Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wine Feature: "I Love Lucy"

As I drive through Napa Valley on my way to work every morning, I am reminded that harvest is in the air... literally.  As harvest season progresses, you can smell the decaying stems and skins from the first fermentations.  It is always a very positive smell for the first few days, as it captures the essence of fermentation.  And then it kind of goes sour, which reminds us that fermentation, after all, is a spoilage process. 

I recently saw some pictures from a fellow Virginia Tech alum and his recent harvest at Zephaniah Farm Vineyard in Virginia (  First of all, the pictures were very well done.  They completely captured the feel of a long harvest day in Virginia.  The grapes were well colored and ready to be picked, a line of workers were out laughing and picking in the wee hours of the morning.  The start of fermentations progressed well into the evening hours at the old farm house.  And of course, the day wouldn't be complete without cracking open a bottle of an older vintage wine after all the work is accomplished!  It made me incredibly homesick, as harvest isn't the same in Napa Valley.  So I crawled to find another fun, but humorous, harvest memory.  An oldie, but goodie:

Click on the link to watch the video, and enjoy!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Wine Buzz: 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon by Vellum Wine Craft

After some time living in Napa Valley, you learn to accept the fact that almost everyone in the valley makes a Cabernet blend.  The trick, in my opinion, is finding the best one (quality wise) that's worth the precious dimes you spend all week accumulating.  My personal favorite, thus far, is the Napa Valley 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon by Vellum Wine Craft.

This 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 6% Petit Verdot blend is true to its Napa roots, but it shows some unique qualities that I have said "out rank Opus One for sure."  In a year to year comparison (of the 2007 vintage), the Opus One could not touch the quality and style of Vellum.  (For those who do not purchase high priced wines, Opus One is a unique brand started by Robert Mondavi and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild in the Napa Valley.  It's usually marketed at about $140.00 per bottle, but of course this price fluctuates depending on the vintage year, year of purchase, etc.  Opus One usually receives rave reviews by wine experts.)  Nonetheless, Vellum is essentially one of the few Cabs that I can truly say, "I enjoy."

Personally, Vellum is also very near and dear to my heart, as I have had the pleasure of meeting and befriending the co-founders, Karl Lehmann (Winemaker) and Jeff Mathy (Proprietor), of this unique production.  This is why I also have the opportunity to share with you some of the winemaker's personal feelings with wine:

What inspired you to become a winemaker?
When I was younger I never thought about being a winemaker.  Being an outsider in this business, I never had the opportunity or connection to be involved with wine.  My parents were my inspiration in what I wanted to do.  They are involved in the sciences and also very good cooks.  So, they cultivated in me my instincts for the composition of things for as long as I could remember.  Wine was the final step for me.

What is your favorite part about being a winemaker?
Wine can always be improved upon.  It's never perfect, that is its mystery and power.  I like to think of myself as part of the pursuit of its perfection.  So, my favorite part of winemaking has been digging out full tanks of grapes.  That is when I am reminded of what this craft is all about.

Tell me about Vellum.  How did you choose the name?
The name Vellum was chosen for me by co-founder, Jeff Mathy.  He understood my love of ancient literature and the bond wine shared with the people who wrote it.  Vellum was the transference of that knowledge.  It stands the test of time so I wanted to help create wine that would do the same.

How would you describe a glass of Vellum?
Aromas of cassis, bramble, espresso grounds, and graphite evolve slowly out of Vellum with a heady impact. The palate ties in with the nose and integrates well.  The wine is seamless tip to tail.  It is powerful and light at the same time with tightly wound but forgiving tannins that make for a very fine fabric.  The acid frames the wine neatly and lends itself to a very long finish.

What is the perfect meal with a bottle of Vellum?
I have always appreciated many flavours that Vellum complements and I am be no means done experimenting.  I have recently discovered matings with root vegetables, various fungi and oily herbs, and it does not shy away from game.  My perfect meal, I think so far, has been grilled venison.

What I love about Vellum is that is captures the essence of Napa - a fine Cabernet blend that accurately represents the style of this region while imposing some unique features otherwise not seen in other well-recognized brands.  Additionally, I'm a bit biased as Karl is from Pennsylvania (so I have to put a fine shout out for the easterners).  It also represents the pursuit of business from an outsider, in an industry concentrated with wines for every consumer.  But additionally, it is the price.  Vellum, as special as it is, comes at a price around $60.00 per bottle.  Now, I can already seeing my dad laughing in his chair saying he can buy a gallon of wine for $10.00, but remember what is we are buying here.  A Napa Valley Cab; one that can kick it with the big dogs.  We're not talking about some little dog sitting on the porch.  Regardless, if you want to compare - what is the better deal?  $140.00 for a brand or $60.00 for the real thing?  (A thrifty wine buy to add to the "special collection," if I may say so myself.) 

*Disclosure* Not to kick myself in the teeth, Opus One is an interesting experience if you ever have the chance to visit.  The architecture is quite unique, and the winery is marvelous.  They also home some very fancy, plush couches that I found incredibly comfortable!*

Karl and Jeff also keep a very interesting blog:  This comes highly recommended.  Please note, that Vellum is introducing their first white wine in the 2010 vintage. 

I've rated the 2007 Vellum twice - once in 2009 (during the summer months) and another time in July 2010.  I must say that in 2010, I enjoyed the integration and aging of the wine much more than when I tasted it in 2009.  "Johnny Depp", ever the man's man, said he enjoyed the "rougher" edge of the 2007 Cab when we tasted it in 2009.  As the wine has aged slightly, the tannins have definitely smoothed out, the alcohol perception has slightly decreased, and the fruit has become quite pronounced... which is probably why I prefer it more now.  However, after tasting Karl's 2008, I think we can all agree that the best is yet to come.  I highly recommend it, but please note, these tasting notes are on the 2007 vintage.  Cheers!

