Paso Robles Garagiste Festival 2014: Two Pinots to Watch

We spent the first hour plus at the Saturday Garagiste grand tasting doing a tour of pinot noirs. And we found two to watch: Vinemark Cellars and Vino Vargas. We’ll review each in detail as time permits. But we wanted to get the word out as soon as we could.


Julie and Mark Wasserman

Julie and Mark Wasserman

Vinemark Cellars was our first find of this event. Mark and Julie Wasserman released their first wine in 2012. Their 2012 Paso Robles pinot noir ($29) is interesting featuring bing cherry aromas and blackberry flavors.

Vinemark Wines

Vinemark Wines

[pullquote]This finesse Pinot Noir offers cedar and spice aromas that lead to juicy mouth-watering black cherry flavors. The varietal red berry flavors are complemented by dark chocolate and dried cherry, creating a Pinot Noir confection.[/pullquote]

But the real surprise is their 2012 Reserve Santa Lucia Highlands ($32, MAJOR BARGAIN). My tasting notes just say “sheer bliss.” The winery tasting notes are pretty accurate →

Pedro and Victoria Vargas

Pedro and Victoria Vargas

Vino Vargas is the joint project of Pedro and Victoria Vargas. Pedro is a U.C. Davis product. Victoria is a sommelier who trained at the French Culinary Institute. Talk about a wine power couple!

Vargas Wines

Vargas Wines

The Vargas 2012 Rio Ruso Russian River Valley pinot noir ($45) opens with strawberry aroma, followed by a light raspberry palate. The finish lasts forever, featuring nice tannins. Pedro and Victoria have been making wine for about five years, with total annual production around 1,000 cases. They feature four reds, two whites, and some specialty blends. Look for their first GSM coming out in December. (Rio Ruso is Spanish for Russian River).

Laird Family Estate

It’s been a while since our last article about the August 17 Family Winemakers Tasting in San Mateo. But there are more good wineries to be reviewed. Our excuse for the delay is that there are only 168 hours in a week!

Laird Phantom Ranch Laird Family Estate

Laird Phantom Ranch

Laird Family Estate was another new winery — at least, new to us. Which shows how much we still need to learn. Before we get into who they are and what they do, let’s look at their 2012 Phantom Ranch Carneros pinot noir ($55 from the winery, don’t expect much of a discount in retail stores). The wine opens with aromas of black cherries and undertones of leather and chocolate. The palate is black raspberries, more cherries, and a hint of spice. Smooth tannins create a long, marvelous finish. The wine is an excellent representative of Carneros pinots, with bigger and bolder fruit expressions than the various Sonoma and Mendocino County appellations. With just 875 cases produced, you’ll need to move fast to acquire some of this one.

Phantom Ranch is a new vineyard. In fact, this is only the second vintage. Winemakers Paul Hobbs and Julian Gonzalez have done an outstanding job with the fruit from these relatively young vines!

Laird Family

Laird Family Estate is a subsidiary of Laird Family. Rather than give a detailed history here, we’ll refer you to The Napa Wine Project’s excellent, detailed recounting (thanks, David Thompson!).

The Laird Family is mainly wine grape growers. In 1970 Ken Laird set his sights on 70 acres of ancient prune trees near Tubbs Lane in Calistoga (north end of the Napa Valley). Knowing nothing about grapegrowing, but with a long history in agriculture, Ken was smart enough to call a consultant. Plus he was about $150,000 short of cash. He picked up a phone book, found eight listed wineries, and called the only one he had heard of: Robert Mondavi.

Oh. Well, that’s not so bad! Mr. Mondavi agreed to walk the property. After discussing soils, vines, yields, irrigation, and pruning, he agreed to finance the deal with Ken as long as the vineyard was planted 50% gamay and 50% cabernet sauvignon. That was the beginning of Laird Family’s history in the Napa Valley.

In the early 1980s, Ken made another smart move. He bought the first land in Carneros. At that time, property in that region was believed to be only useful for grazing sheep. Wrong. Today, of course, Carneros produces its own distinctive style of pinot noir and a few other varietals.

Lairs Holdings Laird Family Estate

Laird Holdings

Today Laird Family owns 2,000 acres scattered throughout the Napa Valley. They are mainly growers, using about two percent of their grapes for Laird Family Estate production. Annual Laird Family production is about 12,000 cases spread out over 13 SKUs.

Laird also offers custom crush, with about 60 wineries using these services. And they offer Laird Wine Services, a storage facility that can accommodate 2.5 million gallons of bulk storage and up to 50,000 cases of in-bottle wine.

Laird History

From the Laird Family Estate website:

Our story begins nearly sixty-four years ago outside of South Boston Virginia as twelve-year-old Ken Laird drove his mule wagon through tight rows of sticky, fit-to-be-harvested tobacco leaves. As the gooey bundles were thrown up onto the wagon, little Ken led his mule team to the curing barn. It was there, with his grandmother, great uncles and cousins, they would stoke smoky curing fires for their prized tobacco. Ken would be the third generation Laird to carry on the farming tradition.

While growing up to be a big city mechanical engineer in New York City, Ken held on to family tradition by buying his first Napa Valley parcel in 1970. This neglected piece of land, adjacent to Tubbs Lane in Calistoga, held 70 acres of worn-down prune trees. With Prohibition forty years gone and Napa Valley positioned to re-emerge as viticulturally significant, Ken decided to develop the orchard into a grape vineyard.

Ken Laird Family Estate

Ken Laird

Owner Ken Laird is still the CEO. Rebecca Laird is the General Manager. They are very private. I won’t steal from David Thompson, but if you want more details you should read his article at The Napa Wine Project.

Rebecca Laird Family Estate

Rebecca Laird


A few years ago we spent several weeks in the Santa Ynez Valley. We discovered Terravant in Buellton. Laird Family’s enterprises look like a smaller scale version of Terravant. Except, of course, that Terravant doesn’t grow grapes.

On our next trip to the Napa Valley we’ll make it a point to make appointments with the Laird Family.


[Updated January 14, 2015.  Our original article alleged that Brooke Gadke owned Maggy Hawk.  In fact, the owner is Barbara Banke.  Ms. Gadke is the estate manager.  Our apologies for this error — and for not making this correction sooner.]

[pullquote]We often say that we don’t choose when to make the Hawkster, rather it chooses – or demands – the years in which it wants to be made. This is only the second time since the winery’s founding that we have released a Hawkster Pinot Noir. With 177 cases made, we hope you are as thrilled with this special allocation offering as we are.[/pullquote]

A few weeks ago we reviewed Maggy Hawk. We discovered them at the Family Winemakers tasting in August. We were therefore prepared when we got the e-mail: the 2011 Hawkster was available. Here’s what estate manager Brooke Gadke said →

Aromas of black cherries, spice and rose petals with undertones of dust, similar to the “desert” style of the Santa Rita Hills. More spice on the palate accompanies bing cherries and tannins. A long finish that can only be described as a major surprise. Words fail me.

