Monday, December 29, 2008

Soquel Vineyards Party Like No Other

Psst. There is a party that combines fabulous food, people, scenery and wine. The Soquel Vineyards release party is the not-to-be-missed event in the Santa Cruz mountains. Soquel Vineyards is owned by fun loving brothers Peter and Paul Bargetto and their friend Jon Morgan, who operate the winery high up in a beautiful mountain setting overlooking the pacific ocean. It’s an ideal growing region for world-class pinot noir, and they round out their line of wine with pinot noir, zinfandel and cabernet with grapes purchased from selected sites around the state.

More than just another barrel tasting (which, yes, you do get to sample), they treat you with lunch they prepare at the Kennolyn retreat. Just up the mountain from the Soquel Vineyards winery, Kennolyn provides an ideal location to enjoy food and their fabulous wine. The Bargetto’s share an equal passion for food and wine, and their madcap ways set a tone of merriment for all those attending.

While standing in line for my second helping of tri-tip, the guy in front of me asked one of the Bargetto brothers whether he could have a larger helping. Bargetto’s response was “I am not the meat police. Help yourself.” Indeed, we did.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Best, The Wife and Joe Plonk

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Your Future Holds...

I had a glass of wine last week, and last month, and last year. And, guess what, it doesn’t take Carnac the Magnificent, Nostradamus or Madame Leota to prognosticate that my future includes the occasional glass of red wine. So, savvy wine buyer, what should you be doing now?

Futures! The future is in Futures, I say. Many wineries offer programs where you can buy wine that is still in the barrel at a steep discount to the bottle price charged in the future. Practiced primarily by French first-growth producers, the sale of futures has slowly made its way to the US. This is a win for the winery which gets its money now, and is a win for the consumer who locks in deeply discounted prices before bottled wine hits the market. Over the last few years, purchasing futures has been a great hedge against skyrocketing wine prices and against vintages selling out early.

Most US wineries who offer this type of program also offer the chance to taste the wines beforehand, so that you’ll know what to expect. For me, I’ve tasted a few wines out of the barrel, and I’m not sure if I could tell what’s going to be good and what isn’t. Perhaps I’m overly trusting, or just simply naïve, but most wineries are fairly consistent over the years. If the winery has a top 10% winemaker (and good vineyard sources), the resulting wine will likely be in the top 10% for a particular vintage. So, if the 2008 vintage is dud, well, at least you’ll be getting a top 10% bottle from that vintage. There you hear that 2008 is looking bad, just pass on buying early that year.

Yes, there is some risk in paying for something to be delivered a year from now, but we’re hopefully not talking about your life savings either. The biggest risk is probably forgetting which wineries have your money. [Hmmm. I wonder who that might have happened to.] Wineries currently holding deposits for the Plonk family are Caffaro Winery (one of California’s pioneers through their Crazy Back to the Futures Program) and Periscope Cellars (run by Caffaro protégé Brendan Eliason).

You can bet that I’ll be enjoying a glass of wine next year – only mine will be cheaper because I purchased early.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cleveland Rocks!

Being in Cleveland in December gives the lyric “Cleveland Rocks” a whole new meaning.  Joe Plonk feels like he is being served on ice, and the staccato beat you’re hearing is courtesy of my chattering teeth. Worse, my downtown hotel offers a bottle of 2006 Ravenswood California Zinfandel (est. $9 retail at the supermarket) at the record setting price of $42 per bottle.  That’s quite a premium in any town, no matter how rockin’. 

Dinner one night was at a restaurant owned by a recent Iron Chef competition winner.  The wine list was incredible (especially so considering the location), including numerous difficult to find California Cabernet, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.  Interestingly, the least expensive Zinfandel on the wine list was $50, making me wonder how good was the wine list really if you out-price somebody who loves wine as much as me?  Cleveland is a great town -- Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, the Browns, LeBron, and many fabulous people, but come ready to enjoy the beer from Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, December 15, 2008

The 12 Days of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me
Twelve Dunns for drinking,
Eleven Ponzi pinots,
Ten Frog’s a-Leaping,
Nine Bulls Dancing,
Eight Mums a-popping,
Seven Zins a-zinning,
Six Goose a-Crossing,
Five Chateau St. Jean,
Four Renwood birds,
Three French vins,
Two Duckhorns,
And a Merlot from Bob Mondavi!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas Cheer in Santa Cruz

Travel and Leisure magazine recently named the city of Santa Cruz as one of the world’s top destination spots for the Christmas holiday season. If you visit, my favorite holiday wine sipping locations are:

Soif Wine Bar & Restaurant – European and California centric wine shop attached to a tappas style restaurant. Food is local, healthy and organic. Located in downtown Santa Cruz. One great thing about this restaurant is that you can buy a bottle in the wine shop, and they will not charge a corkage fee in the restaurant

Cava Wine Bar – Located in the heart of the Capitola village, this stylish yet casual wine bar focuses on the Santa Cruz mountain wineries, but also draws from other California and European destinations. Located next to the fabulous Carusos Tuscan Cuisine, about 50 feet from the sand. Also, within a short walk is the Armida Winery tasting room.

Taste of Monterey – The one place to try the majority of wines from Monterey county, and Carmel and Salinas valleys. Located upstairs on the wharf in Monterey, it has magnificent views of the Pacific ocean. It’s about an hour drive from Santa Cruz, but one location worth the drive if you’re planning a day long event.

