angeles high end food event to help make the connection to get the Au Bon Climat wines first.

Around the same time or perhaps a short while later, Fred Dame also recommended I check out the wines from then youngster, Bryan Babcock, specifically his “Grand Cuvee” Chardonnay.  The Babcock estate vineyard is located in what is now called the west side of the Santa Rita Hills appellation.  Back then, it was considered in the middle of nowhere between the towns of Buellton & Lompoc.  (I asked myself, who had the sense/vision to plant this vineyard in such an isolated, undiscovered spot which had meager soils & a continuous, gusting ocean generated wind?  I guess I could ask the same question about the iconic Sanford & Benedict vineyard of the same general area.)  As it turned out, I ended up first buying the Babcock Gewurztraminer, then the Riesling, then a short time later the Sauvignon Blanc “11 Oaks”.  I thought each were special, especially for California, as was the Chardonnay “Grand Cuvee”.

Also in the mid to late 1980’s, I was quite taken by the Howell Mountain grown Chardonnays of Chateau Woltner–3 single parcels–“Frederique”, “Titus” & “St Thomas”–which at the time were under the direction, both in the vineyard & the winery, of Ted Lemon, freshly back from a stint as winemaker at Domaine Roulot in Meursault, France.   Though quite pricey & somewhat hard to get because of limited production, these “mountain grown”, non-malolactic Chardonnays were quite special & unique.

1986 VINTAGE–the most memorable “label” we purchased from the 1986 vintage was the 1986 Bonny Doon “Les Cigare Volant”.  I had previously heard all kinds of stories of this winery phenomenon from Fred Dame (who was a good friend of winemaker/owner Randall Grahm) & later was fortunate to taste a Roussanne bottling of theirs, named  “Le Sophiste” & an earlier vintage of “Le Cigare Volant”.  While the wines were tasty & good, the packaging & schtick/stories were incredible!  Wow!  What a unique niche & a fabulous cache.

1987 VINTAGE–1987 was quite the vintage for California & there were many really good wine produced.  The wine I most remember, however, was the 1987 Georis Merlot from Carmel Valley.  I don’t recall who recommended this winery (though probably Fred Dame).  While I had thought the 1985 & 1986 were good, the 1987 was something very special!  Owner Walter Georis also owned Casanova’s restaurant in Carmel & I later had to chance to meet with him & tour his estate vineyard.  On the white wine side, the 1987 La Jota Viognier was really the first wine I tasted from Bill Smith & his La Jota label that caught our attention, being so lush & extravagantly tropical.

1988 VINTAGE–the most unique wines we tasted from the 1988 vintage was the 1988 Kalin Cellars Chardonnay “LD”.  Owner/winemaker Terry Leighton really was far ahead of his time.  His Chardonnays featured heirloom./heritage vines, from then relatively little known growing areas such as the cooler confines of the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast & even Livermore.  His Chardonnays were wild yeast fermented & bottled unfiltered & most of the time unfined too.  Plus, he released them years AFTER the vintage, so they had a chance to resolve themselves & therefore be much more in harmony.  In most cases the wines, especially the Chardonnays, were terrific.  The 1988 Talbott Chardonnay was also quite a discovery.  Again based upon the recommendation of Fred Dame, we were mesmerized by their Chardonnay’s lavish richness, decadent opulence, lushness & base note stoniness.   At a Trade tasting at the Mauna Lani Resort on the Big Island, Donald Patz came up to me & asked if I wanted to taste his new 1988 Patz & Hall Chardonnay “Napa Valley”.  It was a unapologetically brash, bold, “game changing” Chardonnay, to say the least.  Interestingly, I stumbled upon the 1988 Justin “Isosceles” at a tasting in San Francisco.  What really caught my attention was the wine’s underlying high toned minerality, a quality I did not experience from the Cabernet based red wines out of the Napa & Sonoma valleys.  It was the minerality in this wine that opened my eyes to the potential the Paso Robles appellation had.

