The 12 drinks of Christmas: Delicious libations for boozy holiday entertaining

I love the traditions of the holidays. The Trail of Lights, the decadent treats, spending time with family around the Christmas tree, sitting on Santa’s lap, and sometimes even Christmas carols.

But not all Christmas carols. The indomitable repetition of that seemingly endless cumulative carol “The 12 Days of Christmas” is as maddening as it is catchy. It may draw on your nostalgic heartstrings, convincing you to sing along the first time you hear it each season, but after that …

Back in 1982, the Canadian comedy couple Bob and Doug McKenzie created a fantastic parody of the “12 Days of Christmas” that gleefully declares, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, beer.” To honor that sentiment, here are 12 festive drinks to have at home or a party to help you start new holiday traditions.

1. Beer is the right thing to have on the first day of Christmas in a nod to Bob and Doug. A good choice is Rahr & Sons Winter Warmer, a dark English-style ale with dried fruit and chocolate flavors. These guys in Fort Worth know how to make a solid brew. It’s great on its own and pairs incredibly well with gingerbread.

Rahr and Sons Winter Warmer
Rahr and Sons Winter Warmer

 

2. The second day calls for a delicious holiday twist on a classic cocktail, a perfect way to prep your appetite for a big holiday meal. The boozy Cynar Manhattan made with double-proof Cynar 70 is one of the best tasting versions of a Manhattan you’ll ever have. The newly introduced big brother of Cynar has the same balance of bitter and sweet flavors with festive hints of spice and herbs.

Stir the ingredients with ice and strain into a coupe or martini glass. Garnish with maraschino cherries.

Cynar Manhattan
Cynar Manhattan

 

3. The third day deserves a classic wine to celebrate the holidays: a stout cabernet sauvignon. Cabernet is a bear skin rug in front of the fire. To really wow your holiday guests, grab the 2012 Rodney Strong Alexander’s Crown cabernet sauvignon single vineyard, a Sonoma County beauty bursting with the lovely smell of plum and chocolate and powerful blackberry, black cherry, licorice, and dark chocolate flavors with a bit of cedar lingering on the finish. Whether you serve this with a sumptuous beef Wellington or on its own, it’s sure to dazzle for $75.

Alexanders Crown Cabernet Sauvignon
Alexanders Crown Cabernet Sauvignon

 

Another choice is the 2012 Experience Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with viscous flavors of spiced black currant, jammy plum, and dried strawberry. It’s great with rib roast for $25.

Experience Napa Valley Cabernet
Experience Napa Valley Cabernet

 

The third day calls for a third bottle of wine. An easygoing and unpretentious choice for the neighborhood party is 2013 Sterling Vintner’s Collection cabernet sauvignon. This Central Coast cab packs in a load of blackberry, ripe blueberry, dark chocolate, and vanilla flavors with a sprinkle of baking spice. Pick it up for $27.

Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon
Sterling Cabernet Sauvignon

 

4. The fourth day warrants a lush wine. Merlot is the Snuggie of the wine world: soft, cuddly, and oh so comforting. An incredibly elegant merlot for the holidays is the 2012 Matanzas Creek Winery Jackson Park Vineyard merlot. This Sonoma County vineyard is planted with the same grapes as one of the most famous Bordeaux wineries, Petrus. It’s velvety smooth with plum, blueberry, and boysenberry jam flavors and a bitter-sweet chocolate finish. The Matanzas Creek merlot goes incredibly well with roasted duck and sells for $60.

Matanzas Creek Merlot
Matanzas Creek Merlot

 

5. The fifth day asks for a slightly more rustic wine. Syrah is a walk through the woods to find just the right Christmas tree. The 2012 Qupé Santa Barbara County syrah ($30), made with biodynamic or organically grown grapes from the cool climates of the Santa Maria Valley and the Edna Valley in California, is as wild, funky, and brambly as any French Rhone wine. This little number is bounding with blackberry, cranberry tarts, and spiced with herbs and pepper. Serve it with a festive grilled lamb for the holidays.

Qupe Syrah
Qupe Syrah

 

6. The sixth day requires a playful wine. Petite sirah is a kiss under the mistletoe. For one big, bold kiss go with the 2013 Parducci True Grit Reserve petite sirah from Mendocino County, California. It has dusty raspberry scents, tart raspberry, Luden’s cherry cough drops, and blueberry pie with a healthy dollop of tannin. Yum! It is a great wine with steak and sells for $30.

Parducci True Grit
Parducci True Grit

 

7. The seventh day is a good time for portable wine. Grab a can of Underwood rosé from the Union Wine Company of Oregon to sip while you look at holiday light displays. The half-bottle size can be enjoyed in a crowd, and the fresh watermelon, strawberry, and tart lemon flavors pair resplendently with funnel cake. Pick up a four-pack for $24.

Underwood Rose Wine
Underwood Rose Wine

 

8. The eighth day is all about cuddly comfort. Pinot noir is the purr of a snuggly kitten, velvet furred and wispy tongued. A classic from the Eola-Amity Hills in Oregon, the 2013 Willamette Valley Vineyards Estate pinot noir gleams like Dorothy’s ruby slippers with aromas of wet leaves, Bing cherries, and mocha. It has bright black cherry, raspberry, and chocolate flavors that give way to an earthiness characteristic of Oregon pinot noir. It is great with salmon and sells for $30.

Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir
Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir

 

9. The ninth day is a little naughty. Cinsaut is a tryst at the office Christmas party. Emblematic of a night of debauchery is the 2014 Bonny Doon cinsaut counoise from vineyards in California’s Paso Robles, Mendocino, and Lodi. Its looks are deceiving. The light ruby color of this wine is as delicate as the newest Beaujolais Nouveau, but its taste is anything but subtle. Wild strawberry, raspberry, and cranberry scents endorse the red berry, satiny chocolate, and herbal flavors. It pairs exceedingly well with quail and sells for $35.

Bonnie Doon Cinsault
Bonnie Doon Cinsault

 

10. The 10th day is sophisticated. There is nothing as erudite as a snifter of brandy. A Spanish delight, Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva is made from Palomino grapes and aged for 15 years in the same intricate fashion that sherry is made. The century-old oak casks used in the aging give it vanilla and honey flavors that envelop a bourbon-esque core like a velvet smoking jacket. Serve it at room temperature to savor the unmistakable imprint of sherry with its telltale oxidized sea-breeze taste. I could sip this all night after opening gifts. Deelish. It goes for $46.

Lepanto Brandy de Jerez Solera Gran Reserva
Lepanto Brandy

 

11. The 11th day wakes up early for a cup of coffee. Coffee with a dose of cheer, of course. Coffee with liquor is the next best thing to snuggling with a ski bunny. Pour a couple ounces of Frangelico into your cup. The sweet hazelnut and vanilla flavors will perk up any morning. Pouring from the distinct bottle with the rope belt is a lot of fun too. Be careful not to overdo it because even in coffee it can get you drunk as a monk. Grab a bottle for $25.

Frangelico Coffee
Frangelico Coffee

 

12. By the 12th day you are bound to be in need of a tummy soothing digestifAmaro Averna soothes the flames of holiday indulgence with a luxurious blend of honey and bitter-sweet chocolate flavors. Sip a small glass neat or with an ice cube and let the sweet, thick herbs and citrus do their trick. It’s a lovely way to wind down the holidays for $30/bottle.

Amaro Averna
Amaro Averna

 

If you must sing a Christmas carol while enjoying any of these drinks, please make it “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. Cheers to a happy holiday!

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I received samples to review of most of the products included in this post.

What are you drinking?

The Right Wines for Summer Grilling

Flowers Vineyard & Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013
Flowers Vineyard & Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013

Summer grilling season is in full swing, which is a perfect opportunity for us to try different food and wine pairings. Wine as a whole goes better with food than any other beverage and with so many varieties to choose from, there are numerous pairing options with grilled food. The naturally occurring sugar, acidity and alcohol in wine to complement almost anything cooked with flames.

The general principles for selecting a wine for summer grilling is the same for any wine and food pairing. The goal of the pairing is that both the food and the wine taste better when properly harmonized. Start by matching the weight of food with weight of wine. The delicate flavors of vegetables, seafood and chicken are lovely with lighter wines. Fattier and denser varieties of fish, like salmon and swordfish, pair well with a medium-bodied wines like Merlot. The flavors in most types of hefty meat, like burgers, steaks, lamb and barbeque are enhanced by intense, full-bodied red wines.

The good news is that we have a long summer in Texas that gives us plenty of time to try numerous wine and grilled food pairings.

