Monday, September 6, 2010

Sending it Back: When you are NOT in the Right

I’ll never forget it: The elderly lady walked into the store I was working at 6 years ago with a look of complete horror on her face. “There is glass in my wine!” she exclaimed, with an accent that was distinctly Eastern European. “Glass! I may have cut my tongue!” And there I was, greenhorn with a few years of wine study under my belt, foolishly attempting to explain to her that it was not at all glass. I even had the nerve to smile about it - the wine nerd in me couldn’t wait to wrest the bottle from her possession so I could examine the phenomenon.

Tartrate crystals, also known as wine diamonds, but as far as she was concerned, they were NOT her friend! I did catch myself lest she try to swing the bottle or her little old lady handbag at me in defiance. I apologized and promptly refunded her money, but in truth, there was nothing wrong with the wine she was returning. Tartrate crystals will precipitate from time to time in white and red wines alike when the wine is not “cold stabilized” (chilled down to near freezing so crystals will form BEFORE bottling) at the winery. In the case of wines that were made by low intervention winemakers, you may find diamonds, darling!

Another chewy thing you might find is sediment. Oh boy, this could get technical (donning wine geek pocket protector and glasses with tape in nose bridge) The tannins - you know the stuff that we all seek for antioxidant properties, those molecules that make our tongue feel a bit dried out after a sip of red wine? Well, they start out life as monomers, but over time, they form chains - or polymers - by linking together into groups. Then they become little chunks. Once again, very natural. No reason whatsoever to send a bottle back! There are gadgets on the market created to help you remove the sediment from an older wine (polymers form over the passage of a few years normally), or you can simply decant it. The classic tradition of decanting is not only to give a wine breathing room, but also to very slowly pour the wine out, leaving any sediment behind, so none ends up in your glass. Although it is not a real “fault”, I’ll admit that finding a chunk of polymerized tannin in your mouth isn’t a pleasant sensation.

Now if the cork should be dried out and crumble a bit into your wine, and you find a bit or two of it floating in your wine glass, just get over it - fish it out, and drink your wine! That is definitely NOT a fault. If the wine still looks and tastes fine, it may just be that the bottle was stored standing up for most of its life, so the cork remained dry because no wine came in contact with it to moisten it up. See last week’s article to see what kind of a fault a cork can be the culprit of.

In these circumstances, it really isn’t right to expect a retailer or restaurant to take your return of an opened bottle of wine. Nonetheless, a good one will explain if you want to hear, empathize if you don’t, and do what it takes to make you a happy customer.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sending it Back - When you are right to do so!

**I must preface this by saying that although I have renamed this blog "wineLIFE Almost Weekly" and have struggled to at least post monthly in these last few turns, I am back with lots of thoughts and new knowledge to share, and I will be posting with a vengeance!**

And now: Sending it Back!

So far since we’ve been open, we have had only one customer come back to us and say that they thought that something wasn’t quite right with the wine they purchased from our store. We asked them for the bottle back, but they had done away with the wine already.
They weren’t pressed about getting a refund, but they did feel compelled to inform us.

The more unsettling thing was that she was the only person who has come forward. I’ve had just a few people say they were not wild about one wine or another, but the overwhelming response has been positive to the wines we’ve been working with. Not that we want anyone to be unhappy. Nonetheless, we’ve theorized about this, and come up with a list of possibilities that also serves as a list of good reasons why someone should feel very free to send a wine back.

SEND IT BACK! There are indeed some cases in which you are right to either bring an opened but unconsumed wine back to your retailer for a refund, or send an ordered bottle of whatever back to the sommelier after you’ve been poured a taste and determined it is NOT IN SALEABLE CONDITION. There are two important things to remember in this formula:

A. If you are asking your retailer to refund or replace a bottle - BRING THE BOTTLE BACK! Think about it: if you wanted to return a garment to a clothing store because of a defect, you would need to bring it back and show the defect to the staff, correct? Same goes for wine. We would pour a bit into a glass and verify your claim. Just as in the retail store, we wine shop owners can return defective merchandise to our distributors and recover our money.
B. Unlike the clothing store return, it really isn’t OK to return a wine just because you “don’t like it”. Do you not like it because it is in bad condition, or because it simply is not your bag? If its the latter, then neither the retailer or restauranteur would feel compelled to take the return. Our reasoning is that you had an opportunity to get with something you’d like - that’s the importance of shopping in a good wine retail shop or ordering wine at a restaurant where the waiters know the wine list or where you can consult a sommelier. You are encouraged to tell us what your style is and then its our job to help you find something in our inventory that’s right for you. But in plain business terms, we are hard pressed simply take a return if you just plain don’t like it because once a bottle is opened, it is no longer saleable - we wouldn’t ask our distributors to refund us on these.

