Saturday, May 29, 2010

Carmel Valley Scores; Georis Wins

People have told me that stress lifts the moment you come over the ridge into Carmel Valley. Doubtful? Believe it! Blood pressure down; stress factor down; happiness up! Today, we came for the wine, but fell in love with the restaurants, the people, the art, the scenery, and (most importantly, yes) the wine. In the type of town where you might get bored in 30 days, you might instead fall in love in 30 seconds. Instead of forging relationships over several years, you might instead become fast friends over tapas and a glass of Pinot Noir. We met a wonderfully gracious woman at Jan De Luz Antiques, who treated us (and our dog Cecil) like long lost friends. I don't know exactly what happened, but I like the guy who drove that charcoal Prius through town. My dog Cecil was happier, my heart was warmer, Squeak was squeakier, TheWife was ... well, TheWife is always great so I'll stop there but you get the picture.

Premiere wines in this region are typically Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but Carmel Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands also produce wonderful Syrah and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Merlot and Cabenet. Bernardus wines were fabulous from top to bottom, and fantasticly well made. Don't expect Rutherford dust, but do expect fabulous fruit at one-third the price. Wines at the Parsonage Valley Vineyards are also good, in a warm setting with art and friendly help (and the quilting by the patronage of the Parsons clan is unlike anything I've seen). We visited a few other places that were also nice, and didn't even get to some of the most accomplished wineries like Talbott and Galante. At more than one winery, we were admonished to stay away from any winery named Chateau anything (which we didn't follow... and wished that we had later). We advise you to do the same.

We were a merry party preparing to leave Carmel Valley, when we stumbled across Georis Winery on the way out. We pulled over to visit Talbots as our last stop, but were drawn into the lovely gardens around Georis (and the sign that said something like Good Wine and Good Friends). I've had several of their Merlot bottlings over the years -- and found them bipolar between fabulously structured giants and weedy-messes. Instead of just another tasting room, we found a lovely garden filled with brightly colored flowers, colors of all sorts, wonderful latin music, brightly colored birds, and a warmly confident environment. No false pretenses, just massively powerful red wine (Cabernet Franc, Merlot and several bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon). Our hostess was warm and engaging (and, like Joe, a surfer too), who made us feel right at home. She made us feel like anything was possible, and we ended up spending several hours in this wonderful oasis. We even had dinner from their sister restaurant Cafe Corkscrew next door (calamari, artichokes, cheese) -- magnificent!

With the economy being what it is, Joe Plonk joins few wine clubs (and has quit some very good ones). But, I happily joined the club at Georis -- thanks to the high quality of the wine, the friendly service, and a brief measure of serendipity that comes from getting a little lost.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Warm, friendly bubbles at J

Sonoma County includes both hugely fancy wineries and smaller garage affairs. When the Plonk traveling circus arrived at J Vineyards & Winery, we found an elegant winery full of the “beautiful people” that we typically try to avoid. Since the tasting bar was 3 people deep on all sides, we settled on the side of the room waiting our turn. J has long been one of our sparkling wine favorites, so we were happy to wait patiently for the next limo to leave.

As we chatted quietly, Mary, one of J’s staff members approached with a friendly smile and a tray of sparkling wine for our party. She warmly greeted us, and later found us a place at the end of the tasting bar – the perfect place for our merry group (including Cecil, our yellow labrador assistance dog).

Joe Plonk has frequently railed against poor tasting room service – and today has the pleasure to praise an ideal example of customer service. Our host Mary was friendly but not intrusive; knowledgeable but also listened to my blatherings about the wine; and was interested in our overall experience. I left J with a more favorable impression of the winery due to Mary making an extra effort to welcome us – which will certainly translate into sales the next time I’m trying to decide between Korbel, Piper, Mumm, etc.

Sonoma tasting room managers beware! This is the type of person typically found in the tasting room at Rubicon – and Francis’ new Sonoma winery extravaganza opens just down the road in July. Treat your good employees well, and don’t let them get away. Well done, Mary!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, May 17, 2010

GiaDomella Wines: Russian River’s Oldest Secret

The highlight of this past weekend’s excursion to the Russia River Valley was our discovery of GiaDomella Wines. GiaDomella was everything a small winery should be – the highest quality wine but all the stuffiness of an impromptu neighborhood barbeque. Their wines include the 2007 GiaDomella Reserve Zinfandel, 2007 Russian River Valley Zinfandel, and 2006 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. All three were hugely fruit forward with firm (but not-too-dry) structure on the backend. We sampled a lot of wine last weekend, but these three bottlings were the best of the bunch. Their Reserve Zin is from 100 year old vines on their property, and ranks with the best zinfandels I’ve ever had. The wines aren’t Plonk-priced, but they’re also not unreasonably priced for the value delivered.

Arranged by friends, our party was warmly greeted by Richard and Victoria Passalacqua who graciously provided a private tasting of wines paired with cheese, salami and fruit. The Passalacquas, who undoubtedly could not have anticipated the traveling circus that is the Plonk family (Joe, TheWife, Squeak and her dog Cecil), made us feel more like family than guests.

If you haven’t heard of the Passalacqua family, it’s largely due to the fact that they historically have sold their grapes to other wineries in the area. Their fruit is sourced directly from their E Passalacqua Family Estate Vineyard, which has been in their family since the late 1890’s. They wisely, however, kept a small (but growing) amount of their best grapes for their own use. Their “GiaDomella” name is a combination of the names of Richard and Victoria’s three children -- Gianna, Dominic and Marcella. And, while you may not know them now, you will soon.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, April 2, 2010

$5 per bottle – in TAXES!!!

California legislators are once again considering killing another industry within the Golden State in an effort to bridge the budget gap. The proposed Alcohol-Related Harm and Damage Services Act of 2010 would increase the excise tax on a bottle of wine 12,675 percent, bringing the current tax of 4 cents on a bottle of wine up to $5.11. Since most of the wine consumed in the Plonk household is between $7 and $10 (and from California), the price of a bottle of wine will almost double! Imagine how the good folks who sell Two Buck Chuck feel about this. Their customers will pay $7 (with only 29% of the total price going to Charles Shaw and company).

Hey Sacramento! Get a grip! I’m going to let you in on a little secret – STOP SPENDING! That sneaky trick will help you balance the budget without killing yet another industry in this state. Because if you do pass this idiotic tax, I’ll be sending my wine money (and, unfortunately, the jobs of those involved in the wine industry) to Australia and Argentina. And, if it applies there too, my new drink of choice will be Anchor Steam!

I drink wine. And I vote.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Join the Posse

I've joined the Carlo Rosse Possi. I didn't join because the wine knocked my socks off. I joined because the wine delivered as promised. The 5 litre box of Carlo Rossi Reserve California Cabernet Sauvignon says "dark plum to delicate hints of oak and spice." I was somewhat startled by the fact that they lead with plum flavors to describe Cabernet. Yes, their opening line was Plum. Usually, wineries describe wine something like: "Kissed by moonbeams, these individually selected grapes were hand selected by blah, blah, blah".

Not here -- just plum. And it delivers plumb, and a hint of oak and spice. Not the killer Cab, and not what I'd serve to the Queen, but a plain and drinkable box wine. No spin. No lies. Just straightforward drinkable wine.

While Carlo passed in 1994, his spirit lives on in this daily quaff. Said Carlo, "I like to talk about wine, but I'd rather drink it." Me too.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pairing to Get Excited About

Joe Plonk has had a bit of the blahs lately with wine. There may be some new and exciting things out there, but not much has caught my attention (well, perhaps with a few exceptions #1 and #2). But, tonight I met the perfect pairing. Normally, big reds require the darkest chocolate available. However, the pairing tonight was the 2005 Pinder Winery Mourvedre, Westerly Vineyard, Santa Ynez Vineyard (yes, there are wineries in Campbell, but no vineyards) and the Caramel Sauce from Santa Cruz's Richard Donnelly Chocolates. Both wine and caramel have a sweet but firm flavor band that compliment each other perfectly. The Mourvedre started a little gritty, but with a little breathing time it turned soft and supple. The Donnelly Caramel has a sticky-thick consistence with full caramel taste (without the sappy sweetness you get from Smuckers). When tasted together, the harmony is heavenly.

