Thursday, February 20, 2020

Recycle Bin, Week of Feb 17

It's a total hodgepodge of bottles this week, including an old, old port, a new, fresh malbec/syrah, and a few other odd birds that I picked up on closeout sale.  Cheers!

2018 Domaine Bousquet Gaia Red Blend Uco Valley $20
Yowza! Dark and inky in the glass, which is no surprise given the malbec/syrah dominance of this blend, but the aromatic vibrancy is unexpected. That energy carries through to the palate where soaring, fragrant notes sit atop a balanced body framed by crunchy acidity. A big wine that manages to dance with agility.  Wow. Really pretty and easygoing. SRP is $20, but you may well find it closer to $15 in your market, which makes it a good value to boot. 

2017 Domaine de Verquière Rasteau $17
This 70/30 grenache/syrah is  a classic Rhone red showcasing its beautifully-perfumed grenache in a style that's midway between classic and modern.  Versatile and lovely without being boastful.  Well made and tough to put down.

2017 Conceito Branco 'Contraste' Douro $14
Portugal is home to some of the world's most sensational white wine values.  It's such a terrific source that one need only throw a dart (at any price point) to find a winner.  This one, however, is a bit weird.  Minerals, flint, wet rocks, and a funky fruit element make for a wine that is unlikely to be a crowd-pleaser, but one that wine geeks will spend a lot of time analyzing.

1985 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port $?
At 35 years old, the youthfulness and grace of this wine are difficult to fathom.  It's also hard to imagine that it doesn't still have decades of good life ahead of it.  After filtering out the considerable sediment, the fruit sits poised in elegant balance with a refined structure and subdued vigor.  One more thing that's hard to wrap your mind around: you can still find bottles of this stuff out there for under $100.  Insane.
2016 Montresor Valpolicella Ripasso 'Capitel della Crosara' $17
A lot of ripassos attempt to achieve Amarone-like intensity, often missing the mark and ending up flabby and/or over-heated.  Not this one.  It's a terrific representation of a Valpolicella that leans towards savory while still expressing characterisitc, shining fruit.  All this is cloaked in lovely acidity.

2017 Bodegas Norton Malbec Reserva $13
Really nice malbec without the rough edges or sloppy winemaking that plagues so many these days.  Picked it up on sale and enjoyed with burgers - which is exactly what this wine needs.

2016 Hess Select Red Blend 'Treo' California $11
Another wine I picked up on a closeout sale.  Simple California red blend that's appealing for its simplicity, price tag, and lack of overblown extraaction/alcohol.  (Suggested retail is $19, which I would not have paid.)

2013 Nipozzano Chianti Ruffina Riserva $15
At close to six years old, this is a great lesson in both the longevity of Chianti and the value of looking beyond the Classico zone.  A terrific value that offers everything you'd want in a Chianti: food-friendly acids, moderate body, and a seamless texture.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Valentines Day Drinking (Without Breaking The Bank)

It feels a little contrived to be pushing bubbles for Valentine's Day, but reviewing these French sparklers has been long overdue. The truth is that any day is a good day for sparkling wine, especially friendly, elegant bottles such as these.  That they are so reasonably priced - and very low in residual sugar - is a serious bonus, especially given their QPR.  Savvy drinkers will bypass the premium pricing of Champagne and instead reach for these - it'll leave more money for upgrading your flowers.

A brief postscript here...since reviewing these, I've been enjoying them over a series of evenings as a pre-dinner treat. Shoving a skinny wine cork deep into the neck and keeping the bottles refrigerated does an amazing job of retaining the effervescence, further drawing out the special feeling that bubbles delivers.  It's fun and I recommend doing the same.

NV Faire La Fête Brut Limoux $19
Bright, crisp, and refreshing, there's a lot more substance and character to this than I had expected.  Solid backbone supports a formidable mid-palate, both of which are framed by a high cheek boned poise and dancing acidity.  The only problem with it is that my glass seems to be empty very quickly.

NV Faire La Fête Brut Rosé Limoux $19
Clearly related to the platinum-colored brut, this salmon-hued version is everything its sibling is and more.  Refined, substantive, and perhaps a bit more serious in its delivery, this bone dry wine oozes sophistication without being austere or showy.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Recycle Bin Week of January 27

Mostly winter drinking in this installment of the recycle bin.  Not all are sensational, but, man, I had forgotten what a darn good wine that Mondavi cab is.  And the picpoul will brighten even the most drab of winter days.  Cheers!

