Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lake Crest Winery, Washington

Recently, we stumbled on a true gem of a winery. Lake Crest Winery, in Oroville, Washington, is a fairly small (1,000 cases) regional producer in the Okanogan Valley, just a few miles from the Canadian border. The Canadian Okanagan Valley (yes, it’s spelled differently) is becoming well known for excellent wines, and if Lake Crest is any indication, the Washington-state side is primed to excel also.

We tried Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and a couple of late-harvest and ice wines. Every single wine we sampled was simply excellent, and the prices were fabulously affordable ($10-15 per bottle for the table wines, $11-18 for late-harvest half-bottles, $40 for the ice wine half-bottle).

Co-owner Boni Mathews told us that she and her husband, Ken, had been growing apples, pears, and other fruit in the area for decades, but about five years ago switched seven acres over to vineyards. We were amazed that every wine – every varietal – was estate grown. They’re growing great Pinot Noir farther north than I ever imagined it could thrive.

Apparently, the grapes love the hot summers in the valley, yet the winters get cold enough to produce ice wine. We tried a Syrah ice wine that had beautiful flavors of ... rhubarb. Not what you’d expect in a dessert wine, but fabulous nonetheless.

Lake Crest has limited distribution in the central Washington region, but Boni told us that they’ve just signed with a distributor that will be getting their wines into the Seattle area. If you have a chance to try any of their wines, don’t hesitate – just buy a bottle and enjoy.

We don’t often give plugs, but visit to see their current offerings. You can buy from them online.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Our Perfect Case of Affordable Wine

We’ve grown (maybe temporarily) tired of this particular game. We still love wine; we love food and cooking; but we’re tired of the blog-twitter-everything-internet-crap. So we thought we’d sign off, for now, with our list of A Perfect Case of Affordable Wines. When (if) we return, we’ll have much more of a focus on food and cooking (and wine pairings with meals).

These should be widely available, less than $12 (especially if on sale), and reliable from year-to-year.

Tapena Tempranillo (Spain)
Bogel Zinfandel (California)
Bogel Petite Sirah (or possibly Concannon as a substitute – both California)
Barnard Griffin Syrah (Washington)
Castle Rock Pinot Noir (California)
Beringer White Zinfandel (California)
Cristalino Rose or Brut Cava (Sparkling – Spain)
Covey Run Sauvignon Blanc (Washington)
Kiona Chenin Blanc (Washington)
Columbia Crest Pinot Grigio (Washington)
Barnard Griffin Chardonnay (Washington)
B&G Vouvray (France)

Adios, and Enjoy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Smoking Loon 2006 & 2007 Pinot Noir – California

Nose of blackberry and black cherry. The nose on the 06 is more distinctive; the 07 is a little alcoholy and vague, with more of a generic red wine aroma. Tastes from the 06 were of dried cherries and plum; with the 07, a bit more smoke and minerals. Some nice pinot earthiness with both. More toward the French style rather than a new-world fruit bomb. And we really don’t like “stupid-story-gimmick-labels,” and Smoking Loon has one of the worst. Tell us something about the wine, or its growing conditions, or something substantial if you have to say something on the back. Either vintage alone would probably have garnered a Yes rating, but the differences between the two make us downgrade it a notch, to Yes/Maybe. $9-10 on sale, regularly $12-14.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ridge Lytton Estate Zinfandel 1992 – California

Oh. My. God. Being on Ridge’s ATP mailing list, we were notified of this library release. We snatched up our two-bottle allocation, and opened the first one for Francesca’s birthday. This is far from tasting even the least bit old. Our real dilemma will be deciding when to open the other bottle.

Rather surprisingly, the nose is of dried oranges and some floral notes. But the tastes are still big, strong Zinfandel fruit for a 17-year-old wine. Cherries Jubilee, prune, berries, even a hint of mint. Very smooth and integrated, but still with distinct acid and tannins. If we could have known, and if we could have bought a case.... Yes, Yes. $50. If you stumble upon a well-stored bottle for under $100, snatch it up.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Adult Discretion Advised (If You Live in Alabama)

We’re sure – absolutely, really, really sure – that there are two sides to this story. But the news that the Alabama Beverage Control board has deemed the Cycles Gladiator wine label as pornographic is simply weird. But then, the label depicts an 1895 poster, so we guess it’s no surprise that Alabama is still living in the 19th century.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Here’s the Steak, Where’s The Sizzle?

Let’s say that you wanted to create a new international organization. A group of wine movers-and-shakers from five wine regions (California, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa) on four continents bent on getting more exposure for your wines, especially in the European Union, where New World wines are often overshadowed by continental offerings from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, probably even Slovenia.

Now, you’re living in 2009 (not 1989). What’s the first thing you do? You send out a press release and get lots of wine news websites and blogs mentioning your New World Wine Alliance. And you have all those articles link to your cool, visually rich, informative website. But....

Where’s the website? Yes, we know we’re a web-centric culture, but not having even a web page up is like not having stationary or a phone line. So at this time our conclusion is that this beast without a head is unlikely to survive, unless someone steps up to the plate and becomes the wrangler for these critters. Hey, New World Wine Alliance: Did I mention that I’ve been looking for a position in the wine industry?

UPDATE – 24 July: Or should it be: “Here’s the Sizzle, Where’s the Steak?”
A few more thoughts on the New World Wine Alliance.

