Zaca Mesa Wines are a Collector’s Best Deal


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As seen on Forbes.

Part One of the Not Popular, but Very Cool Wines Under the Radar Series. We all know what the movie Sideways did for Pinot Noir’s popularity; it’s nigh impossible to find a balanced, delightful one for less than $40. if you want a collector’s Pinot, well, you’ll really need to open that wallet. In an effort to help you stock your cellar, cabinet or basement storage room with great juice, I’ve composed a series on wines to buy now before they reach celebrity status.

Right now, the best deal in California wine might very well be a Rhone blend from the Santa Ynez region.

Bear in mind that a similar quality estate grown French Rhone wines, (or Napa Cabernet Sauvignons) typically start at $80 and go up from there. Eric Mohseni, winemaker for Zaca Mesa Winery, insists his Santa Ynez winery has the ideal climate for growing Rhone grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvedre, and Cinsault. Situated between two climate extremes the winery balances heat from Paso Robles to the north with cool from the Santa Rita Hills to the south. But climate isn’t everything, Mohseni also has old vines (Zaca Mesa Winery does have the distinct advantage of owning the oldest Syrah plantings, circa 1978, in Santa Barbara County), and some pretty cool dirt.

This magical combination does indeed make California’s Santa Ynez Valley a special place. Some even refer to this region as France’s Other Rhone Zone; Northern Rhone to be exact, where Syrah dominates the blends and a more balanced climate results in refined, more structured wines.

Climate, dirt and vines aside, I asked Mohseni why California Rhone wines are today’s best deal in wine.

Eric Mohseni, Winemaker for Zaca Mesa

Spend your money on a Rhone blend instead of a Cabernet Sauvignon.  You’ll get more bang for your buck, especially the way pricing is now. There’s so much going on in our wines: dried herbs, pomegranate, blueberry and black pepper. It’s a very different experience. Our blended wines deliver layers of taste and personality (as many Cabernet’s do), but for far less money.  Don’t get me wrong Cabernet is lovely, but it can be one-dimensional.

Our growing location is absolutely ideal. We aren’t a totally cool climate and we aren’t an entirely hot climate; we are in the enviable position of being in the geographic middle. Hence our wines get a bit of opulence, not too much alcohol and the high tones I like from cooler climates.

Paso Robles wines have big fruits and opulence, but also issues with too much alcohol.  Purely cool climate wines (from Santa Rita Hills, for example) have elegance and refinement but can almost be too austere. We enjoy a balance of both worlds.

My wine making style is definitely more old school. I use Old World wines as inspiration. I don’t copy or mimic, you just can’t mimic other wines because you have to work with and respect the vineyard site you are on.

My job is not to screw things up. I take what Mother Nature gives me and am always mindful of how I influence the outcome. For example, I’ve spent 11 years experimenting with different oak barrels, weighing tight grained oak versus medium grained oak, trying different coopers and tasting for how each detail changes the wine.

Every year is different and there are so many variables that are hard to control, that’s why I love about the business.

I think the term terroir is overused. You really can’t honesty discuss terroir until you see commonality in the wines year after year. There is a bit of rusticity in my wines that’s reminiscent of the sagebrush and tobacco in true Rhone wines.

If I weren’t making wine I’d be rescuing bulldogs (well, any dogs) —but my wife and I love bulldogs.

When you taste my wines you’ll get high tone notes. They tend to be jovial with minerality and acid.

Talk is nice, but it’s all in the taste at the end of the day. I did taste, and must say kudos to the team at Zaca Mesa…they’re doing a fine job of crafting refreshing riffs on old world styled Rhone blends, right here in the good ol’ USA.  The sweet spot is the price, a bargain when put up against parallel French wines.

Zaca Mesa Z Three, 2007, $42. Like a lush blueberry patch with high notes and velvety fruits and steady threads of clean freshness that keep you interested.  This is a darker, denser, more round version of its French counterparts.A blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache, received a 92 point score from The Wine Spectator.

Zaca Mesa Reserve Syrah, 2008, $44, Tastes like a blackberry pie served with a shot of espresso. This wine has some serious muscle that gets nicely balanced with dried herb and cedar notes. Buy it and wait a few years to let complexity build.  It’s a keeper for sure, 92 points from Wine Spectator and labeled a ‘Smart Buy’.

