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January 30, 2009

New Product: The Respirer Wine Aerator

Well before Christmas I recommended the nifty Vinturi wine aerator, which I love and gave as gifts to several friends.

That prompted another company to contact me about its new product, called the Respirer. It's not pronounced the way it looks, because the word is French. That's their first big mistake, but I'm still game, so I have agreed to use their new gadget (like the Vinturi, priced at about $40) and tell them what I think.

My first question, of course, was whether or not they thought the Respirer was better than the Vinturi, and if so, why? I could have predicted the response. Of course, it's wayyyy better than the Vinturi.

I wouldn't know about that, but after testing the Respirer I will give a full report. I'm hoping it lives up to its hype and spawns dozens of copycat competitors, which may bring the price down to the point I can afford to put it, or something like it, to work at my wine competitions.

These aerators work wonders with young wines, smoothing the tannins and removing other harsh elements that would eventually blow off on their own, but only after being decanted and exposed to air for an hour or more.

I suspect it may indeed work as well as the Vinturi. And if the hype is true and the Respirer is superior, all the better!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:19 PM

Good Time to Be a Wine 'Buyer'

Christian Roguenant emailed yesterday to bow out of his position as a judge at the 2009 Monterey Wine Competition, scheduled for early March. Christian expressed regret, but the Baileyana winemaker indicated duty calls.

His duty, it turns out, is to hit the road in March to bolster sales in this sagging enonomy. I fear it is a sign of the times. Baileyana, which produces beautiful Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah from the Edna Valley and surrounding environs, is both high class and well priced.

If Baileyana is hustling to move inventory, I wonder what it must be like for lesser lights in the wine industry. Never mind, I already know. It's rough out there.

Restaurants in particular have scaled back on their wine purchases, and more and more consumers are drawing down their private stocks rather than indulge in the latest releases.

Wine for some of us may be a necessity, but for the vast majority of Americans it's a luxury. And those wine enthusiasts who continue to buy wine are shopping for value.

What this means for the wine industry over the long haul is difficult to gauge. I would imagine many of the haves (that would be wineries and wine companies with cash reserves) will gobble up many of the have-nots over the next couple of years.

The wine landscape will change, for sure. For consumers like you and me, I know there are deals out there. I just scored four bottles of Gaja's 2000 Sperss for a rediculously low price.

I hate this economy, but I'm trying to make the best of it. This may be a bad time to be a seller, but it's probably never been better for buyers!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:41 AM

January 29, 2009

An Oasis for the Wine Geek Road Warrior

Over the years I've found that wine geeks like me can amuse ourselves in the most unlikely places.

Earlier this week I was flying out of Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport on a bleak afternoon with flurries of mixed sleet and snow. I had a couple of hours to kill when I happened upon a wine bar, Cibo, inside the airport.

Just about every restaurant that pours wine by the glass now fancies itself a wine bar, so I wasn't expecting much when I wandered in and sat down for lunch.

I ordered steamed mussels as a starter, to be followed by pancetta-wrapped prawns. (Does anyone remember the day when the best you could do in an airport was a rubbery hot dog?)

I glanced at the wine list and settled on a Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Not bad, I thought. As I continued to peruse the wines behind the bar, I noticed a Sancerre from Pascal Jolivet. Wow.

A glass of the Jolivet later I spied a Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet. The bottle was open. I explained to the woman behind the bar that I was sorely tempted to order the Leflaive, but I wondered how long ago that cork had been pulled.

My heart sank when she said a couple of days. "I'll pour you a taste and you can see if it's OK," she said sweetly. "And if it isn't, I would be happy to open a new bottle."

Hardly an offer I could refuse, so I went for it. The wine was fine and I was a happy camper, knowing the next eight hours of travel wouldn't present anything nearly as delicious.

I walked down to the gate sated and satisfied, and wondered to myself why all wine bar experiences couldn't be as gratifying -- and I'm not only talking about the superb wines, but the exceptional customer service.

It's food for thought.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:03 AM

January 25, 2009

Here Come the Judges!

I've just finished prepping the judges' bios for the annual Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, May 23-24 in San Diego.

Results of that competition, along with excerpts from the judges' tasting notes, will be published here at Wine Review Online. A drum roll please for this year's cast of critics:

Chief Judges

Mary Ewing-Mulligan is a Master of Wine (MW) and President of the International Wine Center in New York. She co-authored the best-selling Wine for Dummies and seven other books, and has contributed wine articles to Wine Spectator, Gourmet, The New York Times, Food & Wine and Newsday. She is a WRO columnist.

Robert Whitley, yours truly, writes the nationally syndicated Wine Talk column for Creators Syndicate and is Publisher of WRO. Robert has been a writer and/or editor at numerous major print publications, including Newsday, The Washington Post, Charlotte Observer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Robert currently hosts two weekly radio shows, Whitley On Wine and San Diego Gourmet.


Michael Apstein is a WRO columnist and a frequent contributor to the wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Michael has written numerous wine articles and columns for the Boston Globe, Wine News and Boston Magazine. In 2001 Michael won the prestigious James Beard Award for his work at the Boston Globe.

