Halloween was a hoot and so was the next day. You know what November 1st is? It's our Anniversary. This past Thursday TWH celebrated our 41st Anniversary! It's a long time to be in business and we have all of you to thank for it. As a way of saying thanks, we are currently putting the finishing touches on an Anniversary Sale to be unveiled shortly! Stay tuned.
While sitting at my workstation putting the finishing touches on the November Dirty Dozen write-up, I heard Anya answer the phone. She put the party on hold, called David's attention, and told him, "Diane's on the line." It was the way she said it. Not dye-ANNE, like we say here in the states, but "dee-AHN" was how she pronounced it. I knew immediately who it was on the line. David couldn't quite make out what Anya had said over the din in the shop, but he got it eventually and picked up the line. Made me think of how cool it is to work here. Diane Puymorin has been one of our most well-respected winemakers for decades, churning out great wines vintage after vintage. It's been a long standing fact that her Les Cimels Rouge has been my go-to house red for over 10 years, and I'm not alone in my adoration of this wine. I've put many a bottle into satisfied customers' hands over this time, and I just thought it was cool that we bridge the gap between her vineyard, all the way in southern France, to you all, our customers in the good ole USA. You may have heard the story. In 1998, Diane purchased a property once known as Domaine de la Petite Cassagne and re-named it Château d'Or et de Gueules, Occitan for "Gold and Red," the colors of her family crest. My favorite facet of this story has to be the fact that some of her advisors strongly advised Diane to rip her Carignan vines out, as the variety had a reputation for over-producing, resulting in uninteresting wines. She scoffed at this advice, citing the vines' age at over 60 years at the time. She said that the complexity derived from such a gift in the vineyard would enable her to make great wine. I'm a big fan of pragmatism in the face of peer pressure. I am also grateful, because a tiny bit of that Carignan makes its way into that Les Cimels Rouge, and that is perhaps the reason I love it so much. Diane uses the fruit from her Carignan vines, now over 80 years old, in another blend known as Trassegum, Occitan for "Love Potion." You may remember Trassegum from the past, but probably not from any recent vintages. That's because a local French restaurant had pretty much swept up the past 3 vintages for their by the glass program. But just like a good comfortable sweatshirt, things have to be changed out every now and then. So when the 2015 Trassegum arrived, we were delighted to know that it's back on our shelves, and that we, the staff are able to purchase the wine for our own enjoyment.
Currently in stock is the 2015 vintage of Trassegum. The blend is 50% Syrah, 25% old vine Mourvèdre (80+ years old), and 25% old vine Carignan. Production is a stingy 25 hl/ha. The wine is full-bodied, focused, and concentrated. The fruit is savory in character, more in the way of black olives than plummy fruit and/or berry notes. It's the perfect red for the season and a great wine to pair with the hearty fare we tend to enjoy once the nights grow long and a chill hits the air. It has a distinct forest floor aromatic, which is a byproduct of the old vine Carignan, and a hint of black tea-like tannin on the finish, two particular components I enjoy in red wines. It's not exactly priced at the Tuesday night, happy-go-lucky level, but for the quality one finds in bottle of Trassegum, this is a great value! Another rite of passage, changing our clocks back to Standard Time, takes place this evening. It's 2018, so there's no need to remind anybody to physically do so, except for maybe on your microwave or inside your car. And being November, as written above, look out for that 41st Anniversary Sale coming soon. With Halloween in our rear view mirror, the most festive time of year lies straight ahead. There will be many opportunities to get together with friends and loved ones to feast and share some delicious wine. In the red department, the 2015 Château d'Or et de Gueules Trassegum will take care of those palates craving fuller-bodied, complex blends, while simultaneously saving you at the register. Special occasion wines tend to cost much more than $25, but we won't tell if you don't! - Peter Zavialoff
Twin brothers, Jim and Bob Varner are responsible for planting, growing and making some of California's most compelling Pinot Noir. They had been growing Chardonnay on Spring Ridge Vineyard since the 80's, but in 1995 they embarked on planting Pinot Noir. Their approach was similar to planting Pinot Noir as it was to Chardonnay, in small block parcels. The Spring Ridge Vineyard is a unique site. It is situated next to an open space preserve and sits on a property that spans elevations from 500 ft to 1800 ft. in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One ridge away from the Pacific Ocean only 10 miles away as the crow flies. This protected area experiences typical Bay Area maritime weather but at the altitude which the vineyard sits, the nights are even cooler and daytime highs are less sizzling, making it ideal for grape growing. The Varners make three single-block Pinot Noirs: Picnic, Hidden, and Upper Picnic. The blocks are small; combined, they total 6.5 acres.