Most of the international media reporting on this are saying the alliance is made up of five countries. California is not a country. The NWWA press release (we’re been unable to track down the original; here’s the version from Wines of Chile) says, “In a significant expression of unity, five competing New World wine-producing countries will be collaborating....”

The Wine Institute (“The Voice for California Wine”) has completely ignored the NWWA announcement. On Steve Heimoff’s blog, he writes: “The Wine Institute is telling [the EU] not to worry. ‘We already have a policy trade group,’ said an Institute spokesperson, who did not want to be identified.” Heimoff also quotes the anonymous Wine Institute spokesperson as saying, “This is just some marketing folks getting together to do something.”

To that comment, I’d be rather surprised. Real “marketing folks,” I’m sure, would have a better handle on, well, marketing (websites, social media, and a lot more). We can’t figure out who this is coming from. The “California” contact even has a German domain as an email address.

And the “policy trade group” mentioned, the World Wine Trade Group, has a website that appears to not have been updated in years - the last annual meeting they list was in 2007.

Finally, we feel slighted. Were we not important enough to be on the NWWA press release distribution list? Darn.

If anyone out there really knows what this group is, or how they’re marketing themselves, we’d love to hear more.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Crème Fraiche & Milbrandt Riesling

Crème Fraiche

Yes, we’re pretty late to the party. We make our own garlic Aioli by grinding fresh garlic cloves in a mortar. We use fresh herbs instead of dried whenever possible. We cook just about everything from scratch. But we never bothered to make Crème Fraiche.

Crème Fraiche is a French matured cream, but not at all like our U.S. sour cream. We’ve never found it in our semi-rural grocery stores, but we’ve read for years how “easy” it is to make. Even Julia Child has a recipe. The typical recipe calls for a cup of cream and a tablespoon or two of buttermilk. But who in the world has buttermilk in the fridge anymore, especially when it comes in quart cartons? Yet a few weeks ago we found a tiny half-pint carton of buttermilk, and decided to try this creation.

We mixed (without measuring, as usual) the cream and buttermilk and let it stand overnight until it actually did develop a nice, thick creamy consistency. It had a wonderful bite yet a smooth creaminess that sour cream just doesn’t have.

Since then, we’ve mixed it with Dijon mustard for a salad dressing; we’ve added honey and vanilla for a topping for fresh wild raspberries (not that the raspberries really needed anything); and we’ve mixed a bit of it with a leftover tomato-artichoke-olive sofrito to go on top of red potatoes steamed with fresh rosemary.

We’re hooked. Our most recent meal using Crème Fraiche was as the potato topping mentioned above, and for that dinner we also had halibut sautéed in butter and herbs accompanied by a crisp Washington state Riesling, reviewed below.

Milbrandt Riesling 2006 – Washington

When we bought this, we had no way of knowing if it were dry or sweet. Many Rieslings will note a style on the label (and we wish all wineries would), but without that information it’s hard to know whether to open a bottle of Riesling as an afternoon sipper or as a dinner wine. We took a wild guess, and were right with this one.

The nose is mild, with a bit of apple and herbs. The tastes are a nice medley of crab apple, apple, mild herbs, maybe a little grassy or leafy. It finishes crisply, with some mild but nice acidity. Surprisingly for a Riesling, it was still fine as it warmed in the glass on an 87-degree evening. It developed more depth and complexity, without losing that distinctive Riesling character.

The best part is the price – only $6.50 when we found it. At that price, it’s a House/Yes wine for sure (depending on availability).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Beringer White Merlot 2007 – California

Continuing our Summer Lightweights Series....

We didn’t really know what to think about this. We actually like Beringer’s White Zinfandel, and had suggested that wine to Francesca’s mother. But being 80-something, she couldn’t remember exactly what wine we told her about, so she bought this instead. In the spirit of research we, too, had to try it.

Bright color, nose of red fruits. Tastes of rhubarb, raspberries, and strawberries. A little drier than the White Zin. We don’t think this will be on our go-to list, but it ain’t bad, either. Your parents or grandparents may love it. Maybe. $6 on sale, regularly about $7.50.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Guest Blogger: Five Southern Hemisphere New World Wineries

[Keith, from Amsterdam, writes the travel blog and website Velvet Escape. We enjoyed his recent post about a few less-know wine regions so much that we asked him if we could post part of it here. You can also read Keith’s complete article on Velvet Escape.]

Europe has many of the finest wineries in the world. Anyone who has visited Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Veneto, or Rioja can attest to the stunning scenery and some of the most heavenly wines in the world.

In the past ten years, wines from the New World (including Chile, Argentina, South Africa, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand), have grown tremendously in popularity. I started “researching” (that’s a good word) New World wines quite a few years ago and since then I’ve become a huge fan of wines from, especially, Australia, Chile and South Africa. When I eventually got the chance to travel through these countries, visits to various wineries naturally became a part of the itinerary. What I encountered were gorgeous wineries in breathtaking surroundings, and wines that were truly sublime. For this article, I’ve picked five wineries in the Southern Hemisphere which I’ve visited in the past two years. These wineries produce a variety of delicious wines in beautiful settings.

Boschendal (South Africa)
This winery is located in the Western Cape, halfway between the historic towns of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The lovely Cape Dutch buildings form a stark contrast with the rugged Groot Drakenstein mountains in the background. The scenery is indeed breathtaking. You can combine a wine-tasting here with a delicious lunch under the shady trees with a view of the mountains. One of the most intriguing wines produced here is a Pinot Noir/Chardonnay blend.

