Imitation is the finest form of flattery…

Sublime. That exquisite moment when the first nibble of a perfectly prepared dish melds in layers of flavor with the first sip of a gorgeous wine. It’s an art, and yet a science, the joyful experience of pairing wine with food.

Few chefs can resist the temptation to tart up a dish with multiple ingredients of herbs, spices, rubs, sauces, fruit, salt, sweet and more. Their theory seems to be that more is better. I disagree. Less is more, especially if what you have in mind to do is showcase a particular style of wine with a dish to create that magical sensation that echoes the marriage between them.

Chef Jeremy Luers gets this point. He landed as executive chef at The Presidents Room at The Phoenix, which reopened in May after a five-year hiatus to sit out the economic recession and await the renaissance of nearby Over-The-Rhine. He’s cooked in many kitchens, in Cincinnati and New York, but now Chef Luers is in charge. After a stint at 1215 Wine Bar, Daniel Souder joined the team as wine and beverage director. On the ides of July, Luers and Souder were joined by Master Sommelier Matt Citriglia for a five-course German wine dinner.

Chef Jeremy Luers and Matt Citriglia, MS, join forces to create a perfectly paired German wine dinner.

Chef Jeremy Luers and Matt Citriglia, MS, join forces to create a perfectly paired German wine dinner.

With each course, it became more and more clear that this collaboration was electric. Chef Luers developed the menu first, sharing intimate details of the ingredients for each simple but elegant course with Matt Citriglia. With clear flavor profiles in mind, knowing that most wine enthusiasts don’t really understand German wines, Matt selected wines he knew would draw out the essence of every dish’s distinct personality. The connection was palpable.

In a fun lesson supported by excellent educational materials for the wine educators, beverage directors and somms in the room, Matt walked through the science of food and wine complementarity — the importance of matching residual sugar, fruitiness, texture, body — and he chipped away at unfortunate American misperceptions about cloyingly sweet German whites wines. Dispelling a common myth: “Historically, Germany has always produced and consumed dry wine.” Yet international export markets continue to clamor for sweet wines. Not this crowd!!

This was a very special wine dinner, but Cincinnati diners, do not despair! The Choucroute Garnie Royale, a famous Alsatian recipe for preparing deeply flavored sauerkraut with a selection of sausages (plus spareribs and pork belly in this case), is on the regular Presidents Room menu. This dish was paired beautifully with a single-vineyard Pfeffingen Riesling from the Pfalz region. I can’t wait to go back.

Scallop Crudo with Silvaner; Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Pinot Blanc; and for dessert, Cambozola Cheesecake with a Scheurebe BA

Scallop Crudo with Silvaner; Sweet Corn Agnolotti with Pinot Blanc; and for dessert, Cambozola Cheesecake with a Scheurebe BA

Visit The Presidents Room at The Phoenix, 812 Race St. Call (513) 721-2260 for reservations Wednesday through Saturday.

Sassy Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc
A group of 10 Cincinnati women who are wine lovers have enthusiastically embraced the “wine school” challenge issued three months ago by Eric Asimov and The New York Times. The gatherings are so popular that husbands and friends have clamored to expand “Femmes du Vins” to “Femmes et Hommes du Vins.”

After a safe start with red Bordeaux, followed by a surprising theme of Cru Beaujolais, the third class featured a personal favorite: Sancerre. A beautiful hilltown capping the eastern edge of the Loire Valley, Sancerre is arguably the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are aromatic, with recognizable yet distinctive chalky and mineral notes, typically light and refreshing, pleasing alone or with food, and an absolute point of passion for people who love wine with an acidic tinge.

Since all of us original “Femmes du Vins” like to color outside the lines, we couldn’t help but expand class boundaries. Our favorite wine of the evening was a white Bordeaux, which ties as #1 spiritual home for Sauvignon Blanc even though it is always blended with Semillon (and at times Muscadelle). But since Sauvignon Blanc is grown everywhere in the world, to varying degrees of success, we felt compelled to explore New World selections as well.

Sancerre is at the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

Sancerre is at the eastern edge of the Loire Valley.

Sancerre is a compact, action-packed appellation, not even 10k wide and barely that long. Fourteen villages and three hamlets have the right to use the appellation name. Three key vineyard areas distinguished by type of soil surround the main village of Sancerre. Given the amount of global information one must remember for certifiable wine geekery, these three sub-areas of Sancerre are not necessarily memorable. But they are important, so here we go. Chene Marchand, in the village of Bue, produces a refined style of Sancerre owing to mineral-laden soil of limestone and pebbles. Montes Damnes, in the village of Chavignol, offers a broader, more full-bodied style of wine. “Terres blanches,” a white soil mixture of clay and limestone known as Kimmeridgian marl, is the distinctive influence here. The third region, Menetreol, is known for sturdy, steely age-worthy wines made from vines grown in silex (flint, clay) soil. A distinctive “gunflint” essence is known as pierre a fusil in French.

