Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fancy Dinner for 6? The $44 Cameron Hughes Wine Solution

June is all about big celebrations: graduation, Father's Day, weddings. What this means for many of us is that we are hosting, and attending, more than our usual share of fancy dinners. This month, lots of us are trying to figure out how to stretch our food and wine budgets to accommodate special meals with grandparents, visiting relatives, dads, grads, brides, grooms, and in-laws. (photo by Ian Britton of

What you need is a little help from Cameron Hughes and your local Costco. With them on your side, you can serve each guest 3 glasses of wine (one sparkling, one white, and one red) for $44--total. Yes, these will be normal size glasses, not a huge beaker full of wine like the picture to the right. If you want to serve your guests more generous pours, buy two bottles of each. At $88 dollars for 6 bottles, it's a steal. I received these bottles as samples from the winery, but I would (and did ) happily pay retail for them after I went through the samples. This was my first Cameron Hughes experience. Trust me, it won't be my last.

People can get a bit sniffy about Cameron Hughes wine, and make comparisons between them and Trader Joe's "Two Buck Chuck." I've had both. There is no comparison. These are wines with much more complexity and finesse. The reason? Like a European negociant, Hughes buys his grapes in lots from top-notch growers who have a surplus, and then in most cases he bottles wines made just from that lot to preserve their unique characteristics and distinctive flavors. Sometimes the production totals are relatively small--a few hundred cases--so you have to move quickly to get your stash before they're sold out. To bring them to you at the best possible price, Hughes makes his wines available directly from the winery or from Costco, cutting out the markups that typically go to distributors. And, Cameron Hughes is the first US winery to be carbon neutral, so his wine is good and good for the environment, too.

Here's how to have your own fancy sit-down dinner and serve three excellent QPR wines that taste like they set you back $100 but will cost only $44.

Before dinner, serve your guests the NV Cameron Hughes Lot 25 ($21). Packaged in a classy bottle with platinum wrappings, it's labeled NV for technical reasons having to do with dosage, even though the vast majority of this wine came from grapes picked in 1998. The wine's age gives it wonderful richness of color and and a biscuity taste, as well as a refined texture from its tiny bubbles. Flavors of apple and a round nuttiness made this a hair shy of brut, in my opinion, but this was perfect for me since I like a sparkling wine that has some soft edges to it. Made from equal parts of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes picked in the Carneros AVA, this is a nice step up if you're used to drinking the standard non-vintage $20 sparklers. And it's good with cheese, guacamole, shrimp cocktail--a very versatile food wine.

Try serving a first course of asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto, or a leafy green salad with sherry vinaigrette and warm goat cheese rounds. The 2006 Cameron Hughes Lot 26 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($11; $8.99 at my local Costco) would be a perfect partner for either of these dishes. I like sauvignon blancs fermented in stainless steel like this one, and I really love the relatively low 12.8% alc./vol. It was a textbook example of a Marlborough sauvignon blanc, with a pale, translucent color and tangy aromas of cut grass and citrus rind. The flavors are predominantly white grapefruit with a bit of lemon, but the grass notes are reintroduced in the juicy finish. This makes it a perfect summer sipper and for about $9 a bottle, it is no wonder that every time I go to the local Costco there are fewer and fewer cases to be had.

For the main event, many of us will head straight for the beef. Steaks, roasts, and London Broils are favorites at fancy dinners. Of course, this kind of main course demands a rich and complex wine, like the 2005 Cameron Hughes Lot 29 Lake County Meritage ($11; $8.99 at my local Costco). Poured into a decanter and tasted blind, most drinkers would think it was a young cru bourgeois from Bordeaux. Made in a restrained Old World style, the blend contains cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc. This wine had abundant tannins, but it drank very well after 30 minutes in the decanter, and even better later. It was dark plum in color, with aromas of pencil lead, herbs, blackberry, and currant. As the wine bloomed, there were flavors of eucalyptus, more herbs, plum, and blackberry. I suspect this will age into a beauty. Sadly, Lot 29 is already sold out at the winery, but it may be available to you locally--there are still a few cases at my Costco in the LA area, and I ran out yesterday and bought 3 more bottles to stick in the cellar. If you can't find it, you might want to snap up one of their other new releases, like the 2005 Cameron Hughes Lot 34 Rutherford Cabernet ($14; $11.99 at my local Costco and now also cooling its heels in my cellar).

All three wines represented excellent QPR, with their textbook varietal characteristics, yummy flavor profiles, and low cost. These wines tasted special, and sitting back and sipping a distinctive 9-year-old sparkling wine with my guests that retails for around $20 makes me happy. And if you're reading this blog, it will probably make you happy, too. We are the people for whom Cameron Hughes makes wines: consumers who know enough to know they don't want oak chip tea bags in their chardonnay, but don't necessarily want to pay $30 or more for a bottle to drink with dinner.

If you missed your chance to get Lot 29, be sure that you don't miss any future releases by signing up for their email newsletters. I seem never to be in my Costco when the Cameron Hughes Wines arrive--and they do go quickly--but the newsletters tell you specifically which Costcos are receiving which wines, and they let you know those that are available on the website for you non-Costco types. I've got a few more bottles to share with you over the next few weeks (including a Chardonnay and a Syrah-Mourvedre blend), so stay tuned for more Cameron Hughes reviews.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

5 Reasons You Should Be Reading Winery Blogs

Do you read winery blogs? If not, you should be. I know, I know: we all have to much to do/read/see/ watch on TV, but if you're a wine lover this is your best opportunity to get information straight from the vineyard, delivered to you by the folks that are actually making the wine you want to drink. (photo by Ian Britton of

Many of the winery blogs I read regularly are extremely well-written, lively, and engaging--which is something to marvel at, considering the fact these folks are blogging in their "spare time" between helping to manage the vineyard, making the wine, averting tasting room disasters, going on public relations junkets, and attending marketing meetings.

So here are the 5 reasons you should read winery blogs, with links to blogs that I think are particularly good.

1. Reading winery blogs dramatically increases your knowledge of winemaking. If you've ever wondered what malolactic fermentation is, or wanted to see a punch-down that doesn't take place in Vegas, then winery blogs are for you. I've learned so much from Jason Haas's Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog, and all the information is delivered in a clear, non-technical fashion with great pictures. (Jason: if you ever leave the wine biz, which I hope you don't, you are a born teacher!) I suscribe so I can keep up with all that's going on in the vineyards, but if you want to learn about winemaking, the impact of weather on grapes, and how work gets done in an organic vineyard, this blog's for you.

2. Winery blogs provide incontrovertible proof that good wine is the result of a long and thoughtful process, not just a marketing strategy. Josh Hermsmeyer, of the new Capozzi Family Vineyards that he started in the Russian River Valley with his wife Candace, has given us a peak into not only the physical work that makes a great winery, but the mental work, as well. His blog, PinotBlogger, has posted on everything from designing their tasting room to the most lucid discussion of Pinot Noir clones I've ever read to how they came up with the name. If you've secretly yearned for a vineyard of your own, Josh's blog brings that experience to you and gives you an awful lot to think about before you take the plunge.

