Monday, May 15, 2017

Checking in with Charles Smith

Over the Vine’s period of years, I’ve seen wine trends come and go. Wineries merge, brands change, labels change. Early on in my tasting time, I remember hearing about a Washington winemaker named Charles Smith.

Smith had a reputation as the “rock and roll winemaker.” With his big mop of curly hair and penchant for mosh pit-approved attire, Smith looked more Slayer than Sonoma. Using partnerships and interesting, approachable twists on a number of wines, Smith built up an intriguing portfolio and a great deal of brand loyalty when he discovered that simple, eye catching label designs crossed with quality, reasonably priced juice makes a successful market entry. His labels and their black and white iconography look back at you at most decent wine stores.

Smith has long been into sustainable agriculture. All of his winemaking operations follow up-to-date growing techniques and such. I also have some recollection of Smith being an early adopter of using Stelvin screw-top closures exclusively.

OK...Let's do this...
Recently, a slate of five of Smith’s wines showed up at the door. I was interested to get re-acquainted with many of these, since it’d been a couple of years since I’d actually done a full-on tasting of them.

Charles Smith 2015 “Eve” Washington State Chardonnay ($13) – Eve is appropriate moniker. Ripe sweet apple blossom is the first note that shows up in the bouquet, and that’s mirrored with those similar apple flavors on the palate, backed with some tropical fruit. Very lean style, but not overly acidic. No butter or cream. Tastes like there’s just a kiss of oak to round out an exceptionally well-balanced chard. Super pleasant to drink, and a great accompaniment to some slow-baked salmon alongside some sautéed mixed veggies, broiled with shredded parmesan.

Had the Charles Smith 2014 “Chateau Smith” Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) and the Charles Smith 2014 “Boom! Boom!” Syrah ($18) side by side. This pair of deep reds were cracked and poured next to a quality grill-job on some steaks. The Cabernet was rich and fruity, with dark cherry flavors and some blackberry notes against a medium weighted body. The finish was dry and not quite as long as I thought it might be, at least initially. It improved over the course of the evening.

The Syrah, on the other hand, was a juicy, savory experience. Lots of rich blueberry and blackberry flavors, a somewhat fruity and floral nose from the hint of Viognier blended in. The finish did something quite interesting – it starts off quite dry and earthy, then comes back with a little bit of candied sweetness that I found quite pleasant. Alongside the steaks, in a bit of a surprise to me, I found myself preferring the Syrah.

The Charles Smith 2014 “The Velvet Devil” Merlot ($13) has long been one of my go-to bottles of value-priced red, and not just because of my alma mater. (Although this Devil is much more Purple than Blue.) Smith has always produced a quality merlot – and this vintage is no exception. Dark, rich cool-climate fruits are in abundance here, although there’s enough of a tobacco-ish backbone to keep it from becoming a complete fruit bomb. Good restraint in the flavor and some good earthiness and fruity on the finish. Another quality entry. This ended up being an end-of-day wine that went really well with chocolate.

Then, there’s my old fave, Charles Smith 2015 “Kung Fu Girl” Riesling. ($13) I still remember years ago when I first saw an article about Smith, where he was asked about the name of this particular wine. His booming response was “"WHY? BECAUSE, RIESLING AND GIRLS KICK ASS!" The man knows. In any case, I’ve recommended this Riesling more times than I can count, because I find it hits the middle of the Venn diagram for people who aren’t into super-sweet Rieslings, and those who can’t deal with the flinty dry ones. Rich with citrus and honey, this is one of the better wine pairings with spicy Asian cuisine that you’ll run across. Peaches and some nice minerality round out the experience.
Mr. Smith, himself.

Finally, just to be a completist – and because I happened to run across this wine when I was ambling down the pink aisle – there was the Charles Smith 2015 “Vino!” Rosé ($12) – the newest addition to his catalog. This wine, made from 100% Sangiovese grown in Washington State, which is an interesting twist in and of itself, is a very solid, study quaffer. Full of melon and strawberry with a backing of herbs, I powered through this wine much too quickly on my front porch on a warm day in early May. What was left of the bottle was fabulous with salmon.   

Smith’s wines continue to hold their reputation for being solid, well-priced entries in the “quality everyday wine” category. I still give them a thumbs up.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Locations Wine -- Blends that Break the Rules

What’s in a name?

