Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Wine Resolutions 2008

Last year, I made a set of wine resolutions and I did pretty well. My Spanish wine adventures led me to enjoy wines made from grapes and in regions I never knew before. I drank lots and lots of sparkling wine and never got tired of it, I assure you. I beat back some of my Burgundy anxiety, although I'm more sure than ever that Burgundy is never going to be a big thing in my wine life--unless I win the lottery. I kept my wine costs down, spending on average just $14.31 per bottle of wine this year. (vintage New Year's card from ca. 1925)

What's in store for 2008? In addition to continuing to do what I'm already doing to find and evaluate great value everyday wines, I have a new set of wine resolutions that will shape the posts on this blog, and increase my wine knowledge over the coming year. Without further ado, here are my wine resolutions for 2008:

1. Read More Wine Books: There are a lot of great wine books out there, and to my embarrassment I've read relatively few of them. I own them; I just don't read them. I talked to some fellow wine bloggers and discovered they, too, had stacks of books that they wanted to read. So with a group of over a dozen bloggers we're starting a new online blogging event: a bi-monthly Wine Book Club. I'll announce the details and the first host on January 3, and your host will tell you what book is up first for discussion. This will work along similar lines to Wine Blogging Wednesdays, except that we're giving you 2 months to read the book and reviews and discussion will take place the last Tuesday of every other month (i.e. February, April, June, August, October, and December 2008). We hope that you will participate by joining us in reading some classic, new, and award-winning books. Unlike wine, you can get wine books everywhere--even your local library.

2. Get to know the wines of Italy.
I love Italy. I even read and speak Italian (but don't make me write it). So why are Italian wines such infrequent guests on my dinner table? I don't know the answer to that question, but I'm going to apply myself to getting to know Italian wines this year. With 21 separate regions and scores of indigenous grapes, it's going to be a fun resolution to keep and it may even take me two years to get from one end of Italy to the other. At my virtual side will be Terry Hughes, who writes the wonderful blog Mondosapore, and a stack of Italian wine books (some of which I may even read, see #1). I predict that by the end of the year Terry will dread finding my queries in his comments, but he was the inspiration for this year's geographic resolution, so hopefully he won't mind too much.

3. Finish out my Wine Century. The Wine Century Club is an organization of wine-lovers each of whom has tasted 100+ different grape varieties. Currently, I've tasted 85. The first 50 were easy, the next 35 fun but challenging, and the last 15--they required special purchases. So I've left no stone unturned, no shop unvisited, and have even managed to stay within my $20 ceiling and purchased varieties such as Romorantin, Teroldego and Nerella Mascalese . Happily, many of these varietals are Italian (see #2). Starting next week we'll be counting down the last 15 varietals to grape #100, so that I can put in my paperwork this spring. I highly encourage you to visit the site, get a form, and see where you are in your own Wine Century. It's fun, it' s a great way to learn more about wine, and you cross-train your palate with less familiar varietals and styles of wine making.

4. Dabble in Champagne without blowing my budget sky-high. Champagne, like Burgundy, does not play a large role in my wine life. To be honest, I find it daunting, and the price of the wines does not encourage amateur experimentation. Still, I should know more about champagne than I do, if for no other reason than it would be nice to get something more creative than Veuve Clicquot when I'm looking for a sparkling wine gift or treat for myself. I'm setting myself a limit of $50 for champagne, because it's SO expensive I cannot believe it. But, with some careful sleuthing and help from my friends in terms of recommendations, I want to get over my conviction that these wines are totally out of my price league and not worth the money. Stay tuned for the results, and if you have suggestions for particular makers please let me know.

5. Drink more dessert wines. As a rule, we don't eat dessert. But sometimes around 9 pm I want something sweet, not caffeinated, and comforting. This is the perfect opportunity to pour myself a small glass of dessert wine, and I sometimes do just that. I would like to know more about them, however, and try more sherries and ports. Catavino has been posting some great reviews of wines that sound perfect for winter nights, and I'm confident there's more out there to discover.

That should keep me busy for most of the year! What are your wine resolutions for 2008?

Friday, December 28, 2007

Riesling Excitement

There are times when you drink a bottle of wine and you get excited about the whole idea of wine all over again. Everything fades away but this one glass of magical liquid, and it's better than any other wine you remember. And if you weren't expecting to be blown away by the wine, it makes it all the more sweet and exciting. This is one of those times.

The wine responsible for all this excitement is the 2006 Lazy Creek Vineyards Riesling from the Anderson Valley which is quite simply the best domestic riesling I have ever had. How good is it? It blows the Eroica riesling (from the partnership of Ernst Loosen and Chateau Ste. Michelle) out of the water, and that's a pretty darn good wine. And, should this matter to you, if you put it in a brown paper bag, no one would guess this was a US riesling.

Mary Beth and Josh Chandler are the new owners of the second oldest vineyard in the Anderson Valley, and they make this wine the organic way. The Chandlers do not have a tasting room so much as they have a vat house where tastings can happen, if you make it down the lane and over the bridge spanning the creek, past any horses that are coming along the same road, and into their front yard. My parents did just this a few weeks ago, and scored this bottle from the Chandlers' 2500 case production. Lazy Creek's web site is (still) under construction, but it does list a phone number in case you are interested in visiting or getting your hands on some of this great wine.

What made the Lazy Creek riesling so great? Oddly enough, it was about what this wine wasn't--it wasn't sweet, it wasn't overly fruity, it wasn't flabby, and it wasn't over the top. Instead, it had restrained aromas of apple, lemon blossom, and sea spray that seems to come from the nearby Pacific Ocean and gives it a mineral edge. When you sipped some it was bone dry, with flavors of dry, tart apple, citrus, and stone. It was made with grapes picked from old Anderson Valley Clone #49 riesling vines brought from Alsace, and the result was a super, elegant, and well-delineated riesling of exceptional value. It was also excellent QPR at about $24.

