Category Archives: Grape Varieties

A Lipstinging Pairing

Every once in awhile, you come across a wine and food pairing that surprisingly just makes sense. I wasn’t planning to have wine this evening. I was preparing the traditional Szechuan dish Ma-Po Tofu, which, with its spicy bean sauce and lip and tongue numbing Szechuan peppercorns doesn’t exactly scream “pair me with wine!” However, part of the recipe required a tablespoon of rice wine, which I didn’t have on hand, so I substituted a splash of the Picpoul Blanc I had open in my fridge. Picpoul Blanc, a white variety most commonly found in the Languedoc and southern Rhône regions of France, is known locally as “lipstinger” for its high acidity and citrus characteristics. The wine on hand was actually a domestic version of the obscure old world variety–Bokisch Vineyard’s Tizona Picpoul Blanc, grown in the family’s Terra Alta vineyard in the Clements Hills region of Lodi. Coming from the Central Valley of California, the wine wasn’t quite as lip-stinging as its French counterparts, but was lively and fresh and with its lemon blossom and stone fruit palate, and it actually complemented the lip-numbing effects of the Szechuan peppercorns in the Ma-Po Tofu. While Picpoul and Ma-Po Tofu may not be an obvious choice, it is sure to put a smile on anyone’s lips!

The Perils of Price

By Kareasa Wilkins

It is a well-known fact that there is little freedom in terms of winemaking in most of the historic wine regions of Europe. Appellation laws put out by the government set strict guidelines as to what grape varieties can be planted, what training systems can be used in the vineyards, methods of winemaking, ageing requirements, and final levels of alcohol. While in many cases, this is a result of centuries of study as to what methods will produce the best wines in a particular area, it can seem rather limiting for innovative or rebellious winemakers who want to experiment with something different.

            The “new world,” and particularly California, has been a haven for experimental winemakers who want to try something different. Indeed, “flying winemakers” from Europe and around the world often come to California to work a harvest, and some even end up staying and opening up their own wineries or participating in joint ventures with the locals. Yet in spite of its image as an “anything goes” wine area, the most famous region in California is arguably as restricted as Europe. But it’s not the government that inflicting the limitations here; it’s the market. Napa Valley is the most expensive agricultural region in the Americas. They say that in order to make a million dollars in Napa, you have to start with at least a billion. And if you’re going to have any return on investment, you have to produce what brings in the profits.

            The Napa Valley was once home to a wide range of grape varieties: Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Gamay and more. Then, in 1976, the Judgment of Paris tasting happened. This was arguably the most important event in California, or indeed United States wine history. This tasting, organized by Steven Spurrier, the renowned British wine critic, took place in France and pitted the famous French wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy against Cabernet based blends and Chardonnays from the Napa Valley. Much to the amazement of the world press, Napa Valley came out on top, with Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay and Stags Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon taking the top spots. After this tasting, Napa Valley came to be recognized as a first-rate wine region, and people have been flocking there ever since to get a taste of its nectar.

            Yet the Judgment of Paris had its unintended consequences as well. With the top wines being Chardonnay and Cabernet, these varieties suddenly became the darlings, and the wines that could command high prices. Soon, other grape vines were being grubbed up and replanted with these varieties. Cabernet, in particular, became the cash cow for the region. These days it is nearly impossible to find any winery in the valley that doesn’t specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon, and indeed, for any new venturers to the region, making an expensive Cabernet is almost a requirement because that’s what brings in the return on investment. It is rare to find a Napa Valley Cabernet priced at below $50/bottle, and wines at $100, $200 or more are becoming increasingly common.  It seems that the only people who are able to make alternative varieties in any great number are those who have been there since the early days. I recently tasted a stunning Riesling from high up on Spring Mountain at Smith-Madrone winery. The wine was easily on par with grand cru examples from Alsace, and yet these days no one thinks of Riesling and Napa Valley in the same sentence. While it’s true that most regions in Napa are far too warm to produce fine Riesling, Smith-Madrone proved that there are pockets of Napa that can make world class Riesling. Yet the Smith brothers, the proprietors of this winery, are old-timers who purchased the land in the 1960s before it became the king’s ransom that it is today. Another pleasant surprise was the Chenin Blanc from Chappellet. The Chappellet family established their winery up on Pritchard Hill in 1967, and they are one of the few who still produce this once prolific variety. The wine showed such complexity and racy acidity, it was an easy favorite, and according to our host, it is also matriarch Molly Chappellet’s favorite. However, as I mentioned, these two wineries have been around for a number of years and can afford to trifle with varieties that don’t command high prices. But the truth of the matter is that you are unlikely to find much more beyond an extravagant Cabernet from any new wineries looking to establish themselves—there simply is not enough return on investment. 

