Minority Report
Article and photos © Howard Roth

I was in Napa and Sonoma recently for a seminar called the "3rd International Wine and Health Summit." The audience was comprised of mostly physicians who love wine. One of the co-chairs was Margaret Duckhorn from Duckhorn winery, and this made it the most enjoyable conference I've been to. After all, not many conferences have a glass of wine poured for the attendees during the first lecture. The conference discussed wine and nutrition and their relationship to (mostly) cardiovascular health. I learned quite a bit and had some things reinforced.

The bias in our health care system against publicizing beneficial effects of alcohol in general and wine in particular is remarkable. Yes, I know that alcoholism is a serious problem; but for those who are not addicted, there is clear evidence that moderate alcohol consumption - and particularly wine consumption - is good for you. One of the first reported studies looked at the Framingham data and concluded (in the early 1970's) that the four greatest risk factors for cardiovascular disease were

  1. smoking
  2. high blood pressure
  3. elevated cholesterol levels
  4. abstention from alcohol!
This data was actively suppressed by the National Institutes of Health, which funded the study. In fact, they went so far as to request the raw data be sent to the NIH, presumably so that it could not be published at a later time. Since then, numerous studies have been published which confirm the beneficial effects of moderate alcohol consumption.

Much of the research has been spearheaded or inspired by Serge Renaud, Ph.D., from Segalen University, Bordeaux, France who began to publish his research in the early 1970s. It was Dr. Renaud's difficulty in getting his research published that was brought to Morley Safer's attention and ultimately resulted in the famous 60 Minutes "French Paradox" episode. Dr. Renaud told an amusing anecdote about his original research on the Mediterranean diet: Apparently, his data showed considerable increase in longevity due to decreased cardiovascular mortality in patients who adhered to the Mediterranean diet. This was in spite of no decrease in their overall cholesterol levels. Dr. Renaud submitted this to the New England Journal of Medicine, which rejected it. They pointed out that the cholesterol levels had not decreased, therefore, his conclusions must be wrong! He re-submitted it to The Lancet (a prestigious British medical and scientific journal), which wrote back admonishing him that he should know better than to submit his work to the NEJM first. They published it.

Dr. Renaud spoke at the meeting and it was one of the highlights. He is in his 80s and quite vigorous. Dr. Renaud has researched extensively on the benefits of wine and also the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. He calls it the "Cretan" diet after the natives of Crete on whom it is modeled. Comparing their diet to a typical American diet shows they eat 4X as much bread (all rustic whole grain, of course), 3 - 4 times as much legumes, 2X as much fruit, 1/8 as much red meat, 3X as much fish, 3X as much edible fat (olive oil mostly), and 2 ½ X as much alcohol, mostly red wine. Their overall lifetime risk of heart disease and stroke is about 1/10 of ours for age matched subjects. They also eat a lot of snails which feed on a particular plant loaded with alpha linolenic acid. This seems to be really important in many of the studies of the so-called Mediterranean diet. Rapeseed oil (canola oil in the US) has the highest concentration of this stuff and it is a remarkable protective agent for the cardiovascular system. Overall, the dietary recommendations for the average American (your mileage may vary) was to increase whole grain bread intake, increase vegetable and legume intake, increase fish intake, decrease red meat intake, never have a day without fresh fruit, decrease or eliminate butter and cream, use olive oil and especially rapeseed oil as the primary edible fat. Finally, drink 2-3 glasses of wine per day with meals. There was a fair amount of evidence presented that beer and spirits do not have the same beneficial effects on health as does regular moderate consumption of wine. It was recommended that we consume 20 grams canola oil/day or 300 grams wild greens/day in order to obtain the alpha linolenic acid that seems to be protective. Another way to get this is by consuming the meat, milk, cheese, and eggs of animals who feed on wild greens rather than farm fed on grains.

There was some attention given to the question of increased cancer risk in patients who drink alcohol but papers were submitted that suggest, again, that moderate alcohol consumption (2-3 glasses wine/day for men, 1-2 glasses wine/day for women) does not raise the risk of cancers. On a population-wide basis, any minimal increase in cancer which may have been shown in one or two studies is vastly overshadowed by the enormous proven benefit of moderate consumption of alcohol. Additionally, several studies were shown that suggested some cancer risks may be slightly decreased.

Another really great lecture was by Carole Meredith, Ph.D., titled: "Zinfandel: The True Story of an Undocumented Alien." Here's where all my geekiness comes to the fore. This was an exciting international detective story that spanned nearly 10 years, several continents and universities with wrong turns and lucky breaks galore. It was told by one of the key players in the drama herself. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and well-told tale.

