Thursday, September 1, 2011

Good Luck, President Medvedev!

Finally President Medvedev said it. Wait is over. No more 2d term for him. No more questions - skip election press conference, relax, do crazy things, vacation all you want, rename Red Army to White, move permanently to Sochi or Miami. Nothing can hurt you anymore because president of Russia never says something like vodka is evil and wine is as good as water or juice.

There are way too many problems with this.

Firstly, beer is the main fighter of vodka in Russia. Never mind beer became an appetizer to a lot of vodka drinkers: it will be a hard sell for wine to overtake beer.

Secondly, dry wine demands some sophistication from its consumers because wine is a foodie drink. Anywhere you go wine goes side by side with local type of food: Chèvre and Sancerre or Schnitzel with sauerkraut and German Riesling or BBQ and Zinfandel. Pairing typical Russian food is a challenge (if you have a good idea for pelmeni with sour cream please let me know).

Next goes simple price/reward ratio: choosing between wine with 11-14% alcohol level and vodka with 40% alcohol level for half or less the price. It’s no brainer.

But don’t stop there. How about selection: there are literally 100s types of different wines – not even brands – which leaves uneducated consumer daunted and lost. On top of that two decent, affordable and well known sources of wine for Russian consumer are Moldova and Georgia – both are banned for import for pure political reasons.

With all these problems I wish President Medvedev good luck. Because some day wine might turn out to be a cure for vodka-loving Russia. But I don’t see just 2 things today: how Medvedev can be a president after this and how Putin can jump on a wine loving band-wagon when he becomes president again. Because even fantastically overinflated credit Putin has won’t be enough to fight vodka in Russia. But maybe, just maybe, it is the one idea that can turn a lot of things around in this country…

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The chicken or the egg dilemma

It happens all the time. We procrastinate by ignoring it or effortlessly solve by not thinking about it. Higher education. Planning vacation. Dumping girl(boy)-friend. Changing jobs. Paying off credit cards. Each time there is a choice what decision comes first. Money for education or a degree to earn them. Plane tickets or hotel reservation. New girl(boy)-friend or breaking up. Job offer or letter of resignation. Buying more stuff or paying off a balance. And whatever choice we make will affect the other one that follows.

Here is another the chicken or the egg dilemma that people who like wines shouldn’t ignore: aging wines. It’s no secret that top 5-10% of (particular varietals of white and red) wines develop into superior versions of themselves with age. While young wine may exhibit some of its qualities the process of aging makes wine more complex and balanced, enhances its bouquet and lengthens its finish. Without climate-controlled cellar (the chicken) properly aged wine is unlikely to happen. And without experiencing the effect of aging (the egg) one is unlikely to commit to moderate to significant investment cellar demands.

Without a cellar you would
  • have to drink your wines almost immediately
  • never know how amazing your wine could have become after 2-5 years or more.

Let me guess that if you
  • are still reading this blog and
  • don’t have a cellar and
  • didn’t go to online shopping to buy one yet
then you are ignoring this dilemma.

How about solving it by having an egg without hatching it (it’s just fair because the egg was first indeed)? I can offer at least four ways in order from more to less expensive. And you are free to stick to them for as long as you can both afford and enjoy it or decide to start your own cellar.

The simplest way to try a good aged wine is spending extra $100-200 at the restaurant on older vintages of Pinot, Syrah, etc. (Cabernet will likely command larger premium). Share your plan with sommelier so that she can offer best choices and you won’t end up with overpriced label instead. Of course you would have to find a restaurant with respectable wine list but advantage is that such places usually offer excellent food as well. Remember that even latest vintage is always behind current year, e.g. today we are seeing new releases of 2007 Syrah and 2009 Pinot Noir. This means that you need to go back to 2003-2007 vintages or older.

Next option is library wine tasting at a winery or buying a bottle of library wine from them. Library wine tasting commands higher fee than regular tastings but way less than a bottle of wine at the restaurant. Make sure it is a library wine and not a premium or reserve wine. The latter are for current releases of select and limited wines produced at the winery. If you buy a bottle and have it shipped you don’t have to travel to a wine country near (or not so near) you.

Similar option is finding good aged wine at a wine store or a wine bar where you live. You’ll get a sound advice (I hope) that way too.