            Sadly, gems like the Smith-Madrone Riesling and the Chappellet Chenin Blanc are few and far between in Napa, and when the next generation takes over from the old-timers, we may see even less of these treasures. Still, there may be hope for change.  Over time, tastes can evolve or be swayed. Perhaps we will see a new Judgment of Paris for the 21st century that involves alternative varieties, or maybe people will begin to realize that Napa does not have to be synonymous with Cabernet. When, and if the fashion for new grape varieties shifts, I’ll be waiting with my glass raised.

Old Ghosts and Old Vines: An Interview with Steve Felten of Klinker Brick Winery

By Kareasa Wilkins


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When Creedence Clearwater Revival bemoaned the fate of being “stuck in Lodi,” they clearly weren’t drinking Klinker Brick Zin. Klinker Brick is making wines, particularly old vine Zins that are making Lodi a destination worthy of visiting.

The Purple Tongue Press recently spoke with Steve Felten, president of Klinker Brick wines.

PTP: Tell me a little bit about the history of Klinker Brick.

SF: Klinker Brick is a family owned estate. We are part of the 6th generation of wine grape growers here in Lodi. The family began growing wine grapes in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that we began making our own wine. We were still selling it to other producers at the time, then in 2000 we began bottling our own. Our total annual production is about 85-90,000 cases with the Klinker Brick Zinfandel being our flagship wine.

PTP: Lodi is becoming more recognized as a quality wine-producing region. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

SF: Lodi has always been a big area in terms of wine grape production, but it has only been in the last 15 years or so that growers started making wine. Before 2000, there were less than 10 wineries in this area, but now there are over 100. Lodi was recently honored as Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year. Klinker Brick was the first winery from Lodi to pour at Wine Spectator’s Grand Tasting, and we also won a trophy at the New World International Wine Competition. The atmosphere in this region is a lot like it was in Napa 40 years ago, and a lot of that has to do with the exceptional Zinfandel that’s grown here.

PTP: What is special about Zin grown in this area?

SF: There is more old vine Zin grown here than anywhere else in the state. Klinker Brick works with a number of old vine vineyards, including one that is over 120 years old. The soils and the climate in Lodi contribute to very fruit driven wines. We have a longer growing season than other wine regions in the state, which allows longer hang time for the grapes. There are a lot of myths about Lodi, particularly that it’s too hot for quality wine. But we’re in the north end of the valley, and we get a lot of cool Delta breezes at night. The temperature can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees from day to night, and we get great concentration of flavor in the grapes because of this. We get really ripe fruit, but the wines are still well-balanced. They’re really popular with consumers because they’re easy to drink. You don’t have to lay them down for a long time. Pretty much as soon as they’re released they’re good to go. They’re vibrant and fresh with a ton of fruit that makes them really enjoyable to drink.

PTP: Can you tell us a little bit about the Zins that Klinker Brick produces?

