Monthly Archives: June 2011

4th of July Picks: Charles & Charles Rose and Red Wines

Charles and Charles Rose 2010It was June of 2009, Al and I were in the midst of a road trip across the country (10,000 miles to be exact) on a venture that would end in our new home – Naples, Florida. Along the way we had stopped at multiple vineyards, wine stores and wine bars doing ‘research’ for our new business venture…Decanted. We found hundreds of great small production gems and value wines along the way in Napa, Sonoma, Oregon, and Washington. But we never expected to find our favorite wine of the trip – Charles & Charles Rose (2008) –  in Louisville, Kentucky.

We stopped in Louisville for the weekend to meet up with my sisters and her boyfriend at the time (will be become her husband this weekend!) After some research, we decided on an impromptu gourmet dinner at the highly recommended Proof on Main. It was hot and we were all tired from a day at Churchill Downs, so we decided on a crisp and light rose to start the evening. The waiter’s suggestion turned out to be a good one, and four bottles of it later we had bought out the restaurant of its supply.

Charles & Charles is a joint venture between two of our favorite wine makers – Charles Smith and Charles Bieler – made from 100% Syrah grapes from the vineyards of Columbia Valley, Washington. Smith has described the wine in past vintages as a “crisp, jolly rancher.” This vintage? Smith says, “Remember Jolly Ranchers? Hold that thought…grab a bottle of this wine, open, pour, sniff, swirl, taste. Now…dontchya think that this wine is the way-evolved, been-around-the-world-a- few-times, insouciantly hip, cool-as-the-other-side-Charles & Charles Red 2009of-the-pillow, casually bad a** son of Jolly Rancher? Yeah, we thought so, too.” We don’t think there is a better way to describe the wine, or the winemakers. That refreshingly bad a** approach to a style of wine that has maintained an inferior reputation for a number of years in the U.S., gives us hope for the future of rose.

I often tell people there are a lot of things that go into how good a bottle of wine is. And for those bottles of 2008 in Louisville it was a combination of discovering something new, a great wine, great winemakers…but most likely it was the situation and the people. In 2009, we were slightly disappointed by the wine not living up to our insane expectations (how could it?) However this vintage, 2010, is our favorite to date.  Complex yet crisp, I haven’t found a domestic rose that can top it. Al and I actually fought over the last glass the other night, which rarely happens. Oh yeah, and if I forgot to mention…it’s only $13.

And for those non-rose believers, we have a new addition to the store…Charles & Charles Red. A blend of Cabernet and Syrah, the project uses some of the very best grapes from the Wahluke Slope and delivers a slamduck table wine at an affordable pricepoint ($13).

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What Makes a Great Vintage for Wine?

Wine Vintage ChartI was teaching a wine basics class last night and one of the topics that came up was vintage years for wine, and what makes one so much better than the other? I thought it would be a great topic for the blog as well and decided to recap my answer here. The first thing that needs to be understood when it comes to vintage – or years – is that grapes are an agricultural product which are farmed just like anything else we eat…tomatoes, oranges, etc. There are certain conditions and locations that promote the growth and ripening of grapes .  Assuming that a winery has already chosen an appropriate site with soil and climate conditions that are ideal for the type of grape that is planted (a whole other topic), the main factor that affects vintage is weather.

Grapes are picky. They want (in general) the weather conditions we all wish for. Moderate winters, and summers full of warm, sunny days and cool nights with some rain but nothing overwhelming. In a perfect vintage, this is what happens. It may be easier to explain what vintners don’t want to happen rather than the ideal conditions (where none of these things would happen).

Frost/Severe Weather in the Spring:  Bud break usually occurs in April/May (for northern hemisphere vineyards), if prior to that the area has frost or some kind of severe weather on the cold side, bud break can be hindered resulting in a reduced crop.

Severe Weather during Flowering:  Early in June, the buds typically begin to flower which will in turn start the production of berries. Any severe weather – hail, strong thunderstorms and wind, chilling temperatures – at this stage can be incredibly devastating to a vineyard. The result will be berries that fail to develop or grapes that are uneven in size making ripening and harvesting more difficult.

Summer: This is the longest and most crucial part of grape development. The grapes need the right amount of sunshine/rain to properly ripen. In a drought, grapes will not ripen. Too much rain, same thing. The warm summer days keep the ripening process moving during the day while the cool nighttime temperatures prevent an early harvest.

