You Really Need to be Drinking Vermouth Right Now

Alessio Vermouth Bianco
Alessio Vermouth Bianco

Why drink vermouth?

Vermouth is a light, refreshing drink that is perfect to sip during summer. It has depth and complexity that make it a delight to drink on its own, and make it an intriguing ingredient in excellent cocktails.

How do I drink vermouth?

Let’s burn down the tired trope that vermouth is only for old ladies, or only a mixer for cocktails. It’s true that vermouth is great in a lot of fantastic classic cocktails like the Negroni (Happy Negroni Week!), the Martini, and the Manhattan, but it is delicious all on its own. It was originally made to serve straight as an apéritif or a digestif. That’s exactly how you should drink it this summer.

Chill it. Pour it. Drink it.

If you want vermouth in a “cocktail” without the fuss, pour it on ice and serve it with an orange twist. Or add a little soda water to it.

Let’s get started. Go into your liquor cabinet and fish out that dusty, half-empty bottle of vermouth and throw it away. Now run out and grab a new bottle of fresh vermouth and make it a go-to drink for the summer.

What is vermouth?

The reason you should throw away a perfectly good bottle of vermouth that is half full is because vermouth is made with wine. You would never drink a glass of wine after leaving an open bottle sitting around for a few months, would you? It loses its flavor and gets oxidized. Vermouth lasts a little bit longer than normal wine, because its fortified with spirits to stabilize it. Once open, keep vermouth in the fridge and it will retain its flavor for about three weeks. Consider buying 350 ml bottles if you don’t want to waste any.

Vermouth gets its distinct flavor because the wine is flavored with the Artemisia herb, aka wormwood, the main flavoring ingredient in absinthe. Each type of vermouth has its own blend of other aromatic herbs in a range of dry to sweet styles.

Which vermouth should I drink?

Vermouth has grown popularity in the U.S. in recent years, making it easier to find high-quality brands at bars, restaurants, and shops. A few good brands to look for include Primitivo Quiles and Yzaguirre from Spain; Dolin and Nouilly Prat from France; and Carpano, Carpano Antica, Cinzano, and Cocchi from Italy.

Alessio Vermouths from Tempus Fugit Spirits

Lately I’ve been diggin’ Alessio Vermouths made in Italy. This family of vermouths from the Tempus Fugit Spirits company are fairly new to Texas, but incredibly easy to find at most wine shops and good bars around the state.

Started in 2001 by Peter Schaff in Europe and John Troia in California, Tempus Fugit Spirits is all about recreating historic recipes for classic spirits and liqueurs. Schaff developed a fondness for absinthe during many visits to Paris for business. After the re-legalization of absinthe in the U.S. in 2007, Schaff and Troia started working on absinthe recipes in Europe. They created Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe and grew the portfolio from it to include Amari, such as Gran Classico Bitter, liqueurs, and the Alessio Vermouths.

Recently the brand ambassador for Tempus Fugit took me on a tour of the company’s vermouth.

Alessio Vermouth Bianco

Alessio Rosita Cocktail
Alessio Rosita Cocktail

 

This sweet white Italian vermouth just landed in Austin in time for summer sipping. It is made with fortified white wine base in a similar style to the original vermouth blanc from Chambéry, France, where Dolin is made, but with a higher thujone levels from the wormwood. Made in Piedmont, Italy, it has lively citrus and grapefruit, sweet spices, mild bitterness and a lovely sweetness on the finish. Kick back with this “Vino di Moda” (fashion wine) chilled in a white wine glass or mixed in classic cocktail. It has 18% ABV and sells for about $23 for a 750 ml.

