Faites Votre Choix….

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My friend and Napa county neighbor, the Traveling Wine Chick, had the winner’s honor of picking the theme for this Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #MWWC19 . I can only hope the dissertation I am about to put forth is worthy of her motif – “choice.”

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I had the good fortune of being a guest at the wedding of two dear friends in Biarritz, France. Merely a week from this last Saturday, I was strolling the gardens and walking the halls of a beautiful chateau on Lac Brindos surrounded by nuptial brilliance and celestial beauty (the wedding designer is genius and there was no expense spared for this union.) I could go enviously on and on and on giving you enough time to stitch a voodoo doll of my likeness, but I shall refrain.

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Biarritz is a gorgeous seaside city on the Bay of Biscay, on the Atlantic coast in southwestern France. A luxurious destination that is popular with tourists, surfers and scantily clad sun seekers. Situated in Basque country, at the border of Spain and only an hour or more by car from San Sebastian and Bilboa, the town has had a storied maritime past since its establishment as a successful whaling port in the11th and 12th centuries. Doctors in the 18th century prescribed the destination to patients to remedy ailments as they believed that the ocean had therapeutic properties and soon health pilgrimages to Biarritz became de rigeur.

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In 1884, Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III the longest serving President of the Republic and the nephew and heir of Napoleon the First, built a palace on the beach (now the Hôtel du Palais) and soon this was a favored destination for European royalty including British Monarchs, Queen Victoria and King Edward and Spanish Kings.

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Most recently, Biarritz became known as one of the best surf spots in Europe and the beach culture is evident. At times, I did double takes, as certain scenarios looked more like Santa Barbara than seaside France. Surf shops, VW buses with surf racks on top and distant coves sprinkled with bobbing heads on boards waiting to catch the next wave.

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Then there are the casinos, the fine dining, the sea food and the warm hospitality…yes in France! Albeit, the service is at a much different pace than what one finds in the US, but then again, what’s the hurry? Slow down, relax and enjoy a glass of wine.

Enough of that.

As I navigated through the choices of meats, seafood, pastries, cheese, wines, meats, seafood, pastries, cheese and wines, I realized I was caught in a traffic circle of gastronomic proportion with all roads leading to gout.

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I was pleasantly exhausted by the generosity of my hosts and the exceptionally kind service we received from the Chateau Brindos staff. As the jet lag delirium waned, and the rehearsal dinner, wedding ceremony, post ceremony cocktail party, formal dinner, Basque performers, fire works display, lighting of the lanterns, cakes, more cakes, macarron pyramids, wild dancing until 8am, day after morning brunch, cocktails by the pool, chartered buses to Jai Alai tournaments, family paella dinner, scheduled outings to local and not so local sights…I was so enthralled by the glamour of all this organized fun, it can only be described as my personal Belle Époque.

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As guests, we were all spoiled rotten and the wedding hosts could not have executed with any more or less perfection. What I soon learned to appreciate was the fact that I really didn’t have to make any choices, there it all was before us to indulge in blissful celebration in honor of our friends and their union.

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Every wine that was poured for me was excellent, in fact the one choice I made at a restaurant in Paris – a Chinon with my steak frites – was terrible, stale and sour. I sent it back facing off the waiter when he gave me a blank stare – I did not flinch. He disappeared, for a while, then returned with a glass of Bordeaux and chided me for my poor choices. He declared that he has now decided which wine I will be drinking, so I will not bother him again and he can smoke a cigarette. What a kind, generous man, and by the way, the wine was delicious – bon choix!

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Back stateside, safe and sound, I thought of how luxurious it was when I didn’t have to make choices, and conversely how the most important choices you make – the friends you keep, the spouse you marry, where you call home, and where you venture – can afford you that rare luxury.

With that pithy statement, I now bid you adieu as I have made the choice to shred all my credit cards before the gendarmes get back from the tabac.

Stay curious!

loie

In Time for the 4th – Emergency Sangria!

I threw a party back in the 90’s and a visiting colleague from Spain, Enrique, who we just called “the Spaniard” (I recall Russell Crowe was starring in Gladiator at the time,) made a White Sangria of legend. To this day, family, friends and every outer rung of acquaintance still inquire about the recipe. No kidding, I received a request for it last week on FB. My Twitter friend @RoseCondrieu commented on a fruitless search for the recipe today.

