Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant – A Model of (and based on) Consistency

I was invited to attend the recent grand opening of a Cooper’s Hawk Restaurant, an “upscale-casual” restaurant boasting a tasting room at each location – all the better to serve their house wines. The tasting room is just the start. The wines apparently have enough of a following that Cooper’s Hawk has a wine club – according to them, the largest of its kind.

Illinois-based Cooper’s Hawk currently has 10 locations – seven in the greater Chicago area, one in Indianapolis, one in Milwaukee, and their newest location in Columbus, Ohio. Locations in Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Tampa are scheduled to open during the next year.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the opening – so I can’t attest to the quality of the food (although the menu looks fairly wide-ranging and interesting). But thanks to Jennifer at Wordsworth Communications, I was able to obtain a couple of Coopers Hawk samples and score an interview with Rob Warren, the winemaker.

Rob, a native of Port Hope, Ontario, got his start working in wineries both north of the border and in northern Virginia. In 2007, he met the CEO of Cooper’s Hawk, Tim McEnerny, at a trade show. “We just got to talking and really hit it off. He said he was looking for a winemaker and I interviewed for the position. Next thing you know, here we are!”

These...and 36 more!
Cooper’s Hawk has a very large catalog of wines. Their basic list of wines, including vinifera, fruit wines, and sweet wines, numbers about 40. Then there are the wines for the wine club. “We make 12 wines just for the club each year.” These wines tend to be lesser known varietals and blends, crafted especially for members who are usually looking for something a little different.

The blends seem to be where Cooper’s Hawk hangs its proverbial hat. “We try not to limit ourselves on the blends. Most wineries are limited to their own vineyards, or even their own region. I like finding combinations across terroir – like blending Washington and California grapes, for instance. We just do whatever we can come up with that we think will be awesome.”

According to Rob, the blends are the most popular wines in the catalog. “Among the reds, we do a blend of pinot noir, malbec, and barbera that people seem to like, as well as our cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and zinfandel blend. Among the whites, our pinot grigio/riesling blend is a big hit.”

I asked Rob about the challenge of making wines for such a broad audience – a big wine club and a growing restaurant chain featuring his wines. “Our wines are made to be enjoyed right away, so I try to make something you can open, pour, and enjoy. I try to find a basic profile for a wine that I hope people will like. Once we know the profile we’re looking for, we can almost always match them up from year to year. Since we’re not limited by vintage dates or appellations, we have the flexibility to create consistent wines.”

Rob said that his real goal is to make wines that people enjoy enough that they’ll join the club. “Once they know they can get quality wine from us, we want them to join. They get discounts at the restaurant, and they can buy any of the 40 wines on the main list at a discount. We’ve got some other neat promotions for club members, too.”

Cooper’s Hawk sent along a couple of bottles, one white & one red, for me to try. Neither of them were the popular blends Rob mentioned earlier, so I may have to visit one of the restaurants to check them out in the future. My thoughts on the two bottles:

Cooper’s Hawk (NV) Gewurztraminer – Very aromatic. Lots of tropical fruit scents on the nose – especially pineapple and papaya. This wine is definitely modeled after a “new world” Gewurztraminer. Tthe full, thick body has a fruit-cocktailish flavor of pineapple, apple, and that specific flavor of lychee. Quite full bodied, the finish turns slightly bitter at the end after some sweeter papaya flavors. On its own, it was OK. With a spicy Thai-flavored chicken soup, it worked well. The thickness of the body kept the tropical flavors from being overrun by the spices. The wine would be a nice pairing with most foods that register on the Scoville scale.

Cooper’s Hawk (NV) Pinot Noir – I wouldn’t necessarily agree with the “pop and pour” sentiment of Rob’s here. I thought this wine needed some time to open – otherwise, it came across as almost watery. After about 45 minutes of air, the fruit started to open up a bit. Even so, it’s an extremely light pinot. There are cherries and some soft wood on the nose, followed up with a light cherry flavor on the body. That’s most of what I got. The finish was light, a little smoky, and soft. There are some tannins that emerge eventually. It has the basic flavor profile of a pinot, but it’s not complex by any stretch of the imagination.

Pricewise, the wines retail at the restaurant from $15 to 40. The pinot noir I tried retailed for $22 and the Gewurztraminer was $18. I think both are a bit high for what you get, although if I’d bought either of those in a restaurant at those prices, I’d think I was getting a real deal – considering what the markup usually is. The wine club prices are $18.99 for one bottle monthly or $35.99 for two. There’s also a shipping option, where members would receive either 3 or 6 bottles quarterly for $80 or $140 respectively.

For more information, restaurant menus, wine lists, and the like you can check out the Cooper’s Hawk website at http://www.coopershawkwinery.com 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Naked Vine One Hitter – Back to the Big House: Grü-V

Back in August, I wrote about a sample pack I’d received from Big House Wines. Big House, as many of you know, is a widely available, relatively inexpensive wine – often seen in octagonal boxes. As such wine goes, it’s not bad at all.

While perusing the website for additional information, I saw a wine I’d never heard of – a white wine adorned with a caricature of a hippy handing a flower to one of the prison guards. The wine was Big House “Grü-V” Grüner Veltliner.

