Buying Wine Online – Smart or Risky?

So, whose bright idea was it to schedule Get Smart About Credit Day and Evaluate Your Life Day together? I guess somebody thought we could handle soul-searching on those two scary subjects simultaneously.

The credit part, for me, is a fait accompli; I started living on a cash basis a few years ago and eliminated that awful stress. Life evaluation is trickier – for most of us, I think – but entering the world of wine professionals was more of a process than a decision, and once I started training I couldn’t get enough. I soon learned that partnering cash management and wine-buying can be loads of fun.

Money small

I buy most of my wine (and gifts, and other items) online. I hate to shop, and the convenience of having wine delivered to my door is addicting. You can find some real deals on quality wines online if you keep these few tips in mind:

  • I never, EVER pay shipping fees on wine. Shipping can cost more than the wine itself; if I’m going to pay a fortune I’ll just drive to the wine shop and buy a premium bottle.
  • Check to see if the winery or wine seller will ship to your state. Fortunately, most outlets can ship to Ohio, where I live. That wasn’t always the case, and those laws change all the time. Last week I spoke with a marketer in California who reps an Italian winemaker; she wants BigSexyReds to review his wines but the law prohibits her from shipping imported wines from her locale. I have to fetch them when I’m in Sonoma next month.
  • Pinpoint the delivery date and plan to be home then. Someone over 21 will have to sign for the wine. If that’s not possible, arrange with the delivery service to hold it and you can pick it up. I often have FedEx hold my wine.

That said, here are the online wine sellers I recommend (and no, I’m not being compensated for plugging them – not even with free wine):

  • LastBottle.com. By far my favorite, Last Bottle offers free shipping on six or more bottles, including mix-and-match batches, and I’ve never been disappointed by the wine. They buy surplus wines; register for free and they send one email per day with a daily deal. Twice a year they have two-day “madness marathons” in which you can constantly refresh your screen for new deals; during the marathons you get free shipping on single bottles. Deals range from $8 to $100 or more, always far below retail price and usually less than the lowest Web price. Refer friends and you get credit toward your next purchase.
  • Martha Stewart Wine Co. This is a new one for me. She was advertising an introductory 6-bottle deal for $4.99/bottle with free shipping. Martha is picky about products carrying her name, so I felt confident the wine would be drinkable, and I was right. I chose the reds-only option; last night I cracked the 2016 Cuvée Joëlle Malbec et Merlot, produced in Cahors, a small wine region south of Bordeaux, and it was fruity-delicious. (Wine-Searcher reports a 4.5-star rating of the wine and average selling price of $18.)
  • Heartwood and Oak. You’ll find these sellers advertising often on Groupon. My first purchase from them would have been about $85 per case with free shipping; I chose to order their premium red collection for an extra $25, so for less than $10 per bottle I got some great wines.
  • Amazon wines.com. I haven’t ordered from Amazon’s wine store yet, but I’m going to try it out. Most wines are priced under $30 – many brands you’ll recognize are less than $10 – and quite a few offer 1-cent shipping for six or more bottles.
  • AstorWines.com. This will be another blind adventure for me, but I looked at their reds and saw some nice $9 wines that sell in the local supermarket for $13-$15. They ship your first order free if you spend more than $99.
  • QVC.com. Check out the mega-seller’s website from time to time. I bought a case of Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary’s wine last year for $128 and free shipping. It wasn’t the most exquisite wine I’ve tasted (I did try it beforehand, on my last visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake), but it was good enough, especially at that price. At this writing a case of O’Leary’s sells for $149, but keep an eye out for sales as the holidays approach.

You’ll find good deals on the ground, of course – Trader Joe’s is famous for selling decent, affordable, often hard-to-find wines. Sam’s Club and Costco sell some of their wines at a discount, but others are marked higher than at other retailers. And if you’re touring a wine region far from home, buy at the source even though it usually costs more than in stores. Of the thousands of wineries across the U.S., the vast majority are boutique operations that only sell on-site or in local groceries. If you love it, buy it because you probably won’t find it again.

And this year, consider buying California wines. Wineries in Napa and Sonoma aren’t all big corporations; a lot of struggling entrepreneurs, artisans and lower-skilled workers lost their jobs to the fires, and your purchase will help them get back on their feet.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Horizontal tasting = a tasting of wines that are all from the same vintage, but produced by different wineries or wine estates.

