Monday, December 10, 2018

Bistecca alla Florentina and Il Poggione 2016 Rosso di Montalcino

Rosso di Montalcino and Bistecca alla FlorentinaSangiovese and a juicy steak is a marriage made in heaven. So with an uncorked bottle we fire up the grill to cook a famous Italian dish.

Bistecca alla Florentina

Bistecca alla Florentina is an Italian dish with English roots. In the early 19th Century, the English settled in and around Florence and introduced new cuts of beef, including the T-bone and porter house steaks. Bistecca alla Florentina, or Florentine steak, was born.

The cut is a porterhouse of T-bone with as large a fillet (tenderloin) as possible. Most of the Bistecca alla florentina sold in Florence is Spanish Beef. The meat should be kept at room temperature for 10 hours or so before grilling. Traditionally, the thickness should be “three fingers.” We ordered our 1 1/2 inch-thick bone-in porterhouse (about 3.5 pounds) from Pat LaFreida online. The meat was cut and shipped in an ice-gel pack and never frozen.

Bistecca alla Florentina

Trial By Fire

The traditional Tuscan Bistecca alla Florentina recipe calls for cooking over charcoal, preferably hardwood. Since I have a natural gas grill, that wasn’t an option.

I cranked the grill up as hot as it has ever been, in the neighborhood of 650 degrees. We were going on faith in the recipe, since I’ve never cooked a large steak like this before.

Bistecca a la FlorentineAfter about 7 minutes I flipped it to the other side using tongs, as opposed to a fork, which would release that precious juice. On the seared side I poured some Il Poggione olive oil and Tuscan sea salt.

When the other side was done, I flipped the steak on end for a few more minutes before entering into the house triumphantly. It was a monolithic masterpiece!

2016 Il Poggione Rosso di MontalcinoWine Pairing Perfection!

We’ve enjoyed some superlative wine pairing dinners over the years, but the pairing of the Il Poggione 2016 Rosso di Montalcino and the bistecca was off the charts. The meat was smoky and the charred crust and juicy meat exploded with flavor. “That chef was truly amazing.”

Our meal was accompanied with roasted broccoli and potatoes. We had a nice loaf of crusty Italian bread with an olive oil dipping sauce.

Rosso di Montalcino is sometimes called a “baby Brunello” after the highly regarded Brunello di Montalcino. The Il Poggione Rosso is 100% Brunello (the local name for Sangiovese). The wine is matured for 12 months in large oak barrels before undergoing bottle aging.

This is a silky wine with flowing flavors of red berries and sour cherry. The oak aging provides a welcome structure. To have a bite of steak in your mouth and sip in the Rosso di Montalcino was euphoric.

The Il Poggione Rosso di Montalcino has an SRP of $27. When you can enjoy it with a beautiful steak it is priceless!

Full disclosure: We received the wine as a marketing sample and the steak was provided gratis.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Exitus 2016 Red Wine, California

Exitus Red Wine 2016There’s a new entry in the Bourbon-barrel aged beverage market. We uncork Exitus to test the merits of the new offering.

Something Old, Something New

There is a buzz – in more ways than one – about Bourbon-barrel aged beverages these days. There are a multitude of Bourbon-barrel aged craft beers. Aging reds in Bourbon barrels has also launched several successful wines.

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We’ve also seen white wines aged in Bourbon barrels. Some whiskey makers have also flipped the tables by aging their spirits in old wine barrels. It seems like the latest trend – but it isn’t exactly.

The cost of oak wine barrels can run anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 or more depending on the producer and whether it is American or French oak. It’s easy to see that oak barrel aging can be quite expensive. Decades ago, some small wine producers would buy much cheaper used Bourbon barrels to age their wine. Score one for Mrs. Alba, my 6th grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary, whose favorite saying was, “There is nothing new under the sun!”

What is new, though, is that winemakers are now using Bourbon barrels to introduce new flavors into wine specifically blended to marry with the dark smoky notes that BBA (Bourbon barrel aging) brings. Exitus is a case in point.

