Thursday, December 29, 2016

New Year’s – Wines for the Horror

The long nightmare that was 2016 is drawing to a close. As we sit here on the edge of ’17, waiting to see what America’s Orange Era has in store for us, there’s a thought that’s never far from the front of my brain.

“Screw it. We should all just get shithammered.”

Queen Cersei Lannister -- the leader we need.
Hopeless times call for hopeless measures, and I’m here to help! Usually, I try to fill this space with some kind of highbrow (or at least middlebrow) advice on how to expand your drinking palate – but this isn’t an age for that sort of pinkies out crap. This is the time to drink until you twitch. Flopsweat can be cathartic, right?

These days call for wines served chilled. Deeply chilled. I suggest gathering with some of your friends around a fire that you’ve built from cardboard, your Obama “Hope” poster, and the remains of your self-esteem to really get in the spirit of the occasion. Here are a few possible suggestions for your New Year’s tipples:

Lancers November 2016 Rosé– Lancers, the rebirth of the long-popular Mateus rosé, evokes an urban vibe on the first sip. Lancers has a lovely nose of peaches soaked in isopropyl. The flavor, mellowed by the proper serving temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit, bursts on your tongue with the velvety touch of a bolt of fine Chinese silk wrapped around a newly purchased ballpeen hammer. The finish is a bit sharp. Lancers’ website recommends it be mixed with “lemonade concentrate” and be garnished with a mint leaf, probably for the antioxidants. $4-6.

Boone’s Farm May 2016 Strawberry Hill – The original “flavored citrus wine” takes me back to my days in high school, roaming the hills of Eastern Kentucky, hoping that there might be a beneficent 21 year old visiting one of my friends. The light nose of strawberries and hormones is followed by a fruity blend of flavors, all of which properly mask the fact that the drink actually contains alcohol. The finish is long and sweet, with faint notes of teenage rejection and regret. The sample may have been a bit past its prime. May wasn’t a good month. $5-7.

Manischewitz September 2016 Concord Grape – The concord grape, long overlooked by many, holds a special place in my heart. This was the first wine I tasted in my oenological career, sipping from a small sterling silver cup at age four. I learned there’s a dichotomy among Jewish households -- Mogen David and Manischewitz families. My family was the latter. While Manichewitz has diversified its product, adding a “smooth and light” line, as well as elderberry, blackberry, cherry, and loganberry versions, I consider myself a purist. Nothing says “L’Chaim” like good old fashioned Concord. If you only get one wine to get all passed out Kosher, this is the one. $5-6.

Not exactly.
Cisco October 2016 Orange – An all-time champ among bagged up wines, Cisco comes in a rainbow of flavors – each one roughly emulating Strawberry, Blue Raspberry, Black Cherry, and whatever flavor “Red” might be. I suggest choosing Orange for the extra Vitamin C, so to resist the antibiotic-resistant bacteria you’d likely find on the sidewalk grate you’ll likely find yourself on. A potent combination of Sunny Delight and Robitussin, Cisco will have you first laughing, then hallucinating, then curled into a small ball cursing Thor, who will be smashing Mjolnir against the inside of your cranium in short order. The FTC warning on the label states, “Not a wine cooler. 8 servings.” Boys count. Men drink. $6-7.

Night Train August 2016 “Express” – Needing no introduction other than the gentle tones of noted existential philosopher W. Axl Rose, hopping aboard the Train is a quick ride to Oblivion, although the Express still stops at Loss of Motor Control, Public Urination, Ultraviolence, and Delerium Tremens beforehand. A heady combination of Cheerwine and Robitussin with a whimsical finish of drain opener, you’ll be flying like an aeroplane and feeling like a space brain all the way to midnight. $5-6

Friends, when you wake up two days into the new year, breathe deeply of the scents of the upcoming future and your own effluvia and remember to recycle your empties. That may not save us all from burning to a crisp in the new year –slowly by climate change or quickly by nuclear fire, but you can feel that you’re helping the planet in your own little way. Have a happy 2017, everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2016


In my “Ten Years” retrospective, I copped to making a number of factual goofs when I was getting this good ol’ column off the ground.

I mentioned my initial confusion about the Spanish wine Rioja. I fell hard for Spanish juice when doing my first pass through the wines of the world. I enjoyed Rioja especially. I was still used to the American naming conventions for wines, so when I saw “Rioja” on the label, I thought that was the grape used in the production of the wine – as I would expect if I saw “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Zinfandel” on the label.

And I said as much. In public.

As you probably could surmise…that’s just not right. No, to my chagrin, it turned out there aren’t picturesque vineyards of Rioja grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Spain. Rather, there are picturesque vineyards of Tempranillo grapes ripening in the warm sunshine of Rioja.
Vineyards in La Rioja, Spain. Not Rioja grapes. Trust me on this.
Like most European wines, the name on the label – like Bordeaux or Burgundy – refers to the region of the country from whence the grapes spring. In this case, Rioja is a region in the north-central section of Spain, along the River Ebro just southeast of the city of Bilbao. Rioja is just on the other side of the Cantabrian Mountains, which moderates the climates and shields the vineyards from some of the strong Cierzo winds blowing off the coast that can reach hurricane force.

The primary grape used to make Rioja is, as mentioned above, Tempranillo. There is often Garnacha blended in as well to add a little extra fruit flavor to the wine. In general, Rioja is along the lines of Cabernet Sauvignon from a weight perspective, but the flavors run closer to Pinot Noir’s cherry than they do to the dark fruits usually found in Cabernet.

Rioja tend to have fairly firm tannins, both from the grapes used in production and because most, if not all, Rioja are barrel-aged for at least some period of time. The length of aging is one of the primary characteristics of how Rioja is classified. There are four general classifications of Rioja, which are – in ascending order of quality:

  • Rioja – The “table wine." These are the ones designed to be drunk young. They only spend a few months in oak. These will be among the most fruit-forward, less complex versions.
  • Rioja Crianza – For a Rioja to receive a “Crianza” designation, it must spend a minimum of a year in oak, and then at least a few months aging in the bottle before it is released. If you snag an under $15 bottle of Rioja at your local wine store, odds are you have a Crianza in your grubby paws.
  • Rioja Reserva – This level is made from specifically selected grapes from a particular harvest, and must spend a minimum of three years, at least one year of which must be in oak before release. They usually run up to about $30. Winemakers only produce a Reserva if there are sufficiently high quality grapes in a season.
  • Rioja Gran Reserva – Again, this level is only produced during very good growing years. Gran Reserva are aged a minimum of three years, two years of which must be in oak. Both Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are designed for long aging, and are considered some of the best value fine wines in the world.

Rioja are super-flexible food wines. The Naked Vine Rule #1 of Food Pairings is “People make wine to go with the foods they love to eat.” Well, those damned Spaniards eat just about everything – from fish to fowl to flesh to flowers. Tapas is just behind fútbol as a national sport. And you know what? Rioja can go with just about anything. I personally love Rioja and paella, even though it’s often got a bunch of fish in that rice. Manchego cheese, almonds, various cured meats – you really can’t go wrong.

