Friday, December 29, 2006

A Night To Sparkle

I was just reading the New Year's Eve wine recommendations of the wine guy over at USA Today. He's recommending an interesting-sounding sparkling chenin blanc, which I very much would like to try. But he goes on to say that the best value in sparkling wine today may be Gruet from New Mexico.

Anyone who has been reading Walk the Wine from the beginning may recall that Gruet was my recommended sparkler for last New Year's Eve, just the second post of this new blog. And, since the wife and I discovered this terrific sparkling wine on a trip to New Mexico eight years ago, I've been recommending this wine (few would listen) for quite a few years. Now that the so-called experts are on board I, of course, in very mature fashion want to tell them -- idiots, what took you so long?

Jerry Shriver also says that the quality of low-end sparkling wines has increased significantly in the past five or so years -- true overall but not so true of Gruet. It's been remarkable for a long time. What this French family has been able to do in the desert climate of New Mexico is extraordinary -- an impressive low-end brut (about $12) and truly fantastic blanc de blanc and blanc de noir wines. It's a tribute to good old-fashioned know-how over environment.

I still recommend Gruet sparklers heartily, but their brut is no longer my pick for best-value sparkling wine out there. A Spanish cava, Cristalino, is. This sparkler goes for $10 or less but has the rich aromas that your would expect from $25 sparklers -- apples, citrus and almonds. You really can't do better under $10.

There is so much good sparkling wine on the market right now it's really hard to go wrong -- it's just a matter of what you want to spend. True Champagne in the $35 range is still great. But the real point is you don't have to spend that much if you don't want to.

Looking for a terrific California sparkler? There's lots of great ones over $20, but the best at a reasonable price (just barely $20)may be Roederer Estate Anderson Valley.

There's no reason not to enjoy your New Year celebrations with great sparkling wine. It's never been easier. How about trying several different sparkling wines in a line-up of different styles? Sounds like a guaranteed happy New Year to me!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

More Than One Reason To Celebrate

As expected, Christmas this year was a great family time with lots of laughs and great food. Also as expected, there were no wine surprises under the tree.

But, since I recently posted my 100th Walk the Wine blog entry, I had extra reason to celebrate. Helping me celebrate were my three nieces, clad in trendy wine apparel.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tradition is Sweet

You really don't see anyone writing about what makes the perfect Christmas wine, unlike the Thanksgiving holiday when endless verbiage is thrown around about the "perfect wine." Sure, this time of year many are writing about the best bargains in bubbly, but that's because Christmas practically runs right into New Year's.

The reason there is no perfect Christmas wine is simple -- there's a lot less predictability to Christmas foods. The featured fare in all likelihood will vary depending on your family's Christmas traditions. Some people I know do Christmas goose; others do roast beef; still others do turkey, again. All require different wines.

Our family's big celebration is on Christmas Eve, and, while we're not Italian, our tradition probably comes closer to the Italian "feast of seven fishes" than anything else. We have a variety of shellfish and seafood pasta, with lobster as the grand event. While you might think a white Burgundy or a crisp Loire white might be in order, Christmas tradition at our house requires Asti Spumante -- and lots of it.

The architect of our Christmas celebration was my mother, and her favorite wine in the world was Asti Spumante. Actually, she was not much of a wine drinker, but on Christmas Eve she had to have her sweet bubbly. After all the work that went into that dinner, why not?

I'm not crazy about Asti Spumante, except with cake after dinner. And, I have brought other whites to have with dinner over the years. But Spumante is the star of the show at Christmas because it's a tradition, one that reminds us of mom, who has been gone for seven years now. I'm a big believer in respecting and enjoying traditions. So, I'll have my share, too.

If you celebrate Christmas, have a very merry one, whatever your traditions may be!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

To Age Or Not To Age

I was down in my cellar the other day looking for the perfect wine to go with our filet mignon, when I came across a 1996 Robert Craig Affinity cabernet that I had forgotten about. Now, I knew that I had probably waited much too long on this wine. But I figured it wouldn't get any better at this point and an aged, softened cab could be great with a tender meat like filet.

