For one brief, shining moment

Postcard_1 Greenwood Ridge Winery, the host for the California Wine Tasting Championships, is located in the Anderson Valley, about seven miles from the valley floor (distance, not altitude, of course). 

It is so remote that first-time visitors often report turning off of Highway 128 at the "California Wine Tasting Championships" sign, only to grow increasingly convinced they either missed the place or their odometer is broken.  The familiar thought of the perpetually lost begins to haunt the driver – "Am I getting closer or FARTHER AWAY??"  Even after seeing the winery’s sign (and missing the driveway, requiring a quick u-turn), there are another two miles of dirt driveway to navigate.  That clean car you started out with?  Forget about it.

Continue reading “For one brief, shining moment”

Damn, what IS that, that…?

Friday, July 28, 2006.  I’m on my way up Anderson Valley for the 24th annual California Wine Tasting Championships.  My wife has kindly offered to drive so I can blog for as long as my laptop battery holds out.  Last year was my first year of participation, and was honored to have lost in the final round to two winemakers and a distributor.

The format is challenging – an unknown wine is poured into your glass and you have four minutes to determine the following:
• The grape variety (all wines are varietal wines, with at least 75% of the dominant variety) 6points
• Extra Credit (only granted IF the correct varietal is identified)
   o It’s region (3 points)
   o It’s vintage (1 point)
   o It’s producer (2 points)

Guess the wrong grape varietal, and you lose all points you may have earned for that wine! Contestants taste 8 wines per round.

This year I’ve talked to some of my industry friends into competing, one of whom rented a van to transport their entire staff to the competition!  This adds an extra element of pressure, of course.  And while I’m glad my friends are participating, it does add an element of stress to the competition. 

I don’t know about you, but my palate goes through periods of being really stupid.  It just flat won’t work.  Such periods don’t last long – a couple hours at the most.  When blind tasting, this is akin to instant defeat.

Unbeknownst to my wife, I’d stopped by Safeway and dropped a whopping $45 on seven practice wines.  She was kind enough to wrap them and pour them for me to practice with in preparation of tomorrow’s event.  I have to say, I did horribly.  And worse yet, I thought I’d done very well until the wine’s identities were revealed.  I went to bed in a restless mood, clearly dreading tomorrow.

Next – Saturday’s competition…

I don't wave even if it's the same COLOR!

Much of my childhood was spent squeezed between my brother and sister in the back seat of the family car.  As is true of most kids, a great and painful boredom would descend about ten minutes into a 4-hour drive, so we came up with a lot of inane ways to pass the time.  One of my more bizarre boredom-relief techniques, used only once, was counting all the telephone poles between suburban Chicago and Crown Point, Indiana.  I was not a popular family member that day.

54vw By comparison, Slug-Bug Hunting seems a highly intellectual exercise.  The rules were simple – the first to see one of the (then) rare and funky-looking Volkswagen Beetles got to slug the shoulder of the other players.  In the early days of our family road trips, the car was sufficiently rare to provide our fellow passengers with long moments of silence while participants searched the horizon, eager to be the first to spot the next VW Beetle.  But over time the car’s expanding popularity resulted in less time between slugs, and in some pretty sore shoulders, which then begat arguments and other forms of back-seat chaos ("don’t make me stop this car!")  Spotting a slug bug was no longer unique.  And it was no longer fun.

If families still take road trips in these days of $3.50/gallon gasoline, I suspect bored backseat riders might play a similar spotting game with the Prius.  At least, they may have until recently – today you can’t drive a mile of California highway without spotting a dozen or two.  I recently mentioned this apparent proliferation to an early Prius buyer and he sadly said "Yeah I stopped waiving at other Prius drivers over six months ago, and now I don’t wave even if it’s the same color".

2005toyotapriusSuch changes surely mark the matriculation of the Prius from cult to mainstream status.  The end of an era.  Inevitably, this development disappoints the early adopters.  The progression seems to go something like this:

– Early adopter discover an ugly duckling’s redeeming qualities.

