Friday, June 17, 2016

Why Did I Feek Like Such Crap This Morning?

A few observations on wine, alcohol, and aging.
The two of us split a bottle of wine last night, so why did I feel like such crap this morning?

Though the process begins at birth and continues throughout life, the last few years of my own aging have manifested in a multitude of ways, some surprisingly pleasant and others less so. Two of those ways relate to wine: taste and how the body processes alcohol. Bitching about getting older is easy fodder for water cooler talk, especially when we feel the cold, hard slap of waning resilience. But that this might be an interesting topic to write about didn't occur to me until I made the connection between the changing contents of our wine cellar and these two aforementioned symptoms.

Five years ago, many, if not most, of the bottles I had put down to age for future special occasions were big, serious reds from Northern California. But on a recent trip downstairs for weekend provisions I only spotted a few left. What dominates now is almost exclusively European, with a strong bias towards Italy. Why this change? Value, certainly, but the rest of the story has more to do with the evolution of aversions rather than wallet-driven intention.

While acknowledging an abundance of ignorance on the complex science of taste, without question my personal preferences have begun a strong gravitational flow from power and heft toward finesse and ease - a journey that applies as much to whites as to reds. Though I still enjoy and respect the winemaking alchemy of a powerhouse vino that manages to keep all its bit in balance, if you strip away density and weight, most average wines are left insipid.  Filling that void is a hankering for artful acidity.

Articulating what that actually means is beyond my skill as a writer. As a proxy, however, I'll offer a few examples which do not require syrupy viscosity to deliver drinking delight:
  • Schiava Vernatsch, a lovely, lilting, and light-bodied red from the Alto Adige region that clocks in at 12.5% and can be had for as little as $12-16. 
  • Macon, the less expensive cousin to Burgundian big boys, is made of chardonnay, and prizes delicate honeysuckle and apricot flavors framed by lacy acids that tickle the tongue. Rarely are these subjected to oak regimens, which not only keeps the bulk in check, but makes them more affordable. You can find many options under $18 in this category. 
  • Finally, Bordeaux. Though we mostly hear murmurs about prodigious reds from chateaux with long histories, there is a vast price spectrum with infinite options coming from this region unified by a shared philosophy to channel place over fruit or winemaking.
With a correction in taste in process, we arrive at the subject of how the body processes alcohol differently as we age.

For the sake of social responsibility, I'll take a moment to state what should be obvious: the cerebral prefrontal cortex does not develop fully until the early to mid 20s. Overindulgence prior to this age has proved to stunt cognitive capacity. Once clear of this developmental stage of life, we reach what we believe to be a never-ending era of invincibility. Then, well, one day we wake up to that hard slap.  Our tolerance drops and we begin to suffer more acutely the effects of booze. That third glass never used to be a problem, but seems to really slow things down the morning after once you hit your mid 40s. Again, my science on this is light, but I imagine it's fairly straightforward: as our stamina diminishes in general, so does our ability to withstand punishing quantities of alcohol.  Quantities that in our thirties we could shrug off like a cold swim.

To complicate matters, this would be an incomplete story without a commentary on the glaring changes wine has gone through in just the last decade. Without question, alcohol levels have risen in step with sugar concentrations, resulting in candy-like beverages. You cannot have a conversation about metabolizing alcohol without recognizing the tremendous role this new world order chemical composition plays in the equation. Though the size of the average bottle remains at the standard 750 mL, what's inside that glass is far more potent and potentially damaging than what our parents generation drank. 

Throw all these variables together and the net result is fairly obvious, as we age we need to take better care of our bodies. Part of that is reducing intake and paying closer attention to what we are drinking. Not exactly glamorous, but neither is feeling like crap in the morning.  And if you happen to still be enjoying your thirties, well, laugh it up while you still can.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Wine Of The Week

2014 Vina Borgia Garnacha Campo de Borja $5-8
No, this is not a soul-stirring, life-affirming experience of a wine. It doesn't even have much in the way of structure or complexity. But whatever it may lack in highbrow qualities it more than makes up for in the value department. This tremendous deal delivers fresh, ripe fruit that is true to the variety. A simple but delicious table wine, this will satisfy many a thirst for a weeknight meal or a mid day nip. What's more is that you can now find this in a 3 liter box for $20. You don't need to be a quant jock to know what that translates to. Stick it in the fridge for 20 minutes before enjoying. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

What To Drink On Memorial Day?

