Live from the Wine Bloggers Conference!

I’m writing this from Table 8 at the Wine Bloggers Conference. We’re about to get the liveblogging under way…

This conference combines nerdity with drinking. I am so happy to be here with my people! Internet access sucks, though, so this might be intermittent. I’ll do my best. Live tasting starts in 5 minutes! It’s “like speed dating for the wine industry” — each winery get six minutes to introduce its wines, and we get a minute to post our thoughts. I have a feeling the crappy Wi-Fi might mean I make one big update rather than a bunch of shorter ones.

2:35 Aaaaaand we’re postponing while they try to fix the Wi-Fi. Apparently there was a DNS attack on the hotel.

3:33 Back up! Starting with Cline Cellars, one of my favorite Sonoma wineries. Their tasting room is always fun to visit. They’re known for their Rhone wines, and today they’re pouring their 2007 Ancient Vines Mourvedre. Fruit for this wine comes from nine different vineyards dating to as far back as 1920. Rich, chocolaty nose with a lot of dark fruit character. This is a big wine (15% ABV). Dark fruits and tobacco up front, plus a hint of oak; intense with active acidity. Black cherry and cedar on the finish.

3:42 Internets down again. Next up is Tandem’s Manchester Ridge Chardonnay from Mendocino Coast, at an elevation of about 2,000 feet. Tropical nose with melon, pineapple, cream and floral aromas. Nicely balanced acidity, and I’m tasting cream, apple and lemon. Wild primary and secondary fermentation. I’m not a California chardonnay fan, but this one’s not bad at all — they used oak wisely here (only about 18% new oak — French oak, or “freedom oak,” ha ha), allowing the floral aspects to develop.

3:50 Foggy Bridge Chardonnay 2007 — one of Foggy Bridge’s first releases. A lot more oak in this one; pretty dry, with green apple and lemon verbena aromas and a lot of oak on the palate. They use 50% malolactic fermentation; they’re going for a lighter, crisper style, but I’m not sure it’s quite there yet. 100% organic (though not yet certified), and they use one label instead of two to save paper. 190 cases made. This winery had planned to open a tasting room in the Presidio but ran into planning difficulties and is looking for another spot in the city.

3:54 Clif Family Winery 2006 Syrah “Gary’s Improv.” Recognize the name? Same family affiliated with Clif bars. Intense red fruits on the nose and a little chocolate; very lively on the tongue — active tannins with a touch of spice and cedar. Really dry; I want a steak now, please.

4:00 On we go. Benovia Winery Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2007 — this is their second vintage. Ripe juicy cherry aromas leap out of the glass and follow through on the tongue — gorgeous cherry, cinnamon, white pepper and a little earth. The cherry flavors dominate at first, but wait a bit and the spices will really develop. 370 cases made, $55. Native yeast fermentation; minimal intervention.

4:06 El Molino High School (!) 2007 Lions Pride Pinot Noir — why didn’t my school have this?? Awesome. Students at this Forestville public school learn how to grow grapes, harvest them, give them to a celeb winemaker, sell the results to raise money for scholarships. Students created artwork for the label, but they can’t touch the stuff once the grapes leave the vineyard. Pity — but hey, more for us! Baked cherry and blueberries on the nose; oak, blackberries, pepper, a flash of heat. $35, 150 cases this year.

4:12 Rodney Strong Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley 2005. Whoa. Inky dark purple. Did someone say earthy? Holy shit. Earth and spice dominate the nose, but keep sniffing and you’ll get blackberries and other dark fruits. This is a big boy (15.4%). Reeeeeeeally spicy and … this sounds wrong, but it’s dirty and I like it that way. These tannins stand up and make you their bitch. Not that I’m complaining. $75, 1,800 cases made (200 left, so hurry up).

Crap, my table’s spit bucket is about three-quarters full and we’re only halfway done (if that)!

