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!

Disneyland for wine geeks

The Wine Bloggers Conference was filled with highlights, but one experience stood out in my mind as the best of the best: Conn Creek’s AVA Room. Let me tell you why.

I’d heard about the AVA Room a month or two before the conference and had really wanted to check it out on my next trip up to Napa, but work got crazy and I never had a chance — so I was ecstatic when our bus pulled up at Conn Creek. We didn’t have time for the full experience, but it was a hell of a taste.

Conn Creek’s AVA Room

The room has nineteen barrels of wine. Fifteen are single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from all over Napa Valley; each of the other four barrels contains one of the classic Bordeaux blending varietals (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot). Each of the Cabs is accompanied by a photo and description of its vineyard of origin along with (this is so cool — yes, I am a nerd) a soil sample. Basically, you taste them all.

Normally, visitors take part in a guided barrel tasting, then create their own Bordeaux blend, bottle it and take it home. Our experience was more casual: We were there for dinner and were sort of left to our own devices, so we concocted our blends in wine glasses (meaning that, sadly, Cuvée Liz lives on only in my memory). Still, although it was just a taste of the full experience, it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was especially fascinating to compare the Cabs to one another and to see how each addition changes the character of your custom blend. I could have spent all day there and never gotten bored. (I think I mentioned that I am a nerd?)

This is the kind of experience I’d like to see more wineries offer: hands-on education, the chance to put yourself in the winemaker’s shoes for a few hours. Perhaps it won’t appeal to the average tasting room visitor, but if you’re fascinated by the process of winemaking and you find yourself in Napa Valley, you may find the AVA Room worth a visit.

Details: Reservations required. $95 per person (wine club members save $30). Offered Thursday through Tuesday at 10:30 and 2. Photos courtesy of Conn Creek.