‘Ratatouille’ Revisited: Should Wine Bottles Depict Cartoon Characters?

Simpsons WinesIn the world of advertising, imagery can be a powerful tool. Just take a look at the photo that accompanies this story from the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail, and you’ll see what I mean.

If you’re even just a casual fan of the long-running animated series, “The Simpsons,” you didn’t need to read the names on the bottles to understand that the one on the left represents Homer Simpson and the one on the right represents Marge Simpson. Just the colors and how they’re arranged on the bottles are all the “clues” that most people would need.

As the story notes, there is no actual Homer or Marge wine. Those are conceptual bottles developed by a pair of Russian designers, Constantin Bolimond and Dmitry Patsukevich. Also, Homer is an avowed beer drinker, which lends an ironic twist to the artwork.

But there’s another angle to this story, which the Daily Mail piece touches on briefly. It involves whether cartoon imagery should be used to promote alcohol of any kind. Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” has turned down offers to produce Homer’s fictional beer of choice, dubbed Duff, although he did make a concession with Universal Studios Florida for the sale of Duff-branded beer near that park’s Simpsons-themed ride.

This story brought back memories of a wine spinoff considered by the Disney company in the wake of the success of its animated film, “Ratatouille.” As this blog detailed, that plan called for some 500 cases of “Ratatouille”-branded wine to be made for sale at Costco stores, only to be derailed by concerns that the effort would promote drinking to children. Disney, being a family-focused company with a lot to lose, had no choice but to back away from the idea.

What do you think? Would a bottle of wine with a cartoon character on its label be a concern to you? I’m a parent… and now a grandparent… and I have always managed to maintain full control over the alcohol in my house. That said, none of my bottles have ever had cute cartoon characters on their labels.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Sips and Swirls Between the Songs: Where to Find Great Wine Near This Year’s Biggest Music Festivals

nf-heroRare is the wine festival that does not include some sort of music. The type of music doesn’t seem to matter; the wine-drinking experience just seems to be enhanced by melodic sounds.

We’re now deep into America’s music festival season, and it dawned on me that not nearly as common is the music festival that includes some sort of wine — other than bland, by-the-jug offerings. It may have to do with necessary permits, or perhaps lack of wine knowledge among festival staffers.

Whatever the reason, there’s a way to deal with a wine-less or wine-challenged music festival: Visit a wine-focused restaurant in the festival’s home city before or after the day’s performances.

Space limits our ability to offer dining suggestions for all of the upcoming festivals this year, so we’ve decided to focus on six, each of which offers a nearby “wine experience” for any music lover who is so inclined…

• Lollapalooza — Aug. 1-3 at Grant Park in Chicago. Headliners include Eminem, Outkast, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys, Skrillex and Calvin Harris.


Dining suggestion: NoMI Kitchen, with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Michigan Avenue, is that rare restaurant that serves up both magnificent views and magnificent food. Choices range from light bites to five-course culinary extravaganzas, and the wine list is one of the best in the city.


• Newport Jazz Festival — Aug. 1-3 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I. This year marks the 60th anniversary of this multi-generational celebration of jazz, with performers including the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, Bobby McFerrin, and Dr. John and the Nite Trippers.


Dining suggestion: 22 Bowen’s has been described as “sophisticated, elegant and easy going.” In other words, much like a glass of Pinot Noir or Merlot. Prime steaks and fresh-catch seafood are the specialties of the house, and the wine-by-the-glass list is one of the most comprehensive and well selected that we’ve seen.


• Outside Lands — Aug. 8-10 at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. The extensive, eclectic lineup includes Kanye West, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Killers and Death Cab for Cutie. More so than other festivals, there’s a big emphasis on food and wine, with the 2014 Taste of the Bay Area taking place on the festival grounds, and a Wine Lands tent housing dozens of labels, including Caymus, Hess Collection, Joseph Phelps, Navarro and Scharffenberger.