(Side note: there are white Rioja as well. I like them, but I’ve never found one that really blew me away. White and Red Rioja are like White and Red Bordeaux. There’s a reason you think of the latter before the former.)

I had the opportunity to try a couple of very decent Rioja recently – one Crianza and one Reserva:

Siglo 2012 Rioja Crianza – This one’s almost worth picking up for the bottle itself, which comes wrapped in burlap. For that reason alone, it would be fun to bring this one to a party. It’s got a bright, fresh nose of cherries and cedar. The cherry flavor passes over to the body, which is relatively light for the fairly solid backbone this wine possesses. The tannins gradually emerge on the finish, leaving a lightly fruited aftertaste. Easy to drink on its own, but really shines with food. It’s flexible enough for all sorts of tapas-y delights. The aforementioned paella was a lovely pairing. 

Coto de Imaz 2010 Rioja Reserva – As you might expect, I had an entirely different experience with this Reserva. The nose is fuller and richer, but more restrained. Darker fruits are in evidence – blackberries and raspberries dominate the nose. The body is softer and tongue-coatingly rich with full chocolatey tannins. The finish is long with plummy smoke. I thought this was a fascinatingly complex wine for $20. A real find and certainly worth it.

Spanish wines, in general, are much less expensive than their French and Italian cousins. If you like your Old World wines more on the fruity side, my guess is that you’re going to enjoy a Rioja more than a wine from Bordeaux or Tuscany at a similar price point. Of course, there’s only one way to find out…

Monday, December 05, 2016

Ten Years On

Psst…stick with me and I’ll tell you a big wine secret. But before I do, I’m going to take a little me-time.

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I bonded early in our relationship over the “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course” – a book by Kevin Zraly which included information about wines of all countries and, most importantly, appropriate foods to pair with those wines. We cooked and drank up a storm.
The Naked Vine Team then...

Then we took a trip together to Sonoma County and wine truly became part of our lifestyle. The die was cast on our oenological obsession for the next decade. Zins and Pinots, Cabs and Chardonnays, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc – we worked our way through regions and grapes willy-nilly, loving the learning of it all.

Then came the infamous happy hour at a local place called the Beer Sellar. An old friend dropped the line that became my mantra. I quote my buddy Scott: “It’s easy to find a good fifty-dollar bottle of wine. The trick is to find a good ten-dollar bottle of wine.”

The Naked Vine sprouted from the Stone IPA-drenched corners of my mind. I built the blog and posted my first column not long after, back in the days when the Internet wasn’t accessible from most phones, much less your refrigerator or thermostat. The idea of being a “blogger” still had a certain geek stigma. In tasting rooms, wineries didn’t really know what to make of someone who wrote “where only a few people could read it.”

Times changed. I pumped out my content, did a little self-promotion, and was lucky enough to have my then-online-only column picked up by several print outlets, which I felt finally gave me some legitimacy.

Everything didn’t go smoothly at first. I was still learning about wine (and I still am, honestly!) as I was cranking out columns, so I made some early mistakes. I wrote a column once where I mixed up Burgundy and Bordeaux, stating the latter was made from pinot noir. (It’s not.) I name checked Rioja multiple times as a Spanish grape. (It’s not.) And I can’t tell you how many times I misspelled Riesling. (Still do.)

The SPinC and I ate picked up steam and our palates improved enough to be dangerous. I got asked to sample some wines before they went into wide release from time to time, which is cool.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet some truly intriguing people. From pourers at tasting rooms to winemakers and grape growers, there aren’t many industries where you’ll meet as broad a spectrum of humanity. They’ve all got fascinating stories. Almost none of them intended to go into the wine industry. In previous lives, they were engineers, chefs, bankers, artists – all of whom got seduced along the way by The Grape.

We’ve watched wine trends come and go – watching chardonnay go from big and buttery to thin and unoaked and back again. High alcohol Zinfandel gave way to lighter-styled, earthy pinots. Merlot has finally started to come back out from under its Sideways-placed rock. And the breadth of “Old World” wine has expanded beyond Italy, France, and Germany to any number of other countries in the EU and Eurasia. If you like options, there’s never been a better time to be a wine drinker.

That brings us to today. So, you ready for the secret? You wanna know the One Big Thing I’ve learned over the last decade?

Finding a decent $10 bottle of wine isn’t tricky anymore.

When I’ve written in this space about countries expanding and modernizing their respective wine industries, the regular refrain is, “Improvements in technology have increased the quality and output of [insert country]’s wine.” This technological improvement allowed South America, Australia, and other countries to export very decent juice at low cost.

As decent, low cost wine from the global marketplace began filling store US shelves, large domestic winemakers realized that they couldn’t continue mass producing cheap-ass, low quality plonk when a discerning drinker could slap seven or eight bucks down on the counter for a decent bottle of Malbec from Argentina or Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Overall quality kept rising.

These days, stores are filled with decent, inexpensive wines. Mind you, these aren’t the greatest wines on the planet. Fifteen to twenty dollars is the general price point where there’s a real jump in a wine’s caliber, and these less expensive wines aren’t usually all that distinguishable from one another except in label design. For ten smackers, though, you’re not likely to crack a bottle and say, “That’s completely awful.”

The Naked Vine Team now.
Take heart, wine cheapskates. Until climate change pushes wine production north to England and Scandinavia, you’re going to find plenty of flat-out drinkable, non-wallet-busting juice. Buy with confidence.

With all that in mind, I’m proud to say that this little corner of the wine world is still going strong. There’s always something new – new production techniques, new grapes, new blends – coming down the pike. The Naked Vine will be here to help you navigate as long as my liver holds out.

I’d like to offer my hearty thanks to the hundreds (thousands, some days) of people who make their way to the Vine each day for some oenological nugget or other. It’s still my pleasure to be drinkin’ with you. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

For Goodness...Sake?

“You know that in the back of every sushi restaurant there’s a guy going, ‘Hey, look! They ate it! You want some hot wine to go with that, too?” – from “An Evening With Robin Williams”

I remember hearing that line at my friend Dave’s way back in the early days of cable. Dave figured out how to set the tuner on his VCR to get access to free HBO. Comedy specials, Excalibur, and Heavy Metal ensued.

Before I get lost in nostalgia, let’s get back to the late great Mr. Williams and his coke-fueled special, which is still one of the greatest pieces of standup ever committed to film, or tape, or whatever digitally remastered media you want to mention. (And the man’s pants. The pants. See for yourself...)

Anyway, the “hot wine” that he’s referring to is Sake. Sake is one of the native drinks of the nation of Japan. Sake is a fermented beverage made from rice. The process of creating sake is an interesting one – and bears more similarity to the making of beer than wine. Sake, however, is classified as a wine, as it’s typically bottled somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-15% alcohol.

