Monday, December 24, 2007

Avoiding the White Death -- Snowed-In Wines

One of our great winter amusements is watching the inevitable freak-out at the first sign of anything resembling snowy weather. Every local news scrambles "full team coverage," which amounts to second-string reporters bundled up at interstate rest areas and weathermen standing by snowbanks with rulers, all speaking in earnest, serious tones.

Lines at grocery stores run out the door as everyone stocks up on necessary supplies -- bread, milk, eggs -- in case the weather gets so nasty that we're stranded for nine or ten hours. As one friend of mine put it, "What is it about snow forecasts that gives people a craving for French toast?"

Nine times out of ten, the "storm" ends up being a whimper rather than a bang -- slush and a couple of inches of powder you can hardly make an honest snowball with. Even so, be prepared. Here are a couple of suggestions for getting yourself through those interminable minutes of imprisoning by Mother Nature.

Hardy's "Whiskers Blake" Classic Tawny Port -- In many winter tales, a narrator sits down with a glass of port to warm up on a long, cold night. Port is fortified wine. Fortified wines are fermented normally. A neutral brandy is then added to boost the alcohol content. Ports tend to be sweet, heavy wines -- often over 18% alcohol. There are two major port types. Ruby port is the most common. This is the least expensive, sweetest, and youngest type. Tawny port is aged at least seven years in barrels, is much more mellow and complex, and is usually golden brown in color instead of…well…ruby. Port originated in Portugal (big surprise!), but this one is Australian. While sweet, it's not as tooth-achingly sugary as many ports of similar price. Whiskers has a nice fruitiness along with a tasty caramel flavor. The finish has just a hint of sweetness and cozy warmth. With dark chocolate truffles, this is an absolutely divine winter drink. Curl up with a thick blanket, a huggable dog, and a fire and watch the snow fall. Around $12.

Santa Ema 2004 Maipo Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve-- If you're looking for a "standard" wine to warm you up, I find cabernet sauvignon to be the most satisfying. This Chilean cabernet is wonderful for keeping the winter chill at bay. The nose has thick plum and cherry scents, bordering on zinfandel-strong. The flavor is much more balanced than most zinfandels. The Santa Ema medium bodied with more plums and a little bit of licorice on the finish to go with the pleasant dryness. Also, since it's summertime in Chile while we're suffering through winter, simply imagine you're chasing the sun. $8-10.

Some traditional beverages at this time of year are wine-based. In the name of research and emergency preparedness, I managed to come up with a couple of these recipes that turned out pretty well:

Mike's Wassail

  • One fifth dry sherry
  • One cup brandy
  • 4-5 cups apple cider
  • Couple of cinnamon sticks
  • Nutmeg, ginger, coriander, allspice -- 1-2 tsp. each
  • One orange, cut in half and studded with a dozen cloves
  • 1 c. brown sugar

If you were reading the Vine last New Year's, you'll know that we didn't have a great sherry experience. Here's one tasty use. Put all the ingredients into slow cooker, reserving half the orange. Put slow cooker on high for 2-3 hours. Leave on low or warm. (If you don't have a slow cooker, put in a big pot on the stove, put on low, and stir occasionally for a couple of hours.) Serve hot with orange slices and firmly baked apples. If you don't drink it all (ha!), it keeps well.

Mike's Mulled Wine

  • One bottle really cheap dry red wine
  • 1 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. Ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. Crystallized ginger
  • ½ tsp. Nutmeg, allspice, & cinnamon (or to taste)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Orange, cut, half studded with cloves, other half peeled and sectioned
  • 1 lemon, juiced and rind cut into thin strips
  • ½ c. brandy

To "mull" something is to grind or mix thoroughly. Mulled wine is wine well-mixed with spices and such to create a scrumptious delivery system for winter warmth. To make mulled wine (called Glögg in Swedish or Glühwein in German), combine all ingredients except brandy in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 3 hours. Stir in brandy. Strain and serve hot.

So, let it snow! As long as you've got a few bottles stashed away, that is…

Happy Festivus! See you in 2008!

Monday, December 17, 2007

End of Year Clearance!

The slide from Thanksgiving to New Year's is not just party season. It's also "DOORBUSTER DEALS SEASON!!!" How much footage have we seen of people lined up outside Best Buy at 4 am to snag a $50 Wii, outside a Hummer dealership for a free year of gasoline with the purchase of an H3, or outside K-Mart for a three-for-one pack of apple corers.

Aside from simply getting people into stores to flail about in a sea of crass Christmas commercialism, why do merchants go to all this trouble?

Inventory, of course. At year's end, old merchandise gets cleared out to make room for next year's styles, versions, colors, editions, etcetera. What's the best way to clear some space? Why, a sale, of course! Offer sharp discounts to get overwilling consumers to cart away your excess.

Wine stores are like the aforementioned car dealerships. This year's models are still on the lot when automakers prepare to ship next year's, so dealerships offer "end-of-model-year" closeouts. As wineries crank out vintages, the previous year's wines need to get moved off the shelves. The end of the year is a great time to pick up great values. Some things to keep in mind:
  • Large wine producers deal in volume, so stores will have more product to sell before the next year's shipment comes in. You're more likely to find good deals on more common labels. These producers want to keep fresh product on the shelves
  • Look for wines that need to be drunk soon. Not long ago, I found a Bordeaux that was normally about a $25 bottle on sale for $10. It was a 2000 -- so it might last a little while longer, but this particular type was at the height of drinkability and would be heading south soon, more than likely. I bought five bottles and went through them pretty quickly.
  • In general, look for merlots, zinfandels, pinot noirs, and almost any white wines. You'll also find some cabernets and Italian wines that are nearing the end of their drinking peak that you can snap up cheaply.
This is also a great time to try some wines that would typically be a little more expensive than what you would normally get -- you'll be able to see if they're worth a splurge later on. Here are a few end-of-year sale wines that dropped themselves neatly into Vine range:

Ravenswood 2004 Old Vine Zinfandel -- Picked this up for $11, down from $17. I normally don't think of Zinfandels as "elegant," but this was as close as I've found. Rather than the usual 2x4 of fruit across the tongue, the Ravenswood is surprisingly restrained. There's a nice, not overwhelming, fragrance of plums and berries on the nose. The palate has some nice fruit also, but it's not as jammy as many Zins. Instead, there's a nice balance of fruit and tannin -- almost like a cabernet. The finish is also less fruity and more complex than I've run into with Ravenswood and many similar wines. Very pleasant.

Wente 2005 "Morning Fog" Chardonnay -- Wente Cellars made the first wine in California labeled as Chardonnay, and they're a very solid mid-line producer. This wine is normally around $18 a bottle. I got this one for $13. This full-bodied chardonnay starts you with a well-balanced nose of toasted oak and vanilla. The flavor is rich, a little citrusy, and oaky. The finish is long and a bit crisp for a chardonnay. Unlike many California chardonnays (which generally aren't my favorites) -- this one balances fruit, oak, and richness nicely. I enjoyed it.

Francis Coppola 2005 "Diamond Series Silver Label" Pinot Noir -- Honestly, I've stayed away from
Coppola wines. I haven't done it because I've not liked them, but there's something about someone famous doing a "second career" as a winemaker that gave me pause. (I haven't tried any of the Greg Norman wines for a similar reason.) I figured that these might be overpriced, leaning on the Coppola name, but this one was $14, down from $20 -- so I figured, "Why not?" and I was pleasantly surprised. This is a very fragrant wine -- scents of strawberries, cherries, and something like leather. The body is very full for a pinot. A friend of mine once talked about how much he liked "chewy" pinots, and this one certainly fits the bill. Lots of berries and currant flavors, finishing with a thick, slightly dry flavor. A really nice pinot.

So, there you have it -- now is the time to try some of those wines you've thought about but thought they were just a tad too expensive. Get out there and Save! Save! Save!