Dining suggestion: While San Francisco is home to hundreds of outstanding restaurants, we suggest eating at the festival since so many types of food will be available, including a lamb and shrimp mixed grill (from Beast and the Hare), fried chicken and waffles (from Farmer Brown’s Little Skillet), Gilroy garlic mac and cheese (from Homeroom) and Baja fish tacos (from Tacolicious).

• Bumbershoot — Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at Seattle Center in Seattle. The festival gets its name from the colloquial term for umbrella, which seems appropriate for a city that gets so much rain. It’s perhaps the most all-encompassing music festival in the country, with genres ranging from hip hop to Americana, and from rock to jazz, with a bit of electronic and soul thrown in for good measure.


Dining suggestion: Purple Café and Wine Bar, with four locations including downtown Seattle, features new American cuisine with a menu that changes by the season, complemented by a phenomenal wine list. If you’re feeling adventurous, wines are available in creative flights, as are cheeses.


• Americana Music Festival — Sept. 16-21 in Nashville. Nine venues, all in proximity to the downtown area, will host 165 music performances. The lineup includes performers both famous and under-the-radar, with names like the Avett Brothers, Billy Joe Shaver, Carlene Carter, Greensky Bluegrass, Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell, Paul Thorn and Ruthie Foster.


Dining suggestion: Flyte World Dining and Wine features the talented Chef Matthew Lackey, who strives to offer responsibly sourced meat and fish, along with locally grown produce, whenever possible. Middle Tennessee and the surrounding area provide a vast selection of delicious artisan foods. And the superb wine list, developed by co-owner Scott Sears, features an abundance of by-the-glass choices.


• BottleRock Napa — May 29-31, 2015, at the Napa Valley Expo in Napa, Calif. Lessons learned from the longer 2013 festival and the scaled-back 2014 event should make for the best BottleRock yet next spring. The Cure, Railroad Earth, Outkast, Heart, The Fray and Eric Church were the headliners this year. If you can’t decide whether you love music or wine more, BottleRock will put your eardrums and palate at ease.


Dining suggestion: Napa Valley is packed with famous and multi-starred restaurants, but in the city of Napa, it’s tough to beat La Toque. New French cuisine is presented with creativity and flair, especially when it comes to the seasonal dishes. And the wine list, among the best in the entire valley, features nearly 2,000 options.


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Posted in Wine Buzz

Updates on World Wine Rankings, Japan and Reno

Fotolia_8632182_SLet’s close out this week with a few updates on recent blogs…

On Wednesday, we shared the news that the United States had surpassed France as the No. 1 consumer of wine in the world.

We also shared the speculation that within a few years, there could be yet another new leader: China. It already is in the No. 5 position, and as its middle class grows, chances are its number of wine drinkers also will expand.

Within minutes of that blog going live, I came across semi-related news from Wine Spectator’s website. According to the magazine’s report, the Quixote winery in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley has been sold to a company called Le Melange.

Although the name sounds French, Le Melange actually is a private Chinese-owned firm that paid close to the $29 million asking price for the estate.

According to Wine Spectator, this is just one of several recent winery purchases or start-ups in Napa Valley that involve Asian investors. Others include:

• Sloan

• Dana Estates

• Kenzo Estate

• 4088 (formerly Bialla)

Speaking of Asia, this next update goes back a bit further in time — like, almost seven years. In late 2007, I wrote about the emerging “wine culture” in Japan, and pondered the direction it ultimately would go, and how long it would take to get there.

Well, according to the Japan Times, wine is being taken very seriously in Japan, circa 2014. In fact, according to this report, there is a movement afoot to elevate the status of wines made in Japan to help the country’s vintners compete in the international wine marketplace.

“Yamanashi” was established about a year ago as Japan’s first designation for Japanese wines meeting certain geographic criteria. The designation came from the National Tax Agency; it was not the result of a new law.

Now, such a law is being discussed with the idea of bringing the Japanese wine industry more in line with European Union guidelines.