For many years, most Americans only knew inexpensive sake – either served hot with a meal like a tea or dropped as a shot into a pint of beer (the unfortunate “sake bomb”). Sake makers are exporting more and more premium sake into the States, providing another alcohol alternative for thirsty connoisseurs of Asian (and other) cuisines.

Sake, as we’ve mentioned, comes from rice. Sake rice, known as saka mai, is grown only for beverage production. It’s not really suitable for eating.

The first step of sake production exposes the rice grain through milling or polishing. This was once done by hand (or, more accurately, by foot by stepping on the grains) but is now done mechanically. The rice bran is polished away, leaving the grain behind. The amount of polishing done determines the quality category of the beverage. Cheap “table wine” sake-bomb sake (known as futsuu-shu) may be milled to 80% of original weight, where the ultra-premium junmai-daiginjo is milled to 50%.

Once the rice is milled, the grains are washed to remove residue and soaked to increase the moisture levels in the grain. The rice is then cooked by steaming, with a portion of the total amount held back to create the fermenting starter, which is where the process really gets interesting.

Sake rice (and rice in general) does not have the naturally fermentable starches that grains like wheat and barley do, so the existing starches in the rice grain must be converted. There is a particular type of beneficial mold, called koji-kin, that is sprinkled on a portion of the rice. This mold penetrates the rice kernel. The inoculated rice is called koji. At this point, the koji is added to the rest of the rice, along with more water and a particular brand of yeast. Several batches of koji are added over the course of the fermenting process. The mold converts the starches to sugars, which are consumed by the yeast – at which point alcohol is produced. The product at the end is then pressed, filtered, pasteurized, and allowed to age for 3-12 months before bottling.

If you’re exploring the world of premium sake, you’ll run into two classifications most commonly. Those are junmai (pronounced JOON-mai) and junmai-ginjo (JOON-mai GEEN-joe). “Junmai” means that what you’re drinking is straight sake. Lower grades of sake are often bottled after some neutral alcohol is added. The primary difference is the percentage of “milling.” The more the rice is milled, the higher the quality (and price) in general.

These versions of sake tend to have very light bouquets but fairly upfront flavors, they can be slightly sweet and fruity, and can be slightly acidic. Premium sake (basically anything above the quality of futsuu-shu) should be served at room temperature or slightly chilled. Heating sake, like heating any spirit, basically kills the aromatics.

I received a couple of sample bottles of sake from Ty Ku – one of the larger sake houses in Japan – Ty Ku Silver (junmai -- $16) and Ty Ku Black (junmai-ginjo -- $22). I’m not a sake connoisseur – and I honestly haven’t had a glass of sake in quite some time when I tried these. The Silver has a light pear nose, which is mirrored on the palate. Beneath the fruit is an alcohol flavor with a little bit of an alcoholic kick. There’s also a melon flavor that builds a bit. The first taste is a bit jarring. It eases into something a little more pleasant after drinking a bit. As for the Black, the flavor is much more gentle. The flavors are fairly similar, but they’re softer, more even and easier to work with for my palate.

Honestly, neither of them would be drinks that I would ordinarily have a craving for on their own. I tried a little of each with some tuna and salmon sushi rolls. I thought the sake was certainly better with sushi than on its own (especially if there were some wasabi on the rolls).

The other use I’ve seen for sake is as a mixer. It gets subbed in for dry vermouth in some recipes, like sake versions of martinis, gibsons, or cosmos – or for vodka, in something like a “sakedriver” with orange juice. All things being equal, it was certainly a flavor twist, but I personally preferred the classic versions.

Sake’s an interesting twist on your normal aperitif or mixer. If you’re going to give them a try, don’t go for the bargain basement stuff. Drop a little coin on a bottle of junmai-ginjo and decide if these flavors are your thing. If you like it, off to the races. If you don’t, then use the rest of the bottle as you would rice wine vinegar in your favorite Asian recipes. No muss, no fuss.

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Few Thanksgiving Bottles

To accompany the Guide to Thanksgiving Wine Buying I put together for your reading pleasure, I recently got a few bottles from the Wine Fairy that could fall into the “let’s give this a go” category for your Turkey Day table. 

Villa Gemma 2015 Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo Rosé – This rosé is made from one of my all-time “just drink it” grapes, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. (Cerasuolo is the town near where the grapes are sourced.) It’s considerably darker in hue than most rosé. In the bottle, the wine could easily be confused for a lighter red, like a Chianti. It pours bright ruby red with a medium weight body and flavors of cranberry and cherry. Despite the fruitiness, it’s quite dry and somewhat acidic on the finish, which would make it practically ideal for a varied table. $12.

Les Dauphins 2014 Côtes du Rhône Réserve Rouge – This is a solid, round, lightly tannined red. Rustic plummy flavor and aromas with a little smokiness towards the back. A lasting finish with very nice balanced fruits and tannin. I thought this was a great all-purpose red. There’s enough of that French earthy backbone to be interesting yet not scare off casual red wine drinkers. It would basically pair with anything roasted – turkey and pork would go very well, but you could pull it out for something like roasted fish in a darker sauce or even a beef tenderloin. Super flexible, which is what you’re looking for. $13.

Marina Cvetic 2010 Merlot – Instead of the Supertuscan blends one might expect, this wine’s made from 100% Merlot. Rather than a domestic fruit bomb, the blackberry and plum flavors are much more restrained within a framework of Old World earthiness, coupled with some background minerality from the terroir. The Sweet Partner in Crime thought this was a little too big for her, but I thought it was a pretty nice wine. I appreciated the fuller body without overwhelming fruitiness. Considerably better with food than on its own, this would be an ideal wine alongside something cheesy, like a casserole that uses gouda or sharp cheddar to hold things together. About $25 a bottle, which makes it a little pricier than I’d usually use for Thanksgiving, but if you have a small gathering of red wine drinkers and you want to provide something a little on the upscale side, it’s a solid option.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

The Naked Vine Guide to Buying Wine for Thanksgiving

We’re three weeks away from The Big Feed and you need to start thinking about buying wine. Since you’re the classy, thoughtful individual that you are, you actually give a rip about how the wine goes with food and you don’t want anyone to take a sip, and go “um…ew.”

Thanksgiving wine-buying can be challenging. At a standard dinner party, there’s usually a general theme or national cuisine you can pull ideas from. A traditional Thanksgiving meal presents you with bunch of flavors beyond turkey that usually don’t play well with grapes. Cheesy casseroles, sweet potatoes, various beans and legumes, yeasty rolls, and other homestyle favorites create a riot of flavors that simply aren’t conducive to a pause and savor pairing.

