Thursday, December 27, 2007

Christmas Revisited

For the January 25th issue.

Well, we did it. We made it through Christmas. As you may recall, my family was going to attempt to get through Christmas by exchanging only local gifts, or (failing that) at least not getting anything made in China.

This was a decidedly mixed experience, although a highly educational one. For example, did you know that every single thing for sale in the United States is made in China? I bet you didn't know that, but I can attest that it's 99.999% true.

I spent the last four days before Christmas frantically shopping for anything that wasn't made in China. Sure, I got some local wines for my editor, but I couldn't do that for everyone. We did manage to score a couple of DVDs for the grandkids that were made in Mexico, and I found a pasta strainer that was made in Thailand, but the overall end result of Christmas was that we all ended up trading almonds and gift certificates to local stores (stores, by the way, which are mostly stocked with crap made in China).

Not the most satisfying Christmas in that respect. But I did learn that we are completely dependent on our Chinese overlords for everything we own and use. All hail our Chinese overlords! Sigh. I wish I was kidding.

However, I did score a couple of great wine gifts that I can consume in an attempt to forget that America is now made in - and owned by - China.

First, I got a bottle of 2003 Beaulieu Vineyards Georges de Latour Private Reserve. Despite its French-sounding name, Beaulieu (or, more familiarly, "BV") is one of the oldest wineries in the Napa Valley. And aside from Inglenook (the real Inglenook, not that crappy box wine schlock), BV Georges de Latour Private Reserve is the wine that had the greatest impact in establishing California as a top wine-making region.

It's a wine with a long and fascinating history (and one my absolute favorites) but that's not the subject of this column. The subject of this column is the second wine gift I got: a gift certificate for Creekside Cellars.

My partner went way overboard and got me a $100 gift certificate. That's all great and everything except for the fact that we had agreed to keep things "under control" this year, and that, as a result, I only got her a $25 gift certificate to The Galley. Oops.

That will have to get straightened out later, after she lets me back in the house, but in the meantime I have $100 to spend on wine! Woohoo! There ain't nothin' as fun as buying wine... except of course drinking wine, but to do that you have to buy the wine first, so the way I figure it, it's a win-win situation all the way around.

The rules for using the gift certificate were the same as for Christmas: whatever I picked had to be from California. I could live with that.

My goal on this trip was to try to score a Cab and a Pinot, so right in the door at Creekside, I headed to the Cabernet rack. Silver Oak doesn't impress me, so I skipped that and went straight for the 2005 Caymus Special Selection, but at $170 a bottle it was way too rich for even my gift-certificated blood. Coming back to earth a bit, my eye was caught by the 2004 Justin Isosceles ($59.99) and the 2004 Larkmead Firebelle (meritage blend, $45.00).

Next, I moved to the Pinot Noir rack, which I would normally avoid since I think Pinots have gotten hugely over-priced in the past few years. But today, fortified with a gift certificate, I was attracted to several California Pinots, including the 2005 Belle Glos Las Alturas Vineyard $57.99), the 2005 Sea Smoke Southing ($51.99), and the 2005 Domaine Alfred Edna Valley Pinot ($41.99).

How did I finally decide? Like any smart shopper, I talked to the proprietor, Dennis McLaughlin. Now, my tastes and Dennis's don't always match, but I listened for characteristics I wanted to hear as he described each wine. For the Cabernet, I wanted big and smooth and accessible. Dennis's description of the Larkmead seemed to hit that pretty well. For the Pinot, I like lots of Pinot character, not too lean or subtle, and the Sea Smoke sounded like a full-bodied Pinot with plenty of complexity.

In the end I happily walked out with the Larkmead Firebelle, the Sea Smoke Point Noir and a bottle of 1999 Roederer Estate L'Hermitage Brut (Anderson Valley sparkling wine, $48.99). Of course, that's about $50 more wine than my gift certificate was worth, but hey, I needed the bubbly for New Year's Eve anyway.

Take aways: China sucks. Local stores rock. Gift certificates really are the perfect gift.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The "It" Wine Experience

Column for Feb 8th.

Last Thanksgiving, my partner and I visited our parents in southern California. As the resident "wine expert", I was told to bring the wine for Thanksgiving dinner (a nice festive Mumm Blanc de Noirs).

Unfortunately, I didn't plan for dinner the day after Thanksgiving. We were going to one of my father's favorite Italian restaurants and I didn't have a bottle on hand – an embarrassing predicament for any resident wine expert.

Fortunately, I was sent out on an errand to purchase a lock to replace the one we were going to cut off of King Tut's tomb (AKA my mother-in-law’s 10x30 foot storage locker, the inside of which no one had seen for a quarter of a century and which you really don't want to get me started on because of the boxes of paper napkins stacked to the ceiling, not to mention 25 years of dust, sofas, Pittsburgh phone books and God only knows what else.).

Luckily, there was a high-end bottle shop next to the hardware store. After perusing their very nice selection for an hour or two, I picked a bottle of 2001 Rodney Strong Symmetry. I've always liked Rodney Strong's entry level Cabernet; it’s a pretty solid wine for the price. But I didn't really know anything about the Symmetry. It was just a lucky pick.

I'll skip over the whole deal with the rude waiter, but at least he opened the bottle and gave me a taste before pouring for everyone. That first taste told me that this wine was a cut above average, and as it developed in the glass, I began to realize that I was having the proverbial "it" wine experience.

What is the "it" wine experience? To your ordinary wino, it's that first taste of Thunderbird that convinces them that they could be happy spending the rest of their life living in an alley begging for enough spare change to buy their next bottle. To your extra-ordinary wine snob, on the other hand, it's usually that one glass or bottle that blew their mind and really turned them on to fine wine.

This bottle definitely blew my mind. Unfortunately, there's really no way to describe it. I've drunk a lot of wine in my life, but nothing like this. The Cabernets and Bordeaux I've been able to afford up until now pale in comparison, with ghostly faint suggestions of fruit and thin, spindly structures.

The Symmetry absolutely lived up to it's name, not only with incredibly dense dark flavors of blackberry, black cherry, chocolate, mocha and spices, but also with a wonderful balance, silky smooth tannins and a finish that seemed to go on for minutes. Every sip set off a cascade of stunning revelations.

It was a religious experience, and I could swear I felt the rapture quickly approaching.

Sadly, a bottle of wine split between five people only gives you one short glass to savor, and all too soon the experience was over. I was left like a penniless heroin addict, craving more, more, more. I went into withdrawal almost immediately, and was pale, shivering and incoherent by the end of dinner.

I went back to rob the shop where I got the bottle, but discovered that there was no more. I shot up the place in a rage and left. Then I stole a car and raced back to Chico, avoiding the law at every turn. I searched for the wine online, only to find it nearly impossible to find or incredibly expensive when I did find it. I started stealing TVs and car stereos to pay for my addiction, but to little avail. Eventually, I was caught robbing a liquor store (go figure) and sentenced to 3-5 years.

Or so it sometimes seems. Strange as it is to say, that one bottle of wine really changed my life – and not for the better. No longer does a “decent” bottle of wine suffice for Wednesday night dinner. Every bottle I drink, I compare to that 2001 Symmetry. It doesn’t matter what it is, a $10 Zinfandel or a $70 Napa Cabernet. It gets compared to that one bottle and inevitably comes up wanting.

Like an oenophilic adrenalin junkie, I’m now on a perpetual search for another “it” wine experience, spending hundreds of dollars in just the past couple of weeks on various Napa cabs and Bordeaux.

I thought having an “it” wine experience would be a good thing, but all it’s done is raise my taste beyond the reach of my checkbook. I think the only cure is to “recalibrate” my palate, and the only way to do that is with a bottle of Thunderbird. So, if you see me in an alley somewhere, be kind and toss me some change.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Think Globally by Shopping Locally

Last year, I grudgingly succumbed to the consumerism of the season and wrote a column on gifts for the wine snob in your life. Personally, I've never been a big believer that "the Christmas spirit" = "a frenzy of consumption", but I'm pretty much alone on that one.

In the intervening year, we've had revelation after revelation about the unintended consequences of global consumerism, particularly with respect to the waves of unsafe Chinese goods flooding this country. Fortunately for our health, China is not a wine exporting nation. God only knows what they'd put in wine to cut costs.

To me, this rude awakening of American consumers to the impact of importing goods from far-flung corners of the world (where health, safety and environmental controls are almost non-existent) is a darn good thing.

Maybe it will make us re-examine the meaning of Christmas. Maybe. Maybe it will make us re-examine our obsession with consumption. Doubtful. At the very least, it (and the cost of transportation) may refocus our priorities toward consuming more locally, where we have greater control over freshness, quality and safety.

This Christmas, our family has decided to begin moving in that direction.

We've agreed that all gifts are going to be local in nature. Gift cards will be to local stores instead of global chains (e.g., Lyon Books instead of Barnes & Nobles). Gifts will be from local makers, or at least from California. Nothing from China will be bought or exchanged.

That will be pretty tough on gifts for the grandchildren, since China makes three-quarters of the world's toys. But for the adults it's less problematic. Sure, there won't be any consumer electronics being exchanged, but what about the cornucopia of great foods that come out of the Sacramento Valley? There are wonderful local walnuts, almonds and olives available. And Chico has more than one great local bakery.

Walnuts instead of a Nintendo Wii? Yes, there's no doubt that it will take a little re-thinking of what to give at Christmas, and of what makes a great Christmas gift. But to me, the eternal Christmas curmudgeon, that's exactly what we need to do anyway.

Of course, there's a practical limit to how local we are going to get this year. We've agreed on California as our definition of "local", so we won't be limited to just almonds and walnuts.

Fortunately for me, California just happens to be the premier wine producing region on the entire continent. That made it real easy to say, "Sure, honey, only buying stuff from California for Christmas sounds like a great idea," instead of, "Honey, have you gone completely crackers?!? They don't make HDTVs in California!"

