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Interview with Jeffrey Cruz of Duckhorn Vineyards

December 9th, 2017

By Brent Bracamontes

On Wednesday, December 13th, we have an event scheduled with Duckhorn Vineyards. We’ll be welcoming Jeffrey Cruz into our shop, who works as the Southern California Key Accounts Manager for the brand. In this post I provide some background information on the Duckhorn brand, as well as some perspectives from Jeff, who understands the pleasures and challenges of representing these wines in a gargantuan region like Southern California.

Duckhorn Vineyards was founded in 1976 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, who produced and marketed merlot at a time when cabernet sauvignon was peaking in popularity. Dan and Margaret were strongly influenced by wines from Bordeaux’s right bank, specifically, Château Pétrus. Right bank Bordeaux wines are considered by many to represent the pinnacle expressions of the merlot grape, and served as inspiration for Dan and Margaret to realize its potential success in California. In a market somewhat dominated by cabernet sauvignon, it is noteworthy to document their interests in exposing more consumers to the pleasures of merlot for domestic fine wine production. The Duckhorns seem to have made numerous astute decisions for their brand in its early days. As Jeffrey Cruz explained, they began by concentrating on a unique grape variety in comparison to their competition, sourcing their grapes from their estate vineyard (which is now Three Palms Vineyard), and offering it at the premier price point of $12. A merlot bottling at this price point was practically unheard of in those days, which surely piqued consumer curiosity. In all, these strategies all seemed to lay important foundation for Duckhorn’s eventual successes.

I asked Jeffrey a series of questions focused on his perceptions of the brand through the years. Previous entries to this blog have been based on interviews with vintners, but this struck me as a wonderful opportunity to acquire insights from business and marketing perspectives. Although we may occasionally succumb to tendencies to overly romanticize wine by focusing on “harmonious” winemaking and “ethereal” drinking experiences, the fact remains that wine is a business, and the ways we think about the wines we buy and drink must be informed by the status and current trends of the trade.

My first question for Jeffrey dealt with his views on the evolution of the Duckhorn brand, specifically with respect to its presence in different types of establishments in our local market (e.g. wine bars, restaurants, retail shops). Jeffrey noted that while some of the wines from Duckhorn’s main label remain on allocation as a way of creating and sustaining quality partnerships with certain customers, the growing popularity of ancillary labels has made Duckhorn wines accessible for consumers with ranging taste preferences and wine budgets. Decoy, in particular, serves as a label that will provide all interested customers glimpses into Duckhorn’s styles of wine, but at the more enticing price point of approximately $20. Considering that Duckhorn still distributes its own wines (a rare circumstance for a brand of its size), the ability to provide a range of wines that may appeal to many different customers puts them at a tactical advantage over others who are not able to do so effectively.

Considering the importance of merlot to Duckhorn’s operation from its founding to contemporary periods, I asked Jeffrey what impact, if any, the film Sideways had on perceptions of the flagship merlot wines. While it may seem somewhat silly to think that a single motion picture could significantly impact an industry as vast as wine, the impacts of Sideways on the American wine landscape are well documented. Based on some merlot sneering by the film’s main character, many consumers abandoned merlot as a go-to variety for their own consumption. Jeffrey does not perceive that the film derailed Duckhorn’s merlot operations as much as it did for some producers, but he does find that the film led retailers and restaurants to significantly limit the merlot they bring in. So, while Duckhorn may have emerged reasonably unscathed in this situation, the sad fact remains that merlot producers are still facing an uphill battle when it comes to demand for their products. Moreover, these economic conditions lead growers to abandon merlot in favor of planting more lucrative varieties like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. In his response, Jeffrey was clear in recommending consumers support Napa merlot, zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, etc., in order for the long term diversity to remain. Napa is so much more than cabernet sauvignon.

Duckhorn was recently honored with the prize for #1 wine of the year from the Wine Spectator magazine for its 2014 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot. Despite Duckhorn’s already impressive pedigree in California and other parts of the American wine industry, this is an incredibly impressive and distinctive prize to be handed down. When asked what this accolade does for the brand, Jeffrey responded, “Of course the recent press will continue to grow the demand consumers have for Duckhorn Vineyards, but it also has a halo effect that will bring awareness to all of our wineries.” This is an important point, considering the scant availability of the Three Palms Merlot in the wake of this recent press. Jeffrey also mentioned that he doesn’t view the 2014 Three Palms as being too drastically different in taste profile from other vintages of the wine, stressing that, regardless of vintage, the Three Palms vineyard “deserves to be recognized as one of the premier vineyards in the world.” And while not all wines in the Duckhorn portfolio will taste like the Three Palms Merlot, it is also true that throughout their range of wines, Duckhorn offers an impressive range of well-crafted wines for consumers with different tastes and price demands.

