Discovering New Regions--and New Wines
The Pleasures of Paso Robles
In early May of 2018, I joined a gaggle of wine journalists from Florida on a private tour of California’s Paso Robles wine region, and it was a revelation. Guided by Chris Taranto of the Winegrowers Alliance, we spent four days visiting vineyards and wineries throughout the expansive area, and what a delightful surprise it was. Of course, I was somewhat familiar with this part of California, but an in-depth guided tour, and the opportunity to tastes dozens of wines, was a real eye-opener.
First of all, “El Paso de Robles” (which means the Pass of the Oaks) is located about halfway between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, not far from San Luis Obispo. If you’ve ever taken the scenic Pacific Coast Highway drive, just jog inland to Route 101, and you’ll find it. One of the city’s founders was Drury James, who made a fortune during the gold rush of 1849. He also happened to be the uncle of infamous outlaws Frank and Jesse James.
Revelation One: Paso has no real “signature” grape, unless it’s maybe Zinfandel. They grow everything out there, not specializing in a single group of varietals the way Napa does, or Bordeaux. They have Rhône grapes like Syrah, there are Italian varietals, Spanish, even some Portuguese. What’s more, the innovative spirit of the vintners leads them to create highly unconventional blends. We didn’t sample many wines that were 100% one grape or another.
We were joined at our dinners by several winemakers, so there was plenty of opportunity for informal chats. Over and over, we heard them say “what’s good for one of us, is good for all of us.” The spirit of mutual support for everyone in the industry was as surprising as it is rare.
As a winegrowing region Paso is vast, and in many ways, it’s still considered the wine industry’s “wild west.” It’s not as polished as Napa, or as compact, so the drive between wineries can be something of a haul, but it’s all worth it. It’s generally divided it into East and West areas, and then into several sub-appellations, each with its own soil and climate characteristics. For example, the Templeton Gap is a passage in the mountain range between Paso and the Pacific that brings cooler days and nights because of the ocean breeze that blows through. All in all, a very varied region, with an extremely varied selection of wines.
There’s lots more to know about this exciting, unconventional area, and we’ll do that in future articles. Meanwhile, I’d like to share some of our discoveries. These wines may not all be available locally, but can be purchased through individual wineries’ websites.
Ancient Peaks Chardonnay Santa Margarita Ranch 2017 ($19) – From one of the area’s coolest regions, this wine is blended from three blocks in the vineyard. Only a small percentage of the total had oak contact, preserving the flavors of tropical fruits, plus pear and peach. There are hints of caramel as well. Very nice. WW 90
Pomar Junction Sidetrack White NV ($24) – Out in Paso, they love to blend. This is a traditional Rhone mix of Viognier, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc that offers notes of peach and pear, along with a hint of orange and white flowers. One of our favorites. WW 92
San Simeon Stormwatch Red Blend 2014 ($65) – A classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and other traditional varietals, this bold blend explodes with rich blackberry and blueberry notes. The two years it spends in new French oak contribute overtones of spice and vanilla. Excellent. WW 95
A wine you need to know
Winemakers who decide to try their hands at making Pinot Noir are crazy in a very special way, because Pinot is known far and wide as the “heartbreak grape.” Unlike Chardonnay, which will grow just about anywhere you stick it in the ground, Pinot thrives only in a narrow range of soil and climate conditions. Second, the grapes themselves are very small, so it takes more of them to make a bottle of wine. Third, if wine grapes can get any disease or malady at all, Pinot grapes will catch it first. And if that’s not discouraging enough, the varietal is known to actually mutate on the vine, so what you plant may not be what you harvest.
But there’s an upside. Of all grapes, Pinot Noir is capable of being turned into wines that are surpassingly elegant, silky, and seductive. Which is why a Pinot such as France’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti sells for upwards of $3,500 a bottle, if you can find it. (A double magnum of the 1996 vintage can be yours for a mere $69,995). So Pinot is an attractive challenge for the winemaker, who, if successful, can create a truly spectacular wine that can be sold for large dollars.