There’s a sort-of-similar movement afoot in Nevada, where commercial winemaking is not allowed in the state’s two largest counties — Washoe and Clark, home to the cities of Reno and Las Vegas, respectively.

Reno, you may recall, was the subject of this blog last week, which previewed this year’s “Reno Bites” wine-and-food festival.

It turns out that if commercial winemaking were allowed in Washoe County, there are grape growers ready to begin crafting wine in quantity. This report explains how simple it would be for state legislators to transform parts of the Reno area into “wine country.”

If China should emerge as the new leading consumer of wine, we’re going to need new winegrowing regions in order to keep up with worldwide demand.

We all know that it’s a small world. It has become increasingly clear that it’s also a small wine world.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

The Best North American Wine Destination

Vineyard_HillsideIn late 2009, we counted down the Top 10 North American Wine Destinations on this blog.

And the winner was (drum roll, please) the Rutherford district of California’s Napa Valley.

The list was maybe 1% objective and 99% subjective. We made no bones about that in the countdown. These were places that I had visited, and I put the list together in an order that reflected my personal tastes and preferences.

The wines made from Rutherford grapes are truly world-class. But I’m not ashamed to admit that a big part of that district gaining the No. 1 spot was the presence of my favorite restaurant on the planet: the Rutherford Grill. You can read why that dining spot is so special in the blog, which is linked above.

While the district provides exceptional dining and accommodations, Rutherford earned the No. 1 spot on our list because of the wines it produces.

Today, I thought I’d share some information about the appellation — in other words, what makes Rutherford special from a grape growing and winemaking perspective.

The Rutherford district first gained worldwide recognition in 1939 when Georges de Latour won a gold medal at the Golden Gate International Exposition for his 1936 Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

Since then, BV’s Private Reserve wines have set a standard for many of the appellation’s wineries. While several other varietals, such as Sauvignon Blanc, grow well there, Cabernet Sauvignon performs best in the vineyards of Rutherford.

The Rutherford viticultural area covers approximately six square miles, beginning just south of Cakebread Cellars and BV Vineyard #2 along Highway 29. It ends at Zinfandel Lane, 3.3 miles to the north, and stretches across the valley (two miles at its widest point) from Mt. St. John on the west to the Vaca Mountain Range on the east.

Soils from three alluvial fans are primarily gravelly, sandy and loamy. The fans are formed from shattered, well-bedded sandstone, and their deposits are high in gravels. Deep and well-drained, the fans have pockets that allow runoff to easily flow to the streams and Napa River. Rutherford soils are dominated by Franciscan marine sedimentary materials with some volcanic deposits (primarily Bale, Pleasanton and Yolo loams).

Rutherford has a higher radiant value than other parts of Napa Valley. Because the area is located at the valley’s widest point, it spends more time in the sun.

Warm summer days ripen Rutherford grapes, giving way to cool evenings. An average summer day may drop 12 degrees immediately after sunset. This fluctuation allows the fruit to ripen at a steady pace; temperatures north and south of Rutherford can vary as much as 10 degrees.

Rutherford has an average rainfall of 26-36 inches per year. Although typically mild, spring can bring freezing temperatures at night during March and April. Growers and vintners know this, and are ready with big fans and heating- lamp-like devices to protect the vines.

Although bordered on the west and east by two mountain ranges, the Rutherford viticultural area does not extend above 500 feet in elevation. Regardless, the elevation is quite pronounced. Vineyards creep up the nearby hillsides from the Napa River in the center of the appellation, which lies just 172 feet above sea level.

All in all, Rutherford is both distinctive and special. That’s why it was No. 1 in my book back in 2009, and why it remains so today.

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Posted in Wine Region Profiles

No. 1 in Wine Consumption… But for How Long?

iStock_000001609951SmallSimply by virtue of its sheer size and massive population, the United States leads the world in consumption of a lot of things.

But through the years, France has led the U.S. — and all other nations — in wine consumption.

That changed in 2013, when the U.S. topped France for the first time since records have been kept.

