Exploring the Napa Valley… From Above

nvaYou may be sharing the space with a few other couples, but there’s something about floating above vineyard-covered hillsides, simply soaking in the scenery, that’s quite romantic.

Napa Valley Aloft, one of the companies that offers hot air balloon rides over the valley, provides such an adventure for as little as $200 per person.

However, if you’re really looking to impress someone, you can experience an exclusive flight for two for $1,200 (or $1,400 on weekends).

And you can throw in a post-flight Champagne breakfast for $20 per person more.

For further information, go to the company’s website: nvaloft.com

Need more wine-focused ideas for Valentine’s Day 2016? Then you’ll want to check in with us each day next week. We’ll be sharing:

  • Information on a romantic hotel just steps from the “Urban Wine Trail” in Santa Barbara, California.
  • Wine and chocolate pairing ideas. We’ll let you what types of wines match up nicely with dark chocolate, dark chocolate with mint filling, milk chocolate and white chocolate.
  • A recipe for a red wine cake. Yum!
  • Romantic wine destinations in Western New York, Southwest Michigan, Washington state and Northern California.

Even if it’s too late to make travel plans for Valentine’s Day, you can always book a romantic wine-focused vacation for later in the year, and place a copy of the itinerary inside a Hallmark card.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Tickets Available for Major Las Vegas Wine Tasting

passionate romantic couple kissing in front of las vegas sign.Check the calendar. It’s the month of romance. Specifically, it’s the month of Valentine’s Day. And just because February 14 happens to fall on a Sunday this year, you are still obligated to have a romantic evening with your Significant Other.

Technically, that romantic evening doesn’t necessarily have to take place on the 14th, especially if Sunday happens to be your must-see-TV night for “The Good Wife,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” or “The Simpsons.” But if you don’t go out for a romantic dinner that evening, at least be prepared to offer a romantic gift.

For a wine lover, that could mean any number of things, including reservations for a wine dinner at a local restaurant, airline tickets for a wine country getaway, or tickets to a wine-tasting event.

How about a trip to Las Vegas and tickets to a wine-tasting event? On February 20 — the Saturday after Valentine’s Day — the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino will play host to the 27th annual Splendor in the Glass Wine & Beer Tasting.

The Westgate is the resort formerly known as the LVH, and also formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton, and also formerly known as the International Hotel. One of the reasons it has changed hands (and identities) a few times is that it is not located on the bustling Las Vegas Strip — and that also is one of its attractive qualities; you can get to it without enduring a traffic jam. (As we all know, a traffic jam should never be part of a romantic evening.)

The 2016 Splendor in the Glass promises tasting stations featuring more than 60 wineries and breweries, accompanied by delicious finger foods, plus music provided by a jazz ensemble. Aside from the few hundred people with whom you’ll be sharing the Westgate ballroom, it doesn’t get much more romantic than that. (May we also suggest you book a room for the night so as to avoid any worries about over-imbibing?)

For ticket information, go to: http://www.vegaspbs.org/winetasting/

If you can’t make it to Vegas that weekend, another alternative is to simply stay at home, cook a good meal, and share a bottle of Vinesse wine — perhaps a tasty Italian red, like the ones featured in this latest collection on sale for a limited time.

Remember, the most important element of a romantic evening is not where you are, but rather who you’re with.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

A Lesson Learned in the Pacific Northwest: All Great Wines Begin in the Vineyard

rural Oregon landscape, Willamette ValleyThere are certain grape varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon (among reds) and Chardonnay (among whites) that take well to barrel fermentation.

There are others, such as Riesling, that would have their aromas and flavors obliterated by exposure to oak, and thus are aged in neutral stainless steel tanks.

Other winemaking techniques can be undertaken in the cellar, such as malolactic fermentation, the temperature and length of the fermentation, and whether specific lots of grapes are blended immediately or kept separate and blended later.

But regardless of the cellar techniques or the skills of the winemaker, there is one thing all vintners agree upon: There never has been a good wine made with inferior grapes. In other words, what ends in the cellar must begin in the vineyard.

