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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Trader Wine: Pairing Trader Joe’s Most Popular Foods with Wine

The first Trader Joes opened in South Pasadena in 1967 and today there are 464 stores across 41 states. Of course, wine has been around a lot longer, and with the popularity of Trader Joe’s easy format food, you need wines to match. So I looked at the most popular items purchased at Trader Joes and picked the best wines to go with them.

2015 Apothic Red + Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups  
Why it Works: Apothic, a jammy blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot has a touch of residual sugar and this slight sweetness works with not only with the semi sweet chocolate but the creamy peanut butter as well, striking a balance. Since Apothic is not totally dry the black cherry and blackberry characteristics find a companion in the not overtly sweet peanut butter cups, and the combo is like pb&j.
How To Work It: Apothic should be slightly chilled with the peanut butter cups at room temperature.
(Bonus Tip: Chill the PB cups in the fridge for an added decadent sensation).

2015 Amici Sauvignon Blanc + Mandarin Orange Chicken
Why it Works: Amici is that classic Napa Sauvignon Blanc; light, bright, herbaceous, with pear, lemon-lime and hints of passion fruit, stainless steel fermented, slightly creamy and great on acidity. By contrast the chicken glaze is a mildly sweet thick orange and ginger sauce and the bright citrus notes of the wine make all the flavors come alive. The sweet of the glaze enhances the herbal and citrus of the wine.
How To Work It: Keep the Sauvignon Blanc chilled and use minimal glaze. Too much and the sweetness overtakes everything.
(Bonus Tip: Add fresh cut scallions to enhance the wine and food).

2013 Cadaretta Cabernet Sauvignon + Wood Fired Naples-Style Uncured Pepperoni Pizza
Why it Works: From Washington State comes this earthy Cabernet that explodes with black berry, black cherry, sweet vanilla and mild acidity and since the pepperoni here is uncured (less salty), you get a more mild iteration of the meat along with a zesty red sauce. Therefore the Cabernet compliments the pizza and the subtle wood-fired crust, almost like a campfire note, to make the wine even more expressive.
How To Work It: The pizza can either be warm or cold, but the wine needs to be
at room temperature.
(Bonus Tip: Top the pizza with fresh basil for herbaceous notes).

Decoy 2016 Sonoma County Chardonnay + Soy Chorizo
Why it Works: This Decoy is 100% Chardonnay and 90% stainless steel fermented giving it a bright acidity which works in alignment with the spicy nature of this vegan chorizo, not in contrast to it. Therefore you get a hearty palate full of flavors. From there you can decide on using the chorizo as a nacho topping, in a taco, on a salad. The citrusy zesty chardonnay slightly heightens the earthy spice.
How To Work It: This pairing is best when the chorizo is hot, as long as the Chardonnay is super cold.
(Bonus Tip: Mix cold sour cream with the hot chorizo).

2014 Stoke’s Ghost Petite Sirah + Hatch Mac ‘n Cheese
Why it Works: Sustainably-farmed Petite Sirah from Hames Valley Vineyard in the southern part of Monterey County produces jammy fruit, boysenberry, black cherry, huckleberry with mild tannins and acidity, which in turn allows the slight spiciness of the Hatch chilies to be showcased. The creamy, cheesy, gooey dish is enhanced by the berry flavor and acidity of the wine.
How To Work It: This works best when the food is hot and the wine is slightly chilled.
(Bonus Tip: Sprinkle smoked paprika on the Mac for an earthier dynamic).

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Flipping You The Bird: Improper Wines For Thanksgiving

There is this weirdly compulsive thing these days to pair wine with your food, as if searching for and experiencing the “perfect pairing” is tantamount to Indian Jones discovering the Covenant of the Ark. Yes, I admit I’ve written about that too (uh, the pairings, not the Ark), and certainly wine and food are crucially important – not to mention I’ve reviewed restaurants professionally for a decade. The point being…drink whatever the hell you want with whatever the hell you want to eat. No more elusive pairings and “ideal” wine for turkey day. Having said that…I would like to see these wines on your table.

