Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Wine Geeks Will Love Bottle Shock

My friend Joli and I hopped in her trusty Subaru Outback and headed down to Maplewood to catch the Saturday night screening of Bottle Shock. Was this a great movie? No. It was light as a Muscadet sur Lie, a little frizzante, and perhaps lacking structure.
Alan Rickman (J’s fave) is the centerpiece of the film. He plays Steven Spurrier, the stuffy proprietor of a Parisian wine shop who decides to organize a blind tasting of the best French and California wines. To even compare the two country’s wine was heresy in wine circles, truly dramatic stuff. But instead of delving too deeply into the wine world, the film focuses on the motley crew of California wine makers, including Bill Pullman playing the patriarch of Chateau Montelena, his prodigal son played by the shaggy-haired and denim-clad hunk Chris Pine, and the other hippies/farmers/Mexicans who populated the rolling brown hills of Napa Valley. Wine geeks will love the oenological references, like the time when the Chardonnay turned brown and the wine workers drove their beat up pickup truck in the direction of Davis – nudge, nudge, wink, wink: UC Davis, home to one of the world’s most esteemed wine programs!
One of the most memorable scenes takes place in Joe’s, the local bar. A young Mexican-American is about to hustle the patrons in a blind tasting. But one of the local yokels shouts, “Any a**hole can tell a Zinfandel from a Cabernet!” Love that line! Then the young man correctly identifies not only the grapes, but the vintage and producer of three masked wines. Now, I don’t live in California, but this type of down-market bar doesn’t seem like it would have a bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc in the back, but it does.
I’m not sure that a better movie couldn’t have been made about this historic event which put California wines on the map and changed the wine world forever. For a more complete telling of the story, I’d read George Taber’s book, Judgment of Paris (Taber was the only journalist who witnessed the actual event.) But like a Tuesday night, poolside wine, this movie satisfied a craving for something enjoyable and not too heavy.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Snazzy New Store Simplifies Wine

Best Cellars, a chain of wine stores that originated in Manhattan, has come to West Orange on Pleasant Valley Way in the old Blockbuster video space. This weekend is their opening celebration, and tonight they poured an interesting selection from their well-priced wines. Starting with a sparkling white from New Mexico, of all places, which is actually made in the methode champenoise. Who knew? This fizzy treat was light and fruity. And speaking of fizzy, that’s one of the “I get it” wine descriptors that are the hallmark of the chain.
Josh Wesson originally founded the stores before selling them to A&P. He’s kept an active role as Senior Director of Wine, Beer, and Spirits. Josh was on hand tonight and I had the chance to speak with him about the store. He created the easy-to-relate-to labels for the wines, and it’s what makes his store perfect for those who are intimidated by traditional wine shops.
If you like one "fresh" white, like Sauvignon Blanc, and you’re looking to try something new, well, hey, there’s Pinot Grigio on the same shelf. Wines are grouped by color and style, not country or, even necessarily grape. As one helpful associate explained, Merlot could sit in three different areas: with juicy, soft, or big reds depending on the style of the wine, whether it was oaked, where was it grown, etc. Popular wines are well represented (there’s a section of top ten wines in a variety of styles), but also you’ll see some lesser known but delicious choices.
The Best Cellars staff pride themselves on tasting all the selections themselves, and, as Josh explained, the store offers a guarantee of satisfaction. If you don’t like the wine, bring it back. Since buying an unknown wine is always a risk, that’s a nice way to encourage people to try something new.
I should also mention that the store itself has a fun atmosphere, with punchy colors and a fashionable feel. It’s not so big that it would overwhelm you, but, like Noah’s Ark, there seem to be at least a couple of everything you’d need.
The other hallmark of the store is price. The major focus of the store is a wall of bottles arranged by style, all priced $15.00 and below. As one sales person said, “Many of them taste well above the price.”
For traditionalists and those who want to spend more, there is a smaller section of wine that is divvied up by country. These you could spend as much as $30 or so on. I saw a Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc I thought I’d try, and I was pleased to see they carried Veuve Clicquot and Grgich Hills.
This weekend is a great time to stop by as the festivities continue tomorrow with WCBS-FM visiting and more free tasting and give-aways. Given the value, convenience, and intriguing selection, I’m sure I’ll be spending a lot more time here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jacks! For Drinks

