Monday, September 16, 2019

Ready For This? Vermouth!

The following two sample bottles of vermouth have been sitting in the review queue for months.  My hesitation in bringing them to the front of the line lay in my ignorance of this beverage.  Is it a wine?  Is it an ingredient?  How does one evaluate it without knowing much about it?

Lamenting this indecision, this weekend seemed as good a time as any for some experimentation.  Mixing them with bourbon - the most common use for vermouth here in the US - seemed silly.  With a suggested retail price of $25 apiece, something told me that these would merit a more reverent preparation.  So, first they were chilled and poured naked into glasses.  That first glance was followed by pouring them over ice in tall highball glasses with a seltzer float.

The experience was surprising, highly informative, and very rewarding.  Like it’s brethren, sherry, vermouth shouldn’t be approached as a wine because it’s a different animal altogether. Scratch that - animals (plural) because the red and white couldn't be more different in every respect.  Which made the aforementioned preparations just right to enjoy and learn about these.

To be sure my exuberance wasn't misplaced, I served a Rojo with seltzer over ice as a pre-dinner drink to a skeptical guest.  Two sips in, he was a believer.  At 15% ABV, these are delightful, refreshing, and versatile wine alternatives, but not all vermouths are created equal, so skip the cheap  stuff and look for these.

NV La Copa Vermouth Blanco $25
Dominated by an earthy, toasted hazelnut flavor, and all but devoid of fruit, this 100% palomino vermouth has more in common with fino sherry than any Spanish still wine. Still, it is refreshing and does a remarkable job preparing the palate (and whetting the appetite) for an evening of degustación. Bone dry and a quickly-acquired taste that will make you feel like a cosmopolitan adult. Try over ice with a seltzer float on a hot afternoon. Garnish with an orange slice if you’re feeling randy.

NV La Copa Vermouth Rojo $25
The color of Coca-Cola in the glass is unexpected, but the the surprise turns quickly to infatuation. Mysterious herbal aromas infused around a core of exotic spice conjure images of dark forests and hooded figures gliding silently in and out of fog. Sharing a lot with Italian aperitivos, but a more grown-up and cool weather alternative to Aperol. 75% palomino, 25% Pedro Jimenez, 100% delicious.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Italian White Delight

There aren't too many white wines over $20 I'm inclined to recommend, but every once in a while a wine knocks your socks so clean off, it's worth the splurge.  So, as summer begins its (hopefully) languid slide into retirement, here's one such beauty to enjoy as the long rays of a setting sun filter through tree tops.

2016 Garofoli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOCG Classico Superiore “Podium” $26 (Sample)
Delightful. Channeling pure minerality in a full, round fruit package conjuring springtime white flowers and zest, this brilliant white is beguiling and transportive. Better yet, it serves as a perfect reference point for a class of wines that get little attention here in the US.  Verdicchio itself can be pedestrian and fair, but takes on more complexity when grown in the Castelli di Jesi region on the east coast of Italy, over the mountains from Florence. The Classico Superiore designation is an indicator of ampe-up quality.  But this particular bottling is from a single vineyard and made with both skill and deference.  Invia più presto! 


Friday, August 23, 2019

Now For Some Good News

I've got plenty of snarky things to say about rosé these days, but then along comes this gem - available probably everywhere - and it makes me happy.  Rosé is a lot cheaper (and faster) to make than the red wine the grapes would otherwise be vinted into. And thanks to its popularity, particularly with a less-discerning demographic (it is trending heavily with hipsters and bros), wineries the world over are cranking it out in such a hurry that quality appears to be an afterthought voiced in a giggle. 

The marketplace is so saturated in medicrre rosé, you have to be willing to suffer through a lot of duds before landing a delight.  Here's one of those:

2018 Chateau Ste Michelle Rosé Columbia Valley $10
The label says that it's crisp, dry, and elegant.  I agree, though it's probably more crowd-pleasing than elegant.  Nevertheless, it's also lip-smacking delish and has - wait for it - character.  All this for $10?  And I grabbed it at the grocery store?!  It's a find, alright.  This is just the second vintage for CSM making this wine, which is made mostly from syrah with around a quarter merlot.  Wow.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Affordable Wine: It Shouldn't Be This Hard

This past weekend I set out to pick up a mixed case of inexpensive wine. My target price range was $10-13, and my objective was to have some bottles around to enjoy with weeknight meals.  Nothing extravagant, just a handful each of summer-friendly reds and whites. But I failed. Miserably. Five bottles with an average price of $14 made it home with me - after going to three (!) reputable, independent wine shops.