Vino Prima Wine Bar – Located at the end of the Santa Cruz pier, above Marini’s candy factory. Includes a variety of California wines and cheese. It has a wonderful view of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and pacific ocean. Also, looking in the opposite direction, it has a view of prime surf locations Steamer Lane, Indicators and Cowells.

Additionally, there are many fabulous wineries and wine related events that can be enjoyed year round. One that deserves mention is the “Art In the Cellar” holiday party at Soquel’s venerable Bargetto’s Winery. Do stop by if you are in the neighborhood.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, December 8, 2008

And now, dancing the Mambo…

Joe Plonk would be more likely to get “Gonged” than receive a positive score for dancing the Mambo. But, if you’re talking about “Hey Mambo,” the fabulous Cal-Italia red wine from Sebastiani and Sons, you’ll be doing Forward and Backward Basic Movements with Cheryl Burke in the winner’s circle.

Hey Mambo is an unpretentious joy of a wine. No fuss, no hassle – just a raspberry and spice blend of fruit-forward Italiany goodness. Aptly billed as a “bistro style sultry red,” you have to go to the winery’s web page to see that the wine is made from California grown Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Alicante Bouchet grapes. It’s the wine equivalent of ordering a huge plate of spaghetti and meatballs at your favorite local family run Italian restaurant. I’m not sure DOCG purists would approve, but it neither seeks nor needs that type of attention. Like a plate of spaghetti, it’s inexpensive, it’s fulfilling and it tastes great. A special note of kudos to the Sebastiani boys (fellow Bronco alums) for their uses of easy to remove, recyclable corks.

Now get out there and “Two Three Kick-Turn, Turn Turn Kick-Turn, One Two Three Kick-Turn!”

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Negociants welcome here…

I’ve completely changed my thinking around wine negociants (the French term for a merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and winemakers, then sells the resulting product under its own name instead of the original grower producer). They’ve been around for centuries buying everything from grapes to fruit juice to finished wine. I had a somewhat elitist view that a winery should grow and harvest its own grapes, manage the winemaking process, and complete bottling and distribution. Wines that met those criteria had a regal provenance in my view, and were somehow better. Shady sellers who merely opportunistically blended together someone else’s scraps somehow made an inferior product.

The first changes in my thinking arose as I enjoyed wonderful wines made with grapes grown elsewhere. Bill Joy’s law applied to winemaking. Ravenswood San Giacomo Zinfandel, Ahlgren Livermore Valley Zinfandel, and Zahtila Beckstoffer Vineyards Zinfandel are a few examples. Farmers grow grapes here to sell to winemakers there. How could I complain about such wonderful wines? I love the Ravenswood line-up of Zinfandel from Amador, Lodi, Sonoma and Napa. This is the perfect way to sample and compare characteristics of these distinct growing areas. Must I return those because Ravenswood Winery is physically located in Sonoma? Then, I started to sample a number of marvelous handcrafted wines from crushpads located around California, and it was time to change my way of thinking.

Historically, negociants dominated the market because they had access to buyers through their distribution channels, it was too expensive for small farmers to purchase manufacturing and bottling equipment, and because large buyers had pricing advantages over small producers. Most wine drinkers are familiar with European negociants such as Bouchard, Pere et Fils, Louis Jadot and Georges Duboeuf, but there are many US producers who fall into this category that also deserve praise. A few of my favorite good value wines are below:

Red Guitar Navarra Old Vine
Ten Mile Red Blend
Pere et Fils Chateauneuf du Pape
Mad Housewife Cabernet Sauvignon

As I’ve said before, what matters is what goes in the consumers’ glass. Not who grew it, vinted it, or bottled it.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, December 1, 2008

Vinturi Aerator: The Perfect Christmas Gift

I have two or three of every wine gadget known to man – cork pulls, cork stoppers, foil pours, t-shirts, bibs, bags, bottle carriers, coolers, napkin rings, bottle neck trinkets, tasting journals, books, etc. Opening my wine cupboard is like Sherman and Mr. Peabody opening their closet. Some gadgets are useful, most are cute for a use or two.

The one gift that I use over and over with great results, however, is the Vinturi Aerator. Pouring wine from the bottle into this four inch gizmo sends it through an instant aeration process. As wine swirls through the Aerator, it makes a gurgling sound as if you were blowing bubbles in the wine through a straw. In seconds the wine is aerated as if it sat in a decanter for 20 minutes. It doesn’t magically turn Barefoot into Château Lafite (pun intended), but it does make the Barefoot you want to drink now into the better Barefoot that you let breathe for a while.

I first discovered this product in a tasting room. They poured wine directly from the bottle, and through the Aerator.  To my surprise, the same wine poured through the Aerator was dramatically better. Saves time. Makes wine better. If only all gadgets were this good.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanks for...

Thanks for

Ahlgren Vineyards Livermore Valley Zinfandel
Burrell School House Valedictorian
Clos LaChance Estate Cabernet Franc
Cosentino The Zin
Duckhorn Merlot
Easton Amador County Zinfandel
Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Hahn Estates Cabernet Franc
The Hess Collection Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
Renwood Grandmere Zinfandel
Ridge Mataro
Rombauer Estates Zinfandel
Rubicon Estate Cuvee
St. Francis Winery and Vineyards Nuns Canyon Merlot
Swanson Alexis
Turley Zinfandel Hayne Vineyard
Young’s Vineyard Barbera
Wellington Zinfandel Meek’s Vineyard
Zahtila Vineyards Estate Zinfandel

Santa, I’ve been good, no more Two Buck…

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Sage Rocks Young’s Vineyard

Our annual pilgrimage to the Young’s Vineyard release party in the Shenandoah region of Amador county is a wonderful experience for lovers of big, bold red wine. Young’s Vineyards serves blockbuster Barbera (my favorite), Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Shiraz and Zinfandel, all characteristic of the style of Amador Valley. All are hauntingly tannic, have mouthfuls of flavor and are fueled by high octane alcohol. I have never sought to confirm the rumor that they also sell Roussanne.

