Thursday, October 31, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Washington Syrah - 2011 Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah

Charles Smith makes some great everyday wine, and this wine is often my go-to choice for enjoying some BBQ grub from Famous Dave's or elsewhere.  This will be my first taste of the 2011 vintage, so let's see what the latest release has to offer!

Wine: 2011 Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah
Region: Columbia Valley, Washington State
Grape Varieties: Syrah
Obtained from: Purchased at Whole Foods
Price: $20.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Screw Top - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear, with a dark purple center and a water white rim.
Aroma: Lots of blackberries and raspberries, along with vanilla and some earthiness.
Taste: Nicely balanced with a good amount of acidity, and soft tannins - nice and fruity!

The Grade: I give this one a B+. This is definitely a wine to drink now, and this vintage is similar to earlier vintages I've tried. This should be great to pair with BBQ, even with sweeter or spicier sauces. A touch too expensive for me, I would rank this more as a $15-ish wine, so for that reason it gets a bit of a lower grade.  I will still but this wine, as I can count on it to be consistently good vintage after vintage.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Always be Prepared - How to Make Prison Wine

I believe in always being prepared.  I have no plans to land in prison, but if I ever did I would imaging having some type of wine - even "Pruno" prison wine would be better than nothing.  This stuff is called prison wine, but maybe someone ends up marooned on a desert island with an interesting assortment of food stuffs - they could use this same process, and maybe call it Gilligan's wine???
My disclaimer is that I did not try this at home, and I don't recommend you do either. Save this in your memory banks for some desperate situation where prison wine would actually be a treat.  

If you do ever try and make this stuff, first rule is that you need to be of legal drinking age, and second - be immaculately clean and sanitary. A funny requirement for a "wine" that is currently likely fermenting in many many prison toilet tanks throughout the world.  But in any alcohol making situation where fermentation is done at warm temperatures - you run the risk of botulism or some other nasty stuff. So clean anything you use, including fresh fruit to get rid of any contaminants.

So, let's call it Gilligan's wine, and lets say that on your deserted island (along with a professor and movie star) you happen to have the following supplies:

  • Large, 1 Gallon Zip Lock bag
  • Fresh Oranges 8 - 10 (or perhaps your island has pineapple trees, you could peel and core two pineapples)
  • Fruit Cocktail - 8 oz can
  • Sugar - 1 cup
  • Fresh Water - 2 cups
  • Warm Water - 90 - 100 degrees F
  • Towels
  • Clean cloth or sock to filter wine
To enhance your Gilligan's wine (oh forget it - I'm just calling it prison wine!), you can also use these optional items:
  • 4-6 Ketchup Packets
  • Dry Bread - dry (moldy is OK), crumbled
Peel your oranges and break in to segments (or peel, core, and cut your pineapple into chunks). You can include some of the orange peels for additional flavor - just make sure they are clean! Combine the fresh fruit and the fruit cocktail (fruit like stuff, syrup, everything that's in the can) in the Zip Lock bag.  After getting as much air out as possible, seal the bag and mash the contents with your hands until the fruit is broken down.   Now add the fresh water to the Zip Lock, remove as much air as possible, and re-seal it.  Now put the bag in your warm water for 20 minutes, then remove and wrap in towels to help retain the warmth.  Store for about two days in a dark location, checking it occasionally to make sure the fermentation is not producing enough gas to make the bag explode.

Now you will add the sugar, and if you have it add the ketchup and dry bread.  Fermentation is all about yeast turning sugar into alcohol, so for the first two days natural yeasts were fermenting the sugars from the fruit and fruit cocktail, now you are adding additional sugars (sugar, and Ketchup which has a ton of sugar, but also adds some flavor to your Gilli..., I mean prison wine), and the bread can be a source of additional yeast to help with the fermentation process.  Repeat the earlier process by removing the air, resealing the Zip Lock, and placing the bag in warm water for 30 minutes (longer this time since you have more "stuff" in the bag to warm). Wrap the bag with towels, and store in a dark place for two more days. There will be more fermentation happening at this phase, so check the bag every twelve hours and open a small part of the seal of the Zip Lock to release some of the gas.  After this second two day fermentation, release all the gas, reseal, put the bag in warm water for 30 minutes, back in the towels, and back in the dark spot for 4 days - continuing to check the bag and release gases every twelve hours.

Just as you begin to think this is way too much work, you are almost done!  You now need some clean cloth or even a clean sock to work as a filter. pour the contents of the bag through the cloth filter into a (very clean) receptacle. Your homemade wine will take much better over ice, but ice may be a lot to ask on a desert island or penitentiary.
If your efforts have been, uh... successful I guess, it will look like cloudy tang. It will smell like oranges, a hint of ketchup, and cheap alcohol - perhaps like cheap white wine.  It will by no means smell pleasant, but if there are any other smells going on, you may want to trash the batch (tough to do on a desert island I know!).

Is it good? No!!! Is it better than nothing - only you, surviving on your desert island, can decide!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Wine Tip of the Week - Beware the First Sip!

Be careful not to judge any wine solely on your first taste of wine that day. Whatever else you've partaken of earlier that day - be it toothpaste, coffee, a breath mint, a King Size Payday bar - whatever - will impact your palate and your first drink of wine will interact with any residue still in your mouth.  An important element to a good wine is acidity, and your first shot of something acidic will always be jarring to your tastebuds (imagine starting the day with a nice lemon wedge), but once you've had something acidic, your palate will be better prepped to truly evaluate a wine. 

