Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Gifts for Wine Geeks: Impossible or Easy?

So, you need to buy a present for a wine geek. Do you feel intimidated? Overwhelmed? That's okay. Take a deep breath...now another...and come with me for a quick tour to see why you are not alone.
I will have ideas and potential solutions for you at the end.

A Wine Spectator link recently featured Wine Gifts for All Occasions and it got me thinking about how useless these articles are. A lock for unfinished bottles of wine (I think the recipient might rather have a new roommate or a good divorce lawyer instead). How about a $300 saber for opening sparkling wine the hard/impressive/dangerous way? Never mind that this technique is incredibly difficult and sort of pointless, the saber is $300. A $700 bucket from Riedel specifically designed for icing down sparkling wine? At least "it's awfully heavy." Musical glasses that make a major scale (if you overpour the wine) sound like fun at least - just fill them with water. A $60 glass, essentially a slightly altered flute, might impress but unless you're bringing four or six of them it will look weird. Wine ties! Enough said. I must admit I like the idea of the silicone glasses, even if they are stemless. However, I am wary of making the wine taste of plastic or rubber despite the claim of "Food-Grade-Silicone." Plus, they're made in China, so add lead to my list of concerns.
No good answers there. I then searched "best wine gifts" on Yahoo! and Google.
First Yahoo!, more than half of the first website link features cocktail items not wine. The next answered specific questions, helpful but not widely applicable. Then wine.com came up and they always want me to tell them which state I'm shipping to...and I remembered why Google is the best search engine.
First link is to Wine Enthusiast and they're hyping "2013's Hottest Gifts." There's a "Deco Electric Blue Corkscrew with Digital Thermometer." It looks cool but I have yet to meet someone who cares enough about wine to need to know the temperature but not enough about it to use a proper corkscrew. There are no reviews but my experience with this type of corkscrew is that it often pierces all the way through the cork leaving pieces floating in the wine. They also feature a wine saver carafe for keeping wine fresh longer. Seems smart enough but without testing it myself, I'm not sold. Reviews seem solid, so perhaps there's a solution for some of you. There are hundreds of other ideas on their website but you could be there forever looking for the best gadget.
The second link on my Google search is the Wine Spectator gift guide at the beginning of this post. Then Gift Giving 101 from 2012 and Wine Enthusiast editors...20% of those recommendations link straight to Wine Enthusiast. The there's wine.com again with its prying question to even enter the site. A little further exploration of Google results brought me this gem - a bicycle wine rack. Would that bottle ever survive on the streets of New Orleans? Perhaps the search engine isn't the problem.
You get the idea. At least you should. But maybe you already got this part, the frustration, the dizzying array of books, gadgets, glassware, etc. We're all on the same page now though, so here's my advice.
Avoid books, especially the big, heavy ones filled with maps unless you have heard your intended recipient wish one would appear. These books are fantastic but a lot of wine drinkers, even geeks, do not care about this style of information. Books that read more like a story or fancy picture versions about an area he or she loves might work wonders but you need to know their interests. And hope they don't already have a copy.
Gadgets are a challenge. Most geeks will already have what they need. The newest gadget, a fancy corkscrew or most other trinkets I see in wine shops and online would go unused in my house. If you know your intended recipient well enough, go for it, but read the rest of this first.
Avoid glassware unless you know for sure which style and brand they use. More of what I already have would be a great gift since some of those nice glasses break if you look at them the wrong way. Oddball glasses or even a full set of a style he or she will never use does you no good.
The bottom line for me is that if you are buying for a wine geek, buy wine. If you know someone who spends every weekend grilling and barbecuing would you try to bring them a new tool or book about smoking meat? Wouldn't you bring them some wood for smoking and maybe some special kind of protein to cook? Yes, you might have to pay attention to glean information about what that might be but I can guarantee it will be more appreciated than something that goes into a drawer or onto a shelf never to be used.
Pay attention to what they drink. Do you know where your recipient shops? Go and ask the employees for help. They'll be thrilled. You don't have to spend an arm and a leg to get a wine he or she might not know but might enjoy based on other wine they love.
If you have no idea where they shop, go to a nice wine store and tell them what you know about the giftee's wine tastes. Any competent shop will be able to place a bottle or two in your hands that will do the trick. Real geeks love trying new wines...hey, that should be a T-shirt.
Seriously though, gift giving takes a little bit of effort. It may be too late for this year but observing what he or she drinks will make buying easy. You don't need an exact producer, variety and vintage picked out. A little information goes a long way when you take it to an expert for advice. Even if you end up giving wine already in their cellar, that's not a bad thing. Two, three or even 13 bottles of the same wine are useful, unlike a third Deco Electric Blue Corkscrew or a second (or maybe even a first) wine bottle holder...I don't even want to discuss these Christmas wine sweaters for bottles.
Still rolling your eyes? Still overwhelmed? Still not believing? Try this. I have never met a wine geek that doesn't love food too. Take them out to a restaurant. Or offer to cook them a meal. Maybe even at their house. Then maybe your recipient will pick the wine(s). You both win!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

There are more reasons to be thankful than I could ever list and way more than anyone other than me would ever want to read. Also, this is a site devoted to wine, so I thought I would share one wine that really stood out for me.
On a recent visit to see my mother and step-father I was invited to explore the cellar. My mom avoids many of the wines because she has tasted some that seemed sub-par. He has given up drinking wine almost entirely. The storage is good and some wines are impressive but on past forays the results have been mostly disappointing. We selected a bottle of Les Forts de Latour 1985.

This is the second label of Chateau Latour in Pauillac one of the first growths of Bordeaux. For many years, second label wines seemed, to me, to serve as dumping grounds to improve the flagship wine. Not just vats of wine that didn't measure up but a completely different blend in many cases. If the most important wine is mostly cabernet sauvignon, the second wine might be mostly merlot, meaning even with similar quality wine being added (this never happens) the wines would be very different anyway. Eventually, most Bordeaux houses learned to get rid of the worst grapes and actually started to produce second label wines worth drinking (though I would still argue they're not worth the price - Dear Bordeaux).
This wine made me happy, not only because I enjoy Bordeaux but it was in terrific shape. The delicious 1985 vintage was gone from shelves when I entered the wine business but I have tasted many different wines through the years. The wines are impeccably balanced and offer richness and finesse.
Here are my quick notes from this bottle:
Lead pencil on the nose leads to deeper plum fruit and some older dried plum behind it. It was a bit short on lushness but the essence of the flavor lasted a long time. I was surprised. Some black cherry showed up in the middle - really more aroma than flavor - then more strong lead pencil, earth and gravel on the finish. The wine opened beautifully and remained tasty until we tipped the last into our glasses.
The wine not only provided enjoyment that night but made me much more excited about the extensive selections that still remain in the cellar...as good a reason as any to be thankful. See you soon, mom.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How (And Why) To Return A Bottle Of Wine

