Archive for December, 2010

New Year’s Recommendations

December 31, 2010

I’ve got some advice to dish out for end-of-the-year celebrations and beyond, especially if your wallet is still stuck in recession mode.

Stocking up for a big party, but working with a tight budget and don’t know what sparkling wine to buy?

There are lots of good California-grown options for bubbly, but this year I’d recommend trying a newcomer from a good source of bargain wines — Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi.

2009 Brut Woodbridge by MondaviThis 2009 brut sparkling wine is part of the value brand that the Mondavi family created to counterbalance its Napa Valley lineup of higher priced varietal wines.

Mondavi has never been a major player in sparkling wine circles, but it’s putting a nice first foot forward with an all-chardonnay sparkler made from grapes grown mostly in the Lodi appellation.

No one is going to be fooled into thinking this is fine French champagne, but for a big crowd, this wine will get the job done at a price that won’t blow your budget out of the water.

Suggested retail is $10 a bottle, but you can probably find it on sale for a buck or two less at any large liquor outlet and/or supermarket. In fact, on the Mondavi Woodbridge website, you can buy this sparkler at a 20 percent discount.

This is a good sipping wine. There’s a bit of citrus edge on approach and a bit of creaminess on the tongue. It’s not sharp or too acidic, like some low-priced sparklers, nor is it too sweet — making it a good foil for most lighter-flavored appetizers.

Good to Go, in a Box

I’ve been searching for a good boxed wine from California, and until recently I hadn’t really found one to recommend. That changed when I got a box of It reserve chardonnay for review.

The first thing I noticed was the color. The wine practically glows golden-yellow in the glass. And, it tastes good.

Like the sparkler above, this is an all-chardonnay wine grown in Lodi. There’s a nice touch of oak to complement the fresh citrus taste.¬† It also has a touch of pineapple that’s quite pleasant in the mouth.

Retail price is about $16 for a three-liter box, which works out to $4/bottle. A great bargain for a decent wine that would work great with appetizers or by itself.

The boxed wine is the brainchild of a company called pl360 Beverages in Colorado, which has also developed a lineup of wine brands from Germany, Spain and Argentina.

Soon-To-Be-Released Red

Urban Legend Cellars in Oakland has a whole new lineup of wines since my last review. I recently re-visited the winery, in an industrial area near Jack London Square (621 4th Street) and got an opportunity to try some of the newest offerings.

It was love at first taste when I tried the unreleased Urban Legend 2009 grenache ($25) from Amador County. I’ve liked other wines from this region, mostly zinfandel and syrah, but this lovely grenache takes the cake.

It’s a smooth, medium-bodied red wine full of cherry flavors with just a tiny bit of tannic edge to keep the fruit in check.

The grenache is tasting great now and I believe it will only get better with a bit more bottle age. Check with the winery for release dates.


One Red, One White

December 17, 2010

I’m writing about two different wines that are both likable in different ways.

One is a bargain white from the Central Coast that I’d passed over many times in the aisles at my local grocery store before finally getting a sample from the winery. The second is a red wine from a Napa Valley namesake that’s been crafting great wines for more than three decades. An old favorite, re-discovered.

Napa Standout

The 2007 Franciscan Estate cabernet sauvignon is a bargain of another sort. You can find it for less than $20 a bottle, but I’d gladly put it up against wines at twice the price and be confident of a good showing.

Early on in the game, this winery decided to divide its estate vineyards into blocks and then blended the resulting wines made from each section to achieve an end product that was greater than the simple sum of its parts. Mostly cooler climate locations within the valley also contribute to the wine’s nuance, according to Franciscan.

Get or Give

You could make any cabernet lover I know happy if you stashed this sophisticated selection under their Christmas tree.

I liked this wine from the initial taste, which showed some fine-grained tannins tempered by cassis and a bit of oak. It got better and better in the glass, revealing a lovely slightly tart cherry streak an hour after the bottle was opened. It held up well against a slice of thin-crusted pizza with salami and black olives.

The white is a chardonnay that I’d happily pour for friends who’d appreciate a great tasting white wine without a great pedigree or prohibitive price tag.

