Welcome aboard! Fasten your seat belts and secure your belongings. Before taking off, I would like to share some announcements about our flight. First, I had the great honor of selecting the theme “travel” after winning the #MWWC24, which was a lovely surprise. Thanks to all who voted for my post and continue to encourage my jack-assery. Secondly, some passengers may consider this theme broad and possibly unimaginative, but I selfishly stuck with it because of my enchantment with those tiny, precious bottles of wine served on airplane flights. A recent spate of coast to coast “travel” fueled me to share my inflight wine experiences. Not only has this been an idle curiosity of mine, but ultimately it should be useful information. After all, I am a pragmatic wino. Lastly, please remain seated as there could be some turbulence in my wine reviews. I may have taken my low standards even lower as I came to realize that a captive audience of strangers on a 6 hour fun ride at 39,000 feet will drink just about anything. There was no recourse and it was far too late to change our theme from “travel” to “vodka.” Nah zda-rovh-yeh!
Virgin America SFO to PSP Bottega Gold Prosecco, Valdobbiadene (Veneto), Italy $8.50/20cl Mini Bottle
My flight from SF to Palm Springs was short and uneventful. However, I cringed thinking of what was on the wine list. I had committed myself to tasting at least one wine per leg of my itinerary. After perusing my touch screen menu, I was pleasantly surprised with the offering. Being budget conscious (and sadly not drinking gratis in Business Class,) I decided to try the Bottega Gold Prosecco.
When in doubt my fearless flyers, get the bubbles. How bad could it be? And Prosecco mitigates further risk of gag-reflex due to the protective veil of bubbles and pleasantly high sugar content. This beauty did not disappoint.
Presentation was very chic for a single serve wine. I found the cap very clever – screw top but molded to look like a caged cork – clever! Nose was apricot, grapefruit and the first sip very citrusy, green apple, surprisingly dry, mousse copious and very effervescent for a Prosecco. Ok, the finish was a little bitter – this happens with some Cavas and Proseccos. Although the finish was abrupt, it didn’t ruin the overall enjoyment, it’s just a little reminder that you are drinking Prosecco on a plane and not Champagne in a Chateau. After all, we are in economy class and I’m just happy to have an aisle seat. Rated an enthusiastic buy again!
Fruit and Cheese Plate, $8.79
Fresh fruit served with Brie, Cheddar, Dill Havarti and Muenster cheese. Served with gourmet crackers.
Like them or not, I’m an avid American Airlines traveler, I want to keep my status, so they have my loyalty. I am just a couple of thousand miles shy of being a million miler. Not that it means much, but I’m hell bent on hitting that milestone one cheese plate at a time.
I NEVER order wine. It is too sketchy. But for you my fabulous followers, I did the deed. I manned-up and got myself a bottle of economy class white and main cabin red. I will be polite, but after my brief tasting, I tried to pass it off to the kid sitting next to me until she said she wasn’t old enough to drink. I then turned my head to the Chatty Cathies behind me and they gladly took the swill, tapered their conversation and fell asleep. 2 problems solved. Net-net? I’m glad I was able to savor the moment with the fresh flavors of my American Airlines cheese plate. I’ll take two more and a vodka.
La Noria, Villa Noria, Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc, Vino d’España, $8.00/187ml
Pineapple, first sip, peach, ripe apricot, hot alcohol and slight bitterness on the finish, lingers on the back of your throat with a little honey suckle and lemon rind. Rated politely drinkable. Pairs well with crying babies and chatty neighbors when imbibed copiously.
Orquestra, Felix Solis, Cabernet Sauvignon, Vino d’España $8.00/187ml
Grapey nose, tannins, Rioja, short finish of wet stone, not much fruit, dry, could taste and feel the alcohol. Mouthfeel was not smooth and creamy or rich and bold it was wet stone, asphalt, thin. Rated drinkable in times of horrific turbulence, a bird hit or when lightening strikes the engine and fills the cabin with smoke. Remember, serve yourself before you serve others.
Well, I am certain my experience is merely a product of my destiny. When I researched what first and business class were drinking it was very respectable, if not downright despicable to those of us who fly economy. But I’ll let you be the judge….I’ve included the American Airlines wine list for your perusal.
But for now, please return to your seats, put your seat in upright position, lock your tray tables and store your items safely below the seat in front of you. The attendants will be coming through the cabin to collect any garbage and recyclables. Please refrain from digging in the first class cabin trash for any remaining drops of Roderer Brut Vintage Champagne. Although it is not considered an FAA offense punishable by law, it is still absolutely appalling behavior. Just be grateful that you are permitted to breathe the same recycled air as those in the upper classes. Thank you for flying the thirsty skies. Buh, bye.
Easter is coming, Easter is coming! Hurry, stock up on wine, chocolate eggs, ham, millinery and wine. And after you dust the mantle, press the table linens and polish the silver, go ahead and buy even more wine. Every good Christian, not in recovery, needs plenty of after church lubrication. Depending on the the brunch, lunch or dinner you will be giving or receiving, quantity of wine is highly variable, but for God’s sake, don’t run out. Whatever the event, remember, Jesus is the reason for yet another season, so let’s raise a glass of his finest juice. Alleluia!
I found the perfect Cava for this Eastover (Easter+Passover.) Although, the occasion of this wine’s discovery was during a lunch that followed an ominous birthday outing at Sonoma Traintown. More on that later.
