Rick's Pick: 2007 Domaine Carneros Avant Garde Pinot Noir

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Finding a good QPR (quality price ratio) Pinot Noir can be a bit tricky.  Pinot is such a temperamental grape—when it's off, it's not very good but when it's good it's magic in a bottle.  Perhaps more than any grape, Pinot Noir expresses it's place or terroir more than just about any grape.  And it does so pretty dramatically.

Because of how temperamental it is, Pinot Noir is all over the place in terms of quality (read: how much you like drinking it).  The grape requires more work in the vineyard and in the winery, which ultimately affects price.  You don't see many $10 Pinots for a reason.  It's not like Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot where you can produce the wine more cheaply.  With that said, when you find a Pinot Noir for about twenty bucks that blows your socks off, it's something special.

When I tried the 2007 Domaine Carneros Avant-Garde Pinot for the first time at the winery I said, "@#%! how much is this????"  I had to do a double take to look at the price tag.  This wine is a Rick's Pick for a few reasons:

1. 2007 is a stellar vintage in California, especially in the Napa area.  Most wineries has great fruit to work with, which is 75% of what determines quality.

2. Domaine Carneros produces exceptional sparkling wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  They don't work with many grapes, but luckily Pinot Noir is one of them.

3. Carneros is known for having a great climate for growing grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  Carneros is located at the south end of Napa Valley.  Most wine drinkers may not realize how close Carneros is to the bay.  It butts up against the San Pablo bay, which in turn brings cold air off the water over the grapes.  Pinot Noir loves cold air.

4. Domaine Carneros is a fabulous winery, and one of the few wine clubs we belong to.  They are owned by the Tattinger Champagne house in France, so their approach to wine making is exceptional.  I've yet to find a wine of their that wasn't made with precision and quality.

5. The X-Factor I talked about in my 7 Things About Wine post mentions an element you can't quite describe.  A Pinot Noir of this caliber normally goes for $50 easy.  Considering the fact the Avant Garde goes for less than $25 we buy it in bunches.

Get your hands on a bottle and get some in your glass.  Swirl it around and let the fresh aromatics of strawberry, dark raspberries and black cherries take over your senses.  There's a delicate choreography of spicy vibrancy that unfolds across your palate like two dancers on Dancing with the Stars.  It's surprisingly complex and well balanced with just the right amount of funky earthiness and a kiss of oak, letting the fruit show through.  Well done!

Rick's Picks: 2007 St. Francis Claret (Elu Mini Me)

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One of my favorite wines at St. Supéry is the Elu Bordeaux style blend.  Some of the grapes you might find in Elu are Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cab Franc.  Why am I talking about Elu?  Because the St. Francis Claret reminds me very much of Elu, only more affordable.

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The St. Francis Claret is made with the same grapes, but is 1/3 the price.  It's the Mini Me version of Elu.  If tasted blind, you might be able to pick out the Elu but at $22 a bottle why bother?  2007 St. Francis Claret has a different blend of 26% Merlot, 25% Cabernet, 23% Malbec, 10% Cabernet Franc and 7% Petit Verdot.  Both are estate grown.  Both have a sweeter, jammy profile with vanilla oak.  The 2007 Claret gets a nod because the '07 vintage was incredible in California.  Winemakers were licking their chops when fruit came in 'cause the fruit was big, ripe and there was lots of it.

When we visited St. Francis in February, we had tasted through the lineup.  I hadn't tasted anything I was going to buy and take home, but overall their lineup was a solid representation of Sonoma wines.  They poured the Claret as an, "oh, by the way just try this" as we're getting ready to leave.

I had the "omigod" response and immediately bought 6 bottles.  Cashmere in a glass smoothness, plus sweet plum, black cherry, cedar and baking spices.  The Hungarian, French and American oak impart yummy vanilla, baking spice notes with a kiss of sweetness.  It's not just vanilla, it's french vanilla.  I picked the St. Francis Claret as a Rick's Pick because the quality for the price is awesome (QPR).  This is a great everyday drinking wine, especially if you like Bordeaux style blends like Elu.

