What to drink during Running of the Bulls: Avignonesi Desiderio

Avignonesi Desiderio Cortona DOC Merlot 2011
Avignonesi Desiderio Cortona DOC Merlot 2011

Reading Hemingway always makes me want to drink. Every time Jake Barnes takes a long tug off of a wine skin during the Festival of San Fermín in Pamplona while watching the Running of the Bulls in The Sun Also Rises, I want to join him in some purposeless debauchery.

This year, the annual Running of the Bulls happens July 6th through 14th at the San Fermín festival, sparking a week-long celebration in Spain and with people like me around the world who want to party vicariously. You don’t have to be a Hemingway fan to have a deep affinity for tradition that honors a mix of beast-inspired panic and the adrenaline rush that comes with it. There is nothing better than a bottle of Spanish wine to celebrate the impudent gamblers who thumb their noses at certain death at the tip of the horn of a massive mound of sweaty bull flesh.

Well, unless you can find a fantastic bottle of wine adorned with a big white bull.  In that case, a fitting wine to drink during the Running of the Bulls is actually an Italian.

A wine that fits the bill is Avignonesi Desiderio, a brooding blend of 85 percent Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from the La Selva estate of Cortona DOC in Tuscany. The label of one of Avignonesi’s most prized wines depicts the beautiful Chianina bull, named Desiderio, of Tuscany. His reputation brought wealth to the small farm of La Capezzine, which became one of Avignonesi’s main vineyards.

This wine smells like courage. It’s bold with fat black and blue berries lashed with leathery straps. It tastes like victory. Brazen black cherries, plum and dusty mint and eucalyptus leaves wave a deep garnet flag in front of that bull. It’s strong and fleet enough to stay one step ahead and carefree enough to dodge any arrogant horn or hoof. Aged 16 months in French oak barrels, this wine is the blood of Desiderio, giving all who drink it, his powerful character.

Grab a bottle at your favorite wine shop for about $60 and celebrate this summer’s Running of the Bulls with the wild abandon of Hemingway’s lost generation.

Disclosure: I was provided a sample of Avignonesi Desiderio for review at no charge.

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October, the Month for Merlot #MerlotMe

Long a favorite red wine grape, Merlot has recently been seen as a lesser variety. A wine for unsophisticated beginners. There are several reasons why public favor for anything swings, but many point to the 2004 movie, Sideways, as a source of misfortunes for Merlot.

In the film the snotty oenophile, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, famously derides Merlot favoring Pinot Noir as a more elegant variety.  The result of this ridicule is known as the “Sideways Effect” that caused a decrease in both price and sales volume of Merlot wines.

The inside joke is at the end of the movie he furtively slips a bottle of a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from a brown paper bag. This storied Bordeaux wine is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Sneaky Miles.

Whether Hollywood has anything to do with the dip in popularity or not, several wine producers have banded together to promote the variety with a #MerlotMe tasting and social media promotion throughout the month of October. In Austin, The Red Room Lounge is hosting a tasting on Thursday, October 9.

Screw Miles. I love Merlot. It is the noble grape that is a cornerstone of Bordeaux wines, one of the world’s most prestigious wine regions. It also grows well and makes fantastic wine in prominent regions around the world. I couldn’t help jump on the bandwagon with wines from two participating wineries; Matanzas Creek Winery and Freemark Abbey.

Matanzas Creek 2011 Merlot, Sonoma County

Matanzas Creek 2011 Merlot Sonoma County

The cool growing year in Sonoma produced a deep garnet colored wine with plenty of depth. Matanzas Creek Merlot is blended with small doses of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It’s aged in French and American oak barrels for 15 months.

This is easy, breezy Sonoma County in a glass. Herbal scents of thyme and tomato stem intertwine with dark fruit aromas like black plum. Ripe blackberry, blueberry and cranberry cuddle with cocoa, coffee and fennel flavors. The soft tannins make it as smooth as a velvet smoking jacket.

Matanzas Creek is just as at home in the dining room as it is on the back porch. Enjoy it for $28 a bottle.

Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley

Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot Napa Valley

This rich and seductive red is made with fruit grown in five vineyards around Napa Valley; some high elevation and some lover in the valley. It is made with a blend of Merlot (85%) and lesser amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and a smidge of Malbec. It’s aged in French and American oak for 14 months.