SF: The Klinker Brick Old Vine Zin is our flagship wine. It’s made from a blend of 16 different old vine vineyards, the average age of which is 85 years. This wine has a lot of bold fruit and a nice black pepper character to it as well. Our Marisa Vineyard Zin is produced from an 88-year-old vineyard block. This one has really good structure to it, firmer tannins and a lot of berry fruit. Then we have the Old Ghost. This is our reserve Zin. It comes from the best lots of our old vines, and it’s a rather atypical Zin in that it’s a lot more elegant in style. It’s a wine that really lingers on the palate from front to back. We also do a Zin blend called Tranzind. This is a blend of old vine Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet. It’s a great house wine and is currently being marketed through chain sales.

PTP: Do you have any favorite foods to pair with Klinker Brick Zins?

SF: Anything with spice or pepper is great with them. Mexican, Thai, barbecue, pizza, you name it.

PTP: Is there anything else you would like the public to know about Klinker Brick?

SF: Just that we are a family owned winery making premium wines in Lodi. Our wines are incredibly consumer friendly, and in addition to the old vine Zins, we have a number of excellent wines in our portfolio, including some special limited edition wine club wines.

Klinker Brick’s tasting room is open 7 days/week. For more information go to

Steve Felten, along with winemaker Joseph Smith will be pouring Klinker Brick wines at ZAP’s Zinfandel Experience. For more information go to

Zin at 2500 Feet



By Kareasa Wilkins

These days Napa Valley is hardly synonymous with anything but Cabernet. Indeed, California’s most famous wine region has come to rest its laurels on its lush, powerful rendition of the Bordeaux varietal that has dazzled and delighted the critics and the masses. While a multiplicity of grape varieties once graced the slopes of Napa Valley, grapes considered “less noble” are constantly being uprooted for new plantings of the big money-maker. With the average Napa Valley Cabernet bottling being well-over $50/bottle, and ultra premium “cult” wines commanding astronomical prices, it’s no wonder that many producers hardly dabble with alternatives beyond perhaps a Bordeaux-style blend or a white offering.

Needless to say, I was surprised at ZAP 2015, the annual Zinfandel Advocates and Producer’s grand tasting, when the Zinfandels that stood out most to me, came not from the usual suspects in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley (though there were a number of stars from those regions), but from a small vineyard within Napa’s Howell Mountain AVA, the Black Sears Vineyard.

Howell Mountain is no exception to the Napa Cab craze. With names like Dunn, CADE, O’Shaughnessy, and Robert Craig, this AVA is clearly prime Cab country. Yet at the very tip top of Howell Mountain is a vineyard where Zinfandel shines just as bright as any of the brilliant Cabernets. The Black Sears vineyard, owned by Joyce Black and Jerre Sears is situated 2500 feet above the valley floor, and its unique geography and well-tended vines are generating some of the most distinctive Zins in the world.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Jambois, Joyce and Jerre’s son-in-law, who, along with his wife Ashley, oversees much of Black Sears’ vineyard maintenance. Chris shared some of the reasons he believes Zinfandels from Black Sears Vineyard are so special. “This vineyard has so many unique soil types that professors from UC Davis and other top research universities are always coming to study it,” says Jambois. “We’re above the fog line, which produces warmer nights than are seen on the valley floor, though the  growing season usually starts a good 2-3 weeks later than the rest of Napa, and our Zins tend to be among the last to come in during harvest. Our Zins are dry farmed, and the wines that come from this vineyard are always incredibly complex and spicy. You get a lot of black and white pepper notes that you don’t find in Zins from other regions.” Jambois poured us a sample of the 2012 vintage, which was deep and brooding, and highlighted these qualities. The Estate Zinfandel is crafted by winemaker Thomas Brown, who took over the reigns after Ted Lemon left in 2006. Yet as exceptional as the Black Sears Estate Zin is, the quantity is limited. Of the 24 acres of grapes planted at Black Sears, only 17 are planted to Zin, and Jambois notes that they sell 75% of their fruit. Top producers such as Turley, Robert Craig, and T-Vine all have Black Sears Vineyard bottling of Zin. The vines at the Black Sears Estate are tended using biodynamic methods, and Jambois remarks that since they began farming this way in the early 2000s, buyers have really noticed improvements in the health of the vineyard and the quality of the fruit produced. This is important, particularly with Zinfandel, which can be difficult in the vineyard. “Zinfandel is a true artist’s grape,” says Jambois. “A lot of people talk about Pinot Noir being so challenging in the vineyard. But the same could be said about Zin. It’s a notoriously uneven ripener, and it’s prone to botrytis. It’s really difficult to make a complex Zin, and only the true artists are successful at it.” He also seeks to dispel common myths about the grape. “There are a lot of myths about Zin—that it can’t be complex or elegant, that critics won’t give it more than 95 points.” Yet as the Black Sears Estate is demonstrating, when grown in optimal conditions and crafted in the hands of caring individuals, Zinfandel can be nothing less than extraordinary.

