Getting ready for speed dating, um, speed tasting/live blogging at WBC14
You’re in a hotel ballroom, the noise level is rising like the tides, and just when you get to like one, the next one shows up. Is this any way to build a relationship?
Well, the nice folks at the Wine Bloggers Conference thought if speed dating works for singles, it could work for wine. And, really, it did, but it was a challenge.
Oh, wait. What’s the Wine Bloggers Conference? It’s exactly what it sounds like – a conference or convention for people who blog about wine. And if you’ve ever Googled “wine blog,” you know that there are about 50-bajillion of us out there writing about our love of wine, and wine, and what we eat while drinking wine, and more wine. So mid-July, about 350 of us got together at the Marriott in Buellton, California, to talk about writing about wine and, uh, to taste wine. Which we did. A lot of it. Buellton, by the way, is smack in the heart of the Santa Barbara County wine region, kind of between the Santa Ynez Valley and the Santa Rita Hills.
So imagine a couple hundred people in a hotel ballroom, the chatter (and noise) increasing by the glassful, while each winemaker and his or her representative had five minutes to serve six to 10 people and tell us about the wine. We did two sessions over the two days of the conference, one for whites and one for reds. Fortunately, this wasn’t about weeding out because all of the wines were fabulous. But we now have a chance to use all those pretentious descriptors, like flirty, that don’t really mean anything as we bring you some of the highlights.
In fact, we’ll begin with The Flirt, herself – the Yorkville Cellars 2011 Cuvée Brut. A real bubbly personality. Literally, it’s a bubbly, and it was poured by Yorkville’s owners Deborah and Edward Wallo and their son Ben. Michael noted that it had a nice light toast color with good bubbles, bright acidity and a clean finish. It’s made from semillion and sauvignon blanc grapes, which are not your usual bubbly grapes.
“We like to play around with different varieties,” Deborah told us. Or was it Ben?
Then we got to the Cheap Date – Bandit Pinot Grigio, which comes in a one-liter box for $8. Yes, the box is recyclable. Michael noted that it had a neutral nose and tropical fruit taste with some sweetness, possibly making it good with spicy food.
But the white that we were most likely to make a commitment to was the Consilience 2012 Santa Barbara Viognier.
“If they try it,” said Consilience’s PR person Dan Fredman, about when people will buy an unusual wine like viognier. “Once they taste it, then they become evangelical about it.”
Well, we’re evangelical about this one – Michael noted that it had the traditional floral nose, with golden color and a light, clean fruit flavor. Good as a sipper and great as a food wine. Yum.
Next up – The Reds
One of the things we love is discovering really fun places that have great wines – especially places you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find them. Which is why Anne was so anxious to check out Traxx, at Los Angeles’ Union Station.
Now, Union Station, at 800 N. Alameda St., is already one of those gems even most Angelenos don’t know about – although we’ve all seen it hundreds of times in films, television and commercials. It opened in 1939 and was built not only during the heyday of rail travel, but at a time when Los Angeles was just coming into its own as a major city in the U.S. The architecture is grand, with a mix of Hispanic mission style overlayed with an Art Deco sensibility. And it’s all been recently refurbished, thanks to the big 75th Anniversary celebration on May 3, National Train Day.
Traxx, which opened in 1997, took over the old restaurant, putting the bar part of the restaurant in what used to be the station’s telephone room – one of those nice places with phone booths where you could make a phone call while waiting for your train. Now, it’s a place where you can get a nice glass of wine while waiting for your train.
We both commute through Union Station regularly, Michael to get to his day job, and Anne to her errands for various clients. It took a bit of arm-twisting by Anne to get Michael into the bar after work one night recently. But in Michael’s defense, stopping for a drink means getting home to dinner and relaxation that much later. Not fun when you’re already pooped from a long day at work.
Still, it was one of those days, and the bar wasn’t too busy, although there were plenty of commuters kicking back for a drink before their trains left (there’s a pretty busy system of commuter trains to the further reaches of Southern California that come and go from Union Station). There were also a few tourists. The atmosphere was a tad on the noisy side and the bar has the inevitable television sets playing, but not blaring.
The wine list was very interesting, but sadly, we don’t remember what specifically we drank. We weren’t there to report on it, just to check it out before going home. It was only later that we thought about writing it up here. You can find a wine list posted here, but Anne didn’t recognize anything on it. Which means they change things up as the wines are released – and that’s a good thing. The important thing is that the white was served nicely chilled, and the service was prompt and polite. Wines by glass run between $9 and $16, and most of them were local to California, many from the Central Coast and Santa Ynez Valley.
