Archive for the ‘Wine Education’ Category

“Why Can’t I Drink Wine Like I Used To?”

I’ve heard this question literally hundreds of times. I’ve even asked it myself.

There are many variations, such as “I seem to get drunk on less,” or “In the morning I can’t remember the night before.” Rest assured that if you’ve had anything like these experiences, you are not alone.

So why does it happen, and more important, what can we do about it?

The science behind this phenomenon is all too simple: as we age (yes, sadly it’s all about aging) our systems, our organs, and every cell in our body start to slow down. According to nutritionist Tina Nunziato CHNC of Dr. Liz Cruz Partners in Digestive Healthour organs don’t process things as quickly or as completely as they used to. Our liver, for example, may not fully metabolize all the alcohol in the wine we consumed last night. The next day, we may feel slightly fuzzy-headed, nauseous, or headache-y.

To compound the problem, our gut and colon don’t eliminate all the toxins the way they used to, so over time we experience a build-up of toxicity throughout our body. It’s no wonder that we “Can’t drink like we used to.”

The picture, however, needn’t be so bleak. We can change our habits so that we can imbibe and enjoy.

We need to understand, first, that ill effects will increase with the amount of alcohol ingested, and all wines are not created equal when it comes to alcohol content. Red wines from warm climate regions, such as Australia and many parts of California, may have an alcohol content as high as 15.5 percent (think Shiraz, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and many Red Blends). A cool climate white or red, on the other hand, such as one from northern France or northern Italy, might weigh in at only 12.5 or 13 percent (such as Sancerre or Chianti). Your body feels the difference, and you may find that simply switching to lower alcohol wines will resolve your issues.

Hydration is also a significant part of the solution. Drinking lots of water alongside your wine dilutes the alcohol, so make sure there’s a glass of water beside your glass of wine, and that you drink both throughout the evening.

Book-ending your wine consumption with lots of water will also help your system perform better. Drink one or two eight-ounce glasses before you start drinking wine, and do the same before bed and first thing in the morning.

Finally, “go European.” Many visitors to Europe say they can drink wine all day and never feel drunk, and that’s partly due to the generally lower alcohol content of European wines. But more important, in Europe they use wine as a meal-time beverage, not a cocktail. If you have a glass in one hand, you should have a fork in the other. When you enjoy wine alongside food, whether it’s a light appetizer of almonds and cheese, or
a full-blown five-course meal, your body will process the alcohol much more efficiently.

It’s as simple as that. You can still enjoy the pleasure of a glass of wine (or two), as long as you adjust and adapt to your new, more mature reality. I know I will. Cheers!

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Figaro Tinto 2009 Calatyud: Fine Wine, Finer Price Tag

operaAll I wanted was a cheap and cheerful little wine to perk up my Marinara and Meatballs, and what I got instead was a ton of history. There’s so much packed into this deceptively simple bottle that I don’t know where to start.

First, we have “Figaro:” when I say the name I conjure up visions of a big, bearded baritone belting out, “Figaro, Figaro, Fiiiiigaro”….

Then there’s “Aragon”, or “Zaragoza,” the Spanish province that contains the Calatayud wine region. I see images of medieval knights and ladies, and it turns out there were more than enough epic battles here. Romans, Moors, and half of Europe tried to invade it, and during a particularly memorable (and bloody) siege in the 1800′s, almost every man, woman and child in Zaragoza died rather than surrender to the invading French. Wow — these are some fierce folks…medieval

Then there’s the winery that created this wine, Bodega Niño Jesús. Really? Doesn’t that translate to “Winery Baby Jesus?” I just don’t know what to think about that…

Here’s what I know about my little bottle of history:

  • Figaro Tinto 2009 comes from the wine region or D.O. called Catalayud, which sits on the River Ebro in the northeastern quadrant of Spain.
  • The Continental climate borders on extreme: the summers are hot and dry and the winters are cold. In a single day, temperatures can swing 30 or 40 degrees (F).
  • The vineyards where these grapes are grown sit on south-facing slopes above the river (to catch all the available sunlight, right?). And they’re at elevations of up to 2,500 feet, which gives the fruit more intense flavors and good natural acidity.
  • Finally, the soil is loose, gravelly and really lousy for growing anything else, which makes it just perfect for wine grapes!

Catalayud shares these characteristics with just about every significant wine-producing region in the world. Here’s what makes Bodega Niño Jesús different: it’s a cooperative of about 150 growers tending vineyards with an average age of 30 years. These aren’t really old vines, but they’ve at least grown a beard by now, and contribute more complex flavors to the fruit. The grapes in Figaro are 100% Garnacha (Grenache), which in warm climfigaroates has a fruity, sometimes fleshy style. And significantly, this bottling is from the 2009 vintage, which in Europe was one of the best in memory.

