Saturday, December 31, 2011


Happy New Year, everyone!

We've stretched our New Year's celebration over a few days, so follow the feast on Twitter at #NakedVineNewYear...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Belt Tightening, Celebration & Last Minute Gifts

As we prepare to bid adieu to 2011, we find ourselves in the last throes of the holiday season. The last two weeks of the year become a multicolored haze of festive dinners, office parties, and gift exchanges all wrapped up in a nice pretty bow of the holiday shopping orgy. You can’t really go wrong this time of year with the Swiss Army knife of presents – a good bottle of wine.

For most events, an inexpensive bottle (such as most of the ones we normally discuss around here) will suffice. Anyone who wends the way through this social maze knows that people are usually looking for something palatable to quaff so that making small talk becomes more bearable.

That’s not always the case, though. Sometimes you need a special bottle – something with a little more flavor and complexity for a more meaningful occasion. As we’ve discussed in this space before, the end of the year is the best time to snag major bargains for your cellar or gift bag since wine stores are trying to clear inventory to make room for “next year’s model.”

This opportunity is further amplified by the continued economic doldrums. The super high end stuff that can cost hundreds – wines like classified growth Bordeaux, Screaming Eagle cabernet from Napa, rare Barolo and the like – they’re always going to sell. There will always be collectors who can afford them. On the other end of the scale, the demand for the $15 and under bottle increases as wine drinkers are more judicious about discretionary income. The market slice getting hammered are the wines with “in-between expensive” price points – say $20-100. Ask almost any wine buyer. These wines just aren’t moving very well.

Here’s where you can score big if you look closely. There are “in-between expensive” bottles just sitting out there. If you’ve read those descriptions on shelves in wine stores, you’ll see many lines like “Drink between 2005-2011.” Odds that these wines will sell briskly after that window closes? Small. Wine stores need to clear these puppies off the shelves, so many of them get offered at enormous discounts. You can also find good values looking for wines that are from neighboring regions to super-expensive wines, especially if you’re thinking about French wines. For instance, a wine from a classified growth chateau may be hundreds of dollars a bottle, but a wine produced a few hundred yards away from similar grapes can go for a fraction of that cost.

Feel free to use these ideas as a great way to either score cool gifts or try some higher-end stuff that you might not have had the opportunity to crack on your normal travels. Take advantage of this. Go to your wine store and ask your friendly neighborhood wine guide to show you some “special occasion” wines that they have on end-of-vintage sale and see what happens.

Great example – the Sweet Partner in Crime and I got hitched a couple of years ago on Dec. 10th. As readers of this space know, we’ve been together awhile. Prior to our actual wedding, we’d used Dec. 18th, the date of our first date, as our anniversary. So we wouldn’t have to choose, we deemed these eight days our “Channiversary.” For our celebration this year, The SPinC went looking for three bottles – one from 2001 (the year we met), one from 2009 (the year we tied the knot), and another bottle, because things work better in threes. Here’s what she came up with:

La Croix de Rameaux 2009 Brouilly – The SPinC is a sucker for Burgundy, so that’s what she asked about first. Burgundy from 2009 would be too young to drink now, but she was pointed in the direction of Beaujolais (which is, after all, in Burgundy). 2009 is, by all accounts, one of the best years in Beaujolais in history, and the cru Beaujolais are not only exceptional – they’re ready to drink right now! (A Beaujolais cru will have the name of its city instead of “Beaujolais” or “Beaujolais-Villages” on the label.) Many Beaujolais, including cru,  can be a little thin, but not this Brouilly. For a light red, this had an exceptionally friendly and layered fruit and acid balance. Lots of full cherry flavors and a smokiness that was more reminiscent of a Burgundy than a Beaujolais. It was good on its own, but it truly shined as a charcuterie wine. (Which was good, because we didn’t feel like cooking the night we opened it.) With the serrano ham (oh yes!), salami, and chorizo we’d laid out...all delicious. We found it was also especially good with goat cheese, a usually-challenging pairing. Just a lovely wine to munch with. Ordinarily $32, we got this one for about $24.

