Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Desert Reflections: Wine and Wilderness in Arizona

I recently spent nearly two weeks gallivanting around the Arizona desert. It was a much needed respite from DC — these days it feels like living in the middle of a slow-moving, 20-car pileup. And, while I love this town, I need to flee it most frequently, for the ocean, for the mountains, for the desert, for winelands.

Views like these are why I hit the trails in Arizona.
While I was hiking down the Grand Canyon’s South Rim to the Colorado River, in between gasping at the incredible views and pounding lots of water, my mind fired off plenty of questions. One popped up, and I thought about it for a while: Why do I write about wine? With so many pressing topics I could spend my writing time on, why fermented grape juice?

I came up with a pretty straightforward answer: I write about that which I love to discover. And I love discovering intense physical experiences within natural surroundings. I thrive off the sensory input. Riding waves in the ocean, swimming in rivers, hiking into canyons, searching for wildlife in the desert, tasting wine. That last one may not seem like it belongs with the others, but when you immerse yourself in the process, wine appreciation can be every bit as exhilarating as a hike or a wave. And wine from a specific place can tell you so much about what makes that place distinct.

Arizona is home to more than 80 wineries, according to the
Arizona Wine Growers Association. According to the TTB, Arizona produced almost 200,000 gallons of wine in 2012 (roughly one-fifth the quantity of wine from Virginia). So there’s not a lot of it to go around, and you’re not likely to find much AZ juice shipped out of the state. But the state’s wine industry is growing and living up to its potential. I’ve been traveling to Arizona and tasting wine for about six years now, and the quality these days is superb.

Like wine from every state, there is plenty of uninspiring juice. You can find plenty of weird-tasting pinks and sweet sangria-style bottles sold for $10 or so. But unlike wine from every state, Arizona boasts exceptionally good wine in the $15-$25 range.

What makes Arizona wine so good? Here are four factors to consider.

High elevation

I love Napa Cabernet from mountain vineyards. But you’ll see the term mountain thrown around when the vineyard sits at around 1,000 feet in elevation. In Arizona, most vineyard are planted around 3,500 to 5,500 feet in elevation. This is how wineries in Arizona are able to produce wines that show a striking sense of freshness and balance, because the temperature is moderated by the increased elevation. Vineyards planted on a valley floor would be scorched. But there are vast slopes and high plateaus that provide the all sorts of enticing places for vines to thrive. 

Page Springs Vineyard, located in Arizona's Verde Valley appellation, is home to some of the state's most dynamic wines.

The best Arizona vineyards are planted in areas that achieve plenty of sunshine and heat during the day, but cool down quite a bit at night, providing the vines with needed rest and the resulting wines with more balance and freshness. News flash: It gets hot as hell in parts of Arizona. The first time I visited Verde Valley to taste wine, it was more than 100 degrees outside and this winter-lover thought he was going to suffocate. But cooling winds and the diurnal temperature swings (much of this related to the high elevation), really help moderate this brutal climate.

Arizona gets only about 13 inches of rain a year, in two distinct wet seasons. Winter storms that make their way inland from the Pacific Ocean provide winter rains. But Arizona also gets what locals call monsoons — fast moving heavy bouts of rain pulled inland from Mexico. These storms usually occur between June and August, when grapes are in the midst of key ripening stages, providing much needed water. Rot and mildew are less of a worry here than in far more humid climates, because the desert terrain usually sops up heavy rains very quickly. Much of the rain gets flushed out through mountain washes and streams that can go from bone dry to rushing overnight. 

It's a dynamic and harsh landscape, but the plants that eke out a living are incredible species.


There's limestone in them thar hills.
Vines planted in limestone soils soak up so much verve, minerality and vibrancy, which can be tasted in the finished wines. (If that sounds crazy, well, we should taste 10 wines from limestone vineyards... it will be a delicious and enlightening experience.) Limestone soils contribute to the pristine nature of many wines from Burgundy. Arizona has limestone soils all over the damned place. Driving north from Phoenix into the Verde Valley appellation, I saw sheer cliffs of crumbly limestone peppered with saguaro cacti and palo verde trees. I climbed a limestone-encrusted peak in Tonto National Forest, and came back with boots coated in white limestone dust and dusty red earth. 

Cochise County, located in the southeastern part of the state and home to many of the state’s best vineyards, is loaded with limestone as well. Limestone Mountain, a 7,000-foot peak, is one example of the area’s stunning landscape.

