Category Archives: choosing wine

The Fall of Russian River Valley

In my mind, Russian River Valley will no longer have the cache that it once had. Starting on Dec 16th, the Russian River Valley boundaries are being expanded further south to parts of Rohnert Park and Cotati. Gallo has been asking for the past couple of years to expand the territory to include a 350-acre vineyard they own on Cotati grade into this AVA (American Viticulture Area).

Their reasoning is simple. Right now they have to use Sonoma Coast on the label. Sonoma Coast grapes don’t have the following that Russian River grapes have and thus result in lower prices at the wholesale and retail level. But from a growers standpoint, the areas are not alike. And certainly not similar enough to be considered the same.

The first time I saw the signs by the Gallo on the side of Highway 101 saying Russian River watershed, I laughed. I actually laughed out loud and thought, “are you kidding me? This area has nothing to do with Russian River!”. But somehow, I knew there would be trouble. This was one of Gallo’s main points – that they are in the Russian River Valley watershed. Well, so is Petaluma (another hill south) and just about everywhere else in Sonoma County for that matter. Based on that idea, why not include the whole county into the Russian River Valley AVA?

You may be thinking, “Why is this such a big deal?”. The answer is quite straightforward. Russian River Valley grapes have a certain characteristic and flavor and these grapes will be different from that. Well, that’s not so bad you say, different is good, right? Usually. But in this case it’s different enough that it should have its own AVA.  But grapes from a new AVA don’t bring the prices Gallo wants in the market, so they piggy-backed on the existing area with cache. But I know better. And so do most of the Russian River Valley grape growers who strongly opposed this change.

It’s also pulling the wool over the consumer’s eyes. If you have never been to Sonoma County and specifically Russian River (or at least driven along highway 101), then you probably wouldn’t understand. But for those of us who live here, we all know that by going over just one little hill or mountain can change how grapes are grown significantly. And in the case of this particular vineyard it is not only over a hill (south) from Russian River, but has a completely different terrain and climate from the ‘old’ Russian River Valley. But the consumer in Missouri or Texas or New York will probably never know the difference. And that, my friends, is a travesty. And also Gallo’s plan – since they sell over 90% of their wine in the marketplace.

It just goes to show you what money can do. But wait, maybe it wasn’t money. Because Jess Jackson tried to rename a mountain in Alexander Valley and was unsuccessful. Renaming a mountain sure seems easier than extending an AVA. So maybe it wasn’t all money that made this happen. Whatever the pull behind it, it was a bad move and one that, for me, will taint Russian River Valley. Luckily I know the difference and know where my wine comes from. But the average consumer won’t be so lucky and that is a shame.

Cheers (to the ‘old’ Russian River Valley)!

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Awards, Points, Ratings and Critics

Last weekend I received a text from my sister asking about a quote on a cork. It said America’s most award-winning winery. She was asking me if it was true. I responded with a ‘probably is true, but likely doesn’t mean anything’. Bold statement, I know. But let me explain…

You see, all wineries are looking for something to set them apart from the competition. This particular one has decided to stake their claim on being the winery with the most awards. Not bad, really. Likely it works very well for them. I don’t know how I feel about their wine because I’ve never had any. And that is my whole issue with awards and points and ratings from critics.

Let’s talk about awards. These usually come from some sort of fair or wine competition. Generally there is a panel of tasters that all decide (on their own) which wines get a bronze, silver and gold. Then those scores are averaged and awards are given. Some competitions even have double gold and some have best in class and most have sweepstakes winner or best overall winner in red and white classes.

So, let’s say you submit your wines to a competition and you get a medal. What’s it worth? Well, you could send an e-mail out to your list and hopefully drum up some business. But what is that medal really worth? Let’s say a particular competition has 1000 wines that were submitted. And the judges award medals of some sort to 850 of those. Not uncommon by the way. Now what is that medal worth? Exactly.

Now, let’s talk about critics and their ratings. Too many people rely on them for all of their wine purchases and need the points and ratings to have something to talk or boast about. You want to know where I would use ratings? Let’s say I’m standing on the wine aisle looking for a particular wine and I have $30 in my pocket. I’m staring at two wines that are the same price (or close enough) and one has an 88 point rating and one has a 94. Pick the one with the higher points, right? More than likely, yes. This is where I see ratings come into play.