Having a meal with an epic wine? Plan for some type of starter wine to prep your palate, as well as your guest's palates, to fully enjoy that epic wine.  Just make sure to prep your palate in some way, so you don't end up trashing a good wine based only on that first impression!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Southern Rhone Red - 2009 Maison Arnoux & Fils Vacqueyras The Vac

Fresh off writing my recent post Get to Know your Grapes Series - Grenache a.k.a. Garnacha, I was looking for an interesting new Grenache based wine to try.  I browed a few offerings from Rhone Ranger wineries in Central California, but ultimately decided to try a new region for me - Vacqueyras in the Southern Rhone region of France.

Wine: 2009 Maison Arnoux & Fils Vacqueyras The Vac
Region: Vacqueyras, Southern Rhone, France
Grape Varieties: Southern Rhone Blend - Grenache and Syrah
Obtained from: Purchased at Total Wine & More
Price: $18.00
Wino4Life Category: Everyday Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Real cork - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear, dark red in color with a water white rim.
Aroma: To put it simply - wow!  There is a ton going on with the nose of this wine.  So much it is difficult to figure out all the different components - but definitely raspberry, smoked meat, vanilla, leather, and even something a bit floral.
Taste: The jumble of aromas come together for a nicely fruity wine, a good amount of tannins, and a nice bit of acidity. A nice long finish.

The Grade: I give this one an A. If for no other reason than to test your powers of identifying wine aromas. This may seem overwhelming with the intensity and variety in the nose - but give it a try, it may grow on you!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The New Best Wine I've Ever Had - The 2005 Penfolds Grange Shiraz from South Australia

Prior to this point in my wine life, the coveted title of the best wine I've ever tasted was split between two wonderful bottles of wine:
    Sassicaia - Like Cher and Madonna, Only One Name Necessary
  • Sassicaia.  I've had this Bordeaux style wine from the Tuscany region in Italy on three occasions.  Twice on Norwegian Cruise lines, where I did not note the vintage we enjoyed, and once at home we had a 2008 that I ordered from Ultimate Wine Shop, and paid about $160.  Compared to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines I was used to, the silky softness of the finish on this wine, accompanied by wonderful red fruit flavors - was phenomenal. 
2008 Bodegas Alto Moncayo Aquilon.  This Garnacha (Grenache) based wine from the Campo de Borja wine region in Spain.  Alto Moncayo makes some of my very favorite wine, and this is their flagship offering.  The intensity of the fruit flavor, and the chocolately, smoky aromas are definitely unforgettable.  I purchased this bottle at Total Wine & More for about $120.  
Alto Moncayo Aquilon
Back before I had ever attended my first wine tasting on my path to wine geekdom where I now reside, I was on a business trip for my job as an IT Project Manager.  There were several of us who had travelled to the company's headquarters, and work was going into the evening hours. One of the guys in our group (the sales guy who had a huge stake in what we were doing, but couldn't contribute much) headed out to a local grocery store and brought back some red wine.  Up to this point I mostly detested red wine (I can't tell you how hard that phrase is to type now, but I just remind myself I am reminiscing!), but lacking any other options had a glass.  Hey... it wasn't too bad - in fact pretty enjoyable. It wasn't one of the moments that led me to become serious about wine, but it was a moment in my wine history that I remember. Which wine you ask? It was a Rosemount Diamond Series Shiraz from Australia.  Now the stuff sells for less than $10 a bottle, back then it was likely close to $5 a bottle.  
Rosemount's Diamond Series Shiraz
Once I got into wine, and became a regular reader of Wine Spectator, I noted in their Top Ten wines of 2003 that #6 was a 2000 Shiraz from Penfolds called "RWT" (later I learned this acronym stood for Red Wine Trials).  
2000 Penfolds RWT Shiraz
I was at the point I was ready to try and enjoy a bottle of $70 wine, so bought it and absolutely loved it. In fact, it held the crown as my favorite Shiraz until I found a Napa winery called Darioush... but I digress.  In reading to learn more about Penfolds, I read a about their big daddy wine - Grange.   This wine typically releases around $200, and the price tends to increase based upon the score the particular vintage received (which is almost always 90+, and routinely 95+ according to Wine Spectator).   I was fascinated how much better a wine could taste than the RWT that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Could it really taste 3 times as good to justify the price.  At that point I added my first wine related bucket list item - someday I wanted to try a Penfolds Grange.

It's now 2013, and I decide that for my Birthday present this year - I wanted to realize the dream and try a Penfolds Grange. I did some research on the vintages available, and found that the 2008 had received a perfect 100 points from Wine Spectator, and had a $850 price tag to go along with that honor.  That was too much for my budget, so instead I opted for the 2005. At $450 it was a relative bargain, plus at 97 points (Wine Spectator) it likely was no slouch, plus the drinking window was estimated to start in 2014 - so it was (close enough to) ready to drink.  I do know that this is not a small amount to throw down on one bottle - it costs more than my two previous all time favorite wines combined.  I have wanted to try this wine for so many years, and finally answer the question - "How much better can a wine be than ones you've already tried?"  Is the price due to rarity, fame, etc? It is a really good wine with a really really high price? Only one way to know for sure.

I visited my local Total Wine & More, and looking for wine value even when buying an OMG bucket list level wine, I also bought 5 bottles of everyday wine to take advantage of their "pick six" deal where you get 10% 6 bottles. I wasn't sure if the Grange qualified - but it did!  So with the discounts I basically got the other 5 bottles for free!  I have never been so nervous as I cradled my box of wine walking across the parking lot - having terrible visions of tripping and staining the asphalt with $500 of fermented grape juice. 