Hawkster Blurb

Click the image to read the content.

But you better get it while you can. The label says 195 cases produced, but Brooke e-mailed me that the actual number is 177. Standard allocation is six bottles — you can request more. I always hesitate to recommend a pinot noir at $66/bottle, but this one is, if anything, a bargain. A cult wine that tastes like a cult wine but is in the Hartford – Lynmar price range. What’s not to like?

Still Zinful After All These Years

Atop the Santa Cruz Mountains at the end of a long, winding dirt road you’ll find Ridge Vineyards. They have been around as long as we’ve been in California. In fact, their website says the winery began its modern incarnation in 1962. Known for their monster zinfandels in decades past, we abandoned them when our aging digestive systems grew, um, less tolerant of zinfandel tannins and oak. But when Artisan Wine Depot invited us to a tasting of Ridge wines, we couldn’t resist.


And we were pleasantly surprised. Ridge has updated their winemaking techniques to accommodate our somewhat more mature tastes. We tried two chardonnays and six zins. Every one was eminently quaffable. While we liked some better than others, Ridge has been added back to our list after a 20 year absence. They are still zinful after all these years.

Ridge Winery Still Zinful After All These Years

Hors D’oeuvre: Chardonnay

The two chardonnays were the 2012 Estate ($40) and the 2010 “Monte Bello” Estate ($60). The 2012 Estate begins with aromas of wet dog. Bypass the sniffing and proceed directly to the flavors. You’ll discover an explosion of tastes, lush and rich, with flavors of white peaches and a touch of pineapple. The Monte Bello is lighter with more pineapple and citrus, as well as a creamy aroma and flavor. Both are out of our chardonnay price range, but if this is what you like, you won’t find anything better.

[portfolio_slideshow include=”3893,3897,3899,3898,3892,3894,3896″ showcaps=true autoplay=true size=large]

Entrée: Zinfandel

All the grapes in these wines are from Sonoma County. If you’re familiar with that area, you’ll recognize the cities and other geographic designations. If not, we’ve included a map with locations marked at the end of this article. (The map is from the Ridge website. On that site the map is interactive and animated.  Highly recommended.)

Some of these zins are blended with the “mataro” grape. Everyone seems to agree that this is mourvedre. According to, mataro is the name used in Australia and California. We’ve been tasting California wines for decades and this is the first time we’ve heard that name.

My comment early in the tasting: “This is not what I remember from Ridge.” A good formula for survival in this business is adapting your production to market changes. We suspect, however, that Ridge has a number of zins that we did not taste that appeal to their historical audience.

The 2012 “Three Valleys” ($20, BARGAIN) is a blend from three Sonoma County valleys: Geyserville (Dry Creek Valley), Lytton Springs, and the Russian River AVA. The blend is 79% zinfandel, 12% carignane, 8% petite sirah and 1% alicante bouschet. Spaghetti wine, simple, with some zinfandel character. Oddly, this was the only zin that had the characteristic spice we’ve associated with zinfandel. (We bought a couple of bottles.)

Also from 2012 is the “Pagani Ranch” ($30). This wine is 90% zinfandel, 9% alicante bouschet, and 1% mataro. Intense aromas of earth and leather, but a little too acid for our taste.

The Dry Creek Valley is the source for the 2012 “East Bench” ($27). No blend here — 100% zinfandel. Vanilla on the nose, more vanilla flavors, not much zinfandel character (a tiny bit of spice) — and not one of our favorites.

“Geyserville” is the designation for the next 2012 ($30). The blend is 71% zinfandel, 19% carignane, 7% petite sirah, 2% matara, and 1% alicante bouschet. Aromas of earth and leather, followed by tannins and spice on the palate.

If you know Ridge, you probably know their “Lytton Springs” zinfandel from the Dry Creek Valley. (In fact, Ridge acquired this vineyard in 1991.) Our hosts were pouring the 2012 ($32) and 2005 ($50) vintages.

The 2012 Lytton Springs is a blend of 70% zinfandel, 21% petite sirah, 7% carignane and 4% matara. Musty, earthy aromas with a touch of tannins. This wine is very drinkable today.  We liked it, especially at this price.

The 2005 is on the verge of being over the hill. If you buy this one, don’t wait to drink it. The blend is 77% zinfandel, 17% petite sirah, and 6% carignane.

Dessert: Some History

While Ridge was founded in 1962, their first zinfandel release was in 1964. This year is the 50th anniversary of that first release.

Ridge Winery Still Zinful After All These Years

Ridge Winery

But the history of that terroir goes back much further. 

In 1885 Osea Perrone, a doctor who became a prominent member of San Francisco’s Italian community, bought 180 acres near the top of Monte Bello Ridge. He terraced the slopes and planted vineyards; using native limestone, he constructed the Monte Bello Winery, producing the first vintage under that name in 1892. This unique cellar, built into the mountainside on three levels, is Ridge’s production facility. At 2600′, it is surrounded by the “upper vineyard.”

In the 1940s, William Short, a theologian, bought the abandoned winery and vineyard just below the Perrone property; he replanted several parcels to cabernet sauvignon in the late 1940s. From these vines — now the “middle vineyard”— new owners Dave Bennion and his three partners, all Stanford Research Institute engineers, made a quarter-barrel of “estate” cabernet. That Monte Bello Cabernet was among California’s finest wines of the era. Its quality and distinctive character, and the wines produced from these same vines in 1960 and ’61, convinced the partners to re-bond the winery in time for the 1962 vintage.

The first zinfandel was made in 1964, from a small nineteenth-century vineyard farther down the ridge. This was followed in 1966 by the first Geyserville zinfandel. The founding families reclaimed the Monte Bello terraces, increasing vineyard size from fifteen to forty-five acres. Working on weekends, they made wines of regional character and unprecedented intensity. By 1968, production had increased to just under three thousand cases per year, and in 1969, Paul Draper joined the partnership. A Stanford graduate in philosophy—recently returned from setting up a winery in Chile’s coast range—he was a practical winemaker, not an enologist. His knowledge of fine wines and traditional methods complemented the straightforward “hands off” approach pioneered at Ridge. Under his guidance the old Perrone winery (acquired the previous year) was restored, the finest vineyard lands leased or purchased, the consistent quality and international reputation of the wines established. Cabernet and Zinfandel account for most of the production; Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, and Petite Sirah constitute a small percentage. Known primarily for its red wines, Ridge has also made limited amounts of chardonnay since 1962.

