Posts Filed Under California wine

I’m Such a Fool For You (Reflections on Howell Mountain Cabernet)

Vinted on April 29, 2009 binned in California wine, wine review

Search for “Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet 2004” via Google, and you will quickly notice a few things:

  1. Apparently, if you post any information about Cornerstone on the web, you’re contractually obligated to use a few of the same well-produced photos of Cornerstone wine.  Sort of like how any mention of Australia in textbooks is accompanied by a picture of the Sydney Opera House.  Anyway, I’ve used the same ones in this post just in case, so I don’t get in trouble.
  2. The reviews are glowing (here’s a well-written example).

So now I’m thinking, great, who needs to contribute another favorable review of this thing?  Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  But this is not a post about Cornerstone, as much as it is a post about me being a Fool, and about the subjectivity of wine tasting in general.

You see, I realized that it was important that I write about my experience with this wine, because tasting the Cornerstone made me realize just how biased I am when I’m tasting, and how much my personal tastes influence my wine recommendations and (mini) reviews.

First, let’s talk about the wine, which comes to me as a sample via Craig Camp, general manager of Cornerstone and is a fine blogger in his own right, and who I think is a good guy despite the fact that he only gave me one bottle of this wine.  Anyway, my thoughts on the 2004:

At first I got a little smoked meat on the nose, like how you might smell after eating a Bacon Explosion.  Dark, ultra-concentrated fruit.  The fruit is massive but it’s friendly, and you can smell the structure in this wine.  It comes to you like a friendly fat guy in a perfectly-tailored 3-piece suit.  This is Santa Claus on his day off, hosting a dinner party – that kind of friendly.  There is dried plum / prune action all over the place, but there’s so much else going on it’ll make your head spin.  Concentrate on one aspect, and it goes deep – like the black pepper; really hone in on it, and I swear to god it will practically make you sneeze there is so much pepper.  Hone in on the licorice and you’ll feel like you just popped open a bag of some kind of high-end black Twizzlers at the Cineplex… you get the idea.

And this is before I’ve even tasted it.

In your mouth, it’s dense.  The black fruit carries itself all the way through to the finish, which is plenty long, and it’s approachable now because the tannins are grilled-fig-wrapped-in-bacon chewy.  But they (the tannins, not the figs) give you just enough kick at the end, which reveals the whole point, unfolding in front of you like a treasure map that finally points you exactly where you need to dig: the balance of structure and intensity of fruit.  It’s almost a mind-f*ck, those last few seconds just get you right into the brain of the winemaking staff at Cornerstone.

That’s how I saw it, anyway.

So the interesting thing (for me) is, in tasting this wine, I had a fundamental realization, a small milestone in my personal wine-journey, similar to the first time I paired a buttery Chardonnay with lobster and thought, “OK, this is what everyone was talking about when they said that the right food & wine pairing makes all the difference.”

I realized that I’ve tasted that same balance of intense, focused berry fruit and velvety-chewy tannin structure before.  It’s a hallmark of Howell Mountain, which for me is the best site for growing Cabernet outside of Bordeaux.

Period.  End of discussion.  Check, please.

I’m a total fool for Howell Mountain Cab. fruit.  It’s kind of sad how much I’m Howell Mountain’s fruit bitch.  In my mind’s eye, I can imagine walking among some of the Cabernet vines of Howell Mountain, stopping to peruse a ripe cluster still on the vine, and the cluster begins to speak to me.

In this mental vision, the Howell Mountain Cab. fruit has the voice of Mr. T.:

Howell Mountain Cab Fruit: Hey. Suckah!  What kind a fool are you?

Me: <Looks around, fearing for my own sanity>.  Uhm… what?

HMCF: I asked you a question.  What kind of fool are you, suckah?!?

Me: <Leaning in closer to examine the grapes, which vaguely resemble the head of Mr. T.>.  Uhm… I dunno… why are you talking to me?  Am I drunk?

HMCF: I’ll give you the answer right now.  You a DAMN fool.

Me: Dude, that is soooo not cool…

HMCF: What other kind of fool are you?

Me: Uhm… I dunno… the drunk kind?

HMCF: WRONG, Suckah!  You MY fool!!!

Me: <collapses into fetal position; weeps>

Guess you had to be there.


How biased is that?  Pretty biased, probably.