So if Pinot Noir grows well in only very limited areas, where are they? The first, of course, is the Burgundy region in France. Over there, they grow only two grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they are mostly spectacular. They are also supremely difficult to understand, because the Burgundy region is divided up into miniscule subregions, each of which has its own name, character, and winemaking traditions.
Here in the US, Pinot lovers turn to Oregon and California. The most familiar area in Oregon is the Willamette Valley (it’s “Wil-AM-it,” dammit!) though don’t be afraid to sample from the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys as well.
Just as Robert Mondavi put California wines on the world stage, David Lett did the same for the wines of Oregon. In 1979, at an international wine tasting competition, his Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir came in third among 600 wines, beating out a whole lineup of legendary and obscenely expensive Burgundies. It was like the American Olympic hockey team defeating the Russians in 1980. Or the 1968 New York Mets.
The French went, bananas, or bananes, the way they say it. They exclaimed, “Sacre bleu! C’est imposible!” or words to that effect. They absolutely could not accept that an American wine could compare so favorably to the best of Burgundy. So they demanded a rematch. A second blind tasting competition was held the next year. Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir did not come in third. It came in second.
Pinots tend to be extremely variable in quality and style, so my advice is what it always is…drink more wine. Sample widely, and enjoy.
Should we call it a smackdown?
Blind Tasting and the Sommelier Showdown
One of the most difficult (and humbling) events in the wine word is called a blind tasting. This is where someone puts a glass (or two or six) of wine in front of you and says, “Okay…what is it?” You’re supposed to tell, just by seeing, sniffing, and sipping, the grape varietal, what country and region it’s from, and whether it’s an older or more recent vintage. It isn’t easy, and even the most experienced tasters sometimes get it wrong. (I happen to be terrible at it).
If you decide you want to be a sommelier, and you pursue an official certification in the field, the ability to taste blind – and nail the answers – is a major part of the final exam. So I was pleased to be invited to a new event staged by a wine boutique near me. They’re calling it the Sommelier Showdown. The idea is that every Tuesday afternoon through May and June, two wine directors from clubs and restaurants in the area go head to head and blind taste four wines, attempting to identify them. Paying guests taste along, and test their own skills against the pros.
The first Showdown was held on May 1, pitting two wine directors from local clubs and restaurants head to head. Along with those two experts, there were about 20 of us trying our luck at the two whites and two reds that were set before us.
There’s a method to this. First, a professional certifying organization like the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) gives you a document specifying the probable wine varietals and regions that are fair game for the test. For example, if they give you a Sauvignon Blanc, it will be either from the Loire Valley in France, or from New Zealand. They’re not trying to fool you with some almost-extinct varietal from an obscure region in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Second, there’s an evaluation sheet (they call it a tasting grid) you fill out that classifies all the qualities of the wine you’re guessing at: color, fruit and non-fruit flavors, structure, like acidity and alcohol levels, and finally, your determination of the primary grape, where it comes from, and the type of climate. As if.
Well, as it turns out, the two wine managers didn’t get every single one right, but they did better than the rest of us. Anybody can do better than I.
Perfect Pinots -- Charming Chardonnays
Local Connection – World Class Wines
One day, many years ago, Joe Anderson’s and Mary DeWane’s careers intersected, and so did their lives. They met through their respective professions in the health care industry. In fact, Joe had built one of the foremost consulting firms in America, after his previous stint as the CEO of the state of Arizona and the Chair of the US government’s Medicaid committee.
Anyway, neither of them suspected that their lives would lead them into producing high quality Pinot Noir, and a love for Southwest Florida.