Your goal instead is to treat Thanksgiving like the gluttonous feast it is. We’re shooting for a selection of “good enough” wines to please a range of palates, yet give people enough options so they’re not making wine runs after the salad course. Here, for your grape-purchasing pleasure, are the Naked Vine’s steps to success:

FirstHow many wine drinkers at the table?
Get a rough count. Even if you have guests who have expressed that they don’t like wine, budget for them anyway. Assuming it’s too late to uninvite them, they’ll probably end up sneaking a glass or two anyway because they “just want to try it with food.” Worst case scenario: a couple of extra bottles get left over for slugging during cleanup.

I subscribe to the 80% rule. Let’s say you’ve got 10 guests. Eighty percent puts you at 8 bottles. Each bottle holds 5 glasses of wine, so you’ve got 40 glasses total to go around. In my experience, heavy and light imbibers tend to balance each other out. Adjust accordingly if you are cooking for a number of true teetotalers or if you know that you’ve got some professional lushes like your narrator at the table. Also, since most people bring at least one bottle with them, you should have a comfortable cushion.

Second – Start with bubbly.
My one hard-and-fast rule for Thanksgiving beyond the above calculation – start everyone off with bubbly. Toasting the start of the meal with a glass of bubbles wakes up everyone’s palates and appetites and gets everyone in a good mood. Also, since you generally don’t pour full glasses of sparkling wine, you’ll likely only need an extra bottle or two, max.

I’d recommend something like the Gruet Blanc de Noirs from New Mexico or my old Spanish standby Freixienet Extra Dry. Again, nothing complex -- think crisp, refreshing, and food friendly. Some of your guests might also prefer bubbles with your first course, whether it’s soup, salad, or something else.

Third – Taste the Rainbow
Now we get to the actual wines for dinner. We’re not going to mess with course-by-course pairings. That takes too much energy and besides, you might have to make a mad dash to the kitchen, frantically searching for your copy of your local newspaper to fan the smoke detector, which is still sounding incessantly after you left your oven mitt on the burner.

In most cases, I’d suggest getting three different types of wine. Why three? Like I said – we’re doing wine in broad brushstrokes here and people like to sample. Think about basic flavor profiles. We can immediately rule out super light whites like pinot grigio. They’ll get run over by the feast’s flavors. On the other end of the spectrum, avoid highly-tannic or oaky wines like most American cabernets or Chardonnays or big rustic French and Italian wines. We don’t need complexity to get in the way of the stuffing. The three profiles I use are:

Fruity and Flavorful Whites – For the white wine drinkers, I’d suggest whites with a lot of fruit flavor and usually a little sweetness. I’m a big fan of Thanksgiving Riesling. Chateau St. Michelle Dry Riesling  and Kung Fu Girl Riesling are a couple of easy to find choices. If you’d like to go German with your Riesling, look for bottles that are labeled “Trocken,” which means dry.

Light, Comfortable Reds and Rosé – Good middle of the road, “keep on pourin’” wines that pair up with almost any sorts of food, be it meat or fowl. I love my rosé, but for this occasion, avoid those beautiful, delicate flowers from Provence. Go with a fuller, more fruit-forward bottle – perhaps something from Italy like Villa Gemma Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or a South American version like Montes Cherub Rose of Syrah from Chile.

If you can’t bring yourself to buy pink wine, then another quality option here is Beaujolais, specifically, Beaujolais-Villages. Thanksgiving is also the one time of year that I find it OK to buy Beaujolais Nouveau, which is usually released around then. Don’t get suckered by a sale and buy last year’s vintage, though.

Big, Boomin’ Reds – Because every table will have at least one person who likes to drink big ol’ reds, don’t leave them out. My go-to wine when I need something big, fruity, and rich is good old California Zinfandel. Seven Deadly Zins, Ravenswood Vintner’s Blend, and their other $10 cousins should do nicely. If you want to look beyond California, a Garnacha (Grenache) like Los Rocas from Spain or a Cotes-du-Rhone like M. Chapoutier will certainly fill the bill without giving folks big mouthfuls of tannin.

In my previous eight-bottle example, I’d probably get two bottles of the whites and three bottles of
each of the other two categories to start with. I find that folks tend to lean red as the night goes on. Obviously, you know your dinner guests better than I, so jigger as necessary. And remember – while you can send leftovers home, all remaining wine stays with the house!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, October 24, 2016

COCO Cocktail -- An Idea Whose Time Has Come...for Some.

Years ago, back in my single days, I remember hanging out with some of my besties at my bachelor pad, quaffing some of my homebrews and probably watching a basketball game. The conversation turned, at one point, to different beer flavors.

Now, this was in the days before the craft beer boom -- when now-standard stuff like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams were considered cocks of the walk. I'd done one of my first attempts at a flavored beer -- a knockoff of Magic Hat #9 that had a nice undertone of apricot -- as well as a slightly boosted alcohol level -- but I digress.

Anyway, I mused about why no one ever made vitamin-enriched beer. It would seem pretty straightforward -- add some baby vitamins before bottling, and a sixer could get you 100% RDA of all your vitamins and minerals. In a merciful turn, I never attempted that little experiment.

Fast forward a sizable chunk of years, and at my door arrives a sample of an interesting new alcoholic beverage called Coco Cocktail #REFRESH -- a concoction declaring itself an "all-natural electrolyte-charged 70% coconut water" which is "a good source of vitamins." As you can see from the nutrition facts, there is actual nutritional value within -- and a 4 pack would get you close to 100% RDA of Vitamins A, C, D, E, B1, and B6. There are also 14g of carbs within and it's gluten free, if you're concerned about such things.

This hashtaggy can of lightly carbonated beverage is labeled as a "wine specialty" -- meaning a flavored fermented beverage made from something other than typical grapes. It stands at 5.6% ABV, so it's in the ballpark of a typical IPA. The "wine specialty" in this case is that the alcohol comes from orange wine, which I assume is not the same version that Poussey produced on Orange in the New Black.

"Enough, dude -- what does it actually taste like?"

I received two cans of the stuff. The first one I had on its own. It's lightly carbonated and not overly heavy bodywise. I expected it to be heavier than it was, but it's not overly cloying. The flavor is strongly citrus and fairly sweet. The Sweet Partner in Crime and I kept trying to nail down what it reminded us of. It seems to be at an intersection of original Gatorade, Fresca, and sour mix, minus any of that aspartame/Nutrasweet aftertaste. If a beverage in that particular flavor range appeals to you -- you'll probably dig this.

It drinks pretty easily. I can see putting one away pretty quickly if you had a mind to do so. It wouldn't be my first choice of alcoholic beverage, unless I were in a situation where I'd crave a sports drink -- like after working in the yard all day or needing a replenish after overindulging the night before. It'd be a good hair-of-the-dog, if you didn't have bloody mary makings handy.