I was right...about waiting too long. There were hints of cassis, black cherry, even cocoa, but they were elusive. This wine, described as Robert Craig's Bordeaux blend, is definitely faded, in a state of decline. But it got me thinking, again, about the ageability of California cabs -- are they truly ageworthy?

Of course, this is a question that has been debated for some time. Some people firmly believe that California cabs with their fruit-forward style will not ever attain the cellaring potential of Bordeaux or Barolos from good vintages. But there's no doubt there are examples out there of terrific California cabs that have held up well for a couple of decades or more.

As for the Affinity, some have advised not waiting long at all to enjoy this wine. Still others have advised that it has great structure and cellaring potential -- including the winery itself. I have to say the latter seems more of marketing hype than sound guidance.

This kind of experience has reinforced two points that I have firmly believed for some time. Outside of some notable exceptions, assume that the California cab you bought will not improve for decades. I like to drink most of mine with 5 to 8 years of age on them. Second, you have got to read and absorb what reviewers say about the wine's characteristics, and not just note the score.

This second point is really critical. Wine reviews can give two different wines identical scores, yet describe them in completely different ways. This description is critical to any decision about whether or not to age the wine very long. If it's described as soft and velvetty right now, drink it soon. If it's described as powerful and tannic, it could be ready for long-haul maturation. Case in point, I've long enjoyed Pine Ridge cabernets. But the Howell Mountain cab and the Stag's Leap cab, while netting similar scores, are described quite differently by many reviewers. I would age one and not the other.

There are some great California cabs that will age splendidly, of course. Some friends had a '91 Heitz Martha's Vineyard several years ago and said they thought it was still tight. But I think it's safest to assume your cab will be best in under eight years. That's not a criticism -- I'm just trying to go with the wine's strength. Four or five years ago, a friend and I split a case of '97 Saddleback cabernet. When we tried it at a store winetasting, we both thought it was the richest, most chocolatey cab we had ever had upon release. When we had it again over the next couple of years it was similar and just as impressive. But three years later it had changed -- into a marvelous, more complex wine. But, oh, the memories of that chocolate experience would not let us go with the flow. It was one time where the sweetness of youth was just so overwhelming that the added complexity was not entirely welcome. Sort of like watching aging rock stars.

It's not easy to know exactly when is the right time to enjoy your better wines. In the end it's your choice. But my experience with new world wines is to live in the moment, and that moment may be sooner than you think.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Any Port In The (Winter) Storm

I usually find the easiest people to buy birthday and Christmas presents for are people with hobbies and passions. I have a brother who is into model trains and fishing --thinking of a present for him is no sweat.

So, since I enjoy fine wines so much, you'd think I would be overwhelmed with gifts of wine. But, sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, my wife has bought me a number of terrific wine accessories over the years, but I get the feeling that friends and family are afraid to buy me actual bottles of I might go into rant or otherwise belittle their purchases.

I do occasionally get wine gifts from guests who come to dinner, and I don't think I've ever been disappointed by such a gift. Whether it's a really "special" wine to have with weekend dinners or a humble mid-week quaffer, I enjoy trying all kinds of things. But good bottles are rare under the Christmas tree. I'm still surprised by this. If anyone simply has no faith in their ability to pick out wines all you have to do is ask the proprietor for a recommendation. I do it all the time, though I have a pretty good idea of what I like.

But, there is a way to make this really easy. While I'm receptive to all kinds of wines as gifts, you absolutely can't go wrong this time of year getting port, particularly if you get a vintage port (expensive) or a late-bottled vintage port (reasonable). This is the time of year many of us dream of port -- nothing makes a body cozier during a winter storm than a glass of port (sorry, but hot chocolate or tea must take a back seat).

While picking out a really good cabernet or Bordeaux is aided by a little knowledge of vintages and reliable producers, port leaves less to chance. Vintage port is only made in exceptional years. And, virtually all vintage port producers have something good to offer. Same is largely true of late-bottled vintage ports, which are ready to enjoy when you buy them.