Cava can be priced at a 1/4 of the price for Champagne and better sparkling wines. Cavas are refreshingly dry and crisp. Who can resist a burst of earth, sun and the espirito de España with their roasted pork, potatoes au gratin, rich buttery fish or as an apertivo with Marcona almonds, Manchego cheese accompanied with slices of crisp green apples and honey. Yuuuuum. Excuse me while I take a fridge break.
Ok, I’m back.
NV M. Chevallier Carte Noire Methode Traditionelle Brut Cava $6
The sparkler I have road tested for you today is a Cava I acquired at Trader Joe’s. M. Chevalier was well situated amongst the masses of value wines. Lovely, classic label, easy to find and priced just right. There was incipient potential.
The occasion was my sister’s father-in-law’s 72nd birthday. We arranged a visit to Sonoma Traintown* with the raucous brood of grand kiddies and a requisite pizza party après voyage. My sister’s father-in-law, a retired DDS and self proclaimed wineaux, is now officially my drinking buddy at family gatherings. In his honor, I decided to break out the cheap stuff. M. Chevalier was the perfect libation to celebrate not only his birthday, but our aplomb at search and rescue. After the retrieval of a grand daughter from the duck pond and the end to a frantic 15 minute search for a missing grandson (found oogling toys in the gift shop of his own volition,) it had been a lovely day without an Amber Alert, but my nerves were eviscerated. My only respite was shoving pizza in my face while drinking bottles of bubbly in a completely fenced-in back yard sans livestock and naturally or artificially occurring bodies of water. We all needed to let off some steam. And good news! This wine made me want to sound the horn. Chooo chooooooo.
The nose was faint, but the first sip was delightful, crisp green apple, a hint of brioche, a smooth nutty finish with a lovely minerailty. Cavas can have a bitter finish, hence, they are often not at the top of my bubbly list, although their price points are in my repertoire. Nice effervescence that was great for cooling the engines and sparking vibrant family debate about historical revisionism of our childhood memories. To each his own version of that harrowing trip to the Grand Canyon.
This wine was a delight and very guest worthy as the septuagenarian birthday boy loved it too. He noted it was not complex and although a rather mild wine, it still held his interest. This wine will pair as well with your Easter or Pasover feast as it paired with my peperroni pizza at the end of a ride on the “crazy train.” Music please….
*Sonoma Traintown is a fabulous getaway for the family. Reasonably priced and surrounded by delicious restaurants, vineyards and gorgeous scenery. My characterization is based solely on my personal angst about visiting amusement parks with throngs of small reckless children and insouciant senior citizens. Traintown can be very crowded on weekends during high season. If you have the luxury of visiting on a weekday, it is a sheer delight. Be forewarned about visiting the gift shop with your children – you may risk embarrassing fits of extortion if you don’t make a purchase.
This is my entry into the Monthy Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC14.) This month’s theme, chosen by last month’s winner, Bill of Duff’s Wines is “tradition.” I could have written more than anyone would care to read, and probably have. However, I was so inspired by this theme and the story I chose to share, I hope you bear with me and my lengthy tome. If you want to cut to the chase, the wine reviews are at the bottom, but you’ll be missing out on all the insanely interesting content in between. Just sayin.
Tradition can be ceremonial, a societal rite, a commitment between friends, a practice between professionals. Tradition can be a declaration of allegiance that marks a time and place with displays of national or cultural heritage. What is the common thread? It is ritual, it unites and establishes an identity and depending how strong the tradition, it can survive passages of time spanning centuries.
One can hardly argue that historically the strongest traditions are forged through family. The great wine dynasties of the world are the perfect illustration of tradition and how powerful it can be. It is no mistake that the most recognized names in the wine world are Gallo, Sebastiani, Mondavi. These family brands were started generations ago by their eponymous scions and to this day are still owned and operated by their progeny*. The California wine industry owes much of what it is today from the generational vision and wisdom passed through heirs who are as passionate about continuous improvement of the craft as they are their family heritage.
The growth of the wine business swelled in the 90’s and early 2000’s and a new generation of vintners who had the technology, education and drive to take the family business into the realm of multimillion dollar mega brands emerged. Most of California’s 2,000 wineries are owned by families. They are a major economic engine in the state and have an economic impact of $45.4 billion on California’s economy.** Of the top 10 wine businesses in the US, four are still family owned and operated and collectively produce over 100 million cases of wine annually.***this is Falcon Crest on steroids, and I’m not referring to Lorenzo Lamas.
In early October, I received an inquiry from a representative of the Scotto Family Cellars. Bradley Gray is a local Sonoman who does PR for the wine industry and stalks elusive wine bloggers (it’s a small town, I’m trying to remain semi anonymous as cheap wine is not a popular subject in polite society around here and inevitably I’m going to insult the wrong person and be forced to hide out in Napa – egads.) He noted that I had ranked the Scotto Family brands, Rare Red Grape 4 Blend, $7.99 and O.V.O.C. 2012 Regio Zinfandel $8.99, as a#1 and #6 respectively on my 2014 top 10 under $10.
