Wednesday, September 27, 2006

"B" is for Blend

This posting is a special request for, quite possibly, my only reader at this point.

Peace out, mom!

Just kidding, but that’s about the truth. Actually, my girlfriend suggested this one, and since it’s a topic that I love—it’s an easy request to fill.

Blended wines are certainly not a novelty for lots of people. But for a surprising number of wine drinkers, meritage and other funky blends are a bit of a mystery. It might surprise these folks to know that the vast majority of all California wines are blends.

This is because, legally, all you need is 80% or so of cabernet sauvignon grapes to call your wine cabernet. Sometimes you can get away with less. Depending on the appellation or designation you put on the label, the amount of a certain type of grape needed to bottle wine under that grape name varies widely.

The good news is that this isn’t really a bad thing. Adding other grapes often gives wine complexity and balance. Some producers add lesser-quality grapes to bulk up a wine, but that’s only one of the many tricks winemakers use to lower costs at the expense of quality.

Don’t even get me started about “essence of oak.” That’s a topic for another day.

Blending wines is a vary common winemaking technique employed worldwide. U.S. winemakers are largely responsible for the trend toward varietal wines—wines labeled under a specific type of grape. This is also how lots of people shop for wines. They go looking for chardonnay, merlot or shiraz. If something is labeled any other way, like red table wine or meritage, they're afraid of not knowing what they’re getting.

It’s a shame, because some really great wines are made in this style. Blended wines cover everything from shiraz/cabernet blends from Australia to the wines of Bordeaux to funky California blends like Bonny Doon Ca’del Solo Big House Red and everything in between.

Not only that, but there are countless blended white wines also, like d’Arenberg Stump Jump White, Sokol Blosser Evolution, killer wines from the Rhone Valley, white Bordeaux and so on and so forth. The list could go on forever.

A good blend is all about harmony: taming big, bad cabernet sauvignon with smooth merlot, adding the spice of cabernet franc and the deep color of petite verdot. Some wineries are nice enough to list the grapes on the label, others leave you in the dark. If they do, that's great. If not, have fun trying to guess what went in.

Once you learn a little about what each grape brings to the table, it gets really exciting to read wine labels. One winery that’s really great about listing what grapes went in and how much of each is Ridge Vineyards. Just reading their labels makes me salivate.

So for anyone other than my girlfriend (or my mom) who reads this, I have one request—drink something funky tonight.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A little perspective

Sometimes not drinking wine is worth writing about on a wine blog.

Friday night we went to Camon Japanese Restaurant and had an amazing sushi dinner. Their wine list is meager, but does have at least one nice choice for sushi-appropriate wine (Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Dry Reisling). But instead we drank beer—big, cold cans of Sapporo.

It amazes me that some of my wine-drinking friends turn up their noses at beer. As far as I’m concerned, everything has its place and time. I really love the way the flavor of Sapporo goes with sushi. It’s light and crisp enough not to interfere with the flavors and it douses the heat of wasabi also.

If you just don’t like beer, that’s fine. But some people seem to think they have somehow transcended drinking beer. They are now on a higher level of taste bud consciousness where only wine will do.

For the record, I love beer. I love brown ale, porter, stout, IPA, pilsner, hefeweizen, bock and countless other well-made brews out there. What the hell else are you going to drink with a big, fat cheeseburger?

Well, zin is really nice with a burger.

But, I still LOVE beer. Just like I don’t want fine dining every night, I don’t want wine every night.

Well, maybe just one glass.

But, there are times when only a cold beer will do. Anti-beer snobbery is right up there with anti-white wine snobbery. Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t drink white wine,” it makes me wonder what kind of moron would say such a thing.

To not like something is one thing. To imply that you are too GOOD for something is a cat of different color.

It just ain’t right.

And by the way, if you live in Columbia or find yourself there, and you like sushi, Camon is the most fantastic place to eat. The food is simply to die for and the people there are the best. I can't say enough good things about the Camon.

And if you go, drink a beer for me.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Solace in Wine

Sometimes a nice glass of wine and good company are the only things that keep me going.

Yesterday, after the usual long day at work, I discovered yet another damn problem in my life. Lately, all sorts of complications, worries and headaches have been interfering with my peace of mind. Not too much different than most people’s lives I suppose.

So after dinner, my best girl and I retired to the front porch with my crazy shepherd dogs and popped open a bottle of Domaine de la Janasse Côtes du Rhône 2003. Suddenly, things didn’t seem so bad.

The heat has finally broken here in South Carolina and my front porch has once again become my favorite place in the world. The night before last, we dined outside with a pepperoni pizza and a bottle of Luna Vineyards Sangiovese 2003.