– They speak about the ugly duckling with evangelical enthusiasm to anyone who will listen.  Real and virtual clubs and communities form, an exclusive forum open only to like-minded evangelists so they can exchange inside information, thus becoming even more evangelical.

– Gradually, the mass market begins to understand what the evangelists are excited about.

– Suddenly the ugly duckling blooms into the most popular kid in the class.  It becomes the Homecoming King/Queen.

– The ugly duckling forgets its old friends from the early days as it adapts to please the broader market.

Pinot Noir, The Beautiful Swan, nee Ugly Duckling…

Continue reading “I don't wave even if it's the same COLOR!”

Blogging SWE – a three-dot column

Swelogo Nine years ago, when I attended my first annual conference of the Society of Wine Educators, I sat next to a white-haired veteran who had helped found the event, some 20+ years before.  He asked me what I thought of the organization and I replied "I think it is a great source for detailed information that is of interest to a small percentage of wine drinkers, but I think its primary mission should be to educate the masses, to make wine a part of every night’s meal for the average American". 

I was summarily dismissed as a heathen, a young turk who simply didn’t understand the discipline of the religious order that was fine wine.

So it was with a certain amount of quiet glee that I listened to the this year’s keynote speaker (Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications) as he outlined why SWE and most premium wine companies "Have it all wrong".  The best quote from his talk?  "For most people, drinking wine with a Sommelier is like making love to a sex therapist – pleasure is surpassed by the overriding fear that they are not doing something right, that they don’t know some critical technique.  Love should not be made with a manual in one hand, and wine should not be enjoyed that way either."

That was just one of the amusing tidbits from last week’s marathon event.  Here are more selected highlights for those not able to attend:

  • The amazing phenomenon of "yellow tail" almost did not occur.  Owner Bill Deutsch originally nixed the label design featuring the now famous kangaroo, but his son (an heir apparent) Peter talked him out of it.  That was five years and about 15 million cases ago.  The label launched the "Critter Wine" craze, the most successful labels in the fighting varietals category, and the wines most popular among the 20-something market.
  • "Most wine classes do not appeal to today’s market – it’s like we’re trying to teach Mah Jong in a Video Games marketplace"…
  • "We talk about wine in terms that are way too technical!  If a friend of yours asked about someone they’re interested in dating – would you respond with "she’s a carbon-based life form, 68% water with a pH of…?"  That’s what we’re doing with wine.  As with people, we want to know a Wine through descriptoins and stories….
  • Wine is a reflection of the culture that produced it…
  • Overheard at the bar in the Eugene Hilton – "What are the three dominant trellising methods used in the Duoro?"… "What does IBU stand for?"… "What does VSP stand for?"… Turns out Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser was holding court, describing some questions from a recent exam for young sommeliers…
  • "Global warming is threatening Spain’s $2.4 Billion wine industry, forcing vineyards into cooler regions in the Pyrenees"…
  • "Global warming is made up by the media and the Liberals and scientists who want more research grants"…
  • Wine is rapidly becoming a part of American culture, with the number of wineries doubling since 2000.  Wine is now produced in all 50 states and is beginning to have an impact on rural life like no other agricultural product ever has – people don’t drive out to the country to go to a Corn Tasting Room.  That is why the U.S. wine industry is gaining such political clout.  Even in states where it is a small industry, it’s like the talking dog – it’s not WHAT it says, but that it says ANYTHING at all…
  • Taking the keynote speaker’s message to heart, Jennifer Rosen makes wine education enjoyable and accessible, despite having an impressive palate and storehouse of knowledge, albeit with a racy edge that pushes the envelope of her more timid readers.  Her preview of her upcoming book "The Cork Jester’s Guide to Wine" began with "When I got my last divorce, I took a vow of promiscuity."  Her latest book reports, among other things, the answers she has received from winemakers around the globe to her question "How is wine like sex?"

Swclogogs3x3_4 More to come…

Dave Chambers,

Pinots Are Like Peaches

If you’re lucky, there are some aspects of your job that you love.  For me, it is traveling from winery to winery – long days on the road discovering new producers and great wines.  During half the year, this task brings along a side benefit you might not immediately think of – an ample supply of farmer’s markets and roadside fruit stands.