He proposed I meet the Scottos, 5th generation wine makers, and taste some of their other wines. Not one to turn down a party in my honor, I accepted the invitation and proceeded to work with Brad on a date and a guest list. I had never met the Scottos prior to tasting and loving their wines. I was very excited to meet these innovators of premium value wines. How do they do it? Making good wine for less than $10 is a daring and magnificent feat and I suspect, much more difficult to achieve than painstakingly creating finely crafted small lot vintages. I’m over simplifying it, but that is where my thoughts wandered.
We decided to meet at the Depot Hotel in Sonoma. Built in 1870, the Depot Hotel was originally the local hotel for passengers passing through from San Francisco. Since 1922 it has functioned as a restaurant and the environment is charming and the food delicious.
When I arrived, I was greeted by Bradley and an enthusiastic Anthony Dominic Scotto III, CEO of Scotto Family Cellars, and his younger brother Paul, the winemaker. My first impression: these brothers are rather youthful to be running a very large and rapidly growing family business. My second: they are justifiably proud and grounded in their family history. My final impression: these guys are über talented! Let’s start tasting.
After the typical Californian perfunctory chat about traffic, road conditions, variations on freeway choices and the severity of our mild weather, Anthony started to tell the family story.
Anthony and Paul’s great grandfather Salvatore Dominic Scotto started a winery in Ischia, Italy, an island on the Gulf of Naples, in 1883. In 1903, the family emigrated from Italy and settled in Brooklyn, NY. near the docks where Dominic had worked as a ship’s caulker. His sons, Leo, Anthony, Sal and Frank were taught how to make wine in 5 gallon crocks which were sold from horse drawn wagons. Dominic opened a wine store in 1909 but had to shut it down during Prohibition. After the 13 year ban, the sons reopened the store in 1934 at 318 Court St., where it has been located and operating for the past 80+ years. (Read a lovely article about the 80 year anniversary in the New York Daily News by clicking here.)
Scotto Liquors is one of the oldest liquor stores still in operation in the state of New York. The Scotto family sold the store in 1989, but the current owner, James Benedetto, still honors the family heritage and has kept with tradition by offering hundreds of wines, imported from around the world, ranging in price from $6.99 to several thousand dollars for a highly sought wine like Romanee-Conti wine from Burgundy.
Anthony Sr. (aka A1) and his brother Sal create Villa Armando Rustico, one of the oldest US wine brands and in 1963 they decide to move West to California and buy a facility in Pleasanton that is named Villa Armando. This becomes the home to their rapidly growing wine business and the mass production of wine that paved the way for Anthony Jr. (aka A2) and subsequently Anthony the Third (aka A3) to build a family business with overall capacity of more than 300,000 cases annually and over 40 brands of wine today. In 2004, A3 opened Scotto Cellars and since 2009 the business has experienced double digit growth year over year becoming the 35th largest winery in California. They operate properties in Napa, Amador and Lodi with Paul (a U.C. Davis Viticulture & Enology graduate who worked for one of the Russian River’s premiere Pinot Noir producers) overseeing winemaking. Soon the remaining siblings came into the business (and complimentary businesses as their sister Natalie operates her own distribution company) and thus the new generation of Scottos is shaping the future of the wine industry. The work they are doing today ushers in a new era of “premium value wines” which is enabled through advancements in agricultural/production technology, an uninhibited new generation of wine drinkers and the industry’s synchronicity with social media. The Scottos are barely in their 30’s and they get it.
Sunday night dinners at their grandfather’s winery home was where the grand kids heard stories about their family history and their grandfather made sure they understood that the best wines are those enjoyed with family and food. A3 honored his grandfathers wishes when he ensured we ordered food to compliment the wine. (Ok they bought me a pizza and gave me a few bottles – full transparency here.) We then proceeded to taste the following wines. Some are my tried and true value wines, some are a bit splurgy, all are very well done and I do have my favorites.
Notes: Nose tropical fruit, pineapple. First sip bright, crisp with a long finish that belied some fruit but overall dry. A pleasant, unassuming white blend that is easy drinking but well rounded, good body and balanced acid. You really can’t go wrong with any of the Rare Blend wines by the Scottos.
2012 Regio Dry Rosé, El Dorado County, CA $11.99 — CASEWORTHY!
I LOVE this Rosé. It was a damp, cold, overcast day when I tasted this wine. It instantly reminded me of summer. The bouquet won me over, fragrant, big florals and ripe fruit. The first sip was honeysuckle and fresh berries with a crisp dry finish. Dreamy. For the price, beautifully done.
2012 Steel Canyon Chardonnay, Napa, CA $15.00
This was a perplexing Chardonnay but had merit for the body and richness one would expect from a Napa Chard. Aged in New French Oak it had high acid and a velvet vanilla finish. All the right notes one would expect. To be fair, I think what threw me off is my preference for un-oaked Chardonnay of which I have become accustomed, resulting in oaked Chardonnay no longer suiting my palate (I suspect it never did to being with.)
This is Paul Scotto’s winery owned and operated independently of the larger enterprise. No doubt he is a highly skilled winemaker but these vintages reflect the inherited talent. I don’t believe this wine is widely available but if you can buy it direct you will have lengthy conversations over the complexities with your wino buddies. After letting it open up, I noticed the gorgeous deep red purple color. Nose was dried cherry with baking spices which mirrored the first sip which had great mouthfeel and and acid finish that became more earthty and complex especially once you caught the light tannic menthol in the finish. Very interesting and surprisingly, the complexity holds up well with wood fired pizza. This wine is also aged in American and French Oak so you get what I’m saying about keeping your mind busy with this find.
