Thursday, January 27, 2011

ZAP, Zin, Zoom!

The Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) Zinfandel Festival kicked off today in San Francisco. Dedicated to all things Zin, the festival is in its 20th year of bringing a wider audience - and respectability - to a once-maligned and unknown California grape.

Zins tend to be robust reds bursting with spice and fruit with a long, soft finish. I recently had the
Oak Ridge Ancient Vines Zinfandel that displayed all of the above characteristics and then some. Made from 50 - 100 year old vines, the Oak Ridge is a concentrated, elegant wine with soft tannins and hints of leather and cinnamon under big fruit flavors. I haven't had a zin in some time and the Oak Ridge reminded me of what a great zin can taste like. And since Zinfandel is not as well-known as, say Cabernet Sauvignion or Merlot, you can find some great values. The Oak Ridge will set you back only $12.99.

Both the Oak Ridge and the fact that ZAP is underway got me thinking about another grape that is struggling for acceptance, respectability and a wider-audience: The Norton. Like Zinfandel, the Norton is an American original. It was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century, and has recently been rediscovered and has a growing and loyal following. Like most things with a growing and loyal following, people who have discovered Nortons can't believe how few people know about the grape and the wine made from it.

Also like Zinfandel, the Norton grape makes big, robust wines. Mellow, oaky and dry with liquorice and blackberry flavors and a deep, violet color. Norton wine lovers should look to Zinfandel for inspiration for how to grow a wider following for their preferred wine. And some are. Leading the way is
Chrysalis Vineyards. Chrysalis currently has four Nortons on offer and is the host of the annual Norton Wine and Bluegrass Festival.

Another similarity between Zinfandel and Norton is that both grow well in a very limited area. Zinfandel doesn't grow exceptionally well outside of California (unless you count its twin, the Primitivo grape in Italy) and Norton has really only thrived in Missouri and Virginia.

Both varietals are native American Grapes that produce deep, hearty wines. And both grapes are very particular in where they grow well. Zinfandel serves as a great example of where Norton can be as a varietal provided people continue to try and enjoy the wine.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Praise of Mutts

The name of this post is not just a shameless excuse to put up a picture of our dog Kopek, as appropriate as it is. Rather it is to highlight a few of the really nice red blends we have had recently. Until recently, I have been more interested in the single varietal wines. I want a Cabernet that tastes like a Cabernet because it is a Cabernet - Sauvignon or Franc. In my attempt to stay true to my misguided one type of grape in one bottle philosophy, I was missing out on some really spectacular wines.

Blends are, essentially, mutts. Take a little Cabernet, a little Merlot, throw in some Syrah and see what happens. This is, of course, an incredibly naive oversimplification. Bordeaux wines are blends, with Cabernet Sauvignon being the dominant grape for wines from the Left Bank and Merlot being the dominant grape for wines from the Right Bank. Recently I have started familiarizing myself with Bordeaux wines and domestic Bordeaux-style blends more and more. I have been skeptical of developing too much of a Bordeaux habit, and have also been skeptical of the Meritage movement for domestic blends. Recently, I have come to terms with the fact that even though it is a made up term, there are still some great Meritage blends out there. There are other blends that don't use the Meritage label that are worth trying.

Two that I have enjoyed recently are the
Courtney Benham 2009 Paso Robles Lucca Red and the other is Sobon Wines' Vicious Red Blend. Even though I was drinking the Lucca Red as I watched an embarrassing Bears loss to the Green Bay Packers for a trip to the Super Bowl, I still really enjoyed the wine. It was a powerful, full-bodied, yet elegant blend that had a nice balance between the fruit-forward flavors of blackberry, cherry and boysenberry and the vanilla and oak flavors on the finish. Who knows if I would like it even more if I drank it while not being distracted by a football game.

I really liked the Vicious Red - especially for the price. Another full-bodied wine, it had a bit more fruit up front than the Lucca Red did - black and red cherries along with a hint of anise gives way to a nice, soft finish that has vanilla, oak and earth accents. I could see this becoming our new house red if there weren't so many other great wines out there that I haven't tried yet.

Blends no longer intimidate me, nor do I immediately brush off blends right away. Like mutts, when blends are done well, the best attributes of all the different components shine through.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Capital Wine Festival is Underway!