The D-2010 WineDex! (I need to copyright this...)
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon by Vellum Wine Craft
Appearance (10 points possible): deep garnet red color, with good color depth, non-filtered - 10 points
Aroma/Bouquet (20 points possible): black fruit, dark chocolate, herbal, with hints of tobacco, currants (cassis), berried jams, toasted oak, and spice; alcohol slightly dominates after sniffing for awhile - 18 points
Taste (10 points possible): medium bodied entry with smooth, round tannins in the mid-palate.  alcohol hits you in the finish (slightly), but the finish lingers for a long time.  flavors of red fruit, slight oak, and chocolate tingle the taste buds  - 9 points
Balance (5 points possible): incredibly integrated from one section of the palate to the next.  the only "unbalanced feature," for me, will always be the recognition of the hotness in the finish.  - 4 points
Finish (5 points possible): finish lingers for a long time, and is quite solid, with some reference to the alcohol.  hints of fruit and slight oak.  - 4 points 
Add 50 points for attempt, packaging, closure, etc.
Total Points: 95 points for the 2007 --> can't wait to review the '08!
Overall Thought: The packaging of Vellum is quite appealing, and again, a fantastic bargain for the quality of the wine from the Napa Valley region.  I must say that I prefer the 2008 vintage more so than the 2007, but again, the 2007 is well done.  What differentiates the 2007 and 2008 is the aroma and the finish.  In the 2008, the aroma is bountiful - more dark fruit, spice, herbs, that perfect marriage of oak and fruit, a hint of blueberries and espresso beans.  The finish dominates in such a positive way in the 2008, which is what makes it superior to its 2007 counterpart.  As I've heard some people describe a finish, "It dances in your throat for quite some time."  Take it as you will!  
Food Pairings: We've paired Vellum with several dishes, including pasta (a meat lasagna) and steak.  But we've also found it pleasant with hamburgers and hot dogs.  Who knew you could sophisticate burgers and dogs on the grill?  ;)
Cost: $56.00
Splurge Factor (out of 4): 3 - but again, consider what is up against!  However, a fine amount of money well worth the purchase!

Where to buy: Jeff works very hard to distribute Vellum across the U.S.  For more information, please visit the website at:  You can also make online purchases.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Travel Tip: Calistoga's Golden Haven Spa

Calistoga is a small town located at the northern end of Napa Valley.  It attracts many tourists and celebrities alike... all looking to get away and relax at one of Calistoga's many spas.  If you take time to look in the Lincoln Street shops, you'll find many Calistoga mud products.  Apparently, there is magic in that darn mud... magic like you wouldn't believe.  Facial specials cake the streets, small restaurants invite you to try their gourmet cuisine, and a festival of boutique shops show off a local California style.

The street of Calistoga

 Since my arrival to Napa Valley, I've made a slight effort to try out some of their spas... just for kicks (obviously, that has a large splurge factor!).   At the Calistoga Village Inn and Spa, you can pay $20 to swim in all of their mineral pools after regular hours, for instance.  If you've never had a dip in a mineral pool, it is quite the experience!

But, one of my favorite experiences was trying out the mud baths.  Now, you can do this individually or as a couple.  I strongly encourage the couple experience as it will leave the two of you laughing and relaxing for a good hour.  Laughing from the fact you are dipping yourself into hot (magical) mud and relaxing because the heat surely makes you feel like you had a 2 hour massage!

The Entrance to Golden Haven Hot Springs Spa

As you soak in the mud bath for about 30 minutes, they'll cover your face in a cool, clay mask (take your picture if you'd like), and drink ice cold water with hints of lemon in it.  It's quite the calming experience.  After your mud bath, you get to wash down (which is an experience in and of itself), and then take a dip in their mineral jacuzzi.  This is quite the calming experience, especially after you get over the fact you just dipped yourself in magical mud.  The minerals in the water make the water extra soft, leaving your skin feeling completely refreshed.  You magical mud experience ends in a quiet room where they wrap you in cooling blankets and turn the lights down low.  By the end of this nap, you'll feel like you've been sleeping for days!

After your mud bath, Golden Haven opens up their own mineral pools to you for the remainder to the day (unless you are staying at their resort spa as a hotel guest).  

Mid-day, break for lunch or an early dinner in downtown Calistoga.  You'll see a line of tourists lining up for the Calistoga Inn, where they brew their own beer.  If you're in the mood for something divine (that you are willing to pay for) I recommend Jole.  It's got some of the best food in town.  Of if you are in the mood for Chinese, Soo Yuan hosts some of the best Chinese food I have ever tasted (and I did taste in Chinatown).  Just watch out for the fortune cookies - sometimes they are a bit fishy.  Try the local Mexican favorite, Miguel's.  The chilequiles comes highly recommended!  But Barolo's is also something worth talking about, especially if you are in town on a Thursday evening (as for the $15 special - salad, homemade lasagna, and creme brulee).  Stop at the Wine Garage and pick up a bottle of local Calistoga wine (all bottles are $25 or less - a true bargain!) right off of Highway 29.  Head to Palisades Deli and get a local sandwich.  Or, if you're in the mood for a coffee, the Village Bakery and the Calistoga Roastery are primary choices.  There's no shortage of food on Lincoln Street!

Despite your choice, you're sure to have a day of relaxation, romance, and fun in lil' ol' Calistoga!