3. Winery blogs demonstrate that wine is made by real people--or at least it should be. This is the best reason, I think. I love getting to know the people behind the wines that I drink. It makes the whole wine experience richer and more satisfying to get to know the people who make you so happy after a hell of a day at work. And how many of us live within driving distance of any--never mind all--of our favorite wineries. Whether it's folks brandishing chickens at Twisted Oak's blog El Bloggo Torcido, or the more sedate days and nights (ok, except for the lost delivery truck) at the Dover Canyon blog, winery bloggers like Jeff "El Jefe" Stai and Mary Baker paint some great portraits of the characters--human, animal, and mechanical--that are involved in making some terrific wines.

4. Winery blogs remind you that good wine should never be taken for granted. Amy Lillard and Matt King upended their lives in Berkeley and bought a farm in Castillon du Gard where they grow grapes, have converted a farm house into a winery, and are making some great wine after lots of hard work. Reading Amy's blog at La Gramiere reminds us all that wine takes time, effort, passion, and love. So, too, does Mike and Helen's blog It's My Vineyard, which focuses on growing grapes and making wine in the Regnie district of the Beaujolais. All the highs and lows of life are captured in farming and winemaking, and that's why it's so special.

5. Winery blogs help to make a personal connection between you, the winemakers, the grape growers, and the wine you are drinking. Who could imagine that two women with roots to the English city of Liverpool, would both be wine fanatics, live in California, and blog? Sometimes the unimaginable happens in the blogosphere, as I discovered when I started reading Elsbeth Wetherill's blog, the Vineyard Diary. She and her husband Steve were wine pioneers in the San Antonio Valley AVA in Monterey, and Escafeld makes the best Petit Verdot I've ever tasted (stay tuned for my thoughts on their Merlot and Zinfandel). Also in Monterey County, Annette Hoff of blogs about her work at Cima Collina, where she draws together grapes grown by superb Monterey growers and crafts them into distinct and distinguished wines. Reading her blog makes me feel like I know all about the growers, the grapes, and the folks who put it all together in the winemaking. It's these personal connections to wine that turn a beverage into a life-long obsession--at least for some of us.

I'll be putting up a new set of links in my never-ending side bar to help you find these great blogs more easily in the coming weeks in case you lose track of this post. But why not subscribe to a few winery blog feeds or bookmark these sites now? And if I've missed your favorite winery blog, please let me know by leaving a comment so that I can include them in the list of links.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Catavino's May Virtual Tasting: Albarino

Catavino's May Virtual Tasting theme is Albarino, the white grape that is planted abundantly in the Rias Baixas region of Spain in Galicia, and is increasingly popular with US consumers and grape growers. How to explain this white's growing fan club? It's an excellent food wine, with great balance between ripe fruit flavors and refreshing acidity. It's also very affordable, although I have a sinking feeling that may change as US consumers gain some familiarity with it.

Albarino has a long history in Spain, and albarino wines made in the traditional fashion emphasized the mineral qualities of the grape along with its acidity and fruit. Modern growers and winemakers are concocting more fruit-forward wines to appeal to the majority of 21st century drinkers who seem to prefer that style. So for the Catavino Virtual Tasting I decided to get two albarinos--one made in the traditional style, the other in a more modern, fruit-forward style--and compare them. We had folks over for drinks and appetizers by the pool and I served some serrano ham, bread sticks, olives, cold peel-and-eat shrimp with cocktail sauce, and even some tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole. Then we started sipping. While we had a definite favorite among the two Albarinos we tasted, both represented excellent QPR, something I've grown to expect and enjoy from Spanish wines.

First we tasted an albarino wine made in the traditional style, the 2005 Pablo Padin Albarino Segrel (Chronicle Wine Cellar, $13.95; available at other merchants for around $15). This wine had white stone fruits, apple, and pear in perfect balance with stony, mineral, and herbal notes. While the wine had lovely, food-friendly acidity it was not all harsh or sharp on the tongue. It was especially good with the shrimp and the olives, since it seemed to pick out the brininess of the shellfish and the fresh greenness of the herb-infused olives. I liked the warm peach aromas when the bottle was first opened, and the way these led to a dry, refreshing flavor profile. This wine was most people's favorite, and we agreed that it didn't taste like any other wine we'd ever had--it was full of distinctive albarino varietal characteristics.

Our next bottle was an albarino made in the modern style: the 2005 Martin Codax Albarino Burgans (Chronicle Wine Cellar, $9.95; available at many merchants for $10-$20). This wine will definitely be easier to find than the Pablo Padin, and it has a label that fits in with all the other wine labels in the store. This wine was much more fruit forward, with grapefruit, apple, and peach aromas and abundant fruity flavors. There were notes of flowers in the aromas, too, but very little minerality among its flavors. Like the first albarino we had, this had nice acidity, but overall the wine wasn't as balanced between acidity/fruit/minerality as the first wine. Most of us felt this was not as distinctive as the Pablo Padin, and could be mistaken for other dry white wines.

If you want to explore Albarino wines more, I found a great podcast on Albarino wines at the Remarkable Palate Podcast. This podcast was made in conjunction with a tasting of wines made by 19 producers, and lasts just under an hour, so it's a good option for listening to during your commute if you are intrigued by this varietal and want to get to know it better. It included a lot of discussion of the varietal characteristics of the grape, and a very lucid overview of food pairing for this wine. Experts suggested that Albarino would be good with Indian food, which I would agree with now that I've had a few more of them--especially seafood curries.

Thanks once again to Catavino's Gabriella Opaz and Ryan Opaz for hosting this event. If you'd like to see what other people have been drinking this month as they learn more about albarino, check out their forum where you will find over 2 dozen posts and counting. And if you've had an albarino this month, you still have a few days to leave your impressions of the experience over in the forum. I'll post the June theme as soon as it's announced if you'd like to join in the fun next month.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Winery Watch: Peachy Canyon Vineyards

An ongoing series of Friday posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with all of these vineyards and winemakers--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. To read previous posts in the series, click here.

In 1988 Nancy and Doug Beckett purchased some zinfandel grapes from Benito Dusi's famous vineyards and made them into the first ever Peachy Canyon Wine. This bottling put them on the zinfandel map, and they've been at the viticultural center of the growing popularity of this varietal ever since. (photo courtesy of Peachy Canyon)

Peachy Canyon is primarily known as a zinfandel winery with 50 acres of the grape under cultivation. But Peachy Canyon also produces petite sirah (5 acres under cultivation at various vineyards), cabernet sauvignon (35 acres under cultivation), and even merlot and some whites varietals like viognier (13 acres under cultivation). This has taken their case production from a small, 500-case level to a massive 46,000 case level. Still, the Beckett family retains the ownership and management of the winery, and oversees the wine making. Today, Nancy and Doug's son Jake supervises the vineyards, and their son Josh leads the winemaking efforts. (photo of Jake, Josh, and Doug courtesy of Peachy Canyon)

Through the careful management of their estate vineyards, and their partnership with other growers in the Paso Robles area like Benito Dusi, the Becketts have found a way to foster and develop the unique flavor profiles of various area microclimates in their wines. From the cool, marine influences and nutrient-rich soil found in the Old Schoolhouse Vineyard, to the extreme temperature fluctuations and clay loam of the Snow Vineyard, Peachy Canyon's vineyards put a special stamp on each of the wines that they produce, which makes each special and distinct as you will see from the notes below.