The final tally for the year: 770 million gallons of wine consumed in the United States, 745 million gallons in France.

Those two countries are far and away the leaders, followed by Italy at 576 million gallons and Germany at 536 million gallons.

Rounding out the top five, and poised to change the wine marketplace forever because of its emerging middle class, is China. Its citizens consumed 444 million gallons of wine last year, according to the International Organization of Vine and Wine.

As more Chinese people earn more money, they’ll be drinking more wine. From that growing group, quality-focused palates will be developed, and those people are likely to seek out wines of higher quality — thus creating more demand and, some analysts predict, pushing prices skyward.

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Posted in The Wine Business

Spain’s Bodegas Muga: Even the Barrels Are Made On-Site

Fotolia_39774457_SThere are countless wineries around the world that grow their own grapes, thus controlling the process from vineyard to bottle.

But Bodegas Muga, situated in the famed Rioja Alta region of Spain, takes things a step further. It actually has coopers on staff to build the estate’s oak barrels and vats.

There are 14,000 barrels made out of different types of oak, including French (Allier, Tronçais or Jupilles), American, Hungarian, Russian and even a small consignment of Spanish oak.

One of the most traditional wineries in La Rioja, Bodegas Muga is located in the historic Barrio de La Estación — the railway station district — in Haro. The facilities, spanning some 270,000 square foot, are two centuries old, built mainly of stone and oak.

The winery was founded in 1932 by spouses Isaac Muga and Aurora Caño. Today, it’s run by the third generation of the family.

“We are obsessed with quality,” says Juan Muga, one member of that generation. “Everything we do is about continuously improving our vineyards, our winemaking and our people.”

The Bodegas Muga vineyards cover 620 acres at the foot of the Montes Obarenses. The site’s climate is exceptional due to the geography and orientation of the vines, as well as the surrounding climate — a mix of Mediterranean, Atlantic and Continental that combine to provide a most welcoming environment for growing wine grapes.

The soil consists mostly of clay and limestone, and a number of small terroirs, better known as microclimates, accommodate the growing of numerous varieties —

Tempranillo, Garnacha (Grenache), Mazuelo (Carignan) and Graciano among the reds, and Viura and Malvasia among the whites.

There are both “regular and “Reserva” bottlings offered, and many consider the “star wine” to be the Seleccion Especial. The 2009 vintage is a sublime blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano that’s aged for 28 months in oak casks crafted especially for the cuvee.

While New World technology is used to ensure quality in every bottle, the style of the wines is Old World, showcasing distinct minerality and earthiness. To experience the essence of Bodegas Muga, one need simply pour a glass of Muga Rosé and serve it alongside Marcona almonds and slivers of Manchego cheese.

Tours of the estate are offered, and include up-close looks at the imposing wooden tanks, the calmness of the aging rooms, and the heat and aroma of the cooperage. Tours last anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes and include tastes of two wines for an 8-Euro fee. To ensure a positive guest experience, advance reservations are required (+34 941 30 60 60).

From vineyard to barrel to bottle, few wineries control every aspect of transforming grapes into world-class wines. Bodegas Muga is one, and the wines provide a true taste of Rioja Alta.

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Posted in Wineries of Distinction

Extending the Weekend With Grilled Chicken Breasts and Pinot Noir

Red_Wine_GlassI woke up this morning with the blahs. Not the blues… the blahs.

I’m not a doctor, but I have nonetheless diagnosed my condition even more specifically: I have the Monday Morning Blahs.

This affliction tends to occur following a weekend of either exhilarating adventure or pure relaxation. For me, it was the former, and I’ll be sharing some of my weekend wine adventures with you in future blogs.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking that a good cure for the Monday Morning Blahs would be an easy-to-prepare Monday evening meal, accompanied by a good glass of wine. So rather than doing a lot of chopping, measuring, basting and other prep work, I’m going to simply fire up the grill when I wrap up work for the day.

Chicken sounds good, and so does a glass (or two) of Pinot Noir.

