Category Archives: california

Santa Barbara Wine Country

Here are the main highlights of my trip to Santa Barbara. We stayed at the Hadsten Inn and Spa. Location wise, Solvang is the best jumping off point to all the wineries. Food wise, definitely hit Brothers’ Restaurant at Mattei’s Inn and Los Olivos Grocery Store for some snacks to go with all that wine.

Gainey

One of many tasting rooms, this is definitely part of the hook and look of Gainey.  Romantic and intimate this place looks like the site for weddings and events. Along with that however goes mediocre wine that isn’t too memorable. Most of it is drinkable, but none worth the price point or the heavy luggage to buy back. I would say this would be a pass for my next trip. Sorry Sideways!

Beckmen Vineyards

One of my favorite wineries in this region by far, Beckmen puts thought and time into every bottle. It was very hard to choose, but we ended up with a case of the marsanne. My sister bought a case of one of the whites. The tasting room is a lackluster basic room with the usual  tshirts and trinkets. What it lacks in presentation, the wine more than makes up for in taste. I recently bought the Grenache which is more widely available to a party and it was deliciously jammy yet complex. I am a fan!

Blair Fox

This little gem is a part of the stretch of tasting rooms found in Los Olivos.  The main event is really the syrah from this little vineyard. It definitely leaves an impression and hits all the right notes. With the blessing of demi-god Robert Parker, their wines are becoming more and more widely available outside the local area. Complex with good spice and character, I would reach for their Syrah above all else.

Epiphany

I’ve had some pretty tasty wines from this particular winery while perusing various stores in Chicago and NYC. So when I had the opportunity to go to the tasting room, I jumped. Unfortunately, my expectations fell a little short. Maybe it was the fact that my expectations had been high, but the pours seemed uninteresting but drinkable.  All the glasses were consistently good, but not great and definitely not worth some of the price points.  I would say stick with the edited selection of your local wine store, there is a reason why certain bottles gain their popularity.

Cold Heaven

The wines from this relatively new winery are definitely a labor of love and it shows. Focusing mainly on viognier, Cold Heaven brings out the complexity and elegance this particular varietal deserves.  What struck me the most about these wines is their ability to develop over time and open up like a red.  Many viogniers and whites are ready for the drinking the minute the cork is popped, but with these you miss out on an astounding development of character. The sommelier was kind enough to show us the difference between a bottle opened from the day before and one opened a few minutes ago. Both were delightful, but the former had a mellower character and developed a whole new flavor profile.  I would buy a couple bottles from here just to open and see what happens over time. The Saints and Sinners was one of my favorites.

Taste of the Valleys

Located in the heart of Solvang, this little tasting room has a well edited list of the brightest and best of the local wineries. If you are afraid of missing that one great find this is the place to seek it out at the end or beginning of your trip.  If I had to do it all over again, I think I would have come here first instead of towards the end of the trip to get a sense of where I wanted to visit. The best part of this place is their offerings of Au Bon Climat, lovingly nicknamed ABC. ABC doesn’t have their own tasting room so this is the place to go to get some tastes in.

Au Bon Climat

Don’t let the guy in the mullet on the homepage fool you, Jim Clendenen definitely knows what he’s doing. ABC has some of the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of this region.  Silky smooth with a leaning towards the Burgundian style of wine making, this winery plays to my heart strings, but not so much to my wallet. Like a true Burgundian the price point is a little steep for some of my favorites, however I suspect the cheaper bottles would age into beauties given a little time. Buy for now and drink for later.

Old Moon Zinfandel

At 5.99 a bottle from Trader Joe’s this bottle is a complete stand out. I always have some on hand. Plummy with a surprising depth in character and a slight coat to the tongue that hints of tannin makes this incredibly well balanced. I would say it holds up to bottles at much higher price points. I love drinking this alone or having it with pastas, pizza, bbq, anything a red can hold up to.