If you're in Paso Robles wine country, be sure to step into their main tasting room located in a historic 1886 schoolhouse. Surrounded by estate vineyards, old oak trees, and places to picnic with a bottle of Peachy Canyon wine, you'll be in the perfect place to contemplate how important place and family is in this vineyard story.

Here are my tasting notes of Peachy Canyon Wines I've bought recently, or tasted at the Family Winemakers Event in Pasadena in March 2007. Clicking on the highlighted name will take you to an internet wine site where you might be able to find a merchant near you who stocks the wine, or to the Peachy Canyon online store. Prices listed here are the winery's suggested retail or the price I paid for it; as always the prices you find near you might be higher or lower.

2004 Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Westside ($12.99, Costco). An outstanding zin, with jammy aromas of blackberry and huckleberry and notes of sweet cedar. The flavors are rich with huckleberry, cedar, and black pepper. A tinge of herbal eucalyptus enters into the finish of this wine. This is sold out at the winery, but you can still find it on the shelves at many retailers. Excellent QPR.

2005 Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Westside ($19): The latest release of their excellent value zin, with 15% alc/vol. Peppery blackberry aromas and flavors have a hint of jamminess to them from the ripeness of the fruit. A rich and round wine. Excellent QPR.

2005 Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Old School House ($30). This wine is just about to be released to the public, and it was my favorite at the tasting. More restrained and complex in style with aromas and flavors of red fruits and spice held in nice balance. A lovely spicy finish, with notes of cocoa and coffee, finishes the wine. 14% alc/vol. Very Good QPR.

2005 Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Especial ($40): This special wine is blended from a variety of the highest quality grapes from the estate vineyards. It is a warm, balanced blend that has black fruits and rich spices in the aromas and palate. 14.5% alc/vol. Good QPR.

2005 Peachy Canyon Zinfandel Snow Vineyard ($30): This huge zin comes from the warmest of the Peachy Canyon vineyards, the Snow Vineyard. Here you will be struck by the jammy blackberry aromas and flavors, as well as warm cedar notes that accent all that fruit. 15.5% alc/vol. Good QPR.

I also had a 2006 Peachy Canyon Viognier that was highly aromatic and balanced, with floral, honeydew, and litchi aromas and flavors. I can't find out any information about this wine, so cannot tell you when it will be released or what it will be selling for, but if you see it and love viognier, buy it. It's good stuff, too!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Entering the Imperfect World of Wine Fridges

Alas, it has come to this.

I have outgrown my closet, my windowseat, and am tired of moving 4 cases of wine up and down I-5 twice a year along with 2 humans and 2 dogs in an effort to keep my wines cool.

I had no idea that shopping for a wine fridge would be even worse. What a nightmare.

We are a space-challenged household with an uninsulated garage. There is not a wine refrigerator made that holds enough wine to warrant the purchase and will work in an uninsulated garage for under $3000 --and that doesn't include shipping.

Then there are the energy costs. I've seen An Inconvenient Truth. I don't want to contribute any more to the problems of global warming, even if it does make England capable of growing Mediterranean grapes with ease. The only--and I mean only--EnergyStar compliant wine fridge I could find was this Vestfrost from Denmark, which sells at either Costco or Home Depot for under $1000. So it's either this or the Vinotemp 52-bottle job that they sell at Costco for under $600. Either of these items will go into my home office because they are too big to go anywhere else. (Bose noise-canceling headsets to block out the sound of refrigeration are extra, my friends)

The problem is even the Vestfrost only holds 106 bottles. Now, this is not terribly bad, and if I buy said fridge I won't have any money to buy wine for months on end so that will take care of some of the ovecrowding. But I just know that I'm going to need another one before long...

If you have bought a cheaper wine fridge, or taken the plunge on either the Vinotemp or the Vestfrost or some other brand and have a tip for me, please leave a comment and let me know how it all worked out.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Honey of a Wine

I love white dessert wines, never more so than in summer when their honeyed color, aromas, and flavors seem to contain the essence of the season. And, most white dessert wines (unlike ports or late harvest zinfandels) have relatively low alcohol levels, which is always welcome at the end of a meal, or on a hot day.

Recently I found a honey of a dessert wine made from muscat canelli grapes. The 2003 Robert Pecota Muscat Canelli Moscato d'Andrea ($11.99/375ml, Beverages & More) is perhaps the best value in US dessert wine I've ever had. They've been producing this wine for over 20 years, and it's no wonder. The wine is pale gold color, rather than the intense golden color of a sauternes or late harvest Sauvignon Blanc. Opening the wine I knew I was going to love it because of its pronounced aromas of honey and beeswax. Sipping the wine revealed a satiny texture, and as the wine warmed up there were lovely scents of honeysuckle, orange blossom, and lemon. These were echoed in the wine's flavors, and accompanied by a bit of rich creme fraiche roundness and tanginess in the finish. The wine's honeyed notes give it the illusion of botyritis, even though that is not present in this wine. Not overpoweringly sweet, and just 11.2% alc./vol., it is outstanding in its complexity. At a little over $10, this wine certainly qualifies as having excellent QPR. This wine is perfect to sip on its own, or pair it with some sliced peaches or a few simple cookies, such as madeleines.

Robert Pecota Winery has long been based in Calistoga, but the owners "downsized" in the summer of 2006 by selling their estate vineyard to Jess Jackson's Artisan label and moving to nearby Bennett Lane where they will continue to produce wines under the Pecota label. As the grapes for this wine come from the Solari Vineyard in Calistoga, I don't think the move will make a difference to production in this case. Here's looking to another 20 years of this delicious dessert wine.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

WBW #34: Washington Cabernet Sauvignon

More headlines from the world of Wine Blogging Wednesday: Catie at Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine will be our host for the 34th edition of this online tasting event.

Her brief is simple: Washington State Cabernet Sauvignon. Drink some by June 13, and then let Catie know on that Wednesday what the link is to your site so that she can post details in the roundup. If you've never done a Wine Blogging Wednesday before, this is your chance. I defy you to walk into any supermarket or liquor store and NOT find a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle or Columbia Crest cabernet. Of course, Catie would like us to try to find something different if we are up to the challenge. But if you're not, either of these bottlings will do!

See you back here on June 13!

WBW #33 Roundup: Languedoc-Roussillon Wines

If you're looking for a good value bottle of wine, there are links to reviews of more than 40 mid-priced wines ($15-$30) from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France over at Doktor Weingolb.

Marcus, aka Dr. Weingolb, set a terrrific theme that allowed bloggers to review a wide variety of juicy reds and some intriguing whites, too. It looks like the Minervois showed particularly well in this blind tasting, as did the Cotes du Roussillon. In general, the entire region is one to explore if you are a budget-conscious wine buyer.