2015 Smith-Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain Napa Valley $52
Nothing showy here; just a deep currant nose with herbal and medicinal aromatics that leads into a closed (at first) mouth. More serious than I recall this being in previous vintages thanks to its tightly wound, firm, tannic structure and silent power. Definitely going to be a long-lived wine. After enough air, it’s easy to appreciate, but simple it is not. Rather, it’s a wine of depth to enjoy as fortification for body and soul prior to a winter’s hibernation.

2016 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay Spring Mountain Napa Valley $40
Massive, rich, ripe fruit offering extracted voluptuousness and a powerful punch. I may be too much of a wimp for this wine.

2016 Smith-Madrone Riesling Spring Mountain Napa Valley $34
Ultra clean and beaming with focus, this luminescent white exudes versatility and poise. Faithful to varietal character, and with enough dryness and easy appeal to win over riesling skeptics.  Very nice.

2016 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $25
It’s been years since I have revisited this wine. I’m not sure why, but I can tell you now that it was way too long. Delivering classic Napa style in a focused, poised manner prioritizing character and a precision over hoopla. You’ll find super interesting eucalyptus, rosemary, and evergreen underlying the broad-shouldered black currant and cassis fruit. Recently saw it sale for $20, which classifies as a terrific bargain given the quality.

 2018 Les Costieres de Pomerols Picpoul de Pinet H.B. $12
Gregarious, bright, and crisp, this is a glass of sunshine burning through the clouds. Inescapably easy to like in a nearly over the top friendly way.  And the price is right.  Best vintage of this I've had yet.

2017 Root 1 Cabernet and Carmenere Maipo Valley Chile $10
Wait, what? One review for two winers? Yup. While not identical, these two reds are virtually interchangeable.  When this brand was first introduced, the deep, round fruit of its reds offered a smashing alternative to California's rising prices.  It's been a long time since, so I gave these two a whirl.  While serviceable, they prove that focus group-driven blending is no longer unique to American winemaking consultants, and that Chile is not immune to homogeneity.  At least the price hasn't changed.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Drinking Joy From An Unexpected Source

Santa Barbara county has become nearly synonymous with pinot noir, and that's not without good reason. The climate lends itself to the variety's want for cool nights and large diurnal swings, and the red grape vineyards have been dominated by pinot since my first trip to the area in the mid 1990s.  Then, of course, Sideways came along in 2004, catapulting the region into tourist-choked fame, and, along with it, the prices of many better pinot noirs into the stratosphere.

Around the same time I was making my first pilgrimage to Santa Barbara wine country, Joel Gott was bottling his first wines. Since then, the brand has grown by leaps and bounds (thanks in large part to its acquisition by TFE), becoming ubiquitous on restaurant wine lists.  The wines tend to be robust in density and flavor, and characteristically Californian.  In other words, little in the way of subtleties and almost certain to garner attention.  That said, I don't think I've ever had a bad wine from them, and have had several that I like just fine.  They're usually priced a few dollars higher than the experience ought to command, which means generally more reasonable than the bulk of California wines today.  But then this wine caught my eye.  It was on sale for a mere $14, so I gave it a spin.

2015 Joel Gott Pinor Noir Santa Barbara $20
The full package: fresh violet aromatics, seamless texture, fantastic fruit, and even some elegant acidity.  It actually tastes like pinot noir, and actually tastes like it's from Santa Barbara county.  With a few years on it now, whatever boisterousness it may have had in its adolescence is giving way to poise. Labeled as 13.6% ABV, and tastes like it, too.  Remarkable.  I'm shocked by how true this wine is.  Which is why I turned right around and picked up a case of it.

Monday, January 13, 2020

In Defense of Big Box Retailers

For many years the standard-bearer wine retailer in my hometown market was a sprawling place that, as its name indicated, sold everything from lumber to feed to work boots and, yes, wine.  The selection was broad and deep, with thousands of bottles ranging from pedestrian to precious, and everything in between.  The staff was attentive and knowledgeable.  With selection and service aplenty, it was everything a wine lover could hope for.

Alas, it did not last forever, and they closed their doors for reasons having nothing to do with their wine department.  As a result, a multi-million dollar void was left in the market.  If some saw it as an opportunity, they did little to capitalize on it.  That was at the end of 2016.

Today, the local market can be broadly split between grocery stores and small independents, each with their own domains: Grocery stores, awash in homogeneity, while the independents – of which there are fewer every year – differentiate by offering more international selections and smaller producers. In between is a chasm that remains unfilled.

