Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Life is Demi-Sec

Christmas and especially News Years just scream champagne. Champagne with dinner, drunken champagne toasts to the New Year, and mind-bending champagne hangovers on New Years Day.

As a budding wine snob this is a crucial time of year for you. What better way to celebrate Christmas than to cut your snotty brother-in-law down to size by sneering at the bottle of André that he brought to dinner and giving a lecture on the differences between CO2 injection, charmat and méthode champenoise processes?

But before we get carried away, let’s start with the basics. The first thing you need to know about champagne is that "champagne" only comes from the Champagne region of France, near Paris (pair-EE). Everything else is a "sparkling wine". So when brother-in-law Bob refers to his bottle of André as "champagne", you can slice him into even smaller pieces.

But there are excellent sparkling wines from all over the world, not just France.

Italy produces some fine sparkling wines, referred to as spumante (spoo-MON-tee), including the infamously cheap asti spumantes. However, some of the best Italian sparkling wines are dry wines made from the prosecco grape. In Spain, sparkling wines are referred to as cavas. Most cavas come from Catalonia and use native Spanish grape varieties. And, of course, California makes its fair share of sparkling wines.

Now I grew up in Bob’s house. My parents bought basic André for “normal” special occasions and Cold Duck for the really special occasions. Until recently (like last week, when my editor suggested doing a column on “champagne”), I knew very little about sparkling wines other than they gave you kick ass hangovers. In fact, the high point of my sparkling wine career was when I was the “bartender” at my sister’s wedding and served bottles of Cold Duck out of a trashcan filled with ice. I was so sick from drinking that stuff that I literally wanted to die.

But if you want to do better than Cold Duck – and show up your brother-in-law – you need to know a little more about sparkling wine.

For one thing, sparkling wines come in varying levels of sweetness. The driest style of sparkling wine is referred to as “brut”. No way! Oh man, I always wondered what that meant! I always thought it had something to do with the strength of the wine, you know, “That sure is a brut of a champagne.” In fact, a brut is just a sparkling wine with little or no residual sweetness.

Next on the dryness scale is “extra-dry”, which really means “slightly sweet.” After that comes “sec” (literally “dry”, but actually somewhat sweet), “demi-sec” (“half-dry”, but actually pretty sweet), and “doux” (“really sweet”). Who came up with this stuff? Some drunk French guy. ‘Nuff said.

Sparkling wines may also say “blanc de noirs” or “blanc de blancs” on the label. This has to do with the grapes used to make the wine. French-style sparkling wines are typically made with some combination of pinot noir, pinot meunier (pee-No moon-YAY), and chardonnay grapes. Blanc de noirs (“white of blacks” – don’t go there) are wines made from the red pinot noir grape. However, the skins are removed soon after pressing, leaving a lightly salmon-colored wine behind. Blanc de Blancs (“white of whites”) are made from white chardonnay grapes and make very delicate light wines.

And what about that CO2 injection, charmat and méthode champenoise stuff that you used to chainsaw old Bobble-head Bob into little chunks? They have to do with how the bubbles get into the sparkling wine. The méthode champenoise (may-TOD sham-pen-NWAHZ) adds a second fermentation to the winemaking process that adds the bubbly to sparkling wines. This takes a lot time and attention, and produces finely carbonated wines. The charmat method is cheaper and faster and ferments the wines in pressurized tanks where the resulting CO2 is forced back into the wine. As cheap as this is, it’s still better than CO2 injection method, which is exactly what they do to Coca Cola to give it carbonation. Only really cheap stuff – like André – uses this method.

Next week I’ll review and recommend four sparkling wines for the holidays, each under $20 a bottle.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sparkle, Sparkle Little Wine

Wines of the Week

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs (BLAN de NWAHR)

Blanc de Noir (literally "white of blacks") is a dry sparkling wine made primarily from red pinot noir grapes. However, the skins are removed early in the wine-making process, leaving a elegant light salmon color wine behind. This is a fine sparkling wine for the holidays or New Years. It's flavorful and full-bodied enough to stand up to the stronger flavors of a Christmas dinner, while delicate enough to not overwhelm the more subtle flavors. Hints of cherry and strawberry. Nicely balanced acidity. Available at CostPlus World Market for $13.99 and at Creekside Cellars. 4 stars.

Loredan Gasparini Proseco Brut (pro-SEK-koh)

Prosecco is a white Italian grape that is used to make slightly sweet or dry sparkling wines. This prosecco is completely dry. It has a very delicate color; in fact, it's nearly clear. Clear citrus aromas of grapefruit, lemon, as well as apricot. This is a very crisp, dry sparkling wine. It has a very strong flavor and feel of grapefruit, with the sharp, but pleasant acidity. Not overly complex but extremely refreshing. This would be excellent with a soft cheese like brie or camembert, or by itself on New Years Eve. Personally, I would buy a few bottles and put them in the back of the fridge and wait for July. This wine would be the perfect cold wine drink on a hot July day in Chico. $16.00 (a bargain) at Vino 100. 4 stars.

Chandon Blanc de Noirs

The Chandon Blanc de Noirs is a wonderful light sparkling wine. Unlike the Mumm Blanc de Noir, this wine lacks even a hint of pinkness, and is a very light and pure straw color. On the nose it's somewhat sweet and appley, with just a hint of lemon. On the tongue it has a bright acidity which makes it very refreshing. Citrusy, slightly grapefruity flavors come through. Actually, it reminds me of a nice Riesling more than anything else. This is a very refreshing and light wine, that I think everyone will like. Rated 87 points by Wine Spectator magazine. $12.59 at Costco. 3.5 stars.

Scharffenberger Brut

This is a commonly available wine. The Scharffenberger brut is a decent sparkling wine. Creamier, but not as aromatic on the nose as the Chandon. On the palate, the Scharffenberger has a pronounced caramel note, but overall tastes more like a light pilsner than a sparkling wine. It's not a very fruity wine, but it is dry. Less crisp than the Chandon. A decent, but not outstanding effort. Very drinkable. 3 stars. Available at Costco.

Lucien Albrecht Blanc de Blancs Brut (BLAN de BLAN)

Not technically a champagne, since it comes from the Alsace region of France instead of the Champagne region. A blanc de blanc, this wine is made from pinot blanc grapes. However, its very chardonnay-like on the nose with prominent butter aromas. The taste is also very chardonnay-like, with butter, cream and just a touch of green apple. Very dry, and a bit on the tart side, this wine will appeal to people who like chardonnay, but may be unpleasant to others. Available at Creekside Cellars for $18.99. 2.5 stars.

Korbel California Champagne Brut

Now we're getting into the stuff you can buy anywhere. Korbel is known far and wide as a producer of inexpensive California sparkling wines (translation: cheap champagne). Of course, this isn't a real champagne, and they shouldn't be using the name, but they are so deal with it. Very candied and sweet on the nose like some appley hard candy. It really has a very clear aroma of apple juice, which is actually not that appealing unless you're having a Martinelli's. Not much flavor on the palate. A hint of that apple juice, but it's actually mostly just fizz. If it wasn't so cheap, I'd say give it a miss. Available everywhere, but Costco has it for $7.99. 2 stars.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Gifts for the Wine Snob

Before I begin, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should state that I’m not real big on the whole Christmas…uh, no, “holiday” gift thing. For one thing, I don’t really enjoy giving gifts. I mean, you’ve got to try to figure out what someone wants, go through the insanity of the “holiday” shopping mobs, pay through the nose for the thing, and then watch the look of disappoint or disgust on their face when they open the crappy present that you spent so much time, energy and money getting. I generally don’t like getting presents for the same reason. “Oh, look! A 2-liter bottle of Carlo Rossi rosé! My favorite!”

