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RIESLING, GEWURZTRAMINER, 
 PINOT GRIS, etc.
(Alsace/Austria/Germany in the US of A)



Though Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are the most popular California white wines, Riesling and Gewurztraminer are certainly worthy of our attention.

Many years ago California Rieslings were labeled as "Johannisberg Riesling."  This allowed California vintners to associate their Riesling with wines from a famous German wine.

Some years ago, California winemakers began to drop the "Johannisberg" from their Riesling labels.  But this allowed for a measure of trickery:  the grape known as Silvaner (or Sylvaner) was allowed to be labeled simply as "Riesling."  

The Federal government finally got involved in the mid-1990s and they actually help sort out the confusing mishmash of "Rieslings."

Sylvaner was formerly allowed to be sold as "Franken Riesling", since it is a prominent grape in Germany's Franken region.  
But, of course, California wines labeled "Franken Riesling" were mislabeled since they did not come from Franken vineyards.  Calling the wines simply "Riesling," allowed wineries to play on the more noble and prestigious "White Riesling," while selling Sylvaner wines.

Wineries such as Louis Martini in Napa, Mirassou in Santa Clara and Parducci in Mendocino all made Sylvaner wines, once upon a time.  Rancho Sisquoc in Santa Barbara also made "Franken Riesling" many years ago.
Mirassou labeled its Sylvaner as "Monterey Riesling," even though it was not made of Riesling...but the grapes were grown in Monterey.
Parducci called its Sylvaner "Mendocino Riesling," even though it was not made of Riesling...but the grapes were grown in Mendocino.



In the 1950s and 1960s, one of the more fashionable wines was called "Grey Riesling."  This was not related, precisely, to Riesling and, in fact, this grape was really Trousseau Gris.   It was also known as Chauché Gris.  You might understand why "Grey Riesling," then, was a more popular way to label this wine.


A U.C. Davis hybrid was developed by Professor Harold Olmo in the 1940s and was called Emerald Riesling.  It was a crossing of Riesling and Sauvignon Vert (which is also known as Muscadelle and Tocai Friulano).  The grape was always called Emerald Riesling and some suggested renaming it "Olmo" after the famous viticulturalist.  The government, though, rejected this and allows this name, Emerald Riesling, to stand.  Only a few hundred acres are cultivated at this time, so it's a very minor wine.

Today, Riesling or White Riesling, has fallen out of favor, though plantings of it along the west coast are on the rise.
In California, government stats showed less than 1,500 acres being in the ground as of 1999.  As of 2011, California has 4,147 acres.  Maybe there's hope.

In California, Gewurztraminer today accounts for 1,701 acres.  Pinot Gris is planted on 13,292 acres in California, a big increase as local vintners look to compete with Italian producers of Pinot Grigio.

For comparison: 95,511 acres of Chardonnay are planted in California.  Sauvignon Blanc amounts to 15,636 acres.



Once upon a time many California wineries cultivated Riesling in vineyards adjacent to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.  They made Riesling simply because customers demanded diversity, not because they could make great or compelling wines.

There have always been Riesling specialists, not only in California, but Washington, Michigan and New York.

In California, the longest track record is owned by the Stony Hill Winery in Napa.  Don't let anybody tell you California Rieslings don't have finesse or the ability to cellar for more than a year or two.  Stony Hill can certainly provide evidence to the contrary.

Despite being known as "Cabernet Country," there are still good Rieslings made in Napa.  Trefethen Vineyards and Smith Madrone continue to produce Rieslings of note.  Gone by the wayside are Lyncrest and Veedercrest, two brands once "hot" as Riesling makers.  


Chateau Montelena in Calistoga continues to make Riesling, but today buys grapes in Mendocino.
The Hagafen winery makes a Riesling, or two, and these are usually quite good.

In Sonoma, Chateau St. Jean made a range of Rieslings and Gewurztraminers under winemaker Dick Arrowood in the 1970s.  The winery produced wines from slightly sweet to sticky sweet.  They even labeled these as "BA" for Beerenauslese and "TBA" for Trockenbeerenauslese.  When the German trade commission protested, Arrowood claimed "BA" stood for "Botrytis Affected" and "TBA" indicated "Totally Botrytis Affected."