As wine offerings at grocery stores have grown in square footage, they have also narrowed in their diversity, the selection of which is often delegated to a (very) short list of vendors.  (That's right, their vendors decide what goes on the shelf.)  Consequently, I just don’t buy much wine at the grocery store.

But it’s also becoming harder to patronize smaller independents.  (This was also explained in my challenging search for affordable wines this summer.)  As they struggle to grab margins, average bottle prices at most has increased, and value picks have shrunk dramatically.  This was driven home on a recent trip to a place where I’m known by name and have shopped for over a decade.  When I asked for some everyday drinking recommendations, three were offered in response: a $24 rose, a $27 rosso, and a $20 white. 

Maybe I’m a cheap skate, but it felt to me like the store owner and I were speaking different languages.  At a minimum, our ideas of “everyday” price points are far apart, and the experience left me feeling somehow inadequate.

That visit also stands in sharp contrast to two others I had while wandering through large chain retailers in a different state.  Both stores were massive, with dozens of employees scurrying around helping customers.  Shelves were stocked with something for everyone, from all corners of the world, and at every price point; there were many thousands of bottles.  With so many people, they have specialists for just about everything,and they don't get paid on commission, so they’re just as happy to point you towards a good value as anything else.  One of the stores even had a tasting bar with hundreds of bottles of liquor available for try-before-you-buy tasting.  I was giddy.

As much as a champion as I am of small, local businesses, the experiences in these two big-box stores was head and shoulders above anything available in my home market.  It was like shopping on the internet, but better.  Way better.  The things that made for such quality experiences - selection, service, availability, etc. - are almost by definition impossible to achieve without reaching a certain scale. And the absence of pressure and judgement,well, that's just a bonus.

As the new year gets under way, it’s a good time to reflect on habits we’d like to change.  Where I get wine is a relatively inconsequential thing, but one that might yield a little less frustration and a little more discovery.  Besides, there are plenty of other ways to support local businesses.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020


We're all familiar with pecorino cheese, but pecorino wine? Well, it turns out that pecorino is also an Italian grape, once thought to be extinct, but (thankfully) brought back by contemporary farmers who rediscovered after genotyping a vineyard and finding some surviving vines. Quite by happenstance, I enjoyed some with a meal in Bologna earlier this year - it was available by the glass at a casual joint.  And, again by happenstance, I came across a bottle of it on a store shelf in Lexington, Kentucky, of all places.  Definitely a change of pace - and a fun one at that.  I'll be searching for more of this, and you should, too.

2018 Saldini e Pilastri Pecorino Offida $10
Made from organically-grown grapes from the Offida region on the Adriatic, this mouthful of a wine is round and plump like new world chardonnay, but flavored like a bowl full of gorgeous white flowers and minerality. Multi-dimensional and very versatile, this can be enjoyed on its own or with mid-weight fare.  That it's just ten dollars is a marvel and a gift.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Smith-Madrone: What I'm Drinking For New Year's

I've had the pleasure of reviewing several samples from Smith-Madrone over the past few years and they've always brought a smile to my face.  (Read here, here, and here.)  Though my palate has begun to favor wines of greater subtlety and acidic grace, every now and again, a special occasion calls for something, well, special.

Smith-Madrone's wines are far from subtle, but they are made with such precision that the Napa Valley/Spring Mountain heft they bring to the table is all in balance.  These qualities make for a risk-free proposition - everyone around the table will be impressed and pleased.  Specifics on these wines will follow in the new year, but if you're looking for options that combines power and poise, these could be just the ticket.

May your holidays be merry and bright!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The 2 Minute Cork/Christmas Tree Water Level Hack

Fair warning: this has nothing to do with drinking wine unless you decide to drink wine while reading or implementing this handy hack. Which you'll want to if you've ever faced the perennial challenge of determining whether your Christmas tree needs more water or not.

It would be super handy if tree stands had a transparent strip running vertically up the side so you could see how much water is in there. But they don't.  And it turns out Christmas trees drink a lot of water - a LOT (ours is consuming around 1.5 liters a day.) But if you go blindly pouring water into the stand, you run the risk of overflowing the damn thing - a profanity-inducing mistake that you'll only make once, and one that could cause you to just let the fucking thing dry out and shed its needles all over the place.

(Am I projecting too much?)

Anyway, so, how do know how much water is in your tree stand?  This 2 minute fix can be fashioned out of household items and will help you keep your tree healthier and more fragrant.

