Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Site Redesign

Hi everyone. This is a quick note for those still reading this version of the blog or getting this on feed - I have revamped the site and it is now available only through http://www.justgrapeswine.com so please update your account accordingly if you wish to still receive updates & read the blog. Cheers and thanks for all the support!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Domaine Weinbach Muscat Reserve 2004

Somehow, with luck and a touch of knowledge I find myself consistently educated and challenged by French wines. One of the most exciting journeys in wine appreciation is that from generalization into particularity - that moment you realize the true singularity of great wines and the futility of universalizing or objectifying one's love for such a temporal creation. It can be easy in the early days of many wine drinkers to write off certain grapes or even regions and instead rely on the tried and true, the gatekeepers or the reliable. But the first moment one experiences a truly great version of something previously written off is a revelatory experience. And, it is just such experiences that us wine geeks seek to replicate, or return to, as much as possible. The irony is that this nostalgia, which precipitates passion, dedication and even a little obsession, is itself the pursuit of a particular moment that will never return. Rather, it is that very instance of particularity where a glass of wine becomes a perfect moment that is itself the joy and the truth of what wine is and what it means.

Having previously 'written off' many a muscat, I knew I could turn to Weinbach for a reeducation. This wine had a floral and honeyed nose with candied orange, grapefruit and peach promising quite a ripe and rich experience. The palate, however, was dry, and its peach and nectarine flavours acompanied hints of orange blossom and light honeysuckle notes. This wine is very long in the mouth, very layered, and very complex on the mid-palate. While there may be leaner and more austere versions of Muscat out there, this ripe and fruity version is presented with both balance and varietal authenticity and is a superb Alsatian white that without a doubt has its own sense of particularity.

$40 at Marquis Wine Cellars

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Costs of Youth, The Price of Quality: Building BC's Wine Industry

In a recent piece I wrote on La Stella winery I lamented the price of British Columbia wines and put out a general request for information as to why the prices of BC produced wine seem so high. A few enthusiastic responses from various industry types prompted me to do some real research and get to the bottom of the pricing enigma. After some digging I found not only some very enlightening answers, but also real insight into the BC wine industry and its struggle for identity, quality, and market share.

To understand where BC is now we have to understand a little about where it came from. Before the ratification of the NAFTA and GATT trade agreements, British Columbia only had a handful of wineries making very low-quality wine from strange varieties of grapes. The recent international exposure of the "Cellared In Canada" controversy by Jancis Robinson actually harkens back to this pre "free trade" era in wine where it was common practice for local wine makers to blend internationally sourced fruit with Canadian fruit and a 'dash' of water and sell the resulting wine as a British Columbia or Ontario product.

With the advent of the Vinters Quality Alliance (VQA), which guarantees the origin of Canadian wines, BC wine producers started to focus more on quality and less on quantity and a quick buck. What the free trade agreements did was bring competition into the province and prompt the government to fund the uprooting of the old vines and the planting of the Vitis Vinifera varieties from Europe (Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.). Within the last 20 years or so the number of wineries in BC has exploded into the hundreds because of the modernization forced by the trade agreements. In fact, it is likely that we owe the breadth of our wine industry to the competition brought into the province from other countries. This competition forced old wineries to focus more on quality and gave a good reason for new wineries to fill the niche of quality 100% BC grown wines.

But this is only the beginning of the journey. Over the last two decades wineries have had to experiment, mostly on their own dime, in discovering how best to express the local 'terroir', or soil and climate conditions. What grapes grow best where? What are the best single vineyard sites and which plots have better potential for growing blending grapes? What are vineyard 'best practices' and what sort of winemaking techniques work for what sort of wines? And, the ultimate question, what is the best way for BC to find its vinous identity?

BC has yet to find its parallel to Oregonian Pinot Noir or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. As a young wine region it is still experimenting with varieties and styles. And, this experimentation is expensive. While there are some government programs to aid in the creation of biodynamic farming and some research, the costs of figuring out the best grapes, the best plots, and the best clones are largely shouldered by the wineries. Unlike a region such as Bordeaux, BC wineries do not have hundreds of years of tradition to rely on and capital costs have not been borne by their ancestors.

Beyond the research issue there are three distinct reasons for the higher prices of BC wines: land prices, climate, and labour costs.

Land Prices

Land in the Oakanagan is expensive, very expensive. According to Rasoul Salehi, executive director of the Enotecca group of wineries, "a decent vineyard in Oliver, osoyoos and naramata goes for 150-180K per acre". Bradley Cooper, winemaker for Township 7 and producer of his own Black Cloud wine, says "prices start in the 90K/acre [range] and go up from there. Recently, some vineyards were being offered for close to 120K/acre." Comparatively, vineyards in South America or Australia cost as low as $5000 an acre, and even the best sites can be purchased for $50k an acre. Sonoma County vineyards, with their beautifully sunny climate, old vines and established reputation, can be purchased for between $70k to $90k per acre. Even next door in Washington state it is possible to buy vineyard land for $10k to $20k per acre. And, lest we forget, many of the wineries in Europe have been passed on from generation to generation within the same family, meaning the land was bought and paid for a long time ago.

What are the reasons for this high cost? Pressure from the retirement community, who see the Okanagan as a choice retirement destination, drives land prices up. Furthermore, there just isn't as much land available in BC for vine growing due to natural conditions. Thus, despite my earlier skepticism about land prices, clearly they do play an important role influencing the prices that BC wineries have to charge in order to turn a profit.


Ask anyone in the world about Canada and their first response is usually some unclever remark about the cold weather. However, as Canadians we do understand the truth of this reputation for, even with its moderate climate by Canadian standards, lower British Columbia still has short growing seasons and the interior sees frost and snow earlier than any other wine region in the world. As Mr. Salehi explains, "harsh winters kill many vines that require replanting and it's not [so] simple that you take old vines out and you put new ones in. There is much more to it than that."

Labour Costs

Unlike South America where labour costs are extremely low, or even California where many wineries use illegal Mexican immigrants to reduce labour costs, the cost of labour in BC is very high. Casual labour in BC costs about $13-$15 an hour compared to perhaps $5 an hour for an illegal immigrant labourer. At La Stella, Mr. Salehi explains that "in our particular case we hand pick in 30 lb picking bins and then double sort the fruit as opposed to dump the 1 ton macro bin into crusher and then tank. As a result we employ 14-16 people paid 13-15 dollars and we process 1 ton of fruit in 1.5 to 2 hours as opposed to process it like a typical winery that takes 10 minutes to process 1 ton, with 1 person not 14-16." What does this mean? Making better wine is more labour intensive and requires more attention to detail. The result? Higher costs and, accordingly, higher prices.

Other Considerations

I've written about the legal framework that governs BC's antiquated liquor distribution and licensing system, but I have not stated clearly enough how this impacts BC wineries. You might wonder why you can only get the best BC wines in private stores, VQA stores or directly from the winery but not at your local BCLDB. This sad situation exists because if BC wineries want to distribute their wines through the BCLDB stores, their customers will have to pay the extraordinary markup of 117% that BCLDB forces on all other wines they sell. By avoiding the stores, wineries can offer better prices to their customers. But at the cost of what? At the cost of distribution and exposure to the huge number of people who either don't go to private stores or don't even have the option to. Is this fair or reasonable? Isn't the BC government supposed to support its wineries and not make it difficult and absurd to sell them at the government run liquor stores?

[NB CORRECTION: The BCLDB forces BC wineries to deeply discount sales to the BCLDB in order for them to acquire that 117% markup. Thus, wineries make more money selling to private stores, and if they want to sell through the BCLDB they have to either absorb the loss or increase the price of their wines. See Paul Rickett's comment at the end of article for more details.]

