Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Perfect Wine and Food Pairing in Navarra

Last week I was in the Kingdom of Navarra on a wine blogger trip, and while I tasted some amazing wine, I also was fortunate enough to eat delicious meals at multiple restaurants throughout Navarra and the city of Pamplona. One of those meals came at a restaurant on the third day of our trip through Navarra wine country. The account is below.

The Navarran Coat of Arms

Today while reading Matt Kramer's latest piece in Wine Spectator, I saw a passage that reminded me of one of the best wine and food pairings I've ever had, at a restaurant in Navarra. Matt wrote: "At a dinner with friends, we opened a bottle of 2008 Tokaji Furmint Sec from Kiralyudvar with a lemon risotto. We collectively gasped with pleasure and sensory surprise so striking was the wine. You could practically feel the universe expand, if only for an instant"

The theme of his column in the October 31st issue of Wine Spectator, was the romance of and in wine. While the article makes a good point that for some people, the romance has gone, the quote above is what stirred my memory. Experiences like what Matt describes are for me, rare, but that makes them more special and perhaps that's the romance of wine. Creating experiences such as what I'm about to describe won't come about from pairing a burger and Coca-Cola, or a glass of ice water and some suckling pig. Wine is integral to great meal experiences, and that's the truth.

After tasting some delicious wines at Senorio de Otazu with Javier Banales Vanes, he took the #Navarra5 to lunch at Sarbil, a small restaurant overlooking the valley which holds Otazu. The pictures do not do the location justice, as Restaurante Sarbil sits out over the cliff itself, leaving it's diners sitting on air! This was one of the most beautiful sights during my time learning about Navarra wine.

There you can see the restaurant and amazing view we had, the perfect setting for an equally amazing lunch. Sarbil was founded by a local man who had previously worked for years in industry before coming to his senses and realizing he and his wife could make amazing food. Javier said it was one of his favorite places to lunch and after our meal there, I can see why.

After tasting at Otazu, Javier brought two bottles of wine with him to the restaurant, the 2006 Altar and 2005 Vitral. Both are red blends, the Altar featuring 90% cabernet sauvignon and 10% tempranillo and the Vitral taking the cabernet even further, at 95% with the rest tempranillo. When I do my Otazu writeup, you'll read more detailed tasting notes on each wine, and their commensurately high scores.

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My choice of entree was suckling pig, something I've had and enjoyed a few times here in the United States, and to be honest, an alternative to the multiple kilograms of steak I'd already consumed during the trip. That's not to say the steaks weren't bad, quite the opposite. However, eating more steak would have been like going to France and having escargot at every stop.

After going through multiple courses to even get to the suckling pig, and consuming multiple bottles of the amazing Otazu rosado, I witnessed the sight of a perfectly cooked portion of suckling pig make it's way to the space in front of me. The skin was crackly and crunchy, and underneath, the flesh came apart as if by magic. I thought to myself "this is just not fair" and remember looking over at Mike Wangbickler who was also sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

My "moment" came when the Wine Harlot was trying to engage me in conversation. I'd just taken a bite of the suckling pig, part skin and part flesh. The salty, crunchy skin giving way to creamy, decadent flesh that itself was marvelous, without any wine! Then, I took a sip of the Vitral and my world stopped. I was speechless, my brain exploded into colors, purple, garnet, ruby,  and electric blue fireworks inside my head. 

My eyes were closed as I savored this perfect synergy of food and wine. THIS is why I drink wine, THIS is why I pair wine and food. The Vitral, all $105 dollars worth, seamlessly complemented the flavors of the pig. The skin, glazed to perfection, gave way to earth and dried herbs from the tempranillo, the creamy flesh of the baby pig bathed in the cassis and black cherry fruit of the cabernet. The entire experience is seared permanently into my brain. I couldn't tell where the wine stopped and the food began, or vice versa.

I held up a finger to the Harlot, begging her indulgence and after a second, she understood what was going on. Right then, there, for me, the entire world was perfect.

Beau Carufel

Monday, September 26, 2011

Navarra Wine Adventure, The First Day (Officially)

So begins the first day on my Navarra Wine Adventure.
After a bit of a blow out on the night we arrived, I found myself in my hotel bed thinking that perhaps I needed to nurse my drinks in order to survive the trip. Whenever a group of wine bloggers get together, things have the potential to get a bit fun. That realization caused me to get out of bed, while still remembering the events described below, and begin my first day in Navarra.

