Friday, April 27, 2007



A few weeks ago, I wrote about Penfold's Koonunga Hill Shiraz/Cabernet ($12) as my favorite everyday red wine. Today, we look at the 2004 Koonunga Hill Shiraz ($12).

This is a very good value, as are most of Penfold's wines. It is a blend of Shiraz grapes from several locations, so no appellation Koonunga Hill is not an appellation). Some of the more expensive Penfold's Shiraz wines, like Bin 22 and Henri's Shiraz are more complex and are, well, better wines, but they cost 2 to 3 times as much as this wine.

The Shiraz has a nice structure, with strong fruit and a mineral and spice background. The 2005 is now out, so you may not find the 2004 vintage much longer. My guess is that the 2005 will not be very different, as this is a wine crafted for consistency.

I enjoyed a first glass with a nice Costa Rican cigar purchased on my recent visit there. The wine went nicely with the cigar, providing a nice contrast and merging well with the flavor of the cigar.

The second glass was with a solitary dinner - what I call a "Mediterranean" Dinner of olives, cheddar and Edam cheeses on French bread, grapes, and some smoked salmon. The Koonunga Hills Shiraz went well with the food, making for a very enjoyable late afternoon and early evening.

Given that the Shiraz/Cabernet blend is the same price as the Shiraz, my preference is for the former. The Cabernet adds body and a richer fruit experience. In either case, at the $12 retail price (I got mine on sale for $7.99 at Bev-Mo), either wine is an excellent value.

What do you think?

The Wine Saver

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Carneros Creek Pinot Noir


Today's featured win is the 2005 Carneros Creek Pinot Noir - Carneros Reserve ($22.00).

I joined friends at Toscana Restaurant in Concord, CA - the east bay area, for an Italian dinner. We chose the Carneros Creek from the nice wine list, noticing that the wines were priced very reasonably - about a 50% markup, as opposed to the 200 - 250% that is standard.

The Pinot was chosen because two of the three people were having fish and one (me) the pork chop special. As it turned out, the wine was an excellent selection for the fish, not so for the pork dish, which had a very heavy dark sauce and wild mushrooms. A Cabernet or Shiraz would have been a better pairing.

That being said, the Carneros Creek Reserve is a very nice wine. I would classify it as a mild wine, low in acidity and tannins, with a nice, light fruit bouquet. My two companions both had nice things to say about it.
The Carneros Creek website (a division of Briarcliff Wine Group), had the following information about this wine:

"Tasting Notes: Ruby in color, the wine shows jammy cherry pie aromas with subtle spice in the background. A lush texture up front, with subtle French oak leads to vivid, condensed red cherry flavors which linger in the finish. The wine shows fruit that is at once lively, youthful, and evolved, with a supple tannin structure beneath. Extended time in barrel has integrated the wine, which is drinking nicely now, and will continue to evolve for three or so years to come."

The only thing on which I would differ is the description of "vivid, condensed red cherry flavors" - I would call them mild and pleasant.

This is a wine I would serve with seafood or creamy cheese, and would be a nice wine to drink without food accompaniment. It's not a wine for red meat (few Pinots are), but it is a nice, smooth, pleasant wine that is sure to please most wine drinkers.

What do you think?

The Wine Saver

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Yesterday, during a trip to the Bay area, I found myself with a morning free while I awaited an afternoon flight out of Oakland. So I decided to take the BART over to San Francisco and vist the Ferry Building for some breakfast, some sightseeing, and to do a bit of shopping.

While there, I stopped in a the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant Wine Bar when it opened at 11:00 AM. I ordered their monthly tasting flight and engaged the bar tender, Ed Guelld, in a lively conversation about wine, this blog, and the wines being tasted.

Let's run through the wines, as each was interesting and enjoyable.

First, was a 2004 Domaine Germain St Roumain, Burgundy ($25). While a bit above the usual WineSaver price level, I'm including it because it was a part of the tasting. This is white Burgundy made from 100% Chardonnay grapes by the Germain family, known for their sustainable, enviro-friendly farming practices.

The wine has a crisp, mineral flavor with strong hints of ripe apple. Like many French Chardonnays, it is a very smooth wine with a soft bouquet and a nice finish. It was a nice opening wine for the tasting - not an overwhelming character, but very pleasant.

Next, came a 2006 Andeluna Torrontes Winemaker's Selection, from Meddoza, Argentina ($13). Torrentes is the signature white wine grape of the Meddoza region. The winemaker is Ricards Reina Rutini, a very well- established Argentinian winemaker.

