Two easy-drinking reds, La Famiglia Pirovano Barbera Oltrepo Pavese DOC (Whole Foods on sale $10, alcohol 13%) and Lava Cap, Estate Bottled Barbera El Dorado 2009 (Whole Foods $18, alcohol 14.7%). These are both excellent examples of how elegant yet casual Barbera can be. The Italian version has plenty of flavor with no harsh edges and the low alcohol pairs nicely with dinner. The California foothills version is like it’s bigger cousin, same accessible table wine with a bit more attitude. They are both staples in my wine fridge.
In the same food friendly, easy-going red group, I’m a fan of Serrera Bonarda 2008 from Mendoza, Argentina ($20, Imported by Taste-Vino.com I purchased it at Paradise Foods in my neighborhood). I don’t know anything about this vineyard/producer but it feels like a real find. Well-made food friendly wine. I’ve written about Bonarda and this is a very accessible example for someone just getting to know the grape.
Fields Family Wines 2010 Old Vine Zinfandel, Sherman Family Vineyards Lodi 2010 ($24) this is my “house red” at the moment. It’s has a lovely pulled-together quality and I find it enjoyable by itself and with a variety of dishes from pasta and red sauce to roast chicken. It’s not “too” anything; it has excellent fruit, earthiness and complexity disguised as simplicity. Winemaker Ryan Sherman is one to watch.
People drink wine for many reasons. It makes them happy, it cheers them up, it is delicious, it makes meals better, it is intoxicating, it enhances friendships, it serves a spiritual purpose, and that is only the beginning. Eric Asimov
Vina Ventisquero, located in the gorgeous Maipo Valley is 25 miles from the Chilean coast and 100 miles from Santiago. According to our guide, the climate changes every 40 miles (I was there in early 2011). It reminds me of where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it can be 50°F in northern San Francisco and 85°F at my home 22 miles north. This winery has several brands and grows grapes in Maipo Valley, Apalta, Colchagua Valley, Peralillo, Casablanca Valley, Lolol, Rapel Valley, and Leyda Valley.
Although their output is huge by American standards, their young staff is dedicated to making vintage specific, terroir-driven wines. Their brand Grey caught my fancy. Grey is the Andean word for glacier meaning purity, beauty, harmony, character and impressiveness. That same philosophy runs through the entire organization. They hire innovative, environmentally-sensitive, caring, gutsy youngish folks (the founder was only 35 when he started the winery) and on their website, they use the words, “positive energy” to describe their philosophy. I’d say that they “walk the talk” as I met a lot of talented, happy, friendly people there.
Gray is considered a premium Chilean brand. They are striving to create benchmark wines, ones that represent the terroir and the grape in Chile. I find them to be highly-competitive fine wines and I’m planning on buying different vintages to see how they age. The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon is drinking especially fine. At only $25 USD ($270 a case) it’s a no-brainer for folks interested in collecting. It’s a wine that will hold up against $300 bottles of vintage Cabernet Sauvignon. My problem will be keeping it out of my sight so I don’t drink it.
18 Bottle Fridge in my Office
Step 1: Preparing to Buy & Taste Wine
The number one thing you need to know about tasting wine is that you must create the conditions to taste the same wine as made by the winemaker. Wine, like an apple or milk let’s say, is derived from food therefore it changes depending on how it is stored and treated. A piece of fruit left in your kid’s lunchbox for two weeks, turns brown and mushy. You leave milk at room temperature, it turns sour. A great winemaker, Chris Loxton, really brought this home to me one day. We were standing in his barrel/tasting room, pre-tasting the wines that he would be pouring for guests that day. One bottle was slightly oxidated (cork didn’t fit right so air got in) but I doubt anyone except Chris would be able to tell. But he threw out the bottle with a serious look and remarked, “I want people to taste the wine I made.”
Like most of the people I know, my house didn’t have a special place to store wine. I left it in an open air wine rack in the dining room and figured it was good enough. After talking to Chris, I changed my mind. I wanted to taste what the winemaker intended as much as possible. Just as milk needs to be kept at a particular temperature, wine needs to be kept at “cellar temperature” which averages 53-55° degrees. Refrigerators are kept between 35-38° to avoid mold growing or turning it to ice (freezing). You may have heard that when tomatoes are refrigerated they break down and lose flavor, but you probably keep the tomatoes in the crisper anyway thinking what the heck they can’t be that different and I’ll eat them quickly. Wine is not like that. If you need scientific proof, I suggest reading Becca Yeaman’s blog, The Academic Wino.
