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Twisted Wine for Twisted Times

Vinted on September 10, 2008 binned in wine review

Sit back, relax, and prepare for the unfolding of a twisted, Twisted Tale…

It was a dark and stormy night.

Actually, no, it wasn’t – it was one of those brilliant summer evenings when breeze is just strong and cool enough that it feels like a waft of heaven when you open up all the windows in the house. But that sounds a really lame start to a twisted tale… ah, forget it…

Anyway, I was recently contacted by Jeff Stai, head honcho of Twisted Oak winery in Calaveras County, CA, to see if I’d be interested in sampling their new limited-availability red, River of Skulls.

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? River of Skulls. Especially when it’s in italics.

RIVER OF SKULLS!!! Mwah-hah-hah-HAH-HAAAAH!!!!!

Jeff is an eminently likable and very funny fellow, with a fondness for blogging and rubber chickens (you can follow Jeff at twitter to see what I mean). So, I was game to check out his wine.

Jeff did insist on one hideously vile and twisted condition, though: In exchange for receiving his new wine, I must henceforth from this day onward follow Satan!!!…


Now, at first I thought this would be difficult, seeing as how I don’t actually believe in Satan and all. But then I found this guy over at twitter, clicked the “Follow” button and – viola! – problem solved!

Actually, that’s not what happened. Jeff sent the wine with no strings attached. I know, kinda lame, right?

Anyway, the wine’s namesake is a bit twisted. From the bottle:

In 1805, Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga was ordered by the Spanish Governor of California to explore the Great Central Valley. displace the local Natives, and re-name everything he found. Well, one day Gabe and his horsemen came across a river the banks of which were littered with skulls. No one knows for sure how the skulls came to be on the banks of this river. Perhaps they were the remains of an ancient battle, or a terrible plague. Or perhaps it was a really great party that suddenly went horribly wrong.Whatever the case old Gabe, being a true master of the obvious, named this river “El Rio De Las Calaveras” or in English, “The River of Skulls.”

Freak-a-zoid!

Now, before we get into the River of Skulls (dum-DUM!) bottle, I need to give you some twisted background on the primary varietal in this sucker…

River of Skulls is 90% Mourvedre, a grape of Spanish origin (where it’s called monastrell or mataro, depending upon location), where it’s widely planted. It’s also found in Provence, the Southern Rhone, and with limited (spotty) success in California. Mourvedre ripens slowly, and it likes heat & wind (which help it against rotting). Its wines are not shy and tend to be used for blending because of their tannic, alcoholic spiciness.

Interestingly, Mourvedre is a true survivor. It was practically wiped out by the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s, and it wasn’t until after World War II that suitable rootstock was found on which Mourvedre could thrive without succumbing to the nasty little aphid.

Speaking of twisted tales, if you have time check out the life cycle of phylloxera – any species that produces a male with no mouth or digestive system is just, well, totally twisted!

Anyway, back to the wine: Twisted Oak provides a great deal of information about River of SKULLS (dum-DUM!) in the wine’s production notes (worth checking out if you’re feeling particuarly geeky). Interestingly (lots of interesting things going on in this twisted tale…), about 1/4 of the grapes were fermented uncrushed, in order to bring out more cherry fruit characteristics in the finished wine.

It worked. Here’s what I found – dried cherries galore, vanilla oakiness, and tobacco leaf spiciness. The palate was full of even more smokiness and spice – and booze. Nothing shy about the booze in this sucker, but I’m Ok with that because I expect it from this grape. It’s when I get 14.9% white wines and Bordeaux style red blends from CA that I start to get all, well, twisted inside. On the second day of tasting, I got more raspberry and blueberry than on Day 1 – still going strong. River of Skulls is a wine that’s worth the $28 price tag, especially if you’ve got some smoked or peppered meat to serve with it. Boo-yeah!

Well, there you have it. A wine tale that was quite twisted, though not in the ways we might have originally expected. For more twistedness, check out Twisted Oak winery’s blog.

And be on the look out for Jeff, and for that Satan character…

Cheers!
(images: twistedoak.com, avenuevine.com, southparkstudios.com)

89 Bottles of Wine on the Wall… (An Update on the "89 Project")

Vinted on September 3, 2008 binned in wine blogging, wine review

It’s been one month since I posted about the 89 Project, the brainchild of 2 Days Per Bottle‘s David Honig. I figured it was time for a check in to see how the little guy was faring!

