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.”

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Chill in the Air, Some Whites for your Glass

I had a couple of requests after the last column (“A Chill in the Air, some Reds for your Glass") for a companion piece on cool-weather whites. As I ease into fall, I tend to think about white wines less. I don’t usually get a craving for a big glass of pinot grigio on a day where the wind is whipping the heat from my bones, but I can’t lose sight of them altogether. Dinner parties, social events, or perhaps the occasional 80 degree day in December might call for whites, albeit slightly heavier ones. Here are a few that you might want to stash away:

Yalumba 2010 Viognier – I haven’t had a lot of luck with inexpensive Viognier lately. Viognier’s a great blustery-weather white. It’s probably got my favorite white wine aromatics, but the inexpensive ones can taste a little bit “oily” and have an alkaline aftertaste. Not pleasant in my opinion and not my usual cup of tea. Still, since it had been a while and after happening along a few offerings from South Australia, I thought I’d give the grape another whirl. I was pleasantly surprised to find this one. The Yalumba (great name, too – Aboriginal Australian for “all the land around”) has plenty of peach and floral scents on the nose, followed up by a nicely balanced peach flavor. It’s “weighty without being heavy,” if that makes sense. Viognier is a great choice with a traditional turkey meal and it also works well with spicy stuff. As a bit of a warning, this is a high-alcohol white. It clocks in at 14.5%, which is around cabernet sauvignon level. Not to worry, the alcohol is masked with a little residual sweetness. Swirl well and approach gently. $9.

Villa Maria 2008 Marlborough Riesling – Staying with the Down Under selections, we pop “next door” to New Zealand for this extremely food-friendly Riesling. I found it to be a intriguing mix of some of my favorite “traditional” Riesling styles. My best description would be “dropping a hunk of pineapple into a glass of Alsace Riesling.” Alsace Rieslings are almost always bone dry and full of mineral flavors, while the pineapple reminds me of Pacific Northwest dry Riesling. Trust me – for some reason it works. The Villa Maria has a lovely tropical-fruit-and-flowers nose. I picked up lots of minerality at first taste, blended with the aforementioned pineapple. The burst of fruit quickly yields to dryness and flint on the finish. If you enjoy “drinking rocks” as I do, you’ll love this wine. At around $13, this is a nice alternative to more expensive Alsatian offerings.

Adler Fels “Kitchen Sink” (NV) California White Table Wine – I’m honestly not sure why I picked this wine up. I was browsing the California white section for a sauvignon blanc. Since I’d used “everything but the kitchen sink” in a work context that day, the faucet on the label caught my eye. I took that as a sign. I read the back label and thought, “Huh…Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Gewurztraminer. That should be fun.” I thought it might have a little more oomph than a sauvignon blanc for the meal I was planning, and I wasn’t disappointed. Even though it’s comprised of over one-third California chardonnay, it’s still a fruity, acidic white. My first taste yielded lemons and tangerines. The finish is surprisingly crisp even with its nice weight. I thought it was very pleasant on both palate and pocketbook for around 10 bucks. What was the meal? Orecchiette pasta with chickpeas, greens, and grilled calamari (sounds weird, tastes nummy). Flavors from all directions made friends in this pairing. I would imagine it would stand up to cream sauces as well.

Gruet (NV) Blanc de Noirs – I would be remiss in putting together a whites column without throwing in a sparkler. One of the primary differences I find between French sparkling wines and other sparklers like cava is the “creamy” flavor that accompanies the fruit and the bubbles in the French offerings. There’s usually also a pleasant, somewhat “yeasty” aroma in the bouquet that reminds me a little of freshly baked bread. When I got a sip of this little number from New Mexico, I thought it was about as French-tasting as any inexpensive sparkling wine I’ve sampled. I found berries and cream on the tongue with good “mousse” (WineSpeak for “bubble strength and feel). The finish is toasty and pleasant. We cracked this as an aperitif for a recent dinner party for our neighbors (including Dinner Club Jeff) and it got raves. Around $12-13 and well worth it.

Wine and Dinner of the Month Club – November 2011

This month’s meal was a simple affair, but no less tasty.  The wine was a Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon which said on the label it was good with grilled rib eye or braised lamb shanks.  We had braised lamb recently and I wasn’t really in the mood for a big rib eye, but some strip steak fit the bill.  I don’t really have any recipes this month except for the dessert, but I think it’s mostly self explanatory.

  • Mushroom Bruschetta with Parmesan Cheese
  • Grilled Strip Steak with Sautéed Mushrooms, Turnip Puree and Purple Broccoflower
  • Green Salad with Walnuts and Steamed Beets
  • Apple Fritter Rings

  • 2006 Kunde Family Estate Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

I started out early in the day by marinating the steaks in olive oil, garlic and a little salt and pepper.  When I was ready to start dinner, I baked a small baguette and sautéed some chopped mushrooms.  I sliced the baked bread and brushed olive oil on both sides of each slice.  I rubbed some garlic on each side as well and then topped the bread with the mushrooms and a little parmesan cheese.  I put these in the oven and let them bake at 350 degrees until the cheese melted thoroughly.  I had already decanted the wine and Christine and I sat down for the appetizers.

