Saturday, March 28, 2020

Farther Apart, Closer Together

Credit to Carrie Reed at Freehand PR for the tip on this feel-good silver lining.  Rombauer Vineyards in Napa Valley is, well, I'll skip the background because you'll want to just get right to the good stuff.

Go here to read their open letter, titled 'Joy Prevails'.  Then keep scrolling down to watch the three very brief videos, each sweeter than the next.

We can do this, people.  Yes we can.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

A Silly Wine For Serious Times

Some wines command respect for their elegance or craft or balance, like the way an evocative work of art affects you.  They are serious wines, either by tone or by quality.   At the far opposite end of the seriousness spectrum are cheap thrill wines; flashy wines that deliver gregarious characteristics that, when concentrated, impart a caricature-like silliness.  They are also a ton of fun to drink. 

I used to refer to this category of wines as mopeds because deep down you really want to take onbe for a ride - just as long as no one is watching.  In a universe of virtually unlimited, more serious options, indulging in cheap thrills feels like, well, indulging in cheap thrills.  And if ever there was a moment, this is it.

NV A to Z Bubbles Oregon $16/$20
The silliness of drinking a wine like this at a time like now is inescapable. And therein lies it’s equally inescapable pleasure. From the whimsical, over-the-top packaging to its riotous, straight-out-of-a-focus-group color, into its fruit-powered palate, and in every one of its oversized bubbles, this is an unapologetically boisterous and fun wine. Don’t look for sophisticated layers of dimension framed by crunchy acidity. Instead, just surrender to the near absurdity of this wine's obviousness and you’ll find you can’t help but smile. Available in a clear 750ml bottle ($16) capped with a crown closure or in cute 250ml cans ($20).

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

What To Eat and Drink While Quarantined

There's no value in adding to the anxiety by stating the obvious about this moment we're living through.  Instead, a few suggestions on what to pair with your (hopefully) self-imposed isolation.

Before we get to the wines, the following simple measures have helped brighten these last, sometimes dreary days of winter:
  • Lemons: Put a bag or two of lemons in your grocery cart and use them for a jolt to your morning glass of water, the backbone of an herbed salad dressing, and a shower of sunshine squeezed liberally over your dinner.  The fresh juice will invigorate your senses and help lift your spirits.  And don't overlook the value of lemon zest as an ingredient to add some zip to your dishes.
  • Herbs: Buy a bunch each of fresh dill and mint, and use the same way you use the lemons.  Dill and mint in particular deliver a special kind of energy that'll tell your soul that spring is right around the corner.  They also make terrific companions to fresh lemon juice and liven up just about any course.  Pro tip: I can get a bunch of dill to stay fresh for a month in the fridge by washing and drying it while still bound, standing it up in a jar of water, and putting a plastic bag (zip lock or something of that size) over the whole thing like fitting a loose sock over a foot.
  • Red pepper flakes: These are typically in the domain of racy sauces, but used in moderation, they can add an eye-opening pop without burning you up.  Note: when adding to anything liquid, a little goes a long way.  Start slow and inch up.
  • Cherry tomatoes: Requiring nothing more than a quick rinse as preparation, toss a handful into whatever you're baking, and you'll have tiny bombs of joyous flavor on your plate at mealtime.  Fifteen minutes in the oven with whatever you're already cooking should soften them without bursting them open.
  • Kale crunch: Combining kale with multi-veggie slaws make for crunchy, versatile salads that force your jaw muscles back to life (a departure after winter's softer food textures) and make your digestive system happy.  My favorite cheat is to combine Trader Joe's crociferous salad mix with a bag of their broccoli/carrot slaw and dress with an Asian vinaigrette. 

Okay, so on to the wines.  These are all affordable and should be pretty easy to find from your favorite online retailer (my dominant mode of purchasing these days.)  More importantly, however, is that the common thread of these wines is that they all have terrific energy you can really taste.  If that doesn't put a smile on your face, then we'll have to check you for a pulse!

Okay, from left to right in the picture below...

2017 Montresor Bardolino Le Banche di San Lorenzo $15
This wine is so light in body and texture, it's like diving into a warm swimming pool.  But it's full of flavors that sparkle like sunlight refracted on the bottom of the pool.  At 12-ish% acohol, the sensation of drinking this wine is vastly different - and a very pleasant contrast - from rich winter reds.  Pretty sure this is a direct import from Total Wine & More, so if you can order from one nearby, that's your best bet on finding it.

2017 Ferrari Carano Fume Blanc Sonoma County $14
Tastes like really honest California sauvignon blanc that picked up some character from oak ageing.  And that's exactly what this is.  The time in barrel did nothing to suppress the wine's brilliant energy.  It's crisp with a tense grip without being serious.  Yum.

2016 Fattoria Rodano Chianti Classico $18
Recommended recently by Eric Asimov of the New York Times, the purity of this wine is extraordinary.  It's everything a Chiatni should be: expressive, fleet-footed, loaded with crunchy acidity, and as Italian as any wine could be.  Fanastic.

2016 Santi Valpolicella Ventale $12
This wine's older, bigger brother (the Solane ripasso) got some favorable press this past year, so I thought I'd give it a try.  As long as I was putting it in my shopping cart, I grabbed a bottle of this wine, it's younger, less-expensive sibling.  Now that I've had both, I think the wrong one got the press.  This valpolicella is more refined than almost any other $12 bottle I've had in years, and brims with vigorous energy without being overly tannic or boastful.  I'm odering more now from Marketview Liquor.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Australian Refinement

As health crisis fears grip the globe, it's easy to forget that many Australians are still picking up the pieces of their lives in the wake of the catastrophic fires that scorched untold acres and stunned the world.  Perhaps you're inclined to lend a helping hand through the Australian Red Cross?  Whether you are or not, another way to support those affected is by buying more of their products (which, by the way, haven't been impacted by import tariffs.)  The wine below, which is the most refined vintage I've had of this bottling, is a terrific illustration that syrah in Australia isn't limited to brutish, monolithic syrups.

2018 Two Hands Shiraz 'Angel's Share' $33
Surprisingly elegant. Though not lacking in density or muscle, there’s no flab or shouting happening in this poised wine. Purebred structure and refined fruit delivered with extraordinary balance.  Savory notes channel a cooler climate vibe, but the core is faithfully Oz. If you’re expecting an overheated/extracted raisin monster, you're going to be in for a pleasant surprise with this one. Quite delicious.

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.