Wait no further! Here it is. A note to those who have consternation with following recipes – not a worry – the more reckless and muddled the better!

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The Spaniards secret was the gin…yes, sounds Moorishly dubious, but you won’t notice, trust me. And from what I barely recall, Enrique left the party not only a hero but with 2 conquests in tow.

No need to thank me now, you can blame the Spaniard later. Have a safe and lovely Fourth of July!

Stay curious,

loie

Improve the Odds: 3 Tips to Picking a Good Wine Under $10

Recently a friend asked my opinion regarding an article he read about the virtues of buying cheap wine, as in really cheap. My dear friend has a rather valuable wine collection stored in a high tech temperature controlled vault, so although he was open to the merits of the premise, he was askance at the supporting arguments. (Why You Should Be Drinking Cheap Wine via @slate)

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I did not entirely disagree with the article, but I was left quizzical with the explanation of why. I definitely did not find merit in the bias against the industry by attributing wine mark-ups to whiny vintners who bemoan the cost and intensive labor of winemaking. Those greedy capitalist wine makers claim to barely “break even” so it is up to consumers to “subsidize” their glamorous industry – I embellished my point with the glamour bit. Anyone who is close enough to the wine industry knows, it’s agribusiness and not an easy buck, period. Moreover, it’s a calling often led by the courage of a passionate few and tribes of multigenerational vintners. However, ironically, the fastest way to alleviate a greedy capitalist of his money is to sell him a vineyard – ha!

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Those capitalist pigs are such party animals! There’s his accountant behind him. Looks like they just discussed the financials of the winery.

From what I also recall in the article, there was a proof point about the long standing “gotcha” about blind taste testers who often can’t tell the difference between expensive and cheap wines. Hey, if you find good cheap wine, isn’t that the point. Problem is, 80% of cheap wine is swill, and plenty of fine wine is unapproachable (euphemistically put, you won’t like it ’cause it tastes like 80 year old fanny barnyard, and that is what it was intended to taste like. Hey, not everyone takes to extravagances like caviar and Civit coffee, especially in one sitting.)

Finally, I’m in violent agreement on one point, the palate of the masses vs. the palate of experts and collectors is vastly different. A palatable everyday wine may taste fantastic to Aunt Helen with a pork loin at Sunday dinner but flaccid, unstructured and pedestrian to a more discerning wineaux. Snobs require price, pedigree and ratings to allow anything to pass their lips – I discount them entirely as that’s foolish. But connoisseurs, as with any finely crafted good or service know the minutiae that makes a difference. I know a few wineauxs who can appreciate a good deal as much as the finest vintage.

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All value wines are not created equal – and there are some simple ways to identify varietals and blends that will give you a fighting chance to hit a winner. In one year of doing this blog, I taste an average of 5 bottles under $10 before finding one outstanding value wine. Finding a great wine between $15-$20 is not too difficult, but if you dink wine frequently, it adds up fast.

For the adventure seekers, buying value wines until you find one you love is risky for 2 reasons: 1. The frustration could be a turn off to wine altogether  2. The experiment will be just as expensive but less gratifying than buying one or two great bottles priced 15-20.

3 Ways You Can Improve Your Odds at Picking a Good Wine Under $10:

1. Look at the label and check the origin of the wine. Most value wines are made in the Central Valley of California – Gallo land. This is perfectly fine especially if you see a blend – meaning the label will not define a varietal of grape ie. Cabernet Sauvignon. If you see the origin is a well known growing area, (Sonoma Country, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Monterey) chances are it’s a better wine but there are no guarantees! Some Lodi blends have been fantastic while some famous appellations were blech!

European wines that consistently perform for whites are Italian Pinot Grigio, Portuguese Vinho Verde, Australia and New Zealand produce excellent Sauvignon Blancs. For reds I have found great deals from Spain and Italy – Rioja, Primativo, blends. The best value sparkling is Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy and I have found a Cremant and Champagne from France that was ridiculously affordable and as fantastic as some very pricey cousins.

Grape varietals to avoid because I have yet to find one produced under $10 that is decent are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir – they are out there but few and far in between, Chardonnay – unless you want an oak-bomb, and Merlot. These varietals have nuances that can be achieved between $15-20 at such a better quality I suggest you save your pennies and buy a more expensive bottle to truly get the pleasure of the grape.

