VinoWeek EP 6 - Week of April 19

On this week's VinoWeek podcast we discuss Jeff Siegel's article on the premiumization of wine.  Are consumers really trading up for more expensive wines?  Locally here in wine country we have our legislators making an effort to fix something that doesn't seem to be broken.  Derek Moore pens an interesting post on the legal limbo which barbers and beauty salon owners are finding themselves.  Lake County, Napa north if you will, has been discovered and is gaining more recognition for its microclimates and its rich red volcanic based soils.  If your'e a music lover, a foodie and a wine lover hurry up and get your tickets for Bottle Rock Napa 2015.  The entertainment line-up looks great and the food, beer and wine choices on offer will be spectacular.  We touch on  some more local politics involving the newly proposed Dairyman Winery and a change in ownership of one of the top wine retail destinations for wine lovers in Sonoma County.  We are holding our breath and hoping that the new owner doesn't make any drastic changes to the Bottle Barn.  Christopher Barnes writes and article for Grape Collective, highlighting ViniVeri and Giampiero Bea's philosophy on natural winemaking.  We hope you enjoy the podcast and learn a few things as well.  If you like what you hear, be social and tell a friend.  Thanks for listening and cheers!  

Fausto Albanesi and the wines of Torre Dei Beati

I first became acquainted with the wines of Fausto Albanesi  by happenstance.  I was purchasing wine from an online provider and I was short three bottles to fill out my order.  As I browsed through their offerings his 2010 base bottling of Montepulciano D' Abruzzo caught my eye, so I filled out the order with them.  I picked the wine because  I was familiar with the soft, full of fruit, mildly tannic wines that could be made from that grape.  In fact most Montepulciano D' Abruzzo can always be counted on for modest pricing and good quality.  Upon trying Torre Dei Beati's Montepulciano, to say that I was surprised with the purity and clean expression the wine showed would be an understatement.  We tried another bottle a few weeks later with a spicy ragout over pappardelle.  This served to confirm that we had found a diamond in the rough, so we anted up and purchased another six pack for the wine stash. 

Fast forward to this year's Gambero Rosso, San Francisco and Torre Dei Beati wines were on our list of wines to try.  Fausto's wines have garnered many awards for excellence over the years and his "Cocciapazza" cru Montepulciano is a perennial three glass award winner at Gambero Rosso.   Some producers for various reasons may not attend the tasting and they have the distributor representatives show the wines.  Those producers that choose to make the trip have taken on a substantial financial commitment.  Larger producers with a vast network of distribution in the United States always have a line of people two or three deep.  Sometimes there can be a herd mentality at these tastings, so finding an under the radar winery that makes very fine wines, that others aren't knocking each other out to try can be rewarding.  This strategy is as simple as looking where others don't and seeking out unfamiliar grape varieties.  The line at Fausto's table was short and it worked to our advantage as we got to spend several minutes discussing his business.  Fausto's warmth and generosity with his time was unforgettable.

Fausto and his family live in the hilly town of Loreto Aprutino, a small village of about 4,000 people near the Gran Sasso mountains, about 25 kilometers from the Adriatic coastline.  He first met his wife Adrianna at Vinitaly, the Italian Wine Exposition held every spring in Verona.   Their wine estate is near an area called Coccia Pazza, which in Italian Abruzzo dialect means crazyhead.  His next door neighbors, the mythical estate of Eduardo Valentini , forge wines that command unbelievable sums of cash.  Fortunately for us we don't have to spend eye popping amounts of money to experience Fausto's wines.  Torre Dei Beati wines are imported into the states, but you won't find them at big box stores or chains; look to a small specialty wine retailer to acquire them.  Cerasuolo, Trebbiano D' Abruzzo and Pecorino are wines that you may not be familiar with, but you need to try these wines to experience their purity and sense of place.  These and his entry level Montepulciano all retail in the $15 to $20 dollar range and are well worth the search.  His top tier Mazzamurello and Cocciapazza wines start at $35.   

Join us as we find out more about Fausto and the wines of Torre Dei Beati, why he's chosen to farm organically from the outset and what makes his wines so special.  Thanks for listening.  Cheers!

VinoWeek Episode 3 - Week of March 08, 2015

In this Vinoweek podcast we discuss Yao Ming's recent foray into the world of crowdsourcing for his Napa winery.  Other topics include Premier Napa Valley, the trademark infringement suit CIVC vs Champagne Jayne, Wal-Mart suing the state of Texas for the right to sell spirits, the state of California suing Ernest and Julio Gallo over hazardous dust disposal, and this weekend's barrel  tasting events in Sonoma County.  Thanks for listening.  Cheers!

Allegrini Estate Stewards of Tradition and Innovation

Recently we visited the  Allegrini estate in the commune of Fumane, located in the heart of Valpolicella.  The Valpolicella  Classico region is in northeastern Italy, east of Lake Garda and northwest of Verona with the Lessini Mountains to the north.   Being a closet Valpolicella fan, to say that I was in my element would be a huge understatement.  One could easily debate the merits of old world wine versus new world wines but one central idea that cannot be debated at least not seriously:  the type of wines they make in the special and unique hills of Valpolicella Classico can't be made anywhere else in the world.  

