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March 2010

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache Blanc

This article is the first in what will be an ongoing exploration of the principal varietals of the Rhone Valley.  A version of this article first appeared in the Tablas Creek newsletter.

GrenacheBlanc Overview
Grenache Blanc is the fourth most widely planted white grape in France. It produces rich, full wines with bright flavors and crisp acidity and is a key element in our flagship white wine, the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. It is also growing in popularity as a single-varietal wine, particularly in California’s Central Coast. As the name suggests, it is related to the more widely known Grenache Noir. Many grape varietals have both red and white variants; the best known is Pinot, which has Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris variations. Grenache Blanc, like Grenache Noir, is drought-resistant, vigorous, easy to graft and ripens fairly early in the cycle, after Viognier and Marsanne, but before Roussanne.

Since we brought Grenache Blanc into our nursery, we have sold budwood and grafted vines to a number of other Rhône-producing vineyards in California. The California climate of hot days and cool nights seems to be perfect for the varietal and encourages its two prime qualities: richness with crisp acids.

Early History
Grenache Blanc originated in Spain, and still plays a role in the wines of Rioja and Navarre. From Spain, it spread to France, and has thrived in the vineyards of the Rhône valley and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the crisp acidity of Grenache Blanc is used to balance the honeyed richness of Roussanne, and white Château de Beaucastel is roughly 80% Roussanne and 20% Grenache Blanc.

Grenache Blanc at Tablas Creek
We imported cuttings of Grenache Blanc from Beaucastel in 1992, and the vines spent three years in quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York. In 1995, the cuttings were declared virus free and released to Tablas Creek Vineyard. These vines were received into our nursery and the first grafted vines went into the ground in 1996 . Our first significant harvest of the varietal was 1999. For the next three years (up to and including the 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc), we could only refer to the varietal as Grenache on our label because Grenache Blanc was not yet recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Not surprisingly, many people found this confusing and we were regularly asked why we added a red varietal into our white blend.  In 2002 we petitioned the BATF to recognize Grenache Blanc as a separate varietal.

Grenache Blanc in California
Even as plantings of other white Rhone varietals have plateaued, the planting of Grenache Blanc has increased; almost 40% of the 159 acres planted in California were planted since 2005. To date, almost one third of all Grenache Blanc in California is planted in San Luis Obispo county, and most of the single varietal Grenache Blancs released in California have come from the Central Coast.

Aromas and Flavors
Grenache Blanc is straw-colored and produces wines that are high in alcohol, with crisp acids. The nose has bright green apple and mandarin orange aromas, with clean flavors of more apple, mineral and a touch of peach. It typically has a lingering finish with a hint of licorice. Although it can stand confidently on its own (as most recently in our 2008 Grenache Blanc, which will be sent out to our wine club members as a part of our spring 2010 wine club shipment), its crispness and long finish make it a tremendous blending component. The crispness of Grenache Blanc shows well at low temperatures, whereas many white Rhône varietals shut down when served too cold. In our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, the Grenache Blanc allows the wine to show well, even highly chilled (as many restaurants often serve all white wines). As the wine warms up in the glass, the other varietals unfold, and the full richness of the wine is displayed. Anyone interested in learning more about Grenache Blanc and Grenache is encouraged to attend the Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco (March 27-28, 2010), where one seminar will be devoted to the grape.

Found Food Photos: Miner's Lettuce

As those of you who have been following the blog regularly know, we've had a wet winter this year.  These last two weeks have been a beautiful interlude in the rainy weather, but we're excited to see the return of the el nino-influenced pattern next week, when we're expecting more rain.

One benefit of the wet weather has been a bountiful cover crop, both in the sections we seeded with our standard cover crop mix of sweet peas, oats, vetch and clover and in the sections that we left to native vegetation.  One water-loving plant that has appeared a lot, particularly at the bottoms of our hillsides where it's wettest, has been miner's lettuce (Latin name claytonia perfoliata).  This edible (even delicious) green hasn't been seen much at the vineyard before, but we've been making use of it in salads for the past month or so.  It tastes like a milder version of spinach, and can apparently be cooked as well. 