Hours, menus and more information are here, at the restaurant website. If you’re in L.A., it is well worth checking out and pretty easy to get to, even if you don’t drive, since both the Red Line and Gold Lines are here, not to mention a host of buses. Contrary to popular belief, L.A. does have public transportation and it works pretty darned well. If you’re not in L.A., then the lesson is that fun places to drink wine are all around us. You just have to be willing to check them out. Even if it means getting home from work a little later.
This one begins with a shout out to our friends at the Pasadena Enterprise Car Rental office, mostly because it was Tanya whose question suggested this post.
You see, Tanya and Anne were chatting about wine tasting. Tanya had recently been up to Malibu and we’d just gotten back from a weekend in Santa Barbara and Lompoc. And Tanya was a little surprised when Anne said she’d been spitting a good part of the weekend.
Okay, spitting your wine out after you’ve just tasted it does sound really gross. It’s not that bad, especially if you remember to bring a small cup to spit into (like we forgot, oops). Or you can just taste some of the wine and pour the rest out into the spit or dump bucket that should be on the tasting room counter, which relieved Tanya no end. She was thinking it was rude to not drink what you were poured.
The thing it’s not at all rude to pour or spit your wine out. Because the bottom line is that while wine tastes really good, it can also get you plenty drunk, or if you have Anne’s tummy, really sick. And if you’re having a good time with friends, it’s easier than you might think to get a snootful. If you pour or spit, no one is going to think you don’t like the wine (even if, perhaps, you don’t). Folks are just going to think you don’t want to get drunk, and the folks behind the counter in the tasting room are seriously down with that.
Drunks are no fun to deal with – one of the reasons we prefer to avoid party weekends or wineries with multiple limos parked outside. In fact, on of the rudest things you can do in a tasting room is let yourself get polluted. So pour or spit. You’ll be fine and able to taste that much more wine, too.
William Allen in action
It’s kind of a long story why this particular post got kicked repeatedly to the back burner when we actually tasted William Allen’s awesome syrahs last June at a Rhone Rangers tasting event. The Rhone Rangers is an advocacy group touting wines made in the style of France’s Rhone Valley. Rhone-style wines usually mean syrahs, mourvedres and grenaches or a blend of those three also known as GSM.
Allen’s wines, under his label Two Shepherds, really stood out because while the syrahs were nice and meaty, they were also well-balanced and smooth, unlike several of the other wines we tasted that day. But what makes Allen even more interesting is that he is not a full-time winemaker. He works a day job as an engineer to pay the bills while building his winemaking business.
“I don’t have much of one,” he joked about his life. “The most challenging time of year is harvest.”
And given that he’s leased blocks of grapes from seven different larger vineyards in five different counties, you can imagine he’s putting in some very long hours when it’s time to bring the grapes in. He also works with a custom crush facility, Inspiration Vineyards and Custom Crush.
But it works for him for the time being. He told us that he doesn’t have to put in the huge overhead most wineries require to do business for winemaking facilities, vineyards, storage and bottling equipment.
“It’s all money in advance,” he said.
The Two Shepherds are the two goals Allen works toward. One is Shepherding the Palate – Allen is also an active wine blogger and works actively with the Rhone Rangers to promote Old-World style wines. That usually means wines that are more balanced and subtle than many of the traditional California-style wines. The second shepherd is Shepherding the Grape – using minimal intervention to make his wines, including native fermentation (not adding yeast to get the sugars in the wine to ferment), and doing little more than protecting the wine from harm as it goes through the various processes on the way to us, the consumers.
The only problem is that he doesn’t really have a tasting room, but he will make appointments to taste at the Sheldon Winery in Santa Rosa, California. You can also buy his wines on the website TwoShepherds.com.
So Fox Networks is getting all excited about Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, the re-boot of the Carl Sagan mini-series from the 1980s, and Anne gets invited to the gala premiere screening and party (good food, decent wine). Fox is premiering this new mini-series on Sunday, March 9 at 9 p.m., and National Geographic Channel is premiering it on Monday, March 10 at 10 p.m., with it also airing on pretty much every channel Fox Broadcasting owns.
The mini-series features Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, of the Hayden Planetarium, and during the post-screening Q&A, Dr. Tyson noted that he enjoys wine.
“I drink wine that’s a little bit more expensive than it should be,” he joked.