Paul Draper is the CEO and winemaker. As noted above, Paul learned winemaking by doing it. Not bad for a guy with a degree in philosophy! Paul works with Eric Baugher (Vice-President, Winemaking – Monte Bello), John Olney (Vice-President, Winemaking – Lytton Springs), and David Gates (Vice-President, Vineyard Operations).

Judgment Of Paris Still Zinful After All These Years

Judgment Of Paris

You probably know about “The Judgment of Paris,even if only via the movie Bottle Shock.  What you may not know is that Ridge’s 1971 Monte Bello cabernet sauvignon finished fifth, behind Chateau Haut-Brion 1970 and ahead of Chateau Leoville Las Cases 1971. Most stories focus on Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena. But no winery on this list was a slouch.

Coffee: Conclusion

Ridge was a pioneer in zinfandel. Paul Draper and company deserve the utmost respect for maintaining the tradition and quality for half a century. Please join CaliforniaWineFan in congratulating them.

To see an animated map of Ridge’s locations, click here.  To work with the interactive map on the Ridge website, click here. (Warning: uses Adobe Flash, may not play on mobile Apple devices.)

Sojourn Cellars, Ziggy, and TCA

At the August 17 Family Winemakers tasting in San Mateo, we discovered Sojourn Cellars and their excellent pinot noir. While doing research on Sojourn’s website we ran across the story of Ziggy, “The Love Dog” and official canine of the vineyard. According to the Sojourn website,

Ziggy is our 6-year-old Fox Red Labrador. Currently responsible for retrieving tennis balls, guarding the office door, and keeping track of which pocket the FedEx guy keeps the treats in, she can be found trailing Craig wherever he goes, riding in the truck, and occasionally, lounging in the Tasting Salon.

Ziggy spent her puppyhood training learning to sniff out TCA [the chemical that causes corked wine] in oak staves destined for the wine industry. After an intensive, two-year program, she was adopted by Craig and Ellen, who occasionally call on her to show off her sniffing skills. Ziggy has been featured in Wine Business Monthly and Food and Wine magazines.

Ziggy lives in Sonoma with Craig, Ellen, and her pals Natalie and Julia.

This is the tale of Sojourn Cellars, Ziggy, and TCA.  She has had two articles in the wine industry press.  Both are great reading and highly recommended.

Ziggy’s Story

We were intrigued by this and followed the links to stories about Ziggy in Food and Wine[1] and the Wine Business Monthly.[2]

The Food and Wine Version


Ziggy Sojourn Cellars and Ziggy


Ray Isle, writing in Food and Wine, took on Ziggy in a contest to see whether his human sense of smell could detect an oak barrel stave contaminated with 2 parts per trillion of TCA (2,4,6- trichloroanisole, the chemical that causes cork taint). Mr. Isle is no amateur, possessing a certificate (from Vinquiry, $75 fee) that states he is able to detect 1 part per trillion TCA. There was, of course, one issue. He refused to get down on all fours, claiming he “had to maintain a certain amount of dignity.” We’ll get back to that point shortly. But the outcome was clear. Ziggy found the contaminated stave while Ray couldn’t. And Mr. Isle made an important observation: Ziggy got his name because his search pattern is a zig-zag.

Mr. Isle’s article is delightful reading and highly recommended. We were reminded of a talk we heard at the weekend Wine Appreciation seminar at U.C. Davis. Prof. Hildegarde Heymann is a well-known expert on sensory analysis, especially of wine. She gave a presentation on the science of sensory analysis. Along the way she mentioned that her research had, at one point, used bloodhounds to track certain scents. She then showed a photo of a graduate student being abused. This abuse consisted of a blindfold and earplugs, leaving only the sense of smell to track. The photo showed the grad student on all fours following the same zig-zag path used by the bloodhounds. Had Mr. Isle gotten down on all fours, he would have lost some dignity but might have been more successful.

The Wine Business Monthly Version

For quite a few years, WBM has run a column by the pseudonymous Jake Lorenzo, playing the role of a wine detective. In this episode, Jake finds out he has some local competition.

Iggy Calamari called to give me a warning: “Jake, you got some private eye competition in your hometown, Sonoma,” he said, “and she’s good-looking and friendly as hell.”

Jake Lorenzo has lived in Sonoma for 33 years. There’s nowhere near enough investigative work for even one detective to make a living. It’s bad enough I’ve got to take on sleazy cases for winery owners insecure about their married relationships. I get queasy every time the bare larder forces me to take on bodyguard duty for some drug-crazed rock and roller or, even worse, some pampered starlet with her silicone breasts hanging out of a skin-tight bodysuit. Now, I’m going to have to share the meager work with some other detective. I don’t think so.

I hustled over to Calamari’s. No one answered my knock, but the door was unlocked so I went in. The coffee pot was still on, and I thought I heard some noise coming from Calamari’s lab. I walked quietly across the yard toward the lab when suddenly I was bowled over from behind. Someone jumped on my chest, and I was slapped in the face by something cold, wet and sticky.

“I see you’ve met Ziggy,” Calamari laughed.

The [Sojourn Cellars] salon is open daily by appointment. If, while you are tasting those delightful wines, you feel a wet, slimy ball being pushed into your lap, then you have just met Ziggy, Sonoma’s other great detective.

Jake’s story is another great read with a few more facts. Even though TCA contamination is called “cork taint” it’s far worse if a barrel is contaminated. After all, one tainted cork costs 750 ml of wine. But a tainted barrel contains 50 or 60 gallons of wine (about 250 to 300 bottles). Detecting TCA on barrel staves is far more valuable than simply sniffing corks.

One added note: a comment on one of the articles noted that in the future the commenter would sniff the cork. That misses the point. The smell will be in the wine, not on the cork. The only reason to pick up a cork is to make sure the wine has not leaked (identifiable by streaks of wine going all the way up the cork). Don’t smell it, don’t chew it, just look at it. If the cork is OK, focus on what’s in the glass.

Chemistry Note

It’s been a while since we wrote anything about wine chemistry. This seems like a good opportunity. Since this isn’t a refereed journal, I’ll rely on Wikipedia:

TCA molecule Sojourn Cellars and Ziggy

2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA) is a chemical compound that is a chlorinated derivative of anisole. TCA is a fungal metabolite of 2,4,6-trichlorophenol, which is used as a fungicide. It can be found in minute traces on packaging materials stored in the presence of fiberboard treated with trichlorophenol.