Yes, TheWife is asleep and it appears that we've run out of spoons!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, January 1, 2010

The Perfect Stocking Stuffer

This year, I must have been nice (or at least my naughty days didn't get caught on tape), because my stocking included the ultimate gift -- the split half. Small enough to fit discretely inside a stocking, but delivering the perfect gift for wine lovers like me. Included in my stocking this year were three ideal split-half bottles:

2007 Rombauer Vineyards Zinfandel
2005 Fess Parker Syrah
2006 Carol Shelton, Wild Thing Old Vine Zinfandel

These are the perfect bottles to share on a weeknight, or with which to be selfish some weekend. Thank you Santa (and his helpers)!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Wines Til Sold Out

Joe Plonk is always on the look-out for a good deal with wine, and that can be obtained either by (i) finding a wine priced at a good value or (ii) finding an overpriced wine deeply discounted. Like any other retailer, wine shops have sales to generate increased revenue or to clear out excess inventory. One great place on the web that specializes in excess inventory is Wines Til Sold Out (, which typically sells at a discount of 30% to 70% off store and internet prices.

WTSO focuses on overstocks and late-in-season wines that are available on a limited time basis. What you see on the web site today may not be there tomorrow, or even later today. There is no regular schedule, and they offer deeper discounts depending on inventory levels. The day I wrote this post, the wine deal of the day was the Bodegas Y Vinedos del Jalon Claraval Calatayud 2006. While I know nothing about that wine, I do understand the mark-down from $51 to $29. Shipping is free as long as you buy the minimum amount stated on the front page with the offering.

Joe Plonk recently enjoyed an incredible cabernet from Clif Family Winery ( that was purchased through WTSO. At its original retail price of $50, this luxury item was out of Joe Plonk’s reach. But, at $20 through WTSO, this got five stars on the Drink Plonk value index. No, you can no longer get this awesome wine on WTSO for $20, and that’s all part of the fun.

WTSO also understands customer service. One bottle of Clif Family purchased was corked. Nothing more than a phone call to WTSO was all that was needed, and a replacement bottle was on its way. WTSO has (rightly) figured that most of its customers aren’t going to spend the time to pick up the phone and call if there isn’t a legitimate concern.

While WTSO won’t give you any advance warning about what’s available, you can sign up for their daily email that includes a link to the new wine lot with the description, rating and price. Daily values make for happy consumers!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Tale of Two Wineries

IT WAS the best of times at Monte Verde Vineyards. It was the worst of times at Winery X that was just a few miles away.

It was the age of wisdom at Monte Verde, with reasonably priced wine, tasty hors d'oeuvres, a band, a floppy yellow dog, and a friendly staff at a wine estate tucked up against the side of a valley in Morgan Hill.

It was the age of foolishness at Winery X, where they charged $20 for undrinkable wine, forced you to stand in long lines to redeem tickets for drinks, and served food exclusively from Costco (at least put away the Costco brand packaging!) prepared by their disinterested nephews Larry, Moe and Curley.

In one afternoon, I experienced both the epoch of belief over the Monte Verde Tres Amigos blend, and the epoch of incredulity over the Winery X estate Pinot Noir that was sour and spicy with a hint of raisin and roadkill. [Yes, the Band was great at Winery X, but no music was loud enough to drown out the wailing of my taste buds.]

If received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only, Monte Verde was Heaven and Winery X was….

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Hey Joe!

Joe Plonk (pictured above) recently purchased the dot-com web domains for the real names of TheWife and Squeak Plonk, partly as a joke and partly to make sure that nobody else uses them for purposes that might make us unhappy (such as RickRoll or as a “kissing” website). It made me wonder if there were other Joes out there in the wine world, and here are a few of my favorites:

- Wine By Joe, a web site for an Oregon winery that makes Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, owned and operated by Joe Dobbes.

- Joe the Winemaker, a wine blog from Joe Dobbes of Wine By Joe.

- Joes Wine, a wine and travel blog with a European slant.

- Average Joe Wine Reviews, an interactive web site that allows consumers to review wines (not dissimilar from our own Drink Plonk web site at and participate in topic-related groups. Slick web site with related iPhone application, and very cool logo and rating system that uses Double Yum Yum, Yum Yum, Yum, Drinkable and Yuck.

- Trader Joe’s Wine Compendium, an excellent wine blog by a guy named Brendan who seemingly reviews all the wines at his local Trader Joe’s. Great concept; well executed.

- Joe Blow Wine Cellars, a winery making Joe Blow Red and Joe Blow White wine.

- Joe Box Wine, a blog dedicated to politics, news, business, travel, etc.

- Joe Robert’s Page, a blog discussing wine and technology.

- Joe Dresser, a web site by a wine importer.

- Joe Corkscrew, a collection of wine related writings.

To my brethren “Joe”, I lift a glass in our honor.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

7-Eleven Wine?…. Gulp!

7-Eleven recently announced its entry into the low priced wine market in the US and Japan with its Yosemite Road wine, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, each priced at $3.99 per bottle. Like their prior down-market wines (the strangely named Sonoma Crest and Thousand Oaks), the Yosemite Road name is purely a marketing department created fiction. The grapes will likely come from somewhere in the central California, but have little resemblance of the character of the Madera County AVA. The wines are being produced by The Wine Group, the world's third-largest wine producer that makes Corbett Canyon and Glen Ellen (Joe Plonk presses “Dislike” button).

The cabernet sauvignon is described as full-bodied with "juicy plum overtones," and the chardonnay as being zesty with notes of apricot, peach and honey. Perhaps it is the perfect accompaniment for your purchases of beef jerkey, sunflower seeds, and other culinary delights from chef boyardee. While I strongly support value priced wine for everybody, I’ll bet you a Big Gulp that this venture negatively impacts the public perception of California wines.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Facebook Wine Club

8,165 members strong, the Facebook Wine Club proclaims: “This club will appeal to all wine drinkers, from the seasoned pro to those who just wanna know more!! You can choose to read, discuss, add and request information on wine. Let’s discover wine together, THE MORE THE MERRIER!!!” Reading comments from the News Feed, it’s primarily people plugging their winery or their blog. All fine and good, but there is very little on the News Feed that seemed helpful to me. Examples (at 5 pm today) include:

(i) a plug from Cantine Del Sol winery ( in Salerno, Italy, that says they are a “very small winery that produces a very good wine”. Looks great, and the mere thought of Salerno makes my mouth water, but good luck finding their wine at your local bottle shop.

(ii) someone advertising about their wine consulting services.

(iii) some lone person complaining about the high cost of wine (a worthy topic), but no responses.

(iv) some lonelier person who simply posted: “Hi Every one, I simply love a nice fruity red.”

While I was about to abandon this club as having too many folks and no useful information, I did find one area that is very helpful. If you click on the Discussion tab, you’ll be lead to a page that has 117 discussions around specific topics. The topics range from “Viogner” to “cheap wine for us poor people” to “Portuguese Wine”. These small groupings included comments from people who were knowledgeable and interested in the subject – much better than many of the Drunk-Facebook waxings that seem to dominate the News Feed.

Start a Discussion topic or comment on topics that interest you, but always participate. Joe Plonk is on Facebook (no kidding) -- don’t let him have all the fun!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Vinturi Aerator: Good for White Wine Too!

I favorably reviewed the Vinturi Aerator back in December 2008, and was amazed by how it made red wine immediately enjoyable. When the folks at Vinturi asked if I’d also review their new Vinturi White Wine Aerator, I was again skeptical. While I regularly decanted red wines, the idea of decanting whites seemed unnecessary when a few swirls around the glass seemed to do the trick. A packaging insert describes why white wines also need aeration, and the difference in the two devices -- red needs more aeration therefore a deeper cup in the aerator, whereas white needs aeration but to a lesser degree.

Our testing panel for the White Wine Aerator included one White (drinker) and three Reds. Our chosen wine for the experiment was the magnificent 2006 Tolosa Edna Ranch Chardonnay ($17), a full-bodied buttery and oaked California-style with a hint of pear and hazelnut. We “Reds,” with our usual anti-white hah-rump, were convinced that this gizmo was little more than a me-too product intended to improve the collective self-esteem of downtrodden Whites. We Reds perched at the border of Whitedom, ready to invade at the slightest sign of weakness.

Side-by-side we tasted the Chardonnay, first poured directly into a glass and then through the Aerator into a second glass. The first noticeable difference was on the nose, with wine poured through the Aerator having a deeper and more complex scent. The most important difference, however, was in the taste. Wine poured directly from the bottle was still sharp with a bit of pucker. Wine poured through the Aerator was fully flavored and long on the finish, without a hint of sharpness. The Reds announced an immediate retreat, and all proceeded to pour wine from the first glass through the Aerator into the second glass. A complete surrender (on this occasion anyway).

As I said before: Saves time. Makes wine better. If only all gadgets were this good (please don’t make one for White Zin).

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Crush It, Gary!

