Amalie Robert Estate, Making Pinot Noir in Oregon

Dena Drews at work, courtesy Amalie Robert Estate

It was a pretty basic interview Anne was doing with Lisa Rigisich regarding the recent Pinot Days Los Angeles festival that happened at the end of January. Rigisich asked us to help Dena Drews and Ernie Pink pour wine from their winery Amalie Robert Estate at the festival.

Like we were going to say no. But not only did we get a chance to pour some insanely gorgeous pinots with Dena, and learned a lot about what they’re doing with their wines, we got to know Dena, especially, and just loved her passion.

She and Ernie started their winery back in 1999. Both were working in the technical industry – Dena was a software consultant and getting pretty tired of getting on a plane to go to work.

They found land in the Willamette Valley of Oregon and planted the vineyard, finishing in April 2000. They started building their winery in February 2006, and it was ready just in time for their first estate crush in October of that same year. They grow mostly pinot noir on their 40 acres, but also have some chardonnay, pinot meunier, syrah, and viognier.

Ernie Pink and the good soil that grows their wine

Ernie also gave us one of the better answers we’ve heard when we asked why people should learn about wine.

“An educated consumer is a better consumer,” he said. “If you know what you’re drinking and why it is what it is, you can have a better appreciation for it or you can know that it’s not my style and why it’s not my style. Why other people get it is beyond me, but it’s not for me. Or vice versa. I really like the depth, I like the acidity. I like the way this pairs with duck confit. and I know why. I know there’s whole clusters in this. I know the barrel regime. I know these guys – they really manage the field. I understand what they do and why it’s done that way. People who understand those things can better appreciate the wines that they’re trying.”

So, while you don’t need to know everything about how a wine is made, it does help when you’re perusing that massive row of wines at the supermarket to know that if a wine is made in a similar style to something you know you like, you’ll stand a better chance of finding something tasty to drink. And that’s ultimately what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Open That Bottle Night – February 25, What Will You Open?

Maybe it was the fact that John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter were writing their wine column for the Wall Street Journal, rather than a specific wine magazine. Maybe it’s the fact that Brecher and Gaiter, a husband and wife team, were (and still are) not snobs about wine and were totally into making it as approachable as possible, all the while sharing their special love story with us. Or maybe it was simply that they touched a nerve, when they first suggested Open That Bottle Night in the late 1990s.

The idea is to open a significant bottle – generally the one you’ve been saving for That Special Occasion, and yet no occasion special enough has yet occurred. Truth be told, that’s not generally an issue in our household. But for many wine lovers, one does tend to accumulate bottles and one does tend to save one or two really special ones to be opened when the time is right. Alas, too often the right time comes after the wine has oxidized and otherwise gone bad.

Brecher and Gaiter retired their popular column on December 26, 2009, but Open That Bottle Night, which officially became the last Saturday in February in 2000, seems to be living on. Several blogs and newspaper articles this week popped up encouraging the event. Apparently, there’s even a few charity fundraisers based on it. We say hooray! Aside from being massive fans of Gaiter and Brecher – who proved you could have good taste and still be open to something less expensive – we love the entire concept of finding a meaningful bottle and making a point of opening it.

Now, if you’re new to wine, chances are you don’t have any bottles that have been hanging around waiting for just the right Special Occasion to open. That does not mean you can’t participate. Why not make your special bottle a wine you’ve never tried before? Maybe you’ve never had the nerve to go to a wine store and buy something costing $20 or more. Maybe you’ve heard of oddballgrapes like negrette and wanted to try it, but never had the right time or occasion. Or maybe there was a bottle you drank on your first date with your beloved. Or maybe there is a bottle in your closet – a wine you picked up on your first time to wine country tasting wines.

Saturday night is the night to do open it and share your experiences, either here or on some other blog. But do share them. Wine is a wonderful thing and what makes it even better is the sharing.

