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.

10 December 2014

Rioja for the Holidays

Grapes have been grown in Spain for at least 5,000 years, though winemaking has only been going on for a scant 3,000 years thanks to the Phoenicians. I'm going to skip over a lot of that history and focus on these two wineries, founded in the mid-to-late 1800s.

They caught phylloxera late, so by the time it hit they already knew how to avoid it with New World root stocks. Unlike the US wine industry, Spain didn't have to deal with a 19th century Civil War or early 20th century Prohibition, but her export sales suffered from neutrality in both World Wars and production was impacted by her own tragic Civil War in between the two big European conflicts. Through all of the turmoil, none of the factions were really opposed to wine production or consumption, so things were able to continue on with minor interruptions. I think that Spain might be the only country in the world who had four decades of a military dictatorship and didn't let the wine industry go to hell (I'm looking at you, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria).

Despite the ups and downs of Spanish history, I'm always delighted to try bottles from this country. Not only are they often delicious, but the quality-price ratio is fantastic. You can rarely get well-aged bargains like this from France or Italy or Napa. Here are two that I've had the pleasure to try during this holiday season.

2008 Faustino V Reserva
Rioja, Spain
90% Tempranillo, 10% Mazuelo
$20, 13.5% abv.

This winery was founded in 1861 (rough for us, not too bad for Spain) by Eleuterio Martinez Arzok. The six-year old bottle still shows surprising youth with aromas and flavors of tart red raspberry, earth and a crisp finish. A firm structure demonstrates a serious character that is an absolute steal at the price of two sawbucks.

1998 Bodegas Riojanas Viña Albina Gran Reserva
Rioja, Spain
80% Tempranillo, 15% Mazuelo, 5% Graciano
$50, 13% abv.

I thank the PR firm for providing samples a decade apart, albeit from different wineries. This one is a relative youngster founded in 1890. $50 is not your usual middle of the week wine budget, but this delivers a lot of complexity at sixteen years. Perhaps open it for a celebratory viewing of John Hughes' Sixteen Candles? This one opens with a rich nose of black cherry with touches of tobacco and leather. On the palate it is mild and gentle and showing at just the perfect age. Highly recommended.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

07 December 2014

Wines of Chateau Montelena

Recently I got to participate in a webcast tasting with Bo Barrett and his daughter Remi, representing Chateau Montelena. This is one of the wineries famous for the big win in the 1976 Judgment of Paris when California wine beat out Old World legends. The story was the focus of the 2008 film Bottle Shock. I asked them what their family thinks about the movie. There was a lot of laughter, then Bo replied, "The movie was meant as a love letter to California wines rather than exactly what happened."

The two had a lot of great stories to share as our group tasted through two wines that have become legends in their own right.

2012 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay
Napa Valley, California
100% Chardonnay
$50, 13.8% abv.

Aromas of lychee with a touch of toast and vanilla, mild and round body, gentle, low acidity, soft finish. Great balance and I think it would be wonderful with a simple meal of roast clams and baguettes.

2006 Chateau Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Napa Valley, California
98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc
$150, 13.9% abv.

I allowed this one to breathe for about an hour before tasting. It shows a deep nose of black plum and prune with underlying layers of chocolate and earth. Mellow tannins after eight years allow for a long, complex finish. Truly outstanding. I'd only serve this with the best steak you can possibly afford.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

01 December 2014

Thanksgiving with Cadaretta Wines

I've given a lot of advice about Thanksgiving wines over the years, and most years I break my own rules. It's not hypocrisy, it's more about a divide between crowd pleasers and selfish enjoyment of what I'm in the mood for at that particular moment.

This year was a little different, with Julia stuck in town housesitting, much of my family traveling, and a holiday after weeks of busy work for both of us. It was an opportunity to have a simple meal for two followed by crashing on the couch. Well, I dozed off, she kept watching the movie.

I roasted the smallest turkey breast I could find (rubbed with the Slap Ya Mama Cajun spice blend), made fresh cranberry sauce, a simple spinach salad, my fantastic sweet potato soup and crescent rolls from the can. Aside from the soup, not a gourmet effort, but filling and tasty and comforting for two on a cloudy November day.

One common bit of advice for Thanksgiving wine pairing is to go with domestic products. Again, I'm all over the place with my personal preferences, but this year it worked out well to have a lineup of bottles from Washington State. I'm on track right now for tasting Cadaretta Wines every two years and this sampling did not disappoint.

2013 Cadaretta SBS
Columbia Valley, Washington
72% Sauvignon Blanc, 28% Semillon
$23, 12.8% abv.

This Bordelais white blend remains consistent with great honey and floral notes combined with firm acidity. A great wine that contributed to the flavor of the soup.

