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Chill Cooling Pour Spout Not a Fast Way to Chill Wine

CHILL cooling pour spout.

CHILL cooling pour spout.

The problem with most giz-watchies and gizmos made for serving wine is that they don’t generally do what their paperwork says they’ll do. But hey, if the manufacturers want to send us their toys, as they did with the cooling pour spout, we’ll test them.

We spent several months playing with Host’s CHILL Cooling Pour Spout,trying to figure out what it does. “Cool, pour & preserve with the CHILL. Just pour the first glass, insert the cooling pour spout & enjoy perfectly chilled wine,” reads the pamphlet and the side of the box. “It’s that easy.”

Except that it’s not. The next paragraph tells you to make sure that reds are at room temperature and that whites are pre-chilled for two hours in the fridge or 15 minutes in the freezer. As in what you’d be doing already. Nor does the information tell you what to do with that first glass of imperfectly chilled wine. You also have to chill the spout for two hours in the freezer before using it. So unless you want to keep the spout in the freezer as a matter of course, you’re not that far ahead of the game. We tried using it to chill room-temperature wine, which it didn’t do at all.

So what does the cooling pour spout do? Not much, really, beyond keeping the wine left in your bottle somewhat cooler while you’re drinking that first glass than if you didn’t have it. This has its place, we suppose, during the hot summer months when we did our testing of the spout. But even then, a bucket of ice would do the same thing. The advantage to the spout is that you don’t have a wet, dripping bottle to contend with. And that’s assuming you don’t want to just leave the half-full bottle in the fridge while you’re drinking your first glass.

Apparently, you can also use the spout’s plug to keep your bottle fresh while you recharge the spout in the freezer. Which doesn’t exactly make sense to us, because you’ll be freezing your wine. Well, wine doesn’t freeze that well at normal freezer temperatures because of the alcohol. Still, you can stopper the half-full bottle up and put it on its side in the freezer without leaks. Hm. We decided we didn’t want to test that one.

Getting wine cooled down quickly is an issue sometimes. Say you’ve just gotten home from work and want a nice bottle to go with dinner and it will take an hour or two in the fridge and you don’t want to wait that long to eat. Even 20 minutes in the freezer is pushing it, but it does work, especially if your freeze your glasses, as well. The fastest way we know to chill wine (or any other beverage for that matter) is to use salted ice water. Salt lowers the freezing temperature of the water, which then transfers all that nice coldness to your bottle. But it does take several minutes.

Keeping your wine cold, however, isn’t that hard, really. You just put it in your fridge or the cooler that you brought with you to the picnic. Spending $18 to $20 on this gizmo to do essentially the same thing – that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Especially when the cooler or the fridge works just as well, if not better.


Local Hot Spot and Why Drink Wine by the Glass

Laurent Perrier Champagne - great stuff!

Laurent Perrier Champagne – great stuff!

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.


Sangria – For the Shear Fun of It

What some folks think Sangria is.

What some folks think Sangria is.

The photo to the left is what some folks think Sangria is all about – an elegant wine punch for parties made from a ruby red wine slightly sweetened with a nice brandy and loaded with all manner of citrus and other fruits.

Now, when Anne read the admonishment that you really should use a good wine for your base, she sniggered. Somebody obviously had his snob on. Sangria is basically a wine punch that originated in Spain. Nobody knows who invented it, mostly because the practice of adding fruit, sugar, spices and other flavorings to wine has been around for millenia. The reason that Spain became associated with sangria, specifically, is probably because Spain is one of the world’s top 10 citrus-producing nations in the world, and lemons, limes and oranges are the primary elements of sangria.

But, see, here’s the thing about wine punches. They were probably invented when some wine steward noticed that My Lord’s wine had gone a bit off and rather than loose one’s position or even head over it, said steward tossed in some fruit, honey or sugar, watered it back a bit, and voila, something new and yummy. And given that folks didn’t really have a lot of the science and tools that we have now, we’re guessing that bad wine was a lot more common.

So sangria has probably always been about making the best of a bad situation, and we’re seriously cool with that. You see, when Michael first starting making wine at home, some of his efforts were, well, less than good. They weren’t horrible, but they weren’t all that great, either. Even now that Michael’s wine is getting really, really good, when something goes off with this batch or that, we’re not thrilled, but we are consoled by the knowledge that we have plenty of sangria in the offing. Bad wine makes great sangria.