4:18 Cornerstone Cellars 2005 Howell Mountain Cabernet; grapes are grown at 1800 feet (coincidentally, 1800 cases made). 100% Cab. “The goal is not to make a wine that’s ready to drink” — stick this in your cellar. Nose of plum, dark berries; really chewy and young, with chocolate, blackberry, intense tannins that suck the moisture right out of your mouth. Long, slow fermentation. Do what the man says: Hang onto this one for a while — four or five years, according to winemaker Craig Camp. $100, 600 cases.

4:24 Benziger Signaterra Three Blocks Sonoma Valley Red Wine 2006 — 64% Cab, 36% Merlot from three vineyards. Nose of chocolate, pepper, earth and minerals. Really dry with very active tannins, oak, cedar, pepper, cumin; retails for $49, 5,000 cases made (the largest by far in the Signaterra line). This winery, by the way, has a really fun tour — be sure to stop by if you’re in Glen Ellen. They explain the biodynamic concept well.

Oh thank God, they emptied the spit bucket!

4:30 Matthiasson Napa Valley White 2008 (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Ribolla Gialla): Really floral nose, candied lemons, mandarin orange, melon, brown sugar; gentle on the tongue at first, but then the acidity explodes (in a good way), tempered by slightly sweet fruit flavors. 30% new oak. $35.

4:36 OMG WTF Joseph Phelps 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This one is seriously dark. Nose full of rich red fruits and spice, black pepper, cedar. Mmmmm. Dark fruits, pepper, earth and a bit of minerals on the palate. Cellar for up to four years, but it tastes pretty great now — much friendlier at this point than the Cornerstone Howell Mountain Cab from the same year. $54.

4:43: I hate to pour out a Joseph Phelps Cab, but we’re moving on to our final wine of the afternoon (not of the day, much more to come — hence why I have to pour it out): Bonny Doon’s Le Cigar Volant 2005 ($32, 1500 cases). ZOMG, Randall Grahm is here! Pardon me while I geek out. This is Grahm’s “homage to Chateauneuf-du-Pape.” Beautiful fruits on the nose; lovely velvety mouthfeel, with satiny fruits and smooth spices. I don’t know how to describe this one aside from “smooth.”

That’s it for now. Stay tuned — Sonoma tasting at 5:45; it’s by the pool, so I’m not sure I’ll be posting live (certainly not from my laptop), but I’ll try to update my Twitter feed via BlackBerry.

United Airlines’ new wine offerings

First off, sorry for the long silence – I moved across the country and started a new job, and it sort of took over my life for a while. But things have (finally) settled down again, so let’s talk wine!

I’ve been a loyal United Airlines customer for over a decade, and for years – years, I tell you! – I have been complaining about their wine. Quite simply, the wines served in domestic economy – Redwood Creek California Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon – were abominable. The Chard in particular tastes like drain cleaner (well, I imagine it does; I have not done a blind tasting with drain cleaner to confirm this, but be my guest). The wines in domestic first class were better, but for a long time it was pretty much a California Chardonnay (and I like very, very few of them; they often featured the Wente Chard, of which I am not a fan) or a nondescript California red in the $15/bottle range.

The first-class wines started to improve over the past year or so as they moved away from California wines. This was a smart move – I’m not familiar with the intricacies and quirks of the wholesale market, but as a consumer who almost exclusively purchases sub-$20 wines, I generally find better values from overseas than I do from domestic wines (and I’m not talking about Yellow Tail – I mean I get better quality for my money when I buy foreign wines, all else being equal). United Domestic First currently serves an Australian Shiraz, a Chilean Chardonnay, a South African Sauvignon Blanc and a California Cabernet Sauvignon. I love this mix and thoroughly approve. But it took a while for the economy cabin to catch up.