It's pretty recognizable, with a long-ish stem -- up to a foot long, in some cases -- beneath a round perfoliate leaf.  The small flowers, also edible, are in the center of the leaf.  According to Wikipedia, it is rich in Vitamin C and was eaten by miners to avoid scurvy.  A couple of photos from the vineyard:



If you find you have some of this growing near your house, enjoy!

A Dewy Morning on Adelaida Road

I had to head out to the vineyard early Sunday morning to get my wine for the Paso Robles Rhone Rangers Experience.  It was, as is not unusual at this time of year, foggy downtown (Salinas Valley fog, come up from the cold waters of the Monterey Bay) but clear once I'd gotten a few miles out of town.  But, more unusual for this area, because of all the rain we've received this winter and all the moisture in the ground, we have had a thin layer of ground fog develop out at the vineyard most mornings for the past week.  By the time I typically get out to work around 9, it's mostly burned off.  But when I got out to the vineyard yesterday a little before 8, it was stunning.  Dew had settled on the vines and wires, making them sparkle like they were strung with jewels:


I'm not usually the first one at the office, so I don't often get to take a shot of the winery facade without a parking lot full of cars in front of it.  Since this view will be going away soon, it's nice to have a good one to remember it by:


Finally, one shot of an old oak stump across Adelaida Road from us, on the Halter Ranch property.  On sunny winter mornings, we often see a half-dozen turkey vultures posing on this tree, stretching out their wings to absorb the morning sun.  When this coincides with lifting ground fog, it looks like the opening scene from a movie.


The weather has been beautiful these past four or five days, with ample sun and daytime highs in the upper 60s.  We're supposed to get more of this weather (even a little warmer) this week, before a rainy el nino-influenced pattern returns next week.  With about six weeks of wet weather behind us, we have all been really enjoying the sun and warmth.  And knowing that there's more rain coming is even better.

Tasting the wines in the spring 2010 wine club shipment

Each spring and fall, we send out six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  With each shipment we include a little update from our wine club director, an order form, and, of course, production and tasting notes for the six wines in the club shipment.  As these wines are typically unreleased, most of them do not yet have a Web page, and for me it's often one of my first opportunities to taste these wines after bottling.  It's always exciting, and the rest of the staff typically joins me as we see, in effect, what's next.  I thought it would be fun to share what I found.


In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our March 6th club shipment tasting event:


