Wine Bloggers On the Move

You probably think all we did at the Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma was sit around and drink, right?

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Actually, that’s pretty close to the truth. Sometimes we even cleaned up and moved our hootenanny to a place with class, and one night it was a tasting at the iconic Stags’ Leap Winery on Silverado Trail in Napa.

Not to be confused with the also-iconic Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. also on Silverado Trail in Napa. For 13 years the rival wineries slugged it out in court until they decided one of them would move the apostrophe and they could be friends. Their winemakers sealed the deal in 1985 by collaborating on a wine they called “Accord.”

The first Stags’ Leap grapes were planted in the late 1800s by the Chase family (of Chase Bank). The winery is nestled in the shadow of the The Palisades Mountains; in the yard behind the manor house stands a cactus the size of my kitchen, a spiky sentinel that not even the most wine-ripped intruder would challenge.

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Stags’ Leap greeted us with a glass of their 2016 Viognier – lush, just crisp enough.

Monday I’ll share one of the Blogger Conference’s most exciting events: a speed tasting where winemakers showcase their finest – 12 wines per table, five minutes per wine, sharpen your palates!

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Vino ‘View: We wanted to crack a big sexy red for sweater weather, and Concannon  2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles (13.5 percent alcohol, $20) was a great choice. It brings a mouthful of body and a bit of jam, but the tannins were smooth and the alcohol didn’t overwhelm. Expect classic California Cab flavors – dark berries, black cherries, slight caramel, accented with healthy acidity. Cozy up with this bottle.

[This bottle was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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.

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[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 

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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.

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[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

Vive la Franc!

You’re right, BigSexyReds doesn’t usually work on Sunday. But I couldn’t resist – today, December 4, is Cab Franc Day, and I want to kick up my heels a little and celebrate this rock star of cool-climate reds.

There’s a bit of serendipity at play here. Last week, I spent Thanksgiving with family in northern Virginia. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that Virginia has emerged as a powerhouse of terrific wine. Its “signature” varietal is Viognier, but for my money, that state produces some of the smoothest, most luscious Cabernet Franc on the planet, and we discovered a new favorite at Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run.

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Cabernet Franc is one of the three primary grapes in the classic “Bordeaux blend.” (The other two, if you want to sprinkle your next cocktail conversation with a little wine trivia, are Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.) We do our Cab Franc dance on December 4 because  it’s the date when Cardinal Richelieu died in 1642 – and he happens to be the fellow who carried cuttings of the vine from Libournais to the Loire Valley, where the variety thrived. I know, it’s a spotty connection, and I’m sure it’s the only day of the year when anyone gives a thought to poor dead Cardinal Richelieu, but there it is.

Cab Franc has a slightly shorter growing season than its heftier relative, Cabernet Sauvignon; it’s ready to harvest at least a week earlier. That means its skin doesn’t get as thick; it doesn’t need the long weeks of hot sun that thick-skinned Cab Sauv needs, so it does well in cooler wine regions such as Ontario, Ohio and the Finger Lakes. Cab Franc does grow in California, though, where it’s popular as an ingredient in that state’s famous Meritage blends.

Cabernet Franc is an adaptable grape with plenty of backbone, so it’s often used in blends, lending some structure to the mix. Petit Verdot is one popular blending partner. I like Cab Franc best as its own single-variety wine, though – it’s robust but, since it’s thin-skinned, its tannins are tame. I think of it as Cabernet Sauvignon’s more refined kin – softer, slightly more floral, but never wimpy. Cab Franc tastes of dark berries and dry leaves; it can hang with the big guys at dinner, pairing well with pork or, because of its spicy notes, a nice sausage dish. But it also goes down nicely with roasted chicken.

So, which Cab came first – Franc or Sauvignon? According to wine expert Jancis Robinson, DNA research in 1997 found that Cabernet Franc had mated with Sauvignon Blanc; their love child was Cabernet Sauvignon. So, Cab Franc is the older grape.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  “Hectare” = a unit of square-area measurement, equal to 2.471 acres. This is the global term used to convey how much land is “under vine,” or planted with wine grapes. Worldwide, about 54,000 hectares, or 133,437 acres, are devoted to growing Cabernet Franc. Most of that land is in France (about 37,000 hectares, or 91,429 acres). About 7 percent of the world’s Cab Franc is grown in the United States.

Vino ‘Views:  We’re raising a glass of Pearmund Cellars 2014 Cabernet Franc Reserve ($42) tonight. Voted “Best Winery in Virginia” by readers of Virginia Wine Lovers Magazine, Pearmund Cellars got our vote for best Cab Franc of the three wineries we visited. Lush and smooth, the aromas of smoke and black cherries gave way to tastes of tobacco, blackberries and strong tea – but without the tea’s tannins. Don’t let the price tag scare you off; it includes the cost of shipping.

Enjoy your Cab Franc tonight!

Mary

[Photo: Fire pit at Pearmund Cellars, courtesy of Benjamin Snyder.]