Tasting notes for four selections of Sancerre tasted in order from lowest (12.5%) to highest (13%) alcohol content:

Gerard Boulay (2012) produces wines in Chavignol. In the Times article “Listening to Sancerre Tell its Story,” it was Eric Asimov’s favorite. We liked it too, declaring it a nice, drinkable sipper of a rather indistinct international style. But we didn’t think it was classic Sancerre, and found it to be less food-friendly than other selections. Chalk, citrus and herbal notes were restrained; a bit of honey on the nose and melon on the palate; tertiary aromas of white flowers. 12.5% abv

Domaine Andre Neveu (“Le Manoir” 2011, not on the Times list) is also produced in Chavignol. It offered up distinct chalky aromas reminiscent of Savenniere and Chenin Blanc in the middle Loire Valley. One year older than our other selections, the Neveu wine had more body and less acidity, and perhaps a little residual sugar, with green notes of asparagus and gooseberry skin. With food, especially goat cheese but even with asparagus quiche, the wine’s acidity came into even greater balance. 12.5% abv

Robert Parker calls Franck & Jean-Francois Bailly one of Sancerre’s best producers. Making wines since early 20th century, the family owns vineyards in all three of Sancerre’s premier vineyard areas. The (2012) was all about big citrus, green dried herbs. It was very fresh (but not grassy), and relatively low acidity. In the ultimate test of goat cheese vs. asparagus, the Humboldt Fog cheese definitely won! 13% abv

Lucien Crochet La Croix du Roy (2012) was an interesting selection, very full-bodied, owing in part to terroir and in part to style (unfined and unfiltered). Sourced from several parcels, the cuvee is described by Rosenthal Wine Merchant as the most masculine of Lucien Crochet’s Sancerre selections. On the palate, the wine was rich and round, a hint of spices (clove and jalapeno pepper). Although it decidedly failed the asparagus test, the wine was perfect with a lemony dish of shrimp and cannellini beans. 13% abv

And now for the white Bordeaux and three New World selections in the order we decided to taste them, again based on stated alcohol content:

Geisen (2012) is a large producer of New Zealand wines. Although the winery is physically located in Canterbury, southwest of Christchurch, the grapes for this wine are from Marlborough which is broadly considered to be the best growing region for Sauvignon Blanc and perhaps the world’s second spiritual home for the grape. We thought this wine was typical for inexpensive New Zealand SB. It had a strong, pungent nose — over-the-top ripe grapefruit, green pepper and gooseberry skin. There was no real depth to the body or finish. 12.5% abv

Steenburg (2012) is one of the most important wineries in the Constantia region of South Africa just south of Cape Town. It was part of the original farm developed by South Africa’s first governor, Simon van der Stel, in 1865. This very special bottle was transported to Cincinnati in December 2013 by a dear friend who is South African. Unfortunately, the bottle was off, having experienced a bit of reduction, so we were not able to evaluate it. Having visited this winery myself in October 2013, however, I can attest that the winemaker blends several parcels from the estate to achieve an interesting and delicious mix of classic flavors ranging from flinty to gooseberry to tropical fruit. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find in the U.S.

Andre Lurton “Chateau La Louviere” (2010) was an exquisite wine, showing clearly the ways in which Semillon (10%) contributes to Sauvignon Blanc at its finest. From the Graves region of Bordeaux, this complex wine exhibited honeysuckle, acacia flowers, beeswax — crisp citrus, floral and mineral notes. 13.5% abv (This bottle was approximately $50, but Lurton also makes delicious lower priced wines from Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers including Chateau Bonnet, which also contains a component of Muscadelle for further flavor experimentation.)

David Coffaro (2012) started out growing grapes for Gallo, and in 1994 decided to start making wine himself. Vineyards are located in the Dry Creek area of Sonoma, CA. Coffaro is experimenting with Italian and obscure French grape varieties, generating a diverse array of wines. This SB offering was “flabby” — too much body, not enough acidity. It was a pleasant enough, varietally correct, wine with notes of grapefruit rind and a hint of candied ginger. abv 13.6%

FOOD PAIRING

Selection of goat cheese, asparagus quiche, salmon & scallop cakes, shrimp & cannellini beans

Selection of goat cheese, asparagus quiche, salmon & scallop cakes, shrimp & cannellini beans

A selection of goat cheeses will always be a hit with Sauvignon Blanc from anywhere in the world. Although we were not able to locate Chavignol for our class, the most famous goat cheese of the Loire Valley is one of several important French cheese appellations.

