Saturday, August 23, 2014

Flank Steak, Salty Chemistry, and some South African Wine

I love flank steak. Love it.

It’s perhaps my favorite cut of meat. Think about it. You walk into a grocery store with a $20. You grab a beautiful two-pound wad of cow from which you can serve generous portions of tender, juicy, yummy steak to your nearest and dearest and…you still have money left over to buy the makings for sides. Glorious.

I recently discovered a fantastic technique for tenderizing flank steak which I just used to grill up one of the best I can remember. I’ll share it with you:

·         Get yourself a flank steak. Go on. I’ll wait.
·         Now, coat each side of the steak in kosher salt. Probably 1-2 T. per side. Trust me on this. If you like, you can also sprinkle on some garlic powder, herbs, what have you – but the salt is the key.
·         Let it sit like this at room temperature for at least an hour. (“Dear God, man! Are you trying to kill us all?” I hear you. I was skeptical, too. Hang in, compadre…)
·         Get the grill hot. Hot. HOT. (Or heat up a broiler, if that’s your thing.)
·         Rinse the salt and such off that lovely piece of beef. Pat it dry, then oil it lovingly.
·         Toss it on the HOT grill (or under the broiler, sigh). Leave it alone. Five minutes is all I ask. Then flip. Five more. Remove from the grill, tent it with foil, and just let it sit there – difficult as that will be to do – for ten minutes, maybe 15 if you can stand it.
·         Slice into juicy nirvana.

Oh, yes.
There is a biochemistry to this. Many grill folks will warn you against salting a cut of meat before you throw it on the grill, as it pulls out water. True…at first. Water emerges from the steak. The salt on the surface dissolves in the water, creating a saline solution. If you remember high school chemistry, all solutions naturally find a balance – an “isotonic solution.”

Given enough time, the salty solution is then drawn back into the steak as it mingles with the non-salty water in the meat. If you’ve mixed herbs or spices with your salt, those flavors go right along. Additionally, the salt causes the fibers in the meat to relax, tenderizing it beautifully.

“But what about bacteria?” you might ask? Saline solutions prevent bacterial growth, so you’ve got no worries there. Trust me, give it a try and you’ll never look at a steak the same way again.

A holiday we can all get behind.
Why do I bring this up? Well, the wine fairy (with help from Jennifer at Colangelo) recently gifted me a pair of South African wines from the well-known Mulderbosch Winery. In summertime (or anytime really) South Africans do their traditional version of grilling called braai. South Africa even has a “National Braai Day,” of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a patron, celebrated next month on September 24 – which is also Heritage Day in the Rainbow Nation.

Since I had these wines, I thought I’d do a little braii-ing of my own with this flank steak preparation and the red – the Mulderbosch 2012 “Faithful Hound” Red Blend.

The Hound, bottle adorned with a lovable looking redbone coonhound, is a traditional Bordeaux blend – about 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with the rest made up of Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot. I expected a big, highly tannic red – but was pleasantly surprised to find a more restrained, balanced flavor. Many South African reds can be on the rough side, but this was balanced enough to drink on its own. Good berry and fruit flavors and a really interesting vanilla bouquet. Grippy tannins at the end, but nothing too bitter. I liked it. With the steak (which was monstrously good, by the way), it was as lovely an accompaniment as I could ask for on a weekday evening. It retails for around $19, and I’d say that’s priced just about right.



The other bottle I received was the Mulderbosch 2011 Chenin Blanc Steen Op Hout – a consistent performer for several years on the Vine’s tasting table. I tried the 2011 about a year ago just after its release. I was curious to see what had changed. Here’s what I said back then:

“Steen op Hout” translates from Afrikaans as “Stone on Wood,” which is a decent descriptor for this particular white. Word to the wise, this is a wine that needs a little time for its natural funk to blow off before. My recommendation would be to crack it and allow at least 10 minutes before you dive in. Once you do, you’ll run into a firm floral nose with a strong lemony tone. The flavor, as promised, has a really nice mineral character alongside a solid backbone of grapefruit. The finish is very flinty with a little bit of a bitter, lemon rind-y aftertaste and just a hint of oak.

In the year that’s passed, this wine has developed some unexpected depth. There are more tropical fruit flavors like mango and pear bouncing around in this wine. Where I would have really recommended it with shellfish before, now, I’d probably lean more towards light meats with fruit salsas and sauces. To go back to my little salting technique, it works just as well on chicken or pork as well, so you can safely experiment along those lines.



The Steen op Hout – retailing for $14 -- is apparently in its 2013 release, since they sent me the tasting notes for that vintage instead of the 2011. That said, this particular wine, as constructed, safely lasted for those a couple of years. I would guess you might see some of the 2011 vintage on your local wine store’s clearance rack to make room for the new bottles. So, if you see some of the 2011 on closeout, snap it up.


And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with some scrumptious wraps made from leftover flank steak. Yum.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Who ya got? -- Pinot Noir Smackdown! Bota Box vs. Black Box.

You drink box wine. I know you do. We’re all friends here. I won’t tell. You close all the blinds and make sure the neighbors aren’t watching before you open the kitchen cupboard to sneak a little splash of merlot from that little plastic spout, or you move aside the Tupperware of leftover potato salad from the office potluck to get a glug of pinot grigio when no one’s looking.

I drink it too, you see. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. For the sake of full disclosure, I often have a box of red and a box of white floating around the house. I don’t keep it because it’s necessarily great wine. I keep it because I don’t always want to open up great wine.

Box wine serves a particular niche. Box wine is wine for drinking, not thinking. Sometimes, wine just needs to be good enough. When I flop on the couch after a long day at work or at the end of an evening, I don’t really want to dig in the cellar and pull out something special.

Box wine has come a long way since the huge cardboard containers of Vella and Franzia which often look like building material for the back walls of wine stores. I’ve written about box wines before, and I’ve come to the conclusion that while box wines aren’t generally going to blow you away, better mass-production techniques and greatly improved storage systems have improved the quality to a point where you can knock the stuff back without feeling like you should be drinking out of a brown paper bag.

For a long time, especially with the reds, I’d only seen Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot. A few years ago, Zinfandel came on the scene, followed by Malbec. Those two are now more common. Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen Pinot Noir releases from arguably the two most well-known manufacturers of box wine -- and when titans of the bulk wine industry go head to head, The Naked Vine is there with a scorecard. Imagine Michael Buffer, if you will:

·         In this corner, hailing from the Valle Central and Casablanca regions of Chile, weighing in at 13.5% alcohol, comprised of grape blends unknown, retailing for $22 – Bota Box Pinot Noir.
·         And in this corner, from across the many hills and valleys of California, weighing in at 13.2% alcohol, comprised of 78% Pinot Noir, 21% Syrah, and 1% “Dry Red,” retailing for $24 – Black Box Pinot Noir.

