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Get Underground and Take A Gamble on a Better Bottle

Underground Cellar is an online wine marketplace designed to deliver premium wine to consumers with free upgrades to higher priced wines on a random basis.  I was  recently provided a credit to experience their membership.  This is not a wine club – it’s designed to provide upgrades to premium wine, by chance, to members who have the opportunity to improve their chances by referring friends, purchasing wine and joining the site’s online forums.  You purchase wines by individual offer and I’ve seen them feature some really good ones from around the world..

As a marketer on a full time basis, I judge companies by the customer experience they offer when you have something go wrong the first time.  My first bottle came corked.  Immediately they issued another credit for me to try something new and that process was flawless.  Each week, Underground Cellar posts offers comprised of similar wines at different price points.  Members pay the lower price and receive their wines mostly direct from the winery so there is a delay until the offer is sold, the inventory depleted and then the wine is shipped.

Another cool feature is the CloudCellar, the ability to store purchases at no cost in their temperature controlled wine cellar in Napa.  Members can mix and match bottles over time and pay $5 to ship six to eleven bottles or nothing to ship more than 12.

I was given one upgrade to the 2008 Susana Balbo Brioso, which was at least $20 more than I paid for my original bottle.  Susana is known as the “Queen of Torrontes” or the “Evita of Wine.”  She has a reputation for making great Argentinian wine. The wine was very nice and full of blackberry, tobacco, currant, cedar and mocha.

This is definitely a fun experience for a wine lover to experience wine from around the world and gamble on the chance of getting a better bottle than you paid for originally.  To learn more, visit their homepage or sign in with Facebook to get started. No obligation, no hassle and just good wine.


Cork Wine Bar: Wine 101, 201 and 301 Education Series

I was recently asked to participate in Cork Wine Bar’s series of wine classes — Wine 101, 201 and 301, that was hosted by Stephanie and Jeff Rennells, the passionate and funny owners of Cork.  At each session we tasted six wines from around the world.  I found the wines to be diverse, off the beaten path and came to the realization that Stephanie and Jeff took great care to select wines that they were excited about sharing.  The entire series of three diverse and fun tastings was only $115, which is the deal of the decade.

The Fundamentals of Wine Series 101 took folks through wine producing regions of the world, common varieties, how to taste wine, common flavors of wines, wine ratings and common wine terms.  I was in Palo Alto for work, so I couldn’t attend this one, but the materials that were distributed looked like a great primer for beginners looking to learn more about wine. 

I was able to attend Wine Series 201 where we covered New World and Old World wines.  The format was casual, laid back and fun with wines that were affordable and then sold at a discount that evening.  People asked plenty of questions and the knowledge of the attendees ranged from newbies to serious wine lovers.  We covered how sparkling wines and champagnes are made and then tasted wines and cheeses from around the world – Spain, Austria, France and California primarily.  I loved the Qupe Marsanne which had layers of caramel, butterscotch, almond and a lot of complexity.  Just delicious.  Other stand-outs were The Franc Cabernet France and Chateau Paul Mas Rhone.  We talked wine storage, sustainable wines, tasting and Old World vs New World wines.  

In the Wines Series 301 class, we focused on wines from Italy and France.  They did a nice job in covering the geography of the region, which highlighted the complexities to help attendees understand the differences between the regions of Napa Valley, France (ranging from the Loire Valley to Champagne to Cotes du Rhone to Burgundy to Bordeaux.  Right Bank Merlots to Left Bank Cabernets) and finally Italy.  We talked about pairing food/wine as well as advanced wine terms ranging from unctuous (rich, lush and intense) to volatile (smells of vinegar as a result of a heavy amount of bacteria).  And then, we had a great page of tasting notes of characteristics of red and white wines.  In our tasting, I loved the Antech Cremant, the Val de Mer Petit Chablis, the Langhe Nebbiolo and the Chateau D’Aurilhac Cabernet.

I learned a lot – did you know there were more sulfites in a banana than a glass of wine?  Did you know there was no official certification for natural or sustainably labeled wines?  Stephanie and Jeff reinforced what I am a big believer in personally – try wines you like from lesser known regions.  You’ll find a bargain and you’ll find some wines that you love.    

You will walk away from this class with an understanding of wine varieties and regions, how to identify what you smell and taste, how to spot common defects in wine, how to select wine from a menu, how to read a wine label, and the basics of how wine is made.  There is a lot of information that you will take away from this class, but I won’t be able to bring it all to life the way that that Stephanie and Jeff did.  I highly recommend this wine class series.  It fills a big need in the Dallas market that is currently not filled without taking an expensive certification class.

 

 


Tasters Choice: A Round-up Of Higher End Wines

I received several fantastic packages in the mail this month full of wonderful higher end sample wines.  Because I put my #thirstythursday group to the test with trying the good, the bad and the very ugly in the world of wines on a continual basis, I wanted to make sure to show appropriate gratitude.

We started with two great whites from the Russian River Valley – ironically both with ties to the Jordan family.

  • J Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2012 – full of lemon curd, pear, lemon and orange notes with great minerality.  It was a very good wine.
  • Jordan Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2012 – pear, lemon, vanilla and baked apple.  Heads down one of my top California chardonnays.

Reds:

  • J Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2012 – full of black cherry, currant, cassis and plum.  A favorite of the group and a wonderful representation of Pinot Noir.
  • Piccini Villa Al Cortile Reserva Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2008 – earthy, herbal, fig, tobacco, chocolate with a nice fruit balance.  I really liked this Brunello and it was one of the first bottles to go.
  • Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet 2010 – pepper, blackberry, tobacco with notes of mocha and cassis.  Another big hit of the group.
  • Stepping Stone Napa Valley Cabernet 2011 – These guys make amazing wines and the big notes of blackberry, violet and rose petals did not disappoint.