Young’s release party is a major event that regularly sells out – not just the tickets to the event but in past years the vintage itself. The release party is held on their property that includes beautiful gardens and picnic areas surrounding a picturesque lake and vineyard. The event includes wine, art showings, local cuisine, music and, most recently, a pleasant surprise.

While we were happily sipping wine, our friend and regular photo contributor Frank Anzalone enthusiastically said “Come listen to this!” The band had just gone on break, and now blasting from the speakers was the music of Sage, San Jose’s finest rock n roll outfit and past winner of KFOX’s Last Band Standing contest. Formed by Frank and his brother Russel way back in 1969, Sage has been a fixture in the Bay Area music scene for decades. For me, it was kind of like going to a museum and finding a friend’s artwork hanging on display.

When we approached to say hello, the guy running the sound board enthusiastically said “Sage Rocks!” I couldn’t agree more.

Best, Joe Plonk

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

One Bear Remains (Heart's Fire)

One of the joys of not being very smart is that you forget things (intentionally or otherwise) once in a while. Per my Thursday posting, I dropped out of most wine club memberships due to the economic times. As The Wife reminded, I forgot my club membership with Heart's Fire Winery. Yahoo! Keeping that one too...
Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bulls Ruin the Party

November 18, 2008 was my personal Black Tuesday. Bulls have stomped through Wall Street and onto Aptos Main Street. Want to know how a recession in the wine industry happens? Joe Plonk buys beer.

I have unwillingly (and temporarily, I hope) cancelled my memberships in wine clubs at Silverado, St. Francis, Clos LaChance and Ridge – saving only Rubicon Estate and JLohr. I will get a paper route, raid my kid’s college fund, or simply go down with the ship before exiting the wine club at Rubicon, and JLohr is a plonker’s paradise.

Will taste wine for food.

Worst, Joe Plonk

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Drink No Wine Before It’s Time, Except…

In the 1970s, Orson Wells stated “we will sell no wine before its time” in the famous advertisement by Paul Masson Vineyards.

For me, this phrase symbolizes the nearly impossible challenge of determining when best to drink a bottle of wine -- when is "its time"? The only way to truly gage whether a wine is at its peak is to try it, and unless you’ve purchased a case of a particular bottle and keep notes as you open bottles, you can do little more than guess. While some wineries suggest ageability of the wine, those recommendations assume that your taste for aged wine is similar to theirs. I’ve had 4 year-old zinfandel that was well past its prime, even though the back label said best when aged 3 to 5 years.

I enjoy wine when it’s fresh and frisky, with vibrant colors and flavors. Not necessarily “nouveau”, but younger and more lively. At the same time, some wines are best after time in the bottle to allow flavors to evolve and mature. While every wine needs to be analyzed on its own, here are some non-scientific rules of thumb that I use:

- For wines under $20, in order to avoid bottle-shock and to round out the edges, I try to hold these for 6 to 12 months. Wines in this price category are made to be consumed right away, so aging won’t improve the result.

- For wines between $20 and $40, I try to hold these for 6 to 18 months. Rarely have I experienced a wine in this price category that passed its peak at 18 months. To me, this is the right time window to allow for some character development without risk of the wine turning bad.

- For wines above $40 (with few very exceptions), I recommend holding for no more than 5 years. Some wineries claim their wines will last for 10 years or more. Perhaps true, but why risk wasting an expensive bottle when you know it will be good at 5 years. Wine on the downside of its peak is a waste in my book. Nobody likes drinking from the catbox.

Keep it happy, keep it snappy, keep it …

Best, Joe Plonk

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

More Than Just Auto Parts: The Napa Experience

There are lots of reasons to avoid Napa – cars, congestion, attitude and expense. But, at the same time, Napa has deservedly developed its reputation as the premiere wine destination in California. Distinct, flavorful chardonnay and world-class cabernet sauvignon are the stars, but many varietals excel in this diverse growing region. 50,000,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong – and the visiting masses are not wrong here. My suggestions to making your visit enjoyable:

- Call ahead. Many wineries have special tours and behind-the-scenes tastings that require reservations. Don’t just show up and expect a barrel sample of their reserve wines with the winemaker.

- Highway 29 early; Silverado Trail late. Traffic congestion in the afternoon makes Highway 29 a nightmare after about 1 pm, so visit those wineries first. The Silverado Trail makes for an enjoyable drive any time of the day. Start early and drive to the northern end of the valley, then head south. Everyone else will be heading in the opposite direction.

- Avoid tour bus destinations. If the sign out front says “Tour Bus Welcome,” odds are that you won’t be getting the personal attention that makes wine tasting special. If your friend from out-of-town loves Mondavi, by all means take your friend to Mondavi – just set your expectations accordingly.

- Avoid festival weekends. If you want to go to a festival, Napa has lots of them. Personally, I avoid festival weekends since I’m more interested in tasting wine than playing second fiddle to the Napa intelligencia which tend to dominate these events. Since my last name is Plonk, and not [insert fancy winery name here], odds are that I’ll be seated somewhere in back.