You are going to have to splurge for a little wine refrigerator (or bigger if you want to follow my footsteps). A 30 bottle fridge is pretty nice and not too much of a commitment. An 18 bottle fridge is less than $200 USD and easy to find at your local store. My husband got a great deal on a 75 bottle wine refrigerator that is stainless steel and black and looks great in my kitchen. It was a Christmas gift surprise. And don’t hesitate to buy a dented or used one – you’ll be double-happy to know that you got this awesome fun item for a deal. Consider it insurance, if you are going to upgrade your wine knowledge, you can’t tie one hand behind your back by wondering if the wine was well-stored. And don’t worry about it always being filled, I store Pellegrino in mine when there’s room.
First assignment: get a wine fridge.
Next up, the value of keeping track of what you drink and a really cool way to do it. We’ll start buying and tasting wine soon, I promise!
*This post is part of a series that I started on my Facebook page on September 25, 2012. I’m inviting folks who want to learn a quick, fun and easy system for becoming wine savvy to follow in my footsteps as I learn about South African wine. Once you know the tricks, you can apply it to understanding wine from anywhere. Go to my facebook page to read the series’ introductory post.
(Above: To mark the start of the 2012 harvest season, Father Ramon Pons, bilingual Associate Pastor at St. John the Baptist in Napa, blessed the first truckload of grapes to come into Mondavi winery yesterday morning—a tradition imagined by Robert Mondavi in 1966. The blessing was followed by a toast from Margrit Mondavi and a few words from director of winemaking Genevieve Janssens. Many winery employees joined invited guests for a hearty Mexican lunch.)
Yesterday I attended the blessing of the grapes at Robert Mondavi in Napa. It is a tradition that began in 1966. The gracious artist, Robert’s widow, Margrit Mondavi spoke in the ToKalon cellar…”we always remember Robert Mondavi, and on his cloud, I’m sure he’s winking…” then semi-retired employee and singer Bob “Bobby” Tyson sang America the Beautiful. and Genevieve Janssens, Director of Winemaking spoke. When Margrit introduced Father Pons she misspoke when introducing his church and said, “oh gosh, now I’m sure to be going to hell.” Born in 1926, she’s an absolute delight and had the crowd in stitches. (NEWSFLASH: her tell-all memoir was just released.) I can not wait to read it.
I tasted in the To Kalon Room (Insider Tip: highly recommend a visit in here, it’s where the reserve and spotlight small lot wines are poured. There is a reservation form on the website but if you decide at the last moment, I recommend just coming in; it wasn’t crowded mid-week, even during harvest.) I had a great time with Janie (a 16-yr pro at Mondavi) and Chris (an engaging 30-something ex-teacher turned novelist and wine collector moonlighting as a wine educator). Every wine I tasted was truly beautiful and well-made. My favorites were:
- A beautiful Unoaked Chardonnay with refreshing tartness (flavorful yet perfectly balanced) available only in the tasting room ($34) (vintage 2010)
- 2010 Fume Blanc Reserve, very dry from 1968 vineyards. ($40) Only 1100 cases.
- All of the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons from 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007 & 2008 were delightful to taste with the 2002 being surprisingly bold still and the 2008 notably different since it is from a different vineyard (Stags Leap) and is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
- My favorite was the 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve, an absolutely gorgeous wine that I will not soon forget. One of the best Pinot Noirs I’ve enjoyed from Carneros ever. ($60)
If you love Cabernet Sauvignon and want to enjoy Italian culture in the Fall sunshine of the Napa harvest season, here’s a party not to miss. Highly recommended.
Highlights: 10 years of Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve tasting with Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens and Master of Wine, Mark deVere in the First Year barrel room. Italian-themed lawn party in the afternoon.
I’ve been writing this blog for several years now and I’ve have a great time just cruising around sharing my discoveries. travels and food & wine pairings with you. The only way I can keep track of wines I like is to write about them here. I used to write them in a database but I’ve gone public. I hope you find my notes helpful and interesting.