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2. Get friendly with your wine merchant. Speak frequently to your wine merchant and ask them two questions: First, what wines under $10 would they recommend? Second, what wines under $10 are the best sellers? You may find your merchant to be a snob – yes this happens. They will sniff and backhandedly proclaim your insouciance, excuse themselves as they have a date with a feather duster. Sometimes they just don’t know much, but they should know what’s been blowing out the door – ah ha! Try that one. Sadly, knowing the best seller is also not fool proof because depending on your local population, for example you may live near a college campus, it may actually be a contrarian indicator.

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3. Lastly, stay curious but have a back-up plan. Embark on a quest to find one great red, one white and a sparkling. There is more art than science to finding a good wine under $10. These tips in combination with a little research, word of mouth, and trial and error will aide you in getting lucky. Once you hit on something you love, stick with it.  Having a value “go to wine” will mitigate the angst of buying and trying new wines and provide a satisfying standby in the event you pick up a bottle that ends up down the drain instead of down the hatch!

Stay curious,

loie

A Cava, Lambrusco, Champagne & A Sparkling Wine To Ring In 2015

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A vintage French postcard depicting Baby New Year disgorging a bottle of Champagne with his gums – obviously his mère forgot the saber.

I’ve had the great pleasure of visiting Champagne, France this year and witnessing the Champagne growing, making and marketing practices first hand. I admire the history, heritage and innovation of Champagne as well as the vigilance the French have instituted to protect the appellation. Champagne is my passion and I adore it like no other libation (a masterful rye Manhattan with Luxardo Maraschino cherry comes in a respectable second place.) Alas alack, my Champagne taste have led me to a sparkling wine budget. I can only run from the law and my debtors for so long; I’m tired and thirsty. In an effort to reform my ways, I have compiled this list of stunning sparklers that won’t lead you astray in the coming year. Of course, if you happen to succumb to a bottle of Cristal or a vintage Pol Roger rosé, there is no reason to despair, unless your credit card is rejected at the register.

Shall we….

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Dibon Cava Brut Reserve, Penesdes, Spain $7-$12

Rating: Caseworthy – the best Cava I have ever tasted.

Why Buy: For the value, this is a delightful wine and expresses itself as well if not better than wine twice the money. Guests love this wine and comment on it’s lovely fruit essence and crisp, clean dry finish. This traditional blend of Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo varietals comes from the region of Penedès, and the cellars are located in Vilafranca del Penedes about 20 Km from Sant Sadurni the capital of the region. Run by three generations of wine makers, the vineyard is in the process of becoming 100% Organic and consists of 75 hectares of trellised vines 1000 feet above the Mediterranean Sea.

Notes: This wine is very effervescent with a lovely nose of apple and grapefruit. The first sip reflects the nose accordingly with fruit, citrus and a pleasant pastry yeast. The reason this wine is so special is the dry, clean finish that is surprisingly light, no bitter aftertaste like other Cavas and for this low, low, low price point, this wine is an amazing find!

Where To Buy: Total Wine, Oliver’s MarketK&L Wine Merchants and many other locations nationwide.

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Cantina Cleto Chiarli Rose Brut NV, Italy $16-$18

Rating: Guestworthy – the perfect apertivo!

Why Buy: Founded in 1860, by Cleto Chiarli, it is the oldest wine company in the Modena region in Emilia-Romagna. The great grandson, Anselmo, represents the fourth generation of wine makers who continue to produce this delicate style of Lambrusco sparkling wine in a region best known for balsamic vinegar. The wine is composed of 85% Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro 15% Pinot Nero. If you come across a bottle I hope you enjoy it as much as I did with my father. We popped the bottle on Christmas day and sipped it from mom’s fine crystal.

Notes: Nose was floral, strawberry, bubbles lively, very effervescent and the first sip had a delightful fruity, yeast commencing with a dry finish that lingered nicely with a toasted almond essence.

Where To Buy: Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in SF and hopefully everywhere else, but if not, plead your merchant to stock it maintenant!

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Nino Franco Prosecco Brut, Valdobbiadene, Italy $9-$15

Rating: Caseworthy – in case of emergency pop cork!