(Hat tip to co-worker Kristan, her friend Emily, and the Sweet Partner in Crime for the column inspiration.)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The glass has rizz...The glass has set...' here we iz, in Texas yet!

I would like to extend a hearty welcome to the three newest members of The Vineyard!

Thanks to editor Jeannie and crew, The Naked Vine will now be featured in the Plano Insider, the McKinney Courier-Gazette, and the Frisco Enterprise. These three news and entertainment publications cover the North Dallas market. While I share Texas' love of bourbon and branch, I hope to at least provide the Metroplex with a few alternative tipples.

Come on in! Pull up a seat and stay awhile!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Whatever Will Be, Will Be...Petite Sirah

Our neighbors Jeff and Christine joined us for dinner recently to celebrate Christine's brief return to the neighborhood. She'd been spending some time in (and would be returning to) Texas to help her sister her newborn young'un. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I put together a spread, and as the evening wore on, the wines we'd selected started to run a bit low.

I headed to the rack and pulled a bottle of Petite Sirah I'd picked out on a whim a few days before. I poured us a few glasses. Christine asked what it was. I told them and the two of them simultaneously broke into song:

"Petite Sirah, Sirah…whatever will be, will be…this wine tastes so good to me…Petite Sirah, Sirah…"

We all thought it was pretty daggone funny. Of course, this was our fifth bottle of the evening…

In any case, back to the wine. Petite Sirah (sometimes called Petite Syrah, Petit Sirah, or Durif) is a completely different grape varietal than Syrah. The grape was first cloned in France in the late 1800's by one...wait for it...Dr. Durif. He crossed a syrah grape with a French varietal called Peloursin and voila! This grape found its way to California, where it discovered its main home. It largely grows in the Napa/Sonoma area, France and, somewhat surprisingly, Israel.

When we made our first big wine trip to Sonoma, we experienced petit sirah for the first time at our first tasting at our B&B. This powerfully flavored wine opened our eyes to the notion that there was a heck of a lot we didn't know. The rest is history.

Petite Sirahs are generally big, inky reds that are often intensely fragrant. They're often quite tannic and can age for years. Petite Sirah was considered a "boutique" wine for many years. More and more of them are now finding their way into the general marketplace. Foodwise, they often pair with any kind of roasted meat, game, earthy vegetables and (sweet heaven) they're wonderful wines to have with chocolate. They should be decanted for awhile after opening, in general. They need a little time and some good swirling to open up. But once they do, they can be, in the words of a friend of mine, "total ass kickers."

If you're a fan of Syrah and Zinfandel, it's certainly worth trying a couple of bottles.

Bogle 2005 Petit Sirah -- I've long been a fan of Bogle, even though I haven't reviewed many of them for the column. They're generally solid, dependable reds. They didn't let us down with the Petit Sirah. This one has a big nose of plums and, believe it or not, apple pie. The body is quite big, and the fruit's pretty bold. The finish starts fruity, but then turns quickly dry and hangs on for a good long while. $9-11.

Oak Grove 2005 Petite Sirah Reserve -- This was the wine which caused the spontaneous post-gustatory singing. As I've mentioned, this varietal has a number of different spellings. This apparently caused their label writer to fall victim to synonym trouble. The label states that fruit flavors "explode on the pallet." If this were truly the case, Oak Grove's warehouses must be a mess. The wine itself is fruity, although not as strong as the Bogle. The SPinC thought it was more subtle than many petite sirahs, and I agree. The nose isn't as strong, nor is the fruit as intense, so it's probably more accessible for someone who's not tried a lot of them. The finish is dry and relatively quick. Still, as pointed out above, it is a pretty good tasting entry. For some, good enough to sing for. $7-8.

Guenoc 2005 Lake County Petite Sirah -- I pulled the cork from this bottle to find "Langtry" stamped on the side. Guenoc is Langtry Estates' second label. Their "estate" petite sirah will set you back $40, but you can find this one for about a third of that price. The nose of this wine rushes from the glass with a blast of mint and blueberry. From the other side of the couch, the SPinC said, "I can smell the mint from here." The nose also has a slight yeasty scent. The body is medium, much like a red Burgundy. The finish then turns dry as the tannin takes over, but it's a very pleasant wine. This wine recently took home "Best Petit Sirah" at the California State Fair. Give it a go at $10-12.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Naked Vine in Monsoon Valley

There are occasional perks to being a shamelessly self-promoting fledgling wine writer. Every now and again, perks appear. Several weeks ago, I was working with my fellow blogger Harlan Weikle, proprietor of "Here's Cooking at You, Kid." (Click on the picture of Bogie in the sidebar to check his stuff out.) We did some commentary on the Build a Better Burger contest.

Through a series of tangents after the Thai burger ended up winning, I ended up emailing a representative from Red Bull in Britain. Turns out Red Bull is exporting wine from Thailand. The wine is called Monsoon Valley and is supposed to be made specifically to pair with food from that part of the world. The guy said that he'd send me a couple of bottles to sample. I was, of course, agreeable.

I never realized how difficult it was to get wine shipped internationally. After hangups in customs, with import regulations, and with missing the shipper for delivery numerous times, I eventually landed three bottles. The duty charges ended up being more than the wine itself, but that's another story…

Anyway, Monsoon Valley -- the idea of it is pretty fascinating. If you check out their website, you'll learn that they can get two harvests a year from their grapes, many of which are grown on "floating vineyards." Considering that most grapes grow best in almost arid conditions, it goes to show you that where there's a will and a wine press, there's a way. (Although, for a good laugh, watch the "Floating Vineyards" video. I've never imagined grapes harvested with golden shears by attractive, well-groomed Thai women…)

How were these wines? We broke out some Thai recipes, opened the wine, and…

Monsoon Valley 2006 Blended Red Wine -- The first we had a chance to try. This wine is a blend of Shiraz and the native Pokdum grape. The nose is soft with some berry and cherry scents. It's not a heavy wine in the slightest -- the light body has a decent amount of fruit, and finishes dry and a little bitter, like coffee. I wanted to make a Thai dish to pair, and we settled on a green curry with beef and potatoes over some rice noodles. One of our favorite recent recipes was a Thai-flavored beef salad, and the suggested pairing was Beaujolais. This wine is very much along those lines, and it complimented the curry quite nicely. Most reds wouldn't have been able to handle the spices in this curry. Like Beaujolais, it also should be served chilled.

Monsoon Valley 2007 Blended White Wine -- Next up was this blend of the native Malaga Blanc grape along with some Columbard. On first taste, I was a little disappointed. This is a very thin wine. By "thin" -- I'm not just referring to the light taste, but it seemed somewhat watery. There was some fruit on the nose and the finish quickly drifted off. We were a little unsure of what to expect from a food pairing so I decided to play it safe, or so I thought, by doing a Thai hot & sour soup. We often enjoy doing soups as entire meals. I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque (or Angkor Wat, as the case may be) with my chilies and lemongrass and ended up creating a broth that was…well…a challenge to work through. I think this one might have even given my asbestos-palated friend James pause. Even so, the wine actually stood up nicely to the heavy heat. The fruit came out more strongly, and it certainly cooled the fire a bit. However, we ended up going to a plan B for much of dinner, and I ended up being able to refinish some furniture with what was left of the broth. Still, a surprising backbone if you want a wine to go with something super hot.

Monsoon Valley 2007 Blended Rosé Wine -- The last of the three, a blend of Malaga Blanc, Columbard, and Shiraz. We decided to go a safer route -- I did a pretty basic chicken stir fry with veggies and some Thai seasonings (along with some of the shrimp and mushrooms that I strained out of the aforementioned varnish-stripping soup) to accompany the rosé. The nose was an interesting blend of pears and flowers. The flavor, though, was odd. The body of the wine was almost soapy. There wasn't a ton of fruit and much like the white, the finish wasn't all that crisp -- it simply drifted off. And, like the previous two wines, the rose didn't show its true colors until we got it next to some food. Once again, it stepped up to the challenge. The soapiness buoyed the flavors of the wine against the spices and it became a decent quaff with dinner.