Quiche made with fresh asparagus and peas, diced tomatoes, Gruyere cheese and fresh thyme is a great pairing to offer lessons in what works (and doesn’t!). The egg base of the quiche worked well with the more acidic wines, not so well with the ones that were more full-bodied. The same was true of the asparagus and peas. The Gruyere cheese and thyme worked well across all selections.

Salmon and scallop cakes, colorfully dotted with yellow and red peppers, were excellent with all selections. A home-made green goddess style sauce was a true enhancement with the more full-bodied wines.

Shrimp and cannellini beans, tossed in a mixture of lemon, garlic, olive oil and thyme, also worked well with all of the wines. At least one ingredient of this dish found an accentuating flavor match with every wine.

Never underestimate the power of a host (or guest) to add an element of surprise that makes the wine and food experience even more memorable. Guenter Matthews, pictured below, is a talented organist who regaled our tasting group with a rousing concert on his own organ in his own home!!

Top L: Guenter Matthews with World Atlas of Wine; Bethanie Butcher turning pages for organist Guenter Matthews; the Sancerre tasting group.

Top L: Guenter Matthews with World Atlas of Wine; Bethanie Butcher turning pages for organist Guenter Matthews; the Sancerre tasting group.

With great affection for wine (and the readers of Vino Ventures), from the Femmes du Vins: Kathy Merchant, Amy Neyer, Laura Landoll, Mary Horn, Laura Ginn, Bethanie Butcher, Joanna Argus Kirkendall Susan Zaunbrecher, Jodi Geiser and Reeta Brendamour (plus Guenter Matthews and Don Zaunbrecher)

Photo credits: Sauvignon Blanc, Wine Folly; Map of Loire Valley, http://www.winetour-france.com; food images ifood.tv, tasteofhome.com, passionontheplate.blogspot.com, wellsphere.com

Taste of Premiere Napa Valley

Map of Napa Valley courtesy of jacksonvillewineguide.com

Map of Napa Valley courtesy of jacksonvillewineguide.com


Fair warning to readers: this is a long piece including lists/descriptions of 36 wines.

There are a bewildering number of wineries to choose from in Napa Valley. They fit neatly together like a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, aligned in tightly woven vineyard ribbons lacing Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, along the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains. It’s no small wonder that it takes work – joyful as it may be! – to understand the scope of this complex and diverse American Viticultural Area (AVA or appellation) covering less ground than 1/8 of Bordeaux.

Betting on the notion that a better-educated wine trade would help consumers sort through Napa’s prolific bounty, Napa Valley Vintners Association (NVV) created Premiere Napa Valley nearly two decades ago. As the Premiere event got legs, NVV added events for wine educators and sommeliers. Each year, the wine trade descends upon Napa Valley in droves during the third week in February to revel in all that is glorious about Napa Valley.

Whether you love sun-kissed “big fruit” or more restrained old-world styles of wine, enjoy this delicious sip of Napa Valley taken February 20-22, 2014!

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers was founded a decade ago by some of the country’s leading food and wine writers in partnership with NVV, The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and the Meadowood resort. Each year, generous Napa Valley vintners sponsor fellowships for 12-15 writers chosen by an independent panel of judges. The warm companionship between winemaking and wine writing is celebrated during a special dinner at Meadowood on the eve of Premiere weekend.

Symposium for Professional Wine Writers Fellows Dinner at Meadowood

Symposium for Professional Wine Writers Fellows Dinner at Meadowood


2004 vintage wines shared by sponsoring wineries at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

2004 vintage wines shared by sponsoring wineries at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers


Because this was the Symposium’s 10th anniversary, each sponsoring winemaker provided a 2004 library wine. One can only hope that some of these 15 wines are waiting patiently in your cellar! But don’t despair – the fellowship sponsors are among Napa Valley’s finest winemakers, so enjoy their more recent vintages available in the market. [alpha winery listing, AVA, grape]

1. BOND “Vecina,” Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
2. Chimney Rock Winery “Elevage,” Stags Leap District, Red Blend
3. Far Niente, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
4. The Hess Collection Winery, Mt. Veeder, Cabernet Sauvignon
5. Hourglass, St. Helena, Cabernet Sauvignon (2010)
6. Mount Veeder Winery Reserve, Napa Valley, Red Blend
7. PEJU Reserve, Rutherford, Cabernet Franc
8. Plumpjack Winery Estate, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
9. Raymond Vineyards “Generations,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
10. Robert Mondavi Winery, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
11. Saintsbury, Los Carneros, Chardonnay
12. Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
13. Silverado Vineyards “SOLO,” Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon
14. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “CASK 23,” Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon
15. Tres Sabores, Rutherford, Zinfandel

So is it hardship duty for the trade to taste wine at 9:00 am? Perhaps. I read more than one Tweet and Facebook post pondering the state of our collective health. “Sip, swish and spit” skills are mandatory.