Medals and ratings have one thing in common: It’s one person’s thought on what the wine tasted like at that snapshot in time. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about wine is that we all have different palates and tastes. How do I know that that person who decided this wine was worthy of a 95 point rating has the same tastes as me? I don’t. Which is why these rating systems are so unreliable. Maybe I like Syrah from cooler climates, but the wine judge or critic likes them from warmer climates. If we were judging the same wine, we would come up with very different scores.

Maybe that award hanging around the bottle neck or the shelf talker below the bottle are the things that draw you to that particular wine. If that’s the case, then I guess the critics and the wine judges have done their job. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think the general wine consumer is too easily swayed about what wines are good by point ratings or even price (higher is better, right?). Sure, I’ve sold some wines that way in the past. But not anymore (and I haven’t for a while). I’ve been selling wine based on my guests’ tastes and what they enjoy. It’s great because I sleep well at night knowing I’m not pushing wine based on some other person’s palate.

You won’t find me ever rating wines on this blog. I don’t believe in point systems or ratings. What I do believe in is writing about wines that I enjoy. Will you enjoy all the same wines? Definitely not. And I wouldn’t expect you to. But I hope to introduce you to some of my favorite wines over time. Maybe I’ll turn you on to something you’ve never had or haven’t heard of before. but that is entirely up to you. Know this though, if I don’t like a wine you won’t know about it here. I just won’t write about it.

I also don’t believe that we should fill our cellars with wines that other people say are good. And here’s the real take-away from this blog: You should buy wines that you enjoy. Wow! Earth-shattering stuff, I know. Sure, you may need a little help deciding which wine to initially pick off the shelf, but then rely on your palate and trust in what you liked (and dis-liked). The only critic you need is the one holding your wine glass.


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How do you choose wine?

Tonight we opened this….It’s a 2004 Imagery Cabernet Franc. Imagery winery is located in Sonoma Valley and is known for the labels they put on the outside of the bottle.  Sure, what’s inside (the wine) is quite good too, but tourists and locals flock to the winery to see the gallery as well as sample fine wines, play bocce and picnic on their patio.

The winery itself was founded by the Benziger family as their high-end label. Winemaker Joe Benziger decided there was some fruit that was too good to go into their well-known Benziger label and Imagery was born. Every vintage they commission some of the world’s best artists to design labels for the over 15 wines they produce. If you ever find yourself in Sonoma Valley, it’s worth a visit for sure.

Tonight’s bottle was paired with rib-eye steaks topped with a Bourbon mushroom sauce, grilled corn and sautéed veggies. But that (was and is) another post. The wine made my mind go in a totally different direction.

How do you choose wine?

Most people aren’t lucky to live close to wine country. And even if you do, daily life gets in the way of spending days and hours tasting wine all the time. So, picture yourself standing at the grocery store, liquor store, BevMo, etc… How do you pick that perfect wine for tonight’s dinner? By the way, I know it’s tonight’s dinner because the average wine is bought and then consumed within three hours.

Do you go with your classic tried and true wine? You know, the one you’ve been drinking for years. It’s good, but always leaves you wanting more. Do you pick the one that’s on sale on the bottom shelf? If it’s under $5, it works for me! Does the display at the end of the aisle work for you? Or do you just close your eyes and reach out and grab something? Just hoping it’s going to be okay. I’m really curious.

Research shows that for some of you it’s the design of the label. And that’s how I ended up down this road. I really like this label on the bottle of Imagery. I’m not sure why (I have a hard time describing what I like about art), but it just captivated me. I did taste the wine before I purchased it though – that’s not usually possible for in-store buyers.

So there you are just strolling the aisle and a label catches your eye. You’ve seen it before? Maybe. But maybe you just like the design. Try it. The only way you’re going to know if you like a wine is if you try it. Period.

I know there are some of you that know about growing regions and varietals and what grows best where. But I’m guessing that’s the minority out there.

So, here’s my recommendations:

*Try the same varietal from different producers in the same area to get an idea of what the varietal tastes like.

*Try different varietals from the same area to see what qualities the area imparts.

Then, when you feel comfortable with that:

*Try the same varietal from different states or countries to see what soil, sunlight and heat can do to change that wine.

*Then move into different varietals from different states.

By then, you’ll be an expert! Or at least your friends will think so. The bottom line is have fun with it. Wine should be fun, not challenging.

And don’t forget to leave some room in there for the labels that catch your eye. You might find a new ‘classic’ wine that has a stunning label.


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