Two kick-ass wines in two days—maybe life isn’t so bad.

Côtes du Rhône-Villages is by far one of my favorite appellations. The 2003 Janasse is really an exceptional example of what this area is all about. While I love the pricier wines of the Southern Rhone, for ten bucks a bottle, this wine is an absolute steal. Here's a great link for info on the wines of Côtes du Rhône.

It’s mostly grenache with some syrah from 40 year-old vines. Something I love about French wines is that they tend to be less sanitized. The Janasse has the distinct cherry and white pepper notes that I expect from grenache, but it also has some earthy and smoky nuances. It’s also bottled unfiltered, which I'm a big fan of.

The Luna was another thing entirely: lush, ripe and seductive. It's a wine to be lusted after. Check out the link above for their highly descriptive tasting notes.

Sangiovese is a real chameleon. Depending on where it’s grown and how it’s treated, it can end up being very different. After drinking a decent amount of Chianti (also made from sangiovese) lately, this Napa Valley version really blew me away. Both are very good, but very different.

Green’s has the Janasse. The Luna was a Mr. Friendly’s wine sale find.

Well, it’s almost the weekend. Hopefully we’ll have some more cool evenings and some more great wines. I need the escape.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Drink what you like

Now that I’m writing about wine, I’m also doing a lot more reading about wine. One thing that strikes me is how wine is often treated in such an objective manner. The writer, or a panel of reviewers, lists the “best wine of the tasting” or “best value under ten dollars.”

Of course, I do the same thing. It’s impossible to avoid imposing your own preferences on your readers, but it conceals an important truth: there is no objective "good" or "bad" when it comes to wine.

Okay, I take that back—there are some wines that are so poorly made that they border on undrinkable, but they rarely make to the shelves of the stores where you shop. A man with three teeth and two acres of colombard sells them out of a foul-smelling barn in West Virginia.

Mostly, whether a wine is good or bad depends on the drinker. At this point you’re thinking, why am I reading this and who gives a shit?

Wait! Don’t stop reading!

The point is that you should keep on reading wine reviews (and long-winded bloggers), but you should read them differently.

For instance, I read Robert Parker’s reviews (I confess) and frequently buy wines that he rates highly. But I don’t buy them because of the numbers, I buy them because of the descriptions. I’ve been reading his stuff for long enough now that I can tell by his verbiage whether I’m likely to enjoy something he recommends. If it sounds good, I'll give it a try.

I also have followed his reviews enough to know that I don’t like as many of his picks as I did five years ago. Nor am I a big fan of Bordeaux, and most Burgundies worth a damn are too expensive for me. So I focus on his reviews of Rhone wines, Spanish wines and some off-the-beaten-track wines.

If you understand what you like, it’s easy to tell whether a wine some reviewer is gushing about is something you’ll actually like. And if a wine writer trashes something you like—it’s time to read someone else’s opinion.

Everyone’s tastes are different. So don’t be ashamed if you like Almaden Mountain Chablis on the rocks. Hold your glass high and say, “Here’s to Bobby Parker. He can kiss my ass!”

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

What's that in your bung hole?

The other night I pulled the cork on a bottle of wine and paused to admire the perfect, dark purple stain on the bottom of the cork. There’s a certain thrill I get when I see a cork like that—stained by years of contact with rich, red wine. It makes me think I'm about taste some really good stuff.

Nowadays, however, you never know what you’ll find plugging up a bottle of wine. While many producers are still using traditional corks, many more are using composite corks (corks made from cork crumbs pressed together), plastic corks of varying types or Stelvin enclosures (the modern screw cap).

I’m a huge fan of the old-school corks, of course. There is nothing like the sound, feel and look of a real cork. There is something truly visceral about it.

But there are real problems lurking within that lovely cork. By some estimates, wineries lose as much as ten percent of their production to cork taint or other cork-related issues. Anyone who has ever poured a glass of wine only to discover that it smells like wet cardboard understands one of the downfalls of cork.

Another problem with cork is availability. Cork trees grow slowly and as demand for cork goes up, the supply remains relatively stable. Can you say higher prices?

While in Germany recently, my parents were interested to learn that even die-hard German winemakers admitted that good quality cork was hard to find and very expensive.

Which brings us to the “other” options. Plastic corks are being constantly changed and updated. I’ve had quite a few nice wines lately with plastic corks, several Spanish wines in particular. Plastic corks have plenty of critics, though. I’ve heard many complaints ranging from “hard to pull” to “the damn thing leaked all over the floor of my car.” Not good.