Finally, I’m getting to the wine: Figaro Tinto is simply a killer bottle of wine, and tastes much better than its humble price. I paid $8 for it at Total Wine & More, and I was hoping for something with just enough fruit and acid to balance my Marinara sauce (homemade, thank you). What I got was bright, tangy red and black cherry fruit with a hint of spice and a well-balanced finish. When it hit the tomato-based sauce, both wine and Marinara got up and danced: the fruit became softer and more intense and the sauce turned sweet and savory.

I was in wine-and-food heaven, and all it took was a 10-spot. I will cheerfully buy this wine again, and I’d suggest you take it for a test drive, too, especially if you have pizza, red pasta or any Mediterranean specialty on your menu. And be sure to let me know what you think… Cheers!




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Drink Wine, Save the Planet

cowI just read a great post on It told me that some clever researcher has discovered that cows who eat winemaking residue (such as crushed up skins and seeds) are happier, healthier, and pass less gas.

Yes, someone found a way to measure cow flatulence (I can’t wrap my head around that one) and were able to determine that happy wine-junk-eating cows pump less gas into the atmosphere. And since an ordinary cow’s typical CO2 production is equal to an automobile’s (imagine that!), then feeding grape junk to cows is as good as car pooling for cleaning up the environment.


I know we’re all looking for ways to save our planet, so isn’t it GREAT that DRINKING MORE WINE has been added to the list? Now you can sip away all evening, knowing that the more you drink, the more new wine will be needed to meet increasing demand. And that creates more wine-grape-junk to feed to all those happy cows.

Check this article out for yourself: it’s a feel-good read.

Cows, the popular bovines behind beloved wine accompaniments steak and cheese, may get fit from wine just like humans do, a new agricultural nutrition study shows. Cows in Australia were fed about 11 pounds of grape pomace, or marc—the skins, seeds and stems usually repurposed after winemaking for brandy production, or tossed in the refuse bin—along with their usual cuisine of cow food, for 37 days. Some of the winemaking leftovers were consumed in pellet form and some were scraped right out of the vat, retaining their pleasing winey smell for the animals. Compared to the dairy cows that only ate hay and bugs or whatever, the wine waste bovines improved, at least for our purposes, in three ways: They produced 5 percent more milk, that milk was higher in anti-oxidants and fatty acids (that’s a good thing) and, perhaps best of all, the cows’ methane emissions were reduced by 20 percent. Cows, you see, have four stomachs, and when they get gassy after a big meal, entire ecosystems cry out with great lamentation: A cow annually spews as much greenhouse gas as a car does. So drink up—tonight’s wine might make tomorrow morning’s milk cheaper, better for you and better for the planet. —


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Finca Los Maza Reserva Malbec

mazaI thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

When I saw the price on the wine I drank last night, I really thought someone had switched the price tag. “This wine cannot be this cheap.”

But it is. The wine I’m ranting about is Finca Los Maza Reserva Malbec 2008, and the quality/price ratio here is crazy.

First, Los Maza comes from Mendoza, Argentina, now the Motherland of Malbec. The grape is native to France, where it was one of the varietals blended to make red Bordeaux. Malbec was brought to Argentina by immigrants, and thrived in the warmer, dryer climate.

Mendoza is like heaven for wine grapes. The Uco Valley, where Finca Los Maza grows its fruit, has a desert-like climate and sits at somewhere around 3,600 feet elevation. This cools the temperatures and creates a dramatic difference between daytime and nighttime temps,  allowing the fruit to develop structure and complexity. The sunlight is also more direct, ensuring that grapes will fully ripen, and snow melt from the Andes mountains provides plenty of water to irrigate the vineyards. The result, according to Juan Tonconogy and Alex Campbell, is “intense wines with great personality and quality.”

Alex is the third generation of the family that planted vines here close to a century ago. Juan and Alex’s new company has acquired additional vineyard sites, and blends grapes from different lots to achieve the style they’re looking for.

For me, their style is all about power. But it’s power with depth and elegance to back it up. I saw the power as soon as I poured my glass. The color was purple/garnet and opaque, suggesting plenty of extraction. I cheated and looked at the technical notes, and sure enough, these grapes enjoyed 30 days of maceration. Trust me, that’s a lot!

The nose offered berries on steroids, with dark fruit, vanilla and maybe a shot of espresso.

