Sunday, June 30, 2013

Just In Time for the 4th -- Return of the Ravens(wood)

Almost exactly a year ago, I received a couple of Zinfandels -- framed by some reminiscences of the trip to Sonoma County which led the Sweet Partner in Crime and I us down our path of oenological debauchery. The grape that started it all was Zinfandel. (Click up there to get the rest of the story.)

The wines  in that particular review were from Ravenswood. Well, lo and behold, another pair of Ravenswood Zins landed on my doorstep for review as their new vintage rolls out. (Thanks, Lisa!) This package of goodness contained the following wines:

Ravenswood 2011 "Vintners Blend" Old Vine Zinfandel ($9)
Ravenswood 2011 "Napa Valley" Old Vine Zinfandel ($14)

To refresh your memory, the term "Old Vine" in relation to a Zinfandel is similar to calling a piece of beef "Angus." Just as "Angus Beef" roughly denotes "slightly higher quality," there's not a precise definition. Along those lines, there's no real guideline for what constitutes an actual "old" grapevine. The general rule of thumb is "older than 45 years."  Since there's nothing cast in stone, the term can be applied somewhat loosely. Like I said last time, winemakers usually turn to Potter Stewart for direction. So, how do these wines compare to last year's entries?

The Vintner's Blend still is designed to be a crowd pleaser -- fairly big and juicy, approachable, and flexible. Thanks to the consistency of the California climate and  the skill of the winemakers, this wine stays fairly consistent from year to year. There are still big cherry and blueberry scents and flavors, the tannins are relatively mild, and the finish lingers fruity and pleasant.

The Napa Valley, another one of the "County Series" wines from Ravenswood, has a little more character. (Ravenswood's other "County Series" Zinfandels are Lodi, Sonoma County, and Mendocino -- wonder what a side-by-side-by-side-by-side would be like?) Also like its cousin, it definitely needs some time in air before you can really get a handle on how the flavors actually are. After a good period of swirling and swishing, some vanilla and spice flavors start to emerge, followed by some cocoa and blackberry flavors. The finish is more tannic and grippier than the Vintner's blend.

The suggested pairing with Zinfandel is any kind of grilled meat or, for a twist, hearty red sauce pastas, and I'll put my big ol' red sauce up against just about anyone's. A big plate of penne tossed with Mike's Magic Quasi-Marinara seemed like a logical accompaniment for a side-by-side exploration. Both wines worked quite nicely alongside the sausage and mushrooms in the sauce. Again, just like last year, we split opinions. The Sweet Partner in Crime liked the Vintner's better -- and I was a bigger fan of the Napa. We had a similar split with our evening chocolate.

Bottom line -- Ravenswood makes a very solid, approachable Zinfandel. If you like the grape, you're probably going to like these wines. They're affordable and decent, and if you're doing some grilling out, your guests will be plenty happy with this.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Red Roost Tavern -- The Cincinnati Hyatt's new concept

The Cincinnati Hyatt Regency hotel is in the process of a $20 million makeover. Like many of Hyatt’s other properties, the upscale hotel at 5th and Elm is going for sleeker, more modern décor. That momentum includes the former Champs sports bar space, now converted into the Red Roost Tavern, a modern-themed “farm to table” style restaurant. Earlier this week, the Hyatt hosted a “blogger dinner” for several members of the Queen City’s online writing community.

First impressions walking into Red Roost? Gone are the neon signs, bright colors and pub grub from the old Champs. In its place are cleaner lines in greys and earth tones. Some of the accents and tabletops are repurposed from the local area. For instance, the paneling wrapping the entranceway columns are from a nearby old barn. The space is split roughly in half between the bar and restaurant sections. The bar section is still, in their words, “media friendly” with plenty of TVs, but the vibe is considerably more low-key. The dining area features an open kitchen line at all three meals and comfortable seating. The private dining area is still currently without its walls (perhaps an unintentional tribute to Les Nessmann?).

Reclaimed wood tabletop. (Photo courtesy Hyatt Regency Cincinnati)
According to Meghann Naveau, account exec at Fahlgren-Mortine -- the public relations firm handling the opening of the restaurant, “More than two dozen farms, distilleries and purveyors throughout Ohio and Northern Kentucky supply the restaurant with hormone-free meats, organic produce and high-quality beer and spirits.”

