On road trips, magnificent vastness, and incipient serendipity

Welcome to Twitsville!Unless we’ve walked the trail together or sipped a glass or two and had a chance to let our hair down, you’ve been getting only bits and pieces of me. It’s true: I have devolved into an unabashed microblogger. Like many around us, I’ve adopted a 140-character mentality, having steadily assumed the social attention span of a mosquito, copping the latest buzz. Couple that with the regular rigors of following my hiking muse, keeping my garden green and wearing 3 hats at work, and there’s simply been little left of me for developing creative, long-tail journalism.

Certainly my responsibilities have grown these past few seasons, ever since I closed up shop at California Wine Hikes and returned to my old job. Programs I had steered a half decade earlier had degraded in that time; I’d inherited a dismally broken website and a documentation program that had fallen into disarray. Having spent these past four years treading the grindstone to nearly single-handedly resurrect both, I felt I was overdue for an extended road trip. It had been 10 years since the last one. Ten years!

All work and no road trip makes Russ an indolent grouch.Skyping across the globe in January with my friend Niki had had us both dreaming of her flying from Zurich to California toward a summer road tour of Portland, Calgary, Kalispell and Estes Park; we were going to make one big circuit of things and take 4 weeks to do it. By April, however, commitments to the road had grown less solid; a potential new hire in my department had fallen through and things had changed with Niki’s employment scenario; I was faced with the prospect of picking her up at the airport in Missoula if she could swing it. But if I could manage to escape the office at all, it was beginning to look like a solo road trip.

When May rolled around, I hadn’t yet thought too hard about my road itinerary – I was cranking out the work while attempting to prospect another round of candidates. But when Adam Nutting reached out to me about joining him and 12 other outdoor social media enthusiasts for a sponsored backpacking and rafting expedition in Idaho’s Hells Canyon, I could barely prevent myself from jumping up and down at my desk like a hyperactive schoolboy on a sugar high. I instinctively responded “Yes!”idaho

I was going to Idaho!

Despite my travels thus far, I’ve not yet set foot in The Gem State. Though my company has always had a presence in the Boise area, my particular job role had never dictated that I be sent there on business. My infatuations with the southwest had confined the range of my more recent road junkets to such exotic locales as Ouray, Kanab, Springdale, Shiprock. But truth be told, I am smitten by the entire enormity of the Great American West, and the prospect of exploring northern Idaho excites me. It doesn’t hurt to know that I’ll be exploring it with folks with whom I’ve enjoyed inspiring and provocative dialog these past 3 or so years on social media.

Learn more about the #HellHikeAndRaft adventure!

Not so strange, perhaps, is that it is my social media backtrail that has established why I’ve been selected to participate on the Hell Hike and Raft Expedition. It’s an exquisite honor to be recognized for the efforts I’ve made at sharing my story and engaging in dialogs with you, and I find myself both humbled and grateful for the new level of experience that it brings.

And as to that experience, all of us participating in this expedition – we who call ourselves the #HellHikeAndRaft crew – have Parker and Becky of America’s Rafting Company to thank for their willingness to outfit us as we backpack northern Idaho’s Seven Devils Range and brave the rapids of the Snake River through the Hells Canyon gorge. A number of outstanding sponsors have stepped up to amply facilitate our effort, and we’re excited to test and evaluate their products on the trail, in camp, and on the water.

The #HellHikeAndRaft crew is proud to be sponsored by these fine establishments.

So buckle up, ladies and gents: over the next days and weeks, as the Internets allow, I plan to take you along on this serendipitous journey. After I clear my desk this week, we’ll embark on a 3-week road trip that’ll take us not only to the rugged beauty of northern Idaho, but to the magnificent soul-cleansing American vastness that is northern Nevada, southern Idaho and eastern Washington and Oregon. It’s a pretty safe bet that plenty of hiking and wine will be involved.


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Are “Five Star” Wine Rating Systems Too Simple?