YOUR GUIDE TO WINE AND GRILLED FOOD PAIRINGS

Grilled Veggies

Summer is the perfect time for grilling a bounty of seasonal vegetables like asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant and corn. Whether veggies are your main course or a side dish, picking the right wine can turn it into the star of the show.

A wide variety of vegetables allows for a wide selection of wine pairing options.

Lighter style and green grilled vegetable call for white wines like unoaked Chardonnay, Chablis, dry Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc and dry rosé. The fire-roasted char and caramelization of grilled vegetables beg for fuller-bodied whites, dry rosé and even lighter reds, particularly those with mild tannins. For the other dark vegetables like squash, Portobello mushrooms or eggplant, reach for light style reds like Pinot Noir and Barbera.

Rosé to try: Commanderie de Peyrassol Côtes de Provence 2014, France ($20). A classic rosé with a delicate lilac, strawberry, lemon zest nose and fresh biscuit, strawberries and crisp lemon flavors and good minerality.

Chardonnay to try: Cambria Estate Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2013, California ($22). The dynamic fruit flavors of lime, cantaloupe, and pineapple make this wine an excellent accompaniment with eggplant or grilled zucchini.

Cambria Estate Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2013
Cambria Estate Winery Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley 2013

Grilled Fish  

Selecting the right wine to pair well with grilled seafood is probably easier than grilling the fish itself. A range of wines with high acid are great with grilled seafood. Think of the kind of wines that make you pucker a little bit like lemony Pinot Gris, briny Albariño, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc, ripe fruit Chardonnay, or minerally dry rosé. These types of wines go well with any type of seafood that you normally squeeze a little lemon onto.

Don’t shy away from a fruity red wine with a smoky oily fish.  Meatier or fatty fish like swordfish and salmon love Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Pinot Gris to try: Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014, California ($15). Made with a blend of grapes grown in the cool climate of Monterey, including Roussane, Viognier, Grüner Veltliner and Albariño, this wine has a lively blend of citrus and mineral flavors. Its tropical fruit, melon and peach flavors love sea bass.

Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014
Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Pinot Gris 2014

 

Albariño to try: Wedding Oak Winery Albariño 2013, Texas/California fruit ($23). This fresh, dry and versatile Albariño has distinctive aromas of peach and apricot along with bracing sea spray, lemon and mango flavors. The unoaked wine pairs with incredibly well with shellfish.

Wedding Oak Winery Albariño 2013
Wedding Oak Winery Albariño 2013

Sauvignon Blanc to try: Matanzas Creek Winery Helena Bench Sauvignon Blanc 2013, California ($40). This Knights Valley wine has floral and minty aromas and bouncy flavors of white peach, nectarine, grapefruit and lemon zest. It’s an excellent match with Gulf black drum.

Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc
Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc

Pinot Noir to try: Vineyard 29 Cru Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013, Oregon ($54). This Old World style Pinot has delicate floral fragrance and spicy earthiness with lush flavors of wild strawberry, cherry, dark plum, nutmeg and vanilla. The velvety texture and smooth tannins make it a classic pairing with salmon.

Vineyard 29 Cru Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013
Vineyard 29 Cru Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2013

Grilled Chicken

Grilled chicken always makes me think of carefree days and picnics by the lake. The hot coals bring out the best in this bird. The sweet caramelization and bitter char from the grill make it an excellent partner with buoyant white wines. Citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, aromatic peachy Viognier and tart, tropical Chardonnay are all excellent choices to pair with grilled chicken.

Sauvignon Blanc to try: Vineyard 29 Cru Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013, California ($54). This limited production wine aged in a combination of French oak, concrete and stainless steel is an absolute delight. True to the Sauvignon Blanc style, it has zingy citrus flavors of lemon and green apple and layers in luscious toffee and butterscotch. The bright acidity is excellent with chicken thighs.

Vineyard 29 Cru Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013
Vineyard 29 Cru Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2013

Viognier to try: Pedernales Cellars Texas Viognier Reserve 2014, Texas ($40). Floral scent with honey, and bright white peach, citrus, vanilla and toast flavors coming alive on the palate. This is an amazing wine that is versatile enough to pair with almost any style of grilled chicken.

Pedernales Cellars Viognier
Pedernales Cellars Viognier

Chardonnay to try: Flowers Vineyards & Winery Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2013, California ($50). Bliss.  The barrel aging in mostly neutral French oak gives this wine roundness without letting the oak obscure the fruit. Lemon zest and white flower scents mingle with pear, green apple and melon flavors with a solid structure of minerality and acidity.

Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay
Flowers Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

Steak and Burgers

It’s hard not to have a beer in hand when you are standing over the grill, but once the meat is done, pick full-bodied wines with dark berry fruit and some tannin to pair with grilled beef. It’s a tried and true practice to pair red wine with steak because the fat and protein in beef lowers the impact of tannin. It’s simple chemistry. Don’t mess with a good thing.

Lightly seasoning any steak or burger and grilling it to a rare to medium temperature lets beef sing. The char on the meat goes well with the tannins in red wines such Cabernet Sauvignon and other red Bordeaux varieties. Meat with a heavier char and cooked medium-well to well-done pairs better with softer, less tannic red Rhone grape varieties like Syrah and Grenache, or Pinot Noir.  If you prefer to keep it local, grab a delicious Texas Tempranillo. The bright fruit and high acidity cut right through that fatty beef.

Pinot Noir to try: Flowers Vineyard & Winery Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2013, California ($50). This luscious wine has vivacious scents of wild strawberry, cranberries and herbs layered with black cherry, raspberry and thyme flavors. It is an elegant and refined wine that will dress up any meal.

Grenache to try: Yangarra Estate Vineyard McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache 2012, Australia ($32). The old vine Grenache was planted in 1946 and produces wine with powerful raspberry, cherry and red plum fruit flavors with peppery spice, licorice and chocolate. It is excellent with grilled lamb.

Yangarra Estate Vineyard McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache 2012
Yangarra Estate Vineyard McLaren Vale Old Vine Grenache 2012

Petite Sirah to try: Edmeades Mendocino County 2012, California ($35). This limited release wine is absolutely perfect with grilled beef. Its smoky and spicy nose with loads of blackberry, plum, vanilla and coffee flavors and firm tannins will have you taking a drink with every bite of steak.

Edmeades Petite Sirah Mendocino County 2012
Edmeades Petite Sirah Mendocino County 2012

Tempranillo to try: Spicewood Vineyards Estate Tempranillo 2012, Texas ($45). This wine has bright acidity and firm tannins along with tart cherry, leather and tobacco flavors making it a perfect pair with grilled beef.

Cabernet Sauvignon to try: Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Argentina ($15). This is a perfect backyard wine; easy on the wallet and big on flavor. Bold bouquet of blackberry jam and smoke accompanies a bounty of blackberry, raspberry, fig, chocolate and herbal flavors that are great with a burger.

Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Trapiche Broquel Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Cabernet Sauvignon to try: Melka CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012, California ($65). Indulgent as a velvet smoking jacket, the Melka Cab is packed with ripe plum, black cherry, cassis and mocha with baking spice and tobacco. The silky tannins are soft as a kitten purring for another bite of your steak.

Melka CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012
Melka CJ Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012

Barbeque

Sure it’s easier to grab a beer to go with the smoky, rich flavors of saucy slow-cooked meats like ribs, brisket, pork shoulder, but it’s not impossible to have stellar wine pairings with barbeque too. A rule of thumb is big, intense flavors go well with big wines.

Dry rubbed barbeque can sometimes be salty. That style loves Champagne and sparkling wine. A sip of bubbly after savory barbeque makes the salt pop and lowers the tartness of the wine. Sparkling wine tastes less tart with salt than it does by itself. It’s best to avoid big tannic red wines with this style of barbeque, as salt makes tannins taste more bitter and intensifies the alcohol.

Slow cooked, straight forward brisket is excellent with a high acidity, low tannin Cabernet made with mountain grown fruit.

Sauces and glazes introduce sweet and spicy flavors that call for different styles of wines. Fruit forward, full bodied wine like big, jammy Zinfandels and bold Syrahs are an excellent complement to sweet sauces. Barbera, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Grenache and rosé are excellent with either sweet or spicy barbeque. The soft tannins and impression of sweetness keeps the wine from tasting sour with a heaping plate of barbeque.

Sparkling Wine to try: Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé 2011, California ($37). The vibrant, fruity and creamy sparkling wine dances with delicate strawberry and raspberry flavors with a hint of apricot. Made with a blend of 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay grapes, this peppy, bubbly wine is an absolute stunner with barbeque.