We are looking forward to welcoming Jeffrey into our shop this next week. We encourage you to stop in to taste through a flight of wines and strike up a conversation. See you then!

Interview with Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores

November 26th, 2017

Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores

By Brent Bracamontes

This next week we will be hosting a tasting with Julie Johnson, proprietor and vintner for Tres Sabores, located in Rutherford, California. I had the great opportunity to correspond with Julie in preparation for the event, in order to get a bit more information about the Tres Sabores operation. We exchanged emails and engaged in a phone conversation, which covered topics such as the origins and evolution of Tres Sabores, her views on working with different grape varieties in Rutherford, advice for future winemakers, among other issues. I trust you will find Julie’s comments as astute, refined, and insightful as I did.

The first topics addressed were the origins and evolution of Tres Sabores. Julie founded Tres Sabores in 1999 with three other winemakers, who developed unique styles of Zinfandel from grapes on her own estate vineyard. As Julie explained, “Each winemaker had ‘carte blanche to craft their own Zinfandel cuvee – their own ‘taste of terroir’ – from a section of my estate vineyard.” This dynamic inspired the name Tres Sabores, but also inspired Julie to begin thinking more about the ways different winemakers may interpret a vineyard site. By this point Julie had been living on her vineyard for a decade, so she had a good feel for its future potential. When combining this understanding with her twenty years of marketing and sales experience with her first wine company (Frog’s Leap), essential variables seemed to be in place for a successful operation. Along with these other founding winemakers, Julie’s first wine, ¿Porque No?, was first released in 2000. By 2005, she was producing all of Tres Sabores wines on her own.

I also asked Julie to comment on her views on working with many different grape varieties. According to the Tres Sabores website, the wines currently available for purchase include a Sauvignon Blanc, rosé (the 2016 vintage was made up of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah), a varietal Zinfandel, the ¿Por Que No? red blend (typically a bend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and tiny proportions of Petite Verdot), a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, and a varietal Petite Sirah. One doesn’t need to spend too much time studying wine production to understand that there are some major differences in working with different grape varieties, as well as to know that not all can be handled precisely the same way. Julie noted the different challenges of working with Zinfandel, a variety that is known for uneaven ripening, where in a single grape cluster you are likely to find berries of different conditions (some almost raisins and some not mature enough). For Julie, this means having a thorough understanding of your vineyard, sampling “intensely and repetitively.” This sort of repetitive, analytical tasting is especially crucial when working with Zinfandel, as Julie also noted her perceptions that overripe flavors mask flavors indicative of terroir, or site-specific characteristics in the eventual wines. As I read over this response, it seemed like another solid illustration of the continuous care and attention vintners put into their products. In Julie’s case, she aims to make a particular style of Zinfandel, one that reveals an array of flavors, fruit and non-fruit. As she stated in our exchange, “All this hard work pays off in the beautiful range of fruit that comes as a result – from the deepest black raspberry to rich, ripe dark cherry – spice, rich, floral – it’s all there.”

During our chat we also discussed the nuances of working with some of the other grape varieties that go into Tres Sabores wines (e.g. Petite Sirah), as well as Julie’s thoughts on the Rutherford bench as an area for fine wine production. Julie’s ranch is located on the west side of the Napa Valley. She noted, “Our vineyard is in shade from the very late afternoon/early evening on, which gives the vines extra time to recover from mid to late summer heat, cool down and rebuild acid. We get great balance in all of our wines as a result.” This insight on the uniqueness of her vineyard site certainly connects with her approaches to winemaking, looking for wines that strike a balance between assorted fruit flavors and terroir-specific flavors as well. When discussing the vineyard site, Julie also noted the importance she places on engaging in organic farming. Her vineyard is dry-farmed (no irrigation), and was one of the first vineyards in the area to be certified for organic growing, which is a certification contingent on annual reviews and inspections to ensure upkeep of organic farming practices. On this point, Julie said, “The symbiosis that develops between mature vines and healthy soil is in full force here. You can literally feel the energy in the vineyard.”