The "#Navarra5" had a blast on Sunday night, visiting various tapas bars around Pamplona. In fact, tapas is not used by the natives of Navarra, they kept reminding me that the term was "pintxos", pronounced "pinchos". As those of you who speak Spanish know, a slight mis-pronunciation of that word could have dire consequences. Pintxos are single-serve bites, sort of like a large amuse bouche. They can be anything from a small roll with Jamon Iberico on it, freshly cooked eel, tortillas (not that kind), cheese and jamon bites in a crunchy shell, even smoked sardines. You go to the pintxos place and order a bunch of small plates, usually for about one Euro or so, wash it down with a glass or two of wine, then head out for dinner or to a show. I love this idea!

The group's favorite restaurant/bar for pintxos quickly became El Gaucho, located only a half kilometer from our hotel, Palacio Guendulain, making it very conveinent. We ended up visiting El Gaucho multiple times throughout the trip, always in search of delicious pintxos, and of course, Navarra wine!

Meeting downstairs in the overcast, cool light of a Navarran morning (September 19th), our van was quickly loaded with camera gear, bags, and wine bloggers. The first stop was 30 minutes away, at the headquarters for the D.O. Navarra. Set in a beautiful postmodern building, this is where Navarran wine is administered. The facility also acts as a research station for Spanish viticulture.

Thankfully there was coffee and water for us all, and we were introduced to the D.O. of Navarra via a slide show from the wonderfully enthusiastic Pilar García-Granero, who is the head of the administrative agency. Some of what was covered includes the history of the Kingdom of Navarra itself, Navarran grapegrowing, and an overview of some of the rules that wine from Navarra must adhere to.

Given a proper sense of context, we were ready to explore the area, starting with the Castle at Olite, where we got a guided tour of the grounds. The pictures below make an effort to capture the beauty and sheer scale of Olite. To view more pictures of my trip to Olite, visit my Flickr photostream.

Looking down at the moat

With that tour complete and the #Navarra5 getting thirsty, it was time to visit a winery! Another 30 minute car ride brought us to Bodega Inurrieta, where we met Jose Antonia Pellicer and winemaker Kepa Sagastizabal who gave us a tour of the winery before leading a tasting of their wines. I've written about Inurrieta previously, one of their wines was in a Wines of Navarra Live Tasting and showed well.

After tasting and discussing the wines, we were treated to a magnificent lunch, with the winery owner himself doing the cooking. Lasting a full two hours, we ate summer greens, piquillo peppers, chickpea soup, steak, and a dessert called cuajada, one of the most interesting things I've ever had.

Chickpea soup

Stuffed with both food and information, the #Navarra5 journeyed to the next stop, Bodegas Ochoa. That name should ring a bell, I've written about their wines in my Dessert Wine blog post as well as the Wines of Navarra Live Tasting post. Talking to Beatriz Ochoa and Pablo Aguirre, I enjoyed their enthusiasm and passion for the bodega. It also didn't hurt that the wines were superb. We even got to talk (via translator) with the founder himself, Mr. Javier Ochoa Martínez.

In the span of one day, I had visited two wineries producing deliciously accessible wines which are primed for the American market. Considering how we Millennials are growing more adventurous in our quest for good bottles, I really hope my generation starts asking for Navarra wine at our local wine shops. These kinds of wines, priced at around $7-$15, would sell like crazy one wine lovers tasted them. That is a fact.

Wines we tasted

Back into the van, a somewhat tired group headed back to Pamplona for a few hours of rest before heading to dinner at Enekorri, a restaurant of great renown. In the pictures below you'll see that I ate some amazing dishes, all paired with Navarra wine. The freshness of the ingredients combined with the care at their preparation left me impressed (and full!)

Cold tomato soupMenu

Squid tagliatelle
fillet steak with piquillos
The food was amazing, one of the best meals I've had all year and each dish paired very nicely with the wines. Our host for dinner, Conchi Biurrun, picked wines from all over the region to showcase the versatility that is Navarra wine.

After the meal the #Navarra5 headed back to our marvelous hotel for a much needed break, to rest our minds, bodies, and palates for the next day. On our second day, September 20, we were to tour more wineries and take a walking tour of the city of Pamplona. That blog entry will be a lot of fun, and I promise some wonderful pictures are to come.

Beau Carufel

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Day One, On The Way To Navarra.