Massimo Bernardi

Massimo Bernardi

Our guide for our visit was Sales Manager Massimo Bernardi.  A graduate student of economics and a reformed entrepreneur, Massimo's warmth and his ardor for his vocation were energizing.  He affirmed our measurement by stating, " I'm a very lucky man because I've chosen my job.  Working in the wine world without passion and enthusiasm for me is impossible".  He escorted us as we toured the cellars, the drying facility and Villa Della Torre. 


The Allegrini operation is sizable.  One gets the feeling as you tour the three different sites where their operations are carried out, that they are bursting at the seams.  Look carefully though and you can see that this family owned business has very thoughtful and deliberate caretakers at the helm.  The Allegrini's own all 247 acres of the vineyards they farm so that they can control the quality of the grapes.  All of their vineyards are up in the hills.  These hillside locations, at between a 800 to 1,600 foot elevation provide good drainage, proper sunlight and wind for good healthy grapes.  Allegrini produces about 83,333 cases of wine. 

Traditional Pergola Veronese After Pruning

Traditional Pergola Veronese After Pruning

They produce  a  Recioto della Valpolicella Classico D.O.C.G. wine that is named in honor of the founder Giovanni  Allegrini and three D.O.C. wines, Soave, Valpolicella Classico and Amarone della Valpolicella Classico.  Departing from traditional blends in order to make another tier of complex and refined wines they make three single vineyard I.G.T. Veronese wines, Palazzo Della Torre, La Grola and La Poja.  The three latter wines may not have the pedigree that is inferred by the D.O.C. designation on their labels, but the wines are excellent examples of the type of quality and purity that can be coaxed out of grapes grown in the Veronese hills.   Allegrini is a benchmark producer of Amarone, a wine made from dried grapes that are fermented until there is no residual sugar left.  Amarone is a big wine, often over 15 % abv but when well made it can show incredible elegance and charm. 

French oak barriques in the Orignal Cellar

French oak barriques in the Orignal Cellar

Our tour began in the original cellar and it's here where we learned that the Allegrini familly has played an important role in Veronese wine culture since the sixteenth century.   The cellar has some of the original wood vessels that are still being used for blending the wines.  We noticed  lots of new french barriques also, a sign of a departure from traditional cask ageing in large wooden vessels ( botte ).            

 Contemporary winemaking and viticulture was spearheaded by Giovanni Allegrini.   He challenged conventional farming and chose to purchase and cultivate single vineyard "cru wines" (a vineyard that produces a high quality wine) from unfarmed plots on hillsides and pioneered increased vine density in the vineyard and guyot training to replace the pergola veronese training which is still very prominent in the Valpolicella zone.  When Giovanni  passed away in 1983 his three children Walter, Marilisa and Franco took over the company.  Giovanni's eldest son Walter passed on in 2003 and now the company is run by Franco who heads the winemaking operations and Marilisa who is responsible for sales and marketing.  Recently Allegrini switched  importers and now the brand is handled in the U.S. market exclusively by E. & J. Gallo Winery. 

Slavonian Oak Botti

Slavonian Oak Botti

Upon completing our tour of the cellar and bottling room we took a short drive to Centro Terre di Fumane, their drying facility.  Terre di Fumane is an association of eight wineries of which Franco Allegrini  is the president.  The facility was the first of its kind and was built in 1990.  Fifteen hundred years of drying history have lead to this innovative operation.  Specially selected grape bunches of  Corvina Veronese, Rondinella and Oseleta are dried at this facility and used in the production of Allegrini's  Amarone, Recioto and Palazzo della Torre wines.  One would think the appassimento process (drying of the grapes) would be the easiest part of winemaking, however it's actually one of the most delicate phases of the operation.  During appassimento, 100 to 120 days, the grapes lose 40 to 50 percent of their weight.  Many of Amarones' most noteworthy producers place their grapes for drying on wooden trays or bamboo racks in open air lofts.  While this may be more romantic it's not very practical if your goal is to have a botrytis-free grape at the end of the drying process.  Some winemakers consider a little botrytis fungus beneficial to the finished wine but  at Allegrini  humidity and botrytis are the enemy.  At Terre di Fumane the grapes are laid out in plastic bins which are easy to wash and sanitize.  The building is equipped with an elaborate ventilation system that helps to prevent botrytis development during the critical first few days of the drying regimen.  At its core this cutting-edge mentality is a hallmark of the Allegrini business model.  They respect the past, what those that have come before them have done and they are constantly striving to preserve historically important parts of the wine culture in Veneto, yet they're unafraid to break new ground and use science and technology to increase their odds of making better wines.