And why shouldn’t it? First up, all that lemon, lime and orange juice makes for some pretty strong flavors. Then there’s the sugar and water that you add. With all those extra flavors, if you’re using a bottle that cost you more than $5 to make sangria, you’re wasting your money. You’re not going to catch the different flavors of the wine – it’s all covered up by the fruit and sugar, and brandy, if you add the latter.

So while sangria can be an elegant way to stretch the wine budget for your party, we think it’s all about the picture at the right – basic, cold and delicious. And because it’s watered down (we don’t add brandy), it’s not as alcoholic, either. This is a Good Thing.

What we think sangria is

What we think sangria is

Our sangria recipe is pretty basic and can be varied according to taste. Slice up a lemon, a lime and an orange or two and put that  into a pitcher that can hold a couple liters or quarts. Pour a bottle of wine (red or white – most sangria is made from red wine, but white works, too) over the fruit, add half again as much water, then some simple syrup (or sugar water that has been boiled down to make it syrupy – you can use straight up sugar, but simple syrup mixes better). Chill or just serve over a glass filled with ice. You can vary the fruit and even leave it in the pitcher for a few days and re-charge with more wine, if you like. Only be aware that after more than five or six days, the peels on the citrus can make the whole thing rather bitter, so taste first before recharging.

Have fun with your sangria. Try different fruits with your citrus. Try different wines. But don’t stress because while it can be dressed up, it’s also a great thing to have in the fridge after a long hard day at work.

Wine and Travel, A Philosophic Musing (We’re Blog Hopping with Generation Fabulous!)

At Pacque et Fils winery in Montagne de Rilly

At Pacque et Fils winery in Montagne de Rilly

We’re participating in the monthly Generation Fabulous Blog Hop again. After you’re done reading, please check out some of the other great blogs on Transformative Travel:

The wanderlust is kicking in again. This is no mere “gee, I could use a vacation.” The call is intense and inexorable. It’s the relentless nagging of the spirit, a haunting whisper in the back of the brain, something deep – primal even – pushing, begging, calling. It’s time to pack the bags. It’s way past time to put on all five senses and be anywhere but here.

We take lots of photos when we travel, but it’s more about trying to create something beautiful than to capture some essence. Photographs simply cannot capture the grandeur, majesty and utter beauty of the Grand Canyon. But if we catch the light just right, then there is something new that is beautiful, too.

Nor do we take pictures to remind ourselves of what a good time we had. We don’t need to. We have a photo somewhere around here of a man and his adult daughter that we met in the Zaca Mesa tasting room. Their names are lost, their faces fuzzy, even what, exactly, we talked about for so long is gone. But the joy of the time spent connecting, laughing, comparing notes, debating, that joy remains and always will.

The sites stick with us because they are the first part of the experience – the ivy-covered beauty of St. Emillion, medieval, yet so modern Bruges, Belgium, and the dog sitting in the window over the canal, the double rainbow over the road leading up to Cambria’s tasting room. But we have four other senses, and we travel on those as well.

The sound of a blues harmonica rising above the clatter of an active square in San Francisco, punctuated by the singular sound of a cable car bell. A man in running shorts and shoes and nothing else playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on a guitar, in a square in Sarlat, France. The roar of the ocean and the utter stillness of the Grand Canyon.

The smell of dough hitting hot fat, the diesel fumes that permeated the city of Liège, the salt of sea air, and then its absence as the boat got further out to sea.

The rough nubbly texture of hand-made lace, purchased from the woman who made it, her hands whipping threaded bobbins around pins so fast it’s hard to imagine keeping them straight. The rich feel of yarns at the shop discovered in North Oakland, next to an Ethiopian restaurant, where we had lunch. We also found a market across the street that sold green coffee beans that Michael bought and roasted.

