Saturday, December 27, 2008

Help Kentucky join the modern era

Speaking of wine and law, I saw this article in the Enquirer today. Some grocery stores in Kentucky are starting a petition drive to allow wine sales in supermarkets.

Non-Bluegrass readers probably read the above sentence and went, "Huh?" Yes, what you read is correct. It is currently illegal in the state of Kentucky for a grocery store to sell wine. You'll usually see a liquor store, often owned by the grocery, next door -- but the law requires a separate storefront and separate transactions.

Kentucky's a pretty bass-ackwards state when it comes to alcohol sales. Of Kentucky's 120 counties, only 30 are truly "wet," meaning that alcohol sales are permitted. 52 are truly dry, meaning no alcohol sales at all. The rest have some weird combination of regulations usually around restaurants and golf courses. (I remember my uncle Alan's reaction when he learned about dry counties at my sister's wedding a couple of years ago. Alan is from NYC. I think the shock still hasn't worn off...)

Needless to say, this setup is patently ridiculous. According to the article, "Liquor store operators and legislators, opposed to expanding the sale of alcohol, are against the bill." The former probably fear a drop in their business, but I would guess the impact would be negligible. The latter are likely the same legislators who demand creationism side by side with evolution and who require the state Homeland Security office to credit God with keeping the state safe.

Anyway, there's an online petition to support changing the law so that you can do your food and wine shopping together. There's also a Facebook group if you're into that sort of thing. Take a couple of seconds and sign the petition if you can.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

A little Christmas cheer...

...from the Federal Appeals Court in Cincinnati. They ruled yesterday that the state of Kentucky must allow wine shipments into the state if an individual makes a purchase, even if that purchase is over the phone or online.

More "activist judges" like this, please!

(h/t Vine Reader Steve G.)

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Best Meal of the Day -- Brunch wines

Breakfast is "the most important meal of the day." Lunch is all too often fast food or something you scarf while you're plowing through the workday, since America hasn't adopted the tremendously civilized siesta. Everyone puts their focus on creating tasty dinners. I'd venture that upwards of 90% of wine pairings, tastings, et al focus on dinner.

But what about brunch?

Brunch is decadence. It's the "No alarm. I slept in today." meal. It's flexible -- go light or heavy, healthy or greasy. It's my most mood-dependent meal. At what other time will you see a Reuben, poached eggs, breakfast sausage (or goetta for the locals), fresh fruit and a panini happily coexisting on the same table? A good brunch means you've had a good time the night before -- either in a big group (which often means nursing a hangover along with your V-8) or with one other lucky person so that, come late morning, you're gazing moonily across steaming lattes.

Of course, if you're going to be truly decadent, you need wine. [I know, I know -- there are some of you out there saying "Beer. It isn't just for breakfast anymore," but let's move past shotgunning a Schaefer's to get ourselves going on a morning after.]

If you're thinking of wines to go with brunchiful goodness, keep it simple. Sure, you could put a lot of thought into finding the perfect wine, but just like with Thanksgiving, you're probably not going to have much success. Honestly, who has that kind of mental energy in the morning?

So, easy enough...Sparkling wine. You can't miss. No one's going to care. Most people's palates wake up more slowly than they do, so give them something that's basically going to cut through the clutter of foods and just plain ol' taste good.

If you're out and about and you want to impress a group without breaking the bank, order a bottle of Gruet Brut Sparkling Wine ($15). While it may sound like a French bottle, it's actually produced in New Mexico and, for my money, is as interesting as almost any sparkler out there. The reason, I suspect, is that it's made in the traditional French method, called "Methode Champenoise." (If you want to know more about that, I wrote about it once before.) The result is a very crisp, balanced sparkling wine that pairs with almost anything -- but dry sparkling wine really shines when you've got something that's a little bit (or a lot) fatty. So, if you need a plate of hash browns to go with that throbbing headache and queasy stomach, this will be the perfect hair of the dog.

For those of you who aren't big fans of dry wines, you're not out of luck. One of the best brunch wines out there is on the sweeter side -- Moscato d'Asti. Moscato d'Asti is, in general, a sweet, fruity, lightly carbonated wine. "Asti" refers to the Italian locale where the wine is made.Also, these wines are traditionally only between 5-6% alcohol, so if you're looking for something you can drink without catching too much of a morning buzz, this type of wine is a perfect choice. These wines generally have a lot of peach and pear flavors, and are quite refreshing. The nicest thing about them is that they're generally rather uniform in quality, so the majority are going to be decent, and usually around $8-10. The best I've tried is the Tintero 2007 Moscato d'Asti. (Many thanks to the Liquor Direct crew for turning me on to this one.) While it shares many of the same characteristics, for a couple of extra dollars, I thought its flavors were more defined and more interesting. See what you think.

Finally, there's the "champagne cocktail." Way back in January, I wrote about toasting in the new year with cava, and then saving the bulk of the bottle for morning mimosas. Now, honestly, if you're just mixing together some store bought OJ and some leftover bubbly, you don't have to be too choosy. That said, if you're doing this right, and you've got some fresh squeezed on hand, I'd prefer to use some relatively decent wine as a mixer. I've also discovered that "extra dry" sparkling wines make better mixers, largely because they have a little bit of residual sugar. I started the year with Freixenet and I'll finish the same way. I stand by Freixenet Extra Dry Cordon Negro Cava ($10) for any of your mimosa-making needs. It would also work well with kir (which is sparkling wine with crème de cassis) or bellini (sparkling wine with peach puree).

And, with that, The Vine closes the book on 2008. Your humble reviewer is going to take a couple of weeks off to let his liver recover, and I'll be back with more fun in the new year. Thanks to all of you out there for sticking by me in this little venture. You guys are my motivation, and I appreciate all the good vibes.

Have a great holiday season, travel safely, enjoy the parties, and may the new year bring you health, happiness, and wonder.

Later days.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Green Wine

No, no -- not another verse-filled vinho verde's the environment, silly!

I enjoy being greener. Call it "Gore's example" or clean living, or just plain old smart, but I like it. I like looking for everyday ways to trim a little here and there from the ol' carbon footprint. I do what I can. I try to keep the house energy-efficient. I drive less. I recycle more. I try to buy local when I can. I've got a composter (code name: "The Muffin Machine") humming silently, happily away in the backyard.

But what about my other habits? Am I as green as I can be when it comes to this little literary enterprise of mine? Thankfully, wine and winemaking contribute nicely to the "green experience." Winemaking is an exacting process. Vinifera grapes (WineSpeak for "the major grape varietals in wine") tend to be finicky critters, so companies that use huge, soulless mass-production methods, lots of pesticides, automated harvesting, and the like -- the grapes don't respond well and what ends up in the bottle is generally an inferior product.

"Organic" is nothing new in the wine world, nor are environmentally friendly agricultural practice. Regardless of the price of a wine, the care taken as the grapes move from bud to bottle almost always shows through in what winds up in the glass. There's much more to conservation than just being organic, so here are a few bottles I've tried (and recycled) lately that contain a "green tint"

I discovered X Winery 2006 "X3" Cabernet Sauvignon one day at the wine store when I was looking for a cabernet with a Stelvin screwtop, largely because, honestly, I wanted a wine I wouldn't have to fool with all that much when I was ready to drink it. Yes, there are some days I'm too lazy to pick up a corkscrew. This winery is focused on using new technologies, environmentally friendly production techniques, and the growers that they work with are committed to sustainable agriculture -- meaning that they try to do as little harm as possible to the ecosystem while farming. What I didn't realize was that I found a very, very good wine to boot. This wine is their second-line cabernet at around $15. This cab has a big nose of vanilla and blackberries. The body is well-balanced with some smoke and chocolate flavors. Paired with chocolate, you've got a big winner.