Like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, Memorial Day is a uniquely American holiday.  Parades, back yard BBQs, and family reunions, we tend to think of this long weekend as the beginning of summer.  And sure feels like it across much of the country this year.

So, what to drink on Memorial Day?  It's a question I'm wresting with more than in years past. 

On Friday evening I trudged down to the basement with domestic wines on my mind (drinking
French or Argentine wine just wouldn't feel right.)  But as I surveyed my options, it hit me that what little US-produced wines are down there - a topic for another time - are wholly inappropriate for this weekend.

It's hot and humid in the Midwest. We'll be eating burgers, dogs, chicken, corn, potato salad, and other goodies done on the grill if we're lucky.  That means sweet sauces, condiments, and lots of napkins.  As it does in other seasons, the weather and the menu drive the wine choice.  Which leads to a bit of a challenge when using the criteria of a) only American wines, and b) crowd-pleasing (code for broadly appealing, but also less expensive.)

On the white side, chardonnay is the default, but they're just too rich and cloying for hot weather. Same goes for moscato, not that you'll find any of it in my hand.  So, we're left with the not-too-shabby sauvignon blanc.  Look for Geyser Peak.  At $10, they've remained true to making this wine with crisp, refreshing flavors of Grannysmith apples and fresh-cut grass. Perfect quaffing for garden gatherings.

On the red front, zin, once the go-to drink for BBQ, has become just too overblown.  Cab's too
serious (and expensive), pinot's too syrupy anymore, and many of the new, trendy blends are as overblown and gloppy as zin has become.  For the same reasons you don't want to drink and imperial IPA in the hot sun, you want to avoid these high brix/high ABV wines. What does that leave us?  Two options: syrah and merlot.  Syrah is too tricky to find consistently, so my #1 recommendation is a Columbia Valley merlot.  Snoqualmie makes one for $9 that is plump enough to stand up to grilled fare, and which novices and snobs alike will appreciate.

Whatever you're drinking, perhaps you'll find a moment of remembrance somewhere along the way for the generous men and women for whom this holiday was intended to honor.  Without them, so many of our freedoms would live only in our imagination.  Including the luxury of wine writing.

Happy Memorial Day.  Please have a safe and relaxing weekend.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hourglass: Evolving

Hourglass wines are a familiar sight on these pages.  The 2014/15 wines received for sampling are the fourth vintage I've had the opportunity to taste.  These years trend from austerity in 2011, to muscled restraint in 2012, towards balanced richness in 2013, and finally approachable powerhouses in this lineup of 2014s.  Were you to graph the collectively trajectory of these wines (reds in particular), with vintage on the horizontal; and richness, intensity, and bodacity (is that a word?) on the vertical, the line might outline what Wayne and Garth referred to as a "Shwing!"
There's no parsing what the principal reason (climate, winemaking, other) is behind this, but there's no way it's accidental.  And good for them for deliberately steering the style back to eleven.  Sommeliers and wine nerds, set aside your puritanical tendencies for a minute.  These wines epitomize what put Napa on the map: balls.  And if your delicate sensibilities are offended, well, maybe you need to put your big kid pants on.

Following are some impressions from this batch.  Get out Your platinum cards, kiddos1
2015 Sauvignon Blanc $40
The nose has that throwback, fresh-cut-grass style that Northern California Sauvignon blancs used to be known for, with an added dash of stony minerality. The mouth is soft and round, and about as friendly as you could ask for. Acids are delicate, though present, and whatever alcohol is here is hidden well by easy-tempered, classic flavors. 

2014 Merlot $75
Inky and viscous in the glass, the aromatics practically leap at you from considerable distance. The attack introduces rich, black fruit and a (massive) broad-shouldered structure of equal parts tannic grip and toasted oak backbone (which it needs to balance the heady 15.2% octane.) Very friendly upfront and right along the firm, long finish.  Inviting and approachable from the cork's pull, it improves ever more with time decanted. A Merlot many Cabernets aspire to be. 

