31 January 2014

2012 Martínsancho Verdejo

Super Bowl XLVIII is upon us this weekend, and there are tons of posts about which wines go best with Buffalo wings and Ro-Tel dip. I don't have a dog in this fight (and won't, until my Cleveland Browns make it back to the big one, but I'm not holding my breath. Washington is well known for its wines, though I had a memorable experience making osso buco in a hotel room with a Colorado Cabernet Franc.

Serving wine at a Super Bowl party is a little tricky, as it is generally not a popular option in a realm where beer reigns supreme. But if you're looking for something to go along well with cured meats and cheeses and li'l smokies, I'll pass along a reference for Spanish white wines. Affordable, delicious, and well-suited to dealing with all manner of salty snacks.

2012 Martínsancho Verdejo
La Seca, D.O. Rueda Superior
100% Verdejo
$20, 13.5% abv.

The starts off with a nose that is very floral with hints of jasmine and honey, yet on the palate it is dry and bright with a round body and a quick finish. Certainly a perfect match for grilled shellfish with a spritz of citrus and twist of aromatic herbs just before serving.

I enjoyed this with a few thick slices of summer sausage and Swiss cheese, which went along nicely with the roasted pistachios and crackers in a recent gift box. Great wine for appetizers and casual snacks that won't break the bank.

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

29 January 2014

Australia Day with Hardys Wines

Sunday was Australia Day for my dear friends in the antipodes. I was going to post something on Sunday morning, but by that point it was already Monday down there, so I figured a delay of a few more days wouldn't hurt. In honor of the holiday that celebrates the arrival of the first British fleet to reach the continent, I've got 70 prior posts about Australian wines for your reading pleasure.

Today we'll be looking at Hardys Wines, still run by the descendants of Thomas Hardy who bottled his first South Australia wine in 1857. The Chardonnay is named after William Hardy, a fifth-generation winemaker. Both of these wines are affordable bargains that are enclosed with convenient screwcaps.

2012 William Hardy Chardonnay
South Australia (57.2% Padthaway, 30.1% Riverland, 7.5% Wrattonbully, 3.8% McLaren Vale, 1% Langhorn Creek, .4% Other)
100% Chardonnay
$17, 13.5% abv.

Peach and floral aromas with deep white fruit flavors, clean and bright with medium acidity and a soft finish. I found it to go well with fried chicken and cole slaw.

2012 Hardys Nottage Hill Shiraz
South Eastern Australia
100% Shiraz
$13, 13.5% abv.

Deep scents of black currant and pepper, with dark plum on the palate and a cherry pie finish. Tart raspberry acidity. I enjoyed this one with an assortment of cheeses, nuts, dried fruits... Just a casual snack on a rainy weekend afternoon. Perfect sipper for curling up with a book for a few hours.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

27 January 2014

Tools for Writers: Grammarly

I use Grammarly's grammar check because let's face it, I'm always posting after sampling a lot of wine.

Actually, I do a lot of my writing after coming home from the day job, having dinner, attending to household chores, and then popping open a few bottles that have been desperately waiting to be reviewed. I used to do a lot of self-editing when I had more free time, but with increasing responsibilities, it is necessary to rely on various tools that are available.

I have a simple workflow for writing here at the blog. As soon as samples arrive, I take photos of the bottles and go through the collateral material and winery website to produce a stub of a post. The stub contains all of the essential data and relevant links, as well as the flags and FTC disclaimer. When I get around to tasting the wine, I will flesh out the details and incorporate any other stories that I'm in the mood to tell. For any of the PR firms reading, it may be a month or more from receiving to publication, as I usually have a big backlog. (I always try to taste the wine in the proper setting, so if it's 100°F outside and the A/C isn't working, I'm not going to crack open that warm Malbec.) When the final piece is ready, I give it a quick read through to make sure there are no glaring errors, but I don't stress too much over a simple 200 word review.

My freelance writing follows a much different workflow, which is where tools like Grammarly help. I work with editors for outside publications, but I prefer to send them pieces that are as refined as possible. Rewrites eat up a lot of time and don't inspire confidence. While any writer should have a firm command of grammar, vocabulary, and orthography, editors have less time these days to deal with sloppy writing--something that most forms of online communication tend to encourage. That's a pet peeve of mine, since it used to be that nearly everything you read had first passed through an editor. "Is this written properly? Is it appropriate for this book/newspaper/magazine? Will it make the author and us look professional?" Now almost everything you read online (blog posts, comments, reviews) is a stream of consciousness first draft that was probably forgotten soon after posting.

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer online or anywhere else, then you'll have to take your writing as seriously as a full time job.

