Saturday, September 16, 2006

HFF on the Road: Anderson Valley, Ca

A couple weekends ago I found myself in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino county for a (somewhat) staid but enjoyable bachelor party weekend of wine and beer tasting. Overall I was impressed with the quality of the wines even if the mild climate does produce wines with delicate subtleties that definitely don't stand up in body to the more robust wines from Napa and Sonoma counties. Light and medium body reds (one of the best pinot noir growing regions in the world perhaps?), Alsatian varietals, and lighter, broad on the palate zinfandels and Italian red varietals round out a nice palette of wine selections. It must of course be acknowledged that many winemakers based in the Anderson Valley have vineyards in other parts of Mendocino and Sonoma counties from which they get many of their fuller-fruit red and white grapes.

Some of the winery highlights:

Navarro - Perhaps the quintessential AV vineyard, producing almost all of their wines from site-grown grapes. Really good pinot noir and a premiere reserve Chardonnay that was wonderful--bright and minerally though still with significant butter. I was particularly drawn Navarro's Alsatian varietals--both a dry white riesling and a white riesling dessert wine that was one of the best dessert wines I've tried. And of coure their famed gewurztraminer. A couple of surprising finds too--a tasty, light-bodied but aromatic muscat blanc and a deceptively complex old-vine grenache/syrah/carignane/mourvedre rose with strong strawberry and rose petal notes.

Roederer - Their brut has become omnipresent in the premium California champagne market (and makes up over 90% of Roederer's production) but I was impressed by their single-vintage Ermitage selections and their off-dry and slightly sweet small-case runs.

Esterlina - A private winery two miles up a dirt road (call ahead for reservations--space is limited). You get your own private tastings on one of the winery's two decks overlooking the entire valley. Friendly staff pour the spectrum of their wines (great pinot and chardonnay, really tasty zin port too) on a patio table while you enjoy complimentary crackers and chocolate--you're also welcome to bring your own food and picnic while you taste. One of the best wine tasting experiences out there.

Handley - Known of course for their sauvignon blancs, chardonnays, and pinot noirs (both from AV vineyards and Dry Creek vineyards), I was most impressed however by a floral, complex, but not oaky, Viognier.

Brutacao - A funky winery producing a lot of Italian and fuller red varietals. Nice primitivo and a great zinfandel port. Very friendly tasting room staff.

What struck me most about the wineries in general was a lack of pretension--they just loved making good wines. And that's the thing--unlike other small wine-growing regions (Livermore being the most notable)--the wines across the board were pretty damn good. Not as many standouts and I tasted better wines overall on my trips to Napa, but some of these wines were fucking great. Other notes--other than at the sparkling houses we visited, each winery poured on average 8 different wines for no tasting fee (some poured a dozen or more) and they were usually distinctly different wines too--not just a couple different years or a couple different vineyards of the same varietal.

Also on the trip we made a stop in at the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. Nice little tour of the brewery and a tasting of all the beers that they were currently brewing--except the porter which they were out of. Boont Amber and their Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout are still my favorites, but a slightly malty Summer Solstice Cerveza was deceptively full-bodied and the strong and spicy Double and Triple Abbey-Style Brother David ales were fun and interesting tastes too.

Most of our dining on this trip was campfire cooking and cold cuts, but we did make two stops at a couple Boonville dining establishments.

Dinner was spent at the Boonville Hotel, which offers constantly changing seasonal dishes featuring a lot of local produce (think apples). Excellent homemade foccacia, big plump PEI mussels with aioli, and a fresh green bean and beet salad rounded out our appetizers and our group shared a couple orders each of the roast chicken with fries, lamb with horseradish-yogurt sauce, and pan-seared halibut with saffron rice. All the entrees were cooked perfectly--even the halibut. I appreciated the strong hand with the seasoning, but I agreed with Chef Scott's comment that most of the dishes were fairly one-dimensional--not terribly complex or nuanced in flavor range. Desserts were tasty but unremarkable save for the fresh seasonal fruit used. Boonville Hotel's wine list was impressive, well-priced, and not overly reliant upon local wines.

Breakfast on our way out of town was an unexpected surprise. We dropped into a little cafe called Lola's run entirely by three Mexican women. Breakfast selections were mostly Mexican egg dishes--huevos mexicanos, huevos rancheros, huevos de (puerco) carne abodabo, etc. Perfectly cooked to order, fresh produce, and nice and spicy sauces. Best huevos rancheros I've had, though I would've enjoyed it more if the accompanying red sauce had been served warm. The egg dishes are served with steamers full of warm, soft, homemade corn tortillas. They were definitely corn, but they had all the lightness and softness of flour. Absolutely amazing tortillas--do not miss Lola's for breakfast on your next visit to (or even just through) Boonville.

Go to the Anderson Valley, quality without pretension.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Rant: "Cheap" Wine

The East Bay Express this week features an extensive article on wine--or rather, on the wine reviewing business and its shortcomings. The article laments that nobody seems to review wines that are less than $10 a bottle or wines that are readily accessible in grocery stores. In response, the Express is going to start a recurring feature, cloyingly titled "Wineau," that will only review wines that are less than $10 a bottle and that are readily available in local grocery retailers.

My question is...why?

There's no need to review wines like that. It's the same reason that newspapers don't review Chili's or McDonald's or most basic mom and pop ethnic restaurants. The audience for these venues are predetermined--based primarily on foot trafiic, bargain hunters, and people who are afraid of new things.

I'm not denying that there are some good sub-$10 bottles of wine. There are many. Trader Joe's is full of them. Are there any great wines for under $10? Not that I've tasted. The fact remains that cheap wines generally come from high-yield grape growing regions that produce fruity, tasty wines that are eminently drinkable but lacking in depth or complexity.

What most people don't realize is that it's hard to make bad wine. Most cheap wines, even of the jug or box variety, are drinkable. They might not be terribly complex but they aren't gut-wrenchingly bad. People confuse the fact that a wine doesn't make them want to gouge there eyes out as a reason that the wine is good. Coupled with a bargain basement price they might even think that this wine is great. The fact is... well, no. It's not.

From a very basic standpoint, it's impossible to have a great cheap bottle of wine. The types of soils that produce interesting wines are not ones that are prone to the highest yields. A vineyard's yield (and consequently the cost of the grapes) is the single most important factor in a wine's price. High, fertile yields produce innocuous grape-y wines. See Charles Shaw. Charles Shaw is from a winemaker out of the Central Valley. The Central Valley is the largest wine-growing region in the world--but can you name one major Central Valley winemaker? Exactly.

I do applaud the Express on one aspect of their new "Wineau" column. Each feature is going to showcase and educate about a specific region, grape, or appelation. This is a good thing. If consumers become more savvy about world wine regions then they can begin to understand the types of wines that they like and begin to seek out their own great values--in particular those wines in the $10-$20 range that can be quite phenomenal.

Just remember that finding a drinkable wine under $10 is like finding a fuckable chick at a frat party. It's pretty easy, but it's not going to leave you with any lasting memories. Save up your money and your best pick-up lines and get a wine that won't leave you with genital warts. Save the $5 wines for parties or afternoon drunkification. Get a nice bottle (a great bottle) for those nice dinners. It'll make you a better person. Trust me--I'm awesome. And I don't have genital warts.