Navarro Vineyards is a Riesling and Gewurz specialist in Mendocino's Anderson Valley.  Handley and Greenwood Ridge make some aromatic wines, as well.

Wente Brothers used to make some nice Rieslings in the 1970s, even producing late harvest rarities.  They got their fruit from Monterey, which should still produce good Rieslings.  Claiborne and Churchill make a nice Riesling there still.


The Santa Cruz Mountains had some good Rieslings.  Storrs periodically has a good rendition.  Years ago there was a winery called Felton Empire and microbiologist Leo McCloskey was the winemaker.

We recall finding a case of their wine in our storage area which had flipped itself over as the bottles, packed cork-down in the box, re-fermented in the bottle. The thrust of the corks pushing out of the bottles actually flipped the case and this explained why I was sniffing wine near the office but didn't see any broken bottles.
Sales rep Bill Gibbs called one day to ask if we had any inventory remaining, as it seems customers had been calling to complain about these self-opening bottles!



A few vintners in Oregon make Riesling, but Pinot Gris seems to do better on a winemaking and commercial level.

Washington State is a large source of Riesling.  The Ste. Michelle brand bottles significant quantities of Riesling and California's Bonny Doon Vineyard has a winery in the Pacific Northwest devoted to Riesling.  We're fans of the Long Shadows winery and their Riesling carries the Poet's Leap brand....

 

 

 

TATOMER

I figured anyone who's devoted his brand of wine and winemaking to California Riesling has to be nuts.  And, so, I may have been correct.

Young Graham Tatomer has ties to Burlingame, too, by the way.  His Pop lived in town and worked on his studies as a psychiatrist many moons ago.

Graham attended U.C. Santa Barbara and while there he got himself a job at the Santa Barbara Winery.  And while working there he saw great and unfulfilled potential in the locally-sourced Riesling grapes he worked with in the cellar.

This ignited his passion for Riesling.  I recall numerous vineyards in the "new" mother lode of Santa Barbara were devoted to Riesling when that region was in its nascent stages.  Had consumers not become so fixated on Chardonnay, Riesling might have gained more than a toe-hold in Santa Barbara (and perhaps the Santa Cruz Mountains, for that matter).

Tatomer began making token quantities of Riesling and was able to sell a little bit of wine here and there.  Along the way, of course, he encountered some benchmarks:  wines from Deutschland and Austria and then Graham had a moment of epiphany...he realized he needed to go to Europe and get some "hands on" experience working with Riesling in a place where Riesling was king, not merely an after-thought.

And so Graham packed his bags and headed to Austria where he enrolled in the University of Riesling at the Loibnerhof campus of Emmerich Knoll.

He did his bit of industrial espionage, learning about lizards, falcons and the other important features of the Wachau wine region's viticulture and enology.  He ended up working a couple of harvest seasons with the Knoll family.

And then he returned to California and began, anew, with his Tatomer wine adventure.  Sort of...sommelier, cellar rat...and he then, thanks to a friendship with our pal Adam Tolmach of The Ojai Vineyard, was able to launch his own production in a small way.  ((Adam, by the way, makes a nice Riesling from Santa Barbara-grown fruit...but when we've opened bottles of Ojai Rieslings, they are way too young and totally undeveloped.  I'm betting when Adam's Rieslings have three or four years of bottle aging, they'll show their stuff.  And nicely, too.  But they are so quiet and unassuming right out of the gate...))

We liked Tatomer's rendition of Riesling from the Kick On Ranch.  This is a smallish vineyard site west of the town of Los Alamos, along the San Antonio Creek.  

Currently in stock is Graham's 2009 Kick On Ranch Riesling.  Here's a lovely dry white (yes, it's dry...trocken...not sweet...dry) which is comparable to good Austrian Rieslings.  It's got a mildly floral note at this early stage and there's a fairly good stony aspect to the wine.  And it's dry, so pairing it with some smoked pork chops, ham, chicken or Asian-styled foods is ideal.

