Ridge Monte Bello: 1998, 2003, & 2012. Three Vintages of One of America's Finest Wines.

Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello is one of the commanding heights of American Wine.  Not simply because it has some of the oldest vines and an amazing view of Silicon Valley, but because the wine that proclaims the Monte Bello Vineyard is one of the finest in the country.

The Ridge Monte Bello is a Cabernet-based blend of classic Bordeaux varietals that represents the flagship of the Ridge portfolio.  The wine has a long history of stellar critical and competitive success; including the famous Judgement of Paris Tasting in 1976.   But despite the incredible success, this is a winery rarely visited since it is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, not the well known regions of Napa Valley or Sonoma County.

Since living in Santa Cruz, I've had the opportunity to visit the winery a few times and taste current releases of Ridge Vineyards.  But the most recent time, I was able to taste a few older vintages.  Ridge Monte Bello is known for supreme age-worthiness and it was interesting to see this in action.

Ridge 1988 Monte Bello.  $400 Winery Retail. 

"A beautiful and perfect mature version of Monte Bello that has transformed into the kind of secondary aromas and flavors you most likely find in fine Bordeaux.

The color is an attractive medium-light red with a hint of amber at the edges. The nose is all red apple skins and the bright earthy aromas of the forrest floor in Fall. Palate is herbal with tea and rose petals, herbs, and tobacco. Fruit isn't gone, but overwhelmed by the complexity of the other elements. Finish in long (about 60 seconds) and echoes the complexity of the palate.

One of the finest "Old California" wines I've yet tasted. A revelation that shows Monte Bello to be a European wine trapped in a California label." 

97 points.

Ridge 2003 Monte Bello.  $400 Winery Retail. 

"The color was dark red. The nose was overripe with warm tones and funky stewed tomatoes. The palate was dark blueberry, chocolate, and dust. Very little acid left with a viscous texture on the tongue. A short fading finish.

A big disappointment as Ridge Monte Bello is always much better than this. Maybe and off bottle or vintage?" 

87 points.

Ridge 2012 Monte Bello.  $175 Winery Retail. 

"Very young - this is wine for the cellar. Dark spice, hints of green herbs. The nose is like walking into a Chinese herb shop. Crushed chalk. Plum skins. Texture is very smooth with deep hints of baking chocolate dusting. This is quite the thoroughbred Cabernet: Elegant, Pure, Pristine, and Powerful." 

95 points

Video: L. Mawby and the Rise of Sparkling Wine in Northern Michigan

Larry Mawby of L. Mawby / M. Lawrence discusses the rise of Sparkling Wine in the Leelanlau Peninsula of Northern Michigan.

This is Episode #53 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman video podcast.

The History of Growing Sparkling Wine in Northern Michigan.

Larry Mawby:

"We've been growing grapes here for just a little over 40 years and I'm the second person to plant a vineyard here, so this is a young grape growing area by international standards. Even by U.S. standards, it's pretty young. When we started, we had no idea whether grapes were possible to grow here. We had no idea what kind of wines we could make. We had no idea whether we had any customers that would care and be interested.

There was a lot of experimentation at the beginning and there still is a lot. When we started, I planted all French-American hybrids, because those were the varieties that were available, that there was some experience from the Finger Lakes, New York, that was similar climatically to us. We thought we had a good chance that they would survive the winters and that they would ripen in the length of growing season that we had.

Then, we started to plant Vinifera. We started with French hybrids in 1973, and in 1981 I planted the first little bit of Vinifera. Those were vines that I got from Oregon. At that time, I was really interested and my role model probably was Burgundy. I love red and white burgundies, and I thought if we grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here, and make a credible table wines from those that would be a great thing.

We got cuttings from Oregon because they were the most serious producers of Pinot Noir in the U.S. in a climate that was anything like ours. California, doesn't make a difference what you do in California; we don't have that kind of climate.

We started growing those vines on a small scale in '81, and in '84 I decided to start making sparkling wine. Mostly at that point because all my experience, which was only 10 years of growing grapes and about 5 years, 6 years of making wine here commercially, was that we had short, relatively cool growing seasons, really quite cold but snowy winters, and that in cool growing seasons we struggled to get Chardonnay or Pinot Noir ripe enough to make a table wine but we always got them ripe enough for sparkling wine.

