Put a Cork in It! (Your Wine Bottle, That Is.)

“His heart danced upon her movement like a cork upon a tide.” — James Joyce

We all have such romantic notions about wine, don’t we…I wonder if we’d have felt the same way 300 years ago, when wine bottles were sealed with oil-soaked rags?

Corks

Corks lend a fanciful touch to the ceremony of cracking a special bottle – a sense that we’re about to celebrate something – that screw-on caps just can’t emulate. We sniff our corks, we admire their calligraphy, we hoard them. Have you ever met anyone who hoards screw-on caps? I think not.

Corks (the real kind, not those annoying, synthetic polyethylene things) are made from the light, tough outer layer of bark of the cork oak tree, a.k.a. Quercus suber – not to be confused with the cork tree, which also sports a corky bark but isn’t used for making wine corks. The cork oak is considered sustainable because it can be harvested without cutting down the tree; once the tree reaches 25 to 30 years old the bark is stripped and the tree lives on. Every seven or nine years (depending on whom you ask), the tree is ready to be stripped again; it’s the second stripping that produces the best wine corks.

Cork tree

[A guide explaining the cork oak tree on the grounds of SIMI Winery in Healdsburg, California.]

Cork oaks, which live an average of 200 years, grow in half a dozen countries, but most corks are produced in Portugal  – where the higher-quality corks are sourced – and Spain. And here’s something to remember when you dream of opening your own winery: the finest corks can cost bottlers as much as 1 Euro each, or at today’s conversion rate, about $1.17.

Harvesting cork is a delicate operation. Workers called “extractors” use a sharp axe to make two cuts: one horizontal slice around the tree, called a crown or necklace, and several vertical cuts called rulers or openings. Then they push the axe handle into the ruler – gently, to avoid damaging the tree – and peel off large sections of cork called planks.

Cork is a remarkable substance: its tiny air pockets make it buoyant, about four times lighter than water. It’s fire resistant (which is why it’s used in making home insulation) and forms a watertight seal in the neck of a wine bottle. Yet it permits a tiny bit of oxygen into the bottle, about one milligram of oxygen each year, enabling the wine’s flavor and aroma to evolve over time.

There are advantages to using synthetic corks, of course. They allow a consistent amount of oxygen into the bottle, and they don’t carry “cork taint,” caused by TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the chemical compound that can make your wine smell like Grandma’s moldy basement – an affliction found in about 1 percent of wine bottles. And TCA isn’t picky; it’s just as happy spoiling a $100 bottle as that cheap $6 bottle you snuck into your grocery cart.

For you cork hoarders, you can spin your cache into cash: used wine corks sell online to crafters and jewelry artists, about $8 to $10 in batches of 100. You can unload your used synthetic corks, too, for up to 14 cents each. And by the way, don’t bother sniffing the cork when you open a bottle. Flaws are detected more easily by smelling and tasting the wine itself; the cork probably won’t indicate anything important.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  NVnonvintage. When you look at the labels of most wines, you’ll see a year – the year when the grapes were grown and harvested, or the “vintage.” But in wine reviews or restaurant wine lists, you’ll often see the initials “NV.” That indicates the grapes used to produce that wine were harvested in two or more years. Winemakers blend grapes from different vintages if they’re looking for consistent aromas, tastes and other qualities in the wine, year after year.

Caranto PNVino ‘View:  A delicious example of an NV wine is Astoria’s Caranto Pinot Noir (13 percent alcohol, $11). The spicy, cinnamon first taste opens up to plums – maybe prunes – with a smoky, blackberry jam finish. My last glass was especially creamy (think fig newton, blackberry pie crust). This full-bodied wine with medium tannins is a terrific value! We paired it with pasta from Rustichella d/Abruzzo that was gluten-free, made from a red-lentil base, in a cold chicken-cashew salad – a recipe we found online. We chilled the wine slightly for our perfect summer supper.

Cheers!

Mary

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Wine, Any Way You Spell It

Today we’re wrapping up Palindrome Week, a 10-day string of dates that read the same forwards and backwards: 9-10-19, 9-11-19, 9-12-19…you get the picture.

