Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Chill in the Air, Some Reds for your Glass

Can you feel the cool on the underside of the breeze? It’s a’comin, folks. Real fall weather. Red wine season. I personally go through a lot more white wine in the spring and summer, but when the leaves start to change – I load up on the rouge.
Recently, my wine-pal Danny and I led a wine tasting. Since autumn is descending, and many stores are already hanging their seasonal decorations, we thought we’d get a jump on the holiday season and do a full spread of red. We wanted to provide a few suggestions for the upcoming dinner party (and party in general) season. Whether you’re stocking the cellar or stuffing the stockings, snagging a case of most of the wines we poured wouldn’t set you back too far. All of them fall squarely into the “flexible food wine” or “slurpable party wine” categories. (Well, there was one deliciously notable exception…)
Have at ‘em:
Vina Borgia 2008 Garnacha – I’ve long been a big fan of this wine. It’s one of my go-to inexpensive bottles. It’s 100% Garnacha (or Grenache, if you prefer) from the Aragon region of Spain. You won’t find anything overly complicated here. You’ll pay six or seven dollars for a bottle and be rewarded with a nice nose of blackberries and spice, a body that’s medium weight with a good balance of dark fruit and pepper, and a nice firm finish. For the price, it’s one of the best balanced reds out there. It’s perfectly drinkable on its own or a good accompaniment with flavors from chicken to grilled meat. I think it’s great wine choice for a holiday table when you’re buying in bulk. The Vina Borgia is also available in a 1.5 liter bottle for around $12 or a 3 liter box for $18. Can’t beat it.
Vinterra 2010 Pinot Noir – One of the things I love about pinot noir is that the grape has a real sense of “place.” If you pour a California pinot, you’ll usually get bigger fruit flavors and higher levels of alcohol. Burgundies will be lighter and earthier tasting. New Zealand pinots, like this Vinterra, tend to be light, delicate critters. It’s a very pretty smelling wine – flowers, cherries, and strawberries are prominent. The body is extremely light for a pinot. By way of comparison, I’d put it at the same weight as a Beaujolais. This is another wine with very nice balance, giving you flavors of strawberry and cherry cola. The finish is gentle, drifting away on a mist of cherries. Like most pinot noirs, this wine basically goes with any food, and it’s a great wine to pull out if you have someone around who “doesn’t like red wine.” It’s almost impossible to find pinot noir this good at $15, but here you have it.
Ocaso 2008 Malbec – I wouldn’t want to write a column that extended through football season and the requisite manly grilling without throwing a masculine malbec in there. As I always say about malbec, anything you can drag across fire –veggie burgers to grilled mushrooms to a big ol’ ribeye – will snuggle right up to a tasty malbec. Argentinean wines remain some of the best values out there. As Danny said, “Take most wine from Argentina and double the price. That’s what you’ll pay for a comparable red from France or California.” Blackberries and coffee were my first thought when I got a slug of this one. It’s tannic, but not overly so, and it’s nice and muscular if you’re in the mood for something along those lines. I’ve read that it actually goes well with vegetables, too – but that wouldn’t be my first choice. You can find this for around $10-12. Ocaso also makes a malbec rosé that I poured next to the aforementioned Vinterra. The rosé ($8) is actually heavier, believe it or not.
Elvio Cogno 2007 Dolcetto D’Alba – If you’re looking to step outside the Chianti world for a relatively light Italian red, Dolcetto is a very nice alternative. Dolcetto translates as “little sweet one,” although this is hardly a sweet wine.. I thought this was a wine that was basically built to be passed around a dinner table – like most good Italian wines are. It’s got a fair amount of acidity, which allows the flavor to cut through almost anything with a red sauce, be it pasta, chicken parmesan, or brasciole. I recently poured this next to a roasted eggplant-and-red-pepper soup and it was simply divine. If you don’t like the “chalky” flavor that Chianti sometimes have, but you like the acidity and the full fruit flavors, this is a great choice. It’s around $15 and worth every penny if you’re cobbling together a little feast for friends.
Chateau de Bel 2009 Bordeaux – Bordeaux is one of the more vintage-dependent wines out there. Bordeaux from an “off year” can be overpriced and uninteresting. The 2009 vintage, however, apparently has the potential to be one of the great vintages in Bordeaux (and in much of the rest of France, as well). The quality even trickles down to the more inexpensive bottles, like this one from Chateau de Bel. This 90/10 merlot/cabernet blend is an impressive bottle, especially for $15. Intense fruits and a nice dose of the “old world funk” that I like so much in Bordeaux. A little tannic, a little oaky – it’s just a very solid all-around wine. For the Francophiles out there, consider squirreling away a few bottles of for five years or so. I’m very interested to see how this one develops over time. Or just lay out some rich cheeses, grilled pork chops, or some good stew. You’ll thank me later.
Domaine La Roquete 2007 Chateauneuf-de-Pape – Danny couldn’t resist being a showoff. He pulled this little gem to put the rest of our selections to shame. He said that if he were forced to only drink one kind of wine for the rest of his life, he’d choose Chateauneuf-de-Pape – which is a predominantly Grenache/Syrah blend from the town of the same name in the Rhone valley. This is one damned delicious wine. You may have heard wines described as “elegant.” This one falls squarely into that category. It’s a deeply layered wine. As you take successive sips, you’ll find different flavors emerging: currants, cherry, nutmeg, blackberry, and a backbone of nice earthiness. Chateauneuf-de-Pape is an expensive wine. You’ll often see this wine start at around $50-60 and go up from there. This one was under $40, and for my money – if you want to impress – this is a nice selection to have in your arsenal. Or have this one the day after your dinner party as you’re relaxing the next evening. Be selfish. You deserve it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Massandra 1931 Ai-Danil Tokay...and Happy Birthday, Dad!