The tagline for Monsoon Valley is "Thai Wine for Thai Food." I agree. I wouldn't recommend it if you're just going to sit around a have a glass either before or after dinner, but if you're planning to have some spicy food; this is probably a good choice. All three of these wines are right around $9.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Wine for Thanksgiving

Hard to believe it's been a year since the last time I looked at wines for the Most Gluttonous Time Of The Year. Lots of calories under the bridge since then. We're again faced with the same dilemma -- big table, many family members with various issues, wildly varied foods, and a need for wines to please everyone.

Good luck.

Actually, there are a number of wines that would work just fine with almost any table. Since thinking basic is a good idea, there's a lot of decent product that will work. A few possibilities follow. And, like last year, if you find yourself cooking -- I still recommend a flask of Maker's Mark stashed inconspicuously behind the potato masher.

Paringa 2004 Sparkling Shiraz -- Full disclosure -- this was the first alcoholic sparkling red I've ever tried. I'd heard sparkling shiraz mentioned as a flexible wine, and I was quite curious, since I couldn't quite put "Shiraz" and "sparkling" together in my mind. If you drink this wine thinking "Shiraz," you're in for a shock. The strong fruit and slight sweetness of Shiraz gets amplified. While the wine was a little bit sweeter than I usually take, it was still very interesting. The nose is crisp, with a little blueberry. The flavor is soft. It's sweet, but there's a little bit of tannin running underneath. The finish is very crisp for a wine this sweet. If you put it with the typical Thanksgiving table -- roast turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, and such -- it would really shine. There are enough interesting notes in here to echo almost anything you'll find in the food. If you pick it up at another time of year, have it as a brunch wine. Fruits (we had it with cherries and chocolate covered blueberries) match this wine very well. $10.

Covey Run 2005 Gewürztraminer -- What can I say, I'm still a sucker for wines with umlauts. While Riesling is probably more flexible, if you've got a group that wants something a little different or if you're with a group that doesn't know better, bust out a Gewürz. It'll be fun for people to try to pronounce after a couple of glasses, at the very least. This offering from Washington is a really flavorful wine, starting you with a nose of honey and apples. The body is quite full and fruity, and it's not as peppery as many of its cousins. I generally prefer them with a little more spice, but this will be much more accessible to a larger group. More importantly, it does have enough acidity to stand up to most foods. It will compliment almost anything that you might think to cook, unless you're going to do a beef roast or something along those lines. For $8-9, you'll get a bottle you can use either with dinner or as an aperitif.

Louis Jadot 2006 Beaujolais-Villages -- A quick side note here. I wanted to do a Beaujolais as one of the wines, since that's a classic pairing. I was struck immediately when I checked that section of the aisle at the sheer number of Beaujolais cru that were available. If you remember, those are the ones made in particular towns in the region and are supposed to be the "top of the line." Then I noticed -- every single one of them was from Georges Dubeouf. I shouldn't have a prejudice, since his wines are generally very quaffable -- but with this onslaught of cru, I was skeptical. I followed my instinct and took the one bottle of Beaujolais among the dozen or so that wasn't from dear ol' Georges. I wasn't disappointed. A friendly, nice nose of strawberries and cherries. Those scents are echoed in the body of the wine. The tannins are light, and the acidity's not too strong. A good all around red wine to just straight-up drink or that will work with most anything you'll have on the table. Only $6-7, so you can load up and not break the bank.

Gnarly Head 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel -- "Come on, Mike," a friend of mine said, "You do these wines for big groups and parties, and you do things that will appeal to the middle of the road. But Thanksgiving is a big ass meal, so you need a big ass wine. What would you do?" With a gauntlet like that thrown down, you need a red wine where people will know that they're drinking A Red Wine. Still, you have to have appeal for lots of folks, and it does have to go with what you're serving. One wine raises its hand -- Zinfandel. Specifically, big, cranking California Zin. The Gnarly Head fills the bill perfectly. The very definition of a "fruit bomb," this wine announces its presence with authority. Lots of big plummy scents lead you to a huge fruity body. There's a little tannin and a little oak in there somewhere, and you catch hints of it on the finish -- but it's largely a big wine that would pair with big flavors. Most Thanksgiving tables would be perfect. At close to 15% alcohol, it'll liven up any party. $10.

Enjoy the gorging, enjoy the wine, enjoy the football, and celebrate the family. Whether tied by blood or by love, they're what makes us us. Raise a glass.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Hang on, Sloopy...

The Naked Vine continues its march through the Buckeye State with the very welcome addition of The Other Paper, the official entertainment weekly of Columbus, Ohio.

When I was in grade school, one of my best friends was originally from Columbus. He introduced me to the joys of COSI. A number of years later, a friend of mine who used to play in a band in Cincinnati introduced me to the joys of a number of the establishments in the Arena District...

Hearty greetings to the denizens of the Arch City. Grab a glass and stay awhile...

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Testosterone Sauvignon -- Wines for Men

Men like wine. Why don't we see it advertised to them?
Watch typical "male" programming. You know, talking sports, wrestling, action movies, "24," and so on. You don't see wine ads among the deluge of "light" beers, gadgets, and John Mellencamp singing about Awrrr Countreee. Heck, they'll advertise a flippin' minivan, but not a decent bottle of cabernet.
Men are a stable wine buying population. We drink the stuff. We write songs about it (from the Rolling Stones to Merle Haggard to Axl Rose). The majority of winemakers are men. The manliest writers -- think Hemingway, London, Kerouac, et al -- feature it prominently. Behind the pursuit of "yabyum" and enlightenment, a close third-ranking activity in "The Dharma Bums" was finding a jug of wine and hanging out. Basically, the same things we still do…
Perhaps winemakers think that men aren't a good target demographic. Perhaps they think that other avenues are more effective -- I'm not sure. Even with females making up the larger percentage of wine drinkers (52.5 to 47.5%), that still leaves about a billion bottles consumed by men each year in the U.S. alone, and they haven't even surveyed me yet. In my opinion, the first winemaker to catch on to the fact that there are more than Neanderthals watching "everyday man" shows will make a mint. Maybe a couple of winemakers are wising up. I heard an ad for Dancing Bull Wines on "Mike and Mike in the Morning" on ESPN Radio, so who knows?
Regardless, as a rule, men are usually more clueless than women in a wine store. Why? Genetics. We're preprogrammed to a) be the authority and b) never ask for directions. (That thud you just heard was the Sweet Partner in Crime braining me with an Introduction to Sociology textbook.)
Let a typical man loose in a wine store and what happens? A little aimless wandering, perhaps the "what have I heard of before" thought process -- and, eventually, the same thing happens to a man as a woman. He looks at labels and buys something that looks interesting. Shiny objects and pretty colors, you know. Breweries figured that out a long time ago.
Slowly, wineries are coming around to this way of thinking. I put myself in a mindset of looking at labels and walked the aisles, thinking, "What looks interesting?" Here are a couple that jumped out:

Bohemian Highway 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon -- For the ex-and-present hippies among us. This is a pretty straightforward cab. A cab you could pour and enjoy with a meal, or sit around and Kerouac right out of the bottle. The fairly strong nose is currants and blackberries. The body is big and fruity. Nothing you have to work too hard to wrap your palate around. The finish is straight fruit, almost Zin-ish. Not a lot of tannin to be found, so it would be an excellent party wine. The flavor blends well with anything smoky. $7.
Joe Blow 2005 White Wine -- Even more challenging than finding the right marketing for men would be finding a way to market white wine to men. At least red wine has the romance and the better descriptive words on the cards in the aisles. You don't hear a pinot grigio described as "muscular" very often. So, create a label that says, "Hey…no big deal…it's just wine." Ironically, the Joe Blow is made from three very "female" varietals: chardonnay, viognier, and chenin blanc. The nose is very interesting. I guess you'd call it "tropical," but I got an odd combination -- butter and papaya -- and it worked. The viognier makes the nose strong, the chardonnay gives it a full body, and the chenin blanc adds a nice crispness. A good hot weather wine or with anything spicy. $10.
Jarhead Red California Table Wine -- The Marine emblem stands out on this simply labeled wine, marketed as a wine "made by Marines for Marines." I'm not a veteran, but I certainly appreciate the service of the Marines and the fruit of the labors of a couple of them. Made in conjunction with Firestone Vineyards (most of the wines are out of Vine range, but if you get a chance to try their cabernet, splurge.) The Jarhead is a solid red, definitely a cabernet dominated blend. Plenty of fruit on both the nose and palate. The finish is dry, but not very long. More of a get in, get out wine with any kind of red meat. We had this outside one night in the company of one of our neighbors. The proceeds from the sale of this wine go to the Marine Corps Scholarship Fund ( This organization provides educational assistance to the children of fallen Marines. $13.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Greatest Misses

From a recent conversation:
"You know, Mike -- by nature, you're more or less a cynical bastard. But when you write about wine, you always say such positive things. Have you ever run into a wine you didn't like?"
It's a good question. I mean, I'm usually pretty lucky with the wines I end up reviewing, but there are some I've bumped into that just…well…won't be on my list. I tend to spare you folks from reading about them -- but why not publish a cautionary tale once in awhile?

What follows are some wines I've run into during my explorations that didn't make the cut...

Cline 2006 Viognier -- I'm generally a fan of Cline wine. They're a good midline wine producer. Heck, I used a Cline in the installment where I talked about "wine sniffing." They generally make very decent wine at reasonable prices. I was excited about the Viognier, since the weather is cooling off a bit, and the weight of Viognier works well as we leave the heat. Also, I'm a sucker for a pretty-smelling wine. Unfortunately, things stopped there. The nose was slightly perfumey, like many Viogniers -- but not as strong as I'm used to. The body can only be described as "weak." It was like drinking fruity water, and the finish was the definition of what they call in WineSpeak, "flabby." Much better Viogniers are available.

Domaine Guindon 2005 Muscadet -- A friend of mine recommended a muscadet not long ago, and I wondered why I hadn't made myself at least passingly familiar with the varietal. I bought one at the store, chilled it a bit, gave it a swig, and remembered why I'd not done so. When I first started learning about wine, I picked up a Kevin Zraly wine course book and worked my way through. One of the first stops was "The White Wines of France." In the Loire Valley region, they make wine from the muscadet grape. That's not to be confused with Muscat -- the grape used for any number of sweeter white & dessert wines. This grape yields a somewhat dry wine which allegedly pairs well with shrimp & shellfish. I remember not exactly finding it to my liking. I'd not bought another -- until this one. And I remembered immediately why I didn't much care for it. The nose of this wine smelled alkaline to me, almost metallic. The main taste of the wine is incredibly dry and quickly turns really tart. The finish of the wine left my tongue feeling like a carpet. In fairness, since then I found that muscadet is fabulous with oysters on the half-shell, but unless you've got some salty shellfish on the menu, you might want to look elsewhere.

Australian Riesling in General -- As anyone who knows me will tell you, I love me some Riesling. I enjoy this wine because: (a) It's food friendly. (b) It's affordable. (c) It's generally yummy. I've also read recently that Australia has been "very successful" at growing Riesling. If that's so, I haven't run into many. I've tried a couple -- Lindemans 2004 "Bin 75" Riesling and Rosemount Estates 2005 Riesling. Given, both are from large-scale producers. Both are semi-sweet and crisp, and you'll get some lemon and apple from each, but nothing to write home about. They're both pretty inexpensive, so if you're doing a dinner party and your guests aren't picky, they'll probably all like this. If they are picky, make sure you get some food and other wines in them before cracking this one. Seriously -- if any of you out there in VineLand have some suggestions for Aussie Riesling, please pass them along. I hate to write off an entire country's varietal, after all.

There you have it -- a few of the wines I'd think twice about. Feel free to disagree. If there are wines you expected to be something special (or at least decent) and ended up disappointing, share your stories. Think of it as group therapy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

You Can't Go Home Again?

The newest addition to the "Vine's Benefactors" reflects on my past. Some of you may know that I did indeed attend Duke University, and the good folks at newest entertainment paper there -- the Durham Flyer -- decided to start running the Vine.

From Brightleaf to 9th Street to the Bryan Center, I guess I made it back for my class reunion after all. Welcome aboard -- even if you happen to root for Carolina...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Manolo Blahnik. Kate Spade. Mad Housewife?

"In marketing I've seen only one strategy that can't miss -- and that is to market to your best customers first, your best prospects second and the rest of the world last."
- John Romero

Marketing fascinates me.

Ever since I took an "Advertising and Society" class my senior year at [redacted], I've looked at advertisements with a more critical eye. I also received the worst grade on any paper in my academic career in that class because I focused too tightly on marketing in my research -- or at least that's the explanation the TA in the class gave.

It's all about appealing to the target demographic. Advertisers get brief chunks of time to make an impression, so message must be tightly targeted. You want to appeal to young men? Use scantily clad women (or perhaps scantily clad men). You want to appeal to older men? Mention a life free from prostate trouble. You want to appeal to middle-aged folks? Get them worried about either paying for children and retirement, or remind them that they can still feel young. And then there's the John Mellencamp-themed Chevy ads. (You know the one: "This is awrrrr counnnntreeeeeee."). They seem to annoy as many people as the Applebee's "Gilligan's Island" spots -- so I'm yet to figure where they're aimed…

So what does this have to do with wine? Women account for 57% of wine sales in the US, and most female consumers of wine drink what they buy almost immediately. 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."

Wine sellers are quick on the uptake. Interesting labels, odd bottle shapes, funky names for wines -- these are aimed at casual wine drinkers and/or people who tend to consume wines not long after purchase, since those two demographics make up the majority of wine sales. A typical, old-school cursive covered bottle with a proudly emblazoned vintage but no other "obvious" information isn't going to stand out while strolling the aisles of Liquor Direct.

Couple this notion with Sbrocco's thesis -- and you'll get a lot of wines marketed at women for "specific" use in particular environments. Now, I'm not going to claim knowledge of what those environments may be…I'll leave those to you to envision or share in the comments. That said, here are a few wines who clearly weren't marketed towards my gender:

Little Black Dress 2005 Chardonnay -- From their publicity, "Fashioned specifically to capture the pure essence of what a woman wants in a wine, Little Black Dress signifies all that is elegant, confident, sexy and today." Pretty bold statement for an $8 bottle. Is it "sexy and today?" I have no clue, but it's decent. It comes off the hangar with a nose like a buttery chard -- creamy and citrusy. It's medium bodied for a chardonnay, and makes no bones about being Californian. There's plenty of toasty oak in this wine. However, instead of becoming buttery, it's turns more crisp -- an interesting mix of European and American styling. The finish is oaky and somewhat dry. We had this one with some grilled swordfish and yellow rice and it went quite nicely.

Mad Housewife 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon -- "This is your time. Time to enjoy a moment to yourself. A moment without the madness." Perhaps this is a reworking of the Stones' "Mother's Little Helper," but hey -- whatever gets you through. Actually, this is a very decent Cabernet. It's nothing spectacular, but very approachable. The Mad Housewife has a fragrant nose of currants and blackberries. There's a nice fruity taste with just an edge of tannin. Finish is slightly dry. The Sweet Partner in Crime said that she found it "Zin-ish, but not quite that strong a flavor." It's a $10 bottle, which is probably about right for the quality.

