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.