We had it in a version of the Rosita Cocktail:

  • 2 ounces tequila
  • 1 ounce Alessio Vermouth Bianco
  • 1 ounce Gran Classic Bitter

Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso

Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso
Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso

 

Made with a classic di Torino recipe from the late 19th century, this vermouth is made with Trebbiano wine from the Piedmont region of Italy, and both Grande and Petite Wormwood grown in Piedmont as the main bittering agents, along with more than 25 herbs, roots and spices. Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso is created with an elaborate production method to create extractions of various roots and herbs like cardamom, coriander and cassia cinnamon. It is absolutely delicious on its own with bright citrus, complex herbal flavors, fig, Christmas cake, and a fun balance of sweet and bitter. Enjoy this “Vino di Lusso” (luxury wine) on its own or with a splash of soda. The 17% ABV sells for about $24 for 750 ml.

Alessio Vermouth Chinato

Alessio Vermouth Chinato
Alessio Vermouth Chinato

 

This vermouth is made with the same 19th century recipe, the same wine base, the same 25 other herbs, including Grande and Petite Wormwood, but it differs in that it also has the addition of Cinchona bark. Cinchona is bitter source of quinine, and the same bittering agent that was used in the original Kina Lillet and also in Cocchi Americano. It gives Alessio Vermouth Chinato a super complex flavor with bright lemon, sweet caramelized almonds, chocolate, cola nut, and raisin flavors. It’s great in any cocktail that calls for sweet vermouth. I prefer to sip this vermouth straight with hard cheeses. It’s amazing. The 16.5% ABV vermouth sells for around $25 for a 750 ml.

Alessio Vino Chinato

Alessio Vino Chinato

Vermouth made from red wine is relatively rare, but that is exactly what we have with Alessio Vino Chinato. It is made with Nebbiolo d’Alba grapes grown in the Piedmont region of Italy, Cinchona bark, but no Wormwood. What does it taste like? Think of an amazing Barolo with firm tannin, and bold red and black fruit flavors, and then add a dollop of sweetness, herbal flavors, and bitterness. This is an elegant aperitif sipper before a meal, or as a digestif with a bit of dark chocolate after dinner. It is new to Austin in the past month, so go about and grab a bottle for about $30.

Make vermouth your go to drink this summer.

Disclosure: I was provided with samples for review at no charge.

What are you drinking?

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?

Sneak peek at Barley Swine’s new location and big boozey additions

This December, Barley Swine will open a new location at 6555 Burnet Rd. The move from its South Lamar home, where it’s been for the past five years, not only gives the restaurant triple the size for up to 80 guests, but also the opportunity to add booze to its beverage program.

John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine
John Michael Williams and Kristy Sanchez of Barley Swine

 

Until the new location opens, Barley Swine will keep a focus on beer and wine, but the move to Burnet brings an inventive cocktail menu under the direction of General Manager John Michael Williams. With a full bar at his disposal, Williams is concocting seasonally focused cocktails made with ingredients from local farms. He’ll use those fresh bits to create his own vinegars, shrubs, syrups, tonics, and sodas.

Williams has a strong food and beverage pedigree. After graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) with a concentration in wine and spirits, he completed the CIA advanced wine and beverage certification as well as the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) level II sommelier certification. He has honed his skills at renowned gastronomic destinations like Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and Blackberry Farm in Tennessee.

“Our new cocktail program is part of the evolution of Barley Swine,” says Williams. “We’ll take a cue from the culinary direction from our executive chef and owner, Bryce Gilmore, to have a focus on making seasonal drinks with house-made ingredients. I’m working on recipes for our own velvet falernum syrup for Tiki drinks, a house-made vermouth, and 10 varieties of bitters. We’ll make cocktails that are fun and approachable.”

Robert Stevens will join the Barley Swine team as the new bar manager from Blackberry Farm. He’ll select the tight lineup of high-quality craft spirits for the 10-seat bar. You won’t see big-name booze brands like Grey Goose either. Stevens will use those spirits to make barrel-age cocktails like a mezcal Manhattan with house-made vermouth.

In addition to delectable drinks, Barley Swine is rolling out a completely new creation: edible cocktails. There will be a tasting menu of one bite amuse-bouche with alcohol: Imagine a Negroni as a fruit roll-up rather than a cocktail.

Luckily, Barley Swine won’t move away from its excellent selection of craft beers.