Before Robert Parker Jr. introduced the 100-point wine-rating system to the world back in 1978, wine tasters, if they used any scoring method at all, would generally use a simple “five star” scale to rate their wines.

You can apply stars to wine, or you can actually learn something about wine.

You can apply stars to wine, or you can actually learn something about wine.

This five star (or five point) system is best understood as:

1  Poor
3  Good
4  Excellent
5  Outstanding

Naturally, it is simplicity that differentiates a five-star system from Parker’s system. After all, what budding connoisseur intrigued by wine would not choose to begin their lifetime of passion de vin with something elemental, readily grasped? And who among us can really tell the difference between an 83-point wine and an 84-point wine?

While there is much that is ludicrous about the Parker scale (e.g., a 76-point wine can be just as undrinkable as a 38-point wine), it’s much easier to understand the five-point system because we can readily identify with it – it corresponds with the letter-grade system many of us grew up with in grammar school. A simple system, yes. But very, very dull! Fortunately, other ardent wine rating personae have tackled the notion of dressing up this simple little system with rating thresholds of their own.

Jon Bonné, lifestyle editor for MSNBC.com (and Amuse-Bouche wine blogger) expands the aforementioned scale to the following:

1.0, Undrinkable: Major flaws that make the wine too bad to drink.
2.0, Marginally drinkable: You’d drink it if stranded on a desert island, but not otherwise.
3.0, Acceptable: Wine free of any major flaws, but not otherwise worth mentioning.
3.5, Good: Decent and drinkable wine, competently made and enjoyable to the average drinker.
4.0, Very good: Highly pleasurable wine with excellent qualities, the product of top-notch winemaking.
4.5: Excellent: Wine that excels in every aspect, true to its terroir and origin and of exceptional quality.
5.0, Extraordinary: Classic wine of rare and unparalleled quality.

Bonné suggests that:

“Wines below 3.0 aren’t worthy of consideration at all, and 3.5 is a decent starting point for wine worth buying. Beyond that? It’s really a matter of personal taste and preference.”

Deceptively simple. Yet notice how the five-point scale is already stretching out to something beyond five points. In his defense, Bonné only bases his ratings on a five-point system. But whoa – he’s willing to rate incrementally by half-points. Perceptively tedious!

Erin over at Grape Juice quips that she has her parents to thank for her growing alcoholism. Her wine rating methodology goes beyond the five-star rating system, too, though I’d have to say it’s more of a five-bar raving system. Or raging system – take your pick:

Not Even On Pain of Death: I’d pretty much run screaming from this wine if I ever saw it again.
I Wouldn’t Make Faces: Not my choice, but if someone were to serve it to me at a gathering of some sort, I wouldn’t turn up my nose.
I’d Hit It: A good wine, but not necessarily mindblowing. I’d consider buying it again.
Repeat Offender: I’ll be buying this one again. A wine with a certain “je ne sais quoi”.
Bet Your Bottom Dollar: A sure-fire hit. Even your mother-in-law would like this one.

Hmmm, I wonder how Erin can taste wine with her tongue in her cheek like that. Come to think of it, if I had a mother-in-law, she’d probably only drink white zinfandel. At the other end of the wine-scoring spectrum, Rod Phillips at Worlds of Wine suggests a 1,000-point wine-scoring scale.

Methinks Rod jesteth overtly. But yikes!! Talk about tedious. Well then, could there be a wine tasting methodology that isn’t boorishly elemental, deceptively simple, flagrantly tedious, or mincingly ambiguous? Something that goes beyond “trite” yet doesn’t have you mired in point-shaving schemes?

You bet. It’s a moderately sane 20-point system, and it’s freely available to all. If you like wine but want to know why you like it, or if you would choose to educate yourself further about wine, then here’s a little guidance, some developmental history, and a place to download the winehiker’s scoring sheet for nearly everyone.


Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Barolo

Considered to be one of the most noble wines of Italy, Barolo lays claim to the title “Wine of kings, and king of wines.” The wine, named after the Barolo commune from which it originates, is made from the region’s heavily-grown Nebbiolo grape, a dark blue, highly tannic variety that can yield an incredibly powerful wine to the senses.

Barolo can be a hard wine to make, and that can account for its relatively steep price and slim availability. Perhaps it is the latter two factors that influenced our evening of tasting this noble grape when five of us got together on a recent Thursday.

There’s something noble about Barolos, alright, and you often notice it right away in this wine when it’s aged five years. All sorts of color gradations appear, from deep violet to inky blue-black to orange around the rim. Aromas of leather and pine tar permeate the senses, with a hint of roses. I had advised my guests, in preparing for our tasting, to uncork their wines 24 hours ahead and let them breathe overnight, then stopper them in the morning. Two of my guests, I believe, had let them breathe the entire 24 hours. Despite this, some bottles expressed a little funkiness that largely dissipated upon swirling our glasses for 15-20 minutes.

Yes, one must be extraordinarily patient with Barolos, whether winemaker or wine drinker. Because we had been patient with the wines’ oxygenation process, all bottles were very drinkable, with a high degree of collective satisfaction in their taste and body profiles; overall quality was scored moderately, and we feel that aging would only improve all five wines.

Our group also enjoyed pairing our Barolos with two cow’s milk cheeses, namely a mature Fontina, a hard cheese with a mild, somewhat nutty flavor while at the same time rich, herbaceous, and fruity, and a fresh Piave, which exhibits a dense texture and imparts an intense, full-bodied flavor.

About the wines
The wines listed below are ranked top-down, most favorite to least favorite; each is followed by the wine’s heat (alcohol content) and the price per 750ml bottle. In the left column is the actual group score for each wine using my handy-dandy Wine Scoring Sheet, which is based on the 20-point Davis scale. If no link is present, purchase information is not available online.

Below the group ranking, I’ve employed the scoring sheet to tabulate my opinions about each individual wine.

Group Ranking

+3 2001 Damilano “Albeisa”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $36
+3 1999 Prunotto “Bussia”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $60
-1 2001 Rivetto “Giulin”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $38
-2 2001 Rivetto “Giulin”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $38
-3 2001 Damilano “Albeisa”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $36

Winehiker’s Ranking

17 pts. 2001 Rivetto “Giulin”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $38
14.5 pts. 2001 Damilano “Albeisa”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $36
14 pts. 2001 Damilano “Albeisa”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $36
14 pts. 2001 Rivetto “Giulin”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $38
13 pts. 1999 Prunotto “Bussia”, Piemonte, Italy 14.0% $60

Note that of the five wines, there were two pairs of two that were of the same label; I alluded to this aspect earlier as being a major factor in the night’s tasting. Yet while the scoring of these five wines exists in a fairly tight range, there’s quite a fractious disparity in each of the above rankings when you take the similar labels into account.

While I can sometimes forgive the group for a disparity in scoring two of the same wine, I find it difficult to allow myself the same courtesy. The funny part (“funny peculiar” that is, not “funny ha-ha”) is that while the Rivettos scored similarly in the group rankings, I scored them moderately differently on aroma, balance, and finish, but just enough to gap them by 3 points. The group, on the other hand, scored the Damilanos quite broadly; these took both first and last in the group scores.

Why such puzzling differences?

We decided to perform a “taste-off” of the two Damilanos to more assiduously determine the differences. My own score sheet had suggested from the first pass that aroma, acid, and finish were the main issues, and that’s what they turned out to be. The Damilano that we had favored scored well on second pass, with aromas, acidity, and finish characteristic of a fine wine; the wine from the other Damilano bottle had not quite let go of its off-putting “dirty socks” smell, and seemed much more acidic on the finish.