2011 Cadaretta Cabernet Sauvignon
Columbia Valley, Washington
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 6% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot
$40, 14.4% abv.

Plum and spice with medium tannins and a long finish. I enjoy decanting this one, and while it did not pair conventionally with any of the dishes Julia far preferred it.

2011 Cadaretta Springboard
Columbia Valley, Washington
80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot
$50, 14.3% abv.

Tastes older than it is. Smooth and mild. Great cassis aromas and flavors, low tannins, slightly bitter finish with elements of green pepper. Another great Bordeaux blend that really hits my personal preferences in all the right places.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

26 November 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Greetings everyone! All is going well here at BWR headquarters with lots of outside writing assignments and a busy season at work. But fear not, I have not abandoned the blog, and one of the benefits of a large back catalog is that you can point to some earlier work when asked the same question over and over again. So here are Nine Years' Worth of Thanksgiving Posts.

In the meantime, lots of holiday samples have arrived and expect to see a lot more posts for the remainder of the calendar year. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

16 November 2014

2012 M. Chapoutier Banyuls

Sometimes a sample has to sit around for the right moment. Banyuls is not well known in the United States. It's a fortified dessert wine similar to Port that's made in the south of France. It pairs beautifully with dark chocolate and is the kind of thing that you'd love to sip on around a fire in the winter. So when this bottle arrived on a hot summer day several months ago, I knew that I couldn't do it justice.

This past weekend I was invited to a dinner party hosted by my friend Melissa, and I offered to bring a dozen wines with the one request that dessert feature dark chocolate so that we could properly enjoy the Banyuls. I thought that we might just have a few squares of 80% cacao, but she went all out and made a torte from scratch. Bonus points for the banana pie!

I was excited to serve the wine to a group of people that had never had it before, and the bottle emptied quickly.

2012 M. Chapoutier Banyuls
Banyuls AOC, France
100% Grenache
$30/500mL bottle, 16% abv.

Intense aromas of stewed fruit, raisins, and black cherry. Dark fruit flavors and sweet but not cloying. The dark chocolate provides a powerful contrast of bitter notes which makes you go back and forth between the dessert and the wine, activating all parts of your palate. Highly recommended for the holiday season.

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

11 November 2014

50 Harvests Followup

I wanted to do a followup to my previous post on the 2012 Scotto Celllars 50 Harvests Meritage based on a surprise that showed up today.

I love being a wine writer and there are a lot of perks to the job, both here and in the world of freelancing. There are times when it is stressful and I generally keep those concerns private with fellow writers, because it sounds like whining to the rest of the world. "I had to taste thirty Sauvignon Blancs today... I can barely feel my tongue." If you take this gig seriously, trying thirty wines in a row can be exhausting from a sensory and mental standpoint. Take whatever you like: football, for instance, and instead of just watching your favorite team once on the weekend, you instead have to watch just the first five minutes of thirty different games, take notes on said five minutes, provide analysis... it can be tiring, but at the end of the day there are worse ways to pay the rent.

My one bittersweet complaint that I have mentioned here from time to time is that at a certain point, you start trying a bunch of wines that are great now but are really going to shine in a few years or a decade. And you can't really wait that long because the publicity cycle is at release or tied to a certain holiday. Who knows what may happen--a winery could go out of business, the small exotic wine region could be disrupted by economic or military concerns, anything. So you write about it now and give your best guess for when you think it will be in the Goldilocks Zone based on prior experience with similar styles that have been aged.

After I said, "And oh, to be able to taste this in 6-8 years when it will really shine...", Anthony Scotto was kind enough to send me a second bottle to try in 2021 with instructions written on the bottle in silver ink. This is not a quid pro quo: I'm not promising a good review in seven years per my sample policy. And there is journalistic precedent for this, in terms of privately requesting a second bottle if the sample you received is corked or damaged in shipping. Nothing was wrong with the first bottle (quite the opposite), but I appreciate the opportunity to try this one with proper aging. I have no idea what the wine writing world will look like then, but I am committed to keeping this one stored properly so that I can evaluate it at that time.

I've been given older vintages in the past, and of course have had the chance to try some spectacularly aged wines at private tastings, but this is the first time that I've been provided with a sample with the intent of getting back to them in seven years. I'm looking forward to the experiment!

Note: This wine was provided as a sample for review... in 2021.

05 November 2014

2012 50 Harvests Meritage

I'm always honored at the opportunity to taste small production wines. I tried the 2011 50 Harvests Cabernet Sauvignon in March, a Napa wine designed to celebrate 50 years in the California wine business. That link will tell you a lot of this family's history and how they got into the winemaking business.

