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


  • 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


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

Texas Watermelon MojitoWatermelon Mojito


  • 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


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.


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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Roark Wine Company: A one-man wine (minimalist) empire

In college I wanted to emulate the minimalism of Jack Kerouac in On The Road, sleeping on a rice mat and being able to carry everything I owned in a rucksack. His philosophy sounded so profound when he explained, “everything belongs to me because i am poor”. I romanticized the ideal of stripping away material trappings to focus on the present. Nothing to interfere with the here and now. Well, except for maybe some Benzedrine.

That’s sort of the way Ryan Roark approaches making wine. His minimalistic winemaking philosophy is to let the land and the fruit speak for themselves.  “I work hard to bring the grapes to the winery on the right day, at the best possible time. That way there is no need to mess with the grapes.” While he’s not a strict adherent to natural wine making, he uses neutral yeast and avoids acid or water additions to let the wine reflect the terroir. I bet he doesn’t even go for the occasional dose of Benzedrine.

Roark, a native Texan, studied environmental science at Texas A&M. From there he entered a study abroad program in France, learning about grape growing, the aesthetics of wine and did a viticulture internship where he learned the ropes in vineyard and cellar work at a small family winery. His experience working with a family that managed every aspect of the business from the farming, to winemaking to sales and marketing shaped his approach to the wine industry in a profound way.

After an internship at Etude in Napa and another in New Zealand, Roark moved to Santa Barbara where he wound up at a vineyard management company. Working the fields helped him uncover a forgotten jewel. He found Chenin Blanc grapes in vineyards planted in the 1960s, and decided to purchase the grapes to make about 60 cases of his own wine at a friend’s winery.

Roark Wines world headquarters

That small batch was the first step toward becoming a winemaker. Patterning his approach after the family wineries in France, Roark is farming an acre of his own. He picks the grapes, makes the wine, hand bottles the wine and sells it all by mail order all on his own. He is a one-man show and doesn’t even have a website or the assistance of marketing, PR or distributors to help him move his wine. He relies completely on word of mouth.

In 2010 he rented a 1,000 square foot building and equipment to make his wine. His adherence to simplicity even extends to his facilities. He goes so far as to use old school winemaking basket press and whole cluster fermentation. And he lives in the winery, sleeping enveloped in soft blankets of grape aromas to stain his dreams. Minimalism lets him cut out all the extra costs and keep his wines affordable.

Letting the grapes show what they have with minimal intervention means that Roark is really at the whim of Mother Nature. There was a lot of variability in the vineyard where he’s harvesting. In 2009 he had ripe grapes with plenty of sugar that produced Chenin Blanc with riper, rounder mouthfeel and slightly higher alcohol. He made 100 cases and it sold very quickly.

In 2010 the sugar was lower and the acidity shines through with citrus flavors. Roark says 2010 is typical of the style he wants to make. He is shooting for wine that is similar to Vouvray from the Loire Valley, punctuated with bright acidity and mineral characters to pair well with fresh vegetables, grilled seafood.

How does it taste? Bill Elsey, sommelier and specialist of wine and spirits for the Red Room Lounge and WINES.com, and I opened the 2009 and 2010. Here is what we thought.

2009 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc

Look Light gold with great clarity. The ’09 is slightly deeper in color than the 2010 with a copper tinge.
Smell It has aromas of dried leaves, grass and mild lemon zest. The scents are skin driven not like fresh fruit and shows good characteristics of Chenin Blanc.
Taste This approachable wine has springy citrus, bright acidity and is slightly floral. The middle palate has a honey suckle, cotton candy fading to peach pit. The alcohol is zippy on the tongue giving way to a quick finish. It’s a dry style lacking the hefty residual sugar found in some Chenin Blancs in the U.S.
Price $15

2010 Santa Ynez Valley Chenin Blanc 

Look Shimmering light gold with crystal clarity.
Smell This guy is as herbaceous as a fat sack of weed or a basket of Cascade hops. After the kind bud scent, it has a stony mineral backbone and citrus. It’s less aromatic than the ’09.
Taste The 2010 has full frontal citrus that carries through the palette. The citrus dominates as a single note without a lot of variation. It has lively acidity with an under-current of minerality, which is just what Roark is gunning for.
Price $15

Bill’s read? “I wouldn’t have thought these were new world wines. They definitely have an old world aesthetic.”

