Scenes from Passport to Russian River Valley, 2015

The last weekend in June marked the third annual installation of the Passport to Russian River Valley, an event that sets the public loose on dozens of relatively remote wineries, many of which aren’t normally open to the public.

This year’s event took me to Benovia, Sonoma-Cutrer, Dutton Estate, and Inman Family Wines. Lots of fun to be had at each stop, including a memory ride to Sonoma-Cutrer’s “Pinot Barn,” where winemaker Mick Schroeter was on hand to talk about the company’s vineyard-desginated bottlings (while pouring 2014 samples direct from the barrel) and a lengthy chat with Kathleen Inman before posing for an on-site caricature. At Benovia we were treated to a tour and a lengthy, in-depth tasting of a variety of chardonnay and pinot noirs — the elegant 2012 Cohn Vineyard Pinot Noir being one of my favorite wines of the day — while Dutton paired each wine with a different morsel to eat (quite effectively, I should add).

The first day of the event ended at a memorable barbecue at Gail Ann’s Vineyard in the heart of Russian River Valley, headlined by a whole roast pig and a passel of locally-grown vegetables and capped off with a gorgeous sunset.

Lots of photos below. Hope to see you in the RRV in 2016!

Tasting the Wines of Italy’s Lugana Region


What, you’re not drinking Lugana wines every night? You can be forgiven if the name doesn’t ring a bell. Lugana is a tiny region in the north of the country, nestled between the better-known areas of Lombardia and the Veneto, snug against the southern shores of Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy.

It’s here that Lugana makes primarily white wines, almost all from the turbiana grape, aka trebbiano di Laguna. What’s turbiana? There is significant debate about this — scientific in nature, even — and there’s no concensus quite yet. It’s not the same is trebbiano, but some researchers claim it is the same grape as verdicchio. Others say it is its own unique grape that lies somewhere between these two — and possibly other grapes — and even the many producers and importers that attended a recent lunch showcasing Lugana ultimately had no idea what the truth is. (If you want to get really into the weeds, Fringe Wine will help you.)

Lugana wines are, as is the case with most Italian white wines, crisp and acidic and loaded with minerals. The wines have similarities to Soave, to Pinot Gris, and to Sauvignon Blanc, depending on the bottling.

Tasting through a couple of dozen wines reveals a lot of commonality — high acid and generally low alcohol (12.5% or 13%), zippy mouthfeel and a cleansing finish with a touch of bitterness. Generally I preferred the younger wines to the older bottlings. After only a couple of years these fresh wines start to take on a pungency and develop some oiliness in the mouthfeel — similar to what happens to riesling as it starts to age. Nearly universal at the event was the opinion that Lugana wines were best when consumed with food.

Lugana wines typically run $16 to $20 in the U.S., and up to $25 for reserve bottlings. In Italy or neighboring Germany, where much Lugana is reportedly consuming, you’ll likely find these wines for under 10 euros.

L003ugana isn’t in hefty supply stateside, and that could be threatened in the near future by a new high-speed rail that’s being constructed to connect Milan and Venice. It will cut directly through the Lugana region and reportedly cut wine production by 30 percent in the process.

Brief thoughts on all wines — the majority of which are not currently imported to the U.S. — follow.

Tasting Report: Wines of Lugana, 2015 Releases

2014 Bulgarini Lugana / B / lots of zip, herbal aromatics
2012 Cesari Cento Filari Lugana / B / notes of cheeses and roast meats, apricots, some coconut
2013 Cà Lojera Lugana / B+ / nice tropical notes, some astringency, lovely aromatics
2014 Ca Maiol Fabio Contato Lugana / B- / lots of funk, meaty and vegetal at times
2014 Citari Conchiglia Lugana / B+ / tropical, lots of citrus, good balance
2014 Le Morrette Mandolara Lugana / B+ / pine needles, brisk finish
2014 Lenotti Decus Lugana / B+ / mild, fresh
2014 Le Preseglie Hamsa Lugana / B+ / fresh, zippy, floral and citrus
2014 Malavasi Lugana / B / quite herbal
2014 Marangona Lugana / B+ / brisk citrus, followed by light meat notes
2013 Marangona Tre Campane Lugana / A / good mouthfeel, well balanced, better structure; a standout here
0062014 Montonale Montunal Lugana / B+ / rougher, chewy body
2013 Pratello Lugana / A- / organic; higher altitude bottling; fresh herbs, citrus, lots of acidity
2014 Pilandro Terecrea Lugana / A- / nicely bitter edge, zippy, acidic; good balance
2014 Selva Capuzza Selva Lugana / B / meaty, rustic
2014 Selva Capuzza Antica casa Visconti Lugana / B-
2014 Tenuta Roveglia Limne Lugana / A- / bigger fruit, acid, tropical notes
2011 Tenuta Roveglia Vigne di Catullo Lugana / B+ / showing significant age; roast meats, oily
2014 Villabella Ca del Lago Lugana / B / meaty edge, fruit hits later
2014 Zenegaglia Carlo Montefluno Lugana / B+ / some briny notes
2014 Zeni Marogne Lugana / B- / off balance
2014 Zeni Vigne Alte Lugana / B+
2013 Il Lugana Lugana / A- / vanilla and coconut notes, sea spray, nice tang
2014 Ca dei Frati Il Frati Lugana / A / massive acid, big zing, another standout
2014 Olivini Lugana / B- / off balance