Hard to believe, but there are around 10,000 different grape varieties used to make wine, although the number utilized in any great quantity is far, far fewer than that. Still, like any agricultural product, each variety has its own set of specific requirements in order for it to attain its full quality potential.

In planting a given variety, the farmer/grower must consider the type of soil, sun exposure, water availability and overall climate. For instance, some varieties fare better in soil that’s depleted in nutrients and generally lacking in water, a combination that forces the vine to work harder, resulting in grapes that are extremely concentrated in aromas and flavors.

Other varieties prefer cool climes, which extends their growing season and enables them to attain full maturity. Still others require almost desert-like weather and air temperatures in order to strut their stuff.

All of these factors help determine which varieties should be planted in a given vineyard, or whether that plot of land should be planted to wine grapes at all. Over the years, as more has been learned about matching specific varieties to specific climates, many grapevines have been grafted with other varieties, or with other clones of the existing variety.

I remember traveling through the Pacific Northwest when the wine industry there was still in its infancy. It wasn’t unusual to encounter Cabernet Sauvignon planted in areas that were too cool for the variety (mainly in Washington state), or the wrong clones of Pinot Noir being used (mainly in Oregon).

But over the years, the grape growers and winemakers — through both education and experimentation — made the necessary adjustments. Today, some great Cabs and Merlots are coming out of Washington, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon rivals Burgundy as one of the world’s great producers of Pinot Noir. You can taste how far things have come in the Pacific Northwest by savoring the wines in Vinesse’s PNW collections and clubs.  If you’re lucky enough to be a subscriber of our regular wine deals, check your inbox today!

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Posted in In the Cellar

Planning a Wine Vacation? The Pros Say: Head to Austria

DanubeBoatThe Travvy Awards are described as the Academy Awards of the American travel industry, and at the 2016 Travvy Awards, Austria was selected as the best wine tourism destination in Europe.

I am not surprised. During my before-the-wedding honeymoon in October of 2014, my bride-to-be and I took a day trip from Vienna to the nearby vineyard lands. The trip included an excursion on the Danube on a boat much like the one in the accompanying photo, and a highlight on that boat ride was getting to see Austria’s famed terraced vineyards up close.Figlmuller

The trip also included a visit to a winery and still more vineyard sightseeing in a small van.

But our Austria wine experience wasn’t restricted to that single day trip.

We began our time in Vienna by having dinner at the famous Zum Figlmuller — a giant schnitzel that covered a plate, accompanied by a delicious potato side dish, and all washed down with glasses of light and refreshing Gruner Veltliner wine.

And we finished our trip with a visit to Vienna’s Grinzing neighborhood, which is home to a number of winery tasting rooms. Grinzing is easily accessible by the city’s public transit system, and we found the tasting room personnel to be welcoming and eager to tell us about their wines.

So, if I were one of the 39,000 travel agents, tour operators or other travel professionals who took part in the voting for the Travvy Awards, I would have given Austria the nod as well. Congratulations to the Austrian Wine Marketing Board on a well-deserved honor.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

Exploring the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route

Close up of Zebra grazing dry meadowIt’s a leap year. What will you do with your extra day?

Well, since much international travel involves “losing a day” either to time in the air or making up sleep, you might want to consider targeting 2016 as the year you finally take that big wine-focused trip.

If South Africa has been on your radar, an amazing wine experience awaits a mere hour’s drive north of Cape Town.

Post-apartheid, the first wine region of South Africa to gain widespread attention was Stellenbosch. But thanks to a group of quality-focused vintners in Swartland, visitors now have more options when planning a wine-focused vacation.

Swartland is an ideal day trip destination from South Africa’s largest city, while tourists heading toward the West Coast, the Northern Cape or Namibia along the N7 will find a detour along the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route a delightful journey of discovery.

The 20 members of the Wine & Olive Route include cooperatives, private cellars and wine merchants. Visitors can explore the winemaking history of the region at some of the historic estates, or enjoy exquisite wine experiences at modern tasting rooms. Smaller wineries present intimate wine tastings in rustic cellars, while family concerns dating back generations will welcome visitors with the customary Swartland warmth and cheer.