You might recall from my previous post (the one that Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff, bless his soul, interpreted so darn incorrectly as a disparagement of the 100 Point wine rating system, which isn’t quite what I was goin’ for…) that the 89 Project is a collaborative effort involving several bloggers that pokes a bit of good-natured fun at the current state of wine ratings. When you rate wines using a 100 point scale (like the big boy wine reviews in the big boy wine mags), giving a wine a 90 or above is ticket to 30% plus price hikes. Conversely, an 89 or below might get you into the discount bin – and could get overlooked by the general wine buying public, since many retailers don’t publicize those wines. A viscous cycle of non-showcasing, non-buying, non-showcasing, non-buying ensues.

Anyway, the 89 Project has wine bloggers from all over wine blog-o-land giving their take on 89-point wines. If you’re interested in learning more of the goals and genesis behind the project, check out David’s explanation via podcast from his guest appearance on WineBizRadio.com.

I’m pleased to report that the 89 Project is not only still alive, it’s alive & kicking. Not only was it featured on WineBizRadio.com, it’s also got its own discussion group over at the Open Wine Consortium (I love me some OWC!), and it’s now up to 30 contributors….


Personally, I’ve been having me a good time with my 89 Project contributions (you can check out my 89 Project reviews here). First, it’s an absolute hoot to go through a wine store looking for points, which I usually avoid like the plague (because, let’s face it, nobody talks in points, unless they work for Wine Spectator…). It’s even more fun to run through the wine store pushing a cart, taking pictures of the point ratings and getting positively giddy when you are finding wines clearly labeled as being given ratings less than 90 points.

The wine shop employees (especially in my local PLCB stores) think I’m totally insane now. It’s great…

So – stayed tuned to the 89 Project. You might find some interesting recommendations that you might otherwise have missed. And if you go looking for some of these wines, you just might, if you’re lucky, get yourself one hell of an “interesting” reputation among the wine shop employees in your neck of the woods…

Cheers!
(images: ggpht.com, wikimedia.org)

History in the (Wine) Making: The Inaugural Vintage of Rockaway Vineyard

Vinted on August 18, 2008 binned in wine blogging, wine review

Here’s a question for you budding wine history buffs out there.

To make it challenging, it’s in the form of an SSAT ‘association’ test question. You know, the ones you had in grade school, that were so odd that they presumably measured your ability to mimic the exact thinking process of the test question authors:

Rodney Strong is to Sonoma as
A) Dandelion is to Space Shuttle
B) Robert Mondavi is to Napa Valley
C) Absquatulate is to Pedantic
D) PLCB is to Communism

The CORRECT Answer is B) Robert Mondavi is to Napa Valley.
[ If you picked A), you may want to seek professional help, by the way. ]

Though not quite as famous a household name as Mondavi, Rodney Strong did every bit as much to put Sonoma wines on the map as Mondavi did to promote his beloved Napa Valley. Like Mondavi, Strong recognized the potential of a unique spot of California land to become more than just an assembly line for cheap jug wines, and pioneered Sonoma until it could stand with sure footing on the world stage of fine wine production.

Planting his first vines in 1959 (when there were less than 20 wineries in the U.S., and table fruit was seen as the future of Sonoma agriculture), Strong spearheaded a quality movement that resulted in an explosion of Sonoma wineries, some capable of producing wines that are considered among the world’s best.

There were detractors. Regarding them, Strong once said, “You are never going to please everybody, and if you try, it is the shortest route to mediocrity you will ever find.

Those are not the words of a follower. There the words you say when you are trying to make history.

Rodney Strong Vineyards (the winery founded by Strong) is still going, well, strong. And like their namesake, they are also making wine history…


Over the last ten years, Tom Klien, owner of RSV, has been quietly setting the stage to create the ultimate expression of Strong’s dream of fine Sonoma wine – by crafting a flagship ‘winery-within-a-winery’ brand, with the potential to achieve cult Cabernet status. The result is Rockaway Vineyard, which is releasing its inaugural vintage (2005), on September 1st.

Klien began Rockaway by purchasing – and then replanting – choice vineyards in the northern stretches of Alexander Valley. He then brought together a near dream team to make wine from those plots. According to RSV’s PR Director, Robert Larson, “the team assembled to make Rockaway favorably compares with any in the world. Rick Sayre [RSV's primary wine-maker] has the history at Rodney Strong to know and grow the capability of quality production. [Winemaking consultant] David Ramey has the known capacity to make extraordinary wine. Gary Patzwald is as good as they come when it comes to an amazing palate and an incredible commitment to nailing the details. Doug McIlroy [director of wine-growing] has an incredible background and years of experience growing wine in Sonoma County. Bob Steinhauer is very well regarded in the winegrowing world due to his time with Beringer.”