For you, it might be a bit more difficult, but if you want to keep gas prices down, discourage child and slave labor, mitigate environmental damage, and boost our local economy, you might just give it a thought. Or you can go on being a big fat ugly American pig. It's up to you.

So, what do I recommend you get for the wine lover in your life this year?

How about some local wines? In my last column, I rated over a dozen local wines. In general terms, I can recommend a bottle of pretty much anything from either New Clairvaux or Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards. I'm consistently impressed with New Clairvaux's whites, particularly the Viognier and the Albariño, and the Bertagna Barbara is one of the best local wines being produced.

How about a wine club membership at one of our local wineries? I know that New Clairvaux, Grey Fox and Quilici all have wine clubs.

Failing that, how about a gift certificate at Creekside Cellars, Vino 100 or Monks? Yes, yes, Vino 100 is a chain, but it's a franchise, so most of their income stays here. Of course, you'll only be buying California wines with those gift certificates, right?

Beyond the strictly local, there are literally thousands of California wines to choose from as gifts. I can't imagine that I really need to list any, but here's a couple of personal favorites worth thinking about.

Mumm Napa Blanc de Noirs
A lightly salmon-colored sparkling wine from the Napa Valley (duh), this non-vintage Blanc de Noirs is a quintessential Christmas and New Year's bubbly. About $14. 4 stars.

La Crema 2005 Sonoma County Pinot Noir
For less than $20, this is one of the best Pinot Noirs I've tasted. 4.25 stars.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Top 10 Wines of 2007

Column for Jan 11th.

Each year, every wine magazine, wine blog, and wine writer on the planet lists their top 10 wines for the past year. Not wanting to be left out of any pointless trend, I herewith list the top 10 wines I've drunk in the past twelve months. Of course, I can't really imagine why anyone would care about my favorite wines of the year, but nevertheless, here goes.

10. Allegrini 2000 Palazzo Della Torre
I managed to score the last two bottles of this vintage that CostPlus had, and then repeated the same trick at Creekside Cellars. The 2001, which is still on store shelves is a much less impressive wine in my opinion. This is a wonderful Italian wine, big, dense and earthy, but not so overpowering that it can only be drunk with food. A fantastic deal for about $20 - if you can find it. 4.25 stars.

9. La Crema 2005 Sonoma County Pinot Noir
This may not be the best Pinot in the world, but the problem with Pinot is finding something halfway decent under $20. A solid Pinot is going to set you back $40-60. Well, for about $17, this wine delivers. Wonderful hints of Pinot funk on the nose, matched with a delicate finesse on the palate. For the price, this wine is a deal and well worth seeking out. 4.25 stars.

8. Jackson-Triggs 2004 Vidal Ice Wine VQA
Ice wines are made by leaving the grapes on the vine all the way into winter and until they freeze hard as rocks. In the process, a lot of water is removed from the grapes, leaving behind an almost pure syrup. A beautifully clear golden yellow color, this has clear notes of honey, apricot and peach. I love this stuff. Not cheap, though. A 187ml bottle (a quarter of a regular wine bottle) runs about $20. 4.5 stars.

7. Windwalker 2002 Lady in Red
Windwalker is probably the best winery in the Fair Play region of Eldorado County, and Lady in Red (a classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec) easily the most complex and developed wine they produce. Easy to mistake for a Napa Valley Cab. An incredible wine. 4.5 stars.

6. Cloud 9 Composition
I had a glass of this at Monks, so I don't know the vintage, but this was a fine, fine wine, and tasted like a classic Napa Valley Cabernet, with massive dark fruit backed by great depth and complexity. A strange cross-regional blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Verdot, and Barbera. Big, smooth and classy. 4.5 stars.

5. Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera 1927
This stuff is the nectar of the gods, a fantastically dense and sweet Montilla sherry, with a flavor like honeyed raisins. If you like great port, you might just love this. Is this wine really from 1927? Well, a few drops of it are. A solera is a way of blending wine, where a bit of this year's wine is blended with last years, a bit of that is mixed with the wine from the year before that... and so on. The last barrel in the chain contains a little bit from every vintage since they started making the wine - in this case, 1927. 4.5 stars.

4. Terre Rouge 2000 Sierra Foothills Syrah

Terre Rouge is hands down the best winery in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, consistently producing the most refined and complex Rhone-style wines of any winery in the region. And even though this isn't their top-of-the-line Syrah, it's my clear favorite. Wonderfully earthy flavors, layered with well-developed dark fruit flavors and a mellow complexity. Fantastic. 4.75 stars.

3. Napa Redwoods Estate 2002 Alden Perry Reserve
This is a truly fantastic wine - deep, dark and complex, with ripe black fruit flavors, hints of chocolate and mocha, and well structured tannins. Wonderfully dense and concentrated. Made from 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Merlot, this is what a Napa Meritage should taste like. For about $50 a bottle, this isn't a cheap wine, but it certainly demonstrates the level of quality you can get from Napa Valley at that price. 4.75 stars.

2. Guigal 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape
This is one of my favorite wines of all time. Amazingly complex and floral, this wine just keeps developing aromas and flavors the longer it's open. Simply stunning, and a treat every time I've had it. Made of 80% old Grenache, 10% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre and other grapes, this wine demonstrates the incredible finesse that Grenache-based wines can have. I think Creekside Cellars still has a bottle or two of this wine. Not cheap at $42, but worth the experience at least once. 5.0 stars.

1. Rodney Strong 2001 Symmetry
An absolutely stunning effort. This wine took me completely by surprise. I was expecting something good, but not this good. Amazingly rich black berry, black cherry and roasted mocha flavors, with incredible structure and a silky smooth finish. In a league of its own. A Meritage blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, this is top shelf stuff. Of course, at $55 a bottle, you damn well better get wine of this quality. Mind blowing. 5.0 stars.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Locals Only

More than once in this column I've bashed local wines. Well, I wouldn't say "bashed" exactly. Let's just say I've "critically evaluated" local wines. Yeah, I like that.

As a result, I'm probably not the most popular wine critic in town with some of the local wineries (we're going to skip over the fact that, as far as I know, I'm the ONLY wine critic in town).

So it was with some trepidation that I went to Vino 100 a few Fridays ago for their "Locals Night" tasting, featuring wines and wine makers from six local wineries.

In the crowded confines of their tasting area, a shiv to the ribs, wine critic falls to the floor in a pool of blood, who would know who held the knife? Or worse, a glass of "Special Reserve", aged eighteen months in arsenic-laced oak barrels. Monday morning, wine critic doesn't show up for work, no way to tell which winery did the job.

So yeah, I'm no sissy, but I was scared for my life when I went in there. Fortunately, everyone was extremely nice, and my Kevlar vest saved my life more than once.

For all I know, you were there too. I went early to beat the crowds, but by 6:00 the place was literally packed. There were probably 60 people trying to crowd around 6 tiny little tasting tables. In a way, it was actually kind of ridiculous trying to pack all those people into the back of the store when the whole front area was empty. If Vino 100 is going to do these kinds of events - and they're going to be this successful - they really need to expand the tasting area.

The big question, of course, is "how were the wines"?

Quilici Vineyards

Let's start with Quilici. A few months back I “critically evaluated” their 2003 Barbara. It actually was a pretty terrible, borderline undrinkable, wine. I gave it one star, and was being kind. Fortunately, the 2004's are literally night and day. Quality has stunningly improved, to the point where I can actually recommend a couple of their wines.

Quilici 2004 Sangiovese – This was one of the best wines of the evening. Very meaty, with good acidity and balance. This wine hit all the classic characteristics of a good Chianti right on the head. 3.0 stars.

Quilici 2004 Barbara – Very funky, delicious, earthy aroma. Tart, with strawberry notes and just the tiniest hint of residual sugar. 2.75 stars.

Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards

Next up were Bert and Carol Bertagna. A young and very fun couple, they were probably the newest to wine-making of the wineries at the tasting. But that didn't mean that their wines weren't worth drinking.

Bertagna 2005 Sangiovese – Very light aroma with hints of raspberry. Very smooth flavors, light in body, simple, but extremely pleasant and drinkable. The casual wine drinker will love this, as will just about anyone. 3.0 stars.

Bertagna 2005 Barbera – Wow…amazingly complex and fascinating aroma. Hints of toast and bacon, with a pure creaminess running all the way through it. I know it sounds like creamed chipped beef on toast, but this was wonderful. On the tongue it starts out tart, but evolves rapidly in complexity and depth and finishes smooth. A phenomenal effort, but probably not for everyone. 3.75 stars.

Bertagna 2005 Mestizo – I've already reviewed this wine in a previous column, but it's worth mentioning again. A very smooth, pleasant and mellow wine. Not fantastically complex, but well made. 3.0 stars.

LaRocca Vineyards

The LaRocca's weren't there, but their wines were. Unfortunately, these were easily the most “critically evaluated” wines being poured that night. Though their Chardonnay was actually drinkable, the rest were, sadly, not. Here are my actual tasting notes:

LaRocca 2005 Sutter County Zinfandel – Stinky, sulphur, burnt match. Horrible taste, burnt rubber. Undrinkable. 0.5 stars.

LaRocca 2006 Sutter County Merlot – Spicy, with a hint of rubbing alcohol. Off balanced, burnt/cooked flavor. 1.5 stars.

LaRocca 2005 Sutter County Cabernet Sauvignon – Musty, bad musty, petrol and mold aromas. Bad musty, mold flavors. 1.0 stars.

Grey Fox Vineyards

Grey Fox was the first winery I ever visited (aww...isn't that sweet). Their wines have been kind of up and down in my view. Often the best bets are their varietal ports.

Grey Fox 2003 Merlot – Very light aroma, with some floral notes. Lightish on the tongue as well, with decent body, red fruits, and a smooth finish. 2.5 stars.

New Clairvaux

In a way, New Clairvaux has become the “rock star” local winery, mostly because they came right out of the gate a few years back with some solid wines and haven't looked back.

