24 January 2015

2012 Scotto Family Cellars Malbec

This is my third review of a wine from the Scotto winemaking family of Lodi. First I tried the 2011 50 Harvests Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by the 2012 50 Harvests Meritage. Though it was also fun to try the younger generation's hard cider (and one of those guys, Paul Scotto, made this wine). This is also a continuation of my exploration of the wines of Lodi. While I'd obviously enjoyed Lodi juice for years (whether I knew it or not), my perspective changed a lot after my visit to the region last April. There are so many interesting things going on there right now, and it's amazing to watch as Lodi makes a push for national recognition and achieving the true potential of their historic vineyards.

This particular bottle is of a specific category that always makes me do a double take, or check the label carefully: California Malbec. Granted, the grape was widely used for table wine production in pre-Prohibition days, but modern domestic production didn't really start ramping up until Argentina made the grape popular in the 1990s. It's still not something you see a lot of despite the more traditional use of Malbec for blending Meritage.

Much has been said about the trendiness of Malbec, but hipsters have a unique opportunity to carve out a niche when perusing the wine list. "Sorry, but do you have any... California Malbec in the cellar?"

2012 Scotto Family Cellars Malbec
Lodi, California
97% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Franc
$15, 13% abv.

Part of the reason for the current popularity of Malbec is that it's a fairly easygoing, fruit-forward wine that also happens to be generally quite affordable. Your $15 Malbec from anywhere is probably going to have a better quality-price ratio than a $15 Pinot Noir. This bottle shows aromas of dark berries with a touch of chocolate. On the palate it is smooth with a little bit of a tart finish. Though fruity, it does not veer into sweetness and instead has a rather interesting aftertaste of plum and a hint of earth.

A Malbec like this will pair with a wide range of foods, but since I'm currently sitting here in below freezing weather with sleet pinging against the windows, I think it would be great with a nice heap of BBQ brisket. Some may think that I'm violating my Memphis heritage by wanting to eat what Texans consider BBQ, but the reality of the situation is that most places around here do a pretty good brisket in addition to our region's more well-known pork ribs and shoulders. Memphis beef brisket: a curiosity to pair with California Malbec.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review.

21 January 2015



There's a little button on my Blogger dashboard that lets you start a new blog, which I'm not doing. Way on the right side is a more useful button called "View Blog" that lets me check and see if the website has been hacked by North Korea or vengeful Ruritanian winemakers. I'm always a little wary of that new blog button and how easy it is to access. One click in 2005, and now I'm looking back on ten years and 1,488 posts. (I would have rounded up to 1,500, but Fredric Koeppel just hit that milestone for real today.)

Ten years.

Most blogs don't make it past a couple of posts, let alone a couple of years. And in fact, I've just performed my annual pruning of the links to other sites on the righthand column. Lots of great people, lots of great posts, but if they haven't written for a few months, I generally assume that they're not coming back. That's not a critique: few people have a vocation for this crazy pursuit, and there's no need for anyone to just go through the motions in order to put words online. At the same time, I want to direct my readers to a curated list of friends and colleagues who will provide a wealth of other perspectives on the world of wine and food.

I've discussed the BWR origin story many times in the past, but there were never any real goals for this site back at the start. Around about the five year mark I started thinking that it would be a real accomplishment to hit ten years. Now that it's finally here, I'm proud, but it's not just about the passage of time. There was a lot of hard work along the way, which is something that I don't think a lot of people realize. I hear this a lot: "It must be awesome just to sit around and drink wine in the evening!"

For every bottle reviewed here, I have communication with a publicist, a shipment that I might have to pick up somewhere later because I wasn't home to sign for it, voluminous packaging that I have to get rid of, excess wine that needs a home (usually the kitchen sink), and then the actual writing, photographing, publishing, and additional communication and social media engagement with the companies involved, followed by potential years of e-mails from readers asking, "Can you tell me which shops in Delaware sell this wine? Or can you just sell me a few bottles?" For the record, I've never worked in wine retail and I don't sell samples, which would be highly unethical as well as impractical. Nor do I get full cases of the same bottle as some folks think.

Has it been worth it? Absolutely.

Don't take the above as griping. Hard work and maintaining a good reputation have resulted in a lot of great opportunities for travel, meeting wonderful people, enjoying great meals, and increasingly, getting paid to write about food and wine for other publications. And there are so many future opportunities on the horizon. I don't see myself ever becoming a full time writer (the world is a different place today), but it's a nice sideline that engages a lot of skills that I don't always get to employ in the day job.

While paid writing gigs and social media command somewhat more of my attention these days, this blog isn't going anywhere and will always be the the central repository for reviews, news, and links to whatever I'm doing. Plus all of the other stuff that doesn't quite fit anywhere else, because I still love having full editorial control over my own piece of the web. The wines I get to sample thanks to the history of this site may end up featured here or on any one of a dozen sites I work for with lots more traffic and visibility.

