Category Archives: Varietals

Three Lodi Wineries Offering Authenticity and Intrigue

The Lodi region of California has grown wine grapes for over a century. This history has both burnished and oxidized its reputation. Lodi has some name recognition, but for a specific niche: high octane zinfandel and bulk filler for the kings, queens, and princes to the west, nearer the cool coast. Both because of and despite this storied past, growers new and historic have reenergized the brand “Lodi” with forward-thinking varietal plantings that better explore the potential of the region, while also proudly staking their claim as the rightful heir of old, entish zinfandel vines. Aspiring, trailblazing, and even avante garde, some of these producers now explore a spectrum of wines from broad-shouldered and proud, to vivacious and crisp.

Read the full article here at The Growler.

Workers in one of the many vineyards of the Lodi AVA in central California // Photo courtesy Lodi Winegrape Commission

Cold Climate Grapes Take Root in Waconia

By Stephen Ausmus (USDA employee)

As a thunderstorm rolls across the prairie, Ben Banks rests a finished bottle flat and deftly hand-labels his new vintage release. Disturbing the zen of the moment, he looks up to give me a warm handshake. Banks leads the winemaking at Sovereign Estate, his family’s winery established in 2008 on the north shore of Lake Waconia, situated 45 minutes west of  Minneapolis. Sovereign Estate comes highly recommended by friends in and outside the wine industry, as do neighboring wineries Parley Lake (2008) and Schram Vineyards (2013). It’s enough to pique my interest in the region, which is lauded for its soil, academic knowledge, and viticultural pioneers.

Soil and Successes

The existence of a thriving wine scene just a grape’s throw from the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center is no coincidence. “Our vineyard is five miles from the center,” says Steve Zeller . . . .

Read the full article here at The Growler.

2014 Clearwater Canyon Coco’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

92 points

Deep ruby with purple hues, the nose provides intense black currant, blackberry liqueur, leather, and smoked jerky aromatics with black olive whispering in the background. An abundance of smooth, ripe tannins ride on the ripe, deep flavors, which echo the nose. Nice persistence and well-layered. A noteworthy effort from a respected producer in the brave new world of Idaho winemaking. Drink 2018—2026. (MW, June 2017)

Price $42

Varietals: 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Syrah, 8% Cabernet Franc, 5% Malbec, 3% Merlot

Region: Lewis-Clark Valley AVA

Alcohol: 14.7%

Producer: Clearwater Canyon Cellars

Wine Economics Part II: Varietals

The New World has successfully managed to bring the names of specific grapes (a.k.a. varietals) to the forefront of our minds. Most Old World wines did not traditionally include varietal labeling, opting instead for location specific labeling–Pauillac, Rioja, or Barolo, for example. While much of the Old World continues this original labeling strategy, today I will focus on the varietals within the bottles, regardless of location, and their effect on the bottle price. If you have not read Wine Economics Part I: The Land, partake now.

Pinot Noir and Riesling serve as wonderful varietal exemplars. Respectable examples of Pinot Noir typically start at twice the price of their Riesling counterparts. Why? Winemakers age Pinot Noir, like many reds, in oak barrels–typically French oak for Pinot. New oak barrels from reputed Coopers in France cost $800-3500 per barrel (each contains 300 bottles of wine). This simple reality has obvious consequences for the finished price of many red wines. Cheaper red wines (under $10) frequently use oak chips or staves to reduce the economic impact, but nearly all well-respected wineries continue to use oak barrels.

Once beyond this clear difference, we now must dig deeper. Pinot Noir has earned a unique and significant reputation as the Poet’s Grape, the Devil’s Grape, the Seductress. All allude to the ethereal quality of this grape, which not only presents itself in the glass, but also in the vineyard. Pinot has devastatingly thin-skin, which has unfortunately made many vineyard managers and winemakers bald before their time–you think the presidency is trying! The fickle nature of Pinot Noir requires laborious attention in the vineyard, and this attention costs money–more hands and eyes on the vines. 

Riesling, however, suffers not from these monetary drains (or from want. . . we will get there). Riesling’s crisp acidity and frequent sweetness (for the semi-sweet and sweet wine lovers) needs no oak to shine. Many consider Riesling the ultimate terroir wine, as it has a unique ability to show its place, and the lack of muddling oak contributes to this reputation. Equally important, Riesling is hardy (like Cabernet Sauvignon) in the field. While Pinot Noir needs to be watched for downy and powdery mildew thanks to its volatile attributes, Riesling will quietly go about its slow, steady business of ripening like a stalwart tortoise.

Riesling also suffers not from want. Perhaps the most under-appreciated wine, except by sommeliers*, Riesling still manages to sell moderately well. However, it does not have the reputation for allure or stateliness like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. This diminutive reputation results in deflated demand at the mid and high price points. My recommendation to those on a budget seeking exciting wines with a sense of place–drink Riesling. You will find excellent examples of the varietal at $15 versus $25-40 for Pinot Noir. This lesson extends beyond Riesling to all the other under-appreciated varietals of the world, especially the lesser-known local grapes of many Old World wine regions.

  • Douro, Portugal
  • Loire Valley, France
  • Veneto, Italy 

These three Old World regions produce exciting, unique wines that many have never tasted. Why? The lack of varietal name recognition plays one role. Have you heard of bastardo, tressallier, or glera? These grapes take the main stage in these regions (with others alongside). In short, drink more grapes (and from locales) you have not heard of before. With help from your friend–the local wine shop employee you know (remember, this is a must)–you will find wines that surprise and delight.

