July 2007

Occasionally the tasting I do at home falls out this way, serendipitous, lively, instructive, fun. So here are three pairs of wines, some closely related, others a bit less so, but all fruitfully compared and contrasted.


Kendall-Jackson is well-known and sometimes derided for its low-priced Vintner’s Reserve wines, which tend to cost from $12 to $16. A second Vintner’s Reserve line, with the designation “Jackson Estates Grown,” is priced at $18. The ubiquitous K-J Vintner’s Reserve kjmeritage.jpg Chardonnay and Merlot are probably the best-known of these wines, though the line includes sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot noir, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. All of the wines carry the broadest California appellation.

New to the roster is the K-J Vintner’s Reserve Meritage; the 2003 and ’04 have been released. Each is a blend of cabernet sauvignon grapes, merlot and (traces of) cabernet franc. I’ll say that at the price, $12 for the ’03 and $14 for the ’04, they shouldn’t be missed. These are thoughtfully conceived and well-made wines and can go head-to-head with the best inexpensive wines we love from Spain, Italy, Argentina and (less so) California, especially paired with hearty red meat dishes. Winemaker is Randy Ullom.

The K-J Vintner’s Reserve Meritage 2004 is a blend of 65% cabernet sauvignon, 34 percent merlot and one percent cabernet franc. My first note is: “Amazing depth & dimension for the price.” The bouquet teems with classic Bordeaux-like notes of cedar. tobacco and black olive, with black currant and black cherry fruit that segues seamlessly into the mouth. Support is provided in the form of dusty, chewy tannins and polished oak from nine months aging in French (56 percent) and American barrels. I rate this wine Very Good. Drink through 2009 or ’10. About $14

The Meritage 2003, one year older, is a deep purple color and offers a real mouthful of wine that balances a pretty tough structure with a lovely plush texture. The blend here is 49 percent cabernet sauvignon, 47 percent merlot and four percent cabernet franc. Is it the whisper of cabernet franc that provides the touches of walnut shell and underbrush, of blueberry and bitter chocolate? The lively spice and whiplash acid? Actually I would say that the blend works in canny harmony here, with black currant and black cherry flavors permeated by cedar and dried thyme and earthy tannins coming from every element. Very good+. Now through 2009 or ’10. About $12, great for buying by the case.


What’s the idiom for “poles apart” in Spanish? These two wines from the well-known Rioja region, where the red tempranillo grape reigns, could not be more different, in intent and in result.

The Castillo de Fuenmajor Gran Familia Rioja 2004, 90 percent tempranillo and 10 percent graciano, is just a sweetheart of a wine. granrioja5.jpgIt’s rich and ripe, soft and warm, elegant and harmonious; it flows across the palate like satin woven with slightly macerated and roasted black currant, plum and blueberry flavors infused with dried spice, cedar and tobacco and a hint of orange pekoe tea. Gosh, how lovely and untroubled by ambition, toasty oak or high alcohol. Imported by Well Oiled Wine Co., Leesburg, Va. Very Good+. Now through 2008 or ’09. About $15.

On the other side of the spectrum is the hugely ambitious and just plain huge Bodegas Bilbainas Vicuana 2003, a blend of 75 tempranillo and 25 percent graciano. Touted as the “new expression of Rioja” by parent company Group Codorniu, Vicuana ’03 ages 15 months in oak barrels, the result, combined with dense chewy tannins, being a structure of impregnable firmness. It’s true that vicuana-2003.jpgthe wine delivers a tremendous burst of succulent black fruit and a powerful, pungent bouquet steeped in smoke and potpourri, but with its elements of briers, brambles and underbrush and dusty minerality, Vicuana goes from robust to rustic. The finish, unsurprisingly, is long, dry and austere. Imported by Vinum International, Napa Ca. Very good+. Best from 2008 or ’09 through 2012 to ’15. Prices vary from a deeply discounted $18 to about $26.

I don’t know about you, but my sympathy here runs to the old-fashioned, ripe, approachable and tasty Gran Familia Rioja ’04. If I were tackling a lamb shank tonight, that would be the wine for me.

Mer Soleil, which produces a chardonnay from California’s Central Coast, is closely associated with the venerable Caymus Vineyards, being operated by Charlie Wagner II, grandson of Caymus founder Chuck Wagner. Mer Soleil (“sea/sun”) makes only one chardonnay, fashioned in a full-throttle, oak-tinged fashion that actually calmed down a bit starting in 2004; the winery was launched in 1992. Though grapes mersoleil.jpg for the Mer Soleil Chardonnay 2005 came from a vineyard in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands, the wine’s designation is still the boarder Central Coast.

