Wines of the Week

What Makes a Wine "Natural"?

Natural Wines – The Next Big Thing

There’s a reason why so-called “natural” wines are making such a big impression these days.  Mostly, it’s an indication of the overall trend for foods and lifestyles that are closer to the earth.  Non-GMO products, all-natural ingredients, yoga, and the like.

One Florida resident is betting the farm (so to speak) on the quality and appeal of natural wines.  He’s Peter Rizzo, and his new store, Natural Wines Naples, is educating both wine lovers and newbies to the flavors and appeal of natural wines.

More about Peter in a second, but first let’s figure out what natural wines really are.  Basically, they’re made in the purest, simplest way possible.  Vineyards are organic or even biodynamic.  Winemakers use only naturally-occurring yeasts to induce fermentation – no addition of other yeast strains.

Plus, the winemaking is what’s known as “non-interventionist.”  That means no filtering, no additives, no manipulation.  Grow the grapes, crush them, and let nature take its course.

“These wines have a place on every wine lover’s shelf,” says Peter Rizzo.  “They’re very expressive, and a lot more interesting than wines made in a more commercial manner.  I really believe in this.”  And so do I, after the tasting session we shared.

Even though natural wines are something of uncharted territory for most of us, there are plenty of reasons to get to know them.  These winemakers believe that great wine is made in the vineyard.  The growing areas are free from any insecticides, pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals.  The wines are made without any additives, no extra acid or flavoring compounds, no industrial yeasts or enzymes, and extremely minimal sulfur content.  There’s no weird manipulation, like micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, or concentrators.  As you might expect, vineyard yields are low, so quantities are not very high. 

The result:  wines that are alive, that express a sense of place, and that improve – quickly – over time.

Rizzo, who spent most of his career in advertising, relocated with his family to Naples in 2002 and opened Natural Wines Naples in October of 2016.  Since then, he’s seen a steady increase in interest, and in store traffic.  While some natural wines are made from fairly exotic out-of-the-way varietals (I saw a bottle of Romortin and Orbois blend), you’d recognize the vast majority of wines in his extensive selection. 

“I need to show people classic representations,” he believes.  “Even though many makers of natural wines push the envelope with non-traditional varietals, we have all the classic wines, and all the classic flavors.  Just because a wine is natural, it doesn’t sacrifice the familiar taste profiles we all enjoy.” 

He makes sure of that, with extensive descriptions of each wine’s flavor and aroma profiles on bottle tags that he hand-writes.  And he’s especially proud of the fact that his wine selection offers interesting choices in all price ranges.

“There’s nothing rare or exotic about natural wines,” says Rizzo.  “You might be surprised to see some bottles with crown caps on them instead of corks, and we do have some wines made from grapes you may not be familiar with, but you’ll find all your favorites here, with many priced under $20.”

He was kind enough to offer me samples of his selection in several price ranges, and the quality was striking.  Here are some we especially enjoyed.

Les Quarterons Sancerre 2013 ($30) – A sweet floral nose, completely unlike traditional Sauvignon Blanc from this region or New Zealand, with flavors of apple, peach, and quince.  WW 90

Skeveldra Sancerre 2012 ($42) – Absolutely zero sulfites in this zippy, fragrant version.  Exotic floral, lemon, apricot, and vanilla aromas and flavors.  I’ve never decanted a white wine, but I’d give this one an hour or two in the glass before sipping.  WW 91

Donkey & Goat White Blend California 2014 ($35) – As mentioned above, some makers of natural wines stray a bit off the reservation.  This is a blend of Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and a few other northern Rhone varietals with interesting flavors of red apple peel, yellow peach, and cantaloupe.  A boldly structured white.  WW 92. 



New Favorites for Summer

So much wine, so little time...

One of the things I like best about being a wine columnist is the opportunity to sample and review the gratifying number of sample bottles that show up in my office from time to time.  Recently, I called together a few friends who have great palates (and great wine collections) and asked them to help me sample through about 20 or so bottles that have been waiting forlornly in my cellar for me to open them and swirl, sniff, and sip.  Although everyone, of course, has different tastes and likes and dislikes, we were all pretty much in agreement that these wines were worth looking for and enjoying.