  • Production notes: Grenache Blanc continues shine in California’s Central Coast. Most of our production goes into our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each year, but in 2008 we reserved a small (565 case) lot for our wine club. It had a very long fermentation (in a mix of stainless steel and foudre) that didn’t finish until nearly a year after harvest. It was bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A clean nose of mineral, green apple, grapefruit and pear, with flavors that begin bright with lemon and lime, then broaden in the mid-palate before re-tightening on the finish with a lingering character of green apple skin and wet rocks. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Press: Tanzer's I.W.C. 89 points (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 565 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: 2008’s relatively cool growing season produced wines of medium body, tremendous elegance, and expressive varietal character. The 2008 Roussanne was fermented 40% in oak (mostly old, neutral barrels), 20% in foudre, and 40% in stainless steel. The wine was blended in July and bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: An expressive nose of beeswax, lacquered wood, and white flowers, with a powerful spiciness emerging with air. The mouth is juicy yet still restrained, with flavors of peaches and cream. The finish is more mineral, very clean, with almond, pear, honey and chamomile notes. Enjoy now or over the next 4-6 years.
  • Press: Parker 90-92 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 90 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 720 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
ROSÉ 2009
  • Production notes: The 2009 Rosé reflects the generally tiny crop in 2009, and the particular shortage of Mourvèdre.  We were worried that given the extreme concentration of the Mourvèdre, using as much as we typically do (60% in most vintages) would produce a wine too dark and structured.  So, we reduced the Mourvèdre to 46% and increased Grenache (39%) and Counoise (15%). We left the grapes on their skins for just under two days before drawing off the juice and completing the fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was bottled in January 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an explosive nose of sour cherry, cranberry, Christmas spices and orange zest.  The mouth is incredibly juicy with flavors of maraschino cherry, sour strawberry and apple. Mouth-watering acidity on the long, dry finish cleans up the wine's richness. Drink now through the end of 2011.
  • Quantity Produced: 640 cases
  • List Price: $27.00 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Grenache, like the 2007 vintage, is big yet balanced, with powerful aromas and flavors, and should benefit from short-term cellaring. The wine was blended in June 2008, aged in foudre, and bottled in March 2009. 10% Syrah gives the wine firmness and a touch of mineral on the finish.
  • Tasting notes: A powerful nose of mint, boysenberry, and licorice. Vibrantly fruity on the palate with unusually dark tones for Grenache: black cherry, blueberry and black raspberry, followed by a long finish with some chalky tannins that cut the wine’s richness. We suggest you hold this wine for 1-2 years and drink for the next decade.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09), Wine Spectator 92 (12/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 750 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
SYRAH 2007
  • Production notes: The powerful 2007 vintage produced our most intense Syrah ever. Aged in a combination of 1200-gallon foudres and small new Dargaud & Jaegle 60-gallon pieces, we blend our Syrah for a balance of fruit, mineral, and spice, and add 10% Grenache for its signature acidity and openness. The wine was blended in August 2008, aged in a single foudre and bottled in March 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, dark nose of ink, soy and iodine, with a little oak and black fruit sneaking through. The mouth shows mineral, blackberry, iron and spice, with beautiful tannins and length. This is a wine for the long term; hold for 3-5 years, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09); Tanzer’s IWC 91 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 685 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Panoplie is a wine of incredible lushness and power. As always, Panoplie is selected from lots in the cellar chosen for their balance, richness, and concentration. The components (60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah) were blended in July 2008 and aged in foudre before bottling in July of 2009.
  • Tasting notes: Dense purple-red in color. A dark, meaty nose with aromas of sweet earth, plums and nutmeg. Explosive in the mouth, with flavors of currant, plum, cocoa powder and red licorice, finishing drier and powerfully tannic. Hold, if possible, until 2015, and drink for two decades after that.
  • Press: Parker 96-98 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 95 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 540 cases
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76
  • More at

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested:  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2007's are built for the long haul.  I wouldn't touch the Syrah for several years, and the Grenache seems to me to be likely to benefit from a year or two of aging.  Surprisingly, it was the Panoplie, of the three, that was the most giving right now.  That's one of the things that we love about Mourvedre: it has loads of chewy tannin and can be aged beautifully, but doesn't have the hardness when young that most similarly-structured varietals have.

Second, I'm really coming to love the elegance of the 2008's.  The 2008 whites show medium body, sparkling acidities, very pretty fruit flavors and spot-on varietal character.  I think that the wines are already showing beautifully, even with varieties like Roussanne that are typically structure-bound at this age.  I'm not sure I'd recommend laying these whites down (though their exquisite balance suggests they could be) but for drinking right now I'm not sure we've ever made a more appealing vintage.

Vineyard pruning 2010, and a chance to fill in missing vines

With a letup in the rain that is supposed to last about a week, we're taking the opportunity to get out into the vineyard to prune where we can.  In addition to allowing us to shape the vine and control the next year's yields, pruning stimulates the vines to push earlier.  So, in our frost-prone region, we typically start with our latest-pushing grape varieties (which we're not worried will sprout too soon and get frosted).  We leave our earlier-sprouting varieties, like Grenache and Viognier, for last.

We've largely completed the Mourvedre, and are working on Syrah.  The photo below shows the section we're pruning, at the western edge of the property in a Syrah block planted in 1997.  Piles of newly-pruned canes lie on the ground between the rows.  At right is Vineyard Manager David Maduena.


The pruning process takes only a few seconds for each vine, as we remove most of the canes and leave just six spurs, with two buds on each spur.  A frame-by-frame comparison of David pruning one vine covers five photos but just about 10 seconds:

Pruning_2010_0005  Pruning_2010_0006 

Pruning_2010_0007    Pruning_2010_0008 


The sap in the vines is beginning to flow.  This is a little scary, actually, since flowing sap means that budbreak isn't that far away.  And between all the rain that we've received and the fact that we haven't had a hard freeze here since early January, there is the risk of a very early budbreak and the resulting longer-than-normal period where we have to be worried about frost.  The shot below shows the sap dripping out of the end of a newly-pruned spur.


