Smoke Gets In Your Wine

A quick cautionary tale about jumping to a conclusion about a new wine.
Once in a while we will buy several low cost bottles from our local Trader Joe’s. Rosés, a french wine and maybe a Chilean red or something to round out the home inventory. This specific bottle is a 2014 California Pinot Noir from Monterey County.

We don’t know the producer as it is under TJ’s private label. The price was under $6 so not a great risk of grocery money. It didn’t get long for us to notice a strong smokiness in the wine that really got in the way in any fruit flavors that would been present. This was not a smoky barrel flavor but something else and not a good something else.

Being aware of any number of wildfires burning in wine country over the last few years, including 2018, I thought I would consult our friends at wikipedia about any 2014 wildfires in Monterey County.
Here’s what I found: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soberanes_Fire

What does this have to do with this Pinot Noir? Smoke particles can become of part of the grapes as they approach ripeness in the vineyards even if they are many miles from the fire source. It’s the timing that makes a difference. The October 2017 fires near Santa Rosa took place after most of the grapes had been picked and being fermented. If the fires are early enough, they won’t have an impact. The 2014 fires started in late July and weren’t controlled until early October – during the harvest time for Pinot Noir.

So, knowing this, we decided to try different foods to find something that would work with this wine. The savior in this case was regular potato chips but any flavored chips might work as would some really smoky BBQ.

So why are we bringing this up? The long term forecast calls for bigger fires burning any time of the year so this is only one example of a tainted harvest. So, as wine lovers, we need to be aware of the growing conditions here in California where “vintage” isn’t as variable as it has been in France where bad weather such as rains and hail are affecting grapes somewhere each year. So maybe a 2014 Monterey County may not be such a great wine except at $6 when Pinots normally sell for much much more.

But it’s also a chance to make lemonade out of lemons. What foods go with a flawed wine? More generally, who decides what’s a flawed wine? Smoke taints have their fans as do brett and cork taint wines. Staying informed and being aware of a vintage in a specific region may be unusual for Californians but this is normal for the Europeans.

So don’t avoid a mystery wine if the price is right. If it sings to you, great. If not, maybe it’s a teachable moment in our wine education that can lead us to a better understanding of what’s in our glass today. Tomorrow is a different day and a different wine.

It’s That Beaujolais Nouveau Time of Year Again.

Yes, it’s time to taste this year’s offerings of Beaujolais Nouveau. We had to wait until the much-celebrated release on the second Thursday of November to get ours, and the day blew right past us. But got some we did. And we’ve drunk it. And we’re going back to get some more because it should still be available all the way through the holiday season.

Beaujolais Nouveau is literally new Beaujolais, Beaujolais being a place name in the Burgundy region of France. It’s made from the gamay grape, and when it’s made to be aged, such as in Beaujolais Villages, it can be a glorious thing. But the Nouveau is made from grapes that were just picked earlier this fall. Granted, the big release is mostly a marketing thing. But it’s still fun.

We know a lot of wine people who love deriding the tutti-frutti, almost soda pop, nature of Beaujolais Nouveau. And, yet, we’ve always enjoyed it. It’s one of the few wines that work with sweet potatoes (even with, ick, marshmallows). We could never understand why some folks just didn’t like it.

Then it hit us a couple years ago. We make wine at home, so we taste new wine at all stages of fermentation and aging. So new wine is perfectly normal for us.

We started with a bottle of 2018 Domaine Depeuble Beaujolais Nouveau, which was a Kermit Lynch import. It had the traditional tutti fruity character. In fact, it was a good cocktail wine that didn’t need food to be enjoyed. Not only that, it should go well with the range of sweet-herbal-rich-salty foods that land on the average holiday table. Modest 12.5 percent alcohol won’t flatten you like the tryptophan in the typical turkey meal.

We also sampled the current George Deboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau in both the red and a new rosé for 2018. The red was slightly more restrained than in previous years. Still very fruity but slightly reduced acidity. The rosé resembled the red in the aroma but the flavors were similar to a summertime beverage – bright and cleansing without the tutti-frutti.