2014 Malbec $75
The nose on this soars with high reaching, heady frequencies...a harbinger of what's to come for the palate. Bathwater-like texture spreads the blue-green fruit evenly over the tongue and before you know it, every nook and cranny in your mouth is coated with powder-fine tannins, the echoes of which whisper suggestively for a good ten minutes. As for the fruit, it is medium bodied, but at full-throttle intensity and extraction. An enjoyable malbec that rings true to the variety and which will require substantial fare to be tamed.

2014 HG III $50
Prominent cedar dust aromatics lead into a warm, full palate. Again, as with the other reds in this lineup, this is one very approachable wine for being so young. Affable and versatile, this will work as easily wearing a tuxedo as with jeans.  Very pleasant, if a little simple in the company of these other power houses.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Gentleman Farmer of Wine Importing

John Bee is sitting in a booth at a Popeyes just off an interstate. There's a half caf/decaf on the table and not much else. He's come here to share his experiences as an importer and distributor of Italian wines. More specifically, John specializes (exclusively) in wines of the Piedmont region. The comical contrast between our surroundings and the subject matter of the conversation we had was not apparent, except in retrospect. (That's right, a Popeyes.)

Of medium height and build, his eyes move around, taking in the surroundings as he speaks. Calm and self-assured, he projects an orderly, disciplined aura, but there is an irreverence here, too. You see, John is something of a gentleman farmer of wine importing. What follows is a summary of our enjoyable visit.  If you've ever wondered what it takes to set up and run a wine import business, read on. 

Many people in the wine business can trace their involvement back to an epiphany moment that triggered their passion. For some, it was an incredible bottle. For others, a moment of crystallization while surrounded by vineyards. But, now in his sixties and with a long career in academia behind him, John has come to the wine game much later in life and by a very different on ramp.

With his wife who is of Italian heritage, John made several trips to northwestern Italy over the years. After a while, it became clear that this area was to be their second home. As he got to know the fabric of surrounding villages, it was almost inevitable that wine came in to focus. So, learning about the wines of the area through the people who farm and make them, John decided to make a hobby business out of bringing some of the Piedmont's bounty back to the American Midwest.

While explaining the process of getting an import and distribution business on its feet, John is quick to point out that this is not an economically-driven enterprise, but a luxury - a pursuit that puts him into contact with many terrific people and an abundance of extraordinary vinous discoveries. Without the economic pressures of putting food on the table and kids through college, he has been able to go about this business in a very different way. The results of that not only affords an uncommon retirement lifestyle, but have exposed a flyover country market to a (small) number of unique gems. 

Based outside Akron, Ohio, John is the John Bee & Famiglia Portfolio of Piedmont Wines. An honest-to-goodness one man show, John explains that he handles everything from making sales calls and deliveries to paperwork and unloading container trucks. But being able to do so on his terms takes the edge off what can often be a brutal business to exist in. 

Having heard countless tales of entrepreneurs in the beverage alcohol business mired in regulatory paperwork, one of my first questions was about the licensing barrier to entry. As John explains it, the process was surprisingly simple. The federal port registration for importing requires that the applicant demonstrate a willing supplier; someone who can attest that they will sell a foreign product into the US for distribution by the applicant. Easy enough. Once that is done, the application to become a distributor is state specific and rather straightforward. Neither permit required a great deal of money or effort. The most cumbersome regulatory aspect of the business is label registrations, which, thanks to government warnings and other ATF requirements, can sometimes feel like more work than it's worth.

Once you are authorized to bring wine into a market, you still have to go about finding customers to buy it, among other financial and logistical hurdles. Almost entirely hidden from public view is the very unglamorous tradition of selling wine to restauranteurs and retailers. "The Schlep", as John calls it, requires a lot of travel and waiting to see buyers whose demeanor is often somewhere between apathetic and disrespectful. He's done the math and, for him, this is an acceptable trade-off of having a lifestyle gig.
Shifting from the business towards his portfolio exposes just what a niche market John has created. Focused exclusively on autochthonous (awesome word) varieties from Piedmont, and even more narrowly on estate-bottled, family-run producers who embrace traditional methods, the universe narrows quickly both in terms of suppliers and potential customers.