I honestly prefer to skip the whole thing. I know. Bah humbug. But personally, I’ve never been convinced that the spirit of “the holidays” had much to do with commerce.

But apparently I’m not a typical American in that respect. So, succumbing to the demands of the season, let’s take a look at common “holiday” gift giving ideas for the wine snob in the family.

First of all – and let’s be clear about this – there is no end of gift ideas for wine snobs. Your serious wine snob is typically a person with both money and a hoarding fetish – in other words a perfect target for the likes of The Sharper Image. There are entire websites filled to the brim with wine-related gadgets and googahs, most of them perfectly worthless and hideously expensive.

Case in point: corkscrews. Corkscrews are living testimony that useless innovation isn’t limited to mousetraps. There are complex “rabbit” corkscrews that actually look a bit like abstract rabbit heads ($35-50). There are lever-action corkscrew stands that take up half your kitchen counter and look like very painful medieval torture devices ($100). There are even high-tech cork pumps that inject compressed air into the bottle to pop the cork out ($25-35). All of them do exactly the same thing: open wine bottles. I use a simple “waiter” style corkscrew ($5-15), and personally recommend them. Real wine snobs know that the lowly waiter-style corkscrew is the most prestigious.

Another common gift idea is wine glasses. There is great controversy in the wine world over whether the shape of the glass affects the taste of the wine. Riedel (rhymes with “needle”), the world’s premier wine glass manufacturer, makes 44 different glasses in their Sommelier line ($80 per glass), one to fit every variety from Alsace to zinfandel. This is overkill (ya think?). Studies have shown again and again that the shape of he glass has little effect on the taste of a wine. I personally use two basic sets of cheap glasses, a red wine set and a white wine set. Of course, they’re somewhat mixed sets because I keep breaking them.

Without a doubt the worst wine gadgets on the market are the plethora of “instant aging” doodads that are supposed to instantly turn your 2004 Two Buck Chuck into 1982 Chateau Latour. I actually bought one of these things in order to debunk it, but I haven’t tried it yet. The one I got comes in a nice wooden box. It’s essentially a ring that clips onto the bottle’s neck. As you pour, the “powerful magnets instantly break up the tannins. The result: a smoother more balanced wine that simulates the taste of aged wine.” Riiight.

So now that we’ve eliminated a bunch of useless gift ideas, what should you buy your favorite wine snob? You know, something that’s actually useful.

Wine chillers are nice (hint, hint). They’re thick wine buckets (usually stone or ceramic) that you store in the fridge or freezer. When you serve a chilled wine like Champagne, you set the bottle in the pre-chilled chiller, and it keeps the wine cold. Bonus: they actually work!

Decanters are essential for anyone who is serious about red wine. I plan to write an entire column on decanting wine, but for now take my word for it: get a decanter and decant your red wines for at least an hour before you drink them. That will do a thousand times more to make that Two Buck Chuck drinkable than any magnet. It’ll do wonders for that ’82 Latour as well. No kidding. I prefer decanters with a moderately wide base. The really wide ones are almost impossible to pour and tend to be heavy.

But let’s face it; the best gift of all for the wine snob is wine. I recommend the 2006 Carlo Rossi rosé.

Ah…but that’s the problem, isn’t it? What wine to get them? Well, that’s why God invented gift certificates. In Chico, I recommend getting gift certificates at either Vino 100 (next to Sports LTD) or Creekside Cellars (near Morning Thunder). Both have fine selections of wine as well as decanters, glasses and other wine knickknacks. In fact, I’m beginning to feel the spirit of “the holidays” coming over me. So if you want to get me a gift certificate, I’d be happy to accept.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Bargain Hunting, Stamp Collecting, and Other Obessions

There are many dangers in getting "into" wine (including the dull hangover I have as I sit here writing this column against deadline for a cruel and heartless editor). One of the unique dangers of getting interested in wine - as opposed to food or cheese, or other such gastronomically refined pursuits - is that wine has the peculiar ability to bring out the hoarder in us. Unlike food or cheese, wine keeps and can be stored for long periods. Worse than that, wine actually gets better the longer you store it.

You have no idea what that simple fact has done to my life. I admit it started out innocently enough; a few bottles on a shelf in the kitchen being saved for a special occasion. Then I bought a 44-bottle wooden wine rack from CostPlus. I felt okay with that. I mean, 44 bottles is more than anyone could ever possibly have. I’d never fill it, right? Then I bought another. That was okay because that rack was going to go in the basement to hold the good stuff. Then I bought yet another. I didn’t even try to rationalize that one.

But then came the 100-bottle wine cooler. A hulk of a thing, it sits protectively brooding in the corner of the dining room, like a mother hen warming her eggs. I did have to rationalize that, “It was a great deal! Half the price you’d expect to pay for a wine cooler!” And while that’s true (we even got free delivery!), it was beginning to become clear that I had a problem.

That’s right, my name’s Tony and my house is too small to store all of my wine.

I currently have…well I don’t know exactly how many bottles I currently have, but I estimate there are somewhere around 250 bottles of wine scattered around the house. There’s the wine cooler quietly humming away in the corner along with racks in the living room, back room, kitchen, 20 or so bottles stashed away in a cabinet somewhere, and a few bottles in the fridge. So far, the bedroom and the bathrooms are the only “wine-free” zones in the house.

But that pales in comparison to the collections some people have. I know people who have actually turned their basements into climate-controlled cellars capable of holding a thousand bottles, complete with custom display racks and computer-controlled inventory systems. I know another woman who keeps $35-50,000 worth of wine in her house.

Wine collecting is a hobby (illness, sickness, disease – whatever) related to, but quite distinct from the hobby of actually drinking and enjoying wine. For some reason, wine appeals to all sorts of human foibles aside from boozing; everything from bargain hunting to stamp collecting. People even collect wine as a serious investment, selling the bottles once they reach a certain value.

But for me, the main thing driving my “collection” is that fact that there are so many interesting types of wine that I have never tried before. Every time I go into a wine shop, I feel like a kid in a candy store. There’s always something new that I have to try. But – try as hard as I might have last night – I can’t drink them all as fast as I can buy them.

Honestly, that’s part of the beauty of wine. There are wonderful, unique wines from all over the world, waiting to be enjoyed. And you should make an effort to always try something new.

This week, go out and buy a viognier (vee-own-YAY) instead of a chardonnay. Buy a South American malbec (mall-BECK) instead of a merlot. Get out of the rut of drinking the same wines over and over. There’s a whole world of wine you’ve never tried. And remember, Home Depot is having a sale on wine coolers.

Wine of the Week

2003 Berryessa Gap Malbec

Berryesa Gap is a small family-run winery in Winters. Though you wouldn't think of Winters as a wine capital, I've been impressed with their wines since the first time I tasted them, and if you want to try a malbec, this is a great one to start with.

Surprizingly floral on the nose, with just a hint of tar and lots of dark berry fruit. Amazingly dense on the palate, with lots of blackberry fruit and licorice. Unlike some malbecs, this one is quite smooth on the finish, with mild, well integrated tannins. This is an easy to drink and easy to like wine that almost reminds me of an Australian Shiraz. The 2004 vintage of this wine won a Regional Best in Class medal in the 2006 California State Fair. Available from the winery at 4 stars.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Gastronomic Nightmare Before Christmas

Face it; the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner is a gastronomic nightmare. We’ve all grown up with it, so to us a Thanksgiving feast is comfort food of the most comforting kind. But to a foreigner trying to get an “authentic taste” of American culture and cuisine, the bizarre combination of foods presented with fanfare on a Thanksgiving table may only serve to convince them of the culinary barbarity of America.