The airlines tell us to arrive two hours early for international flights, and I rarely any attention to that advice. Over the past 10 years of traveling as an adult, I've never had issues arriving an hour or so before my long distance flights. For some reason I felt a sense of urgency today though, despite having packed everything the night before, checked in online, and had my travel clothes laid out ahead of time.

Was my gut trying to tell me to listen to the advice, for once? Probably. I'm happy I did listen, because the security lines at Terminal 2 were about 35 minutes long this morning, another aspect of travel I'm not used to. Granted, my past travel has been in First and Business classes, I am very fortunate to typically avoid the long lines at the check-in and security areas. Already, after experiencing both long lines while checking my bag and going through security, I feel so fortunate to have avoided that in the past. Also I now understand the frustrations of many travelers and the frequent complaints. It all makes sense, and as this trip progresses and I continue to travel in Economy class, my understanding will only grow. A great sense of perspective, even a learning experience.

Does this have anything to do with wine? No, not really. The wine selection here at the San Diego Admiral's Club is nondescript and very "safe". Since it's only about 9:15am, having a glass of wine seems a bit sloppy and I have settled for a very good Bloody Mary. Settled might not be the best word, since this one is quite good and better than what I usually get at United Red Carpet Clubs.

Musing on the wine list here for a moment, I think Southern Wines and Spirits stocks this place, or at least, whomever distributes Kenwood does. While not a bad wine at all, a person like me has no reason to have a glass of wine. Perhaps that's not bad though because people like me (and maybe even you, reader) aren't the target here. Stocking the wines we want would be cost prohibitive, imagine a scenario where I order a Condrieu and that bottle is opened, then sits open, with 6 oz. emptied, for days. Cost prohibitive indeed, so once again I return to my Bloody Mary.

Time to schlep it to the gate and board, in Group 2, my flight to Dallas. I'll pick this up in a few hours.

On the ground in Dallas, roughly two hours until my flight to Madrid. I'm sitting at the D Gate Admiral's Club and it's swanky! But I can tell why American Airlines has to charge for booze here, this place must have cost a fortune to build and operate, so to recoup their investment they charge $6 for a Shiner Bock. It's not all gloom and doom though, free WiFi is awesome and at least the beer is cold.

I started to think about what I should expect in Navarra and in Pamplona specifically. At the top of the list is my expectation to learn about the wines of Navarra. What drove the vine choices? What are the goals of the producers in the region? Do they want to be known as a premium wine area or as a value-oriented region? I'd love to also learn about the relationship between food and wine there too, which is a greater influence?

Tomorrow I'll start getting answers to these questions and more that I'll think of on the long flight over. Now, I'm going to hydrate and get as much time on my feet as I can before the flight over the Atlantic. Bon Voyage!

Beau Carufel

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's #Wine Time In Navarra!

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Tomorrow morning at 10am, my journey to Navarra begins. Along the way, I stop for a few hours in Dallas and Madrid. Upon arriving in Navarra, I'll meet up with my fellow wine bloggers drXeNo, cuvee_corner, wineissrsbiz, and WineHarlots. For the next six days and seven nights, we'll be sipping (and spitting), eating, thinking, and writing our way through Navarra to gain a better understanding of the wines in the Kingdom. It is my hope that along the way, I'll find out where these wines fit into the American palate and how to best open this nation's eyes to what is still a relatively undiscovered region.

Frequent readers to this blog will know that over the past year I've participated in multiple "live" Twitter Tastings of Navarran wines. Here's a list of previous blog posts to look at, should you be interested in what I've tasted and reviewed so far:
Tasting Wine From Navarra, Spain.
A Winner From Navarra: 2006 Bodegas Ochoa Tempranillo
Back to Navarra!
Bodega de Sarria Senorio de Sarria Vinedo no. 5...A Rosé By Any Other Name.

Also, a superb moscatel from Bodegas Ochoa made it into my dessert wine tasting earlier this year and proved to be a smash hit.

Needless to say, when I first started wine blogging back in late 2009, I never expected to be going on a wine blogger media trip. This past May, I was asked if I was interested in going on a trip, naturally I jumped at the chance. Of course, I'd seen reports from famous bloggers like Joe Roberts and Alder Yarrow of the awesome trips they took, and those guys set the bar very high for the rest of us in terms of reporting and educating our readers. I will attempt to reach that high with my own blog posts.