Luckily, the I made it all the way home safely with my prize - a thing of beauty!

Is This Really Happening?!?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know I am a big fan of wine aeration, and often use a Vinturi aerator.  However, no short cuts to aeration for this baby - nothing but old fashioned decanting.  We were having dinner at about 8p, so I gathered my gear before noon so I could open and decant the wine for at least 8 hours before serving.  My gear included a good wine opener, a decanter, and a decanter funnel with a filter to capture any sediment.

Tools of the Trade

At this point, my next set of fears arrived - what if the cork is damaged, or what if the bottle is one unlucky enough to be impacted by cork taint. How easy will it be to take a bottle of this price back - already opened, for a trade in??  Luckily, I did not need to find out - as the cork was in beautiful condition. The bottom of the cork that was in contact with the wine was nearly black - this was going to have some concentration to it!  A quick smell of the bottle gave nothing but intense fruit, chocolate, and smoke (as in smoked meat) ... whew!

Cork Out - No Turning Back Now!

Next, I poured into the decanter - through the funnel and filter to begin Mr. Grange's long day of relaxing and aerating.  There was just a bit of sediment captured, and I left about 1 Tablespoon of wine in the bottle one sediment started to appear. A crime I know, but superfine sediment in the remnants of the wine could add extra unwanted bitterness - better to leave it out.

Welcome to the World Mr. Grange!

Definitely Some Sediment Left in the Bottle - Not As Much As I Expected Though

Now I found a comfortable spot - away from direct sun for the wine to breath for about eight hours. Every hour or so I would swirl and check the aromas to make sure all was good.


A wine like this deserves a special delivery mechanism, so I grabbed my Riedel Vinum Extreme Caberent Sauvignon glasses. Super thin crystal, and just a beautiful glass for a special wine.  Wine glass foul for serving an Australian Shiraz in a Cabernet Sauvignon glass - but I only have these or Vinum Extreme Pinot Noir glasses.

A Special Wine Deserves a Special Glass

To accompany this epic wine, I wanted to have the right meal. I read a lot about Lamb and Shiraz being a classic combo, but instead decided to go with a Rib Eye, bought in Scottsdale at Bull Market - a real live and actual butcher shop!  The quality of their products is incredible, they will definitely be my special occasion meat shop going forward.  I encrusted the steak with powdered dry porcini mushrooms to add some earthiness, and made a blueberry, bacon, port, and tarragon sauce to add some strength to the dish so it would stand up against a monster wine.  Add a side of Joël Robuchon inspired potato puree, and we are ready to dine!  Since the wine had been sitting out all day - I put the decanter into the refrigerator for about 12-15 minutes before dinner to get the wine down to a good serving temperature. If you decant for extended periods of time, don't forget to cool the wine down to close to 60 degrees Fahrenheit to coax the most enjoyable aromas and flavors from your wine.

Meat and Taters for our Grange

Before we dug in to enjoy the food we'd prepared, Wino4Life wife and I first focused on the wine.  The aromas were deep and complex - blackberry, cherry, coffee, chocolate, smoked meat, baking spices - all perfectly balanced and existing in wonderful harmony.   A long time in the planning - the time was here for a taste... No other word can describe the taste of this wine than... EPIC!!!  The intense fruit flavor was nicely balanced against silky smooth tannins.  Usually wine taste dissipates very quickly, but with this wine is was likely drinking a second drink right after the first, the finish hangs in there so long - and is so wonderful, I have never experienced anything like it. I have been lucky enough to try some wonderful wines in my life - but none come close to this one!  I let the finish completely dissipate (I don't know how long it took - but it was a looooooooong finish), and took another sip, taking time to thoroughly work it around in my mouth.  Just like the first taste, but accentuated by holding it a bit in my mouth - incredible. Even as I write this blog post I am having fond flashbacks of this incredible wine.  My wife and I discussed the 2008 vintage - which was rated 3 points higher by Wine Spectator, and would cost $400 more... is there any way a wine could taste much better than what we just had. 

I had hoped for a good experience, and mostly did not want to be disappointed in a wine that I dropped a big chunk of change to procure.  This wine exceeded all my expectations times 1,000. My wife and I pledged to find and drink a new all time favorite wine at least every 5 years or so, (more often if we win the lottery).  I better end this post now, I have less than 5 years to find something better than this wine... TOO MUCH PRESSURE!!!

Earlier in this post I mentioned the question "How much better can a wine be than ones you've already tried?" To my surprise the answer is - much much better. My prior two all time favorites are no slouches - but (also to my surprise) I fully believe this wine is worth the money. 

The meal we prepared paired nicely with the wine. The interaction of the blueberry port sauce with the wine was outstanding. I picked it because of the flavor profile I knew of Shiraz, which can have blueberry, raw bacon, and licorice notes - which I saw echoed in the sauces ingredients (with Tarragon and its anise characteristics standing in for licorice).  We savored every sip and every bit, but alas eventually there were nothing but memories... really, really, really great memories!!!


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Argentina Malbec Blend - 2010 Cruz Alta Chairman's Blend

Cruz Alta has been named in the past as one of Wine and Spirits top value brands from South America.  I am a big fan of their everyday Malbecs ($12 for "regular", $15 for their Reserve, and $18 for their Grand Reserve - all really good!). I decided to move up into their "Weekend Wine" level offerings at about $25 with their limited availability Chairman's Blend.  This wine throws some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in the mix, plus gets 18 months in French and American Oak.

