Friday, July 31, 2009

Alabama Wine Porn: Cycles Gladiator

Oh, fer gossake. You can't make this up. Thanks to Vine Reader Bev E. for cluing me in to this little gem.

I did a review a while ago of Cycles Gladiator wine. It's pretty widely available, and you may have seen the bottle in your local wine store. They make a few different varietals, and those I've tried are at least inoffensive, if not appropriately decent. However, "decent" is apparently not the appropriate descriptor in the Great State of Alabama. The wine's label is apparently a bit much for the gentle souls in The Land of the Crimson Tide.

Alabama's state Alcoholic Beverage Control has put a statewide ban into place on the sale of wines in these bottles, and given a huge free marketing boost to the folks at Hahn Winery -- producers of Cycles:

The Alabama ABC code states that "No advertisement may include any illustration(s) of any person(s) consuming alcoholic beverages or any person(s) posed in an immodest or sensuous manner." In a letter to Alabama restaurants and retailers, the ABC stated that the sale of Cycles Gladiator wines are prohibited. An attorney for the ABC was quoted as saying the label was submitted twice last year for approval and it was rejected both times. However, an Alabama citizen sent the ABC a bottle, indicating it was still being sold in stores. Consequently, the ABC issued a cease and desist order.

I do declare...this wine label has given me the vapors! Help me to my fainting couch...

UPDATE: Vine reader Jason M. suggested I make this update to the Cycles label, making it more palatable to the folks in Alabama:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

remembering the face of my father

It's natural, I guess, for a fledgling wine reviewer like myself to fall into the game of adjectives that is the wine reviewing world. It's a seductive trap for writers -- trying to "describe a sunset to the blind" by getting super specific in my writeups; trying to reduce flavors and sensations to minute components rather than simply writing about how the damned stuff tastes and whether I've enjoyed it. (After all, that's why most of you are here, right?)

About six months after I started the Naked Vine, the Sweet Editor-in-Crime read one of my columns and said, after reading one particularly clunky entry, "Who's your audience again? I don't think you're writing for them, or for me for that matter. You lost me about halfway through." She was right, of course. (Stop gloating over that admission, m'dear...) I was trying to prove that I was a "real" wine writer by churning out 400 words about a $6 sauvignon blanc. As the old cliché goes, you gotta play to your strengths. Being a junior Parker isn't mine.

After I write up my tasting notes, I admit I sometimes check my work against those of other writers to see if I've at least landed in the ballpark. I don't expect to have the same descriptions, but there should be commonalities among different tastings of the same bottle. I was doing just that for a cabernet sauvignon I'll be featuring in an upcoming column. I came across a review so glorious in its ostentatiousness that I did a literal spit-take. Check it out:

"The bouquet offers an immediate burst of slate, lead pencil, cedar and tobacco leaf, smoky and toasty oak and hints of intense and concentrated black currants and black raspberries; given a few moments, the nose draws up touches of leafy, dried herbs, brambles and underbrush. All of these elements testify to the wine’s structural integrity and tannic power. In the mouth, though, [this wine] feels sleek and elegant; it’s packed with spice and black fruit flavors but it’s neither fleshy nor over-ripe. The wine gains depth and dimension in the glass, darkening, as it were, as more mineral, tannin and oaken qualities make themselves known. The finish concludes with another burst of spice and a wild high-note of foxy plums."

Egads. Lead pencil? Brambles and underbrush? Foxy plums?

I realize that I shouldn't be too critical. This writer clearly has a particular voice and niche and writes to it. Even so, I hope this isn't like any review you'll ever see from me. If any of you ever notice me veering too far in that direction, feel free to metaphorically kick my ass.

By the way, I did look up what "brambles" refers to. It's a fancy way of saying "blackberries." I'm still stumped on "foxy plums." For the sake of full disclosure, this particular writer won the 2009 American Wine Blog Award for "Best Wine Reviews," so what the heck do I know?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Some Hometown Love -- NuVo Restaurant

You may have noticed that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I do a lot of cooking. Comes with the territory with the wine stuff. Friday, though, we decided we needed to head out. We had a nice night at our disposal and we decided to take a stroll.