Because of the ingredients and the cooking process, the dish I have in mind pairs beautifully with red wine, especially Pinot Noir. And this recipe yields 4 servings, which means I can invite a few friends over and extend the weekend.

If I keep this up, Monday just may become the new Sunday…





• 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

• 1/2 cup lemon juice

• 1/2 teaspoon onion powder

• Ground black pepper, to taste

• Seasoning salt, to taste

• 2 teaspoons dried parsley




1. Preheat outdoor grill for medium-high heat. Lightly oil the grate.

2. Dip chicken in lemon juice. Sprinkle with the onion powder, ground black pepper, seasoning salt and parsley. Discard any remaining lemon juice.

3. Cook on the prepared grill for 10 to 15 minutes per side, or until no longer pink and juices run clear.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Dining Decadence, Italian Style, in the Windy City

EatalySignI lived in Chicago for 14 years, leaving in late October of 2013 after completing an all-consuming, sleep-depriving special project in the publishing industry — editing (and writing much of) a 300-page magazine.

I got out just in time, too, as I’m pretty sure this born-and-raised California kid would not have survived the Windy City’s brutal winter of 2013-14. Friends tell me the combination of cold and snow over such a prolonged period of time was unmatched in their memories.

I paid a visit to my old stomping grounds earlier this month, en route to an annual music event in St. Joseph, Mich., called Smooth Jazz at Sunset.

My lady and I flew to Chicago on the redeye so I could work in a morning visit to my dentist’s office before heading out of town. While I sat in “the chair” with my mouth wide open, Michelle made a beeline to an Italian market we’d heard about called Eataly.

EatalyCheeses“Italian market” doesn’t even begin to describe this place, conveniently located downtown, not far from Michigan Avenue. It features two floors packed with purveyors of Italian delicacies, including hand-stretched mozzarella made fresh daily.

The “fresh departments” also include a bakery, butcher, fishmonger, pasta, salumi and a wide range of formaggi.

There are small restaurants offering sit-down and stand-up dining, two coffee bars and, of course, a wine bar.

Fruit? Fresh.

Vegetables? Vibrant in hue.

Sweets? Sinful.

Michelle spent three hours there, rounding up salumi, cheese, bread and dark chocolate for a feast that night in St. Joe. She said she easily could have spent twice as much time, as each stand or kiosk offered something enticing to taste or inquire about.

When I attended summer concerts at Chicago’s Millennium Park, I typically picked up a barbecue chicken pizza to accompany a bottle of Vinesse wine while I listened to the music.

Were I still living in Chicago, my before-concert stop would now be Eataly and its two floors of Italian culinary decadence.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Bite This! Reno Plans a Wining and Dining Spectacular

Red_Wine_CheersLas Vegas is the undisputed casino gambling capital of the world. The famed Las Vegas Strip is lined with hotels that house restaurants developed — and sometimes even staffed — by celebrity chefs.

That makes Vegas a culinary capital as well. No wonder Wine Spectator Magazine has staged numerous consumer wine events there, and an annual fundraiser for the University of Nevada Las Vegas dubbed “UNLVino” has emerged as one of the most-talked-about wine events in the country.

But not all great meals consumed in Nevada are cooked in Las Vegas. The Silver State’s northern gaming mecca, Reno, also offers a number of destinations for foodies.

Beaujolais Bistro, for example, has emerged as one of the finest French restaurants in the West. After 10 years in its original location, the bistro shut down for a while as it relocated to new digs along the Truckee River — appropriately enough, on Riverside Drive.

A renovated Craftsman cottage houses the new dining room, and the new bar is filled with light (during daytime hours) and offers ample elbow room. It’s much more inviting than the original location, and that is by design.

Chef-proprietor Bill Gilbert appreciated the fact that locals considered Beaujolais Bistro a “special occasion” restaurant, but he wanted V.2 to be more accessible — both in design and with the menu. Old favorites are still offered, now complemented by casual dining options — marinated olives, mushroom cigars, scallops, carpaccio, oysters on the half shell, et al — at the bar, as Gilbert hopes locals will stop by more often.

