Open That Bottle Night is Coming!

This post is coming from Anne’s solo perspective, instead of us writing as a pair.This is mostly because it was Anne’s idea to do a blog hop celebrating Open That Bottle Night with some lovely women we met at the Wine Blogger’s Conference last summer. And it was Anne who has actually met Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, who started Open That Bottle Night.

I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here and confess that I pretty much hate most writing about wine – at least, the traditional wine writing. You want to torture me? Tie me up and make me read Wine Spectator. There’s minimal story. The photo spreads all look the same, and, frankly, I don’t want to read a bunch of pretentious notes about wine that I either can’t afford or can’t find.

bottles for OTBN or Open That Bottle Night

The Brander sparkling white and Joseph Blair Pinot that we’re opening on #OTBN

But then there was the Tastings column in the Wall Street Journal by John Brecher and Dorothy J. Gaiter. It began in the late 1990s and Michael and I were immediate fans. It talked about wine as something that was accessible, something fun and wonderful. John and Dorothy, as we came to call them even though we didn’t know them, shared our attitude, namely that the best wine was the wine you liked and that the experience surrounding the wine you drank had as much to do with the flavor as what was actually in the bottle. They even went out on a limb here and there and tasted bargain wines – the merlot experiment was not particularly successful. But, dummit, they kept trying.

More importantly, John and Dorothy told stories. They wrote about their process as they tasted that week’s flight. They wrote about their daughters bagging bottles for their blind tasting process and they worked through a lot of wine. They wrote about doing a Disney cruise with the kids and the joy of discovering that the wine on the ship wasn’t bad at all. Their rating system was what all rating systems are, at bottom, which is an opinion. But they used words from blech to Delicious! – and it was a rare wine, indeed, that earned that top rating.

And they came up with Open That Bottle Night, because almost anyone who has a wine collection has several bottles waiting for just the “right” special occasion, one that never seems to happen. It’s an event that has grown over the past however many years, and has even survived the demise of the Tastings column. Dorothy is now writing for the GrapeCollective.com, and we just found out that the last Saturday of February is still Open That Bottle Night.

I met Dorothy and John, when they came to Southern California, lo these many years ago, back when I was writing for Wines & Vines magazine. I was doing a profile on them and they had come out to judge wines for the commercial competition at the Los Angeles County Fair, so I went out to get pictures. John was judging whites, but Dorothy had just finished a panel of dessert wines and still had a glass of one she’d particularly liked. She insisted I take a snort and a sip – and she was dead on. That stuff was amazing (and, alas, no longer made) – and I really don’t like sweet wines.

For some reason, Michael and I don’t have too many issues with finding just the “right” special occasion for our bottles, so we don’t need an excuse like Open That Bottle Night. That doesn’t mean we won’t take advantage of it. As I recall, that first #OTBN, we drank a zinfandel and made dinner at home

You can read where John and Dorothy are going to be hanging out in NYC. We, here in L.A. (okay, Pasadena), are going to be celebrating at one of our fave restaurants, Cafe Bizou, mostly because they have one of the most liberal corkage fees in the county: $2 per bottle. Corkage is the fee restaurants charge if you bring your own bottle. Most run between $10 to $20 a bottle because the restaurants either want you to buy theirs (at the usual ridiculous mark up) or make the same profit. Cafe Bizou figures they’re saving a bundle by not having to keep as deep a wine cellar, so they’re fine with letting folks bring their own.

We’ll be bringing a Brander sparkling wine that I won at the Wine Bloggers Conference and  a Joseph Blair 2009 pinot noir that Michael has decided it’s time to drink. I’m just hoping that Cafe Bizou will still be offering their pris fixe menu that includes a Meat Trio of rack of lamb, short ribs and something else (dang, I should’ve gotten a picture of that menu board).

So what will you be doing? For some other ideas, check out the below blogs by my colleagues. And then raise a toast to John and Dorothy, two of the best wine writers in the biz. We certainly will.


Neeta Mittal On Wine and Indian Food

We met Neeta Mittal, co-owner with her husband of LXV Wine in Paso Robles, at last fall’s Garagiste Festival. Mittal is the driving force behind the winery, although the wines are made by Amy Butler. Mittal is also very eloquent on wine with food from her native India, something you might not think goes together. But she proves that it does. In fact, we took her up on her offer to visit the tasting room after the festival to try her spice experiment. What they do is pair spice mixes on bland cheese with their wines and the result is freaking amazing. But we’ll let Ms. Mittal tell you about it.