The restaurant incorporates some local flair into its offerings. Produce comes from Carriage House Farm in North Bend, OH; cheeses from Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese in Austin, KY, Boone Creek Creamery in Lexington, KY, Trader’s Point Creamery in Zionsville, Indiana, Swiss Connection Cheese in Clay City, IN, Capriole Cheese in Greenville, IN, Lake Erie Creamery in Cleveland; charcuterie meats from Smoking Goose in Indianapolis; and gelato & ice cream from Madisono’s in Cincinnati. The beverage list gives a nod to local breweries. Beers from Cincinnati’s Mad Tree, Mt. Carmel, Rivertown, and Christian Moerlein breweries, Lexington Brewery (makers of Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale), and Cleveland’s Great Lakes and Fat Head breweries all make the beer list. Not all of the ingredients and produce are sourced locally. (I don’t think we have a local source for halibut and quinoa!)

On the dinner menu, soups and salads are $6-7. Flatbreads, appetizers, and vegetarian entrees range from $5-15. Meat-centric entrees go from a free-range chicken at $22 to the grass-fed ribeye at $38.

(Photo courtesy Hyatt Regency Cincinnati)
The restaurant’s tagline is “Thoughtfully sourced, carefully served,” so I was interested to discover the concoctions they chose for this preview. In what I assume was an attempt to stick with the “local flavor” theme, our six small-plate courses were paired with the local draft beers instead of wines. I’ve got nothing against a beer-pairing dinner. Done properly, well-paired beer can be just as good with food. It does, however, take a certain amount of care – and a fairly extensive beer selection – to get everything right. There are 10 beers on tap (six were the local drafts we had with dinner) and 25 bottled beers. The wine list includes 28 selections available by the glass or bottle, none of which are from local wineries.

Our first course was a crab cake served with a slaw and honey-chili mayo, paired with Rivertown Jenneke Belgian Blonde Ale. The crab cake was quite flavorful and was mostly crab meat, in stark opposition to the bready mess many “crab cakes” become. The blonde ale was a good pairing – since the honey flavors in the blonde ale played off the honey in the mayo. This pairing was, for me, the highlight.
Dining room at Red Roost (Photo courtesy Hyatt Regency Cincinnati)

Next up was a sweet corn soup finished with a smoked tomato jam paired with a Mt. Carmel nut brown ale. The soup was sweet and straightforward. The tomato jam gave the soup some depth. The beer pairing didn’t work as well as I expected. The sweetness of the soup turned what would have been a slightly sweet beer quite bitter.

[Side note: At this point, I asked the sous chef -- who had been coming out to describe each course – how he arrived at the various food and beer pairings. He stated that he hadn’t been involved in the selections and that the managers had made the decisions. I asked one of the managers who was there, and he gave an answer about “the flavor profile meshing with the food” without giving many specifics.]

The third course was a quinoa salad with summer squash, walnuts, and an herb vinaigrette with a Rivertown Helles Lager. The salad was subtly flavored – and the vinaigrette didn’t really do anything to help with the beer’s flavor, which turned very sharp together. Salad courses are always the toughest to pair.

At this point, we got a “palate cleanser” of limóncello made in Columbus. While I like Limóncello as an after dinner drink sometimes, it seemed a bit odd here. Rather than cleansing my palate, it coated it in cream and alcohol. Again, I understand the “local” angle – but forcing an after-dinner drink in the middle of a meal felt a bit odd.

The fourth course was a take on “fish and chips” – with a piece of halibut filet and fried elephant garlic chips, served with a malt vinegar reduction. This was paired with the Mad Tree Psychopathy IPA. Disappointing. My fish was over-seared and extremely dry. The chips were basically burnt. The IPA, solid enough on its own, was done no favors by those flavors.

Fifth was a slow-roasted pork tenderloin with a port cherry reduction paired with a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. The cherry reduction connected nicely with what is usually not one of my favorite beers. The pork, on the other hand, was fairly tough and dry. Not so dry as the halibut, but still overdone. The beer at least made the pork palatable. (Also, one of the managers made sure we knew that they’d swapped the beers for courses 4 and 5 right before the meal after “going back and forth on that all day.” The pairing they went does make more sense, but I wish they'd been a little more thoughtful with the pairings instead of just shoehorning the local selections.)

Finally, we had an organic corn ice cream with salted caramel sauce from Madisono’s with a Rivertown blueberry lager. The ice cream was delicious. The blueberry lager was good. Together? It just didn’t click.