Ladies and gentlemen…let’s get ready to rummmmmble! (DING!)
Round One – Head to Head

How are these wines side-by-side? Despite the color scheme of the two wines’ packaging, the Bota Box actually pours a little bit darker. Since they’re both wines made in the “style” of pinot noir, both have cherry and strawberry flavors, and both have gentler tannins than, say, Cabernets or a Malbecs you might find in a box. The Bota is the richer of the two, with more cherry and cola flavors, and a lot more tannin on the finish. It certainly tastes closer to what I’d expect from a pinot noir than the Black Box, which showed as a little more acidic, had a lighter body, and really didn’t go anywhere on the finish. Head to head as a first glass: Winner: Bota Box.

Round 2 – Flying Solo (Cup)

Did you know that the second ring on a standard red Solo cup is a five ounce pour of wine? See? All sorts of useful information here. (Also, the first ring is 1.5 oz – a shot of liquor. The top ring is 12 oz – a standard beer.) The next test for our battling boxes was to see how they hold up after a couple of consecutive glasses. At a party or other social occasion, a box of wine on the table doesn’t exactly say, “Just have one glass.” Also, odds are, there’s no fine stemware service.

On separate days, I had three small glasses over a stretch of time to see how the wines progressed. The Black Box’s more-nondescript nature actually played to its favor here. By the third glass, it settled into a “hey, I’m having some wine” groove. The Bota’s extra tannin was drying out my mouth by the third splash. For session purposes: Winner: Black Box.

Round 3 – The Finisher

The SPinC generally goes to bed earlier than I do. The pups generally join her, so I have some quiet time to myself before I call it a night. I’ll occasionally allow myself a nightcap as I kick back, so these wines made appearances in that relaxing space over the course of a couple of evenings. By that point in the evening, neither wine really contributed much other than something to sip on as the hour made things get foggy around the edges. Being that it’s August, I’d probably give this round to Black Box on points, but not by any huge margin. In the wintertime, I’d probably swing the other way.

Round 4 – The Big Shift

As I mentioned, we’ll swing over to box wines after we’ve already killed off a “good” bottle earlier in the evening. That transition can be, shall we say, “abrupt” – especially if the previous wine was particularly good. We got on a bit of a cooking roll this week and hit a series of really nice cellared wines. As one might expect, the wine with a little more structure buffered the inevitable “yep, this wine’s not nearly as good” transition a little more successfully. Winner: Bota Box.

Round 5 – The Unfair Comparison

The last of those wines from the cellar was a 2007 1er Nuits-Saint-Georges Burgundy. I cracked that to go with a couple of duck breasts with a sweet cherry sauce. The wine was musical and the meal was magical. We had a little bit of the Burgundy left at the end – and, for science, I gave each of these boxes a chance to take a run at the champ. I’ll save you the trouble of trying it at home. Don’t. Just don’t. In comparison, the Black Box tasted like a pop tart and the Bota had a finish of charcoal. There are no winners here. Draw.


Overall – Bota Box is the better overall wine, but the Black Box serves its purpose. Either way, you’re getting four bottles of wine you can consume without cringing for a sawbuck. Drink up.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Naked Vine Luxury Double Barrel -- Euclid Wines

Opus One. Heard of it?

Maybe you only know it as a Jay-Z lyric, but Opus One helped put Napa Valley’s Cabernet Sauvignon on the world wine map. First created in 1979 as a joint venture of California’s Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Mouton Rothschild – producers of the first-growth Bordeaux of the same name. Opus One was, at the time, the most expensive wine produced in California – retailing for $50. Opus One now retails for $235 per bottle.

Alas, the Opus One folks did not send along samples. But Opus One’s former cellarmaster, Mike Farmer, did. (Thanks, also, to Susan at WineGlass Marketing.) When Mike retired from his position, he and his son Lucas created Euclid Wines – drawing on his 30-plus years of experience in the wine business.

For those unfamiliar with what a “cellarmaster” does (and this included me until writing this review!) – this individual is the person who’s in charge of all aspects of production at a winery from when the containers of grapes come rolling in the door to when the cases of bottled wine go rolling out. A winemaker draws up the strategy to create a wine. The cellarmaster executes that strategy.

This father-son duo said they wanted to make a Cabernet Sauvignon as their signature wine. They currently produce a premium Cabernet (which is 97% Cabernet with 3% Syrah to round out the blend) and a 100% Syrah, both produced from grapes grown on Howell Mountain in Napa County. The geometrical-sounding name of the winery is Mike Farmer’s middle name, passed down from his grandfather, Euclid Doucette. Farmer describes his grandfather as “a man of intensity, integrity, and true to his word,” and he tried to model his wines after the emotions stemming from that familial respect.
Lucas and Mike Farmer

There are fewer more direct examples of the market’s invisible hand than wine price points. High-end wine demands high-end prices because people are willing to shell out the cash. As any marketing student will tell you, there are plenty of ways to make wine more desirable aside from actually making a superior product. Fancy packaging, slick marketing, using adult film stars to garner positive reviews, and other tricks of the trade.

The Euclid 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $85, and this is one of the few wines I’ve tried where I thought, “You know, this really tastes like an $85 bottle of wine.” This cabernet is exceptionally well crafted and offers some of the most interesting aromatics I’ve sniffed. My notes say “peaches, cotton candy, crème brulee perfumed sweetness.” Needless to say, these aren’t words that pop up in my reviews of reds very often. The flavor is exceptionally well-balanced, full of vanilla, dark fruit, and super-balanced tannin. The finish was lasting, gorgeous lushness. I grilled a couple of good steaks, which I put next to some grilled beets with goat cheese and dill and it was transcendently good.

The Euclid Cab is a fabulous wine and it’s a shame it goes so quickly. I had the last half-glass in the quiet of the Man Cave while mellowing out after the Sweet Partner in Crime had retired for the evening. The wine tasted like Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” sounds at the end of a hard day.

The Euclid 2010 Sierra Foothills Syrah is not quite as pricey as its sister Cab. The retail on this bottle is $40. Syrah is generally a couple of orders of magnitude fruitier and deeper than Cabernet Sauvignon, so I didn’t expect the same sort of subtlety we’d experienced. Even with that notion…wow, what a contrast in style between these wines.

Returning to the previous metaphor, if the Cabernet is a mellow 70’s tune, the Syrah is A Tribe Called Quest’s “Low End Theory.” Good lawrd, I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced anything quite like this wine. The nose is typical Syrah – plums, violets, and spice – although it’s really well balanced and quite pretty. The mouthfeel is rich, thick, and fruity…and then the bottom absolutely drops out of this inky, tannic monster. Imagine the warming feel of a good bourbon or scotch and convert that sensation to the fullness and depth of tannin and you’ve got this Syrah’s finish. I could feel blackness filling my chest as I drank this down. While it’s not the drying, mouth puckering tannin that it could be, it feels like a dark depth charge. Boom.

I decided to do some lamb chops as a pairing with this – and about halfway through the meal, the Sweet Partner in Crime says, “I just can’t do it. It’s too big.” Caught between the richness of the wine, the marbling of the chops and the savory nature of the fennel and caper relish I’d done as a side, the SPinC overloaded. (My Uncle Alan, in contrast, would have been in absolute heaven.) I got through my glass and, upon seeing myself in the bathroom mirror later, noticed that a single glass of the Euclid was sufficient to blacken my teeth.