Mike Wangbickler of Balzac Communications & Marketing will be there with us too, because Balzac is working directly with the Wines of Navarra people to promote and inform the American audience. Mike will be the bloggers liason with the wineries, as far as I understand it. That and he'll of course try to keep up with us bloggers as we "taste" and "learn" about all the wine we possibly can! (Just kidding, Mike!)

Stay tuned to my Facebook page to see pictures as I journey through Navarra, I'll be uploading pictures every night, time permitting. Also keep your blog reader tuned here to follow along as I attempt a series of micro-blogs throughout the week. Will they succeed or fail? I'll know in two weeks!

I'm all packed, checked in on American Airlines (anyone wanna upgrade me to Business Class to Madrid??), and my batteries are charged for this trip. Who'd have thought, me, a 28 year old wine geek from San Diego would get to go to Spain to taste and learn about wine? Cheers!

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Shannon Ridge Winery Current Releases

Shannon Ridge Winery, of Lake County California, recently sent me their new red wine releases to taste through. As someone just beginning to learn about the wines coming out of the Lake County AVA, this was a good chance to get to know one of the wineries from the area. I've reviewed a Shannon Ridge wine in the past, unfortunately a disappointing sauvignon blanc. On the other hand, it's rare that I find a California sauvignon blanc I like. That said, I'm always up to try new ones!

Lake County is located in California, north of the famous Napa Valley and inland from Sonoma and Mendocino counties. This American Viticultural Area is somewhat higher than other notable AVAs as well, and Clear Lake plays a major influence on how the vineyards ripen. You probably won't be surprised to learn that cabernet sauvignon is the most-planted varietal, merlot being a distant second.

These are the wines I was sent to review:
2008 Shannon Ridge Lake County Cabernet Sauvignon $19 suggested retail
2009 Shannon Ridge Lake County Zinfandel $19 suggested retail
2009 Shannon Ridge Lake County Petite Sirah $24 suggested retail

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Each of these wines can be purchased at local wine stores and directly from the Shannon Ridge website.

First up was the 2008 cabernet sauvignon. This cabernet is actually made up of 89% cabernet sauvignon, 8% petite sirah, and 3% merlot. All the fruit comes from Lake County and the abv is a relatively (sad, I know) normal 14.5%. After fermentation, the 2008 cabernet spent 16 months in French and American oak barrels.

Aromatically this 2008 Shannon Ridge cab is all smoke and wood, with a bit of a boozy heat on the finish. A vigorous swirl session brought out some dark, ripe berry aromas too. I wrote down one word, then circled it repeatedly: "pleasant". That sums up the bouquet in this cabernet, it's nice and interesting yet lacks some depth. Above average, yes..but mind-blowing, no.

The way this wine tasted was a different story however. I loved how it was dry and dusty, with some firm tannin keeping a dollop of soft red fruit flavors firmly in place right in the middle of my tongue. There is some influence from the oak barrels too, a toasty sawdust note hangs out at the fringes of my palate throughout the sip and swirl. Unfortunately the finish did leave me wishing for more depth, but that could be a function of this relatively young wine needing some decanting.

For around $15 in the retail environment, this 2008 Shannon Ridge cabernet is good and veers away from the typically overripe, fruity cabernet's that $15 buys from Napa Valley. I'd love to pair it with a grilled steak and some garlic french fries. B and a BUY recommendation.

Next, I tasted the zinfandel from Shannon Ridge. One of the varietals (along with petite sirah) from Lake County that's getting some coverage in the blogging community, zinfandel can be a very structured, focused wine or an overripe, sweet, high alcohol fruit bomb. Guess which kind of zinfandel I like?

This 2009 zinfandel is again 14.5%, around the norm for what we see these days. A blend of 93% zinfandel and 7% petite sirah, this wine spent 12 months in oak barrels. 2,060 cases were produced.

I liked the spice and earth notes right up front, very dark aromas that set the tone for the wine. There's also some black cherry and fig creating a balance with the spice and earthy primary scents. If I had to pick one aspect of the bouquet that I enjoyed the most, I would choose the mixture of earth and black cherry. Imagine dark, dry earth and crushed cherries, inhale deeply and I think you'll get a sense of what I smelled with the 2009 Shannon Ridge zinfandel.

After tasting this zin, I wrote the following: "Plenty ripe but with nice balance between ripe red berry fruit and the tannin. Well built wine, my attention was taken by a dollop of spice on the mid-palate. Very enjoyable, especially for zin lovers!"