- Plan your meals; bring water. Have a few restaurants identified ahead of time, so that you won’t be scavenging for food. I try to identify restaurants near some of the wineries we plan to visit, so that we can remain flexible but keep food within reach. I always bring bottled water and Vanilla wafers (the best palette cleanser ever) for a snack between wineries. Mustards Grill in Yountville has fantastic mid-priced food; the Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil is my favorite for fine dining but can be whoa expensive. Reservations for both are recommended.

- Say “Yes” to Tasting Room Fees. [No, Joe Plonk did not get a lobotomy. Read on.] Over the last few years, fees to taste wine at the top wineries have skyrocketed. What used to be $5 per tasting can now be in the $25 to $30 range and more. After my initial outrage, I realized the happy byproduct of these ridiculous fees were that (i) you got to taste the best wines, (ii) more than 2 ounces of wine were typically poured, (iii) fewer tasting room patrons means a more enjoyable experience, and (iv) they didn’t try and hustle you out the door. I typically splurge on one “expensive” winery per trip where we really relax, spend extra time and enjoy ourselves.

- Pace Yourself. Napa is about the journey. Experience new places and things. Say hello. Turn down the occasional unexplored path, but respect the locals. People do live here. Plan your visit but leave room for spontaneity. If you have one day in Napa, and several wineries that you must visit, drink only reds or whites. You don’t have to try everything they pour, or finish everything poured in your glass. Nobody will be offended if you politely pour out what you don’t want.

And, of course, make sure that you have a designated driver. Napa has rightfully earned its reputation as California’s premiere wine destination. You’ll see.

Happy (Silverado) Trails!

Best, Joe Plonk

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Hey You!

It was a sign from the wine gods, directed to me personally. “Delicious and Cheap!” cried the placard sitting above several varietals of red wine from a California Central Coast winery. This Fish was on the hook, and two bottles of each magically jumped into my shopping cart. With its bright orange and purple squiggle label (and the silhouette of a bear), it was a classic impulse buy on my part – no reading of reviews, and no prior experience with the winery. Nothing more than some marketing person who knew that I’m a sucker for … well, just a sucker in this case. My sad experience is a reminder that checking Drink Plonk ( can help avoiding negative wine experiences.

Anybody want a good deal on two bottles with a fancy label?

Best, Joe Plonk

Friday, November 7, 2008

Signs of intelligent life in Stillwater, Minnesota

Stillwater ( is a city in Washington County, Minnesota, and a part of the Twin Cities metropolitan area. It is located directly across the St. Croix River from the state of Wisconsin. Although founded as a lumber town, it is now better known for its beautiful historic downtown which includes several antiquarian book stores. In my humble opinion, however, the clearest sign of intelligent life in this mid-western town is its devotion to wine.

Hidden amongst the book shops and antiquities are the Northern Vineyards Winery (, the Marx wine bar and grill (, and the Luna Rossa wine bar and trattoria ( Luna Rossa gets IQ bonus points for its conversion of beer brewing caves into wine storage caves, along with its brief but well-thought-out Italian-centric wine list – many of which are served by the glass.

The outside patio at Northern Vineyards Winery (see photo above) also provides a convenient location from which Minnesotans can fire cannons across the St. Croix. So, if you hear cork popping sounds, you can be sure they’re celebrating with Northern Vineyards Winery 2007 Minnesota grown Edelweiss or defending against invading cheese-heads.

Best, Joe Plonk

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My Cup Runneth Over…

Today marks the birthday of the world’s greatest gal, Ms. Joe Plonk (known as “TheWife” on Drink Plonk). She is the grand cru of mothers, the DOCG of wives, and the first-growth of best friends. She holds the records for longest champagne cork blast, loudest toasting clink, and fastest glass refill.

My life with her truly overflows.

Best, Joe Plonk

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Vino Novello!!!

November 3, 2008 marked the annual premier presentation of Vino Novello, which is the Italian cousin of the French Beaujolais Nouveau. The presentation of Vino Novello will take place this year at the Verona fair grounds after twenty years of being held in Vicenza. Hosted by the Italian Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia, this years presentation is aptly named “Anteprima Novello”. Vino Novello is first available during the first week in November, just prior to Beaujolais Nouveau which cannot be opened until the third Thursday of November. Vino Novello is an early bottling intended to preview the vintage, and spark interest in future purchases of that year’s releases.

Italian law requires that Novello be bottled within a year of the harvest. Like Beaujolais Nouveau, it is typically bottled just a few weeks before shipment. The wine is typically light and fruity (sometimes served chilled), primarily due to the juice not being left on the grape skins for an extended exposure to tannin. Primary differences between Novello and Beaujolais are that (1) Novello can be made with different blended varietals from different regions in Italy whereas Beaujolais is from the Gamay grape solely from the Beaujolais region, and (2) Novello typically retains some carbonation used to speed up fermentation whereas Beaujolais is typically flat.

Vino Novello or Beaujolais Nouveau? Whatever your favorite, vive le difference!

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, November 3, 2008

Home is where the heart is…

Everyone has their favorite wine region. My favorite is the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, and more specifically the wineries in my home town of Aptos, California (,_California). In my seaside town you’ll find an eclectic mix of farmers, firefighters, educators, poets, skateboarders and surfers; technology companies and antique shops; golf courses and tennis clubs – but most of all you’ll find people who will greet you with a smile on their face. Our wineries are warm and welcoming, family run operations where they will pull up a chair at the table and make you part of their family. No pomp and circumstance or false pretenses here.

