Friday, March 30, 2007

Winery Watch: Ballentine Vineyards

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with them--yet--but they produce wines that speak with the voices of this state's people, places, and history. They are worth seeking out. These posts will be longer than most posts on the blog, but I hope you will find them perfect for leisurely weekend reading and internet browsing. Have fun!

This old Chenin Blanc vine from the Napa Valley represents the essence of Ballentine Vineyards. (photo courtesy of Ballentine Vineyards) With roots that extend back into the history of California winemaking, and a philosophy that embraces the best modern methods within a family-run operation, the Ballentine Vineyards team is producing some simply excellent wines as I discovered recently at the Family Winemakers of California tasting in Pasadena. Van and Betty Ballentine, along with wine-maker Bruce Devlin, presented a lineup of wines where every sip was better than the last. They said Napa Valley to me, and exhibited textbook varietal characteristics along with fabulous terroir.

The Ballentine story begins in 1884, when Betty Ballentine's grandfather, Libero Pocai, arrived in the US from Lucca, Italy. In San Francisco, Libero met and married Maria Cristofani and the two left the city following the devastating 1906 earthquake. He purchased 60 acres in the upper Napa Valley near Calistoga--about as close to viticultural heaven as you can get. The Pocais planted Zinfandel, Gamay, Charbono, Merlot, and Petite Sirah vines and started the 115th bonded winery in the state of California. This historic ranch was Betty's home, and the Pocai vineyards continue to produce the bulk of Merlot grapes used by Ballentine.

Around the same time as Libero and Maria Pocai moved to the Napa Valley, John Ballentine came to the US from Ireland. It was 1910, and John Ballentine lived in San Francisco for a decade before heading for the Napa Valley. In 1922, John purchased the original Sutter Home Winery which had become derelict due to Prohibition and renamed it Deer Park. Then, he waited. He was ready in 1933, when Prohibition was lifted, to bottle his first vintage. Cabernets, Zinfandels, and Rieslings all came from the Deer Park vines until, in 1959, Deer Park stopped making its own wines and began selling grapes to other makers such as Ravenswood, Rombauer, and Caymus. These were tough times for the wine industry, and many small family operations closed their doors.

Thankfully for us, after years of selling their grapes to others, Betty and Van Ballentine decided to revive the Ballentine brand. They built their own winery behind their farmhouse in 1995, and recently opened a tasting room that is open for visitors. Once they got things up and running they hired UC Davis graduate Bruce Devlin, a San Jose native with wine-making experience gleaned in Germany, South Africa, and Australia, to be their winemaker. In 1999 he joined the Ballentine crew, and was given the freedom to follow the grapes and his own inspiration in making wines. Check out The Cork Board's "5 Questions" interview with Devlin that was posted just this week to learn more.

Even with all that history, the Ballentines are still trying new things and developing new wines. Ballentine just released their first Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maple Lane Vineyard ($60) and if you are looking for a very, very special bottle of red for a gift or a family meal, this would be an excellent choice. (photo of Van Ballentine amid the cab vines at Maple Lane, courtesy of Ballentine Vineyards). It has amazing complexity, with intricate aromas of black cherry and fresh ground pepper. These notes follow through on the palate, along with an entire herb garden and spice cabinet of additional flavors, including vanilla, licorice, and mint. Get it while you can, and stash it away for the holidays. I think it is going to become a coveted and highly collectible wine.

Here are some of my other top picks along with brief impressions of the wines I tasted recently. You can click on the wine's name and be whisked straight to the Ballentine site to read more, and order some for delivery.

2006 Ballentine Chenin Blanc Old Vines ($15). A brisk and ref
reshing chenin blanc made from grapes grown in the historic Pocai family vineyards, with good acidity combined with aromas and flavors of pear and minerals. Perfect for spring and summer sipping on the porch, or with some fried chicken or bbq. Excellent QPR.

2002 Ballentine Zinfandel Old Vines ($18). What a beautiful color on this wine! Aromas of black and blue berries, with flavors of cranberry and cracked black pepper. Pizza, pasta, or grilled meats would be great with it. Excellent QPR.

2002 Ballentine Merlot Estate Grown ($22). Another find from Ballentine, which has received very favorable press reviews, this is a fantastic merlot with yummy black and red fruit aromas and flavors accented by warm notes of currant, spice, and pepper. Excellent QPR.

2002 Ballentine Zinfandel Reserve Block 9 ($27). This outstanding zin had complex aromas of flowers, black fruits, and spice which are also present in the flavors. Serious bang for the buck, with lots of complexity. I would buy this in a heart-beat. It's that good (and I'm not alone in thinking so. If you are a reader of wine mags you may have seen the positive reviews of this wine). Very good QPR.

2004 Ballentine Petite Sirah Field Blend ($35). Just 100 cases were produced of this outstanding blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Syrah, and Carignane--all grown in the same vineyard. Intense blackberry flavors and aromas in a silky package, this wine would be a great match with a wide variety of foods. I really liked this wine, with its intriguing mixture of blockbuster fruit and elegant mouthfeel. Good QPR.

2002 Ballentine Integrity ($32). A very good, soft merlot blend with abundant aromas and flavors of blackberries, black cherries, vanilla, and herbs. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. I can't think of any food that would fail to pair well with this wine. Very food friendly. Good QPR.

These Ballentine bottlings represent the kind of wine we should be drinking.

They are such good value, and produced with such care. At a time when Napa wine prices are reaching stratospheric price levels, it is amazing to see how the Ballentines are able to make such seriously good wine at these prices. Their wines are readily available in LA, can be had directly from the vineyard, and I'm guessing you can find them at a wine store near you. If not, then march up to the counter and suggest that the buyer starts stocking these wonderfully affordable Napa wines.

Spread the word. Drink their wine. And if you are a fan of Ballentine wines, leave a comment and let us know which one is your favorite.

Next week: Four Vines Winery

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Between Beaujolais and Burgundy: Alsatian Pinot Noir

When we think Alsace we think fruity white wines made with elegance and finesse. Back in the Medieval period, Alsace was known for its red wines, too. Groumets, certified wine brokers who helped to make deals between the vintners and their consumers (and made sure the local authorities got their tax cut) were kept busy in Alsace between November and January. During this period customers traveled to Alsace to taste wines, make deals, and get tasting reports from the groumets. It is from the groumets that we get our modern term "gourmet," as well as wine tasting report and, eventually, the wine blog like the one you are reading.

I've long been a fan of Alsatian whites, which are so well suited for pairing with Asian food, but recently I had the chance to try an Alsatian red. It was a chance to taste a little history when I opened up the 2005 Andre Scherer Pinot Noir ($12.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; also available at Weimax). Talk about history. Vignoble Andre Scherer is owned and operated by Christophe Scherer, the 9th generation of his family who have worked as vignerons in the village of Husseren-les-Chateaux (pictured on the label to the right) since 1750.

This very good QPR, 100% Pinot Noir wine tasted to me like a red wine poised halfway between a gamay from the Beaujolais and a Burgundian red. It was made from fruit hand-picked from 30 year old vines. Aged for 10 months in small oak barriques, which gave the aromas and flavors sweet vanilla overtones, it was bright berry in color, with high-toned cherry and strawberry flavors. There was a bit of alcoholic heat on first opening--even though this was a relatively low alcohol wine. I would recommend serving it cooler than most reds, much as you would with a wine from the Beaujolais. Its getting harder and harder to find drinkable pinots that are under $15 (thank you, Sideways) and the fresh flavors, silky texture, and heady aromas of this wine definitely make it a very good QPR wine given the varietal.