Montes (Chile)
The wines produced at this estate are arguably some of Chile’s finest. Located in the charming, hilly Colchagua Valley, this winery features a hyper-modern central building designed by a team of Chile’s most renowned architects, and an impressive cellar. The Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are absolutely divine!

Domaine Chandon (Australia)
Situated in the Yarra Valley, just east of Melbourne, the Domaine Chandon estate (of the famous Möet & Chandon name) produces an exclusive selection of beautiful sparkling wines (you can’t call it champagne if it doesn’t originate from the region of Champagne in France). The verdant rolling hills form a gorgeous setting for this estate with its signature Victorian manor.

Errazuriz (Chile)
Errazuriz is one of Chile’s most prominent families and they own several high-profile wineries in the Aconcagua Valley. Fed by the molten snow from South America’s highest peak (Mt. Aconcagua), the historic Errazuriz estate boasts a variety of beautiful wines including the Merlot and Shiraz.

Bodega Ruca Malen (Argentina)
Ruca Malen is located south of Argentina’s wine capital, Mendoza. The scenery is truly magnificent: row upon row of vines with the awe-inspiring snowy peaks of the Andes mountains as the backdrop. This winery produces a selection of delicious Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec blend is also noteworthy. You can opt to combine a wine-tasting with a gourmet seven-course lunch, whilst enjoying the breathtaking view of the Andes.

This is but a small selection of wineries that have made the biggest impression on me. If you’ve been to an amazing winery in any of these New World wine countries, please feel free to share your experiences with me.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Maryhill Sauvignon Blanc 2007 – Washington

Mayhill is a big winery on the Washington state side of the Columbia River a couple of dozen miles east of Hood River, Oregon. The winery has a big tasting room, filled with gifts and wine accessories, as well as a friendly and enthusiastic staff. The tasting room felt very Napa-ish, but was uncrowded when we were there midweek in April.

One thing that really creeped us out, though, was that there were a LOT of sterile, annoying, little “nag” signs all over the tasting room, the grounds, even in the parking lot, along the lines of: “Keep Off The Grass,” “Put Trash Here,” “Bathrooms Only For Customers”, “Don’t Feed The Dog Your Leftover Lunch,” “Blah, Blah, Blah.” Sort of like Windows Vista, the computer operating system that nags you at every turn.

Anyway.... The Maryhill Sauvignon Blanc is very Bordeaux-ish. It opens with a nose that makes you think it’s going to be more New Zealand – grassy, bright, lemons. But the tastes are more California/French in style – grapefruit, no grassiness, some smooth roundness and defined acidity. Try it if such is your style; for us, Maybe. $14

Thursday, July 2, 2009

You Expected Exactly What for Your 5 Bucks?

Would you pay $5 for a glass of Two Buck Chuck (aka Two Buck Junk)? Southwest Airlines isn’t exactly pouring TBC, but has switched its wine service to Coastal Ridge Chardonnay and Merlot, both made by the same Bronco Wine Company that makes Trader Joe’s TBC.

We’re pretty sure that Coastal Ridge wines don’t exactly come from the same giant vat as TBC, but they still taste like industrial, sterilized White Wine and Red Wine. But hey, your sense of taste is dulled in an airplane, anyway, right?

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New! New! Not.

We’ve been going through a phase. We’re actually a little tired of trying new this, new that, in search of another good affordable everyday wine. We’ve just been buying our known favorites – two of this, three of that, maybe even a case of something just to have Old Reliable on hand.

Thus, we don’t have a lot of new reviews we’re excited about (although we do have a backlog of tasting notes still to post). So we thought we’d list – for you and as a reminder for ourselves – some of our current all-time-favorite fallback affordable wines. These are the wines we’re buying in multiple quantities and keeping on hand for everyday drinking.

  • Castle Rock Pinot Noir – California
  • Barnard Griffin Syrah – Washington
  • Red Diamond Syrah – Washington
  • Concannon Petite Sirah – California
  • Barnard Griffin Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot – Washington
  • Tapeña Garnacha (Grenache) – Spain
  • Tapeña Tempranillo – Spain
  • Beringer White Zinfandel – California
  • Brancott Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand
  • Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc – New Zealand
  • Barnard Griffin Sauvignon Blanc – Washington
  • Covey Run Fume (Sauvignon) Blanc – Washington
  • B&G Vouvray (Chenin Blanc) – France
  • Kiona Chenin Blanc – Washington
  • Columbia Crest Pinot Grigio – Washington
  • Ryan Patrick Naked Chardonnay – Washington
  • Barnard Griffin Chardonnay – Washington
  • Bogel Petite Sirah – California
  • Bogel Old Vine Zinfandel – California
All of the wines on the above list should be readily available for under $15, many even for $10 or less. And they all should be widely available.

You might notice, sadly, that there aren’t any affordable Zinfandels on that list. We absolutely adore Zin, yet have been disappointed with several (many) sub-$15 wines we previously enjoyed. The closest we have come are Dancing Bull and Ravenswood (for when we don’t want to break out a Ridge or Turley; both of which are generally in the $30+ range), but we just don’t think they quite make this list. It’s also unfortunate that there are so few nice Pinot Noirs in our “affordable” price range. We could drink Pinot Noir every day – if we could find a few in our everyday-budget range. UPDATE: We've added Bogel's Old Vine Zin to our list – the best "cheap" Zin we're recently discovered.

