Monthly Archives: February 2014

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

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

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.


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.