Flower and Art Shop Near Palisades in Calistoga

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wine Ed 411: Wine Sensory: Learning Your Taste Buds

In graduate school, we used a book for the undergraduate "Wines and Vines" course to teach kids sensory evaluation of wine.  It was called The University Wine Course by Marian Baldy.  My advisor recommended the book to students, explaining that it was incredibly thorough and easy to read, but otherwise "a bit long winded."  (I'd actually have to agree.  Although the information is wonderful, Marian does like to write.)  Regardless, it's an incredible wine sensory reference.

The reason I point this book out is to emphasize how to teach yourself to identify the different taste components in wine: sweet, acidic/sour, astringency, bitter, and alcohol.  (Of course there is also body or volume, but that's a little more complicated to make up and taste.)  

The purpose of such evaluations is to teach yourself what it is you are actually tasting.  It helps you identify what professionals use to describe wine.  You can find basic food items to manipulate such taste components and then add them to water.  The fact that water is relatively neutral will allow you to really see where such attributes fall on your palate. 
  • Sweetness --> Sugar (white granular sugar)
  • Sour/Acidic --> Lemon juice (either freshly squeezed or bought from a bottle) or Tartaric Acid
  • Astringency --> Alum or Lipton black tea soaked into a cup of water for several minutes
  • Bitter --> Black coffee or Food Grade Caffeine
  • Alcohol --> Smirnoff Vodka
The bitter component is difficult to make.  I have actually found club soda to be slightly bitter, as well.  Most people struggle with the difference between sour, astringency, and bitterness.  The only one of those that is not a true taste is astringency.  Astringency is a tactile sensation that makes your mouth dry.  This is especially noticeable when you make a cup of tea, leave the tea bag in the water, and when you finally get to the bottom of the cup, the solution is incredibly mouth-drying.  That is astringency.

The sour/acidic attribute makes your mouth water.  The best example of this is eating Sour Patch Kids.  These candies area sour, but not astringent or bitter.  However, lemon juice will get the job done.  Lemon juice is sour, but it's not astringent or bitter.  And it should, after tasting it, make your mouth dry.  Of course, you'll also have to blank out the lemon taste.

Bitterness usually lingers after you swallow something.  I commonly taste bitter in the back of my palate or it lingers in my throat.  Typically, it has a very unappealing taste.  It's not pleasant.  It's usually what makes people dislike vegetables or coffee.  Coffee is notorious for being bitter - try a little bit of Starbucks bold coffee, black.  That lingering taste is bitter (but not the burnt flavor).  Caffeine is also bitter in nature.  This is probably why sodas have so much sugar in them (to balance out the bitterness), and why we use milk (to cover up the astringency) and sugar (to cover up the bitterness) in tea and coffee.

Sweetness is an easy one.  You can simply tell if something is sweet or not sweet.  Adding a sugar cube to a little bit of water makes it incredibly sweet. 

Alcohol, at higher levels, will cause a burning tactile sensation on the palate as well.  Wine, by definition, is not supposed to be greater than 17% alcohol, although we've continued to see higher alcohol wines became a trend in the U.S.  However, higher alcohol locks in aromas and flavors, and it hinders your ability to taste things as it is fatiguing.  By adding little quantities of alcohol from 40% vodka to a 12% wine (like box wine), you can actually start to taste the burning sensation from the increased concentration of alcohol.  (And to make matters more complicated, higher alcohol concentrations contribute to wine volume, sweetness in the finish, and bitterness!) 

I challenge you to try these exercises at home or with friends.  After all, you have to start somewhere!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Wine Books to Read: A Year in Provence

Speaking of "Provence in Berkeley" yesterday brought the idea of Provence to my attention.  Plus, with one of the first rainy days in Napa for the up-and-coming Fall season, it's a perfect day to grab a book.  Another wonderful wine book to enjoy, A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, is a story about a husband and wife that move from the U.S. to Provence.  Peter writes about their entire first year in Provence, capturing the reader with the harsh winter season, renovating a house in Provence, truffle hunting, eating, and learning what tourists mean to a beautiful area in France.  Peter learns that time slips away in Provence; no longer is a watch important.  An elegant story about how to enjoy life, I highly recommend A Year in Provence for a simple, entertaining read. 

Of course, a budget-friendly buy: about $10 on  

How is Provence related to wine?  Provence is a region in Southern France known for it's lavender and expensive blush wines.  The main variety of Provence is Grenache, but other varieties include Carignan, Cinsaut, Ugni Blanc, Clairette, Mourvedre, Tibouren, Calitor (Pecoui Touar), Barbaroux (Barbarossa), Rolle (Vermentino), and Semillon.  The blush/rose wine style appear to go fairly well the garlic- and oil-base cuisine of Provence.  This is especially true of Provencal aioli, a very garlic and oil-based mayonnaise.  Other famous dishes include bouillabaisse (saffron-infused fish stew), bourride (fish soup), brandade (cod puree), fougasse (herbed flat bread), glace de lavande (lavender vanilla ice cream), pistou (vegetable and basil soup), ratatouille (vegetable stew), rouille (aioli with Spanish peppers), and their truffles (mushrooms).

For those who don't know how beautiful Provence is, I captured this image off of Google Images:

If I haven't convinced you of Provencal beauty yet, perhaps it's time to plan a romantic trip away... (not during the winter months!).  And on the plane ride there, you can enjoy A Year in Provence!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Wine Activity (CA): Provence in Berkeley

I meant to get this up last night for all those who have off this Saturday.... But Kermit Lynch is hosting Provence Day in Berkeley today (details follow from Kermit Lynch's website:  More on Kermit Lynch to come...  Regardless, I would LOVE to enjoy a taste of Provence if I had the chance!  It's wine savvy.  (A thrifty note is that this activity is probably VERY affordable for those on a budget!)