Let’s take the second item first. Mary’s brother Frank is the Archbishop of the Venice diocese, responsible for Catholic church activities and charities from Sarasota to Marco Island. That means that Joe and Mary spend a good deal of time in the area…and contribute generously to charitable causes. In February, they participated in (and donated to) the Naples Winter Wine Festival, offering their support to the myriad of charitable causes supported by the event.
The wines are another story. While many of today’s winery owners get born into it, since winemaking can be very much of a family business, people like Anderson and DeWayne get seduced.
“We started visiting California wine country in 2002,” Joe recollects. “We loved it, and went pretty crazy over Pinot Noir.” He sold his health care management company in 2007, and the couple finally had the (considerable) resources to actually buy a vineyard. “I bought 15 acres of Pinot Noir and Zinfandel vines near Santa Rosa,” he says. “Then, the DeLoach vineyards came on the market in 2005 and I couldn’t resist.”
The problem was, Anderson knew absolutely nothing about winemaking, so he hired winemaker Mike Sullivan from premium winery Hartford Court in January of 2006.
“Then we had to find a name,” he remembers. “We came up with ‘Benovia.’” It’s a combination of his father’s first name – Ben – and his mother’s maiden name, Novian.
Joe’s passion for Pinot Noir (known as the “heartbreak grape” because it’s so difficult to grow) led him to uproot some of the vineyards and replant them with more efficient spacing and higher quality clones. Then he discovered that vineyards are like potato chips and cats. You can’t have just one.
“That led us to buy 12 acres in the Sonoma Coast appellation,” Anderson recalls. “Different soil. Cooler climate. Perfect for a few other Pinot clones.” Still seduced, he bought the 40-acre horse ranch next to that vineyard.
While Anderson and his winemaker were cultivating tons of acres of grapes, they had no winery…and working in a custom crush facility was getting too inconvenient. So they built one in August of 2015, which now produces about 6000 cases a year. They offer 3 Chardonnays and 6 Pinot Noirs.
“Mary and I love Pinot,” says Anderson, “because it so profoundly reflects the places where it’s grown. And we’re very careful of the way we produce our wines. There’s no shortcut to quality.”
He says his career in the wine world has been a “heck of a run.” It’s hard to disagree.
Presented for your enjoyment – our latest discoveries and surprises.
Benovia La Pommeraie Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2015 ($48) – Concentrated aromas and flavors on the nose and palate, with pronounced citrus and white floral notes, sweet orange peel, cream, and a long minerally finish. WW 94
Benovia Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2015 ($48) – Partially aged in new French oak, this lushly textured Pinot Noir offers a nose of strawberry and spice, followed by flavors of red cherry, raspberry and mixed black fruit. The tannins are a bit pronounced, so this one needs a little time in the cellar. WW 92
Benovia Zinfandel Sonoma County 2015 ($43) – Winemaker Mike Smith kept this Zin in the barrel for a bit, achieving rich aromas of blackberry and spice. Full bodied and fruit forward, the blackberry and raspberry notes are up front on the palate. More restrained and elegant than typical California Zins. WW 93-94
Ask the Wine Whisperer
What is a “meritage” wine? -- Brett L., New York
“Meritage” is an American designation for red wines made with the traditional blend used in Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. However, it is a kind of a brand, trademarked by the Meritage Association which was formed in 1988. Only paying members of the association may use the term on their labels.
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Wine Ratings -- Pros vs. Amateurs
Are you a wine critic? Probably.
The wine world is a big place, and it churns with dozens of issues that drive people crazy. Of all the topics that are grounds for spirited (and sometimes bitter) debate, the issue of wine ratings is right at the top of the list. Do they matter? Do those point scores really steer less-knowledgeable consumers toward “better” wines? Are they fair? Accurate? Who does the ratings? Are they qualified?
Major national wine consumer magazines, such as Wine Spectator, Decanter, and Wine Enthusiast, have panels of editors who taste wines blind and bestow scores on them that will either propel the bottles to greatness (and elevated prices) or doom them to the bargain basket. There are independent critics, as well, such as Robert Parker, James Suckling, and Steven Tanzer, to name only a few. Consumers have turned to people like Parker and others for many years, hoping for guidance in their wine selections.