Domaine Carneros Wines
Domaine Carneros Wines

 

Zinfandel to try: Quivira Vineyards Reserve Zinfandel 2013, California ($42) Stick your nose in the glass and fill it with the scent of blackberries ripening in the sun. The clean, bright wine has mild tannins that let the bold fruit shine through with red raspberry, black cherries and “that classic Dry Creek spice.” It’s a great accompaniment to ribs.

 

Pinot Noir to try: Kendall Jackson, Jackson Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2013, California, ($30). The coastal influences of the Anderson Valley creates wines with bright acidity to balance fruity black cherry, blueberry, chocolate and cola flavors. The silky tannins and lingering smoky, spicy flavors are a dream match with barbeque.

Kendall Jackson, Jackson Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2013
Kendall Jackson, Jackson Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir 2013

Cabernet Sauvignon to try: Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder Napa Valley 2011, California ($75). When you order fancy BBQ, like the award winning brisket from Franklin Barbeque, you deserve a wine that is equally as good. A stand-out wine with energetic blueberry, black currants, anise violet and coffee flavors. This graceful Bordeaux blend has relatively soft tannins that will dress up any smoked brisket.

Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon
Mt. Brave Cabernet Sauvignon
No matter what you choose to grill, use the opportunity to try a variety of wine pairings to discover which ones you like most.
This story was originally published in the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas newsletter, The Crush, “Jump Into Summer.”
Disclaimer: Several wine producers provided samples that were reviewed for this article at no charge. 

Texas talent shines at the 2014 Austin Food & Wine Festival

In its third year, the Austin Food & Wine Festival drew some of the biggest names in the culinary world to demonstrate their talents. It wasn’t just the national celebrity chefs who drew applause. Homegrown beverage experts had the juice to attract crowds in Butler Park.

True Texas Spirits

David Alan Tipsy TexanAt mid-day Sunday, cocktail expert and author David Alan, aka the Tipsy Texan, hobbled on stage with a crutch and his foot in a medical boot. He swore the injury was from a skiing accident rather than a drink-induced mishap. A likely story.

He quickly changed the subject by offering a birthday toast to his sister with a mixed shot made with Treaty Oak barrel-aged gin for the crowd. It was a fantastic way to start his session.

Alan shared anecdotes about Texas spirits pioneers and cocktail recipes from his recently published book, Tipsy Texan: Spirits and Cocktails from the Lone Star State. The Texas spirits industry is just a baby. Despite prohibition ending in 1933, the state did not have a legal distillery until Tito Beveridge started Tito’s Handmade Vodka in 1996. When he applied for a distilling permit, there wasn’t even a process in place to get one. Beveridge had to work with state and federal regulatory bodies to get it going. Alan lauded Beveridge for inspiring other distilleries to follow.

“He is the one that got the industry started,” Alan said. “He is the reason we are here today. Independent distilling is one of the biggest movements in the beverage industry. There are now more than 50 licensed distilleries in Texas and business is booming. In 2013, Tito’s hit a milestone that few independents will ever hit. The distillery sold more than a million cases of vodka.”

Tito's Vodka, Treaty Oak RumTito’s was the lone distiller in the state for a decade. In 2006, Daniel Barnes started a distillery to make Treaty Oak Rum, which Alan described as “quintessentially Texan” because it is completely made in Texas, starting with the raw materials. Treaty Oak Distilling now makes rum, aged rum, Waterloo Gin and barrel-aged gin, and bottles of Red Handed Texas Bourbon.

With the rapidly growing thirst for local, independent distilleries, there are bound to be some corners cut to meet consumer demand.

“Some Texas spirits are all hat and no cattle,” Alan said in an impassioned discussion of the virtues of authenticity versus marketing shenanigans. “How many people believe that when you buy a product, you should know what the hell it is? Nobody wants to be misled.

“If a bottle says ‘Texas whiskey,’ we expect it to be from Texas. The problem is that about half the whiskeys on the shelf that say Texas aren’t from Texas. Balcones, Garrison Brothers and Ranger Creek are all made right here with Texas ingredients. We need to support the folks who are actually making a product here. To make sure its Texan, check the bottle to make sure it says ‘distilled in Texas’ rather than just ‘produced’ or ‘bottled.’ ”

Alan describes the cocktail culture in Texas as being very similar to our culinary influences in that it is a melting pot of Tex-Mex and Southern, with bold flavors, spice and smoke. He encouraged the crowd to be adventurous in their choice of drinks and to use local ingredients in season like grapefruit, homegrown mint and watermelon.

“You wouldn’t eat the same food every day or listen to the same music every day,” Alan said. “So why would you drink the same thing every day?”

To demonstrate fresh approaches to cocktails that feature Texas spirits and seasonably appropriate local ingredients, Alan created two refreshing summer cocktails.

Sangria Rosa

Ingredients:

  • 2 750-milileter bottles of sparkling rosé wine
  • 1/2 bottle Tito’s Handmade Vodka
  • 2 cups St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 1 quart cut up melons (watermelon, honeydew) and seasonal fruit
  • Large block of ice
  • 1 cup of carbonated water

Directions:

Marinate the fruit in the booze for several hours, then it’s ready to serve.

Texas Watermelon MojitoWatermelon Mojito

Ingredients:

  • 4 large sprigs fresh mint
  • 1/2 cup cubed and seeded watermelon
  • 1/2 ounce simple syrup
  • 1.5 ounces Treaty Oak Rum
  • 3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 ounce carbonated water
  • Watermelon wedge for garnish

Directions:

Gently muddle three of the mint springs and the watermelon with the simple syrup. Add the rum and lime juice, and shake the hell out of it. Strain into an ice-filled glass. Top with carbonated water and garnish with mint and watermelon.

CALIFORNIA DREAMING

Devon Broglie, Vilma Mazaite, Craig CollinsThe final wine seminar of the Austin Food & Wine Festival featured Austin’s only Master Sommeliers, Devon Broglie and Craig Collins. In their third year presenting at the festival, the renowned wine experts chose to showcase a wine region that they feel is experimenting with non-traditional grapes and new methods in winemaking: California.

“California is one of the regions leading the charge for a new revolution in wine,” said Collins, the beverage director for Arro and ELM Restaurant Group. “In the 1960s and ’70s, Robert Mondavi and others were experimenting with making new wines but retaining European influences for making wine with balance and quality. In the 1990s, the region gained notoriety for pursing big, bold, fruity wines with high alcohol. Now we have pioneers in the industry making sophisticated wine with less prominent grapes with lower alcohol.”

The sweaty and slightly intoxicated crowd at the California Enlightenment session was treated to a tasting of six wines that were selected for new approaches to a well-known grape variety or unheralded grapes. There was one other factor in the wines’ selection.

“The criteria for wines in this tasting is they had to be wines that are loveable,” said Broglie, the Whole Foods Markets associate global beverage buyer. “We’re talking about wines that after you have slammed back half a glass, you stop and realize, holy shit, I love this wine. We wanted to present wines that are enjoyable and that are drinkable with food.”

California Enlightenment wine lineup2010 Seghesio Arneis

The Seghesio family settled in California from Italy in 1895 and has been producing wine ever since. Seghesio is well known as a pioneer and major producer of Sonoma County Zinfandel, but less known for its Italian white wine varieties. Arneis is a white grape from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy that makes clean, crisp wine that is high in minerals. Seghesio grows its grapes on small acreage in the Russian River Valley, which has a cool climate. The result is fresh, bright, medium-bodied wine with guava and tropical flavors that is perfect for a summer picnic. It’s available for about $23 at Austin Wine Merchant or Whole Foods Markets.

2012 Lioco Sonoma County Chardonnay

In 2008, Matt Licklider, a wine importer, and Kevin O’Connor, wine director at Spago Beverly Hills, partnered to start an urban winery to make pinot noir and chardonnay that reflect the terroir of California. They chose to break the mold of California wineries making overblown wines. Rather than age the wine with new oak barrels that can hide the flavor of the wine with vanilla flavors, Lioco uses stainless steel and neutral barrels to create a full yet crisp wine that lets fruit and acid shine through, for a citrusy wine with grapefruit and lemon flavors that pairs well with shellfish. The Sonoma County chardonnay is available for $22 on the Lioco website.

2012 Chappellet Chenin Blanc

“Cappellet is one of the founding fathers of the Napa Valley, starting the winery in 1967 in storied Pritchard Hill vineyards,” Collins said. “The area is considered a grand cru of Napa because the magical mountain makes the cream-of-the-crop wines.”

