No, it’s not because I’m an angry person by nature. Actually, it’s almost the opposite; I’m usually a Type B personality. Though I do enjoy seeing red — in my wine glass, that is. But because I reside in the 50th, where we typically experience just two seasons, a very hot summer running from October through May and an unbearable summer running from June through September, the red wines usually remain in storage. So, I often reach for that chilled bottle of Champagne, Rose or white wine to experience the chill. Just because a massive, fruit-driven, alcoholic Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah is definitely not what the doctor ordered. It’s like wearing plush wool on your palate in the dead of summer!
But for the past couple of weeks, we’ve experienced several cold fronts passing over the islands, which made it a prime opportunity to uncork those cold weather wines.
Red Wines of the Rhone
You’ve probably seen these red wines either bottled as individual varietals, such as Syrah (Shiraz), Grenache or Mourvedre, or bottled as blends, also including Cinsault, Counoise and Carignan. In the U.S. and Australia, they are usually labeled by the grape varietal, whereas in France, they are labeled by the region, such as Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage or Cornas, or in the south as Chateauneuf du Pape or Vacqueyras and Gigondas. But all of these wines originate from the same red grape varietals, and especially in the U.S. and Australia, tend to produce very fruit forward wines, usually with higher alcohol levels. This usually isn’t a desired beverage when the mercury is well above 90 degrees in the shade. But with the recent cooling in the 50th, I found it an ideal time to revisit some of my favorite reds from the Golden State.
I first sampled the wines of Helen Keplinger at a private tasting at 750 Wines, located at the northern end of St. Helena town in Napa County just off of the main highway. 750 Wines is run by David and Monica Stevens and seems more artist’s loft than wine store, where private tastings are arranged by the couple that entail much more than merely sampling their offerings. Before your tasting appointment is scheduled, along with asking you what grape varietals you prefer, they also inquire what you normally drink, what price point you normally purchase, and even the specific genre of music you prefer. So when you sit down for your tasting, it is a total wine-tasting experience. And that’s where I first sampled the Keplinger Lithic, which is a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre, grown high in the Sierra Foothills.
What captivated me was the nose, which included violets, lavender and sweet tea, along with earth and dark red and black fruit.
Since that first encounter several years ago, I signed up for the Keplinger mailing list and have continued to purchase their newest releases twice a year. Keplinger currently produces about 16 different wines, though most of them are from blended red Rhone varietals. None of the Keplinger wines have disappointed, including their one white wine, the Eldorado, which is a Viognier blend. The Keplinger wines are perfect for slow-roasted proteins and braised lamb or beef, which is compatible under our current climatic conditions.
Started almost 20 years ago by Matt and Maureen Trevisan in Paso Robles, Linne Calodo produces about 14 different wines, usually with traditional red Rhone varietals, though they do make one white wine, along with several Zinfandel-based wines. They even have one label that includes American, Rhone and Spanish red varietals.
What all of the Linne Calodo wines have in common is the presence of dried spices that you get in the nose and on the palate framed by ripe fruit. After first tasting the wines, I intended to sign up for the mailing list, but since most of the line-up is now available in Hawai‘i, I prefer having my local wine shop “store” the wine for me (until I purchase it) and also pay for the shipping costs. My current favorites — which can change with the Linne Calodo line-up because the blends aren’t exactly the same every vintage — is the Overthinker, which is a typical Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre blend and the almost impossible to find Martyr, since it’s not produced every year and even when it is produced, only about six barrels are created.
Because of the abundance of dried spices in their line-up, I find that the Linne Calodo wines work particularly well with braised beef and lamb dishes that include spices like cinnamon, star anise and five spice.
The Golden State Bad Boy
Yes, it’s that one grape varietal that fetches the most dollars per acre or ton that put Napa Valley on the map during the Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976. When Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon beat the likes of the 1970 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, the 1970 Chateau Montrose, the 1970 Chateau Haut-Brion and the 1971 Chateau Leoville-Las Cases, the Golden State didn’t just enter the international wine world, it blew the doors off.
Since that time, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has commanded top dollar, often fetching $300 per bottle directly out of the winery and double that on the secondary market. And for the longest time, what was in vogue was ultra-ripe, ultra-concentrated, fully-extracted high-alcohol wines that almost needed chewing, definitely not hot weather wines. And forget about pairing any foods with these wines short of 14-hour smoked brisket liberally slathered with gooey barbecue sauce.
But there are still winemakers out there focused on restraint, creating Cabernet that balances the natural tendency for ripeness in the Golden State with terroir that’s desired in the Old World. And once again, I had my first taste of Detert Cabernet Franc at 750 Wines.
Detert Family Vineyards, tucked away behind the famous To Kalon vineyard, started in 1954 and initially simply sold grapes to Charles Krug and Robert Mondavi. In 2000, the three great-grandsons of original owner Hedwig Detert, started their own label, which today only includes three different wines, a Cabernet Franc, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a high-end East Block Cabernet Franc. And again, what captivated me was the nose of the Cabernet Franc, which usually just has notes of green pepper in basic renditions. Detert also had notes of violets and cassis and the pepper notes were more charred green chili notes than bell pepper.
So I also signed up for their mailing list and continue to purchase their wines. And though Cabernet Franc is one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon, its subdued aroma and flavors can even pair with roasted pork and poultry, especially when a hearty sauce is employed.
Uncork those Bold Reds
So while I’ll continue to uncork those big, bold reds for the next month or so as long as the mercury remains less than 80, all of you in the Golden State can do the same almost all year long. And as an added benefit, you can also make that hour-long drive to St. Helena to schedule your private wine tasting at 750 Wines all year long. Life’s too short just to enjoy just one single grape varietal or a single brand. I have about a dozen favorites … and that’s just with the bold red …
And on a final note, with the next bottle of vino I uncork, I’ll pour a second glass for a fellow Nichi Bei columnist whom I met just once but forged a friendship from that solitary meeting.
To the Kaeru Kid, Glenn Nakadate, may you rest in peace my friend. Namu amida butsu (total reliance upon the compassion of Amida Buddha).
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.