And So It Begins: A Holiday Gift-Giving Suggestion

floatingwinerackHalloween is now but a month and a day away, and that can mean only one thing: It’s time for America’s department stores and shopping malls to put up their Christmas decorations.

I was shopping at Costco over the weekend, and there they were, right in the middle of the store: three rows of holiday decorations, holiday candy and other holiday stuff.

’Tis the sesson…

Which got me thinking: What will I be getting my wine-drinking friends for Christmas this year?

Well, for a few very good friends, the answer is the Floating Wine Rack from SkyMall.com. You can see more photos of it or make a purchase here.

The rack holds 18 bottles on top and eight or nine wine glasses underneath.

Now, normally, I would not recommend storing wine in an upright position, as the Floating Wine Rack requires (in order to accommodate its capacity of 18 bottles). But I can definitely see this rack serving a purpose in any home where wine is consumed on a regular basis.

That purpose: as a place to hold and display the next bottles of wine that one plans to consume — and to free up space on the main wine rack or in the wine cooler.

We suggest storing wine bottles on their side — a position accommodated by most rack systems — in order to keep a little bit of moisture on the corks, thus preventing them from drying out, cracking and allowing wine-damaging air inside the bottle.

But a few weeks in an upright position won’t hurt a bottle one bit. So, as long as a bottle remains on a Floating Wine Rack for a limited period of time, there should be no problem with wine spoilage.

Alternatively, the Floating Wine Rack could be used as a place to store bottles topped with metal screw caps rather than corks, since such bottles don’t need to be laid on their side in the first place.

The Floating Wine Rack is priced at $109.99, and like many shop-by-mail products, assembly is required. A hanging rail system is included for easy wall mounting.

With that, allow me to be the first person to wish you a happy, healthy… and wine-filled… holiday season.

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Posted in Vinesse Style

The ‘Languages’ of Wine and Coffee Are Merging

grapes with coffee beans,breadHappy National Coffee Day!

In honor of this special occasion, I’m beginning my day where I start most days: at my neighborhood Starbucks shop.

(If you must know, I typically order a tall dark roast with just a little bit of room, to which I add a splash of half-and-half. And, since I’m a long-time Starbucks gold card holder, I almost always go back for a free refill as I do my morning work, much of it performed online with Starbucks’ complimentary WiFi service.)

Why am I writing about coffee in a wine blog? Because the two beverages share an increasingly common language, especially when it comes to higher-end coffees and wines. Beyond that, Starbucks — the world’s leading seller of coffee — has been testing the sale of wine with the hope of bolstering evening sales at its shops.

I first wrote about Starbucks “romancing the vine” in this 2009 blog, describing the new type of shop the company had opened in its hometown of Seattle.

Earlier this year, I posted this update about the effort, noting how Starbucks has expanded its testing of coffee shops selling wine.

Since I’m a dark roast guy, I often try new coffees as they find their way to Starbucks shops or the company’s website. More and more, reading the description of a specific type of coffee is much like reading the description of a specific bottle of wine. Even terms like “Reserve” have found their way into coffee’s lexicon.

Case in point: Starbucks’ Reserve Panama Carmen Estate. Not only is the wine designated as a “Reserve,” a term inferring higher quality, but its specific place of origin — the Carmen Estate in Panama — is noted.

Even the “story” of the wine that Starbucks shares sounds much like one of our Vinesse wine tasting notes: “For the first time, we have the opportunity to bring you an offering from Panama’s acclaimed Carmen Estate — a family-owned business that produces some of the world’s best specialty coffees. For three generations, the Franceschi family has taken great pride in selectively picking only the ripest, bright red coffee cherries at their absolute peak of flavor.”

If that makes you want to know even more about the coffee, Starbucks is happy to oblige: “The coffee is nurtured and milled in the Volcan Valley. This mountainous micro-region, on the narrow isthmus between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, offers rich, loamy volcanic soil. Cool, frost-free nights give way to dry, sun-drenched days, creating ideal conditions for growing the quintessential Panamanian coffee: a bright, lemony acidity in the cup with a nutty sweetness.”

“Bright, lemony acidity.” Sounds a bit like Sauvignon Blanc.

“Nutty sweetness.” Sounds like a good Port, or perhaps a Cream Sherry.

Then there’s Starbucks’ Reserve Brazil Fazenda Apucarana, which is described as having “subtle sweet berry aromas with flavor notes of raisin and chocolate.” Not unlike many a California Zinfandel or Italian Amarone.