OK, on to our list:
1. WHAT HAPPENED: Cork Taint - When you open a bottle of wine and pour your first glass, the aromas should be alive and it should take less than a minute or two for them to arrive at the entrance to your nostrils and entice you. If this doesn’t happen, if the wine smells flat - either moldy like your basement or attic, or it actually has the dead smell of the very cork you pulled from the bottle, then your wine is probably corked. It helps if you’ve had the wine before and remember what it tasted like the previous time. HOW DID IT HAPPEN: This is a condition that occurs when a chemical known as TCA finds its way into your natural cork. Oddly, this happens during the process used to clean the tree bark into which the corks are made with a kind of bleach. Your odds of cork taint are between 5-10% - pretty high! WHY HAVE WE SEEN SO LITTLE at wineLIFE? It turns out (not on purpose) that a majority of our wines have either screw tops or synthetic corks in them. No cork, no cork taint!

2. WHAT HAPPENED: Vinegar - Wine is just one step away from Vinegar anyway. Look at the word: Vinegar - VIN - Egar. The French word is Vinaigre, which literally means sour (aigre) wine (vin). HOW DID IT HAPPEN: All it takes is the presence of enough Acetobacter, the bacteria who’s job it is to turn wine into vinegar, and the deed is done. Most of the winemaker’s responsibility lies in protecting the wine from such ugly scenarios, but some are less inclined to intervene in the winemaking process than others - they’d rather let it do what it do, and as such, if they have not fought off the baddies with sulphur dioxide, the winery’s all purpose friend, then acetobacter may find a home in your bottle. WHY HAVE WE SEEN SO LITTLE at wineLIFE: Our inventory is largely under $20.00 a bottle. While we do have organic wines, sulphur dioxide is allowed in organic wine making (its a natural by-product of the fermentation process anyway, and SO2 is itself organic) At this price level, most winemakers don’t take chances! We carry wines of commerce - recent vintages, made, like 98% of the wines on the world market, to be consumed young.

3. WHAT HAPPENED: Madirization - the wine oxidized in the bottle. It might smell like sherry. Caution: some wines smell like that ON PURPOSE. Once again, you are encouraged to talk to the good folks at your neighborhood wine store or restaurant for advice. For the most part, though if you open a bottle and it smells sort of like eggs or feet, it is not a good thing. White wines may actually take on a brownish hue, as well. HOW DID IT HAPPEN: Usually this is a symptom of pour storage. Wine that is stored in a warm place can fall victim. A good wine retailer or restauranteur will buy from distributors who are careful about their warehousing, and will consider the temperature of their own storage place very thoughtfully. WHY WE HAVE SEEN SO LITTLE at wineLIFE: We work with very good, mostly small companies who really love their wines and take great pains to make sure you enjoy the magic as well. We are all wine people. We care.

4. WHAT HAPPENED: Reduction - Sometimes, wine will suddenly feel painfully shy, and the flavors will retreat into some unknown place, leaving very little in the glass for you to love. In some cases, you’ll only have rotten eggs! HOW DID IT HAPPEN: The jury is still out, but most experts agree that it can be prevented to a degree in the winemaking process. WHY WE HAVE SEEN SO LITTLE at wineLIFE: Good wine makers understand and can prevent this in their wine before bottling it. Also, quite simply, this condition can be very subtle and most people don’t spot it. They may simply decide that they weren’t wild about that wine and that they’ll try something else next time they shop.

In any of these scenarios, you are right to send it back and have it replaced, pick something else out or simply get your money back. But remember, if its from a store you’ve gotta bring the bottle back. Next week, I will cover other “wine faults” that are not eligible for a refund.

Hint: Girl’s Best Friend.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How We Select Wine

How do we Select Wine for wineLIFE Wine Shop?