2000 Twomey Merlot
and 2005 Rubicon Estate Cask
can age for 10 years or more in cellar
And lastly, if you have a friend (or friend of a friend and so on) who has a cellar (even better winery) then go for it: tell him or her how interested you are in tasting aged wine before starting your own cellar. People don’t drink their wines alone – at least people keeping wine cellars. Just remember to bring nice food pairing when invited.

Chances are you will discover whole new world in aged wines  and 5 years will never taste the same.

P.S. No need in a big investment into wine cellar that occupies half of your place or make you move to a cave. Small kitchen appliance or built-in wine coolers will suffice. You can even rent a wine storage instead. It’s yet to be proven that 100% of people starting that way end up with wine cellars occupying better part of their house but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My problem with Napa: Where is a picnic table?

To me Napa became “Disney World” of wine country: huge wineries with crowded tasting rooms, overhyped wines and overpriced tasting lists. But these are the things people expect from Napa nowadays: wine tasting has become secondary to winery design, collection of art, wine club tiers or celebrity chef nearby.

My problem with Napa is actually simple: give me something little that I don’t have to pay for. For starters, give me a picnic area where I can eat my lunch and drink your wine if I liked it.

View of Napa from the deck of Opus One Winery in Oakville:
vineyards and parking lots all around
Driving by Highway 29 in St. Helena you can stop by Dean & De Luca Market to grab a sandwich (Have you seen a deli without a table? No? This is the place!). Fine, noisy and dusty highway doesn't make for nice relaxing spot. I’ll go to one of the wineries south or north and enjoy it in tranquility of the garden or vineyard. What, I can’t? Wineries need a permit? And they don’t care to have one (except for those like V.Sattui where picnic area is huge place to consume goods sold at their deli). Things came full circle to crowded overhyped places where I have to pay to have a picnic (by paying I mean buying their food - not glass of wine).

When I come to Napa I do it on a weekday and for one day. I pick a historic winery that also offers tours to visit (like Rubicon Estate, Beaulieu Vineyards, Beringer, Charles Krug to name a few) and leave Napa behind back to its nicer sister wine country – Sonoma.

P.S. To be fair there are few wineries in Napa that offer picnic area - some alcohol-free, some are appointment only and some are not conveniently located. Plan your picnic in Napa using this map. And don't forget: their picnic table - their wine.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Opus One Winery: missing pieces miss the mark

Opus One is a Napa icon, cult wine, part of American winemaking history. It is founded by two men forever linked to Old and New World wines: Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi of Mondavi family. The idea was to create a Bordeaux style blend from Napa Valley: New World grape made by Old World rules. After Mondavi flagship winery became a prototype for so many Napa ventures he wanted to differentiate once again. Opus One became his next venture.

View from the front of the Winery
When you drive on Route 29 in Oakville it’s across from original Robert Mondavi Winery – take a look. My advice is this is all you need. Do not stop. Your time and money are better spent elsewhere. If you are looking for piece of history stop by Rubicon Estate: Mr. Coppola, its owner, did an amazing job of preserving and recreating original Inglenook estate. If you want view of Napa check out Rutherford Hill with its amazing sky high view. If you want tasting then choices are too many… For example, Mondavi other brother - Peter - offers more choices for much less money at Charles Krug.

Their wine didn't register with me. I am not big Bordeaux fan but 2 years later I still remember how good 2000 Twomey Merlot tasted. This didn’t happen with their Cab. If not for vertical tasting of 2006 and 2007 cabs I wouldn’t appreciate 2007 as much (please, excuse my French, if you drink and love French-made Bordeaux).
View from the deck

And, one more thing, WTF is Opus One architecture? I have no idea how they came up with this kitschy, cold, confusing building. It is round but you can’t drive around it. It is 2 story but they hid the stares. It is big but it has few places to sit. The whole thing looks and feels like Stalin mausoleum (if it ever existed) – rather sober tribute to winemaking…

Monday, August 8, 2011

Wine Tasting Tips - Tasting Room

This is the second part of wine tasting tips series. See first part for logistics of wine tasting trip.