If you want to create the ultimate expression of Sonoma Cabernet, then you’d better pick an amazing spot for your vines – because land in CA wine country isn’t exactly being given away. RSV thinks that they’ve found such a sweet spot for Rockaway.

“CA viticulture and winemaking is ever-evolving, and the high-end game includes narrowing down to sweet-spots in a variety of ways,” says Larson. “There are single rows and plots within vineyards that taste better than others. You’ll notice, by viewing our website, that we communicate the vineyard’s USGS coordinates, which is our way of saying that place is, above all else, the most important factor in quality wine.”

Google-mapping GPS coordinates to show off your vineyard plots? Now that’s confidence.

And it seems well-founded: southwest facing slopes, with good elevation (approx. 750 ft), the chosen Rockaway plots are made up of gravelly clay and sandstone, with good drainage. All the elements are there for excellent CA Cabernet. On paper, at least.

So what do they do with that fruit, now that their primo vines are producing some fit for vinifying? Back to our friend, Mr. Larson: “Rockaway is completely made from free-run juice, and from only the best rows/vines on the vineyard. Everything that can be done to ensure getting perfect berries into the fermentation tanks is done. The grapes are sorted in the vineyard, picked into half-ton bins and delivered early in the morning, right next to the tank where they’ll undergo fermentation. There, they are cluster sorted again, de-stemmed, and berry sorted, prior to being gently pumped – using a pump like used for fruit-cocktail, very gentle – into tanks. Every detail and decision in building the winery-within-a-winery was about preserving the fruit.”

In other words, if you’re sitting on potentially amazing fruit, don’t f–k it up.

Alright, so it’s quality from the word go – on paper. How does vintage numero uno taste? Here are the vitals: 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot; 24 months in 100% French Oak barrels; 15.4% abv (yowza!).

Rockaway’s color is gorgeously opaque, almost inky. At first, the nose reveals about as much as trying to look at a Picaso through a glass of this sucker’s dark color. It starts closed, like a powerfully clenched fist. And then, with some air, come hints of black fruit, cassis, and oak; they are not overwhelming, but they are as pure as the wine is dark. In your mouth, prune flavors dominate, finishing long and strong with hints of raisin and alcohol (at 15%+ abv, there’s just no getting around that).

As closed and powerful as Rockaway is, it’s suprisingly accessible now (it just needs meat, and a lot of decanting). It’s got plenty of potential to get better with ageing; there’s just enough pure fruit to stand up to all of that booze. In about 6 years, a miracle might occur in that bottle… It’s as good and solid a young Cab. as I’ve ever tasted out of California – complexity TBD, but the purity of fruit is right there. Reminds me a bit of Opus One (but likely way cheaper, and with a little more California swagger).

You might be wondering what the ‘big boys” of wine media think about Rockaway’s inaugural effort. You know, Robert Parker, Wine Enthusiast, etc., etc., etc.

Well, we don’t know, because they haven’t published their reviews yet.

And that’s the final bit of pioneering history-making surrounding this stellar first effort from Rockaway. Upon its release, reviews of this wine are hitting the blogosphere before they are hitting Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, and other “traditional” wine media.

That’s because, for what may be the first time ever, a high-end wine debut is in the hands of wine bloggers simultaneously as the long-established wine mags.

What a second… Wine Bloggers’ reviews are hitting before Robert Parker has the chance to give this wine 90+ points and send the purchase price into the stratosphere? What the hell are Rockaway thinking? Are they clinically insane? Why on earth would they do that?

I posed this question (sans the effusiveness, and without questioning his sanity directly) to Rob Larson: “Pulling the trigger is based on a hunch, and a gut feeling about how people are gathering information and forming their buying decisions on this style and level of wine.”

And here you thought that wine bloggers were just a bunch of wannabe wine critics.

Not any more, apparently.

Seems that Rodney Strong’s pioneering, history-making spirit that helped to put Sonoma on the map has done something else: it’s helped to put Wine Blogging on the map as well.

History in the making, indeed.

