February 2008 Archives

A Deed Very Well Done

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By Courtney Cochran
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With its cultish following and flare for colorful tasting parties (think Prohibition-themed romps, elf-themed holiday fêtes and rowdy wine club shindigs in spots like New Orleans and Memphis), we're pretty sure Gundlach Bundschu's (gunbun.com) upcoming "Deed Day" celebration to commemorate the Sonoma winery's 150th anniversary will be an unforgettable affair.

Festivities get underway at California's oldest family-owned and -operated winery at 11:00am on March 12, with a special ceremony slated from 11:30am to noon to pay tribute to the Sesquicentennial anniversary of the signing of the original deed to the property in 1858. Special tastings and tours will follow, and discounts on wine purchases will be available throughout the day. And although "Deed Day" is scheduled to wrap up at 4:30pm, fans are invited to continue celebrating with the family throughout the year, since the 12th marks the kick-off to what they promise will be a yearlong anniversary celebration.

Given that it's "Gun Bun," we'd expect nothing less.

Zin Fest in Paso

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By Robert Farmer
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What is it about Zinfandel that makes people nuts? The feverish following the grape enjoys is bordering on obsessive. I'm willing to dismiss the argument that it's because zins typically have a higher alcohol content than other varietals, in favor of the more logical approach that the wine simply speaks to its advocates on a visceral level. Zins are not shy. They are not given to nuance. They tend to be bold and matter-of-fact, and that transparency, I think, is why so many people count the grape as their favorite. Hence, Zin Fests, held throughout the world in various zin-producing regions, are eagerly anticipated and widely (and wildly) attended.

The 16th annual event in Paso Robles is no exception. The weekend-long celebration of Paso Zins, held March 14-16, features nearly 100 wineries hosting themed-events and activities and of course, spotlighting their signature zins. Among the attractions are winemaker dinners, live and silent auctions, zinfandel seminars, and winery open houses allowing guests to discuss their passion with those who create it. The anchor event for the weekend is the Festival on the 15th, a one-stop shop at the Paso Robles Event Center during which the intrepid zin fan can sample wine and food in copious quantity and variety. It's a popular event that typically sells out, so get your tickets soon and start brushing up on your Zinspeak. www.pasowine.com

Does the World Need Wine Blog Awards?

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By Robert Farmer
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From the Shameless Self Promotion Department I offer the following: the American Wine Blog Awards are accepting nominations until February 27th. That means, you have by the time of this reading, probably already missed your opportunity to nominate Yours Truly for one of eight categories accepted for the awards acknowledging achievement in self-administered wine opinionating.

Forgive me if I appear cynical, but I came upon the news of these awards at first with some excitement. But that quickly gave way to disillusion as I realized my chances of winning anything - or even being acknowledged - were slim to nil. Because wine opinions are like noses (both the wine variety and the face variety): Every bottle's got one. And these days it seems everybody's willing to broadcast those opinions on the Internet in the form of a blog. The irony of me noting this phenomenon in the form of a wine blog is noted, by the way. But with nearly a thousand online wine-themed blogs to choose from, how does one even get close to recognize an exceptional effort? Well, I feel compelled to offer with a wink, you could just stop with this one. Still, I consider the wine blog phenomenon to be a good thing - an ever-current and contemporary means for wine discovery among those who care to explore; and a means for those who care to write about it for anyone who cares to read. And so perhaps it is all worth it, and perhaps next year, Yours Truly will take the stage to accept his Best Wine Blog award, placing me firmly among the bright shining stars of the blogosphere.

To know more about the awards, and their creator, visit (another blog) at www.fermentation.typepad.com

Gone Sbragia Gone

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By Courtney Cochran

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After 32 years helming winemaking duties for Beringer - during which the winery was twice recognized for producing Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year - Ed Sbragia has left the famed property to focus on his own wine project, Sbragia Family Vineyards in Healdsburg. The respected winemaker called his departure "bittersweet," but says the brand will be in good hands going forward under the stewardship of his longtime assistant Laurie Hook, known for her exacting standards and rigorous quality control.

Sbragia's role in raising the profile of the historic property cannot be underestimated. After decades of producing mostly bland, unforgettable wine following Prohibition, the languishing property began a turnaround in the 1970s under the ownership of the family behind the Nestlé brand. Sbragia came on board as part of this turnaround and in short order was producing award-winning wines that reaffirmed Beringer's reputation and propelled the property back into the purview of the international cognoscenti.

Top 10 Spring Break Escapes

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springwine.jpgDaydreaming of warmer weather, sunny skies and tasting the new releases of Spring? Wine releases that is! Imagine indulging in the new red and white vintages, touring through budding vineyards, driving over sun drenched hillsides, taking in coastal views and feasting on fresh seasonal menus. WineCountry.com recommends these unique limited-time escapes for your adult Spring Break.