I couldn't find this wine online, and the Chandlers seem to sell most of their production to loyal mailing list fans. A selection of Lazy Creek wines is available at K&L Wines, however, and ranges from $17 - $40. I've had their pinot-based NV red table wine at a Slow Food dinner at Oz Farm in Point Arena a few years ago and it was terrific, as was their chardonnay and their gewurztraminer which is similarly dry and elegant.

Like their neighbors at Navarro, Lazy Creek Vineyards seems determined to stay small, make excellent wine, and sell most of their wine directly to their customers--all of which will keep me excited about their wines for years to come.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Some New Wine Blogs for the New Year

There are some fresh voices in the wine blogosphere, and I wanted to point out some new blogs--or at least blogs that are new to me--that are becoming regular reading. Some of them are written by familiar visitors to this site, who are now contributing to the unfolding wine conversation here on the 'net. It's good to have you all in the neighborhood! (nifty wine blogger logo courtesy of Ryan Opaz's wine blogger information site)

Wine Scamp: Andrea Middleton blogs from the Lone Star state, and has been blogging since August. Tom Wark highlighted her blog a little while ago, and I have to agree that she is a great addition to the wine blogging scene. A great writer, with a wide-ranging palate, the Wine Scamp's lively posts will keep you coming back for more.

Anything Wine: John Witherspoon has a little chunk of heaven outside Richmond, and has been blogging since the summer of 2006. I'm not sure how I missed him for so long, but I'm glad that I found him! Another blogger with a wide-ranging palate, John is a Cork'd regular and dedicated to finding and commenting on wine news from around the world.

Wine Connections: regular reader Orion Slayer didn't think he could start a blog since he was just getting interested in wine. So far he's watched every episode of WLTV, and had a Seyval Blanc from Missouri. When you start drinking white wines from Missouri, you are ready to blog! Posts have slowed down during the holiday season, but I'm hoping OrionSlayer gets back in the swing with regular postings in 2008.

Indiscriminate Ideas: another regular reader, Jeff Cleveland, writes about life and wine and everything in between on his blog. Since October, Jeff's posts have started including more wine coverage and though he claims he's far from a wine blogger, I'm not so sure...

OeNo! Not Another Wine Blog: Eddie from New York wins the prize for creative wine blog title, and is a self-proclaimed "wine novice." Since November he's been sharing his tips and tricks for wine newbies, and writes clear and detailed tasting notes that are models of the genre in case you are looking for style pointers. With sub-headings like "the story," "the region," "the look," "the aroma," "the swish" (my favorite), and "the verdict," Eddie's tasting notes are not only fun to read they are elegantly structured and easy to read and grasp. Just when you thought there was nothing new in tasting notes, Eddie proves there is.

West Coast Wine Adventures: Amy (aka the SB Wine Advocate) is the most regular blogger on this site, and has a few other friends and colleagues who post on it as well. They've been blogging since August, and offer a wonderful perspective on California wines with a particular emphasis on Santa Barbara and the Central Coast. You can spend hours on their site following all the links and threads, and I encourage you to take some time and do just that.

Happy reading. There's a lot of good information on wine out there on the 'net. What have you found that you recommend?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays

Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday.

(picture of grape vines, Niagara Peninsula)

Monday, December 24, 2007

What People Are Drinking: Christmas 2007

Thanks to the miracle that is CellarTracker! it's once again possible to see what folks are popping open and tasting over the holiday. (image from Three Choirs Vineyard)

I've generated a search string that will update automatically to keep track of what users are opening, drinking, and writing notes about between 12/24 and 12/26. It's sorted by grape variety, but you can tinker with the structure of the list by playing with the options at the top of the page.

It's another fun snapshot of what's popular and what's not this holiday season. So far Cabernet Sauvignon is leading the charge, with Pinot Noir, blends from Bordeaux, Syrah, and Chardonnay rounding out the top 5.

What will you be drinking?

Another Good Chilean Pinot

I'm on a roll with Chilean wines these days. After I finished up my Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc, I opened up this Colchagua Valley pinot noir that cost me just $9.95 at Chronicle Wine Cellar (you can find it elsewhere for between $10 and $18). Like the other Chilean wines I've had recently, this was a pleasant surprise, since I don't drink much wine from region. (photo by Greg Turner)

Cono Sur began in 1993, and is named for the "southern cone" of South America where the vineyards are located along the coast of Chile. Winemaker Adolfo Hurtado is particularly committed to what he calls his "pinot noir project," where with Burdundian winemaker Martin Prieur Cono Sur is modeling their practices after French vinification techniques. The first pinot noir project bottling was given the name Ocio, to remind people of the creative pleasures of leisure.

Hurtado makes other pinot noir, too, which are very affordable and should make it possible for even the most dedicated fans of the grape to have a decent bottle whenever they feel the need. Because Cono Sur makes so many different pinots, it is a good idea to check the labels. Here I had the 2006 Cono Sur Vision Pinot Noir Colchagua Valley, otherwise known as the "pinot with the geese on it." This was a nice example of a New World style pinot noir, with aromas of fresh raspberry and ripe cherry. These aromas were echoed in the flavors, with the addition of a nice earthy note and some surprising weight for a pinot noir at this price point. The wine had pinot noir's hallmark silky texture, and a finish that was juicy rather than spicy. As the wine opened up some toffee notes emerged in the finish, as well. Not the world's most complex pinot, but one that is pleasing and well made at a good price, so good QPR from my standpoint.

This was a pinot noir that was so affordable you could serve it at a big party and not feel ashamed. We had it with a 30-minute cracked black pepper and romano cheese polenta topped with marsala mushrooms, and it went very well with that peppery, flavorful, and smooth-textured dish. However you serve it, this wine is a good reminder to broaden your wine horizons and try new wines and relatively new winemakers when you get the chance. There are some nice surprises in store when you do!