Aptos wineries primarily grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, as is typical for the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, mostly in the Pleasant Valley area. In addition, our wineries produce many different varietals from different regions. Aptos wineries include:

Anderson Vineyards (
Aptos Creek Vineyards (
Nicholson Vineyards (
Pleasant Valley Vineyards (
Salamandre Wine Cellars (
Trout Gulch Vineyards (
Windy Oaks Estate ( *

* Yes, technically, Windy Oaks is located in Corralitos. However, any list of great local wineries that did not include the Schultze family would be incomplete.

I encourage you to visit these wineries, or to participate in a Corralitos Wine trail event ( or a Passport Weekend ( Most are open for wine event weekends or by appointment. Both your heart and your taste buds will be glad you did.

Best, Joe Plonk

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Vesuvius Vineyards and Arugula

Mount Vesuvius ( is located on the coast of the Bay of Naples, and is best known for an eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 A.D. On a clear day, it provides spectacular views of the Bay of Naples, Napoli and the Campania countryside. During a recent visit, we decided to hike to the top. Having missed the last bus that goes to the Vesuvius national park, we hired a local driver for a ride. Half way up the mountain the driver skidded to a stop, and we followed him out of the car into wild vegetation from which he plucked several leaves of wild arugula. As we gleefully nibbled the arugula, I noticed vineyards on the hillside slopes that grow the wonderful Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio (meaning “tears of Christ”). Although perhaps best known for its Bianco, it was the rich flavor of its Rosso that caught my attention.

Since my discovery six years ago, I have only seen it once in the USA – and immediately purchased the one case held by the retailer. Now this fantastic wine is imported to the USA by Mastroberardino (, and can be found in select restaurants (thank you to the excellent Pasta Moon restaurant and their award winning wine list! and wine shops including BevMo. Established in 1750, Mastrobererdino imports a variety of southern Italian wines, and is perhaps best known for its Greco di Tufa and Aglianico varietals. Their Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso is about $15, and gets a four star ranking on the Drink Plonk Value Index.

So, you can call me an “arugula-eating elitist” if you choose… just make sure mine is served with Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso.

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bonus Question Answer

The bonus question from last week’s blog was “Name the location of the second vineyard in the Disney parks in Anaheim, California.” The answer is the Dream Castle, Cinderella Chateau, French Village, in the Storybook Land ride in the Disneyland theme park. A photo of the Cinderella Chateau and its expansive vineyard property (about 12 inches by 18 inches) is above.

The Disney experience for wine fans can be a good one. Their fanciest hotel, The Grand Californian, includes a California-fresh restaurant called the Napa Rose. And, in the area between the different Disneyland Hotel buildings is an underground wine tasting room called The Cellar, which boasts an impressive California-centric wine list. But, Joe Plonk warns, bargains will not be found here. During a recent trip, I purchased a bottle of 2005 Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel, North Coast appellation series (see my review on Drink Plonk) for $39 -- which is listed on the Rosenblum website at $18. Not a bargain under any budget.

Best, Joe Plonk

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Answer to Name That Tune...

Congratulations to Frank of Campbell, California, for being the first of two correct responses to identify the Golden Vine Winery as being the subject of our Name That Tune column earlier this week. Located at Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim, California, the Golden Vine Winery includes a small acre vineyard. (Hey, nobody said this would be fair…)

Disney doesn’t sell the wine grapes grown here, which were originally part of a Robert Mondavi educational experience that included a seven minute video about winemaking called “Seasons of the Vine”. In addition to serving a variety of California wines, it includes the California Wine Trattoria that serves fabulous but relatively expensive Italian cuisine. The Golden Vine Winery is also an ideal place to watch Disney parades while sipping bubbly.

Bonus question: Name the location of the second vineyard in the Disney parks in Anaheim, California.

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, October 20, 2008

Name That Tune (err... Winery)

Attached are several photos of a California winery that could rightly (I believe) claim to being the most visited winery in the world. This winery grows Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel, as well as Moscato Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio. The first person to e-mail me with the correct answer will be given proper kudos in my blog posting later this week. If you think you know the right answer, send it to me with your name and city. Happy sleuthing!

Best, Joe Plonk

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tasting Room by Ritz-Carlton at Rubicon Estate

For many wineries, a tasting room is significant money making venture. By selling to consumers direct, they avoid significant distribution expenses and mark-ups that come with selling to distributors, wine shops and supermarkets. They also have the ability to the control quality of what ultimately reaches a consumers’ glass, as they can be assured the bottle wasn’t subject to extreme temperatures, exposure to intense light, or prolonged periods of standing that can dry-out tree bark based corks. It is also a chance to promote their wine club, share information about wines and the winery, and to sell t-shirts and golf caps.

It is also, unfortunately, creates an easy way to alienate customers. I’ve spoken with tasting room staff that knows almost nothing about wine, and heard unbelievable hyperbole that wasn’t remotely matched by the contents of my glass. I’ve also stood three people deep at some of my favorite wineries begging for a sip of sauvignon blanc, being largely (and perhaps understandably) ignored in favor of giggling coeds. The tasting room experience can easily make or break a consumer’s love affair with a particular brand.

The purpose of this posting is share a recent tasting room experience that merits Five Stars under the Drink Plonk Value Index. Our recent tasting at Rubicon Estate was hosted by Sean Green. This experience enhanced my interest in the wines, and the winery, and followed these simple guidelines:

- Casual and friendly atmosphere in which we were treated as guests.
- Explanations were simple but not patronizing, and each also answered more technical questions about the wine once asked.
- He was happy with his work at Rubicon, and passionate about wine in general, with the ability to discuss food pairings and differences in wine styles.
- Our experience was not rushed, and he was willing to taste with us to compare notes.
- Prompt but not rushed service.
- Bread (not crackers).