This year, they marked their second half-century with their first Napa Meritage (from the 2012 vintage), made by the same Scotto family who produced the William Tell Cider I recently reviewed. This might be the most elegant Meritage I've ever consumed. I'm a fan of the type--Bordeaux-style without infringing on labeling laws and without strict varietal rules (though Meritage has a few...). Mainly California in source, but there are others produced domestically and internationally. You can find quite good, "drink now" bottles in the $20-30 range. Orthodox Bordeaux is wonderful, but sometimes it can be a little more fun with a bit of Petite Sirah or Zinfandel in it.

Last time I thought their release would go well with a well-aged ribeye, and this time around I did just that. Sometimes there are wines that you just sample and move on, but others you make a plan for. Nothing fancy, just a two-inch thick boneless ribeye cooked to medium rare, a loaded baked potato, and some steamed broccoli on a quiet evening at home. I'd had a glass breathing for about an hour, and finally gave it a sip. And oh, to be able to taste this in 6-8 years when it will really shine...

2012 50 Harvests Meritage
Napa Valley, California
60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 10% Petite Sirah
1,520 bottles produced (mine is #1248)
$50, 13.9% abv.

There is a lot going on with this particular nose. Aromas of chocolate, leather, coffee, black plum... On the palate dark fruit flavors of ripe blackberry follow with amazingly smooth tannins. Tart black cherry finish with a lingering flavor. The pairing with a thick, buttery ribeye was precisely what I was craving at the moment and I can't think of any combination that would work better for me. Highly recommended if you have the opportunity to try this impressive wine.

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

02 November 2014

Woof Gang Bakery

This weekend I spent some time trying out new places in my neighborhood. My little patch of suburbia has a rich and constantly changing set of dining options, including a second Ethiopian restaurant that just opened up not far from the first one.

I'd noticed Woof Gang Bakery in Trinity Commons last year, but with a twinge of pain following the loss of my own faithful Wolfgang. But Bella came along a few months ago, and while running an errand I decided I had to stop in.

Woof Gang Bakery & Grooming Cordova
714 N. Germantown Pkwy
Suite 1
Cordova, TN 38018

I picked up a handful of dog biscuits baked on site, though they have a pretty wide range of healthy treats made out of things like dried salmon skin (favored by Alaskan sled dogs since the Yukon gold rush).

Clockwise from the upper left, there is a large frosted biscuit decorated in honor of breast cancer awareness month, a small pizza bone, a squirrel with a glazed tail, and a bagel.

After a 2.5 mile walk, I decided to check out these treats and let Bella sample a small portion of each. The squirrel and large bone are both very hard and slightly sweet, with the squirrel having sort of a gingerbread profile. The pizza bone is less dense and has a dark grain flavor. Finally, the little bagel is airy and crisp and would be perfect for older dogs with more sensitive teeth.

Bella does not get to participate in wine tasting or slugging down oysters, but was very happy to evaluate these treats. After a few hours I decided she should be allowed to eat the rest of the squirrel cookie since she'd chased several up a tree during our morning walk.

Overall, I was pleased with my trip to a dog-focused bakery and can highly recommend it for those of you in the northeast corner of Memphis.

29 October 2014

2012 Collazzi Libertà & 2009 Cune Rioja Reserva

Here's a glimpse behind the curtain of the wine writing world. A lot of people think that a sommelier shows up at your door, knocks politely, and then proceeds to poor a perfectly curated selection of wines that are all related to each other. Three vintages of a specific Chateau, for instance.

In reality, it is common to receive completely unrelated wines, but these are often linked by importer or distributor, or sometimes by grape or style. Thus the pairing shown here of two hearty reds in the $20 range.

2012 Collazzi Libertà
Toscana IGT
55% Merlot, 30% Syrah, 15% Sangiovese
$24, 14% abv.

Syrah and Sangiovese really dominate with the Merlot playing a surprisingly background role. Big tannins, spice, black pepper, and a long finish. Don't save this one for pizza night--make a marinara sauce from scratch and boil up a big pot of spaghetti and meatballs. This wine deserves a home cooked meal.

2009 Cune Rioja Reserva
Rioja, Spain
$20, 13.5% abv.
85% Tempranillo, 5% Mazuelo, 5% Graciano, 5% Garnacha Tinta

Light chocolate and leather profile, smooth body with mild tannins. Delightful balance and an elegant finish. Rioja remains an outstanding bargain across many producers and you'll see what wonders a mere five years of aging is able to accomplish with these grapes. Serve with a thick, medium-rare roasted pork chop that is heavily marbled and you'll never forget the meal.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

26 October 2014

Romanian Dinner

Recently, a Romanian winemaker named Georgetta Dane who has worked for Kendall-Jackson and Big House and other California brands posted a link on Facebook about Romanian food. And I realized that 1) I haven't been doing a lot of cooking recently due to a busy day job and 2) I really needed to taste something different. Dinner at the Benito table for one was going to be ciorbă de fasole cu afumătură and ardei umpluţi.