This is a very nice wine, with a strong character that I really enjoyed. Ed said that it was the general favorite of those doing this tasting.

The bouquet is of wildflowers with tropical hints. The wine has flavors of peach and apricot backed by citrus. The balance of acid is enough to give a nice mouth-feel. This is a wine that would be wonderful with shellfish, soft cheeses, or simply to drink on a warm afternoon.

The first of two reds, a 2005 Sur de Los Andes Bonarda, Mendoza ($13), features the Bonarda grape, just behind Malbec in popularity with Argentinian growers. The grape comes from Italy.

This is a dark and dense red wine, high tanins and acidity, with a berry influence, and hints of chocolate. Aged in oak for only two months, it is a powerful wine. It would definately hold up to barbequed red meat and heavy sauces.

The final wine, also a red, is the lone California entrant in the tasting.

A 2004 Cambiata Tannat, from Monterey ($23). This is a powerhouse of a wine, where the tannins are out front. The Tannat grape is a French import with few growers doing much with it in California.
Here is the Winemaking not from the Cambiata website:

Winemaking: The challenge with Tannat is balancing the wine’s fruit and its aggressive tannins. During fermentation we try to accentuate the soft tannins with aerobic pump overs and long macerations. We build structure in the wine by aging it in French oak barrels for 24 months.

The wine is very strong and forward, with an intense ripe-berry fruit presence. The tannins and acid are "right there" in each taste. It might be too much for some drinkers, particularly if your preference runs to Pinot Noir or Merlot.

I liked it, and plan to purchase some to enjoy with some aged cheddar and a good cigar.

So that was my morning tasting at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. My thanks to Ed Guelld for a great experience and for his interesting insights and good company.
Until next time - what do you think?

The WineSaver

Tuesday, April 17, 2007



I'm just returning from a trip to Costa Rica, where the wine picture is pretty non-existent. Where restaurants have wine, it is served too warm and very overpriced (a $10 bottle goes for as much as $60 U.S.). So, with nothing to report this week, I am re-posting the Wine Saver Welcome statement which says what this blog is all about.


I have been at least semi-seriously interested in wine for about eight years. I don’t really remember what got me interested, but something did. I mark the point at which I stopped ordering white zinfandel and started ordering Cabernet Sauvignon as the time that I moved to semi-serious status. Since then, I have found all things wine-related to be of interest, from what wine to order at a restaurant, to viticulture, to attending and even hosting wine tastings.

I consume wine most every day, around and during dinner time. I enjoy tasting new wines and have identified a number that I return to time and time again. My preferences run to reds over whites and roses. In a world of wine experts, I would put myself somewhere in the middle of the pack – I do not spend hundreds of dollars for wines or attend the high-end wine auctions, nor do I drink low-end jug wine. I do not know every appellation, every winemaker, and every vintage, but I am aware of many regions, wines, and winemakers in California, Washington State, Australia, Argentina, and France.

If I spend $50+ on a bottle of wine (a rare occurrence), I EXPECT it to be very good. When I find a bottle that costs $8 to $12 and it is good, I tend to enjoy it more than the $50+ bottle. Better yet if the $8 to $12 bottle is on sale!In restaurants, when I purchase wine, I stay in the $40 to $75 range, which means that with the average markup of 200 to 250% that restaurants charge, I am ordering wines that cost $15 to $30 retail. I favor the few restaurants that do not mark up their wine so high. I also may take a bottle of a favorite wine to a restaurant and pay the corkage fee. So I guess you would say that I try to stay at the lower end of the wine cost spectrum – not the very bottom, but just above that level, where there are many, many wonderful wines to be had.

I believe in everyday wines and special occasion wines, a status that is determined primarily by price and reputation. I like to cook with wine (always cheap wines) and to savor various wines with various foods.So this blog will focus on what I know – which means that it will expand as I expand my knowledge. My selfish reason for writing it is that it will lead me to learn and experience more of the world of wine. A more altruistic reason is to give those who are just beginning or are journeymen on the path to wine appreciation some guidance and a place to argue that I have missed the point. The column is also for the casual wine enthusiast who is looking for some good tips and is not necessarily interested in comparing the terroirs of $200 per bottle burgundies.I have found that wine has the capacity to enrich one’s life. If you enjoy drinking it and can drink it responsibly, you will find that the more knowledge that you have, the more that enjoyment increases.

I moved to California in 2005, and have found a much greater interest in wine than in South Florida, where I lived before. Given the huge California wine industry, this is not surprising. I am enjoying the seemingly endless ways to enjoy and learn about wine in my new home.
Future posts will cover wines that I have enjoyed for some time and some new discoveries. I will also chronicle some tastings and other events. I look forward to your comments as we go along.