Earlier in the month, not long after ten o'clock when we unlock our front door and begin the business day, in walked a man who apologetically asked if we were open. If I am sitting at my work station and look towards the door, people entering the store are back lit, so recognizing someone can be a challenge at first glance. I stood up and quickly knew who it was. Bob Varner. Well, that's not entirely true. Bob and his twin brother, Jim, look awfully alike, so it was considerate of him to stretch out his hand and greet us with "Bob Varner". At TWH, we've been lucky to have these unexpected visits from the Varner brothers. Sometimes it is Jim and sometimes it is Bob. Their visits are always a highlight to working here, but this last visit was particularly meaningful and memorable. The last couple years have found the Varners facing many challenges, not the least of which, they will no longer be making wine from Spring Ridge Vineyard. The 2014 vintage is their last.
Bob lead me through the newly released 2014 Pinot Noirs. He started with a refresher course about the site, how the sedimentary rock is a combination of clay and loam and is almost sponge-like, explaining that when it rains, the water drains away in minutes. He went on to tell me that they dry farm, use no fertilizers and grow natural cover crops. The first wine we tasted was the 2014 Hidden Block. It was very open-armed and generous right out of the bottle. Hidden Block is planted to a clone of Pinot Noir called Dijon 115 and is north-facing. Bright, red cherry fruit rushes out of glass and lingers on the palate. Aged in French barrel, about 20-30% new (as do the other blocks), it is remarkable how well integrated the wood is with the fruit. A seamless structure. Next came the 2014 Picnic Block. It is the lowest vineyard, sitting at 600 feet and has the shallowest soil. A darker fruit profile than the Hidden Block, the acid perception is also more intense. The wine has real energy. They chose to go with an "elegant" barrel, one that has no heavy char. Next up was the 2014 Upper Picnic. Here, the Pinot Noir was grafted on to Gewurztraminer that was originally planted in 1981. Bob described the energy of the plants as old-vine. Upper Picnic is separated by only ten feet from the Picnic Block, but it has a bit more soil. It is always the last block to be harvested. The flavors are denser with red cherries galore, but the wine remains elegant throughout. One vineyard, three blocks of Pinot Noir: all three subtly different, but all three amazing.
Varner wines are the result of thirty-five years of hard work. Self-financed, they sold grapes long before making it commercially. They took on a long cycle of planting, as they didn't want to make any mistakes. Bob explained to me that "over time, site will dominate". All their decisions, all their attention to detail in the winery (i.e. they designed their own tanks) was an effort to take all that they learned along the way to carefully choreograph the outcome. Bob told me that his passion for making wine rests in the interplay of Science and Art. After Bob left the store, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I was thankful for this industry that gives me an opportunity to meet people like Bob (and his brother). Making wine is not a vanity project but a way of life for the Varners. Great people, great wine. Do not miss out on the 2014 Pinot Noirs from Varner. Just don't. - Anya Balistreri
"The 2014 Pinot Noir Hidden Block is the most immediate and dense of the four Pinots in the Varner range. A core of sweet red cherry and plum fruit fills out the wine's mid-weight frame effortlessly. Round, pliant and totally seductive, the 2014 has a lot to offer, including tons of near and medium-term appeal." 93 points from Galloni for Vinous.
"The 2014 Pinot Noir Picnic Block is bold, powerful and beautifully resonant on the palate. Succulent red cherry and plum fruit is nicely pushed forward, with pretty floral and savory notes that add striking aromatic complexity. There is lovely depth and texture to this pungent, racy Pinot Noir from Bob and Jim Varner. Beams of tannin underpin the subtle yet persistent, structured finish." 93 points from Galloni for Vinous.
"The 2014 Pinot Noir Upper Picnic is all class. Silky tannins and expressive, perfumed aromatics give the wine unreal finesse. Just as compelling on the palate, the 2014 is absolutely exquisite in its understated, nuanced expression of the Santa Cruz Mountains. What a gorgeous wine it is. The Upper Picnic is the most elegant of these four Pinots." 95 points from Galloni for Vinous.