If you haven’t met Gary Vaynerchuk, you should do so immediately. He’s most famously known as the irreverent host of Wine Library TV, a daily on-line video wine blog. GaryVee isn’t the usual stuffed-shirt, espousing the proper way to hold your glass. He’s fresh, funny, and operates in a full-throttle, ants-in-your-pants, no-holds-barred sort of way. His video blogs include taste-offs, special guests such as winemaker Heidi Barrett and Wayne Gretsky, and pairings with fine foods such as Capt’n Crunch cereal. Gary is the master of new media, using streaming video, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, blogging and other social outlets to get out his message. It’s loud, it different, and (short of Joe Plonk’s musings) perhaps the most useful wine information out there.

I just wonder, however, can you really trust wine recommendations from a Jets fan? Go 49ers!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Your First Impression

My visit to Black Stallion Winery, one of Napa’s newest Oak Knoll district wineries, wasn’t pleasant. Our server was rude and obnoxious – and I loudly barked about it in a blog posting earlier this week. In response, I received a lovely and heartfelt note of apology from Laina Brown, the winery’s President. Although that apology was appreciated and accepted, the first part of our day in Napa was nevertheless ruined. Out of deference to Ms. Brown, who appears to genuinely care about the experience of her customers, and who unfortunately hired a temporary bad apple, I’ve taken down my rant. However, this episode does highlight the critical importance of hiring and training the right staff for the tasting room, especially for a winery like Black Stallion that only sells wine from their property.

For many wineries, the tasting room staff creates the first impression of a winery – before the label and before the wine itself. With over 300 wineries in Napa, the margin of error is quite narrow. What would make me want to buy, return to visit, or recommend the wines of Napa Winery A versus Napa Winery B? Hopefully, the value delivered in the glass is primary, but what is perceived as value tends to derive from the overall experience. So, Wineries listen up! Your first impression is delivered by the tasting room staff. My recommendation is to train them well, treat them well, and retain the good apples. Otherwise, I’m happy to drive right by.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Lester Arthur

Lester Arthur came to Aptos for a visit last weekend.
He and his kin brought Markham Cabernet and Parducci Petite Sirah.
Also consumed over the weekend were Heart’s Fire Petite Sirah, Rubicon Zinfandel, Frank Family Zinfandel, Young’s Barbera, and St. Francis Port.

Lester Arthur is a friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said
But I helped him a-drink his wine
And he always had some mighty fine wine.

Come back soon, Les.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, October 19, 2009

XYZin Spells Winner

A recent addition to the wine list at our favorite restaurant, XYZin has quickly become one of our favorite bottles of zinfandel. In fact, last Wednesday night I arrived at our restaurant to find that TheWife had already ordered a bottle of XYZin – a rare feat indeed since TheWife typically allows her wine snob (err, wine lover) husband to select from the wine list.

XYZin makes vintage zinfandel marketed around the age of the vine – 10 year old vines ($16), 50 year old vines, and 100 year old vines. The 2007 XYZin 10 year old vines bottling is Contra Costa county, and it delivers a whallop of ruby-red cherry and strawberry flavor zinfandel. It is wonderful on the nose, both broad in its flavor range and round on the ends. I’ve enjoyed it with pasta (is there anything other than tomato-based pasta?), filet and seafood dishes. Neither overly tannic nor overly high in alcohol, it remains fresh, lively and balanced. This wine received five stars on the Drink Plonk Value Index from both Joe Plonk and TheWife.

Kudos to winemaker Ondine Chattan on this wonderful, fruit forward zinfandel. Now, I’m in search of the 50 year old vines (sold out) and their 100 year old vine bottlings. XYZin is a winner. You need go no further.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Harvest This!

The next step in my winemaking oddyssey at Vino Tabi Winery was the hard part (and I don't mean the check writing part) -- Harvest! My winemaking partner Frank and I arose early on a Saturday, and with gardening gloves and clippers in hand headed out into the field. Or, in this case, it was headed over to Zhang Vineyard in San Jose, California. This vineyard is located in the backyard of a silicon valley technology executive. The vineyard trellis climbs up a hill over a two acre backyard that provides a nice view of a pocket in Evergreen Valley. Instructions to us novice wine cuttings included (i) don't cut anything with mold, (ii) don't cut anything that has been nibbled by birds, and (iii) one person per side of the vine. Frank and I figured that we could chat as we worked side-by-side, instead of risking cutting off fingers as we both reached into the vines.

My personal takeaways include:

- Wear sunscreen and a hat;
- Wear appropriate work shoes (flip flops are not a good idea on a hillside vineyard -- see photo)
- Get a professional to help.

Our group included several first time pickers like Frank and me, and a few professionals. I did little more than get in the way, and carry the grapes they picked down to the truck. So, if you get one of the wines made by Joe Plonk, it will most likely include grapes picked by somebody else.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, October 8, 2009

Nothing Petite About This!

I'm in a blissful purple place. My recent delivery from Heart's Fire ( included the 2006 Petite Sirah, Rhodes Vineyard, Redwood Valley. Their Petite Sirah is always wonderful, and the shipment lasted all of about a week before I pulled the cork. I'd been acting like a well behaved Retriever with a dog biscuit on his nose -- but enough! Blueberry and cherry flavors storm out of the bottle, and delicately dance from glass to tongue to tumbly. The wine is lively, but also subtle with vanilla and oak tones. The only argument in my house tonight was how the wine disappeared so fast. You too had better hurry because I'll be buying them out shortly. Joe has been spending his time looking for a job, but he's back now! See you again soon.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An Open Plea to Paul Draper

Dear Paul:

I’m a Zinaddict, and I need your help. As a regular consumer of America’s finest grape, I’ve enjoyed different wine styles, barrel influences and the impact of terrior through your Z-list program and with a number of other producers. As result of your long history of zin excellence, I believe that Ridge properly sits within the three R’s of Zinfandel (Ridge, Ravenswood and Rosenblum). In fact, just last night I enjoyed that massive whallup of Zin that only your York Creek delivers (2006 Ridge York Creek Zinfandel with spicy pepperoni pizza). But, what Ridge is desperately missing that the other Rs have discovered is Amador Valley. Yes, Lytton, York, Pagani, and Three Valleys and others are great, but there is nothing as wonderfully unique as Zinfandel from Amador Valley. Properly concocted, Amador Valley zins exude jammy raspberry, pepper and spice – everything a Zinaddict like myself yearns for daily. Renwood’s (yet another R) Grandmere and Grandpere bottlings, and Young’s Vineyard and Easton Wines all make wonderful examples.

Okay, I confess to have dropped out of the Z-list program due to my current financial considerations, but a Ridge Amador Valley just might bring me back into the fold.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Castillo’s Hillside Shire Winery

It is a rare occasion that I am shocked by a glass of wine, but that was indeed the case when drinking the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from a new boutique winery called Castillo’s Hillside Shire Winery. It has a wonderful fruit forward raspberry and blackberry flavor with a hint of chocolate, earth and spice. The structure is medium and not overly tannic, somewhat similar to cabernet sauvignon from the Alexander Valley. Perhaps my expectations were low, but I was happily surprised.

Castillo’s Hillside Shire Winery is a family affair, with their three children actively involved in all aspects of the winery. Current offerings include:

2007 Syrah $30
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon $40
2007 Merlot $32
2007 Red Table Wine $22 (also very enjoyable)
2007 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon $72
2007 Estate Petite Sirah $42

Not typical Joe Plonk pricing, but not unforgivable either on the $40 cabernet or the $22 malbec based red table wine. There is also 2008 Chardonnay and 2008 Sangiovese in the barrel. The wines are currently available only through the winery and at local restaurants. Fuzia Restaurant in Morgan Hill is where I tried their wine. Opened to the public in March 2009, this winery is one of several promising wineries in the South County region (Morgan Hill, Gilroy, San Martin). Other notables include Clos LaChance, Mann Cellars, Solis Winery, and newcomer Jason Stephens.

Dave Tong has already done a nice review of the winery, and how they came into being. In short, Jess and Roni Joe Castillo wanted to build their dream house outside Morgan Hill, but their building plans were constantly denied due to the California Williamson Act which prevents construction of anything over 2,500 square feet since the land wasn’t used for agriculture. The Castillo’s planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah grapes on 70% of the land, thereby allowing them to build their dream house and start the winery.

Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, July 20, 2009

That's Mr. Shaw!