But it reminded Anne that she did get a wine FAQ from Dr. Tyson a couple summers ago that we never ran for some reason. Maybe we were waiting for this event. More likely life just got in the way. Oh, and Dr. Tyson didn’t really have a question.
“As an academic, any time such a question exists I then find the answer myself,” he said.
But we did have a question for him, because at the time, there were a bunch of scientists who were saying that terroir, doesn’t really make sense. Now, terroir is the French word for earth and you hear it a lot in wine circles, and in that context it’s the concept that the earth the grapes are grown in makes the wine subsequently made from those grape taste unique. In short, wine made from cabernet grapes grown in Bordeaux, France, tastes different than the wine made from cabernet grapes grown in Tuscany, Italy, or anywhere else in the world. The catch is, certain scientists say that it can’t be because there’s no way that different minerals or elements of the soil are going to get into the grapes from the ground.
Well, Dr. Tyson believes that terroir exists, even within districts within France.
“From Pauillac to St. Emilion, same grapes, but the wine tastes different, so there’s terroir going on there. Period,” he said. “Why even debate that?”
That doesn’t mean he understands how it works – perhaps no one does.
“I don’t care what the mechanism is, but what’s true is that different plots of land produce wines that taste differently,” he said. “I’m perfectly happy to accept what I know is true without knowing why it’s true. You get the same blend, the same winemaker and there’s two different plots of land and the wine tastes different. That’s terroir. I’m good to go with that.”
And we are, too.
We tasted Breathless Sparkling Wines a couple years ago at the Family Winemakers tasting event and loved them. Turns out there was a good reason why – they’re made by a friend of ours, Penny Gadd-Coster. Not only does Penny have her own label, Coral Mustang, since 2007 she’s been Executive Director of Winemaking at Rack & Riddle, a winery and custom crush facility in Hopland, California. (A custom crush facility is a place where people with grapes can go to make wine commercially without buying and/or building a whole winery.)
Breathless is owned by Rebecca Faust, co-owner of Rack & Riddle, and her two sisters Sharon Cohn and Cynthia Faust.
So when we wanted to find out how to pick a good bubbly for Valentine’s Day, it only made sense to talk to Penny about Breathless, and other sparklers.
Sparkling wine, of course, is the generic term for wine that has bubbles in it – or intentionally made with bubbles in it. You can sometimes get bubbles in wine that’s not supposed to have them, but that’s a different issue. Champagne is the stuff from the Champagne region of France and you really shouldn’t call wine Champagne unless it’s actually from there. Never mind that darned near everybody does, including us.
Penelope Gadd-Costeincluding us, and getting that right is one of the rare things we get snooty about.
Penny explained that there are some differences between Champagne and California sparklers.
“Probably from a California or a Western U.S. standpoint, the difference is fruit,” she said. “You don’t get that out of most French Champagnes, so that makes them a little bit unique. We can ripen the grapes a little bit more and bring out those flavors.”
Like most French wines, Champagne has a little more acid and will often taste a little chalky, unlike sparkling wines from California.
“You compare these to a French Champagne and they’re a lot more fruit forward,” Penny said. “They can have the acidity, but you actually know that there’s chardonnay in there, that there’s pinot noir in there.”
Oh, yeah, French Champagne and most California sparkling wine are made from either chardonnay – called blanc de blanc, or white from white (grapes), or pinot noir – called blanc de noir, or white from black (or red grapes). All grape juice is white, red and pink wines get their color from soaking the juice in the skins before fermenting them.
For that special night out, if you’re not getting an actual Champagne, Penny recommends looking for the words “méthode champanoise” on the label. This means it was made like they make Champagne in Champagne, France. The wine is fermented and bottled, then goes through a second fermentation in the bottle, which produces the bubbles. Other bubblies are made by the charmat process, which means they shot the fermented wine through with carbon dioxide, basically, like they do with sodas.
“The made in the bottle wine is going to be a lot more elegant,” Penny said. “You’re going to have nicer, smaller bubbles. You’re going to feel more elegant.”
She did point out that méthode champenoise tends to be more expensive because it’s a lot more labor intensive. Nor are charmat-style bubblies that bad. They can be perfectly nice. But we are talking special occasion here.
As for what to serve with your bubbly, well, anything your fuzzy little heart desires. That’s the great thing about sparkling wine, it literally goes with just about everything. Penny suggested having a sparkling rosé if you’re serving a heavy meat dinner, such as a standing rib or steak. If you’re doing something a little on the spicy side, then you might want the slightly sweet bubbly labeled “extra dry.” No, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
In any case, bubbles make it special and that’s what you want for Valentine’s Day – or any other special occasion. Even if it’s just surviving another week.
