28 October 2013

2006 La Fiorita Brunello di Montalcino Riserva

I am not an expert when it comes to Brunello di Montalcino. If you're looking for a blogger who specializes in that tiny region, I would highly recommend you check out the blog of my friend Bob Fyke, a writer who specializes in that particular wine. And coincidentally, I met him in NYC the same weekend I met the delightful Susannah Gold, who graciously sent me this and many other wines that will be appearing here soon on BWR.

The name of the wine is a diminutive of Bruno, which is an old Germanic name popular in Italy and meaning "brown". Pouring the wine will help explain the name: as the first splash hits the glass and you see the color of the wine balanced against your white tile kitchen table, the color is garnet, a little brown or orange depending on the lighting, and your first thought is that the bottle is suffering from severe oxidation. Fear not, this is the natural coloring. Give it a few swirls and prepare to be impressed.

I made a heaving dish of baked ziti with my homemade sauce and meatballs, and allowed this wine to breathe for an hour before serving.

2006 La Fiorita Brunello di Montalcino Riserva
100% Sangiovese
$45, 14% abv.

The wine has aromas of tea, plum, and black cherry. On the palate it is as smooth as silk. Medium acidity in the background with mellow tannins. Delicious. Little touches of stewed fruit and fig appear on the second day. There is a long finish that keeps you thinking for a while after the last sip. It's an excellent bottle and I look forward to exploring more Brunello in the future.

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

23 October 2013

Partida Tequila and el Día de los Muertos

November 1st is celebrated as el Día de los Muertos in Mexico, and was the main setting for the classic LucasArts adventure game Grim Fandango. I do not live close enough to the border to have participated in these celebrations, though as an anthropology student I am very familiar with it and have handled a lot of real skulls in my day, always with respect and according to the highest ethical standards. I also collected animal skulls as a child and had a number of them adorning the bookshelves in my room. Not to be macabre, but looking at the teeth of a cow versus a coyote teaches you a lot about how herbivores and carnivores eat their food. The twisting river-shaped lines in the skull of a deer show how the plates came together throughout its life.

If you are going to spend the holiday imbibing Mexico's native liquors, I would suggest spending a few extra dollars to move up to the top shelf. Here I review three tiny 50mL bottles of Partida Tequila. The brand was launched in 2001 and all of these are made in the Tequila Valley of Jalisco on the southwestern coast of Mexico, and all are 100% blue agave.

Partida Tequila Blanco
$40/750mL, 40% abv.

Classic tequila aroma, clean and bracing with a bright finish. These white or silver tequilas are primarily employed in cocktails, where the citrus and other elements will smooth the edges.

Partida Tequila Reposado
$48/750mL, 40% abv.

Nutty and vanilla notes with a smoother finish. Very interesting aftertaste that tends to be reminiscent of good brandy or grappa. Due to the softer body, I'd recommend this for making real margaritas (as in, DO NOT mix this with that bright green stuff in a jug, use a lime and simple syrup and Triple Sec).

Partida Tequila Añejo
$50/750mL, 40% abv.

Aged in Jack Daniel's barrels, once again, bringing a local product home through a circuitous route. Slightly sweet and deliciously smooth with nice oak elements and a touch of orange peel on the finish. The one that you don't want to mix with anything, but merely enjoy from the comfort of an easy chair with a crystal brandy snifter.

Note: These bottles were provided as samples for review.

21 October 2013

Benito vs. The Bell Beefer

It's been a while since I've done one of these goofy food challenges, in which I confront myself and the concept of good taste. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, depending on your location, Taco Bell produced a Mexicanized sloppy joe known as the Bell Beefer. It was previously known as the Bell Burger, then the Bell Beefer, and then the Bell Beefer Supreme variant, but in the popular consciousness, the simple "Bell Beefer" moniker stuck.

One could say that it is a fast food version of the Mexico City torta, but let's be honest: it was a way to shove a handful of the half dozen primary Taco Bell ingredients into something other than a tortilla or a taco shell. Supposedly the item was discontinued because it was too messy and would fall apart, but anyone who has attempted to consume a Baja chalupa while driving knows that this is a spurious argument.

I hadn't thought about this particular bit of fast food history until listening to an episode of the Adam Carolla Podcast in which he lamented the demise of the Bell Beefer. And thus, on a Sunday afternoon with the sun shining and having all of the ingredients at hand, I decided to recreate the Bell Beefer, although with my own modifications. Hipster nostalgia for pop culture and modern enthusiasm for the slider meet with...

