Monday, April 27, 2009

MEAC Uncorked -- Sauvignons in Spring (SIGN UP NOW!)

Looking for a combination social event/philanthropy/wine tasting/evening out? And, as an added bonus (?!?) -- you get to spend time with me? I thought so!

On Thursday, April 30th, I'm going to be leading the "Sauvignons in Spring" wine tasting event benefiting the Madisonville Education & Assistance Center (MEAC), a wonderful local nonprofit that provides food, clothing, rent, and utility assistance to numerous families in the Cincinnati metro area. They also provide referrals for services such as job training & placement and substance abuse counseling.

The event will feature a blind tasting contest (most popular bottle in each category receives a $100 prize), raffles, and general good times. Live jazz and appetizers from area restaurants will also be part of the package.

For more information or to register for the event ($15/person), visit the MEAC website or call 513-257-3879.

I hope to see you there!

Friday, April 24, 2009


“A red rose is not selfish because it wants to be a red rose. It would be horribly selfish if it wanted all the other flowers in the garden to be both red and roses.”
-- Oscar Wilde

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I were ready for a getaway. My birthday was fortunately timed this year, so we decided to make a little California excursion to unwind, celebrate my entry into this world and, of course, try some tasty wines.

We started in San Diego with the SPinC's old roommate Melissa, her husband James, and their adorable kids Alex and Austin. We spent some time in Balboa Park, wandered through the San Diego Zoo, crashed someone else's 40th birthday party, hit Imperial Beach, and then set our sights about 80 miles north.

Turning east off "The 15" about an hour north of San Diego onto Rancho California Road leads you into the Temecula Viticultural Area -- one of the few relatively undiscovered wine regions left in California. A number of my wine biz compatriots either had never heard of the place or had never tried the wine from there. Heck, *I'd* never heard of the place until the SPinC suggested it.

After visits to Sonoma, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Napa, heading into Temecula was a bit of a shock. Instead of driving down winding canyon roads to the wineries, we found ourselves on a dead-straight four-lane highway past strip malls and seemingly endless complexes of condos and planned Beazer Home developments with names like "Chardonnay Hills" and "Vintage View," undoubtedly reeling from the ailing real estate market. At the edge of town, the country opened straight up into vineyards and wineries, stretching far in each direction.

Temecula, as we learned, was largely a ranching town until about 25 years ago. Old Town Temecula is largely constructed and restored to give the ambience of what "used to be." What's there now is a lot of grapes. Temecula is a Pechanga word for "Sun shines through the mist." The city is allegedly the only one in California to retain its Native American name.

Temecula Valley is a desert. Seriously. The average rainfall there, we learned, was about eight inches a year. It's also brutally hot, especially in summer. The high heat causes many of the grapes to ripen more rapidly than in many areas. If I made generalizations -- I found many of the "standard" reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to be thinner, lighter bodied, and have a somewhat raisiny nose. The chardonnays tend to be extremely oaky -- which almost seemed like an attempt to cover the lack of inherent fruitiness in many of those grapes from their shorter ripening time.

Temecula is both blessed and cursed. As an “up and coming” wine region, there’s a rapidly growing market for these wines – partly out of curiosity, partly because there’s the potential for some really delicious wine. What did I find out there? The grapes in Temecula are all over the map. Some vineyards focus on growing Bordeaux varietals (in fact, many grow all five: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec). Some grow esoteric whites like Viognier and Gewurztraminer. There's a lot of Chardonnay, and much more sparkling wine than I thought I’d see. There’s plenty of Syrah and a few other Rhone varietals floating around.

It’s understandable that the growers would pepper the hillsides with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, etc. – because that’s what everyone was drinking when these wineries opened. Looking at other wine growing regions with similar climates around the world, places like Italy and Spain seem to match best. So does the Rhone, which has the hottest, driest growing season in France. Twenty years ago, however, the average American wine drinker would have said, “Tempranillo? Isn’t that a little armored hedgehog looking thing from Texas?”