Furthermore, because of the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act it is illegal for BC wineries to ship their wines across provincial borders and sell to consumers in other provinces. Al Hudec of the BC law firm Farris explains the legalities of this in his article "Reforming Canada's Wine laws" where he states:

"Canada’s liquor laws are an 80 year hangover from the end of prohibition. They rigidly regulate every aspect of wine production, bottling, packaging, labeling, pricing, advertising and shipping. Canada’s federal Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, enacted in 1928, gives provincial liquor control boards monopolistic power and control over the importation, inter-provincial shipment, distribution and retailing of wine in Canada. Under this law, a friend from Calgary can share a glass of pinot gris on the patio overlooking Burrowing Owl’s vineyards in the south Okanagan Valley, but if she takes a bottle of Burrowing Owls’ highly acclaimed merlot back home across the British Columbia- Alberta border, she commits a federal offense. Similarly, a colleague in Toronto breaches federal law by purchasing a case of Quail’s Gate proprietor’s reserve pinot noir or Heidi Noble’s Joie Noble Blend on the internet for shipment to Ontario."
This ludicrous situation exists because of an outdated bureaucracy that is more interested in protecting itself and its myopic views of how to build revenue than growing a local industry, creating an efficient modern distribution and licensing network, and probably in the end increasing the revenue poured back into government coffers. Why wouldn't we want to reform this system? I hope for the sake of BC wineries that change is on the horizon.


Given the industry's youth, the lack of old vines, time-tested methods and agricultural practices, and its massive start-up costs I can fairly say that I now understand why BC wines are so expensive. For me, even if competition from around the world is making better wine for better prices, understanding the challenges faced by the BC wine industry adds a level of depth and complexity that would otherwise be missing. And, even if pursuit of quality is expensive, I still believe that the industry cannot rest on its laurels or simply on local pride. Instead, it should aspire for more and always push to make the best wine possible for the best prices. With time, practices and techniques will improve, capital costs will be recovered and, hopefully, prices will drop. However, to achieve this goal, BC wineries really need a modernization of the liquor distribution system in the province, and the opportunity to sell and market their wine to Canadians who do not live in British Columbia. Doing so will help create a reputation for the industry and will further push quality improvements and price reductions. The more consumers are aware of the challenges and speak vocally about modernizing BC's antiquated distribution and licensing system, the better chance there is that BC's wine industry will not only continue to prosper, but will grow into an internationally respected brand.

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." ~Albert Einstein

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Smith Woodhouse Vintage Port 1980

1980, my birth year. I'm not sure I should be admitting that, but I suppose it's still within a reasonable distance from the present. 1980 was, it seems, a pretty good year for port, and while I was saving this for some occasion or another, my recent experience with heat damage prompted a 'what the hell' pop open of this very intriguing bottle.

The nose was a little toasty, but also had currant, raisins, and dried cherry. While at first I thought the alcohol on the wine was a bit forward and unbalanced, with a little air everything seemed to settle into place and this turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. For those who haven't tasted older vintage port, with time the youthful vigour and intensity gives way to subtle layering, moderate tannin and great delineated expression of flavours that, when young, are often lost in the density of the wine.

With this Smith Woodhouse I tasted cherry, blueberry, chocolate, wood, fig, strawberry, burnt caramel, bergamot, and cigar. The level of complexity was impressive and the fact that such distinct flavours expressed themselves to a moderate palate such as my own was quite exciting. I was also shocked by the level of juicyness in the port, despite its leathery and dried fruit character. Even compared to other older vintage ports, this was a special bottle, and not really over the top in terms of pricing. Port fans owe themselves a sip.

$50 at BCLDB

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

2006 Bordeaux Lunch and Tasting

Marquis wine cellars here in Vancouver occassionally hosts wine lunches with winemakers or regional themes, with this summer's big tatsing being the 2006 Bordeaux release here in BC. Now, for any American readers out there this may seem out of date, but unfortunately our BC distribution system means that we tend to see wines anywhere up to 1 year after the US market. My only hope is that they aren't languishing in some warehouse somewhere in the mean time.

In any case, the lunch at the Wedgewood Hotel featured three courses paired with seven wines and with another five wines from other vintages to taste after the meal - i.e. a lot of wine. As a brief note, the food was mediocre, but the 2006's were a pleasure to taste, if not decidedly almost all too young to drink now. Interestingly, most of the 2006's had a very similar flavour profile. What distinguished them was structure, integration, acidity and fruit density. All the wines are available at Marquis Wine Cellars.

2006 Bordeauxs

2006 Chateau Cantermerle, Haut Médoc

A nose of blackberry, graphite, lead and raspberry and a palate drinking well right now with wood/cedar, bright raspberry and cassis, chocolate and mint.

Very Good+

2006 Chateau Gloria, St. Julien

This nose was more closed than the Cantermerle, but offered suggestions of black fruits. The palate again was more backwards and tight than the previous wine and had a fair degree of acidity. I got cedar, chocolate and casis with potential for solid aging on the mid-palate.

Very Good+

2006 Chateau Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux

This is where the wines started to show their youth and tightness a bit too much. The nose here had blackberry, mint and stone and the palate was quite modern and smooth with cassis, caramel, and mocha. This is a sweeter and richer style of Bordeaux and will please those looking for a more modern styled wine. Perhaps a bit too rich/sweet for my tastes.

Very Good

2006 Chateau Grand-Pur-Lacost, Pauillac

The coffee-like nose led into a nice up front blackberry taste and fairly bright acidity on the palate. Along with the coffee, this also tasted a bit like wood along with the dark fruits. Drinking fairly well right now, but I would not pay this for a wine to drink it so young. In need of age.

Very Good+ to Excellent

2006 Chateau Cos d'Estournel, St. Estephe

The big-boy of the tasting, and the biggest wine too. There was incredible density and structure in this wine and, while way too tight right now, in my mind this will be the best of them all with age. The nose was a bit funky and again had black fruits predominating. A classic palate of cedar and cassis, there was tons of mid-palate fruit which is a good sign of the wine's aging potential.


2006 Chateau Coutet, Barsac

Barsac is part of the Sauternes region and thus this was a dessert wine. The nose here had lots of candied grapefruit and some pear and apple. The palate continued those flavours along with tons of candied orange and lemon. In the end, this is tarter and lighter than your standard Sauternes. While very tasty, I didn't find this as complex as other Sauternes I've had and the 2006 vintage doesn't seem to taste nearly as good in Sauternes as 05.

Very Good+
$50 / 375ml

2006 Chateau Suduiraut, Sauternes

One of my favourites from the 2005 vintage, the 2006 was sweeter and balanced a little less well. Nonetheless, it was still very tasty with pear, nectarine and peach flavours predominating. I also love this wine's thick but silky texture, which is not too sticky or cloying while also being quite huge and expressive. This will definitely get better with some age.

$65 / 375ml

Other Vintages

2004 Chateau Belle-Vue, Haut Médoc

Dropping down a level with this wine, I was not all that impressed. A nose of graphite and blackberry, and again on the palate with some cedar. The acid on this wine tasted out of balance tome and the tannins were somewhat too forceful.


2005 Chateau Les Gravieres, St. Emillon

Getting better was this wine with its blackberry and caramel nose. More interesting was the palate of forest floor, blackberry and wood. I enjoyed the firm mid-palate acidity and solid ageable structure. Not the best '05 though.

Very Good to Very Good+

2005 Clos du Marquis, St. Julien

Clos du Marquis is always one of my 'good buy' wines of Bordeaux. The second wine of famed Leoville Las Cases, the Clos is made in a very different style - more modern and fruit driven and immediately expressive. Nonetheless, this also has incredible aging potential and will probably be drinking great in another 10 to 15 years. The nose on this had cured meat and lots of density to the fruit. The slight graphite edge got overwhelmed on the palte with its heavy dose of blackberry and raspberry fruit along with a little pepper. This wine has wonderful balance and structure and amazing integration.

Very Good+ to Excellent

2001 Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere, St. Emillon

This may have been the wine of the night for me and it shows how much Bordeaux needs to age. I'm sure many of the wines tasted earlier would defeat this in a blind if they had as much age, this was just showing beautifully at the tasting. The nose was smooth and expressive and the palate impressed with its game, blackberry, cedar, eucalyptus, coffee and overall superb expression.


2005 Chateau Rieussec, Sauternes

One of the big-boy Sauternes of the 2005 vintage, this was huge: pear, nectarine and lemon curd on the nose. The palate was all creme brulée, with hints of lemon curd, meringue, and jasmine tea. As with all the 05 sauternes I've had this had fantastic acidic lift to prevent palate fatigue. Acid in my mind is what makes dessert wine work, and this got the balance right.