And we think this will continue to blossom with a few more years of bottle aging.
 

Currently in stock:  2009 TATOMER Santa Barbara "Kick On Ranch" RIESLING $29.99



TREFETHEN VINEYARDS

The Trefethen family has been making Riesling since the 1970s and we're pleased to report they're even better today than they were back then.

The current vintage is 2009 and this, of course, comes from Trefethen's estate vineyards in Napa's "Oak Knoll District."  This is just north of Carneros and south of Yountville.


The wine is low in alcohol by California standards and a tad high by German measures.  It's 13.0%.  The residual sugar is less than 7 grams per liter.  For most palates, it will taste rather dry.  We like the floral, citrusy and mildly petrol-like notes on the nose.  

A bottle of 2007 paired with the fritto misto in the photo was grand!  It also paired well with a plate featuring smoked trout and salmon tartare.  
The 2010 is stellar...a bit brighter, fruitier and floral.

Currently in stock:  2010 TREFETHEN Napa DRY RIESLING $19.99

 



HERMANN WIEMER

While few Californians know there's good wine being made in New York state, we've long been fans of the Finger Lakes region.

Decades ago we visited the area and tasted wines at the winery of Konstantin Frank, Glenora, Bully Hill and Hermann Wiemer.  

Konstantin Frank was a real pioneer there, planting Riesling in this region which had been more known for its labrusca varieties and French-American hybrids.  Hermann Wiemer was born in Germany's Mosel Valley and his father was involved in viticulture.  Wiemer came to the Finger Lakes and started cultivating Riesling and other interesting Vinifera grapes in the 1970s.  

Aside from growing grapes and making some good wines, today the company is a big time "nursery" for grape vines...they sell hundreds of thousands of grafted vines annually, both to wineries and "backyard farmers.


Hermann came to the US and found some land in the Finger Lakes region.  He knew that grapevines could be grown in places where cherries were cultivated and Wiemer bought about 80 acres of land near Seneca Lake.

Wiemer had an assistant named Fred Merwarth and he took over the vineyards and cellar operations in 2003.  Wiemer finally retired in 2007 and today Merwarth is assisted by an old school pal who's an agronomist.  

The wines, especially their Rieslings, are well-regarded and much sought-after...if you're "in the know."  Here in California, far from New York, there are a few Wiemer Fan Club members, but few customers know there's good wine being made there, frankly.  Fewer still have any clue about the virtues of Riesling.  C'est la vie.

The 2012 vintage "Dry" Riesling is a delightful wine...really capturing the character of Riesling and even showing some stony/slatey notes as you'd find in good German wines.  

Currently in stock:  2012 Wiemer Dry Riesling $19.99

 

 

 

STONY HILL

The Stony Hill winery is a fabled little estate in northern Napa Valley.  They've been making Riesling forever as every winery in Napa made Riesling back in the old days.

Stony Hill continues to make good dry Riesling.  And their wines age magnificently.  We had a bottle of an early 1990s vintage not too long ago...what a splendid bottle of wine and it did not show itself to be old or tiring!

The 2008 is the current offering.  It comes across the palate as dry, though the wine has about 10 grams of sugar/liter.  Balance is the key, though.  And it's balanced.



 

 

Currently in stock:  2008 STONY HILL RIESLING $22.99
2012 STONY HILL GEWURZTRAMINER   $22.99


A bottle of 1994 Napa Riesling consumed in 2011...still alive and kickin'!
Lots of ripe peach or peach pie sorts of notes with a bit of petrol.

 

 

 

 

ZOCKER

The Zocker label is rather new and it's the work of the Niven family in the Central Coast's Edna Valley region.  The winemaker is Christian Roguenant.