The Swartland area of the Western Cape encompasses a uniquely diverse geographic region, from the undulating hills of the Paardeberg in the south to the rolling waters of the Berg River in the north. There lie the charming, historic towns of Malmesbury, Piketberg and Porterville, and the twin villages of Riebeek Kasteel and Riebeek West, nestled on the slopes of the looming Kasteelberg.

Sweeping wheat fields — golden in summer, mint-green in winter — are punctuated by azure dams on working farms, and sheep and cattle dot the landscape. Huge swathes of natural vegetation are everywhere, and the resident birdlife is complemented in spring by migrants, with steppe buzzards and black-shouldered kites commonly seen atop roadside fence posts.

In this little corner of the world, fruit orchards abound, vineyards carpet the slopes, and olive groves nestle around unexpected corners. It’s a quietly charming place of abundance and color that welcomes visitors to be cosseted in guest houses and B-and-Bs, to feast on fresh and deliciously prepared local produce and, above all, to sample a wide range of palate-pleasing wines.

The Swartland wine region is divided into four sub-regions.

The Paardeberg (“horse mountain”) divides the Paarl and Swartland regions. This hilly, off-the-beaten-path area offers delightful surprises around every bend. The climate during winter is very cold. Summer is typically very hot during the day, with cooler temperatures at night. Some of the highest vineyards above sea level in the Swartland region are found there. Vines are planted on the slopes of the Paardeberg in relatively deep soil consisting of decomposed sandstone, granite and some clay.

Nestled in the protective shadow of the Kasteelberg (“castle mountain”), the villages of Riebeek West and Riebeek Kasteel are the perfect retreat for any city dweller. You can take your time discovering the wineries, restaurants, shops and art galleries. The vineyards of the Riebeek Valley stretch along the lower contours of the Kasteelberg. The soil is mainly Malmesbury shale, with loamy soil on the higher grounds and sandy loam lower down the slopes, interspersed with rich Hutton soils. The climate is perfect for viticulture, with the low-rainfall summer months tempered by cool afternoon breezes, and the cold winters allowing the vines to rest and build up reserves.

The wineries situated close to Malmesbury, the main business center of the Swartland, range from a large company to small, privately owned cellars. Spread out over a large area, the wineries produce diverse wines thanks to the differing soils and microclimates of the area. Although summers are typically very hot and dry, some farms catch the cool sea breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and hence have a cooler climate. Soils range from sandy (ideal for Rhone cultivars) to deep red and fertile (perfect for dry-land vineyards), while others derive from granite.

The wines of the Berg River region are made from grapes cultivated from a vast, climatically variable area, stretching from the banks of the Berg River to the foot of the Groot Winterhoek Mountains in Porterville. Local foodies agree that this is an area not to be missed. Small owner/chef-run eateries, cozy coffee shops and larger-scale restaurants offer a huge range and variety of meals, most prepared with fresh produce sourced in the area and many made to old family recipes.

Regularly scheduled farmers markets and street markets bring out the locals in droves, and there you can buy anything from homegrown veggies in season to free-range eggs and poultry, homemade cakes, sweets, savory dishes, freshly baked bread and olives in every shape and form — from oils, pickles, spreads and tapanades to soaps, creams and shampoos.

From tiny B-and-Bs to luxury hotels, there’s an accommodation option along the Santam Swartland Wine & Olive Route to suit every taste and pocket. No matter what type of lodging you choose, the famous Swartland hospitality will make you feel right at home — and the quality of the wine will make you wish you’d planned a longer trip.

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Posted in Our Wine Travel Log

Twist and Shout: The Great Screw Cap Debate

Wine bottles in the wine store.

Q Is a wine sealed with a screw cap inferior to a wine sealed with a cork?

A It depends entirely on the wine.

Screw caps have been around since the 1950s, when they were used primarily to seal cheap “jug wines.” But during the 1980s, wineries in Australia and New Zealand began to use them for almost all of their wines. As those bottlings made their way to the United States and met with little resistance in the marketplace, American vintners began to follow suit.