Excellent to Excellent+
$85 / 375ml

My conclusions after this brief excursion into 2006 Bordeaux is that the wines are very good, are not as approachable as the 2005's right now, but will also be ready to consume at their full potential earlier. This is a good bargain vintage and if you choose the right wines I have no doubt you will be rewarded in 10 years time.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Darioush Signature Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Darioush has one of the most over-the-top buildings in Napa Valley and has garnered a bit of a reputation as a happy-hour stop by. Despite this, they still make good wine. I have heard complaints that Darioush wines are over-oaked, but I can't say I feel that is the case here. This was the first of my heat-damaged wines that I started opening this summer in hopes they were still alive, and this flavourful Napa cab happily drank fantastically.

The nose gave up spice, cherry, chocolate, and plum. The palate was supple and elegantly balanced with raspberry, black cherry, baking spice, violet and molten chocolate. The long finish also tasted like graphite and cedar-box. I loved the soft texture of the wine and the nice long drawn flavours, but the midpalate was a bit linear. This is a very fruit driven and fleshy wine, but it also has fine tannins and elegance. Really just a great flavourful and well integrated Napa cab.

$115 at BCLDB

Monday, August 31, 2009

Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2007

California is not known for sauvignon blanc, and what it does produce gets very mixed reviews. Seemingly unable to find a niche, like New Zealand and its zesty citrus driven SB's or Sancerre and its mineral-laced wines, many California wineries treat Sauvignon Blanc too much like chardonnay. What this means is too much oak and too much opulence for a wine that should be acidic and refreshing. With all the sun that the state gets, however, it can be tough to find the right balance. Spottswoode, a Napa producer known more for their elegant Cabernet Sauvignons, is one of the few that gets it right.

How do they do it? First of all, this wine sees only a brief touch of oak, and is picked relatively early in the growing season. Instead of dominant oak, this is fermented in steel vats and concrete eggs, the former allowing the natural acidities of the wine to show and the latter making the fruit rounder and lusher without the flavour profile that oak imparts. The final result? A wine with tons of citrus fruit on the nose, but also grass, stone and clay. The palate is wonderfully full bodied, but also amazingly spritely given the intensity of the fruit. The finish is long and clay-like, suggesting this wine could find a place between New Zealand and Sancerre. And, what did it taste like? Orange, grapefruit, stone, and a slight edge of that distinctive cat's pee taste SB fans know and love. This is a wine that lifts the palate upwards before drawing it back into a carefully structured and lengthy climax, and is perhaps my favourite Sauvignon Blanc from the US. Woth every penny.

$54 at Marquis

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Brancaia Tre 2006

Brancaia is a Tuscan producer with an interesting array of proprietary blends including the illustrious "blu". The Tre - a blend of sangiovese, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon - is their entry level wine and I suppose could be equated to a Rosso or a basic Chianti with its nose of herbs, forward spicy underbrush, cherry fruit and a bit of earth. This wine is surely made for easy drinking with its very soft, almost plush, palate of cherry, blackberry, earth and spice. Overall, simple, pleasant, balanced, but boring - very boring. Unfortunately, in the end I think this is not worth the money and doesn't taste like much more than a decent Chianti Classico.

$30 ($23 on sale) at BCLDB

Friday, August 28, 2009

Mer Soleil "Silver" Chardonnay 2006

Mer Soleil, Caymus' chardonnay project in the Santa Lucia Highlands, has been making superb wines for some time now. The Mer Soleil regular "gold" bottling is an oak-aged chardonnay that, while opulent, is also balanced and elegant. The "silver" - new in the BC market - is their unoaked chardonnay and is certainly also made with balance in mind.

The nose on this chard has nuts, caramel, butter, peaches and cream, pineapple, and banana sundae like you would expect from many California chardonnays. The palate continues the ripe and rich fruit with peach, pineapple, and coconut / pina colada. However, even with all the flavour this has great balance and fresh acidity. Texturally leaner and sharper on the palate than the oaked chard, this also makes the "silver" even more food friendly and perhaps more suitable for a hot day. While in California chardonnay abounds, quality balanced chardonnays are a bit harder to find. And, while if I were in the US I could recommend quite a few other very good chards at this price point, this is perhaps the best (or close to) California Chardonnay in BC for $35. As such, I highly recommend it for new world chard fans.

Very Good+
$35 at BCLDB

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

San Francisco Profile: Boulevard Restaurant

My final delight at the Wine Bloggers Conference was a dinner at San Francisco's Boulevard Restaurant, which I believe was awarded a Michelin star in the most recent guide. California American cuisine with a French backbone defines the style of this place, and its beautiful view of the bay bridge provides an appropriately Californian backdrop to the wonderful food on offer. I had a three course meal, including some nice Vouvray from Domaine Huet, and the wine list is well selected with a good range of styles and prices and mostly small producers both by the glass and the bottle.

Course 1: Short Rib Tortellini

Served with shaved summer truffle and squash and potato puree, this impressive appetizer had extremely decliate flavours, even with the short ribs. The thoughtful layering of flavour lay a nice foundation for the robust short ribs, which certainly gave the dish a nice punch when paired with the perfectly al dente pasta. I also appreciated how the creamy potatoes were coupled with crunchy diced cubes of squash, with the contrasting texture providing a little intrigue to the dish.

Course 2: Shrimp and Lobster with Seabass

Cooked with tomato, chili spice and some fresh crunchy beans, this dish again showed great attention to texture and subtle flavour combinations. While many think of sea bass as overwhelmingly rich, the fish in this dish was subtle and in no way over buttered or creamed. Rather, a light grilling highlighted the fish's fresh oils and how light its texture can be in the mouth - really bringing out the essence of the bass. Again, the beans and peas add great crunch and it is clear the chef here has great textural awareness. The lobster and shrimp were presented in a simple and pure form that brought out the umami flavours in the bass. This is a great dish with amazingly layered flavours and a very subtle spice kick. Really quite a brilliant dish.

Course 3: Panna Cotta

If all Panna Cotta tasted this good we'd all be the size of Italian opera stars. Plated with seasonal nectarines and raspberries, this was also served with perhaps the best sorbet I've ever tasted and a thoughtfully prepared baklava. The panna cotta itself had some impressively high quality vanilla beans ground into it: so pure and expressive with the perfect texture. The honey drizzled artfully on top added some intriguing floral elements to the dish. The sorbet was made with fresh nectarines and putting a spoonful in your mouth could be equated to eating a cloud. I've never tasted such light texture but such full flavour with sorbet before. The baklava was very high quality, with freshly cracked nuts and a floral and very fragrant honey. The pastry itself was light and crisp all in all making for textbook baklava.

In the end, this restaurant pretty much blew me away - and I've been to some very impressive places in the Bay Area when I was living down there. If you live in San Francisco or are planning a trip in the near future I highly recommend a trip to Boulevard.

Monday, August 24, 2009

North Coast Pranqster

Made in a Belgian blonde ale style, this very well crafted beer has become my new standby blonde. Pouring with a murky and yeasty colour, this beer has a pleasant deep straw colour and a small but persistent head. The nose has apple, banana, tropical fruits and cream, while the palate is filled with tropical fruits and is rich and full with an opulent creamy texture. This is a flavourful blonde ale with more richness than is standard from Belgium, and some interesting herbal bitterness on the finish. A highly drinkable beer, the Pranqster is food friendly for simple French or Belgian inspired fare.

Very Good
$10 / 4 pack of 333ml bottles at BCLDB (more at private stores)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Apollonio Copertino 2001

Having recently tried and loved the Apollonio Valle Cupa, it was a simple decision to pick up this Negroamaro based wine from the Copertino DOC in Italy. With earth and highly extracted red fruit on the nose, this wine reminded me somewhat of 2003 southern Rhone wines, especially Gigondas, because of the heat combined with the rich red fruits and scorched earth notes.

While this wine has a rustic charm, it is also superbly concentrated and fruit driven with a nice soft texture. My biggest complaint here was the amount of heat on the back end of the wine, which made it somewhat fatiguing over time. Nonetheless it's still tasty for the price, although not quite the same quality as the Valle Cupa.

