Welcome to 'Wine Snobbery 101' – just kidding! This column is going to be very entertaining, and you even have homework: I'll suggest a bottle for you to discover. Each month we will be exploring the cold, dark wine cellars of the world, reviewing everything from rare Hungarian reds to everyday table wines. Don't be fooled by the lighthearted attitude I may have when pairing a wine with a Twinkie or BBQ rattlesnake. I take special care of my diet six days a week, and in the process I've eliminated 95% of all processed foods, sugars, and salt. When I'm not drinking wine, I drink only water or peppermint herbal tea. One day a week I pair and taste various varietals, knowing that my palate is as pure as I can make it. You don't believe me? Ask the editor of this magazine. He will attest to my strict regimen.
If you know nothing about wine, don't worry. I'll guide you along a path of discovery that you can keep in mind when you're looking, smelling and tasting wine. I will help you, for instance, learn to pair wine with a meal at home and in a restaurant – anything I can think of to help you enjoy and appreciate poetry in a bottle.
Here is something to try: if you only drink reds, then I suggest you drink a strong white (a French white burgundy) to let your palate grow. You can ask questions and I'll do my best to answer them, using my own experience. This isn't brain surgery; it's just a guy reviewing fermented grapes.
I grew up in an Italian household in New Jersey, and wine was served at every meal. At eight years old, if I'd wanted, I could have enjoyed a glass of vino and no one would have noticed. It was, as Tavia would say, 'Tradition!' Good thing for my parents, I didn't acquire a taste for wine until I was twenty-one. That was when I got a job in a high-end wine and rare spirits shop in Long Beach, California, and for six years I had a rare chance to indulge in the world's best bottles of alcohol, including a 1975 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Warhol label), a Louis XIII cognac, and rare Belgium beer brewed by naked monks once every 10 years.
You may not agree with all of my selections; that's fine. All palates are different. But I would like you to consider the characteristics that I point out from each selection. Even I sometimes get enraged that great wine ratings and reviews are given to high-end Bordeaux that are actually unbalanced and are only given high marks because of their name. Don't get me wrong, if a bottle of wine is $1,500, that means that the vineyard has probably won numerous blind tasting awards for several years and has proven itself as a master winemaker.
We'll take this slow and have some fun. If you have any questions, just ask. For the record my specialty is California Pinot Noir. Thanks to Miles (Paul Giamatti) from the movie Sideways, many more people now see how special that grape is.
Before I begin my review of a wine as unique as this one, I must first give a bit of history about who actually makes Conundrum. For the oenophiles who specialize in California Cabernet Sauvignon, you will surely know the winery "Caymus Vineyards." Yes, that Caymus – the makers of some of the best Cabs California has ever produced. It was back in 1988 that the Wagner family wanted to branch out into white grapes. They placed Jon Bolta in the position of winemaker, and a year later the very first bottle of Conundrum was released.
For over 20 years, Bolta has blended over 11 of California's best grapes and now has narrowed the selection to just a few. By taste, ripeness, and the mixing & matching of grape varietals, Bolta has mastered the characteristic flavors of each grape, giving Conundrum distinctive uniqueness. The highest percentage is Sauvignon Blanc, followed by Chardonnay and – for its interesting flowery character –Muscat Canelli. But Bolta didn't stop there. To give this phenomenal wine a slight edge over varietals of this nature, he brings it home by adding mere hints of Sémillon and Viognier, suggesting a whisper of spice and balance.
I decided to make this tasting a breakfast review. You read that right…wine tasting at 8 a.m. It's how we quench our thirst in Southern California. Well, that's what I do anyway! I pulled the bottle from the wine cellar at 7 a.m. and placed it in the refrigerator 1 hour before drinking to bring the temperature to a perfect 50° (I enjoy most whites at 48° - 55°). At this temperature, the grape has a few minutes to balance and open. Since this was to be a breakfast tasting, I needed to pair this varietal with something unique and not the traditional ham, eggs, hash browns, and a side of pancakes. As luck would have it, just down the street from where I live is a little hut of a place that makes a famous food. So after I waited in line with the rest of the crazy people for one hour (while letting the wine chill), I paired my Conundrum with a just-out-of-the-oven and then deep fried fresh, sugar-glazed blueberry doughnut!
To the touch, the doughnut was very warm, and I finished the bite of deep fried perfection, I was ready to study the Conundrum. The first thing I noticed, after a bite of something as sugary and sweet as my blueberry doughnut, was the spice and tang of the wine. I usually have Conundrum as an appetizer wine with a spicy tuna roll or jalapeño poppers, which really opens up the Muscat sweetness first. This was a very different experience and proved to me that this wine can be paired with nearly anything. After the wonderful "Cat Piss*" tang of the Sauvignon Blanc settled came the Chardonnay's thump, followed by the single reason I enjoy this wine year after year – the extraordinary floral bouquet of roses and lavender that the Muscat Canelli conveys. Not even a super sweet blueberry glaze could overtake the flowery goodness of this wine. That delicious lavender and rose cluster reminds me of when spring is fading and summer arrives. It's an enchanting wine that blossoms from start to finish.
The degree of honesty, care, and passion that a winemaker has for perfecting grapes is often expressed in heavyweight, high-point reds and deep, well-respected whites, and John Bolta has done just that with Conundrum, and his embrace for a real California white blend truly shows year after year, never disappointing.
Conclusion: Conundrum is not a simple white table wine. If anything, it is a complex blend of many years of refinement, desire, and balance of what California wine-making has always been about. I can say honestly that over the past 20+ years of being a wine devotee, I have never had a $20 bottle of white California blend that I have enjoyed more than this gem. This is my go-to wine for all things summer.
*Tasting Note: The term 'Cat Piss/Pee' is a term used by wine experts to describe (favorably) the aromas and flavors of some Savivgnon Blancs.
Conundrum: California White Wine
Produced by: Wagner Family of Wines
Winemaker: Jon Bolta
Location: Napa Valley
Varietals: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc Muscat Canelli, Semillon, & Viognier
Color Depth: Pale
Color Hue: Yellow
Aroma Intensity: Aromatic
Aromas: Wild Flowers, Fruit, Perfume, Vanilla
Dry/Sweet: Medium Sweet
Flavor Intensity: Flavorful
Flavors: Peach, Lavender, Rose, Grapefruit, Clove, Cucumber
Food Paring: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner - Asian, Mexican, Indian anything spicy
John Turi has had an impulsive career as a writer, wine aficionado, and artist. He has two published books of short fiction and poetry. He is a former child actor with the anxiety to prove it. He began college with a major in Mortuary Science. With a desire for writing he switched to Creative Writing and then finally finished at a free love hippie art college in Southern California as a graphic designer / sculptor. For over six years he worked in the wine industry and acquired a delicate palate for varietals. For the last 20 years he has become a private rare book and wine collector. He desires California Pinot Noirs, but his true love is the Italian Sassicaia. As a way to pay for his wine collection he works as an online marketing manager / designer for an adult sex toy company. He is also training to be a certified master sommelier.