Although I couldn’t find any wine grapes whose names are palindromes, the quirky dates got me wondering: how did wine grapes get their names, anyway? Was there once a Frenchie named “Monsieur Sauvignon”? Or an Australian cat named Sherlock Shiraz?

Coronation grapes

[“Coronation Grapes” by Amber Fox, courtesy of Flickr]

The origins of grape names, it turns out, are logical for the most part, though some are more interesting than others. I found the stories behind eight common wine grapes:

  1. Chardonnay actually is a small village in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, a part of France where Chardonnay grapes thrive. (If you weren’t aware, Chardonnay wine from that part of the world is sometimes referred to as “White Burgundy.”) The word means “place of thistles.”
  2. Gewürztraminer translates to “spiced Traminer,” a mutation of the Traminer grape from Tyrol, or northern Italy. We know it as an almost-perfumey star wine of Alsace.
  3. Malbec is mostly known as a red wine grape from the Mendoza region of Argentina, but it was once known as Auxerrois from the Cahors region of France. There, it’s known as Côt, Cor, Cos, or Cau, obviously derivatives of Cahors. It may be called Malbec because it was planted in Bordeaux in the 1780s by a Monsieur Malbeck.
  4. Merlot‘s history is pretty straightforward: the name of the dark, rich grape came from “merle,” the French word for Blackbird.
  5. Pinot Noir means “pine” and “black,” relating to the dark, pine cone-shaped clusters of Pinot Noir grapes on the vine. Pinot lovers refer to Burgundy as the “spiritual home” of Pinot Noir, and when you see a bottle on a wine store shelf that’s simply labeled “Bourgogne” or Burgundy, it’s Pinot Noir.
  6. Riesling references date back to 1477, when some writings in Alsace called it “Rissling.” There’s also a small vineyard and stream in Austria called Ritzling, and some claim that’s the origin of the name. A third possibility: the origin may be traced to durchriesein, a word with many spellings and meanings, including  “inability to flower in cool temperatures.”
  7. Sauvignon boasts a wild history, so it’s appropriate that its name derives from the French word “sauvage,” which translates to “wild.” Cabernet Sauvignon is an accidental cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
  8. Shiraz might be known as the signature grape of Australia, but its ancestry spans three continents: the name refers to the wine-producing city of Shiraz in Iran, and the grape originated in southeast France.

Enjoy what’s left of Palindrome Week, because the wacky pattern won’t happen again until 2021–on 12-1-21, to be precise. The 10-day string of palindrome dates happens every century, always in the second decade. And you might want to pour a special glass this evening, Thursday, September 19 at 19 minutes and 19 seconds past 9, when it will be 9-19-19, 9:19:19.

That factoid has nothing to do with wine history, but it’s an excuse to celebrate anyway, just a little.

Wine Lingo: Wine thief = no, it doesn’t mean your cousin Lizzie who “borrows” one of your best bottles and never replaces it. If you haven’t seen a wine thief in person, you’ve seen photos: it’s the long glass or metal tube used by winemakers to draw samples from wine barrels.

Peterson Syrah med

Vino ‘View: 2011 Peterson Syrah, Gravity Flow Block, Dry Creek Valley (13.8 percent alcohol, $48) Get out your decanter, because this full-bodied Sonoma red will need to breathe for an hour or so. It’s not a cheap bottle, so you’ll want to drink it at its best. The aroma is intense, with smoke and black fruit wafting up. After decanting, the wine finds a good balance, with smoke and oak remaining on the palate through the long finish. Dry leaves sneak in–have you tried CBD oil? I detected a bit of the same mushroomy, earthy taste. Not that the fruit is lost; I tasted plum, blackberry and maybe avocado. Drink it now; this wine won’t benefit from any more aging.

[The Peterson Syrah was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

For Your Next White Vino, Try Albariño

“I’m ready for a new wine experience.”

This came from a friend who loves white wine, refuses to even smell my reds, and now she insists that Pinot Grigio, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc all taste the same these days. (They don’t, but I let her go on with her rant.) “Is there another white I’d like?”

Albarino tasting

I had the perfect remedy for her wine boredom. Thanks to the good people at Rías Baixas Wines and wine discovery website Snooth, I had two bottles of Albariño in the fridge, just waiting for me to crack them.