Benito's Bell Beefer Pequeño

I really don't need to spell out the recipe here other than to say drain your ground beef before adding the water and taco seasoning packet. I added some dried ancho chili flakes and a splash of red wine to the meat mixture, and instead of the usual shredded iceberg lettuce, I sliced up some mesclun greens and baby spinach.

The end result was... underwhelming. Turns out that it is kind of a mess to eat, and the bun to flavor ratio is way off. A real sloppy joe (or the buffalo version I once made) is more savory, while a slider or a torta is more flavorful. Still, it was fun to make, and at the end of the day, the name Bell Beefer continues to make me laugh.

18 October 2013

Riesling Trio Tour

There are cycles in the life of a wine lover, and the Riesling cycle is not a Wagner opera but rather the fact that so many of us start out with Rieslings early on. They're sweet, fruity, low in alcohol, and fairly inexpensive. The tall, elegant bottles of Riesling from Hogue of Washington and V. Sattui of California were two of the first wines that I could identify by name and sight as opposed to just "random bottle of fermented grape juice". Bear in mind that we're talking about the mid-90s here, long before I started to seriously study the subject.

I eventually left behind those west coast Rieslings (as well as the various German bottles I chose based solely on price). I lost my sweet tooth, and got interested in more dry white wines or even aged white Burgundy. Years later, I circled back around to Riesling when I got the chance to try serious examples from Germany and beyond.

This particular triplet of samples represents three classic Riesling regions: Germany, Austria, and Alsace in Eastern France.

2011 Schlossgut Johannes Selbach Riesling Dry
Mosel, Germany
100% Riesling
$15, 13% abv.

Pleasantly dry with a touch of lemons. It is a great casual sipper, and as the piscine label indicates, it's a great pairing for gentle seafood dishes. A good bargain, and also an excellent introduction to the fact that Riesling does not have to be sweet but can focus on other facets as well.

2011 Domaine Ehrhart Riesling Vieilles Vignes
Wettolsheim, Alsace
100% Riesling
$16, 12.6% abv.

I'm so enamored of Alsatian wines these days, and this one did not disappoint. It opens up with Granny Smith apples on the nose. On the palate it is a little sweet with lots of bright acidity. Bring on the sausage, beans, and cabbage and enjoy the fall flavors.

2011 Salomon Undhof Steiner Kögl Riesling Erste Lage ÖTW
Kremstal, Austria
100% Riesling
$30, 13.5% abv.

Austria is better known for Grüner Veltliner but they can also make elegant Riesling. This one is crisp and austere with excellent minerality and those great wet stone notes on top. It is gentle and well balanced with lots of subtle elements that show up as it warms.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

16 October 2013

Tools of the Trade

I'm taking a moment during this dark and rainy night to give another little behind-the-scenes look at how this blog is made. On a recent weekend I gathered together my cameras that I use to take photos for this blog. The Fuji S5000 was retired as soon as I purchased the Nikon D40 in 2008, and the Nikon DSLR remains my primary camera for taking pictures of bottles of wine. The Minolta has not been used in years but I often take the lens off to do microphotography. That's more about an enthusiasm for science than anything wine or food related.

The little pocket Canon camera has been my go-to when either convenience or social courtesy has not permitted me to drag around the big Nikon and the additional telephoto lens.

When it comes to taking notes, I still do pen and paper using whatever will fit in my pocket. I've made custom notebooks before, used moleskines or other commercially bound journals, and many times just write in the free space of pre-printed tasting sheets. While traveling, I rely on my 2009-era MacBook, and most photo editing and seated writing occurs on my 2012 MacMini with the huge screen.

But last month I added another tool to my belt. My parents gave me an iPhone for my birthday (which was used to take the above photo, though captions were of course done in Photoshop). I'm using a white iPhone 5c, and the photos from the past two blog posts were taken with it. They're not the best pictures I've taken, but I'm still getting used to it. However, it's convenient to have one device that takes decent photos, allows you to take notes, and even publish to Facebook/Twitter/Blogger/etc. Oh, and even make a phone call when needed.