Finally, note that there are four Sauvignon Blancs on the list – probably because it’s summer and we love those wines this time of year. The two New Zealand wines are bright, crisp, and grassy – typical NZ styles. The two Washington wines are more mellow but still fresh and lively – excellent summer dinner wines.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Worthwhile Wine Reading

Boschendal is a winery in South Africa we’ve never heard of, nor have we tried any of their wines. But we instantly fell in love with their blog (which is mostly a wine news round-up from many international sources).

Here are some of our favorite headlines from recent posts:

England – It’s against the law to have wine with your picnic
French wines are now allowed to advertise on the internet
What not to do with wine
Women prefer more expensive wine

The last story is especially fascinating, in that it discusses a taste test that seems to indicate that when the price of a bottle is known in advance, women (but not men) rate it higher in quality. We, being smarter than the writers of the original article, refuse to even speculate on why that might be. Great reading, nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Wine Blog Writing Disclosures

If you write a wine blog – or any blog, for that matter – watch out what you write and how you disclose any compensation you might receive. The Federal Trade Commission wants to get in your face and “monitor” what’s written online about wines, wineries, products, books, trips, companies, or anything that purports to be a sort of “review” that might have been influenced by compensation from a business. The FTC has an 86-page document detailing the proposal.

UPDATE: John C. Dvorak, writing on, has the most well-written commentary on this topic. He didn’t pay us anything to say that.

“I’m from the government and I’m here to help:
Did you pay for that burger yourself, son?”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Turley Zinfandel Atlas Peak Mead Ranch 2007 – California

This was a fun experiment. We’d had Turley Zins before, but they’d always been older vintages that were in bottle for at least a few years. We recently got on Turley’s mailing list, and this new release was one of the bottles from our shipment. We’d been trying to decide when to open the first bottle – now or wait. Obviously, with this bottle, “now” won.

This is a big, jammy wine. Like a raspberry pie. It has an enticing berry nose, and there’s nothing shy about the tastes – sharp acids and new tannins, but balanced by all that fruit. We do think we’ll give the rest of our 2007 Turleys a year or two (at least) in bottle.

As we are sort of new to Turley, we decided to have an expensive evening so opened a 2005 Ridge Geyserville Zinfandel “just for comparison.” (We’ve previously said that this Ridge was one of our all-time favorite, “desert island” wines.) The two wines were surprisingly similar, but the Ridge had a more subtle nose and more integrated tastes. That could be because of two more years in the bottle, the vintage itself, or the winemaker’s style. Both wines were wonderful. Overall we said the Ridge was more “elegant” and the Turley was more “powerful,” despite so many similarities. We’ll let you know in a couple of years how these Turleys are shaping up. Yes. $35

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sutter Home Chenin Blanc 2007 and Sutter Home Moscato 2007 – California

From the makers of one of the iconic California White Zinfandels, comes this Chenin Blanc. Definitely California, not a dry French style. Nose is sweetly floral and honey. Tastes are of smooth apricot, honey, and just enough acid to keep the sweetness from being sticky. Not an everyday food wine, but at the price a nice patio sipper. Yes. $5

The Sutter Home Moscato is so similar to the Chenin Blanc that it could have come from the same vat... except that this doesn’t have the acid to balance the sweetness. (Beringer also makes a cheap Moscato, which we far preferred. And as we’ve noted before, we really like less-known varietals.) Maybe. $5

Monday, June 15, 2009

Guest Blogger: A New Wine Rating System

(Tom Briggs of Fort Worth, Texas, sent us a note about his wine experiences. We enjoyed his rating system so much we decided to let Tom explain it here.)

I wanted to let you know that I’ve enjoyed reading AMealWithoutWine for some time now. I really like its perspective.

We rate every wine we drink on what I call an “X” scale: That is, a wine that’s worth what we paid for it gets a 1X, something worth triple what we paid gets a 3X, and so on. We try to hit at least a 2X or 3X, even though most of what’s out there – especially from California – usually doesn’t even make it up to 1X. As AMealWithoutWine has indirectly pointed out, Washington state has some real finds. Covey Run’s basic Riesling, for example, generally gets a 2.5X or a 3X (we pay $9, but it’s better than a lot of Rieslings in the mid $20s), as does the Ste. Michelle, and they’re generally repeatable and consistent from year to year.

The main problem we run into is repeatability: Often when we find a great value wine, it’s either completely gone the next time we shop for it, or the next vintage year isn’t as good. Our record-breaking find was a Monterra Monterey County Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, which we rated at an eye-popping 10X: We paid $4 but we thought it was worth $40. (It was fully mature, with a fair amount of sediment and a decent amount of real aged Grand-Cru taste.) Of course that’s gone forever and we only managed to buy 8 cases. The Columbia Crest Two Vines Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 was a real find at 4X (we paid only $6), but the 2005 wasn’t anywhere close to as good. That’s the story of our wine life – trying to find the best quality for the price.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Castle Rock Pinot Noir 2007 – California

We’ve experienced back-and-forth availability for this, yet it’s always been one of our favorite inexpensive Pinots. Recently found it again on one of our travels. Despite our challenges finding it in rural Washington, it seems to have pretty wide availability.

Nose is of cherry, cherry, cherry. Taste is of cherry, cherry, cherry – a mixed bowl of cherries. (“Just a bowl of cherries.” Sorry.) Maybe a tiny touch of earth, and some notes of rose hips and thimbleberries. (Does anyone else know what a thimbleberry tastes like? It’s sort of a soft, mild raspberry.) House. Usually about $10 on sale, $12 retail.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Winery of the Half-a-Year

We still have more than half a year of tastings ahead of us, so we won’t finalize our Winery of the Year until the end of 2009. But we did want to highlight a winery that has incredibly impressed us so far, and is a top candidate for WOTY honors.

