Friday, June 29, 2012

Winey Reading Notes: Natalie MacLean's "Unquenchable" - She GETS It!!!

I have said many times before how much I love to read. But it’s the rare book that introduces me to a Winey Soul sister. But find one I did in Natalie MacLean’s Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines (2011, Penguin, USA). What was my first clue that I had found a winey soul mate? Let’s take a look at some of MacLean’s philosophies of wine, shall we: “What is your favorite wine? The one someone else pays for.” “I like to drink wine – and I like the buzz.” “..alcohol makes me happy and stops me from being a tightly wound control freak, as some people (quite unjustly) characterize me.” She “gets” me. She really, really gets me. This, Winey friends, is a wise, wise woman.

She is also a talented writer (named World's Best Drink Writer by the World Food Media Awards, winner of four James Beard Foundation Journalism Awards), who, in addition to understanding the Winey Mom’s mind, also “gets” the whole wine thing. Her book walks you through an entire week of wine choices at the same time she is walking you all over the world, exploring eight different wine regions. At the end of the book, you’ll wind up with 7 yummy, affordable wines to drink each night of the week, plus one more for a Sunday brunch (she thinks of everything, doesn’t she?). Each chapter ends with her inside tips on choosing wines from that region (my personal favorite comes from the Germany chapter: “Look for labels that have illegible gothic script and impossibly long names that are difficult to pronounce…few people can read them, so they don’t buy the wines, and demand doesn’t push up the prices.”) She provides lists of best value wines from the region, recipes, wine pairings and links to all the wineries she writes about. She even adds a list of related readings for each region (bookworm heaven). She makes it so easy to enjoy, really enjoy, a bottle of wine!!

I am a sucker for amazing descriptions and MacLean sure knows how to paint a picture with words. Australia’s Barossa Valley is a “dry biscuit of russet earth”, a German Spätlese has the “fragile intensity of a Chagall stained glass” and October vineyards in Canada have “turned shades of yellow and green, like a spice cabinet”.

I feel so educated now that I’ve read this book. For instance, I know why the same grape is called Syrah in Europe and North America and Shiraz is Australia (easier to pronounce down under). I also know that one of the first Aussie vineyards was planted by a doctor in the 19th century, in order to grow grapes for his “wine cure.” (No, he didn’t stay a doctor very long…for some reason, demand for the cure turned him into a full time winemaker!) I learned that in the Niagara region of Canada, starlings are evil (they eat the grapes by the beakful). And I found out that Thomas Jefferson declared Rieslings to be the “best breakfast wines”, giving me an entire new level of respect for that Founding Father.

 I also took two very personal challenges from this book. First: modern-day Sicilian white wines are wonderful, but they don’t travel well and are best drunk right in Italy.. thus I will be heading to Sicily to drink white wine. Second: I will move to Argentina, because every Thursday, for the past 105 years, the locals bring their bottles to the Bodega Norton Winery and get their wine at cost. (This may have to wait until the Winey Daughter finishes high school and the Winey Hubby retires, but I digress.)

But mostly what I learned is that there are millions of Winey folks out there just like me, and Natalie MacLean has given voice to some of the Winey thoughts travelling through our minds. How can you resist a wine book where the author makes statements like: “As consumers, most of us like deals, but we don’t like the word ‘cheap’, given its association with ‘trashy’ and ‘worthless’..A cheap wine isn’t always a bad one, just as an expensive wine isn’t always a great one.” Or, “..certain characteristics, such as big oak, alcohol, and fruit flavor, can make a wine stand out in a tasting, even though it may not be the one you want to drink with dinner.” AMEN, sister, AMEN!

But I think my favorite quote from this book comes right at the end, where MacLean pretty much sums up why we (I) drink wine: “We need the simple joys in life, like a good glass of inexpensive wine, to regain a sense of ourselves. No worrying about how much it cost or what it scored; simply, do I like it, and do I like who I’m with?” How can you argue with that thought process? (That’s a rhetorical question; don’t even think about debating it with me, okay?)

