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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page

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

Click for Drink Plonk Home Page