Charles F. Shaw is a real person, who lives in the Chicago, Illinois area. He is a former winery owner whose name is used for Charles Shaw wine, a brand of inexpensive table wines. Shaw learned to enjoy Beaujolais wine while living in Europe as an investment banker, and moved to Napa Valley in 1974 where he purchased 50 acres to start a winery where he made Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc. In 1991, Shaw’s wine label and brand name was purchased by Fred Franzia's Bronco Wine Company, which is based in Ceres, California. Since the label already had a good reputation, Bronco used the name to market an inexpensive table wine. In addition to the Charles Shaw brand, Bronco has ForestVille, Estrella, Montpellier, Grand Cru, Silver Ridge, Rutherford Vintners, Hacienda, Fox Hollow and Napa Ridge among its brands. With the possible exception of Hacienda (and Charles Shaw, of course), while indeed inexpensive most of these other labels rate fairly low on the Plonk list of value performers.

Bronco revived the wine brand in 2002 to take advantage of overplanting in California for the current market demand. During the 1990s, growers planted more grapes than needed to meet demand causing a huge opportunity for low end sellers such as Bronco. All from California vineyards, Charles Shaw’s current wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, White Zinfandel, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Shiraz, and Valdiguie in the Beaujolais nouveau style. The Plonk’s prefer the Merlot and Valdiguie from this list, and greatly favor the reds over the whites.

It is not clear how the real Charles F. Shaw feels about being famous as “Two Buck Chuck” -- for a winery he doesn’t own. However, it comes with the added benefit of a lifetime invitation-to-dinner at the Plonk household.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

More Information from the Cucamonga Valley AVA

GINO (Gino Filippi of J. Filippi Winery, I believe) was kind enough to add a comment to my posting about Carol Shelton's fantastic Monga Zin from Cucamonga Valley. I've copied his interesting post below, and will report back in the coming weeks after having tasted a few wines from this American Vinticultural Area which lies south-east of Los Angeles.

"Cucamonga-Guasti viticulture history is as complex as the old head-trained Mission, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Zinfandel grapevines that dominated the landscape for more than 150 years.

Much of the area’s vintage prosperity is owed to Secondo Guasti (1859-1927), who founded the Italian Vineyard Co. (IVC) in 1883, and built it into a gigantic wine enterprise. By 1917, Guasti was advertising IVC's holdings - 5,000 contiguous “vine to vine” acres – as the “Largest in the World.”

“Ontario wine historian Reno J. Morra recalls when the scenery in the valley was nothing short of majestic - reminiscent of Italy’s Piedmont region that his parents and other countrymen and women left behind. They immigrated to towns named Cucamonga, Etiwanda, Fontana, Guasti, Ontario and Mira Loma, filled with hope and desire for a better life in a new wine country, and a desire for their children to become Americans,” said Gino.

In 1919, Cucamonga-Guasti vines spanned over 20,000 acres, more than in Sonoma and twice as many as Napa County as wartime Prohibition was enacted. Reno’s summertime flight in the ‘40s over the vast vineyards in an authentic U.S. Air Force training plane is noteworthy. “As we flew above, thousands of acres of lush green vines filled the valley floor. It was the most beautiful sight my eyes had ever seen in my life. We followed the foothills from east to west and circled around south of the airport. My only wish was for others to have seen the view. If only I had a camera,” said Reno.

“Cucamonga Valley” was officially approved as an American Viticulture Area (AVA) in 1995 by the U.S. Department of Treasury as a result of a petition written and filed by myself (Gino L. Filippi) on behalf of area growers and vintners. This law enables producers to utilize “Cucamonga Valley” on wine labels containing not less than 75% of the volume of the wine derived from grapes grown here.

“Over the past 15 years, longtime vintners have made vineyard revitalization, namely Biane-Tibbetts/Rancho de Philo Winery, J. Filippi Winery, Galleano Winery, and Hofer Ranch Ontario. Newcomers include the Brandt Family Winery and The Wine Tailor, plus a cluster of home winemakers,” said Gino.

Today, local vintners are growing and producing award-winning vintages. “The advent of technology and science-backed winemaking practices eroded away the old-school approaches that were so prevalent from the ‘40s to the ‘60s,” says Jon McPherson, Winemaster South Coast Winery in nearby Temecula Valley.

Thomas Pinney, professor emeritus of English at Pomona College, who authored “A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition” (1989) and “From Prohibition to the Present” (2005), references "Cucamonga" and its important role. “Curiously enough, Cucamonga old vines Zinfandel now enjoy a prestige value such as it never had before; but one wonders how secure a tenure on life those old vines can have. The belated discovery of the outstanding quality of Cucamonga Zinfandel, just as it hovered on the verge of extinction, is one of those bitter ironies of which all history is full,” wrote Pinney in 2005."

Thanks Gino!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Happiest Place

Joe Plonk, TheWife and Squeak are visitng Mickey and friends this week. Tune in next week for more wine notes and news.
Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Monga baby, Monga!

Around my house, where food and wine are regularly paired with Italian expressions and laughter, you’ll regularly hear TheWife say during mealtime to our daughter Squeak “Mangia bella, mangia.” After having tried the 2006 Monga Zin, Old Vine Zinfandel, Lopez Vineyard, Cucamonga Valley, California, from Carol Shelton Wines, we now have a new saying around the house: Monga baby, Monga!

Purchased on somewhat of a lark, I was fascinated by the thought of wine from the eastern portion of Los Angeles (and anything from Carol Shelton wasn’t going to be too bad). This $20 bottle is a blockbuster, and a wonderful departure from your typical stale zinfandel. It has pomegranate and cherry fruit, with Asian spice and brown sugar note. Okay, I got that from their website, but it was a little difficult to describe, and this description hits it right on the money.

In 2000 Carol, a longtime winemaker, and her husband Mitch Mackenzie, a former software engineer, launched their own brand – Carol Shelton Wines. Carol uses Zin from various appellations throughout California, and seeks to deliver wines stylistically correct for the appellation. As for the Cucamonga Valley, who knew what that might be? Not I, but I can tell you the results are great. During a recent night of revelry, many in the party thought this wine was the standout winner amongst a group of heavy hitting name-brand Cabs and Zins.

Monga, Carol! Monga!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, July 6, 2009

The Box is Mightier Than the Sword...

My crusade for wine producers to put quality wine in a re-sealable container (box, bag, or bottle) has been joined by Scholle Packaging, which makes packaging for the wine industry. I’ll borrow liberally from their web site, which proclaims “Boxed Wine is Good”. The site rightfully extols the benefits of alternate wine packaging, and even has a section for consumer feedback and information about boxed wines. Joe Plonk says BRILLIANT! Let consumers have their say! This is a must-visit site if only for the cool pink graphics and the “Have a Say” section ( where you can comment and rate different boxed wines.

The site continues:
“Boxed wines, Bag-In-Box, and fine wine casks - by any name - offer one of the best and environmentally smart ways to carry and serve wine.
• Wine stays fresh for weeks after opening. Pour a fresh glass of wine anytime every time.
• Fine wine casks are typically a better value than bottles at a comparable quality and price, as there is less cost in packaging, shipping, and storage.
• Easy to open and serve - no corks, no corkscrew! Enjoy a glass of wine anytime!
• No glass allows fine wine casks to be safe to carry anywhere - to the beach, boat, tailgate party, picnic, or on the trail!
Wine in a box? You bet! Bota Box holds the equivalent of four bottles of wine and has revolutionized the way consumers now drink wine. Its name is derived from the bota bag that was popular in the 1960’s, especially with outdoor enthusiasts because of its portability and convenience. Bota Box allows consumers to drink premium California wine by the glass without worrying about waste or spoilage. Available in five popular varietals, Bota Box uses state of the art bag and tap technology that allows our award-winning wine to stay fresh for up to 45 days after opening.” Copied from (See also my prior review of the Bota Box wine from June 29, 2009)
Perhaps Joe Plonk has a long, lost twin who is working at Scholle Packaging? Also, a cool video can be seen at:
Now, one more time, if you’re listening Mr. Coppola, put your $30 wine in a box, and I will have a glass every day. Keep it in a bottle, and I will only open it on special occasions. A box means more glorious consumption for me, and more sales for you.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Bota Bummer

A “bota bag” is a traditional Spanish container for liquids, typically made of leather it is often used to carry wine. If you can visualize a Basque herder drinking from a leather pouch, or Joe Plonk and his high school buddies sneaking whiskey into the late showing of Rocky Horror, then you’ll get the idea. Given these positive associations, and my own personal crusade to convince wine producers to sell higher quality wines in re-sealable containers, I jumped at the chance to try the 2006 Bota Box Old Vine Zinfandel from Delicato Family Vineyards.

