Ever wonder what’s inside one of those machines that sell wine by the glass? We did, and back in August 2015, we had a chance to see the inside of one at a restaurant show. And then promptly forgot about the pictures.
It was a simple question. Anne’s daughter saw a recipe that called out dry white wine and wondered what makes a dry cooking wine? Or dry wine for cooking?
And as with most simple questions, the answer is… Well, not so simple. We could post a list of types of white wines, but then, with our luck, you’ll stumble into the rare one that’s made in a sweet style.
So let’s start with the basics. Fermentation in wine is what happens when yeast consumes sugar in a juice and spits out alcohol. In most cases, we’re talking about grape juice, but wine can be made from any number of juices, including some stuff you don’t even want to think about as juice, such as parsnip and bell pepper (trust us, don’t go there). In dry wine, the yeast consumes all of the sugar in the wine before dying of alcohol poisoning. In sweet wines, either the fermentation is stopped or the alcohol is so high it kills off the remaining yeasts before it can consume all the sugar.
As Anne wrote in her mini-blog, From the Dark Side of the Fridge, earlier this week, dry wine has more acid in it, so it brightens flavors up. Which is why you generally use dry wine in cooking, as opposed to sweet wine. Sometimes, it will be a dry red wine, which usually goes with stronger flavored foods, such as beef. Often it will be a dry white wine, which is not only more acidic, it’s going to have a lighter flavor that won’t overwhelm other flavors in the dish.
So Which Dry Cooking Wine do I Buy?
All of the above is interesting, but admittedly not a lot of help when you’re at the grocery store staring at row upon row of wines, mostly grouped by grape variety or country of origin, and there’s no friendly shopkeeper within miles to help.
Wine snobs will tell you that you don’t want to buy any wine for cooking that you wouldn’t drink. But while the vast majority of what a wine snob will tell you is, indeed, a veritable load of horse manure, they’re sort of right on this one. Only sort of right.
You don’t want really, really horrible wine. Most jug wines fall into this category (though not all). That makes sense – anything that tends to be overly fruity or oxidized is not going to add the best flavor to your meal.
That being said, you don’t want really good wine, either. All the things that make really good wines good – the subtle layers of flavor, the interplay between tannins, acid and fruit – that’s all lost when you’ve added the meat and/or veggies, the herbs and other flavors and cooked it all together. So there’s no point in spending $30 for a bottle, then cooking out all of the reasons the bottle is worth $30 (assuming, of course, that you got one that really is worth $30, which is another post all together).
What you want is a basic bottle in the $5 to $7 range. The infamous Charles Shaw label from Trader Joe’s is perfectly acceptable for cooking and won’t set you back much more than $3.50 in most parts of the country ($2.50 in California). Red wines cabernet sauvignon and merlot are generally fermented dry. On the white side, you can generally count on chardonnay and sauvignon blanc to be dry. In fact, these are so commonly fermented dry that if they do happen to be made as sweet wines, it will say so on the label. Or should. Alas, nothing is absolute in the wine world. But it’s a pretty safe bet that something labeled cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay or sauvignon blanc will be a dry wine.
Beware of anything that says “late harvest” on the label. That means the grapes were harvested well after most of their pals that became dry wine, which in turn means that there was more sugar in the grapes and it’s probably a sweet wine. The other thing to be aware of (although it’s an older thing that you see don’t too often in grocery stores anymore) is anything actually labeled “cooking wine.” It usually has salt added and is pretty nasty.
There are lots of other wines, both red and white, that are dry, and if you have a particular fave that’s generally on the wine rack or in the fridge, then there is absolutely no reason not to use it when the recipe or whatever you’re making calls for a dry red or white. As long as it tastes dry to you.
Wait. Isn’t Thanksgiving, like, three weeks away? Uh, yeah. So why worry about what wines to serve now? Well, we’re offering an easy way to figure that out. Catch is, it takes some time to make happen. Besides, you don’t want to be drinking three to four bottles in one night, do you? Yeah. Didn’t think so.