Very Good
$24 at BCLDB (note that this sells for as low as $11 in the US)

Friday, August 21, 2009

Oud Beersel Oud Geuze

Lambic is a kind of belgian beer made in a style with which most people are likely to be unfamiliar. Sour and tart on the palate, and often with funky, even bready, flavours, lambics can be an acquired taste for beer drinkers. However, these days sour beers inspired by the traditional Belgian lambics are becoming all the rage in the US microbrewing scene and have precipitated a wave of impressive beers from the likes of Russian River, Lost Abbey, etc.

However, even with all the excellent sours being made in the US, it is nice to go back to the source and try a traditional blended unflavoured geuze lambic (made from aged and young lambic and no added fruit). Further, given BC's severe lack of microbrews and interesting beers, it is nice to see a properly made (i.e. sour) gueze lambic on the shelves in the province.

This particular lambic had a nose with bread, funk, green apple, dry lager yeast, lemon and spice. The palate is sour, but also balanced with funky earth, must, bread and a ton of yeast flavours (kind of like rising bread smell). While not for all, this is a beer that anyone with an adventurous palate should taste and it is certainly an excellent authentic version of the Belgian lambic. And, as an added bonus, it pairs brilliantly with stilton cheese.

$9/375ml at Viti or Brewery Creek

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wine Law in British Columbia: Some Egregious Realities

The laws and regulations governining wine sales, distribution and importation in British Columbia are byzantine at best. Understanding them requires expert knowledge and a bit of suspension of disbelief. To understand wine law here in British Columbia you need to understand a few basics about the Canadian legal system. First, Canada is a federal system, which means that the Federal Government of Canada has jurisdiction over certain matters and the Provincial Governments have jurisdiction over others. Without getting into too many details, the provinces have jurisdiction over property and civil rights and the Federal Government has jurisdiction over interprovincial and international trade. When it comes to heavily imported consumer products such as wine, the two levels of government have overlapping jurisdiction. Hence, regulation of liquor in British Columbia is subject to two sets of laws: one provincial and one federal.

The Federal Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act dates back to the Prohibition. That's right, the prohibition. Despite the fact that we as Canadians have long progressed beyond the moral and economic myopia of the prohibition era, we are still governed by a statute created during that period. The fundamental problem with this act is really boiled down by section 3 (1), which reads:

"3. (1) Notwithstanding any other Act or law, no person shall import, send, take or transport, or cause to be imported, sent, taken or transported, into any province from or out of any place within or outside Canada any intoxicating liquor, except such as has been purchased by or on behalf of, and that is consigned to Her Majesty or the executive government of, the province into which it is being imported, sent, taken or transported, or any board, commission, officer or other governmental agency that, by the law of the province, is vested with the right of selling intoxicating liquor."

To translate the legalese: it is illegal to import liquor into any province unless it has been purchased on behalf of the government of Canada or the government of the province into which it is being imported. In British Columbia, the government has delegated this task to the governmental agency known as the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) and the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, the bane of most BC wine drinker's existence. The BCLDB is granted its authority and prerogative by the Liquor Distribution Act of British Columbia, which gives the branch the "sole right to purchase, both in and out of British Columbia, liquor for resale and reuse in British Columbia in accordance with the provisions of the Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act (Canada)" (s. 2(2)).

To control liquor in the province, the Liquor Distribution Act has banned consumers from owning any liquor unless it has been obtained from an authorized source. Again, that's right, it is illegal to own liquor in BC unless you have obtained it from a source authorized by the statute. These sources include: persons or entites authorized under the Liquor Control and Licensing Act (private stores, restaurants, and a few other exceptions), liquor held as "acquired liquor" by the manufacturer or the manufacturer's agent (hence the proliferation of agents in BC), liquor cleared and charged by customs for personal use, liquor manufactured in BC but not packaged for sale and still within the possession of the manufacturer (what I like to call the home brewer provision), and several other little exceptions we won't worry about here.

So, let's unpack all this bureaucratic nonsense.

1. Private Stores and Restaurants

The Liquor Control and Licensing Act authorizes the general manager of the BCLDB to grant licenses and permits to purchase liquor from the branch for resale and reuse. This is why most restaurant wine lists are boring - they all have to buy from the liquor stores and they cannot import wine on their own initiative. What serious sommelier wants to work in such a stilted environment for acquisition of liquor and building an amazing wine list? Not many, and it certainly doesn't make their job very easy. Also, the private liquor stores HAVE to buy from the BCLDB, which in turn buys from manufacturer's agents. Of course large established agents have a vested interest in keeping the system as it is and discouraging newcomers. They make more money if the selection is limited. Thus private stores buy from the same old same old agents and have the same crappy stock. That is, except for the few who have grandfathered importation licenses held by entites other than the store (it is illegal to import and retail at the same time) such as Marquis, Liberty and Kits Wine Cellars. Of course, with tax as it is, even these stores don't have many great bottles under $20 forcing, as John Clerides of Marquis asserted to me, the vast majority of BC wine drinkers to drink swill since the base price of most wines that end up being under $20 in the province is under $10 elsewhere. This makes it near impossible to support small producers, biodynamic producers, etc. within the mass-market, leaving them for the wealthy and the wine geeks only.

2. Manufacturer's and Their Agents

As I mentioned above, manufacturer's agents dominate the wine landscape in British Columbia. Many in the industry know this. However, what most people don't know is the crazy provision of the Liquor Distribution Act that governs these agents: section 6. Section 6 provides that the BC Government "holds title to" (i.e. owns) all liquor in the province as soon as it enters the province. This includes liquor imported by agents. Yes, another moment of astonishment. The BC government owns everything brought into the province even if they didn't pay for it. Not only that, but section 7 of the same act states that they are not liable for any loss, damage, theft, etc. of these products. So, the government regulates who can bring wine in, is declared legal owner of it, sets out where and how to distribute it, but will not take responsibility for it. Furthermore, subsection (3) states that the BC government acquires title to (owns) all liquor in the province that is bottled in commercial packaging. Thus, as soon as a brewer or winery bottles their product for resale, the government owns it. I will ignore the exemptions under the federal act for the purposes of this post.

So, how do the manufacturer's and their agents get paid? Well, luckily the government doesn't just steal the liquor outright. Instead, it pays the agents after it has sold the liquor at its stores or through its distribution channels. Furthermore, under sections 8 and 10 of the Liquor Distribution Act the government can require an agent or manufacturer to repurchase any liquor it wants them to. So, anyone importing liquor into BC has to be willing to assume the risk that they will be forced to repurchase the liquor from the branch. This is obviously a huge bar to any manufacturer, especially a small one, who wants to take a risk in a new market. The British Columbia market is run like a cartel that has not only monopoly power over an industry, but also the means to change the rules and enforce them with civil and criminal charges (i.e., in my opinion, brute force).

3. Customs

We've all been seriously annoyed at the 2 bottle personal exemption when bringing wine back into Canada. But few of us know the legal regime that supports this practice, for which we have to turn to section 19 of our best friend the Liquor Distribution Act. Under this section, a "casual importer" (you and me) must surrender all liquor to customs upon entering BC. Of course, remembering trusty section 6 we will remember that the BC government now owns the liquor we just brought into the province, and lest we forget, section 4 makes sure that it is illegal for us to own it unless we follow the procedures of section 19 and repurchase the liquor from the customs officer. That's right - if you bring in liquor into BC, you forfeit title to it and have to rebuy it from the government. Given our outrageous tax rates, this means bringing liquor into BC, even for the most avid personal collector who still spends tons of money on wine in the province, is an expensive pain in the ass that to my mind violates some pretty important property and economic rights.

The Constitution

Speaking of rights, let us consider how these three harsh situations play out under the Canadian Constitution. First of all, s. 121 of the Constitution Act states: "All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces." In other words, Canada is a free trade zone within itself. If a product is manufactured within a Canadian province no other province can charge duties against that product. This is all well and good in theory, but as the United States has taught us with their full faith and credit clause, it can take a lot of money and a lot of lawsuits to eliminate shipping bans between states for alcohol. Even after a string of constitutional cases that declared it illegal to discriminate against importing another state's wine, there are still many US states that ban the practice. So, what hope does Canada have? Well if one of the provincial governments charges a winery or individual for shipping wine across provincial borders and tries to fine or imprison them, a legally ambitious winery or individual might challenge the law on constitutional grounds and succeed. If that happened maybe the Federal government would reform its prohibition era statute and let Canada be the free-trade zone it should be.