StandOut small

Vino ‘View: We all want to stand out, right? While you’re evaluating your life, sip some aptly-named 2013 Stand Out (4.8 percent alcohol, $18.99) by SLO Down Wines. “Sip” is the key; this California blend (59 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 41 percent Merlot) is potent. It even looks strong, with its inky-dark color and thin red rim; it leave thick tears that drip so slowly they barely travel down the glass. The aroma is strong, too – coffee and fresh dark cherry, right off the tree. A dark grape taste dominates, yet it’s medium-light bodied with very low tannins. I could taste my grandma’s black raspberries. Halfway through the glass, the taste mellows with strawberries and green peppers, and leaves a long, fruity finish. At this time the winery is sold out, but 2013 Stand Out is available online at Wine-Searcher.com.

[This bottle of wine was sent to BigSexyReds for review purposes.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

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Going Screwy Over Corkscrews – Happy Thrift Shop Day!

Writing about corks in my last post reminded me of my old corkscrew collection.

I miss it. I had found unusual antique corkscrews at yard sales, flea markets, street fairs and in thrift shops. One of my favorites came from a street vendor in Brussels who sold nothing but old bottle openers; he displayed about 150 of the treasures and I wanted to buy his whole inventory.

Corkscrew

[Photo “Corkscrew” by Kaino Kaihomieli, courtesy of Flickr/Common Creatives]

Most corkscrews are simple tools – you have the helix, or “worm” (the metal spiral you stick into the top of a cork) and a perpendicular handle of wood, bone, ivory (boo!), tin, brass, steel – but you knew that. Some models come with a foil cutter, though it’s not vital; you can twist the foil off of most bottles with your bare hands. (Yes, you can – try it!)

If you’re in a shopping mood, August 17 – National Thrift Shop Day – is the perfect day to launch your corkscrew hunt. You can find dozens of different styles, especially if you’re looking at old-fashioned varieties. There’s the Champagne tap, a confounding device that looks as if it belongs in a torture chamber. You’ve probably seen the “direct pull” with just a worm and a wooden handle; older versions had brushes sticking out of the handle.

The “winged” or lever type, with two handles that extract the cork as you push down on them, is the model found in most kitchen drawers. When you’re traveling you’ll come across souvenirs called “figurals;” these have a screw protruding from a dog- or other animal-shaped handle, or from a man’s (ahem!) groin area. If you want to get fancy, you can buy an electric corkscrew. One popular brand is the Rabbit; mine lasted three years before it stopped taking a charge.

Food and Wine magazine chose the “waiter’s friend,” also called the “wine key” or “sommelier knife,” invented in 1939, as the best corkscrew on the market. It’s my favorite, too – more efficient and less cumbersome than most models, and it fits in your pocket. The worst, in my view, is the two-pronged “butler’s friend.” It’s almost impossible to pull a cork with that thing, and it’s no friend of mine.

I usually carry a corkscrew – but if I forget, there’s no need to panic, as I discovered when I found myself in a hotel room without one:

Key corkscrewWhen you’ve forgotten your wine key, a house key will do the job.

I sold my corkscrew collection several years ago, but if I wanted to collect again, several websites, including Corkscrews Online and Corkscrew Collecting, provide great tips for buying and spotting fake “antiques.” And if you want to view a terrific collection, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at Greystone in St. Helena, California, has one of the best. Housed in the former Christian Brothers Winery, the CIA showcases more than 1,000 corkscrews in its main entry hall – plenty of examples to make you go screwy.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Helixophile = a person who collects corkscrews.

Vino ‘View: I put my waiter’s key to work cracking this bottle of Sexual Chocolate (13.5 percent ABV, $24.99, http://www.SLOdownwines.comand was sorry when it was empty. This 

Sexual Chocolate

California blend was a true BigSexyRed – dark purple and full-bodied, with tears clinging to the inside of my glass. I got a strong aroma of dark chocolate and walnuts, then a taste of tobacco, Ferrero Rocher milk chocolate truffles and even more nuts. On the finish, blackberry and slight black pepper lingered, then a surprise – a subtle bit of orange liqueur on my tongue. The winemaker’s bootlegging story on the label is a bonus.