Sounds like a good way to start the day…. until I can get those flavors from something on my wine rack — or at a Starbucks shop that sells wine — at a more, ahem, appropriate hour.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Slow Down and Savor the Wines of Texas

Red_Wine_OutsideAcross America and around the world, wineries in specific geographic areas have joined forces to form groups for the purposes of promotion and marketing.

In California, for instance, we have the Russian River Valley Winegrowers in Sonoma County, the Rutherford Winery Association in Napa Valley, and the Santa Barbara County Vintners in the Central Coast region, to name just a few.

Texas has winery groups as well, and during the month of October, the Texas Hill Country Wineries will present the 2014 Texas Wine Month Trail.

They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and that’s certainly true of the Texas Wine Month Trail event. Whereas most regional wine events last a day, a weekend or a couple of weekends at most, Texas Wine Month Trail, as its name insinuates, will run an entire month.

Here’s how it works: First, you buy a singles ticket for $35 or a couples ticket for $60. Then you select one of seven wineries at which to pick up your tasting booklet, which includes detailed information about all 42 participating wineries.

Each ticket is good for a full complimentary tasting at each winery, where the tasting booklets will be stamped. Considering that the average tasting fee at the participating wineries is $9, it’s easy to see how the savings can add up — if you have enough time to visit at least seven wineries.

The one caveat is that winery visits are limited to four per day. What prompted the Texas Hill Country Wineries to include that provision?

“I believe the major driver behind the decision is two-fold: safety and enjoyment,” says Mike Batek of Hye Meadow Winery. “We as an association want people to come out and enjoy each winery they visit. Part of that is slowing down to taste the wine, have a conversation and have an experience, I personally like to hang a bit longer if there is a view, or to savor a particular wine without rushing to meet a schedule.

“Looking at how our wineries are arranged in pockets across the hill country, we felt that it lent itself to this concept,” Batek adds. “In the process, it allows us to safely visit and not worry about our guests being over-served by the end of the afternoon. We truly want the Trail to be an experience to be enjoyed safely.”

Sounds reasonable to me. If it does to you, consider visiting Texas Hill Country during October and taking the time to soak in the sights, aromas and flavors of wine varieties both familiar and under the radar.

To order tickets for the 2014 Texas Wine Month Trail, click here.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

The Secrets of Bell Mountain, the First AVA in Texas

texashillGiven California’s place in the wine world today, you might think that it was the first state where Franciscan priests established vineyards.

That’s what I’d always assumed… until I did a little digging.

It turns out that during the 17th century, vines had been planted a half a continent away. Texas is the site of the first vineyard established in North America by Franciscan priests, circa 1662.

As European settlers followed the development of mission outposts, they brought more grapevine cuttings, further developing the industry through the 1800s — including in California, but long after those Texas vineyards were established.

Today, Texas has approximately 4,400 acres of producing vineyard farmland. The U.S. Department of Treasury, through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, officially designates American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. Texas has eight AVAs, although many vineyards exist outside the specified AVAs.

The Bell Mountain viticultural area is located in Gillespie County, Texas. It’s entirely contained within the Hill Country AVA and covers approximately 3,200 acres on the south and southwestern slopes of Bell Mountain in northeast Gillespie County.

Bell Mountain was the first designated AVA in Texas, established in November 1986. This area is on the southwest slopes of Bell Mountain, and elevations range from 1,650 feet to approximately 1,950 feet. The areas of highest elevation are located in the northern parts of the AVA, with some areas of high elevations in the south.

The central part of the AVA forms a valley between the areas of high elevation in the north and south. Several tributaries of the Colorado River, including the Llano and Pedernales rivers, cross the region west to east and join the Colorado as it cuts across the region to the southeast. These rivers drain to a large portion of the Hill Country, thus having a tremendous effect on drainage in the region. The Guadalupe, San Antonio, Frio and Nueces rivers originate in the Hill Country.

The region is dominated by two soil associations, Luckenbach-Pedernales-Heaton and Nebgen-Campair-Hye, with the latter covering over 50% of the AVA.

The macroclimate is influenced by the effects of the entire Texas Hill Country. Annual precipitation values within the boundaries of the region ranged from 33 to 36 inches, with the most precipitation experienced during the month of September. The minimum temperatures are dominated by high diurnal variation in the winter months and more steady temperatures throughout the summer.

It all adds up to a climate that’s quite friendly for growing wine grapes. And October is a great time to visit, as wineries roll out the red carpet with a wide array of special events.

- – – – -

Tomorrow: A preview of Texas Wine Month Trail.

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Posted in Wine Region Profiles

Shrimp: A Perfect Pairing Partner for Pinot Grigio

Fried King Prawns Served in PlateI love shrimp. Whenever Red Lobster rolls out its “Endless Shrimp” promotion, I am so there.