But the palate blew me away. I tasted rich, powerful dark berry fruit with plenty of depth and concentration, followed by chocolate and vanilla that lingered on the finish. There was also a purity that I liked: the structure and acid kept it from sliding over into jammy or blocky. I guess that’s where the power and elegance meet and marry.

So my guests and I (they also enjoyed the wine plenty) were playing the, “How much do you think it costs?” game. I was hoping for $20, but realizing that it could run closer to $25.

Good thing I didn’t bet on that, because I would have lost big. Los Maza Reserva Malbec goes for $12. Yes, $12! This is insanely good wine for the money. And it’s a versatile wine. You could drink it with tangy cheese, grilled meats, red sauce, or beef, beef, beef the way the Argentines do.

However you plan to drink it, just grab a bottle. Or two. Or three. You won’t be disappointed. Cheers!



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Andre Lurton and Chateau de Rochemorin

If you, my loyal reader, have been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that my blog posts are always about wines I’ve enjoyed. Why waste time writing about lousy wines when there are so many good ones, right?

And the first thing I do, when I want to write about a wine I’ve enjoyed, is research. I want to learn about the wine’s region, the people who contributed to its creation, and the winery that produced it.

So after drinking this really good Bordeaux the other night — Chateau de Rochemorin 2009 – I set out to do my usual. But what I discovered in my research wasn’t “the usual”. Take the winery’s history, for example: this Chateau traces its roots back to 1520. Really! That’s a long time ago.

And over the next 400 years the Chateau at Rochemorin was home to Lords and Ladies, Poets, one of the great philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment, and even an honest-to-God Musketeer! (the dashing, sword-wielding type, not the candy bar type).

Vines were planted on Lord Rochemorin’s estate in the region we know as Graves in the 16th century, and good-to-very-good wine was made there continuously for four hundred years. Holy cow! That kinda puts the “Old” into “Old World” wines.

Then in 1919, the estate was sold to a lumber baron, and it wasn’t until 1973 that it  was rescued  by Andre Lurton, a man whose family wine history isn’t too shabby, either. The Lurton’s have been wine producers in Bordeaux since 1650, and at this point there are “no fewer than 17 family members of the currrent generation working in the wine trade today.” In fact, the appellation within Graves where the winery sits, Pessac-Leognan, was created in 1987 after 20 years of lobbying by none other than Andre Lurton.

So enough preamble: let’s get to the wine. Bordeaux is arguably the King of Old World wine. Reds from Pessac-Leognan, which is part of Bordeaux’s Left Bank, can be blended from the six traditional Bordeaux grapes (the Lurton website includes Carmenere as the sixth grape). The Chateau de Rochemorin is blended from just two grapes — 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. Read the rest of this entry »

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What’ll they think of next — grape grower division

A friend once told me, “Sometimes, doing anything is better than doing nothing.”

I’m guessing that’s what Bruce Cakebread thought when he called in the cavalry (so to speak) to rescue his grape crop.

Bruce is the president of Cakebread Cellars, one of Napa Valley’s Blue Chip wineries. His vineyards, along with every other vineyard in Northern California, were deluged with rain during the 2011 harvest.

Take my word for it: rain during harvest is a VERY BAD THING. Moisture sitting on the grapes and caught in the bunches can allow rot to develop, and that can potentially RUIN THE ENTIRE YEAR’S CROP.

Typically, grape growers just cross their fingers and hope for a succession of warm sunny days to dry the fruit, but our friend Bruce couldn’t stand to do nothing: like I said, “sometimes, doing anything is better than doing nothing.”

So Bruce got very creative. He borrowed a trick from old-time cherry growers and hired a helicopter to come charging over the hill and save the day. The chopper flew back and forth across the Cakebread vineyards, just 20 feet above the valley floor, and stirred up enough wind to (hopefully) blow the moisture off the grapes. Wow — that’s creative thinking.

I picked this story up from Dr. Vino’s very fun wine blob, and he picked it up from NPR (National Public Radio), my sole source of information about the world. Check out the full story on NPR to get all the details.

It’s a great tale of creativity and ingenuity, but it also helps us to remember that at its heart, winemaking is agriculture, and winemakers are essentially farmers. They live by the land and are at the mercy of  Mother Nature, working tirelessly to stay ahead of whatever she might throw at them.

Those of us who drink wine need to send an occasional shout-out to those who make wine, and thank them for  devoting their lives to our pleasure.

So Thank You Bruce, and all the others like you. I’ll drink to that…

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Amazing Santa Maria Pinot Noir: Lazarre Bien Nacido

adamThis guy is very elusive.

About a year ago I caught a glimpse of his wine in Scottsdale, AZ. There was an Adam Lazarre Central Coast Pinot Noir on the Greene House wine list, and we grabbed it as fast as we politely could and enjoyed the heck out of it.