Of course, these are wines to be enjoyed right now. The nouveau will lose its balance within a few months and the rosé shouldn’t be expected to last into the spring. However, it may  be worth picking up a few bottles for the casual winter meals and save the bigger reds for the rib roasts and mignons.

Riedel Re-Post (and the Myth is Still Busted)

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

This is a redo of one of our fave posts. From April 2013 – A look at variety specific glassware.

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.

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 the basic 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.

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.

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.

Women, Wine and What..?

women winemakers, wine for women
These are the ones you want – not the reserves.

We did receive samples from the winery mentioned below after we had bought our own and did the interview. However, we did not request said samples, nor, we suspect, will the winery’s publicist be terribly happy to see what we have to write about them.

Hmmm. Where to begin? Because what started as a straightforward interview with a woman winemaker ended up touching on a hot-button issue, and, well, we need to address it here.

The woman winemaker is Margaret Leonardi. Last February, she was promoted to winemaker at Little Black Dress wines. We got the press release and thought what an interesting subject. But having interviewed an interesting person before only to hate her wines, we made sure we bought a few bottles from the Little Black Dress line before we requested the interview.

They are a supermarket wine, but the chardonnay was quite tasty – nothing spectacular, but worth the $11 we paid for it. So were the reds we tried. In fact, we were quite pleasantly surprised. (We got them at Ralph’s supermarket, aka Kroger elsewhere in the country.)

So Anne chatted with Ms. Leonardi, and she was quite pleasant. We did talk briefly about how the label is marketed, but that’s not really Ms. Leonardi’s job. In addition, her interest is in making more “serious” wines, wines that are varietally correct (as in they taste like you’d expect that variety to taste like) with more structure.

We are down with that. You see, here’s the issue. Wines that are typically marketed to women are frequently “dumbed-down,” as in they’re made simply, without a lot of structure, which is a really hard thing to describe, but you sure know it when you taste it. In fact, we were discussing this issue at another tasting with wine-writer Corie Brown, general manager of ZesterDaily.com. She’d told her adult daughter, “Don’t ever buy wine that’s marketed at you.”

The assumption is that women buy wine to drink with their girlfriends and don’t care how complex or interesting it is. Well, that’s probably true, since most wine in this country is purchased by women and from the supermarket. But it’s also probably true of most men, as well. Yet, the dumb stuff gets marketed to women, which is more than a little insulting.

So to find a label aimed at women with some structure and complexity, wow. We were quite happy.

Until we received the samples that the publicist insisted on sending after we’d done the interview. These were the reserve labels, so you’d expect them to be even better. The chardonnay was off-dry and low acid, with nothing on the bottle to hint that it was intended that way. Or if it was, we didn’t see it. A sweet chard? What’s the point?

The rosé, made from a blend of several grapes including the extremely sweet muscat, was intentionally sweet but was only helped by the very low expectations we had for it. The cabernet sauvignon was flabby and inoffensive and boring. You could taste an overly soft malolactic fermentation (the part that can lend some creaminess to the mouthfeel) and the slight off flavor from a last minute intervention, which could have been alcohol removal or a rebalancing of the acids.  This is the reserve label and it was a blah. In fact, all three wines were a perfect example of dumbed-down wine.

To be fair to Ms. Leonardi, she has not been with the company that long and she probably did not make cab sauv, and possibly had limited contact with the others. And, again, she did say that her goal was to make more serious wines.

There is nothing wrong with a simple, unstructured wine. Sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed. We just wish that the people who market wine would stop foisting them off on women on the assumption that women don’t care what they’re drinking. Sure, some women don’t – just like some men don’t. But there are a hell of a lot of us women who do care, who want something nice to drink with our girlfriends that isn’t flabby or dumbed down and we’re getting pretty fed up with avoiding labels marketed to us simply because of a sexist assumption.

