Posts Filed Under 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…
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)
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?
- Not every wine is worth it’s price to everybody.
- Never overlook a wine just because it gets bad press – make your own judgments.
- 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…
(images: 1winedude.com, czaplamusic.com)
Not too long ago, I was contacted by a PR firm regarding one of their wineries, J Vineyards.
This is nothing to write about in and of itself. What is worth writing about is why they were reaching out to me.
As a wine blogger, they wanted me to know that J had launched their own blog, J News You Can Use. A winery that’s taking part in the wine 2.0 wine conversation? Now that I find worth writing about – not just because it adds a potentially compelling voice to the on-line mix; it also shows that I’m (thankfully!) being proven increasingly more incorrect about my dire assessment of the influence of wine blogging in the ‘real’ world!
To get a better feel of what J is all about, you of course need to sample their wine. So, I grabbed a bottle of their 2005 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. First, the numbers: 100% Pinot Noir, aged in French oak barrels (30% new) for 11 months, 14.5% abv.
My take: Ripe strawberries on the nose, cherry cola on the palate, and a touch of toasted breadcrumb on the finish. The finish also contains some alcohol – there’s just no escaping it with that much powerful booze in this wine. Still, there’s no denying the Russian River fruit – it just kicks all kinds of ass; the question will be if it can stand up to that alcohol with enough structure for any long-haul aging (at close to $30 / bottle, you should expect some aging potential in your Pinot).
To really understand a winery, you also need to know what the winemaker is up to…
You have to totally respect what George Bursick (J’s winemaker, pictured) is trying to do. Bursick has been experimenting with longer fermentation times, utilizing techniques like batonage (stirring the wine with its yeast and sediment to impart extra creaminess and a rounder mouthfeel), and resurrecting the use of rare Burgundian yeasts that haven’t seen the dark of fermentation since the 1930s.
But I’m not really writing to tell you about J’s wine (good as it is); I’m writing to tell you about J’s blog.
You might expect that I got the info. on Bursick from J’s blog. But I didn’t. I got it from their press materials. And, unlike J’s wines, in today’s social-networking-obsessed Internet world, that’s probably not good enough.
It’s great to see wineries like J embracing the on-line wine world. With social networking officially overtaking porn as the most popular website destinations, if you’re not into social networks then you’re not really on the web these days. Anyone who wants to connect with consumers and doesn’t have a socially-oriented on-line presence is officially behind the times (and the competition).
Having said that, J’s blog is useful if you already know about J’s wines, or to have a central place to catalog their news and accomplishments. J’s blog is a good first step, but it’s already behind the times when compared to some other wineries, such as Tablas Creek. Tablas Creek’s blog is winning awards because it’s being used to give us deep insights into how the wine is made, and the trials and tribulations of day to day life at the winery. Consumers want to know more than what awards a winery is winning – they want to feel more connected to the brand.
My advice to J, and any other winery that wants to take online promotion seriously: get connected, and do it quickly. Get a blog, and get personal in it. Get on twitter and follow some of the wine geek crowd. Sign up at OpenWineConsortium.org and converse with bloggers, distributors, and consumers.
If you don’t, the online wine world very well might pass you by. And sooner or later, that means the ‘real’ world consumers might pass you by as well…
You deserve it. You demand it.
It haunts you. It drives you.
It’s so Powerful. It makes you. Speak. In Broken. Sentences.
We’re obsessed with comparing things when we make purchases, especially in the U.S. Some of us are always out there looking for the best. Even in today’s excellence-obsessed status-quo-chasing society, no one can blame you for just honestly wanting to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to buying wine. Especially when the economy is in the financial out house.
This is where you’d think that wine ratings would help you. By rating a wine on a 100 point scale, you can make a quick shopping determination so that you can pick up the best bottle for the money, and feel confident that you got a good deal and will enjoy your purchase without having to learn any of that fancy wine mumbo-jumbo, right?
If I was grading the 100 point wine rating scale (hell, why not, we love to rate stuff, remember?), I’d give it a C-. That’s because the 100 point scale has 3 major flaws that prevent it from really telling you what you think it should tell you…
Flaw #1: It’s actually a 50-point scale.
Yes, just like those exams you took in grade school, no one actually gets less than a 50. A wine gets a 50 just for showing up and writing its name (on the label). This would lead you to believe that, like those old grade school exams, the 100 point scale grades wines objectively. Which leads us to…
Flaw #2: It gives a false sense of Objectivity.
No one can really score a wine 100% objectively. This is because we all have differences in our palates, and therefore (at least) subtle differences in how we interpret a wine’s flavor and quality. If a particular critic gives a wine a very high score, it says nothing about whether or not you might like that wine. So, unless your palate and preferences are similar to that critic, if you blindly buy one wine over another just because it scored a few points higher, you may be passing up a great wine that you would enjoy even more than that flashy ‘high-scorer’.
Flaw #3: It implies a “Scale” of Excellence.
Like that old grade school grading method, you’d expect a wine scoring in the 90s to be better than a wine scoring in the 70s (an ‘A’ vs a ‘C’) – and for the most part, you’d be right. But is a wine that scores a 95 “better” than a wine that scores a 91? This is much trickier territory. A difference of a few points does not guarantee that one wine is better than another, any more than my scoring a 95 and you scoring a 91 on a wine exam guarantees that I’d be a better sommelier than you.
The trouble is that too many people fall into the trap of following the numbers for their buying decisions – so much so that a wine rated a 90+ will sell for a much higher price than a wine that scored an 89.
In order to help break out of some of the rut caused by this scoring system, a group of wine bloggers has started up a new blog called The 89 Project. The aim of the 89 Project is to highlight the wines that people are missing out on because of the 100 point system. I’ve signed on as a contributor, so watch that space for an update from me (once I get my dirty little hands on some tasty “89s”).
In the explanation of his 100 point rating scale, Robert Parker sounds his own word of caution about blindly following his (or anyone else’s) scores:
“No scoring system is perfect, but a system that provides for flexibility in scores, if applied by the same taster without prejudice, can quantify different levels of wine quality and provide the reader with one professional’s judgment. However, there can never be any substitute for your own palate nor any better education than tasting the wine yourself.“
Well said. Don’t say we didn’t warn ya!
(images: wales.nhs.uk, modmyprofile.com)