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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten List - 2006 Red Truck Zinfandel Mendocino County

Date: Mon, Dec 7, 2009 Wine Tasting

When I first moved to San Francisco a few years back, there were some inexpensive wines that I thought were not only drinkable, but worth always having a case around for those weeknights with grilled burgers or pizza. Red Truck was one of those producers and I think I still have a few bottles from the case I bought 4 years ago. But, it occurs to me now, that I'm no longer much of a fan of Red Truck. I've had a few of the wines since that first case and nothing's really knocked me out. Good enough, but not memorable. And, unfortunately, the 2006 Red Truck Zinfandel Mendocino County on the Whole Foods Holiday wine top ten list falls in that camp.

It's a fairly nice mix of cherry, cranberry, cedar and freshly ground nutmeg, but with an aroma of the air you smell when fly fishing, part fresh mountain air, part fish, part fresh water and mist. Having fished my whole life (although less and less as the years go by), this is a welcome smell, as long as you're catching fish, but not so welcome when the trout have gone somewhere else down the river or perhaps permanently reside on the hook of your friend standing right next to you. After the river runs through the wine, there's a dusty butter and vanilla finish, which is actually a little comforting and rich, but a disconnect from the rest of the wine. Off balance, a bit confused about what it wants to be and no longer on my list of weeknight keepers.

What Whole Foods has to say: Think of this bottle as an old friend in a snazzy new pair of shoes! A balanced, organic California wine, its brambly berries, cracked pepper and dark chocolate finish keep your attention, whether you're eating pot roast or pasta. Wow your taste buds and pair it with Stilton produced by Colston Bassett or Borough market.

What you should do: Don't buy this one. As I said, the producer used to be higher on my list and I don't know if it's just the Zinfandel that's throwing me off, but not my favorite. Plenty of other good ones on the list (like the Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir and Paso a Paso Tempranillo) for you to choose from.

My rating: 84

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Quick fire wine review - 90+ wines

Date: Sun, Dec 6, 2009 Wine Tasting

Been looking at my backlog of posts and realized that there are plenty of wines in my queue that I thought were real winners, all getting 90+ ratings. So, instead of delaying by trying to write longer posts about each one, here are some quick notes about three of my favorites.

2006 Poggio Mandorlo Ombre Rosso di Toscana
One of the red wines from our trip to Italy and, arguably, one of the best we had there. Found it in an amazing wine shop n Volterra, an ancient walled city in Tuscany, called Enoteca Scali. 4,000 cases made of this wine and I've been trying to find it ever since we got back. Very dark cherry and tart plum, with notes of coffee, spices and earthy must. This is a lush wine - a bit tight when I tasted it, but balanced and full enough that it should be an amazing wine in about 3 - 5 years.

My rating: 92

2005 Long Shadows "Pedestal" Merlot Columbia Valley

Have been a big fan of the Long Shadows wines for some time now and this one lived up to the expectation. A recommendation from a good, very trusted wine friend, I was actually more entranced by this wine than I thought I would be. Huge nose, with dark cherries, plum and mocha, followed by some mellow Christmas spice notes (cinnamon, nutmeg, clove). Tannins are a little chalky still, but will mellow over time and I'm glad I have a few more in the cellar so I can taste it when it does.

My rating: 92

2006 Long Shadows Chester Kidder
Another in the Long Shadows line-up. If you remember, I reviewed the 2004 Chester Kidder when I was in Portland over the summer (Long Shadows ChesterKidder) and really enjoyed it, giving a 92+ rating. The 2006 didn't fall too far from that tree. On the nose, it's dark cherry, chocolate, espresso, smoke and roasted nuts - a much more complex nose than the 2004. But, it is still very young. When I opened it, it took about 45 minutes to come into its own, with a very tight and bitter start. But, it did open up and delivered good fruit and acidity, with just the right amount of toast and nuttiness. The thing I found amazing about this wine is that, even at 14.9% alcohol, it had zero heat. None at all. Will be a beautiful wine 5 - 7 years down the road.

