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Columns – Robert Whitley

2021 San Diego International Reviews
Robert Whitley
Jan 30, 2022

2021 San Diego International Reviews

Big Winners from 2020
Robert Whitley
Jan 5, 2021

The many setbacks of 2020 notwithstanding, there were numerous bright spots for the wine industry over the course of the challenging year just ended. As regular readers of this column know, I oversee four major international wine competitions. The insights I gain as I digest the competition results - from new trends and developments to confirmation of long-held truths - give me a unique window into the year-to-year evolution of the wine world. I've assembled highlights from the four competitions that provide a peek into the not-too-distant past, a 2020 that was better than you might have imagined given the circumstances of COVID 19 lockdowns and rampant disruption of our dining and consumption habits.

Merlot Fights Back
Robert Whitley
Oct 27, 2020

October is Merlot Month. Before you yawn, consider this: Merlot was ascendant in the domestic wine market prior to the 2004 movie "Sideways." The movie, filmed in California's Santa Barbara wine region, glorified (rightly) Pinot Noir and dissed (wrongly) Merlot. The widespread popularity of "Sideways," nominated for an Academy Award, had a profound influence on what ordinary folks thought about the two wines. Pinot Noir sales soared, while Merlot sales plummeted. Merlot Month has been a way for Merlot producers to fight back. Yes, it's a gimmick. But as these things go, it's a useful gimmick because it serves to remind wine enthusiasts that Merlot is indeed a noble wine that deserves our respect and admiration.

Age Matters at Cognac Frapin
Robert Whitley
Aug 11, 2020

COGNAC, France - Here in this mysterious land known officially as Charente or Charente-Maritime, roughly an hour's drive north of Bordeaux, the rolling hills are covered with hundreds of thousands of acres of vines that produce wine no one will ever drink. The primary grapes planted in the region - ugni blanc, folle blanche and colombard - yield wines that are typically thin and acidic and generally unfit for human consumption. They're perfect for the production of cognac, the epitome of grape brandy and one of the world's most refined and sophisticated spirits.

The Platinum Parade
Robert Whitley
Jul 7, 2020

Over the 30 years I've been writing a nationally syndicated wine column, I've easily sampled a couple hundred thousand wines - at least. At some point, you might think, the thrill of discovery would have worn off. In reality, tasting great new wines never gets old. Neither does sharing those experiences, such as the two days of judging at the recent 17th annual Critics Challenge International Wine & Spirits Competition in San Diego. My panel evaluated more than 250 young wines over two days, assigning a platinum, gold or silver award to wines of outstanding merit.

King of Cornas
Robert Whitley
Apr 28, 2020

Unlike many of the winemaking elites of the French wine industry, Jean-Luc Colombo was not born into the business. While growing up in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, France, Colombo was surrounded by chefs, particularly his mother and grandmother. He envisioned a career in a professional kitchen.

Bordeaux 2017: The Sweet Spot
Robert Whitley
Mar 31, 2020

BORDEAUX, France - The annual primeurs event in Bordeaux, which previews the most recent vintage of Bordeaux wine for the trade and press, often proves a chore as everyone muscles through hundreds of tannic young wines in an attempt to assess their quality and potential. It may come as a surprise to some, but tasting barrel samples is work. The astringency of young red wine presents a daunting challenge to even the most experienced wine professional. Because many Bordeaux wines are sold 'en primeur,' well before their release in a couple of years, the primeurs tastings are of tremendous interest to those who sell Bordeaux wines as well as those who consume them. While I have my reservations about a number of wines from the Graves and Pessac-Leognan district in the difficult 2017 vintage, I found the wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion, on the Right Bank, encouraging. They were riper, fleshier and less austere than many of the wines from Pessac and Graves.