My read? He hit the mark in 2009, making a wine that resembled one you would find from Loire. However, 2010 lacked the complexity that made 2009 enjoyable. It’s still a decent wine that would be satisfying on a hot summer day.

Roark also started making Malbec in 2010 with grapes grown in the hottest part of the Santa Barbara County, Happy Canyon. He may be the only person in the area making Malbec. Right before he picked, there was an unusually hot spell which ripened the grapes quickly. The resulting juice lacked the acidity he wanted, so Roark purchased under ripe Cabernet Franc grapes to blend in to boost the acidity as it’s done in the Loire Valley. He just released this wine in March 2012 and is confident he’ll sell out the limited production of 60 cases.

I got my hands on a pre-release bottle that was labeled with duct tape. Nice minimalist touch that I’m sure Kerouac would approve of.

2010 Malbec Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara 

Look Opaque midnight purple with fat grapey edges and lush viscosity.
Smell It has aromas of spicy blackberry and funky back woods fruit hanging on the vine late into the chill fall.
Taste The 2010 has powerful fruit showing grape, blueberry and plum flavors, with red licorice intertwined. The gripping tannins cling through a slightly smoky, persistent finish. This is an easy drinking – “gulp-able” even – Malbec that would pair well with Texas BBQ and stout meat.
Price $25

Elsey liked it just fine. He said, “This is varietally correct. It’s like what I get from Argentina with no oak influence, the alcohol is balanced with bright acidity. Fresh.”

Roark is also farming an acre vineyard to make Syrah and Grenache. He’s interested in making a blend that is very acidic and light in style. In the 2011 harvest he picked the grapes and fermented them separately, and blended them to bring out the desired characteristics.

2010 Grenache 60%/ Syrah 40% Santa Ynez Valley Santa Barbara County

Look The wine shows amethyst purple with ruby edges. It has some clarity, but is almost opaque.
Smell It’s a fragrant wine with red fruit, raspberry, white pepper spiciness and lavender scents that blossomed over time.
Taste Roark’s Rhone style blend has flavors of plum and tobacco with bright acidity good tannins. The oak doesn’t get in the way of the fruit. I poured a second glass of this one.
Price To be determined when it is available for sale.

Roark can’t fit everything he owns in a rucksack and he’s soon going to have more to stuff. He has development plans to plant another two or three acres over the next year or two. He plans to build his to 1,000 to 2,000 cases a year. That minimalist philosophy runs deep though. He’ll stay small and keep selling direct by mail order and to local restaurants and shops. He hopes to build group of devoted fans over time.

If you want to get your grubby mitts on some of this wine, you’ve got to figure out how the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service works and mail order it. Roark takes orders and checks at:  Roark Wine Company, PO Box 1833, Santa Ynez, CA  93460.


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Get Naked: 2009 Big House Unchained Naked Chardonnay

There’s nothing better than going naked, particularly if you’re unrestrained. That’s the attitude of Big House Unchained Naked Chardonnay. As the label suggests, this wine is as carefree as a bare-ass romp through the vineyard. 

Naked, or unoaked, Chardonnay is made by fermenting and aging the wine in stainless steel tanks rather than in oak barrels. It’s not a new practice, but one that is picking up steam over the past few years in New World wines as consumer tastes are changing.

Chardonnay made in the Chablis region of France typically exhibits tart acidity because it is traditionally aged in stainless steel to let the terrior shine through. Conversely, it’s a common practice in the rest of the Burgundy region, where the climate is cool, to age Chardonnay in oak barrels. The grapes typically don’t get extremely ripe, which means they produce lower sugar levels and therefore lower alcohol levels, resulting in acidic wine. Aging in oak smooths out the acidity and gives the wine a bit more complexity.