Il Bosco 2001 Cortona Syrah – Italian syrah? I think I’ve seen some of it blended into Super Tuscan wines, but I don’t remember it as a single varietal. Apparently more and more Italian winemakers are giving it a go but, until recently, these wines were much more a boutique purchase. This was the wine with the “Drink between” dates I mentioned above. Strike while the iron is still hot! Goodness, was this some tasty wine. My initial comment was “it smells more Italian than it tastes.” (Although I didn’t have much of a basis for comparison with syrah.)  The nose is lovely. Plums, flowers, and smoke. Lots of earthy blackberries and cherries on the palate with a hint of that underlying Italian chalkiness. There’s also some smoke that got amplified towards the end as the tannins kicked in, leaving coffee behind. Wonderfully complex. I’d certainly be interested in trying more straight syrah from Italy. For dinner, we had salt-crusted roasted leg of lamb. Heavenly pairing. Cut straight through the lamb’s fattiness, enhancing the rich flavors. Super. A $80-ish wine that ended up at around $35.

Chateau de Bellevue 2000 Lussac-St. Emilion – I readily admit that I don’t usually get Bordeaux. It’s just not one of those Old World wines that I generally crave the way that I do Burgundy or various Italian bottles. Just the same, a nearly 12-year old bottle has an appeal, and I’ve since learned that 2000 in St. Emilion was a historically good vintage. In retrospect, that little factoid makes perfect sense. We decided to open this with an attempt at making a more-or-less true cassoulet. (Mmm…rendered duck fat!) We got to cooking and I poured the wine into a decanter. Bordeaux are notoriously slow-breathing wines. After about an hour and a half, we decided to try a glass. Oy! Tannin bomb, coming in! This wine gave both of us lockjaw. We couldn’t speak. Heavy charcoal and graphite. We decided that it needed a little more time to open, and we had an hour or so before the cassoulet came out of the oven. In the interim, I swirled the hell out of what was left in my glass for awhile, and hooboy -- was I ever rewarded. The wine started to open beautifully. The nose exploded into herbs and chocolate covered cherries. The charcoal and graphite powered flavor mellowed into a much more pleasant balance of cherry and smoke. The finish went on and on and on. The wine continued to change over the course of the evening, yielding more and more complex flavors. This was the big deal about Bordeaux. 

With food? Ye gods. While waiting for the cassoulet to finish, we tried it with some “drunken” goat cheese. Absolutely outstanding. A true “eyes rolling back in your head” combination…at least until we finally got to the cassoulet. Heaven. There really aren’t words for how good this pairing was. We did a version of cassoulet with ham instead of sausage and smoked duck. The smokiness of the wine complemented the rich duck perfectly, while the tannins tamed the salt from the ham while cutting through the fat. We lingered over this meal and the last drops of wine in the decanter for a long, long time, savoring. Perfect pairings come along rarely – those French know what they’re doing with wine and casseroles, to be sure. Many 2000’s from St. Emilion currently run well over $100. This wine from the surrounding region? $30.

So go forth, find bargains, and enjoy your holidays! We’ll see you in 2012!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Naked Vine One Hitter -- The Bookmaker

Thanks to the good folks at Balzac, I had the chance to try the Parlay “Bookmaker” 2009 Red Wine. Parlay is the “blended wine label” for Ramian Estates winery. Ramian is the fairly recent creation of Brian Graham, a Bordeaux and Burgundy-schooled winemaker who now calls Napa home.

Many California red blends are put together to maximize something –tannin, a certain fruit flavor, et al. Graham says that his French experience taught him the importance of balance in blending, and he’s tried to use that framework for this series.

For this particular blend, he’s managed to cobble together a pretty decent balance for a big, fruity, unquestionably Napa-flavored red. It’s about 70% cabernet sauvignon with the rest an amalgamation of syrah, petit sirah, and petit verdot.

First sniff brought along strong vanilla, blackberry, and mint notes. Lots of dark fruit and pepper on the body. It’s fruity, but definitely not a fruit bomb. The tannins aren’t particularly heavy, which I thought was nice, and the peppery finish goes on a good long while. I thought it was a pretty good quaffer on its own and it’s quite nice with a chocolate-based dessert. I thought the price point was slightly high at $20, but it was certainly worth a $15-16 snag. (Graham says that this wine can be aged for 6-8 years. Since this is the brand spanking new vintage, it might be more in its wheelhouse in a couple of years.)