The short answer is that we taste. We’ve tasted every single wine in the store at least once. People bring us wine to taste, and we try them, and based on their cost, we decide whether we can a. stand behind it as a wine of quality and value for money and b. fit it into our growing catalog of wines (gratuitous plug).

The long answer is still simple. In our store, we want to offer our customers a well chosen selection of wines. So we started by categorizing everything we tasted - first just into groupings like white, red, rosé, sparkling, then into grape variety categories. And so evolved our Chardonnay (including a lovely, oaky-buttery number from upstate New York and an Unoaked refresher from Australia), Sauvignon Blanc (including an austere white Bordeaux and a fruity Argentine darling), Riesling (including both sweet and dry versions and a great 3L Bag-in-Box), Pinot Noir (including one great Chilean under $15 that actually tastes great) and Malbec (including one with a few years of age on it) sections. Thus we began filling in other areas - Sparkling wines with simple sweeties, crisp Cavas and a Blanc de Blanc Champagne, Cabernet and Bordeaux Red blends.

We also wanted to support local as much as possible, so we made sure to fit in a strong offering of wines from the North Fork of Long Island and the Finger Lakes. Rounded out with some great Italian reds, which will expand into a World Reds section (because honestly, we’re probably not going to have a Sangiovese section in the store), an international selection of rosés, some Pinot Gris and Grigio and some great stickies, we have a store we can be proud of.

Now if we could just wean our customers off that damned Bitch Bubbly...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Love in Carneros

Fabulous weekend in Napa! Remember the list in my last post "Wine Tripping Rocks"? My top reason for loving wine travel was the people, and sure enough, it was the people who made the trip uniquely wonderful!

I have to start with Amelia Moran Ceja. On our Sunday Morning vineyard tour, Amelia herself – Founder and President of Ceja Vineyards – hosted a group of 10 Women for WineSense members from San Francisco, Seattle and New York at her beautiful winery and vineyards in the Carneros AVA. The sunny, beautiful weather was indeed a great help, but it was her hospitality and the stories she shared with us that made it a special afternoon. A lot was learned on many levels for everyone present. And of course, the wines were fantastic! Beautifully balanced with a sort of European vein of acidity that makes the mouth water – perfect for food!

Out the back door of the Ceja Vineyards tasting room on Las Amigas Road are two Bocce courts. I recalled an episode of The Cosby Show when Cliff’s Trinidadian friend came over to play (they called it Petanque) on one of the coldest days of the year in the back yard of the Huxtable’s Brooklyn Heights brownstone. In costrast, on this gloriously sunny day in Carneros, Amelia found us (the New York City Chapter girls) outside making up our own rules to the game. “The great thing about Bocce,” she sang – her voice is like a lovely, never-ending song – “is that you don’t have to have any athletic ability to play, so its fun for everyone!” She showed us how to skillfully toss the pallino (the target ball) into position, and showed us where we could stand to bowl our balls within its range – it was Chardonnay (green balls) vs Pinot Noir (red balls), with our “Vana White” keeping score on a large courtside abacus. We were soon joined by WWS ladies from Napa/Sonoma and Seattle, and Amelia treated us all to her new release Vino de Casa white blend while we played. The wine was crisp and delicious under the beaming late morning sun.

Soon we started the vineyard tour, where Amelia allowed us to get up close and personal with her budding vines. These are natural vineyards – lots of wild growth around the bases of trunks and posts and in between rows. She showed us the row of great oak trees where glassy winged sharp shooters, those beautiful but deadly-to-vineyards insects, live just at the edge of a healthy vineyard – I’m still amazed, perhaps we could learn from this type of harmonious coexistence. She showed us her home, which looked as though it had risen up right out of the soil in the midst of the vines , where she had just come from hosting 20 of her family members for Sunday morning breakfast – business as usual for the Cejas.

Love is evident in every ounce of Amelia’s spirit and in every aspect of Ceja Vineyards, from the river of life symbols that flow across labels and down the capsules of the bottles, to the symbol of the Camino Real bell Amelia spent a year researching to choose for a logo. You can view the bell hanging from the arbor archway entry to this beautiful place – the clapper signed by the smith who cast the bell, the winery’s ethos etched around the lip: Vinum, Cantus, Amor – Wine, Song, Love, or as Mr Ceja lovingly interprets it, Wine, Sex and Rock and Roll!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wine Tripping Rocks!