We’re not sure what we’re opening – haven’t figure out what dinner will be (and that is an important first step). We are looking forward to a special dinner – and if we open what Mike suggested earlier this week – a great movie, too. Wine makes dinner special and sometimes you just need a good excuse to enjoy something out of the ordinary.

Pasadena Pinot Fest Tasting Fun

Event organizer Mike Farwell, of Noir, chatting and enjoying pinot noir

As grand tastings go, this was a relatively small one, with less than 100 wineries represented. But what it lacked in size, it made up for in elegance. And we also discovered another fun story in Phantom Rivers winery – four guys who made wine at home got drunk one night and decided to go pro together. Can’t wait to do that profile, although if we’re going to interview the whole crew, we think we’re going to have to go out there.

A big shout out to Mike Farwell and his crew for a wonderfully run event and successful enough that the only thing marring it were the cramped quarters at the Altadena Country Club. Farwell is one of the co-owners of Noir Food & Wine, in Pasadena.

Aside from the fact that there were some truly amazing wines featured, Anne discovered something interesting. When tasting the wine by itself, more often than not, what hit her palate were the tannins and some roughness in the back of her mouth. But as soon as she nibbled on some of the wonderful cured meats from Noir, or the cheeses from The Cheese Store of Pasadena, then drank some wine, everything smoothed out.

The lesson learned is that wine is all about the food. Not every food goes with every wine, but it’s not that big a deal. There are light pinots that do very nicely with fish – Mike enjoyed an Alma Rosa pinot noir a couple years back with a bit of salmon and it was so good, he almost cried. White sparkling wines go with just about any meats, including heavy beef. As long as it’s something within the same flavor range, you’re probably going to be okay.

Think about how flavors match each other. If you have pancakes and maple syrup, then drink some orange juice, the juice is going to taste extra sour in comparison to the sweet syrup. Whereas if you nibble a nice sharp cheese, then eat a bit of sweet apple with it, the flavors complement each other and actually taste better together.

It’s the same thing with wine. Wine is a combination of light acid flavors and fruit. If you’re drinking a wine that has a little more acid in it, such as a pinot noir and trying to nibble a more acidic cheese, such as an aged Vermont cheddar, the acids in the cheese and the wine are going to fight each other and taste icky. But if you’re eating a more buttery cheese, like a triple creme Brie or mild, nutty manchego, then the acids and fruitiness of the wine are going complement the cheese and the two together will be like a small symphony in your mouth. Both flavors combine to taste better together than by themselves, a reality Anne found particularly intense with the wines.

But then Anne overheard one man telling (no, ordering) a couple young women to not drink the wine with the cheese – that it would mess up the wine.  But these cheeses were chosen to go with pinot noir and did very well with the wine.

Which actually is another lesson to be learned – the more someone starts pontificating about wine, the less reason there is to listen to him/her. There are no absolutes in the wine world except one – the wine you like is a good wine, and no one, but no one, should tell you otherwise or make you feel judged (which is what happens when folks act like they know more about wine than you do) because of what you like to drink.

Our Latest Tasting at Webster’s – Check Out Our Notes

What a fun time we had last Friday night with our good friends, Lori and Scott Webster at their store, Webster’s Fine Stationers, in Altadena. Not only did we have three wonderful bubblies to try, Lori provided us with some amazing chocolates to go with them. And we had poetry from Aldonia Bailey and several of her friends and students.

But mostly, we had sparkling wine, aka bubblies. These were not champagnes because the wines are not from the Champagne region of France, and yes, we’re being a little anal about that. Well, heck, if you’re going to try to get it right. Anyway, all three of our bottles came from our local BevMo! (currently in the throes of another 5 cent sale – buy one, get the second for 5 cents). The only problem with that is BevMo! does tend to sell out rather quickly.

Campo Viejo Cava Brut Rosé

Type: Pink Bubbly
What makes it special:
Dry Spanish bubbles
Plays well with:
Cheese, meats, soups – it’s bubblyA brut rosé is a wine that has had a few hours of contact with the grape skins after the grapes were crushed at harvest. All grape juice is white – red and pink wines get their color from the skins of the red varieties. There can be more fruity aroma and flavors in a pink wine, but to keep it refreshing and light, the winemaker needs to press the juice before too much color is extracted from the skins.