Good stuff, this is a very good zinfandel at a great price. Using I found it at $18, which compares favorably to zinfandels costing a lot more. This is a very high-quality wine with great complexity and for most zinfandel drinkers, atypical of what they usually drink. Upon some reflection, this might be a zin for cabernet lovers...B, STRONG BUY recommendation.

Finally, the "big daddy", petite sirah. Again, 14.5% alcohol, I detect a theme...This is varietally pure, 100% petite sirah and also spent 12 months in oak barrels. A relatively small 7,000 cases were produced, though the Shannon Ridge cabernet did see 12,000 cases making it the largest of the three. I did a quick check of and found this petite sirah at only $12 at a number of stores. That's half the suggested retail price. The question then is, how good of a deal are we getting?

An intense blend of blackberry and blueberry are framed by baking spices and dry, dusty earth. I was intrigued by the restraint, even after running the wine through an aerator. There is a green, herbal component at work but it's very light and doesn't show up with every sniff of the glass. Even after being open for three hours, the bouquet remained a lot more muted than I expected.

Sipping this Shannon Ridge petite sirah is a different story entirely though. An initial smoothness full of ripe berries give way to a thick, tannic mid-palate that begs for a steak. I used words like "beefy" and "chewy" to describe how dry and intense that mid-palate sensation is. Balancing a ripe core of black fruit with a muscular, tannic sensation is a hallmark of good petite sirah and one of the reasons I tend to enjoy it so much. In that regard, the 2009 Shannon Ridge achieves notable balance and intensity. I suspect that given a few more years of aging, we'll see an even better wine.

Of the three Shannon Ridge wines I tasted, this was my favorite by a comfortable margin. An easy B+ and STRONG BUY recommendation, at $12 it's a no-brainer. Bring this out at the end of a Barolo tasting or when you're grilling thick steaks, I bet it'll wow your friends.

A successful tasting of three Lake County wines that showcase the high quality and low prices that create some outstanding bargains in that region. All three of these are wines I'd gladly purchase and indeed, if I spot the petite sirah around town, I'll be picking up a few to have on hand. If Shannon Ridge keeps pumping out wines like this, I think they'll become a very well known Lake County producer in a short period of time.

These wines were media samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Thursday, September 8, 2011

2009 Von Holt Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

**BREAKING NEWS** For the next 24 hours: September 14-15th you can get FREE SHIPPING on your purchase at Von Holt Wines, just use the promo code: BBR-VHW on checkout. This is your chance to try the amazing wines including what I reviewed here. Well worth a visit, don't ya think?!

About a month ago, during the course of tweeting up about wine and specifically, California syrah, I started tweeting with the Von Holts, who own Von Holt Wines. They produce pinot noir and syrah from a small winery in Belmont, CA. After some tweeting, one of the two Von Holts, Chris or Pam, offered to send me some samples to try. At the time I was on a bit of an Oregon pinot noir kick, so the chance to sample some syrah and pinot from this state was something I jumped at..

Boy am I glad I did! After getting four wines from the Von Holts, I laid them down for a few weeks to settle down, as I usually do. Fast forward and we're already into September and Labor Day weekend. After consuming Oregon pinot noir rosé and a red Rhone the past few days, I needed something to ground me in California once again.

Von Holt Wines to the rescue! 

I opened their 2009 Russian River Valley pinot noir. It's made up of fruit from two vineyards, Suacci and Ketcham. Picked on September 19, 2009, this pinot noir almost made it two years from picking to my mouth. Neat! For us wine geeks, there are four clones present: Pommard, 828, 115, and 777. This particular pinot spent 11 months in French oak, 25% of that was new oak barrels. Alcohol is a refreshingly "low" 13.8%. Compared to the 14.7% pinot rosé and 15% Rhone I had recently, this is in another league entirely.

The color is beautiful, a light, translucent ruby red that pales towards the meniscus. It looks like pinot noir should, without the darker purple hues that come from additives like Mega-Purple or the addition of syrah or valdigue.

Aromatically I picked up ripe red cherry, some warm baking spices, and a nice forest floor component. The red fruit dominates, especially as the wine opens up. There is a touch of kirsch that seems to blend well with a hint of green grape stem. I think this is a classical Russian River Valley bouquet, elegant and fun at the same time.

