Giancarlo Esposito as Tom Neville in NBC’s Revolution. Courtesy NBC
Congratulations to Giancarlo Esposito – he found out this week that he’s going to be working next year. It was just announced that his NBC show Revolution, in which he plays the less-than-nice-love-to-hate-him Tom Neville, is going to be back on the schedule this fall. Esposito has been working for some time, but got a lot of notice playing Gus Fring on Breaking Bad, and of course, Sidney Glass, on the first season of Once Upon a Time.
Anne got a chance to chat briefly with him recently, and he had several questions for her (so we may be seeing him in this capacity again). Actually, Anne wasn’t sure if he was quizzing her or not, he had so many, but we love that in the folks we talk to.
We’re going to feature Esposito’s question about a very well-known label, Cakebread Cellars. This is a very high-end label and the wine is very, very good (Anne got a lovely glassful at a press event last January).
“What do you think about Cakebread’s wine, the chardonnay?” Esposito asked.
We love it. The chard is wonderful – almost a textbook perfect chardonnay, light and crisp with just a hint of butter.
“That was a wine that when it first came out, I bought it for probably $20 a bottle and it’s now $75, $100,” Esposito said. “How does that happen?”
Because while Cakebread Chard is lovely stuff, it was, at one time, way 0ver-priced. We recently saw it online at prices from $29.95 to $39.95 , and, if you follow the ratings (we don’t) they range from 85 to 90 points over the last twenty years. So there’s a consistency factor that means you know what you’re getting in the bottle. It got over-priced a few years ago (at the prices Esposito was quoting) because the label produced such beautifully made wines that folks starting thinking they were the end-all, be-all. Unfortunately, there is still the impression in the wine world that the higher the price, the better the wine. And certain wines, like many things, get a rep as being very high quality, and winemakers, who want to make a living in an insanely competitive market, take advantage of that and jack up the prices. You can’t really blame them.
That being said, there is absolutely no correlation between price and quality when it comes to wine. In fact, the Melville Chardonnay (at a still-steep $35 a bottle) is at least as good as the Cakebread at roughly half to a third of the higher price. Granted, you’re not likely to find a chardonnay that good at $5 a bottle – and if you do, we want to know about it ASAP. But still, you can find some really, really good chardonnays at $10 a bottle.
So the bottom line is that while we love any excuse to drink Cakebread chardonnay, we’re not going to pay $100 for a bottle of wine. If you want to, fine. Just be aware that you don’t have to. Right, Mr. Esposito?
Wine is not usually associated with Mothers Day, which we think is rather odd. Most moms we know like wine a lot.
This is Anne writing now:
Part of the problem is that Mothers Day is one of those times that we’re expected to buy into the stereotypes of what a mother is. We’re supposed to get into the warm, fuzzy persona of a woman who has time and love and cookies to give to everyone, was always there to wipe away the tear, kiss the boo-boo, then serve up a piping hot dinner of comfort food and sage advice.
And to a degree that is what good parents do, whether they’re women or men. Some of us had moms like the stereotype. Some of us had moms that were anything but. Most of us had moms somewhere in between, who probably felt just as inadequate and helpless as we who are currently active parents often feel.
The problem with buying into the stereotype is that most moms are not stereotypes. They’re flesh and blood individuals who like different things. I, for one, was a mom who kinda hated Mothers Day, not so much because I didn’t want to honor my mother. I was fine with that part. What I didn’t like was the cheesy craft my daughter would bring home from school every year. The one I had to ooh and ah over, knowing full well that even though she’d assembled it, it was with no thought of me. It was because that’s what her teacher wanted her to do.
Admittedly, I am not your typical mom. On Mothers Day, I get flowers and syrupy cards and stuff like that when what I really want is a 32 GB micro SD card for my tablet. Or an old Android phone to root and otherwise mess around with. You get the picture. You don’t want crayon drawings and a “World’s Greatest Mom” pendant from your spouse. You want a Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon with a jar of garlic-stuffed olives to munch on while drinking the wine. Seriously, guys, burn this one into your brain, your average mother does not want her husband/partner to buy her the “World’s Greatest Mom” pendant or coffee mug or whatever. She wants her kids to do that, not you. Got that?
What really makes anyone on the receiving end of a gift feel good is when the gift reflects that you thought about who that person is, apart from the standard role she (or he) happens to be playing. And too often on Mothers Day, we’re expected to toss all that aside and take Mom to the standard flowery, over-priced brunch, give her flowers and otherwise pretend that she’s like the Norman Rockwell version of Mom 1.0.