You’ll learn a lot about wine history, wine regions and wine-making by reading “Unquenchable”. You’ll have a good time doing it too. But what this book really will give you is a wonderful sense of freedom in choosing your next bottle of wine – forget the scores, the prices, the reviews and just get a bottle that you like, that likes you back.


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Winey side note: Natalie has an amazing website that I highly recommend you visit. You’ll find an extremely helpful wine app for your smart phone, recipes and pairing ideas as well as a nifty on line cellar tool to keep track of everything you have drunk, will drink or want to drink. 

Another winey side note: The paperback version of Unquenchable comes out at the beginning of September! 

And another one: Natalie also has another book called "Red, White and Drunk All Over: A Wine Soaked Journey From Grape To Glass...I haven't read it, but it's on my "to read" list as I sip.

And another: There isn't one. I just wanted to see if you were all paying attention!

All quotes in this review come from the book Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines, 2011, Penguin, USA.
This book was sent to me by the publisher for review purposes.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Winey Tasting Notes: Cameron Hughes Lot 313 California Field Blend

In a previous posting, I introduced us all to Cameron Hughes Chardonnay, but I also talked about how I was intrigued by their Lot Series of wines. They explain the idea very well on their website: super/ultra-premium and luxury quality wine segments (wines over $14) are oversupplied every year... the Lot Series of wines, takes advantage of this oversupply but takes it one step further. Whereas most of these high-end wines end up being "back-blended" into lesser quality wines to "fix" them, the Lot Series preserves the ultra-premium quality of the original Lot by bottling it unadulterated and never "back-blended."

Understandably, there aren't a lot of cases from each lot, but there are many lots to choose from. After standing in front of a large selection of these Lot Bottles, looking somewhat like a person who couldn't make up her Winey little mind (I couldn't), I chose a bottle of Lot 313. I've been having some wonderful red blends lately, and Lot 313 is called the California Field Blend (2010, 14.5%, California) so my decision was made.

Lot 313 is made up of 71% Zinfandel, 10% Petite Sirah, 10% Syrah, 9% Carignane. Lots of blending going on there. It has a semi-jammy nose of strawberry and oaky wood with an astringent tinge on top of it all.

The taste was blueberry and raspberry and at first I thought that the tannins were overpowering the fruit flavors a bit too much. But the more time the wine spent in the open (patio, so very open) air, I decided that the tannins were actually doing a very good job of keeping those fruits nicely corralled. The finish had a bite to it, but it was a nicely behaved bite - more tart than drying wood.

This is not a wine for anyone who doesn't like their reds to stand up and shout. The blending really doesn't make this a mild wine...more bold and loud. Some of you might just want to drink it with dinner instead of sipping it on its own, and that's just fine because it would pair famously with some grilled steak or a hearty stew.

On a side note here, being the responsible Winey Mom that I am, I was unable to finish the entire bottle in one patio session. So I lovingly recorked it and took it up again the next evening. (I did NOT use my vacuum sealer on purpose.) One day later, the fruit flavors really sang out in this wine. The tannins were pretty much gone (as happens after being opened for 24 hours), but I thought this was still a nice, big red. You could taste the juicy Zinfandel a bit more, but the bite was gone. So I actually found a wine that gave me two very different sipping experiences, separated by 24 hours and my inability to actually drink more than 2 glasses of wine at a time. (OK, on certain nights I am perfectly capable of doing this - but there is usually a party or a long awaited milestone involved then. This was not either of those times.)


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Friday, June 22, 2012

Winey Tasting Notes: Under $5 Giddy Alert: Meld White Table Wine

A good glass of wine can make your day - or your dinner - or your campfire. A good glass of wine that comes from a bottle costing less then five dollars can make you positively giddy. So get ready to get giddy (I had to stop myself from saying get ready to "giddy up", just so you know).  Because I spent $4.99 on Meld White Table Wine and it was SO good!