But the soils are incredibly diverse. Think of Arizona as arbitrary political lines drawn around a giant insanity of rock formations. Sandstone, granite, red clay, sandy loam, and all sorts of rocks and minerals that I have never heard of before. Winegrowers have plenty of options to plant all sorts of wine grape varieties. And Arizona growers have been working hard to match rootstock, grape variety and soil in order to grow high-quality fruit. In the right hands, these grapes can be made into delicious wines that express their specific vineyard sites in a strong way.


Arizona has a long wine history — Jesuits planted the first grapevines here in the 1500s. Pioneers in the 1800s and early 1900s also planted vineyards for wine near Sedona’s Oak Creek. The Arizona Wine Grower’s Association (formed in 1983) traces the history of the modern Arizona wine industry to the early 1980s, “following the development of experimental vineyards by the University of Arizona. Led by
Dr. Gordon Dutt, studies were completed demonstrating the feasibility of various wine growing regions. In 1982, a collection of new laws enabled the Arizona Farm Winery Act. The first licensed wineries in Arizona were formed shortly after the enactment of the new law. Dr. Dutt himself formed Sonoita Vineyards, the first winery of this modern era.”

Arizona rocker and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan gets a lot of credit for bringing larger attention to Arizona wines. He’s behind the successful and delicious wines of Caduceus (located in Jerome) and Merkin Vineyards, and has partnered with several other key figures in the Arizona wine industry. More and more wineries are popping up, and many of them aren’t taking the tourist trap tasting room route, but applying modern vineyard and winemaking techniques to produce exciting and tasty Arizona wines, usually in small quantities. The blending prowess of many Arizona vintners is impressive. It’s not uncommon to find delicious red or white blends made from 10 or more grape varieties. Your average GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) might include a handful of lesser known Rhone grapes (like Counoise), some Spanish grapes (like Graciano), even some Italian grapes (like Barbera).

I bought almost as much Arizona wine as I could find while exploring this gorgeous state. That love of discovery paid off, as I found some very tasty bottles. Out of the few dozen wines I tasted in all, only one was bad (and it was flawed by very high volatile acidity). Here are some of the Arizona wines I liked from my recent trip. (Detailed tasting notes on a Page Springs tasting coming soon.)

2015 Page Springs Cellars Vino del Barrio Blanca - Arizona
Light yellow color. Smells like peaches, green melon, nectarine, a tropical burst with some sea salt, lilies, new tennis ball stuff going on. Plump but fresh on the palate with bright acid and a pleasantly honeyed texture. Peaches, green melon rind, wax candles, a pungent white flower note, some sea salt, honeyed green tea. Complex but so gluggable, a great combination of richness and freshness. 47% French Colombard, 23% Grenache Blanc, 17% Malvasia, 11% Roussanne, 2% Vermentino. A great example of the Arizona blending and experimental ethos, with delicious results. (88 points)

2015 Page Springs Cellars Mule’s Mistake - Arizona, Cochise County
What a fun and delicious red blend. Light strawberry color with aromas of strawberries, raspberries, pepper, spice rub, rhubarb and leather. Medium-bodied with zesty acidity and smooth, silky tannins. Bright red fruit and mixes with tobacco, pepper, cherry cordial, red licorice – a cool combo of fresh flavors. Drinks like a Beaujolais-Villages, has spice like a Rhone blend, but it is pure juicy Arizona fruit. So good for the money. A kitchen sink blend of Sangiovese, Grenache, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Syrah, Couoise, Malvasia, Merlot and Mourvedre. (87 points)

2013 Page Springs Cellars Grenache Neutral Oak Page Springs Estate Vineyard - Arizona, Yavapai County
Medium ruby color. Smells like strawberries, pomegranate and red apple peel along with sagebrush, dusty earth and warm mulling spices. Fresh and crisp with medium/light tannins and a pure setting of crunchy red fruit (strawberry, cranberry, pomegranate). Notes of warm clay, tobacco, dusty earth, pot smoke, rose petal and rocky minerals add all sorts of complexity. Wow, this is phenomenal stuff. (91 points)