After the appetizer, I started the main course.  First I started boiling the potatoes and turnips for the puree.  After these were cooked, I put them in a food processer with a little butter, buttermilk, salt and pepper.  You really just have to experiment to get the right consistency.  Mine was a little loose, but it worked out okay.  I threw the steaks on the grill since they did not need a lot of time to cook and started steaming the broccoflower.  Once I brought the steaks in and the broccoflower was ready, I sautéed some more mushrooms and plated it all up.  Now, you may ask yourself, what is broccoflower?  Well, it’s a cross between broccoli and cauliflower.  I was planning on having broccoli as the side, but when I was in the grocery store I saw the broccoflower in purple and orange and green and decided to have a little fun.  I think it added a nice and unusual splash of color to the entrée.

After the main course, we had a green salad with lettuce that Christine grew in our community garden, steamed beets from the local farmers market and walnuts from our local…grocery store.  Okay, so the walnuts probably weren’t that local.  In America the salad is usually before the main course, but Christine likes to have it the Italian way after the entrée as a little bit of a palate cleanser, particularly with a nice vinaigrette dressing.  I agree that it does make for a nice transition.  Give a try sometime to mix things up.

Finally, I prepared the dessert.  This recipe actually came from the December issue of Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazine.  We had some Northern Spy apples from Hidden Valley Fruit Farms near Lebanon, OH that are delicious cooking apples.  I first cored, peeled and sliced two apples to make little apple rings.  I dredged these in a batter and dropped into 350 degree vegetable oil in a cast iron skillet.  They cook really quickly with one turn half way through.  After they had a chance to dry a little on some paper towels, I tossed them in a little cinnamon/sugar mixture and served them warm.  The batter gives them a nice crispy texture and the cooked apples inside are like apple candy.  And the best part is that they actually came out looking like the picture in the magazine (well, enough of them did for this picture).

As far as the wine, it was an excellent pairing with the bruschetta, the steaks and salad.  The richness of the wine nicely balanced the earthiness of the meat, mushrooms and the root vegetables.  However, as you might expect, it did not go so well with the apple rings.  They were far too sweet to go with the dryness of the wine.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Wine and Dinner of the Month Club–October 2011

After being chastised by my editor for tardiness last month, I made sure to get this entry written in time. I did; however, my lovely assistant had a month of intense work and travel and in her not-so-usual way, submitted the article late. She also thought she deleted the photos, but happily found them included with the Hallowheeling “Pollination” photos.

In early October Christine and I were in Washington, DC and went to dinner with her parents at Taste of  Morocco in Arlington.  After enjoying all the great flavors, I decided that this month’s dinner would be a Moroccan feast.


  • 2007 Wild Horse Central Coast Chardonnay

Though it looks involved, the entire dinner was really pretty easy.  There was some prep time involved, but once you got past that it all went quickly and a lot of it could be done ahead of time.  I was home for the day so I was up early working on the meal.  The first thing I did was bake the cake to get that task out of the way.  Next I prepped the salad ingredients which involved slicing dates and pealing and cutting up the celery.
It was helpful that this step could be done ahead of time and the ingredients stored in the refrigerator until dinner time.  Next I started on the bastilla.  The ingredients for this dish can be prepared ahead of time as well and assembled later.  After preparing everything and putting it in the refrigerator I even had a little extra time to go outside and work on the deck.  Who says I can’t multitask?

About half hour before we planned to eat, I started cooking the bastilla, placing sheets of phyllo dough in an oven proof pan, adding the filling, and cooking it for about 15 minutes.  While it was cooking I stuffed the dates with goat cheese and almonds and started cooking the couscous.  You may remember the stuffed dates from an earlier dinner.  At that time I stuffed the dates with parmesan cheese and walnuts.  This time I switched to goat cheese and almonds for a more Mediterranean twist.

After we had the stuffed dates, I assembled the salad by mixing the celery in with coarse salt, shaving some parmesan cheese on top and sprinkling it with balsamic vinegar.

I served the warm bastilla with the couscous on the side.  The bastilla was filled with an egg and chicken mixture surrounded by an almond, cinnamon and sugar mix.  Additional sugar and cinnamon is sprinkled on top creating a delicious combination of savory and sweet.  I have to admit, when I researched bastilla, chardonnay did not come up as the best pairing, but we thought it actually went very well.  The chardonnay was crisp with a bright acidity that complimented every course.