Bitch 2005 Grenache -- I remember the first time I saw this wine. I was wandering down the Australian wine aisle when I spotted this bright pink label with "Bitch" delicately scripted. I had a hard time running this wine down to review -- as it tends to sell pretty briskly, for reasons I would need a second "X" chromosome to properly understand. When did "bitch" become a term of endearment? I used that word to describe that Advertising and Society TA for a decade. That all changed when TA-Bitch became the Sweet Partner in Crime ten years later, but that's a story for another day.

That said, this is a much fruitier, heavier wine than I expected from a straight Grenache. Most Grenaches tend to be on the light side, but this one refuses to take a back seat. (Apparently, Grenache is also a bitch to grow…) Blindfolded, I'd think might be a more manly zinfandel, but Bitch brings the strength. At 15% alcohol -- this is not a wine to be trifled with. The nose is full of brandy-covered plums. There's some licorice to go with the fruit when you taste, and the finish is surprisingly dry. Nice tannin. $11-12.

Of course, since I'm male, you can probably discount most of what I say above. I'll do a followup column on manly wines soon. Suggestions are welcome…

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two-Buck Chuck

Great moments in cinema, Bull Durham edition:

Crash Davis gives Nuke LaLoosh advice about how to handle "The Show." "You're gonna have to learn your clichés," Crash says. Same thing applies if you ever decide to write a column about inexpensive wine. Have your responses down as you're making your pitch for fame and fortune.

When you get "What's your favorite wine?" Answer: "Whatever's open."

When you get "How many bottles do you have open at a time?" Answer: "Enough."

When you get "Sir, what do you think you're doing?" Answer: You're usually pouring glasses for yourself at a wine tasting, which is unfortunately considered poor form. Simply apologize. Then point across the room, exclaim, "Is that Robert Parker over there?" and snag the bottle when no one's looking.

However, "So, what do you know about that 'Two Buck Chuck' stuff?" was a question I couldn't answer. So, for the sake of science as well as your writing career, I'll take one for the team…

"Two Buck Chuck" is the nickname for Charles Shaw wines. These wines are exclusively distributed at Trader Joe's markets. (Pleasepleasepleaseplease open one in Northern Kentucky!) In California, where Shaw wines are produced, you can buy them for $1.99 a bottle. Elsewhere, depending on taxes, you'll likely find three-or-four buck Chuck.

There's nothing magical about this wine. The genesis of the low cost, according to the Trader Joe's website, "began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier." Said supplier, Bronco Wineries (connected with Franzia), was indicted on federal fraud charges and paid a $2.5 million fine in the early 90's for misrepresenting cheaper grapes as premium Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Bronco's bucked back with a vengeance, however -- as Charles Shaw has become one of the best selling wines in the United States.

So, how's it taste? Shaw wines have won major awards in national competitions, but I suppose I'm not enough of a connoisseur to understand why. I will say that they're generally solid, uncomplicated wines you can drink easily enough with food, but often have enough flavor to drink on their own. In other words, for a sluggable, you're talking about a decent bottle that's cheaper than either Boone's Farm or Night Train. Here's the skinny on Shaw's latest releases:

Charles Shaw 2006 Chardonnay -- In 2007, Charles Shaw's '05 chard won "Best in Class" and "Best in California" awards, but the '06 probably won't follow in its footsteps. That certainly doesn't mean that this is a poor wine. Although it's a California chard, it's not at all buttery, and only slightly oaky. The nose is light with some interesting peach scents. It's got a crisp taste with some mineral flavor and is a little peachy, like an inexpensive white burgundy. You might also notice some flavors of bubblegum in there somewhere. Finish is medium -- it's got a little weight at the end. A very decent, straight-up, inoffensive chardonnay for drinking alone or with picnic food, baked fish, or chicken dishes

Charles Shaw 2005 Merlot -- Trader Joe's patrons either skipped Sideways a few years ago or knew better than to pay attention to the "f'n merlot" rant. The Charles Shaw merlot is their top seller. I mentioned during Wine School the need to decant young and/or inexpensive wines. Here's another case in point. If you try to drink this right after popping the cork, you're going to get hit with a snootful of alcohol fumes. However, after a chance to sit and open up for a bit, it turns into a decent little quaff. The nose has a plum scent, almost like a syrah. The body is relatively light for a merlot. It's easy to drink, with some dark berry flavor, but it's not as rich as many merlots. The finish starts fruity, but then tannin kicks in and dries it out. With usual merlot foods like pork or grilled veggies, it would likely be very decent.

Charles Shaw 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon -- Again, another wine that you're going to need to decant before you drink. Straight out of the bottle, lighter fluid and berries. But after breathing for a good long while, it edges towards something a little more interesting. A little chocolate and blackberry on the nose. The taste -- well, this may be the least dry Cab I've ever tasted. There's a lot of fruit and some decent feel, but there's almost no tannin to speak of until the finish. Almost more like a Zinfandel (and knowing the history…hmm…) than a cabernet. I'd recommend this as a wine to have sitting around during a barbecue, or perhaps as your third or fourth bottle of the evening when you're not being choosy. If the latter is your reality, make sure you're stocked up on B-12, ibuprofen, Gatorade, and ginger ale.

Charles Shaw 2006 Sauvignon Blanc -- The big surprise of the bunch. In my experience, most "super-value" Sauvignon Blancs are either weak little wines or acidic enough to practically melt the bottle they're stored in -- not to mention your tongue and the underside of your jaw. The Shaw is neither. The nose is nicely fruity and approachable. The taste is a blend of honey and grapefruit. I'd almost describe it as "Viognier Lite." The finish isn't as crisp as a lot of SB's, although there's enough residual acidity to make it refreshing. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I agreed that buying a case or two each summer to have as everyday sluggables wouldn't be a bad idea. A rock-solid pool wine, although I'd probably look elsewhere for food pairings, since there are so many good food-friendly Sauvignon Blancs at only a dollar or two more.

Charles Shaw also started producing Shiraz and Valdiguie. The latter is a clone of Gamay grown in California. I haven't tried either. So, if you have, please chime in.

Remember to temper your expectations. If you're going to pick up wine that's this inexpensive, don't think. You can only hurt the ballclub.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Build a Better Burger

Fall is in the air. Grills across the country fire up for tailgates, cookouts (They're not "barbecues" -- "barbecue" is a noun, not a verb, people.), and any other reason you can think of to put victuals over flame.

Thanks to Harlan Weikle at Rick's Place, I've been asked to provide some commentary for Trinchero/Sutter Home's annual Build a Better Burger contest. This nationwide gathering of recipes is down to ten finalists -- five in the "beef" division, and five in the "alternative" division. The finals are Saturday, and if you want to see a liveblogging of a burger competition, they'll be doing that on their website.

I'll be posting thoughts after the contest is over -- and as I try each of those recipes. You can see the finalists' recipes here. My early handicapping leans towards the Argentinean Burger with Chimichurri Sauce (which just screams for a Malbec) and the Little Italy Sausage Burger (Zinfandel for me, please).

Got favorite burger recipes to share? Have at it...

UPDATE: The results are in! I was dead on with the Little Italy Sausage Burger, but the grand prize went to the Sweet Hot Thai Burger. With this one, I'm of several minds. Dry rose or an extra dry sparkling wine would work well here. Gewurztraminer's also a possibility. As much as I love red wine with burgers, I would have a hard time here -- the tannins would clash. You'd have to go with a non-tannic red, and they'd probably get run over by the flavors. I'd like to try this with the Monsoon Valley Shiraz Harlan mentioned in his post. Wonder if we can get Thai wine around here...

So, we're all set for the next grilling session. Enjoy!

Monday, September 24, 2007

"There's more than corn in Indiana..."

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I needed some rest.

Without going into too much detail, I'll simply say that this was the least relaxing summer either of us can remember. Thankfully, as the season wound down and things began to calm somewhat, we decided we needed to get away for a few days. We'd heard about some wineries in neighboring Indiana, and we figured "Why not?"