If you drink wine you will encounter flawed wine.  It is a fact as predictable as death and taxes, though easier to miss. You can refer to my earlier post about how to identify bad wine for some tips and assistance on that front.
But, what do you do with bad wine?
Simple Answer
Easy, return it. Take it back to the place you bought it and ask for a replacement bottle or a credit to spend on something else. If you don't remember where you bought it you can find any retailer that currently sells the wine and return it there. It will not matter to the wholesaler which outlet returns the bad bottle to them. Distributors supply the local area, often an entire state, so a bad bottle would come back to them no matter who returns it. They will then either issue a credit or a free bottle to the retailer to replace the bad one.
As an aside, some importers and wineries do not replace bottles for the wholesalers but that should not concern you, the consumer. Usually in these instances, which are rarer and rarer, the importer provides an allowance in pricing to account for samples and bad bottles. In the end, wine wholesalers know bad bottles exist and that they are returned, so if they don't negotiate properly on their own behalf it is not your problem.
Your Responsibility
Now, for your duties in this matter. Be sure the bottle is bad. Too many bottles make it to the wholesaler that are just wines the customer did not like. While it is unfortunate if you buy a bottle that does not please your palate, your dislike is not a reason for a return. You can can bring a sweater back to a store but once a wine is opened, it can't be resold or re-gifted.
Helpful Information/What's In It For You
If you are unsure, return the bottle as soon as you can (the next day is ideal) so the merchant can determine if the bottle is bad or just not your style. They might offer you a replacement either way but you will learn the difference. As an added bonus, if the wine is fine but not for you, the merchant will have learned more about your palate and can make better recommendations. Good luck doing this with a chain retailer.
On the plus side, for consumers, many of these retailers have very liberal return policies. I know of one that accepts them, no questions asked. You might be able to taste your way through dozens of wines to find just the right ones while returning all the others. This is not a recommendation, by the way, just an observation.
Sorry, Too Late
If you have had the bottle in your possession long enough that is is no longer the current vintage, the retailer has less obligation to make it right. Your storage conditions may not have been ideal. If the bottle is obviously corked, good merchants will likely take care of you if they still stock the wine. If the bottle is more than four or five years past vintage you can forget it. If you find retailers willing to accept returns of wine that old, let me know, I may have some bottles for them.
Dining Out...and Refusing Wine
Restaurants are a similar, but different story. If the bottle is old and corked, they must accept the return as they are the ones offering it for current sale. They may be stuck with it then but, again, that is not your problem. They wouldn't force you to buy fish that doesn't taste right just because you ordered it. In restaurants where they age bottles on site, there is always a sommelier or wine person you can talk to about the condition of the bottle, both before the bottle is opened and after if you are unsure or unhappy.
Traditionally, to verify the quality of the bottle about to be served, someone on staff used to taste the wine before pouring it for the diner. That practice has all but vanished but if you have concerns, invite a knowledgable staff member to taste the wine. Don't worry, they will only pour a little.
Don't Be These People
I once walked into a restaurant and had three bottles of the same wine sitting in the return area. I asked what happened and the manager told me that she had been off one night and a new member of the waitstaff kept opening the same wine because the customer said it "didn't taste right." He claimed to be a fan of the wine and bullied the waiter into bringing the same thing again and again and again.
I have also witnessed this as a power play. Returning a dish or a wine or otherwise demonstrating your dominance displays strength to the rest of the table and perhaps the restaurant. It also is a complete jerk move and burdens a wholesaler or a winery with an economic loss because someone was out of his Viagra or otherwise lacked confidence.
Take This To Heart
One more recommendation, be polite about the return or refusal. Instead of pontificating, present it as a question or gentle approach. "I think this might be corked" or "Do you think this tastes the way it should" will go a long way to getting you what you want.
Remember there will always be wines that are flawed. There will also always be wines you do not like. Engage your waiter, sommelier or retailer and you will not only learn the difference but you will gain more confidence and be more likely to find wines you like in the future.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Geoff Worden's Wisdom(?) is Spreading

A new venue has opened for me, I am now writing a monthly piece for Propaganda New Orleans. Check out the site, it covers everything from food to fashion and offers insight into the arts, information about retailers, health and so much more. There's plenty of NOLA-centric information but it also resonates beyond our little corner of the swamp. I really enjoyed and shuddered over this Dating post... be warned it involves dolls. Go check them out if you haven't already, there's some great stuff there. Here's my debut effort, Breathe/Decant.

For those of you finding this blog from NOLA-Prop, welcome! Feel free to get a glass of wine and hang out a while. You'll find some useful stuff in the Resources section, a few book reviews and some better ideas about me by exploring the Uncommon Tastings and Favorite Posts tabs. If you have some travel planned to Missouri or Indiana in your future and are curious about some of their wine, check out the Other States tab...more to come! 
Hope you like what you see, I look forward to your next visit.
Speaking of which, up next here is an explanation of what to do with that bad bottle of wine now that you know how to identify it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Fancy, Lazy Wine Pairings (and a Lazy Post)

Saw this Mental Floss post and loved it(!), especially the first pairing. It brought me back to a lazy day post-Katrina when I was working my way through my extensive wine collection that sat in the sweltering heat for much too long after the storm passed but the Army Corpse of Engineers' levees gave way.
I was sitting in a friend's house that was on the market since mine was uninhabitable at the time and she and her then-husband had left town, never to return. College football was on and I was exhausted from working and trying to rehab my house. As I recall, Penn State was playing - before the Sandusky ugliness had surfaced - and I didn't feel like cooking. I had a bag of Cheetos and decided a bottle Brunello might make a good match. It was magical. Beyond the more than serviceable pairing, it was a rare moment of relaxation and (mostly) happiness in a  tumultuous time. The wine held up better than many others in my "cellar" had and I felt as normal as I had in months. Wish the producer's name was still in my head but many details from that slice of my life are fuzzy, jumbled or just plain gone.
The first lazy person pairing in this recent post rang true and I bet the others might for you. Check them out:
Lazy Wine Pairings from Mental Floss
Anyone have more to offer?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

No Hick from French Lick

As I have written before (French Lick visit and Vintage Indiana summary) French Lick Winery continues to impress me. Their wines could fit well with much more recognized varieties from more well known regions. I applaud their efforts with dry, red table wines and with unheralded grapes.
Vintage Indiana provided me an opportunity to taste them against their immediate competition and they blew me away. My favorite continues to be the norton but the chambourcin always makes my mouth happy too.
Here are updated reviews for my two favorites.

Chambourcin - non-vintage? The bottling has been vintage dated in the past but this one seems to lack that information. It is possible I missed it, the norton has the vintage in a strange place, see below, but I am pretty sure no vintage appeared anywhere. The back label also says "for sale in Indiana only," which I found interesting (norton has the same caveat.)
The wine shows a great, vibrant purple color with ruby edges. It is bright and clear (not even slightly cloudy) with a hint of cedar on the nose but otherwise fairly mute. The palate has enough fruit to carry it through, with tannin appearing on the finish. The mouthfeel borders on lush but the tannins clip the finish a bit - the lingering impression seems more aromatic than tactile but that flavor hangs on for a full minute after a sip. This wine is not huge or intense or particularly complex but it is a happy drink.

Norton 2009 - You can see the unusual placement of the vintage here.

This wine has an impressive, deep color with a red edge. The nose was a but mute straight out of the bottle but the palate is all there! The nose is subtle fruits - blackberries in a not quite air-tight container(?) - and some vanilla. The oak is not overwhelming despite the obvious appearance of vanilla on the aroma. The palate is medium-bodied but full and rich, engaging the tongue more than the roof of the mouth. Great texture. Again, after opening up a bit, dark berry and vanilla dominate. There is not a whole lot else present but the wine is delicious anyway. I would love to serve this to a cabernet fan and see what they say.

Go see the winery if you're in the neighborhood.
French Lick Winery

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The End of Hand Sorting?

I am not always a fan of technological advances brought to winemaking but then most of those tend to be about controlling anomalies: spinning out excess alcohol, remastering chemical composition to account for low acids, etc.
The optical sorting machine seems to be a winner. Bloomberg ran a piece about this machine and I found it on Dr. Vino's blog. It is fascinating technology, seemingly meeting with glowing reviews from real-world users. The grapes move through the machine and a picture is taken, then sub-par grapes are blown off the line with a poof of air.
This may be another blow to day-laborers and maybe even to volunteers who like to help during harvest. Many small wineries will not be able to afford the $175K price tag, so this is not the new face of all sorting, but it seems like a technological improvement we can all get excited about!
As long as that cost is met with real savings, so the prices don't shoot up faster than the quality...but if the improvement is as good as they claim, even a nominal increase in price can be justified by an accompanying rise in quality.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Is Somebody Going to Control this Liquor Control Commission?