This is a dark and brooding wine that will keep secrets from you. Secrets that will last until your last glass. The spicy scents lush with blackberry, blueberry and plum are true to the flavors of black cherry, blueberry and chocolate. It has an earthiness to balance the fruit and enough acidity to give it a spring in its step. Despite the powerful 14.5% alcohol, it doesn’t feel hot.

The secret revealed in your final sips? You should have bought a second bottle. It will set you back $34 a pop.

California Merlots are elegant without being fussy. They are relatively versatile with food and can dress up pizza or burgers, and can also play well with a fat steak.

Disclosure: I was provided samples of both wines by Jackson Family Wines.

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Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery delivers quality without the elevated price

A friend of mine was serving Shannon Ridge Chardonnay at his holiday party. When I asked him why he chose it, he said, “I was looking for a Chardonnay with a traditional Napa Valley style, but without the Napa Valley price. The guy at the wine shop steered me to this Lake County wine.” 

That’s exactly what Clay Shannon, founder of Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery, had in mind when he bought land in Lake County just north of Napa Valley – quality without the elevated price. The high elevation and cooler climate big are ideal for growing big tannic grapes like Cab and Zin. The well-drained, rich soils full of potash, calcium and good potassium levels allow the fruit to get ripe. Equally as important, the steep sloped vineyards were didn’t come with the king’s-ransom price tags of their Napa cousins.   

Clay grew up in wine country in Healdsburg, CA. He got into the grape growing business right out of high school and established a solid business. He eventually sold his farming business to Sutter Home Winery in 1985 and worked there until 1993. He learned a on the job, growing grapes all over California. After a short and lucrative stint as an almond farmer, Clay was beckoned by the siren’s song of the grapes to return to the wine industry to start Shannon Ridge with his wife in 1995.

In the beginning, he was growing Petite Sirah and Cabernet in the red soil of Lake County and selling the grapes in long term contracts to big wineries such as Beringer Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, and others. He started making small amounts of wine with winemaker Marco de Julio in 2002 and got the feel for it. In 2003, as he talked to his young children about their future, he realized he wanted a more stable financial business and decided to go full bore into the wine making business. Fast forward a hand-full of years and Shannon Ridge is now producing around 100,000 cases of wine a year.  

He embraced the challenge of transitioning from vineyard management to being a winery owner and relished the learning. “As a grower for other wineries the incentive is to grow tonnage. When making wine, the importance of yield on quality is more important. You have to focus on the quality of crop management: pull leaves, let the grapes hang the proper amount of time and don’t over crop it. It makes a huge difference in the quality of the wine.” His biggest learning, “If the wine is priced right and it tastes good, people will buy it.”  

For the Shannons, quality is rooted in sustainability. A corner-stone of the Shannon Ridge approach to sustainability is a heard of about 1,000 head of sheep that roam the vineyards. These wooly compost machines sanitize the vineyards by eating the leaves dropped, grapes missed and the weeds. With sheep hard at work, the Shannons eliminated the use of systemic types of herbicide and reduced the fungicide program. They also take the straw from the lambing barns and use it for mulch under the vines. To complete the cycle they sell grass-fed lamb to the local restaurants that buy the wine.   

Shannon Ridge makes a wide selection of wines such as Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Barbera. The diversity of varietals is a vestige of planting vineyards under contract for other wineries. It’s also allowed Clay to experiment to see what worked best. Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petite Sirah are the top sellers, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Wrangler Red, which is a fun blend of Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Tempranillo.  

I tasted my way through the “Ranch Collection” line-up, enjoying the whole batch. In the cooler months I tend to drink more red than white wine, and opted to share my tasting notes for the Shannon Ridge reds.

2009 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah Lake County

The grapes are sourced from the family’s High Valley Vineyards in Lake County. It is fermented in stainless steel and barrel aged in a mix of French and American Oak. This is the winery’s signature wine. The grapes grow particularly well in Lake County producing a wine with deep color, firm tannins and plenty of fruit.