My Bad Habit

While sharing a little post work drinking session with my fellow weekday warriors, I thumbed through the selection of wines at In Fine Spirits, ny new favorite watering hole. Being a few drinks in, I was at a loss for which direction I should take….cabernet sauvignon? viognier? barbera? I looked to my coworker who gave me a twisted smiley and offered to “take care of it.” In a moment I was handed a goblet of inky red goodness, with one sip I was hooked. It was a Petit Syrah blend from Napa called Bad Habit, aka Wendy Crack.  That’s right, its my new addiction. Since then I’ve returned to In Fine Spirits requesting glass after glass, regretting any substitutes. I even tracked down the vineyard and intended to take a detour during my trip to Napa, but unfortunately it was closed for the day. The owner was kind enough to send me a complimentary bottle of the new 2006 vintage. (YAY!!)  Needless to say this stuff is good. Amazing fruit with a raisiny depth and earthiness that lingers on the tongue. The nose matches giving you hints of the juicy grenache blended in. At about 30 bucks a bottle, this is pretty cheap Wendy crack.

Old World vs. New World Wines: Who Cares?

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It was with equal parts delight and disappointment that I left WineStyles’ weekly Thursday evening tasting. Delight because the tasting was so overwhelmingly excellent, and because I’d bought a bottle from the tasting, along with another bottle of sparkling wine that promises almond notes that I felt I just had to try. Disappointment in myself, however, for not having the conviction and strength to stay true to my self-promise that I’d not buy any more bottles until I’ve whittled down my collection. And I was making such good progress too! Thirty bottles down to 22… AH! I really can’t afford to keep running out and buying new bottles – there will come a time when I can start a real collection and enjoy the luxury of lovingly counting out the dozens of bottles (e.g. when I have a bigger wine fridge/cellar), but now is really not it. Damn it. I should have known better to bring my wallet along. Oh well. What’s done is done. Now I have to recommit to my stand, and perhaps boycott non-BYOB restaurants in the meantime.

But man, the tasting! It was a very well thought out selection comprising of Italian and California wines. Sihao, Bruce, and I were so taken with all five wines we tried, that we had to re-taste all the wines – quite a few times at that – so we could pick favorites. In the end, Sihao left with two bottles, a beautiful example of a Gewürztraminer from Silverlake, and a delicious and what I call ‘lite-port’ dessert red wine from Cagnina di Romagna in Italy. I finally settled on the John Christopher Cellars 2003 blend of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Syrah because I was so taken with the heavy nose of black currants, black cherries, and all kinds of other fruit and spices. Jenel recommended pairing it with some BBQ pork tenderloin which I can totally see would make a delicious combination, but frankly, I’m more than happy to drink it alone.

My tasting notes:

Silverlake Gewürztraminer 2006: Beautiful floral notes in the nose, not so much the lychee, but the fruit was discernable in the body. Nice weight, and a long, pleasant finish.

Howling Wolf Pinot Grigio Lodi 2004: I think I have to rethink my stand that pinot grigios are simple white wines just meant as refreshing beverages for a hot summer’s day. In the last few weeks, I’ve sampled pinot grigios that have stood up for themselves, and asserted their uniqueness, including this example. I love to be proven wrong however, and I’m not one who tastes wines in the hopes of disliking them – what would be the point??? The Howling Wolf is a fuller bodied pinot grigio, with flavors of ripe fruit – peaches and melons perhaps – combined with some mineral notes. Again, I liked the weight of it.

John Christopher Cellars Epic 2003: My favorite for the evening, though it was really quite difficult to pick and choose sides. It’s a classic example of California (and New World wines) – explosive aromas of black fruit that just leaps out of the glass. I picked out notes of black currant (my base standard of comparison being Ribena) and black cherries. And the fruit aromas extended to the mouth-feel as well. Smooth and velvety. Very full bodied wine, and again, very nice weight. The spicy edge of the wine from the Petite Sirah was further complemented by the pieces of salami we had.