How are ratings determined? And what difference does it make if a Wine Spectator critic gives a wine 85 or 95 points? How legitimate are their critiques? To answer that, the news website Vox.com recently conducted a fascinating study that compared wine ratings by a wide group of critics to ratings of the same wines by normal ordinary people.
Who were those ordinary people? Vox.com researchers accessed thousands of reviews posted on a website called CellarTracker. Wine lovers and collectors subscribe to it so they can upload their purchases and track their bottle inventory. The site, established by former Microsoft group program manager Eric LeVine, allows members to post evaluations and reviews of the wines they drink, and, of course, assign point scores.
CellarTracker is important to this divisive issue because the research was no casual, anecdotal study. The Vox people developed complex algorithms, created detailed graphs and charts, and plotted the compared scores of over 10,000 wines given by professional wine writers against those of ordinary normal CellarTracker people (like me) who have a few hundred bottles in their houses.
Wine. It’s one of the largest food/beverage categories on the planet. And unlike breakfast cereal, for example, the range of prices is bewildering, if not staggering. You can pick up a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir for around $9, or a bottle of Pinot Noir from Burgundy for $300. And sometimes, the point scores assigned by critics will be scarily similar across price points. The fact is, many times there is little correlation between a wine’s price and the points it receives from influential critics.
An interesting point about when the write-ups and ratings are issued. A critic rates a wine from a barrel tasting, or when it’s first released. So if I look at a rating of a 2005 wine, the information is 10-12 years old. Somebody on CellarTracker may have tasted that same wine this year, so they’ll write about how it’s drinking today…not ten years ago.
It’s only recently, with the advent of the Internet, that casual wine drinkers and collectors have been able to voice – and publish – their opinions and reach a sizable audience. This has become extremely important in the restaurant industry – especially at restaurants that are known for their wine selection.
“The information is out there,” says Peter Hyzak, wine manager at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Florida. “Guests in the restaurant will scan our wine list, take out their cell phones, and do some research before they order.” He notes that guests scan online information for three reasons. “First is name recognition, which plays the biggest role in restaurant wine sales. Caymus is Caymus, and everybody knows that wine. Second is the vintage. People research the ratings of the vintage of a wine we’re offering. Having the best-rated vintage of any wine is absolutely imperative. And third is price. The retail prices of wines are easy to find on the Internet.”
Predictably enough, professional critics have consistently knocked ratings done by amateurs. They have no formal training, they maintain. They lack expertise.
Turns out not to be true. The correlation between wine ratings from the influential (and highly respected) Wine Advocate group of critics with the average scores given by CellarTracker members was surprisingly close. Some were even identical to the professional score.
However, the study revealed an even more startling fact. There was a much larger difference in the scores among the professional critics. In rating the same wine, prestigious wine writers were often three to four points apart in their evaluations.
So what can we learn from this? First, the study indicates that when enthusiasts like you and me rate wines, we agree with the experts a lot more than they agree with each other.
Just one more thing. There is virtually no correlation between the price of a wine and the ratings assigned by critics. Every month, this is proven by all the major consumer wine journals. The wines are tasted blind, so evaluators don’t know who makes the wine or what it sells for. Case in point: a recent issue of Wine Spectator listed tasting notes for a wide range of Spanish wines. One Ribera del Duero received 95 points and sold for $505 a bottle. Another received 94 points and sold for $30. Which would you buy?
Of course, the professional wine ratings do have a place. Wine shops always post ratings (when they’re good) for the bottles on the shelf. They do serve as a guide for wine buyers who are not all that knowledgeable
So, if you’re looking at a wine that you’re not familiar with, a rating by…someone…will give you at least a bit of guidance. Buy a bottle, take it home and try it. If you like it, go back and get some more.