 The Brix levels that you want for sparkling wine are substantially lower, and because it's a relatively short growing season, because of the typical weather in the last month or so of the growing season, we get really good flavor to all of them at low Brix, which is really important for sparkling wine. That's one of the challenges that a lot of the California sparkling wine producers have is to get the Brix low enough to make a balanced sparkling wine, they have to pick really early in the growing season and there's no flavor development, so you end up with these awkward wines that have the technical parameters that you'd like but they don't taste right. That's why the really good sparkling wines in California are in the really coolest parts of the state.

We have naturally that kind of balance of sugar acid and flavor and aroma that develops, and it was pretty clear to me that sparkling wine was something that we could consistently do every year no matter whether it was a really warm year or a really cool year, we got the kind of flavor development that we wanted in the grapes to make nice sparkling wines. It was also clear to me that we had critically we had people from around the country and European sparkling wine critics had tasted the wines and said, "These have some real promise. You should continue do this sort of thing."

It was also clear to me that at that point, sparkling wine was only 15% of our total production. We weren't focused on it. We were making table wines mostly and we would make sparkling wine. It seemed to me that the real future was focus on sparkling wine, concentrate only on that, grow everything in the vineyard knowing that you're going to make sparkling wine from it, harvest it, ferment. Everything is about sparkling wine if we don't do table wines.

 By the time we started making sparkling wine in the mid-1980s, there were 5 wineries in this area. If a visitor came from, let's pick an Ohio, if they came from Cleveland or Cincinnati and wanted to visit the wineries here, they could come up and visit everybody in a weekend. It was doable. Well, by the mid-1990s, we had about 15 or 20 wineries, and we were adding a couple wineries every year or two. Today, we have 40, and so it was clear in the mid-90s that there were going to be enough wineries that visitors had to start making choices. They couldn't just come for a short period of time and see the whole wine region. They had to make choices.

What I wanted to do was to have them make a choice and have the people that walked into my tasting walk in interested in what I was doing, not just walking in, looking for cherry wine. I don't make cherry wine. We have other folks that do. We'd like people who want cherry wine to go to the wineries that make cherry wine and find that. It seemed to me that there was a possibility for us to specialize, but it took 4 years to eliminate 85% of my sales.

We make sparkling wine. If you're interested in sparkling wine, you think about us. If you're not, you think about somebody else."

Video: The Meaning of Wine with Larry Mawby of L. Mawby / M. Lawrence

Larry Mawby of L. Mawby / M. Lawrence answers Austin Beeman's signature question.  "What does wine mean to you?"

This is Episode #52 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman video podcast

Austin Beeman: "What does wine mean to you?'

Larry Mawby:  "What does wine mean? Wine is an essential component of civilized life. It's like another food item. It's food for the soul as well as the body. It's a part of the civilized discourse around the table.

It's a lot more than that but that's the critically important piece.  For me, it's the way I make my living. For most consumers it is a tangible connection to a place.

A lot of customers vacation here.  Say, they live in Cleveland and it's January in Cleveland.  They open a bottle of my sparkling wine and they can be instantly transported to the time that they were here in Leelanau Peninsula in July and had a great time on the beach, in the water.

It's a great way for an urban dweller to connect to the rural, agricultural heart of the human experience."

 

Tasting the 'Poultry Grail.' Le Poulet de Bresse at Le Coq Rico in Paris

Can a simple roast chicken be an “object of desire?”  Does the Appellation Controllee system in France mean as much for food as it does for wine?  On a blustery Parisian afternoon, at the ultra-modern Le Coq Rico, the answer became a resounding “YES!”  The restaurant was Le Coq Rico and the chicken was Le Poulet de Bresse A.O.P.

But first, a little history.  If you have basic familiarity with french wines, you’ve probably come across the Appellation Controllee system.  This series of governmental regulations codifies the regional specifications for wine.  Grape varieties, boundaries, processes, and often blends are all strictly controlled.  Technically, it only regulates the place of a wine, but it works as a reasonable indicator of basic quality.  Example: An area that is given specific Grand Cru designation will also have more rigorous production standards and thus higher average quality.