Without exception, every wine we’ve tried from Barnard Griffin winery has been a winner. We don’t generally care for most Cabernet Sauvignon, yet their non-vintage Cabernet/Merlot received our House rating, as did both their Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. We gave both their Chardonnay and White Riesling a Yes rating.

The winery is located in the Yakima Valley in south-central Washington (Richland), and in our experience the wines have good availability at retail in Washington state. Barnard Griffin also has three different wine clubs available, as well as an online store, if you can’t find the wines in your area.

Watch for our Winery of the Year 2009 post in January (which may, of course, contain surprises), but until then, sample some of the Barnard Griffin wines.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cathedral Ridge Pinot Noir 2006 - Oregon

Nose of smoke and black cherry. The tastes carry through with the same notes, and some acidity and heat. This feels “young,” and might benefit from a couple of years of bottle age. (Or not. It’s hard to tell with anything less than great Pinots if they’ll improve with age, or just become tired versions of their younger selves.) Maybe. $26

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Columbia Crest Shiraz – Grand Estates 2006 and Two Vines 2005 – Washington

We’ve generally believed that many high-volume production wines vary little from year to year. We’ve been buying these two Columbia Crest Syrahs for several years, but when we opened these last two bottles they tasted a bit “different” from what our taste buds remembered. So we judged them again, and only later went back to see our postings about the 2003 Grand Estates and the 2003 Two Vines (the only vintages we’ve published online).

The 2005 Two Vines wine was tight and earthy. We didn’t finish it the first night, and it definitely softened and “improved” the following evening. On that second evening, we opened the 2006 Grand Estates wine (about $3-4 more expensive). It was certainly more integrated, and this time Francesca liked the Grand Estates wine better – the last time we reviewed these, she preferred the Two Vines.

The significant difference from the older vintages is that these newer ones are more earthy and less fruity. That could be from the grapes and growing conditions from the different years, or it could also be an intentional stylistic change by the winemaker.

We’d certainly buy either of these Syrahs no matter what the vintage year on the label. These are still solid Washington state Syrahs, and they remain on our House wine list, despite the slight changes in these latest vintages. Change is not a bad thing – these wines are just as good, just different.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rhubarb Apricot Chutney & Chardonnay

It’s spring, and rhubarb is busting out in the garden. We’ve been trying to find other uses for the tart plant than simply in the ubiquitous Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. So we created a chutney.

Last night, we had this chutney with quinoa, a piece of rockfish, and a mixture of roasted garlic, pearl onions, and shallots. We paired the meal with a Barnard Griffin Chardonnay.

Barnard Griffin Chardonnay 2007 – Washington
Still another winner from Barnard Griffin. Nose is distinctly of apples, with floral notes, violets, mints, herbs. The taste has a nice medley of crisp green apple, lemon, a hint of earthiness, maybe even eucalyptus? Does it make any sense to say it’s light but has a little weight? Just enough acid keeps it from being dense and overly creamy. Yes. $10 on sale, usually $14.


  • Cut rhubarb stalks (the leaves are not edible) into 1/2-inch pieces, making about 2 cups
  • Coarsely chop about 1/2 cup onion
  • Quarter dried apricots to make about 1 cup
  • Put about 1/2 cup vinegar and maybe 1/4 cup sugar in a saucepan
  • Add all the onion and half the rhubarb (this portion of rhubarb will cook down to almost a paste)
  • Add spices of choice – we used a home-made Garam Masala (Indian spice mixture), but ginger, cinnamon, or such would be good
  • After about 10 minutes of cooking, add the apricots
  • When the apricots soften (maybe another 10 minutes more), add the other cup of rhubarb (you might need to add a bit more vinegar if chutney looks too dry)
  • Cook until the second round of rhubarb begins to soften, but stop cooking while the pieces are still whole
  • Chill immediately

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chateau St. Michele Syrah 2003 – Washington

This has a nice spicy and blackberry nose. The tastes are creamy, rather soft for a Syrah, with blackberries and blueberries and a hint of lemon. There’s also some prune and leather in there somewhere. It’s kind of thick and jammy, with soft acids and mild tannins. Yes/Maybe. $11 on sale, $15 regularly.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Monkey Bay Chardonnay 2004 – New Zealand

We generally think of New Zealand as specializing in Sauvignon Blanc. We enjoyed the Monkey Bay Sauvignon a lot, so when we saw this Chardonnay, we thought we’d try it without knowing anything about it.
It has some wonderful, deep aromas – vanilla, honey, and ripe apples. The tastes are of apple (both crisp green apple, and fuller ripe red apples), with a bit of an herbal/spicy note – maybe rosemary? It’s a bit woody and creamy, but has some crispness to cut through those notes. Yes. $10 on sale, usually about $14.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sorensen Pinot Gris/Sauvignon Blanc 2006 – Washington

Sorensen is a small winery in Port Townsend, Washington. It sources grapes mostly from the Yakima Valley and other Washington appellations (no estate or regional Olympic Peninsula grapes are used). It has a small, friendly tasting room, and charges a nominal tasting fee. (We still have a huge gripe about tasting rooms that charge for tasting, then sell you wine at full retail without applying the tasting fee – however small – toward your purchase.)