The folks at Meld must be closet chefs. They freely admit that "one of the great pleasures of being a winemaker is the opportunity to meld the flavors of different grape varieties and vineyards into a single harmonious blend". Seriously, that sounds like what I do with chicken and herbs 3 nights a week. Or if we're going wild around the Winey Household, steak and marinade. It's all about the recipe, isn't it?

Meld (12.5%, California, NV) White Table Wine is a recipe of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Gewurztraminer. The golden yellow wine begins with an aroma of mellow pear and kiwi and a hint of cinnamon. The first taste you get is of oak and pear. That must be the Chardonnay talking. But then the Chenin Blanc speaks up and you catch some tropical kiwi flavors. The wine feels smooth and supple in your  mouth (that is definitely the Gewurztraminer checking in). It finishes a bit tart with a lingering taste of limey citrus. So back to the Chenin Blanc, huh?  You can definitely taste the heft of the Chardonnay, but the Chenin Blanc tones it down a bit with its crisp acidity. It was very nice of the winemakers to let each of the wines in their recipe speak up at one time or another. Kind of brings the best of all worlds into one bottle.

This wine was totally and completely worth the $4.99. In fact, Meld White totally exceeds its price point in taste! It would hold its own (and even win) some battles with some $15+ bottles I've had recently. It begs to be bought by the case because let's not forget the 10% case discount you get at most wine stores. I am nothing if not thrifty. Especially when it comes to my wine-ing!

So get some Meld and giddy-up. (Sorry, I just had to.)


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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Winey Tasting Notes: Edna Valley Sauvignon Blanc for International Sauvignon Blanc Day, 2012

Sauvignon Blanc
I know that it sometimes it seems like there's a day for every little thing under the sun. In the month of June alone, you can celebrate National Yo Yo Day (June 6),  National Bubba Day (no I don't know and don't want to know what it means but it's on June 2), National Name Your Poison Day (see above comments about meaning, June 8), National Sewing Machine Day (June 13), or National Panic Day (which is the same day as National Splurge Day on June 18...not sure if there is a correlation there or not). This in addition to the more traditional June holidays such as Father's Day (17th), Flag Day (14th) and the First Day of Summer (20th).

But, for us Winey minded types, you can also celebrate International Sauvignon Blanc Day on June 21st (same day as Go Skate Day, but I really don't think you should celebrate both at the same time, okay?). And who doesn't think of a lively, crisp Sauvignon Blanc when the summer months hit?

So, in honor of the upcoming holiday, I decided to try a new Sauvignon Blanc. I found Edna Valley Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (2010, 14.3%, San Luis Obispo, CA) featured on the shelf of my local grocery store and since they rarely steer me wrong in their amazing wine department, I decided to give it a sip or two. So glad I did!

The wine is a golden yellow color with aromas of pink grapefruit and lime. It tastes of grapefruit, lime with a hint of green grass. There was something else in there and it took me a bit to figure it out, but it was basil. A touch of the Mediterranean in the midst of all that tart acidity - wow! This is a fully bodied wine, so the finish lingers on and on - crisp and lively.

This is everything you want and expect in a Sauvignon Blanc. The crispness, the fruit, the summertime tastes! I also used it to to make an awesome (self proclaimed)  risotto for dinner that evening. And I might also add that this wine was wonderful enough to get me through an entire weekend with a sick teenager who pretty much set the land speed record for going through boxes of tissue and reruns of "Pretty Little Liars". If that isn't a ringing endorsement, I just don't know what you want from your wine.

So get out there and get ready for International Sauvignon Blanc Day 2012. You have two days and I want reports!