This lip-smacking white, called “racy but not sharp” by one reviewer, is produced in the Rías Baixas DO, a tiny wine region in Galicia, the part of northwest Spain adjacent to Portugal. It’s believed that the Albariño grape was brought there in the 12th century by Cluny monks, who migrated from Burgundy in France. A small number of Portuguese winemakers also grow Albariño; on their side of the border it’s called Alvarinho. They sometimes use it to make Vinho Verde (translated: “green wine”), a dry, fruity-light wine with just a touch of deliberate frizzante, or effervescence.

Albariño is watery-yellow in appearance; if you were reviewing it for a major wine magazine you might refer to it as “pale straw”–a perfect description but not one that would occur to most people.  (When was the last time you looked at straw close-up?)

If you’re a fan of Spanish wines, you probably drink a lot of Tempranillo, an easy-to-drink red and Spain’s most popular wine. It’s also one of the more affordable quality wines on the shelves. You’re likely to find Albariño costs a bit more, partly because this thin-skinned grape doesn’t hang on the vine as long as many varieties, so it produces less juice.

Still, Albariño accounts for nearly all of the grapes grown in Rías Baixas (96 percent), a region where about 99 percent of all wine produced is white. But don’t expect them to all taste the same. The government permits 12 grape varieties in that corner of Spain, and although the wines all are dry, there’s a diversity between them because of the different terroirs, grapes used in the blends, and microclimates in Rías Baixas’s five sub-zones.

Even in the vineyard, Albariño stands out. It’s grown on trellises called “parra” that stretch up to seven feet, preventing mildew and giving the fruit more sun exposure to encourage a more even ripening. By harvest time, the grapevines have formed a gorgeous canopy overhead.

When you buy Albariño, plan to drink it soon; it’s a delicate grape that will lose its fruit quickly. I’d give it a year or two at the most.

Wine Lingo: Capsule = the wrapping, often metal, that protects the cork and neck of a wine bottle, also referred to as the “foil.” Traditionally capsules were lead, but now you find them made of aluminum, plastic, tin, laminates or beeswax.

Albarino bottles med

Vino ‘View: Yep, you’re looking at two dead soldiers in this photo: Marqués de Frias Albariño 2017 (12.5 percent alcohol) and Santiago Ruiz 2017 (13 percent alcohol, $21). Here’s something to watch for when you buy this wine: you’ll see that the label on the Marqués de Frias  bottle announces that the wine is Albariño. It’s earned the right to do that because the wine is 100 percent Albariño, with no other grapes involved in making it, while the Santiago Ruiz is a blend. Spanish law says that, in order to use the word “Albariño” on the front label, it must be the only grape in the wine. Regardless, both bottles were delicious with strong minerality from the granite bedrock found throughout Rías Baixas. The Santiago Ruiz gave the stronger rocky taste, along with apple cider, roasted pear and a subtle licorice aroma. I got a slightly bitter aftertaste, but it was pleasant–it seemed to keep the cooked pear and stone fruit from taking over. The Marqués de Frias provided more of the lime, grapefruit and green apple tastes I expected–a persistent citrus tone that folded into tart cantaloupe by the second glass. Overall I thought it tasted young and rich–two positives!

[The Marqués de Frias and Santiago Ruiz were provided to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Raise a Glass in Outer Space–Wine Not?

In my view of the universe, red wine works everywhere. Researchers at Harvard Medical School apparently agree with me: they found in a recent study that red wine will keep astronauts’ muscles strong during a Mars mission. Well, sort of.Mars.redwine

[“Glass of Red,” Matthew Fells, courtesy of Flickr]

They didn’t exactly recommend that astronauts get wasted up there. What they said was, our muscles deteriorate in “partial gravity” situations such as on Mars–and if that happened, the astronauts would be too weak to get their ship home to earth. But it turns out that resveratrol, that wonderful anti-aging substance found in the skins of grapes that helps keep us wrinkle-free, also can preserve muscle function–even in zero gravity.