To Exitus With Tradition

Exitus is a Zinfandel-based red blend that includes Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It is produced by O’Neill Vintners & Distillers, one of the largest wine and brandy producers in California. It’s portfolio includes Robert Hall and Austerity  wines, among others.

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The marketing theme of Exitus is, “To Hell With Tradition.” Its bottle certainly breaks with wine packaging norms. It is clear glass, unlike the dark greens and ambers typically used for red wine to limit exposure to light. There is no foil capsule on the top of the bottle. Instead, there is a seal-like sticker like you might find on a bourbon bottle.

Below the main label is a rectangular one listing the “batch” number, year and noting that the wine is aged for three months. Again, this label is a nod to what your might find on a small batch bourbon. The main Exitus label is gold lettered on a dark brown background and brings to mind a craft beverage.

It’s a very cool package and we were anxious to uncork.

Imbibing The Bourbon Barrel Blend

Raise your hand if this has happened to you. You uncork a wine that from all outside appearances should be world-changing, only to disappointed by what was inside.Would that be the case with Exitus?

Exitus considers itself a “badass” wine. We agree. Unlike other BBA wines we’ve had that proffer a smidgeon of Bourbon taste, Exitus is a wine for Bourbon lovers. From the first sip, the Bourbon flavor is out front.

Even without the Bourbon barrel aging, this is a big wine. It weighs in with 15.9% alcohol. I don’t recall drinking an unfortified wine with more alcohol content. That being said, it sill has some great dark berry flavor with touches of earth and spice. The BBA adds caramel, smoke and toasted oak to the party. It’s a tasty value at about $20.

This isn’t a wine for wimps. It is perfect for those seeking adventure in their wine drinking. Chances are if you serve this at your next party, guests will be headed to the Exitus, not the exits. 

Full Disclosure: We received this wine as a marketing sample.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival A Visual Treat

IMG_20181130_185320Hundreds of lanterns light up the night sky in Cary, NC, during an annual celebration of Chinese art and culture.


IMG_20181130_180323Enter The Year Of The Pig

The North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival is being held through January 13, 2019, at the Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary, North Carolina. We had an opportunity to tour the event and came away impressed with the beauty and a deeper understanding of Chinese culture.

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In case you are wondering, 2019 is the Year of the Pig in the Chinese Zodiac, which is based on the lunar calendar. Pigs are diligent, compassionate and generous. There were pigs aplenty at the festival.


Zigong, The Chinese Lantern Capitol

The lanterns are created by hand on silk fabric stretched over steel frames then lit with hundreds of LED lights. In fact there are more than 15,000 LED lights contributing to the glowing masterpieces . It takes 19 tractor-trailers to deliver all the lanterns for the festival.

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Zigong, Sichuan, considered the capitol of Chinese lantern-making for thousands of years, is where almost all the lanterns are made. The skills of the artisans are passed from one generation to the next.

IMG_20181130_180743There are 25 different displays ranging from traditional palace lanterns and traditional oil-paper umbrellas to a fairy dancing with phoenixes. My favorite was the fairy tree, making its world premiere this year, a glowing silver tree that looked like a sea anemone with strands of pearls.

A Life-Size Dragon

The Chinese Drum is an impressive display and is even more engaging when you strike the drum to change the colors of the lanterns. Dignity and grace is exemplified in the Swan Lake display of two swans in the lake. There is also the Closely Attached Hearts display which has two buttons that require two people to press so that the light in the massive heart will illuminate.

Dominating the scene is the glowing yellow Chinese Dragon lantern, which is longer than three school buses and weighs 18,000 pounds. It stands 21 feet tall and is 200 feet long. It’s head had to be installed by a 15-person crew.

Ticket prices start at $10 and food trucks offer refreshments for sale. Cultural acts run regularly on the main stage and we enjoyed hat jugglers (we didn’t know there was such a thing!), plate spinners and acrobats.