This wine is a blend of 64% Pinot Gris and 36% Sauvignon Blanc – a mixture we wouldn’t have thought of combining. The nose is perfumey and slightly medicinal. The tastes are of mushrooms, sourdough starter, and baked apple. This seems like a well-made wine that just didn’t really appeal to our taste preferences. Maybe. $14.50

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Ridge Zinfandel Paso Robles 2006 – California

Wow, did this catch Ken by surprise. Francesca handed him a glass blind, and as much as we know and love Ridge wines, Ken thought this was a big French Burgundy (Pinot Noir). Oops. But it does show some of those characteristics. Nose of dark cherries, earth, loam, peat moss. Deep tastes of black cherries, earth, and a bit of spice. To us, quite different from the usual big Ridge fruit bombs. More reserved and subtle, with smoother, dry, but not harsh tannins. Beautiful garnet cherry color. Yes. About $30.

Monday, March 30, 2009

French Hill Confusion 2005 – California

This is a “meritage” red blend. Both of us liked this wine, but we described it totally differently. I guess Confusion is an apt name.
Francesca said the nose was of prunes and boysenberry. Ken thought it had violets, bing cherries, and weirdly maybe some roasted red chilies.
As for taste, Francesca noted spice, licorice, almonds, and anise. Ken found smoke, earth, and lots of California fruit. It’s almost like a big Zin in fruitiness, but balanced and mellow. There’s definitely some spice involved. Like a French red blend but with California fruitiness. The blend is Malbec, Tempranillo, and Petite Sirah. A House/Yes wine, and we’re generally not huge fans of “generic” red blends. Very well done.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Kiona Chenin Blanc 2004 – Washington

We’re always on the lookout for Chenin Blanc (as well as other less-popular whites). We picked this up knowing absolutely nothing about the winery or this particular Chenin Blanc. It opens with a nose of orange and lemon. Tastes of lemon, orange, papaya (the label says “tropical fruit”), and new-mown hay – just a hint of some kind of (good) grassiness. It’s smooth, and the slight touch of sweetness is balanced by some nice, tangy acids. Fun and different. House. $7.50 on sale, usually about $10.50.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wild Mushrooms

What is it about mushrooms – especially wild mushrooms – that intrigues folks so much? Sure, some can have interesting and distinctive flavors, but those are usually of the earth/peat/woodsy variety. Wild mushrooms can also very easily kill you. They’re hard to find, they’re fragile, and they live in the dirt. Nonetheless, they are esteemed in many food cultures. Because, truly, there are few tastes as earthy, subtle, and varied as wild mushrooms. They come in varying sizes, colors, tastes, and seasons.

This article is NOT about mushroom identification. You should rely on knowledgeable teachers and quality guidebooks for mushroom identification – even then, some excellent edibles have look-alikes which are not edible or are poisonous.

We know just enough about gathering and eating wild mushrooms to be appropriately cautious – very cautious. And to make our lawyers happy, let us state upfront that if you have ANY doubt about any mushroom, do not try even a single bite. It’s suggested by most authorities that you don’t eat wild mushrooms raw, and that even with a positively identified known edible, it’s best to sample a small portion the first time around.

All that out of the way, we love wild mushrooms. Some of the mushrooms we find most flavorful – and also ones that we think we can identify “no-fail” – include:

King Bolete – Woodsy, earthy flavor. This is the Porcini of Italy and the Cepe of France. Their flavor intensifies after drying. Wonderful in quiches, casseroles, and with eggs. Along with Morels and Chanterelles, they are some of the most sought-after wild mushrooms.

Chanterelle – Delicate, almost fruit-like flavors. These work well in cream sauces and with chicken, fish, eggs, pasta, and vegetables. Wonderful in Alfredo sauces over pasta. These may get tough with drying – instead either sauté and freeze, or only partially dry and then freeze.

Puffballs – A mild, earthy taste by themselves, but we love them sliced and sautéed for Puffball Lasagna. They range from small pear-shaped puffballs to giant puffballs more than a foot across. The insides deteriorate quickly – make sure they’re pure white inside.

Shaggy Mane – Very fragile, and they go bad within hours of gathering. But quickly sauté them in a little butter and they are great in delicate cream sauces or with fish or eggs.

White Matsutake – Very strong, peppery flavors. We like them sautéed almost crunchy, and use them on top of crepes, quiches, and casseroles. A little goes a long way.

Meadow mushroom – This is the wild version of the grocery-store mushroom. It is the Champignon of France, and can be used like any commercial mushroom. It is a white version of the Crimini or the larger Portobello (same mushroom, just different in size).

Prince – The Prince is rather like a large, more-flavorful meadow mushroom. Or like a robust Portobello (which itself is really just a type of Champignon). We use the Prince similarly to a Portobello.

Morel – To some folks this is one of the jewels in the crown. As with the Boletes, this is best dried and then used re-hydrated, intensifying its flavors. Rich and earthy. Great in soups, sauces, and pasta.

Tree Ears – These rubbery mushrooms are probably inedible in themselves, but dried they add some interesting and subtle flavors to soups. Common in Oriental cooking.

There are many other excellent edible mushrooms, but they are ones we encounter less frequently (hen-of-the-woods, blewits, hedgehog). Also, to us, some of the “choice” edibles simply don’t have all that much flavor (Oysters and Honey mushrooms, for example).