My first sip brought a vibrant red cherry and pepper note, which I found incredibly appealing. The acidity is clean and pure, each flavor follows the line of acid along your palate all the way to the finish. The 2009 Von Holt RRV has a lightness of body, and the way that an earthy, truffle note takes over from the cherry flavors is almost perfect. I wish there had been a bit more of the earthy truffle note though because the red cherry is so ripe and pure that it does tend to dominate. The pinot had a wonderful finish, with the acid keeping things light and fresh while the flavors slowly faded away.

The first of four wines from Von Holt that I tasted, this set the bar high, but I have no doubt I will enjoy the rest. For a suggested retail price of $38 on the website, this is well worth the money. I suspect it would be around $8 cheaper at local wine stores, making it a screaming deal for pinot noir of this quality. It should age nicely until around 2017 or so, but is perfectly good to drink right now. A-, STRONG BUY recommendation.

I'd love to try another bottle of 2009 Von Holt with a bacon-wrapped salmon or some marinated grilled chicken, but this would also stand up to something like a rack of lamb provided you didn't go too crazy with the herbs.

Visit the Von Holts on Twitter and you can purchase the 2009 Von Holt Russian River Valley pinot noir on the website.

This wine was a media sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Whole Foods Market, La Jolla, Friday Wine Tasting

Check it out, if you're a San Diegan or La Jollan (is that right?), our local Whole Foods Market is having a cool wine tasting this Friday, September 9th. It's at 6:30pm and is only $5. The image below sums up the tasting quite well, and it's worth a visit if you'll be in the neighborhood.

Events like this, showcasing a brand's own efforts to field new and interesting wines, are very valuable to building relationships with customers. Whole Foods has been making great strides in recent years targeting wine and craft beer drinkers. Earlier this year I tasted through a selection of Whole Foods Summer Wines, and while these wines aren't blockbusters, at their respective prices they showcase good quality and drink-ability.

So then, this Friday night, check out Whole Foods in La Jolla for a fun, inexpensive wine tasting. Hope to see you there!!

Beau Carufel

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Cornerstone Cellars' Stepping Stone Red Rocks!..And it Does!

Throughout this summer I've explored some of the wines from Cornerstone Cellars and their Stepping Stone label. This blog marks the last of the wines I received in the sample shipment from a few months ago. The 2009 Stepping Stone Red Rocks! was something I'd been looking forward to tasting, yet also holding off until the occasion was worthwhile. Since the vast majority of wine drinkers (me included) aren't looking to drink their wines in a sterile environment, tasting and evaluating wine in such an environment can be a bit counterproductive. That's why I'll often open a sample with food, to gain a better sense of how the wine interacts with other tastes, textures, and flavors. Recently, the occasion to open the 2009 Stepping Stone Red Rocks! was appropriate.

Backing up a bit, here's a list of the Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Cellars wines I've tasted to date:
2010 Stepping Stone White Rocks!
2010 Stepping Stone Corallina Rosé
2010 Stepping Stone Riesling
2010 Stepping Stone Sauvignon Blanc

The 2009 Stepping Stone Red Rocks! is a blend of zinfandel and pinot noir, perhaps one of the odder blends you'll ever see. When doing background for this blog feature, I sat back and shook my head when I learned of the blend here. My fear was that the two varietals would clash, creating a disjointed, unpleasant wine.

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Luckily, the 2009 Red Rocks! was anything but disjointed. It's also not for the faint of heart or those seeking "subtle, light wine". Clocking in at a whopping 14.9% abv, this is a textbook "big, juicy, intensely ripe" red blend. I smelled a lot of ripe blackberry and black cherry preserve on the nose, along with vanilla toast, indicating some time spent in oak. The tell-tale heat from the high alcohol crept in but wasn't too distracting, to me that was a pleasant surprise.

Tasting the Stepping Stone Red Rocks! evoked memories of my mom and/or grandmother cooking a Finnish summer berry dish in the kitchen. Basically, you boil ripe strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and sugar, as well as a touch of corn starch, to create a sweet berry compote. The aromas of fruit in the kitchen were often very intense and sweet, two characteristics to describe the flavor of the Red Rocks! If you're looking for a pairing, think smoked spare ribs, marinated tri-tip, or Sloppy Joe sandwiches. They'd all play well against the sweet black and blue berry fruit, toasty vanilla oak, and bits of spice that pop up on the edges of your tongue.

Does this wine sound good to you? For me, serving it with barbecue-sauce drenched ribs was awesome, and I made sure to back up those intensely sweet, ripe flavors with a side of cole-slaw. The 2009 Stepping Stone Red Rocks! is a powerhouse of a wine, and somewhere along the way I think the pinot noir just gives up, letting the zinfandel work it's magic. That turns out to be a good thing, allowing more focus on ripe fruit and spice.