Both required long cooking but not a lot of effort. The dishes were basically a bean and bacon soup accompanied by a trio of stuffed peppers. My soup incorporated the following ingredients: cannellini beans, salt pork, Vidalia onions, Swiss chard, carrots, parsnips, and chicken broth. For the stuffed peppers, I used little yellow Hungarian peppers and filled them with a combination of pork sausage, onion, rice, and paprika. The sauce was made from sour cream and tomato paste thinned out with water. The peppers were roasted for a good hour and I was able to scoop up the sauce to spread over them.

I was very happy with the results, and think that the soup in particular will be useful to anyone bringing home winter vegetables from the farmer's market. The salt pork was delicious, but in the future I'd probably use a smoked ham hock or similar pork product, and I'd probably cook it longer to allow for the bones to provide an increased depth of flavor.

23 October 2014

Welcome, New Readers!

If you're seeing this blog for the first time, it's probably because of a Canadian study about analyzing content on wine blogs using new software called Leximancer. My wine blog was one of five chosen for a study published in the International Journal of Wine Business Research. The other four blogs used in the analysis were Vinography, Dr. Vino, 1WineDude, and Wannabe Wino.

Becca over at The Academic Wino blog wrote up a nice summary of the paper. Be sure to check it out as well as her many other fascinating articles about the world of wine research.

Check out the links to the left for the quick intro to my blog. Favorite Posts is self-explanatory, Press covers various media appearances and awards, and Other Publications goes into my freelance work for a number of different websites.

Welcome to Benito's Wine Reviews, and I hope you enjoy it!

21 October 2014

2012 Gnarly Head Authentic Black

Usually when you've got a blended red table wine and a blended white in your portfolio, the next entry is always going to be a blended pink. Gnarly Head decided to go in a different direction with black. Pair it with a trendy orange wine for a festive Halloween theme. The suggested music pairing is blindingly obvious.

The wine is not, of course black, no more than a Pinot Noir is really noir. But it is a deep, dark shade of red thanks to a lot of Petite Sirah in the blend and a lot of skin contact. I've always enjoyed the rich depths of the smallest red grapes, bottles made from Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and of course, Petite Sirah. They're not always the same, being made in a wide range of styles but distinctive for being noticeably darker than your average Merlot.

2012 Gnarly Head Authentic Black
Lodi, California
Proprietary blend dominated by Petite Sirah
$12, 14.5% abv.

The wine has a bold profile of blackberry and chocolate, though it is not particularly tannic thanks to 12 months of oak aging and a little decanting ahead of the tasting. It has a round body with a focus on dark fruit elements and a long, lingering finish. There were times when I was reminded of fruit wines made from blueberry or blackberry but without the usual sweetness. Pair with slow-smoked pork ribs.

Note also the prominent placement of Lodi on the label. I have noticed this on Gnarly Head wines going back several vintages, but increasingly wineries that source from Lodi for traditionally "California" wines are starting to specify where the grapes came from. Expect to see more of this in the future, even from brands that may surprise you.

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

18 October 2014

Leaf Vodka

Michigan's ironically named Temperance Distilling Company produces Leaf Vodka, a new brand in the specialty spirits market. Both of their products are distilled from organic wheat, with the ethanol making up 40% of the bottle, while the remaining 60% comes from distinctive water.

There are a lot of studies out there debunking the ability to differentiate various vodkas as well as various waters in a blind tasting environment. To be fair, some of the more public denunciations involve innocent civilians who are just trying to be polite. Vodkas can and do have individual aromas, and if you ever want an example, purchase the cheapest one you can find and enjoy the alluring aroma of lighter fluid.

As for water, not all H2O tastes and smells the same, and this can be proven by any 3 year old who is taken on vacation to a different state: "The water tastes weird!" You don't even have to travel far from home before the tap water starts to strike you as noticeably unusual. Hard, soft, fizzy, mineral, sulfurous, sometimes it's a shade other than perfectly clear... I think the worst I ever experienced was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the water smelled so horrible I wanted to take a shower after my shower.

Leaf Vodka
Certified Organic
$17/750mL bottle, 40% abv.

I tasted these two on my own as well as in a blind environment. In both cases it was easy to distinguish between them.

The green bottle is made using Alaskan glacier water, while the blue bottle comes from a Rocky Mountain mineral spring. The Alaskan is sweeter with a touch of citrus, and more of a pronounced grain aroma. The Rocky Mountain version has a darker, more stony and drier profile that reminds me of great Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Both are quite smooth, however I fear that the subtleties will be lost in cocktails. But for the price, these are both fantastic bargains.