Not surprisingly, then, we began to examine where we bought our wines. Both had been purchased at Beverages & More, one in Redwood City and the other in San Jose. We speculated that these wines had either arrived in two separate international shipments, or one bottle had been filled from near the top of the barrel while the other had come from near the bottom. Quite possibly storage and transportation issues allowing prolonged exposure to heat were the cause.

I invite my readers to comment on possible additional factors that may have influenced these two inconsistent Damilano bottles.

These circumstances, though they make for interesting discussion, can certainly offer quite an education to all who would learn more about wine. Certainly you could truly enjoy the products of one winemaker for years only to taste a bad bottle that you had already promised your friends would garner high praise.

Conclusions and Recommendations
So, if I were to offer conclusions here, it would be: don’t go to a large chain store to buy imported wine if you can avoid doing so; don’t discontinue your wine club membership because of one bad bottle.

And my recommendations? Keep right on enjoying glass after glass of Barolo. But shop around first for imported wine at a reputable wine merchant that offers a wider selection than the BevMo chain.


Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Syrah

At our Syrah tasting event last Thursday evening, six of us compared six bottles of Syrah – four from California and two from France. It was a pretty good lineup, but the top three finishers were all from California’s Central Coast appellation. It was clear that all six of us who formed the night’s tasting panel have true California palates.

The colors in our glasses were a deep violet – two with a slight degree of gold banding about the edges – but the aromas and flavors were richly contrasting between spiciness, fruitiness, and smokiness. A moderate degree of chewiness was present in most; aroma, taste, texture, and finish all combined to generate an exceptionally high score in the night’s eventual winner.

None of these wines were older than the 2003 vintage, yet all are drinkable now.

Paired with our Syrah were whole-wheat seeded breads, a sharp Wisconsin Cheddar cheese, a softer Edam cheese, and an excellent sun-dried tomato/cream cheese fondue prepared in my kitchen by Chef Tanya. All were terrific accompaniments to our Syrah wines.

About the wines
The wines listed below are ranked top-down, most favorite to least favorite; each is followed by the wine’s heat (alcohol content) and the price per 750ml bottle. In the left column is the actual group score for each wine using my handy-dandy Wine Scoring Sheet, which is based on the 20-point Davis scale. If no link is present, purchase information is not available online.

Below the group ranking, I’ve employed the scoring sheet to tabulate my thoughts about each individual wine.

Group Ranking


2004 “R” Runquist, Paso Robles, California




2003 Thomas Fogarty, Fat Buck Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, California




2004 Andrew Murray Tout Le Jours, Central Coast




2003 Mas Grand Plagniol, Costieres de Nimes, France




2004 Concannon Stampmaker’s, Livermore, Califronia




2004 Emmanuel Darnaud, Crozes-Hermitages, France



Winehiker’s Ranking


2004 “R” Runquist, Paso Robles, California


2004 Andrew Murray Tout Le Jours, Central Coast


2003 Mas Grand Plagniol, Costieres de Nimes, France


2003 Thomas Fogarty, Fat Buck Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, California


2004 Concannon Stampmaker’s, Livermore, Califronia


2004 Emmanuel Darnaud, Crozes-Hermitages, France

In this tasting, the group scores, as well as my individual scores, were quite widespread; in both we had a clear favorite in the Runquist and a clear nonfavorite in the Darnaud, which exhibited an incredibly earthy taste. I loved the fruity aroma, the rich vanilla smokiness, and the velvet textures of the Runquist; the only criterion I did not score it highest on was finish, which lingered perhaps only 15-20 seconds. My selection for the evening was the Fogarty, purchased directly at the winery above Palo Alto; I had liked it enough to buy it this summer during a post-hike visit, but it was much more of a hit with the group than it was with me. Indeed, I liked the Plagniol more.

Winehiker’s Bottom Line
If you would buy a California-grown Syrah priced in the mid-twenties, you cannot go wrong should you choose to lay in a stock of the Runquist and the Fogarty.