With this wine I would recommend simple French homestyle cooking or bistro fare. For me, that means coq au vin. This is a recipe that requires a fair amount of vino in the pot. The recent debates about cooking with wine started by the NYTimes and followed up by Sonadora at Wannabe Wino and JohnG at Quaffability, have highlighted the dilemma of what wine to use when you have to use a lot of it in your cooking. While I agree that you can deglaze a pan with almost anything, or use up to 1/2 a cup of almost anything to bring some acidity to a sauce, if you are going to be using more than a cup of wine in cooking like coq au vin I would recommend something you don't mind drinking. Some recipes, like Tyler Florence's, call for a full bottle of wine. As a time-saving measure on a busy worknight, I used Rachael Ray's version from her first 30-Minute Meals Cookbook (p. 149, since the $!%# thing isn't indexed). Really, coq au vin is just chicken cooked in red wine, so don't stress too much about which recipe to use or you miss the point. This wine was perfect for cooking and drinking, since it tasted great and it didn't cost too much.

If you are interested in learning more about the wines of the region, both red and white, Alsace Wines is the official site for the region's winemakers and is available in a number of languages including English. Though often overlooked in the enormous shadows cast by Bordeaux and Burgundy, the wines of Alsace offer great value, and are great food wines so try one if you get the chance.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Mini March Madness

Hey, it's college basketball tournament season. What, you didn't know? Have you been living under a rock?

If you haven't been living under a rock, you may have been invited to one, two, three, four or more parties to watch games. This always leaves me with lots of half-drunk bottles of wine sitting around that I open up on Thursday and then can't finish for days and days while we go scream at television sets with friends. Sure, there are lots of preservation strategies out there, but some of the best involve pouring your undrunk wine into smaller, 375ml bottles and then blanketing them with inert gas or pumping out the oxygen. The smaller bottles enhance the preservation action of these other strategies, since smaller bottles leave less opportunity for air to creep in there and begin to turn the flavors.

So March is as good a time as any to find out if your local wine merchants stock these mini, 375ml bottles. And while you're at it, you may as well look for wines that you actually want to drink. Typically, the 375s are tucked into some out of the way place and often the selection is not very extensive. But it's worth asking your shop owner if they have any in the back, since sometimes the wines aren't even displayed. I've found some very nice options here in LA at Whole Foods, at Mission Wines in South Pasadena, and at Chronicle Wine Cellar in Pasadena. They've included older French cabernets, Dry Creek wines, young California grenache blends, a cabernet franc from the Loire, and a nice tempranillo from Bodegas Arzuaga. (photographed here to enhance their height, in case basketball scouts are reading this...)

375s are also perfect if you are facing a week of white wine dinners and are gasping for a glass of red, or have a sudden burger hunger that must be slaked with a cabernet for accompaniment. I should also say that this size bottle is great for trying out a producer or varietal that you aren't familiar with. It allows you to be adventurous with less risk of being stuck with 3/4 of a bottle you don't particularly like.

Finding good 1/2 bottles is always an opportunistic business--buy them when you see them, because you may not see them again. Having a few nice minis on hand is always a good thing, even when it's not tournament time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Evolution, or a Burgundy in Three Acts

Sunday night we had dinner with friends, and I decided to take along one of my bottles of Burgundy bought back in January from Chronicle Wine Cellar. These are Burgundies labeled "Baron de la Charriere" which Allen Meadows and others tell me is Vincent Girardin's pre-2003 European label. I know this was a special opportunity to taste some really excellent, well-made Burgundies. Not a highly-regarded vintage, it seems, but I'm enjoying them enormously.

We popped the cork on a wine from the Cote de Nuits, the 2000 Baron de la Charriere Nuits St. Georges "Les Damodes". (map of Burgundy showing the Cotes de Nuits and Nuits St. Georges from Justerini & Brooks, a merchant specializing in Burgundy wines) This was a premier cru wine, and it cost $22.95 at Chronicle, slightly more than the 2000 Baron de la Charriere Volnay "Les Santenots" that I had last month.

With the Volnay "Les Santenots" I was most struck by its balance. This wine was also balanced, but what struck me about the Nuits St. Georges "Les Damodes" was its evolution. The Nuits St. Georges was much more complex and intriguing, and it kept changing and developing in the glass as you drank it over the course of a meal. Act I opened to simple aromas of cherry, strawberry, a bit of alcohol and a bit of earth. These were echoed on the palate, along with a good grip of tannins suggesting it still could handle a bit more age in the bottle. Ten minutes later, Act II: the wine the wine had opened up a bit, and now had aromas and flavors of cherry with chocolate and roasted coffee. I thought the play was over at this point, but once the second glass was poured we got Act III: the wine had become silky with totally integrated tannins, flavors and aromas of fresh red fruits, and just a dusting of cocoa at the end. This wine had less upfront, ingenue appeal than the 2000 Santenot. But (like watching a movie with Meryl Streep) it had much more complexity and interest all the way to the end.

This is only my second bottle of burgundy that I've spent any time with, and just like last month I feel I am progresing towards a complete understanding of why folks get utterly addicted and consumed with this marvelous wine. I drink few wines from any region that are as entertaining as this one was. Worth every penny of its admission price, this was a wine to savor, to talk about, and to enjoy over several happy hours with friends.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Brunch and Bubbles: the NV Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut

I adore Sunday brunches. Especially in LA, when it is the only time of the week you can set a time for a meal and actually have people from all over the city reach your house on time. That's because late Sunday morning is the only time of the week when the traffic jams occur outside dim sum restaurants and not on the freeways.

Mostly, though, I love brunches because time seems to move more slowly during the hours of 11 and 3 on Sundays. The light seems more golden. The flowers smell sweeter. And friends who make you laugh under most circumstances can make you hilarious for no good reason at all.

When I think brunch, I nearly always think "bubbles" right after. Sparkling wines, with their bright acidity and low alcohol, are perfect sippers for this occasion. And they can be cut with a variety of fruit juices and purees--raspberry, peach, orange, pink grapefruit--if you want to prolong the pleasure and cut the alcohol even further. But of course you don't want to pull out a vintage French champagne at a casual, friendly brunch. Save that for the big celebrations.

Instead, opt for a budget-friendly California sparkler, like the NV Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut ($14.99, Trader Joe's). Schramsberg was founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram, a German immigrant with a viticultural background. The winery fell into disuse and dereliction, and was rescued by Jack and Jamie Davies in 1965 who saw the enormous potential in the vineyard site and the caves that peppered the hillside. Their son, Hugh, now runs the place and makes a full line of sparkling wines. The Mirabelle Brut is made from a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes from Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino. The juice is divided, some is aged, and then they are blended from many vintages until they achieve the Schramsberg house style.

The NV Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut was a very good QPR sparkler with a great deal of complexity for the price. It had a pale, buffed straw color and a nice, biscuity aroma that mixed with some hints of lemon. Citrusy, nutty, and toasty flavors enhanced the warmth of the afternoon, the soft spring air, and the companionship of good friends. It managed to be soft and refreshing, with its acidity and toast kept in nice balance and a soft, smooth bead/bubble adding to the pleasure that this wine gave.

