The Beautiful Umpqua Valley AVA and its Shining Star Winery – Abacela

18 Jun


The Umpqua Valley of Oregon is one of the most interesting American Viticulture Areas in the Pacific Northwest.  Winegrowing began here in the 1880’s, and the region became one of the first AVA’s in Oregon.  Of the 23 wineries in the region, several have produced internationally acclaimed wines and, of those wineries, Abacela shines brightest.  With numerous accolades from wine experts (Jancis Robinson, Mario Batali, Wine Enthusiast, etc) and probably the most impressive collection of 90+ wine ratings in Southern Oregon, Abacela is my number one pick of wineries to visit in the Southern Oregon AVA’s.

Abacela’s owners, Earl and Hilda Jones, are as impressive as their wines.  Wine has always been an important part of their lives and the driving force behind many of their travels.  An MD and former Chair of the Dermatology Department at Emory University, Earl applied his prodigious research skills to the subject of wine and specifically Spain’s celebrated red grape of Tempranillo.  With the help of their son who holds a PhD in Atmospheric Science, the Jones made an in-depth analysis of why Tempranillos from the Rioja and Ribera appellations of Spain are markedly superior to any other Tempranillos in the world.  They learned that it primarily boils down to climate and, to make a long story short, discovered that the Southern Umpqua Valley has an almost identical climate to those famed Spanish appellations.

The Jones’ then studied the Valley and narrowed down the best vineyard locations which, for Tempranillo, meant sunny hillsides with rocky soils.  They settled on their current location in the Southern Umpqua Valley and named their new project Abacela, which in old Spanish means “They plant a grape vine”.  (It’s surprising that no other Spanish wine producers had already thought of that!)

When I arrived at Abacela, I was charmed by the beautiful views, the spacious tasting room and the knowledge and friendliness of the tasting staff.  From my prior research, I knew I wanted to try the Tempranillo.  What I was not expecting was the quality of all their other offerings.   Their Albariños, Rosés and several varieties of reds are all excellent and affordable, with collectively the highest QPR’s (Quality to Price Ratio) you are likely to encounter in any one winery.  Some of my favorites:

2017 Albariño.   A Gold medal winner with bracing acidity, floral aromas and a palate of crisp green apples, zesty citrus and a trace of almonds.  9/10, $21

2017 Grenache Rosé. Double Gold winner.  Light berry, watermelon and citrus on the nose and the palate.  Perfect balance between acidity and fruitiness.  9/10, $18

2014 Barrel Select Tempranillo.  Rich dark fruit, with a wonderful background of mocha, spice and smoke.  Velvety tannins and a beautiful finish.  9.5/10, $33

2015 Garnacha.  A bright medium-ruby in the glass, with a light fruity bouquet.  Light and refreshing but complex, with flavors of plum, berry and a touch of sweet spice.  A delicious summer red with light tannins and nice acidity.  9.2/10, $29

2015 Tannat.  This is not a wine seen often in the US, coming primarily from Madiran France and Uruguay.  This version is more fruit-forward than the old-world versions and the tannins are softer, making this wine very drinkable while young (not generally the case for Madiran bottles).  Not only is this varietal delicious, it is one of the healthiest wines out there thanks to very high levels of anti-oxidants!  I tasted dark fruits with hints of pepper and sweet tobacco (one of my favorite red wine flavor notes) backed by a structure of rounded tannins.  9.2/10, $30


The Texas Hill Country Revisited

25 May

Texas hill Country

True to Texan tradition, the Texas Hill Country AVA (American Viticulture Area) is the second largest certified Viticultural Area in America.  It has been named one of the top 10 wine destinations by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and is replete with beautiful limestone hills, pristine creeks and hillside vineyards.

There are currently over 60 wineries in the region, which earlier this year collectively earned an impressive 204 medals, including 18 Double Golds, in the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition.  As I observed last year, it was just 6 years ago that wine from the Hill Country earned their first Gold medal at this competition.  I am fortunate to spend a couple of weeks in the Hill Country each year to personally experience the continual increase in both quantity and quality of the area’s wineries.  Below are summarized a few of my favorite wineries and wines from this visit.

Perissos Vineyard and Winery


Perissos is a Greek word found in the Bible (Ephesians 3:20) meaning “exceeding abundantly, beyond what is expected, imagined, or hoped for.”   A boutique winery set in a beautiful valley near Longhorn Caverns, Perissos creates handcrafted wines from 100% Texas sources, the vast majority from their own estate vineyards.  The venue boasts beautiful views, a lovely spacious tasting room, and knowledgeable servers. (Tasting Room Manager Amy was great!)  They have won multiple medals in the San Francisco Chronical International Wine Competition.