In 2009, United introduced its Choice Menu in the economy cabin on a trial basis in certain markets. The menu featured snacks, meals and premium beverages – but no wine. Booze hounds could sample Glenlivet and Maker’s Mark, beer fans could tap Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat, but wine lovers riding in the back were still stuck with Redwood Creek. I bitched about it copiously on (what is FlyerTalk for if not bitching?). It cannot be a coincidence that within a few months, United expanded the Choice Menu to all domestic mainline flights … and added premium wines. O happy day! And what wines they are. I understand that the airline is somewhat limited because economy wines come in 187ml bottles and there’s not much to choose from in that category, but I was thrilled to see they’d found something better at last. The premium wines sell for $1-$2 more than the standard economy wines, but believe me when I say it’s well worth the investment. (Bring your credit card – United only accepts credit cards for onboard purchases.) Here are the new wines:

J.P. Chenet Blanc de Blancs Brut (NV), France; 11% ABV; $8/187mls

Bottle was frozen, so may not be representative – had to sit on it! Nose has apples, bread dough, brioche, lemon. Dry and crisp with green apple, lemon curd, peach; slightly sweet finish as the bubbles fade. I wouldn’t necessarily buy this in a store or at a bar, but they could certainly have done worse. Not bad at all, and I’m thrilled to be able to order bubbly in Economy! (Note: They don’t load many bottles at this point; there were 4 loaded on my 767, and the flight attendant said passengers from first class snagged three of them before Economy service even started, so adjust your expectations accordingly.)

Cheviot Bridge Chardonnay 2008, Adelaide Hills, Australia; 14% ABV; $7/187mls

Very fruity nose – green apple, lemon curd, light touch of oak. Very citrusy up front – grapefruit, lemon blossom, lime zest – balanced by a softer touch of sweetness. Mellow spices on the midpalate: cinnamon, white pepper. It’s a Chardonnay and I don’t hate it — miracle! This makes Redwood Creek look like the cat pee it is. I love that it’s mellow without being flat and dull; there’s more complexity than you’d expect in a single-serve bottle of airline wine.

Cheviot Bridge Shiraz 2008 Southeastern Australia; $7/187mls

Very fruity nose – cherries, blackberries; hint of oak and cocoa. Nice acidity balances the fruit on the palate. Fruit makes it less astringent. Not my favorite red, but again, leaps and bounds ahead of Redwood Creek.

First class

Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc 2008 Western Cape (South Africa)

Tart nose with a hint of sweetness, featuring orange blossoms, key lime, green apple. Clean, crisp flavors of lemon, grapefruit, minerals, slate. Really (REALLY!) happy to see a first-class wine that isn’t a California Chardonnay. Excellent choice, United.

Yali Chardonnay 2007 Maipo Valley (Chile)

Yeah, it’s a Chard, but it’s more citrusy and a lot less oaky (read: annoying) than California Chardonnay. I actually kind of like it, which rarely happens when I’m drinking Chardonnay. Very little oak (glory hallelujah!). Clean, bright, citrusy nose. Flavors of lemon meringue, lime zest, a touch of herbs; faint oak but not to an obnoxious degree. Light and crisp; an excellent choice for a diverse array of palates. Goes well with airline chicken.

Bushman’s Gully Shiraz 2008 Southeastern Australia

OK, I’m not a huge fan of this one, but Aussie Shiraz rarely wins me over. The fruity nose carries hints of cedar, blackberries, light oak and a touch of pepper. The flavor is brash, exultant, too sweet, too fruity, unbalanced – lots of overripe dark fruits. United could have done much better here; I’ve seen them serve the Trapiche Malbec from Argentina on occasion in First, and that was much more palatable to me. Then again, maybe I just don’t like Aussie Shiraz. It’s important to note that in First, they serve wine from 750ml bottles, so they’re not nearly as constrained for choice as they are in Economy, which is restricted to wines that come in 187ml bottles.

Redtree Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 California

I have yet to taste this, though it is listed as being allegedly available on some domestic first-class flights. I’ll keep an eye out. In the meantime, I’d like to state for the record that I love Redtree’s cherrylicious Pinot Noir.

Bodegas Covides Duc de Foix Brut

This appears to be exclusive to flights between the West Coast and JFK (Premium Service). I am poor and have yet to give these routes a shot.

Mystery Syrah!

Here in the D.C. area, we’re all busy preparing for the impending arrival of Snowpocalypse 2: Electric Boogaloo. Even though I grew up in Colorado and recognize deep down that snow is not the end of the world, I was running low on wine and cheese (you know, the usual staples), so I joined the hordes at Harris Teeter to pick up these crucial essentials.