My attempts to find Lazarre  wine in Ohio were thwarted by a distributor who had it, but didn’t really have it. And then lo and behold, I accidentally hit the jackpot: I found a bottle of the single-vineyard Lazarre Bien Nacido Pinot Noir. And the fabulous 2007 vintage, no less!

To back up a bit, I should explain that Adam Lazarre is a California winemaker who directed some big-production wineries while making some very small production Pinot Noir on the side. He favors the area from Paso Robles south to Santa Barbara, and makes very classic, very pure Pinot from some of the best vineyards in the state.

One of those vineyards is Bien Nacido. Adam says it’s on the “south facing northern hills midway down the Santa Maria Valley.” South-facing is good: that means good sun exposure and complete ripening. He used just four rows of carefully selected vines, and made a total of — three barrels! Yes, just three barrels, which certainly fits my definition of “Small production.”

What Adm does with those three barrels is… not much. He claims he favors “minimalist winemaker intervention,” which means “Just crush, ferment, and jam (it) into the barrel. The strength of the wine lies in the vineyard – as it should be.”

The wine I tasted had all sorts of strength. Remember that this bottle was the 2007 vintage, which every expert and wine-critic-wannabe has dubbed the best vintage EVER for California Pinot Noir. First we smiled at the presentation of this bottle, which is wrapped in leopard print tissue paper. Yes, leopard print… Word has it that Angie Lazarre, Adam’s wife, hand wraps each bottle. That’s gotta be a labor of love. But it also adds a classy, whimsical touch that’s so sexy we all didn’t want to open the bottle. Well… we almost didn’t want to open it…

So it poured out deep ruby red, and the aromas started gushing out of the glass. I got bright cranberry and cherry, with a bit of smoke and spice. I dragged my Pinot-loving friends over for the first taste, and the flavors gushed out too.

Actually, there was a big rush of intense bright fruit that quickly turned deep, warm and velvety. It was weirdly great — a big bang and then a soft middle and lingering, elegant finish. The only thing better was what happened as it sat in my glass. I was eating a feast of grilled tenderloin, dry-rubbed chicken and cedar-planked salmon, so I made my way through a few glasses of the Lazarre Bien Nacido. By my second glass I started to taste dusky caramel and clove with a back-note of minerality. Wow — was that good.

I know that 2007 was a hard vintage to screw up. But Lazarre gave us a wine that’s even better than you’d expect. It’s pure and well-balanced  — bold where it needs to be and elegant when it counts.

So obviously, I’m recommending this wine highly. Your problem will be finding it. If I were you, I’d be on the look-out for any Lazarre Pinot, and grab it when you find it. Cheers!



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Let The Games Begin: Sonoma’s 2011 Grape Harvest


Judy Jordan of J Winery crowns winemaker Melissa Stackhouse, Winemaker Queen. (Photo from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

Ever wonder what harvest is like in wine country? Do you imagine that’s it’s serene and bucolic, with the sun shining down on vineyard hands and winemaking staff as they happily gather the fruits of their labors?
Here’s how J Winery’s George Rose puts it: “Our winemaking team definitely is gearing up for what they like to refer to as war,” Rose said. “It’s a very grueling process.”

So gird your loins, folks; harvest 2011 is about to begin. And it appears that some wineries have a unique way of launching it.
J Vineyard and Winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley is among the first to start picking. They kicked off their harvest early Monday morning with a blessing of the grapes ceremony, and the crowning of their very own Winemaker Queen.
This year’s harvest was a huge concern a few months ago, when cool temperatures and record spring rains threatened to ruin the vintage. In fact, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission reports that yields will be down anywhere from 20 – 25%, because those rains knocked the flowers right off the vines and resulted in fewer and smaller berries on each cluster of grapes. Read the rest of this entry »
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Benziger Leads The Way in Organics


Benziger uses natural pests to keep vineyards healthy.

I remember, back in the day, when organics were “just stuff for aging hippies.” Whether it was organic food or wine, the average guy believed it was a bunch of  mumbo-jumbo, and even if it was better for you, organic stuff sure wouldn’t taste as good as our  factory-made, chemically-enhanced stuff.

There were a few wineries experimenting with organic farming, but they didn’t promote it. In fact, I had to beg a rep from a good-sized Oregon winery to put “Organic” somewhere on the label, in a type size big enough to actually read it. Their marketing people were afraid wine shoppers would avoid their wine if they “admitted” they used organic practices.