We had the wine with an egg tart made with carmelized red onions, goat cheese, and pancetta from a great cookbook called California Home Cooking that makes the most of the local produce and foods from the great state of CA. Written by Michele Anna Jordan, author of the popular Cook's Tour of Sonoma, the recipe I used is not online, but some of her other wonderful recipes are and can be found by clicking here. With it we had a trio of salads pulled from Jamie Oliver and the Barefoot Contessa including smashed tomatoes and olives, pea and pesto, and a grilled zucchini salad with mint and basil. The meal tasted like a spring Sunday, and was the perfect companion to the sparkling wine.

If you haven't thrown a brunch lately, pick an upcoming Sunday, get some friends together, buy a few bottles of affordable bubbly, and settle in for a wonderful and relaxing afternoon. And don't forget to toast spring while you're at it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

WBW #32: To Reserve or Not to Reserve?

The Wine Cask Blog has set another challenging theme for the 32nd edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the online virtual tasting event founded by LennThompson of Lenndevours.

Here are some of the details, but do check out their full instructions here, including submission details. By Sunday, April 8, drink a regular and a reserve version of the same wine, made by the same maker. Is the reserve the better wine? Does it warrant the higher price? An interesting question, and one that I hope to solve without breaking the bank if at all possible! Seriously, the folks at Wine Cask are into affordable wines, so they are urging participants to team up to fulfill the assignment or look for more inexpensive bottlings.

You've only got two weeks from tonight to find and taste your wines if you want to participate so get cracking. The Wine Cask folks anticipate posting their roundup on April 11--just in time to spend your anticipated refund on some of the recommended wines.

Friday, March 23, 2007

What's in Your WineQ?

I read about WineQ some time ago, the new wine club based on the Netflix model, and cruised by their site but it was early days and though the concept was intriguing, I filed it away like Scarlett O'Hara to think about on another day. Recently, though, a bunch of us have jumped on board, including Winehiker who generated quite the blog-buzz last week with his post about joining up. So I wanted to add my kudos to Joshua Zader and Marshall Sontag, the brains behind the operation, and report that my wine arrived just when they said it would, complete in snazzy box with WineQ sticker, and in perfect condition.

What made me take the plunge? Well, when I saw that Twisted Oak and Escafeld (two wineries I feel I know because I follow their blogs) had joined the ranks of WineQ, that was all this blogger needed to sign up. And I'm really glad I did. Now that I've signed up and have received my first shipment, I'm happy to report that not only does the club represent excellent QPR, it also provides great customer service (and no, they didn't know I was a blogger when I started emailing questions). Joshua himself wrote back in approximately 1o minutes with the answers about how and if I could pause shipments during the hot summers.

WineQ has a small stable of wonderful artisanal wineries from California right now, but the list is growing each month and they are very open to suggestions of who they should approach about joining. They even have a blog to keep you up to date on the latest news, complete with profiles of new wineries as they are added. Wineries you can already put in your Q, in addition to Escafeld and Twisted Oak, include Ceja, Smith-Wooton, Lava Cap, Sapid, Deerfield Ranch, and Rust Ridge. When I was at the Family Winemakers tasting this week, I made a point to taste some of these wines and I can report that every one I tasted was a winner, and represented good value. Not sure about wines you've never heard of? There are customer reviews for most wines, and more are entered every week as new members like me pop their corks and take a few sips.

If you've ever been in a wine club where you've received wines you don't want when you don't want them--sound familiar?--this is the one wine club out there where you get exactly what you want, when you want it. Want nothing but whites? Don't put anything in your queue that's red! Want boutique cabs and pinots? They have them. Only want wines under $20? That's easy, too. Don't want wine next month because you'll be in the Bahamas? Just pause your shipments. Need 3 bottles one month and one the next? Okay. The site is intuitive and easy to use, allowing you to find wines that you like and drag and drop them into an ordered list for regular shipments at intervals you define. Or, you can turn this feature off and have complete control over when wine gets sent to you. And it's dead easy to make changes.

Even more than including great wines, WineQ represents excellent QPR. Why? Because for $4.95 a month in membership fees, you get unlimited free ground shipping for any order that totals more than $35. You won't find yourself in the unenviable position of Wannabe Wino when you do the math and realize that you've spent $1300 in wine shipping over the past year. Free ground shipping for $4.95 a month works great for California, but if you live farther away from these wineries, you should know that members get deep discounts on 2/3-day shipping (just $5 per shipment) and overnight shipping (just $10 per shipment).

My first shipment contained 3 lovely bottles of Escafeld Vineyards wine, and will be followed up next month by three lovely bottles of Twisted Oak wine. I figured Friday was a perfect time to post my reactions to WineQ, since over the weekend you might have the time to sit down and browse through their site. And if you're a member, feel free to let us know what's in your Q.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Dining Solo by the Sea

Sometimes, you have a special bottle of wine you want to drink, and that dictates what you're having for dinner that night. Other times, you know what you want to eat, and will go out and get a bottle of wine even if you have a cellar full in order to feed the need.

Yesterday I knew that before the sun had set I was going to have an ample plate of linguine alle vongole. I wanted to think I was by the sea, with the saline tang of the air in my nose and the taste of fresh seafood on my lips, perhaps because after several days of warm summery weather we are back to rain and sweaters (I know no one outside LA thinks this is a particularly dramatic weather tale). And I was alone for the evening, so I could do exactly as I pleased in the food and wine department.

So I went out and bought some beautiful Manila clams from Whole Foods--or Whole Paycheck as it is known in our house and many other houses-- and set them in a bowl of water so they could spit out any last sand they had carried with them from the ocean. While they sat, I put a pot of water on to boil. Once you let the clams soak for 30 minutes or so, and the water's ready, you're only about 7 minutes (including such onerous prep chores as mincing garlic and chopping parsley) from the meal itself.

I made my linguine alle vongole from Nigella Lawson's recipe in Feast, but it's not online and Tyler Florence's is, so here's a link. (For what it's worth, the idea of topping it with breadcrumbs is awful, so I'd skip that "option" if I were you.) Ms. Lawson includes this wine in her section dedicated to dinners for one--which she says are the most important meals of all to make and revel in. So, no drinking wine from a box or poking through my limited collection of half bottles of wine for me tonight! I was going to celebrate dining solo and open a bottle of muscadet from the Loire coast to go with my linguine.

I'm not sure why I thought this pairing would work, but I think it had something to do with my conviction that Loire whites often have a nice, mineral tang that would go well with my clams. The 2004 Chateau de la Preuille Muscadet des Coteaux de la Loire ($13.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; also available at Terranova and for around $20) hails from the Nantais wine region which borders the Loire as it approaches the sea. Made from melon de bourgogne grapes (also known as muscadet) it was aged in barrels with the remnants of the yeasty lees left over from fermentation. This aging method makes the wine more complex and rich. It's bright gilt color conjures up images of sun and sand and the golden flesh of Anjou pears. Once you sip this, your immediate first impression is of a round and dry white, with pronounced mineral aromas and light whiffs of citrus and pear. As the flavors develop in your mouth, the citrus and pear take over, moving the mineral notes to the background for a juicy finish. This would be a nice change of pace for folks who like unoaked chardonnay, with its interesting minerality and round, full feeling. This wine represented good QPR and certainly will encourage me to try some more muscadet from the Loire. And it was darn good with my linguine.