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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Winey Tasting Notes: Cameron Hughes Chardonnay

I seem to be a weather driven wine drinker. To me, a snowy, blowy night just begs for a big warming glass of something red, to be sipped on next to a roaring fire. But now that the weather has turned to warm breezes and green trees, my taste buds are guiding me to the white side of things. Crisp and cooling works just fine for me when the temperatures rise. So when I saw that Cameron Hughes wines were being featured at one of my wine stores, I was naturally drawn to the Chardonnay. (Did I mention that it was 90+ degrees here that week...well it was. And Memorial Day hadn't even arrived yet.) Also, a friend of the Winey Hubby's loves the wine, so I figured it was high time to try some.

Cameron Hughes Chardonnay (2009, 13.8%, California) is a golden color with some medium bodied legs sticking to the glass. It smells of pear and oak. It tasted of pears and oranges with a little starfruit tang to it. I also got a hint of vanilla and oak. Wow! Lots going on here. I'd call this a buttery Chardonnay because it was very lush in my mouth. And while there was definitely some oak going on, the fruit and the vanilla kept it from being one of those big, obnoxious Chardonnays that can really annoy me at times. (I drink wine for pleasure, not to be annoyed. I have teenagers for the annoying part of my life.)

This definitely is a great sipping wine. It will hold up well in refreshing you now that the summer months are upon us. It would also be so yummy with what I call "summertime eats". You know, the grilled salmon with herbs that NEVER tastes the same when you grill it indoors, or the shrimp skewers that are so impressive when you bring them directly from the grill to the table. (And as the chief family griller, I'm all about impressing people with my grill skill.) This wine would also be so good with berries: strawberries and raspberries come to mind. If you're feeling adventurous, skewer some of those berries and place them in your glass of wine - summer in a glass!

I liked this enough that I'm going to head out and try some other Cameron Hughes offerings. Their Lot Series looks intriguing. These are premium wines (numbered by lot) that are taken directly from their lot and bottled instead of blending them with other lots. In a sense, they're leftover premium wines that get to keep to themselves instead of being blended to help out some "lesser" wines.

Stay tuned and Cheers!

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Winey Birthday Notes: Castello Di Amorosa's Fantasia For A Son's 20th Birthday

The Winey Son turned 20 yesterday. There was no Thomas The Tank Engine wrapping paper. No Harry Potter gift bags. No Cleveland Indians paper plates. No throng of hungry boys in our backyard. Nope, my 20 year old spent his day on the training fields of West Point, learning to be a soldier and a leader. (And learning that you have to sleep under the stars even when the stars are obscured by rain clouds.)

This is not the first birthday he's been away from us. It started when he was 16 and was an exchange student. At 17, he was at West Point for their Summer Leadership Seminar (think of it as a trial run for those who are VERY interested in West Point). He was with us for 18 - but shortly after that left to begin his West Point career with the infamous Beast Barracks (basic training - along the Hudson River). And ever since then, he's been away on his birthday, thanks to the amazing opportunities West Point gives him. I do not begrudge him (or West Point) any of this, by the way. Ever since I can remember, he has told me that he wants to serve this nation, and who am I to argue THAT?

So why in the heck did I miss him so much yesterday, when I should be used to him not being here? (Let's not even talk about the bitterness of there being one less BUTTERCREAM frosting covered cake opportunity, OK?) I think it's because it was a zero birthday - you know them: the years that end with a zero (or sometimes a 5) that seem to mark big milestones. (The Winey Hubby just had a big zero...but we took the high road here and did NOT drape the house in black. I took him to California on vacation instead.) It was 20 - the end of the teens. The start of adulthood (if not the legal ability to imbibe). MY BABY WAS 20?!! How could that be when I am still 29? (ahem)

So this day passed like any other, with a high school sports physical for the Winey Daughter (still very much a teen) and errands to run and letters to mail and gardens to tend. And then it was after dinner and I found myself with my book club book, on the patio on a night when the temperature was absolutely perfect. The setting just begged for a glass of wine. And since I was feeling a bit nostalgic (OK, and a bit sorry for myself) I decided to open a special bottle. Out came the Castello Di Amorosa Fantasia (2011, 7%, California). We bought the wine on the aforementioned California Birthday trip.

