Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

[ Editor’s note: here’s one more from the vault of pieces sent to a magazine that didbn’t publish it or pay me; I’m running it here so that it’s not lost to posterity. Enjoy! ]

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany

One of Tuscany’s most dynamic – and endangered – wine regions is hiding in plain sight

Donatella Cinelli Colombini could be your Italian grandmother. Affable, generous, and quick-witted, Colombini is the matriarch of Fattoria del Colle, her family estate in the almost unbelievably charming area of Tuscany’s Trequanda, replete with accommodations on an estate that dates back to the late 1500s, cooking classes, three pool, a spa, and an upscale-farmhouse restaurant. She also also oversees production of the Tuscan wine label that bears her name.

But Colombini has another job: in some ways, she’s trying to save the future of what the Consorzio del vino Orcia calls “the most beautiful wine in the world.”

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Donatella Cinelli Colombini

“The landscape here is a perfect harmony between history, man, and nature,” she remarks. “We have to preserve that. Every month, every wine producer here receives a call from a realtor asking them to sell.”

While you will almost certainly have heard of the winemaking gems of Montalcino and Montepulciano, you probably aren’t familiar with Orcia, the winemaking area that sits between them near Tuscany’s southern tip. The problem isn’t that Orcia’s twelve municipalities, formally recognized as a wine region in 2000, don’t make excellent wine; in many cases, Orcia’s reds rival those of its more famous neighbors, planted on vineyards that have been literally designed from the ground up for producing small quantities of high quality fine wine grapes, primarily Tuscany’s “native son” of Sangiovese. The problem is that Orcia is almost too amazing of a place in and of itself.

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Thermal baths in Orcia

Orcia boats the kind of beauty that makes you think that you’ve stepped directly into a scene from Under the Tuscan Sun. Think sun-drenched hillsides lined with cypresses, dotted with tiny ancient towns like Pienza (housing a terracotta museum), terme thermal spas like those in S. Casciano dei Bagni and S. Quirico d’Orcia (yes, some of the spa treatments involve wine), and no shortage of gorgeous castle tower ruins along the routes between them all, replete with deep history and past political intrigue (the region once played host to the duke of Tuscany, who ordered the draining of the the valley in the 1700s to spur agricultural growth, but also used his time there to liase with his mistress). Orcia has seen travelers since the time of the Etruscans, and its castle and fortress ruins are a testament to the popularity of the routes within the area, where bandit attacks once were frequent. It has hosted religious pilgrims, popes, poets, archbishops, mercenaries, dukes, the Medici clan, and even Charlemagne. The landscape has remained relatively unchanged for the last four hundred years…

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Vineyard views at Terre Senesi

Given its embarrassment of natural riches, it’s not surprising that Orcia now sees nearly one and half million tourists per year. Agritourism is big business in Orcia, where visitors can experience firsthand the direct connection to the land and the historical perspective of farmers who, as local winemaker Roberto Mascelloni puts it, “produced everything for themselves.” Most of the wine purveyors in Orcia also make boutique quantities of olive oil. You can find handmade pecorino cheese production (which dates back to prehistoric times in the area), such as that offered by the Podere Il Casale farm (yes, some of the cheeses involve wine grapes). Orcia boats a small but booming white truffle economy, which is the focus of lunch-and-tasting tours offered by winemakers and truffle hunters such as Loghis Farm’s Valentino Berni, who started farming truffles with his family’s pets when he was six (“I loved the relationship with the dogs” he notes, in a characteristically charming Tuscan way).

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Truffles at Fattoria del Colle

Truffles are so important to the area that San Giovanni d’Asso has a small museum and an annual festival devoted entirely to the expensive subterranean mushroom. There are enough such quaint spots in Orcia to almost lose count of them all, and we haven’t even mentioned the stunning views available from the region’s various hillside medieval ruins, Orcia’s saffron production, its several art/culture festivals, or the area’s innumerable possibilities for biking and hiking tours.

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Terme in Orcia

The main challenge facing the region’s wine producers is that, despite the high quality of their wines and their focus on organic, sustainable viticulture, Orcia’s status is the wine world hasn’t kept pace with its notability as a tourist destination. Orcia is dwarfed in this regard by Montalcino and Montepulciano, in terms of recognition and in availability; only about two hundred fifty thousand bottles of wine per year carry an Orcia designation on the label. Most of Orcia’s sixty wine producers are tiny in scope, and so are catering to tourism, local restaurants, and olive oil production to help them stay in financially in the black.

The irony is that Orcia’s success has garnered so much interest from businesses and the wealthy that one of its now key components – its excellent and diverse wine scene – is almost endangered. In many ways, Orcia’s wines are well deserving of the attention of any Italian wine lover; they offer authentic alternatives to the more ubiquitous (and too often industrialized) Chianti on one end, and to the pricey Montalcino on the other.

Ultimately, it’s the unique connection to Orcia’s land, foods, and people that can draw wine lovers in and, quite possibly, give you a new favorite go-to Tuscan sipper. “Each bottle,” notes Colombini, “gives you a story of this wonderful territory.” Here are a few of those stories.

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Donatella Cinelli Colombini 2015 “Cenerentola” Rosso

The Cinderella of this wine’s name refers, in part, to the round-leafed grape Foglia Tonda, which makes up thirty-five percent of this blend (the rest being Sangiovese). For nearly a century, Foglia Tonda was all but abandoned in Tuscany, due its difficulty to ripen. Cinelli helped to lead a charge to bring the grape back, and there are now about twenty hectares of the grape planted. Cinelli describes this blend as “well-married,” and her take is spot-on. The Sangiovese brings delicate floral notes, tart dark cherry fruit flavors, and earthiness, while the Foglia Tonda adds unique brambly spice and black licorice tones.

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Truffle hunting at Loghi

Loghi 2013 “Cinabro” Rosso

The fanciful name is an homage to Loghi Farm’s vineyard soils, on which the grapes for this Sangiovese and Colorino blend are grown. While much about Loghi’s production and truffle farming harken back to rustic times, this is a more modern take on Tuscan red wines. It sports plummy, juicy cherry fruit flavors, and aromas of orange peel, vanilla, and dried herbs. It’s fresh, vibrant, and almost sinewy in its powerful mouthfeel.

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Sasso di Sole’s Roberto Terzuoli

Sasso di Sole 2016 Rosso

Sasso di Sole is in an enviable spot, even by Tuscan standards; not only do they have breathtaking views of their UNESCO area hillside vineyards, but their organically-farmed property overlaps the northeastern edge of Montalcino. This gives them the luxury of being able to use either the Montalcino or Orcia designation on their labels. In contrast to most of Orcia’s other producers, Sasso di Sole use their youngest vines and shortest wood aging period for their Orcia label, resulting in a supple, vibrant, tangy, and fruity Sangiovese that’s ready to drink now. The hints of tobacco spice and rose petals are an added bonus.


Campotondo 2015 “Tavoleto”

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)This tiny outfit (producing only eight thousand bottles of wine per year) sits near an extinct volcano near the small hamlet of Campiglia d’Orcia. It’s helmed by Paolo Campotondo, who hand-tends Orcia’s only goblet-trained vineyards (a recommendation by the elderly locals, who recalled similar vine training systems used near mountains in France). The unique training helps to protect the vines, planted nearly five hundred meters above sea level, from the strong winds of the area, and helps to retain warmth from the soil and concentrate the grapes’ flavors. Paolo’s daughter Helena inspired his focus on organic farming principles: “my father says, ‘my daughter is the first consumer of my product, so I want it to be healthy!’” Uniquely, their Tavoleto is a white made entirely from Chardonnay, and it’s beguiling with flavor and aroma layers of peach, white flowers, tropical fruits, toast, wet stones, ripe yellow apples, and ginger spice.


Campotondo 2013 “Il Toco”

One of the specialties of Campotondo is a focus on Tuscany’s indigenous red grape Colorino, which makes up ten percent of this blend with Sangiovese. This is a full-on, Brunello-style red, with dense black cherry fruit flavors, intense aromas of dried herbs, orange peel, wood and cigar spices, balsamic, and dried rose petals. You’ll want a healthy portion of wild boar ragu pasta to go with this.

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Racing horses at Poggio Grande

Poggio Grande 2015 Syrah

Luca Zamperini seems to have a permanent smile etched onto his face, and you might, too, if you lived his life. His Poggio Grande winery started as a hobby seventeen years ago, and now produces twenty-five thousand bottles of wine per year. It includes sweeping views of the area near Ripa d’Orcia, and is the home to horses that run in Sienna’s famed and ancient Paleo race. Zamperini has a love of French Rhone wines, and so auspiciously decided to try out Syrah, which has taken splendidly to the Orcia climate and shows off the region’s diversity. Like Poggio Grande’s horses, there’s a tamed wildness to this focused and delicious wine, which is mineral, savory, plummy, and juicy, with hints of wild herbs and even game meat.



Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Enrico Paolucci artwork at Podere Albiano

Podere Albiano 2011 “Tribolo” Sangiovese


Alberto Turri and Anna Becheri moved from the banking and media worlds in Milan to a picturesque spot in the heart of Orcia’s terracotta country, producing wine, truffles, and twenty thousand bottles of wine per year (with whimsical labels designed by local artist Enrico Paolucci)as a labor of love. They make for an unassuming couple, who have very clear ideas of what they want from their wines, and the results are excellent. Their Tribolo Sangiovese is layered, supple, and sexy, but despite its modern appeal doesn’t lack for structure, vivacity, complexity, or precision.




Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Capitoni amphorae

Capitoni 2016 “Troccolone” Sangiovese

From five hectares of hand-worked vines comes one of the most unique Sangiovese offerings that you’re likely to ever encounter. The Capitoni family ages this particular wine in the region’s famed terracotta amphorae, and using what they describe as “slow and low” fermentation (taking longer than normal, and at lower temperatures). The result is a rustic, intriguing take on the purity of Sangiovese, highlighting its bright, tart red-berry and cherry flavors, its vibrant texture, and its dark tobacco spice notes.


Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Roberto Mascelloni shows a Foglia Tonda leaf in his vineyards

Mascelloni Family Estate 2015 “01” Sangiovese

The amiable Roberto Mascelloni is a stickler for old-school farming, producing spicy and herbal olive oil and organically farmed wines on his family estate in Castiglione d’Orcia. A former archer in a regional festival, “01” marks the last year that he won the archery tournament (“and then I retired”). This wine sports an intensely purple color for Sangiovese, and it strikes a great balance between that grape’s herbal, spicy, and rustic side, and its elegant, lively, and supple side.

Not-So-Hidden Tuscany (Spotlight On Orcia)

Terre Senesi’s Antonio Rovito

Val d’Orcia Terre Senesi 2010 “Ripario” Rosso

Valdorcia Terre Senesi winery’s Antonio Rovito and Gabriella Ginetti seems to always be laughing at something. You’d be pretty happy too, if your daily view included stunning views of the Orcia gorge, Ripa d’Orcia woodland wildlife sanctuary, and Mount Amiata. Terre Senesi began with olive oil production in 1998, and started producing wine in 2010. Their Ripario is a Sangiovese blended with a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, and aged in new French oak barrels. While the result is on the woody side, the wine has enough complexity in it black licorice and black cherry fruit flavors, dried herb and balsamic notes, and palate freshness to age well (and pair well with a good steak off the grill).



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Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

[ Editor’s note: Following is a piece that a wrote for a magazine, but after waiting over a year for them to publish it and pay me, I’m giving up and putting it here so that it can see the light of day and you can get some insight into a region that doesn’t see a lot of media play. Enjoy! ]

Northern Spain’s “Small California”

Why your next favorite Cab, Merlot, or Gewürztraminer might just be coming from Somontano

Take a second or two, and think about your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, your go-to Chardonnay, even your last Gewürztraminer.

What region was emblazoned on the labels of those tasty wine? Paso Robles? Washington? Chile?

Chances are very good that the word “Somontano” was not the area printed on the label. And yet, chances are also very good that this relatively small northern Spanish Denominación de Origen has been growing those same fine wine grapes longer than the more famous regions that produce your favorite versions of those same wines.

Somontano’s ancient Alquézar

Like most of the wine regions in Western Europe, viticulture in Somontano was probably established by the Romans, and also probable predates reliable written history, extending back to the second century BC. That it took the region until 1984 to become an officially recognized  Denominación de Origen (DO) is, in a way, indicative of the minor identity crisis that defines the modern Somontano. At a time when “uniqueness” is the marketing battle cry of most luxury fine wine regions, Somontano is the odd man out.

Of the grapes officially permitted in the DO, only three (the white Alcañón, and reds Moristel and Parraleta) are indigenous. A few others (such as Garnacha and Tempranillo) are Spanish in origin but not native to Somontano. The rest are a hodgepodge of some of the wine world’s most famous – and decidedly not Spanish – grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer.

What makes Somontano such an awkwardly difficult topic in marketing meetings is the same thing that makes many of its wines so good: the place has a great climate growing famous international grape varieties. As winemaker Jesús Artajona Serrano, from Enate (one of the founders of the Somontano DO) puts it, “we are in a small California…”

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Cellars of Pirieneos

Roughly translated, Somontano means “foot of the mountains.” Protected by the Pyrenees, the area sits at the edge of the European plate, on soils that were part of an ancient ocean, topped with runoff from the nearby mountains. While the climate is mostly continental, the proximity to the mountains allows for large diurnal temperature shifts, which fine wine grapes happen to love. The Pyrenees also help to keep the area relatively dry and sunny. Bodega Pirineos winemaker Jesús Astrain Losilla summarizes Somontano’s favorable climatic situation quite eloquently: “it’s like a theatre at the foot of the mountains.”

With beautiful ancient cities such as Alquézar (which, along with nearby Barbastro, is an UNESCO World Heritage Site), and stunning natural caverns that attract canyoning aficionados and adventure seekers, Somontano wine exposure isn’t struggling in terms of the tourist perspective. Sitting on a terrace and taking in the view of Alquézar after a hike while sipping a chilled wine made from grapes that you already know has got to be one of the more pleasant things that one can do in all of Europe, after all. There’s also a popular wine, art, and music festival, held annually in August. The Somontano DO headquarters (located in a building that dates back to the sixteenth century) is renovating to keep up with the tourist demand, updating their restaurant, wine shop, tasting room, and small museum.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Modern artwork at Enate’s gallery

But beyond the medieval walls and the narrow stone roads of its ancient cities, Somontano’s international wine variety focus is a much tougher sell. That the region can do so many things well is certainly its strong-suit, but that also means that its products face an inordinate amount of competition on the world’s wine shelves, even when you consider that the global wine market is arguably at the most competitive point it has ever seen in its centuries-long history. So, how did all of this happen in the first place?

During the Middle Ages, the area that would become Somontano saw a continuation in the winemaking traditions established by the Romans, in the form of Catholic monasteries that saw wine as both an essential beverage and a requirement for religious services (their influence, both ancient and modern, is on ample picturesque display in Somontano, drawing large numbers of tourists each year to sites such as the Torreciudad Shrine). But it was the nineteenth century that would set the course of Somontano’s winemaking future. In the 1800s, the early stages of the phylloxera louse epidemic (which would decimate much of the established vineyards in Europe) first swept through France. During that time, desperate wine and grape-growing businesses looked to other regions for economic salvation, leading some of them to Northern Spain. The result was an exponential increase in winemaking, sales, and exports for the Somontano area, and plantings of some of France’s most famous wine grape varieties.

That explains what grapes like Gewürztraminer are doing in Somontano. In that particular case, the variety was transplanted from Alsace, which makes sense when you think about it; the regions are relatively close to one another, and share some important climatic influences, like nearby mountain ranges. Where they differ are in things like sun exposure – there is more of that in Somontano, so its Gewürztraminer wines tend to be riper and more powerful than their Alsatian cousins. The grape has done so well here, in fact, that Somontano now has about 400 hectares of Gewürztraminer plantings.

Pirineos’ Losilla has a compelling take on both the marketing strength and challenge that Somontano faces on the international wine market: “The philosophy is diversity.” Here’s an introduction to a handful of Somontano’s most compelling examples of that diversity.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Bodega Pirieneos 2010 Señorio de Lazán Reserva

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)Pirieneos evolved from a pioneering co-operative in the region, going private in the early 1990s, and now represents about twenty-five percent of the entire Somontano DO. Most of their vineyards are dry-farmed, with naturally low grape yields that are harvested at night to protect the grapes from the heat. The name of their Reserva is a tribute to the Lazán mountain in the Sierra de la Candelera, and the former marquis who was a lord of the area. This blend also pays tribute to the triple-threat identity of Somontano, using the international Cabernet Sauvignon, Spanish Tempranillo, and local Moristel. Their Reserva might also be the forerunner of oak-aged red wines in the region. It’s floral, peppery, and generous with blackcurrant fruit flavors and notes of tobacco and coffee.


Enate 2016 Chardonnay-234

Enate, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017, is one of the founders of the Somontano DO, producing about 2.5 million bottles per year. The brand is probably most famous regionally for the artwork that it commissions for its labels, much of which then goes on display in its impressive museum. Its Chardonnay is lively and pretty, with aromas of white flowers, citrus, and peach, and flavors of apricots and pears. It’s pithy, persistent, and a versatile match with food.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Enate 2012 Cabernet-Cabernet

So good that they had to name it twice? Well, once could certainly make an argument for that. The idea of this wine is to blend two different styles of Cabernet Sauvignon – a leaner, serious European take and a riper, generous Mediterranean side. It works; the result is a modern, juicy, plummy red with power and structure, but also with good balance and intriguing notes of toast, dried herbs, spice, and cigar.


Batán de Salas DeBeroz 2016 Essencia de Gewürztraminer

Batán de Salas de Beroz is headed up by current Somontano DO president Mariano Beroz Bandrés. In contrast to the region’s other fine wine producers, who in many cases have either large, ultra-modern facilities or long, storied histories, Batán de Salas is  small operator, housed unassumingly in an industrial area. They have steel tanks to one side, bottle storage to the other, and barrels and concrete in between. As Beroz puts it, “we make garage wine, in a bigger garage.” Their Gewürztraminer is a textural, focused, and serious effort that belies their small size. The white has intense rose petal notes, with ample stone fruits, apples, and citrus flavors.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

A sense of humor at Batán de Salas’ tasting room

Viñas del Vero 2014 La Miranda Secastilla Garnacha

Viñas del Vero, and its sister winery Blecua Estate, are high-end, boutique operations owned by the González Byass group, who operate over twenty wine brands worldwide. That corporate ownership seems to have little trickle-down impact on the Somontano wines overseen by the talented José Ferrer, who has a winemaking touch equally as impressive as the renovated Blecua Estate in which he works. The Secastilla red is produced primarily from old vine Garnacha planted in organic vineyards that are over 700 meters above sea level. The combination of unique site and attention to detail in the cellar results in a lovely, fleshy, refined, and complex wine. Notes of violets, black pepper, spices, and dried herbs combine with fresh blue, black, and red plum flavors, and enough structure to suggest that some cellaring patience will pay dividends later. [ Editor’s note: for more on this stellar producer, check out the feature that ran here earlier. ]

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Bullet holes from the Spanish Civil War are still visible on some of Lalanne’s barrels.

Lalanne 2011 Lataste Gran Vino

The history of Lalanne parallels the history of modern Somontano wine, and their roots in the area run as deep as any of the region’s oldest vines. This family-run outfit was established by an offshoot of a Bordelais family that decided to move to the area during the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1890s. The family has run a local hotel, regional trains and boats (guess what those were used to transport…), and owned a hydroelectric plant that once provided the majority of Somontano’s electricity. Not surprisingly, Lalanne is one of the oldest commercial wineries in the region, and one of the founding DO members. Some of their large oak casks still bear bullet holes from the Spanish civil war. Their Lataste (named after their founder’s wife) is an interesting example of Somontano’s potential, blending all of the DO’s red international varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir (with a bit of Tempranillo, as well). Each vineyard plot is selected, fermented, and aged separately before blending. It’s an “old school” dark and earthy red, with notes of chalk, leather, prunes, and licorice.


Sommos 2016 Glárima Variatales Blanco

Sommos is an architectural wonder. Designed by Jesus Marino Pascual, the winery has twenty-seven meters above ground, and extends the same distance underground, as well. Its ultra-modern facade houses an antiseptically clean, mechanized, cavernous interior where just about every stage of the winemaking process is carried out by large, impressive machinery. Almost as impressive are the experimental vineyards surrounding Sommos, in which twenty different vine training systems are being used. The calling card of the winery is their Glárima white, a blend of Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Aromas of hay, roses, and apples give way to pear and citrus flavors, with a texture that is both intellectual and delicious.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Sommos 2014 Merlot

If you like your Merlot on the dark and toasty side, then you’ll love this red. Dark and plummy, with ample tannic structure and full body, Sommos’ Merlot is a complex beast of a wine, with aromas of oak, vanilla, tobacco, and even smoked meat.


Laus 2016 Rosado

Across the street from Somos sits Laus, a winery in transition (with redesigned labels, and a restaurant and spa in development) whose clean, stylized exterior would look ultra-modern if not for its slightly ultra-modern neighbor. The name means “grace,” and certainly its combination of 100 hectares of well-tended vineyards and calming water pools (used to help cool the winery areas underneath) will have a calming effect on just about any visitor. Winemaker Jesús Mur has crafted an instantly accessible rosé from Laus’ Syrah and Garnacha. It has a beautiful watermelon color, with strawberry flavors and a tasty, vibrant mouthfeel.

Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano)

Modern styling marks the construction at Laus

Laus 2013 Tinto Crianza

A 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with eight months of French oak aging, this red is a testament to the Bordeaux heritage of Somontano’s modern wine scene. Pure flavors of cassis and plum mingle with clove, violet, toast, and cigar aromas in this focused and fresh wine. If its structure is any indication, Laus have an overachiever on their hands here that will mellow out and get even more delicious with a bit of bottle aging.


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Copyright © 2016. Originally at Northern Spain’s “Small California” (Spotlight On Somontano) from - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that

a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and

b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele

One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.

And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.

And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2017 Cowhorn Spiral 36 White (Applegate Valley, $28)

Yes, the “spiral” in the name is (predictably) an homage to the notion of the vortex in Biodynamic preparations (and including the vineyard block numbers of the fruit sources). A blend of primarily Marsanne, with Viognier and Roussane rounding it out, mostly co-fermented, with twenty percent new oak, this is a white that elegantly straddles the line between easy sipping and complex contemplation. It’s mineral, peachy, floral, and has length that outpaces its sub-$30 price-point.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2016 Cowhorn Reserve Viognier (Applegate Valley, $50)

This barrel selection release is sold out, so you’ll likely have to wait for subsequent vintages, which kind of sucks, because as Brian Steele put it, this white hails from “that magical barrel” and while I didn’t see any witchcraft performed during my visit, after tasting this I’m not ruling out the barrel actually having some magical powers. The wine seems younger than its still-youthful two years; it’s taught, herbal, floral and, despite not having undergone malolactic fermentation, has ample body and broadness to its textural mouthfeel and ripe pear flavors.

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2015 Cowhorn Vineyard Grenache 53 (Applegate Valley, $45)

When it comes to Grenache, Bill Steele warned that “too light, too fruity, and you’re into Kool-Aid land.” Thankfully, no one will be jumping through brick walls screaming “Ohhhh YEAH!” when tasting this one… or will they? Anyway, it avoids the Kool-Aid trap entirely, though it absolutely is peppery, lithe, spritely, and spicy, with clean and bright berry fruitiness without ignoring its earthy, stemmy, structured side.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2014 Cowhorn Vineyard Syrah 8 (Applegate Valley, $45)

About 800 cases of this Syrah were made, and each one is probably on the verge of bursting from its muscular, sinewy seriousness. Mineral-driven, with dark berries and even darker dried herb and spice aromas, things get earthy here very quickly, but maintain a sense of aromatic lift.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2013 Cowhorn Vineyard Syrah 21 (Applegate Valley, $45)

At this point, I was getting sick of the numbers, too, but it was nice to get a feel for what a slightly older vintage of Cowhorn’s reds could do after some repose in the bottle (and for this release, the 21 refers to the number of frost days they encountered during the season). Interestingly, this red saw 40% new oak and 40% whole cluster, which lends more peppery and cedar spice action to the mix, on top of earth, and berries galore. It’s funky, meaty, fresh, and vibrant Syrah, with nice textural grip; a great one for the Foodie set and the just-gimmie-a-good-red set alike.

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2014 Cowhorn Sentience (Applegate Valley, $55)

This one is billed as Cowhorn’s “winemaker’s blend,” with 35% whole cluster and 35% new oak. It’s the silky, rich, round, sexy cousin of their Syrah-based lineup, and while it retains some of the muscular structure of the 8 and 21, there is no denying all of that “bedroom eyes” fruitiness here.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2014 Cowhorn Reserve Syrah (Applegate Valley, $75)

Blackberries and a lithe, peppery, spicy profile are the hallmarks of this characterful, brambly stunner. The acids are jumping, the meatiness is present, the structure is at turns burly and refined. Basically, 200 cases of balanced presentation, in which there is plenty of edginess but not at the expense of a clean, clear, and powerful approach. In case you’re wondering, the 2013 is even better; it’s superb, with the plummy, meaty, and spicy/sage/pepper/cedar expressions opening up a bit more with age and fronting a finish that is minutes long.


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The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who founded the farming practices now known under the certification of Biodynamics, was largely full of sh*t.

For example, Steiner was all about making wild claims based on anonymous sources long before it became the new standard of presidential tweeting in the U.S.; just check out a handful of the claims he made in his The Submerged Continents of Atlantis and Lemuria:

“As to the sources of the information to be given here, I am for the present obliged to be silent. He who knows anything at all about such sources will understand why this must be so…”

“…it was only in the course of time that the forms of man and woman arose from an earlier, original form in which the human being was neither the one nor the other, but both at the same time.”

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Working the good sh*t at Troon in Oregon

“Just as we have contrivances for transforming the latent force of coal into the power to propel our engines, so had the Atlanteans devices for heating by the use of plant-seeds in which the life-force was changed into a power applicable to technical purposes. In this way were propelled the air-ships of the Atlanteans, which soared a little above the earth. These air-ships sailed at a height rather below that of the mountains of Atlantean times, and they had steering appliances, by means of which they could be raised above these mountains.” 

So we’ve got, with literally no evidence, Steiner on the record challenging how humans evolved, and claiming that ancient Atlanteans had airplanes powered by seed oil. So if you’re not at least a little bit skeptical of the guy’s take on farming, then you have deep issues with how you handle facts, logic, and the scientific method.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that with Biodynamics he didn’t stumble upon something incredibly useful for coalescing several centuries-old, tried-and-true farming practices that turned out to be great for fine wine vineyards. But it does mean that we need to approach anything that Steiner wrote with healthy (and probably substantial) levels of skepticism. We’ve tackled this topic before on these virtual pages, giving equal “air time” to both prominent Pro and Con voices regarding BioD, and more or less ended up not that much farther from our starting point (or, at least, I didn’t).

And so it was with a sort of mixed fascination and trepidation that I recently observed firsthand Troon Vineyard‘s Biodynamic compost preparations (#502-507) in the gorgeous (but, at the time, quite smokey) Applegate Valley, to literally see “the good sh*t”…

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

I was in town at the time to take part in the 2018 Oregon Wine Experience wine competition, and took up an invitation to visit from my friend and Troon GM Craig Camp. 2018 will be Troon’s first 100% certified Biodynamic vintage, and the thinking behind it has nothing to do with smoking the other “good sh*t” big agricultural crop (marijuana) in Troon’s neck of the woods; the plan is that Biodynamic farming can help the resiliency of the vines, and therefore allow for more dry-farming, less water usage, and increasingly better and better vineyard fruit. Combined with six full-time vineyard staff, “you get a different level of care in the vineyard” according to Camp.

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Troon’s assistant winemaker Nate Wall surveys the day’s Biodynamic prep efforts

Thankfully, Troon’s application of Biodynamics isn’t moon-phase-chasing, ganjas-smokin’ BS; they are measuring the impact both in terms of soil impacts, vine health, and resulting wine quality. Over seventy soil pits have been dug and analyzed on the property – along with genetic sequencing of the microorganisms contained therin – to get a microbiome baseline. Early results are promising (more on the liquid results of all of that work to come in later articles here), and I got to measure some of the vine health myself by tagging along with assistant winemaker Nate Wall to perform leaf pressure-bomb analysis (the TLDR summary of that excursion: things are looking very good).

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Anyway, back to the literal good sh*t…

During my visit, Troon was working over (e.g., turning, moistening, and adding BioD preparations such as dandelion, Valerian, yarrow, chamomile, and nettle) some of the most appealing compost I’ve ever seen. While there are way too many references to things like “cosmic forces” in the BioD prep. directions, there’s also some scientific method to the madness of adding in these elements to make for effective compost. For example, oak bark (#505) is probably acting as an antiseptic; Valerian might stimulate phosphorus and earthworm activity (the latter being essential for composting); yarrow might interact with potassium and sulfur to aid in plant nutrient intake.

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

What really blew me away about the results of the compost was how incredible it smelled; or, I should say, didn’t smell. It was aromatic (think woodsy and slightly sweet), not stinky. Parts of it felt almost like potting soil. It just about screamed (in so much as earth can scream) healthy.

I mean, this was seriously, seriously good sh*t. I immediately wanted to steal some and throw it all over my yard, which I suppose is one of the higher compliments one can pay to an enormous pile of compost.


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Oregon Wine Experience 2018 Competition – Results

Getting serious during the OWE 2018 Best of Show judging round

The results of the 2018 Oregon Wine Experience Competition are in and have recently been announced, and since I was more-or-less directly responsible for said results, I thought that I’d share some of them with you all here.

Before I do, however… a couple of thoughts/insights/dime-store-philosphocal-treatise on the experience of the OW Experience:

  • Wildfires suck; we hardly saw a clear, smoke-free day during the competition, and while the ever-present used-fireplace smell is somewhat pleasant, the destruction behind it all certainly isn’t anything short of tragic, and major props are due to the firefighters who shared my flights into and out of Medford for their difficult, tireless work in fighting the recent blazes.
  • There’s (much) more to Oregon than Willamette Valley. Duh. Southern Oregon is a lot smaller in volume, less developed in both land and sense of place, warmer in climate, and diverse in potential vinous offerings than its more famous northern wine AVA siblings. What should have wine geeks excited and giddy is that the premium fine wine scene in S. OR is really just getting its groove on, and the results are ridiculously promising already. The fact that the region is probably among the top ten most beautiful wine country settings in the world is just icing on the cake. To wit…
  • You’ll see a lot more coverage of some key S. OR producers here over the coming weeks, because I found their stories – and their development in wine quality – quite compelling. More to come.

Oregon Wine Experience 2018 Competition – Results

Anyway, here are some of the wines that wowed our judging panels at the 2018 OWE Competition…

Best of Show Red: Old 99 Cellars, 2014 TEMPRANILLO [ Editor’s note: good luck finding it, though :-(  ]
Best of Show White: Awen Winecraft, 2017 VIOGNIER
Best of Show Specialty category: Quady North, 2017 GSM ROSÉ  [ Editor’s note: the Quady winemaking team kicked total ass in this year’s comp., and are responsible for a number of the medal-winning wines; just sayin’. ]

Oregon Wine Experience 2018 Competition – Results

Here are the Double Gold award winners, by region:



Oregon Wine Experience 2018 Competition – Results

Gettin’ all judge-y n’ sh*t on my 2018 OWE panel


Oregon Wine Experience 2018 Competition – Results


Oregon Wine Experience 2018 Competition – Results




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There’s A Red House Over Yonder (Masroig Montsant Recent Releases)

In the lower-ish (we’re still talking about 400-or-so meters of elevation) valley of Spain’s sunny Montsant region sits a small town (ok, village) of El Masroig.

El Masroig is quaint enough to be named (in Catalan, of course) “red country house” (most likely from the red clay soils that dominate this area of Priorat country), and small enough to sport a population of about 500 people, the vast majority of whose families live off of the farming of grapevines and olive trees.

There’s A Red House Over Yonder (Masroig Montsant Recent Releases)

In even quainter non-ironic fashion, El Masroig is home to Celler Masroig, a winery founded in 1917 as a co-op that’s now run by just over 25 employees, and – somewhat ironically given all of the above – is easily one of the largest producers in the area at five hundred thousand bottles per year, farming from about 500 hectares of vines.

Even more ironically, given their size, at the time of this writing Masroig has yet to gain a sales foothold in the States. That’s a shame, and is a scenario that needs quick correction, because they’re making the excellent crafting of one of the wine world’s most underrated red grapes – Carignan – look downright easy…

There’s A Red House Over Yonder (Masroig Montsant Recent Releases)

Historical cellar graffiti, Masroig style

It’s the clay-based soils here that are probably the key to the local Carignan (and, to some extent as we’ll see below, to Grenache Blanc) magic; clay retains moisture, and rainfall in this sunny little Priorat spot is pretty low. Not only that, but the clay acts reflectively, bouncing back sunlight onto grapes on the vine. The Mestral and Garbí winds that blow in also help to keep things even drier than they already are, so the circus trick here is keeping the overall grape ripeness tamed. As I discovered on a media jaunt to the region, Masroig has pretty much mastered that trick:

There’s A Red House Over Yonder (Masroig Montsant Recent Releases)

Minimalist artwork on display at Masroig

2016 Celler El Masroig “Les Sorts” Blanc (Montsant, $25)

Generally, they try to pick Garnacha Blanca early in these parts, to help keep it from getting too boozy. It’s a thin line on which Masroig has executed an enviable balancing act with their Les Sorts label; it’s a heady, tropical, toasty white that also manages to show off stone/mineral and citrus notes. There’s no denying its ample sense of power, mind you, and I wouldn’t call this one a thirst-quencher, but the combination of deft winemaking and viticulture, along with 40-60 year-old vines and touches of battonage make this a serious – and seriously good – sipper. You’ll want crustaceans. Trust me.

There’s A Red House Over Yonder (Masroig Montsant Recent Releases)

2014 Celler El Masroig Les Sorts Vinyes Velles (Montsant, $NA)

The red Les Sorts is a deep, mineral, brambly, and thoroughly juicy mix of mostly Carignan, with fifteen percent of Garnacha thrown in for good measure. Much of the fruit comes from vines that are up to 110 years old, which I think explains the wine’s concentrated core. The dark color suggests what you’ll get in the glass, but it’s important to note that the chewiness, spicy licorice, and powerful, plummy palate are balanced by notes of violets, herbs, and a vibrancy that lasts into a long finish. Don’t worry; you’ll know your near Priorat when the power behind this hits you. Hard.