Big thanks go to Marcus for providing such good background material to the region prior to the event, and for getting the roundup online in short order. And thanks to all the participants who have given us such a range of wines to try in the upcoming weeks.

Drinking Italian at Enoteca Drago

We took a friend from out of town to dinner the other night, and because she's an avowed foodie who likes good wine, we decided to take her to Enoteca Drago in Beverly Hills, a wine bar and trattoria-style restaurant that promises to bring a little bit of Italy into your life. Conveniently located on a relatively quiet street (read: not Rodeo Drive), Enoteca Drago aims to be a comfortable place to stop in for a quick bite and a glass of wine when you're shopping, as well as to provide you with comforting food for a full dinner on the town.

After looking at the menu we decided to start with some small plates from their "Enoteca" menu, followed by pasta. The small plates were, in my mind, the highlight of the evening. We had some fresh sliced prosciutto that just melted in your mouth ($8), and some fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta that were perfectly prepared and very tasty ($12). We tried a variety of pastas, including a spelt spaghetti with fresh vegetables ($17.50), spaghetti carbonara ($13.50), and malloreddus with meat ragu ($15). There was still room for dessert, and with options like coconut flan, gelato, and affogato with biscotti there was something for everyone. My only complaint with the food was that the service felt rushed, with no room to breathe between courses and as soon as you finished your dessert the check was in front of you. The waiter didn't even ask if we wanted coffee.

While the food was perfectly good, and in the case of the small plates excellent, the problem came with the wine. You knew I was going to say that, right? One of the great draws of Enoteca Drago are the flights of Italian wine that they offer. Typically, you get three generous 2.5 oz. pours of different wines for between $15 and $30 depending on which wines are included. We each had a flight of medium bodied whites, and a flight of light-medium bodied reds. They came out with a placemat "cheat sheet" that gave some--though not all--the details for the wines tasted, i.e. the vintage and the type of wine, but not the maker. What's up with that? I insisted on keeping the wine list until we were through out of sheer determination to know what I was drinking. My favorites were the 2005 Mauro Sebaste Arneis, which was crisp and refreshing, and the 2003 Tenuta le Querce Aglianico del Vulture "Il Viola," which was like drinking plush red velvet.

The sad thing was, we were served a corked bottle of 2005 Villa Sparina Gavi di Gavi. I told the waiter it was corked. My friend told the waiter it was corked. He seemed uninterested, and said, "oh, you don't like it?" We expanded our treatment of what "corked" meant: it was mildewy; the wine was flawed; "there is something wrong with this wine and you should tell the person pouring it." We returned two full glasses, and received no replacements, no we're sorry, no acknowledgment from anyone that this had even occurred. Here's my tip: if you have a wine bar, and want to serve flights at the tables, TRAIN YOUR WAITSTAFF ABOUT WINE. There's only so much of the evening your guests want to spend trying to sort out a 2.5 oz pour of wine. After 3 minutes of effort, I simply gave up. Probably the wrong decision, but there you have it.

You can see sample menus by clicking over to their website. Unfortunately, there are no wine lists online, so you can't do a pre-meal browse and see what's on offer. If you are shopping in Beverly Hills and want some small plates and a glass of wine, stop in and see what you think. For me, though, this is one of those restaurants that could be a great restaurant for wine lovers, but falls short by not training its staff on what a wine lover wants from the experience.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pizza Wine

Most weekends, Fred Koeppel has a homemade pizza. He shares his culinary successes, and his wine pairings, with his readers over on his blog, Bigger than Your Head, and his last picture was so mouth-watering that I just had to have pizza. Mine was "home assembled" rather than homemade, from pizza dough, sauce, and toppings I picked up at Trader Joe's. That was the easy part. Then there was picking wine to go with it. As you probably know, pizza can be a pairing problem. Not any old red will do. Ever had cabernet with pizza? Yech. Too oaky, too tanic, too huge. Sangiovese is a natural partner for pasta with red sauces or pizzas, but it can be difficult to find inexpensive sangiovese that strikes a balance between its acidity and its richer flavors.

If there is a perfect pizza wine (read: one that's easy to find, easy to pay for, and easy to drink) it's the Falesco Vitiano from Umbria. I recently had the 2004 Falesco Vitiano ($9.99, Beverages & More) and it had excellent QPR. Made from a blend of sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot, it was deep, dark ruby in color. Aromas of earth and herbs give this wine a distinctly Old World character. These give way to flavors of cherries, chocolate, and eucalyptus. More earthy notes round out the finish and keep the wine grounded. All in all, the fruit is of secondary importance to the other abundant flavors and aromas. I found it exceptionally complex for a wine at this price point.

In the past I've highlighted this wine's usefulness as a party wine. But this is also the spaghetti and pizza wine that you've been looking for. It is widely available, insanely inexpensive, and yummy. Your takeout pizza will probably set you back more than the wine will. I've had the past 2 vintages of this wine, which were consistently good although not quite as good as this, and the 2005 was recently released. Drinkers over at CellarTracker! report that it's pretty darn good, too. My only caution is that this label can have a higher than usual incidence of bottle variation--that aggravating tendency for bottles to taste slightly different despite coming from the same vintage. Bottle variation is the price we pay for drinking something as vibrant and alive as wine. Don't want any bottle variation? I'm afraid it's Coke for you--and more Falesco Vitiano for the rest of us.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Winery Watch: Twisted Oak Winery

An ongoing series of Friday posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with all of these vineyards and winemakers--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. To read previous posts in the series, click here.

Some people have entirely too much fun at their work.

They do not work in cubicles--they work at a place where a sign proudly proclaims "Adults at Play." (picture courtesy of Twisted Oak). They do not commute long hours on Los Angeles area freeways--they scoot down country lanes in Calaveras County. Instead of corporate cocktail parties they attend BBQs where folks dress up in pirate gear or western outfits, brandish rubber chickens, and ask if you are twisted enough to join the Twisted Few. They do not write up mission statements that no one will read full of words no one can pronounce. They've given those joys up for wine labels that feature punctuation marks instead of letters of the alphabet, and coming up with clever t-shirt slogans. You have a job that sucks the joy out of life at Mindless Thoughtless Corporation X. They work at Twisted Oak Winery, and they produce #!&* fine wine that puts some of the joy back into life.

Named after the venerable California Blue Oak on the property, Twisted Oak specializes in Rhone and Spanish varietals. (photo courtesy of Twisted Oak) Grenache, Tempranillo, Verdelho, and Viognier are just some of the grapes that Twisted Oak makes into wine. These wines are not just New World knock-offs of Old World bottlings, however. Each one has the stamp of the Gold Rush region of California where they are grown: they are a bit more adventurous in their flavor profiles, have a bit more backbone in terms of acidity and structure, and are more fun to drink as a result.

Twisted Oak grows their own grapes at vineyards in Vallecito and Sheep Ranch Road in Murphys, CA. But they also work in partnership with other Calaveras County growers, including Tanner and Dalton Vineyards, and those in other parts of the state like the Silvaspoons Vineyards in Galt and Sumu Kaw Vineyard in El Dorado County. Twisted Oak believes in the fruit grown in these often overlooked viticultural regions of California, and one taste of their wine will make you a believer, too. But they also know that good fruit benefits from careful treatment, so after the grapes are harvested they process them in their nifty gravity feed winery. This ensures that the juice is extracted gently and the maximum flavor is left in the juice, where it belongs.