I could devote many column inches on the enormous impact my father has had on the fabric of so many people’s lives over the years (Google “John Rosenberg AppalRed” or “John Rosenberg civil rights lawyer” for a taste), but that’s for another venue. What’s the wine connection?John Rosenberg 016

What do you get the man who doesn’t need anything? He’s happy, healthy, and still doing the work he loves. A milestone like an 80th birthday deserves an appropriately celebratory gift. After some pondering and a little poking around online, I was able to locate (via Sotheby’s Wine – a New York offshoot of the London auction house) something appropriate. Ladies & Gentlemen, let me introduce:

Massandra 1931 Ai-Danil Tokay

The wineries in Massandra were built during the reign of Czar Nicholas II. During the process, wine caves containing thousands of bottles were constructed beneath the city. This “personal wine cellar” of the Czar contained tens of thousands of bottles. These caves survived the Russian Revolution, both World Wars, the fall of Communism, and Yakov Smirnoff. In 1990, about 13,000 of these bottles – never before available in the West – were put to auction. (Read more about the auction here: A couple of decades later, FedEx brought one of those bottles to me.

The bottle itself was quite a sight. Standard sized wine bottle, green glass, no label. The Sotheby’s wrapper had the identifying information. The wrapper was necessary for cleanliness purposes, as the bottle was still caked somewhat with the Crimean cave dirt in which it had rested for about sixty years. Wax seal, still mostly intact, over the cork.IMG_2227

Tokay (or Tokaji), in case you’re wondering, is a dessert wine originating in the Tokaji region of Hungary (the wine is mentioned in the Hungarian national anthem). During the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ukraine was part of the Tokaji region, so those wines maintained the moniker. The wine is made from grapes affected by “noble rot,” like French Sauternes. The result is a golden-colored, fragrant, sweet wine with enormous aging potential. As the wine ages, the color changes like a sunset – from gold to increasingly deep red. The complexity of flavors follows.

I consulted with a couple of sommelier friends of mine to get some pointers on handling such an old bottle. The short version of said advice: “Keep the bottle as still as you can so you don’t disturb the sediment, and be careful decanting it.” Later in the evening, my brother-in-law said that he thought there was either something alive or explosive in the box, since I was handling it so gingerly.

