Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Future of Wine Sales

In this month’s Atlantic Monthly, there is an article on wine shops and the competition they face from chain stores, grocery stores and changing alcohol laws.

This past election, several states voted on measures that would allow beer and wine to be sold at grocery stores, convenience stores, etc. Not surprisingly, package stores and wine shops were opposed, and large retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco were rather enthusiastic supporters.

Here in South Carolina, beer and wine are available at grocery stores, big-box stores, gas stations and small wine shops/package stores, as well as large, beverage specialty stores like Green’s and Total Wine.

This makes for lots of price competition and a consumer-friendly environment if you drink wine or beer. However, it’s hard for small wine shops to stay competitive. I wrote recently about some new franchise wine shops that have opened in town. I wonder how they’ll fare in a saturated marketplace.

This statement from the article really caught my attention:

Unfettered alcohol sales in supermarkets and big-box stores would almost certainly lead to a great narrowing of the kinds of wines on offer—as happened long ago in southern states that deregulated wine sales.

I’m not sure I agree with this. Having lived in both North Carolina and South Carolina, I can say I enjoyed great wine shopping options in both places. As long as there are consumers who demand selection there will be retailers to fill the need.

Of course, the marketplace here is nothing like NYC, D.C. or San Francisco, but compared to other U.S. cities of a similar size, places like Raleigh and Columbia measure up pretty well.

While I’m a big supporter of privately-owned wine shops, they face the same dilemma as small bookstores. Increasing competition from the Internet and large retailers will force them to adapt or perish.

I love quirky shops packed to the gills with wine and run by enthusiastic, knowledgeable, wine people. I’ve always dreamt about having a place like that that myself one day. But I wonder what the future holds for such places.

Any thoughts?

Speaking of retail, I always enjoy reading the Wine Chicks commentary on the world of retail wine sales. I can't say I'll be missing that world this holiday season. I'm content to be a consumer.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Virginia Gem

Another Thanksgiving is behind me and there have been several lessons learned:

1.) Don’t try new things on big occasions.
2.) Only cook one meal on Thanksgiving.
3.) Serve aforementioned meal early in the day.
4.) A meat thermometer is very handy when cooking a turkey.

As you might guess from these pearls of wisdom, I cooked a turkey this Thanksgiving. Without providing all the messy details, I’ll say that it was a decent first attempt. Brining my very small turkey gave it some extra flavor and kept it moist, and my recreation of my mother’s stuffing recipe was quite good.

Regarding rule #2, I had the ill-conceived notion of cooking two meals Thanksgiving Day—lunch and dinner, with dinner being the feast. So I made shrimp and grits for lunch. The upside of this is that I know my girlfriend and her son at least had one good meal.

Since it was a special occasion and all, we enjoyed a glass of wine with our lunch. And what a wine it was.

I have been trying to find more East Coast wines at my local retailers (without great success I might add). It’s unfortunate that I can buy wines from Washington and Oregon all day long, but finding New York or Virginia wines is difficult.

A quick look at a U.S. map is sure to make you ponder the logic of this.

Anyhow, I did find a bottle of 2005 Horton Viognier Tower Series. Wow. Let me repeat. Wow.

I know Horton and I know their reputation when it comes to viognier. Ol’ Slick Willy even thought enough of it to serve it at a White House dinner. Dennis Horton has been knocking out world-class viognier for many years now.

So, when I saw the bottle in Total Wine, I wondered what I was seeing. Horton viognier for $12.99? Could it be true?

The label clearly showed the Orange County AVA. This must be a second bottling, I thought.

Wrong. According to Horton, this is the same juice that goes into their flagship bottling.

Just the nose told me I was about to drink some killer wine. The aromas drifting out of my glass were pineapple, tropical flowers and lemon. The first sip revealed all that and more. Rich with white fruit, lychee and citrus, this is viognier at its best—voluptuous, stylish, racy and seductive.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the best white wine I’ve had in long, long time. For the uninitiated, I’d recommend you hunt down a bottle.

Trust me on this one.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Notes from Delaware

I returned last night from a weekend of visiting my parents in Delaware. The visit gave me the opportunity to head down to one of the local beverage stores to hunt for new and interesting wines.

Like many of my fellow winos, I view traveling as an opportunity to scavenge local wine shops for new finds. Unfortunately, the TSA rules prevent me from flying home with wine, but it doesn’t stop me from drinking while I’m away. Well, nothing could really stop me.

We slightly altered our Thanksgiving plans to include the whole family, so we feasted on Friday night. There was the traditional turkey and dressing along with other dishes that were a mix of traditional and non-traditional.