Mer Soleil 2005 is bright, bold and brassy but pretty well-balanced. It’s a chardonnay that takes risks with super-ripeness and spicy oak, mingling pineapple, grapefruit and mango flavors with cinnamon toast and spice cake. Touches of lemon curd and Key lime pie come up, contrasted with chiming acid and a burgeoning mineral element. Frankly, I thought that I wouldn’t care at all for this wine, but its carefully managed sense of nuance, combined with Californian exuberance, won me over, slightly grudgingly, I’ll admit. Excellent. Now through 2009 or ’10. About $42.

Seeing the need for a chardonnay not influenced so heavily by oak, or let’s say in which the grape is allowed to express itself more freely, Wagner brought out the aptly named Silver Unoaked Chardonnay, with a Santa Lucia Highlands designation, in the 2005 silver1_011.jpgvintage. The new release, Silver Unoaked Chardonnay 2006, is sleek and clean as a whistle, very Chablis-like in its dryness and heady minerality. The wine sees no oak contact and does not go through malolactic fermentation, so it’s notable clean and crisp and very spicy, bursting with fresh apple, lemon drop and lemon curd flavors with a touch of pineapple. The texture is lovely in its satiny flow, dense and chewy, and the finish is bright, resonant and vibrant. The wine displays so much character that you don’t miss the oak a bit. A complete success. Excellent. About $42.

On the other hand, why should the unoaked chardonnay cost the same as the oaked chardonnay? I mean, one of the major costs of making fine wine is French oak barrels, which can run from $800 to $1,000 each, not to mention the time that the wine rests there in the barrels, tying up capital and doing nothing to pay for its upkeep. Silver is on the market in about six months, and no oak was involved. How about knocking a few bucks off the price for that?

A day is 24 hours, a week is seven days, but you know how they can seem longer. That’s how last week seemed, longer than it should have been. One of those weeks. Car trouble, tooth trouble, computer trouble; lots of stories and deadlines at the newspaper.

So it was a relief to be home Friday afternoon. I made a couple of bone-cold, bone-dry martinis (with twists), and we sat out on the back screened porch, finishing the New York Times, sipping those utterly transparent, heady concoctions and snacking on some two_01.jpg Copper River sockeye salmon I had smoked over hickory wood Thursday night. I’ll confess that when we tried the salmon Thursday at dinner, I thought it was too smoky, but Friday afternoon, nibbled on a sesame flat-bread cracker, it seemed just right. Everything was very pleasant, with the dogs gamboling about, and the cats snoozing in the sun, and birds batting each other off the bird feeder, competitive little buggers.

We did that for about an hour, and LL said, “Well, that’s it, let’s go watch a movie.”

Two for the Road (1967), with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney had arrived from Netflix, so I cranked up the DVD player and we all gathered round to watch. It’s a pretty good movie. Hepburn is radiant and funny (and very well-dressed in cool and outrageous late ’60s haute couture), though weighed down with eyeliner and fake eyelashes, and I could do without one more peppy-sobby Henry Mancini score. Albert Finney is actually truculent and arrogant, but his character is supposed to be rather asshole-ish, but somehow lovable as far as Hepburn is concerned. The screenplay, by British writer Frederick Raphael, is sparkling and snappy and witty.

About two-thirds the way through the movie, LL said, “You know what I would like? I’d like some toast with olive oil and a glass of red wine.”

So we stopped the movie and we all trooped into the kitchen — the dogs muttering darkly, “So what the hell’s going on?” — and made caymusspecialselection.jpg some toast and drizzled it with olive oil. I went to look through the platoons of red wines standing at out beck, and saw a bottle of Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 — still holding the price at $136, bless their hearts — and I thought, “Oh, well, jeeze, why not? It’s been a long week. We deserve it.”

So I opened the bottle and poured us each a glassful and we went back and watched the rest of the movie and ate our toast with olive oil and drank our Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, which was fabulous, like drinking the whole history and geography and geology of the Napa Valley yet also wonderfully, monumentally flavorful.

And everything was pretty damned perfect.

Sales of French wine in the United States rose 13 percent in volume and 22 percent in value from 2005 to 2006, according to Sopexa USA. Several individual regions showed even better improvement, a 21 percent increase for Bordeaux, 19 percent for home_todaysbordeaux.gifBurgundy, 23 percent for Provence and 32 percent for Cotes-du-Rhones.