Thankfully, the American palate is broadening. People are drinking more Sangiovese, more Spanish varietals, and French-styled syrah. The wineries in Temecula that had the foresight and the knowledge when the hillsides were planted to get some Italian, Rhone, and Spanish varietals in the ground are seeing real dividends. The best values – and, in most cases, the best wines I tasted out there were either those grapes or wines in those styles. If developed correctly, Temecula could easily become “America’s Little Tuscany.”

Here are some thoughts about some of the wineries we had the good fortune to check out. Temecula's price point is a little out of the range of the Vine, but hey -- it's a special occasion:

Palumbo Family Vineyards -- A small, family-run operation that we were told not to miss. Their tasting room, a cozy room overlooking the vineyard (and their daughter Sophia's minature pedal-powered tractor) was home to some extremely tasty selections. Their Viognier was light, fragrant, and crisp with a hint of mint on the finish. Their meritage -- while a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot -- tasted to me like an excellent Sangiovese (which is also grown on the property). A small winery with a big future.

Miramonte Winery -- Perched high atop a hill overlooking any number of wineries below, Miramonte treated us extremely well on our visit. The jovial, ruggedly handsome manager Joe introduced us to any number of excellent wines while skillfully handling at least two drunken birthday parties in the tasting room. Miramonte did a number of excellent wines. Our favorites were the Sangiovese -- full of fruit and balanced tannins; their "3 Block" Shiraz which was the best imitation of a top-end Aussie red with lots of vanilla and dark fruit; their "Opulente" -- a meritage of deep fruit and smokiness; and their Estate Syrah -- a smoky wine of mystery balancing dark fruit and floral aromas. Wonderful. We also appreciated the advice from Joe's sidekick Matt, who joined us on the Miramonte patio for an end-of-evening glass, and to the manager Christine, who left us set up well with a pack of cheese and fruit to enjoy as we watched the sunset.

Frangipani Winery -- A low-slung building with the tasting room set amidst the barrels -- a common setup for many of our favorite wineries in this valley. We spent a long time talking to Don, the owner and vintner -- who knew the entire history of winemaking in Temecula Valley and was goodly enough to take the time to chat with us. His late harvest zin was a wonderful dessert wine, and for me -- the real star of the show was his Cabernet Franc. I generally don't care for Cab Franc. I find it to be too tannic and heavy on its own. The climate in Temecula thinned the wine out a bit, leaving a lighter-styled, fruity, well-balanced wine that almost seemed like a tannic pinot noir. Great guy, too. Hope we didn't make him late for his tee time...

Cougar Vineyards & Winery -- Our tastress, Jamie, told us about the many visits the winery gets from "Cougar Clubs" on the prowl for young men. While there weren't many to be found at this winery -- there were some excellent, reasonably priced wines. Cougar is one of the wineries that focuses almost entirely on Italian varietals, and their wines are starting to shine as a result. They did a semi-sweet "Sparkling Cougar" of Muscat grapes that had a wonderful nose of honeysuckle and tasted wonderful. Their rose of Sangiovese was full of fruit, and both their Sangiovese and Primitivo were well on their way to being excellent wines -- probably needing a year or two. We also got a bag of kumquats and an avocado with our purchase. How can you argue?

Robert Renzoni Winery -- Another Italian-heavy winery with a fun vibe. The SPinC and I have long talked about "wood theory" -- a hypothesis that states that the more a winery spends on burnished wood in their tasting room, the lesser the wines. Renzoni, like Cougar, was in a large steel-sided "barn" with a tasting bar in the front and barrels filling the rest of the space. Unpretentious and easy to get to know. They had a nice list of offerings -- our favorites were the Concerto, an "oops" blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Merlot with a spicy, slightly minty flavor and a long finish that just tasted scrumptious; their Rose of Sangiovese called "La Rosa" which has nothing to do with the Cincinnati area pizzeria, but instead was a fruity, light, easy accompaniment to our lunchtime sandwiches; and their "Fiore de Fano" -- a "Super Tuscan" style blend of Sangiovese, Cab Franc, Cab Sav, and Merlot that blew us away with flavors of leather, cherry, and plums.

