Some Additional Thoughts About Pairing Wine With Pizza

Waiter taking order at restaurantI don’t always agree with wine critics, particularly some of the better known ones.

I guess it bothers me that a small handful of individuals can have so much influence over an entire industry.

There’s no doubt in my mind, for instance, that when big, buttery, oaky Chardonnays began getting 90-plus ratings from a couple of big-name critics, a lot of vintners changed the way they made Chardonnay to emulate those big ratings-getters.

In a similar manner, the term “pizza wine” has fallen into disrepute because, when it’s written or uttered, it’s done so with a negative connotation. The critic is basically saying, “This is a wine that you don’t want to serve with a fancy gourmet meal; it’s only good enough for pizza night.”

To me, that’s an insult to good pizza and a lot of perfectly good wine — and I suspect the folks at California Pizza Kitchen and other purveyors of gourmet pizza would agree.

If you’re dealing with a really good pizza, you’re experiencing some very tasty flavors — mozzarella and other cheeses, well-seasoned tomato sauce, spicy pepperoni, meaty mushrooms, zesty green peppers and so on. And such flavors deserve a complementary wine, not some flavorless jug from the supermarket.

The classic vinous companion to pizza is California Zinfandel. It embodies just the right combination of acid, fruitfulness and spiciness to complement virtually any type of pizza, with the exception of Hawaiian-style.

But Zin isn’t the only option. As we noted in yesterday’s blog, there now are high-quality renditions of Lambrusco that make absolutely perfect pizza pairing partners.

I’ve also had great pizza dinners with Syrah, Primitivo, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the “G-S-M” (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) blends of Australia. Chateauneuf-du-Pape, because it’s often somewhat herbal, is a great match when the primary pizza topping is green pepper.

And what about Hawaiian-style pizza? It’s a challenge mainly because of the pineapple, which eliminates all red wines from the equation. What I like to do is order it with just a small amount of tomato sauce, and then pair it with sparkling wine — Blanc de Blancs, Brut or Rosé. It needn’t be a well-aged, vintage

Champagne. In fact, I prefer a youthful, fruit-forward sparkler — or, now that high-quality renditions are available, a bubbly Lambrusco. Give it a try; you may be pleasantly surprised.

Don’t let those snobby critics prevent you from enjoying two of life’s guilty pleasures — pizza and wine — together.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Pizza Time… and Time to Give Lambrusco Another Chance

Pouring wine into glass and backgroundFor a country that makes so much wine, why do some of Italy’s vinous products get such a bad rap?

Perhaps the answer can be found in the question. Maybe the sheer number of wine types produced virtually guarantees that there will be some for which people don’t care. After all, the quality spectrum of wine, not just in Italy but in most wine-producing countries, can be quite wide.

In the case of Italy, the three types that have caught more than their share of abuse through the years are Prosecco, Chianti and Lambrusco.

Well, in all three cases, the image does not align with reality. Not in the wine world of 2016, anyway.

Prosecco was sometimes referred to as “a poor man’s Champagne,” and it’s an apt description if all you’re taking into consideration is price. But as Italian estate after Italian estate has proven, great sparkling wine can be crafted outside the Champagne region of France. Michelle and I even served Prosecco at our wedding, as I noted in this blog:

For many people, when they thought about Chianti, they envisioned some type of innocuous red wine housed in a type of straw-covered bottle aptly called a “fiasco.” Truly, many of those wines were pretty bad, but today’s Chianti bottlings are all about quality. In fact, for the past 20 years, there have been strict guidelines for Chianti wines, ensuring that at least 75% of the cuvee consists of Sangiovese — the same variety used to make Italy’s coveted Brunello di Montalcino wines.

Which brings us to Lambrusco, perhaps the most lampooned of the three and, for much of its existence, deservedly so. But as with Prosecco and Chianti, what you thought you knew about Lambrusco doesn’t apply today.

Lambrusco’s poor reputation dates back to the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the bottlings that found their way to the States were fizzy, sweet and cheap — which, in the minds of many, placed them in the same category as wine coolers.

During that same period of time, however, Italians were drinking Lambrusco of a different type — red sparklers with a more earthy personality, perhaps just a touch of sweetness, and extremely refreshing. In other words, wines that are absolutely perfect for serving alongside pizza, particularly when topped with spicy pepperoni or sausage.

For as long as I’ve been with Vinesse — and that goes back to year two of the company — I can’t recall a Lambrusco being offered. I could be wrong about that, but I’m pretty sure I’m right.

But after tasting the absolutely beguiling Caprari Lambrusco, the tasting panel decided to include it in a special Pizza Pairing Collection that also includes a bottling of America’s go-to “pizza wine,” Zinfandel. It’s a wine that would work equally well with a Margherita pizza as it does with pepperoni.

If you haven’t tried Lambrusco since those “Reunite on ice” commercials were ubiquitous on the radio, the time has come. If you enjoy being delightfully surprised as much as I do, this is your opportunity.

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Posted in Editor's Journal, Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes, Wine in the Glass

Food-and-Wine Pairing Made Easy: 4 Tips

Beautiful young couple with glasses of red wine in luxury restaurantWhen matching wine with food, flavors are important. That’s fairly obvious.

In fact, we talk all the time about matching wine with the dominant flavor of any given dish. For instance, a filet mignon calls for a different wine (I’d recommend Cabernet Sauvignon) than a pepper steak (Zinfandel) or a tri-tip (Syrah).

But because there are literally thousands of possible combinations, learning them can be a daunting task. We’ve found it’s much easier to deal with flavor “types,” which pares the pairing possibilities to a much more manageable number.

Here are four very basic tips that cover probably 90 percent of food-and-wine matching situations…

  1. Proteins and fats in food benefit from tannins in wine.

That’s why Cabernet Sauvignon — the variety with the “biggest” tannins — is the go-to wine when you’re indulging in a thick, juicy steak.

  1. Acid doesn’t match with much of anything… except acid.

So, pour acidic varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc or Gruner Veltliner when you’re dining on a dish with a citrus juice-based sauce, or salad with a vinaigrette dressing.

  1. Sweet-and-spicy is not just an Asian cuisine concept.

If Tex-Mex, Thai or Indian food is being served, and if your dish has a bit of a kick, you can beat the heat with an off-dry or semi-sweet wine such as Riesling — to go with the old standby: sparkling wine.

  1. Sweets for the sweet.

When indulging in dessert, keep in mind that the wine needs to be just as sweet or sweeter than the dessert. One exception to this “rule” involves dark chocolate, which actually can pair beautifully with some dry red wines.

But that’s another blog for another day…

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Posted in Food and Wine Pairings/Recipes

Red Wines at the ‘Right’ Temperature for Fall

Wine refrigeratorWith fall approaching, many of us will be drinking more red wine more often. After a summer of imbibing mostly well-chilled whites, the ol’ palate is ready for some soul-warming reds — wines that will go with the more hearty fare we’ll be eating.

Which brings up the question: At what temperature should red wine be consumed?

For as long as I can remember, the standard answer has been “room temperature.” Only one problem: When that advice initially was given, the man giving it probably lived in a drafty castle that was not equipped with any type of heating system — other than, perhaps, a fireplace.

In other words, “room temperature” back then was a good deal cooler than “room temperature” today.

Obviously, a more precise answer is needed, and we have one: Red wines should be served at between 58 and 69 degrees.

The recommended temp varies slightly from varietal to varietal, but not enough that it would make a big difference if you were to simply stick within that range.

Since “room temperature” at your home more likely falls within the 70- to 75-degree range, this means you should place a bottle of red wine in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes prior to opening and serving.

If you forget to do that, simply fill a bucket about three-quarters full with ice, add water up to about the same level, and place the bottle in the bucket. It should be at the “right” temperature in about five minutes.

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Posted in Wine Cellar Notes

How to Stock Your Home Wine Cellar (or Rack)

White Rose and Red WineWhen you’re first “getting into” wine, learning about all the different varieties and growing regions and aging regimens and customs can be a daunting experience.

At the very beginning of what, for many, becomes a life-long journey, all that most people want to know is what types of wine they should have on hand to cover just about any type of occasion that could arise — planned or unexpected.