Zaca Mesa Black Bear Block Syrah, 2008, $60. Made from the region’s oldest Syrah vineyard, this wine is the most age-worthy of them all. Imagine lush dark berry fruits, leather and mocha woven together and finished with whiff of dried herbs for complexity and you have this wine. 90 points fr

Bordeaux is Back…


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Chateau Margaux Winery in France Chateau Margaux Winery in France

If opera were a wine, it would taste like a 1999 Chateaux Margaux…

Imagine tasting complex layers of harmony, followed by a sultry intermezzo on the mid-palate, only to finish with a powerful crescendo. To taste this wine you merely need to find it (good luck with that) and then shell out about $600 for a single bottle.


Aurélien Valance of Chateau Margaux Aurélien Valance of Chateau Margaux

The winemakers in Bordeaux have a better idea; they suggest that ambitious wine lovers collect and age their own Bordeaux—buying it at a young age for a considerable cheaper price and patiently letting it age to perfection in your cellar. In fact, Bordeaux winemakers are actively reaching out to America’s younger wine drinkers to encourage just that habit with spectacular tasting dinners that feature several vintages of Bordeaux wines side-by-side.  At a recent Next Generation Bordeaux wine dinner in Atlanta, one of only 3 such events held in the U.S., Chateaux Margaux ‘s Communications Director, Aurélien Valance, blessed the event with six stellar wines. This sold-out dinner, held at 103 West, was also unprecedented in that it marked the first time that representatives from the storied Première Cru Chateau Margaux winery (which dates back to the 12th century when Eleanor of Aquitaine gifted it to her husband, the future King Henry II of England) have visited Atlanta.

Why Atlanta? Why now? The handsome and dapper thirty-something Valance is quick to answer, “The American market makes trends, people follow what you do.  We want the trend-makers to know about us.” Valance tells the story of a recent wine tasting in California. Surrounded by a room full of twenty-something hipsters toting their favorite cult cabernet of the moment, he felt a bit silly with his French offering. “But, I saved my (Chateaux Margaux) wine for last.”

After the Screaming Eagles and Colgins were gone, Valance served his Margaux. “When they put their noses in the glass no one spoke for about 10 minutes. The room was very quiet. Afterward they told me they’d never tasted a wine like that, it was the favorite.”

Valance admits that Bordeaux has a reputation for being old and stuffy, conceding that the wines tend to “get lost a bit in all the chatter about the more modern wines, but Bordeaux never gets boring, largely because the wines change in the glass as you enjoy them.” He also reminds me that Bordeaux also has the cachet of roughly 2,000 years of winemaking— and experience counts. (Premiers Cru Bordeaux wines can easily age for several decades.)

Like a true Frenchman, Valance compares the Chateau Margaux Bordeaux to a woman, “They have an elegant perfume, like a lady, and charm you at first, then, over time you see the character behind.” Surface charm and depth of character?  Better stock up now before this burgeoning trend hits the tipping (or should we say tippling) point!


Note Chateau Margaux is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Premiere Cru Bordeaux from Chateau Margaux Premiere Cru Bordeaux from Chateau Margaux

2006 Pavillion Blanc—Margaux’s second label—A Sauvignon Blanc with classic layers of mineral freshness and delicate honey and citrus notes.

2004 Pavillion Rouge:Dark blackberry and currant fruits with vanilla and graphite notes.

2004 Chateau Margaux:Beautifully integrated, with cigar box spices, leather, warm red fruits and a comforting plushness that invites you to sink into the wine.

2007 Chateau Margaux:Still a youngster, more tightly wound than the other wines but with a compelling, inky complexity.

1999 Chateau Margaux:Like a velvet sleeve with an intoxicating perfume of ripe red fruits, dried herbs and cedar notes and an unbelievably lingering finish to boot.

1990 Pavillion Rouge:At 21 years of age this wine is drifting towards its peak, but still plump with finely tuned layers of rich fruit, leather and smoke, perfect for a cheese course.


Sherlock’s Wine has a formidable collection of Bordeaux, including a very limited amount of Chateaux Margaux.

I Dig the Pig—Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008


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With apologies to Piggly Wiggly, the Pig I’m talking about is the wild boar that adorns Gary Eberle’s wine labels: specifically his Vineyard Select Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008. Without fail, when I serve this wine people swoon. Well, almost. At a recent wine tasting I poured this wine and, as expected, the guests circled ‘round…”What is this? Where did you buy it?  How much does it cost?  Can I find it around here?”  Even the chef catering the event later cornered me for scoop on where to get “that freakin’ amazing,” Eberle Cab.

