I still remember when I set eyes on Oregon’s wine country, Willamette Valley. It smelled of perfumey Pinot Noir… wafting up through the vineyards, wineries and through my hotel window. It was harvest of 2007 and I fell in love. With Oregon Pinot Noir. The love continues to this day. Willamette (rhymes with “dammit”) Valley is the main grape-growing area and one of the first wine regions (AVA) established in Oregon. It’s about an hour south of Portland, straddling the mountainous coastline. A major reason for Willamette’s success is the vast temperature fluctuations during the spring and summer growing season, allowing the fruit to develop acids — a crucial element in creating complexity in wine, especially Pinot. Over the years, distinct winegrowing regions have emerged and now the state has 17 AVAs that wineries often indicate on the bottle to educate customers. But many keep Willamette Valley on the label because they’re likely blends of several AVAs.
Read more: Impressive Oregon Pinot Noir
For me, Cab Sauv isn’t a sipping wine. Not made for the patio or the party, but more for the dinner party. Its hefty tannins and deep, dark flavors are a challenge to my palate without the fattiness of food to protect it. But a well-made Cab begs to be recognized as such – celebrated for having achieved a balance of acid and tannins, fruit and oak, and an elegance worthy of any meal. Honig Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley makes this cut.
Read more: Cold weather wine: 2012 Honig Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Behold a photo gallery of fave wines from my afternoon spent at the 2015 Taste of Sonoma, part of the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. A storied and epic wine event hosted by MacMurray Ranch in the heart of Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, it’s impossible to try all the wines poured. Most of these recommended wines hail from the Russian River Valley or Sonoma Valley tents where I spent the bulk of my time exploring. And explore I did! Found a few new wineries (or, at least, new to me) that are killing it: Attune Wines, Canihan Wines, Talisman Wines and Viluko Vineyards. And reminisced with old flames like Inman Family Wines, Three Sticks Wines and Dunstan Wines. These boutique bottles won’t be at a store down the street, but on a website near your mouse or finger. Taste of Sonoma is by far the premier tasting festival of the season and is very well organized. If you haven’t had the pleasure, put it on your bucket list.
Read more: Best wines I tasted at 2015 Taste of Sonoma Festival
It’s damn hard finding a Pinot Noir worth drinking under $20. Really, really hard. Some might even say under $30 is challenging, but I’m not that hard core. But forget under $15… it’s normally sweetened grape juice with a touch of earthiness likely added in with wood chips. But occasionally, if you look and wish hard enough, you can find a wine treasure that you can enjoy everyday without feeling the pinch too much. I tried the Mark West 2013 Pinot Noir in a blind tasting lineup and pretty much everyone (from wine novices to wine pros) thought it was solid. Especially for the low, low price of $12.
Read more: Wine review: Mark West 2013 Pinot Noir California
The Rhone Rangers, a group of wine producers who have a passion for Rhône grape varietals, spreads the gospel of grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne… all descendants of France’s Rhône Valley that grow quite happily in areas around California. Especially Paso Robles in the south-central area of the state where the intense heat coaxes these grapes into a ripening groove. Rhone Rangers holds regular tasting events across the country to introduce wine lovers to the beauty of these often overlooked yet sublime varietals. If you see one in your town, run to get tickets.
Read more: Wine reviews: Four Rhone style wines rocking my world
I possess a Daredevil-like sense of smell. I notice aromas floating in the air that few people do, from potpourri, blooming flowers the next block over, sauteed onions from outside the front door and — my least favorite thing on the planet — incense burning in a nearby apartment. Inherited from the chef-side of my family, this intense sense is both a blessing and curse, since there are also plenty of not-so-fabulous aromas floating in the air too. As you likely know, taste is heavily dependent on smell (think about when you have a cold) so my taste factor is also influenced by this, ahem, blurse. But that’s where tasting wine becomes really cool. I smell and taste a lot of things in a wine. Like green pepper(aka pyrazine vegetal-ness) in many Chilean Carmenere wines. I whiff it first, then it bursts into my mouth. Generally experienced in grapes that haven’t ripened enough, the green pepper experience in Carmenere is part of its DNA. I never warmed up to this flavor and still don’t care for it. So when I get a sample bottle of Carmenere, I’m rarely psyched. However, the Anderra 2013 Carmenere surprised me. It helps that the wine is is the Chilean project by Baron Phillipe de Rothschild. Yep, that Rothschild.
Read more: Wine Review: Anderra 2013 Carmenere and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
It was called “Black Wine” for years – the Malbec wine from Cahors in France’s Southwest region. The British were the main consumers of this rich, unctuous and tannic drink until the root louse phylloxera decimated the vineyards in the late 1800’s. 100 years later, after replanting with terroir in mind, the Cahors wine producers awakened to a different Malbec world far from their shores, in Argentina. They realized they were late to an already raging party. Undaunted by the competition, Cahors wine producers now feel it’s the Golden Age of Cahors and better late than never to reclaim Malbec’s French birthright.
Read more: French Malbec and wines of Cahors: The original
Chile has been a happening place for several years now. With a Mediterranean climate much like northern California, the grapes bask in sunshine and enjoy rain during the winter mostly. Even the landscape, with mountain valleys and slopes, resembles California. And, like California, the resultant wines are consistently high quality. But there’s one big difference: Price. Wines from Chile astound with a price to quality ratio that most wine regions would love. I dare say few wine regions can top the number of excellent wines under $20 that Chile does.
Read more: Wine review: Montes Alpha 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon
It strikes most wine drinkers at some point in their wine paths: Pinot passion. The multi-dimensional, seductiveaspects of this finicky, oft-loved grape are difficult to avoid. And, when it happens, all you can do is succumb to its wiles and enjoy the comfort it brings. Mendocino County, a wine region rich with redwoods, coastal climate and definitely Pinot Noir, has birthed three disparate yet dedicated wineries, proudly wearing their Pinot passion like a badge of honor. And created some gorgeous wine.
Read more: Celebrating three small, passionate Pinot Noir producers in Mendocino County
In the German legend, Dr. Faust trades his soul to the devil in exchange for limitless knowledge and pleasure. It’s moral lesson to all, as tempting as this is on many, many levels. Imagine the parties? But while you will trade about $50 for the Faust Cabernet, made by the legendary winemakers at Napa Valley’s Quintessa winery, plenty of pleasures are found within the bottle.
Read more: Wine review: Faust 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley