Raise a Glass to Grandma (and Gramps)!

Thanks to President Jimmy Carter, the first Sunday after Labor Day is dedicated to our parents’ parents – National Grandparents Day. The day was created by a West Virginia woman named Marian McQuade who, if you look up her photo online, bears an uncanny resemblance to Betty Crocker.

The poet Ogden Nash wrote, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.” So how will you honor your elders tomorrow, September 11?

One website suggests visiting Grandma in a nursing home – pretty ageist, don’t you think? Most grandparents I know would rather spend the day hiking, or playing a game of softball with the grandkids. Mine weren’t quite that active by the time I came along, but I know they would have wanted the celebration to include alcohol.

chablis

Grandma Mihaly was a whiskey drinker – a shot with every meal. She had low blood sugar and said whiskey was better for her teeth than a candy bar. (Makes sense to me.)

My mom was a grandmother, too. For decades she drank “highballs,” usually Canadian Club and soda. But in the mid-1970s she and my dad visited Paris, their first trip across the pond, and Mom came home from that trip a wine drinker. From then on, she always asked for Chablis.

You don’t often hear people order “Chablis” in restaurants and clubs anymore. It’s more fashionable to ask for Chardonnay, which is the grape that makes Chablis.

It’s not as confusing as it sounds. Chablis is a small region in the northern part of Burgundy, France. If you live in Chablis and want to start a vineyard, the only grape you may grow is Chardonnay. (Yes, the French government tells vineyard owners which grapes  they’re allowed to grow, how many vines they may plant per acre, and a lot of other rules that winegrowers in the U.S. don’t have to follow.) Chablis produces some 32 million bottles a year, and you can expect all of it to be deliciously dry.

So, all “Chablis” from Burgundy is really Chardonnay. It tastes more crisp and light than the full-bodied, creamy Chardonnay from California, partly because the limestone soil in Chablis lends a steely minerality to the grapes. Not all wine labeled “Chablis” is produced in Burgundy, but it’s all Chardonnay, and almost all white wine from Burgundy is Chardonnay. (A small percentage of white from Burgundy is made with Aligoté, a less prominent grape variety.)

I guess that is slightly confusing. So let’s keep it simple: if you’re celebrating Grandparents Day, you might want to take the folks a nice bottle of Chardonnay – or Chablis, if they like their white wines a bit more racy. Pair it with goat cheese, maybe a wheel of goat cheese brie with apple wedges and almonds.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Vitis vinifera = the grapes from which 99.9 percent of all wines in the world are made, according to The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil. Vitis is the genus and vinifera is the species. Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and most other familiar grape varieties are vinifera; out of about 60 species of vitis, vinifera is the only one native to Europe.

Vino ‘View:  It was a warm evening this summer when I cracked a bottle of 2013 Broken Dreams  Chardonnay (13.5 percent alcohol, $18.99) from SLO Down Wines in Napa, so I was glad to discover it was a French-style Chard – meaning, it would have that lemony, mineral quality typical 

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of French Chardonnays. It’s fruitier and lighter-bodied than most California Chards; aromas of banana and cantaloupe led the way to my tart, lemony first taste. After a few minutes the wine  mellowed to an orange zest taste with the slightest bread undertone, a pleasant surprise alongside the fruit I was tasting. Dinner with my wine was a salad – greens, chicken,  mandarin oranges and sliced almonds – a pairing that worked. Because of the weather, I was glad the wine didn’t have that thick, tongue-coating sensation, nor did it pretend to be a Sauvignon Blanc – but it is citrusy.

Cheers to you and your grandparents!

Mary

[Chablis photo: “Dauvissat” by D. Potera via Flickr; Broken Dreams photo provided by SLO Down Wines.]

Chardonnay Gets Its Day!

You either love Chardonnay, or you can’t stand it. If you’re a fan, May 21 (or 23, depending on whose calendar you follow) is National Chardonnay Day, and there’s plenty to celebrate about this iconic white.

Chardonnay

The green-skinned grape comes to us from the Burgundy region of France (if you’re drinking “white Burgundy,” you’re drinking Chardonnay). The Wente family brought cuttings to their Livermore Valley vineyards early in the last century, and their 1936 vintage was the first varietal labeled in the US.