Harvest: At harvest, rain is the biggest potential destroyer of a crop. If the area receives too much rain, the grapes are engorged with water and will develop watery flavors.

In general, the best vintages had perfect weather. If you are a wine enthusiast planning on starting a collection of premium wines, pay close attention to vintage. Erobertparker.com is a great resource and contains a vintage chart and ratings for just about every available vintage and region. Just buying wine to drink? Trust your local wine professional to sell you a decent vintage. Most vintages are good (in ratings about 80 – 90) and the wineries produce good wine. Professionals will be well aware of great vintages and most often point them out (over 90 points). Terrible vintages? You shouldn’t event be able to find them in our stores!

Wine Review: Hewitt Cabernet

Hewitt is not a new wine to us, but with a recent deal we’re offering on the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon I decided to revisit – and re-taste – this Napa big boy.

A closer look at Hewitt Vineyards

The vineyard that is now Hewitt was planted originally in 1880, it was one of the few that actually survived the Prohibition area and even one of the fewer that admits it did it by shipping grapes to home winemakers on the east coast (a not so technically legal practice). The property borders the original Ingelnook vineyard (now Rubicon Estate) in the Rutherford district of Napa, known for its high quality fruit and its signature ‘Rutherford dust.’ In 1962, William Hewitt – a former head of John Deer Company – from the daughter of the original vineyard owner. He immediately enlisted the help of his neighbor, Bealieau Vineyard’s winemaker, André Tchelistchef, to replant the site with Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2001, Hewitt produced its – and the vineyards – first single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

2006 Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon

Hewitt produces only wine one each year – it’s single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.  The goal of the wine is to highlight the storied terrior the fruit comes from only the best fruit available.  Winemaker, Tom Rinaldi, says “I get to select the exact rows I want from our spectacular vineyard.” Qualified selection such as that comes at a price to pay – low production numbers. It is a limited edition wine with production often times in the 5,000 case range.  The 2006 exhibits flavors of red currant, rustic earth, sage, and licorice. The wine is full bodied with a full fruit flavor balanced with tannins that will help the wine to continue to develop until 2016.  Receiving a rating of 92 points, Wine Spectator calls it “Intense and full-blown, rich and concentrated, with a rustic, earthy edge to the dried currant, sage and underbrush notes.”

Winemaking practices

The wine begins with an extreme selection of only the best grapes in the vineyard. The wine is typically 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but at times other grapes are blended to add complexity and body.  The grapes are destemmed before crush so at least 30% of the fruit goes through full berry primary fermentation

Hewitt Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006
Regularly $105, Sale $75.00 

What’s so special about Aspen Food & Wine?

Aspen Food & WineThe Food & Wine Classic kicks off in Aspen, Colorado today.  As Food & Wine festivals go, this is pretty much ‘the’ festival to attend. However, after living in Aspen for two years and not attending one festival…I ponder what’s so special about it?  The Food & Wine Classic began in Aspen started in 1982 on a much smaller scale – and no magazine involvement – then it is today.

If you’ve ever craved a good bottle of wine in Aspen, you’ve probably ended up at Grape & Grain just off the corner of East Hopkins & Monarch, angled slightly below Jimmy’s Restaurant (get the mac n’cheese, better know as Jimmymac). When you enter the small wine shop, you are greeted – often by name – by one of the four men that rotate time recommending wine to the store’s loyal following. Often the shop is filled with younger shopkeeps, but the store’s owner and founder – Gary Plumley – is the key to the boutique’s success…and Food and Wine’s. In the early 80’s, Aspen’s food and wine scene was just starting to explode and Mr. Plumley had a vision of a ‘wine tasting on the side of a mountain’ which was held in nearby Snowmass Village. After a few years, the publisher of Food & Wine Magazine (an avid wine collector) got involved and the festival officially changed names and was moved to Aspen.

Since the move, the festival has evolved – but not grown in terms of size that much. If you’ve ever visited Aspen, you’ll know that part of its allure is the privacy and small town feel. There are a finite amount of hotel rooms and flights to accommodate travelers, which dictates often an overwhelmingly high travel cost to access the city during the winter and big summer weekends. When it comes to big summer weekends nothing tops Food &  Wine. Hotels and restaurants are booked far in advance often for double the rate you will see the rest of the summer. The Aspen Chamber Resort Association estimates the festival alone brings in well over $3 million in direct economic impact to the city, a boost that is surely appreciated in the summer. Add the increased travel, lodging and food costs to a ticket of about $1500 and you are talking about one expensive weekend.  A weekend that is completely sold out.