NC Chinese Lantern Festival 1

Monday, December 3, 2018

Germany’s Cool Climate Wines A Delicious Choice For The Holidays

The holidays bring out a variety of festive foods. Germany’s white wines are delicious choices and versatile enough to pair with savory or sweet dishes.

German Riesling

German Riesling Versatility

For Thanksgiving we opened our doors to family and friends to share our holiday feast. In addition to the traditional turkey, we had a variety of sides including potatoes both mashed and sweet with cranberry sauce and gravy. Veggies ranged from brussel sprouts to green beans. Our table was overflowing and there are probably a few dishes I left off.

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What wine to pick? A great grape for this meal, and to keep in mind for Christmas and New Years festivities, is Riesling. Germany’s reputation for outstanding wine is built on producing world-class Riesling. It’s a smart choice for holiday entertaining.

By all rights, Germany shouldn’t be able to produce excellent wine. Germany is home to some of the world’s coldest climate vineyards and it is far away from a large body of water. It’s difficult for grapes to ripen in such conditions.

Through determination and wise vineyard selection, with southern-facing slopes and close to rivers, German winegrowers have experienced success. Riesling, a cold-hardy variety, is the most widely planted grape in the country.

Holiday Feasting

Clemens Busch vom Grauen Schiefer Riesling Trocken The 2015 Clemens Busch vom Grauen Schiefer Riesling Trocken is a dry wine that was a delightful pick for our main course. The grapes are grown on treacherously steep slopes of slippery slate that are snug up to the Mosel River. Mosel is the most northerly great wine region in the world.

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This is a fresh wine that is crisp without harsh acidity. There are notes of white flowers and citrus graced with a flowing minerality. A wonderful blending with the turkey!

In contrast, the 2015 Louis Guntrum Niersteiner Rehbach Riesling Spätlese from Rheinhessen is an amply sweet wine. How sweet? It was sweet enough that my sister-in-law snuck into the fridge and opened the wine a few hours before our meal.

The Guntrum Riesling is juicy with honey flavors and notes of tropical fruit. Spätlese means late harvest, and the grapes are more intense in flavor than the lower Kabinett level. The ripeness can also come with sweetness.

Guntrum Spätlese Riesling - A great pear-ingResidual sugar is listed at 4.5%, which isn’t too extreme. It is just the ticket for some people. (I’m talking to you, sister-in-law Sandra!). The sugar is balanced nicely with the acidity.

For our dessert, we had pumpkin and pecan pie. The dessert that paired best with the Spätlese was prepared a few days later by our daughter: Bartlett pears poached in lemon jasmine tea spiced with ginger. The sweetness of the dessert dials down the sweetness of the Riesling. The pears also had some nice savory notes courtesy of the tea and ginger, which had delicious interplay with the subtle notes of the Riesling.

Rheinhessen is the largest wine-growing region in Germany and on August 6, Rheinhessen saw the first grapes picked for the earliest harvest in Germany’s history. These grapes are used to make Federweißer (“new wine”). The partially fermented, traditional beverage is halfway between grape juice and wine. It’s offered all around Germany but not exported.

Germany Riesling runs the gamut from bone dry to sublimely sweet. It’s a perfect “pearing” for you holiday meals.

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

New Zealand’s Villa Maria Winery Lineup Offers Diversity, Sustainability

Partygoers enjoy Villa Maria wines.New Zealand was discovered in 1300 by the Maori, who are East Polynesians. They called it Aotearoa, the “Land of the Long White Cloud.” Villa Maria is one of New Zealand’s leading wineries.

One-Man Band Becomes Global Brand

New Zealand is a relative newcomer on the international wine scene. Located in the Pacific about 1,200 miles from Australia and far from any other landmass, its wine industry wasn’t firmly established until the 1970s. From there it took off like a rocket.

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There are now more than 400 wineries in New Zealand and it has enjoyed 23 straight years of export growth. Its wine export sales now exceed countries like Germany and Argentina and totals more than $1.7 billion.