The volcanic soils stress the grape vines, and the high elevation allows for a large swing between nighttime versus daytime temperatures, which helps grapes ripen better. Not only is Chappellet making wine with a less popular grape, chenin blanc, it is also taking a non-traditional route to make the wine. It is fermented in a combination of neutral French oak barrels, stainless steel tanks and a concrete “egg” that gives the wine extra weight and richness while retaining high acid levels that give it massive zippiness. It has vivacious floral scents and honeydew, lemon zest and hazelnut flavors that bring roast quail to life. It goes for about $30 a bottle.

2012 Donkey and Goat Grenache Noir – El Dorado

Everything about Donkey and Goat is non-traditional. The winery got its start when Tracy and Jared Brandt decided to make natural, Rhône-style wines with minimal intervention.

“They put 50,000 miles on their Toyota Prius looking for the right grapes to make wine in an urban winery in a warehouse in Berkeley,” Broglie said. “This is an example of a new trend in California winemaking where the winery doesn’t need vineyards or a fancy château.”

The grenache was made with grapes grown in El Dorado County using natural yeast to ferment them, and it was left unfiltered, giving it a slight haze. The red berry flavors and earthiness will go well with grilled meat.

“This wine makes me want to bury a goat in the yard and roast it in the pit,” Broglie said.

The Food & Wine Festival was fortunate to land a handful of cases to serve, but the 246 cases made have sold out immediately.

2012 Broc Cellars Vine Starr Zinfandel

California zinfandel has earned a reputation for being inky dark with enough alcohol to give you a buzz by just smelling it. Broc Cellars throws that playbook out the window. The Vine Starr zinfandel is true to its intended character, a gorgeous translucent ruby color, bold aromas of ripe fruit, cream strawberry flavors and the zip of black pepper on the finish. And its only 12 percent alcohol.

“It’s all of the things I like about zin without the things I hate,” Collins said. “I like the bold aromatics and ripe fruit, but not the high alcohol.”

Broc is another one of the small-production urban wineries and only 800 cases of this juice were produced. It sells for about $30.


2010 Stony Hill Cabernet Sauvignon

The last taste of the day, which I’m sure some of the drunks in the tent downed in one lustful gulp, was Stony Hill Napa Valley cabernet 2010 from Spring Mountain. Stony Hill Vineyard has been making wine since 1952. They are predominantly a chardonnay producer. No matter the type of wine, they have not chased the big scores of some wine reviewers by making wines with big flavors, and instead have stayed true to their heritage of making refined, balanced wine. The 2010 cabernet is only the second vintage of cab Stony Hill has produced. It has blackberry, ripe, juicy red fruit, green pepper and herb flavors with a subtle earthiness. Less than 400 cases of this wine were made and only six of those cases made their way to Texas, one of which was poured at the festival. This was my favorite wine of the entire festival.

Whether you are in to obscure grapes, natural wine or inventive approaches to winemaking, Collins summed up a solid maxim for drinking wine (and maybe for life).

“What do you want to put into your mouth now?” he asked. “It’s not about what is right. It’s about what is going to make you happy.”

 

This story was originally published on Austin Man Magazine.

Disclosure: I was provided a media pass to attend the Festival at no charge. 

What are you drinking?

Turning up the Volume at Cliff Lede Vineyards

Beautiful Wife at Cliff Lede VineyardsPart III in the blog series, “Our Anniversary Trip to California Wine Country.”

When you imagine Napa Valley, what is the first thing that comes to mind? I think of gracious winery tasting rooms with spacious outdoor seating areas to take in the picturesque views of the vine covered hills. That’s exactly what Beautiful Wife and I experienced while sitting in the courtyard at Cliff Lede Vineyards (pronounced LAY-dee sorta how Styx would sing it) on a gorgeous October day.

The winery has a small art gallery and its spacious tasting room opens onto a covered patio and courtyard bedecked in flowers, vines sculpture and an outdoor fireplace. It was a casual and idyllic setting to taste through the winery’s line-up. Our host gave us a bit of a history lesson as he poured each wine.

Canadian wine collector, Cliff Lede, had such an intense passion for Bordeaux wines that he decided to try his hand at making his own Cab-based wines in the Staggs Leap district. He bought the winery property in 2002, fired up the winemaking equipment in 2005 and hired a top notch winemaker, Chris Tynan, from Colgin Winery in 2012. Cliff Lede Vineyards now makes Sauvignon Blanc and seven styles of Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery also purchased Anderson Valley Pinot Noir producer, Breggo Cellars in 2009 to round out its portfolio.

Four years ago, we spent our tenth wedding anniversary visiting wineries in the Anderson Valley. We spent the better part of an afternoon in the Breggo tasting room in Mendocino sipping on lush Pinot Noir and chatting up jazz musician, Joshua Redman. Waves of nostalgia washed over me when we saw the Breggo on our tasting menu. Another fine anniversary trip.

Mr. Lede’s love for the arts is on display beyond the paintings, sculpture and poetry in the Poetry Inn. He is also a big music buff with an affinity for classic rock. His love for music spills into the vineyard blocks, which are named for his favorite songs. These names in turn show up in the names of wines like Songbook, High Fidelity and Landslide Fire with a Spinal Tap-esque Marshall double stack amp on the label and a volume knob that goes to 11 on the foil capsule.

A taste through the Cliff Lede wines showed that many of them go to 11.

Cliff Lede Sauvignon Blanc2012 Cliff Lede Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley

Bright as an autumn day in California, this Sauvignon Blanc twinkles pale sunshine in the glass. It’s a floral scent and crisp citrus flavors are accompanied by melon, green grass and seashell. It begs for a buttery croissant to start off brunch. It sells for $23.

2012 Breggo Pinot Gris Anderson Valley

The Pinot Gris had slightly more heft than the Sauvignon Blanc and was broader on the palate. It had zippy acidity with plenty of lemon zest, grapefruit and green apple flavors accompanied by almond and yeast. I wish I had a plate of oysters to go with it. The Pinot Gris cost $25.

2011 Breggo Pinot Noir Anderson Valley

Anderson Valley is known for its cool climate Pinots and 2011 was a particularly cool growing season. It brought out high acidity that punctuated the red cherry and tart plum flavors. I could mistake this for an Oregon wine with its mushroomy, dank forest undertones. I’m a sucker for this style of Pinot and would serve it with roast duck. It goes for $38 a bottle.

Breggo Pinot Gris2011 Cliff Lede Vineyards Claret Napa Valley

Our first Cabernet of the session, the Claret, is made from a blend of 32% Merlot, 18% Petite Verdot and Cab Franc. It has a fresh, herbal nose and brings a big dollop of stewed fruit up front with plum, cherry Coke with violets and cedar. It’s a bold wine that would go great with smoke ribs. It runs $45.

2010 High Fidelity Napa Valley

All I could think about when this wine was poured was Jack Black belting out “Let’s Get it On” in a Chicago bar in the movie High Fidelity. And get it on, we did. Merlot is dominant in this Bordeaux blend, bring abundant blueberry, blackberry, plum and cassis flavors balanced with chocolate and baking spice. The tannins are smooth and velvety. After a few sips I wanted to upgrade my soundtrack to Marvin Gaye. Grilled lamb would cuddle well with this wine. I will set you back $80.

2010 Landslide Fire Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District

Cliff Lede Landslide Fire

This predominantly Cabernet wine is made with grapes from the Landslide and Light My Fire blocks with a compliment of other

Bordeaux blend grapes including 13% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Malbec. The Marshall amp label is a good indication of the power inside the bottle. It has full throttle blackberry, plum cassis, licorice, violet, mocha and tobacco flavors with earthy minerals and firm tannins. It was approachable now, but it definitely has potential to rest for eight to 12 years. Only 822 cases were made of this limited production wine. It sells for $95 a bottle.

2010 Cliff Lede Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District

This is the bread and butter wine for Cliff Lede with more than 5,000 cases. It’s the one you’ll find readily at wine shops. It’s the wine I’ve had several times and ultimately seduced me into scheduling a visit to the winery. The Cab is blended with 11% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot giving it round, yet elegant fruit flavors of black currant, plum and blackberry along with tobacco and dark chocolate all set on a fine mineral backbone. Throw a few thick steaks on the grill to pair with this wine. It sells for $70 a bottle.

We spent a good portion of the afternoon letting the sun warm our faces and the wine warm our hearts. Cliff Lede is a fantastic place to lose yourself in art, music and wine.