Wine: 2010 Cruz Alta Chairman's Blend
Region: Mendoza Argentina
Grape Varieties: Malbec (85%), Cabernet Sauvignon (10%), Syrah (5%)
Obtained from: Purchased at Total Wine & More
Price: $25.00
Wino4Life Category: Weekend Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Screw Top - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear, deep dark purple with a water white rim.
Aroma: Dark fruit like blackberry, vanilla, dark chocolate, maybe a bit of coffee.
Taste: Nicely tannic, great fruit forward flavor, nice finish that highlights the chocolate notes.

The Grade: I give this one an A. A much bigger wine from the addition of heavy hitting Cab and Syrah, plus ample time in French and American Oak. If you like Malbec and want to try something with a fuller body - give this a try.  With Cruz Alta you can definitely taste the difference between their price levels - you get what you pay for!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Wine Geek's Dream - VGS Blending Experience at Chateau Potelle: Part II

In Part I of this saga,  I told you about our invitation to a unique and exciting event - the VGS Chateau Potelle VGS Originals Wine Blending Experience.  The weekend of festivities included the following:
  • Friday – Welcome Reception at the new VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House in St. Helena
  • Saturday – In the a.m., make your own wine blend and take home 5 cases of your creation. In the p.m., a cooking demonstration by Chef Ken Frank of the La Toque Restaurant in the City of Napa. Oh yeah, and lunch from C Casa as well!
  • Sunday – Brunch in the VGS Vineyard.
VGS Chateau Potelle  Tasting House in St. Helena, CA

Now for Part II and the main event - our wine blending event on Saturday!
On Saturday morning, we were up bright (well maybe a little tarnished) and early (definitely early – this is a vacation right?) to head off of Copia for our big day.  The schedule was fully booked for the day, but we were up to the challenge!  We arrived at the Copia just as it started to rain, we were sans umbrellas, but ran up to the building and were greeted by none other than Tony! Yes, Tony from our first visit to Chateau Potelle so many years ago.  Having had a first career in IT, where changing jobs every couple of years is a norm, I do really like to see when someone who enjoys their job enough to stick with it for so many years – a definite sense of family in the workplace. It was those type of drastic differences that led me to pursue a second career far from the corporate world…anyway enough about me!
Copia - The One Time American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts

For those of you that have not heard of it, Copia, the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts was opened in 2001 as a non-profit discovery center to explore the pleasure and benefits of wine, food pairing, and the significance of wine on our culture.  Copia was envisioned through a partnership between Julia Child, Robert Mondavi, the University of California at Davis, the Cornell University School of Restaurant and Hotel Administration, and the American Institute of Wine & Food.  Unfortunately the timing for this type of institution was not the best, and in 2008 the Copia filed for bankruptcy and is now for sale. Luckily for us – also available to be rented out, and that is exactly what our Chateau Potelle hosts did.

Grapes? Art? Both!

It is quite sad that the Copia ended up closing down as it is an absolutely beautiful building. It had a very open design, and included a restaurant call Julia’s Kitchen. I have been in some restaurants where you have a good view of the kitchen activity – in this one it was like the tables were in the kitchen – all the cooking activity would have been in plain view.  Add in one huge glass sculpture of a bunch of grapes – and you have quite a place!

The Open View Kitchen at Julia's Kitchen in the Copia

Our blending experience was held in a theatre style seating auditorium that had a demonstration kitchen as the stage. 

The Site of Our Wine Blending Mayhem

Close-Up of the Demonstration Kitchen in the Auditorium at Copia

Setup for each couple were some wine glasses, plus bottles labeled Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah… 

Our Most Important Tools

OK so far, plus a beaker, graduated cylinder, and a pipette. I had a brief flashback to those recurring dreams where I am back in school and have a big final (chemistry in this case), but haven’t studied for it…cuz I haven’t been in school in, like, forever!  

The Rest of Our Tools

We also had a page describing what each of the wines would add to our wine blend, plus a sheet to record our creations and to identify which one we wanted to have turned in to our very own bottles of VGS wine! My wine geek adrenaline was on high, this was exceeding my expectations and we hadn’t even started drinking yet!

What Does Each Wine Bring to the Party?

 To Record Our Winning Concoction

The wineries head winemaker gave us a quick tutorial on the blending process and how best to use our chemistry set.  Blend in the beaker…check… use the graduated cylinder to measure larger percentages… check… use the pipette like a straw to draw in wine to measure smaller amounts of wine to add to the blend…really? a straw? I guess the last pipette I used was with something that using it like a straw probably wasn’t a good idea… some like acids and bases or something like from high school – but what the heck, I can use a straw!
The first part of the intro to blending was fairly technical, which was needed, but my favorite part was when Jean Noel, the winery owner took over with his recommendations. While the talk about beakers and what not was all about the science aspect, Jean Noel’s input was all about the artistry of the process.  He urged us to take our time… “we have rented zis place for ze whole day” (he has a fantastic French accent!),  try lots of combinations, experiment, be creative, mostly – enjoy the process. Ultimately there is no wrong or right answer – just go where our palettes lead us.
OK, so now we’re off and going – and the next couple of hours zoomed by faster than any in my lifetime.  We started off with blends of all four wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Syrah. I know that Chateau Potelle bottles a very nice Syrah, so we experimented with Syrah being the highest percentage grape with the other three being mixed at all sorts of different ratios. I would propose a few blends and we would try, Win4o4Life wife would propose some and we would try.  At this point I will take a moment to mention a seemingly small but ultimately important detail.  From the classes I took to become a certified Level II Sommelier with the International Sommelier Guild, I learned the importance of wine tasting, but also of spitting.  In a classroom where we would try 8 wines during the course of any class day – drinking that much wine would equate to not being able to concentrate, and needing a designated driver to get you home. So you taste, swirl, swish the wine around – but ultimately it ends up in the spit bucket.  I wanted to savor this blending experience, so for the most part I practiced taste and spit (I know too much information!).  