Seeing a display for the Yellow Jersey 2007 Pinot Noir surprised me. At first, I thought it was simply a bunch of half-liter bottles with bright yellow labels. I was wrong. The bottles were a full 750 ml, and they were made entirely of plastic. It makes sense that a plastic bottle would be smaller -- they're not going to be as thick as a glass one. The wine itself? Well, it wasn't bad for a $10 pinot. I certainly didn't taste anything significantly different from a glass-container wine. This was honestly a relatively nondescript pinot, meaning that it wouldn't get in the way of most foods, and it wasn't a bad quaff if you just wanted a glass of something without thinking too much. Now. where this wine would come in very handy is any picnic, hike, or somewhere that you'd have to pack it in and out. The bottle itself is 90% lighter than glass, shatterproof, and, of course, recyclable. When the weather's nice, a bottle of this with a cheese and meat board somewhere outside would be delightful. Just make sure that you clean up when you're done.

One of my favorite couplings of environmental improvement and wine quality is box wine. As I've written before, the days of Vella and Franzia are thankfully coming to a close. Companies are starting to package more and better qualities of wine in boxes. Although, as I think about it -- I don't know how much of the box itself can be recycled. The cardboard of the box is obviously recyclable -- but the spigot and the Tetra Pak plastic inside the box...I'm not sure. I did some research and couldn't find anything definitive.

Regardless of the specific container, a single box of wine is a more efficient transport than the four glass (or plastic) bottles of the same amount. The Chateau de Pena 2005 Cuvee de Pena is one of the more interesting wines in a box I've had. This blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre from a cooperative in Roussillon bills itself as "the world's friendliest red wine." I don't know if I'd go quite that far, but it's definitely an affable companion which will nuzzle up to any number of recipes. It's the earthiest box wine I've had. There's even a little bit of that Old World funk on the nose. The finish is dry and a little earthy. I'd call it a "Cotes-du-Rhone Lite" and be happy. A bottle's around $8, but the 3 liter box, my purchase of choice, is around $25.

On an interesting side note, I recently met the parents of Christine the Pie Queen. Her father is a former engineer at Dow who worked on the technology that eventually led to bag-in-a-box wine. He said that the bags are usually several layers of plastic laminate thick. Each layer does something specific, whether preventing oxygen from getting in, esters (those yummy smell molecules) out, protection from pollutants, etc. The innermost is the most important, because it's the one that would impart (or, rather, not impart) flavor to the wine. Hearing the process by which these things are made was nothing less than fascinating.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"econnoisseurs" unite!

Via vine reader John C. -- today's Urban Dictionary word of the day:


One who insists on the highest quality at the lowest price.

Being an econnoisseur I bought the ten dollar chilean wine instead of the fifty dollar french.

Guilty as charged!

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008


Welcome to the most exhausting time of the year.

Thanksgiving travel gives way to familial dinner table stress. Black Friday comes, with its yearly dose of lines, crowds, stampedes and shootings. Blood pressures rise. Tension mounts. TV, radio, email, Twitter, Christmas music on all stations, bad weather, road rage. The long stretch of holiday parties, shopping, budgetary woes, seasonal affective disorder, all screeching towards the end-of-month holidays and...finally...New Year's, after which everyone is too hung over to be stressed.


I'm tired just thinking about it all.

In our rare moments of downtime, calm is not something that we as Americans either value or savor. There's always something in the inbox, waiting on the DVR, or around any corner. Here at the Naked Vine, I'm proposing the Minute of Calm. At least once a day, every day, between now and the end of the year, I'm going to try to stop for sixty seconds and quietly reflect on...nothing.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Try it. See if you can be still for one minute.

Don't worry about me. I'll wait.

[tick...tick...tick...15 seconds...20...30...]

Couldn't do it, could you? Don't worry. Neither could least not at first. I need at least something to distract that nervous little voice in my head. I needed an assist.

Of course, I went for the easy way out...a glass of wine. Something I could pour, sit back, and savor while I let my mind go dark. This site being an egalitarian place, I wanted to give you some options. For me, it's all about the time of day:

The Just-Home-From-Work Glass: Stepping over the threshold after my evening commute, drop the lunch bag on the counter, play with the pups, change into some sweats, reach for a glass and pour myself a dollop to pause and refresh. I generally want something a little crisp if this is going to be the Minute. Ecker 2007 Grüner Veltliner is a recent find that fits the bill. "Grapefruit and rocks" was my first thought after tasting this high-acid, cool white. It's fragrant for a Veltliner, and the flavors cut right through whatever stress might manifest on your tongue, both giving you a little jolt of energy and allowing you to sit back and unwind. Best of all, it comes in a 1 liter bottle, so you get a little extra for your $10.

The Relaxing Evening Glass: Sitting in a comfy chair or laid out on the sofa, a glass to exhale fully and then breathe in the bouquet. Something lovely and supple, like...say...a pinot noir. In this case, Bearboat 2006 Pinot Noir. One of the prettier wines I've had the opportunity to sniff in quite some time, the cherry/vanilla/smoke triumvirate of a good California pinot is in full effect here. First on the nose, and strongly on the tongue, the full fruitiness of this wine quickly slides into a smoky, sinuous middle and a long, lasting finish. Absolutely a delicious wine over which to sit and ponder the meaning of life. (And you could even invite a friend along if you felt social) Now, I'll be honest -- you may have a hard time finding this one for $15. I found it on sale, and after all -- you deserve it. Splurge if you gotta.

The Nightcap: Perhaps you're not going to get to spool down until just before you head for bed. One of the evening rituals around here is a piece of chocolate or a two-bite brownie with a glass of wine. That combination sends anyone into a deliciously contemplative mood, in my opinion. So, as winter's grip starts to tighten, get those port glasses out and pour yourself a dram or three of port to go with some chocolate. For this, I chose Graham's "Six Grapes" Reserve Port. A big, robust port, full of plums and cherries -- and a bouquet of fruit and pipe tobacco. (I kid you not.) A 375ml can be had for around $15. Well worth the price.

Don't let the holiday season overwhelm you. Focus on the peace and the calm wherever you may find it. Who knows? The Minute of Calm may last beyond New Year's. That may well be my New Year's resolution.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Thanksgiving yumminess.

Since I've given you the wines that the SPinC and I are planning to serve with Thanksgiving dinner, here's the rest of the menu:

First Course:
  • Roasted Tomato Basil Bisque
Second Course:
  • Clementines, jicama, toasted pumpkin seeds, and grilled red onion on bed of arugula and cilantro
Third Course:
  • Medallions of Pork Tenderloin with Linden Cherry Reduction
  • Pan roasted fingerling potatoes with pancetta
  • Bulgur flavored with roasted nuts and dried apricots
  • Blanched snow peas mixed with shavings of roasted carrot
Fourth Course:
  • Autumn Pear and Cranberry Crumble

Hope it'll be good eatin'...

What's that? You still want more options for your Thanksgiving table? Have I got a deal for you? Head on over to Michelle's place. She's put together a couple of "tables" full of folks from the local wine retail community and the Cincinnati metro blogverse (the latter including yours truly) to give some suggestions for good Thanksgiving pairings.

Of course, with Thanksgiving comes leftovers, and we've got you covered there, too. Kevin Keith from Liquor Direct is having a "Holiday Show" tasting this Friday and Saturday. In K2's own words:

The weekend after Thanksgiving, when you are sick of turkey, sick of your in-laws, and sick of holiday TV programs, come out to Liquor Direct for our final wine tastings of the year, presented in two parts with the first half being featured at our Covington location on Friday and the second portion of the program at our Fort Thomas locale. Saturday we’ll reverse the wines, which will be as follows:

Part One:
Marc Herbert Brut Tradition Champagne NV
Mischief & Mayhem Chablis 1er Cru 2006
Thelema Chardonnay Stellenbosch 2006
Mirabile VIognier Sicily 2006
Philippe Delesvaux Anjou Authentique Loire 2005
Lemelson Pinot Noir Thea’s Selection 2006

Part Two:
Ramirez de Ganuza Rioja 2002
Papapietro Perry Pinot Noir Charles Vineyard 2006
Mirabile Tannat Sicily 2005
Mollydooker Shiraz Blue Eyed Boy 2007
Chateau Monbousquet St.-Emilion 2003
Pedestal Merlot Columbia Valley 2005

[Prices range between $20-$55 per bottle]

Enjoy! Many happy returns -- and I'll see you after Turkey Day with some new stuff...Cheers!