Now, the trick with wine for Thanksgiving Dinner is that not all of the traditional foods are all that wine-friendly. Sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, anything sweet, can make even the best cabernet sauvignon taste sour and icky. Think sipping orange juice after a big syrupy bite of pancakes. Blech. And wine experts will recommend all kinds of different wines. Some love pinot noir with turkey, others insist on a robust syrah, still others prefer merlot. Almost any of those will do quite nicely with a turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy.
Our two fail-safe Thanksgiving wines, however, are dry sparkling wines, including Champagne, Cavas and California sparkling, and Beaujolais Nouveau. The Nouveau is the first wine released in France and it always comes out the Thursday before Thanksgiving. Since it’s literally new wine, from this year’s harvest, it’s light and fruity, which does well with some of the sweeter parts of the meal. Plus it’s not so in-your-face heavy. That’s great for those of your guests who are new to wine, or even red wines. Bubblies are wonderful because they are already associated with celebrations and dry bubblies go with just about everything on the planet.
So your options are boundless. And so are all the variations on a theme on the shelf at your local wine store. It’s a bit overwhelming, but fear not. You’re not going in blind and hoping the wine will work. You’re going to buy a sample bottle or four and taste them before you buy however many you need to serve your guests. And you will know how many bottles that is because each bottle has about four to five glasses of wine inside, bubblies have five to six glasses of wine.
Note, we will taste even our standard Nouveau because not every year is that good. It’s not as big a deal because there are usually only two or three brands available. Also, while whites are nice to serve with salads and soup, you’ll probably want a red to go with the stronger flavors of the main event.
For your test tasting, you’ll need three to four bottles of potential wine. You’ll also need several turkey pot pies (depending on who else is tasting with you and whether you’re spreading the tastings out over several nights), a sweet potato and some cranberry sauce, if you’re into that sort of thing. We’re not, so we don’t worry about it. Finally, you’ll need a note pad and pen or pencil.
Cook your pot pie and sweet potato, open up one of your bottles, pour a splash and taste it while eating the pot pie and the potato. Check the nose or aroma, look at the color, but most important of all, does it taste good with the food? Write down why you think it tastes good or why it doesn’t. Is it really sour with the sweet potato? Does it taste harsh on the back of the throat even after a good mouthful of pot pie? Does it taste even smoother and more delicious with the turkey?
Then repeat the process with the other bottles. You may want to do one a night, and have someone help you finish the bottle. Or you can try sealing the bottle and putting it in the fridge and finish it some other evening. If it’s a white, just seal it and pop it in the fridge. Just don’t serve it with Thanksgiving Dinner. Red wines tend to oxidize after they’ve been opened and bubblies lose their bubbles. And whites will sometimes go off.
Once you’ve got your notes, you may have a clear winner. You may not. But that’s not such a bad thing, especially if by the time you get back to the store, your preferred wine is gone. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it does happen sometimes.
No go and taste and let us know what you’re tasting. We can always use a new idea.
Annoyance of annoyances. We’re hoping you’re not experiencing the glitch that’s been popping up when you click on one of our post’s actual pages. But if you are, please let us know, including which browser (IE, Firefox, Chrome) that you’re using.
In the meantime, instead of writing another post this, we’re going to figure out how to fix the verdamnt problem.
The Wine Bloggers Conference last July was indeed a rich experience, with good friends to be made, lots of great information and even more wonderful wines. But there was one problem – and we know we’re not the first to point it out. There was a serious lack of women winemakers represented. At a time when it seemed like every winery in the Santa Barbara region had some representation, why were the wineries owned by women mostly absent?
As our colleague and fellow attendee Alison Smith Marriott noted, this isn’t about being cranky and pointing fingers. We do want to acknowledge the excellent #MerlotMe panel that featured Marisa Taylor, winemaker at Rutherford Hill. Nor do we have anything against White guys – heck, Michael is one. Still, what about the local women, one of whom happens to be a woman of color, by the way?