Some other good wines we had a chance to try were the Leonesse Cellars' Signature Selection Syrah -- one of the best wines we tried there -- I described it as "velvet and pepper", but overpriced by a fairly wide margin. This wine was $90, and I've had boutique Syrah from Sonoma (my pals at Amphora and Gopfrich, for instance) at a third of the cost that were at the very least the equal. We liked the Zinfandel at Stuart Cellars -- which actually tasted like a Zin that I was used to -- strong body, fruity, and peppery. The sparkling Gewurztraminer and methode champenoise Brut from South Coast Winery & Spa were very tasty -- this was where we were staying during our time in Temecula. Those wines were good, but the massages we got there were better! We also had a delicious dinner at Thornton's -- not corn dogs and fountain drinks, mind you -- delicious tapas appetizers and perfectly done halibut on a pea risotto washed down with their estate methode champenoise Brut bubbly. Wonderful.

I'll be interested to see the development in Temecula over the next several years. As you know, vines take a long time to produce really mature fruit, and Temecula's only been planted widely in the last 20 or so years. The next 5-10 years will probably tell the tale for the region, and we'll start seeing the full potential of what you can get from there. Until then -- it was a heck of a lot of fun learning about the place and was a fabulous getaway. I'd certainly go back -- especially if the early returns are any indication.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Krystal Pepper Memorial Scholarship Fundraiser

If you're looking for a great event this's something for you...

Michelle Lentz of My Wine Education asked me to pass along information about the upcoming fundraiser for the Krystal Pepper Memorial Scholarship fundraiser on April 18. Proceeds benefit the scholarship fund, founded in honor of Michelle's sister, who died unexpectedly a year and a half ago.

More details here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Wine Store Therapy

I really like writing the Vine most of the time. I enjoy cooking and discovering new pairings. I get truly excited when a new magazine wants to publish what I'm putting out there. I know that a fair number of folks out there stumble across my reviews. As much as I enjoy corresponding in cyberspace with people, life in the virtual wine world leaves me feeling a little detached from time to time.

In "reality," watching the face of a man who said that he "never drinks white wine" buy two bottles of a Gewürztraminer I suggested is validating. Having clearly wine-savvy folk say, "Seven bucks? Really?" gives me a sense of accomplishment. I readily admit basking in this sort of thing is selfish, but that's why getting to talk about wine at Liquor Direct with in-the-flesh folk this weekend gave me a charge. These tastings were good for my soul.

For those of you who weren't able to swing by, below is a rundown of what I was pouring, in the order I had them:

Domaine Menard 2007 Cotes du Gascogne Columbard/Sauvignon -- This wine tastes like summer sunshine. A wonderful 50/50 blend of Columbard and Sauvignon Blanc, the Menard just invites you to step out of the heat, hop on a swing, and sip an afternoon away. Wonderfully fragrant with a nose of pineapple and flowers, there are flavors of melon, pear, and apple to go along with a great mineral undertone and a very bright, slightly tangy finish. At $9-10, one of the most pleasant, friendliest white wines I've tasted recently. It also would go wonderfully with roasted fish and vegetables.

Vinum Cellars 2007 "CNW" Chenin Blanc -- I first wrote about the "Chard-No-Way" Chenin Blanc a couple of years ago. I was a big fan of the 2005 vintage, and I remain so with the 2007. The nose is citrusy -- lots of lemons and limes, which mirrors the tangy taste of the wine. There's a lively acidity to this wine. The finish is very crisp and clean. Another great summertime porch choice or to pair wonderfully with chicken, pork, or light cream sauced pastas. $11-12.

Hogue 2007 Gewürztraminer -- Another return to the whites of Hogue. I wrote about their 2006 Gewürztraminer in one of my last Thanksgiving columns. Their 2007 is also very solid. I warned people when I poured this after the first two wines, "This is going to have all your taste buds making a hard right turn." The contrast was very stark. This wine has a peachy, spicy nose. The body is very full with flavors of pears, apples, and cinnamon. The finish is long and a bit sweet. The best comment of the tasting was from Shannon at the Fort Thomas store when she first gave this wine a go. "I could wear this," she declared.