2014 IL Tascante
Soft and quiet, this is not a loud wine; it’s understated and you’ve probably never had this grape before – Nerello Mascalase. Grown on volcanic soils on the north-east slope of the volcano Mt. Etna in Sicily, there is an earthiness, a mineral note, a chalkiness with this wine. There is muted raspberry, cranberry, and rhubarb with back notes of Bing cherry. Though aged in Slovenian oak barrels for 18 months, you hardly notice any oak at all, more a testament of the lithe but structured fruit. And it is this subtleness that makes this wine so compelling. Well, that and the fact the family has been doing the wine thing for two centuries. ($50)

2015 Sonoma-Loeb Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch
Out of the Russian River Valley the good folks at Sonoma-Loeb turn out a lot of great wine and this Pinot, from a well-established vineyard is part of a great lineage. All Pinot all the time this make-up of clones 667, 777 and 115 was fermented using native yeast and aged for just 11 months in French oak. 11 months is correct because you don’t want this beautiful fruit to get lost in some kind of cedar box. Black cherry, red currant, candied cranberry, star anise, cola and soft baking spices round out this rich, but pure iteration of Pinot. Great acidity and mild tannins make this work with damn near whatever you put on the table, or, better yet, get some cheese and have at it. ($40)

2016 Ritual Chardonnay
Chardonnay, again, really? Yes, really. This bright crisp Chardonnay from Chile is expressive, young, and fresh with a tanginess and food-worthy acidity. You’ll easily pick up on the lemon curd, kiwi, gooseberry, lime kefir, and green apple notes, and more subtly the hazelnut, mango and quince. The fruit hails from the Casablanca Valley, just 18 miles from the coast, and is whole cluster fermented in concrete eggs (which helps immensely with viscosity) and then gets a wee bit of oak time, so you’re left with a robust white wine that plays well with others. ($21.99)

2016 Steele Viognier
Viognier, the odd named grape most people mispronounce, is one of those, cool-if-it’s-done-right wines. And Jed Steele does it right. All the way from Lake County, this offers lychee, honeysuckle, Meyer lemon, lime curd and sugared almond. A beautiful viscosity and silkiness makes the floral components of this wine that much more provocative. It’s fermented in stainless steel so it retains a bright buoyancy but is not too heavy and flowery. A mere four month of oak time allows this wine to achieve a balance of fruit, acidity and wood. ($19)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Welcome to Cuban Rum: Now Go Home

Rum is not just for pirates. Rum has a history dating to the 1600s around the Caribbean including Cuba, and I’m sure some pirate somewhere was drinking rum and the image stuck. Yes, Captain Morgan was a real guy, but the cartoony image was created only in the 1940s. Anyhow, Cuba is no stranger to rum either, given their vast sugarcane plantings. So when in Havana, and on a budget, what to do? These rums are not sipping rums, they are average liquor store bought rums, simple but effective, flavorful and enticing in their own right. The rums here are all 375 ML and will pack easily into your suitcase (yes, please declare them) for your trip back to the States.

Havana Club Añejo Especial
Light and sweet, this rum is all caramel and butterscotch, cedar, roasted almonds, resin, campfire smoke, and toffee. This is a pretty basic rum, and not overly balanced. Fine for a mixer with a kick, it’s sweet and sugary. (40% ABV)

Havana Club Añejo Reserva
A more mature expression of the Especial, with more time in wood aging. Therefore the caramel and butterscotch notes - think Werther’s Originals – is richer. The nutty aspect begins to fade out and there are thick caramel notes, but over a short amount of time the toffee notes become more pronounced. (40% ABV)

Santiago de Cuba Añejo
A softer entry on the palette, there is mature honey suckle, resin, slight citrus notes as well as mild butterscotch and lemon zest. This offers a silkier viscosity, charred campfire wood, almost a subtle bitterness and certainly less sweet. (38% ABV)