Fantastic Fireplace

Fantastic Fireplace

 Twenty-five years ago Valpolicella producers were hard pressed to sell the 1.5 million bottles of Amarone that were made annually.  That's no longer the case.  Consumer thirst for big flavored, fruit forward wines has spurned a turnaround in the zone.  When I asked Massimo why does it seem like there is so much more ripasso styled wine in the marketplace these days?  He replied, " Because we have increased the production of Amarone.  We need the skins of  Amarone to make it.  Think about this number.  Amarone production eight years ago was four million bottles and today it is sixteen million bottles.  This is very dangerous".  I didn't ask Massimo a follow up question but my hunch is that he's concerned that this rapid expansion in Valpolicella  could have some unintended consequences.  One needn't feel uneasy about the prospect of overproduction because  an association consisting of twelve historical Amarone Families was recently formed to protect the tradition, production standards, quality, and pricing of Amarone.  Marilisa Allegrini serves as the current president of Amarone Families.  The Amarone families distinctive hologram on a bottle of Amarone is the mark of an authentic,  high quality wine.

Villa Della Torre

Villa Della Torre

We left the drying facility and drove over to Villa della Torre.  Della Torre is a surname and the villas first owner was Giulio della Torre.  Construction was finished around 1560.  The Allegrini's are the 27th owners of the residence which they purchased in 2008.  The Palazzo Della Torre vineyard, planted in 1968  surrounds the villa.  The villa structure is centered around a courtyard with a fountain as its focal point.  From here if you head in the direction of the village you'll discover fish ponds and a beautiful lawn area that is used for concerts in the summer.  The villa has a bell tower, a mystery cave, chapel, state of the art kitchen and some incredible gargoyle adorned fireplaces.  To learn more about Villa Della Torre's history or to book a visit click this link.  

We concluded our visit with a tasting of some of the estates current releases.

2013 Valpolicella Classico  -   65% Covina Veronese, 30% Rondinella and 5% Molinara  -   This wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks and spends two months in bottle before it's released.  Crafted in the traditional style delightful aromas of red cherries and violets jump out of the glass.  In the mouth you receive more red cherries and a very pleasing juiciness, complimented by some firm acidity and freshness.  Medium bodied with a hint of pepper spice on the finish this Valpolicella is charming and would pair well with salumi and cheeses, soups, tomato sauced pastas and grilled chicken.   12.9% abv $13 - $15   

2011 Palazzo della Torre Veronese I.G.T.   -  70% Corvina Veronese, 25% Rondinella and 5% Sangiovese  -  Allegrini's Pallazzo della Torre is a tribute to what wine insiders refer to  as a 'Baby Amarone' or a ripasso styled wine.  The vineyards for this wine surround the villa.  In crafting the wine they use the whole bunch of the dried grapes (30% of the blend), not just the pomace or skins as you would for a typical ripasso wine.  It's a subtle but important distinction in the winemaking process, as I believe this one step is what gives the wine its extraordinary richness, complexity and depth of flavors.  The remaining 70% of wine is made from fresh grapes.  The wine spends about 18 months in first and second use barriques and seven months in  bottle before release.  A deep ruby color with aromas of black cherries and black plum, baking spice and that characteristic dried raisin character ( from the appassimento process) are followed with more of the same on the palate.  Medium bodied the wine is held together with soft round tannins and just the right amount of oak.  This wine pairs well with charcuterie, lasagna and a variety of richer flavored pasta dishes.  Try it with grilled or roasted meats.  We tasted the 2011 which is not on the market yet, but the 2010 which has the same flavor profile is currently available.  A textbook example of ripasso styled wine I always have a vintage or two of Palazzo della Torre in my wine stash.  You should too.  Even though ready to drink upon offer, a testament to how well it's made is that it ages extremely well.  At such a reasonable price point one could easily justify buying a case and drinking it over a number of years to see what pleasure it brings with bottle age.  13.8% abv 20,833 cases produced $16 - $18    

2011 La Grola Veronese I.G. T.   -  80% Corvina Veronese, 10% Oseleta and 10% Syrah  -  The La Grola vineyard was first planted in 1979 and the Syrah planting was the first of its kind in the region.   The vines are guyot vertical-trellis trained as well, revolutionary thinking for that time period.  Perched on a picturesque hilltop site with southeastern exposure in the town of Sant'Ambrogio,  at about 984 ft elevation, La Grola's 74 acre plot is densely planted to approximately  1700 vines per acre.  Long considered a top cru Massimo offered, " La Grola I think because I live here, is the most beautiful vineyard in all of Valpolicella".  The wine is made entirely from fresh grapes and is probably one of the best examples of the character of Corvina.  In the glass showing aromas of lavender, roses, red cherry  and raspberry  the wine turns more angular in its focus, on the palate.  Definitely in its infancy there's good concentration,  but it's a more brooding style, full bodied with rich cherry notes,  hints of cocoa and anise, very good acids and a medium length elegant finish.  It's  fresh and clean and I'm convinced it would have shown even better with more time in the glass.  The wine spends 16 months in barrique and 10 months in bottle.  At the table La Grola calls for grilled meats.  Try it with grilled sausages and portabella mushrooms or a beef stew.  13.7% abv 20,833 cases produced $30 - $34