2012 Dos Cabezas Wine Works El Norte - Arizona, Cochise County
A peppery, beefy, smoky nose with plenty of black cherries and blackberries. Full, dark and saucy but has a bright streak as well. Blackberries and roasted plum fruit topped with pepper, anise and leather. A bit light on the tannin for the weight, but very good, plenty of rich fruit but complex non-fruit elements as well. A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. (89 points)

2014 Dos Cabezas Wine Works Red - Arizona, Cochise County
Medium ruby color. Smells like violets, sage and roasted earth on top of sweet red berries. Full but smooth, light tannins, medium acidity, a bit of candied fruit but the overall feel isn’t sweet. Plums, currants, loaded with violets, green herbs and smoke. I need to seek out more wines from this producer for sure. A blend of all sorts of kitchen sink red grapes, a good intro to the red blends of high elevation vineyards in Cochise County. (87 points)

2015 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Nachise - Arizona, Cochise County
Vibrant ruby color. Juicy aromas of cherries, raspberries, red plums, red clay earth, creosote, oregano and pine – these descriptors may sound quixotic, but this wine seriously smells like hiking in the Arizona high desert (something I did plenty of on this trip). Plummy, juicy cherries, sweet raspberry fruit on the palate with medium/light tannins and moderate acidity that keeps it fresh, light, but not unstructured. Complex elements of clay, sage, dusty red earth and pepper. So good for the money, but this is a near-term drinking wine. 46% Syrah, 26% Grenache, 13% Petite Sirah, 10% Mourvedre and 5% Counoise. (89 points)

2014 Arizona Stronghold Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Dala - Arizona
Light purple. Aromas of plums, black cherry ice cream, coffee, vanilla, roasted earth and red clay. Full and juicy on the palate, chewy style with moderate acidity. Juicy black cherries and plum fruit mixed with violets, cola, roasted coffee and clove. An easy-sipping style, vibrant but packed with juicy fruit. A solid buy for my palate over many other American Cabs in this price range. (87 points)

2015 Caduceus Cellars Merkin Vineyards Chupacabra - Arizona, Cochise County
Medium ruby color. Smells of juicy red and black cherries, with roasted earth, clay, sage and pepper. Silky on the palate, but does have a bit of grip. I love those Cochise County notes of warm clay, roasted earth and desert herbs. Juicy plums and red currants offer plenty of deliciousness, while non-fruit complexity offers much to contemplate and lots of food pairing options. A blend of 45% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre. (90 points)

2012 Callaghan Vineyards Graciano - Arizona, Sonoita
$ - Unsure, maybe $20-range?
A cool find by my father-in-law, who visited this winery. It’s high on my list to visit on my next trip back, but I was excited to try a Graciano from Sonoita, and I started thinking about comparisons between this area of Arizona and northern Spain. Anyway, this smelled like roasted plums, dark cherries, violet petals, white pepper, gravel and a note that reminded me of a pottery kiln. Full on the palate but very smooth with medium acidity. Plums, cherry pie, cranberry sauce, at 15% this fruit is full-throttle and serious, but I also get complex elements of dusty earth, roasted herbs, anise, black licorice ropes. Rich but nuanced, this has held up well and I bet it could continue to improve for a few more years. Unique and delicious stuff, I don’t think I’ve come across a 100% Graciano from anywhere in the US, let alone Arizona. (89 points)

The Superstition Mountains offer incredible hikes - summiting this was equal parts challenging and rewarding.

Sedona, Arizona is one of my favorite places to explore. Lots of great hikes, lots of great wines within an hour or two's drive.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

More Napa Excellence from Smith-Madrone

The three Smiths, keeping Napa history alive with their incredible Spring Mountain District wines. Credit: Smith-Madrone.
When it comes to old-school, time-tested Napa producers, I have so much respect for Smith-Madrone. And on top of being an historic piece of the Napa wine puzzle, this winery continues, vintage after vintage, releasing exciting, even thrilling wines.

Founded in the early 70s, (the first vintage was ’77) Smith-Madrone’s winery is located on Spring Mountain, west of St. Helena. The operation is run by brothers Stuart Smith, managing partner and vineyard manager, Charles Smith III, winemaker, and Sam Smith, assistant winemaker. Their estate vines cling to steep slopes between 1,300 and 2,000 feet in elevation on soils of red, stony clay. A pioneer of dry farming in Napa, Smith-Madrone produces about 4,000 cases a year of dynamic and lively wines, which consistently show a sense of refreshment, purity and minerality, in addition to that deep, mountain Napa fruit. And, perhaps most exciting of all, the prices are so reasonable when compared with many other Napa wines of this quality and provenance.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.  