My rating: 91

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Social media and the wine world, together at last

Date: Thu, Dec 3, 2009 Wine Tasting

A very important thing took place in the wine world recently - seems as though someone "got it." Now, that may be unfair because there certainly are people in the wine industry who get it, but it's been slowly developing over time, rather than coming about as a quick and revolutionary transformation. Sure, winemakers know how to make wine and I thank my lucky stars every day that they do. But, the marketing side of things has always been a bit elusive for so many winemakers...and then adding in the Internet and the power of social media and the whole thing took what was already turned on its head back on its head again.

The gist is this...people like me, and oh so many of me out there, decided that the power of the Internet opened up a whole new world of sharing thoughts on wine. What was already a very socially based product all of a sudden had a technology that enabled the sharing of wine tastes to be played out on a global scale, real-time and among thousands and thousands of "close" friends. In the process, this new world of sharing and community was so intimidating for some folks that all they could think to do was stand back and watch the world unfold around them, watching innocently as others represented the brand they tried so desperately to build.

But, let's be honest, this has been happening for a very long time now and the wine industry is just now starting to embrace the concept of social media, social marketing, user-generated content - whatever you want to call it. Well, it's time to start living up to what others have known for quite some time - don't watch your brand pass you by. Please. I beg of you. The reality is that it's your brand and you have more control than you think.

The most poignant expression of this came out of a report in 2006 published by digital agency powerhouse Avenue A | Razorfish (full disclosure: I was at the agency at the time this report was published). Keep in mind, all you in the wine industry, this is from almost 4 years ago now....

The Consumer is not in Control
This might be a surprise, because the notion of "consumer control" is widely accepted. But you still control your brands. You decide what products are launched. You implement customer service policies. You price your products. However, you are now dealing with an "activist consumer" who has a voice, and it can be a loud one. These consumers expect to have things on their terms - what they want and when they want it. They assume that if you can't provide what they need, your competitor will. They are well informed, researching their purchases as a matter of course. They have embraced social media, and sharing their experiences and opinions in a public way is the norm. They may not be in control, but if you ignore these activist consumers, chances are you won't be in control much longer, either.

Take heed of these words, all you winemakers, wineries, PR agencies...anyone associated with building a wine brand. Don't let others take control of your brand. Bloggers and social networks are not only not going away, they're getting stronger. But you can preserve and manage your brand more than you think.

Which brings me back to my point of someone who "gets it." Recently, the folks over at Cruvee and a whole host of supporters launch YourWineYourWay.com, a place where all those involved in the building of a wine brand can start to take back control of their brand while also serving a fundamental purpose for those of us hungry for accurate and timely information. The concept is this (from the site):

OwnIT is a movement that is going to change the way wine is represented online. We understand that wineries, wine companies, and PR agencies have a incredibly difficult task of managing the product and profile information currently generated by users across a multitude of sites including; marketing agent sites, mobile applications, online retailers, social networks as well as other distribution channels. This user-generated material misrepresents brands and confuses customers and updating product information across all these respective sites is cumbersome, time consuming and nearly impossible to manage. This is what started an industry wide movement to organize all wine data and product information from a single location; and can be managed, accessed and published as needed to best represent your products across these multiple online locations. Ultimately wineries and wine companies will have control over their message and brands by forcing these retailers, social networking sites, mobile applications and more to publish your wines, your way…correctly.

Or, you can also watch the video below...

It's new and untested at this point, but my hope is this concept takes off because (1) as a blogger, I want easier access to timely and accurate information and (2) I desperately want the wines I love to get their information out and for them to own the story they've built over so many years. My guess is that some will abuse it or use it to generate well-spun marketing messages, but at the core of the idea, like at the core of all social media, it should be fueled by a base of authenticity and accuracy, with just a bit of the magic that draws us all to wine to begin with.

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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten List - 2008 Paso a Paso Tempranillo

Date: Thu, Dec 3, 2009 Wine Tasting

Halfway through the Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten list for this year, Doug Bell and team are doing pretty well. One wine that really pleasantly surprised me (the Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir, even after two tastings) and another that fell really short (the Sutter Home Muscat, which was too sweet and one dimensional). But, overall, this is a good list of wines and Whole Foods is living up to its philosophy of maintaining the balance between quality and price.

Which brings us to another very nice wine, the 2008 Paso a Paso Tempranillo. Lots of dark berry, plum, sage and smoked pork, with just a bit of sweetness like you would get from a barbecue sauce on that pork. This is an interesting wine. When I first tasted it, it was a bit tight and the wine absolutely disappeared on the finish. But, after letting it open up for 10 minutes in the glass, there was plenty of rich, balanced finish. Medium acidity and firm tannins, with the tannins most present on the front palate, then easing as it made its way to the end.

