Is Transylvania The Next Great Wine Region? (Seriously)

vampire3A few of the early vintages of Vampire wines were made from grapes grown in, appropriately enough, Transylvania, Romania.

I remember those wines, and on the 100-point rating scale I’ve used in my wine columns through the years and that Vinesse uses today, I would have given them scores in the low 80s — barely average. That probably would not have mattered to the brand’s founder, Michael Machat, because Vampire wines were pretty much all about the packaging and marketing.

But as the palates of Machat and his wife, Lisa Dominique, matured, they wanted their wines to be better. So, grape sourcing switched to more traditional regions — first elsewhere in Europe, and now in California. All three wines on sale in today’s Vampire sampler from Vinesse were crafted from grapes grown in the Golden State.

I was thinking about that the other day, as the calendar page turned from September to October — the month of Halloween and all things spooky. If Machat were just starting out today, he might well be making wine in the land of the vampires.

Ask almost any wine expert who has been there in the last five years, and they’ll tell you that Transylvania has the potential to produce some scary-good wines.

Now that we have the obvious Halloween-time pun out of the way, we can tell you in all seriousness that the Romanian wine region of Transylvania is making very good wines now — after making decent wines since before World War II.

Bran castleIn those days, Transylvanian villages were sprinkled with small vineyards; nearly every property owner grew grapes. However, after the war, when communists confiscated and nationalized the lands, the private vineyards gradually wilted away, and Transylvanian winemaking began a phase of decline that lasted until 1989, when communism fell in Romania.

Today, Transylvania’s vineyards produce high-quality white wines, combining local traditional methods with new technology, mostly from Germany. The wines produced are both noble and original, some possessing nuances of taste and smell you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

Transylvania is situated in the center of the northern half of Romania, most of the territory being represented by a wide plateau surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains. The sloping hills seem endless, just waiting for an influx of vineyard plantings.

Local residents hope a Transylvanian wine renaissance will be ignited by a return to its pre-World War II tradition, when individual property owners grew their own grapes. Then, from there, cooperatives could be formed to produce wines in quantities suitable for commercial distribution. After that, additional family-owned wineries could be developed as additional vineyards are planted.

That is the vision. Whether it will come to fruition is anyone’s guess. For now, Transylvanian wines are good but still relatively rare in the United States — which means they won’t be taking a big bite out of the American wine market anytime soon. (Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves.)

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Posted in Wine Region Profiles

The Great Debate: Corks vs. Screw Caps

Cutting knife wine aluminum capIt is a very long word — way too long for Scrabble: trichloroanisole. I was not all that good in chemistry class, so I won’t even try to pronounce it.

Let’s just agree to call it TCA, okay?

TCA is the chemical primarily responsible for cork taint in wines. When we perceive mustiness or a moldy aroma in a wine, it’s said to be “corked,” and the culprit is the presence of TCA in the cork used to seal the bottle.

During the 1980s, cork taint became such a problem — some estimated that one bottle in 20 could be infected — that winery owners and winemakers began experimenting with Stelvin closures, generically referred to as screw caps. When a bottle was opened, the traditional “pop” sound was replaced with a “crackle.”

One of the reasons cited for the move to screw caps was the simple assertion that no other industry would accept a 5% failure rate with its products or services. Beyond that, wine consumers were becoming more sophisticated, and with sophistication can come a more persnickety attitude. Restaurateurs would tell stories of diners refusing bottles — perfectly good bottles — because the wine inside was “corked.” In reality, they were simply trying to impress their fellow diners with their wine “knowledge.”

Today, more screw caps are being used than ever before, largely because more wines are being made for immediate enjoyment than ever before. With such wines, it makes better business sense to seal the bottles with a nearly infallible closure.

But for wines that are intended to be cellared for several years, most vintners still prefer corks because, unlike screw caps, corks allow a minute amount of oxygen inside the bottle. Too much oxygen would cause the wine to age more quickly than intended; a little bit of oxygen promotes slow aging, giving the wine time to evolve and reach its full potential.

Now, the closure is selected based upon what the winemaker hopes to achieve with wine.