“Beer is always a huge focus for us, especially with our gastro pub tasting menu format, which allows for pairing of beers,” says Williams. “There are so many great breweries in Austin, which lets us pour lots of local beers. We’ll have 12 taps and several bottled and canned beers. Seventy percent of our total beer list will be local. We’ll have bombers from Adelbert’s Brewery and Jester King, and we’ll have Blue Owl and Strange Land on tap.”

The wine list is getting a boost too. Wine buyer, Kristy Sanchez, who has been at Barley Swine since the beginning, is excited to bring in more wines from small boutique vineyards and more natural and biodynamic wines. The wine list is constantly changing to offer selections that pair with Gilmore’s ever-evolving menu. Now the list will expand to include 40 wines by the bottle, split bottles options, and 14 white and 18 red wines by the glass.

Beer and wine at Barley Swine
Beer and wine at Barley Swine

“I’m excited about the versatility we’ll have with the wine list,” says Sanchez. “We’ll have more space to carry a full spectrum of wines to pair with the chef’s tasting menu and a la carte menu. We’ll have higher end bottles and affordable wines that are great at happy hour. We have some really hard to find wines like the Teutonic Wine Company Traubenwerkzeug Quarryview Vineyard pinot noir — there are only six bottles of it in Texas — and Boundary Breaks riesling from Finger Lakes region of New York.”

The new Barley Swine will still have happy hour every Monday through Friday from 5:30 to 6:30 pm with new a la carte items, hand-crafted cocktails, wine for $7, and $3 beers.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I was provided complimentary sips and nibbles at Barley Swine during this interview. 

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Williams and Sanchez of Barley Swine

Cupcakes and whiskey for Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a perfect excuse to tell mom how important she is to you. What better way of doing that than with sweet and fiery treats? This year, give her a bottle of whiskey and cupcakes made with whiskey!

Clyde Mays Whiskey Cupcakes

Clyde May’s Whiskey is working with bravenewbaker to create delicious cupcake recipes using the whiskey. The idea is to showcase the hints of green apple and cinnamon in the “Alabama Style” whiskey that come from the addition of oven-dried apples in the aging barrels. You know what? They’re pretty damn good.

Here’s the recipe.

Clyde May’s Cinnamon & Honey Cupcakes

  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • .5 teaspoon salt
  • .5 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • .75 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350. Line muffin tins with cupcake liners. Whisk flour, baking powder, cinnamon and salt together in a bowl and set aside. Blend together with a mixer the butter and sugar on medium high speed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl between each addition. Add vanilla. Alternately add flour and milk, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stop mixing as soon as the flour has disappeared. Scoop the batter into the liners 3/4 full. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Let ’em cool a bit. While still warm, poke holes in the top of cupcakes with a fork. Hold cupcake upside down and dip the dome into whiskey glaze (recipe below). Frost when completely cool.

Whiskey Glaze

  • .25 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp Clyde May’s Whiskey
  • 1 shot of Clyde May’s Whiskey to enjoy while baking

Whisk together all ingredients (except that shot that you’re drinkin’). Set aside until needed.

Whiskey Frosting

  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 3 tbsp Clyde May’s Whiskey
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 4-5 cups powdered sugar
  • Another shot of whiskey

Cream butter until light and fluffy. Add 4 cups powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time. Add the vanilla and Clyde May’s Whiskey, combine. Add honey and whip at medium high speed until light and fluffy. Add 1 additional cup of powdered sugar, if needed to achieve preferred consistency. Using a large icing tip, pipe the frosting onto cupcakes.

These make a great dessert for mom. If you really love her, you’ll make a cocktail to go with her cupcakes. Try this.

Orchard Smash

  • 2 ounces Clyde May’s Whiskey
  • 2 dashes apple bitters
  • .75 ounce ginger syrup
  • .75 ounce lemon juice

Combine ingredients. Shake, strain and pour over ice. Garnish with mint leaves and candied ginger.

Disclosure: Clyde May’s provided me with whiskey samples and recipes. Brave New Baker provided me with cupcake samples.

What are you drinking? 