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Give us any wine, we'll take it...

The Naked Vine now has a sprout some distance north. The good folks at Express Milwaukee -- the online home of Shepherd Express, Milwaukee's home for arts, dining and culture -- have decided to make the Vine a part of their regular online features. Many thanks to them, and a hearty welcome to my new Wisconsinite readers! Pull up a chair, grab a glass, and join the fun...

(I promise, the title of this post will be my last Laverne & Shirley reference.)

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Monday, November 17, 2008

...The (almost) Perfect Wine for Thanksgiving dinner

"OK, smart guy," the email began, "Nice suggestions for wines to bring to someone's house -- but what would you suggest for the actual meal? You know, the whole reason that everyone gathers in the first place?"

A challenge I'm more than happy to meet head on, thank you very much.

While there are always countless gatherings and parties through the months of November and December, there's something about Thanksgiving that brings out the madness in everyone. Financial stress, family stress, travel stress -- you name it, and this long weekend's got it.

Because of all this, Thanksgiving dinner simply begs for wine. So does Thanksgiving dinner prep, and Thanksgiving dinner cleanup, and football, get the idea.

The trick, I've found, is to stay flexible. (At least when it comes to choosing your wines.) You're usually going to be drinking much more than normal, for all the reasons I've mentioned, so I think it's best to have some wines that not only will complement the meal you're having, but will be good enough to have on their own, and not so expensive that they're going to break the bank. After all, you're probably going to be topping off the recycling bin when all is said and done.

You're not going to find a "perfect" wine to have with dinner. There are usually too many flavors laid out in front of you: meat, sweet, wine-killing vegetables, starches of various sorts. In my opinion, your best bet is to find reasonably food friendly wines that people will enjoy on their own. Don't worry too much about the pairings. After the first couple of glasses, no one's going to care much, anyway.

So, here's what's going to be uncorked around VineLand for the feast:

Whites: I decided to go with a double-barrel of Washingtonian goodness. Chateau St. Michelle has long been a solid "when in doubt" fallback for me, and I've got enough folks around the table this year who like wines on the slightly sweet side that I figure I can't go wrong either way. Both CSM's 2007 Riesling ($7-9) and 2007 Gewurztraminer ($8-10) are excellent, food friendly selections. The Riesling is a classic Washington Riesling, full of apples and honey. The Gewurz has a little more residual sugar than many others, but I think, especially for wine novices or folks who just want more in their glass, that it runs a strong middle-of-the road path. There may be more interesting Gewurz's out there, but for the value and for the overall quality, it'll do just fine.

Rosé: Thanksgiving dinner just isn't thanksgiving dinner at our place without a dry rosé on the table. I went through several tests before settling on the Juno 2007 Cape Maidens Rosé. ($8-10) This wine is South African, made from a blend of 50% Syrah and 50% Pinotage. The resulting wine is a fruity concoction with a full, floral nose and flavors of cherry and green apple. The finish is crisp and dry. (I honestly wish I'd discovered this wine in the summer -- it would have been fabulous with salads and such.) I think it's one of the more interesting rosés at this price point. I also think it will be a great conversation starter thanks to the myriad angles one can use to look at the movie of the same name. However, I take no responsibility for any unplanned pregnancies after overconsumption of this wine.

Red: This year, it's going to be Zinfandel. Specifically, De Loach 2005 Zinfandel. ($9-11) I think this is a really interesting wine. It's a "bridge Zin," in my opinion. The Sweet Partner in Crime said that it "could pass for a big pinot." It's not as big, inky, or powerful as a lot of Zins. What it is -- fruity without being cloying and big without being overwhelming. Lots of cherry and blackberry flavors on both the nose and body, with a slightly smoky finish. I found this wine on sale locally. At $9, it's a bargain. At the $7 I found it for, it's stealing.

If you haven't noticed, there's a "cherry" theme to these wines -- which I'm banking on complementing the cherries we harvested this summer. We're going to use those cherries in sauces for roast turkey and pork and in desserts inspired by our cross-alley neighbor, Christine (the Pie Queen). I'll let you know how it all turns out...

Feel free to share in the comments what you're planning to open when the family walks through the door. I'd enjoy comparing notes with you. And Vine recommendations are always free.

In the meantime, prepare for eating, drinking, and merrymaking; do your best to stay reasonably sane; and remember -- there's always another bottle somewhere...or at least there should be.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

"The Perfect Wine to Bring Home for Thanksgiving"

Sometimes, a column unexpectedly falls into your lap.

On a day that found me wracked with a horrid case of writer’s block, a ray of sunshine flashed across my flat screen in the form of this email from Sarah at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington:

Every month, we produce a small newsletter, “Wine Notes,” for the University of Washington Business School. This month, we’re featuring an article on “The Perfect Wine to Bring Home for Thanksgiving” and were hoping we could get your advice. We’ve come up with four somewhat comical but very real situations that many of us will be facing this November:

  • Aficianados...what? -- An impressive choice that the wine enthusiast would take note of.
  • "I Want to Marry your Daughter" -- A great wine for those who have no honors diploma from WSET.
  • "I'm home. Is the game on?" -- An average wine that your kid brother wouldn't make fun of you for.
  • Frat-Brother Reunion -- Would serve well as a fifth bottle...or a sixth.

We were hoping you might have a suggestion for each situation. Our audience is price sensitive and has a preference for Washington/Oregon wines.

Aside from my excitement at learning that I had some readers down on The Ave, I got a chance to start thinking about my own Thanksgiving selections. (Those will, not surprisingly, be another column.) But, for the good folks at UDub and anyone else who might sympathize, from least to most expensive

Fraternity brother reunion: Pine & Post 2005 Washington State Merlot ($5-6). Since you're looking for a wine you're going to pop and drop by this point in the evening, run with this one and have people say, "Dude! You busted out the good stuff!" It's certainly nothing that you're going to have to think about too heavily, but if you actually decide to take more than a moment before gulping (if you're capable), you'll find a darned decent wine here. This merlot is robust and ripe, with plenty of blackberry flavors. Very easy to drink on its own, but you could also have it with whatever snacks you might still have lying around as the evening wears on.

"I'm home. Is the game on?" -- Hogue 2006 Gewürztraminer ($7-8). You want to impress your little brother with your wine savvy? Breaking out wine with an umlaut always makes you look cool. Not only is “gewürztraminer” just fun to say, but you can rest assured that the wine will complement whatever he might have open to eat around the house. It's a full-bodied wine with plenty of that classic traminer pepperiness. It's very fruity and a little sweet, with a nice crisp peppery finish. Hogue's a dependable brand at this price, so you can play it safe with whatever varietal you choose from them if you don't feel quite this adventurous.

"I want to marry your daughter." -- Belle Vallée Single Cluster 2007 Pinot Noir ($15) will fill the bill. As any astute wine buyer knows, Oregon and Washington have upped the ante in the pinot noir arms race. In my experience, pinots from the Pacific Northwest stand shoulder to shoulder with many of the best California offerings, but are almost always available at a much lower price. This “entry level” pinot from Belle Vallée in Corvallis is an absolute steal at around $15. (You could also splurge for five or six more bucks and get their Willamette Valley pinot, which is just dynamite.) This is a great wine to pop open and have with good conversation around the living room. It’s a light-styled pinot, full of smoky fruit flavors. It’s one of those wines that you take a sip of, enjoy, then on the second sip – will make you cock your head to one side, look at the glass, and realize that you made a good choice. I don’t know if the alcohol content is high enough for a marriage proposal, however.

Aficionados...what? – For the higher end stuff, I consulted with Danny Gold, a wine acquaintance of mine who sees wines across the spectrum. For his money, he recommends the Stoller 2006 JV Pinot Noir. Also an Oregon product, Danny said that this wine is the "best in its price range" – which happens to be right around $30. His tasting note reads: "smokey volcanic soil is prevalent with dark blackberry & cherry flavors. Smooth tannins and silky finish." I’d definitely take his word for it. He’s not steered me too far astray yet.