Campos Reales 2006 Tempranillo -- The night before the tasting, the SPinC and I grilled up some steaks (along with a salad and some polenta cakes) to use as a delivery system for getting a handle on the two red wines I was planning to pour. Of the two, with the grilled meat, the Spanish red unsurprisingly stood out the best. This light-styled tempranillo from La Mancha had a surprisingly strong backbone. The nose was full of berries and pepper. The body was a little fruity and somewhat smoky, with a rock-solid balance of tannins. The finish was smoky and dry. Nuzzled up to a well-grilled steak (or anything else you might want to drag across fire, for that matter), the fruit flavors lasted for ages. If I were to choose, this was the best bang for the buck of all of my picks. At $8-10, this is an incredibly good wine.

Michael David 2006 "Petite Petit" Petit Sirah -- This wine's bottle got almost as many comments as the wine itself. The bottle is fat and tapered with a colorful label featuring two circus elephants -- one with a fleur-de-lies tattoo on his bicep. The wine is a blend of petit sirah and petit verdot. The former makes massively fruity, smoky wines. The latter is best known as the least-used of the five Bordeaux grapes, usually comprising only 1-3% of those wines. The petit verdot adds a little tannin and some structure to the normal fruit-bombiness of the petit sirah, leaving a big, honking, well-balanced monster. The wine is thick and inky, with a big nose of plums and blueberries. The body is stout, blueberry-filled, and strong. The finish is jammy and lasting. While this one wasn't quite as good with the steak as the tempranillo, I preferred this one to drink on its own. With the chocolate we had for dessert -- absolutely off the chain. This one nudged right against my $15 limit, but shell out a couple of extra bucks if you have to. It's worth it.

So, many thanks to K2, Shannon, Matt, Mike, Alfonse, and the rest of the Liquor Direct gang for the needed jolt of positive blogging energy. Especially, thanks to all of you who stopped by the table to chat with me -- I hope all of you found something you liked...

Monday, April 06, 2009

Another Weekend with The Naked Vine

Well, eight hours over two days -- but that's enough for most people...

Kevin and the good folks at Liquor Direct have once again opened up their tasting tables to the local wine bloggers. I will be at LD's Fort Thomas location from 4-8 p.m. this Friday, March 10th, and at their Covington location from 2-6 p.m. the next day.

If you want to make an evening of it, Michelle Lentz of My Wine Education is also doing tastings this weekend. Her schedule is the flipside of mine.

I'm going to be showing five wines from "Outside the Big Six" -- so swing on by and say hello. Have some wine...don't cost nothin'!

Here I am behind the tasting table last time around...

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Naked Vine in Big Sky Country

The family has grown again.

I'd like to give a big welcome to my new Gallatin Valley readers. BoZone, the entertainment magazine of Bozeman, Montana, is the latest print publication to feature the Naked Vine.

Thanks to all of you. Come on in and have a look around!


(Disclaimer: This column has absolutely nothing to do with wine under $15. Think of this entry as three selections "raisinated" into one fabulous experience.)

Uncle Alan and I were talking about wine a few years ago. I'd said something about how my favorite winesrosés in the summer, into the heavy reds in the winter. Alan...well -- he's a man's man:
change with the seasons -- I swing towards more light whites and Alan, well...

"I like reds. Heat of summer, dead of winter, doesn't matter. The bigger and more tannic the better. My absolute favorite is AMARONE."

It takes different strokes to move the world, yes it does. But I sure got curious about this Amarone stuff. I'd heard of it. I knew it was a monstrous Italian red. I knew it was expensive. I also never got around to trying it. I had the occasion to talk to him again not long ago (and yes, we've spoken in the interim), so I got inspired when I went wine shopping. I found a bottle -- Speri 2000 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico -- plunked down my $50 ( only live once), and decided to give it a go.