Their wine selection is rather limited (and the shelves are a mess – half the Portuguese wines are mixed in with New Zealand and South Africa, and the other half are in the next aisle with Spain! WTF?), so I decided to try one of the low-end big-name brands: the 2008 Baron Philippe de Rothschild Pinot Noir Vin de Pays D’Oc. The main reason I picked it up was that I’d read this article earlier in the day about a similar product:

Several parties in the Languedoc have been formally charged with selling millions of euros of fake Pinot Noir to Ernest & Julio Gallo for its Red Bicyclette brand. … Between 2006 and 2008, Sieur d’Arques allegedly sold 135,000 hectolitres of vin de Pays d’Oc labelled Pinot Noir to E&J Gallo for €4m (£350m). However the total production from those supplying the French distributors amounted to 15,000 hectolitres a year.

I’ve had Red Bicyclette in the past, but not recently enough to have notes on it – I vaguely remember it being OK, nothing special, a decent convenience store wine when there are no other options. That pretty much describes the Baron Philippe de Rothschild. It’s … fine. I paid $7.99. You can get better values, but you could also do worse. It’s your basic inoffensive light-bodied red wine for the U.S. market: red fruits, a fair amount of acid, a bit fizzy up front (almost reminiscent of a Gamay), fades quickly from the palate. It’s decent if unmemorable table wine.

But what cracks me up about this wine – in light of the above article about Red Bicyclette being illegally* cut with Merlot and Syrah and marketed as Pinot – is the fact that while the bottle only mentions Pinot, my receipt from Harris Teeter registered this wine as “Pinot Syrah.” Hmmm…

* Wikipedia indicates that a French varietal wine must be composed of at least 85% of the named variety under EU law. The defendants in the Gallo case appear to have flagrantly flouted that law, and that probably isn’t the case with the Baron Philippe de Rothschild. I just found it entertaining that the Syrah was on the receipt but not on the label.

Willamette Valley Vineyards

While I am a prodigious drinker, I have to admit that I have neglected Oregon and Washington wines — mainly because they can be hard to find. I don’t often get a chance to taste them, and many are above the $20 price point at which I usually cut myself off (hey, there’s a recession on). I’m glad the Wine Bloggers Conference is taking place in Walla Walla, Wash., this year; I look forward to learning more about the wines of that area and the Pacific Northwest in general.

Recently I got a chance to explore some wines — a Chardonnay and two Pinot Noirs — from Oregon’s Willamette Valley Vineyards. Although its wines speak for themselves, I was particularly intrigued by WVV’s environmental commitment — they use Forest Stewardship Council-certified corks, they provide their employees with free biodiesel fuel, and their vineyards are certified through Salmon Safe and LIVE. Going organic or biodynamic is all well and good, but I like to see wineries emphasize environmental friendliness in other ways — you hardly ever hear about water runoff issues, for example, so I was glad to see the Salmon Safe certification. Anyway. On to the wines.

2007 Willamette Valley Vineyards Dijon Clone Chardonnay: Nose is rather tropical — pineapple and mandarin orange leapt out for me, but I didn’t pick up any coconut until I read the tasting notes (and that may be the power of suggestion at work). I also got some new oak, a touch of butter and a little bit of spice. This wine is nicely acidic — it’s got a good balance. I like the fresh citrus flavors — lemon, lime, crisp green apple; there’s not too much oak or butter. I don’t think I’ll ever be a fan of American Chardonnay and this probably isn’t one I would buy (I really only go for unoaked), but it wasn’t bad. If you are a fan of American Chardonnay, I suspect you’d like this wine.

2007 Willamette Valley Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: This is their basic, entry-level Pinot Noir. I’m getting a lot of dark fruits (black cherry, blackberry) on the nose with a touch of coffee; after I let it sit for a few minutes and gave it another swirl, some earthy notes emerged. Lots of acidity up front, very active on the tongue. Intense, tart cherry floods the palate, followed by hints of smoke and dust. A bit rough at first — I gave this one some time to settle in the glass and it smoothed out. Definitely a food-friendly choice; I think this could stand up well to dishes with a touch of spice.