One of the things I like most about wine is the way that it can transport you to different times and different places. Drinking my Spanish wine the other night, I could almost feel that I was sitting under one of those Spanish windmills, hearing the creak of the blades as they turned in the wind. With my clams and Loire white I found myself dining alone in some imaginary Franco-Italian seaside.

Not bad for $13.95.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

10 Things I Learned at the Family Winemakers Tasting

Yesterday afternoon the Family Winemakers of California came to Pasadena to do their Southern California trade tasting, the sister event of the August extravaganza in San Francisco. Here's some of what I learned, both the reverent and the irreverent:

1. "Family winemakers" is not just a marketing concept. Some truly fabulous people were there, pouring their wines and talking about what they were looking for in the vines and the grapes that they watch over.

2. Family winemakers continue to preserve the precious wine history of this country. It was a privilege to talk to Betty and Van Ballentine of Ballentine Vineyards about their experiences in the wine business, and to hear how their families had roots in wine making that extended all the way to 1906 when the San Francisco earthquake drove their ancestors to Napa where they planted Zinfandel, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Charbono, and Gamay. Seeing winemakers there with their children, and in some cases grandchildren, gave me a sense that this was a legacy that was being handed down. It was also great to see all the modern families--like the folks at Twisted Oak and Four Vines--that were forming around making wines for new generations of wine consumers.

3. There is some seriously good wine being made right here in California. And much of it is a seriously good value, too. The trick, as ever, is finding it--but more on that later.

4. A shocking number of people do not spit. I tasted 75 wines in a little over 2 hours. I spit--a lot, as my stained spit cup shows. How do the ones who swallow get home?

5. Comfortable shoes and dark clothes are essential. Not everyone who spits has good aim.

6. No matter how much water you take with you, you will need more to keep your tongue from shriveling up from the tannins and your teeth from aching from the sugar.

7. After your 100th spit, your technique improves dramatically.

8. Folks who have not practiced their in-mouth aeration skills in the privacy of their own home should not attempt to do so in a public setting (especially if they have been swallowing, see above #4). The results are not pretty, and can be messy.

9. You need 4 arms--3 minimum--to successfully juggle notebook, spit cup, and wine glass. Most humans have 2.

10. There are always more wines and never enough time.

Obviously there's a lot left for me to report on my experiences and conversation, and in the upcoming weeks I'll be profiling some California wineries to watch who are making excellent wines that are great values. Many of these are directly available from the winery if you live in such a state, and if not I'll be giving you links to Free the Grapes so that you can do your bit to help repeal the shipping laws standing between you and tasting this great wine.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Tilting at Windmills and Learning About Spanish Wines

In the classic Spanish novel Don Quixote, the main character decides to do battle with windmills. It's where our phrase "tilting at windmills" comes from, that colorful way of describing folks who make up enemies just so they can attack them. Don Quixote's windmills may have looked just like this one, photographed by Ryan Opaz (who blogs with his wife Gabriella and friend Adrienne Smith at the Iberian wine blog Catavino) which I spotted on his new Wine Blog Atlas, a great resource for regionally-focused information on wine. (FYI: Ryan's not only a good blogger, he's a good photographer, too.)

I have to admit that my ongoing attempts to conquer Spanish wines (one of my New Year's Wine Resolutions) has taken on a "tilting at windmills" feeling as I grimly set out to find Spanish wines, then cleared off the kitchen table and sat there, with just my bottle and wineglass, so as not to have any distraction while I tasted the wine.

Recently, though, I discovered that Spanish wines are not the enemy. Here's how. I subscribed to Catavino's feed in my reader, and started learning from the informative posts about Iberian wines. I listened to Tim Elliott's Winecast that featured Ryan Opaz. I started understanding what was on the label a little bit better, and how some familiar varieties like tempranillo and mourvedre might be masquerading under names like Cencibel and Monastrell (and most importantly, I learned these are not vineyard designations!) In short, I've started relaxing a bit, and considered it a personal triumph when, at a restaurant last week, I looked down the wine list, saw a tempranillo, and ordered it instead of my default shiraz to go with some gooey mac and cheese and a side order of grilled asparagus topped with honey vinaigrette and shaved manchego cheese.

I find that Spanish wine is actually very conducive to relaxing (and my tongue is only slightly in my cheek here!). The wines I've been drinking have had a laid-back, comfortable feeling. They go wonderfully with food. And they represent exceptional value. What's not to like?

My most recent Spanish wine find was the very good QPR 2003 Pago Florentino Tinto ($14.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar), complete with a little picture of Don Quixote on the label. This was a juicy, fruit-forward tempranillo that was dark, dark plum. Enticing aromas of berries and spice drew my nose into the glass. Flavors of blueberries and cedar predominated, and there were some leathery notes that added complexity to what was a friendly and straightforward wine. Tempranillo grapes characteristically have low acidity which leads to a plush feeling when you're drinking, despite the fact that this wine had a considerable influence of oak (8 months in a mix of French and American oak barrels), which produced the cedary, woody flavors.

Last time I tried a tempranillo Ryan suggested pairing it with lamb, so we had this wine with a Food & Wine Magazine recipe for Lamb Meatballs sauced with tomatoes, cumin, and mint. Served over some steamed rice it was, as he promised, a perfect pairing.

If this is the life of La Mancha, I'll take it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Bacchanalia Begins Today

Today marks the start of an ancient festival of interest to wine bloggers and readers: Bacchanalia. (Bacchus, by Caravaggio) Unbelievably, given its meaning, Bacchanalia has not yet been used as a wine blog least not as far as I can tell.

Celebrated in groves near Rome's Aventine Hill on March 16 and March 17 (presumably by those who got through the Ides of March), this pagan festival celebrated the ancient god Bacchus. God of wine and fertility, Bacchus became a popular symbol of debauchery and excess. If you don't believe me, type Bacchanalia into Google Images and see what pops up! Originally, the festivals were only open to women and happened three times a year; then men were admitted and they started happening as many as 5 times a month! The cult grew so popular that the Roman Senate banned Bacchanalia festivals in 186 BC.

With all the green beer that will flow tomorrow, it's nice to know that wine drinkers, if they prefer, can hoist a glass to Bacchus, rather than St. Patrick. Of course, you could make the celebration a two-for-one, and serve beer and wine, and have a round of toasts. Happy Bacchanalia!

WBW #31 Round-Up, Just in Time for the Weekend

Just in time for the weekend, Roger from Box Wines Blog has posted the roundup for WBW #31.

I was impressed with the range of wines folks sampled--everything from champagne to French rose from Provence. I guess I had expected this to be all about Three Thieves, but it wasn't. I'll definitely be looking for some of the Sofia sparkling wine in cans that several reviewers tried.

Check out the full list, with links to all the posts, by clicking here. Thanks as always to Lenn Thompson at Lenndevours for coming up with the concept, which was mentioned in April's Food and Wine magazine. And a big thanks to Roger for shaking things up. As soon as the theme for WBW #32 is posted I'll be sure to let you know, and there may even be a surprise or two.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Wine Writing and the Problem of Objectivity, or Is There Room for a Nigella Lawson of Wine Writing?

