Category Archives: Great Wines


When we think of wine in the U.S., the names of grapes generally come to mind, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay. In France, home to many of the grapes grown in the U.S., there is more of a geographical orientation with most wines being named for the region where the grapes are grown.

Consider Bordeaux, one of the world’s oldest and most legendary wine producing regions, highlighted in magenta on the map. There are five Bordeaux grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. In France, a Bordeaux wine is usually a combination of the two or more of these five grapes. This blending practice is occasionally used in the U.S. as well: if you stick to only the five Bordeaux grapes and pay a fee to the Meritage Society, you can label your wine a Meritage. Which, when pronounced correctly, rhymes with “heritage”.

Sterling Central Coast Meritage
Sterling Meritage containing all five Bordeaux grapes

More often, Bordeaux grapes are used in the U.S. to produce single varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In practice, even if the wine label lists just one grape, it’s common to blend in something else for smoothness or character. Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, frequently contains a bit of Merlot or Cabernet Franc. Under the rules of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, a bottle of wine can be called a varietal if it contains at least 75% of the grape listed on the label. If the primary grape constitutes less than 75% of the wine, you must call it a Meritage, a Red Blend or a Red Table Wine.

Pictured below are wines featuring four of the Bordeaux grapes: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Not represented is Petit Verdot, which is rarely bottled as a single varietal, but instead is blended with other varietals to enhance the color and add tannins that improve aging.

Four Bordeaux wines

Of the four popular Bordeaux varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon gets the most respect. Most Cabs are big, complex wines made for drinkers with an evolved palate and they can command some of the highest prices in the wine world. If you win the lottery, consider seeking out a Screaming Eagle or a Colgin Cabernet. Think I’m joking? I recently saw a 2009 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon listed at $2095. Not for a case, not for a Jeroboam, the seller is asking $2095 for a single 750 ml bottle. If that seems a little over the top, but you want a reliably great Cab for a special occasion, consider Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley Cabernet, Sebastiani Cherryblock or something from Napa’s Stags Leap District. Better yet, go French and try a Premier Cru like Chateau Margaux or Chateau Lafite.

Merlot, on the other hand, has a reputation among critics for being a “beginner’s wine” with many producers avoiding bold flavors and tannins that might be off putting to someone unaccustomed to red wine. Paul Giamatti’s rant about his disdain for Merlot in the film Sideways didn’t help the grapes reputation, either. But in some cases, this reputation of mediocrity is undeserved. The Robert Sinskey Carneros Merlot seen in the photo is a fabulous wine, with complex flavors, a great balance and a beautiful finish.

Malbec has become popular in the U.S. in recent years, mostly owing to a dearth of excellent and affordable imports from the Mendoza region of Argentina. Cabernet Franc, like Petit Verdot, appears more often in blends than as a single varietal, but if you see a Cab Franc on the tasting menu at a winery give it go; it can be a real treat.

Stay tuned for our next post where we explore the wines of Burgundy.

Send in the Clones

If you enjoy Pinot Noir, at some point you’ve probably encountered the word “clone”, as in “This wine is crafted from Djion clone 115”. A clone not actually the result of a test tube experiment, and it’s certainly not any kind of genetically modified organism, or GMO. Pinot clones are simply grape vines grown from cuttings of the best Pinot vines from renowned vineyards, or their descendents. Most clones grown in Oregon and California were cloned from French Burgundian stock. Many of the most common clones originated in Dijon, hence the term “Dijon Clone”.

I’ve frequently written about the unique characteristics of single vineyard wines. Clones add another dimension to terroir, which is the concept that a wine’s flavor is influenced to a large degree by the place in which it is grown: soil, water, elevation, slope, and temperature all play a role. In the nature versus nurture debate, terroir is the nurture while the clone is the nature. Combinations of the two are nearly infinite, making for the abundant variety of flavors that are central to wine tasting adventures. Big vintners mix grapes of different vineyards and clones in giant vats, averaging out all the individual characteristics. Smaller, artisanal winemakers do a much better job of preserving the uniqueness of the grape, bringing the terroir and the clone to your palate.

My friend Craig Handley of Pleasant Valley Vines is one of several winemakers who purchase special Pinot fruit from local grower Lester Family Vineyards. In 2008, Craig selected grapes from two blocks of the Lester Vineyard, one planted in Dijon 115 clones and the other utilizing 667’s. He fermented, barreled and bottled the clones separately, making two excellent wines with subtly different overtones.

Another popular clone, and a favorite of mine, is 777, as witnessed by two single vineyard, single clone “triple sevens” I found in my cellar while “researching” this column. Heart O’ the Mountain is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the old Alfred Hitchcock Estate. Readers who know my love of wine and film should not be surprised if we return to Heart O’ the Mountain in a future column.

Other popular clones are 114, 828, Pommard, Swan and Pisoni. The Pisoni clone was brought to the U.S. from a legendary French vineyard in a suitcase by Gary Pisoni of Garys’ vineyard fame, though there are rumors that he smuggled it in an undergarment. Gary’s Vineyard is planted in Pisoni and Swan clones; Swan is rumored to be another “suitcase clone”, but no one is certain how it came to be planted in Swan’s Russian River Valley vineyard. Joseph Swan did little to discourage rumors of his clone’s origin, adding to the mystique.

The numbered Dijon clones aren’t surrounded by as much mystery as their suitcase travelling cousins, but they are widely planted and make excellent wine. Most of the numbered clones were developed at the University of Dijon by Dr. Raymond Bernard in the 1960’s, so all pinot lovers owe the good doctor a debt of gratitude. For those wondering about the origin or meaning of the numbers, they serve only to distinguish one clone from another.

In honor of Dr. Bernard, we’ll close with label shots of a lovely Blackstone 828 from the Sonoma Coast, and one of my favorite clonal blends, the Morgan 12 Clones, sourced mainly from their Double L Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Of the thousands of wines tasted by Wine Spectator magazine in 2012, the Morgan 12 Clones was ranked in the top 100.