Eberle is something of a winemaking visionary. Shoot, he was one of the original UC Davis team members who mapped Paso Robles AVA back in the 70’s when we were all still drinking Blue Nun. He knows his dirt, and he swears by the climate (bright sunny days, very cold nights) and soil of Paso as ideal for growing amazing Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals.

So what makes the Vineyard Select Cabernet so compelling?  Velvety edges at the beginning, a warm spice mid-palate tinged with chocolate and cedar, and a deep sigh of a finish heavy on the dark red fruits—all wrapped up in a vellum of earthiness. I’m also a Huge Fan of the price: $17-$19 bucks.  Now that’s something to snort about.

Fresh Fish and Fine WIne


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What to drink with Striper Bass?

Tohu Pinot Noir (2008). It’s a fine example of what I like to call the total New Zealand Pinot Package.  For whatever climatic reasons, New Zealand’s Pinot Noirs strike an almost pitch perfect balance between New World fruit forward cherry spiciness and the classic Old World earthiness. They play nicely together in the glass and it’s that balance that makes wines like Tohu pleasing to drink—and fantastic with food.  At roughly $22 a bottle, Tohu is one of the better values, consistent year-to-year and a great go-to wine if you’re having trouble deciding what to drink.  Of course we found it to be a perfect fit with our bass (brushed with olive oil, kosher salt, lemon and some pepper)…the fish was flaky, but a trifle steak-like too, so the wine didn’t overpower and the fish didn’t get lost.

Naturally we had to sample our fresh catch with a white wine as well. Abacela’s Albariño (2010) was the ideal fit. Heaps of mouth-watering citrus and some whiffs of perfume all held together with a zippy mineral backbone; this is one of the best Albariños I’ve ever tasted….and it’s crafted in Oregon. Pair it with fish, drink it alone, with friends, just drink it.


What does this have to do with wine?


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OK, a picture of my son on the slopes has nothing to do with wine.  But it’s been a long month of blazing heat and we all know it’s not over yet. I need to be prepared for the rest of summer with a libation that tastes as cold as this picture looks. Yet, I need more than just cold…I need refreshing, vibrant, crisp…like the air’s pureness after a snowstorm.

Enter Montinore Estate’s 2010 Borealis.  An Oregon white wine blend of Muller-Thurgau, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.  $16

The first sip is something like taking a bite from a Granny Smith apple, followed by perfume and tropical notes.  There’s a lot going on in this glass, it’s just good fun.  As an added bonus, you’ll feel virtuous when drinking a Montinore wine, as all of the estate fruit is biodynamically farmed—that’s nothing to sneeze at.  Cheers!

Swanson’s Rosé—Watermelon in a Glass


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At a recent wine dinner in Atlanta (at the lovely Dogwood Restaurant) I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the dapper Clarke Swanson, proprietor of Swanson Vineyards and grandson of the Swanson frozen food empire (TV dinner anyone?).  Naturally, we drank some lovely wines, but the 2010 Rosato ($24) absolutely stole the show. Made from first run juice of Sangiovese grapes (the saignée method), it has a bold wild salmon hue. The wine literally bursts with notes of cherry and watermelon…calling to mind visions of myself at age nine lapping up the delicious coldness of a watermelon popsicle in the stagnant Midwestern heat.  Rich and fresh, it’s a craveable, gorgeous wine.  Alas, there’s only one place you’ll likely find it, on the Swanson website. It’s worth a visit and while you’re there, poke around and check out the clever Modern House Wines, with playful labels along the lines of: Just Married, Swell Swill, Lucky Night and Please Forgive Me. 

Order at

Summer is Here at $8.99 a Bottle!