Ron Cubay Añejo
More lithe and subtle, there is a maturity here, less of a mixer than the other rums listed. A potent brown sugar note is followed by burnt caramel and campfire smoke, English Toffee and toasted almonds. The best of the group as a stand alone rum to drink neat. (38% ABV)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Odessa Brandy - Calling Card of Ukraine

In 1863 America was in the midst of the Civil War. Meanwhile in Ukraine, the Shustov distillery in Odessa was built and was starting to make brandy. Shustov is still the largest brandy distillery in Europe, employing 350 people, with the potential to produce up to 30 million liters annually. That might seem like a lot of brandy but Ukrainians have a palate and history with it, consuming about 50,000 cases annually. The grapes used for Odessa brandy are grown in the Odessa region including Ugni Blanc (typical of Cognac), Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, grown right on their property.

I visited with Eduard Gorodetskyi, the CEO of the Odessa Brandy a few months back, whose brandy is available in the U.S. and distributed by Global Spirits. “We cannot compete against the market share held by the large Cognac houses of France but we can compete on quality and taste,” he tells me. In order to compete they distill 5% of the wine on the lees to create a silkier texture. 

Eduard Gorodetskyi
Ukrainian law requires three years minimum aging, and they use oak from France, Ukraine and Hungary. Typically they age 15,000 barrels in seven locations with their oldest barrels dating to 1966. They also make limited series production brandies strictly for the Ukraine including a stunningly good 37-year aged brandy, among many others with limited availability in just Ukraine and/or the EU. The nose of Odessa brandy is initially one of caramel and butterscotch, charred wood, vanilla, cedar, and sugared almonds. On the palate light spice and floral notes abound with butter toffee and brown sugar on the back notes. This is not a complex aged Brandy but considering the price this is very enjoyable, preferably neat.

ORIGIN: Odessa, Ukraine
PRICE: $10/ 750ML
A 1909 Shustov Brandy ad in the local Ukraine newspaper

Monday, October 30, 2017

Kit Kat Port: A Sweet Little Halloween

This time of year people always want to pair wine and Halloween candy. The problem is that most wines are not very combatable. Sugar affects the palate with most wines giving the wine - red or white - a bitter, muted taste. But Portugal comes to the rescue. Fortified wine like Ports or late harvest wines have enough sugary girth to work with candy, surprisingly balancing out the overt sweetness of the candy itself.

Dow’s 2011 Late Bottled Vintage Port & Kit Kats
Kit Kats have an immediate milk chocolate note and you don’t get the crispness until you eat it, which is less flavor and more texture.
Dow’s LBV Port from Portugal offers up muted berry flavors like red plum, raspberry and dark cherry along with a lack of sugariness, which means that the wine is not obliterated by the sweetness of the candy, actually quite the opposite, the Port is drawn down, but enhanced by the milk chocolate.

Cockburn’s Special Reserve Port
With grapes harvested from the steep terraced hillsides in Northern Portugal’s Quinta dos Canais, this velvety Port offers sweet blueberry, blackberry, vanilla, and the acidity and mature fruit tempers the sweetness and buttery-ness of the candy. The best thing about most Ports is that they offer minimal sweetness, making them available to match with different foods.

Bottom line is that you need to try various pairing for yourself and find what works best for you. At any rate, regardless of the season or holiday, Port should always be in your house!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Brown Sprit from the Golden State - California Brandy Wants Your Attention