TCA is the chemical primarily responsible for cork taint in wines. TCA has also been implicated as a major component of the “Rio defect” in coffees from Central and South America, which refers to a taste described as medicinal, phenolic, or iodine-like.[3]

TCA is usually produced when naturally occurring airborne fungi and bacteria (usually Aspergillus sp., Penicillium sp., Actinomycetes, Botrytis cinerea, Rhizobium sp., or Streptomyces) are presented with chlorinated phenolic compounds, which they then convert into chlorinated anisole derivatives. The chlorophenols can originate from various contaminants such as those found in some pesticides and wood preservatives. Chlorophenols can also be a product of the chlorine bleaching process used to sterilize or bleach wood, paper, and other materials; they can be synthesized by reaction of hypochlorites with lignin. They can also migrate from other objects such as shipping pallets treated by chlorophenols.

The odor of TCA is not directly perceived. Instead, the molecule distorts the perception of smell by suppressing olfactory signal transduction. The effect occurs at very low concentrations (single parts per trillion), so even very minute amounts of TCA can be detected. It causes unpleasant earthy, musty and moldy aromas.[4]


There are millions of stories in the wine industry.  This one caught our eye.  Kudos to Craig Haserot, his family, and the gang at Sojourn for adopting this terrific dog and introducing her to play.

[1] Isle, Ray, ” Learning to Sniff Out Corked Wine” Food and Wine (no date listed). Available at accessed August 27, 2014.

[2] Lorenzo, Jake, “Competition” Wine Business Monthly February, 2009. Available at accessed August 27, 2014.

[3] Spadone, Jean Claude; Jean Claude Spadone; Gary Takeoka; Remy Liardon (1990). “Analytical investigation of Rio off-flavor in green coffee”. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 38: 226–233. doi:10.1021/jf00091a050.

[4] Takeuchi, Hiroko; Hiroyuki Kato; Takashi Kurahashi (2013-09-16). “2,4,6-Trichloroanisole is a potent suppressor of olfactory signal transduction”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: 201300764. doi:10.1073/pnas.1300764110. ISSN 1091-6490. Retrieved 2013-09-17.

Chablis at Artisan

We hesitated before accepting this invitation from our friends at Artisan Wine Depot. As members of the baby boom generation, our taste buds have deteriorated along with some of our other faculties. We feared that our taste buds might not be able to detect the delicate subtleties of these wines.  But we decided to taste Chablis at Artisan.

But we persevered. The wines were all from Domaine William Fèvre. With three Chablis Premier Cru and five Chablis Grand Cru selections, we expected to experience a range of aromas and flavors. We were not disappointed, but our hesitation was warranted. Our noses and palates are just not refined enough to fully appreciate these wines. And even at the discounted Artisan prices, these bottles were far more expensive than we would pay.

One additional note. As techno-geeks, we appreciate the level of detail and organization of the Domaine William Fèvre website. Wineries looking for a model should take careful notes while exploring the Domaine’s, um, domain.

Suspecting that we won’t be able to fully appreciate wines has never stopped us before. So, forthwith, our comments on the wines in the order in which they were tasted. The first three were Premier Cru.

The 2012 “Montmains” ($40) opens with aromas of citrus, mineral, and sea breezes. Medium weight features pear on the palate, with a nice finish.

The 2012 “Vaillons” ($45) was one of our favorites. Aromas of hazelnuts and toast are followed by flavors of citrus and melon with just a bit of pineapple. Less austere than most of the others which is why we liked it.

The 2012 “Fourchaume” ($44) begins with smoky aromas followed by considerable acidity with a watermark of minerality.

The next five were Grand Cru. First on the list was the 2011 “Bougros Côtes Bouguerots” ($74). Our best description of this wine is “one-note, similar to the 2012 “Montmains.” But the flavor is fruity and features a medium body. This was also one of our favorites (although given the price differential we’d stick with the “Vaillons”).

And here we have another example of vintage differences. The 2012 version of “Bougros Côtes Bouguerots” ($80) is worth the extra $6 (although the price is still way out of our range for these wines). This is better than the 2011, opening with aromas of citrus and minerality. The palate shows complexity, featuring wet slate and a medium weight.

The 2011 and 2012 “Les Preuses” (both $80) were not to our taste. Allen Meadows’s Burghound includes these descriptive phrases:

…broad ranging nose of perfumed and ripe scents of oyster shell, sea water, citrus and white flowers. The silky and refined flavors are wonderfully seductive with an intense minerality to the austere, bone dry and balanced finish that exudes hints of saline and iodine.

…ultra-pure aromas of quinine, oyster shell, mineral reduction and floral elements

It strikes us that words like “iodine” and “quinine” probably indicate wines we should avoid.

Les Clos Grand Cru Chablis at Artisan

Les Clos Grand Cru

Closing the show was the 2012 “Les Clos” ($100). Scents of citrus and an unusual spice element are followed by lemon and more spices on the palate. There are surprising hints of pineapple on the finish. If this wine was priced at, say, $35 we would buy a few bottles.

Domaine William Fèvre

[pullquote]Style is an empty shell.  Wine’s potential lies in its sensual response.  For Chablis, this is derived from its terroir, which creates freshness and minerality.[/pullquote]

Begun in 1959, this outfit is really something. Their wines must be among the best in the Chablis region. And we really liked this from their website→

According to the press kit, the winery’s 2011 sales were 1.5 million bottles, generating €13 million in revenue. Fully 75% of their sales are into the export market (although we’re sure this percentage is based on bottles, not revenue). The remaining 25% is enjoyed by the French.

A full page of the press kit (available to anyone by clicking the obvious link at is a Q&A session with Cellar Master Didier Seguier.

Didier Seguier Chablis at Artisan

Didier Seguier

If you want to find their wine in a restaurant, there is exactly one in the U.S. (Eleven Madison Park Restaurant, New York). There is another in Canada (Scaramouche, Toronto). But most are in France (* are Michelin stars):

  • Restaurant Guy Savoy, Paris
  • Ze Kitchen Galerie*, William Ledeuil, Paris
  • Park Hyatt-Vendôme, Paris
  • Hôtel Intercontinental, Paris
  • Régis and Jacques Marcon*** Saint-Bonnet-le-Froid
  • Hôtel Westminster, Le Touquet – Paris Plage
  • Auberge du Pont de Collonges*** Paul Bocuse, Collonges au Mont d’Or
  • Georges Blanc*** Vonnas
  • La Côte Saint Jacques***, Michel Lorrain, Joigny
  • Greuze*, Yohann Chapuis, Tournus
  • Restaurant Michel Sarran, Toulouse


If you’re a fan of French Chablis, you can’t do much better than Domaine William Fèvre. Instead of trying to find their wines in your local shop, consider ordering them online from Artisan.

