Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Drinking Outside the Box

Trusted by suburban moms for eons to make trips to Chuck E. Cheese's- with a small army of screaming kids- more palatable, the box o' wine has offered a cheap, alcoholic wine-flavored beverage to the indiscriminate guzzler. Lauded for its ability to keep the contents fresh forever (keep what fresh, though?) and emblazoned with wine awards and tasting medals of unknown providence, the one constant in my- or any other- childhood household in the sprawls of mid-80's America was that carton of Franzia.

"Doesn't wine come in a bottle?" I'd ponder. "It's wine...in a box. I guess it's good; the packaging says it's 'America's Best-Selling Wine'" (or some crap like that).

Alas, the innocent days preceding my current state of jaded marketing grunt and overzealous advocate of the fermented grape. Like so many consumers, I took no offense to a carton full of French Colombard labeled "Chablis". I wasn't disturbed by the origins of "Chillable Red". It was wine- and good wine- because every kid had a box in his parents' fridge.

I think the box o' wine is, in no small part, to blame for why many folks do not like wine these days. The hangovers alone induced by that plonk are not to be forgotten. However, not being one to laud tradition and curse innovation, I like the idea of this new-fashioned packaging.

My only request is that the quality improve. Box o' wine has a bad reputation. I was recently given some samples of Pepperwood Grove's "Big Green Box" to try out as part of a Twitter Taste Live event. My first thought was, "Alright. Some crappy boxed wine to go with my crystal meth and hot dogs."

Not that there's anything wrong with hot dogs. But I'm talking the really cheap ones made out of mechanically separated chicken and served on the heel of a stale loaf of wheat bread (because buns were too expensive). That, my friends, is meth-head Chateaubriand.

Hot dogs consumed, I cracked into the 4 "eco-friendly" monoliths of booze- a Pinot Grigio, a Chardonnay, an "Old Vine" Zinfandel (marketing, by the way...there's no age requirement to call vines "old" or "ancient" in the States), and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile. To my delight, the wines were palatable. Hell, they were good. Now, I have to qualify this by saying that they were not my speed: a little too fruit-forward, simplistic, and lacking structure (a sure product of micro-oxygenation). That being said, not every glass of wine is supposed to be complex and thought-provoking. Sometimes, a wine just needs to get you where you need to be (actual examples of use):

- Thoroughly plowed when the beloved Atlanta Falcons lay an egg against the despicable Philadelphia Eagles. "Despicable" is an acceptable adjective for any Philadelphia sports franchise and its fans as well.

-Kept warm and jovial around a campfire with good friends (especially when the box part was needed to start the fire...the bag holds up just fine, though).

-Sipped casually while using the long-lived and easily measured juice for cooking (I love box o' wine for cooking, as it stays fresh for a long time. I keep a box of Pinot Grigio or other light-bodied and unoaked white in the fridge).

I think these wines would be popular with a lot of folks. I'm not going to bring them to any high-end dinners anytime soon, but I don't mind having them around during football season. In any case, it's terrific to see the quality of boxed wine improve from childhood (not that I ever snuck a taste of that stuff... ...). No, this is not wine for the seasoned vet, but it's wine that I wouldn't be offended to suggest to the casual drinker...suburban moms not excluded.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Business, business, business!

"Buy! No, sell! What?! That's it, kid- you're fired. Okay, you're re-hired. Now you're in charge of marketing!"

A little tip-o-the-cap to my friend Clayton's "businessman" impression. Not bad for a guy who works for Cartoon Network.

Sorry for the absence. Tucking into a week of strategic planning with the Day Job. Will get back to it, hopefully in time for "Booze in the News". In the meantime, check out the archives.

Oh, and the absolute best part of this post- I found the picture by going to Google Images and searching "bluetooth douche bag".

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Different World

With all due respect to Dwayne Wayne and the gang, this post is not centered around the zany and heartwarming Cosby Show spin-off.

