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Come Original (On Negative Reviews, #WBC14, Boring Wine Writing, & Non-Boring Wines)

Vinted on July 24, 2014 binned in commentary, elegant wines, kick-ass wines, wine review

“A warning to the crews out there who think they’re hot, if you’re not original rockers you will get shot
down by the kids neglectin’ your art, the stuff you did, eventually it get so bad puts you to bed
’cause when the lightning flashes sweet electricity, all the world then stands revealed with the clarity
of raw voltage, briefly we see and the hope is you’ll be able to tell just what dope is…”

- Come Original by 311

Earlier this month, I attended the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, CA, as a speaker on a panel titled “How The Pros Taste.” I was actually in town primarily to help a friend of mine, Wandering Wino, kick off  a post-WBC tasting event (called “Authentic Press”) that focused on small SB-area producers (happy to report that was well-attended, and nary a drop of under-performing juice was to be found among the stellar lineup that he selected to pour at the event), so the timing all worked out splendidly.

I enjoyed WBC14 (well, ok, apart from the big dinner, which always seems to fall flat at WBC for some reason, excepting Alan Kropf’s entertaining WBA presentation), and thought this was one of the best incarnations yet, particularly for those new to wine blogging. The WBC keynote address by Corbett Barr seemed divisive based on the twitter chatter, but I also enjoyed that talk; and for anyone who doubts Barr’s assertion that character trumps everything else when it comes to building up your brand online, consider as some evidence that what I make for writing about wine puts me in the top 5-10% of all U.S. wine writers (and it’s a sad commentary that amount is only bonus-level money compared to my previous corporate gig).

I won’t comment on the Wine Blog Awards. No offense meant to the winners (there are some fine blogs in that group), and I’m always touched to be nominated and to be named a finalist, but I’m still pretty “fringe” and gonzo when it comes to wine writing (which, after all these years blogging, is also a kind of sad commentary, when you think about it), so the things I value and want to see recognized (in almost any genre, not just wine writing) are usually not what get rewarded. Just imagine how I feel about the Grammy’s!

A few hiccups involving LA road rage delays impacting fellow panelist Patrick Comiskey aside, I also had fun participating on my panel (for those of you who were thinking that I was stroking moderator Steve Heimoff’s crotch under the table on stage, I was actually petting Steve’s adorable pet dog Gus, who was sitting quietly in Steve’s lap the entire time; that’s my story, anyway), waxing philosophic about how I go about critically tasting vino (and getting totally fooled by the final “mystery wine” of the lineup). I’m good for at least one or two re-tweetable money quotes per panel, and the one that got the most attention during the panel seemed to be my comment on negative wine reviews (“some wines need to be kicked in the crotch”), so I thought I’d talk a bit more about that stance here.

My view on negative wine reviews is that they, like serving rare vintages of the world’s finest wines, ought to be reserved for special occasions. I say this because only a few wines are epically bad enough –and were created with sufficient malicious intent – that they deserve your finest writing work…

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“One Foot Old World, One Foot New World” (Quivira Recent Releases)

Vinted on July 17, 2014 binned in elegant wines, on the road, wine review

Ask Quivira winemaker (sorry, winegrower, as they prefer to call him) Hugh Chappelle for the Cliff Notes version of their style, and this is what you’ll get:

“One foot Old World, one foot New World.”

That’s a pretty darned good summation, based on my recent visit to their Dry Creek Valley winery. I should give you a similar Cliff Notes version of the entire Quivira story, before we get into the wines: A corporate drug company executive (Henry Wendt) gets attracted to a spot in Dry Creek Valley in the `80s, and as a avid fisherman gets upset at the decline in fish population in the nearby creek. Conventional farming is blamed, and a move to sustainable farming and Biodynamics ensues in the mid 2000s, after which Pete and Terri Kight purchase the place. Now they have 93 acres planted primarily to Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, along with a smattering of Rhone varieties such as Viognier, Grenache, and Mourvedre.

Quivira makes about 13,000 cases a year, using fruit from three estate vineyards, with a modest, restrained style that typically garners modest, restrained scores from mainstream wine critics.