The perfect holiday gifts for cocktail lovers

The best holiday gifts are the gifts that keep on giving. If you want the perfect gift for a friend or loved one who loves cocktails as much as you, give them this craft cocktail gift set. Its two gifts in one: they’ll love you for it and you stand a good chance of having them make you cocktails for the next year.

These indispensable happy hour implements were selected by a guy who knows his way around a bar:  Scranton Twohey, the owner of the east side cocktail mecca, Whisler’s. Twohey claims these five necessities for the home bar will only set you back about $75 for the whole shebang and all of them are available at cocktailkingdom.com.

1.       Hoffman Bar SpoonBar Spoon (1)

Spirits driven drinks should be stirred, not shaken. This spoon has a classic look and the spiraled neck makes it easy to grip. The Hoffman is available in silver, copper & even gold plated. $19.95

2.       Silicone 2×2 inch Ice Cube TraysIce Cube Tray

Big ice cubes have less surface area and melt slower than small cubes, so your drink doesn’t get watered down. Spherical cubes might be fun, but when two-inch ice cubes are all you need. $6.95

3.       Natural Wood MuddlerMuddler

Muddlers are vital for crushing herbs like mint to make mojitos and mint juleps. When shopping for a muddler make sure it’s long enough to reach to the bottom of your tallest glass. $10.95

4.       Leopold jiggerJigger

Just like with baking, creating the perfect cocktail requires precise measurement. Besides the unique vintage design, this jigger has measurements marked on the inside for more accurate pouring. Measurements include 1oz, 1/2oz, 3/4 oz, 1 1Ž2 oz and 2 oz. $18.95

5.       Set of two Koriko Weighted Shaker TinsSet of Koriko Shakers

Shakers are a must have for any home bar. With a great stainless steel style, these tins also seal together well, so there are no leaks when making cocktails  $16.90

If you would rather buy your tools in person, Twohey also recommends local stores Serve Gourmet, Metier Cooks Supply and Breed & Co for finding bar essentials.

If you need a demonstration first, you can always see these bar tools in action at Whisler’s. Try the Fall/Winter menu featuring 12 new cocktails like:

Eastside Queen

Eastside Queen  

  • 1.5 oz Vodka
  • .75 oz Cranberry-Rosemary Syrup
  • .75 oz Lemon

Shaken and served up in a chilled coupe. Garnish with rosemary sprig.

I Yam What I Yam

I Yam What I Yam 

  • 1.5 oz Butter-Infused Rum
  • .5 oz Milletti Amaro
  • 1 oz Sweet Potato Shrub
  • 2 dashes of walnut bitters & 1 dash bitters

Shaken and strained over ice in an old-fashioned glass.  Garnish with toasted marshmallow.

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October, the Month for Merlot #MerlotMe

Long a favorite red wine grape, Merlot has recently been seen as a lesser variety. A wine for unsophisticated beginners. There are several reasons why public favor for anything swings, but many point to the 2004 movie, Sideways, as a source of misfortunes for Merlot.

In the film the snotty oenophile, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, famously derides Merlot favoring Pinot Noir as a more elegant variety.  The result of this ridicule is known as the “Sideways Effect” that caused a decrease in both price and sales volume of Merlot wines.

The inside joke is at the end of the movie he furtively slips a bottle of a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from a brown paper bag. This storied Bordeaux wine is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Sneaky Miles.

Whether Hollywood has anything to do with the dip in popularity or not, several wine producers have banded together to promote the variety with a #MerlotMe tasting and social media promotion throughout the month of October. In Austin, The Red Room Lounge is hosting a tasting on Thursday, October 9.

Screw Miles. I love Merlot. It is the noble grape that is a cornerstone of Bordeaux wines, one of the world’s most prestigious wine regions. It also grows well and makes fantastic wine in prominent regions around the world. I couldn’t help jump on the bandwagon with wines from two participating wineries; Matanzas Creek Winery and Freemark Abbey.