  1. Ask questions. It's ok and actually encouraged to ask host questions about wine, wine making, winery, wine maker, etc. If host is too busy or not engaging you can just leave him/her alone but more than often you find yourself learning new things. Good questions may score you extra pour of some more expensive or rare wine or even tasting fee waived. But really don’t approach this from the end of it: you are not asking questions to pay less or drink more after all.
  2. Wine tasting is a social event. It's ok to talk to other guests but be polite: know when to start and when to stop.
  3. Share a glass. Couples can share single tasting so if you feel comfortable to share then do so. Do not hesitate to let host know that you will share and they gladly pour you a single glass.
  4. Rinse your glass when tasting wine especially when going from one type to another: from dry to sweet or from white to red. Some hosts will rinse your glass with few drops of wine you are about to taste - this is even better.
  5. Wineries are usually pet friendly. I am sure there are exceptions but wine dogs are so common in Sonoma that I often see friendly and adorable dog before seeing tasting counter. This is one type of entertainment you can count on when you visit with kids.
  6. You liked the winery – ask about a tour or private tasting. You may receive improvised tour or schedule one for later. It all depends how busy winery is and if they have qualified stuff. They always want you to leave loving their wine and what could be better than knowing where it came from and how it is made.
  7. Tasting fee is ok, but still charging it if you bought their wine is not. Most wineries waive their fee if you buy a bottle of wine. If they won’t waive it for me then I would pay the fee and leave without their wine even if I like it.
  8. Free tasting doesn’t mean you have to buy their wine. But it's highly recommended to buy wine if you liked it. In my view, free tasting is a sign of healthy wine industry so let’s help to keep it going.
  9. Prefer buying wines that are available only at the winery. It just makes sense: you won’t find them elsewhere. Often they are small production and/or special editions worth having.
  10. Compliment your host. You tasted the wine, are you ready to leave. Always compliment your host for the service and wine verbally. But I’ve never seen tipping for wine tasting at the wineries.
  11. Revisit wines that you liked or interested in. Ask your host to taste the wines you liked or thinking to buy. You may have different impression from them after trying everything else.
  12. Winery picnic – winery wine.This is just the way it is. Buying it on a spot or bringing a bottle with you is both good: it’s their wine and it’s all that matters. If you buy then let them know that you intend to drink it here and they pick you one from a cooler (white or rosé).

Wine Tasting Tips - The Trip

I recommend to everyone this blog post on winery tasting room etiquette. “Don’t Be That Guy” in a tasting room won’t be your problem anymore. But there is more that makes your wine tasting trip less of a hassle and more fun. This is first part: tips for planning and logistics.

  1. Plan in advance. As trivial as it sounds some homework before hitting the road is really all you need in most cases. Pick the area and then do little research on Yelp, Snooth, etc. For example, you can search Snooth for articles on “Russian River Valley” or Yelp for wineries around city of Sebastopol or Santa Rosa or Healdsburg. Both will fetch you information on why, what, and where to see in this part of Sonoma.
  2. Do not stretch yourself. So do you want to spend more time tasting or driving? I bet the former (if you chose the latter then go to my post about NASCAR, then try to answer this question again). There are just so many tasting stops humans can do in one day: on my scale 5 is one too many, 3 is good, 2 is perfect. Pick a route from point A to point B and stay the course visiting wineries along the way. There are always great choices. Examples are abundant: Westside Road or Olivet Lane in Russian River, Route 12 or Glen Ellen in Sonoma Valley, Silverado Trail in Napa, etc.
  3. Do not rush. Rushing on a wine country road is a big no. Rushing through wine tasting makes it unpleasant for both you and everyone around. If you spend less than 30 minutes at one place it would be express tasting to me.
  4. Wineries are not just about tasting wine. Often they have nice garden, picnic area or even walking trail and view. You can start there if tasting room is busy or go after to see where the wine you just tasted came from. I have scored some better views of Sonoma and Napa from the wineries’ picnic areas. Examples: Rochioli, Woodenhead in Russian River, Gundlach-Bundschu in Sonoma, Rutherford Hill in Napa.
  5. Start your trip early. Do you like long lines, people shouldering you, and waiting? If you can start early do so. Tasting rooms are much less busy. Personnel are fresh. Roads are empty. And finally it’s not hot outside so the wine you just bought won’t cook waiting for you in a car.
  6. Use picnic area. If you brought (or bought) food then this is the place to enjoy it. By planning picnic in advance you both save money and time. Don't forget to check with personnel that picnic area is available.
  7. It's ok to ask a host where to go next. They actually like this question. Wineries do not compete with each other but consider themselves a part of the same business. Let them know where you are going and ask for advice. I found the best tips that way.
  8. Bring a cooler to store wines you buy. The car gets hot in summer and you don’t want your wine get cooked in it. Make sure that wines are cool at all times.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fan of NASCAR? No? You might become one after reading this.