So, I return to my question…what’s so special about it? I have a feeling that mostly it’s the location. Aspen is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful and truly magical places in the world. It’s my second love (behind my husband). Add a superior food and wine festival to that town and it’s really an event that is hard to pass up. Food & Wine has done an unbelievable job recruiting some of the top chefs and wineries while being able to also feature hot new-comers year after year. With the added publicity from the top-rated show, “Top Chef” and there’s probably not a similar festival that comes close to it. To give you an idea, here are just some of the chefs/speakers featured this year: Lidia Bastianch, Mario Batali, Richard Blais, Michael Chicarello, Thomas Keller, Mark Oldman. And tastings? Try these: Champagne Salon, Colgin Cellars, Sassacaia, Hundred Acre.

So what’s so special about the festival? Just about everything, so start saving now.

To Oak or Not To Oak? Chardonnay’s Different Styles

As I’m entering the world of wine education (I’m in the middle of my intermediate level course for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust certification), I’ve been pondering different styles of wine and exploring more so than I typically do.  I’ve never been a fan of heavily oaked Chardonnay but as I learn more and more about the grape, its growing regions and high acidity levels I’ve come to discover I’m also not a fan of non-oaked versions. So what’s the answer, oak or no oak?

The argument for oak

I begin with the fact that chardonnay grapes from Napa Valley are worlds different from chardonnay grapes in Chablis and Burgundy. The warmer climate grapes like California, Burgundy and Australia can benefit from some oak fermentation and/or aging. Warm weather prompts higher yield levels and riper fruit. As chardonnay ripens, the sugar increases and forms strong flavors and aromas of tropical fruits like pineapple and banana. Oak fermentation balances the fruity characteristics and complements those flavors creating a well-balanced, complex wine. In this case, oak is a positive and delicious treatment for the wine…in moderation. Yes, I’m seen and tasted some very heavily oaked versions – many of which used either 100% new oak barrels (the flavors are stronger, the newer the barrels) or an inexpensive replacement to oak barrels, oak chips. The wines I have tasted that achieve the best demonstration of the grape in this style use a combination of new and used oak barrels or even a combination of oak and stainless steel batches.

The argument for no oak

There’s something special about a Chablis. The crispness, minerality, delicate peach flavors that just make you want to drink unoaked Chardonnay for the rest of your life. But I’m not sure if the style would work in a warmer climate. The cool growing region of Chablis and other new world regions – Washington, for example – restrict the yield and development of the grapes and the resulting fruit has higher acidity levels, a mineral characteristic and what reviewers refer to as ‘stone’ fruit (peaches for the layman). In this case, the use of oak in fermentation/aging could disrupt those delicate, yet strong fruit flavors and completely over power the wine. The result is something completely different and unique from its sister style in California & southern France.

Conclusion

I’m not sure there is one righteous path for winemakers in search of the perfect Chardonnay. What I’ve learned through my ‘research’ is Chardonnay is a much more complex variety than the big box brands demonstrate. It is highly reflective of the climate and terrior which it is grown which can also dictate a certain style of production. I found the key is balance in the wine, and achieving that – whether it requires oak or no oak – is the only important thing.

Summer Seasonal Beer Tasting Recap

When it comes to summer beers, I want something light, crisp and thirst-quenching.  As far as seasonal releases go for micro breweries, many of them follow this suit…however there are a few that go off the beaten track.  Last night we had a tasting of over 20 new summer seasonals (and some of our regular favorites) to see who would hold the crown for best summer beer.  The results…well I’m sure you’ll be just as surprised as I was.  Below is a description of the Top 4, and later the full list of beers.

#4:  Victory Summer Love
Not surprisingly the brewers of Golden Monkey and Hop Devil hit us with another go-to brew.  They use a blend of American and German hops to achieve a floral yet citrusy flavor in the beer.  Crisp and clean and thirst quenching, just what summer needs.  Plus, hailing from the Philadelphia area…we can’t help but support this brewery…and there’s a baseball player on the label – what’s more summer than that?