What does the future hold? If I had to guess, we’ll be seeing still more Stelvin closures and fewer corks. A new generation of wine drinkers doesn’t care about the tradition of the cork; they just want great-tasting wines.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

William Knuttel: A Career of Outstanding Wines

wk“Wines of intensity and finesse.” That’s the slogan embraced by the William Knuttel winery, which somehow manages to meld those seemingly disparate qualities in its various wines.

Veteran California vintner William Knuttel has concentrated on ultra-premium winemaking for the majority of his career. His philosophy has long been to make a wide range of wines in various styles every vintage. Why? Simply because the number of vintages for any winemaker is finite; one gets only so many opportunities to craft great wines.

His wealth of experience has led directly to Knuttel’s adherence to traditional winemaking practices. This results in balanced, elegant wines that pair well with food and have excellent aging potential — the hallmarks of classic wine.

Knuttel’s winemaking journey began at Saintsbury, one of Napa Valley’s most famous estates, where he was winemaker from 1983 to 1996. There, he established that brand as an international leader in high-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, made in the Burgundian style. Based on Saintsbury’s success, the way those varieties were produced in California was emulated by countless fellow winemakers.

During his tenure at Saintsbury, Knuttel founded and was owner/winemaker of Tria, producing fine Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel.

After leaving Saintsbury, Knuttel became Vice President and Winemaker at Chalk Hill Winery, one of Sonoma County’s top estates. From 1996 to 2003, he specialized in making ultra-premium Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris.

From 2003 to 2011, Knuttel was Executive Winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyard, where he completely re-honed the styles and quality of that winery’s extensive portfolio, working with second-generation family members who wanted to ensure that the winery remained a family business.

In 2005, Knuttel also was the winemaker for the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, crafting that group’s Heritage Zinfandel. Further demonstrating the diversity of his skills, he also served as President of the California Cabernet Society from 1999 to 2003.

In addition to the William Knuttel wines, Knuttel now is partner and winemaker for two other brands: Ottimino, which produces Zinfandel exclusively from the Sonoma Coast, and Teira, producer of premium Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Merlot.

Wines bearing the William Knuttel label now include Pinot Noir (the 2006 “Clone 777” bottling from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley was recently featured by Vinesse’s Elevant Society), Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Sirah and Chardonnay.

Knuttel works hand in hand with Rex Smith, a talented winemaker who was born and raised on a farm in New Zealand where, at a young age, he became interested in horticulture. Smith attended Massey University in New Zealand, earning a Bachelor of Horticultural Science degree in 1984, majoring in Viticulture and Oenology.

After graduating, he traveled to the Napa Valley to gain hands-on winemaking experience, working for Saintsbury Winery for the following three vintages. It was in the Saintsbury cellars where he discovered his passion for winemaking and met Knuttel for the first time.

Smith subsequently decided to alternate harvests between Napa Valley and the Barossa Valley in South Australia in order to gain more experience. He returned to school to earn his Graduate Diploma in Wine from Roseworthy Agricultural College in Australia before permanently moving to the Napa Valley.

Jobs at The Hess Collection, Cuvaison, Heller Estate, Durney Vineyards and Vine Cliff enabled Smith to gain extensive experience. Then, in 2012, he re-forged his relationship with Knuttel, becoming Winemaker and General Manager for the William Knuttel winery.

Today, Smith manages a crew of five as well as Knuttel’s custom crush clients, and works closely with Knuttel to make a wide range of wines. Together, Knuttel and Smith make a great team, and it shows in each and every bottle they craft — wines of intensity and finesse.

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Posted in Wineries of Distinction

Pretty Labels Are Nice, But Pretty Wines Are Better

Red_Wine_CheersLawrence Dutra still abides by the mantra he established when he founded Vinesse more than 20 years ago: “We will always be more concerned with what’s in the bottle than what’s on the bottle.”

In other words, while a pretty label may be nice, a pretty wine will always be more important.

Yet there’s no escaping the fact that label design is a critically important part of the wine business. Consider that 330 million cases of wine are sold each year in the United States, most of it in supermarkets or other retail outlets. Displayed next to dozens or even hundreds of other bottles, that means any given bottle has only a split second to catch the consumer’s attention. In such environments, labels matter… and that means label design matters.