A few food pairings you might like:

Southwest Skillet Steak

Filet with Blue Cheese Porcini Sauce

Rick's Pick: '07 Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair Vosne-Romanée 1er Cru Les Chaumes

Ahhh Burgundy, how we love thee. The Pinot Noir's from Burgundy represent a journey for wine drinkers. They can be equally rewarding and torturous at the same time. The Burgundy Pinot's are like a dominatrix wearing leather slapping you silly and making you call it Momma.

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HOW coffee is made

According to research done by the National Coffee Association, approximately 112 million Americans were "every day coffee drinkers" in 2006.  Each year another 3-5% of the population joins in as an every day drinker racking up $18 Billion a year spent on coffee by Americans.  The average coffee drinker has 3 cups a day, which means about 336 million cups of coffee are consumed every day in America.  That number grows exponentially when you look at worldwide consumption.  Coffee is the second most popular drink after water at a staggering 1.4 billion cups of coffee consumed every day around the world.  Over 100 million people depend on coffee as a source of income.

I recently had a chance to visit one of the world's best coffee producing regions.  Kona, on the big island of Hawai'i is 22 square miles of ideal coffee-growing "terroir".  That's a wine term meaning the combination of weather, soil, climate, slope and all other elements that give a place its "placeness".  It's what makes a place unique.  Terroirs are like snow flakes, no two are the same.  Kona coffee fetches upwards of $20-30 a pound compared to the $6-$10 a pound you pay at the grocery store.  Kona coffee is known for rich, bold flavors without high levels of acid or bitterness.

Greenwell Coffee Farms is the oldest family-owned coffee producer in Kona.  Henry Nicholas Greenwell arrived in Kona from England in 1850.  He lived with his wife and 10 children where we built a successful coffee export business.  Over time, Greenwell became well known in Europe and America for having reliable quality Kona coffee.

Today, Greenwell Farms is run by fourth generation family members who still farm 35 acres of prime coffee growing land at about 1,500 feet elevation.  During my visit I learned there are a number of similarities between growing coffee and wine grapes.  For example, wine grapes and coffee trees both do well in volcanic soil, both do well in altitudes of 600-1,200 feet in elevation, both need some sun exposure (but not too much), both get pruned down to the stump after harvest and both go through flowering before they produce fruit.  Coffee trees are technically fruit trees, and the coffee fruit it called cherries.

Watching the harvesting and processing of the coffee beans was a unique experience.  The end result was a coffee every bit as good as advertised.  Greenwell's 100% Kona coffee's were rich yet smooth without any of the bitter acid reflux.  Kona coffee is famous for being low in acid.  Because Kona coffee is so popular, yet expensive, you might find coffee's that say 10% Kona on the package.  They do this to keep the price down, yet get the name on the label.

Sadly, many of the growers barely make any money even though they're selling their coffee at $20 a pound.  The reason it's so expensive is all the labor that goes into producing some of the world's best coffee.  From picking, to drying, to sorting and roasting—every step of the way requires doing it by hand.  Machines aren't used for anything during the process.  Because of that, the Kona coffee can't be made by automating any step of the process.  Greenwell employs 50 people in the production facility, which is a significant number considering they farm 35 acres.

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Rick's Pick: 2005 Maison Bouachon Gigondas Duc de Montfort

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The Rhone Valley has two part: the Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone.  Northern Rhone is known for 100% Syrah or Viognier wines whereas the Southern Rhone is known for Grenache based blends.  Gigondas is an area within Southern Rhone, which means the wines are predominantly Grenache blends, but have a unique characteristic all their own.  The 2005 Duc de Montfort from Maison Bouachon is a great example of typicity.