Friday, December 21, 2007

WSJ Picks Their Top Wines Under $10.99

Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, otherwise known as the Wall Street Journal's husband-and-wife wine reviewing team, have just posted their top value wines of 2007. They went over their blind tasting notes for wines that were $10.99 or less and got top marks. It's an interesting list, with a pair of sweet wines, three roses, and some reds to round it out. The wines come from California, Australia, Spain, and France, providing good evidence that good value wine can be found in any corner of the world--if you look for it. (image from Columbia University)

At least one of these wines will be familiar to GWU$20 readers (the Toad Hollow Eye of the Toad Pinot Noir Rose), but I think you will find surprises on it, too, chief among them the Muscat Canellis. These are sweet wines ideal (as Gaiter and Brecher point out) for after dinner toasting and celebrating. If you've never had one, you are in for a treat and maybe this article will encourage you to take the plunge.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Where Is Wine Blogging Today?

Where is wine blogging today? It's a good question to ask at the end of a year that's seen the rise of Wine Library TV, a proliferation of new wine search engines, consumer ranking sites, and an explosion in the number of wine blogs. This was the question posed to a panel of wine bloggers by Tim Elliott, the man behind Winecast in both its blog and podcast format.

I was one of the lucky bloggers invited on Tim's podcast show to discuss the issue on the latest "Podcast Unfiltered" episode that he co-hosts with Good Grape's Jeff Lefevre. Other guests were Ryan and Gabriella Opaz of Catavino and Alder Yarrow of Vinography. Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours was supposed to join us, but the weather held him up, so we missed out on hearing what he had to say.

It was a lively conversation, and I think it would be of interest not only to wine bloggers but to people like you who read wine blogs. We wondered about the impact that wine blogs were having on consumers, and how to better serve our audience. So give it a listen either through Tim's site or by downloading it via iTunes into your MP3 player so you can listen to it while you're stuck in traffic, taking a walk during lunch, or even (don't tell your boss) at your desk.

Incidentally, when you go by Winecast, be sure to wish Tim Elliott a happy third anniversary and good wishes for his fourth year of podcasting. Tim was thinking about the internet's usefulness as a wine information tool before the rest of us, and his podcast was actually the vehicle through which I learned there was such a thing as a wine blog. He's been an inspiration.

Thanks to Tim and Jeff for inviting me to participate, and to Alder, Gabriella, and Ryan for giving me so much to think about. Pitch into the conversation by leaving a comment on Tim's blog or over here to let us know what you think about wine blogging today, and tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Wines to Watch for in 2008: 2007 Chilean Sauvignon Blancs

With the declining power of the dollar, many are braced for imported wine prices to rise. Still, there are good values out there, and in 2008 my tip for you it to keep your eye of for 2007 Chilean sauvignon blancs. The January 2008 Food and Wine Magazine will give you this same tip. Why? the 2007 vintage was an excellent one, and produced wines with crisp acidity and lush fruit.

I certainly found just this flavor profile in the 2007 Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc Reserva that I received recently as a sample from the winery. It was an interesting wine to drink for someone who is relatively new to the Chilean wine scene and more familiar with California and New Zealand bottlings of this grape variety. If you haven't had much Chilean sauvignon blanc either, here's how to think about this wine: it's poised perfectly between the New Zealand and California styles. It was pale, almost translucent in color and had aromas of freshly mown hay, honeydew melon, and lemon blossom. It tasted like spring in a glass, with its flavors of melon, grass, and spring flowers--which was a welcome experience on a chilly winter evening. The price? The suggested retail is $11.99, but it's available online for around $10, and I would recommend you keep your eyes peeled for it in your local Costco, where you might find it for around $8. At any of these prices, it's excellent QPR given its freshness, fruitiness, and lively flavors.

If you find New Zealand sauvignon blancs to tart, and California sauvignon blancs too sweet, you may find that Chilean sauvignon blancs are just right--from a taste standpoint, and a budget standpoint. They're definitely wines to watch out for when you're in the shop.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

When Half a Bottle Is Just Right

A friend of mine recently asked for recommendations for good 375 ml bottles of wine. I occasionally buy wines in smaller bottles for nights when we are having a red-wine meal in a sea of chicken and fish, and I don't want a partially consumed bottle going stale on the counter, so I had some tips for her, but not as many as I would have liked. So I hit the web to find out more. (logo from Half-Wit Wines)

In the past, I've had trouble finding a good selection of small-format bottles of wine, so I did some scrounging on the web and came up with two key web addresses for those of you who might be looking for half bottles or wondering why on earth anyone would bother with such a thing.

The first is a recent article by Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher of the Wall Street Journal. These two well-known critics recently declared that half bottles were the next big thing in wine, and provided some good leads on where to buy bottles, what to know before you buy, and what to do with the empties after you're done. Gaiter and Brecher remind us, for instance, that wine ages faster in small bottles and that the empty bottles are perfect for short-term storage of leftover wine since the wine comes into less contact with air and therefore oxidation is much slower.

One of the stores mentioned in Gaiter and Brecher's article is my other internet find: Half-Wit Wines. Even before I read the WSJ article, I knew that this online store was a good thing. They specialize in half-bottles, and offer more than 1000 to choose from. Looking for a half-bottle of red wine from Israel? They've got it. A half-bottle of white wine from Greece? They have that, too. As you can imagine, if they have these wines they have an awfully good selection of Californian, Italian, French, and German offerings, too, not to mention wines from the Southern Hemisphere.