As the popularity of wine continues to increase, so too has the popularity of wine festivals. A Google search of the term “wine festivals” will return more than two and a half million pages. That’s a lot of wine festivals - with many of them following the same formula: invite as many wineries as possible, throw some food and crafts at the attendees along with a complimentary tasting glass, and price the festival reasonably enough to make sure that said attendees will descend on the convention center/hotel ballroom/park, etc. in droves.

Not that these wine festivals are a bad thing – I enjoy going to them, meeting people from the wineries and tasting the regional food – but it is nice to have a bit of variety. The continuing popularity of wine is a great thing, and big wine festivals help make wine even more approachable and accessible to those who may have an interest in wine, but still want to explore their options.

My point is that it is difficult to create a successful wine festival that breaks out of this tried and true mold. The Capital Wine Festival strives to do just that by creating a more intimate experience for both the wineries and the participants. At the Grand Opening Reception, there was great wine and great food, but gone were the schwag bags, free tasting glasses and regional folk art. Instead, attendees got an evening that focused on wine – good wine – where they could talk to the new executive chef at the Fairfax Hotel at Embassy Row and learn about what they were drinking at a leisurely pace. People did not need to be rushed from tasting stand to tasting stand because of a line four-deep of people more interested in getting drunk off of free samples than tasting and enjoying the wine. The people pouring the wine, in this case some of the DC areas’ top distributors and wholesalers, were happy to tell the guests about the wine they were serving and which food items from the buffet would pair best with it. In essence, the Grand Opening Reception sought to be small, intimate and wine-focused. It succeeded.

The Capital Wine Festival is modeled after the Boston Wine Festival that was started by Chef Daniel Bruce 22 years ago. The festival is really a series of winemaker dinners over the course of several months. The idea, which is still the driving force behind the festival, is to invite winemakers or winery owners to showcase their wines for a small gathering of participants. The wines are paired with a dinner prepared by the host restaurant’s executive chef. Some of the wineries participating in this year’s Capital Wine Festival are Martinelli Winery, Continuum Estate and Silver Oak Cellars. Wines from each of these wineries – as well as the others featured this year – can proudly stand on their own merits. Having them paired with a menu created by the Fairfax Hotel’s new executive chef means that attendees will be in for a special evening.

My favorite wines of the evening were, by far, the Chateau Montelena 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Hess Vineyards 2007 Mt. Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon. Both of the Cabernets were smooth, full-bodied Cabernets. The Chateau Montelena had a deep, purple color with lots of plumb, chocolate, cassis and licorice on the palate. The finish was velvety and dry with well-balanced tannins.

The Hess Mt. Veeder Cabernet was a little less robust than the Chateau Montelena, but still had a nice, full body with flavors of dark cherries, oak and dark chocolate throughout. Both wines were fantastic, and a downright steal compared to some other high-end wines I have reviewed recently. The wines, like the Grand Opening of the Capital Wine Festival itself, are definitely worth experiencing. Better than experiencing them on their own would be savoring them well-prepared meal.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

That Wine Costs HOW much!?

Everyone has a threshold for how much they are willing to spend on a bottle of wine. My parents, for example are solid $10 - $15 a bottle people. They know what they like to drink, have their reliable favorites and will use this price-point to try other things.

Caitlin and I are more $10 - $20 rangers for the most part, occasionally spending $30 or so on a bottle and even more occasionally spending $60 on a really nice bottle. From a winery we have visited. After a wine tasting. That was preceded by other wine tastings. The point is there is wine to fit every person's budget, and there is a limit to what people are willing to pay for fermented grape juice.

I recently got to taste some of the wines produced by Bevan Cellars. Their wines are in the $150 range. Bevan Cellars has a sizable cult following and I was able to try their Cabernet Sauvignon, a couple of proprietary blends and a Merlot. It was obvious that all the wines were all complex and well-made, but I did not see what made these wines so superior to be worth the price.

The most inexpensive of the wines - the Merlot at $75 - was by far my favorite. It could, in fact, be one of the best Merlots I have had. A full-bodied, ruby-red, rich, complex wine with lots of berries, chocolate, tobacco and more chocolate, this would be a great wine to serve to someone that claims to hate Merlot.

The Cabernet was way to dry for my taste. If I were to ever spend triple digits on a bottle of wine, I don't want to have to chug a glass of water after every sip. That would defeat the purpose of drinking and enjoying the wine. The blends were both very well-balanced, full-bodied and interesting, though they were not necessarily to my liking. If I didn't know how much they cost, I might have enjoyed them more.