Bota Box offers consumers six California varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Old Vine Zinfandel. Although the Bota Box Old Zinfandel wine didn’t quite meet my quality expectations (lightly perfumed and flowery, instead of big jammy zin flavor), it does take steps in the right direction for consumers. Its box is 95% post consumer fiber, is recyclable, and delivers 3 liters in a re-sealable pouch that boasts 30 day drinkability. And, at $20 for 3 liters, it has served as a good back-up for when I’ve wanted an additional glass after my daily plonker is gone. I’ve read reviews that suggest the Cabernet Sauvignon is a better wine.

Hey, DFV Wines! You're heading the right direction, but put the Gnarley Head a box… please…

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, June 29, 2009

Blueberry Zin Happiness

While dining this weekend in San Diego with friends, Joe Plonk selected the wine both nights. The first night selections were the 2005 Markham Merlot ($49, to which the waiter dutifully but unconvincingly said to me “excellent selection sir”) followed by the 2003 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($100, to which the waiter whispered to the guy pouring water “this is a great wine”). The Markham Merlot was a nice, although somewhat understated, match for appetizers and salad. The Spring Mountain was a massive dose of chocolate, cherries, strawberry, earth, and leather – brilliant Napa cabernet that caused me to consider disappearing with the bottle and a straw.

However, the real star of the weekend was the 2006 Napa Valley Zinfanel from Frank Family Vineyards ($46) that we enjoyed the second night. It’s not a typical zinfandel. It’s better. It had a big, bold mouthful of blueberry happiness followed by a complex layer of pepper, spices and blackberry. Both novice and expert wine lovers at the table agreed that this wine by far exceeded our expectations, and we quickly ordered a second bottle.

Winemaker's notes from the web site say: Frank Family Vineyards’ 2006 Napa Valley Zinfandel is dark and rich in color, reminiscent of violets. This classic Zinfandel leads with sweet blackberry jam, white and black pepper and clove spice. Further opulence emerges as layers of black cherry, blueberry and Asian spice are exposed. The palate is big, bold and ripe with juicy brambleberry and warm plum pudding, supported by integrated tannin and spice, giving a full mid palate and setting the stage for the long supple finish. 15 months maturation in 35% New French Oak and 65% once and twice filled French Oak Barrels. 92% Zinfandel, 8% Petite Sirah.

Two thumbs up!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wine or Beer?

Joe Plonk has been traveling and working, with little time for blogging unfortunately. In my travels, I’ve noticed that you can tell whether an establishment promotes wine or beer by how they feature those beverages in their restaurant. When traveling outside of California and major metropolitan areas, I’m often amazed at how you have to look long and hard to find the selection of wines. Whether this has to do with the increased costs of wine due to shipping and taxes, and the strange licensed-reseller networks in many states that does little more than increase costs to consumers, or just simply because the citizens of Texas prefer Bud, isn’t always clear. However, one recent mid-western stop at a TGI Fridays restaurant revealed the preference in an unusual way. The advertising placard on the table announced that “People were liming up!” for Corona and Corona light. But, upon closer inspection, peaking out from below was a second larger placard that said “Featured Wine”…

What could this mystery “Featured Wine” be? Did TGI Fridays think that Corona was actually a white wine? The waitress eyed me as I pulled open the advertisement stand (her look said “must be one of them Californians, what with them unstained trousers and recently brushed teeth”). Under the Corona advertisement appeared…

2006 La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay! A good value at $18, having scored 90 points by Robert Parker. Why the Featured Wine was covered by a Beer advertisement is anyone’s guess, and probably speaks volumes to why I rarely eat at TGI Fridays (37 piecess of flair or not).

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, June 1, 2009

The Big Pour

While writing my last blog post about our waiter’s confusion over Chateau St. Michelle and Chateau St. Jean, I thought of another unique restaurant wine experience. While traveling though San Francisco’s Marina District one evening, we stopped to get an early evening dinner at a casual looking hang-out. We were not expecting anything fancy, but in the world’s greatest restaurant city we anticipated some minimal level of professional service.

Our young waiter was friendly with a warm smile and a cork pull at the ready. She brought over our bottle of inexpensive wine, plunged the cork pull into the top of the bottle through the foil wrapper covering the cork, and proceeded to twist the cork and extract it from the bottle. The cork pulled through the top of the foil wrapper and out of the bottle. No inspection of the cork or sampling of the wine. Portions of torn wrapper dangled in the evening breeze as she poured wine into a glass in front of me. She poured to the very top of my glass, and did the same with the other three glasses at the table to empty the bottle. She did all of this while joyously chatting with the four of us about nothing of great importance.

I felt a rush of weird emotions, but ultimately settled on humor and happiness as I reflected upon the absurdity of the moment. I might not have been too happy had this been a bottle of Pomerol at Boulevard, but there was no reason to blame the friendly young waiter who clearly had no training from her restaurant employer. Others at the table also found humor in our full glasses, and I wondered to myself if her Big Pour was really just my nightly dream finally coming true.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Your Chateau or Mine?

The first time I realized that not all wine producers were created equal was the night our waiter brought out Chateau St. Michelle chardonnay with a slight frown. At that point, I assumed there wasn’t much difference, like Coke or Pepsi. The person who ordered the wine politely corrected the waiter, saying that he asked for Chateau St. Jean. The waiter’s face lit up like Christmas, and he apologetically excused himself to retrieve the superior bottling. The waiter was now happy, and we seemed to get better service afterwards. With hindsight, this was perhaps also my first experience with shabby-snobby waiter in a nice restaurant.

No disrespect to our friends at Chatean St. Jean, but for me, if I’m paying the bill, make mine Chateau St. Michelle. This Plonkalicious producer of top-notch value red (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah) and white (chardonnay, dry Riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot gris, riesling, sauvignon blanc, rose) wines regularly hits singles and doubles in the $7 to $15 dollar range under their Columbia Valley label, and also makes wonderful, higher priced bottlings under the Ethos and Artist Series labels. In fact, I’ll put their $7 Sauvignon Blanc up against anybody, anywhere, anytime. Your Chateau or mine?

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Winemaker or Storytelling Genius, or both?

John Lasseter is the creator of my favorite adulthood cartoon character – Lightning McQueen. As the creative genius behind Pixar and the Walt Disney Animation Studios, his work is beloved by millions and twice earned him an Academy Award. To me, the hallmark of John’s storytelling is great characters that achieve against the odds. In his own personal story, he and his wife Nancy are seeking to overcome odds to turn a neglected Sonoma winery into a world class producer of wine in the French style. While not the first Hollywood insiders to make great wine (Coppola, Frank Family, Smothers Brothers), the Lasseters own Rubicon involves their doing so in an environmentally friendly manner. The vineyard they purchased in 2002 has been converted to organic farming practices, and they are slowly moving forward with the winemaking process.

Lasseter Family Vineyards’ label includes a smiling bee (John’s first cartoon character) approaching a rose (representing Nancy) over five grapes (representing their five sons). They currently produce a Syrah Rose, a St. Emilion-style red blend (40% Merlot, 32% Cab, 24% Malbec, 4% Cab Franc), and a Rhone style red. I had the good fortune to try the St. Emilion-style red, and it was very enjoyable. It had muted cherry, plumb, and spice notes, with a cedar and smoky finish. It was balanced red wine in the French style that they are trying to pursue.

Okay, here we go. Focus. Speed. I am speed. One winner, forty-two losers. I eat losers for breakfast. Breakfast? Maybe I should have had breakfast? Brekkie could be good for me. No, no, no, focus. Speed. Faster than fast, quicker than quick. I am Lightning.


Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Real American Idol: Helen Turley

Let’s hear what our judges have to say:

Randy Jackson, “Yo, yo, yo, yo, Helen… check this out. For me, for you, that zinfandel you made for your brother Larry’s winery was the perfect varietal choice for you. The way you took that classic California zinfandel, and made it into your own, was really off the charts. I loved the Hayne Vineyard, Dusi Vineyard and the Howell Moutain Black-Sears. I thought you got a little bit pitchy with the Juvenile – oops, I guess that wasn’t yours anyway. Listen, dog, you can really make wine.”

Then there was some nonsensical, white-noise that I didn’t understand or listen to.

Paula Abdul, just sitting down from her dancing, “I think you bring something special to each wine you make. I thought your Martinelli wines were just wonderful. You bring such power and finesse every time you go into the cellar. You’re ready to make wine right now. There are three names that matter in winemaking, and they are Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Robert Mondavi and you, Helen Turley.”