Villa Maria is one of the premier wineries in New Zealand and has amassed an exceptional number of honors for its wine, efforts in sustainability and business practices. Its growth parallels the success story of New Zealand wine.

The winery was begun in 1961 by George Fistonich when he leased five acres of land from his father. Throughout the 1960s it was a one-man show, with support from George’s wife Gail. From those humble beginnings the winery has grown to an enterprise that now exports to more than 50 countries worldwide.

A Focus On Sustainability

As an island nation, New Zealand has a focus on the environment. In tune with this, Villa Maria has been a pacesetter in the area of sustainability, being a member of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand since its inception in 1995. The winery is also measuring and managing its carbon footprint as part of a national research program.

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In February 2009, Villa Maria was the first major New Zealand winery to achieve BioGro organic certification for winery and bottling facilities in Auckland, enabling them to trace organic certification for our organic wines from grape to bottle. That’s an important designation, because wines “made with organic grapes” can be subject to all sorts of chemicals in the winemaking process, something many consumers don’t realize.

Villa Maria has about 500 sheep that control grass growth and provide natural fertilizer and about 70% of wine bottle packaging is made from recycled material. During a recent virtual tasting hosted by Snooth, we were able to taste through six Villa Maria current releases.

Bubbly is Villa Maria's sparkling Sauvignon BlancA Sparkling Surprise

When thinking of New Zealand, our thoughts immediately zero in on Sauvignon Blanc. The New Zealand style is our favorite and the grape thrives in the country’s cool ocean breezes. Villa Maria, though, presents quite a balanced lineup. Some of the guests for our impromptu tasting party were surprised to see the diversity.

We first opened the 2017 Bubbly Sauvignon Blanc. This is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and made specifically for the US market. It was a perfect arrival wine. Like all Villa Maria wines, it has a screw closure. The bubbles are  pleasantly spritzy. There is a kiss of sweetness. It’s a new wine and our group was enthusiastic about it. SRP is $15.

We don’t normally associate rosé with New Zealand, but perhaps we should. The 2017 Private Bin Rosé is from Hawkes Bay, the country’s top region for reds. It is a Merlot blend and salmon pink in the glass. The alcohol is a light 12%, making it a perfect mate for a wide variety of foods.

Taylors Pass: A Range Of Quality

Internationally, different labels produced by wineries are called ranges. We tasted two ranges, the Private Bin range and Taylors Pass. It was a captivating exercise: we had a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir from each range, allowing us to compare and contrast.

Villa Maria WinesThe Private Bin range is a solid value. The 2017 Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, for example, retails for $14 and delivers flowing cool-weather flavors with citrus and herbaceous notes and the right amount of acidity. It is the classic Marlborough style. Also from Marlborough is the 2017 Private Bin Pinot Noir. A tasty value at $18, this was a hit with our eight guests, each with different palates. It’s approachable with lush red fruit notes and went well with my famous blue-cheese-stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto.

Taylors Pass sits on the northern bank of the Awatere River. The vineyard is warm, sheltered from the cool breezes that flow down the valley from the mountains. The soils are a patchwork of different types, each eliciting different flavors from the grapes. In Taylors Pass the people must be very happy, based on the wines we sipped.

While the majority of our tasting party favored the Private Bin Sauvignon Blanc, I was blown away by the 2016 Taylors Pass Sauvignon Blanc. It has complexity and herbal notes that make it a standout among Sauvignon Blancs. This is enhanced by four to six weeks on the lees. SRP is $26 and a good value at that.

The 2015 Taylors Pass Pinot Noir was the highlight of the tasting for me. This single vineyard Pinot spends 14 months in French oak (25% new) which yields oak notes that mingle pleasantly with cocoa and wild cherry flavors. The retail price is $42 and it is a nice value compared to a Willamette Valley or Russian River Valley Pinot of similar quality.

We’ve enjoyed a fair bit of Villa Maria wines over the years. Our latest tasting confirms our impressions – Villa Maria has a wide lineup of wines that are delicious and represent great values.