Chardonnay is a neutral grape – meaning, it takes on flavors of the terroir where it’s grown and from other influences, such as oak. That makes it adaptable to just about every winegrowing region in the world, with distinctive tastes and aromas no matter where it’s grown: in Burgundy it’s known for its lively minerality, thanks to the abundance of  Kimmeridgian limestone in the soil. In Austria, where recordings of gun blasts are played in the vineyards to scare away the birds, it’s made into sweet wines. In California and Argentina, Chardonnay is likely to be toasty and oaky, often with tropical fruit flavors coming through. Some Spanish winemakers use it in making Cava, Spain’s classic sparkling wine. And if you like your bubbly, you’ll want to know that Chardonnay is one of three grapes (and the only white) used in making Champagne.

In France alone, vineyard owners grow some 34 clonal varieties, all developed at the University of Burgundy in Dijon. Why? So they can plant the specific “Dijon clone” that will perform best in their vineyards, and will produce exactly the traits they want in their wines. It’s a complicated business, and the outcomes range from unoaked, minerality-packed Chablis to full, toasty Montrachet and Pouilly-Fuissé. It’s France’s second-most planted grape, just behind Ugni Blanc (often known as Trebbiano), the key grape in making Cognac, and ahead of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc.

If you want to throw an impromptu Chardonnay Day dinner, have fun with it and buy a variety of bottles from different regions and in different styles (oaked, unoaked). Keep some basic pairing tips in mind: Chardonnay pairs well with roast chicken and other white meats. If one of your bottles is an older, more earthy Chardonnay, pour it with an earthy dish such as mushroom soup or winter squash. A lightly oaked Chardonnay will pair well with grilled trout or Lobster Thermador, but not a delicate fish dish.

And next week, we’ll celebrate Chardonnay’s (and California Cab’s) finest hour, on the anniversary of the Judgement of Paris!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Blanc de blanc = Champagnes made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes.

Cheers!

Mary

[Photo by Megan Cole, courtesy of Flickr.com]

On Prime Rib Day, the Wine’s a No-Brainer

…Or is it?

I don’t have a beef with National Prime Rib Day.  I’ve mostly lost my taste for red meat in recent years, but on occasion I reach for a great burger or juicy steak. Someone, somewhere decided to dedicate this day to prime rib, and that’s enough of an occasion for me.

Ad Hoc Blowtorch Prime Rib

There’s a reason why prime rib is a relatively pricey steak on most restaurant menus. It’s taken from between the 6th and 12th ribs on the cow’s upper back – a high-quality cut that earns the highest grade from the USDA.

The prime rib’s juiciness depends on its marbling, or fat. I like mine medium rare with plenty of marbling, as in the photo above. If you’re dining in tonight, you’ll want to cook it on a low, slow heat, positioned with the meat resting atop the bone so that the meat itself doesn’t touch the roasting pan. (That’s why prime rib is sometimes called a “standing rib roast.”) And if you’re counting calories, one 3-ounce serving is just 200 calories – but a full prime rib in a restaurant is likely to be four times that amount. Then there’s the baked potato, with butter and a dollop of sour cream, and the wine…

You’d think pairing wine with prime rib would be a given: grab a bottle of Cab and you’re done, right? But if you enjoy learning how food and wine interact and change each other in your mouth, there’s a bit more to consider – namely, how you “dress” or finish the meat. With chicken or seafood – protein dishes that you can prepare a hundred different ways – pairing can get more involved. Prime rib, though, is fairly straightforward, and it’s easy to narrow your wine choices to two categories: spicy and spicier.

If you like to top your prime rib with au jus, then you’ll want a Big Sexy Red such as Mourvedre (or, as it’s called in Spain, Monastrell). It’s a wine that gives you structure without heavy oak aromas, with tastes of black pepper and thyme – spicy herbs that stand up to the fatty coating in your mouth. You’ll get those same lively spices from a Syrah or Grenache (Garnacha in Spain) – those elegant Southern Rhône grapes with just enough acidity to cut the fat.

But to me, one of the best flavors of a prime rib dinner is homemade horseradish sauce.

Horserad.sauce

It’s not for everyone. Some horseradish lovers prefer a creamier style; others take it plain. Whichever style you choose, you’ll want a robust red with enough tannins to tame the sting of this powerful root plant. Cabernet Sauvignon is an obvious choice, but I would go for a Dolcetto from northern Italy’s Piedmont region – or, even better, a Barbera-Dolcetto-Nebbiolo blend, if you can find it, from the Langhe district of Piedmont. Wines made from any of these grapes are typically rich and earthy, and they can be high-alcohol. These are the wines that will put hair on your chest.

