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Same Old Song (Ridge Lytton Springs Recent Releases)

“We sing the same old song
Just like a vintage car,
You can look, but you won’t ever drive it.
We drink the same old wine
From a brand new jar,
We get hung-over, but we always survive it.”
- “New Song” by The Who

Some tasks are just… unenviable.

Take, for example, trying to say something new about iconic California producer Ridge that’s not already been said. Go ahead, give it a shot; it’s not easy, folks. Some people are adept at taking the same few chords or themes and churning out something that sounds totally new; The Kinks, The Who, John Grisham (okay, maybe not Grisham). I am not one of those people. The Ridge story has been told several times in print, and from a wine perspective equates to something like “these are excellent, potentially long-lived reds, go buy some; the end… why are you still here?”

And so in recapping my visit to Ridge Lytton Springs in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, I find myself entertaining a sense of dread that I’ve not felt since I’ve had to turn in a term paper in undergrad, the kind that you avoid for as long as possible because you know it’s going to be a bitch to write. I can offer at least one take on Ridge that is original, though, since it happened to me personally; so I suppose I’ll start there.

A couple of years ago, when interviewing the equally iconic California stalwart Kermit Lynch at his Berkley area shop, I noticed a shelf of old empty bottles on a wall in his office. I pointed out to him that only one of those bottles was from an American producer: Ridge. “Yeah!” he exclaimed, “and check this out!” taking the bottle from its display and showing me the back label, pointing to the small text that proclaimed its sub-14% alcohol by volume. I then tried (unsuccessfully, I think) to convince him that Ridge was still making elegant, long-lived, balanced wines that despite an uptick in abv, and that I’d had several aged examples over the years to prove it.

Interestingly, my host at Ridge’s DCV winery was winemaker John Olney (onboard at Lytton Springs since the 2003 vintage), who once worked for Lynch… see, I knew if I tried hard enough there’d be something new there…

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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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