Personally, I never paid any attention to this until I started getting interested in wine and how different wines go with different foods – you know, the old saw of “red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat.” Those simplistic rules are considered outdated today, and in their place a whole science has grown up around “pairing” wines with food.

Some pairings are no-brainers, such as cabernet sauvignon with a big juicy steak, but that peculiar American institution of Thanksgiving isn’t so easy. You’ve got this bland, dry hunk of dead bird parked in the middle of the table along with wildly spiced stuffing (does parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme ring a bell?), weird gravy, God-awful gooey orange sweet potatoes speckled with marshmallows, and – the pièce de résistance – cranberry sauce. Who came up with this menagerie of flavors? And how the heck can you find a wine to pair with such a cacophonous collection of culinary comestibles?

The short answer is that you can’t. No single wine is going to go well with everything on the table. So, what to do? Serve three wines with dinner? Only a real wine snob would do that, so we’ll look at the most popular options, and I’ll leave it to you to make the best choice.

Before we get to specific wines, here are a few general pointers. Avoid strongly tannic reds like cabernets. These heavy wines will overpower or fight with everything on the table (cabernet and cranberry sauce is guaranteed to cause a mouth-puckering sensation of such power than you might actually swallow your entire face). Look for wines with good acidity. Acidity adds “crispness” to wines and helps cleanse your palate as you move from one food to another.

Riesling (REES-ling) is probably my personal top contender. Either a dry or off-dry Riesling will go well with pretty much everything. It won’t fight the sweet potatoes, and its slightly tart sweetness should compliment the cranberry sauce. It’s light enough to not fight with the stuffing or overwhelm the turkey.

Pinot Noir (PEE-noh NWAHR) is a rising star among Thanksgiving wines. Not as heavy or tannic as a cab or syrah, a pinot with enough smoothness and fruit can get along with most anything on the table (except maybe the sweet potatoes). Not to heavy for the turkey or too tannic for the cranberry sauce.

Champagne – A good, dry champagne with sufficient acid can be a good match for a Thanksgiving dinner, and it will add a touch of celebration to the meal. Avoid the cheap stuff like Cooks, and go for a truly dry sparkler. Should go well with the bird and stuffing, but might be a bit odd with the sweeter side dishes.

Chardonnay is the “no-brainer” wine for Thanksgiving, but it actually is a poor match with all but the bird. All those different flavors are going to overwhelm all but the crispest chards. It’s a pass in my book.

Zinfandel (ZIN-fin-dell) has suddenly become the big new wine to have with Thanksgiving dinner, but I can’t figure out why. Zinfandels are typically big fruit bombs, with lots of alcohol. To me, the huge fruit in a zin would overwhelm or fight with pretty much everything on the table. Of course, I haven’t actually tried it, so maybe it’s a fantastic match – but I have my doubts.

Other wines to consider include Pinot Gris (PEE-noh GREE) and Gewürztraminer (guh-VURTS-trah-mee-ner).

Wine of the Week

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs (BLAN de NWAHR)

Blanc de Noir (literally "white of blacks") is a dry sparkling wine (that is, "Champagne" - but you're not supposed to refer to sparkling wines as Champagne unless they come from Champagne, France) made primarily from red pinot noir grapes. However, the skins are removed early in the wine-making process, leaving a elegant light salmon color wine behind. This is a fine sparkling wine for Thanksgiving dinner. It's flavorful and full-bodied enough to stand up to the stronger flavors, while delicate enough to not overwhelm the more subtle flavors. Hints of cherry and strawberry. Nicely balanced acidity. Available at Creekside Cellars for $23.99. 4 stars.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

How to Taste Wine Part III: Tasting the Wine

If you're one of the six people who regularly read this column (including my editor - though I'm not sure that he reads it either), then you know that for the past several weeks I've been dragging you through the excruciating ritual of tasting wine.

Today, we’re going finally to put an end to your suffering and get around to tasting the wine.

Interestingly enough, something like 80% of our sense of taste is actually smell. You’ve probably experienced this when you’ve had a really bad cold and everything you ate tasted like oatmeal. With our sense of smell cut off, our taste buds only provide us with five basic taste sensations: salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami. Umami?? What’s that? Aren’t they those salty soybeans you get at a Japanese restaurant? No, that’s edamame, you chimp. Umami is a Japanese word that roughly translates as “savory”, and is an honest to God basic taste triggered by – of all things – glutamates like MSG.

The rest of the enjoyment we get from the flavor of food and wine comes from our sense of smell, and the “taste” of a wine is the interaction of the basic tastes that our taste buds pick up and the aromas traveling through our nasal passages.

There are a couple of approved techniques to tasting wine. Both of them are weird and potentially disgusting to some degree.

The first, and most technically correct, method of tasting the wine is to take a large sip of wine, slosh it around a bit and then – while the wine is still in your mouth – act like you’re taking a big hit off a huge spliff of ganja. I’m not kidding. The idea here is to draw air into your mouth across the wine in order to evaporate volatile compounds that will be drawn into your nasal passages and enhance the flavor of the wine.

This is a fun technique, both because it makes a really loud slurping sound and because there’s a high probability that you’ll end up spraying wine over everyone within six feet of you – or at least dribbling it all over your clothes. I’d suggest practicing this technique frequently before going out in public. But, cross my heart and hope to die, this is the technique that the pros use. If you want to look like a real wine snob, this is the way to go.

The other technique is what I call the Listerine approach. As it’s name implies, you take a large sip of wine and “chew” on it; slosh it around vigorously in your mouth as you would a fine French mouth wash. The point is to get the wine into contact with all the taste bud nooks and crannies in your mouth. The only difference is that you don’t gargle. Gargling is just crude.

So what are you looking for when you taste a wine? Pretty much the same things you did when smelling the wine: a balance of flavors. In addition, there are a couple of other sensations to look out for.

In white wines in particular, be on the lookout for a sense of tartness in the wine. This tartness – which can be pleasant or too strong – is caused by the level of acidity in the wine. Many good wines use acidity to give the wine a “crispness” that can be quite refreshing.

In red wines look for an astringent sensation after you swallow (or spit) the wine. This dry feeling in your mouth is caused by tannins – components of the seeds and skins. Tannins are what make red wines age well. However, young or poorly made wines can have strong, bitter tannins that make the wine unenjoyable.

So, now you’ve done it! You’ve officially tasted a wine using approved wine snob techniques! I sure hope you didn’t swallow that wine, though. Real snobs spit.

Wine of the Week

Creekside Cellars has really been hitting some home runs lately with their wine selections. We recently tasted the Amador Foothill Winery 2004 Katie's Cote at their weekly tasting. Located just a couple of hours from here, Amador County is turning into a serious wine producing region, and this wine shows it. A French Rhone-style blend of syrah and grenache grapes, this wine has earthly aromas, dense dark fruit flavors, with a touch of a milk and dark mocha on the finish. Great with lamb or pork. This wine will only improve over the next few years, if you want to hold on to it. A great bargain for $15.99 at Creekside Cellars. Four stars.

How to Taste Wine Part II: Smelling the Wine

Last week I discussed Step 1 of Proper Wine Tasting Technique: Looking at the Wine. If you’re reading this then you survived without becoming a juicy meal for the wine snobs waiting for the slightest faux pas in your technique to eat you alive. By now, I imagine they’re getting pretty hungry, so let’s waste no time getting on with Step II: Smelling the Wine (next week, we’ll actually taste the wine – I promise).