What Whole Foods has to say: From sandy soils in the prized terroir of La Mancha, Spain comes this powerful example of Tempranillo. Six months of aging in French oak barrels results in its deep opaque color and ripe plum and toffee aromas, perfect for drinking with hearty winter stews or bring out the creaminess in P'tit Basque cheese for an intense flavor experience. Made with Organically Grown Grapes

What you should do: Buy this wine. It's always nice to find a good Tempranillo and the quality of this wine, especially for the price, is high.

My rating: 88

NOTE: This wine was sent to me as a free sample.

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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten List - 2008 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Special Selection Côtes-Du-Rhône Blanc

Date: Thu, Dec 3, 2009 Wine Tasting

Nice to see an old familiar brand on the Whole Foods Holiday Top Ten wine list again this year - M. Chapoutier. Back on the 2008 list, Doug Bell at Whole Foods included the 2007 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Côtes-Du-Rhône Rouge. This year, it's a white from the same producer, the 2008 M. Chapoutier Belleruche Special Selection Côtes-Du-Rhône Blanc.

The first most noticeable thing about the M. Chapoutier wines is the use of braille on their labels, something I hadn't seen before last year. According to the M. Chapoutier website: The expression of an assertive, confident personality, Braille has been present since 1996 on all M. CHAPOUTIER labels. Far from being anecdotic, this symbol draws its origin from the very history of the Hermitage vineyard. Maurice Monier de La Sizeranne, owner of the plot of the Hermitage, la Sizeranne, is also the inventor of the first version of abbreviated Braille. The trademark pays tribute to this man but also expresses the desire to reach out to and include all people with sight-impairments, lovers of good wines.

As we all know labels don't make the wine, but there are some cool enough labels out there that you just can't ignore them and this one is one of the most unique. But, what about the wine? On the nose, lemon, melon and apricot - a nice blend of fruits, not too complex, but not one dimensional either. Quite dry on the mouth, drier than I expected, given the fruits on the aroma, but with dry, I expected it to be crisper than it was. Also, noticed a bit of a bitter note on the finish...but nothing to make me shy away from this wine. Overall, I enjoyed it and thought it was a nice, balanced white.

What Whole Foods has to say about it: A highly respected family vintner brings us this authentic, floral special selection White with a loving sense of place. Try its apple, lime and white pepper notes with roasted veggies or pork, or indulge with Amadeus Austrian Select cheese and you'll swear you're eating fondue.

Of all the wines on the holiday list this year, this is the one that was the furthest off in terms of what I picked up vs. what Whole Foods picked up. If you've had this wine, let me know what you pulled out of the wine and we'll compare notes.

What you should do: Getting hard for the Whole Foods wines because I'm preparing to go next week and buy a bunch of these. This one's no exception. I would buy it. It's a good value, a nice wine, from a trusted producer who clearly cares about the world around them. If you had to pick up only one, I would probably err on the side of the Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir, but if there are a couple you can afford, this is also a good one to have on hand.

My rating: 87

NOTE: This wine was sent to me as a free sample.

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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten List - J. P. Chenet Blanc De Blancs Brut

Date: Sun, Nov 29, 2009 Wine Tasting

I'm not much of a sparkling wine connoisseur. I know what i like when I taste it, but you can put most any sparkling wine in front of me, as long as it's not too sweet, and I'll probably like it enough to raise a toast at a wedding or at the stroke of midnight new years eve. But, I'm not one to analyze it and pull apart all the different elements - not even sure why except it may have something to do with bubbles getting in the way of the flavors and aromas. Let's just say that I wish I knew more about this category, but, for now, with so many other types of wines to explore, I'll leave it at "I know what I like when I taste it."

The short story is this - this a perfectly fine sparkling wine...nothing special, nothing too sweet, nothing too bubbly (in fact, just a few less bubbles than a lot of champagnes, which is good in my book since I lean more toward Prosecco for that very reason) and definitely not the best sparkler I've ever had. But it's fine. It's got a nice dry aroma, no attack on the nose, with a clean, light-yellow color and a dry finish.