In addition to pruning the healthy vines, we take this opportunity to fill in gaps that have appeared in the vineyard blocks over the years.  Below, David identifies a pink-tagged vine that did not sprout last spring.


As it is rarely successful to plant a new vine in a row with other established vines, we extend canes from healthy vines to fill in the spots where vines have died or been killed in past years. This can equally well be used where one arm of a cordon has died, which we have seen happen in both Mourvedre and Syrah over the years.  Below, David ties a new cane over a dead arm and into an empty space where the next vine was killed by gophers.  He then ties the cane to the wire in the open space.  It will sprout this spring.



We will be pruning the vineyard, weather permitting, over the next month or more. The vine cuttings will go to NovaVine, where they'll be grafted into new grapevines for planting next year.

Bubble, Bubble: Bordeaux in Trouble (Again)

By Robert Haas

While I am no longer working as an importer, I have been following with interest the ongoing price correction in the Bordeaux markets. I thought that one of the best articles was Mitch Frank’s recent Diageo Dumps Bordeaux in the February 28th issue of the Wine Spectator. It seems to me that the issues that this market correction raises are of sufficiently broad application that it might interest readers of the blog to learn some history from my own wine business experience.

This correction is not the first in the modern Bordeaux market, nor should it be a surprise. A similar dumping event occurred in the 1970s after competing importers paid exorbitant prices for the mediocre 1972 vintage to “stay in the game” and found that they could not sell it. An inflated supply bubble had burst in a period of economic recession, and too few buyers wanted either the 1972s or other over-priced vintages that had built up in their inventories.

The result: several of the large buyers closed out all of their stocks and departed the imported wine business permanently, while others simply sold their accumulated inventories at losses but hung around for more. At the time, having left Barton Brands wine division and before starting Vineyard Brands, I was hired as a consultant by two of these importers to extricate them from the market. The largest and most influential of the importers that stayed in became Seagram’s Château and Estates division. When Seagram broke up, Diageo acquired it.

Seagram’s and other en primeur speculators became the Bordeaux bankers by making what were in effect collateralized no-interest loans and profited from the continued inflation of prices, with just a few bumps on the way, until this year. The party ended when the bean counters of Diageo came to the conclusion that they were heavily invested in inventory that had no market at the prices they had paid, and that future purchases would exacerbate the problem. So, they’re now selling their accumulated inventory at fifty to seventy-five percent of what they paid, putting enormous downward pressure on the market and forcing other inventory holders to make the unpleasant choice between selling at a significant loss or holding inventory for perhaps years for the market to recover. Does this sequence recall a certain other bubble that has burst recently?

The conditions that brought about this and other dumping go back to the end of World War II. Prior to the war, the Bordeaux négociants: Cruse, Calvet, Eschenauer, Delor, Ginestet, Barton & Guestier, and many others were the bankers for the Bordeaux château owners as well as for the small growers who sold their wines in bulk as Médoc, St. Julien, St.Emilion, or simply Bordeaux. These generic appellation wines were bottled and marketed immediately under the négociant’s brand and sold to their local and foreign agents to provide cash flow. The négociants used this cash to finance the châteaux’ crops -- at severely negotiated prices -- and then kept the wines until they were bottled, either in their cellars or at the châteaux. The négociants then sold the wines at higher prices after bottling. Because of their financial importance, the négociants had power in the marketplace both over their exclusive agents/importers and over the châteaux.

The châteaux had no marketing organizations and the proprietors had little idea into which channels the wine was resold, or whether it was even resold at all or instead sitting in an agent's warehouse.

However, Bordeaux price deflation destroyed this system in the 1950s. By 1950, prices on Bordeaux châteaux were actually lower than they were in 1935 -- so low that the generic market melted away. This market is still suffering badly today despite the significant rise of the châteaux prices because the négociants no longer have the capital or the distribution agencies either at home or abroad to brand and sell generic appellation wines effectively.

