This is a tale of three wine stories — an up-and-coming California wine appellation, a growing business model in the wine biz, and an under-appreciated-yet-slowly-gaining-a-rep grape, Chenin Blanc. This wine review highlights all three in one, 5-minute post. Who says service is dead? The Clarksburg appellation in northeast California enfolds 59,000 acres of warm-climate land, encompassing Sacramento and bordering on the Sacramento River. About 10,000 acres of heat-loving grapevines are planted here but it’s not particularly recognized as an appellation. This is mostly because the majority of the fruit is sent outside the area for crushing not to mention the best grapes grown here remain a mystery to the majority of wine drinkers — Chenin Blanc and Petite Sirah. Clarksburg Wine Company hopes to change that. Naming their wine label after an unknown region borders on ballsy but they’re also exploring a relatively new business model — “custom crush”. Imagine calling up a winemaker and asking them to make a wine specifically to your tastes? “I’d like it to taste slightly sweet but not syrupy; high acid yet full-bodied”… that’s what custom crush companies do for you (as well as commercial entities). So, in addition to making wine under the Clarksburg Wine Company label they also make wine for others. Something for everyone, you might say.
Read more: Wine review: Clarksburg Wine Company Chenin Blancs
Available exclusively at Trader Joe’s — not sure if it’s distributed outside California, but let’s hope it is — La Ferme Julien Blanc from France’s Luberon region is a luscious blend of white French grapes most people have never heard of: Ugni Blanc [oo NE blanhk], Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and an odd-man-out Italian grape, Vermentino. Smooth and tasty, it’s a perfect warm-weather wine with food like raw oysters, slightly spicy fare, or simple roasted chicken. And it’s staggeringly inexpensive… $6
Read more: Wine under $10 review: La Ferme Julien Blanc 2011
I don’t hear much about Zinfandel these days, except during the annual Zinfandel Festival in nearby San Francisco. Last year, I produced a video which asked winemakers to describe their ideal Zinfandel food and wine pairings. The results were above and beyond the normal BBQ and grilled beef responses… Asian food? Mole? And why not? Low in tannins, high in juicy flavor with some having plenty of acid, Zinfandel can create quite the zesty love affair with food. Seghesio is a classic producer of Zinfandel, hanging their hat on the varietal and other Italian grapes such as Barbera (one of my favorites that they produce). Purchased in 2011 by Crimson Wine Group, I worried their quality would lag behind profit pressures but they seem to have weathered the transition pretty well so far.
Read more: Everyday drinking wine review: Seghesio 2010 Zinfandel Sonoma County
One the juiciest parts of blind-tasting wines is the shock and awe when you uncover a really, really tasty find. It’s like unearthing a lost twenty in your jacket pocket or getting something on sale that you needed anyway. A delicious surprise. I hadn’t tried Pepi wines for many years, finding them rather boring and uninspiring in days past. But this fruity little Chenin-Viognier number caught the eye of every taster at the group tasting table. From the wine pro to the casual consumer, virtually everyone gushed, anxiously awaiting the “reveal” to find out the price. So they could go buy a case. They got their wish… Pepi Chenin Blanc-Viognier is quite affordable at $10. I hadn’t tried Pepi wines for many years, finding them rather boring and uninspiring in days past. But this fruity little Chenin-Viognier number caught the eye of every taster at the group tasting table. From wine professionals to casual consumers, virtually everyone gushed, anxiously awaiting the “reveal” to find out the price. So they could go buy a case. They got their wish… Pepi Chenin Blanc-Viognier is quite affordable.
Read more: Wine review: Pepi 2011 Chenin Blanc Viognier California
Folie à Deux (pronounced “folee ah duh”) is one of the bigger success stories in the wine biz. Their sister label Menage à Trois sells like sex on a street corner mainly because it’s sweet, juicy and, well, the name is enticing. I doubt anyone at that winery wonders if sex sells. But the Folie à Deux labels show a more serious wine side to them, with fruit coming from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley (Cabernet Sauvignon) and Dry Creek Valley, which this little drinkable gem hails from. Dry Creek is a neighboring wine region to where I live, and the Zinfandel grape thrives where summer highs can be 8-10 degrees warmer than 20 minutes south in the Russian River Valley. That was something I had to get used to when I moved here. This fruit-forward, low tannin wine has captured my attention for years and I used to drink them more often until their alcohol levels practically morphed into 16% rubbing alcohol.
Read more: Zin love again: Folie a Deux 2009 Zinfandel wine review
The 2011 Pinot Gris from Oregon’s Willamette Valley are simply spectacular. Loaded with tart acidity, peaches and grapefruit, you can be assured that any bottle of 2011 Oregon Pinot Gris you grab from the shelves will be worthy of passing your lips. But if you can find this one, you’re golden. The Elk Cove 2011 Pinot Gris has refreshingly crisp acids, resulting from the cooler climate experienced throughout the state during that vintage year. Fragrant citrus fruit on the nose leads into a light-bodied white with flavors of pink grapefruit (but smoother than a New Zealand Sauv Blanc), lime zest and green apples. This grog is sassy and simply easy to drink on a warm day.
Read more: Wine review: Elk Cove 2011 Pinot Gris Willamette Valley (Oregon)
Sicily is one of those steeped-in-history places you see on the Discovery Channel, where warring tribes battle among the decadent, carnal masses. True to their roots, Sicilians claim they inhabit the birthplace of vino, where Bacchus himself bent down and buried the seeds in the rich soil. This fertile, 10,000-square-mile island (about the size of Vermont), floating in the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa, has been fought over since 500 B.C. and more often than heroin deals in the Corleone and Tattaglia families. Fractious warriors including the Greeks, Romans, Barbarians, Arabs, French, Spanish and then finally the Italians marked the Sicilian territory. Each of these thirsty cultures left its footprint on Sicilian wine making, such as the Zibibbo grape introduced by the Saracen Arabs and Primitivo (aka Zinfandel) by the Albanian refugees in the Ottoman conquest. Though probably trampled many times over during battle, those grapes still thrive today, making Sicily a bright, unique wine region.
Read more: Sicily’s native son: Cusumano 2010 Nero d’Avola IGT wine review
The 2010 vintage in Sonoma County was super cool. And I don’t mean it wore awesome shades and sported the latest fashions — but cold like in France’s Bordeaux region. The heat index just didn’t quite get high enough to ripen grapes to the point of super fruitiness with floral aromatics (like Dry Creek Vineyards’ 2007 SB). So if you like New Zealand style Sauv Blancs (like me) then you’re in heaven with the 2010 wines (read more about Sauvignon Blanc, including how to pronounce it). And you’ll also have something to look forward to in the 2011 vintage, which had similar weather in Sonoma County.
Read more: Wine review: Dry Creek Vineyards 2010 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley
Years ago, a sommelier friend of mine described Bogle wines as “mass-produced, and you can find them at [the grocery store], but for the money they’re the best damn grocery-store wine you can buy.” I still agree.
Read more: Good cheap red wine review: Bogle 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon California