Thursday, September 27, 2012

Naked Vine One-Hitter -- Ca' Momi Ca' Rosa

Tasty, Tasty...
Brunch is my favorite meal of the day, no matter what time it's served. And where's there's brunch in these parts, there's bubbly.

A week or so ago, Tara at Balzac sent me a sample of Ca' Momi winery's new "frizzante" offering: Ca' Rosa, a sparkling rosé. Despite the Italian trappings, Ca' Momi is a Napa winery. To bring a bit of the Old Country flavor to the West Coast, Ca' Momi developed a "prosecco-styled" sparkling white. Apparently that was enough of a success that they decided to venture into the world of pink bubbly with the Ca' Rosa.

Ca' Rosa is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Muscat. It retails for $17-18. The wine was described in the tasting notes as "off-dry." I translated that in my brain as "semi-sweet," so I wasn't thinking about it as a dinner offering. I thought it would be a better match for a lazy Sunday morning over an omelet and some fruit.

What I didn't count on was the sheer scrumptiousness of the salmon filets that I'd cured and cooked to perfection in my little jury-rigged grill/smoker one afternoon. That home-smoked salmon veritably screamed to be used in a main dish, so we decided to do "breakfast for dinner." A simple omelet, some home fries, a little sriracha on the side, and this bottle of bubbly.

Was I mistaken initially. The "off-dry" in the description was much more like "extra dry," which if you remember, is only one step from the bone-dry "brut." The nose was light with some yeast and a little strawberry. The flavor was light with easy pear and strawberry flavors. Nice mousse with a crisp level of acidity. The finish was crisp and fruity. We really enjoyed the bubbly -- and it was a superb pairing with the breakfast food. Brunches aweigh!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Naked and Peppy -- Pepi Winery

An apt description.

Another round of thanks to Stacey at Balzac for sending along a set of samples from Pepi Winery, one of the sub-labels of O’Neill Vintners – makers of Moscato Allegro, Camelot, and Tin Roof.

Pepi, taglined as “A True California Original,” makes whites only. They do a chardonnay, a pinot grigio, a sauvignon blanc, and a blend of chenin blanc & viognier. The grapes for these wines are sourced from all over California – largely from cool-climate areas in the state. According to their trade info, Pepi was one of the first wines in California to be bottled with a Stelvin closure, better known as a quality screwcap. (I am a long-time unabashed fan of Stelvined-up wines, as many of you know.)

Pepi wines are all in the $10 price range. I received a sample of each of their offerings from the 2011 vintage. How’d they work out?

Pepi 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – “Very pleasant” was underlined on my notes for this one. It kicks off with a light nose of peach blossoms. There’s a zippy acidity alongside some very friendly peach and pear flavors. The finish is quick and lemony. I’d put this in the fridge the night before and didn’t get to it when I thought I would. Make sure you let it warm up a bit if you’ve got it fridge-cold. Drunk too cold, it loses the fruit and becomes and acid ball. I found it to be nicely food-friendly as well. It held up to a honey-jalapeno glaze on some chicken breasts. Consensus was that this was a good “everything wine” – a bottle that’s stashable for almost any everyday meal or occasion.

Pepi 2011 Chardonnay –I don’t drink a lot of California chardonnay. I’m always a little nervous when I open one. California chards tend to be big oak/big butter, unless they’re marketed as “unoaked,” which means that the acidity has been cranked to the point where you might think you’ve opened lemon juice. Ol’ Pepi surprised me with its balance. The nose is straight-up honey and apples. My first impression was slightly tart apple with just a hint of oak in the background. There’s a wee bit of cream on the finish, but it’s largely more fruit with a good balance of soft oak and lemon peel. I liked this about as well as I have a California chardonnay at this price point. Went nicely with roasted chicken and sautéed veggies, as well. Solid and workable.

Pepi 2011 Pinot Grigio – A light sipper that was the least memorable of the four. It’s by far the lightest of the wines although, to its credit, it’s not as flimsy as many pinot grigios. There’s nothing overly fancy here. Mild acidity, very light nose, and basic citrus flavors. We opened this one next to some fish tacos and a mild salsa. Anything with a stronger flavor would probably run this one over. I figure it for a good picnic wine, too.

Pepi 2011 Chenin Blanc/Viognier – When my notes say a wine tastes like a fuzzy navel, ordinarily that wouldn’t be a good thing. Imagine those basic peach and citrus flavors with the sugar dialed way back, and you’ve got the basic idea of this very drinkable, surprisingly complex wine. The chenin cuts the “oily” texture often found in inexpensive viognier without killing the trademark floral fragrance, and the viognier takes the edge off what can be challenging chenin blanc acidity. All in all, I found this to be a harmonious, bold, fruity white that rattled nicely off a “hobo pack” of cod loin, a bunch of herbs, garlic, and garden tomatoes & peppers. I’d certainly pick this one up again – especially as the weather is cooling a bit.

All in all, I thought this was a solid set of nicely-priced whites well worth trying. Nice work.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


“If God made anything better, He kept it for Himself.”
-William S. Burroughs, Junky
The Sweet Partner in Crime and I talked for years about a vacation to Oregon. We’d always wanted to see Portland and we hoped to visit my cousin in Eugene. I wanted to return to Crater Lake to take the (spectacular!) boat ride that I’d adolescently skipped twenty years prior. And we wanted wine, of course.

Oregon, specifically the Willamette (rhymes with “Dammit!”) Valley, is known best for pinot noir. The area is nestled between the low Oregon Coastal Range mountains on the west and the tall Cascades on the east and stretches from the Columbia River on the north to just south of Eugene. The entire valley comprises about 3.3 million acres. The Willamette Valley’s temperate climate is quite friendly to those cool-weather loving grapes. (France’s Burgundy region is at the same north latitude, not surprisingly.)

The most common appellation you’ll see on a bottle of Oregon pinot is “Willamette Valley AVA.” AVA is WineSpeak for “American Viticultural Area” – the wine growing region. That designation means the grapes were grown within the valley. There are six sub-AVA’s within the larger Willamette Valley: Chehalem Mountains, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton, Eola-Amity Hills, Dundee Hills, and McMinnville. Each has distinct terroir.

Oregon’s fascinating topography, carved by glaciers, volcanic eruptions, wind, and water, contains wildly different soil types. The soils do fall into two major categories: marine sedimentary (which generally imparts an earthy complexity) and volcanic (which yields a fruity smokiness). Some vineyards have both soil types, often within a few hundred feet of each other.

The first pinot noir from Oregon was produced in the mid-1960’s, and Oregon became a major player in the market in the 1980’s.When Sideways kickstarted the California pinot boom in the mid-2000’s, Oregon pinot producers came along for the ride. Oregon pinot is very different from California pinot. In general, the terroir of Oregon produces a more subtle, lower-alcohol juice, which created a nice contrast for wine connoisseurs. Oregon pinot made a name for itself, and prices rose.

Alas, the mass market, fueled by our old friend Miles, demanded pinot. Inexpensive pinot from places like Chile and Australia, as well as some…shall we say…less-well-crafted-but-cheaper California offerings flooded the market. $10-15 pinot made in a big, fruit-forward style became common. Also, thanks to California’s maddeningly consistent (but beautiful) climate, a casual wine drinker usually can be fairly confident of what’s in the bottle. A 2010 wine from a particular producer in California will taste a lot like a 2009, which in turn will taste a lot like the 2008, and so on. Oregon’s climate has much more variation, so specific vintage plays a huge role in a wine’s flavor.

For a while, it was difficult to locate much Oregon pinot at local wine stores. California pinot ruled the roost of mid- to high-end domestic pinots, and Oregon’s low-key marketing approach (not to mention many fewer wineries) caused a pricing problem. A few major producers (Domaine Serene, Domaine Drouhin, Erath) were able to keep up – but a good number of the mid-sized and smaller producers had to make some major readjustments. As a result, very high quality Oregon pinot became available for about half what you’ll pay for a premier cru Burgundy.