What Whole Foods has to say: The value-minded—and utterly delicious—French Sparkler is back! Fine bubbles and a golden hue make this delicate but powerful pour refined. Whether you pair its apricot and buttery brioche notes with Bon Homme Brie from Normandy or Hervé Mons Camembert cheese, pour for a toast or sip after a long day, it always shines.

What you should do: First off, I wouldn't take my advice on sparkling wines. If you have a keen eye for them, definitely buy it and see what you think. All the Whole Foods holiday wines are affordable. It won't be what we crack open for a special occasion, as I've had many champagnes that are better and feel more festive, but it's good.

My rating: 85

NOTE: this sparkling wine was sent to me as a free sample.

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Wine packaging - the future of shipping wine?

Date: Wed, Nov 25, 2009 Wine Tasting

Recently, I've noticed several boxes of wine arriving with new types of packaging, not the same old monolithic chunks of styrofoam that I never really know what to do with. Nope, these new packages are green, so green that the recent packaging from Sea Smoke (picture at right) even says "We're Green!!" 100% Recycled. 100% Recyclable. 100% Biodegradable. 100% Compostable." All good things to be sure.

And this stuff is strong. Some wines already come with cardboard inserts (i.e. flat boxes especially), but those just aren't that strong. These new types of inserts are sturdy, like professional moving boxes.

So, why aren't more people in the wine industry using them? One reason may be that some of the wrinkles are still being worked out, as one allocation I received was followed a few days later by a letter saying some of the bottles broke in shipping and to contact them if my bottles were some of those unfortunate few. All my bottles were fine, so no problem there and I'm sure any structural issues will get ironed out over time.

Another reason may be cost - I imagine that this new type of green shipping is more expensive and it doesn't surprise me at all that the more expensive wines are the first to try it out. We'll have to wait and see if the cost is manageable for most folks.

In the end, I hope that all wineries and distributors start to look at these types of packing materials. It sure would free me from the guilt I feel every time I open a box to find big white foam bricks that either go straight into my trash or build up in the garage, hoping for an alternative method of disposal to mysteriously appear out of nowhere.

Would love to hear your thoughts...what new types of packaging have you seen out there?

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Pancake Cellars 2008 Big Day White Paso Robles, California

Date: Tue, Nov 24, 2009 Wine Tasting

We briefly interrupt the Whole Foods Holiday Top Ten List for this special post on the 2008 Pancake Cellars Big Day White, Paso Robles, California.

For those of you who have followed this blog in it's first year of existence, you'll know that I've spent some time trying to figure out why certain wines are of interest to people and why others are not. The biggest surprise in that effort is the 2007 Pancake Cellars. A year ago, I picked up a bottle at Trader Joe's based on a recommendation by my buddy Jason over at Jason's Wine Blog (yes, we were both very clever when we named our blogs) and because it had a campy label and a $5 price tag.

Turned out it was pretty good. Not the second coming of white wine, but not a throw-away either and, if I remember correctly, I even picked up another bottle. Then I moved on and kind of forgot about it...until I started checking the numbers and discovered that the 2007 was my most visited wine review throughout the whole year. And I have no idea why. If you're out there, you Pancake Cellar seekers, let me know what's so intriguing for you. Is this a $5 cult bottle of wine? Is it the label that you find too compelling to ignore? Or, is it just a wildly popular wine at Trader Joe's? Would really like to know if you want to share your thoughts.

I'm not sure if the 2008 will strike as much of a chord as the 2007 or if those of you who seek out this wine will take a liking to, um, my not so favorable review of the 2008, but will be interesting to see what happens to this year's post. I'll let you know what I find.

In the meantime, let's get into it.

On the nose, this is lemon, light honey and cantaloupe, with an overwhelming amount of tap water - kind of a mix of nothing, fluoride and a little copper. No other way for me to explain it...it's almost like I made a light lemon / cantaloupe spritzer and then accidentally knocked it over into a sink full of fresh tap water. Most of the watery part of the wine went away in the mouth and it turned into a full-lemon lemonade, as in everything - the juice, the seeds, the pith, the rind, maybe even some branches of the lemon tree...like a bitter lemonade, maybe made by a kid who forgot to add all the sugar and had to eventually board up his corner lemonade stand for fear of being foreclosed on by his neighbors. Not good. One dimensional, hot, bitter and unbalanced.