In Deutsch, the word "zocker" refers to wagering or gambling and they definitely gambled by planting Gruner Veltliner.  The grape of Austria, we were actually a bit shocked to find they'd actually captured the spice notes and grapefruit elements of good Gruner Veltliner.  In fact, we compared their wine to that of F.X. Pichler, one of Austria's most esteemed vintners and while the Pichler was the better wine, the Zocker was not embarrassed in the comparison.

It seems they also planted a bit of Riesling.  The soils are well-drained and of volcanic origins.  They have less than 4 acres of Riesling on this site and are producing about 800 cases of dry Riesling.   The 2009 is showing marvelously, worthy of comparison to good German, Austrian, Australian, Alsatian, New York or Michigan Rieslings.  

This is a most pleasant surprise!

Currently in stock:  2009 ZOCKER Edna Valley RIESLING $19.99

 

 

POET'S LEAP

Washington State has numerous outstanding sites for Riesling and Gewürztraminer.  

There are several "foreign" collaborators in winemaking escapades in Washington.  One is Chateau Ste. Michelle's "Eroica" project, aided by wein-meister Ernst Loosen.

Another is that of Long Shadows...a label called Poet's Leap.  

German wine authority Armin Diel, who co-authors the annual Gault-Millau German wine guide, is a partner in this project.  Diel also has his family's wine estate and makes wonderful wines in Germany's Nahe region.

They planted various clones of Rieslings at Herr Diel's suggestion.  They've now made several vintages of Poet's Leap and it's routinely been one of our favorite west coast Rieslings.  They blend Riesling grapes from vineyards in several locations and manage to nicely capture some of the minerally notes one finds in good German wines.  The wine is "off dry," having around 10 grams of sugar per liter (most people find 5 grams to be "dry")...

Currently in stock:  2012 POET'S LEAP Riesling (List $25)  SALE $19.99

 




PIKES

We don't have too many customers looking for Australian Riesling as few of the locals have Riesling on their radar screen and, fewer still, would know anything but Shiraz and maybe a Cabernet are even grown Down Under.

Yet Australia is a fantastic source of Riesling.

Given that so much goopy, sweet, flat, syrupy red wine comes from Australia, it's difficult for some folks to acknowledge there are numerous sophisticated Rieslings in the Southern Hemisphere.  We've tasted a number of wines which we're certain our German friends would find worthy of a second pour.

Pikes is a name with history going back to the late 1800s.  And the brand is run by Andrew and Neil Pike who founded this Clare Valley enterprise in 1984.  

We have the 2009 vintage in stock and this is wonderfully fragrant and intense Riesling.  It's fresh and fruity, with citrusy, lime-like notes shining brightly.  There's a hint of sweetness, but it's really only a hint, because the wine has zingy acidity and finishes with some nice 'snap' on the end...It may even develop into a wonderfully complex wine with bottle aging, but since most customers by a bottle in the afternoon for drinking tonight, well, it's not likely much gets saved for 3-6 years.

Currently in stock:  2009 PIKES Clare Valley RIESLING $17.99




CHATEAU ST. JEAN

Back in the 1970s, three "fellers" from the Central Valley thought it would be a swell idea to start a winery in Sonoma.  And they named it after one of the feller's wives, Jean.

What was especially amusing is that most people gave it a French pronunciation, "Chateau Sahnt Zhann."  But the woman's name was Jean.

They hired a smart and skilled winemaker, Dick Arrowood, who was known in those days as "Richard."  He was really a wizard at making Rieslings and the winery was immediately "on the map" as a source of some remarkably good wines.  

When the economy hit a bump in the road, the fellers ended up having to sell the winery and it was bought by a Japanese company.  They ran into money problems after a number of years and today the winery is owned by the behemoth "Foster's Wine Group."    If you visit their tasting room, you'll wonder if they actually make wine there in Sonoma or if it's mainly a gift shop selling clothing, dishes, calendars and, every-once-in-a-while, a bottle of wine.

Wine geeks don't take this brand seriously, but they actually make some decent wines.  Some are better than decent.  Riesling is quite decent, but not upper-echelon-decent.  It's correctly fruity and mildly floral, with enough residual sugar to satisfy those folks who find dry wines too "austere" or even "sour."   