Review: 2013 Mark West Pinot Noir California

MKW_PN_750ml_2013_LR1 (Standard_Final_JPG) [CA-ECM2159504 Revision-4]-2If there’s a store that sells wine in California that does not have Mark West on the shelves, I haven’t been there. But nine bucks for pinot is a deal that’s pretty tough to beat, so it’s easy to see why retailers and consumers alike gravitate to the brand and its iconic, yellow label.

The wine is short of the “remarkable” goal set by its founders (fun fact: the producer was founded in 1978), but it isn’t bad at all, particularly for a deep budget bottling. On the nose it’s driven by cola, dried grasses, and simple cherry notes. On the palate, the wine is drier than you’d think, its berry notes balanced with more cola character. As it aerates, it improves further, though the sugar does start to rear its head with continued drinking.

B- / $9 /

Review: 2013 Humble Pie Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast

Humble Pie_BNAOur final Tony Leonardini wine of three is this humbly named humble cabernet from the humble Central Coast of California. It tastes a lot better than it should at this price point, offering a nose of fresh berries, with the palate taking things into a blackberry jam-and-chocolate arena. Quite sweet at first, it settles down to reveal tobacco, cola notes, and a bit of coffee on the finish, which dulls the sweetness a bit but ultimately leads to some light sulfur notes.

B- / $13 /

Review: 4 Centre-Loire Wines, 2015 Releases

The Loire Valley is a sprawling wine region in northwest France — and the Centre-Loire (named because it is located in the geographic center of France) is the home to some of its most renowned wines, including the widely beloved Sancerre.

Today we’re looking at four Centre-Loire wines, all composed of sauvignon blanc grapes and all produced in a tight geographic area — but each with a distinct focus. All are from the 2013 vintage except for the 2014 Pouilly-Fume. Start by getting a sense of where these regions are in relation to one another, then dig into the reviews.

2013 Joseph Mellot Domaine de Bellecours Sancerre – Fresh and fragrant, with a nice balance of tropical and citrus notes, plus a modest, tart grapefruit character that emerges on the clean, pretty finish. Refreshing and acidic, but still fruit-forward, it’s a textbook example of what an everyday Sancerre should be. A- / $20

102915972013 Domaine de Chatenoy Menetou-Salon – Nice combination of citrus and melon here, with some tropical character. Modest acidity on the finish, with an echo of melon notes at the very end. A simple and fresh wine. B+ / $16

2013 Les Pierres Plates Reuilly – An instantly funkier wine, with notes of blue cheese on the nose, and a little barnyard character on the palate that mixes with some tropical notes. That actually helps to add some character to an otherwise straightforward wine, but a little cheese goes a long way. B / $20

2014 Pascal Jolivet Pouilly-Fume – One of the most acid-forward and melon-flecked of the bunch, this powerful wine has a huge backbone that almost borders on ammonia-scented — though the essence of cantaloupe and honeydew swoop in late to save the day. B+ / $24

Review: 3 Languedoc Wines – Montmassot Picpoul, Chateau du Donjon Rose, and Chateau Trillol

ChâteauduDonjonMinervoisRoséFrance’s Languedoc region is reknowned for offering an array of wines in diverging styles, almost all available at low prices. In recognition of this, we recently received three Languedoc wines for review — one white, one rose, one red — to gauge just how far a buck can go in this sunny, southern part of France. (Pro tip: White are best!)

Thoughts follow.