This trip was about relaxation. The wineries simply provided structure for our wanderings. Our expectations weren't sky high for the wine itself. Why? Our experiences with "nontraditional wine growing areas" haven't exactly been stellar. Many times we've bought a bottle because it was the best wine at the tasting room but, as a friend of mine often comments, "That's damning with faint praise." The best of the wines are generally mediocre and twice as costly as they should be.

There are now wineries in all 50 states, but there's a reason the "traditional" locales make most of the wine. Vinifera grapes are persnickety. They generally need a very specific climate to produce at their best. Certain places (read: "Pacific Coast, Finger Lakes, and a few other patches") support that cycle. Outside these areas, climate and terroir make growing many kinds of grapes problematic. The blast furnace summer days and high humidity of the South and Midwest aren't exactly ideal.

Sometimes a place gets lucky. A grape used sparingly somewhere finds a spot and becomes a winner. Think Malbec after moving from France to Argentina. Other times, science comes to the rescue -- discovering a hybrid grape that can thrive in a new climate. Unfortunately, many of these hybrid grapes simply don't produce quality wine.

There's also a winegrowing saying: "A little sugar makes up for a lot of mistake." When we've visited many small wineries, almost universally the best seller is some version of syrupy sweet Concord-tasting grape juice with a little alcohol, or worse, a berry wine of some kind. (There are a few decent fruit wines we've found, but they're the exception.)

With taste expectations at a minimum, we set off down the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail. Our itinerary wasn't to crash around to every winery in the state. We just wanted to see what we could at our leisurely pace.

We were heading down US-150 when I spied a little sign on the side of the road in Hardinsburg which simply said "Winery" with an arrow pointing down a narrow road. Couldn't resist. Three miles later, we arrived at Vinetree Farm Winery. They opened up their tasting room for us and Patricia (who had some wonderful watercolors for sale in the tasting room) poured for us. She and her husband started the winery because they wanted "fellowship beyond just square dancing." Their wines, named after local friends, animals, and landmarks, were reasonably good. The highlight was a Vidal Blanc (one of the aforementioned hybrids, often used for ice wine) called "Lorretta." A little sweet, but still refreshing.

After some time rolling through the small towns in rural Indiana, past Patoka Lake and the nearly-abandoned town of Birdseye, we stopped at Winzerwald Winery in Bristow. I'd seen their website before and was intrigued by their logo:

Wine and pretzels -- a great combination. We met Donna Adams, who owns the place with her husband Dan. They did a number of very decent wines, several with German varietals I'd never heard of -- Lemberger, Liebfraumilch, Black Riesling, and several others. These wines were certainly distinctive -- definitely worth trying. Our favorite was their 5th Anniversary "Schaumwein" (German for "sparkling wine") that would have fit in nicely with the semi-sparkling varietals. The wine was crisp and only a little sweet. We tried it with [I can't remember] and we agreed on the quality. A very pleasant sparkler -- especially in the heat we've been having. They also did a very nice straight-up Gewurztraminer, which was semi-dry and nicely spicy.

The next day led us down a number of twisty roads to eventually land at Huber in Starlight, Indiana. The winery is a small part of this "agricultural entertainment complex." U-Pick fruits, cheesemaking, an ice cream factory, a kid's park, a huge wine-related gift shop, a café, and on and on. Our experience had typically been that the more extraneous stuff there was at a winery, the lower the quality. We were pleasantly incorrect. Huber did a number of very decent hybrid wines -- Seyval Blanc (similar to Sauvignon Blanc and grown widely in England), Traminette (a hybrid of gewürztraminer), and Chardonel (a Seyval/Chardonnay cross). They also have an on-site distillery, and their reserve apple brandy was nothing short of impressive. I was reminded more of scotch than brandy -- but I plan to pick some up for wintertime.

Our last stop in Indiana was Turtle Run -- a small winery outside of Corydon. Turtle Run was, at least for me, the highlight of our discoveries. Nestled among rolling hills, winemaker Jim Pfeiffer constantly tinkers with varietals and blends to create some very solid, relatively inexpensive selections. His Chardonel is "in the style of a French Burgundy," and he's dead on. We had that with a grilled swordfish and some saffron rice, and it was delicious. His Summer Solstice (a blend of Chardonel and Traminette) is the "prettiest" wine that I had on the trip.

You may notice that all of the wines I've mentioned are whites. I think white wine grapes must be much more forgiving -- because very few red grapes, in my opinion, grow well outside of the "usual" places. The most common red grape is Chambourcin -- and I've yet to find one of those I'd actually pay for. I've seen some cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, but they've not generally been anything outstanding. (Although Smith-Berry winery in Kentucky seems to be on the right track.)

We also had a wonderful night's stay and some delicious cookies at the Leavenworth Inn, had a fantastic burger at Pinky's Pub in Paoli, and discovered that West Baden is "The Carlsbad of America."

Mike's recommendations:

Vinetree Farms Winery "Lorretta" White -- $11
Winzerwald Gewürztraminer -- $15
Huber 2006 Seyval Blanc -- $12
Huber 2005 White Blossom -- $15
Turtle Run 2006 Summer Solstice -- $14
Turtle Run 2005 Chardonel -- $14

I believe all these wineries are able to ship out of Indiana, so if you're curious about wines grown outside the "normal" places -- these would be well worth a purchase. Even better, take a drive and visit. And tell them The Naked Vine sent you.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The New York Times is horning in on my action...

The New York Times' wine writer, Eric Asimov, has penned an article, "Happiness for $10 or Less." Sheesh. You'd think that a writer for the Grey Lady wouldn't need to bother trying to upstage my little blog...

In all seriousness -- I enjoy Asimov's wine writing. He's one of the few unpretentious ones out there in a major publication.

He did posted the question for comment, "What's the best bottle of wine you've had for under $10?" So, I'll follow suit...all you folks out in NakedVineLand -- what's the best bottle you've had in that price range?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Make Wine Not War

A bit behind on putting this up -- Vine reader James Armstrong (the "Strange Man for a Strange World" on my blogroll) forwarded this op-ed from the New York Times. You think wine's not a serious business here in the States? In France, they're setting off IED's over frustration towards the government's strict production laws, the "wine lake," and exporting difficulties. Have a read -- it's fascinating, albeit very sad, stuff.

Changing LINKS

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Tiny Bubbles...

Will summer ever end?

Perhaps you're luckier in your neck of the woods. Because just across the river from Cincinnati, it's frickin' hot. And humid. And dry.

(What does the cheap wine man mean -- humid and dry?)

Yep. Every day's the same for the last two months. Highs in the 90's. Muggy. But no rain. Ever. We're over a foot of rain short, and everything is dry, brown, and dead. In a normal summer, I'd expect that the heat and humidity would get blasted down occasionally by a good long rain shower -- but we've had nothing. We sit, plastered to the Weather Channel, watching the radar -- which often resembles a doughnut with I-275 as the hole.

I'm whining, aren't I?

In any case, everyone searches for a way to beat the heat -- to find some kind of refreshment, while at the same time not making you heavy and sleepy. For the obvious answer, let us turn to Brigitte Bardot:

"Champagne is the one thing that gives me zest when I feel tired."

Of course, the Woman God Created was French, so she wouldn't be considering other sparkling wines. We here at the Vine are neither Francophile nor Bardotophile enough to rule out other nationalities of sparkling wine. In fact, if you're looking for relief from the heat, looking outside France is a good idea.

Why? Many sparkling wines made outside of France are considered "semi-sparkling." These wines aren't as carbonated as full sparkling wines. There's a definition which includes the pressure within the bottle -- under "three atmospheres" of pressure is considered semi-sparkling. For our purposes, a semi-sparkling wine is very lightly carbonated and generally lower in alcohol, which means you can drink them most any time of day without getting tanked. (Now, once you go for the second bottle, all bets are off.)