So, there you have it – wine for every occasion. My own Thankgsiving selections will be coming down the pike shortly. Until then, start bracing yourself for the onslaught of relatives, stock the cellar, and start doing your gullet-extending exercises...

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Let's go to the Mal(bec)!

One of the first wines I wrote about on The Naked Vine was Malbec, not long after having discovered it initially. Since then, I haven't had much of an opportunity to natter on about this until-recently-overlooked varietal.

Lovers of French wine know that Malbec is one of six grapes that goes into the blend that makes up Bordeaux wines. (The others being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Carmenere, and Petit Verdot.) Malbec as a predominant varietal produces big, inky, tannic wines that historically haven't been very common.

Malbec took off as a singular varietal after it was exported from France to Argentina in the mid 1800's. The terroir of Argentina turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered for this grape. Argentinean Malbec has much less tannin than the French counterpart and, as a result, is a much more flexible, approachable wine.

I've long extolled the virtues of Malbec as a "grilling wine," but there are other benefits, as well. Polyphenols are the organic compounds that give red wine many of their alleged health-supportive properties. Malbec has some of the highest concentrations of polyphenols, making it an extra "heart smart" wine.

During my wine tasting recently, the staff and I got into a conversation about Malbec in its various forms. I ended up choosing three to try with a strip I had ready to throw on the grill. The contestants for this side-by-side-by-side were...

El Dueño 2007 Malbec ($9-11)
1919 2006 Malbec ($9-11)
Chateau Lagrezette "Zette" 2003 Malbec ($8-11)

The first two listed are from the Mendoza valley, which is where most of the best Malbec in Argentina is grown. The third is a French version. It's around 85% Malbec, with some Merlot and a little bit of a grape called Tannat (which produced an even inkier and more tannic wine than Malbec) blended in.

First impressions: The El Dueno smells a lot like a Zinfandel with a big burst of blueberries. You also get a snootful of fumey alcohol that takes some time to breathe itself out. Eventually, the body becomes somewhat tart, with a smoky pepper finish. The 1919 -- my first thought was "chocolate covered bacon." Yes, I'm serious. Work with me on this one. The body was rich, velvety, and much easier to drink on its own than the Dueno. The Zette was a disappointment. The nose reminded me initially of Robitussin, and the body was extremely tannic. Leather moving straight into big tannins without much fruit. Even after a couple of days, the Zette still was a big, tannic mess.

With the aforementioned steak, The Dueno became "brighter" with the beef. The tannins balanced out the fat in the meat and the berry flavors of the wine stepped to the forefront. It stood out well on its own. The 1919 was interesting. Rather than "playing off" the flavors in the beef, the flavors in the 1919 ran "alongside" them. Dark flavors of chocolate and coffee, as well as some dark fruit were a silky sidekick to the rich meat flavors. The finish had enough tannin to take the fat away and leave a pleasantly dry finish. The Zette again fell short. The beef and wine clashed, unfortunately, and we ended up leaving it for later. As I mentioned, I tried drinking it a couple of days later, and couldn't pair it well.

So, what's the verdict? If you like your wine to stand out from your beef -- then go with the Dueno. If you want a wine that you could drink by itself or that eases up next to the grilled meat and nuzzles gently, the 1919. As for the French? I hope it would be happy being part of a good, rich Bordeaux.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Thanks...and the rundown

One more time -- thanks so much to K2 and the gang at Liquor Direct in Covington and Ft. Thomas for being such fantastic hosts at the wine tasting last Friday and Saturday. I had a great time. Honestly, I had as much fun meeting the staff as I did talking about the wines. I hope we can do this again sometime.

So, what does a cheap wine guy select from a store to taste when given the run of the place? For those of you who couldn't make it down (or up, or over, depending on your geography), here's the rundown of what I had out for folks to try:

Martin Codax 2007 Albariño -- "As if a chenin blanc mated with a bottle of honey." Maintains all the crispness and fruitiness of this wonderful Spanish grape, but with a little residual sugar to take the edge off the acidity. The result, a very approachable, mostly dry, friendly wine that you could have on its own or with any kind of fish. $10-12.

Muga 2007 Rosado -- Lighter than when I first wrote about it, but still one of the best pink wines I've run into. Bone dry, but with plenty of melon and grapefruit flavors, I described this as my "fallback if I've been invited to dinner and don't know what's cooking." Anything short of a ribeye will pair nicely. $12-14.

Verget du Sud 2006 Syrah d'Endes -- A French syrah that will show you what the "Old World Funk" is, if you still don't know how that smells. The...ahem..."forest floor" smacks you right in the nose at first whiff, but beneath that (especially on the palate) is one of the more complex wines you'll find for around $10. There are all sorts of smoky, dark berry, and earth flavors playing around here. Some balanced tannin dries your palate at the end. As one taster put it, "This one makes my tongue feel fuzzy." Think mushrooms, ratatouille, or anything with legumes to go alongside.

Marques de Caceras 2004 Rioja Crianza -- Probably the overall winner by seeing the number of bottles I saw walking out of the store after tasting. I love this wine. The label says that you should "open an hour before drinking." If you follow those instructions, once this wine opens up, it's wonderfully fruity without being overwhelming. Nice body of blackberries and cherries. The finish is long and soft, eventually turning dry. An extremely well-balanced wine, especially for $10-12. As I told folks, "Anything you can drag across fire goes with this wine."

Batasiolo 2007 Moscato d'Asti -- I don't see a lot of dessert wines at tastings, and I thought it would be fun to throw this out there. When I saw the range of wines, I thought, "Start with honey...finish with honey." Unlike the Albariño, however, this wine was quite sweet -- pears and honey were the dominant flavors. This wine could be an aperitif, go by its own as a dessert, or pair with a fruit and cheese brunch board. And, at 5% alcohol, you don't have to worry. Just enjoy. $10-12.

Stumble It!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Have a drink with me! (updated...)

Hey there...

If you're in the Cincinnati metro area, please swing by one of the Liquor Direct locations on Friday or Saturday. Following in the footsteps of Michelle Lentz of My Wine Education (is there a tasting in town she doesn't know about?) and Tim Lemke of, I'll be pouring a variety of (no surprise here!) Mediterranean wines for your palate's pleasure.

Kevin Keith at Liquor Direct has been kind enough to let me be my usual silly self, so please -- taste some wine and say hello. I'll be at the Covington location on Friday from 4-8 and at the Ft. Thomas location on Saturday from 2-6. It'll be good to meet many of you in person for the first time.

Come on down!

Stumble It!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Turning the Tables

One of the founding missions of the Vine was to alleviate "wine anxiety" -- the sinking feeling that comes when presented with either an overwhelming array of wine choices or a "think fast" situation. Last weekend, I was at a conference in Chicago. On successive nights, I found myself out to dinner with groups. Each night, a colleague who knew about my secret life away from the academy handed the wine list in my direction and said something to the effect of:

"You're the wine expert -- so you pick the wines!"

Time for the hypothetical rubber to meet the proverbial road.

OK, then -- ground rules if you find yourself in a situation like this. First, it is of utmost importance that you do not panic. Fight down all of those feelings that rise up about making sure you pick the "perfect" bottle. Guess what? You can't. There's simply no way to find a single wine that will perfectly mesh with everything at the table, so don't try. You're looking for "horseshoes and hand grenades" here.

Secondly, since you don't know everyone's palate -- do the best you can. Think about what you would order with the different dishes -- even if they aren't dishes that you'd ordinarily order.

Third, don't let the waiter rush you. Stall. Order water and say that you're "still deciding on your entrée." They'll have to make an extra trip, but no matter -- just tip well.

Fourth, have some standbys in your head. Generally, we fall into patterns with wines and cuisines, so you should have an idea of some relatively flexible wines (or at least varietals) you can call upon. I mean, you can't really go wrong with Riesling or Pinot Noir with just about anything.