The final portions of our chat turned away slightly from focus on topics specific to winemaking, but still covered issues related to being “in wine.” For example, I asked Julie about a recent feature of her in Wine Country Women of Napa Valley, a book that profiles the accomplishments of women winemakers in one of the world’s most acclaimed viticultural areas. As Julie put it, “It’s just plain fun to be in a book like this.” I also asked her if she had any advice for any upcoming women winemakers. Her comments seemed more generally applied to all aspiring winemakers. She noted, “My advice is pretty simple: Taste widely and thoughtfully, network efficiently, attach yourself to any mentor(s) you can and train for a ‘jungle gym’ of experiences in the business rather than thinking about climbing any particular ladder.” I was especially intrigued by the notion of tasting “thoughtfully.” When I asked Julie for some elaboration, she discussed the importance of having some sort of system of analysis for tasting, where we attempt to more concretely analyze what’s in our glass. Considering the meticulous thoughts and analyses that seem to have gone into Tres Sabores, this seems like pretty sound advice.

To close, my conversation with Tres Sabores’ Julie Johnson was a very informative and enriching chat about various important issues in wine production, as well as other fun topics. (See the Tres Sabores website for a list of the different dogs they have on property.) We look forward to learning more about her, her experiences, and her wines when she visits The Twisted Vine this Wednesday, November 29th.

Interview with Brandon Sparks-Gillis of Dragonette Cellars

November 2nd, 2017

By Brent Bracamontes

By the time I started teaching wine classes and doing sommelier work on the floor of The Twisted Vine in 2011, Dragonette Cellars was already a reasonably established enterprise. As I was beginning my own wine training and education, all I knew about Dragonette was that someone affiliated with the brand had once worked at The Vine, and that our customers loved the wines. Now, in 2017, Dragonette Cellars is as reputable a brand as it ever has been, and appears to be adored by many of the same customers who adored it back in the day, as well as by some noteworthy names in the world of wine media. (Dragonette’s website features a statement of flattering praise by Antonio Galloni of Vinous Media.) In preparation for a tasting event on November 8th, 2017, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Brandon Sparks-Gillis, Dragonette’s co-founder.

Roots of the Operation
After spending some time in the retail sector at Wally’s Wine, a very reputable wine shop in Los Angeles, Brandon’s attention turned toward the production side of the business. When describing the move to start up an operation alongside John and Steve Dragonette, Brandon spoke fondly of the bond they seemed to have from the beginning. “It all clicked immediately,” he said. This “click” refers both to their palate preferences as well as a bond that would pave the way for an upcoming project. A barrel of wine produced in John’s garage in 2003 represents the beginning of the Dragonette wine operation, which would eventually supplant itself in Santa Barbara County. In reflecting on this shift, Brandon noted, “It was great. It was a nice change to experience the variety of growing, wine-making, and the business side; every day became different rather than the same. All three of us love the tactile, physical aspect of the process, so we really enjoy being in the vineyards, along with the day-to-day process of tending to the wine in the cellar.”

The Charm of Santa Barbara County
During our conversation, I was charmed by how warmly Brandon Spoke of Santa Barbara county. When he speaks of Santa Barbara as a location for fine wine production, he speaks about it with a type of genuine reverence. As he explained, Santa Barbara as a viticultural area presents rich diversity of climate and soil type. Within this range lies a cooler climate atmosphere that promotes production of wines Brandon loves to drink, where fresh fruit flavors are complemented by balanced acidity. These wines may not necessarily compare stylistically to the archetypal styles of Napa and Sonoma, but offer an appeal that is more reflective of more classic, refined styles. In discussing the beginnings of their operation, Brandon specifically highlighted Syrah as the first wine they produced, which reflected a cool climate style much more than some of the more plump and ripe styles that are characteristic of warmer growing regions.

Grapes and Vineyards
During our conversation, we spent considerable time discussing Brandon’s experience working with many different grapes and vineyard sites. If you were to peruse Dragonette’s website for a breakdown of their wines, you are sure to be impressed by how many distinct wines they produce from different plots of land. When asked about the perks of sourcing fruit from many different sites, Brandon responded, “the pleasure is that we get to explore the diverse terrains of the Santa Ynez Valley and find sites that are perfectly suited to each of the varieties we work with.” This idea was reinforced at other points in our discussion, when Brandon commented on the range of grape varieties they work with for their impressive selection of different wines. As he explained, “Experiencing the different AVA’s each season gives us a greater understanding of Santa Barbara. It is also a huge advantage in that we are diversified; in the event of severe weather, we are less exposed.” This is an important consideration, but one that seems under-emphasized in casual conversation about wine-making and blending practices, in particular. While Dragonette certainly practices blending as a means for producing wines that are balanced and that meet their specifications as vintners, working with different grape varieties provides some necessary insurance. For example, Brandon pointed out that Pinot Noir yields in some vineyards were down 60% during this most recent vintage, which could have been catastrophic if they worked solely with that variety. I would be remiss if I did not mention Brandon’s comments about Dragonette’s philosophies on working with specific vineyards. In addition to sourcing fruit from different vineyards sites, he especially noted their interests in tailoring specific farming practices to particular vineyards. Especially when working with contracted growers, Brandon and crew seek to understand the most ideal farming practices for that unique site, in order to promote an authentic “sense of place” in each of the wines they eventually produce.