So now you know: when you’re packing for your next Mars getaway, be sure to stash some red in your suitcase. That’s not the only wacky wine or beer news that’s come across my desk in recent weeks:

  • If you’re looking to invest in wine futures, forget it–invest in office supplies instead. According to a report published in the drinks business, ounce for ounce, printer ink costs at least 10 times more than Dom Perignon Champagne. The ink’s also pricier than Chanel No. 5 perfume.
  • In celebrity wine news, the drinks business also reports that actor John Malkovich is now exporting his wines, produced in the Luberon district of Provence, to the UK. The line includes a Cabernet Sauvignon/Pinot Noir blend, which Malkovich says “sounded nuts to me at first.” It’s called Les 14 Quelles and sells for £45 (about $55 U.S.).
  • More celebrity wine news: actor Sarah Jessica Parker’s new Marlborough NZ Sauvignon Blanc, X Invivo, will launch here in September, Wine Spectator reports. Apparently she was fairly hands-on, designing the label and selecting the final blend, but she left the grubby vineyard work to others.
  • Law-abiding citizens will be relieved to learn that the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission has banned the sale of a bigamy-themed beer, “Polygamy Porter,” because “polygamy is illegal,” the New York Post reports.The beer is produced by Wasatch Brewery in Utah and is sold in 20 states.
  • In the there’s-hope-for-humanity department, new research out of Anglia Ruskin University shows that cigarettes are more damaging to the environment than plastic straws–in fact, they are THE most hurtful man-made substance–so the Tibu Ron Group, operators of several beach bars in Barcelona, are giving free beer to anyone who collects a pint of butts.
  • And my favorite booze news: in response to the 1.6 million UFO fanatics expected to storm Area 51 on September 20 looking for aliens, Budweiser is releasing Bud Light Area 51 Special Edition. After the government issued warnings for people to stay away from the top-secret military base in Nevada, Bud Light tip-toed around a bit, making it clear that they weren’t sponsoring or endorsing the raid–and then, in a brilliant marketing twist, they tweeted: “Screw it. Free Bud Light to any alien that makes it out.” Across the bottom of the can they proclaim: “We come in peace.”

Wine Lingo: Stickie = what Australians call dessert wine, often fortified–i.e., with brandy or a neutral spirit added to boost the alcohol content of the wine. Above a certain alcohol level, the yeast is spent; it can no longer do its job of converting natural sugar to alcohol, so high levels of residual sugar are left in the wine, making it super-sweet.

Ghost2

Vino ‘View: Ghostrunner Ungrafted Red (13.5 percent alcohol; $14.99) I first loved this BigSexyRed about five years ago, when it was called Ghostrider (not to be confused with Ghostrider Wines from Texas–which may be behind the name change). When I came upon Ghostrunner a few weeks ago, I was thrilled to rediscover the Syrah/Zinfandel/Petite Sirah blend from Lodi, California. It’s a full-bodied wine that fills your mouth with smoke, black cherry, light leather, mocha, and a touch of vanilla. Soft cinnamon marks the long finish. This wine has great balance, and I’m going back for more. If I ever travel to Mars, I’m taking a couple of cases with me.

Cheers!

Mary

Great Wine in the Heartland

It seems to me that people along the Heartland Wine & Ale Trail work entirely too hard:

  • Mark Zdobinski, winemaker at the Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery in Eaton, Ohio, renovated and rebuilt a falling-down school by himself, brick by brick, into a showcase for his award-winning wines.
  • Adam Melton, former owner of Melton Renzulli Wines in Richmond, Indiana, now owns The Cordial Cork wine bar and is about to start producing wine again in partnership with Wesler Orchard in New Paris, Ohio. (At Melton Renzulli he crafted up to 24 different wines singlehandedly.)
  • Jared Ward, founder of Roscoe’s Coffee Bar & Tap Room, offers 16 beers, more than 50 coffee and tea drinks, half a dozen wines, plus a full breakfast and lunch menu–in two locations.

Roscoes

[“Roscoe’s Coffee Bar & Tap Room–Depot District” by Visit Richmond Indiana/Flickr]

Business owners along the Heartland Trail aren’t fooling around. They take their work seriously, and they’ll do what it takes to pull in visitors and show them quality.