This year's blend is a mix of 47% Pinot Blanc, 35% Pinot Gris, 12% Grenache Blanc and 6% Riesling, which feels like either the blending was a mix of what was left or the tasting somehow took a turn that couldn't be reversed. Pancake Cellars does have a track record of blending several varietals (in 2007, it was 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 27% Chardonnay, 12% Gewurtztraminer and 1% Pinot Blanc), but this year it just ended up to be a bit of a mess.

It's really too bad, too. I remember liking the 2007 on this and was pretty fired up when my wife called me from Trader Joe's asking "was it Pancake Cellars you were looking for?" We have one more bottle of it and I will pit it against some other whites in a blind tasting, maybe in December, but, for now, not that enthused about it.

What you should do: For the faithful, pick it up, see what you think. At around $5 ($5.99 in Washington), it can never hurt. But, $5 wine is a tricky category and I would argue that it sometimes takes as many or more bottles to find one you like as it would to find a $20 bottle you'll enjoy again and again.

My rating: 80

To be fair, bjwdad over at Cork'd, gave it a 92. Although I cannot understand how he got there, under any circumstances, it does speak to the differences in palettes and, at the end of the day, wine still comes down to personal taste, no matter what anyone tells you.

Here's his review of the 2008 Pancake Cellars...Trader Joe's purchase, 13.7% alcohol. Blend is 47% Pinot Blanc, 35% Pinot Gris, 12% Grenache Blanc, 6% Riesling. Quite different from last year's. The floral nose presents mineral terroir, peach, melon, honeysuckle, citrus & orange blossoms. VERY nice. The taste is at first kind of Chard sour, but that melts into a round, acidic tart-sweet experience. Hard to put a finger (or taste bud) on exact tastes, but they're simply GOOD. I'm satisfied with that, and the price beats any comparable white!

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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten list - 2008 Sutter Home Muscat Of Alexandria

Date: Sun, Nov 22, 2009 Wine Tasting

#4 in the Whole Foods Holiday Top Ten Wine List - the 2008 Sutter Home Muscat Of Alexandria...

I've been really impressed with the tasting and food pairing notes this year from Doug Bell and team over at Whole Foods. For the Sutter Home Muscat, Whole Foods has this to say about it:

The retro label is a tip-off—you'll find comfort in this bottle. Honeysuckle and peaches make it playful for occasions like brunch or dessert when you need a wine on the sweet side. Cowgirl Creamery Organic Mount Tam or Rogue Creamery's Anniversary Blue cheese makes the wine's sugary side divine.

Cowgirl Creamery Mount Tam and Rogue Creamery Blue Cheese? Are they kidding? How'd they know these are two of my favorite things? In San Francisco, my wife and I always went to Cowgirl Creamery at the Ferry building and this was the cheese we went ho
me with, especially when we needed something for a dinner party. On top of that, the Rogue Creamery is a few miles from where we got married in Oregon and their blue cheese is out of this world. Or, better said, the best in this world (literally, they've been voted as making the best blue cheese in the world).

It's like Whole Foods somehow tapped our phone lines over the last few years, then rigged it so I would start wine blogging and direct some of my focus on Whole Foods - brilliant! Very interesting...and if I were a paranoid person, I would put a lot of merit in that idea, but I am neither paranoid nor inclined to spend ti
me on such a silly idea. Unless, of course it's true, then I'd have to hire a PI and bug their phone lines right back and...uh, well, okay maybe not.

Unfortunately, I found myself focusing more on the cheese than the wine, because this wine was not to my liking. In short, I found it be one-dimensional and offer not much more than a bottle of spiced honey. Very sweet, too sweet for my taste and a wine that I won't be picking up again. I did struggle for more to say about it, but after more sips than I would have liked, I just kept coming back to honey with a little bit of spice, like nutmeg or cinnamon.

Now, Whole Foods di
d nail the fact that this wine would go very well with the Mount Tam and the Rogue blue cheese, but I've had enough of both of those cheeses to know that a lot of whites can hang out with these near-perfect cheeses. I would probably even give the Muscat a few extra points in my rating if I tasted it with the cheeses, but I didn't, so will settle into a lower score of 82.