The winery is located at 1473 Yountville Cross Road in Yountville. It’s about a quarter mile west of the Silverado Trail on the south side of the road and about a mile and a half east of Highway 29. Its open daily from 10am to 4pm and no appointment is necessary. If you want a tour and tasting program where you sit on the patio and taste through the whole line-up, you’ll need an appointment. Call the tasting room 1-800-428-2259 or email info@cliffledevineyards.com to set it up.

Disclosure: we were provided with complimentary tasting arranged by C. Milan Communications. We purchased bottles of wine at full price.

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Tasting Mountain Wines at Cardinale Estate

It’s a pretty special thing to taste through the various creations of Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Cardinale Estate, La Jota Vineyards, Lokoya and Mt. Brave Wines. That’s exactly what Beautiful Wife and I did on a gorgeous October morning as harvest wound down around us in Napa Valley.

Cardinale was our first winery visit of our 14th anniversary wine country trip, and it was a magnificent way to kick it off. Four jewels of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio in one place. We were greeted with sweeping views of the valley, the heady perfume of fermenting grapes and a squadron of seven wines in formation in an elegant great room reserved just for us. Our host, Kristen, kept us smiling with wit, charm and insightful stories.

Carpenter, a former football star at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, earned his master’s degree in the Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis. He started at as the enologist at Cardinale in 1998, became assistant winemaker in 1999 and was promoted to winemaker in 2001. Kristen described him as a “master of the mountains” coaxing expression of the terroir from the various appellations of Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Mt. Veeder and Spring Mountain.

We stuck our noses deep into our glasses to find out what she meant.

First up, we taste the 2010 Mt. Brave Merlot. This wine tugged at our heart-strings a bit as the Mt. Brave winery, named in deference to the Wappo Indians, “the brave ones”, who were the original inhabitants the area on Mt. Veeder, is the former property of Chateau Potelle, a winery we visited on our honeymoon 14 years earlier. Carpenter created a velvety, dark wine with ripe blueberry, plum and black cherry flavors brought to life with a pop of acidity. There were only 200 cases of this wine produced and it’s sold on allocation for $75 a bottle.

Next we tried 2010 La Jota Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard was first established in 1898 and is one of the oldest vineyards in the area. The cool climate and volcanic soil mixed with granite and chalk produce an approachable wine. This Bordeaux style blend of Cab and Merlot has powerful blackberry, cassis and fennel flavors on a backbone of soft tannins. It’s available for $75 a bottle.

On to the Lokoya. It was quite a treat to taste all four mountain wines side-by-side. These wines let Carpenter showcase the distinct characteristics of the fruit from each mountain. His approach is, “don’t mess with the fruit from the mountain to the bottle.”  Less than 500 cases are made of these wines and they are sold on allocation.

2010 Lokoya Diamond Mountain, as the name suggests, is made with 100 percent cabernet grown on Diamond Mountain, just north of Spring Mountain in the Mayacamas Mountains. With vineyards reaching to 400 feet in elevation, the vines planted in volcanic soil get plenty of sunshine. This wine starts with a big wet kiss of blackberry and black currant with undertones of tart cranberry. The fruit is punctuated with vanilla and anise. It runs $250 a bottle.

2010 Lokoya Spring Mountain is made in one of the coolest and wettest districts of Napa Valley with significant influence from coastal currents. The cool weather and elevation make an elegant yet intense wine with plenty of floral scent mingled in layers of fruit. Its blackberry, blueberry and plum flavors are draped with violet and lush chocolate flavors. It is velvety smooth with soft tannins. It will dent the wallet at $350 a bottle.

2010 Lokoya Howell Mountain is one big, bold wine. With grapes grown way up in the 1,400 to 2,200 feet in elevation range, they get the cold night air and direct sun tempered with plenty of fog. The Howell Mountain is brawny with blackberries, plum, chocolate, fennel and baking spices. It’s a damn fine California cab. It will set you back $350 a bottle.

2010 Lokoya Mt. Veeder is planted on the steep slopes allowing for the sun to ripen it above the fog. Elegant with rich fruit layered on stout minerals, it is a stunner. Blackberries play with leather, black currant frolics with cedar and spicy licorice. As intense and brooding as Brando, this wine is $350 a bottle.

Our final sip of the morning was the 2010 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon. Cardinale Estate was established in the late 1980s and purchased by Jackson Family Wines in the 1990s. Less than 1,000 cases are made of this blend of cab grapes from all four Napa mountain appellations — Mt. Veeder, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Diamond Mountain. It’s concentrated with ripe fruit and firm tannin. Fragrant rose petal layers onto blackberry, blueberry, vanilla and stone. It has a smooth lingering finish that begs for a steak. It runs $250 a bottle.

I can’t say that I had a favorite among them. That’s like picking your favorite child. I was smitten with the setting, the experience and each of the wines. We left with a selection of various wines to cellar and to uncork on anniversaries to relive memories of this anniversary.

You should go here. Cardinale Estate is in the heart of the Oakville District, 7600 St Helena Highway. Wine tastings are available by appointment only, so call ahead: 707-948-2643.

Disclosure: we were provided with complimentary tasting arranged by the Jackson Family Wines PR team (normal tasting fee is $50). We purchased bottles of wine at full price.

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Exclusive reds and fine champagnes: Big Reds and Bubbles returns for tenth annual fete

Lamarca ProseccoAustinites love a good party, and Thursday, for the tenth year, hundreds of people will pack into the Driskill Hotel to sip some of the world’s finest champagne and exclusive red wines at Big Reds & Bubbles hosted by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

At this year’s annual fête, Nov. 8, guests will be greeted with a glass of bubbly served by the bubble girls, wearing little more than strategically placed bubbles. Who could ask for a better way to start a party?

“There is no other wine event like this in town,” says the foundation’s president-elect, Mark Shilling. “Big Reds and Bubbles is elegant and festive, it’s held in a beautiful location, it has high-caliber wines and incredible food that reflects Austin’s foodie movement. Let’s face it — it’s your gateway party to the holiday season. People get dressed to impress for Big Reds and Bubbles and that sets the tone for the cooler weather parties.”

The star of the show is definitely the wine. “Big Reds is a good way to experience several wines in an approachable, non-snooty way,” Shilling says.

Suzanne and Matt McGinnis  Big Reds & Bubbles Well, there is a little touch of snooty wine drinking. The event starts off with a sold-out, private VIP pre-party hosted by June Rodil, Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Best New Sommelier in 2011, featuring 10 big reds and sparkling wines. Rodil will describe the highly sought after wines and then give her recommendations on the must-have wines poured at the rest of the event.

Don’t worry if you didn’t get a VIP ticket, there will be plenty of excellent wine for us. Principle sponsor Glazer’s is arranging for approximately 130 wines from 60 producers to be poured at the party.

“Glazer’s is deeply involved in and committed to the food and wine industry in Texas,” said Stephen Hansen, portfolio marketing manager of Glazer’s Texas Fine Wine Division. “Our commitment aligns well with the Foundation’s mission of improving the wine and food community with education and scholarships. Food and wine are inextricably linked and are absolutely essential to our culture, to who we are. Big Reds and Bubbles is an excellent way to experience the culture of food and wine.”

Bryce Gilmore and Jack Gilmore Big Reds & BubblesThe “big” will shine through in glasses of California Cabernets like Miner Oracle, Chappellet Mountain Cuvee and Sterling Vineyards Platinum. Well known wines like Beaulieu Vineyards will be poured next to wineries that are new to the event, like Donati Family, Lange Winery and Gerard Bertrand.

Bubbly conversations always flow better with a flute of champagne. This year’s bubbles come from stand-out wines from Louis Roederer, Laurent Perrier and Beau Joie as well as a phenomenal selection of Prosecco from producers like Montesel, Nino Franco, La Marca, and Cava from Juve y Camps and Segura Viudas.

20 of Austin’s acclaimed chefs will serve inventive nibbles to pair with all of those fantastic wines. I’m looking forward to trying a preview of Bridget Dunlap’s new place, Mettle. Another new joint serving up the goods is Guests LaV Austin, which will be opened by Chef Allison Jenkins in fall of 2013. There will be plenty of good eats from the likes of The Carillon, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Barley Swine, Max’s Wine Dive, Noble Pig, Wink and Swift’s Attic.

Chef Brad Sorenson

Returning as emcee this year is Chef Brad Sorenson of The Next Food Network Star fame. He’ll give us the inside scope on his soon to open Nova Kitchen & Bar on Rainey Street, while rallying the crowd to spend big on the silent auction. He’ll have plenty to sell with desirable auction items like a three liter bottle of Miner Family Wines The Oracle 2007, three cases of exquisite Spanish wines and a private tasting for 10 at the Red Room Lounge hosted by Advanced Sommelier, Bill Elsey.