Mark your calendars for Saturday, September 18—Provence Day in Berkeley. Our parking lot will be filled with thirsty patrons, the smell of wood smoke and garlic wafting from the grill, and the sounds of great music provided by some down-home musicians. We will present food and wine from one of Europe’s loveliest regions.

So come on by and join us for a day of wine, food, music, and revelry. The price will be reasonable, as usual, the event is presented by Café Fanny, and the chef is Christopher Lee.
Saturday, September 18
11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wine Buzz: Clary Hill Blue by Cellardoor Winery & Vineyard

Every now and again, a wine connoisseur will find an unique wine treasure that just has to be shared!  This is just one of them.  It was found by a sommelier friend of mine who found it in Maine.  That's right - Maine!  After reviewing Cellardoor Winery & Vineyard's website, I believe visiting this winery would be a true adventure during the Fall season.  Not only is harvest around the corner, but Maine captures some of the most beautiful Fall leaves in the U.S.  Just look at the gorgeous photo that is posted on Cellardoor Winery and Vineyard's website:

(Image from: Cellardoor Winery & Vineyard Website:

Regardless, the wine of choice that I had the pleasure tasting was Clary Hill Blue.  Clary Hill Blue is a Cabernet Sauvignon - Blueberry blend.  The wine is dry, unlike many blueberry wines I've had in the past.  It is very much a very pleasant experience!  I have to admit, it was a great breath of fresh air after living in Cabernet blend country for well over a year!

*Bonus*: Cellardoor Winery & Vineyard features wine and food pairings, recipes, and even lunch when you visit the recipe.  The current "Featured Recipe" is Thai Coconut Curry Shrimp... yuuuuummmmm....  (Visit the website at:

The D-2010 Scale! (I need to copyright this...)
Clary Hill Blue by Cellardoor Winery & Vineyard
Appearance (10 points possible): garnet red color, relatively clear - 8 points
Aroma/Bouquet (20 points possible): fresh blueberries, cherries, cassis/currants, raisins, spice, oak, and herbs.  - 19 points
Taste (10 points possible): medium bodied with medium tannin levels, high acidity, mouthfeel and body is relatively light throughout.  Flavors of ripe blueberries and spice linger throughout mid-palate to finish.  Wine is completely forward and lacks finish.  Overall texture is ripe, soft, crisp, fresh, and food friendly.  - 6 points
Balance (5 points possible): nice wine, but acid sticks out slightly from this wine which makes it unintegrated and slightly one-dimensional - 3 points
Finish (5 points possible): Wine is completely forward, meaning all mouthfeel, texture, and flavors fall before the mid-palate.  The finish is lacking - short without any lingering effect. - 2 points 
Add 50 points for attempt, packaging, closure, etc.
Total Points: 88
Overall Thought: I think this is one of the best dry, blueberry wines I have ever had.  Ok, the acid sticks out (probably due to the blueberries), but these berries are integrated with a Cabernet Sauvignon base, which really makes the wine "wine-like."  This wine was recommended to me by a sommelier in the Napa Valley who found it completely interesting.  I think this wine is truly worth a try!
Food Pairings: Cellardoor Winery & Vineyard recommends pork or fragrant cheeses.  I think this wine is also enjoyable with yogurt-based dishes (such as a fruit salad), Indian food, etc.  Anything you would pair blueberries with could be a perfect match for this wine.
Cost: Listed at $19.99
Splurge Factor (out of 4): 2 - a bit pricier than other wines, but an unique wine treasure
Where to buy: If you don't live in Maine, and therefore, cannot visit Cellardoor Winery & Vineyard (although I highly recommend it), order online:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Wine Tunes: Strawberry Wine by Deana Carter

I was already to rate a new wine today, but then on my way to the grocery store Strawberry Wine by Deana Carter came on my iPod.  It's one of those songs that always takes me back to earlier days, mostly because Strawberry Wine was my introductory song to country music.  Although country music is not usually associated with wine, there is a lot of country music out there with wine as the subject! 

Music Video:

What I love about this song, is that it captures how I, personally, feel about wine.  I've always believed that wine is good when it involves a story filled with good memories.  When it comes down to it, I think wine includes a lot of country!  Considering grapes are an agricultural product like everything else we eat, my romanticized vision of winemaking has always included fields of grapes on hillsides, surrounding forests, picnics on Sundays with the lingering harvest in the wind, a good bottle of wine on the outdoor table, good food, family and friends.  For some reason, that vision reminds me of this song - as if someone can recall their young adult summers based on a sip of strawberry wine. 

I can honestly say that I have never had a sip of "strawberry wine" but that there are certain wines that take me back to a memory.  Chambourcin, a hybrid variety, is the first wine I ever made.  I know every time I drink a good Chambourcin, especially from one of the local wineries close to home, I can remember sitting by my fermentation bins, using a hydrometer for the first time, showing my high school ag teachers, while reading books on winemaking in our lab.  The memory is fresh and clear.  A memory, although filled with several wines and Cognac, takes me outside of Nantes, France, when a family opened up their world to me on a holiday afternoon.  I have never sat and ate so much food while drinking so much wine and doing absolutely nothing over an entire day.  I can remember that was the first day of my life I had a fresh apricot (I know, bizarre, but I remember...)  I woke up every morning that I was staying with this family, walked out to their small barn, woke up one of the guests, and grabbed 2 apricots to enjoy while preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Any time I hear the word "Cognac" I go back...  And finally, although funny to admit, any time I think about touching a bottle of Lambrusco, I'm immediately a college kid again - catching dinner at Olive Garden with one of my girl friends, having group "intellectual conversations," or preparing for some sort of celebration.  It was the drink of choice among the ladies!  