What you should do: If you like sweet Muscat, definitely try this. If your palate is more like mine
and prefer dried wines, you may want to try the 2008 Ca' del Solo Muscat from Bonny Doon - it's a beautiful, well balanced, drier Muscat that kept me going back for more when I first tried it. If you like cheese, find a way to get ahold of some Mount Tam or Rogue blue - these will certainly not disappoint.

My rating: 82

NOTE: this wine was sent to me as a free sample.

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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten list - 2008 Rueda Selección Especial Marqués De Riscal

Date: Sat, Nov 21, 2009 Wine Tasting

#3 in the Whole Foods Holiday Top Ten Wine List - the 2008 Rueda Selección Especial Marqués De Riscal.

You want a good, solid Spanish white for the holidays? This one is it.

I was really impressed with the nose - peach, pear and cedar, with a hint of grandma's old mothballs (which, for me, is nostalgic and since it wasn't overwhelming on the nose, brought back very fond memories of my grandmother and her wardrobe-saving white balls of winged creature demise). The nose is a bit over-oaked, thus the woodsy, cedar components, but the mouth doesn't pull much of that oak into the blend. It does change from nose to mouth, transforming into lemon, peach, grapefruit, cream and butter. It's light in color, with just enough acidity and very little heat (which has been consistent for all the top ten wines thus far).

It did strike me as b
eing a bit more like a Sauvignon Blanc than a Verdejo with a light crispness and grassy lemons, but that was mostly when it was cold and straight from the refrigerator. So, let it sit and warm up a bit and you should be able to capture some more complexity.

t Whole Foods has to say: We bought all of this refreshing, full-bodied Spanish wine, but we'll share! Old-world Verdejo comes alive in a straw-colored wine brimming with fruit and fennel. A huge value, serve as an aperitif or with tapas or roasted chicken. Pairing it with Fourme d'Ambert or Drunken Goat cheese brightens its flavor.

What you should do: Buy it. I think this is a timely wine and one that you can have with Thanksgiving dinner. A relatively light and refreshing wine, it would be a nice complement to the Helfrich Riesling, which is sweeter, but definitely a nice wine to pair with pre-dinner cheeses. Plus, between the two wines, you'll impress your guests with your international wine savvy.

My rating: 86

NOTE: this wine was sent to me as a free sample.

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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten list - Pepperwood Grove Pinot Noir

Date: Fri, Nov 20, 2009 Wine Tasting

Pepperwood Grove is not one of the wines I expected to be on the Whole Foods Top Ten Holiday Wine List this year. I can't remember the last time I've had a wine from this producer, but I do remember never being blown away by any of their wines. So, it was with some reluctance that I went into tasting this wine, knowing that I could have a negative bias towards it. I didn't taste it blind, but even if I had, I would have been able to pick it out of the group instantly, as it's a very light-colored Pinot and much lighter than the other reds in the Top Ten.

Well, once again, I have been proven wrong...very, very wrong (someday, I'll get this right). Let me start with what I usually end with...the "What you should do" portion of my blog posts...BUY THIS WINE! It's around $8 and really quite incredible. I was thinking that this was one of the best Pinot Noirs I'd ever had in the sub $10 category and then realized that this may actually be the only Pinot Noir I've tried (or, better said, remembered) in that price range. Regardless, this is a screaming value at the price.

This is a light, fruity, spicy pinot, with blackberry, cherry, spice and toasted vanilla notes. You won't find any stemmy qualities or rich complexities, but it is incredibly well balanced, with very little heat and a nice mid-range finish. It's definitely a wine that would work well in the early stages of Thanksgiving dinner, just after a nice white and some cheeses.

And, I'll bet you if you decant this bottle and just let people try it blind, you will find that they think it is a much more expensive bottle of Pinot than it actually is.

Kudos to Pepperwood Grove and to Doug Bell and team over at Whole Foods for including this one. And thanks for the surprise - always nice to be thrown off, in a good way, by a wine.

What Whole Foods has to say about it: Warm cherry pie with vanilla ice cream and earthy oak dominate this bargain Chilean 2-pack from a brand you love. Enjoy a glass while you cook and still have enough for the table. Serve with beef or look for Gruyère Reserve from single source farm or Seaside Cheddar or cranberry cheddar to tame the tannins a bit.