Proceeds from the event benefit The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas’s education and scholarships which promote excellence in the culinary and viticulture arts.

Tickets for the event are available online for the price of $85 for foundation members and $100 for the general public. The Foundation reports that ticket sales are ahead of schedule and they expect the event to sell out with 400 people in attendance. 

This article was previously published on CultureMap.

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Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery delivers quality without the elevated price

A friend of mine was serving Shannon Ridge Chardonnay at his holiday party. When I asked him why he chose it, he said, “I was looking for a Chardonnay with a traditional Napa Valley style, but without the Napa Valley price. The guy at the wine shop steered me to this Lake County wine.” 

That’s exactly what Clay Shannon, founder of Shannon Ridge Vineyards and Winery, had in mind when he bought land in Lake County just north of Napa Valley – quality without the elevated price. The high elevation and cooler climate big are ideal for growing big tannic grapes like Cab and Zin. The well-drained, rich soils full of potash, calcium and good potassium levels allow the fruit to get ripe. Equally as important, the steep sloped vineyards were didn’t come with the king’s-ransom price tags of their Napa cousins.   

Clay grew up in wine country in Healdsburg, CA. He got into the grape growing business right out of high school and established a solid business. He eventually sold his farming business to Sutter Home Winery in 1985 and worked there until 1993. He learned a on the job, growing grapes all over California. After a short and lucrative stint as an almond farmer, Clay was beckoned by the siren’s song of the grapes to return to the wine industry to start Shannon Ridge with his wife in 1995.

In the beginning, he was growing Petite Sirah and Cabernet in the red soil of Lake County and selling the grapes in long term contracts to big wineries such as Beringer Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery, and others. He started making small amounts of wine with winemaker Marco de Julio in 2002 and got the feel for it. In 2003, as he talked to his young children about their future, he realized he wanted a more stable financial business and decided to go full bore into the wine making business. Fast forward a hand-full of years and Shannon Ridge is now producing around 100,000 cases of wine a year.  

He embraced the challenge of transitioning from vineyard management to being a winery owner and relished the learning. “As a grower for other wineries the incentive is to grow tonnage. When making wine, the importance of yield on quality is more important. You have to focus on the quality of crop management: pull leaves, let the grapes hang the proper amount of time and don’t over crop it. It makes a huge difference in the quality of the wine.” His biggest learning, “If the wine is priced right and it tastes good, people will buy it.”  

For the Shannons, quality is rooted in sustainability. A corner-stone of the Shannon Ridge approach to sustainability is a heard of about 1,000 head of sheep that roam the vineyards. These wooly compost machines sanitize the vineyards by eating the leaves dropped, grapes missed and the weeds. With sheep hard at work, the Shannons eliminated the use of systemic types of herbicide and reduced the fungicide program. They also take the straw from the lambing barns and use it for mulch under the vines. To complete the cycle they sell grass-fed lamb to the local restaurants that buy the wine.   

Shannon Ridge makes a wide selection of wines such as Petite Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Barbera. The diversity of varietals is a vestige of planting vineyards under contract for other wineries. It’s also allowed Clay to experiment to see what worked best. Cabernet, Chardonnay and Petite Sirah are the top sellers, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Wrangler Red, which is a fun blend of Zin, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Tempranillo.  

I tasted my way through the “Ranch Collection” line-up, enjoying the whole batch. In the cooler months I tend to drink more red than white wine, and opted to share my tasting notes for the Shannon Ridge reds.

2009 Shannon Ridge Petite Sirah Lake County

The grapes are sourced from the family’s High Valley Vineyards in Lake County. It is fermented in stainless steel and barrel aged in a mix of French and American Oak. This is the winery’s signature wine. The grapes grow particularly well in Lake County producing a wine with deep color, firm tannins and plenty of fruit.

Look The first thing I said when I pour the wine into the decanter was “Whoa, look at that color.” It splashed down the sides like liquid grape jelly; deep, vivacious and jolly royal purple as opaque as the last breath of sunset before the night goes black.
Smell The Petite Sirah has bouncy aromas of baked blueberry pie and flaky pie crust with spiced roasted beats and vanilla.  
Taste The bold blueberry, currant and vanilla flavors are balanced with firm tannins. The fruit coats the tongue in a velvet robe and the tannins grip the lips and teeth in a warm embrace. This wine pairs well with lamb, like the grass and grape fed woolies that roam the Shannon Ridge vineyards.
Price $ 24

 

2009 Shannon Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County

 The grapes for the Lake County Cab are grown in High Valley and Red Hills appellation vineyards. They use extended maceration to get the darkest color possible and then age the wine in a mix of French and American Oak.

Look This Cab is deep plum purple with some translucence.  
Smell It has a rich nose of blackberry, black cherry and baking spices.    
Taste Jammy blueberry, stewed plums and fig with baking chocolate flavors meld with plenty of tannins that punctuate each sip. The smooth texture holds for a long finish the eases from berry to bitter. This is a steak-lovers wine. It has the pop to marry with a fat ribeye.
Price $19  

 

2009 Shannon Ridge Merlot North Coast

Merlot grapes grown in Lake and Mendocino counties are blended with small counts of Cab (9%) and Barbera (6%) for vibrant color and flavors.

Look This is eye popping eggplant and ruby gleaming in the glass.
Smell Full scents of cassis, black currant, pomegranate and cedar greet the nose.  
Taste Shannon Ridge makes a pleasant, easy-drinking and food-friendly Merlot with buoyant berry, black cherry flavors and a touch of bitterness. It has mild tannin on the finish and a smooth mouthfeel. A great wine for a cool night, roasted root vegetables and pork tenderloin.
Price $19  

 

2009 Shannon Ridge Zinfandel

 Zin is well suited for the cooler climates of Lake County. Much of the Zinfandel that Shannon Ridge grows is used in the Wrangler Red, but Clay selects some of the best fruit and blends it with 7% of Petite Sirah to make a little more than 2,000 cases of this Lake County Zin.

Look Dark garnet color foreshadows the richness of this wine.
Smell It has opulent fragrances of fig, tart cranberry, black pepper and dusty cedar bark.
Taste This is a fairly traditional California Zin with big, jammy raspberry, cola, pepper and tobacco flavors. It’s perfect with pizza, pasta or just with a conversation.
Price $19

 

Clay’s favorite wine and food pairings are as humble as his beginnings. “I’m a deluxe hamburger guy, and I love it with our Wrangler Red. It’s fun wine with good tannins and structure, but simple enough to drink it with a hamburger. I also our single vineyard cab and our Viognier with lamb loin chops seared with salt and pepper.” That sounds damn good to me.

If you want to try Shannon Ridge wines with your favorite meals or at your holiday parties, call your local wine shop or order online. Shannon Ridge wines are available widely throughout most U.S. states including Texas. I purchased Wrangler Red (not reviewed here) at Specs in Austin.

Shannon Ridge Vineyard and Winery provided samples of the wine for review through its PR agency, Balzac Communications.

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The holidays are upon us: A fantastic kickoff with Big Reds & Bubbles

You know what makes a kick-ass party? A soirée where you are greeted by a gorgeous lady dressed in an elaborate champagne-laden dress. A bash attended by lots happy people in festive clothing.  A bacchanalian festival with an absurdly huge selection of prestigious wines and delectable treats from 19 of Austin’s hottest chefs. That’s exactly the kind of party 350 people went to last night at the sold-out Big Reds & Bubbles held at the Driskill.

Big Reds & Bubbles is not only a party; it’s also a fundraiser for the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, with dollars coming from ticket and silent auction. Sound like a perfect way to raise money. Get a bunch of wine aficionados and foodies lubricated with the good stuff and tempt them with the opportunity to “win” really nice wines like 1955 Bordeaux, 2000 vintage Dom Pérignon champagne, 3L and 5L large format bottles and cult wines and let the check books bleed.

Marshall Jones, Executive Director, looking suave as hell in a black velvet jacket, casually tells me the Foundation puts the money to good use. They pay out the fattest culinary scholarship and largest dedicated pastry scholarship in the country. In addition to that, the Foundation is the leading underwriter of the TexSom beverage conference. Spreading the fertilizer to grow the next crop of brilliant chefs and sommeliers is an august cause.

Big Reds is all about connecting people with the chefs and sommeliers that create fine dining experiences. Jones and foundation members know that great wine and food is dependent on a vibrant community. To get the event started on that path, they held a VIP tasting of four rosé champagnes hosted by Master Sommeliers, Craig Collins and Guy Stout. John Antonelli of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop described the cheeses paired with each wine. You can’t ask for a better educational experience.

