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.

StandOut small

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

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

Cheers!

Mary

 

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Grappa – Your New (Very Old) Brandy

When I started learning about wine and spirits, I was told grappa was more or less the garbage of the liquor world. There is a sliver of truth in that bias; after all, it’s distilled from pomace – seeds, stalks, skins and pulp, the parts of the grape most winemakers throw away.

But there the similarity ends. I tasted some fine grappa last week as part of the American delegation touring wineries in the Trentino-Alto Adige region of Italy. (I won’t rub it in too much about the Italy thing,  but I’ll share more about it in the coming weeks.)  For my money, discovering grappa was a highlight of the trip.

IMG_0541[Jamie Stewart, brand manager of Cantine Ferrari Trento, with a few of the winery’s 19th-century gadgets.]

Typically a digestivo, or after-dinner drink (because it’s believed to be good for digestion), grappa is today’s spirits trend, made by more than 100 producers and selling about 40 million bottles a year, though it’s been produced since the Middle Ages. Back then it was an easy, cheap way for farmers and vineyard workers to warm up.

Some classify grappa as an eau-de-vie – and in France, brandy distilled from grape pomace is called eau-de-vie de marc (pronounced “mar”). Other sources say eau-de-vie refers to brandy made from raw materials other than grapes.

Some producers distill their grappa in pot stills or column stills, but others use steam distillation, believing a direct flame could burn the pomace. The drink can be produced from one grape variety or a blend; single-variety grappa (at least 85 percent one variety) is sometimes called monovitigno. And it comes with requirements: fermentation and distillation must happen on the pomace with no added water. The stems in pomace can create small quantities of toxic methanol that must be removed, so Italian law prohibits grappa from being produced in a winery – distillation must take place in a separate facility. And in the EU (European Union), it can only be labeled “grappa” if it’s produced in Italy or San Marino, a tiny republic surrounded by the mountains of north-central Italy. But craft distillers in the US, who aren’t restricted by those labeling laws, are starting to produce some fine artisanal pomace brandies and labeling them as grappa.

The grappa I sampled, reviewed below, was produced by the Ferrari group (no relation to the car, though their wines are just as elegant) in Trentodoc, the cartel of sparkling wine producers in Trentino. You’ll notice it’s caramel-colored. When grappa is stored in glass or other “inactive” materials before bottling, it’s a clear spirit like vodka. Aging it in wooden casks gives it color; if it’s called Vecchia or Invecchiata it was aged for at least 12 months in wood. Grappa labeled Riserva or Stravecchia aged in wood for at least 18 months. My grappa underwent a fractional aging/blending process called a solera system.

Sip your grappa slowly, from a small glass – it can be potent stuff. And look at the alcohol content on the label before you buy; mine is a smooth 84 proof but you can find it lighter – or as raw as throat-scarring 120 proof.

IMG_0543Vino ‘View:  Grappa Segnana Solera Selezione (42 percent alc., about $40 US) After I was treated to a taste of this sublime spirit I couldn’t pull out my wallet fast enough; I had to take a bottle home. Made of 60 percent Pinot Nero and 40 percent Chardonnay, it blends five vintages in a solera process: some brandy from the oldest French oak barrels is bottled, then brandy from each vintage’s barrels tops off the next oldest, and the progressive blending continues each year. The barrels impart a roasted, vanilla, smoky flavor mixed with dark fruit and a long, fruity finish. Don’t look for Grappa Segnana on store shelves in the US; you’ll have to order it online. Google for the best price.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Caffé Coretto (“corrected coffee”) = What you’ll drink if you add a shot of grappa to espresso. Or make it Resentin (“little rinser”) – drink your espresso first, then down a shot of grappa from the same cup.

Ciao!

Mary

When Wine Bloggers Meet: 8 Takeaways

As soon as I heard about the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, I knew I had to be there – and what a spectacle it was! With about 300 of my new best friends, I swirled, sipped and spit my way through the Livermore Valley and Lodi, California wine country. Here’s a bit of what I learned:

1) Yes, you can appreciate good wine at 8:15 a.m.