I read an article the other day by Karl Klooster in the Oregon Wine Press titled "Taste of Trouble" and it took me back to my days of schlepping a wine bag in Oregon. My direct personal experience with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) involved getting a Service Permit. This allowed me to pour tiny tastes of wine without violating the law. However, through word-of-mouth, I heard many tales of sting operations and draconian enforcement. These rumors included tales of being suspended for not checking IDs at free public tastings and for drinking while on duty.
The law doesn't allow for tasting, even if one is spitting, while working in the liquor business in Oregon. A friend and colleague was suspended for two weeks from pouring wine when he was "caught" tasting a wine he suspected of being corked. He tasted, spat and was busted by some agent of the OLCC for "drinking." Forced out of tastings for two weeks, his income dropped significantly because sales are driven by sampling, especially in Portland, Oregon.
Fortunately, most consumers are aware of the intense level of oversight from the OLCC and eagerly hand over their ID in order to taste wine. This avoids the awkward moments I experienced in New Orleans, the land to the drive-through daiquiri shop, where people looked shocked when carded to taste an amount of wine with less alcohol than a bottle of cough syrup.
Stage now set, let's return to Karl's tale. The OLCC sting operation of Torii Mor (an excellent winery and visit, by the way) featured a 26 year-old and a 19 year-old, both women. The server at the winery asked the younger one if she was 21. The employee should have known she wasn't, it was 2012 and the ID said the young lady was born in 1993, but I can testify that on a busy day or at a busy event, doing the math on legality of drinking age can be more challenging than it should be.
This direct questioning is a fall back for many people serving alcohol in Oregon because if the person is an OLCC employee or agent, they are not allowed to lie during a sting operation. The underage woman replied, "You have seen my ID." Another query received the same response.
There was no service of the underage would-be drinker but the 26 year-old texted an officer waiting outside. "She indicated that a 'sale' had taken place." The wine never crossed the counter from the winery employee's side of the bar and "[t]he preponderance of testimonial evidence indicated the minor never touched the wine glass."
Charges were eventually dismissed but Torii Mor had the threat of revocation of their license hanging over them for more than six months and incurred legal fees. I understand the need to enforce the law and to occasionally show up to remind those serving that the OLCC is watching. However, this appears to be an instance of bureaucrats making something out of nothing to justify their existence. Congratulations on the dismissal Torii Mor! It's hard to forget these days, but always remember that Big Brother is watching and apparently looking for excuses to bust you.

Monday, September 23, 2013

News Briefs: Martin Wine Cellar and Mulderbosch

Courtesy of Shanken News Daily, I learned that Cedric Martin won Retailer of the Year from Market Watch. I congratulate my former boss but quibble with the wording in the report. "Martin, whose business was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has since rebuilt and even expanded, emerging far stronger after Katrina’s devastation." Expansion has happened. Martin Wine Cellar did not have outposts in Mandeville or Baton Rouge before the storm, but they do now. There has been no rebuilding however.
I wrote of the demolition in 2011 and was pleased to see ground breaking shortly after. No progress has been observed since.

Cedric announced plans to have the original location (3827 Baronne St.) up and running in 2014 but I will believe it when I see it. Again, I applaud his award and tip my cap to his many successes but the uptown outpost they operate now is cramped and pales in comparison to the destination the old store used to be.
I hope for his sake the store is rebuilt and revived. If that happens, this award should go to him. Until then, it appears premature. Other wine retailers have opened since Katrina and many are thriving, something nearly unfathomable when Martin's dominated the market.

Mulderbosch was featured in Shanken News Daily recently. I am a fan of the winery, their chenin and sauvignon blancs and, especially, their fantastic chardonnay (I know, rare for me to rave about one of those). However, the plans to expand concern me.
According to the Wine Spectator, Mulderbosch's total production when Mike Dobrovic left was 45,000 cases, "shipping 40 percent of its wares to the U.S. market." (That's 18,000 cases if you don't want to do the math.) That was 2009. Based on the numbers SND reports, U.S. sales are "expected to rise by more than 25% to above 40,000 cases this year, representing about a quarter of the winery's production." That is more than twofold in the U.S. and just under four times the total cases during Mike's tenure.
It is always possible to expand like that and maintain quality but it is not easy. "The goal is to grow Mulberbosch to 150,000 cases in the U.S. market within five years." The previous goal may be attainable but this one is untenable, in my opinion. Not that they can't reach the number, I just believe they can not produce the same excellent wines at this volume. There was no discussion about sourcing grapes for this expansion but I would be amazed if they came from the estate.

Monday, September 16, 2013

I'm Not An Addict Anymore

The wine world is a fantastic place to visit but I'm glad I don't live there anymore. The job of selling wine is an all consuming one. New wines are released all the time, new wines arrive in your portfolio, sometimes from regions unfamiliar and a new vintage arrives twice a year.* The work is mostly pleasurable and taking it home can be delicious but the world is insular and even casual acquaintances want to talk about wine.
The insidious part, and the slippery slope, comes in the selling and recommending. I can't speak for everyone in the business but I sold wines that excited me...that I enjoyed. In advocating for these wines I became more enamored of them and bought my own product. Constant exposure to new vintages and new wines pressed my collector button too.
Cult wines never did much for me. I did not accumulate museum pieces or investment bottles but my purchases of wines to drink piled up. My wish list extended far beyond that. While my wallet could mostly keep up with my purchases, there was a never-ending supply of wines coming that I "needed" to buy.
Yes, needed. The rush associated with buying new wine fueled the desire for more and gradually the cheap stuff didn't satisfy like it used to. After getting out of the business I realized how expensive some of those wines had become, especially if you have to pay retail. Even that didn't quench my desire for those wines, just the rate at which I brought them home.
Finally, after a few years out of the game, I appear to have shaken the monkey off my back. I still buy wine but it is mostly low end. I still drink wine but with less regularity than before. I still get offers for wine, among them Burgundy futures, but I no longer act on them. I no longer salivate and my heart no longer palpitates when the offers arrive.
I'm out, I'm no longer an addict...but perhaps I'm only a taste away...

* Yes, twice a year. I'm not talking about release dates from various wineries but harvests. Vineyards in the southern hemisphere are harvested in our early spring while our growers pluck their grapes in the fall.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Cork vs. Screwcap: Another Update

I tried another pair of cork/screwcap sealed wines. These have been written about before but updates seem important in this ongoing experiment.
The Abel Clément Cotes du Rhone 2005 switched seals mid-vintage and afforded an opportunity to get as close to a perfect comparison of cork vs. screwcap as a consumer can get.

As you can see, the labels differ slightly and the cork-finished bottle has a fancy Cotes du Rhone seal but the wines, as nearly as I could determine are exactly the same - other than the method of closure.
These bottles are no longer fresh and pristine, showing older, dried fruits and some tiredness. They no longer have much snap on the palate but were certainly tasty enough for eight year-old Cotes du Rhone...especially when you consider I paid about $8 a bottle for them.  
In comparison, there was no contest. The screwcap bottle showed more vim and vigor than the cork version. They both had admirable staying power and offered enough fruit to make my mouth happy. 
The planned tasting last fall never came together but I'm hoping this fall works for a full tasting of all of my experimental collection. Stay tuned for details of the event and a full post, or two, discussing the results.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Alto Moncayo Veraton 2005

Jorge Ordonez imports the wines made by Alto Moncayo (their website is unfortunately under construction at the moment) they consistently garner 90+ point reviews and, more importantly, rabid, repeat customers. The wines are all made from old vine grenache (garnacha, en Espanol) and are wildly intense, power-packed wines full of raspberry liqueur notes and black pepper and excitement. I have always enjoyed the wines young but also believed they would age well. Unfortunately, my discipline has wavered too often and they rarely survive more than a year or two once they are within reach.
The Designation of Origin (D.O.) is Campo de Borja (boar-ha) is located just southeast of Rioja and Navarra in the NNE of Spain. (Map from Wines of Spain)

I finally had an older bottle and the experience was...disappointing. It will not stop me from looking forward to tasting these wines again and I will happily admit that this is their entry level version but I am strongly reminded that wines do not always have magical abilities to absorb lots of oak. Flashy, vanilla-tinged wood dominates the wines young but their exuberant fruit stands up to it. With more time in bottle it appears that oak remains strong despite what many pundits would have us believe. 
The first impression was oak. Lots of oak. The thick, ripe fruit I expected was hidden...maybe buried is a better word, like a crawfish boil next door might overwhelm the steak you're cooking. That's not quite right, I love crawfish boils (and steak).  
The nose opened a bit more and showed a sherry note, not overwhelming, but unmistakable. Too much raw wood and oak tannin in the mouth. Balance was almost nonexistent and the tasting experience was the opposite of harmony.
An hour later and the disjointed parts did not come together and even as individual experiences they were not enjoyable. Bummer. 
The color was good, this was not a wine past its prime. I smelled the cork again and again, expecting to get a whiff of corkiness which would explain what I was experiencing. Nothing wrong there. The wine smelled like a cheap ruby port but lacked the sweetness and long finish of those wines. I tried the wine again the next night and nothing had changed.
I have a few other bottles from this producer of similar age...I will update if anything changes.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Two Old Shiraz...Not Too Old Shiraz