"The primary purpose of each of these grapes has always been to make wine in the Piedmont.", he says. "My starting point is with grapes that are grown specific to this place....and if I see barriques in a producer's cellar, well, I just say, 'non me interessa'."  These statements are reinforced by the bottlings in his portfolio. Grapes such as nebbiolo, dolcetto, and barbera are synonymous with the region, but other varieties like favorita, cortese, and erbaluce rarely make it out. Together, these make the cornerstones of the list. 

After filtering for place and philosophy, John lets his taste guide him the rest of the way. By virtue of the limited production of many winemakers in Piedmont, those in John's book tend to be overlooked or disregarded by larger importers who need their producers to meet certain quotas. The small size of his suppliers allows for business to be done based on a foundation of trust and friendship, a romantic notion that is still practiced here. 

Asked if he was ever concerned that about risking a purchase based on his palate alone, he quipped that his impressions have been validated by his customers. And if what I've tried of his wines so far is any indication, his approach requires no further refinement.  To wit:

The 2011 Reverdito Nebbiolo "Simane" is a mouthful of elegance and a shocking value at $15. The soft and honest 2012 Gabutti Barbera "Boasso" also overdelivers at a very reasonable $16. As both importer and distributor, John is able to pass efficiencies on to the customer, making high caliber wines much more affordable (by a long shot) than comparable alternatives. What's more is his spotlighting of wines like Carema, Roero, and brachetto make accessible an entire category of wines previously thought of as "can't get that here." 

Be on the lookout for more on wines from his portfolio soon.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Deal Alert

2011 Garofoli Rosso Conero "Piancarda" $8
What??? $7.99 for this mountain-grown 100% Montepulciano? Yes indeed. The prior vintage if this wine has enjoyed plenty of much-deserved praise on these pages in years past. So, when I spotted this priced at $7.99, I figured there had to be something wrong with this vintage. Well, I figured incorrectly. While perhaps not as refined and poised as the 2010, this wine oozes likability. Deep red with an unapologetic density, it unwinds easily on the tongue with an appealing casualness. But it is also pretty in an effortless, devil-may-care way. Soft, round, and lush, it finishes with enough tannic grip to keep its structure intact. And at this price, you'd be a fool not to buy it by the case.  In the Columbus, Ohio market, you'll find it at Anderson's.  But hurry.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Restaurant Wine: No More Bottles

$70 worth of buyer's remorse
There's a $70 bottle of syrah sitting on the kitchen counter that you wouldn't have paid $20 for. It wasn't something a dinner guest brought, and it wasn't a silent auction prize from the PTO fundraiser.

I wish. 

Anniversary dinner out at a swank, hip ritrovo nearby and I figured a splurge on the wine would do the evening right. No stranger to Santa Barbara County Rhone varieties, I figured I was in familiar, safe territory ordering this bottle. But mistakes do happen. The wine was absent any overt flaws, but remained flat, unyielding, and obtuse.  Overall, uninspiring. 

Was it a challenging vintage? Was it properly stored? Did it need four hours to deliver the goods?  These are the excuses I've made five of the last five times I've ordered bottles at restaurants - and which underscore the risks of putting too many eggs in one basket.

Halfway through our first glass we cut bait and ordered what turned out to be smashing glass of Sonoma Coast pinot noir from a very highly-regarded producer.  It was everything the syrah wasn't.  And at $13 a glass for the pinot, I felt like a chump for having spent seventy bones on the bottle we were bringing home in a brown paper bag.

By the glass programs (BTG) have improved dramatically in recent years. Gone are the days of one house red and one house white, either of which might have been poured from a jug or box.  Today, diners can enjoy a wide range of quality choices without having to commit to an entire bottle.  Even more hospitable, many restaurants/bars are more than happy to provide samples of any wine they're pouring by the glass. This significantly reduces the risk of even ordering the wrong glass, let alone a mediocre bottle.