RN Estate Vertical “Cuvee des Trois Cepages”

Sunday night we opened two of Roger Nicolas’s blends, the “Cuvee des Trois Cepages” 2010 and 2011 vintages.  The two could not be more different, each excellent in its own way.  This was our RN Estate vertical “Cuvee des Trois Cepages.”

The two vintages are nearly identical blends.  The 2010 is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot and 13% Cabernet Franc. The 2011 is ever so slightly different with 70% cabernet sauvignon, 16% merlot, and 14% cabernet franc.

The 2010 ($55) features aromas of black cherries, plums and black licorice with a palate of anise, crushed sage, but overwhelmingly dark fruit. Soft tannins on the finish make for a wonderful experience.

The 2011 is more austere, needing some time to breathe. The aroma is lighter with elements of leather and brambleberries.  On the palate the tannins are noticeable but not overpowering with good acid balance.  The finish is long and enjoyable.  As we were tasting it, Norma pointed out that I had written “2019” on the bottle.  Have to check the cellar to see if we have more.  (This wine is not currently listed on the RN Estate website.)


Two Oldies From Carol Shelton

Quite a few years back we visited Carol Shelton’s tasting room.  Carol is justifiably famous for her zinfandels.  We tried a number of her offerings and settled on two bottles each from her 2005 vintage: the “Wild Thing” Old Vine from Cox Vineyard in Mendocino County and the “Maple Zin” Old Vine from the Maple Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County). We bought these at the winery and have had them in our cellar for about seven years.  Our timing appears to have been pretty good.  Here’s what we thought of these two oldies from Carol Shelton.

We tasted both wines before and after decanting.  That turned out to be an interesting experience.  Before decanting the Wild Thing was delicious and smooth, while the Maple seemed tannic and spicy.  After decanting the tannins came up in the Wild Thing with a healthy dose of spice, but the Maple softened considerably.  Tasting notes are based on post-decanting impressions.

[pullquote]Wild Thing is named for its attitude, and also for the uninoculated, or “wild,” yeast ferment used to create it. It takes a whip and a chair to tame its wild fruit, but it is worth the trouble. As my husband likes to say, “It has all the right curves in all the right places.”[/pullquote]

The Wild Thing opens with aromas of smoke, brambleberries, and cranberries.  Juicy and light on the palate with that characteristic zinfandel tannic zing at the end.  From Carol’s technical sheet→

By the way, this wine won gold medals at the 2009 California State Fair and the 2008 Los Angeles County Fair.

Carol deserves commendation in another dimension.  Technical specification sheets are available for her wines at least back to 2005.  She keeps these online even if the wine is sold out at the winery.  Those of us with a little appreciation of wine chemistry appreciate this quite a bit.

The Maple Zin has a more traditional aroma of zin grapes with smooth silky tannins on the palate.  Once again, the characteristic zinfandel spice on the finish makes a zinfandel about as good as they get.  Here’s what Carol has to say:

Our Maple Zin is comes from the esteemed Maple Vineyard, lovingly farmed by Tom and Tina Maple and planted over the first half of the 1900’s. The vines are dry-farmed, head-trained, and self-limiting in crop levels, with judicious additions of complementary varietals in the field blend style.

This wine has gold medals galore.  Double gold at the 2009 California State Fair and gold at 2008 Orange County and San Francisco Chronicle competitions.

Maple Zin label 

 Wild Thing label

If you have the patience to let Carol’s wines sit for a few years, you will be rewarded handsomely.  Our main wine cellar happens to be in our vacation home, so we’re not as tempted to raid the cellar.  But the next time we’re up near Sebastopol and Healdsburg, Carol Shelton will be on our short list.

Pali Wines Returns to Artisan Wine Depot

We thoroughly enjoyed tasting Pali’s wines in June, so when Artisan Wine Depot invited us, we jumped at the chance. On the Saturday before Christmas the store was busy, but we were patient.  OK, no we weren’t.

Pali Wines Returns to Artisan Wine Depot

Joanie Hudson (Pali’s Western Regional Sales Manager) was as charming as she was in June.

Pali's Joanie Hudson and Tony

Pali’s Joanie Hudson and Tony

The first pinot was the 2011 “Shea Vineyard” (Willamette Valley, $54.97).  We’ve tasted a number of wines from this vineyard in the past and, frankly, it’s appeal has always escaped us.  This was no exception.  The wine is thin and acid with no mouth feel at all.

The next pinot was the 2010 “Riviera” (Sonoma Coast, $16.99)“Juicy” is the best word I can come up with to describe this wine. Black cherry aromas are followed by blackberry flavor with a hint of chocolate. We bought two bottles.  Interestingly, we also tasted this wine in June.  It’s difficult to believe it could have improved so much in six months, but apparently it has.

Up next was the 2012 “Huntington” (Santa Barbara County, $19.99). Aromas of black cherry and blackberry with a hint of earth. On the palate, flavors of blackberries and plum.  This was our second choice.  Both the Huntington and the Riviera are genuine bargains.

The 2010 “Windsor Oaks” (Russian River Valley, $44.99) presents aromas of white pepper and oak. At the moment, the wine is too oaky and tannic for us, but those with the patience to wait three or four years will be rewarded.

[pullquote]Winemaker Aaron Walker (previously assistant winemaker under Loring), in conjunction with consulting winemaker Kenneth Juhasz combined efforts starting with the 2008 harvest. Walker and Juhasz are terroir specialists who strive to bring out the distinct characteristics of each of the sites we source for our fruit.[/pullquote]

 The 2012 “Bluffs” (Russian River Valley, $19.99) presents aromas of earth and is generally a more austere. This is a straightforward pinot noir with no pretensions. On the palette, lush tannins give way to red fruits.

It’s always a pleasure to taste Pali’s pinot noirs because they reflect the terroir where the grapes are grown.  And the Pali website tells us why→


A Conversation With Roger Nicolas

We have been members of the RN Estate wine club ever since we first tasted their products a few years ago.  During our July, 2013 trip to Paso Robles, we were lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with owner-winemaker-everything else Roger Nicolas.  Around 1970 M. Nicolas emigrated from France, landing in New York.  After stints at La Grenouille in New York City, The Lodge at Pebble Beach and L’Etoile in San Francisco, Roger realized one of his first dreams of opening his own restaurant, La Potiniere in San Francisco. Fast forward to 2005 and the first release of an RN Estate vintage.  In eight short years, Roger has established a quality standard for California wines that is unparalleled.

On July 7 we joined another couple for two memorable hours with M. Nicolas.  This is our report.