Dry Creek Vineyard revamped the design of its Sauvignon Blanc label for the 2014 vintage. “The new package is striking,” says Director of Marketing and Communications Bill Smart. “We have chosen to put all of the winemaking information on the front label. Our desire is to share the passion and authenticity with which this wine was made.”

Jackson Family Wines created a new brand called Liberated, designed to appeal to millennials, and had labels designed to, as Senior Communications Manager Corinne Watson puts it, “embody the millennial spirit of challenging conventions and expressing individuality through the different personas” depicted on the labels.

The next time you stroll down the wine aisle at your local supermarket, take a moment to see which labels catch your attention. In many cases, weeks or even months could have gone into their development.

And also take a deep breath of relief, knowing that the bottles you receive from Vinesse may look nice on the outside, but are all about the wine inside.

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Posted in Vinesse Style

It’s Time to Embrace the Warm Red Wines of Autumn

fallI was born and grew up in Southern California. I visited relatives in Vermont and Wisconsin a few times during my youth, but it wasn’t until I spent 12 years in Chicago beginning in 2000 that was introduced to and came to appreciate the concept of “layering.”

For my fellow California natives, “layering” involves amassing a collection of clothing that accommodates all seasons of the year. It is particularly related to fall and winter, when sweaters and jackets of various thicknesses are needed to keep one warm and comfortable when the temperatures begin to dip and fluctuate.

Looking back on my youth and those years in Chicago, I now think about how easy it must be to be a television weather person in Los Angeles or San Diego. True, El Nino may be on the way — and we hope it is if it will help alleviate California’s drought conditions — but in most years, there is no reason for a meteorologist there to have anything other than a sunny disposition.

Even in California, though, temperatures do dip in the fall and winter months, and it can get downright cold in some areas of the state. And when the summer sun gives way to shorter days and crisper air, I find myself reaching for different types of wine.

Those light, bright, refreshing wines that I like to chill down and sip during the summer give way to wines that are fuller in body and possess more robust flavors. Just as the leaves change colors in my mom’s home state of Vermont, the wine colors I embrace change from the golds and pinks of summer to rich reds and purples.

Ironically, the wines of fall, like those featured in this collection from Vinesse, almost always come from areas that are known for their temperate climates — places like California, Australia and Spain.

The warm weather enables the grapes to ripen fully and then be picked at precisely the moment that the winemaker prefers. When the grapes are fully ripened, they possess higher sugar levels, enabling the vintner to make wines that are richer and more robust — not to mention ideal pairing partners for the heartier foods we tend to eat as the temperatures dip.

The wines of fall also are more likely to possess aromas and flavors associated with oak barrel aging. Whereas many lighter styled wines are aged in (neutral) stainless steel tanks, virtually all red wines see at least some time in oak — and that’s where the impressions of smoke and vanilla and spice and other things nice (besides fruit and earth) come from.

The late Marilyn Monroe once observed, “Designers want to dress me like spring, in billowing things. I don’t feel like spring. I feel like a warm red autumn.”

And I feel like opening a warm red wine of autumn.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Everything You Wanted to Know About Earth-Friendly Wines

Tuscany vineyards in fallThe title is long and, to be honest, not real exciting — “Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking: Sustainable Viticulture and Viniculture” — but the content is compelling for anyone interested in what wineries and grape growers can do to have less impact on Earth.

“We constantly notice when we are out talking to winemakers in different wine regions that more and more producers pay attention to how what they do in the vineyard affects the environment,” the authors, Per and Britt Karlsson, noted in 2012, when the book was published by Floris Books.

“Many winemakers that we meet start the process of ‘converting’ to organic farming. There are rules for what that means — what an organic farmer can do and what is forbidden — rules that come both from public or government organizations and from private organizations. In addition, people also talk more and more about other related approaches: biodynamic winemaking, natural wines, sustainable farming. In this book, we explain them all.”

It’s a comprehensive book by two noted wine experts, and explains the rules of organic, biodynamic and natural wine production, both outside in the vineyard and inside the wine cellar. It sets out clearly what a winemaker is allowed to do, including processes, additives and chemicals, and looks at the potential long-term benefits of going organic or biodynamic.