Meanwhile, there was a winery in California’s Sonoma County. At Benziger Winery, they started out growing grapes the way everyone else did, with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It took a few years for one of the brothers, Mike Benziger, to decide that he was seeing changes in the vineyards, and they weren’t good. He wanted to revitalize the vineyards, and the fruit they produced, by using more natural methods.

“We learned which flowers attracted the bugs we needed to keep pest populations in control. Habitats were created for birds and owls, and we brought cows, sheep and chickens to live on the property.

Once the estate found its balance, the wines did too. As we tasted the wines grown from such a healthy and vibrant place, we realized that the distinctiveness and authenticity we were lacking before was right in the glass. Healing the land had led to an amazing new caliber of wines and we knew we had to begin applying the lessons learned on our estate to all the vineyards we worked with.”

That was the beginning of Benziger’s industry-leading conversion to Sustainable/Organic/Biodynamic winemaking. They and all the growers they buy from are certified at one of those levels. And in case you’re not sure what those words mean, here’s a quick primer (thanks to Benziger’s very informative website).

Sustainable Farming “emphasizes environmentally sound growing methods, such as biodiversity, soil revitalization and Integrated Pest Management, and shows growers how to cultivate grapes with more character, flavors and aromas with the goal of making better, genuinely distinctive wines.”

Organic certification is more stringent. “It avoids the use of synthetic chemicals and uses natural methods like crop rotation, tillage and natural composts to maintain soil health as well as natural methods to control weeds, insects and other pests.”

Biodynamics “is the highest level of organic farming. Instead of bagged fertilizer, weed killer and pesticides we rely on composting, natural predator-prey relationships, cover crops, and the animals that live on our estate, to keep our vineyard healthy and balanced.”

Do you get it now? There’s no mumbo-jumbo at all. It’s a very common-sense approach, and it’s designed to make better wine for you. Here’s a final quote from Chris Benziger:

“We don’t just farm this way because we think caring for the land is the right thing to do, it also happens to be the best way to make distinctive, authentic wines. By treating our vineyards the best way we know how, we’re making wines we’re really proud of. And that is good for, well, everybody.”

So it’s really all about what’s in the bottle. Benziger makes several families of wines, from different varietals and at different price points. I’ll be tasting some of those tonight in a live Twitter Tasting. These events are great — I’ll be able to taste the wines and talk (by Internet) to Mike Banziger himself.

Tomorrow I’ll start reporting on the wines and our online tasting. Stay tuned! Same Bat time, same Bat channel… Cheers!

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KISS and Wine Writing

wordsHow do you talk about wine without talking about wine?

That’s roughly the question posed by Mike Steinberger in his blog, Wine He wrote a post about the way all of us wine writers, bloggers, and critics describe the wines we’re writing about. “Tasting Notes” are what we call our descriptions of how a wine looks, smells, and tastes.

OK, tasting notes don’t sound too controversial, and it seems they serve a useful purpose. The thing about them is… I for one am sick to death of reading them and writing them. Traditional Tasting Notes can be:

  • the same old “blah, blah, blah”;
  • ambiguous and misleading;
  • total gibberish; or
  • a pack of downright lies.

The truth is, there are only so many descriptors we can use, and so we use them again and again, ad nauseum. For fruit characteristics, we talk about cherry, black cherry, blueberry, blackberry, raspberry, black raspberry, and in one notable case, qumquat.

“Qumquat?” I read that in a tasting note somewhere and set out to find one so I would know what it tastes like. I shouldn’t have bothered — it tastes like grapefruit mixed with essence of dirty socks. Scratch that word off the descriptor list…

And what about those earthy/savory components? It’s not unusual to read about forest floor, pencil shavings, musk, or my personal favorite, wet bush. But who really relates to those things? When was the last time you tasted pencil shavings?

Here’s the thing — we’re trying (lamely) to use words to describe a very visceral experience, and it doesn’t always work. I suggest we revert to the kind of notes I used to read in Wine X Magazine. I loved that magazine’s style (back in the Olden Days when there were actually printed magazines instead of e-everything).

A review in Wine X would go something like this:

“Drinking this Cabernet is like making love in the vegetable aisle.”

Now that’s a review that captures a sensory experience, and gets your imagination working to boot. I think the wine writing community should make a pledge now:

  • No more notes describing the wine. We’ll describe how we feel when we drink the wine.

Can’t you just see it now? Reviews will be short and to the point:

  • “This wine will remind you of when your mother made you eat those disgusting lima beans,” or
  • “This wine oughta replace Viagra in the ED ads.”

I like it: simple, straight-forward, and insightful. Let me know if you agree with me, and if you’ll join me in the pledge. Cheers!

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