2009 Amarone Classico  -  80% Corvina Veronese, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta  -  Hand harvested grape bunches are collected from various hillside sites throughout Valpolicella Classico for their Amarone.  The grape bunches are dried for three to four months and then pressed and fermented in January.  The wine spends about 18 months in a combination of new and second passage oak.  The most striking feature of this wine is its impeccable balance.  Quite amazing when you consider its 15.8% alcohol content.  Refined for over four years before release the nose displays black cherry, clove, chocolate,fig and spice.  Not at all a hammer the wine is seamlessly structured, showing great depth of fruit with ideal acidity and well integrated tannins and wood flavors.  Staying in character with the other wines in the portfolio it still exhibits freshness on its long velvety finish.  Allegrini's Amarone is a perennial top award winner in many well established wine publications and with good reason.  It's providing so much drinking pleasure already I can't help but wonder how many bottles will be put aside for aging by consumers.  If you have never tried an Amarone this would be an excellent introduction to the power, richness and complex flavors that it can offer.  Drinkable enough to have on its own; it's that good, you should try it with a plate of dried nuts and Gorgonzola.  Charcoal grilled steaks and richly seasoned beef stews would be good pairings too.  You can find Amarone style wines in discount stores priced around $15.  Avoid them like the plague.  They are what their price suggests, cheap nockoffs.  The higher labor cost in the production of Amarone makes it a more costly wine.  Prices for good Amarone start around $30 and can escalate to over $300 a bottle for certain noted producers, but here's where Allegrini excels.  Their Amarone has a broad market presence and at $65 to $75 the pedigree and price to quality ratio of their wine is unquestionable.  10,416 cases produced

2010 Giovanni Allegrini Recioto Valpolicella Classico  -  80% Corvina Veronese, 15% Rondinella and 5% Oseleta  -  The grape bunches are dried until they have lost about half of their original weight.  Then the grapes are destemmed,  crushed and fermented in stainless steel tanks for 25 days with a daily pump over regimen.  The fermentation stops naturally leaving a residual sugar of 118 g/l.  The wine spends 14 months in french oak barriques.  This dessert wine is available in a 500ml format bottle.  It's dark purple in color with an intense black cherry jam and baking spice nose.  It's sweet but not cloying exhibiting good zip and acidity on the palate, ending with a long satisfying finish.  A great way to end a meal this wine can be easily enjoyed on its own, but if you must, try it with your favorite chocolate torte or biscotti.  $54 - $62 500ml

Heartfelt thanks to Lael Hazan on twitter @educatedpalate and Flavia Antonini with Allegrini Hospitality who helped coordinate our visit.  And to Massimo Bernardi, hai ragione il mio amico, "with wine you are always a friend". 

 If you're ever near Verona, we highly recommend you set aside some time to visit Villa Della Torre.  It's a first-class experience. 





The Rural Beauty of Field Stone Winery & Vineyard


Since its inception  Field Stone Winery has been completely family owned and operated.  Wallace Johnson purchased the property in southern Alexander Valley , 750 acres in 1958 and named it Redwood Ranch.  When he purchased the property Alexander Valley was best known for grazing, fruit, fodder crops and prunes.  Yes , prunes were the top commercial agricultural crop for the area up until the early seventies.  In fact Healdsburg the hub of the area was once known as the "The Buckle of the Prune Belt".  Even when you travel through the valley today you can still see vestiges of old prune orchards  dotting the landscape.  

In the late 1960's Robert Young and other prune farmers in the area started experimenting with grape growing as it seemed it might turn out to be more profitable.  Fast forward to the present and wine grapes are now the number one cash crop in Alexander Valley.  

Wally's original intent was to use the ranch to raise cattle and plant vineyards to be used as a testing ground for his mechanical grape harvesting machine.  Ironically the Statens no longer use Wally's patented harvester,  but the neighboring ranchers at Rio Largo use a French-made mechanical harvester to harvest their grapes which they sell to Jordan, Kendall-Jackson and Girard Winery in Napa Valley.  Wally was very serious about his cattle and at one time he spent $100,000 to purchase a prized bull only to have it die a couple of years later.  

Wally graduated with honors from Cal Tech as a mechanical engineer.  Judging from the number of patents he held as a inventor, his business  and political achievements,  it's hard to imagine he had any time to sleep.  He served two terms as the last Republican Mayor of Berkeley California  from 1963 to 1971.  Wally thought long term and during his tenure as mayor  he fought Bay Area Rapid Transit board members and engineers over their plans to build the tracks in Berkeley between the stations above ground.  He believed that erecting elevated  tracks straight through the middle of town would spur a racial and ethnic divide in effect creating a right and wrong side of the tracks mentality.  In the end he prevailed convincing his political opponents and the tax payers to support a ballot initiative to increase taxes to cover the additional expense of having the tracks buried underground.  Wally also owned a successful business, Upright Scaffolding Inc., that built quality portable  aluminum scaffolding systems and one the first mechanical grape harvesters.  When you visit the winery you can see how he used his engineering knowledge to construct one of the first underground wineries since prohibition.  Wally passed away in 1979 a few years after his wineries construction had been completed.  

