Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Archive for May, 2007

Brewers Dinner This Afternoon at Pyramid

OK, this is way late. If you’re around Berkeley today, looking for something to do, check out Pyramid Brewery, 901 Gilman St., 510-528-9880.
Pyramid Crystal Weizen
There’s a buffet “brewers’ dinner” today from 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. A variety of dishes matched with Pyramid’s hoppiest beers. $20 at the door.

Price includes gifts and door prizes, Pyramid says. Can’t make it to this one – check out our Beer Events Calendar.

Posted on Sunday, May 20th, 2007
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A word on Italian regional wines

I tasted some fabulous indigenous wines from Italy last night. Unfortunately, too late for my story in yesterday’s paper, “Hi, My Name is Xinomavro.” But I can redeem myself by passing the knowledge on to you.

Based on my findings, I’d suggest skipping Tuscany, and to some extent, Piedmont, and go straight for the interesting and under-marketed wines of Sicily, Alto Adige, The Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna. Even Campania.

You see, Tuscan land is pricey and as such, so are the wines. If you’re starting out and want to learn about the diverse range of wine Italy has to offer, there’s no reason to spend the $50 or $60 that these Brunellos and Barbarescos command.

My biggest takeaway about Italians wines so far is that they’re just so smooth and easier to drink that California wines. I’m finally starting to notice it. California wines have so much more alcohol (average of 15 percent compared to 12 for Italian wines, let’s say) that to drink them with food or even after dinner while you’re watching TV can feel like a huge burden. The majority of these silky wines go down so easy without sacrificing structure or complexity.

The most gorgeous wines I tried at a tasting of regional wines were all under $35. They’re all available at Prima in Walnut Creek. Here goes:


2004 Elena Walch Gewurtztraminer ‘Kastelaz': It’s widely believed that Gewurtztraminer is not from Germany but from Italy. The word means “a spicy little white from Tramin,” and Tramin is a town near Trento, which is in the Alto Adige, the country’s northern most wine region. Walch married into a wine family, and now she’s one of the lead winemakers creating gorgeously fragrant and dry Gewurtz. A special treat at $34.

2005 Sibilla Falanghina, Campi Flegrei: Not my favorite — until I had it with sardines. This white grape grows in Campania, along the ocean, and it’s a magical beautiful thing, but the grape tastes like serious ocean — salty, minerally and seaweed-ish. So serve it with something that can stand up to all that salty flavor. $16.50. The winery’s red, Piedirosso, had the same salty finish, at least to me. $15.50

NV Barbolini Lambrusco Grasparossa de Castelvetro: The salesman for this wine tells me Lambrusco has come a long way from the cheap stuff he and his Italian buds used to drink as kids to get drunk. This red sparkling is dark, dry, lean, and fruity, and will go fabulously with a bolognese. A perfect food wine. And a steal at $13.

2004 Poggio Bortolone Cerasuolo di Vittoria: This blend from Sicily is made with 60 percent Frappato and 40 percent Nero D’avola, both indigenous grapes. It’s a light-bodied peppery wine with a finish of rose petals and violets that just goes on and on. Very impressive to me. It was my splurge at $25.50.

2005 Elena Walch Lagrein: It’s widely believed that the Lagrein grape has been grown in the Alto Adige region since the 16th century. It used to be used primarily for blending but stands on its own beautifully in this wine. Consider it a serious Gamay, without the sweet nose. $18.50.

2004 Zenato Valpolicella Ripassa: The runaway hit of the night. This wine from the Veneto was so drinkable, so smooth, silky and luscious, I kept confusing it with a $75, 2001 red wine being poured alongside it. It was so settled, so succulent, I’m sure Prima will run out soon. $25.

Posted on Thursday, May 17th, 2007
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Regional wines from Italy, tonight at Prima

Wine-growing regions of ItalySo speaking of indigenous grapes, let’s get to know Italy better! Heard of Falanghina? How about Aglianico? (I know, sounds great, huh?). Prima in Walnut Creek was set to host an event celebrating six winemakers from different regions tonight at 6 p.m. Due to a scheduling snafu, however, the Italian winemakers can’t make it. In their absence, importers representing the six regions will come by to pour the wines. The price for the event has been reduced to $40, including passed appetizers.