*It would appear that Fogarty’s 2004 Fat Buck Ridge Syrah has gone up in price in the few short weeks since I purchased it; it’s now $50 per bottle.

When liking a wine is not enough

There’s a lot of debate out there in the Great Blogosphere about wine scores and wine-scoring systems. Some suggest that wine tasting is too subjective a practice to quantify with objective numerals. Seasoned wine tasters would have you distrust someone else’s (e.g., Robert Parker’s) seasoned palate. Yet I’ve learned that knowing that I like a wine is not enough – I want to know why I prefer one wine over another. Because other people do, too, I believe that’s where a wine scoring system can help.

I had a lot of help from my wine-tasting friends developing a 20-point scoring sheet that I use quite frequently. We’ve found that a 20-point system is definitely more manageable than a 100-point system such as Parker’s and others – I think they’re too difficult to attempt by most people who would taste wine. A 5-star system, I’ve found, is just too simple, because it doesn’t offer any real educational value.

The winehiker’s 20-point wine scoring sheet for individuals and groups.

The winehiker’s 20-point wine scoring sheet
works well for both individuals and groups.

This wine scoring sheet is broken into seven criteria with numeric values assigned to each; sample descriptive adjectives are offered within each tasting criterion (aroma, body, finish, etc.). It also is two-sided, allowing input for individual wine scores for seven wines, as well as space for tasting notes and group scoring on the second page to aggregate a group’s individual ratings. A third page includes instructions for how to use it.

Jeff Stai, owner of Twisted Oak Winery remarks:

“While it can argued as to whether “taste/flavor” should be 4 points and “finish” only 2, the winehiker’s system can be a big help for people who want to learn to taste more thoughtfully by breaking a rating down into more manageable chunks.”

Most of my guests are new tasters who want to learn why they like a wine (or why they don’t); many return for follow-up tastings. That’s a vote of confidence, indicating that they derive value from this scoring system.  Perhaps you will too!

————————— ♦ —————————

Have you scored any wines using this or any other 20-point wine scoring sheet?
If you have, please let me know what you think.

If you haven’t used it, this scoring sheet can be
a valuable learning tool to help you train your palate.
Try it at your next tasting!

————————— ♦ —————————


Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Sémillon

Four people attended last Thursday night’s Sémillon tasting, where we enjoyed three pure Sémillon varietals and one botrytized Sauterne-style blend that blew our collective socks off. The interesting news, upon revealing the wines, was that none of them were produced in France.

Why is that interesting?

It’s interesting because this grape variety originates from France. Known as one of the three classic White Bordeaux grapes – the other two being Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle – Sémillon is often, however, produced as a blended wine rather than a pure varietal. In retrospect, I feel I could have announced this particular wine tasting to highlight the Bordeaux region rather than to highlight the variety itself, in which case the objective would have been to shop for, then taste, wines blended from the three grapes above.

Well, that’s how you learn, right? And learning is why we get together to explore these wines in the first place.

So, if we couldn’t find pure Sémillon varietals from Bordeaux (and believe me, all four of us found shopping for Sémillon quite a learning experience), where did they come from?

They came from California’s Napa Valley and Australia’s Clare and Hunter valleys.

Though all four wine bottles were well-covered, there were clues to suggest the wines inside. All present could see the size of the bottles, as well as the tops of the bottles’ necks. These clues suggested that one of the wines was a dessert wine – one clue being the small size of the bottle itself*, being a 375ml bottle rather than the standard 750ml size. The clear color of the bottle glass, as opposed to a shade of green, was also a clue. Pouring, however, showed the color of this wine to be quite deeply golden, and contrasting sharply with the very light straw coloring of the other three.

It was apparent to the group that pure Sémillon wines are less desirable than other pure white varietals we might have tried previously. Whether it was the citric acid, the aromas of brie, or the lack of sweetness when compared to the sauterne-style wine, we didn’t favor the pure Sémillons. Perhaps the French felt the same way about Sémillon, having long ago decided to blend it with other grapes!