The hotter climates in California and Australia means Chardonnay grapes ripen more, producing higher sugar and, yeah you guessed it, higher alcohol. Aging these less acidic wines in oak means they take on more of the oaky, spicy characteristics of the wood. In addition many wine makers do a secondary, malolactic fermentation, which gives Chardonnay that buttery taste. California Chards, and by extension the entire varietal, has earned a reputation for being a big, flabby, oaky, buttery wine that tastes nothing like the clean, fruity grape that it’s made from.

In recent years, the rise in popularity of flirty, crisp, fruity, unoaked wines like Italian Pinot Grigio, Spanish Albariño, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Austrian Gruner Veltliner have made Chardonnay the ugly kid at the dance. Preference for unadulterated wines is surging. Chardonnay producers in California and elsewhere are responding by embracing au natural wines. 

Big House Winery in Soledad, CA takes the starkers approach to Chardonnay. I spoke with winemaker Georgetta Dane – or The Warden as she’s called the company’s prison themed materials – to learn more about their Naked Chardonnay.

The 2009 vintage is the first year Big House has made a Chardonnay. Georgetta wanted to try it and see how it is received. So far it has received good feedback. She wanted to make a different style of Chardonnay – a wine that never sees oak or malolactic fermentation, a wine that lets just the beauty of the grape shine through. During harvest Georgetta select grapes from various appellations, namely Monterey county and Paso Robles. Grapes from these areas make very different wines because of their particular terriors. Wine made from grapes grown in Monterey are very citrusy with apple flavors and higher acidity. Paso Robles warmer so Chardonnay made from grapes grown their tastes of pineapple and tropical fruit.

Georgetta approaches wine making like blending essential oils to make perfume. She wants base, middle and top notes on the nose and palette. To achieve that in the Unchained Naked Chardonnay, she uses not only grapes from different regions of California, but also different yeasts on each lot to enhance flavors. In the tasting room she dives into blending with passion; looking for base notes of citrus, middle tropical flavors and for the top note, she blends in a bit of Gewürztraminer or Viognier for a hint of sweetness. She hit the mark. Here’s what it’s like.

2009 Big House Unchained Naked Chardonnay

Unchained Naked Chardonnay
Look Unchained Naked Chardonnay is pale daffodil yellow, lively and clear.
Smell It has a fresh lemon, papaya and slate nose. It’s aromatic, but not overly powerful.
Taste This fruit-forward wine tastes of apple, honeydew, pear and mango. It has a slight heft to the body, like light and dry syrup from canned peaches. If I tried this in a blind tasting, I would have mistaken it for a Viognier. It certainly doesn’t taste like a traditional, oaked California Chard. It also doesn’t taste like its tart, crisp French cousin Chablis, with less acidity.  
Price $9.99 for a 750mL or $22 3L box “wine cask”


I asked Georgetta her favorite place to drink this wine and she had a great response. “The wine is so food friendly and pairs well with anything. I like to pair it with sunny afternoons. I drink it outside by itself, with no food, but with friends. Enjoying wine is so much about whom you enjoy it with and the occasion.”  I couldn’t agree with her more.   

At 10 bucks a bottle or $22 for a 4 bottle box of wine, this is the kind of wine you can pack in a cooler and take out on the boat, on a picnic or to a backyard BBQ. Go ahead, get naked.  

The wine sample reviewed was provided by Big House Wine Company, sent by Folsom & Associates.

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When you just feel like paying a lot for a glass of wine: Crú Wine Bar

Do you ever go to the car dealership to get your oil changed? You figure they sell your particular car, so they should know the most about them. Right? Shouldn’t the dealer be able to tell you exactly what you need to do to maintain your car better than just a generalist mechanic? So what if it costs $20 more for an oil change. To me, going to a dealer to get my car serviced is like going to a wine bar to get a glass of wine.

One would think that I go to wine bars fairly often seeing as I love wine and all, but I just don’t. I know that going to a wine bar can be a good way to try wines by the glass before committing to a full bottle. I realize that many of them have knowledgeable staff that can suggest good wine to try. There are also plenty of decent wine bars in town with a good selection of wine. So why don’t I go to them more often? I get my oil changed at Jiffy Lube because I can’t stand paying way too much at the dealer. That’s how I feel about going to a wine bar.