The first step in smelling wine is to swirl the wine in the glass. This allows air to mix with the wine and lets volatile components and alcohol evaporate and release aromas.

Swirling actually takes some skill to do without sloshing wine all over yourself and everyone within ten feet of you. There is, in fact, no easier way to end up on the wine snobs’ dinner menu than to have poor swirling technique.

The trick is to swirl with your shoulder, not your elbow or wrist. Hold the glass by the stem, flat on the table. Don’t hold the glass in the air. Move your shoulders so that the glass moves in circles on the table. Try not to use your elbow and wrist much. Practice this in the privacy of your home with a wine glass filled about halfway with water until you can swirl the wine smoothly and rapidly without sloshing. Practice, practice, practice. That’s the key to survival here. (I honestly can’t believe I spent an entire paragraph on swirling technique. I gotta get a real job.)

Once you’ve given the wine a good swirl, say 5 to 10 seconds worth, it’s time to smell the wine. Don’t do this dainty thing my partner does and put the glass about five inches from your nose and take a tentative sniff. No. Jam that glass up to your nose like it was full of 100% pure Columbian coke and snort like you were suffering serious withdrawal. Breathe deep and really suck those aromas in. I find that inhaling for two to four seconds gives the best take on the wine’s aromas. Closing your eyes while inhaling will make you look like you’re really concentrating on those aromas.

Now we reach the single most critical juncture in surviving wine tasting, and the one that petrifies all wine newbies: describing what the wine smells like. And what does it smell like? What rich and sensuous aromas do you detect? Come on… you can tell me. I won’t hurt you. Cross my heart. Tell me, it smells like wine, doesn’t it?

Ah ha! You worthless little wine cretin! It’s dinnertime!!

Of course wine smells like wine (duh), but most wines also carry overtones of other aromas. Identifying those aromas is the single greatest pleasure in the pathetic life of a wine snob, and that’s why they take it so seriously.

I wish I could tell you that’s it’s easy to detect and describe aromas in wine, but it really takes practice. The best way to start is to compare two wines side-by-side looking for basic types of aromas. The most common types include fruit, floral, spice, vegetal, wood, and earth aromas.

To make it easy on yourself, start with white wines, like a Riesling and a chardonnay. These are two very different kinds of wine and should smell very different. Use the aroma groups above and try to see if you can detect any fruit smells. Riesling often has a strong aroma of green apple and apricot. Chardonnay often has oak and citrus. Any flower-like smells? How about spices?

Don’t worry if you can’t put your finger on what you smell. Just keep smelling. It can take years to develop a finely tuned nose. And don’t worry that you come up with odd things like “pineapple with a dash of motor oil and tartar sauce”. Many of the hip young experts coming on the wine scene today are using exactly these types of weird terms to describe aromas.

Of course, in a wine tasting, surrounded by drooling wine snobs, you don’t have time to practice. You’ve got to get it right the first time. Fortunately, smell is a very personal experience, so as long as you don’t stray too far a field from typical aromas, you should be okay. Here are a few examples of common aromas to guide you.

Light white wines: pineapple, apple, peach, straw, mango
Chardonnay: butter, oak, citrus, vanilla, flint/mineral
Riesling: Green apple, pear, apricot, rose petal, mineral
Burgundy/Pinot Noir: Strawberry, raspberry, cherry, cinnamon, barnyard (swear to God)
Cabernet Sauvignon: Black current, blackberry, mocha, bell pepper, eucalyptus
Syrah: Blackberry, plum, black cherry, black pepper

Drop these terms liberally as you smell the wine using the following time-honored technique:

Swirl. Inhale. Look thoughtful for 4-8 seconds. “I’m getting a bit of blackberry, and…” Swirl again. Inhale again, deeply. Gaze at the ceiling for 6-11 seconds. “…Just a touch of earthiness. Very obvious black pepper.” Quick swirl. Inhale. “And a hint of plum…no make that black cherry.

Do this right, and you might actually live to taste the wine. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what exact aromas you can identify. The point of smelling is to get some idea of the character of the wine so that you can enjoy it more. And enjoyment is what it’s all about.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

How to Taste Wine and Live to Tell the Tale

So you want to be a wine snob (why else would you be reading this column?). There are a lot of things that go into being a wine snob. An insufferably superior attitude is essential. An arcane knowledge of obscure wines that nobody’s ever heard of is indispensable. But most importantly, you have to know how to taste wine. Can’t be that hard, right? Wrong.

The biggest mistake that wannabe wine snobs make is to go to a tasting or winery without proper knowledge of how to taste. Nothing exposes you as a knuckle-dragging wine Neanderthal quicker than improper tasting technique. Remember, everybody is watching everyone else taste. If they notice the slightest weakness in your tasting technique, they will eat you alive – preferably with a nice Oregon pinot noir.

There is an entire ritual to tasting wine, not all that different from a Japanese tea ceremony, and you have to follow it to the letter if you want to live.

The first step in tasting is to examine the color of the wine. This visual inspection will tell you if you are drinking a white wine or a red wine. The proper technique is to tip the glass at an angle and stare intently (preferably with one eye closed) at where the wine meets the glass. To look really knowledgeable, do this while holding a white sheet of paper behind the glass. This will give you an idea of the density and color of the wine. Denser wines tend to be more full-bodied.

For red wines, pinot noir (PEE-no NWAHR) tends to be one of the lightest. You should be able to easily see through the wine. Really dense varieties include syrah (sir-RAH) and especially petite sirah (which can be absolutely inky). Is the color more purple or more red? Older wines tend to take on a brick red color, while young wines tend to be purplish or dark ruby.

For white wines, chardonnays should have a nice golden color, not too different from your last drug test. Lighter wines like sauvignon blanc (so-veen-YON BLAHN) and pinot grigio (PEE-no GREE-geo) should be more straw colored, not too different from the last drug test that you tried to doctor with tap water.

If the wine is pink, you’re wasting your time on tasting technique. Just down that swill and get on with getting juiced.

Spend a good minute giving the wine “the eye” while making critical faces. Tilt the glass at different angles. Switch eyes. Make “hmmmm” sounds. The more eccentric you look, the more knowledgeable you’ll appear. If you’re surrounded by besotted ignoramuses and want to look like an expert, hold the glass up to the light and gaze thoughtfully through the wine. Be warned, though, that if you do this in the presence of real wine snobs, they may break out the pinot noir because they know that indoor lighting will affect your perception of the wine’s true color.

Now you’ve successfully examined the wine’s color without sacrificing your life. Good work! Time to toss it back, right? You wish. There’s plenty more ritual to go before you can get started on that buzz. Unfortunately, we’re out of space for this week.

Next week: Smelling the wine (Yeah, we won’t actually get to tasting the wine for three or four more weeks. Hey, you want to live or not?).

Wine of the Week

Louis Guntrum Penguin Eiswein
Eiswein (ICE-vine) is a very concentrated sweet white dessert wine made from grapes picked and pressed when the temperature is below freezing. The resulting juice is highly concentrated. Eiswein's are orignially from Germany, but Canada also makes notable eisweins. Well-made eiswein's are like pure nector: dense, sweet, and pure. Not everyone likes eiswein, but everyone should try it at least once. You might find it an experience close to heaven. The Louis Guntrum Penguin Eiswein is one that's pretty darn close to heaven. Amazingly smooth, sweet, nector-like - just like an eiswein should be. The only place I know that you can get this locally is by the glass at Monks Wine Bar, downtown. $12 a glass might seem expensive, but this stuff goes for $60 for a half bottle - and in my opinion, it's worth it. For a real slice of heaven, have it with the cheesecake. Four and a half stars.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The War Against Profiteering

OK, I know this is supposed to be the “humorous drunken wine guy column,” and I really, really want to be funny (yeah, I know, it’s some sort of weird unresolved childhood attention-getting thing), but the restaurants in Chico are preventing me from being funny. I just seem to keep having bad wine experiences in Chico restaurants. So it’s their fault I’m not funny, not mine.