And there’s taste – an amazing pot of mussels in Bruges, thin cut pork chops covered in a dark mustard beer sauce at a restaurant in Maredsous, accompanied by an off-dry pinot noir from Alsace. It’s the food and the wine that stays with us, and we don’t mean on the hips, although Anne sometimes feels that pain. The turkey in cream sauce in Reims, France, served with an icy cold pitcher of dry rosé. It was the dregs of what bistro had to offer since they, like everyone else in town, were making ready to go on the traditional month-long vacation. But it was so good and as Anne’s sister noted, so much better than relying on MacDonald’s. It’s dried sausages and cold, grilled artichokes on the patio of an old ivy-covered winery, sitting and chatting with friends, one of whom happened to work there. Then there was the hot, sweet taste of Mendocino pinot noir that had only been picked a few days before and was going through its primary fermentation.

It’s the moments, like Anne trying to translate Michael’s technical questions about making Champagne for the wine maker at the cave in Montagne de Rilly, France, because the wine maker had enough English to do a cave tour, but not enough to explain fermenting temperatures and what brix the grapes were picked at. Or the look of utter resignation on the face of Anne’s daughter as she got into the back seat of the car and discovered she was going to be sharing it with a 20-0dd gallon fermenting barrel of merlot grapes. Or the horror that night when we discovered that the motel next to the Oakland Coliseum had turned into Raider Nation, and the fans partied all night long. Literally.

It’s realizing that the tasting flight of five bourbons in Bardstown, Kentucky, aren’t just tasting sips, but full-two-fingered shots. Thank the lord we had plenty to eat with that one. Or running back and forth between the buffet and the sports book at the Rio hotel in Las Vegas as we ate and handicapped the ponies.

It’s all that and more.

The wanderlust is kicking in again, whispering, nagging, pulling. Walking through the tunnel at Union Station one feels the deep-seated need to hop on a train and make new memories and find new experiences and taste new foods. Yes, it’s time to go.

Review of “Wine Wars” and finding your place on the wine wall

Mike got really excited about the book Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, The Miracle of Two Buck Chuck and the Revenge of the Terroirists, so he’s writing in his own voice today with a short review:

I know we don’t regularly review books on OBG but we do leave ourselves that “anything that strikes fancy” loophole. So let me own the fact that a book by a wine economist on the global wine market that  manages to educate in non-technical terms and names the names that anyone will recognize is one that I highly recommend and I will be purchasing for my own reading. So the Pasadena Public Library can expect their copy of Wine Wars back on time for a change.

Author Mike Veseth, a blogger at WineEconomist.com and a professor at University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, presents a worldview of wine that OBG readers will recognize as being whatever you want the stuff to be – daily beverage, special occasion or anytime – and that the market will respond to what the consumer wants and is very deliberate about going about doing it. So you should feel encouraged that the pursuit of your wine dollar by the owners of Trader Joes, Costco and other merchants will make them do anything you want.

Veseth’s book as it is an easy pick up and drop text or a great discussion topic for a “wine and wisdom” reading group. Veseth makes the dismal science a lot more enjoyable with or without a glass nearby. It’s a textbook disguised as a a balanced exposé of the global wine biz. I plan on buying it knowing full well that the revised future edition are likely given the speed at which things change. But we stress that wine is a moving target and that YOU know what tastes good to you. Veseth leaves the experiential part up to the reader. So would we if we were writing a book like this.


Calibration Tasting Time, Thanks to Mirassou Sunset Red

2013-06-19 20.07.19Truth be told, we’ve never been big fans of the whole pay for play phenomenon – where companies send bloggers their products in exchange for a nice blurb or review. Blame it on Anne’s journalistic background, where there was this virtual firewall between the content and the advertising sides of the business. Or there was supposed to be.

And then, one of Anne’s colleagues from Generation Fabulous. Chloe Jeffreys, hooked up with a publicist for Mirassou wines and Chloe asked Anne (and the other GenFab women) to help out. Well, gee. If there’s wine involved, we’re always ready to lend a hand.

So while we don’t normally accept wine samples for review, we thought what the heck, and since Mirassou is widely-available and retails for around $12, why not write it up as a calibration tasting?

What, you ask, is a calibration tasting? It’s a way to kick sand in the metaphorical face of wine snobs who think that there is only one way to taste wine. Reality check, no two tongues (or noses) experience flavor in exactly the same way. So if Mike is tasting cherries and you’re thinking, “I’m tasting raspberry. What’s wrong with me?” there is absolutely nothing wrong. Yours and Michael’s tongue just perceive the given wine in different ways. And let’s not even get into what Anne does or does not taste. So a calibration tasting is where we write up what Mike tasted and you compare it to what you tasted, so you know that when Michael tasted cherries, you’re most likely going to taste raspberries and then when we do tasting notes, they will make more sense to you because you can substitute what you taste for what we write.