Note: These bottles were provided as samples for review.

14 October 2014

Fee Bros. Cardamom "Boker's Style" Bitters

The story of Boker's bitters is a familiar one in the history of American alcohol production. For nearly a hundred years from the early 1800s until Prohibition, Boker's was popular in the United States as well as throughout the world, and then the company went out of business and multiple generations passed. Perhaps the most popular implementation was the Japanese Cocktail from the 1860s, which calls for two dashes of Boker's bitters. That means that since 1920, no one who is dedicated to strictly following recipes has been able to make this brandy-based beverage.

Fee Bros. has recently come out with a Cardamom bitters, subtitled as "Boker's Style". Only a few people in the world have actually sampled the few rare remaining bottles of Boker's, but they contributed to the development of this cocktail flavoring.

I'm not sure of the exact recipe, but the short version would be a delightful cross between gin and root beer, which is to say that there are lots of different botanical aromas including, from my sniff test: cardamom, pepper, sassafras, orange peel, coriander, and more. I won't ask for the secret recipe, but rest assured that you can add a few drops to a shot of vodka and you've effectively made a shortcut version of gin.

I tried it in a gin and vodka martini, and preferred it in the latter where the flavors didn't clash with the established spice combination in the gin. I have not tried it yet in a Japanese cocktail, mainly due to my residual irritation at making homemade orgeat syrup, the third ingredient beyond brandy and Boker's. However, I have many old cocktail books and will find the perfect one with which to use this rare and antiquated ingredient. I'll keep you posted.

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

13 October 2014

"Where've you been, Ben?"

The scene is a dentist's office in 1993. Dana, the dental hygienist, asks me, "Where've you been, Ben?" and laughs. Even I, a fan of puns, cringe slightly.

It was a joke that I heard roughly once a month for five years as I dealt with the regular schedule of tightening braces. Towards the end I could actually sleep through the procedure. It was also a pediatric practice, so I was the only patient driving himself to appointments.

I thought about this phrase recently because I feel like I've been neglecting the wine blog while at the same time doing more writing than I've ever done in my life. Here's what's going on in addition to my previous piece on working with Microsoft and the day job that keeps Bella fed.

I've picked up a freelance gig writing for Snooth.com, the company that has previously sponsored my press junkets to New York and Lodi. My first article for them is about 5 Wines for Prime Rib. I'm looking forward to more work with them in the future.

I'm also writing content for Nomacorc, the synthetic cork factory I visited back in February. I've written several pieces for their new blog, and the two that have been published are interviews with winemakers about five wines they love. One from Michael Honig and one from Ben Mayo.

This main site will always be the clearing house for everything that I write, and as I rapidly approach the ten year mark I am committed to continuing reviews of wines here at BWR. There are many great wines awaiting review downstairs, and I know that many more will be coming in the next two months during the holiday rush.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and be sure to check out my freelance pieces!

11 October 2014

Touring Lodi's Bechthold Vineyard with Microsoft Sway

As part of the Microsoft Office Insiders group, I get the opportunity to test out some new technology. Microsoft is getting ready to release a new Office application called Sway. Disclaimer: I'm receiving no compensation for this test and what you're seeing here is a preview of the technology. It's not completely ready, but I'm excited about it. Sway is sort of like PowerPoint but designed in such a way that you can easily create and display projects on mobile devices. The layout and format of the entire project can be changed with a tap, and it will also adjust itself to whatever device you're using.

For my first attempt at this new application, I thought it would be fun to put together a Sway about the Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi, California. I have lots of pictures that I'd not previously used, and thought that this was a fun way to present them. Bechthold was my first stop on my press tour earlier in the year, and recently we had an online tasting featuring four wines from that small patch of land:

Be sure to click on this link for the full screen experience which is easier to read:

A Sway About the Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

10 October 2014

2012 Edna Valley Vineyard Chardonnay

As much as I love Vietnamese food, I don't eat it as often as I should, especially given the many great restaurants here in the greater Memphis area. Last weekend I stopped by Green Bamboo in my local neighborhood for takeout. Pictured here are hủ tiếu and gỏi cuốn: the former is a savory soup that includes shrimp, squid, and pork, while the latter is a lettuce and shrimp roll dipped in a peanut sauce.

It was my first time ordering hủ tiếu, and I think I've got a new favorite. I've always gone with the beef versions (phở bò viên, phở tái gầu) or the all-seafood implementations (like phở hải sản), but I think that the pork/shellfish/cephalopod model is pretty incredible.