Not unlike Bordeaux or Burgundy, understanding the individual characteristics of Italy’s diverse regions is the most important step we can take to help unravel the complexities of Italian wine and food. I, for one, could leave my big New World wines aside for 10 minutes and learn something. Here are the regions showing. Join me! RSVP at 925-935-7780.

Sicily….presented by Springboard Wines: 2004 Poggio Bortolone Cerasuolo di Vittoria, 2005 Di Giovanni Grecanico Blanc and 2005 Di Giovanni Nero D’avola.

Alto Adige…..featuring the wines of the famous Elena Walch including her 2005 Lagrein, 2005 Pinot Bianco, and the 2004 Tre Bicchieri winning Gewurtztraminer.

Tuscany….…presented by Kobrand: 2001 Silvio Nardi Brunello di Montalcino, 2004 Sassicaia Guidalberto and 2004 Tenuta Sette Ponti Crognolo.

The Veneto…..presented by the Henry Wine Group and the wines of Zenato, Allegrini and
Tommaso Bussola…from Prosecco to Amarone.

Campania……presented by Oliver McCrum Wines including indigenous varieties like Fiano di Avellino, Falanghina, Aglianico and Piedrosso. I’m particularly excited about these.

Piedmont……presented by Wine Warehouse: 2005 Conterno Fantino Barbera d’Alba, 2001 Pio Cesare Barbaresco and 2001 Luigi Einaudi Barolo Grimaldi-Le Coste.

This photo is courtesy of John Rittmaster, Prima, Walnut Creek, CA: click on it to see a larger version

Posted on Wednesday, May 16th, 2007
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Great new wine shop and bar in San Luis Obispo

Never mind my shock to discover Taste, a progressive wine bar owned by the San Luis Obispo Vintners Association, on a trip to SLO last year. Now there’s another groovy wine (and cheese) bar on the opposite end of town called Monterey St. Wine Co. It’s at 1255 Monterey St., walking distance from both Cal Poly and downtown. I discovered it a few weeks ago, on a trip to interview Andrew Firestone at his new property in Paso Robles.

Unlike Taste, which focuses on wines from SLO, Monterey St. Wine Co is a sort of Wine Thieves meets Taste, without the fancy machines of course. In addition to 125 wines from all over the world including local stuff, the staff at Monterey St. offers out of the ordinary vintages and hard to find cheeses, from Portugal and Spain to Switzerland and Italy. And, like Wine Thieves, the majority of bottles are quite affordable, as in under $15. I got a bottle of 2001 Changala Cabernet (Paso Robles) for less than $15. I also picked up some Gruner Veltliner that comes in a green ale bottle. Looking forward to trying that.

The store has a bar with several stools, and the attendant there knew his wines. I got the feeling you could try whatever was open at the time. At least that’s the treatment we received!

Posted on Tuesday, May 15th, 2007
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Andrew Firestone shows me around his new winery

Jessica, Andrew Firestone and Jenny

Sunday was one of those freakishly perfect Central Coast days. The hills along Highway 101 were still green, and the weather was a steady 80 — and climbing. As Jenny and I headed north, we felt the familiar Paso Robles heat build its layer on our skin. We were going to visit Andrew Firestone, former ABC “Bachelor” and third-generation vintner, at his family’s new winery. He serves as the general manager. The vintner is no stranger to Paso fruit over the past few vintages, and the area in general. The Firestone Walker Brewing Company has been in Paso since 2001.

The location was prime: nestled between Martin & Weyrich and Eberle on Highway 46 East, and down the street from cult cab maker J.Lohr on Airport Road. They’re in good company, obviously. Firestone Vineyard was Santa Barbara County’s first estate winery, and a consistently high quality producer. They make some of my favorite value Reisling, in addition to winemaker Chuck Carlson’s out-of-this-world Rhone varietals at their second label, Curtis Winery. His 1999 Reserve Syrah, all blackberry marinated bacon, goes down as Jenny’s favorite wine of all time. (Yes, she’s had Opus One).