I imagined it would make a decent mixer, so I tested out can #2 in that frame. Honestly, my days of drinking sour mix-based cocktails are largely in the rear view. (Pampero Anniversario on the rocks, please...)  For science, however, I decided to cobble together a couple of drinks using Coco Cocktail #REFRESH as a replacement for sour mix. I made miniature versions of a Tom Collins, a margarita, and an Amaretto sour. The Collins didn't work -- coconut and gin don't shake hands. Since the Coco Cocktail is less sweet than most sour mixes, I thought it improved the other two drinks -- cutting back the sugary edge a bit and smoothing out the mouthfeel.

[Remember -- it's 5.6%, so adjust the alcohol levels accordingly. Or don't.]

I can certainly see the appeal of an alcoholic sports-ish drink or a mixer that could act as a party cocktail amplifier. Back at the bachelor pad, I'd probably have kept a pack of these around my stash of tequila and Grand Marnier for spontaneous margaritas. And we'd have toasted our smarts for drinking healthy.

COCO Cocktail retails for $8.99 for a 4-pack.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter: Harken, the "Throwback Chardonnay"

When I went to the Sweet Partner in Crime's house for the first time, she offered me a glass from a big ol' bottle of Meridian chardonnay that she had in the fridge. This was in the early oughts, when most California chardonnay was chardonnay -- big, oaky, buttery wine with lots of emphasis on the oak.

That flavor profile was the common style, in my experience, up until the middle of the 2000's -- when many wine consumers, including myself, started turning their backs on chardonnay in favor of wines that were a little less rough around the edges. The rise of Sauvignon Blanc and Dry Riesling -- more fruit, less creamy charcoal -- started to eat into that market, as did relatively inexpensive imports from South America and Europe. In my personal shopping habits, California chardonnay went from "always in my shopping basket" to an aisle I rarely ventured down.

Sensing the change in consumer desire, California chardonnays started dialing back the level of oak and butter. Unoaked chardonnay became a thing, as winemakers turned to stainless steel for aging instead of oak barrels. Buttery flavors faded -- until many left coast chards became almost indistinguishable from the lighter-styled wines coming in from all over.

The pendulum is beginning to swing back in the budget wine world, as evidenced by a recent sample of Harken 2015 Barrel Fermented Chardonnay that I was lucky enough to try. Harken bills itself as "Old School Chardonnay," so I readied myself for a bit of a blast from palate's past.

Before we get to the wine, let's take a moment and talk about Chardonnay in general. Chardonnay may well be the most flexible varietal in the world. It can grow in almost any climate that supports vinifera grape growing. Chardonnay reflects the terroir of a region very distinctly. One of the fun things about unoaked chardonnay is that it gives a drinker a real sense of place (minerally soil vs. volcanic -- warm vs. cool, et al.). Unoaked chardonnay, however, can be fairly ordinary -- so adding touches of oak or butter can jazz up the overall profile.

Oakiness in wine comes from juice contact with wood. The wine soaks into the wood a bit, extracting some of that oaky flavor. Barrels can be charred, or charred staves can be added to a fermentation tank, to boost the level of smokiness.

The creamy, buttery flavors come from a process called malolactic fermentation (or just "malo" to wine heads). This is a process by which bacteria is added to wine, converting malic acid -- which is fairly tart -- to lactic acid. "Lactic" means "of milk," and this compound is found in most dairy products. Malolactic fermentation is often used to smooth out high-acid wines, such as cool climate wines, but it can also be used to really accentuate a buttery note in the wine.

Which brings us to the Harken itself. It's entirely fermented in oak barrels and goes through 100% malolactic fermentation, which cuts the acidity and sweetness. It's aged for 7 months in an 80/20 mixture of American and French oak and then bottled.

Thankfully, the Harken's constructed with a little more care than some of those inexpensive bottles from those oak bomb days of yore. I found distinct sweet apples and pears on the nose. As advertised, there are strong creamy, caramelly notes on the palate, backed by a firm smoky oak background and more pear and tropical fruit flavors. I hesitate to call it "creme brulee" -- because there's really no sweetness to speak of. The finish is solidly oaky with a bit of an apricot note.

I thought that it would make a nice accompaniment for a smoked duck breast that I'd done in my new Cameron stovetop gizmo, but I was a little disappointed by the pairing. The smoke and oak flavors really didn't agree with each other. However, I tried a little of it a couple of nights later with roasted tilapia with a garden tomato salsa, and that went really well. The oakiness is able to tame food that has a little bit of a zip to it -- so I would think it would go with any number of food selections.

The Harken Chardonnay is around $15 retail. I do have to give their marketing department a special shoutout. The promo sample I received came with its materials on the reel of an old Mattel ViewMaster. If you're of a certain age, you'll remember this 3D viewing gizmo with the two lenses. You know, something like this:

I won't lie. It gave me a pleasant childhood flashback and made me smile. The wine's pretty good, too.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Naked Vine One-Hitter -- Montefalco Bianco

We've had a number of posts around these parts about the wines from Montefalco. Most recently, I added a post about the relief efforts following the recent Umbrian earthquake that caused widespread devastation in the area. I got word the the consortium of winemakers from that region donated a portion of their proceeds from the recent Oenologica festival in Montefalco to the relief efforts. Let's hope that folks get their lives back to relative normalcy very soon.

From a wine standpoint, while I've been doing a fair amount of writing about Montefalco's red wines, Umbria is best known for its white wines – and Montefalco produces a number, although they are lesser-known than the whites from neighboring Orvieto. Umbrian whites tend to be fruity and full-bodied, driven by the strong flavor from the locally indigenous grape Grechetto.  As an example:

Broccatelli Galli 2015 "Nido Del Falco" Montefalco Bianco: This white, whose name translates as “Nest of the Hawk,” is made from a blend of Grechetto and Trebbiano, with some Chardonnay blended in for good measure.  After a sunshiny nose of pears and honey, the body is fairly round. There’s a little more tartness to the taste than the nose led me to believe, which is a similar sensation to many Viognier. Lemon and peach roll into a finish that’s a bit creamy. I imagine it would be relatively flexible, foodwise – we actually had it with a pork roast that I’d marinated in vinegar, soy, honey, and the Korean spice paste gochujang. I was delighted at how well that worked. 

I think it's certainly worth looking for a few of these if you like your Italian wines with a bit more oomph.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

All About Olive Oil

One nice thing about my little wine adventure is occasionally being asked to do samples of other gastronomically-themed items. Restaurants, decanters, wine chillers – these have all been brought under my umbrella. Today brings a new one – high-end olive oil.

The good folks at Ancient Olive Trees asked me to sample some of their artisanal olive oil. As anyone who’s spent any time poking around my writing knows – the Sweet Partner in Crime and I cook quite a bit, and olive oil is a staple in our kitchen.

Since Rachel Ray softly cooed about EVOO, the use of olive oil in many American kitchens exploded. American consumers go through about 80 million gallons of olive oil per year, only about 2% of which is actually produced in the United States. The U.S. has been steadily increasing domestic production – both among large, factory farmed oils and smaller producers like Ancient Olive Trees, which is headquartered in California.