Paired with our Sémillon were a sweet baguette, soft brie, and a sweet chévre topped with brandied apricots. The chévre, said the group, was perfect with the Sauterne.

About the wines
The wines listed below are ranked top-down, most favorite to least favorite; each is followed by the wine’s heat, or alcohol content. In the left column is the actual group score for each wine using my handy-dandy Wine Scoring Sheet, which is based on the 20-point Davis scale. I’ve now added bottle prices to the rankings.

Group ranking
+4 2002 Beringer “Nightingale” Private Reserve, Napa Valley, California   $23/375ml
+0 2003 Lengs & Cooter, Clare Valley, South Australia   13.5%   $22
+0 2003 Ruston, Juliana Vineyard, Napa Valley, California   13.9%   $15
–4 1999 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia   10.5%   $35

Winehiker’s ranking
20pts. 2002 Beringer “Nightingale” Private Reserve, Napa Valley, California
12.5pts. 2003 Lengs & Cooter, Clare Valley, South Australia
11.5pts. 2003 Ruston, Juliana Vineyard, Napa Valley, California
7.5pts. 1999 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia

For the three pure Sémillon wines, my scores matched the group’s. The sensational stand-out for everyone was Beringer’s Nightingale, a lab-botrytized blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. (For details about Beringer’s botrytis, or “noble rot” process, see “Beringer” in this story from Carolyn Tillie.) I’m not much of a sweet wine drinker, and white dessert wines tend not to disappear very quickly when I have them around, but I managed to top myself over our previous Pinot tasting by giving this wine a perfect score. Simply put, it fired on all “seven” cylinders for me: appearance, aroma, balance, body, taste, finish, and overall quality. It was truly exceptional, and therefore I recommend you treat yourself – or your sweetheart – to the Beringer “Nightingale” Private Reserve from Napa Valley.

Next week, I’ll report the results of our small-group Merlot tasting.


*My attendees don’t always follow the rules. Not that it’s a bad thing.

Tasting Wine Made Easy

Who's ready for easy?

Who’s ready for easy?

If you love wine but are not sure why you prefer one wine over another, you can learn to identify what your palate is telling you. The best part about learning to separate wine into its aroma, flavor, body, and other attributes is that it is very fun to do! Plus, when practiced in the intimate atmosphere of a small group, all participants can interact with each other in a manner that promotes discovery, friendship, learning, and above all, joy!

At a typical tasting event, a host may choose to announce one grape variety, such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, or Chardonnay; he or she may also decide to choose a geographic region, such as Australia’s Hunter Valley or France’s Bordeaux region. A simple objective would be to pour and taste six wines of this varietal or from that region. As you taste your wines, follow a “blind comparison” format to prevent label bias, and use a wine scoring sheet that includes space for notes; be sure to keep it for reviewing later when you plan to purchase wine.

Though there are a number of ways to approach a blind comparison tasting, I believe the best way is to involve each participant in the purchase of the wine they bring to the tasting. As such, shopping for wine can comprise online research, prior tasting knowledge, consulting with a wine merchant, or just plain old eeny-meeny-miney-moe.

The main thing is: a blind (comparison) wine tasting is for everybody who wants to learn about wine. You don’t have to know anything about wine other than the notion that you want to learn more. Before long, you’ll come to understand that the world of wine is not nearly so intimidating as it is fun!



Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Pinot Noir

At last night’s tasting, we enjoyed five Pinot Noirs that represented California rather well, plus a sixth from the esteemed Bourgogne (Burgundy) region of France. This tasting presented some truly wonderful wines, and the results, though widely disparate, yielded 3 very good Pinot wines worth trying again.