The main advantage of a screw cap is that it prevents wines from being “corked” and ruined — the No. 1 problem associated with cork-sealed bottles. But when a quality cork is used and a bottle is sealed properly, that problem is virtually eliminated. Thus, it still comes down to a matter of preference among wineries and vintners.

Today, many wineries are using screw caps to seal their white wines, as well as their reds that are meant to be consumed while young. The screw caps keep oxygen out of the bottle and keep the wine inside fresh and vibrant.

For bigger, richer wines that may need some time in the bottle to age and evolve, a cork seal is still preferred by most. A cork allows just a little bit of oxygen into the bottle, which helps to smooth out the tannins, providing for a more velvety mouthfeel.

So, ultimately, it all boils down to the quality of the wine. Whether a bottle is sealed with a screw cap or a cork makes no difference in assessing its quality.

P.S.: This is a topic that comes up quite often, and that we’ve addressed in the past here on Vinesse Today. The dominant screw cap in the marketplace is the Stelvin capsule, and you can read more about it here.

Posted in Wine FAQ

Wine Bar Brunch: Give Ampersand an Exclamation Mark!

ampersand+wine+brunch+posterCountless restaurants host weekly brunches — typically on the weekends, and often restricted to Sundays — when they offer extensive buffets or otherwise expand their menus with an array of creative dishes.

Most of those brunches serve sparkling wine-based beverages such as bellinis or screwdrivers. Others simply pour sparkling wine by the glass, often “unlimited.”

So, considering so many restaurants use wine to “sell” food, why shouldn’t a wine bar be able to use food to “sell” wine?

Well, at Chicago’s Ampersand Wine Bar, that’s exactly what’s going to happen on Saturday, February 6.

That morning at 11 a.m., Ampersand will play host to a three-course brunch featuring wine and house-made cocktail pairings.

One of the courses will be a salmon belly dish that was featured on Chicago’s WGN-TV. House-made pastries also will be served.

Ampersand Wine Bar has been about culinary pairings from its very beginning — wine and cheese… charcuterie and small plates… coffee and dessert… comfort and service… refined and approachable… luxury and simplicity.

And on February 6, the lucky people of Chicagoland will have the opportunity to experience Ampersand’s take on brunch. The cost is $45 per person, and ticket information is available here: http://www.ampersandchicago.com/tickets/wine-brunch

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Fascinating Winery Facts from Wines Vines Analytics

Fresh grapeBack when I was a cub reporter for my hometown newspaper, covering high school baseball and football on the weekends, I knew that I was a “Figure Filbert.”

That’s the nickname that was given to Ernest Lanigan, a reporter of the early 20th century who seemingly was obsessed with statistics. He claimed to have no real interest in baseball, but wanted to know what made each player unique, and invented his own statistics to do that. As an example, nobody kept track of runs batted in until Lanigan did.

I enjoyed stats, too, and usually cited some in my stories. I was no Ernest Lanigan, but I definitely was a “Figure Filbert.”

Statistics are not exclusive to sports, of course, and these days, I always look forward to the annual wine industry statistical update compiled by the Wines Vines Analytics team and Wines & Vines magazine.

Here are some of the stats just released…

  • There now are 9,436 wineries in North America.
  • 4,054 of those wineries are in California.
  • The overall winery count in North America grew 5% from 2014 to 2015.
  • There now are 1,640 virtual wineries in the U.S., up 165 in 2014. Virtual wineries do not have their own winemaking facilities, but rather produce their wines at “host” or “custom crush” facilities.
  • Washington ranks second among states when it comes to its number of wineries — but it’s a distant second. In 2015, it added 15 wineries, increasing its total to 718.
  • Oregon ranks third with 689. It added 57 wineries in 2015.
  • We’ve reported many times that each of America’s 50 states is home to at least one winery. Lesser known is that half of our states have at least 50 wineries.
  • The fastest pace of growth in 2015 was experienced in Florida, which saw its number of wineries increase by 22% to 55. Watch out, Mickey Mouse!
  • Significant growth also was shown in Ohio, with the number of wineries up 15% to 181, and in Minnesota, also up 15% to 62.
  • Although the wine industry, like many other industries, has experienced much consolidation in recent years, the vast majority of wineries are small businesses. Of North America’s 9,436 wineries, 6,850 produce fewer than 5,000 cases of wine per year.