There’s a reason why sales of French wines are increasing in this county: Intelligent and persistent marketing. I regularly receive email and hard mail bulletins from the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, the Bordeaux Wine Bureau, the Office of Champagne, and other logo.giftrade bodies, and from Sopexa, the public-private mixed-capital joint stock company dedicated to advancing the cause of French food and wine around the world. In other worlds, the French government puts money into these efforts.

The bulletins usually involve information about various wine regions or latest vintages, promotions of particular kinds of wines or campaigns to raise awareness and increase sales of a region’s products. Yesterday, for example, I received in the mail a handsome and informative little brochure from the Loire Valley Wine Bureau about Muscadet. The Loire Valley group also regularly hosts loirelogo.giftasting of Loire wines in the Northeast and the West Coast.

Other major promotions are underway. The Burgundy section of Sopexa is in its third year of a “Burgundy Best Buys” campaign, in which it promotes a list of red and white burgundies priced from $15 to $35. Because it’s short (and no link is provided, how freaking annoying and what an oversight!), I’ll reproduce that roster below. The Bordeaux Wine Bureau for the second year offers “Today’s Bordeaux,” a list of 100 wines priced between $8 and $25. These were selected by a panel of judges in a blind tasting of almost 300 wines. You can see the list here. Wines of France, an arm of VINIFLHOR, the French National Office for Fruit, Vegetables, Wine and Horticulture (I love these acronyms), for the third year is sponsoring “Spring into French Wines,” a part of which is a list of “Top 40 French Wine Picks,” chosen by Master of Wine Sheri Sauter Morano. You can find that list here. The “Spring into French Wine” campaign is backed this year by a $1.5 million budget for the New York metropolitan area, Washington D.C., Chicago, California, South Florida and two places in Massachusetts, all big wine markets.

The point is that no other wine-producing country that I’m aware of engages in this sort of extensive activity to promote its wines in the United States. And certainly no entity in America, quasi-governmental or not, works to promote our country’s fine wines in Europe or anywhere else in the world.

You can criticize the French on all sorts of historical and cultural issues — and they can criticize right back, of course — but in this particular area, the world’s wine-making regions could learn a Gallic lesson.

Here’s the list of “Burgundy Best Buys” for 2007:
Bourgogne, 2004, Faiveley, $17
Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune, 2005, Château de Santenay, $20
Chablis, 2005, Domaine Christian Moreau Père & Fils, $20
Pouilly-Fuissé, 2005, Maison Louis Latour, $19
Pouilly-Fuissé, Domaine de la Collonge , 2005, Gilles Noblet, $22
Santenay, Les Terrasses de Bievaux , 2005, Domaine Jacques Girardin, $25
Santenay, Clos de Malte, 2004, Maison Louis Jadot, $25
Chablis, 2005, Faiveley, $29
Chablis 1er Cru, Fourchaume , 2005, Jean Marc Brocard, $31
Mercurey, 2004, Château de Chamirey, $31
Beaune 1er Cru, Beaune du Château, 2004, Bouchard Père & Fils, $34
Meursault, 2005, Labouré-Roi, $35

Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Signature , 2005, Maison Champy, $15
Bourgogne Pinot Noir, 2005, Maison Louis Jadot, $20
Chorey-lès-Beaune, 2005, Maison Joseph Drouhin, $20
Savigny-lès-Beaune, 2005, Domaine Rapet, $30
Mercurey 1er Cru, Les Champs Martin, 2005, Domaine Adelie, $29
Mercurey, 2004, Château de Chamirey, $31
Mercurey, 2005, Château Genot Boulanger, $35
Marsannay, Grandes Vignes, 2005, Domaine Bart, $30
Gevrey-Chambertin, 2005, Labouré-Roi, $32

So last week one of those little notices about updates for Norton Anti-Virus pops up on my office computer screen (at home) and of course I click on the box that says, “Well, hell, yeah!” The program goes through its process, downloading all these fine improvement to my computer’s security, reboots and there it is: No Internet. WTF, I’m sort of baffled, I try this and that, no Internet. I try a couple of other things — these are fairly primitive solutions, you understand — and still no Internet. Obviously, or it seems obvious to me, in downloading these Norton updates a setting has been disabled. Do I know how to fix this? Is Hannah Montana likely to be elected president? Actually, Hannah Montana is more likely to be elected president than, say, Courtney Love. Or maybe Hillary Clinton.