They should be in fairly wide distribution, so if you try any, let me know how you liked them.  Cheers!

Ciù Ciù Passerina Evoè Marche 2015 ($7) – This wine would be a steal at three times the price.  The Passerina grape is an ancient white varietal, not seen much these days.  In fact, it was new to me.  The nose offers fragrant flowers and cantaloupe, with similar flavors on the palate.  Highly recommended.  WW 89+

Scacciadiavoli Montefalco Sagrantino 2008 ($32) – A rich, powerful Sagrantino with a nose of leather, smoke, and deep black fruit.  The palate of dried plums, prunes, and chocolate goes on forever through an amazing finish.  Killer stuff.  WW 92

Fontanafredda Barolo 2012 ($46) – Possibly the most translucent Barolo we’ve ever seen.  Pleasant

Matanzas Creek Merlot Sonoma 2013 ($30) – A full-bodied effort, dark ruby in the glass and bold aromas of chocolate and red fruit.  Very fruit forward, and certainly a great food wine.  WW 90-91

Avignonesi Rosso di Montalcino 2014 ($17) – This “baby Brunello” would be great with grilled meats.  Medium-bodied on the palate, flavors of red currant, cherry, and violets.  WW 89

Concannon Petite Sirah 2014 ($11) – Great value, and a steal at the price.  A big, dark, black wine in the glass, it delivers aromas of warm earth and smoke, but fruit flavors on the palate.  You’ll enjoy the complexity of the blackberry, raspberry, black pepper, baking chocolate and mushroom.  Lovely.  WW 89-90.

Bousquet Malbec Tupungato Valley Mendoza Grande Riserva 2013 ($25) – A wine that’s very much about the place and the soil…an Old World style.  Bold flavors of earth, truffle, and black tobacco.  WW 88

Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Grand Reserve 2015 ($14) --  From the middle-range of the KJ portfolio, this is a great everyday sipper.  Medium bodied, with balanced oak notes supporting apple and lemon flavors.  WW 87-88

Meomi Chardonnay California 2015 ($13) – Grapes are blended from three very diverse regions in this wine.  It’s bold and creamy with a buttery mouthfeel and an entertaining hint of buttered popcorn. Straightforward flavors of pear and white peach. WW 88

Wine We Loved in 2016

2016 in Review....

Here's a compilation of favorite reviewed wines from 2016.  They're generally available, so we hope you can find and enjoy them.

Grgich Hills Estate Merlot Napa Valley 2012 – Medium dark in the glass, there is a definite floral aroma on the nose.  Maybe roses.  For a young wine, it’s very drinkable, with soft tannins, and overtones of strawberries, cherries, and a hint of licorice.  WW 90

Vanderbilt Reserve Merlot Dry Creek Valley 2013 – The opaque and inky color in the glass hints at a full-bodied wine.  There is sweet dark fruit on the nose, but it’s very tight on the palate and needs a lot of time (or really aggressive decanting) to open up.  Attractive flavors of red cherry, a bit of earth, and graphite.  WW 89

Desiderio Cortona DOC Merlot 2014 – This effort from Italy is a bit lighter in color, but still delivers full-bodied aromas of cedar, earthiness, spice, and dark fruit.  The spice pays off on the palate, with cinnamon, clove, and black fruit flavors.  WW 92

Meerlust Merlot Stellenbosch 2008 – This South Africans are at it again with their interpretation of this international varietal.  Even though it’s semi-translucent in the glass, there are plentiful flavors of raspberry, black cherry, tobacco, and leather.  A very Old World interpretation.  We drank the whole bottle.  WW 92-93

Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc California 2014 – Pale yellow in the glass, and on the nose and palate it’s definitely not the typical New Zealand style.  There are aromas of lemony minerality with bright tropical fruit on the palate supported by zingy acidity.  About $13.  WW 88

Stift Skellerei Newstift Abbazia di Novacella Sylvaner 2014 – If you can pronounce it, they should give you a bottle for free.  But this is one of the surprises I mentioned above.  The Sylvaner grape is grown way up north in Italy, right along the German border where the cultures and languages mix freely.  This wine comes from a winery that dates back to the year 1142, with green apple flavors and a strong spine of acidity making this a good pairing with fish and other seafood dishes.  WW 88

Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay Sonoma 2013 – One of those pleasant discoveries.  It’s light gold yellow with a layered nose of oak, lemon, honey and white flowers.  A rich, mouthfilling Chardonnay with oak overtones and a medium finish.  WW 91-92

Trinity Hill Hawke’s Bay Pinot Noir 2013 – Another surprise.  Usually, the Pinot Noirs from New Zealand come from the Central Otago region on the south island, but this producer is in Hawke’s Bay, which is on the east coast of the North Island.  The wine is translucent ruby-violet with a definite old world nose of loamy earth and graphite.  But it offers new world flavors of raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, and smoke.  Nice.  WW 90-91

Blair Pinot Noir Arroyo Seco Delfina’s Vineyard 2012 – This version tilts more toward the new world, with lovely flavors of strawberry, raspberry, and cedar.  WW 89

Domaine Gardies Cotes du Roussillon-Villages Les Milleres– Plum, raspberry and plenty of red currant with a firm tannic structure.  Should age well.

Cave de Roquebrun Coteaux du Languedoc Terrasses du Frigoulet 2011 – Don’t let the polysyllabic name scare you off.  This one is powerful and concentrated, with plum, cherry pie, and dark chocolate.  It should be widely available.

M. Chapoutier Cotes du Roussillon-Villages Les Vignes de Bila Haut 2010 – Chapoutier is a major quality producer.  This bottling was aWine Spectator Top 100 selection, it costs $13, and they made 35,000 cases.  

Watch for more reviews and recommendations coming soon!

Red Table Wine -- Only $250 a Bottle

Red Table Wine.  Only $250 a Bottle.

Seems a little steep, doesn’t it, to pay over $100 for a bottle of something that says “table wine” or just “red wine” on the label.  It isn’t one of those rare blockbuster California cabernets, or a precious vintage from the sacred vineyards of Burgundy.  It’s just…well, red table wine.

But wait.  Take a closer look at where it’s from, and what’s inside the bottle, because that humble title can conceal a drinking experience that’s well worth the price.  And more.

Most likely, the label you’re looking at comes from Italy, or some other ancient winemaking area that’s steeped in long tradition and strict custom.  So if you’re confused about what’s in the bottle, you can thank the Italian government.  Over the years, they passed a whole spate of laws defining specific wine zones in the country, decreeing what kind of “recipe” each wine should conform to, how long it should be aged, all that.  Unfortunately, they forgot one thing:  the most innovative winemakers make not want to follow the ancient recipes.

Say you’re sitting out there in your vineyard in the middle of Chianti, a few miles from Castellina or some other ancient winemaking center, and you just don’t want to make your wine the way the Official Recipe demands.  Maybe you’re feeling puckish and you throw in a little of that cabernet you’ve been growing, or a couple of Merlot grapes.  You’ve got a problem.  Follow the traditional recipe, and you can call your wine Chianti.  Don’t, and you can’t.

There’s no official name for wines that don’t conform, so what do you call it?  Probably, you’d call it a Super Tuscan, which is exactly what the major producers, over the past decade or so, have done.

In the most popular – and expensive – Super Tuscans, sangiovese is still the major component, and the wine serves as a sensational accent to all kinds of traditional Italian cuisines.  The rest (there are maybe about 20) are made from merlot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and other international varietals.  As I said, wines from Chianti that do not follow the rules don’t have an official terminology.  What’s worse, they get classified in the lowest designation of quality, which is called IGT, down there with the $8 bottles.   The lack of an official name for nonconforming wine has driven producers to make up clever names of their own, all of which contain lots of vowels.  There’s Ornellaia, which is made primarily from cabernet sauvignon.  And Tignanello, which is mostly sangiovese.  Then there’s the wine that is said to have started the whole Super Tuscan revolution, Sassicaia, made from cabernet sauvignon and aged and barreled differently from any other Chianti regional wine up to its time.