The thing is, we know this kind of exclusion is not intentional or even conscious – and that’s the problem. Winemakers are a very jolly lot and as a rule do not see each other as competition. There’s always room for another winemaker at the table simply because consumers don’t stop drinking Brand A when they discover Brand B. But because the vast majority of winemakers are White males, very often we forget that there are women making fabulous wine, that there are people of color making fabulous wine. It simply doesn’t occur to us to ask.
Well, here at OddBallGrape.com, we’re asking and it is our goal to feature as many women and people of color in the wine biz as possible. We’re not going to ignore the guys – come on, when you’ve got Rick Longoria talking tannins, you don’t turn that down. But we want the emphasis here to be on the under-represented. Because the world isn’t going to remember that winemakers and wine lovers all come in different genders, colors, sizes, whatever, unless some of us who have a voice remind them. Fair enough?
This post is pretty much coming at you from Anne’s voice, since Michael is a Luddite and doesn’t get all that excited about apps and Anne does. The below video is basically a commercial, but it does a lovely job of showing what the app does.
I kind of have to say this upfront, but the timing of this post is our way of entering a contest. That being said, we would not be writing about Quini if we didn’t like it. Because, really, the odds of us winning a contest are pretty much nil. But since we’d be writing about the app anyway, may as well take a shot at that .0000000000001 percent chance of winning.
Frankly, I’ve been pretty skeptical about wine-related apps. We’ve been asked to review several and I haven’t really found any that were truly useful. The vast majority of them want to recommend wines for us and we don’t need recommendations. Plus, when you consider that one of the purposes of this blog is to help you become confident in making your own wine choice, it doesn’t really make sense to encourage using an app to make the choice for you.
But Quini, which was presented at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference, intrigued me from the get-go. It’s designed to help you write your tasting notes by using the visual metaphor of a flower. An easier way to take tasting notes? Now, that is actually useful. It’s a royal PITA trying to take notes on a small pad of paper while holding a wine glass, pen, spit cup and maybe even a camera, which is what we’re up against when we go to these major tasting events. Usually I just sit Michael down in a corner where there’s a table and I run and fetch for him. But that’s not as much fun for him since he can’t talk to the winemakers or whoever’s pouring, assuming the crowds aren’t so heavy we’re both ready to run screaming.
The good news is the app does mostly work as advertised. You enter the basic information on the wine you’re tasting, or pull it up from Quini’s database (which we have yet to do, guess we’re not drinking what everyone else is). Then you Open for Tasting (press the button), and go through the basic elements from color to nose to taste and everything in between. But it’s the way you do it. Beyond the basic data, there’s no typing on a tiny phone keypad, just swiping up and down and back and forth on a colored “petal.” You can also check off various nose and flavor elements.
Keep in mind that we were testing the beta Android version, which just has the basic family of flavor elements, such as floral, woody. While I was playing with the web app, which I suspect reflects the iOS version more closely, tapping a flavor family pulled up more specific elements, like rose and orange blossom under floral and a veritable fruit bowl under the fruity family label.
Quini also has a wish list section, so if there’s something you see in a wine store that intrigues you, but you can’t buy it just then for whatever reason, you can presumably enter the wine there and then when you’re trying to remember what it was, you can pull it up. It can do recommendations, which are based on the wines you review and how you review them, but you don’t have to use it. Or you can. Up to you.
We haven’t tried the actual version, nor have we really put the app through its paces at a major tasting. But we will. We will.
Speed Dating – we mean Tasting continued. When we left you last week, we had just finished some highlights of a round of white wines – all insanely yummy – while attending last month’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Buellton, California.
Today, the Reds. Like speed dating, you’ve got a bunch of folks coming table to table to give you about five minutes to decide if you want a relationship with their wine. Unlike speed dating, in which the objective is to weed out, speed tasting is all about getting as many different wines into your personal portfolio as possible. We got way too many to write about here, but the highlights included:
The Sensitive Evolved One, the 2012 Ferrari-Carano Siena, a red blend with a deep ruby color and a hint of sweetness, making it a great sipper and even better with food.