This is Novas, a Chardonnay from Emiliana, a brand I’ve written about before. I met them at an industry tasting years ago when one of their representatives peaked my curiosity about their mission to care for the environment and people. At that time I had not studied Chilean wine or visited Chile. I found the idea of a large organic, sustainable company promoting it’s wines with great pride and outspokenness, refreshing. With this company, there is a notable absence of defensiveness that I get from some organic brands. As well, Emiliana’s brand doesn’t come across as pompous because it’s organic; instead their brand exudes confidence like it’s the most “natural thing in the world” to approach wine and business that way. And most important, their wine tastes good and is well-made.
The 2010 Limited Selection Novas Chardonnay is clean and reminds me of a cool sea breeze. I am very picky about Chardonnay and I’ve found that some very nice ones are being grown and made in Chile. When I visited Chile’s coastal region in 2010, I learned about the Humboldt current and how vintners were being lured to this area to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Since then I have sought out wines from these areas. Emiliana delivers consistently nice wines that I am proud to serve to my friends. I’m glad that they are widely available and well-priced at around $15. Additionally, they have a terrific website for folks who want to learn more about a biodynamic and organic winery; it even includes an interactive vineyard.
It’s fall again, my favorite time of year. I feel the enjoyable pull of contemplation; like leaves falling, everything old in me is drifting away. Despite the calendar beginning and ending in the middle of winter, my inner calendar goes from fall to fall. Fall is the time I reflect and let go, winter I rest and celebrate and come spring, I literally spring forth with lots of energy. Summer is always a time to shine.
2012 was a year of patiently pointing myself in my desired direction and using the incredible power of observance (listening and learning) to get there.
In my career, I envisioned that I would work with someone with a MBA so I could ratchet up my business acumen and lo’ and behold (as Peanuts’ Linus would say), I’m happily working alongside a Stanford MBA with 40 years of wine business knowledge. (Added bonus is there are three other delightful, high-achieving men in the office.)
My wine hobby has been interesting this year. The most unusual thing that happened is developing a friendship with Rex Pickett, author of the novel-turned-movie-turned play, Sideways. It doesn’t feel coincidental that we met just as his play started to gain serious traction. With my batchelor’s degree in playwriting, I’m vicariously re-living all the giddy feelings that come with being involved in live theatre. It’s an unexpected treat.
Health-wise for Hubby and I, it’s been over 18 months since his paralysis which means we are in the so-called “sweet spot” for acceptance in the grieving process. I’ve seen how grief has pulled us backward while we are geared to move forward. Thank goodness, we are getting unstuck. I see a fabulous and fun future on the immediate horizon.
Lastly, the picture above is of Silkbush Mountain Vineyards in Breedekloof, South Africa. My new job is to launch their wines into the global market. I haven’t traveled there yet, but hopefully soon. Stay tuned.
“I challenge you to show me a great Pinot Grigio,” said a wine-loving friend from California. Well, Dave, here it is, Balletto, 2010 Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley, Estate Bottled, Sonoma County.*
I tasted it while visiting Balletto Vineyards at Passport to Pinot Noir. The owner, John Balletto is a personable and generous man who had to leave a promising sports career and college when his father died unexpectedly. At 17 years old, he and his mother started farming vegetables in Sonoma County. Their business grew to be the largest farm north of the Golden Gate. John told me he made the decision to turn his vegetable farm into vineyards after three bad floods in 1998. Today, he owns over 500 acres of prime grape growing land. 90% of his fruit is sold to others. In 2006, Balletto Vineyards opened a small tasting room and now sell their own label. You can find it online, by visiting and at Bay Area restaurants and wine shops.
I also highly recommend their 2011 Rosé of Pinot Noir and their Zinfandel Their 2007 Zinfandel is better than many Zins from neighboring AVA Dry Creek Valley, which is famous for Zinfandel.
Insider Tip: These wines are excellent value, especially considering their location in the Russian River AVA. All of their current releases are less than $30 a bottle. If you join their wine club, you get 20% off which make these wines a steal. The Pinot Gris is $18.
*Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris are the same grape; Italians use the former.
Courtesy of SequanaVineyards.com
TIP: When a wine label mentions it’s coopers (barrel makers) or special barrels, the more interesting it will taste and it will likely cost a bit more. (Barrels are expensive.)
Here’s some clues to using barrel information to better understand wine and selecting ones that you might like. The first clue is whether barrels are listed on the label/notes at all, the label might say unoaked Chardonnay or stainless steel tanks. You might find that your palette really likes unoaked wines so you seek those out and eventually you discover that your favorite grape (say Sauvignon Blanc) is usually made in stainless steel. (I’ll be writing about a spectacular wine soon that is made in special cement tanks.)