My point is this: Wine is something to be shared, complementing a moment in your life no matter how big or small the occasion.  I always feel, especially here in the Napa Valley, that it is easy to get sucked into the grandness of what wine has become in the new world - a modern show piece, a symbol of social status (although, to some extent, it always has been since its creation), and an excuse to drink alcohol in a classy way.  Truthfully, some of the best wines I have tasted are forgotten to me.  The ones I remember the most, and hold dear to my heart, are the ones that I drank while with family or friends, enjoying a new experience, or an old tradition.  Strawberry Wine captures that feeling - one that I encourage all my readers to try... no matter what variety, style, vintage, or region you're drinking.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Wine Buzz: Tailgate Red by Mt. Nittany Vineyard & Winery

I'm sure picking a wine that is titled "Tailgate Red" is going to make some Californians roll in their graves, but to me, it's College Game Day and it's the first big game of the season for my team, Penn State!  "Let's go State!"


Therefore, I picked a wine close to home, Tailgate Red by Mt. Nittany Vineyard and Winery.  The winery is found a few miles outside of Happy Valley, home to the Penn State Nittany Lions.  It was the perfect place to stop, pick up some wine for the classy Saturday afternoon tailgate, and drink in celebration of the Nittany Lions, win OR lose!

Today's rivalry is a big one: the #1 Alabama vs. the #18 PSU.  Jo Pa is 4 wins out of 12 games played against Bama in his 44 years of head coach at PSU.  He lost all 4 games to the legendary Bear Bryant, but as Jo Pa puts it, "No one cares about what happened to Alabama and Penn State rivalries 100 years ago."

So let's grab a bottle of that Tailgate Red and celebrate for the up-and-coming game.  If you can't join in the actual tailgating festivities filled with lots of great football food, games to entertain kids of all ages, lots of loud chanting, and of course, sipping on that beverage of choice... grab a chair, gather around the TV and get all that food ready! (Please drink responsibly.)

Tailgate Red by Mt. Nittany Vineyard and Winery
Appearance (10 points possible): bright, brilliant red color (careful not to spill during Game Day festivities!)10 points
Aroma/Bouquet (20 points possible): fresh red berries  - 12 points
Taste (10 points possible): (best served chilled) slightly sweet, but not overly sweet for those dry-red lovers; nice acidity and light bodied to enjoy throughout a day filled with football  - 6 points
Balance (5 points possible): acid and sweetness nicely balanced, relatively thin, but enjoyable  - 3 points
Finish (5 points possible): Finish lingers slightly - 3 points 
Total Points: 84
Overall Thought: This wine serves a purpose for a fun time on College Game Day.  Drink up and enjoy!  (Remember to drink responsibly!) 
Food Pairings: pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers, meatball sandwiches... Game Day food!
Cost: ~$10 to $12
Splurge Factor (out of 4): 1 - an enjoyable, classier wine for a tailgate than drinking wine from the box!

Where to buy: Mt. Nittany Winery ( or at the Wine and Spirits Stores (

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thrifty Wine Gear: The Vinni Bag

I saw this gizmo during one of my recent travels: I bring you the Vinni Bag!

I think this thing is awesome, especially for those wine travelers who cannot ship wine to their home state!  This puppy surrounds the bottle of wine to ensure that it is not going to break.  However, you can use it for other valuable items such as small statues, glasses, vases, etc. that need protecting during travel. 

It's an especially ideal gift for someone who know that travels a lot (and even more so for those that travel specifically to buy wine).  It eliminates the need to wrap wine bottles in tons of clothing with the fear of it possibly breaking on the plane ride home (therefore, spilling red wine all over one's belongings).  The bag is also re-usable so you can use it over and over and over again!

It's a slight splurge item, depending how you look at it.  I've found it anywhere from $25 to $30 per bag.  But it does have rave reviews online!  With traveling season in sight, this may be something to consider... especially if you are the one expected to bring Thanksgiving wine!

Splurge Factor (out of 4): 2 - it's not super expensive, it is unique, but it is something you'd probably have to consider buying
Price: $30 (about)
Where to buy: If in Napa - I recently found this at Honig Winery, but you can also purchase directly from their website:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wine Ed 411: The Skinny on Cork Taint

I've been doing a lot of reading/writing/researching on Cork Taint recently.  It's a very interesting topic - an issue that revolutionized packaging development for the wine industry (and enhanced what the food industry knows as quality control).  At some point, I'll have to do a lesson in our Wine Education Class Series (aka Wine Ed 411) on cork types and closures for all you winos out there, but for now, let us focus on the issue at hand: Cork Taint.

There's a controversial number out there related to the percentage of wines infected by corks.  And every now and again, I always see people making horrendous statements in regards to that percentage, but with my experiences, I would say the level of cork taint infested wines is probably about 1% these days.  Some reports say a lot higher (up to 8%), but with the great level of quality control that the cork companies and wineries now maintain, I'd say 1%.  That means about 1 out of every 100 bottles of wine you drink is probably contaminated by cork taint.  (Note: It's just not wine!  Other spirits that use cork or wooden closures can also have cork taint. Trust me, it's gross once you realize it's there.)

The fascinating thing about cork taint (to me anyway) is that so many people are unaware of it.  Ok, at extremely low levels (let's be generous and say less than 4 ppt), cork taint may not smell like anything to the average person.  That's what is so interesting about cork taint: the primary compound (TCA) responsible for cork taint doesn't only have a particular aroma, at very low concentrations, it only masks or subdues the aroma of the wine itself.  Therefore, a person would not be able to tell the wine is corked unless they had another bottle of the same exact wine (with a much more potent aroma).