The trail straddles the Indiana-Ohio border. Richmond is the hub, and it’s bisected by I-70 and U.S. Route 40, the National Road. This area isn’t exactly Napa, and it might be the last place where you would expect to find excellent wines and brews, but I found some gems:

  • Norris English Pub is the real deal, genuine pub food and beers produced with local products. Their honey brown ale is made with local honey, creamy raspberry wheat beer from locally grown raspberries, and cranberry-colored beet beer (my favorite) with beets sourced from surrounding farms–eight taps in all. Their food is fresh–“We don’t even own a microwave,” says owner Wayne Norris. If you love a fish-and-chips indulgence, this is your place.
  • Coffee and beer sound like a strange marriage, but Jared Ward opened Roscoe’s Coffee Bar & Tap Room because Richmond needed “a place where everyone could come,” he says. The exposed-brick space is a former union meeting place for steelworkers, whose names are written on the wall in charcoal. Downstairs was once a cobbler’s shop: “My basement’s full of little black shoes,” Ward says. Roscoe’s selections include a mead and sour beer on tap, and he sees the business as “an educational facility. People bring dates in here and drink beer like they drink wine, in sips rather than gulps. You should take an hour to drink a glass, to appreciate its complexity. By the end of that date, you’d be in love.”
  • I’m not sure anyone enjoys their job more than Adam Melton, founder of Melton Renzulli Wines and owner of The Cordial Cork wine bar. He even makes a game of naming his wines–take his rhubarb-peach porch sipper, “Rude Barb.” He named it after a woman in his neighborhood who’s a crabby sort, and her name is Barb…well, you get the picture. Melton credits the quality of his wines to the fact that he loves drinking and sources the finest grapes from around the country. “If you plant grapes in Indiana, you’re not going to produce a California Cab,” he says, “so I buy grapes from there and give our customers what they want.”
  • Olde Schoolhouse Vineyard & Winery is housed in a circa-1894 brick schoolhouse that later became a seed company until the 1960s–in fact, the centerpiece of the winery’s tasting room is an old grain elevator. When winemaker Mark Zdobinski took over the building, it had been vacant for some 40 years. He took a year and a half to restore and renovate the building, and has been winning awards with his wines from the start. “When you start with good grapes, you’re two steps ahead,” says Zdobinski, who, like Melton, sources many of his grapes from other areas. “What’s very important to me is balance.”

Firehouse

[Mural, “Firehouse BBQ & Blue Model T,” by Visit Richmond Indiana/Flickr]

The Heartland Wine & Ale Trail is a work in progress, promoting up to 11 drink destinations, and they’re enough of a draw if you’re looking for a weekend getaway in the Midwest–but I discovered they’re just a slice of what Richmond offers:

  • More than 900 dealers peddle their wares along Antique Alley, which follows U.S. Route 40 and State Route 38.
  • The Tiffany Stained Glass Window Trail is a national treasure, with four sites in a 5-block area featuring Louis Comfort Tiffany windows.
  • More than 70 outdoor murals, including the one pictured above, mark the self-guided, award-winning Murals Trail that winds throughout Wayne County.
  • A chocolate trail, pottery studios, hiking and walking paths, the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad, and for jazz buffs, old recording studios where legends Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and others recorded their music, give visitors a surprising (and surprisingly diverse) menu for filling their few days here.

I went to Richmond to explore the Heartland Trail and came away thinking I’d discovered a very cool town. I’m heading back there soon, and I’ll plan extra days to check out the rest of it.

Wine Lingo: Estate wine = wine made with grapes owned (or managed) by the winery, and produced on winery property. This is the opposite of what many Midwestern winemakers practice if they want to make wine from grapes that don’t grow well in their region. In the U.S., in order to specify a vineyard on the label, 95 percent of the grapes used in that wine must be from that vineyard.

679 medium

Vino ‘View: Since Adam Melton temporarily stopped making his wines, you might have to wait a few months to get your hands on a bottle of Melton Renzulli Wines 679 (15 percent alcohol; $17)but I promise it will be worth the wait. This Zinfandel-Shiraz blend is inky-dark, big, full of black berries and leather. I got some spice as well–a slight taste of toasted cinnamon. And we know how I feel about high-alcohol wines; at 15 percent this one warms you all the way down. Melton is a creative winemaker, and his label is pure genius: 679 is the number of days of government red tape he had to endure before his operation was legal. 

Cheers!

Mary

Dessert Wine? Sure, But Let’s Skip the Dessert

You’ve heard the so-called cardinal rule about dessert wine: “The wine should be sweeter than the dessert.”