Jon Bonne is Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, responsible for each Friday's Wine section as well as the annual Top 100 Wines. Previously Bonné was Lifestyle Editor and wine columnist for MSNBC.com and wine columnist for Seattle Magazine. He also writes regularly for Food & Wine, and has reported for The New York Times, Newsweek, National Public Radio and Wines & Vines.

Gerald Boyd's career in wine journalism is longer and deeper than just about any other wine journalist in America. He has been Editor of Wine Spectator and Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in a remarkable journey over the past 30 years. Gerald has written wine articles for Decanter, Wine News, Quarterly Review of Wines and Vineyard & Winery Management, and he also writes a column for WRO.

Patrick Comiskey writes about wine for the Los Angeles Times. He also holds a position as Senior Editor of Wine & Spirits Magazine and is a WRO columnist. Patrick also has written wine articles for the San Francisco Chronicle, Bon Appetit and the Robb Report.

Michael Franz is Editor of WRO. He was wine columnist for the Washington Post between 1994 and 2005 before taking the reins at WRO. Michael is a regular contributor to France Magazine, and does a bi-weekly wine segment on National Public Radio station WAMU in Washington, D.C.

Paul Lukacs writes wine columns for Saveur, the Washington Times and Washingtonian Magazine. He also has written for Wine & Spirits and Food Arts, and in 2001 won a prestigious James Beard Award for his book American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine. Paul is a WRO columnist..

Ed McCarthy is among the world's leading authorities on Champagne. He authored the book Champagne for Dummies and co-authored the other best-selling books in the Wine for Dummies series. Ed is a WRO columnist and has written for Decanter, Quarterly Review of Wines and Nation's Restaurant News.

Elin McCoy is wine columnist for Bloomberg News and author of the definitive work on wine critic Robert Parker, the 2007 book Emperor of Wine. Elin is a contributing editor to Food & Wine Magazine, gourmet editor for Smoke, and has written about wine for Forbes, Money, New York, House & Garden, House Beautiful and Drink.

Linda Murphy writes a column on California and other West Coast wines for Decanter, and she was Wine Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Linda also writes a column for WRO and reviews California wines for JancisRobinson.com. Linda is Chief Judge of the Monterey Wine Competition.

Rebecca Murphy writes a wine column for the Dallas Morning News and is a regular contributor to Appellation America. Rebecca is the founding Director of the prestigious Dallas Morning News Wine Competition and has judged at major international wine competitions around the world.

Leslie Sbrocco wrote the book Wine for Women as well as numerous other books, and hosts a weekly PBS television show dedicated to food and wine in the San Francisco Bay Area. Leslie has written about wine for the San Francisco Chronicle, Epicurious and WRO.

Nick Passmore writes a wine column for Business Week and authors the popular Nick on Wine website. Nick has written about wine for Forbes, WRO and numerous other national and international publications.

Marguerite Thomas is a regular contributor to Wine News and writes a wine column for the Los Angeles Times International Syndicate. Marguerite is a columnist for WRO and has written about wine and spirits for Gourmet, Saveur, Wine & Spirits, Wine Enthusiast, Sante and numerous other national publications.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:06 PM

January 21, 2009

The ABC's of Chardonnay Love

I'll be the first to admit that I was once firmly planted in the ABC (anything but Chardonnay) camp. Like many wine enthusiasts, I had grown weary of the heavily oaked butterball Chardonnays that prevailed over the past two decades.

Those wines weren't necessarily bad, merely boring. The monotonous drumbeat of slightly sweet, oily Chardonnays coming out of California wineries drove many wine lovers into the waiting arms of the Kiwis, with their crisp, pungent Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand's Marlborough region.

When I had a yen for Chardonnay, I bought French. White Burgundy from the Cote de Beaune when I could afford it, but mostly premier cru Chablis. I was completely turned off by domestic Chardonnay, with few exceptions.

I'm happy to report that I no longer loathe a tasting lineup stacked with California, Oregon or Washington Chardonnays. My assistant, Felicia, is overjoyed by my renewed interest in domestic Chardonnays, because she loves them and she gets her pick of the leftovers following a tasting.

What has turned it around for me is the evidence of restraint being exercised by more and more wineries. While I may occasionally enjoy a big, fat, oily Chardonnay from, say, Talbott's Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, I'm much more likely to ask for a less fruit-driven Chardonnay such as Sonoma Cutrer or Kistler when ordering in a restaurant.

At least I now have an abundance of options. Imagine a world where all Chardonnays don't taste the same! That's the subject of my Creators Syndicate column this week. Click here to read the whole thing.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:43 PM

January 15, 2009

Wines That Make My Job Easy!

After a brief hibernation following the college football bowl season (you might even infer the BCS championship game put me to sleep!) I'm back at work and revving into tasting mode.

I must admit it's easier to find your mojo when the wines being tasted excel, and that was the case with my first big tasting effort of the new year.

I came away with 24 recommendations, which have been posted on the WRO Reviews pages this week (along with another 21 from Editor Michael Franz and Columnist Michael Apstein).