Imagine you are reading a recipe. Or a food column. Or a cookbook. This is what it says: "This spaghetti sauce is the color of crushed tomatoes with a hint of brown from the meat. Aromas of basil, tomato, and garlic are followed by pronounced flavors of tomato, browned meat, and herbs with a spicy finish. I give it 97 points." Would you make this? I wouldn't. Sounds too clinically observant, too detached, like it's trying to be objective about spaghetti sauce, which is not something to be objective about! It's devoid of passion, and barely engages the senses. It is, sadly, remarkably like the wine reviews I post here, which fit the cookie-cutter image of what a wine review is supposed to be.

Instead I'd make something like this, copied from Nigella Lawson's How to Eat: "This is my favorite--along with all my other favorites. I love the buttery, eggy, creaminess of the sauce, saltily-spiked with hot-cubed pancetta: it's comforting, but not in a sofa-bound kind of way. It feels like a proper dinner, only it takes hardly any time to cook." Somehow, in just a few lines she manages to convey the mood of this spaghetti, the complexity of it, and most importantly the taste. She tells you how you're going to feel when you eat it. And she admits straight off the bat that she loves it, and loves other food just as much.

Why am I copying recipes on my wine blog? Lately I've been struck by how very different food writing and wine writing really are. Food writing is expected to be subjective; wine writing is supposed to be done under the illusion of objectivity. Which is odd, because for many of us wine is very closely related to food. We think of wine as an ideal accompaniment to a meal, obsess about how to pair wine with a food that will bring out its best characteristics, and often cook with wine as well.

There have been a few posts in the blogosphere lately by Ryan Fujiu and Tom Wark on subjectivity and wine tasting. There have also been some about the perils and possibilities of the 100-point system for wine reviews by Ryan Opaz and Dr. Vino. Just yesterday, guest blogger Steve Bjerklie wrote a piece for Catie on Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine on points, too. Points and objectivity (or the lack thereof) in wine writing seem to be the perennial debates of the wine blogosphere, as far as I can tell. Don't believe me? Go back and look at a thought-provoking article from last March by Laura Ness of Appellation America about women, men and wine points that was posted on the Women Wine Critics Board.

Here's what I think: wine points and the illusion of objectivity are related problems. The leading culprit for giving folks the idea that wine reviews are objective is, alas, the 100-point scale. This is not an entirely novel perspective, but I think it bears repeating.

So I began to wonder, is there room for wine writing that is unabashedly opinionated about wine, for a prose style that is flagrantly personal and marvelously evocative? Is there room for a wine writer who would do for wine writing what Nigella Lawson has done for food writing?

I don't think so. For reasons that I cannot understand, writing about wine like Ms. Lawson writes about food would be cringe-inducing and irritating for most folks. Of course, some people find Lawson's food writing equally annoying. But she is, perhaps, an extreme example of the general trend in food writing in which passion and competence rather than objectivity and expertise is what drives the medium. I think the reverse is true of wine writing: it's driven by objectivity and expertise. Is this because food writing is a genre largely pioneered by women, while wine writing was (and continues to be) a genre dominated by men? Sure there are exceptions--great women wine writers like Jancis Robinson, for example, and great male food writers like James Beard--but I think statistics would support my sense that wine writers and even wine bloggers are largely male. Is this in turn because wine media and marketing are driven by a points mentality and most women, as Steve Bjerklie argues in the column above, are not?

So I wonder, is there some reason why it's ok for a woman to rhapsodize about scrambled eggs but not sauternes? If so, what is it? Does it scream "undisciplined"? Does it smack of amateurism when we are striving for professionalism? Why do we put numbers on wine, but we don't grade other food products? Most important, can you help me figure out why we are ok with impassioned and highly-opinionated accounts of hamburgers but shy away from emphasizing the mysterious, subjective, glorious, and even alchemical properties of this elixir called wine?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #31: A Juice Box for Grownups

I wasn't sure I could fulfill this month's WBW assignment. After years of mocking Franzia boxed wine drinkers--sometimes, I am ashamed to admit, to their face--I was completely perplexed by Box Wine's theme of "non-traditional packaging." Not only was there the whole boxed wine thing to wrap my brain around, there was also the fact that it would take my household approximately 10 days to drink a typical box of wine (they hold 3 bottles!) and if it sucked--well, you see my point. So little time, so much good wine. I nervously scanned shelves for an option, watched the days fly by, and kept reminding myself that WBW is supposed to be about getting you out of your wine ruts, and making your wine knowledge grow. No matter how much I told myself this, though, I still could not manage to stick any boxed, jugged, TetraPak-ed or TetraBrik-ed wine in my shopping cart.

Cruising around Whole Foods, I saw the answer to my dilemma in an acid green little four-pack of grown-up juice boxes containing the 2005 Three Thieves Pinot Grigio Bandit ($10.99 for a 4-pack of 250ml TetraPaks, Whole Foods). The Three Thieves call them "bandit bullets," but they include a port for a straw (not included, but I stuck one in to show you) and as far as I'm concerned they're juice boxes!

If you want to learn more about the Three Thieves brand check out the interview that The Cork Board, a great new blog featuring Napa wines, conducted with Three Thieves' Charles Bieler. They asked him five questions about wine, and it's a fun exchange that sheds light on why three friends and fellow-wine makers decided to start the brand and experiment with new wine packaging. While you're there, take time to browse around the site--it's a good one.

So, how was it? Well, nifty as the juice box experience was--and it was fun to sit under an umbrella sipping wine through a straw from a green box--the wine itself was better when poured out into the glass. Not being able to see--or more importantly smell--the wine hampered my initial efforts to figure out the wine. And sniffing wine through a straw is not good. Not. Good. At. All. If you drink this through the straw expect slightly bitter lemon and apple flavors. If you put it in a glass, expect to see a wine that's pale straw in color. Expect, too, to detect slight aromas of lemon rind and white pithiness that will support characteristic pinot grigio flavors of lemons and apples. There was a slightly tart, pithy edge to the finish. This was certainly not the worst pinot grigio I've ever had, and at $2.75 per juice box, or under $8 for the equivalent of a 750ml bottle, it represented good QPR.

Wine in a juice box demands something as quirky and unfussy as it is for a dinner accompaniment. We had satay-inspired chicken burgers with peanut sauce from Cooking Light--burgers with a twist, just like this is pinot grigio with a twist. With it we had a refreshing Thai cucumber salad (really a very light pickle that doesn't require canning) and some fries. And since it was 90 degrees out, we ate outside. Perfect for wine in a box!

Thanks to Box Wines for the most challenging Wine Blogging Wednesday ever--at least for me. Biodynamic wines were a doddle compared to box wines, but as with most WBW experiences I am glad to have had the opportunity to think outside the box--or inside the box, in this case.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Go-To Wines

The April 2007 Food and Wine magazine is listing it's "50 wines You Can Always Trust." I call these "go-to wines," the wines that you can easily pick up in most retail stores and supermarkets when you are stuck without a helpful sales person or can't find any of your usual favorites. The list is also on their website, for those who want to check out the complete list with tasting notes. (image from Food and Wine)

Food and Wine's list is made entirely of wines under $20, and is producer and vineyard focused. No vintages are given, since Food and Wine contends that these wines have proven track records and vintage after vintage represents good quality for the price. Now, you can quibble with this philosophy a bit, but I have to say I agree with their choices. They even have added a list of 5 perennial Bordeaux values priced at under $25.