 

It’s the Valentine’s Day Calibration Tasting!

freixenetIt’s happened to all of us. You’re standing there, tasting wine and either the tasting notes or somebody is telling you about the apple overtones and you’re tasting and smelling peach. Especially if you’re new to wine, the natural thing is to wonder what’s wrong with your taste buds.

Well, we’re here to tell you that there is nothing wrong with your taste buds. The reality is we all experience taste differently. But the point of tasting notes is to share the experience of taste. When we, here at OddBallGrape, are writing about, say, the Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut, it’s helpful for you to have an idea of what to expect when you buy a bottle. But if we all experience taste differently, then how are tasting notes going to help?

Enter the calibration tasting. We purposely feature a wine that is widely available so that we can compare notes. That way, if we write toast and you tasted vanilla, the next time we write about the flavor of toast in a wine, you’ll know that you’re going to probably taste vanilla when and if you get a hold of that particular wine. Whether you like toast or vanilla in your wine is totally up to you, but at least you have a frame of reference to work with.

And, yes, this tasting does feature Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut. It’s a cava, or sparkling wine from Spain. We think cavas are some of the best buys around, especially for a sparkling wine. Most of them are made in the traditional Methode Champenoise style. They’re nice and dry but not in your face, like some California sparklers, and they are a heck of a lot cheaper to buy than pretty much anything else on the shelves.

Michael, our tasting manager, noted the pale color and lots of tiny bubbles – a good thing for a sparkler. He smelled toast and tasted a slight chalkiness, but not a lot of fruit. The nice thing was the way the bubbles dissolved at the back of the palate. It was definitely dry, with no sugar, and had a very clean finish, with no lingering bad aftertaste.

Now, it’s your turn. Feel free to put what you tasted in the comments below. Or let us know what you’re serving on Valentine’s Day.

A Quick Look at Slow Wine

Jonathan Gebser of Slow Wine Magazine

Jonathan Gebser of Slow Wine Magazine

Most of the wine trade who show up at a tasting event are there to answer one question and one question only: “What do I want to buy for my [shop, restaurant, wine bar]?” We media folk are looking for stories. Which is probably why Anne was a little disappointed by the Slow Wine tasting event in Los Angeles.

Not by the wine, mind you. These were some of the best buys Italy has to offer. They were fabulous across the board, although Michael found one that really stirred his heart strings.

But the event was more about selling Italian wines than it was about Slow Wine or the Slow Food Movement, which we are very interested in. Fortunately, we did get a quick chat with one of the editors of the Slow Wine Magazine, an online magazine featuring Italian wines.

“Slow Wine is a part of Slow Food, actually,” said Jonathab Gebser, Assistant Editor at the magazine. “It was just a little later that Slow Food started applying their philosophy of quality food to wine.”

Slow Food is the international organization founded in 1989 in Italy that encourages and supports food that is Good, Clean and Fair, in terms of high quality food, cleanly produced and socially just across the board.

“We look for this quality… The three principles of good, clean and fair,” Gebser said about the magazine’s focus. “Clean agriculture, sustainable agriculture, good quality products, good taste and healthy products, and fair, which regards fair payment for the producers, but also fair prices for the consumer.”

Social justice is a big issue for many wineries and vineyards, especially here in California, where farm workers are frequently underpaid for some of the most miserably hard work ever done.

We did not get to talk to the producers about the Slow Food/Wine thing. They were too busy pouring for potential customers. But we did get to hear some great stories that we hope we’ll get to share with you in the future. As for the wine that so impressed Michael? It was the La Gironda Barbera D’Asti Nizza 2011 – which is made from a special harvest. Michael thought it was the best wine of the day. “Nice balance of fruit, acidity and flavors that were not overly rustic,” he wrote in his notes. “A nice sipper that really sings with a bit of fat on the palate.” You can bet he is going to track down the importer and get some more of it.

And it was tagged as a particularly good example of a Slow Wine. Hey, we’re down with that.

 

What Are Tannins? Rick Longoria Explains

Winemaker Rick Longoria

Winemaker Rick Longoria

If folks tend to refer to Rick Longoria with a certain reverence, it’s not just that he produces some truly awesome wines. He is also one of the pioneers of the Santa Ynez wine country. He started working in the area in 1976, and founded his Longoria winery in 1982. We just happened to catch Mr. Longoria in his Lompoc tasting room, so, like, we’re going to turn down an opportunity to ask the man about something wine-related? Of course not! And since Mr. Longoria is all about longevity and structure, then what better question to ask him than “What are tannins?”