The counter-examples, inflated bottle prices, lay in wines where you find varietal reputation aligning with a respected location–Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, for example. Reputation carries great weight, and not only the reputation of the varietal. Next time, Wine Economics Part III: Reputation.

As mentioned in Part I, many simplifications exist in the information above. Economic factors certainly overlap and intertwine in a complex manner–vinification techniques, location, varietal reputation and costs, and reputation are a few of the forces at work. However, generalities are necessary to discuss the topic meaningfully, even if imperfectly. Today is an attempt to isolate the varietal’s economic impact.

*Sommelier = a wine professional, frequently working in reputable restaurants or wine businesses.

Pure Pinot

A recent weekend in the Chehalem and Ribbon Ridge AVAs of Oregon has eloquently reminded me of the importance of context. My bride and tasting partner, Stephanie, and I spent two days sipping our way through 2011 and 2012 pinot noir cuvées, reserves, single vineyard selections, and 2013 futures. While critically discerning aromas and tastes at the second winery, context finally descended upon me–nearly all of these pinots rise to the realm of exceptionality. 


Many wine regions, great and small, have crawled into bed with pinot noir, but nearly all have found her a coy mistress. Most fail to bring out the best in her, making instead either a simple, light table wine, or a juicier, one-dimensional slurper. Respected producers in the Willamette, however, have teased this mistress into delighting wondrouslyHow fortunate we are. A handful of Willamette wineries fail to inspire, but a little research will lead you to one of the plethora of noteworthy pinot producers in the valley. Take advantage, even if only for an afternoon of tasting.

Wines of note:


  • 2012 Beaux Frères Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: Always a joy when a winery’s entry-level pinot delights as much or more than single vineyard or reserve tiers. Beaux Frères has earned its acclaim. Structure, beauty, and nuanced complexity coexist. 
  • 2012 Chehalem Corral Creek Vineyards Pinot Noir: Blue fruits and blackberries balance well with gentle tannins. 2012 provided an abundance of heat, allowing this typically gentler vineyard to produce a larger, but still well-balanced wine. 
  • 2011 Trisaetum Coast Range Estate Pinot Noir: A reminder that I love elegance. In 2011, cool conditions dominated, but many outstanding wines exist despite the challenges. Add this bottle to that list. Red berries, acid, and agile weight meld delightfully. 


Trisaetum 2011 Pinot Noir



Gorgeous Barbera

Barbera, the lesser known grape of Piedmont, Italy, often goes unnoticed by the broader wine community outside of Piedmont. However, show up at a restaurant in Barolo, Italy and you will see bottles of Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti* gracing the tables around you. This is significant as Barolo, a wine named after this restaurant’s commune and made with the Nebbiolo grape, has wine critics shooting fireworks out of their pens. While worthy of the praise, Barolo sits in the castles of the elite, largely untouchable due to its weighty fee–yes, get out your gold. Barbera, however, is the people’s wine.

It also pairs impeccably with your Thanksgiving feast. For those looking to support local wineries this holiday season, the Columbia Gorge AVA of Wagon** country provides. Barbera is grown in few vineyards outside of Italy, but has found a home within the Columbia Gorge. On a recent trip to the Gorge, I tasted multiple bottles of Barbera. All delighted and impressed on this two-day venture. Why Barbera this season? If your host uses as much butter and cream in the gravy and potatoes as mine, Barbera provides an outstanding balance of round, smile-inducing fruit–dark cherry and plum–and zesty acidic zip to cleanse your palate between savory bites. Recommendation: Marchesi Vineyards 2012 Estate Barbera.

For those without access to the boutique Barberas of the Columbia Gorge, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti will not disappoint. As always, talk with your local wine shop friends (they should be friends) for recommendations. These are not wines of greatness, but they are wines that delight–without breaking the bank ($9-$18 for many noteworthy bottles).

Be thankful!

*Those new to Italian wine, Asti and Alba are the mentioned locales well known for growing Barbera, and you will find them labeled as Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti
**Wa-gon = Washington and Oregon

Bombs Away: Syrah in the Willamette

As mentioned in my last post, I have two significant memories from my summer of tasting through the Willamette Valley. Stoller Family Estate provides the second provocative impression. After tasting through six wines at Stoller, all truly respectable, I find myself wanting more. . . syrah from the Willamette Valley.

Stoller’s Single Acre Estate Syrah brought one eye brow up, and forced a second glance at the label. Syrah from the Willamette? Syrah brings most minds to the hot climes of the world–the Hunter Valley of Australia or the much closer Wahluke Slope of Washington. Unfortunately, these warm locations can too often create fruit bombs lacking complexity, balance, or length. Stoller’s syrah, however, balanced beautifully with acid and medium weight, while looming large enough to show classic syrah spice and fruit. If this single experiment from Stoller does not convince, perhaps the Northern Rhone should, as the climates of both valleys share plenty of similarities if you choose the vineyard site appropriately. Remember, the Northern Rhone borders Burgundy, the epicenter of Pinot Noir. Wineries with lower elevation, south-facing acreage within the Willamette Valley, like Stoller Family Estate, take note. Bombs away–balance and perspective rise up. Perhaps this message should carry beyond the caves and cellars to the halls of capitals.

While you’re beating down the doors of those in power, pick up a bottle of 2013 Pinot Noir Rose from Stoller Family Estate as well. I have tasted a good plenty of roses from a plethora of grape varieties from Wa-gon country, and this takes the cake. Delicious.

*Newcomers, Wa-gon = Washington and Oregon