The characteristic aroma of cork taint may be manifested by more than one compound.  For those science geeks out there, this includes TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole), TBA (2,4,6-tribromoanisole), MIB (2-methyl-isoborneol), Geosmin, as well as TeCA (tetrachloroanisole), PCA (pentachloroanisole), and Guaiacol.  Primarily, most people focus on TCA: the musty, moldy, wet cardboard, wet dog, or dank moist cellar smell.  However, geosmin and MIB can have dirt, mud, or camphorous odors that are also associated with cork taint.  Once identified, a corked bottle can completely ruin a wine for you!

The ultimate source of TCA in corks is truly unknown.  There are some obvious guesses.  We know that there is a mold or fungi that metabolizes chlorophenols (the precursor group to the chloroanisoles that have the cork taint odor) into chloroanisoles.  However, the ultimate source of chlorophenols in the cork wood is somewhat unknown.  Pesticides, fertilizers, wood treatment chemicals, etc. may contain chlorophenols, but again, the existence of the chloroanisole counterpart shows no correlation to the use of these chemicals.  Additionally, it's difficult to identify how the molds are existing on corks from today's standards.  Moisture levels on the corks are kept low in order to make sure there is no mold growth that would allow for a TCA contamination.  There is some speculation that the mold or fungi hide in some of the natural corks' holes.  But again, all corks are treated, primarily with hydrogen peroxide, to kill off any existing mold populations.  (This reminds me - we should do a lesson on cork processing soon!)

Regardless of it's existence, at such low concentrations, TCA is not especially harmful to you.  It just smells bad.  Often when people first become familiar with cork taint, they are reminded of sea food.  I found this is because some farm raised specifies (in particular - shrimp) can often be contaminated with Geosmin or MIB from water algae contaminates, therefore exuding the same aromas as cork taint itself!

Needless to say, there's nothing a winemaker can really do to ensure that the bottle you buy isn't corked.  Sometimes it just happens.  There's no perfect method to ensure 100% non-corked wines (well... other than buying wines using synthetic closures or screw caps).  So what can you do if your wine smells like an old, musty basement?  Kindly return it to the winery, or tell the sommelier at the restaurant, or the place of purchase.  Typically, wineries are more than willing to replace a corked bottle.

If we could "scratch 'n sniff" on this wine blog, I would totally do that for you!  But I cannot.  That technology has not been created yet.  However, I hope this lesson on Cork Taint opened some doors for the future wine connoisseurs out there...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Holiday Helper: Labor Day Festivities

Labor Day - a holiday I'm afraid I usually don't see, but due to the fact Napa Valley is experiencing a late harvest this year, I received a holiday!  Yay!  Drinks all around!

So how does one incorporate wine into Labor Day; a holiday usually reserved for beer, one last day at the pool, picnics and family fun.  Well, the best example is to highlight our Californian menu:

Entree: New York Strip Steak (yum) on the grill
Sides: Grilled Sweet Corn and My Favorite Potato Salad (recipe to follow):

Picnic Potato and Chicken Salad (Courtesy of the Food Network, by Sunny Anderson in 2008)
- 4 Idaho potatoes, peeled and cubed
- 1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and ground pepper to taste
- 1 (6 oz.) skinless chicken breast
- 3 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
- 1/4 cup diced celery
- 1/4 cup diced onion
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 cup mayo
- 2 teaspoons mustard
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
- 2 sage leaves, chopped
- 2 heads Bibb lettuce.

(I usually mix it up somehow - for instance, I am using a bag of heirloom potatoes and not peeling off the skins.  I've also opted out of the chicken this time because we'll already be having steak.  And I'll be using my favorite Sierra Nevada mustard for tomorrow's potato salad.  I also usually boil the potatoes and never wrap the salad in lettuce, although a good idea.)

- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- Place potatoes on a sheet tray, toss with oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast until golden and tender, about 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a saucepan, cover chicken with water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  Poach until cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes.  Remove from poaching liquid, let cool for a bit, and cut out chicken into cubes.
- In a large bowl, toss together potatoes, chicken, and bacon with the celery, onions, and garlic.  Add the mayonnaise, mustard, paprika, herbs, salt, and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.  Mix until well combined.
- Serve salad in Bibb lettuce cups.  Roll up and eat.

So what wine to serve with this super meal?  Well, I'm not a true believer in only serving red wines with red meat and white wines with fish, etc.  I pretty much believe in drinking whatever you want!  But I have 2 suggestions.

If you're in the mood for a white, why not try the J. Lohr Riverstone Arroyo Seco Chardonnay (2006 vintage is the one we've had and enjoyed recently).  The wine is slight oaky, but still carries a crisp acidity to take on those last days of summer.  Quite refreshing chilled, and should complement the picnic attitude all the same.  Plus, it's a real bargain - $14.00 for the 2008 vintage.

OR if your in the mood for a red, might I suggest Bridlewood's Syrah - pick any one you like!
Some of the best Syrah's I've tasted in California!  The winemaker sure knows what he's doing when it comes to capturing the essence of Syrah in several styles.  We've enjoyed many of them, and they surely fall within our thrifty wine buys that are definitely treasures.

OR if your in the mood for the sweet stuff...why not try a bottle of Riunite Lambrusco.  You can find it everywhere in the U.S., it's cheap, sweet, slightly bubbly, and usually a crowd pleaser at picnics.  Although my personal belief is the sweet stuff sits heavier in your belly, you can usually please a crowd with a bottle of this stuff:

Or maybe you have a suggestion of your own!  Let me know your recommendations for picnicking fun on your Labor Day holiday!  I'm always ready for your suggestions!  Regardless of what you choose - remember the point is to ENJOY the extra day off while bottoms up!  As that is how "Johnny Depp" and I are hoping to spend the day as well.  Cheers!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Travel Tip: Drink Bubbly for Free!