So, the Vinesse tasting panel and I put together a list of “go-to” wines that would make just about any home wine cellar (or wine rack) prepared for handling just about any type of culinary or social event.

If space is an issue, keep a few bottles of each type on hand, and then replace them as you use them…

  1. CHARDONNAY. America’s favorite white wine. The variety with which almost any guest would be familiar. The perfect wine to sip while catching up with friends.
  1. SAUVIGNON BLANC. The wine to serve with shrimp, crab cakes, scallops or other seafood specialties. Bright and refreshing.
  1. CHENIN BLANC. A flavorful and versatile food wine — great with fish, chicken or salads. Before Chardonnay took the crown, it was the white wine king of California.
  1. GEWURZTRAMINER or RIESLING. If you enjoy Chinese or Thai take-out, either of these varieties will match beautifully. Also great with Tex-Mex. Serve well chilled to help counterbalance the spiciness of the food.
  1. CABERNET SAUVIGNON. The king of red wines. Great for special occasion toasting, or to accompany a thick, juicy steak.
  1. MERLOT. The “mellow” red. Easy drinking and delicious.
  1. PINOT NOIR. Grilling salmon? Burgers? This is the wine to uncork.
  1. ZINFANDEL. The perfect pizza wine. And we mean that in a good way.
  1. CHAMPAGNE/SPARKLING WINE. Even people who think they don’t like wine will drink a glass of bubbly on occasion.
  1. DESSERT WINE. For the guest with a sweet tooth, or for an after-dinner treat, have a sweet variety such as Muscat Canelli or Moscato on hand.
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Posted in Wine Buzz

A Mushroom That Tastes Like Maple Syrup… and Some Fine Wine

mushroomsMy late Mom’s side of the family came from Vermont, so even though I grew up in Southern California, we always had an ample supply of real Vermont maple syrup in the house. Anytime a relative from the Green Mountain State came to visit, they knew that the unspoken “cost of lodging” at the Johnson house was a metal tin of syrup.

So when I read that there is a type of mushroom that apparently tastes like maple syrup and can be used to make delicious ice cream, I had to learn more. It’s called the candy cap mushroom, and it grows only along the northern coast of California.

Learning led to yearning, and now I really, really want to try this mushroom and see if the maple claims hold syrup… uh, I mean, water.

Well, it turns out that the candy cap is one of the mushroom types that will be available for tasting at the Mendocino County Mushroom, Wine & Beer Festival, to be held November 4-13 at various venues around the county. To view a complete schedule of events, click here:

There are a number of events that include wine as a component, beginning on the very first day of the festival with tastings and pairings at various venues along Highways 101 and 128. Some of the participating wineries open their doors only a few days each year, so this is a rare opportunity to sample their wares and, more than likely, meet the winemakers.

The festival’s signature event this year is the Mushroom, Wine & Beer Camp on Nov. 5, an adults-only day of delicious food, exclusive beer and wine, and camp fun — all while helping to raise important funds for the Mendocino County Museum.

As the event’s website describes it, guests will “stroll through beautiful old-growth trees and golden meadows as you are greeted by the winemakers and brewers of Mendocino County, who offer tastings to complement mushroom dishes prepared by local chefs as part of the Annual Mushroom Cook-Off Contest. Later in the day, enjoy a BBQ of organic meats while taking part in activities such as mushroom foraging, hiking, home brew making, arts, crafts and more!”

Sound like fun? The cost is $90, which, compared to the fees for similar events held in big cities, is a bargain.

Heck, I’d be willing to pony up that amount just to try a mushroom that tastes like maple syrup.

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Posted in Editor's Journal, Wine Buzz

My Favorite Wine Can Be Described in 3 Letters: GSM

38664I have liked many wines in my time. These are wines that I uncork regularly to enjoy with a meal or to share with friends over a deep (or not-so-deep) conversation.

There also are wines that I like A LOT — that I tend to buy by the case and track down with each new vintage. These are the wines that I serve on special occasions — an anniversary dinner, the Thanksgiving meal, a landmark birthday.

But I have to admit that there have been only a relative few wines that I’ve truly LOVED — that I would drink every day and in great quantity if money were not an object and the human body did not require a well-functioning liver in order for one to enjoy optimum health.