I did take the opportunity to taste a bunch of wines while I was there. I've learned that, in general, heavily oaked, low acid/low tannin wines with big forward fruit (what I, and lots of other people, call California style) are not my favorite wines. I was discussing this with one of the winemakers (who, because he works and lives there, shall remain nameless). His comment to me was "I can't drink the stuff my neighbors in the valley make." He also told me that he and I were in the small minority because the vast majority of tourists and locals who come to his place are looking for just that type of wine!

At the meeting: 2003 Duckhorn Paradux Zinfandel/Cabernet Sauvignon mix - I liked this, Some zinnyberry fruit tamed by some tannins and acid structure. Yeah there's some oak, but I'm no oakaphobe, this was well integrated and well done. Nice finish.

Dinner at Don Giovanni (Napa) - nice, boisterous, creative Italian bistro. Wonderful bread (which I dipped in olive oil and dripped down my shirt). Ravioli with peas, Cauliflower pasta with hot pepper sauce were very nice. Wines: Billecart-Salmon NV - tasty stuff, lovely small pleasant bubbles, toast yeast, some fruit (apples)

Silverado Vineyards Chianti (don't know the vintage) this is what I'm talking about - wood chips, coconut, flabby, blech.

Thursday's dinner was at Café Lahaye (just off Sonoma Plaza). This is a great place. It's very small, maybe 15 tables with a microscopic kitchen but oh what magic is brought forth from that kitchen! Delightful in every way I could easily eat there several times a month if I had the opportunity. With pan roasted chicken stuffed with herbed goat cheese served with lentils, capers and cabbage: 2003 Hitching Post Pinot Noir. I have not yet seen Sideways and the waitress thankfully neglected to tell me this was featured in it until after I tasted it. Had I known it was featured, I probably would not have bothered. But now I'm glad I did! Spicy, cherries, a little earth, with oak but not overwhelmingly so, this was very nice and a good match with the food. Nice tannins - good finish.

Nalley Vineyards
These Nalle Zinfandel vines date from the 1920's
Friday's meeting presented some data to suggest that wine, and especially red wine, really is better for your health than beer or spirits. Then it was off to Dry Creek Valley (north part of Sonoma) for a couple of winery visits. I only went to two. The first was Nalle Vineyards. Doug Nalle and his wife are some of the nicest people I've met. Ever. He spent a fair amount of time with Sandy and me explaining his philosophy of wines. Basically, he wants to make a wine that goes with dinner! Yesssssss. I had been told to try his Zinfandels by several people on WLDG specifically because they are well made, true to variety, relatively low-alcohol, food-friendly wines. And they are.

Doug Nalle
Doug Nalle pours a barrel sample.
2003 Pinot Noir, Hopkins Ranch Pale purpley red, light shaded, really but lovely pinot perfume on the nose with cherry, plum, earth, acids, and even some tannins to support. I think this is wonderful but Doug says it will peak in 3 - 5 years.

2003 Zinfandel Recently bottled, this is kind of closed for siesta now. There's zinberry alright and there's nothing wrong with it, it's just that compared to the wines that follow, it's sleeping. Shhhhhh. Wake it up in 3-5 years according to Doug. (Cool how I'm on first name basis with this world class yet hardly superstar winemaker huh?)

2002 Zinfandel Mmmmm, oh yum, holey cow, this is good stuff. Needs a burger and I'm in heaven. Dark berries, great balance of fruit, alcohol (only 13.5%, I think) tannins and acids. Great finish. I snuck a second taste.

2001 Zinfandel , Reserve It just gets better and better. See above note and add, deeper, richer, more perfumed with fabulous balance. A real treat. Thanks Doug. I bought a mixed case of these four wines.

Bonus: 2004 Pinot Noir barrel tasting Great approachable fragrance, fruit, finish and finesse. Can't wait til it's released to see how it develops. I have no experience with barrel tasting and have no idea if this is typical. But it was fun. Did I mention what nice people the Nalles are?

George Unti
George Unti, Unti Vineyards
From there, we went over to the Untis' place (Unti Vineyards). I say this like we're all great friends who spend weekends in the hot tub together. This would be a false impression. I've never met these people before but like the Nalles, the Untis are some of the nicest, warmest winemaking people you'll ever meet. George (owner) and Mick (son) Unti met us at the door of their barrel storage, shipping, finishing garage, I mean facility. Unti is one of the Rhone Rangers and today they're pouring some lovely current releases as well as barrel-tasting some Zinfandel.

Mick Unti
Mick Unti, Unti Vineyards
2003 Barbera ripe red fruits, low alcohol, but good acidity and mild tannins make this a crisp, delicious food wine. As it should be.