Okay. So the wine re received for review was the Mirassou 2011 Sunset Red blend, and it is an interesting one, too. For one thing, it’s a blend of pinot noir, merlot and zinfandel. Now, you won’t see it on the label too often, but it’s not all that unusual for winemakers to add a bit of zin to punch up the fruit flavors in some wines. Keep in mind, wineries can call a wine by a single variety name, such as cabernet sauvignon, as long as at least 75 percent of the wine came from that grape. So there could be up to 25 percent zinfandel in that cab sauv, but the winery doesn’t have to say so.

That being said, nobody, but nobody blends pinot noir. For one thing, it’s too expensive. Or folks are just too persnickety about the variety. It doesn’t mean that pinot noir can’t be blended or shouldn’t be blended. It just very rarely is. Which is something that makes the Sunset Red stand out right there.

What we got was a very nice party wine, with a dark color. The nose also presented with some black or blue berry. In short, both color and nose were zin-like without the icky jamminess that Anne so violently despises. Flavor-wise, Michael picked up on cherry, vanilla and berry flavors and some nice acidity, although that eventually opened up after an hour or so and lost the acidity in favor of more fruit and creamy richness. All in all, it was a very nice party wine, in that it tastes really good by itself, but it can still (especially when first opened) stand up to a nice salad and grilled steak.

Let us know what you think in the comments.




Riedel’s Variety-Specific Glasses? Busted, Baby!

The Riedel Burgundy glass (standing) and malbec glass. (The cabernet glass broke before we could get a picture of it.) Yep, busted.

The Riedel Burgundy glass (standing) and malbec glass. (The cabernet glass broke before we could get a picture of it.) Yep, busted.

We love Riedel glassware. The stuff is gorgeous. It’s light and beautifully crafted. It just feels elegant sipping wine from it.

However, we’ve always been rather skeptical about their claim that their variety-specific glasses actually make a significant difference in the flavor of each different wine. So we decided to test the glassware and found out one rather interesting thing, but overall? To quote one of our fave TV shows, Myth busted.

The tasting came about because we were generously included in a special unveiling of the Malbec glass, put on by Argentinian winery Graffigna. Both of the malbecs they served, the Centenario Reserve and the Grand Reserve, were amazing, dry and lush. We couldn’t help but lust after a good steak from the Pampas while drinking them. The wine was served in the new glass, alongside a Burgundy glass and a cabernet sauvignon glass.

The idea, we were told by Riedel’s Regional Sales Manager Melissa Hawkins, is that the shape of the bowl and the opening of the glass direct the wine to the part of your tongue that tastes the wine’s best attributes. In fact, we started with water, and while Anne didn’t think the water tasted all that different or was that much more refreshing out of the Burgundy glass, there were others who did.

Then, of course, we had the tasting with the wine, itself, and sure enough, everyone began remarking on how the malbec really did taste better in the malbec glass. Hmmmm. Well, we wanted to see if we could replicate the results at home, and one of the publicists (whose name we do not want to drop so she doesn’t get into trouble) kindly gave us a Burgundy and a cabernet glass to take with the malbec glasses they’d already given us.

Why were we so skeptical in the first place? Truth be told, we had tried a similar test a few years ago when we found some variety-specific glasses (not Riedel) on sale at World Market. After all, some of our friends had raved about how the wine really did taste different. But something just wasn’t adding up. We certainly didn’t notice any great difference in the wine we tasted in the different glasses we had.

Table set for the tasting event.

Table set for the tasting event.

Now, we suspect there may be someone out there reading this and thinking, “Well, obviously, they don’t have very sophisticated palates.” And we say, go put some clothes on, Mr. or Ms. Emperor. Let’s start with he basis mechanics of the bowl shape and opening directing the wine to your tongue. We checked in with Anne’s cousin, Jim Mason, who holds a PhD in mechanical engineering, and while fluid dynamics aren’t his specialty, he knows and understands them. His thought? The whole bowl shape and opening thing doesn’t make sense simply because you can’t control the opening of your mouth each time you drink. In addition, Anne can’t figure out how something is going to direct a fluid to the perfect place on your tongue when everyone’s tongue is a different size – can you say Gene Simmons?