Top Ten Class Acts for Valentine's Day

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romance.jpgby Courtney Cochran

Here at WineCountry.com, we heart wine country romance, no doubt about it. So whether your idea of the perfect recipe for romance among the vines involves whale watching in Mendocino, tucking into a feast of truffles in Healdsburg or taking tango lessons in Temecula, we've got you covered, just in time for Valentine's Day.

Much Ado About Matching

Master of Wine Peter Marks will conduct a tasting of Valentine's-appropriate wines paired with chocolates at San Francisco's swank wine destination, Cellar360 (cellar360.com ), on February 16th. Wines to be tasted include a pink sparkler from Down Under, a Zin and several sweet wines, all of which will be matched up with cocoa-themed nibbles prepared by Cellar360 Culinary Specialist Kasey Passen. Tickets run $45 apiece, and space is limited.


Experience Paso Robles in San Diego

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By Robert Farmer
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Ever find yourself in that weird spot where you can't make it to Paso Robles but you can make it to San Diego but you'd rather be in Paso Robles on a wine tasting tour? Me too! And happily for people like us, you can get the full experience wines from "Paso"--as the locals like to call it--during the Southern California stop of the Grand Tasting Tour, scheduled for February 27th at the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center (www.sdwineculinary.com).

The Grand Tour, which also has stop later this year in Houston (April 10), St. Louis (April 15), and Kansas City (April 17), is the Paso way of bringing their wine show on the road. I think the idea is brilliant, because frankly it's not always top on my radar when it comes to wine-related destinations. That's mostly because it takes a bit of doing to get there, situated as it is on some 26,000 acres  about midway between LA and San Francisco and their respective major airports. But it's worth discovering--as the Grand Tour promises to prove. The event features the wines of more than 35 Paso Robles vineyards (a sampling from the more than 170 in the region). The Tour also presents an opportunity to meet with and talk to the wine makers and winery operators from Paso, who will no doubt make it clear that soon you'll be coming to visit them, rather than the other way around. For more info on the Grand Tour, check out www.pasowine.com

"No Merlot" No More

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By Robert Farmer

BlackStone_merlot.jpgYou've heard me argue for the defense in the case of the Public vs. No Merlot before - though I thought the movie Sideways was excellent, it was also a bit missinterpreted and way off point with the character's virulent opposition to merlot. Well, as with most things that are incorrect, time took its course and righted the wrong. And so it is in this spirit that I was happy to see the report released this week that sales of merlot in the United States rose by some 6 percent in 2007.

It took awhile for the public to set aside their fear of being un-trendy and their proclivity to bypass the merlot section in their grocery store wine aisle, but it does appear that merlot is again taking its rightful place among grape greats. Merlot still ranks high with U.S. wine consumers, as some 45 percent of total wine sales in the States is comprised of merlot, chardonnay, and cabernet sauvignon. Anecdotal evidence of the trend reversal is offered by Constellation Wines, the largest wine company in America, which claims among its many brands Blackstone Winery. For the same 2007 period, Blackstone's benchmark merlot enjoyed a sales increase of more than 11 and a half percent.

I guess Blackstone fans never saw Sideways...

Ceja Vineyards Wine Tasting Salon

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By Robert Farmer

cejafamily.jpgIn the ongoing development of downtown Napa into a thriving, walkable destination district befitting the valley that bears its name, many wineries have lately been angling to have a presence among the charming, historic streets - an extension, if you will, of their vineyard experience for the downtown set. One recent example could be found earlier this month when Ceja Vineyards opened the doors to its new Tasting Salon in the heart of town at 1248 First Street (www.cejavineyards.com; 707-226-6445).

Ceja (pronounced SAY-ha), is an excellent local story to begin with -  a Latino family-owned winery founded by Amelia, Pedro, Armando and Martha Ceja, who are first generation Mexican-American winegrowers in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Today, the winery produces more than 10,000 cases of premium-quality wines that include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah, as well as such individual specialties as Vino de Casa Blanco, Vino de Casa Tinto, Dulce Beso Late Harvest White Wine, and a soon-to-be-released Bella Rosa dry Rosé .

The Ceja family of wines can now be enjoyed with the familiar Ceja Family hospitality at their new downtown tasting room, which places guests within arm's reach of their great library of wines, and within an easy walk to the growing list of area attractions that already includes Copia, the beautifully restored Opera House, the River Walk, and the recently opened Oxbow Public Market. There are also several great restaurants and hotels downtown, making Ceja's decision to open a tasting room here as close to a sure bet for success as one can get.