Castello Di Amorosa
(photo by Winey Mom)

Castello Di Amorosa (castle of love) is a winery like no other. In fact, to see it without knowing what it is, you'd swear you had been transported to Europe. Or a fairy tale. That's because it's a castle. A real one. Built by winemaker Dario Sattui (who already had a successful winery nearby, and don't miss his amazing olive oil either) using reclaimed pieces of real, crumbling castles (or extremely accurate replicas when the originals were not to be found). It has 107 rooms (filled with antiques and works of art), 8 levels (four above ground, four below), ramparts and yes....a dungeon (actually a very fun part of the tour). The wines are made in a traditional Italian style (the red grapes are grown on the grounds of the Castle). I had been avoiding Italian wines because I really didn't know that much about them. After touring the winery, though, I can now safely say that I am becoming a fan of Italian whites, not so much the reds, and am totally in love with their sweet wines.

A real castle!
(photo by Winey Mom)
The Winey Couple on
the Castle Ramparts
(photo by friendly Castle guide)

The Winey Mom on the
Castle grounds
(photo credit: Winey Hubby)

Enter Fantasia (Fantasy). To be truthful, this is just barely a wine. It's made by pressing and partially fermenting grape juice and is quite low in alcohol. But not in taste. It's a ruby red wine that actually fizzes in your glass. It smells just like a summer time flowering garden and tastes like you're drinking rose petals and strawberries. (I'm not making this up.) The fizzy-ness keeps the sweetness from becoming cloyingly sweet and makes it very lively in the mouth. There are layers of fruits and flowers and it ends on a juicy strawberry note. Heaven on a patio!

Castello Di Amorosa's wines are sold only at the winery or on line. So you won't be able to run out and find a bottle nearby unless you live in the Napa Valley area. But go ahead and order some Fantasia, and if you do, add in a bottle or two of the Pinot Grigio (4 out of 5 on the Winey Mom rating scale), Chardonnay (another 4), 2011 Gewurztraminer Dolcino (a resounding 5).

I had to practice some Winey restraint and not down the entire bottle - and it wasn't just because I was missing my boy on his birthday - this is such a gorgeous wine!!  I am glad that I opened it and "shared" it in honor of the day I became a mom, and he became a shining light in our lives.

Cheers and Happy Birthday to you Winey Son! We're so very proud of you!

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Winey Tasting Notes: Choosing Wente Wines (or, Go Army!)

I often get asked how I choose the wines that I review, but there really is no rhyme or reason to it. Sometimes I'll have read about a wine. Often, I'll try a new wine at a party, or a friend will recommend it. And sometimes I just wander around the wine aisles at stores until someone asks me if they can help or they have a security guard follow me closely. Fortunately, that doesn't happen often.

Then there are the wines that I try because I have some sort of connection to them. Such is the case with Wente Vineyards. You see, the Winey Son is a Cadet at West Point. Yes, I'm proud and happy. I'm also a bit lonely at times, since you don't get to visit West Point like you would other college campuses. (It's NOT a campus, by the way, it's a working military base.) Start with the fact that you must go through security to get onto the base. ID, car search and everything. There's that whole "we can all shoot guns" thing going on there. So, given the fact that it's not your typical college experience, it only makes sense that West Point Parents band together (we even dress alike and yell the same thing: "BEAT NAVY").  As you might imagine, the Parents Clubs are very active (and by active I mean really, really fun) and I have met some of the most wonderful friends through them. It helps to know there are other parents going through the same thing as you - because we all know that when our Cadets graduate, they're going to be deployed. (It also helps when you are faced with a duffel bag full of uniforms that you have no idea how to wash.)

So, (here comes the wine part), when I found out through the Parent Club coordinator at West Point, that the Vice President of Sales for the Central Division of Wente Family Estates (great title, isn't it) was also a WEST POINT MOM, well, that pretty much made it mandatory that I go out and review some of those wines!