I know many folks think beer when it's blazing hot, but sparkling wine's lighter than the lightest light beer, colder than other wines, as refreshing as sparkling water, and quickly makes you forget that there's anything wrong with the weather. One thing to remember about sparkling wine (aside from the hangover if you're not careful) -- while it's good to keep a bottle or two around, it's best not to store them in the fridge. After a week or so, the cold will kill the flavors. Just get up in the morning, realize the weather's going to be ugly, and put the bottle in. Your wine will be plenty cold by lunch.

I don't know if these would put the pep back in Brigitte's step -- but they work for me:

Gazela Vinho Verde -- One of the few Portuguese wines that you'll find these days. Vinho Verde translates as "Green Wine." The name refers more to the age of the wine than the color. The wine looks almost clear. The wine's a blend of red and white grapes and is intended to be drunk within a year of bottling. It has a light citrusy nose that moves easily into a slightly tart flavor. I'd call the Gazela a "sauvignon blanc lite" with its flavors of grapefruit and lemon. It's a little dry on the finish, and the dryness is amplified by a slight carbonation. Technically, this wine's not a sparkling wine, but I see bubbles when I open it, so it counts. It's extremely easy to drink and, at only 9% alcohol, you could "Drink this one for breakfast," as a wine mentor of mine used to say. The Gazela is easily locatable in your wine store -- the bottle's very distinctive. I found this on sale for $5. A great value, and a nice wine to have lying around.

Borgo San Leo Prosecco Brut -- I've become hooked on Prosecco as this summer wears on. I think it's one of the most refreshing wines out there. Prosecco is an Italian grape that can be used for either fully or semi-sparkling wine. I've not run into many of the full-sparkling versions of the grape. The Borgo has a light, crisp nose of apples and a little yeast. It's fruity and dry to the taste, again with a slight yeast taste. The dryness was unexpected, even with the "Brut" tag. I thought it would be sweeter, but it was much more like Champagne. It's certainly much less sweet than most Prosecco. Finish is very dry, but pleasant. For $9-10, it certainly helps ward off the heat.

René Barbier Mediterranean Pétillant Wine -- An interesting marketing ploy for a decent wine. "Vin Pétillant" is the French term for semi-sparkling wine (as opposed to "Vin Mousseux" -- full sparkling). You need to read the fine print to see that this wine is actually Spanish in origin and is from Friexenet, maker one of my standby sparkling wines. This wine reminds me of a Spanish version of vinho verde. The flavor profile is very similar, except that this one has more of a flavor of apple then lemon, as well as a little bit of a yeasty flavor more reminiscent of a full sparkling wine. Again, under 10% alcohol and refreshing. I also found this for under $5.

You could line these three up -- Gazela, Barbier, Borgo -- and have a very interesting side-by-side-by-side progression. They'd come across as cousins. Of course, you'd then have three bottles open, so try it with friends.

Stay cool, pour some bubbly, raise a glass, hope for rain, and heed the words of Tom Waits:

"Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Thinking Inside the Box

A few months ago, longtime Vine reader and neighbor Christine the Pie Queen asked, "So, when are you going to do a column on box wines." I mentioned to her that planned to do one for April Fool's.

"No, seriously," she said with an edge in her voice that gave me goosebumps. This is, after all, a woman who hiked the state of Vermont in five weeks, and offhandedly asks questions like, "Hey, are you guys interested in a triathlon?"
She was correct, of course. My experience with box wines had been unpleasant for the most part, but it made sense for me to give a take. After all, it is the least expensive wine delivery system.
So, how do they get the wine in there? The wine's not really in the box, of course. There's an aluminum or plastic pouch inside the box, tapped with a small spout of some kind. These containers are officially called "casks," although they're known in Australia as "goons."
Box wine tends to be of lesser quality than bottled wine -- but there are advantages. Once you open a bottle of wine, you're committed. The wine starts to oxidize almost immediately, and your wine will lose quality rapidly. Box wine never touches air until it hits the glass, so it can keep consistent quality until needed (although you can't age box wine). One of our friends termed box wine "Homer Simpson wine -- you push a button, and there it is!"
They hold up to five liters of wine, but the most common size we'll see is three liters. Three liters is equivalent to four regular-sized bottles. And there's the rub. I drink a lot of wine, obviously, but having three liters of a generally-not-great wine lying around for just myself and the Sweet Partner in Crime isn't what I'm looking for. Generally, you'd get these containers for larger gatherings -- or if someone is distracted, gone for work, or just lame enough to need a wine that will last for a month.
Still, the obvious reason was to par-tay. Thus, the First Annual Labor Day Box Wine Extravaganza was born. Christine and I each got two boxes of wine, and we went from there. The cast of characters:
  • The Sweet Partner in Crime and I.
  • Christine and her handyman husband Jeff.
  • Katherine, a mutual friend.
  • Marlene & Steve, our Francophile neighbors.
We did our best to take notes on our tastings, but by the end of the evening, predictably, we lost track of who said what. The quotes tell the stories well enough.
The wines:
  • Angel Juice 2005 Pinot Grigio
  • Banrock Station 2006 Chardonnay
  • Black Box 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Black Box 2006 Shiraz
(Christine and I bought our wines separately, so we ran with what we had.)
First up, the Angel Juice.
  • "It's lawnmower wine. You know, for a hot day in the yard." (Which led to: "What? You mean you'd put it in the lawnmower?")
  • "It'll drink, but there's not much body."
  • "It's so light -- it's not really much of a wine."
  • "It's like Crystal Light -- the Wine of the Astronauts!"
  • "Kinda bitter -- like the seeds are crushed up in it."
  • "It says 'honeysuckle and citrus' -- I don't get either. More lemon rind than lemon!"
  • "It quenches your thirst -- but I won't say much beyond that."
  • "One word: Wimpy."
We did find that it went reasonably well with food. Pesto paired well for some reason.
Then came the Banrock Station. Honestly, we all wished we'd just stayed on the train…
  • "It smells like honey wine or cider."
  • "It's sour. There's no oak -- none. It's just bad, bad, bad."
  • "It's like a golden shower for your mouth."
  • "I wouldn't cook with it."
  • "It tastes like battery acid."
  • "It's a cut above Mad Dog."
  • "I'd give it to a homeless guy so he could get a change of pace."
Truly an awful wine -- unanimously one of the worst we'd had collectively. More optimistically, the suggestion was made: "Maybe you could make a spritzer out of it." (You couldn't.) Christine made the best suggestion: "Well, at least you could recycle the box…"
With palates collectively in shock, we were worried as we edged towards the reds. The Black Box wines -- we were dubious -- but we went forward. We were too invested to turn back:

  • "This isn't bad!"
  • "It's not complicated -- but it's decent." (Surprised nods all around.)
  • "It's versatile. This is good wine for a party."
  • "It's inoffensive -- it would go with a lot of things. There's enough fruit and tannin to be interesting."
  • "It passes the cube test. If it's really hot, you can put ice in it and it's still drinkable."
Black Box's Shiraz followed suit:
  • "It's nondescript, but you really could drink it with anything."
  • "It's a really simple wine."
  • "Hey! This goes pretty well with chocolate!"
  • "It's good."
  • "It's yummy -- has a little bite to it, unlike that chardonnay, which just bites."
  • "It's far too easy to dispense!"
We made a dent in all four. The Cabernet had the least left by morning. The chardonnay was the cheapest ($16), while the shiraz was the most expensive ($24). Since there are clear levels of quality, if you're willing to drop $20 or more on a box, you'll probably end up OK.
One last note on the Banrock: We did follow Christine's recommendation:

UPDATE: While this has little to do with box wine, the Sweet Partner and I enjoyed some "regular" wine last night at Red, a restaurant in Cincinnati's Hyde Park district. Two thumbs up from us. The food was excellent (we had a filet and halibut, along with some of the best bourbon bread pudding outside of Lexington), the service was on par with the food, and the atmosphere was classy without being stuffy. Their website is fun, too -- allowing you to see the presentation of all their entrees. Give it a go for a special occasion.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Rainbow Nation

South Africa's had a rough go of it.

