It happens to the best of us while shopping for wine. We find ourselves standing in an aisle staring blankly at rows and rows of wines from around the world. “Should I get the chardonnay? What is the difference between the one from California and France? Do I even like chardonnay?” Well, you shouldn’t have to go it alone. Enter: the professional.
I think many people forget store employees are the ones you should seek as soon as you walk in the door. They are the knights you want to take into battle. Most liquor stores and bottle shops with large wine selections have at least one employee who is incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about wine. In fact, they are most likely waiting for you to ask for help.
Many have passed credentialed testing, been a part of the buying and tasting process, are up to date on trends, and at the very least are familiar with the store’s selections.
Speaking up for help also has many perks. The more you shop with them and the more they get to know your taste, likes and dislikes, the easier they can make your shopping experience. They may even start telling you about new wines coming in, tasting events and even some wines you buy regularly that happen to be the special of the week. With this insider information comes the most important of all for you the consumer, a personal wine educator. You can learn so much from just asking for advice and trying recommendations from these professionals.
My advice has always been, let the hospitality of the employees guide you. On almost every trip to shop for wine I seek out advice from the ones who know the most in the store, the wine clerk.
These are a few suggestions from the many out there helping to make wine buying easier. Thank you for your guidance!
- 2015 Bonterra Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $13 retail)
- 2015 Broadside Chardonnay, California (about $15 retail)
- 2014 Apaltagua Winery Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, Chile (about $12 retail)
- 2015 Lorenza Rose, California (about $16 retail)
- 2015 Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris, Oregon (about $19 retail)
- 2014 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay, California (about $26 retail)
- 2015 Azur Rose, California (about $21 retail)
- 2015 Force of Nature Mossfire Ranch Merlot, California (about $25 retail)
We’ve all been in a situation when we needed to give a bottle of wine as a gift. The task is generally straightforward. We trust what we have enjoyed in the past, we depend on our local fine wine retailer, or you simply contact me. (This is the one I enjoy the most.)
We could consider this an easy mission because the bottle is handed off with a “thank you,” “happy birthday,” “happy anniversary” or other appropriate acknowledgement — to then possibly lie quietly in your recipient’s wine rack in the corner along with others.
But after a few recent dinner conversations I have learned that being invited to a dinner party with an expectation for you to bring a bottle for consumption is a much different situation. I hope a few of my tips will ease the stress of any situation.
When asked what you can bring, many times the answer is something like this:
“Just bring a bottle you like.” The first tip is to drop all expectations on what your dinner host will do with your bottle. Don’t expect the wine you are bringing to be consumed, even if you have painstakingly thought out the possible menu at the dinner. The host may have already planned wines for the menu. Sometimes the bottle you bring is seen more as a gracious thank you than an expected perfect pairing for the evening.
“We love all wines, just bring something you would buy for your dinner.” This is the possibly the most important tip. There are many subtle suggestions to help us choose an appropriate bottle in our price range. Over the years, I have learned that if it’s a casual grilling dinner, it will most likely warrant an exceptional $10 value. If the host is an avid collector you may want to go big and break the bank. Or not. I once brought a bottle of the most expensive wine I could afford, only to have it put into a Styrofoam cup by the host. On another occasion, I proudly offered an $8 value to a dear friend only for the bottle to be surrounded by some of the most expensive, exquisite wines I have ever experienced. The safe bet is to show up with a wine you love and the zeal to say why it was your choice to share.
“We are eating around 7 … just bring a chardonnay.” When a host asks you to bring a specific bottle there is no reason to stress because you simply follow the request. If you are asked to bring chardonnay, have it chilled and ready to open when you arrive. Chances are you were specifically asked to bring a wine for consumption at dinner. If you were asked to bring merlot, don’t take a chance on a unique wine outside of the norm from an unfamiliar region (unless you have a pre-approval from the host for a fun addition to the conversation.) And if the hosts are specific enough to name the varietal, I would feel confident asking what price range they have in mind.