Full disclosure: This wine was received as a marketing sample.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Vincent Lataste 2015 Grenache, France

Vincent Lataste GrenacheWe tend to go gaga over Grenache, a warm climate red grape that is central to many famous wines as well as everyday drinkers.

Roots Of Greatness

The Lataste vineyard traces its roots back to 1850 when vines were planted in the Entre Deux Mers area of Bordeaux. More than a hundred years later, Vincent Lataste, the third generation of the winemaking family, took the reins of the business.

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Vincent has continued the tradition of quality, but with an eye toward modernity and developing the export market. In his latest effort, he has unveiled a vegan, certified organic wine brand. The wines are made without harmful chemicals and with certified organic grapes.

Subtle South Of France

At a recent gathering of our wine tasting group, I opened a bottle of the Vincent Lataste 2015 Grenache. The theme of the tasting was Cabernet Sauvignon from around the world – but I figured that the group might also enjoy a bottle that contrasts with the big Cabs.

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Grenache, known as Garnacha in Spain, can be an understated, soft grape. Indeed, in Rhône wines it is typically blended to mellow the more assertive Syrah grape. Grapes for this wine come from the Quarante and Herault areas in the South of France region. The area gets substantially more sunshine on average than the typical French countryside and much less rain. This allows the grapes, planted in clay-limestone soil on stone terraces, to fully ripen.

Especially in comparison with the Cabs we were sipping that night, the Lataste Grenache is light in body. This was welcome by some in our group who don’t care for heavy tannins.

This is an inviting wine, with soft texture and a mix of red berry flavor. Strawberry intermingles  with subtle spice notes. Alcohol is 13% and the wine is well balanced. The tannins are flowing and there is no harshness in sight.

A casual meal with friends, or an open bottle after a long work day seem ideal for the Vincent Lataste Grenache. The SRP is $14.99 and the wine is available in NY, PA and NJ as well as online. The portfolio also includes a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Brut Force: The Further Fantastic Wine Adventures of Felix Hart

Brut Force by Peter Stafford-BowLooking for a holiday gift for a wine lover? Try this madcap romp of a wine buyer mixed up in game of black mail, gun play and organic wine fanatics.

I just finished Brut Force by Peter Stafford-Box and I’m still chuckling thinking about it. In Corkscrew, we were introduced to Felix Hart, a wine buyer for a major supermarket chain. Brut Force continues his legendary escapades delivered with piercing wit, unexpected plot twists and a never-ending fountain of premium wine.

Felix is blackmailed into judging a corrupt wine competition designed to reinforce the primacy of a top Burgundy wine estate’s Pinot Noir. The tasting of French Burgundies versus Pinot Noir from a number of other countries has sales implications in the millions. If it weren’t for the two corpses buried in an unmarked grave, Felix wouldn’t be in such a predicament.

How did the tasting go? I won’t spoil the suspense, but let’s just say the hero ends up hanging from his feet and being dunked headfirst into a barrel of Loire Gamay. Not perturbed by his imminent demise, Felix tells his tormenters that he would prefer Cabernet Franc.

Brut Force is published by Acorn Publishing and is available via Amazon in paperback for $12.99. Interspersed with enough vino to please the wine lover, Stafford-Bow’s razor sharp wit will appeal to anyone who enjoys humorous repartee. Please note that this book isn’t for youngsters or those easily offended. I’m not in either of those categories, so it gets high praise from me.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Phinney’s Department 66 Highlights French Grenache

A trio of French Department 66 wines

Master winemaker Dave Phinney’s greatest success came with a Zinfandel blend. His latest French releases show his fine skills with Grenache.

Phinney Is No Prisoner To The Past

Department 66 is a region tucked deep in the southwest corner of France. A decade ago wine phenom Dave Phinney visited friends there and discovered the town of Maury and its steep hillside vineyards of old growth Grenache.

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Phinney grew to prominence with his runaway best-selling wine, The Prisoner. The Prisoner is an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono. He later sold the brand and assets in a deal that totaled nearly $300 million. Part of the deal was a non-compete clause that prevented him from making Zinfandel-based wines for eight years. Phinney was not deterred, shifting his focus to a different grape.