The potent fear when opening wine this old is that it might not be wine anymore. It doesn’t take much going wrong over the course of 80 years to complete a wine’s journey to Vinegar-land. After Dad had a chance to see the bottle, the moment of truth was at hand. I slowly started extracting the cork. I immediately saw that there was only about a quarter inch of dry cork left. I’ve seen two-year old bottles with similar looking corks be utterly shot. Butterflies were cutting complex maneuvers in my gut. The cork came free.

My nose met a blast of honey, fruit, and flowers. Intact! The relief and excitement evoked a long-ago summer camp memory of a brown-haired girl’s smile as she whispered, “You can kiss me if you want.”

Grinning and trembling a bit, I decanted the Tokay. All things considered, I did a pretty good job. I was able to keep almost all of the sediment in the bottle. The wine had continued its darkening over the years and was now a deep reddish-chestnut. I poured small amounts for everyone and we toasted my father.IMG_2217

How’d it taste? Unbelievably good. One of the most “layered” wines that I’ve ever tried -- rich, full, and sweet without being cloying. Each sniff and sip yielded something a little different. The notes I managed to scribble (which really don’t do it justice): “Nose: honey, prunes, sunshine, violets. Body: raisins, caramel, honey, peach, pear. Back: spice, honey, little lemon zest. LAYERS. 3 minutes of finish. Stupendous, worthy, rich. Wine for a king’s table.” (Or, as I learned above, a czar’s.)

Since very little of the wine had evaporated over the years, we had enough to actually brave a food pairing. The suggested  pairing with Tokay is pears and blue cheese. Lovely. The pears amplified the fruit in the wine. The creamy funk of the Roquefort shook hands and gave the honey a warm hug. Stunningly tasty.

We continued with the birthday celebration, and I managed to slyly move the decanter from the table so that the Sweet Partner in Crime and I could have a nightcap. Not surprisingly, the soul of the wine, preserved so long, left quickly. The wine was still

drinkable a couple of hours later, showing some of the same flavors, but the bouquet and layers of wonder and complexity had flattened. No matter. This wine lived 80 years and shone brightly for we who were lucky enough to be around when it was opened…like my Dad.

John Rosenberg 011





Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wine & Dinner of the Month Club – September 2011

[Ed. Note -- Jeff was a wee bit late this month, but we won’t hold it against him...]

For September, I took a different course in preparing the meal. I used the slow cooker. I always forget about the slow cooker, and when I use it I wonder why. It’s a simple matter to put the ingredients into the pot in the morning and when you are ready for dinner everything is cooked to tasty perfection. I highly recommend you give it a try.


  • Cheese Plate Appetizer
  • Braised Lamb Shoulder with Luscious Legumes
  • Pop-Tarts (The Homemade Kind)


2006 Marques de Caceres Rioja

For some reason, we had a lot going on in September so I was looking for a meal that could be prepared with a minimum of fuss. A slow cooker recipe was a natural fit. Generally Rioja goes well with roasted meats such as lamb or duck so I opted for a lamb dish. The recipe originally called for lamb shank, but when I went to the grocery store they were out of the shank so I opted to use some shoulder cuts. It worked out to be a perfect substitution. I figured the beans, mixed with some spices, onion, carrot and celery would make for a good savory accompaniment.

One thing to remember about dry beans, which I prefer to the canned variety, is that you will probably have to soak them overnight. If you remember that tip, it will save you from scaring your wife to death when you jump out of bed at night shouting, “I forgot to soak my beans!!!” With the beans appropriately soaked, the next morning was a breeze. I coated the lamb shoulders with a mixture of flour, salt and pepper and browned them lightly on all sides. They went into the cooker on top of the beans with a sprig of rosemary tucked underneath. I then cooked the vegetable mixture which included onions, carrots, celery, garlic, the zest and juice of an orange, some beef broth and a little red wine. After this mélange softened I poured it over the lamb and beans and set the cooker on low. Here’s a little tip I like for celery or some other vegetables: if you need just a little bit and don’t want to buy, for example, a whole stalk of celery, pick up just what you need at the salad bar if your grocery store has one. [Ed. Note -- For this tip alone, we forgive his tardiness...]