Fifth, don't be afraid to get the least expensive bottle on the menu. If a restaurant's worth its salt, they won't put crap wine on their wine-by-the-bottle list. (They will jack up the price of nasty wine by the glass, though.)

So, what did Mike do?

The first night, I was at an Italian place, Volare, with two coworkers from my college and a new friend that we'd met in the hotel bar while we were deciding where we were going to go. (She hailed from Utah and had given a presentation at the conference, so she certainly needed wine.) I ordered a seafood risotto dish, and the others ordered bowtie pasta in a vodka sauce, ravioli in a salmon sauce, and a Caprese salad (mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil).

What do we have here? Seafood, lots of tomato flavors, and a salad. So, a flexible Italian red. Nothing too heavy, light tannins, and nice fruit. My normal instinct would have been to look for a Montepulciano, but there weren't any available. So, I went with a Barbera d'Alba instead. Something like the Marchesi Di Barolo 2006 Barbera D'alba Ruvei would work well here. (Around $15 retail.) The table seemed to be agreeable with the pairing, even one person who normally didn't drink red wine. The food, just for the sake of full disclosure, was downright wonderful.

The next night, I was with a large group at Tavern at the Park, a "classic American cuisine" restaurant overlooking...well...Millennium Park. I was having wine, and a couple of other people expressed interest -- although for some reason I ended up splitting the bottle with only one other person. Anyway, the menu at this place is all over the map, but most folks were keeping to beef or seafood. (One of our party ordered a scrumptious looking brownie dessert as an appetizer! Rock on!) Most of the food was grilled, so I needed something that would pair well there.

Grilled meat and fish hearkened me straight back to Barcelona, so I found a Spanish red, the Viña Izadi 2004 Rioja (again, retails for about $15). A little bit of spice and smoke on the nose and in the body held up well against the grilled flavors, and enough oomph to handle sauces and the like. Like most Rioja, this one needed to open up a bit before drinking, but once it did, it was a very serviceable, tasty wine. Also, there's the added bonus of introducing people to Spanish wine. Lots of people think that's cool. (Well, except John McCain.)

The main thing to remember is that you really can't screw up too badly. Just remember, if someone sips their wine and they don't like it -- no worries! They're no worse off than where they started, and they'll probably order whatever they're used to anyway. So, either everyone at the table gets a glass that they like and enjoy, or there'll be an extra glass in the bottle that you're going to enjoy. Whatever happens, you win! So, spin the wheel, hand over the wine list, and let 'er rip...

Stumble It!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wine Over Water -- the followup.

Last week’s Wine over Water event went well. The week before the event, the remnants of Hurricane Ike slammed Cincinnati with an awful windstorm. Over a million people were without power for some period of time. One of the last places to regain power was the Purple People Bridge – the staging area for our little shindig. Thanks to a generator for the band, some well-placed arc lamps, candles, and the ambient light of the Cincinnati skyline, the show went on…

There were five Kentucky wineries and four “international” pouring stations. Of the Kentucky wineries, by far the most pleasant surprise was Shandio Valley Winery. Hailing from Carrollton, KY – these folks hadn’t knuckled under to the market for puckeringly sweet fruit wines that many of the other local wineries crank out. Their Riesling Reserve was Alsace-style…bone dry, yet with a very pleasant fruit nose and well-balanced palate. They also were pouring their “Ted’s Red” – one of the lightest-in-color Grenaches I’ve ever seen. Despite the color, the body was full of fruit, and the finish held up more strongly than I expected. Best part – both these wines were under $15, so they receive the Vine’s seal of approval. If you’re headed down towards Louisville, stop in and see Harold and Jami. They’ll treat you right.

The other local wineries? Most of their wines were well out of our price range, and few of the wines were exceptional enough to really comment on extensively. Wineries should not be selling bottles of Chambourcin or Norton for $20. Period.

As for the other pouring stations, we had two reds and two whites, the offerings were:

Alice White 2007 Shiraz – a pleasant enough sluggable red. A pretty typical Australian Shiraz – lots of fruit, some tannin and vanilla at the end. Simple and drinkable. $8-9.

Woodbridge 2006 Pinot Noir – of the “international” wines, this one was my least favorite. To me, it came across as a pinot noir trying to be a merlot and just missing. I usually don’t think “fruit bomb” and “pinot noir” together, but this was about as close as one can get. I would guess you’d need to decant the heck out of it to get to any complexity, but if you just want something you can throw back for $6-7, it’s OK.

Ruffino 2007 Orvieto Classico – I really preferred the whites to the reds that were selected for this event. I didn’t have any input into what we ended up pouring, largely because…well…I was in the Mediterranean when they made these decisions. But this wine took me back to the ship again. We were initially scheduled to go to Orvieto on our trip but our tour was cancelled. Alas. This wine is probably a good indication of what we’d have encountered. Fresh nose, light, appley and crisp to taste – this is an extremely refreshing wine that goes extremely well with any fish or light soup. $7-9.

Monkey Bay 2007 Sauvignon Blanc – This was the wine that I became most familiar with as the evening went along, since I was stealing sips from the bottle for much of the evening…to keep my palate sharp, of course. This Kiwi offering is fun in a bottle. A classic Marlborough sauvignon blanc -- full of grapefruit, pineapple, mango, and almost any other tropical fruit you might want to list. The palate had some weight to it, and it didn’t finish as crisply as many sauvignons, but it was still a fun wine. From the reactions of the folks at the event, I had a number of people tell me that this wine was the “best on the bridge.” I would concur after my samplings. $9-11.

By the time we finished the strike of the event and everyone had gathered for a farewell drink on the patio of one of the organizers, we were all happily exhausted. It’s always good to see an event go off well – especially when there’s no electricity!

Same time next year, everyone – put it on your calendar and join us…

Stumble It!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Worlds Collide

While I try my best to keep my politics out of this blog, I can't help posting this.

Whether you're field dressing a moose, firing a state employee, or blatantly lying to the American people...Palin Syrah makes the perfect accompaniment.

Stumble It!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wine over Water

If you're looking for a good social event this Saturday, the 20th, mosey down to the Purple People Bridge for Wine over Water -- an evening of music, food, and wine. Yours truly will be manning one of the pouring stations. There are currently six Kentucky wineries represented, as well as four "international" tables. Wine will be available for sale, if you like them...

We had a great time last year, and the weather looks like it's going to cooperate. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Mention this blog at my table and get a free refill... :)

Come on down!

Stumble It!

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Greetings, Vine denizens! I'm tan, rested, and ready to roll again after a much-needed vacation. I'm fresh from floating in the Mediterranean with the Sweet Partner in Crime on our first cruise. We did plenty of research to find a ship and itinerary that would be fun, interesting, and wouldn't have hourly updates about the hairy leg contest on the Lido deck. (We ended up going with the Celebrity Summit.)

This vacation was about relaxation, pampering, and -- of course -- food and wine. I could easily wax poetic about the four course meals in the Summit's main dining room, or the six-courser that we had in the exceptional SS Normandie Restaurant one evening, but I'll focus on our gustatory experiences off-ship.

The difference in attitude towards eating and drinking between the parts of Europe we visited and the US was stunning. Honestly, it's been quite jarring to readjust after only a couple of weeks. We quickly got used to this relaxed, easygoing attitude towards dining. Most restaurants don't open until noon at the earliest for lunch and often 8:00 or later for dinner. Servers almost seem offended if you ask for the check before you've had time to drink your coffee after dessert. What's the rush?

Since we weren't on this schedule, we found ourselves in a couple of cafes before opening. No worries. The waiter would explain, "The kitchen's not open for another 25 minutes, but feel free to have a seat." Drinks were fetched, and we settled in for the next couple of hours. Multiple courses and flavors were the rule rather than the exception. Portions were considerably smaller, but I never felt underfed. And, of course, there's the wine.

In fact, there's almost always wine. What the US Government defines as "binge drinking," most Italians define as "lunch."

