Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Novice to Connoisseur?

I’m (relatively) new to wine. Until a couple of years ago, I knew virtually nothing about it, aside from the fact that I preferred white, in part because drinking red makes my teeth turn red and I take on a distinctly vampiric appearance. I was accustomed to letting others order my wine for me at restaurants and wine bars, and trying (and failing) to put on a brave of-course-I-Know-What-I’m-Doing face when having to choose wine at a retail store for a gift or party. In fact, I was reminded of my old self when, while working as a Wine Educator for Wine & Food Associates on behalf of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, I asked a man who was strolling by whether he would like to taste some New York Wine. He replied, “No, that’s okay, I’m not a connoisseur.” Unfortunately, I think a lot of people find wine intimidating and seemingly inaccessible. In fact, one of my instructors wisely noted that (even for connoisseurs) wine is a vast study with a never-ending horizon, always a little beyond our reach.

When I first started my studies, I hadn’t yet evolved from the point of intimidation to inspiration. I got together one night with a few new friends a.k.a. wine geeks after class, and one in particular spoke earnestly about Robert Parker and his Points, offering these stats in conjunction with various wines of which I had never heard. “What are points? Who is Robert Parker?” I innocently asked. The earnest new comrade explained this simple scoring system, and informed me that less than 80 points would surely be swill. Which only made me wonder why it isn’t a 20-point system but I didn’t pose the question. I had revealed too much naiveté already.

Once I had a few good lessons under my belt, however, I was ready to start finding my own path and some inspiration in this new adventure. So, I crashed an industry tasting hosted by one of New York’s celebrity-like importer/distributors. The atmosphere was electric. Winemakers from all over the world were presenting their finest products, and plenty of cheese and espresso were available to keep the industry awake and sober during this full day event. I stole my courage and approached a man who didn’t have a crowd at his table. His name was George Hendry and he is from Napa. He told me that after years of selling his grapes to Mondavi, he decided to use them to make his own wine. As an artist, I was impressed by this potentially risky financial decision to move from essentially working for someone else to creating his own product, his own work. I told him I was really just a student but he was more than happy to share his knowledge and passion with me. I think George Hendry’s wine was much more modest than some of the rock-star wines represented at that event but he stands out for me because he is a man who works his own land, produces his own wine, and wanted to share that with me. I plan to visit his vineyard first the next time I go to Napa. I have a feeling it won’t be sexy or glamorous like we’ve come to expect of Napa, but it will be just what I am looking for.

I am at the beginning of what could be a lifelong process of learning. I am now inspired. I would like to visit small, family run vineyards, gaining experiential knowledge of the grape growers and wine makers, their land, and their craft. If possible, I would like to spend some time working on the land, learning about wine from the very bottom, up. Education thus far has motivated me to want to know more. It has provided me with a sound foundation but I am eager to get to the source of the matter. To me, wine, for all its seeming mystique, cache, and complexity, is at its core, most simply about the land, the people who make it, and the people who drink it.

Rebecca Mills

Monday, November 16, 2009

A New Thanksgiving Wine Idea- Les Traverses de Fontanès Vin de Pays d’Oc Rouge 2007

Les Traverses de Fontanès Vin de Pays d’Oc Rouge 2007 (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) (available at Slope Cellars, Brooklyn, $14.99/btl)

Ah, Thanksgiving wines past. You’ve done Riesling. You’ve done Zinfandel. You’ve even done Gamay. And they’ve all done their jobs…of not competing with the crazy array of flavors and spices, of being all-American, of being light and easy, respectively. But now you want to do something different, not to go against the grain, but just to change things up a bit, maybe deepen your appreciation for the old reliables next year. They’ll be there for you, not to worry. And goody for you, because in just walked the Languedoc’s Cyriaque Rozier with his Traverses de Fontanès Vin de Pays d’Oc Rouge 2007, a bright, fresh, Cabernet Sauvignon that’s just perfect for Thanksgiving, even though it’s not brimming with fruit and acidity a la Riesling, all-American like Zinfandel, or light like Gamay. We like to think of it as the uninvited Thanksgiving guest who ends up being the life of the party without taking over.

Les Traverses de Fontanès is fresh and youthful, with a shimmering garnet, almost opaque appearance, and translucent purple rim. The forward nose offers cassis jam, kirsch, and a pleasant whiff of acetone. Sipping, we get sweet-tart cassis, a bit of cedar, and silky texture, underscored by a quick brush of tannin. Second sip, we get some caramel and salt, and a bit more concentrated cassis at the core, all within a medium-weight frame. But this is only if you pay attention. For those of your guests who aren’t taking wine notes, it’s just a delicious wine that seems to go well with everything you’ve put out or they’ve brought over. With turkey, dressing, and gravy, it provides just enough acidity to balance the fat and protein. With sweet potatoes and orange-cranberry relish, it holds its own against the sugar and tart fruits. There’s no real spice element, so it doesn’t compete with highly seasoned dishes, so much as complement them. And it’s not heavy, so it tastes like another one: the Fontanès is a quaffer in the end. We like to serve it barely chilled.