I will give high marks to the service. The wait staff was extremely pleasant and efficient, and they provided a good team approach to the meal. The presentation was attractive and the atmosphere was good. I can’t, however, recommend this place for spending your “going out” money – at least not as the menu currently stands. (Since the menu is seasonal, perhaps they’ll change it up soon.) The current concept – from meal selections to décor – felt like an easily duplicated frame with a few accents thrown in to get a “locally sourced” tag -- something that I could see conceivably ending up at other Hyatt locations. I imagine, at this stage, they’re still getting the kinks worked out in the kitchen and making more connections with local vendors. There’s room for really positive evolution in those areas.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

New Flights from CVG – Vino Volo

Ever tried to get wine through a TSA checkpoint at the airport?

The “three ounces of liquid or less” rule effectively prevents travelers from bringing a bottle from home in their carry-on luggage. If you’re an oenophile at the airport and you want a glass of wine while waiting for your flight, you belly up to a random airport bar and hope for the best – and hope there’ll be a wine store somewhere near your hotel when you land.

Until now.

Vino Volo, the new dining option at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport provides a welcome, wine-centric addition for thirsty travelers. Located at the top of the escalators rising to the concourse in Terminal B in the former location of the Starbucks Coffee, Vino Volo is a tasting bar, tapas-style restaurant, and wine store all in one. The lounge is nestled against the floor-to-ceiling windows in that section of the terminal, and the “pergola style” roof gives the place a very open, clean feel. I found it an attractive, relaxing spot to kick back.

(Don’t worry, caffeine junkies – Starbucks is still there. They’ve just moved it next door.)

 “Vino Volo” literally translates from Italian as “wine flight” and that’s their specialty – mixing and matching sequences of wine samples. While wines are certainly available by the glass, the beverage norm among the patrons I saw at the grand opening appeared to be the three-wine sampler.

As the wine educator in these parts, I really appreciate Vino Volo’s fairly unique approach to passing along information to its customers about the wines. Rather than providing a simple wine list with no information, a noncontextual 100-point scale or normal “shelf talkers” with tasting notes, Vino Volo adds a four-quadrant graphic to illustrate the character of the wine. Here’s an illustration of their "Shades of White" flight:

As you can see, the wine’s flavor gets bulls-eyed on the graph depending intensity and complexity, making it simple to compare and contrast. Major flavors and wine region are pulled from the tasting notes for easy viewing, as well as the price if you decide you like the wine and want to snag a whole bottle. Flights range in price from a $9 “Kentucky Thoroughbreds” flight to the $19 “Sommelier Selection” pair of tastes. By the glass, selections range from an $8 Benvolio Pinot Grigio to a $28 glass of Silver Oak 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.

How were the bottle prices overall compared to a “regular” retail location? Well, you are in an airport. The “$2.50 bottle of airport soda” rule applies, especially among less expensive bottles in the store. Looking at the flight of white wines displayed above, the “standard” retail price for those would be $13, $11, and $23 from left to right. That’s slightly more than standard restaurant markup, but hey – you’re past security!

(One very pleasant surprise at the CVG location – the best wine value I saw, in my opinion, was from our friends at La Vigna Estate Winery. Vino Volo had their “Carnevale” Cabernet Franc – normally a $12 wine, for $19. Snag.)

The bill of fare
At the grand opening last week, I also had the chance to try several items from their menu. Their “small plates” include meat and cheese boards, cured olives, and roasted flavored almonds, all of which were quite tasty. For me, the highlight was their “signature dish” – smoked salmon rolls with crabmeat on crostini. The sample sizes of both the Tuscan chicken and brie & prosciutto sandwiches were both worthy. Also on the menu – pork tacos, a white cheddar-sauced pasta, chickpea and chorizo chili, and a couple of tasty sounding desserts.

The staff at Vino Volo were friendly and seemed quite knowledgeable about their selections. I overheard them helping a couple of travelers with potential selections, and the “quadrant system” gave folks an easy frame of reference.

I’d be shocked if Vino Volo doesn’t do very well. I thought it looked like a great place to relax while waiting for a flight, and while the bottle prices are a little on the high side, that extra money pays for the convenience of not having to find a decent wine store (or, honestly, even a Rite Aid) while navigating your path from your destination’s airport to your hotel.  