During our entire jaunt, I can't think of a non-breakfast meal where there wasn't at least some kind of wine on the table. Most placesetting are pre-set for meals with wine glasses (but not water glasses, we discovered). For instance, in Barcelona, I ordered cava to go with our delicious tapas at a fantastic little place called El Xampanyet. The server ducked into the cooler, pulled out a one liter bottle of house cava, opened it, and left it on the table. Heaven! No one bats an eye at a wine order with lunch. If I'd tried that in Cincy, I'd expect a comment like "Starting early, aren't you?"

Maybe I was simply being a tourist and didn't have to head back to work afterwards -- but somehow Europeans manage to maintain a stable economy while taking six weeks of vacation a year and drinking decent house wine at most every meal. I've heard people talk about how different the wine is in Europe, but their wine's made much the same way there as here. The alcohol content is similar, although the overall flavor of the house wines tend to be slightly lighter. Yet, I can't ever remember getting tipsy while enjoying my mealtime wine. Perhaps there's a lesson here somewhere...

I've said consistently that people historically make wine to complement whatever it is that they're eating locally. We were very excited about trying "indigenous cuisine" in the various ports of call. Of course, we also wanted to see what they were pouring alongside! So, what did we learn?

Italy -- We started the trip in Venice and docked in Naples, Civitavecchia, and Livorno during the second week of the cruise. We eschewed sightseeing trips from the latter two ports to Rome and Florence for wine tasting excursions to small towns in Lazio and Tuscany. Trying to generalize "Italian cuisine" is almost impossible, but "Italian coastal cuisine" has some commonalities. Lots of fresh fish, obviously, and pastas often contain or are flavored with shellfish or anchovies. The white wines tended to be very light and crisp and the reds had enough body and tannin to cut through the acidity of tomatoes, the minerality of shellfish or the oilyness of black sea bass. A red wine that reminded us of several we had over there was Falesco "Vitiano" 2005 Cabernet-Merlot-Sangiovese ($10) After we came home, I tried to emulate a pasta I had over there -- mushrooms, capers, and anchovies in a light red sauce. Cut through and complemented all of those flavors really well.

Croatia -- Our first port of call was Dubrovnik, an absolutely beautiful city nestled on a small peninsula. Interesting fact -- Dubrovnik was one of the most progressive cities in Europe in the treatment of Jews over the last 600 years. Foodwise, Dubrovnik is famous for shellfish, especially oysters and mussels. We sampled both at a restaurant called "Moby Dick," which, for my readers in Louisville, should raise a smile. It also gets very hot during the summer there, so the wines both serve as a cooling agent and a complement to anything you'd find on a raw bar. Try Toljanic 2006 Zlahtina at around $12 for an interesting change from muscadet.

Greece -- Athens and Santorini were our ports of call in Greece. Athens was a big city made up of ugly concrete apartment buildings surrounding incredible ancient sites. Santorini Island was once a volcano that exploded to form a beautiful "c"-shaped lagoon. We were familiar with "standard" Greek foods. We've chowed down at some very good local Greek places on dolmathakias, souvlaki, gyros, and so on. However, fish wasn't typically on the menu stateside, which is quite the contrast from our experience over there. Both Athens and Santorini had plenty of variety when it came to fish, shellfish, and mollusks for consumption. On the wine front, Greece is known for Vinsanto, a sweet dessert wine, and for bone dry, minerally whites that make wonderful aperitifs or go very nicely with the aforementioned sea life. Santorini itself is home to a very productive wine region. Interestingly, they grow grapes low to the ground because of the oppressive summer heat. (Also interesting was the Santorini Wine Museum -- off the scale on the Unintentional Comedy Meter.) Look for the crisp, slightly fruity Sigalas 2007 Santorini at around $15 if you want a nice example. I also discovered that I had a taste for both Ouzo and Metaxa, but that's a story for another time.

France -- We made one stop along the French Riviera. We tendered in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small (but pretty daggone affluent) community between Nice and Monaco. The Riviera is exactly what you'd expect -- strikingly beautiful. This part of the Riviera is in the Provence region.Provençal cuisine is known for using lots of fresh vegetables (which led to a very "American" moment for me when I asked the SPinC, "So, what does Niçoise mean?" while she was relishing one of these Nice). The region is also known for wonderful seafood, with bouillabaisse as the local specialty. In the wine world, Provence immediately brings one thing to mind -- rosé. 50% of French rosé comes from this region -- the perfect pairing for both salads and fish. Domaine Houchart 2007 Cotes du Provence Rosé is a nice example at around $10.

Spain -- Our last stop on the trip was a couple of days in Barcelona before we caught our flight home. The space I have here is completely inadequate to do Barcelona and all of its wonders justice. (Anyone, religious or not, who can step into La Sagrada Familia without an overwhelming sense of awe is utterly dead inside.) The city is pleasure, decadence, and inspiration rolled into a one huge, wonderful package. Barcelonan cuisine also follows this "delicious mishmash." Paella and tapas. Ham, fish, poultry, bread, fruit and on and on. What wine goes with everything? As I've mentioned time and time again -- sparkling wine. Cava country is Penedès, just southwest of Barcelona. Longtime readers know what a sucker I am for good cava, so go pick up a bottle of Gramona 2005 Gran Cuvee at around $15, pair it with anything, and thank me later...

As a side note, we didn't experience any of the animosity that Europeans, especially the French, allegedly hold towards folks from the US. Most people we met spoke at least some English, and they weren't shy about using it, which was important -- since neither of us are fluent in anything other than our native language (unless you count the Eastern Kentuckian dialect I lapse into from time to time...). I try to imagine my reaction if someone came up to me and started asking me questions in Greek. The secret to our success, in my opinion? We took the time to learn a dozen or so useful words or phrases in the language of wherever we went. Saying "Govorim malo Hrvatski. Govorite Engleski?" in Dubrovnik went a long way in smoothing out international relations.

There will be other stories from this trip to weave as the weeks go on-- but I now prepare to face the unenviable task of readying myself to go back to work. Eek! Also, for Cincinnati metro readers or avid road trippers, make sure that you have Wine Over Water on your social calendar for the evening of Saturday, September 20th. It's going to be a great time, guaranteed...

Stumble It!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

'Boeuf's Beaujolais Blunder

I've mentioned on more than one occasion what a fan I am of Beaujolais. Beaujolais is the red of summertime. It's best served slightly chilled, is light in body, and pairs with a huge array of summertime foods. Cold cuts, cheeses, grilled or roasted chicken, pork -- any of these stand tastily next to a slightly chilled glass of the stuff. As I mentioned last time -- Beaujolais is one of the few wines that will complement pretty much any salad, regardless of what you're throwing in the bowl -- thus, an essential around this household!

As a quick refresher, Beaujolais is a province within Burgundy. These wines are all produced from the Gamay grape and are fermented through a process called carbonic maceration. In this process, grapes are piled into a tall, vertical container pumped full of carbon dioxide and yeast is added. Rather than crushing the grapes and fermenting the resulting juice in the presence of oxygen, most of the sugar is fermented while still in the grape skin. This process creates some unique flavor compounds.

There are three basic quality levels of Beaujolais, in ascending order:

Beaujolais -- These wines are produced from grapes grown anywhere within the Beaujolais region.
Beaujolais-Villages -- These wines are produced from grapes grown in one of thirty-nine villages in the southern part of the region, known to produce consistently high quality wine.
Beaujolais Cru -- There are ten villages known to produce the best wine in the region, and the wines are designated simply by the name of the town.

(Do not confuse these classifications with Beaujolais Nouveau. This wine is very light, and is meant to be drunk almost immediately after bottling. As a marketing ploy, the third Thursday of November is always the release date. To me, Beaujolais Nouveau is the oenological equivalent of Hallmark's "Sweetest Day.")

Come summertime, I usually have several bottles of Beaujolais-Villages and cru lying around. However, when this season began, I went to the French aisle to stock up and got smacked in the face with an unpleasant surprise.