Look The first thing I said when I pour the wine into the decanter was “Whoa, look at that color.” It splashed down the sides like liquid grape jelly; deep, vivacious and jolly royal purple as opaque as the last breath of sunset before the night goes black.
Smell The Petite Sirah has bouncy aromas of baked blueberry pie and flaky pie crust with spiced roasted beats and vanilla.  
Taste The bold blueberry, currant and vanilla flavors are balanced with firm tannins. The fruit coats the tongue in a velvet robe and the tannins grip the lips and teeth in a warm embrace. This wine pairs well with lamb, like the grass and grape fed woolies that roam the Shannon Ridge vineyards.
Price $ 24


2009 Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County

 The grapes for the Lake County Cab are grown in High Valley and Red Hills appellation vineyards. They use extended maceration to get the darkest color possible and then age the wine in a mix of French and American Oak.

Look This Cab is deep plum purple with some translucence.  
Smell It has a rich nose of blackberry, black cherry and baking spices.    
Taste Jammy blueberry, stewed plums and fig with baking chocolate flavors meld with plenty of tannins that punctuate each sip. The smooth texture holds for a long finish the eases from berry to bitter. This is a steak-lovers wine. It has the pop to marry with a fat ribeye.
Price $19  


2009 Shannon Ridge Merlot North Coast

Merlot grapes grown in Lake and Mendocino counties are blended with small counts of Cab (9%) and Barbera (6%) for vibrant color and flavors.

Look This is eye popping eggplant and ruby gleaming in the glass.
Smell Full scents of cassis, black currant, pomegranate and cedar greet the nose.  
Taste Shannon Ridge makes a pleasant, easy-drinking and food-friendly Merlot with buoyant berry, black cherry flavors and a touch of bitterness. It has mild tannin on the finish and a smooth mouthfeel. A great wine for a cool night, roasted root vegetables and pork tenderloin.
Price $19  


2009 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel

 Zin is well suited for the cooler climates of Lake County. Much of the Zinfandel that Shannon Ridge grows is used in the Wrangler Red, but Clay selects some of the best fruit and blends it with 7% of Petite Sirah to make a little more than 2,000 cases of this Lake County Zin.

Look Dark garnet color foreshadows the richness of this wine.
Smell It has opulent fragrances of fig, tart cranberry, black pepper and dusty cedar bark.
Taste This is a fairly traditional California Zin with big, jammy raspberry, cola, pepper and tobacco flavors. It’s perfect with pizza, pasta or just with a conversation.
Price $19


Clay’s favorite wine and food pairings are as humble as his beginnings. “I’m a deluxe hamburger guy, and I love it with our Wrangler Red. It’s fun wine with good tannins and structure, but simple enough to drink it with a hamburger. I also our single vineyard cab and our Viognier with lamb loin chops seared with salt and pepper.” That sounds damn good to me.

If you want to try Shannon Ridge wines with your favorite meals or at your holiday parties, call your local wine shop or order online. Shannon Ridge wines are available widely throughout most U.S. states including Texas. I purchased Wrangler Red (not reviewed here) at Specs in Austin.

Shannon Ridge Vineyard and Winery provided samples of the wine for review through its PR agency, Balzac Communications.

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Charles Krug Winery, a Family Affair

What are your favorite childhood memories? Do they have anything to do with your current job? In a conversation with Peter Mondavi, Jr., co-proprietor of Charles Krug Winery, he reminisced about doing odd jobs around the winery in the mid-60s when he was 8 years old. His grandmother lived on the property, and after a long morning of work Peter would come home to her house to a lunch feast of homemade pasta, roasted chicken and other delights. He also remembers celebrating Easter at the winery with his cousins. One year they held an Easter egg hunt in the bottling line because it was raining outside. During the following days, unfound eggs turned up in cases of wine and in other unexpected places. 

Fond family memories have turned into celebrated family accomplishments. California Governor Jerry Brown has proclaimed September 10 “Charles Krug Winery Day.” This isn’t because Gov. Brown is angling for a free tasting and a private tour of the venerable winery. No, it’s in honor of the 150th anniversary of the starting point for Napa Valley wine and the advances that Founder Charles Krug and later, Peter Mondavi Sr., have brought to the industry. They’ll celebrate the proclamation and the anniversary with a big bash on the winery lawn, pouring library wine for guests on Saturday, September 10.