2014 Montmassot Picpoul de Pinet – An affordable, star-bright-white picpoul from the village of Florensac, offering crisp minerals and simple fruit notes — lemon, apple, and a touch of melon. Some say you can get a touch of salt air on this wine, and if I had a dozen oysters on hand I might be inclined to agree. That said, I’m drinking it with dill-roasted halibut and shrimp, and it’s a perfect, summery combination, especially at this price. A- / $11

2014 Chateau du Donjon Rose Minervois – A rose of 30% syrah, 30% cinsault, 40% grenache. Beautifully floral, and berry-infused. Lightly sweet, with a touch of marshmallow to juice up the strawberries and carnation petals underneath. Uncomplicated but perfectly summery. B / $12

2010 Chateau Trillol Grenache-Syrah Corbieres Cucugnan – Lots of pruny notes up front on this 60-40 grenache-syrah blend, with notes of smoked meats underneath. A bit flabby at the start, it warms up and its somewhat discordant flavors eventually manage to come together, somewhat fitfully. C+ / $15

Review: 3 Wines from Aia Vecchia, 2015 Releases

Sor Ugo_NVAia Vecchia is a Bolgheri-based producer that makes a variety of reds and whites — with a heavy focus on blends made with international grape varietals. Thoughts on three recent releases, one white and two reds, follow.

2014 Aia Vecchia Vermentino Maremma Toscana IGT – A simple vermentino (with 5% viognier). Initially quite sweet with fresh peaches and lemon notes, it gives way to some somewhat off-putting notes of dried herbs and forest floor character, especially as it warms up. It’s more of a food-friendly wine than an aperitivo, but decent enough either way. B / $12

2012 Aia Vecchia “Lagone” Toscana IGT – Nothing much to see here. This Bogheri/Magliano-sourced bottling of 60% merlot, 30% cabernet sauvignon, and 10% cabernet franc offers few surprises. Notes of stewed fruits, spiced plums, and chocolate sauce aren’t particularly negative in any way, but they do combine to make for an over-sweetened, mouth-filling experience. It’s a wine that needs food to show its strengths. On its own, the sweeter notes dominate too strongly. B- / $15

2011 Aia Vecchia “Sor Ugo” Bolgheri Superiore DOC – 50% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 15% cabernet franc, 5% petit verdot. A fairly light-bodied Bolgheri, offering decent fruit — cherries and plums — balanced by darker notes of licorice, coffee bean, and some chewy tree bark. A slight bitter edge adds more than a touch of nuance, tuning toward menthol notes on the finish. B+ / $35

Review: 2014 Charles & Charles Rose Columbia Valley

Charles and Charles Rose cap 014

We reviewed the 2013 bottling of this wine and are back with a new vintage. This year’s version of the Washington state rose is made from a blend of 72% syrah, 8% mourvedre, 8% cabernet sauvignon, 6% grenache, 3% cinsault, and 3% counoise. Nicely floral with rose petal and crushed violets up front, it slides into pretty red fruits, strawberry, and a touch of vanilla cream. Perfect for summer.

B+ / $12 /

Review: 2014 Sonoma-Cutrer Sauvignon Blanc

sonoma cutrerSonoma-Cutrer is best known for its Chardonnay, which is one of the top-selling wines in American restaurants. The winery makes other bottlings (particularly Pinot Noir), but this year the company branches out into Sauvignon Blanc for the first time ever. Here’s how this new release stacks up.

This inaugural bottling offers clear pepe du chat notes on the nose, with some tropical character backing it up. On the palate, both the ammonia notes and the fruit are in balance, with the more pungent hospital character up front ultimately giving way to more of a pineapple-focused finish, tempered by mineral and steely, metallic notes. Considerably better with food than on its own.

B- / $25 /

Review: Baron Cooper 2013 Chardonnay and 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon

baron cooperBaron Cooper isn’t a winemaker. He’s a dog and as the namesake of this series of wines he’s leading the charge toward the raising of funds for Best Friends Animal Shelter. Five percent of all sales of these wines — about a buck a bottle — will go toward ending the killing of dogs and cats in animal shelters nationwide.

There are a number of Baron Cooper wines, but we got a couple to try out. Thoughts follow.

2013 Baron Cooper Chardonnay California – A relatively unadorned chardonnay, lightly buttery with notes of vanilla and lychee. As the body takes hold, solid fruit emerges — golden apples and a touch of lemon — and the lightly sweet finish ties everything together. For a wine without much of a pedigree (and a “California” designation), it’s surprising how successful it is. A- / $24

2012 Baron Cooper Cabernet Sauvignon California – A less impressive wine, a more typically workmanlike example of a widely-blended, youthful cabernet. This expression offers some pruny notes, light astringency, and a woody character that ultimately makes for a fairly lifeless experience. Ho hum. B- / $25