Monday, February 28, 2011

Raise a Glass… or Three!

One of the most anticipated tastings of the year was held at Fort Mason in San Francisco last week. The showcase of many of Italy’s finest wines known as Tre Bicchieri had buyers, restaurateurs, media and wine lovers roaming the sprawling event hall on the Bay with glasses in hand. The 150+ wineries in attendance had to have met a critical criterion in order to be invited to pour: a tre bicchieri (“three glass”) rating, the highest review possible from Gambero Rosso, Italy’s most influential wine publication. There aren’t many shaggy dogs in the room on that basis.

What separates this event from standard tastings – in addition to the pre-screened quality – is this sheer breadth of regions that are covered. Of course the usual suspects are there in full force, but dozens of obscure appellations and varietals are available to taste as well. Nerello Mascalese from the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna? Yep. Gew├╝rztraminer grown in the shadow of the Alps? Also, yes. The list is endless. It is a truly astounding lineup that basically allows the ambitious taster the opportunity to traverse the entire country in a few hours. Some of the wineries in attendance don’t even have U.S. importers, so one is able to sample wines that would otherwise require a passport stamp.
I know of no other one-day event in the U.S. that provides such quality at every turn.

They’ve scaled back the tasting over the last few years to three cities: San Francisco, Chicago and New York. If you live or happen to be near one of these hubs when next year’s road trip commences, I’d highly recommend wrangling a ticket. For Italian wine lovers, this gig is a must.

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Feel the Burn

It’s one of the hottest (if you’ll forgive a wine industry pun) topics in California today. Alcohol. “The cause of and solution to all of life’s problems”, according to philosopher Homer Simpson. Well, it does create something of a problem on the winemaking side of the ledger as anyone working in warmer climates will tell you. While generally not a huge issue in marginal regions like the Mosel in Germany or the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, there’s no doubting the potential for a runaway train where the sun shines brightly.

The last few decades in particular have seen a noticeable uptick in alcohol levels. Numerous fingers have been pointed. Everything from warming climates to attempts to appease critics partial to a full-blown style has been blamed. And while the root causes can be debated, the reality cannot. Wines from 25-30 years ago across regions and varietals simply had less alcohol – often a lot less alcohol - than they do today. So what’s the issue?

The most contentious debate exists among two more-or-less competing camps. The first is fairly dogmatic about lowering alcohols either by picking their fruit earlier or “spinning out” through reverse osmosis from a finished wine. This often dovetails with a stylistic philosophy that celebrates higher acidity in whites and reds, more ageworthy tannin structures and less oak treatment (especially new) in the cellar. Contrast this with the full-throttle crowd that celebrates often opulent ripeness and lavish new oak. More ripeness means higher sugars. Higher sugars mean higher alcohol after fermentation is complete. One can see how a lot of decisions about where to take a wine’s octane level take place before the grapes ever hit the cellar. And not for nothing, but, and I’m painting with a broad brush here, the flashier wines are usually the ones consumers want. So a winemaker philosophically opposed to high alcohol may not have a choice if he or she wants to remain employed.

The heart of the matter is the question of how the wine tastes. I have sampled Cabernets pushing 16% that don’t have the slightest perception of ‘heat” or out-of-balance alcohol. Conversely, there are wines floating around out there in the 13%-13.5% range that taste like the barrels were topped off with moonshine. My personal rule of thumb is that if it tastes hot, it is hot. Alcohol, like fruit, tannin, color, etc. is part an overall impression that needs balance and cohesion to succeed. So I think that like the brave souls who put down their refractometers to measure grape sugars in the vineyard and started picking on flavor, maybe a similar approach should be undertaken in the cellar. Drop the paint-by-numbers approach that sets either a minimum or maximum alcohol content and start focusing in on what ends up in the glass. Then I think we’re all winners.

--Rhett Gadke, Wine Director

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter Gazette Tasting

We sat down last week and tasted through almost 75 new wines that are featured in the Bounty Hunter Winter Gazette. With 35 wines to taste in one sitting, we began with the whites and then worked our way up the gamut of reds, starting with the lighter-bodied wines and finishing with the big, hearty Cabs. While suffering for your sake with a wine glass in one hand, we had a pen in the other scribbling notes as fast as the wine flowed. It was a grueling job, but somehow we managed to survive.

While every Wine Scout had his or her own personal favorite, the standout wines for me were the three on page two showcasing “All-star” winemaker, Philippe Melka. The ’08 Parallel Cabernet is a phenomenal follow-up to their amazing ’07 vintage, while the ’07 “Facets of Gemstone” is a first-class wine for a second label by anyone’s standards. Finally, the ’07 Lail “J. Daniel Cuvee” Cabernet left us all speechless! Sampling all three wines is easy with the Marvelous Melka 3-pack. This is just the tip of the iceberg in this new edition. There are lots of big-scoring, rare gems and every-day drinking value-wines that you’ll enjoy. Your copy of the Gazette should arrive in your mailbox any day now, and when it does, you can rest assured that your Wine Scout is ready to answer your call!

--Sam Miller, Wine Scout