The factor that always brings me back is the use of fresh vegetables. Bright basil, spicy peppers, crisp lettuce, crunchy bean sprouts... It's almost like having salad and soup at the same time and being able to enjoy the best elements of both. Upon arriving home, I decided that I would really enjoy this meal with a Chardonnay...

2012 Edna Valley Vineyard Chardonnay
Central Coast, California
100% Chardonnay
$15, 13.9% abv.

Buttery with a touch of caramel and vanilla on the nose. On the palate it is mild with gentle white peach flavors. Classic California Chardonnay profile. A perfect match with the lunchtime meal and a wine substantial enough to stand up to the bold flavors of the soup.

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

08 October 2014

Silly Glassware

I've given this advice in the past, but this is a great time of year to indulge in silly glassware. At right are a pair of glasses that I grabbed at Kroger for about a buck apiece: a goblet festooned with owls and other woodland critters, and a sturdy stemless glass with a frosted leaf.

Why do I keep buying these things, and even still have Champagne flutes emblazoned with 2007 on them?

#1) They're inexpensive. Nice glassware breaks over time, and while I always try to pick the perfect piece of crystal with the appropriate wine, there are far more casual occasions when non-fanatics just want to enjoy a glass, and these are perfect.

#2) They're indestructible. I've watched an expensive piece of Austrian stemware just crumble at the table. These glasses will survive the dishwasher, being employed as water glasses at Thanksgiving/Christmas, and can tip over without showering your dining room with tiny shards of pricy glass.

#3) Wine glasses don't always have to match. True, I enjoy a proper table setting with perfect stemware at all eight seatings. This is rarely how I enjoy wine in the real world.

#4) You'll always have extra glasses. Sometimes a friend comes over with a dozen bottles, or you're a wine writer and you receive three dozen bottles in one week and don't want to swirl and spit from the same glass all afternoon. It's helpful to have some generic red glasses, white glasses, and then assorted oddballs for dessert wines and sparklers that require thorough rinsing before sampling other types of wine.

#5) They're fun. I've always wanted wine to seem like a less threatening topic for the novice, and sometimes pouring the really nice, well-aged splash of Burgundy in a goofy glass covered in owls is the best way to make someone feel comfortable. I've seen people get really nervous around expensive stemware and end up breaking it, while a cheaper goblet style is more approachable and, referencing point #2, unlikely to break under normal conditions.

When it all comes down to it, the holidays are a time to have fun with friends and family. But I'm not suggesting you run out and buy Thanksgiving and Christmas glassware--the time is right to buy glasses covered in spiders, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night.

06 October 2014

Pink Bordeaux

As summer draws to a close and colder weather approaches, it was a pleasure to sample a pair of Bordelais rosés on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Bordeaux gets so much attention for its red wines that it is often easy to overlook the white, pink, and sparkling wines from the region. Here is a quick look at two bottles to try before the sun disappears for its winter vacation...

2013 Vieux Château Lamothe Rosé
Bordeaux, France
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot
$9, 12% abv.

Thin and clean with a light Rainier cherry flavor. Delicate floral nose. Spectacular with turkey and avocado on a croissant.

2013 Jean Medeville Rosé
Bordeaux, France
100% Cabernet Sauvignon
$14, 12% abv.

Nectarine and watermelon aromas and flavors abound with bright acidity. Pale and austere appearance, and it goes well with garlicky steamed clams.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

03 October 2014

Fall Wines of Germany

Time once again for the quarterly delivery of two bottles from Wines of Germany. Over the years I've really enjoyed their sample system: always two bottles, one sweet, one dry, yet always demonstrating the impressive diversity that comes out of Germany with just a handful of white grapes.

The holidays are approaching, and low alcohol Riesling always has a place on the Thanksgiving or Christmas table. The Pinot Gris presented here is not my preferred style--I like it more austere and with a mineral focus--but is still tasty and approachable for both the expert and novice.

2013 Villa Wolf Pinot Gris
Pfalz, Germany
100% Pinot Gris
$12, 12.5% abv.

Just 75 km/45 miles from the French border, this winery was established in 1756 but revitalized by Dr. Loosen in 1996. This particular bottle is crisp and tart with tangy green apple and pear flavors. Dry and refreshing with a short finish. With a nod towards Thanksgiving, this would be my go-to bottle for a sandwich of leftover turkey and cranberry sauce on Friday while I am sitting at home reading rather than fighting with the crowds out shopping.