Narciso Nero D’Avola 2005: I recently tasted two bottles of nero d’avola wines from Sicily at an Italian restaurant, so I was quite excited to try it again. Coming right after the Epic, this wine felt quite a bit lighter in weight, more restrained – not as full bodied and luscious. The nose was a lot more toned down as well, more mineral notes than bold fruits (as is usually the case for Old World wines). It smelt and tasted a little hot, and brought to mind images of hot tires on hot tar roads.

Adesso Cagnanina di Romagna 2007: As I said before, like a port in style, except lighter both in weight and alcohol content, thus, ‘lite-port.’ Much less syrupy sweet than port, a perfect after-dinner accompaniment, even for those who profess not to like sweet wines I reckon. It was quite simply sublime with the pieces of dark chocolate proffered. By the way, ‘adesso’ means now in Italian, so perhaps this 2007 bottle is not meant for keeping?

St. Patty’s Day, the Wine Way

In a very miscalculated move, we didn’t buy tickets to the Metropolitan Opera’s live streaming of Britten’s Peter Grimes, mistakenly betting that the seats wouldn’t sell out. Who knew. So, after a hurried cab ride downtown later, I found myself forlornly standing outside the theatre, clutching my brown paper bag of toasted sandwiches I’d picked up for the 4 hour marathon.

Since we were downtown already anyway, we decided to go wine tasting. Just Grapes, right by my workplace, has free wine tasting from 1-4pm every Saturday, so we headed on there. In between sampling the 5 different tastings offered, we enjoyed a good chat with the store manager and the wine distributor. Ah, for a different career change. Anyway, here are my reviews of the wines:

2006 Riff, Pinot Grigio, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy $11
The store’s tasting notes: “The vineyard sources for most of this Pinot Grigio contain a substantial amount of dolomite limestone which has an obvious impact on the wine’s character and style. It is because of the contrinbution that these fossils (limestone) make to the wine’s character that they have been chosen to be incorporated into the label design as a reminder of its geological origin. Simple, with apple, lemon and light mineral character. Light body. Delicate finish. Drink now.” While I wasn’t too impressed with the body and finish (boring, with no obvious flavors or textures), I really liked its nose. I did get the scent of apple and some lemon, and could see it as a delightful cool drink on a sweltering summer day.

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2005 Franz Karl Schmitt, “Niersteiner Hipping,” Riesling Spatlesse, Rheinhessin, Germany $22
The store’s tasting notes: “The estate was founded by Jost-Schmitt in 1546, and has been in family possession since those days. Riesling is cultivated in some of the prime vineyards in Nierstein, including the classic Hipping. The grandfather of the present owner, also named Franz-Karl Schmitt, was renowned for his striving to produce great wines. He was the first to produce Trockenbeerenhauslesse in the Rheinhessen around 1900!” It’s difficult right off the first sip to pronounce that you don’t like sweet wines (which can be really tiring on the palate after a couple glasses), so it was with my experience with this. I prefered the bouquet proffered by the Pinot Grigio, but the gentle sweetness of this riesline was hard to dislike. It wasn’t cloyingly sweet, but the taste lingered on in my mouth long seconds after the liquid had been tipped down my throat.

2006 Rex Hill, Chardonnay, Oregon $22
The store’s tastings notes: “A crisp, yet complex wine, the 2006 Rex Hill Chardonnay represents the sixth vintage of Oregon’s original ultra-premium unoaked Chardonnay. To highlight the wonderful fruit and underlying minerality in some of the Wilamette Valley’s best vineyard sites, we ferment in small stainless steel to retain the fruit’s bright transparency and then age the wines on the lees to achieve a creamy mouthfeel. Aromas of candied citrus, plums, green apple. Good richness on the attack, with broad palate-coating flavors that echo the nose. The brisk acidity adds structure and freshness, focusing the mineral notes, and lengthening flavors.” It was quite exciting to identify the candid citrus (sort of like those sugar covered jelly beans one finds during the Chinese New Year festivities) and the green apple in the nose, but I couldn’t taste the same flavors in the body. I actually found the body and finish to be quite boring, but not achingly so – within seconds, no trace of its ever being there was left. I’m still not sure whether I prefer the oaked, buttery types of Chardonnay… should do a tasting sometime to tease out my taste.