The Premiere weekend launched into high gear on Friday morning with a very special tasting opportunity. A multi-vintage perspective included young wines from 2009, 2010 and 2011. A retrospective tasting of library wines from 1984, 1994 and 2004 offered the rare opportunity to experience vintages chosen for decennial rhythm rather than ratings. Most of the library wines were Cabernet Sauvignon (or Cab-predominant blends). Looking back, the top professional raters gave the 1984 vintage a 92-94 score (with differing views on whether this vintage is likely past its peak, so give it a try); 95-97 for the 1994 vintage (definitely drink now); and 91-95 for 2004 (drink now or hold).

It was impossible to do justice to all 39 young and library wines in the allotted two hours, so of the 26 library wines I tasted, these were my top five:

1984 Sterling Vineyards Reserve Merlot was quite washed out in color, but the fresh aroma was medium+ with plenty of fruit; soft tannins, medium+ body and intensity; a balanced wine. Hurry up!

1994 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was fresh and clean; nice complexity of vibrant black fruit, violets and brown baking spices from oak influence; soft tannins, long finish. Drink now.

1994 Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon presented a soft copper tinge in the glass, but despite a slight overtone of alcohol on the nose, on the palate the wine was soft and complex with notes of cedar along with dark fruits. Drink now.

2004 ERBA Merlot was characterized by a very long finish, a pleasant quaffable wine with velvety tannins and medium+ intensity of aromas and flavors. Drink now.

2004 Corison Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was clearly young and fresh compared to the older library wines, but definitely a balanced wine with well-integrated tannins; complex red and black fruits, medium+ intensity. Drink now or hold.

Tim Mondavi, Continuum winery, and Kathy Merchant at the Pritchard Hill Premiere Preview Party

Tim Mondavi, Continuum winery, and Kathy Merchant at the Pritchard Hill Premiere Preview Party


Premiere Preview Parties moved into high gear at about noon and carried on into early evening with sneak peeks of the 2012 vintage wines that would be auctioned the following day. (Please stay tuned for an in-depth look at wines from four of Napa Valley’s 16 AVAs tasted during preview parties: Oak Knoll, Pritchard Hill, Spring Mountain and Stags Leap.)

On Saturday morning, the Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Tasting and Auction event machinery worked smoothly to transport hundreds of people from remote parking to The Culinary Institute at Greystone and get them checked in for the barrel tasting and auction. On the second floor, 225 stations were ready to roll for the brisk three-hour marathon tasting of 2012 barrel samples, already being touted as “very good to excellent” vintage overall. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 barrel tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone

Premiere Napa Valley 2012 barrel tasting at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone


First, a bonus note about my permanent “best of show.” Keever Vineyards, owned since 2003 by Bill and Olga Keever and their children Jason and Ashley, has been a favorite wine of mine for many years. Their winemaker Celia Welch is a rock star in Napa Valley. Often impatient for that “drink now” moment to arrive, I have managed to preserve a Keever library of wines from 2006-2009. Growing in popularity, their 2010 vintage sold out in three months, but it is possible to taste the 2011 vintage at the winery in advance of release and get on the list for annual wine allocations. http://www.keevervineyards.com

Wine writers who attended the Symposium were asked by NVV to taste 14 randomly selected wines, choose a favorite, and write a note about the wine and/or winemaker. These notes will be compiled and published soon in the St. Helena Star.

In the meantime, here are my notes on the top five 2012 barrel samples from Lots 113-126, along with a list of the other wines, all in order of personal preference:

1. Robert Keenan Winery (Spring Mountain) took a unique twist for Premiere Napa Valley with a mouth-watering “A Nod to History” Zinfandel blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc (10% each) as well as whiffs of Carignane and Alicante. Aged primarily in neutral oak, this special heritage blend offered bright cherry and raspberry notes. Nils Venge, consulting winemaker. [Lot 120]