Olive trees need temperate-to-warm climates to thrive. Olive oil is currently produced in California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Oregon and Hawaii. (I can attest to the Arizona production. When I was in graduate school out there, I discovered that the blooming of olive trees gives me hay fever something awful.) Most oils come from olives harvested and pressed when they’re green.

As you know, there are different classifications of olive oil. Most of the world uses a system based on guidelines set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC). The U.S. uses a USDA classification which predates the IOOC. (As American olive oil production grows, there is some movement towards joining the IOOC standards.) Either way, there are three basic varieties of edible oils: extra virgin, virgin, and standard olive oil.

Now, if you’re like me and have the sense of humor of an average 12-year-old, you’ve snickered at the notion of anything being “extra virgin.” The nomenclature doesn’t have anything to do with the quick pressing of the olives or the dating habits of the trees. Instead, the chemical composition, processing, and flavor are what creates the distinction among the various types.
Olive trees in Greece
Extra virgin and virgin olive oils are created from the first pressing of the olives, which removes about 90% of the olive juice. These oils can have no further refining or processing after pressing. The backbone of the definition is the amount of oleic acid present in the oil. The less acid, the better. The premium extra-virgin oils have less than .225% oleic acid. The cutoff for extra-virgin in the U.S. is 1%. As the acidity level increases, we move through the various “virgin” categories, until we reach “semi-fine virgin oil.” We rarely see stand-alone oils considered “virgin” in the U.S.

Once the acid level gets above 3.3%, or there are flaws in color, flavor, or aroma which render the oil “unfit for human consumption” – these oils are generally refined with heat, chemicals, and or filtration. The result is a nearly colorless, flavorless oil. They are then generally blended with one of the aforementioned virgin olive oils to impart a little flavor. These are the standard “olive oils” you see for cooking or packing food. There is also “pomace oil” made from paste left over after pressing and refining.

One culinary note: If you’re really into dressing, drizzling, or dipping, the flavors of an extra-virgin oil can be a real enhancement. However, actually cooking with extra-virgin olive oil is really a bit of a waste. While there are some inexpensive extra-virgin oils which might be considered “dual use,” what sets extra-virgin oil apart from regular olive oils is the subtlety of flavor. Heating an extra-virgin olive oil to its smoking point denatures the flavor compounds, rendering it little different from regular olive oil. For the stove, regular olive oil is a superior choice.

This brings us to our Ancient Olive Trees sample. We tried a side-by-side-by-side comparison of the AOT oil alongside a store-brand extra-virgin oil and an extra-virgin oil from Hawkes in Sonoma.

The differences were pretty striking, especially between the two “artisanal” oils and the store-brand stuff. The store brand stuff tasted like…well…oil. There was an olive flavor, but it didn’t have a great deal of complexity. The Ancient Olive Trees oil had a sweeter, lively flavor, with a little bit of an antioxidant zing in the back of the throat. The finish was smooth, somewhat fruity, and tasted a bit of hazelnut. The Hawkes oil was stronger and spicier, with an almost peppery note at the finish. I preferred the Hawkes on its own, followed closely by the AOT.
Mmm...Caprese salad...
With food, we had some farm-fresh tomatoes from the farmshare, so with some of our garden basil, we put together a nice Caprese salad for lunch. More specifically, we did a couple of small Capreses. The AOT oil was the winner among the three for a simple preparation like this – as it  had enough zestiness to make the olive oil a distinct player in the flavor, but it didn’t overwhelm the tomatoes, as the Hawkes did a bit.

There is, of course, the question of price. The high end extra virgin oils can be pricey. Ancient Olive Trees sells a 375ml bottle of their olive oil for $25 + $5 shipping, so it’s not really inexpensive. You can get a gallon can of the “dual use” store brand stuff for the same price, which doesn’t have the same breadth and depth of flavor.

If you think of olive oil as more of a condiment – if you’re a compulsive drizzler, dipper, or dresser – then having something around that’s a bit more high-end might be a nice bit of culinary pampering. Most oils of this quality will start at $20-30, so this would be a good option if you’d like to explore the world of oil. If all you’re doing is glugging it in a pan – you have better options.

As an aside, Ancient Olive Trees also does sell established olive trees. You can grow your own – but only if you live in hardiness zones 9 through 11, which means that you’re getting long, hot summers and temperate winters. Not going to be raising many anywhere near the Ohio river, but if you’re one of my far-flung readers and you’re looking for some new outdoor décor, just an option…

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Wine for Rehab Addicts

Home renovation shows are the Sweet Partner in Crime’s guilty pleasure. Especially the one where
an inordinately attractive person finds a suitably run-down or outdated target, starts a renovation, bickers and banters, runs into a complication that chews up the budget – but still manages to create a beautiful entryway out of wood reclaimed from an old gazebo they borrowed from a property up the road just in time for the big reveal…you know, that one. Or that one.

What does this have to do with wine? Well, we all like shiny things.

There’s an apocryphal “study” – that I’ve never been able to actually find anywhere – which allegedly states that the average person takes 38 seconds to select a bottle of wine. I’m not sure how exactly to read that. Were they controlling for the size of the wine store? Did they include choosing whether a person knew they were looking for red Burgundy or California Chardonnay?

Regardless...if you’re an everyday wine drinker, unless you have a particular bottle that go back to time and time again, wine buying is largely an impulse purchase. There’s the glance at the rack, a price comparison, a quick scan of any Parkerish scores that happen to be on the shelf, and the “Is a $10 wine at 88 points going to be different from this $15 at 90?” cross-reference.

And, of course, a purchaser looks at the label. Wine producers know this. We’re a long way from the days of plain wine labels with a winery, a region, a varietal, and a vintage. Bottle labels are packed with information now – tasting notes, food pairings, stories about how the wineries came to be. Each meant to distinguish one bottle from another, so a wine consumer can find what they’re looking for.

The current state of wine label marketing has been called “label porn” as producers try out newer, more eye catching, more quick-catchy displays and label artwork. Walk into any contemporary wine store and you’re deluged with an overwhelming array of funky fonts, cute art, and bright colors.

But cleverness only goes so far. Once everyone starts getting clever, then the buy me now message gets diluted. With all this variation, how can a producer get their bottle to call out “Pick me!”

One possible way? Make the bottle itself look different. Bargain-basement wines have done this for years – jugs of Almaden, lozenges of Mateus and Lancer, straw-covered cheap Chianti, or the hangovered fortifications of Black Tower are regulars. But among “normal” wines, a few standard bottle shapes and colors rule the shelves.