By pumpkin pie/football time, the Fontanès has worked the room without bringing up politics or religion, charmed everyone, and more than made up for showing up uninvited. Everyone wonders why he wasn’t invited in the past. This is what Thanksgiving should be. Or at least what a Thanksgiving wine should be.

Beth Baye

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wine for Thanksgiving Dinner

Thanksgiving dinner is a grazer’s dream but a challenge in terms of figuring out what wine to serve. Plus, from Mom’s marshmallow topped sweet potatoes, to Grandma’s stuffing to Dad’s turkey it’s loaded with tradition. If you’re tasked with bringing the wine, these factors can make it somewhat intimidating.

The right Thanksgiving wines will work well with a wide array of flavors and textures but won’t overwhelm the dishes. It also pays to seek out wines that aren’t too tannic or too high in alcohol. The wine selection can become a tradition as well. Bring the next vintage of the same wines each year. If you make it a tradition, it has to be consistently well-made wine to which everyone welcomes. Most importantly, Thanksgiving is a celebration, a time for fun and bringing people together – so have fun with your wine choices, but plan what you want to bring so you’re not scrambling last minute at the wine shop. I won’t tell you how many bottles my family went through last year for fear of cautionary letters of concern, but suffice it to say, I’m glad we planned ahead.


I sincerely hope the days of poorly misunderstood Riesling’s bad rap are over. The high acidity is perfect for cutting through an item’s richness while the light body doesn’t overwhelm the dish. A slightly off-dry version makes it nearly universally pleasing. If you haven’t added a quality Riesling to your must-haves list, I implore you try it.

Dr. Konstantin Frank, Riesling Semi-Dry, 2008, Finger Lakes, NY ($15)

Willamette Valley Vineyards, Riesling, 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($11)

Pinot Noir

Another favorite go-to wine for Thanksgiving is Pinot Noir, again for its amenable style. Save medium-bodied, elegant versions for the dinner table and drink heavier, fruit-forward types as an aperitif.

-MacMurray Ranch, Pinot Noir, 2007, Sonoma Coast, CA ($24)

-Girasole Vineyards, Pinot Noir, 2008, Mendocino, CA ($11)


The Classic red wine to have with Thanksgiving Dinner is a Zinfandel. Although potentially Croatian by origin, Zinfandel has become a distinctly American grape appropriate for this quintessential American holiday. This is a rich, zesty, peppery red wine, not to be confused with White Zinfandel. Make sure the wine isn’t too high in alcohol, which is often the case with Zins from California.

Rancho Zabaco, Reserve Zinfandel, 2007, Dry Creek Valley, CA ($24)

Ridge, Pagani Ranch Zinfandel, 2007, Sonoma Valley, CA ($30)

Cabernet Sauvignon

While not inexpensive, a Cabernet Sauvignon with a few years of age (if not more) can be a wonderful wine to add as a holiday tradition. Its tannins have somewhat mellowed out while the rich flavors and structure still shine. These are “special occasion” wines that truly celebrate the generosity of the holiday.

Louis M. Martini, Monte Rosso Cabernet Sauvignon, 2005, Sonoma Valley, CA ($85)

Robert Keenan, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004, Napa Valley, CA ($45)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When is it okay to send a bottle back?

When is it okay to send a bottle back (and how to do it politely)

Sending back a bottle of wine at a restaurant can seem intimidating or snooty, but the occasion to do some can come up. Have the confidence and voice your informed opinion if either a) you smell or taste the wine and sense cardboard or musty basement aromas or flavors. That means it’s faulty or “corked.” or b) if the sommelier or waiter chose the wine for you after you described what you were looking for and the actual wine doesn’t fit the description, send it back.

You can’t send it back if you just don’t “love” the wine you picked, unfortunately. A way to avoid this situation in the future is to order a glass or bottle that is sold “by-the-glass” and ask for a taste of it first. The waitstaff should easily oblige you.