As such, it serves as a detailed introduction to Earth-friendly winemaking for wine professionals and enthusiasts alike — practices that lead to delicious wines like those featured in Vinesse’s Earth Friendly Collection being offered to our email subscribers today.

The book is lavishly illustrated, and many of those pictures are worth a thousand words in explaining various concepts and techniques. It’s available on Amazon.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

The Perfect Half-time Pairing: Pork Meatballs and Zinfandel

Crostini con polpette al sugo con piselliWe close out California Wine Month with a recipe that pairs perfectly with the unofficial winegrape of California — Zinfandel.

“Aside from being my favorite grape, it’s just fun to drink!” Duane David Dappen, who makes wine under the D-Cubed label, enthuses. “It has a loose, celebratory, raucous feel about it.”

That fun aspect extends to the food-pairing possibilities. Grilled meats, barbecued fare and pepperoni pizza and among the fare typically recommended.

Pork meatballs also work very well, and represent a fun option for serving during half-time when your favorite football team is playing on TV. This recipe yields six servings, and it works beautifully with any of the Zins featured in this delicious collection from Vinesse.



  • 1-lb. ground pork
  • 1 tablespoon onion flakes
  • ¾ cup corn flakes, crushed
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard


  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  1. Combine pork, onion flakes, corn flakes, salt, black pepper and egg in a large bowl.
  1. In a small bowl, stir together ketchup, brown sugar and dry mustard.
  1. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the ketchup mixture into the pork mixture. Mix well.
  1. Use vegetable cooking spray to cover a muffin tin.
  1. Form 6 meatballs and place on muffin tin.
  1. Coat top of each meatball with remaining ketchup mixture.
  1. Cook for 30 minutes, until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees.

Football watcher’s reminder: If you put the meatballs in the oven at the beginning of the second quarter, they’ll have time to cool a little and be ready to enjoy by half-time.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Wine, Women and Music Unite in Palm Springs

Wine and musicThe Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival unites two of the things I love most in life: music and wine.

It’s really a music festival with a few wine components — and one of those wine components involves Vinesse!

“Great music brings us together and ignites our imaginations,” says the event’s Artistic Director, Sweet Baby J’ai. “Our 2015 festival lineup of extraordinary women will be designed to fully engage you, excite you, surprise you and hopefully provide personal moments of discovery.”

The event is set for Oct. 9-11, and is nearly sold out. The Palm Springs Hyatt is the host hotel, the Annenberg Theater is the concert venue, and other events will take place at various venues around town.

Dianne Schuur — a true jazz legend who has played with everyone from Count Basie to B.B. King, and everywhere from the Kennedy Center to the White House — will kick off the festival on Friday night. Her latest CD is called “I Remember You, With Love to Stan and Frank,” so concert-goers can probably look forward to hearing a number of standards associated with Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra.

Other performers on Friday will include Ann Patterson, Karen Hammack, Nedra Wheeler, Anne King, Dawn Robinson, Kimberly Allison, Sylvia Cuenca and Sweet Baby J’ai.

On Saturday, a Latin Jazz Party will feature Sunnie Paxson, Robin Bramlett, Suzanne Morissette-Cruz, Nikki Campbell and Sarah Bauza.

There also will be a Jazz + Blues = Soul concert featuring Nona Hendryx, Jessy J, Gail Jhonson, Lynn Keller, Kat Dyson, Sascha Dupont, Sherry Luchette, Nicole Falzone, Dee Simone, Aanhka Neal and Naja Smith.

And on Sunday, the “Tribute to the Divas” features Gennine Jackson-Francis with a tribute to Chaka Kahn, Kellye Gray with a tribute to Anita O’Day, Elaine Gibbs with a tribute to Etta James, and Sascha Dupont with a tribute to Amy Winehouse. Luchette, Falzone and Carol Chaikin also will be performing.

The various events are ticketed separately, and packages also are available. But the bargain of all bargains, in our humble opinion, is the Vinesse Wine Tasting, priced at just $10. It will be held at the 360 North Club, where wine educator Chris Bauer will show attendees how to select good and affordable bottles of wine. Four wines representing high quality and moderate prices will be tasted.