The Happy Winemakers

 Don't Try this at Home!

As time went on, my wife and I narrowed our choices to two blends we liked, both more than half Cabernet Sauvignon, with a couple variations on the amount of the other wines.  We decided to do a blind tasting of the ones we like to select our winning blend. 

Our Two Contestants for the Blind Tasting

I decided we should through in third wine, just to have some contrast, so I whipped up a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot.  Earlier Jean Noel had told us not to be too worried about using all the wines.  So we had our three glasses, identified by a folder piece of paper under the glass.  My wife turned away and promised not to peek as I moved the glasses (and each associated paper) around. Then I turned away while my wife did the same so neither of us know which was which. We tried all three – our two finalist blend, plus my simple concoction. We each wrote down our favorite as a secret ballot, and I was already trying to figure out what to do when we each picked a different one.  It turns out I didn’t need to worry about that as we both picked the same wine. Whew!  Now to reveal which one we picked. I grabbed the paper underneath the wine and opened it up… drum roll please… the 80%/20% blend I just threw in the mix!  We were very baffled so tried again to taste them blind… with the same result.  I did not like it just a little more than the blends with all the grapes… I like it a lot more!  It was more complex, had a wonderful aroma, and a nice long finish. Our other wine had the aroma and a nice fruit forward taste, but the aftertaste dissipated almost immediately.   

Thinking this could not be our final blend, we tried a few more times to leave the 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, but to add a bit of Cabernet Franc with the Merlot.  Nope, blind tasting again – the 80%/20% blend was the winner and champion.  So this was our submission. The wine will be aged a bit more, then blended and bottled and shipped to us in personalized bottles (a very cool surprise).   Our wines bottles will be etched with the following:
  • Maridaje by Wino4Life and VinoDiva
Maridaje is the name of my LLC, and means marriage in Spanish – but is often used as the marriage of good food and wine, more than holy matrimony. Wino4Life would be me, and VinoDiva is Wino4Life wife’s other superhero name.  Stay tuned for reports when we get our very own wine delivered, it should be arriving in the March timeframe I would guess.

The Aftermath - Our Work is Done

Our Fellow Winos Checking Out all the Results
Our blending adventure complete, next up was lunch which was prepared for us on-site (still raining, so we were thankful) by the owner of C Casa. C Casa is located just a block away from Copia in the Oxbow Market. The Oxbow is like a miniature version of Pike’s Place market in Seattle with all sorts of wonderful food vendors (more on this later… please see Sunday dinner!).  Our lunch was served back in Julia’s Kitchen, and each table already had huge bowls of guacamole and chips waiting for us. Lunch was two open faced gourmet style tacos – one crab and one duck.  A very delicious lunch after our hard work in the morning, and it gave us a chance to get to know some of the others who were winemakers for a day along with us.
Now is the time where my graphic detail about tasting and spitting the wine during our blending becomes important. I can guarantee you that no one else in our group did the same thing.  The volume of chat and the amount of laughter was so high – it was great to see people having such a great time. I was still glad I stayed somewhat coherent during the blending, as it was a great learning experience for me, and I wanted to be able to remember it!
So now, this well fed crew headed back to the auditorium for a cooking demonstration from Ken Frank, the Chef of La Toque Restaurant which is located at the Westin in Napa.  I felt bad for Chef Ken, as he had a rambunctious crowd to deal with – but he handled it all pretty well. There were some shouts from the group… “I DON’T SEE WHERE IT SAYS GARLIC ON THE RECIPE” and other gems that made me think the cooking demonstration should have come before the blending.  

Our Cooking Demonstration and a Wonderful Hunk of Steak 

At this point in my life, Chef’s are my rock stars, so I struggled a bit when I felt the crew was being disrespectful, but again, the Chef didn’t seem to care that much, so I just went with the flow. Chef Ken started off with a fantastic shrimp dish on a garlic puree – oh so cleverly called “VGS Shrimp.”  He then followed up with a New York steak served with a Tapioca based side dish. We also got the recipes for these dishes and I am so glad. The process to make the puree involved cooking it in milk, and changing the milk 5 times which removed all the bitterness. So the puree was pure garlic flavor with none of the bitter bite.  Using large pearl Tapioca as a savory side dish was fascinating to me, and the steak demonstration gave me some pointers that my cooking has benefited from already.

This wonderful day at the Copia wrapped up at about 5:30p – and next up was dinner at the Westin… at 7p!  Back to the cruise analogy I made in Part I of this post – it was like one of those super busy cruise days where you wished you had a little bit of relax time.  But what the heck, we’re not THAT old – so let’s zoom back to our hotel, change, and catch the shuttle back to the Westin (no driving for us tonight!).  Dinner brought us more great wine and more great food from La Toque (note: I recommend the Vino Bello Resort and La Toque for any one visiting the city of Napa – we will definitely go back to both in the future).