If you are still looking for a last-minute gift--maybe for someone who lives alone, or is just starting out in the world of wine--a mixed case of 375ml bottles would be a great gift, and one that they could enjoy for months to come. Of course, you could always buy a few bottles for yourself, including grape varieties you've never had before and some wines that are outside your comfort zone that you just want to try.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cozy, Comfortable, and Classy: Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Of all the wines I love, there are none that I love so much as the Rhone blends from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Some wines make me shout with excitement, others impress me with their finesse, and then there are those that intrigue me because of their rarity or their exceptional value. But only Chateauneuf-du-Pape makes me feel like I've put on a cozy, comfortable sweater and slipped into my favorite chair. The heavy embossed bottles, with the keys of St. Peter crossed just over the label, are classy enough for any fine dinner party, yet they never seem to intimidate anyone, either, perhaps because they are not so highly touted as Bordeaux and Burgundy. Despite their relatively low profile, wine critics love them, and bottles of Chateauneuf-du-Pape often appear at the top of "the best wines of" lists, as they do this year.

What's even better is that truly excellent wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape can be surprisingly affordable.

The 2003 Perrin & Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape Les Sinards is a case in point. I bought this last January at Costco for $23.69. You can still find it online for between $25 and $38, which is not too bad for a wine this good with some age on it. My first tip, though, is to by them a bit younger and age them yourself, even for a short period. This wine was only 2 years into its suggested "drinking window" when I bought it and eleven months older when I drank it. But it should continue to develop and evolve for the next five or six years, if you have space in your cellar for it. That's one of the nicest things about Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines: they tend to be ready for drinking much sooner than their red neighbors to the north in Bordeaux, and yet they have aging potential, too. The January 2008 edition of Food & Wine Magazine, for instance, includes 2005 Chateauneuf-du-Papes as one of the best wines to buy this year and cellar for the future, since the 2005 vintage is seen as one of the most age-worthy in recent years.

When I popped the cork on the 2003 Perrin & Fils Les Sinards all the comfort and excitement I associate with one of these great Rhone red blends was evident from the very first aromas that came from the bottle. Scents of plum, leather, thyme, and tobacco were accented with just a hint of ripe apricot. As if this wasn't complexity enough for one wine, the flavors included plum, allspice, and blackberry. The wine had a lingering finish that was warm and spicy. This was a lot of wine for $24, and something that would fit well on any holiday table whether you're serving beef, turkey, goose, or even a vegetarian option like mushroom and chestnut stuffing. Excellent QPR, and I will be seeking out other vintages of this wine.

The Perrin family has roots in the Rhone that extend deep into the 16th century. They are known for making superb wines, including their flagship Chateau Beaucastel red wine. The Perrins are long-time partners of Robert Haas's vineyard and winery in Paso Robles, Tablas Creek, which has done so much to raise the quality, and consciousness, of Rhone varieties here in the US. So when you drink this wine, you are also tasting more than a little bit of history with each and every sip. But the Perrins aren't content to rely just on their history--they embrace the future as well as the past and explore sustainable farming practices as a way to link together traditionally-proven growing techniques with their concern for the environment. They even blog, and you can learn a lot about the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation, and their viticultural efforts, by reading it.

If you see a bottle of 2003, 2004, or 2005 Chateauneuf-du-Pape when you're in the wine store and it's a good price, you might want to give it a try since all three were recommended vintages. And if you see a bottle of Perrin & Fils, snatch it up right away. I may be behind you in the aisle, and if you show the slightest indecision I'll have it in my cart before you get a chance to think again.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

WBW #41: Taste a Friuli White for January 2008

Jack and Joanne, authors of one of the web's best food and wine sites Fork and Bottle, have announced the theme for the 41st Wine Blogging Wednesday to take place on January 16, 2008.

It's whites from Friuli-Venezia, a northern Italian wine region that is home to many native grape varietals such as Tocai Friulano and Ribolla Gialla. They also grow more familiar grape varieties, including pinot grigio, chardonnay, and riesling.

As usual, Jack and Joanne are already providing valuable tips (such as decant your whites if you buy a 2005 or 2006 bottling) , a list of appellations in this region, and a list of good producers. They also suggest looking for a bottle that's $18+ for highest likelihood that you will be excited by the wine. I must confess, I already have my bottle and it was around $10, but I am still hoping for a little excitement!

Our friends at Fork & Bottle warn that it may take some hunting for a wine from this area, so take a look while you're out shopping, and taste your wine and post the results on January 16, and email Jack and Joanne with the results. It's a lot of fun to taste wines that are not familiar to you, so I urge anyone who's on the fence about participating in WBW for the first time to do so--make it your New Year's Resolution.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Rounding up the Petite Sirah for WBW #40

The Wannabe Wino, better known as Sonadora, has already finished the round-up of tasting notes from this past Wednesday's Wine Blogging Wednesday #40.

This is all the more impressive given the numbers: 52 bloggers and wine lovers wrote up their tasting notes, including 13 first-time participants in WBW. Together they drank wines from Israel, Mexico, France, Australia, Chile, and the US.

Petite Sirah is not to everyone's taste, since it is big, brash, and brawny so kudos to all the folks who cross-trained their palates and got outside their wine comfort zone. I loved my Twisted Oak wine, but not everyone was quite as lucky as I was, as you will see from the reviews.