Bordeaux 2017: Weathering the Storm
Robert Whitley
Mar 24, 2020

BORDEAUX, France - Although Bordeaux produces the world's most expensive and arguably its most sought-after wines, the journey from bud break to harvest is often fraught with peril for the region's vineyards. Vintage 2017 was fairly typical; a roller-coaster ride that started with an early spring followed by a devastating frost, followed by cool weather that delayed ripening, and ending with a wet autumn. Under the circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume 2017 was a bad year for the wines of Bordeaux. And first impressions appeared to confirm that. The annual Bordeaux Primeurs evaluations, organized by the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, kicked off with the wines of Graves and Pessac-Leognan, where lean and sometimes green seemed to be the order among the reds. The whites also tended to be austere. What saved these two districts from disaster was careful selection by the better chateaux and a delicate hand on the throttle by a majority of the regions winemakers, helping avoid the sin of too much extraction and the green, mouth-puckering tannins that result.

The Wines of Bibiana
Robert Whitley
Jan 14, 2020

When Bibiana decided to quit her university studies in Columbia, she set out for France with little more than a backpack and a dream. Her full name is Bibiana Gonzalez Rave, and she was born and raised in a middle-class family in Medellin, Columbia. Since her early teens, and against all odds in a country bereft of a strong wine culture, she dreamed of one day becoming a winemaker. Bibiana's journey began in Cognac, France, where she talked her way into the region's school of enology. After earning a brevet de technicien superieur degree, or BTS degree, in viticulture and enology, she moved on to the University of Bordeaux, where she earned a bachelor's degree in enology and graduated with honors.

Older Wines: Risk and Reward
Robert Whitley
Oct 22, 2019

Anyone with even a passing interest in wine has no doubt heard that 'fine' wine improves with age. I emphasize the word fine because no amount of time in the cellar will magically transform a bad wine. Wines produced from exceptional vineyards, however, often morph over time into something so sublime that wine enthusiasts will pay a handsome sum just for the tasting experience.

The Spottswoode Story
Robert Whitley
Sep 24, 2019

On a recent tour of Southern California with longtime winemaker Aron Weinkauf in tow, Spottswoode's Beth Novak Milliken presented another stunning vintage of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2016 Spottswoode Cab is much like every Spottswoode Cabernet that came before it - a Napa Valley classic that seems to defy vintage variation. The late Jack and Mary Novak had no idea, of course, that they had settled upon one of America's greatest vineyard sites when they purchased the historic property in St. Helena in 1972. Their goal at the time was to move their five children from the San Diego area to a more rural setting. And given the property's history - the first wine grapes had been planted in 1882 - they became winegrowers, selling their cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc to iconic wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Caymus, Heitz and Duckhorn.

Vintage Wines Estates, A Stealth Juggernaut
Robert Whitley
Aug 27, 2019

Unless you're a wine industry insider, chances are you've never heard of the Vintage Wine Estates. Whether by clever design or simply an accident, Sonoma-based Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) is a high-fly act that manages to cruise under the radar, a stealth juggernaut that now controls 30-plus wineries and/or wine brands plus two separate spirits companies. You may not know VWE (or its visionary CEO, Patrick Roney), but you certainly know many of its better lights, such as the Napa Valley wineries Clos Pegase, Swanson and Girard, just to name a few.

Bordeaux 2018: 20 Sensational Reds
Robert Whitley
May 7, 2019

BORDEAUX, France - The splendid 2018 vintage of red Bordeaux marks the fourth consecutive very good to outstanding harvest in arguably the world's most closely watched wine region. Given its marginal climate, which is often too cold to fully ripen the red grape varieties of Bordeaux, the current streak of above-average vintages is unprecedented in recent decades. The 2018 Bordeaux reds owe their lush aromas and generally fine tannins to a warm, dry summer that carried through the harvest without interruption. While a few chateaux suffered significant crop loss due to mildew or hail, the broader picture was one of healthy, ripe fruit that was picked in excellent condition.

Bordeaux 2018: First Impressions
Robert Whitley
Apr 9, 2019

BORDEAUX, France - In an annual rite of spring, thousands of wine merchants and dozens, if not hundreds, of wine journalists descend upon this city to take stock of the latest Bordeaux vintage. It matters not that these wines will not be released into the market for almost two years. Interest is driven by the sale now of Bordeaux 'futures.' A futures contract allows a wine merchant to purchase Bordeaux at the opening price for delivery in approximately two years. They're wagering that after aging in barrel for two years the same wines will cost considerably more, especially after the media spread the (hopefully) good news. In good to great vintages, that bet can pay off handsomely.