You see, last week I visited one of Chico's finer dining establishments (which will remain nameless mostly because the Beat might want them to advertise). I was hungry for a juicy steak and a fine bottle of wine to wash it down with. Unfortunately, this fine restaurant's wine list was something less than fine. Half of the wines on the list were ones I saw in Costco the day before and the other half were "me too" California cult wines (remember: “cult” = insanely expensive) like Silver Oak, Caymus, Opus One, etc. These aren't necessarily bad wines, but they aren't inspired choices either.

But my eyes absolutely sprang from their sockets when I saw the astronomical prices they wanted for these wines. “Whoa!” I thought, “there’s some serious profiteering happening here!” Here's just a few examples:

Simi Alexander Valley Cab: $37 (Costco: $16.99)
BV Tapestry: $72 (Costco: $34.99)
BV George de Latour: $120 (Costco: $65.99)
Opus One: $225 (most places: about $135)

We're talking a 100% markup here! And for what exactly? Well?

These prices are simply wrong. I can go to Costco myself and spend half what they are charging for a bottle. Do they think nobody shops at Costco and won’t notice?

Any decent restaurant will allow you to bring a bottle of wine with you and will charge you a reasonable “corkage” fee to open the bottle (anything up to about $12 is considered “reasonable” these days). This restaurant’s corkage fee was $12. If I brought a bottle of the BV Tapestry with me I could have saved myself $25, even with the $12 corkage fee. Are they having difficulties with the complex math, is that the problem here?

This has got to change, and I’m going to start by putting all the restaurants in Chico on notice (as if my opinion carries any weight):

  1. Get better wine lists and stop trying to sell us big name cult wines that are expensive and uninteresting
  2. Stop charging outrageous, usurious markups for your mediocre wines
  3. Start charging reasonable corkage fees for the backbreaking and highly skilled task of opening a bottle of wine

There’s only one restaurant in town (that I know of) that is doing it right on all counts: Redwood Forest. Not only do they have the best wine list in town, but they charge retail plus $8 for bottles. That eight bucks is their corkage fee, probably the cheapest corkage fee in town.

My recommendation to you: Buy something good that you like, take it to the restaurant and pay the corkage fee. Not only will you pay less for the bottle, but it will be something that you know you will enjoy.

Look, I may not be funny, but I’m no more interested in paying outrageous prices for wine than you are. Next time I go to that restaurant, I’ll be packing a bottle of Two Buck Chuck. Maybe that will get the message across.

Wine of the Week

1998 Domaine Pontifical Chateauneuf du Pape

Chateau-what? A real mouthful, I know, but if you’re used to fruity $15 bottles of California or Australian wine and want to move on to a different level, this wine will do it. Chateauneuf du Pape (sha-toe-noof doo POP) is a wonderful wine from the Rhone Valley of France. Typically a blend of grenache, syrah, and a bunch of other grapes that aren’t cabernet sauvignon or merlot, Chateauneuf du Pape’s are powerful earthy wines. This is one of the best I’ve ever had, especially for the price (Chateauneuf’s typically go for twice what this bottle costs). Complex, earthy, and smooth, with notes of forest floor, mushroom, and soil. Incredibly well balanced fruit and acidity. Stunning with steak or lamb. A real bargain for $30 ($38 if consumed with a meal) at Redwood Forest.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Rich Idiot Cool Kids

Rich Idiot Cool Kids

I'm pissed. I'm pissed that I'm out 100 bones and got nothing good in return. I'm pissed that there's really no one to take my pissedness out on. And that makes me even more pissed.

OK. Deep breaths. Relax. Find your happy place. Start from the beginning.

Last week I decided to celebrate signing a six-figure contract with the Chico Beat to write this wine column (it's true that at the time I didn't realize that all six figures were zeros - but my eyes aren't good enough to read that itty bitty fine print). As a wine snob, the only proper way to celebrate was to go to a fine restaurant, buy an incredibly expensive bottle wine, and have it with a great meal.

So that's what I did. I went to one of Chico's finer eating establishments (which will remain nameless to avoid implying guilt by association), took a long thoughtful perusal of the extensive wine list, and ordered a bottle of 1999 Dominus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Should have been a slam-dunk. 1999 was a great year for Napa Valley, and Dominus is one of the top names in cult California cabernets (“cult” meaning “insanely expensive status symbol wine”). I shelled out $108 for the privilege of tasting what was supposed to be one of the premier wines of the Golden State.

And what did I get? Right off the bat the wine was unimpressive. For $100 you expect a top of the line Napa cab to knock you down with rich aromas of complex fruit and earth. Chocolate, cassis (whatever the heck that is), black currant (never had that either), leather (yum), tobacco (even yummier) and spice. Doesn't sound too appealing, but it's supposed to be. In any case, this wine barely even smelled like wine, much less any of those other things.

Even after letting it breathe for over an hour (breathing - exposing the wine to air - is supposed to allow the wine to develop and become more flavorful after 7 years cooped up in a bottle), there was really nothing much to it.

Great red wines, like cabernet sauvignons, are supposed to have a balance of fruit- and earth-like flavors, followed by a smooth dry finish of developed tannins (tannins are a dry, potentially mouth-puckering component of the grape skins). This wine had no fruit to speak of and the tannins, far from being smooth, were bitter and acidic. Blech!

In all truthfulness, I’ve had $20 bottles of wine that blew this overpriced, over-hyped bottle of bilge out of the water. And that’s why I’m pissed. I’m pissed because there is no direct correlation between the price of a bottle and the quality of the wine in the bottle. A $100 bottle of wine is not automatically better than a $20 bottle – and certainly not five times better.

I’d like to blame the restaurant, but it’s totally not their fault. They didn’t suggest the wine; I ordered it of my own free will. And besides, the food was fantastic (mmm…curried lamb!). No, it’s the fault of idiots with tons of money, no taste in wine, and an overwhelming desire to be one of the “cool kids” who buy only the most exclusive grape juice spiked with alcohol. OK, maybe it’s my fault for falling into the thinking that a $100 bottle of wine must be mind-blowing. Instead, it was barely drinkable.

So let my misfortune be a lesson to you. An expensive wine is not necessarily a good wine. And a cheap wine is not necessarily a bad wine. There are a virtually endless number of great wines out there for under $20. Of course, there’s plenty of swill out there for under $20 as well. How do you tell the difference? Unfortunately, there’s no magic shortcut. I can help point you to a few good wines, but you have to try them yourself and see if you like them. I guarantee you’ll kiss your fair share of toads in the process, but hopefully you’ll find some princes as well.

Wine Words

Cabernet sauvignon (cab-air-NAY so-veen-YON). The "king" of the red wine grapes. Capable of making the deepest, most profound, most expensive red wines. Best areas for cabernet include the Bordeaux region in France and the Napa Valley in California.

Chardonnay (shar-doh-NAY). What cabernet is for red wine, chardonnay is for white - easily the most popular grape on the market. White wines from Burgundy (including Chabis) are made from chardonnay grapes, as is most champagne.