I make no bones about loving Grüner Veltliner. This Austrian white is a summertime staple of mine. Good Grüner is like drinking happy rocks. Austrian ones are super-minerally with lots of citrus. They’re light bodied and have a particular pepper flavor on the finish. Needless to say, I shot a message to the good folks at Folsom to see what was going on there. Apparently, Grü-V is launching in a limited capacity, so it’s not arrived in many stores yet. Expect to see it during the next year.

What would California’s climate do to Grüner grapes, I wondered. The answer? Create a light, flavorful wine. The nose reminds me of fresh pears and the body is soft and citrusy, rather than lean and almost metallic. There’s some mineral there, but it’s not nearly as strong as the minerality I was used to with the Austrians. The mineral picks up a little bit at the finish with just a hint of that peppery calling card and some peachy flavors.

It is quite drinkable. I would imagine that it would be a very nice everyday wine, especially if you got it in in a large format container. However, it didn’t have the strength of varietal character and complexity that I’d probably go for if I were specifically going after a Grüner. That said, don’t knock this – it’s very decent and, at $10, it’s considerably less expensive than its Austrian counterparts. It’s not a bad wine to pull if you’ve never tried a Grüner Veltliner and you want to get a basic idea of what they’re about – or if you want something simple and a little different.

It also makes a very flexible food wine. Grüner is one of the few wines that can handle odd-flavored curries, asparagus, and the like – and the hint of sweetness in the body of this wine makes it a skeleton key for challenging food pairings. I could see this as a crowd pleaser at a laughter-filled casual meal.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Moscato

Another offering from Robert Mondavi thanks to the folks at Folsom & Associates – this time their "Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi" series.

I’ve written a few times about Moscato d’Asti, for many years the most common version of the wine available. From the Piedmont region in Italy, this sweet, aromatic wine was a niche product for quite a while. Over the last couple of years, fans of sweeter wines have latched onto Moscato, making it the second most popular white varietal behind chardonnay. California production of Moscato has almost tripled, fueled by this demand and hip-hop shout-outs. (“I'm a’sip Moscato/And you 'gon lose them pants,” raps Wale.)  

While I can’t speak to its aphrodisiac qualities, Moscato is a marvelous brunch wine. Brunch is largely filled with mishmashes of strong flavors. Sausage next to salsa next to asparagus? Very possible. In my estimation, a sweet, relatively uncomplicated wine like Moscato works well. The food is the star of brunch. Wine just needs to taste good while staying out of the way. When I drink Moscato, what I’m looking for is the quality of the sweetness – is it more of a “honey” sweet or a “sugar” sweet. I prefer the former.

Woodbridge’s version does have the honey sweetness. Lots of peach and pear flavors ride on a full, slightly glycerine-thick body. The nose is peach-blossom floral. The finish is very peachy, with just a little bit of bitter right at the end. If you’re having this with food at all, you won’t notice that. Like all Moscato, it is an extremely flexible food wine. Everything from charcuterie to hash with egg on top go just fine alongside.

I always enjoy when wineries send along suggested pairings, recipes, and the like to go alongside the vino. On this occasion, The folks at Folsom & Associates sent a recipe using this wine as an ingredient for making peach preserves. The recipe sounded fabulous, but I don’t use a lot of jam and such. (I’ll still include the recipe below…)

However, one of the other included suggestions was to use it for pickling. I sliced some cucumbers into spears and pickled them with equal parts Moscato and champagne vinegar, with a hot pepper, salt, and dill thrown in. You know what? It turned out to be downright delicious. If you have some leftover Moscato, consider it!

For the price, $8, it’s a decent-enough wine. It’s not going to blow you away, but it doesn’t have to. I think I still prefer  the Italian version with its slight effervescence, but I wouldn’t turn down the Woodbridge if you poured it for me.

Sweet Peach and Moscato Preserves
Styling + Recipes by Candice Kumai
Photo by Emma Chao

8 Ripe peaches, sliced ½" thick
3 Cups sugar
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Rind of 1 lemon, peeled into large pieces using vegetable peeler
1 cup Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Moscato
½ (3 oz.) packages liquid sure gel pectin
1 Tablespoon mint, sliced into thin ribbons
6-7 Sterile ½ pint mason jars with lids

1. In a medium stockpot, combine peaches, sugar, lemon juice, lemon rind and Moscato, bringing to a boil. 
2. Stirring gently, reduce to a slow simmer over medium heat. Cook 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Some foam may appear at the top of the pot, using a spider or a slotted spoon skim off the foam and discard. Remove lemon rind with a fork.
4. Add mint and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
5. Remove from the heat and add the liquid pectin stirring constantly. Return to a full rolling boil and cook for 1 minute. Quickly and very carefully ladle the preserves into sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 in head space at the top.
6. Place the lids on top of the jam jars. Carefully twist on the tops.
7. To Seal: Gently, place the jars in a large stockpot full of boiling water. Make sure that the jars are fully submerged in the boiling water. Let it sit in the simmering water for 10-15 minutes to set. Jars should seal by then. If not, they will seal while cooling.
8. Remove jars after 10-15 minutes, set aside to cool and set. You will hear a “pop” noise when jars are sealed.
9. Allow jars to set for 24 hours before opening.