But what the heck, we tested it with the actual Riedel crystal. We used the three wines the glasses were made for. Okay, we used California pinot noirs for the Burgundy glass, but that’s what was available. Michael did the tasting and they were all blind. He could see which glass was which – kind of hard to not notice that. But we did two of the tests in a darkened room so that the lighter color of the pinot noir wouldn’t give it away. We used several different brands of wine, including the Graffigna Centenaro, all of which are widely available.

The first test was several flights, with a different wine in each glass, randomly assigned. The idea was that Michael should have been able to tell the variety each time he got a glass with its matching variety in it. Essentially, did the right glassware make the wine pop? There was only one flight out of six where he was able to guess each variety correctly, and none of them were in the correct glass.

Jim __ and Dale LaCasella are perplexed, too.

Jim __ and Dale LaCasella are perplexed, too.

We tried again, this time, making sure that at least one of the glasses held the correct variety, and we invited some friends of ours, Dale LaCasella and Jim Vitale, to try it with us. Again, the theory was if the “right” glass made a difference, they’d be able to find the wine that was in the correct glass because it would taste the best. Not even close. Michael, Dale and Jim did get a taste of each wine in its correct glass as a test flight, so they’d know what they were looking for. Didn’t help. They could neither guess the variety and the wine they liked the best was seldom in the correct glass.

Finally, as Anne’s wonderful daughter pointed out, there should be a test with all the same wine in each flight, making the glass the only variable. Here is where it got interesting. There was one glass that did stand out, but interestingly, it didn’t matter what wine was in it. And when we went over our notes, time and time again (not every time, but at least 75 percent of the time), the wine tasted best in this glass - no matter which wine it was. It was the Burgundy glass, which features a wide, round bowl and a relatively narrow opening.

We think we know why. It’s because smell is such an important part of taste. The round, wide bowl creates a larger surface area of wine exposed to oxygen, which then picks up the aromatic elements in the wine. But because the opening is comparatively small, the aromatics are more or less trapped in the bowl as opposed to being dispersed through the air, and you can get more of them into your nose, which then enhances what your tongue receives.2013-04-23 16.32.09

So why did everyone at the tasting, including Michael, all get so excited and swear that the malbec tasted best in the malbec glass? Simple crowd dynamics. First, we were told it would. Then as the tasting went on, someone agreed out loud, then someone else, and so forth and so on, so eventually even Anne was buying into it. No one was lying or faking it. They’d just bought into what everyone else was saying because that’s what we humans do when we’re in a group.

As for buying Riedel, as we said, we love the stuff, but there are some serious downsides to it. First up, it is insanely fragile. You look at these glasses wrong and they break. In fact, the cabernet glass that we used in our tasting broke before we could get a picture of it. Secondly, it is very expensive. We did find a pair of the stemless glasses for almost $30 at Target – that’s $15 a glass. For something that breaks very easily. Burgundy glasses on the site run as much as $125 a glass. Not in our budget. But if it’s in yours, there’s no reason not to buy it. It is lovely stuff. You just don’t need a different glass for each variety of wine.

A Father’s Day Toast To My Dad

A rare shot of my dad, Dave Bannon, and me together, taken in August 2007.

A rare shot of my dad, Dave Bannon, and me together, taken in August 2007.

We’re participating in the Father’s Day Blog Hop with the Generation Fabulous website group. We encourage to check out the other posts below – touching, funny, all that good stuff. But because the theme is “I’m My Father’s Daughter Because…” Anne will be writing this one solo.

My mom has told me on one or two occasions that I am my dad’s favorite of his three children. I don’t know if that’s true. I know my father has always had a special relationship with each of this three children – playing music with my sister, doing the guy thing with my brother, getting into amazing philosophical debates with me.

I am a Daddy’s Girl, through and through. I don’t think that’s made my mother or my sibs jealous. My dad’s loyalty to my mother is rock solid and then some. He and my sister seem to have a pretty tight bond – different, but tight.

My relationship with my father has periodically been rocky – and admittedly wine has gotten in the way. There is that dark side to the love of wine – and pretending otherwise just hurts too much. But Dad and I have come to terms with that aspect of our lives and I think we both understand that in spite of – or maybe even because of – our respective flaws, we’ve grown closer. Certainly our love for each other never diminished.