New Clairvaux 2007 Viognier – That's right - 2007. This wine is still in tanks, so it's not even a finished product, and by the time it's bottled, it will be much more mellow than this bubbly, exuberant youngster. Still, what an incredible fun wine! Seriously tropical flavors, very clean and crisp with hints of green apple and pineapple. And the light fizziness was fun as well. 3.25 stars.

The awards for the night are as follows (like me handing out “awards” has any real meaning):

Best red wine: Bertagna 2005 Barbara
Best white wine: New Clairvaux 2007 Viognier
Best wines overall: Bertagna Son Kissed Vineyards
Most improved winery: Quilici Vineyards

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is Riesling Really That Unreasonable?

Column for February 22nd.

Lately I've been on a serious Indian/Thai food jag. I love that stuff. I just love it. Seriously, I wanna mainline curry. You got it - melt it down on a spoon, pour it into a syringe, and shoot it up. Snort it. Smoke it. Whatever. Just gimme. I could eat breakfast at Sophie's, lunch at Cocodine and dinner at Priya every day.

There's probably something seriously wrong with me, but I don't care. I want to dip some naan in a nice lamb korma sauce. And I want to do it RIGHT NOW!

The only problem for this winoholic is - you guessed it - what wine to pair with my delectable Thai or Indian feast.

Well, that's easy. In my not so humble opinion Riesling is THE wine to pair with Indian and Thai food (mmmm... Massaman curry). Why? A good Riesling is very balanced but also very acidic, and that acidity acts as a great counterbalance to the food, cutting through the spiciness without overwhelming or masking the food's flavor. The light sweetness of some Rieslings can contribute to that effect.

The problem is finding a decent Riesling in Chico.

I mean really, what could be so hard about just one place in town stocking a few decent Rieslings? Let's see...

Trader Joes... I was there yesterday (and I blame them for this rant). A wall o' Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? Absolutely. Sweet plonky Liebfraumilch and Piesporter Michelsberg? Sure 'nuff. Riesling? Two bottles. Seriously.

CostPlus... a couple bottles of sweet, cheap, low end German swill is about it.

Vino 100... sadly ditto. Just a couple of sticky sweet bottles.

Creekside Cellars... I think they have one, and it's from California.

The best Riesling I've bought locally I found at Safeway. I mean really, what's up with that?

I just can't believe that there isn't the demand. A good dry Riesling should go well with a wide variety of seafoods, light chicken dishes, cheese, as well as the Masala and Paneang that I lust for.

I think part of the problem is that it's very hard to know what's in the bottle until you taste it. Rieslings run from virtually bone dry to so sweet that they're denser than syrup. And it doesn't always say on the outside of the bottle how dry or sweet the wine on the inside is (or if it does, its in impenetrable German). And there is nothing more disappointing than opening a bottle expecting to find something crisp and dry only to discover corn syrup.

The Germans came up with an oh-so-typically complex grading scheme for Rieslings, but in the interest of brevity, we'll skip the bulk of it.

Of the 847 different classifications of German Riesling, Kabinett is the driest and best to pair with food. and Spatese (spaht-LAYS-uh) is a bit sweeter but still OK, depending on your taste. Beerenauslese (beer-en-oss-LAYS-uh) and Trockenbeerenauslese (say-THAT-three-times-fast) are super sweet, dense and complex wines that you flat out can't get here, so don't even worry about it. And even if you could get them, you couldn't afford them.

The key thing to look for on the label of German Rieslings is the word "trocken", which means "dry". "Halbtrocken" means "half dry", and "half dry" means "really, really sweet", so you're going to want to avoid that, unless you think white Zinfandel is just a little bit too dry for your tastes.

Of course, all of these wonderful German tongue-twisters go straight out the window when you start talking about non-German Rieslings. And you can't find any decent German Rieslings in Chico anyway.

So what's a Tandoori hound to do?

Bottom line is that you're going to have to take some chances on getting some too-sweet wines, and you may need to turn to the Internet if you want to score some decent Rieslings.

Best bets? Washington makes some great Rieslings. Chateau Ste. Michelle is actually making a name for themselves in the world of affordable Rieslings. And you can find them in any grocery store. Australia is also starting to make some respectable Rieslings. Aussie Rieslings tend to be completely dry, so they're worth a try if you can find them.

And as I reported a couple of columns ago, the Finger Lakes region of New York is kicking out some fine offerings as well. Emailing or calling the wineries and asking about their driest offerings might not be a bad approach, even though you're still basically shooting in the dark.

Personally, I would express my disappointment in Riesling selection to my local retailer in the hope that they will try to stock a wider, better, and drier selection.

Recent favs:

Tierce 2005 Dry Riesling (Available from Fox Run Vineyards)
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Columbia Valley Riesling (available at Safeway)
Plantagenet 2006 Riesling South Australia (wonderful and dry, available at Creekside Cellars)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Almost Live from New York

Last week I went to Rochester, New York, on a junket paid for by your tax dollars. Lucky me.

Upstate New York is actually a real live, serious wine growing area, particularly the Finger Lakes region, about 45 minutes south of Rochester. There was no way I was going to pass up a wine tasting opportunity, so I got to Rochester early and spent a day sampling the local wares.

First of all, regardless of the quality of the wines, the Finger Lakes are incredible. A series of long narrow lakes (the longest is nearly 40 miles long) set in glacial depressions, they are surrounded by beautiful rolling, forested countryside. Though not mountainous by California standards, the views from the hillside wineries were breathtaking. I got there just as the fall colors were starting to turn, and could tell that it must be amazing at it's peak, particularly set against those gorgeous lakes.

And the lakes are the whole reason that this is a wine making area. Apparently, the deep lake water moderates winter temperatures enough so that the vines can survive and produce wine grapes.

But what kind of wine do they produce? A lot of these east coast states produce absolutely vile, sickly sweet concoctions made from indigenous grape varieties or mulberries or some other damn thing. Being a California ("Cali" in east coast parlance - apparently, right coasters have difficulty pronouncing anything with more than two syllables.) wine snob, I wasn't about to be down with some weird pink syrupy crap.

Well, guess what? They do make some of that nasty, undrinkable syrupy fruit stuff. I shudder even to think about it. I visited the New York Wine and Culinary Institute at Lake Canandaiqua (unmissable and well worth the visit if you are anywhere in the area, BTW), and tried some Montezuma Winery Cranberry Bog.

You got it - a cranberry wine. Think of Boone's' Farm Strawberry Hill, but made with cranberries. Cloying. Gawd awful. According to the staff, this is one of the most popular wines they sell. No comment on what that says about their clientele. Zero stars. I'm still washing my mouth out after tasting that.

Another "area for improvement" are their red wines. Now I have to admit that they've come a long way since I was there last year (either that, or we've learned which reds to avoid), but if you're used to "Cali" reds I highly recommend giving their reds a miss. Supposedly their strong suit is Cabernet Franc, but most of the ones I tasted were seriously flawed.

A good (bad??) example was the Osprey's Dominion 2004 Cabernet Franc. A very light wine, extremely over-oaked to hide the flaws and lack of fruit flavors. A strong, almost overwhelming vanilla aroma gave me a headache. Tart and bitter. One star for not actually making me vomit.

Another example of how far they have to go on their reds was the 2004 Red Newt Finger Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon... with a residual sugar of 0.5 percent. Say what? A half a percent sugar? That means it's a lightly sweet wine. A sweet Cabernet?? What planet are you people from?!? Oh, and the taste of this wine? Do you really have to ask? Minus 2 stars for being so weird that I had to try it (against my better judgment).

OK, so is the Finger Lakes a total wash? No. In fact they actually make some great wines here, but you have to winnow them out from the seas of sweet plonk.

Probably the greatest wines the Finger Lakes make are Rieslings. Yep, those light, tart wines that go great with Asian food.

But you do have to be careful, because these right coasters just love their sweet wines, and that goes for Rieslings as well. But if you search hard enough (and move up to the higher grade stuff), you can find some real gems. I'm a particular fan of Fox Run Rieslings, which run from fairly sweet to completely dry.

My favorite from this trip was the Tierce 2005 Dry Riesling (made by a consortium of Fox Run, Anthony Road and Red Newt wineries). This was a truly dry wine. No overwhelming fruit flavors, but great structure and acidity. Very complex and well designed. This was the best wine I tasted on the trip. 4.0 stars.

One other thing they do well in upstate New York are ice wines. These are wines made from grapes left on the vine and allowed to freeze in the winter. The freezing removes a lot of water from the grapes, leaving behind an intensely sweet and concentrated juice. The resulting wine is intense and super sweet - and not for everyone. Personally, I love to sip it or pour it over ice cream.

One standout ice wine from this trip was the Mazza Chautaugua 2005 Lake Erie Vidal Ice Wine. Yummy! Extremely sweet and honeyed, with strong notes of apricots and muskmelon. Very dense and intense. 3.75 stars.

So the basic take aways from the Finger Lakes region are: Avoid the reds unless you want to try some weird, undrinkable swill. Focus on the whites - particularly the Rieslings and Gewürztraminers - but be prepared for a lot of sweet wines. Move up to the premium offerings for the most dry - and most drinkable - stuff. And avoid the fruit wines unless you are a complete masochistic idiot.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Good n' Cheap

The cover of October 31st Wine Spectator (yes, I subscribe to Wine Spectator, live in a huge mansion of a house, and drive a brand new SUV, but I swear I'm poor as a church mouse - those things being the main reasons why) screams in 120 point type "GREAT VALUES - 250 Top Picks - $20 or Less!".

Two hundred and fifty rockin' wines for under $20?? I am all over that action, no doubt about it. Good and cheap is exactly where I'm at. But as you well know if you bother to read this column regularly, "good and cheap" is almost an oxymoron when it comes to wine.

So (swear to God) I clutched my Wine Spectator in my greedy little hands and marched into the local Safeway and CostPlus stores prepared to score some killer wine bargains. Semi-surprisingly, they actually had several of the wines listed in the article. Here-in I review several of them for your libationous edification.