While the lamb was cooking I rolled out the dough for the pop-tarts, which I had prepared the night before and stored in the refrigerator. The tarts are simple to assemble by cutting out rectangles of dough and putting strawberry jam inside. Once assembled the pop-tarts went into the freezer until ready to bake.

At dinner time I put out a cheese plate of crackers and a couple cheeses, including a delicious goat’s milk Gouda.


After the appetizer, I dished out the lamb and beans and served them with the wine and some crusty bread. The lamb was fall off the bone tender and the juices from the lamb and the vegetable mixture had combined with the beans to create a deliciously savory and hearty meal that paired well with the fruity dryness of the Rioja.


While we ate dinner, I had the pop-tarts baking. After taking them out of the oven and letting them cool, I sprinkled them with confectioner’s sugar and served with fresh strawberries. My only problem was that I forgot to cut slits in the pastries to let out steam and the filling overflowed out of the crust. They were still tasty and I heard no complaints.


This was a delicious meal and very easy. I can certainly see doing more slow cooker recipes, particularly during the cold winter months ahead.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Naked Vine Live!

Howdy folks! Wanted to give you a heads up -- Danny Gold of the Party Source and I will be leading a wine tasting this Wednesday, October 12, at 6:30 pm. We're going to line up a bunch of quality, affordable reds to give you an early jump on the holiday season.

Click here for more info!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Cerruti Cellars/Tudal Family

Thanks again to our Friends of the Vine at Balzac for passing along this pair of bottles from Tudal Family Winery in St. Helena in Napa. They’ve recently started Cerruti Cellars for their “second label wines” in, of all places, Oakland (across from the very cool-sounding. soon-to-be-opened Jack London Market). Cerruti makes a couple of red blends, a zinfandel, a rosé, and a sauvignon blanc. Tiffany sent along the first and last of that list.


The first one I had a chance at was the Cerruti Cellars 2010 Napa Valley “Honker Blanc” Sauvignon Blanc. This white’s moniker comes from a flock of Canada Geese that use their vineyard as a stopping point on their annual migration. Their way station is apparently just behind the Tudal crush pad. (I sincerely hope that they clean the crush pad not long after the geese move along…) The bottle is adorned with a picture of these geese and a “subliminal message.”

The Honker is quite a full bodied sauvignon blanc, bordering on overly thick. The nose is pretty – floral with a little bit of citrus and spice. The flavors I found were largely green apple and lime with a wee undertone of residual sugar. It passes into the distance slowly with lime and honey flavors that turn slightly bitter at the end. If you’re a fan of slightly heavier sauvignons, this a decent choice at $15.

The other bottle was the Cerruti Cellars 2009 “Tractor Shed Red” Red Blend. The Tudal Family winery uses a ’47 Massclip_image004ey Harris tractor as one of its prominent symbols, and this piece of equipment is predictably emblazoned on this red. It’s an interesting blend of Sangiovese, Zinfandel, and Merlot. (Again, glad to see more California winemakers doing Sangiovese!) At first sniff, the zinfandel through strongly with nicely balanced plum and wood flavors. It’s lighter bodied than I expected, and I could really taste the Sangiovese. There’s even a nice hint of the Italian “chalk” mouthfeel that makes it such a nice pairing with red sauces. There’s also a Chianti-ish cherry base for the flavor, along with plums from the merlot and pepper from the zin. The finish is dry with more of that chalkiness and a little lingering fruit. If you’re a fan of Italian wines, I’d certainly give this one a run alongside any meal with which you might pour a decent Chianti or Barbera. (I put it next to pasta in a sausage & mushroom marinara. When I looked up the price, I was taken a bit aback. For your red sauce pleasures, this is a steal at $11.