As I've always stated, the real joy of this blog is the fact that people actually read it, and I thank every single one of you, even if you just click a little "like" on Facebook, retweet a link on Twitter, or comment on a bottle I've posted on Instagram. 2015 is starting out great and I'm excited to see where the second decade takes me!

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Doing any sort of look back with links would be a massive undertaking, so it's easier to link to prior efforts at chronicling my annual highlights. Starting in 2008, each year I've written an anniversary post and/or a retrospective look back at the previous year. The dates here refer to the year in review, not the year of publication (generally in January of the following calendar year):


18 January 2015

2012 Avalon Cabernet Sauvignon with Nomacorc Select Bio Enclosure

It's very unusual that a wine sample shows up with packaging that talks about the cork (much less an extra, un-stoppered cork for comparison). This Cabernet Sauvignon from Avalon is the first bottling in the United States to use the Nomacorc Select Bio synthetic cork.

(Disclaimer: On the side, I write for the Nomacorc Blog, but this post is not sponsored by them.)

Last February I got to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes work on the development of Select Bio, from how it is manufactured from sugar cane to the end result: a recyclable polymer product that has a zero carbon footprint.

As I've discussed on previous posts, the Nomacorc technology is developed around specific rates of oxygen transfer for the proper development of a specific wine, along with the elimination of the threat of TCA contamination (a "corked" wine). The Select Bio line moves even further with the added environmental benefits, which are becoming more and more important to consumers in the American and global marketplace.

Avalon is one of the marques of the Purple Wine Company, whose products I've reviewed once or twice. This move to the use of Select Bio fits in with their Green Initiative.

2012 Avalon "CAB" Cabernet Sauvignon
76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Syrah, 7% Zinfandel and 4% Merlot
$12, 13.8% abv.

The wine opens up quickly with rich aromas of plum and strawberry, the latter being a little surprising for the grape blend. On the palate it shows mild tannins, big fruit, and a gentle finish. It's easily drinkable and I paired it with a savory roast beef sandwich. At the price it's a good bargain, and definitely a wine that is ready to drink now. Plus, the use of such a precisely engineered synthetic cork is going to eliminate a lot of the bottle variation that you can encounter from case to case. Enjoy this one with burgers or pizza in the middle of the week, and take a moment to appreciate the science that went into the enclosure.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review.

13 January 2015

Phifer Pavitt Wines

Over the holidays I tried two bottles of Phifer Pavitt Wine, made by the husband-wife team of Suzanne Phifer Pavitt and Shane Pavitt. Small production in Napa? You don't have to twist my arm.

I was enchanted by the labels with the image of a 1940s-1950s cowgirl. The woman formerly known as The Roommate had a lot of vintage cowgirl images around the place, though she could back it up with firing an impressive array of weaponry and wrangling horses as well. Nice little reminder during the nostalgic days of winter.

2012 Phifer Pavitt Date Night Sauvignon Blanc
Napa Valley, California
588 Cases Produced
$30, 14.5% abv.

Surprising touch of sweetness with overripe peach aromas and flavors. Big acidity. It is a bold and brassy Sauvignon Blanc that needs a rich roasted chicken or game bird dish for balance.

2011 Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley, California
875 Cases Produced
$80, 14.5% abv.

Firm nose but gentle mouthfeel. Dark cassis, coffee, leather, a little touch of herbal complexity underneath. Elegant and deserving of a bit of decanting at this young age. Should be enjoyed with the rarest slice out of an eight pound ribeye roast and a side of herbed new potatoes. Highly recommended.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

08 January 2015

Three Christmas Wines from Austria

Right before the holidays, I received a trio of Austrian dessert wines from Kracher. Mom and my sister-in-law are fans of the sweeter style, so it was the perfect time to break out three late harvest bottles. On top of that, Julia became a fan of Tokaji a few years ago and it was interesting to serve her the Austrian equivalent.

Normally when I've got a bunch of wines for a group I will open everything and let people play and experiment on their own in a safe environment, but in this instance I insisted that everyone follow my guided tour to experience the increasingly complex levels of these three wines in small, elegant bottles. We got to go through the top three tiers of Germanic ripeness, when the juice becomes more and more concentrated, often influenced by the presence of botrytis.

2011 Kracher Auslese Cuvée
Burgenland, Austria
60% Chardonnay, 40% Welschriesling
$23, 12% abv.

Sweet and tart with a delicious lemon character, much like my late grandmother's lemon meringue pie. Bright and crisp, and one that would go well with a selection of soft white cheeses.

2011 Kracher Beerenauslese Cuvée
Burgenland, Austria
60% Welschriesling, 40% Chardonnay
$34/375mL, 11% abv.

Interesting to see the flip in the grape ratio on this next one. Deeper and duskier with more honey tones. The acidity is still firm but balanced by an even higher sugar content. At this level, I find myself not really wanting food to go along with it, just preferring to enjoy the dessert wine on its own in small doses.

NV Kracher Trockenbeerenauslese
Burgenland, Austria
55% Welschriesling, 40% Chardonnay, 5% Traminer
$28, 187mL abv.