By Courtney Cochran

oldwinebottle.jpgWhen oil magnate William Koch bought four bottles of wine purported to once belong to Thomas Jefferson - and found in a bricked-up cellar in Paris, no less, where the ex-President spent time as an ambassador to France - he thought he was buying a piece of history.  Not long after the purchase, however, the charismatic billionaire launched into an exhaustive self-funded investigation into the authenticity of the bottles, which he had become convinced were fakes.  The lawsuit Koch eventually filed (and which was recently thrown out of court) made headlines worldwide and grabbed the attention of history buffs, wine collectors and consumers alike with its scintillating story of deception, huge sums of money and larger-than-life players.

Now, it looks as though Koch's story may be told on the big screen, too.  Decanter reports that two Hollywood outfits have separately purchased rights to the tale as it's told in a soon-to-be-released book about the affair, The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, and in a recent New Yorker article about the scandal.  Whether either party will eventually make a film from the rights they've purchased is unknown, but the undeniable appeal of the story coupled with the recent success of other wine-related films (think Sideways, Mondovino) certainly bodes well. 

Merlot Fights Back

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A stunning new Merlot helps dispel the varietal's bad rap

by Courtney Cochran

Ever since Sideways' curmudgeony wine geek Miles dismissed Merlot as something he'd rather skip a meal over than swill, Merlot's been suffering under the blight of crashing sales and a seriously downtrodden image.

In fact, the backlash against the varietal has been so bad that Swanson Vineyards - Napa Valley's largest producer of estate-grown Merlot - recently launched a PR campaign called "Merlot Fights Back." Their message? Don't diss the misunderstood varietal just because a fictional down-on-his-luck oenophile with a penchant for Pinot says it's not worth your time.

Wine Law Woes

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By Courtney Cochran

liquorstore.jpgNew York Times wine critic Eric Asimov’s latest column, “A Befuddlement of Liquor Laws” (Wednesday, January 30), is one of the best commentaries I’ve read on the current crisis state of the American alcohol distribution system.  The influential critic comes out of the box swinging when he asserts - just 100 or so words into his column - that “the laws governing direct interstate shipments from wine retailers to consumers are confusing, arcane, inconsistent, often ignored and rarely discussed.”     

The Beginnings of Progress
Ka-boom!  And just like that, Asimov brings to the front and center a controversy that has been simmering for many years and which is finally reaching a boiling point thanks to a number of recent events.  To wit, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that states could no longer ban out-of-state wineries from shipping wine directly to in-state consumers if in-state wineries were allowed to do so.  This was good news for consumers in states like New York, where the changes that grew out of the ruling mean that folks can finally order mailing-list-only and other hard-to-find wines from wineries in, say, California, and also for wineries themselves, which now have a broader customer base nationwide and take home a bigger piece of the profit pie thanks to their ability to sell direct.

And while there are still holdout states clinging to the archaic system of three-tiered liquor distribution established in the wake of Prohibition (which necessitates that alcohol pass from a producer to a wholesaler/distributor before it reaches retailers, thereby making direct sales illegal), the ruling at least signals progress for wineries and consumers in a number of states.   

Wine Merchants: Left Out In the Cold
But pretty much total confusion still reigns when it comes to wine sales made by non-winery retailers, who in recent years have been treading in murky waters when it comes to shipping wine across state borders (as have wineries).  But, sadly, retailers were not awarded the same new shipping freedoms that wineries were granted after the court’s ruling.  And while shipping across state lines is not exactly impossible for retailers, doing so legally requires that they navigate a complex web of dos and don’ts, permit filings and a strange mandate necessitating the establishment of brick and mortar outposts in certain states in order to do so.  These hurdles mean that only the most organized and well-funded retailers are able to make a go of inter-state selling; as for the rest, they either do it illegally or they don’t do it at all.

Long Way To Go
The sum of all of these regulatory and shipping hang-ups is a system woefully in need of an overhaul.  The shocking number of constituents who are financially impacted by the hang-ups - not only the wineries and retailers who are leaving money on the table due to an inability to make sales to customers in holdout states, but also the retailers who spend time and money slogging through the same hang-ups so that they can make inter-state sales - is just as disturbing as the paucity of consumer choice that accompanies them.  It’s inexcusable that in a country that prides itself on free trade there are still barriers within our own borders prohibiting us from purchasing goods we’ve made domestically.

The advent of eCommerce and the accompanying debate about inter-state shipping has only drawn into sharper relief problems that have been inherent in our liquor laws for far too long.  It’s time that we considered methods to level the playing field for everyone involved, so that businesses may realize their full potential and consumers may get their hands on the wines that they want.  This need for consumer choice, after all, is a mandate for something even more important than profits:  It’s a call for the best quality of life this country has to offer. 
 

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