I'm not going to get rid of the Nikon, because I rely too much on specific shutter speed and f-stops and other settings. And the laptop is far too useful for many other applications, so I'm hanging on to it. I'll find a good home for the little Canon, and will continue to find apps and workflows that allow for the use of the iPhone in public settings where I don't feel like dragging around twenty pounds of electronics.

At the end of the day, I'm sure I'm still going to keep scribbling notes on envelopes and scraps of paper, and most of my pictures will still be taken with the Nikon and edited on the MacMini. But I'm forcing myself to use the iPhone for all of its amazing capabilities, and hope to provide more dynamic coverage outside of my kitchen in the future.

14 October 2013


My favorite neighborhood in Memphis has a great new addition. Greencork is a wine bar with a modern twist. They have four Italian-made Wine Emotion Wine Dispensing Machines. Each one chambers eight bottles, and all are tied into the computer at the register. When you come in, you pre-pay as much or as little as you want on a card, and then you can use that card to select 2, 4, or 6 oz. pours from the machine.

I am generally not a fan of wine-by-the glass at restaurants or bars unless I really trust the server. If the bottle was opened yesterday, the wine will be OK, but if it was opened and recorked three weeks ago, it will be sour. The culprit is oxygen, and the Wine Emotion system avoids that by using the inert noble gas argon. Argon is pumped into the bottle to dispense the wine, meaning that each pour is just like opening a fresh bottle. (And before you get concerned about chemicals, argon makes up 1% of our atmosphere. You're breathing it right now.)

2156 Young Avenue
Memphis, Tennessee 38104
(901) 207-5281
Tuesday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

There are 32 wines available at any given time, and the lineup changes depending on what's available and customer demand. The prices for full 6 oz. glasses are quite good compared to most restaurant wine lists, and even the basic 2 oz. pours would allow you to try through a lot of interesting wines without spending a lot of money. I think that the highest amount I saw was $14 for a full glass, but most of them are in the $6-8 range.

In addition to the wine, they have a bar with "big beers", small batch whiskey, and other interesting spirits. They're working on developing their own cocktail creations and I look forward to seeing what they invent. Additionally, there is a menu available with small plates and appetizers that work well with wine tasting. The Picnic Basket ($14 per person) includes meats, cheeses, salmon mousse, paté, and a lot of other goodies. I'm anxious to try their Shepherd's Pie ($8) once it gets a little colder.

The staff is friendly and knowledgable, and the selection of wines is eclectic. While I saw a lot of California wines, I also spotted gems from Oregon, Chile, Argentina, and France. There may be opportunities in the future to sample some higher-end, well-aged bottles using this interesting bit of technology. I like the way they have the wines broken up into four categories: Light-Bodied Whites, Complex Whites, Medium-Bodied Reds, and Bold Reds. Each grouping is kept at the optimal temperature, and on the day I visited, they had a dessert wine snuck into one of the cases with smaller pour amounts. The wine's name, price, and the unit's temperature can all be controlled from the central computer at the register. When you insert your card, you get a readout of how much money you have left.

The wine bar is currently featuring the work of local artist Eric Painter, with many pieces on display. The complex twists and turns of his oil paintings are fascinating to study while swirling wine in your glass.

I had a great afternoon hanging out with the staff before they were officially open for the day. It's a comfortable, pleasant spot, and I think it's an excellent pre- or post-dinner bar for gathering with friends when you're in Cooper-Young. Check it out the next time you're in the neighborhood, and let me know what you think.

11 October 2013

Wines of Bodega Catena Zapata

I was recently invited to attend a tasting of the wines of Bodega Catena Zapata, which has been operating in Argentina since the early 1900s. The third generation winery has achieved stunning success and we had the pleasure of tasting their collectible top line.

Although I am not a collector, these are priced fairly reasonably between $90-130. I say reasonably because they have outscored far more expensive wines in blind tastings and demonstrate great aging potential. The representative pointed out that it would be possible to sell these wines for much more, but that it was the choice of the winemaker to keep them at this level. It should also be noted that most of the reds were being sampled before actual release maturity, meaning that they'll be much better in a few years. The current vintage being sold in Argentina is 2006, while these were from 2008-2010. (There's also the complicating factor that the oceanic voyage adds about a year of aging in a short time due to temperature fluctuations and motion.)