Supplies List:
  • String
  • Cork
  • Paper clip
  • Knife
  • Tape measure

  1. Stick the end of a tape measure all the way into the bottom of your tree stand to measure the total water-holding depth.
  2. Using a sharp knife, score the cork right around the middle like a belt line. A safe and easy way to do this is to put the cork on a counter, line the knife perpendicular to the cork, the simultaneously apply pressure and roll the cork like a log until you've gone all the way around.
  3. Tie one end of a 24-ish inch length of string around the cork and cinch it into the groove you just cut.
  4. Tie a knot around the elbow in a paper clip 2 inches shorter than the depth you measured in step 1.  (If your tree stand is 8 inches deep, put the paper clip 6 inches from the cork.)
  1. Drop the cork into the tree stand, allowing it to drop only as far as the paper clip hits the rim of the stand.  
  2. Pull it up.  If it's dry, you'd better water.  
  3. Put the cork back into the stand and water using a recycled wine bottle (less spillage, easier control, and less tilt required.) a
  4. Stop watering as soon as you see the cork approaching the rim.
  5. Use the paper clip to hook your string and cork assembly like a weird ornament on your tree.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Most Exciting Wines of 2019

This is definitely not a listing of the best wines I've had this year (whatever best means,) but is a sampling of the wines that stayed with me long past when I drank them.  In case you're looking to compare notes, some are easily available while others next to impossible to find.  What excites me is purely subjective, so your mileage may vary with these, but I'm certain that none of these would disappoint you.  Write-ups on each can be found at the links below.  Cheers!

Buglioni lo Spudorato
No other wine I've had in 2019 has haunted me as much as this has. Made from the same grapes used for Soave, this sparkling wine bears no pedigree, pretentiousness, or hefty price tag. What's exciting about it? It's an after work spumante for everyday drinking, absolutely luminescent and gulpable, and very inexpensive.  Alas, I have not found it anywhere in the US (yet.)  However, many of the winery's other wines - all of which are fantastic, are widely available in the US. Review here.

Russiz Superiore Sauvignon
From the outer reaches of Italy comes this wild surprise.  Laser focused and tantalizingly pure, this is an exciting wine not just for its energy, but because the winery is in an area few people even know exists.  And it's available at the grocery store right down the street from me.  Review here.

Following closely behind the Buglioni lo Spudorato in terms of day dreaming material, this shocker of a gem from the tippy-top of Spain made me weak in the knees. Made by the small Mas Llunes winery in an area better known for reds, this sultry white delivers a shimmering kaleidoscope of flavors and textures.  Every time I taste a delicious wine from either an unknown region or a region better known for growing something else, it reminds me that the shadows is where all the great discoveries await.  And that's exciting.  Unfortunately, this one is also not yet imported into the US. Review and details here. 

Greek wine is becoming more common in better retailers, and why wouldn't it be?  Relatively inexpensive, chock full of bright, sun-filled flavors, and blissfully devoid of oak bludgeoning, the wines of Greece are a playground for experimentation. Anytime I come across a winegrowing area with a better than 50% yum rate I get excited. Review here.

Pra Valpolicella Morandina
I've tried to explain this wine to people, but mostly get blank stares in reply.  Several shades lighter than a pinot noir and just 12.5% ABV, you might expect it to be insipid and watery.  Au contraire, mon frere. This Italian red is among the most exciting wines I've had this year because of its laser focus, brilliant flavors, crackling acidity, soft-voiced honesty, and light weight density. A few sips will have you thinking you can drink the whole bottle. Not cheap, but a smashing value considering the experience - and it's fairly available.  Review here.

Yiron Israeli Red
Good wine is being made in increasingly unexpected places, like Israel.  This Bordeaux blend is just one of the many Israeli wines I've enjoyed this year, but is on this list thanks to its sophistication and profundity. Often times I'll taste a wine from an oddball region and think, "Not bad for a wine from Michigan" (or wherever.) But truly exciting wines, such as this one, require no qualification, and could easily hold its own in the company of California wines twice the price.  Review here.

Paradou Grenache 
This simple, inexpensive French red is noteworthy because, despite recent tariffs, it remains available a under $10. I've reached for a bottle of this wine several times to go with a weeknight meal when I'm looking for an uncomplicated accompaniment.  And each time I do, I'm rewarded by an unexpected treat. That we can still find respectable, well made wine at this price is exciting.  Review here.