If a Howell Mountain wine sucks and I review, I’m pretty sure I will say that it sucks, even if it is from Howell Mountain.  But I’m also guessing that when I taste a good Howell Mountain Cab, it’s already getting a leg up on other Cabs I might be trying around that same time.

Consider me squarely in the “wine tasting is subjective” camp.  My palate has its preferences, just like everybody else’s.  And they will probably make themselves known in my write-ups, articles, and reviews, whether I like it or not – just like every other wine writing dude and dudette out there.

Cheers, fools!




Old World Italian Wine Booty… in a Northern CA Dress (Rosa D’Oro)

Vinted on April 8, 2009 binned in California wine, Italian Wine, wine review

When you write about wine, it’s easy to start becoming a little… jaded isn’t the right word… actually, yeah, jaded is the right word but it’s soooo overused… how about effete?… okay,  a bit effete regarding wines that are typical of their varietal character and place of origin.  When they’re really, really good, you don’t tire of them – at least, I don’t – but when wines are pretty good it’s easy for your tasting eye (I hope I’m the first and last person to ever use that image…) to start to wander, like a bored husband starting to check out the college cheerleaders at an NCAA tournament game.

Boring.  That’s the word.

Truth be told (though it’s not like I lie to you on a regular basis), the “regular” stuff can get a little boring sometimes.

Which is why I like to try new things when I get the chance, so I did not turn down Rosa D’Oro when they offered me samples of some of their current releases – they’re a family-run outfit in Lake County, CA, that specialize in making wine from Old World Italian varieties.  Now that’s different – and probably not boring, I thought, despite the fact that most CA-transplanted Italian varietal wines I’ve had have more-or-less sucked.  They might not turn out to be good, but the experience wouldn’t be boring!

Not that I don’t encourage the spirit of experimentation beyond the norm – I do – but some of those broken eggs in the omelet-making process are kind of rotten.

What was even more intriguing to me than their list of offerings (Refosco?  really?!??) was their clear intent on engaging the “new media” of wine – reaching out to wine bloggers, advertising in new trend-busting publications like Mutineer, attending new media-themed events like Wine 2.0, and authoring their own (very well-written) blog.

So, I worked my way through a sampling of Rosa D’Oro Refosco, Sangiovese, and Muscat Canelli – varieties more closely affiliated with Italy than Northern Cali.

And they’re among the best attempts at adapting Old World Italian wine to CA climate that I’ve ever tasted.

The `07 Muscat Canelli was a surprise, starting with dry green grape but taking on more intense citrus aromas a it warmed in the glass; on the palate, it’s bracingly acidic and immediately made me want to summon up a salad with oranges and lump crab.

The reds were just as pleasantly surprising as the Muscat.  The Refosco was the more interesting of the two, with a complex nose that covered the gamut from florals to red fruit and even leather.  The palate was less complicated but still interesting and very tannic (you’ll want some meat handy for this one).  The `07 Sangiovese was eerily close to feeling like it had come from a Chiant satellite region; it lacked the dried orange peel character of the most kickin’ Chiantis, but it certainly had enough red fruit character, tannin, and acidic structure to suggest it would evolve well for another 2-3 years in the bottle.

The really adventurous among you might want to try lining up some Rosa D’Oro selections in a comparison tasting with their Northern and Central Italian counterparts, but I’ve got diapers to change so I don’t have the time to run that conceit through to its logically conclusion (and I’ve tasted enough wines from CA and Italy to tell you that I think I can predict the outcome).

For now, I’ll settle for he knowledge that the concept of “CalItalia” wine is far from a lost cause.






Is High-Alcohol California Wine Inevitable (Robert Parker’s Bitch, Redux)

Vinted on March 17, 2009 binned in California wine, commentary

“The industry has done everything wrong” – Paul Wagner

Well… this is interesting!


friend, winemaker and fellow wine blogger Josh Hermsmeyer makes an appearance in Tina Caputo’s new web documentary, Robert Parker’s Bitch.

The documentary that takes an informative and entertaining look at the subject of whether or not California winemakers are making wines for Consumers, for themselves, or are producing busty high-alcohol bombs in order to chase the almighty dollar that comes from pleasing the palates of a few wine critics, thus achieving an influential high point score and subsequent boost in sales.

Many excellent and educated opinions are offered from standout figures in the California wine world, including author Karen MacNeil, winemaking icon Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards, and my new marketing hero, Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications.