We didn’t get through the whole bottle. I put a VacuVin on it and sampled it over the next couple of days. After a day, it hadn’t opened up much. After two days, some of the lighter, more vanilla aspects of the nose started to come through – even though the body was still enormous. I think it still needs more time. Make sure you decant it for at least a couple of hours before you drink it. My half-hour wasn’t enough. If you like wines this powerful, snag a couple of bottles to hold for a few years.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Back in the Sattler Again

Hello, folks! It’s your favorite itinerant wine writer, finally firing up the ol’ keyboard again. Since we’ve last shared a few moments, I’ve been on a couple of vacation trips, written a longer feature about the good folks at Flat Rock Spirits which will appear in the Dayton City Paper in a few weeks (and in this space not long after), and given my tired brain a rest from grad skool writing. In short, I’ve been a bit amiss with my Vine-ly duties, so I’m going to try to get the goody train back on track.

Our last week's gorgeously cool but bizarre weather is yielding to more heat and humidity – and there’s a direct correlation between the heat index and the amount of rosé that gallops past my lips. You folks know I’m always looking for new ones. A recent amble through the “pink aisle” yielded an interesting new bottle from, of all places, Austria – Sattler 2013 Zweigelt Burgenland Rosé.

Austria? Yep. Austria.

Austria is best known for Grüner Veltliner, a white wine that I described as an “umlaut-speckled, mineral-slathered bottle of deliciousness.” A couple of years ago, I put together a primer on the much-less common Austrian reds, which I where I introduced many of you to their lighter-styled and funkily-named grapes. One of those red grapes, Zweigelt (pronounced ZVEI-gelt) didn’t turn out to be one of my favorites. I thought the red was underflavored and had an odd consistency.

Still, I’d not seen pink Austrian wine and wanted to give it a fair shake. I can happily report that, at least for my palate, the Zweigelt grape makes a much happier rosé than it does a red. I guess something about the saignée process used to make this wine aids in this process. Saignée, which is French for “bleeding,” is a process by which a certain percentage of wine is drawn off at an early stage of fermentation. This juice, pink from its contact with the skins, is then vinified like a white wine. The remaining “must” (WineSpeak for “wine in the process of fermenting”) is more concentrated as a result – yielding a red that ostensibly has stronger, more fruit-forward flavor.

In Zweigelt’s case, the red ends up with a heavier – almost glycerine – mouthfeel, but the flavors themselves aren't strong enough to match.The rosé, however, ends up a brighter, crisper wine driven by the inherent minerality of Austrian soil, similar to that in Alsace in France. The Sattler has some lovely cherry and raspberry flavors and a crisp, pleasant finish. It’s not as light as, say, a rosé from Provence – but it reminded me of several Spanish rosado I’ve had, and that’s a compliment in my book.

The Sattler retails for around $15, which is a good price for rosé with some structure. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter – Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

A chance to explore the “other half” of my favorite wine double-entendre? Sign me up!

What the heck am I talking about? I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Montepulciano…

Jennifer at Colangelo offered me the opportunity to wrap my taste buds around a bottle of Avignonesi 2011 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. I didn’t hesitate. Many bottles labeled “Montepulciano” get consumed around Vine HQ. It’s one of our favorite basic table wines. But that has little to do with the aforementioned selection from Avignonesi.

Montepulciano is one of those wines that gets tied up in the European naming conventions and can be somewhat confusing. To avoid getting addled – and to avoid ending up with a wine that isn’t what you intended, you need to distinguish between the Montepulciano grape and the Montepulciano region.

The Montepulciano grape is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy -- across the country from Tuscany, which is where you’ll find the Montepulciano region. Wines from Abruzzi are usually made from at least 85% of the Montepulciano varietal and are aged for a minimum of five months. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo" ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi"). These wines tend to be relatively inexpensive. I’ve seen bottles of Montepulciano for as little as $5 in my local stores. They’re straightforward, uncomplicated table wines.

The Montepulciano region is just to the northwest of Chianti in Tuscany. Most wines made in the Montepulciano, just like those made in Chianti, are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. The best wines from the Montepulciano region are designated "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” (“The Noble Wine of Montepulciano”). They are aged for a minimum of 24 months, 18 of which must be spent in oak, before being released. Like most Sangiovese-based wine, Vino Nobile de Montepulciano is high in acidity, which allows it to go well alongside meats and big sauces. They’re known for having much more aging potential than many Tuscan wines. They’re also more expensive – you won’t run into many of these for less than $25, so they fall into the “nice dinner” wines category for me.

The Avignonesi is, itself, somewhat unusual for Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Going against tradition, the winemaker, Virginie Saverys, made her wine out of 100% Sangiovese rather than doing a blend. Few other wines in Tuscany are single varietal – the best known of which is Brunello di Montalcino.

The aforementioned nice dinner was my intended use for the Avignonesi. I prepared chicken thighs braised in an herbed porcini mushroom and tomato sauce, served with a side of gnocchi. Before I plated it up, we tried the wine on its own. I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t generally prefer Italian wine on its own. Something about the minerality just makes my palate crave it with food. This wine, however, had no issues with flying solo.

I found some strong and lush cherry and dark fruit flavors riding alongside some tannins that gave the flavor some great depth. I don’t run into many wines with that level of fruit intensity that don’t taste “thick.” The mouthfeel was ample, but not too full. Lovely aromas, and a silky, smoky lasting finish. It’s just a pretty wine.

It shined with the meal, as well. There was enough acidity to cut through what evolved into a very rich sauce, but enough strength of flavor not to be overwhelmed. I couldn’t have imagined a much better pairing than this one became. We sat out on the patio on a perfect temperature of a Sunday evening, laughing, eating slowly, and going through the bottle over the course of…well, I don’t know how long. When a wine lends itself to losing one’s sense of time, I have to recommend it.

If you’re into Brunello di Montalcino, you should check out the Avignonesi. I think you’ll find it compares favorably. Since, generally, you can’t find Brunello for less than $50 a pop, and the Avignonesi clocks in at around $30, I think you’ll be pleased.


Friday, June 06, 2014

Naked Vine Triple Play – Malbec! Malbec! Malbec!

If you want to peek all the way back to the Naked Vine’s germination, you’ll find a Malbec among the first set of wines I ever wrote about. Since then, Malbec has remained a go-to grape for many occasions, most of them involving grilled or roasted meat of some sort.

Over the years, I’ve tried to turn a lot of folks on to Malbec. It yields a big, flexible, food-friendly wine that’s consistently one of the best values out there. It’s a perfect wine to pair with almost anything in line to be dragged across fire. While I can’t take all the credit for the increased availability of this happy, dark grape, I’m glad to see dozens more Malbec varieties in the South American section of wine stores. (The fact that there *are* South American sections is a nice bonus, too…)

Here’s a quick refresher on Malbec. Malbec was initially most widely cultivated in France, where it was one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux. (The others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere.) Malbec yields inky, tannic wines on its own – so it was usually blended into the Cabernet and Merlot to add depth and structure. The amount of Malbec grown in France has steadily declined over the years, due to vine health issues and an improvement in winemaking  technology. (One province in France, Cahors, still makes the bulk of its wine primarily from Malbec – although the grape is known there as Côt.)  