2007 Willamette Valley Vineyards Tualatin Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir: Very aromatic — spicy cherry just leaps out of the glass to grab you by the nose. A much more subtle offering compared to the Willamette Valley Pinot. Sweet spices on the nose with notes of pine. Juicy fruit flavors (raspberry, cherry, plum) wash over the palate, punctuated by pepper and smoke. Nice long finish; much more persistent than the other Pinot. Both this and the other one really should be enjoyed with food — I wish I’d thought ahead and made salmon, because I think that would have worked very well with this wine.

All of these wines were winery samples. Thanks to Willamette Valley Vineyards for giving me a chance to try them!

Cahors: My first love

Way back in 2004 or so, when I was first getting into wine, I fell in love with Cahors. I wish I could remember which wine did it, but I wasn’t taking notes at that point — all I remember is that it was earthy and rustic and utterly enchanting. Ever since that moment, I’ve snapped up every Cahors I can afford — and they’re not easy to find. So I was particularly excited to hear about a Cahors tasting in D.C. last week.

Cahors seems annoyed that Argentina has managed to position itself as the king of Malbec, if its current marketing push (“Cahors Is Malbec!”) is any indication. It’s intriguing to me that a French AOC is emphasizing a varietal, but that seems to be what the U.S. market (at least) wants right now — Lord knows it’s worked for Argentina. That said, here are a few of my favorites.

Chateau de Hauterive Prestige 2007: Bouquet of ripe summer berries with woodsy undertones. Smoky, spicy, tannic and food-friendly.

Chateau Armandiere 2002 Diamant Rouge: Gorgeous rustic, earthy nose with plum, blackberry. Robust, complex, mouth-filling. Yum!

Chateau Vincens 2006 Prestige: Bouquet of big, dark, plush fruits. Rich mouthfeel with flavors of blackberry preserves, baking spices; big and spicy.

Chateau St. Sernin 2008 Varua Maomi Mana: This is not the type of label one expects from a French wine. The winemaker is Tahitian by birth; I like how he’s integrated his heritage into his brand. Nose is toasty and yeasty with bread dough overtones — not what I expected from a 100% Cahors Malbec. On the palate, big dark fruits melt into smoky, spicy flavors. Nice balance.

Clos Troteligotte 2005 K-Prix: Lovely fruity nose — plum, blueberry, oak, spice. Softer than its contemporaries but still nicely acidic. Flavors of pepper, plum, earth and spice with woodsy notes. I really, really liked this one. Retails at about $18 — look for it!

Chateau Les Rigalets 2002 La Quintessence: Big, rustic bouquet with anise and barnyard aromas. Lots going on here; palate carries pepper, thyme, wood and blackberry with robust tannins. Drink this with game or rare/medium-rare red meats that can stand up to it.

Chateau Paillas 2007 Cahors: Plum and blackberry on the nose with metallic/mineral notes. Very tannic and mouth-filling; acidic, herbal, vegetal. I don’t even really know how to describe this one besides “I love it.” It stuck with me.

In short: If you like Malbec and are not yet acquainted with Cahors, you need to fix that. It’s hard to go wrong with these wines, and they’re great values — most of the wines I tasted at this event were under $40 or even under $20. Here’s hoping it catches on!

Do Americans know what Pinot Nero is?

This week I attended a fantastic tasting of the Wines of Lombardy — a region in the north of Italy west of Venice. I haven’t been to Lago di Garda (Italy’s largest lake), but Lake Como is, for my money, the most beautiful place on Earth. And I visited it long before George Clooney took up residence, so that’s high praise indeed.

Lombardy is one of Italy’s lesser known winemaking regions, but it accounts for 70% of Italy’s wine revenue. It plays second fiddle to Tuscany in terms of recognition, but its wines are vital to the nation’s economy — even in the U.S., where it has a long way to go.