Preserving: 1) Some mushrooms – especially firm-fleshed ones like boletes, meadows, and morels – dry well. We typically dry mushrooms in a fruit dehydrator. 2) Some mushrooms (prince, matsutake) keep well in the refrigerator for as long as do grocery-store mushrooms. Put them in a paper bag, but try to eat as soon as possible. 3) Freezing. We generally sauté fragile mushrooms very lightly in butter or oil and freeze them in small containers or in freezer bags. We have had success freezing boletes and chanterelles raw, but they usually come out of the freezer a little soggy – OK if you’ll be cooking them in a sauce later.

Cooking With: 1) Dried mushrooms should be rehydrated in warm water, broth, cream, milk, or wine, depending on the recipe. Many mushrooms (boletes, morels) actually intensify in flavor after being dried – you may not need as many as you think. 2) Frozen mushrooms – either sautéed or raw – should be drained of as much water as possible, and then lightly re-sautéed before adding to your dish. 3) Fresh mushrooms are the best. Cook them generally however you’d cook commercial mushrooms. 4) Try not to add too many spices to any mushroom dish. You want the flavor of the mushrooms to shine through, not overwhelming spices.

If you’re unsure about finding, identifying, cleaning, picking, and cooking wild mushrooms, the best way to start using wild mushrooms in your cooking is with a trip to the grocery store. You can usually find packets of dried wild mushrooms – often a “forest mix” – at reasonable prices. Rehydrate the mushrooms in warm water, wine, or cream, depending on your recipe. These rehydrated mushrooms can sometimes be a little tough, so you might want to simmer in a liquid or the sauce rather than eating right after rehydrating.

Some of our favorite recipes using mushrooms include: Bolete-brie quiche; potato-bolete soup; chanterelles in Alfredo sauce over pasta; puffball lasagna; prince or meadows mushrooms in omelets or quiches; and lightly sautéed shaggy manes over halibut. Once you know your mushrooms, experiment with ingredients. As noted above, our biggest suggestion is to spice very lightly if at all – mushrooms have delicate, intricate flavors, and you don’t want to overwhelm them with heavy doses of herbs and spices.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Syrah 2006 – California

At one time, the Mondavi winery produced the premier wines of Napa Valley. You might not have liked a particular wine, but they were always well made and well regarded. Now, Mondavi is owned by Constellation, and sources grapes from places far removed from Napa Valley. This wine tastes like nothing so much as ... Red Wine; industrial stuff out of a common vat. Nose: red wine. Taste: red wine, like an inexpensive Bordeaux blend with a few oak chips thrown in for a bit of depth and tannin. There is no hint of Syrah that we can find, except for the fact that it isn’t light and watery. There’s no reason this should be a “No” wine, for it’s not really bad. It’s just so absolutely sad and ... boring. Maybe/No. $8 on sale, regularly $12.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Matanzas Creek Chardonnay 2006 – California

It’s two-for-two on the whites we brought back from Matanzas Creek Winery, outside Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County, California. This has a nose of tropical fruit, papaya, pineapple, and – oddly but nicely – an earthiness. It’s a moderately creamy style, but without excessive heaviness too often found in California Chards. Some honey notes, and the Chardonnay character shows well though some mild oak. Yes. About $15.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Rancho Zabaco Dancing Bull Zinfandel 2006 – California

Dancing Bull has received many recommendations as a good, inexpensive California Zin. We used to drink it frequently, but for some reason stopped the past few years. We just tried it again, and were pleased. Nose of grapes and plums. On the palate it’s a very fruity style; not a lot of tannins, acid, or oak. Beautiful color. Notes of cherries, violets, and spice. Yes. $8.50 on sale, usually about $10.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mirassou Pinot Noir 2006 & 2007 – California

We’ve been searching for a cheap, fruity Pinot Noir as a replacement for the “original” Beringer Founders Estate we loved so much when it was made from California grapes. The 2006 Mirassou, from a sixth-generation California wine family, came pretty darn close. The nose was smoky, with some plum and cherry notes, maybe pomegranate. The tastes included those smoke, plum, and cherry flavors, along with some other great fruit, including some nice grape flavors. (Yes, we know, “grape,” weirdly, isn’t supposed to be a positive flavor in contemporary wines, but we rather like the tastes of fresh, ripe grapes.) The plum tastes were sweet (not in a sugary sense), and there was also some mild dark cherry and a hint of spiciness. This was very smooth and nice, and was on our short list for a new standby for our “cheap-and-fruity” California Pinot. We rated it House/Yes. $10 on sale, usually around $12.

The first bottle of the 2007 we tried echoed the above themes. We were pleased. But then, after two more bottles of the 07, we’re not so sure. The wine is now earthier and has lost much of the fruitiness we enjoyed so much. Is this a case of inconsistency? Between vintage years? Or even between bottles? Hard to judge. The latest wines aren’t bad (in the sense of being corked or such), just not the same. We’ll try a few more bottles, as we have liked this wine, and report our findings. (The 2007 is what’s on the shelves now.) As of now, we’re changing this rating to Yes/Maybe, until further tasting.

Another weird note: Looking back at some of our much older notes, we’d previously had this on our No list. Our notes don’t have details that far back, or mention why we rated it a No. But it probably shows what a difference vintage year or grape source can make. Or maybe our tastes changed, or we had a bad bottle previously.

