Monday, May 23, 2016

Yes Virginia They Do Make Great Wine Outside of Napa and Sonoma

One of my favorite things about being a wine guy is making new discoveries and sharing those discoveries with others.   In order to make those discoveries I often need to get out of my comfort zone and drink wines I have never heard of from places I am not familiar with.   There is some risk associated with trying new things, I often taste wines that I do not like at all (a wine variety from Arizona called "Symphony" comes to mind), but finding new wines that I would have not otherwise enjoyed more than makes up for any bad experiences.   

Most of the time when I go out to dinner with friends, because the majority of our friends are not wine guys, they ask me to pick the wine.  Most of them only drink a few brands from California or play it safe by always ordering wine from Napa or Sonoma.  I can see the look of fear and bewilderment in their face when I end up ordering a white wine from Spain or a red wine from Washington State.  Napa and Sonoma make wonderful wines but what my dinner mates can't comprehend is that they don't make the only wonderful wines.  They approach the first glass of this non Napa/Sonoma wine as if someone had just put a glass of pickle juice in front of them to drink.  It used to bother me (like "how dare they doubt the wine guy!!!") but I learned to wait for the payoff, the "boy this stuff doesn't suck, it is actually pretty good" look on their faces after they take a sip.  When they take a picture of the label or pick up the bottle to read the label I know I did my job, and did it well.  

Because in all likelihood we will not be going to out to dinner together and because what I have mentioned above has sparked an adventurous spirit in you I am going to give you some suggestions on how to step out of your Napa/Sonoma comfort zone.    

If you like Cabernet Sauvignon: Try one from Argentina of Chile or Washington State.   They are every bit as good, often better, at a fraction of the price.  If you want to burn some extra cash try a French Bordeaux, or a Barolo, Barbaresco, or Amarone from Italy.  They are big and complex like the top Cabernet Sauvingnon's are, complement the same foods, but will take you places you have never gone before.    

If you like Chardonnay: Try one from Oregon.  As a rule they are less buttery or oaky but are bursting with fruit flavor.  From France you might want to try a White Burgundy (rich and smooth) or a Chablis (fruity and crisp).  To step out even more try a Riesling from Alsace region of France.  They are bone dry but have a lot of amazing fruit flavors.   You may also enjoy Viognier as it provides a lot of the fruityness of Chardonnay with a bit more earthiness.   

If you like Merlot: Try one from Washington State.  Again the quality is amazing at a fraction of the cost. To step out even further try a Shiraz from Australia.  It has the same smoothness with even more of the dark stone fruit you love about Merlot.   

If you like Pinot Noir: Try one from Oregon.  Often more complex than Sonoma Pinots they are among the best in the world.  You might also try a Red Burgundy.  Burgundy France is the birthplace of Pinot Noir and if you are willing to pay for the experience you will be rewarded with some of the most amazing wines you will ever taste.  If you want to try something completely different you might try a Gamay or a Crus Beaujolais from France or a Pinotage from South Africa.  Both are light and approachable red wines similar to Pinot Noir.   

If you like Zinfandel: Try a Primitivo from Italy or a Malbec from South America.   They are big, rich, and zesty like the best Zinfandels but will provide you with a different experience.  You might also try Cotes du Rhone  from France, or any number of red wines from Spain.  Many of them have the richness and spiciness people love about Zinfandel  and offer a unique mouthwatering experience.  

If you like Sauvignon Blanc: Try Albarino or other white wine from Spain or a San Gimignano white from Italy.  They give you the same crisp green apple/citrus that you get from California Sauvignon Blanc but throws in a number of flavors and characteristics unique to their wines.  You might also try a White Bordeaux wine that combines Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon  producing a crisp, smooth, fruity wine. You may have noted I did not recommend a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (Kim Crawford may come to mind).   In my mind pickle juice is preferable to New Zealand Sauvignon blanc and may be a greater threat to mankind then global warming or the zika virus.  Because of that I did not recommend it as an alternative but because many other wine guys disagree with me you may want to give that one of those a try as well.  

There you have it my field guide for stepping out of your comfort zone. Please let me know your experience trying any of these suggestions or if you have any questions or comments.   