In order to try to keep their place in the distribution system in the 1950s, the Bordeaux négociants, no longer having the ability to finance the châteaux and hold the wines, relinquished their banking marketplace function and started to sell the châteaux wines en primeur at small margins. It did not take long for well-capitalized buyers to realize that although the system required that they buy from négociants, they could squeeze the négociants margins even further. The traditional system became dysfunctional. The châteaux then began to sell their wines en primeur in a sort of auction to the highest bidder through a favored négociant, who in turn resold it at a tiny margin to an importer.

Well-financed organizations jumped into the game: Austin-Nichols, Nestlé, Seagram C & E, and finally Diageo. In order to stay in it, however, they had to buy all vintages, no matter what the reputation or salability. The power had shifted to the châteaux, who took advantage of a ready supply of eager buyers to steadily raise prices: somewhat even in mediocre vintages and dramatically in the better ones.

Of course, the châteaux still had no idea where the wine went or if it was still sitting in the buyer’s stock.

Over time, it became evident to the financial managers of these enterprises that long-term profits were elusive. Much of their purchases, especially the lesser vintages, ended up having to be sold at less than cost or stored in long-term inventory. Austin-Nichols and Nestlé sold off their inventory and exited the market in the 1970s.

The strange separation of Bordeaux châteaux proprietors from the market realities of their business has its roots in the 17th century, when Dutch engineers began filling in the swampland on the left bank of the Gironde that is known as the Médoc today. Noble and a few rich bourgeois families established châteaux there and in the Graves area, south of Bordeaux, and the port of Bordeaux took over leadership in the wine business from the port of Libourne (on the right bank with St. Emilion and Pomerol).

The bourgeois and noble families considered it unseemly to engage in business dealings, so they sold their wines in barrels through bourgeois middlemen known as courtiers, who acted as intermediaries between châteaux managers, known as régisseurs, and Bordeaux négociants. Although their role has been reduced, all Bordeaux château-bottled wines are still sold through courtiers today!

Where to now? In my opinion the players in the Bordeaux market, including Bordeaux châteaux -- large and small -- and importers of Bordeaux, will eventually have to come to some sort of exclusive arrangements or suffer these constant price bubbles and dumping cycles. Châteaux are going to have find ways to market their individual properties in the marketplace. Giving exclusivity to one importer who can then be held responsible for distribution is one good way. And it seems inevitable to me that many châteaux will have to lower their prices to the point where their wines are intended for drinking -- rather than collecting – in order to re-establish restaurant and retail distribution and the consumption that is necessary to deplete each vintage and prepare the market for the next.

All Things Consumed: 2009 Epicurean Highlights, From A to Z

[Tommy Oldre is Tablas Creek's national sales manager.  This is the first entry in "All Things Consumed," an occasional chronicle of some of the highlights of eating and drinking around the country.  Follow Tommy's journeys through the world of food and wine on Twitter: @TommyTablas]

I feel fortunate to represent a vineyard and winery that aspires to have its wines carried by the finest restaurants and retailers in the country.  And I appreciate that they fly me all over to support this effort.  I truly love visiting and working with these establishments; it is challenging, exciting, educational, fascinating and quite fulfilling.

For its population size, the greater Paso Robles area has a remarkable number of great restaurants.  However, the range and diversity of our restaurants is tiny compared to what is available in most of the places I visit to sell wine.  We're still waiting for the artisan pizza movement ... the Korean burrito ... and the banh mi to arrive in Paso.

Are these things you search out?  I thought I would highlight, for my first blog post, some of my favorite places, restaurants and people that I encountered in 2009.  Think of it as a gourmand's alphabet.  Have a spot you think I should check out in 2010?  Suggest it in the comments section. 


A is for Austin, TX.  I visited this hip little city twice in '09 and always ate well.  The standout meals of my visits were at Mirabelle (where Michael Vilim, the Austin Food and Wine pioneer, hosted another great Tablas Creek dinner) and at Olivia, a great new(ish) restaurant that was designed by a college buddy of mine. 

B is for Beast in Portland, OR.  I had read many great things about this restaurant and I was excited that I had the chance to spend my birthday there back in September.  The food did not disappoint and I loved the unhurried pace of the meal.  I also read a quote on the wall there that has stuck with me since: "If it has four legs, and it is not a table, eat it."  