Since this is a blog about wine, I do feel compelled to bring that into the mix here. One does try to stay on topic. And truth be told, the love of good food and wine actually came from my mother. Maybe it was because she was doing all the cooking when we were young. Not that Dad didn’t love what Mom did – and he’s certainly gotten into cooking and such over the years.

But he has had an enormous effect on how I approach wine. One of the greatest gifts my father passed on to me was an insatiable curiosity and a deep love of learning. I’ve never been afraid to try new things because of my dad’s influence. Some different new grape variety? Sure, I’ll try it. Back when everybody thought merlot was the hot, new thing, I was checking out syrahs.

Dad’s love of learning, in its own way, spurred my interest in science. The fascination of seeing how things came together. And he never doubted that I could get my brain around a difficult concept (neither of my parents did). So when I began writing about the wine industry and found myself on a steep learning curve when it came to the science and the process, boy, I was ready to tackle that one head on, often with the sheer joy of wanting to know more.

My parents were never pretentious about wine – it was always about what was in the bottle, not the label or how much you paid for it. Or didn’t pay for it. I still remember Dad getting all excited about Two Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw) when it first hit the shelves at Trader Joe’s. He introduced us to it. And wine was almost always about dinner.  At least, that’s when I saw them drinking it.

Both my parents introduced me to the joys of good food and wine. But because Dad taught me how to think, in general, it’s had an amazing effect on my ability to appreciate what’s in the glass. Because of him, I was able to quickly learn the ins and outs of how that grape juice got to be wine. My mom may be the one who’s oohing and aahing about how the wine tastes, but Dad’s just happy sharing a glass with me.

To my Daddy – to the many gifts you have given me. Thank you and thank you for being my Dad. Sláinte.

Dinner at Aventine Proves Matching Theory

The media table at the Vino California wine dinner at Aventine Hollywood. Yes, we're in there somewhere.

The media table at the Vino California wine dinner at Aventine Hollywood. Yes, we’re in there somewhere.

The thing about wine dinners is that they are generally pretty pricey affairs, and it’s understandable, since a lot of time and effort goes into planning the menus and matching the wines, plus the cost of the wines, since you’re generally drinking a different wine with each course. We were, fortunately, the guests at a recent dinner at restaurant Aventine Hollywood, as part of the Vino California Italian Wine Classic – a wine event featuring a grand tasting and dinners around Southern California, put on, in part, by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce West.

The idea of the event is to introduce American audiences to Italian wines beyond Chianti and the other super-Tuscans. And trust us, just about every region of Italy has a trademark wine of its own, most of them very good, but rather hard to find here in the States.

As noted, such dinners are usually pretty pricey – ours would have been $60 a person, if we hadn’t been guests and that’s on the cheap end. We’ve seen prices as high as $200 per person, but most wine dinners run around $100 a head. The advantage of paying that kind of money is that you’re going to try a little of whatever is served. That means you’re going to get exposed to some stuff you might have been convinced you wouldn’t like and either find out that you were right or discover a new fave.

But what really struck us that night was how important the food was to the whole experience. Seriously. Italian wines, like French and other European wines, tend to not be as fruity as American wines do, and usually are a bit more acidic. Which means they’re not quite as tasty by themselves. They’re not meant to be. They’re meant to be consumed with food because that’s how most Europeans drink wine. It’s part of dinner. You drink Campari and soda before dinner or Pernod or some other aperitif. You save the wine for the meal.

We started with a Calabrian white, Statti Grece I.G.T., to go with our Arancini and Bruschetta. Now, it’s important to note that there’s only one wine here, but two different hors d’oeuvres, and each had a slightly different flavor profile. The Arancini were fried rice balls stuffed with fontina cheese and featured a bell pepper sauce for its major flavor. The Bruschetta used fried artichokes as its strong flavor, played off the milder flavors of a poached egg, a mild melted cheese sauce and the grilled bread. And yet, the same crisp white wine – reminded Mike very much of a sauvignon blanc – paired brilliantly off both.