The Charter

But what about bringing in liquor internationally? That's a more difficult situation and the federal government does ultimately have jurisdiction over international trade that courts will likely defer to more readily. However, what if someone were charged criminally for bringing in 3 bottles of wine for personal use without declaring them or paying tax? Section 7 of the Charter of Rights of Freedoms states: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice." This is obviously a very complex provision, but is it reasonable for an individual to be criminally charged because they wanted to enjoy a bottle of wine without paying extraordinary taxes on it? Is this an offense really worth a major fine or even imprisonment (for which the importation of intoxicating liquor act provides)? I can't answer this question, but to my mind, and perhaps I've been influenced by my stint studying Constitutional Law in the United States, to deprive someone of their liberty because they didn't pay tax on a few bottles of wine they are going to drink themselves is certainly not in accord with the principles of fundamental justice and is not, as section 1 of the Charter states, "demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society". While provincial governments continue to benefit from their extortionate tax rates on alcohol, particularly in BC, consumers, afficionados and wine geeks continue to pay a disproportinate amount of tax that goes straight into the general revenues of the province. Hence, you wine geeks out there are disproportionally funding the construction of roads, sewers, and even olympic structures. Does this make any sense in a society that is supposedly liberal and free? It certainly doesn't to me.

Some Wine

I cannot finish this post without quickly writing down my thoughts on the glass of wine that I consumed while writing this diatribe, a 2004 Kilikanoon Oracle Shiraz from the Clare Valley in Australia. This was a pretty inspiring wine and kept me writing with its amazing nose of spice, blueberry, sweet rich dark black fruits, vanilla, chocolate, nutmeg, and eggnog. Incredibly layered and expressive there is definitely french oak use here, but in a very refined way. The palate is simply stunning with amazing fruit concentration and flavours like blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, red delicious apple, dry baking spices, walnuts, chocolate, plums and plum skins. The finish is extremely long and complex while the wine has a surprisingly elegant texture for shiraz and superb balance. The fruit is very expressive, but not too pushy and the oak is a delicate (rather than brutish) backbone for the wine. One of the most complex shiraz's I've tasted. I only wish this wine could predict brighter futures for the BC wine consumer.

Excellent to Excellent+
$80 at BCLDB

Disclaimer: Any errors or omissions are my own. This article does not constitute legal advice.

Ridge Vineyards

My last wine-outing of the Wine Bloggers Conference was to none other than Ridge Vineyards, one of the mainstays of Sonoma County and perhaps the best zinfandel producer in California. In any case, they are the first winery in California to take zinfandel seriously and they are one of the very few who not only make zins with 'restraint' and a deft use of oak, but also with incredible aging potential. Furthermore, Ridge often uses field blends rather than pure zinfandels, which tends to provide more balance and layering on the palate.


Oltranti 2004

Made with 88% zinfandel, 10% carignane and 2% petite sirah, this was a classic big zin with a nose of stewed black fruit compote and mulling spices. The palate is, as Sean would say, slutty: plum, fig, and licorice predominate. This is raisinated and almost amarone like in taste with tons of stewed fruit notes.

Very Good+

Geyserville 2006

Here we have one of the classic Ridge zins that is widely available - even in British Columbia. With a nose of blue fruits and strawberry, on the palate the wine was briary, with earth and savory herbs. A very different expression of zin than above, and blended from 70% zinfandel, 18% carignane, 10% petite sirah and 2% mataro.

Very Good+

Lytton Springs 2006

Another widely available zinfandel, this had a funky, almost gamey nose to it. The palate had sharp acidity, with crushed berries, blackberry, and was super dry and tannic on the mid-palate. This has a lot of concentration and is quite a masculine zinfandel - I think ultimately in need of age.

Very Good

East Bench 2007

Made with 92% young zinfandel fruit and 8% petite sirah, this was certainly very youthful on the nose with citrus zest and mandarin orange. Again I found mandarin orange on the palate along with spice box and black pepper. I think the purity and liveliness of fruit found on young zinfandel can really be quite stunning when done right and I'd rank this up there with Turley's Juvenilles zin as an outstandingly fresh and flavourful effort. I could drink this pretty easily on a regular basis, especially for this price.


Dusi Ranch 2006

I am a huge fan of Paso Robles zinfandels, which tend to be quite massively endowed with fruit, but also usually have outstanding spice depth to them. This zin had sweet spice on the nose, almost like a festive cake or christmas pudding. The palate again reminded me of christmas, with baking spices, cloves, and orange. Even with all the fruit this is still nicely structured and the alcohol is very balanced. 100% zinfandel.

Very Good+

Other Grapes

Not to be pigeonholed, however, Ridge also makes outstanding wines from almost any variety of grape and perhaps make some of the best balanced chardonnay in california and one of the most finessed and elegant cabernets.

Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Chardonnay 2007

The 2005 vintage of this wine is one of my all-time favourite Californian chardonnays. This vintage had hazlenut on the nose, with apricot, peach, pineapple, and vanilla undertones. The palate was rounded and fresh with a linear delineation of its structure towards a thoughtful and balanced finish. This is not an over the top opulent chard, but it still has tons of flavour and fruit. Nicely done, although not quite up to the quality of the 2005.

Very Good to Very Good+

Monte Bello 2005

For those not in the know, Monte Bello is a somewhat legendary cabernet sauvignon blend that has been one of the most polished cabernet blend's in California consistently for decades. A blend of 70% cab, 22% merlot, 6% petit verdot, and 2% cabernet franc, this is what a great Bordeaux would taste like if it were made in Napa (terroir be damned ;)!) The nose is classic: eucalyptus, cedar, licorice, violets and more depth than any flavour descriptors could possibly convey. The palate is bright and up front, but also delicate with cedar edges, violets and cool black fruits. This is not only one of the best cabs being made in California, but a truly outstanding wine comparable to some of the finest in the world.


Ridge provided the perfect final sips to an excellent weekend journey through Napa and Sonoma that showed the sheer diversity of wines being produced in the two valleys and the fact that, despite some nay-sayers, there are still good values and wines with great personality to be had.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Apollonio Valle Cupa Salento Rosso IGT 2001

Somewhat off the traditional vinous road through Italy lies Apulia, a region in southeastern Italy within which one can find the Salento Rosso IGT. Essentially the heel of Italy's boot, Salento is an extremely dry region, with almost no precipitation in the summer and only about 500mm of rain per year. However, the limestone bedrock is permeable and therefore the region has abundant groundwater despite its dryness. It's an interesting region that most have likely never heard of and producer Apollonio is doing a fine job using indigenous grapes but producing in a fairly international style.

This particular wine is a blend of 50% primitivo (aka zinfandel) and 50% negroamaro, an indigenous grape. The nose was surprisingly modern with ripe cherries, chocolate, nuts, earth and baking spices. The fruit character was extremely rich, and yet more earthy and spicy than many zinfandels from the US. The palate was very interesting with cherry, blackberry, earth and mushroom. This was full bodied, but held solid acidity and certainly was very food friendly. Despite its internationalism, there is certainly a sense of 'terroir' here and interesting underlying characteristics that are more old than new world, such as the earthy components and higher acidity. This is a hybrid wine style that is absolutely fantastic value and worth seeking out.

Very Good+ and Highly Recommended Value
$20 at BCLDB

Friday, August 14, 2009

La Stella Winery

I don't get the opportunity to taste too many British Columbia wines, despite living in the province. I have been curious, however, about BC's potential as a wine growing region and I know this topic raises great debate and often ire between wine geeks, your everyday BC wine drinker, and the wineries themselves. Personally, I always hope a small region can make a name for itself, but I also believe that a name must be made on quality and not hype.

It is always difficult when drinking wines from one's own backyard to be completely objective - one usually wishes to support the local industry and foster future development. This is a good thing in many ways. However, such an attitude goes beyond its positive influence if it supports sub-standard quality, corporate marketing techniques, and parochial dogmatism. True pride comes when you can hold up a product from your home and objectively declare its quality. This is very different from just running a business, and I know wineries are out there to make money.