Argonaut brandies launched in July, 2017
“The current view of California Brandy is one of complete ignorance,” says Doug Frost, Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, one of only five people in the world to hold the duel titles. Frost and 30 mixologists, writers and distillers, including Paul Pacult, author of five books on American spirits, and Ernest J. Gallo, Managing Director of E&J Gallo’s Spirits Business and little ‘ol me, all came together at the California Brandy Summit in…wait for it…Fresno! Well, that’s only half true. Our day started at the McCall Avenue Distillery, then moved to Yosemite (ah, much better). The goal was to discuss, brainstorm, and, well, basically feud about brandy made from California. (NOTE: The original article with an economic focus was first published in BevRoute, Sept/2017)
Brandy, You’re a Fine Girl
30 writers, distillers, and mixologists gathered together to talk brandy
With apologies to the musical group Looking Glass and their 1972 hit “Brandy,” (a woman), brandy (the drink) is actually distilled wine. Over 25 countries produce their own version of brandy, and the best-known brandy is Cognac dating from the mid 1500s made in the Cognac region of France. The US however has its own history with brandy dating back 300 years and now California wants to take the lead in making American brandy viable once again. Wait. What? Yes, you read that right. The less than half-dozen brandy distillers in California are toying with the idea that American brandy in general, and California brandy in particular, has the potential to go toe to toe with the world’s best brandies.
Brandy’s Dandy But Liquor’s Quicker
Historically American brandy was a highly awarded, highly consumed spirit in the 1800s. Part of the reason for this was wine was unstable for long durations and as Doug Frost suggested, “Brandy is how we drank wine since the 1600s.” Domestically peach brandy was the most profitable spirit and was being distilled in the American Colonies as early as 1645. But brandy has West Coast roots before California was ever a state. The Spanish knew fermentation and distillation hundreds of years before coming to the Americas and they brought that technology with them during the late 1700s employing winemaking and distilling at several of the California missions. In fact, California missions were the only supply chain for brandy, Angelica, raisins and other foods stuff for travelers back in the day, sort of like an early version of 7 Eleven. Once the California gold rush occurred in the early 1850s railroads brought California brandy to the East Coast by 1869. However Prohibition essentially wiped out brandy. It was easier and cheaper to make bathtub gin in a few hours than to make brandy. Additionally brandy production has always suffered from labor costs: you get one grape harvest a year, ferment that, then distill. “It's a labor of love since it's the least economically viable spirit there is,” says Dan Farber, founder and distiller of Osocalis Distillery.
View From The Summit
Talking, trying brandy, talking more, and more brandy
At the summit we discussed various options for promoting California Brandy. “If brandy is not sexy then we are not making it sexy,” said Paul Ahvenainen, Master Distiller at Korbel. “I’d like to see getting lower-priced brandy on the market,” said Marko Karakasevic of Charbay Distillery whose own brandies retail for as much as $350. What to do? 

~Establish a Strong Narrative~
Brandy is a handmade product.
There are estate and single vineyard designations.
Brandy is the base for many cocktails.
Sipping brandy is an ideal after dinner drink.
Create a comprehensive trade group similar to Cognac’s Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC).

And here is where California brandy has a leg up on Cognac – freedom. Cognac is restricted in terms of grape varieties (only nine varieties are allowed) distilling methods, storage and aging techniques, even that distillation must be completed by March 31st after the harvest. California has no limits. Brandy can be made from Riesling, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sémillon, whatever, stored and aged whenever and wherever.

Gallo, the largest winery in California, has taken the lead. But it is a lead that came about almost accidentally “30 years ago we lay down some brandies with no real intention or understanding exactly how they would come to fruition,” Ernest Gallo tells our group. Those brandies, sitting idly at the McCall Distillery in Fresno are some of the ones we taste after lunch and our first brainstorming session. That foresight helped them release their Argonaut brandies in July, 2017 priced at $38 to $50. What’s unique about the Argonaut line is that, in an effort to help consumers to understand what they are drinking, each back label contains the percentage of the grapes used, their variety, the type of still used, and how long it’s been aged. Additionally Gallo acquired the high-end distiller Germain-Robin in August, 2017, complementing their own E&J Gallo brandy portfolio, thereby strengthening California brandy distribution.