“Bring any wine. We are just happy you are coming to our home for dinner.” This is where you can shine for your choice of wine. Just be gracious, thoughtful and mindful that your friends invited you to dinner in the first place. Most likely you won’t go wrong with any choice. These are mine:
- 2015 Sean Minor Four Bears Pinot Noir, California (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Bell Wine Cellars Red Blend, California (about $16 retail)
- 2014 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre, France (about $29 retail)
- 2014 Trimbach Gewurztraminer, France (about $29 retail)
- 2013 Presqu’ile Winery Pinot Noir, California (about $44 retail)
- 2014 Reynolds Family Winery Chardonnay, California (about $40 retail)
This past week was an exciting occasion, as several Napa Valley vintners arrived in Arkansas for a fundraiser and a master class.
I always say wine is like food — simply superior if you know the person and place bringing it to our table. Napa Valley is one of those areas in the world I think the wines just taste better because of the unique and defining characteristics of the vineyards and the owners.
The climate is warm and dry during the growing season, making it ideal for wine grapes to ripen slowly and evenly, allowing for balance between sugar development and phenolic ripeness. The ocean influence and fog are also key in quality wine grapes. The proximity to the Pacific Ocean mitigates the climate with cooling effects from fog. Much of the valley’s fog comes up thorough the San Pablo Bay at the southern end of the region and the Petaluma Gap from the Pacific toward San Francisco — cooling the Carneros region. This is key. As hot air in California’s interior valley rises, it creates a vacuum effect, drawing in moist, cool air from the Pacific and forming the fog. While fog can raise humidity, it is burned off by late morning so it does no harm to the grapes.
Diversity of soil is also crucial to any quality wine-growing region. But Napa Valley’s soil sets it apart with the size of the soil particles being the most important. Small particles such as clay allow for water retention, helping sustain the vine during the dire summer months as well as providing a cooler environment for the plant (which can delay bud break — a plus if there is a frost risk). Larger particles such as sand and gravel allow for drainage, keeping the vines’ roots dry and therefore less at risk for mold and rot during rare wet years. This also forces the vines to grow deeper roots, which are ideal for a strong foundation for deeper water and nutrient reserves.
And then there are the people. Napa Valley growers and winemakers work together as they continuously improve upon grape growing and winemaking, harnessing the latest technology in the vineyard and winery. With strong historic ties to University of California, Davis — home to one of the most respected viticulture and enology departments in the world — they continue to work in the latest use of clones, rootstocks, vineyard mapping using NASA satellite technology and now with vine sensor technology.
All of these factors combine to create the world-class wines that make Napa Valley stand apart.
- 2015 Bell Wine Cellars Red Blend (about $16 retail)
- 2015 St. Supery Estate Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (about $21 retail)
- 2015 Bell Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc (about $16 retail)
- 2015 Bell Wine Cellars Rose (about $18 retail)
- 2014 Reynolds Family Winery Chardonnay (about $40 retail)
- 2013 St. Supery Estate Napa Valley Merlot (about $55 retail)
- 2013 Arkenstone Cabernet Sauvignon (about $85 retail)
- 2013 Reynolds Family Winery Persistence, California (about $55 retail)
- 2014 Bell Wine Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $52 retail)
Easter is one of the many annual occasions when our family gets together around the table to share and celebrate. It’s one of my favorites because it is a day of reflection joined with the welcomed excitement of spring, not to mention the well-thought out menu followed by something chocolate. But if your menu is like our family’s, it is not straightforward with just a ham as the main course. In our family, we enjoy a buffet ranging from deviled eggs to banana pudding, and that’s a lot to ask from a single wine.
Rather than focusing on the main entree for these feasts, it’s best finding wines known to play well with all types of foods. The key is food friendly wines capable of standing up to a range of flavors and textures.
For red wine lovers, bigger is not better when it comes to friendly food pairing at the Easter table. Save the high alcohol, tannic wines for the barbecue next week. Wines with high tannin will overpower most foods, so a more fruit forward, lighter bodied wine is a better choice. Think barbera, merlot, pinot noir, gamay and fruity ripe blends.