So, what's the deal with this wine?

Amarone (Italian for “big bitter”) is from the Veneto region of Italy. The Veneto is best known for light, fragrant reds which are simply called "Valpolicella" usually. Both these light wines and Amarone are made largely from the same three native grape varietals: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara.

Rather than using the standard "crush and ferment" process as with a normal wine, the grapes are harvested, separated, and laid to dry on straw mats for around four months. During this time, the grapes "raisinate" -- and the resulting dessicated grapes are then pressed and the resulting highly concentrated juice is fermented. The result? A very powerful, highly textured, extremely tannic wine. Once the wine is bottled, the tannins take a long time to mellow. These wines are rarely released within five years of bottling, and can take close to a decade to get to their proper flavor. The hefty pricetag comes from the combination of the long winemaking process and the necessity for even longer storage.

(Interesting pop culture note -- I've referenced Hannibal Lecter's love of Chianti before, but in Thomas Harris’ "Silence of the Lambs" novel, Lecter actually poured an Amarone to go with his liver and fava beans...)

I read in a number of places that the wine needs a good long while to breathe before drinking. So, one Saturday, I cracked a bottle of this, let it sit for an hour or so, and started putting dinner together. Amarone's recommended pairings are red meats and big cheeses, so I thought I'd combine the two -- grilled filet mignon topped with gorgonzola alongside little roasted rosemary potatoes and sautéed Cremini mushrooms in a red wine sauce.

While we were starting to put the meal together, we poured a couple of small glasses just to try it before pairing it up with the food. At first taste, there were soft fruit flavors, still a little bit of alcohol fuminess (Amarone is always at least 14% alcohol.), but a pleasant aroma overall. When it first hit my tongue, I said, "This is big...BIG-big." Coffee, cocoa, licorice dominated the palate. The finish was very tannic, dry, and set a new standard for "long lasting."

I let my glass sit for 15 minutes or so while I got to work on the steaks. After several minutes of sitting following swirling, like many big Italian wines, I came back to a whole new world. There was much more fruit on the nose -- all sorts of layered scents of raisins, roses, and coffee. The palate balanced out -- it reminded us both of dark chocolate-covered blueberries and blackberries. The finish was still very tannic, but the fruit and chocolate flavors rode the tannins for ages.

Then came dinner.

Oh. My. God.

"This meal would be good with water," said the Sweet Partner in Crime, "but with this wine...this wine..." Absolute hedonism. Thanks to this wine, a "good meal" turned surreally scrumptious. The filets, grilled to perfection by yours truly, had its juicy tenderness amplified by the fruit flavors in the wine. The tannins sliced right through the fat in the cheese, enhancing the Gorgonzola's bright flavors. "The cheese and this wine alone are like silk," declared the SPinC.

The earthiness of the wine brought out all sorts of flavors in the mushrooms. The spice in the wine echoed the rosemary in the potatoes.

At one point, the SPinC spilled a little while refilling. She sopped it up with her napkin. I took said napkin from her and sucked the wine out. Too good to waste. We found ourselves eating really slowly. We savored every bite, following each one with small sips off our glasses. A meal that might have taken 20 minutes to polish off stretched into almost three times that. At the end, we sat back, sated. The SPinC left a couple of slightly fatty bites on her plate for the pups. "Life's too short for dogs not to get some filet every now and then," she explained.

At meal's end, we sat, basking in the sensual glow of an absolutely incredible meal. I've talked before about how people make wine to go along with the food that they raise wherever they are. This wine was a perfect reflection of the pace of Italian meals. Additionally, this wine helped me truly understand why it's important to occasionally treat yourself to a really special wine from time to time. There are very few food & wine pairings I've ever had that were this good. Once again, I'll turn to the Sweet Partner to sum this up as well as I ever could:

"Some people might question why you'd spend $50 on a bottle of wine -- and then it's gone in an hour. But, with a meal like this, what an hour!"