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One just has to love wines that taste fabulous and cost me about as much as a gallon of gasoline (which isn’t saying much these days, I know).  But, these two wines from Spain (Arocho Red and Arocho Sauvignon Blanc) are something special. At $8.99 a bottle there’s a lot to love here.  Hailing from Western Catalunya, the Sauvignon Blanc is crafted in a more flowery style. A wee spot of added Chardonnay and Viognier gfive it a rich backbone with a hint of perfume.  If you don’t care for the zippy grapefruity style of a New Zealand SB, this is your wine.  It also just won a double-gold medal at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America conference 2 weeks ago in Orlando.  Impressive stuff for $8.99.
The Tempranillo/Garnacha is my fave here. At first sip it came off a trifle plummy, but first impressions can be utterly off base.  Because I was hosting a party and serving the stuff I couldn’t just put it aside  for a different wine  I had to stay put, make small talk and stick with it.  Well, hello…over the course  of the glass it grew more lush and complex.  I tasted violets, spices and cherry.  This wine is my new best friend, we go to parties, we sit on my porch after a long Monday, we go camping.  At $8.99–-it’s a no-brainer wine, and you’ll suffer less angst at the gas pump knowing you are saving some green on cheap, but delicious wine.

Stag’s Leap District Cabernet—CHEAP at Greens!


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To all my Napa Cabernet loving friends in Atlanta—get on over to Green’s TODAY.  Word has it they are selling some gorgeous Stag’s Leap District juice under another mystery label (This time it’s called Rubus Old Vine Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon).  You too can be the proud owner of some Very Expensive Cabernet Sauvignon from a well-known producer who remains anonymous, for a mere $19.99 a bottle.  You can bet they’ll run out soon, so stock up.  Cheers!

Newspaper Cleans Wine Glasses Best, Really!


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Loosely crumpled paper cleans the class best...without breakage.

Who said newspapers were on the way out?  Make your paper do double duty…of course read it first, enjoy the look and feel of the printed word, and then promptly place it under the sink.  There it will rest until you wash the evening’s wine glasses.  I have struggled for years with getting my Riedels, Spieglaus Target Brands and Schott Zwiesels pristine.  My glassware ritual (which my husband finds extensively tiring)…involves smelling the glass and then holding it up to the light.  This is where the shock comes in.  Typically (in my before-newspaper time) the glass would be coated in a filmy residue and splotchy with all manner of spots, rather like a child with a raging case of measles.  Who wants their Oregon Pinot Noir touching that stuff?  I tried sponges, paper towels, drip dry, and dishwasher…

Then I discovered newspaper.

After rinsing my glass in a hot water with a mild soap I set it aside to drain a bit.  Then I crumple up a wad of newspaper, loosely crumple mind you, gently push it into the glass and wipe with care.  A gentle swipe of the inside and a more thorough one of the outside and my glasses are always spankin’ clean.  If I could explain the science of newsprint to you and why it makes glass so clean I would.  I picked up this little secret at the framing store where they told me they only use newspaper to clean the framing glass.  Cheers to spot-free, residue-free glassware!

High Museum Wine Auction—Top Tastes


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Ok, full disclosure; I did not taste every single wine at the High Museum Wine Auction’s Trade tasting today.  So, this short list of my personal faves is not all-inclusive.  My apologies to those of you out there whose fabulous, hand-crafted juice I missed.  The tasting is an exercise in restraint as one is overwhelmed by the dazzling buffet of boutique, artisanal producers. Imagine a candy-lover in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and you get the idea.  That said, I did do the following—which everyone should do when seriously tasting wine:

  • Skipped the perfume and smelly-good soaps in the morning shower.
  • Wore no makeup—none—lipstick makes wine taste funny, and you’ll get rosy lips from all the red wine anyway.
  • Ate hours before and kept the meal simple.

Smell free and ready to roll, this is what I enjoyed:

1.      Croze Cabernet Franc—I acre vineyard, small lot stuff. Sexy, just plain sexy wine.

2.      Croze Cabernet Sauvignon—aged for 55 months!  Silky, lush, good acidity for such a wine.  A very uncommon Cabernet S. from Napa’s Silverado Trail.

3.      Big Table Farm Syrah–Dang!  Elegant, ripe with loads of blue fruits, rich, and a serious crowd-pleaser.

4.      Cu’ello white blend—Georgia’s perfect summer wine, crisp friendly fruit, but some nice body too.  Lovely.

5.      The Scholium Project-—Petite Sirah.  Wow, what a wine…loaded with off-the-hook concentrated dark red fruits. Mostly Petite Sirah, but some Mouvedre, Cinsault, Merlot and Syrah for added panache.

6.      Stag’s Leap Fay Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon–An exquisite example of how lush, complex and serious California wine can be.