Yellow Tail 2005 Southeast Australia Shiraz "The Reserve"
This is not the $5.99 a bottle cheap stuff (which actually ain't half bad for the price). "The Reserve" is the next step up, but still under $10. Lots of dark, roasted fruit on the nose - blackberry, black cherry, with hints of roasted coffee and eucalyptus. On the tongue, big and smooth as silk. Truckloads of huge ripe fruit flavors. Not layered or complex; just a fruit-lovers paradise. Rich and well integrated, this stuff goes down smooth. WS: 90 pts. Me: 3.75 stars. $9.43 (Safeway).

Columbia Crest 2004 Grand Estates Columbia Valley Merlot
I've never been a big Columbia Crest fan. Their wines are generally pretty generic and blah. But Wine Spectator liked this one, so what the heck. A whammy of vanilla on the nose, with hints of chocolate, mocha and black fruit. The smooth vanilla flavor carries over to the taste, but becomes a bit too dominant. Sadly, very little fruit on the midpalate (OK class, what's the wine tasting term for this? That's right, "hollow". Very good!), and a slightly awkward finish. Not worth bothering with. WS: 90 pts. Me: 2.5 stars. $6.99 (Safeway).

Geyser Peak 2005 Alexander Valley Chardonnay
If you read this column, you know I'm not a chardonnay fan, but this wine wasn't objectionable. Light and buttery on the nose, with a touch of hay. On the tongue is was bright and creamy, with a smooth finish and a surprising - and not unpleasant - touch of sweetness. Wonderful lack of oakiness. I could actually drink this. WS: 86 pts. Me: 3.0 stars. $7.98 (Safeway).

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2006 Columbia Valley Riesling
Dry on the nose,with strong aromas of grapefruit and lemon peel. Faint hints of apricot, hay and herbs. On the tongue there's an explosion of flavor, and a surprising and pleasant frizzante (fizz). Yum! Just slightly sweet, with bright lime flavors, along with hints of pineapple and papaya. Good acidity cleanses the palate and keeps the wine from becoming cloying. Best served well chilled (freezing cold). Very tropical and fun. We have a winner! WS: 86 pts. Me: 4.0 stars. $5.99 (Safeway).

Perrin & Fils Cotes du Rhone Reserve 2005
Very bright, acidic aroma, with a hint of red berries, dust and (there just isn't any other description for it) pork chops. Very light on the tongue, with good structure, but faint fruit and rather firm tannins. The lack of fruit flavors is typical for a cheap French wines. Overall, something of a blah wine; not bad but not too much of anything. WS: 87 pts. Me: 2.75 stars. $11.99 (CostPlus).

Bodega Norton Malbec Lujan de Cuyo Reserva 2005
Rich and drak aromas, with hints of roast beef. Deep and mellow. Not as profound on the palate, with bright red fruits. A bit acidic with mild tannins. A bit disappointing for the price. WS: 88 pts. Me: 2.75 stars. $14.39 (CostPlus)

The Riesling was the big winner here, but actually none of these wines were hideous. Wine Spectator often gets ripped for overrating plonky wines, but these were all passable, particularly for the price.

Bottom line: Eureka! There IS good wine under $10! Get a copy of that issue of Wine Spectator and treasure it.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pilgramage to the Holy Land

Those of you who aren't devotees of the temples of Global Mass Consumerism (heathen infidels! - may you burn in the 7th layer of hell for all eternity!) may not be aware that Costco (may their beneficence always shine on us!) has opened a new church store here in Chico. But it's true; behind the old Costco stands a gleaming new temple to mass consumption.

As a devoted believer, I hastened to pay homage at my first opportunity. Ostensibly, I went to worship at the printer cartridge aisle, but I knew I couldn't resist taking a peek at their new wine selection while I was there.

The parking was crazy as ever; worse in fact, now that there was a large open area in front of the doors with criss-crossing traffic and people dropping off worshipers. You'd think that people going to worship would be more charitable to their fellows, but I guess Global Consumerism isn't a very charitable god. The ushers at the door checked my Costco believer card, but my eyes were already focused on the grandeur beyond.

As befits any temple or church, I was in awe the moment I entered. I felt that I had truly entered a holy place. A phalanx of HDTVs greeted me as I made my way, slack-jawed in wonder, into the cavernous temple. Huge racks of consumer products soared three stories into the air, and disappeared into the dim distance. Two huge refrigeration units towered at the far end of the store like twin white Kaabas, chilling frozen pizzas and mozzarella cheese. Verily, this was a true consumer mecca.

I knelt in humility and prayed that my credit limit was worthy of such riches.

I paid my perfunctory respects to the print cartridge aisle (ten times as many cartridges as before, Consumerism be praised!), and then I spotted the wine aisle.

I almost trembled with reverence and anticipation as I approached.

It was huge; nearly twice as long as the old wine case and taller. And the wine selection! I fell to the floor and prostrated myself before riches I never thought I would ever have the honor to see in person. I had made it, it was becoming clear, to the Promised Land.

Here’s just a partial list of the wonders revealed before my eyes:

Dominus 2003 - $100
Opus One 2003 - $130
Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2004 - $159
Chateau d’Yquem 2003 - $159 (375ml)
Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2004 - $165
Chateau Margaux 2004 - $166
Penfolds Grange 2002 - $200
Clarendon Hills Astralis 2004 - $250

Now, Costco has always had a few bottles of high end wines; a couple of bottles of Chateau Haut-Brion ($158) here, a few bottles of Dom Perignon there. But two full cases of Clarendon Hills Astralis? That represented $6000 of wine sitting right in front of me! I could literally reach out and touch a dozen of the most highly-acclaimed wines on the planet.

Truly I must have died and gone to Heaven, where world-class wines flow like milk and honey.

But then a heretical thought entered my mind: Who the hell in Chico is going to buy all this premium juice? Are there really enough rich, snotty Chicoans to buy up 30 bottles of Chateau d’Yquem at $159 a pop?

Counting up the number of bottles in stock for just the wines listed above, I came up with a total retail value of over $26,000! And that’s just the ones I chose to list. There were dozens of other pricey wines on the racks as well.

Admittedly, most of these are “good” prices for these wines. 2004 Mouton Rothschild typically goes for between $190 and $250 a bottle. So $160 is a pretty darn good deal (in as much as $160 could ever be a good deal for a bottle of spoiled grape juice).

I'm just not sure that there are enough people in this podunk valley town to buy all this pricey vino. And truth to be told, as much as I love wine, and as much as I am a true devotee of the Church of Costco, these wonderful, sacred, holy wines were too rich for my own wallet. I was not worthy of such bountiful riches, and CapitalOne knows it.

In the end, my tithe was limited to a bottle of 2005 Yangarra Estates McClaren Yale Shiraz ($18.69) and a bottle of 2005 Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($9.59) - testament to the sorry state of my financial soul.

I know the gods of Global Consumerism are disappointed in me, and I promise to devote my days and nights and weekends to working tirelessly to become worthy of such fine goods. Praise be!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Talk Like an Expert

The key to impressing your friends when it comes to wine isn't buying a $130 bottle of Opus One, or even a $1300 bottle of 1985 Guigal La Landonne Cote Rotie, because, let's face it, they can't tell the difference between that and a bottle of 2006 Red Truck.

The real key to impressing your friends (and readers of your wine column) is tossing out wine tasting jargon left and right like you were born doing it. Being able to expertly handle your wine tasting terminology is the key to getting people to believe that you really do know what the hell you are talking about.

Now, you could make up a bunch of terms (like I'm about to), and likely no one would be the wiser. But it's probably better to use an “approved list”, like the one that follows.

Use these terms liberally when in the presence of friends and acquaintances.

Austere – Refers to a wine that is unforthcoming with its flavors, especially fruit flavors, due to youth, excessive tannins or acidity, or just because it's a crappy wine. Young French wines tend to be austere and may need years to open up. “Boy, that cheap French wine was so austere I think it was just tannin and alcohol.”

Backbone – The structure given to a wine by its tannins and/or acidity. A wine with fruit but little tannin or acidity is often seen as shapeless or flabby. “The tannins gave the wine a firm, but not overpowering, backbone upon which to hang loads of succulent fruit flavors.”

Balance – The taste of wine is made up of fruit, sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol. Balance refers to the way in which these components blend and harmonize. “The waves of overpowering alcohol in this wine really throws it off balance.”

Complexity – Definitely different than balance, complexity refers to presence of, interplay between, and evolution of flavors from the moment the wine first touches your tongue until the end of the finish after you swallow. “That Sutter Home merlot had about as much complexity as a rock.”

Crisp – Refers to a good level of acidity in white wines that makes them taste clean and refreshing. “The stunning crispness of this sauvignon blanc contributes to its excellent backbone and fine structure… or some such BS as that.”

Finish – The final, lingering taste of a wine after you swallow it. Can be short or long, harsh or smooth, complex or simple, fruity, earthy, tannic, tart or bitter. A longer finish is typical of better wines. “The finish on that merlot vanished faster than a politician when the lights are turned on.”

Flabby - Used in reference to white wines lacking sufficient acidity to give them good structure. The opposite of crisp. "That Riesling was the flabbiest glass of plonk I've had in a long time.”

Forward – The opposite of austere, a wine whose flavors are big, obvious, and readily apparent. California and Australian wines tend to be more forward than European wines. “This is a typically fruit-forward, Australian shiraz.”

Hollow – Lacking flavor, particularly fruit flavor, on the midpalate (see, below). “Nice acidity, but the fruit was so hollow that I could barely taste it.”

Hot – Refers to wines with an objectionably high level of alcohol on the nose or palate. There is not necessarily a one-to-one relationship to the percentage of alcohol in a wine and it's perceived “hotness”. “The finish was extremely hot on this wine, with overpowering waves of alcohol.”