In the mid-19th century, not long before the phylloxera outbreak that nearly wiped out all European wine, a French agronomist named Miguel Pouget brought Malbec cuttings from France to Argentina for propagation. In the Argentinean soil, something magical happened. The wine made from this Malbec took on an entirely different characteristic. The wine was still inky and dark, but it lacked much of the powerful (some would say overwhelming) tannins. Instead, it yielded a plummy, smoky wine with a much smoother texture.

The bulk of Argentinean Malbec is grown in the Mendoza province – with the most renowned wines grown in the high-altitude regions in the foothills of the Andes like the Uco Valley. Altitude agrees with the Malbec grape, and the higher-altitude vineyards are the most prized.


Tara at Balzac recently sent me three bottles from Bodegas Salentein, a modern Uco Valley winery. I’ve written a number of reviews of Malbec as pieces and parts of other columns, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do a true Malbec comparison. These three bottles from three different Salentein labels lent themselves to this little project:

Salentein 2012 Uco Valley Reserve Malbec ($20)
Killka 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($15)
Portillo 2013 Uco Valley Malbec ($10)

The first thing I hope you notice is that the relative price of these wines. Malbec’s increase in popularity hasn’t popped the prices out of reasonable range. This is a good thing – especially with grilling season getting into high gear. You’ll never have to hunt too hard to find a reasonably priced Malbec.

We started with the Killka and the Portillo. I thought they’d make an interesting contrast – since they’re made, obviously, from the same grape, same vintage, and the same set of vineyards. The two also have the same alcohol content, acidity, and residual sugar content The real difference was in the winemaking process. The Portillo begins its process from grape to wine at low temperatures and is not fermented in wood. The Killka underwent a much more traditional process, and was aged with the addition of oak staves for eight months. Thus, the Portillo gets more of its tannin from the grape skins alone, while the Killka adds tannin and oak flavors from the wood.

The Portillo was a big, plummy, straightforward wine. The mouthfeel is full and round, yielding a very easy-to-drink quaff. Basically, it reminds me of a solid, table wine. Nothing too complex. The Killka, on the other hand, was softened by the touch of wood. It’s still a big wine, but it’s softer and smokier with some vanilla on the finish from the oak. I thought it was the more pleasant of the two wines to drink on its own. With some grilled pork chops and red potatoes, the Portillo was the better of the two – probably because the complexity wasn’t lost. We killed off the Portillo and saved the Killka to go alongside the Reserve.

The Salentein Reserve had a bit of a flavor of both winemaking techniques. It started off with the similar cold maceration process before full fermentation, and the wine was aged for a year in oak barrels. It also included grapes from an additional vineyard at even higher altitudes. The results were easy to see. The wine ends up big, but it’s a very well-integrated wine, especially for twenty bucks. The flavor balance was excellent. My note reads, “About as delicate a Malbec as I can remember.” There’s a floral/herbal characteristic to the nose which is quite pretty and a nice amount of smoke to go along with the firm tannic finish.

Side-by-side, the Reserve and the Killka taste somewhat similar, but I thought the Reserve was just “better.” Even when we forgot which wine was in which glass momentarily, it was clear which was the Reserve. With food – a grilled flank steak this time – there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the two. Either worked just fine. The steak, with its richer flavor, was better than the pork with Malbec in general, as well.

In general, Malbec will serve any needs for reasonably big red wine. Once you find a flavor profile you like, ask your friendly neighborhood wine store person for recommendations of similar styled ones. You’ll be happily busy for awhile. Fire up the grill and get to it!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sonoma and the Snowball

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I made our first trip to Sonoma County in 2005. Our first stop upon entering the county, before even checking in and unpacking, was at Iron Horse Winery, where we cobbled together a lovely picnic amongst rows of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. We hit a couple of other wineries before making it to our B&B, where we went to a happy hour down in their “speakeasy” of a tasting room. In just half a day, we had learned quickly that we were surrounded by so many good wines…zins, cabs, syrahs, merlots…and I wanted…no, I needed…to try them all. In three days. I saw the light. My mission was clear.

I went a little crazy.

The Origin of Madness
I had some recommendations from my more knowledgeable friends of several wineries to hit and we kept adding to the list as we tried new wines. We zoomed though the valleys, bouncing from tasting room to tasting room like a meth-addled census taker. I thought a dozen tasting rooms a day seemed perfectly logical, starting at the first one to open and running the gamut until they closed up shop. Sure, we covered a lot of ground, but needless to say, this isn’t the most relaxing way to spend a vacation.

To the great benefit of my palate, my liver, and the SPinC’s willingness to keep me around, my strategy has changed a bit in the ensuing years. I have no more illusions about trying to drain the contents of entire valleys. So, on our recent return to Sonoma, rather than trying to run down a bunch of wineries someone else thought would be good, we took matters into our own hands based on our own conversations and connections once we arrived. The Naked Vine Snowball Technique was born.

The Snowball’s central idea comes from a research method called snowball sampling -- a recruitment technique in which participants are asked to assist researchers in identifying other potential subjects. In short, after someone takes a survey, the researcher asks, “Do you know other folks who might be interested in participating?” Those referrals leads to other referrals, growing in number as the virtual snowball rolls down the hypothetical hill.

How does this work with tasting rooms? Start at the place where you’re staying. They live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back, and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want…expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop -- whatever floats your cork. You’ll end up with at least a couple of recommendations. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you feel like you make a connection, then repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. They live there. They know things. They’ll mention a couple of other places. Those places will mention other places. Patterns form in the recommendations. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.

We wanted a different experience this time around, so we parked it in the actual city of Sonoma, which is in the southern portion of Sonoma County. Our previous trips were to the northern end of the county near Healdsburg, and the surrounding valleys. Sonoma has 26 tasting rooms in and around its city square. (In the past, I might have tried to hit them all.) We found a distinct contrast with those tasting rooms. Most places we’d been, the tasting rooms were basically outlet stores for well-established wineries with very recognizable names. In Sonoma, however, the tasting rooms were generally run by smaller operations at which many didn’t own vineyards themselves. Many of these winemakers bought grapes from vineyards they liked that fit their needs, producing excellent wine. I like that notion. Egalitarian.

We got to town, dropped our bags at the Inn at Sonoma (highly recommended), made a couple of inquiries to get us started, and off we went. Did we hit all 26? Nope. Not even half of them, truth be told. We had a lovely, relaxing time and made some wonderful discoveries along the way. Heck, we barely had to move our car! Here are our top experiences from the trip:


Two Amigos Winery – We remarked that we’ve had good luck with “tastresses” when we’ve started our little treks. Our first trip to Sonoma was kicked off by a woman named Annalise. This time, Michelle was the one to get our trip off on the correct foot. She was there along with Bob, one of the aforementioned “amigos.” The other amigo is an actor named Squire Riddell, whom you’ll recognize if you watched any TV in the 80’s…



He also played Ronald McDonald after Willard Scott headed to the Today show, so plenty of McDonald’s and clown-themed memorabilia adorn the tasting room.