Which, I think, means that those critics are missing the point of Quivira’s wines, which isn’t about conforming to a preconceived notion of how certain varieties – like Zinfandel – ought to be crafted (presumably into the highest bombast style wines possible). Maybe they’re taking the wild boar on Quivira’s label (a depiction of an adopted pet named Ruby who “died fat and happy” according to the Quivira staff) too literally, and assuming that you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Whatever…

Much of what Quivira seems to be about is turning those conventional notions of Californian Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel on their (sow’s) ears…

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“Tough To Spit” (Dispatch From 2014 San Francisco International Wine Competition)

Vinted on July 10, 2014 binned in elegant wines, going pro, sexy wines, wine industry events, wine review

Every once in a while, you get a gig that is so good, you just have to pinch yourself to test if it’s all real and you’re actually getting paid to have so much fun.

Such was the case at the 2014 San Francisco International Wine Competition, which wrapped up a couple of weeks ago and recently announced its results. Over 30 countries and 26 U.S. states compete in this competition, which is billed as America’s largest such international vinous battle royale. The pinch-inducing vibe came courtesy of my lucky draw in amazing wine competition panel-mates, which included cult winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett (small tidbit of advice: do not get between her and shoe shopping!) and competition organizer Anthony Dias Blue. The latter meant, of course, that at some point our panel would probably be getting some of the better wines entered into the comp, and that indeed did come to pass when we kicked off the second day of judging and were greeted with the wine lover’s breakfast of champions: a stellar flight of mostly vintage bubbly.

Did I mention that I love my “job?” Well, I do.

As for the specifics: the judges were divvied up about 3-4 at a table, tasting several related flights blind, knowing basically only the residual sugar, grapes, and price points of each wine. A splendid time was had by all (at least as far as I could tell), and I was happy to have leant my judging palate to a competition that was so well-organized, well-run, and that represented such a stellar group of wine-biz-insider-type judges. As always, I felt that I was bringing the overall class levels down a few notches by my attendance, though I think I made up for it in humor (we laughed a lot at our table…).

Anyway, here are a few of the stellar picks from that stellar bubbly lineup that had my table more-or-less swooning..

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There’s A Wild Man In My Head (Cayuse Recent Releases)

Vinted on June 5, 2014 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, wine review

“And I’m
Not sorry for
The things I’ve said
There’s a wild man in my head
There’s a wild man
In my head”

- Morrissey, “I’m Not Sorry”

Christophe Baron, the short, edgy, high-energy force behind Walla Walla’s controversial Cayuse, is sniffing dirt. And – in a very thick French accent that betrays his Charly-sur-Marne heritage and belies his nearly twenty-year stint in the Pacific Northwest – he’s imploring me to do the same.

“C’mon! You’ve come all this way to Cayuse! You’ve got to SMELL IT!!!”

Just moments before, a burly and beautiful Belgian draft horse was turning over this soil (in a vineyard named, for obvious reasons, “Horse Power”), so I am less than totally enthusiastic about the possibility of getting horse shit up my nostrils. But this guy’s energy is such that he makes me seem calm, so I acquiesce (as if I had a choice). These newer plantings were “designed for the horse,” Baron explains, with three-feet between the rows. “With the horse, you can’t rush it, you can’t force it. But the texture of the soil is like couscous… This is the reason why I’m here.”

Spend any appreciable time with Baron and you will not only sniff horse-powered dirt, you will hear impassioned proclamations such as “I am not a winemaker;” “Let’s all take off our clothes and get naked;” “There are a lot of things about Biodynamics you cannot quantify… you cannot quantify the smile on a beautiful woman;” “I’m like a dealer, I sell pleasure… liquid pleeeeeasuuuuuure;” and “no pictures on Facebook!” not all of which you might fully understand or be able to distinguish as serious or jovial.

But there’s one thing that is easy to understand: why Baron’s wines are controversial. Garnering stratospheric scores from The Wine Advocate and skyrocketing in secondary market prices after release, Cayuse offerings can be stunning, odd takes on Rhone-styled reds; often demanding, beguiling, and off-putting all at the same time. If you’ve ever watched a movie – or read a novel – that seems brilliant but has disturbing scenes in it, the kind of scenes that haunt you later but without which the central themes of the work wouldn’t be nearly as powerful, then you’ve got an idea of what it’s like to come face to face with Cayuse’s juice.

To understand these take-no-prisoners wines, you need to understand the background of the take-no-prisoners Baron, and Walla Walla’s take-no-prisoners geographical landscape…

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