At first, the concept of this wine was off putting. It was like a Syrah in disguise. This is not a Pinot that comes from a colder Sonoma coast climate or the Carneros region that cools in the evening with the wetland fog. This is an unapologetic inland valley Napa Pinot Noir grape and it requires a different mindset. Some may say why bother, but once I got my head around this wine, I could appreciate the expression of the Pinot Noir grape through the heat of the valley. This wine is best described as a Napa style Pinot Noir. I think defying the traditional coastal, cool climate styles is surprising and innovative. I don’t know what possessed the brothers to create this wine, but I really liked it, once I reframed my perspective and appreciated the creativity.
The grand finale of our tasting epitomizes tradition in a bottle. This Napa Valley Meritage is the first the family has ever released and both honors the past 50 years of their history in California, as well as signifies the beginning of the next 50 years. This was a very memorable wine and a special privilege to taste it with the brothers. I won’t get carried away with notes, I simply and wholeheartedly enjoyed the richness of the fruit, the balance, and the nuanced flavors of this beautiful vintage. (He may have said it better; Benito’s Wine Reviews about 50 Harvests – click here to see it for yourself) The Scottos are members of the Meritage Association and have created this Bordeaux style of wine with each varietal (60% Cab, 20% Merlot, 10% Petite Verdot, 10% Malbec) fermenting and aging separately prior to blending and bottling. Although ready to enjoy now, I noticed immediately upon the first sip, this wine had great aging potential of 3-5 years. The perfect gift for those you know who appreciate wine and those you know who geek out on wine. But the best thing about this exceptional wine and generous tasting is knowing that the impressive family who made this commemorative vintage are also creating fabulous “premium value” wines we can buy anytime at the supermarket. Somehow that makes everything taste even better.
* 2004 Constellation Brands acquired the Mondavi winery in a controversial takeover for nearly US$1.36 billion. Robert Mondavi’s younger brother Peter still runs the Charles Krug winery their father bought in 1943. Following the sale of the company, Mondavi partnered with his youngest son Tim Mondavi and daughter Marcia Mondavi to make a single wine from a single estate which formed the family partnership Continuum Estate which is still run by Robert’s son Tim, daughter Marcia and grandchildren.
The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant is one of the anchors in the renown SF Ferry Building. If you visit SF, this stop on the tour is worth the aggravation of parking drama or extra cab fare. The Ferry Building is best known for the amazing farmer’s markets on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Widely acclaimed for the high quality farm fresh produce and artisanal foods, it is renown as one of the top farmers markets to visit in the country. Saturday mornings especially, you will very likely see some of San Francisco’s best known chefs fondling the watercress, nosing a Chanterelle or ogling the Romanesco. Nearly 25,000 shoppers visit the farmers market each week, but everyday the plaza is home to many highly regarded foodie merchants/innovators including; The Slanted Door, Cowgirl Creamery, Heath Ceramics, Blue Bottle Coffee, Sur La Table, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and more, more, more.
The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant has a loyal wine membership that begets their robust calendar of events, tastings and pairings. Their mission is to find the most interesting and delicious wines from smaller producers around the world – I’m on board with that. They also have a store located in the über foodie fabulous Oxbow Market in Napa. One of their founders/buyers was honored as “Sommelier of the Year” from the James Beard Foundation and all the partners have impressive bios as wine industry professionals. As I write this, I’m pressure texting a friend to join me for their 6th Annual Champagne and Oyster Fête this Wednesday. Ahoy there!
As I ran past all the stalls to catch my ferry, I saw the display of sparkling wines under $20 front and center. How long could this take? Bad judgement? Well, I do tend to push the edges of timeliness and if there is a plane, train or ferry to catch, subconsciously it becomes a game of chicken. My race against the clock felt necessary in this instance. I had wine to drink and a post to write.
I was in luck, no lines and the wine merchant was at the ready to provide guidance. I explained that I wanted a sparkling wine under $10. What did he recommend? At first he was puzzled, and expressed that my request was a tough one, could I spend a few more dollars? Sure, why not? Better to take his recommendation than miss my ferry and swim to Alcatraz. I had to abruptly explain that my ferry was leaving in less than ten minutes and the only requirement is that “It can’t be crap.” He handed me a wine, briefly explained the notes and origin, I gave him my credit card, signed, grabbed the receipt, the wine and booked off to my pier. Two minutes to spare, the booze cruise was still there! Hurrah. I got on board, went straight to the bar, ordered dinner which consisted of a Captain Morgan and Diet Coke with a side of Ranch Flavored Cornnuts. My compliments to the chef.
Oh, so now where were we? Yes, yes, I was reviewing a wine.
After a leisurely 50 minutes on the ferry, I was home. I chilled the bottle in the fridge (45° F.) Before serving, I placed the bottle in the freezer for ten more minutes. I admit, I was concerned that this wine might ruin my night, so I wanted it to be ice cold. Who needs another cranky post. When I finally had the courage to pop the cork, I was happy to see a lovely salmon pink sparkling come to life. The nose was fruity, candy apple. First sip I tasted strawberries, florals and it had a nice balanced acid and flavorful intensity. Even though it was fruit forward, it was not sweet and the finish was long and dry. Mousse was moderate but still rich. As the wine warmed, the flavors nicely became more intense but I also noticed a nutty bitterness, which made me reconsider whether or not I loved this wine. However, the packaging was very pretty. The chocolate brown foil with pink and gold accents was very tasteful and felt luxurious when serving this wine to guests. Billecart-Salmon it was not, but it was very enjoyable cold and exhibited quality beyond other sparkling value wines at its price point. I would buy this again and I would be comfortable bringing this to an event.