It shouldn't be this hard. So, why is it? And will it get better?

Wine Is Expensive
Has wine become so expensive now that drinkable $10-12 wines are the unicorns of the industry? One funny, if cynical, reference to this phenom is the phrase, "$16 is the new $10."  Certainly wine pricing continues to outpace all reasonable indices, but there is ample evidence that the world (the Old World in particular) continues to churn out delightful, affordable wines. In other words, tasty, value-priced wines still exist, but there are fewer of them. Finding them requires more effort.

Grocery Stores
It's hard to beat the convenience of picking up a bottle while you're shopping for dinner. And with margins on alcohol way, way higher than regular groceries, it's no surprise that large grocers are devoting ever-increasing square footage to their beer and wine selections. But while this expansion results in more bottles on the shelf, it doesn't exactly result in a greater diversity of choices. The bean counters at grocery chains have mandates to reduce the number of suppliers each store buys from and centralized decision-making on what stores will offer is also common. These factors net out to thousands of bottles that fall into maybe a total of eight or nine flavor profiles. Heck, I bet that more than 50% of all domestic reds - regardless of variety - at most grocery stores would be indistinguishable in blind tasting.

Independent retailers, on the other hand, differentiate themselves by selling more unique offerings.  But if you're not moving a ton of volume, you'd better be moving a ton of margin. That's just what's required to survive in the retail game anymore. And independent retailers are subject to a variety of practical vagaries that inhibit moving any serious level of volume, such as location, parking, space, loading docks, cost of inventory, labor, etc. So, it's no surprise that the bargain bins have been shrinking.

Sure enough, that "$16 is the new $10" joke was on full display at one shop where $16 was the ground floor on their selection of rosés. Rosés! Ha! I suppose the theory is that, if the selection of $16 and under wines is slim, customers will just upgrade. Double ha!

Anyway, this explains why I could only come up with five bottles from three different stores, and I still wasn't able to stick to my price range. I'm not blaming independents for this, but it does offer a sign post to where things are heading.

Independent retailers just can't make ends meet by selling affordable wines, no matter how delicious they are. And grocery chains wouldn't know a delightful wine if it bit them in the ass. Online retailers, on the other hand (at least collectively), offer a seemingly endless range of wines at a variety of price points with the convenience of online shopping. In the wake of the Supreme Court's Tennessee ruling, retailers are also getting more bold in shipping into other states, making access even easier for consumers.

Beer, Cocktails, Cannabis & Other Factors
Particularly as the focal point of wine consumer demographics shifts from boomers towards millennials, the idea that wine is a precious and irreplaceable product is as laughable as the theory that drinkers will just pay more to access decent quality wine. Think about how ridiculous that sounds, yet premiumization in the wine market presumes just that.

Back in the real world, though, consumers are increasingly looking at beer, spirits, and, yes, cannabis (market sectors which are all enjoying good/explosive growth) as alternatives to wine (sales of which are basically flat.)

So, where does that leave us? With market factors that favor online retailers and increasing competition from alternative products. Yet wine prices continue to climb and deliver lower and lower value. These conditions do not suggest that the wine industry is poised to attract more consumers or begin to grow sales again.

I'm probably wrong more often than I'm right, so who knows? Then again, just in the last 12 months drinks giant Constellation sold off 30 of its wine brands to Gallo and invested $4 billion in a Canadian cannabis behemoth. What does that tell you?

Bringing It All Home
The bottom line is that it's becoming harder to be enjoy authentic wines at affordable prices - and even more difficult to do so while supporting local independently-owned businesses. Bringing the good stuff home is likely going to require sourcing more affordable wines from online sources, something that would have seemed oxymoronic just a few years ago. As for your local independent wine shop? Keep on supporting them if you can. They are quickly becoming an endangered species.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Recycle Bin, Week of July 29

The Recycle Bin this week is a hodge podge of random wines, some of which have been backlogged in the samples pile, and others that I've sought out in search of discovery.  But in most cases, these are all wines I'd safely place in the summer-friendly category.  Enjoy.