While Super Tuscans like Solaia, Summus, or Fontalloro may cost well over a Franklin apiece, some are priced a little more mercifully.  My bargain favorite, Monte Antico, is made mostly from sangiovese, but not entirely, and costs under $15 a bottle.  While it can’t compare to the juice that Marchese Antinori is putting in his Tignanello bottles, it’s a nice step away from your typical Chianti, and it’s absolutely sensational with pizza.

It’s easy to become a dedicated Italian wine lover.  Just pick up a decent Tuscan blend like Monte Antico (great value at around $10),Terrabianca Campaccio ($25),orBalzini ($20), which has white label, red label, and black label versions, each indicating a different blend.  For pasta and pizza, it’s the way to go.

Ask the Wine Whisperer
In the bottom of a bottle of white wine, I saw some clear crystals.  What are they?  Has the wine gone bad?  Ron H., Fort Lauderdale

Wines contain many types of acid.  The crystals you’re seeing are actually bits of solidified tartaric acid, or plain old cream of tartar, which is tasteless and harmless.  Sometimes you also find them at the inside end of a cork.  The wine is fine to drink, but don’t eat the crystals.

Blind Tasting--The Masochistic Way to Enjoy Wine

What the Heck Am I Drinking?

For many people (me included) the most entertaining – and maddening – activity in the wine world is a little thing called the blind tasting.  This is where you have a glass (or two) of wine in front of you with no idea what kind it is, and you have to sniff, sip, and identify it.  I call it the “guess the smell” contest, and it’s just about impossible to do…for me at least.

There are national blind tasting contests, championships, even, where people can actually taste a wine and identify not only the varietal, but many times the place of origin, the vintage, and – most remarkable of all – the producer.  Not me.  Not ever.

Recently, I was invited to a different kind of event.  Jessica Weeks, a restaurant manager in the area, was preparing to take her Level II sommelier test, which would require her to taste two wines blind and identify them.  She wanted to practice, and asked a few of us to taste along. 

Jessica Weeks was raised in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, which is one of America’s original and historic winegrowing regions.  We held the practice session in the very impressive wine tasting classroom at Florida Gulf Coast University.

“I’ve been in the restaurant industry since I was 16 years old,” she says, “but it wasn’t until I joined the Guild of Sommeliers that I realized just how much goes into each bottle.  It’s given me a great respect for what it takes to grow and harvest grapes at the precise time to make a successful wine.  It’s all very fascinating.”

That fascination led Jessica to prepare for her Level II exam, where she would be required to demonstrate a Wikipedic knowledge of wine varietals, regions, soils, producers, and a lot more.

“The test consists, among other things, of 40 multiple choice or short answer questions,” she notes.  “I also have to blind taste two wines and explain the makeup of the varietal, where it came from, how old it is, the tasting notes, if it was stored in oak or not, the climate and soil in which it was grown, and many other factors based on sight, smell, and taste.” 

No simple task.  The first mystery wine we tasted was a white, which I immediately and confidently identified as a Reisling from Germany.  Jessica said it was an Albariño from northern Spain.  She was right.  I was wrong.  Then there was a red which I absolutely knew was a Pinot Noir from Burgundy.  Jessica begged to differ, suggesting a Gamay from Beaujolais, which is kind of like Burgundy’s twin cousin.  Once again, her sipping sophistication exceeded mine.  Jessica two, Jerry zero.

Then, she nailed the Nebbiolo from northern Italy, along with the other two blind bottles.  If anybody was ready to take the test, it was her.  I had no doubt she’d be able to achieve what she described as a “personal goal.”

“It will definitely make a difference in my career,” she notes.  “I am pursuing the more advanced certifications to become more knowledgeable and qualified when recommending wine to a restaurant guest.  Most of them may know a certain type of wine they enjoy, so it’s a great pleasure to introduce new styles by explaining the selections in detail.”