All of the prices went up -- and not by a a lot. Last year, a bottle of DuBoeuf's Beaujolais-Villages could be had for $6-7. This year, it was $11-12, and the 1.5 liter bottle was $20. When I asked about the price hike, I was given some explanation about shipping costs, exchange rates, and so on. I shook my head, since most of the other wines from around the world (including most French wines) have maybe gone up in price by 5-10%, not 100.

My theory? Beaujolais' popularity started to skyrocket over the last few years, and Georges DuBoeuf decided it was time to cash in. DuBoeuf is the leading producer in the Beaujolais world, and the prices of these wines often follow the lead. A few years ago, a bottle of the aforementioned Beaujolais Nouveau was in the $7 range. Now, they're selling for more than some crus, after a huge marketing blitz by GDB.

I looked for other light red alternatives. I discovered a pretty good substitute in the J.Lohr 2006 Wildflower Valdiguié. This wine was marketed as Gamay, until it was discovered that Valdiguié is a slightly different grape. But "slightly different" in this case is of the same degree as the difference between Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana. The flavor of this Monterey County wine is almost indistinguishable from a Beaujolais-Villages, dark in color, fruity in flavor, and with a soft tannic finish. I started keeping this around a fair bit.

Then, an amazing thing happened. Apparently, Adam Smith's invisible hand smacked our French winemaker friend in the side of the noggin. The last four wine stores I've walked into have had DuBoeuf's various brands of Beaujolais on sale, with discounts that bring these wines back into line with what I would expect to pay. So, I finally got around to trying a few for the season:

The DuBeouf 2006 Beaujolais-Villages was marked down from $12 to $8. It's still very much the pleasant wine that I remembered. The nose was soft mint and cherries, and the flavor is one you can throw down without too much thought. A great wine to break out with dinner or just on a warm summer evening.

The DuBeouf 2006 "La Trinquee" Juliénas had an interesting smoky flavor to go with the richer fruit. There were some solid cherry and blackberry scents and tastes. This one would go really nicely with a grilled chicken dish, especially if you were going to have a side that included a salad with tomatoes. A very nice compliment. ("La Trinquée" is "the clinking glass" -- which is also a nice conversation starter.)

Finally, the DuBeouf Domaine de Grand Croix 2006 Brouilly had dropped from $17 down to a much more respectable $13. The nose of this one is very pretty -- cherries and lavender. The flavor is very well-balanced from an acidity standpoint for Beaujolais. The finish is fruitier but a little more tannic than many in this family of wines. If you were doing grilled chops or other pork dishes, I'd probably recommend this one.

Bottom line, while making a profit is obviously the goal of any winemaker -- pushing too far can lead to trouble...although finding good wine on sale is certainly a thrill for this wine drinker!

Also, this wine writer's going to put things on hold for a bit. I'm off on a muchly needed vacation for a few weeks to recharge the batteries. If you need some other ideas for wines or other general information, please poke around the tasting index and see what you can see.

I'll have some stories when I return...believe me...

Stumble It!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Wine Spectator Scam

Many thanks to the Cockney Rebel for this heads up. As many of you know, I have a sense of uneasiness about Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, and the like because of their "objective scale" of wine ratings. Regardless -- they have a lot of pull in the wine world. They also give "Awards of Excellence" to restaurants that are deemed to have top notch wine lists.

Now, this might be a hoax, but it looks like all you need for one of these awards is $250 and a well written cover letter. I simply pass this along without comment...aside from a chuckle or six...

UPDATE: To be "fair and balanced," Wine Spectator has posted its "side." Yes, whomever the author was went to a lot of trouble to put one over on the WS, but I still consider it a win for creativity...

Stumble It!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Salad Days

Summertime. Fresh vegetables and herbs. All the natural yumminess you’d ever want, there for the taking at your local farmer’s market or in your backyard if you’re lucky enough to be able to keep things a’growing.

I know that I focus a lot on what to eat with grilled food during seasons like this, but I’m just as likely to want something light when it’s blazing hot. I’m perfectly happy with a big ol’ dinner salad most nights, but that doesn’t change the need to indulge my little oenological fixation.

Salads are tough for wines, though. Greens of almost all sorts have at least a hint of bitterness in their flavors. Some, like arugula, can be absolute wine killers that make a decent bottle of chardonnay taste like turpentine. Also, as delicious as fresh vegetables can be, flavors leap off in any number of directions and throw off many flavors in wine. Roasting certain veggies can markedly change food flavors, mushrooms add earthiness, asparagus almost always sets wine on its ear, and so on.

Heck, we haven’t even started talking about different kinds of dressing. Or perhaps you want to add meat to your greens to soothe the carnivorous beast within. How can you set up a pairing for optimal dining pleasure while not either making a boring salad or ruining a perfectly good bottle of wine?

When I think about wine pairings for salads, I follow three simple rules:

1) Go with the acid. Without veering headlong into Timothy Leary Territory, I’ll simply give assurances that powerful hallucinogens and romaine generally do not mix. However, tartaric and malic acids generally work much more effectively. The acidity of tart, crisp wines tends to cut through the bitterness that most greens have, as well as working to effectively dissolve the oils in most dressings, which allows both the flavor of the wine and the other flavors in the salad to make a stronger impression. Almost any crisp wine will work with a salad. And when in doubt, as with any number of other foods, rosé works well. For instance, the Saintsbury 2006 Carneros Vin Gris -- A French-styled rosé from California. It reminded me a great deal of Tavel. The wine has a pleasant nose of strawberries. Body is slightly acidic and quite fruity. Finish has a nice fruit, followed by a crispness that would make it a wonderful pairing with almost any kind of salad you might come up with. $12-14.

2) Pair with the dominant flavor. The idea here is similar to the rule of thumb used when pairing wines with pasta. You wouldn't want to drink a pinot grigio with a heavy tomato and meat sauce, but a big ol' Montepulciano works splendidly. Think about the major flavor in the salad -- or if there's one ingredient that, even if it's just an accent flavor, would be the first thing people taste. For instance, we recently made a tomato salad with lots of Mediterranean flavors: parsley, pistachios, mint, and scallions. While light, the tomatoes and herbs certainly took center stage. After some discussion with a knowledgeable staff person at a local wine store, we came upon the Pierre Boniface Apremont 2006 Vin de Savoie -- This wine from the French Alps is made from a local grape called Jacquère. The nose is cream and apples and the flavor is somewhat acidic and grapefruity. However, much like the wines from the neighboring Loire Valley, you get a some minerality, although not as much as a Muscadet. The body is light and crisp with a slighty flinty finish. A wine like this will cut through strong herbal flavors as well as the acid of things like tomato. $11-13.

3) Spice can be nice, but always think twice. While many think of salads as simply cool and green, adding spice and heat to a salad is becoming more and more common. If you look at the ingredient list for almost any salad in a cooking magazine these days, you're going to run into ingredients in either the dressing or the salad itself that adds peppery, savory flavors to the mix. Thankfully, there are a number of wines that balance those flavors. When it comes to pairing food with spices, Riesling immediately jumps to mind, especially dry Rieslings. The better dry Rieslings are often from Alsace, and one I had recently was The Furst 2006 Riesling – a wine with an interesting twist. The nose is perfumey and appley, much as I expected from a Riesling. Most Alsace Rieslings I've tasted have been bone dry, but this one has a pleasant amount of sweetness, which works wonderfully to balance the flavors you'd find in a salad. Also, the body wasn't as heavy as some Rieslings I've had. If you're doing an Asian-flavored salad, you'd be well-advised to spend $12-14 here.

The other major varietal that pairs with almost any salad is Beaujolais, but I'll hold off on discussing those in depth since they'll be the central theme of the next entry. But if you want a red wine with a salad, that should always, always be your first thought.

So, enjoy that fresh produce straight from garden to plate -- and confidently pour something that stands up proudly alongside.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Another good reason for wine tasting...