Among their 50 picks are the La Crema Chardonnay (around $18), which is widely available and often finds its way into my shopping cart if I am heading to dinner at someone's house who I know loves chardonnay. For red wine lovers, the stalwart performer Bogle Old Vines Zinfandel (around $11) typically represents excellent QPR no matter what the vintage, as does the Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot ($16) and the Hogue Columbia Valley Riesling ($7). Not all the selections are US wines, and there are suggestions for Australian bottlings ( like the Koonunga Hill Cabernet Sauvignon for $12 that Wannabe Wino recently enjoyed on an evening out), South American bottlings (the Trapiche Oak Cask Malbec for $10 looks like one to try), France (the Hugl et Fils "Gentil" is one of my favorite wines, and makes their list, too), Italy (Castello Banfi's Centine red blend caught my eye here), and Spain (I definitely will be trying the Osborne Tempranillo-Cabernet blend for $9 as soon as I can find it). Click on the image or story title, above, to check out the full list.

I'm going to print this out and keep it in my glove compartment, purse, or briefcase for wine shopping emergencies. Look forward to receiving your copy of this month's magazine if you are a subscriber, purchase a copy in the grocery store, or use the miracle of the internet to check out the list today before you head out to do some wine shopping. And feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the list here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Bring On the Funk: the 2005 Domaine du Vissoux "Les Garants" Fleurie

Barnyard. Dung. Merde. Stable. Horse-sweat. If you've ever seen a wine review that has one of these descriptors and wondered a) had the critic lost her/his mind? b) was this a positive review, or a negative one? or c) what are they talking about? here's what was going on: brettanomyces.

It's a big word for a little yeast that can creep in to a wine and lead to spoilage. Affectionately known as "brett" by wine experts, there are lots of folks who believe that a touch of brett actually adds a note of complexity to wine. This is especially true of burgundy drinkers, who sometimes seek out bretty wines. Don't believe me? Just check out this recent post by Fred Koeppel. Of course, too much brett and you find yourself in the same position as Quaffability's JohnG and his wife, drinking a wine and thinking of cleanup chores after walking your dog.

People's sensitivity to brett varies enormously. Some can detect even the slightest hint of the stuff and pour the rest of the bottle down the drain. Others can tolerate quite a bit in their wines. Red wines are especially prone to developing the brett yeast, and the incidence of brett may actually be on the rise for a variety of reasons. First, wines that have been minimally manipulated are increasingly popular. Minimalist wine-making, as Wine Anorak's Jamie Goode explains in an excellent article, actually contributes to the yeast's growth and development, since minimalist winemakers avoid adding sulfur during crush--and sulfur retards the yeast's growth. Ripe grapes also contribute to brett--so the ripe, fruity wine style that many consumers favor also contributes to the incidence of brett with its higher pH levels.

Brett's in the air of the blogosphere these days, and when I opened up my bottle of beaujolais recently it was in my kitchen, too! This past fall I picked up some Beaujolais wine made from gamay grapes by Pierre-Marie Chermette. Chermette is one of those minimalist wine-makers we all like to support, and it's my suspicion that his no-sulphur practices enabled a hint of brett to get into his 2005 Domaine du Vissoux "Les Garants" Fleurie ($16.95, Chronicle Wine Cellar; available through other merchants for under $20). It had the bright ruby color characteristic of gamay wines with pronounced aromas of black cherry and some alcoholic heat burned in the nose. Flavors of black cherry and some mint and herbs were tasted first, and then a bit of barnyardy, bretty funk caught in your throat at the end. For me, it always smells like sweaty saddle leather, but your perception as always might differ. There was a slightly bitter finish, too. While the brett in this gamay certainly did make it more complex, I felt it had a bit of a disjointed sensation, with the flavors almost clashing at times in the drinking experience rather than complementing each other. We had this wine with some steak sandwiches from Cooking Light made with flank steak, sauteed onions, and a tangy, savory, and simple homemade barbeque sauce. Accompanied by coleslaw (which has its own funkiness), the flavors of the wine--even the brett--were really brought out and it made for a good food and wine pairing.

This wine represented good QPR with its funky flavor profile and complexity. I still preferred the fruity, juicy, and cheaper bottling I reviewed in my very first post here on the blog back in October. But if you want to bring the funk to your dinner table, here's a way to do that is far more affordable than a pricey burgundy!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Wine Club? Start a Blog

I just discovered an interesting new blog, Vino Club, that I wanted to share with you because I thought it was such an great combination of traditional and non-traditional wine experiences.

It takes the new Wine 2.0 technology and the old standby of the friends who start a Wine Tasting Club and uses Blogspot's technology for multiple contributor submissions. (I'm guessing this is not unique to Blogspot, but I don't know for sure) What you get is a rolling set of notes and news written by seven friends who talk to each other in the comments as well as posting new entries. This is a new blog (they started on January 30, 2007 and have posted 17 posts).

They've also syndicated CellarTracker notes on their wines (presumably to inspire their future tastings?) I may steal this feature, since it's a good way to bring more voices into the dialogue about wine.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Vino Club, and sorry it's taken me a few weeks to find you! And if you have a wine club, I think that blogging is a great thing to do!

Friday, March 09, 2007

Some Weekend Wine Tastings To Check Out

There's a lot of wine being tasted this weekend in LA, and I wanted to highlight some good options for you if you want to take advantage of the warming temperatures and sample some wines. It's so much more fun than going to a movie, so round up some friends and head on out to one of the following. And treat your designated driver to dinner afterwards!

Things kick off tonight, March 9, at Colorado Wine Company in Eagle Rock with their wine and cheese tasting that runs from 5:30-8:30. For $15 a person, you get five generous pours as well as a selection of cheeses from Auntie Em's marketplace. You need to RSVP for this event by contacting them at or by calling (323) 478-1985. On pour are: the 2005 Alouette Middleridge Ranch Vineyard Chardonnay, an unoaked beauty from Mendocino; the NV Ballet of Angels White from Connecticut; the Morgan Cotes du Crow from Monterey; Etims Old Vines Grenache from Spain; and the 2005 Santa Cruz Grenache. If you are tied up on Friday, they also have a tasting (no RSVP required) on Sunday from 1-4. They haven't posted this weeks selections yet, but you can check back on Saturday.

Mission Wine's Saturday Tasting in South Pasadena from 12-5 on Saturday is featuring three red blends along with two luscious whites. They are sampling the following 5 wines: 2005 Apremont Vieilles Vignes, a citrusy white from the Savoie; 2005 Blackjack Chardonnay "21"; 2005 Ludovicus, a red blend from Spain; 2005 Malm Cellars Cross Blend, another red blend; and the 2004 Aphillanthes Trois Cepages. As always, Mission Wine's tasting is $10 for 5 generous pours, or just $5 with the purchase of any bottle of wine from their diverse, and carefully selected, stock. Things will be hopping by 2 pm, and this tasting is always friendly, informal, and lively.