They had plenty of decent wines. Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was fascinating for a wine that young. I’ll be curious how it develops. The other highlights were their Viognier, a port made from Syrah, and a Syrah from GlenLyon – which is Riddell’s other winemaking venture. Needless to say, McDonald’s must have been a pretty good gig. Michelle and Bob gave us the initial seed for the snowball, leading us to a couple of the following tasting rooms. (http://twoamigoswines.com/)


Bump Wine Cellars – We missed throwing our annual Derby Day party because of our Sonoma trip, but we felt right at home walking into Bump’s tasting room to find a beautiful horse-themed art exhibition by an artist named Tej Greenhill. Bump’s tasting room was far and away our favorite, with warm, contemporary décor and comfortable places to relax and sip. Sip we did. Bump was the best value we found in Sonoma. The winemaker, Geordie Carr, specializes in fermenting wines at cooler temperatures to preserve the aromatics. He sources his grapes from all over Sonoma County through friendly partnerships he’s developed in his travels. Their chardonnay was delicate and nuanced with just a kiss of oak. I don’t classify many zinfandels as “delicate,” but Carr’s technique of slightly early picking and cool fermentation yielded a beautifully aromatic wine that drinks like a good pinot – even at 15.2% alcohol. With nothing (currently) in their portfolio over $28, it’s a good time to stock up. (http://www.bumpwine.com/)


R2 Wine Company – Since we’re on a survey research kick, the SPinC, also sometimes known as the Queen of All Regressions, was so very excited to see a winery called R2. The r-square statistic, also known as the measure of “explained variance,” is a key measure of many of her multivariate analyses. While the name of the winery has nothing to do with statistics (it’s named after co-founders Richard and Roger Roessler), the notion of “Sonoma wine variance” shone through here. In tasting through the R2 portfolio, we noticed a distinct difference between wines made from Sonoma “mountain fruit” vs. “valley fruit.” The mountain fruit wines in general had earthier, deeper flavors with a mineral character, while the valley fruit wines had bigger fruit flavors and stronger tannins. We enjoyed their Black Pine pinot noir ($26), which was a delicious general California pinot noir. Their Hein Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) was “smoketacular!” according to my notes. Their “1331” Cabernet ($54) was a quintessential example of a mountain fruit wine, and it was hedonistically complex. (http://www.r2winecompany.com/)


Bryter Estates – Oh, where to begin with Bryter? If you forced me to pick a favorite from this trip, the top prize would go to Bryter with its collection of nuanced, happy wines. Bryter is one of the few wineries we encountered with female winemakers. Terin Ignozzi, the winemaker and co-owner with her husband Bryan (“Bryter” is a fusion of their names), has crafted a portfolio with great range and exceptional quality. All of their wines -- red, white, and rosé – are exceptionally harmonious and clean. The Sweet Partner in Crime remarked, when we tried their rosé after getting back home, that it “tasted like what our walk in Yosemite felt like – sunshine and fresh air.”

We heard in at least three different tasting rooms that we needed to try Bryter “for their bubbles.” No lie. The “Le Stelle” brut sparkler ($38) is excellent, with a nutty, green apple flavor and a creamy mouthfeel. That would have been worth the stop alone, but as we went down the line, we found more surprises. The “Vivant” sauvignon blanc ($34) is crisp and melony – pleasant, pleasant!. Their “Jubilee” rosé of pinot noir ($32) gets a double plus for the lingering fruit and the touch of oak beneath the clean flavor. Our favorite was their “Cadeau” Pinot Noir ($50). “Cadeau” translates as “gift” and was, simply, the best bottle we had on our trip. My note says, “So subtle, so beautiful.” This wine edged its way in with my faves among the Oregon pinots. A must-not-miss. (http://www.bryter.com/)


Walt Wines – Walt sources grapes from all over the west coast, and they do an interesting array of wines. The highlight of our visit with Liz and Terry, our pourers, was their “850 Mile Road Trip” where they showed pinots from the Shea Vineyard in Willamette Valley, Oregon, “The Corners” in Anderson Valley in Mendocino, and Rita’s Crown Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills. (All $65) The pinot flavors ranged “from brambles to boom!” across these three wines, and the tasting was a wonderful exploration of terroir. They also release a wine each year called “Pinpoint Extreme,” which is an anagram for “pinot experiment.” Last year, they added roasted stems to the fermentation. This year, they flash-heated some of the grapes until they exploded. Fun to try new stuff. (http://www.waltwines.com/)


Hawkes Wine – Memorable wine-wise for a really fantastic licorice-and-dark fruit flavored merlot ($35) sourced from vines planted on a seam of clay in one of the vineyards where nothing else would grow; some very well-balanced cabernets; and an estate-pressed extra-virgin olive oil (proceeds to a local kids charity) that blew us away. Before we went to Hawkes, though, I realized that I hadn’t packed very well, and I needed another t-shirt. Hawkes has a neat logo, so I picked one up to wear on our flight home. On the way to the Sacramento airport from Yosemite -- which followed Sonoma on our itinerary -- we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Lodi called the Dancing Fox. The waitstaff was mostly male and powerfully metrosexual. At least three of them stopped by my table to ask, “Is that Hawkes Winery?” Lodi is about two hours from their tasting room, so I guess it’s the winery of choice for expensive-yet-casually dressed men. (http://www.hawkeswine.com)
Kamen Estate Wines – Kamen is the child of Robert Kamen, whose name you might not recognize, but you’d know his work. He’s the screenwriter for “Taps,” "The Karate Kid," “The Fifth Element,” “The Transporter,” “A Walk in the Clouds,” “Taken,” and various other films. He bought a property in the mountains with the paycheck from his first screenplay, not realizing that he was sitting on a goldmine. His wines were some of the best we tried on the trip, and they’re certainly not inexpensive. His top-of-the-line, “Kashmir,” runs $100+ per bottle. The Syrah ($75) and Cabernet ($80) are also top notch with layer upon layer of flavor. “Opulent” is as good a descriptor as any. “Darned awesome” would also fit. It’s worth a swing through their tasting room – both to try these wines and to hear Robert’s story, which stands in contrast, and made a very interesting bookend, to that of Two Amigos’ Squire Ridell. Needless to say, a commercial actor and a screenwriter have very different views on how wine should be made and how life lands you in various circumstances. While we were there, we were lucky enough to meet Robert himself, who popped into the tasting room briefly. He struck me as an affably sarcastic M.O.T. -- much the same way I hope people think of me. His "Sin while you can -- otherwise Jesus died for nothing" shirt will live forever in my memory. (http://kamenwines.com/)

In addition to all of the wines that you can sample, the town of Sonoma is home to any number of fabulous restaurants, and we worked our way through several. Try the Red Grape for lunch. La Salette is a Portuguese restaurant with fabulous variety and flavor. The Girl and the Fig is a local favorite – contemporary French. The El Dorado Kitchen does some neat takes on American classic cuisine. One of our favorite dining experiences, however, was the Tuesday night we were there – which coincided with the first Sonoma community farmer’s market of the year. The farmer’s market turns into a big community picnic, so we joined right in with a bottle of Bump rosé. Once things started winding down, many locals head over to Murphy’s Irish Pub for an oyster roast and multiple beers. After a few days of wine tasting, beer made for a great way to close a wonderful stretch of vacation.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day Quickie: Carnevale Wine Bar



If your Memorial Day plans include a trip to Newport on the Levee, consider snagging a glass of wine at the new Carnevale Wine Bar, the latest project from La Vigna Estate Winery in Higginsport, Ohio.