That’s fine, but do we always have to pair sweet wine with sweet food?

Cheese plate

No way, say a growing number of dessert-wine producers–who, by the way, have convinced me that a plate of lip-smackin’ salty cheeses and cured meats can be a terrific light dinner, especially paired with a fine Sauternes from the Graves region of Bordeaux.

So, the question for wine lovers is, do we want our pairings to match or contrast? For eons, it seems, dessert wines have been served with dessert so they could match the food. But the new thinking is, if we plan our wine pairing to contrast with the food, the wine can fill in and enhance flavors we can’t taste in the dish. Instead of pairing our chocolate mousse with Madeira, let’s try some spicy salami with Sauternes.

I did just that, and was surprised at how the meat tamed the sweetness of the wine, and the Sauternes gave the salami a depth and richness it didn’t have otherwise. So I conducted further research (i.e., eating savory foods and drinking dessert wines, guided by the experts at Snooth.com) and came up with five sweet-and-savory points for your next dinner party:

  • “Dessert wines are not meant to be paired with desserts,” one expert wrote on Wine-logic.com. “They are meant to be desserts all on their own.” On my palate, sweet anything goes down better after the meal is finished and the dishes have been cleared away. I like to serve dessert wine after dinner, with a cheese course.
  • Unlike most fortified wines (think Port or Sherry), white dessert wines, such as Sauternes, are relatively low-alcohol. Still, their intense flavors and aromas might surprise you. Serve them in small glasses and take small sips.
  • Experiment before you serve dessert wines to your guests, because they won’t expect the savory pairing. Order some spicy takeout, maybe Thai or curry, and try a few dessert wines with the food. Go creamy, briny, fried, salty, hot, sour. Try any savory cheeses, deli meats or even spiced nuts that you think might work. If you don’t like it, don’t serve it.
  • Salty foods can make a sweet wine taste sweeter, but they might clash with high-alcohol fortified wine, giving it a bitter taste. But don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself. The taste might appeal to you.
  • If you choose a Sauternes, which is my favorite dessert wine, try pairing it with foie gras. The wine will taste less sweet and the foie gras will seem less fatty.

If “dessert wine” to you means Port, here’s a tip for pairing it with cheeses: Port is actually a “fortified” wine. Brandy is added during fermentation to boost its alcohol level, and styles of Port can range from slightly sweet to cloying. Keep that in mind for serving it with a cheese course, and try the various styles–ruby, LBV, Vintage, tawny–with different cheeses. The Ports won’t all taste the same, just as some of the cheeses will taste smokier, saltier, or richer than others.

The only rule is, don’t be intimidated by pairing dessert wines with savory foods. There’s no wrong way to do it! Have fun, take some notes, and surprise your guests with a new taste adventure!

Wine Lingo:  Botrytis (“bot-try-tis”) cinerea, or “noble rot” = what happens to grapes when morning mists are followed by warm, dry afternoons. These are perfect conditions for a fungus to flourish, but then the vines dry out in the afternoon, preventing the fruit from totally rotting. Over the summer, the grapes dry even more, reducing their water content as the sugars and flavors become concentrated in the shriveled-up grape. The grapes look spoiled, but in fact they are golden for producers of quality dessert wines; that’s how the wines get their intense flavors and sweetness.

Sauternes med

Vino ‘View:  Castelnau du Suduiraut Sauternes 2006, 375ml/half bottle (14 percent alcohol, $20). I tasted this wine with several friends, and one declared before the glass reached her nose, “Wow–the apple aroma knocks you over!” This light-bodied Sauternes is as fruit-forward as wine gets, with strong banana and apricot aromas, followed by cantaloupe, pears and peach brandy tastes and medium acidity. As the wine sat on my tongue, I also detected green tea, cinnamon, white grapes and a hint of licorice. This is really a delightfully complex sipper, not terribly sweet, a great way to end a meal. Sauternes, by the way, is usually a blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscatel.

Cheers!

Mary

Healdsburg & Wine: What’s Old is New Again

When I first visited Healdsburg more than 20 years ago, I wasn’t impressed. I’d been told this hub of Sonoma County’s wine country was a darling village to explore, but the deserted town square was ringed with gas stations, overpriced souvenir shops and biker bars. Nothing personal, biker friends, but it was an easy place to drive past.