Peju's Reds
I was reintroduced to this Napa winery's reds by a PR rep whom I've come to really enjoy. She rolls with it good-naturedly when I tell her a winemaker still has some development ahead of them or when I'm likely to have a hard time swallowing some of her clients' insane price tags, so it's nice for both of us when I have flattering things to say about a Napa Valley winery, as was the case with Peju.  Nothing is inexpensive in Napa, but Peju's wines, which are really fantastic (the cab franc in particular,) are a relative bargain.  Reviews here.

Wait, what? Yes, really, prosecco. While the vast majority of the stuff is as special as a trip to Sears, there are pockets of brilliance in this ocean of sparkling wine. Thankfully, they are easily identifiable, too. The prosecco DOC area is huge, but the smaller subzone of Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, which sits about 50 miles north of Venice, makes a much better product for not a lot more money. And if you're willing to search (and spend) a bit more, the sub-subzone of Cartizze might be of interest.  But if you want a short-cut to experimenting with next level bubbles, just look for any bottle with the word "Valdobbiadene" in the sparkling section of your favorite retailer.  $20 buys a lot in this category.

Other Random Beverages:

Good Red Vermouth
The herbal character of a good red vermouth, combined with a splash of seltzer makes for a refreshing alternative as a pre-dinner palate-cleanser.  I've enjoyed the reactions of guests whom I've served this to.  A well-made vermouth will set you back $25, but last you months in the fridge.

My first introduction to this liquor made from pommace (discardings from the winemaking process such as skins, seeds, and stems) left me with the distinct impression that I had just been subjected to a formaldehyde experiment.  I'm glad I gave it another go, because the unique pleasure of a fine grappa - especially a barrel-aged riserva - is an unbeatable way to cap off an evening.

Most people have nightmares about this Mexican spirit, some of which probably include worms.  And though my first exposure to mezcal came with a warning, like grappa, I learned that there is a whole different ballgame in the añejo (barrel-aged) category.  Expensive, for sure, but the savory/sweet/saline dimensions good tequilas and mezcal añejos can take on are eye-popping.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Unexpectedly Good

I'm working on a year end batch of recommendations, but in the meantime, a little something unexpected. Not exactly what you might think to reach for as winter weather descends upon much of the country, but this sample recently met a corkscrew and drinking enjoyment ensued. 

2018 Terlato Pinot Grigio Friuli Colli Orientali $20
Though on the pricey side for pinot grigio, this is quite good indeed! Clean, well-made, and steely, the clean profile hints at mountain-grown fruit. The acidity is balance by subdued, food-friendly fruit, making for a terrifically-balanced and poised final product. Certainly the best vintage of this wine I have yet to sample.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Recycle Bin, Week of November 18

As the weather turns in much of the country, we're covering some bolder, richer wines to accompany cuisine as it changes with the seasons.  (Note that these are not Thanksiving recommendations - for those see the last post - but winter weather suggestions.) We've got robust chardonnay, luxe cabernet, a couple of legit Israeli wines, among others.  Cheers!

2017 Hess Collection Napa Valley Chardonnay $22
Unexpectedly and blessedly devoid of flab and excess, this clean, well-made chard is rich and round nonetheless. Warming tones of vanilla and oak frame the acidity-outlines fruit core. Plenty of Northern California Chardonnay character here with out any of the baggage. Pretty.

2017 Hess Collection Allomi Cabernet Sauvignon $32
As good as it was to start, it just got better and better. deep purple color wafting with
mocha-cedar aromatics suggest a cashmere sweater awaits. And it does. The open texture of this wine’s fabric allows the big fruit to unfold languorously, though there’s plenty of sturdy oak framing here to keep everything in line. Perfect wine to curl up with in front of the fireplace over the holidays. Mmmmmmm. Very friendly indeed. 

2017 Ferraton Pere & Fils “La Matinière” Crozes-Hermitages $26
Textbook Crozes and absolutely irresistible (especially after 4 hours decanted.) Black olive runs through the savory profile of this clean, youthful Syrah. crunchy deliciousness emerges with air that streams a river of drinking pleasure. Damn!

2018 Silverado Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Miller Ranch Napa Valley$25
Very balanced and enjoyable, with right down the middle fruit framed by proportional acidity. On the citrus side of the spectrum but still showing hints of fresh grass and Grannysmith.  Subdued by modern standards, which isn’t a bad thing as many sauvignon blancs seem to be striving for so much grapefruit they end up astringent.

2018 Silverado Vineyards Sangiovese Rosato Napa Valley $25
An unusual one, showing real sangiovese character in a bright pink, fuzzy sweater.  