After Wally's death the ranch passed into the hands of his four children.  Of the four heirs his daughter Katrina and her husband John Staten were  the only ones that wanted to take on the responsibility of running the winery.  The property was divided up with the other three children receiving larger portions of the property while the Statens kept fifty acres and the winery.  The other three kids shortly sold their portion of the property to the Reed Family.  Today the Reeds farm about 350 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon wine grapes.  

John Staten having spent some time on a sheep ranch in Texas was familiar with farm life, so when he found himself suddenly thrust with the responsibility of running a ranch, vineyards and a winery he embraced the opportunity.  Having earned a B.A. in history and philosophy from Stanford University he pursued studies in Theology, attending Princeton and The University of Chicago.  He applied his Ph. D. in Theology, spreading the word if you will, by heading  religion departments at several  colleges in Northern California.  John displayed keen insight or perhaps even better vision, because who would have believed that the driver of a lime colored Datsun 240Z that could be seen zipping by his property along Highway 128 with great frequency during the harvest was none other than "the dean of American Winemakers" Andre Tchelistcheff.   Andre had retired from Beaulieu Vineyards  in 1973, but still worked as a consulting enologist for numerous wineries in Napa and Sonoma County.   John wisely cultivated a relationship with Andre who served as his senior enologist and advisor for over ten years.   Today John is still pretty hands on and can be seen at the winery about three days a week.  John's son Ben came on board in 1990 and is the Vineyard and General Manager.  The winemaker for Field Stone is Patrick Murray.  

Thirty-eight acres of the ranch are planted.  They grow one white grape variety Viognier, and the rest are red varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Syrah, Sangiovese and Syrah.  The Statens farm the land sustainably with minimal use of pesticides.  They are certified members of the  California Sustainable Winegrowing Program.  The ranch is 70% dry farmed on a good year.  They use manure from their neighbors, pomace from the previous vintages and lots of cover crops of wild onions and flowers to nourish the soils.  They have several owl boxes on the property but they have never really had a problem with birds trying to raid the grapes.  Another bonus for being at the southern end of the valley is they have not had to invest in any frost protection devices.  As you travel further up valley you'll notice vineyards with the fans and overhead sprinklers that are used to combat frost during the crucial periods of bud break. 

While walking the property with Josh Cortopassi our affable docent we learned that the front porch of the old farmhouse on the property was used as a setting for the famed Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler ads from the eighties. 

Field Stone's flagship wine is a Reserve Petite Sirah and the property  has a seven acre plot of 120 year old  vines that form a horseshoe around the farmhouse.  To put 120 year old vines in perspective most grape growers pull up established vineyards and replant usually before the vines reach their thirtieth birthday.  The reason being as vines age they produce less fruit.  Seeing the value of the old vineyard ( a survivor from the past) through a different prism the Statens have chosen to take what the old vines give them and look past the economic drawbacks of farming this plot.  The gnarled head trained vineyard yields grapes that produce a wine of intense blue, black opaque color.  Black cherries and blue fruits explode out of the glass, with some cocoa  and lavender in the background.  Full bodied in the mouth and tannic but the fruit is so deep and intense that the tannins feel ample, not overpowering.  The wine finishes with good length and persistence.  The 2012 example will invariably age well if you can manage not to drink it in its beautiful youth.  850 cases $38

The 2012 Vineyard Select Pinot Noir Russian River is Field Stone's second release of Pinot Noir.  Most farmers have learned that Alexander Valley is too warm to grow quality Pinot Noir and the family is smart enough to not go against the trend.  They source the grapes for this wine from the Russian River Valley at Hopkin's River Ranch, right off of Eastside Road in Healdsburg.  Why Pinot?  Because it's popular and they happen to have Patrick Murray as their winemaker and he's been working with Pinot for over ten years.  It speaks to the good nature and spirit of the family to support Pat by allowing him to use barrel space at the winery to follow his passion.  His own label is called Paro and he crafts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Sonoma County.  This Pinot Noir  exhibits aromas of raspberries and red cherries, cinnamon and spice with a hint of forest floor.  Showing a fine balance of fruit acids and oak tannins this one will delight you with elegance not brawn.  392 cases $30

The  2012 Convivio is a red blend composed of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Sangiovese.   Convivio is less fruit driven than many of the other offerings.  The wine displays aromas of black fruit , tobacco, pencil shavings and earth, with medium body and length on the finish.  It's fifteen dollars at the winery but if you shop around you can find it for ten bucks at retail.  John is an ordained Presbyterian minister and he put his beliefs to work with this affordable wine.  The family donates a portion of the proceeds to Clinica Alianza, a non-profit medical center that serves farm workers, and everyone from newborns to elderly in Sonoma County.  620 cases $15