RN Estate has, for years, specialized in pinot noir, syrah, and red blends (notably both Bordeaux-style and Rhône-style).  Roger’s wines are approachable, but will improve with ageing.  Wine club members get two good-sized shipments a year.  Enclosed is a set of tasting notes that include Roger’s estimate of how many years in the bottle before the wine peaks.  Other winemakers could help us by including similar information in their tasting notes.  We don’t want to know just how the wine tastes today, but also what it’s likely to become in five, ten, or twenty years.

RN Estate puts all their current releases on a single web page.  Instead of linking each wine separately, I’ll just say click here to get to the wine descriptions, prices, and so on.

Tasting Lineup

Tasting Lineup

Two Pinots With a Chardonnay Interruption

The tasting began with two pinot noirs.  The 2011 Solomon Hills ($55) is lighter style with silky tannins.  At 13 percent alcohol, this wine is food-friendly.  This is also his first wine from Solomon Hills (in the Santa Maria valley).  Characteristic aromas and flavors that we call “desert” style, the wine is an excellent representative of Santa Maria Valley pinot noirs.

Roger revealed that he now has access to grapes from 1.5 acres of chardonnay from the Solomon Hills.  The first release will be half stainless steel only with the other half aged in French oak and neutral oak.   The first grapes should have arrived and been crushed by now.

The 2011 Santa Rita Hills ($49) is from the justly famous Fiddlestix vineyard, 45 minutes from the winery.  It is darker, smokier, and heavier than the Solomon Hills.  Dark cherries are from the clone 667 grapes.  Roger told us Fiddlestix is co-owned by Kathy Joseph and Kendall-Jackson.

At this point, we were interrupted by deep basso barking from another wing of the house.  Two Great Danes (no, neither was named Hamlet) were making their presence known.  They were begging for treats.

After the canine segment was satisfied, we returned to the wine.  Current production of pinot noir is 400 – 500 cases per year.  Roger mentioned that the most recent pickup party for club members had featured one of his 2006 pinots that was “just barely ready to drink.”  We only hope we have that kind of patience.

A Detour North

The talk turned to Oregon wineries.  Roger recommended Domaine Serene, White Rose Estate, and De Ponte CellarsWarning: do not confuse White Rose Estate with White Rose Winery.  If you accidentally go looking for the White Rose Winery you’ll end up in Carthage, Missouri.  You want the one in Dayton, Oregon.

If you visit De Ponte, be sure to ask about Isabelle Dutartre, their French import and winemaker.  And, for a mere $595 per night, you and two other couples can rent the on-site estate house (3 bedrooms, 3 full baths, 2 half baths, click the link for more details).

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Roger also recommended an Oregon pinot noir that he found on a recent trip to Big Sur’s legendary Nepenthe restaurant.  Evening Land actually was started in California, but they migrated to Oregon.  They make wine in California, Oregon, and Burgundy.  Regarding their 2009 Eola-Amity Hills Seven Springs vineyard pinot noir, he commented that, “I thought I was drinking my Solomon Hills.”  (On their website the 2010 vintage is priced at $75.)

Back to the Present

Returning to the in-house selection, we moved to the 2010 Cuvee des Artistes ($39). “It’s an unusual blend. We are open-minded here in Paso Robles” was Roger’s comment. This blend is syrah (52%), cabernet sauvignon (32%), zinfandel (10%) and petit verdot (6%).  The spiciness of the syrah complements the cabernet nicely, resulting in a wonderful experience.  The blend varies slightly from year to year depending on the qualities of the grapes.  By blending the wines immediately after racking, they have a chance to get to know each other in the barrel.  Or, as Roger put it, “it takes some time for them to polymerize again.”  (He clearly looked up Tony’s background in chemistry before we arrived.)

The 2010 Harmonie des Cepages (the “Five Cepages,” $49) is a blend of five varietals: cabernet sauvignon (39%), cabernet franc (20%), merlot (18%), malbec (14%) and petit verdot (9%).  This wine is still improving with age.  The 2011 will not have any cabernet sauvignon and will (naturally) be Quatre Cepages. But the 2010 is excellent. From the tasting notes: “Aromas of dried cranberies and candied cherries lead to deep red berry flavors, raspberry and red licorice; lively tannins with balanced acidity.”

A Digression on Health

Like many folks, Roger believes that wine is healthy.  When he was growing up on his family’s farm in France, he started drinking wine as a child.  Good wine, good food, and staying active are the keys.

Next Up

The 2010 Cuvee des Trois Cepages ($55) is a blend of three varietals.  (You could have guessed that by now.) Cabernet sauvignon (70%), merlot (17%) and cabernet franc (13%) are the chosen three.  Again we rely on the tasting notes: “A show of finesse and elegance in Bordeaux characters; from the aroma on, a cascade of black fruit, cherries, black licorice, cassis, anise and crushed sage; subtle firm tannins with rounded edges.”

Roger confessed that he grows about 0.25 acre of zinfandel. When he was in the restaurant business, he found that zinfandel wines did not complement his food, so he avoided them.  That opinion still guides him as he uses the zinfandel entirely for blending.  That’s even more true as the newer zinfandel clones produce more sugar and lead to the 15 percent plus alcohol levels.


RN Estate tastings are by appointment only.  Roger’s preferred time slots are 11 am and 1 pm Saturday and Sunday.  There are about half a dozen people allowed at each tasting.  Make an appointment, try to show up on time (tip: there is no sign on the road, look for the street address), and you will learn a lot about wine, food, and life.  Highly recommended.

Neyers Vineyards is a Winery to Watch

Once again, Artisan Wine Depot brought a new winery to our neighborhood.  Neyers Vineyards is a winery to watch. Bruce and Barbara Neyers have been growing grapes for about 20 years. In 2000 they expanded significantly, adding a second location.  The Sage Canyon Winery is in (surprise!) the Sage Canyon area east of Rutherford near Lake Hennessey.  The winery was completed in 2000 with the first full crush in 2001.  The older Conn Valley Ranch vineyards are in the hills east of St. Helena.  Those vineyards are mainly devoted to cabernet sauvignon and merlot.  The “Neyers Ranch” designation refers to grapes grown in those vineyards. The winery is very up-front about the French influence in the wines. Bruce and Barbara both have strong roots in the food industry.  Bruce still works part-time for Kermit Lynch, while Barbara’s resumé features a stint at Chez Panisse.

Bruce and Barbara Neyers

Bruce and Barbara Neyers

Clark Evans was our host for the afternoon.  The first two wines were chardonnays. The 2012 Carneros (Napa Valley, $30) is oak and butter with a nice citrus overlay.  Not to our taste, but fans of this style will love this wine.  The 2011 Vendimia vineyard (Sonoma Valley, $42) is lighter with notes of lemon, lime, and peach.  Nice and quaffable, but priced out of our range for this style.

