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California


Zinfandel stands alongside Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon as my red grape of choice. Its flavors range from juicy and bold raspberry fruits to darker fruit accented by leather and black or white pepper. It pairs perfectly with grilled steaks and burgers. Summers in California mean summers filled with barbecue nights and glasses of Zinfandel by the beach, or the pool, or the yard. There is every reason to love this wine. In a very visceral way, Zinfandel symbolizes California for me.

That said, everyone should have the opportunity to try a good one. Lolonis was the first organic producer in the United States; over 50 years ago they were using fully organic farming methods, before the idea was even being described in agriculture journals. The grape berries are hand-picked, and the wines are all handcrafted in keeping with a tradition that started in the 1920’s, and in fact, the Culinary Institute of America uses the Lolonis Zinfandel as the textbook example of what this varietal can achieve.

Forget Ravenswood. Forget Cline. The 2007 Lolonis Zinfandel was, first of all, beautiful in the glass, pure garnet red. Heady aromas of blackberry and dusty leather, with a glorious hint of pepper at the end. In the mouth the wine has bracing acidity, but perfectly balanced to the dark fruit, with just enough oak toast and supple tannin to complete the package. This is wine meant for marbled meat, grilled, seasoned, hearty. The finish was long and glorious. $20.

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Some nights I cannot help but roast a chicken in our clay pot, particularly in fall. While the leaves are turning amber and orange, root vegetables are fresh and in profusion, and the air is starting to have a bite, roast chicken with garlic, butter and herbs is the most comforting food I can imagine. We usually pair it with a medley of potatoes, onions, parsnips, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. Roasting these in a clay pot infuses each element of the meal with the flavors of every other element, and adds a tender juiciness to the chicken that is unparalleled.

Only one wine should be paired with this meal, in my mind: Chardonnay. It does not have to be Burgundian, nor does it need to have excessive oak aging. Preferably, it should be fruity and have hints of creamy butter, with that toastiness provided by time in barrel. Chardonnay paired with roast chicken should also be suede-soft, and there should be just enough acidity to maintain its role as a food wine.

Thus the 2007 Edna Valley “Paragon” Chardonnay, from the San Luis Obispo County in California, perhaps the coolest mesoclimate around their AVA. A pale gold in the glass, with good clarity, this wine presents a nose of pure fresh pear and vanilla, with a healthy dose of oak, and notes of guava and other tropical fruit. In the mouth it is lush and opulent, viscous and soft, with more pear and green apple balanced to buttery oak. There is definitely some acid backbone here, just enough to keep it from falling into the “flabby domestic Chardonnay” category. Decent balance, and a great long finish. Pair this with roast chicken or Cornish game hen, or pasta dishes with shrimp or chicken in cream sauces. $15.


Sauvignon Blanc is my choice summer beverage: bright acidity, fresh and crisp, with delicious citrus and herbaceous notes, it is a picnic wine with the backbone to stand up to various types of shellfish, while also able to stand on its own. The Geyser Peak winery, founded in 1880 in the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, is one of California’s oldest wineries. Here the emphasis is on ecologically responsible wine production: they use a significant portion of recycled glass for their bottles, compost by-products of their harvests, and are certified by the Fish Friendly Farming organization in recognition of their practices for waste water redistribution.

Wine and vinicultural practice go hand in hand: Geyser Peak’s techniques are green, and the wine matches this in its essence. The 2007 Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc is a beautiful straw color in the glass, showing a nose of pungent grass, lime and lemon zest, and notes of guava. Glorious, lip-smacking acidity balances the forward juiciness of the fruit on the palate, including green apple, tangerine, and a slight tinge of other tropical fruits. It also has a nice long finish for a wine at this price point. $9.


It’s really quite easy to buy delicious California red wine for under $20. Here’s one way: get a case of McManis Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged in new and used French and American oak. The nose features aromas of blackberry and hints of clove and mocha, followed by a mouthful of rich black fruits, like blackcurrant and plum. This is accompanied by strong hints of chocolate, heavy toasted oak supported by potent tannins, and a lingering finish. Dense, round, huge. As Emeril Lagasse would put it, bam! Buy it. $15 a bottle; one of the great barbecue wines.


For an example of what the Napa Valley can really produce in reds, look no further than the Joseph Carr Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. Although it’s labeled as a varietal, it’s actually a Bordeaux-style blend, comprised of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 2.5% Cabernet Franc, and 2.5% Syrah.The vintage I tasted, the 2005, was utterly delicious. Strong notes of cherry, plum and leather on the nose, with a touch of cedar and smoke, featuring more black fruits and chocolate in the mouth, balanced to fine-grained tannins. Excellent structure and intensity, and it finished long, hinting at cinnamon. It blew me away, and it’ll blow you away too. $20 a bottle.


This is a classic Napa-style Cabernet Sauvignon; and an exceptional wine for steak. The nose brings aromas of cherry, with some rich spice and nutmeg notes. The mouthfeel has a rich velvety texture and a balanced tannic structure, with berries, cassis, red licorice, and other black fruits. It finishes long, with strong toasted oak elements. Some definite chocolate hints too, which I just love in domestic Cabernet! $25.


The 2002 Burgess Cabernet Sauvignon is another fantastic offering from the Napa Valley. It has an ideal deep ruby red color in the glass. In both the nose and mouth it’s packed with bold fruit, blackberries and blackcurrents, with a hint of jamminess. Not much weird stuff here: no tea leaves, mocha, no chocolate, not much earthiness… just a well-balanced wine with big, upfront, mouth-coating California style. The wine was aged in pure French oak, but isn’t toasted or full of smoky flavors. Full-bodied and subtle in its structure, with soft tannins and some spice just before the long finish, but the exuberant juiciness of the wine smoothes the spice out. Retails at about $25. Try any vintage of this wine, as soon as possible. Pairs well with all types of barbecued beef, particularly seasoned steaks. Very versatile.