Frizzante (free-ZAHN-tay). An Italian word for wines with a slight effervescence, but nothing like what a truely sparkling wine would have. Sometimes disappears a few minutes after opening the bottle.

Tannin. Tannins are a naturally occurring astringent component of grape skins, and can give a very dry, mouth-puckering taste to red wines. Tannins naturally mellow over time, giving wines a sliky smoothness (the main reason red wines improve as they get older). White wines, because the juice is not left in contact with the grape skins, do not have tannins and generally do not age like red wines.

Wine of the Week

2004 Covey Run Riesling

Finally, I'm coming through with a wine of the week for under $10. It took a bit of looking. I had to drink my way through a fair amount of cheap wine before I found something I really liked. The 2004 Covey Run Riesling, from Washington state, made the grade.

Riesling, as I discussed in the last column, is a white German grape that can make wines in a variety of styles, from dry to incredibly sweet. This is a slightly sweet riesling, with a light milky smoothness. It has a mild nose, with a touch of sour apple. Not very acid. That along with the sweetness makes this a very easy to drink wine. This wine also has a touch of frizzante (fizz) that is quite nice. If you haven't experienced frizzante before, this is worth trying just for the cheap thrill. If you like big, complex, dry wines, you probably won't like this, but for the price, this is a surprizingly good effort. Actually quite nice with Indian food. Available at Cost Plus World Market for $6.99.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Wine of the Week #2

I know I said that I'd try to find a good wine under $10 this week, but I got distracted by this wine instead: the Hahn Estates 2004 Central Coast Meritage, which won a gold medal at this year's California State Fair. A meritage is a California wine made in the classic Bordeaux style of blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot and several other grape varieties to make a smooth and complex red wine. By the way, "meritage" is a marketing word made from "merit" and "heritage", and rhymes with heritage, NOT the French "Hermitage" (which is pronounced air-me-taj). There is no such thing as a "meritage" grape, so don't embarass yourself by saying there is.

I had this wine first a few weekends ago at Creekside Cellars and thought that for the price, it was a particularly good effort. Had it again a week later at Vino 100, and discovered it in the wine section at CostPlus World Market as well. Lots of raspberry and black cherry fruit, edging toward the jammy style, but well balanced. Obvious oak, with a hint of wood smoke. Mild tannins. If you like approachable, "fruit-forward" red wines, you'll definitely like this.

Available at Creekside Cellars, Vino 100 and CostPlus. Three and a half stars.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Bad Acid Trips and Spitting

Bad Acid Trips and Spitting

I was in Vino 100 (a local wine shop over by Sports LTD) the other night and overheard someone say, "sauvignon blanc, that's a sweet wine, right?" The wine snob in me sneered viciously and thought, "wrong you stupid cretin, sauvignon blanc is a dry light white wine with virtually no flavor at all!" I'm pretty sure that I didn't actually say that out loud, but he did seem to avoid me after that.

Here are some useful tips for avoiding looking like that guy.

1. Avoid white wines. Wine snobs almost always prefer heavy duty, mouth puckering reds. For some reason, white wines aren't taken as seriously as red wines by wine snobs. That’s unfortunate because white wines are often the most approachable wines for the new wine drinker. Maybe that's the reason; white wines are often seen as "newbie" wines. However, there is nothing wrong with white wine. Though I'm not much of a fan of the sort of generic chardonnay you see everywhere, there are plenty of great white wines, including chardonnay (see the Wine of the Week).

2. Pick a really obscure wine, learn a little about it, and talk about it to the exclusion of all else. It’s impossible to know everything about all wines – there are just too many. That makes it relatively easy to put one over on most wannabe wine snobs. Some recommendations: Chinon, a red wine made from cabernet franc grapes in the Loire Valley in France. Trust me, you now know more about Chinon than most wine snobs. German Riesling. Riesling is so complex (there are about 50 dozen classifications, with bad-LSD-drug-trip-hallucination-inspired names like “Trockenbeerenauslese”) that only real wine experts understand it, and even some of them are faking it.

3. Don’t say stupid things like that guy in Vino 100. When tasting wine in public, keep your mouth shut unless you’ve mastered the Wine Snob’s “Wine Words of Wisdom”™. I’ll cover these words and phrases in a future column, but they are guaranteed* to make you look like a "Master of Wine" (such things do actually exist). In the mean time, don’t let your ignorance show. Just look serious, frown a lot, and look sternly into the glass as you taste the wine. If you want to look really, really serious about wine, spit. That’s right, don’t swallow the wine (yeah, I know that’s the whole point of drinking wine) – spit it out. I’ve never seen anybody do it at a tasting. Ever. That’s why you’ll look serious. People will fear you. You won’t have to say a single word. All the wannabe wine snobs will cower before you, knowing that only real wine experts spit. Effective at fending off the wine snobs, but let's face it, it's probably not a whole lot of fun.

Of course, the best strategy for dealing with your lack of knowledge about wine is to fess up right up front. "I don't know much about wine, but I'm learning as I go along." Any real wine enthusiast will be more than happy to share what they know about wine with you without making you feel two feet tall. Only a wine snob would use your confession of ignorance as an opportunity to rip your fragile ego to shreds and then grind it into the dust with the heel of their shoe.

So, the next time you’re wine tasting, relax and enjoy yourself. Just make sure to look around for me before you open your mouth.

*(Guarantee void any place with laws against fraud and false advertising)

Wine of the Week

2004 Leveroni Chardonnay
This wine was part of an evening tasting at Vino 100. Though I'm not a fan of grassy, oaky chardonnays, I was very impressed with this wine. This is a really good starter wine for new wine drinker, but also a great wine for serious wine drinkers. It's very smooth and creamy, without a lot of acidity, and that makes it easy to drink. However, it's got a solid structure and good flavors throughout. It's dry (as opposed to sweet), but with hints of butter and cream soda, and a touch of caramel on the finish. It would be really great with shrimp or light Thai food. Four stars. Available at Vino 100.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Jed Clampett and the French

Jed Clampett and the French

Learning about wine can be scary and intimidating, with plenty of opportunities for you to look like Jed Clampett. My mission here is to help you avoid the more basic wine faux pas, and get you well on your way to being a wine snob in your own right!

First off, you have to worry about looking like a cretin in front of your wine snob friends (assuming you have any). Say you take a slug of Gallo Twin Valley Merlot and say something idiotic like, "hey, that's pretty good!" I can absolutely guarantee you that every wine snob within 50 miles is going to sneer and look down their nose to you - that is, if they even bother to acknowledge your pitiful existence.

So, what did you do wrong? To the wine snob, you made two fundamental mistakes. First, any wine with the name "Gallo" in it simply can't be any good, no matter how much you like it. Gallo, which has recently attempted to move into the more rarified circles of "fine" wine, will forever be dogged by their jug wine history. If you like Gallo wines (and there is nothing wrong with that), hide them from the wine snobs. Second, you chose a merlot. Tsk, tsk. After Miles (lead character in hit wine movie Sideways) said, "if anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!", merlot's reputation fell dramatically along wannabe wine snobs.

OK, so we're off to a good start: hide the Gallo and hide the merlot.

The next thing you have to worry about is the fact that the French either don't know how to spell or can't pronounce their own language. I mean, who would ever guess that "beaujolais" is actually pronounced "boo-zho-lay"? Or that "Pauillac" is pronounced "pow-yak"? I mean, come on! Even worse, the French just love to throw away letters at the end of words. The last four letters in "Bordeaux" are pronounced as "o". Huh? Why not just spell it "borddo" or something? AND, you've got to keep in mind that if a word ends in a consonant, you typically don't pronounce it. If you were thinking that merlot was pronounced "mer-lot", you are in deep, deep trouble. That's right, it's "mer-low".