#3:  Widmer Pitch Black IPA
Widmer is quickly rising to the top of the ranks for favorite breweries for us.  Although, I personally prefer the Citra Blond (I could replace my go-to Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat with it), the masses spoke and this was the clear favorite of the two Widmer’s tasted.  Although a Spring Release, it just hit the Florida market.  Black malts are used to arrive a toasty malt flavor, citrus essence, and some herbal aromas.  Smoother than most IPA’s, a truly unique style.

#2:  Brooklyn Summer Ale
After all the reviews on this brew, I was beyond excited to get it in.  What’s even better?  It came in cans.  I’m always looking for a good canned beer for the store, we’re a beach town and the beach patrol isn’t particularly friendly the glass bottles.  But when it arrived…I was shocked.  It took me straight back to my younger days with visions of Milwaukee’s Best dancing in my head….not a fond memory.  The goal of the beer was to achieve a 1940’s British Pub style ale .  Brewed from English barley malt, light golden in color with almost a bready (word?) flavor.  Oh, and it comes in bottles as well.

#1:  Breckenridge 471 Small Batch Series IPA
A double IPA as the summer beer of choice?  Well one this delicious deserves attention at any tasting – no matter the season.  The brewery describes its favored small batch beer as, “Hoppy? Brother, 471 IPA redefines hoppy.”  And that it does.  A combination of five different malts and four different hops, it will separate the men from the boys with a sweet forward flavor followed by a kick-you-in-the-mouth hoppy finish.

Full list of beers is below.  We’d also like to thank Widmer & Blue Point Brewery for donating some pint glasses.  We’re so happy about them, we’re giving them away to our customers!

Buy a 6-pack, get a free glass…online orders use code “BEERGLASS

Brew Ha-Ha:  Summer Seasonals

  • Ace Joker Cider
  • Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat
  • Cooper’s Sparkling Ale
  • Brooklyn Summer Ale
  • Breckenridge Brewery Summerbright
  • Full Sail Pale Ale
  • Bell’s Oberon Ale
  • Dogfish Head Festina Peche
  • Kalik
  • Breckenridge Brewery 471 IPA
  • Full Sail Session Lager
  • The Bruery Trade Winds
  • Lindeman’s Lambic Pomme
  • Southern Tier Raspberry Wheat
  • Blue Point Brewery Blueberry
  • Blue Point Brewery Toasted Lager
  • Widmer Citra Blond
  • Alexander Keithe Nova Scotia Brown Ale
  • Florida Avenue Brewing IPA
  • Widmer Pitch Black IPA

Chill Out with Summer’s 5 Most Refreshing Wines

Things have been heating up in Florida and across the country lately. When temperatures start to spike into the 90’s I’m not apt to open that heavy bottle of Cabernet or Zinfandel. So here are a few of my new favorite summer wines, which also conveniently pair extremely well with summer cuisine (can you say grill?)

Best Light White: Pascual Toso Torrontes, 2009
From: Mendoza, Argentina
Grape(s): 100% Torrontes
Price: $13
Torrontes is my new favorite white wine, but boy am I picky when it comes to the bottle. I’ve seen it made it two distinctive styles: light & crisp (like an Italian Pinot Grigio), and more full-bodied and floral. I’m a sucker for big flavors, so I prefer the second style. This grape evokes such a fresh finish while maintaining strong flavors of honeysuckle through the front and mid palette. It reminds you of almost a oaked chardonnay – in a good way – but it’s not aged in oak, probably indicative of both the terrior and the varietal characteristics. Fantastic wine at a great price point.
Pair with: Chicken in a BBQ or cream sauce

Best Unique White: Austrian Pepper Gruner Veltliner, 2008
From: Austria
Grape(s): 100% Gruner Veltliner
Price: $18
When it comes to warm weather there is only one thing I crave…fish, and lots of it. Raw fish, grilled fish, smoked fish. You name the style, and I’ll eat it. Problem? I like my fish with a little kick. Weather it’s a cayenne rub on the grill or wasabi on my tuna I just need a little spice in my life…and spice is not often a friend to wine. Except in Austria (and Germany). If you are looking for a wine to subdue those spicy flavors in your life, this is it. Some lesser Gruners often have an overwhelming ripe green apple flavor to it. While that is on of the true characteristics to the wine, there should be more depth than just biting into a Granny Smith. This wine adds some pepper and lavender notes to the bright green acidity typically found.
Pair with: Tuna with a wasabi-mayo sauce, Mahi tacos blackened in a spicy rub