Integrated – Refers to how well certain components of a wine (oak, acidity, and particularly tannins) have toned down with age and merged with the other flavors and characteristics of the wine. “This cabernet has loads of unctuous fruit and finely integrated tannins.”

Jammy – Refers to wines with slightly cooked or overripe fruit flavors, often present as hints of raisin or prune flavors. Typical of cheap wines grown in hot regions like the Central Valley. “That Lodi Zinfandel was as jammy as my grandma's blackberry preserves.”

Midpalate – The process of tasting a wine is broken into three parts, the beginning (sometimes referred to as the ‘attack'), the midpalate, and the finish. The midpalate is the period of time after your first taste of a wine, but before you swallow it. It is when you are most likely to taste the wine's fruit flavors and complexity. “Wonderfully complex fruit flavors on the midpalate, but with a disappointingly brief finish.”

Supple – Refers to wines with well-balanced tannins and/or acidity. Young red wines often have aggressive tannins that become more supple as they age. “The '47 Chateau Latour has amazingly supple, well-integrated tannins.”

Structure – Essentially the same as “backbone”. Refers to how well the acidity and/or tannins in a wine support its other components. “This syrah had a fine and balanced structure and plump fruit.”

Tannin - A component of the skins and seeds of grapes that give red wines an astringent, dry feeling on the finish. They can be overpowering, particularly in young wines. “The tannins in this swill are fierce enough to take on a wolverine."

Practice these terms in combination with each other until your own gibberish begins to make sense to you…

“Though not austere, this wine lacks backbone, structure and balance on the midpalate, exhibiting fruit-forward, jammy flavors lacking in complexity. Very hot and alcoholic on the finish, with aggressive, poorly integrated tannins. 77 points.”

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Cheap French Wine: Oxymoron or Just Moronic?

French wine is expensive. (Right about here, my editor is thinking, "Christ, here he goes again, whining about how much this column sets him back every week.")

The 2005 Chateau Latour is currently selling for $900-1300 a bottle. That's about $40 an ounce or $240 for a nice six ounce glass. Ouch! You gotta think at those prices, maybe we should be dabbing it behind our ears, instead of drinking it.

And guess what? You can't drink it. It hasn't even been released yet. Those prices are for "futures". You buy it now, and you pay for it now, but you won't actually get your hands on it until they release the wine next spring. And of course, you'd be a fool to drink it before 2020.

So yeah, French wine is expensive...or at least some French wine is expensive. You might be surprised to learn that there is actually such a thing as cheap French wine. Cheap like $5-6 a bottle cheap.

But is it drinkable? That, as I hope you've learned by reading this sorry excuse for a wine column, is the $4.99 question. And as always, I'm hot on the trail of the cheap French wine bargain. You didn't actually think that I could resist?

Probably the best region of France from which to score a decent wine in the "value priced" range is the Cote du Rhone, but that's not what I'm going to talk about in this column. Why? Because what people REALLY want is Bordeaux. There are very few wines in the world that command the prices, respect or reputation of Bordeaux. And it seems vaguely logical that if the best wines of Bordeaux are $1000 a bottle, then the $5 a bottle stuff must be pretty good too.

In order to demonstrate that logic like that only serves to prove that you are a complete and irredeemable idiot, I bravely purchased several cheap Bordeaux from Trader Joe's for my tasting pleasure.

Chateau Coucy 2001 Montagne Saint Emilion
One of the crappy things about Bordeaux are the wannabe wine regions near the top-notch wine regions that have similar names. It's just like if Lodi were called "Not quite in, but a just a tiny bit east of NAPA VALLEY" (but in indecipherable French instead of English). "Montagne Saint Emilion" is to Saint Emilion what Lodi is to Napa Valley. And unless you know your French wine regions really well, it would be easy to think that you're scoring a wine from a primo region.

This wine was medium bodied with bright red fruit aromas. On the tongue it was acidic and tart, but lacking any identifiable fruit, and possessing really aggressive tannins on the finish. Kind of a hollow, nothing wine. 2.0 stars. Not worth $10.99 in anybody's book.

Chateau Mayne Guyon 2003 Premiere Cote du Blaye
This wine was a step up. Light aroma with hints of dusty attics and strawberries. Not particularly Bordeaux, but not unpleasant. On the palate, moderate red fruits that developed in body, character and complexity as the wine breathed. Again, this wine had pretty strong tannins. Definitely more complex and enjoyable than the first wine, but honestly, no great shakes. 2.5 stars. Not too bad for $6.99.

Chateau Briot 2004
Another light wine with simple aromas, negligible fruit, and big, dry tannins. Really, no fruit flavors to speak of in this wine, making it really hollow. Like the others, this wasn't a "bad" wine; it just wasn't much of anything. 2.25 stars. I've had worse for $4.99, but I ain't bragging about it.

Chateau Franc-Maillet 2000 Pomeral
Okay, enough of the cheap crap. I had to taste at least one real Bordeaux. This wasn't a First Growth, but not swill either, with rich, dark aromas of spice, mocha, coffee and blackberry bramble. Yum! Smelled like a cabernet-based wine with all that dark fruit. Incredibly smoky and complex on the tongue, with hints of tobacco, cedar and spice. Nice. Firm, but not overpowering tannins on the finish. Finally something decent and worth drinking! 3.75 stars. $29.99 at

Sadly, I'm finally learning the truth here, and it's not that "you get what you pay for", because you're lucky if you pay $30 and get a decent bottle of wine. The real truth is that there's no free - or cheap - lunch. An expensive wine might suck, but a cheap wine virtually always sucks.

So let's be honest here, the major selling point for cheap French wine is that none of your friends and none of the waiters in Chico can tell the difference. A bottle of French wine with a bunch of fancy script, the word "Chateau" in bold letters, and an image of some old French mansion on the label is enough to make everyone you know go "ooh-la-la", even if it's "Chateau Toilette". Show up to a party with anything French and you'll be an instant wine snob. Guaranteed.

Sometimes looking like you know your stuff is more important than actually knowing your stuff. I'm living proof of that.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

OK, after like four consecutive columns appealing to the “low-end” wine drinker I'm starting to get some flak that maybe I need to bring things up a notch. Of course, I'm also getting comments to the effect that my problem is that I just don't know how to pick the good wines at Big Lots. I can't even imagine arguing with that.

But I'm tired of tasting cheap, bad wine, so this week, I'm not going to taste a thing – I'm just going to pontificate. I mean, what's the point of being a highly trained wine connoisseur if you can't randomly pontificate about obscure wines that no one has ever heard of?

Well, you're lucky, because I'm not in the mood to expound on the virtues of 1996 Montrachet, even though it really was a fantastic vintage.

Last week's burger and fries tasting got me thinking about wine and food pairings. Pairing wine and food used to be simple: red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat. In a way, that hasn't really changed, but today it's a lot more nuanced – to the point where there is no way I can do justice to the subject in one measly column.

The main thing to remember is to try to match the weight of the wine with the food. Just as Ali vs. Twiggy wouldn't be a good match, neither would steak and sauvignon blanc. Like Ali, the steak would overwhelm such a light wine, crushing it under the assault of big juicy flavors.

We might as well start at the top. A good steak has big flavors and a lot of juicy fat in it, so you need a big wine to stand up to it. The classic pairing of cabernet sauvignon with a steak is still the best. Why? A good, balanced cabernet is going to have a lot of dark fruit flavors that will stand up to the big flavors of a juicy steak. And the fat in a good steak will tame the astringent tannins typical in cabernets. It's a match made in heaven.

Lamb isn't all that dissimilar from a steak, so of course a cab should go well, but personally I prefer syrah/shiraz-based wines with lamb. Why? Syrah-based wines tend to have smoother, less noticeable tannins than cabernet, while often having even greater richness in flavor. To me, this makes a better match with lamb dishes.

As you might expect, chicken is something of a chameleon when it comes to wine. Lemon-herb chicken might pair well with a nice sauvignon blanc. Chicken parmesan would go well with a Chianti or maybe a merlot. Chicken (particularly with some sort of cream sauce) is one of the few dishes that chardonnay actually goes well with.

Pasta (Red Sauce)

Pasta (and Italian food in general) was made for wine. Red pasta sauce has a lot of strong flavors. There's probably oregano and garlic, not to mention acidic tomatoes and olive oil. Pasta sauce needs a pretty big wine to stand up to it and shout over all those loud Italian flavors. The classic match, of course, is Chianti, but cheap Chianti tends to be weak and flabby and not near up to the task. I prefer something with a bit more backbone like a Barolo or a Barbaresco. These wines can be virtually undrinkable on their own, but a good pasta sauce can transform their fierce tannins into a heavenly match. In a pinch, a good cabernet will do the job as well.

The classic wine match for pizza is a cheap California zinfandel. And as much as I dislike most zins, I have to admit that this is a nearly perfect match.

Asian Food
The conventional wisdom is that wine and Asian food don't match, but nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is that the dark fruit and tannins in red wine don't go with the typically lighter flavors of Asian food. So pick a light white wine with good acidity instead. With curry (and Indian or Thai food in general), nothing beats a good Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Chinese food is a bit more complicated, but again Riesling and Gewürztraminer are good bets. With Japanese food, go with sake (duh). Lacking any of those, a light sauvignon blanc or even Champagne would be good backup players. Avoid heavily oaked chardonnays like the plague.

Most fish, like Asian food, can't handle the heaviness of red wine, though a few heavier fish (particularly salmon) can. In fact, my personal favorite with salmon is a good pinot noir. Lighter fish demand a more delicate wine. You almost can't go wrong with a pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc, but you might want to try a white burgundy (a '96 Montrachet would be good) or Riesling for a change of pace.