If you’ve ever sipped some red wine and felt a sharp, almost drying sensation in your mouth, then what you’re noticing are the tannins in the wine. But what are they? Where do they come from? And why is some tannin good, but too much is bad?

“Tannins are a natural compound found in the skins of all grapes,” Longoria said.

But, he explained, since white grapes are pressed immediately after they are crushed, the juice doesn’t pick up the tannin compounds. Red grapes, on the other hand, are crushed but the juice is left with the fruit skins while it is being fermented, which gives red wines their color and also tannins.

“Red wines pick up the tannins from the skins of red grapes,” Longoria said. “And every variety, characteristically, has different levels of tannin. Pinot noir, for example, is one of the varieties that has the least amount of tannin. And going up the spectrum, some of the syrahs, cabernet sauvignon, the Bordeaux varietals, have higher levels of tannin.”

Longoria also pointed out that tannins are not tannic acid. They’re actually poly-phenols and not acid components. In addition, how much tannin ends up in a wine is something that the winemaker can adjust by prolonging or shortening the contact the juice has with the crushed grapes.

“Tannins help in the ageability of red wines,” Longoria said. “They act as a kind of shield that – layers of shields – that as the years progress, they get bound up.”

So as a red wine gets older, it gets softer, and hopefully the amount of tannin ends up balancing out the flavor of the fruit.

“The ideal thing would be to have just the exact number of tannin levels, let’s say tannin layers, so that when the fruit of a wine finally gets to a point of ultimate maturation, let’s say 15 years, that last layer of tannin has been resolved. So then you have this perfect, harmonious integration of the fruit flavor, maturation and there’s not more tannin to interfere with it.”

Longoria also noted that some winemakers will miss the mark and allow too much tannin into a wine, with the result that the fruit is gone, but the tannin is still there. And that is why some older wines are beyond marvelous and others just make your teeth feel dry.

Amy Butler Talks about Carignan

This is another new venture for us at OddBallGrape.com – video!

We went to the 2014 Garagiste Festival in Pasa Robles and caught up with some amazing women in wine, not least of all was Amy Butler. We first ran across her at an Hospice du Rhone, back when she was working at Edward Sellars. Now, she’s the consulting winemaker at LXV (a post that will be coming soon) and has her own label, Ranchero Cellars.

Amy’s big thing is the carignan grape (also spelled carignane). We’ll let you look at the video to tell you why. We’ve tasted the wine and it was awesome!

What Gifts to Get for a Wine Lover

A not-at-all useful item for wine lovers.

This is a repeat post from a couple years ago about what gifts to get for a wine lover – or more importantly, what not to get, but it’s still relevant. By now, you’re home from your Black Friday spree, putting your feet up (preferably with a nice, soothing glass of your favorite wine). But that doesn’t mean you got just the right gift for the wine lovers on your list. Or maybe you got the wrong one – sorry about that, but it happens and you’ve still got time to fix it.

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.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day and Thanksgiving Wine Pairing

Happy Beaujolais Nouveau Day - it's a great Thanksgiving wine pairing

Happy Beaujolais Nouveau Day – it’s a great Thanksgiving wine pairing

It’s the third Thursday of November and that means it’s time for the Beaujolais Nouveau 2014 release. No, the timing has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, although the wine is great paired with Thanksgiving dinner.

Beaujolai Nouveau literally means New Beaujolais. It’s basically wine from Beaujolais, France, that was still grapes back in September. It hasn’t aged. It hasn’t done anything, really, except ferment, making it light and fruity and all the things wine snobs love looking down their long, bony noses at.

Okay, let’s be real. It’s also about the marketing. It started with a guy named Georges DuBoeuf. He is a négociant, or basically, a merchant who collects lots of wine from various producers and blends it together under his own label and sells it. In the mid-1960s, he started his business and became quite the advocate for the wines of Beaujolais.

Winemakers had been making the new wine for years, but it was only for fun and local consumption. The DuBoeuf came along and turned the release into a media event. Local winemakers loved it because selling wine this way was very good for cash flow. It also got a lot of attention for the more serious wine made in the region called Beaujolais Villages, which you do not want to drink new.

The nouveau is made from the gamay grape and is made to drink young. In fact, if you have any hanging around from last year, dump it. Seriously. It’s not even good for sangria at this point.