1989 VINTAGE–Although this vintage was generally maligned by the wine media, I tasted a few wines that caught our fancy.  The 1989 Talbott Chardonnay “Diamond T” was from their small estate vineyard adjacent to Rob Talbott’s home on a top of a windy hill in Carmel Valley.  While their other bottling of Chardonnay featured mainly decomposed granitic soils, “Diamond T” featured limestone.  Because this vineyard regularly yielded a scant 1 ton per acre, the bottle cost of the “Diamond T” Chardonnay was higher, almost like being a Reserve bottling.  It was a standout at the time nonetheless.  I was fortunate to also taste the 1989 Williams & Selyem Pinot Noir “Rochioli Vineyard”.  It was evident, even with the 1989 vintage, this vineyard had something special going on.  The 1989 Viader was also quite a unique wine.  The hillside vineyard was steep, spectacular & the planting scheme quite the sensation but later turned out to be quite controversial.  The wine was fascinating because of its Cabernet Franc dominance in the blend, its extreme hillside home & the winemaking prowess of Tony Soter.  In this less than heralded vintage, I also tasted the 1989 Alban Syrah “Reva” based upon the recommendation of Bob Lindquist of Qupe.  Although Alban also produced some Viognier based white wines, it really was the provocative, surly Syrah that stood out.

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I was a young lad of 23 when I landed a server job at the soon to open Alioto’s Restaurant, which was then located at the corner of Kaheka & Makaloa streets across from the old Holiday Mart location.  Alioto’s was & still is an iconic, family owned San Francisco restaurant located on Fisherman’s Wharf.  This was to be their Hawaii “branch”.

By that time, I was already into wines & even had in fact taken wine courses through the Grape Escape wine school, taught by Master Sommelier Eddie Osterland & his partner Ronn Wiegand.

My first BIG wine purchase up to that point was a bottle of 1970 Chateau Lafite Rothschild ($36 a bottle at the time) & a bottle of 1971 Chateau Margaux ($25), both from Hi-Ho Liquors in Aina Haina Shopping Center.

I was quite taken back, however, when looking over the initial, opening wine list for Alioto’s, because it featured only California wineries.  Made sense–San Francisco based restaurant & Californian wines.  My only real experience with high quality Californian wines up to this point though were those from Robert Mondavi, so, I was somewhat apprehensive to say the least.

The list was put together by the on sight, owning family representative, Nunzio Alioto, who I soon discovered had incredible knowledge of Italian, French, German AND California wines.  This was to be one of the most impactful wine educational experiences for me in my entire professional life.  (Nunzio & I eventually became fast & best friends & our relationship has now spanned 40 or so years.  I will be forever grateful to him for all of the knowledge & wines he shared with me over the years.)

While, at the time, I was enamored by the Chardonnay based white wines of Meursault, France, I now had to instead understand, appreciate & learn how to recommend Californian Chardonnays, from small, then unheard of wineries such as Chateau Montelena (1973), Freemark Abbey (1975), Burgess Cellars “Winery Lake” (1975) & Cuvaison (1974 from then winemaker Philip Togni).  And, instead of Dr Thanisch Riesling Spatlese “Bernkastler Doktor”, I now had to embrace Joseph Phelps Johannisberg Riesling.  And instead of French Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), I now had to get behind Chappellet Dry Chenin Blanc.  And, instead of the red wines of Bordeaux, I now had to get used to recommending the Cabernet Sauvignons from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (1973), Clos du Val (1974), Beaulieu “Private Reserve Georges de Latour” (’73 & ’74), Sterling (1973 & ’74 “Reserve”) & Heitz Martha’s Vineyard” (1973).  Then, it was quite the challenge & transition, but today looking back, it helped provide quite the foundation for me understanding the California wine scene0 as an emerging world class wine growing region & the players which helped it get to where it is today!

Our “house” wines–listed as Alioto’s Selection–were from the little known Foppiano winery!

It is quite remarkable how back then Californian wines were a hard sell here in the Islands.   Local wine drinkers wanted European wines.  Quite the flip flop nowadays.

As time went on & my getting used to what the Californian wines had to offer, I really started to get into them.

While the Chateau Montelena Chardonnays were truly heads over heels for those in the know, I had a hankering for the 1975 & 1976 Burgess Cellars Chardonnay “Winery Lake” AND the 1972 Mayacamas Chardonnay (out of magnum).  OMG, these were epic in my eyes.