C is for Catalan in Houston, TX.  Over the past few years, I have eaten (gorged?) here a few times and it has always delivered.  The menu is broad, inventive, regionally driven and well executed and the wine program is excellent (particularly if you like grower Champagne, an extensive dry Rose selection, and a few options from the Jura region of France........... which I do).  Antonio, Chris, and everyone else, I look forward to saying hello in 2010.

D is for Destin, FL.  I had no idea.  Back in April, I attended the Sandestin Wine Festival and couldn't have been more impressed with both the festival and the area.  I had the chance to spend time with friends from the trade, met some new great people, and I am still amazed at how pretty that stretch of the Gulf Coast is. 

E is for eruption, as in Mt. Redoubt.  I visited Alaska back in March for the first time to participate in our distributor's trade shows.  I -- and many other sales reps -- saw more of Alaska than we'd planned.  Because of the temperamental volcano, and its grounding (literally) effect on airplanes, our distributor had to charter a bus to take us from Anchorage to Fairbanks, roughly seven hours to the north.  Oddly, I enjoyed every minute of it. 

F is for Flour + Water in San Francisco.  The hand made pasta, pizza, and salumi, all of which is done in house, is fantastic.  This straight-forward, time-tested concept does not yet exist here in Paso. 

G is for Gjelina on Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach, CA.  Eat here.  The food, across the (rather expansive) board, is fantastic and so are the wine list and overall feel of the place.  I had many great meals here in '09, hung out with some great characters, and I will be returning soon.

H is for Hush in Laguna Beach, CA.  I was fortunate enough to do a dinner with the talented staff from Hush back in November and it was a very memorable night.  The weather was perfect, there were friendly, familiar faces in attendance, and the food and wine pairings were lovely.  I still think about the bison medallions with huckleberry reduction.

I is for Inn of the Anasazi in Santa Fe, NM.  Every year Tablas Creek chooses to participate in the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta and I have been lucky to have represented us the last three years.  This past festival, we partnered with the gifted culinary crew at the Inn of the Anasazi for an incredible meal.  The dining room was festive and fun and the food and wine pairings were spot-on. 

J is for John's in Boulder, CO.  (File this one under met cool people)  Some places I don't even get to eat at.  Yet.  I really enjoyed all the staff I met here when I called on the account; they were attentive and serious enough, but not full of themselves or claiming to be reinventing anything.  The restaurant itself is kind of tucked away, has a great reputation to go along with its non-pretentious feel and I can't wait to get back to eat, drink, and say hello.

K is for K&L.  A class act.  Both Jason and I participated in tastings at different K&L locations this past year and they were both great experiences.  The staff is knowledgeable and a joy to work with, their wine selection is tough to beat, and they attract a great clientele.  True retail pros (and probably the best Web site of any wine retailer).

L is for Lou in Los Angeles.  I love everything about this place: the location (generic Hollywood strip mall), the menu, the wine list; you name it.  If you are not on the Lou mailing list, sign up for news on his Monday night suppers and his rants, and don't miss Lou's blog

M is for Miami, Fl, and the two restaurants I fell in love with during my trips there in 2009, Michy's and Michael's Genuine.  This is probably no surprise, but many of the restaurants I have been to in Miami have seemed to be more about the scene, and the business of being seen, than the actual product that is served.  This is not the case with Michy's and Michael's Genuine.  Both restaurants are chef-owned and -operated and both are staffed with friendly, knowledgeable, and professional help.  Oh, and the food at both is incredible. 

N is for NOVO in the town I call home, San Luis Obispo, CA.  I think one of the main reasons I have not made the move up to Paso is that I can walk to this restaurant in ten minutes.  I love the wine list here, the variety of small plates to be enjoyed, and their back patio overlooking San Luis Obispo Creek is one of the first thoughts that comes to mind when people ask why I like living in SLO.  