There are roughly 1,800 bearing acres of Sangiovese planted in California.  Contrast that to over 80,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon planted and one can see it's an uphill battle in the marketplace for Sangiovese.  Aged in American Oak Field Stone's 2012 Sangiovese starts with a cranberry, red cherry, lavender and tobacco leaf nose.  On the palate more red fruit, lively acidity and modest tannins.  You wouldn't mistake it for a good Chianti Classico but why should you.  It's distinctly Californian and as Sangiovese should be, would be suitable for a wide variety of foods.  483 cases $27

The 2012 Marion's Block Syrah is aged in American and new Hungarian Oak for 16 months.  Floral aromas of lavender and violets, accompany , framboise, boysenberry and black plums with hints of black licorice and spice in the background.   With beautiful texture on the palate the wine is delightfully lush and savory, full bodied carrying a long satisfying finish.  392 cases $27

Alexander Valley happens to be a great area to cultivate Merlot and Field Stone's vineyard block on the north side of the property is no exception.  At one time the owners  of  Chateau Ausone in Bordeaux's St-Emilion region were interested in purchasing the property so they could make a Bordeaux styled wine in California.  Andre Tchelistcheff acted as a duel broker for Ausone and Field Stone, but no deal was ever made.  What did come out of the courtship: the Statens were able to secure some French clonal selections for their vineyard.  Their 2012 Merlot is aged in French-coopered American oak  barrels for nineteen months but only 30% of the barrels are new.   The nose shows black cherries,  currants and tobacco.  On the palate you'll get a good grip of chewy tannins, oak and a hint of leather.  Very good now but several more months in the bottle should help it become more integrated.  490 cases $25

The 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is the workhorse wine for the Field Stone lineup with production at 1,680 cases.  The budwood for the  vineyards is comprised of two Bordeaux clones:  three clones from Napa Valley, BV1(Beaulieu) , Martha's Vineyard (Heitz) and Niebaum respectively.  Aged in 70% French and 30% American Oak the aromas open with black berries and black currants, while the oak influence is firm and in check.  This is more of a traditional Cabernet, old school if you will at 13.5% alcohol.  Its charm is its typicity and its balance in texture and flavors, not the flash and power that we have come to expect from Cabernet made in the "other valley".  On the palate one senses a little red fruit coming forth accompanied by hints of tobacco and pencil shavings.  It's full bodied and bold and would be the perfect accompaniment to a steak cooked on an open grill.  Just what the founder Wally had in mind.  $32

The 2012 Staten Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was raised for 20 months in French Oak (40% new).  It was a bit closed when I tasted it showing black fruit and black currants, firm tannins and a rich mouth feel.  More concentrated than their other Cabernet it shows great promise.  494 cases  $45  

Field Stone also makes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Rose of Petite Sirah, Viognier, a Vintage Port and a Late Harvest Viognier.  Their Chardonnay was sold out but the other white wines and Rose that I tasted were true to type and exhibited attractive fruit forward, clean flavors.  

If you're ever touring Sonoma County Field Stone Winery is well worth the visit.  Don't expect to find restaurants or convenience stores on their section of Highway 128, but they do have picnic tables just outside the winery's front door.  Stop in, taste their wonderful wines and  stock up on some newly found favorites.  Before you leave enjoy a relaxing  lunch under the oaks and take in the beautiful rural vistas of the surrounding ranches of Alexander Valley.

If you would like to learn more about Field Stone Winery & Vineyard follow the link below.

Fieldstone Winery

10 Soaves You Should Try


There I was in one of my favorite wine stores doing my usual thing, looking at all the different labels and reminding myself to make certain that 25% of my purchases have to be of wines I've never tried before.  It's a good way to keep your mind open to new discoveries and expand your knowledge of wine.  Lately I've been on a Bordeaux buying binge as there are an astounding number of good quality wines from the 2009 and  2010 vintage on the market. 

That's when I spied it, stacked on the floor at the end of the shelves in the far left corner at the back of the store.  Momentarily I reflected on standard grocery store marketing 101.  Remember how the staples that everyone buys, eggs dairy and meats are typically located at the back of the store.  Conventional wisdom being that when you come in to get those items you have to pass by all the slower moving items to do your shopping.  Ironically small retail wine shops rarely use that ploy and are more apt to use loss leader programs to get more eyeballs in their store.  Many retailers bait the consumer by prominently displaying the most well known wine brands at the front of the store and the lesser known producers, which are more of a hand sell toward the back of the store.  One of the great things about wine is that at any moment it can take you back to another place in time.  When I saw the Pieropan Soave in its distinctive elongated bottle shape that is the calling card of aromatic white wines, I instantly took a trip down memory lane to my earlier wine drinking days.  Of course back then Soave was more likely to be found  in a magnum format and with a screwcap.

 You see Soave has had and still suffers from a reputation, well deserved in many cases of being a thin, watery, undistinguishable, innocuous white wine from Italy.  After World War II Soave not unlike Lambrusco and Chianti captivated the U.S. wine consumer.  A combination of returning GI 's having been exposed to European wines and  broad based and successful advertising campaigns by the likes of Bolla and Folonari pushed Soave sales in the U. S. past those of Italy's most famous red wine Chianti. 