That is why you will not find recommendations for wine for your mother in this space. We don’t know your mom. We don’t know what she likes. Why would we tell you to buy her bubbly when it’s possible that sparkling wines upset her stomach? Or maybe what she really wants is some good artisanal beer?
Look, if you need a gift guide to tell you what to buy your mother, you don’t need a gift guide. You need to spend more time with your mom.
In the meantime, let us raise a glass to mothers everywhere – may you get something you really like this year for a change.
Alice Feiring chats with winemaker
When Anne chatted with wine critic Alice Feiring last fall, the conversation kind of went all over the place – as it is wont to do when wine people get talking about their favorite subject. Feiring, who had just launched her newsletter, The Feiring Line, has been writing about wine since 1990. She said it was something she fell into, as she had been writing about a host of other topics as a freelance journalist.
“I fell into this area of wine technology,” she said, adding that she already had a passion for wine. “It was just inescapable.”
Feiring believes that the role of the wine critic is to help, not judge.
“I think the role of the wine critic is to be somebody you really like in a wine store,” she said.
And, as we have often noted, it doesn’t hurt to find a critic who shares your personal sympathies. Feiring, for her part, has become a strong advocate for Natural or Naked Wine. It’s a small, but growing, trend in the winemaking world, where winemakers are attempting to make wine by doing less and less to it, including even adding yeast to get the fermentations started.
Side note – it is also an area of minor disagreement between us. Anne leans toward the less is more approach, Michael favors more intervention.
Feiring said that she simply prefers the flavors of natural wine, describing wines that have been made with added acid and occasional bits of sulfur (like, part per million bits) as having a heavier, fruitier taste that just doesn’t appeal to her.
“What I find about natural wines is that they are more accessible,” she said. “And they’re not that expensive.”
In fact, she added that there is absolutely no correlation between cost and quality, although some natural wines will cost a bit more because it is a riskier way to make wine – one of the reasons winemakers add those parts per million of sulfur is to kill bugs that can ruin an entire year’s worth of grapes or wine.
But risks aside, native ferments (letting the grapes ferment on their own without adding yeast) and wines made with less and less chemical intervention are getting more popular and more common, which mean Feiring has a lot more tasting to do. Something which will disappoint her mightily. Uh, not.
Michelle Dockery being interviewed at the TCA Summer Press Tour, 2012, courtesy PBS
Okay, maybe it’s a little late after the Downton Abbey Season 3 finale to be posting this, but it took us this long to recover from that all too shocking (and annoying) ending.
We talked to Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary on the series, last summer at the TV Critics Press Tour and asked our usual question. Dockery’s was a doozie.
“What’s your favorite wine?” she asked.
Our favorite? All of them? Okay, Anne doesn’t particularly care for overly fruity or sweet wines, while Michael is a little more universal in his tastes. And dry pink sparkling wine is getting Anne more excited that anything else, although an elegant pinot noir will make her drool, as well. As for Michael, it depends on the day of the week, which way the wind is blowing and what’s in his glass.
You’ll note we’re not mentioning any labels here. That’s because the reason most people ask a question like Dockery’s because they want to know what wine to buy. It’s still an unfortunate reality that people think that you have to buy the “right” wine and those are very limited and expensive. Neither is true. In fact, these days, it’s hard to find a bad wine, even in the cheaper ranges.
Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t find wines that you like better than others. And, yes, it can be a little intimidating to look at a long series of shelves at the supermarket and try to figure out what you want. But that’s more because you have so many options, not because you need to ferret out the one or two “good” wines out of the bazillions there.
At the supermarket, a couple rules of thumb and you’ll probably pick something reasonably drinkable and maybe even darned good. First up, avoid the jugs, magnums and boxes. Those are usually the lower quality genuinely bad wines (although there are exceptions) that most people think of when they start stressing out about buying wine. Secondly, avoid the very expensive wines, usually the ones on the higher shelves. Because people don’t buy these as often, they’ve probably been on the shelf longer than the others and supermarket shelves are hardly ideal storage spaces. Look for a brand you know and like – should be easy because supermarkets do carry more familiar brands from the larger wineries. Fetzer is a brand we generally trust, as are Geyser Peak, Blackstone and Meridian. Callaway isn’t that great, but it is drinkable and frequently available. Finally, look for wines from areas you like, such as California’s Central Coast. The smaller, more specific an area, the better the wine is likely to be.
And who knows, maybe you’ll find a new favorite. Like pink bubbly.
A not-at-all useful item for wine lovers.
This is the time of year when we get all kinds of pitches for wine accessories that almost unilaterally underwhelm us. There are so many products out there that are supposed to “enhance” the wine experience. Trust us, they probably don’t.
You know what really enhances the wine experience? Good friends and/or a really good meal. That’s it. Aerators, custom glasses for each variety of wine, drip shields, wine chillers, fancy cork pulls, fancier wine stoppers, all this stuff doesn’t do nearly as much for the wine as the folks pushing them would have you believe, and certainly not for the money they cost.
Anne even ran across an over-sized wine glass to store your pulled corks in. Uh, okay. Pretty pointless, and if you have an active cat in the house, pretty much doomed since it’s top heavy. Yes, we have a special receptacle for our corks, and it is actually a wine serving bucket that someone gave us that we don’t use as a wine bucket. But it’s next to the monster cork pull (which is one of the rare exceptions to the general uselessness of fancy cork pulls) as a matter of convenience, not because we find pulled corks particularly decorative.
If you want to give a wine-lover something he or she really, really wants, it’s easy – more wine. If your wine lover is on a tight budget, maybe splurge on something really nice that she or he wouldn’t normally cough up for. Something special and different, such as a Sauternes, for the truly adventurous wine lover.
And if you’re really unsure, go to your local wine shop and ask the nice person behind the counter. As always, if said person gives you any sign of looking down his or her long bony nose at your utter ignorance, leave. You don’t need to spend your hard-earned bucks someplace where they won’t treat you with respect.
A gift certificate can be a lot of fun. For example, our daughter and her roommates got Michael a gift certificate for his birthday recently. Better yet, it was from a wine shop near where they live in San Francisco, meaning that we’d have to make the trek up there from Los Angeles. How sweet. Not only was it an invitation to come visit, Michael had a blast picking out the perfect bottles while there last.
Basic waiter’s cork pull, with leverage bar, and foil cutter
If you need a stocking stuffer or for some other reason a bottle or gift certificate just isn’t quite right, there are a few things most wine lovers need more than one of. Such as cork screws or pulls. The basic waiter’s pull works very well. Rabbit pulls are supposedly pretty good, although Anne has never been able to get one to work. Electric ones are usually more trouble than they’re worth unless your wine lover has arthritis or some other problem with his or her hands that would make a conventional cork pull a problem.
Decanters can be a lovely gift, and a wine lover can generally use more than one. Decorative wine racks are generally less useful, although Anne recently talked with a woman who scatters hers throughout her small apartment for her wine storage.
But if you really want to do something special for your very own wine lover, try a dinner out together at someplace with good food and a great wine list. After all, it’s the being together that makes the experience, not the gadgets.
As much as we deplore the whole snob thing, let’s be real. It is fun, sometimes, to lift your nose a tidge higher and prove you know something that no one else does.
And when you’ve got a guy like Joey Tensley working on a cooperative project with somebody, along with making his own snob-pleasing wines under his name’s label, plus making wine for Fergie (yes, the singer), you know there’s something good going on. And guess what? In this case, not a lot of folks do.
What we mean is Argentinian wine. We got to spend a morning with Tensley and winemaker Daniel Pi of Trapiche Winery, in Mendoza, Argentina, and had a lovely time. Pi and Tensley are working together on a special reserve brand of wine made from some of the many Trapiche vineyards (Traphiche is one of the biggest producers in the country, making about 3 million cases of wine a year). We were going to do a tasting, but the hotel got a little snarky about Pi and Tensley opening their bottles in the lobby, so darn it, they gave us five bottles to take home and taste. Yeah, sometimes life is rough. Not.
Part of what Tensley was doing and all of why Pi was here in the U.S. is that they’re trying to drum up interest in Trapiche wines, specifically, and Argentinian wines, in general. As Tensley put it, these wines are amazing values – most Argentinian wines run about $10 to $15 a bottle for wine that when done well, compares favorably with $30 and $40 wines made here in California. And a lot of it is done very well.
People drinking Argentinian malbec “should expect ripe fruit, intense color and soft tannins,” Pi said. “We have a lot of sun… That allows a lot of photosynthesis so we can ripen properly the grape.”
Malbec is the signature grape of Argentina, and was planted in the country as early as 1883 from vines from Cahors, France. Pi said that besides the warm, dry climate in Mendoza, there is one other significant difference between French and Californian malbec and Argentinian malbec: the vines are grown on malbec rootstock.