Let's start with the 2009 Southern Hills Cabernet Sauvignon (13.5%, Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay, CA). The nose on this was dark spices, pepper and some cherry. It tasted of dark black cherries and spices, which gave it a very "bright" taste. There was also a bit of an oak flavor that made the wine feel very soft in my mouth. The finish was long and peppery and lively. Another reason to tell people that Cabernet Sauvignon is right at the top of my favorite varietal list!

Next I tasted the Morning Fog Chardonnay (2010, 13.5%, Livermore Valley, San Francisco Bay, CA). I must admit to being taken in by the name. Morning Fog just brings so many gorgeous images to mind, doesn't it? And having just made my first journey to San Francisco and the Bay area, it really took me back there to that wonderful vacation. The wine is a bright, clear gold color (West Point colors are black and gold, by the way). The bouquet was of nutmeg, green apples and pear, a little vanilla, a little oak - so much going on there and it smelled so good! The taste was of green apples and juicy pears, vanilla and a little cinnamon. There was also a hint of a lime peel tang in it. Not overwhelming, but it was there. The finish was lively and apple-y (yes, that is a word, I just made it up) and left me smacking my lips (not very ladylike, but hey, I am not one to let a good wine taste go to waste).

So thanks to West Point, I found a whole new vineyard with so many new wines to try. (So many wines, so little time, as the saying goes.) I can only close by saying this:
Go Army! Beat Navy! Cheers!

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Winey Tasting Notes: How Rose Valley Winery Chardonnay Saved Me From Bottle Shock

I have every faith that when I buy a bottle of wine (or case, if I happen to be at certain stores with the initials "Trader Joe's) that it won't kill me. Or at least that it won't make me sick. Or wrinkle my nose and shout "Ewww!" And I'm not talking about a wine I simply don't like the taste of. I'm talking about the dreaded "bottle shock".

Bottle shock occurs when a wine has had a rather rough passage getting to your store (it can also happen when it's actually bottled and has to do with oxygen and sulphur dioxide but that's science and I'm not going any further with that explanation). It is also called wine sickness, although I totally thought THAT term referred to an individual, the morning get the idea. Bottle shock is usually temporary, but that means you need to let the unopened bottle rest a bit after its journey. If you are an unsuspecting shopper and you open a bottle of shocked wine...well, see the above "Ewww."

Such was the case with me a few weeks ago, when I bought what looked to be a very promising bottle of Australian Riesling. I opened the bottle, poured a bit, swirled, sniffed...and got a snoutful of latex party balloons. Seriously, you know the smell when you open up a bag of balloons (those of you with children will know this smell very well, depending on the number of birthday parties/water balloon fights you have staged over the years)? I sipped. Still the balloon taste. Very rubbery, very factory.  I switched wine glasses. Still there. I waited overnight. Nope, still there. I returned it to the store where my wine proprietor took one sniff and pronounced the diagnosis: Bottle Shock.

She then asked me if I'd like another bottle of the wine. Well...I'd originally purchased the wine to do a review of an Australian wine, and had already gone on and written another review on a totally different wine. And while I am generally a brave type of person, I didn't want to chance it again. So I asked her about a wine I'd seen featured in the store recently, Rose Valley Winery. She said it was a good one. So I went home with a bottle of the Chardonnay (2010, 13.5%, Sonoma Co, CA).

And I'm so glad I did! This is a beautiful wine - light gold in color with aromas of melon and citrus. It  tastes of lush cantaloupe with a zesty overlay of lime. This wine is a great example of balance between oaky Chardonnay and totally non-oaked Chardonnay. It feels just right in my mouth - not too thin, not to thick...just a nice, crisp feel and taste. The finish is citrusy and lingers nicely.

So, my first experience with bottle shock wound up not to be too shocking after all. I got to discover a new tasty, inexpensive (it cost me $8.99) Chardonnay and realized that my taste buds had not turned into latex party balloons. A good day.

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