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Temecula Part III

For Mrs. Wine Guy and I Temecula is sort of the Seven Eleven of wine regions. It is overpriced, the quality is mediocre, but since iis so darn convenient (only about 6 hours from home) we keep going back.  This was our third trip to the area if you want to find out about our first two trips you can click one of the following links:  Trip1, Trip2.

As convenient as it is for us it is only an hour or two from LA or San Diego so it is only a day trip for those folks.  Add to that the fact that most of the tasting rooms range from very nice to spectacular, there are great restaurants, the views are magnificent, and that many of the tasting rooms feature music and other entertainment, it is no wonder it is a lot of fun even if the wine is so so.

This trip  we visited Ponte, Baily, Robert Renzoni, and Oak Mountain for the first time, and revisited Wiens, SC Cellars, and Europa Village.  While we were not impressed with most of the wines there were a few standouts.    

Our first stop driving into town before checking in at our Bed And Breakfast (The Inn at Europa Village...Fantastic!!!) was Wiens.  We have enjoyed some of their wines in the past and because they can’t ship to Arizona they made us “virtual” members” because of our past purchases.  They have a spacious contemporary tasting room that was able to accommodate the crowd that had gathered to taste. One of the perks of membership is that they give you 8 free pours each and throw in a couple of more for the fun of it.  Because of that it was our one and only stop of the day.  Most of their wines were undistinguished but we were impressed with their Sangiovese.  It was rich and flavorful and was a welcome relief from the bland wines that preceded it.  Their Alberino was also quite nice and their Ruby Port would pair nicely with chocolate or a cigar.  

Our first stop the next day was Ponte.  Their spacious tasting room was packed wall to wall with people paying an extra ordinary $20 to taste very ordinary wine. Their restaurant had a two hour wait. People love it. I don’t get it. None of what we tasted was worth half the $35 a bottle or more they charged for any of their wines.  Nothing we tasted was worth recommending. We walked away empty handed.  

We then went to Baily.  They are Temecula wine pioneers and based on some friends recommendations, their impressive castle like tasting room, and generally good online reviews we had high hopes.  Our hopes were dashed once we tasted the wine.  There was probably something wrong with us but it would be kind to say their wines were mediocre.  They tasted oxidized and were borderline undrinkable.   Again we walked away empty handed. On a positive note they have a casual dining restaurant on site that made one of the best Ruben sandwiches I have ever had.

After those two less than pleasant experiences, and the fact we had only one more stop left in us,  we needed to find a sure thing.  We did that with our visit to our old friends at SC Cellars.  Run by Scott and Colleen Kline, SC Cellars is a small winery that produces about 400 cases per year.  Carol is an artist (she hosts art and wine sessions on occasion) and has designed wine labels for some of her neighboring wineries. They are only open on weekends and then only for a few hours.   We enjoyed all of the wines we tasted there and walked away with their crisp 2013 Chardonnay and their 2011  Cellars Tapestry.  

The next day turned out to be much better.  Our first stop was Robert Renzoni.  Very modern well appointed tasting room with a large on site restaurant. They also had a ridiculous $20 tasting fee but at least the wine was good. We particularly enjoyed the 2014 Cantata a blend of Pinot Grigio and Viognier and their Sonata, a Tuscan blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Our next stop was Oak Mountain . The $15 tasting fee seemed like a bargain after a couple of other places  Nice tasting room that I would describe as contemporary rustic. Friendly service.  Most of the wines were nice and we walked away with a bottle of their  2012 Temecula Hills GSM blend.  It was complex,  flavorful, and would go well with any spicier beef dish.   

Our last stop was Europa Village.  It is called Europa Village because it has distinct brands for their French, Italian, and Spanish varietals (C’est La Vie, Vienza, and Bolero).  It’s tasting room is about to be demolished and replaced with three tasting rooms, one for each of the brands and that's probably a good thing as their current tasting room is hard to navigate when crowded.  They have one of the largest tasting menus in the area, and most of the wines if not great are pretty good especially when you compare them to much of the local competition.  Our favorites were their 2015 C’est La Vie En Vie Viognier, their 2013 C’est La Vie En Vie Rhone Blend, the 2013 Bolero Libito Rojha blend.  