Flying out to California every year is ALWAYS a fun thing! This is my forth year in a row, third Women for WineSense Grand Event - yes, your math is correct, I attended the second one while I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter. Here are the things that make this trip so special every year:
1. Seeing my friends again that I rarely see or only get to see during this event - not only my Cali posse, but women from all over the country come through - my Dallas girls, my Oregon crew from Portland and Bend, ladies from Richmond.

2. Traveling with my northeast region girls, enjoying the growth of our friendships in a shared hotel room in St Helena and at the Grand Event luncheon at CIA.

3. Getting Chef Shehu some Charles Krug Rosé right from the source. (perhaps I’ll see my friend the little jackrabbit who hangs around the picnic area outside of the tasting room, too?)

4. Visiting a new vineyard or winery I haven’t been to before - last year, it was Spottswoode, to pick up my allocation of Sauvignon Blanc. This year, I will visit Ceja Vineyards on my Sunday morning Vineyard Tour (part of the Grand Event ticket package - WHAT A DEAL!!).

5. Dining at some of the countries most fabulous and beloved restaurants. This year, Mustard’s Grill!

6. Watching the Napa Valley Wine Train go by and waving at all the “happy” people on board while eating a burger at the Taylor’s Refresher, THE BEST burger joint I’ve ever been to! (Imagine great burgers, perfect fries and an AWARD WINNING WINE LIST! I KID YOU NOT!)

7. Amazing new experiences - in 2007, I met Mrs Margrit Mondavi, in 2008, I blended and bottled my own wine at St Supery, last year Samantha and I drove through Sonoma Valley and stayed with a new friend in Tiburon, where I had a fantastic morning run, this year - WHO KNOWS???

8. Beautiful weather, which we always seem to be blessed with.

9. A little time away from the concrete (and let’s face it, a little me time without hubby and baby) - at least enough time to miss it all and want to come back home!

Support your Nabe Retailer on Earth Day

There’s no doubt that doing what it takes to care for farm land in this way ensures a great future for the people who eat and drink from it - sparing their vines and soils from chemicals, letting nature take its course. The naturally farmed vineyard has been a wild and beautiful sight every time I’ve seen it around the world.

Some of my fave Biodynamic Organic Sustainable (BOS) wines:
Grove Mill Winery, Wairau Valley, Marlborough, NZ
Sokol Blosser, Willamette Valley, OR
Jean Luc Colombo, Cornas, (northern) Rhône Valley, France
Felton Road, Bannockburn, Central Otago NZ

My best advice: visit your good neighborhood wine retailer - an attractive store with knowledgeable staff who enjoy wine are indicators that they will a. Have a healthy selection of these wines to show you and b. Enjoy talking about the wines with you.

Shop small retailers on Earth Day

written on Thursday, April 22nd to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day. Sorry for the delay!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bringing Wine

So you've been invited over for dinner and you're not sure what wine to bring?  I got you!  There are several ways you can arrive at a decision of what to buy, and its a good idea to have a sense for what you want BEFORE heading down to the wine shop (in this case, wineLIFE, I'm sure) to make your purchase.  Just follow this easy wine buying strategy, and you'll be in and out of the store in no time with the perfect bottle for the event!

When thinking about what wine to buy, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Who will I be drinking this bottle of wine with?
If you're visiting good friends, and you're not particularly worried about what they will think when you pull the bottle out of the bag, then skip to question 3.
If this is your first time to someone's home and don't know what's for dinner, go red. Think Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah - these wines have wide appeal. 
If you want to impress - meeting the parents, going to the boss's holiday dinner, wowing a client - go with a wine that has a good reputation, whether red or white, still or sparkling.

2. What food will I be drinking this bottle of wine with? 
If you know what's for dinner, go with rules of thumb that work - whites and lighter reds for fish, pork and poultry, richer reds and bold whites for red meat and game.  If you know me, you’ll know that I abhor wine rules, but in cases when you’re not sure what’s being served, it helps to narrow down the choices.
3. How much should I spend?
In most cases, $15.00 can get you a great bottle of wine. 
If you are eager to impress, be prepared to spend at least $20.00
If you know what is being served, go with the tone of the menu. If your host is just having hors d'oeuvres or making guacamole, a bottle around the $10 mark should be fine, but if he's going to town with confit duck and wild mushroom risotto, your bottle should live up to his efforts. 