Did you know Sinbad was on that show? Oh Sinbad, we hardly knew ye. While I still can't believe you beat out Dennis Miller on Star Search, I tip my cap to your hilarious performance as a mental patient in the Always Sunny episode, "Dennis Reynolds: A Erotic Life".

Rather, when I mention "A Different World", I'm talking about a visit to Michel-Schlumberger, a winery located in Sonoma County's Dry Creek AVA.

True, the tasting experience was different from many other spots. The property was off the beaten path a ways. The tasting "room" (though it was a comfortable lounge and an outdoor plaza with a centerpiece fountain...but not a super fancy, hoity-toity fountain) was not packed with tons of city slickers, looking to get their drink on. Rather, we took a seat in some comfortable chairs on a shady patio, and wines started coming. Then folks came to talk with us and share a glass. I knew Jim Morris already (marketeer extraordinaire, perhaps better known as @sonomawineguy on Twitter). Along with Jim, another affable chap by the name of Judd sat down.

"So, Judd...what's your role here," I was inclined to ask after about 30 minutes of banter and chit chat.

"Oh, I run the place," he nonchalantly replied.

Pretty nice of the big cheese to take time out of harvest season to talk with some guests for an hour or so. It doesn't happen at a lot of places (at least for this length of time).

During the course of the conversation, we knocked back Michel-Schlumberger's Pinot Blanc (an Alsatian grape that's related to the much-more-ubiquitous-in-the-States Pinot Gris/Grigio), Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Aged (like, 1991) Cab, and Syrah. I would love to go back and try the reds later in the year. I don't think the wife and I appreciated them enough. Not because they weren't well-made, but because it was 105˚ outside...not the temp at which I seek out full-bodied reds. Winner by far- under the circumstances- was the mighty refreshing Pinot Blanc.

After relaxing and shooting the [expletive...damn censors], Jim rode around the property with my brood. As I sat atop a hill, looking down over M-S's organic vineyards, Napa Valley to the southeast, the Pacific ocean to the west, the slight afterglow of the last wine tasting of the trip... well, what a unique and beautiful place.

Thanks for the incredible hospitality, guys. We'll be sure to return.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Dirtiest Wine Ever.

It's a given that if you run with my wolf pack (a rather lethargic, purple-toothed pack at that), then this guy is sort of a celebrity:

Alright. It's not technically a wolf pack. Just a bunch of people, and there are zero wolves (but there is at least one sweet wolf shirt, belonging- not surprisingly- to yours truly). The folks I'm talking about are Atlanta wine drinkers, and beyond that, the online community of wine bloggers, social media [insert hackneyed descriptor, like "mavens", "ninjas", "gurus", etc.], and industry chaps.

But I was actually a bit surprised when a few local friends of mine did not know the name "Hardy Wallace". The guy- affectionately known as "Dirty"- rose through the blogging ranks, evangelizing about the crunker aspects of the fermented grape on Atlanta's own Dirty South Wine. For brevity's sake, here's the condensed story: Dirty got laid off, won a little contest in 2009, moved to California, and now helps make and sell wine. The guy's been a huge boon for the Atlanta (and beyond) wine scene and its bloggers, and he's also a particularly appreciated supporter of this little opus here. Dirty's also a super bouncy ball of energy, a man of more comical facial expressions than a young Rip Taylor, and as absurdly humble and genuine a fella around. Hardy- I pop an obscure, overly-aged-and-oxidized white wine and pour a little out for you, buddy.

While "Dirty South Wine" has perhaps become secondary to Hardy, the stuff he's got going on at Santa Rosa's Natural Process Alliance is worth the focus. The cat went to work for Kevin Kelley (known as the winemaker behind the tasty and easy-to-find Lioco, as well as tasty and rather elusive Salinia juice), and they're primed to make the "klean kanteen" and The NPA household names...at least within a 100 mile radius of the wine's origin, as it's not sold beyond, despite my efforts, ranging from unappealing bribery to weak-armed coercion.