The Stelvin enclosure, which is the most widely-used screw cap design, seems to be poised to be the best cork alternative. Winemakers across the globe are getting down with the screw. From New Zealand to Cali to snooty-ass France, screw caps are popping (no pun intended) up everywhere. Bonny Doon Vineyards is doing all of their wines in screw caps, and even more and more high-dollar producers like Plumpjack and Verget are screwing their wines shut.

Every day I notice more wines with screw caps. White wines are the most common, but reds are following suit. Not too long ago I twisted open a bottle of Marquis Philips Sarah’s Blend 2004, which was absolutely scrumptious.

Of course, purists vow to never accept what they see as heresy. But to anyone who thinks they can avoid the oncoming wave of screw cap wines, I say “this ain’t your daddy’s MD 20/20.” I have seen the future, and it is screwy.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Eat, drink and learn

I hope everyone had a weekend of great food and wine like I did, but mine was pretty tough to match. My girlfriend’s son turned sixteen this weekend, and she treated him, his girlfriend and me to dinner at Mr. Friendly’s in Five Points. Not a bad deal, huh?

Friendly’s is on my short list of favorite restaurants in Columbia. The food is excellent, the service is solid and the wine list is exceptional.

Let me be clear — I am not a restaurant critic. I know what I like and I’ve been around enough good restaurants to know when things are done well, but I’m not one to assign points or stars. I'll leave that to others.

So anyway, we enjoyed some mouth-watering French Quarter fillets and a wonderful bottle of 2004 Owen Sullivan O-S Red. If you haven’t eaten at Friendly’s you really should check them out. The same people also own Gervais & Vine in the Vista and Solstice Kitchen & Wine Bar out in Northeast Columbia.

Saturday night, we got some beautiful shrimp from Palmetto Seafood Company and I whipped up shrimp and grits. It was pretty damn good if I do say so myself. But the real treat was the Casteller Cava brut rosé we enjoyed with dinner. That is some seriously good stuff, which, incidentally, I acquired through the newly-introduced Mr. Friendly’s wine club.

I even made some unexpected discoveries from my weekend of tasty food and wine. The Owen Sullivan Red is predominantly lemberger, a grape variety that is grown (in the U.S.) mostly just in Washington and New York. Never heard of that one before. The Casteller was most trepat with some garnacha. Now garnacha I know, but trepat? Turns out it’s pretty much exclusive to the Pira region and especially used for the cava rosés.

You really do learn something new everyday.

Friday, September 15, 2006

“A” is for Albariño

Well, it’s Friday and I don’t have much time to write. Unfortunately, my pesky job frequently gets in the way of the things I’d rather be doing—like going on and on about wine.

Today's topic is: what I drank last night.

Albariño! No, this isn’t the latest shooter or the modern version of muscatel. Albariño is an awesome Spanish white wine. Green’s is featuring the wines of Spain for the next couple months and Spanish wines are getting a lot of press these days, so I thought this would be an interesting wine to talk about.

Now I know I promised to hold back on the poetic wine descriptions, but I’ve got to tell you what it tastes like, right?

Think of the flavor of albariño as pinot grigio on performance-enhancing drugs. It’s popping with apple and pear with a hint of lemon zest, and it finishes with a refreshing zing thanks to well-balanced acidity.

There—I’m done.

Albariño is made from the grape of the same name. It comes from the Rías Baixas district, which is just north of Portugal near the Atlantic Ocean. It’s only made in this tiny little corner of the world. The wine is made in stainless steel tanks, so there’s not a hint of oak to be found.

This is the perfect example of wines that people should drink more often. It’s all too easy, even for experienced winos like myself, to get stuck in the rut of drinking the same thing night after night. Try another type of grape, another country or just another producer. The best thing about wine is that it's so unique. You could spend every day of your life tasting new wines and never even come close to tasting them all.

Not that I wouldn’t like to give it a try.

Here’s the wine I had last night:

Burgáns Albariño Rías Baixas 2005 – you can find it at Green’s for $10.99 and elsewhere around town I’m sure. This is an easily available wine in other areas as well.

To promote diversity in wine drinking (and to annoy anyone who is actually reading this), I’ll be covering the entire alphabet in future postings, highlighting grapes, wine-producing countries, wine varieties and individual producers.

I wonder what “B” will BE??!! I told you it would get annoying.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

"Excuse me, where is your rot-gut wine?"

Those are the exact words that a customer asked me one day. And I assure you—he was serious.

I relate this anecdote as a way of introducing the topic of the day: low-priced wines. Now I'm not talking about Franzia Chillable Red. I'm thinking about wines priced for everyday drinking, which is ten bucks or less a bottle for a poor soul like myself.

As a wine salesman, I frequently had to deal with issues regarding the price of wine. Often one of the first questions I had to ask was, "do you have a price range in mind?" To which many people answered, "not really." So I would ask them if something in the $300 range was okay... and then they would hyperventilate and give me a price range.