Will there be a 4th visit?  Probably.  The place is a lot of fun and tasting mediocre wine is better than tasting no wine at all.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Arizona Wines- Ready for Prime Time

Several years ago friends visiting us at our Arizona home brought Mrs. Wine Guy and I a bottle of Vino del Barrio from Page Springs Cellars as a gift. The wine was bottled in Arizona and made from grapes made in Arizona.  Prior to this I did not know that you could grow grapes in Arizona let alone make wine.  I had never tasted an Arizona wine, was not looking forward to it, and was more than a bit surprised when the Vino del Barrio did not suck.   

That experience motivated us to make several wine tasting trips to Arizona wineries to dig a bit deeper.

At first there were very few wines that we would classify as outstanding (a Barbara produced by Javelina Leap Winery comes to mind), several were drinkable, and several more that had some serious flaws and had a way to go to catch up to wines from the more established wine regions.  

After each subsequent trip we found more wines outstanding and drinkable wines but still found several that were still a bit funky which reinforced our preconceived notion that Arizona was still in the minor leagues of winemaking.    

That all changed after we went on a recent wine tasting trip to Willcox, Az.  Willcox is where over 70% of Arizona grapes are grown.  (The two other major wine-growing regions in Arizona are  Sonoita, and Yavapai County ).  We tasted over 40 wines (relax we are not embarrassed to spit) and did not find a single wine we would not be willing to try again.  We found the vast majority of the wines outstanding.  

We were a bit shocked but in hindsight if you look at the pioneering spirit of Arizona winemakers and their focus on making quality wine  we should not have been.  

The Arizona wine industry started to get some notoriety after the release of the 2010 Movie  “Blood into Wine” (available on Netflix) which details the partnership of Maynard Keenan, leader of the heavy metal band Tool, and Eric Glomski, the pioneering winemaker who many credit with being the father of the modern Arizona Wine industry, in forming Caduceus Cellars, arguably the leading Arizona wine brand.  The movie brought a lot of aspiring winemakers and entrepreneurs out of the closet and jump-started a series of events that saw the Arizona wine industry grow from a dozen or so wineries 15 years ago to over 80 today.  Further evidence of that transformation was the recent creation of the Southwest Wine Center and the Viticulture (growing wine grapes) and Enology (making wine) programs at Yavapai college in central Arizona  The center and programs were started in large part through donations from Keenan, Glomski, and several other winemakers.  In addition to learning the science of growing grapes and making wine the program emphasizes hands on experience and features an on campus vineyard, winemaking facility, and tasting room.       

During our recent trip to Willcox we visited several wineries whose operations have come on line during the last decade.or so.  

Southern Arizona Sales Manager Catherine and Sam 
Our first stop was Pillsbury Wine Co. founded by Sam Pillsbury the man I now know is who I wanted to be when I grew up.  A native of New Zealand (he still has a home there) among his many accomplishments have been filmmaker, writer, home builder, drama professor and now winemaker.  Sam produces 14 varieties and his wines have won several awards. Our favorites were his white wines particularly his Chardonnay which, unlike most other Chardonnay, is not aged in new oak and does not go through malolactic fermentation resulting in a Chardonnay where all you taste is the fruit and not the vanilla and butter you taste in most other Chardonnay.

Dan Pierce

Our next stop was at Bodega Pierce.  This is a family affair. Dan Pierce handles the business operation while his son Michael Pierce who is in charge of the wine making. Michael does double duty as the department head for the Yavapai College enology program.  They bottle wines under the Bodega Pierce and Saeculum Cellars brands.  Among our favorites was their Saeculum Cellars “El Coraje” Tempranillo.  Tempranillo is one of the varietals that seems to grow especially will in Arizona as well as the Rhone Varietals such as Grenache, Viognier, Mourvedre, and Syrah.

Rhona MacMillan
Next door to Bodega Pierce was our next stop Zarpara.  Zarpara which is Spanish for setting sail something owners Rhona MacMillan (yes she is from Scotland) and Mark Jorve felt they did when they embarked on their winemaking adventure. Founded in 2009 Zarpara still makes some wines with grapes sourced from other states but is transitioning to 100% Arizona as their vineyard becomes more established.  We were particularly impressed with their 2013 “Origen” a blend of Arizona grown Garnacha, Syrah, and Monastrell. A medium body wine that we are looking forward to trying alongside some Mexican food.    

