Our Anniversary Trip to California Wine Country, Returning to the Scene of the Crime

Art at Cliff Lede WineryFourteen years ago Beautiful Wife and I said our “I Dos” among the grape vines at a winery nestled in the Sierra Foothills in California. What a great way to start your lives together surrounded by family, friends and the scent of grapes beginning to ferment in the heat of October harvest.

The California wine country holds an irresistible draw for us for a lot of reasons in a large part because we got married there, but there is more to it. The confluence of wine, art and an incredible culinary scene add to its allure for us. Oh the epicurean bliss.

The siren song has drawn us to Napa, Sonoma, Alexander and Anderson Valleys along with Amador County, Mendocino and other wine regions several times since our wedding. We’ve learned a few things about visiting the wine country such as:

  • Only visit two to three vineyards a day so you have plenty of time to enjoy them. It also reduces the likelihood of getting too drunk to drive to the next place.
  • If you visit more than three wineries, never join the wine club at the last winery of the day.
  • Call ahead to arrange visits at wineries rather than visiting the places with open tasting rooms. You’ll have smaller crowds and get to learn more about the winery and its wines.
  • Always buy wine from the wineries where you have scheduled an appointment. Honor the time and effort they made to meet you.
  • Don’t limit your California wine country travels to just Napa Valley. There are several excellent wine regions throughout the state.
  • When visiting Napa, avoid the crowds by visiting the wineries on Silverado Trail rather than Highway 29.
  • Book reservations at fantastic restaurants well in advance.
  • Relax. Soak your cares away in a traditional mud bath in Calistoga.

We were fortunate enough to spend our 14th wedding anniversary back in California during harvest this year. Coming up will be a series of blog posts recapping some of the places we visited:

Let me know where you like to go in California and what your experiences have been.

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Wine and a Movie

What wine goes best with Marilyn Monroe? Would you pick something sumptuous and velvety to pair with her bold personality and vivacious curves? Or would you juxtapose a crisp, acidic wine with good minerality for contrast? Lucky for you, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema will do the work for you in its Sommelier Cinema.

What: a screening of the classic comedy The Seven Year Itch, staring Ms. Monroe, hosted by wine seller Eric Pelegrin. Mr. Pelegrin has paired four wines to be served during the movie along with a selection of cheeses from Antonelli’s Cheese Shop.

Where: Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, 320 E 6th Street, Austin, TX

When: Wednesday, August 3, 2011, 7pm

How much: $26. Buy your tickets here.

This sounds like a blast. How can you pass up hearing about four great wines from an expert followed by a classic film?

If you like this edition of Sommelier Cinema, you’ll certainly like the screening on Wednesday, October 5. I’ll be your guest host pairing wine with another fantastic film. Come out and cheer or jeer me – well at least drink with me.

What are you drinking?

A Great Way to Learn about Texas Wine: Austin Wine & Music Festival

If you are like me, you have at some point cast a doubtful eye on a bottle of wine from Texas. There is no way it can be as good as something for the same price from France, Spain or even California. I’ve tasted a few that I wouldn’t give to an enemy. Even so, I’ve been hearing a lot about the quality improvements in Texas wine and have been encouraged to give it a fresh look. And so I’ve tried a few, and I really liked them.

The Austin Wine and Music Festival, which will be held on May 28-29, is a great way to explore Texas wines. Taste your way through a wide selection of wines from light and fruity whites to big, bold reds. There will be 30 wineries pouring four wines each, representing about 90 varietals. With that many wines, I’m bound to find a bunch that I will like.  

The Festival is known for its gracious crowd that embraces newbies, sangria drinkers and oenophiles alike.   It was created for Hill Country wineries in 2007 and has evolved a bit over the past few years. This year, six wineries – Driftwood Estate Winery, Dry Comal Creek Vineyards, Flat Creek Estate, Becker Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards and Stone House Vineyards – are hosting the event with an emphasis on all things local; wine, music with 10 bands and artisans. The goal of the event is simple: learn about and enjoy Texas wine for a day or two over Memorial Day weekend in a festive setting with a laid back vibe. Not only can you learn experientially, but the winemakers from each winey will be on hand to share their passion for Texas wines and answer our questions.  