The Campo Viejo has a dry nose, light fruit and good acids on the taste and finishes very nicely into bubbles at the back of the mouth.

Campo Viejo Brut Reserva

Type: White bubbly
What makes it special:
Spanish bubbly made in the traditional French style
Plays well with:
Anything – bubbly is the perfect drink because it goes with just about any food.Methode Champenoise is the process of making a sparkling wine in which the wine goes through a second fermentation under pressure (usually in the bottle) to create those little pinpoint bubbles we bubbly fanatics just love.

The Campo Viejo cava has a dry taste with a clean nose. Some bubblies can have yeast, bread or toast in the aroma. Not here. The flavor is bright with the just right balance of acids to taste crisp and refreshing. Serve it cold with anything you want – sweet, savory, spicy, fruity, salty – this wine can do it all.

Dolce Vita Prosecco

Type: Italian bubbly
What makes it special:
A traditional Italian party wine
Plays well with:
Just about anything, as well, but it did really nicely with the dark, rich chocolate.

This is a different prosecco than we’ve featured in the past. Most proseccos are sweet, with some being sweeter than others. This is a dry prosecco meaning there is no sweetness in the taste. It’s dry like a good French bubbly but not as complex. Nice acids and lightness in the bubbles unlike most sweet sparkling wines. A very good wine for the dollar and not typical of prosecco at all. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Pasadena Pinot Fest – Time to Get Your Wine Geek On

Winemakers at last year's Pinot Fest, courtesy festival organizers

Yes, it’s another Grand Tasting Festival for the pinot noir grape, but this time it’s happening in our backyard, at the Altadena Country Club.

It’s the Pasadena Pinot Fest, from 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 11. You can go to the site to get tickets and more specifics, but it’s looking like it’s going to be a good one.

We had to ask Mike Farwell, one of the festival founders, just what is it about pinot noir that gets folks not only so excited, but why they get so geeky about it.

Farwell is somebody to ask, too. He not only started the festival by having tastings out of his own huge collection of pinot noirs (including quite a few Burgundies – the French region where the grape is grown), he’s one of the co-owners of Noir, in Pasadena, a wine bar and restaurant dedicated to the wine.

“Pinot noir is, by far, the most aromatic wine grape,” Farwell said. “There is no wine grape that rivals it in complexity. It has so many ways that it expresses itself. Sometimes it’s really intense, sometimes it’s really delicate. No other grape has that. No other grape comes close. It’s the perfect grape.”

But what about all the clones (which are what it sounds like, different clones of the same variety, cloned to get slightly different results)? Farwell agrees that might be going a bit.

“It’s kind of fun, but it’s a little unnecessary,” he said.

With around 200 wineries represented at the festival, Farwell does recommend taking it a little slowly.

“I think if you don’t drink everything, it can be much more interesting experience,” he said.

He recommends spitting and drinking lots and lots of water. And don’t feel like you have to try wines from every table. In fact, Farwell suggested making a list of the wineries you like and try them.

We’d like to amend that – not because we disagree. But one of the values of a festival like this is that you can try wines from wineries you wouldn’t ordinarily try, such wines from out of state or from wineries you’ve never heard of before. It’s not going to cost you any more or less, so it’s the perfect time to try something new.

We’ll be there, though only to try wines ourselves and figure out who we’re going to feature next.

So if you do go and find a winery that you want to know more about, be sure to comment below.

Wine Class – Why Learn About Wine?

Welcome to a new feature on Wine Class. These are posts dedicated to all those who want to learn more about wine, or even refresh what they already know. Feel free to comment and ask questions.

People ask us all the time what’s the big deal with wine? Why are people so obsessed with this nose or that flavor or this grape or who makes the best and 100-point scores and all that stuff?