While they used to get grapes from relatively cool climate areas of Sonoma County, the winery web site indicates the grapes come from the Alexander Valley...this may allow them to get a bountiful crop to achieve sufficient sweetness to permit making a 12% alcohol wine with a residual sugar and modest acidity.    Perfectly pleasant, but not a Hall-of-Fame candidate.

Currently in stock:  2012 CHATEAU ST JEAN Sonoma Riesling  $12.99

 

CHATEAU MONTELENA

The very first wine we purchased from Chateau Montelena was a 1972 "Johannisberg Riesling" and I think it was offered for sale to us in 1973...

I used to drive up to Napa to pick up various wines and it was always fun to see this old chateau and taste upcoming releases.

In those days, the wine was from vineyards reasonably close to the winery.  These days, they get the grapes in a much cooler region, Mendocino's Potter Valley.

The fruit comes from the McFadden Ranch and the 2011 is a delight.  The aromas are fruity and floral, with hints of apricot and ripe melon.  I suspect it will develop the classic fragrance of "petrol" if you hold this for a few years, but it's such a delight right now...and the acidity certainly balances the slight amount of residual sugar here, so it finishes clean.
Currently in stock:  2011 CHATEAU MONTELENA Potter Valley RIESLING $24.99


You might have a look at these pages in pursuit of good, aromatic wines...

FRANCE'S ALSACE

GERMAN WINES

AUSTRIA

 

 

GEWÜRZTRAMINER

The Traminer grape is thought to have originated in the Alto Adige (which is today part of Italy, though it's sometimes been Austrian).  

It's a lovely variety which tends to ripen with a reddish color as you can see, perhaps, in the photo above.

The famous Hungarian enological Johnny Appleseed, Agoston Haraszthy, is thought to have brought the aromatic and spicy version of Traminer to California.  Some clones are less distinctive and the more "intense" Traminer seems to produce wines which have aromatics reminiscent of rose petals and grapefruit.  Some tasters find notes of lychees in Gewürztraminer and, in fact, research shows the grape to have some similarity to the lychee 'fruit' (or nut)...

In the days before Prohibition, both the Charles Krug Winery and Gundlach Bundschu Winery were somewhat highly-regarded for their Gewürztraminer wines.  

The Charles Krug Winery, run by the Mondavi family, was still a good source for Traminer in the 1950s and the grape may have reached the height of its popularity by the end of the 1970s when there were close to 5,000 acres planted in California.  According to current statistics, there are 1590 acres planted in California today.  Of the 3000 new acres of white wine grape vineyards planted in California in 2008, not a single one was Gewürztraminer!

Today, there are not many wineries noted for Gewürztraminer.  The top sources for this variety in California would include Handley, Lazy Creek, Thomas Fogarty, Claiborne & Churchill, Navarro, Stony Hill and Arista.  These vintners tend to make dry to just off-dry versions.

The Fetzer winery makes loads of Gewürztraminer, but it's less distinctive for varietal character and noted more for being simply fruity, sweet and low-priced.  Sutter Home, the famed White Zinfandel producer, also dabbles in Gewürztraminer and makes a wine rivaling Fetzer's.

We typically have a few Gewürztraminers from France's Alsace and one from Germany.  The most impressive and intense, is an Italian wine which is vinified "dry" and made by the leading co-op winery in Italy's wine village called Tramin.  The Cantina Tramin has a special bottling called "Nussbaumer" and this, for us, remains the reference point for Gewürztraminer.

 

 

STONY HILL

Stony Hill is a legendary producer of Napa Valley wines...founded by a couple who'd lived in Hillsborough for some years.

Fred McCrea had been an advertising company executive and he and his wife Eleanor bought a property three miles north of St. Helena and on the western side of the valley.

Chardonnay was not very popular in those days and yet they planted a fair bit of it, hoping to make wines of a quality they had enjoyed drinking from French producers.  But they also planted some Riesling and a few acres of Gewurztraminer.  Why not?