Silly Name, Seriously Good

Nevermind the silly name, the 2009 Cupcake Vineyards chardonnay scores points for low price (less than $10 on sale) and a creamy texture, citrus backbeat and smooth upfront flavors of apple and tropical fruit. There’s just a whiff of sweetness, but that’s just the fruit talking. And I liked what I heard, or should I say, tasted.

This wine makes a great aperitif, but it would also go great with chicken pot pie or a turkey sandwich. I enjoyed a glass with a hunk of rustic sourdough bread and a slice of sharp cheddar cheese. A second glass proved just as good as the first, with a bit of warming in the glass bringing out more of the tropical nuances with just a hint of butterscotch.

Holiday Sparklers to Suit the Season

December 10, 2010

Somewhere in the wave of sparkling wine to be opened this holiday season floats several really good bottles that won’t bust your budget but will definitely tickle your tastebuds.

It’s easy to buy prestige with the big names in Champagne, where luxury cuvees all carry triple-digit price tags. I’m talking Dom Perignon, Cristal, Krug and Salon — the wines you see on the tables of royalty and in the hands of rich rappers.

Got an unlimited budget?

It’ll take $3,500 to secure a bottle of the most exclusive champagne in the world, Krug’s $3,500 Clos d’Ambonnay.

Almost all champagnes are blends of wines from different vineyards, often dozens or even hundreds of lots of wine are used. The juice for this ethereal Krug wine, however, comes from a hallowed 1.3 acre pinot noir vineyard in the heart of Champagne.

Bubbles on a Budget

For that same outlay of cash, you could buy cases and cases of some really tasty sparkling wine. It just doesn’t say Champagne on the label.

California makes good sparkling wine, including some decent bargain bottles produced by French wine companies that have set up shop in Napa (Domaine Chandon, Mumm Napa and Domaine Carneros by Taittinger) and Mendocino (Roederer Estate). Entry-level sparklers from these companies are good and easy to find at prices from $15-$20.

European Bargains

When it comes down to real values, however, I look overseas at France and Spain for great buys in sparkling wines. I even found an interesting all pinot noir bubbly from Austria that delivers a great price-to-value ratio.

What’s a Hugo?

I wouldn’t normally look to Austria for sparkling wine, but Alameda Wine Company owner Karen Ulrich got me to try the Markus Huber Hugo rose’ ($15.50) and I was hooked from the first sip. This Austrian all-pinot noir wine was creamy with a touch of strawberry fruit that shone through a stream of small bubbles. I’d love to try it with a grilled salmon filet or anything in cream sauce.

Care for Cava?

I can also recommend a very nice cava (Spanish sparkling wine) that gives non-vintage champagne a real run for the money. The Barcino brut is characteristically dry and delightful. It shows pale straw colors with a lingering string of fine bubbles in the flute.

There’s just enough fruit to balance the acidity of this wine, which is made from xarel-lo, macabeo and parellada¬† — three traditional Spanish grapes. The Barcino is made in the champenoise method, meaning it’s fermented in the bottle like champagne. It sells for $16 at Alameda Wine Company.

Alsation Sensation

My personal favorite in European sparkling wines that are not champagne comes from Alsace.

The cremant d’Alsace rose is a non-vintage wine made by Domaine Allimant Laugner. You can find this all pinot noir offering at good wine shops for less than $20.

I’ve enjoyed multiple bottles over the years, and never been disappointed with this sparkling wine’s creaminess and its nice touch of pear fruit.

Cork This!

December 3, 2010

As the season of giving approaches, I looked in a different direction this week for blogging inspiration — giving back.

What are you supposed to do with a bad bottle of wine?

Bad Signs

Wine is an agricultural product, subject to variations of geography, geology, weather, growing practices, production methods, storage conditions and maturity. Sometimes, even a good product can turn bad.

Poor handling, extreme weather and fouled closures (like tainted corks) can all adversely affect the final product, which is also also evolving over time through the aging process.