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Posted in Wine Buzz

Preparing for the Super Bowl Celebration

Stadium for sports and concerts empty on a sunny dayNever in a million years did I think the Denver Broncos would be able to beat the New England Patriots in Sunday’s NFC Championship game, even though the Broncos were playing at home.

I just figured that at these points in their careers and with their present physical conditions, Tom Brady would be able to get the best of Peyton Manning. But the Broncos’ defense came through big time, treating Brady like the little silver ball in a pinball machine.

On the other hand, I had a feeling the Carolina Panthers might run over the Arizona Cardinals, and I was right about that.

So now, we have two teams left, and on February 7, they will play in Super Bowl 50 for the NFL championship.

One team will win. One team will lose. One city will celebrate. One city will ponder what could have been.

If I had a rooting interest in this game, which I don’t, I know where I’d go to celebrate if my team won.

  • If the Panthers were to win and I were in Charlotte, I would celebrate at Customshop.

As noted on the restaurant’s website, Customshop is a modern trattoria with a neighborhood feel, located in the heart of Charlotte. The menu offers an eclectic mix of traditional and innovative American dishes inspired by Italian, French and Spanish cuisine — all types of food that pair beautifully with wine.

Ah, yes, the wine. Customshop’s well-selected list features a diverse array of high-quality, value-minded wines from the most renowned regions, selected to mirror the kitchen’s commitment to offering both Old World and New World fare. There are more than 100 wines by the bottle, as well as a selection of generous 6-ounce glass pours designed to be paired with each course.

Guests are welcome to sample the small plates menu, eat a full course meal, or simply sip their favorite selection from an ever-changing list of wines — perfect for celebrating a Super Bowl victory.


  • If the Broncos were to win and I were in Denver, I would celebrate at Panzano.

Offering the best in contemporary Northern Italian cuisine with a focus on local, seasonal and organic ingredients, Panzano delivers unparalleled service and an award-winning wine list in a spectacular urban setting in downtown Denver.

It’s no wonder Panzano has been awarded 4 diamonds by AAA and named one of Zagat’s best restaurants in America. From pre-theater dinners to luxurious weekend brunches to Super Bowl celebrations, Panzano is a little bit of Italy in the heart of Denver.


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Posted in Editor's Journal

New City Winery Venue Coming to Atlanta

CalexicoWineNear the end of my 10-year stint in Chicago, working as an editor and writer for a century-old sports publishing company, I had the opportunity to attend a concert at a venue called City Winery.

It was a fun evening.

Rows of tables were set up perpendicular to the stage, so even if you had a party of four, you really were a party of eight or 12 because of the lack of elbow room.

The food was decent, and the wine selection was impressive, including a number of wines that were made right there on the premises. It’s a venue that lives up to its name — a winery that’s located in the city.

We were there to see a band called Calexico that I’d come to know through my fandom of singer/songwriter Tom Russell. The band had played on Russell’s “Blood and Candle Smoke” CD, lending their unique sound that Russell described as “world/mariachi.”

That night, City Winery offered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc produced at the winery with a special-edition Calexico label. Wine and music geek that I am, I had to have one. The wine is long gone, but the bottle is on display in the “wine corner” of my house.

City Winery’s first location was in New York City, and was so successful that the Chicago venue was added. There’s now also one in Nashville, one of the great music cities. Ironically, the only City Winery location that failed was in Napa, California — a city too small to adequately support the venue’s ambitious concert schedule. You can read more about what went wrong in Napa here.

There should be no such problem in Atlanta, which will be the home of the next City Winery, scheduled to open later this year. After all, metro Atlanta is home to 5.5 million people, making it the ninth largest metropolitan area in the United States.

You can read about the construction progress here.

When you combine three of life’s great experiences — good music, good food and good wine — in a single venue, you have the formula for making happy memories. Lots of happy memories will be coming to Atlanta soon, courtesy of City Winery.

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Posted in Editor's Journal
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