NuVo "Modern American Cuisine," originally located in Florence, moved to Newport last September to great reviews and some nice buzz. Embarrassingly, we'd never been there, even though it's less than a mile from The Naked Vineyard. We decided to remedy the situation.

NuVo, for those of you who aren't familiar, is in the old Mokka location on York Street between 5th and 6th. The location isn't large -- it probably can seat around 50 people inside. The back patio (where we sat) seats about another 15 in the back. Like many of the other better restaurants in the Cincy metro area, they do a lot of interesting things with locally raised ingredients. While not everything on the menu was truly "locavore" (Understandably...the Ohio's not a good place to harvest scallops) we could tell the chef, Michael Peterson, made an effort to incorporate wherever he could.

We ordered a couple of glasses of Dom du Tariquet Sauvignon Blanc to go with our salads -- which was NuVo's take on a Caesar (the roasted garlic dressing was delicious), topped with some delicious goat cheese. We were lucky/unlucky with this course. We got large pours of the wine since we got the last pour from the last bottle of that wine. They also ran out of the promised pink peppercorn croutons, so they gave us...well...larger portions of everything else in the salads. Not a bad trade.

Between courses, our server brought us a palate cleanser -- a carrot and orange sorbet topped with a dot of balsamic vinegar. This little bite was a combination of strangely complimentary flavors. Sweet and tart -- with the carrot flavor very much up front. I could have imagined these flavors in a salad instead of a sorbet, but cold and creamy certainly worked.

The night was still fairly warm and neither of us were quite feeling up to anything overly heavy. We ordered a couple of glasses of Ugni Blanc (also by Tariquet) for our entrees. The SPinC ordered the seared red snapper with vanilla and orange glazed veggies over some annatto spiced rice. I had the restaurant-made fettuccini with lobster, pancetta and tomatoes. Ordinarily, I've seen pasta dishes like this done in cream sauces -- but this one was in a sweet corn and lemon juice emulsion.

The snapper was meaty, tasted exceptionally fresh and was cooked to perfection. The combination of the annatto flavors with the fish gave us happy flashbacks to our Aruba vacation several years back. The pasta was exceptional. The lobster's creaminess, the firm flavor of the pasta, the pancetta's smoke, and the acid of the tomatoes were rounded off by the sweetness and tang of the corn and lemon juice. Plenty of care went into making the flavors balance in both dishes. Harmonious is the adjective I'd use.

We didn't end up staying for dessert (we had a date with some Dry Creek zin and chocolate on our back patio at home), but the server did bring a final sweet. Homemade dark chocolates (one with a caramel filling) topped with a little sea salt and a "Dr. Pepper reduction." Yum.

NuVo's certainly not an inexpensive meal. The entrees range from $17-28. Our bill, which included a salad, our wine, and two entrees was $86, but for a nice night out -- definitely worth it. The service was laid back and extremely pleasant. We were able to relaxedly dine without feeling rushed. The only drawback was the décor on the patio -- which was, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. (The SPinC said, "Give me $500 and an afternoon and I could really spruce this up.") That nitpick aside, we'll definitely be back -- hopefully for one of their Wednesday tapas nights, which sound absolutely fabulous.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Arizona Stronghold

“Learn to swim, I’ll see you down in Arizona Bay…”
– Tool, “Aenema”

"Wine, song, food, and fire/Clothes, shelter, and seed.
No more need for the old empire/(When the) indigo children (come.)"
-- Maynard Keenan, "The Indigo Children"

Maybe Maynard Keenan is just being prescient.

Keenan (lead singer of Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer) writes a song in the mid-90’s about Los Angeles sliding into the ocean. At around the same time, according to the trailer for the documentary “Blood into Wine,” he has a vision about growing grapes and making wine on an Arizona hillside. A continuation of the same dream? Whatever his motive, he headed to the hills in Jerome, Arizona, to plant himself a vineyard.

