On the Road Again

I look at restaurant wine lists as an adventure waiting to unfold, offering something new, different or just unusual to try.

My adventurous spirit got a workout on a business trip to Texas and a vacation in Arizona over the past few weeks .

Texas State of Mind

First, Texas.

Did you know they grow wine in Texas, especially in the Hill Country outside Austin?

Just up the road, along Highway 290 in and around Fredericksburg, they grow Texas wine. I didn’t have time to explore the area, but I did taste one of the most popular wines, Becker Vineyards Iconoclast cabernet sauvignon.

The 2009 vintage is excellent. The wine reminded me of a mellow Sonoma County cab, with a bit of herbal/green pepper on the nose, soft tannins on the tongue and moderate red fruits on the palate. A nice find at $10 a bottle.

Becker Iconoclast


Fine Dinner Wine

I found two wines to recommend from the list at Eddie V’s, a Gulf seafood restaurant near the Arboretum in Austin.

Most of the participants at business dinner started with martinis, but I wanted to find something that all of us could enjoy — an all-around satisfying white wine that would be interesting with ample fruit and complementary to a wide range of fish dishes.

I picked the 2007 vintage of Mer Soleil Silver chardonnay.

This wine, from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey County, is all about fresh tropical-tinged fruit. It doesn’t spend a minute in oak during production. The fruit is balanced by a line of minerality and enough acidity to make it a good match for seafood.

While there was  whole section of triple-digit-priced California reds — all wines you’d see on any good list — I turned to the waiter for help in picking something I’d never tried before. He recommended the Elizabeth Spencer cabernet sauvignon from Napa.

The Elizabeth Spencer was delightful — plum fruit and black pepper — and moderately priced at $70. That’s about twice retail, and fair for a white tablecloth establishment.

On to Arizona

I spend a week every year in Arizona vacationing with four friends I’ve known since high school. We watch spring training baseball, play golf, and enjoy an early taste of spring in the desert.

With dinner out every night, there’s ample opportunity to taste some great food and wine. This year was no exception.

Each trip includes at least one visit to a steakhouse where meat is the prime attraction. One of our favorite go-to spots is the Capital Grille in Scottsdale. This successful, upscale eatery — part of a nationwide chain — has a great wine list that always manages to supply something worth drinking.

This year we selected a cabernet from La Jota and the 2004 Howell Mountain bottling turned out to be delightful. This great Napa wine was big enough to match the intensity of the Grille’s best steak. I liked the blackberry flavors, the oak that balanced everything out and the touch of mocha on top.

The only Capital Grille I’ve tried is in the Promenade off North Scottsdale Road, just a short drive from the TPC of Scottsdale, home of the Phoenix Open.

If you want something less expensive, the pizza just a couple blocks away at Picazzo’s is great. They serve amazing, thin-crust pies, great salads and offer a decent wine list. Everything is organic and there’s a selection of gluten-free items.

Bistro is Best

One of my favorite restaurants — in Scottsdale or anywhere — is the Atlas Bistro.

This small, refined restaurant always manages to surprise and delight me on every visit. There is no wine list. You can bring your own wine — a rarity in Arizona where BYOB is prohibited in restaurants with a liquor license.

If you reach the restaurant empty-handed, Atlas Bistro patrons can choose from thousands of bottles from the retail wine store — AZ Wine — located next door. Service is low-key and unhurried.

If you can’t get a dinner reservation, or just want to hang out, AZ Wine has a wine bar with special tastings and entertainment offered regularly.

Little Birds, Big Wine

The biggest hit at dinner was smoked quail. The serving of two little butterflied birds over lentils and greens was perfect. Juicy, with just enough applewood smoke flavor to cap a delicious dish. My appetizer of veal sweetbreads was tasty, also.

Although we tried several different wines, I thought the quail paired best with a domestic malbec, the 2007 from Clay Mauritson in Dry Creek Valley.

The red wine is sourced from the Buck Pasture vineyard in the rugged Rockpile appellation of Sonoma County.

I sensed tart red berries on the approach and more red fruits as the wine opened up a bit to reveal a nice peppery accent. Only 157 cases were made of this wine, which sold for $41 at the winery where a friend picked up a bottle for me a present before it sold out.

Thanks, John!

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