I'm not sure if the French did this deliberately because they hate English speakers or because they enjoy their own wine just a little too much, but regardless, French wine and French pronounciation aren't going away any time soon.

So! Let's have a little quiz.

Pinot Gris = "pee-no gree" (a variety of white wine grape)
Viognier = "vee-own-yay" (an increasingly popular white wine grape variety)
Coteaux du Languedoc = "coat-toe doo lang-eh-dock" ("Slopes of the Languedoc"; a wine region in southern France.)
Chateauneuf du Pape = "sha-toe-noof doo pop" ("The Pope's New House" - I kid you not - a small town and type of red wine from south central France.)

Practice inserting these words randomly into sentences, and looking sternly down your nose as you pronounce them with a pompous French accent and you'll be a wine snob in no time!

The reality, of course, is that wine can be complicated if you really want to understand it. It comes from France, Spain, Germany, and Italy - regions with hundreds of years of strange and quirky wine history. And now that wine is global, you have to deal with California, Argentinian, Australian and South African wines as well. In the coming months I'll do my best to help demystify some of the confusion, and hopefully taste some yummy wines in the process.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Why a Column on Wine?

Draft of my first wine column for the Chico Beat:

Why a column on wine? That’s probably the first of several questions that crossed your mind when you saw this article. In order to head you off at the pass, I’ll answer them all for you now, and save us all a lot of trouble.

Q: Isn’t wine the preferred beverage of rich upper class hedonists detached from – and uncaring of – the rest of us who work for living?
A: Well, yes, I suppose it is, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t drink it too. Wine is a strangely magical liquid that is accessible to anyone.

Q: Don’t you have to be a pretentious snob in order to “enjoy” wine?
A: Not at all. Anyone can enjoy and understand wine. You only have to be a pretentious snob if you also want to be a pretentious snob about wine. That’s where I come in. No, I’m not a pretentious snob (though I’m hearing some disagreement from the peanut gallery). My purpose with this column is to turn you on to the enjoyment of wine, hopefully demystifying it a bit in the process.

Q: Don’t you have to spend an arm and a leg in order to get “good” wine?
A: Sometimes it seems like it, but that’s my personal problem, not yours. In fact, the “globalization” of wine (a topic for another day) has forced producers all over the world to produce better wines at reasonable prices. There has, in fact, never been a better time in all of history to get truly great wine at affordable prices. I plan to make it my mission in this column to find those great wine bargains and drink them down. I know it’s a heavy burden and a great sacrifice, but I feel compelled by an overwhelming sense of public duty to do it for you.

Q: Isn’t Chico a beer town? Why the heck are you writing about wine?
A: While I love beer (nothing like a Summerfest on a hot day!), there’s no conflict in loving wine too. And as some wise (but sexist) philosopher once said, “man can’t live on beer alone.” We are actually quite lucky in Chico to have three establishments devoted solely to the enjoyment of wine, as well as several others that carry a decent selection of wines for our purchasing pleasure. Over the next few months, I’ll review those establishments as well as a number of wonderful – and maybe not so wonderful – wines.

Q: Why are you doing this column in the Chico Beat?
A: Obviously, they’re desperate.

Q: Who the heck are you and what do you know about wine?
A: You know, I’m starting to get really tired of your questions. Don’t you have something else to do? Actually, this is the best question of the bunch. Do I have a lot of fancy wine credentials (preferably in impenetrable French)? No. Am I a “master sommelier” (whatever the heck that is)? No. Have I ever tasted anything more expensive than Two Buck Chuck? Truth to be told, I save the “Charles Shaw” for special events. Is there anything that would qualify me to write a wine column? Not that I know of, but I did drink three bottles of wine one night last month without blacking out. Mostly. Well, I don’t actually remember much about the whole business with the cookies, but otherwise I was totally there.

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Weekend Playing Fair - Part 2

The only place open for food within 15 miles in any direction of Fair Play at 3:30 in the afternoon was the Gold Vine Grill, where we met owner Mary Kemp. Since we were the only people in the place at that early hour, we chatted with Mary as we looked over the wine bar menu (they start serving at 3:00). We ended up choosing the Greek-style Quesadillas, Portabellini Mushrooms, and Ginger-Shrimp Ravioli.

The quesadillas were tasty but not mind blowing, but the portabellini mushrooms were a delight. They weren't really "stuffed," though; a pate of sausage, spinach a cheese was piled on top of the cooked mushrooms. Though a bit unconventional, they were delicious, driven by the intensely flavorful sausage. As good as they were, they didn't hold a candle to the raviolis, which were just stunning. Gingery shrimp in a Chinese wonton, served in an incredible coconut broth brimming with Asian spice flavors. Yum!

While we ate, Mary graciously let us try several local wines from their wine bar free of charge. Most were from small wineries without public tasting rooms that either conducted tastings only by appointment or not at all. Several of these wines were particularly notable, including an Obscurity Barbara and a 2003 Bechard Herbert Vineyard Syrah. The latter had deep raisiny notes that brought up visions of hot summer days, as well as a surprising smoothness. We asked Mary how we could get some and she promptly called the winemaker and arranged to have them drop off a couple of bottles at the restaurant. Thanks Mary.

Mary also arranged for us to take a tour of Cedarville Vineyard, run by the extremely friendly and engaging Jonathan Lachs & Susan Marks. Like some of the smaller wineries in the area, Cedarville only conducts tastings by appointment. Jonathan gave us the tour of their facility, which was simple but surprisingly nice. The cement cave was particularly interesting. As for their wines - overall I found them too acidic and tannic for drinking now, but with good potential for aging. Their Syrah and Cabernet seemed the most promising, so we bought several bottles to cellar. I'm hoping that their wines are as ageworthy as they seem.

After all this wine tasting it was getting late and Jhan and I were pretty hungry, and so we headed for Restuarant Taste in the small town of Plymouth. Taste seems to be the new place in town, and already has a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the area. In that sense, it didn't disappoint. The salmon and roasted Rabbit were excellent, as was the cheese plate we had as an appetizer with a bottle of Cedarville Syrah. The syrah went extremely well with the cheese plate, particularly the "Roaring 40's" blue cheese, but unfortunately didn't pair well with the rabbit. Presentation and service were excellent, and we topped off the dinner with a Boston Creme Pie (excellent) and a Warm Ginger Cake with vanilla bean gelato (very good). Overall, I'd say that Taste lives up to its reputation and is well worth visiting again.

Saturday morning found us dozing in. We pretty much skipped breakfast, knowing that we would be lunching at the Gold Vine Grill.

Our first winery stop turned out to be Domaine de la Terre Rouge, which we had visited before. Terre Rouge (like Holly's Hill) specializes in Rhone-style wines, and is easily one of the better wineries in the area. We were the first customers of the day and tasted through several syrahs. My easy favorite - and Wine of the Trip - was the 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah, notable for its strong earthy flavors and mellow complexity. I ended up buying a case of half-bottles on sale at a ridiculous $6.75 each. Jhan disagreed, preferring the 2001 Sentinal Oaks Syrah.

Our next stop - given that several people had recommended it - was Oakstone Winery. Though the location was beautiful and the people were exceedingly friendly, none of their wines were stunning. Their Reserve Cabernet was notable for having particularly huge tannins, but lacked structure for aging.