 I recently went to Crú Wine Bar in the Domain in north Austin and had the oil change at the dealer experience. Cru was started in Dallas and now has 8 locations in Austin, Dallas, Denver and Houston. Pros:

  • They offer more than 300 wines by the bottle, 40 wines by the glass and a selection of three-glass flights.
  • Cru has a decent menu of cheeses and other nibbles to pair with the wine.
  • It’s got a comfy feel with fat chairs and couches and a nice patio.
  • The staff is adequately knowledgeable, but not as much as you might expect from a sommelier at a fine restaurant.

 So what’s not to like?

 Its f^$&ing expensive.  While it was lovely, I couldn’t get passed the feeling that I was paying way too much. Have you ever been in the midst of doing something you love, but you weren’t fully enjoying it because there was something a little bit off that detracted from the experience? Like you are in the throes of passion, but it’s with your ninth grade science teacher. Yeah, it’s sort of like that. That and they offered a flight of Pinot Noir that didn’t include anything from Oregon. Heresy. That’s like Christmas without the baby Jesus.

 I had Flight #9, “The King and I” which was a selection of three, 2 oz. pours of California Cabs for $16. The flight menu changes regularly, so you might not find it there where you visit. Here is what Cru put together for its cab flight.  

 Hess Allomi Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

The Hess Collection has four lines of wine, and the Allomi Vineyard is from its Single Vineyard line. The Allomi Vineyard is at the foot of Howell Mountain in Napa County. The wine is a blend of 87 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent Petite Sirah and 1 percent Petit Verdot. Here are my tasting notes.

Look A royal amethyst amulet, bright yet almost opaque.
Smell A full nose of rich fennel, black currant and vanilla.
Taste A big, round dark fruit driven wine with blackberry, cocoa, oak bark, long finish mild tannins.
Price $14/glass, $56/bottle at Cru or $28/ bottle retail elsewhere

This is a fairly typical fruit-forward Calif. Cab and felt like a relative bargain in this flight of three. I would serve this at home any time.

 2007 Hall Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine makers Craig and Kathryn Hall bought the old Bergfeld winery in St. Helena and converted it to their own winery in 2003. They make classic Bordeaux style wines in two lines, the Napa Valley Collection and the Artisan Collection. The Napa Valley Cab is a blend of 82 percent cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent merlot, 4 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cabernet franc. Here is what it tastes like.

Look Slightly brighter than the first, the Hall is deep purple, opaque with a lavender edge.
Smell I had to sniff deep to get a good smell of this reserved wine, but found blackberry, ripe strawberry and spice.
Taste This is a bowl of stewed fruit, extracted and dark. It tastes of cooked blueberry, chocolate, tobacco, and cedar.
Price $18/glass, $72/bottle at Cru or $44/bottle retail elsewhere  

 The wine was OK, not great. I sure wouldn’t pay $18 a glass for it.

 2006 Markham, “The Altruist,” Calistoga Estate Cabernet Sauvignon  

This is a pretty special wine. Not only is Markham Vineyards’ first of two single-vineyard, limited production – only 300 cases of it and its sister wine, The Philanthropist, produced – estate grown cabernet sauvignon wines. It’s also part of Markham’s “Mark of Distinction” program. The winery is giving $25,000 grants to the Bartlett Arboretum, a tree habitat, in Bell Plaine, Kansas with proceeds from the ’06 vintage of The Altruist and. Drinking for a good cause makes me feel all warm and cuddly inside.  Here’s another thing special about it.

Look A shimmering glass of purple pirate booty, translucent and bright ruby edge
Smell Markham made a fruit pie in the woods; dusty, lush, floral, black cherry, cedar and pepper scents burst from the glass.
Taste The Altruist Full is a giver, full of currant, plum, black cherry, jammy blackberries and chocolate with a long finish punctuated by mild oaky tannins.
Price $32/glass, $125/bottle at Cru or $50 a bottle retail elsewhere (that’s $12.50 a glass if you drink it at home)

This is a delicious wine. I had to have a full glass of it after the flight, even though I knew there was more than a 50 percent mark-up on it. Damn good thing someone else was picking up the tab (thanks Drew).