The Jersey City Hyatt opened in 2002, but it still looks brand-spanking new. The 350-room hotel faces the Hudson River and exudes both comfort and elegance. The secret that’s hidden from street-view is a breezy terrace projecting from the rear of the building.
One day, my pal James and I strolled over, wondering if there was an outdoor bar. We spoke to an attractive desk clerk who told us there wasn’t a bar, per se, but there was Jacks. Jacks is a summer-only happy hour every Wednesday night out back on the patio. Marking our calendars in eager anticipation, we looked forward to hump day.
Last night, we made it over to the Hyatt and were not disappointed. A limited amount of drinks were served—bottles of bud light, taps of Stella Artois and Hoeegarten, and a fun assortment of pre-mixed drinks ready to pour: red Sangria, Mojitos, and Margaritas. James and I can never turn down Sangria, and their version was heavy on the wine. It hit the spot. The view of lower Manhattan was spectacular. The air last night was crystal clear. It looked like we could touch the glass windows of the skyscrapers across the river, which shone beautifully, reflecting the sky’s pink sunset glow.
A thick crowd of business people mixed at high tops and relaxed in patio chairs at lower tables. The imbibers reflected the international crowd that is Jersey City: Indian, European, Latin, and mixed-heritage Americans like us. Pinstripes were a popular fashion statement, and the business crowd looked happy to postpone their commute home in favor of drinks al fresco.
Mixed nuts and snacks were plentiful in silver globes that were heavy enough to resist the winds that scattered our cocktail napkins. The breeze got heavier, the air got cooler, our last glass of Sangria was drained, and the beer taps were oozing foam. James and I joined the rest of the business people trailing off to the Path Train, Light Rail, and cars. We faced the remaining work week a little happier, thanks to a Wednesday night boost from Jacks.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Meet Me at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School

Attention North Jersey wine lovers! I am extending an invitation to you to attend a class I’m teaching at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School: DISCOVER THE WINE REGIONS OF FRANCE. This one night class-- on October 22 from 7-9 p.m.-- highlights my recent trips to Burgundy, Bordeaux, and the Loire and Champagne regions. I’ll narrate a slide presentation and provide lots of information about what’s grown where, how to get around, tips for getting into Chateaux and much more! Click here and scroll down to see class information or to register. I hope you can join me in South Orange for a fun night talking about French wine and travel. If you register by September 10, the cost is only $18. Feel free to email me at dianeswines@verizon.net for more information. Cheers!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Sip in Time

This month’s Wine Blogging Wednesday asked us to go back to a wine we drank back in the day. So, I’m thinking early 1990s, on a trip to visit my dear friend Bernadette out in San José. I saw her a few times when she lived there, and we always fit in a trip to Napa or Sonoma. Living in California, she got into wine before I did, and I was impressed when she and her husband would talk about the Chardonnay they were pouring with dinner in their little house with the lime trees in the back.
Gallo was still one of the biggest names in wine, and our excursions often included visiting their tasting room, which was large, impressive, and ready to welcome busloads of tourists. In those early days, learning about wine was new and exciting, and to my young mind, it reeked of a sophistication I was yearning to have.
So for this month, I picked up a Gallo Chardonnay. This one was the 2005 Sonoma Reserve. The front of the bottle includes four little gold medal seals, and the back label talks about the fact that Gallo has won Winery of the Year multiple times.
Gallo is a name I avoid in wine stores, not because I don’t think they can’t make decent wines now, but because of bad associations with the large jug of Hearty Burgundy that I often saw poured at my Italian family dinners. The jug packaging, the false use of a French appellation, it all adds up to bad memories of American wine making.
But I keep an open mind as I pour this wine, which has a pleasing light gold color. I get full-on fruit at the nose, mostly yellow apples and over-ripe cantaloupe. The taste continues with lots of fruit, but there’s a fair share of oak—although not nearly as heavy- handed as I was expecting. The oak somewhat flattens the fruit flavors without really enhancing them. The bottom line was this was a very fruity chard, 13.9% alcohol (what did they do to get it below 14, I wonder?), which, according to the label, was aged partially in French and American oak. I prefer a dry Chard—give me a Chablis or Macon--or, if oak is involved, yes, I’ll take a Burgundy style, thank you very much. So, the style was not my preference. It is a pleasing wine, though, nothing really offensive (except perhaps the over-ripe quality), and, when all is said and done, I’m sure that many people would like it very much. So, thanks to Lenn for suggesting a trip back in time. The wine was o.k., but the memories were much better.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Swilling at the Sirloin Saloon