Clark Evans and Tony

Clark Evans and Tony

Next up were two zinfandels.  We tasted them with some reluctance.  Ever since Passalacqua decided to shift their focus away from zins and toward cabs, and Zichichi decided to make high-alcohol aperitif-stype zins, we have been skeptical about California zins.  But we brought home one bottle of each of these goodies.  The 2012 Vista Luna zinfandel (Borden Ranch, $35) is a near-pinot noir experience reminiscent of the zins we drank back in the 1970s. Borden Ranch is located in the Sierra Foothills, home to many fine zinfandel vineyards. The 2011 Del Barba (Contra Costa County, $30) has more spice and zip than  the Vista Luna, with strong cherry overtones.  We’re looking forward to enjoying these two over the winter months.

Neyers Red Lineup

Neyers Red Lineup

Neyers 2010 Conn Valley merlot ($38) is quite flavorful.  Based on the aroma I guessed that there was some cab blended in.  I was correct.  The wine is 15 percent cab which makes it quite flavorful compared to the usual bland merlot.

The 2010 Old Lakeville Road Syrah (Sonoma Coast, $35) has a terrific mouth feel with hints of pepper and spice.  A terrific aroma greets you and a lingering finish. Those interested in history should note that the Neyers website offers vintages 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 from this vineyard, making for a potentially very interesting vertical.

The 2012 Roberts Road pinot noir (Sonoma Coast, $40) is, ironically, less interesting than the zins.  However, we are assured by the tasting notes that this wine needs a few years to develop.  While we don’t have the patience (or space in our cellar), this may appeal to some readers.

Last on the list was the 2009 Conn Valley cabernet sauvignon (Napa Valley, $60).  At which point I concluded once again that I am just not a cab lover.  This wine is about as good as a cab can get — but it’s not for me.

Neyers is a newcomer and was new to us.  They are worth watching because they seem to know how to handle good grapes.  Their tendency toward French-style wines is not to our taste, but your taste is almost certainly not identical to ours.  Give them a try!

Lynmar Estate Madmen Ball

The Menu

The Menu


[Update August 23: Lynmar has posted a photo gallery of the Madmen Ball.]

We are long-time members of Lynmar Estate’s Advocates wine club.  When we got the invitation to the Lynmar Estate Madmen Ball, we accepted eagerly.  The event lived up to our expectations.  No, that’s wrong.  Our expectations were wildly exceeded.  At our age (well, my age), we’re usually not allowed to have that much fun.

The party was held in the 32nd floor ballroom of the venerable St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco.  Now owned by the Westin chain, this hotel has been a destination for, well, longer than we’ve been in California.  Luckily, Westin hasn’t screwed up the franchise.  We got a room in the old wing, with smaller rooms but there is a definite air of luxury and privacy.

Lynn Fritz Visits Our Table

Lynn Fritz Visits Our Table

We arrived around 6:30 and were greeted with the warmth we have come to expect.  Proprietor Lynn Fritz and his lovely wife Anisya came over to greet us personally.  As always, the two circulated around the rooms, chatting with their guests and making occasional announcements.

Anisya Making an Announcement

Anisya Making an Announcement

With the band playing music from the fifties and sixties and the wine flowing freely, the dance floor was soon packed.

A Vocalist With the Band

A Vocalist With the Band

 ... and Then Things Got Rowdy

… and Then Things Got Rowdy

Some people went all-out with period costumes:

MadMen Fashionistas

MadMen Fashionistas

Lynmar's Nancy Vandegrift

Lynmar’s Nancy Vandegrift

Then there’s the food.  The smoked salmon first course and the deconstructed apple pie dessert surrounded an excellent meal.

Smoked Salmon First Course

Smoked Salmon First Course

Deconstructed Apple Pie

Deconstructed Apple Pie

The party wouldn’t have been as much fun without our table companions:

Our Table Companions

Our Table Companions

More Table Companions

More Table Companions

More Table Companions

More Table Companions

And some crowd scenes:

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Alois Lageder Brings the Best of Italy to California

On June 27 we got a special invitation from our friends at Artisan Wine Depot.

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The following day they were sponsoring a tasting of wines from the Italian winemaker Alois Lageder.  (Remember, we are wine fans from California, not just fans of California wines.)  We accepted quickly and looked forward to the event with great anticipation.  And we can say that Alois Lageder brings the best of Italy to California.

Alois Lageder barrel aging

Alois Lageder barrel aging

Urs Vetter, the company’s director of sales and marketing, was pouring tastes and talking wine.  The winery is in the Dolomites about 130 km north of Verona and 182 km southeast of St. Moritz, Switzerland (see maps below).  As you might expect, the town has “picturesque” written all over it.  The winery is located in the heart of Italy’s Alto Adige viticultural area If you think Italian wines begin and end with a flask-shaped bottle wrapped in straw, try these and you’ll change your mind in a hurry.

View Italy’s Alto Adige wine region in a larger map

First up was the 2010 Pinot Bianco “Haberle.” Bright straw color with a hint of green. Aromas of green apples followed by a clean, elegant flavor, and a finish redolent of mint.  It was followed by the 2011 vintage “Vignetti Delle Dolomiti.”  This was lighter and less acidic, more to our taste.

Alois Lageder cellar

Alois Lageder cellar

Urs was pouring a Müller Thurgau which we declined.  Instead we moved on to the 2011 Pinot Grigio, also “Vignetti Delle Dolomiti.”  The straw color with a hint of green seems to be characteristic of Alois Legeder’s whites.  This wine has aromas of freshly cut flowers with a bit of spice. A terrific mouth feel, with mint and a touch of cedar smoke on the finish.

Magre, Italy

Magre, Italy

The 2012 Lagrein Rosé has aromas of raspberries and strawberries with a touch of lavender. More red fruit flavors followed by a minty finish with a bitter twist at the end.

Finally, the 2008 Pinot Noir “Krafuss” has earthy varietal aromas with a hint of  tobacco and some spice. More tobacco, leather, and earth on the palate with tannins still firmly in place.  Despite its age this wine should be cellared for at least another two years.

Alois Lageder was founded in 1823, reminding us of the relative youth of the U.S. wine industry compared to much of the rest of the world.  The Lageder family has owned and managed the winery for five generations, with Alois Lageder IV the current CEO. Inspired by meeting Robert Mondavi in 1981, Alois experimented also with the maturation of wines in small oak barrels. Wines such as his red Cor Römigberg Cabernet Sauvignon and his white Löwengang Chardonnay created a whole new style and quality standard on the Alto Adige wine scene.