This year, for example, the restaurant chain is spotlighting its new Sriracha Grilled Shrimp, described as “wood-grilled shrimp topped with a spicy Sriracha glaze and served with creamy Sriracha aioli.”

Of course, anytime I read or hear a description of a menu item, I immediately start to think about what kind of wine I’d pair with it. In the case of almost anything with that spicy (too spicy for me!) Sriracha sauce, the only real option is sparkling wine, well chilled.

But when it comes to the other shrimp dishes being featured by Red Lobster — Parmesan Shrimp Scampi, Hand-Breaded Shrimp, Garlic Shrimp Scampi, Shrimp Linguini Alfredo, and Coconut Shrimp Bites — my go-to wine is Pinot Grigio (a.k.a. Pinot Gris).

Traditionally, Pinot Grigio is made in a not-too-heavy, extremely food-friendly style, and shrimp is one of its finest pairing partners.

Keep in mind that when pairing wine and food, it’s best to concentrate on the primary flavor of the dish, such as the aforementioned hot Sriracha sauce. Put that sauce on almost anything, and it pretty much obliterates the other flavors on the plate.

But with preparations such as Parmesan, garlic, Alfredo sauce or coconut, the added flavors are not overpowering; they complement the dish. And when you add any of those “ingredients” to shrimp, Pinot Grigio works wonderfully as a pairing partner.

pinotgrisAll three of the wines featured in today’s Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris Cyber Circle Sampler are made in a style that accommodates a wide range of dishes, including shrimp. They come from different parts of the world, which means they have unique aroma and flavor nuances, but all are food friendly and shrimp friendly.

Here’s a recipe for a dish that would pair perfectly with them. The recipe yields 12 tacos — or about six servings, depending on your appetites…

SHRIMP AND AVOCADO TACOS

Ingredients

  • 3 limes
  • 1 cup chopped seeded tomato
  • 1 avocado, diced and peeled
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-lb. cooked peeled medium shrimp
  • 12 (6-inch) corn tortillas

Preparation

  1. Finely grate rind from limes to measure 1 tablespoon, then juice limes to measure 1/4 cup. Place rind and juice in a large bowl.
  1. Add tomato and remaining ingredients except tortillas, and toss well to combine.
  1. Cover and chill for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  1. Heat tortillas according to package directions.
  1. Spoon about 1/2 cup shrimp mixture down center of each tortilla, and fold in half. Serve immediately with a glass of Pinot Grigio (a.k.a. Pinot Gris).
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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Unwind With Wine on the Water

Duckhorn-2015-Trevi-for-webTheme cruises are all the rage today. Matter, of fact, I’ll be taking my first in January when I join long-time music-loving friends aboard the Norwegian Pearl for a concert-intensive cruise called Cayamo.

And then there are wine cruises, which have become more plentiful in recent years. One that sounds like a lot of fun is scheduled for next July in the Mediterranean, to be escorted by the President of Duckhorn Wine Company, Alex Ryan.

Check out the ports of call:

* July 17 — Rome (Civitavecchia), Italy.

* July 18 — Sorrento/Capri, Italy.

* July 19 — Taormina (Sicily), Italy.

* July 20 — Argostoli (Cephalonia), Greece.

* July 21 — Kotor, Montenegro.

* July 22 — Zadar, Croatia.

* July 23 — Koper, Slovenia.

* July 24-25 — Venice, Italy.

Private parties, special wine tastings and a wine dinner are included, as is a gourmet culinary program created by Master Chef Jacques Pepin. There will be optional wine-focused shore excursions, as well as an optional Rome wine package prior to the cruise.

Stateroom prices range from $3,674 to $6,674 per person, and booking information is available here.

If you can’t commit to nine days on the water (plus travel days), a closer-to-home option is being offered early next month by Washington’s Maryhill Winery.

On Saturday, October 4, Maryhill will host a “Cruise Down the Gorge” on a sternwheeler.

The cruise will begin at 11 a.m. and return at 1:15 p.m., and the $70 fare includes wine tasting and appetizers — not to mention the gorgeous scenery of the Columbia River Gorge.

For further information or to RSVP, click here.

Whether it’s a full-blown vacation in the Mediterranean or a leisurely afternoon in the Pacific Northwest, you owe yourself the opportunity to enjoy wine on the water.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

What’s Pasta Without Wine?

iStock_000000659794MediumA meal of pasta, salad, bread sticks and a soft drink sounds pretty good to me right now.

But what if that meal were priced at $99?

Not so good.

But wait! What if that $99 brought me all the pasta I could eat, all the salad I could eat, all the bread sticks I could eat and all the Diet Coke I could drink?

Well, not being an “all-you-can-eat” kind of diner, that wouldn’t make it much more enticing for me. And $99 still sounds like a pretty high price to pay.

But wait (again)! What if that $99 brought me all the pasta I could eat, all the salad I could eat, all the bread sticks I could eat and all the Diet Coke I could drink… every day of the week for seven weeks?

Okay, now we’re talking. After nine meals or so, all of the rest of them would, essentially, be free.

Well, that’s exactly what 1,000 people have available to themselves beginning today and running through November 9. The “Never-Ending Pasta Pass” was offered on the website of the Olive Garden restaurant chain, and the thousand passes were gobbled up in 45 minutes.

For one who enjoys eating at Olive Garden, the Never-Ending Pasta Pass is akin to a child receiving a Golden Ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar.

Assuming one can handle the massive caloric intake, it’s a great deal. And though this may sound counter-intuitive, it also could be a great way to lose weight.

Lose weight?!? Yes. Holding the pass does not require one to eat pasta or bread sticks. Stick with salad (with a low-calorie dressing) and Diet Coke, and one could actually lose weight with the Never-Ending Pasta Pass — while dining for around $2 per meal.

So much for the Dollar Menu at McDonald’s…

Olive Garden has received a ton of traditional media and social media exposure as a result of this deal — which, of course, was the whole idea. So, don’t be surprised if the chain does it again sometime in the future.

If they do, I’d like to offer an idea that would make the deal even more enticing: Include a glass of wine with each visit.

Not all-you-can-drink — just a glass. Perhaps a nice Chianti Classico or a spicy California Zinfandel. And for those opting for just the salad, a refreshing, herbal Sauvignon Blanc would be nice.

Do that, Olive Garden, and this pasta, salad, bread stick and wine lover just might join you.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

3 Lessons Learned from a True Master of Wine

iStock_000006095441SmallFor about 10 years, I had the privilege of serving as a wine steward at the National Orange Show Wine Competition in San Bernardino, Calif.

At that time, the competition was under the direction of Dr. James Crum, from whom I had taken a wine appreciation class at Cal State San Bernardino. After my first year as a steward, Jim asked me to help him set up the competition in future years.

I learned a great deal about wine from both roles — without ever taking a sip. Jim was an outstanding mentor, sharing his years of experience freely and enthusiastically.

Here are just three of the things I learned during those years…

  1. Price matters.

I enjoy finding a bargain like anyone else, but really good wine rarely can be found at an ultra-low price. Winemakers know when they’ve made something good, and they price it accordingly. Back in the 1990s, the threshold price was around $12. Today, it’s closer to $20. In other words, if you pay at least $20 for a bottle of wine, chances are good that it will be good.

  1. It all begins with aroma.

If a wine doesn’t smell good, there is absolutely no chance that it will taste good. Opening hundreds of bottles of wine over a two-day period during the competition taught me to detect a flawed wine quickly and seek out a fresh bottle. While it’s true that some seemingly “off” odors will subside with swirling and time in the glass, there’s no hope for a wine that is corked (and smelling of wet cardboard).

  1. Every palate is different.

Listening in on the discussions of tasting panel members was fascinating — and educational. Dr. Crum liked to have a wide spectrum of experience on a panel — always a winemaker, joined by some mix of restaurateurs, sommeliers and critics. Rarely was there unanimity among panel members, but when there was, the wine in question was considered either really good (gold medal worthy) or non-descript.

It helped me understand that there is no right or wrong when it comes to wine enjoyment — only preferences. When you get to know your palate, you’ll start to recognize what types of wine you like.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Zinfandel: A California Original That’s Worth Championing

ZinfandelIt’s hard to believe that nearly a quarter-century has passed since ZAP was formed.

“ZAP” may sound like a sound effect from the campy “Batman” television series, but in this context those letters are an acronym that stands for Zinfandel Advocates and Producers.

ZAP was founded in 1991 at a time when what I like to call “real Zinfandel” was taking a backseat to the sweet blush wine known as White Zinfandel. I can’t tell you how many times I’d order a glass of Zinfandel, only to be served a glass of White Zin.

No offense to White Zin — a wine that continues to be enjoyed by millions of Americans — but it’s the polar opposite of red Zinfandel in aroma and flavor.

White Zin is sweet and fun. Red (real) Zin is dry (although its fruit flavors can give the impression of sweetness) and rugged. It’s sometimes hard to believe that two wines that are so different could be made from the same grape.

ZAP came along with the idea of regaining respect and appreciation for red (real) Zinfandel. Its founders rallied both producers and consumers, began staging tasting events, and through the years grew to become an important advocacy organization.

