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.