The square in rural downtown Paso Robles, California (pronounced “ROBE-less” by purists, “RO-bulls” by locals), is often covered with lush green grass and a sea of smiling tourists during harvest. It’s difficult to believe this sleepy, virtually unknown wine region has been producing wine for a quarter century, but when you taste the quality, you quickly realize this former cow town isn’t hokey-pokey. An extremely warm climate area with the widest swings in daily temperature on earth, Paso specializes in grapes that bask in heat: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel and other French Rhône-origin grapes. One night recently, my husband and I grilled out steaks and I grabbed this unfamiliar label, Ancient Peaks Renegade, from the “samples rack” — which we affectionately dub our wine play area. I’ve found some gems amongst the army of bottles perched in our family room over the years and when I tasted this wine for the first time, the eyebrows raised.
Read more: Wine review: Ancient Peaks 2009 Renegade Paso Robles
Malbec is like the the golden retriever of wines — everyone loves its softness and friendliness. It’s grown around the world but Argentina’s Mendoza region owns this dogged grape variety and it’s rare that I’ve consumed a Malbec that was absolutely disgusting — can’t say the same for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. This country simply keeps producing great, everyday drinking Malbecs.
Read more: Wine review: Argento 2010 Malbec Mendoza
I’ve finally comes to terms with the fact that I’m a Pinot-lovin’ woman. Call me an acid freak, but I just can’t sit down with only a glass (and no food), pop a cork on a Cabernet Sauvignon and enjoy the hell out of the experience. Nope, won’t happen. Too assaulting. Cabernet is a food wine, plain and simple — the tannins don’t allow my palate to fall backwards into its loving yet astringent arms. But Pinot Noir is a different story. It’s the smooth operator — the wine that massages your shoulders before making its move. It guides your hand to the glass, introduces its beautiful self to your life and entertains… nay… does a lap dance on your tongue. Seduction complete.
Read more: Wine review: Gary Farrell 2009 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley
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
Chianti is likely the entry-point for Americans to begin learning about this complicated country of 3,000 different grape varietals. It’s on these hallowed Tuscan grounds that wine was not necessarily invented (the Turks lay that claim) but quite possibly where it was first perfected. They follow the same wine identification system as France – by region and not varietals — and it’s likely for that reason Italian wines remain mysterious. I thankfully studied Italy’s regions for weeks during my race to achieve my CSW badge but I could’ve spent countless more. It’s a confusing morass. But Chianti is pretty simple: Within these bottles lies the earthy, cherry-infused elegance of the Sangiovese grape.
Read more: Wine review: Nozzole 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva
Lake County, located just north of Napa Valley in northern California, has been a sleepy yet under-rated wine-producing area for a while now. But with its hot climate, as well as biodynamic and organic focus, Lake County is churning out some pretty slamming fruit. Grapes that love the heat — like Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and many Italian varietals like Barbera — bask in all the rays the sun can provide but also enjoy the cool nights. Recently, I wrote about Shannon Ridge, who took up residence in Lake County because the fruit is cheaper to grow (lower land costs) and the volcanic soil begs for grapes. Hawk and Horse Vineyards, founded in 1999, followed a similar path.
Read more: Wine review: Hawk and Horse 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County
I can say with certainty that I haven’t walked away from many winemaker interviews wanting to sign up for their wine club. I simply have too much wine sitting in my cellar at home. But the wines from Pure Cru, made by the ever popular and ever well-connected Napa Valley winemaker Mitch Cosentino, had that effect on me. They were like crack, but better for you. Pure Cru is Mitch’s “side” wine project, making about 3,000 cases per vintage to create a “small, hands-on entity where I could do it all myself again, like I did in the beginning.” The rather simple yet delicious premise is to grab fruit from his favorite vineyards throughout Napa Valley and northern California to craft small quantities of wine blends. Wines that the average consumer can afford too. How novel from a Napa winery.
Read more: Pure Cru = Pure pleasure from Napa and Mitch Cosentino