Another clue is whether the label/tasting notes mentions oak but no other information. I tasted a red wine once with a winemaker who insisted that the wine was not barrel-aged. I had no doubt that it had seen oak. He eventually admitted that some oak staves had been added. Staves are part of the barrel. They are put in the wine as it processes to add flavor. Oak chips are another option. Many value wines use this technique to keep costs down. It’s not easy to make an A+ wine using these techniques.
I find barrel choices extremely important to the taste of the wine. Plenty of winemakers get grapes from vineyards that are known winners, but when they can’t afford to use great barrels (a common problem), the true potential of the wine is undermined and it’s noticeable.
Boutique winemakers or small lot releases tend to emphasize coopers and barrels in their tasting notes. I noticed recently that one of my favorite Pinot Noir producers, James MacPhail, lists more barrels and details about the coopers than most winemakers. One wine on his current list, he used fourteen different coopers. For his 2010 Chardonnay, he used three coopers–all hand crafted barrels.
When you go wine tasting, especially a barrel-tasting weekend, tasting staff usually provide a primer about the barrels country of origin, France, America, Hungary, etc., and define the purpose of using neutral, new and aged oak. Thinking about the barrels and how they affect the wine is great way to understand why a wine tastes a certain way.
There’s so much buzz about Handley Cellars these days, I feel like I am the last person to “discover” these exceptional wines. In summary, they are delicious, well-made and well-priced.
My favorite Handley white is the 2010 Pinot Gris, a fun grape to get to to know. If you visit the western area of Northern California’s wine roads (Russian River’s west side, Anderson Valley and west Mendocino and Sonoma Coast) you’ll meet several producers making stellar Pinot Gris. If you can’t visit, look for them in your markets, they are usually very affordable and a nice change of pace for white wine lovers.
2010 was a very unusual long, cool season and many wines from these areas just didn’t fair well. If you score a bottle of the 2010 Handley Pinot Gris you’ll be able to experience the magic that can happen when a challenging vintage is in the right winemaker’s hands.
The rather deary weather in 2010 was especially hard on Chardonnay so Handley sourced their fruit from an organic vineyard in the Ukiah Valley (a bit warmer inland area). I paired the 2010 Mendocino Valley Chardonnay with trout and it was fantastic. I read later that Handley recommends it be paired with fish and chips or grilled fish. They know what they are doing with their pairing advice. Right on.
Currently, Handley has four Pinot Noirs available. My favorite is the 2009 Mendocino County Pinot Noir. It hit all the right notes for me. I paired* it with cast-iron skillet scallops with a relish of chopped mushrooms, garlic and bacon bits and a wonderful spinach salad with goat cheese brie, strawberries and pistachios. This wine is only $25 (excellent value for a great Pinot Noir). I predict it will be a best seller.
It’s Handley Cellars 30th Anniversary and I’ve heard they have a lovely property. I look forward to visiting later this year.
*The pairing suggestion above is a good choice for many light to medium-style Pinot Noirs because of the blend of fruit and earth-flavors.
Here’s an original, super easy & delicious salad recipe I made for a quick week night dinner.
Duck Confit Salad
- 2 Seasoned Duck Legs
- 3 oz Goat Cheese
- 1/2 cup Blueberries, Bosenberries or other small berries
- 2 cups Mixed Spring Lettuce
- 1/4 cup sliced Green Onions
- 2 tbl Balsamic Vinagarette
Costco and Whole Foods both carry already cooked duck legs. All you have to do is cook them for 15 minutes at 400°F to crisp up the skin. Once they are cooled, they fall off the bone; chop/shred the meat and discard the bones. While the duck legs are cooking, toss two cups of mixed greens into a large salad bowl. If you are using frozen berries, defrost them. (I always have bags of organic mixed berries in my freezer for smoothies, I just picked out the strawberries for this recipe.) Toss the balsamic vinagarette, lettuce and sliced green onions. Add pieces of goat cheese and the berries. Mix well. Place on individual plates and top with duck. Serve with crackers and goat cheese mixed with honey.
I served a lovely zippy Bonterra Rosé
(a dry Sangiovese, Zinfandel & Grenache blend). Rosés or light reds (like a Grenache
or certain Pinot Noir
s) will work well: just be aware that a light red wine with medium acidity pairs well because it honors the tangy goat cheese while earthy red fruit compliments the fat bird.