I ran a few of my older posts through Grammarly and preferred the interface to various grammar checking programs I've used in the past. Having been in writers' workshops over the years and having had pieces rejected for publication, I'm very comfortable with constructive feedback. I realize that I have some bad writing habits that emerge from time to time (overuse of a single word in a short piece, the affectation of some weird Mid-Atlantic word choice, etc.). It is a little easier getting that feedback from a computer program rather than hearing my beloved AP English teacher tell me, "You're a great writer but why can you never spell receive correctly? What is it with that one word? I'm going to burn it into your desk."

Grammarly points out errors in subject-verb agreement, tense issues, sentence structure, punctuation... It even has a plagiarism detector, though note that if you're quoting another work it will prompt you to source it. Since few of us who are struggling freelancers can afford to pay someone to proofread our work first (and friends and family members may get tired of it), it's a fascinating tool for getting another set of digital eyes on your writing before sending it off to the publisher. There is a free seven day trial available, and right now there's a 20% off sale on subscription rates: $29.95/month, $59.95/quarter, and $139.95/year.

P.S. This post was run through Grammarly for three revisions. It caught several mistakes I would have otherwise missed, and provided some interesting suggestions for improvement.

Note: Compensation and access to this service were provided for review. The opinions of the service remain my own.

24 January 2014

Ole Smoky Blackberry Moonshine

It is a rare occasion when I get to write about a product from my home state of Tennessee. There have been some tasty beers, surprisingly good wines, and an odd local wine tasting underneath the bleachers at a NASCAR track.

From the Appalachian vacation spot of Gatlinburg on the far east extremity of the Volunteer State, I got a chance to sample Ole Smoky Moonshine, named after the scenic Great Smoky Mountains. I've gone hiking and camping out there and when you grow up in the flatlands, waking up in the morning and watching the fog roll over the earth crimped and crushed by geologic forces and then rounded down by eons of erosion is an awe-inspiring experience.

Moonshine is getting downright respectable these days, and it's a good thing that people that want to enjoy it can purchase it legally without the threat of going blind or getting shot by reveneuers. In addition to the clear "white whiskey" versions that are used as replacements for vodka or rum in various cocktails, traditional flavored versions are making their way to the market. For instance...

Ole Smoky Blackberry Moonshine
Gatlinburg, Tennessee
$25/750mL jar, 40% abv.

Not sweet but bracing. Gentle blackberry jam aroma with a firm alcohol kick. As I've had a cold for the past week, a medicinal shot of this was tried as an alternative to cough syrup. It didn't help with the cough, but did clear my sinuses for a good half hour. (This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA.)

The collateral material suggested using this product like crème de cassis in a Champagne cocktail. With sparkling wine in a 50/50 ratio, the moonshine is substantially smoother but the finished product is not as gentle as a kir pétillant. The alcohol ratio is much different and you're looking at something with the kick of a French 75, one of the most deceptively dangerous cocktails. (It's good, but more than one will sneak up on you fast.) I'd say dial it down to a 1:3 ratio of moonshine to bubbly and, if you can, serve it in the perfect glass, such as my beloved Mason jar stemware at right.

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

21 January 2014

9th Anniversary

9 years ago this little corner of the web fluttered to life, and I've managed to keep the lights on for nearly a decade. Thus a quarter of my earthly existence has been recorded on this blog in steady increments of three posts a week. Not just the jottings of wine reviews, but also major events such as this year's passing of Wolfgang and getting The Roommate married off.

Despite living alone without humans or dogs for the first time since the mid-90s, 2013 was a year in which I found myself rejuvenated. After settling into a mechanical routine of getting samples and writing brief reviews, I had two transformative events happen early in the year. One was attending the Snooth PVA weekend in NYC, and then just a week later, being featured in The Wall Street Journal. It was also a year in which I continued to sell pieces to other websites, including becoming a columnist for Palate Press.

As I had become somewhat hermit-like in my writing in 2012, getting to spend time with my fellow Snooth PVA bloggers and network with them over the past year has really opened up my eyes to the opportunities and possibilities that are out there if you truly take the time to treat your writing more like a business than a hobby. I cherish my friendship with all of them and have grown as a writer based on our private discussions. On a related note, I got to enter into a long-term project with Microsoft as well as several other interesting endeavors that I can't quite make public yet. When approached by major corporations, I respond with the same friendly professionalism that I offer toward the smallest wineries that ask me to try their products, and I make it clear that I apply an even ethical standard outlined in my sample policy regardless of the size of the company, and I've had many productive business relationships based on that standard. In the digital age, your reputation is everything and will follow you beyond the grave. Stay clean and honest, and true to yourself, and you'll never have to defend your position. Your record will stand for you, and I am proud to stand by all 1,367 posts here.