One of the most remarkable things about the Twisted Oak Winery--apart from the wine--is the way that they have welcomed their customers as friends. This can be attributed in part to the fact that Twisted Oak is a pretension-free zone, where they poke fun at each other, their wine, us, and the wider world of wine enthusiasts with devilish good humor. Jeff Stai, known throughout the Blogosphere as "El Jefe," keeps us all up to date on the doings at the winery through his blog, El Bloggo Torcido. His entries show that these are winemakers we can imagine spending the evening with--just look at the picture above of the Twisted Oak bunch at the Hospice du Rhone Saturday BBQ. (photo courtesy of El Bloggo Torcido). Aren't these the kind of people you want to buy your wine from?

While Twisted Oak folks might be lots of fun, don't let their silliness fool you. These are talented winemakers who take a lot of care with the wine that they produce. I've been struck in my tastings of Twisted Oak wines by the balance that they are able to strike between ripe, lush fruit and food-friendly acidity. What follows are some of the wines from their portfolio that I've had recently. This is by no means all the wines that they make, so you might want to visit the Twisted Oak online store, or head over to WineQ which has a roster of their wines including some no longer available through the winery. Prices listed below are the recommended retail price from Twisted Oak or the price I paid for them through WineQ; as always you may be able to get these wines at higher or lower (lucky you) prices. Detailed "Geek Sheets" are available for each and every wine listed here, if you want to know what food goes with your wine, or how much brix or volatile acidity it has.

2005 Twisted Oak %@#$! ($23.99, WineQ) Also known as "Potty-Mouth White," I had it with some of John Potter's crab cakes I pulled off his blog Brim to the Dregs and it was a great pairing. This wine is a Hermitage-style blend of Roussanne and Marsanne that represents stunning value. I dare you to try to find a Hermitage from the Rhone that delivers such fresh peach and pear aromas and flavors with a decided streak of minerality for this price. Earthy notes add complexity to the finish. Excellent QPR.

2005 Twisted Oak Viognier ($22) This is seriously good viognier, a textbook example of the aromas and flavors characteristic of the varietal: honeysuckle, jasmine, and orange blossom flowers; zippy citrus including lemon and an intriguing note of mandarin orange. The wine was also very well-balanced, with a slightly sweet impression when you first sipped it, and then refreshing acidity in the flavors. Excellent QPR.

2005 Twisted Oak Verdelho Silvaspoons ($15.99, Wine Q) Get this excellent, award-winning white while you can, as stocks are running low. It had soft aromas of peach and melon followed up by bright floral and citrus flavors to accompany the rounder peach/melon notes. Perfect with grilled fish, fish tacos, peel and eat shrimp—if it swims in the sea or crawls on the ocean floor, this is the wine to have with it! Excellent QPR.

2004 Twisted Oak Tempranillo ($24): This young tempranillo from Calaveras County grapes has lots of potential. All it needs is a bit more time in the bottle to settle down. Right now there is a pronounced spiciness to the wine, with good tannic structure and cherry fruit—the kind of wine that would perfect for BBQ and big steaks. But in another year or two I suspect that the fruit and spice will be a bit more integrated, the tannins a bit more subtle, and it will be even more fantastic. Buy it now while you can! Excellent QPR.

2005 Twisted Oak *%#&@! ($28) They may call this "Potty-Mouth Red", but it's really another beauty of a wine made from Calaveras County fruit. This soft Rhone-style red blend contains grenache, syrah, and mourvedre. Blueberries, black plum and alluring floral aromas are followed by black and blue fruit flavors that are bright and will pair well with food. Very good QPR.

If you're planning a trip to the Foothills this summer, be sure to stop into one of their two tasting rooms to try some of this excellent wine. I've had a chance to meet some of the Twisted Oak family, and I guarantee you will have a good time! In the meantime, consider joining the Twisted Few wine club, to get your hands on their wine (and maybe a rubber chicken, too...) at deep discounts, as well as procuring limited production wines like their new 2005 Torcido.

You and I might not be able to have much fun at work. But at least we can drink stuff made by those who clearly do.

Next Week: Peachy Canyon

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Taking a Virtual Winery Tour

I picked up a news story today about a website that hopes to make it easier for you to find out directly about your favorite wineries through a single portal. It gives you the opportunity to make a desktop trip through the vineyards of a particular region or to tour vineyards who bottle a particular wine style or grape. It's a great resource for those of us who have driving around to visit wineries in our summer holiday plans, since the information seems to be reliable and up-to-date. was founded in 2005 by Lloyd Benedict to provide consumers with information that would bring them closer to the folks who produce their wine. Currently, they have information on wineries from Arizona to Wyoming, and wineries are not charged any fee to sign up and have their information on the site. The site is growing now to include more interactive features, including virtual tasting rooms where you can browse through a winery's current offerings, check out their library wines, view photos, head directly to the winery's website, and see consumer ratings. In the future, Benedict will be launching a store that allows you to move to the next stage and actually purchase the wine you are interested in through

I spent a little bit of time on the site and right now it has good information, but very few customer ratings. So at present the site has lots of untapped potential, but it's unclear whether or how the wine 2.0 portion of the site will develop. If it does it will be reminiscent of AppellationAmerica with consumer input. With the retail outlet WineLibrary buying the wine 2.0 site Cork'd so that they can integrate a retail operation with consumer ratings, and other sites like WineQ and Domaine547 trying to link retail with interactive features in new ways, this integration of content and consumerism clearly seems to be the wave of the future.

The question that all of us have is will this work for consumers? I think one of the problems--and its one that WineQ has tried to address--is shipping. If I can find out about a wine that I think I'll like, and then pick it up at a local store, that's what I'll do in most cases because of the difficulties and costs associated with shipping wine. WineQ charges a monthly membership fee, and currently charges no money for ground shipping on orders $35 and over.'s press release hints that their virtual tasting room purchases will be discounted, which will also help to close the gap between local retail prices and a web purchase's associated shipping costs.

Click on over there if you've never visited their site. I like their winery focus, the "sneak peaks" they provide of wineries, and the site is easy to navigate. Take a virtual winery tour this afternoon when you're procrastinating at work and see what you think. It will be interesting to check back with the site in a year and see how it's developed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wine Blogging Wednesday #33: Mid-Priced Wines from the Midi

Welcome to Wine Blogging Wednesday #33, the online tasting event dreamed up by Lenn Thompson of Lenndevours. Today our host is Marcus, better known as Dr. Weingolb, who came up with a terrific theme: mid-priced wines from the Midi. The Midi is the region in Southern France that might be better known as the Languedoc-Roussillon. The region produces hearty reds and full-bodied whites at excellent prices, and Marcus wanted us to focus for this tasting on wines that retail between $15 and $30. I've had many Languedoc-Roussillon wines that were under $15, but this was only my second foray into the slightly higher priced bottlings.