Matanzas Creek 2011 Merlot, Sonoma County

Matanzas Creek 2011 Merlot Sonoma County

The cool growing year in Sonoma produced a deep garnet colored wine with plenty of depth. Matanzas Creek Merlot is blended with small doses of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It’s aged in French and American oak barrels for 15 months.

This is easy, breezy Sonoma County in a glass. Herbal scents of thyme and tomato stem intertwine with dark fruit aromas like black plum. Ripe blackberry, blueberry and cranberry cuddle with cocoa, coffee and fennel flavors. The soft tannins make it as smooth as a velvet smoking jacket.

Matanzas Creek is just as at home in the dining room as it is on the back porch. Enjoy it for $28 a bottle.

Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot, Napa Valley

Freemark Abbey 2012 Merlot Napa Valley

This rich and seductive red is made with fruit grown in five vineyards around Napa Valley; some high elevation and some lover in the valley. It is made with a blend of Merlot (85%) and lesser amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and a smidge of Malbec. It’s aged in French and American oak for 14 months.

This is a dark and brooding wine that will keep secrets from you. Secrets that will last until your last glass. The spicy scents lush with blackberry, blueberry and plum are true to the flavors of black cherry, blueberry and chocolate. It has an earthiness to balance the fruit and enough acidity to give it a spring in its step. Despite the powerful 14.5% alcohol, it doesn’t feel hot.

The secret revealed in your final sips? You should have bought a second bottle. It will set you back $34 a pop.

California Merlots are elegant without being fussy. They are relatively versatile with food and can dress up pizza or burgers, and can also play well with a fat steak.

Disclosure: I was provided samples of both wines by Jackson Family Wines.

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10th Annual TEXSOM Highlights

TEXSOM

Its like Christmas in August, or, summer camp for wine pros. The tenth anniversary of the Texas Sommelier Conference, AKA TEXSOM, held at the Four Seasons Hotel Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas drew 900 sommeliers and wine enthusiasts to participate in educational seminars, wine tastings and tons of fun networking.

This year  39 Master Sommeliers, 10 Certified Wine Educators and six Masters of Wine presented 23 seminars on beverage topics. Highlights for me included:

  • A panel exploring lesser-known regions of the United States that are making bad-ass wines presented by Sally Mohr MS, Guy Stout MS, Paul Lukacs, Wayne Belding MS, Marguerite Thomas, Kathy Morgan MS, moderated by Alfonso Cevola CSW. The Colorado Syrah and Texas wines stood out for me.
  • A fun session tasting of Napa Valley wines led by Master of Wine Peter Marks who did it Jeopardy style.
  • A tasting of the ridiculously delicious, but impossible to get wines of Portugal led by Master Sommeliers Devon Broglie and Keith Goldston.
  • An incredibly enlightening session on the most dynamic producers in Chile and Argentina presented by Craig Collins MS and Peter Neptune MS, AIWS, CWE.
  • A seminar and tasting on the Italian sparkling wine region Franciacorta led by Charles Curtis MW and Michael Franz, editor of Wine Review Online.
  • And the pièce de résistance, a retrospective tasting of ’75, ’77, ”80, ’87, ’91, ’97, ’05 and 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon from Chappellet Winery with Frederick L. Dame MS, Jay James MS, and Cyril Chappellet. Crazy good wines.

The whole thing is capped off with a Grand Tasting sponsored by the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas where the winner of the Texas’s Best Sommelier Competition is announced. Here are a few images from the Grand Tasting.

My favorite part of the event is talking with Texas winemakers and wine pros from around the world before and after the sessions. Enjoy the images of this spectacular conference.

Disclosure: I was provided a media pass to attend this conference at no charge.

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Texas Fine Wine intends to pour its way into the hearts of Sommeliers at 10TH anniversary TEXSOM

TEXAS Wine at TEXSOM

It’s always hard to overcome negative perceptions. The Texas wine industry has that problem. Despite several years of massive quality improvements that have brought home trophies and medals in prestigious competitions, Texas wine is still roundly seen as sub-par. One bad experience years ago could cause a wine lover to turn their nose up at all Texas wine.