Founded in 1861, Charles Krug Winery is the first commercial winery in Napa Valley. The Mondavi family has owned it since 1943 when Cesare and Rosa Mondavi bought it and took it out of the post-prohibition moth balls. Peter Mondavi Sr. has been at the helm since 1966, a year after a nasty spat with his brother Robert Mondavi led to his departure from Charles Krug to found his own winery down the road. Peter Sr., who will turn 97 in November, still comes to work every day, but he has turned over the day-to-day operation to Peter Jr. and his brother Marc. Now some of the fourth generation Mondavis are joining the party.   

In an era of when the wine industry is dominated by corporations consolidating smaller holdings, the independent family winery has gone the way of the cassette tape. The way of life is slowly eroding away. How do the Mondavis continue to succeed as a family venture? Peter tells me, “It’s in our blood. We love it. It’s a wonderful lifestyle. I love wine-making and everything that goes around it: The great people, the great food. Having a legacy of family is important. Maintaining a family winery ownership is a priority over all else. It’s a priority over profits and everything.”

A sesquicentennial celebration is a great indication that the blood line commitments are working.

One of the fun things they are doing to celebrate the 150th anniversary is a search for the oldest bottle of Charles Krug wine. One of the oldest bottles submitted on the winery Facebook page is from 1947. Can you imagine what one of the pre-prohibition, pre-Mondavi wines might taste like? Back then Napa Valley was dominated by different varietals like Muscatel and other sweet wines. The original grapes were mission grapes, and not Bordeaux blends despite the significant European influence, of pioneers such as Charles Krug and Gustave Niebaum.

Not only have the varietals evolved, but so have the technology of wine production and the viticulture. Krug was an innovator in 1861, introducing a cider press to crush grapes instead of crushing with feet. Peter Mondavi Sr. pioneered temperature controlled fermentation that is now a standard. He also introduced the first barrel aging in Napa in 1968. The vineyards root stock has changed dramatically, with vines tailored for specific soils and micro-climates. In addition, vine density has increased three-fold and pruning techniques have improved.

More recently the winery has undergone a significant refurbishment of the buildings. The historic Carriage House was restored and the Redwood Cellar, built in 1872, now holds the reserve barrel aging in a temperature controlled environment. They built whole new winery with smaller barrel fermentation and a temperature controlled environment to enhance fermentation. Charles Krug also brought in new grape presses from Switzerland to get the finest juice possible. The multi-million dollar renovation of the historic properties and the introduction of new technology shows a commitment to legacy and to continued quality improvements. 

Charles Krug Winery produces three lines of wine – the Napa Valley and Carneros Appellation Wines, the Family Reserve and the Limited Release – using six varietals. Within that line-up, Cabernet Sauvignon is the mainstay. The 2008 Cabernet Napa Valley is blended to achieve a good balance of moderate alcohol, fruit and tannins. The Mondavis strive for food friendly wines that don’t over power and are subservient to the food.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Look It is a glimmering jewel in the glass. Opaque garnet, with a bright heart and brick red at the edges. Slowly stretching legs cling to the glass with silky viscosity.  
Smell The ’08 Cabernet is has lush scents of blackberry, plum, anise and smoky cedar.  
Taste Velvety black cassis and blueberry coat the mouth followed by bitter dark chocolate and firm tannins. It has a smooth, long finish of stewed plum, charcoal and tobacco
Price $27


I also tried the Merlot. Charles Krug blends 79% Merlot with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and ages it for 20 months in French oak to achieve a quintessential California Merlot style. 

2008 Merlot Napa Valley

Look It is a polished aubergine shining with opaque mystery and depth.   
Smell The 2008 Merlot has a lively scent of black cherry, ripe plum and spiced chocolates.
Taste Its like a big mouthful of blackberry jam and violet blossoms, balanced with a touch of minerals and a smooth smoky, persistent finish.  
Price $24


Peter Mondavi Jr.’s favorite way to enjoy a glass of Charles Krug wine is with family and good friends while sharing a great meal. That’s exactly how I enjoyed these two wines. Open a bottle or two with your friends.  

What happens after “Charles Krug Winery Day” and the big anniversary bash on September 10? Peter Jr. plans for continued success with the winery as a family business. Staying an independent, family winery is paramount. He hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for quite some time yet to come. I’ll raise a glass to those honorable goals, and to the prestigious honor from Gov. Brown. Cheers.

Charles Krug Winery provided samples of both wines for review. Photos provided by the winery.

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