Since I know my readership, I also knew to ask the $64,000 question: “Since you can take food and drinks that you purchase beyond security onto the plane, can you do the same with wine from Vino Volo?” Bringing wine onto the plane is not a problem. However, alcohol can only be dispensed by the flight crew and you’re not allowed to carry a wine opener anyway. That said, I refuse to be held responsible if enterprising individuals decide to see what they can do with some ingenuity, considerable discretion, and one of the many screw-capped bottles available.

If you’re flying out of CVG, Vino Volo’s definitely worth checking out. Just don’t get too comfy with a good glass in your hand. You don’t want to miss last call for boarding…

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Conundrum

In my review of Franciscan Estates' Equilibrium, I referenced an old fave of mine called Conundrum -- one of my first gold standards for white wines when I was starting down the slippery slope of wine fandom. I received several emails from readers asking, in effect, "Well, what the heck is this Conundrum stuff?"

Good question. I hadn't had a bottle of Conundrum in years. When the Sweet Partner in Crime and I were courting, this was one of our "special occasion" wines. We would save the corks and write the occasion on each. When Conundrum made the environmentally positive decision to switch from corks to Stelvin screwtops, a bit of that romance was lost -- and we were broadening the scope of our wine knowledge anyway, so we often looked at other options.

Still, after I wrote that review, I was largely going from my memory of Conundrum's flavor. For the sake of full disclosure, I thought it would be a good idea to return to the scene of the....crime.

Conundrum started in 1989 at Caymus Winery. It bills itself as "The Original California White Blend," which wouldn't surprise me -- since at the time, most California wine was more or less single varietal. In the 2000's, the Wagner family, who owns Caymus, decided to split Conundrum off as its own brand. "Caymus Conundrum" simply became "Conundrum," but the wine remained the same, retailing for around $20. (Meanwhile, the Caymus brand became exclusively a high-end label. Those wines go for $60-70 and up.)

The wine is a proprietary blend of up to eleven different grapes -- but it always includes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat Canelli, and Viognier. The blend changes each year, depending on climate and harvest conditions. Conundrum also produces a red wine which is another "nontraditional" blend of red grapes. (My guess, however, knowing Caymus and reading the tasting notes -- would be that it's largely Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps with some Pinot Noir thrown in.)

I was relieved that my memory was still pretty good regarding the flavor. The Conundrum 2011 White Wine is still a hefty white. The nose is very floral and the body substantial from the Viognier. The Chardonnay gives it a green apple-dominant flavor, along with some citrus and a honey-like sweetness. It's a fairly complex wine. There's enough acidity to keep it from being too sweet, although the honey and apple hang around on the finish. I wouldn't be surprised if they'd slipped some Riesling into the mix -- because it really reminded me of some of those flavors. For a food pairing, rich fish or chicken dishes or Asian spicy flavors work well.

If you're looking for a crowd-pleasing wine that's a little higher end, it's a solid choice. The Conundrum did illustrate how much my palate has changed over the years. Before I'd explored much wine, I really liked how full flavored this wine was. Trying it now, it's actually a little heavy for my palate. I usually prefer my whites a little bit crisper.  My vote for these similar white California blends would still be for the Equilibrium.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Couple of Local Favorites

As more wineries pop up around here, I’m increasingly asked, “What are your favorite local places?” I have to take an invariable deep breath when I get that question to keep from being, shall we say, overly honest.

The view from La Vigna  Estate Winery -- Higginsport, OH
There’s a reason that the best known wines in North America aren’t grown in the Midwest. Is there some good juice out there in America’s heartland? Sure there is! Alas, the process of creating those wines is going to be much more difficult than making good wine in, say, Sonoma County.

Most grapes that thrive around here are either going to be our area’s indigenous grapes or hybrid grapes crossbred to withstand our humid summers and cold winters. Let’s face facts – most of the wines made from either of these grapes are inferior. I have yet to find a winemaker that could wring consistently good wine out of Norton or Chambourcin. (Especially the latter…by the Seven, that’s awful crap. Prove me wrong, someone.) Even the native stuff, like Catawba and Concord, can rise a level above Manischewitz, but not much more than that.

There are a few wineries and winemakers in the area that fly in the face of our oenological reality. A small number have the proper terroir to grow vinifera grapes – grapes like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Chardonnay, etc. The winemakers at these wineries also need the technical knowhow to make these grapes into decent wine. Most importantly, those folks must possess the level of bullheaded stubbornness that prevents one from settling for an inferior product. A couple of these combinations are in the vicinity of Ripley, Ohio – Kinkead Ridge Estate Winery and La Vigna Estate Winery.