Pauillac in California
Robert Whitley
Mar 13, 2019

HEALDSBURG, California - It has been more than four decades since Tom Jordan decided to bring Bordeaux to California. The vision he expressed with the opening of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, on the outskirts of the village of Healdsburg in the Alexander Valley winegrowing region, was a Bordeaux-style chateau that would produce refined cabernet sauvignon to rival those from the great estates of Bordeaux

The Best From 2018
Robert Whitley
Jan 16, 2019

For those who revel in great wine, 2018 was a splendid year for the wine industry. From the hundreds of new releases that I tasted and reviewed over the course of the past 12 months, I've singled out the two wines, one domestic and one imported, and the two foreign and domestic wineries that impressed me most. These are exceptional wines and truly great wineries, all deserving of the most enthusiastic accolades.

Harvest Hot Spots
Robert Whitley
Oct 23, 2018

Harvest is a special time in wine country. Trucks loaded with grapes chug down the narrow country roads, optimism and anxiety are abundant in equal parts, and wine lovers flock to the scene to observe history, and wine, in the making. The heavy lifting of the 2018 harvest in the northern hemisphere is all but over except for the handful of late-ripening grape varieties still hanging on the vines. The grapes are in the cellar, the pungent smell of fermenting wine hangs heavy in the air, and the fruit flies are everywhere. It's the best time of year for a wine country visit. This week we take a look at three of the world's most popular wine-harvest destinations, including recommendations for accommodations and dining spots that I have visited and can personally and enthusiastically recommend.

Napa Valley Pioneer Cuvaison Looking Good at 50
Robert Whitley
Jul 3, 2018

The Napa Valley Winery Cuvaison would appear to be a model of continuity in a business that is constantly shifting and evolving. Cuvaison is coming up on its 50th anniversary, which makes it one of the earliest pioneers in the modern era of California wine. Founded in 1969, Cuvaison long ago made its mark as a purveyor of fine Napa Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It was purchased in 1979 by the Schmidheiny family of Switzerland and has been in the same hands ever since. Winemaker Steve Rogstad has been in the job for the past 16 years. But it turns out there's a whole lot of shaking going on at Cuvaison.

Bordeaux 2017: Medoc Is the Sweet Spot
Robert Whitley
May 8, 2018

BORDEAUX, France - The annual primeurs event in Bordeaux, which previews the most recent vintage of Bordeaux wine for the trade and press, often proves a chore as everyone muscles through hundreds of tannic young wines in an attempt to assess their quality and potential. It may come as a surprise to some, but tasting barrel samples is work. The astringency of young red wine presents a daunting challenge to even the most experienced wine professional. Because many Bordeaux wines are sold 'en primeur,' well before their release in a couple of years, the primeurs tastings are of tremendous interest to those who sell Bordeaux wines as well as those who consume them.

Burgundy: The Roads Less Traveled
Robert Whitley
Apr 10, 2018

BEAUNE, France - The biennial Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne this year took a look at the recently released 2016 and 2015 vintages, with a handful of wines from the 2017 vintage thrown in for fun.There is intense interest in the 2016 vintage in particular, because poor weather in the spring of that year brought down yields in many of the vineyards. It is an excellent vintage, but there isn't enough of it to meet worldwide demand.

For Value, Think Chablis
Robert Whitley
Mar 13, 2018

CHABLIS, France - France would be the last place most wine enthusiasts would look for great value in wine. The staggering cost of many of the most familiar estates in Bordeaux casts a mighty shadow over the entire French wine business. The problem with that narrative? It's simply not true. Here in the northernmost village of Burgundy, where the cool climate renders anything but white wine commercially useless, the chardonnay grape is the only game in town.

Bordeaux 2016: Excellent Vintage with Potential to Age
Robert Whitley
Feb 13, 2018

BORDEAUX, France - The 2016 vintage in Bordeaux got off to a rocky start, with heavy rains in the spring. The summer months began to sow optimism, with warm, dry weather that continued through harvest. Throughout the region, Right Bank and Left Bank, the vines were healthy and the crop bountiful. The result is an excellent vintage that should please collectors with wines that show tremendous upside potential to age.