2014 Smith-Madrone Riesling - California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $30
Light gold color. Complex aromas of white peach, lime and banana, along with white tea, floral perfume, notes of saline and crushed rocks. Plum fruit (nectarine, peach, lime) but it's pure and zesty with a dry profile and focused acidity. Lovely mix of chalk, mountain stream, minerals, nettle, cut flower stems. Super clean and refreshing but lots of staying power for the cellar. One of the most consistently inspiring Rieslings from California, Smith Madrone has been putting out high quality Spring Mountain Riesling since 1983. I’d love to see how this beautiful wine ages for a decade. (91 points) 

2014 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay - California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $32
Light gold color. Bursts with aromas of lime, orange, peach, dusted with chalk, and there’s definitely a good amount of wood in here, some nougat and honeycomb. Medium/light-bodied (12.8% alcohol) with lovely creaminess and precise acidity. Tart lime and nectarine mixes with yellow apples and rich peaches, and the fruit blends wonderfully with notes of chalk dust, mineral, white tea, and the toasted wood and almond cake notes are woven in very nicely. Long, lingering, delicious finish. This is always a very good Chardonnay, ditto for the 2014 vintage. Fermented and aged 9 months in all new French oak. (92 points)

2013 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $50
Deep purple color. Gorgeous aromatics of black cherries, dark plums, saucy but fresh, with complex elements of tobacco, graphite, charcoal dust and vanilla. Full-bodied but smooth, structured tannins but fresh acidity, and the texture is wonderful. Black cherries, black currants, juicy plums, the fruit mixes with loamy earth, wet leaves, gravel, charcoal. A significant amount of coffee, wood and vanilla, but there are enough other elements that these flavors don’t overwhelm. Long life ahead but not inaccessible now. All estate fruit from 1,800-foot elevation slope, includes 12% Cab Franc and 6% Merlot, aged 18 months in 75% new French oak. I feel like you can spend twice this price and not get nearly as much Napa Cab awesomeness. (93 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Unique Northern Rhone Gamay from Hervé Souhaut

Herve Souhaut (center), his vineyards in St. Joseph, and his cellars. Credit: Jenny & Francois Selections
The best Gamay wines in the world come from the heralded Cru-designated villages of France’s Beaujolais region. The best Syrah wines in the world come from the Northern Rhone Valley. What happens when you combine the two? Hervé Souhaut’s “La Souteronne”, that’s what.

This fascinating wine is made from 100% Gamay planted in schist soils across from the world-renown hill of Hermitage (in St. Joseph). The end result is a wine that mixes what I love about Beaujolais and the Northern Rhone Valley into a delightful package.

These Gamay vines are 60- to 80-years-old, and natural wine guru Hervén Souhaut produces some 3,000 bottles a year under his Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet, which he created in 1993. These wines come with a generic Vin de Pays appellation because Gamay is not a recognized grape variety in the Rhone Valley. But don’t let that fool you — these are beauties.
As Souhaut’s importer puts it, this wine evokes, “something very familiar and Beaujolais-like, while cloaked under the influence of the Northern Rhone, suggesting the more dark and bacon-y tendencies of Syrah from this area.” I completely agree. For lovers of Cru Beaujolais and Northern Rhone Syrah, this is a freakishly delicious marriage of awesomeness.

I recently tasted three vintages of this wine, and loved each one of them. I’m interested in tasting older vintages, too, if I can track them down, because these wines seem to do fascinating things with cellar time.

I picked these up for about $20-$25 a pop, which is definitely worth it. If you can find them, don’t hesitate, because there aren’t many bottles to go around.

