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.

Cheers!

Mary

 

 

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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

Tempranillo Time!

If there’s a perfect antidote to my never-ending POTUS blues, it’s sipping $65 Rioja (“ree-OH-ha”) wines and learning about them from the incomparable Doug Frost, MS, MW. Not only is Frost the funniest, most exuberant wine expert anywhere, he’s also one of only four people on the planet who’s both a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine–making him one smart wine dude.

 

And by Rioja wines, I mean Tempranillo. Like France, Spain sometimes does that annoying label thing where they name the wine according to the region where the wine is produced, not the grapes that go into it. In the case of red Rioja, the grape is Tempranillo–sometimes blended with Garnacha, Mazuelo (also known as Carignan, more often associated with the South of France), and Graciano grapes to give the wine a certain structure or taste. Mostly, though, you’ll be drinking Tempranillo.

The grape has a bit of an identity crisis; its half-dozen pseudonyms throughout Spain and Portugal include Tinta de Toro, Cencibel, Aragon and Tinta Roriz. But it was Rioja that bestowed Tempranillo’s global reputation as one of Spain’s premier grape varieties. In fact, Rioja is one of only two Spanish wine regions, the other being Priorat, that’s been elevated to DOCa status (Denominación de Origen Calificada)–the country’s top-ranking regional classification.

We can thank Rioja for yet another type of label confusion: if it simply states the wine is Rioja, it was bottled fairly young, after aging just a few months in the barrel. Crianza is a step up: wines labeled Crianza spent a minimum of one year in oak and at least a few more months in the bottle. “Reserve,” we know, can often mean whatever the winemaker wants you to believe it means, but in Spain they follow rules; if they label a wine as Reserva it’s been aged at least three years–one year in oak, two in the bottle. And if the label says Gran Reserva it spent two years in the barrel and another three years in the bottle before it left the winery.

If you’ve drank Tempranillo more than once, you already know that the aromas and tastes can be as different as bacon and pork roast. In the Doug Frost tasting, the second glass I tried felt a little oily in my mouth, while the next was warm and spicy, heavy on the cinnamon. Two glasses later, a caramel aroma hit me in the face, but that wine’s finish had a cranberry tartness. Some drinkers taste cherries in Tempranillo while others notice earthier tastes–fig, tobacco, herbs. Wine expert Jancis Robinson notices a masculine character, more savory than sweet, like “fresh tobacco leaves.”

Tempranillo was my first red-wine love, partly because it was one of the few “real” wines I could afford to buy. It’s still surprisingly affordable: you can spend $65 on a rare Gran Reserva if you like, but you can find Crianzas and Reservas for less than $15 in nearly any wine shop. And Rioja (or any good Tempranillo) is always a welcome hostess gift–especially if you’re coming to my place.

Wine Lingo of the Day: Staves = the vertical wooden planks, or slats, that form the sides of wine barrels.

Tempranillo med

Vino ‘View:  Anciano Reserva 2010 Tempranillo (13 percent alcohol; $10.50-12.50). See what I mean? A fine Reserva, less than $13 online at Cost Plus World Market. I bought this bottle in person for $11. It’s from Valdepeñas (DO), (“valley of rocks”), so named because the soil there is rich in limestone rock, sandy loam and clay. That lends a leathery, dry-leaves taste to the wine, balanced with the darker fruits grown in the region, directly south of Rioja in Castilla-La Mancha. It’s velvety-soft–a sexy wine, so I snapped it with the sexy photo in my dining room, “Powerhouse Mechanic” by Lewis Hine (1921). But this bottle won’t keep much longer; buy the 2010 to drink now.

Cheers!

Mary

Wine & Spirits Exams: Not for Every Palate

Studying can be a greedy master. It devoured much of my time this spring, but the outcome was worth it: I passed my CSS (Certified Specialist of Spirits) exam, and the experience got me thinking about exams in general.

I hate them. When I’m not cramming for my next wine or spirits test, I feel a bit adrift. I love the studying part. But when it comes to the exam itself, no matter how well I know the material, I’m anxious and confused.

 

 

                         [From left: Three levels of Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) pins; Certified
                  Specialist of Wine (CSW) pin; Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) pin; CSS “pass letter”]

Each path to wine or spirits certification, whether you pursue credentials from the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), Court of Master Sommeliers, Institute of Masters of Wine, or college-based Viticulture & Enology Science & Technology Alliance (VESTA), has its own strategy. One school might emphasize technicalities – soil types and grape varieties, winemaking styles, wine laws across the globe – while others focus on vintages and subtleties of restaurant service.