Moving Forward
When I asked Brandon to comment on the evolution of the Dragonette brand, he noted how happy the team is with the progress they have made so far. He stated succinctly, “Our goals have remained constant: find the best vineyards, farm to the highest standards, and work toward creating the best possible wine.” He elaborated, “We have implemented organic and bio-dynamic farming techniques in the vineyards, and we have become better at tasting and blending over the years as well.” As I reflect on Brandon’s comments, I find that his vision for the future of the Dragonette brand is consistent with his own preferences as a consumer. He likes balanced wines that taste like reflections of specific places, which seems to run counter to a prevailing trend among larger operations, in which expression of site and vintage are sacrificed for a more commercially-viable approach to striving for stylistic consistency across different vintages and vineyard sites. This is not to say that Dragonette is not a commercial operation, but, rather, to comment on the ways their brand is attempting to maintain commitment to the viticulture and vinification practices that got them to where they are now.

Drinking Bordeaux

October 5th, 2017

This week we are hosting another wine class for cellar pass members, and our focus is on Bordeaux. There are certainly a number of superb reference books on Bordeaux available to consumers these days, each of which will tell you more than you’d probably ever want to know about the region, its history and evolution, acclaimed producers, and much else. Personally, I am partial to Benjamin Lewin’s What Price Bordeaux?, which offers a helpful analysis of the region’s technical characteristics, but which also focuses on economic considerations of Bordeaux wines, particularly focusing on the Bordeaux wine industry.

For most of us, the economics of Bordeaux are simple: we can’t afford the wines. If you follow wine trends in magazines, on websites, or on social media, you are bound to see snapshots of first-growth Bordeaux wines on someone’s dining table, accompanied by some commentary about how well it is drinking at that moment. Fear not that you are the only one cringing with envy at such a post, for you are not alone. For many of us, drinking top Bordeaux on the regular is a financial impossibility. Though we could certainly purchase a bottle of Château Latour or Margaux if we so desired, doing so would also likely prevent us from paying our rent and other bills, which does not seem like the best tactic to employ. (But come check with me again if I am ever diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.)

So, how do the current economics of Bordeaux wine impact our abilities to regularly enjoy the wines?

I suppose my overarching perspective is to promote drinking Bordeaux wines with food. Considering that drinking wine with no food accompaniment is a bit more common here than it is in many parts of Europe, typical Bordeaux may not be as common in your household as it is for others who tend to limit their wine consumption to mealtimes. I understand this practice, as a juicy California Zinfandel seems much more appetizing by itself than a wine from Bordeaux, though this runs the risk of coming off as a gross generalization. But when I think about ‘best practices’ for drinking wines from Bordeaux, I’m pretty intolerant of enjoying them without some sort of food present in the equation. As I have learned more about wine and consumed it more regularly, I have become more and more enamored by its ability to enhance a meal. Bordeaux wines have historically been complementary with a broad range of cuisines and individual dishes based on the noteworthy acidity and less ripe fruit flavors on the palate. Your average bottle of Bordeaux is also likely to show off more secondary aromas and flavors (earth, vegetal, floral, etc.) than most New World wines. These non-fruit flavors may at first be off-putting for consumers accustomed to drinking wines most from California, but can add awesome complexity to the wine itself, as well as to many meals for which the wines may be paired.

Both red and white Bordeaux wines offer something special, and certainly don’t always have to break the bank. Plenty of red Bordeaux exists outside of the astronomically priced growths of the Médoc. For example, wines labeled Cru Bourgeois are generally much more affordable, and will provide you with a quality drinking experience at a fraction of the price. These wines are generally considered to be slightly lower in stature than the classed growths we hear so much about, but can still provide you and your guests with experiences that are more or less representative of the stylistic differences between traditional Bordeaux and other more opulent, fruit-forward wines.