2015 Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet (Hervé Souhaut) La Souteronne - France, Rhône, Ardèche, Vin de Pays de l'Ardèche
Bright ruby color. So juicy on the nose but the fruit's a bit darker than the 14, still those classic meat, smoke and herb notes. Serious tannic grip on the palate, takes a bit to open up, but it's still fresh with acidity and full of juicy plum fruit. Lots of resin, smoke, leather jacket, charcoal, iron. Structured well for the cellar. (91 points)

2014 Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet (Hervé Souhaut) La Souteronne - France, Rhône, Ardèche, Vin de Pays de l'Ardèche
A bit brighter and less wild than the 2012. Smells like mushroom, herbs, spice drawer, chorizo, on top of tangy black cherries and strawberries. Dusty, tangy, crisp, this is such a pleasant and refreshing wine but it's packed with cool flavors. Tart cherries and raspberries topped with black pepper, grilled herbs, bloody steak, wet soil. Another fascinating, funky example of this unique Gamay. (90 points)

2012 Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet (Hervé Souhaut) La Souteronne - France, Rhône, Ardèche, Vin de Pays de l'Ardèche
Love this wine for its wacky wildness. Light ruby/cloudy color. Smells of mushroom, forest fire, pepper, herbal tea, wild game bird, on top of strawberries and raspberries. Medium-bodied, some dusty grip to the tannins, fresh acidity. Sour cherries and raspberries are loaded with peppered steak, charcoal fire, fallen leaves, wet/mossy soil, herbs and black tea. Opens up wonderfully to show more floral tones. On day 2, this was straight up braised lamb juice. Funky, weird, but I find it delicious. If you purchased this, you know what you're getting into. If you're pouring— for friends, include a disclaimer… or don't and watch their facial reactions — should be fun. (90 points)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Beauregard: Old Guard Santa Cruz Producer Maintains Cutting-Edge Quality Wines

As a surfer, Santa Cruz was a religious pilgrimage. As a wine lover, the Santa Cruz Mountains wines are also awe-inducing. The entire region is a freak of raw nature. The waves are gnarly, the water and winds cold, the mountains steep. But this leads to a maze of soils and microclimates perfect for all sorts of wine grapes. Santa Cruz Mountain wines, combining higher elevation with the cold and fog from the Pacific Ocean, are known and loved for their combination of tremendous freshness, complexity, and structure for aging. Sure, there is plenty of juicy and delicious fruit, but these vibrant wines offer something for pretty much every kind of palate.

This is why I came to Santa Cruz - big ass cold waves! But there's (wine) gold in them thar inland hills, too. Incredible wines.
I recently tasted through a host of wines from Beauregard Vineyards, wines that remind me why I love this region. Beauregard is old school Santa Cruz royalty. The estate dates back to 1945, when Deputy Sheriff Amos Beauregard bought a dozen acres of Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandel vines in Bonny Doon. This southwest slope sits at 1,700 to 1,850 feet in elevation and was first planted to grapevines in 1880.

Elevation, Pacific Ocean influence and unique soils make Ben
Lemond Mountain a very special American Viticultural Area.
Jim Beauregard, Amos’ grandson, was pivotal in the establishment of the Ben Lemond Mountain American Viticultural Area (AVA), in 1983. He forged a reputation for his wines and their site-specific nature. Today, fourth-generation winemaker Ryan Beauregard holds the reins. And, as this tasting demonstrated, the future of Santa Cruz Mountain wines is in very good hands.

These wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted.

2013 Beauregard Vineyards Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature - California, San Francisco Bay, Ben Lomond Mountain
SRP: $80
Medium gold color. Incredible aromatics of lemon curd, lime juice, chalk dust, pizza dough, floral perfume. Pristine and clean on the palate with bracing acidity, but that’s balanced out by lots of fruit (white peach, lime, honeydew). Chalk dust, lots of sea salt raw almond, green tea, toasted baguette, I even get some notes of cinnamon, ginger and white pepper, which add an interesting mix. Long, mineral-encrusted finish. Such a pretty wine, and so crisp, an intriguing California sparkler. All Chardonnay, no dosage, disgorged January 2017. (92 points)

2014 Beauregard Vineyards Pinot Gris Orange Wine Regan Vineyards - California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
SRP: $30
Dark copper/light watermelon color. Fascinating notes: lemon curd, sour cherries, red apple peel, honeycomb, dried apricot, a bit of sea brine — almost like an old world Chenin or some Jura characteristics. Awesome. Light bodied at just under 12% but lots going on here. Waxy texture, brisk acidity, a streak of saline and mineral qualities, along with white cherries, wild strawberries, mixed with honey and herbal tea elements. Fascinating but so delicious. (90 points)