However, the new Paso Robles winery, with its sleek, split level masonry structure, will focus on small lots of Paso Robles-grown Bordeaux varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and maybe Zinfandel, a local darling. Production will be 4,000 cases annually, and the inaugural bottling is a 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, which we we tried. Think of those Dove chocolates melted down, sprinkled with some fall spices and finished with drippy dark fruit. It was silky and lovely, especially at $18 a bottle. Per usual, it reminded me of Napa Cabs that cost up to twice as much.

On to Andrew, which is probably the reason you’re reading this post. Yes, he’s handsome. Yes, he has a new girlfriend. He also moved to Paso and bought a Ford truck since, as most locals can confirm, you’re not a legit dude in San Luis Obispo’s North County unless you drive one. He was wearing a fitted T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a tan when he shook our hands and gave us a tour. The 12,500-square-foot facility features a tasting room, conference and banquet room, barrel cellar, kitchen, patio and gardens with picnic areas. Yes, picnics! We got a gander at his new $9-video, Wine Ways, which introduces folks outside of California to wine country and demystifies winemaking operations.

At the tasting bar, we sampled the featured wines, at no fee (no, that wasn’t just for me. There are many wineries in Paso that still don’t charge). While the Cab was the only wine on the list showcasing Paso fruit, it was nice to get acquainted with the recent vintages overall. Perhaps the heat put us in a white mood, but boy were they delicious. The 2005 Sauvingnon Blanc Reserve ($25) was so crisp and minerally, with aromas and flavors of nectarine and peach tarts.

The 2004 Chardonnay was our kind: medium-bodied with enough control and restraint as to not overwhelm (read: little to no butter) the palate. I really think if a big name like Firestone is producing Chardonnays like this — bright honey and citrus yet still round — that the California butterball of this wine is truly on its way out. Sweetly enough, it’s only $15 and scored a gold medal for Best of Class at the SF Chronicle Wine Competition. Jenny liked the Curtis 2003 Syrah and chances are in a couple of years she’ll love it like the 1999 Reserve. It has less meat than its older brother, but just as much black fruit and mocha.

Andrew told us a great story about the last and best wine I tried that day. It’s The Ambassador, a 2003 blend of all five Bordeaux grapes that’s made from their most prized estate blocks. It’s literally the best of their best grapes, to honor his late grandfather, Leonard, the US ambassador to Belgium during the Nixon administration. At $60 and only 200 cases, it’s their show-off wine, and it certainly wowed us. So much depth and complexity and yet so….settled.

When he meets up with his buddies at Ruth Chris in SF (Andrew used to live in the Marina), they always bring expensive bottles — we’re talking $200 and up. They have the sommelier decant the wines, and then they drink them blind. Andrew says he brings The Ambassador and he’s proud to say that his wine consistently stands up to everything else at the table.

Posted on Tuesday, May 8th, 2007
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It’s a beautiful day at Alapay Cellars

Standing on the boardwalk at Avila Beach on the Central Coast, with its Aptos-like pale and pastel buildings and dreamy waterfront, the scents of sand and sea blended to form one singular craving: Sauvignon Blanc.

I went tasting and beaching in my former stomping grounds over the weekend and much to my surprise, found an old favorite, Alapay Cellars, still holding prime coastal real estate on the boardwalk. When I left nearly three years ago, the city had its knickers in a twist over plans for development in the tiny beach-front hamlet. I’m so glad they went for it. Avila has retained its charm but has a bungalow style hotel — Avila Lighthouse Suites — on its boardwalk now.

Before catching some rays, Jenny and I hit the tasting room, just steps from the sand. We love their motto, “Come on in, the water’s wine!” Anytime we can use a wine pun, we do. We sometimes use them when they’re not appropriate too. Face it, “You bet, Shiraz!” just never gets old.

Anyway, Alapay’s talented winemaker, Scott Remmenga crafts a broad selection of wines, from a crisp SB with kiwi and cantaloupe that quenched my thirst to the late harvest Zin Port, (2003, $30) which recently won the gold medal at the SF Chronicle Wine Competition.

But my personal favorite was the 2002 Masix, a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Petit Sirah. Think straight up powdered cocao over blackberries. The wine has more than two years in the barrel, so it’s silky and soft and tastes more like a 1999. Nothing’s over $50, the tasting room’s open until 6 p.m. and its a totally cool place to hang out during the day. All in all, such a wonderful retreat from Napa.