My dad selected a cava for dinner. He picked one that I was not familiar with, NV Pere Ventura Cava Cuvée First Press.

Pere Ventura is a small producer, but one with an apparently rising reputation as far as I can tell. I couldn’t locate much information on them (in English anyway, and my Spanish is rather rudimentary). I can tell you that the wine was excellent.

The first press cuvée is often thought to be the best juice when it comes to sparkling wine. Not having tasted their other wines, I can’t say how it compares, but it stacks up nicely compared to other cavas I’ve tasted.

The Ventura was light and clean, with nice fruit and a hint of yeast. Firm acidity and low alcohol made it really sing with the food. Sparkling wine is such an easy match with so many foods.

Another great find was a local beer from Dogfish Head Brewery. This was yet another of my dad’s picks. To celebrate the settlement of Swanendael in what would later become Lewes, Delaware, 375 years ago, Dogfish has produced a Dutch-style rye bokbier, called Zwaanend’ale.

Boks are malty, bottom-fermented lagers. The Zwaanend’ale has a malty flavor augmented by flavors of rye and honey. It’s on the sweet side but nicely balanced and not cloying. An alcohol level of 8% gives it a bit of a kick also.

All in all it was a wonderful time. It met all my qualifications for a perfect holiday celebration: good company, good food and good stuff to drink.

Here’s hoping everyone’s holiday is just as good. Cheers.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Just Another Turkey

I was reading LENNDEVOURS very entertaining Thanksgiving column and realized that I must write a Thanksgiving post. All the other kids are doing it.

I haven’t had many traditional Thanksgiving meals over the past couple decades. I live far from my family and hate holiday travel. The years that I wasn’t taken in by friends, I always made due with my own culinary talents. Or I had frozen pizza.

At some point I realized that Thanksgiving was a great excuse to cook something that I really love and open a bottle of great wine. Sometimes I even invited someone else to dine with me.

For the past several years, I’ve been cooking the largest, primo fillet mignon that I can lay my hands on. I’ll whip up a couple extraordinary side dishes to go with and open something extra special.

This year, I’m not sure what I’ll be cooking. Fillets? Pork tenderloin? I’m only cooking for three, so a turkey seems a little excessive.

For me, it’s really not about what you cook—it’s all about taking time to sit down with friends, family or just yourself, and enjoying something that really makes you happy.

And take time to count your blessings.

As a former retail wine salesman, I have dispensed gobs of Thanksgiving wine advice. Here it is distilled to its essence:

1.) Drink what you like. If you like white zinfandel then it really doesn’t matter what the “proper” match is.
2.) Use some common sense. Delicate flavors need delicate wines. Bold flavors need bold wines.
3.) For a fairly traditional meal, I like Alsatian pinot blanc and Cru Beaujolais, particularly Morgon.
4.) Drink something sparkling. The ability of sparkling wine to pair with food is vastly underappreciated. A sparkling rosé is particularly good, or try NV Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay Pinot Noir Brut Cuvee—a really tasty sparkler with great fruit that’s inexpensive enough for company.
5.) Review Rule #1.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Something to Eat, Something to Drink

I don’t write about food very often, mainly because I don’t have much to offer that isn’t readily available elsewhere on Web from more knowledgeable sources. I will, however, share a bit of food philosophy from time to time.

Over the years, I’ve become more and more interested in sustainable agriculture and local food products. This weekend, I had the pleasure of indulging my interests.

Columbia has been recently blessed with an organic farmer’s market. It is a small (but growing) group of merchants who gather every other week to sell local products. The goods include local meats, produce, diary and other miscellanea.

I picked up some fresh shrimp, stone-ground grits, a couple of the fattest pork chops you’ve ever seen and bacon. I would have bought more, but my budget intervened.

The shrimp was wild-caught and beautiful. With so much farmed shrimp from overseas flooding the market at low prices, I have pledged to always buy fresh from now on.

The grits were from Anson Mills, which is right here in Columbia. They use the best methods, organic crops and heirloom varieties to produce some amazing products: grits, cornmeal, etc.

Caw Caw Creek is the source of the pork products. The pigs there are pastured, fed natural products and treated with dignity. My two goals for eating meat are: eat less and eat meat raised using humane methods.

I have yet to eat the pork chops, but the bacon was heavenly—full of flavor and wonderfully textured. We used the grits and shrimp to make—well, you know—which was very tasty. The grits take awhile to cook, but it’s well worth it. What can you say about fresh shrimp, other than “yum?”