Our Menu for the Evening at La Toque

Delicious Duck Breast
Just as important, we had some more time to get to know our wino cohorts.  We met many great people, but especially two couples from the Chicago area that through the wonder of Facebook I know we’ll be Facebook “friends” but hope we also remain regular human interaction friends as well.  I love Chicago and we visit often, so you never know what the future holds!  By the time our dinner wrapped up, the shuttle from our resort was parked for the night, so we were faced with getting a Taxi in a small town late at night. We headed to the entrance of the Westin just behind another couple from our group – and overheard the Westin dude tell them it was a 3 hour wait for Black Tie Taxi.  Well, that’s not good news…. That couple decided to walk the few miles to their hotel, and despite the advice otherwise from Westin dude – they headed down the road.  Next Westin dude turned to us and repeated the three hour for Black Tie, but also asked if we were OK with another Cab company. Uh… yeah… duh!  So, we still had a 20 minute wait, but given the alternative we were happy. We got in the Cab and listened to our Cab driver tell the story of two people walking down the very dark road who tried to flag him down… I hope those people made it back OK!

A stellar weekend so far - and on Sunday we had one more event to enjoy. Remember that rain I mentioned on Saturday, well that the first rain in Napa in many, many months - and it was enough to turn the road to the vineyard into a mud bog. Sunday was a beautiful day, and a brunch in the vineyard would have been fantastic. We ended up heading back to the VGS Chateau Potelle tasting house to enjoy brunch, a few more sips of wine, and... what the heck... a case of Rosé and Grenache Blanc to go. 

A Beautiful Day for a Brunch at VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House

With the remainder of our Sunday in Napa, we stopped by one more winery. With cases of our own Cabernet Sauvignon blend to delivered in a few months, and plenty of Cab at home, I was looking for something a little different, so wed headed off to Envy Vineyards who made a Petite Sirah that intrigued me. I was hopeful we would have a better experience than we had on Thursday at Frank Family, and we did - their wine was very good, mostly fruity with very little oak character.

I was intrigued by the Oxbow Market located right next to the Copia, so we headed there next to grab some groceries and head back to our hotel room (with fully stocked kitchen) to have dinner at home. We grabbed a couple of ribeye steaks from Five Dot Ranch. With some of the tips from our cooking demonstration I made one of the best Steaks I've ever cooked - if I do say so myself.  Add a salad from some great local produce (with a homemade vinaigrette), and it was a great way to wrap up a great weekend.  Oh, and some chocolate truffles from Dean and Deluca to end it all on a sweet note... yum!
We got up way too early on Monday for the 12 hour drive back to Chandler.  I-5 is not the most beautiful drive in the world, but at least I discovered a new McDonald's treasure - the  Habanero Quarter Pounder. Not as hot as I expected, but fairly tasty.

McDonald’s Habanero Quarter Pounder

This weekend event was everything I hoped.  We met some great people, and were able to have a once in a lifetime experience (until we buy our own winery that is!). Overall I'd say we found out that VGS story was true!  The VGS Chateau Potelle Wine Blending Experience was...without a doubt... Very...Good...Shit!

Definitely VGS!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Weekly Wine Review - Australian Shizaz - 2010 Elderton Winemakers Select

When I decide to spend a bit more on a bottle of wine, to step up from an everyday wine to a weekend wine - I seldom think about Australian wine.   Shoofly Shiraz is one of the great value wines on my shopping list at about $10 a bottle, and there are fantastic "higher end" wines from Penfolds and other great Australian winemakers.  I saw this bottle on the shelf of my local Total Wine & More, so decided to try it!

Wine: 2010 Elderton Winemakers Select Shiraz
Region: Barossa,  Australia
Grape Varieties: Shiraz (Syrah)
Obtained from: Purchased at Total Wine & More
Price: $25.00
Wino4Life Category: Weekend Wine
Aeration before tasting: Just a swirl or two, no special aeration.

Cork Condition: Screw Top - no defects or issues.
Appearance: Wine is clear and dark dark Australian Shiraz purple with a water white rim.
Aroma: Very aromatic, with a ton of dark fruit like blackberry, plus some chocolate and vanilla. Nothing disappointing here.
Taste: Very much a fruit bomb, with the chocolate aroma coming through on the taste as well.  I should have decanted this one a bit as the tannins are pretty aggressive. Definitely able to age this one for a while.

The Grade: I give this one an A. If you love the big fruit style of much Australian Shiraz, then this is a great example - as good as more expensive examples. Do take the time to aerate a bit before serving to tame those tannins, or keep it tucked away for a while.  Most importantly - enjoy!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Wine Geek's Dream - VGS Blending Experience at Chateau Potelle: Part I


On our very first trip to Napa, probably 15 years ago, Wino4Life wife and I each took one of our wine tasting days and picked out the wineries for us to visit.  One that my wife picked was on a long, winding road up Mount Veeder. I picked wineries all nicely accessible on Highway 29 or on the Silverado Trail, what was she thinking!!!  That winery was Chateau Potelle, and unlike the almost bar like scenes at wineries I had picked like V. Sattui, this was fairly small, with a wonderful host named Tony, a “mascot” dog lounging on the front porch, and the relaxed vibe of mountain air, trees, and oh yeah… wine grapes!  We tasted some unbelievable “VGS” Zinfandel, “VGS” Cabernet Sauvignon, and a dessert late harvest Zinfandel called “Zinne.”  This great experience helped define the type of wine tasting experience we would seek out – instead of the hustle and bustle of the well-known and overcrowded tasting rooms around Yountville and St. Helena.   A few months later while attending a tasting at our favorite Phoenix wine shop (The Wine Merchant, now closed… RIP!), one of the wines poured was none other than the Chateau Potelle VGS Zinfandel.  We didn’t think to ask when we visited the winery, but part of the wine’s story presented at the tasting was that the VGS acronym was for the highly technical wine term… Very Good Shit!  We knew this wine was made for people like us (although we didn’t know if the story was true or not!).

The VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House

Chateau Potelle was also our first wine club membership, and although we took a short break from getting shipments, we have been receiving great wine for many many years.  Based on our “old timer” status with the winery, back in April we received an invitation to attend the first ever VGS Originals Wine Blending Experience.  The weekend of festivities included the following:

  • Friday – Welcome Reception at the new VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House in St. Helena
  • Saturday – In the a.m., make your own wine blend and take home 5 cases of your creation. In the p.m., a cooking demonstration by Chef Ken Frank of the La Toque Restaurant in the City of Napa. Oh yeah, and lunch from C Casa as well!
  • Sunday – Brunch in the VGS Vineyard.

What an incredible opportunity for this wine geek, and his wine lover wife! I was just a bit apprehensive though – wondering what type of people would be attending this type of event. Would they be total wine snoots, or totally cool winos like us?  Being trapped with the wrong type of person can ruin even a potentially once in a lifetime event.  For the same reason that cruises we take are not the traditional here’s some strangers that you will be sharing the intimate act of dining together with for the next 7 (or 14 or more) days.  Have you seen the NCL commercials  - this is what I fear!!!  

Kill Me Now!!!

Ultimately we decided that it was worth the risk to be able to blend our very own concoction, and to be able to bring home a few cases of our handy work.  So, often preferring the flexibility of a car trip, we headed out on the road for a 12 hour drive to beautiful Napa!


We arrived a day early to be able to check out a couple of sites and to have a day to recover from our road trip before starting our VGS adventure.   Our day ended up with three great surprises, and one total dud – not too bad for a chillax type of day.  Our first activity of the day was a by appointment tasting at Bravante Vineyards. I had never tried their wines, but had read very positive reviews of others visiting, and have wanted to try a winery on Howell Mountain, so we arrived at 11 a.m. (never too early to start tasting wine in Napa!).  We were promptly greeted by Dave, our host and treated to a fantastic and down to earth wine tasting.  Plus, our timing was perfect in that they had just picked a batch of Merlot grapes, so we got to see the de-stemming, sorting, and crushing process. 

Bravante's Selection of Wines for Our Tasting

The Batch of Freshly Picked Merlot After the De-Stemming

Mmmm... Merlot!

Birdseye View from the Top of the Tank After the Crush

I have never travelled to any wine country during harvest time, so getting an up-close look at the process was fantastic. Also, I had always read that wine grapes didn’t necessarily taste that great – but these merlot grapes direct from the vine were delicious!  Before this trip to Napa I had vowed to resist joining any more wine clubs, but I’m afraid my vow was quickly broken on this day that I met Bravante wines.  There were three main reasons I went ahead and joined their wine club - 1) the wines were amazing (but there are a lot of other amazing wines, so there had to be more!), 2) the wine club get wines at a 30% discount (most others offer 20%, 30% is not common at all from what I’ve seen), and 3) perhaps the clincher – Bravante doesn’t release wines until they are almost ready to drink. While others are releasing their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignons, Bravante is releasing their 2007. This makes a huge difference to me to get wines that I could drink soon, rather than wines I need to wait a few years to even think about drinking. The journey up Howell Mountain for a visit is a twisty, turny road – but definitely worth the trip.  They do require appointments, so plan ahead and visit this spot on your next Napa journey.

Lunch was surprise number two of the day. We had less than one hour before our next scheduled wine tasting at Frank Family Vineyards, so needed to grab a quick lunch. We headed to Calistoga so we would not have far to travel after lunch to get to the winery, but after four or five laps of the town, we couldn’t find a single parking spot, never mind that we would never be able to get in a sub 1 hour lunch.  My wife noticed a local spot that looked like a convenience store, but also had a sign reading “Tacos and Carniceria.” There was quite a steady trail of people entering and exiting with bags of food, so we decided to give it a try. Puerto Vallarta Market was the place - a pink building that you just can't miss. I had a Pastor is roasted pork typically marinated with guajillo chiles and achiote. This was a burrito that I would be happy to have every day for the rest of my life.  This spot will be our go-to lunch spot in the future I can guarantee!  Trust the locals!

The Puerto Vallarta Market in Calistoga

Although I could have used a nap after my monster burrito, it was time to head off to our Frank Family Vineyards tasting. I had planned to visit this winery on previous visits, but never made it. I have had their wine at our local steak place, and really enjoyed it. We arrived and were offered a regular or reserve tasting, and opted to try the good stuff… or so I thought. The tasting was one of the most disappointing experiences I’ve ever had in Napa. Yup – now’s the time in our story when we talk about the total dud. We were directed into the Reserve Tasting area – which was a room with lots and lots of windows. Great to see the grounds of the winery, which were very nice, but the temperature of the room was easily 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the main room we entered.  The wine at the tasting bar was not cooled in any way, so the wine was way too warm.  Our first wine was their red sparkling wine, and it was very warm, nearly flat and completely unappealing. It was a weekday, not during peak visitor time I know – but this is a wineries opportunity to reel in some wine club members, but that wasn’t going to happen for us!  Wino4Life wife asked when the bottle had been opened, and the reply was first thing this morning so it may be little flat. Then after a long…long… long pause, our host offered to open a fresh bottle, but one of those requests that just didn’t come off sincere. We continued on with tasting of some more way too warm wine, and instead of then arguing about if the tasting was worth the $30 charge, I instead bought two bottles of wine (which I knew were good from other experience, certainly not from this visit), so the tasting charge was waived. Overall our host was very nice, no complaints there, but the overall experience was a complete bummer. I will make sure and provide the winery some feedback, but right in the moment sometimes is not the best time to provide that feedback.
Frank Family Tasting - Swing and a Miss!