Why Buy: I would have this wine on hand for any occasion, big, small or disastrous. It comforted me through a wicked storm and if forced to remain indoors due to inclement weather, a case of this will entertain you for hours. Easy to drink, soft and accommodating to all kinds of guests and foods. Antonio Franco founded the “Cantine Franco” winery in Valdobbiadene in 1919. Valdobbiadene is located at the foot of the Prealps, in the Venetian region, and is famous for Prosecco. This winery is one of the oldest in Valdobbiadene, located in the town centre, not far from the vineyards. Antonio Franco founded it, Nino Franco expanded it and Primo Franco optimized the process throughout the years. Primo took the reigns in 1982 which was the turning point for the Nino Franco brand as he successfully began to export the wines throughout Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Notes: The nose was very light if almost non existent, but the first sip was incredibly pleasing. Classic stone fruit, peach, some pear with a light floral aroma. This dry Prosecco finished very clean and although it was very soft, not very complex, there was enough body to keep it interesting.

Where To Buy: Total Wine, Oliver’s Market and many other locations nationwide.

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Veuve de Vernay, Brut Rose, France $4-$12

Rating: Buy Again – great presentation and perfect served very chilled.

Why Buy: This French sparkling wine from the Loire Valley is 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.

Notes: Color is a gorgeous salmon pink. 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 that leaves me to recommend serving this very chilled to experience this wine at its best.

Where To Buy: Find a bottle near you on WineSearcher.com

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Charles De Marques Brut, Champagne, FR $19.99

Rating: Buy Again, and again, and again, and again…

Why Buy: This is quite possibly the least expensive good Champagne available in the US. It’s a brut that is light dry and very smooth. It is a classic blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. I love this wine because it epitomizes the French methode traditionelle beautifully at the right price and with a delight that makes any occasion special. It holds up to Champagnes two or three times the price and sometimes there are no substitutes for the real thing.

Notes: The classic French Champagne profile is reflected in the nose of fruit, florals and brioche. The fist sip is crisp with notes of apricot, stone fruits and a good balance of acid and yeast. The wine finishes dry with a delicate nuttiness and minerality evident of a pleasant level of cave aged yeast.

Where To Buy: Trader Joe’s

Happy New Years to all of you – here’s to more great wine finds in 2015!

Stay curious,

loie

Pretty In Pink…We Think.

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Veuve du Vernay Brut Rosé 750ml

French Sparkling Wine, $3.99 – $11.99

Find a bottle near you on WineSearcher.com

It was a dark, wet Thursday evening and I was Rushing Through the SF Ferry Building as my ship had come in to take me home. As I passed the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant (motto: “We spit so you don’t have to”) I realized I owed the world a sparkling wine review every week until New Year’s Eve 2015. Last week was a home run (Dibon Brut Reserva Cava Penedes, Spain $9.99) so I was brimming with ambition for my next selection.

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.

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Inside the SF Ferry Building – Check out La Mia Vita Blog for a great pictorial of the foodie extravaganza!

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!

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The Cowgirl Creamery cheese counter at the SF Ferry Building. My quest for the best in cheap wines is to off-set my costly habit for cheese and shoes. #trueconfession

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.

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Ferry Building and Bay, San Francisco CA, c.1910

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.

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Those cornnuts are not levitating, they are just happy to see me.

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.

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Surprise and delight! The pink underside of the brown foil impressed me. It does not take much.

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!

Stay curious,

loie

Champagne, Sparkling Wine & Lady Beer – A Love Story

This is the final installment of my wine education trilogy at Blogdramedy. It is a brain dump from my illustrious visit to Champagne, France. Ahhhhh, memories, I hope you enjoy the tiny bubbles of knowlege as much as I did acquiring them. This is a trip one must make at least once in your life, if only to be the envy of all the mothers at your son’s fancy pants nursery school – ha. ha. ha. ha. In all seriousness, it was an incredible trip and one that taught me the true passion, artistry, tradition, and science that makes one of the most celebrated spirits what it has been for centuries. To this day, I marvel at how jealously guarded the brand “Champagne” has been by the region and how incredibly smart of them to be such jerks about it – seriously – they are fully entitled to the name and what it represents. Cross the line and you will be served something other than bubbles. Voila!

It was truly an expensive honor to have the credit card maxxing opportunity to enjoy what this region has to offer. I am now well prepared to get back to the business of reviewing $10+under wines people – for a long, long, long, long time! Bloody hell.
Stay curious,
The Comtesse du Cheapeaux