My Top 20 'Value' Wines of 2017
Robert Whitley
Jan 17, 2018

Looking back at memorable wines from my 2017 evaluations, I would be remiss if I didn't reflect upon the exceptional value wines encountered throughout the year. Value, as Wine Talk readers know, doesn't necessarily mean cheap. I prefer to describe value wines as inexpensive and quality driven. In my calculations, they must always deliver a bang for the buck. They must taste like much more expensive wines. This year's Top 20 is actually 22 wines, including ties. To make the list a wine had to cost $20 or less and receive a numerical rating of 91 points or higher.

After the Wildfires
Robert Whitley
Oct 25, 2017

Rightly or wrongly, when most Americans think of wine country - a vague term at best - they mean the Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County an hour north of San Francisco. The region embodies the good life. Rolling vineyards give way to wooded hillsides, and idyllic villages with world-class restaurants dot the landscape. Along the way, winery tasting rooms abound. It is Disneyland for adults, a respite from the hustle and bustle of the big city and the cares of the real world. At least it was until Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, when the peace and tranquility was shattered in the middle of the night by a series of wildfires that swept through the hills and canyons in what is now the deadliest siege of wildfires in California history.

League of Their Own
Robert Whitley
May 9, 2017

Maurizio Zanella didn't create Franciacorta. It only seems that way. When the now-famous wine region was awarded DOC status in 1967, the sparkling wine business in Italy was dominated by sweet fizz from Asti, and Prosecco was barely on the radar. Zanella came along a few years later and launched Ca' del Bosco on a piece of property in northern Italy's lake region - land that had been purchased by his mother, Annamaria, many years earlier. Today, Franciacorta is to Italy what Champagne is to France. It is Italy's most complex, elegant and sophisticated bubbly. Ca' del Bosco is one of its most celebrated properties.

Rethinking Beaujolais
Robert Whitley
Jan 17, 2017

ROMANECHE-THORINS, France - Georges Duboeuf, now 83 years old, is old enough to remember when Beaujolais was the French wine of choice for many, if not most, American wine drinkers. Light, fruity and absent of aggressive tannins, it was the perfect bistro wine. But the American wine scene has shifted substantially since Duboeuf began pedaling Beaujolais in 1964. Sales in the U.S. have slipped as much as 40 percent over the past decade, prompting Duboeuf to switch importers recently. But if the U.S. market has changed, so, too, has the Beaujolais region, where Duboeuf oversees a vast network of small growers and independent winemakers.

Lenoble's Champagne for the Ages
Robert Whitley
Dec 20, 2016

DAMERY, France - When Armand-Raphael Graser moved from his native Alsace, France, to the Champagne region in 1915, World War I was raging. He purchased a house built in 1772 and from there launched Champagne AR Lenoble in 1920. Unlike many of his German neighbors, who had moved to Champagne in the 18th and 19th centuries, Graser chose not to use his own name for the wines he made, believing a German-sounding name in post-World War I France would be too much of a liability for a new business.

Five Obscure Gems
Robert Whitley
Oct 25, 2016

Even those with a mere casual interest in wine know the term "wine country" applies to Napa, California, Sonoma, California, parts of California's Central Coast, parts of Oregon and parts of Washington. Beyond those well-established viticultural boundaries, however, there is a blossoming culture of winemakers who are not content with the conventional wisdom on the topic of what conditions are best suited for winegrowing.

The Mystery of Wine Prices
Robert Whitley
Aug 2, 2016

A headline in a local shop recently caught my eye: "Why wine costs what it does." Ah, the mystery of wine. Is a $100 bottle of cabernet sauvignon really ten times better than a $10 bottle? The answer to this eternal question hardly comes down to numbers. The most important factor to consider is place. The most expensive wines come from somewhat hallowed ground, in my humble opinion. Bordeaux, for example, is revered around the world for the exceptional quality and longevity of its finest wines. Those would be the classified growths from the most famous chateaux.