There were plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with the culinary elite. Celebrity Chef, Brad Sorenson, provided a bit of comic relief as the MC. He comes across as a young and handsome version of Conan O’Brien with his boisterous personality and tall, lanky form. Brad caught the eye of the Wine & Food Foundation when he was a contestant on season 6 of The Next Food Network Star and Chopped! He is getting more involved in the Austin culinary scene and was visibly excited to talk about his plans to open Nova Bar on Rainey street in April 2012. The two-story, 100-seat eatery will present an elevated take on bar food. Everything will be done from scratch, including the inventive cocktails created with loving care by mixologist, JC Rodriguez.  At Big Reds he drew attention to some gems from A-list chefs and stand-out wines like the father and son duo Jack Allen Kitchen Executive Chef, Jack Gilmore, and Barley Swine Chef, Bryce Gilmore.

It turns out the Foundation has been throwing this bash every year for nine years. Big Reds & Bubbles got its start as way to kick off the holidays. Since the start Glazer’s has partnered with the Foundation to introduce its stand-out wines like 2008 Nickel & Nickel Cabernet, 2007 Chateau Montelena and 2008 Dunn Vineyards to average Joes. If you ask this average Joe, it’s a fantastic way to ring in the holiday bender season.

So who was out sipping bubbles and red wine from 85 different wineries? It was a great mix of wine industry types, like Master Sommelier Craig Collins, Pedernales Cellars President, Fredrik Osterberg, Foundation board members and lots of people eager to have a great time. Here is a selection of some of the pretty faces in the crowd.

Me with Marshall Jones, Wine & Food Foundation Executive Director

 

Lamarca Prosecco Lady starts things off

 

Celebrity Chef Brad Sorenson
Barley Swine chef, Bryce Gilmore with his dad Jack Allen Kitchen chef Jack Gilmore

 

 

11. Scott Ota, Advanced Sommelier for the Driskill Grill, Bill Elsey, TexSom Texas Best Sommelier 2011 and Craig Collins, Master Sommelier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paulina Tavera and Mark Bergeron
Dominique and Will Douglas
Steve Tipton, Wine & Food Foundation President and Michael Russel, Foundation Board Member.

 

 

 

 

Me with the gorgeous Jennifer Grathwohl, Foundation Events Director
Jane Rash, Rob Reynolds, Carol Willis and Shae Anami
Lauren Bridges and Wim Rouwet

 

This article also appears on CultureMap Austin, without the funky formatting problems.

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Fall Creek Vineyard Bets Big on Texas Wine

 “This isn’t an easy business. It takes a tremendous amount of work and skill. Its’ also a big gamble.”
Ed Auler’s words bounced around in my head. I had just driven about two hours from Austin to visit with him at his winery, Fall Creek Vineyards. On the way I’d passed dry river beds, scorched fields and groves and groves of sun-seared trees dying by the dozens; all victims of the most severe single-year drought in Texas history and the hottest summer ever recorded in the United States. “It’s also a big gamble.” The weather this year makes me wonder why anyone would gamble with producing wine in Texas.
Ed Auler, founder, Fall Creek Vineyards

 If it weren’t for Ed Auler, perhaps no one would bother trying to make wine here. He’s one of the Texas wine industry pioneers that paved the way.

In the early 1970s the Auler family had been in cattle ranching for five generations. At the time the cattle business was going south. Ed thought about growing pecans and peaches as an alternative. Then the crazy notion of growing grapes to produce wine came up. He didn’t know much about wine, but his wife, Susan, who knew a little more encouraged him to take a trip to Europe to learn more about wine. Once in Europe they realized there were a lot of similarities with various wine regions and the growing conditions in Texas.

When they returned, Ed and Susan planted an experimental vineyard to test it. It worked well, so they doubled down and bought more land on the north west shore of Lake Buchanan where the prevailing breeze cools the air quickly at night. Grapes love hot days and cool nights. The sandstone and limestone rich soil in the area is transported from the High Plains of Texas by the Colorado River and is reminiscent of the premier soils in wine regions in Europe. It was a good location to gamble on making wine.  

They planted the vineyards in 1975 and opened the winery in 1979. It was only the second winery in Texas closely following Llano Estacado Winery which opened in 1978. The early days were challenging with trial-and-error in the vineyard. The Aulers experimented with grapes looking for the varietals that thrived. At one point they grew 25 varietals on the property. It was lonely in the early days without a community of wine makers to turn to for advice. It was a big gamble. 

In 1990 Mother Nature had a Royal Flush and blew a catastrophic freeze into the Fall Creek vineyards. The only thing that survived was the Chenin Blanc vines. The Aulers weren’t about to give up. They replanted the vineyards with new trellising and other varietals. Not long after, they were dealt another blow when Pierce’s Disease sucked the life out of the vines. This set-back triggered Fall Creek to source grapes from other suppliers while they replanted the vineyard. Rather than betting everything on their own grapes a third time, they put a program together that spread the chips to other vineyards around the state to minimize risk.

Now Fall Creek vineyards are planted with Black Spanish Lenoir, a neutral blending grape, and they buy grapes on long-term contract such as Chenin Blanc from Mesa Vineyards in Pecos County and Tempranillo from Salt Lick Vineyard south west of Austin.

Ed and Susan Auler learned about wine in Europe and acquired a European taste for wine. The climate at Fall Creek is like Rioja in Spain. The climate at Fall Creek is like Southern France. It is also like Mendoza in Argentina, yet its own region with a style all its own. They employed Burgundian wine-making techniques in pursuit of the European taste profile. To further hone their technique, they called on renowned winemaker André Tchelistcheff as a wine consultant. Tchelistcheff is credited with creating a Napa style for Cabernet while working at Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) and he brought some of that “new world” flair to Fall Creek. The Fall Creek wines respond well to new world technology such as cold fermentation and precision processes.

One of Tchelistcheff’s influences is his encouragement of the Bordeaux blend, Meritus. He tasted the wine and really liked it. Tchelistcheff encouraged the Aulers to set aside Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Bordeaux varieties and give them white kid glove treatment to make a special wine. Don’t let the grapes get too hot. Don’t let the skins stay on too long. Age the wine in oak barrels and leave it alone. This is the advice Fall Creek has followed since the 1980s. Meritus is only made in the years that it works out well. Fall Creek won’t bottle it unless very pleased and feel it’s worth it. “This is Texas. Texas weather can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Some years we can make Meritus, some years we can’t.”

 Making high-end wine satisfies part of the market, but there is also significant demand for every-day drinkers. To quench that thirst, Fall Creek makes a fruit forward Merlot and Granite Reserve Cabernet, both easy drinking red wines at affordable prices. They also introduced two value lines: Twin Springs Winery and Mission San Antonio de Valero. The Twin Springs Sweet Red, Sweet White, Sweet Blush and the off-dry Merlot-based, Ed’s Smooth Red, all sell very well.  

The gamble on Texas wine has paid off. In the beginning Fall Creek produced 250 cases. They planned to be a 25,000 case winery someday.  Now they are making 55,000 cases a year and splitting at the seams. They installed a new bottling line new can handle 2000 cases a day and have even more expansion plans.

The Aulers will sell their line of sweet wines out of state. The acceptance of the Twin Springs and Mission San Antonio de Valero second lines will determine how big they grow.

Ed Auler poured a line-up of wines for me to try and lovingly described each one.

2010 Vintage Chardonnay Texas

Fall Creek treats its Chardonnay to cold fermentation and retain the character of the fruit. It sees a little time in oak to round it out, without over powering the fruit and goes through partial malolactic fermentation for a richer texture. This crisp and refreshing wine would pair well with anything from deli sandwiches to grilled sea bass.  

Look Light golden with good clarity.
Smell The Chardonnay has tropical scents of pineapple and honey.  
Taste This is a light style Chard with fresh honeydew, green apple and citrus flavors. It has a nice balance of fruit and acidity with a smooth mouthfeel. The clean finish is neither buttery, nor over-oaked.   
Price $12

 

2010 Fall Creek Vineyards Chenin Blanc, Texas

It turns out Ed doesn’t personally care for dry Chenin Blanc, but the University of Texas asked if he would produce experimental grapes. He agreed to grow Chenin Blanc. To achieve a hint of sweetness, fermentation is stopped leaving 2 percent residual sugar. It is then fine filtered and gets a kiss of oak. This is a “perfect wine for people that like to talk dry and drink sweet.” It pairs well with spicy food like Thai and Cajun cuisine.