Posted on Monday, May 7th, 2007
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Rumor’s False: A-B Has Not Bought Trumer Pils

Trumer Pils Glassalign=”left” />One of my ace beer scouts, Tim White, called me with a blockbuster last night. He heard that Brauerei Trumer, the Berkeley brewery that makes the stellar Trumer Pils****, has been sold to Anheuser-Busch.

Blew me away. Thank God, the rumor’s not true. There’s been no sale. Tim’s info was solid: His source said someone known to the source had gotten laid off two weeks ago along with the entire staff.

He did get laid off and so did several others – the people who drive Trumer Pils distribution trucks. Trumer’s ended self-distribution, Trumer’s sales manager Jim Crudo said Sunday.

I know A-B’s hungry for craft beer acquisitions; they own minority interests in Redhook Ale co.Red Hook Ale Co. (Seattle), Widmer Brothers (Portland) and they have a distribution agreement with Goose Island (Chicago). Meanwhile, sales of Bud and company, although in the hundreds of millions of barrels category, are flat.

According to Crudo, Brauerei Trumer Berkeley, which is a joint venture of Carlos Alvarez, the Corona importer, and Josef Sigel, the Austrian brewer of Trumer Pils, has cut a deal with Horizon Beverages Co., the A-B distributor in Oakland, to distribute Trumer Pils in the East Bay. Trumer’s also made a deal with Markstein Sales, Pittsburg, the Contra Costa A-B distributor and with Matagrano, South San Francisco, the SF distributor.

But a Coors distributor handles Trumer in San Jose, Crudo said.

“We’ve been brewing at capacity,” Crudo said. The brewery produced about 18,000 barrels last year and just added new fermenters that will double capacity. “Trumer Pils is a winner. We make a really quality product and people get behind it.

He said emphatically that as far as he knows there’s no under the table deal with Anheuser-Busch. “Quite frankly, we had become more of a delivery service than a sales service,” he said. Trumer needed to do more selling and less delivering as distribution widens to all of Northern California.

What about a secret, under-the-table deal with Anheuser-Busch for eventual sale of the company. “No,” Crudo said. “I cannot envision Mr. Alvarez (Carlos Alvarez, the company owner) selling it. He big ambitions for this brand.”

Curious about Trumer Pils. Check out the article I wrote for Northwest Brew News and another I wrote for the Oakland Tribune/MediaNews Group. They’re posted here.

Posted on Sunday, May 6th, 2007
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Conan O’Brien goes wine tasting

If you haven’t seen it already, you really must witness Conan O’Brien’s recent trip to the Napa Valley.

It’s seriously hilarious. He sets his sights on Spring Mountain Vineyard in St. Helena. I really wonder how his producers came to choose that winery. Anyway, with the winemaker, Jack, vineyard manager, Ron, and either PR rep or tasting attendant, Brian, in tow, he learns how to spit. But instead of a fine, firm, projectile stream, Conan’s is a wimpy drinking-fountain dribble.

Other highlights: they take a 1972 Swiss Army truck thing for a spin and get “stuck” on some vineyards, where Conan begins to get sloshed off a reserve Cab. Good stuff. When Ron explains that the vines are self-pollinating, Conan responds: “Sort of like me in college.” A favorite moment is when Conan finds himself in the caves for some barrel tastings with Jack, and inserts what he calls a huge glass shaft into a bunghole against a backdrop of adult-video tunes. He then proceeds to play “Desperado” on acoustic guitar because he’s so taken with the acoustics of the cave.

By the end, he’s in a smoking jacket in the tasting room. Looks like his producers got their hands on one of those ginormous wine glasses they sell in the Wine Enthusiast catalog. I think they’re for chilling multiple bottles of wine. Jack pours an entire bottle of this latest Sauvignon Blanc in the glass and Conan drinks himself into a stupor. The end.