I seek these out, and schedule visits around them.  As a lover of good food and wine, such healthy meal alternatives helps prevent undue waist expansion ("waisting away in quarter-pounderville").  I also like to support small farmers whose passion for their food rivals that of my most fervid winegrowers. 

Peach6918_1Devotees of fresh produce can measure the passing of the seasons by observing a farmer’s changing array of produce, and right now is my favorite time of year – peach season!  I’m a huge peach fan, which is no easy thing.  It takes fortitude.  Perseverance.  A willingness to be disappointed, over and over, until finally rewarded with that one, rare peach – perfectly ripe with ample, chin-dribbling juice…

Continue reading “Pinots Are Like Peaches”

A Catalog of Wine Fans

2006poster_1We just returned from the 21st Annual Monterey Bay Blues Festival – a sign of a summer in full swing.  The Blues Festival is always in June, and along with the Monterey Jazz Festival in the fall, defines the summer season like two book-ends.

My wife has held season tickets to this event for 12 years – one of the many benefits that came with the marriage.  And though I know she has a long list of past suitors that warmed the spot at the Monterey Fairgrounds known as "Main Arena, Section 7, Row 2, Chair #17", it is irrelevant – I’m there now. They are not.

And after three Blues Festivals, I have found what I like.  Here are my top three reasons I think you should join us next year:

  1. The music
  2. The food, and
  3. The people-watching!

The Blues is (are?) a universal human language, so a people-watcher at a Blues Fest observes a wide spectrum of the human race.  For some, the Blues resonate at their own personal frequency.  When the music’s playin’, they find it impossible to sit still, and sometimes to sit at all, their bodies moving in an effortless rhythm perfectly in synch with the music.  No matter their shape or size, it’s a beautiful thing to see.  It’s like a surfer perfectly in tune with a wave.

Others have a more casual appreciation, letting the music wash over them the way a lazy sun bather lets a wave lap at their feet.  Or perhaps their enjoyment of the Blues is simply more cerebral, less kinetic.  I have no way of knowing, really, but I suspect these are the Blues fans who are seldom moved to their feet by the music, and when forced to get off their chair they often, um, (how do I say this tactfully?) "Dance to the beat of a different drummer".

These different types of Blues fans reminded me of the different types of wine fans.  Over years of serving and sharing the fruit of the vine, I’ve developed my own "Wine Lover’s Taxonomy", built to describe how various people relate to wine.  It is a helpful Field Guide for anyone traveling the Wine Trail:

THE SENSUALIST– This person truly resonates to a good glass of wine.  They don’t have to think about it, they are simply thrilled by it.  At times, thrilled beyond speech – a great wine can move a SENSUALIST to tears.  Even a young and inexperienced SENSUALIST loves wine, despite their still empty warehouse of knowledge.  Over time, will fill the warehouse with wine knowledge to gain a better understand their source of pleasure.

SENSUALISTS are frequently found in a city’s best wine bar or wine shop, alone or in a group.  They are easily identified because they listen as much or more than they talk, often asking questions of even a relative novice in hopes of learning just one more bit of information.  But ask them any sincere and intelligent wine question and they answer effusively, eager to encourage the budding enthusiasm of a fellow traveler on their favorite road.

Find these people, surround yourself with them, your life will be better and you will drink well.

THE SNOB – An insufferable lot to be avoided whenever possible.  SNOBS use wine as a way to establish superiority, usually through their favorite game of "One-Upmanship".  They have always had a better wine than anyone, seen more wineries than anyone, visited more wine regions than anyone, eaten… well, you get the idea.  Often found in dark, solitary corners where they like to spend time with the latest wine book.  For fun, they memorize vintage charts, producer trivia, ownership changes, and other wine trivia.  Sometimes, though increasingly rarely, are employed as Sommeliers or as salespeople at wine shops.  Avoid these people.  If related to one, we can recommend a good set of earplugs.