4. Should I gift wrap it?
Yes you should! Presentation makes all the difference - a fun wine bag or just wrapping the bottle in nice tissue paper shows you really appreciate being invited over and the wine purchase wasn't strictly obligatory. 

A Few More Tips...

Be open to the possibility that your host may have the wine for dinner taken care of and that they may put your bottle on the rack to enjoy another time - that's a great way to offer a wine gift!  

The wine, your experience buying the wine, even the bag you brought it in can all be great fodder for conversation. Consider this when making your buying decisions. 

Sparkling wine is always fun and is not necessarily just for celebrations - they go great with foods that call for crisp whites. Champagne is usually $30.00 or more per bottle. If you don't want to spend that much, Cava and Prosecco are other popular alternatives that cost a lot less. 

Happy shopping!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Albariño - From a Rainy Region for a Sunny Summer

Rías Baixas is an exciting wine region located in rainy northwestern Spain. Its local specialty is Albariño, a crisp white wine that has a character that changes seemingly with the changes in your own mood. I had my first Albariño of the season - Martin Códax Albariño 2008 ($13.00, easy to spot with a funky old school type of guitar on the label) - two days ago on the first of several much-hotter-than-usual days in New York City.

The retailer kept it in the fridge. At first, knowing this was more of a liquor store and that the people running probably had no clue, I was concerned about how long it had been in there - the 2008 has been on the market for at least 8 months now, and the label was beginning to warp. Nonetheless, I took a chance on it, and I’m glad I did. It was memorable, with stone fruit aromatics that reached up and caught my attention as I was still pouring my first glass. The wine had an herbal undertone - eucalyptus? or star anise? - it was hard to put my finger on, but easy across my palate with a mouthful of flavors, crisp acidity and a clean finish.

I strongly encourage that you espouse this grape this summer - well, have an open relationship, still try other wines, but make it your business to seek out Albariño all summer long, buy them, try them with your peoples, see what you think. Buy in the $10.00-$15.00 per 750ml bottle range - steer clear of Vinho Verde, its not the same thing! By summer’s end, you’ll be an Albariño connoisseur, and you’ll tell me which ones are best! I’d love that!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Wine, Women and... Power!

So this is Women’s History Month, right? And Monday, March 8th is International Women’s Day, correct? And the wine you are drinking right now, made by a woman? Maybe... And in a lot of cases, people don’t even know, don’t think it matters. But just like any other product, it is interesting, if not completely earth shattering, to learn about the people behind it.

I’ve heard some people in the wine industry distinguish wines made by men from wines made by women - for example, when tasting wines from Palmaz Vineyards in Napa Valley, one can discuss the differences from one vintage to the next of their top flight Cabernet - Mia Klein is at the helm of the winemaking team, a changeover from her male predecessor both in style and approachability. The differences between the vintages that overlap this personnel change are indeed cliché - the male winemaker’s wine could still stand some aging, for it is brash and far too edgy to be consumed now. Ms Mia’s wine, made in the ensuing year, is indeed more approachable with silkier tannins, enjoyable now although it has the characteristics to develop with some cellar time. But this is not always the case.

Prime example: Screaming Eagle, America’s favorite Cult Cabernet, a massive, tannic bottle of wine that needs at least a decade to begin to show its goods and can definitely be characterized as “masculine” in style, made by the talented and lovely Heidi Peterson Barrett. (Also maker of Women of the Vine Cellars Syrah Napa Valley 2006, Author Deborah Brenner's label)

Women wield power in the wine industry in other ways, as well. Not only are we supposed to have more keen palates than our male counterparts, but depending on what study you read (I swear by Adams Beverage, personally) women account for at least 60% of the buyers of wine in America - don’t we usually do all the shopping, anyway? And we make our decisions based on advice from our girls.

More and more we are seeing women wine writers and bloggers taking a front row seat, women in the influential rolls of Sommelier and Buyer at top restaurants and retailers everywhere, and most importantly, women in the stores holding their own and ordering from the wine list when dining out with their partners.