Posted on Friday, May 4th, 2007
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Pink Out! is baaaaaack

If you haven’t been before, you simply must check out the pinkest event of the year. Pink Out, sponsored by the international and very hip RAP (Rose Avengers and Producers) is THE place to sample all the strawberry pie, pink lemonade tinged, light ruby goodness of still and sparkling dry roses.There are 45 producers in attendance this year. Get your tickets at

It’s on Monday, May 21 from 6:30 to 8:30 at Butterfly, Pier 33 at Bay Street, The Embarcadero, San Francisco. It always sells out, there are always TV crews, pretty people, DJs and some of the best views and yummiest Pan-Pacific tapas you can get. It costs $35 and it’s well worth it.

I believe this event, which sells out in New York as well, is responsible for advancing rose’s reputation as a sophisticated, drinkable and perhaps most versatile food friendly wine. We’re clearly behind the times in the this country, as peeps in Europe and the world over down the stuff with everything from salads to seared ahi to steak.

*Participating Wineries: Abigail Adams Wine Company, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Bella Vineyards, Bieler Pere Et Fils, Bonny Doon Vineyard, Brick Angel, Carol Shelton Wines, Champagne Delamotte, DARE by Viader, Domaine de Nizas, Domaine des Quarres, El Coto de Rioja, Enjoie, FAT bastard/Click Wine Group, Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery, Folonari, Gargiulo Vineyards, Hendry, I’M Wines, Jaboulet Côtes du Rhône, Jeriko Estate, Kenwood, Korbel, l’Uvaggio Di Giacomo, Miner Family Winery, Muscardini Cellars, Odisea Wine Company, Peju, Pink Umbrella, Pisoni Vineyards, Point Concepción, Red Truck Winery, Saintsbury, Schramsberg, SoloRosa, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards, Stelztner Vineyards, Subio Wines, Sullivan Vineyards, Taltarni Vineyards, The Grey Rose, Valley of the Moon, Vina Robles, Vinum Cellars, Westbrook Wine Farm

Posted on Thursday, May 3rd, 2007
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Listen to me: Visit Murrieta’s Well now!

Every once in a while you’re truly inspired by a man, a winery, a concept, an idea, a filet roasted to perfection. Last Friday night, I was inspired by all of the above, and a really spectacular 2005 Mourvedre, at Murrieta’s Well in Livermore.

I don’t want to say too much, not because I’m a teasing drama queen, but because I’m probably going to write about this in more detail in that other outlet we call a newspaper. Funny, you hold it in your hand and read and stuff.

Anyway, I had the privilege of being sandwiched by Phil Wente and Sergio Traverso, the winemaking team of Murrieta’s Well, a small, romantic wine estate off Mines Road. 92 gorgeous, sustainably-farmed acres of yum-producing gravelly soil. Not only did I taste what I consider the most superior wines in this Valley (more on that in a sec), but I learned a great deal from two passionate men who’ve seen the industry morph and bloat beyond comprehension, and have kept their goals focused and in tact.

That said, I got some cool stuff out of Phil. His dream? He wants San Francisco to give him two acres on Potrero Hill to harvest Pinot Noir. Seems to think the climate and fog would make some beautiful juice. I believe him. Seems Jerry Brown did too, but Gav Newsom’s not sold on it quite yet. Bummer. We’ll root for you, Phil!

And then there’s Sergio. What a legend, eh? He was winemaker at Sterling and Domaine Chandon before leaving Napa in the 80s — too much fuss, he says (can you imagine how much worst it is now? — for Concannon, which he bought and elevated in stature. These days, he spends much time making wine in his native Chile but also consulting on Murrieta’s distinct blends. There’s so much more to say, but for now, go, buy these wines, and enjoy them. Then look out for my article on May 16:

2004 Muscat Canelli: I know what you’re thinking. Muscat? But no, this is not a sweet wine. The grapes did not go through malolactic fermentation so they retained the tartness and natural acidity. Instead, they added different strains of yeast in order to produce a blend with all of the characteristics inherent in the grape. The nose is all jasmine tea and the flavor is like a lemony canteloupe. Well worth the $25.

2005 Mourvedre. Wow. Who knew a clear-ish, ruby colored red could be so peppery, so full of herb and dark berries and weight? This is Mourvedre done right, left to shine on its own and not blended with Cab or Merlot. $26

Posted on Tuesday, May 1st, 2007
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