Fredric Koeppel, Michael Hughues, and a lot of wine shop representatives were present for the lunch at Erling Jensen's, a classy fine dining establishment named after the owner and head chef. I've had Jensen's food before at a few events, but this was my first time dining there. And though we only had two courses, they were delicious. We didn't get told precisely what we were eating, but to the best of my knowledge this is sea bass over toasted brioche with a lobster cream sauce. Silky, rich, yet not too heavy. Just enough to enjoy the flavors of each ingredient. However, it was even better with the following white wines...

The two Chardonnays came as a huge surprise. In a blind tasting these would easily be distinguished for fine white Burgundy, and they've gone from comparing the wines to that general AOC to specifying specific subregions.

2010 Catena White Stones Chardonnay
Mendoza, Adrianna Vineyard
100% Chardonnay
$93, 13% abv.

Touches of honey and light floral elements with a bit of vanilla. Deep and rich with concentrated flavors, bright acidity, and a beautiful golden color.

2010 Catena White Bones Chardonnay
Mendoza, Adrianna Vineyard
100% Chardonnay
$125, 13% abv.

For every 10 barrels of White Stones, only 1 barrel of White Bones is made. Though made nearby, the terroir is different creating a wine with notes of wet stone and earth with just a little touch of lemon in the background. Once again, bright and firm acidity with some playful citrus notes. Going back and forth between the two was a wonderful experience. However, as the plates and glasses were cleared, we prepared our palates for a substantial lineup of red wines.

Beef tenderloin over mashed cauliflower with a sauce espagnole. I believe that the tenderloin was lightly smoked, but it was tender and while the overall dish was uncomplicated, it was well-executed and savory without being overfilling. Just enough to enjoy between sips of the following:

2009 Catena Adrianna Vineyard Malbec
Mendoza, Adrianna Vineyard
100% Malbec
$130, 13.9% abv.

Raspberry and a touch of brambles with a slight bitter note. Strong tannins, very tart with notes of leather and tobacco that emerged a bit as it breathed. All wines were tasted straight from the bottle without decanting, and as I said, a lot of these have a really strong structure now that is going to unwind into a much gentler profile in a few years (as the last wines will indicate.)

2008 Catena Argentino Malbec
Mendoza, Adrianna/Nicasia Vineyards
100% Malbec
$130, 14% abv.

Earth and straw aromas, with plum and black cherry flavors dominating on the tongue. Tart with medium tannins and a firm finish.

2008 Catena Nicasia Vineyard Malbec
Mendoza, Nicasia Vineyard
100% Malbec
$115, 14% abv.

Deep black cherry and licorice, dark and chewy, very concentrated with a long finish. Out of many of the reds, I'd be really interested in seeing how this develops over the next five to ten years.

2008 Nicolás Catena Zapata
Mendoza, four vineyards
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Malbec
$130, 14% abv.

Really stunning and sublime for a relatively young wine. Much of the complexity of the above wines but softer in every regard, allowing gentle cherry, chocolate, and oak aromas to emerge. Very long finish and quite fascinating.

1999 Nicolás Catena Zapata
Mendoza, La Piramide/Adrianna Vineyards
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 % Malbec
$?, 13.8% abv.

This wine is available in limited quantities and represents the second release of the Nicolás Catena Zapata. Perfect aging with dark fruits and gentle spice dominating the profile, yet with no one element overpowering the other. Soft tannins and much of the tartness from the younger wines was gone. It reminded me a lot of Barolo tastings in terms of how rewarding a decade or more can be in terms of the right grapes in the hands of the right winemaker. While I don't know if any other readers will get a chance to try this before the vintage is gone, it does provide a lot of promise for those still-availble wines from 4-5 years ago.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

09 October 2013

South American Trio

Here's a look behind the curtain here at BWR on how wines are ordered in one of my posts. For the photo, if there's not a logical order like vintage, I'll line them up however the light works best for the situation. Particularly beautiful rosés get the most focus in terms of sunlight coming through the bottle. When it comes to the listing of wines, I tend to start with lighter whites and end with heavy reds, which is how I tend to serve them during a dinner party. This often corresponds with a gradual increase in price, so that the less expensive wines are at the beginning. The most expensive isn't always the best or most memorable, but when that special bottle of aged Bordeaux or Burgundy is brought out at the end of a magnificent dinner, it makes a great closing, both in tasting and in writing.