Pinot Noir appears to be all the rage since Miles’ exclamations about it in the 2004 hit movie, “Sideways.” One thing’s for sure: there’s an increasing acreage of Pinot grapes being planted, farmed, vinted, and bottled from locations all over the globe. Their complex nature causes me to want to taste more of them, certainly, so I’m considering hosting future tastings wherein their origin – Willamette Valley, Bourgogne, Russian River, Santa Lucia Highlands, Hunter Valley — will figure prominently.

There were two clear stand-outs for me, and I scored one of them higher than I’ve ever scored any wine. Yet neither turned out to be the group favorite; an issue that may have resulted from 3 of my guests being relatively new to wine tasting and a fourth who had not scored a wine as formally as we did last evening. I felt that the group favorite was a little too young and therefore unresolved on balance. My fifth guest, Katie, possesses some knowledge and experience as a wine taster, and it turns out that my score and hers matched fairly evenly.

There was also one wine that ranked a -5 for the group – the lowest group score I can recall seeing in some time (the lowest possible score being a “-6″). Could it have been the relatively young age of the wine, or the winemaker?

Paired with our Pinot were a sourdough baguette and two Danish blue cheeses – one strong and crumbly, one creamy and more easily sliced.

The wines listed below are ranked top-down, most favorite to least favorite; each is followed by the wine’s heat, or alcohol content. In the left column is the actual group score for each wine using my handy-dandy Wine Scoring Sheet, which is based on the 20-point Davis scale. If no link exists for a particular label, that label is not, to the best of my research capabilities, available online. All are from California except the wine from Bourgogne, France.

Group Ranking
+4 2005 Sterling Vintner’s Collection, Central Coast; 13.5%
+3 2004 Rvtz Cellars Maison Grand Cru, Russian River Valley; 14.5%
+3 2003 Heron, American Canyon, Napa County; 13.0%
-2 2004 Bouchaine, Carneros; 13.5%
-3 2001 Les Noizons Pommard, Jean-Luc Joillot; 13.5%
-5 2005 Coppola Diamond Collection Silver Label, Monterey County; 13.5%

Winehiker’s Ranking
19 pts. 2003 Heron, American Canyon, Napa County
17 pts. 2004 Rvtz Cellars Maison Grand Cru, Russian River Valley
15.5 pts. 2005 Sterling Vintner’s Collection, Central Coast
15.5 pts. 2004 Bouchaine, Carneros
12 pts. 2001 Les Noizons Pommard, Jean-Luc Joillot; 13.5%
9.5 pts. 2005 Coppola Diamond Collection Silver Label, Monterey County

My picks were once again nominally consistent with the group’s, though I liked the smoky vanilla aspects of the Heron – my contribution.* To me, this wine had a subtle but enticing aroma all evening, plus a full, mouth-watering body (for a Pinot, that is), and an outstanding finish.

Special note to my dear Mom: thank you barrelfuls for your heartfelt efforts toward making my new bottle covers. They are a splash-hit, Mom, and I love you for making them! I owe you a fabulous gourmet dinner.


*I had actually received two bottles of the Heron from a wine club I recently joined, bottlenotes.com. Too bad they’re both gone now! But this wine is quite affordable at about 13 bucks a bottle. If you should join this club, please tell Alyssa I sent you. (Good pick, Alyssa!)

Blind Wine Tasting Notes: Gewurztraminer

I recently began hosting biweekly blind tastings at my home as a series of small-group learning experiences. Five of us got together last Thursday evening to taste Gewurztraminer wines.

Gewurztraminers, with their floral, spicy aromatics and slightly sweet lychee-nut taste, are an excellent match for fresh fruit and cheeses and a good complement to many simple fish and chicken dishes, especially recipes that include pepper spices, oriental five-spice, or even curry. These are especially excellent wines to serve chilled in warm weather, and I complemented them with slices of sourdough bread and Chevre, Gruyere, and Boursin cheeses; one bottle’s label suggests trying Munster or blue-veined cheeses.