Anyway, as monumentally annoying as this problem was (and still is), I knew I could turn to my four-month old laptop computer and turn out copy and post it to the Internet (despite some other insanely irritating Internet problems we’ve been having since January when Comcast took over), because we have WiFi at our house, so I wrote a “Refrigerator Door” page of inexpensive wines for my website and posted it a few minutes ago. There are wines from California, Australia, Spain, Argentina and Portugal. You’ll find them at www.KoeppelOnWine.com/Refrigerator_Door_Wines.asp

You will notice, however, that there’s no label art on the page, even though I’m a fanatic about using lots of art on the website and on this blog, because I can’t stand those websites and blogs that consist of miles and miles of gray print with nothing to relieve the monotony. Anyway, the reason why there’s no art on this new page on KoeppelOnWine (or on this post) is because, even though a few days ago I paid for and downloaded to my laptop the CoffeeCup PixConverter (a simple image-sizing device that I use on my office computer all the time), it didn’t show up. It ain’t there. Nada. So there’s another computer problem with which I have to deal very soon.


I’m not usually a connect-the-dots kind of guy, you know, one of those globalizing futurists who can see the correlation between a one-dollar a month rise in the wages of shoe factories in Indonesia and the after-school mortality rate in the playgrounds of questionmark.gif Detroit, but still, I think that there could be a connection between these two news items.

First, we all know that there’s a glut of cheap and not very good wine in Europe, that huge quantities of wine fuel the vinegar manufacturies of the continent and that small-time grape-growers in France revolt against governmental agricultural regulations and the devastating downturn in prices by making the next logical step and burning down their local McDonald’s. “Take zat, you damned imperialist golden arches!”

An article in The New York Times last week confirmed the worst of all these notions, namely that the European Commission is proposing to rip out 500,000 acres of vineyards on the continent, generally in France, Spain and Italy, and to cease paying subsidies for distilling unsold wine into industrial alcohol. “Instead,” wrote Stephen Castle, “it would make payments directly to farmers, encouraging them to diversify into other crops, rather than continue to over-produce sometimes poor-quality wine.”

On the other hand, the restrictions would be relaxed after 2014 on “successful vineyards,” which would allow “the most efficient producers to optimize the size of their holdings and to operate at the most convenient production scale.”

Big Uh-Oh there. The definition of “most efficient producer” and the phrase “optimize their holdings” means the guy who grows the most grapes and makes the most wine, which is exactly what the French, at least, don’t need, because they have been taking a beating in the reliable cheap wine department, being overtaken by the Australians, the Argentines and Chileans and their neighbors, the Spanish and Italians. (Well, Australia is problematic; since Penfolds, Lindemans and Rosemount are all owned by the giant Fosters company, their inexpensive wines mainly taste the same.)

Anyway, the second point. An email bulletin I received a few days ago from Global Wines and Spirits, “The E-News Weekly Portal for Wine Professionals” — a fascinating brokering function for agents, wholesalers and retailers — says this: “In the past few months, Global Wine & Spirits has noticed a rapidly increasing demand for bulk organic wine. Requests have been coming in from every continent, but very few producers are currently able to supply this product.” Everybody wants cheap organic wine! Imagine that!

Now, if I’m not mistaken, it wouldn’t take Malcolm ‘Made Ya Blink!’ Gladwell to figure out that what the European governments need to do is not persuade farmers to grow pears or artichokes but to sink those subsidies into educating grape-growers in methods of organic farming, helping them shift their vineyards to organic practices and getting the word out to the world’s wine consumers, who are obviously keenly attuned to eco-issues and want organic products to consume in their daily lives. The demand is clearly there; the European wine-producing countries (and principally the French) have to take advantage of the situation.

Then maybe the disgruntled farmers can stop bull-dozing and burning McDonald’s. Or is that the bright side of globalization?

Want to know what my favorite white wines are for drinking this summer?

Ha! You think I’m going to tell you here? gavi_01.jpg

No way. You have to go to this “Featured Article” on KoeppelOnWine that I posted a few minutes ago.

Here are some quotations to tempt you:

“The best pinot gris made in California? Pretty damned close.” mar_de_frades_albarino_bottle.JPG

“Absolutely delightful.”

“One of the best white wines I have tasted so far in 2007.”

“A classic sauvignon blanc from a great year.”

“The best wine I have tasted made from the albarino grape.”

“One of the great wines of northeastern Italy.”

Sounds great, right? So, click on the link and take a look. And just to be a really good guy, I’ve included images of two of the 12 wines.