SHOWCASE COLLECTORS – S.C.’s are more interested in wine for its perceived value than for its flavor or sensory experience.  Their motto is "Buy by the book", feathering their nest with wines that have received high ratings from people who "taste" the wine once, along with 40 or 50 others, but who likely never enjoyed a whole bottle of it next to their evening meal.  Can become aggressive if you suggest this is a poor way to approach wine.  Their call sounds distinctly like "the higher the price, the better the wine", a sound that makes commissioned wine salespeople quiver and drool.

THE CASUAL CONSUMER – By far, the largest of the groups. The C.C. enjoys wine, but is not sure what all the fuss is about.  They would enjoy it more often but for unhappy encounters with SNOBS and SHOWCASE COLLECTORS, who made them feel as if wine could not be enjoyed unless and until it was understood.  May not be able to dance to the "wine tune" (to loop back to my original analogy), but enjoys it, nonetheless.

RUT RUNNERS – These poor folks found a wine they liked long ago, and simply have insufficient energy or intellectual curiosity to try anything else.  Often found pairing their favorite wine with every meal – from seafood to fish to hamburgers to poultry, and without regard for preparation.  Their call sounds distinctly like "Mine is the best, to hell with the rest".

Wines Everyone Appreciates
Regardless of where you fall in my taxonomic scheme, the wines of our Refreshing Summer Collection are sure to please.  Each wine in the collection was carefully selected for its ability to bring maximum pleasure to hot-weather meals and events.  Enjoy!


Today’s Quote:
Music is what feelings would sound like.

Selecting the "Best" wine

It is not uncommon for people to taste wine with me, only to then ask "Is this wine any good?"  I have never said out loud the thought that runs through my mind.  It goes something like "Why ask me?  YOU just tasted it!"  But the world of wine is a funny thing, and most people, regardless of the size of their wine budget, are willing to spend more on a wine someone else says is "good".

This is not to say there aren’t bad wines.  Some wines are simply "badly made" or flawed by cork taint or ruined because it was not properly stored.  But the vast majority of today’s luxury wines ($20+) are without flaws.  They are, however, made to fit into an increasingly crowded, confining, and uniform style.  Along the way, premium wines from around the globe are tasting more and more alike, losing their ability to reflect the unique flavors of their vineyard.  This trend, underway for over 20 years now, has a small, dedicated, and highly respected group of detractors, of self-proclaimed "gadflys".

One such gadfly, Kermit Lynch, penned these poetic words to lament America’s love-affair with increasingly big-bodied wines – "Dismissing a wine because it isn’t big enough is like dismissing a book because it isn’t thick enough, or a piece of music because it isn’t loud enough."

Kermit wrote that in 1990, and now, over 15 years and many winemaking "advances" later, America’s love affair with bigger and BIGGER wines continues unabated.  To wit, average alcohol levels in California red wines were 12.5% in 1990, but are 14.5% today (a 16% increase by volume, just about the alcoholic equivalent of an additional glass of 1990 wine in every one of today’s bottles). 

And one need not look far to find a producer who favors wines in excess of 15% – if they have enough Big Fruit to balance the high alcohol, such wines perfectly fit today’s formula for high ratings.  The wine world is nothing if not akin to the worlds of art or fashion – equally prone to fads and styles.  And bigger and bigger wines are highly fashionable, a relatively new trend in the ancient world of wine.

Apparently, a lot of people have become convinced that the thickness of a book, the loudness of a piece of music, and the BIGNESS of a wine serve as reliable buying guides.  But Kermit is not alone in his love for softer-bodied wines, elegant wines, wines that get panned in comparative tastings today, but will bloom into beautiful swans in later years.  Fellow gadfly Dan Berger recently wrote a wonderful commentary on this same subject.  Dan, by the way, was one of the judges at the recent "Judgment of Paris" Redux, which repeated the famed Paris tasting of 1976 that put California wines on the world map.  To read all of Dan’s comments, click here



Quote for the Day:
For it is truly bizarre for artists to be universally ranked among the giants, generation after generation . . . and then to be cast from the highest slopes of Parnassus to the lower slopes of art’s ever-growing dust-heap.
Author: Joseph W. Alsop, Jr.