They've dealt with apartheid, an illicit diamond trade, and the jailing of Nelson Mandela. They were the ostensible home country of the bad guys from "Lethal Weapon 2" and their national rugby team can never quite match New Zealand's on the pitch. Life's not easy on Antarctica's doorstep.

Since the end of apartheid in 1990, South Africa gradually became more welcomed on the world stage. South African music and culture have made their way towards global recognition, as has its wine industry. South Africa currently stands as the 8th largest wine producer in the world.

Wine from South Africa is at the stage Chile and Argentina's were five years ago. When these wines first started appearing, they were more curiosities than anything, and prices were high. As the import pace picked up, and prices are now squarely in Vine range for many bottles.

South Africa grows all the major wine varietals but is best known for their Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc among white wines, and a cute little critter called Pinotage on the red. Pinotage is an interesting hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault. The latter is a blending grape used widely in France and makes a darned good rosé. Combined, their offspring produces a wine that's spicy, a little earthy, and medium bodied. Pinotage is best paired with basically any kind of game meat -- so if you've got venison, rabbit, boar, ostrich and the like -- you'll find a friend in South Africa.

Here are a couple of possibilities for you:

Mulderbosch 2006 Chenin Blanc -- Mulderbosch Winery is located in Stellenbosch, one of the prime wine growing areas in South Africa. Mulderbosch is especially known for Sauvignon Blanc -- they're some of the best around. They're also a little pricey for us, but I'd probably splurge on a bottle based on my experience with their Chenin Blanc. This is a very fresh, crisp wine. There are some nice floral and citrus scents that lead you into a surprisingly full body for a Chenin. There's a little spice to go along with a tart flavor, and a finish that was a little oaky, actually. If you'd given this to me blind, I'd have thought it was a Sauvignon Blanc, and I'd have it with any food that Sauvignon would pair with. $12-14.

Brampton 2005 Unoaked Chardonnay -- Brampton is the second label offering from Rustenberg, one of the older wineries in South Africa. The founder of the winery was German, but I would have guessed French. This Chardonnay is very much along the lines of white Burgundy. This is a very crisp chardonnay, full of peach scents that also head for the palate. There's also a nice little mineral and spice taste on the back end. This would be a wonderful chardonnay for a hot day or with some sweet corn, summer squash, or basically any summer vegetable. $9-11.

Ken Forrester 2004 Stellenbosch Petit Pinotage --A really nice example of what you'll find with a Pinotage. The nose is an interesting combination of berries and smoke -- not scents that you'll often find together. One review I read said they smelled "bacon." (I didn't get that, personally.) The flavor is soft and medium bodied, with an earthiness to it that will remind you of a French Syrah. The finish goes back to fruit and smoke. As I mentioned above, anything gamey is going to go really well here. I had this with roast lamb, and it worked extremely well. Another nice value at $9-11.

If you're looking for some slightly different flavors than you've found in the mainstream -- give these South African bottles a try. Much like the country, there are some very unique quaffs here. Certainly worth exploration.

As a side note, the column's title is a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the multicultural nature of South Africa's emerging diversity. South Africa has become one of the more socially and politically progressive countries in Africa. For instance, the country recently became the fifth in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. The things you learn when you're researching wine…

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Full Monte

A couple of years ago, I was going to assemble my world-famous (or at least within the world of the household) Eggplant Parmesan. I knew next to nothing about Italian wine at that point. I headed directly to the Chianti section of the wine store and puzzled over racks full of wines ending in I's and O's. On a whim, I picked a bottled labeled "Montepulciano." Took it home, made the parmesan, cracked the wine, poured glasses…


The flavor was not at all what I expected. This wine had a much deeper fruit flavor, was much less "chalky" than Chianti, and was smoother overall. I fell in love with the stuff then and there, and Montepulciano has become my staple Italian food wine ever since.

Let me amend that statement -- Montepulciano d'Abruzzo has become my staple Italian food wine.

Why the clarification? "Montepulciano" is a wine double-entendre. There's a Montepulciano region in Tuscany and a Montepulciano grape varietal. To further muddy the waters, wines made in Montepulciano contain no Montepulciano.

First, the region. The Montepulciano growing region is just to the northwest of Chianti. Most wines made in Montepulciano (much like Chianti) are blends made from around 70% Sangiovese. Since they're neighboring provinces, Chianti and Montepulciano wines taste somewhat similar. These wines are somewhat light in body, a bit tannic, and with that trademark "chalkiness."

The best of these wines are labeled "Vino Nobile di Montepulciano." These wines start at about $20 and go up quickly from there. Luckily, there’s a “second line” wine that works almost as well. Just as bottles simply labeled “Nebbiolo” are the bargain versions of Barolo and Barbaresco, there’s an inexpensive alternative to the VNdM – it’s "Rosso di Montepulciano." ("The Red of Montepulciano") Same growing area, similar style, and considerably less expensive. These pair best with pork, chicken, and hard cheeses.

The Montepulciano grape itself is largely cultivated in the province of Abruzzi. Abruzzi is on the east coast of Italy -- across the country from Tuscany. The wines are usually made of at least 90% of the Montepulciano varietal. Predictably, these wines are labeled "Montepulciano d'Abruzzo." ("The Montepulciano of Abruzzi") You'll find a very different flavor here. Montepulciano d'Abruzzo tends to be drunk young, is much fruitier than Chianti, and has softer tannin. The fruit stands up to heartier food -- game, lamb, sausage, and root veggies.

For comparison, the first two here are from the Montepulciano grape. The third is from the region:

Masciarelli 2002 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo -- A very straightforward, tasty wine. Some might call this wine "rustic" for its pronounced flavor. The nose is dark cherries and smoke. There's a fruity, earthy character to this that's got some weight to it. I put this one up with eggplant parmesan where I grilled the eggplant instead of frying it. The smoky flavors of the wine and the eggplant made a wonderful combination as the fruit bounced happily off the red sauce. Give it a go with lamb stew also. $9-11.

Villa Cerrina 2003 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo -- This is a deep, dark wine. The nose is similar to a Chianti Classico -- lots of dark berries and cherries. The flavor is round and full, with plenty of that rich fruit. The finish is long and very fruity, with only a little bit of chalk on the end. Unlike many Italian wines, in my experience, you could easily drink this one by itself if you chilled it just a smidge. The big fruity flavors, however, make it a perfect pairing for a hearty meal. I made baked angel hair with chicken chorizo and mushrooms with this. Another exceptionally tasty pairing -- and it could basically go with anything in the pasta family. For the price (about $6 at Trader Joe's), a fantastic table wine.

Poliziano 2003 Rosso di Montepulciano -- You'll notice this wine is very dark hued, but its color belies its weight. The nose is fruity and a little bit floral. The flavor is not too heavy with some really nice cherry tartness and fruit. The finish, like many Tuscan wines, is a little bit chalky. I wouldn't drink this alone. However, pair this up with a Penne Amatriciana or with some herb-roasted chicken, and you'll find a whole other realm of flavor. The complexity of this wine really shows through with the right food. At $15, it's an exceptional bottle -- probably half of what you'd pay for a Chianti Classico Riserva of similar quality.

Francisco Redi, a 17th century Italian physician, naturalist, and poet, concluded his poem Bacco in Toscana (Bacchus in Tuscany) with the line "Montepulciano of every wine is king." He was referring to the region, of course, but the grape ain't half bad either. Next time you're putting together something with Italian flavors, branch out from Chianti and meet the Monte. Happy wines for happy times…