For my entry I tried the 2004 Domaine Olivier Pithon Côtes du Roussillon Cuvée Laïs ($19.00, Red Carpet Wine; $26.99 from K & L). This was a very interesting wine made with grenache blanc, grenache gris, and macabeo (aka viura) grapes. While I've had other wines made from grenache blanc, I've never had anything made from the other two varietals. And the grenache blancs I've had have been very perfumed. In this wine, the aromas were almost entirely from the mineral kingdom, with the fruit aromas very muted and almost non-existant. Sips of this wine revealed more mineral flavors, along with stone, wet grass, and herbs. There was a slight tinge of apple, as well, but only a slight tinge.

Languedoc-Roussillon wines respond well to the flavors of the Mediterranean--seafood, herbs, tomatoes, spices, and vegetables--so we had this with a roast chicken, a green salad, and lots of accompaniments, like flat-breads, olives, tzatziki, red pepper spread, and hummus. The wine went well with these flavors, and the mineral notes sliced through the varied spices without any problem.

Like many winemakers of the region, Olivier Pithon practices biodynamics, the subject of an earlier Wine Blogging Wednesday hosted by Jack and Joanne at Fork and Bottle. These are a body of traditional viticultural practices recorded by Rudolf Steiner, which include enriching the soil with natural ingredients and steering clear of pesticides (for more information, click on either of the links above which have many useful resources). I felt that Pithon's biodynamic practices may help to explain the minerality of his wine, as this was a feature of biodynamic wines that many of us commented on in the previous WBW event.

This wine had good QPR, but I still felt like the lower price bottlings often have even more bang for the buck. Still, this experience confirms that I would never shy away from a Languedoc-Roussillon wine in the wine shop. I've yet to have one that I felt wasn't worth the price I paid for it, or one that didn't deliver lots of interesting flavor. I'm looking forward to what others found out about the region's wines. To check out the WBW #33 posts as they come in, you can click on the comments section to this post on Dr. Weingolb. Or, you can wait for the round-up. As usual, I'll post a link to that over here as soon as Marcus gets it up and running. Thanks to Marcus for a great theme, and I'll see you back here for WBW #34 next month.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Of Costcos and Cabernets

Not all Costcos are created equal. Just ask any wine lover.

Ask me if I buy wine at Costco and you are likely to hear a rant about the wine buyer at my local warehouse who buys pretty much Napa cabernet and chardonnay. I'm not alone in thinking this selection is uninspired, since you can go in October and back in April and basically the same wine will be sitting there groaning "buy me" in tired little wine voices. Give me even a sympathetic murmur and this rant will turn into a plaintive whine as I recall the wonders of the Vacaville, CA Costco where I used to shop and where a wide variety of interesting bottles could be had for a song. I will then rhapsodize about the Bordeaux selection at the Novato Costco off Highway 101, my requisite pit stop on the way to the Sonoma Coast. At this point my questioner has either wandered away out of boredom or is waiting for me to draw breath so they can ask about frozen chicken breasts/pallets of Perrier/vats of mixed nuts.

You see, Costco wine selections are determined by the store's buyer. Get a good buyer, you get good wine. Get a bad buyer--you get nothing but Chard and Cab and some very tired Australian shiraz that sits for 9 months. Finally, I asked the folks on Chowhound's wine board if they could tell me which LA area Costco has good wine. And the answer came, in the voice of Johnny Carson: beautiful downtown Burbank.

Thank you, Burbank Costco wine buyer, for stocking two islands of bins and mountains of pallets with really, really good wine. You know you're in good hands when the pallets do not contain case after case of Clos du Bois but instead case after case of Cotes du Rhone. And the bins--bliss. I scored the 2002 Domaine des Baumard Savennières ($17.29), which was recently included in Eric Asimov's 2nd mixed case of wine over at the New York Times. (FYI: they also had bottles of that great French chablis I reviewed recently). I also found two great values in Italian wines: the 2006 Bellenda Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene ($13.89) and the 2003 Castello di Volpaia Chianti Classico Riserva ($16.79). I couldn't resist the 2003 Château Ducluzeau ($12.79), a cru bourgeois wine from Bordeaux that hails from Listrac in the Medoc. And finally, for reasons I cannot fully justify given my reaction to the chardonnays at my local Costco, I picked up the 2003 Argyle Chardonnay ($8.99). My only excuse is that the grapes come from Oregon!

If you have a favorite Costco with a great wine buyer, leave a shout out in the comments section below.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Grenache and the Grill

Summer reds can be something of a challenge. The rich, tannic wines that you loved in February can be overpowering and taste bitter in the heat of summer. Of course, most folks like Zinfandel if they are slathering lots of spicy, tomatoey BBQ sauce onto their meats and veggies. But what if you are doing something more simple on the grill--like some lemon-herb chicken, some chicken apple sausages, or some lamb kebabs with veggies?

What you might prefer when you fire up the grill for these summer foods is a Grenache. The Grenache varietal is often used as a blending grape because its sweet, almost floral, blackberry fruit profile brings some much needed softness to more tannic grapes. On its own, however, the perfumed aromas and round fruit flavors are appealing in their own right, and never more so when prepared with some smoky, grilled food.

A good example of an affordable wine with very good QPR made exclusively with Grenache grapes is the NV Saint-Cosme Vin de Table Français Little James' Basket Press ($14.99, Mission Wines; available for $10-$12 from other merchants). Made from 100% Grenache grapes from the Rhone and the Languedoc-Roussillon region, it was inky purple in color, and had aromas of licorice and blackberry that were echoed in the flavors once this wine was poured and sipped. A dry, almost dusty and mineral-inflected finish added notes of herbs and even more licorice. Made by Louis Barruol of Chateau de St Cosme fame, this wine is not fined or filtered so expect a bit of sediment even with this young wine. This wine is also a good reminder that we don't have to be afraid of all non-vintage reds. Here the grapes were selected from several vintages in order to make a wine that was neither too fleshy, nor too dusty. I would recommend serving this and other 100% Grenache wines at cellar temperature, or even slightly below, for a refreshing summer sipper.

What's your favorite summer red? Leave a comment and let us know.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Winery Watch: Tablas Creek Vineyards

An ongoing series of Friday posts highlighting California family wineries. You might not be familiar with all of these vineyards and winemakers--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. To read previous posts in the series, click here.

Wine can be magical stuff. Somehow a great wine combines art and science, tradition and innovation, passion and planning, commitment and a willingness to change. I don't think there is any winery in the US that better exemplifies this magical ability to harmonize seeming opposites than Tablas Creek. (photo courtesy of Tablas Creek)

The magic began in 1989 when importer Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands and the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel finally found what they were looking for in the Las Tablas district on the west side of Paso Robles: a parcel of land that closely resembled the soil and climate of the Rhone's famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation. They had been looking all over California for a spot where Rhone varietals would flourish, and where they could practice viticultural methods that were lighter on the land and reflected the best traditional practices.