Cheryl McMillan, who was representing Ferrari-Carano, said that the wine is a blend of sangiovese and malbec, with some petite syrah and cabernet sauvignon. We noted the screw cap and asked about aging (because wine under screw caps supposedly doesn’t age as well), and McMillan said that really wasn’t an issue with this wine.
“It’s made to drink now,” she said. “It’s not going to lay down for very long.”
In other words, a little flirtation, maybe a short fling, but not an extended commitment. Okay. Oh, and another plus – Ferrrari-Carano’s executive winemaker is Sarah Quider, and the gal who actually made it is associate winemaker Rebecka Deike, who does the red wines for the winery.
Next up, consider the attraction of a Bad Boy, one who is all wrong, but so very right in the moment. Now, meet Alexander Valley Vineyards 2012 Sin Zin. And the fact that it’s zinfandel is what makes it so very wrong, at least in Anne’s opinion. Anne doesn’t really like zins, but she liked this one. The Wetzel Family, who own the vineyard and the winery, have been bottling this zinfandel for over 35 years. Michael really liked it as a more subtle zinfandel (making it all the more dangerous), with an excellent balance between fruit and acidity, and a good long finish.
Katie Wetzel, who did the honors of pouring for us, said that the goal is not to make a zinfandel with the heavy jammy notes, but to also keep the fruit character of the wine.
“This zin tends to be in the middle,” she told us.
And where there’s a bad boy, you know there’s going to be a Smooth Talker, and in this case, it’s the Adelaida Touriga Nacional 2010. If any of the wines we tasted were smooth, this one was it, with a nice dark color and an earthy profile. Good luck finding it on the Adelaida website, though. Anne searched and searched and could only find some technical notes buried under the Trade & Media tab. Think this one was trying to slip something past us?
Finally, there’s the one you’ll actually want to make a commitment to, and we are OddBallGrape for a reason – we love those unusual grapes, and the Urban Legend 2010 Teraldego definitely needs a commitment. Why? It won’t be ready to drink for a few years yet. But, oh, the potential!
It’s made by Merilee and Steve Shaffer, a husband and wife team of winemakers.
“I’m the goddess of fermentation, he’s the god of the barrels,” Merilee explained as she poured our wine. Winemaking is not the first business venture these two have had. “We’re serial entrepreneurs. It’s a little like being serial murderers.”
The wine had an inky dark color, a good fruit nose, dense texture, and strong tannins. Yes, give it a few years, then serve with a good steak dinner. Or something beefy and garlicky. This is going to be a very special wine.
And now, back to recovering. Actually, we’re hoping to catch up with several of the above folks in the future to ask them about wines, grapes and winemaking.
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.
The problem with a good trade tasting is that most of the wines we tasted are not available to the public. Yet. At least, we hope that eventually most, if not all, of the wines we tasted at Simply Great Italian Wines will be available here in Los Angeles and in other parts of the U.S. very soon. That’s one of the reasons that earlier this week, we packed ourselves into the room at a Beverly Hills hotel with about 200 other importers, buyers and press.
It was an event put on by IEEM (International Event & Exhibition Management), a public relations firm that, among other things, represents wine makers from Italy and puts on event connecting the wineries with the people who buy the wine. According to the U.S. Director of Operations, Mariana Nedic, this event included 35 wineries representing about 10 different regions of Italy. In this case, they were mostly from the North, with the greatest representation from The Veneto (which is not Venice).
These days, if you’re thinking Italian wine, you’re probably thinking of Chiantis, Super Tuscans and Barolos from Piemonte, maybe an Amarone or two. And Prosecco. You’ve barely scratched the surface. For one thing, more varieties of grapes are grown in Italy than pretty much anywhere else in the world (except maybe the U.S., but there’s a heck of a lot more land space here than in Italy). So, if you see a white wine called Grecchetto, that is a grape variety grown in Umbria and it is darned tasty.