Why the Pat Buchanan-like isolationism? The juice is good; word should be spread. However, this is perhaps the most natural wine commercially made. Little to no sulphur dioxide is used (an addition in traditional winemaking so common, it's often listed as a critical step in the process). Wild yeasts- contrary to more common inoculated yeasts- are allowed to create spontaneous fermentation in the crushed juice. The NPA wines are also not filtered or fined. Ever drank cloudy wine? The crystal-clear stuff you're probably accustomed to gets that way by using a protein to precipitate out suspended solids. Such proteins can include egg whites, stuff made from fish fins, and even bull's blood in the seemingly bull-slaughter-happy ancient times.

What is left in the kanteen is a fragile wine: evolving, terribly susceptible to heat and travel, and fly paper for oxidation (as sulfites are a preservative). However, the product Kelley's making in that Santa Rosa warehouse, and that Dirty's filling your keg or kanteen (via draught, no less), is spectacular. Honestly, like nothing I've ever tasted. I think we've been conditioned to a way wine is "supposed" to be made, is supposed to look, is supposed to taste. This juice farts in the general direction of those edicts, and the payoff is a totally unique wine experience.

Pinot Gris that looks like ruby-red grapefruit juice and smells like sweet tea and peaches. Chardonnay that kicks both the "unoaked" and "butterscotch bomb" camps in the genitals (that's about the best I can describe it. My tasting notes simply said, "Chard: mention genitals, but in a good way"). But I think the Sauvignon Blanc from the NPA is the star. Sauv B's generally never been a wine that I'd put on my wish list (unless it's blended with botrytized Sémillon and labeled "Sauternes"). But I literally crave this one. It looks like grapefruit juice. It smells like grapefruit juice. And grass. And every other descriptor given in the world of Sauvignon Blanc, including the elusive gooseberry, and I've never even seen or tasted a stupid gooseberry. There's just tons of wacky stuff going on in this one, and its big flavors and acidity rip down your tongue when knocking it back for breakfast. I'm serious: have some for breakfast. Your job's not that secure anyway.

I'm not just writing this article because I know and like some of the folks at the NPA. Hopefully, it's been established in over two years that I'm neither a jaded critic nor a pandering buffoon (operative word = "pandering". I could very well be a buffoon). However, I think when something interesting is going on, it's worth a mention. Are these the best wines I've ever tasted? I'm not prepared to say that. But are they absolutely unique? Definitely. Kevin Kelley's doing something really special, and the wacky kid from Atlanta and putting it on the map.

So, if you find your way to Northern California, make a track to Santa Rosa. Stop by Rancho Mendoza Super Mercado for an incredible torta. Maybe buy an extra one or two for the winemaking crew. Next, throw out all your preconceived notions of what a winery visit should be. Then, hit up the NPA. You'll be glad you did.

And, yes. I really do own that wolf shirt.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Booze in the News - October 8, 2010

This was a very tough decision to pick the banner for this week. I had to go with my heart. My 101-year-old grandpa won't be happy I put Harry S up here, though. Thanks again, Benito.

It ain't the sauerkraut: With a new public smoking ban in place in Germany, the operators of Oktoberfest's Höfbrau beer tent (and others) are employing odor-killing bacteria to combat the smell of stale beer. Formerly, good ol' cigarette smoke used to knock out the scent. Honestly, which smell is worse? Okay, probably stale beer. But that would be the least of my concerns... Sweaty. Drunken. Germans. Sausage. Sausage literally seeping out of their skins. In fact, now that I think about it, the aromas of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and sausage sweat aren't really selling me on Oktoberfest. There better be some boobs or something.

This Scotch goes to eleven: Successfully navigating the test-market circuit, Johnnie Walker Double Black is set to hit shelves in March of 2011. The whiskey is described as "Johnnie Black with more smoky, intensified flavors". Now, I think the regular Black has plenty of flavor as is. Are Scotch producers going the route of popular, more-extracted, tooth-chipping red wines? Are they looking for a headier, heftier whiskey to satisfy the collective palate? Maybe that's not what "more intense" means, but it sure doesn't sound refined. And what about the label? The Walker folks like colors. Should the Double Black label be twice as dark as the original? I mean, the original is so black, how much more black can it be? The answer is... none. Maybe they should just name it "Smell the Glove".