In honor of the Southern Hemisphere, I'm turning this trio of reviews upside down. Two Chilean reds and an Argentine white. There is a connection between the three, with the reds representing the venerable Montes winery of Chile, and the newer Kaiken winery in Argentina run by Aurelio Montes, Jr.

2011 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon
Colchagua Valley, Chile
90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot
$22, 13.5% abv.

This is the classic wine that launched Montes 25 years ago. It opens up with rich aromas of tobacco, coffee, blackberries, and a touch of pencil shavings. On the palate the flavors are mellow and well balanced with medium tannins and a smooth finish. A great bargain, and one that would be an elegant accompaniment to rare prime rib.

2012 Montes Twins Red Wine
Colchagua Valley, Chile
50% Malbec, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon
$13, 14% abv.

The more whimsical Montes bottle features label art by the great Ralph Steadman. That splatter style is so unmistakable and I smile every time I encounter it. The curious wine (Chilean Malbec?) is tart and tannic with dominant aromas of black cherry and leather. It needs a little breathing before settling down with a pizza or burger at the end of a long day at work.

2012 Kaiken Terroir Feries Torrontés
Salta, Argentina
100% Torrontés
$13, 13.5% abv.

If you ever encounter a Torrontés, it probably came from Argentina. If you got some in a blend from Chile or Spain while doing DNA analysis on your wine, it might even be a surprise to the winemaker. But I like these grapes that have found niches in various parts of the world, and this bottle does not disappoint. The nose has pleasant lime peel scents with a touch of grapefruit in the background. Low acidity with a smooth, mineral finish. There's a lot of complexity in this inexpensive bottle and it's worth bringing to a tasting party to share something that's not just citrus from start to finish like a few Sauvignon Blancs that are out there. Should be delightful with shellfish.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

07 October 2013

2012 Sofia Chardonnay

Once again I'm trying a wine from Coppola, and this particular Sofia release coincides with another one of her films, The Bling Ring, most notable for a non-Herminone role for Emma Watson.

I've seen the movie, and while it was not my favorite Sofia Coppola vehicle (that honor belongs to the tender Lost in Translation), it was stylish and well-scored in a way that reminded me a lot of Marie Antoinette. It is also important to note that Sofia herself is not the winemaker, but that these wines are made in her honor. The bottles are distinctive, and the Sofia rosé is one wine that I'll happily purchase even when a dozen free samples are waiting in my wine fridge.

2012 Sofia Chardonnay
Monterey County
75% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Blanc
$19, 12.5% abv.

Light and floral with pear and apple aromas, mild acidity and a round mouthfeel. Only 20% of the wine was matured on oak, leading to a light body. I'm finding over time that a splash of a lighter grape really makes me enjoy Chardonnay more. I enjoyed it with a ham and Swiss croissant sandwich while watching Errol Morris' 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. Quite groundbreaking for its time but now you realize how many TV shows have aped that style of true crime storytelling.

Note: This wine was provided as a sample.

04 October 2013

Josh Cellars

Josh Cellars is a new project from vintner Joseph Carr, named after his firefighter father and promoted alongside a charity. For each "like" on the Facebook page, the company will dedicate $2 to the Gary Sinise Foundation that supports veterans and first responders (donations are made up to $5,000). The drive ended on October 2, but I'd encourage you to still click "like" and show your support for those who get called out in the middle of the night to save those who need help in times of crisis. My family has had a long tradition of learning CPR, lifesaving, and other critical skills. Unfortunately, there are many occasions when those skills have been put to the test. Fortunately, we were prepared and in the right place to provide assistance. Doing that every day is a much harder task and one that needs to be recognized.

2012 Josh Cellars Chardonnay
North Coast, California
100% Chardonnay
$17, 13.9% abv.

Bright and mildly acidic with aromas of ripe peach and apricot. Fruity, but balanced and a good sipper without being overly tart. I made a great tuna salad sandwich incorporating celery, walnuts, and grapes, and found that this wine was a great pairing for a late lunch.

2012 Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon
North Coast, California
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
$15, 14.1% abv.

A great dark berry red with low tannins. Bold fruit but a round body with a gentle finish. An excellent bargain Cabernet Sauvignon that went well with a homemade pepperoni pizza on a Tuesday night. Were I to try it again I'd go with one of those great firehouse recipes like chile con carne or a big batch of spaghetti with smoked peppers.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.