Mexican Food
I love Mexican food. I crave it. I lust for it. But let's face it, despite what anyone may tell you, wine and Mexican food just don't match. It breaks my heart to say that, but it's true. I think it's the cilantro, but honestly, I'm not sure. So what does go with Mexican food? Can you say “cervesa”?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Cheeseburger, Fries and a Glass of Wine

Like any real guy, when left to my own devices, about the best I can do in the kitchen is heat a bowl of chili. But with my “significant other” (I love that term only because I hate it so much) gone two evenings a week, chili is starting to get pretty boring. So tonight I decided to splurge and snuck out to Jack In The Box for a nice, comforting, heart-clogging meal. Ah…the pleasures of cholesterol.

There's nothing quite like a greasy, lukewarm fast food meal, but the really tough question for this winoholic was what wine to pair with a burger and fries. Truly, this is one of the weightiest questions of our times. Forget your war in Iraq, your attorney firings, and your violations of fundamental Constitutional rights. Getting the perfect wine and burger match is what's really important.

And it's a head scratcher, too. French fries are going to be a tough match, given the huge dripping quantities of deeply soaked-in grease. And the burger isn't necessarily a slam-dunk either. Sure there's a huge slab of ground up dead bovine, but what about the lettuce, tomato and pickles? This wouldn't be any easy job for even the most knowledgeable sommelier.

There was only one way to handle this conundrum…buy a bunch of different wines and try them all. Hey, hey, hey! I'm getting' blotto tonight!

So, before I visited the drive through of my old alma mater (yep, my first job was swabbing floors at good ole Jack's), I stopped by Cost Plus to pick up three potential matches: a chardonnay, a zinfandel and a cabernet sauvignon. At Jack's, I scored a gen-u-wine sirloin burger with fries and a diet coke. Then I headed home for gustatory feast.

Sebastiani 2004 Sonoma County Chardonnay
I wasn't expecting much from this match. Burger and fries seems pretty red wine to me, but I figured there were probably a few idiots out there who might try a white wine. This was a very light and thin chard, with a flinty, mineral nose and weak fruit. With the fries, it was overpowered by the grease, though the fries did bring out a bit of melon-like fruit. With the burger, the flavors of the tomato and lettuce really came out, but the flavor of the wine itself disappeared under an onslaught of 100% pure sirloin beef (and whatever ghastly fillers go into a fast food burger). Overall, though, the pairing was better than expected. Match: 2.5 out of 5. $9.99.

Bogle 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel
Some old guy was going on and on about how great a wine this was while I was at Cost Plus. I had some very grave doubts about his sanity and sobriety at the time, but decided to give it a try anyway. Dark and rich, this wine is a Hiroshima fruit bomb, with metric tons of blackberry and raspberry fruit. Not a good match with the fries, as they brought out an awkward tart acidity in the wine, and the delicate French fry taste got lost in the shuffle. It was a better match with the burger, but the huge insistent fruit overpowered even the slab of 100% pure dead cow with wave after wave of juicy fruity flavors. I rate it a solid “nah”. Match: 2.0 out of 5. $8.99.

Rodney Strong 2004 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a surprisingly Bordeaux style cab, with strong notes of earth, dust and green pepper on the nose. Dark, intense fruit on the tongue, but a touch overripe. Overall, a powerful, intense wine, with strong but not overdone tannins. The fries brought out the earthiness in the wine, while the grease tamed the tannins. Still, my mouth was left with a really dry feeling after eating the fries. With the burger, this was a much better pairing. The green fruit flavors in the wine accentuated the lettuce and tomato, while the cholesterol in the meat moderated the tannins. But overall, this wine had more even more testosterone than the burger and tended to overwhelm it. Match: 3.0 out of 5. $12.99

2007 Diet Coke
Light and sweet with a bright and noticeable frizzante. Flavors hit with a strong whammy and then pass quickly, leaving a clean, refreshed palate. This drink was very similar with both the fries and the burger, bringing a burst of flavor and sweetness that quickly disappeared, leaving the pure flavors of fried potatoes, grease, meat and secret sauce behind. Nearly ideal. Match: 4.25 out of 5. $0.99.

This little foray into wine and food pairing set me back almost $40, and the conclusion is that a 99-cent coke is a better match with a burger than a decent cabernet? Damn. I must be some kind of sucka.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Pattern Emerges

Last week I went to Grocery Outlet looking to score some bargain wine gems, but not with too much success. Still, it’s a noble concept, and one worth pursuing (particularly if you’re poor like me). So, this week I’m still hot on the trail of great (or at least drinkable) wine for under $5 a bottle. Next on my wine bargain radar was Big Lots.

Why Big Lots? Well, I actually heard a story about someone who went to Big Lots regularly, bought a bottle of everything that looked interesting, popped them all in the parking lot to give them a taste and then went back and cleaned out the store of whatever they liked.

Sounded like a sound strategy, so off I went.

I picked out four promising-looking subjects, headed to the parking lot, hopped into the back of my truck, and had an impromptu tasting party.

Jewel 2004 Sauvignon Blanc North Coast
Remember those gooey orange peanut-shaped candies you has as a kid? I used to love those things. Stick some of those in the freezer for six months so they get a nice freezer burn and you have the exact aroma of this wine. On the tongue…well, I can’t describe it, but there’s something weirdly wrong with this wine. Incredibly tart, sour finish. Borderline undrinkable. Retch. 0.5 stars. $4.00.

Chateau St. Michelle 2004 Gewürztraminer Columbia Valley
Pale, grassy aroma with a touch of lemon and refrigerator funk. Hmm. Not actually bad, but not promising. On the tongue it showed just a hint of frizzante ("fizz" to the commoner) and the slightest hint of sweetness. Pretty potent tartness though, but that fades after the first few sips. Flinty, minerally flavors, but not much fruit. Not something to be sipped alone, but I bet it’s actually pretty good with spicy Asian food. 2.5 stars. $5.00.

Lazy Lizard 2003 Shiraz Vin de Pays d’Oc, Lnagedoc
Okay, first of all, I have a real problem with a French wine using the Australian spelling of “syrah”. Syrah and shiraz are the same thing, but why on earth would a French wine (syrah comes from France) call syrah “shiraz”? Maybe because this wine is about as far from a French syrah as Sydney is from Paris? This wine was vile. Incredibly sour smelling, with a huge tsunami of dust on the nose. Hints of candle wax didn’t improve it one bit. I was actually afraid to taste it, and for good reason. Sour and off-balance, with a bitter finish. No fruit flavors to speak of. Bad, bad, bad, bad. –1 star. $3.00 that I’ll never ever see again.

Covey Run 2003 Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
I don’t know why I keep giving Covey Run wines a chance. Maybe it’s because I once had a decent $6 bottle of their Riesling. Anyway, this wine was fairly promising on the nose, with classic dark fruit cab aromas. A little weak, but they were definitely there. On the tongue, this wine had expired. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t anything. Whatever flavors it once had were long gone. I gave it a decent burial. 1.5 stars. $1.50 for 375ml.

Okay, I’m beginning to see a pattern here. This cheap wine gig isn’t turning out to be the “voyage of discovery” that I thought it might be. Instead, I’m mostly just awash in bilge water. Sure, there are a few diamonds (well, maybe zirconiums) out there, but you gotta kiss a hell of a lot of frogs to find them.

And it ain’t quite the bargain I’d hoped for. Sure, I only spent $14 on four bottles. But that was $14 bucks (literally) down the drain. I know for a fact that I would have been happier spending that $14 on one decent bottle of wine than on four bottles of swill.

Sorry kids, but “bargain” wines aren’t generally much of a bargain. Big surprise, I know. C’est la vie.

Monday, August 06, 2007

It's Cheap for a Reason

To hell with your fancy schmancy Frenchie Bordeaux, I say! Let's have wine for the plebeians! Wine for the unwashed masses! Power to the people. Right on! Too long have we suffered under the oppression of rich, cultured wine makers foisting their over-priced grape juice on gullible wine drinkers incapable of telling the difference between Chateau Latour and Turning Leaf. Too long have we paid through the nose for a decent glass of vino. No more I say! No more! It's time for a revolution in wine!

Ooo…I like that. “It's time for a revolution in wine.”® That's my new motto.

Actually, my new motto should be, “Crap! It's Monday night and I have to write another damn wine column! Man, I'm goin' broke.”

Wine is expensive stuff. If I tasted three $20 bottles of wine every week for this column, I'd be homeless in a minute. And let's get real here; how many of you have ever bought a bottle that I recommended, much less a $20 bottle I recommended? I thought so.

I don't mean to slum it intentionally, but given the combination of the cost of decent wine and the Beat's audience (no offense intended to anyone), popping a Chateau Lafite Rothschild for this column is probably a waste of time.

And anyway, I kind of enjoy searching for diamonds in the dumpster. OK, maybe that's not the best metaphor, but if I can find a decent pinot noir for under $5, I'm all for it (good luck with that, by the way).

I already reviewed Two Buck Chuck, so who could possibly be next? Well, I got a hot tip from a hip tipster that Grocery Outlet was the happening place to score some hot wine deals. With the motto “Bargains Only!” I knew I was on the right track before I even entered the store.

As soon as you enter the store you are overwhelmed by a wall o' wine. I almost peed myself in anticipation of the "bargains" to come. In fact, there were too many great “bargains” to choose from, so I limited myself to four.

Evans-Tate 2003 Margaret River

A typically Aussie blend of shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, this wine promised a lot for two bucks. And boy did it deliver! First hit on the nose: cork taint. Barf-o-rama! There's nothing worse than a corked wine. What's “cork taint” you ask? A corked wine has been tainted by a nasty chemical (2,4,6-trichloroanisole, for you smarty pants out there) that gives wine a characteristic smell and flavor of wet cardboard or moldy basement. I think I might be getting a clue to why it's only $1.99. Bottom line: wine this bad for two bucks is a waste of two bucks. 0 stars.

Fresno State 2004 Grenache

I knew I had to have this as soon as I saw it. Fresno State is bottling and selling their own wine? Cool! Chico State could learn a lot from their example. Chico State could start a brewery program (it's a natural!) and name their different beers after University presidents. I'm sure the “Zingg Pale Ale” would be very popular. Not sure about the “Esteban Lager” though.