We enjoyed a bottle of Hugues Beaulieu Picpoul de Pinet Cotes du Languedoc 2005 with the shrimp and grits. Picpoul blanc is grown within sight of the local oyster beds, so it’s a natural match with seafood. It’s light, clean and fresh with tones of lemon and grapefruit. It’s also nicely dry and slightly flinty.

I’ve read about picpoul blanc, but this is the first time I had tried it. Picpoul de Pinet is one the named Crus of Languedoc. This was another great find in French wines. You can find it at Total Wine & More for $7.99.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Vive le Difference!

I’ve read some things lately, which have put me in the mind to drink more French wines.

The first item that stirred my interest was Craig Camp’s column on French wines. He touts the quality of French wines in the value category and has some harsh words for New World producers.

I used to drink primarily French wines, particularly inexpensive Rhone wines and wines from the Southwest and Languedoc. However, lately I’ve been drinking much more from Spain, South America and Australia. That’s where I felt my wine dollars were best spent.

White Burgundies have always been some of my favorite French wines, particularly the wines of Mâcon. There are several Macon-Villages that I think are some of the best values in chardonnay.

The other night I opened a bottle of Dominique Cornin Mâcon-Chaintre 2004. Chaintre is one of the villages of Mâcon, and Dominique is a newer, but highly respected producer.

This wine was a little more upfront with the fruit than I’m used to, but it had the elegance and style that I’m used to from Mâcon. The lack of oak influence makes chardonnay really shine. For my money, it’s one of the best expressions of chardonnay in the world.

The Cornin has a lovely bouquet of apples and pears; its flavor is more of the apple and peach with a lean, stylish feel and a creamy, honeyed finish. This is really tasty stuff. It was around $16 a bottle, which is a little more than I would usually spend on a Mâcon, but it was well worth it.

My other French discovery was of an A.O.C. that I was totally ignorant of—Cabardès.

"The western-most vineyard of the Languedoc-Roussillon and the eastern-most of the south-west, the dry stony soil and growing environment are ideal for low yield, top quality wine production. Cabardès is the only Languedoc A.O.C. to blend in equal proportions Bordeaux grape varieties (Cabernet and Merlot) with those of the Rhone (Syrah and Grenache)."

Never heard of it.

My education in French wines hit a plateau some years back and I haven’t been aggressive about moving it to a higher level. The other day I ran across something in a wine store that looked interesting, so I gave it a try. It was Château de Pennautier A.O.C. Cabardès 2004.

The combination of Rhone and Bordeaux varietals makes for an interesting mix. The Pennautier is dark and silky with great black fruit, soft tannins, spice and a long, caressing finish. For $11, it was a smashing find, and I’ll bet it can be had for less elsewhere.

The blend on this wine is 10% cabernet franc, 25% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 15% cot (also known as malbec) and 30% syrah. With such an interesting mix of grapes to blend with, I am very excited about trying more wines from this region.

The other interesting article I read was in the European edition of Time Magazine. It discusses the French wine glut and how the French are handling (or not handling) the changing global wine market. Interesting stuff.

Monday, November 06, 2006

I was robbed!

Sunday night, FireFly Vodka had a launch party at Gervais & Vine. As part of the party, they also conducted a contest to name “Columbia’s Official Drink.” I was one of the ten finalists.

I did not win, place or show.

As soon as I arrived, I realized that my competition had put much more thought and creativity into their entries than I. However, my drink did meet certain requirements I thought should have been given more importance in the judging:

1.) My drink could actually be made in the average bar that does not routinely stock fresh ginger, Jello or other “non-traditional” ingredients.

2.) My drink can be prepared in a reasonable enough amount of time to satisfy someone who actually wants a drink sometime soon, as opposed to in three hours.

3.) My drink tastes good.

4.) Although it can be served in a martini glass, my drink is best consumed as a shot. If you know anything about Columbia, South Carolina, then you know that any “official drink” should be a shot.

In any case, there were some very interesting entries and a good time was had by all.

FireFly Vodka, as I have written about before, is infused with locally-produced muscadine wine. It is actually made in Florida, because of South Carolina’s archaic liquor laws.

The flavor is very interesting; there is definitely a grapey-ness to it. It would seem that this would run contrary to the nature of vodka, which is, by definition, supposed to be neutral. Eric Asimov recently posted an interesting piece on vodka and this very issue. Technicalities aside, I thought the FireFly was very good.

One side benefit of my drink-creating endeavor was the discovery of how very easy it is to make fresh sweet-and-sour mix. I will NEVER buy cheap-ass, artificial sour mix again.