APPEARANCE

Color: Clear Brightness: Star Bright Red Color: Ruby Rim Variation: Pink representing a few years of age Viscosity: Medium Plus with minor tear staining

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NOSE

Condition: Clean Intensity: Medium Plus Aroma: Youthful Fruit: Black Cherry, Red Cherry, Plum Earth: None detected Other: Violets, Cola, Leather

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PALATE

Sweetness: Dry Body: Medium Fruit: Black Cherry, Red Cherry Earth: None Detected Alcohol: Medium Acidity: Medium Plus Complexity: Medium Plus Finish: Medium Plus

Black fruits and red fruits come together one one of my favorite wine regions.  Gigondas is like the little brother to Châteauneuf-du-Pape with a little bit of Rosé production, but dominated by red wine.  Gigondas has a Mediterranean climate, unlike Northern Rhone, which has more of a continental climate.  The main geographical identifier of Gigondas is the Dentelles de Montmirail, which is a small mountain range dividing the region into two areas.  One area is hotter, while the other is cooler.

I found the 2005 to have just the right amount of age (although it'll get better).  Food pairings with this wine can be fairly easy—tonight we opted for grilled pork tenderloin with balsamic fig reduction sauce, and it was off the hook!  Let me know your suggestions in the comments below.

Cheers!

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Vintage 2010 in Napa Valley: Sugar and Acidity

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Napa Valley
Image via Wikipedia

Two of the important things to look for in a wine are the fruit and the acidity.  There are a few easy ways to detect these markers in a wine.  You may have heard a wine described as "New World" or "Old World".  When you hear that, it's another way to say the wine is fruit-driven or acid-driven.

Basically, hot temperatures raise sugar content, and cold temperatures raise acidity.

But what do those things taste like?  Sugar content is perceived in New World wines via fruit-driven structure, and can describe wines from regions like the U.S., Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.  Acidity drives the structure in wines grown in colder climates like France, Germany and other European regions.  Many of those soils tend to be Limestone or gravel, rather than a volcanic soil like you might find in the U.S..  The way you sense acid is on the roof of your mouth towards the back.  If you swallow the wine and you get a lingering sensation in that area, you are picking up acidity.  Fruit driven wines tend to be sweeter and jammier, showing up on the front of the tongue (or palate).

In Napa Valley, there's a nice mix of temperatures that give the wines heat during the day, and cold temperatures at night.  The fruit and acidity live in concert with each other, but overall the wines are fruit driven.  This year, however, Napa is experiencing one of the coldest summers on record.  Know how you know that?  Well, besides the weatherman telling us so, Napa is usually starting harvest at this time of year.  But this year, grapes are still hanging on the vine because the fruit isn't ripe enough yet.  Harvest may not start for another three weeks  almost a month behind schedule!  That could be perceived as a bad thing, but it's not if you have the right wine maker.  What Napa may end up with is a rarity they don't have very often, which is higher than normal acid levels in the wines along with the higher sugar levels.  A winemaker who knows what they're doing may find their fruit has the best of both worlds.

Usually, Napa Valley gets a morning fog influence from the San Pablo bay that cools the grapes at night.  That blanket of fog is consistent almost every day in the summer months as the center of California heats up.  By mid day the fog burns off providing the right amount of heat and sunshine to increase sugar levels.  This is different than say, Walla Walla, Washtington where longer days at a higher latitude provide more sunshine for ripening, and cool temperatures at night.  At that latitude you're getting closer to Alaska, where summer days seem to last until midnight.  The sun is lower on the horizon, which means the heat isn't as intense.

So when you get to try any 2010 vintage wines from Napa, look for the acidity on the roof of your mouth toward the back.  The verdict on vintage 2010 will be out until the reds get released into the marketing some time in 2013.  Cheers!

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Wine+Food Review: Thistle Restaurant in McMinnville, OR

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Ever walk into a trendy restaurant where all the furniture looks futuristic and the decor is hipster, and notice how beautiful everyone is? You just feel like you're hanging with the "it" crowd and that's the place to be. Maybe it's on the 26th floor of a new skyscraper in Manhattan or in downtown San Francisco where the founder of Twitter like to been seen.

Thistle is the complete opposite of that. The glassware and silverware look like they were purchased from a garage sale and the weathered wood floor creaks. Located in the heart of Oregon wine country, Thistle is the perfect anti-trendy place to eat. When James Beard award-winning chef Eric Bechard and his equally qualified front-of-the-house wife/wine buyer Emily Howard opened Thistle, it was all about the good stuff.