For a special kind of francophile, the discovery that the Appellation system is applied to food products, launches a kind of ‘food quest.’  I am unabashedly that kind francophile.  Le Poulet de Bresse (Chicken of Bresse) had become kind of a Poultry Grail quest. Learn about the Bresse Chicken.

The quest ended at Le Coq Rico which is located just two blocks west of the tourist center of Montmartre at 98 Rue Lepic, 75018 Paris.  Their slogan is Le Bistrot des Belles Volailles (The Bistro of Beauty Poultry).  And that is not false advertising!

*Unknown to me at the time was that Le Coq Rico was a restaurant by Antoine Westermann, a chef with Three Michelin Stars (!) who opted to give them back in 2007.  

We arrived soaked from an unseasonably rainy and windy September day and stepped into the ultra modern decor.  In Paris, anything modern is a minor shock, but immediately our noses told us that we were in for something special.  Over in the open kitchen, whole chickens (and a couple ducks) rotated slowly.  Their fat dripped deliciously down onto roasting potatoes.  The aromas filled the room like an aromatic fog.

Without reservations for lunch, we took a seat at the bar.  It was quite warm as we faced the slowly roasting chicken, but that was an incredible experience watching bird and bird leave for other tables.  The entire staff moved with a seriousness and precision that was impressive.

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While our entire Poulet de Bresse was slow roasting for forty minutes, we shared a few entrees.  Pan-fried poultry livers & hearts, fried wings, spiced Cromesquis and Pan-fried duck foie gras with poppy seeds, grapes & nuts.

They were delicious as expected but nothing compared the Poulet de Bresse.  I’d expect a chicken as good as the best I’ve had before, but this was in another galaxy.  There was never a chicken that was so tender and so intensely flavorful.  Even an exceptional bottle of Burgundy was no match for the flavors of this incredible bird.

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We were stuffed like a goose destined for foie gras.  The richness of the entire chicken might have been a better option for four or five people.

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Paris doesn’t lack for incredible restaurants, but Le Coq Rico has secured a place at the top of my must-visit list.  I’d even fall back on an old cliche. “You haven’t really tasted chicken, until your had Le Poulet de Bresse at Le Coq Rico in Paris.”

Photo Credit: David Harper

Photo Credit: David Harper

 
  • Le Coq Rico
  • 98 Rue Lepic, 75018 Paris
  • Telephone : +33 1 42 59 82 89

Video: The Meaning of Wine with Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery

It’s a great life ... It’s a great project for my life
— Mark Vlossak, St. Innocent Winery

Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery answers Austin Beeman's signature question.  "What does wine mean to you?"

This is Episode #51 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman video podcast and the fifth of five videos from my interviews with Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery. Click below to see the other parts of the interview.

Related Content:

Video: Inspired to Discover New Terroir (with St. Innocent Winemaker Mark Vlossak)

Without the established rules of Europe, how do American Winemakers discover great new terroir?  For St. Innocent's Winemaker Mark Vlossak, it is all about inspiration.  In this short six minute video, Vlossak talks about the different subregions of Oregon's Willamette Valley and what he find so inspirational about each of them.

This is Episode #50 of the Understanding Wine with Austin Beeman video podcast and the fourth of five videos from my interviews with Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent Winery. Click below to see the other parts of the interview.

A Video about Italy's Great Sparkling Wine .... and it's not Prosecco! It's Franciacorta

If I ask you to name Italy's great sparkling wine, you'd say Prosecco.  Right?  Sorry, wrong.

There is no denying that Prosecco has exploded throughout the wine-drinking world, conquering the category of 'value-priced sparkling wine.'  But it didn't have to be this way.  The region of Franciacorta in Northern Italy produces some of the world's greatest sparkling wine - and have for a long time.

This four minute video, produced in Franciacorta by Ben Shapiro and Jeremy Parzen in Franciacorta, gives you a brief look at the people, place, and food of the great Italian Sparking Wine Region.  Enjoy.