It is easy, from a business perspective, to forcefully promote the greatness of your products whether they are actually great or not, and I certainly believe this attitude is not solely found in BC. Many sub-standard California wineries promote their wines in this way, and that is fine as a business model if it works for them. Luckily for me I am not interested so much in making money from wine, but in providing objective insight, information, and balanced opinion to the wine drinker. When thinking about wine from this perspective, one must as a duty look past the marketing, past the tendency to support one's local and home industries, and to the grapes and ultimately the wines themselves. That is the essence of thinking about just grapes.

Notwithstanding our ludicrous shipping laws, if BC is to grow as a wine industry, especially if it wishes to grow internationally and gain the respect of wine lovers from around the world, it needs to focus on the right side of things. Wine will always be dominated by business models and marketing - but the heart of wine lies in the authenticity of its appreciation, the stories it creates, and, ultimately, as I've mentioned before, it's utter ability to stop you in your tracks.

All that said, I do think there ARE wineries in BC pursuing the quality-based model and I also believe that BC is incredibly young as a wine region and has yet to develop great vineyard sites and attract truly great winemakers. I do think both a legal and a culture shift is necessary to precipitate these things, but I also believe they are possible. Now, if that's enough pontificating on the state of BC's wine industry for you, it's time for some tasting notes!

La Stella Winery

La Stella is located in the Oakanagan Valley of British Columbia, on its south side near Oliver, BC. Most of the vineyard sites are either near a lake or at relatively high elevations, which protects the grapes from the severity of the Okanagan's massive heat spikes. This allows the grapes to ripen and not shut down in extreme temperatures. Furthermore, La Stella uses certain practices to promote 'sustainable farming', such as not using herbicides, pesticides, and keeping irrigation to a minimum (its top wine Maestaso only generally receives around 36 hours of irrigation a season). La Stella focuses on Italian style wines similar to those from the Friuli and the coastal region of Tuscany where some of the best super tuscans are made. La Stella is also the sister winery to Le Vieux Pin, which focuses on French style wines.

Leggiero Chardonnay 2008

The nose on this chard had peach, nectarine, lime, guava and banana. Cold fermented completely in steel, this wine is fairly acidic and has a palate that is very up front with lime, pineapple and guava. While the acidity is certainly firm, the wine is also crisp and finishes clean with some slight mineral lacing. A bracing chardonnay without tons of depth or uniqueness, but which will also certainly drink well on a hot day.

Very Good

Vivace Pinot Grigio 2008

The nose on this grigio was interesting with loam, stone fruits and pear. The palate, however, was surprisingly more like a sauvignon blanc than a pinot grigio and had tons of grapefruit, some basic citrus notes, fresh grass and some pear on the finish. The acidity here was a bit overdone on the mid-palate, and while still sippable, there is nothing particularly interesting going on here.


La Stellina Rosé 2008

Made with 100% merlot, the nose on this had a little caramel and light red berries. The palate on this rosé was very caramelly and honestly tasted a lot like a Jolly Rancher with candied cherry and strawberry notes. The wine, while simple, was also balanced and while some would certainly dislike the sweetness in this Rosé, I found it well wraught, even if the wine was a bit too candy-like for me. A solid but innocuous rosé. At this price go for a nice dry Tavel or Lirac rosé from France.


Allegretto Merlot 2006

A full-on 100% merlot, this wine avoids the negative stereotypes people associate with the grape. Instead, the nose here had red berries, mint, chocolate, and a bit of cherry candy. The palate was very woody, perhaps too much so, but also had nice notes of chocolate, plums, blackberry and some savory dried herbs with serious earthy notes. While perhaps somewhat a bit distorted with heavy wood-notes, I enjoyed this wine and think it shows surprising potential for a grape that one would think might not grow too well in the Okanagan climate. My biggest gripe, however, is the price. For $38 one could also get a top Gigondas from Les Pallieres, a solid bottle of merlot-based Bordeaux, A Ribera Del Duero from the excellent Tinto Pesquera, and even a solid Washington syrah, like Kestrel's. The list could go on.

Very Good

Fortissimo Red Blend 2007

Made predominantly from merlot, but also with a sizeable amount of cabernet sauvignon and a dabble of cabernet franc, this red blend had a nose of blue and black fruits, with chocolate and a little cedar. The palate again had a lot of oak spice on it, wood, graphite, and some secondary fruits such as blackberry. This is tasty, but it is lacking layers and complexity on the mid-palate which I expect more of from a wine at this price point. The wine finishes with decent length but also with simplicity. The tannins weren't oppressive, but at the same time they seemed a little out of place - I would suspect this might improve with a little bottle age. Overall, a pretty tasty wine.

Very Good

Maestaso Merlot 2006

This is the top wine from La Stella and it shows. Cropped at half the quantity of the Allegretto, the Maestaso is a very well made wine. The nose was still a little subdued, probably because the wine is still quite young, and offered notes of red fruits and baking spices. The palate was fairly impressive with lots of black fruits, caramel, subtle vanilla, and baking spices, especially up front. As you drink this wine you notice its smoothness and integration, which stand out dramatically from all of the other wines offered by La Stella. The tannins are also smooth and well integrated. This is definitely a well made wine, but once again I question its price point.

Very Good+

La Stella certainly shows great potential for BC, although I do think it has a ways to go before it can justify its prices. When I ask the ultimate question - would I buy any of these wines? - unfortunately the answer is no. This leads me to ask: why are BC wine prices so disproportionately high given the quality? I am not completely up on this issue, but it seems to me that BC wineries don't have to pay import duties, and have way lower shipping costs than out of province wineries, and yet still charge tremendous prices for their wines. If the wines I tasted were 30-50% cheaper, then things would make a lot more sense to me. As it stands, I am not sure why I would buy an $85 bottle of very solid merlot when I can spend $85 and get a mind-blowing Barolo from Italy, a wicked high end sauvignon blanc from the Loire, etc. If someone can answer this, please let me know. And, I can't buy 'land prices' as a justification considering how much land costs in places like Napa where even though wines are very pricey by US standards, they still have a better QPR than what I've tasted from BC so far. Nonetheless, I am still very open minded about BC wines and I will continue to taste as many as I can get my hands on.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Philip Shaw No. 89 Shiraz Viognier 2004

Shiraz Viogniers are all the rage in Australia right now - but not too many of them are grown and produced in Orange, New South Wales like this wine. Distributed by the mamoth Lion Nathan, nonetheless this wine rises above typical commercialized shiraz/viognier blends with a more Northern Rhone like balance of finesse and robustness.

The nose here had coffee, violets, blackberry and boysenberry and was rich and masculine similar to syrah made in Cornas. The palate was nicely balanced, with spice, coffee, chocolate, and blackberry. Overall a masculine wine with firm acidity and without the 'prettyness' (or lightness) you can find in most Aussie shiraz/viogniers.

Very Good+
$40 ($28 on sale) at BCLDB

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Shmaltz Brewing Coney Island Lager

With the recent spate of fall-like weather in Vancouver, a lager may be the last thing on your mind right now. For the beer geek, the lager has become emblematic of big corporate beer and its quest to dominate the realm of flavour with bland swill. Fortunately, both the weather monger and the corporate beer hater have something to appreciate in this micro-brew from New York. Shmaltz brewing, also producers of the HeBrew series, uses the Coney Island label to exclusively release lagers. Contrary to popular belief in the beer geek world, lagers are not de facto flavourless and boring. In fact, lagers constitute quite a large category of beers unto themselves, similarly to ales, and the style should not be written off quickly. Lagers are traditionally made in spring and cold-stored over the summer months and come in various styles including Helles, Bock, Marzen and Pilsner. Further, lager can range from dark and malty, to hoppy, to light and dry, the lattermost being the dominant style in the US macro-brewing market.