More wine drinking (what a shame) is in order to see if we can determine a pattern, and if we’ll continue to keep trying this over the long term. Consistency is something we look for in “everyday” wines, so it’s not really looking good for this Mirassou, although we’ll keep an open mind.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Beringer Sparkling White Zinfandel NV – California

This tastes just like... sparkling white Zinfandel. Nose of strawberries and a bit of melon. Tastes of apricot and strawberries. Definitely some sweetness, with coarse (rather than fine) bubbles. Nothing to write home about, but if you like California white Zin, you’ll probably enjoy this. Yes for Francesca, Maybe for Ken. $8.50 on sale, usually $13.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beringer Third Century Pinot Noir 2006 – California

After loving Beringer’s Founders Estate Pinot when it was made with California grapes, and not loving it when it was made with French or Italian grapes, we decided to try this “Central Coast” (California) Pinot. It opens with a blackberry nose that’s very nice. Taste-wise, it’s much more of a French style (which we like) and far better than the Founders French mentioned above. Still, we’re looking for that great New World fruit style to replace our “original” favorite Founders Pinot. Alas, this isn’t it. Tastes of smoke, earth, with a short, acid, almost lemony finish. Not much fruit on the palate. Yes/Maybe. $12 on sale, usually 16.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cloudline Pinot Noir 2006 – Oregon

We had this wine at Cedars Floating Restaurant in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the recommendation of our waitress. (It’s always a question of how much wine experience wait staff have, and if their tastes are at all like ours.) The wine starts with a smoky, peppery nose. Tastes of earth, smokiness, black current. Very smooth, rich, and integrated. Yes. $45 on the restaurant’s wine list; we found it for about $24 retail. (Watch for an upcoming article about restaurant wine mark-ups.)

Cedars Restaurant floats on the waters along the shore of Lake Coeur d’Alene. It’s a cute concept, and the restaurant is kinda northwest nautical inside. The menu and wine list are nice for this part of the country, and food was cooked to order and imaginatively.

Restaurant Wines

We generally only dine out when we travel. The times we do we eat out close to home at a “local” spot, we frequently just choose familiar and affordable wines. But any wine accompanying a restaurant meal takes on different complexity, tastes, and meaning – the atmosphere, the quality of the food, etc. all play a factor. Thus, we caution that our reviews of restaurant wines might be colored by the dining experience itself. If we try a new wine in a restaurant we might try to find it at retail. If so, we would “re-review” the wine without the restaurant-atmosphere bias (and add notes to our original post). But in general, we don’t choose restaurant wines that we see at retail – that’s the point of trying something different in a restaurant. We also gravitate toward less-popular (at least in the U.S.) selections in restaurants – such as Marsanne/Roussanne, Corbieres, or Muscadet – which are generally otherwise only found in specialty wine shops. Look for our Restaurant Wines icon on reviews of wines we’ve had in restaurants.

Friday, February 13, 2009

French Hill Almond Sparkling Wine Non-Vintage – California

There’s a local joke in the California central valley. The locals pronounce “Almond” as “A-mond.” So.... You have to know how almonds are harvested. There are big machines that grab the trunks of the trees, and shake them until the nuts fall to the ground. The joke is that they say “Amond” because... “they shake the L out of them.” Guess you had to be there. Anyway.... The nose of this sparkler is of... Almonds. Tastes of almond, cherry. It’s quite smooth, and quite sweet. We like French Hill’s reds a lot, but this takes some getting used to. Yes for Francesca, Maybe for Ken. $18

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Sea Ridge White Zinfandel 2006 – California

We never know what to expect from a $5 wine (which is probably why we seldom buy them). We just bought this blind, because we actually like white Zins (if they’re not syrupy sweet); and because we just sometimes try something for no particular reason. Poured into the glass, this has a peach/pink color – sort of like the old, original “flesh”-colored Crayons. The nose is quite light, with hints of peach, apricot, and strawberry. The tastes are quite nice with peach, papaya, and a touch of strawberry. This is pleasant, light, with a slight acidity that keeps it from being KoolAid. Yes/Maybe (at the price). Still, we doubt we’ll go out of our way to buy this again. $5 retail ($4.50 on sale).

BACKGROUND NOTE: From everything we can find, Sea Ridge was an independent winery on the California coast in the 1980s and early ’90s. It seems it’s now a label of Bronco, and sold in Safeway stores. Bronco also makes the (in)famous “Two Buck Chuck” (aka Two Buck Junk).

A 2004 Wine Business magazine article says: “[Fred Franzia, owner of Bronco and creator of Two-Buck] also seems mystified that more groceries don’t emulate Trader Joe’s. ‘How can any major grocery chain not have a wine that competes with Two Buck Chuck?,’ he asked. He said that Bronco’s Sea Ridge brand, which is sold in Safeway for $4.50, sells for about the same at wholesale as [Two Buck Chuck], so Safeway could sell the wine for $2 and still make a profit.”

The implication being that Two Buck Junk sells for about $1 wholesale. As does, apparently, this Sea Ridge White Zin. Draw your own conclusions.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Matanzas Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2006 – California

Matanzas Creek is one small valley west of the Sonoma Valley, in a beautiful setting of lilac fields and rolling hillsides. The tasting room is friendly and open, and the grounds are gorgeous.
This wine opens with a nicely floral nose. It has bright, zingy tastes, like a not-too-tart grapefruit. This tends a bit more toward the New Zealand style (grassiness) than most California Sauvignon Blancs, but finds a nice balance before getting too far toward that grassy style. More nice floral notes in the taste, and it finishes dry with a good acid balance. This would be great with rich seafood. Yes/House. $24

(Wine News rated this 90; Wine Enthusiast 91.)