Simon Cowell, “Well, I think I’m going to have to agree with Paula and Randy on this one, but I don’t think they’ve quite got it right. Your Marcassin chardonnay and pinot noir are your best, and the 2003 Marcassin Blue Slide Ridge Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is the best wine in this competition. Well done."

So, there you have it, my friends. Helen Turley – the Real American Idol.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

I’ll Pass On Dessert…

I’ll pass on dessert every day that the sun sets in the East. If you really want to make me turn up my nose, make mine something without chocolate. For the other seven days of the week, chocolate will do just fine. And, the perfect pairing for any chocolate dessert is Pelican Ranch Winery’s Raspberry wine.

While I typically don’t care for sweet wines from apricot, peach or anything called gooseberry, Pelican Ranch Winery’s Raspberry wine is a wonderful mouthful of bright, zingy, raspberry flavor. It is neither overpowering (so it can be sipped by itself) nor underwhelming (it can stand up to the darkest of chocolates), but right on the money in terms of structure.

Best known for its vineyard and region designate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pelican Ranch Winery has scored a major victory for chocolate lovers everywhere. The Raspberry wine is available only from the winery, so you’ll have to call or stop by to get it. It is a limited time bottling, so do hurry. The sun is still setting in the West.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Case of Cuvee

Last weekend was the quarterly club members wine pick-up at Windy Oaks Estate Winery. This is always a great event to sample new releases at my favorite Pinot Noir maker, as well as catch up with owners Judy and Jim Schultze. Judy was recently profiled in the “Women and Wine” article in the recent Metro Santa Cruz weekly magazine. They accurately describe her as “vivacious, articulate, world-traveled,” all important ingredients to making and selling top quality Pinot Noir.

This most recent release included their new 2007 Windy Oaks Estate Wood Tank Fermented Limited Release Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. Lots of words – just think yummy. Medium bodied pinot with complex cherry, pine, earth and spice flavors. 14.2% alcohol, 47 cases, $55 (20% discount available through their wine club). Certainly not inexpensive, but will deliver on those occasions where you need more than Plonk.

While picking up my order, one of their helpers had to climb a ladder to get my shipment – which prompted my alter ego Dr. Plonkenstein to say: “It looks like you’ve come down with a case of Cuvee…”

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Red red wine you give me whole heap of zing

Joe Plonk sashayed his way through college in the late 80s/early 90s, and if you were alive then you certainly know UB40’s ubiquitous reggae classic “Red Red Wine.” Most of the sorrowful lyrics describe a guy’s effort to forget a girl, but the rap section remains a classic:

Red red wine you make me feel so fine
You keep me rocking all of the time
Red red wine you make me feel so grand
I feel a million dollars when your just in my hand
Red red wine you make me feel so sad
Any time I see you go it make me feel bad
Red red wine you make me feel so fine
Monkey pack him rizla pon the sweet dep line
Red red wine you give me whole heap of zing
Whole heap of zing mek me do me own thing
Red red wine you really know how fi love
Your kind of loving like a blessing from above
Red red wine I love you right from the start
Right from the start with all of my heart
Red red wine in a 80's style
Red red wine in a modern beat style, yeah

Dreadlocks, togas, and lampshades all around!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cellar No. 8 is No. 1

In 1881, Andrea Sbarboro founded the Asti Winery in northern Sonoma County. Sbarboro was an Italian immigrant and San Francisco banker who moved to northern Somoma County where he founded a winemaking community. The winery was named after the Asti region in northern Italy. Cellar No. 8 was the location at the original Asti Winery where Sbarboro would age his red wine in barrels. The winery was later bought by Beringer, which was subsequently bought by the Foster’s Group. While Andrea is undoubtedly spinning over the fact that his beloved wine community is now owned by Aussies, the current caretakers at Foster’s are producing enjoyable, fruit forward, ready-to-drink wines in a California style.

Today, Cellar No. 8 produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel, all great values at $9 per bottle. (They also produce several reserve bottlings price around $25 and a few whites.) Cellar No. 8 wines are currently part of BevMo’s 5 cent sale, so you will be able to buy their enjoyable wine under $5 per bottle. I’m sure Andrea is happy about that.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Breaking Champagne Bottles for Maritime Luck

It is traditional to smash a champagne bottle across the bow of a newly launched vessel. Maritime lore holds that if the bottle fails to smash, the ship will be destined for tragedy at sea. In ancient times, people believed that rainstorms reflected the anger of the gods, so people offered a sacrifice of wine or whiskey. This custom was later adapted to the current ceremony involving champagne and some local dignitary or celebrity.

Frommer’s reports on several more memorable moments:

- In 2002, Dame Judi Dench christened the Carnival Legend in Essex, England. After being well shaken on the first two attempts across the bow, the bottle finally broke on the third attempt spraying all near by and prompting local newspapers to run the headline: “Judi Drench!”
- In 2002, while christening the Norwegian Dawn in New York, “Sex in the City” star Kim Cattrall told the audience that the Dawn was 'by far the biggest ship in New York...and don't let anyone ever tell you that size doesn't matter!' before suggestively smashing the bottle across the bow.
- In 2003, Sophia Loren spontaneously said, 'mama mia', as she christened MSC Opera.
- In 1997, the original Love Boat Cast reunited to christen the Dawn Princess, upon which seven years later Jill Whelan (Captain Stubing's daughter Vicki on the show) got married with Captain Stubing (Gavin MacLeod) giving away the bridewith a kiss.

Buon Voyage!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Not All Sullivans are the Same

In response to my “House Big Enough For Two” posting, dated April 20, 2009, a friend reminded me of an interesting interaction between Sullivan Vineyards (of Napa) and what was a new winery in Sonoma also called Sullivan Birney Winery & Vineyards. After starting in 1998 and entering the wine industry full-time in 2004, Rick Sullivan and Jonelle Birney Sullivan received a trademark infringement letter from Sullivan Vineyards (of Napa) that the Sullivan Birney Winery name was causing confusion in the marketplace. Rather than cause a kerfluffle, Rick and Jonelle changed their winery name to Navillus Birney – “Navillus” of course is Sullivan spelled backwards.

Sullivan Vineyards (of Napa) got to keep their good name, under which they have sold big Napa reds since 1981. Rick and Jonelle got to issue a self-congratulatory press release on their creative name change, and then exited the wine business by selling to Audelssa in 2007.

If a "Joe Sullivan Plonk" were to pop up out there with a wine blog, I wouldn't be to happy either. See, trademark lawyers are people too... I guess.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Dave Tong’s Blog About Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley Wineries

I have found a kindred spirit in blogger Dave Tong. His blog covers the wines, wineries, vineyards, restraurants, and winemakers of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA and Santa Clara Valley AVA from a consumer’s viewpoint. Dave also maintains the Santa Cruz Mountains Wiki which covers happenings in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ben Lomond Mountain, Santa Clara Valley, Pacheco Pass, San Ysidro and San Francisco Bay. His postings in the Wiki cover current and historical wineries, vintages, people, retailers and other local information. For years, I have enjoyed these local wineries, but often felt they were overlooked and underappreciated – even by people who lived nearby.

For example, some of Dave’s latest postings include reviews of the 2007 Sarah's Vineyard Pinot Noir, Central Coast, 2007 Alfaro Family Vineyards Rose, the Spring 2009 Wine Release at Stephania Winery, 2006 Pinder Viognier, Finley Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, 2005 Storrs "Rusty Ridge" Zinfandel (one of my favorites), and the wines of Mann Cellars (another Plonk favorite). Now, if we could only get Dave to include his tasting notes on Drink Plonk...

While Dave hails from the industrial North West of England, he moved to Santa Clara in 1995 where he developed an affinity for our local wines. Great job, Dave. I toast to your good work promoting local wines with a glass of Equinox Blanc de Blanc Cuvee, Santa Cruz Mountains.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

No Shoes, No Shirt, No Vintage… No Problem at Rosenblum Cellars!

Vintage designations are important for higher end wines. Knowing what vintage yielded the harvest provides important clues as to the quality of the wine. Weather patterns greatly impact the quality and hang-time for grapes. All of these things are true – but for wines in the value-priced category there are other more important factors. The most important of which is the quality of the grapes going into the wine. Low quality wines in the best years are still low quality wines. However, if a vintner is able to purchase good quality grapes, the year is irrelevant.

One shining example is Rosenblum Cellars Vintner's Cuvée XXXI Zinfandel, California. This wonderful, inexpensive zinfandel is made by one of California’s best zinfandel producers, and is a blend of grapes covering several different vintages. Which vintages you ask? I have no idea. What I do know is that Cuvée XXXI features raspberry and black cherry flavors, with spice and vanilla. It is on the heavy side of medium-bodied, and has just the right amount of acidity to stand up to food. It is simply tasty, and wouldn’t be suddenly better if they put the vintage on the label.