What you should do: Did I mention that you should buy this wine? Well, it's worth saying again. If you like Pinot Noir and good deals, this is the one for you. It's around $8 and an incredible Pinot Noir for the price - the QPR is off the charts on this one.

My rating: 89

NOTE: the Pepperwood Grove wine was sent to me as a free sample.

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Whole Foods Wine Holiday Top Ten list - Helfrich Gewurztraminer

Date: Sun, Nov 15, 2009 Wine Tasting

As prep for the 2009 Holiday Top Ten list, I went back to the 2008 list to see how the wines fared. Interestingly enough, all the wine on the Whole Foods 2008 Holiday Top Ten Wine List had a rating between 81 and 89. Hmmm...seems pretty mild. No real stunners in the 90's and no total dogs below 80. Now, that could mean a couple things: (1) I am a boring rater, never really putting myself out there and taking a stand; (2) Doug Bell and crew over at Whole Foods always delivers great value wines for the price, but with no unbelievable wines and no wines that would fall into my Wines to Avoid category; or (3) most wines fall into the 81 - 89 range and thus the general public has succumbed to mediocre wine experiences. With a bit of truth to all three of these, I'd love to hear from you about what you think of wines in the 81 - 89 range. What's been your experience? And, do you think any of this year's Top Ten list will fall out of that range?

In the meantime, let's get going on this year's list - the first wine being the 2007 Helfrich Gewurztraminer. I was first introduced to Gewurztraminer because my mother-in-law is a big fan and having enjoyed some very nice ones with her, it just kind of stuck with me. Not at the very top of my list for whites, but definitely in the top 25%, so always eager to try a new bottle.

The Helfrich is part of a whole group of whites that I didn't expect to be on a winter wine list. Whites typically fall off for me in the winter months, when it's mostly bigger, heartier reds. But, the Helfrich holds up pretty well. On the nose, I got peach, apricot, lavender and cotton candy, but not as sweet as , say, the kind you get at a state fair, more like cotton candy that's about 80% cacao (huh? what did he just say?). In the mouth, more peach, some granny smith apple skin, with a touch of spice, along the lines of nutmeg and white pepper. Overall, the wine is golden yellow in color, with a rich, buttery balance and surprisingly long finish, with sweet upfront, followed by some bitter notes mid palate and all butter on the finish. In the end, a little sweet for my taste, but still a well made Gewurztraminer.

What Whole Foods has to say about it: This floral, spicy standout is the White for Thanksgiving and holiday apertifs. Bursting with freshness and a rich finish, it toes the line between old-fashioned rose and honey notes and vibrant tropical fruit. Serve with shellfish or spicy Asian food, or for downright buttery results drink with Bavarian Blue or Robusto cheese.

What you should do: Buy this wine in time for Thanksgiving. It will be a great one to kick off your night, especially with some good, rich cheeses, as Whole Foods suggests. The sweetness of the wine should be offset by the robust cheeses.

My rating: 87

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Whole Foods Top Ten Holiday Wine List is back!!!

Date: Thu, Nov 12, 2009 Wine Tasting

There is so much to like about this time of year, particularly if you're a fan of fall and the onset of cold weather like I am. But, most of all, it's the time of year when Whole Foods comes out with their Holiday Top Ten Wine List. If you remember, or have followed this blog long enough, you know this will be the third Whole Foods Top Ten I've reviewed (you can find them here under the Whole Foods category) and I'm more eager to get going with these wines than I've ever been.

As with last year's review of the list, this post is the kickoff and to give you a peak at the wines included (see the graphic below). So, tune in over the next few weeks to get my ratings on the wines and, if you'd like, go out and get some of the wines for yourself, so you can follow along and we can chat about what you like and don't like.

In the meantime, here are some words from Whole Foods on this year's Holiday list (excerpted from their press release dated 11/4/09)...

From taste-tempting, luscious reds and bright sparklers to elegant, spicy whites, Whole Foods Market unveils its "Top Ten Holiday Wines" list. At prices fit for merrymaking, shoppers can toast old friends and new beginnings and celebrate the special moments of the season with wine all priced under $15 a bottle!

"Here's to this year's list - featuring a large selection of organic wines - which offers super variety at great values," said Doug Bell, global wine co-buyer for Whole Foods Market. "Whether you're looking for something to liven up a holiday gathering or thirsting to warm your soul on a cold winter's night, you'll find it on the list this year."...Look for Top Ten Holiday Wines displays throughout Whole Foods Market wine departments.