2011 Louis Guntrum Niersteiner Rehbach Riesling Spätlese
Rheinhessen, Germany
100% Riesling
$25, 10% abv.

The Guntrum estate was founded in 1648 and is currently managed by the 11th generation family member Louis Konstantin Guntrum. In 1945, General George S. Patton occupied the winery for the last months of WWII. I'm sure this was a purely strategic decision. This particular bottle is mild and sweet with low acidity and a round body. Round white fruit flavors with a gentle, clean finish. Good balance and a low alcohol percentage make this one an excellent candidate for the wine novices at your holiday table, while at the same time appealing to those who know a lot more about wine. I got a serious craving for baked ham and deviled eggs while sipping this one.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

01 October 2014

2013 Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc

Founded in California in 2007, the Cecchetti Wine Company produces wine under five different brands: Austerity, Backhouse, Exitus, Redtree, and the source of this bottle, Line 39. As I mentioned in my 2013 review, this label is named after 39°N latitude, which runs right through Lake County, north of Sonoma and Napa.

Most people think of Sauvignon Blanc as a summer beverage, but I find it refreshing in the darker, colder days of fall. It's a reminder of sunshine and green grass and picnics. And a bottle invariably ends up on the Thanksgiving table, where it provides a tart accompaniment to ham and turkey.

2013 Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc
Lake County, California
100% Sauvignon Blanc
$11, 13.1% abv.

This Sauvignon Blanc opens up with aromas of grapefruit pith and lime peel. Tart and crisp with a quick and tangy finish. Perfect with a smoked chicken salad full of grapes and diced apples.

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

29 September 2014

Five Wines from Coppola

Over the years I've tried a lot of wines from Francis Coppola Winery. The names and brands have changed over time, but these five labels appear to be sticking around.

I visited the Sonoma winery back in 2009 and have often recommended these bottles as reliable choices that are widely distributed throughout the United States.

2011 Francis Coppola Diamond Chardonnay
Monterey County
100% Chardonnay
$16, 13.5% abv.

Buttered popcorn, touch of vanilla and caramel. Bright acidity but a fairly round body with a woody aftertaste.

2011 Francis Coppola Diamond Malbec
89% Malbec, 7% Syrah, 4% Petite Sirah
$18, 13.1% abv.

Bright plum aroma with touches of leather and coffee. Round mouthfeel, low tannins, and a tart finish. Inky black color, but lighter than expected on the palate.

2011 Francis Coppola Diamond Claret
79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc
$21, 13.5% abv.

Blackberries, blueberries, cassis, chocolate, coffee, medium tannins, long dark fruit finish.

2012 Sofia Rosé
Monterey County, California
55% Syrah, 35% Pinot Noir, 10% Grenache
$19, 12.5% abv.

A favorite of mine, and one that I love to give as a gift. Light strawberry flavors with bright acidity and a generally fun wine. Adaptable to a wide range of foods.

2012 Francis Coppola Director's Pinot Noir
Sonoma Coast, California
100% Pinot Noir
$21, 13.5% abv.

Very light garnet color, delicate wild strawberry aromas, mild acidity, low tannins, long finish.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

26 September 2014

Spell Winery Pinot Noir

At Spell Estate, German-born winemaker Andrew Berge produces a portfolio that is almost entirely Pinot Noir sourced from Sonoma and Mendocino. (The exception is a Chardonnay.) Spell is a small operation, producing 1500 cases a year. The wine can be purchased from their website, and tasting is only available by appointment at their custom crush facility.

I was contacted by Spell after tasting the Pinot Noir from La Pitchoune, where Berge also works as a winemaker. These four bottles show an impressive range of styles that are distinctly California yet demonstrate the versatility of this grape.

2012 Spell Nichole's Blend Pinot Noir
Sonoma County
100% Pinot Noir
902 Cases Produced
$39, 14.3% abv.

Profile of black cherry and a hint of leather. Medium tannins and a long finish. Excellent quality-price ratio.

2012 Spell Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir
Yorkville Highlands
100% Pinot Noir
194 Cases Produced
$50, 14.3% abv.

Deep and meaty with savory notes, a dark strawberry with just a dash of reduced balsamic vinegar on it.

2012 Spell Alder Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir
Mendocino County
100% Pinot Noir
149 Cases Produced
$50, 14.2% abv.

Really bold dark fruit with a firm body, one that benefits from an hour of decanting. Touches of tobacco and coffee are quite enchanting.

2012 Spell Terra de Promissio Vineyard
Sonoma Coast
100% Pinot Noir
148 Cases Produced
$72, 14.3% abv.

Rich and deep with a profile of berries backed up by hints of spice. Incredibly smooth and perfectly balanced. Highly recommended.

Note: These wines were provided as samples for review.

24 September 2014

Bickering Brothers Blended Whiskey

I recently had the pleasure of having an early dinner with Dave Rickert. I hadn't seen him in years and it was good to catch up over beer and sandwiches at a local bar. His brother Mike now lives in South Dakota, and from an earlier visit Dave brought me the last few ounces of a bottle of the most famous South Dakota whiskey.