And what about Bordeaux’s white wines? If you are at all like me, the mention of Bordeaux inspires thoughts of robust red wines and squandered paychecks. But as I have refined my own preferences, I find myself more enamored with the white wines of the region. Entre-Deux-Mers (“between two seas”) is a region caught between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, which produces lighter, crisp, acid-driven wines. Delicious for a lunch outside during most seasons here in California. If you desire a white wine with a bit more weight and ripe flavors, I encourage you to look out for a wine from the commune of Pessac-Leognan, located in Graves. Red and white wines from Pessac-Léognan are both of reputable quality these days, but I find the whites to be especially impressive.

Bordeaux is a region that regularly produces an assortment of wines appropriate for many different types of consumers. Those of you with plenty of discretionary cash to spend can act like kids in candy stores when shopping around for classes growths from renowned vintages, and may even be able to splurge on an expensive bottle of sweet Sauternes to pair with a dessert. For those of us with more modest wine budgets, it may be easy to forget that Bordeaux is still a region whose wines we can enjoy, and that can easily elevate a meal with its food-friendly offerings.

Pacific Northwest Wine Class

July 25th, 2017

Recently we hosted two wine classes focusing on white wines from the Pacific Northwest. As a longtime admirer of crisp, fresh, and well made white wines, these days I generally turn my attention (and available funds) to Washington and Oregon white wines when the summer weather commands such purchases. Thankfully, as far as we could tell, our wine class guests appreciated to the tasting of weather-appropriate wines. Here are the wines we tasted:

  • 2016 Gramercy Cellars Picpoul “Lois Oidos Vineyard” – Walla Walla, WA
  • 2016 Sineann Grüner Veltliner “Pear Blossom Vineyard”– Columbia Gorge, OR
  • 2016 Willakenzie Estate Pinot Gris – Willamette Valley, OR
  • 2015 Longshadow Poet’s Leap Riesling – Columbia Valley, WA
  • 2015 Sharecropper’s Chardonnay – Yakima Valley, WA
  • 2015 Elk Cove Pinot Noir Rosé – Willamette Valley, OR

When scheming about what sorts of wines to serve customers for events like wine classes, we usually try to present a decent diversity of grapes, regions, and production methods. One thing to notice about the selections for this class is the inclusion of 6 different wines made from totally different grape varieties. While some of these grapes may be recognizable by name, others (like Picpoul and Gruner Veltliner) are probably less recognizable, and probably don’t make up most of what we regularly drink at home or when we venture out to restaurants or local wine bars.

One other takeaway from this class was the recognition that many different styles of wine can fulfill our cravings for refreshing drinks during these summer months. Whether it is the truly mouth-watering acidity of the Picpoul, the slightly more ripe and herbal notes from the Grüner Veltliner, or even the subtle sweet fruit from the Riesling, appropriate summer beverages come in many forms. I was very pleased to take note of how so many different customers with different tastes appreciated nearly all of the wines for their seasonal appropriateness, as well as simply for how they tasted. Of course, different consumers preferred some wines over others, but no matter their individual preferences, they are all more likely to be just a bit more in-the-know the next time they go wine shopping on their own. During the class I encouraged everyone to understand what each of these wines conveyed in the glass, but also to venture out and try a wine from a different region made from the same variety. Our Wine Director (who was also present for the first class) contributed a helpful point about the Grüner Veltliner, noting that its fruit character was a bit more plump and ripe than one is likely to find in a more traditional Austrian version. Perhaps this relates to a point that is repeatedly made by sommeliers and others in the wine trade concerning the benefit of seeking out “classic” examples of certain grape varieties from around the wine-producing world. I encourage everyone to spend some time with many different varieties, seeking to understand how different producers from different locales may contribute their own expression of a particular grape.

On a final note, these classes also reinforced the quality and dynamic nature of Pacific Northwest wine regions. As I see things, Washington and Oregon are anything but “one trick ponies,” but, rather, viticultural areas deserved of praise and still relatively underexplored. To think that the same areas can produce white, red, and rosé wines of distinguished character and remarkable quality is a testament not only to the vineyard sites themselves, but also to the vintners who produce the product in areas that so often get overshadowed by more acclaimed American Viticultural Areas.

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Domaine Des Muretins Rosé

August 11th, 2016

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Wines from Tavel represent more sturdy and concentrated versions of rosé. Rosés from Provence are considered by many to be archetypal for lighter, more elegant styles of rosé, but certainly do not hold a monopoly on dry rosé production. I am a steadfast supporter of clean rosé styles, but a recent bottle of Tavel reminde me of the splendidness of subtly richer styles of the stuff.