Jan Schaefer (center) with tasting room staff
Our first of two stops on our last day was Keeling-Schaefer.  In business for over 10 years it is owed by the husband and wife team of Rod Keeling and Jan Schaefer.  Rod had a number of jobs over the years including being a traffic reporter for a local radio station and a pilot.  He and Jan met while they were involved in economic development activities for the city of Tempe Arizona. They focus on mostly Rhone Varietals and we were extremely impressed with their  2013 Viognier.  

Robert Carlson and tasting room manager Roy
Our last stop was Carlson Creek.  Founded in 2008 Carlson Creek is truly a family operation with the parents, Bob and Liz Carlson co-owning the operation along with their children Robert, Katherine, and John  The children run the business with Robert in charge of sales, Katherine in charge of marketing and events, and John in charge of wine-making.  We brought home their “Rule of Three” a GSM, a combination Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.  

All this means that if you live in Arizona you no longer need to travel to California, Oregon, or Washington to taste quality wine and for all of you that don't live in Arizona but planning to visit you now have something else to look forward to.  

Friday, November 27, 2015

Great Books To Help You Learn More About Wine

I have read a lot of books to help me learn more about wine.  Three (two old friends and a recent acquaintance) that I have found most useful are as follows:

The two old friends are:

Drink This - Wine Made Simple by Dara Moskowitz Grundahl (Click on the title to go to it's Amazon page).   Published in 2009 it highlights useful information about the most popular types of wine and wine regions in easy to understand language. It's 12 chapters cover the nuts and bolts of drinking, buying, and tasting wine, 9 chapters on each of the most popular varietals (the type of wine), a chapter on the relationship of the cost of wine and how much you will like it, and a chapter on how to order wine in a restaurant.  Each of the chapters on the type of wine will also give you some hints on how to identify the wine you are drinking, and how to host a wine tasting for that type of wine.  An easy enjoyable read that dispenses lots of useful information with a lot of wit and personality.

Kevin Zraly's Complete Wine Course. Published in 2011 it goes much more in depth than "Drink This" but is none the less easy to read.  It is written for those with little or no prior wine knowledge.  It also has a number of high quality photos and can do double duty as a coffee table book.  It calls 8 of it's 11 chapters classes, 7 of which focus on the types of wines grown in various wine regions with one "class" focusing on Champagne, Sherry, and Port.  It also has an introductory chapter on wine, one on less well known wine regions, and one going through a variety of other wine related topics including frequently asked questions.

My recent acquaintance is:

Wine Folly, The Essential Guide to Wine by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack.  Published in 2015 I use this more as a reference as opposed to something to read cover to cover.  How the book is formatted is pure genius. It uses graphics to explain fundamentals, styles of wine, and to explain the various wine regions.  Since I purchased the book whenever there has been something I have not quite been sure about I have been able to quickly find the answer using this book.

Please let me know if you pick up any of these books and if you found them as helpful as I have.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thinking Inside the Box (Are Box Wines any good?)

Mr. Dave Orth of Washington D.C. writes, “Hey Wine Guy you did such an incredible job of letting us know that screw top wines can be good I was wondering if the same thing was true for Box Wines?”

Thanks Dave that is a very insightful question and I feel blessed to have received it, as any insight coming from Washington D.C. is indeed rare.

Before I answer your question let me tell you about the box.  The main advantage of wine in a box is that it has a membrane inside the box that holds the wine.  As you drink the wine the membrane shrinks around the wine minimizing the contact that air has with the wine.  Air causes wine to go bad so the less air that touches the wine the longer it will last.  A refrigerated, half empty bottle of wine sealed with a wine stopper will last 2-3 days before going bad. A half empty box of wine will last two or three weeks.  

The tap attached to the box makes if very convenient to use. Box wine is more convenient the bottles if you are having a gathering.  A box generally holds three liters of wine while standard bottles hold ¾ of a liter.  Box wine may also be good for folks that live a live alone or live with a partner that does not drink wine (you should seriously consider breaking up but that is a topic for another day), don’t care much about the quality of the wine, and only drink a glass or two a day because the membrane will extend the life of the wine so that it will stay good for the week or two it will take you to finish it.  