I hope Jessica will agree with the suggestions and details for this week’s column…

Lawer Estates Rosé of Syrah 2015 – You can make rosé out of any red grape, but the ones from Syrah are generally fuller-bodied.  This example from a winery in Calistoga has characteristic strawberry and cherry aromas and flavors, with some nice zippy apple notes.  The winemaker suggests pairing it with ceviche.  WW 89  About $22

Scacciadiavoli Montefalco di Sagrantino 2012— Sagrantino is one of my favorite Italian varietals that isn’t Chianti.  This bold, fruity wine needs some time in the bottle or plenty of decanting.  It will deliver flavors of plums, spices, sage, thyme, and black leather.  Great with any rich Italian cuisine.  WW 94 About $35

Ask the Wine Whisperer – Once I open a bottle, how long will the wine keep?
--- Jon F., Fort Myers
Most everyday wines are at their best right away, and if you don’t finish the whole bottle (never a problem at our house) you want to prolong the life of what’s left.  One method is a vacuum stopper, such as the Vac-u-Vin, which is what we generally use.  The rubber bottle stoppers have a valve in them, and you remove the air from the stoppered bottle with a little hand pump.  This generally allows the wine to stay fairly fresh for one or two days.

The Latest from the Golden State

It’s probably no surprise that over 90% of the wine made in the US comes from California.  And the 4,400 wineries in that state make it the fourth largest producer of wine in the world, after Italy, France, and Spain.  Now, that doesn’t mean other states don’t make great wine; they do.  Some of our favorite cabernets and syrahs come from Washington State, and incredible pinot noirs come out of Oregon all the time.  We’ve sampled some surprisingly good wines from Virginia.  But in terms of sheer volume, the Golden State tops the list.

And not all the great wines come from Napa and Sonoma.  Other regions, like Paso Robles, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Santa Barbara are producing terrific whites and reds in all price and quality ranges.

As if I needed to be convinced, a tasting seminar at VinExpo in Hong Kong just reinforced what I already knew, in the most delicious way.  The “California Style!” tasting session, headed by four prominent wine world women, was as entertaining as it was informative.  And we all got a free pair of sunglasses.

Two of the speakers, Master of Wine Debra Meiburg and author Karen MacNeil, were joined by Sara Jane Evans, who is the Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine.  And Sarah Kemp, host of the TV Series “New American Cuisine,” added some interesting perspectives.  There was another dimension at work, as well.  It has long been debated whether women taste and perceive wine differently than men, as French wine critic Isabel Forêt maintains.  She’s the author of several wine guides aimed specifically at female wine lovers.  So it was interesting to hear the four women on the panel offer their evaluations of the 16 (yes) California wines we sampled, which came from all over the state.

The good news is most of them are readily available locally.  However, if you’re going all the way to Hong Kong to conduct a tasting seminar, you don’t bring $3 bottles.  These wines are a bit in the splurge category, but highly recommended.

Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Bien Nacido Vineyard 2012 – This is a very well-known vineyard, and many winemakers use these grapes in their products.  Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen takes a very technical approach to his winemaking, and this example offers lemon and lime notes with old world flavors of apple and vanilla.

Mondavi Fumé Blanc To Kalon Vineyard 2013 – Back in the 1960s Robert Mondavi put California Sauvignon Blanc on the map, along with the rest of California’s wines.  And the To Kalon vineyard is another one of those blessed pieces of ground where grapes grow their best.  This wine offers classic grapefruit and lemon blossom flavors, along with cantaloupe and guava.

Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2010 – One of the best known premium cabernets from Napa Valley, the grapes from this vineyard are known for offering a tantalizing faint mint flavor, along with classic cassis, cigar box, and spice.  Get a bottle for your birthday.

Shafer Syrah “Relentless” 2012 – This was my wine of the day.  It’s 89% syrah and the rest petite sirah with jazzy dark flavors of plum, chocolate, smoke, and blackberry.  The finish goes on forever.  Buy it now, and open it in about five years.

Ask the Wine Whisperer
How important is the vintage in a wine? – Don S., Bonita Springs
The quality of a particular vintage depends on the region the wine comes from.  There are no vintage years that are great in every locale, though critics generally agree on good years from the most famous winegrowing regions, like Bordeaux and Burgundy.  Most wines in the under $50 range are made to achieve a consistent style from year to year.  Hot vintages produce wines that are fruity and high in alcohol, while cooler years generally produce lighter-bodied wines with a bit more acidity.

Send questions and comments to me at  Cheers!




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