Lonely Vermont farmers smoke over the concept of "weed dating": So, apparently, this is just a bunch of folks who go on a date and pull weeds in a field of produce. I was WAY off on this one.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Well Aged.

I've heard it said that a finely-aged wine is like Sophia Loren: rare, classic beauty that only improves as time passes (within reason...she's not really doing it for me at this point). The comparison is heightened by the existence of massive, extracted, fruit-monsters that are so popular. They can definitely be bombshells in their youth, but all the airbrushing, makeup, and silicone (that is to say, abuse of mega purple, excessive fining, micro-oxygenation, etc.) usually ends badly. And while I don't intend to poke fun at Anna Nicole Smith's tragic story, there's no denying she went from sex pot to train wreck faster than you can say "Aussie Shiraz".

To be fair to the ladies (since I don't know a single one who appreciates the virtues of a youthful Anna Nicole), think of it this way: I don't suspect we'll ever see milk-drinking stallion Zac Efron peddling aftershave when he's knocking on death's door. I bet Zac Efron needs some fancy cologne to tell him he's a man. But not Jack Palance. RIP, you handsome bastard. Confidence, indeed, was very sexy. Even if my wife gags when I splash on the Skin Bracer. Guess I need to tack on about 40 years and try again.

Enter Ridge Vineyards. A stalwart in the wine world. One of the two names (along with Seghesio) that put dry red Zinfandel wines on the map. As it turns out, they have some vineyards at Lytton Springs in Healdsburg, CA. I happened to be out there and managed to weasel my way into a vertical tasting of several vintages from Lytton Springs, along with a few from Monte Bello (south of the Bay Area). Right place at the right time, I suppose. Or maybe it was the confidence I had from all the Skin Bracer I put on that morning. I'm going with the former.

Courtesy of the dapper Chris Watkins (who totally pull off wearing a sweater and jacket in 105 degree weather), I tucked into the 1987, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2007 Lytton Springs bottlings, along with 3 Monte Bellos from the early 90's ('91, '92, '94).

Sipping on these beauties on the Ridge crushpad, surrounded by formerly twitter handles, facebook profiles, and blog editors (now friends who I have connected with in person...who says social media is impersonal?), I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of enjoying some maturity in the glass.

Like child actors, most wines aren't meant to age...their values are all in their youth. If cellared too long, they become awkward and unmarketable. Why is this? The answer lies in preservatives. Natural preservatives- namely, phenolic compounds and acids (and high alcohol in fortified wines, but that's another story altogether...like Mickey Rooney). Phenolic compounds include anthocyanins, tannins, and non-flavonoids like resveratrol (among other stuff) found in the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes, and also in oak. Tannins in particular act as natural preservatives, and give many young red wines (especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Nebbiolo, and Tannat) that dry, fuzzy feeling in the mouth. They are also quite astringent, so very tannic wines can taste bitter. However, as a wine ages, the tannins bind to form larger molecules and eventually get too heavy, thus precipitating out of the wine. The anthocyanins also bind and precipitate out. Since they're responsible for the red and blue hues in red wines, this is why aged reds tend to lighten in color over time.

Acidity plays a big role in preserving wines, and is the key reason why many cool climate whites (which- unless heavily aged in oak- are usually devoid of much tannin due to very limited skin contact during fermentation) can be aged. Fine German Riesling, in particular, is known for its searing acidity and its chops for cellaring. Some of the great White Burgundies (made from Chardonnay) and crisp Champagnes have also managed to mature nicely.