Once they found the land, Haas and the Perrins decided to bring over cuttings from Beaucastel to plant in the Paso Robles soil. Focusing on the 14 varietals approved for planting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, including Grenache Noir, Mourvedre, Syrah, and Counoise, in 1990 they brought over the first vines from France. When they entered the US they were promptly quarantined to prevent any infection or infestation from spreading. Three years later, in 1993, the first Beaucastel cuttings were released and planted. In 1997 the partners harvested their first grapes. Since that time they have continued to bring new cuttings into the US from France. The most recent grape varietals to be brought over include the lesser-known, and rarely cultivated, Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette, Picardin, and Vaccarese.

Out of quarantine and in Paso Robles, the Tablas Creek team nurtures the cuttings into maturity in special viticultural nurseries and then in organic vineyards. Tablas Creek has been a pioneer of organic farming, and they continue to not only make great wine but also protect and preserve the environment. Cover crops, like the peas, oats, and vetch pictured to the right, are planted each winter. Each spring, they burst into flower and then are either mowed or tilled into the soil to build up the nutrients. (picture courtesy of Blog Tablas Creek). The vineyards received their organic certification in 2003, and Tablas Creek continues to actively seek ways to sustain the land. In early 2006, for example, Tablas Creek finished a wetlands project to recycle wastewater from the vineyards and provide a habitat for local wildlife.

Along with winemaker Neil Collins, Haas and the Perrins make wines that combine textbook varietal characteristics with Paso Robles terroir. Old World Rhone wines are known for their artful blends, and today Tablas Creek follows in this tradition with their flagship New World wines, the Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge and the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. Named to convey how Tablas Creek strives to match the spirit of the famed Chateau de Beaucastel wines, these wines are not imitative of Chateauneuf-du-Pape so much as they are unique Paso Robles interpretations of the classy and flavorful wines of the Rhone region. (picture of Francois Perrin, winemaker Neil Collins, general manager Jason Haas, and Robert Haas blending varietals in the cellar courtesy of Blog Tablas Creek).

Tablas Creek wines are special wines, and if you've not had one I urge you to try them soon. Prices indicated are the suggested retail price at Tablas Creek's online wine store, where you can purchase the wines listed below. Substantial discounts are available to Tablas Creek VINsiders, the wine club that you should consider joining in order to get limited releases and special bottlings. Clicking on the highlighted name of any wine will take you to Wine-Searcher, where you might be able to find a merchant in your area who stocks Tablas Creek wine. As always, the price in your area may be higher or lower than those here. In my area, for instance, it is often possible to find the superb Cotes de Tablas wines for under $20.

2005 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc ($35) An arresting white wine that is both rich and bright. Citrus and floral aromas give way to complex flavors of lemon, herbs, and honeysuckle. All this is wrapped up in a pleasantly silky package. Roussanne dominates the blend, with Grenache Blanc and a touch of Picpoul to add interest. Excellent QPR.

2004 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge ($45). This is a “wow” wine. When I took my first sip I just had to shake my head in disbelief at the range of flavors it manages to hold together. Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache and Counoise provide a cascade of plummy, spicy, and mocha-inflected flavors that go on and on, developing distinct notes of clove and cherry. This is magic in a glass. If you have a special dinner in your future, buy a bottle of this wine for it. If you were blessed with a baby this year, or know someone who was, buy a bottle of this wine and open it on their 5th, 7th, or 10th birthday. If you can wait that long, that is. Excellent QPR.

2004 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Rouge ($22) Be prepared for enticing aromas and flavors of raspberry, spice, and flowers in this excellent blend. A mixture of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Counoise grapes are blended into a wine where nice dustiness and floral characteristics are balanced out by the ripeness of the syrah fruit. Excellent QPR.

2004 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc ($27) Absolutely gorgeous—it’s the only way to describe this outstanding silky white, that has both juicy fruit and excellent balance. Aromas and flavors of apple and citrus are touched with honey. If you’ve never had a Grenache Blanc this is the one to try. Excellent QPR.

2005 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc ($22) An excellent white blend made from Viognier, Roussane, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc. The Viognier is apparent in the floral, perfumed aromas. Crisp citrus flavors and a juicy finish make this a wine that should appeal to everyone at your dinner table this summer. Not a harsh or acidic note mars this balanced wine. Excellent QPR.

2004 Tablas Creek Roussanne ($27) This wine has pronounced aromas of melon, and the melon is echoed in the flavors. There are some soft floral and zingy citrus notes, too, which makes for an easy drinking summer white that would be terrific with crab, chicken—you name it. The wine has a rich, heavy mouthfeel that only adds to its attractions. Very good QPR.

2004 Tablas Creek Mourvedre ($35) I absolutely loved this textbook example of a mourvedre. Abundant aromas and flavors of black cherry, blackberry, and spice are accented by a meaty, leathery note. The finish gains complexity with some dusty earth. The folks at the vineyard think that this wine will remain drinkable through the end of 2007, then enter a closed period for a few years, before opening up again with (I suspect) even more richness and complexity. Very good QPR.

Tablas Creek has a fantastic web site with more layers than an onion and enough good reading to last your entire weekend. Of particular note are their varietal profiles and the scrumptious recipes that accompany each wine description. And, if you haven't checked out Jason Haas's great blog, do so. He's a wonderful writer, the photographs are superb, and you come away from each visit feeling that you've gained a real sneak peak into the life of this very special--even magical--vineyard.

Next week: Twisted Oak

101 Things to Do With Leftover Corks

Crafty bloggers like Sonadora at Wannabe Wino and Catie from Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine have shared with readers their strategies for dealing with leftover corks. From the practical (trivets) to the whimsical (placecard holders), these creative ideas promised to take some of the corks rolling around your drawers and put them to some good use.

But would you use them to cover your car?

This woman did.

And there's more, as the blog Terramia, dedicated to design, shows us. You can make couches from them, plant-stands, coasters (using old cds), cover old outdoor tables with them, and use them in scores of other objects that go way past practical and whimsical and head towards the sublime and the ridiculous.

Where would we be without BoingBoing on a Friday? Not contemplating sipping a sangiovese while sitting on this armchair, that's for sure.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Closure Issues

So it's about 100 degrees outside, and you put a bottle of lovely French Sancerre in the fridge so that when you get home you can sit with a cool glass of white wine, letting the condensation drip down onto your hot little fingers and putting the cares of the day behind you.

Then the corkscrew slips into the cork and you realize you have a problem. The cork is spongy. This is not a good sign. You manage to get it out and there is the distinctive whiff of wet dog and old wet newspapers. This is also not a good sign. You taste it and it tastes of wildlife and old, wet newspapers.

You've just had closure issues. Everyone in California has issues, or so they say in New York. But when a bottle of wine is not sealed properly, all kinds of nastiness creeps into what would otherwise be your after work treat.

There is nothing like closure issues to make the most steadfast, cork-loving, traditionalist take a dramatic left turn towards the land of screw-tops, glass stoppers, synthetic corks, and crown caps. So I quickly stuck a bottle of champagne into the fridge, determined not to be foiled by another corked bottle of wine (at least not tonight).