Along the way, Keenan hooked up with Eric Glomski, an Arizona native and true believer in the power of the southwestern soil. Glomski’s Page Spring Cellars has as a part of its mission statement (that I wholeheartedly embrace), “Good wine is not strictly the esoteric fare of nobility: Wine is for the people.” Glomski served as Keenan’s oenological advisor for Caduceus Cellars and the pair founded Arizona Stronghold Vineyards as a joint “second label” wine for both Page Springs and Caduceus.

I harbor a natural suspicion towards “celebrity” wines. As my friend Jim Voltz of Bond Street Imports put it, “That’s how you sell average wine – market, market, market, market.” I’ve tried a number of wines “made” by famous folks – and the results have been mixed, at best. Many of them are pretty average, driven by cute logos and recognizable names rather than actual winemaking acumen. (For the record, Bond Street's wines are anything but "average")

I’ve been curious about Keenan’s wine, though – his music may not be everyone’s glass of grapes (and it’s hit or miss with me, depending on my mood and state of mind) but it’s always painstakingly crafted, highly structured, and remarkably creative. I figured if he were going to undertake winemaking, he'd probably throw himself into it as a creative endeavor with great attention to detail rather than having it simply as a vanity project. I also figured Arizona could become an interesting viticultural area. Grapes love lousy soil, blazing hot days, and dry cool nights. My old Southwestern stomping grounds have all of those in abundance.

When I saw the press release come down the pike about Keenan & Glomski’s recent publicity tour, I made an inquiry (when I saw they weren’t coming nearby) and they generously offered to send some samples. Eric was also good enough to pass along some recipe recommendations which, as you know, I can’t resist.

The first one we tried was the Page Springs Cellars 2007 Estate Vineyards "Landscape." This is a 50/50 split of syrah & petit sirah -- all estate grown in Yavapai County. This was described as a "classic Rhone" style. After giving it a little time to open up, we were greeted with a wonderfully fragrant nose of caramel, mint, and blackberries. The body, as expected from a blend like this, is very full and loaded with the syrah's fruitiness. Layers of berries and smoke work towards a finish that goes on for a minute or more by itself, ending with some very firm, balanced tannins and chocolate flavors. I asked Eric (a self-admitted "die hard meat eater") what food would go best with these wines. He suggested "highly seasoned meat, like lamb or goat." Taking this cue, we put together a lamb shoulder braised in tomatoes with sides of wilted spinach & sautéed mushrooms and some polenta cakes. The Landscape is nicely complex and great by itself, but with the lamb -- transcendent. Mint always goes well with lamb, and those tones paired up nicely -- but you add in the tannins slicing through the fat, and you end up with a slightly fruity, exceptionally smooth finish. Retails for about $40.

Next up was the Caduceus Cellars 2006 Merkin Vineyards "Anubis" -- This wine, named for the dog-headed Egyptian god who protected and guided spirits through the underworld, marks the transition of Caduceus to using predominantly Arizona-grown fruit. Eric said that the wine "bears the Bordeaux mark" -- which makes sense, as it is largely a cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon blend with a little syrah and sangiovese thrown in for good measure. We found it was an absolute must to decant this wine. Even after an hour open, there was still a lot of alcohol on the nose, and the fruit was extremely tight. After a good deal of swirling and decanting, the nose of violets and smoke start to emerge more strongly. Powerful dark fruit flavors and licorice lead to layers of smoke and balanced tannins on the finish. Eric's recommendation was a big steak, and I went with porterhouse. Divine. The wine brought out the flavors in the meat and the fruit in the wine ahead of any lingering fatty taste from the steak. We saved a little for chocolate and sipping, and the flavors continued to balance and marry. The Sweet Partner in Crime summed it up: "It's seductive. It's really fruity, but not an overwhelming fruit bomb. It's big and tannic, but that doesn't detract from the fruit or dry you out. It's not like anything jumps out at you. The whole flavor just draws you in." About $35-40 for about as well-balanced a wine as you'll find.