NASCAR is big in US: only NFL holds more TV viewers. NASCAR stands for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Two key words are Stock and Racing. Stock means that cars look (yes, just look) like regular cars that we all drive everyday. And racing means just that - who gets to finish first. The most fascinating fact about NASCAR for me is that stock car racing originates from very interesting but not so bright period in US history - Prohibition.

Everyone knows that Prohibition gave us organized crime, but NASCAR? Yes, if not for love for booze and Volstead Act with the Eighteenth Amendment it implemented, we may never had NASCAR at all. With illegal trade in booze during Prohibition bootlegging flourished. While northern states had access to Canada southern states relied on their own illegal production. Such productions (moonshine stills) would be often placed in remote hidden locations. Bootleggers had to transport moonshine from there. With police and agencies are after them bootleggers became very good drivers who could outrun police cars.

But getting in a race with police was the last resort. Best way to avoid unnecessary attention was driving regular cars retrofitted for speed, handling and cargo capacity. They required a lot of skill to drive them as well. Even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933 with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment bootlegging still flourished among moonshiners to evade revenue collectors.

During these years car drivers came to love their cars and style of driving and began staging car races. They became popular in the rural Southern United States in 20s and 30s. After World War II ended and car racing was possible again NASCAR was formed in 1948.

The Lawless Years of Prohibition

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mavericks are NBA Champions so let's celebrate with... Texas Riesling!

Mavericks just won NBA Title and their undisputed super-star (and NBA Finals MVP) is German native Dirk Nowitzki. So what's the best way to celebrate? For a wine snob like me it's Texas grown Riesling - most popular varietal in Germany!

Popular choices:
  • Becker Vineyards Riesling 2010
  • Bell Mountain Vineyards, 2007 Late Harvest Riesling
  • Messina Hof Winery, Merrill’s Vineyard Riesling, Texas, 2009

I will have tasting notes after celebration! Go Mavs!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


750ml bottle and just two of you. How many times this was a show stopper preventing you from opening new bottle? If you pour 6 ounces glass you still end up with over half left. But we all heard of healthy French practice drinking wine everyday, right? So what options do we have to save unfinished bottle?

Option 1: do not have one - buy half bottle (375ml). This is also great way to try new wines. The problem: there are not too many half bottles around. And this becomes rather pricey as you pay almost (not quite but close) to full bottle price. But if you find wine you'd like to try or for good price it's the way to go. Stores usually have special section allocated for small format bottles. Buy only 375ml bottles - smaller formats are usually not quality products.

Option 2: have guests over. This is my preferred option but the problem is it's not always available (for many reasons ;-)

Option 3: close the bottle with cork and refrigerate. The chances are it will taste dull and unimpressive very next day. Yes, lower temperature slows down oxidation but not enough.

Option 4: decant to half bottle and refrigerate. I never do this so it’s up to you to judge.

Option 5: use vacuum wine saver. It's inexpensive, easy to use and it works. I use one by Metrokane - Houdini Wine Preserver - and it seems to work better than other models I tried. Few tips - wet the stopper before using it and wash it off after using; try to finish this bottle the next day anyway.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

New Starbucks marketing - Coffee is a Wine?

The pictures are of the latest Starbucks beans offering. I wonder if (a) that really what they are doing and (b) could such marketing be successful?

1. packaging resembles wine label (distinct name, vintage, brand and type (below, not shown))
2. appeals to floral and herbal notes of coffee (wine!)
3. describes coffee in layers of flavor (wine again!)
4. offers pairing coffee with various types of food (wine!!)
5. removed coffee styles such as bold, medium, mild, etc. (wines rarely put their basic attributes such as dry, semi-dry, etc. on the label)
6. the missing piece from standard wine label is a region (appellation)

If Starbucks intentionally decided on marketing coffee like wine it may turn out as a great marketing move. Every Starbucks is essentially a tasting room and there are plenty of coffee snobs who treat coffee very personally (nothing against them!). Baristas would need to engage customers a lot better like hosts in wine tasting (I already see this happening at few Starbucks I visit). By cultivating such culture will they  diversify their customer base, bring back coffee snobs, create coffee market resembling diverse and creative wine market?

Other questions that come to mind:
How far will (should) Starbucks go in imitating wine marketing?
What other products can benefit from the wine marketing model?
Does this model really work for coffee?

Because maybe Coffee is not a Wine  just like Ketchup is not a Mustard.