While walking the streets of our neighborhood this afternoon, I couldn't help noticing the general good vibe of throngs of folks out enjoying the warm weather, sitting in parklets and outdoor tables, sharing the weekend with those of us who work and live here. We had more than a couple of first timers poke their heads in our shop today, asking what we're all about. As many of you know, we are always happy to share our stories, answer questions, and put quality juice in your hands. Now that we're moving deeper into autumn, days like today will be fewer, but the vibe this afternoon has me longing for something chilled and delicious. What's this week's Saturday night wine and how did it come to us? It's the 2017 Torre Zambra Colle Maggio Pecorino and to answer the second part, good connections.
41 years is a long time to be in business, and we will turn 41 in less than two weeks! (Pssst - Yes, there will be an Anniversary Sale - stay tuned!) And when you're in business that long, you're bound to make connections. It hadn't been that long after we signed up Tiziana Settimo and her line of wines from Aurelio Settimo: Dolcetto, Langhe Nebbiolo, and those amazing Baroli, that a package arrived with a range of samples from a producer in d'Abruzzo. Tiziana highly recommended that we try them and let her know what we thought. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves in the tasting room with the samples. There were the usual suspects one finds in d'Abruzzo, Trebbiano and Montepulciano, but there were a couple of other wines including a Pecorino.
Pecorino was not named from the sheep's cheese, its name actually was derived from sheepherders who ate these grapes while tending to their flocks in search of food. Italian wine grape maven, Ian d'Agata wrote in his tome Native Wine Grapes of Italy, "Pecorino is not just a grape variety; it is also one of Italy's biggest wine success stories of the twenty-first century."
I have been on a Pecorino kick ever since Anya brought one in for The Dirty Dozen back in 2010. It's gotten to a point where I just have to have it when I see it on a wine list in a restaurant. So when we were tasting the Torre Zambra wines, my inner wine enthusiast was giddy for a taste of the Pecorino. It did not disappoint. That's an understatement. It was remarkably delicious! The aromas are of stone fruit, orchard fruit, and citrus blossoms. Its aromas alone are captivating. On the palate, it has a medium body and bright acidity which sweeps the aromatic complexity into harmony. I still can't get enough of this wine. Another reason I can't lay off in a restaurant, is its ability to pair with food. Often times, when one chooses the wine before the food, your dining options diminish if looking to dial in a perfect pairing. Not so much with Pecorino. This wine works with most seafood entrees and appetizers, and lighter land meats such as porchetta or turkey breast. I was over the moon for the Colle Maggio Pecorino! Heck, I didn't even have to taste any of the other wines to know we would be bringing them in, but for the record, all of the wines were outstanding, and they all represented excellent value at their respective price points. David and our staff were all in agreement. Any guesses who now imports Torre Zambra into California? TWH, of course.
Things are getting interesting, we've got Halloween coming right up, and our 41st Anniversary the very next day! The rest of 2018 is looking like a rip-roaring good time. Oh yeah, Dungeness Crab season begins November 3. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Pecorino for the win. - Peter Zavialoff
It's been a memorable week. The Union De Grands Crus De Bordeaux passed through town pouring the newly bottled 2015 vintage. This came with several visits from our friends overseas. The tasting was a success, as the wines from Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, and the reds from Pessac-Leognan showed great expression and balance in consistent fashion. I recently wrote about the 2015 Château Olivier rouge, and after having tasted it this past Thursday, I stand behind my recommendation. That's all I'm going to say about Bordeaux for now, as the subject of tonight's email is a new arrival from Italy - the 2016 Lugana from Ca' Lojera.
A new container from Italy recently arrived, and we're breaking down pallets in an effort to get these new goodies onto our sales floor and into your hands! I don't know why this is, but consistently, I seem to have more need for white wine in the winter than any other season. Last week, I filled up my six bottle wine bag with six different bottles from the container's bounty. There are some evenings in which any formality around the ritual of opening and serving a bottle of wine is dispelled, and this particular night was one of them. A couple of after-work errands had me home later than usual, so in a hurry, I stir fried some chicken with vegetables. A peek into the fridge left me with a few choices. Knowing what I knew at the time, I felt the new Lugana from Ca' Lojera would work well with what would eventually end up on my plate. So I popped it. I poured out a glass and went on supervising the stove top. At one point, I reached for the glass and had a sip. I stopped in my tracks, my focus now on this wonderful, fresh, lively white wine in my glass. I didn't know what was happening; I've enjoyed the Ca' Lojera wines very much over the years, but I hadn't had an experience like this one! The aromas were clean and fresh, citrus blossoms, grapefruit, honeydew melon, and a hint of a minty nuance. Then, on the palate, this aromatic goodness lingered and was bolstered by a medium bodied, impeccably balanced mouth feel. I was smitten. Needless to say, the bottle didn't last very long. Not very long at all.