 

What Gifts to Get for a Wine Lover

What a wine lover doesn't want or need.This is a repeat post from a couple years ago about what gifts to get for a wine lover – or more importantly, what not to get, but it’s still relevant. By now, you’re home from your Black Friday spree, putting your feet up (preferably with a nice, soothing glass of your favorite wine). But that doesn’t mean you got just the right gift for the wine lovers on your list. Or maybe you got the wrong one – sorry about that, but it happens and you’ve still got time to fix it.

This is the time of year when we get all kinds of pitches for wine accessories that almost unilaterally underwhelm us. There are so many products out there that are supposed to “enhance” the wine experience. Trust us, they probably don’t.

You know what really enhances the wine experience? Good friends and/or a really good meal. That’s it. Aerators, custom glasses for each variety of wine, drip shields, wine charms, wine chillers, fancy cork pulls, fancier wine stoppers, all this stuff doesn’t do nearly as much for the wine as the folks pushing them would have you believe, and certainly not for the money they cost.

Anne even ran across an over-sized wine glass to store your pulled corks in. Uh, okay. Pretty pointless, and if you have an active cat in the house, pretty much doomed since it’s top heavy. Yes, we have a special receptacle for our corks, and it is actually a wine serving bucket that someone gave us that we don’t use as a wine bucket. But it’s next to the monster cork pull (which is one of the rare exceptions to the general uselessness of fancy cork pulls) as a matter of convenience, not because we find pulled corks particularly decorative.

If you want to give a wine-lover something he or she really, really wants, it’s easy – more wine. If your wine lover is on a tight budget, maybe splurge on something really nice that she or he wouldn’t normally cough up for. Something special and different, such as a Sauternes, for the truly adventurous wine lover.

And if you’re really unsure, go to your local wine shop and ask the nice person behind the counter. As always, if said person gives you any sign of looking down his or her long bony nose at your utter ignorance, leave. You don’t need to spend your hard-earned bucks someplace where they won’t treat you with respect.

A gift certificate can be a lot of fun. For example, our daughter and her roommates got Michael a gift certificate for his birthday recently. Better yet, it was from a wine shop near where they live in San Francisco, meaning that we’d have to make the trek up there from Los Angeles. How sweet. Not only was it an invitation to come visit, Michael had a blast picking out the perfect bottles while there last.

If you need a stocking stuffer or for some other reason a bottle or gift certificate just isn’t quite right, there are a few things most wine lovers need more than one of. Such as cork screws or pulls. The basic waiter’s pull works very well. Rabbit pulls are supposedly pretty good, although Anne has never been able to get one to work. Electric ones are usually more trouble than they’re worth unless your wine lover has arthritis or some other problem with his or her hands that would make a conventional cork pull a problem. Just beware, most of we wine lovers have a boatload of corkscrews already.

Decanters can be a lovely gift, and a wine lover can generally use more than one. Decorative wine racks are generally less useful, although Anne recently talked with a woman who scatters hers throughout her small apartment for her wine storage.

But if you really want to do something special for your very own wine lover, try a dinner out together at someplace with good food and a great wine list. After all, it’s the being together that makes the experience, not the gadgets.

Beaujolais Nouveau Day and Thanksgiving Wine Pairing

Happy Beaujolais Nouveau Day - it's a great Thanksgiving wine pairing
Happy Beaujolais Nouveau Day – it’s a great Thanksgiving wine pairing

It’s the third Thursday of November and that means it’s time for the Beaujolais Nouveau 2014 release. No, the timing has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, although the wine is great paired with Thanksgiving dinner.

Beaujolai Nouveau literally means New Beaujolais. It’s basically wine from Beaujolais, France, that was still grapes back in September. It hasn’t aged. It hasn’t done anything, really, except ferment, making it light and fruity and all the things wine snobs love looking down their long, bony noses at.

Okay, let’s be real. It’s also about the marketing. It started with a guy named Georges DuBoeuf. He is a négociant, or basically, a merchant who collects lots of wine from various producers and blends it together under his own label and sells it. In the mid-1960s, he started his business and became quite the advocate for the wines of Beaujolais.