  1. 2016 Viognier. A medium body, estate grown Viognier with a beautiful nose of Lavender and Honeysuckle.  On the palate, BIG peach notes tempered by zesty lemon peel and with a long finish of melon.  Benefitting from warm, sunny days, this is the best Viognier I have tasted in the Hill Country.
  2. 2015 Malbec. Red fruit and sweet tobacco backed by very soft tannins and a surprising (for this varietal) acidity.  A bit lighter in body than a typical Argentinian Malbec and a bit fruitier than those from Cahors France.
  3. 2015 Rackers Blend. A brilliant cherry color, this complex red is a blend of Aglianico, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Malbec.  Strong tannic foundation with medium acidity and full body.  On the nose ripe cherries, pepper and, on the second swirl, a touch of leather.  A delicious red-fruit palate with a touch of spice and long finish.

Becker Vineyards

Located on the Hwy 290 wine trail halfway between Fredericksburg and Johnson City, Becker Vineyards began with an 1890’s era  log cabin and 46 acres of raw land about 1500 feet above sea level.  Now producing over 100,000 cases per year, their first harvest was in 1995, making Becker one of the original Hill Country wine pioneers.  This year the team at Becker won an impressive four Double Gold medals in the 2018 San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition.


  1. 2015 White Wing. A traditional Bordeaux white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.  This is a tasty white with old-world restraint.  Medium acidity and complex layers of stone fruit and citrus softened by light toasty oak.
  2. 2015 Tempranillo. This varietal thrives in the Hill Country, and Becker’s is delicious.  Over 14% alcohol, but the depth of dark fruit and sweet tobacco flavors camouflages the heat.  A refreshing acidity balances all of that and makes this a very food-friendly wine.

Zero 815

Of the many new wineries dotting the Texas Hill Country landscape, this is one to watch!  Founded by the late Karl Hogsett and his wife Laura, Zero 815 Winery is the culmination of their lifelong passions. The name “Zero 815” was inspired by Karl and Laura’s wedding anniversary, August 8, 2015.

Laura’s love for wine and her biochemistry background synergistically inform her ability to create truly exceptional craft wines.  The tasting room is cozy, set in the middle of a beautiful plot of land just off Highway 290 near the town of Hye.  Warm, friendly hospitality and fresh-grilled food is offered, and it’s fun to learn about Texas terroir and wines from Laura.  I tasted 6 wines here – all excellent.  My favorites:

  1. 2016 Hyeland White Blend holds its own against the big names in Napa: combining French, Italian and Spanish varietals (all grown in Texas of course) into a beautifully refreshing white with strawberry and peach notes and a tart citric acidity.
  2. 2014 Mourvedre is also wonderful: very light but with full red fruit on the palate and a long finish. A delightful winery to which I look forward to returning!

Willcox – Arizona’s Wild-West AVA

27 Jan

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Arizona has over 80 bonded wineries and is gaining fame for its earthy red Rhone varieties.  Willcox is the newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the state, and the town of Willcox is one of the most rustic western towns you are likely to run across.  Willcox has begun to blossom into a major wine tourism region, already growing nearly three quarters of all Arizona winegrapes.  During tastings at three of the leading local wineries, I ran into quite a few customers from around the country who had heard of Arizona’s winemaking progress and wanted to experience the state’s great wines for themselves.

Some experts say that the best Arizona wines do not come from Willcox – they instead point to wines made in northern Arizona’s Verde Valley, such as those from Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, made by wine expert and rock star Maynard James Keenan (frontman and founder of Tool, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, and my son’s favorite musician).  Interestingly, many of the grapes used by Maynard’s wines actually come from the Willcox area.

Willcox boasts several of its own wineries that make award-winning wine which can hold its own against even some of the better wines of northern California.  The tasting rooms I visited all fall into this category, and are summarized below with my assessment of some of their offerings.

Keeling Schaefer Vineyards.  At 5000’ elevation, these vineyards enjoy cool nights that help maintain acidity even as the hot Arizona sun fully ripens the grapes.  Having honed their craft here for almost 20 years, Keeling Schaefer wines have been written up in the Wall Street Journal and have earned high scores from the big-name wine raters.