A group of Texas wine makers is out to change that perception with a united effort to let consumers and wine experts taste just how good Texas wines are. Texas Fine Wine will co-host with Texas Monthly a hospitality suite on Sunday, August 10, at TEXSOM, the world’s largest education conference for wine professionals. The group, whose members include Bending Branch WineryBrennan VineyardsDuchman Family Winery and Pedernales Cellars, hopes to let sommeliers taste the quality for themselves. Texas Fine Wine will also pour wines for guests attending the August 11 Grand Tasting.

Fredrik Österberg Perdenales Cellars“Our focus is to bring more attention to fine wines made in Texas that can be found on the wine lists of some of the best restaurants and wine stores in the state,” says Fredrik Osterberg, co-owner of Pedernales Cellars. “We are truly grateful for the outpouring of support from the sommelier community for our wines. Sponsoring TEXSOM is one way for us to recognize the support of that community.”

Texas Fine Wine is a privately funded marketing initiative led by group of Texas wineries dedicated to producing quality wines sourced from Texas appellation vineyards. This group has held special wine tasting events and for the second year will woo some of the world’s best sommeliers at TEXSOM. The backing of Texas Monthly magazine certainly helps raise the group’s profile.

“Texas Monthly is sponsoring a hospitality suite along with Texas Fine Wines as a continuation of the magazine’s involvement with TEXSOM last year,” says Jessica Dupuy, Texas Monthly wine columnist. “Each of the wineries showcased at the suite had wines selected in the 2013 list of Texas Monthly’s Best Texas Wines. There will also be a few other wineries spotlighted from this list at the conference’s Monday evening Grand Tasting including McPherson Cellars, Spicewood Vineyards, and William Chris Vineyards. We continue to see great strides in the quality of Texas wines and this is a perfect opportunity to share these wines with a national community of influential wine professionals.”

Jessica Dupuy Texas Monthly

Check out this fat list of awards amassed by Texas Fine Wine wineries in the past few years:

Brennan Vineyards

  • Gold, 2010 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Newburg Vineyard, 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
  • Gold, 2011 Tempranillo, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
  • Gold, 2011 Tempranillo, 2014 Dallas Morning News/TEXSOM Competition
  • Gold, W Winemakers Choice NV, 2014 Riverside International Wine Competition

Bending Branch Winery

  • Gold, 2011 Texas Tannat, 2014 Dallas Morning News/TEXSOM Competition
  • Top Texas Wine (Class Champion and Double Gold), 2011 Tannat, Estate Grown, Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
  • Double Gold,  2011 Tannat-CM, Estate Grown, Appellation America’s Best of Appellation Awards
  • Double Gold-, 2011 Tempranillo, Newsom Vineyards, Appellation America’s Best of Appellation Awards
  • Double Gold, 2012 Picpoul Blanc, Estate Grown, Appellation America’s Best of Appellation Awards
  • Gold, 2011 Mourvedre, Reddy Vineyards, Appellation America’s Best of Appellation Awards

 Duchman Family Winery

  • Gold, 2011 Aglianico, Oswald Vineyard, 2014 San Francisco International Wine Competition
  • Gold, 2011 Sangiovese, Reddy Vineyard, 2014 Dallas Morning News/TEXSOM Competition
  • Gold, 2011 Sangiovese, Martin Vineyard, 2014 Dallas Morning News/TEXSOM Competition
  • Gold, 2011 Tempranillo, Bayer Vineyard, 2014 Lone Star International Wine Competition

 Pedernales Cellars

  • Double Gold, 2012 Tempranillo Reserve, 2014 San Francisco International Wine Competition
  •  Gold, 2011 Texas Tempranillo, 2014 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition
  • Gold and Best in Class, 2010 High Plains Tempranillo, 2014 International East Meets West Wine Challenge
  • Gold, 2012 Texas GSM, 2014 International East Meets West Wine Challenge
  •  Gold, 2012 George Bush 25th Anniversary Reserve Texas Tempranillo, 2014 International East Meets West Wine Challenge

 

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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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