The moral of this story is that my customers were frequently looking for something “cheap,” meaning they wanted something $10 or under. In my humble opinion, there is a ton of good, inexpensive wine out there. And finding really great, bargain wines is more of a challenge than finding good wine for 20 bucks a bottle. A good friend taught me that a long time ago. Thanks, Steve.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about:

Hacienda El Espino '1707' CMS 2002 – I hesitate to mention this wine, just because if you live in Columbia I don’t want you go buy it. Leave some for me! It’s amazing—rich, dark, concentrated, smooth, complex…. You get the picture. As the “CMS” indicates, it’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah from Almansa, Spain, which is a region I had never heard of before.

You can bet I know it now. 1707 is $8.99 a bottle at Green’s. I’d put it up against wines I’ve had for two or three times that price. Not to mention, I always buy enough wine to get a 10% case (full or mixed) discount, so we’re talking almost 8 bucks a bottle. When you compare that to some of the mediocre wines in the supermarket that cost $9.99, you see what I'm saying.

Good wine doesn’t have to be expensive. But you’ll always pay for drinking rot-gut wine.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Days of wine and rosés

This post is for my dad. I have my parents to thank for my introduction to wine. As far back as I can remember, my parents enjoyed a glass of wine before dinner or with our meal. Of course, back in those days their taste ran towards chablis in a box (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Nowadays I swap wine chat with my dad pretty regularly. He sends me articles about wine and I provide him with the latest on what I’m drinking. So when I had a lovely bottle of French rosé the other night, it reminded me to remind him about rosé.

Rosé doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves, at least not in the U.S. and definitely not here in the South. It is often confused with its shady cousin “blush.” White zinfandel is blush (not that there’s anything wrong with white zin). Rosé is dry; blush is off-dry to semi-sweet. While some rosés have a hint of sweetness, to be fair—many white wines do also.

Another reason I got to thinking about rosé is because you can still find the spring shipment in your local wine stores. Here in Columbia I know Green’s still has a ton of great rosés in stock and I’ll bet Total Wine and others still have some good stuff. Here are a couple I like:

Bonny Doon Ca' del Solo Big House Pink – From the infamous Randall Graham comes this little gem of a rosé. It’s the perfect introduction to rosé or the perfect everyday rosé for those of us who can’t afford to drink the good stuff all the time. The best part? It’s $5.99 at Green’s Beverage Warehouse. Holy Mackerel! A Grande Double Mochachino Deluxe costs more than that.

Domaine de Saint-Antoine Rosé – This is the wine I had the other night that reminded me how much I love rosé. For $8.99 (Green’s), it’s one of the best rosés I’ve ever had.

These are just a couple that jump to mind. There are many more out there, including some Spanish rosés I have yet to try. Rosé is a great sippin’ wine as well as being very versatile with food. Since we have some lovely fall weather on the way, it’s the perfect wine to enjoy in your favorite outdoor spot—the porch, the deck or the curb in front of the Amoco.

So enjoy a glass of rosé before it disappears for the winter. Just don’t sit in front of the Amoco, Dad.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Welcome to Columbia's wine blog!

Thanks for stopping by. As a certified (or certifiable) wine junkie, I'm always looking to chat about wine, food and all things vino-related. I miss the days of answering wine questions, helping people select wines and sharing my very limited knowledge. So ... I'm joining the thousands of other wine bloggers sharing their unsolicited thoughts, feelings and opinions.

The good news is that most of what I write about will be specific to Columbia. While I hope people who aren't blessed to live in this fine city will enjoy my musings, those of you who do will be assured that you can pop into one of your local retailers and find the wines I write about. Not only that, but I will also be writing about the retailers themselves, as well as local eateries.

What else will you find here? Well, whatever I'm in the mood to write about ... but usually it will be wine rants, seasonal picks, thoughts on whatever I drank the previous night and my humble opinion on the best places to buy and enjoy wine in Columbia.

What you won't find here is pretentiousness, excessive wine jargon, snobbery and all their kin. I want to keep it simple: straight talk about good stuff to drink that anyone can appreciate. I hope that novice wine drinkers will discover some new things and that veteran wine lovers will share some of their knowledge. Please post your comments, but don't be an jackass.

On that note ... I am not a wine expert, wine connoisseur, sommelier or any other fancy-sounding wine person. I'm just a regular guy who loves wine and enjoys talking about it. As far as my wine credentials go, I've been drinking and learning about wines for more than a decade. Several of those years were spent working in wine stores, where I had the pleasure of tasting hundreds of wines on someone else's dime. I know just enough about wine to realize how little I know.