California Wine's Best Kept Secret
Robert Whitley
Jun 21, 2016

The South Coast Winery in Temecula recently pulled off a feat no other California winery can claim, winning its fourth Golden Bear Trophy at the California State Fair earlier this month. The trophy is awarded to the California winery of the year, chosen from the hundreds that enter the state fair's annual wine competition. Considering more than half the wine consumed in the United States is produced in California, the trophy represents a significant accomplishment. That one small winery situated in the unheralded Temecula Valley, 60 miles north of San Diego, has captured the title four times against stiff competition speaks volumes about the winemakers,Jon McPherson and Javier Flores.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte a Lifestyle Juggernaut
Robert Whitley
Apr 19, 2016

BORDEAUX, France - When Daniel and Florence Cathiard first laid eyes on Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte more than a quarter century ago, it was love at first sight, despite the chateau's run-down condition and spotty reputation. The couple met while they were on the French Olympic ski team in the 1960s. They took on other endeavors, and years later decided to sell their massive supermarket chain, one of the largest in Europe, as well as a successful sporting goods business, to purchase the chateau. It was a bold move, even though the property was historic (the first grapes were grown there in 1365), and even though it had maintained its Grand Cru Classe status within the Graves district of Bordeaux after going through some rough patches.

John Jordan Remains True to His Roots
Robert Whitley
Dec 1, 2015

You could say John Jordan was born into the wine business, although he spent most of his adult life avoiding it. His parents, Tom and Sally Jordan, were dedicated Francophiles. They signed the deed on their Alexander Valley wine estate in May 1972, the same day John was born, so the story goes. John and his sister Jenny grew up amid the vines, while older sister Judy was away at college. Tom and Sally redefined California cabernet.

Hitting the Sweet Spot
Robert Whitley
Nov 4, 2015

There is a widely quoted statistic that about 75 percent of all Champagne consumption in the United States occurs in the final two months of the year, over the prolonged holiday season. But there is one other category of wine that is even more of a holiday novelty: dessert wine.

Grape Expectations
Robert Whitley
Oct 6, 2015

Imagine a world without cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling or sauvignon blanc. Those popular grape varieties make the wines most of the world likes to drink. Familiarity is as much a factor in their popularity as quality. But what of other grape varieties and the wines they make? The reality is there are lesser-known grapes that make equally delicious wines that allow wine enthusiasts to broaden the palate and perhaps discover a new favorite or two.

The New Face of California Wine
Robert Whitley
Sep 8, 2015

Robert Mondavi, the man who almost single-handedly put California wine on the map, passed in 2008. That same year, Jean-Charles Boisset, president of the largest wine company in Burgundy, France, purchased his first winery in California. In the intervening years Boisset married Gina Gallo of the E&J Gallo wine dynasty and beefed up his California wine portfolio with the addition of Raymond Vineyards and Buena Vista Winery to go with his original purchase of DeLoach Vineyards. The two men have more in common than meets the eye.

Champagne for the Ages, AR Lenoble
Robert Whitley
Jul 14, 2015

One of the most enduring wine myths of our time is the belief that Champagne is not likely to improve with age, that it must be consumed young for maximum pleasure. Au contraire. Champagne - the real deal from the Champagne district in northeastern France - is nearly as ageworthy as Bordeaux or Burgundy, two other French wines that collectors prize in their dotage.

Choosing Wines Today Easy as ABC
Robert Whitley
May 19, 2015

Walk into any wine shop with a significant inventory and most likely the selection will skew toward wines made from the world's two most popular red and white grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. They are often referred to as 'international' grapes because both are versatile and adapt easily to different soils and climates throughout the world, even though historically Cabernet Sauvignon is most closely associated with the Bordeaux region and Chardonnay the Burgundy region - both in France. There is a sentiment, however, among many wine enthusiasts to take the road less traveled and challenge the taste buds with other flavors. Those who choose this path are commonly known as the ABC crowd; ABC as in anything but Cabernet or anything but Chardonnay. That may seem like a diss, but in reality it is a noble quest to expand the palate horizon and appreciate wines made from less familiar grape varieties.

The Jackson Legacy
Robert Whitley
Feb 24, 2015

It has been nearly four years since Jess Stonestreet Jackson, the visionary vintner, passed away. Jackson was, like Robert Mondavi and Ernest & Julio Gallo before him, a towering figure in the California wine industry. His namesake winery, Kendall-Jackson, introduced an entire nation to the pleasures of chardonnay, one of the world's great white wines but barely a blip on the radar of American wine enthusiasts before Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay became a household name in the early 1980s.