On September 11, Party Source in Bellevue, KY will be hosting a wine tasting benefit for the Krystal Pepper Memorial Scholarship fund. Krystal's sister, Michelle Lentz, is better known in these parts as the Wine Girl.

The event runs from 6-8 pm and will focus on red wines up-and-coming French winemakers and wine regions. Tickets are $40 and can be purchased here.

If you get the chance, lift a glass for a good cause!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tare What?

Hang out with corkheads long enough, and someone will eventually start talking about terroir. Wine's typically not something to be scared of, so what gives?

No, not "terror" -- "terroir!" It's pronounced "tare-WAHR" and is the backbone of any wine. Specifically -- it's where the bloomin' grapes come from.

The term is often used in discussions of the soil in which grapes grow, but I prefer the broader definition. Terroir certainly includes the soil itself, but also encompasses the climate and the topography of the growing region. The most obvious example of the expression of terroir is in the classification of French and Italian wines.

To wit, the terroir of the Bordeaux region produces a certain type of wine. That’s then further divided into the specific area of Bordeaux (Pomerol, Margaux, etc.) and then even further into the various Chateaus – like Lafite-Rothschild, et al. You see this more and more with many American wines as well. You’ll see wines labeled “Central Coast” or “Willamette Valley” – and these wines often get down to listing the individual vineyards from which the grapes are harvested.

So, why does all this matter? What difference does it make where these wines are from – especially wines like the ones we’ve got here – wines that aren’t the tippy top of the scale?

Because where the grapes are grown can tell you as much about what’s in that bottle as the grape varietal itself. If you’ve been reading the Vine for awhile – or even if you’ve just stumbled your way through Wine School, you’ll notice that there are often huge flavor variations among wines made of the same grape. The largest of these flavor differences go hand in hand with geography. For instance, a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand will generally have flavors of tropical fruit, a white Bordeaux often has a lighter, minerally taste, and an American sauvignon might taste more like grapefruit.

Terroir also explains why some regions grow certain grapes. Pinot noir, for instance, needs a very particular type of climate. That’s why so few regions produce the grape. And it’s no accident that New Zealand is about as far south of the equator as Oregon and Burgundy are north.

I bring all this up because knowing a wine’s terroir (and the general flavors of wines from that area) comes in very handy when you’re trying to find a wine either to pair with food or just to have on its own. As a rule of thumb – wines grown in cooler climates tend to be more delicate and have more complex flavors. Warmer climate wines tend to be higher in alcohol and have much more powerful fruit tastes.

One of the complaints you'll often hear about wines in the price range we're most interested in is the "uniformity of flavor" these wines often have. "One tastes like another," you'll hear many people say. Even among similarly priced wines from the same country, you’ll find significant differences. As an example, I tasted three American syrahs -- often considered to be fairly uniform. I looked at three, all between $10-12:

I started with the J. Lohr 2005 South Ridge Syrah. J. Lohr's syrah comes from Paso Robles. Red wines from Paso Robles (about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and inland across the Santa Lucia mountains) have some consistent notes across varietals. The Paso Robles Wine website quotes Matt Kramer’s book in stating that almost all their reds (they grow primarily Cabernet, Merlot, Grenache, and Syrah) have soft tannins and rich fruitiness. This is another perfect example of terroir description -- common flavor elements across grape varietals. This syrah falls squarely along those lines. The nose of this wine is big, fruity and smoky. It tastes much like it smells -- with flavors of blueberries, blackberries and leather. The finish is leathery and dry, but the tannins soften considerably as the wine opens. If I hadn't known better initially, I'd thought I'd been handed a cabernet, and this certainly could pass as a cabernet’s first cousin.

From there, we move on to the Rock Rabbit 2004 Central Coast Syrah. Rock Rabbit grows most of its grapes slightly north of J. Lohr in the "Central Coast" region near Monterey. The wines from this region tend to be big and juicy, and this syrah also follows right along. According to the winemaker, this wine is made in "Australian style," and I would concur. The nose is big and plummy -- a fruit bomb to be sure. The flavor is very fruit dominant, although it mellows a bit after a sip or two. Plenty of plums and licorice, and the finish is only slightly dry. It's quite a contrast.

Finally, I went with the Hogue 2005 Syrah. I expected a big difference, and I wasn't disappointed. Hogue is from Washington State, where the weather is considerably cooler than what you'll find in California. As such, the wine is much more balanced and almost delicate. The nose has much more subtle fruit -- raspberry comes to mind, with a smoky undertone. The flavor is "smooth earthy" -- blueberries and caramel. The finish is long and not very dry. A very pleasant wine, and a much more complex one than the other two.

So, have no fear of terroir – let it be your ace in the hole when it comes to picking the “right wine.” Much as in the description of Paso Robles above, you can feel pretty safe in picking out a flavor profile once you get exposed to a certain terroir. Give it a go and see what you find!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

"...when you're having more than one."

Let's face facts.

Lots of wine drinking has nothing to do with "wine tasting," especially in summertime. Sure, there are gatherings where people taste a bunch of wine and there are dinners where it's nice to have a good pairing, but this is the season for long nights out on the patio and for gatherings. Backyards. Front porches. Picnics. Reunions.

Somewhere near the cooler of beer, there are usually at least a few bottles of wine about. Now, some believe that "more is better" applies, and the jugs of Gallo get stuck in the ice next to the PBR. While I'm happy to toss back wine sans swirling -- I want to slug something that's not going to make me feel like I've just poured a plastic cupful of battery acid.

So, we're basically looking for some wines that aren't going to be center stage. We're not going for complexity. We're not looking to take flavors apart. We want some wines that will be inexpensive enough that you can load up, but of enough of a quality that no one's giving their glass that "one squinty eyed" frown.

I've found a few that could fill the bill -- so, for your gathering pleasure...

Sundial 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon -- When I bought this bottle, I was told by the person in the wine store, "People who buy it usually come back and get some more." After a glass or two, I understood why. For a bargain-line cabernet, this is a surprisingly big and tannic wine. ($13-14 for a 1.5 liter) An absolute must: make sure you let it breathe for awhile. Once it opens up, you'll get a nice nose full of raspberries and dark fruit. It's got solid body with some uncomplicated fruity flavors, and a decently dry finish. Perfect for any grilling occasion.

Twisted PiG 2006 Pinot Grigio -- I've been seeing a lot of Twisted Head wines on the shelves of various wine stores, and I happened upon their pinot grigio. This wine certainly fits the "uncomplicated" mold. It's very light and has some decent fruit, but it wasn't anything overly exciting -- until we had it with some salty snacks. Pretzels were fantastic, and I'd imagine chex mix would have been, as well. It's about $8 for a 1.5 liter bottle. Easy enough to drink without ill effect or ill flavor.

Borsao "Vina Borgia" 2006 Campo de Borja -- I'm intrigued by a wine that tags itself as the wine of an infamous noble family, but hey -- why not? (It actually refers to the town in Spain, Borja). I've long been a fan of Spanish wine, and I'm glad to see them start to release value-sized bottles of the stuff. In my experience, especially with Spanish reds, even the most inexpensive have been drinkable. This wine is 100% Grenache. It's solid fruit if you try it right after it's opened, but given a few minutes to get its legs under it, it's got a very pleasant fruit scent, enough tannin to be interesting blending with the flavors of berries and cherries, and a slightly dry finish. Another great wine for anything grilled, and really tasty with chocolatey desserts. $11-12.

Le Faux Frog 2005 Pinot Noir -- I admit, this was an impulse buy. I was walking past the box wines and I saw this very cute frog on one of them. Closer inspection revealed that this was actually a Toad Hollow production, so I picked it up. At first pull, very tight and really tart, but after a few minutes, and for subsequent glasses, one of us remarked, " a dangerous wine." The nose is largely cherry, but nothing complex. But definitely a real pinot-ish scent. Flavor, again, after a few minutes to let it open is soft fruit and has a somewhat complex finish of blackberries and coffee. It also lulls you into a false sense of security because it's super easy to it's probably good that it's only $23-25 for the adorably-frog-adorned 3 liter box.