In 2008 he purchased his first 40 acres of old vine Grenache in Maury. Today that has grown to 300 acres with a winery. He returns to Maury at least once a month during the regular season and seven to 10 days during harvest. The fruit of his labor is Department 66 winery, named after the area’s governmental division.

D66 Grenache is big and boldHillside Grenache, Intense Heat

Maury is roughly two hours east of Barcelona and about 30 minutes from the Mediterranean coast. The area is part of the Côtes Catalanes growing region, a sub-appellation of Roussillon. Old vine Grenache thrives along with Syrah and Carignan. Nutrient-poor soil, strong winds and scorching heat stress the vines, resulting in intensely concentrated grapes.

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We drank through three new releases from Department 66: a Grenache, red blend and a rosé. The winery also offers a top-end Grenache-Syrah blend called Pharaon and a Grenache Gris.

Roussillon was once largely overlooked in the search for quality wines. For years it was known for producing vast quantities of inexpensive, simple wines. That is changing as winemakers focus on quality and incorporate new technology.

The 2017 Fragile Rosé is Grenache based with small quantities of Syrah and Carignan, an unusual blend. This was a nice change of pace after the parade of Provence-style rosé we tasted during the summer.

Fragile is a more substantial style of rosé. Indeed, it weighs in at 15.3% alcohol. There are flavors of strawberry and rhubarb mingled with a nice acidity. SRP is $18.

The 2015 Others red blend is a mix of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre. The flavor notes are of blueberry and spice. There is also a herbal thread, known as garrigue for the bushy fragrant plants that grow on the limestone hills of the Mediterranean coast. The suggested price is $25.

Not Your Grandfather’s Grenache

We love Rhône wines and Grenache is prominently featured. It can be light and airy and is used to soften the Syrah with which it is usually blended. The Grenache in the hills of Maury, with some vines up to 65 years in age, is much more robust.

Big, bold and assertive describes the D66 Grenache. Spice, cedar and red berry flavors are framed by firm tannins. The wine is aged in new French oak for 18 months and gets an additional five months of aging in the bottle. We decanted D66 for about 30 minutes and also poured it through an aerator.

The initial impression is of a sturdy wine but with a smooth texture. It was “hot” at the onset, but settled down in the glass. At 15.2% ABV, this is a wine that could benefit from a thick steak. SRP is $38.

Dave Phinney has the golden touch. For another expression of Grenache, visit Department 66.

Full disclosure: We received this wine as a marketing sample.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

San Diego County Emerging From Historic Past Into The California Wine Scene

Oceanside San Diego via PixabayKnown for dreamy sunsets and near perfect climate, San Diego is an American favorite. The county is also home to more than 100 wineries.

San Diego: Site Of California’s First Wine

More than 90% of the wine made in the US comes from California. One might be tempted to think that the climb to the pinnacle began in Napa Valley – but that would be wrong.

Domaine Artefact 2016 Rincon del DiabloSan Diego was the first area in California where vineyards were planted and wine produced. Franciscan missionaries tilled the San Diego Mission lands and grapes flourished thanks to the favorable climate and soil conditions. California’s first mission, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, was known for producing high quality wines.

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Bolstered by Italian, German and French immigrants, the wine industry in the San Diego region flourished after the Civil War. In time the promise was squelched by a devastating flood in 1916, Prohibition and then World War II.

After the war, the rebirth of California wine was centered in northern California and areas like Napa and Sonoma. It wasn’t until the 1990s that San Diego’s wine industry began to reemerge.

Acreage and volume of wine produced steadily increased until wildfires destroyed hundreds of acres of agriculture in 2003 and 2007. Farmers used the misfortune as a chance to pivot from water thirsty crops to grapevines, which use only 3% of the water required by a mature avocado tree.

The regrowth is still underway, but San Diego vintners are focused on putting San Diego back on the map as an award winning California wine region. During a recent Wine Studio education program, we had an opportunity to explore the wines of San Diego County.