Their exams are just as diverse. The WSET Level 3/Advanced exam, for instance, is mostly about wine, divided into three segments: First up is a set of multiple-choice questions, followed by an “essay” portion (some questions are brief sentence completions, while others require lengthy answers, such as discussing wines from various regions of Italy – and you dare not leave out any important details or terms). The last part of the exam is a blind wine tasting, which isn’t nearly as scary as you would think. You’re given two wine pours, a red and a white, and when I took the test we were required to list 26 separate attributes of each wine – appearance, four aromas, five tastes, alcohol level, tannin level, acidity, and so on, ending with the wine’s grape and region. Fortunately, my instructor, Marianne Frantz of American Wine School, was mercifully generous with those tastes, because after nearly three hours of testing we were ready for alcohol.

The CSW and CSS exams from the Society of Wine Educators are multiple-choice, which implies they would be easier to pass. Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news: every question from the exams is drawn from the textbooks. The bad news: there’s a pool of about 5,000 randomly selected questions for each exam, so each candidate gets a different set of questions to answer. Your only hope of passing is to memorize the book.

For the spirits certification, you might be asked, which scotch-producing region delivers the highest-quality whisky? How long is bourbon required to age? Which country is best known for distilling barley to make vodka? What is the Lincoln County Process? Who was “Old Forester”? Which cocktails are typically made by shaking, rolling or stirring? Which types of stills are used for which spirits? What’s the difference between a doubler and a thumper? What are the aging requirements and bottled alcohol levels – both in the U.S. and Europe, because they’re different – of whiskey, vodka and gin? And you’d better know every detail about Prohibition and Repeal Day.

The most punishing is the Masters of Wine exam – which is why, at this writing, only 370 individuals in 28 countries (125 of whom are women) are MWs. Candidates write papers on such topics as the effects of a worldwide labor shortage on vineyards, or the role of enzymes in winemaking. But far more terrifying is the blind tasting: three flights of 12 wines each. Grapes, regions, characteristics, every detail a true expert would be expected to know. Lastly, MW candidates must submit a report of original research, up to 10,000 words long.

Like any academic pursuit, sitting for wine and spirits exams can be grueling. Is it worth the trouble? That depends on your personal goals, how hard you want to study, and frankly, how much money you want to spend. I spent several thousand dollars; by the time you become a Master of Wine or French Wine Scholar, you could spend a small fortune. For me, it definitely has paid off – but now I might be finished studying. Stay tuned.

Liquor Lingo of the Day: Angel’s Share = the whiskey that evaporates as it ages in the barrel. Wood is porous, so the angels get a sweet allowance – up to 4 percent every year. A smaller amount is sacrificed to the Devil’s Cut, the liquor that seeps into the wood and is absorbed by the barrel itself.

LVOV new

Liquor ‘View: Eating your veggies is one thing, but drinking them is a party! I couldn’t wait to try LVOV Vodka (80 proof, under $20), a Polish import distilled from beets. I wasn’t disappointed; you won’t detect any beet flavor (though I love beets, so I wouldn’t have minded a hint of beet) or color. Sipped on the rocks, the mouthfeel is satiny and creamy, reminding me of a sweet whipped cream. It had no aroma and little taste except a hint of wheat, so I expected it would be a versatile cocktail vodka. It was fine in Bloody Marys, but really shone in summery drinks. I mixed citrus coolers and later some boozy watermelon slushies, and the bottle emptied – always a good outcome!

[A bottle of LVOV Vodka was sent to BigSexyReds for review purposes.]

 

Cheers,

Mary

I Heard It Through the Grapevine – It’s Spring!

Ah…about four hours ago, spring arrived here in the northern states. It’s my favorite season because it’s the most forward-looking; already I’m getting jazzed about new projects, new discoveries – new possibilities!

Spring vineyard

[Photo: “The de Brye Vineyard” by Hanzell Vineyards, courtesy of flickr.com]

Vineyards love spring; it’s their time of rebirth and reconnecting with the world. Their new growth cycle has begun, and vineyard managers will respond with long hours of aerating the soil, planting and never-ending weeding. Soon they’ll begin trellising and training their vines so the leaves will be ready to soak up the sun.