I sat at the counter, which felt like sitting in my Grandma's pantry. There were jars lining the wall and a tiny kitchen tucked in the corner.  There were all the things I remember about my Grandma's kitchen, except my Grandma didn't have a stellar wine list.

I loved Thistle.  Sitting at the bar was cool because I was able to chat with Chef Eric throughout the entire meal.  It was also cool because it was located in the heart of downtown McMinville, OR.  So many cool places are just steps away, including McMenamins Hotel Oregon.  Thistle was unpretentious and all about relaxing with a good meal.  How often do you get to chat with the chef during and after dinner?

If the food wasn't impressive enough, the wine list was equally as impressive.  I liked that Thistle didn't have Oregon wines only on the list.  Emily put together one of the most impressive wine lists I've seen in a long time.  There were esoteric wines from all over the world, and they were all high quality as well as well priced.  I took her suggestion and did a glass of wine with each course.  Here's what I had:

First pairing: 2008 Auxerrois from Adelsheim, Ribbon Ridge with Chioggia Beets, Arugula, Chevre & orange

Second pairing: 2003 Alicante Bouschet from Esporao, Portugal with Flat Iron Steak w/ spicy Chimichurri, Potato and Brocoli

It was hard to pick from the menu because everything looked SO good.  Even the bread was good—fresh baked down the street.  You gotta love a restaurant that has the menu up on a blackboard that changes every day.  Each time you go into Thistle, you can expect a unique experience.

The whole time as I'm licking my chops, Chef Eric kept coming over and chatting with me about this, that or the other thing.  He talked about working in Seattle and how it is working with his wife in a new business.  Chef was rocking a faux hawk that day.  You kinda get the sense there's no rules for employees at Thistle, other than good authentic food.

The beet salad stood up well to the Auxerrois without overpowering it.  Auxerrois is not much unlike Pinot Gris, so it has some similar notes, especially (in this case) wet rocks, mineral notes and asian pear.  I thought the acidity or tartness might be too much for the salad, but the beets and orange danced together nicely.

But what really blew my hair back was the beef with Chimichurri sauce.  I've made flank steak with Chimichurri a few times, and it was good.  But this one was completely different.  There was a tangy spiciness that lit up my taste buds like a pinball machine.  The steak was cooked perfectly, only to be perfected even more with the Portuguese red.  Seven years of age was perfect for the Alicante Bouschet grape. There was enough sweetness to offset the spicy flavors on the beef.

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Rick's Picks: 2009 Domaine Breton Bourgueil Cabernet Franc

Catherine and Pierre Breton are leading a new movement of organic viticulture in the Bourgueil appellation of the Loire Valley.  I've had a few of their wines and have been impressed each time.  Their sparkling wine made from Chenin Blanc is one not to be missed.

I came across Domaine Breton wines at Kermit Lynch, one of my favorite wine shops in Berkeley.  The 2009 Domaine Breton Bourgueil Cabernet Franc demonstrates why this producer is gaining popularity in trendy shops and restaurants in Paris.  There was some distinct chalkiness in this wine as there is in wines grown in Limestone soils.  Limestone is prevalent in the Loire valley, which is nice.

It's a red and it's 2009 vintage.  Do the math and you'll see this wine was harvested about 10 months ago, give or take.  Although young, this Cab Franc was singing like a bird right out of the bottle.  Rich, full and well made.  Here's a few notes:

APPEARANCE

Color: Clear Brightness: Star Bright Red Color: Garnet Rim Variation: yes, pink at the edges Viscosity: Medium

NOSE

Condition: Clean Intensity: Medium Plus Aroma: Youthful Fruit: Red fruits, black cherry, quince Earth/Chalk/Forest

PALATE

Sweetness: Dry Body: Medium Fruit: Black cherry, stewed plum, cola, olive Earth/Chalk/Forest Alcohol: Medium Minus Acidity: Medium Complexity: Medium Plus Finish: Medium

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