One of the winemakers I talked to is primarily marketing her Pinot Nero to the U.S., and we discussed the difficulties of trying to sell that particular wording to the American public — I’d wager that 90% of U.S. wine consumers don’t realize that Pinot Nero is the same as Pinot Noir.

This winemaker is strongly considering changing the front label on her Pinot Nero wines to say “Pinot Noir” for the American market, and I think that’s a wise move — I suspect her sales of that varietal will go up at least 50% thanks to the change. What are your thoughts?

Tasting report: Blackstone

OK, I admit it: I have a hard time with California wines, especially in the value category. I’ve warmed up to the Sauvignon Blancs (thank you, Geyser Peak) and some of the Pinot Noirs, but it’s been a bit of a battle. There’s a lot of quality in the $30-plus market segment, but below that? Let’s just say it’s a jungle out there. So when Blackstone sent me several bottles of their value and midrange wines, I was curious to try them out. Here are the results.

Blackstone Winemaker’s Select Chardonnay 2009 (Monterey County) (note: link goes to the 2008 tasting notes)

Pale straw color. Not much oak on the nose (which is good news for me, as I’m not a fan of oaky Chardonnays); there are aromas of pineapple, melon and peach. I really like the use of oak in this wine — it provides a subtle background to the well-integrated tropical fruit flavors; I get lemon, honeysuckle, Red Delicious apple and a whiff of vanilla. However, the sweetness becomes a bit overwhelming after half a glass or so. At $10, this is a pretty good value. I’d probably buy it to bring to a party — but not for myself.

Blackstone Winemaker’s Select Merlot 2008 (California) (note: link goes to the 2007 tasting notes)

Dark burgundy color; rather light body. Nose is dominated by blackberry, plum, currant, a touch of petroleum and dust (disclaimer: they were tearing up the street my apartment overlooks when I tasted this wine, so it might have been from the trucks). Not much of a mouthfeel. I get violet, blackberry and dark cherry on the palate. This is an uncomplicated wine; the SRP of $10 isn’t bad, but I have to say you can do better in this category. It’s not bad at all, but not memorable enough that I’d seek it out.

Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Sonoma County)

Dark and nearly opaque with glints of burgundy. Very jammy nose tinged with vanilla and lightly toasted oak; black pepper emerges if you let it sit for a while or decant. Not much fruit in the mouth at first; the flavor is dominated by oak, baking spices and vanilla, with subtle blackcurrant and plum emerging on the back palate. I tried this with broiled flank steak and it paired well; I don’t think I’d drink it on its own (the alcohol, at 14.5%, is a bit high for that for my taste), but it’s a good food wine. The SRP is $20.

Blackstone Sonoma Reserve Rubric 2007 (Sonoma County) (note: link goes to the 2006 tasting notes)

Now this one is a beauty. Dark ruby color, fairly transparent. Yeasty nose full of baking spices and ripe red berries with notes of tobacco, cocoa and black cherry. I could sniff this wine all night, and I am a sucker for a great-smelling wine. The taste? It’s like a mouthful of Grandma’s cherry pie (or at least what I remember of it — it’s been a while since I had cherry pie, and I have yet to encounter a gluten-free version, so it’ll probably be a while before I taste it again). This is a wine for fruit lovers and a great sipper for a cold winter’s night — pick up a bottle before Christmas and enjoy it over the holiday. I plan to do just that. Out of the four Blackstone wines I sampled, the Rubric is the only one to earn my wholehearted recommendation. I don’t think it can really compete with the $30-plus wines from the same region, but it’s an excellent choice for its price category (SRP is $22).

Full disclosure: I received all four wines as samples from Blackstone.

A visit to Biltmore Estate — or is it?

Well, darn. I was all excited to try a North Carolina sparkling wine, so I was a bit dismayed when I saw that all of the fruit from the Biltmore Estate Blanc de Blancs actually came from California’s Russian River Valley. I got over it, of course — RRV Chardonnay is hardly something to complain about — but I still would like to try more North Carolina wines. I get the feeling this wine is intended more to promote the Biltmore Estate brand and encourage tourism to the estate, particularly around the holidays.