All of this is to make a statement about Wine, Women and Power, and to take my hat off to all my sisters of the vine. I salute you!

This blog is dedicated to all the women who have paved the way for me and other young rising stars in the wine world, especially
Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW
Linda Lawry CWE
Margrit Biever Mondavi
Ambassador Kathryn Hall
Gabrielle Leonhard
Melanie Young
Karen Jess-Lindsley
Michaela Rodeno
Elaine Honig
Margaret Duckhorn
and Julie Johnson.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why Wine is Awesome Reason #10 - Travel

In the spirit of my Uses for Cheap Wine series that is evolving through this blog, I’ve decided I should start another series, because just as there are indeed many good uses for cheap wine, there are many reasons why wine is awesome.

As President of the NYC Chapter of Women for WineSense, it is a privilege and duty to make my annual pilgrimage west to Napa Valley, land of our founders. Each spring for the last 3 years, I have travelled to California to celebrate and collaborate with many lovely, successful and fabulous members and officers from Women for WineSense chapters nationwide. Two out of those three years were Grand Events, most spectacular occasions, the second of which I dutifully attended and thoroughly enjoyed even though I was 6 months pregnant with my daughter Ché Elizabeth. Last year, during the height of the economic revolution, although we decided not to have a Grand Event, there was still a congregation, a very important annual summit took place as usual. While many important and serious discussions ensued, wine was poured and vineyards were toured.

The truth is you can travel just by trying wines from different parts of the world. While wine’s character is largely determined by the grape varieties it is made of, there is an undeniable sense of place in almost every bottle - not just in the packaging but in the character of the wine itself. For example, you can take a mini tour of the world by trying a selection of Sauvignon Blancs from different places - visit Northern France, the South Island of New Zealand, South Africa and the North Fork of Long Island all in one week on your tour.

Nonetheless, there’s nothing like the being there in person. Voyaging to the places where wine is grown offers such a unique look at a place you often go to for other reasons, as perhaps in Spain, Chile or California or it can take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise go to at all, such as the Upper Loire Valley and the aforementioned North Fork of Long Island (a sleepy farm area that still pales in comparison to the Hamptons in summer appeal, but is now a fantastic destination for wine touring!). Add the experience of drinking the region’s wines and enjoying the foods that they do best - MAGIC!

Wine has given me both many reasons to travel and the opportunity to enhance my travel experiences by adding in winery and vineyard visits and tasting through otherwise unbeaten paths all over the world as well as very close to home. The great thing is that you can always recapture a little of that by enjoying those wines again later, and the pictures tend to be really awesome when you get back home.

Photos from Previous Women for WineSense Grand Events, Enjoy!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Uses for Cheap Wine #3 - Cooking

I must preface this by clarifying that cheap wine doesn’t necessarily mean bad wine, and it is my firm belief that one should never put any wine in their food that they would not drink. To quote the comedian WC Fields “I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food!”

Here are some tips on cooking with wine at a discount:
When you want to create a perfect pairing of wine with a dish that you are cooking that has wine in the recipe, use the same wine you are drinking in the dish. Now, I’m not saying that you should deglaze* your pan with your Kistler Chardonnay! At $100.00+ per bottle, that would make for one expensive pan jus! Instead, get a Chardonnay that is $8-10 a bottle, something that is similarly oaky, but make sure that it is something you would happily drink on a more casual evening.
To make a fabulous herb butter, add white wine to your recipe for herb butter. The wine will provide balancing acidity - use a $6-8 crisp white such as torrontes, or sauvignon blanc.
Use an $8-12 shiraz or cabernet to marinate tougher meats such as beef cheeks, ox tails, veal shanks or brisket. The acid helps to break down the meat and add wonderful flavor. As always, the wine should at least be drinkable.

This should get you off to a good start cooking with wine! Bon appetit!

*Deglaze - after cooking a meat, poultry or fish on a frying pan, add wine to the hot pan. The wine will collect all the pan residue. Reduce this over a low flame, then add cream or butter to make a great sauce!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why Champagne?

Not that anyone has ever actually asked me this question, but I thought perhaps it is something we could delve into, what with my upcoming True Champagne tasting at wineLIFE. (hope you are registered already!)