There was a Apollonio Casa Vinicola Only Rosso Salento 2011, a blend of red grapes that showed a nose of cherry and spices but was more subtle in the mouth. The radicchio and arugula salad with a mild burata cheese and blood orange honey dressing still worked well, as did the tuna tartar, baby octopus and shrimp, frisée and lemon vinaigrette. Truth be told, the citrus and bitter greens elements were common to both salads, but the seafood was an additional bit of flavor.

Now, they did pour separate wines for the two entrees, a swordfish with eggplant and oregano white wine sauce, and lamb chops with kumquat confit and balsamic mint reduction. The rosé, yes the pink stuff, was a delicious Le Moire SRL Shemale Savuto 2011, but the Alovini Alvolo Aglianico Del Vulture 2008 was freaking amazing – and with the lamb… Anne was almost in tears. The rosé paired with the swordfish, the lamb AND the cannoli with candied orange and pistachios. Talk about spanning a range of food and flavors.

The first lesson, of course, is not to blow off a wine just because it seems a little bland and mildly acidic. Try it with some food. If that doesn’t help, then you’ve got a bland, insipid little wine and we hope you didn’t pay too much for it. But chances are, it might actually be a great food wine, the trick is finding the right food to go with it.

The second lesson is not to get too anal about matching the wine. Yes, a great food and wine pairing is worth a lot – that’s another reason prices tend to be so high for these kinds of dinners. But as we made a point of noting above, two of those wines perfectly accompanied slightly different flavor profiles. It’s about picking a balance and just having a good time with it.

Admittedly, there are those times when you want everything to be perfect and wonderful – an anniversary dinner, pleasing the boss, whatever. But the food and wine are only part of it. The rest is the company – and we have to say, the company at Aventine was spectacular. Lovely, lovely people and we hope to run across them again soon.

Celebrity Wine FAQ – Giancarlo Esposito

Giancarlo Esposito as Tom Neville in NBC's Revolution. Courtesy NBC

Giancarlo Esposito as Tom Neville in NBC’s Revolution. Courtesy NBC

Congratulations to Giancarlo Esposito – he found out this week that he’s going to be working next year. It was just announced that his NBC show Revolution, in which he plays the less-than-nice-love-to-hate-him Tom Neville, is going to be back on the schedule this fall. Esposito has been working for some time, but got a lot of notice playing Gus Fring on Breaking Bad, and of course, Sidney Glass, on the first season of Once Upon a Time.

Anne got a chance to chat briefly with him recently, and he had several questions for her (so we may be seeing him in this capacity again). Actually, Anne wasn’t sure if he was quizzing her or not, he had so many, but we love that in the folks we talk to.

We’re going to feature Esposito’s question about a very well-known label, Cakebread Cellars. This is a very high-end label and the wine is very, very good (Anne got a lovely glassful at a press event last January).

“What do you think about Cakebread’s wine, the chardonnay?” Esposito asked.

We love it. The chard is wonderful – almost a textbook perfect chardonnay, light and crisp with just a hint of butter.

“That was a wine that when it first came out, I bought it for probably $20 a bottle and it’s now $75, $100,” Esposito said. “How does that happen?”

Because while Cakebread Chard is lovely stuff, it was, at one time, way 0ver-priced. We recently saw it online at prices from $29.95 to $39.95 , and, if you follow the ratings (we don’t) they range from 85 to 90 points over the last twenty years. So there’s a consistency factor that means you know what you’re getting in the bottle. It got  over-priced a few years ago (at the prices Esposito was quoting) because the label produced such beautifully made wines that folks starting thinking they were the end-all, be-all. Unfortunately, there is still the impression in the wine world that the higher the price, the better the wine. And certain wines, like many things, get a rep as being very high quality, and winemakers, who want to make a living in an insanely competitive market, take advantage of that and jack up the prices. You can’t really blame them.

That being said, there is absolutely no correlation between price and quality when it comes to wine. In fact, the Melville Chardonnay (at a still-steep $35 a bottle) is at least as good as the Cakebread at roughly half to a third of the higher price. Granted, you’re not likely to find a chardonnay that good at $5 a bottle – and if you do, we want to know about it ASAP. But still, you can find some really, really good chardonnays at $10 a bottle.

So the bottom line is that while we love any excuse to drink Cakebread chardonnay, we’re not going to pay $100 for a bottle of wine. If you want to, fine. Just be aware that you don’t have to. Right, Mr. Esposito?