There are several sparkling houses throughout Napa and Sonoma.  Some of the big namers: Domaine Chandon, Gloria Ferrer, Mumm Napa, Domaine Carneros, Iron Horse, Roederer Estate... you name it!  But one of my favorite travel locations for a budget-friendly trip is good ol' Korbel Champagne Cellars.

Going to Korbel was initially recommended by a dear co-worker.  I had never really thought about making the trip on River Road (if you are in Napa Valley, go up and over Petrified Forest Rd. to Mark Springs and stay on Mark Springs which turns into River Road) to visit a sparkling wine facility, especially for relatively thrifty wine buys.  After all, I could've just gone to the grocery market to pick up a bottle!  But I have to say, Korbel is a place of northern California magic.

Not only is the tour free (that's right - free - as in, they don't charge you $25 per person to taste!), but there's a lot of history involved in the tour which makes it very interesting.  It's not the same-old, same-old "this is how we make wine" kind of tour.  One of my dad's favorite points was knowing that scenes from the TV show "Combat" were filmed across the street from the winery, in the vineyards, because the owners needed someone to blow up the old redwood stumps!  Gotta love my dad!

End of Tour Wine Tasting on Korbel's patio.

Then at the end of the tour, they serve you a flight of bubbly from several Korbel bottles.  It's where we fell in love with Korbel Natural'.  Up until that point, we had never tasted that bottle, as I believe it's sold exclusively on site.  And... it's a budget-friendly purchase (about $12 for a bottle).  Additionally, Korbel puts the whole package together with their very own Delicatessen.  In the heart of the redwood forests, you can purchase a bottle of bubbly, some sandwiches and snacks, and enjoy a romantic (or friendly fun) mid-afternoon picnic at a sparkling wine house.  Menu is such:

Let's put it this way - you could spend $25 per person to get into some other well known winery and do a flight of 5 tastings per person.  That's a total of $50 per person.  OR you could visit Korbel - a beautiful car ride over the Mayacamas mountain ranges into Sonoma County - and spend $25 on a bottle of sparkling wine (let's say $10), and 2 gourmet sandwiches!  Plus, it beats breaking the penny bank to go to one of Napa's high end restaurants (not that they aren't worth it in their own right).  I'm just saying, if you want the California Wine Country experience for less - Korbel is your answer.  Bonus: the bubbly is fantastic!

The Redwoods at Korbel - YOU could be eating a nice 
deli-style lunch with bubbly under these!  =)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wine Buzz: "Blanc de Chardonnay, Brut" by Thibaut-Janisson

What I love about this sparkling wine is the memories it has granted me!  This bottle was given to me as a present when I defended in graduate school from one of my co-workers.  She was right about the wine - absolutely a treasure for the state of Virginia!  I'll never forget that she left me with a note (as I was off to California at the time) stating... "Don't forget about Virginia wines."  How can you forget with memories... I mean wines... like this?

(Picture from:

The wine is made in a collaborative effort by Claude Thibaut and Manuel Janisson.  Thibaut is a "French Champagne master," as previous articles have revealed.  His biography can be seen on the website and within several of the reviews for the Blanc de Chardonnay.

This is a French style sparkling wine that truly captures the potential of Eastern winemaking.  This wine exquisitely shows the finesse of Monticello Chardonnay grapes in a fine bubbly style.  Although it's not the thriftiest of buys - it's a treasure - as I said earlier - and one that should be enjoyed for those monumental events (or for Labor Day picnics before all the beer drinkers show up!). 

Entirely crisp, food friendly, and again, a very serious wine - this is the type of bubbles you serve at your reception dinner the night before the big day as a sincere thank you to all your friends and family for their continued support in your relationship.  This is the type of wine for those moments when you need to reflect back on a big accomplishment; a reward for a job well done.  To bring the point home - this wine was served for President Obama's first state dinner, at a Thomas Jefferson birthday party, and at several high end restaurants (Citronelle, Restaurant Eve, Proof and Equinox).  Go ahead and serve this one day - you deserve it!

The D-2010 Scale! (I need to copyright this...)
Blanc de Chardonnay by Thibaut-Janisson
Appearance (10 points possible): straw yellow, lots of small, continuous bubbles - 10 points
Aroma/Bouquet (20 points possible): slight hints of pear, apple and citrus fruit with a break-like character.  Aromas are subtle and light on the nose.  - 16 points
Taste (10 points possible): bubbly/effervescent (it is sparkling), medium level of acidity, dry sparkling wine, complex in nature - quite elegant and layered, with medium body/mouthfeel especially for a sparkling wine.  Hints of citrus, apple, and pear flavors linger in the finish with a bread/yeast character that exposes itself as one continues to drink the wine.  - 8 points
Balance (5 points possible): harmonious sparkling wine; yeasty and slightly fruity for those that enjoy a French style Champagne - 5 points
Finish (5 points possible): The length of the finish lasts a little longer than 1 minute, but not deep enough to compare with exquisite reds.  For the style, the breadlike/yeasty flavors that linger with bubbles is what makes this wine so unique. - 4 points 
Add 50 points for attempt, packaging, closure, etc.
Total Points: 93
Overall Thought: According to the website, this wine has received a lot of recognition in the recent past:  I've never had the Fizz, but I have seen it in stores.  I encourage you to reach outside the comfort zone and give Virginia Sparkling a much needed taste!
Food Pairings: I believe this bottle rocks on its own.  At most, serve with bread and soft cheeses as hors d'oeuvres while people can remember the finesse of this wine.
Cost: Last time I saw this bottle, it was $38
Splurge Factor (out of 4): 3 - a little bit more expensive than what I usually recommend, but I do have to recommend some good wines for your enjoyment.  Besides, everyone deserves a little luxury every once and awhile!