So you’ve decided to take the plunge and have a real New Year’s Eve party. Or you’ve invited the family over for Christmas Dinner. Or you just want to have a party because it’s the end of the year and it would be fun.
Or at least you thought it would be fun when you sent the invites out. Now that said event is staring you in the face, you’re feeling that cold rock in your tummy and wondering what the heck were you thinking? You want to serve wine, but have no clue what to buy or how much. And what if you get the wrong one? What if everyone thinks you’re a total dweeb, newb, dope?
Stop. Right now. Take a deep breath. Take another. You know, it’s that kind of judgmentalism that we are fighting here at OddBallGrape.com. If we had a sharp stick to poke in the eye of each condescending jerk who smiled in that oh-so-superior way and made some snarky comment, we’d have a freaking forest. Trust us, unless one of those folks happens to be a close, personal friend or a relative, you won’t be dealing with somebody like that. And if you are, make said close personal friend or relative buy the freaking wine. With his or her money.
We’re going to assume you’ve already figured out your budget. If you’re doing a dinner for, say, five to 10 people, you can afford slightly more expensive wines (say, around $10-$15 a bottle) and you’ll match your wines to what you’re serving – red wines with red meat and heartier fare, whites with seafood and lighter tasting fare. If you’re doing something decidedly spicy, such as Indian, Thai or Mexican food, then a slightly sweet wine like a gewurztraminer or riesling does wonders. You don’t need a different wine for each course unless you want to do it that way. You don’t even have to serve courses, but you might since it is a big holiday dinner. In which case, serve a nice light white with the soup and salad courses, and then match your dinner wine to your main course.
And don’t stress over the matching. Cabernet sauvignons, syrahs, and tempranillos all tend to be heavier reds that go well with food. Merlot is one of those reds that tends to be in the middle, while pinot noirs are generally a lighter red. Chardonnays are your basic white, which goes with most lighter fare, such as white fish and sauces, while sauvignon blancs tend to have more and crisper acid, which goes better with cheese. If you really want to cover your backside, forget all of the above and find a nice sparkling wine you like and serve that with the whole meal. Almost everybody loves bubbly and it goes with everything. As for how much, see below for the formula.
Don’t stress about spending $15 a bottle for a larger party. You won’t have to and no one will expect you to. There are plenty of drinkable brands for less – just be sure you’re serving something you like. They won’t be transcendent, but you’re not looking for transcendent here. You’re looking for something fun that goes down easily with or without food.
So get a few different bottles in your price range and do a quick tasting. The ones you like the best are the ones to buy. That wasn’t so hard now, was it?
But how much? How much? You can generally get four to five glasses from each bottle of still wine, five to six glasses from each bottle of sparkling wine. No, you don’t need champagne flutes, but figure you’ll get only four to five glasses per bottle then. For parties, we usually do our math based on the whole guest list, even though we know not everyone is going to show up. That way, we’re less likely to run out. We assume two glasses per person, then buy two bottles of white to one bottle of red for the whole group. Or, for example, we’ve got 30 people invited. Probably only 20 will show, but just in case, we figure each person will drink two glasses of wine (they won’t, some will drink more, some won’t drink wine at all). So we need 60 servings. Each bottle will give us five servings, so we need 12 bottles, comprised of eight bottles of white to four bottles of red. Add a case of beer for those who like it. A couple bottles each of cola, diet cola, and lemon-lime soda, and maybe a pot of coffee and a pitcher or two of de-caf iced tea, and you’re golden.
As we noted in our last post, our favorite wine for Thanksgiving dinner is the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau. From the Beaujolais region of France, it’s the first wine to appear from the current harvest. In other words, yes, that is a 2013 you see on the label (or should see), and yes, that wine was grapes a mere few months ago.
It’s basically new wine – made to be drunk, like, now, and as such is usually very light and fruity, which is why wine snobs love looking down their long bony noses at it. But that’s also why it’s one of the best matches for the full range of flavors at a Thanksgiving dinner. It’s not a sweet wine and there’s enough acid to stand up to the stronger flavors of the turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes, but there’s also not so much that it will go sour and icky with the sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and that strange fruit something or other that Aunt Hazel puts in the stuffing. Being more fruity helps on that end, too.