Cheers!

Mary

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

Napa vs Sonoma – Which Sparkling Wine Shall We Pour Tonight?

If you’re a fan of fizzy wines, you already (probably) know that California is not a one-bubbly-fits-all state. If you didn’t know that, we won’t out you! Just get a few basics down and you’ll get more out of your sparklers.

Gloria Ferrer glass

[Photo by Sarah Stierch, “Sparkling Wine at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards, Sonoma, California” via Flickr.com]

The first sparkling wine in America was a sparkling Catawba, produced in Ohio (we Ohioans like to boast), downstate near Cincinnati, by Nicholas Longworth in the 1830s. It only took another 30 years for Jacob Schram to purchase his vineyard property in Napa Valley and start producing California’s first quality sparkling wines. By 1870, Schram had planted 30,000 vines and was aging his earliest vintages in cool caves.

Napa is a warm, narrow valley, protected from the cold air of the Pacific Ocean by low mountain ranges but still cooled by the waters of San Pablo Bay. Growers there enjoy calcium-rich soil and a Mediterranean climate with a warm, sunny growing season – ideal for growing Chardonnay, one of the prime grapes used in making their sparkling wines. The southern part of Napa, nearer to the bay, is cooler than the rest of the valley.

Schram’s little enterprise didn’t make it past Prohibition, but new owners resurrected Schramsberg Vineyards  in 1965 and still use those caves to store their wines, considered some of the finest in California.

About 20 years later, the Ferrer family from Barcelona discovered the Mediterranean climate and terroir of Sonoma County. Just west of Napa and more diverse in terms of soil and plantings (think: redwood forests), Sonoma has cooler nights, thanks to 60 miles of Pacific coastline and an ocean cool-down. The region reminded José Ferrer of his family home in Catalonia, especially good for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so it was there he built Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards and named the new winery after his wife.

Only the practiced palate would discern real differences between Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines. Schramsberg’s might taste a little stonier, slightly bready and creamy, with clear tropical fruit notes. Gloria Ferrer’s sparklers might be fruitier with a little more cinnamon coming through.

But when you’re staring at that confusing wall of bottles in the store, maybe it’s most important to remember that both wineries produce their sparkling wines using the Methode Champenoise, or “Classic (Traditional) Method.” We’ll save the long version for another day; suffice it to say that sparkling wines displaying any of those phrases on the label, and “Fermented in This Bottle,” have undergone the hands-on, multiple steps necessary to create the finest sparkling wines. It’s the same technique used to produce Champagne (which comes from the Champagne region of France, but you knew that, right?). It will cost a little more than sparkling wine whose label says it was fermented inside the bottle (rather than this), or using the Charmat or “outside the bottle” (i.e., in a tank) method, but it’s worth paying extra for the classic-method wine. That’s a difference you will taste.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Mayacamas and Vaca MountainsWhen you’re looking at wines from regions as popular as Napa Valley and Sonoma County, it helps to orient yourself geographically. Any serious discussion of Napa and Sonoma is likely to mention these important mountain ranges because they affect the grapes and, ultimately, the wine: the Mayacamas Mountains run along the western edge of Napa, protecting it from the cooler Sonoma air, and the Vaca Range forms Napa’s eastern boundary. If you’re contemplating any form of wine certification, memorize these two names – you’ll see them on just about every exam.

Patrick bubbly

Vino ‘View:  With the onset of summer, we wanted a couple of cool sparklers to sip on the porch. We chose two delicious, affordable California bottles: Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Blancs and Gloria Ferrer NV Blanc de Noirs (both Methode Champenoise, both 12.5 percent alcohol, both $22). The 100-percent Pinot Noir has a rosy tinge and gave us tiny, assertive bubbles. The aroma was lemon at first, then it melted into a rich pear that changed to apple in our mouths. The all-Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs was a melon-and-banana delight, a super-tropical feel and perfect for our warm-weather neighbor-watching. That handsome fellow in the photo is my nephew, Patrick Straffen – we were celebrating because he and my niece, Emily Straffen, had just passed their Level 2 WSET exams! You go, guys!

Cheers,

Mary