Years ago I wondered if I would manage to stick it out for a full ten, and here at the nine mark I'm sitting on three months' worth of unpublished reviews that need to be fleshed out. I keep finding new things to write about, publicists keep sending me interesting products, I have deadlines with outside publications, and every once in a while I just find something wondrous that I like sharing with the readers. Now I find myself seriously considering if I need to pick up the pace to write about everything I want to discuss in the next twenty years. As I have done on anniversaries past, I thank you, the readers, for coming back time and time again. There's a joy in writing, but a greater joy in being read, and all of you make the work worth it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Cheers, and here's to another great year!

20 January 2014

2012 Castello di Pomino Bianco

The venerable house Marchesi de Frescobaldi has been in the wine business in Tuscany for seven centuries. I've talked about the family history before--trading Michelangelo wine for paintings, ledgers that still list sales to Henry VIII, etc. There are not that many industries out there that are growing, have new companies coming into the market every year, and yet still have established brands going back so long. It also makes me wonder which American producers will still be going strong in the 28th century.

The Pomino DOC is much younger by comparison, established in the 1970s and permitting the use of traditionally French grapes in both red and white blends. This is my first exposure to this particular DOC, and I was pleased with the style. This particular wine is aged in stainless steel with a small amount held in French barriques for three months.

2012 Castello di Pomino Bianco
Pomino DOC
Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco with other unspecified white grapes
$15, 12.5% abv.

Gentle aromas of melon. The nose opens up with floral notes, while on the palate there is light white fruit flavors and with a chalky element that is enticing. Medium acidity and a soft mineral finish. Great complexity at an affordable price point. I'd recommend it along with clams and pasta with lots of garlic.

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

16 January 2014

Movie Review: Vino Veritas

Once in a while I get an opportunity to see a film ahead of time when it is related to food and wine. My first opportunity was back in early 1990 when a friend's father worked for Nestle and got us into an advance cross-promotional screening of The Hunt for Red October. Free movie, no trailers, and all the Crunch bars you could eat. Years later, I would get the chance to view a few documentaries and independent films ahead of public release, like...

Vino Veritas (2013), directed by Sarah Knight and starring Carrie Preston, best known recently for her work in HBO's True Blood. Shot on the RED One digital camera, which is a seriously incredible piece of technology that allows for great cinematography at a fraction of the cost of traditional film setups.

This isn't a wine movie per se, since the beverage in question is enhanced by the skin extract of hallucinogenic blue Peruvian frogs. And while I've never consumed any illegal substances, I have a feeling that if this product came up in conversation a lot of my friends would think, "I wonder if Ben has tried that yet..." Like army worm wine from Minnesota. The fact that I've reviewed wines made from rhubarb and corn and pineapple and dandelions and all sorts of other things should show that I have a curious palate.

The plot involves a Halloween gathering hosted by a husband and wife who miss the exciting earlier life as photojournalists and who are arguing while adjusting to life with kids in the suburbs. They are joined by an aloof doctor (and wine fanatic) and his restless housewife who spends the entire film in an elaborate Elizabeth I costume. The reactions of some of the other three characters to the doctor made me smile--there is a great early joke about serving a Nebraska Chambourcin (a tip of the hat to the shooting location of Lincoln, NE). Later, that character made a guessing reference to a Zweigelt rosé when told that the special wine of the evening is not a red or a white.

The blue frog wine is a literal truth serum, which forces the four characters to avoid politeness and little white lies, and here we enter the structure of a three act play. The entire movie is contained within the living room, kitchen, and side room photography studio over the course of a few hours (plot time, the movie itself is under two hours). Things take a dark turn as uncomfortable truths about each other come up and the two couples even lash out about the others children. Honesty isn't always comfortable, and this film will make you squirm in places. But art is not always meant to make you happy, and different kinds of art will produce different emotions.

I'm a fan of magical realism when done well, and the element of the blue frog wine in the context of this movie is more believable than a psychiatrist in a group therapy session. After all, the two couples thought they were doing something fun, not getting together to unload everything on their minds. I can't say that it's a good date movie but if you're looking for a good independent thinker on a cold winter night, give it a shot.

Available January 15th on iTunes & VOD via Gravitas Ventures.

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

15 January 2014

NV Yellow Tail Big Bold Red

This wine is something of a mystery, as I don't have a vintage or any grape information. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing--there are lots of table wines out there that do not provide every last detail and percentage. If I had to guess, I'd think there was a bold dose of Syrah, but high-volume blends can be difficult to discern from a blind tasting, and I'm way out of practice in that regard.