As I've mentioned on a few occasions: with few exceptions, this slice of the country isn't generally the best terroir for growing wine grapes, but it can be done with good pieces of property, some creativity, and a lot of elbow grease.

Brad Hively, owner and winemaker at La Vigna, wanted to showcase his wines -- and the wines of some of his winemaking compatriots, in a new setting. "I'm really excited about this location," said Hively, "and I think it'll be a great place to show what we can do here."

The new wine bar is right in front of Art on the Levee, straight across from the ticket booth for the Levee movie theaters. There, in the shadow of the Claire's, Hively hopes to expand his offerings quickly. "We're pouring eight of our wines right now, and I'm hopeful that some of our winemaking friends will join us. I'd like to get to about twenty wines from the region and eventually offer flights of whites and reds from the various wineries."

This weekend, both at the wine bar and at La Vigna's tasting room, they are releasing two new vintages: the Carnevale 2011 Cabernet Franc and Carnevale 2013 Petit Manseng. The Carnevale Cabernet Franc remains one of my favorite local wines, red or white -- and this vintage is no exception. I'd also recommend their Rosato, which is an excellent summer sipper. New vintages of their other wines will be making appearances over the next several weeks, and they'll be previewed at Carnevale.

The wine bar opened for the first time on Saturday, and they'll be open again on Memorial Day from noon-10pm. After this weekend, their normal hours through the summer will be Thursday 5:00-10:00pm; Friday 5:00 – 10:00pm; and Saturday 2:00-10:00pm. There's a piano in the bar area, which will be used for live classical and jazz music as the summer rolls on.

Wines are available by the bottle and by the glass, and people can walk around the Levee with their wine, from what I understand, as long as it's in a La Vigna glass. (Ask about that last part at the bar to be sure...it may just be for special events.)

In any case, a nice new addition to the Levee. Check it out.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Pas De Deux, a Wine Not Meant for Me

"The wine quickly gained an enthusiastic following, particularly with women who enjoyed its aromatic effervescence with a hint of sweetness and its year round quaffability."
OK, seriously -- what am I supposed to do with that?

Now, I'm never one to look a gift from the wine fairy in the mouth before putting it down my gullet, but it's clear that I'm not the target audience for this particular sparkler from Biltmore Estates called Pas de Deux. As I've written about in the past -- wineries market differently to women and men.

According to Leslie Sbrocco, author of "Wine for Women," women "look for the experience" in wine. "We think about who we're with, what we're eating," she said. "Women buy visually, paying attention to packaging. They look for a transition between day and night, work and play."

This is one of the few bottles of wine I've received (shoutout to Lisa Klinck-Shea at Folsom, by the way!) where the press release and shelf talkers concentrated more on the wine's packaging than on the flavor and winemaking process. Most releases generally don't discuss the "attractive floral palette" of the label and the "sophisticated foil treatments in hues of pink" that create an "overall effect that is contemporary, fun, and of high quality." 

I don't mean this as a rip on Pas de Deux. Shoppers picking out a bottle take less than a minute to decide on a wine, in general, and the label and bottle design weighs heavily on the decision for most wine drinkers. Let's just say that while I'm quite partial to pink wine, I'm not necessarily as likely to snag a ballet-themed wine, especially when the pairing recommendation is for "toasting the end of the work week or brunch with best friends -- and of course, chocolate-covered strawberries!"

The winemaker, Sharon Fenchak, was inspired to make this wine after spending some time in Prosecco country in the Veneto. She wanted to create a similar wine for Biltmore -- so, 10 years ago, she experimented with a methode champenoise-style sparkling wine using Muscat Canelli sourced from California instead of Prosecco grapes. The result was a wine called Pirouette, eventually renamed Pas de Deux

Anyhoo, what is this wine? Muscat Canelli is better known as the grape that Moscato comes from. Now, this isn't a bad thing in and of itself -- Moscato d'Asti is a favorite brunch wine of mine. But regular "Moscato" that's not sparkling is normally similar in flavor to a non-pink white zin. Needless to say, I was hoping for the former. 

Since there's a winemaker in North Carolina inspired by Prosecco, making wine from the same grape as Moscato, who carbonated the wine via a traditional French method, how'd it end up once it was chilled down? Like an amalgamation all of those things. Prosecco tends to be very dry and apple-flavored. Moscato (especially Moscato d'Asti) is somewhat sweet and peachy with a light carbonation. 

Pas de Deux reminded me of a more highly-carbonated Moscato. It's quite floral and pineappley on the nose. There are some strong peach, orange, and strawberry flavors that creamily wash over your tongue. I was reminded a little bit of a Dreamsicle. The bubbles are even and lasting. The finish is pretty sweet. 

We tried it alongside brunch, and I would have imagined it would have been good with something like fruit crepes. Honestly, it didn't do a lot for me. I'm not really into sweet wines at the moment, but if I did want something along these lines for a fruity brunch, I probably would have gone with either the original Prosecco or the Moscato d'Asti, rather than a fusion of the two.

For what it is, it's a pretty well put together wine. It's just not *my* well put together wine. Pas de Deux retails for $19.99, but I've seen it on sale recently for $13.99. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Grenache -- Show Some Love!

I’ve been on a Grenache kick lately. This grape, grown…

…wait, come back! Where are you going? This is not a parody column! Get your noses out of the air and belly up to the bar.

I know, I know – your notion of Grenache may have been formed the same way mine was – commercials in the 80’s for Gallo White Grenache, a pinkish concoction (which I believe you can still get if you walk past the Boone’s) poured over ice. You know, something like this:





The commercials claimed “It will change the way you think about Gallo.” While I can’t speak to that, it certainly poisoned the way I think about the poor Grenache grape for quite some time!

Along similar lines, when the Sweet Partner in Crime and I were starting down our slippery wine-drinking slope, we used to go through Rosemount Estates Grenache-Shiraz – a dirt-cheap Australian red blend – by the virtual bucketful. At the time, it seemed perfectly drinkable, and it was a couple of dollars per bottle less expensive than the straight Rosemount Shiraz.

These days, if I recommend a Grenache to someone, about half the time they’ll look at me like I have a second head, because that’s the image Grenache has with many folks: cheap, uninteresting wine. What changed my outlook on this grape? As I’ve learned and consumed more, I’ve come to think of Grenache as the “red Chardonnay.”

Why? First off, it’s an incredibly ubiquitous grape. There are more acres of vineyard planted with Grenache in the world than any other red grape and the vines are generally quite high-yielding. These yields are a prime reason for Grenache’s bad name in the states, since a lot of those grapes landed in cheap jug wine. Forget the jugs, but remember the high yield. Because of this, winemakers can have plenty of raw material to work from, so even well-made Grenache tends to be less expensive compared to other grapes, so there are plenty of bargains to be had.