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2006 Paraiso, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, Central Coast, California $24
The store’s tasting notes: “Paraiso’s flagship varietal. Wonderful Burgundian character: rich cherry and plum flavors with hints of spice, smoke, and toasty oak. All wrapped by structuring tannins and acidity. Amazingly food-versatile: salmon, roast chicken, beef tenderloin, you name it.” I profess to be quite partial to Pinot Noir, my interest in the grape stemming from a road trip Peirui and I made, oh, two years ago now (!!!). The nose exhibited the characteristics of the grape, but I was quite disappointed by the finish, which I found weak, almost watery. Chatting later with Janel from WineStyles, she confirmed my tasting notes, saying that the area saw too much rain in 2006. Ah.

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2005 Chateau Saint Andrew Corbin, Merlot blend, St. Emilion, Bordeaux, $23
The store’s tasting notes: “Garnet with a violet rim, spicy cedar, blueberries and tobacco on the nose. Medium weight with spicy cedar, blueberries and tobacco, great structure.” If I closed my eyes and sniffed really hard, I could just pick out the scent of tobacco and cedar, but my god, the blueberries! It just jumped right out at you, unmistakeable and completely in your face. I loved the nose. But alas, the body was almost unbearably tight, the tannins completely sucking out the moisture from my lips. I suspect though, that a few years in the cellar might do wonders for this wine.

It was still early when we were done, and the revellers were still crowding the hundreds of Irish bars in the city. So we made our way over to Randolph Wine Cellars right down the street, and engaged in an entertaining tasting with another distributor.

My notes:

2006 Licia Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain $14
Heh, this tasting was right down my alley, since we tasted both the Albarinos and plenty of Grenaches, both grapes of choice right now. I thoguht the Rias had a very light nose, such that I couldn’t quite place the smell. Or maybe sensory fatigue was setting in already. But even so, I could definitely place the lemony structure in the body and finish, almost akin to lemon juice with a kick. Would be a delicious combination with a lightly sauteed fish – mmm, need to do another canoeing trip down the Wisconsin River this spring…

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2004 Atrea “The Choir,” Mendocino County $20
It’s a rhone varietal blend, with parts of viognier and roussanne. This one had quite a pungent nose of wood and earth. The heavier body would make it an unsuitable pairing with fish, but the distributor suggested heavy aged cheeses.

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2005 Moulin D’Issan, Bordeaux $16
A Bordeaux Superior wine, which doesn’t fall under the 5 growth system, this wine can be found in the Margaux region. Blend of 70% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot. Lots of bright fruit in the nose, with a little bit of oak. I thought it tasted a little green.

2005 Domaine du Grand Tinel Chateauneuf-du-pape $30
My favorite tasting of the day, very smooth and balanced, with a hint of orange peel and black plum in the nose and body. It’s a blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvédre.

2004 Domaine Raspail-ay Gigondas, Rhone $22
Eh, to be honest, I’ve forgotten the taste of this, and didn’t take down any notes since I was busy enjoying a long conversation with the distributor about how she fell into wines and the various wine trips she’s taken in France (damn the weak USD right now). I do vaguely remember thinking that it was quite delicious though…

My palate was a little tired by this point, but the green clad revelers were still out on the streets, so we decided to continue the celebrations in our own way by making our way over to WineStyles, where Denise and Janel gave us two tastings of “green wines,” wines made the organic and environmentally friendly way. Erm, I don’t have any notes of those tastings either… but I did leave WineStyles armed with a bottle of Australian Grenahce that Janel says would go great with lambshank or spicy fish. Mmm.