Or, if you live in the Midwest, look for Cabernet Franc. Wine expert Jancis Robinson has called Cab Franc the “feminine side of Cabernet Sauvignon.” It’s a little softer, yet spicy and bold enough to sip with horseradish, with hints of bell peppers and tobacco. You probably can discover a winery in your region that produces it. French Cabernet Franc is lighter, but I enjoy the slightly bolder Midwestern version.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Saumur-Champigny = a small appellation in the Loire Valley region of France that produces only red wines. It’s known for its spicy red wines made almost entirely from Cabernet Franc grapes; blending up to 10 percent of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chenin Noir is permitted.

Enjoy those prime ribs!

Mary

[Photos by Arnold Gatilao (prime rib) and Paul (horseradish), courtesy of Flickr.]

 

On Earth Day, I’ll Take My Wine Organic

Every community celebrates Earth Day – or, more accurately, International Mother Earth Day, as the United Nations renamed it in 2009, though I’ve never heard heard anyone use that wordy title. School kids plant flowers, neighborhoods sponsor cleanups, environmentalists remind us to reduce, reuse, recycle. It all helps.

This year, Earth Day stands out for a couple of reasons: more than 150 UN members will sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, an initiative supported by all 196 member-countries across the planet, pledging to strive for no more than a 1.5ºC global temperature rise. And the Earth Day Network, the group that first organized Earth Day in 1970, set this year’s theme as “Trees for the Earth” with the goal of planting 7.8 billion trees over the next five years.

Organic wine

My contribution will be a glass (or two) of organic red wine. I’ve tasted organic wines from various countries, including Chile, Argentina, Spain and Portugal. But if it’s made in the US, it must have that little green sticker you see in the photo above, “USDA Organic” – the US Dept. of Agriculture’s stamp of approval – or the winery can’t claim it’s organic.

For winemakers, it’s not easy being green. The government’s National Organic Program (NOP) set forth its requirements in a 7-page labeling guide. The most important feature of organic grapes is that they’re grown without fertilizers or pesticides. There’s a difference between organic grapes and organic wines – long story – but basically a vineyard must be free of substances on the NOP’s list of prohibited materials for three years before it can be certified organic.

So, how to keep a vineyard free of chemicals? By getting creative, mostly, and spending money. Spraying fertilizer and pesticides is easier and cheaper than investing in mulch to keep weeds down, or buying specialty soaps to help control insects. Some vineyard managers buy predator insects to eat the bugs that destroy their grapes. Some of the organic processes call for more people in the vineyard, which always drives up the cost.

And sometimes nothing works. If the vines become diseased or a pest invasion overwhelms the vineyard, the winegrower has no choice but to get rid of the problem as quickly and painlessly as possible. Once a non-approved fertilizer or pesticide is used, the vineyard loses its organic certification and has to undergo the long process of trying to go organic again.

It’s easier to grow organic grapes in some parts of the country than others. Few growers attempt it in the Midwest, for instance, because the humidity makes it easy for mold and rot to take hold of the vines, while dryer environments see fewer disease and insect problems.

Corks

But since few of us are lucky enough to own vineyards or wineries, there are other ways we can go green with wine. One is to recycle corks. We’ve all seen “cork art” – I’m not a fan, though I’ve seen a few works that were extraordinary. But there’s an easier way to recycle your corks, and that’s to sell them online, for about a dime each. A bag of 100 can bring you a cool $10, and they weigh so little, shipping costs are minimal. (You can sell those dreadful plastic corks, too, but you’ll only get about 5 cents each for those.) Some sellers “batch” them in different ways – Spanish wine corks, California corks, French corks.

Empty bottles

You can sell your empty wine bottles, too, for about $1 each. These cost more to ship, of course, but people who make their own vino need them. Soak the labels off, and you might want to separate them by color and shape.

Box wine

One last way to reduce your environmental footprint, wine-wise: drink boxed wines. It takes far fewer natural resources to manufacture and ship cardboard boxes with rubber bladders inside, than glass bottles. And stop snickering; some of this stuff is delicious. (And yes, some is nasty.) I’ve had great luck with Big Sexy Reds produced by Bota Box, Vin Vault and Black Box.

If you want to go on record as an “official” supporter of curbing climate change, go to the Earth Day Network’s website, http://www.earthday.org, and become a “citizen signer.” You can brag about it to the kids someday – over a glass of organic wine.

Wine Lingo of the Day =  Sustainable viticulture, growing grapes in a way that not only protects the environment organically, but also considers the long-term future of society and wine growing, addressing such issues as global warming, greenhouse gases and water usage.