It was the 2000 Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut ($27.99, Beverages and More), which was capped with a crown-style bottle cap like those you would find on beer. This was a first for me. Though gussied up with a ribbon, this closure simply does not scream romance. But it did mean that I could open up my sparkler without worrying that it was going to smell of wildlife. Tainted wine, it turns out, is even less romantic than a crown-cap.

The 2000 Domaine Chandon Etoile Brut has very good QPR. Pouring the wine into the glass I was struck by its bright gilt color, its abundant fine froth and its tiny, tiny bead. This is just what I like in a sparkling wine. Aromas of mineral, toast, yeast, and apple were inviting and promising, and the wine delivered on that promise in the flavors department with pear, apple, warm bread, and stone. This represents some of the flavor complexity one would expect to find in an imported French champagne, but seldom get in a domestic I found it had a surprisingly long finish for a brut wine. This is Chandon's premier bottling, and some of the complexity is the result of the 5 years of ageing this wine gets in the bottle on the yeast.

While this sparkler was more expensive than those I normally drink, and you did not get the familiar popping the cork ritual, I would definitely buy more of this wine. And I will be looking for the brut's pink sibling, too. Would you buy sparkling wine under a beer cap--I mean crown cap? After this experience, I would. With screw-caps now adorning Burgundy bottles, can Champagne be far behind?

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Mixed Cases, Take 2

Asimov's at it again over at the Pour, with two more mixed cases to follow up on his popular and controversial "Wine School." (photo by Ian Britton from

If you've not been following the story so far, Asimov decided to have two NYC wine merchants put together mixed cases of wine so that he could expand his knowledge and taste things he might not otherwise taste. People were critical of the cost, the selection, and the fact they couldn't find the exact same wines to drink. There was also indignation at the fact that there was only one US wine among the 24 bottles (bad news: the new cases have only one US wine, too, the 2001 Edmund St. Johns Syrah from El Dorado County)

But the real purpose of Asimov's "Wine School" is to get US drinkers to drink widely and inexpensively, to have fun, and to learn what you like while doing so. All of us need to be reminded that this is what the love of wine is all about.

His second mixed cases build on the wines that he liked from his first--which is how it's supposed to be. They have even more Loire wines which Asimov really enjoyed (including a 2002 Baumard Savennieres that I've got waiting in my cellar and picked up at Costco), the Cortijo III Rioja Tinto (I reviewed their rose recently), the La Roquette Chateauneuf-du-Pape (always a favorite and a steal at slightly over $20) and some nice Italian selections. It's worth clicking over there on the link above to see what's what and get inspired to have your favorite merchant mix you your own case of wines.

So, want to go back to school this summer? Never ordered a case of wine before, never mind a mixed case? If you've never done this before, here's what to do. First, I'd recommend finding an independent wine retailer rather than going to a huge wine store chain. Ask around on Chowhound's Wine Board if you don't know a good store in your area--someone there surely does. The ten most recent posts have recommendations for the best wine stores between Buffalo and Erie, for instance. Then:

If you are a complete newbie, just have them mix 5 whites, 5 reds, 1 rose, and 1 sparkling wine. Tell them how much total you want to spend. Leave with your case. Enjoy. Keep notes on what you liked and didn't for your next mixed case. Repeat when the shelf gets bare.

If you know what you like, tell the merchant "I like sauvignon blanc, lightly oaked chardonnay, syrah, and pinot. I want to drink more European/South American/New World/Old World/California/Oregon/Washington/New York wines (circle appropriate choices)." Tell them how much you want to spend on the whole case. Leave with your case. Enjoy. Keep notes on what you liked and didn't for your next mixed case. Repeat when the shelf gets bare.

Now that readers are a bit calmer over at The Pour, it is clear that what is attractive about the mixed-case strategy is that it takes some of the stress out of the experience of trying new wines. You get a dozen wines. You won't like them all. But you may discover that Loire whites are your thing, or that you love malbec. That knowledge--which will pay off 1o-fold over the rest of your life--is worth the $13 you spent on the pinot grigio you didn't like and so served as an aperitif with nachos to unsuspecting houseguests on Saturday night.

Catavino Virtual Tasting for May: Albarino

After their successful April virtual tasting of rose wines, Catavino is back with another virtual tasting event to wet your whistle and expand your knowledge of Spanish wines for May.

May's focus will be on albarino wines, the varietal native to Galicia--though you may be more familiar with the designation "Rias Baixes" on the label. I've only had one albarino wine that I had after a recommendation from Wannabe Wino's Sonadora, but based on this experience they have an intriguing mixture of refreshing acidity on the tongue and floral aromas in the nose. I'm looking forward to trying out some more of these summery white wines, and have already put together a shopping list based on K&L Wines' good selection of bottlings between $9.99 and $22.99. The 2004 and 2005 Lusco Albarinos sound particularly yummy.

Check out Gabriella's round-up of the rose experience, and her tips for the albarino tasting, by clicking here. The forum is already hopping with comments, give-and-take and feedback so head over there soon to record your impressions about this varietal and to take away a list of suggested wines to keep in pocket and purse for your wine shopping expeditions this month.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

When Reds are Green

When you think red wine you typically think of warm red fruits, warm red spices, and warm red aromas.

But sometimes, red wines are green. And what's more, they're supposed to be. (photo by Ian Britton from Take cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. The varietal characteristics of both of these wines indicate that some green bell pepper, asparagus, and herbal notes are to be expected. Of course, if you let them ripen to their maximum capacity in hot vineyards, much of the green vegetativeness of the varietals will simply cook off. Often, oak barrels take care of any last vestiges of these flavors especially in the New World where fruit-forward wines are not only common, they are preferred by many drinkers.

If you drink mainly New World wines, these vegetal flavors in red wines can come as something of a surprise--and not necessarily a pleasant surprise, either. Too many vegetal red Bordeaux led Parker to start the The Wine Advocate in order to ferret out the green from the red since he felt the green wines were under-ripe.

Recently, I had a green red, the 2004 Chateau du Hureau Saumur-Champigny ($7.99/375 ml, Mission Wines; 750 ml from other merchants for under $15) In this wine, the red fruits are a minor player, accompanied by vegetal and herbal notes in both the aroma and the palate. Decanting for an hour helped the fruit come forward a bit, which indicates that this wine may become more fruity over time, and it also helped to take the herbal notes and make them more intriguing and less overpowering. If you buy this wine, I would recommend keeping it for another year, or decanting it for 2-3 hours, or both. And food really helped to manage the assertive green flavors, so I would recommend that you serve it with something red and green, like rosemary marinated steak or pepper steak with lots of peppers.

This was certainly not as round and lush as the 2003 vintage of this wine that Brooklynguy had recently, and not as fun and inviting as the Vinum "Scrapper" Cabernet Franc I tasted a the Family Winemakers. And if you're not a CabFranc fan, this isn't the wine for trying the varietal out. Though I wasn't a huge fan of this wine, and its flavors weren't as integrated as they should have been, with its strong varietal characteristics it still represents good QPR. And if you've not tasted a green, old world wine, or have ever wondered why Parker loves his jammy, extracted fruits, this would be a good wine to try just to see what all the fuss is about.