2018 Rombauer Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $24
Neither as intense or bombastic as in previous vintages, but still with plenty of lively zip, this sauvignon blanc tones down the Northern California characteristics of fresh cut grass and Grannysmith apple in favor of tart, flinty, citrus-driven energy. Refreshing and exuberant.

2017 Artezin Zinfandel Old Vine Mendocino County $16
Super bright, red floral bouquet framing a core of warmer, deeper fruit scents and tickles of toasted oak. Awfully supple texture and a labyrinth of high frequency spice flavors that dance around a charged, mid-weight body. Varietally correct with loads of black pepper and a bit of heat on the finish..

2017 Marshall Davis Chardonnay Yamhill-Carlton $39
Palest straw hue in the glass, but any thought that its color is an indication of timidity is corrected as soon as the aromatics hit you. Full, round, plump fruit notes float out of the glass and the sensations carry through verbatim in the mouth. Full throttle, Athena-class, tropical Chardonnay unfolds its largesse unapologetically and winds it’s tentacles around your attention. Big, but well appointed and well made. Very limited production.

2016 Bibi Graetz Bianco Toscana 'Casamatta' $15  
Brilliant and clean. Minerals lined with salinity and acids frame crisp vermentino fruit to result in an exceedingly refreshing and joyful drink.  Yum.   

2017 Pra Valoplicella 'Morandina' $22  
I could drink this stuff all day, and at a modest 12.5%, you sort of could. A few shades darker than a rose and not much more dense, this light-bodied red is bountiful with gorgeous fresh flowers and herbs.  It's a step up in cost from the typical Valpolicella, but you absolutely get what you pay for. Hard not to gulp it down like a crazy person.   

2016 Louis Latour Domaine de Valmoissine Pinot Noir $15   
A new vintage from an old favorite continues its streak of over delivering pinot noir joy at a great price. Grown more than 400km from Burgundy (that's why it doesn't cost four times as much), this domain is in the mountains between Marseille and Nice way in the south of France, lending this a bit more heft without being clumsy. Though not terribly sophisticated, it's got a fantastic one-two punch: classy lines and a friendly price tag.   

2016 Domaine des Nugues Beaujolais Villages $14  
Oh, gamay, you silky, so-easy-to-drink temptress! Bing cherry shining from within completes this joyous wine. Time to revisit Beaujolais Village soon.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Valuables from Valdeorras

Would I be interested in receiving samples from Spain?

This is how an email exchange started a couple of months back.  Such an inquiry is very common, though you can substitute almost any region, producer, or variety for Spain and you've got the formula.  But Spain, oh, Spain...we were once compatriotas, but then, then Spain became simultaneously infatuated with Parker's penchant for massiveness and, perhaps not coincidentally, American oak. It's been a turbulent relationship since.

Whereas my normal response to the above inquiry would be, "Sure!", I groaned inwardly and reluctantly accepted.  Alas, keeping an open mind is essential to making discoveries - and here is an example of why that approach yields results.

The Valdeorras subregion of Galicia is way out there.  Geographically, it's north of northeastern Portugal, and west of northwestern Spain. In many respects, it’s the middle of nowhere - maybe so remote that it remained outside Parker's sphere of influence.  But in terms of winemaking credibility, this could be Main St. The two samples that arrived were 100% varietal bottlings, one godello and the other mencia.  Neither of these wines present with swagger, nor do they have any need for it, because when you’re this attractive naturally, there aren't any insecurities to require heavy-handedness.

I'll readily admit to falling hard for the godello, and recommend you surrender yourself to do the same.  It's a white that offers as much or more sophistication as any red, yet won't clobber you, either.

2017 Pagos de Galir Godello Valdeorras $17
Platinum blonde. Clean nose offering gentle white flower blossoms giving way to a poised, elegant main attraction. The fruit, while somewhat reserved, reveals itself through a brilliant texture and in ever-intriguing chapters. Sophisticated and lovely, yet without anything to prove. A haunting wine thanks to its quiet beauty and soft-spoken confidence.  More. Soon. Please.

2016 Pagos de Galir Mencia Valdeorras $17
Rustic, but clean and honest. And like it’s sister (above), the suppleness if its mouthfeel strips away any obstacles to accessing this wine’s authenticity. Lovely balance of dusty fruit and cellar spice, followed by a food-loving acidity that nearly crackles. Very good without being showy.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Never Been On A Podcast Before

Jeff Siegel, aka the Wine Curmudegon, has, for longer than I can remember, written a nearly-daily blog on a breadth of wine matters. If you're looking for unvarnished takes on everything from wine reviews to the regulatory state of affairs to the impact of cannabis legalization, you'll be hard pressed to find a more pro-consumer writer than Jeff.  