- 2014 Louis Jadot Beaujolais Village, France (about $14 retail)
- 2012 Chateau Blaignan Bordeaux, France (about $21 retail)
If you are joining me on Easter you are guaranteed to find dry rose wines gracing my table. Whether it be brunch, lunch or dinner, I can’t emphasize enough how well they match with almost every food imaginable. The key to the perfect rose for food pairing is ensuring it’s a dry style and not sweet.
- 2015 La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Ventoux Rose, France (about $14 retail)
- 2014 Hogwash Rose, California (about $18 retail)
Sparkling is another reliable wine able to complement practically any food, from appetizers and entrees to desserts. I use sparkling wines to mix for mimosas at a brunch and as the single wine for buffet service. It’s also wonderful for Easter menus because it always brings a celebratory feel to the occasion, so even if you just begin the meal with a glass for a family toast it’s a special touch.
- NV Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Cava, Spain (about $13 retail)
- NV Gloria Ferrer Brut Sparkling Wine, California (about $32 retail)
Recently I saw a wine-blending kit that helps consumers blend different varietals to create their own wines. It was being offered as a simple process. Implying that if you have a merlot, cabernet sauvignon and a few other varieties you can mix them together and, I guess, just stir.
But there are those who have attempted this process, including me, who might agree that blending wine is something best left to professionals. Still, the question of whether blended wines are of lesser quality continues to be one that I am often asked. It’s a topic that is becoming more relevant because consumers seem to have a tendency to shy away from blends.
Blending is when a winemaker combines different “lots” or batches of wine from the cellar to create the final wine that ends up in bottles. Most winemakers have a vision of the flavor and style they want to create even before the grapes are harvested. Many winemakers find blends interesting and exciting to create, while for others a blend may be created out of necessity or because a grape is in short supply due to growing conditions.
In the United States, to qualify as a single varietal wine the product must contain at least 75 percent of one type of grape. There are very few grape varieties that are able to stand on their own. White wines are generally from a single grape variety, but there are exceptions. Even wines with simple flavor profiles can include a minuscule percentage of another grape to change or enhance the finishing style.
Blended wines are some of the most sought in the world: red Bordeaux is generally cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot. For Champagne, one of the most complex blending processes is generally pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. Chianti has traditionally been a blend but today we see more and more use of a single grape sangiovese. But those most likely never to be blends are red Burgundy (pinot noir) and white Burgundy (chardonnay.)
Blending is a pragmatic operation and winemakers like to retain an element of flexibility. The goal, however, is the same — to make the best possible wine each year.
- 2014 Apothic White Blend, California (about $13 retail)
- 2013 Spann Classic 4 Red Blend, California (about $27 retail)
I can’t believe this month marks 12 years I have been writing Uncorked. That’s a lot of columns that I hope are always filled with useful information that can help you explore — and drink — many great wines. I absolutely love sharing ideas each week but, more importantly, I enjoy the feedback from you.
Each year as I celebrate this anniversary I reflect on all of the questions and ideas you share because these frequently turn into the topics for Uncorked. Please continue, as your feedback helps me keep this column relevant. As always I want to offer honest recommendations of wines we can find in our market. Above all, I hope this column makes wine, often a pretentious and confusing subject, fun to explore and even more enjoyable to drink.
These are a few of my favorites over the past year. Enjoy!
- 2013 Chateau Bonnet Blanc, France (about $15 retail)
- 2013 Mas des Roches Cotes-du-Rhone Rouge, France (about $15 retail)
- 2015 Bodegas Emilio Moro Resalso, Spain (about $15 retail)
- NV Zonin Prosecco, Italy (about $15 retail)
- 2013 Parallele 45 Cotes du Rhone, France (about $15 retail)
- 2013 Keenan Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $47 retail)
- 2014 Robert Mondavi Winery Merlot, California (about $26 retail)
- 2015 Marc Bredif Vouvray, France (about $26 retail)
- 2014 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, California (about $24 retail)
- 2014 Sean Minor Nicole Maria Red Blend, California (about $24 retail)
- 2014 Bell Winery Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $18 retail)
- 2013 Mira Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $52 retail)