For dinner on Thursday night I had made reservations at Carpe Diem a wine bar in Napa’s riverfront/downtown area knowing that Tapas/Small Plate restaurants were plentiful, but good ones not always easy to find.  The place is fairly small, but we were given a nice corner table and set out trying to decide what delicacies to try.  For food we decided on this menagerie:

  • Truffled Popcorn – I need to contact my local movie theatre about offering this stuff!
  • Sausage and Cheese, including a Greek Sausage and Brillat Savarin á la Truffe – a triple crème cheese that had just the right punch from black truffles.
  • Avocado Tacos – Wino4Life wife picked these, I probably would not have (some Mother-In-Law avocado trauma… long story), but they turned out to be excellent.
  • Fig and Pig Flatbread – absolutely awesome, I love figs when used correctly on a pizza type creation.

The Menu at Carpe Diem Wine Bar in Napa

I had ordered a Keenan Merlot as something that I thought would pair nicely with the widely varied dishes, and although I haven’t had a bottle for quite some time, Keenan ranks as one of my all-time favorite Merlot’s.  The Sommelier recommended another Merlot, and even after I told him I was a big fan of Keenan, he stuck to the recommendation – a Mt Brave.    What a great wine – I’ll admit sometimes I am suspicious if I am being recommended a wine or sold a wine.  

A New Find - Mt Brave Merlot

Being sold a wine to me means being pointed toward something that needs to be sold, versus a recommendation of a wine based on price, food selection, and any other info I provide. I decided to trust this Somm, and I’m glad I did! 

Mmmm... Beeramisu!

Although too full to take another bite, I had to relent for a dessert when I saw on the menu – Beeramisu – made with Stout beer. It was very good, and likely would have tasted even better if I was actually hungry.  After a great dinner, we called it a day and headed back to our hotel.


Friday evening was the first of our VGS Chateau Potelle events, but we decided to make the most of the time before that and had scheduled a tour with wine and cheese pairing at one of our favorite wineries - Darioush.  We have been wine club members for quite some time, so when we arrived we were taken to the members lounge – basically decorated as a den with only about a billion dollars of great wine decorating the shelves.

Our host from Darioush, Ingrid told us an in-depth version of the story of the Darioush winery. We had bits and pieces from visiting at the wine tasting bar, but the whole story was very interesting to hear.  Mr. Darioush is from Iran, and first went into business running grocery stores in South Central and East Los Angeles. He thrived in his business there because he hired and listen to people from the neighborhoods – so provided the type of store and type of products that his customers wanted.  I told Ingrid she should be a professional story teller, because as we sipped a glass of Darioush Viognier I was mesmerized by the tale.  Next we toured the vineyard, where Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were nice and ripe, ready to be harvested in the next few weeks. We also saw the outdoor amphitheater (small but acoustically perfect), and ended up in the cellar for our wine and cheese pairing.  

Our Wonderful Host and Story Teller from Daroiush Winery

A really nice way to start our Friday, not only a great tour and tasting, but I finally got an answer to one of my nagging questions about Darioush (you can amaze your friends with this knowledge). Darioush makes a WONDERFUL Syrah, but bottles it as Shiraz. I have been told in the past (at their tasting bar actually) that this was because they wanted to emulate the Australian style… but their wine really isn’t all that Australian in style. Shiraz is actually a city in Iran that has winemaking history back to the 9th century.  Now that’s a story a wine geek really likes! 

Finally, Friday evening arrived and the first of the VGS events!  We had arranged a cab from our hotel in Napa to the tasting room in St. Helena.  I was sure it was going to be $150 or so each way, but we wanted to enjoy the event and not worry about a designated driver, so we decided it would be worth it. To our surprise – it was only $65 each way! Not cheap I know, but worth the price for a worry free wine and dine evening. 

Chateau Potelle Tasting House

We arrived at the new VGS Chateau Potelle Tasting House.  The Winery Owner wanted to make this wine tasting venue different so many of the others in Napa, from the décor – which is bright and modern (vs. dark wood and dimly lit) and the tasting experience, which involves trying the VGS wines each with a food pairing, vs. just sipping the wine.  Really a beautiful spot. After suffering through yet another Arizona summer, it was great to hang around outdoors, eat some good food – and get to know our new wino friends. As a special treat, the winery owner Jean-Noel Fourmeaux found a ginormous 5 liter bottle of 1983 VGS Cabernet.  My kind of group, as we managed to polish it off!

The Bright & Beautiful Inside of the Tasting Room

Our Host and Chateau Potelle Owner, Jean-Noel Fourmeaux

Our Excellent Spread for Friday Night - You Can Just See the Monster 5 L Bottle of Wine at the End of the Table

Please come back next week for the story of our wine blending experience, and the rest of an amazing wine country weekend!