So the first thing we want to point out is that you do not have to be “into” wine to enjoy it.  If you can’t tell a cabernet sauvignon from a pinot noir, you can still appreciate that this glass of red tastes good.

But there are some very good reasons to learn about wine, not the least being that when that glass of red really tastes good, it’s nice to know why so that you can find other glasses of red that also taste good. Or to be specific, that taste good to you, because we are all different and what tastes great to us might taste rather blah to you and vice versa.

Also, it’s fun to learn about wine.

“It’s one of the great pleasures of life,” said Lisa Rigisich, one of the co-founders of the Pinot Days festivals around the country. “It’s one of the only drinks that takes you somewhere.”

Rigisich went on to point out that learning about wine is one the ultimate mash-ups of intellectual and sensory stimulation. You use at least three of your senses when appreciating wine: Sight for the color, smell for the nose, and of course, taste. We suppose you could add touch, in that you do get some mouth feel. And there are audio components – the sound of the cork leaving the bottle, the sound of the liquid pouring and the clinking of glasses.

Knowing about wine makes it a lot easier to deal with the rows of bottles on shelves when you go into the supermarket to pick up something on the fly for a last minute invitation. Or when you’re at a restaurant and presented with a book the size of War and Peace listing a bazillion wines you’ve never heard of and the sommelier (wine waiter) hasn’t either. These things happen and add to the stress many of us feel about something that really should be pretty low stress.

It’s just fermented grapes, for cripes sakes! Granted fermented grapes that can be pretty freaking transcendent, but you shouldn’t feel like you need a degree in enology just to choose a decent bottle for dinner.

But then you might want to learn more, because wine is a lovely thing to have on a dinner table, because it does slow you down after another insane day at work, because it just plain tastes good. And, again, it can be fun.

There are also a couple reasons why you might not want to learn more about wine, chief among them because you’ve got something to prove. Anne had a colleague once who made a big deal about how much he knew about wine, and framed everything in terms of what “my friend Larry” said. If you’re only interested in how much a bottle cost, or how many points some wine critic gave it, then there’s really not much to learn and if you really need to, you can look that label up on some snooty site and real off what the writer there thought.

Wine is not a label. If you drink labels, you’ll discover that they all taste like the glue on the back of a postage stamp back in the day when postage stamps had to licked. We know. We’ve had to lick a few labels to get them on our bottles.

Face Time with the Grape Herders – Upcoming Wine Events in SoCal

People ask us all the time where can they go to learn about wine. Well, aside from reading on a regular basis, wine events, such as Grand Tastings and festivals, are a great opportunity to learn. You can taste all sorts of different wines and better yet, at many of these events, you can talk to the winemakers and learn what went into the bottle.

Now that may seem like a lot of work when you just want to taste something. But as we were reminded over the past weekend, the more you learn about wine, the easier it is to figure out what to buy for, say, that snooty boss or disparaging in-law. Or for your own table.

And this is the time of year to do it. Why? Because all this is one of those rare times when there isn’t all that much work to do in the winery. And if your vineyard is pruned, not much to do out there, either. Which means all the winemakers are now out and about trying to sell all that wine they so lovingly made.

A case in point is the Pasadena PinotFest taking place on February 11th at the Pasadena/Altadena Country Club. While it is Pinot-driven, many of the winemakers who will be there also make other wines. Keep in mind, a lot of these producers are small family-farm businesses, so an event like this is another way to get closer to your food and drink, if that appeals to you.

Outside of our Los Angeles area, there is the annual Family Winemakers of California tasting event in Del Mar on March 11th. This is open to the public as well as the trade and this is where several hundred winemakers will be pouring many hundreds of different wines. The common denominator is that all of them are small family-owned businesses making it a way to Occupy the vineyard, as it were.

But for OBG fans, it’s time for the first Webster’s Fine Stationers tasting of 2012! Coming up on Friday, February 10th – note the different day from our traditional  third Saturday of the month event – we will be featuring a Valentine’s Day theme, and there may be even more cool surprises, so stay tuned.