A Diversity Of Wines and Vines

Vesper single vineyard CarignanWe certainly don’t have anything against Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Heavens no. Often, though, winemakers bend over backwards to produce what they think is most popular, rather than digging into the dirt and discovering what grape varieties thrive best in their locale.

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Our survey of San Diego County wines included Grenache Blanc, a Grenache rosé, Viognier, a sparkling red wine, Barbera, Sangiovese, Carignan, Syrah and a GSM blend. That’s grape diversity, for sure and the grape varieties reflect what’s best suited for the area rich in microclimates.

We sampled a quartet of San Diego bottles during our “Naughty Nine” wine tasting. We had a lot of wine to review and the best way was to throw an impromptu party. A very intriguing winery is Domaine Artefact, which specializes in Rhone grapes. We sampled their 2017 Les Printemps Grenache Rosé (SRP $30), made in the Provence style with tart strawberry and good acidity. Their Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend is called Rincon del Diablo (SPR $45) and is a stellar red, with complex cranberry and earthy notes.

Italian grapes are also well-represented in San Diego County, as wines from Altipiano Vineyard and Winery show. We tasted two high-end reds, the NV Estate Barbera ($58 SRP) and the 2016 Estate Sangiovese Reserve ($65 SRP). The Barbera is light and elegant with a nip of spice. The Sangiovese was our final wine of our tasting party and we enjoyed the bottle out on the patio. The juicy flavors continued to open up as we savored and swirled. Outstanding!

San Diego WinesWhite grapes were also amply represented, with an impressive 2015 Grenache Blanc from Stehleon Vineyards ($23 SRP) and a 2017 Viognier ($23 SRP) from Charlie & Echo, a small independent urban winery. Charlie & Echo had the most unique wine we sampled, a sparkling red blend of Zinfandel and Syrah called Darkstar ($25 SRP). This had notes of blackberries and plum with light, frizzante bubbles.

From Vesper Vineyards we sampled the 2013 Carignan McCormick Ranch (SRP $25). Vesper focuses on single vineyard wines and we enjoyed this at the house of friends with a grilled chicken dinner. It has medium body, great acidity and an explosion of raspberry flavor.

IMG_20181022_132022Our final wine was the Koi Zen Cellars 2016 Paso Syrah ($33 SRP). Koi Zen is a small lot producer and sources grapes from top vineyards. The Syrah grapes come from Paso Robles and it offers nice structure, bold tannins and brambly fruit.

We were impressed with the quality of San Diego wines. The wines are mostly small production using interesting grape varieties crafted by passionate winemakers. There’s a lot to like about San Diego wine country and now’s the perfect time for a wine tasting trip, before the masses discover it. Sip San Diego, you’ll enjoy.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Three Rivers Winery, Walla Walla: A Wine And Culinary Experience

Like the rivers for which it is named, Three Rivers Winery was flowing during our recent visit. The streams of premium wine were accompanied with superb culinary creations.

Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla

The Mystery Winery Revealed

One of the highlights of the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last month in Walla Walla, Washington, is the mystery bus tour. You line up and hop into a vehicle not knowing where you’ll end up. It’s a good surprise because your final destination will be a winery.

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This year instead of a rickety school bus, we were whisked away by limo to Three Rivers Winery. It was an evening of not-soon-to-be-forgotten wine, food and frolicking.

Three Rivers is named for three of the three most prominent rivers in Eastern Washington: Columbia, Snake, and Walla Walla. It was founded in 1999 and is best known for wines made with red Bordeaux grape varieties. It is part of the Foley Family Wines group, which includes a number of prominent California wineries and a trio in the Northwest.

The winery is set on a knoll overlooking surrounding vineyards and nearby Mill Creek. The building includes the production and storage facility, a tasting room and private meeting room. We met winemaker Holly Turner on the expansive porch and enjoyed a glass of the 2017 Sauvignon Blanc.