This particular lager is on the darker and maltier side of the scale, with a nose of sweet malts, fruit, bread, sugar, banana bread and candy apple. Interestingly, the palate is almost Belgian-like and has an incredibly full bodied texture and really highlights the bready elements of the beer. Despite its massiveness, I also enjoyed some slight floral notes on the palate and its very clean dry finish, which also happens to make it outstanding for pairing with fuller bodied spicy foods. I suggest trying this beer with some East Indian cuisine or a spicy sausage, and I hope that any beer afficionado is willing to give this beer a try in order to revitalize the unfairly demonized world of the lager.

Very Good+
$9 / 22oz at Brewery Creek

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mazzocco Sonoma

The festivities of the Wine Bloggers' Conference 2009 (#WBC09) prompted Sean, Graham and me to do a little 'practical' training on the side and visit a couple wineries while we were down in Sonoma. We had all tasted and loved Mazzocco's Zins at the ZAP festival in January so it was not difficult to make the drive up to the winery to taste across their full range. Like Ridge, Mazzocco treats zinfandel like the serious grape it can be, and as a result they have managed to find a full range of expressions from single vineyard sites across Sonoma, although mostly from Dry Creek Valley.

It is fascinating to taste zins that vary from austere and tannic to jammy and fruit forward to spicy and punchy, but Mazzocco's wines express all of these characteristics and provide zin lovers with quite a wide variety of options and styles. Impressively, none of the zins show their alcohol, which generally means that the grapes have been allowed to ripen properly and bring gobs of fruit into the mix to hide the alcohol. Whether you like zin or not, this is the way to make zin taste great in my mind.


Lyton 2006: red fruits and spice box. Big up front but soft on the back end. Very Good to Very Good+. $29.

Warm Springs Ranch Reserve 2006: a nose of cherry and subtle spice, the palate had plenty of cherry, was quite smooth and had underlying notes of earth. Very Good. $50.

Smith Orchard Reserve 2006: plenty of caramel on the nose with big blackberry fruit, cloves and nutmeg. The palate was hugely spicy up front, and held notes of briar, and candied raspberry. Very Good+ to Excellent. $50.

West Dry Creek Reserve 2006: the nose on this did have strawberry fruit, but I appreciated its leather-like characteristics as well. With a palate of cherry, nutmeg, and strawberry, this wine is very pure and expressive and drinking great right now. Very Good+. $50.

Maple Reserve 2006: Strawberry, cloves and cinnamon on the nose. The palate had tons of cherry and cinnamon again, but was very very extracted. Nonetheless, I found this elegant for a zin. Very Good+ $50

Antoine Phillipe Reserve 2006: named after the winemaker and expressive of the style of zin he prefers, this is essentially a barrel selected zin using fruit from the other vineyards. The nose here is very deep, with rich and ripe plum, prune, and dark cherry. The palate is so elegant and possesses incredible purity of fruit. This zin develops linearly through the palate and is quite long with lots of leather and chocolate notes and a very full and layered mid-palate. The finish is plush and velvety and amazingly smooth. Simply put, this is one of the best zinfandels I've had. Excellent to Excellent+. $120.

Other Reds

While specializing in zinfandel, Mazzocco also puts together a few other reds from Sonoma County, most of which are quite well made.

Petit Verdot 2005: Aged in french oak, this has light red fruit on the nose and a woody, almost flinty, palate. This is soft, but has bright acidity and is bone dry. Very Good. $35.

Petite Sirah Aguilera 2005: A dark nose of plumy fruit and caramel, the palate consists mostly of pepper and plum. Certainly an enjoyable petite sirah without over-extraction. Very Good+. $35.

Petite Sirah Aguilera Reserve 2005: With a nose filled with stone fruits, the palate on this PS was surprisingly quite soft. With very plummy fruits predominating I enjoyed how long and smooth the finish was on this, especially for a grape that can sometimes go over the top in its extraction. Very Good+. $45.

Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Reserve 2005: Lots of candied dark fruits on the nose and palate with an earthy, minerally back-end. Very Good to Very Good+. $50.

Chardonnay Stuhlmuller Reserve 2006: A key lime pie nose bright with minerals. The palate was very citrusy and enjoyed a fresh mid-palate with proper acidity. Very Good to Very Good+. $36.

In the final analysis Mazzocco is all about zinfandel, and they are one of the few wineries in Sonoma giving this grape its due and understanding how to produce high alcohol zin that is still balanced, fruity, and food friendly. It is very impressive for a winery to showcase the full range of what zin can do and present the itinerant wine drinker with options that fit many palates and many moods. A must visit for any zin lover and a great standard bearer for this truly Californian grape.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Alma Rosa El Jalbali Vineyard Chardonnay 2005

In response to a recent review I wrote on Au Bon Climat's 2001 Mt. Carmel Chardonnay, I was invited by John Clerides of Marquis to taste another from them to see if I still found it to be alcoholic and heavily oaked. While we could not find an appropriate comparison from ABC, I was given this bottle to sample from the same region in the Santa Rita Hills. While the ABC was made with grapes from the Mt. Carmel vineyard, nearby is the El Jalbali vineyard, from which Alma Rosa sourced the grapes for this chardonnay.

Where the visionary and maverick winemaker Jim Clendenon runs Au Bon Climat, Alma Rosa is the Sanfords' (also pioneers of the region) latest project after their split with Sanford Winery. I visited Alma Rosa a few months ago but did not get a chance to taste their whites at the time. Interestingly, the lore I've heard about California seems to indicate that the oaky days of Santa Barabara County were largely in the 90's and early 2000's, which could explain the stylistic approach of the 2001 ABC. As we shall see, this wine is made very differently.

With quite a rich and tropical nose here I also got nectarine, kiwi and banana - aromas somewhat typical for a California chardonnay, but with a bit more mineral lacing than you might expect. The palate, however, is where all the action is in this wine. There is a definite minerality up front with some tart kiwi and lime notes that leads into a finish of banana and nectarine. The whole palate is structured around a bracing and clean acidity that brings brightness and alacrity to the fruit. Ultimately, this wine is driven toward a layered finish that is both tart and clean, and, while rich, the wine is not creamy nor laden with oaken vanilla flavours. In fact, it still retains a subtle degree of austerity despite its approachability and really is all the better for it. Very well done and another score for the Sanfords. And, as a brief note Alma Rosa claims to be a fully sustainable winery.

Very Good+ to Excellent
$40 at Marquis

Full Disclosure: I received this wine as a sample from Marquis Wine Cellars who exclusively sell Alma Rosa wines in Vancouver

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Russian River Brew Pub

So after all the festivities of #WBC09 Graham, Sean and I decided to hit up Russian River Brewing before heading back to San Francisco. And, as the saying goes it takes a lot of good beer to make a good wine. If all beer were as good as Russian River, well we might never get to the wine. Here are two video reviews of two fantastic sour beers brewed right in Sonoma. Cheers!

P.S. Thanks to Sean of Vinifico for providing the video equipment and editing these videos.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wine Bloggers Conference 2009: Dinner at Spring Mountain Vineyard

The second day of the Wine Bloggers Conference rounded out with an exceptional dinner at Spring Mountain Vineyard where we got to have dinner and some great wines while chatting with winemakers from Spring Mountain and Viader and reps from Lang & Reed and BV. I was impressed that the winemakers took the time to sit down with us and talk wine, and it showed a burgeoning respect for the passion and thoughtfulness that 'citizen' bloggers can bring to the media world.

The setting itself was quite beautiful, with the rolling hills of napa etching themselves out along a sky dappled with red and golden hues over a declining hill of grape vines.

Over the course of the evening I managed to get a taste of quite a few wines, with the following four truly standing out.

1. Spring Mountain Vineyard Elivette 2001

A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, this 8 year old wine was showing very well that evening. Smooth and full and filled with dark berry fruit, this yet had an elegant structure and a very finessed finish. A standout Bordeaux style blend.

Excellent to Excellent+

2. Viader 2005

Viader makes this red blend with 69% Cabernet Sauvignon and 31% Cabernet Franc, which is a surprisingly high % for the often funky and tannic Cab Franc grape. Nonetheless, this young wine was drinking very well and may have been the standout of the night. Very fruit forward, with notes of chocolate underneath, the wine paired ideally with the BBQ'd beef we were eating for dinner. Frankly, I would never have guessed that this had such a high percentage of Cab Franc given how smooth and fruity it was. A favourite at the table with winemakers from Spring Mountain and Viader in attendance along with several bloggers.