When it comes to wine, nomenclature can mean a great deal – depending on which country’s soil you’re standing upon…or, more accurately, which country’s terroir you’re about to start slugging on.

As we’ve discussed in this space, especially among European wines, the name on the bottle typically refers to the region from which the wine is created. There are no grapes named “Bordeaux” or “Rioja.” Whether a wine drinker knows the exact grape or blend of grapes in a bottle, he or she can be reasonably confident of a wine’s style based on its locale of origin. French Burgundy, made from Pinot Noir, will necessarily have a different flavor than the Grenache/Syrah blends of the Rhone Valley.

These general naming conventions, blends of regional grapes, flavors and styles have been reasonably consistent (and often enforced by local and state food-related law) for decades or even centuries.

Enter Dave Phinney. Phinney, the winemaker who burst onto the scene in the late 90’s with “The Prisoner” – a Zinfandel-heavy field blend from California which put his Orin Swift Cellars on the map – has, over the last few years, built up a following around a set of blends he’s named Locations Wine.

(Side note: In case you’re wondering about who “Orin Swift” is, Orin is his father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name.)

With Locations, Phinney and his team attempt to distill the essence of a country’s wines across its terroir – blending grapes from various wine growing regions to build a reflection of a “national” wine. Locations produces wines from Spain, France, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, and Corsica. On the domestic side, they produce blends from Oregon, Washington, California, and most recently, Texas.

So, for example, the California wine is a blend from Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and the Sierra Foothills – four regions with very distinct differences in terroir and grape type production. Juice from those regions rarely gets tossed in together. As for the European cuvées, many would consider such blending high heresy. Furthermore, the wines are non-vintage, which allows Phinney to blend wines from multiple years into the final mix. Each release is numbered. This year’s is “4.”

All but the Corsican wine are adorned with the formerly ubiquitous white oval stickers that used to adorn most cars in Europe before the advent of the European Union. (The Corsican wine is labeled with a silhouette of a wicked looking shepherd’s knife.) You’ve seen these labels before:

Locations Wine: France, Italy, Spain

I had the opportunity to try three of the blends at a “virtual tasting” with Phinney. He said that the general style of Locations is targeted towards the U.S. market. The idea, he said, was to give people an entry point to European wines; to try to turn people on to wines from countries they might not have tried before. He said that he knows that what he’s doing breaks a lot of traditional rules, so he spent a great deal of time putting together his blends. “I needed them to be beyond reproach.”

Locations sent three samples – their offerings from Italy, France, and Spain. One commonality across all three reflects Phinney’s comment about aiming these wines at American palates. All three have what I would consider New World sensibilities. I found them all to have, in general, bigger mouthfeels and more fruit-forward than most wines I’ve tried from the counterpart country. The French wine, for instance, lacked the “funk” that many Old World wines sport. I certainly don’t mean that as a defect – just know going in that you shouldn’t expect a Cotes-du-Rhone or Chianti.

Italy – The Italian entry is a blend of Negroamaro and Nero d’Avola from Puglia in the South and Barbera from the Piedmont in the North. Thick dark fruits on the nose – plums and blueberries. The nose feels as if it’s going to be attached to a wine of considerable weight, but the palate is surprisingly limber. Some nice spicy notes there, too. There’s a hint of that Italian chalkiness hanging around on the finish, backed by dark fruits and smoky tannins. This was my favorite of the three. Dynamite with a red-sauced pasta.

France – The French version is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and “various Bordeaux varietals” (meaning some mix of, Cabernets, Merlot, et al.) from the Rhone, Roussillon, and Bordeaux. It had a fairly thick nose of strawberries and cotton candy with some floral notes. The palate is a nicely balanced mix of strawberries, raspberries, and earth. It’s fairly tannic, with a dry, lasting finish. It really calls for some kind of roasted meat, if you’re going to pair it up.

Spain – Labeled with an “E” for “España,” which I’ll sheepishly admit threw me for a hot second, this blend of Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell, and Cariñena is sourced from regions all across Spain: the Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja, and Ribera del Duero. The nose is full of dark fruit and licorice, backed up with menthol and mint. The tannins harden gradually after a few sips into a slate-smoke finish. There’s light tarry flavor of coffee over dark plums. I had it with paella, and it was a tad big, but still a very nice complement. The fruit on this wine faded quickly – even stoppered, I found there was little fruit the next day, leaving largely a tannic, graphite flavor which wasn’t my favorite.