Secondly, like Chardonnay, Grenache-based wines are incredibly terroir driven. Grenache juice on its own, produces a light-styled wine, so the flavors derived from climate and soil can really shine. Good growers and winemakers, through smart cultivation, blending, and skill, can wrangle fascinating results from this grape. And they have all over the world, for years.

Finally, spring is turning to summer. Since Grenache is generally somewhat lighter in style, it makes a great red wine option when the heat starts cranking up, especially if you’re interested in something that has a little more oomph than, say, a Beaujolais. There’s a smoky undercurrent to most Grenache that just calls for food, especially grilled food.

A couple of weeks ago, K2, my Brother in Things Wine, invited me to do a tasting with him at the Party Source. I wanted to spread the word about my new grapey affection, so we ran down a series of Grenaches from around the world to educate folks on just how good this underappreciated grape can be. We put together an “around the world” Grenache tasting to show the breadth of what this grape can do.

We started our world tour in Spain, where Grenache is known as Garnacha. Many of the wines you’ll see from Spain’s Navarra region are blends that include a lion’s share of Garnacha. Garnacha is second only to Tempranillo among red grapes in the Rioja region, as well. Garnacha thrives in the Mistral winds, but rather than yielding a high-alcohol fruit bomb, it yields a lighter, smokier drink, like the Campo Vieja 2012 Rioja Garnacha. This is a quaffable wine with a very pretty floral and cherry nose. While light-bodied, it’s got good structure and finishes with lingering pepper and spice. Grilled pork, ribs, or ham would be great with this. ($18)


From there, we nipped over to Italy, specifically to the island of Sardinia. Here, Grenache goes by the alias Cannonau. The volcanic soils of Italy lend the traditional Italian minerality (which I think tastes a little “chalky”) to the finished product. Sardinian Cannonau, perhaps because of the particular terroir, has some of the highest levels of reservatrol of any red wine in the world. That’s the compound that makes red wine so good for your heart. For an example here, we had the Argiolas Costera 2009 Cannonau di Sardegna.($14) If you’re a fan of Italian wines, I’d put this somewhere between Chianti and Barbera on the “mineral vs. fruit” scale. Black cherry and licorice are the flavors I found most prevalent, but with minerality that would make it welcome next to a big plate of red sauced pasta.



For a change of pace, we headed down under to Australia. As I mentioned, Grenache was used in a lot of inexpensive plonk for quite some time, but in many regions, such as McLaren Vale, winemakers are exploring what this grape can do. In Australia, Grenache gains some heft on the palate and becomes much more fruit forward. A perfect example is the d’Arenberg 2009 “The Custodian” Grenache. ($13) Rather than the cherry and spice the previous wines showed, this one featured much richer blackberry and raspberry flavors, and the tannins turned much smokier. It’s quite a bold, pretty wine, in my estimation, which would be great with anything you might find sizzling on your grill.



The touchstone of Grenache, however, is in France. Grenache, along with Syrah, are the dominant grapes of the entire Rhone region. The finest (and most expensive, generally) wines in the Rhone, Chateauneuf-de-Pape, are made from as much as 80% Grenache. The less-expensive Rhone wines, usually labeled “Cotes-du-Rhone” are almost always made up of a majority of Grenache. That was no different with the wine we chose to illustrate French Grenache, the Cercius 2011 Cotes-du-Rhone, a blend of 85% Grenache and 15% Syrah. This is a rich, earthy wine that filled my nose and mouth with blackberries and a healthy dose of an earthy funkiness. It’s layered and complex with a finish that lasts and lasts. With any sort of roasted meats or vegetables, this would be a winner. ($16)



Finally, we arrived back in the States. The renaissance of Grenache in the U.S. was driven by a group of California winemakers in the 1980’s (led by Randall Graham) known colloquially as the “Rhone Rangers.” They thought certain varietals usually found in the Rhone, including Grenache, would respond well to certain California terroir. In general, California versions of these wines tend to be rounder and fruitier, and the Tablas Creek 2010 Patelin de Tablas ($19) from the Paso Robles region was no exception. This asskicker of a wine, which actually is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Counoise, comes on strong with a full mouth of blueberries and blackberries, but also a bit of a bacony flavor through the midpalate and onto the long, fruity finish. This was easily the biggest of the fine wines we poured and was the overall favorite of the folks who stopped by the table.



So…enough with the poor reputation of Grenache! Go get a bottle and try it out. As you can see, you’ve got many variations on the theme with which to experiment. Try them out this summer and beyond. Who’s with me? 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Naked Vine Live! Muffin & Stump's Libations for Education -- May 17th!

Save the Date! Join The Naked Vine and Christine the Pie Queen at Newberry Brothers Cafe and Bistro on May 17th from 5:00 to midnight for our "Libations for Education" guest bartending stint!

Enjoy an evening of good beverages, better pastries, and random joviality for an excellent cause. Tips and donations will help construct the new Gateway Community & Technical College Urban Metro Campus in downtown Covington. 

Help change the face of education in Northern Kentucky while you get your drink on! See you there!





Back to the Monastery -- Franciscan Cab Redux

About a year and a half ago, I had a chance to try Franciscan Estate's Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. I don't expect you to have the review memorized or anything like that, so here's a refresher to make it easy on you. Bottom line, the 2010 vintage turned out to be a really good bottle of wine, so I was pretty excited when Nicole from R/West PR had the wine fairy send me a bottle of the 2011.

In general, larger producers are generally able to create consistent results from year to year, but there's always room for variety from vintage to vintage. Comparing the tasting notes from this year to last, it looks like the folks at Franciscan changed up the blend a bit, replacing the small amount of malbec in the 2010 blend with petit verdot and cabernet franc. (Remember, a U.S. Cabernet Sauvignon has to be at least 75% cabernet sauvignon to be labeled as such. The rest of the blend is up to the winemakers.) I wondered if that change might have an effect on the overall flavor.

In short, it did. The Franciscan Estate 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhat different from last year's offering. This year’s nose has some of the same plum and herbal characteristics as last years, but there's also a roasted meat or bacony aroma. This year's wine feels a little alcoholically "hotter" than last year’s as well, but there's not an increase in the actual alcohol content. Regardless, it’s not too powerful a cab. I found plenty of plum and cocoa flavors bouncing around on the palate, and the finish is smoothly tannic with some lingering fruit and spice.

All in all, I think the 2011 vintage is still a good bottle of wine -- but I think it lacks some of the finesse that I enjoyed so much with last year's offering. It's still reasonably priced at $28 for a quality wine, but if you can still find the 2010 lying around, that would be my choice.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Naked Vine Live!

Looking for something to do on Wednesday evening? Want to enjoy some tasty, affordable wine, chat with your favorite local wine writer, and hang in some good company? If so, clear your calendar (or at least carve out a few minutes) between 6-8 pm on Wednesday, April 30th when I team up with Kevin Keith (better known as "K2" from Under the Grape Tree) to host a free tasting for y'all at The Party Source!