So, while fine dining establishments continue to differentiate themselves for their lengthy (and expensive) wine lists, I've come to look at bottles as a negative punctuation mark on dining out.  But there's no bitterness here, just cause for celebrating low risk options.  Looking ahead, the depth and imagination of a restaurant's BTG program will play a far greater role in determining my choice for where to spend dining out dollars. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Recycle Bin, Weel of April 25

Happy spring time everybody!  It's an all-white Recycle Bin here this week as we head into the heart of porch-drinking season. (Apologies to everyone shoveling snow in the Rockies!) Cheers!

2014 Sterling Chardonnay Central Coast $9
Though reviewed before, a shout out to the little chardonnay that could in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due. This nine dollar (or less) wonder is available pretty much everywhere inexpensive wine is sold. Clean, robust, and universally likeable, it may not exude fitness, but it sure does pack a lot of enjoyment for the dollar. Broadly-appealing, so this is one to stock up on for when the neighbors stop by.

2014 Inama Soave Classico $15
This Soave is not at all dissimilar to others I've had recently: soft, round, and with a delicate creaminess that does not overshadow the middle weight fruit. Flavors prance like a ballerina through the palate in a refreshing ballet. Unlike many other Italian whites, the acidity in this white is so soft and subtle as to be completely unobtrusive.  Close to irresistible.

2014 Shannon Ridge Chardonnay Lake County $10
Textbook California chard with medium-generous fruit with a hint of tropicalia, and corresponding proportions of butter and oak.  If you're into this profile, it's a good value.  Give it up for Lake County!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Recycle Bin, Week of April 4

Hello everybody! Freshly returned from spring break in Italy where, rest assured, much research was conducted. Some unexpected observations follow about wine on that trip, as well as a few incredible value wines that belong on your dinner table, only one of which is Italian.

Before we get to those specific wine recommendations, a few random thoughts about the state of wine in Tuscany and Tuscan wine in the United States:

Whether you have traveled to wine destinations or not, pretty much every wine lover has been subjected to fantastic tales told by people having recently returned from their own wine-centric trips. These tales frequently tell stories of incredibly inexpensive and unique wines they had while abroad and which, lamentably, are not available on these shores. I've been that guy plenty of times before.

But not this time. A lot of the reason why has to do with the fact that I was in Florence, the heart of Chianti and super Tuscan country. There I found local neighborhood wine shops full of very familiar labels. Unscientifically measured, I'd say over 80% of what was available on shelves at retail there is available readily at finer retailers here. Moreover, I'd also guess that the retail prices of these wines were within 20% (possibly less) of what you would expect to pay here.

We could speculate about the causality of availability and pricing, but my overriding conclusion is that we've got it pretty good here. Certainly, the state of affairs in terms of selection, availability, and pricing could always be better, but it's worth pausing for a second and acknowledging that we are pretty darn lucky to live in such a golden age of consumerism.

The other observation I'll share has more to do with wine itself: for many years I have regarded Italian white wine as thin, insipid, and/or aggressively acidic. On this trip, however, I discovered two types of wine which merit further investigation:Soave Classico and Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore.  An example of the latter is in this week's round up of recommended wines. These are full, expressive, beautiful wines that can reflect mind-boggling dimensions.  Uncomplicated by manipulation and oak regimens, they speak the truth and remain relatively quite affordable.  Particularly as we head into porch-drinking season, these are worth seeking out.


2013 Garofoli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore $7
That's right, $6.99.  Bright and zippy, this happy wine has enough structure to hold up against the weight of an antipasti platter or a mid-weight lunch.  But drink it once you open it as it doesn't hold up too well after the first couple of days.

2012 Domaine Tour Boisse Minervois $13
 What a treat this Minervois is. Plenty of Langedoc character (sun-baked black fruit, savory herbs, and bright acidity) with a lip-smacking bonus finish. Clean and well made. Stellar value for the irresistible experience. Case buy.

2013 NXNW Red Blend Columbia Valley $10
If you are at all a fan of Columbia Crest red wine offerings from the Columbia Valley, this is worth your time and money. Solid.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Craft Beer Growth: At Whose Expense?