But it is great for Thanksgiving dinner. Because it is light and fruity, it’s not going to get all tart and nasty with many of the sweeter elements of the meal. It’s perfect for those members of your family who are either new to wine, such as your niece who just graduated from college, or think they don’t like red wine, like the aged aunt who’s been drinking sweet wines all her life, if that.

And we get that some years Beaujolais Nouveau can be a little rocky. The winemakers don’t have time to compensate for less than ideal growing conditions, so the wine will often reflect that – another reason why the snobs sniff at it.

But this year was particularly good in Beaujolais, at least according to DuBoeuf’s publicists. And since they were nice enough to send us a sample for review, we got a chance to taste it the other night and…. It’s a good one!

Michael smelled raspberry on the nose, but even Anne got a lot of fruit in the flavor. Michael also noted that the body of the wine was rather thin (duh, it’s new) and got lots of carbonic acidity – which means it’s just a tiny bit fizzy. What tannins there were (i.e. that dry feeling you get), were pretty tight, which means it’s going to be great with food. In fact, we tasted it with some cheese and ham and it did very well with both.

It’s also reasonably price, usually between $10 and $12 a bottle. If you can get the DuBoeuf, go for it. But his is not the only label out there, and the wine is still worth giving a shot, either for drinking on its own or with your own Thanksgiving dinner.

Checking Out a Wine Panel

Before the panel began

Before the panel began

Eight winemakers from around California and even Arizona are on a panel, the topic: “The State of the Rhone Nation.” The result? An extended and wide-ranging conversation covering growing syrah in Arizona to earthquake damage in Napa to the miseries of being an “Other White” on a restaurant wine list. The panel happened at a recent Rhone Rangers tasting event in Los Angeles.

The Rhone Rangers was one of the first varietal advocacy groups. Winemakers got together about 20 years ago to start these groups to help market their wines and educate the public about grape varieties that were then pretty new and strange. While most advocacy groups seem to focus on a single grape variety – ZAP or Zinfandel Advocates and Producers, and TAPAS or Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society – the Rangers focus on the whole panoply of grapes traditionally grown in the Rhone River region of France, but which are also grown all over the world now, varieties such as grenache, syrah, mourvedre, viognier and others.rhonerangers2

We have to concede, the quality of the audio is not very good. Sorry about that. Audio is something new for us at OBG, but sometimes there is nothing like hearing things as they happened, and there’s some pretty good stuff here (even if it’s about 90 minutes long). The next recording will be better.

Thanks for your patience.

The OBG team.

Can You Get Into Canned Wine?

Underwood Pinot Gris

Underwood Pinot Gris

IMG_2580

Underwood Pinot Noir

To say that Michael was skeptical when Anne brought home samples of the Underwood Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir might be the understatement of the month. Possibly even the year. And to be fair, he was not entirely unjustified either. Usually when you get a really unusual container for wine (in this case aluminum cans), it becomes about the container and not about the wine and that just does not make for a tasty experience.

But Anne is nothing if not adventurous and she found the wine at one of our favorite wine stores, Everson Royce in Pasadena. The nice folks there have only steered us wrong once, and the bottle in question was what we’d asked for. So when the guy behind the counter said that it was good wine and he couldn’t taste the metal unless he drank the wine straight from the can.

We can’t say we were blown away by the wine, but it was darned tasty and pretty much just what you’d want from Oregon pinot noir and pinot gris. And we could taste the metal when we drank straight from the can. We bought our cans for $5 apiece. Each can is basically half a bottle, so if you happen to be on your own one evening and don’t want to waste half a bottle of red, then you’ve got a reasonably priced alternative.

Other good reasons for wine in a can, to take it places like your swimming pool, where glass can be a hazard. Or on a picnic where maybe a bottle of wine might be frowned upon – not that we encourage folks to break the law. As to whether or not the aluminum keeps the wine any colder than glass does, we don’t know. Finally, there’s no reason not to package wine in a can. In fact, restaurants are doing something similar by buying big kegs of wine and serving them by the glass. The kegs use pressure to keep the wines from oxidizing, but it’s a form of stainless steel that houses it all. The only thing you can’t really do in a can is age the wine because it’s completely sealed off from the microscopic bits of oxygen that allows aging to happen.

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Clyde checks it out – no, we didn’t give the dog wine. He’s such a sloppy drunk.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about strange packaging. But there are also good reasons for giving it a try.

What odd packaging for wine have you tried lately?