Having a New England getaway for a few days, starting with a big family reunion in Manchester, VT. Last night our party of 16 gathered at a hopping restaurant where steak is king--the Sirloin Saloon.
Since I dine so much in New York City, it's always interesting to check out the food scene in other parts of the country. This restaurant is carnivore heaven. My husband ordered a Fred Flintstone size prime rib; the huge rare cut was pooling blood. Yabba Dabba Doo!! I enjoyed rib eye, which was delicious despite being cooked more than the medium rare I ordred.
So, with all this meat, naturally our eyes gravitated to the red section of the wine list. The Cabernet selection was small but serviceable: four Californians. My husband's cousin is a true Californian down to her love of wine, so I asked her which one she would choose. We settled on Sterling Vintner 2005. It was deep red, so full-bodied it was almost heavy, alcohol 13.5%, firm tannins, and maybe a smidgen of sediment. This big wine was great with the juicy steaks.
As the meal progressed and the alcohol flowed, a flurry of limerick writing broke out at the table. Suddenly various in-laws -- father, brother, and sister--were putting pen to napkin in a hilarious bout of literary one-upmanship.
Laughing at the ridiculous rhymes that followed, the family enjoyed the entertainment, although it was certainly not our best work. But there were no critics at the table. No, we were having a raucous good time, enjoying the pleasure of each other's company and the All-American food and wine. The evening ended with more wine quaffed out of plastic cups in the hotel parking lot while our kids lit sparklers. A fine end to a beautiful summer evening.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Nosing in on wine tasting

The humble nose is a part of the body that never gets much attention (unless we’re talking Extreme Makeover) , but is absolutely critical to our appreciation of wine, not to mention food in general. I’ve heard this point made before, but it was brought to mind by an article in yesterday’s New York Times. Natalie Angier talked about an experiment that Dr. Rachel Herz of Brown University has people try: eat a handful of Jelly Bellies, one at a time, and concentrate on the vividly distinct flavors. Then she asks them to hold their nose as they chew…the candies are still sweet, but it’s impossible to tell if that yellow bean is lemon or buttered popcorn. When the nostrils are released, the flavors come flooding back. That’s because our tongue is poorly equipped for tasting, only perceiving sweet, salty, sour, and bitter flavors. The rest of what we consider our sense of taste actually happens because of our sense of smell.
Distinguishing the scents in wine can be a challenge, but it helps if your sense of smell is functioning correctly. I never even bother drinking wine when I’m stuffed up—the flavor and smell are far too diminished to enjoy it.
It seems to me that the finer the wine, the more I love to smell it. The best way to take advantage of that pleasure is to pour a shallow amount in a large wine glass. Give it a good swirl to agitate the molecules—more aromas will be released. Then stick your nose all the way in and inhale deeply. For a fine Burgundy, you may smell leather, crushed leaves, and, one of my favorites, barnyard odors. The more smells I can distinguish, the more pleasurable the wine drinking experience often is. I have learned to appreciate the smelling of wine, to the point where I sometimes put off even having a sip, as I leisurely enjoy swirling and sniffing.
Exploring our much neglected sense of smell is one of the chief pleasures of drinking fine wine. I liken it to looking at a beautiful oil painting. At first, the image is a whole, but then we begin to notice individual colors, brush strokes, pleasing composition. While paintings can be viewed again, drinking a good bottle is a transient pleasure. So breathe in, and make the most of it.