Winemakers had been making the new wine for years, but it was only for fun and local consumption. The DuBoeuf came along and turned the release into a media event. Local winemakers loved it because selling wine this way was very good for cash flow. It also got a lot of attention for the more serious wine made in the region called Beaujolais Villages, which you do not want to drink new.

The nouveau is made from the gamay grape and is made to drink young. In fact, if you have any hanging around from last year, dump it. Seriously. It’s not even good for sangria at this point.

But it is great for Thanksgiving dinner. Because it is light and fruity, it’s not going to get all tart and nasty with many of the sweeter elements of the meal. It’s perfect for those members of your family who are either new to wine, such as your niece who just graduated from college, or think they don’t like red wine, like the aged aunt who’s been drinking sweet wines all her life, if that.

And we get that some years Beaujolais Nouveau can be a little rocky. The winemakers don’t have time to compensate for less than ideal growing conditions, so the wine will often reflect that – another reason why the snobs sniff at it.

But this year was particularly good in Beaujolais, at least according to DuBoeuf’s publicists. And since they were nice enough to send us a sample for review, we got a chance to taste it the other night and…. It’s a good one!

Michael smelled raspberry on the nose, but even Anne got a lot of fruit in the flavor. Michael also noted that the body of the wine was rather thin (duh, it’s new) and got lots of carbonic acidity – which means it’s just a tiny bit fizzy. What tannins there were (i.e. that dry feeling you get), were pretty tight, which means it’s going to be great with food. In fact, we tasted it with some cheese and ham and it did very well with both.

It’s also reasonably price, usually between $10 and $12 a bottle. If you can get the DuBoeuf, go for it. But his is not the only label out there, and the wine is still worth giving a shot, either for drinking on its own or with your own Thanksgiving dinner.

A New Name for an Old Acquaintance – Michelle

CameraZOOM-20140212161951604It was kind of an interesting invite, although it took Anne several minutes to decipher that it was an event introducing the sparkling wine Michelle. It was being staged for women and took place at a blow dry bar. We weren’t able to attend for a lot of reasons, but we had to admit the staging of it made us a little uncomfortable, as if Michelle, which was the new label from Chateau Ste. Michelle, was being dumbed down to suit the ladies.

It wasn’t – we promise you that and we were quite pleased with the wine, itself. But the event was going after Michelle’s primary market – women. You see, women account for 75 percent of wine sales in the U.S. and most women get their wines from the supermarket shelves, as noted by wine writer Karen MacNeil a couple years ago in a Daily Beast interview. It’s about the daily or table wine – the stuff you drink every night, versus the expensive fancy stuff you buy to collect or for special occasions. That’s the wine that mostly men tend to buy – and what most wine publications cover, which is why it’s mostly written by and for men.

Michelle sparkling wine, on the other hand, is actually the new label for Domaine Ste. Michelle, the sparkling wine put out by Chateau Ste. Michelle in Paterson, Washington. You may have seen their old black label with gold writing and never realized that’s what you were looking at because it blended in with everything else on the supermarket shelf. One thing about the new label is that it definitely pops. In fact, that’s how Anne spotted it so quickly at our local Trader Joe’s for only $8.99 (prices may vary in your part of the country). We found it again at a local BevMo (for $10.99), and we found it easily, even though it was on a lower shelf. Better yet, for the label, we weren’t expecting to find it at TJ’s or even looking for a sparkling wine when we saw it.

CameraZOOM-20140212161935306

 

We were sent a couple bottles for review, both the brut and the brut rosé and here’s the really good news – it is one nice sparkler. The taste is smooth, it’s méthode champenoise, with all of the elegance that style creates. It’s just a darned good little wine for a darned good price. And like all sparklers, it goes with everything. The rosé is a little fruitier, but otherwise, it has a lot of the the richness and subtlety that a good Champagne has.

So give it a shot. You don’t even have to be a woman to buy it, but you’ll probably find it at your local supermarket and not a fancy wine shop. Too bad, because it’s just as good as anything from the wine shop.

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.