In LA the Wine Hotel, one of Los Angeles premier wine storage facilities, is holding their weekly Saturday casual tasting from 4-6. For $20 sample 5 wines and hors d'oeuvres. Reservations are a must for this--don't just show up, they always sell out--but it's a great venue, and while you're there you can check out their roster of wine classes, too. Call 323-937-9463 for reservations and further information.

Saturday evening, if you are still upright, Mel and Rose's Wine Room is kicking off a three-tastings series on Italian wines between 4 and 7 pm. They begin with Northern Italian wines, and if you attend all three in the series, and have your "passport" stamped, you receive a free bottle of Italian wine at the final tasting. It's $12, and no reservation is required.

Enjoy, and drive safely!

History in a Glass

Gourmet magazine debuted in the 1940s at a time when, thanks to two world wars and prohibition, America was a virtually wine-free country. Grape vines that had been lovingly tended for centuries had been ripped up, and we lost our "everyday wine" culture.

Reading History in a Glass, a fabulous collection of stories drawn from Gourmet magazine's monthly wine columns by editor Ruth Reichl, is like watching the History Channel for wine. (, $18.21) Filled with writing from some of the best wine and food writers who have ever put pen to paper--Frank Schoonmaker, James Beard, and Hugh Johnson to name just a few--this book gives you an inspiring look at the resilience of the American wine industry, at its success at coming back after almost total extinction, and at the growth of US appreciation for wine.

It's hard to pick a favorite story from among those included, but I think mine is Everett Wood's 1957 "The Last Kellermeister." Heinrich Allinger was the cellar-master of Schloss Johannisberg, a famous winery on the Rhine. Only three years of his life were spent outside the village where he lived, all fighting in World War I. When his employer tried to give him a three-week vacation in 1950, Herr Allinger refused to go. He knew every barrel in the cellar, and talked to them like children, chiding one for not developing as he'd expected it to, praising another for surprising finesse. A lifetime of wine knowledge was in that man, and Wood's fluid writing makes it possible for us to get a sense of him, and the information that he had accumulated over the years.

There are lovely surprises on every page of Reichl's collection--Hillaire Belloc's advice on wine manages to be both timeless and dated, Schoonmaker's 1948 survey of northern California wineries is a revelation in terms of the diversity of grapes planted and the wine fashions of the time, and Gerald Asher's 1993 story on Oregon Pinot Noirs was one of the first to catch the rising quality of that region's wine. It's been a while since I reviewed a wine book, and while I mentioned this book in my holiday gift picks for wine lovers, I wanted to give a fuller idea of why I think this book is so great. It's a book to have on the bedside table, to read a story before dropping off to sleep with visions of grape vines dancing in your head.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

LA Bordeaux Alert at the Wine House

If you are in LA around the Wine House, and in the market for some good Bordeaux, they just announced that they have 56 cases of 2003 Chateau Coufran Haut Medoc for $16.99 a bottle. If you buy a case, the price drops to $14.99 per bottle.

The 2003 Chateau Coufran has received strong reviews in the barrel and bottle tastes (receiving 89 points from Robert Parker and 88 from Wine Spectator, for example). It is a cru bourgeois chateau, located next to the very swishy and prestigious Chateau Calon-Segur just outside the St. Estephe appellation, and promises to have plum and cherry flavors with smoke, vanilla, and white chocolate. A low-acidity Bordeaux, expect this to have a slightly glycerin texture and taste, which helps to make is an easy, early drinker. It is made primarily from Merlot grapes, which also helps to make this wine so soft, round and approachable.

The experts are giving this a drinking window of 2006-2014, so its a Bordeaux that is priced just perfectly for you to buy a few bottles and start opening them now if you want to embark on the great Bordeaux experience, or just expand your existing knowledge. The few folks that have tried the wine over at CellarTracker are not finding that this wine is at its peak yet, though, so if you do open up a bottle now, it may not quite live up to the hype for a few years!

At this price, this wine is not going to last, so if you want some you might want to go and order some online (click on the wine label to go directly to the page that enables you to stash a few bottles in the basket and checkout). They claim this is the lowest price in the country for this wine, and I haven't been able to find it at this price anywhere else. Wine House does ship to most states, so if you're not in LA and still want this wine, check out their shipping policy to see if you can get them to send you some.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Summer in a Glass: the 2005 L'Ecole No. 41 Chenin Blanc "Walla Voila"

March is a tough month in most parts of the country. I remember when I lived on the east coast I always felt like spring was NEVER coming. Ever. Summer seemed a complete impossibility in March. All that warmth and color. No way that was ever coming back.

If you are longing for summer, why not get a taste of it in the glass? Pick up a baguette, some Cypress Grove "Purple Haze" goat cheese if you can find it (has fennel and lavender pollen in it, and it's fabulous), and the very good QPR 2005 L'Ecole No. 41 Chenin Blanc "Woila Voila." ($12 directly from L'Ecole No. 41, or under $15 through a variety of merchants). Tear off a chunk of bread, smear it with some tart, summery goat cheese, and take a sip of this luscious wine and you will instantly be transported to June. (photo taken with permission of pabulum.ext212 from a photo essay of a vineyard trip on Long Island wineries on her blog)

This wine was pale gold in color, conjuring up images of honeysuckle and yellow roses. Aromas of flowers like honeysuckle and apple blossom followed. When you took a sip the most striking first impression was of a satiny mouthfeel--richer than silky, but not at all syrupy or unctuous. Flavors of honey-dipped apples were accompanied by a brisk, citrusy finish. This wine was slightly off-dry, and would be a good companion to spicy barbequed chicken or buffalo wings, or a miso and soy marinated salmon fillet done up on the grill (if you can find your grill under the snow). Goat cheese and chenin blanc is not exactly a classic pairing, but I found this worked in much the way that port complements blue cheese--the tang of the cheese and the slight sweetness of the wine were very good together.

L'Ecole no. 41 has been named the best regional winery every year from 2002 to 2006 by Wine and Spirits magazine. What a track record! They've been in business since 1983, and have been making old vine, vouvray-style chenin blanc since 1987. The word that crops up again and again on their website is "expressiveness," which is the goal of their viticultural and wine-making philosophy. This wine, which was so expressive of the chenin blanc grape and the summer in which the grapes were grown, really lived up to any expectations I had of their wines from the website. Try one, if you get a chance!

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Way Zins Were: the 2004 Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage Zinfandel

I was reminded recently, when listening again to the first episode of Tim Elliott's great new Unfiltered podcasts, a roundtable format that he's introduced with guests from the blogosphere and the wine business, that I used to love zinfandels. If you check my posts from the last few months, though, you will see I don't drink much zin these days. Why? Too much alcohol, too much jammy fruit, and too much extraction. Not to mention too much headache the next morning. The guys on the podcast were lamenting the same changes, and remembering the old style zins with real nostalgia.

Is anyone making a zin like they used to be, I wondered? One that was round and yet peppery, fruity but with a brambly edge. And, one that doesn't knock you over with its power. So I went to the store in search of a lower alcohol zinfandel that might remind me of the wines I drank through the 90s. After turning around what seemed like every zin on the shelf, I found one that came in at just 13.5% alc/vol.

