Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Flurry of Festivals

If you’re making travel plans for the summer--or the rest of the year--take a look at The Big List of Festivals on It seems that no matter which direction you’re headed, there’s a wine festival on the calendar. Starting this weekend, Taste of Pennsylvania Wine and Music Festival, a small event in close by York, PA features six bands and ten wineries—wish I could bring the kids along, but it’s over 18 only. Venturing farther afield this weekend, Vintage Virginia is a larger party down in Centreville, VA. Planning your vacation around a wine festival will land you in some pretty beautiful spots. How about a spring break at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic? A summer weekend in Santa Barbara at the California Wine Festival? Or spending a winter weekend basking in sunshine and drinking wine at the Cabo San Lucas International Wine Festival January 16-19, 2009? More than 200 festivals are listed all around the world. Start packing!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Can I get that Jeroboam to go?

The wine tasting class I took through the Caldwell Adult School culminated in a festive wine dinner at Luce. Our teacher, Dan Kifner, brought out many special wines for the occasion, including this large bottle of 1998 Ferrari-Carano Alexander Valley Chardonnay. About 40 folks sampled this bottle, and it was only half drunk by the end of the night (as opposed to the wine dinner attendees, who were wholly drunk by the end of the night).
I was always intrigued by the names of larger bottles of wine. They start with a Magnum, which is 1.5 liters. Then you move on to a 4.5 liter bottle, known as a Jeroboam. It holds six standard-size bottles of wine. The name comes from a rather naughty Israelite king who brought back golden calves among other sinful moves. Then there’s Methuselah, the longest living man in Genesis, weighing in at six liters. The largest bottles are Salmanazar, an Assyrian king (9 liters), Balthazar, a Babylonian king and big partier (12 liters), and they top out at Nebuchadnezzar, another Babylonian king who is remembered for destroying the Temple of Solomon and having a really fun name (15 liters).
At the end of our dinner Dan told me I could take the half-full Jeroboam. The still- heavy bottle stood upright in my trunk for the short ride. Once home, I transferred the contents to three empty wine bottles and put rubber stoppers into them.
I am still working my way through the remains of the Jeroboam. As for the wine itself, this California Chardonnay is a decade old, and it has aged beautifully. The color is of burnished gold. It tastes like granny smith apples and bosch pears drizzled with honey. One bottle of the 1998 sells for about $35, so I came home with over $90 worth of chard--the best leftovers I've ever had.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

My Violet Quest

At one point in my wine education, I learned that Italian wines can smell like violets. Here’s the frustrating thing. When was the last time you smelled a violet? Here in NJ, U.S.A., they’re not exactly sprouting out of every garden bed…unlike, honeysuckles and lilacs--gorgeous fragrances that I can identify blindfolded.
So, I was on a mission this spring: smell a violet. My eyes were always scanning the ground for purple blooms. This was not going to be easy. When I found little purple flowers, they often had no discernable fragrance.
Even when traveling, I tended to my quest. Strolling in Blowing Rock, I spied a patch of purple. I quickly picked a flower and stuck it up to my nostrils. Smells like…nothing. Then I looked more closely and realized I just picked Vinca, a common groundcover. The tattered petals fell to the ground along with my hope.
Finally, along the cracks of my own driveway (score one for letting things go), I finally found a few stray blossoms…small, deep purple, real violets. I picked them eagerly and smelled. Then I sniffed more deeply. Did I catch a whiff of anything? I shred the little petals to release more fragrance. There, at last, a faint, but distinctive smell. At this point I was afraid if I inhaled any more deeply I’d be snorting violets.
All this dedication came to fruition at a recent wine dinner. Among the very interesting wines being poured that night was a 1999 Bava Barolo Contrabasso di Castiglione Falletto. I love the label on this wine, a lively sketch of a bass violin. The beautifully aged red wine was silky smooth, rich with cherries, really spectacular. The 100% Nebbiolo is one of Bava’s Collezione Quintetto. Each wine is named for a musical instrument. In addition to the base violin, there is Stradivario, Violincello, Cor de Chase (a hunter’s horn), and Bass Tuba. I love that on Bava’s web site, there are musical suggestions for each of the wines.
I stuck my nose far into the glass and sniffed as deeply as I could. At last! Violets! The aroma was clear as day. I grabbed my husband and stuck his nose in. “What do you smell?” Silence. Since he had not dedicated his spring to picking purple flowers, I had another idea. “It’s violets, you know, like those little purple candies?” Yes, he smelled them too. So, in the end I found my violets. I drank a gorgeous Nebbiola that smelled like violets. And I put another notch in my belt of wine knowledge.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Parties are always a fun time to try new wines. My husband’s surprise birthday bash was no exception. I enjoyed a full bodied Simi Cabernet Sauvignon that my girlfriend Lori brought over. Our friend Bob introduced us to Red Guitar, a yummy fruit-forward red from the Navarra region of Spain.

Several party-goers were horrified by the poor quality of a 2006 Frey Organic Pinot Noir (“I paid $16 dollars for that!” my friend Lauren gasped). The pale color was evident even in the bottle. In the glass, the sickly cast of the wine indicated a lack of ripeness when these delicate grapes were picked. Finicky Pinot Noir is now grown in many regions it shouldn’t be, thanks to the burgeoning demand after the film Sideways. This one had a sour taste that everyone hated. It might have tasted better when fresh: the wine lacked the preservative of sulfites and could have spoiled along the way.