As Ernest Gallo tells me; “What sets us apart is we are California brandy made from California grapes using California wine making techniques, the most ardent structure in the U.S.” Ardent perhaps, and yes I’m a California native, but it will take more than just passion to see California brandy overcome the obstacles. As I talk with Mr. Gallo, I mention that this is really a decade-long project, right? He nods and I can tell there are mixed emotions behind that nod. Yes, he and others are committed to this cause, and also yes, it’s going to be an arduous haul to re-educate the public on California brandy. Sure, brandy might regain the crown it wore in the 1800s. Time is the great equalizer and just like those “forgotten” brandies at the McCall Distillery in Fresno, perhaps this brown spirit might strike gold once again.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

MerlotMe: Time to Start Drinking Your Fu**ing Merlot Again

The self-proclaimed Merlot Month of October gives you permission to start drinking Merlot again. Just like the talented child overshadowed by his elder sibling (Cabernet Sauvignon in case you didn’t follow that), Merlot is getting the attention it deserves and the oft quoted, well-known line from Sideways, may never be uttered again.
Hello My Name Is…
Merlot grapes have been around since, some think, the 1st Century. Who really knows? What we do know is that some French dude in Bordeaux mentioned Merlot for the first time in 1784, the same year in the US that we ratified the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War with Great Britain (I know, right?).
Because of the California Gold Rush and the influx of European immigrants, Merlot cuttings arrived in California sometime in the 1850s but it wasn’t until the late 1980s when planted acreage was increased and Merlot became more significant as a stand alone wine. Now, it’s the second most widely consumed red wine in the US.

2014 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot, Napa
Duckhorn is, without a doubt one of the best and most consistent producers of Merlot in California. Period. Part of that is their decades long attention to Merlot when others shunned it. The other part of that is they are meticulous with their fruit, and it shows. This Merlot is that foolproof wine that balances fruit, wood and age into a terrific bottle of wine. It’s the velvety texture that first grabs you as waves of mature blackberry, blueberry and black cherry fruit cascade across your palate. But it’s also the comprehensive acidity, the proper use of oak as an equal player and the tannic structure that allows this wine to be graceful and self-assured.

2013 St. Supery Napa Valley, Rutherford Estate Vineyard Merlot, Napa
St. Supery opened their Napa doors in 1989, and Merlot has always been a part of the equation. Elegant and refined this is predominately Merlot with 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Cabernet Franc, aged for 19 months, roughly half of that was in new French oak barrels. What you get is soft inviting fruit, black cherry, blackberry, ripe plum, dried boysenberry with back notes of wild herbs, Madagascar vanilla, campfire smoke, and hints of anise and mocha. The tannins and acidity are properly aligned in this wine making for a wine of balance.

2015 Shooting Star Merlot, Lake County
Jed Steele has an amazing knack for finding impressive fruit and delivering that fruit in a structured wine that over delivers in quality yet is underpriced. His Merlot, grown in volcanic soils, represents the minerality and richness these soils are known for. You get subdued blueberry, blackberry, plum boysenberry with some cedar and vanilla from the eight months of oak aging, but also fairly tight tannins. This offers mare mature fruit and if far richer that typical Merlots at this price point. This a wine that is so structured and uniform, that the price belies the quality in the glass.

2015 Chelsea Goldschmidt Dry Creek Valley Merlot, Sonoma
Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is bet known for Zinfandel rather than Merlot, yet a few pockets turn out terrific Merlot fruit. This Merlot straddles a line between bright fresh fruit, and undertone of earthiness. Yes there is blackberry, black cherry, blueberry with back notes of plum, sage and wild thyme. But there is also delightful toasted oak giving off vanilla and cedar notes, but this wine has subversive tannins, they seem mild, but they announce themselves mid palate. The acidity rounds this out make for a great food wine. ($19)

2015 J. Lohr Los Osos Merlot, Paso Robles
From the El Pomar district of Paso Robles, the J. Lohr team brings you fresh bright fruit as Paso grapes tends to be more ripe and that’s the case here. The fruit is more berry driven, so you’ll taste blueberry pie, boysenberry cobbler, back notes of black cherry, blackberry with mild tannins and mild acidity. The oak is evident but not powerful and it lays a solid framework for the fruit and for an easy drinking Merlot. ($15)