Blackwell’s Wine and Spirits

We wouldn’t normally feature a retailer here, but we had such a great time at San Francisco store Blackwell’s Wines & Spirits, that we couldn’t resist posting about it.

We were up in The City over Thanksgiving to visit Her Ladyship (Anne’s daughter) and while taking a walk on Friday, we stumbled onto this charming little store.  It’s laid out beautifully.  The prices are reasonable and the wine selection is exceptional.  Yes, you’ll find Napa cabs and pinot noirs here, including some that will please the pinot geeks among us.  But most of the stock is made up of unique gems such as Tavel (rosé from Provence, France).

Best of all, is the staff.  When we went in that Friday morning, Sarah was the only person on the floor.  She and Mike got into an extended conversation about making wine and sharing their experiences, plus she pointed us toward some interesting stuff.  She knew what was in just about everything and explained that every wine in the store had been tasted by the owner and by most of the staff.  That’s important, because she and her co-workers will be able to steer you to a wonderful bottle, no matter what your needs are.

Even as more and more of us get comfortable with wine as a part of our daily lives, there is still a lingering fear wrapped up in finding the “right” bottle.  While it is true that some wines are better than others, and some of us like one thing and not others, it is a little frustrating that there is still so much discomfort among wine buyers.  We say if people judge you on what you’re drinking, to hell with them.  Order the white zin – or better yet, order one from an obscure label.  Sip it with ecstasy (the emotion, not the drug) and let them wonder what they’re missing.

And they are the ones that are missing out, trust us.  Yes, a Napa cab or a first growth Bordeaux can be an utterly transcendent thing.  But you don’t need transcendence every day, nor are those the only wines that offer the possibility of transcendence.  Wine is as much about the situation as it is about the flavor.  A Two-Buck Chuck sipped quietly over a dinner of cheesy mac hamburger casserole with someone you love is perfectly wonderful.  Great wine?  No.  But a perfect wine for the right time, place and person.

It’s the experience that counts, which is why finding a place like Blackwell’s is such a joy.

Blackwell’s Wines & Spirits

5620 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94121-2215
(415) 386-9463

Kenneth Volk Negrette – Tasty and Odd

Courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards
Courtesy of Kenneth Volk Vineyards

Negrette is a true Oddball Grape if ever there was one. It’s not seen that much outside of France – or even within France.  It is a French grape, but if you’re going to find it, it will be in the southwest of France, in the Toulouse region.

Kenneth Volk’s negrette has the deep red, almost black, color of a syrah. The nose has cedar, earth and dark fruits similar to blackberries. This is a textbook example of that perfect balance of acids, tannins and alcohol that create a whole that is better than the sum of its parts. The finish lasted a good 15 seconds after we decided to swallow it.

The tannins were drying and could easily withstand a year in the cellar, in spite of negrette’s reputation as a wine best drunk young. The flavors can stand up to cheeses – we tried some yellow cheddar – and we can’t wait to enjoy it with Brie spread on a good baguette with some dried salami on the side. But a steak might be too much for it and it would be a shame to miss the fruit.
The negrette seems to be available in the Kenneth Volk tasting room but if you call the winery, they might ship it. It’s worth hunting for.

It’s Calibration Week! Start Your Bottles

The winery’s tasting notes called the smell in their wine “gaminess.”  Michael wrote down “barnyard.”  Anne just wrinkled her nose and said, “Ooo.  Ick.”  Someone could have said, “Wow, that’s great!”

All of us would be right.  Or correct.

Tasting wine is an inherently subjective process.  And Napa-centric snobs notwithstanding, any wine you like makes it a good wine.  True, there are certain characteristics that most people seem to agree make wine taste good.  And there are certain smells and tastes that distinguish different grapes (aka varietals).  But the way we might describe a basic cabernet sauvignon is not necessarily the way you would describe it.

So this week  we will be doing a calibration tasting.  We have purchased two wines that should be available around the U.S. (we got them at Target – although we recognize not every state in the Union allows wine to be sold there).  The first is a Fetzer Vineyards, Valley Oaks Chardonnay, 2008.  It should retail between $10 and $15,  unless you catch it on sale, like we did.  The second (coming in around the same price point) is a Blackstone Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

You are invited to buy the same wines – or as close to them as you can get and taste along with us.  On Wednesday, we’ll post the chardonnay notes and you can compare what you tasted to what we tasted.  The idea is that if we say, “this chard has a nice pineapple tang,” and you tasted peach, then you’ll know that when we say pineapple about some other chardonnay, you’ll probably taste peach.  And if you like peach, then you’ll possibly like that wine.  And, of course, Friday, we’ll do the cab sauv.

Now, what if you taste the wine and you taste… wine.  It’s good, or possibly not.  But peach?  Pineapple?  Barnyard?  Bacon fat?  What in bloody tarnation are these wine geeks talking about?  It’s wine, for crying out loud.  Exactly, we say.  Seriously – the genius behind our tasting notes is Michael.  Anne can seldom taste all the more subtle flavors.  That doesn’t mean she can’t tell a good wine from a bad wine – or more importantly, that her impressions of a wine are any less valid.  It just means that she evaluates a wine in a different way.

So the first thing to remember is that tasting notes are supposed to be fun.  Unless you’re judging wines for a competition (something Michael has actually done many times), the only real reason for tasting notes is to communicate something – usually to yourself and/or life partner.

Maybe you just want to remember what it was about that syrah you tasted at your local wine bar that made you want to buy the bottle.  Maybe you want to pretend you’re Uber-critic Robert Parker.  And why not?  He is, in our not so humble opinion vastly over-rated.  It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that you get to choose what words you use, your preferred short-hand, whatever.  Just write down your impressions.

Then we invite to post your comments so we can all share what we thought about the wine.  Just remember, no snarking on anybody else, because all of our impressions are valid.  And maybe we’ll come up with a new way to describe that soft, creamy feeling on the back of the palate as something besides buttery.


Anne Louise Bannon and Michael Holland