Tavel is an appellation for dry rosés located in the southern Rhône Valley. If you are acquainted with the dry reds of the southern Rhône, you will likely recognize them as sturdy and concentrated, typified by ripe flavors. Tavel Rosés are similar for the ways they contrast Provencal rosés in both color and taste. Grenache and Cinsault are the two principal varieties used to make rosés in Tavel, each of which maintains a reputation for producing wines of great power and weight. This may be a bit of a generalization, but in my experience a shopper examining a bottle of Grenache in a store should look elsewhere if she desires a restrained wine.

The 2015 Domaine des Muretins rosé is a quality example of what the region has to offer. While some critics bemoan the occasional bloated price points for these wines, this bottle seems to average right around the $20 marker. (The Twisted Vine retails this bottle for $19.99.) This particular wine is a relatively new venture for the producer, but doesn’t show any infantile faults or growing pains. With just the right balance of red fruit flavors and acidity, this is a quality bottle that should be enjoyable from now until the end of the holiday season.

-Brent Bracamontes

More Spring Wine Insights

June 9th, 2016

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It is exciting to be a fan of wine during spring. Not only do we get to witness an onslaught of new rosé wines (as noted in a previous post), but we also get the chance to explore different possibilities for enjoying different wines at different times of the day and with different foods. Those of us living in Southern California should consider ourselves supremely lucky to soak up sunny weather that is more or less predictable. Spring wines don’t seem to just pair well with lighter food items, but also with our pleasant weather and the company we gather around to appreciate it.

 

I recently took a trip to Washington State. I set up my “home base” on Bainbridge Island with a couple of friends, and we did what we could to enjoy the slower-paced island life on Bainbridge, while also taking the 30-minute ferry to Seattle to enjoy a more turbulent yet gastronomically impressive environment. We marveled at the contrasts, but also appreciated those establishments that could strike balance between catering to liveliness and also charming patrons with appreciation for more slow and methodical dining experiences. You know you are experiencing a good meal when you notice yourself slipping back into your chair and taking a deep breath. For me, this action usually indicates a subtle out-of-body experience where I am able to appreciate my own appreciation for food, drink, and the invigorating dialogues that emerge from food experiences. I was struck with a number of insights about food culture during my time visiting the northwest.

 

First, bottle price is not the sole correlate for a positive experience. Rest assured that I spent more than a few cents on bottles of wine (retail and in restaurant) during my time away, but the most expensive bottle was not necessarily the most enjoyable. My friends and I splurged on bottles of aged Bordeaux and Chateauneuf-du-Pape, all of which were memorable. But when I think back on our experiences, I’m not willing to admit that these expensive bottles were totally a cut above the moderately priced bottles of Muscadet we ordered with shellfish lunches. An “objective” wine critic may object to such a claim, but I’m all finished with objectivity as a way of approaching wine. Food and wine are aspects of our subjective consciousness, and we should embrace them for the ways they enhance our lives when we allow ourselves to seek out the indulgences. Was our bottle of 2006 Haut-Bage Liberal technically a better wine than the 2015 Cognettes Muscadet? Perhaps it is. But we ordered the Muscadet after a long walk, and we were hot. And we got to appreciate this bottle with sublimely delicious shellfish, which arrived at our table just as the acidity in the Muscadet caused our mouths to salivate past the point of comfort. If I were to venture off on this trip again next week, I’m not so sure I would buy the Bordeaux again. It was expensive, and I’m not all that wealthy. But the Muscadet was very reasonably priced and it was brilliant with the food we ordered. I’ll take that experience every day of the week (though I’ll be looking for a different pant waist size shortly thereafter).

 

I have also come to believe that we consumers should pay attention to food and wine pairings, but should not verge into any sort of dogmatism. This adage seems especially appropriate during spring, when we should be embracing all the fresh, clean, and budget-friendly wines we can get our hands on. For example the bottles of Muscadet, Provence rosé, and Chablis I’ve been purchasing have not maxed out my credit card, but have dazzled me with their versatility with a wide range of different edible fares. Of course, being in defense of a more tempered approach to pairing wine with food does not mean that we should not be paying attention to the exciting ways the two may interact. One of the most profoundly delicious and compelling pairings on my trip was a 2006 German Spätlese Riesling with chicken liver pâté. The opulence of the pâté was such a wonderful fit for the rich flavors of the wine, but balanced by the Riesling’s sustained acidity (one of the many reasons to adore Riesling). And this was one example of the ways a wine can be just “right” for a particular food item, I don’t recognize it as being the only pairing that I might have written about now that I am back home.