O is for OneSpeed in Sacramento, CA.  OneSpeed is the new pizza joint created by Rick Mahan of Waterboy, also in Sacramento.  I visited shortly after it opened and had one of my top five pizzas of the year there.  Additionally, I love the simple and bright feel of the dining room; it definitely made hammering three-fourth's of a pie at one in the afternoon a little less debilitating than it should have been.  I know it is pretty easy to rag on the whole fancy pizza fetish/trend, but if our country's pizza culture were to become less connected to Domino's, I would be alright with that.  

P is for Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ.  You foodies have likely all heard about it.  Believe the hype; it is that good.  I talked a high-school buddy of mine into going with me (he asked for Ranch dressing to dip his crust in; it was awesome) on a recent trip to Phoenix, we waited an hour, and then had two incredible pies.  I will go back every time I visit family in Phoenix.

Q is for Quahog, as in the type of clams that were in my favorite chowder of the year at Wimpy's in Osterville, MA.  (Kind of a reach, I know.  Q's are hard.  I will be eating at Quince this year so as to make this endeavor easier next year.)  I was working on the Cape in March of last year and, naturally, wanted to take down a bowl of chowder before leaving.  My coworker for the day, Tony, suggested Wimpy's and I'm happy he did.  The chowder was incredible, considerably brinier than most, which I like, and the sweet couple that now own and run the restaurant were a lot of fun to visit with. 

R is for Root Down in Denver, CO.  This funky neighborhood restaurant inhabits an old auto garage in the Highlands area of Denver and it focuses on locally grown and organically farmed ingredients.  I'm a sucker for restaurants that have a varied selection of small plates (entree commitment issues) and can also make a properly bitter pre-meal Negroni.  Root Down did both well. 

S is for Seattle, WA, one of my favorite markets to work.  Mountains, water, great people, and an endless number of places I want to eat and drink; this city covers just about everything for me.  This past year, we partnered with the talented Chef Jason Wilson of Crush restaurant for what was an exceptional dinner.  Each course was beautifully executed but the highlight for me was the sous vide of Neah Bay black cod with roasted mushrooms in a dashi broth, paired with our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

T is for The Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York.  This was my favorite eating experience of this past year.  My brother and I were both wrapping up a day's work and we met here to have a couple dozen oysters and a few beers.  I enjoyed seeing our Esprit Blanc on the wine list and knowing that we were indulging in a ritual that has been performed at the same location since 1913. 

U is for Uchi in Austin, TX.  I was rather skeptical about this place prior to actually eating there.  All I had heard was that the fare was sushi (in Austin, mind you), that the chef was not Japanese, and that it was expensive.  While all of this proved to be true, Uchi was fantastic.  If in Austin, and you don't mind splurging, this restaurant is not to be missed.

V is for V. Mertz in Omaha, NE.  2009 was the third year in a row that we have partnered with this family-run, fine dining restaurant in Omaha for a wine dinner and it was a lovely event once again.  The Stamp family, and the talented cast they employ, have made Omaha perhaps the unlikeliest entry on my favorite-places-to-visit-each-year list.

W is for Wexler's in San Francisco, CA.  Just about every item on this menu looked intriguing to me and I was bummed that it was just myself and one other the only time I ate here.  Had we been more, I surely would have had the chance to try more of the menu.  I will be returning to Wexler's in the near future so I can continue to sample the soulfully updated classics that are offered.  

X is for WineX (Wine eXchange) in Orange, CA, one of the savviest retailers out there.  Even more than the cheeky humor found in their near daily emails, I appreciate the candor with which they discuss the current state of affairs in the wholesale wine world.  This is an account call I look forward to every year.

Y is for York Street in Dallas, TX.  We teamed up with Sharon Hage and Co. at York Street back in October for a six-course meal that may have been my best work meal of 2009.  Every component of the evening was superb; the wines showed beautifully with Sharon's wonderful food, the York Street staff were professional and fun, and the dining room was full of people that were enjoying one another.  It was a night I simply felt lucky to be a part of.

Z is for Zazie in San Francisco, CA.  I first visited Zazie a few years ago and I was enamored with it from the beginning.  It epitomizes the neighborhood bistro I wish I had where I live.  I have tried a few of the bistro classics that are offered here and they have never disappointed.  The croque monsieur I had in 2009 was the best I had all year.  I imagine, and hope, Zazie will be an annual visit of mine for years to come.