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The good folks at Murrieta’s Well Estate Vineyard prepared a lavish breakfast for us one morning, paired with three of their tastiest wines. “Best of show” for me was The Spur, their primo red blend, which sells for $30/bottle.

2) Those aren’t grapevines, they’re windmills.

You can’t miss the massive wind farm on the fringe of the valley; the freeway cuts right through it. You’ll be surrounded by nearly 5,000 small-ish wind turbines, but they’re gradually being replaced by bigger turbines – it turns out the smaller version kills some 4,700 birds each year, 1,300 of them raptors. The new turbines sit higher and turn more slowly, so they’ll be less dangerous to animals.

3) If you want a career in wine, volunteer at a winery and learn the basics.

Sounds simple enough, but not all would-be winemakers get it. “We get kids coming to us all the time, wanting a job,” Stuart Spencer, program manager at the Lodi Grape Commission, told his audience. “They have oenology degrees, but they don’t know how to hook up a pump.”

4) There’s a “trail” for everything, even plants that don’t get thirsty.

Livermore Valley has a “drought-resistant trail,” showcasing drought-resistant gardens or plants at wineries. California is in its 5th year of drought with no relief in sight (something to keep in mind if you dream of owning a vineyard on the West Coast), and this trail is popular among visitors who garden.

5) “Old vine” in these parts means really old.

It’s a little comical, here in the Midwest, when wineries label their 30-year-old wines “old vine.” In Lodi and Livermore, it’s not uncommon to find century-old vineyards, some dating back to the early 1880s. Now, that is wine with character.

6) No, you’re not in Greece, but go ahead and pretend.

Those tall, skinny, pointy trees dotting the landscape are Cypress trees, a familiar sight in Greece and other Mediterranean countries. It makes sense; Livermore has a Mediterranean climate. At least five species of Cypress grow here, some reaching a height of 65 feet, and they’re gorgeous juxtaposed against palm trees and oaks.

7) Some of the finest spirits around are crafted by artisans.

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I learned that at the after-hours Spirits Lounge, organized by “whiskyologist” Justin Koury. Two standouts: Few Rye Whiskey, produced by Few Spirits in Evanston, Illinois, and Willie’s Coffee Cream Liqueur by Willie’s Distillery in Ennis, Montana, possibly the best-tasting drink in the history of drinking.

8) Winemakers are generous souls.

This was evident when so many hosted us, led workshops and spent hours talking with us – even though they were in the middle of their grape harvest. They also shared their finest top-shelf wines, most notably Ehlers Estate’s 2013 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon ($110/bottle) and Livermore Valley’s Lineage ($165/bottle).

I have much more to share about the Wine Bloggers Conference, but I’ll save it for next week.

Wine Lingo of the Day:  Tears = These used to be called “legs,” but if you use that term in front of wine people they’ll think you’re old-fashioned. You can see tears on the inside of your wineglass after you swirl your wine. They’ll be more evident with higher-alcohol wines (say, above 13 percent) and, of course, easier to see with reds. There may also be a relationship between tears and the wine’s age; that’s one of those geeky points experts like to debate. The scientific explanation of tears involves molecules and something called “interfacial tension,” but if I talk about that my brain will hurt and I’ll need someone to bring me alcohol.

Vino ‘Views:  It would make sense to review a California red today, especially since August 28 is  Red Wine Day, but I have Abruzzo on my mind. An earthquake devastated much of central Italy this week. I can’t do much to support the region, but I can pour their wine and send good thoughts for their quick recovery. I’ve chosen a bottle of delicious Borgo Thaulero Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (13% alcohol), a dark ruby-colored wine that leaves thicker, creamier tears than you’d expect for a wine of this alcohol level. The smoky, dark-grape aroma prepares you for smoke and a little leather in your mouth, mixed with ripe plums and a long blackberry finish. The body is medium-light, so in spite of the bold tastes I wouldn’t drink this with anything heavy like steak or sausage. This is more a chicken sausage-with-pasta wine, with lots of Parmesan on top. 

Salute!

Mary