Finally, we had the Arizona Stronghold 2007 "Nachise" Red Wine -- another Rhone blend named after Cochise's son, former leader of the Chiricahua Apache. The blend is about 2/3 syrah, with the rest grenache and petit sirah. Once decanted, I expected it to be earthy with a little fruit. While a Cotes-du-Rhone is a reflection of the soil with its funk, the Nachise is a reflection of the sun and sky. The fruit flavors are certainly forward, but they're extremely bright for a wine this big. The earth that exists in this wine provides a nice backbone that's full without being thick. The finish is nicely long, with some tasty coffee and plum notes. It actually reminded me more of a Rioja than a Rhone. Rather than going back to meat, we paired this with a "Southwesterny" vegetarian meal -- grilled, marinated portabella mushrooms with avocados and a salsa of black beans, corn, tomatoes, cilantro, and fresh cayenne pepper from our garden. The Nachise embraced both the earth and the spice and held its own against the spread of flavors. About $20 and well worth it.

If these selections are any indication, the partners of Arizona Stronghold (and Arizona wine in general) have an extremely bright future. As for Keenan, was he looking for future oceanside terroir when he planted the Merkin vines? In a 2006 interview with IGN, he quipped: "This is a prime spot for vineyards. An untapped resource. But the master plan is to have the Merkin Vineyards Bed and Breakfast set up for when California drops in the ocean. Beach front property and the New Napa Valley. You got it."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Great Cabernet Ripoff

Vine reader and ol' drinkin' buddy Nate L. passed along this little gem of an article from The Daily Beast:

The Great Cabernet Ripoff

I really can't argue too much with too much in here. I was talking to another friend of mine who regularly attends private "wine tasting competitions" of cabernets and such. The latest cab to win one of those competitions cost around $300 a bottle, which is utterly ridiculous.

As you all know, I'm pretty partial to wines I feel like I can crack everyday, but after a certain point -- do you really gain anything other than showing people that you have $300 to spend on a bottle of wine?

UPDATE: K2 writes on a similar subject (and about Kings X!) over at Under the Grape Tree.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Finger Lake'n Good™ -- Part II

For part I of the trip, click here. For pictures, watch below and click for closeups...

As you drive around Seneca, there's a bend in the lake east of Watkins Glen, which is on the southern tip. The southeastern side of Seneca Lake is known as the "Banana Belt" because of its shape. This stretch of the lake catches the most daily sun of anywhere on the lake. Since red wines tend to need more sunlight and heat, we found the better reds on Seneca come from there. To wit:

Shalestone Vineyards-- "Red Is All We Do" proclaims the sign at the entrance to this little winery on the east side of Seneca -- and they do it quite well. Tasting there is a wonderfully laid back experience. The tasting notes on their wines are fabulous, such as this from their luscious 2007 Pinot Noir: "Pinot Noir has a presence that is very seductive. Black cherry aromas and flavors are indeed there, but tune your senses… there is a whole lot more. Oh the fickle femme fatale! Some are like a cold shower and others give you multiple orgasms. They are always worth a try."
Their "Red Legend" blend was also a favorite of ours. They have an interesting setup -- they built their cellars into the side of the hill on which the tasting room rests. Natural a/c!

Red Newt Cellars -- One of the prettiest views that we found just about anywhere around either lake. Most of their wines were very solid offerings, but their "Sawmill Creek" 2007 Gewurztraminer was absolutely exceptional. Made in the Alsatian style -- so quite dry -- there were layers and layers of watermelon, kiwi, spice, and various other yumminess. One of the better representations of that varietal we'd ever tried, honestly. (It's a little pricey at $36 a bottle, though.) Red Newt also had a very good bistro where we had a thoroughly enjoyable late lunch and some flights of various wines.

Atwater Estate Vineyards -- Our last stop on Seneca Lake was a winner. Atwater's friendly folks gave us a thorough rundown of much of their current catalog in their gorgeous tasting facility. We were especially impressed with their 2007 Chardonnay. Many of the Chardonnays in the Finger Lakes were overoaked, in our opinion. This one had just a hint of oak, some tasty tart apple flavors, and a nice vanilla finish. Their 2005 "Celsius" ice wine, also made from chardonnay, was absolutely delicious, full of tangerines and honey.