Thanks again to Sonadora, to Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours, and to all those who participated and helped to make this such a successful pre-holiday event. Our hosts for January will be Jack and Joanne of Fork & Bottle, and I'll have the full details of the theme once they post it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

2007 Top 20 Wines Under $20

If you read wine magazines or the wine columns in newspapers, you cannot move without hitting a "Top ??? Wines of 2007" list right about now. These lists are the darlings of those who generate them, sell wine because of them, and buy wine after reading them. I mean, who doesn't like to know/sell/serve the #1 wine in the galaxy? Setting aside the fact that it will cost you just under $1000 dollars to buy one bottle of each of the top 10 wines in this year's Wine Spectator list, the fact that by the time the lists are printed and shopping frenzy begins many of the wines are long gone from the market, and that these lists can manipulate the marketplace in strange ways, you need to ask just how important it is to you that you are drinking a "top" wine anyway? Erika, on her blog Strumerika, asked this question a few weeks ago, and it's worth repeating here. (image of Wine Spectator's logo for the Top 100 Wines of 2007)

What's on these lists? Tina Caputo, in an article that appeared two days ago on Wines and Vines, did a side-by-side comparison of two popular lists and discovered that there were some striking similarities between the Wine Spectator top 100 wines of 2007, and the Wine Enthusiast top 100 wines of 2007. The same five countries dominated both lists: US, France, Italy, Australia, and Spain. The average price for a bottle on either list was between $40 and $50 (WS, $42; WE, $47). And, in a testament to the variability of personal taste, the #1 wine on one list doesn't even appear among the top 100 wines on the other list.

The fine folks at both magazines taste a lot of wines--a lot more than I do--in a given year before making their assessments. Over at Spectator they taste more than 15000 wines, and at Enthusiast they taste more than 10000. At GWU$20, I've only tasted about 500 wines this year, and most of them were from the US, France, and Italy. It hardly seems like enough to make any sort of statement, but just for fun I've generated my very own "2007 Top 20 Wines Under $20."

How did I do this? I looked over all my tasting notes from the year, and figured out which ones had the right combination of excellence, value, availability and "excitement" (which is one of the criteria for both the WS and WE lists). I stuck rigorously to the under $20 mark, which meant some very good $20-$25 wines were left out. I made one exception in terms of availability and included a Portuguese red not available in the US because it was SO good and this way you can lobby your wine store for it. In true "top list" fashion, only the rank, name, and price are included here. Want more information? You can read my full review by clicking on "GWU$20 Review," or read the reviews of a wider cross-section of drinkers including me by clicking on "CellarTracker reviews." Clicking on the wine's name will take you to a list of merchants who stock the wine today, not necessarily where I bought the wine. Prices indicated here are what I paid for the wine; as ever, your costs may vary.

To add to the nuckle-biting tension, I've put them in reverse order. Can you stand it? If not, scroll down.

20. 2003 Treana White Mer Soleil Vineyard ($14.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

19. 2003 Anglim Syrah Fralich Vineyard ($20) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

18. 2005 Four Vines Chardonnay Naked ($12) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

17. 2005 Champalou Vouvray ($14.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

16. 2005 Te Karainga Sauvignon Blanc ($12.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

15. 2004 Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel Heritage ($14) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

14. 2005 Beckmen Vineyards Cuvee Le Bec ($16) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

13. 2004 Domaine Larochette-Manciat Pouilly-Vinzelles Les Longeays ($15.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

12. 2004 Toad Hollow Merlot Reserve Richard McDowell Vineyard ($19.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

11. 2003 Herdade do Meio Alentejano Garrafeira (not available in US) No GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

10. 2004 Chateau Falfas Bordeaux ($19.99) No GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

9. NV Soligo Prosecco Brut ($15.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

8. 2006 Handley Pinot Noir Rose ($18) No GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

7. 2003 Chateau Coupe-Roses Minervois Cuvee Vignals ($16) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

6. 2005 Sineann Gewurztraminer Resonance Vineyard ($19.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

5. 2006 Bodega Renacer Malbec Punto Final ($13.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

4. 2004 Sandoval Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.99) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

3. Cameron Hughes Lot 25 Carneros Sparkling Wine ($20) GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

2. 2000 Royal Tokaji Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos Red Label ($20) No GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

1. 2004 Escafeld Petit Verdot, $19.95 GWU$20 Review. Cellar Tracker Reviews.

One of the most striking things about this list is that you won't find most of them included in any other lists. Still, they are excellent, good value, and exciting wines to drink with your favorite meal. While we're at it, what was the best wine you had this year? Leave your suggestion in the comments section before you leave!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #40: Petite Sirah

Welcome to WBW #40, the monthly online tasting event that Lenndevours thought up over three years ago. This month our tasting theme was set by Sonadora, the Wannabe Wino. She picked Petite Sirah, the misunderstood and variably spelled grape variety whose mysterious origins were only established in 2003 when it was discovered that California's Petite Sirah was actually the French variety Durif--a cross between Pelousin and Syrah that had never really distinguished itself as a stand-alone grape in its home country but was usually used as a mix-in for other red blends.

This grape took very well to California, however, where warmer temperatures led to higher levels of ripeness. In the 1940s Larkmead (now known for its Cabernet Sauvignon) and Louis Martini started bottling "Duriff" wines that were probably made with Petite Sirah. Today more than 60 California producers make wine with this grape, including the folks at Twisted Oak. As soon as this theme was announced, I knew I had to have one of their Petite Sirahs from the Silvaspoons Vineyard in Lodi.

The 2004 Twisted Oak Silvaspoons Vineyard Petite Sirah was a terrific example of this varietal and what it can achieve if it is fully ripe when harvested. ($23.99, WineQ) Juicy aromas of boysenberry, plum, and sweet oak gave way to a palate of plummy richness with notes of fig which were entirely unexpected and added to the complexity of the wine. The finish had just a touch of cracked pepper--one of the hallmarks of this grape--and a nice tannic grip. We did decant this wine for 30 minutes since when I first opened it up it was a bit too mouth-puckering and dry. Petite Sirah is known for its long-term aging potential, so this was not entirely surprising. The 2004 Twisted Oak opened up nicely with just that little bit of extra air, and it continued to bloom and develop over the course of the evening. If you are lucky enough to have a bottle, I would give it another 6-12 months in the bottle, and it will be even better. A little more than I pay for most of my wine, this was complex enough that I felt the price was worth it--very good QPR.