The Wine Saver

Thursday, April 5, 2007



We opened a bottle of 2004 Barnwood "3200" Cabernet Sauvingnon the other night. The wine retails for $22.00 at the Barnwood Site, http://www.barnwoodwine,com, and I found it at Gelson's Market for $11.99 for some reason.

Dorianne and I are members of the Laetitia Wine Club, and Barnwood is a subsidiary of Laetitia. Located right on the 101 Highway in northern Santa Barbara County, Laetitia is a must-stop for us as we travel between Los Angeles and Monterey or Paso Robles each year. We have received the Barnwood 3200' in wine club shipments, and although I am not a huge fan, the $11.99 sale price was too good to pass up.

Barnwood does not have a tasting room. The Barnwood wines are available at Laetitia for tasting.

From the Barnwood site: Barnwood 2004 3200' Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine has a rich, deep garnet color with elegant blackberry, raspberry, licorice and spice nuances on the nose. Ripe, firm tannins frame the fresh black plum and cassis flavors giving it excellent balance and a soft midpalate impression. Hints of cocoa and French oak aging come through on the long, rich finish. This wine has an early approachability as well as wonderful aging potential.

I would agree with much of this assessment, but add that the wine is beyond "firm" in tannins - it is a bit harsh for my taste. Decanting helps a bit, and perhaps laying this one down for a longer term will also be a good idea. I have two bottles left, and will store them for at least another year.

I can highly recommend the Barnwood Sauvingnon Blanc, both the 2004 & 2005 vintages are crisp and fruity - very nice. And their excellent TRIO, a red blend. More about them in a later post.

I will be traveling in Central America through April 14th - when I return, I will report on any good wine experiences there (who can tell?). In the meantime, keep looking for those Wine Saver bargains!

The Wine Saver

Monday, April 2, 2007



I am taking a brief detour from the $20 and under wines today. That is because I had occasion to dip into our small cellar this weekend for a very special bottle of wine. It was such a pleasant experience, that I thought I would share it with you.

The wine, a 1998 Insignia by Joseph Phelps winery, is a very well-regarded Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Dorianne and I purchased it at a church charity auction in 2006 as part of a six pack of wines of various sources - the Insignia was the "pick of the litter," needless to say. The 1998 Insignia currently retails for around $120.

Here are some notes from the Phelps Website

BLEND & GRAPE SOURCES: 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Merlot, primarily from estate-owned vineyards in Stag's Leap and Rutherford, with additional fruit coming from independent growers in Rutherford, Carneros and Coombsville.

HARVEST DATES: Sep. 30 - Oct. 20, 1998.

WINEMAKING DATA: Grapes were harvested between September 21, - October 29, 1998 at an average 24.0° - 25.0° Brix, fermented in stainless steel tanks, then aged 20 months in new French oak barrels before being blended and bottled in September, 2000.

The occasion was a dinner for two good friends, one an avid if inexperienced wine enthusiast, the other a non-drinker. They had gifted Dorianne and I with a 2003 Opus One this past holiday season, hence the uncorking of the Insignia for dinner.

I decanted the wine about 45 minutes before serving, as we had a Chardonnay with some St. Andre and Edam cheese accompanied by a medley of olives before dining. The appetizers were served in the kitchen while Dorianne cooked and I grilled outside. The dinner menu: a very tender skirt steak marinated in champagne vinaigrette, roasted new red potatoes with fresh garlic, asparagus spears, and a fresh sourdough loaf.

The Insignia opened the meal with a toast - and instant comments by Dorianne and our wine-drinking guest about the quality of the wine. The Insignia had a wonderful full bouquet, a rich mouth-feel, and the flavors of smoky spice and cassis. It was a perfect complement to the steak and potatoes dinner. I was secretly glad to have a non-drinker at the table, as there were refills for the three drinkers.

Here are the notes from Robert Parker (from the Phelps website):

"The 1998 Insignia . . . is a fabulous wine from a . . . challenging vintage. More evolved than the 1997, with a saturated ruby/purple color, it possesses a sumptuous bouquet of smoke, cedar, licorice and cassis. This full-bodied, fat, succulent effort reveals admirable purity and symmetry, and a soft finish with remarkably deep flavors that caress the palate." Score: 91. Robert M. Parker, Jr.s' The Wine Advocate. 12-23-00

This was truly a special event for us, and we savored the experience. I must say, that over the past year we have come into possession of two more bottles of the 1998. Now that I have tasted one, I truly look forward to the occasion to open another.

The Wine Saver