It's no secret that craft beer is hot, but just when you thought we were sitting on a micro brew bubble, the momentum seems to be picking up pace.  Substantiating this, the Brewers Association released from fresh stats this week that are, frankly, brow-raising.

You don't need to be a market scientist to know that the craft beer segment has enjoyed meteoric expansion in recent years.  Most grocery stores I've walked into have undergone at least some remodeling to accommodate expanded beer selections.  Higher-end beers are now commonplace offerings at restaurants, bars, and even sporting concessions.  Anyone old enough to remember what it was like to be a beer drinker 15 years ago knows that we live in a gilded age.  Selections are expansive to the point of overwhelming saturation.

And why wouldn't they be?  I wrote about how much more compelling a value proposition high-end beer represents than wine a while back, and believe that this remains true.  It's also a leading causal factor in consumers' increasingly beer-centric choices.  So, are these numbers surprising?  Well, yes.  Why?  I'll give you 22 billion reasons why.

According to the Brewers Association, volume was up 13% in 2015, but value was up 16% to $22.3 billion.  Whoa.  I'd like to own stock that delivers those kinds of returns!  What's more is that, as a portion of overall beer sales, craft's market share reached 21%, so for every $4 spent on Budweiser and the like, there's $1 being spent on craft beer.  While that might not sound like a lot, consider the relative infancy of the craft beer movement in contrast to the century-plus history of beer in the US.  It's no wonder there's so much consolidation in this space.

The questions is, as the craft segment grows, whose lunch are the micro breweries eating?  Mass-produced beer?  Wine? Spirits?  Or are there really that many millenial hipsters coming of age all at once? Probably a little bit of all those. What'll be most interesting is to see how/if the wine market wakes up to these impressive trends and what it does about it.  Is it within the realm of possibility that producers will refocus on delivering competitive quality and value in the hopes of retaining customer base?

We'll just have to hope, wait, and see.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Best Wines TYD

As we approach the end of the first quarter of 2016 (time flies!), it's time to take inventory of how the drinking year is shaping up.  If the volume (or lack thereof) of posts here is any indication, not so good.

As lamented in the foreboding 2016: State of Affairs in Wine piece, wine isn't getting any better, it's getting worse.  Especially domestically-produced red in the $12-25 price range. While prices have continued to rise, quality - at least as measured by their overextraction, high alcohol, residual sugar, simplicity, viscosity, overmanipulation, clumsy acidity, gloppy fruit, and an overall dumbing down of character and complexity - has dropped like the price of oil.

But is there any evidence to the contrary three months into the year?  No.  Is there any good news?  Yes.

Also as included in that same piece, there is plenty to celebrate coming from Italy and France.  They just keep cranking out food-friendly wines of substantial character and value as they have for centuries.  The dollar continues to remain strong so US consumers are at least somewhat protected from price increases on European wine

Even better is that many smaller producers' wine from older vintages are still available - many on close outs.  There are also pockets of domestic gems from larger producers who continue to do what they do best.  Below are faves of the year thus far.

2010 Monte Antico Rosso Toscana IGT $11
This sangiovese-dominated blend has for years been a Tuscan workhorse.  At five years old, the 2010 continues to pack a punch far beyond what its price would indicate. Somehow there is still plenty of this out in the market, which I would encourage you to seek out and stockpile. This pleasing red is attractive primarily for three qualities: First, and most importantly, it retains an Italian character replete with firm acidity (owing to the sangiovese) that is both charming and food-friendly. Second, despite being a wine to enjoy with the good meal, it is also versatile enough to enjoy simply with conversation thanks to cabernet and merlot to round out its edges. Finally, its price and availability make it accessible to just about everyone. 