 

These are just two insights that struck me over the course of my trip and now, during periods of reflection. Of course, the overarching lesson is to collect wines that will make you happy, and that will enhance this wonderful season. Thankfully, finding bottles that meet this specification will not break the bank, and will enhance just about any meal… especially around lunchtime.

-Brent Bracamontes

 

Rosé Cheeks in Spring

May 4th, 2016

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This past month we welcomed some guests into our shop for a class on rosé wines. Presenting a rosé tasting is beginning to be a springtime tradition for us at The Twisted Vine, which doesn’t seem to displease any of us who get to interact with attendees and sample the wines for ourselves.

I never really fall out of love with rosés, but each spring (the season during which most rosé producers unveil their newest releases) I am reminded of all the many reasons why it is one of my favorite wine “genres.” Our most recent class was no exception to the rule, as we tasted our ways through a flight of five delicious yet markedly different rosé wines.

Flavor concentration was one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the wines we tasted. While some of the rosés could be described as “delicate” or “easy-drinking,” other bottles maintained flavors that were far more concentrated, indicating more developed grape ripeness or prolonged maceration during the vinification process. Juice to skin contact for rosé production is never really as lengthy a process as it is for traditional red wines, but some rosé producers will leave the skins in contact with the juice for longer periods, in order to make the fruit flavors more concentrated and to add a degree of “weight” based on increased tannin and anthocyanin levels. As the person leading the tasting, I was both intrigued and thrilled to note how many different guests preferred so many different wines. One wine caused one person to grin from ear to ear, whereas that same wine just as easily caused another to grimace. As I mentioned, finding out that someone doesn’t care for something you like just means there will be more bottles available for you to buy.

Some of the most frequently asked questions during the tasting had to do with food pairings for rosé wines. “What’s the best pairing?” is the sort of question a number of guests asked while we were walking around and gauging reactions to the different wines. Unlike some sommeliers or other personalities in the wine world, I rarely feel comfortable pinpointing any single dish that is THE archetypal pair for any wine. I concede that there are some wines that seem to clash with certain foods (e.g. a deep, tannic red with sushi), but I try to avoid dogmatic presumptions on food and wine pairing options whenever possible. When it comes to rosé, the fresh red and stone fruit flavors and marked acid levels seem like they would complement a whole host of springtime meals. More importantly to me, however, is the idea that rosé seems to be the sort of drink you can sip on routinely, even in the absence of food. While I agree with a writer like Eric Asimov when he claims that wine is ideally consumed alongside food, I am perfectly content drinking most rosés without any intended or accidental food pairing options. The stuff just tastes good all the time.

Just like our class last year, this class reassured me of my desire to stockpile my personal cellar with bottles of rosé. While many of these bottles will be hued differently and come from regions all over the world, I can almost guarantee that each bottle will refresh me and remind me that it is spring. Oh, what a wonderful season!

-Brent Bracamontes

2012 Sbragia “Home Ranch” Chardonnay

February 24th, 2016

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One of the qualities I respect in sommeliers, wine journalists, and other persons in the trade is the ability to comment on the quality of a wine that does not fit within their own preferences. For example, I appreciate some opulent and rich styles of Chardonnay, but that list is a rather short one. I get a big kick out of wines from Meursault, one of the famed areas in Burgundy for a richer style of Chardonnay. But even within this category, the wines I appreciate are those that strike a balance between richness, acidity, and minerality. Unlike many persons with whom I chat about wines, I don’t maintain a personal taste or attachment to richer styles of Chardonnay that rely on new oak flavors and creamy textures. However, that does not mean I don’t put forward to constantly taste these wines to pinpoint the “good ones.”

Sbragia is one of the good ones. Ed Sbragia (founder) garnered fame and acclaim for the work he did as vintner for Beringer. Today, Sbragia Family Vineyards, located deep in Silverado road off Highway 101 in Sonoma, is the source of red and white wines that represent the pinnacle of rich and opulent California styles. I am most familiar with Sbragia’s various bottlings of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, though they also do some fine work with Zinfandel, in its trademark full California style.

The 2012 Sbragia “Home Ranch” Chardonnay is an excellent representation of the producer’s general style. The wine maintains significant palate weight, creamy texture (indicative of full malolactic fermentation), and features extremely ripe and tasty green and tropical fruit flavors. Apricot and Pineapple stand out, alongside a marked honeyed flavor. Some of the flavor profiles I’ve read online mentioned marmalade as a distinctive flavor, which seems pretty spot on. It doesn’t seem difficult to find these styles of New World Chardonnay in local wine shops, but it does seem more rare to find one at an attractive price point. We sell the bottle for $19.99, which is a great price for a wine of this caliber.