There was very little on the label to tell me what this wine was about. It was rather mysterious. The Veuve du Vernay site specifies this wine as 11% alcohol and a blend of Cinsaut, Grenache and Syrah. This brand was created by Mr.Jean Eugène Charmat, the French scientist, who in 1907 invented the cuve close (“sealed vats”) method of producing fine sparkling wine which has since been adopted worldwide. Most sparkling wines are produced in one of two ways: Method Traditionelle wherein secondary fermentation happens in bottle, or vat fermentation which is eponymously named the Charmat method.
What’s with the “Veuve?” Monseiur Charmat had a high regard for a widow (veuve) in the village of Vernay who helped him to start his business. When Eugène Charmat’s son Robert created a new sparkling wine of high quality in the 1960s, he named it in honor of the lady whom his father esteemed so highly. Today Veuve du Vernay is an internationally known brand of value sparkling wines from France that are priced well as a result of Monseiur Charmat’s invention 108 years ago.
Let’s raise a glass in honor of the inventor and founder who made it possible for the world to enjoy quality inexpensive sparkling wine today. Down the hatch!
Golly! Is it really Thanksgiving time already? I just got out of recovery from Halloweek and without missing a beat, we are off planning the big Turkey trot. I have never hosted more than a Taco Tuesday but have logged many hours assisting a hapless host on this most notorious of American holidays. Hosting is a performing art typically reserved for the patriarch &/or matriarch of the family. When not in the homeland, the stage is kindly set by a friend who has a few extra seats at their folding table and a tolerant extended family too enthralled with football to succumb to social awkwardness. Ahhhh, the memories. And when the police have left to have dinner with their own families, and the dishes are dried, the pie put away and bail has been posted for that gregarious uncle who got a little carried away, we tuck ourselves in for the night and give thanks for the wine that got us through it.
This holiday you will be tasked with making wine selections for an array of occasions. Hostess gift, friendly gathering, family affairs, work events and after parties of one. Sure, sure, sure. Who wants to look gauche by bringing cheap wine to a party – the horror! Then again, who realistically can serve unlimited bottles of fine vintages for hundreds of guests other than your wealthy relatives – actually, they won’t be either.
Cheap is chic! Living well doesn’t mean living expensively. Sharing those special splurgy vintages with winos who can appreciate it is much different than ensuring your Great Aunt Helen enjoys that glass of quaffable red that puts some color in her cheeks. And if the hostess is a snob, then rise to the occasion and bring a respectable wine, but I don’t know a wino who doesn’t appreciate a good tip and a smart deal every now and then. Hey, every bottle does not find a place in the cellar, they often end up at the next party or in the fridge….yes even the reds!
After 6 months of mining the bottom two shelves for the most delightful of deals, I present my 2014 top 10 wines under $10 USD. I urge you to let me know if I’m full of giblets. If you violently disagree with any of these selections, please pipe up. I am not perfect and sometimes I’m swept away by the “conviviality” of the tasting. My first and foremost objective is to provide good guidance. Mistakes happen and when they do, better it be a value wine than a $78 bottle-o-fancy like the one I bought a few months ago. Oh, boy, was that a party.
My fave! These guys sell a tonnage of this wine in Texas at HEB – the number one red wine sold currently. I love this wine because, every time I decant it, the flavor changes and is so smooth, enjoyable and guest love it. They ALWAYS comment on how good the wine is – this is red wine crack for guests. It is on the fruit forward side for those winos with a rarefied palate, but let me tell you, me likey and can’t image a dish (other than fish) that this would not complement. I would even venture to serve this with a rich chocolate dessert – outstanding!
I’m finding that this brand hits it outta the park with its other varietals as well, so I’m gonna give them props for getting it right and making a red jammy whammy that pairs well with turkey smothered in rich gravy with a italian sausage stuffing. I think this would be great with lamb and any gamey flavorful meats. Prime rib would be a match made in heaven.
I have bought this wine now 3x and enjoyed it more than I should.Crisp, not grassy like other NZ Sauvs and very citrusy acid without a trace of a sour aftertaste – eeeew – hate that. Pairs well with a turkey left over sandwich on sourdough, aioli, pepper, butter lettuce, tomato and let’s throw in a piece o’bacon for good measure.
Oh, so delicate, delightful, it takes me to Provence. Not much more to say. Perfect for those guest ambivalent about white or red and want something light to complement their meal, not take over the show. The lightly roasted brussels sprouts will love this co-star as well as the harcourt verts and cauliflower au gratin.
The bold richness of this wine will definitely pair nicely with the heartier foods on the table. Cheesy potatoes au gratin, crusty olive loaf bread and onion tartes. Turkey lovers will enjoy the mingling flavors when this is paired with buttery mashed potatoes and rich brown turkey gravy.
I think this Merlot is a great starter wine to get the appetite going. Serve this with hors d’oeuvres, olives, bold cheeses, charcuterie and mon rêve: a creamy, dreamy Emmental and Gruyère fondue – ahhhh go big or go home.
For those guests who want white wine, this is a crisp but hearty white that helps keep the palate cleansed between bites and finishes nicely with roasted potatoes and veggies drizzled with butter, spices and a little balsamic. Perfect match for asparagus and hollandaise.
A shockingly good Cab whose price per bottle is less than a latte. Easy drinking once it breathes for an hour and lovely paired with a bite of turkey and cranberry sauce. The fruit and the tannic spice will enhance the succulent flavors and spices of your Thanksgiving dinner.
A lighter red that will pleasantly build on the flavors of rich gravy, buttery potatoes and savory dressing. This wine will cut the richness and finish strong without an overwhelming boldness.
Most of these wines are widely available at Safeway, Von’s, TraderJoe’s, WholeFoods and various national grocery chains. If you must search further, I suggest going to WineSearcher.com which is a great resource for finding wines in your hood.
2012 Castle Rock, Cuvée Pinot Noir, CA (cellared and bottled in St. Helena)
I am always scared to taste a Pinot Noir under $10. Why? Because a good Pinot under $10 cannot be done. Can-not! No way. No. Not ever. Never. Well you know what they say about saying never. Never.
Wincing, I opened the bottle. My victim that day was a local chef and presumably someone who would unfriend me for exposing him to this swill. I prefaced my tasting with apologies and gratitude for his bravery. We uncorked, poured and the rest is surprising. We are still friends.
It smelled like a Pinot to me, fresh, light, young, with notes of cherry and hibicus. First sip was peppery, baking spices, dark fruit, currant, medium bodied and very mild tannins with a pleasant woody finish. Very drinkable. Wow, what a delight. I have yet to meet a Pinot for this price point that I could take home to momma – this passed the sniff & sip test…with flying colors.
Who is Castle Rock? I like to research the makers of these fine wines of “Cheapeaux” and often you find a barrel load of corporate drivel laced with fabrications about growers, makers and wineries you will never visit because they in a warehouse in Commerce, California. Ok, I am verging on snobby which is not my style, but let’s keep it 100. How is it possible for these wines to be priced so freakin cheap? Yes, we have all heard the machinations about Two Buck Chuck consisting of high percentages of gopher guts and pesticides (my friends at Trader Joe’s HQ vehemently deny these rumors and I believe them.) But when a wine is actually good and as guest worthy as this one, I’d like to understand how they pulled it off. I mean, bravo, they actually made a ridiculously cheap bottle of wine truly enjoyable.
Moreover, Castle Rock wines are widely available. I believe this one was acquired at a Safeway. So after poking around, I discovered they offer wines from Napa/Sonoma in California, Willamette Valley, Oregon, and Columbia Valley, Washington but they are HQ in Rancho Palos Verdes in Southern California. What exactly does “bottled and cellared in St. Helena” mean anyways? The plot thickens. Go to the source – their website. Ah-ha – this is how they do it.
Well, I like a straight shooter, especially when it’s about what’s going in my Riedels. Moreover, their wines have won several awards of distinction, this 2012 Pinot Noir was awarded a double gold medal and 92 pts from the SF Chronicle Wine Competition. Oh-la-la! Pas mal.
Adding further confidence, their wine makers/growers are both very established and respected in Washington and California. Greg Powers was recognized as a “Rising Star” by Wine Spectator and as one of the “50 Great U.S. Cabernet Producers” by Wine Enthusiast. He started his esteemed career very young by helping his father plant 80 acres of grapes on the family vineyard, Badger Mountain in the Columbia Valley which under his supervision, transitioned the farming from conventional to organic. The California grower and maker, Vic Roberts, is the owner and winemaker at Victor Hugo Vineyards and Winery in the heart of California’s Paso Robles wine country. In 1985 he pursued his dream of being a wine maker by planting 15 acres of grapes on his property which now stands at 78 acres, with the winery located in a picturesque, recently renovated 100 year old barn.
I believe the care and expertise that is put into these widely distributed value wines is fascinating and obviously yields impressive results. This is the dawning of the era of good cheap wine in the US. With producers like Castle Rock, I look forward to trying more….although I cannot guarantee I won’t wince before the first sip.
Line 39 2013 Petit Sirah California $9.99
Available at WholeFoods
It was my night to cook, so I was planning on al fresco dining with a menu consisting of an appetizer of cheese, main course of cheese, and a dessert of cheese. The perfect accompaniment would be a full bodied red and a crusty baguette. Bon appetit! Although this meal may not seem well rounded, I think displays of culinary acumen are highly overrated and should be supplanted by consumption and enjoyment. After drinking a green juice, eating a dry chicken breast and doing 50 burpees, I was ready for a heaping serving of self gratification. (I embellished my penance – I actually drank a green juice while spying on a crow rummage through my neighbor’s trash, that’s cheese worthy right?)
The cheese department at my neighborhood WholeFoods is conveniently adjacent to the wine department, wow, how ingenious. I selected three cow’s milk cheeses. First course was a mild nutty Gouda, next a strong, sharp English Seaside Cheddar, and finished the meal with a Dolcelatte (fattier cousin of Grogonzola, if you can believe that.) I pivoted 5 feet to the wine aisle and searched for a bold red to meet the challenge. Looking at the bottom shelf, the hang tags screaming “sale” caught my eye and I found a Petit Sirah for a deal – $8.99 which was a buck off retail of $9.99. Score!