[Photos by Mary Mihaly, Deb Harkness/Flickr (corks), Monika Andrae/Flickr (empties) and anokarina/Flickr (boxed wine).]

Cheers!

Mary

Forget Exercise – Raise Your Glass Instead?

Let’s get one thing on the table: today is National Beer Day. That’s a good thing, but it’s not my thing. I’d rather write about wine: why at BigSexyReds.com we love learning about wine, writing about it and most of all, drinking it.

And the best reason for drinking red wine especially: because it’s good for you – apparently as beneficial as a one-hour workout at the gym.

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Scientists aren’t telling us to hang up our sneakers just yet, but they have discovered some surprising gains in recent years from drinking a glass of vino.

Researchers from Oregon State University found that ellagic acids, antioxidants found in grapes, can delay the growth of existing fat cells and slow the development of new ones. Pretty cool, yes? When they tested the acids on mice, those that were given extracts of Pinot Noir grapes stored less fat in their livers and had healthier blood sugar levels, while those who scarfed down “mouse chow” developed fatty liver and symptoms of diabetes—“the same metabolic consequences we see in many overweight, sedentary people,” the researchers wrote.

Jeff Gargiulo, now owner of Gargiulo Vineyards in Napa Valley, isn’t surprised. “We all agree out here that wine is very healthy,” he told BigSexyReds.com. “People out here live it.”

It gets better: in a separate study out of the University of Alberta last year, scientists concluded that drinking one glass of red wine per day bestows the same payoffs in physical performance, heart function and muscle strength as working out for an hour. Resveratrol, they found, “could mimic exercise” for patients unable to work out, or to boost benefits for those who did exercise.

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But moderation matters: Three glasses of red does not equal three hours in the gym, no matter how pricey the wine. The good news is, you don’t have to spend a fortune; cheaper red wine brings the same health benefits as the good stuff.

And the bonuses keep coming:

  • Drinking red wine can lower your risk of depression, according to a  2013 Spanish study published in the journal BMC Medicine. That’s for people who drink two to seven glasses per week.
  • Another mental health boost: a study published in The Journal of Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment showed that 23 percent of participants who drank red wine lowered their risk of developing dementia.
  • A newer study last October found that for patients diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes who also were at low risk for alcohol abuse, enjoyed more restful sleep and higher HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) when they drank one glass of red wine each day. That group, in fact, scored better than patients who drank white wine or water.
  • A bit of surprise, but it makes sense: researchers at the University of Barcelona found that drinking moderate amounts of red wine helps protect against sunburn.

Beer drinking, by the way, carries its own health advantages: it’s a heart-healthy drink, it boosts creativity, and it helps prevent cataracts, among other benefits.

So, I’ll raise my wineglass to beer drinkers today – and whatever you pour, drink it in good health!

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Flavonoids = compounds that contribute to a wine’s color, astringency (tannins), texture and bitterness, and are largely responsible for wine’s healthy qualities.

Healthy sipping!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of Steve Corey and donireewalker, Flickr/Creative Commons]

No-Guilt Wine Grapes: Thank You, Cesar Chavez!

He’s a modern-day hero now, with schools, bridges, libraries, parks and roads named after him. But back in the ’60s and ’70s, California’s agricultural oligarchy was hardly enamored of human rights activist César Chávez. That was especially true of grape growers, targets of the 5-year boycott that made Chávez famous.

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[Photo of Chavez with a sign encouraging farm workers to “Huelga” – “Strike” – courtesy of Jay Galvin, Flickr/Creative Commons]

Ironically, although he spent his adult years trying to revolutionize the farming establishment, Chávez started life as one of them. Born in Yuma, Arizona this day in 1927, he spent his early years on the 100-acres-plus farm owned by his grandfather, Césario Chávez. But the family lost their farm in the Great Depression and went to California to labor in the fields as migrant workers.

After a wartime stint in the U.S. Navy, Chávez returned to the fields. He spent his spare hours reading and became a devotee of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of social change through non-violence. His world was ready to erupt: migrant workers often went unpaid, got no medical care or schooling in the barrios, worked all day without bathroom breaks and endured other conditions difficult to imagine in today’s first-world lifestyle.

So in his mid-30s, Chávez began the slow process of organizing farm workers for better living and working conditions, and several years later his National Farm Workers Association joined with the AFL-CIO in their strike against vineyards in Delano, California.