Every year on Memorial Day & Labor Day weekends, many local wineries take the opportunity to release some of their new offerings. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I took a little roll down the road to Ripley to enjoy a beautiful day’s drive and sample some of their new goodies.

We started at Kinkead Ridge, where we got reacquainted with Nancy Bentley, co-owner of the place with Ron Barrett, the winemaker. Nancy handles all the “front of house” duties. Kinkead Ridge, available in many local establishments, releases their new whites on Memorial Day. (Labor Day is for the reds.) They were pouring their three new whites for the assembled folks.

They opened with their River Village Cellars 2012 White Wine, a “field blend” of seyval blanc, Riesling, chardonnay, and a few other grapes from their “experimental” block, including albarino. The result was a light, zippy, grapefruity white that calls for a porch and some warm weather. $10.

The Lineup at Kinkead Ridge
From there, they shared the Kinkead Ridge 2012 Viognier/Roussanne. This is my personal favorite of the wineries’ selections, and they’ve rarely missed on a vintage of this. This is a more tropical, creamy wine than the River Village with a very pleasant, perfumey nose. The crisp finish would make it a nice accompaniment to plenty of fish, shellfish, or chicken dishes. $17.

Finally, they poured their River Village Cellars 2012 Traminette. Traminette (technically a two-vinifera hybrid, but we’ll give it a pass) yields a wine that’s a little on the sweeter side. It’s got a similar profile to gewürztraminer, but without the fullness of flavor or pepperiness. It still creates a fruity product that’s friendly enough – especially with spicy foods. I liked it, but it came in third at this tasting. $10.

We also learned that Nancy and Ron are trying to sell Kinkead Ridge and move eventually to North Carolina for their “second retirement.” We will hate to see them go, for sure.

We then rolled back up US 52 a piece to Higginsport, where we checked in on the latest offerings from La Vigna. Brad Hively, La Vigna’s passionate winemaker, was quick to greet us when we bellied up to the tasting table. Brad had two new releases to share with the world this time around, as well as several of his past releases.

The first of his two new wines was the La Vigna 2010 Proprietary Red. This cabernet franc-based blend is the winery’s signature wide-release red. I thought it was even, balanced, and fairly straightforward at this point in its life. Aged for 26 months in barrel, it’s got plenty of potential. $24. I thought it was fascinating to taste this alongside the 2008 Proprietary Red, of which some still existed. The 2008 was somewhat fuller and more complex than the 2010 – giving a hint into how the ’10 might develop. We split on this. I like the ’08 a little better. The SPinC liked the ’10. Either would be lovely next to a nice hunk of grilled meat.

The second new release was something I’d not expected. Because of last summer’s climate, the grapes ripened too quickly, which ordinarily yields a wine that Brad said would not “have reflected what we’re trying to do up here.” Rather than make an overextracted, one-note red, Brad used the whole crop to make a dry rosé in the manner it’s made in places like Provence. The result was, in my opinion, fairly remarkable. I’m a dry rosé addict this time of year, and the La Vigna 2012 Carnevale Rosato di Cabernet Franc was excellent. Wonderful bold fruit, very dry but substantial body, and crisp to finish – you could easily have this alongside…well…just about anything, but risotto or Nicoise salad would be good options. At $15, it’s a good value as well. It is a “crack and drink” wine. We had a little bit left over, and it wasn’t as good the second day.

We also had the opportunity to try one of the first “reserve” wines from La Vigna. Resulting from the “winning” barrel of 2008 juice at a recent barrel tasting, Brad made a wine he called “Hardtop,” sealed with a black wax capsule over the cork. This Bordeaux-style blend isn’t inexpensive – it’s around $40 at the winery; but it drinks like…well… a very good Bordeaux. I snagged a couple of bottles to stash for a couple of years, because I believe it’s potentially something special.

There are a few other wineries near Ripley with tasting events on those days. If you’re looking for a nice Memorial Day getaway, it’s worth the little trip up the road. Kinkead Ridge’s tasting room is open Saturdays for the rest of the summer from 11-5. La Vigna is open on Fridays from 2-7 pm and Saturdays from 12-5. For more information, see Kinkead Ridge at and La Vigna at

Friday, June 07, 2013

Naked Vine One Hitter – Franciscan Estates “Equilibrium”

“This is a really good wine if you want to impress people. It would be great if you’re serving a nice brunch -- or if you’re opening it up for the first bottle of girls’ night.” 
    – The Sweet Partner in Crime

I remember a conversation I had at a conference in the days well before I knew much of anything about wine. The woman I was speaking with (whose name and face are long-lost in my dusty, ethanol-laden synapses) was waxing rhapsodic about her favorite white wine – a white wine from California called “Conundrum.” The wine’s name was a reflection of its several-grape blend. I filed that nugget away.