We made a pit stop at Binny’s next, but boo, they didn’t have any tastings available. Disappointed but not deterred, we pressed on next to Sam’s Wine. By that time, I think the tastings were already concluded, so instead I tasted some cheeses (and picked up a slab of pate), and a pizza beer (beer brewed with pizza ingredients such as tomato, mozarella etc. very authentic!). And I also got the bottle of El Tesoro (thank you Cristalle!). 🙂

And then, I was done. 🙂

Haro Tapas and Wine

Tucked away amidst an industrial area in the southwest side, Haro is a gem of a restaurant. It features a wide array of tapas with a layering of flavor you rarely see with restaurants at this price point. With dishes like garlic shrimp with a balsalmic vinegar and honey sauce, your tastebuds are definitely given a wide showcase of flavors with each bite. One of my favorites was a dish with champignons glazed with sherry, garlic, and truffle oil. It was so rich and mushroomy with a burst of flavor when you bit into the mushrooms…drool. My only wish is that they had provided us with bread to sop up the saucy remains of each dish. We did not get to try the great desserts they had to offer and instead opted to have some fondue with dessert wines. (Post about that to follow 😉 )

Of note, Haro Tapa is no longer BYOB, but we brought wines anyway thinking it still was…oops. It made for a lovely meal with great pairings.

In order of opening:

Firehose Gewurztraminer 2006 California- $10

Sweet and light with hints of lychee and apricot I thought this bottle was incredibly drinkable. It had a little complexity, and resembled the more German sweet style of Gewurztraminer. I plan on keeping this as another staple for casual dinners and whatever excuse I can come up with. It paired wonderfully with the honey balsamic shrimp, manchego cheese dish, and salty bacon wrapped dates. Other suggestions would be a saltier crumbling cheeses like stilton to go with honeyed walnuts. Excuse me while I salivate!

Barefoot Sauvignon Blanc- $9

This bottle was savory compared to the firehose with a good lemony nose and a taste to match. Less complex than the previous with a little bit of fruitiness and citrus, it went amazingly well with the champignons. With the right food it becomes buttery and mouthy. I would pair this in the future with seafood, chicken, a rich creamy pasta, or something along the lines of a butternut squash ravioli. Mmmmm…I am already thinking of my next meal!

Concha Y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carmenere 2005- $12

This was a young with a bit of tannin to this finish. Very drinkable and smooth, the nose was amazing with the scent of warm spicy berry if that makes any sense. With its come hither smell, I was mildly disappointed by the chalkiness of the drink, but it did have a great savoriness to it that reminded me more meat. It would probably have went better with a steak than the spicy sausage and other fixin’s we had. I definitely plan on opening it again with a juicy steak.

Cafe Too and and Old Vine Zinfandel

Rarely do you find such a win win situation. Cafe Too is part of the Inspiration Corporation and is used as a venue for people to gain basic culinary skills that will make them marketable. So in the end you get high quality food for much less and get to feel good about it. 🙂 What is so great is that they offer a wonderful $20 prix fixe menu that changes each month. That’s right $20 for a nicely made 5 course meal. An additional bonus is that this is also BYOB with NO CORKAGE. Love! The portions are on the small side but with 5 courses you walk away comfortably full.
Bogle Vineyards 2005 Old Vine Zinfandel-$11
I have whole heartedly jumped on the old vine train. A trend growing in popularity, more and more vineyards are featuring wines from older vines, +50 years old usually. The idea is that with older vines less fruit is produced and more subtle flavors come out. I’ve tried a few wines with this labeling and I have found at the very least I have enjoyed the majority of them. This is definitely true for this particular bottle. Sweet, complex and richer than most zins I have tasted, at this price point, Bogle’s Old Vine Zinfandel is a great deal and has become a new house staple. Cherry, jammy, sweet, and fruity to the nose and same on the tongue, it went well with all the dishes served showing great versatility and most importantly drinkability. 😉 I would drink this with anything from a thick steak to a dark bittersweet chocolate cake.