2. Harbison Estate Wines (Oakville) “The Trail” Cabernet Sauvignon. Owned by Joe and Pat Harbison, the new winery produced its first vintage in 2008. Already receiving top scores from Wine Advocate – 96 points for the 2011 and a tentative score of 100 points for the 2012 – Harbison wines look to be on the way to cult status, but still under $200. Even in its youth, the barrel sample was refined and elegant with an even finish across the palate. He said: “anybody can make a big ass wine.” She said: “it takes finesse to go with food.” Russell Bevan, winemaker. [Lot 121]

Joe and Pat Harbison of Harbison Wine Estate

Joe and Pat Harbison of Harbison Wine Estate


3. Paradigm Winery (Oakville) Cabernet Sauvignon is small-production (5,000 cases). One third of the property’s 55 acres of grapes are used to make Paradigm wine, and the rest of the fruit is sold to Nickle and Nickle. With delicate floral and herbal aromas yielding to rich fruit and earthy flavors, this wine strikes a balance between feminine and masculine styles; long aging potential. Heidi Peterson Barrett, winemaker. [Lot 119]

4. Ehlers Estate (St. Helena) “Block 4” Cabernet Sauvignon is a spicy wine with beautiful, soft tannins. Ehlers Estate wines are generally 75% new French oak, though winemaker Kevin Morrisey may shift some of the juice to neutral barrels to avoid excessive oak influence. [Lot 115]

5. Barbour Wines (St. Helena) “Man Cave Blend” Cabernet Sauvignon. A perfect specimen of “medium plus” intensity wine in every regard – color, aroma, body and aging potential. Owner Jim Barber says his wine style is “whatever Celia says” about the fruit each year. Celia Welch, winemaker. [Lot 122]

6. Frias Family Vineyard (St. Helena) Cabernet Sauvignon. Todd Heth, winemaker. [Lot 113]

7. Erba Mountainside Vineyards (Napa Valley) Cabernet Sauvignon. Luc Morlet, winemaker. [Lot 118]

8. Cakebread Cellars (Napa Valley) “Suscol Springs and Arroyo Creek Vineyards” Cabernet Sauvignon. Julianne Laks, winemaker. [Lot 124]

9. Neal Family Vineyards (Rutherford) Chardonnay. Gove Celio, director of winemaking. [Lot 114]

10. Aloft Wine (Howell Mountain) Cabernet Sauvignon. Angelina Mondavi and Thomas Brown, winemakers. [Lot 117]

11. Rocca Family Vineyards (Yountville) “Row 57 Old Vines” Cabernet Sauvignon. Paul Colantuoni, winemaker. [Lot 116]

12. Purlieu Wines (St. Helena) “Cachere Cabernet Sauvignon. Julien Fayard, winemaker. [Lot 123]

13. Hewitt Vineyard & Provenance Vineyards (Rutherford) “Cab Meets Cab Franc” Red Wine. Chris Cooney and Tom Rinaldi, winemakers. [Lot 125]

14. Vineyard 29 (St. Helena) “St. Helena Special” Cabernet Sauvignon. Philippe Melka, winemaker. [Lot 126]

Robert M. Parker Advocates for Civility in Wine Writing

Robert Parker chatting with wine writers after addressing the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

Robert Parker chatting with wine writers after addressing the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers


Videos, verbatims and viscissitudes have been flying through the blogosphere from many of the wine writers who attended last week’s annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers held at Meadowood in Napa Valley. For your reading pleasure, I recommend posts by Alder Yarrow (Vinography), David White (Terroirist), Fred Swan (Norcalwine), Richard Jennings (RJonWine), Bill Ward (Decant This) and others who will no doubt weigh in on the conversation in coming days and weeks.

Despite significant physical challenges owing to recent back and knee surgeries, and literally on his way to China to help educate the newest wine frontier, Parker spent a full hour engaging in dialogue with fellow wine writers. Throughout the exchange, he pleaded for greater civility in wine writing and criticism. It was perhaps not surprising. Arguably one of the most important wine writers in the past 30 years — if not the most important — Parker has been an obvious and easy target, the object of much vitriol in the press.

His point was a simple one: it’s okay to disagree, but with civility. “Wine is something that brings people together” — or should, he argues. Parker encouraged original wine writing, noting that much of what is written for social media is derivative. “The idea of giving content away is crazy when people are willing to pay for informed, independent perspective. People do want to read tasting notes. They want to read a description, some kind of guidepost about what you think even if you don’t agree.”

He acknowledged that the world of wine, and of wine writing, is very competitive and invites criticism that unfortunately veers into incivility. Even so, Parker advises wine writers for whom he wishes great success to “stand up for what you believe in. Live and let live. Don’t worry about the fallout.”