I know I sound like a cheap curmudgeon. Of course there is significant mark-up on wine at most wine bars and restaurants. That’s the biz. I’m willing to pay the mark-up at a restaurant because I get to experience the wine with excellent food. I’m typically less accepting of the steep prices at a wine bar because there is less additive benefit for me to experience.

 All-in-all Cru is a respectable wine bar that meets my expectations. If you are the type that gets your oil changed at the car dealership, you’ll like this place. If you are buying, by all means please invite me to join you.

 What are you drinking?

Prolonging Summer with Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc

God I love Indian summer. I love the toasty smell of fallen leaves, the chill mornings lit by the glow of Venus and Orion, the top-down heat of the afternoon sun that beckons me to stare into the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky just a little bit longer transported back to dreamy, lazy summer vacation days. It’s a cheat. Its summer reincarnated just weeks after it left. Don’t ya feel like you’ve been given a second chance? I do.   

This summer I wrote about my love for Sauvignon Blanc on a hot day in the post Suitable Wines for a Summer Romance. Even though summer has officially graduated to fall, this little taste of Indian summer is a perfect excuse to break out a light, crisp bottle of liquid sunshine. Beautiful Wife and I visited Cakebread Cellars last summer and stashed away a bottle of 2007 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc for just such an occasion.

Cakebread is a family joint in the heart of Napa Valley started in 1973 by patriarch Jack Cakebread. It’s known for delectable Cabs, Chardonnays and the aforementioned Sauvignon Blanc. Cakebread grows most its Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Rutherford with some sourced in other various vineyards in the Napa region.

Mother Nature has some fantastic building blocks to create tasty wine in that blessed valley in California, but it’s nothing that couldn’t be enhanced by a little artistry. Winemaker Julianne Laks blends 4% Sauvignon Musqué and 7% Sémillon in the Sauvignon Blanc for enhanced aromatics, softer acidity and brighter citrus. Cakebread further coaxes complexity and intensity from the grapes by fermenting and aging the wine in a combination of tank-fermentation and in neutral French oak barrel aging; fermentation and aging in barrel; and tank-fermentation with no barrel aging. 

That seems like a lot of work, but it’s worth it.

Look Harvest moonbeams in a glass slipper, staying at the party well past midnight.
Smell Flinty oyster shells and lemon rind left on the plate after a picnic. Plenty of grapefruit and kiwi left for desert.
Taste Intense as an Indian Summer that knows its days are numbered. A rich harvest of melon, grapefruit, lemon zest and honeysuckle with a nice balance of crisp mineral with an undertone of vanilla oak for a lasting finish.
Price $26

Yankee haters across the nation, put on you rally caps because we are going to stretch this summer into extra innings.  If you want to hold on to that summer ease for just a little longer, give this Cakebread a try. You’ll feel like going for a swim in the lake before you finish the second glass.

What are you drinking?

I totally struck out with my wife

Sometimes I get a little romantic when I shop for wine. I look for a bottle that I think will warm the cockles of Beautiful Wife’s heart. Last night I found one that instantly made me think of her. A 2001 Chateau Potelle Cougar Pass. I know what you are thinking and you’re right. Beautiful Wife is much too young to be a cougar. That’s not it. The hook is that we went to Chateau Potelle on our honeymoon. It’s a gorgeous property sitting at about 1,800 feet of elevation with spectacular views. It’s a bit off the beaten path west of Yountville, CA. It’s a stunning drive of about 5 miles straight up Mt. Veeder on a winding road.

 The memory of being there in our new marital bliss is one thing, but they also make decent wine. They also have a sense of humor. The higher end wines are designated “VGS,” or Very Good Shit. With all of this in mind, I presented the bottle with a gleam in my eye, knowing that it would stir loving emotions in Beautiful Wife.

 Cougar Pass is an interesting blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot. Sounds like a party. Oh the anticipation.