That wine?


To some Europeans, GSM stands for Global System for Mobile Communications (originally Groupe Special Mobile), a standard developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute to describe the protocols for second-generation digital cellular networks used by mobile phones, first deployed in Finland in July 1991. As of 2014, it had become the de facto global standard for mobile communications, with over 90% market share, operating in over 219 countries and territories.

I have no idea what all of that means, but it comes straight from Wikipedia, so it must be true.

However, to me… and other wine lovers… GSM standards for Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre — three grape varieties that, when blended together, produce truly magical wines.

The blend is believed to have originated in the Southern Rhone of France, and it’s the blend you’ll typically encounter when you open a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. But my first experience with it was a cuvee from Australia. I honestly do not remember which winery produced it, but I do know that I’ve tried countless renditions from Down Under in the years since, and have never been disappointed.

What is it that makes the melding of these three varieties so sublime?

Let’s start with the Grenache. It typically contributes a bit of spice and some soft berry notes.

The Syrah — which the Aussies call Shiraz — provides pepper and black fruit notes, and also lends body and color.

The Mourvedre provides roasted game and tobacco impressions, along with a sense of sweet plums. Structurally, it provides a sense of elegance.

When you marry all of those qualities, is there really anything more you need in a red wine? As far as my taste buds are concerned, the answer to that question is no. And that’s why if I am pressed to name my “favorite” type of wine, my answer is GSM.

Want to experience the wonderfulness of GSM for yourself? The Vinesse tasting panel has put together a collection that is likely to transform you into a GSM lover, too — the wine kind of GSM, not the digital cellular network kind.

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Posted in Wine in the Glass

Why ‘Swirling’ Your Wine Is So Important

Couple checking wine in a vineyardBecause I’m so into music and love seeing and hearing under-the-radar singers and groups perform in intimate settings, I have grown accustomed to enjoying the “patter” between songs almost as much as the songs themselves.

Remember, these are not big rock stars with a team of roadies. Rather than having someone hand them a different guitar with a different tuning in between songs, these folks have to handle the tuning themselves on stage.

For a while, it seemed as if there had been a meeting of some of these performers, because so many of them — during a pause in the action — were making the same comment, “We tune because we care.”

Now, I find a way to equate pretty much everything in my life with wine, so when I’d hear those five words, I’d also think about some of the emails we’ve received over the years that this blog has been in existence. Many folks have written in asking whether “splashing around wine in a glass” — something they’d typically seen for the first time during their first visit to a winery tasting room — was necessary, and what it accomplished, if anything.

The action described is known as swirling, and it’s one reason wine glasses are not filled to the brim in restaurants. Imagine trying to swirl with a full glass; the result would be similar to a toddler’s first encounter with a “topless” drink cup.

Swirling a wine helps release its aroma. It’s particularly helpful with younger red wines, which can be a bit “closed in” for several minutes after the bottle is opened.

The process introduces air to the wine more quickly, and air helps the wine release its aromas and flavors.

Experienced tasters know that a wine’s aroma spectrum is directly related to its flavor spectrum. Thus, smelling a wine will provide clues about how it is going to taste.

So, while swirling certainly isn’t necessary, it’s one of those actions that can enhance the wine “experience.

Or, to put it another way, we swirl because we care.


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Posted in Wine FAQ

10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Tasting Room Visit

Wine tastingIt’s California Wine Month, and until we get that law passed that allows people to buy their wine only from Vinesse, we know you’re probably going to stop by a winery (or two or three) when the occasion arises.

September is a great time to visit wine country because harvest has either begun or is about to begin at most of the vineyards, which means there’s excitement in the air (not to mention a lot of bees, who love that sweet fruit hanging on the vines).

To help you get the most out of the touring-and-tasting experience, we offer the following 10 tips…

  1. Select a designated driver.

D.U.I. laws are so restrictive in many states that even one tasting room visit could put one’s blood alcohol over the legal limit. Reward the designated driver with a bottle (or two or three) to enjoy at home.

  1. Don’t use cologne, perfume, scented soap or anything else with a strong scent.

You want to be able to savor the aroma of the wine in the glass… and so do the other tasting room visitors.