Paso Robles Possibilities

View of Paso Robles looking toward the Pacific Ocean at San Luis Obispo winefolly.com

View of Paso Robles looking toward the Pacific Ocean at San Luis Obispo
winefolly.com


With 30 years of robust history most often credited to entrepreneur Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, Rhone Rangers are firmly fixed on the California wine landscape. Since 1983, the winemakers of Paso Robles and York Mountain AVAs have played a significant role in shaping the future of Rhone varieties in the US.

It’s a familiar story. Franciscan monks shaped the contours of California wines more than 200 years ago. They moved apace from south to north planting vineyards along the way to support sacramental missionary rituals. It basically took the gold rush of 1849 to unleash secular commercial winemaking over the next few decades. One such pioneer was Andrew York, a Hoosier who seized the opportunity to leave farming behind to establish a Wild West ranch. He was wise to plant vines, as well as raise cattle, on what is now the York Mountain AVA. He called his winery Ascension, for the monks.

Today the original York property encompasses two estate vineyards called Paterewski and Catapult. Sold in 2004, then purchased (in foreclosure) in 2010 by Bill and Liz Armstrong, the winery now known as Epoch is being lovingly restored and reactivated.

Lesa Johnson at Epoch Winery, York Mountain AVA

Lesa Johnson at Epoch Winery, York Mountain AVA


Epoch’s red wines are unfiltered and weigh in at a hefty sun-kissed 15.7-16.2% abv. Our tasting included five wines: a deliciously complex 2012 white Rhone blend of Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Roussanne easily earning 92 points from Wine Advocate; 2012 Grenache-predominant rose the color of summer in Provence; one of Wine Spectator’s top-25 global picks for 2013, a 2010 Syrah blend that includes 7% Tempranillo; a 2010 GSM blend called “Ingenuity” that will make wine-with-chocolate lovers very happy; and a muscular 100% Syrah from Block B (2010) that for years to come will be sure to please lucky buyers of this small production wine aged 22 months in new French oak.

It was probably inevitable that the Rhone Ranger movement would attract French investors to Paso Robles. The geological and climatic conditions were near-perfect to plant and nurture the 40 different Rhone and Languedoc varieties, both white and red, grown and preserved by Tablas Creek Winery.

Tablas Creek Vineyards, Paso Robles (winery website)

Tablas Creek Vineyards, Paso Robles (winery website)


In 1989, when there were only 17 wineries in Paso Robles, the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape launched an American venture with their US importer, Robert Haas. Tablas Creek is an important commercial nursery as well as wine producer, ensuring that somewhat obscure legacy varieties such as Tennat and Counoise survive and thrive on American rootstock in a “library” of healthy vines.

Now one of about 230 Paso Robles wineries, Tablas Creek enjoys preeminent pioneer status producing 20,000 cases of wine a year from 110 acres of active vineyard estate property. Our tasting included six wines: Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2012, a fresh and lively blend of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne; flagship Roussanne-predominant Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2011) which also includes Picpoul Blanc; a 100% Mourvedre, which is surprisingly the winery’s most widely planted variety; and three 2011 GSM wines that also blend in the spicy Counoise grape to varying degrees — a rustic Patelin de Tablas (“country neighborhood”), the elegant Esprit de Tablas and the well balanced Cotes de Tablas.

Russell P. From's "inner geek" (winery website)

Russell P. From’s “inner geek” (winery website)


Moving from historic and refined to fresh, new, wild and wooly we experienced the Herman Story Winery. And it is an experience! This geeky high school photo, soon to be a bottle label, says it all.

Tucked away in an innocuous commercial area just off Highway 101, Herman Story is magic once you step inside the doors. Although the tasting room is closed on Wednesdays, thanks to a personal introduction from Casa Dumetz’s Sonja Magdevski, we were welcomed with open arms by tasting room manager Chris. As we headed to the tasting room through the main area of the production and aging room, in a small but serviceable kitchen a big guy was mixing up a bowl of meatloaf and rocking to blaring music. To be honest, it didn’t register that this was Russell P. From (RPF for short), Herman Story’s winemaker! After light coaxing to shift the music to Meatloaf, we earned an invitation to (help prepare) and stay for lunch with the staff.

Clockwise L-R Grandpa Herman Story, RFP and Lesa Johnson cooking lunch, Chris starting the wine tasting, 2011 "Casual Encounters" GSM, Desparada 2012 "Visitor" Chardonnay & 2011 "The Purist" Cab

Clockwise L-R
Grandpa Herman Story, RFP and Lesa Johnson cooking lunch, Chris starting the wine tasting, 2011 “Casual Encounters” GSM, Desparada 2012 “Visitor” Chardonnay & 2011 “The Purist” Cab


RPF has been making wine in Paso Robles for quite some time. Herman Story winery, named for RPF’s grandfather, is about 3 years old. A photo of grandpa hangs at the end of the tasting bar so that he can join in the fun every day.