So, you see, buying a wine geek a present need not be difficult nor intimidating. As far as I'm concerned, any port in the (winter) storm will do quite nicely. If you want to know where to send it, just leave a comment, and I'll get that address to you!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Wine on Steroids

You think steroids in baseball is a travesty? An equally troubling scenario may very well be in the offing for the wine world, and we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg at this point. A wine critic in New Zealand has made a very convincing case that some wineries are skewing wine competition results by sending bulked up product for judging that bears little relationship to the product you and I buy on the shelf. It gives a whole new meaning to the word "juiced."

I can't help but think that this little kiwi wine scandal might help explain something that I've noticed: some darn mediocre or even poor wines that I've tasted have somehow won medals in wine competitions somewhere. Could they be pulling the wool over someone's eyes?

I know that's unfair to many wineries. But my point is that many people already think this way. This scandal will make things worse, I'm sure. And, if you carry the same suspicions, or even paranoia, over into a broader context, i.e., wine ratings, the PR damage could be far-reaching.

Many people already are fed up with the wine rating system. So many people now base their purchasing decisions on wine ratings that a big scandal could have a huge impact on wine buying.
Many people I know already regard wine ratings by the big wine magazines as a joke. I can't tell you how many people in the retail business, if you know them, wink when they talk about the ratings big advertizers get from the wine mags.

The answer is clear. The wine mags need to cover this issue as though their lives depended on it. They claim to taste all wines blind, but they need to lay it all out bare. How does the tasting process work exactly and what are their codes of ethics. And, they need to cover stories like the one out of New Zealand vigorously. Then again, maybe they'll just let the blogosphere do it.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Reaching Home Plate Safely

In my last post, I tried to explain how imagination and skillfull attention to detail are permitting some wine enthusiasts to carry wine home in this age of ever-tightening airline restrictions. The real substance of my case, though, comes from my friend Tony who recently carried 21 bottles back from Provence -- without hassle or breakage.

Just in case you don't read comment threads and are interested in how he did it, you need to read his comments. I could never have explained in such detail how he was able to get them all home unscathed.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Walking The Wine in the Age of Terrorism

Wine fans know that one of the great joys of touring wine country, anywhere, is buying a few bottles to take back home so that you can relive the memories at later time. The ban on carrying liquids aboard airplanes in the wake of this summer's foiled terrorism plot sure put the kibosh on one great activity.

Of course, safety comes first. But the outright ban on beverages -- unless you bought yours in the duty-free shop -- seems like a pretty unsophisticated approach to the potential problem. We have not traveled since the ban, but I can't help thinking about it since we have never traveled anywhere near a vineyard in the past 15 years and not picked up something to take home. What's a dedicated wine walker to do?

The wineries would suggest you ship it home. When you are physically at the winery there is usually no legal problem doing this. In fact, this option has saved many wineries in tourist areas from a serious slump in sales. I usually ship some home, but I've always been leery of shipping really expensive wines -- I'd rather carry them. And, I never ship in the middle of the summer with all that heat!

Our friends Tony and Kristen have traveled abroad recently (Provence), and I'm happy to report they beat the system. In fact, when I e-mailed Tony -- who has been known to carry back a couple of dozen bottles from abroad -- his response was, Tony 21-baggage handlers 0.

Yup, Tony was able to bring back 21 bottles with him without shipping. How did he do it? In the suitcases (4 of them), of course.

I know what you're thinking -- they'll break and ruin your clothes as well as the luggage. Tony maintains you just need to approach the problem scientifically. In this case, it means using cardboard, clothing and more cardboard...with precision.

Tony layers the inside of each suitcase with cardboard, paying special attention to potential impact points. Then dirty laundry is layered as well to provide an extra cushion. Then each bottle gets wrapped not just in socks, etc., it gets more cardboard.

Personally, I can't believe he got 21 bottles back this way, past rough and tumble, thirsty baggage handlers. But his experience is proof it can be done. I believe I will try this approach, with a few bottles, if things haven't loosened up by next year. I don't think I'd look all that bad in purple, anyway. (Photos courtesy of Tony and Kristen)