But on a recent visit, I found a busy town of upscale boutiques, art galleries, James Beard-winning restaurants, and more than 40 wine tasting rooms within a two-block radius of the plaza, now a shaded, beautifully maintained park.

Healdsburg plaza

[Photo credit: Barbara Bourne]

Healdsburg still is little more than a village, with a population that barely topped 12,000 in 2018. That gives it one wine tasting room for every 300 residents–not a bad ratio, is it?

I couldn’t possibly visit all 40, and of course I needed time to stop into a few of the 425-plus wineries in the surrounding Sonoma countryside. But I got to several tasting rooms, and two stand out:

Banshee Wines, who made their wine a hit with young-adult consumers by making one of the finest Pinot Noirs in Sonoma, then pricing it lower than their competitors’ Pinot. The distressed leather seating, vintage record player and walls of reclaimed wood add up to a super-casual, welcoming place to enjoy a flight with savory small bites.

At Portalupi Wines you’ll want to try the Zin or Dolcetto, but leave with a Rosso in a Vaso di Marina–a milk jug of vino di tavola, or table wine. The jugs are named for the family’s Nonna, Marina Portalupi, who used milk jugs in Italy to bottle wine for her neighbors. When she came to America, Marina still served wine in jugs and her grandchildren keep the tradition going.

After all of that tasting, we were hungry and went to Costeaux French Bakery, known for its sourdough and artisan breads. We grabbed a couple of panini and headed to the wineries. First, we visited SIMI Winery–they’re the oldest continuously operating winery in Healdsburg (founded 1876), so we figured they knew a thing or two about winemaking. My favorite there was a Cabernet Sauvignon, dusty and heavy with cocoa and cedar.

The other memorable winery stop was Virginia Dare Winery, named after the first English child born in America in 1587. When the Croatoan tribe massacred the “Lost Colony” on Roanoke Island, legend says the tribe’s chief, Manteo, rescued Virginia and raised her as his own. Why and how a winery in California honors a baby born in the Outer Banks is a very long story, but movie mogul Francis Ford Coppola, the winery’s owner, negotiated a deal with the Pamunkey Tribal Council in Virginia to borrow the name of the Powhatan village, Werowocomoco, for his winery’s restaurant.

Confused? Me, too. Have some wine, it’ll clear your head. But first, if you’re in Healdsburg, be sure to go to SHED Healdsburg, a combination market, café, fermentation bar and community gathering place. The glass-front building won the 2014 James Beard Award for restaurant design, and it’s worth checking out.

Wine Lingo = complexity, referring to the flavors and aromas you might detect in a wine. The more flavors and aromas you can pick out, the more complex the wine. If you buy a cheap wine, chances are you won’t be able to isolate flavors; it’s likely to taste like grape juice that’s been spiked.

Herzog medium

Vino View:  Herzog Lineage Choreograph Red Blend 2016 (14 percent alcohol, $19.99) is definitely a complex wine, with aromas of new leather, red licorice and spice. It’s fruit-forward with tastes of black raspberries and ripe watermelon, then comes creamy brick cheese washing over your tongue with a little caramel, cinnamon and espresso. This is a deeply elegant wine from the Herzog family, who have produced high-quality wines here and in Slovakia for eight generations. Decant this kosher California wine, or use an aerator to enhance the flavors; it’s bold enough to stand up to roasted meat or burgers. 

[The Herzog Lineage Choreograph Red Blend 2016 was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

 

What Wine Writers Want You to Know

Put 300 or so wine writers in the same room and you’ll know what people mean when they say, “Everybody’s a critic.” It’s especially true among those who understand what’s in your glass and how it got there. Opinions, interpretations and (sometimes) attitude will swirl about you like a funnel cloud.