  1. 2016 Puzzle Vine PicPoul Blanc. Light, vibrantly refreshing, with apple and citrus fruit on the palate.  At less than 13% alcohol and substantial acidity this is a great summer refresher, and at $12 per bottle it is a real bargain.  8.5 out of 10 points.
  2. 2013 Partners Rhone Blend. This GSM (59% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 11% Mourvedre) is as nuanced and balanced as offerings from the southern Rhone Valley, but with the riper fruit-forward taste of the new world.  A pale clear garnet in the glass with complex fruit aromatics.  A sip reveals tons of dark fruit, fig and spice backed by soft tannins.  $18, 9/10.  I bought a bottle of this one.
  3. 2014 Keeling Brothers Shiraz. Deep ruby, medium-full body.  Like their lower price-point Syrah, this is a lush wine with dark berry and cocoa, but in this reserve offering the fruit is slightly overpowered by the American Oak in which it was aged.  $34, 7.5/10

Aridus Wine Company. One of the largest winemaking facilities in the state, Aridus brings in grapes from high-quality vineyards from Arizona, New Mexico and California.

  1. 2015 Aridus Tempranillo. Light, clear ruby, decidedly less opaque than a Spanish Tempranillo, but the taste is classic Rioja.  Medium-bodied with raspberry and tart cherry, with a touch of spice and cocoa.  $39.90, 8/10
  2. 2015 Aridus Malbec. Medium ruby, wonderful bouquet of red fruit and a touch of leather.  Smoooooth fruit and spice on the palate.  $36.75, 9/10

Carlson Creek Vineyards. I am impressed with a winery that uses estate grapes (grapes grown on vineyards which are on the winery’s property) rather than searching out grapes from other regions.  Every one of the Carlson Creek wines I sampled was made from Arizona grapes, with the vast majority coming from the Carlson property vineyards.  In fact, Carlson sells many grapes to other Arizona wineries as well.  They understand Arizona climate and terroir, and it shows.

  1. 2012 Chenin Blanc. First of all, kudos to Carlson Creek for holding on to this beautiful white until it was so nicely aged.  I selected this wine to sample rather than the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc because some of the best whites I have had are Chenin Blanc’s from Vouvray in the Loire Valley.  This is a well-crafted warm-climate high-alcohol (14.8%) version of a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc.  A surprisingly refreshing acidity with a full palate of stone fruit and citrus and a long honey-tinged finish.  8.5/10
  2. 2012 Sangiovese. This one was awarded a Bronze Medal in San Francisco last year.  A light ruby with amber-tinged meniscus, this light-bodied Chianti Riserva style red shows lots of cherry and red berry flavors with a hint of spice and soft, smooth tannins.  $24, 9/10
  3. 2013 Rule of Three. A typical southern-Rhone style GSM (40% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 30% Mouvredre), done superbly well.  An immediate aromatic rush of plum and dark berry with the same on the palate.  What is surprising is the loooong finish on this one.  At $29, this oak-aged blend is a bargain.  9/10.
  4. 2014 Malbec. A dense ruby – more opaque than any of the other offerings. Moderate alcohol (13.5%) is perfectly balanced with loads of blackberry and plum with drifting smoky tobacco through the mid-palate. I liked this better than many Argentinian offerings.  $40, 9.5/10
  5. 2014 Syrah. Medium ruby in the glass, with beautiful dark berry on the nose and the palate.  This is a LUSH wine.  The fruit is ripe and packs every sip, with notes of leather and a backbone of round tannins.  $32, 9/10

D’Autrefois 2016 Pinot Noir

9 Jan

A Pinot Noir from the South of France?  Yes, and it is excellent.

Oenophiles unnamedknow that the birthplace of Pinot Noir is the Burgundy region of France.  All red Burgundies are Pinot Noirs, and they can command some of the highest prices in the wine world.  But the Southern France region of Languedoc-Roussillon is better known for bolder, fruit-forward reds and world-class rosés.

D’Autrefois Pinot Noir is an IGP wine (Indication Géographique Protégée), which means that it was grown and produced with fewer requirements and restrictions than wines from an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée).  The label on the D’Autrefois bottle says Pays D’Oc.  What does this mean? Well, France has six regions of IGP wines, each covering large areas of the country. The largest of these in terms of wine production is Vin de Pays d’Oc.  This designation covers IGP wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon area in Mediterranean France.

One might expect a Pays d’Oc Pinot Noir to have a riper, more fruit-centric profile than than a Burgundian Pinot.  This is typically true because the Pays d’Oc region has a Mediterranean climate which is warmer with less rainfall than the Burgundian continental climate.  Wines from these warm-climate vineyards (also seen in California and the rest of the New World) tend to have higher alcohol levels, a more opaque color and riper fruit on the palate than a wine from Burgundy made from the same grape variety.