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For more information about the Black Sears Estate, go

Black Sears Estate, along with many wineries that produce a Black Sears Vineyard Zin will be pouring at ZAP 2016. Find out more at

Raving About Riesling


By Kareasa Wilkins

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a Riesling fanatic. Of all of the wines in my cellar, a good 75% of them are made from Riesling. From the zesty, limey, bone dry Australian Rieslings from Eden Valley to the lusciously sublime botrytized German TBAs (Trockenbeerenauslese), I believe there’s no grape that’s more diverse or more food friendly. Yet in most circles I’m alone with my enthusiasm for the grape. Many of my male friends think their penises will shrink if they dare to sip any wine that may have a hint of sweetness to it, and still others believe that the only white wines worthy of prestige come from Burgundy. Yet once upon a time, Riesling was the most prestigious wine in the world. In the 19th century, German Riesling was more sought-after and pricier than the top red wines from Bordeaux. Unfortunately the mid-20th century brought on a wave of mass-produced, low-quality versions, and Riesling has been trying to shed its image as a cheap sweet glugger ever since.

In an effort to help boost the image of Riesling, I’d like to start by dispelling the numerous myths that haunt the grape:

Wines made from Riesling are sticky sweet. Untrue in most cases! Some of the driest wines I’ve ever tasted have come from Riesling. Young Trocken wines from Germany can be so searingly acidic that you can almost feel the enamel peeling off your teeth. Rieslings can range from bone-dry to tongue-coatingly sweet.  While some of the finest dessert wines in the world are made from Riesling, such as the TBAs of Germany, the SGNs (sélection de grains nobles) of Alsace, and many ice wines from Canada, even the sweet versions, if they are made properly, don’t taste cloying because the high natural acidity balances out the sweetness.

Only people with unsophisticated palates like Riesling.  Another myth! While my mother, whose palate is questionable given her fondness for White Zinfandel, loves Riesling, she shares this affection with some of the most renowned wine writers in the world. Karen MacNeil, Jancis Robinson, and Terry Theise are all Riesling advocates. Some of them would even argue that Riesling, not Chardonnay, is the finest of the classic white varietals.

Riesling won’t match well with the dinner I’m having. Well, if you’re having a T-bone steak, probably not. But because of its versatility, Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world. Afraid that wine is out of the question for your meal at the new Thai restaurant? Bring along an off-dry German Spätlese and make your palate sing. Think Riesling is too light for heartier fare? Try a dry Alsatian Riesling with grilled sausages—hey, remember choucroute is a classic dish in Alsace, and Riesling is one of its grandest grapes. Finger Lakes Rieslings go great with fish, as do Clare Valley Rieslings, especially if the fish is prepared with a spicy sauce. And don’t forget to pour a Riesling ice wine with that tarte tatin.

White wines don’t age well. Not so when it comes to Riesling. Wines made from Riesling are among the most long-lived in the world. The combination of high natural acidity with residual sugar can mean decades of enjoyment. Dry versions of Riesling from top producers can usually last a good ten years or longer, and in general, the sweeter they get, the longer they age. The finest trockenbeerenauslesen wines from Germany have been known to last 100 years and still be delicious. So if you’re building a wine cellar, be sure to include some Rieslings in your collection!