 With the first swirl and sniff my heart sank. It was corked. Blast it. By “corked” I mean that it was tainted with TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole). If you’ve ever had a cork tainted wine, you know what I mean. It smells bad and the fruit flavors are muted, hidden under stench. Beautiful Wife took a sip, frowned and handed her glass back to me. This wasn’t VGS. It was VBS; Very Bad Shit.

 I dumped the entire decanter full of wine down the drain. Strike one.

 2001 Chateau Potelle Cougar Pass Paso Robles

Look Deep dark garnet like the shadows of Mt. Veeder.
Smell The first scent was a big dog wearing musty cardboard boxes followed by faint leather and blackberry.
Taste It tasted like I was drinking it out of a dirty leather work boot. You know what really sucks? I could partially detect what the wine was supposed to be with lush blackberry, gentle tannins and I wanted to march back to the store for a replacement bottle to taste it like it was supposed to taste.  
Price $15

 Knowing that it was too late to go back to the store, I turned to the wine rack and selected a 1998 Domaine Benazeth from the Minervois wine appellation in the Languedoc region of France. How could I go wrong with picking a wine made the year that we met? I could see the Mediterranean Sea breeze tussle her hair as I opened the bottle.

We’re typically fans of Rhone style wines. This wine is driven by Syrah and Mourvèdre, but is also a hodge podge of grapes typical in a southern Rhone including Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Lledoner pelut, Piquepoul and Terret.

I handed a glass to Beautiful Wife. She smelled. Ah, not corked. She sipped. She set the glass down and reached for a bottle of vodka to make a mixed drink. Strike two and no opportunity for a third pitch. I struck out tonight.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with this wine. I thought it was delightful. It just didn’t suit her tonight. Sometimes it’s like that.

1998 Domaine Benazeth Minervois

Look Opaque as the plum colored Mediterranean at midnight.   
Smell A gardener’s delight with fresh turned soil, sweet rose petals and black currant.
Taste It is floral, with muted fruit and stoic minerality. Plum, currant, cinnamon and violet, finishing with the lingering taste of a limestone cave.
Price $14

 The second wine somehow tasted like rejection as I sat there drinking it by myself. A gift scorned. A lover’s advanced rebuffed, standing dejected still in the buff. I drank it knowing there would be another chance tomorrow.

Reliving the Honeymoon

Dead soldier

My beautiful wife and I got married in the vineyards of Gold Hill Winery in Coloma, California. A fantastic setting to begin our life together. We decided to go back to wine country to celebrate our 10th anniversary and visited wineries in Napa, Alexander and Anderson Valleys.

We absolutely love the quiet ease of the Anderson Valley wineries, the friendly charm of the people and the gorgeous landscape. It reminds us a bit of the Willamette Valley in Oregon – great wine without the congestion of throngs of tourists like in Napa. We had rented a lovely house on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific in Irish Beach, just south of Mendocino, so the trip over to Anderson was convenient. Lost in the romance of the moment, we made a rookie mistake – and mind you we are not wine tasting rookies. We joined the wine club at the last winery we visited at the end of a long day of sampling fantastic wine.

Husch Vineyards has a charming little tasting room in a rustic converted pony barn. The grounds have the graciousness of an antebellum plantation guarded by majestic, centuries old redwood giants. The wine tasted fantastic. We went through the entire roster and into the library wines. All of them delicious.

Doesn’t all wine taste better after you’ve already had 15 glasses?

Not long after we got home, we received our first club shipment from Husch. A nice enough selection of reasonably priced wines. Last night we popped opened one of the gems, a 2007 Reserve Pinot Noir. Here are the winery’s tasting notes. This wine was like a big budget Nicholas Cage film. It had promise. I approached it with the anticipation that a known star deserves. But, it was a Nicolas Cage flick. Shoddy acting, weak plot and thin entertainment. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but it didn’t live up to expectation.

Instead of velvet, the mouth feel was thin. I wanted a glass full of bright cherries, but got aged fruit. In place of a vanilla kiss of French oak, it brushed me with smokey coal.

This bottle retails for $35. My advice, take that cake and go buy 2 delicious Spanish reds for $17 each instead. If you are ever in Northern California, make the effort to visit the wineries in Anderson Valley, and don’t miss Husch. You’ll love it in person.