Then there’s the wine list, hands down the best in Reno, and every bit as comprehensive as many in Las Vegas. Of course, there’s a big selection of food-friendly wines from Burgundy, but other French regions also are well represented. And that’s how the list is organized: by appellation.

Gilbert is proud of the fact that the list includes a number of rather obscure selections that no other Reno restaurant carries. His goal is to offer at least one wine to complement each menu selection. Each time I’ve visited, the suggested wine pairings have been spot on.

Another excellent dining spot in downtown Reno is Sterling’s at the Silver Legacy — particularly noted for its Sunday brunch. The selection of food items is… well… sterling, and each diner gets their choice of Domaine Ste. Michelle sparkling wine, Bisol Jeio Prosecco, a mimosa or a Bellini.

If we’ve tantalized your taste buds with this blog post, you may want to consider visiting Reno when the 3rd annual “Reno Bites” restaurant week takes place, this October 13-19.

That’s when local chefs pull out all the stops, creating specialty dishes, signature events and prix fixe menus that show off their considerable talents. Reno has long embraced the slogan, “the biggest little city I the world,” and when “Reno Bites” is on, it takes a culinary backseat to no other city, including Las Vegas.

To learn more about the 2014 edition of “Reno Bites,” click here.

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Posted in Wine Buzz

Under-the-Radar Wine Pairings

Pie and ice creamBlink an eye, and the month of July is half over!

July is packed with “food days” — those official (or otherwise) celebrations of everything from (in the case of July) corn fritters to jelly beans.

In fact, there is not a single day in July that is not devoted to at least one type of food. Several days have two concurrent celebrations, and two — the 14th and the 20th — have three.

July 14 was Macaroni Day, National Grand Marnier Day and Bastille Day, while July 20 is a dream for anyone with a sweet tooth: National Lollipop Day, National Ice Cream Soda Day and National Fortune Cookie Day.

Obviously, not all foods are great pairing partners for wine, but perusing the list of July food days — some that have come and gone for this year, one still so come — reveals a few possibilities that aren’t exactly top of mind…

• July 4 — National Barbecued Spareribs Day.

If you go beyond burgers and hot dogs on Independence Day, spareribs are a tasty treat and Zinfandel is the wine to serve. Its luscious fruit flavors meld nicely with the sweetness of the barbecue sauce. We have an array of wines selected specifically to pair with the bold flavors of barbecue and you can order together at a discount for a limited time.

• July 11 — National Blueberry Muffin Day.

A number of wines suggest blueberry in their flavor spectrum, including Malbec (particularly renditions from Argentina), Mourvedre, Petit Verdot and Petite Sirah. But with a just-out-of-the-oven blueberry muffin, nothing beats a fruit-forward Shiraz (a.k.a. Syrah) from Australia.

• July12 — National Pecan Pie Day.

Among the wines that exhibit a general “nuttiness” (i.e., not necessarily a pecan-like flavor) are Pinot Blanc, Roussanne, Semillon and Verdejo. But when you add sweetness to the equation, the best pairing partners for pecan pie are Cream Sherry or Port.

• July 17 — National Peach Ice Cream Day.

Some “late harvest” dessert wines are so sweet and so “thick” that winemakers often suggest pouring them over vanilla ice cream for a unique sweet treat. Think of it as a sundae for adults. Well, it just happens that there’s also a wine that can be poured over peach ice cream because it exudes a peachy impression of its own: Moscato. And unlike dessert wines, Moscato often adds another fun dimension to the ice cream dish: bubbles.  If you really enjoy the combination or just like sweet, bubbly wines, join our Light & Sweet Wine Club. You’ll save time and money by having wine selected just to your taste and delivered right to your door. For more frozen fun like Strawberry and Sparkling Rosè Pimms Sorbet, check out Ice Cream Magazine.

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes
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