At the end of the night, things got interesting. Our Spanish friend Antonio is known for his wonderful Sangrias and his facility in the kitchen. This night he showed his flare for improvisation. He mixed 2/3 Mike’s Hard Lemonade (like alcoholic Cool-Aid) with 1/3 Conha y Tora Cabernet, unearthed some oranges that he quickly cut into wedges, and voilá—Sangria. I was amazed at Antonio’s MacGyver-like ability to invent something out of the materials at hand. O.K., so he wasn’t dismantling a bomb with bubble gum and paper clips. But Sangria-In-A-Pinch is a little more useful, don’t you think?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Fine Appeal of an Unfined Wine

I tried a California cult wine last week at dinner. My friend Jay brought a bottle of 2005 Kistler Chardonnay to Antonella’s in South Orange. This hard-to-get wine is only available by mail order. To stay on the mailing list, you have to purchase an entire case at $80/bottle and up. Clever Jay split a case with a friend—still a lot of dough, but this wine is truly special.
I examined the bottle and noticed that the limited production wine had a number on the label (like a lithograph). Inside the bottle, the golden wine showed a wisp of cloudiness wafting up the center. Reading the back label, I learned that the wine is unfined and unfiltered. Fining is a process that gives wine clarity and filtering removes further sediments. Most winemakers choose to do both, but some forego one or both processes, believing that they sacrifice some flavor. These renegades want to create a wine that is as unprocessed as possible. I think it’s possible to make good or bad wine either way.
While some drinkers would panic to see a ghostly presence in their wine. I thought it looked ethereal and was more intrigued.
The aromas were complex with honey and floral notes. The mouthfeel was very dense. Loads of fruit with a delicious amount of tannin. The finish went on forever. This is a spectacular Chardonnay that says “Burgundy” far more than “California.” In fact, it reminded me of the Bobby Kacher white Burgundies from 2005 I had drunk two weeks before.
The wine paired beautifully with a mouthwatering appetizer—mussels and clams in a Prosecco cream sauce.
So cheers to Jay for introducing me to an outstanding wine. Given its scarcity, difficulty in ordering, and price point, the wine is a rare pleasure best savored with wonderful food and old friends.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Wine Blogging Wednesday #45--Old World Riesling

Straw colored, with lemons and a touch of honeysuckle on the nose, the Hugel Riesling 2004 I tried was fresh, fruit-forward, and highly acidic. In fact, it cried out for food to soften the acids. I was having one of those, I’m not eating dinner nights (who says cooking has to happen 7 nights a week?) and I buttered some water crackers and happily munched. The acid from the wine was softened by the butterfat, which would translate easily to a more civilized evening enjoying sole with buerre blanc. I’m partial to bone-dry Riesling, and I am more familiar with the Alsatian ones than German. Hugel is Appellation Alsace Contrôlleé and very reasonably priced at $15.99. The winemaking tradition in this region is centuries old: the Hugel family has made wine there since 1639--talk about the family business! Michael Franz said in France Magazine that Alsatian Riseling is “the most lamentably under-appreciated of France’s greatest wines.” I am discovering more about Alsatian wines all the time, having blogged recently about a complex grand cru Gewurtztraminer and a fascinating Sylvaner. I’m loving learning about this wine region, and the Hugel & Fils Riesling is one more winner from eastern France.

St. Michaels Food and Wine Festival: Saturday

The weather held for day two of the food and wine festival. After exploring this historic town by bike and foot, I headed to a session by Laurie Forster, The Wine Coach. She led us through a blind tasting of six wines and, as is always the case, tasting blind was really revealing. Laurie, who’s originally a Jersey girl, discussed the differences between New World and Old World wines. I’m becoming far more sensitive to the amount of oak in wine, and she acknowledged that New World winemakers often have a heavier hand with oak. This led me to correctly identify all the red wines, although I admit the fruity Fruili Pinot Grigio was so flavor-packed it made me think hot climate and, therefore, New World. Laurie’s a great presenter and her perky personality made it lots of fun to figure out if the wine was European--or Everything Else.
My next class was led by Hank Wetzel of Alexander Valley Vineyards. His presentation was unfortunately less impressive. When he slammed the French as having regulations that keep them from making great wine—Tell that to Bordelaise who command hundreds of dollars a bottle—and he didn’t know that Sangiovese, a varietal he grows, is the dominant grape in Chianti—I decided to play hooky. I picked up and left his class to enjoy the end of the festival.
The tents were brimming with convivial folks, and I was ready, at long last, to put my notebook away and enjoy all the delicious wine being poured. While wandering about, I ran into a William Shepard. At last year’s festival I attended his excellent session on Burgundy and purchased Shepard’s Guide to Mastering French Wines, which was an excellent preparation for my two trips to France in 2007. It was nice to see him and his charming wife again.
As the afternoon wore on and the wine began to run out, many of us filled a last generous pour and sunk into the grass at the water’s edge. Sunlight sparkled brightly on the bay. My guy, guitar in hand, gave into requests for a song. He played a gentle tune, and, mellowed by the weather, the music, and the wine, we relaxed away the end of the fest.