Seneca Lake is much more heavily populated winery-wise than its neighbor to the East, Cayuga Lake. Most of Cayuga Lake's wineries are clustered about midway up the western shore of the lake. We'd heard more about the wineries on Seneca and Keuka, and after our first couple of stops on Cayuga, we thought we understood why. We stopped at a couple of the "more established" wineries on Cayuga and were roundly disappointed in both. Their wines were clearly "made for the tourists" -- lots of cheap, sweet plonk that they'd been selling to tour busses from NYC and bachelorette parties for years. We were filled with trepidation -- and then our luck changed:

Buttonwood Grove Winery -- We were a little nervous when we drove up to the place. When I see wineries that offer a lot of non-wine stuff, I start to wonder how much effort they actually put into crafting their wines. Signs at Buttonwood advertised "cabins for rent," grape pies, and goat cheese. By the parking area we met Melody, a long-haired Scottish Highland cow and her three friendly goat companions (which we unsuccessfully tried to feed on the way out -- they sold treats for them at the register). Despite possible appearances to the contrary, Buttonwood clearly takes the wine seriously. They poured the best tasting chardonnay (Their 2005 Reserve -- $16!) we had in the whole region -- a little oaky with a balanced creaminess and excellent, refreshing fruit. Also had a very nice 2004 Cabernet Franc which was exceptionally smooth.

Thirsty Owl Winery -- Another wonderful bit of scenery to back up some very tasty wines. Our favorites were their 2008 Pinot Gris, which was fresh and clean with some wonderful acidity and fruit that rivaled much more expensive Pinot Gris'; and their 2008 semi-dry Riesling, which was an absolute crowd-pleasing peach explosion. They also had a great little bistro where we enjoyed some appetizers for another late lunch and watched the lake for awhile.

Finally, our tour ended at Hosmer Winery -- which was, again, one of the real finds of our trip. They had a ton of excellent selections. Both their 2007 Pinot Gris and Dry Rosé were fresh, tastily acidic, and full of fruit. The rosé, at $6, was a steal. They did a wonderful methode champenoise brut made of a blend of chardonnay and Cayuga grapes that was bone dry and yet tasted of honey. Absolutely delicious. Friendly atmosphere as well. They also were one of the few wineries that shipped to Kentucky, so we took full advantage.

So, all in all, what did we think? For scenic beauty, the lake views were hard to beat. For white wines, while Riesling was certainly king, they're growing a number of other really solid varietals, including some of the hybrids. The whites also tend to be very consistent across vintages. The reds were a little more uneven, but considerably better than we expected. The quality of the reds tends to be inversely proportional to rainfall. 2007, for instance, was a very dry year in the area -- and the reds from that year were a slice better, on balance, than the 2006's. Also, with the exception of Hosmer, most of the wineries we liked best were the relatively new ones -- quite different from our experience in a number of other places. I wouldn't hesitate to suggest this area for a getaway. So, make your reservations to fly into Ithaca -- the only airport I've seen where the gates don't even open until 45 minutes before a flight. You'll find plenty to help you relax.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Finger Lake'n Good™ -- Part I

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I finally got to the end of our school year. We decided, in conjunction with the SPinC's birthday, to unplug; do some hiking, snag some good grub; and maybe work a little wine in. Neither of us had been to the Finger Lakes and, after finding some inexpensive flights into Ithaca, set ourselves up for a long weekend jaunt.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Finger Lakes region, it's in west-central New York State. The lakes are long and narrow and look get the idea. These lakes, and the beautiful attendant waterfalls and gorgeous gorges in the surrounding area, were formed by the receding sea at the foot of what is now the Appalachian Mountains, a few hundred million years of erosion and weather, and one really big ice age. The result is an absolutely beautiful natural landscape, full of fantastic hikes, photo ops, and the chance to simply sit and listen to the water rush by for hours.