2003 Segromigno This blend of 82% Sangiovese, 9% Barbera, 9% Dolcetto is more rustic than above, darker, more brooding, leather, earth which opens to bright cherry/berry. Good acids and mild tannins again make this a great food wine. I'm getting hungry.

2003 Grenache My wife's favorite varietal does not disappoint. This is a blend of 82% Grenache, 11% Syrah and 7% Mourvedre - classic southern rhone style wine. Fragrant, strawberry, raspberry, good acids again very approachable lovely food wine.

We also tasted a 2003 Zinfandel and a 2003 Syrah and barrel-tasted a 2004 Syrah, but I forgot to take notes and alas, although we enjoyed all of the wines we tasted, I have no specifics on those three.

I asked Mick and George (there's that first name thing again) for a lunch recommendation and they sent us over to Café Ralph on the Healdsburg plaza. It was a great choice. Another small 10 - 15 table place. Clever, creative, more than diner menu was perfect for lunch. I had a 2003 Tin Roof Pinot Noir Rosé with my grilled ham and gruyere sandwich. Tiny, pleasant, little taste of heaven. I've had this wine before and it's fruity, structured, clean, bright and tasty and a great match for the sandwich.

Back to the resort (the meeting was at the Silverado Country Club and Resort) for a quick run, nap and then off to dinner at La Toque. This was recommended as a real dining destination by several folks on the WLDG. And it was lovely. Prix fixe at $96 a person plus an additional $62 per person for wine matched with the courses, so it wasn't cheap by any stretch. Still, I think it lives up to its reputation for elegant, creative cooking with beautiful presentations. The wines, on the other hand were, well, by and large Californian in philosophy. Glass of Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV to start - Appley, pears, nice bubbles and finish and we're off to a good start.

With firefly squid, beans, lemony sauce 2002 Dorado Alvarinho Superior Vinho Verde Excellent match, tart, citrusy, kind of sauvignon blanc-like but more restrained, great finish. And Portuguese.

With cream of artichoke soup topped with truffle oil 2002 Truchard Roussane Carneros Very nice flowery, aromatic, wine, kind of reminded me of Viognier but not as in-your-face, lovely finish and a great match with Sandy's soup. I'd like to know more about this California producer.

With Dungness crab salad 2001 Turjanis Chardonnay Buena Terra Vineyard, Russian River Valley I knew I was in trouble with the nose - buttery, woody, chewy, huge Calichardonnay. Blech. Can't drink this stuff, especially with food. I'm sure Ms. Turjanis is a very nice person and fabulously talented winemaker but I just don't like her style of wine.

With Sandy's delicately delicious taste of fresh cod 2002 Littorai Chardonnay Charles Heintz Vineyard, Sonoma Coast this was not as offensive as the Turjanis.

Being naïve to the whole sommelier thing, we made the mistake of telling said sommelier that we don't care for this heavily oaked style of wine. He muttered something about, when putting the menu together he must take into consideration the foods but also the fact that there are people of widely divergent wine tasting experience that he must satisfy. We only told him so he could adjust the upcoming wines accordingly. But he had already picked all the wines and was not at all inclined to make any adjustments. And he seemed a little annoyed.

Next up - 2001 Capiaux Pinot Noir Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands paired with an exquisitely prepared rare duck breast in peppercorns (they were round and soft and burst in your mouth with peppery flavor, very cool.) and I think currants. This was an OK wine but after the Hitching Post and Nalle wines, just didn't do it for me. Cherries, plenty of oak, maybe a little too much but not a monster by any stretch. Good match but the duck breast was out of this world.

My wife's next wine was not OK. 2000 Sanford Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills On the nose, well, not much. Oh, there's some barnyard. No mushrooms, no wet cardboard, but ... not much anything else either. On the palate same story. Alcohol heat, barnyard, no fruit, no wood, nothing. I meekly called my less than friendly sommelier over and asked, very humbly, if he thought there might be something wrong with this wine, maybe it was corked? Pause. He announced that he would pour himself a sample and return. Which he did to tell me the wine was fine, and what I detected was brett. I explained that I knew brett ( I've had Beaucastel wines after all) but there wasn't anything else in the glass. Bad bottle at the best. Heat damage, mildly corked at worst. He did not offer to pour my wife another sample from another bottle, nor did he offer to provide a different wine. Keep in mind, he's pouring tasting size samples (maybe 2 ounces) a pop and we're being charged 62 bucks for the privilege of 4 of these samples with dinner each. I dunno, I felt like we were being treated with less than the royal concern for our comfort that the prices and elegance of the restaurant and cuisine would suggest. I did not tip the sommelier.

