Wine Blogging: There’s Always Something

I’m on the road at the moment – my favorite place to be – and I’m remembering that until this week I hadn’t flown for almost five months, since the 2017 Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma. That event is 50 percent fun, 50 percent learning, and of course, 100 percent wine.

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[Jeff Hinchliffe, winemaker at Hanna Winery, pouring Saint-Macaire for thirsty wine writers]

So what happens when wine bloggers connect? Here are my takeaways from the confab last November:

  1. I need to drink more Chateau St. Jean. When the elegant wine estate closed for several weeks because of the Sonoma fires, our excursion to the winery was canceled. But they were good enough to donate some bottles, and we partied virtually with their 2014 Cinq Cépages (14.7% alcohol, $85), a divine Bordeaux blend with big tannins, healthy acidity and fragrant with blueberries and cherry cola.
  2. If you’ve driven in Napa Valley, you already know this: avoid Route 29, the primary road that bisects the valley. Not only does it get congested, it’s also where police linger, waiting to pounce on speeding tourists. Take the Silverado Trail instead; it runs parallel to Route 29 and will give you a more tranquil drive.
  3. For a deeper understanding of what’s in your glass, listen to the person who made it happen. Jon Priest, head winemaker at Etude Wines, dispensed a few prize nuggets for anyone who considers producing wine: “If we wanted our wine to express the place,” he said, “we had to learn everything about the soil before we planted a vine.” Later he shared his position on Etude’s signature varietal: “Pinot Noir is Pinot Noir. You shouldn’t blend anything into it. If you have to mix something into it, you’re trying to fix something.”
  4. We learned about some effects of wildfires at Hanna Winery. In short, if the barrel room fills with smoke, not to worry – smoke taint won’t permeate the barrel to reach the wine inside. But if you pour already-tainted wine in a barrel, then empty it and pour fresh wine in, that second batch also will be tainted. The smoke flaws from the first batch will likely spoil the barrel. In the vineyard, ash left in the soil won’t affect next year’s harvest; it only affects fruit that’s on the vine during the fire.
  5. If you’re making wine from Malbec next fall, here’s a little advice from Hanna’s winemaker, Jeff Hinchliffe: “When you have an abundance, turn some into rosé. It makes a killer rosé.”
  6. I wasn’t familiar with Saint-Macaire, so I was excited to taste some from the barrel at Hanna Winery. The obscure Bordeaux grape grows in large, tight clusters and “in the tank it turns into a monster,” Hinchcliffe says. It’s the quintessential Big Sexy Red – dark ruby colored with an aroma of anise that lingers in the taste, along with dark chocolate, lettuce, black fruit and a bit of pink grapefruit. I want to taste it again after it softens.
  7. When you build your own winery, take a tip from Rodney Strong Vineyards and ferment your wine in square tanks instead of the traditional round ones. Square tanks maximize space, often a valuable factor as the business grows.
  8. I learned something even more important from the folks at Rodney Strong: I suck as a winemaker. They sponsored a blending seminar, and we competed in teams of four to concoct the best Meritage wine. We worked with Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to reach the best possible balance, adding 4 percent of one varietal here, 10 percent of another wine there, back to soften it with a little Merlot, giving it more backbone with more Petit Verdot. We had to track the exact percentages, and after an hour of calculating and blending and tasting, we were exhausted. Our team placed second.
  9. If you want to sharpen your wine-detecting abilities, a suggestion from Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson: buy liqueurs in various flavors, sip and smell slowly, and take notes. Flavors are more concentrated in liqueurs and you can distinguish specific tastes and aromas more easily than in wines.
  10. Wineries may soon feel the pinch from legalized marijuana: a few studies already show that because of competition from legal weed, people might reduce their alcohol consumption, or stop drinking altogether. I’m skeptical, but we’ll see.

Wine Lingo: Red Meritage (rhymes with “heritage”) = wine produced using two or more red Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Gros Verdot, Carmenère and Saint-Macaire. If any other grapes are included in the mix, it’s not a red Meritage, though you also can find white Meritage made with Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and/or Sémillon. Neither red nor white Meritage can include more than 90 percent of any one grape. The wine style was created in the late 1980s when some American winemakers wanted a name for Bordeaux blends produced in the New World (i.e., not Europe). They attached criteria required of wineries in order to use the word “Meritage” on the label.