My father's birthday wines continued with these two gems from Down Under.  I am a huge fan of Aussie wines but one must be selective to avoid getting stuck with overly thick, overly oaked clodhopper wines.  We were not shopping for bargain wines, so things got much easier.  The impressive list at Vickers' Liquors in Newport, RI made it simple.  Choosing two classic producers, who do impressive work from their entry wines up, increased our odds of finding an aged beauty.
We started with D'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz 2003.  My father took my recommendation about more current vintages of this wine for some golf outings and was applauded for his choice.  He has also become a fan of the wine, so it made lots of sense to try an older bottle.
The wine is named after a vine disease that kills one arm of a vine but leaves the other in good shape. This concentrates all of the growing power and nutrients and flavors into those fewer grapes, resulting in very intense wine.  I also heard that they half cut an arm near harvest to limit water supply to the grapes while still allowing the ripening process to continue.  The former explanation is on D'Arenberg's website though, so that gets the nod for the official story.  
McLaren Vale offers warm weather but tempers it with the cooler influence of the ocean.  (If you want to read more, here is an educational Australia post I wrote).  This provides the richness we expect from Australia but keeps the wines fresh and vibrant.  I love the wines from this region and Dead Arm is no exception.  
The 2003 showed amazing color, still ruby red.  The nose was all wild berries with a touch of framboise and just a bit of that slightly gamy funk the French call "sauvage."  The aroma was nearly "brambly," a term often used to refer to zinfandels, reminding me of a patch of wild berries on a hot summer day - juicy, ripe fruit that gets a slightly roasted quality from the sun.  A bit of dried fruit and oak show too but the wine seemed delightfully fresh and young.
The palate was mouth-filling and still brims with bright acids followed by mouth-drying tannins which mingled nicely with the big, juicy fruit.  The long finish leaves a dryness with fine but persistent tannins and lasts for a long time.  The final impression is of a very approachable, suave wine despite the edge of tannin, reminding me of a man with a few days of beard growth in a perfectly tailored tuxedo who has great stories and a penchant for using curse words as adjectives.
The other shiraz was from Torbreck, a fantastic winery, with big scores and prices to match.  The Struie, apparently named for a hill in Scotland, is a shiraz from Barossa, much of it from Eden Valley which is at a higher elevation and enjoys somewhat cooler temperatures.  This 2004 vintage showed some of the classic, slightly baked Barossa pie fruit.  It seemed a bit compact or pinched, but it was lovely.  Black pepper flared my nostrils and there was just a hint of light acidity adding to that feeling. The wine really coated my tongue and the tannin was much less obvious than in the Dead Arm.  However, it was much drier on the finish.  It was delicious.  I'm not one to wax poetic about the perfect fruit or aroma but this wine had juniper on the palate and was herby on the nose.  Not herbal, which to me often means unripe, or under ripe, but herby, which bring to my mind an array of fresh herbs laid out to be prepped for cooking.  It opened nicely and blossomed with a little time in the glass.  Green peppercorn came on strong on the mid-palate which grew to be a bit too intense for me.
Overall these wines were brilliant and a lovely treat to experience.  Vickers' Liquors clearly stores their wines well, just look at these corks!  I look forward to an excuse to purchase more of their inventory in the near future.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Fantastic Surprise!

I wrote recently about drinking wine when you want instead of saving it for special occasions. Sure, wine ages, but sometimes when you finally decide the moment is right, the treasured wine is past its prime.
Champagne and sparkling wines that provided entertained but no longer fit their original fresh, bubbly category prodded me to revisit this all too frequent theme in the wine world.  However, one night later we opened a random little German sparkler I bought on closeout for $10 more than a half a decade ago.
As you can see, it is a 1999 vintage sparkling riesling!  I know nothing about the producer only that I found three bottles after Katrina while spending time with family in Summit, NJ.  I thought $10 was a potential steal for a vintage dry (sekt) riesling.  I guess I left a bottle behind and boy am I glad I did!
This was the best surprise of the sparkling wine exploration in Maine.  The color was still bright and the nose had some fresh, lemony citrus notes.  It was delicious and amazingly fresh and alive! I could not stop raving in my notes...tart and fantastic!
We still tend to save things too long but sometimes Bacchus rewards, rather than punishes, that covetousness.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Three Domestic Chardonnays with Age

A recent family gathering in Maine provided an exciting opportunity to celebrate my father's birthday with some older wines sourced from Vickers' Liquors in Newport, RI.  They have an amazing list of older bottles available for sale and I had fun flipping through the list on the website.  We had no idea about their storage but they seemed confident and we plunged forward. (Based on what we tasted, the storage is impeccable)
What was far beyond our control was whether or not even perfect storage would be enough to make these West Coast chardonnays age well.
Flowers Andreen-Gale, Sonoma Coast 2006:  A blend based on their estate Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard, located above 1,000 feet, and some Durrell and Dutton fruit as well (at least based on the 2004 vintage - information was spotty).  The 2004 was one of nine "Year's Best" chardonnays from Wine & Spirits.  
The 2006 was subtle and creamy with a backbone of acidity.  A nutty quality persisted throughout. I wanted to say butterscotch as well but that descriptor brings to mind a thickness/sweetness that was not present in this wine.  Minerality, reminiscent of a 4 or 5 year-old Chablis, appeared on the palate but this wine was riper and fuller.  I found the wine tart, beguiling and tasty but ultimately it seemed a bit short, even hollow on the finish.  The buildup was good, expanding in the mouth, and the final impression of the finish was enjoyable but in between the wine disappeared for a moment.  

The next two, both older, showed much better, exceeding my expectations!

Kistler Les Noisetiers, Sonoma Coast 2004: The wine is a blend of Sonoma Coast sites and they make a fair amount of it.  That does not mean you can find it easily since the wines are much sought after by collectors.  I have tasted a number of Kistler's chardonnays in their youth but they always seemed so tightly wound and ungiving that I mostly shrugged about all the hype.  My palate salivated at the prospect but was also prepared for disappointment.  
It was golden in the glass..I mean golden, almost like apple juice (in color only).  Buttered almonds dominated the nose and it was glorious because the wine remained vibrant and intense with some lemon curd aromas sneaking in there as well. The palate was thick and rich but balanced and I realized why people get excited about these wines.  A slight smokiness appeared but not in the highly-toasted, over-oaked, all too predictable, California way.  
The finish was long, tingly and delicious and the texture was very French while the fruit's ripeness and fullness clearly reminded us of its California roots.  Amazing!

Domaine Serene Cote Sud, Dijon Clones, Willamette Valley 2004: This was my wild card.  I have always loved this wine for its brightness and its opulence.  It always seemed capable of aging but I have only tasted current releases.  Domaine Serene has never been shy about pricing and the 2010 (sold out) was selling for more than twice the release price of this 2004 (and $20 MORE than the 2004 we bought two weeks ago).  
But let's get to the wine.  It smelled a little like SweetTarts on the nose but that needs some explanation. I sometimes find this character in wines that have citrus fruit and minerality that combine to make my mouth water.  The finish was long, long, long and amazing with lemon butter and some soft, delicate talcy thing.  Again, some explanation: talc, to me, means limestone and the accompanying slightly salty minerality, it is tactile and a good thing, at least to me.  Kistler was right in your face but this wine was much more subtle and quietly alluring.  The wine expands on the finish in a completely satisfying and mesmerizing way.  Impressive!  
I fully believe this should be the flagship wine for Oregon chardonnay.  However, a disclaimer must be issued.  The price of current releases has escalated enough for Domaine Serene wines that I no longer purchase them and they have had some trouble holding onto winemakers since Tony Rynders left (he made wine for them from 1998-2008). I have no idea what is happening currently but this 2004 chardonnay was nothing short of incredible.