The 2012 Gewurztraminer is one of the best we've ever tasted from Stony Hill. 
It's so beautifully elegant and dry...and it captures in majestic fashion, a subtle, but fragrant spice and grapefruit note of Gewurz.  There's a touch of rose petal and lychee, too.

Very fine!

Currently in stock:  2012 STONY HILL Napa Valley GEWURZTRAMINER $23.99

 
 
 
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HANDLEY CELLARS
Milla Handley launched her label and winery in 1982, so now she's an "old timer," though the wineries of Husch and Edmeades preceded her by about a decade.  Navarro came after those two, but pre-dated Handley in Mendocino's beautiful Anderson Valley.

She's located on the main highway near the town of Philo.  She makes some wonderful Anderson Valley wines and a bit of Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc.

Gewurztraminer is frequently amongst the best of California (not like the list is long, but she's a producer who's worthy of citation as a top-o-the-line vintner).

Her 2012 vintage is beautiful...it's close to dry and beautifully floral and fragrant.  The wine is a fruit basket of tropical and exotic fruits:  cantaloupe, grapefruit, a suggestion of peach and apricot, mandarin orange, perhaps...and then it has those lovely spice notes!  

This is a delight.  Pair it with Asian-styled foods...seafood...spicy dishes...



Currently in stock:  2012 HANDLEY Anderson Valley GEWURZTRAMINER  $15.99
 
 

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LAZY CREEK WINERY

This is a smallish, highly-regarded estate in Mendocino's Anderson Valley.  It's a winery founded by a Swiss couple back in the 1970s...he'd been a waiter at San Francisco's legendary "Jacks" and later at the "Blue Fox" restaurant (now long gone).  

Hans Kobler and his wife, Theresia, bought a property in the boonies  (literally...it's near Boonville) and he planted Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir.  The Gewurz was planted on phylloxera-resistant rootstock, since Hans didn't listen to the advice of experts who suggested AxR1 rootstock.  The neighbors took the expert's advice and all had to replant since AxR1 turned out not to be so phylloxera-resistant!  

As a result, Lazy Creek still has some of the old Gewürztraminer in the Anderson Valley! 

The winery was sold by Kobler in 1998 to another couple and they grew weary of the challenge a decade later.  Today the winery is owned by the Ferrari-Carano folks.

It will be interesting to see what changes take place and if the wines retain their originality and relatively high quality.

We have some 2006 vintage Gewürztraminer in stock...lots of spice notes and aromatics reminding me of poached pears...it's dry and fairly full on the palate.

Currently in stock:  2006 LAZY CREEK  $23.99

 

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And if you want to taste the most intense Gewurz, pick up a bottle of the Tramin winery bottling from Italy...Nussbaumer, it's called.  There is not a winemaker on the planet who would not be proud to call that wine their own.
We feel this is the benchmark for the variety, coming from a special vineyard site in the hills above the town of Termeno (Tramin in Italian)...

Other interesting Gewurztraminers:

2011 ENGEL (Alsace)  $15.99

2009 DOMAINE WEINBACH (Alsace)  $29.99

2009 PAUL BLANCK (Alsace) $25.99

 

 

 

From Austria, we have UMATHUM'S TRAMINER $24.99....a Blend of red and yellow Traminers...beautifully and powerfully fragrant...not quite dry, but not sweet.



 

 

 

 

And if you want something along the lines of Gewurztraminer aromatically, don't miss Marotti Campi's phenomenal Lacrima di Moro d'Alba.

It's an obscure red grape from the Marche in central Italy.

The variety was nearly extinct, but this family worked diligently to
bring it back to life and now there are numerous producers of 
Lacrima di Moro d'Alba.  

It's a dark red wine, made without oak aging.

The fragrances are hugely fruity and floral and if you poured it into a 
black glass, most experts would take a sniff and identify it as 
Gewurztraminer.
Dry, smooth and a perfect little picnic red...chillable, too.

We have the current vintage in stock for $13.99 a bottle, sale tagged.

 

 

 

 



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