Look The sunny flaxen wine has good viscosity and clings to the glass.
Smell The Fall Creek Chenin Blanc has a playful nose of cotton candy, honey suckle and toast.
Taste Fruity pear and nectarine flambé greet the palate, followed by toasted marshmallow on the finish. It goes down smooth.
Price
$8
 
Ed’s Smooth Red
Here is a wine for people who don’t take wine too seriously. It’s fun and easy drinking. Its best served slightly chilled, but not as cold as you might pour white wine. It’s a fine accompaniment to Texas BBQ and Tex-Mex food.
  

Look An inviting ruby red glimmering in the glass.
Smell A burst of berry scents greet the sniffer with a touch of oakiness.
Taste Ed is slightly sweet and tastes like a smoky blueberry tart.
Price $10

 

2009 Fall Creek Vineyards Tempranillo, “Salt Lick Vineyards” Texas Hill Country

The grapes for the Fall Creek Tempranillo are grown by Scott Roberts at the Salt Lick Vineyard in Driftwood, Texas. The climate is similar to Rioja, Spain and the grapes are doing very well in Texas. The production is limited, so this wine is only available in the tasting room and in a few select restaurants in Austin. Jansen Roberts said it perfectly – “Perfect wine for people that want more body than a Pinot Noir and less than a Cabernet.” 

Look Bright garnet with a deep red center like a king’s velvet robe.
Smell It has a rich fragrance of smoked plum and raspberry.
Taste The Fall Creek Tempranillo is lush with cherry, blackberry and nutmeg with a long finish. Delicious. I was impressed with this wine and wanted more. Fortunately Ed sent me home with the rest of the bottle to share with Beautiful Wife.
Price
$30 available in tasting room in very limited quantities
 
2006 Meritus
The crown jewel of the Fall Creek line-up is made from 74 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot and 1 percent Syrah. The award winning wine can stare down the thickest Texas steak with grace and finesse. 

 

Look The Meritus is brick red with burnt sienna in the glass.
Smell The nose is full of sweet black cherry, vanilla, rhubarb and oak.
Taste This is a big wine with cassis, blackberry, tobacco and chocolate. It has a good balance of tannins and a long oaky finish. It has the underpinnings of traditional Bordeaux with a little new world punch.
Price
$40
 

The wines are getting national attention and the business is doing well, but is it worth the gamble? Ed Auler reports that making wine in Texas is very satisfying. “This is not a widget. It’s something you put yourself in and put your signature on. It’s a combination of working with mind and hands like being a plumber, electrician, chemist, physicist, accountant, PR, and lawyer at the same time. The moments that bring satisfaction are when I know people enjoy my wine.”

 That sounds like a winning bet.

 Fall Creek Vineyards provided samples of the wines for review.  In addition, Fall Creek was a sponsor of my 2011 Mellow Yellow Benefit with proceeds supporting the Lance Armstrong Foundation to continue its fight against cancer.

This article also appears on CultureMap Austin.

 

Charles Krug Winery, a Family Affair

What are your favorite childhood memories? Do they have anything to do with your current job? In a conversation with Peter Mondavi, Jr., co-proprietor of Charles Krug Winery, he reminisced about doing odd jobs around the winery in the mid-60s when he was 8 years old. His grandmother lived on the property, and after a long morning of work Peter would come home to her house to a lunch feast of homemade pasta, roasted chicken and other delights. He also remembers celebrating Easter at the winery with his cousins. One year they held an Easter egg hunt in the bottling line because it was raining outside. During the following days, unfound eggs turned up in cases of wine and in other unexpected places. 

Fond family memories have turned into celebrated family accomplishments. California Governor Jerry Brown has proclaimed September 10 “Charles Krug Winery Day.” This isn’t because Gov. Brown is angling for a free tasting and a private tour of the venerable winery. No, it’s in honor of the 150th anniversary of the starting point for Napa Valley wine and the advances that Founder Charles Krug and later, Peter Mondavi Sr., have brought to the industry. They’ll celebrate the proclamation and the anniversary with a big bash on the winery lawn, pouring library wine for guests on Saturday, September 10.

Founded in 1861, Charles Krug Winery is the first commercial winery in Napa Valley. The Mondavi family has owned it since 1943 when Cesare and Rosa Mondavi bought it and took it out of the post-prohibition moth balls. Peter Mondavi Sr. has been at the helm since 1966, a year after a nasty spat with his brother Robert Mondavi led to his departure from Charles Krug to found his own winery down the road. Peter Sr., who will turn 97 in November, still comes to work every day, but he has turned over the day-to-day operation to Peter Jr. and his brother Marc. Now some of the fourth generation Mondavis are joining the party.   

In an era of when the wine industry is dominated by corporations consolidating smaller holdings, the independent family winery has gone the way of the cassette tape. The way of life is slowly eroding away. How do the Mondavis continue to succeed as a family venture? Peter tells me, “It’s in our blood. We love it. It’s a wonderful lifestyle. I love wine-making and everything that goes around it: The great people, the great food. Having a legacy of family is important. Maintaining a family winery ownership is a priority over all else. It’s a priority over profits and everything.”

A sesquicentennial celebration is a great indication that the blood line commitments are working.

One of the fun things they are doing to celebrate the 150th anniversary is a search for the oldest bottle of Charles Krug wine. One of the oldest bottles submitted on the winery Facebook page is from 1947. Can you imagine what one of the pre-prohibition, pre-Mondavi wines might taste like? Back then Napa Valley was dominated by different varietals like Muscatel and other sweet wines. The original grapes were mission grapes, and not Bordeaux blends despite the significant European influence, of pioneers such as Charles Krug and Gustave Niebaum.

Not only have the varietals evolved, but so have the technology of wine production and the viticulture. Krug was an innovator in 1861, introducing a cider press to crush grapes instead of crushing with feet. Peter Mondavi Sr. pioneered temperature controlled fermentation that is now a standard. He also introduced the first barrel aging in Napa in 1968. The vineyards root stock has changed dramatically, with vines tailored for specific soils and micro-climates. In addition, vine density has increased three-fold and pruning techniques have improved.

More recently the winery has undergone a significant refurbishment of the buildings. The historic Carriage House was restored and the Redwood Cellar, built in 1872, now holds the reserve barrel aging in a temperature controlled environment. They built whole new winery with smaller barrel fermentation and a temperature controlled environment to enhance fermentation. Charles Krug also brought in new grape presses from Switzerland to get the finest juice possible. The multi-million dollar renovation of the historic properties and the introduction of new technology shows a commitment to legacy and to continued quality improvements. 

Charles Krug Winery produces three lines of wine – the Napa Valley and Carneros Appellation Wines, the Family Reserve and the Limited Release – using six varietals. Within that line-up, Cabernet Sauvignon is the mainstay. The 2008 Cabernet Napa Valley is blended to achieve a good balance of moderate alcohol, fruit and tannins. The Mondavis strive for food friendly wines that don’t over power and are subservient to the food.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

Look It is a glimmering jewel in the glass. Opaque garnet, with a bright heart and brick red at the edges. Slowly stretching legs cling to the glass with silky viscosity.  
Smell The ’08 Cabernet is has lush scents of blackberry, plum, anise and smoky cedar.  
Taste Velvety black cassis and blueberry coat the mouth followed by bitter dark chocolate and firm tannins. It has a smooth, long finish of stewed plum, charcoal and tobacco
Price $27

 

I also tried the Merlot. Charles Krug blends 79% Merlot with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and ages it for 20 months in French oak to achieve a quintessential California Merlot style. 

2008 Merlot Napa Valley

Look It is a polished aubergine shining with opaque mystery and depth.   
Smell The 2008 Merlot has a lively scent of black cherry, ripe plum and spiced chocolates.
Taste Its like a big mouthful of blackberry jam and violet blossoms, balanced with a touch of minerals and a smooth smoky, persistent finish.  
Price $24

 

Peter Mondavi Jr.’s favorite way to enjoy a glass of Charles Krug wine is with family and good friends while sharing a great meal. That’s exactly how I enjoyed these two wines. Open a bottle or two with your friends.  

What happens after “Charles Krug Winery Day” and the big anniversary bash on September 10? Peter Jr. plans for continued success with the winery as a family business. Staying an independent, family winery is paramount. He hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for quite some time yet to come. I’ll raise a glass to those honorable goals, and to the prestigious honor from Gov. Brown. Cheers.

Charles Krug Winery provided samples of both wines for review. Photos provided by the winery.

What are you drinking?