Alois Lageder's new winery

Alois Lageder’s new winery

Mr. Lageder is one of the new breed of European winemakers, combining the best old world techniques with appropriate modern methods to produce great wines.  We feel privileged to have tasted some of his products.

Pali Wines at Artisan Wine Depot

Our favorite local wine shop, Artisan Wine Depot, hosted a tasting of Pali wines on June 21.  We hurried over in anticipation of a delightful event.  We were not disappointed — Pali put together an interesting, varied selection of two chardonnays and seven pinot noirs.  Here we’re only going to review our four favorites among the pinots.

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Hosted by the delightful Joanie Hudson (Western Regional Sales Manager), the setting was the tasting room at Artisan.  We were pleased to see that the sales counter at the front of the store was mobbed. What’s good for them is good for us. But we’re here to talk about Pali Wines at Artisan Wine Depot.

The two chardonnays were both 2011 Sonoma Coast varietals.  The “Charm Acres” ($21 but sold out according to the website) opened with delightful, unexpected roasted pear aromas.  The grapefruit-citrus flavors served as a palate cleanser.  The “Durell Vineyard” ($30 according to the tasting notes) opens with aromas of ripe melon, followed by honeydew and pineapple.

The first pinot was the “Riviera” 2010 Sonoma Coast ($21).  The color has brownish tints, but that should not put anyone off.  This is good stuff.  Aromas of damp earth, forest floor and mushroom.  Concentrated ripe black berries explode on the palate, moving into nuances of fresh raspberries. A long, amazing caramel – butterscotch finish closes the show in spectacular fashion.

Up next was the “Huntington” 2011 Santa Barbara County ($22.50). We rate this the bargain of the tasting. Aromas of crushed rock,  pepper and cherry followed by flavors of blackberries and plum held with a peppery finish closer to a zinfandel.  We brought home a bottle to have with our spicy dinner Friday night. (Chicken in lime-chipotle marinade for anyone who is interested.)

The “Summit” 2011 Santa Rita Hills ($29) begins with aromas of fresh crushed raspberries, and nuances of white pepper. Flavors feature more white pepper, limestone and minerality.

The “Bluffs” 2011 Russian River Valley ($22.50) presents aromas of earthy mushroom, black cherry with nuances of cedar. This is a straightforward pinot noir with no pretensions. On the palette, lush tannins give way to red fruits.

The Pali website has an unusual organization.  To find 2011 vintages that are not single-vineyard designates, click here. For single-vineyard wines click here.

What Is Champagne?

What is Champagne? This question is raised by a story on NPR’s Morning Edition.  The focus of the story was Champagne.  There were so many inaccuracies and misstatements that I’m writing two pieces.  This is the second, covering the production technology of champagne. The first, The Economics of Champagne is on, my economics blog.

Misunderstanding Sparkling Wine Chemistry

The focus of the NPR story was the bubbles.  As almost everyone knows, smaller bubbles generally mean the wine was made using the méthode champenoise.  The secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, with the wine allowed to rest on the lees for an extended period, often years.  Quoting from the NPR website [emphasis added].

If you listen to my story, you’ll hear a tour with Fred Frank, third-generation winemaker at Chateau Frank, part of Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. Frank uses the traditional Champagne method to produce his sparkling wines. It’s a labor- and time-intensive process whereby each bottle goes through a second fermentation in the bottle. “The benefit of this method is higher-quality sparkling wine,” Frank says.

Mr. Frank is quite correct as far as his statement goes. But another expert, “French chemist Gerard Liger-Belair, author of Uncorked: The Science of Champagne has this to say:

So what’s the science behind this? Liger-Belair said that by using the Champagne method, “the [bubble-producing] CO2 produced by yeast cannot escape into the atmosphere, and is kept mainly dissolved into [the] Champagne.”

This is laughably incorrect. For one thing, this statement is true of beer, carbonated beverages, and sparkling wine produced by the Charmat process.  Let’s learn some real chemistry.

Actual Sparkling Wine Chemistry

As the wine rests on the lees, autolysis occurs.  The cell walls of the yeast break down, releasing amino acids and other proteins into the wine.  In essence, this increases the specific gravity of the liquid, creating smaller bubbles that also last longer.  For those who are curious, Tom Stevenson provides this explanation [emphasis added].(Those who enjoy chemistry are encouraged to read Mr. Stevenson’s entire article.  Fascinating material, very well explained.)

Full yeast autolysis is unwelcome in most wines, but it is essential for Champagne. After remuage, Champagne may undergo a further period of ageing before the sediment is removed. The benefits of yeast-contact are derived from autolysis, which is the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells. This occurs several months after the second fermentation, lasts for between four and five years, although up to 10 years is possible, and it:

  1. Releases reducing enzymes that inhibit oxidation, thereby reducing the need for sulphur dioxide.
  2. Absorbs certain essential yeast nutrients, which is the main reason why the dosage does not cause Champagne to referment.
  3. Increases amino acids and other nitrogenous matter, which are the precursors to the inimitable ‘champagne’ character, including the acacia-like aroma and finesse noticed in a recently disgorged Champagne and the complex bottle-aromas built-up after disgorgement (see Maillard Reaction).
  4. Produces acetal, which possibly adds a biscuity or brandy-like complexity.
  5. Produces mannoprotein MP32, which reduces tartrate precipitation.

After autolysis has finished, if a sparkling wine is kept on its lees, it merely remains fresher than the same wine disgorged at an earlier date, but the longer it is kept in this state, the more rapid the evolution after disgorgement. This is because the older a sparkling wine gets, the more sensitive it becomes to the sudden shock of exposure to the air during the disgorgement process.

The Judgment of … Finger Lakes?

But, believe it or not, the real travesty occurs in a tasting.  Mr. Frank;s sparkling wine was compared to “the bubble streams of a bottle of 2005 Chateau Frank and a midpriced bottle of California bubbly. While the Chateau Frank bubbles were noticeably tinier, both produced multiple streams of bubbles that lasted a long while.”

Wow.  There are many California wineries producing high-quality sparkling wines.  Schramsberg, Korbel, and J Vineyards come to mind.  We are especially fond of the Brut Coquard from Laetitia (a bargain at $35).  NPR chose to compare what is presumably a high-end Finger Lakes sparkler with a California wine most likely produced by the Charmat process.  The most amazing aspect of this story is the sheer volume of educational material available on the web.  In ten minutes, the reporter could have learned more than she did in this entire interview.

Laetitia Brut Coquard

Laetitia Brut Coquard


NPR prides itself on not “dumbing down” their broadcasting.  Sadly, they seem to spend too much time congratulating themselves and not enough time doing actual reporting.