Now, what the heck does that mean? We-e-ell, that’s an interesting story. In the late 19th Century, a bug called the phylloxera louse was introduced into European vineyards, where it discovered just how tasty the vines were in France and Italy. Because the bug came from America, American grape vines were resistant to it. But the European vines were not and the bug almost wiped out all the vineyards in Europe. What saved the European wine industry was that European vines were grafted onto the roots (or rootstock) of the American vines. So the bug, which didn’t like the American vines as much, more or less died out, but the European varieties were saved because the top of the vine still grew those kinds of grapes.
Because the Argentinian vines pre-date the phylloxera infestation, they are not grafted onto American rootstock.
“That’s why we have much more richness,” Pi said.
Malbec can be a bit in your face as a wine, but Pi’s goal is to make wine that’s more food-friendly, with good acids and texture. And when we think of Argentinian food, we think beef.
“We used to have simple food,” Pi said, but added that like everywhere else, there’s been a lot of development in gastronomy in Argentina, and the wine making has followed suit.
The upshot – if you can find a Trapiche wine in the U.S., whether a malbec or one of the other varieties Trapiche grows, give it a try. Serve it with something nice and beefy and don’t drink it by itself. If you can’t, ask your wine store person for some.
Let’s be real – most of the time, wine pairing isn’t that tough. You have your basic rule of thumb: white wines with white meat/protein, red wines with red meats/sauces. The idea is that you (generally) want to match the more delicate flavors of a white wine with the more delicate flavors of chicken or fish, while you want a heartier red wine to go with the heartier flavors of a beef roast or steak. And while that is a pretty basic assessment, it will get you through 80 to 90 percent of the time.
Thanksgiving Dinner, however, is one of those 10 to 20 percent times when the old rule of thumb gets a little tricky. Turkey has a much stronger flavor than chicken, but it’s not quite as strong as steak, so a light white wine will be overwhelmed by the turkey and the turkey will be overwhelmed by the heavier red wine. Then there are all the sweet dishes that can throw even the best wine off.
Why? Well, think about what an orange tastes like after you’ve just brushed your teeth or taken a big bite of maple-syrup drenched pancake. Even the sweetest orange or orange juice will taste sour and icky. That’s the citric acid in the orange taking over on your tongue after matching out all the sweet flavors. The same thing happens with wine. Any good wine has several different acids playing out against the fruit flavors and the alcohol. So Aunt Mabel’s sweet potatoes and marshmallows are going to match out those fruit flavors in the expensive, perfectly balanced pinot noir that you bought to go with the turkey, and leave the wine tasting sour and yucky. Not the effect you want when you’ve coughed up $40 for a bottle. And let’s not even get into what the cranberries are going to do.
Which is why our favorite Thanksgiving Dinner wine is the annual Beaujolais Nouveau. The Nouveau is the brand new wine out of the Beaujolais region of France. Basically, all the winemakers who made Beaujolais Villages would hold a little grape juice back from the newly-picked grapes and make a new wine with it to celebrate the end of the harvest. Well, a man named Georges DuBoeuf realized that this was pretty tasty stuff and that if he bought up a bunch of the new wines, mixed them together, then created this big party in Paris, he could sell a boatload of it and make everyone happy.
So nowadays, the wine is released every year on the second Thursday of November to great fanfare and some sniping by the wine snobs, who love looking down their long, bony noses at it. It’s wine that was grapes, like, three months ago, and it’s very light and fruity with good acids, and it can stand up to the turkey and gravy and is fruity enough not to get too sour with the sweet potatoes. Plus, if you have any wine novices at your table who are terrified of red wines, it’s a great introduction to red wines, in general. The best part? Beaujolais Nouveaus rarely cost more that $15 a bottle. Just one thing to be aware of – the vintage year should be the current year. As in, if you find a Nouveau on the shelf from 2011 or later, walk the other way. This wine does not age well and gets rather blah or tart even as soon as Christmas.
This year’s George DuBoeuf seemed a trifle tart to Anne, but Mike thought it was just fine. But there are other labels that then DuBoeuf, so don’t be afraid to give them a try.
And if you have a Thanksgiving wine that is your annual go-to, let us know. Lots of people like a delicate pinot noir. Others defend merlot as the perfect wine. We’re open.
Today’s picture comes from our recent trip to Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery, right in the middle of harvest. In fact, we had just harvested almost 200 pounds of viognier, ourselves, from our friends at Sculpterra Winery, for our own home winemaking efforts.