Virginia Dare bottle

[Photo courtesy of Emily Straffen]

Vino ‘View: When you need a reliable table wine, 2015 Virginia Dare Pinot Noir (13.5 percent alcohol, $24.99) is a safe bet. As I drank, I eventually tasted dark cherries, plums, black olives and toasted nuts, though I had to stretch to find those layers. One reviewer nailed it when he called it “a simple wine,” but it’s friendly and I would serve it to friends. More exciting is the story of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America in 1587. She belonged to the Lost Colony that disappeared from Roanoke Island soon after; legend says she was rescued and raised by the Native American tribe that might have attacked the settlement.

Cheers!

Mary

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Speed-Tasting Wines – Keep Up!

It’s not easy to properly taste up to a dozen wines in an hour, especially if the wines are fine and complex. Racing past their nuances means missed opportunities; you want to detect the subtle twists of winemaking and terroir that set them apart from your everyday bottles.

But speed-tasting sessions – one for whites and rosés, the other for reds – were popular highlights of the Wine Bloggers Conference earlier this month in Sonoma. So we sharpened our palates, filled our water glasses and plunged in. Here are a few favorite reds:

 

 

Look out! We started with 1000 Stories Zinfandel, Batch 35 and wondered for a moment who brought the whiskey! At 15.6 percent alcohol, the intensity of this 2015 bottle, made with Mendocino grapes and bourbon barrel aged, took us by surprise. We tasted charcoal and dried herbs (helped along by 17 percent Petite Syrah), with dark plums on the finish. At $18.99, this wine also was the most affordable of the bunch.

The 2015 Gracianna Reserve Pinot Noir was fairly high-alcohol, too, at 14.8 percent. The winery only produces 150 cases, so most of their sales happen in their tasting room in Healdsburg – but at $72 a bottle, they’re wise to keep it exclusive. The aroma of pecans greeted us as we raised our glasses, then red fruit dominated the taste, which grew deeper as we kept tasting. (News flash: at that price, we didn’t spit.) The Pinot Noir is unfined and aged in neutral French oak.

“Wine is a journey,” reads Donelan’s website – but last month the Donelan family’s journey took a big detour: their Santa Rosa vineyards were lost to the fires that ravaged Napa and Sonoma. But the winery itself survived and the vines will be replanted. For now, their 2013 Cuvée Moriah Red Wine (14 percent alcohol) is worth the $50 price tag. It’s full-bodied, almost thick, with lively raspberry and cherry tastes and smooth tannins. Take time to find the nuances in your glass; this wine has finesse.

 

 

Here comes more alcohol: the 2014 Conundrum Red Blend is one smooth customer at 15.1 percent, and don’t be fooled by the $25 price tag. The winery’s motto is “both serious and playful” – hence the conundrum – and it carries into the wine, with tastes ranging from red berries to dark, smoky plums. No wonder; the grapes in the mix include Zinfandel and Petite Syrah.

Then there’s inky, sultry 2014 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon. One sniff and you know you’re drinking a California Cab, strong and smoky. This is a true Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot from Napa’s steep, rocky Stags Leap District. We tasted black licorice, black raspberries, cloves and a bite of black pepper, with the slightest hint of prime rib on the finish. Big, sexy, dark – think Poldark, baby – a bargain at $78.

Lastly, we loved that one of the tastiest wines on the table hailed from the Midwest, a 2015 Stonehill Winery Norton from Missouri. Norton is the official grape of the Show-Me State, and at $19.99 this bottle is another affordable choice. It’s a full-bodied, potent wine  – more than you’d expect from its moderate alcohol level (13.3 percent) – with a strong smell of buttery, movie-theater popcorn and dark berry, plummy taste. As I set down my glass, a faint fig taste lingered.

Trinity Hill PN

Vino ‘View:  Need a break from California wines this holiday season? I just tried the 2015 Trinity Hill Pinot Noir Hawkes Bay (13 percent alcohol, $16.99). New Zealand reds are different from those produced in this hemisphere – zestier, not as big – and this one smells of ripe watermelon, taffy and cherry. I tasted cherries, chocolate chip cookie and slight cinnamon; the tannins are mild, watch for a black pepper bite at the end. Two years after its release this bottle still needed decanting to bring the flavors together, then it’s a great turkey-dinner wine. Drink it now or in the next two years.

[The Trinity Hill Pinot Noir was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

 

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

 

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

 

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

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]