3. Spring Mountain Elivette 1993

It was certainly a treat to taste this 16 year old wine, which was still drinking with real backbone but without that overpowering punch that young Napa Cab blends can have. Instead, it was showing plenty of secondary and tertiary flavours from the bottle age such as slate, tobacco, and leather while still maintaining a pure line of red and black berry fruit.


4. Lang & Reed 'Right Bank' 2004

Sneaking in to our bevy of $100 cabs was the subtle and suave Right Bank red blend. Made with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, this wine straddled the line between styles that many in the media have come to oppose as New World v. Old World. For me, this was fruit forward and yet elegant and finessed such that the fruit did not overwhelm the development of the wine and the layering of the mid-palate. Many classic dark fruit flavours abound in this along with cedar and mocha. But this wine is special more because of its velvet glove approach. One to look for.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Return to Brown Estate: Catharsis and Wonder

The difficulties of expressing the emotional resonance I felt upon my return to Brown Estate last weekend finally evaporated in the midst of a somewhat tragic event. Just two days ago I discovered that almost 200 bottles that I had been collecting for over four years had been heavily damaged by a Vancouver heat wave that broke all historical heat records for the city. But, why did such a sad occurrence precipitate clarity in articulating my second visit to Brown? I think I can best express this with reference to two words: catharsis and wonder.

If we think briefly of tragedy as a classic poetic form we encounter two things: pity and fear. I have received an outpouring of pity for my recent loss and I do not doubt that other collectors also fear the possibility of the same happening to their collection. The Browns have a unique experience with these feelings given that years ago they lost a huge number of their old wines in a warehouse fire. What a tragic event such as this gives rise to is myriad and great. However, I think the ancient Greeks were on to something when they suggested that tragedy gave rise to feelings of catharsis and to an experience of wonder.

Although in English Catharsis tends to evoke one notion, in ancient Greek it (Κάθαρσις) can have two meanings. First, catharsis can mean to purge. Purging is something we’ve all experienced with horror films or roller coasters that make us confront fear and then feel relief when that brief encounter has elapsed. On the other hand catharsis can also mean to purify. Purification is different than purgation because it leaves part of the feeling behind, while jettisoning the baser elements.

As I followed Deneen Brown and watched Sean and Graham’s initial reactions to the wonderful wine cave that really epitomizes what Brown is all about I realize now that I was experiencing catharsis in the second sense. Much about wine can be distorted and even avaricious: obscene prices, access only to the wealthy, hoarding and gloating. However, the Browns understand that wine is also organic, it is an expression of time and of memory and these ideas become physical when you step into the most beautiful wine cave in Napa Valley. Somehow the Browns distill this unpredictable and asymmetrical essence of wine into a purer form that expresses itself in not only their wines but also their personalities.

The 2007 Brown Estate Chardonnay was also pure with its rich expressive nose of pineapple, guava and slightly laced mineral notes. Unlike the 2006, which was more austere, the 2007 blankets you with creamy tropical fruit, wonderful floral notes, and clean minerality. Like a Napa chardonnay with the finesse and structure of a Chablis, this is one of my favourite chards in the valley. Excellent. $48.

As I think of how years of time and effort have culminated in a tragic moment with the loss of my cellar, I also recall how wine can be the sudden, unexpected appearance of something beautiful and how it is this appearance that produces wonder when consuming a glass of wine. If we think of the stress and trauma that wine grapes experience during their lives perhaps we can understand how the wonder offered by a truly beautiful glass of wine can arise from a tragic life. And, while I do not suggest that the loss of something so fleeting as a wine cellar is truly tragic compared to what the world has to offer, I do think it puts into perspective why all us wine geeks and drinkers take pleasure and wonder in truly magnificent wine. This is something the Browns understand, as they prefer to produce more challenging expressions of the grapes we have come to love.

Particularly, their 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon had a savory nose of wood, softened by blackcurrant, plum and fig. The palate was wonderfully structured, especially the mid-palate, which was very uplifting. Cedar, chocolate, black fruits and solid youthful tannins make this an absolutely gorgeous wine. Excellent to Excellent+.

The current release 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon also had a wonderful nose, but it was surprisingly extremely different. I love how the Browns let the year truly express itself and are not afraid of extreme variation in style and flavour from year to year. To me this is a more wizened expression of the art of wine making and one that more wineries need to understand. With a palate with lots of wood, forest floor, and raspberry fruit there is tremendous structure to the mid-palate on this wine and it will pair amazingly well with subtle red meats. Excellent.

There is one more ‘lesson’ to be learned from the ancient Greek understanding of tragedy, and that is its concern not with conferring glory, but with bestowing the gift of wonder. As much as wine can be about status and power, it can even more strongly be about time. Wine can produce pause, moment, and temporal articulation and it is these elements that the Browns concentrate on when they put together a wine like the 2006 Chaos Theory, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel that belies easy description and instead challenges the palate to place the wine in line with similar memories: pepper, asian spices, caramel and cranberry on the nose lead into a palate with asian 5-spice, cloves, and a much more tannic and austere structure than you would expect from Zinfandel. The fruit notes include cranberry from the zin and crushed blackberry from the cab. A challenging wine that many will adore. Very Good+ to Excellent. $45.

I failed to mention the inspired cheese pairings that Coral Brown offers with each of the wines, which serve to highlight some of their most interesting elements. It is clear that Coral understands that the expressive capacity of wine is best served in company with food, just as our best experiences with wine are those which remind us of special moments and good friends. I suppose, then, that with catharsis and wonder tragedy metamorphosizes into narrative, which, in a sense, is a form of memory.

When I drink a great glass of wine I nearly always recall Proust’s passage on the Madeleine cookie that leads into the reminiscent narrative of Swann’s Way. Perhaps Proust says it best: “No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal.”

It is just such an exquisite pleasure that I experienced when tasting Brown’s Zinfandels, which are truly the heart of the Estate. The workhorse 2007 Napa Zinfandel had a cranberry, earthy, and asian spiced nose that opened into a full palate of fruit punch sour cranberry, and a distinct rose-like floral element. This is surprisingly elegant and tart for Zinfandel with great structure and balance. Very Good+ to Excellent. $36.

But lest the workhorse get all the glory, the very special 2007 Westside Zinfandel had a pinot-like barny and earthy nose with mushrooms and dried red fruits providing a quizzical pause. The intense mid-palate acidity was also leathery and had plenty of dried strawberry, cranberry and baking spices. A wonderful up front zinfandel. Excellent. $48.

But, even with the 2007’s lovely olfactory presence the 2006 Westside Zinfandel was even more elegant and integrated. A nose of flowers, cranberry and strawberry pie, the palate was pure silky strawberry fruit with a nutty edge. And, best of all there are incredible layers of spice – almost as if your most lush spices had fallen into the zin and mulled it into perfection. Stunning. Excellent+.

Ridiculously, we also took a tour of Brown’s barrel aging wines and without revealing too much I can attest that there are many many special treats and surprises that the winery will be releasing in due time, including an insanely good red blend that I won’t talk about too much more.

A tasting experience at Brown is anything but a public relations message. The Browns are some of the most authentic people I have met not only in the wine business but, honestly, in life generally. This, coupled with the fact that it is not hard to write superlative reviews for their outstanding wines (which are amazingly all good) make Brown Estate pretty much a premier destination for me in Napa and I will be making a point to visit them every time I take a trip down to California. These guys are rare for the wine industry and deserve your attention.

Lest I forget, we were treated to one last taste before heading back down into the main Valley to attend the Grand Napa Tasting: a 2006 Chiles Valley Zinfandel, which had a huge spicy nose with touches of red fruits. The palate was replete with baking spice, and dry-fried savory Indian spices like cumin and mustard seed. And yes there is still that distinctive cranberry note on the palate, which I have come to associate with the Chiles Valley as a unique AVA in Napa. Excellent.

In conclusion, my visits at Brown Estate have helped me progress from the tragedy of my lost cellar to the wonder that such tragedy can produce. If it weren’t for these types of stories and the memories that go along with them, wine would be but a hollow shell in want of meaning. Thanks to Brown for reminding me of this most important detail of our fleeting passions.