Some wineries try to get by with volunteers in their tasting room, and it often shows. Sean’s first rate customer service provided a big lift to our wine tasting experience. We were already members of the wine club at Rubicon (and, admittedly, had our tasting in the club members’ room). But, we certainly purchased more wine by virtue of the goodwill generated by Sean’s Ritz-Carlton-like service. I suspect Rubicon Estate invested a few additional dollars in hiring and training. But, to have happy (and returning) customers? It sounds like good business sense to me.

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, October 13, 2008

Heart’s Fire Delivers Passion in a Bottle

Hidden behind several auto repair shops and numerous industrial supply lots reside the wineries of Campbell, California:

Heart’s Fire (
Pinder Winery (
Stroth-Hall Cellars (
Travieso Winery (

Not the typical town in which you’d expect to find wineries, given that orchards and vineyards were long ago paved over in favor of Silicon Valley suburbs and technology companies. In fact, I only discovered that Campbell has wineries through a random Google search (try your town as you never know). These wineries collectively support each other together through the Campbell Winemakers Studio ( Pinder Winery was the first, and leases space and equipment to Heart’s Fire and Stroth-Hall Cellars. Travieso is in the same building on the other side of a kung-fu studio, which could be helpful if they ever pursue the art of champagne sabering. The Campbell Reporter already has a great article, entitled “Vintners heard it through the grapevine”, which can be found at:

I visited a tiny winery, and discovered three tinier wineries inside. We entered the Pinder Winery tasting room, but a chance opening of the back door revealed a beehive of activity. Unknown to us at the time, Heart’s Fire winery was in the process of bottling their 2006 Zinfandel from Sonoma County’s Treboce vineyard. Instead of treating us like the nosy intruders we were, they welcomed us as honored guests. Heart’s Fire winery is owned by couples Dan and Julie Scheve and Brian and Kristin Link. Each of them, along with friends and the Link’s daughter, were joyously working to fill the bottles, insert the corks, attach the label and put the finished bottle into boxes. Photos of the bottling process can be seen at:

(Heart’s Fire photos copyright 2008 Frank Anzalone. All rights reserved. For more information, go to It’s always good to have a professional photographer for a friend. Thanks Frank!)

They showed us every step of the process, and let us sample their fantastic zinfandel. This was a labor of love, not a corporate undertaking. They have pursued their passion (thus, the name Heart’s Fire) turning friendship and a shared interest in wine into rich and flavorful zinfandel and petite sirah (done in what I’d categorize as medium, balanced style). My tasting notes from their current bottlings are below, and reviews can be found at

2006 Zinfandel, Price Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Evenly balanced zinfandel with strawberry, pepper and a touch of earthy spice. $24.

2006 Treborce Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. Strawberry, plum, and spice notes. Fuller bodied than the Price Vineyard, but not over the top despite 15.6% alcohol. $28.

2006 Petite Sirah, Rhodes Vineyard, Redwood Valley, Medocino County. Flavorful petite sirah that shows cherry, strawberry, pepper, spice, and leather. Lightly tannic. $32.

Their beginnings as home winemakers grew as friends and acquaintances became more and more interested in their quality wines, prompting Dan to say “We had to rent some space or get a new hobby.” Fortunately, for us, they did! Heart’s Fire is currently located at the Pinder Winery, 165 Cristich Lane, Campbell, CA 95008, and is open for tasting on the first Sunday of every month. Do stop by…

Best, Joe Plonk

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Fargo Means Fabulous...

During a fabulous meal recently with friends in the Fargo, North Dakota area (, I casually commented that all wines (Rosenblum Cabernet and Chardonnay) poured were from California and that I wanted to try the North Dakota wines. Before I could pull my foot out of my mouth, one of our hosts returned with great ceremony to present me with two bottles of North Dakota wine – Rubarb wine and Honey Comb Plum wine from Maple River Winery ( in Casselton, North Dakota. I soon learned that the Peace Garden State has at least four wineries ( producing a variety of wines that embody the unique character and spirit of the region in which they are produced. My friends also told me to serve the wine chilled – advice that I plan to take. Following my return to California, I shared my experience with some oenophile friends, one of whom was a Minnesota native who exclaimed that she loved rhubarb. Start chilling that Rhubarb wine now, we have a winner!

This was a humbling reminder that each of our fifty states has at least one winery, not just California, Oregon and Washington. A future blog post will be dedicated to some of my favorites.

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, October 6, 2008

Economics of Sticks

U.S. Highway 101 ( runs north-south through the western portions of California, Oregon and Washington. The highway includes many beautiful sites, especially along the California coast near Santa Barbara. My favorite part of the highway, however, is the portion between Paso Robles and Monterey. If you’ve driven this portion during the last 5 to 10 years, you will have noticed that miles and miles of new vineyards have been planted. If you’ve ever seen a newly planted vineyard, it looks like rows of Sticks standing up in plastic wrappers (to protect against the elements, and hungry predators like deer). As the Sticks grow, they are trained to grow up to a certain height, and then horizontal along connecting wires. It takes 5 to 7 years for vines to yield fruit that is ready for winemaking. And, according to my calendar, many of these vineyards are about ready for harvest.

It doesn’t take an economist to know that as the supply of grapes increases to meet the demand, wine pricing will go down. Fortunately for wine consumers, OPEC has no direct impact on wine production decisions. As more Sticks that get planted, more wine grapes are available to be made into wine. And, with ever improving farming and winemaking methods, quality will undoubtedly also increase. Happy thoughts, indeed.