"Can I get you some coffee, with your wine?"

The title might seem odd, unless you’ve seen the latest news item about how copious cups of coffee offset wine’s negative effects on the liver.  This is good news, given the severe shortage of liver donors. 

But on the heels of this good news came an email from my formerly favorite coffee company.  It announced their lock-step, Starbucks conformity by announcing their decision to diversify from well-roasted beans, expertly prepared coffee and espresso.  They are now entering the mass-market world of sweet drinks FLAVORED with real coffee – a slippery slope that encourages the use of low-quality beans, since their off flavors are hidden by sugar, chocolate and dairy fat suspended in frothy, mouth-coating air bubbles.  While this was likely the right decision for their stock price, it is a sad day for their devout coffee fanatics.

Enough already.  Let me tell you about a GREAT artisinal coffee company, in case you want to protect your liver on a daily basis.  For a great coffee experience to start each day, you’re sure to enjoy my new favorite roaster – Graffeo (bad website, great coffee).  These guys are serious about their beans.  For example, their ordering process allows the buyer to choose from 8 different grinding options – one for each type of coffee filter.

And if you’re looking for a great wine experience to end each day, you’re sure to enjoy the latest pinot from our talented friends at Roessler Cellars!

Sbpinot Roessler Cellars, 2004 Pinot Noir, Sanford & Benedict Vineyard $46
As with all precious gems, this one is pricey and well worth the investment.  Blackberry and black cherry, cloves, licorice, tobacco notes and hints of chocolate shavings make their way through fruit and spice aromas. Will evolve for several years, then hold for several more. Less than 300 cases produced, all of it sold out at the winery.

Dave Chambers

Quote of the day:
I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.
Flash Rosenberg

A rosé by any other name would taste as, um, dry.

Any good blogger knows the importance of frequent postings to gaining loyal readers. I just checked the date on MY last post, and am embarrassed to say it was weeks ago. Since then, Memorial day has come and gone and American fashionistas have been wearing their white summer shoes for over a week now.

No question, summer is nigh. Baseball season is in full swing. Summer attire is in short supply. A new wave of graduates is taking the job market by storm. And grapevines are in a frenzied growth phase that will last until harvest. Ahhhh, summer. The perfect time for rosé wines!

Bottle05_syrahrosesm Just now, upon reading the words "rosé wines", many readers left to find an article on "serious wines", probably doing so while whispering some derisive comment under their breath. These poor souls go through life operating under the mistaken notion that all rosés are like the White Zinfandel they tried that one night in College.

I am glad such people dismiss rosé without a thought. It leaves more for us. And since good rosés are produced in quantities barely sufficient to exceed the Winemaker’s own consumption requirements, this is an important consideration. I find it difficult to imagine a happier summer experience than a bottle of chilled rosé, a cold roast chicken and a shaker of sea salt. This is simply heaven, and I’m afraid I lose any vestige of manners when this combination is set before me. Consider yourself warned.

But such was not always the case. I vividly recall my own rosé epiphany. It occurred long ago at a harvest party hosted by a well-respected winemaker. The thermometer was pushing 100 and frankly, I craved an ice-cold beer over the robust red wines this winemaker was known for.

As the party made its inevitable migration into the kitchen – the center of every party no matter how hot it is – the winemaker suddenly appeared with four well-chilled bottles of PINK WINE which he proudly introduced as his rosé of Sangiovese. I was shocked and disappointed – a winemaking hero lost to the dark side.

What would you do in my situation? Turn up your nose and say “no thanks” to a cold glass of rosé offered by a respected winemaker you’d been dying to meet? Or do as I did, accept his offer with feigned enthusiasm, then slowly approach the pale pink stuff with great trepidation? If so, you’d likely have been as surprised as I by the pleasure this glass provided, and then banishing your White Zinfandel nightmare to your closet of outgrown phobias, begun to realize the number of years it had prevented you from enjoying dry rosé.