A couple of years later, I met a very attractive professor at the University of Kentucky who agreed, in a stunning lapse of judgment, to let me cook dinner for her. I made a shrimp and scallop curry that night, and I’d splurged on a bottle of this Conundrum stuff. This wine tasted like nothing my unpracticed palate had run into before – very fruity, a little sweet without being heavy, and super-easy to drink. I also remember it as a great pairing with the curry. The attractive professor is better known to all of you as the Sweet Partner in Crime, and during the early days of our relationship, Conundrum was our “special occasion” wine. Conundrum became wildly possible (and more expensive) as the years went on.

What does all that have to do with the sample of Franciscan Estates 2012 “Equilibrium” Napa Valley White Wine from Folsom & Associates that showed up on my doorstep?

While white wines sourced from a number of different grapes certainly aren't a new thing, they were reasonably rare in American winemaking. These "field blends" tended to be inexpensive wines made from whatever was left over after making the "premiums." Conundrum was one of the first mainstream California wines to marry the tart acidity of sauvignon blanc, the body of chardonnay, and the sweet fruit of sauvignon blanc (and a few other grapes) in one bottle in a manner that suggested high quality.

Equilibrium, to me, represents a step forward with these sorts of wines. As my palate became more experienced, I found myself liking wines like Conundrum less. It seemed a bit overly heavy. Similar wines started appearing -- many of which simply weren't very good. (They were usually much too sweet or tasted like they were artificially "thickened.") Equilibrium, on the contrary, is quite nice.

It's a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muscat. The nose is grapefruity, like a sauvignon, but with an light undertone of flowers. The first taste gave me more grapefruit, melon, and nectarine. It's medium-bodied and fresh. The finish is very fruity. I expected a sweetness like honey or sugar at the end, but there's none of that. Instead, there's a lingering peachy flavor that's extremely pleasant. Very nice to sip on its own.

For dinner that night, in a lucky coincidence, I was making shrimp curry. (Seriously, I didn't plan it that way.) I was very impressed. The label recommends “BBQ and Asian cuisines” – so I thought, "Hey, close enough!" It went delightfully. The very prominent fruit flavors of the wine were strong enough to shine through the curry spices, both cooling the heat a bit and complementing the meal well.

A really nice effort. Equilibrium retails for around $23. Good first-bottle-of-the-night wine, especially if you're following the SPinC's advice above.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A Wink to the Pink

Few things bellow “Summertime!” more than my favorite warm weather drink, dry rosé. Settle in for a spell, then proudly order something fabulous and fuschia.

Now, I know there may be a few insecure souls out there in Vine land who may fear the judgment of a haughty looking wine drinker at the next table over on a restaurant patio, snootily and disdainfully glancing at you and your delicious pink beverage. You’re concerned they think you’ve ordered a glass of sticky white zinfandel. Worry not. Look these judgmental layabouts square in the eye, lift your glass and smile knowingly, because you know what is good. (And you know they secretly wish they’d ordered one.)

So, what is this stuff? What makes it so tasty, so food friendly, and so refreshing? Think back to Winemaking 101. Grapes are crushed and the juice is fermented. The color in red wine comes from the juice’s contact with the skins as the sugars ferment. All juice from red wine grapes starts clear and darkens as more tannin is leached from the skins in a process called maceration. For some big red wines, this skin contact in the fermenter can last over a month. Rosé, by contrast, is generally only left in contact with the skins from 12-48 hours, depending on a number of factors. The resulting wine is, not surprisingly, some version of pink.

There are a few different ways to produce rosé. There is the “skin contact” technique -- the purest form of rosé making. The juice is left in contact with the skins for an appropriate length of time. The skins are removed from the fermenter and the now-pink “must” completes the rest of its fermentational journey into rosé. A winemaker using is basically committing to a (generally) less expensive wine than making the whole tank into a full red, so it’s a less common technique.