When I opened the bottle, yeasty, bready aromas leapt right out and were even more pronounced in the glass. Sprightly stone fruits and lemon with a touch of honey, too, but the bread aromas dominate, especially at first.

I was surprised by the sweetness I tasted at first. This sparkling wine is supposed to be Brut-style, but it felt a bit off-dry to me. I tasted candied lemon, lime zest and white peach, with notes of honeysuckle and strawberry. (The residual sugar is listed at 1.4%.) The tasting notes suggest pairing this wine with a slightly spicy dish; I sampled some mild panang curry chicken with it and it was a nice combination.

This wine retails for $24.99. It’s pleasant and would serve as a nice holiday gift for someone who knows and loves the (admittedly impressive) Biltmore Estate or for a North Carolina native. While it’s a fairly well-made wine, I don’t know that it would stand up well to California competitors at similar price points. Consumers who know and love the Biltmore Estate brand will prefer it; those who don’t will not be swayed by the name (and probably won’t look closely enough to notice its California origins).

Disclaimer: I received this wine as a sample.

It’s the wine in a box!

For as long as I can remember, my mother has been a devotee of boxed wine. And not the stuff you’re likely to find on the pages of Wine Enthusiast these days, oh no. She’s all about the Franzia. She and Kathy Griffin’s mother (of “Tip It!” fame) are kindred spirits.

My dad has always been more of a Black Swan guy; he disdains the Franzia, but he’s happy with an under-$10 critter label from Down Under.

When I came home for Thanksgiving this year, I found that the tide had turned: My dad has switched to boxed wine. However, he’s a fan of the new, higher-quality crop that has emerged over the past few years (French Rabbit, Black Box, Bota Box, etc). It was the first time I’d had a chance to sample a variety of these new boxed wines, so I thought a blog post was in order. I’m also concerned about the environmental impact of my wine enthusiasm, and as boxed wines can greatly reduce that impact, I was really hoping to find at least one that might suffice as an everyday sipper.

I don’t do ratings, but in this case I figured … well, you’ll see.

2008 Gran Verano Cabernet Sauvignon (Central Valley, Chile; “estate bottled,” whatever that means; $21.99 for 3 liters at a Colorado liquor store): This is pretty thin stuff — I’m not sure whether I got an off box (I guess it can’t be “corked,” right?) or if it was meant to be this way. Not much of a nose to speak of. It has currant and tobacco flavors, but it tastes oddly watered down. This box averaged out to $5.50 per bottle, but I can easily find better options at Trader Joe’s in that price range. SKIP IT.

2009 Bota Box California Shiraz ($19.99 for 3 liters at a Colorado liquor store): Let me preface this by saying I’m not a big fan of Shiraz, especially the Australian style, but I actually thought this one wasn’t bad. Maybe that’s the California winemaking? It doesn’t taste like overripe grapes, which is what I always find in cheap Aussie Shiraz (like the aforementioned Black Swan). Again, not much of a nose, but it’s reasonably well balanced for the price, with juicy red fruit flavors and a touch of pepper. I’d go a step beyond “inoffensive” and call it “not bad.” TIP IT!

2009 Black Box Malbec (Mendoza, Argentina; $21.99 for 3 liters at a Colorado liquor store): Inky garnet color. Nose carries cedar, dark fruits and baking spices. Nicely dry with dark fruit flavors on the midpalate. The finish isn’t long or complex, but this is a good food wine. Easily the best of the boxed wines I tried. TIP IT!

2009 Bota Box Malbec (Lodi, California; $18.99 for 3 liters at Harris Teeter in Virginia): This one is a fruit bomb, and I definitely preferred the Black Box Malbec to it. Nose of slightly overripe dark fruits and baking spices; lots of sweetness on the tongue, where the baking spices are even more pronounced. Oddly, it paired deliciously well with Brillat Savarin cheese (the cheese of the gods!) when I ran out of Blanquette de Limoux. Not a wine I’ll buy again … unless I’m making a giant batch of sangria for a party, in which case I suspect it would work very well. SKIP IT.