2018 Carmel Collection Shiraz Israel $15
Legit. Warm, exotic aromas give way to a supple texture and a broad spectrum of flavors. Faithful to the variety’s character in its darkness, but edged by bright Mediterranean notes and wrapped in a subtle caramel shawl. These contrasts are cohesively integrated into a pleasurable, balanced wine. Good value, too.

2018 Carmel Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Israel $15
Another terrific value from this winery, the cabernet shares a lot in common with its shiraz sibling: true varietal character detailed by Mediterranean influences (fresh herbs and pretty crushed violets), but it also delivers plenty of easy drinking in a blessedly mid-weight package. Unfolds expansively as it breathes. And, as it turns out, quite a crowd pleaser.

Monday, November 18, 2019

A Decade of Thankgiving Advice in 3 Easy Bullets

Eric Asimov's recent piece on Thanksgiving wine selection offers sage words of wisdom for those beginning to fret over what to bring to the table.  A lot of what he has to say sounds familiar, so I went back in time to pluck the most enduring nuggets from ten year's worth of Thanksgiving articles on this blog.

Before we get there, one really great piece of advice Mr. Asimov offers that I hadn't previously considered is to keep it light - in alcohol, that is.  Turkey day is a marathon, not a sprint, so big, heavy-handed wines will just kill your momentum early.  Nap time is part of the tradition, but, please, not in the middle of mealtime!

Adding a low alcohol requirement to your selections (unfortunately) collides with another parameter I have tried to uphold for years: "Thanksgiving is a quintessentially American holiday, so keep your beverages domestic."  Just this past weekend I opened a 100% grenache from northern California.  Boozy and overpowering, its 15.7% ABV is emblematic of what has become the norm for way too many domestic wines.  If you can find flavorful American wines under 13%, then grab them, for sure.  But that is a bit of a unicorn hunt anymore.  I'm undecided on whether to prioritize domesticity or moderacy quite yet, but I've included a few ideas on lighter alcohol wines below.

First, 3 of the best pieces of advice that have appeared here over the past 10 years in order of increasing relevance:
  1. Keep it frugal. That doesn’t mean you should buy cheap stuff, it means don’t spend a lot. 
  2. 'Shock and awe' is a military doctrine.  Unless you want your Thanksgiving guests to feel like Norman Schwarzkopf is carving the bird, tone down the tour de force on bottle selection.  A couple of choices are fun.  More is confusing.  And even more is overwhelming
  3. Don't overthink the beverage choice so that there’s plenty of mind space free to exercise gratitude. The wine will do it’s job as a social lubricant and accompaniment to the meal whether you fawn on it or not. Instead, perhaps consider lavishing a compliment on someone for their qualities rather than their accomplishments.
Okay, now for some ideas on flavorful, lower alcohol wines:
  • Vinho Verde: These two words have become synonymous with cheap Portuguese wines that come in tall, skinny bottles.  But Vinho Verde is actually the name of a region in Portugal where many other wines are made.  You might need to ask around or order some online, but there are some higher end albarino-based whites from the area that might set you back $15 and blow your mind.
  • Pinot Grigio: Say what? Country club luncheon wine?  Like Vinho Verde, it's easy to throw the baby out with the bath water, but there is some gorgeous, energetic PG being made in high altitude vineyards in Italy and France.  Look for Italian bottlings from Sudtirol/Alto Adige, or Alsatian bottlings labeled as pinot gris.
  • Valpolicella: Few wines get me as excited as good Valpo does these days. Made predominately from corvina and more commonly found in Ripasso and Amarone bottlings (which are good, but not for Thanksgiving), the normally-vinted Valopolicellas can deliver extraordinary, saline-laced luminescence in a fleet-footed package. Pra and Mazi are two names to seek out.
  • Bardolino: For all the same reasons as Valpolicella, but Bardolino is even lighter.  If you go to the top of the quality pile you may spend $17 on a bottle you'll find hard not to gulp down like ice water on a hot summer day.
  • Schiava/Vernatsch: Also from the Dolomites area, this light-bodied red can pack a lot of energy and food-friendly acidity into a 12.5% wine that makes me smile from ear to ear.
  • Cru Beaujolais: No, not beajolais nouveau, but bojo from any of the 10 cru subregions are options where the freshness-packed gamay grape achives terrific heights. These wines are sommeliers' faves thanks to their vibrant fruit, quenching acidity, and good value.