To learn more about the Palm Springs Women’s Jazz Festival and to order tickets, go to:

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Posted in Wine Buzz

How You Can Help Victims of the Valley Fire

When we started this blog lo those many years ago — it was even before the archives demonstrate — the goal was to do a bit of educating and a bit of entertaining. We wanted to make wine enjoyment more accessible to more people, to help break down the barriers that result in some people being referred to as “wine snobs.”

Every so often, however, it’s necessary to put the education and entertainment aside, and share information on an extremely important topic. And that’s what we’re doing today here at Vinesse TODAY.

Yes, the topic is related to wine, but it’s really about human beings. Specifically, it’s about the people — many of whom work for wineries — that lost everything in the recent Valley Fire, north of Napa Valley.

As we did shortly after the fire was extinguished, we’d like to turn over today’s blog to the Lake County Winegrape Commission, which issued the following media release last week…

– – – – – – – – – –

Beckstoffer Vineyards has announced a donation of $50,000 to the #LakeCountyRising fundraising campaign.

“We’re part of the community,” said Andy Beckstoffer, Founder, Chairman, and owner of Beckstoffer Vineyards. “We have major vineyard holdings in Lake County, and many of our people live in Lake County.”

“On behalf of the Lake County community, we are grateful for the generosity that we’re seeing from across the region,” said Debra Sommerfield, President of the Lake County Winegrape Commission, one of three organizations who have partnered to establish the #LakeCountyRising fundraising effort.

#LakeCountyRising is an effort to support community rebuilding in the areas ravaged by the Valley Fire, with a focus on livelihood, housing, and community needs. The effort was initiated by three Lake County organizations — the Lake County Winegrape Commission, the Lake County Winery Association, and the Lake County Wine Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that will manage the collection and distribution of tax-deductible donations.

“This generous donation by the Beckstoffer family is a wonderful example of how the wine industry is coming together with significant support,” Sommerfield said.

Beckstoffer Vineyards farms more than 1,300 acres in the Red Hills of Lake County, in addition to its 1,000 acres in the Napa Valley and 1,300 acres in Mendocino County.

“We hope this will motivate other people to give,” Beckstoffer said.

‪#‎LakeCountyRising aims to raise significant funds over the coming weeks and months to help members of the Lake County community cope, adjust, and rebuild after the Valley Fire. #LakeCountyRising is working with local organizations and government agencies to identify the most pressing community needs.

To donate, visit the Lake County Rising page on Facebook to make a donation online using PayPal, or send a check made payable to Lake County Wine Alliance (memo: “Lake County Rising Fire Relief Fund”) to: Lake County Wine Alliance, P.O. Box 530, Kelseyville, CA 95451

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Are There Any ‘Key Words’ to Use When Ordering Tapas in Spain?

BarcelonaFlagsQUESTION: We’re planning a trip to Spain, and hope to visit several tapas bars while in Barcelona. Only one problem: It has been a long time since I took Spanish in school. Are there any “key words” you could give us that will help in ordering good wines to go with the tapas?

ANSWER: The greatest challenge in Barcelona is that you’ll encounter two languages: Spanish and Catalan. Indeed, it’s common all over the city to see the flags of Spain and Catalonia flying side by side, especially atop government buildings. At individual homes, it’s usually one flag or the other, as most residents identify themselves as either Spanish or Catalunyan.

Nobody has more expertise in dealing with European language barriers than Rick Steves, the PBS travel host and travel guidebook author.

From “Rick Steves’ Barcelona,” we’ve selected a few terms that should help. In each case, we begin with the Spanish terminology, followed by Catalan in parentheses.

Wine — vino (vi).

Red — rojo (negre).

White — blanco (blanc).

Dry — seco (sec).

Sweet — dulce (dolc).

Full-bodied — mucho cuerpo (molt cos).

A glass of nicely aged, quality wine — un crianza (un crianca).

There is one type of wine drink in Barcelona for which the languages converge. Whether in Spanish or Catalan, a red wine with lemonade (similar to Sangria) is referred to as tinto de verano.

One more thing: Have a great time, and don’t let the language barrier stress you out. At many tapas bars in Barcelona, you’ll find at least one person who speaks pretty good English.

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Posted in Wine FAQ
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