Next: some reds from the same celebration...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

No Time Like The Present

On a recent lobster night in Maine someone said, "It sure would be nice to have some bubbly tonight, too bad we don't have any."  My father immediately replied, "We have lots of Champagne but no one ever drinks it."  No one ever drinks it because it is out of sight and not in the cooler.  Once the all clear was given, we chilled some down and started opening our new found bounty.
Wine one was Louis Roederer Brut 1990.  Yes, 1990.
Unfortunately, tired, not very exciting.  Still drinkable but not very good with lobster.  It was too nutty and oxidized to pair well.
Wine number two was a Veuve Cliquot "Yellow" Label from a much more recent event.  It was delicious, especially in comparison.
Next came a wedding wine, Roederer Estate - still tasty, but past its prime.
The next night we opened what we knew would be questionable, a Ruinart magnum from 1969 (my brother's birth year).
The cork was black, the wine brown and no longer sparkling.  It actually might have been well served as an inexpensive amontillado sherry but it bore zero resemblance to Champagne.  We have planned to open that wine for more than a decade.
Last night our exploration continued with three more bottles: Larmandier Blanc de Blancs, Gruet Blanc de Noirs (both from weddings) and a Biltmore Estate Brut (no point in letting that age any longer). The Larmandier was fresher than the Roederer 1990 but tired.  The Biltmore was badly corked and the Gruet was quite lovely.
We still have another Veuve Cliquot and another 1990 Roederer, fingers crossed but no held breath.
The moral of this story is one I have written before: don't wait for special occasions to open treasured bottles, make an ordinary event special by sharing something lovely...while it actually is!
Nights with family may be enough already but add this(!) and it becomes an event.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Good Online Maps

During my wine sales days, the one tool I returned to more often than any other, except for a corkscrew and a glass, were maps.  For many years, heavy tomes or some bad copies from those heavy tomes accompanied me on my sales calls.
There is no substitute for visual reinforcement when it comes to educating.  And that is what I did more than sell.  I explained and demonstrated what made one wine different from another.  This set me apart and grew my business.
Now we all have this information at our fingertips, assuming you know the right place to find it.  There are some great map resources out there - and more coming all the time, here are a few of my favorites.

The first two are excellent for global exploration, you can drill down to fairly specific regions.  Play with them and decide which ones give you the style and look you like the most.

Kobrand Wine and Spirits Maps

Wine Spectator Maps

These links will be placed in the Resources section as well.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tips to Avoid/Identify Bad Wine

Save this one, or remember it will stay in the growing Resources tab...I can promise it will come in handy at some point.
First, you should know that a bad bottle of wine will not make you sick, unlike eating spoiled beef or undercooked chicken.  However, bad wine can be much harder to detect.  Like death and taxes, flawed wine is unavoidable but you can do a few things to limit your risk.

Shop at places where they take care of the product.  Does the store feel hot?  Is shelving bathed in sunlight?  Light and heat are mortal enemies of wine.  If the shop is hot (not just warm) or has wine located in places the sun hits for long periods of time, maybe you should shop elsewhere.

Damage can happen before wine reaches your favorite retailer or restaurant.  Importers sometimes ship without proper temperature control.  Although this rarely happens anymore, too many wholesalers do not care for their product properly.  There is a wholesaler in town that routinely loads their trucks before the sun sets and parks them in their lot overnight.  Even responsible companies do not all have refrigerated trucks.  Check bottles for signs of leakage or seeping around the foil or neck. Be sure to avoid wines with corks that extend beyond the bottle.  That is a sign of heat damage (or freezing - not an issue in New Orleans) because the liquid expands and can force the cork out a bit. Also look for low fills in any bottles you might be purchasing - this exposes the wine to more air and may have oxidized the wine.
Responsible retailers and restaurateurs will keep you from ever seeing or experiencing these problems but it doesn't hurt to be aware of them.

Now the real challenges begin:
Pay attention to the cork when you remove it.  Are there wine stains along the length? (Another potential issue from exposure to heat).  Are there tartrates (small crystals) stuck to it? This is not a sign of a bad wine just of one that was not cold-stabilized, most likely.  For tartrates or sediment, just pour slowly and avoid agitating the bottle and you will only have some in the last glass.  You can also filter or decant the wine - more on that another day.

Go ahead and smell the cork.  I know, everyone tells you it only makes you seem pompous but sometimes the cork smells like a corked wine, i.e. wet newspapers or cardboard, and that tells me to be suspect of the wine.  The cork, no matter how moldy, crumbly, wine colored or corked-smelling does NOT mean a wine is bad.  You still need to try the wine.  Think of some washed-rind cheeses...if you ran away from the wet sock aroma without trying the deliciousness within you missed out.

Sometimes a wine can be a bit funky when you first open it.  Remember it is a living thing.  Think back to the last long trip you took.  Were you at your best immediately after getting out of the car or off the plane?  I know I'm not.  I need some time to acclimate and stretch my legs.  Same thing for wine. Some musty flavors 'blow off.'  If the wine is corked, the unpleasant aroma tends to get stronger with exposure to oxygen, so you'll figure it out.
[Hint: If you don't know what a corked wine smells like ask your retailer if there are any available to smell.  Sometimes a customer has returned one but the wholesaler has not yet picked it up.  You'll never forget it and will be able to recognize it forever after].
Some things that won't blow off are wine that has become vinegar - I think we can all tell when that has happened - and wine that is re-fermenting in the bottle.  The latter means you have still wine, by design, that is now sparkling.  Be careful here, some wines are lightly bubbly on purpose, even without a telltale sparkling wine cap.  Unintentionally effervescent wines tend to have a funky note and uneven, unintegrated bubbles - they can even be a bit harsh in the mouth rather than lively and pleasant.

Pour the wine.  If it is a white wine, is it orange or even brown in the glass?  That is a sign of oxidation and you will be unhappy with the wine (although there are some wines made this way on purpose, you are unlikely to happen across one by accident).
Red wines gradually fade in color and become brickish or even brown in the glass but that shouldn't happen to wines on retail shelves.  If the vintage is more than four or five years before the current year, you should inquire about it before purchasing.  [Note: Some producers hold their wine back longer than others before releasing them.  Italy and Spain are famous for this, especially in Tuscany - think Brunello and Chianti Riservas - and Rioja, again Reservas and Gran Reservas].

Smell and taste, if you have concerns or are unsure about the wine, be sure to leave it alone for a few minutes - then give it a second chance.  Some of these can be considered quirks, like the friend who has some habits you might prefer weren't shared.  Some people will find those quirks endearing, perhaps even a bonus, but they are fewer in number.  Earthy, funky flavors can be part of a good or bad bottle of wine.
Sulfur is sometimes used during bottling and can result in a matchstick aroma when the wine is first opened.  This will fade relatively quickly.
Things that won't fade at all, and may become more pronounced are volatile acidity (VA) and brettanomyces (brett).  The former can add complexity if there is not too much of it.  With more VA present, the wine smells of nail polish or band-aids.  While some consumers will tolerate (enjoy?) wines with this fault, I am not one of them.  The latter is a component I sometimes treasure but, again, it can overwhelm the wine.  It adds a wild, animal or even barnyard funk to the wine.  The French might call it sauvage - though each of those words I just used can also be accurately used to describe wine without any level of brett.  Some wines have built reputations and garner high prices because of the presence of brett, others fail to achieve distribution beyond their winery...or their drains.
By far the most frequent issue consumers encounter these days is the presence of 2,4,6-Tricholoranisole (or TCA).  This is what you smell in your wine when it is corked.  It is the reason for the creation of, and embracing of, screwcaps.  It is the thing wineries fear more than anything but weather.  Why?  Because the incidence of cork taint is much higher than the number of bottles returned. That means huge numbers of people experience an unpleasant tasting wine and do not realize it is flawed.  That means they will likely not buy the wine again and might tell lots of others to avoid it as well.  [Note: For years before screwcaps became (mostly) accepted by consumers, lots of wineries shipped wine to events, reviewers, etc. with that seal, avoiding the risk of corked bottles in those important venues].
Moldy cardboard, wet newspapers that have been stacked up for a few days, etc. are the telltale aromas. They can be faint but it is an unforgettable sense memory once you have experienced it.  Oxygen will make the flaw more pronounced, so leave the bottle for a minute or so and try again if you're unsure.  If you are in a restaurant, don't hesitate to have your waiter or sommelier taste it as well.  They should know the wine and be able to recognize any issues.  And be happy to supply a replacement if there are issues.  [Note: This is why sommeliers taste your wine sometimes.  They want to be sure you are receiving a proper version.  Chefs do this all the time in the kitchen, we just don't see it].
One last note, just to remind you that wine can be infuriating and that nothing is black and white.  Wine displays various levels of being corked.  Some can be smelled across the room while others may go totally unnoticed.  It's not like a microwave experience where you have a sound wine and 15 seconds later it is corked and undrinkable.  It is much more like crock pot cooking or erosion...or the coming down with the flu.
The most insidious moment in the corked process is the earliest stage.  From my experience, I believe that corked wines just heading in that direction are sometimes simply more mute.  The cork might have the faintest trace of TCA but the wine smells fine...it just doesn't show very much fruit or character. I have experienced a few of these bottles and I only knew something was amiss because I had tasted another, sound, bottle recently.  Don't get too worked up about this (it is a very infrequent occurrence) but I felt I needed to share what I believe to be the full story.

Did I miss anything?  Anyone want to add, clarify, debunk?