These guys, however, are inspecting the merlot they just picked as it goes into the fermenter bins, and they’re using a machine because they’re harvesting tons, not mere pounds.
Harvest season has wound down around the state, and winemakers are finishing their first ferments, and doing a hundred other tasks before letting everything settle down for the winter. The vines are losing their leaves and also getting ready to shut down for the season.
In honor of that, we recommend picking up a nice, tasty merlot blend, a roaring fire and a really good book to enjoy this late fall evening. Along with some cheese and deli meats. Yum!
Matt Merrill in the Pomar Junction tasting room with OBG mascot Fred. That’s Fred’s good side.
In today’s super-crowded marketplace, wineries are looking for any marketing edge they can find. And since most winery owners are decent human beings, fumbling along trying to survive as best they can and trying to do the right thing, anyway, it sometimes makes sense to slap a “We’re green” label on their product and hope consumers agree and buy their wine instead of the other person’s.
The problem, as Matt Merrill, of Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery, explained to us recently, is that just saying you’re green doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. There are no official government standards for certifying a winery or vineyard as using sustainable farming and winery practices, like there are for organic certifications.
“There’s no real third-party certification,” Merrill said, at least on the government side. His father was part of the effort to change that on the private side.
Dana Merrill, who founded the winery after 30 years of managing vineyards, joined with Robert Mondavi, Bob Fetzer and several other growers and winery owners in the late 1980s to form the Central Coast Vineyard Team to develop and support environmentally sound farming practices. By 1996, according the Team’s website, they had developed the Positive Points System, which eventually evolved into Sustainability In Practice certification, a third-party evaluation program that not only looks at the things you’d think: pest management and water conservation, but also animal habitat preservation and the well-being of the workers, many of whom are immigrant migrant workers.
As Matt Merrill explained to us during our tour of the winery and vineyard, sustainable practices aren’t necessarily organic.
Part of the Pomar Junction Vineyard
“We like sustainable better,” Merrill said. “You can use more targeted spraying [for insects]. You’ve got the balance.”
He added that he found that one of the sprays approved for use under organic standards was actually harsher than the one he liked to use against leaf hoppers and lace wings. Not surprising – as Anne often notes, some of the most toxic substances on earth are actually natural and organic, such as snake venom, oleander and nicotine.
That being said, a lot of the practices used in the Pomar Junction are organic and Merrill said that except for the occasional spraying, the vineyard could probably qualify for organic certification, although they won’t do it.
“It’s just too much documentation,” he said.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned about the environment. In fact, when Anne asked why farm sustainably, Merrill was hard-pressed to put it into words, it was such a no-brainer to him.
“Because that’s the way we farm,” he said, initially, then later added, “For us, it’s just taking care of the vineyards. It’s more of a long-term thing.”
Pomar Junction wines are SIP-Certified, which means the vineyard and the winery have undergone an audit by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, which is then blinded, so the reviewers don’t know who they’re reviewing, and reviewed.
You probably wouldn’t be able to taste whether a wine is SIP-Certified or not, but Merrill, who is the general manager of the winery, does hold the attitude that wine is made in the vineyard and the quality of the grapes will determine the quality of the wine, and for him and his father, that means sustainable farming practices. In fact, Dana Merrill is so proud of his vineyards, he even offers winery guests tours of the vineyard in their own special wagon towed by the vineyard tractor. Matt Merrill said you can go out, look at the view and drink wine.
The tour trailer at the vineyard
We loved the wines, by the way. Anne was rather partial to the rosé, but Michael liked the Brooster the best.
Fred and the Corkscrew (click for bigger image)
Seriously – Fred says that it doesn’t hurt to keep a corkscrew in the glove compartment of your car. You never know when there’s going to be that impromptu picnic or when someone else forgot theirs.
Of course, you don’t want any open containers of alcohol in your car and designated drivers are important. Problem is, we can’t let Fred drink – he’s such a mean drunk – or drive. He can’t reach the pedals and see over the dash, and then there’s that problem of no opposable thumbs.
By the way, this is from our recent grape picking trip at Sculpterra Winery in Paso Robles. Sculpterra’s winemaker Paul Frankel makes some amazing red blends, killer pinot noirs, a divine viognier, but perhaps their most unusual wine is their primitivo. The primitivo grape is the forerunner of what became zinfandel here in California. Paul makes it nice and dry, with great acids.
Michael also makes primitivo from Paul’s grapes and it’s wonderful, too (says Anne).
And Fred is… Well, he looks like a dog, but we think he may be part Martian.