I got a few well-natured laughs from my brother as I announced the "Trockenbeerenauslese" as a very special wine. But TBAs are special, and the grapes used to produce them have so little juice available that you'll often see the wines sold in small formats, and I admit that this 187mL size is just about perfect for something so sweet and rich. It has a lush aroma of honeysuckle and musk that is enchanting. On the palate it is like golden sunshine, and I would highly recommend it.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

01 January 2015

A Look at the BWR 2014 Vintage

Happy New Year, everyone! 2014 has been a busy year for me, and even busier here in the home stretch. I'll be posting some long lists of abbreviated tasting notes soon, but I wanted to take a moment to look back at some of the highlights from the past year, and thank everyone who made it happen: the publicists and wine companies that I worked with, the winemakers I got to know, and of course, the readers who are the reason why I keep cranking out this blog year after year.


I'd never given much thought to synthetic wine enclosures until my visit to the the Nomacorc factory in North Carolina. A few months later I was working as a freelance writer for their new blog. The trip ended up being a lot of fun despite the massive snowstorm. Perhaps it was even better because of the snowstorm--we all got an extra day to spend together eating and drinking and talking about oxygen transfer rates and lean manufacturing. I was able to take a lot from what I saw back to the day job and moved ahead in that career because of it.

It was also a great opportunity to work with a group of wine writers (some international) that I'd never met before. The networking benefits of such meetings are important, but I value more the additional friendships I've made in this crazy field of wine writing.

Nomacorc Posts, My pieces on their website


2014 was the year I fell in love with Lodi during my late April visit. This was a reunion of sorts for my group of wine writers I met in NYC for Snooth PVA in 2013. It was great to see these folks again and we got even closer while spending nearly a week in beautiful Lodi wine country. On top of that, I made great connections with the Lodi Winegrape Commission and many of the winemakers and winegrowers out there. I can't wait to go back some day, and this time I'll remember to bring my sunscreen.

Lodi Posts


As noted, the Lodi trip wouldn't have happened without the folks at Snooth. In addition to the trip I started writing some small articles for them as a freelancer. They're kind of light and fun and explore the world of curious wine and food pairings. Also like the Nomacorc trip, I'm forever grateful to them for dragging me out of Memphis and introducing me to some of the best friends I have in the wine writing world. I can't wait until we all get together again, wherever and whenever that might be.

My pieces for Snooth.com

Favorite Wine

You reach a point at which you still enjoy and appreciate wine but are rarely surprised. My life list of grapes is hovering at 194, 30 countries, and 17 of these United States. It is in these times that I appreciate the opportunity to study some of the classics, along with great pairings.

After so many years of obscure grapes and adventures in the wines of Eastern Europe, it was nice this summer to sit down with a wonderful lunch of vintage Champagne and oysters. The 1999 Artéis & Co. Champagne Brut was a real joy and I appreciated it now so much more than I would have ten years ago when I started this blog.

The Bella

After nearly a year of living with no dogs and no The Roommate, circumstances opened up for me to sort of foster Bella for a while. As of December she's still here and is being spoiled. In September I did a taste test on some locally made dog biscuits given to me by my mother. This and a few other dog biscuit reviews (more popular on Twitter and Facebook) resulted in Bella receiving dog treat samples from one of my media contacts with a wide portfolio of clients. She has become something of a superstar and threatens to take attention away from my rambling wine rants. But I've got to say, it's been nice having the little mutt around.

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All in all, a pretty great year on the wine writing front. In a couple of weeks I'll be celebrating the tenth anniversary of Benito's Wine Reviews with a look back at some of the highlights of the past decade as well as a few other bits and bobs rattling around in my head. I hope all of you are entering the new year with joy, energy, and enthusiasm. Cheers!

16 December 2014

Le Grand Courtâge Sparkling Wines

Le Grande Courtâge was founded by American Tawnya Falkner as she followed her dream to move to France and make wine. This "courtship" has resulted in a pair of wines that are available in retail but also on Virgin America flights.

There is a lot of sparkling wine made in France that is not Chamapgne, often called Crémant de ______. This is a little different, with an interesting combination of grapes sourced from the South of France and made without an AOC designation. This is not a bad thing! I enjoyed both bottles of bubbly and would recommend them for parties over the next few weeks. If anything, I've always held that sparkling wines should be enjoyed in far more casual situations than most people think.

Prices below are for the standard 750mL format, though the little 187mL bottles will run you about $7 a pop at retail.

NV Le Grand Courtâge Blanc de Blancs Brut
Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Ugni Blanc
$25, 11.5% abv.

The white sparkler opens up with aromas and flavors of green apples with a little toast. Firm acidity and a crisp finish, which means that this goes along quite well with snacks and popcorn during holiday parties.

NV Le Grand Courtâge Brut Rosé
Chardonnay, Ugni Blanc, Gamay
$25, 11.5% abv.

Surprisingly earthy with a touch of plum. The Gamay is really charming in this wine, and means that it holds up to heartier dishes like ham and prosciutto with some nice briny olives. Break this one out with a muffuletta.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.