With Petite Sirah, I find I crave something meaty and rustic, like stew or chile. We had it instead with meatloaf made according to the revised Joy of Cooking's recipe that uses oatmeal instead of breadcrumbs, and slathers chili sauce on top instead of the usual ketchup for a bit of extra kick. With it? Mashed potatoes and green beans of course. The Petite Sirah's unpretentious richness went just perfectly with this homey, comfortable, and tasty meal.

If this review makes your mouth water for something a bit twisted, there is a new vintage of this wine out now, so if you can't get your hands on the 04 you may want to set your sights on the 05 instead. Thanks to Sonadora for a great theme, and I will be posting a link to the roundup as soon as it's available.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Cross-Training for Your Palate

About six weeks ago I read a wonderful article by one of my favorite wine writers, Jancis Robinson, that talked about "cellar palate" among wine-makers, a phrase that is commonly used to describe what happens when a maker tastes too much of her or his own wine and not enough that comes from beyond arm's reach. She linked cellar palate to the adaptation of a writer's or consumer's palate to local flavors and styles of wine making. Whether its drinking wine from only one region, one vintage, one maker, or made with only one grape, this narrowness of focus may have benefits in terms of expertise. But Robinson contended that it also leads to a diminished ability to detect elements of wines such as high acid, or under-ripe fruit, or high alcohol. (image from Blue Dog Yoga)

The way to keep your palate sharp and flexible is to vary the wines that you drink, from high acid whites to mellow, aged red beauties. You need to "drink globally" as Robinson put it, too. Try alternating your Rhone reds with one or two from Paso Robles, so you can learn how different winemakers and different places produce very different wines with the same grape. Even if you're a bargain hunter like me, throw an expensive bottle into the mix once a year, just to see what it tastes like. Practicing the old chestnut that "variety is the spice of life" will help you to appreciate all that the wine world has to offer.

If you have a tart sauvignon blanc and a mellow, peppery syrah you can see how varying your wine diet can help you to perceive elements in each wine that you may have taken for granted, or even missed. Open both bottles and take a sip of the sauvignon blanc. You will probably taste something fresh, crisp, and refreshing with lots of citrus. Then take a sip of the syrah. It will seem so rich, opulent, peppery, and even velvety, that you might think this is the best syrah you've ever tasted (even if it isn't). Now go back to the sauvignon blanc. It will probably strike you with its cleanness, you will smell grassy notes or herbs even if you didn't before, and the citrus may now be more precise like "meyer lemon" or "lime."

Palates need cross-training just as much as quadriceps do. Keeping your palate sharp and in good shape will benefit every wine you drink. Even if you want to stick to nothing but California zinfandels for most of your drinking, take time out every now and again for a complete break--a muscadet, a chenin blanc, a riesling. You may never become an avowed white wine drinker, but you will go back to your zinfandel with freshly-honed taste buds ready to accept every plummy, cherry, and cracked black pepper note. The same goes if you "only drink whites." If you aren't trying a red every now and again, your palate will get flabby and over-familiar with the wines that are in your comfort zone.

Promise yourself that you'll drink one wine that challenges your palate between now and January 11, 2008. If you've got a blog, post about your experiences there. If you don't, feel free to post it here in the comments. On January 11 I'll post about how I stretched my palate, and you can add your experiences to those comments, too. Let's face it: this is the most fun "fitness" activity you're likely to engage in between now and then!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Holiday Food and Wine Strategy #5: Bubbles

When all else fails, there are bubbles.

Whether its for drinking, gifting, unexpected visitors, toasting, or sitting by the fire and simply recovering from it all there is nothing--ok, very little--that bubbles cannot fix. In the US, more sparkling wine is sold between December 1 and January 5 than at any other time of the year. Maybe because it's cool and frosty while being warming and toasty and therefore it seems to fit the mood of the holidays just perfectly. Can't figure out what to give as a gift? A nice bottle or two of sparkling wine will be welcomed by anyone over the age of 21. No idea what wine will go with that food? With the possible exception of roast beef, it goes with everything (and if you splurge for vintage champagne, roast beef actually goes very well with it).

The only problem is that it can be so dang expensive. But there are bubbles (cava, cremant de bourgogne, prosecco) that do tend to require less shelling out than other more costly bottlings. The NV Soligo Prosecco Brut is just such a bottle and is quite possibly the best prosecco I've ever had. (I received this as a sample from domaine547, and you can get your hands on some for $15.99) This is a really well-made and superbly balanced wine that strikes a pose between toast and citrus notes. If you don't like prosecco because of what can be a bitter taste, you will not find it here. Instead, look for lots of creamy mousse, and a medium bead. These will be followed up by notes of grilled bread, lemon, and lemon blossom. This wine is many steps up from most $8 proseccos. Excellent QPR. Plus, and not to be overlooked at this time of year, this wine has a bottle shaped like a Hollywood starlet and a label that is tastefully glam. In other words, it is perfect for gifting if you don't drink it all yourself.

I've reviewed lots of other sparkling wines over the past year, so if you are still looking for something with bubbles, check those reviews out and stock up. To be honest, I've never been sorry to have 6 bottles on hand when I go into full holiday mode--and I've never had a bottle left over on January 2, so maybe gathering together a mixed case of sparkling wine now would be a wise strategy!

Friday, December 07, 2007

How Do You Review? A Case Study

It's time to put on your thinking cap. (19th century phrenology chart from the University of Houston's College of Engineering)

During the past week I've had the chance to review the same wine four times in four different ways. So I thought it might be fun to compare the different style of wine reviews that are out there courtesy of the web, the blogosphere, and the consumer- driven content known as wine 2.0. I ask not because anything is going to change here at GWU$20, but because I'm genuinely interested in how different people respond to different kinds of reviews. Besides, my students are all feverishly getting ready for their final exams, and I can't resist inflicting a little bit of schoolday stress on you, too, so you will find at the bottom of this post a question for you to ponder and (if you feel moved to do so) answer in the comments section below.