  1. Take your time.

The goal is not to see how many wineries you can visit, but to discover two or three special bottles that you’ve never had before.

  1. Spit.

After swirling a sip of wine in your mouth, it’s perfectly acceptable to spit it out. That’s what the buckets on the tasting bar are for. If you’re self-conscious about spitting, just take very small sips and pour any unused wine into the bucket. You won’t insult the winemaker: he or she doesn’t want you to get drunk, either.

  1. Some wineries offer complimentary nibbles. Eat them.

Or eat before you hit the road. Food helps to metabolize alcohol.

  1. Take notes.

Especially if you’re going to be tasting a lot of wines, this will help you remember what you like.

  1. Ask questions. (And listen to the answers.)

You’ll learn a lot.

  1. If the winery offers a tour, take it.

You’ll learn about the winemaking process and what makes that winery special.

  1. Ask if there are any “special bottles” behind the counter.

You just may get to taste something normally reserved for regular customers or fans of the winery.

  1. Have fun.

This isn’t rocket science. Don’t be so focused on being a “wine geek” that you don’t get as much enjoyment out of the experience as you could… or should.

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Posted in Editor's Journal

Here’s Hoping for a Mild Fall for Austria’s Vineyards

austriaterracesWinemaking in countries like Austria, where the weather is dependably undependable, can sometimes be a harrowing endeavor. This came to mind last week when I received a report on the 2016 Austrian grape harvest.

In 2014, when Michelle and I visited Austria’s Wachau Valley during the harvest season, the challenge was rain. Look closely at the accompanying photo, and you’ll see little droplets on the lense, mixed in with the gorgeous buildings and terraced vineyards that line the Danube River.

This year, the problems began in the spring, and now the grape growers and winemakers are praying that more harm isn’t done as picking time nears. Here’s a report from the trade group Austrian Wine USA…

– – – – –

Viticulture got off to an optimistic start in 2016, with respect to the vegetation period. Unfortunately, overnight freezes from the 26th to the 29th of April brought catastrophic consequences for many farmers in Steiermark and eastern Austria.

Grape growers, too, were badly affected by the frost damage. A relatively early budding was met by unusually heavy night-time frosts, especially in the Steiermark but also in Burgenland and certain regions of Niederösterreich, where devastating damage must be reported. Secondary buds, which subsequently sprouted in the damaged vineyard sites, have naturally shown a very modest fruit set.

A spell of sultry weather during late springtime and the summer months was characterized by high temperatures on the one hand — frequently above the 30° C threshold — but at the same time continuously interrupted by rainfall, heavy at times.

This served to drive the development of vegetation smartly forward in the damaged areas as well as in those that had remained unaffected by hail. Because of this intermittently “tropical” greenhouse climate, winegrowers were challenged in particular to guard against vine diseases such as peronospora and powdery mildew, as well as to keep the rapidly growing green cover underneath the vines in check and effectively address wild growth in the foliage canopies.

Now that the harvest season has drawn closer, a clearer picture has emerged among growers and vintners.

“The frost catastrophe last spring leaves Austrian winegrowers currently facing a diminished vintage in terms of quantity, although there is a good crop of grapes now hanging on the vines in many regions,” said Johannes Schmuckenschlager, President of the Austrian Viticultural Association.

“After the massive late frosts at the end of April, unstable and muggy weather unfortunately led to ruinous hailstorms as well, starting at the end of May. The Steiermark and Südburgenland were hardest hit by the hail, but winegrowing regions around Lake Neusiedl and the northern part of Niederösterreich also reported damage — a total of some 1,200 hectares of vineyards were affected. According to Austrian hail-insurance authorities, the total damage to viticulture alone stands to date at 2.5 million Euros.

“Now, winegrowers are hoping for a dry and pleasant September, so that the remaining grapes can quickly achieve full ripeness while remaining as healthy as possible,” Schmuckenschlager added. “If this happens, we could anticipate another vintage of excellent quality.”

– – – – –

Wine of good quality — even if in limited quantities — could be the happy ending to this rather sad story. Let’s keep our fingers crossed this month for our winemaking friends in Austria.

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Posted in Wine Buzz
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