Serious problems usually don’t present themselves until the bottle is opened, the wine is poured and the taste and smell indicate there’s an issue. By then, you’re committed. Right?

Not so fast.

While the odds of getting a tainted bottle of wine are not very high, it does happen. I’ve had only one personal experiences in restaurants with a purchased wine that was spoiled.

The two major failures are caused by oxidation and spoiled/tainted corks.


Oxidation literally means the addition of oxygen, which over time will interact with the wine and make it degrade.

If the closure is damaged, or if a natural cork dries out and shrinks, oxygen seeps into the bottle and the wine begins to spoil. If you have ever left an open bottle of wine in the refrigerator for more than a week, you know what I’m talking about. It tastes stale, maybe musty. Sometimes, there’s the flavor of overcooked fruit.

TCA — Tainted Cork

Corks can be tainted at the microbial level by TCA, 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. The offending process that produces TCA commences when an airborne fungus combines with chlorophenal compounds that may come from pesticides and wood preservatives.

The presence of TCA is not harmful, health-wise, but it does produce unpleasant odors. Think wet newspapers or that wet dog smell and you get a pretty good idea of how bad it can be.

Bad Wine or Bad Winemaking

It’s not enough to not like the wine. If it’s not to your taste, that’s part of the risk you take upon ordering an agricultural product with seasonal, regional and varietal characteristics that may not appeal to you.. The wine may not be to your taste, but that’s not a good enough reason to demand your money back or exchange it for something else.

Modern winemaking methods have substantially reduced the risks, but some stinkers occasionally sneak through.

Some obvious signs of trouble ahead are discoloration, corks that have pushed up from the lip of the bottle, seepage and low fill line or ullage. Ullage is literally the empty space at the top of an unopened bottle. The lower the level, the higher the possibility of problems.

You’ll see ullage levels included in wine auction descriptions of older wines, as an indicator of quality.

Send It Back!

The first time I encountered a bad bottle was in a well-regarded restaurant in my hometown of Memphis. I was in my 20s and not a very sophisticated food or wine person.

Nevertheless, when I ordered an expensive bottle of red wine and it was brought to the table, the cork disintegrated upon opening.

The wine was spoiled and had an unpleasant odor. I was inexperienced, but I knew something was terribly wrong. I gathered up my courage and complained to the waiter. This wine was not right and I wanted another bottle.

He was resistant, sniffing the wine himself and insisting that it was fine. I asked for the manager, who finally agreed to send over another bottle.

The waiter removed the bad bottle and walked away. I saw him stop at the serving station and decant the bad bottle into a carafe, using a coffee filter to remove the bits of cork. Then, he brought the same wine to the table in the carafe. He’d missed a few pieces of cork, which floated in the carafe.

I was outraged, but really didn’t know what my rights were. I told the waiter I’d seen what he did and refused to pay for the bad bottle of wine.

He insisted the wine was fine and that dissatisfaction was due to tasting inexperience, not spoilage. I didn’t know what else to do, so I paid the tab, but didn’t leave a tip.

That was the last time I ever visited that restaurant, which has long since closed. But I never missed the chance to tell anyone who asked for a restaurant recommendation to look elsewhere.

The cost of insisting on serving a bottle of bad wine? A tarnished reputation spread by word-of-mouth or, today, via the Internet.

What You Should Do

If you think you have a bottle of bad wine, first take a few minutes to let the wine breathe. Sometimes, off odors will “blow off” or diminish in a few minutes.

Give the wine a few minutes to show its true colors. If you still think it’s bad, then get the waiter (or better yet the sommelier /wine steward, if the establishment has one) and describe the problem. Ask him/her to smell and taste the wine.

A competent taster will be able to identify a bad wine right away. If the server or sommelier disagrees with your assessment, ask for the manager.

A top-notch restaurant should placate a customer’s wishes and replace a bad bottle, if it’s truly bad, but there’s no law that requires it. A retail shop or wine store might refund your money, or replace an obviously damaged wine, but again there’s no obligation to do so.

Older wines are more susceptible to problems, but younger wines can also be affected.

Let the buyer beware.