Of the five wines we compared, three were produced in Alsace, France; one originates from Alexander Valley in California; and one is from New Zealand. As you’ll see from the results below – and being no great surprise to me – the Alsatian wines tallied well with the group.

The wines listed below are ranked top-down, most favorite to least favorite; each is followed by the wine’s heat (alcohol content). If no link exists for a particular label, that label is quite possibly no longer available.

In the left column is the actual group score for each wine using my 20-point Wine Scoring Sheet.

Group Ranking
+3: 2003 Domaines Schlumberger, Fleur, Alsace, France; 13.5%
+1: 2003 Pierre Sparr, Alsace, France; 13.5%
-1: 2003 Domaines Schlumberger, Fleur, Alsace, France; 13.5%
-1: 2004 Huia, Marlborough Vineyard, New Zealand; 14.5%
-2: 2005 New Gewurz North Coast, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Healdsburg; 12.8%

Winehiker’s Ranking
2003 Domaines Schlumberger, Fleur, Alsace, France; 13.5%
2003 Pierre Sparr, Alsace, France; 13.5%
2004 Huia, Marlborough Vineyard, New Zealand; 14.5%
2003 Domaines Schlumberger, Fleur, Alsace, France; 13.5%
2005 New Gewurz North Coast, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Healdsburg; 12.8%

The Alsace appellation was a definite influence on my purchase of the Schlumberger; the interesting aspect being that at this particular tasting, we scored two identical bottles. Why did one win group favor and the other take third place? Probably because I had poured mine right out of the refrigerator; the other, though having been chilled all day, had ample chance to warm up inside an attendee’s car on an evening that was a tad above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The group, on such an evening, easily favored the cooler of the two.

My picks were fairly consistent with the group’s; I definitely like my Gewurz’s chilled. Conclusion: you sure can’t miss with those Alsatian Gewurztraminers!


Morning pain, afternoon comfort

I recently decided to explore the East Bay Hills in an area near Hayward, California, just south of Oakland. Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Park promised to be an area of open grasslands and green velvety hillsides worth exploring. So, I put a group of hikers together and we met this morning for a romp-n-stomp. There were 11 of us, and none of us had ever been there before. It didn’t appear to matter, however, that we were all going to tread new ground.

Hey, sometimes that what it’s about, right? Discovering new territory, seeing new places, enjoying the possibilities of the new and different. And sharing it with like-minded folks.

I had originally planned a ridge run loop that would be about 10 miles. Alas, we didn’t complete the entire loop. For the first time I can recall in a very long time, I found myself suffering – in real pain – and proposing to the group that we cut the hike short.

Fortunately all agreed and, having completed about 6 miles, we returned to the trailhead. We had already planned on a post-hike picnic, though, and by the time we had returned, the low clouds that had covered us all morning had largely burned off and the day was becoming most pleasant. I was glad to remove my pack, having felt shooting pains on the left side of my neck and down my left shoulder. As we picnicked, it was good to have my friend Gary Fox there with his delicious supply of home-made Merlot, a liquid anesthetic that I found most refreshing.

The fact that we lingered awhile, noshing our bounty, admiring the green hillsides, dreamily soaking up the day’s warmth and enjoying each other’s company found us all glad to be together – even though some of us were strangers to one another – and wishing we didn’t have to leave.

Some days are like that, you know? It feels good to know that, even when things can feel rotten in some respects, people can pull together to simply be happy about where they are and who they’re with. I count myself among the very thankful that I associate with such good folks. Far be it from me – pain notwithstanding – to rain on such a parade. In fact I was quite happy to just be where I was with such an engaging group.

It’s because of such moments as this that I do what I do on the hills and trails of California. Despite days that can challenge me beyond the realm of comfort, I am glad to take comfort in what really counts, and that’s the desire of people to be the best they can be with each other. And sometimes, that’s enough to pull the pain right out of me.