For around $15 a bottle at the Cornerstone Cellars website, this is a great deal on an outstanding summer barbecue wine. It's well made and fits into a style that a lot of us enjoy with heavy, hearty foods. You can order the Red Rocks! via the website or find it at some fine stores in and around Napa Valley.

This blog feature wraps up my tastings of the Stepping Stone by Cornerstone lineup, thanks go to Craig Camp for sending me these bottles to taste. I had a good time tasting and sharing them with you, and it's proof positive that a winery who produces very high end wines can also have a viable, high quality second label that comes in at a very, very friendly price point.

These wines were media samples for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Sunday, September 4, 2011

[yellow tail] Moscato

Moscato. "Serious" wine drinkers (me included) make fun of it. Moscato is a varietal, easy to grow, easy to make into a lightly sweet white wine. When moscato is vinified, it's stylistically a rather simple drink, almost always with that sweet taste. Recent studies have shown that most people's palates prefer sweet flavors to bitter or astringent ones, therefore a wine made from moscato would be something that a lot of people would prefer, right? The folks at W.J. Deutch & Sons think so and have begun importing a moscato from [yellow tail] into the United States.

Perhaps we shouldn't make fun of moscato. The moscato grape is now the fastest growing varietal in the United States. AC Nielsen reports that the moscato category has jumped an astounding 96.2% in sales volume from last year's. Whole vineyards are being ripped up all throughout California's bulk-wine producing Central Valley, and guess what they're being replanted with? Sure the logic might be a bit faulty, since those moscato vines won't produce viable fruit for 4-6 years and by then tastes may change, but the point is clear.

Enter Yellowtail, or [yellow tail]. The original "critter wine", a $5 shiraz that almost single handedly redefined both a varietal and a wine market. A wine that introduced millions of new wine drinkers to red wine. This is their Moscato. Similar in style, eerily similar to low-priced moscato from Asti, Italy. Those are known as Moscato d'Asti or Asti Spumante. A wine like this [yellow tail] appeals to a giant swath of the population looking for a fun, easy to drink beverage that still carries the "wine" designation yet isn't expensive, complex, pretentious, or hard to drink.

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Yellowtail advertises their moscato as: "Lil' Sweet. Lil' Fizzy" and that is certainly the case here. Ripe peaches and fizz define the smell and the taste. I picked up a hint of something tropical, like mango juice, as well, further sweetening up the [yellow tail] moscato to the point where it was a bit overwhelming. As someone who enjoys dry sparkling wine, I couldn't drink a full glass of this on it's own. This isn't a dessert wine though, so it doesn't reek of residual sugar the way a late harvest riesling might.

What did happen was inspiration, because I think the Yellow Tail moscato is perfect for cocktails. Mix it with a citrus based soda and some vodka, add two drops of bitters, and enjoy. Another recipe is to use just the moscato, some frozen, blended peach, and a couple of ounces of light rum. Still one more is to just do the moscato and vodka, with a lemon twist. That's called a "Moscatini"The point is to experiment and find recipes that work.

I'm not trying to sound like this [yellow tail] moscato is undrinkable! Just for my palate, it's something I'd avoid, along with 99% of all moscato. Add to that my hesitation at even considering the [yellow tail] brand, and it's hard to recommend this as a summer sipper. Why then did I accept this sample? Professional curiosity, the chance to taste something new, and the desire to experiment with wine cocktails.

Sure, the price is good, $6.99 for a 750ml bottle, and throughout it's existence, Yellowtail has always been very affordable. What it's lacked is identity, uniqueness, a sense of place. Admittedly those are hard when your wines cost $5.49 at Trader Joe's, and I am taking the low price into account.

With that in mind, if you are looking to drink (or serve) a light, airy, slightly sweet wine, this might be a wise choice. You get name recognition from your guests (or yourself), solid quality, and an easily quaffable wine. All for a real-world price of around $5. Hard to ask for more at that price point. As they say in the land of Oz, good on ya', [yellow tail].

This wine was a media sample for review purposes.