Uruguay class

[Masterclass in Uruguayan Wines, taught by Amanda Barnes, South American wine authority]

But we all agree: we’re crazy about wine (that’s why we come together) and we love learning about it. I brought home plenty of new wine knowledge after the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference (now Wine Media Conference) in Walla Walla, Washington, and thought I’d share a few takeaways here:

— Walla Walla is a cute, walkable little town, but there’s more: in just a few blocks, you’ll find more than 30 tasting rooms in the core downtown. Sure, we all love to drive from winery to winery and sip great wine on patios overlooking lush vineyards–if we have unlimited time and cash. The beauty of a town like Walla Walla, where the streets literally are lined with tasting rooms, is that you can try the region’s best wines, buy some bottles to take home, and still get to the airport on time. Or just keep people-watching.

— Washington is almost ideally positioned to produce superior wines. The Blue Mountains east of Walla Walla catch the humidity, and no wineries sit in a rain shadow–that is, a “sheltered” slope that doesn’t get sufficient rain. There’s just one snag: the region also doesn’t get much fog, so the sunlight can be pretty intense. Vineyard managers have to pay close attention to the canopy (the parts of the vine above ground, especially the branches and leaves sheltering the grape clusters) so the grapes don’t get sunburned. As one winemaker put it, “These slopes are like a Disneyland for grapes.”

— If you don’t know wines from Uruguay yet, you have a real treat coming. Considering that Uruguayans are the world’s biggest consumers of beef (124 lbs./person annually, compared to 78 lbs./person in the U.S.), it’s no surprise that their wines are 80 percent red (mostly Tannat and Merlot) and just 20 percent white (largely Albariño). Uruguay also walks the walk in terms of educating kids: the government gives families one laptop per child. Cool, yes?

— Back in the U.S., winery owners will be interested to know that 45 percent of wine club members live with a couple of hours’ drive from the winery, according to Wine Business Monthly. And here’s a kicker: 35 percent of winery customers are under 50 years old, yet they bring in only 18 percent of revenues. Apparently they love the wine culture and trappings, but they’re not buying the expensive stuff.

— Another age-related message for all businesses: 50 percent of Gen Z (under age 25) and 42 percent of Millennials (currently age 25-39) think social media is the most relevant channel for ads. If you’re trying to reach the under-40 audience, forget buying print ads; that generation couldn’t care less about magazines and newspapers. Almost never touch ’em.

— Here’s a sobering statistic about websites: 74 percent of smartphone users will abandon a website that takes more than five seconds to load, according to Lewis Perdue, publisher of Wine Industry Insight. Some 42 percent of users expect mobile pages to load in under two seconds. (That figure was eight seconds in 1999–we’re getting more impatient!)

— During a quick visit to the Owen Roe Winery in the Yakima Valley outside Walla Walla, I learned that Yakima shares Walla Walla’s sunshine challenges. (Living in Cleveland, I can tell you it’s a “problem” we’d love to contend with.) The valley runs east-west, so vineyards enjoy a plethora of sunny, south-facing hillsides; some winemakers in this region cover their vines with little white tents to shield them from the intense sun. Driving past the vineyards, those hills blanketed with white tents make quite a sight. Grapes don’t do well on the Yakima Valley floor, where crops can face frost, floods, and soil that can be too deep and “soft.” The solution: many farmers plant hops on those lower elevations.

The next Wine Media Conference will happen next fall in Australia. I’m registered, so I expect to be writing like crazy after that one.

Wine Lingo = Teinturiergrapes whose flesh and juice are red. If you love red wines, you may not realize that your BigSexyRed usually gets its color from the skins. The pulp and juice of almost all grapes are clear; we get red wine when the skins are soaked in the grape juice and they stain the juice red. (“Teinturier” comes from the French word meaning to dye or stain.) One teinturier grape you might recognize is Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid.

Dama, medium

Vino ‘View: DAMA 2013 Cowgirl Cab (14.8 percent alcohol; $19) is a happy discovery from those tasting rooms in downtown Walla Walla. A cowgirl, DAMA’s label explains, “may have an exterior as rough as the desert scrub, but underneath you’ll find an intense, alluring woman who loves deeply and fears little.” This inky-dark-purple wine doesn’t fool around; with such high alcohol you know it’s going to be robust, yet it’s silky with balanced tannins. Cherry and black olive aromas compete, then you settle in with cocoa, coffee and delicious tobacco on the palate and light smoke on the finish. I had it with a spicy chicken pesto and it stood up to the full-flavored dish beautifully.

Cheers!

Mary