With the next course, he rather perfunctorily poured a 2001 Emilio's Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville to go with my Veal Osso Bucco taste. I noted, "Calicab but good match". By that I meant, big, extracted, dense, dark purpley wine with oak, currants, alcohol and relatively long finish. I think it's a good example of this style of wine, not too much overdone and with enough tannins and acid to go with the food.

My wife had a 2002 Hautes Cotes de Nuits, Anne Gros Cuvée Marine, Burgundy on which I took no notes and about which I can remember nothing.

We had a nice cheese course with Cure du Muscadet (quite good), Brunet (mmmmmm), and Bleu du Basque (very nice). All in all we had a wonderful meal and would go back again. But next time I'll probably try to negotiate the really enormous wine list and order a bottle or two.

Next day was Saturday and we were treated to a glass of Reilly's 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Australia at the meeting. Justin Ardill, Reilly's winemaker, is a physician who loves to make wine. He was a speaker at the conference and educated us on the considerable role physicians have played in the development of the Australian wine culture and industry. So he offered us a glass of wine to sip while we listened. Mint and eucalyptus on the nose carry onto the palate where there is also plum, dark fruits, and some oak. Pleasant tannins and acidity wrap this package up into a very enjoyable experience. Not as overblown as I had expected, it walks a fine line between drinkable and just too much.

After a beautiful run around the Silverado grounds and surrounding area, we lunched on the cheese we bought while walking around Healdsburg Plaza the day before. I decided to mess with the bartender's mind at the Silverado Resort. I asked him if I could buy a bottle of crisp, clean, citrus fruity, tart, unoaked wine to take back to our condo/room. I could see him blanch, then start to tremble as he mumbled something like, "ooh, that's hard, um, gosh, I don't know ... " I let him hang for a few minutes, then asked to see the wine list. We settled on a 2004 Tom Eddy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc which I'm fairly certain he had never tried nor had he any wish to try. It was fun in sort of a sadistic way. In fairness, he did pour me a taste before I bought the bottle so I knew what I was getting. And I got a bottle of crisp, clean, citrus fruity, tart, unoaked wine to take back to our condo/room. My kind of wine. I like this kind of wine with almost anything and I enjoyed it with the Epoisses (pasteurized), Manchego and Morbier that we brought back from Sonoma.

Dinner Saturday was a banquet for the conference at Greystone, the Culinary Institute of America's Napa headquarters and restaurant. This was originally the headquarters of Christian Brothers wines and the banquet hall was clearly a storage area for huge casks of wine. It was quite a beautiful setting for a very fine meal.

First course: wild mushroom soup with a lump of green garlic custard in the center and dressed with chive oil. Really very nice if just a little too salty for our taste. It was paired with 2000 Stonestreet Chardonnay, Upper Barn, Alexander Valley. What can I say? Big, oaky, some pear, alcoholic, buttery, etc. But it wasn't bad with the soup.

With herb crusted tournedos of beef (which I'm proud to say I've made before!), crispy potato & onion cake (the lightest most delicate 1/2-inch-thick potato pancake you can imagine, absolutely heavenly), and braised rainbow chard, three red wines. The first was 2002 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot, Napa Valley. Nice big wine, with plums, raspberries, oak, alcohol, not much in the way of tannins but reasonably acidic so it was not overwhelmed by the herbed beef. Second was 2001 Vina Ventisquero Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley, Chile. This initially smelled like, um, merde. It tasted metallic and gross. After a while in the glass it woke up and the merde smell blew off leaving forest floor smells and cedar. This carried over onto the palate eventually blending with meat, vanilla/oak. Not much in the way of fruits. Mild if any tannins. Finally, we tasted 2001 Robert Karl Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, Washington. Dark fruits and cedar on the nose carry onto the palate with blackberries and pretty good acidity made for a nice finish. This got much better as the night wore on. Not a tannic monster by any stretch but went well with the beef and was my wine of the night. With dessert (Muscat poached pear tart in a pear-shaped pastry served with a tiny scoop of lavender-scented vanilla ice cream) we had 2003 Robert Mondavi Winery Moscato d'Oro, Napa Valley. Sweet melons, honey, pears, and tropical lychee flavors with enough acidity to give good structure and pleasant match for dessert.

With that it was off to pack and to bed since we had to leave Napa valley at 7 the following morning. I would like to publicly thank Hoke Harden, Lou Kessler and Carolyn Tillie for their very fine advice and suggestions regarding places to visit, places to eat and winemakers to meet. I've been to Napa before but as an out of town tourist visiting the out of town tourist places. This time the trip was quite special and extremely memorable, not least because of the people we met, let alone the wines that we tasted. A very public "thank you". I hope we can meet in person some day so I can thank you face-to-face.

March 2005

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