The Parlay label also has a Viognier-based white blend called “Payout.” Raiman makes a single-varietal “reserve” series and a higher end “J.Garret” series. Brian Graham is also the winemaker for Jack Wines, another fairly new Napa label. I haven’t had the chance to try those. Bottom line, a pretty solid wine. I’d be very interested to try it in a couple of years after the flavors have had a chance to even out a little.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Wine & Dinner of the Month Club -- December 2011

This month’s wine is a nice Italian white that goes well with seafood and creamy dishes.  I had to make some alterations to the recipe and the dessert wasn’t as big a hit as I thought it would be, but it all turned out well.  Enjoy.

  • 2008 Bisci Verdicchio Di Matelica
We didn’t have an appetizer this month so I started right on the main course.  When I was searching for a pairing for this wine, I kept coming up with seafood risotto so it seemed a simple enough decision.  The only problem is Christine isn’t a huge seafood fan, so I altered the recipe to only include shrimp, adding extra to replace the now missing scallops, and exchanged the clam juice with an extra cup of chicken broth.  The risotto was creamy with a slight briny taste from the shrimp and a subtle yellow color from the saffron.  Risotto can be a side dish, but is so rich that it also works as a nice main course.  The wine was a perfect pairing with nice acidity that helped cut through the creaminess of the risotto.  I steamed some asparagus as a side dish, but let the asparagus steam a little too long.  It tasted okay but was a little mushy and everyone knows you don’t want to have a limp spear.

After the main course, I served a green salad using the last of the lettuce that Christine grew this year in the local community garden.  I garnished that with grape tomatoes and sliced dates.  Then it was time for dessert.  I was looking for something simple and what could be simpler than Jello (our neighbor Marlane, a native Minnesotan, would be so proud!) Who doesn’t love Jello?  But instead of just Jello, I souped it up with some white chocolate and condensed milk.  I was able to make it ahead of time and just had to garnish the individual servings with strawberries before serving.  Okay, it was alright, but not great.  The texture was a little odd.  I think Christine likened it to strawberry Play-Doh.  We finished the dessert, but I don’t it will be repeated…ever.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Dreaming Tree -- Wines from Dave Matthews

Let’s go drive ‘til the morning comes,
Watch the sunrise to fill our souls up.
Drink some wine ‘til we get drunk…
            -Dave Matthews, “Crush”

For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve never been an enormous fan of the Dave Matthews Band. I’ve always appreciated them, but they’re one of those bands that have always been on the periphery of my music collection. However, after a friend of mine forwarded me a press release announcing the release of Dave Matthews’ new “Dreaming Tree” series of wines, I got curious. I sent an email to Megan at Constellation Wines and lo and behold, there were samples to be had! While I may not be a fanboy, I’ll give big ups to anyone willing to let me try his wine.

I do, actually, have a tangential connection to Dave Matthews. Several jobs and a couple of lives ago, I found myself working at the University of Richmond (VA). I lasted less than a year there – working in residence life, riding herd over drunken, horny, segregated-sex college students wasn’t exactly my bag.

However, I was in Richmond right around the time the Dave Matthews Band (from just up the road in Charlottesville) was blowing up around the country. Not long after I moved to Richmond, the DMB was playing a show in Richmond just before the release of their second album – the now-ubiquitous “Crash.” More than one of my students told me, “Dude (yes, “Dude.”) – you gotta go to The Dave Show.” That’s the only way I ever heard him referred to in Richmond – “Dave.”

A small, fragrantly smoky venue in Richmond is probably the best way to experience the Dave Matthews Band live for the first time. As my musical tastes expanded, DMB joined a few other bands I liked in my mid-20’s as bands I’d hear from time to time and go, “Hmm…not bad” and then let it pass from my attention. Except for “Crash into Me” – which I heard once as a first-dance wedding song – which is just lyrically creepy if you think about it.