  • When: May 28-29, 2011
  • Where: The backyard of the Domain, 11410 Century Oaks Terrace, Austin, TX 78758
  • How much: 1-Day Pass $35.00 (online) $40.00 (at the gate), 2-Day Pass $65.00
  • If you go: Visit the website for parking information. It will probably get hot, so stay hydrated by drinking water in between glasses of wine. You won’t be able to see it all in one day, so plan your strategy accordingly. Kids are welcome, but there will be no designated kids area or activities.

This event was my excuse to learn a little bit about Texas wine and for me to start drinking more of it. I’m eager to try them and write about them. Lucky for me the excellent Festival organizers and PR people gave me a little primer.

The post-prohibition wine industry in Texas got started in 1972 by pioneering wineries Llano Estacado Winery in the High Plains and Fall Creek Vineyards in the Hill Country.  Texas is now the fifth largest wine producing state after California, Washington, New York and Oregon. A vast majority of the wine made here – around 95% – is drank right here in Texas. Texans love to support the home team and to drink local.

If you’ve driven around the Hill Country, you’ve seen several vineyards and wineries outside of Fredericksburg. This seems like the epicenter of the state’s wine industry. In fact, the Texas Hill Country AVA (American Viticultural Area or growing area) is second largest in the country by area. However half of the grapes grown here are grown in the High Plains near Lubbock at about 3,500 ft. elevation. At that elevation, it’s hot in the day and cool in the evening. Whether it’s in the hot Hill Country or the more temperate High Plains, the big name grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay don’t fare well. In the past few years many growers have increased their acreage under vine and have shifted their focus to Mediterranean style grapes that are more suitable to the climate. Grapes like Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Albariño, Vermentino, Roussanne and Viognier grow better in Texas and make better wine.

OK, I’m in. I’m going to drink more Texas wine and write about it. Help me out. If you have favorite Texas wines, please recommend them. What should I try?

What are you drinking?

Sharing the Passion for the Perfect Pairing: Somms Under Fire

She leaned in close with a gleam in her eye and confided her plan in a conspiratorial tone. “But you can’t write that before the event.” Conversation topics bubbled up, over-lapped and blended like a complex cocktail, like a well-orchestrated mix tape. Exquisite wines flowed with the conversation and became integral to the conversation. We shared stories about wines and learned from each other. This is a pretty typical thing among friends. The only thing anomalous about this is that we had just met.

Diane Dixon, founder of Keeper Collection, an online resource for food, wine and travel, and her husband Earl invited Beautiful Wife and me to their home to tell us about their upcoming food and wine event called Somms Under Fire. The Dixons are passionate about sharing tips on enjoying all things culinary and have made it their lives work.

Thank god for people like the Dixons that love to share knowledge about wine. Let’s face it; wine can be a daunting subject to both newcomers and seasoned pros alike. There are thousands of brands, dozens of varietals and blends and the complexity grows exponentially when attempting to pair wine well with food. Sure the old rules of white with chicken and red with meat can be a good starting point, but sheesh things can go nuts from there.

I’m a fairly savvy wine buyer, but I always seek advice from friends that know wine, from trusted wine merchants and definitely from sommeliers. I’m excited to go to the inaugural Somms Under Fire, because it’s all about introducing people to brilliant sommeliers and to show off expert food and wine pairings.

The event takes place on May 1, 2011 at the W Austin with food from its signature restaurant, Trace. The event challenges Scott Barber, Centennial Fine Wine and Spirits in Dallas, Chris McFall, Paggi House, and June Rodil, Congress Austin to make impeccable pairings from food that is not on their own menus and wines that aren’t on their lists. They’ll hear the wine and food choices at the same time the audience does and will have to perform under pressure in front of a panel of international celebrity food and wine judges. The judges, Drew Hendricks, Peter Wasserman and Matt Reiser will score the somms and the audience also gets to pick their favorite. Now that’s under fire.

This is a perfect venue to show off their passion for food and wine and to demystify what sommeliers do for a living. Their entire purpose is to enhance our dining experience. What better way to understand the value of a sommelier than to see them make decisions on the fly in a completely neutral setting?  What could be better than watching three pros compete to match the complex flavors of exquisite cuisine with the perfect wines and then eating and drinking the results?

If you want to see this for yourself, you can get tickets here.