Coming Soon: Now you know you have a bad bottle...what do you do with it?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Quick, Easy Burgundy Guide

Burgundy is a challenging region to understand but it can also be very rewarding.  While I lament the prices, it is still a region worth investigating if you have the money.  Even with no budget constraints - call me(!) if that description fits your situation - some basic groundwork is imperative.  Pitfalls of lazy producers and a confusing array of different producers that share a family name create a maze that can, literally, leave a bad taste in one's mouth.
Hilarie Larson recently posted a digestible overview that is accurate and well laid out.  Being the completist I am, I would add loads more information but then it would intimidate rather than invite.  Kudos to her for the words and the maps, this is a good place to start.
A Simple Guide to Burgundy
[One small note: in the Chablis section, Kimmeridgian is misspelled]

I will keep looking for more information to offer as complete a picture as possible for more Burgundian exploration.

Monday, July 15, 2013

St. Innocent Pinot Noir Brickhouse Vineyard 1998

On the occasion of drinking some fun wine with friends in the wine business last night, it seemed a perfect opportunity to open the last 1998 Oregon Pinot Noir in my possession.  The vintage created excitement about the region and the grape and paved the way for a good string of vintages that cemented Oregon's place in the upper echelon of Pinot Noir production around the globe.

A few quick facts, straight from the back label (love a label that actually informs!):  Elevation about 440 feet, Willakenzie soil, grapes planted in 1990, farmed organically, harvest was a mere 1.1 tons/acre, the wine spent 19 months in 43% new barrels (I assume French), no fining or filtration.  Amusingly, the final line is, "will benefit from up to 6 years of bottle age" - or 15 apparently!
Here are my tasting notes for the same wine opened in 2009.  I was thrilled to find no iodine note and the wine showed brilliantly as soon as it was poured.  Fresh earth and just small hints of mushroom mingled with some dried berry aromas, providing that rare experience where smelling the wine is almost enough.
The palate was the highlight though.  Silky, seamless and with incredible power still, the wine filled the mouth and I'm not sure I could conjure up another wine I would have chosen over this palate experience.  The finish could not live up to the excitement created by the nose and taste, however.  While it didn't fall flat, it clearly lacked some focus and staying power.  The other parts more than made up for it and the wine vanished all too quickly.
I am amazed at how happy I was with the wine based on those earlier notes.  For those interested in some other 1998 Oregon Pinot tastings, here are two more links.
Other St. Innocent wines
Other 1998 Oregon Pinots
St. Innocent remains a leader in producing top-notch Pinot noir and if there was to be a ranking of Oregon producers, they surely would merit Grand Cru status.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Distribution Model?

As I read a recent Seth Godin post * it brought me back to my wine days and the insanity of distribution and the games played in the pursuit of making suppliers happy.
He laments not seeing any of his books in any airport bookstores during a whirlwind tour.  After sharing this news with his publisher, "Someone wrote back, 'Seth, if you tell us which airports you'll be visiting, our salesforce says they will do their best to have your book in a place you can see it.'"
Clearly not what he was after.
The wine market often functions in this same dysfunctional way.  Regional or national representatives come to town and the local distributor for the supplier's products tries to find out (or control) where the rep is staying and eating to guarantee the wines will be available.  In some cases this is appropriate - go support those who are supporting you - but this is not always how it works.
What if the chosen restaurants have no interest in the products?  What if the wines have never been presented?  Then the give-aways begin.  I remember a local rep for one of the two big wholesale companies in New Orleans walking into Martin Wine Cellar, where I worked, and offering us a free four case stack of $13 a bottle wine if we would display it for a few days while a market survey was conducted.  He went further and told us whatever we sold could be profit for us and they would pick up the remainder next week.
Never mind the illegality of selling alcohol on consignment in Louisiana.  Never mind that he knew no amount of sales was going to magically create a "permanent" stack of the wine in the store. The company was creating false success for the survey.  They do deplete more bottles from inventory but they are not building a sustainable distribution model.  They are building, as Seth says, a Potemkin village (the link is here because I had to look it up).  I always pictured a set from a western movie, storefronts, but no insides, just support beams to keep the facades from falling over.
In restaurants, the same thing happens.  "Could you feature this wine by the glass this week?  We'll give you a case."  Or perhaps, "We'll give you four bottles and reprint your list for you if you could add this wine for a few days."  There is always this lonely, outsider grasp at hope that the wine will be so successful that the placement will remain and the outlet will actually order (and pay for) the wine in the future.
This is the teenager doing favors for someone they have a crush on.  In my experience, these efforts go unrequited and your time and energy is much better spent doing almost anything else.  Don't waste your limited resources on those turning a deaf ear, find prospects willing to listen and join your team.  As Seth puts it: "Don't save the canary. Fix the coal mine."

* If you don't follow him, you should.  He has a brilliant way of getting to the heart of the matter and focuses on distilling ideas down to simple concepts.  Many of his posts are like snacks for my brain, a short read but plenty to consider.  He is an impressive businessman, a programmer, an author, a traveler and explorer and, perhaps most important of all a questioner.  I think of him as a paradigm of the new modern technological Renaissance man.  Seth's Blog

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Interventionist Winemaking: What Could Be More American?

For many years I cursed American winemakers for manipulating their wines.  I dismissed many as flawed and phony-tasting.  My allegiance went to the old world, especially France - where the word 'winemaker' doesn't even exist.  They employ vigneron, or 'vine grower.'  The word has come to mean winemaker in many translations but it is not what it means literally.
Ask a vigneron about some technical aspect of their wine and many respond with a gentle shrug of the shoulders and a small expulsion of air from the mouth that sounds like 'puh.'  When I have pressed further, responses mostly focus around why I need that information when I have the wine in my glass.  The implication was that reading me a recipe would not tell me enough about the final dish as actually taking a bite would.  I love this answer, though it frustrated me greatly while I was selling wine because American buyers, and some consumers, want to know the nuts and bolts of a wine before they buy.
The United States has a very different climate and it affords us wide latitude in what vines to plant and where to put them.  We had no accepted list of what to plant and where it would grow best, so we did the American thing: we experimented and blazed new trails.
We are the country of Manifest Destiny.  We are the country that accepts differences (or used to) and embraces a variety of cultures.  Our founders left countries because they did not like how they were being told to live.  The war to free us from British rule and tyranny was called the Revolution.  Why should our wine culture be any different?
I don't always like these brash, non-traditional wines but perhaps I should respect them more for simply being American.  Happy Independence Day!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Thomas Family Winery Chambourcin 2011

I picked up this bottle at Vintage Indiana earlier this month, being quite pleased with the light, Beaujolais style wine at the event.  We liked a few other wines from the winery and were very happy with our energetic and engaging pourer.  A visit with the winemaker came later and I agree with his approach to holding the zinfandel back a few years (2009 is the current release) even if I didn't love the wine itself.
But, the chambourcin spoke to me and I bought some.  With friends over for some pool time I decided to open this up and see what they thought - both are currently in the wine business.  The wine showed some bright fruit and hints of the earthiness I expect from the grape but with less intensity than some others.  Overall it was inelegant but eminently drinkable and went well with some sausage I had later.  The wine is a bit disjointed and funkier than I remember but a decent drink.  A good summer red for a slight chill and meat from the grill.
Thomas Family Winery  $15.99