The D’Autrefois Pinot defies these expectations.  Clear, pale ruby in color with a light mouthfeel, classic notes of cherry and red berries and thanks to oak-aging, undertones of vanilla and spice.  Lower alcohol (12.5%) and higher acidity than California Pinots (think Meiomi) with a nice long fruit & spice finish.

Total Wine & More, less than $15.  9/10

Zac Brown “Uncaged” – Wine as Fine as His Music.

15 Sep

Z. Alexander Brown UncagedWine (like music) is important to Zac Brown – he likes how it brings people together, and he likes how it connects one to the land.  As the proprietor of Z. Alexander Brown wines, he has found a way to pursue his passion while sharing it with his fans.  Z. Alexander Brown 2015 Uncaged proprietary red blend is a great way to become familiar with Zac’s wines.  His philosophy is to “use the best growing practices with little intervention and a careful touch” to bring out the characteristics of the terroir.  In this wine the terroir of the north coast of Sonoma shines through.  Deep ruby in the glass,  the bouquet overflows with dark fruits – berries and black plum, with a nice touch of tobacco and spice.  On the palate, a perfect balance of fruit, earth and acidity.  While the blend is proprietary, I would guess Zinfandel and Syrah make up good portion of it.  This wine is delicious, and the high alcohol content of 14.5% is deceptive: the deep lingering fruit and light finish belie the high alcohol content.  Best of all is the price.  At less than $15 per bottle this has a killer QPR (quality-price ratio), and is currently featured in Vivino’s “Top 25 Californian Red Blends”.   I recommend pairing this wine with a slab of smoked baby backs while playing Zac Brown’s “The Foundation” album on the stereo!

Orange Wine – A Rediscovered Style

19 Jun

Orange Wine

Most wine lovers understand that white wines and red wines are fermented differently.  For whites, the grapes are crushed and the clear juice is immediately drained into fermentation tanks.  After red grapes are crushed, the entire mixture of juice, skins and seeds are fermented together.  This is one reason reds have heavier tannins than whites and why whites are lighter and fruitier.

But thousands of years ago, many white wines were fermented just as reds are today.  Long ago this practice fell out of favor, but recently has been making a comeback – particularly in the Finger Lakes wine AVA (American Viticulture Area) of upstate New York.  When white grapes are crushed and allowed to ferment on the skins, the result is a deeper, richer wine that, yes, approaches orange in color.  Greater complexity and a fuller mouthfeel are also common.  Today, orange wines made from common white varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling can be found, not only from New York but also Italy, France and Australia, among other regions.

For several years I have seen articles about orange wines and have been intrigued, but never happened across one in a wine store or restaurant.  Last week I was happily surprised to find a 2014 Shaw Vin Rustique orange wine on the list of a restaurant in Utica.  It was a BIG, flavorful wine and absolutely delicious.  Unfiltered and textural, with a slight nuttiness and full fruit flavors of dried apricot and pear which were balanced by a citrus acidity.  (90+, $30).

As more is written about orange-style wines, I believe they will be increasingly seen in neighborhood wine stores and restaurants.  In the meantime, many good ones can be ordered online.   If you are bored with your standard Pinot Grigio’s or Rosés this summer and are intrigued by exploring unfamiliar wines – by all means, give orange wine a try!

An Underrated Wine Region and A Great Value Red

20 May

Recently, the popular social media wine site VinePair reported on their survey of professional sommeliers regarding which wine regions they believe are the most underrated.  Everyone has heard of wine regions such as Napa, Bordeaux and Brunello, which are famous for the high quality, and price, of their wines.   The lesser-known and underrated regions highlighted by the pro’s all have many producers who offer high quality wines at relatively low prices.  One of my favorite appellations in this list of great-value producers is Languedoc (LONG-eh-Dauck).

A fascinating and historic area famous for beautiful French-Roman villages and epic scenic drives, the Languedoc-Roussillon borders the Mediterranean Sea to the east and the Pyrenees Mountains to the south. The region benefits from a very vine-friendly Mediterranean Climate and has a proliferation of old-vines and many wineries that focus on organic and sustainable practices.

Languedoc grows quality varietals from the Rhone Valley (Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Viognier) as well as Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc) and produces interesting and delicious blends, one of which I report on here.

Mas Belles Eaux, Languedoc 2009

Syrah 60%, Grenache 30%, Mourvedre 10%

This wine is an intense, juicy red blend with a full mouthfeel of ripe red plum and raspberry.  The fruit is smoothly layered and balanced with soft tannins and there is plenty of fresh berry acidity.  The long finish is rich and warm with a hint of spice.  Delicious on its own and stands up well to spicy, smoky barbecue.  As with many reds from Languedoc-Roussillon, this wine at around $20 per bottle is a great value.  92/100