Many Oregon wines really hit my palate’s sweet spot, particularly those from Eola-Amity, Yamhill-Carlton, and Ribbon Ridge. I thought many of these wines had similar flavor profiles as good Burgundy, but with an addition of the “brightness” that American wines tend to exhibit. The following were our faves for quality & price. Some of these may be difficult to find in your local wine stores, but they’re all well worth a few website clicks:

Witness Tree Vineyard (Eola-Amity) – The “witness tree” is an ancient white oak that marked the corner of the historical boundary of the property. A lovely location for our first stop -- with a couple of very solid choices. While the Willamette Valley is known best for pinot noir, there are a few whites spread around as well. Witness Tree produces a wonderful estate Viognier, which was the best bottle of that varietal I’ve ever tasted at $15. Their estate cuvee pinot noir, called “ChainSaw,” was a steal as well at $20.
Witness Tree Vineyard's namesake

Cristom (Eola-Amity) – One can almost see the Cristom winery from the Witness Tree parking lot.They specialize in slightly higher-end pinot noir which was well-worth the extra few shekels. In honor of our beagle, Jessie Louise, we took home two bottles one each from their “Jessie” and “Louise” vineyards. More like $40 for these. I had a nice conversation with their winemaker, Steve Doerner, who said, “I’m the winemaker, but I have plenty of help – a few thousands of helpers in the vineyard and 10-to-the-sixth in the lees…”
Cristom Winery

Spindrift Cellars (Willamette Valley) – A cool, unpretentious little place we pulled into on the edge of an industrial section of Corvallis as we were on our way from Eugene to Dundee. We learned that “spindrift” is the name for the foam that rises from the top of a breaking wave. The star of the place for us was their rosé of pinot at $16 -- a perfect picnic wine with much more complexity and depth than you’ll see in many pinks.


Twelve Wine (Yamhill-Carlton). We first tasted this at a fantastic wine store in Eugene called Authentica. Twelve is run by a husband/wife duo – he an electrical engineer from Silicon Valley (who still works in high tech as a day job), she a high school counselor. We ran through their entire gamut at their tasting room in downtown McMinnville. (The vineyard is in Yamhill.) The quirky story of the wine’s name, their wicked cool labels, and their downright friendliness added to the experience. The estate pinot ($25) had a wonderful richness that played along especially nicely with the offerings from the gourmet chocolate shop with which they share a tasting room. Their currently-sold out reserve, called “144” (12-squared, get it?) was exceptional.

Patricia Green Cellars (Ribbon Ridge) – Patricia Green’s tastings are appointment only -- so we headed there semi-private late-morning tasting with eight other folks. We sampled 12 different wines from across three vintages, and two “futures” barrel tastings. The winemaker, Jim Anderson, sources grapes from many Willamette sub-AVAs, so we had an exceptionally educational experience. We experienced side-by-side the real differences between sedimentary and volcanic soil, as well as the wide variation that exists between vintages. We especially liked their “sedimentary” series, particularly the Etzel Block ($60), Ana Vineyard ($45), and their straight Estate ($30). They're also one of the few producers of sauvignon blanc ($20) in the Valley. Highly recommended on all counts. And we needed carbs for lunch immediately afterwards.
Damage done at the Patricia Green Cellars tasting

Libra Wines (Yamhill-Carlton) – I’m writing a separate column on our experiences at Libra – a true vacation highlight. I’ll just say for now that Libra’s 2010 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir at $25 knocked the pants off almost anything else we tasted on the trip. Just try. It’s kickass.

If you decide to take a wine tasting tour around the Willamette Valley and you want to really pamper yourself, consider staying at the Le Puy Inn in Newberg. ( Lea and Andy will take good care of you. Though there a number of top-notch restaurants in the area, make sure you have a meal at Tina’s (, a favorite of Valley locals in Dundee. You’ll be glad you did.