It all started in my hidden elves' workshop of wine reviews, CellarTracker. After I drink a wine, the first thing I do is enter a note on CellarTracker, my preferred wine cellar program. The wine in question was the 2004 Peterson Zero Manipulation Red Blend. (WineQ, $12.49), and you can look at the review by clicking here. You will instantly see that (among other things) this has a 100-point score on it, which is my way of registering a number for my own private use to calculate the QPR simply because it's easier in this format to do so.

Then, I posted a review of the same wine on WineQ (scroll down past the description), a brief review on GWU$20 extolling its virtues as a takeout wine, and a review (finally) on Chateau Petrogasm, the wine review site that does its work through images. I was thrilled to be asked to be a resident of the Chateau, which means that I will be posting my reviews of wines that are hard to find and/or expensive over there.

So my question, dear readers, is which of these reviews (or combination of reviews) worked best for you, and why? Which one clicked, and made sense to you? Whether you like QPR, stars, points, pictures, short reviews, long reviews, or something in between, there is an example here for you. Please use a #2 pencil and write neatly in the comments section below!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

How Does Catavino Spell December? CAVA

Ryan and Gabriella at Catavino have made Spain's famous sparkler, cava, their theme for this December. They will be posting regularly about what is usually a great bargain in sparklers, and are looking for feedback and input from readers about their cava experiences.

It seemed like the right moment for me to have a glass of cava and to formally thank Ryan and Gabriella for all they've done in 2007 to help me get to know Spanish wines. I'm not sure where I'd be if I hadn't had Catavino's excellent information and coverage to help me through! With their help I've been able to make good on my New Year's Resolution to get to know Spanish wine a bit better.

So I popped a cork on the 2004 Juve y Camps Cava Reserva de la Familia Brut Natura and toasted Catavino the other night. ($16.99, Mission Wine). This cost a bit more than most of the cavas I've purchased in the past, and I was interested in seeing if a more expensive wine would deliver more. There were aromas of toast and bitter almond, which were also discernible in the flavors. There were characteristic citrus notes, as well, but they took a back seat to the nutty, toasty-ness of this wine. There were lots of medium-sized bubbles, some frothy mousse when the wine was poured, and crisp aftertaste. This wine was reasonably complex, but in the end I wasn't sure it was really worth the extra money. Still, it was good QPR and would certainly hold its own with a bargain champagne or US domestic sparkler. (PS. The label is for the 2001 vintage but we did have the 2004).

Join in the fun this month over at Catavino, and buy a few bottles of this Spanish sparkler to get you through the holidays. And thanks again to Ryan and Gabriella for all their help, excellent writing, and advice in 2007.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Today: Celebrate the End of Prohibition

On December 5, 1933, Prohibition ended with the passage of the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution. (image from the National Constitution Center)

Celebrate responsibly, contribute to efforts to get rid of the last vestiges of Prohibition in the laws that limit the shipment of wine across state borders, and raise a glass to folks like Juanita Swedenburg who fought for your right to drink the wine you want.

Thanks, also, to Joe from Joe's Wine Blog who remembered what day it was!

Holiday Food and Wine Strategy #4: Hors d'Oeuvres for the Unexpected

The bell rings. It is 4:30 pm. There is a friend/ neighbor/ long-lost family member on your doorstep with a poinsettia or a tin of fudge or (yikes!!) a fruitcake. You have nothing to give this person in the way of food and libation. Grocery shopping is tomorrow. The cupboards are bare.

Here is the solution. Go out now and buy some big Fuji and Granny Smith apples and put them in a cool place. They will be fine through the New Year provided they don't freeze or you don't sit them next to the stove. The fridge is fine if you have room for them, but otherwise some cool dark nook (near where you keep your wine) is perfect. Buy a wedge or two of Brie and stick them in the cheese drawer.

When people stop by unexpectedly--and they will--slice the apple, remove the rind from the Brie and slice it. Arrange slices of Brie on top of the apples, sprinkle with cracked pepper and (if you have it) some chopped fresh rosemary. Stick this under the broiler for 1-2 minutes until it gets gooey. Using red and green apples in combination adds a festive note but it is not required. Slide it all onto a cutting board or platter, and feel like Martha Stewart only more so. (full disclosure: this recipe is from the February 2007 Bon Appetit, but for some daft reason it is not online)

And if you buy one of those Christmas-tree shaped rosemary topiaries at Trader Joe's you can use it as a decoration and prune it for appetizers throughout the holiday season with no problem. As an added bonus, you will also have enough fresh rosemary to make the Barefoot Contessa's fabulous rosemary roasted cashews as often as you need to, which are perfect for munching with spicy red wine and can be made ahead and stored in a tin to get you through the holidays. Be forewarned: hide the tin or the nuts will be gone in 12 hours as they are addictive.

With this ooey-gooey-warm-comforting and amazingly quick dish, serve a buttery chardonnay to pick up the apple flavors and meld seamlessly into the creamy Brie. You could use your lightly-oaked chardonnay from HFAW #3 (Takeout), or look for a bottling like the one I had from the recently launched Robert Skalli South of France line. Skalli is the man behind Napa Valley's St.-Supery, and he is now bottling juice from his home country for the US market. I received a sample of the 2005 Robert Skalli Chardonnay and thought it had good QPR. (suggested retail price $19.50; I haven't seen it on any on-line sites yet, but keep your eyes peeled for it) The grapes for this wine were grown in the Languedoc, and the juice saw 6 months in new French oak. It had abundant apple flavors and aromas that emerged as soon as you pulled the cork, and there was a nice creaminess on the palate. This wine was very well-balanced between the fruit, the crisp acidity, and the creamy oak so it was a perfect match for this appetizer.