Three Rivers Winemaker Holly TurnerA Culinary Tour De Force

Our group of about 20 stepped inside the tasting room, which features vaulted ceilings, a stone hearth fireplace, and rustic timber beams. Notes of jazz wafted from a trio as we surveyed a table adorned with grape vines and so many wine glasses that we knew something special awaited.

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Turner began her winemaking work at Chateau Ste. Michelle before heading to Argentina to work at Bodega la Rural. It was her experience there that triggered her interest in Malbec. Under her guidance, Three Rivers has earned dozens of 90-plus scores in the wine press.

The Pacific Northwest is known not only for standout wine, but a vibrant food scene. Executive Chef Matt Antonich was equal to the stellar lineup of wines, presenting a five-course meal of succulent treats.

The wines for the evening are limited production, like most are in Walla Walla, with the majority being under 150 cases. While we enjoyed an excellent 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Three Rivers estate vineyard, the bulk of grapes come from some of the top vineyards in the Columbia Valley, such as Bacchus, Gamache, Seven Hills, Sagemoor and Weinbau. The fine-tuned blending of different grapes and vineyards is truly exceptional.

Saffron scallops and Three Rivers Reserve ChardonnayWhile reds from Washington State generate the most buzz, let’s give the white wines their proper due. After enjoying the refreshing, floral Sauvignon Blanc, our first course was pan seared Saffron Scallops over Alaskan king crab risotto and Reserve Chardonnay saffron beurre blanc served with the 2016 Reserve Chardonnay.

I would have considered it a fantastic evening if I only had the first course and the Chardonnay! The Chard blended magnificently with the scallops, remaining delicate with just the right oaking.

Later our dinner would be bookended with another white, the 2017 Riesling finished in steel with 3.7% residual sugar paired with a poached green Bartlett Pear served with – get this -- huckleberry mousse and a dollop of vanilla bean Frangelico cream.

Enter The Entrées

The red wines and the culinary team flexed their muscles with the three middle courses – each served with two wines. Our Rocky Mountain Elk Chop was served atop Asian short rib fried rice with a huckleberry Malbec gastrique and a fresh chanterelle elk demi-glace. This amazing dish was paired with the 2015 Walla Walla Syrah and 2016 Malbec. The Syrah dazzled with raspberry, dark fruit and cocoa. It has 10% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot to add to the intrigue. The Malbec shows the high potential for the grape in the Columbia Valley.

After an interesting intermezzo called Lemon Herb Bees Knees (an adult slush mixed with lemon, herbs, local honey and gin) we were treated to the next course: Cabernet Braised Lamb Shank. This dish featured blue cheese corn grits, roasted butternut squash and toasted black truffle squash seeds. Coincidently, this is what we typically have around our house on Tuesdays – as if!

Three Rivers WineryTwo Cabernets were poured for the lamb. The 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon is from the Three Rivers estate winery and the 2015 Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignon is from the Seven Hills Vineyard. Deep rich and dark, each was a powerful and perfect match for the meat.

Although it sure didn’t taste it, the next dish was meatless Impossible Mole Empanadas. Impossible Burgers are a meatless sensation that feel, taste and even “bleed” like burgers, but are plant based. The empanadas were served with classic red mole, tomatillo verde, and a chipotle lime sour cream.

For this Southwest style dish, two superb reds were featured. The 2015 Svelte is a 67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot Blend. The 2016 Trivulet is a 51% Cabernet Franc, 49% Merlot blend. These two wines illustrate why Three Rivers is known for the mastery of blends. The Svelte has coffee, cocoa and spice notes and won over the dinner table immediately. The Trivulet is a treat with blueberry flavors washing over a smooth texture.

This was an astonishingly wonderful wine dinner. Although far from New Orleans, it reminded me of the Cajun world lagniappe, which means giving something extra. Four courses would have been outstanding; our chef went above and beyond and served five. One outstanding wine with an entrée would have been expected and welcome – but we had two premium wines instead!

Bravo Three Rivers! This is a winery to visit and the wines are to savor and buy repeatedly.