Best Rose: Starmont Merryvale Rose of Cabernet, 2009
From: Napa Valley, California
Grape(s): 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Price: $18
I’m happy to report that in 2011, we as Americans accomplished two important feats in the wine world. 1. We were able to drink more wine than the rest of the world. 2. We FINALLY got rid of that horrible stereotype that all rose is White Zinfandel. As we see sales of rose grow, we are continually looking for innovative styles to entice our palette. New to use this year? A rose made of 100% Cabernet….mmm. The Starmont has flavors reminiscent of its big brother – plums, dark cherry, cocoa, cassis – but maintains the light and bright feel of the rose style. This is truly a red drinker’s rose.
Pair with: Rack of ribs drenched in your favorite sauce

Best Unique Red: Simonsig Pinotage, 2007
From: Stellenbosch, South Africa
Grape(s): Pinotage (cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut)
Price: $20
I’ll admit, until about one month ago I thought less of Pinotage…and people who drink Pinotage. I had never tasted one that could count as an ok beverage, let alone a good wine. Simonsig proved me wrong. Flavors of bright red fruit and spiciness on the finish. Would I drink it everyday? No, but it’s a hell of a wine with a grilled pizza.
Pair with: Grilled pizza preferably meat based with a sauce with a kick

Best Burger Wine: Tarima Monastrel, 2010
From: Jumilla, Spain
Grape(s): 100% Monastrell
Price: $10
Let’s face it, I own a wine store, I get to sample a lot of wines in a lot of price points. When I sit down at night for dinner, there are not many times when I grab a $10 bottle. I don’t think of myself as a snob, but more as an opportunist. Who knows when all the premium wine could disappear…I should drink it now! This is my exception. Soft and smooth, flavors of grape, licorice and a little strawberry this sucker has fooled multiple wine lovers in blind tastings. Drinks way above its price point.
Pair with: A nice, juicy burger

The New Age of Wine Labels

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There was a time not so long ago when all wine labels – whether they were hard to understand or not – were all the same.  They almost always had an image related to the winery in the center of the label often a coast of arms, depiction of the winery/chateau or a family crest.  Today marketing leads the charge when deciding on a label and not so often a representation of the winery itself.  Instead of illustrations of famous Chateau, we now have ‘critter’ labels.
Here’s a breakdown of how we’ve seen wine labels change over the last couple years…

Old Wine Labels

  • Center image is often times a family crest, coat of arms or drawing of the winery.
  • Muted colors, rarely more than 3 colors are used for the whole label. The background is almost always a pale yellow, orange or off-white.
  • Country of Origin is always mentioned, usually phrased as “produce of …”
  • Wines are identified as defined by the wine governing body of the country, either by region (Europe) or grape (US)
  • The reputation of the wine should speak for itself.

New Age Labels

  • Almost always some kind of marketing trick with new wineries, some labels user humor as a sell tactic – “Bitch” wine, “Oops” wine, “Big Ass Red Table Wine”, “Fat Bastard,” “Frog’s Piss,” etc
  • A trend of minimalist labels prevail sometimes only including the name of the wine without the region, winery, grape or vintage mentioned.
  • Labels are designed with the intention of selling the package and not the reputation of the winery.

So which is the better way to go?  Some changes have benefited the consumer especially when it comes to more American-centric European labels.  However, there are others when the marketing goes a bit too far.  Take for example, the now infamous example of this new age wine label – Bitch wine.  At first look, you can’t tell what the wine is, where it is from or who made it.  Or does that not matter anymore?   While there are a section of consumers unconcerned with those elements, most of us are concerned about what we are drinking and where it comes from.

Wine makers and owners have tried to extend their creative ability to differentiate themselves in way of an expressive label or name.  Which really isn’t a new concept. Take one of the most famous wineries in the world, Chateau Mouton Rothschild, who starting in 1924 has commissioned a different artist to design a new signature label for each vintage.  In my opinion what we see happening is just more of an infusion of wine with art, a pair that has been together for centuries.  I’m sure we’ll see even more drastic changes as this relationships evolves over the years but for the time being I will enjoy the interesting and amusing labels, but still by my wine based on reputation.