2009 Bota Box Old Vine Zinfandel (California; $18.99 for 3 liters at Harris Teeter in Virginia): This is the wine my dad had on hand when I came home for Thanksgiving — the wine that showed me that the boxed segment has true potential. Abundant blackcurrant, pepper and some earth on the nose along with faint vegetal hints (green peppers, maybe?). It’s fruity at first sip, but then the spices rush in, along with a good amount of acidity. I think adequate acidity is key for these wines — it’s all too easy for them to go the fruit-bomb route. This one gets it right. Lots going on here. TIP IT!

I sampled my mother’s Franzia Chardonnay, just for kicks, but it didn’t stay in my mouth long enough to produce detailed tasting notes. Let’s just say SKIP IT and leave it at that.

(P.S. I love you, Mom, even though this post has prompted you to tell my friends I was adopted.)

Mazel tov!

One of my little sisters got married tonight. (I thoroughly approve of the guy, as does our dad, or else he’d have ended up in a dark alley, etc., as all inappropriate suitors should. Right? Right.) The limo had Cooks on ice (shudder) and the hapless groom tried to class things up with Korbel Extra Dry. Well, OK, it’s not that hard to outclass Cooks, but still.

I’d been consulting with the restaurant about wine options, and finally I said, “You know what? I’ll buy the two bottles of Prosecco for the toast, and let’s have everybody order by the glass from the wine or cocktail menus.”

This turned out to be a stroke of genius. The bartender/cocktalian at Strings (the Denver restaurant where we had the reception) has been there for 22 years and she kn0ws her shit. (I originally mistyped “shit” as “shot” and well, dammit, she knows her shot too.) There are about 15 wines by the glass, and Strings does not relegate the cheap shit to the by-the-glass menu. There’s some seriously good stuff on there (Pouilly-Fuisse, top-end Napa Cab, etc). And do not neglect the cocktail menu, which has been crafted with care by the aforementioned 22-year bartender. I can’t remember the name (a good sign?), but ask her for the one that involves pear vodka and St. Germain. Trust me.

I have to say that these waiters at Strings went above and beyond to make sure I didn’t get glutened. Every single app they brought out, one of them would whisper to me in an aside, “Don’t eat this one,” or “This one’s cool.” They also brought food out to the limo driver. Props!

The grand finale: I feel kind of like a bitch about this, because I didn’t bring the good shit out until the bride and groom had fled to their kid-free night at the Doubletree. But I went to the good liquor store and demanded that they give me the awesome wine guy (Scott at Arrow Liquors in Littleton, if you’re interested). I gave him a price range ($25-$40 per bottle) and some flavor cues (I know Jenny likes fruity stuff, but I was all, Give me yeast and brioche and all that, and since I was paying, it was my call, hahahahaha). We ended up with two bottles of Nicolas Feuillatte Brut 2000 (I have never seen these guys do a vintage, so this was special). Jenny, I should note, was 14 when this Champagne was bottled.

And ha ha, she didn’t get any of it. She and Josh fled to the child-free confines of the hotel the moment they could get away. Can’t blame ‘em, but ha! We got the good stuff. The really, really, really good stuff. My God. Such yeasty aromas, with a whiff of French bread, sourdough and crusty baguette (all things I can’t have anymore because of the stupid celiac thing — mon Dieu, perhaps this is God telling me to drink Champagne every day instead). We inhaled the aromas and we, well, inhaled the Champagne. And it was good, good stuff.

The end. Well, not really.

I know I’ve been absent for an unforgivably long time, but I hope to make it up to you all will posts about exciting Colorado winemakers (yes, they exist!) like Infinite Monkey Theorem and Bookcliff. I am not exaggerating when I tell you these winemakers will be vying for shelf space in New York, California and Illinois within the next five years, and I’d love to help them get there.

Hope you’ve all had a good summer so far. Let’s raise a glass to air conditioning!