The problem was the original grape growing zone , which was primarily east and north of the town of Soave did not possess the  acreage to support all of the demand for the wine.  In steps the politicians who simply rezoned and expanded the original zone to include the flatter fertile  plains to the south towards the Adige river ,where you could now by law grow grapes to make Soave.  The end result was the Soave brand was diluted and its name sullied for two generations as growers took full advantage of the fertile plains and over cropped to get the maximum tonnage of grapes.  A market flooded with cheap plonk, the emergence of super brand Santa Margherita's Pinot Grigio and all its knock offs,  and it's easy to see why Soave can't get any love lately. 

My running  joke with wine merchants was " I'm putting together a Soave tasting, please show me what you have".  The puzzled looks I got from them was priceless.  With perseverance I was able to put together a good panel of wines, both entry level and single vineyard styles.  There has been a big push lately by the Soave Consorzio to reacquaint consumers with Soave.  It seems the Consorzio still has lots of work to do as I didn't find any wine shops in the San Francisco bay area that stocked more than one producer, if any of Soave.  When I did find a few selections they were typically the wineries entry level wines.  This time we had to cast a wider net to get a good representative group of wines and we ordered several of the wines for this tasting from New York and Southern California.  The weather was mild and all of the wines had a good journey and were allowed to rest in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks before we sampled them.

Our rediscovery of Soave conveniently coincided with the Soave Consorzio's Soave Master Class which was conducted at Verbena in San Francisco with Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein and Giovanni Ponchia.  The first flight of ten wines were tasted blind  and the final six wines were paired with some wonderfully creative and delicious dishes.  The execution and pacing for the class was on point and the background stories told by Giovanni and Evan helped acuminate my knowledge of the Soave region and its wines.  Big thanks to the Consorzio, Evan and his group, Giovanni, and the staff at Verbena for hosting this amazingly enriching event.  

What is Soave?  Soave is the name of a town, a wine, and a vineyard region  in north eastern Italy, in the Veneto region, roughly twelve miles east of Verona.  The original Soave Classico zone, whose producers we focused on for this tasting, is centered around Monte Foscarino which is due north of the towns of Soave and Monteforte d'Apone.  The hills outside the Soave Classico zone have been given the name " Colli Scaligeri" in reference to a family of Nobles who were at one time Lords of Verona.  The grand landmark for the town of Soave sitting above it in the hills is its medieval castle.  Erected in the tenth century it's on our bucket list of places to visit.  The Soave region covers over 16,000 acres and is divided into three areas, Soave DOC, Soave Classico DOC, and Soave Colli Scaligeri DOC.  The volcanic soils of the region, rich in iron, with dark basalt, tufa and calcareous clays contribute to the distinctive terroir of Soave.   The recipe for Soave DOC and Soave Classico DOC is a minimum of 70% Garganega  (gar-Gah-neh gah), up to 30% can be Trebbiano di Soave and/or Chardonnay and a 5% maximum of local varieties. The latter having stricter rules on yields and minimum ageing. The minimum alcohol requirement is 11% for Soave and  11.5% for Soave Classico.   There is also a Soave Superiore DOCG designation which calls for a higher minimum alcohol content of 12% and excludes Chardonnay entirely from the blend.  Superiore wines are made only from grapes grown in the hills of Classico and Colli Scaligeri.  Stricter maximum yields 70 hl/hectare, guyot only training 4,00vines per/hectare, and a minimum twelve month ageing regimen before release onto the market help make Superiore wines a rare find.  It seem the growers haven't caught up with the regulations yet.  There aren't any red wines made in the Soave wine region but there is some Soave Spumante DOC  and Recioto di Soave DOCG produced in the area. 

What's a DOC, IGT, DOP or DOCG?  These are all acronyms for Italian wine law hierarchy.  Italian wine laws always seem to be in a state of flux.  Recently in an attempt to keep all the members of the European Union on the same footing the EU took control of agriculture in Italy.   All future changes now go through Brussels.  With this new wrinkle I think it's fair to say that the only thing that won't change with Italian wine laws is the continued changing of the laws.  An example of the changing laws:  it is now permitted for bottlers of Soave Classico to use stelvin closures (screwcaps).  In the past if you made a Soave Classico wine but chose to use a stelvin closure instead of a cork you had to declassify your wine to the lower level Soave DOC.  That rule has been amended and now producers can use screwcap closures without  having to yoke their wine to a lower classification.  That said, if you practice summarily dismissing  any bottles of Soave as inferior because they don't have a cork closure; you could be missing out on some wonderful wines.  Also Pinot Bianco and Trebbiano di Toscana previously allowed have been banned for use in Soave blends because of their perceived  inferiority.  For the sake of brevity we've  given you a general overview of the wine laws for Soave wines.   For those feeling compelled to geek out on Italian wine laws check out  Regular folks that just want to be able to find good quality representations of Soave,  listen to our podcast and you'll be armed with enough information to find the quality producers.