In a unique move, all of Russell’s red wines are the same price ($48 in the next release). There is a wine club, but don’t get excited. There’s a waiting list to get regular shipments of Herman Story’s relatively small production of 4,500 cases per year. Russell also provides the production facilities for his girlfriend, Vailia Esh, who produces Chardonnay and Cabernet as Desparada wines.

Our tasting of six wines included these two Desparada and four from Herman Story. A 2011 called “The Newsman” on RPF’s previous label was a flavorful Rhone blend of Marsanne with 25% Roussanne and Viognier. Next was Desparado Chardonnay, initially served too cold, but in being able to sip it occasionally over a period of two plus hours, the beautiful pure fruit essence of a lightly oaked Chardonnay was revealed.

Heading into the tasting of reds, let me say this only once: Russell From is a big guy, and he loves big wines.

The fruit for Herman Story’s “Casual Encounters” GSM comes from 12 vineyards. The grapes are a co-fermented, so the blend is decided first. The recipe is consistently 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 20% Mourvedre. Rated 92 by Wine Spectator, this wine is dark and savory, lots of extraction, but surprisingly subtle for 15.2% abv.

My personal favorite was the 2011 “Nuts & Bolts” 100% Syrah sourced from 7 vineyards. It is a complex wine, big fruit on the nose with savory herb and bacon notes on the palate and a very long finish. Might I add that it was excellent with meatloaf?! This wine was rated 93 by Wine Advocate. Our final red from Herman Story was “The Signmaker” 2010, 70% Cabernet from Paso and 30% Syrah from Santa Ynez. After an extra year of bottle age prior to release, the smooth wine was opaque, nearly black, offering perfumed notes of dark black fruit, chocolate, cassis and oak spices. The finish was endless.

We closed the tasting with Desparada’s “The Purist,” a 100% Cab sourced from two vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley. Only 50 cases were made! The 2011 is tight, still needs time for tannins to relax and integrate, but interesting flavors of smoke, licorice and eucalyptus will no doubt yield to a deep fruit palate.

Stories of the Vine: Tuscan Icon Warms Up Cold Night

Posted by Amy Neyer, CSW, WSET Advanced Certified

I admit it. The prospect of staying in the comfort of my warm house with a mug of hot tea and a stack of Decanter magazines was almost too tempting during last Monday’s Polar Vortex redux.

Happily, I’m really glad I didn’t or I would have missed a lovely tasting experience with noted Tuscan winemaker Paolo De Marchi, who was welcomed to Cincinnati with some of the coldest weather in decades. The event, sponsored by wineCRAFT, a local boutique importer of well-crafted Italian wines, featured De Marchi at the Mercantile Library, a perfect venue for informative stories of around the themes of authenticity and history.

If you don’t know of De Marchi and his legendary status in Italian winemaking (with a focus on Tuscany and some Piedmont), you’re not alone. Devotees of Chianti and other wine geeky folks will tell you that De Marchi’s reputation is grounded in a very Old World approach to making wine and his dedication to making classic Chianti wines which rely most heavily on Sangiovese and other indigenous grapes instead of a bolder, modern approach. You can learn more about De Marchi here and here.

With his gentle manner and subtle humor, De Marchi entertained the sold-out crowd of 120 or so with personal stories about the launch and evolution of his family’s vineyards, his approach to wine and on the state of affairs within Italian and Tuscan wine regulatory environments.

Among his most notable (and refreshing) observations:

- “I hate the word ‘winemaker.’ Wine is made by soil, climate and variety (of grape). There is no translation in Italy for winemaker.”

- “Use varieties for what’s made best.”

- “My wine rules are simple. If you make bad wine and add bad blend. You get bad blend. Think before blending.”

- “It’s difficult to make red wine from white grapes.”

- “Appellation rules are written looking to the a past that doesn’t exist anymore.”

- “If I don’t like it, it’s impossible to sell.”

The Mercantile event was the first of several stops De Marchi made during his visit to Cincinnati, which is increasingly attracting notable winemakers. Last fall brought the arrival of Andre Hueston Mack, former French Laundry sommelier and owner/winemaker at Oregon-based Mouton Noir, and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards family, a high quality Pinot Noir producer, at the forefront of the New California wine movement.

The tasting featured six wines from both the family’s Isole e Olena property, located in central Chianti, and Proprieta Sperino from their property in Piedmont.