The Locations series retails for around $20. I think it’s an interesting take – and I admit interest in checking in on some of the other blends. (I mean…Texas? I can be convinced, but…)

Monday, May 01, 2017

Rosés for Mother’s Day

The time’s come again, folks – Mother’s Day. The day to thank Mom for changing our diapers, wiping our tears, and laying the foundation for all of us to become the lovable lushes that we are. Many of us will be hosting some sort of brunch, lunch, dinner, or drinking jag on some front porch or other.

Anyone can get a bunch of roses for the celebration. I suggest sticking with the pale red color family and snag a bunch of rosés! What says love for your maternal unit like wine, I ask you?

Depending on where you find yourself on Mother’s Day, there’s a bottle of pink goodness that can accompany you.

For Brunch

If you’re doing brunch, you’re going to want bubbly. While I ordinarily recommend bloody marys for All Things Brunch, this is a celebration, dammit! Celebrations call for sparkly things. And if you’re feeling really, really classy (and don’t mind paying through the nose), you could snag a bottle of Charles Heidsieck Champagne Rosé Réserve.

This rosy bottle from “Champagne Charlie” is a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. This lovely, fruity sipper packs a load of flavor. Strawberries and a little bit of baking spice start the nose. The bubbles are soft and velvety, adding a luscious creaminess and lots of berry flavors on the palate. The finish is delicate, creamy, and slightly tart. Truly a lovely wine, one which carries a special occasion pricetag of $70-80.

Now, if you don’t want to go full-on walletbusting, but you’d still like to have the benefit of a bubbly brunch, you could go with a less expensive domestic alternative. One suggestion might be the Mumm Napa Brut Rosé from California. The distinctive delicacy and creaminess of Champagne may be missing, but many of the same flavors are there – although they lean more towards cherry than strawberry. Still a lovely bottle of bubbles – one you can find for $20-25.

For Dinner

If an evening meal is on your agenda, especially if you’re visiting one of your local dining establishments, everyone around the table might want something different. To limit any potential for familiar disagreement when the wine list comes around, I recommend that you consider a full-bodied rosé for the table. While rosé is often considered a delicate drink, many are now built with firmer fruit backbones to stand up to broader ranges of cuisine.

So long as Mom’s not insisting on steak au poivre, you certainly could get away with a bottle like the 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.

For Cocktails

Several months back, I mentioned a rosé shortage because of the huge uptick in the wine’s popularity over the last few years. Wine supplies (other than high-end limited production wines) tend to trail a couple of years behind consumer demand. Some rosé producers may have overshot a bit when it comes to the most recent vintage.

In the wine stores I frequent, I keep running into very decent bottles of French rosé -- often Provence rosé, which can be quite pricey – for $6-8. If you’ve gone to the store and rightfully stocked up, you know know that dry rosé is actually a pretty good choice for a cocktail mixer. They’re usually somewhat acidic, have low sugar content and light body, and have those soft fruit notes that perk up mixed drinks. With that in mind, here are a couple of potential recipes you can use to surprise Dear Mum:


1 (5 oz.) glass rosé; 1 oz. citrus vodka; 2 basil leaves, ripped; lemon wedge; ½ oz. simple syrup; 1 ½ club soda.

Muddle basil, lemon, and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Fill the shaker with ice and add vodka and wine. Stir, then pour into glasses. Top with club soda. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

Rosé Bouquet

3 oz. rosé; 1 ½ oz. gin; ¾ oz. Lillet; 3 oz. red grapefruit juice; sprig of rosemary.

Fill a lowball glass ¾ full with ice. Add ingredients in order. Stir. Garnish with rosemary and a wedge of grapefruit.

Pink Glow

5 oz. rosé (use a full-flavored one); 2 oz. bourbon; 1 oz. orange juice.

Add to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake. Strain into martini glasses and garnish with an orange wedge.

The Mosé

2 strawberries, sliced; 1 tsp. sugar; 2 oz. white tequila; 1 oz. fresh lemon juice; 2 oz. dry rosé

Muddle strawberries and sugar in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and other ingredients. Shake well. Pour into a rocks glass.