After getting a couple of interestingly-bottled samples, I popped down to Big Wine Store and did a pass through the aisles to snag a couple other interesting containers, with the notion of “When I’m done drinking this, could I repurpose the bottle into some interesting artifact” in mind:

Astoria 2014 “Caranto” Pinot Noir – Pinot isn’t something I usually think of when I think of Italian wine, but I’m always up for new things. Apparently, Pinot Noir grows in the northeastern corner of Italy, near Venice. I was quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wine. I’m used to lighter Italian grapes like Sangiovese and Valpolicella yielding light bodied wines – but this Pinot had a surprising amount of oomph. Nice palate weight with raspberries and cherries combining silkily. Smooth smoky tannins are nicely balanced and yield a smoky finish. It’s a solid wine. I was stunned to see it listed for around $11. A great value in this stubby, high shouldered bottle.

Vilarnau (NV) Brut Reserva Cava – Let’s just give props first for the beautiful label design – a colorful mosaic-ish riot of color that easily stands out from a row of Cava. I make no bones about my enjoyment of Cava, one of my favorite “Don’t think” sparklers, but this one gets a few bonus points from me. First, it’s a “brut” that’s actually brut. Many brut Cava either lack fruit flavors or taste like they have extra residual sugar. This wine has some lovely green apple and yeast aromas, but the palate is dry, crisp, and refreshing. One of the more complex, balanced Cava at its price point. And pretty!

Gérard Bertrand 2015 “Cote des Roses” Languedoc Rosé  -- A truly unique bottle style, tall and tapered, with the bottom of the bottle cut into the shape of a rose blossom, so you can show up at your intended’s door like:

The wine itself is minerally and crisp, with light strawberry and citrus flavors. I found lemon peel and stone on the finish. A really versatile rosé, workable with anything from porchtime sipping to spicy pork dishes. You should be able to find this for around $13.

The curved, feminine lines of the Aimé Roquesante 2015 Cotes de Provence Rosé also caught my eye in the pink aisle. This inexpensive, dry, strawberry-filled quaffer that looks lovely in both the bottle and glass. The salmony color is backed with a lean, zingy acidity and and friendly fruity finish. An excellent value at $10, as well.

Finally, while traipsing through the store, I came across a cute little high shouldered bottle, the Scholium Project 2009 Lost Slough Vineyards “Riquewihr” Gewurztraminer. The Scholium Project does small batches of grapes from interesting vineyards, using natural fermentation and long aging. Their small lots are mirrored in their small bottles. I likely would have let this one pass if it hadn’t been on deep sale, as for 500ml, it would have run $35+. This Gewurz, sourced from a vineyard outside Sacramento, fooled me into thinking it was a Viognier with its perfumey nose of peach blossoms that marches quickly into a minerally, Alsatian characteristic. Honestly, it was a very interesting wine, while not my favorite.

Now that you’ve got some extra glassware, let your ideas for objects d’art run wild. While my own mind generally doesn’t run towards design, I hope the SPinC will enjoy this:

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Montefalco Rosso (Slight Return) – and relief from the Italian earthquake

The good folks in Umbria must have had a couple of good Sagrantino harvests. I keep winding up with bottles of Montefalco Rosso, an Italian red made from that expensive to produce grape, blended with some other varietals. These wines make good options for your Labor Day grilling.

While the harvests have been strong, Umbria also has some pretty serious issues of its own at the moment. Many of you have probably read about the 6.2 magnitude earthquake in Italy that leveled hundreds of structures. The casualty numbers continue to climb. The epicenter of that earthquake was in Umbria, and many of these wines are produced scant kilometers from cities which stood from Medieval times until last week.

Obviously, we’re limited in what we can do to help directly – although purchasing Umbrian wine is one indirect help. If you would like to make a contribution, you can donate directly to the Italian Red Cross or to the National Italian American Foundation – both of which are currently working on relief efforts.

To refresh your memory, the Sagrantino grape has been grown in Umbria at least as far back as the mid 1500’s, with some scant records indicating it may have been grown as early as the turn of the millennium. This grape, grown primarily for sacramental and religious festival wines, was almost wiped out until the early 1990’s, when growers were able to gain a classified status for the grape and expanded the production.

On its own, Sagrantino creates enormous, tannic reds which have the highest concentration of polyphenols like resveratrol which are the compounds that give red wine its health-related benefits. It’s also the most tooth-staining varietal that I’ve ever happened across, just as a warning. In many regions, heavily tannic grapes are often blended with lighter varietals -- and the juice can be from either red or white grapes – to balance tannin and acidity in big wines or to create wines that are more approachable to the general public.

In neighboring Tuscany, the winemakers there blended their native Sangiovese grapes with merlot, cabernet, and other red wines to create the now-ubiquitous Supertuscans. Borrowing from that model, the Umbrians created Montefalco Rosso, a lighter-styled red wine which features Sagrantino in the blend. Since Sagrantino itself makes for big, honkin’ wine – a little of it goes a long way in the blend.

Also, grapes like Sagrantino tend to be fairly expensive to produce. Most Sagrantino Montefalco start at around $40 and go up front there. Winemakers like to turn a profit, and blending can help them produce quantities of wine at a lower price point to help with the bottom line. Here are a few of those Montefalco Rosso, which you can find for around $20-25.

Arnaldo Caprai 2012 Montefalco Rosso – Once this one got some air (which involved me pouring the wine through an aerator into a decanter, then funneling it back into the bottle after an hour), the Caprai opened right up into a very interesting, bold red. The tannins were considerably softer than many wines made with Sagrantino, and there wasn’t nearly as much heat and roughness as I’d run into previously. The nose is full of currants with a backdrop of menthol. The body is full and rich with red fruits and some firm but not overwhelming tannin. The finish is long with just a little bit of an alcoholic bite to finish. It’s a bold red for any occasion with which you’d like a bold red. Go with grilled meats, nuts, and stinky cheeses.

Scacciadiavoli 2012 Montefalco Rosso – We found this one to be a little more bold than the Caprai. If you like your Italian wines a little on the rustic side, this would be a solid choice. Lots of depth of fruit at first taste up in the plum/blueberry range. That’s accompanied by some slightly rough tannins that remain so even after considerable air. They’re not overbearing, but you know you’ve got a wine with oomph. Finish is long, fruity, and dry. We had this with an eggplant parmesan – both out of the oven and a couple of days later with leftovers. Good pairing which would do well with roasts, big sauces, and such.

Perticaia 2013 Montefalco Rosso – By far the most mellow of the three, and the most pleasant just to drink. The tannins are smoother than in either of the other two, and it’s a little more fruit-forward. Nose is plums again, with a little bit of an herbal tinge. The body’s full, although not as “clingy” as the others. The fruit and tannins are both dark and relatively well balanced. The finish doesn’t have the length that the other two do, largely expected with the lighter tannins. I thought it worked well against a marinara-laced penne dish.

I have learned that the winemakers of the area are also planning their own relief efforts on the ground, so watch this space for additional information there – as well as for some information about the whites from that region. You know, for balance…

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to British Columbia – Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula and Cowichan Valley

The Sweet Partner in Crime had a conference to attend in Seattle recently. After our wonderful time last year in Vancouver, we decided to pop over to Vancouver Island for a few days prior to the SPinC’s work responsibilities.