So now that a little light has been shed on Riesling, here are more reasons to love it:

It doesn’t need oak to make it brilliant. While Chardonnay and many other white varietals are often insipid without a little gussying up from the barrel, Riesling is a natural beauty. It shines alone, defying manipulation at the hands of the winemaker. Because Riesling is an oak-hater, its sheer transparency makes it a pure expression of terroir. Depending on where its grown, you can get a sense of smoky minerality, rich earthiness, luscious fruit, or soft floral notes.

Riesling thrives where no other grape can. Riesling is the Eskimo of the wine world, existing in extreme northerly territory, where nearly all other grape varietals and agricultural products fail to survive.  The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer in Germany may be as far north as Canada’s icy Newfoundland, but its cool climate contributes to Riesling’s dazzling acidity and ageability.

Riesling is a relative bargain for your cellar. As I mentioned before, Riesling is a great choice for the cellar. While the finest German TBAs are not cheap, you can still find some wonderful age-worthy Rieslings that cost significantly less than other cellar contenders such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Napa Cab.

Riesling will seduce your palate with its myriad flavors. Peaches, apricots, honey, green apples, petrol, minerals, lime, orange zest, marzipan, honeysuckle, ginger, and nectarines. All of these words have been used to describe Riesling. How many other wines can boast that many flavor possibilities?

Did I mention that Riesling is one of the most food-friendly wines in the world? Well, allow me to reiterate. Riesling complements a whole range of flavors including ones that usually clash with other wines. Whether your meal is complex, spicy, fatty, or sweet, there’s likely to be a Riesling out there that will perfectly harmonize with it.

These days beautiful Rieslings are available from wine regions around the world. Here are some of the best regions for Riesling:

Australia: Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Tasmania

Austria: Wachau, Burgenland, Kremstal, Kamptal

California: Anderson Valley, Santa Barbara County


France: Alsace

Germany: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Nahe, Pfalz, Rheingau, Rheinhessen

New York: Finger Lakes

New Zealand

“Ok,” you’re probably thinking. “I’m convinced. But how can I tell how sweet it’s going to be?” Well, that part isn’t always easy. The best thing to do is ask your local wine merchant. But there are a few things you can look for that will give you a hint as to how sweet or dry the Riesling you are about to consume is. A lot of new world producers are starting to label their Rieslings as “dry,” “off-dry,” or “sweet.” Most Alsatian Rieslings, unless they are labeled “Vendange Tardive” or “Sélection de Grains Nobles,” are on the dry side (this is usually, but not always the case, so be sure to check with your merchant), and most Austrian Rieslings are quite dry as well. The German wine labeling system is the most complex, and top-quality wines are labeled by the ripeness of the grapes at harvest. The categories are as follows:

Trocken: These are acutely bone-dry wines, so prepare your palate!

Kabinett: These wines are made from grapes that are picked relatively early during harvest. While they can exhibit a touch of sweetness, most are on the dry side.

Spätlese: This is the German term for late-harvest, but should not be confused with late-harvest dessert wines. Spätlese wines tend to be richer and more intense than Kabinetts, but are usually just off-dry, not excessively sweet.

Auslese: These wines are made from very ripe grapes, are very lush and rich, and usually exhibit medium levels of sweetness.

Beerenauslese: Rare wines that are usually made from hand-selected grapes that are affected by noble rot (Botrytis cinerea). These wines tend to be rich and unctuous, making them superb dessert wines.

Trockenbeerenauslese: The sweetest and most highly prized of the bunch. These wines are made only in the best vintages from grapes that have become raisinated from botrytis. The sugar levels in the grapes become so concentrated that they produce glorious nectar-like wines.

So there you have it. Now that the secret of one of the world’s most underrated wines is out, you should be feeling a little smug that you’re in on it. So go ahead and raise a glass of Riesling. You won’t be disappointed…