The 2004 Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage Zinfandel ($15 direct from the winery; check Wine Zap for lots of other merchants who are selling it for $11-$18) reminded me of the way zins were. An old-school Zin, with only 13.5% alch/vol, this is a subtle, smooth wine with textbook zin characteristics. Blended from 84% Zinfandel and 16% Petite Sirah grapes, it is dark, inky purple in color. Potent aromas of spice and blackberry come from the glass before you take your first sip. These aromas are followed up by blackberry, huckleberry at first taste, then waves of woody, brushy flavors and freshly cracked pepper. This wine had bright acidity and a long, juicy finish. Not a jam pot in sight! This was the kind of wine that made me love zinfandel, and I haven't had one like it for years. It represented excellent QPR, especially if this is the style of zinfandel you long for and rarely find these days.

With my zinfandel I had a simply grilled steak; a salad made with baby lettuces, red beets, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and olive oil; and some toasted baguette with goat cheese. Beef and zinfandel are a natural pairing, and the beets picked up the woody flavors in the zinfandel.

I'll be on the lookout for more zinfandels like this, and perhaps continue to scan the shelves for zins with lower alcohol to see if that is a consistent clue that helps me to find the brambly, peppery wines that remind me of the way zins were.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Bordeaux Step 7: The Waiting Game

Patience is a virtue--or so they say. I've never been convinced. There is only one area of my life where I seem to be able to muster even a modicum of patience, and that's with my wine. I eagerly look for signs that the patience might spill into the rest of my life--when I'm driving, walking the dogs, waiting for the pot to boil--but there haven't been any so far.

When it comes to my wine, though, I can be so patient that people who know me would gasp with surprise. I am an almost obsessive user of one of Cellar Tracker's most brilliant features, the Drinkability Report. Eric LeVine figured out some ingenious, mathematical way to calculate when you should start drinking your cellared wine based on "drinking windows," how many bottles you have, and how a wine matures. He issues lots of disclaimers about the flaws of the program, but I've discovered that I'm happy drinking any of my wines that have passed over the .50 mark in the Drinkability Report, and .30 will do in a pinch! Patience, and delayed gratification, have become a kind of game for me, especially with respect to my Bordeaux.

So what's a person to do while waiting for their Bordeaux to enter into its drinkability window? Lots of things, actually. Because you have to have some patience if you're going to drink Bordeaux wines, its always a good idea to have some Bordeaux activities to while away the months and years that don't involve a glass and a corkscrew.

Here's a few ways I twiddle my thumbs:

1. Track which of your wines are entering and leaving "the dumb period." Eric Asimov of The Pour wrote a great piece about this phenomenon. Wines made for aging, like Bordeaux, can open up and close down with little warning as they age and when they are closed and tight it is known as the "Dumb Period" because the wine is not speaking to its drinker. Not all wines go through a dumb period, but Bordeaux usually do. Tasting a dumb wine can lead you to believe you have a "bad wine" on your hands. On the contrary--if your wine is shut down it is kind of resting and gathering its forces for a taste explosion a little later on. If you have multiple bottles, you can track where your wines are by keeping good tasting notes and indicating whether a wine seems muted, tight, or lacking in complexity. If you don't want to find yourself drinking a Dumb wine, you can track the experiences of other drinkers on a site like CellarTracker. Here's a good example of how folks there talk about the phenomenon.

2. Seek out earlier vintages of wine you've recently bought and stashed in your cellar. Never underestimate the power of the web to help you find older bottlings. I drink and buy Ch. Cantermerle and Ch. Poujeaux pretty regularly, and would like at some point to be able to do a vertical tasting, stacking up 5 vintages next to each other to see how they differ and how they age. Thanks to search engines like Google, WineZap, and WineSearcher, I can periodically plug in my wine coordinates and see if anyone has a few bottles of 1986 Cantemerle for sale. Older cru bourgeois bottlings can represent especially good value, and of course you might want to pick up a few bottles since they are typically aged and ready to drink. (so much for patience!)

3. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunistic Bordeaux purchases. Buying futures is one thing, but tripping across a nice bottle of Bordeaux in the wine store is awfully nice, too. I found a bottle of 2001 Ch. Potensac for $18.95 at Chronicle Wine Cellar last fall, a 2003 Chateau Poujeaux at Trader Joe's for $19.99, and a splurgey bottle of 2003 Chateau Clerc Milon at Costco for $41.99 (which was still pretty near half what it was selling for elsewhere). Remember to keep your storage limitations in mind and make sure you are tracking what boxes are due to arrive in the not to distant future so you don't find yourself storing clothes and shoes on the living room couch to make room for the Bordeaux you just "happened upon" at Costco.

4. Surf. Try typing the name of your wines into an internet surf engine and just see what the internet has to offer in terms of information and perspective on your wine. You are likely to find chateaux web sites, commentary on vertical tastings like this one from the Wine Lover's Page, and barrel sampling reports. If my fingers get itchy to taste my Bordeaux, sometimes I can hold off for a little bit simply by virtually travelling or tasting, instead.

5. Read, read, read. Become as knowledgeable as you can be about Bordeaux wines. You can learn a huge amount from reading while you are tasting, and Art and Betsey over at Strat's Place has a great list of Bordeaux-related books on their web site (plus if you order through Amazon on their site it helps to support their efforts).

6. Taste, taste, taste. Instead of drinking your Bordeaux, drink somebody else's. Look for Bordeaux tasting events in your area on the Wine Events Calendar. For not much money, you can often taste some really terrific wines, both younger Bordeaux and older Bordeaux. No matter where you live, there is bound to be some kind of Bordeaux event in the upcoming months--not to mention this weekend. On March 2, in Okemos, MI, Dusty's is having a California-France tasting that includes Bordeaux, for just $20, for example. On March 3, in Miami, FL, Sunset Corners Fine Wine and Spirits is having a FREE tasting of Bordeaux from the 2003 vintage. (wish I could go to that one--13 wines!)

Many thanks to all of you who have followed this series of posts, and left comments and feedback. I'm looking forward to posting my own tasting notes in the near future as I begin to open up the first bottles I've cellared myself. Have fun with your beginning steps into the world of Bordeaux--I know I am.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

No Palate

Sorry I've been slow with the posts, folks. I've been felled by the flu, and this has not only resulted in me sleeping most days away it also means I have no palate to speak of.

It's a weird experience, and one that reminds me of just how complicated the process of taste can be. And how much I take being able to taste a lot of flavors in wine for granted.

With the flu all I can taste is salt and sweet. That's it. I eat chicken noodle soup and taste no chicken, no noodles--just that saline kick. I was able to pick up just a tiny little bit of sweetness from the honey in my tea, too, but no other complicated notes or nuances. It saved me from eating a piece of chocolate cake, which is all I have to be grateful for today since I figured, why eat it? It's not like I'm going to taste it!

For me this is a temporary problem, but there are people who experience problems tasting the full range of flavors every day of their lives. More than 200,000 folks a year check in to doctors complaining about taste disorders every year, according to some sources. It's made me wonder once again about the subjectivity of taste, and all the reasons why some folks taste blackcurrant and others tomatoes when they drink a wine.

And my experiences over the past few days will make me a lot less impatient with friends and family who claim they can't taste anything but wine when they drink a glass of the stuff. Maybe they're being lazy, but maybe they truly cannot taste anything. Maybe they've got a cold. After three days of not being able to taste anything here's one thing I know for sure: I'll be glad to have my tastebuds back in working order because being able to taste things is a little miracle none of us should take for granted!