If you want to get your hands on Rockaway, you’ll need to sign up on the mailing list. I suggest you do it quickly, ’cause just like a fashionable cult Cab., it’s an allocated brand – the mailing list is the only place it will be available to wine consumers.

Tell ‘em 1WineDude sent ya. And while you’re at it, ask them to save me another bottle…

Cheers!

Full disclosure: 1WineDude.com is part of a group of bloggers who have received Rockaway for reviewing purposes. For more on this historic release, follow these other fine wine bloggers:

(images: 1WineDude.com, RockawayVineyard.com)

Back to My Roots: 3 Wine Lessons from a Magnum Opus (WBW #48)


This ultra-exciting edition of Tales of the Purple Monkey has Plumboo and I once again taking part in the Wine Blogging Wednesday blog carnival! Because it’s an anniversary edition of WBW, it’s being hosted this month by cool-guy and WBW founder Lenn Thompson at Lenndevours.

I say “ultra-exciting” edition because Lenn’s theme has Plumboo and I going back to our “wine roots” (read Lenn’s post for more details). Well, back to my wine roots anyway – Plumboo is a plush toy with a plastic squeek for a head, so I’m not sure he’s got any roots worth getting into.

Going back to my roots is ultra-exciting for me, because it gives me a chance to explore why I got into wine in the first place. And it has to do with a wine that everyone loves to hate (oooohhhh… drama!).

I’m talking about that over-the-top, over-priced, and oft-overlooked Oakville stalwart, Opus One.

Go on. Make fun of me.

You know that you want to. You snob!

Love it or hate it, Opus One is the wine that made me serious about vino. Before I get into that, let’s get a little background for those of you unfamiliar with the big O.O. …


Opus One is a joint venture international premium wine venture between Napa legend Robert Mondavi and Bordeaux legend Baron Philippe Rothschild. The aim: produce and ultra-premium Bordeaux style wine, made with the best fruit that Napa had to offer.

This style of international collaborative winemaking is fairly common now, but when founded in the late `70s, Opus One was pioneering stuff. It also made Napa Valley wine more serious – after all, a First Growth was now involved. Oh, MY!

O.O. (located on the main drag in Napa) is a modern temple to high-end winemaking. Touring the O.O. facility literally changed how I look at wine. I’ve spent a lot of time working for major CPG companies, so I’m no stranger to touring manufacturing facilities – and what I saw at O.O. floored me.

Here was a winery that was combining high-quality ingredients (arguably the best fruit that Oakville / Napa has on offer), old school techniques and know-how, ultra-modern equipment, and expensive “by hand” techniques to make a premium product. I could immediately draw parallels to the manufacturing practices of premium chocolate brands like Ethel M.

So why does everyone love to hate this wine?

Well, for one thing, it’s totally over-the-top. There is usually very little that is subtle about this wine. It also takes years to develop, and often comes across as astringent and tough when it’s opened too early. It’s also very expensive – usually $150-$200 per bottle.

Are you paying for the snooty chic factor? You bet. But you’re also paying for the result of really, really expensive production techniques, such as hand-sorting the best fruit for the final blend.

And here’s the thing – you’re also paying for a really, really good wine.

I’ve been drinking through my small cache of 1998 Opus One for a few years now. I picked up a few bottles of the 1998 O.O. because `98 was supposed to be a ‘bad’ year for wine in Napa. Despite that, Opus made a wine that I thought (to the best of my then burgeoning wine geek ability at the time) had some ageing potential. It turns out I was right.

The `98 O.O. is drinking beautifully right now (see my mini reviews here and here). Is it as complex as as First Growth Bordeaux? Not really. But halfway through a glass of that explosive fruit, you won’t give a sh*t about that.

O.O. is oft-maligned because it’s priced like a Bordeaux, so people expect it to act like a Bordeaux.But this is not Old World, sporting a monocle and a tux sophistication, people. It’s California used-to-be-a-hippy and now owns an Internet company, sporting a pony-tail and mock turtleneck sophistication. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What did Opus One wine teach me?

  1. Not every wine is worth it’s price to everybody.
  2. Never overlook a wine just because it gets bad press – make your own judgments.
  3. Trust your wine instincts (and your own personal palate).

Many years on, these lessons still serve me well, and I pass them on when I teach others about wine. Or to anyone within earshot when I’m tipsy and waxing wine philosophical.

Those lessons are deep-rooted into my wine soul. Just like one of those fabulous Oakville vines…

Cheers!

(images: 1winedude.com, czaplamusic.com)

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