Where to buy: There's a list of retailers on the website, so I've included them here for everyone's viewing pleasure:
Washington DC: Cleveland Park Liquor, Dean & DeLuca Inc., Georgetown Wine & Spirits, Potomac Wines & Spirits, Schneider's of Capitol Hill, The Wine Specialist
Maryland: Cork and Fork,
Virginia: Aldie Peddler, Daily Planet Wine & Gourmet, Fern Street Gourmet, Grape and Bean, Rick's Wine and Gourmet, Unwined, Winery Inc., Best Cellars, Curious Grape, Domasoteca, Grand Cru Wine Bar and Cafe, Screwtop Wine Bar and Cheese Shop, Vintage Cellar, Batesville Store, Feast!, Foods of All Nations, In Vino Veritas, Market Street Wineshops: Downtown, Market Street Wineshops: Uptown, Stoney's Grocery and Deli, Rio Hill Wine and Gourmet, Tastings Wine Shop, The Virginia Shop, Wine Warehouse, Wine Cheese and More, Great Valu, Greenwood Grocery, Chateau Du Reaux, Frenchman Corner, Red White and Bleu, kybecca, Virginia Wine Experience, Cork and Fork Wine and Gourmet Shop, Whole Foods Market Short Pump, Vintage Wines, Leesburg Vintner, Washington Street Purveyors, Magnolia Foods, Cecile's Fine Wine, Salamander Market, Basic Necessities, Wine Cabinet at North Point Village, Ellwood Thompson's Natural Market, Once Upon a Vine South, Wine Lovers, Wine Gourmet, Olde Virginia Gourmet and Gifts, Zin, Vienna Vintner, Iron Bridge Wine Co., Town Duck, The Cheese Shop, Squire's Everyday Gourmet

Wine Buzz: "Brut Rose" by Mumm Napa

As I was driving home from work these past 2 days, I noticed some "progressive movement" at Mumm Napa... ahh the sweet reminder that the real harvest is just around the corner starts when you notice the sparkling houses already in action.  I feel special to have caught the winemaking process in action, and decided that this week is "Bubbles Week."

Look at all those bubbles at Mumm Napa!

So, to kick it off, let's start off with a nice bottle of Brut Rose (pretend the "e" at the end of "Rose" has a little slanted line above it... thanks!).

Although I'll probably end up highlighting Mumm Napa as being a great place to stop in Napa Valley, I know for all my Berks Countians out there that it's not the thriftiest of thrifty... but don't you worry - I have some tricks up my sleeve!  The Brut Rose tops the cake at Mumm Napa - a steal in my mind for the quality - a whopping $22 (less than that if you are in the industry - imagine a whole 30% off).  The real bargain is in the magnum (the 1.5 L of Mumm Napa Brut Rose).  At first glance the $50 for the magnum might catch you off guard but you are essentially purchasing 2 bottles of wine in 1 bottle for a much better quality product.  In a side-by-side comparison, the magnum was more bubbly, smoother, fruitier and yet contained that more complex yeast character that the real sparkling wine drinkers love.  The difference was so intense to me, that I bought the magnum without negotiating with "Johnny Depp" (remember - that's code for my boyfriend).  I bought the magnum at the real steal - $35 with an industry discount (or club membership).  *Hint, hint* *Nudge, nudge* to all you industry people out there... stop at Mumm Napa soon!

Think you can't drink all that wine in 1 sitting?  Well I bet you can!  We split it with another couple and it complemented our entire lunch very nicely.  The whole meal circled around the Brut Rose.  Gotta love what bubbles will do to an whole meal with friends!

Brut Rose (magnum) by Mumm Napa
Appearance (10 points possible): slightly pink hue, lots of small, continuous bubbles - 10 points
Aroma/Bouquet (20 points possible): slight yeast/sur lie character, hints of vanilla, dried flowers (especially roses, but in a soft subtle way)  - 18 points
Taste (10 points possible): bubbly/effervescent (it is sparkling), acidic entry, fruit (strawberry and slight plum character) and yeasty flavors mid-palate, smooth finish with lingering notes of strawberries and slight sur lie character  - 9 points
Balance (5 points possible): harmonious sparkling wine; soft and fruity for the sweet bubbly lovers, complexity from Methode Champenoise for the serious bubble lovers - 5 points
Finish (5 points possible): The length of the finish lasts a little longer than 1 minute, but not deep enough to compare with exquisite reds.  For the style, I very much enjoyed the strawberry/yeasty flavors that linger with bubbly smoothness. - 4 points 
Total Points: 96
Overall Thought: According to the website, this wine was given 90 points by Wine Spectator (that was probably for the regular 750 mL bottle).  Again, this rating is based on the magnum.  The blend is 85% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay with a brut dosage (  I've never had someone refuse this wine when it was served to them.  It's perfect for a dinner date, hor d'oeuvres, toasting a marriage, toasting a recent success, Thanksgiving, Christmas, summer time picnics... you name it!  This is 1 bubbly that can be enjoyed with almost anything!
Food Pairings: fruit and yogurt (I very much enjoyed it with this), crab cakes, salmon, or a light, fruity salad
Cost: $22 (750 mL), or $50 (magnum)
Splurge Factor (out of 4): 2 - definitely a good deal and a purchase well worth making; a bit more of a splurge if you're going for the magnum, but call me up and I'll take you to buy it!
Where to buy: I'm uncertain if this wine is found in stores outside of Northern California - has anyone found it in the Eastern U.S.?  If not... Mumm Napa ships (