Trend continues: this picture has been taken at Starbucks in downtown Palo Alto - the back wall looks like wine racks.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Rueda, Borja, Aragon - loving how Spanish sounds and tastes

Yesterday I went to Spanish wine tasting (see this post). They had 2 whites and about 5 reds offered for tasting and plenty of food.

One white and one red won me over so I’ll talk about them.

2010 Esperanza Rueda Verdejo
The white is 2010 Esperanza Rueda Verdejo. Verdejo is a main white grape from Rueda DO (170 km northwest of Madrid). This wine is light, clean and crisp, well balanced too which is not easy for this type of wine. It had complex citrusy aroma and refreshing finish lasting with acidity. It’s a superior every day wine but it’s complex enough to be served on a more formal occasion. It reminds me of Sauvignon Blanc with more acidity. Make it an addition to your summer lineup of whites and it’s a great bargain at just $10-11.

They also offered the same Verdejo blended with Viura grape – Esperanza Rueda Viura Verdejo – I found it a little less appealing but it could be my palate was too tired (or maybe I am afraid of white blends?).

2010 Penelope Sanchez Garnacha Syrah Campo de Borja

The red is 2010 Penelope Sanchez Garnacha Syrah Campo de Borja (85% Garnacha, 15% Syrah). Campo de Borja is one of 4 DO wine regions of Aragon region (aren't Spanish geo names the best!). Garnacha is Spanish for Grenache but it’s really vice verse as the variety is originally from Spain. I am a big fan of Syrah and Grenache from California but its Spanish counterpart definitely held an edge. Its layered fruit aroma made me forget about food for a while. The wine has variety of flavors from coffee to strawberry, tannic (but just enough) and rich finish and perfect balance. If you are new to Grenache blends then this wine may fool you into thinking that they all are as good. Yes, Syrah and Grenache (and Mourvèdre) are maybe the best wines for a buck but Penelope Sanchez is well above average. With a price tag around $15 Penelope Sanchez Garnacha Syrah Campo de Borja is a must have.

How one would talk about wine without food? These 2 kinds of cheese and 2 tapas you won’t regret trying (send me leftovers if you don’t like them). The tapas are so delicious and so simple to make - you'll be embarrassed of the praise when you serve them to your guests (the cooking is not my thing: I like super simple and delicious recipes).

Torta de Barros is sheep’s soft cheese that simply eats like a pastry (it’s not sweet – quite opposite). I have no idea how expensive it is but I hope I can find it and I can afford it because I can’t forget it.
The other one was so delicious that I wish I could finish all they had left – La Leyenda Brandy. It’s also made from sheep milk. Apparently it’s quite popular because I found it on Amazon.

1st tapas recipe: take Quely Tapas Crackers, Spanish Fig Preserve, Foie Gras Terrine, and fresh raspberry. Spread some preserve on a cracker, put Terrine and raspberry on top. The flavor will make you forget about... pretty much everything.

2d tapas recipe: French baguette, aioli, roasted garlic, and cherry tomato. Slice baguette into cracker-like pieces and top each with teaspoon (or half) of Aïoli, one garlic and half of tomato – you are done!

I didn't make pictures - this one is just an idea of how both tapas look like.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Central Market Passport Spain

Central Market runs Passport Spain event from May 11 to 24. It's full with cooking classes, food and wine tasting events, Spanish music but most importantly they have big selection of Spanish wine and it's all on 20% sale!

There is complimentary wine tasting in the store everyday and it'll be Spanish wines these days.

So far I can only say that among all sparklers I like Cava the best for its food friendliness. I haven't had a chance to try much of Tempranillo or Albariño (among other Spanish varieties) but maybe it's the time.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ah! The Sauvignon Blanc

If you like whites it's likely Sauvignon Blanc is on your short list. But if you prefer reds then spring and summer are good time to switch. And the sweet spot (not literally) of white wines for me is Sauvignon Blanc.

There are three big regions for this wine: France (Bordeaux and Loire Valley), US (California) and New Zealand (Marlborough). Start with New Zealand fruit bombs. It's likely to be unoaked. You must try it on a nose (swirl the wine gently in your glass and then smell aroma inside the glass) because it's hard to appreciate without it. Don't forget to serve it really cold (45-50F).

Kim Crawford Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010 is a good bet for its beautiful passion fruit and citrus aroma. Overall it's very clean, refreshing and you won't regret if you serve it as aperitif on a hot summer day.

The best price I've seen is around $12, it likely sells for $15-18 near you.