Beau Carufel

Friday, September 2, 2011

#CabernetDay Recap; a Live, Global Wine Tasting

Another "varietal day" has come and gone. By all accounts (read: measured metrics across social media channels) this "#CabernetDay" was a huge success. Just like last year, I participated by opening some cabernet sauvignon and tweeting about what I was having. Unlike last year, I invited some friends over to hang out, eat food, and enjoy the samples I was sent. Also, I was lucky enough to get some wines from Hahn Family Wines and Sequoia Grove to sample. My Cabernet Day was set up for success, to borrow a term from work.

My buddy Brian and his girlfriend, Teenie, came by to hang out and sip some wine while enjoying spread of delicious food I prepared. Since the wine was cabernet, that naturally called for meat, lots of it, the red kind. I stopped by my local grocery store to get some bone-in New York Strip, ground bison, bacon, aged cheddar, and various other bits and pieces. Brian brought over some cheese, apples, grapes, and carnitas; we were set to gorge on food and wine.

There you can see some of the food I bought for the Cabernet Day tasting. Instead of ground beef, I went with ground bison because it's a leaner meat with different flavors than cow. The point was to see how gamey, earthy flavors paired with cabernet sauvignon, something I have done before and enjoyed. Bacon is a necessity in most kitchens, there was no way I was making gourmet cheeseburgers without it.

Hand formed bison burgers and bacon about to go in the oven, and the festivities are about to get started! Since bison is so lean, I added in an egg and about half a teaspoon of barbecue sauce in an attempt to keep meat moist. Why did I cook the patties in the oven? Good question, I think it was an experiment to see if I could keep the juices locked into the meat more than if I'd used a frying pan.

Now I can talk a bit about the wines I was sent. From the Hahn Family Wines portfolio I was sent three samples and I decided to open another sample, from Sequoia Grove, as a fourth bottle. Here they are:

2010 Cycles Gladiator Cabernet Sauvignon Lodi: Overripe cherries, black pepper, herbs and cocoa powder on the nose give way to a cabernet lacking acidity and structure. Some interesting spices on the mid-palate but that's it. A one dimensional, boring cabernet sauvignon. Thin and lacked tannin. 86% cabernet sauvignon, 9% merlot, 5% petite sirah. C+. 14.5% abv. $12 suggested retail price.

2009 Hahn Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast: A nice, simple, medium bodied cabernet. Good balance of ripe red fruit and spices wafted out of the glass. Not much tannin again, but what's there does help with the sweet cherry and plum flavors. A blend of 90% cabernet sauvignon and 10% merlot. Still, too flabby and a bit hot for my tastes. Solid finish, good length and there's a hit of roasted coffee at the end that keeps this wine fun. B-. 14.5% abv. $12 suggested retail price.

2009 Smith & Hook Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast: Very nice mix of herb, cherry, and black currants make up the bouquet. The oak influence is here and in force, but it just works. Beautifully bright ruby color, the best of the four wines. This is 88% cabernet sauvignon and 12% merlot.Firm, linear tannin carry cassis, dark chocolate, blackberry, and dried herb flavors through a nice lengthy finish. Paired very, well with the New York Strip but needed less tannin to work with the bison burgers. Still, a very good wine. B. BUY recommendation. 14.8% abv. $30 suggested retail price.

2007 Sequoia Grove Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley: Typically "Napa Valley" bouquet: dusty earth mingling with intense black currant, spice, oak, and blackberries. Purple-garnet color, very impressive and still very young, this Sequoia Grove cab has another 5-10 years left. A blend of 82% cabernet, 12% merlot, 6% cabernet franc, and 6% petite verdot. Stronger oak influence is evidence of the 20 months this cabernet spent in American oak. Ripe black cherry, blackberry, mocha, and some nicely integrated tannin created a great mouthfeel and texture. I enjoyed the depth of flavor and the way this wine seemed to spread to all corners of my palate. B+. BUY recommendation. 14.2% abv. $38 suggested retail price.

Kudos to Rick Bakas for promoting this event and getting so many people on board. I had a great time cooking food for my friends and sharing wine with them. Additional thanks to Mark Buckley of Hahn Family Wines and Jeff Donegan of Kobrand for sending me samples. #CabernetDay turned out to be a smashing success, and I loved seeing the discussion from around the world. While I still feel that the various "varietal days" are getting out of control, I certainly won't stop opening bottles and sharing them with my friends, because that's really what these days are all about.

Those of us who write about wine, sell wine, make wine, and educate about wine should be the ones leading the charge to get more Americans to drink good wine on a regular basis. We do that by showing enthusiasm, passion, humor, and patience in our interactions with those just beginning to explore wine.

Beau Carufel