Against all better judgement, he had me on for a quick spin of topics last week, including premiumization, rose, Ohio alcohol regulations, and other things we pretend to know something about.  It's around 10 minutes long and his link/intro (and photo from back when I had a full head of hair) can be found here.


Monday, July 15, 2019

The Most Compelling Wine From A Region You've Never Heard Of

And the red's not bad, either...

Tucked way (waaaay) up in the northeast corner of Italy is a little-known winegrowing region called Collio. I'd never heard of the region, let alone Marco Fellunga's estate of Russiz Superiore, which is so far east and north, the Slovenian border is less than a mile away.  So, when samples from this family-run winery showed up, I was intrigued to sit down, investigate, and learn. And this is my kind of education...

Neither of these wines exactly exudes Italian character, nor do they suffer as a result. Instead, they express a lovely purity that feels like an honest reflection of place rather than style.  And as terrific as these wines are, you have to wonder what rewards await those who explore this area's wines, as well as those from just down the road in Slovenia's Brda region.  These wines are imported by Dalla Terra.

2018 Russiz Superiore Collio Sauvignon $29
Beautiful. Crystalline and electric, with beguiling aromatics and mineral-infused energy. Nose and palate show off a graphite edge that adds to the character and complexity in an alluring manner. This is a very fine wine. Wine nerds will go bonkers for how it channels the earth, and all drinkers will appreciate its quality. Among the most compelling and exciting whites I’ve had in a year or more.

2016 Russiz Superiore Collio Cabernet Franc $29
Dark and serious looking in the glass with long legs and an inky ruby color. The nose is bright and expressive and fresh, with subtle smoke, suggesting something more casual than what lies ahead. That thin thread of smoke complexity carries through to the palate where sophisticated elegance reigns supreme. This wine, though I was not sure what to expect, is a surprise. It does not carry with it the telltale Italian acidity, but the lean character that often accompanies mountain fruit. It’s joy is delivered in a quieter voice rather than a blaring trumpet. Seductive if you want it to be, but approachable regardless.  Would love to meet this wine again after five years of aging.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Boring But Important, The End Of The Beginning

Patience Should Be Practiced Alongside Celebration

A few months ago I penned a couple of pieces (here and here) about Tennessee v Blair, more formally known as Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Russell F. Thomas (formerly v. Zackary Blair.) This was a case that was then being heard before the Supreme Court and which I predicted would uphold the status quo. I was wrong, and that could be good news for consumers who like to shop for wine at stores in other states.

Late June is when most rulings come from the bench and last week was no different. While
gerrymandering and census questions dominated the airwaves, the Court also handed down a decisive 7-2 ruling in the case, striking down  Tennessee’s arcane (and brazenly protectionist) requirement that applicants for alcohol retail licenses be residents of the state for a minimum of 2 years. In other words, out-of-towners are not welcome to set up shop here - locals only.

This is a relevant ruling because, at its core is the rub between the Constitution’s commerce clause and a state law that discriminates against out of state businesses which, by the way, is far from unique in the US.  Though this ruling is great news for Total Wine, who will almost certainly rush to expand into Tennessee, its implications for other states are just that: implications.

What wine-loving proponents of this decision hope is that this ruling will help bust through the many state laws (including here in Ohio) that prohibit out-of-state retailers from shipping to consumers in-state. There are two ways for these decades-old laws to be dismantled: through the passage of new legislation and/or through attacking the laws in court. However, patience should be practiced along side celebration. 

It is highly unlikely that state legislators will take the initiative, particularly considering that these laws have benefited the constituents of what is often the most generous campaign contribution and lobbying force in each state: the Wine & Beer Wholesalers Association. And though there are likely to be plenty of parties with standing to challenge local laws on Constitutional grounds, such fights require deep pockets and tremendous upside to whomever is picking up the tab.

Moreover, and as recalled in the Spectator article linked to below, we have a contemporary example of the high court issuing a wine-centric ruling that didn’t have a watershed impact: Granholm v Heald, “...which prohibits state wine-shipping laws from discriminating between in-state and out-of-state wineries.”