And, on the red wine side, while Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars & Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” were the headliners, I really enjoyed the Beaulieu “Private Reserve” (1968, 1970, 1974); the Ridge “Monte Bello” (1968, 1970) & the Robert Mondavi “Reserve” (1971) bottlings.  I would also like to mention the 1974 Clos du Val & some of the early bottlings of both Mayacamas (1968 & 1970); Inglenook Cask (1967 & 1968); the 1966 Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon & some 1967, ’68, ’70 Special Selection Cabernet & Pinot Noir bottling froms Louis Martini..

As time went on, the list of notable wines grew.

From the 1970 vintage–although the 1970 Beaulieu “Private Reserve” (which legendary Beaulieu winemaker André Tchelistcheff nicknamed his “Shining Star”); the 1970 Ridge “Monte Bello” & the 1970 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon were the real stars of the vintage, I also, however, took a fancy for the 1970 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon from what is now known as Pritchard Hill.  (I had subsequently later tasted the 1968 & 1969, but much preferred the ’70).

1972 was the first vintage I had tasted from the newest Napa Valley star–Clos du Val.  While it was wasn’t necessarily great, we loved his elegant, stylish approach.  The true star of the vintage for me, however, was the previously mentioned 1972 Mayacamas Chardonnay, which was served out of magnum on 2 different occasions.  It was a wine which truly exhibited the potential California had.

From the much ballyhoo-ed 1974 vintage–the 3 stars were–the 1974 Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon; 1974 Heitz “Martha’s Vineyard” & 1974 Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve”.  There was also much hoop-la about the 1974 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”.  It came with a new look–a tailored bottle shape AND in a wooden case–almost as to say, I am of Grand Cru in stature.  Well, it was eye catching right out of the gates, BUT turned out to be quite controversial shortly thereafter.  We were later told there were four batches made–3 had a microbial issue & 1 didn’t.  This, along with the Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Cask 23” bottlings, really brought to the forefront discussions of brettanomyces/dekkera bruxellensis.

From the 1976 vintage–the 1976 Ridge Zinfandel “Lytton Springs” was truly something special & the most memorable Californian wine of the vintage for me.  This was also the first vintage I tasted from Jordan winery & our first real inkling of the Joseph Phelps “Insignia”, although we had tasted at least a couple of vintages prior.

From the 1977 vintage, I was especially taken by the 1977 Ridge “Monte Bello” & the 1977 Beaulieu “Private Reserve”, although it would take decades for both to show their true potential.  This was also the first vintage I had from Diamond Creek winery, the fabulous, iconic Stony Hill Chardonnay, Hanzell Pinot Noir AND was the vintage, Mike Grgich released his first wine under his own label–1977 Grgich Hills Chardonnay, which was quite a stunning, captivating wine!

From the 1978 vintage, 2 standouts upon release –1978 Clos du Val “Reserve” & the 1978 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon “Private Reserve” come to mind.  (There were however, subsequent question marks on both since, as to whether they got any better with additional bottle age).  ZD winery, with the 1978 vintage, released 2 different Chardonnays–1 with a “Napa Valley” designation & the other with a “Santa Barbara” label designation.  I much preferred the latter & this really help open a new box of wine thought for me to explore–the Santa Barbara appellation.   (I had had an earlier experience with an “Alexander Valley” Chardonnay bottling by Chateau Montelena, which also enticed me to look out of the “Napa Valley” box, just as the Ridge “Monte Bello” bottlings previously had).

For the 1979 vintage, while we were really taken by the 1979 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon “Reserve”, we were later really enamored by two very “out of norm” red wines even more–the 1979 Chalone Pinot Noir & the 1979 Opus One.  Elegance is the first word that comes to mind for both.

I should also mention here, the workings of Francis Mahoney of Carneros Creek winery.  I went to visit him, although I can’t remember the exact year, just to check out his Pinot Noir experimental farm & listen to his take on clones & vine selections & how they fit into California.  He opened the door for me to the concept of clones, something I really didn’t think too much about, at least up to this point.

We should also mention some of the standout, “other” grape varieties which stood out in the 1970’s.  For Riesling the highlights were from Joseph Phelps & Chateau St Jean.  For Chenin Blanc–Chappellet.  For Sauvignon Blanc–Dry Creek, Robert Mondavi & Chateau St Jean “La Petite Etoile”, which in each of these cases, labeled their wines as Fume Blanc.

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