As I'm entering my tenth year with this blog, it's also interesting to note that wines like this dominated my early writing, whereas nowadays I'm more liable to be writing about some small production Oregon Pinot Blanc that only saw a production run of 10 cases, all of which were sampled at a private event that none of my readers were invited to attend. There is plenty of room in the wine market (and wine appreciation) for everything within the spectrum.

NV Yellow Tail Big Bold Red
$10, 13.5% abv.

The name is accurate as this wine is in fact big and bold. If you're ever looking for a definition of jammy, this one brings it with a strong aroma of Smucker's Strawberry. Slightly sweet with deep red fruit flavors, low tannins, and a short finish. Break it out this summer with the BBQ to enjoy cold with ribs and smoked chicken where it will go along well with the rich sauces.

Musical interlude provided by Glenn Miller: "It Must Be Jelly Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That"

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

13 January 2014

Mandolin Wines

Mandolin Wines specializes in vineyards from the large Central Coast AVA that stretches through a agriculturally rich swath of California.

Both of these are great values, and were produced at sufficient quantities that they should be easy to find as you begin the new year with a stack of holiday bills waiting for you.

2012 Mandolin Chardonnay
100% Chardonnay
$10, 13.4% abv.
1,248 cases produced

This Chardonnay was aged on French oak for 10 months, but did not go through malolactic fermentation, so it's not a stereotypical California Chard. The result is a fruit-forward wine with elements of apricot and peach, light acidity, and a slightly nutty finish. I found it to be delightful with snacks like roasted pistachios and smoked cheddar.

2012 Mandolin Pinot Noir
100% Pinot Noir
$12, 14.6% abv.
6,954 cases produced

Light strawberry aroma with touches of pencil shavings and cedar, tart acidity, long cherry finish. An excellent pairing for roast duck and roasted winter vegetables.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

10 January 2014

NV Eppa SupraFruta Red Sangria

Sangria is something that would have never have been invented in Memphis. This area is not a great place for making wine, and citrus does not grow well here. A combination of the two would have never arisen here, but these days all of the necessary ingredients are readily available and it's easy to make if you have a bunch of spare wine sitting around (ahem).

For those who don't want to spend the time blending and straining their own recipes, various bottled options are available. I have not tried Adam Carolla's Mangria but it's one of many pre-mixed options out there today. Eppa SupraFruta Sangria seeks to focus on the organic superfruit juice craze. While there is no legal definition for a superfruit, a lot of these ingredients have become popular recently. Orange juice is easy to make; pomegranate juice is harder. Does that make one better than the other? No, but it is nice to have all of these different natural flavors available.

NV Eppa SupraFruta Red Sangria
Proprietary blend of Mendocino County red wine with pomegranate, blueberry, blood orange, and açaí juices
$11, 8.5% abv.

Not as sweet as I'd expected, and the wine shows a fairly decent balance with some deep flavors from the blueberry and açaí. I've used pomegranate and blood orange juice in cocktails in the past, and found that I enjoyed the overall mix. Serve over ice and break out the chips and salsa.

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

08 January 2014

2012 Spelletich 3 Spells Rosé

I was first introduced to Spelletich Family Winery in October of last year when I reviewed four of their bottles. Since then, they've moved to their own winemaking and crush facility in South Napa and have opened up a tasting room that offers pairings with chocolates made by Feast It Forward and Kollar.

The "3 Spells" line features their mid-range wines priced between $22-30, with the Spelletich Cellars brand occupying the $30-65 range and Spellwine covering the $15-20 market. These are very reasonable prices for small-production Napa wines, and your best bet is to order directly from the website. This rosé, for instance, was produced in a run of 90 cases, meaning that there are 1,080 bottles out there (1,079 after I consumed this one). It will sell out at some point, but sampling these kinds of wines is always a unique experience and one that is fun to share with friends. Not to show off, but rather to share the pleasure of something that was made in the right quantity given the resources available. It's like a jar of honey from the farmer's market: that guy who lets his bees harvest from blueberry bushes all season is never going to be able to scale up to nationwide distribution, but you can still cherish the opportunity to drizzle it over your toast in the morning until the jar is empty.

2012 Spelletich 3 Spells Rosé
Napa Valley
Proprietary blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon
$25, 14% abv.
90 cases made

Bright nose of ripe strawberries and lemon, with firm acidity and a slight sweetness. Gentle finish. I enjoyed it with a great grilled chicken salad including berries and soft goat cheese--a lovely combination on a rather warm Memphis weekend here in what passes for winter these days.