Of course, you needn't wait for guests to devour brie, apples, and a nice chardonnay. We had it one afternoon this past week just to celebrate the end of a day of work and the beginning of a nice evening. Sometimes the best "guests" to treat to an afternoon warm-up like this are those who are already in the house!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Gifts for Wine Lovers

'Tis the season for gift giving, and if you're looking for gifts that might appeal to the wine lovers in your life I've got some seasonal tips for you to help you out. Of course, if you are the wine lover in question, you can send this link to everybody that you know in hopes that you will get some goodies! These go beyond the bottles of wine, glasses, or the decanter that might be the first thing you think of, and hopefully at least one of these suggestions will fit your budget and the personality of your intended recipient.

For Generous Wine Lovers: Hopefully, that's most of us, and if you are often on the receiving end of bottles of wine from a wine-loving friend, you may want to consider giving them this great box of Wine Lovers Gift Tags ($12.95). Now, this may seem like an odd present but if you know someone who is always giving wine, then chances are they are usually ransacking the cabinets for something to put the wine in that makes it seem like a genuine gift. This box of tags (with nice sayings, and ribbon to tie them to the bottle) will be a welcome addition to their wine accoutrements.

For the Wine Lover Who is Also a Foodie: I'd get them a copy of Sid Goldstein's The Wine Lover's Cookbook ($17.50 from Jessica's Biscuit) and wrap it with this great clipboard ($28). Perfect for organizing shopping lists, menus, recipes, and the all important wine lists, the clipboard and cookbook duo will become Ground Zero for dinner parties for years to come. Goldstein's book is a food and wine classic, but it's relatively hard to find so it's a good option for holiday gifts.

For the Wine Lover Who Is Just Getting Started:
I received a copy of Courtney Cochran's Hip Tastes: The Fresh Guide to Wine (Penguin Books, $18.95) from the publisher and it hooked me immediately. Cochran has a breezy style that never intimidates, yet she gives seriously good wine advice. In the book you will find succinct overviews of classic varietals (always key information), suggestions for wine and food matches for sushi and other favorite foods, and fantastic tips to help you get the most of wine vacations and touring wineries. I don't think there's a better book out there that's so approachable yet covers so much ground with everything from terroir to restaurant wine lists getting a thoughtful treatment. If the person you're buying for is not only just starting out but also under 30, this book would be perfect. If you are at all doubtful, check out her blog, Hip Tastes. I think it will convince you that she's got the right stuff.

For the Wine Lover Who Seemingly Has Everything: First, this is just not possible. Second, they probably don't have a subscription to Decanter, the UK's pre-eminent wine publication. For $50, you can get them a subscription to a magazine that will give them a very different view on the world of wine. The current issue includes book reviews, an excerpt from Jay McInerney's Hedonist in the Cellar, Bourdeaux "outsiders," sparkling alternatives to champagne, a run-down of Argentinian reds, and a panel tasting of 2004 California Cabernet Sauvignons. This is a gift that shows that you were thinking outside the box when it came to gifts this year, and will give them a year's worth of reading pleasure. It will also give them the opportunity to say, "Well, Michael Broadbent thinks that ..." when at the next gathering of wine geeks.

For the Wine Lover Who Travels: If your wine lover travels a lot, lugging a stack of wine reading with them may not be the ideal thing. So what about a subscription to Jancis Robinson's Purple Pages? Robinson is hands down one of the best wine writers in the world, and she has embraced online media enthusiastically (all the while producing the latest edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine). For $139, your wine lover will get online access to all the information on Robinson's site--all her tasting notes, insider tips, access to what is described as "the most courteous wine forum on the web," and the Oxford Companion to Wine's 3rd edition. Every road warrior will appreciate being able to log in anywhere and get fresh articles and insights into wine every week.

You may want to also check my post from last year on gifts for wine lovers, which includes some additional tips, and my series of wine book reviews. Happy shopping, and happy gifting!

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Warm Red for Cold Winter Nights

It's cold outside. But that's no reason for it not to be warm inside, especially considering that this is the holiday season. The holidays mean family, and when my parents came to visit me it was clear that we had to open a bottle of Escafeld wine.

Escafeld Vineyards are owned by Steve and Elsbeth Wetherill. Elsbeth's family is from Liverpool--the same UK city that brought you the Beatles and my mom--and they owned a pub that mom is pretty sure my grand-dad and uncle sometimes went to for their pints. (I think her exact words were "If there was a pub there, your grand-dad and Uncle Percy were surely in it.") My mom read my review of the Escafeld Petite Verdot a while back, and she was dying to try a bottle from Escafeld. So we made spaghetti and meatballs, and opened up the Wetherill's zin.

What a good decision! The 2003 Escafeld Zinfandel is an outstanding big, brawny zinfandel that reaches out and enfolds you. ($19.99, WineQ) When we first opened it there was a tiny bit of sulfurous funkiness but we waited 20 minutes for it to come up to the right temperature from the cellar and the smell blew off entirely. In its place were aromas of candied cherry, plum, cedar, and a hint of cocoa as the wine opened up and warmed up. Flavors of plum, dark chocolate-dipped cherry, black tea, and cracked black pepper kept this wine interesting right until the last dregs. Fine-grained tannins kept is smooth and easy to drink, too. This was a lovely, complex wine that had no alcoholic heat despite its high (15.5%) alcohol levels. Excellent QPR at under $20, too.

If you have a meal in your future that involves friends, family, hearty Italian food, a roast, or even some turkey, consider inviting the Wetherills' wine to the party. It is a great warm red for these cold winter nights.