So, when you see Sticks, you’ll know that better wine pricing is on the way.

Best, Joe Plonk

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Who is Joe Plonk?

Joe Plonk resides in Aptos, California, with his wife and daughter.
Joe Plonk has two cats and is getting a dog.
Joe Plonk enjoys the outdoors, but spends most of his waking hours hunched in front of a computer monitor.
Joe Plonk has a real job.
Joe Plonk votes.
Joe Plonk surfs better than he performs brain surgery, but it’s close.
Joe Plonk supports the arts.
Joe Plonk prefers aloha shirts and soccer kits.
Joe Plonk loves Zinfandel, and believes Cabernet Franc is more than a blending grape.
Joe Plonk wants to know your opinion about which wines are good values.
Joe Plonk wants to help consumers unite to improve their wine drinking experience. Visit, and help me help you.

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, September 29, 2008

Here It Is, Your Moment of Zin …

Regardless of party affiliation, or whether you party independently, you can positively impact this world of wine simply by participating. Cast your vote on Drink Plonk ( and with your wallet at your local bottle shop to effect change with issues that really matter. Whether you are in a “Red” state, a “White” state, or somewhere in between, don’t sit idly by and let spin doctors make their version of reality into your miserable truth. Don’t let strategically placed handwritten signs over a wine rack influence you. Neither fair nor balanced, they are most likely written by the winery or its distributor. Check on-line with Drink Plonk to ensure independent evaluation of the facts by other consumers, then proceed directly to the ballot to check the right boxes for you. You may not have to live with your decision for 4 years, but it will certainly impact you in important ways.

In other election related news:

- Hawaii produces reds, whites and presidential candidates.

- Vermont stumps for its place on the ticket.

- Arizona maverick seek place at first table.

- Alaska leaves lipstick on glass.

- Palin Syrah bombs in San Francisco; a hit in Houston.

Get out the vote! Otherwise, you’ll be drinking what others are pouring for years to come.

Best, Joe Plonk

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Joe Plonk Flies Coach

Joe Plonk flies Coach, but his pallet longs for Business Class. Good luck if you’ve ever been thirsty while seated in Coach. The airline industry is working hard to ensure that you’ll wait to quench that thirst until reaching the bar at your destination airport. I really don’t mind the $4 beverage charge, since they are partly trying to help passengers from becoming unruly during flight. I do mind that they seem to serve the lowest quality wines available. With the buying power that airlines have due to the amount of wine they serve annually, they could easily contract with a quality producer to ensure their passengers aren’t sitting pucker-faced throughout the flight. Why punish the guys and gals in the back of the plane? I’ve seen the wine list for Business Class, so I know the airlines already know who to call.

Hey, airline industry, Joe Plonk is available for consulting – and will work for wine!

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, September 22, 2008

Top US Value Producers

At Drink Plonk, the power of many trumps the opinions of an anointed few. However, if you were to peek in the wine rack at our house, you would find (red) wines from these domestic value producers. Not every wine they make is good, but these are labels that have a good track record. Please check for specific reviews.

Under $25:

Castle Rock Winery
Columbia Crest Winery
David Caffaro Vineyard and Winery
Estancia Estates Winery
Francis Coppola Presents
Gallo of Sonoma
Geyser Peak Winery
Seghesio Family Winery
Rancho Zabacco (Zinfandel but not the Cab)
Renwood Winery

$25 and above:

Ahlgren Vineyards
Frank Family Vineyards
Rombauer Vineyards
Rubicon Estate
St. Francis Winery and Vineyards
Young’s Vineyards

I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Best, Joe Plonk

Thursday, September 18, 2008

I Entered this World Barefoot...

I entered this world of wine through a glass of Barefoot Chardonnay. Wine was not part of the household in which I grew up, so my early view of wine derived from typical stereotypical wine caricatures – snooty French restaurants, the Grey Poupon set, and Lucille Ball hysterically stomping around in a vat of grapes. My college roommate’s infatuation with Bartles & Jaymes certainly didn’t help. But, years later, there came a time that a glass of Barefoot Chardonnay occasionally appeared in front of me at dinner. I never had that Eureka moment, instead my enjoyment increased slowly over time. Notable stepping stones along the path for me included Mirassou Pinot Noir (through the 5th generation anyway), then Louis M. Martini Cabernet and to others. In each step my understanding and appreciation increased, with my interest in dry white wine graduating to near fanaticism over big, bold reds. [No, it is not lost on me that each of the aforementioned brands are currently owned by Gallo. I just don’t know what it all means.]

No matter what your path, savor the journey and don’t forget your important first steps along the way.

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, September 15, 2008

Sommelier, sommelier, let down your hair…

In certain contexts, I agree that wine can be a tricky subject. The idea that a restaurant has somebody who understands both the wine and the cuisine is a great idea. Why is it that the reality is so disappointing? Sommeliers of the world, take notice:

- Stop with the arrogance. While you should know more about the wine list, don’t assume you know everything and I know nothing about wine. Get to know your customer’s level of intelligence on wine and interest in discussion. Don’t prance by like you found the fountain of eternal youth. You are not wearing an Olympic silver medal.

- Price is not all-important. If I don’t pick the most expensive bottle, that doesn’t mean you should treat me worse. If the wine is good enough to be on your wine list, you should treat it like it is important. The customer didn’t make the wine list, you or your employer did. Don’t blame me if I pick something you put on the list.