Some of them bear mention because they reminded me why I love my job. I absolutely fell in love with the Mount Veeder 2004 Reserve, a red meritage blend from the deft hand of winemaker Janet Myers, But at $80 I don't see myself loading up the back of the Explorer with more than a few bottles. Not to worry, the 2005 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon is that rare "value" Napa Valley Cabernet that's truly an affordable collectible at $40.

I was jazzed, too, by an unusual red from Italy's Veneto region, the Inama Carmenere Piu. This is a spicy, sexy red from Italy's most renowned Soave producer. Go figure. It's imported by Brian Larky's Dalla Terra Winery Direct -- and Larky is as good as there is at discovering eclectic Italian wines that will rock you.

And once again I was blown away by the combination of quality and price when I evaluated Sonoma Cutrer's latest Russian River Ranches Chardonnay, the most underrated Chardonnay made in California.

Check out this week's Reviews page. I'm quite certain you will find something to like!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:33 AM

January 2, 2009

Michael Franz's 2008 Producer and Wine of the Year

Producer of the Year:  Penfolds

At a time when Australian wine seems beset by persistent problems affecting its reality as well as its image, Penfolds remains solid as a rock.  Oversupply and chronic drought are specters that will likely loom over the country's industry well into the future, and a hardening reputation among casual consumers as a source of cheap 'Critter Wine' is scarcely less worrisome.  The value of Australian wine shipped to the USA declined in 2008, as did the average value of the cases that were shipped.  And yet, anyone who wishes to defend Australia's importance and potential excellence need only point to Penfolds.

If there is another winery in the world that is more consistent in producing lots of delicious wine at accessible price levels while also crafting extraordinary mid-range and high-end wines, I am unaware of it.  In some instances, a country's most famous producer is also arguably its best, but it is exceedingly rare for such a producer also to turn out a full range of wines--white as well as red--that excels at every price point.  Aside from Penfolds, the entire world of wine includes only one such producer, Catena in Argentina, and Penfolds makes much more wine--and has been doing it in a remarkably consistent way for much longer.

Penfolds is so solid that you can blindfold yourself, point anywhere in the portfolio, and hit a winner.  The "Koonunga Hill" line is often discounted to prices below $10 and includes some remarkable over-achievers (Shiraz-Cabernet and Shiraz are often my favorites, but the Chardonnay, Cabernet and Cabernet-Merlot can also be very good).  At the next level up, the "Thomas Hyland" line (widely available for $15 or less) includes wonderful Riesling, Cabernet and Shiraz, as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  The next step up is the "Bin Range," generally available for $25 or less, including Bin 407 Cabernet, Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz and Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz, as well as the extraordinary Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz (priced a few dollars higher), sometimes called "Baby Grange" and capable not just of surviving but actually improving for 20 years.

The Penfolds "Special Bin" and "Cellar Reserve" wines are very rare, but the top-level wines are made in quantities sufficient to find them fairly readily around the world.  Three quite distinctive and quite remarkable Shiraz bottlings (St. Henri, Magill Estate and 'RWT') are all delicious on release but capable of developing for decades, and the same is true for the amazing Bin 707 Cabernet.  The top-level white is Yattarna Chardonnay, which is still in flux in terms of grape sourcing but has been terrific in its best vintages.  And the Penfolds flagship, Grange, is widely regarded as the best wine of the entire Southern Hemisphere and is almost certainly one of the world's ten greatest wines.

If there is a single person responsible/creditable for all of this excellence, it is Peter Gago, Director of Winemaking for Penfolds.  His work as a winemaker speaks for itself, and since I've considered him a friend for years, I shouldn't gush about him here.  I would observe, however, that aside from having mastered his craft, he remains conspicuous among his peers in the winemaking elite for his tirelessness as a student of wine and his ardor as a lover of it.  His curiosity is boundless, and he is the one winemaker from whom I always learn something important during each meeting--often about Champagne or Port or something quite disconnected from his own wines.  One suspects that Penfolds will not only maintain its lofty stature under his leadership, but continue to extend its accomplishments in heretofore unseen directions.

Wine of the Year:  Vilafonté, Paarl (South Africa) 'Series M' 2004: 

The Vilafonté project is a combined effort of California winemaker Zelma Long and grower Phil Freese, along with South African wine marketeer Mike Ratcliffe.  The 'Series M' and its stablemate 'Series C' are both extraordinary in 2004, and though this bottling is the less expensive of the two, it is more complex and interesting at the current stage of its development (though the tighter, more intense Series C may actually prove the better of the two someday).

A blend of 36% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 25% Malbec and 8% Cabernet Franc, the 2004 Series M offers wonderful notes of dark cherries, plums and cassis, along with lovely accents of autumn leaves, cedar, spices, and toast.  The integration of all of these notes is excellent in the sense that they remain distinct but are still so proportionate that the wine seems complete and seamless.  I scored this incredible wine at 95 points, and at a full retail price of $52, it should be causing sleepless nights for those selling Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet for more than $100.  Imported by Broadbent Selections, it is available in many markets as well as online from sites like wine-searcher.com

Posted by Michael Franz at 3:24 PM