The catalyst of this experience was from an interaction with a customer who lives in the neighborhood. She regularly purchases Franco and Ambra Tiraboschi's Lugana made from a grape the locals call Turbiana. She was in the day before this happened and asked us if we had tried the new vintage. Shrugged shoulders and blank stares were the responses, but that question alone is how a bottle ended up in my wine tote. She bought two bottles that day and promised to report back with her impressions. When I came to work the day after I tasted it, I asked my colleagues, "Holy Cow, you guys. Have you tasted the 2016 Lugana yet?" At that point, nobody else had. That's changed now. I was pretty excited about it all day. At the end of the day, this customer was back. I looked at her and beamed, "I just tried it last night, and man oh man, you must be happy. I think this is the best vintage for them to date!" Her glowing smile in return was all I needed to know she enjoyed it very much. She bought six more bottles. A couple of days later, a bottle was opened as a sample for a wholesale customer. When the sample made its way back to the shop, Chris and David got to taste it. Chris was first to reply - he told me I was spot on with my assessment, and pointed in particular to the fresh acidity of the wine which helped fan the complexity across the palate. David nodded his head and smiled. He told me that the customer he poured it for liked it a lot.
Anya's take was more philosophical. "Here's a wine which I've enjoyed in every vintage we've carried it. Each vintage puts its own stamp on the wine, and the variation is what makes wine tasting enjoyable and thought provoking. One can get in trouble proclaiming a wine 'the best ever', because other vintages will follow. Remember when we first made the deal to import their wines? We got a call from a well-known boutique importer who took the time to congratulate us on the addition to our portfolio. The wines are that good. Their reputation is that good. They're a first round draft pick. We're very lucky. Is the 2016 Lugana their best? I have to say yes."
There's plenty more to talk about - another new producer and more goodies from our Italian container, more Bordeaux stuff, and 2015 red Burgundy, but that will have to wait for another time. January is always a very busy time for me, and this one was no exception. Now that it's almost over, I can relax. And eat. Sounds like Dungeness Crab is in order. You already know which wine I will drink with it. - Peter Zavialoff
Domaine des Aspras was established by husband and wife, Gottfried and Lisa Latz, immigrants from Germany by way of the Congo, in the early 1960's.They knew nothing of wine growing or wine producing, but they had the determination and entrepreneurial spirit of those who come with little and want to build a better life for their family. Today their descendants run this beautiful estate making impeccable Provençal wines. The land is farmed organically, as does the entire village of Correns, where Domaine des Aspras is located. Here the soils are clay-limestone which is ideal for grape cultivation. The Wine House has now been importing their wines for a couple of vintages. On our last container from France we received back in their entry-level red, À Lisa.
The À Lisa rouge is mostly Merlot, but my suspicion is that the 2016 has a good smattering of Syrah in it. What alerted my suspicion? It's the funk. Oh, yeah. It's got that funk. That funk is part of the À Lisa's charm. Looking for a densely fruited red, with soft tannins, but has earthy aromatics, perhaps a touch of animal? This one is for you!
I drank a bottle over three consecutive nights and found that quirky note of funk softens with aeration but never quite dissipates. The bottle I took home was a sample that David, Chris and I tasted earlier in the week. The wine washed a wave of nostalgia over us. We all remembered the southern French reds that were once imported by Robert Kacher that The Wine House loyally stocked. Remember Grand Cassagne or Chateau de Valcombe? Well, it's kinda like that, but even better.
Now that it's mid-January, life feels like I just stopped off one of those airport people movers. I have been so used to the frantic pace of the last couple months that stepping off set me a little off balance. I'll need to quickly right myself as there is much to do in this new year and much that I want to accomplish. But first things first, and that will be cooking up some one-pot braises to provide nourishment and comfort. À Lisa rouge will go beautifully with the types of rustic cooking I am imagining to prepare. À Lisa has the dense berry flavors I'm seeking, while its soft-structured tannins will compliment "fall off the bone" meat and that funk will give that farm-to-table allure. Bring out the dutch oven and grab yourself a bottle of À Lisa rouge. Cheers! - Anya Balistreri