Perhaps it comes back to price point. If I am considering spending $150 on a single bottle of wine, it had better be spectacular. I was underwhelmed by Bevan's wines, just as I was underwhelmed by Opus One when Caitlin and I were in Napa last time.

The line between prestigious and pretentious is so thin when it comes to wine that it can be extremely hard to make the distinction. I certainly got a good mix of both when I tried both the Bevan and the Opus One.

If you know what you like, and you know what you are comfortable spending, all the prestige and the pomp won't make a $150 bottle taste any better if you can't justify the price.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Reconnecting with Wines from the Loire Valley

One of the biggest complaints I hear about wine is it never tastes as good back home as it did the first time a person tried it. Could it be that the experience of discovering a great boutique winery in Napa, talking to the owner, and enjoying their barrel-select cab while looking over the golden hills of Northern California for an afternoon could have provided a better experience than uncorking the same bottle after getting back to a small apartment after a long day at work and having to fight with people on the Metro before settling down on the couch to watch Dancing with America’s Next Top Chef? The point is that the whole experience of trying a wine for the first time can greatly influence your feelings about it. It might not taste as good, because you don’t have the same scenery around you, but if it is a good wine, it can take you back, momentarily, to the place where you tried it before returning to your regularly-scheduled programming.

I was eager to try one of the bottles Caitlin and I got on our honeymoon – a Rose from the Touraine region of the Loire Valley. We stumbled upon the winery somewhat haphazardly – I think I got us lost – and there was a dog lying down in the middle of a village road that just happened to lead to a winery, which was open. An older gentleman greeted us and took us into the wine cellar where he poured us his wines and showed us pictures of his family, who had owned the winery for generations. It was a great wine tasting experience. The wines were very, very good and reasonably priced. We bought a sparkling, a white and a rose, which the Loire is known for.

The Rose we decided to pair with pizza recently, and much to my delight, it was just as good as I remembered it in France. The wine itself is light, crisp and well-balanced with flavors of strawberry and red cherries that has subtle hints of flowers and then some nice, light minerality on the finish. The first glass was at room temperature and the second glass was a bit more chilled. The wine tasted very good served at both temperatures. I have not found the wine stateside, and that is a shame, but the bottle was able to take me back.

Wine stores in the area are starting to carry at more selections from the Loire Valley, and Touraine roses are becoming a bit easier to find. They are wonderful alternatives to both reds and whites, and are versatile enough to be paired with just about anything. While Bordeaux and Burgundy will always be the most prestigious wine regions in France, great wines- and great wine values - from France's other wine-growing regions are becoming easier to find stateside.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pizza WIne

Not every wine needs to be described in terms of bouquets, aromas, flavor profiles and complexity. Sometimes a wine should just taste like wine, and a decent bottle should cost about as much as a decent six pack. These are the everyday wines - wines you can serve with pizza. Or mac and cheese and hot dogs. Or other quick, everyday meals. Without breaking the bank or pretending that you are going on a flavor safari just because you are drinking wine.

For these occasions, there is nothing wrong with picking up a bottle at the grocery store, cracking it open and enjoying it for what it is: an inexpensive beverage that goes with whatever it is you are eating. For example, the Ravenswood 2007 Napa Valley Zinfandel went very, very well with the pizza we had for dinner. It is a wine that accompanied what it was supposed to, and at $12.99 was a good value, too. Zins tend to pair well with pizza, and the Ravenswood, because it is inexpensive and readily available, is a good "go to" wine for such a meal. There are plenty of others that work just as well.

As for Virginia wines, perhaps a good benchmark of the industry's maturity will be that it is able to produce both elegant, well-made high-end wines and wines that can be opened and served on any given night with any given quick meal without being seen as a novelty. It is certainly possible to make that transition quickly. Just ask any winemaker in Australia, Chile or South Africa.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Doug Fabbioli: Virginia's Red WIne Evangelist

In a recent post, I wrote that one of my favorite reds from Virginia is Fabbioli Cellars’ Cabernet Franc. It is a great, complex and elegant red. In fact, it shows that it is possible to create high quality reds in Virginia. Similar to reds from the Finger Lakes, climate and general reputation are seen as major barriers to producing quality reds in Virginia. Like so much conventional wisdom, it takes a very small number of people to prove it wonderfully, wonderfully wrong.