It’s also a go-to resource for all-things-Zinfandel, a true California variety in that it has been planted in virtually all the grape-growing areas of the state, in the widest possible variety of soils and topography, and in climates from cool to hot.

After more than a century of experimentation, nine regions have emerged as predominant sites for the varietal. Courtesy of ZAP, let’s take a look at those regions…

  • Bay Area — This is a radically diverse area, both in its geography and proximity to the ocean, creating a variety of microclimates. It includes the Livermore Valley and Contra Costa County to the east of San Francisco, and the Santa Cruz Mountains and Santa Clara Valley to the south.
  • Central Coast — The Central Coast Region includes the Zinfandel growing areas of Monterey County, San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles), Edna Valley and Santa Barbara. Each of these areas contains vineyards that share the effects of coastal breezes, which moderate the warmth of the summer and early fall. Most of the soil is rocky and gravelly. Zinfandel was planted in the Central Coast by the mid-1880s, and the region has a long history of winemaking, dating back to the advent of the missionaries in the 18th century.
  • Lodi — The Lodi appellation has a classic Mediterranean climate featuring warm days and cool evenings. It’s situated directly east of San Francisco Bay at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, where cool “delta breezes” provide reliable natural “air conditioning” throughout the growing season. The climate allows Lodi growers to consistently produce delicious, full-flavored wines that contain a refreshing natural acidity. Historically, Lodi vineyards were developed in the fine sandy loam soils surrounding the community of Lodi. It’s there, along the banks of the Mokelumne River, where the majority of Lodi’s century-old, own-rooted Zinfandel vineyards lie.
  • Central Valley — This American Viticultural Area stretches from Colusa County in the north to Madera County in the south, and includes Clarksburg, Diablo Grande, Dunnigan Hills, Green Valley, Lodi, Madera, Meritt Island, River Junction, Salado Creek, Seiad Valley, Solano County and Suisun Valley.
  • Mendocino and Lake Counties — This is considered to be California’s wine growing frontier, filled with the homesteads of many family wineries. Mendocino County’s southern border is north of San Francisco, immediately north of Sonoma County. Lake County is located southeast of Mendocino County. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and covered in great part by the rugged Coastal Range, this is a warmer growing region than its northerly location would suggest. The warmth is due to the mountain ranges that shelter interior valleys from the cool ocean breezes.
  • Napa Valley — This 40-mile long valley, which stretches in a northwesterly direction from the city of Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north, is considered one of the most diverse growing regions in California. More than 30 different soils have been identified here, including soils of alluvial, volcanic and maritime origin, ranging from well-drained gravelly loams to moisture-retaining silty clay. This diverse group of soils and exposures, as well as three different climate zones, provide a variety of distinctive grape-growing environments. Zinfandel vineyards are spread from well-drained, rich, red clay loam hillsides to gravelly benchlands on the valley floor.
  • Sierra Foothills — Located east of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this region includes Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Mariposa, Nevada, Placer, Tuolumne and Yuba Counties. Its colorful Gold Rush tales and long agricultural history make this a fascinating Zinfandel area to explore. Some of the earliest documented Zinfandel vineyards were planted here between 1852 and 1869, and some still survive today, protected by their remote locations. Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills possess unique decomposed granite soils that are found nowhere else in the world. Nearly all of the Zinfandel vineyards are at fairly high elevation (from 1,200 to 3,500 feet), which places them above the fog and gives access to sunshine.
  • Sonoma County — Sonoma County lies north of San Francisco and is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The county runs parallel to Napa Valley, and is separated from it by the Mayacamas range.
  • Southern California — This region is extremely important historically, as it was once the center of California winemaking, when missionaries planted their first vineyard at Mission San Diego in 1769. In the Cucamonga Valley, near Los Angeles, the warm climate and sandy soil is well suited to Zinfandel, but agricultural use of the land has given way in large part to profitable urban development. To the south, the unique microclimate of Temecula is aided by its 1,500-foot elevation. Temecula’s Zinfandel vineyards bask in the renowned Southern California sun during the day, while the elevation brings cool afternoon and evening breezes.

Like other varieties, Zinfandel exhibits a number of qualities (aromas and flavors) no matter where it’s grown. But specific climates also yield region-specific characteristics, and you can read about those on the ZAP website.

Three regions are represented in our latest Zinfandel Sampler: the Central Coast (specifically, Paso Robles), Lodi, and Sonoma County (specifically, the Dry Creek Valley). Together, they provide a tasty overview of California’s iconic red wine variety — a wine you may want to join ZAP in championing among your friends. Order while you can.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass
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