The Soave marketing gurus are still trying to pinpoint what consumers want  in an Italian white wine, which leaves the producers of shall we say of "Real Soave"  in a quandary.   Eighty-five percent of the Soave you see on the market is of industrial quality and is  produced at a cooperative.  That's not to say that  cooperatives can't produce good quality wines, but on a scale of one million cases per year, odds are the quality does get compromised.  The other fifteen percent of the market is composed of traditional and maverick Soave winemakers.  Both insist on low yields in the vineyard in an effort to get more flavorful  wines.  The traditionalist stay with the Garganega/Trebbiano blends while the new wave group sometimes  include Chardonnay in the blend .  Many producers try to cover all the bases, so it's not unusual to find cantine that offer three tiers of wine.  The first level being their entry level wine that typically sees a short period of ageing and no wood contact.  Dismissing these entry level wines in some cases would be a mistake as the quality bar is quite high with several noteworthy producers.  The second and third levels  can be a mix of single vineyard designation wines, with none or some wood ageing or full on heavily influenced winemaking efforts that involve barrel fermenting, generous amounts of Chardonnay, extended lees contact with battonage and longer bottle ageing before release onto the market.

What does Soave taste like and what style should you try first?  Our tasting clearly showed that there is a good case to be made for many of the styles you'll see in the marketplace.  In the glass it displays a straw-golden color which a lot of producers like to show off by bottling with clear glass.  Soave is not a wine with a high aromatic profile.  Blending other grapes with Garganega can add texture, body and complexity to the wine but usually at the cost of blunting the delicate aromas of the finished product.  The aromas won't jump out of the glass and bust you in the nose like the more aromatic Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Rieslings will.  With Soave its more about nuance of aroma, minerality and  crisp acidity.  If you're looking for the purist expression of Soave try a wine by a traditional producer that uses only Garganega grapes grown in the Classico region and eschews wood contact.  In these wines you'll find straw colors,  intriguing minerality (think wet stones and earth) accompanied by aromas and  flavors of white flowers, green and yellow apples, pear, white  peach, honeydew melon, stone fruits, yellow citrus and lime with a crisp finish and mouthwatering acidity.  If you would like to try Soaves with fuller body, more depth of flavors and complexity on the palate try some of the producers we highlight in the podcast.  Although these type of wines weren't made traditionally in Soave their new wave flair and quality cannot be overlooked.  Most Soaves clock in around 12.5 % alcohol by volume which makes them easy to drink and suitable as aperitifs or accompaniments  with appetizers first courses and a variety of main dishes.  From delicate flavored Brie, Chevre,  and Mozzarella to more assertive Asiago, Beemster or Taleggio Soave pairs nicely with many cheeses.  It great with Sushi, and for that matter anything that comes out of the water.  It's a seafood lovers wine.  Chicken, pork and veal pair well with richer styles of Soave as do pastas with butter and cream sauces.  With Soave it's best to pick producer first vintage second.  Find a producers style you enjoy and there's a good chance you'll be pleased with the results from year to year.

The good  thing about Garganega is that it grows in loose clusters with sparse berries which helps with mold and rot resistance and affords  growers the option to leave the grapes on the vines well into October to get more complexity.   The bad thing is, Garganega is a late ripener  and inclement weather can be a bigger factor on quality than with earlier developing varieties.  2013 and 2014 were years that witnessed  a number of hail events impacting yields for many growers in the Soave area.  We'll have to wait and see what comes to market before we can make any quality judgments  though.   The vast majority of Soave currently on the market is from the 2012 vintage.  In general they seem generous and delicious having more tang and zip than the more fruit forward 2011's.

 How much does it cost?  Good Soave retails in the twelve to eighteen dollar range.  More ambitious efforts and single vineyard designated wines can typically start around nineteen and can reach into the low thirty dollar range.  That said the quality to price ratio is ridiculously favorable to consumers that takes a liking to good quality Soave.  This is what happens when you have producers working diligently and succeeding at making a good wine, but not getting the recognition in the market place yet.

There's boat loads of Soave swill in the marketplace, how do you find the good stuff?  If you're willing to search around and ask your favorite retailer to bring some quality producers into their program you will be rewarded with very good wines that speak well and clearly of the Soave Classico zone.  In general the phrase Soave Classico on a wine label is an indicator of a good quality wine.  The adjective Classico denotes that the grapes used to make the wine are from the original historic production zone and are considered to represent the best growing conditions for wines of this type.   Another indicator of quality is  the symbol  of the Vignaioli Indipendenti on the capsule of the bottle.  Members  must ensure that Soave is their main product and can't buy grapes or wine except for extreme winemaking needs.  Members of this small group of producers adhere to managing the entire production process from grape growing to bottling.  The principle mission of the Vignaioli del Soave Association is to give Soave wine back its dignity in the eyes of the consumer by being transparent and providing information.

 We hope you enjoy the podcast and learn a little too.  Tell us what you think about the wines of Soave and if you make a new discovery don't keep it a secret: let us know.  Bill and I thank you all for listening and until next time - Cheers!