Doug Fabbioli opened the doors to his winery about four years ago with the mission to produce very good, high quality red wines in Virginia. His small, family-run winery is producing some very good wine, and raising the profile of Virginia reds along with it. Fabbioli Cellars’ Cabernet Franc is among my favorites.

Fabbioli wines can now be found on many wine lists in the DC area, and can, quite frankly, hold their own among the other selections without being the sympathy selection that helps the restaurant look like it is helping the local economy with token local additions.

The Cabernet Franc is not as full-bodied as a Cabernet Sauvignon, yet it has just as much complexity. Berries, tobacco and chocolate are the dominant flavors of this dark ruby red wine that is very nicely balanced with a smooth finish with a bit of spice on it.

Another wine that is worth trying is Fabbioli Cellar’s Chambourcin. While a less well-known varietal, Chambourcin does well in Virginia. A nice, easy-drinking light to medium-bodied red, Fabbioli Cellars’ Chambourcin has hints of exotic spice, oak and earth in it.

As someone who has been in the wine business for so long, and has experienced the industry from so many diverse vantage points, it is a testament to Virginia’s wine potential that Doug has settled here, opened his winery here, and is committed to improving the quality of red wine that the state is capable of producing. Fabbioli Cellars itself has a laid-back, family atmosphere. Stop in one weekend and try some of the best reds that Virginia is producing.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Snow Wine and the Seven Corks

Snowmageddon it is not, but snow is falling and will continue to fall throughout the night. As it is DC, that means that some kids will be off with a snow day tomorrow, the Federal Government will likely have a liberal leave policy, and the half an inch of snow will guarantee that the soup, bottled water and toilet paper shelves of the area's supermarkets will be bare.

Wine shelves, too. And why not? Regardless of how much or how little snow is left on the ground in the morning, snow offers a good excuse to make (or turn on) a fire, open a bottle, and enjoy the snow. Our choice for the night is a Bridgman 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Bridgman is more medium-bodied than Cabernets from Napa, yet it still has the characteristic aromas of a heavier-bodied Cabernet. With a lot of cherry and liquorice up front, the Bridgman has a lot more tannins on the finish than one would expect. The balance between the up front flavors and the dry finish makes the Bridgman a nicely balanced wine that could accompany anything from steak and lamb to Nutella on bread during a light snowfall. I can speak very confidently about the latter paring.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Half Price Wine Bottle Saturday at Ramparts in Alexandria

Caitlin and I met some friends at Ramparts in Alexandria on Saturday night. Much to our delight, Saturday is half price wine bottle night. Even more delightful is the fact that Ramparts has a very good wine list for a neighborhood bar

Ramparts does what it does well. Although its recent renovations give it a bit of a sterile atmosphere, it still has the feel of a very unpretentious, neighborhood hangout - a neighborhood hangout that has a good wine list. And good food, too. If you ask for a burger medium rare, it actually comes out medium rare.

Our burgers came out the way we wanted them to, and our friends ordered other standard bar food that was also well-prepared. For wine, we ordered a bottle of 2007 Hess Allomi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which usually runs $60. It was a great deal for only $30 – especially since it is currently going for only $26.99 on Shopper’s Vineyard.

I am a fan of Hess Vineyards – particularly their Mount Veeder selections. Their 2007 Allomi Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon is a deep, dark red color with the characteristically fragrant aromas of a Napa Valley Cabernet. You start smelling cherries and chocolate and plums almost as soon as you lift the glass off the table. The wine is full-bodied and loaded with flavors of dark cherries and spices with hints of oak and vanilla. It went very well with a medium rare burger, and since it was half price, I didn’t feel guilty drinking it with a burger rather than, say, a steak.

It wasn’t too long ago that I, like many other overworked and underpaid DC transplants, could rattle off which bars and restaurants has which food and drink specials on which nights. Being young and hungry and financially stretched meant that you could overlook the fact that your half-price burger would generally be small and overcooked compared to its full-priced brethren. And sure, paying $3.00 for a glass of Yellow Tail seemed like a great deal once upon a time. And while those deals will always serve a purpose, it is refreshing to spend a night at a place like Ramparts where you can get good food as well as a great deal on a great bottle of wine.