Though things have certainly improved in the intervening 14 years since Granholm was decided, you’d be hard-pressed to describe the current patchwork quilt of state regulations as fluid or open.  In other words, there’s case law, and there’s state law, and there’s how things work in the real world. Aligning those three can’t happen overnight, and won’t happen without some kicking and screaming and dragging of feet. Only a fool would underestimate the influence of the Wine & Beer Wholesalers Associations. This brief Wine Spectator article does a pretty good job of summarizing the salient points, including the opinions of the Justices who voted in favor of striking it down, and those dissenting.

In the meantime, pop some popcorn with your champagne and watch the slowly unfolding march towards liberated wine commerce.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Consistency Counts: Wente Chardonnay

I have been reviewing - and drinking - Wente's chardonnays for well over a decade now.  For a good stretch there, their Morning Fog bottling was our house white, and for years this family-run brand has been a reliable nameplate for what much of the country has come to know as California chardonnay.  Though my aging palate has me leaning towards whites that speak in more hushed tones these days, I cannot help but be impressed by the ridiculous consistency of Wente's wines.

Few consumers know that 80% of all chardonnay planted in California is the 'Wente Clone'.  Ernest Wente began growing chardonnay from grapevine cuttings imported from France back in the 1880's.  Five generations later, Karl Wente continues the family tradition in making quintessential California chardonnay. Whether the Cali chard style is your bag or not, you know exactly what you’re getting when you reach for one of their bottles.  Also of note are the oak-free Eric's and the mind-bending Nth Degree bottlings, which are both expensive and worth it.

Prices below are SRP, so don't be surprised if you find these in your local market for (possibly a lot) less.

2017 Wente Vineyards Chardonnay Livermore Valley 'Morning Fog' $17
A clean nose leading into big, toasty, vanilla-coated butter blanket around gregarious tropical fruit. Nothing more, nothing less, just dependable. This one has been our house Chardonnay on and off for years and will appeal to consumers with a hankering for Texas-sized chards.

2017 Wente Vineyards Chardonnay Livermore Valley 'Riva Ranch' $22
Same DNA as the Morning Fog bottling, but with a surprisingly restrained core (in a good way, lest it would have become a caricature of exaggeration) surrounded by more of everything. Fuller, rounder, butterier, bigger, more elegant...just more all around.

2018 Wente Vineyards Unoaked Chardonnay Livermore Valley 'Eric's' $30
Somewhere between platinum blonde and straw colored, this wine is very clean and energetic on the nose. But the first sip will have your attention, asking if this really is from California. Clean as a whistle, focused, and with a decidedly European acidity, this is a striking departure from what we have all become conditioned to expect from California chardonnay. Tart green apple runs into brilliant citrus before purity lingers beyond the finish. Wow. What a surprise.

2017 Nth Degree Chardonnay Livermore Valley $70
Borderline magical. Concentrated yellow luminescence in the glass offers a glimpse into what awaits. The palate is expansive with a kaleidoscope of high notes, including fine-grained oak over chardonnay fruit that is at once voluptuous and quiet. An exercise in juxtapositions that will appeal to connoisseurs’ love of complexity while being just a damn pleasure to drink. Bravo!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Summertime PSA

This is your summertime public service announcement. 

Sparkling wine - in all its forms - is terrifically overlooked and under-applied in the US.  Our knowledge of wine and, more importantly, collective mood would be greatly enhanced if we experimented just a little more with the bubbly stuff.

Actually, this public service isn't limited to summertime at all.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Recycle Bin, Week of May 17

It's been a while since we've had a Recycle Bin posting.  This will be short and sweet - 3 reds, all good bang for the buck, and tasty as all get out, particularly with grilled food.  Enjoy!

2017 Domaine Brunet Pinot Noir France $10
Simple, but in an honest, appealing way.  Actually tastes like pinot noir - bright dried cherries, low alcohol, and versatile acidity.  Yum. Oh, and ten bucks!

2016 Chateau Maris La Touge Syrah $13.50
Big, fresh, juicy, and with a lip-smacking backbone of acids that make you come back for more - in a hurry.  Delicious and irresistible.

2016 Altesino Rosso Toscana $14.50
From the venerable Brunello house comes this affordable blend of true Tuscan flavors with some extraction and depth without getting too bogged down in weight.  Anything from pasta to steak will benefit from this as an accompaniment.