Petit Sirah is actually the Durif variety of red wine grape. It is called “Petit Sirah” because the fruit is recognizably smaller and it is a hybrid of Syrah pollen germinating a Peloursin plant. It’s a full bodied grape that is often used as a blending partner to strengthen other wines.
Once home, I opened the bottle to let it breathe. My expectations were not high as I know all too well the dangers of this job. Once poured, I was optimistic as the nose was immediately a delightful plummy spice, very aromatic. First sip, was very jammy, full bodied, dark cherries, ripe plum, balanced tannins not much acid and a satisfying finish. By golly, this wine is thoroughly enjoyable. Perfect to drink right now with rich Italian foods, pasta, tomato sauce, BBQ and my triumvirate of cheese. It tamed the richness of the Dolcelatte and gave the simplicity of the Gouda a kick. I believe the best accompaniment was the English cheddar, where the sharp saltiness was perfectly match with the fruit of the wine. Add that crunch from the baguette – heaven!
This wine is highly quaffable, a great price and widely available through Whole Foods in the US. It’s not a wine for a sophisticated palate to perseverate over the complexities but that’s not always the point either. It’s very fruit forward, ripe berries with a jammy boldness that pairs best with stronger flavors. Would be the perfect companion to a prime rib, or an Alfredo cream sauce but not a delicate terrine. It’s definitely guest worthy and nearly case worthy!
Another upside to this wine is the label. It is as tasteful as the wine and has an interesting story about the origin of the name which is derived from the 39th parallel that runs through the wine country of California. This is a great bottle to bring as a guest to dinner. No cutesy name and anthropomorphic mascots, just a clever story behind the wine to make it memorable. The host and other guests will have no idea you spend 1/3 of what they thought you did, how generous of you!
2012 Grifone Primitivo, Puglia, Italy, from old growth Zinfandel $3.99
Wowza! Just when everyone was losing faith in my crusade to uncover the best wines under $10 – Eureka! I think we struck gold.
My checkered past…
Let’s go in the way-back-machine to about 30 days ago….I was hitting rock bottom, I could not respectably review the wines I was tasting, those bottles will remain nameless but for all intents and purposes, let’s refer to those wines as shite.
A prior post recounted the events that led to the Tepranillo-Gate scandal. I was nearly impeached from cheap wine forever and I believe there were dark forces at work against me. There was a conspiracy behind that unfortunate event, alas alack, there is no point troweling through the past when the future is before us. In this instance, a cheap and cheerful Primativo.
Primitivo or Zinfandel: are they cousins, siblings, identical twins?
Primitivo is a descendant of the rare Croatian varietal Crljenak (pronounce that!) There is plenty of discussion about the differences and similarities of Primitivo and Zinfandel. The latter is often defined as the exact replica of the Crlienak while Primitivo is defined as being a clone. The difference? I’ll have to get into that in another post but you can do a deeper dive here. Read the debates online and decide for yourself, but when planted next to each other the variance is noticeable in size, bunch density and color. What’s the big deal? About $10-$20 in price. Primitivo is sold typically at a value between $10-$15 while Zins can be twice as much. Unlike Europe, U.S. labeling laws don’t allow the names of the two varietals to be used interchangeably. Hmmmm. Market forces at work.
Well I notice a difference and maybe it’s wine stye, but the Puglian Primitivos, although intense in flavor, seem lighter in body, more refreshing (a touch chilled with a wedge of juicy orange – Mwah!) with a pleasant Italian bitterness in the finish that lends itself to the grape’s unique complexity. Zinfandels are jammier, fruit forward and I find them heartier, more body, tastes like California sunshine with a coastal breeze to me. This variance could be due to the propensity for Primitivos to ripen earlier (hence the name which means “early one”) which produces a younger tasting wine high in alcohol and tannins, which can mellow with age.
Without further adieu, I proudly present my latest discovery of undeniable significance…ecco qui:
2012 Grifone Primitivo, Puglia Italy $3.99
This wine was rather delightful. Color in the glass is rich garnet like pomegranate juice. Nose is dark cherry, some light spice. First sip, mmmmmm, juicy rhubarb, rose petal, very smooth, rich, strong yet balanced tannins and a finish that departs as soon as you want another sip. Very enjoyable and also flexible for various food pairings. Will go great with stronger flavors like BBQ, venison and will complement richer fattier delights like foie gras or a densely marbled Kobe. If you were pairing wines for 4 courses, this would be best served with the main course. I actually believe this is caseworthy as it will only get better with time. Dude! Do the math, only $48.00 a case? That’s the price of ONE splurgy bottle of Zin…OMG! No me digas! Sacré bleu! Exclamation exclamation.
So there I was, tapping away at the keyboard, enjoying my new-found self-appointed career as a food and wine journalist dreaming up idea after idea of posts to like, retweet, memes to create, memes to share, people to poke, chats to follow, inside jokes to make, hashtags to use…you know the typical stuff one does when one doesn’t really want to earn a living. Then startlingly I received one, possibly my first ever, guest comment on my blog from someone at McCue Communications.Mon Dieu!
She wanted me to give her my information so she could send me some wines to try. They were actually going to send me wine? Huh? What’s the catch? Ah ha….so that’s what this is all about. This was a similar epiphany to the day I realized that golf was more about betting money and drinking beer with the “fellas” than it was about golf. I gave up golf too soon to fully partake. Quelle dommage.