The winemaker, seeing he had just served his rosé to an avowed “anything-but-pinkster”, was happy that his wine had been a…, let’s see…, “surprise” is too tame a word, “flabbergast” too flippant, but he could tell his wine had deposited me somewhere in that range of disbelief. This was really good wine! And the perfect wine to serve on a hot summer evening.

I have found that, as with mot professions, Winemakers come a wide variety of personalities. I tend to gravitate towards those who make interesting wines AND feel that wine is an enthusiasm to be shared. This was just such a winemaker, and he spent no small amount of time sharing with me his enthusiasm for dry rosés while his party guests mingled behind us.

He explained that White Zinfandel rode to popularity on the back of a 7% residual sugar level, appealing to a nation raised on soft drinks and Kool-Aid. But dry rosé (with sugar levels generally between 0% and 2%) had long been the summer wine of choice in the fashionable South of France. He then described the multiple ways one can produce a rosé – the most common being Saignée – the French word for the act of bleeding off a percentage of red wine juice after minimal skin contact – but that the best rosés come from grapes grown and harvested specifically with rosé in mind.

These are just such wines.

Ortman Family Vineyards, 2005 Syrah Rosé $16 (pictured above) Pink grapefruit, strawberry, and a touch of the spice that is the calling card for Syrah. This wine is a Jack’s Selection for June!

Kalyra – 2004 Cabernet Franc Rose $9. This dry blush wine is perhaps the perfect intersection of aromatic white wine and red wine body. Cabernet Franc is the grape used in the famous rosés of the Loire, and Winemaker Mike Brown must have enjoyed his share of them as he developed the profile for this wine.

Buttonwood – 2004 Syrah Rosé Was $16 now $12. Two cases left! More than any of the wines Buttonwood produces, this is the one that reminded me of the blush wines from France, stylistically somewhere between the famous rosés of Syrah from Provence and the delicious rosés of Cabernet Franc from the Loire.

Tudor Wines Radog 2005 Rosé of Pinot Noir $16 A serious wine that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Not much made, not much left – a popular wine among sommeliers in some very posh restaurants.

Recommended Recipe!

This is one of the recipes included in our June shipments to subscribers and also complements richer white wines. It is dead simple, inexpensive and easily prepared in about 30 minutes. It is contributed by our friend Mabel Galdamez, to whom we will die indebted for her unending kindness.


  • Catfish fillets, one for every two people (they tend to be large and easily divided down the center). A note on catfish – many people are squeamish about bottom feeders, and many others about farm-raised fish. But unlike most farm-raised salmon, farm-raised catfish are both sustainable and guaranteed a healthy diet, thus belying both prejudices. Try this and tell me if you don’t like it. Even our three-year-old loves this dish, though she has somehow learned to like it without the wine accompaniment)
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
  • Coupla Tablespoons of olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Coupla shakes of ginger powder
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • Red and Green sweet peppers, seeds removed and sliced into strips
  • Several green onions, cut into 3-inch sections
  • Half of one lemon
  • Sesame Oil – I know this is not an ingredient found in every kitchen, nor is it an inexpensive one, but sesame oil LOVES being paired with wine, and a few drops on each filet assures happy diners!

Prepare all ingredients and set aside. Wash filets, pat dry and set on a wide platter. Season with salt and pepper, minced garlic and olive oil – rub all ingredients over both sides of fish. Let sit for at least 30 minutes and no more than a few hours.

When you are ready to begin cooking this dish, you are just five minute away from sitting down to the table (7 minutes, if cooking on electric burners)! First, heat a large pan over medium-high heat for about two minutes, melt the butter in the pan and let heat until golden. Lay filets carefully into the pan and let cook on one side until just golden. Flip the filets, add the peppers and green onions and squeeze juice of half a lemon over the fish, cover the pan, turn off the heat, and let sit for 2-3 minutes, depending on the thickness of the filets. Serve with a few drops of sesame oil on each filet.

That’s it!

Serve with a side of steamed beans or broccolini or peas and carrots. Being of Celtic descent, I can’t imagine this dish without potatoes, though my wife’s Black Japonica Rice is always a hit as well.

Dave Chambers