We ended the night with a slice of orange cake before heading off to our local theater company to see Debbie Does Dallas the Musical.  But that’s another story.

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.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Alphabet Soup Project – I is for “Inspiration”

Hope folks didn’t mind bit of a pause while the Sweet Partner in Crime and I were vacationing (well, I was – she had to work for a few days...) in Amsterdam. If you’d like to take a gander at our pictures...

Like my travels, one of my great wine tasting joys is discovery. That’s the kind of experience that made me start writing this crazy thing to begin with. This bolt from the blue can take lots of different forms. I might be impressed by someone’s advice on a wine; I could find a random pairing that works; or I could run into into something unexpected. Let me share a few of those fun times with you…

My newly-certified sommelier buddy James V. turned me on to the Domaine Sautereau Sancerre. This is a French sauvignon blanc from the eastern part of the Loire. He gave it two thumbs up and I trust his palate, so I gave it a run. This is simply a pretty smelling wine. "Flowering cantaloupe" was my first thought. Yes, I know – that’s an odd description, but I like it better than "floral with melon undertones." The flavor was intriguing. Like most Sancerre, this is a light bodied, acidic, minerally wine. This one, however, had a wonderfully balanced creaminess that I had never tasted before in one of these wines. Made me light right up.

When James first tried this wine, he had the good fortune to visit the property. He told me that they served it with chevre (goat cheese) and hard salami on crackers, so I tried to duplicate the experience. I was initially a bit skeptical. With the cheese alone, the wine developed an odd flavor, but adding the crackers and meat -- unearthly good as a pairing. I experimented by replacing the water crackers with a rosemary-flavored Triscuit -- and it turned into one of the best "appetizer pairings” I’ve had. The wine is into the 2010 vintage now. It’s $22 from Bond Street Wines (, and I highly recommend it.

Another day, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I cooked up a pot of turkey chili, which was an interesting concoction. I ran out of cumin, one of my base spices, so I substituted garam masala, an Indian spice blend, and a little bit of coffee. (Rule of good chili: Just keep throwing things in until it tastes right.)

With this amalgamation. we were at a loss for a wine. After reviewing our on-hand options, I rolled the dice and cracked the Bodegas Salentein Killka Collection 2008 Malbec – a $12 Argentinean number I’d picked up on a whim. I love it when a plan comes together. The Killka turned out to be a fruity, fairly complex wine that went down nicely on its own. It had plenty of blackberry and vanilla to start, and its flavor stays quite smooth throughout. There’s that yummy smoky quality a good malbec has, but it lingers in the background and stays subtle on the finish – a finish with a good, firm fruity flavor and enough tannin to be interesting.

Alongside the chili, the malbec’s tannins worked nicely with the spices, revealing some very interesting complementary flavors. The Indian spices deepened and the chili powder had a “fuller” flavor. Also, since tannin is an acid and capsaicin (the molecule that makes chili hot) is a base, the malbec tamed the fire a bit. I don’t know if I could duplicate it, but we sure liked it.

Trips to the wine store occasionally shoot a bolt of inspiration. K2, one of my wine pals, recommended the Highflyer 2009 Grenache Blanc, saying it was his “favorite white wine of the moment.” The Highflyer is a Napa Valley creation. I don’t think I’d ever tried a white Grenache that didn’t come from the Rhone or Spain, so I was, on one hand, really looking forward to the experience . That said, I was also somewhat wary of a white wine from Napa, since I’m not usually a big fan. I had the heavy oak and heavy butter of Napa chardonnay in my head, but I was trusting. I poured and swirled. Bottom line? It’s a tasty, tasty bottle. My first reaction was, “This is California chardonnay, dialed way back.” Sure, there’s oak and butter, but that’s nicely balanced with some prominent pear and berry flavors. The body is medium with am evenness of oak and pear. The finish is oaky and softly lasting. Very enjoyable. It also turned out to be a killer choice with some spice rubbed, grilled chicken breasts and a green bean salad. The Highflyer will run you around $20, but it’s worth it.

Every once in awhile, I even get a little twinkle of inspiration from something utterly mundane. It’s not always tasting central around Vine HQ. Sometimes, one of us just needs a glass of wine to throw down without thinking. We usually have a box of white wine lingering in the fridge for just such a purpose. I’d snagged Big House Wines “The Birdman” Pinot Grigio at around $18 for 3 liters. I was aware of Big House red & white, but I hadn’t tried one of their “single varietals” before. In past experiences, box pinot grigio is normally one step above flavored water. The Birdman was a very pleasant find. (Somewhere, Chris Anderson is smiling…) Light and pleasant with actual structure in its pear and lime flavors, it’s a simple, easy quaffer that’s certainly not the flabby, watery mess you might expect. For a box wine, that’s pretty much all you can ask for.


Technorati Tags: ,,