With that in mind, the most common method of rosé production is called “bleeding” or saignée. A winemaker generally uses this method if they’re trying to concentrate (or “extract”) more flavor from a wine – or just if they want to make two different types of wine from the same tank. For instance, a Spanish winemaker may have a fermenter full of tempranillo, just pitched with yeast. She might then “bleed off” a certain percentage of wine in the tank after a day or so of skin contact. The remaining wine will be left with the skins to make a red tempranillo. The drained off, less colored wine will become her rosé.

Just in case you’re curious, this is the method by which white zinfandel is made – except the winemaker stops the fermentation while there’s still a fair amount of residual sugar, resulting in white zin’s distinctive strawberry Kool-Aid flavor.

Other, less common, methods include blending grape juices from white and red wines. While atypical, this is the method used in Tavel, one of the best known French rosé regions. In a real cheat, red wine can be decolored by filtering it with activated charcoal. Ew.

So, how does a discriminating rosé consumer select a particular bottle? Well, here’s the good news – it’s really difficult to pick a bad one. The basic Naked Vine Rule of Food Pairing holds true, since (as a very wise woman once said) pink is not a flavor. Down through the ages, civilizations made wine to go with their favorite foods. A rosé’s basic flavor starts from the profile of its red wine grapes -- just lighter, fruitier, and more acidic.  So, a good rule is to cling to flavor themes. If you have a meal that has a bit of a French flair, get a French rosé. Got a spread of small plates? Grab a tapas-loving Spanish rosé. Having a backyard grillout? American rosé will serve you well. But experiment – finding the ones you like is much of the fun. To get my warm weather repasts going on the right foot, we recently ran through a spread of tasty bottles from a variety of locales. Here’s what we found:

Veleta 2011 Tempranillo Rosé – An evening with a “fajita bowl” type dinner prompted us to open this Spanish rosé. In color, it’s considerably darker than many other roses. The wine’s major flavors are melon and strawberry. My favorite aspect of this wine is that can hold a bit of delicacy against a fairly spicy dish, which in this case was topped with a vinegary, spicy sauce. I could almost taste a trace of tannin to cool the heat. A great choice with summer tapas or Tex-Mex. For $10, a nice choice.

San Giovanni Pasini 2011 “Il Chiaretto” Valtenesi Chiaretto – From the Lombardy region in Northern Italy, this blend of four red grapes was tart, tight, and acidic – and, honestly, not altogether pleasant. (It may be that this bottle was slightly over.) It had a bit of an odd scent that dissipated after a little time open – and was much less noticeable as the cooling sleeve did its work. Some strawberry and mineral on the palate with a little bitterness to the finish. However, next to a somewhat spicy red snapper braised in a “Veracruz” style, it was pleasant enough. I would say, though, that Italians are best known for reds and whites – not rosé. In the future, I’ll probably follow that instinct. $13.

Von Schleinitz 2011 Pinot Noir Rosé – The Sweet Partner in Crime said, on tasting this wine – Not to be too stereotypical, but if you asked me what I thought a German rosé would taste like – this would be it.” This is a wine that tells you aggressively, “HELLO. I am full of strawberry FRUIT and lots of ACID. I really work WELL with FOOD.” Honestly, I neglected to write down what we had for dinner with this – as we were chuckling away at our German grape anthropomorphism. That said, it’s worth a try if you enjoy German wines. $17.
the first German rosé either of us can remember having:

Chateau de Roquefort 2011 “Corail,” Cotes de Provence – Ah, Provence rosé. Arguably my favorite form of this pink stuff. If I think about rosé, close my eyes, and imagine a flavor – I’d land somewhere close to this. Faint flowers on the nose, followed with a light-ish body full of strawberry and peach. Slightly tart and slightly creamy, rather than being a big blast of fruity acid. Soft finish. A wine for exhaling with after flopping on the couch. Dinner with this blend of six different grapes was an appropriately French roast chicken tenderloins with tarragon with a “ratatouille sauté.” Scrumptious and sluggable. $14.

Charles & Charles 2012 Columbia Valley Rosé – A Washington wine made from 100% Syrah, which gives it its substantial flavor. “Chunky” was at the top of my tasting note. I found lots of firm cranberry and peach flavors with a pleasantly weighty body and a slightly dry, fruity end.  This is a rosé for when you want a wine that has big flavors, but you’re not in the mood for a deep, dark high-tide tannin red. You could conceivably have this with steak, if the little yummy noises I made when I had this with an awesome steak salad were any indication. $13.

So go forth and Love Pink, as the derrieres of many kids say these days…