Chávez became the national poster boy for underserved Americans – especially those in rural communities, and especially Latinos. Public pressure and support for the boycott was so strong that most growers caved, signing agreements to upgrade conditions for field workers. Chávez became the first man ever to organize a farm workers’ union that resulted in signed contracts, and shortly after the grape boycott ended in 1970, he went after lettuce growers. It didn’t impact the industry as much as the grape protest, but that mattered little; American consumers had awakened.

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[Photo of Chávez, right, with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. The woman to Kennedy’s right is Chavez’s wife, Helen. Courtesy of Korean Resource Center, Flickr/Creative Commons]

One feature of Chávez’s non-violent protest tactic was fasting. In 1968, to prevent violence during the grape strike, he went on a hunger strike for 25 days. His fast was broken at an outdoor Mass attended by 4,000 supporters, including Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Chávez conducted several more hunger strikes during his organizing career, and in the end it likely killed him. He died in his sleep in 1993 after fasting for several days – but while not all everything he accomplished was permanent, the most important changes – guaranteed pay for migrant workers, a 70 percent wage increase from 1964 to 1980, health care, schooling and a formal grievance policy – did endure. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to Chávez’s wife, fellow activist Helen Chávez, and in 2008, Presidential candidate Barack Obama adopted Chávez’s mantra, “Si se puede”–“Yes, we can”–as his own campaign slogan.

And I still have my “Boycott Grapes” bumper sticker.

What should we pour, then, to honor César Chávez on his birthday? It has to be a California varietal, don’t you think? A nice Cab or Merlot is the obvious choice, but they do so well with Zinfandel, I think that’s what I’ll drink tonight. And if you feel like a splurge, try a Schramsberg bubbly. Finally, Chávez would approve.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Alto Adige = Italy’s northernmost wine region. Perched at the very top of the country, Alto Adige sits in the Italian Alps (known as the Dolomites) and borders Austria and Switzerland. When you visit, you’ll drink lively whites with plenty of minerality- Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon (as they call Sauvignon Blanc) – but you’ll find BigSexyReds here, too.

Cheers!

Mary

Washington Wine Month is Walla-Walla-Wonderful!

Some say the shrubby, scrubby, almost desert-like terrain of eastern Washington is what gives character and backbone to wines from that state. There, in the rain shadow of the Cascades, you’ll find 99 percent of Washington’s vineyards.

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

Red Willow vineyard, Yakima AVA, Washington

March is Washington Wine Month and we can all raise our glasses: their wines are sold in all 50 states and about 40 countries.

Big Sexy Reds do well here. A slew of micro-climates are scattered across the state’s 13 AVAs, but typically the vines goes fully dormant in winter, with temps from 28°-45° to keep the roots cozy and growing, and hoarding their carbs until the vines are ready to sprint in the spring. Diurnal (overnight) temperature swings of 40° keep the acid levels up there, and summertime highs of 90° or more make great sugar for the fruit.

Some 25,000 acres are planted with reds – slightly more than half the state’s vines – with about 10,300 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon alone. But it’s all good for red-lovers of every stripe; Washington also produces Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Malbec and more. For white-wine drinkers they grow Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier – more than 40 wine grapes in all.

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Harvest, Figgins Family Wines, Walla Walla, Washington

Washington wine has come a long way since the first wine grapes appeared in the Walla Walla Valley around 1860. The state’s oldest living vines are the Muskat of Alexandria vines on Snipes Mountain, reportedly producing fruit since 1917. (Next year, when those vines celebrate their 100th birthday, I think Washington wine lovers should make a pilgrimage to Snipes Mountain and dance naked in the vineyard. Just saying.)  The first commercial-scale plantings – predecessors of today’s Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Winery – came in the 1960s; today Washington wine is a $4.4-billion industry, with a new winery opening almost every 30 days.

Although the biggest tastings happen this month, you have plenty of time to plan a visit during sunny, walking-around weather: it generally stays warm (70°-80°) into the fall, with some wineries able to harvest as late as November.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  AVA = American Viticultural Area, an officially designated wine grape-growing region in the U.S. The gatekeeper for AVAs is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Currently there are 234 AVAs in the U.S. (138 of them in California), with 10 applications pending for the creation of new AVAs or expansion of existing ones. One day when I’m feeling especially nerdy I’ll write an entire post on AVAs, their regulation and how they differ from wine-region designations in other countries. Sound exciting? Yeah, I thought that’s what you’d say…

Don’t forget to click the “Follow” tab (lower right corner of your screen) to get BigSexyReds.com by email (pretty please!).

Cheers!

Mary

[Photos courtesy of WashingtonWine.org]