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that an unopened bottle of wine, depending on the type of wine, could stay good for several years.  Because an unopened bottle lets in significantly air then an unopened box you should plan on drinking any boxed wine ASAP after purchasing it.  As a general rule you should never store a boxed wine for more than a year before drinking it.  Some more bad news is that box wine is at best so-so as most box wine is massed produced wine with boxed wine producers marketing the packaging as much if not more than the wine inside the package.   

So Dave if you value convenience, don’t plan on finishing the wine in 2-3 days, and aren't all that picky about the quality of the wine, than wine in a box may be an option for you.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Wines you probably don't drink but should: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

I was looking at an inexpensive red wine last week and tried a bottle of $9.95 Montepulcano d’Aburzzo to have with some pizza.  It was outstanding.  Despite its deep red color it was smooth, flavorful, and not the least bit tannic.  Went perfect with the Pizza.  

A couple of days later Mrs. Wine Guy and I were out to dinner at an Italian restaurant with fairly high wine prices but I was able to find a $29 bottle of Montepulcano  d’Aburzzo ($29 at a restaurant equates to $8 to $12 retail).  Again it was very drinkable and went very nicely with all of our meals and we all enjoyed it. 

Aburzzo is a less well known area of Italy just north of Rome.  Usually when a wine is imported to the United States from a less well known area of Europe it is because that wine drinks better than it's price point.  Because of this buying wines from less well known areas is a good way to find great value wines. 

Like other European wines look for the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo designation on the label and worry less about the brand or producer.  If it has the d’Abruzzo designation on the label it means that it has to conform to certain production standards and grape varieties.  In the case of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo that wine has to have at least 85% Montepulciano and no more than 15% Sangiovese and must be aged a minimum of 5 months in wood barrels before being released.

I’m going to buy a few more bottles and make it my go to Pizza wine. 

If you try it let me know what you think.  

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Uncorking the truth about screw-tops.

Mr. Mike Ryan of Gulf Breeze Florida asks “Do any good wines have a screw-top or are they only used for “cheap” wines?”

Well Mike while it is true that many “cheap” wines use screw tops there are many really good “value” wines that also utilize a screw-top.

Cork has traditionally been used to seal a bottle of wine because it was one of the few natural products pliable enough to keep the wine in while keeping the air out.  As the price of cork has gone up and up many winemakers looked for alternatives to cork to help keep the price of their wine reasonable.  Screw-tops are one of those alternatives.  Other alternatives are corks made of synthetic material, compressed pieces of cork, or a combination of real cork and synthetic material.  

Cork has gotten so expensive odds are if you purchase a wine less than $30 you are buying a wine with one of the cork alternatives and not a wine utilizing a 100% natural cork.

In many ways a screw-top is preferable to cork or one of the other cork alternatives because it can be engineered to control the amount of air that gets into the bottle something that is next to impossible to do with any type of cork real or synthetic.  A screw-top also avoids the possibility of the wine being tainted by any disease that may be present in the cork.  It is also a heck of a lot easier to open a screw-top than it is to uncork a bottle of wine.

Some parts of the world have just about done away with corks altogether.  New Zealand and Australia are established wine regions that produce some outstanding wines that almost exclusively available only in screw-top bottles.  

Most white wines don’t need to age so your odds of finding a good screw-top white wine are better than finding a good screw top red wine.

So with all these advantages why don’t all wines utilize screw-tops?

Two main reasons.  The first is that for all of its issues cork has an excellent track record of helping wines that need it age properly.  Top tier heavier red wines that need to age such as Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Barolo are rarely if ever sold in a screw-top bottle. Screw- tops are too new and makers of those high end wines don’t want to take the risk that their wines will not age properly. Secondly, for some people, drinking wine is as much about the experience as it is about the wine itself.  The reality is that it is a  special experience watching your waiter uncork a bottle of wine and not nearly as special watching them unscrew it.  (Click here to read my post about the restaurant wine ritual).

So Mike, to answer your question if you want a quality wine that comes in a screw-top my advice is to try just about any wine from Australia or New Zealand, any white wine or Rose over $8 a bottle or any lighter red wines like Pinot Noir or Grenache over $15. There are exceptions but if you follow this advice you will be happy more often than not.
Please reply to this post if you have any question or would like to comment.