We set our home base in Trumansburg, about 10 miles from Ithaca at the absolutely wonderful Halsey House bed & breakfast. Mitch, the owner -- alongside Tess the sweet dog and his impressive aviary full of parrots -- treated us royally. Breakfasts were excellent and filling, and the accommodations were first-rate. As Mitch put it after we told him about the kinds of vacations we usually lean towards: "You're in the right place. All we do around here is eat and drink. Or, more accurately, drink and eat and drink."

We sandwiched some winery visits around the time we spent exploring the gorges and state parks of the area. (Treman State Park and Watkins Glen had the best trails. Taughannock Falls was the single most impressive sight, in my humble opinion.) When we started sampling, I half-expected to simply OD on sweeter white wines. I did have an inkling about the wines from there. I knew New York wineries cranked out a fair amount of Riesling (Dr. Konstantin Frank and Heron Hill being the largest producers) and I guessed they'd probably grow a few other white varietals. I also knew that we'd run into a lot of cheap, sweet fruit wines. The rest was open for discovery.

What did we find? Riesling was certainly the star of the show. There were scads of them. Most wineries that made Riesling had at least three varieties. You could almost always count on a dry, semi-dry, and sweet versions -- and various "reserves." There was, of course, the ubiquitous chardonnay and some other cool-climate grapes like Gewurztraminer.

There were also some hybrid varietals I'd seen -- grapes like Seyval, Traminette, and Corot Noir. These grape varietals are bred to be winter hearty, so you'll see them in a lot of "nontraditional" wine growing areas like Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, for instance. What I didn't know was that these hybrids were developed at nearby Cornell University (where my maternal grandfather, Walter, proudly earned his engineering degree). In many wineries around the country, these wines end up being full of residual sugar to mask flaws in the winemaking. I was interested to learn how these grapes were supposed to taste when grown in soil they were bred into.

There were also some cool-weather reds bring produced. We were told to expect the Finger Lakes reds to be "bug juice," but that wasn't our typical experience. Cabernet franc and pinot noir were fairly common and grew reasonably well. There was some cabernet sauvignon, and a few scattered Rhone varietals.

Across the board, the Finger Lakes wines were also universally affordable. Almost every winery produced very solid wines in the $10-20 price range.

There are three "major" lakes -- Keuka (pronounced Q-kuh), Seneca, and Cayuga. To get an idea of the geography (almost to scale, no less), hold out your left hand, palm away from you, and bend your ring finger at the knuckle. Your index finger is Cayuga Lake, your middle finger is Seneca, and your ring finger is about the area of the bifurcations of Keuka Lake.

The wineries tend to be right on the lakefront, so we had some wonderful views from their tasting rooms. We weren't able to get all the way over to Keuka Lake in the time we had, so we weren't able to get to Dr. Frank's and Heron Hill, but I felt like we got a pretty good sense of the area and the wine production. Many of these wineries are starting to be available more broadly, as well -- so certainly check some of them out.

Here are a couple of our favorites from Seneca Lake:

Glenora Wine Cellars -- Our first stop on the west shore of Seneca was a good one. We were given the dollar tour of Glenora by Bridget, the winery manager, who was understandably proud of the esprit de corps of her tasting room staff. Had a nice chat with the winemaker, Steve DiFranscesco, as well. Definitely a fun experience. Both their 2007 Riesling and Dry Riesling were very solid. I found their 2007 Seyval Blanc to be especially light, pleasant, and refreshing. They also made a wonderful 2002 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay Brut sparkling wine done methode champenoise which was an impeccably delicate creation.

Fox Run Winery -- At the very top of the west shore of Seneca, near the town of Geneva, is a very cool winery with a fun vibe and some excellent wines. They made an excellent Gewurztraminer (2007) full of floral notes and spice and a 2008 Dry Riesling which will be absolutely wonderful when the acidity calms down a little -- probably after about six months in bottle allowing the citrus flavors to emerge some more. At that point, it will be stellar. While almost of the wineries did dessert wines, Fox Run was one of the few that made actual port. Their ruby port stacks up nicely about just about anyone else's at that price point (around $20).

So to avoid overwhelming you (and to give myself a ready-made tease for the next installment), I'll start you off with these two. I'll send along the rest -- and our pictures -- next time!