In case you’ve forgotten your 6th-grade science lessons, today is the March equinox, also called the “vernal” or spring equinox, one of two annual occasions when the sun shines directly on the equator (the other equinox is in September). When that happens, day and night are almost equal the world over. Technically, it’s the moment when the sun crosses the “celestial equator” – an imaginary line in the sky that sits directly over earth’s equator.

The earth still is tilting at 23.4º, but today our tilt is perpendicular to the sun’s rays. We could go into the differences between “astronomical spring” and “meteorological spring,” but I think we’ve had enough science for one day.

March 20 also is World Storytelling Day, when we’re supposed to promote storytelling by, um, telling stories. Here’s one about a particularly fun spring tradition (though it’s likely give my sister Margie an episode of PTSD):

Chichen Itza small

[Photo: “Chichen Itzá” by Esparta Palma, courtesy of Flickr.com]

The ancient Mayans, you probably know, devised a remarkably sophisticated calendar. Each year on the vernal equinox, they sacrificed one of their own on top of their huge pyramid, El Castillo, at Chichen Itza, Mexico. Can you see those tiny people in the photo, slithering up and down the narrow stairs to the sacrificial altar? Margie slithered up – but then she was too scared to come down. No railing, no rope – just her and a few other brave souls who, unlike her, were not terrified and sobbing. I couldn’t help her; I’ve been called a lot of things, but brave-with-heights isn’t one of them. Fortunately, she enlisted the help of an older gentleman who helped her down. The temperature that day was at least 100º; it’s a wonder no one toppled over from heat exhaustion. Twenty years later she still accuses me of being unsympathetic.

We celebrate spring with a bit more restraint in Cleveland. No gruesome sacrifices here, though I do expect the high-spirited guys across the street to dance naked on the front lawn tonight. (You know who you are!) I like to celebrate in some way that acknowledges spring’s rebirth and renewal. Some years I pledge to meditate every morning – a vow I have to repeat, since my resolve usually breaks down over the months. This year I’m starting to clear my space and get some fresh energy into this place.

If that sounds like too much work, you can always kill some time trying to balance an egg on its pointier end. Folklore says this is the day when it’s possible.

Wine Lingo: Bud break = when dormant buds on the grapevine break open and the shoot begins to grow. It happens when spring rain sends water and nutrients up through the roots and into the vine; the buds swell and finally burst, liberating tiny, exquisite grape leaves. Bud break is the first stage of the vine’s growth cycle.

Missianer

Vino ‘View: Last year in early spring I visited Trentino Alto-Adige, a mountainous wine region in northern Italy. The landscape was adorned with wildflowers, and I wanted tonight’s wine to reflect that adventure. I chose 2016 St. Pauls Schiava Missianer (12.5 percent alcohol, $14), made from 100 percent Schiava, a red grape that thrives in Südtirol (South Tyrol) Aldo Adige DOC. One reviewer called this wine “lightweight” and I think that’s fair; it’s definitely light-bodied with strong strawberry and red cherry aroma and taste. I also got some floral hints, though it could have been self-suggestion; I was thinking of those wildflowers in the foothills. Treat it like a Pinot Noir but with more acidity. I chilled it for 30 minutes and paired it with broasted chicken.

[St. Pauls Missioner Vernatsch was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Happy spring!

Mary

 

Women on Wine, for International Women’s Day!

You know that title doesn’t refer to women who subsist on our favorite adult beverage – you get that, right? (Although I admit, it might not be a bad idea…)

We’re talking about women’s thoughts on wine. Unless you’re a recluse with no connection to the outside world, no doubt you’re aware that today is International Women’s Day, when we celebrate the social, cultural, economic and political achievements of the female sex. You knew I couldn’t let the day end without passing along some women-wisdom.

wine, women

[Photo, “Wine Pasion,” by Gisela Giardino, courtesy of Flickr.com]

But rather than waxing on about our strengths or accomplishments – plenty of people are doing that today – I thought it would be fun to read what women say about wine.

It didn’t take long to discover, women have plenty to say. I found some great quotes – some funny, some sweet – and managed to narrow it down to a “top 10.” But first, my least favorite quote:

“I drink red wine on ice to water it down.” – Diane Keaton, actress

Yuck, right?

Without further ado, here are my Top 10 favorite wine quotes by (or about) women:

10.  “I’m like old wine. They don’t bring me out very often – but I’m well preserved.”           – Rose Kennedy, philanthropist and mother of President John F. Kennedy, 1890-1995

9.  “One of my most exciting Saturday nights was just me and a bottle of wine and a crochet book.”  – Jessica Pare, actress who played Megan Draper on the television show Mad Men

8.  “I suffer from CLAUSTROPHOBIA, a fear of closed spaces. For example, I’m petrified that the WINE store will be closed before I have time to get there!”  – Tanya Masse, author

7.  “Wino Forever.”  – actor Johnny Depp’s tattoo that formerly read, “Winona Forever”

6.  “What I do and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes.”         –  Elizabeth Barrett Browning, poet, 1806-1861

5.  “The wine – it made her limbs loose and liquid, made her feel that a hummingbird had taken the place of her heart.” – Jodi Picot, author

4.  “The lover drinks                                                                                                                                as the cup-bearer pours.                                                                                                                       The lover thinks                                                                                                                                     but the cup-bearer knows:                                                                                                                   love begets love.                                                                                                                                     Since this wine is love,                                                                                                                                                          then this cup is love,                                                                                                                                       then this tavern is love,                                                                                                                                  then this life is love.”  – Kaman Kojouri, Iranian author

3.  “If you love food and you love red wine and they put you in France, you’re in a good place and you’re in a bad place at the same time. You have to weigh yourself every day, and you have to have an alarm number. When you get to that number, you have to start putting it in reverse.”  – Salma Hayak, actress

2.  “Independence is a heady draught and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect on the brain as young wine does. It does not matter that its taste is not always appealing. It is addictive and with each drink you want more.” – Maya Angelou, poet, 1928-2014

1. “Wine and women make wise men dote and forsake God’s law and do wrong…However, the fault is not in the wine and often [emphasis mine] not in the woman. Even if you get drunk on the wine and through this greed you lapse into lechery, the wine is not to blame but you are…” – Anonymous, Dives and Pauper, a 15th-century commentary on The Ten Commandments.

Food (or drink) for thought!

Wine Lingo:  Since women love to hang together, today’s lingo is hang time = the time from veraison (that moment when grapes start changing color from green to yellow or red) and harvest. The longer the grapes hang, the deeper their richness and complexity, but if they hang for too long they overripen. No bueno.

Traverse City bourbon

Vino ‘View:  On International Women’s Day, I think we can admit that many (most?) of us are badasses who like the hard stuff now and then. You’ll notice that this bottle of Traverse City XXX Straight Bourbon (86 proof, $34.99 onlineis half empty. That’s because I’ve been sipping, yes I have. Produced in northern Michigan by Traverse City Whiskey Co., this bourbon doesn’t bring the corn-sweetness one usually expects from bourbon, though I did get cornbread on the finish, and caramel – again without the sweetness, which is fine with me. It’s aged four years in American white oak, and the wood taste is strong but not smoky. There’s also vanilla, but it’s authentic-Mexican-cooking-vanilla, not vanilla ice cream flavor, and cinnamon. It’s good on its own, maybe with an ice cube, but you won’t feel much burn on the way down. 

[The Traverse City XXX Straight Bourbon was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers, especially to you women who will speak out and make great choices this year – Brava!

Mary

My Top 10 Wines & Spirits in 2017

As you might guess, I enjoy an adult beverage (or two) pretty much every day. That adds up to a lot of different wines and spirits. Selecting 10 favorites was a challenge – but holy Zinfandel, was the research fun!

These bottles range in price from super-affordable to impress-the-boss splurge, but none are ridiculously pricey. Any would make superb holiday gifts.

In no particular order, these are my 2017 picks:

 

 