5 Elegant Sonoma County Wines Worth Seeking Out

From the vantage point of my wine shop in Ohio, it is easy to view Sonoma County as a monolith.  It would also be easy to judge an entire region by its largest wineries.  These corporate wine behemoths present an image of boring wines and a bland region.  But that doesn't begin to tell the complete story.

I spent a month recently in Sonoma County and discovered that this is an immensely diverse region and there are dozens of fabulous small producers making compelling wines that month people don't ever taste.

Here are five worth seeking out. - From the lightest white to the heaviest red.

Jordan 2012 Chardonnay 'Russian River Valley AVA.  "Clear light yellow color. Fleshy white peach aromas. Great balanced chardonnay with a touch of of oak and a soothing lemon custard finish. Better balance, acidity, and food-friendliness when compared to most RRV Chardonnays.  90 points.  Retail $33

Lioco 2012 Chardonnay 'Hanzell Vineyard, Sonoma Valley AVA.'  "Wow, this is one of the most amazing California Chardonnay's I've ever tasted!  A pristine yellow color. Aromas of hay and fresh wild honey. Nice acidity, but a firm, tight mouthfeel that opens up to creaminess as you hold it in the mouth. Medium+ body. There is great purity here as well as richness. The finish really persists a long time, so this is a candidate for moderate aging as well.  I've rarely seen such a sophisticated and confident American Chardonnay. Kudos."  95 points. $60 OH Retail

County Line (from Radio-Coteau) 2013 Pinot Noir 'Sonoma Coast AVA.'  Light color a soft pink-purple. Wonderfully delicious with strong obvious acidity, pure raspberries, and the tiniest hint of milk chocolate. A light 'truly-burgundian' take on Pinot Noir. You can almost feel the salt water spray of the Sonoma Coast."  93 Points.  $28 OH Retail.

Medlock Ames 2011 Bell Mountain Estate 'Alexander Valley AVA.'  "Ruby red. Dusty red fruit aromas. Bright strawberries and warm bubblegum. Pleasant amounts of tannins and a persistent finish. A good warm-weather take on Bordeaux Blends."  90 Points.  $30 OH Retail.

Radio-Coteau 2012 Syrah "Las Colinas" 'Sonoma Coast AVA.' "Glowing purple color. Spicy herbs, pipe tobacco, and menthol in lush red fruits on the nose. Melted blueberry pie with subtle hints of many types of stone and smoke. Touch of "bitey" tannin on finish. This needs a bit of time, but I have to believe it will only get better."  91 Points.  $60 OH Retail.

The wines discusses here were originally tasted at Walt Churchill's Market in Maumee, Ohio.

Hourglass 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon: Blueline Estate and Classic.

One of the great things about wine is that everyone is constantly learning.  Today, I discovered an excellent, terroir-driven, Cabernet Sauvignon producer that I'd never heard of.  Hourglass Winery.  This luxury, small-production winery is located as the area where the Napa Valley "pinches" to its smallest point - hence the name.

First released in 1997, Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon has held its own with the great "Cult Cabs" of Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle, but this was under Pride Mountain and Paloma superstar winemaker Bob Foley.  2012 starts the winemaking reign of Anthony Biagi - formerly of Duckhorn, Plumpjack, and Cade.

I visited Hourglass Winery at their Blueline Estate Facility for classes related to The Wine and Spirits MBA program, but also got an advance taste of the new 2012 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignons.  Here is what I thought.

Hourglass 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 'Blueline Estate.'  "Dark red fruits and hard crushed stone. A low acid wine but with big serious minerality. A stone monster that is awkward now, but certain to mature into an austerely beautiful Napa Cabernet in 5 to 10 years."  94 points.  Approx Retail $125

Hourglass 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Estate.  "Smooth and complex. The classic Napa Cabernet story. This is chocolate cherry with a bloody meaty red fruit character with even more milk chocolate. Very culty. Lush and classic. Probably will improve with a couple years, but very few will let it get there."  95 points.  Approx Retail $165


Hourglass Cabernets aren't cheap.  Nothing in the Napa Valley really is.  But if, however, you want a small production, high-quality, estate-bottled, and terroir focuses wine from Napa, this is a heck of a good option.