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

06 January 2014

Terlato White Wines & Kerrygold Cheese

I believe this is the first time that I've received cheese samples along with wine, and it's a combination that I hope to see again before it gets too hot outside. The wines are from the Terlato portfolio while the cheeses are from Irish producer Kerrygold.

The cheeses are lined up with the suggested pairings, though at any gathering you're going to see a lot of mixing and matching. I took all three cheeses, the Pinot Grigio, and the Beerenauslese to my family Christmas gathering, while I saved the Sancerre to enjoy with two dozen raw oysters. I'm sure it would have been wonderful with the Reserve Cheddar, but I had a craving for Sancerre and shellfish that just had to be satisfied, and it was wonderful.

2011 Terlato Pinot Grigio
Russian River Valley
100% Pinot Grigio
$16, 13.8% abv.

Ripe citrus with a touch of musk, firm acidity, bright on the palate. My sister-in-law loves Pinot Grigio and enjoyed this one, while I enjoyed the complexity--there's a lot of boring Pinot Grigio out there, and this one definitely held my interest.

2012 Château de Sancerre Blanc
Sancerre AOC, France
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$29, 13% abv.

This one opened up with very gentle grapefruit aromas, hints of bright citrus peel flavors, and a few floral undertones. Great minerality and a lingering finish. The salty oysters only amplified the enjoyment of the wine, and it reminded me how long it had been since trying a Sancerre. Highly recommended.

2010 Kracher Beerenauslese Cuvée
Burgenland, Austria
60% Chardonnay, 40% Welschriesling
$35/375mL, 12% abv.

Classic botrytis aromas of Honeysuckle and lemon, with dark honey flavors. Sweet but not cloying, with very firm acidity. It does not cling to the glass but works out quite well as a dessert wine. It's an interesting blend of grapes when you think about the more common Riesling, Sauternes, and Tokaji implementations.

And now for the cheeses! These are all in the cheddar family but were a lot of fun to nibble on with the wines. With wide distribution, these should be fairly easy to find throughout the United States.

Red Leicester is a traditional English style that is colored with annatto extract like cheddar, but made in a little more crumbly form. I like it with a little summer sausage on the side.

The Reserve Cheddar has been a family favorite for a while. White with crunchy calcium lactate crystals, it has a rich flavor and a fascinating texture.

Our last cheese, and a beautiful pairing with the Kracher, was the Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey. It's much softer than the others, almost like a blended Stilton. The Irish Whiskey is barely present, meaning that it enhances the flavor of the cheese without being overwhelming. It was my favorite of the three, and definitely worth checking out.

Note: These wines were provided as samples.

03 January 2014

Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain Waffles

If you spend any time in the organic aisle of your grocery store, you've probably seen dozens of different products from Bob's Red Mill of Milwaukie, Oregon. If you need to find a flour made from damned near anything, Bob's is your best bet: green peas, fava beans, tapioca, and many, many others.

On Christmas Eve, I found myself craving waffles, and instead of going for the usual Krusteaz mix, I grabbed something a little more wholesome. Oh sure, I could make my own mix beginning with a yeast starter (and have often in the past), but I was feeling a little under the weather and just wanted to mix in some eggs, make my waffles, and freeze a bunch of the leftovers to enjoy later. I was also inspired by leftover samples of the Crown Maple, particularly the alluring dark amber variety.

The 10 Grain Pancake and Waffle Mix is made from wheat, rye, triticale, barley, corn, oats, brown rice, soybeans, millet, and flaxseeds. I wasn't familiar with triticale, but it turns out to be a hybrid of wheat and rye. It's most popular as a feed grain but has some appeal to health food enthusiasts and home brewers.

Much like with bread, waffles fall into the yeast and quick divisions. I find that yeast waffles have a more bread-like texture and sometimes a deeper flavor (particularly if you incorporate a sourdough or other starter), while the quick bread versions (leavened by baking soda, baking powder, and buttermilk powder) have a finer crumb and are crispier. Quick bread also has the advantage of being able to be prepared fairly instantly and in whatever quantities are necessary, while yeast mixes often need to be made the day before, and if you need more, well, you've got to wait another 24 hours.

This mix struck a nice balance with the fine crumb combined with the chunky bits of other grains, leading to a flavor reminiscent of the many multigrain breads that have become popular these days. I served mine simply with butter and maple syrup, though I'm looking forward to making another batch with grated cheddar and apple to amp up the flavor. And as I mentioned before, homemwade waffles freeze beautifully and are far superior to anything you'll get out of a freezer case at the grocery store. Just toss them in zip-top plastic bags and re-heat in the toaster or oven, not the microwave.