In any case, Dave Matthews’ first experience with winemaking was a property he bought in Charlottesville, Virginia he wanted to farm. “I started making wine and that process kind of enlightened me,” said Matthews. “Through a few different instances I met Steve, and that brought the possibility of making wine in a place that’s designed for making wine!”

“Steve” is Steve Reeder, head winemaker at Simi winery in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, the aforementioned well-designed place for wine. “From the first time I talked to him on the phone,” said Matthews, “I got the sense that he wanted to do something with me. Not because he thought I was a great winemaker, but because he was curious. I think that’s pretty bold and also pretty generous.” Matthews went to Sonoma to discuss life and winemaking with Reeder, and The Dreaming Tree (named after a song on his “Before These Crowded Streets” album) sprouted.

“I want to work in collaboration with Dave to make wines that are approachable, still food friendly, fun wines that are available for pretty much everyone to drink,” said Reeder. “I like to make wines for people to drink, not wines to be put in the cellar.” (This is only half true. Simi makes some cabernets in the $60-$100 range that I wouldn’t classify as everyday!) Matthews and Reeder collaborate on the composition of the wine in small batches. Reeder takes care of the heavy lifting in production, since he has Simi’s ample resources at his disposal.

The Dreaming Tree produces a chardonnay, a cabernet sauvignon, and a red blend called “Crush,” all from California grapes – a much better source than Charlottesville, to be sure. The information on their website stresses environmental sustainability in production and bottling, which is a nice plus. All three retail in the neighborhood of $15. So, how are they? Have a seat crosslegged ‘round the fire and read on:

The Dreaming Tree 2010 Central Coast Chardonnay – Sourced from grapes in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties, my note after the first sniff was “lemony!” I was pleasantly surprised with the balanced fruit and oak. There’s definitely a background toastiness to it, but it’s doesn’t overwhelm the flavor, which is the tendency of many newbie California winemakers playing with chardonnay for the first time. Solid flavors of lemons and apples on the palate. The finish is quite gentle with a hint of citrus and some lingering toasted oak. I thought this was a very pleasant bottle of white that paired nicely with some broiled salmon filets topped with sautéed fennel and a light curry sauce. The oak brought out a little more of the grill smoke flavor, but it was quite pleasant on a cool night.

The Dreaming Tree 2009 “Crush” North Coast Red Blend – The Crush is a 2/1 blend of Merlot and Zinfandel. While these wines are designed to be “open and drink,” this one certainly benefitted from a little time in air. At first slug, the flavor was a little “grapey” without much structure, like a very inexpensive merlot. However, some time in the glass with a few strong swirls pulled vanilla out of the nose. Once the wine opens up a bit, it’s got a very full flavor with strong blackberry and vanilla tastes. I thought it was just a bit too dry for a “quaffing by itself” wine. As it is, it would likely be good for gnawing on a plate of barbecue ribs. Unfortunately, that’s not what we had that evening and disappointingly, it wasn’t all that tasty with evening chocolate. Another recommended pairing from the website was “Spanish orange and onion salad,” but I have a hard time envisioning that.

The Dreaming Tree 2009 North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon – Made with grapes largely from Sonoma County, this was my favorite wine of the three. The nose is full of blackberries with a little bit of vanilla. When I took a sip, my first thought was “Bacon?” There’s a smoked meat flavor that I didn’t see coming at all. After a few days, it hit me where I’d run into that scent before. Dave Matthews is a native South African, and this smelled as much like a Pinotage (the pride of the Rainbow Nation) as any Cabernet I’ve tried. That bacony smokiness mellowed out quite a bit after a few minutes to something a little more balanced, although as the finish sat, there were still hints of that savory goodness at the end. Otherwise, lots of dark blackberry and cherry tastes with a finish that doesn’t start tannically at all, but quickly dries into smoke. This wine ends up being a mouth-coater of a cabernet. Like most wines with a South African flavor, this would be right at home next to a big hunk of something grilled. They recommend rack of lamb or lentil salad, both of which I could see without too much of a problem.

Matthews claims his wine philosophy is “If it tastes good to you, then it’s good wine,” which has been one of my standard lines at the tastings I have led for years. As Reeder so aptly put it, “Great minds drink alike.”