Friday, June 21, 2013

Two Rosés

The brutal summer weather has arrived in full force here in the Crescent City.  No surprise, but it always shocks my system for a while.  A sure cure for this depressing assault of sauna heat is blasting the A/C or rushing to the pool after a rain storm (otherwise the water is too reminiscent of a bathtub for me) with a cool, refreshing glass of rosé.  These two were consumed in more reasonable temperatures much farther north.
Fritz Hasselbach makes some great rieslings and has garnered plenty of fawning attention from critics.  I found a lone bottle of the 2011 vintage left in the cooler at a local shop in Columbus, IN.  The proprietor had no idea what grapes were inside but I decided to try it.  The consensus on the web says pinot meunier (the other red grape, along with pinot noir, in Champagne) and "a blend of Portugese grapes" from the Rheinhessen, in Germany.  Regardless, the wine was still fresh and tasty, tending more to the fruity side of things but with gentle firmness on the finish.  Bright, red berry fruit burst from the glass and the just off-dry palate made for a great sipping wine.  I wanted another bottle for poolside slurping.  (Shame on me, I forgot to check the importer label before recycling the bottle, but it appears Rudi Weist brings the wines to the states, though they do not list the rosé as one of them.  $13-$15).
When I walked out of Cork Liquors (on 46 in Columbus, IN) with the Fritz, I had this one as backup, just in case.  My touchstone for rosé will always be the south of France and I was confident this would deliver if the German didn't.  The Chateau is located in Sommieres, just west of Nimes in the Languedoc (west of Marseilles).  The little-known aramon grape is the sole variety in the bottle but the wine is classic: great texture, almost thick in the mid-palate but bright and fresh and lively and even slightly earthy.  The color and nose speaks to me of the romantic land of Provence, displaying the orange, peach, and strawberry notes expected of rosés from the area - even though this is not really from Provence or the classic grenache, cinsault, syrah blend (even though the website says it is).  It lacks some minerality and depth but the wine is delicious and a steal at the price I paid!  It is still a good deal at the $15 quoted locally in New Orleans, but I prefer the $11.29 I paid).  Gambit agrees about the wine.  Imported by Fruit of the Vines, Inc.  Driving up north had some advantages, bringing back a mixed case of wine was one of them.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Vintage Indiana Highlights

A few disclaimers here:
1) I tasted a few sweet and/or fruit wines but did not make notes about them.  Mostly they were innocuos and seemed short on value for my palate. 
2) This is not a complete summary.  There was no way to taste all the wine available and some of the wineries have already been written up by me based on previous visits.  
Focusing on Indiana grown grapes helped narrow a huge field of options but I did taste some grown outside of the state.  My experience with these kind of wines is that if I want a good Chardonnay or Merlot, etc. I should buy from a winery in California, Washington, etc. not one halfway across the country.  While some versions show well, I have NEVER found one so tasty and correctly priced that I bought it.
A great example was the Zinfandels we tried.  Some were undrinkable, others just disappointed.  I guessed the sourcing to be Lodi for three of the wines and the two times we could verify the information, I was correct both times.  The price must be right.  I do not like Lodi Zin, too much baked fruit and brown sugar notes for me, so perhaps I should remain quiet but it served as a reminder to work with local supply. I am not interested in a Zinfandel bottled by an Indiana winery in the same way I am not interested in a crawfish boil in Indiana.  
However, there are plenty of local options to enjoy!  I continue to be amazed at the variety of grapes that grow here and some of the impressive efforts that spring from them.  Sure, you can do better at your local wine outlet with Spain, Argentina, Australia and our own west coast but some of these wines are truly worth seeking out.

French Lick Winery is a rock star.  I featured reviews of a few wines here in 2012. They are a professional operation and offer quite a few estate bottlings.  I purchased Chambourcin and Norton (the same wines I tasted a year ago), passing on the fruity Leon Millot only because I was spending too much money and the bag was getting heavy!  We tasted a few whites and they were okay but nothing that blew me away.

The next most impressive was Huber Winery.  Actually, it was probably the most impressive because I was so surprised by them.  I will offer more when I review the wines I bought but suffice it to say I was blown away!  We didn't have a disappointing wine there, the same can not be said of any other winery that day.  We were also fortunate enough to taste through a bunch of wines with the winemaker, Jason Heiligenberg.  All of their grapes come from the estate (they purchase some supplementary fruit when the U-Pick-'Em business leaves them a little short, usually the Blueberry "Port" and the Ruby "Port").  The Pinot Gris shows promise and is made a la Alsace.  They also have a Malbec and Tannat (best known in the Madiran appellation in France) that were not available (sigh) at this event.  I purchased the Stella di Luce Rosado and the 2008 Heritage red.  The Knobstone Reserve "Port" wowed us as well and would give some similarly priced versions from Portugal a run for their money.  

Oliver Winery also impressed.  The Chambourcin Rosé (only $12!!!) was our favorite pink wine of the day and I intend to visit there before leaving Indiana.  We got to them late in the day and they were very busy, so I feel there is more to be explored.  They seem to have lots of wines that come from out-of-state but I am still interested in further investigation. 

Ertel Cellars Winery impressed me with their Chambourcin.  We had no significant interaction here but the wine had a deeper resonant feel than many others without losing the grape's inherent slight earthiness.

Thomas Family Winery was crowded when we arrived.  It turned out an older vintage Zinfandel was about to be opened.  The 2006 was a lot more interesting than the 2009 but it was not my style.  However, they make a delicious Chambourcin, made in a Beaujolais-style, that just screams for warm weather and some grilled meats!  I bought two of those.

Rettig Hill Winery provided a very happy surprise as well.  I had stumbled across the site when planning a potential winery outing but tastings are only available by appointment.  That seemed like too large a leap of faith for me, so finding them at Vintage Indiana was a bonus.  Finding the wines exciting and tasty was a huge bonus!  I purchased the Vignoles and two vintages of the Grand Rouge.

Now, for a few good ones that I did not purchase:
Wildcat Winery made my favorite Traminette of the day with nice texture and subtle spice reminding me of Gewurztraminer (which it should since Traminette is a cross of that grape and a hybrid).  They also had a delicious red made from Marechal Foch and De Chaunac (they call the wine Prophet's Rock Red).
Turtle Run Winery had some tasty wines, including two impressive Indiana Pinot Noirs.  The Chambourcin drank well but was overshadowed for me that day by others.  Their Terrapin Red was also a good glass of wine but failed to command my attention.
Whyte Horse Winery had a terrific Riesling, actually mostly dry in style and with minerality as well but at $18 it crossed my threshold.
Mallow Run Winery had some sparkling wines that might have been more exciting had they been at the proper temperature.  The Signature was a little soapy in the mouth but I wish I could have tried the Pink  Moscato the way it should be served.

Vintage Indiana was fun, I hope it continues to thrive.  I also hope the event coordinators produce a full list of wines available to taste where attendees can mark their favorites and plan what they want to try.  Each winery had their own list but you usually had to wait in line to take a look at it.  Sure, we ended up tasting something everywhere we went but our time might have been better spent with a narrower focus.
Look for more specific breakdowns here soon as I taste through the bottles back home in New Orleans.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Vintage Indiana Tasting

On Saturday June 1st I attended a marathon tasting in Indianapolis, IN held outdoors under threatening skies and a tornado watch.  The rain appeared intermittently as scattered drops and had no effect on those who attended.  The scene reminded me a little of Jazz Fest 2013 with the mud from earlier storms, food and music.  Okay, the mud was nothing like Jazz Fest and the food and music can't really compare but it was a large, outside party...
Vintage Indiana blew Jazz fest away for wine selection though!  I left with a much heavier bag of bottles than I thought I would (you'll see specific reviews in the coming weeks).  Plenty of disappointments found their way into my glass as well, despite some pointed questions and judicious selection.  Way too many sweet wines are produced here for my palate but volunteer pourers and my own observation told me that was what a huge percentage of attendees wanted.  C'est la vie...
As is always the case with these events, some wineries show up ready for prime time and some do not. With 7,000+ tasters, I fully understand the unfortunate reality that many of the people behind the tables will have no clue about the wines they are pouring.  The occasional discovery of a winemaker or actual employee made me happy, but again, I am often the exception at these events.
The most inexcusable error made by an unfortunate number of wineries on Saturday was lack of temperature control.  Too many wines, especially whites and sparklers, were poured without a proper chill.  I am not talking about some  finicky "perfect" temperature, I'm talking about warm, 70+ degrees warm.  Not only is that wine unpleasant to taste, it is not being experienced properly and it will not lead to sales...in fact, quite the opposite is likely to occur.
Overall, though the event was fantastic and kudos to Indianapolis for being able to hold its liquor!  Despite an eight hour wine tasting (with glasses and bottles available to be purchased for on site consumption), no free food and no need to drive (due to a deal from the J W Mariott which was within shouting distance and full of wine tasters), I only saw one stumbling participant (at least on the grounds, during the event...who knows what happened later...).  In New Orleans, we generate staggering, slurring idiots in only a few hours - lots of them - and we're supposed to be able to out-party anyone.  C'est la vie...
By the way, the lone stumbler was part of a group that looked like "trouble" - all sporting glittery wine-themed customized T-shirts.  I spotted this soon-to-be drunk at check-in, the back of her shirt said "I can out drink all of these bitches." Congratulations.
Look for a quick hit parade of favorite wineries and wines in the next post and plenty of more in-depth reviews in the weeks to come as I enjoy the bottles I bought.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Wine Tasting = Cow Patties?