And, at $9, this wine is a Plonk favorite. No shoes, shirt or vintage required…

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, April 20, 2009

House Big Enough for Two...

At the Plonk’s house, we try to teach our Squeak to “play nice and share,” concepts that seem foreign to many people these days. John Marion, the owner of Big White House Winery, has learned this valuable lesson – as has Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, the former owner and proprietor of Big House Wines.

John started selling wines from his home (yes, a large white house) in Livermore, California, in the early 1990s. Several years later, Randall Grahm began selling wines called “Big White House” from his Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, California. Rather than involve lawyers and cease-and-desist letters, John sent Randall a handwritten note that politely explained the problem and included a couple of “Big White House Winery” labels to show prior vintages. In response, Randall sent John a handwritten note that simply said “Oops.”

From this polite exchange, we now have Randal’s Big House White (and Big House Red) that peacefully co-exists with John’s Big White House. Play nice and share. Lessons well learned.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Trending to Pinot Noir

A recession is now often identified as the reduction of a country's gross domestic product for at least two quarters. You may suspect that a recession is happening, but you can’t be certain until the historical numbers are finalized. At the Plonk household, wine drinking is much the same way. We may have the occasional dalliance with a varietal (say, petite sirah, malbec or nero d’avola), but we regularly purchase blue-chip varietals cabernet sauvignon, zinfanel, cabernet franc and sangiovese. During the past two quarters, we have seen a significant drop in the overall market for this sector, and a precipitous uptick in our investment spending, capacity utilization, and business profits for makers of Pinot Noir.

Looking out recent purchases, the spread between the purchase yield curves of wines to be consumed in the short term versus wines to be cellared as long term investments is significant. Our current monetary policy is to pursue short term investments such as Pinot Noir which typically does not require cellaring for maximum enjoyment. The index of leading consumption indicators (i.e. our reviews on DrinkPlonk) shows increased consumption from value priced pinot producers Kali-Hart, Castle Rock, Hahn, and Fat Cat, as well as higher cost producers Au Bon Climat, Calera, David Bruce, Laetitia, Martin Alfaro, Paraiso, and Windy Oaks. We’ve even increased consumption of Noir de Noir (or, pink champagne as TheWife calls it).

Governments usually respond to recessions by adopting expansionary macroeconomic policies, such as increasing money supply, increasing government spending and decreasing taxation. I’ll toast with Pinot Noir to that…

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Winemaking Part 3: Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper

Our winemaking journey at Vino Tabi recently involved selection of oak barrels for our wine. We have already selected Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot as the varietals for our blend. Now we got to experience how French oak, American oak and Hungarian oak added different flavor and complexity to the wine. Cooperage is the age-old art of making wine barrels. Previously unknown to me was the significant behind-the-scenes role of the barrel maker, I’ll call him Mr. Cooper. We experienced Mr. Cooper’s handiwork by trying wine which had been unexposed by oak, and other samples of the same wine which had spent varying amounts of time in oak barrels.

Mr. Cooper makes wood barrels in a variety of ways, with a variety of woods but primarily from white oak. The location of the trees from which the wood is harvested can have as much impact as the terrior in which the grapes are grown. The same wine that rested in French oak will taste completely different from the same wine that sat in American or Hungarian oak (and, yes, within the broad category of French oak are Bordeaux oak, Burgundy oak, and others). Each of the barrel types come in light, medium, medium plus and heavy, and some wineries choose to use a barrel once or many times depending on the level of oak that the winemaker desires.

Wine barrels are constructed with wood planks called staves that are shaped into a bulging cylinder with flat ends. The staves are bulged with wood fire (thereby taking on the toasty attributes, which Mr. Cooper can intensify depending on customer demand), and held in place by metal hoops. Barrel shape allows for easy rolling and storage in racking systems. A typical barrel will weigh between 125 and 150 pounds empty.

In addition to typical wine barrels, many wineries use wood chips or bits in the wine. An old wine barrel or steel tank might add little flavor to the wine, but add new oak chips and the wine will develop the toasted oak flavor without the expense of new wood barrels.

At the end of the meeting, my olfactory system felt similar to the weekend that I installed hardwood floors in our dining room. Our winemaking team had selected American oak medium plus for our wine, thanks to our new friend Mr. Cooper.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Are the Sutters Home?

I started this blog posting the evening after having tasted the 2007 Sutter Home Family Vineyards Zinfandel. This is a brand I’ve avoided due to its “white zinfandel” association. However, I’ve often been curious since the winery is located right in the heart of Napa (between powerhouses Beringer and Flora Springs) on Highway 29. For this wine, their website says: “Spicy berries and juicy pepper. Dark colored, yet bright. Swirling in your glass is proof positive that life is full of glorious contradictions.” It sounded like the zin-lovers version of going to Lourdes. And at $4, I took the plunge and bought two bottles. Unfortunately, this Barbie-doll of a wine (heavily perfumed, pink, flowery, with a whisper of zin flavor) caught me a bit off guard. On the positive side, it wasn’t sour, overly tannic or weedy, and had a pretty-ish purple color. Most of my thoughts surround whether this type of wine was a good deal even at $4. And, if we’re going to use bottle #2 for cooking instead of drinking, the real cost to me is more like $8 – a price point at which there are many tasty options.

While I’m not ready to throw the Sutter family under the next wine-tour bus that drives past their estate on Highway 29, I’m not planning to invite them home with me again either.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

First Wine Party

A co-worker recently commented that she was hosting her first wine party. She had developed a menu and purchased some wine-themed items, but hadn’t decided on which wines to purchase. She wisely had snipped some articles about good value wines, but many of the wines on the lists would have been very difficult to find. Also, I thought the list included some oddities just for the sake of including oddities (Nero d’Avola?). After finding out a little bit about her desired price range, the food being served, and the relative sophistication of those attending, I scribbled out the following list:

Neibaum-Coppola Diamond Series Claret
Bogle Petite Sirah
Ravenswood Amador Valley Zinfandel
Castle Rock Pinot Noir

Gallo of Sonoma Chardonnay
Buena Vista Sauvignon Blanc
Columbia Crest Reisling
Pepperwood Grove Viogner

All were under $20 per bottle, and all could be easily obtained at BevMo. I’m not sure if it would have made for an interesting article, but it made for a successful first wine party that didn’t break the bank. Well done!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Winemaking Part 2: Not So Petite Verdot

This past weekend was our first step in the winemaking journey at Vino Tabi, the custom crush winery in Santa Cruz. We had previously selected Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot as the varietals for our blend. However, this past weekend we got to taste barrel samples first hand. The good folks at Vino Tabi have conveniently already gone through the process of selecting grape sources, the harvest, crush, a good portion of the vinification process, and some of those other pesky details that novice winemakers like myself are happy to leave to others.

We are getting ready to determine what percentages of each varietal will go into our special blend. We sampled the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot separately, then in a 50%-50% mix. Each were wildly tasty on their own, and it was interesting to see the juxtaposition of the two grapes and how they complimented each other. The next tasting was to add small percentages of Cabernet Franc to the Cab-Merlot mix to see how that impacted the wine (added wonderful complexity), and then separately adding Petite Verdot to the Cab-Merlot mix (added earthiness and strength), and finally combining all four in different ratios.

The tasting reminded me why I love a well-made Cabernet Franc. But, the most interesting part was how small doses of Petite Verdot impacted the wine. Even in the 1% to 3% range, the Petite Verdot pumped up the wine significantly and added a layer of blackberry and earth. On its own, the Petite Verdot was overly harsh and tannic, and anything more than a few percentage points made the wine change like Popeye after two cans of spinach. Too much even for a California-pallet like mine. Our winemaking team hasn’t decided on a final formula, but it will likely be something like Cab (50%), Merlot (35%), Cabernet Franc (13%) and Petite Verdot (2%). The next step in our wine making adventure is determining which oak barrels to use. Stay tuned.

Go ahead and invite a few Petite Verdot grapes to your wine party – just don’t let them bring too many friends.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, March 30, 2009

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 from Santa Plonk

For the birthday party this past weekend, Santa Plonk brought the 2003 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23. It was described by those in attendance as “DELICIOUS”, and TheWife reports that the birthday girl was “very happy” with the wine. When they asked to have the bottle opened, the sommelier came over and commented how she had been trying to get the wine buyer to bring in Cask 23 for their list. Another guest in attendance knew the wine, and told the story about the 1976 Paris wine tasting. Fabulous wine with a little bit of ceremony – just what was needed.