Cheers to holiday season!

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Wine Spectator and Robert Parker don't tell you, so why should I?

Date: Tue, Nov 10, 2009 Wine Tasting

One of the biggest requirements in the blogging world is authenticity. This is a space that demands transparency, openness, honesty, whatever you want to call it - but at the end of the day, people want to feel like they're hearing from and talking to real people. It's not like TV, where actors can play "real" people in ads and shows and people will buy it - many have tried to pass that off as real in the online world and have not fared well (remember LonelyGirl15?)

Along those lines, a question that I keep thinking about is whether or not wine bloggers need to disclose that they receive wine and product samples from wineries, winemakers, PR firms and whoever else might gain from sharing product with anyone who has an audience. For me, I currently disclose the source of my wine – if I buy it myself, I say nothing, but if I receive a sample, I let people know that it’s a sample. In the blogging world, it’s my way of letting you know that my opinion may be swayed in some way by the notion of "free."

Where I struggle with this approach is this...

The biggest wine reviewers in the world are giving reviews of sample wines and not disclosing it. If you think Robert Parker or the folks over at Wine Spectator buy all their own wine for review, just go to one of their offices to see how much wine is provided by eager seekers of high scores and validation. Now, I have nothing against Wine Spectator and I truly believe that there has to be some kind of authoritative voice reviewing wine, if for no other reason than most consumers, unfortunately, need to be told what to drink...but also for the simple notion that bloggers need something to complain about, rail against, rally behind, compare themselves to, whatever you want to call it (if you disagree, just check out all the blogger noise over Robert Parker, starting with 1WineDude, who so elegantly steered us all through the debate).

So, if the big boys don’t share with you every time a wine was provided free of charge, why is everyone else expected to? When I first started this blog, I felt it was my duty and, to be honest, when I got a sample, it was like I won the lottery. I felt like I had arrived, like I had reached some magical point in my wine blogging and it was fun to share that with people. It was very easy at that point to determine which wines were samples and which were not, so, by extension, it was also easy to let everyone know what was what. Now, as more samples have been coming in, it seems 50 – 60% of the wines I review are in that category and the organization of it all hasn’t yet reached daunting, but it certainly takes some thought as to how best to arrange and store the wines.

The real question is this – do I review wines any differently knowing that I purchased it vs. having someone supply it for me? The answer to that is “no, absolutely not.” I have never gone into a tasting of a sample wine thinking that I need to treat it any differently than any other wine I purchased. That I can say with complete honesty. What I can’t say for sure is whether or not my biases come into the picture in a subconscious way – for example, do I have a preconceived notion that a high-end cult wine is better than a sample wine from a winery I’ve never heard of before? Probably. But, we all have that.

And, although I do some blind tastings, I refuse to do all my tastings that way because I believe there is some value to tasting a wine within the context you came across it. If I’ve coveted a wine for a long time and then somehow end up with a bottle, the search is part of that experience and, thus, should have an impact on how I taste the wine. Some purists may argue with me on that one, but that’s the way I’ve always seen it. Does it influence the end score I give a wine? Maybe, but never by more than a point or two and, let’s be honest, we all do to some extent, otherwise blind tastings wouldn't exist.

You may be thinking at this point – “Is this guy writing in his journal or does he have a point here?” My point is this – I’ve decided I will no longer disclose in individual posts which wines are samples and which wines I buy. I will provide an ongoing disclosure here on my blog saying just that, but wanted to let you all know that I’m treating everything the same from this point forward.

Let me know what you think on the matter and how you treat it on your own blog.

CORRECTION TO THE BLOG POST ABOVE (11/10/09): As you can see in the comments for this post, Thomas Matthews of Wine Spectator has graciously sent along the Wine Spectator tasting guidelines (you can find them at Wine Spectator Tasting Procedures and Taster Profiles). Although the title of the post says that Wine Spectator does not tell you about their samples policy, my real intent was to say that they do not disclose it as part of every wine review, as was my policy for the last year or so. I have now changed that policy and, although I will not tell you in every post whether the wine being reviewed is a sample or not, you can always find my disclosure policy here.

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