The Isole e Olena line-up ranged from a very fresh Chardonnay to an earthy Syrah, which he was among the first to bring to Chianti. His featured wines, however, were grounded in the classic grape of Tuscany – Sangiovese – and featured a traditional Chianti Classico and one of his most notable wines, Cepparello. De Marchi intentionally sells Cepparello - which he considers his purest expression of Sangiovese – under the lower IGT designation (versus a higher level of quality designation). De Marchi rather the wine, made of 100% Sangiovese, compete in a lower designation with more traditional varieties than have it compete with other Chianti wines blended in a Bordeaux style, allowed under Italian wine regulations.

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The featured wines from Proprieta Sperino included Uvaggio, a Nebbiolo-dominant blend that included indigenous grapes of Vespolina and Croatina and Lessona, comprised of 100% Nebbiolo, a wonderful expression of the grape featuring a granite-driven minerality.

The De Marchi event also featured a few familiar faces from the Cincinnati wine community, who were on hand to lend expertise at the tasting stations, as well as enjoy the wines from a seminal Tuscan winemaker. While beer is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance here, it’s hopeful to see the makings of a much-needed local wine community show itself to the community as well.

Domaine Michel Lafarge, Volnay

Domaine Lafarge

Domaine Michel Lafarge, 15 rue de la Combe, Volnay.


Finding Domaine Lafarge started off as an uncertain conquest! The charming village of Volnay is quite hilly with narrow winding streets. As if the natural challenge of finding rue de la Combe wasn’t enough, it turned out that the street was undergoing major road repair. After seeking guidance from two different sympathetic residents, we finally found the boulangerie recommended for parking, yet still needed several passes up and down the street to skirt the construction equipment and locate #15. I believe it to be true that 99% of potential visitors would have absolutely no idea that lurking behind the doors of what appears to be a normal residence is a winemaking operation complete with a c. 13th century cellar!

Street repair on rue de la Combe in Volnay.

Street repair on rue de la Combe in Volnay.


Domaine Lafarge was established in the early 19th century. The family members who have given the winery its current shape include current proprietors Frederic and his father Michel, and grandfather Henri who is well known in local winemaking for blending Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes (passetoutgrain). Frederic is the winemaker. In 2000, the farm was converted to biodynamic (not certified) farming.

The estate includes 15 different wines from 12 hectares of vines mostly in Volnay plus Meursault and Beaune. In email exchanges prior to our arrival, M. Lafarge cautioned that 2012 and 2013 vintages had been very challenging for the winery. We learned during our visit that a mistral and hail storms damaged 80% of the 2012 vintage, and 65% of 2013. Understandably, we would not be able to try a barrel sample.

Most generous under the circumstances to share library wines as well as the story of the winery’s provenance, M. Lafarge led us into the seven-centuries old cellar past bottles so coated in (beneficial) mold that they looked like skunks!

Cellar dating to 13th century at Domaine Lafarge.

Cellar dating to 13th century at Domaine Lafarge.


Our tasting included two 2010 whites and two reds. The Cote Chalonnaise and southern areas of the Cotes de Beaune are successful in growing the Aligote grape. One of Domaine Lafarge’s Aligote wines is called “Raisins Dores” because the vines are 75 years old and the grapes are golden at harvest and in the glass. We found the wine to be light and refreshing, perfect as an aperitif. More recent vintages are available in the U.S. for about $20.

We viewed the domaine’s Meursault wine as a pure fruit expression of Chardonnay, more straightforward than complex, lightly oaked and ready to drink now, though it will continue to develop well in the bottle for another 3-5 years. Available in the U.S. for about $55.

Frederic Lafarge

Harry and Ann Santen with Frederic Lafarge.


The first of two reds was a 2007 Volnay (village) wine. Still quite tart and tannic, we thought the wine has good potential but needs more time before it is ready to drink. The character of a Volnay rouge tends to be more elegant with silky tannins, and this one was not quite fully integrated. Expert wine raters such as Jancis Robinson accorded the 2007 a good rating of 17/20 points. Available in the U.S. for about $60.

Saving the very best for last, M. Lafarge shared a 2006 Volnay premier cru “Clos des Chenes,” which he declared to have been an excellent vintage. He owns one hectare of this vineyard, which makes D. Lafarge the largest owner. The wine is just beginning to open up, revealing the elegance and fine tannins of which a Volnay wines are capable. Wine raters ranging from Wine Enthusiast to Jancis Robinson were divided in their assessment of this wine, which retails for $125-150 in the U.S. We thought it was delicious, so I hope you will try to find it in the market, in a restaurant, or by tapping into a friend’s cellar! Drink now through 2018.

U.S. importer: Martin Scott Wines