2012 Tavaglini Nebbiolo Costa Della Sesia $14
Normally $20, this baby Barolo epitomizes the marvel of quality old world red. Light in density, but not at all shy in delivering a full spectrum of heady flavors, lip-smacking acidity, and accessible complexity. All of this for under $14! Worthy of a case buy. 
2012 Il Castelucio Sangiovese Toscana $9
This is a straightforward sangiovese made without fanfare, but with a slight nod towards international palates. Lots of bright bing cherry provides the stuffing and classic Tuscan grip frames it all in. Good out of the gate, it improved markedly on day two.   A sizzling bargain at $8.99.
2008 Rocca di Frasinello Maremma Rosso 'Poggio Alla Guardia' $10
Nearing its eighth birthday, I really hesitated to pick this one up as so few wines have the staying power to last this long. But at a sawbuck, it was an easy flyer to take. Sure am glad, too. Simple on opening, it unwinds nicely with a couple of hours in a decanter. Though perhaps slightly past its prime, this red offers lovely layers of flavor delivered in a supple, graceful manner. Big bang for the buck!

2013 Columbia Crest Merlot Columbia Valley $9
Chocolate never tasted so good in wine. Full-bodied, easy drinking friend ready to accompany any bold fare. Simple, but beoadly appealing, well-made, and a sizzling bargain. Bravo to this company that continues to turn out value after value. 

2014 Castle Rock Pinot Noir Willamette Valley $13
It's highly unusual to see a Pinot Noir priced at this low anymore. Even more unusual that it's drinkable, which this is- and then some. Blissfully lacking what has become the typical syrupy nonsense of most entry-level Pinot Noir today, this actually has a bit of structure, restraint, and layered nuance including some smoke and dried citrus rind. Why would I spend more than $20 on a gloppy California alternative when this is so pleasant and inexpensive?

2012 Castle Rock Pinot Noir California Cuvée $9
Even more impressive is the bargain of the year California cuvée. Medium bodied with similar extraction, this wine is simply a joy to drink thanks in no small part two its diminutive price tag. Warm, round cherry fruit is framed by some pleasant acidity and finishes long and creamy. Think California character without the gloppy syrup that is so typical today. When thinking of this in the context of most pinot noir out there )at more than $20), it is mind blowing.  Case buy. At least. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Bulletproof Values: MdA, R

Looking for a class of red wines that outperform its price segment and allows for virtually risk-free experimentation?  Who isn't?

The endless variety of wines available is proof that we live in a Golden Age of consumerism, but every product can't be a winner.  Many are overpriced, mediocre, or just plain bad.  Ironically, the risk of getting a disappointing wine often rises with cost and, therefore, expectation.  Consider how likely it is to get an enjoyable Napa cabernet for $30 - it's a crap shoot.  The same can be said for Brunello, Barolo, Burgundy, and many more of the higher-priced categories.  But head to the store with that same $30 to the shelves of Australia, Southern France, Washington, and other pockets of value, and you're almost guaranteed a superlative experience.

Of course, $30 is an arbitrary amount to illustrate the point.  In reality, it's a highly personalized sliding scale.  Personally, I prefer a target at about half that.  Still, finding those pockets takes work; exploration, experimentation (grueling stuff, indeed.)  So, when you happen on one, it's noteworthy enough to call attention to.

To that end, let me introduce you to Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo Riserva (or MdA, R), the more serious older brother to montepulciano. 
Quick note of not-so-trivial trivia: Montepulciano is both a grape and a city.  Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo is made from the monetpulciano grape from the region of Abruzzo, whereas Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is made from sangiovese grown around the Tuscan town of the same name.
In case you didn't also swig this stuff from $6 magnums in your younger years, Montepulciano d'Abbruzzo is the oft maligned Italian grape most commonly seen in jugs, magnums of cheap Zonin, or haphazardly made sub-$9 bottles.  In fairness, montepulciano has come a long way since those chugalug days. A few have been reviewed here, here, and here.  What's worth sharing, however, involves recent exploration of the Riserva versions of these wines, which must be aged for a minimum of two years before release (six months or more of which need to be in barrel).  There aren't many out there, but so far they're batting a thousand.

These are big wines that carry quite a bit of heft, but exhibit soft, inviting fruit.  Framed with noticeable, but unobtrusive oak and complementary acids that help outline the weight, these bottlings also tend to much more affordable ($15-20) than the aforementioned regions without sacrificing drinking pleasure.  Below are two I happened across recently and which I'll gladly reach for again.  But, much as I advise you to, I'll be grabbing almost any MdA, R I come across.