This year’s release seems to reflect the really hard year France had weather-wise. They had a tough time getting their grapes to ripen fully, and this Nouveau doesn’t have as much fruit as usual. We tried it with the turkey pot pie and baked sweet potato the other night. While it was definitely tighter and a touch more tannic (that drying sensation on your teeth) than in years past, even Anne thought it worked with the sweet potato, and her palate catches sour flavors faster than Michael’s does. All-in-all, it remains a great option for your big dinner.
There are two other reasons why it’s a great option, especially if the whole fam-damily is showing up. One is that it tends to run around $10 to $12 a bottle. Since your average bottle of wine serves four (five if you’re stingy), you can afford to serve everyone a glass or two, even if you have a crowd. That high-end pinot noir or fancy tempranillo could force you into serving that fifth glass from the bottle. Secondly, there’s bound to be someone or other at your table whose palate just isn’t up to a fine red. The new boyfriend who only drinks whites. The aged grandmother who prefers sweet wine, if she drinks at all. The brand-spanking new 21-year-old who hasn’t tasted much wine before now. Beaujolais Nouveau is a nice introduction to finer reds that isn’t so dry and heavy that you need to get used to it.
One little warning – do make sure you are buying the 2013 Nouveau. When Michael went to pick up our bottle, he noticed that there were a few cases of the 2012 next to the 2013s. Nouveau doesn’t usually taste good aged. In fact, by January, the current year is already past its prime and just barely drinkable. We don’t even want to think about year-old Nouveau. Blech. So double check the vintage date on your bottle and be sure it’s the current calendar year.
There is nothing worse than taking a big gulp of orange juice after a big bite of maple syrupy pancakes. All you can taste is sour, sour, sour. Blech!
Well, that, dear friends, is exactly what makes pairing wines with your Thanksgiving Dinner such a challenge. You’ve got your savory turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy – flavors that scream for a good, rich red with good, solid acidity. And then as soon as you dive into the sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce – yeesh! All you can taste is the sourness of the acids in the wine. Kind of kills the whole experience.
Our friends Susan and Jan were puzzling this out for Susan’s brother, one of the principals of Flying Leap Vineyards in Tucson, Arizona. He’d sent her a case of the winery’s different wines and asked for her input. So time being an issue, Susan invited us and a whole bunch of other people to a potluck, where we all brought different elements of holiday meals (not just Thanksgiving) and tried everything with everything. Or tried to.
In any case, there really wasn’t one wine that did the trick across the board. Their tempranillo did the best job, but even it was no match for the sweet potatoes – and these didn’t even have marshmallows. However, we weren’t terribly surprised that the tempranillo did the best out of all of the wines we tried. Tempranillo is a Spanish grape that often makes a pretty in-your-face red wine. But when made well – as this one was – it’s an amazing food wine. That’s because it’s got enough acid and fruit flavors to stand up to stronger-tasting foods, but it’s not so acidic it can’t deal with something a tetch sweeter.
So how do you pick a wine for Thanksgiving or another holiday meal? You want a wine that’s actually fairly light and fruity. You need the fruit to stand up to the stronger flavor of the turkey meat. Or ham. Or pork roast. Or beef. But something that’s got just enough acid to give the wine some structure and to blend well with the savory elements, but not so much acid it’s going to taste wonky with the sweet stuff.
Yeah but, you’re asking, how do I find the right one for my meal? Well, you could buy a bunch of different wines and call your friends in for a potluck, like Susan and Jan did, but that may be a bit much, especially if said friends are also coming to dinner Thanksgiving Day (or for Hannukah this year). You can ask your favorite wine shop person – which usually works. Or if this year, your soon-to-be mother-in-law is coming or there’s some other reason you really, really need things to be as perfect as possible, you can do a mini-tasting yourself.
Buy three to four bottles of different wines that you think might go well, buy some turkey in gravy, maybe a potpie or similar. It doesn’t have to be a great version of one, it just needs to taste enough like a turkey and gravy to mimic that part of the meal, Roast a sweet potato. You can either try the wines blind by putting them in different numbered paper bags, or not. But have your little plate of turkey and gravy and sweet potatoes and take a sip of each wine after eating each of those two elements. Take notes on how each wine tasted with the food, which might help if you get a really close match. But usually, the best one makes itself present pretty quickly.
Just avoid really big, brawny reds (tempranillo being the one exception). Think light and fruity. And you should be good. If you want your big, meaty cabernet sauvignon, go ahead. Just don’t eat the sweet potatoes or cranberry relish at the same time.