After the disappointment at Oakstone, we headed to lunch. We ate at the Gold Vine Grill, this time having a sausage sandwich and a tuna salad sandwich. Jhan's tuna salad was apparently excellent, but I was a bit disappointed in the sausage sandwich. I had been hoping for the same spicy, savory sausage they used in the mushrooms, but no such luck. Though good, the sausage in the sandwich was on the bland side.

After lunch (and a quick visit back to Cantiga), we headed to Granite Springs, whose petite sirah had been given raves by someone, sticking Granite Springs in my head as a place to go. The place was absolutely mobbed by people, which I've begun to suspect is an indicator of uninspiring wines. True to form, none of their wines were even mildly interesting, including their rather insipid petite sirah.

We finished off the day with a quick visit to Dillian Wines. With only two bottles of their Zinfandel left on the shelf, and less than a case of their sauvignon blanc, the place was pretty empty of both wine and people. Tom Dillian and his son were quite friendly, however, and we tasted the aforementioned wines as well as a pretty little 2005 Orange Muscat. The muscat would make a great gift wine; sweet, smooth and nicely packaged.

Although we had reservations for the highly rated Zachery Jacques near Diamond Springs, our hotel was in Sutter Creek, and we decided to go to Caffe Via d' Oro in downtown Sutter Creek instead. Given that it was Saturday night on Labor Day weekend, they weren't packed, and we had no problem getting in on such short notice. We started off with a Bibb salad, which was excellent despite the fact that you had to take it apart to eat it. Jhan had sea bass in phyllo dough, which was interesting, but not particularly tasty. I had a filet in an ancho chili rub, with sauteed mushrooms that was superior. The spiciness brought out plenty of savory flavors in the meat, and the texture of the mushrooms was the perfect compliment. The potatoes were a bit bland, but that was only a mild disappointment.

My main complaint about Via d' Oro is their wine list. Heavy on local zinfandels (which I mostly detest), they didn't have a wide selection of other interesting wines. We ended up buying mostly unmemmorable wines by the glass. The only one that was memorable was a 2004 Campus Oaks from Lodi that tasted like fermented raisins. Definitely different, but not good.

On Sunday our plan was to hit at least two wineries before heading home to beat the Labor Day rush, but we ended up visiting only one winery - Windwalker Vineyard. We'd been to Windwalker before, and fallen in love with their 2002 Lady in Red Bordeaux blend - easily the best wine in the Sierra foothill wine country. Over all, I find that Windwalker has the most consistently well made wines of any of the wineries that we've visited. This time around, their 2003 Barbera was a winner, with deep smoky flavors and just a hint of raisin. Where many barberas can be stern and austere, this wine was opulent and rich. The Sierra Sunset was a surprise as well. For an everyday wine under $10, this had a balance of fruit and richness lacking in most other vineyards cheaper cuvees. Many of these are just alcohol and grape juice, but the Sierra Sunset is a real wine.

The big disappointment - and the reason I wanted to stop there in the first place - was the 2003 Lady in Red. Where the 2002 could, in all seriousness, complete with any top-of-the-line Napa Cabernet, the 2003 was a much weaker effort. The nose was totally different and not strong, to the point of having a whiff of moldy pool cover. The taste was better, but not as full or complex as the 2002. Hopefully with some bottle age, the '03 will improve, but it looks like a disappointing year for the Lady in Red.

Wines of the Trip

Domaine de la Terre Rouge 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah
Bechard 2003 Herbert Vineyard Syrah
Cantiga 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon
Holly's Hill 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah

OK, so three of the top four are syrahs. I'm not sure if that's me, or an indicator of what this area does well.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Weekend Playing Fair - Part 1

Perhaps it's appropriate that my first post is devoted to a review of wineries visited in the Fair Play area of El Dorado County, California. Perhaps it will encourage me to play somewhat fair in my reviews of the areas wineries, instead of mercilessly slamming the ones I hated (Granite Springs) and unabashedly gushing over the ones I liked (Windwalker).

My partner Jhan and I spent the Labor Day weedend visiting about a dozen wineries in the Fair Play and Shenendoah Valley areas of Sierra Nevada foothills southeast of Sacramento in northern California. Most of you (whoever you are) have never heard of this area, but it's an up-and-coming wine area in a state blessed with some of the most over-hyped, over-run and over-priced wine areas in the country. Fortunately, that's not the case here. We spent a good hour and a half at a wonderful restaurant and wine bar in the middle of the Fair Play area - talking with the restaurant owner and tasting a variety of good local wines, and the whole time we were the only people in the place.

Unspoiled - for the most part, that's the word for this wine country. Though we did encounter small crowds at some of our stops, we were also pretty lucky in being able to spend a lesurely amount of time talking to wine makers and tasting wine without any pressure. Given that it was the Labor Day weekend, we kept wondering where all the people were.

Jhan and I had been to this area before - in March - and this time around we revisited several places we had been before. But we also visited a number of new places. The following are my impressions of the wines we tasted.

First stop: Holly's Hill Vineyards. This was the last place we stopped back in March when they were absolutely mobbed by a crowd of wine club members there for their first Rhone taste off. Holly's Hill prides itself on making Rhone wines and comparing their wines to Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf du Papes from France. Well, CdP is my favorite wine, and on our tasting in March I thought there was no comparion. The Holly's Hills wines were all much simpler and all seemed to have a residual sweetness that was unlike anything you'd ever get from France. Jhan and I were definitely unimpressed the first time around, but we also thought that we could have been affected by fatigue (being "wined-out" as we call it), and by the teaming crowd.

So we gave them a second chance as our first stop on this trip. I won't bore you with every wine we tasted. The one wine (I couldn't get them to let me taste their top-of-the-line "Patriarch" cuvee) that stood out head and shoulders above the others was the 2004 Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah. This was the one wine of theirs with a truly earthy complexity. This was a standout wine. I was already thinking "wine of the trip" the moment I tasted it. Well worth seeking out. Actually, overall, Holly's Hill wines are a clear cut above of the highly alcoholic zinfandel fruit bombs that many of the wineries in this area churn out. I would put them in the top ten of wineries to visit if you're going this area.

Next on our list was Sierra Vista Winery, right next door to Holly's Hill. Nothing much of note there. The Le Grande Syrah was worth tasting, but the rest of the wines were uninspiring. A disappointment. So let's move on.

Third on our list was Cantiga Wineworks, not because I'd heard good things or was impressed with their wine list, but only because I thought the bottle labels I saw on their website were the coolest I'd seen in a while. They had this whole cathedral theme going on that I really liked, and honestly, I wanted to see them in person. Jhan was skeptical. Tiny little tasting room, run by a strange lady who had to knock back a pretty good "taste" of each wine before pouring us any.

Regardless, I was pretty impressed by pretty much everything we tasted. Impressed in the sense that having been to the area before, we knew the preferred wine style: huge fruit bombs with alcohol in the 16% range. No complexity or character. It was all about the booze baby. But Cantiga completely ignores the conventional wisdom of the area. They make wines in a European style, often without malolactic fermentation. Wines that have character, complexity, and smoothness instead of fruit and heat. With the exception of Windwalker, I would have to say that Cantiga made the most consistantly smooth and complex wines of any place we visited. That's not to say that you'd like them, but they are well made wines. I was most particularly impressed with the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, of which I bought six bottles. Not to everyones' taste, but complex and full of character.

So far, we were off to a pretty good start. Two keepers in three wineries. But we were getting pretty darn hungry and our dinner reservations at Taste in Plymouth were 5 hours away. We had to find something, and that something turned out to be the surprize highpoint of the trip - and right around the corner from Cantiga.