There was a blog post written claiming wine tasting is bullshit. It is an old argument with plenty of valid points and some evidence to back it up.  Go read the article by Robert T. Gonzalez and see for yourself. However, he loses track of the real issue here while he's busy ranting and proving how stupid and gullible we all are when it comes to elusive topics like what wine tastes like.  Tasting wine and trying to pin it to a point score IS bullshit, tasting and talking about it is not. A good response to the original post is found here.
The point of a good wine critic is to taste, describe and offer words to help readers decide if they want to invest in that bottle.  It is subjective, that's part of the fun!  Evaluating a living thing and scoring it based on a few seconds of contact is useless and impossible.
I agree with Mr. Gonzalez when he says "Drink what tastes good/whatever you can afford."  But somewhere in that selection process there must be a moment of relying on the taste of someone else to guide you, why not make a connection with a reviewer or local merchant and increase your odds of finding an enjoyable bottle?  Otherwise you're label shopping or buying on point scores.
At some point you have no choice but to rely on wine tasting to decide what to buy because your taste, however flawed it may be, is the final word on what tastes good to you.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part V, The Final Chapter

The last installment of my review will cross from factual mistakes to a more esoteric approach.
I have no patience for snobbery when it comes to wine.  People are intimidated, turned off and overwhelmed by overbearing blowhards who bully them into thinking they are not worthy.  This boorish behavior comes from all manner of wine drinkers but it becomes completely inexcusable when an expert in a teaching role chooses to do it.
My proudest moments in the business came when consumers thanked me for helping them actually understand more about wine because I talked to them clearly and plainly about a potentially confusing subject.  A few moments of belittlement can cause otherwise interested individuals to shut down and stop exploring the wonderful world of wine.
Ms. Teague should be held to the highest standards but she may have failed even if graded on a curve.  
"(For example, the word ouch is not considered a valid tasting term - although it was one of Peter's favorites and seemed to sum up his feelings about certain wines.)"  First of all, let's get one thing straight: There is no such thing as a non-valid tasting term!
Perhaps in the Master Sommelier or Master of Wine exam there may be some terms not acceptable but other than that, if the word you use describes your feeling about a wine, it's valid and you should use it!  Especially if it is as evocative as "ouch."  I loved that Peter used the word.  It meant something to him, it accurately depicted the impression he received from the wine and Ms. Teague should have encouraged his inventiveness.  She also might have armed him with a word or two that are more widely used, like sharp or tart or astringent or acidic...you get the idea.
This is the last example I will share from the book and I will let my original notes do the talking for me.  They follow her quote.  "Don't say bubbles, say bead, I reminded Peter.  And the collection of bubbles that forms at the top of the glass is a mousse, not a head, by the way."  My notes, verbatim: AAAAUUUGGGHHHH!!! First, say any damn thing you want as long as it makes sense.  Bubbles works fine and so does head.  Mousse - really, who says that?!?  This is exactly the sort of snobby, snooty, holier-than-thou bullshit that turns people off from learning about wine.  AND, by the way, Ms. Teague, you could not even go one sentence after chastising Peter without using the word bubbles!!!
It was at this point in the book that it occurred to me that Ms. Teague had little or no real interest in truly teaching Peter much of anything.  Her prime motivation seemed to be to ensure that he behaved like a proper little schoolboy in the presence of people she wanted to impress.  If he said all the "correct" terms around her friends she could bask in the glow of admiration and congratulate herself on a job well done.  Peter, meanwhile, has much to unlearn.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part IV

A missed opportunity followed her unfortunate experience with a Zweigelt from Austria.  "The aromas were rank, almost fetid.  They were certainly well beyond 'rustic' and into the realm of truly bad."  She names the producer (I will not - at least partly because the bottle may have been corked).  Did Ms. Teague return this ugly wine to the wine shop?  No.  Nor did she discuss the possibility that the wine might be off, she chose instead to smear a well-regarded producer.  A fantastic teaching opportunity presented itself to explain how to return a bottle and for what reason, something most consumers do not understand.
Another teachable moment escaped her with this observation: "Even though the first Hourglass vintage was 1998 (a rare bad vintage in Napa, one of the worst of the decade), it didn't affect the quality of the wine."  She does not elaborate.  If it was a "bad" vintage how can the quality remain?
There are almost no truly "bad" vintages anymore, winegrowers, winemakers and technology allow for corrections even in, what I prefer to call them, off vintages.  Different styles result from different weather patterns and some years should include a discount if the quality slips but Ms. Teague speaks well of the quality and still dismisses the vintage.  Good producers make good wine every year but the wines will not be exact clones of one another.
Disappointingly, when the teacher and protege headed to California for a tasting tour, they focused an inordinate amount of attention on hard to find, high end wines: Merry Edwards, Dalla Valle Maya, Harlan Estate and Rubicon.  This is an ongoing gripe I have with wine writers who have special access and often do not pay for their indulgences.  This tour hardly served as a beginner's tour.  Instead, it  presented a skewed view of California wine to a novice.  It did, however, paint a wonderful picture of the general tone of snobbery and snarky elitism so prevalent in the book.  I will address some of this in the final installment but I think I owe Ms. Teague a tip of the cap first.
While I am busy picking her book apart, let me also congratulate Ms. Teague on one of the best descriptions about oak and wine I have ever read!
"Yet the idea of putting a wine in wood, either for fermenting or aging or both, isn’t merely to get the taste of the barrel but to use the wood as a frame, supporting the fruit but also serving as a background flavor, rather than the dominant note.  The fruit of a wine is the painting, and if the only impression you have of a wine is the oak, then you can’t see the picture for the frame.” Brilliant!

Back to the criticism one last time...next post.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: Educating Peter Part III

I hope this is appreciated by readers and Ms. Teague because her book needs lots of correcting and further explaining.

When she discusses the Southern Rhone, she writes, "Other notable Southern Rhone reds include Cotes du Rhone."  In fact, this designation can come from the south or the north, although the norm is southern.  What she fails to mention here is that Cotes du Rhone also comes in white and rosé.  Not a big deal, but worth a quick mention.

A tip from her about how to determine if a wine list is overpriced recommended checking the price of Veuve Cliquot, a well known and ubiquitous Champagne, to see if "you're likely being gouged other places on that wine list as well."  Not every restaurateur applies the same markup to every bottle on their list.  In fact, some will make a much larger percentage on commodity brands like Veuve Cliquot than they might on a fantastic but unknown bottle.  A sommelier who was a client of mine followed this approach and said any customer who ordered the name brands should be "punished for being a chump."  This is a little over the top to me but the point here is that Ms. Teague's advice does not necessarily work the way she says it does.

On the subject of Champagne she published this:
"                 Types of Champagne
Sweetness                                                 Style
Brut - dry                          Blanc de blancs - white wine of white grapes
Sec - off-dry                     Blanc de noirs - white wine of red grapes
Demi-Sec - sweet             Rose - blend of red and white wines"

This is actually how the chart appeared.  The two listings are independent of one another but this makes it look like Brut might only be Blanc de blancs.  I'm guessing this was a space saving move but it may confuse readers.
From an accuracy standpoint, I have no issues with the Style side but the Sweetness side leaves a bit to be desired.  She does not list an 'Extra-Dry' option which is one of the more confusing styles of bubbly since it is actually less dry than Brut.  It is also seen much more often than bottles labeled Sec or Demi-Sec and seems more important to include because of that.  Sec means 'dry' so to describe it as off-dry is confusing, perhaps she should have elaborated.  Demi-Sec means 'half-dry' and certainly has some sweetness but it is not Doux which means 'sweet' and is rare.  There is no mention at all of Brut Natural or Extra-Brut (both of which are drier than Brut).

She stumbles again on dessert wines: "Eiswein, wine made from botrytised grapes that actually freeze on the vines."  Eiswein is made from grapes that freeze on the vines but they are not affected by botrytis.  [This is sometimes called 'noble-rot' and is essentially a mold that changes the taste of the grapes in a beneficial way, think of cheese as an example of good mold].

"There are one thousand officially designated growing areas in the state [California], otherwise known as AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), although many are not well known." I'm sure they're not.  In 2009 the Wine Institute listed only 108 AVAs in California!  That leaves hundreds that apparently only Ms. Teague and her lucky protege are privy to.  This is a ridiculous error that might incorrectly emerge during a live interview question and answer segment but should never have been published.  

Stay tuned for Part IV...