However, most consumers these days don't want to sit on bottles for 5-10 years before consuming, nor do they have the proper storage to do so. So many producers have found ways to "artificially mature" wines so they are more approachable in youth. Fruit is picked when riper, offering bigger fruit flavors (but as fruit ripens, its acidity drops). Food additives such as mega purple enhance the color and mouthfeel of wines in lieu of extracting these properties with skin contact, resulting in "desirable" attributes without the side-effect of heavy tannic fuzz and astringency. Chemical processes like micro-oxygenation introduce oxygen into fermented wines, helping polymerize tannins (which gives a "softer" mouthfeel, but hastens the life of the suspended tannic compounds).

I guess what I'm saying is that the bottle of 1997 Yellow Tail Cabernet your folks have been "storing" in the basement isn't going to taste any better than it did the year it was made. In fact, all those processes have crippled the wine's natural preservatives, so it's very likely not been able to fight off the inevitable infitration of oxygen into the bottle through the cork, and you've probably got a bottle of vinegar. And I like my wine vinegar from purposeful Italians, not accidental Australians, thank you very much.

But good age makes you quickly understand why folks pay high prices and exercise tremendous patience. The softer tannic presence creates smooth, velvety wines. The nose reveals totally new flavors that have emerged from continual chemical reactions in the bottle. Even a bit of oxydation can create nutty, caramelly (is that a word?) aromas and tastes. It's a totally unique experience to those who thought they'd really knew wine before (present company included).

I recall really digging the Ridge 1992 and the 1996 Lytton Springs (primarily Zinfandel blends). All the Monte Bellos were awesome (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cab Franc). I hope you get a chance to try these. Or, grab a recent vintage and let it sit for a while (away from heat and sunlight). Your patience will be rewarded, like a child star getting an adult gig. Meh, I guess Rick Schroder was pretty forgettable on "24". Bad example.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Announcing Nectar Tasting Room

I guess I'm normally pretty protective of my blog. I've turned down many guest posters (except when I soliciting them), and I'm not usually one to promote or advertise ad nauseam. However, I do consider Josh Wade a friend, and he's been incredibly supportive of my little opus. He deserves all the success in the world (a product of hard work...what a concept), and I wish him the best in his venture.

I know Spokane, WA is a hell of a long way from Atlanta. But there are a lot of the readers here that aren't from Georgia, and the ones who are don't mind traveling in search of good booze. If you're anywhere near Eastern Washington, there will be a warm welcome if you pop into this establishment. You should also make fun of the Seattle Mariners while visiting.



Nectar Tasting Room is opening on the corner of Stevens and Main and will house the operations of five Washington winery satellite tasting rooms.

Spokane is home to 18 quality wineries that include some of the state’s oldest, Latah Creek and Arbor Crest. The region’s continued thirst for wine has encouraged the recent growth of 5 new wineries in the last four years. Growing wine interest has generated attention in Spokane among wineries across the state.

“Spokane has established itself as a wine tasting destination,” says Josh Wade of Nectar Wine Blog (aka DrinkNectar.com) and creator of Spokane Wine Magazine. “The addition of other regional wineries will enhance the wine experience for local residents and increase the spotlight on the quality Spokane wine producers.” The 2000 square foot space will be a place to taste wine and also enjoy wine by the glass. Nectar Tasting Room will be open Thursday through Saturday and plans on live music for the weekends. “This will be a unique wine tasting room experience with iPads as menus, a comfortable urban vibe, and activities that promote interactive wine education as an extension of the participating winery’s main location,” says owner Josh Wade.

Final negotiations are still in progress but wineries from Walla Walla, Red Mountain, Lake Chelan, Tri-Cities, and Woodinville are joining in. Wade is working with local restaurant designer Josh Hissong to build out the space and expects the tasting room to open in mid to late November.

Josh built his business model over the last year strictly using social media sites Twitter and Facebook. The DrinkNectar.com wine blog has been viewed nearly 100,000 times in the last year, with a strong emphasis on promoting the area wine scene, now at a national level. The site is among the top wine blogs in the country in traffic and engagement. With the upcoming changes, DrinkNectar.com is becoming Nectar Wine Blog and will house the information for the tasting room, national wine news, and ongoing wine and social media education.