- Get to know my interests. If I like Zinfandel, help me find one that matches my pallet and my meal. I’m happy to try a different label or region, but don’t point me towards Bordeaux if that is not what I requested. If you think there is a Bordeaux that is perfect for my meal, ask me if you can make suggestions.

- Check back during the meal. Even if you don’t approve of the wine, check back later to see if it pairs well with the meal. I may have a question for you. Also, perhaps you could even learn something from your customers. Briefly checking back makes a big difference for your customers, which will likely be reflected in the tip at the end of the meal.

The strangest advice I ever got from a Sommelier was at a fancy seafood restaurant in Orlando in June. When I asked for his opinion on a bottle, he tersely replied “Doesn’t go with seafood.” A restaurant with the words “Crab House” in the name seemed like a seafood restaurant to me, so I wonder what that particular bottle was doing on the wine list in the first place. Perhaps it was a trap for weary tourists like myself. In olden days, I would have asked him to step out side for a duel. I couldn’t wait for that guy to leave the table. My guess is that the proprietors of that establishment didn’t hire this guy to alienate me, but he sure did.

The whole reason for Drink Plonk is to provide information about wine so that consumers can make informed decisions. Sommelier, sommelier, I’d love to try again – please let down your hair. Just meet me half way this time.

Best, Joe Plonk

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Stuff a Cork in it!

For those of you who lament the decline of tree-bark based corks, I say stuff a cork in it (or, perhaps, screw your top shut)! Just as black-and-white television, operator assisted telephone dialing, and automobile engine hand-cranks have given way, the future belongs to improvements and innovation. The wine industry should be no exception. Tree-bark corks represent approximately 60% of wine stoppers used today. I say it should be zero percent. There is nothing worse than opening a bottle that has been tainted (caused by the presence of the chemical Trichloroanisole or TCA) due to a problem with the cork. In my book, the best bottle of wine gets zero stars on the Drink Plonk Value Index if the wine is ruined -- by the cork or otherwise. Studies have shown that 5% to 10% of bottles (I suspect its actually less) are negatively impacted by taint. Joe Plonk is not pleased when that happens, and changes buying patterns when it does. How does the consumer benefit if the product is ruined? If you get a tainted bottle, 100% of its contents are going down the sink. Eghad.

Alternative wine closures are available (, such as synthetic corks and screw caps. I’d prefer the screw top for easy resealing, but I really don’t care which. I can’t figure out why the best wines aren’t served like box wines are today. Box wines are basically just plastic bags with air-tight dispensers. Shouldn’t we give the same protection to our high end wines as well? If I could drink a single glass from a high value $40 bottle of wine every night for a week, I would do so. What I won’t do is open a $40 bottle every night, or open a $40 bottle and hope it saves for a week. Kudos to Plumpjack ( for releasing a premium bottling a few years ago with a screw cap. I had hoped others would immediately follow suit, but only a few have.

Just make sure that the wine in the bottle is good. Isn’t that why you bought it in the first place?

Best, Joe Plonk

Monday, September 8, 2008

Hello World -- Pop that Cork!

I don't farm. I don't vint. I don't bottle. But, I do drink wine. That interest, combined with my feeling that I'm largely ignored by the wine media and wine industry, has led me to start the Drink Plonk web site and this Blog. Most wine media is focused on wine that I can’t afford or find. Yes, I’ve ordered a few highly rated wines directly from small wineries, and been abused as a consumer by the best of them. Fabulous to taste but Joe Plonk is no Joe Rockefeller, and he doesn't appreciate the abuse that many cult winemakers serve with their wine. While I’m not against occasionally buying more expensive wines, I’m more interested in maximizing the bang for my buck. And, there are many tasty wines without the "designer label" that don't require you to break the bank. As for me, I readily admit to having a “California pallet.” Serve my big bold red with fish… serve it with chicken… just make sure that it sat on the skins for a prolonged period of rest.

To me the word of Wine Spectator’s James Laube is almost sacred. If he likes a wine, odds are that I will be like Mikey eating Life cereal. For years, I would make notes and memorize vintages and vineyard designations from high scoring wineries, only to find that his recommended wines do not appear in my local wine shop or grocery. Wines from his world do exist -- I simply cannot dedicate my life to finding them. I need help. You can provide it.

The premise behind this site is that you, and others like you, help create a community where wines are rated both for taste and value. I may not care what one guy named “Bob from Boise” thinks about a particular wine, but if 20 people named Bob and Betty review that wine you can bet that there will be some consensus. That consensus is reflected in the Drink Plonk Value Index, which is the average score of the wine reviewed on a 5 star system. Was this wine a good value for the amount of money you paid? Want to know what lots of people think, instead of one discerning pallet who isn’t going to like your $10 Wednesday night quaffer anyway? If so, here is the place. Drink Plonk can help you decide between the $10 Ravenswood Zin, the $12 Rancho Zabacco Zin, and others on the shelves. Review information is collected in a survey format, based on typical varietal characteristics and other key information. The survey is easy to complete, and the results are easy to understand. We’ve also asked for scoring on a 100 point scale, for no reason other than most people are familiar with that type of review. Hopefully, that is also helpful information.

I think the world needs this site; maybe not. In the internet age, only time will tell. Thanks to Craig Newmark, Leo Laporte, and Jonathan Coulton for the inspiration to just go try. We’re starting out slow here. Please be patient. I’ll be making semi-regular postings on a variety of topics, so check back here soon.

With the help of Bill Plonk (web design, plonk consumer, auto racing guru, and granddad extraordinaire), we proudly present…

Best, Joe Plonk

Copyright 2008 Drink Plonk LLC. All rights reserved.