If you’re thinking, “Hey…if you were just in Vancouver – why go back?” – the city of Vancouver, BC, is not on Vancouver Island. It’s a ferry or floatplane ride away. What *is* on Vancouver Island (VI) is British Columbia’s beautiful capital city, Victoria, and some wine regions that you should learn about if you don’t think climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

At nearly 50° N latitude, Vancouver Island has some of the northernmost vineyards in the world. My affection for cool climate wines burst into full bloom as we tooled around the island. We did most of our exploring in two regions – the Saanich (pronounced SAN-itch) Peninsula and Cowichan (pronounced COW-itch’n) Valley. Here’s a map for reference:

Click to embiggen. (credit: Tourism Vancouver Island)
Additionally, the island is well known for slow food/farm-to-table cuisine. “Fresh from the Island” signs dot the storefronts and restaurants using local ingredients abound. Many of the wineries double as neighborhood lunch spots, where you can swap stories with the locals over sandwiches, fresh fruit, and glasses of rosé.

We set down home base in Brentwood Bay, about half an hour north of Victoria. Brentwood Bay is in Central Saanich. The Saanich wineries are tucked back here and there among some pretty rural roads up and down the peninsula. A short ferry ride from Brentwood Bay to Mill Bay (which, conveniently, loaded just steps from our hotel room), lands in the Cowichan Valley, which follows the Trans-Canadian Highway down to and along the southern coast of the island.

We quickly discovered something interesting – the wineries we explored on the island fall roughly into two camps: all-estate and kinda-estate. Most of the wineries grow at least some of their grapes on site. Many, however, supplement their harvest with grapes and juice from other regions of British Columbia – largely the Okanagan Valley, which produces 80% of all BC wine.

The winemakers who do “all-estate” wines – boy howdy, are they ever rightfully proud of that fact – are creating some pretty righteous juice from the workable varietals. Many varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, simply won’t grow there. But the ones that do – pinot noir and pinot blanc, especially – develop uniquely crisp, clean characteristics. The whites tend to end up fruity and floral and the reds, especially the pinots, have superb balance for lighter bodied wines.

I’ve long said that winemakers need to focus on terroir before tourism. Sure, people are more familiar with Chardonnay then Ortega or Gewurztraminer – but if the latter make better wines in your climate, plant ‘em!

The best, best thing about the estate wines – at least for right now? They’re inexpensive. Most of these wineries’ high end offerings topped out at about $25-30 Canadian, which with the current exchange rate puts a high quality pinot noir in your happy hands for about twenty bucks. And most of these wineries are in beautifully scenic locations, so getting there is half the fun – although a car is necessary.

Here were some of our favorites:

The patio at Cherry Point
Cherry Point – “I try to turn the land into art,” said Javier, who with his wife Maria, came to British Columbia from Columbia and Ecuador. After a number of successful business ventures, including landscaping and restaurants in the city of Vancouver, the two of them decided to buy a vineyard on VI.

They make a series of wines of quality. Our favorites were the floral, grapefruit-and-green appley Pinot Blanc; a tropical fruit flavored riot in their Ortega; a light-styled pinot noir; and a blend of Agria and Zweigelt (Hungarian and Austrian varietals) called “Bete Noire” that was full-flavored without being heavy.

The winery also does an annual paella-fest, where Javier shows off the recipe that has earned him multiple medals in competition.

Venturi-Schulze – After our taster, Gary, dealt with a gaggle of Snapchatting bachelorettes, we were treated to their interesting spread of estate grapes: a sparkling Zweigelt, an aromatic white called Siegerrebe, a light, peachy blend of Ortega and Schönburger called “Primavera,” and a beautifully delicate-yet-spicy pinot noir. The wines were good, but they weren’t the star of the show. The vinegar was.

Yes, vinegar. The folks at this winery make balsamic vinegar in the traditional fashion of Modena. What most people buy at the store isn’t really balsamic vinegar. Traditional balsamic vinegar takes 12-15 years, minimum, to produce Fermented grape must -- juice that includes the pressed grapes, stems, and skins -- is aged in a series of barrels in a “solera” system like sherry. (The ersatz three-buck-a-bottle stuff in your grocery store is just wine vinegar to which flavorings or colorings have been added.)

The result is headspinningly good – mellow and slightly tart, full of fruit, caramel, smoke, and wonder. It’s not cheap ($65 Canadian for a 250ml bottle) but it’s truly special. (As far as I can tell, the only other place that makes balsamic vinegar like this in North America is in New Mexico, of all places.)

Averill Creek – “This will be the home for pinot in British Columbia” said Andy Johnston, Averill
Averill Creek Winery
Creek’s vintner. If his product is any indication, I wouldn’t argue too much with him. Their 2012 Pinot was one of the highlights of the trip –beautiful, cool fruits are deep and smoky without being extracted, and ridiculously underpriced at $22. Seriously, it had no business being that good for that price. They also make a lovely, delicate rosé and a red from Marichal Foch that reminded me of Beaujolais.

Andy said that while he “goes where the terroir takes him,” he does have a couple of tricks up his sleeve. He experimented with wrapping the perimeter a block of grapes with cling wrap to give a little bit of extra insulation at the start of the season. He thought it worked so well that he’s considering doing it to his entire vineyard next spring.

Symphony – We shared a laid back tasting with Pat, half of the ownership duo, while she was cutting fresh rhubarb for one of the chutneys they produce onsite. She told us that they’d been on that land since the 50’s, but only started planting grapes about a decade ago. She treated us to a bright, lovely Ortega; an Alsace-styled dry Gewurztraminer; and a pair of pinot blancs – one oaked, the other not. (The SPinC and I split on which one we preferred.)

She poured us a rosé of pinot, which we both really enjoyed, as it was made in a very Provence-style, and a light-styled Pinot Noir. She also let us try a tank sample of their 2015 Pinot, which looks to be a real winner.

Enjoying a "slushie" at Sea Cider
I’d also recommend a tour and tasting at Victoria Distillers in Sidney, where they crank out small batches of spirits of various types. My favorite was their gin, which was done in a more botanical style than the typical London Dry.

Apples grow plentifully throughout British Columbia, so there are a number of cider houses scattered across the peninsula. We stopped for a tasting at Sea Cider, where we sampled a flight of six ciders, a couple of eaus-de-vie, and a “cider slushie” while enjoying a beautiful view of Mount Baker. Our favorites were the “Bittersweet,” “Rumrummer” and “Pippins.” Thumbs up. 
And finally, no column about this area would be complete without at least one mention of the spectacular eye-candy that is Butchart Gardens. Look it up and gaze in wonder. We had dinner in their restaurant, which lived up to its many recommendations. For anyone who likes playing in the dirt, this experience should be on your bucket list.