Being accustomed to buying and reviewing wines of my own volition, I was concerned about my freedom to express an opinion untethered by wine sent gratis. What do I do if they, ahem, are not so good? Luckily, the Arrogant Frog wines by Domaine Paul Mas made my job much easier and euphemistic free. Moreover, I had the pleasure of tasting with other wine writers I deeply admire including Sir Jeff Siegel winecurmudgeon.com, Michelle Williams rockinredblog.com and Beth Smith travelingwinechick.com – who happens to be my neighbor so we made a lunch date.
The Humble Wine Maker
It was a privilege to partake in the virtual tasting with fourth-generation vintner Jean-Claude Mas to learn about his latest value vintages. His family has led premium winemaking in the Languedoc region from their centuries-old estate since 1892 and when M. Mas took the reins in 2000, he dedicated his wine making practices to preserving the land and the beauty of Languedoc. In 10 years, he plans to transition all 8 of his family wineries into organic vineyards that employ natural farming principles through the use of the latest technology. This has already reduced the need for pesticides and other chemical based agricultural practices that can harm the natural balance. “We must preserve the beauty of Languedoc, and feed the Earth with nutrients in the way nature intended. The use of chemicals for the past 50 years has stressed the vines and now we need to use technology to bring us back.” In summary, it is about making old world wines with new world attitude. C’est tout!
7 Things that I learned about the Jean-Claude Mas philosophy:
1. He prefers new American Oak to French Oak – definitely a new world attitude.
2. He believes advancements in agricultural technology will replace the need for chemicals – hooray!
3. He believes a vacuum wine stopper is “utter stupidity” – good to know.
4. The Frog on the front of the bottle is the “humble wine maker” – I chose to name him Hubert de Vin-chy.
5. He likes Stelvin screw caps for white wines and cork for red. (pro vs. con see this post on bauduc blog)
6. He believes all his wines taste even better after 24hrs. I agree.
7. His style of wine making is not aggressive but soft due to the ripeness of the grapes in the South of France.
Now on to the wines…
Arrogant Frog 2013 Sauvignon Blanc $10
The first thing I detected in the nose was lemon and grass. First sip is crisp, citrus and bright – reminded me of a New Zealand Sauv Blanc vs. the California Sauv Blancs I enjoy at this price point which can be more fruit forward. I enjoyed this wine and found it had a nice bright mild acidity and a smooth finish that was a touch buttery. It was very enjoyable. For $10 at retail, it would be a challenge to find a wine of this quality for a better price – I’d buy it again. I’m about to harvest my peach trees in a couple of weeks so I think this will pair perfectly with some grilled peaches and a cheese board of aged cheddar, gouda and a Humboldt Fog.
Arrogant Frog 2013 Pinot Noir $10
The color was dark garnet with a red-brown halo, which was unusual to me. There was a comment made about this being a “refreshing” Pinot Noir. As it was a warm climate Pinot, when slightly chilled, one can appreciate the delicate flavors of cherry and very light oak. Due to the warm climate in Languedoc, the Pinot grapes mature fast, unlike classic Pinots (like on the Sonoma Coast) that mature slowly. M. Mas explained that he takes great care in deciding where these grapes are planted to ensure the best result, although he did admit, this Pinot was unlike most typical Pinots. I found it very unexpected. I let it open up the next day and albeit pleasant, it was not necessarily the right flavor profile for this Pinofile. I would say it was respectably drinkable and it was fantastic the next day for braising chicken with tomatoes and peppers picked from my garden in my Le Crueset for hours and hours and hours – delish! What little wine there was left, did sip nicely with the meal.
Arrogant Frog 2013 Chardonnay $10
The nose was immediately and undeniably pineapple. First sip was lemony with a light oak finish – 25% of this wine was aged in Oak which contributed to the lactic character on the mouth which is the toasty flavor the oak expresses through the wine – some refer to this as creme brûlée. I enjoyed this wine and it was an outstanding value for $10. This Chardonnay was aged in American Oak which was quite intriguing to me. When I asked what the difference was between American and French Oak M. Mas explained that the American oak gives more lactone resulting in more toasty vanilla notes than the French oak which is more subtle. When the oak is very dry, it does not dominate the character of the wine. (Note to self, more wine knowledge to be had in the procurement, aging and use of oak in the wine making process. I found a succinct post on thekitchn.com about French vs. American Oak) In Mediterranean made wines, the American oak is preferred as it lets the wine breathe less and is better when aging very ripe grapes. As M. Mas explains “in Languedoc we can pick the grapes when we want, not when we can. Think about that…” I think this Chardonnay is a delight. An everyday luxury I would buy again.
Arrogant Frog 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (55%) Merlot (45%) $10
Nose is blackberry, blueberry, dark fruit. First sip is spicy, cocoa, vanilla, coconut and raspberry. Nicely complex and toasty from the US Oak. Soft, round not aggressive and very refined tannins and acidity. This wine is excellent with dessert, especially chocolate! Rich and bold, this wine could easily pass for a $40 bottle of wine. When asked about how the cocoa flavor was achieved, M. Mas answered it was from the ripe fruit and the American Oak. This wine is a buy again. I don’t want this wine, I need it!