Just to clarify, at the risk of sounding cliché, all champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is champagne. Champagne is a place, a region defined by three towns that form sort of an acute triangular slice a mere 100k east of Paris. The towns, cathedral-and-cobblestone-clad Reims, the even smaller Epernay, and the southern satelite of Aÿ create a triad that contains some of the most valuable Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards in the world. The other triumvirate of Champagne is the trio of featured grapes - the two aforementioned, joined by a much more obscure Pinot Meunier in a blended bubbly that varies in style from house to house depending on its recipe.

Here in Champagne exists the greatest anomaly of the wine world: vintage wines are the exception, not the rule. Not only are the wines a blend of grapes, the traditional practice in champagne is to reserve wine in stainless steel tanks every vintage, usually over about 5 years, so as to blend across vintages to achieve the house style. Most champagne sold in the US is non-vintage brut, at around $30.00-$40.00 a bottle - Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, Taittinger, Laurent Perrier and Pol Roger are some more recognizable ones.

Vintage champagne is only made when the conditions are perfect - not a common occurance in this cool, northerly region. They are given the lofty title Tête de Cuvée, the top pop (tête = head) and fabulous names like Veuve Cliquot’s La Grande Dame, Moët’s Dom Perignon, Laurent Perrier Le Grand Siecle (literally “the great century”) and Louis Roederer’s now highly unpopular but still astronomically priced Crystal. Their price tags and packaging always match their status - a Tête de Cuvée starts at around $100.00 and soars upwards of $250.00 from there.

Champagne comes in a small but intriguing variety of styles that you could have fun exploring. If you like pink, try some brut rosés, the best of which is made by Billecart Salmon and is quite tough to come by! The anomalies continue - champagne is the only rosé that is actually made by blending red and white wines, not by the saignée method (literally bleeding, referring to the steeping of the skins of red grapes in the vat with the juice so they will impart color), and here again, the non-vintage version is less expensive than the vintage version. You can also try creamy Blancs de Blanc (translates literally as white of white) champagnes that are 100% Chardonnay or Blancs de Noir, romantically fragrant wines that are made of 100% Pinot Noir, but are indeed, as their name suggests, white bubblies.

You’ll also notice that sometimes I spell champagne with a lower case c and sometimes with a capital C. Capital C refers to the region, lower case c refers to the wine. But I still haven’t really answered the question have I? Why champagne? Because while there are many great substitutes that are much less costly - I’m a huge fan of Prosecco, I don’t balk at Cava, and I enjoy tasting sparkling wines from a around the world that are made in the traditional method - champagne is the originator of the style - sparkling wine was invented here! As an American wine drinker, who’s market is bursting with cases and cases of fabulous high end champagne (in contrast to England, where cheap champagne lines the shelves of supermarkets nationwide) I can’t help but quote Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell: Aint nothin’ like the real thing, baby, aint nothin’ like the REAL THING!

Stay tuned for Why Champagne? Part Deux - Growers

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Uses for Cheap Wine #17 - Wine Rack Filler

You LOVE wine! You’re the kind of collector who never has a full rack or wine fridge - you just can’t not drink it! Well, here’s my advice for how to keep your wine indulgence satisfied and still maintain a full rack, because let’s face it, an empty wine rack or wine fridge is NOT acceptable.

On a $500.00 budget:

Take some of your allocations from your favorite California mailing list wineries, perhaps wait until you get your tax refund, and buy:

2 Williams Selyem Pinot Noir @ $54.00 each (or you can split this up into a Pinot Noir and a Zinfandel for more variety, although you would get variety if you got two different Pinot Noirs from WS - the cuvées from different vineyards offer different flavor profiles)

1 Vie Les Amours Syrah @$42.00

1 Anomaly Cabernet Sauvignon $89.00

Treat yourself to a couple of special bottles from the Old World:

1 Chateau Calon Ségur St. Estephe 2005 $90.00

1 Guiseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella $100.00

And then...

you could pick up 4-6 more bottles at your favorite local wine retailer for $45.00 or less TOTAL COST, because the market is abundant with cheap wine, and a lot of it is surprisingly decent!