We’ll try to write more about the specific varieties in the weeks to come, but for now, there are two important things to remember. One is that there is a lot of very good wine being made in Italy and even if you don’t recognize the name of the grape, it’s well worth giving it a try, anyway. In fact, it can even be fun to try wines from places in Italy that you’ve never heard of. A lot of those great little wines don’t often come to the States.
“You have to produce a lot to come here,” Nedic said, pointing out that we’re a pretty big market and growing. Many wineries in Italy don’t produce that much, so when you do find one here it’s a treat.
Secondly, try it with food. We can’t emphasize that point enough. We had tried several wines that we had liked a lot, but it wasn’t until we went back with a bit of cured meat that the wines really began to sing. Italian wines are made with more acids because they’re meant to be drunk with dinner or lunch. So if it’s an Italian wine and it tastes a little tannic (that dry sensation) or flat, try it again with a bit of food. If it’s still tannic and/or flat, that’s one thing. But we’re willing to bet it will be a lot better than by itself.
It’s seriously too bad that French Wine Week, as celebrated around the world by Sofitel, the French hotel chain, happened in the middle of the Fall TV Season Premiere Week. With up to four shows premiering a night for two solid weeks, let’s just say Anne really needed a happy hour break. So when we were invited to the newly renovated Riviera 31 bar at Sofitel Los Angeles (just across the Beverly Center on Beverly Boulevard) by the bar’s management, we went. Happily. It’s just that Anne was too busy writing reviews during that time to report back here.
But we had a lovely, lovely time and were reminded of a significant lesson in the world of wine.
The nice folks at Riviera 31 are working on making this quite the destination for a fun post-work drink and/or evening out. The bar, which has been newly renovated and is quite plush, with lots of comfy chairs and sofas, is featuring live entertainment most nights of the week. They have a special hors-d’oeuvres menu, including some lovely short rib sliders, for $8, and a dish of olives with pitas for $3. The wines are still running between $6 to $12 a glass.
Now, wine snobs will tell you that the last thing you want to do is buy wine by the glass, and in many cases, we’d have to agree. See, the problem is that once a bottle is opened, oxygen gets into it and starts reacting with the wine. When it’s the bottle you’ve just opened to go with your dinner, this is a good thing. All those nice smells called “The Nose” start floating into all that oxygen and you smell it as you drink and it’s yummy. It’s just not so yummy when all those smells have dissipated after hours and hours of being open and now the oxygen is reacting with the other flavor elements in the wine and it starts tasting all pruney and sweet and off. This is often what happens, mostly to red wines, at bars where they don’t know how to take care of their wines and aren’t selling a lot of it.
But at bars and restaurants where wine is a major feature and they’re obviously selling a lot of it, it’s a lot safer to buy wine by the glass. And bars, like Riviera 31, do know how to protect their open reds by either gassing them or vacuum-sealing them. Or they’re selling so much of it, the bottles don’t have a chance to sit around open for hours and hours. Whites don’t tend to react with oxygen quite as quickly as reds do, so keeping an open bottle in the fridge for a night or two isn’t going to hurt it as much.
So if you’re out and don’t want to buy a whole bottle, say you’re just at a pit stop before going to the theatre or after, and you don’t really want a cocktail, and you’re not at a place where wine is a priority, you’re safest buying either the house white or house red. That’s the wine the place is selling the most of, which means there’s less of it hanging around open. You could ask the waitstaff or bartender when the red was last opened. If said person doesn’t know, pass.
The other thing to note about Riviera 31, is that the managers really want to make this a preferred pit stop. Yes, it’s in the high rent part of L.A., and parking will set you back $12 for the evening. But all in all, it’s not that expensive for an evening out when you just want a nibble and a nice glass of wine. And one of the groups we saw the night we were there – Paris Chansons – will be back on November 12. They were really a lot of fun, including some darned good music that wasn’t too loud. While live entertainment can be lots of fun, for us, we tend to want quiet when we go out. The good news is that the bar does have a few quieter spots in the back corners where you can have a conversation.
So while the management was sponsoring the party we were at, we will be back – maybe to hear Paris Chansons. After all, a good bit of wine by the glass is a lovely thing.