… knowing that in Tennessee all beer sales in convenience and grocery stores must be accompanied by the showing of beer_01.jpg identification. All beer sales in stores. If Methuselah shows up, tottering on two canes and trailing a 10-foot white beard, by cracky, he’ll be carded! Thank goodness, now we’ll be rid of that plague of 16-year-olds trying to buy beer disguised as grandfathers.

The law, effective last Sunday, does not apply to sales of beer in bars or restaurants or to sales of wine and spirits. The law expires in a year, unless the Tennessee legislature decides to renew it. Tennessee is the only state that requires universal carding for store beer sales, but why shouldn’t the Volunteer State be a trend-setter?

Now I can understand why owners, managers and clerks in convenience stores, supermarkets and grocery stores want to cover their backs on underage beer sales. Repeated offenses can result in suspended or revoked licenses to sell beer. And beer sales are big business. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, in 2005 beer sales in convenience stores alone amounted to $17.7.billion. I mean you could underwrite a couple of weeks of the war in Iraq for that kind of swag. And convenience store sales lag behind beer sales in liquor stores and grocery stores. Adults asked where they “most often” purchase beer — again this is from the NACS — said supermarket/grocery stores 40.2 percent, liquor stores 24.9 percent and convenience stores 23.1 percent.

(To offer some perspective: In Tennessee, grocery stores sell only beer, not wine or spirits. Liquor stores sell wine and spirits and only within the past decade were allowed to sell “big beer” with an alcohol content over about 5 percent, that is, Belgian ales, hand-crafted, small-batch beers and so on, whose alcohol content often rises to double digits.)

Really, though, I think those wimps in the Tennessee legislature didn’t go far enough to protect the population. Why not go the limit and require identification for sales of all alcoholic beverages in all locations? Why shouldn’t the waiter demand ID from the connoisseur ordering a bottle of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon in a fine dining restaurant?

Nothing, you see, will prevent teenagers from acquiring beer the way they have always done: Getting an older person to buy it for them. It’s the time-honored tradition. Carding a white-haired octogenarian in a leisure suit and Tyrolean hat won’t prevent him from making a buck buying beer for thirsty adolescents out for a thrill. In fact, I think I’ll go loiter outside my neighborhood 7/11 and see if I can pick up some lunch money.

Image from csus.edu.

One of the sacred tenets of journalism is the strict separation between the editorial side that reports on the news and expresses opinions and the publishing side that deals with advertising, circulation, marketing and the business aspects of a newspaper or magazine. This wall is more difficult to maintain nowadays; in fact it’s a struggle in editorial to resist the onslaught of what marketing and advertising people call “monetizing the content” — yes, I have heard that depressing term presented not only with a straight face but with the eagerness with which certain people seem to await a bright future.

Anyway, a major breech in the wall between editorial and business occurs in the June 30 issue of The Wine Spectator. On page image_01.jpg10, opposite the magazine’s usual “UpFront: Wine News from Around the World” section, is a full-page color advertisement that features the headline “Lifestyle Collecting,” with the sub-head “Design a wine cellar to match your personal style” and a close-up photograph of a bottle of the Australian iconic wine Penfolds Grange 2001. A paragraph in smaller print discusses the concept of “The Investment Cellar,” followed by “Our Investment Cellar Recommendations.”

There’s no indication who the “our” is, but more is revealed by the choice of other wines for “investment collecting”: Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags’ Leap “The Leap” Cabernet Sauvignon, Wolf Blass Black Label Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec and Rosemount Balmoral Syrah. All five wineries — Penfolds, Beringer, Stags’ Leap, Wolf Blass and Rosemount — are owned by the giant Fosters corporation, which seems to own all the wineries in Australia and California that Constellation does not.

So fine, Fosters, or World Wine Estates, its division in Napa that has the ad’s copyright, is promoting five of its flagship wines for collecting. No big deal there.

But look closely at the bottom left corner of the ad, where two Websites are listed for more information. One is www.penfolds.com.

The other is: www.winespectator.com/collecting.

That’s right. The magazine that sold the ad to World Wine Estates lists its own Website on the ad. Follow the link, though, and you don’t find information about collecting or investing in wines; you only get a chance to subscribe to the Wine Spectator Website, as if there are not enough mentions of winespectator.com throughout the print magazine.

Do we have to look up the definitions of “conflict” and “of” and “interest” separately, or do you get the idea that, editorially speaking, this stinks?