This is the third event from Keep Collection. Diane and team created Chefs Under Fire two years ago pitting Iron Chef contestants against each other. This year they introduced the Wine Ride with five sommeliers competing to match wine and food at various locations around town. And now Somms Under Fire. Each of these events mirror the Dixons’ passion to share epicurean knowledge and experiences in inventive, fun and friendly settings. Keep Collection also hosts Somms Chat each Wednesday on Twitter and Facebook, where sommeliers answer questions about wine. I got my Easter wine selection idea from last week’s chat with Drew Hendricks. Like  food and wine, friendship also goes well with wine. The Dixons have a knack for building relationships as they spread their knowledge.

There are a lots of ways to learn about wine. What influences your decisions for wine and food purchases and pairings? Friends? Blogs? Wine Merchants? Sommeliers? Share with me, because I’m still learning.

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Wine Tasting is for Snobs

The whole concept of a wine tasting sounds forced and stuffy. When you hear the term, don’t ya just picture a bunch of pretentious snots trying to out-do each other with pompous descriptions like, “I detect herbaceous notes,” and “the musky, mushroom mid-palette speaks to the terroir,” and other such nonsense?  

 Why does it have to be so complicated? Why can’t we just enjoy drinking the wine? Of course I’m going to taste it when I drink it. Do I have to call it a tasting?

 OK, so I don’t wear an ascot, but I do like a wine tasting. Surprise. A genuine wine tasting is a great way to find new wines, explore the true characteristics of a wine in a semi-structured way, have fun with friends and. . . it doesn’t have to be affected. I actually go through the whole tasting process in my head when I’m trying a new wine at home, so why not do it with a bunch of fun people?

So I did. I led a wine tasting for a group of friends to share experiences of three Italian wines. We took a casual approach to our tasting and figured picking wines from one country is enough without needing to get extremely specific the varietal. This was our Nordstrom Rack tasting – you know, same great label at a discount price. I selected wines from producers that make prestigious wines and also affordable, anytime drinkin wines. We had a 2006 Masi Campofiorin, a 2008 Rosso Di Montalcino and a 2008 Langhe Nebbiolo.

We used tasting sheets to guide our assessment of each wine on the basics: look, smell and taste. We checked out the color and clarity. We swirled and sniffed to describe the nose, complexity and intensity of the aroma. And finally we drank them making sure to trill and chew the wines to get the full flavor. We rated their complexity, texture and weight, balance and the duration of the finish. Here is a summary of our tasting.

Masi Campofiorin

This is our budget Amarone. It’s a really interesting Valpolicella wine from the in the Veneto region in Northern Italy. It’s made through a cool process of introducing a second fermentation by pouring the over dried Amarone grape skins. This gives it more heft and a bigger aroma.

Look Warm and lush, deep red like a bruise on Sophia Loren’s thigh.
Smell Black cherries drying on a rustic wood bench.
Taste The swagger of Sylvester Stallone in Rocky I with bold cherry and a hint of tobacco. The affable beginning gave way to moody tawny port with a mid-length spicy finish.
Price $13.75

 Rosso di Montalcino

This Tuscan made with Sangiovese grapes is a running mate of the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino. It’s from the same vineyards and same Denominazione di Origine Controllata designation. The difference is that it is turned out of the house at a younger age, while the Brunello lays around on the couch eating mom and dad’s food for a few more years. Less aging means its less set in its ways and costs less for us to buy.

Look As brick red as that brick house we all know and love.  
Smell Violets and spice spiked with a friendly wink of alcohol.
Taste Vivacious, medium curvy build yet tight enough to remind you of your youth. This one hands over a blackberry to be bitten off vine and lets the flavor linger for a long time.
Price $22.50

Langhe Nebbiolo  

I previously reviewed this wine and you can read about it here.

The favorite of the night? The Rosso di Montalcino. The consensus was that it was a more complex and enjoyable wine than the other two. The runner up with a nod to the great price was the Masi Campofiorin. I’ll buy all three of them again.

What about you? Are you turned off by a wine tasting? Or do you want to try it and you’re not quite sure how to go about it. Give me a shout, I’m happy to come over and guide you through it with a group of friends. 

The wines we tasted were purchased at Austin Wine Merchant.

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