There’s A Red House Over Yonder (Masroig Montsant Recent Releases)

2015 Cellar Masroig ‘Masroig’ Carinyena (Montsant, $NA)

This little package of ass-kicking red is crafted from Carignan taken from two vineyard sites, and aged in 2000-liter foudres. No one has any business drinking this young, wild, and free wine right now; it’ll need a few years in repose to calm its butt down. There’s a depth of plummy fruit here that’s almost frightening, with more amiable notes of licorice, brambly herbs, sweet plums, dark cherries, and spices on top. The palate is predictably juicy, but has surprisingly delicate edges to its texture. This is what old-vine Spanish Carignan really ought to be, and requires an adventurous drinking spirit.


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Monferrato Love Letter

My gig with the Barbera and Monferrato folks over at has come to an end, and so you’ll be seeing a couple of wrap-up posts of mine over there as the 2018 Summer hits high season and then fades into Autumn (by far the best time of the year, especially in my neck of the planetary woods).

The first of these is available now for your reading pleasure, and it takes the form of a kinda-sappy-but-then-again-maybe-not-so-sappy love letter to the Monferrato region as a whole.

Monferrato Love Letter

Of course, I’m going to miss visiting the place, until I get my skinny ass back there, I mean. In order to fully understand why I’m going to miss this Piedmontese jewel so much, all of that is explained with admittedly a modicum of annoying affectation in my latest My Name Is Barbera article…



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That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

Joan Ignasi Domènech, talking sh*t in Vinyes Domènech

If you visit Montsant’s Vinyes Domènech, located in the southern portion of the winemaking district that nearly encircles Spain’s famous Priorat area like a talon, be forewarned that owner Joan Ignasi Domènech is likely to talk sh*t.

As in, literally speak about sh*t. Like, fertilizer. Along with solar energy, water collection, and all things botanical. Long enough to really, really, really make you want to move away from the intensely pungent nearby piles of the stuff…

Domènech, who heads up this family-owned and operated vineyard area surrounded by the natural park beauty of the Llaberia and Montalt mountains at roughly 400 meters elevation, is a stickler for all-things natural, biodynamic, and conservatory.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

Since 2002, this former tech-guy has overseen some of the oldest vines in Capçanes, in a spot that previously had no real supporting infrastructure of any kind. That Domènech didn’t have any previous experience in wine (aside from drinking it, and living near Priorat in Falset) or in reconstituting rugged landscapes didn’t deter his enthusiasm for transforming a previously nearly-inaccessible 15 hectares of land into what is now the handsome hamlet of Vinyes Domènech.

Domènech was, as he tells it, wooed by the natural beauty of the area after visiting it with his family on holidays, and luckily for us wine geeks, he happens to have access to Garnaxta perluga vines that are well into their elderly stage (60-80 years and counting)…

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2016 Vinyes Domènech ‘Bancal del Bosc’ Garnatxa Blanca (Montsant, $NA)

Priorat-area fans are justifiably ga-ga over old Garnacha vine fruit, but its blanca equivalent can be equally as compelling in its later years, as evidenced by Vinyes Domènech’s wares. Their Bancal is creamy, generous, harmonious, textured, and lovely. It’s also complex, with varying degrees of blossom, honey, peach, citrus, pear, lemon, herbs, and toast. Overall, it’s a beguiling white, provided that you’re grown-up and daring enough to venture into the more exotic territory to which it’s inviting you.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2016 Vinyes Domènech ‘Rita’ (Montsant, $NA)

There’s Lovely Rita, and there’s this, which is more like Sexy Rita. 60+ year-old vines provide the fruit for this Garnaxta Blanca, and only about one thousand bottles were made of the `16. Some of the vinification takes place in barrel, resulting in a silky, tropical, rich, and floral presentation with emphasis on the lemon cream action. Having said that, it’s not without its charm, by way of little tinges of herbs, minerals, and saline.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2015 Vinyes Domènech Vinyes Velles de Samsó (Montsant, $NA)

100% Carignan, with maybe 500 bottles produced in the vintage, from 80+ year-old vines. Domènech remarked, I think in equal parts joke, exacerbation, and pride, that it takes “five vines per bottle” to craft this smooth, elegant, spicy, and vibrant red. The plummy fruitiness is quite deep, the structure (this is still a baby-child) and power are ample, and the purity is enviable.

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)

That Is One Big Pile Of… Enthusiasm (Vinyes Domènech Recent Releases)2014 Vinyes Domènech ‘Teixar’ Garnaxta Vella (Montsant, $NA)

Old vines from select plots supply the fruit for this spicy, savory, silky, sinewy, loud and long red. Red and black plums and cherries, violets, dried herbs, along with almost-but-not-really-overripe flavors make for a big, bold, steak-ready sipper. The long finish is a bonus, and might help to clear your retro-nasal passages of any lingering smells from all of that natural fertilizer, should you be lucky enough to visit…


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Patience Becomes Virtue (About 40 Years Of Vintage Port)

“I hate waiting…”

So… I promised a follow-up to that 2016 Vintage Port preview, and since I’m a man(-child) of my word, here ’tis!

The central theme of my `16 VP roundup was that we all need to slow the f*ck down and accept the fact that Vintage Port not only takes a looooooong time to come around, and that a) many of us might be dead before newly-released VPs are fully developed, but we should buy them for future generations, and b) your patience regarding waiting on the slow maturation of VP will be well rewarded.

It’s time for us to get to the “b)” part, as we take a trip back through roughly thirty years of time, beginning with 2007 (when we were lamenting the state of our 401k balances) and ending with 1980 (when we were wearing JAMs, listening to disco, and some of you were probably snorting cocaine). We’re going to walk through a tasting of some of the world’s best “recent” Port vintages (with an average price per bottle of a staggering $367), from a tasting at which I was a media guest in NYC because, well, my life totally rocks (for more on the background of the various Port houses and their respective VP styles, see this post).

Alrighty then, wipe your nose and let’s get to it…

Patience Becomes Virtue (About 40 Years Of Vintage Port)

2007 Fonseca Vintage Port, $100

Big, tight, powerful, and still sporting youthful elements. It’s like a rambunctious pre-teen right now in terms of its attitude, in that it’s showing what it can do – in this case in the form of spice, licorice, mineral, mint, rum raisin, chocolate, and fresh and dried plums – with both verve and a haphazardly charming lack of self-consciousness. In any case, it’s clearly healthy, and being raised correctly.