2015 Beauregard Vineyards Chardonnay Bald Mountain Vineyard - California, San Francisco Bay, Ben Lomond Mountain
SRP: $50
Light yellow color. Chablis-like in its extreme freshness, lemon/lime explosion, and lots of saline and mineral notes, but also some white tea and honey notes. Medium-bodied but shows plenty of power, while brisk acidity keeps this graceful. White peach, drizzled with lime, the fruit is topped in white tea, honeysuckle, chalk dust, crushed shells, hints of almond and nougat. Finishes vibrant, crisp and pretty. A gorgeous Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay that should improve in the cellar for sure. (93 points)

2015 Beauregard Vineyards Chardonnay Beauregard Ranch - California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains, Ben Lemond Mountain
SRP: $55
Medium yellow color. Bright and fresh and pure on the nose with pretty lemons, yellow apples, peaches, topped with honeycomb, floral perfume, chalk dust, lots going on here. Clean, clear, pretty with precise acidity on a medium-bodied frame. Fresh limes mix with white peach and creamy yellow apple, the fruit is mixed with chalk dust, minerals and mountain stream freshness. A delicious, electric and pristine Santa Cruz Mountain Chardonnay. (93 points)

2014 Beauregard Vineyards Pinot Noir Coast Grade Vineyard - California, San Francisco Bay, Ben Lomond Mountain
SRP: $60
Light ruby color. Bursts with juicy cherries, raspberries, strawberry, along with herbal tea, pepper, roses, rhubarb — wow! Medium-bodied (13.7%) with structured but accessible tannins, crisp acidity. The fruit is ripe but brisk (cherry, red apple, strawberry) and laced with rhubarb, white pepper, roses, complex earthy and clove elements. Packed with flavor but elegant as well. Wow, this is a striking, delicious and enthralling Pinot Noir. (93 points)

2014 Beauregard Vineyards Pinot Noir Beauregard Ranch - California, San Francisco Bay, Ben Lomond Mountain
SRP: $60
Light ruby color. Gorgeous aromatic display: red rose, raspberry leaf, white pepper, rhubarb and clove on top of tart raspberries, strawberries and cherries. Crisp acidity pervades this wine. Medium-bodied (12.9% alcohol) with dusty tannins that provide enough structure. Crisp raspberries, chilled strawberries, tart cherries, waves of pure fruit, laced with rose hips, white pepper, sage and rhubarb. So much going on here but it’s also so easy to drink and absolutely delicious. Wow. (94 points)

2013 Beauregard Vineyards Syrah Zayante Vineyard - California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
SRP: $35
Light purple color. Dark and complex on the nose, needs air but has a lot to show: black cherry, tart black currant, laced with peppered bacon, dark earth, violets, and a saucy spice element. Medium+ bodied, this has a lot of tannic backbone but it’s not dense, it stays fresh with the acidity, shows a core of black cherry and dark currant fruit, juicy but vibrant, and lots of pepper, charcoal, mushroom and soy, clove and violet petals. Lots going on here, and it’ll do wonders with five or six years, I think. Aged in old French and 30% new American oak. (91 points)

2013 Beauregard Vineyards Zinfandel Beauregard Ranch - California, San Francisco Bay, Ben Lomond Mountain
SRP: $35
Medium ruby color. Surprisingly airy and floral, this is an elegant, aromatic Zinfandel but lots of fruit, too (juicy raspberries and black cherries), loaded with coffee, dark floral tones, sweet clove, a tobacco and eucalyptus note, hints of sweet coconut. Full-bodied but not fat or heavy at all, the tannins provide silky structure and the acidity is gorgeous in its vibrancy. Tart raspberries mix with juicy black cherries, and I get notes of coffee grounds, cola, coconut, with savory herbs and spice tones. An elegant and refined Zin that is delicious now but should do wonders in the cellar. Aged in 50% new American oak. (91+ points)

2013 Beauregard Vineyards Merlot Zayante Vineyard - California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
SRP: $37
Deep ruby color. Very pretty aromas of fresh red plums, juicy currants, some black cherry, this shows lots of floral and sweet herbal notes as well. On the palate this is fresh and vibrant, but shows structured tannins, matched with crisp acidity. The fruit is ripe and tangy and red, and laced with tobacco, rose petal, potting soil and pepper, touched with a bit of clove and coffee. Beautiful stuff now but this will turn even more elegant and expressive over the next five to eight years. From a SW-facing slope planted in 1988, sits between 1,100 and 1,300 feet. Aged in 40% new American oak. (92 points)