Well, the only legal South Dakota whiskey.

Dakota Spirits Distillery has been in operation since 2006 but only in the past few years have they been able to sell their products in South Dakota (previously they trucked it across the border to Iowa). Their product line includes Ringneck Vodka, Coyote Light 100 Whiskey (a moonshine), Bickering Brothers Brandy, and this whiskey...

Bickering Brothers Blended Whiskey
Pierre, South Dakota
40% abv.

Half Bourbon, half grain spirits. Golden in color with a nose of oak and vanilla. Bracing like a young Scotch with a thin body but a long finish. On the palate I pick up a little spice and smoke. Definitely one that begs for a cigar on the back porch.

The whiskey is available mostly in South Dakota and due to state restrictions on how much they're allowed to produce, you're probably not going to see nationwide distribution anytime soon. But if you find yourself in the state to visit Mt. Rushmore or to ride at Sturgis, definitely check it out.

22 September 2014

Cider Brothers "William Tell" Hard Cider of Lodi

The Cider Brothers are Michael and Paul Scotto, 5th generation members of a Lodi wine family. They've recently branched out into hard cider production.

Cider was for a long time America's most popular alcoholic beverage, but lost favor with Prohibition and changing tastes after WWII. I was first exposed to it when it re-emerged as a curiosity in the 90s with brands like Woodchuck and a few British imports. Since then, the market has grown alongside the enthusiasm of the craft beer industry and there's more interest in traditional small production ciders made from fresh apples rather than concentrated juice. The Cider Brothers use a combination of five apples.

From the press release:
  • Golden Russets enhance the bouquet and aromatics, and contribute complexity and fruit flavor
  • Granny Smiths add tannic structure and tartness, adding to the mouthfeel
  • Galas help deliver a clean, refreshing finish
  • Fujis lend just the right amount of sweetness
  • Red Delicious brings rich mouth feel and distinct appley, aromatic qualities

Right now the bottles are available in the 22 oz. format, a little smaller than a 750mL wine bottle. But hard cider is usually a low alcohol beverage, so this is perfect for splitting between two people at dinner. (UPDATE: 12 oz. bottles are also available.)

William Tell Hard Apple Cider
Lodi, California
$9/22 oz. 6% abv.

Bright and slightly yeasty nose, with a clean, crisp, tart mouth feel. The dominant flavor is akin to a Golden Delicious. Completely lacking the sour note found in many mass-produced ciders.

William Tell Pinot Grigio Hard Apple Cider
Lodi, California
$9/22 oz., 6.5% abv.

This one is made with 85% Hard Apple Cider, 15% Pinot Grigio. Very similar to the first one, but the wine is definitely present with a rounder, smoother mouthfeel. I was skeptical of this kind of blend at first but after tasting found that I preferred it over the pure apple version. This would be phenomenal to serve at a BBQ.

Note: These ciders were provided as samples for review.

20 September 2014

Tannoor Grill in Cordova, Tennessee

A new restaurant popped up in the neighborhood recently, and because I only saw the sign while maneuvering rush hour traffic, I thought there was a new Indian place with a Tandoori grill. But upon further inspection the place is called Tannoor Grill, and is a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern version of the Brazilian churrascaria restaurant. Large skewers full of grilled meats are brought around to your table over and over until you say "stop!"

Tannoor Grill
830 N. Germantown Parkway
Cordova, TN 38018
(901) 443-5222

I stopped in for lunch by myself. Although the restaurant is all-you-can-eat, the place is classy and all food is brought to you. For dinner, they have an expanded menu and it's a little more expensive, but I must stress to all of my readers that the following feast was brought to my table for the bargain price of $13 (plus tax and beverages), and at any time I could request more of any of the courses.

First up was a freshly prepared fatoush salad full of tomatoes and cucumbers:

Followed by a slice of grilled eggplant topped with ground beef and yogurt:

Mezze! Pita, baba ghanoush, hummus:

Then chicken legs, served off the skewer:

Nicely seasoned ground beef kebabs:

Moist and succulent chicken breast:

Slices of rare sirloin. I could have kept going for a long while with this:

Chunks of well-done beef (chuck roast?):

After modest portions of everything I signaled defeat and Chef Shadi Alrammal came by with a whole pineapple, peeled, coated in brown sugar and grilled. I had two slices:

While this is an amazing bargain for lunch (and you can try everything without hurting yourself), I can't wait to try it for dinner to sample the lamb and all of the other extra options. That's the kind of dinner that requires fasting for a few days ahead of time and a lot of time on the exercise bike for the following week. Check it out, and tell 'em I sent you.