  • When I served Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva (40 proof, $38) to a few friends, none of them knew they were sipping rum – they thought it tasted like brandy or a honey-infused bourbon. That’s not too far-fetched, since this Venezuelan beauty is aged for up to 12 years in bourbon barrels. Long aging bestows elegance on a fine rum; this one carries notes of fennel, caramel, oak and corn. I wouldn’t mix Diplomatico – savor it neat or cool it with one ice cube.
  • If you haven’t tried reds from northern Italy, the 2016 Colterenzio St. Magdalener, DOC Alto Adige (12.5 percent alcohol, $14) is a good introduction. Its vegetable tone is delicious, tinged with parsley and, as it rests, tea and black cherries. It’s a bit stony, and the ashy aroma continues into the taste with milk chocolate and smoke in the finish. If you don’t like tannins, you’ll love this wine, but keep it for a year or two before you crack the bottle.
  • I drank my 2014 Yarden Malbec (14.5 percent alcohol, $32.99) while I munched on olives, cheese and pepperoni – a typical lazy supper for moi – and it held up beautifully. This Israeli wine, produced in the Golan Heights in Galilee, is a real Big Sexy Red – plums and smoke aroma, followed by bacon, blackberries and a bit of dark raisin tastes. It reminded me of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered shortbread stars, but with heat.
  • Whenever I see Zweigelt, I buy it because it’s not that common in the U.S., but I had never tried a Zweigelt rosé. Earlier this year, a friend gave me a bottle of 2015 Josef & Philipp Bründlmayer Grafenegg Rosé vom Zweigelt (12 percent alcohol, $50) and I’m on a mission to find more. Although Zweigelt is a relatively obscure grape in the U.S. it’s actually the most-planted red in Austria. The soft salmon-colored wine is a high-acid gem – “almost fizzy,” my friend said – but creamy and earthy at the same time.

 

 

 

  •  Pinot Noir isn’t always a big-bold red, but the 2013 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir       Carneros (13.5 percent alcohol, $27) is almost chewy, and dark like a California tan. I got an aroma of dark grapes, blackberries and a bit of turkey sausage (and I mean that in a good way). Add black pepper, raspberries, plums, bell peppers and pomegranate on the palate – a well-ordered structure with smoke and mocha on the finish.
  • I discovered Hanson of Sonoma Small Batch Cucumber Flavored Vodka (80 proof, $26) on a trip to Sonoma last spring and when I returned in November, I brought home two bottles. Don’t let the “flavored” deter you; these certified organic artisan distillers infuse their grape-based vodkas with real produce, and you won’t be drinking a cucumber salad – that taste is barely a kiss. It’s only distributed on the West Coast, but I found it online at MissionLiquor.com. Shipping cost for one bottle is exorbitant, but if you buy three or more it gets reasonable.
  •  One of the hottest wine regions these days is Eastern Europe, and 2015 Patricius Tokaj Dry Furmint (12 percent alcohol, $15) is a great example of the quality wines produced there. Tokaj in Hungary is the world’s first designated wine appellation, and Furmint, one of its most abundant white grapes, is used for making both sweet and dry wines. This one is as dry as wine gets – zesty, fresh, with strong minerality and stone fruit flavors, along with a touch of pineapple and banana.

 

 

 

  • I haven’t tasted every rye in the world, but Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Small Batch Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey (90 proof, $49.99) is the best I’ve tried. Developed by Wild Turkey’s master distiller Jimmy Russell, it’s one smooth drink. The tastes are a delicious blend of toffee, rye, pecan and cinnamon – and don’t you dare mix it; this is a fine sipping rye. Just make sure it’s labeled “6 Year Old,” because the regular Russell’s Reserve Rye is 104 proof and not nearly as refined-tasting.
  • Casal Thaulero’s 2009 Thalé Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (14 percent alcohol, $40) is that special-occasion bottle you set aside – but just for a short while, because it’s at its peak now. After aromas of red fruit and vanilla, expect a big, bold mouthfeel and tastes of maple, pumpkin spice and dry leaves – perfect for fall and winter drinking.
  • It’s probably not fair for me to include this bottle because a friend bought it in Italy, but Limoncello is my favorite digestivo and always makes a great gift. It’s traditionally made with Sorrento lemons in southern Italy, but I’ve come across some terrific limoncello produced here in the U.S., too. Get recommendations from your liquor merchant; the best limoncello is sweet enough that you know you’re drinking liqueur, but not cloying; and tart but not bitter. Like any fine liquor, it should be smooth and balanced. You can find quality limoncello for less than $40.

Bonus picks – Three choice drinks didn’t make the list: Ferrari Grappa Segnana Solera, omitted only because it’s not distributed in the U.S. (but worth ordering online if you can find it); OYO Bourbon Whiskey, Michelone Reserve, distributed only in eight states but also available online; and Maker’s 46, a great option when you want a not-ordinary bourbon to sip by the fire. All three are in my cabinet…So many bottles, so little time!

Next up – uncommon, last-minute wine gifts for any wine lover – or treat yourself!

Cheers,

Mary