2013 Beauregard Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Beauregard Ranch - California, San Francisco Bay, Ben Lomond Mountain
SRP: $100
Medium purple color. Aromas of saucy currants and back cherries, along with graphite, tobacco and vanilla notes. Well-built on the palate with some solid grip to the tannins but fresh acidity keeps it vibrant. Interesting mix of fruit (tart blueberry, black cherry, red currant), and the fruit is laced with notes of violets, loamy soil, sage, roasted chestnut and graphite. Integrated elements of roasted coffee and vanilla. Richly flavorful, deep in structure, but also impressive in its freshness. This should age wonderfully for at least a decade. Aged 32 months in 40% new French oak. (92 points)

This post first appeared on the daily wine blog Terroirist.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Gully Dirt: A Gritty, Fascinating Look Into the South of the 1950s

Robert Coram’s memoir “Gully Dirt” is a witty yet deeply introspective coming-of-age story of a young kid from rural Georgia trying to climb his way out of family strife and a culture of racism. Coram grew up in Southwest Georgia in the 1950s, among peanut farmers, folks with no telephones or toilets. Set against this poor, gritty, backdrop, Coram writes with eloquence and nuance. It’s a fascinating and easy read despite the weight of some of the subject matter.

The oldest of four, Coram is despised by his ex-Army father, who seems to take pleasure in substituting anger and mean-spiritedness whenever his son needs care and attention. His mother tries as hard as she can to keep the father from unleashing hell on the son, but it’s an impossible task.

Coram never really fits in. He’s not too into religion — “from the beginning, preachers and religion frightened me” — and not very good at sports. But he does maintain a merry band of friends, and gets into some impressive sexual situations with girls for a teenage kid in the 50s. But Robert seems obsessed with a desire to flee the place he was born and raised.  

Some of this is due to his fanatical reading habits. In books, like many of us who find ourselves in strange and uncertain situations, Robert finds peace and inspiration. “In reading Poe, I discovered emotions and feelings I did not know I possessed. That summer I learned that the contents of a book could resonate in the heart and linger in the memory.” 

As he grows up, he begins to question the assumptions of his racist father and the culture in which he grew up. Much of this is brought on when he reads a book by a Georgia author named Frank Yerby. “Mr. Yerby said that men in the South were ‘too enamored by the mystical brotherhood of whiteness to comprehend democracy’ and that the rise of black men did not mean the fall of whiteness.” Coram continues: “I was deeply disturbed. The book had forced me to consider whether what I thought I knew about black people could be wrong. If there were in reality black people such as those Frank Yerby described, they were clearly superior to many of the white people I knew. The scope of such a heretical idea was, at the time, simply too much for me to assimilate.” 

He devours all of Yerby’s books, which further instills in him the power of the written word: “… a book is more than pages covered with printed words. A book is a package of wonder, a container of bliss, a vale of emotion, an unexploded bomb.”

An even bigger shock comes when he learns that the author is black: “I was obsessed — there is no other word for it — with the discovery that Frank Yerby, the greatest writer that God ever put on earth, was from Georgia. And he was black.” Coram continues: “The books of Frank Yerby were a yeasty concoction that would ferment for years and make me question the things I had been taught about black people, about the South, about my family, about the very roots of my existence.” 

But institutional racism wasn’t built overnight, and a kid raised in this culture doesn’t quickly extricate himself from it. Coram writes: “The racism that was in the marrow of my bones would, like a virulent poison, take years to eradicate.”

The title of the book is a little misleading. Coram does raise a hog, and he does “escape” the South, at least in spirit, but there is no exposing of the Klan. Young Coram and his buddies do sneak into an old building in the woods that turns out to be a Klan hideout, complete with hoods and white capes. They mess around a bit, but nothing much comes of it. I was expecting the Klan to feature a bit more prominently in this book, and hoping Coram would somehow stick it to the Klan, but none of that happens. 

Still, this is a wonderfully written memoir that seems to speak truly and honestly about this specific time and place.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Screw the Wine/Gender Binary - Part #2

As regular readers know, I contribute to a monthly collective column on the wine site Snooth. 

This month's topic was related to wine and gender, and whether "masculine" and "feminine" are helpful terms when related to wine. 

I laughed when I read the prompt, because I had just written one of my most popular columns in months called "Screw the Gendered Wine Binary."

Well, I chimed in, along with some other thoughtful writers, on this topic. 

If you're interested, here's the full article.