Ro! Ro! Ro!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Santa Plonk is Coming to Town (in March)!

After the Mollydooker strikeout (see prior post), I was tasked with buying a gift bottle to bring to a nice restaurant in San Francisco. My budget is $150, so the sky is (almost) the limit. Our honored guest must have been very good to somebody for this wonderful gift. I now know what Santa Claus feels like as he tries to figure out how to get the biggest, best-est present off his sleigh and down the chimney to some deserving child.

Santa Plonk is flush with good ideas about exotic wines from far off places, but knows that he must deliver … and deliver big for this important evening. After brief thoughts of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Super Tuscans, I settled on Napa Cabernet. The reindeer well knew the say to the Wine Club in Santa Clara. As I approached the door, I wondered whether the staff would recognize me in my new red outfit and my jolly Ro-Ro-Ro as I passed the usual value-priced offerings for the big boy toys. Should I search for vaunted glories such as Chateau Montelena, Caymus Special Selection, Joseph Phelps Insignia and Opus One, or take a bold step newer cult wines? The mere mention of those wines made Santa Plonk’s cheeks rosy, and gave him a warm feeling inside.

‘Twas Christmas in March and all through the cellar,
There were wonderful wines, but nothing quite stellar.
So, out the Wine Club Santa lept with a cheer,
With fine Cabernet for friends and reindeer.
Dance swing, dance jive and dance honkey-tonk,
Because Christmas coming from dear Santa Plonk. (la-la la-la laaah, la-la la-la laaah)

Tune in Monday when we will reveal Santa Plonk’s selection, and whether it was a hit or a miss at the party.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Hello? Australia?

My search for the 2007 Mollydooker Carnival of Love Shiraz (#9 in the Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2008) for our cousin’s birthday has been eventful. Trying to get a bottle has lead to some strange experiences:

- the 888 number on the Mollydooker web site actually forwards you to a very friendly woman named Anita who is resides in Australia. She was passionate about their wines, and more than willing to help. But, since she is 15,000 miles away (Google Maps says it would take 51 days and 1 hour to drive), there isn’t much to be done about this weekend.

- Southern Wines and Spirits is their US importer. I called their office, but the person who answered the phone couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me which retailers in my area carry Mollydooker’s wine. She suggested that I check with BevMo. No southern hospitality there. Dead end number two.

- Each of the three BevMo stores that I contacted gave me a different answer: (i) don’t carry it, (ii) don’t have it in stock, and (iii) there is a bottle at a store in Arizona. Dead end number three.

Think our cousin will notice that it’s Fetzer Eagle Peak Merlot instead?

Best, Joe Plonk

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Surf City Vintners

Surf City Vintners ( of Santa Cruz is group of wineries in close proximity to each other on the west side of the city of Santa Cruz. This association of wineries has sprung up within several warehouses that have been converted into a stylish food and shopping area. Along with an art studio, clothing shops, restaurants, bakery and a few other odds and ends, a visit to taste wine can turn into a day of fun. Some of the more notable stops include:

Pelican Ranch Winery (pinot noir and others including a tasty raspberry dessert wine)
Bonny Doon Tasting Room and cafe (stylish new diggs to the world's most eclectic winery)
Sones Cellars (featuring Santa Cruz's finest Zinfandel)
Vino Tabi (winery and micro-crush pad)
Dragonfly Cellars (small winery selling Durif and Malbec under Odonata label)
Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard (home of wonderful Durif)
Trout Gulch Vineyards (Aptos' finest pinot noir has operations here)
Equinox Champagne Cellar (high end sparkling wine from Santa Cruz mountains)
Sarticious Gin / Alexander Cellars

Also, not to be missed is the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery ( which features excellent organic beers with friendly, hip staff. Beers include pale ale, india pale, amber, brown, stout and porter (erp...) When I was there, the scruffy guy behind the bar was blasting AC/DC, and offered me a friendly smile and a pint. Good stuff even to a wine-guy.

And, just in case you were confused, Surf City Vintners is not located in Huntington Beach.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day with Ireland Wines!

Ireland is a designated by the EU as a wine-producing region. Despite being best known for whiskey and beer, Ireland includes several small wineries that produce several unique varietals for local consumption. Mostly located in County Cork, they range in size but their vineyards are generally 5 acres or less. Some of Ireland’s better known wineries include:

Bunratty Winery ( Located at Bunratty Castle in County Clare, Bunratty Winery primary produces mead (honey wine) and potcheen (irish moonshine) from one of the castle’s coach houses.

Longueville House. ( Famous hotel in Mallow with 1.1 acres of vines, including Muller Thurgau and Reichensteiner varietals, made into wine just for their restaurant.

Blackwater Valley Vineyard. Located in Mallow, produces several thousand bottles of wine yearly from its five acres of vines. This winery produces the white grape varietal Reichensteiner for sales to local stores.

If you are interested in the “new world” winery experience for St. Patrick’s Day, I suggest Irish Vineyards ( located in Vallecito, California (Amador Valley region), which produces a large variety of red and white wines and jams. Or, you could just have a glass of my favorite Irish wine -- Guinness!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bread and Cheese Wine

I recently had friends over for a small, impromptu wine tasting. As our guests arrived, we opened a bottle of pinot noir to enjoy with appetizers. My thinking was that a lighter wine like pinot noir would pair well with fruit, cheese (yes, Joe Plonk likes brie), sourdough and other snacks. After an evening of steak dinner and bruising red wines from several well known Napa and Sonoma wineries, a guest told me that she “liked the bread and cheese wine the best.” While confused at first, I realized she was referring to the excellent 2006 Windy Oaks Diane’s Block Pinot Noir we tasted earlier in the evening. This wine was done in a slightly fruit forward Burgundy style, and wowed everyone at the party with its elegance and grace. Well done!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Joe Winemaker

This weekend Joe Plonk and TheWife joined forces with our friends FranKen to enter the world of winemaking. Our currently unnamed venture involves Vino Tabi, a custom micro-crush winery in Santa Cruz, California. We’ve joined their Barrel Buddy program where we will own a barrel of wine that is housed in their custom wine making facility. We will be participating in winemaking classes, and enjoying a hands-on approach to each step in the winemaking process from harvest, to crush, to winemaking, to bottling. We know lots about consuming wine, but nothing about making it. For our private label wine, our new friend Katie Fox of Vino Tabi helped us select Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot as varietals for our first bottling. Vino Tabi provides education and tools (and oversight by an experienced winemaker) to help new winemakers like us to make the wine of our dreams. No, I won’t be quitting my day job, but hope to gain a better understanding of this magical process with good friends.

Watch out Bob Mondavi! Joe Plonk’s private label is coming in 2010…

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Top Five Glass of Wine (#1 - Paterno di Calabria, Cosenza, Italy, winemaker unknown)

Picking my favorite glass of wine wasn’t even a contest. While traveling with TheWife and her parents, we visited Paterno di Calabria, the birthplace of TheWife’s Nonna, a short drive outside of Cosenza, Italy. I wanted to purchase a bottle of local wine to bring home for the rest of family to enjoy. After a humorous, hand-waiving conversation with a young man who worked at the town gellateria, I inquired about wine from the town Paterno and not the broader Cosenza region. (TheWife is an olive skinned beauty who immediately melts in with the locals, whereas I am known worldwide as “Senior Eng-lay-si”.) Through a series of gestures, our new friend instructed us to wait while he jumped in his Alfa and sped off into the hillside. About 20 minutes later, this young man drove up with a two liter bottle of homemade red wine from a small vineyard on his family’s property just down the road. The wine had been poured into a used bottle with its cork covered by aluminum foil. His gift to us was more than this light, fruity red wine. It embodied everything that is wonderful about wine – friendship, love and a passion for living. That is one glass that I will never forget.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Top Five Glasses of Wine (#2 -- 1997 Staglin Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon)

“Order the Constant Diamond Mountain Cab” had been repeated to annoyance by the guy at the end of the table. And, when that bottle arrived, it was indeed super tasty which only elevated his self-perceived importance. So, when it came to my turn to order a bottle, I took aim square at the feather in his tiara. The 1997 Staglin Cabernet Sauvignon must have also included a pinch of poison, because its massive Napa goodness paralyzed him right in his tracks. The deflation of humpty’s head was only icing on the cake to this wonderful wine that lingers glowingly in my memory.

Best, Joe Plonk

P.S. The Wife responded to this posting with: "Revenge is a dish best served with a Napa Cab." That's my girl!

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