So, while I do get excited about finding regions and specific bottles that work for my own tastes, I also find joy in being able to refer consumers to wines they love, which I might never buy for myself. I suppose it’s all in an effort to become the most helpful wine professional I can be, who never feels inclined to tell someone they are misinformed for liking or buying a certain wine. But do us all a favor and don’t buy a bottle of…

-Brent Bracamontes

Moscato: A Request For Reconsideration

January 7th, 2016

The Moscato currently featured on our by-the-glass list is sweet, balanced, refreshing, and affordable.

The Moscato currently featured on our by-the-glass list is sweet, balanced, refreshing, and affordable.

It’s easy to snicker or even roll your eyes at Moscato these days. Particularly here in the U.S., Moscato is a term that has become somewhat divisive. For sure, it is the safe word to use when you don’t know precisely what you want, but you know that you want something sweet. For others, it is a term that, at worst, signals the demise of wine culture, or at best, identifies someone as a person who probably does not feel too comfortable at your dinner table.

As someone who has spent the previous four years immersed in all sorts of different wines through professional and personal activities, I’ve been privileged to experience wines that many might not come across. I don’t state this to be pompous or to communicate a sense of superiority, but simply to illustrate my positioning with respect to this topic. I taste a fair number of special and expensive wines. You might think that I maintain a disdain for Moscato, similar to others with similar experiences. If you think this, you are wrong. I adore Moscato. It’s my dirty wine secret.

I routinely ask others in the “wine know” about their wine secrets. I am interested in getting to know some of the tastes and tendencies that are maintained despite degrees of assimilation into elitist wine culture. I know some sommeliers who will forever maintain an admiration of Bud Light, or some similar mass-market beer. Although these persons may never believe Bud Light to be on par with some of their favorite wines when it comes to issues of quality, they will never give up on the stuff based on the crisp and refreshing characteristics that makes drinking them an exercise in relaxation. I heard somewhere that Master Sommelier Fred Dame adores a medium-priced California Sauvignon Blanc with lunch. Considering the bottles to which Dame has regular access, this comes as a somewhat startling fact.

But this is also a refreshing fact (pun regretfully intended). Learning that such renowned and credentialed professionals maintain such habits has helped me to identify how I want to be as a wine professional. More than anything, I desire to be informed, yet always humble. The ability and willingness to laugh at myself and to not take myself too seriously is one of my primary obsessions.

And so, I confess an affinity for Moscato, albeit with some notable caveats. First, I like it semi-sparkling. I am now more than tolerant of residual sugar in the wines I drink, but usually only when there is sufficient acidity to achieve the all-important “balance” criterion. For this reason, I tend to prefer Moscato from Italy, which generally offers the “fizz” to make the wine delightfully refreshing. In the absence of such a texture, the wine’s sugar content might make it cloying, which I have never found to be an attractive characteristic. Moscato d’Asti is the obvious choice, though many from the nearby province of Pavia offer similar, if not indistinguishable, characteristics. Second (and I don’t consider this to be flippant), the bottles need to be of reasonably good quality. Of course, we should desire to mostly drink wines that are well made, but there are some categories of wine in which some of the really bad examples are really that bad. Moscato is one such category. Unfortunately, the preponderance of poor Moscato, particularly in the U.S. market, appears to have labeled the category with an overgeneralized negative connotation. Frankly, I find this unfair.

Even though I might not reach for a bottle of Moscato routinely over other wines, there are certain contexts in which it is hard to beat. Those of you who like to take in a wine “shooter” to start your hangover vacation days might find a glass of fizzy Moscato to be just the sort of refreshing beverage that can lead you into that first cup of coffee. In more conventional senses, a fine Moscato is very satisfying when paired with fresh fruits, or a non-chocolate dessert. I recently paired a Moscato d’Asti with homemade trifle, which proved to be a delectable end to the “official” dinner and a worthy precursor to the scotch that followed.

Admitting an appreciation for Moscato does not imply that I seek it out routinely as an alternative to other wines. No iteration of Moscato stands the chance to be one of my “desert island” wines, nor will it be featured at every tasting I lead or dinner I attend. But it does have its place. If anything, I encourage you to find a place for Moscato in your wine consumption routine. Storing away a couple bottles in your cellar certainly won’t make you the envy of the block (or the bar), but it might just give you an option for a refreshing drink or impressive pairing when the right occasion comes along.

-Brent Bracamontes