We're going to be pouring several versions of Grenache, one of the more interesting and most unappreciated grape varietals out there. We'll have examples to compare and contrast from all over the globe, so come on down. Try some of our selections and maybe try a few more from their new tasting bar. For a local angle, Stonebrook Winery will also be offering samples of their wares. And if you've got a thirst for hops, you can pop back to Ei8ht Ball Brewery in the back of the Party Source and try some samples from here.

Come on down!



Sunday, April 20, 2014

Naked Vine Double Barrel -- Waterstone: The Winery that Wasn't There

Sometimes a winery can be just a load of grapes and a plan.

Estate winemaking, especially in well-known areas like Napa Valley, is an expensive proposition. Land is expensive, as can be cobbling together a winemaking infrastructure. Equipment, tanks, barrels, bottling lines, storage – the list of expenses goes on and on.

Winemakers with good relationships, however, can take advantage of their connections and start an operation of their own. That’s what winemakers Phillip Zorn and Brent Shortridge are attempting to do with Waterstone Winery – a winery that doesn’t exist as a brick-and-mortar place.

Zorn and Shortridge source the grapes for their various wines from growers that they know around Napa Valley and assemble the various blends for the wines in Zorn’s kitchen. They rent time and equipment at other wineries to put together their finished product. According to the Waterstone website, the pair attempts to “develop balanced wines of varietal character through intelligent sourcing…rather than the accumulation of land and facilities.”

Thanks to the good folks at Folsom & Associates, I received a pair of bottles from Waterstone to sample. What sort of wines does this phantom winery produce?

Waterstone 2012 Carneros Chardonnay – The notion of balance in a Napa wine is something I’m still getting used to. Many of those wines are strong and in-your-face. That’s not so much the case with the Waterstone. This is a much more mellow wine than many oak bombs I’m used to from Napa Chardonnay. The nose is fragrant with apple blossoms, oak, and a little bit of a toasted, yeasty undertone. This chardonnay is about as far from buttery as you’ll find. Instead, there’s a distinct mineral character that connects green apple and pear with an oaky backbone, although not as much oak as I thought there’d be after getting a whiff. The finish is oaky and fruity, with a slight astringency that fades a bit as the wine gets a little air. It’s a fairly solid middle-of-the-road chardonnay if you’re looking for something on the lighter side. Alongside a cheese and apple board we had as a snack, it was OK. It retails for $18, which may be just a tad high.


Waterstone 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir – I could have clacked out (or, more accurately, copied) the first few line of the Chardonnay review for this pinot noir. Again, this is a much more restrained glass of pinot noir than I expected from Napa. The nose, full of plums and cherries, had me ready for a big wave of fruit that didn’t materialize. Instead, a well-constructed cherry cola flavor (without sweetness) dominates the palate, along with a light trace of tannin that lingers for just a bit on the palate before deepening on the finish into long smokiness. It’s got one of the longer finishes I’ve had in a pinot in quite some time. The Sweet Partner in Crime deemed it “delicate and really pretty.” With a dinner of pork chops and citrus-flavored lentils, it proved to be deliciously food-flexible. According to the winery’s notes on this wine, the 2011 growing season was a very challenging one for their sources. If that circumstance led to the balance and focus of this wine, I hope they took good notes – because whatever technique they used worked wonderfully. We really enjoyed it. Retails for $22.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The “First Family of (US) Chardonnay” -- Wente Vineyards

In 1883, German immigrant Carl Wente bought 48 acres of land in Livermore Valley in Monterey County, California and planted a mess of grapevines. Fast forward to 2014, and Wente Vineyards is the oldest continuously operated winery in North America, run by the fourth and fifth generations of the Wente family.

Wente is a notablewinery in the history of American winemaking. Through the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, thanks to the efforts of Carl’s son, Ernest, the Wentes planted a number of different varieties of Chardonnay. Through experimentation and crossbreeding with both domestic and French vines, the Wente chardonnay grape clone emerged. Wente released their first varietally labeled Chardonnay (along with Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc) in 1936. Neighbors of the Wentes would take cuttings for planting on their own lands. Today, 75-80% of California chardonnay is grown from one the “Wente clones.”

Thanks to the good folks at Balzac, I had a chance to sample two versions of the new vintage of the Wente chardonnay, as well as one of their new releases of pinot noir. How did the “First Family of Chardonnay” do this time around?

Wente 2012 “Morning Fog” Livermore Valley Chardonnay – I was lucky enough to have a massage scheduled for a Saturday, and the SPinC was nice enough to put together a lunch for when I got home. She’d put together this very tasty oriechette pasta with chickpeas and Kalamata olives in a rich (but not buttery) sauce. I thought this might be a good accompaniment, and we ended up with a great team decision. This wine is everything you could hope for in a $15 chard. The wine’s got a nice nose of apple blossoms and vanilla. The body is substantial without being overly heavy, full of pears and vanilla. There’s creaminess without being too buttery, oak without being too charcoalled, and just a pleasant overall flavor. With the pasta, it was assertive enough not to lose its character along what could have been a slightly challenging pairing. “Middle of the road” may be curse words in some vocabularies, but for a California chardonnay, this sort of balance is a sweet spot I’m happy to find. Recommended.

Wente 2012 “Riva Ranch” Arroyo Seco Chardonnay – Now this is an interesting white. This Chardonnay comes from a blend of two of the Wente clones -- Clone 2A and Clone 4, if you’re keeping score at home. Clone 2A is the “classic” varietal, while Clone 4 is a more recent version that’s got some more fruit characteristics. Riva Ranch, a property in the Arroyo Seco region, starts you off with a bright bouquet of orange blossoms and toasted almonds, which led me to believe there would be more oak on the palate than turned out to be. Instead, there’s a cheek-puffing flavor of apricot and pineapple that leads to gentle buttery flavors. The finish is long with caramel and a little bit of oak gradually trailing off. It’s a forward chardonnay, but a good one. I put this alongside a really nice seared scallop dish with wilted spinach and a light citrus cream sauce. It held up nicely. I’d get this one again if I needed an assertive white. This retails for around $22.

Wente 2010 "Riliz Creek" Arroyo Seco Pinot Noir – In this case, what was good for the goose wasn’t necessarily good for the gander. The Morning Fog impressed me by being middle of the road – by holding a balance between the various elements of the flavor, which is what you might want in a relatively inexpensive bottle. But for the pinot noir, it’s as if they followed the same formula. All the elements are there for a pinot noir – cherry and berry flavors, a medium body, light tannins, and a little bit of smokiness. And these elements were in harmony for the most part. The problem was that there was so much balance that the wine became almost uninteresting. It wasn’t that it was bad, it’s just that nothing really stood out about it. It’s clearly a quality wine, and it’s much better to drink than most inexpensive pinots, but it’s fairly nondescript for the price point. It’s a nonthreatening wine. People will like it. I liked it, too. I just didn’t love it. Food pairing wise, we had it with a turkey meatloaf dish that sounds pedestrian, but calls for those flavors. It was OK, and a bit overpriced at $28.