Let’s just say that the topic is… complicated

And the documentary takes an admirable stab at trying to breakdown enough of the complexity to make the topic palatable.  Personally, I loved it, despite the lack of explosions, fist-fights, and nudity.

The vid is worth checking out if only to hear the comments of Paul Wagner, who clearly understands the topic at it’s most fundamental levels and matter-of-factly (and correctly) states that the wine industry has basically gotten wine marketing wrong for long, long time – and that there is a new generation of wine lovers emerging that don’t give a crap about scores, established critics, or the “rules” or wine appreciation / recommendation.

Amen, brother!

The 25-minute gem is embedded below – highly recommended.


Robert Parker’s Bitch from Josh Hermsmeyer on Vimeo.






“Christmas With The Devil” Or “Why I Still Don’t Hate California Wine”

Vinted on December 29, 2008 binned in California wine, commentary, wine review

“The elves are dressed in leather
And the angels are in chains

The sugar plums are rancid

And the stockings are in flames!”

– from “Christmas with the Devil” by Spinal Tap

Amidst the elite wine world personalities, there are a handful of famous names that hate the modern style of California wines. Actually, “hate” is a strong word. But hate them they do. They consider these wines almost evil, as if they were the tool (or at least the preferred quaffs) of Satan himself.

As for me, I am not among them (neither an elite famous wine personality, nor a hater of big, bold CA wines).

God knows that I’ve got no issue with a wine “fruit bomb,” provided that big, bold, and powerfully alcoholic is the best expression of that winery’s fruit. What I don’t like is when wines are busty for the sake of the almighty dollar (as in, forgoing an expression of terroir and / or style to instead chase after the palates of a few wine critics, whose increased scores can mean a price point increase of 30% or more per bottle on the wine market). Homogenization is a perversion of this style of wine marketing. But it’s not the fault of this style of winemaking in and of itself.

So, for the 2008 Christmas dinner at Chateau Dude, I decided to raid the sample shipping boxes for the biggest, boldest CA wines to pair with grilled lobster tail, bison steak, and various cuts of Angus beef (all expertly prepared by my brother-in-law).

The lineup?

Franciscan’s 2006 Cuvee Sauvage Chardonnay (Carneros, about $40), and a 2005 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Reserve (where else… Napa, about $140).

The story behind The Franciscan (does anyone else think that name sounds like a potential Monty Python skit?): 15 months sur lie in 100% new oak, fermented with wild yeasts using 15-20% of the barrel wines, 14.5% abv; various 90+ point ratings ensued.

The Mondavi? 18 months in 100% new French oak, hand harvested & sorted, a tiny amount (5%) of Cabernet Franc thrown in, 15% abv; 90+ point reviews ensued.

You get the picture. Christmas with The Devil, I thought.

The Franciscan (I just love how that sounds) was the more unabashedly Californian. It doesn’t get much bigger than this, it’s a wine that struts it’s stuff. There is so much vanilla and oak, I actually picked up a hint of cream soda-pop among the citrus, apple, and even banana (banana cream pie, anyone?). What rescues this potent beast from potenital oak hell is the acidity – for CA, the acidity is downright racy. Yes, it pairs amazingly well with grilled lobster. I’m not sure what else it would pair well with, and I enjoyed it, but I’m not gonna go so far as to call it a “triumph of viticulture and winemaking.”

As expected, the Mondavi was a killer match with steak. I decanted this puppy for nearly four hours before serving it. At first, coming out of the decanter, it was all black cherry compote – and I mean, spread-it-over-toast first-thing-in-the-morning compote. With time in the glass, things got decidely more complex: figs, plum, red currant, hints of cedar, a little olive. The finish carried quality fruit and spice and was more than respectibly long. I really felt as though it needed abotu six years in the bottle to really integrate, and I didn’t find the high abv too overpowering.

These are both very good wines. Whether or not they’re worth the price is a discussion I leave up to you (more on my take on paying for the cache factor of CA wines can be found in my recent articles about Opus One).

The problem is not that wines like these are being made. The problem is that too many wines like these that shouldn’t be made are being made.

If there’s something to hate here, it’s not the original CA blockbusters – it’s the greedy drive of copycat wineries the world over chasing after a buck, forgoing the individuality of their vineyard sites and the best quality of their fruit. We can and should challenge those wineries to do better; if we end up with the ubiquity of the ‘Bic Mac’ of wines, then I have truly seen The Devil, and The Devil is us!

Anyway, let’s fire up that grill, shall we?





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