2003 Croft Vintage Port, $90

Exotic, herbal, deep, and spicy, this is stunning. The palate moves quickly to rum, cigar, and opulent black fruits. I was pleasantly surprised at how drinkably smooth this opulent beauty is right now, though it clearly does not lac for structure. You’ll want it with some kind of dark chocolate, provided that you can wait about 15-20 more years, I mean.

2000 Quinta do Noval Vintage Port, $100

Rum, smoke, black cherries, prunes, spices, mint, raisins, leather, tea… all of that, and a silk purse, too, at least in terms of palate feel. This is VP excellence personified, and available at the relatively reasonable price of $100 (yeah, I know…) when you consider that you could gift this to your grandchildren and it will still be VP excellence personified then, too.

1997 Warre’s Vintage Port, $100

In a word, a classic. It’s actually even lovely at turns, with the type of freshness not usually associated with dessert wines in general. Yeah, you get raisin and licorice and richness, but you also get fresh plum, violets, and an overall sense of elegant loveliness.

Patience Becomes Virtue (About 40 Years Of Vintage Port)

1994 Quinta do Noval ‘Nacional’ Vintage Port, $2000 (that’s not a typo)

Harvested when I was still in undergrad, this rarity offers notes of resin, brambly spices, herbs, rum, dried fruits, mint, black cherry, green tobacco, and pepper. It’s not only one of the more complex noses you’re likely to ever encounter on a VP, but it’s also one of the more texturally fascinating; powerful, young, structured, bold, and packing some vibrancy to help weave it all together coherently into something very much closer to art than to craft. In other words, it’s ridiculously, almost life-alteringly good.

1985 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port, $220

Delicate balance is achieved here between the riper, drier, spicier fruits and the cigar, walnut, and developed characteristics that you’d expect from thirty-plus years in bottle. The finish is forever, powerful and tinged with rum. You’ll need to like them big and powerful, but if you do, there are few better than this.

Patience Becomes Virtue (About 40 Years Of Vintage Port)

1983 W & J Graham’s Vintage Port, $155

Wood spice, stewed plums, spices, minerals, prunes, raisin, rum, mint, and a craaaaazy amount of concentration and length, there’s plenty left in the tank here both in terms of longevity and power. This is more hedonistic pleasure than it is contemplative specimen, but this level of hedonism kind of needs a brand new yardstick to be invented in order to accurately measure it.

1980 Dow’s Vintage Port, $170

Holy shit. Holy. SHIT. This is colored almost like a much younger wine, and the palate entry is superb: hearty, substantial, and unfolding from intense, extracted plum and brandy flavors into a soft and perfumed experience that includes stewed fruits, slate, raisin, wood spice, eucalyptus, green tea leaves, espresso, cocoa, and probably a ton of other stuff that I forgot to write down after I more or less had my mind blown and just decided to drink it instead of to taste it. So, yeah, i guess it was okaaay


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Critics Challenge 2018 Highlights

Staying Classy with bubbles in San Diego

Once again, I had both the pleasure and the honor of judging at the annual Critics Challenge wine competition, held in (stay classy!) San Diego and helmed by‘s Robert Whitley. This year, I was paired up with talented author Linda Murphy (whose book American Wine you should absolutely check out, because it kicks all kinds of ass).

Critics Challenge 2018 HighlightsCritics Challenge is top-notch, with excellent, experienced judges and a killer-good volunteer crew (yeah, I don’t understand why they keep inviting me back, either). So the results should, I’d argue, be taken seriously, and you can check out the full list of 2018 medal winners right now at

I wanted to highlight the wines that Linda and I collectively awarded Platinum, as there are some fantastic wines – several of which are surprising bargains – in that lineup of winners. This is why we judge them blind, folks! Fortunately for all of us, picking up many of these wines won’t make the bank account seem appreciably lighter…

Critics Challenge 2018 Highlights

Getting and judge-y & shit

Alexander Valley Vineyards Temptation Zinfandel 2015, $14

Banfi Brunello Di Montalcino 2013, $75

Banfi Belnero 2014, Toscana $29 (100% Sangiovese)

Bel Colle Simposio Barolo 2013, $60

Critics Challenge 2018 Highlights

I was the only ham on the menu at dinner…


Brancaia TRE 2014, Rosso di Toscana IGT (Sangiovese 80%; with Merlot; Cabernet Sauvignon)

Due Mari Maremma Toscana 2015, $35 (Sangiovese 60%; Merlot 20%; Cabernet Sauvignon 10%; Other Reds 10%)

Falkner Winery Chardonnay 2017, Temecula Valley $30

Kim Crawford Wines Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Marlborough $18

Line 39 Pinot Noir 2016, California $11 (!!!)

McWilliams Evans & Tate “Bright As Day” Chardonnay 2015, Australia $10 (!!!)

Critics Challenge 2018 Highlights

A delight

Navarro Vineyards Estate Bottled Dry Muscat Blanc 2017, Anderson Valley $22

Prophecy Vin de France Rosé 2017, $14

Très Chic Pays d’Oc Rosé 2017, $17 (Grenache and Cinsault, baby!)

White Oak Vineyards & Winery “Mighty Oak” Proprietary Red 2014, Sonoma County $19 (28% Cabernet Sauvignon; 16% Cabernet Franc; 56% Merlot, in case you cared)

Windsor Vineyards Private Reserve Sauvignon Blanc 2016, North Coast $16

Wine Spots Wines Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, $30

Critics Challenge 2018 Highlights

Magnum bottle, magnum stopper, magnum price

And, for sh*ts & giggles, an added bonus:

Moët & Chandon NV MCIII Brut 001.14 Champagne, $650/magnum (ok, so that’s not that much of a bargain… but we had it twice at dinners and it’s the kind of heady, floral, yeasty opulence that’s just a total treat, provided that you have the available cash).


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