To politely send a bottle back, first ask the waitress to smell the wine herself and comment that you think it’s corked and mention the musty aromas. Or, ask her to try the wine herself either from the bottle at your table or, if you ordered it by the glass, the bottle from which it was originally poured. You can also mention how the wine doesn’t match your request but be prepared to voice why and reassert the qualities you’re seeking. Strike an authoritative yet kind tone and you should quickly be accommodated.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Throw A Wine Tasting Holiday Party at Your Place

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How to Pick a Summer Wine: The Gentler, Lighter Side of Wine

Summer’s soaring temps beg you to step away from heavy Cabernets and check out the gentler, lighter side of wine. When choosing the perfect summer wine for your outdoor engagement party or wedding, think light, crisp, refreshing--and because people tend to drink more in the heat--lower in alcohol. Nothing more prettily suggests summer than a dry (i.e. not sweet) rose. Avoid the simple, syrupy versions and try French roses from the Mourvèdre grape or roses made using the Saignee method for more complexity. Pick wines from countries where you imagine the locals sipping leisurely at sidewalk cafés while basking in the sun, like Spain. A Spanish fave is Albarino from the Rias Baixas region. Made to drink young, Albarino is a crisp, white wine with intense fruit, lively acidity and generally a lower level of alcohol. It pairs perfectly with summer foods from seafood to grilled vegetables. But you don’t need to swear off red wine for summer. Look for light bodied wines like Pinot Noir from Oregon or a Valpolicella from Italy, both capable of standing up to barbequed foods. And don’t be afraid to put a slight chill on your red wine. It is summer after all!

Rías Baixas Albariño from Spain, “Exceptional with Everything” Oh Really?

There's nothing we love more than a challenge. It's in our makeup. We're two women, thirties. One Indian. One Filipina. The first, founder and CEO of a business in the arguably male-dominated wine world. The second, building experience to be a future proprietess of a wine store. Add to this: In New York City. So when presented with the opportunity to play wine and food critic for a night—to pair Rías Baixas Albariño wines, proclaimed to be "exceptional with everything" with Mercat’s offerings —it is impossible and simply against every ounce of who we are, to refuse.

Mercat means “market” in Catalan, the language of the northern Spanish region where owner, Jaime Reixach, is from and where the restaurant’s menu draws its inspiration. The albariños we’ll be drinking also originate from the northern region, and so we’re already anticipating more perfect wine pairings than tragic mismatches.

It’s a beautiful warm Thursday night—and we are tasting two Albariño wines: Alba Rosa from Martinez Serrantes and Pazo San Mauro, both 2006 vintages. We take our time with each wine—assessing them alone and then side by side. At the end, we agree that both are delightful: the Alba Rosa is sparkling with surprising depth while the Pazo San Mauro would bring life to our springtime picnic. Further, we imagine that if each wine were to be personified, they might just be these two ladies, described as such:

Alba Rosa Martinez Serantes Albariño | Scarlett Johansson: "Sparkling with surprising depth"

Alba Rosa Martinez Serantes Albariño | Scarlett Johansson: "Sparkling with surprising depth"
This golden blonde hued wine gives an almost effervescent quality that shoots racy brightness into your mouth. It has the usual grassiness and citrus qualities one expects from this wine. The reason why this wine fits Scarlett most is because it has the quality of lightness but comes with surprising depth of character and fullness in body. The comparison would be perfect were the wine to show great legs, but its light-bodied, lower alcohol nature doesn’t allow it.

Pazo San Mauro Albariño | Cameron Diaz: “Livens up your springtime picnic”

Pazo San Mauro Albariño | Cameron Diaz: “Livens up your springtime picnic”
Cameron would be a fun addition to any springtime outing. Her lightheartedness would make everyone smile and this wine does the same. The light yellow straw color gives way to granny smith apples, peaches, melon, and citrus scents that jump at your nose, smelling like springtime in a glass. This wine begs to be explored further. The crisp and pleasantly tart apple is balanced with pear and makes it the perfect brunch wine.
Now, we move on to the heart of our challenge: Exceptional with everything? Oh really? How do these two beauties handle themselves in company? After the three and a half hours of glorious sipping, chewing, and chatting, among ourselves and the restaurant staff, here are our findings:

No surprise, our lovely wines get along splendidly with their classic and traditional partners: we have raves for the nicely seasoned patatas bravas—not too spicy, not too garlicky—and the padrones/blistered shishito peppers, the char and oil offset by the tartness of the wines. One of us goes wild for the Canelons de Verdura/eggplant wrapped spring vegetables, manchego, and cranberry reduction. And then Chef Lowder sends over Trencat d’Ous/mushroom with salsa verde topped with a fried egg, which again, goes splendidly with our wines. Even the suckling pig/Cochinillo, which we think will surely clash, in fact becomes the surprise of the evening. Like the beauty and the beast, our wines and the pig make an unlikely but harmonious pair.

We ask ourselves for the last time: Rías Baixas Albariño from Spain: Exceptional with Everything?

If not for being the gluttonous bottomless pits that we are, we would certainly have answered YES with an exclamation point. But since we order those two desserts—Torrades Sta. Teresa/fried bread with lemon yogurt and Pa Amb Oli Xocolata/bread, olive oil, and chocolate, our answer must be: Almost. These two desserts with our two Albariños — are disastrous.

Rías Baixas Albariño from Spain: Exceptional with almost Everything.

--Anu Karwa and Marie Estrada

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