Back to the wine. It sucks. Plain and simple. It's super light in color with the ever so appealing aroma of pencil shavings and cough syrup. Flavor-wise, the fruit was very over-ripe and the finish had a real cough-syrupy bitterness. See what happens when you let students make things? $3.99. 0.5 stars.

Covey Run 2004 Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Covey Run is a big producer of occasionally decent wines from Washington. I had high hopes for this one. On the nose an explosion of muskmelon, apricot and truckloads of Papaya. Wow! If it tasted anything like this, it would be a steal. Sadly, it didn't. Typically light and grassy for a sauvignon blanc, the tons of fruit vanished on the tongue, leaving a hollow, slightly thin wine with a tart, unbalanced finish. Disappointing, and not as good as the Two Buck Chuck sauvignon blanc. $1.49. 2 stars.

Lussac 2003 Saint-Emilion

Saint Emilion is one of the major wine regions in Bordeaux. Lussac Saint-Emilion is a lesser known wine region just north of Saint-Emilion proper. Since this bottle lacks a Chateau or Domaine name, I'm assuming that this represents leftover grapes bottled by some wine merchant trying to unload the wine for cheap.

Typically Bordeaux on the nose: earthy, with notes mushroom and cellar. Typically Bordeaux on the tongue as well, with good structure but not much fruit. My only complaint is that it has somewhat strong and bitter tannins on the finish. However, I think with a couple of years cellaring, this will be a pretty decent wine. Not for fruit lovers, but if you like Bordeaux on a budget, this wine is for you. $3.99. 3 stars.

Okay, so we didn't find too many "bargains" at Grocery Outlet, but for 4 bottles under $12, at least I didn't break the bank. And word on the street has it that Big Lots is the next big cheap wine hot spot. As always, I'll be hot on the case.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Wine Clubbing

Drinking wine can impair your judgment, like the time last spring when my judgment was sufficiently impaired to cause me to smack my forehead into a wine glass. And though my forehead won the contest easily, I was left looking a little bit like a badly drunk, 50 year-old Harry Potter.

Perhaps not as bad as permanent physical disfigurement, wine drinking, or more specifically, wine tasting can also lead to severely impaired judgment regarding wine clubs.

Now, there are two major types of “wine clubs” out there. The ones that you see in the back of magazines are independent rip off schemes. They’re not scams per se - if you sign up, you’ll get your wine. But typically these clubs are for the totally clueless and sell truly hideous plonk from labels nobody’s ever heard of at outrageous mark ups. Actually, they probably make most of their money on shipping, charging double what it really costs to ship the bottles.

Nancy sez, “just say no” to these kinds of wine clubs. Don’t even be tempted by their claims of getting “rare” or “limited edition” wines. Yeah, right.

The other type of wine club is much more enticing, partly because you can actually get some great wines from them. These are the wine clubs run by the wineries. Every winery in America, no matter how small, has it’s own wine club.

It’s the perfect gig. How many businesses have the opportunity to bring you in, get you tanked and then pitch you on the fabulous benefits of getting their incredible product automatically delivered right to your door? Trust me, every business on the planet would love to be able to do this.

And it works. Sadly, even on me.

Here’s how winery wine clubs work. You sign up (“It’s free!!”). Then, two, three, four times a year after that you get the thrill of receiving a credit card bill with an extra $50, $100 or even $400 on it. WTF!?!?! “Honey!! Have you been sneaking out to the casinos again? I thought we talked about your little ‘problem.’”

About the time you get out of the hospital, a huge box turns up on your doorstep full of bottles. Congratulations! You now have two or six or twelve new bottles of wine to drink!

Sounds great, right? Well, aside from the cardiac exercise that I get when the credit card bill unexpectedly arrives, I have some issues with wine clubs.

First of all, they don’t always give you the choice of wines that they ship you. You can imagine how thrilled I am to receive a half-case of chardonnay. “For this I paid $150?”

Second, it ain’t all great wine. For some reason, wines at the winery all seem to taste pretty darn good – especially by the time you get to the fourth or fifth winery. And even if you only sign up for wine clubs at wineries that are really good, nobody is great at every kind of wine. They might make a fantastic syrah but a crappy barbera. Guess which one they send you.

Third, they try to make you feel special. There’s the annual Wine Club Members Only barbecue. The annual Wine Club Members Only dinner and tasting. The annual Wine Club Members Only release party. The Wine Club Members Only special vintage (which of course, is not included in your quarterly shipment, and has to be purchased and paid for separately).

I get it already! I’m special! I’m especially broke from buying all this wine and making all these Members Only trips to some winery 100 miles away to hang out with other “special” people with whom the only thing I have in common is that we’re all especially stupid enough to join a wine club.

And when the Members Only dinner is over, we all hop on the short bus for the long ride home.

I’m not saying “do not join winery wine clubs, period.” I’m saying caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. If you’ve been out wine tasting all day, everything starts to taste pretty good. And after enough stops, your pliability and gullibility go up while your judgment goes down. Before you know it, you’re having cardiac moments with your credit card bill.

So stop and think. Do I really want to sign up for this? Is this wine that great?

P.S. Anyone want to take over a couple great wine club memberships? Fantastic wines! Great benefits! Anyone?

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Chuck the Two-Buck Chuck?

Finally, the column you've been waiting for. After several months of anticipation, with the entire blogosphere rife with speculation as to when I would finally keep my promise, here it is: my review of the entire line of Charles Shaw fine wines, better known as “Two-Buck Chuck.”

Two-Buck Chuck, for the four of you out there who don't already know, is the house brand wine for Trader Joe's (that Mecca for middle-aged, middle-class pseudo-hippies looking for cheap natural foods).

Two-Buck Chuck is actually made by the Bronco Wine Company, which recently lost a lawsuit concerning their misleading use of the word “Napa” on wines not from Napa, but from Lodi (which is where most of your Chuck hails from). Bronco wines is a large and notable producer of lower end wines.

And nothing is lower end than Two-Buck Chuck. I mean really, $1.99 a bottle? You expect to pay 20-30 times that for a solid, but not top-of-the-line, Napa Valley Cabernet. The 2005 Chateau Latour is expected to debut at about 400 times the cost of a bottle of Charles Shaw.

Can this stuff even be drinkable? Or is it the greatest bargain in the world of wine?

Sadly, there's only one way to find out: Have a wine snob down the swill and report back to you. God forbid you should cough up two bucks and taste it yourself.

The only reason I subject myself to this sort of treatment is because I know that you get a sick and perverted pleasure from seeing a wine snob lower himself to your pitiful level and grovel in the common juice of non-pedigreed grapes. People like you love nothing more than seeing the mighty brought low. And what worse way to do it than to subject a highly trained and refined palate to the lowest of the low: the dreaded, the God-awful, the sewer-spawned Two-Buck Chuck. Damn you.

Charles Shaw 2005 California Sauvignon Blanc

Very light and grassy on the nose, typical of a good sauv. blanc, with hints of lemon peel and papaya. Yum. Light and refreshing on the tongue with citrus and herb notes. Overall, a bit like a non-sweet wine cooler. I'd drink this on a hot day without reservation. Hey, Chuckie-boy comes through with a wine that's actually non-toxic. I'm impressed! “Enjoyable.” 3 stars.

Charles Shaw 2005 California Chardonnay

Ugh. Chardonnay. Not my favorite. But this one comes off nice on the nose with strong hints of butter and cream with a touch of herbs thrown in. On the tongue it's very smooth, but light for a chardonnay (which I personally like). Not oaky at all, but very creamy. As a chardonnay hater, this is my favorite chardonnay of all time. “Drinkable+.” 2.75 stars.

Charles Shaw 2006 California Shiraz

2006? This thing is a baby. It should be illegal to drink this stuff. This is a very light wine. On the nose, this has some light fruit aromas, with a ton of vanilla smacking you around. On the tongue, very light and tart, no hint in sight of the typical shiraz blast of black fruit and black pepper. In a blind test, I would have guessed that this was a $10 Chianti. Not a “real” a shiraz – for shame. “Drinkable, but barely.” 2.25 stars.

Charles Shaw 2005 California Merlot

Smells like a dirt clod. No, a garden full of green peppers. And green beans. And unripe tomatoes. Maybe a couple of zucchini plants. Surprising and surprisingly attractive. On the tongue, not much fruit, but a nice complexity (for a $2 bottle of wine, anyway). A bit of a metallic taste on the finish, but that fades quickly. I actually liked this one a lot, but the unripe fruit flavors will only appeal to “old world” fans. Fruit-lovers stay away. “Yum (for me anyway)!” 3 stars.

Charles Shaw 2004 California Cabernet Sauvignon

Mmmmm…soap. At least, the first hit on the nose was definitely soapy, and we all know how good soap tastes. Also, a touch of dark fruit, a hint of vanilla, and a whiff of shoe polish. On the tongue, a strong hit of vanilla and oak (but not overpowering) and a bit of raspberry. Very tart and simple with mild tannins. Thankfully the soap smell doesn't carry over. Not impressive. Very light for a cabernet. “Non-toxic, but who cares.” 2 stars.

I'm amazed. None of these wines were the vile, dreadful, toxic sludge that I was expecting. And a couple of them were wines that I wouldn't mind actually drinking. So, drink up Charles Shaw fans, you could do a lot worse and pay a lot more!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Random Selection of Wines

Before I get to tasting the wines I've selected for this column (using a complex double blind technique where I just review any wine that I've tasted recently), I should cover some local wine news.

Unfortunately, it's bad news. It appears that CostPlus World Market, purveyors of a wide selection of "moderately-priced" wines from around the world, is down-scaling their wine selection. On a recent trip I noticed that both the quantity and quality of their wines has gone down. The selection appears to have moved much more toward the low end. "Mid-range" wines (i.e., wines in the $25+ range) have virtually disappeared, aside from the required bottle of Opus One. The few Chateauneuf du Papes they once carried have vanished, replaced by low-end plonky Bordeaux that are probably worth skipping. Even the variety of lower-end wines has shrunk noticeably. The good news is that their selection of Italian wines appears to have about doubled, and they still have a few excellent bargains (see below). I'm hoping this change is just an anomaly as they move things around in the store, but I doubt it.