For what it’s worth, my drink recipe appears below. It’s a modification of a recipe I used to enjoy back in the college days. I’m sure this same recipe is actually used in countless bars across the country and called various names. Like I said, not much thought went into this one.

The Garnet Fire (in honor of the garnet and black of the University of South Carolina)

1 ½ oz. FireFly Vodka
½ oz. Chambord
1 ½ oz. cranberry juice
1 oz. fresh sweet-and-sour mix

Combine ingredients in shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into chilled shot glasses, or strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a twist of lemon.

Fresh Sweet-and-Sour Mix

1 part fresh lime juice
1 part fresh lemon juice
3 parts mineral water
1 part sugar

Combine all ingredients and mix. Can be stored in refrigerator for a week or two.

The rest of the entries will be posted on the FireFly Web site.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Simple Pleasures

It really doesn’t take much to make me happy.

Sure, I occasionally dream of days and nights filled with Parisian fashion models, Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame Rosé ’95 (exquisite, by the way) and meals at Le Bec-Fin (never been there). But the truth is, I’m pretty content with the basic pleasures in life.

I like to drink cold, cheap, domestic beer out of a can while I do yard work. I like Nathan’s hot dogs and Ore-Ida french fries (Golden Crinkle, of course). I like to sit on my front porch and drink Georges Duboeuf Cuvee Blanc when it’s hot outside.

I’m certainly happy that my tastes have evolved enough that I appreciate a broad range of sensory delights—good food, good wine, etc. However, a simple meal, a big glass of red wine and good company are among my favorite pleasures.

And that is exactly what I enjoyed last night. My dinner companions were E (my girlfriend) and S-May (her son). We had pork tenderloin marinated in Stubb’s Pork Marinade and Parmesan mashed potatoes.

Now, I can dress up pork tenderloin in a number of ways, but the Stubb’s is simply amazing. Easy and good—I like that. Matched up with creamy, warm, mashed potatoes liberally dosed with fresh-grated Parmesan, it was a delicious meal.

Of course, a good meal isn’t complete without a glass of wine. We opened a bottle of my latest bargain favorite, Hardys Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz 2003.

Cabernet and shiraz complement each other so well. There are several Aussie cab/shiraz blends that make great everyday reds, but the Hardys is particularly good—dark fruit, silky tannins and hints of licorice and pepper.

Not bad for $5.99 at Green’s. I’m sure this is also a bargain in many other wine stores nationwide.

Speaking of cabernet/shiraz blends, there are two French blends that are worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something more substantial:

Mas de Guiot Cabernet-Syrah Vin Du Gard 2003

Mas Carlot Cabernet-Syrah Vin de Pay d’Oc 2003

Both of these wines remind me that there are still truly interesting wines in the under-$15 category.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Drink Up.

More good news from The New York Times. Apparently, there are some new studies that suggest a link between red wine and a longer, healthier life.

As a mentioned in an earlier post, resveratrol seems to be the substance that gives red wine its health benefits. One of the more interesting aspects of this study was the mice involved were given daily doses of resveratrol equivalent to the amount contained in 10 to 20 bottles of red wine.

Good God! I’m doing the best I can. It’s going to take some time to work up to that level of consumption.

On a more serious note, I’m glad to hear more news about the benefits of responsible drinking. Living in the South, I have gotten used to hearing alcohol demonized.

Wine, beer and spirits are all part of a healthy lifestyle if consumed responsibly. I’ve read about another study that suggested one alcoholic drink a day, of any kind, was linked to a longer life.

I think about these issues when I see my girlfriend teaching her 16-year-old son about wine and letting him taste wines. It stuns me that the same people who would condemn her for letting him taste a glass of wine or a beer, let their children chug-a-lug sodas loaded with high-fructose corn syrup.

Wine will lengthen your life; soda will give you diabetes, kidney problems and obesity.

Who's doing the right thing?

Coincidence? I Think Not.

Well, I hate to brag (not true), but I guess my blog is more widely read than I thought. Eric Asimov “coincidentally” just wrote an article on dolcetto in The New York Times. Hmm, where did I just read something about that delicious Italian wine?

I know! On my blog!

Okay, so Eric has probably never read my blog and most likely never will. It’s still nice to know that we are both talking about the same kind of wine.

Of course, his article has all kinds of “facts” and “interesting” stuff. Not to mention he probably gets reimbursed for the wines he tasted. At the very least it's a tax write-off.

Getting paid to write about wine—what a sweet gig.

I can always dream.