2 Mia Prosecco, (dry sparkling wine from Italy) $6.99

1 Mil Piedras Malbec, Argentina $8.99

1 OCD Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand $9.99

1 Amour Vin de Pays de Vaucluse, France $4.99

1 Falkensteiner Rieden Zweigelt (dry red wine from Austria) $8.99 for a 1 liter bottle

Total expenditure to fill your rack: $468.95 + tax. And you didn’t even have to buy Yellow Tail!

The truth is there is a lot of flexibility in what you can fill your rack with. Personally, if I didn’t have a toddler running rampant in my apartment, I would do the above, and put all those fabulous pricey bottles on top, reserving the bottom spaces for a revolving supply of good, cheap vino. And no, I don’t let my higher end stuff sit around too long either, because let’s face it, a special occasion can be the evening I come home to a my warm apartment and I’m feeling extra thankful, and then I’m popping the cork on my $89.00 Anomaly Cab to enjoy with leftover Truffle Risotto with Pork and I’m pouring some into my daughter’s sippy cup and mixing it with a little water.

Also, based on the above, you could actually fill the whole rack for $100.00 or less!

My final piece of advice: Always leave one or two spaces open for those unexpected bottles you get as gifts. Whoever said it’s better to give than to received obviously never got anything, and unlike in France, we are happy to accept a bottle from a friend around here!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Uses for Cheap Wine #12 - Mulled Wine

Published Yesterday at

Picture it: December 2009. You are young, beautiful, wealthy and wise, and want to stay that way. You decide that wine’s the thing to maintain at least two out of four - not bad! You enter a fabulous wine shop - one of your city’s finest - on the hunt for a few good bottles. Your wine rack sits uncharacteristically empty at home, awaiting your fantastic finds.

In the shop, the first thing you see: Prosecco $6.99. You think to yourself “Grab a cart, dude, the pickins are plenty!” Six bottles later, you are lookin at an $8.00 Malbec, an $8.00 liter of Austrian Zweigelt, a $6.00 Torrontes and a Vin de Pays de Vaucluse for a crazy $4.99! Add two bottles of that cheap Prosecco, and you have a mixed 6 for a very smart $46.75!

Later on, while he’s putting the little one to bed, you decide on the Malbec and choose your most fabulous wine glass, thinking that just as they had made the $15.00 bottle of Nero d’Avola taste much more expensive, perhaps there’s hope for the $8.00 Malbec. You pull the synthetic cork (I cant’ stand those things!) and pour for you and a visiting friend.

You swirl. You sniff. The only descriptor either of you can muster is “grapes” for the smell of it, and then the fleeting fruit dissipates and all you smell is alcohol - a whopping 14% for that tail!! You both take a few sips while you catch up on family stories, but neither of you savors the wine, just looking to achieve a quick buzz while chatting

You have almost 2/3 of the bottle left the next morning, and you DON’T FEEL LIKE DRINKING IT ANYMORE - it was that bad.

What do you do?

To me, since the wine was in the condition it was supposed to be (it didn’t smell like basements or funky shoes, just bad wine) it is uneconomical to simply throw the wine down the drain. If it’s in a 750 ml glass bottle decently packaged, chances are it’s at least drinkable.

Uses for Cheap Wine #12 - Mulled Wine: Mulled wine is a warm version of sangria, in which the wine is heated up, usually sweetened and seasoned with whole baking spices such as clove, nutmeg, cinnamon sticks and star anise, and kept on a low heat so that each cup is warm. Often served at ski areas, it is a great way to warm yourself up inside on a cold day!


2/3 of a 750ml bottle of cheap dry red wine

2 Tablespoons Raw Sugar

3 Cinnamon Sticks, broken into small pieces

1 Whole Nutmeg, cracked and shaved to release flavor

1 Star Anise

1 Snowy Day (optional)


In a saucepan, put the wine on a high flame. Add the Sugar, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Star Anise into the wine. Add fresh, cold water to achieve a ratio of 1 part water to 2 parts wine. When the wine is just below boiling, lower the flame all the way down just to keep it warm, letting it steep for at least thirty minutes. Mulled Wine tastes better as the spices continue to release flavors into it and the sugar integrates.

Serve in Irish Coffee Mugs, garnish with a Cinnamon Stick. If it starts to reduce as it sits, add a little more water.

Serves 3-4

Next on Uses for Cheap Wine - #17 - Wine Rack Filler

Let no wine go to waste!

Happy New Year!


Vee Fitzgerald