Jim Barry 2004 Clare Valley Shiraz “The Lodge Hill”

Here's a serious Auzzie shiraz. On the nose, a delightful spiciness that develops into serious aromas of camphor, eucalyptus, oregano and a touch of citrus peel. Sounds more like an herbal tea than a wine, but this complex spiciness is more than offset by a base of dense dark fruits. On the palate, strongly spicy, carrying over the camphor flavor, counterbalanced by dark rich flavors of blackberry and black cherry. A bit of a floral flourish on the finish. Fruity, but miles from simple plonk. 3.75 stars. $22 at Vino 100.

Rosemount 2003 Vintner's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Petit Verdot

Here's another Auzzie wine, but this one's a classic Bordeaux-style blend. Extremely dense color with dark cherry and deep succulent blackberry on the nose. Dense and chewy on the palate. This is a great wine for the price - a well balanced wine with plenty of fruit, but sufficient complexity to make it much more than a simple fruit bomb. Worth the price and more. Fortunately, this is one wine that CostPlus still has plenty of. 3.25 stars. $7.99 at CostPlus World Market.

Hahn Estates 2005 Meritage

Another wine that CostPlus thankfully still carries, this one is a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and malbec from California. 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. 3.5 stars. $14.99 at CostPlus.

Jean Luc Columbo 2004 Cote du Rhone

Wine Spectator recently rated the 2005 vintage of this wine 88 points, so when I saw this in CostPlus I figured I give it a try. Racy and spicy on the nose, with strong hints of dark bramble. On the tongue, juicy strawberry and cherry pop flavors. Very fleshy, soft fruit; a bit flabby with no apparent tannins. A light, friendly and approachable wine, but one ultimately lacking in depth and complexity. Something of a disappointment, particularly for a French wine. 2.5 stars. $9.99 at CostPlus.

Cloudline Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

I had this recently at Monks Wine Lounge in downtown Chico. I don’t know the vintage off hand, but I’m sure that someone there can tell you. A nice medium-bodied Oregon pinot noir – very smoky, earthy and musty on the nose. Very smooth on the tongue, but with a nice tartness to perk up your taste buds. Spicy, with strong notes of the earthy mustiness coming through. Wonderful pinot. 4 stars. Available by the glass or bottle at Monks.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Zombies, Anarchy and the Fine Art of Wine Tasting

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just feeling a bit insecure. But I’ve started to wonder a little about where this wine column fits in the Chico Beat.

In last week’s issue my column was sandwiched between an article on anarchism and Craig Blamer’s 47th column on his obsession with zombie movies (OK, last week it was a vampire movie).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally down with anarchy (as long as someone fixes the roads… and makes sure that my broadband is working). And Blamer’s column is one of my favorite reads in the Beat (aside from my own incredibly witty and well-written screed).

But last time I checked, a full-bodied Bordeaux with hints of cedar-box on the nose and well-integrated tannins was not the beverage of choice for anarchists. Or zombies (or vampires, for that matter, though I’m sure something red would be appropriate).

I’m thinking that the Chico Beat has a little more attitude and edge than a wine column can probably generate. Wine is the preferred beverage of well-heeled yuppies driving their gas-guzzling Hummers, not punked-out anarchists queuing up to watch the latest splatfest.

On the other hand, wake up and smell the merlot, this is Chico not Los Angeles. It’s rare to see REAL anarcho-punks in Chico. Maybe there are a few, but let’s face it, Chico’s a Birkenstock town, full of liberals and effeminate intellectual types. And as the article pointed out, even a talk on anarchy only brought out a couple dozen middle-aged hippies trying to work up a bit of angst.

By now, those hippies’ 401Ks must be getting pretty fat and Birkenstocks aren’t cheap, so maybe a nice glass of wine is something they could both afford and appreciate while they chant "down with the man".

Not sure what to say about the zombies and their aficionados, though. But I’m thinking something red and not too heavy (maybe a nice Burgundy or an Oregon pinot noir) might pair well with human brains. Suffice to say it’s not an area that I’m expert in. If you give it a try, let me know how it works.

OK, I feel better now that I’ve convinced myself that it’s really possible that someone in Chico has a copy of The Wine Bible on a bookshelf next to The Anarchist Cookbook.

Anyway, the next time you decide to meet to plan the violent overthrow of Fascist Amerika, or get together with friends to share some fresh brains, think about adding wine tasting to the menu.

So-called “wine tasting groups” (as opposed to “wine clubs” which tend to be commercial ventures) are an exploding phenomenon in this country, and not just among ex-hippie anarchists and zombies.

The idea is that a group of like-minded people get together every month to taste and talk about wine. The venue changes every month so that one person is not always stuck cleaning up the mess.

Everyone (or perhaps every couple) brings a bottle to taste. You’re not going to polish off all that wine (hopefully), but that's OK. And (again, hopefully) you'll have a designated driver so that people don’t get on the road and create anarchy (I mean the bad kind of anarchy, of course).

It’s best to have a theme and a price range so that you don’t have a box of Almanden Blush Red going up against a 2000 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. A couple of ideas to get you started:

• Australian wines between $10-20
• Wines that go with Thai food
• Rosés that don't suck (I double dare you)
• Cabernet Sauvignon from around the world (under $30)

I find that tastings are the most educational if you do a real blind tasting. All you need to do that are some brown paper bags and a felt pen. Put the bottles in the bags and then write a number on each bag. As people taste each wine, they write notes on each, referring to the wine’s number. When everyone has tasted, the bags are removed and the wines are revealed. Fun!

If you really want to get carried away, sites like have a whole section on wine tasting groups (they also have a section on asexuality, but that only has one group with 3 members… which sounds like a recipe for trouble, if you know what I mean). In fact, wine is the eighth most popular group, just ahead of witches.

The key to success in starting a wine tasting group is finding enough people who really have a desire to learn about wine and a willingness to share their knowledge and experiences. I’ve always wanted to start up such a group, but never really had the time (or enough friends to make it anything more than four people getting wasted).

If you’re an anarcho-zombie and you’d like to be a part of a local Chico/Paradise wine tasting group, contact me through the Chico Beat and maybe we can get our own group started. Our first tasting will be wines that pair with brains. Mmmmmm...brains.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Becoming a Wine Connoisseur: Part II

Last week I managed to waste an entire column talking about my testicles and trying different wines. And though both are important, this is a wine column and I need to focus on making you a wine connoisseur.

Step 2: Dick and Jane Read About Wine (while Spot gets plastered)

You’ll only get so far by randomly tasting different wines. It really helps if you know something about the wines you’re tasting. That’s where book larnin’ can come in handy. Books are the cheap and easy way of becoming – if not a wine connoisseur – then at least knowledgeable about wine.

But which books? A search for “wine” at turned up 239,546 results. Ouch! That’s a hell of a lot of readin’ before you can get your buzz on. There’s gotta be a way to trim that down a bit.

Probably the best way is to break the books into types. Not every wine book serves the same purpose, and knowing what you’re looking for can really help you out when you stroll into Barnes and Noble. I break wine books into five categories.

Wine Courses

I call these books “courses” because that’s what they often call themselves. They are generally introductory books on wine, covering the basics on how wine is made, where it’s made, what grapes are used, etc. If you know nothing about wine, these books are the place to start.

Wine for Dummies – This is actually a pretty darn good book that breaks down wine into very understandable terms. Unfortunately, you’ll have to hide this under your bed – no true connoisseur would ever be caught dead with “Wine For Dummies”.

Great Wine Made Simple (Andrea Immer Robinson) – I really like Andrea Immer (now Robinson); she keeps things fun and simple, just like the book’s title. She manages to cover a lot of ground while giving you fun hands-on tasting assignments to boot.

Wine Encyclopedias

Once you have a basic handle on the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux, you might want to gain more specific knowledge about wines of particular regions. That’s where the wine encyclopedia comes in, generally replete with history, background, types of wines, and examples of specific producers for each wine region in the world.

The Wine Bible (MacNeil) – Probably the single most popular wine book on the market, it combines a bit of the wine primer with the encyclopedia. However, there are no color pictures or maps, so I've never liked it.

The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia – OK, this is the real deal. If you want the lowdown on every winemaking region on the globe, this is the book. Lots of great background info, plus lists of specific recommended producers and lot of color pictures and maps! Overkill for all but the true wine geek.

Wine Guides

The purpose of wine guides is to help you decide which wines are good. They contain lists and lists of wines, with scores and notes and ratings. I generally don’t like wine guides for the simple reason that I can never actually find or buy any of the wines they recommend, and I don’t always share the same taste as the author. Still, people love these books.

Andrea Robinson's 2007 Wine Buying Guide for Everyone – This is about the only wine guide that I consistently like, both because Andrea includes wines that you can find most anywhere and because she’s generally right on for my taste.

Wine Stories

Once you really get hooked into the world of wine, you might want to know the history of the 1976 Paris tasting, or the rise and rise and rise of the world’s most powerful wine critic…but I’m going to leave all that for another day.

Wine and Food

Wine was made to go with food, and there’s a whole art and science to wine and food pairing.

Everyday Dining with Wine (Andrea Immer) – Organized by varietal, this book gives good background info on each grape and tons of tasty recipes to go with each.

What to Drink with What you Eat (Dornenburg and Page) – I love this book. Look up a food and it tells you what drink (wine, beer, cocktail, tea) goes best with it. Look up a wine and it tells you what foods go best with it. Best wine with salmon? Oregon pinot noir. Wow.

Of course, there are 239,539 other books on wine out there that I didn't cover, but hey, I’m pushing my word count as it is.