Central Market’s Passaporto Italia: A Whole Lot of Mangia Going On

Central Market’s Passaporto Italia is kicking off on April 30 to May 13 and I attended the media preview at the Lover’s Lane store in April.  Think of this as a two week tribute to all things Italian – pastas to cheeses to foods to beers to winemakers to chefs. 

I had a chance to talk to Timothy, the assistant wine buyer, who discussed the 350 new Italian wines being brought in for the event.  We tasted through five wines from small producers.  Poor Timothy drew the short straw as all the other wine buyers were in Tuscany experiencing the region, but someone had to hold down the fort.

Our line up included the following:

Riondo Prosecco Punto Rosso – lots of pear, apple and nuttiness.  It was a very nice representation of Prosecco.

Castellari Bergaglio Fornaci, Gavi di Tassarolo – lots of citrus fruit, apple, pear and minerality. It was a very refreshing white wine for $20.

2009 Ormanni Chianti Classico – cherry, spice, floral notes and a herbal rosemary note.  This was a good representation of chianti.

2009 I Giusti & Zanza ‘Dulcamara’ Rosso Toscana – dark fruit, coffee and chocolate with hints of tobacco, spice and leather.  This was a big wine that would benefit with decanting.

2007 Orlando Abrigo Barbaresco Rocche Meruzzano – dark black cherry, black pepper, spice, marian berry and anise.  This was great.

A quick run down of the wine events that Central Market is offering follows:

Weds, April 30

Wine tasting with Luca Speri, a fifth generator winemaker, from 4-7 pm

Friday, May 2

Francesco Daddi, Owner of Ormanni/La Leccia hosts an evening of food and wine pairing his wines with traditional Tuscan game dishes, from 6:30-9 pm, $65. 

Monday, May 5

Stefano Chiarlo, winemaker for Michele Chiarlo will host an evening in Piedmont.  Chiarlo is noted as one of the ten best wine producers by Wine Spectator.  This is event is from 6:30-9 pm and is $65.

Tuesday, May 6

Francesco Mazzei, owner of Mazzei family wines, is hosting a tasting from 4-7 pm.

Saturday, May 10

Winemaker Tancredi Biondi Santi is hosting a Tuscan food and wine pairing featuring his family’s wines from 6:30-9 pm, $60.

Reserve your seats at www.centralmarket.com for the Lover’s Lane store events.  This is a great chance to try “off the beaten path” Italian wines at a great price point in a fun atmosphere.  And, check out the best gift bag ever….


Rhone Rangers Show the Diversity and Delightfulness of American Rhone Wines

My friend @sonomawilliam, a blogger, wine “MacGyver” and garagiste turned commercial vintner for Two Shepherds Vineyard asked me to be a part of a blue-chip list of “who’s who” in the blogger world for a #winechat dedicated to American Rhone wines.  This was a precursor to a “Weekend Celebration of American Rhones” held in the Bay area. 

Humbled, I joined the chat which included bloggers like David White of Terrorist, Jameson Fink of Wine Without Worries, Fred Swan of Norcal Wine, Elaine Brown of Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews, Meg Maker of Makers Table and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, who is known as an industry legend and guy who started the Rhone train “a rolling” in America. 

We tried several wines and I enjoyed them all thoroughly.  I must say that each of these were diverse, unique and delightful.  Our line-up included the following:

  • Two Shepherds Grenache Blanc 2012 – citrus, orange blossom and minerality make this a delightful alternative to your usual white wine.  In the spirit of full disclosure, these wines impressed me enough to make my very short list of paid wine clubs.
  • Bonny Doon Cigare Blanc Reserve 2011 – hazelnut, walnut paste, stone fruit that was an alternative to your usual white.  I very much enjoyed this.
  • Cornerstone Syrah Napa Valley, Black Label — I’ve always been a big fan of Cornerstone wines and this one did not disappoint.  Full of plum, truffle, violets, coffee and blackberry.  It was just as good or possibly better on day two.
  • Kieran Robinson Le Voyageur Bennett Valley Syrah 2010 – this was my first experience with this brand and I’m impressed. It was smooth with notes of cocoa, cherries, smoke and almost a meaty quality.
  • Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas 2011 – another impressive wine with notes of cranberry, currant and big berry. 

Lesson learned during this tasting.  American Rhones are diverse, hold their own against French versions and I highly recommend you seek them out if you haven’t prior.  Keep me posted on how much you enjoy them.


Holman Ranch Wines: Opening My Eyes to the Power of Carmel

Before receiving a package of Holman Ranch wines, I was not familiar with the winery.  The winery has a storied history when the land of what eventually became the winery was purchased by a San Francisco businessman in 1928.  The house that was built was nicknamed “Casa Escondida” or “Hidden House” and became a celebrity hideaway back in the day.

The grapes are planted on 19 acres which are known for producing burgundy clones including Pinot Noir as well as Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Rose.  First, we tried the Holman Ranch Sauvignon Blanc 2012, which had notes of grapefruit, grass and green apple.  A great and refreshing wine.

I also really enjoyed the Holman Ranch Pinot Gris 2012, which had notes of tropical fruits and a great mouth feel.  This wine opened up even more throughout the evening.

We also tried the Holman Ranch Chardonnay 2011, which had notes of French toast, nutmeg and almonds.  Between the three, I enjoyed the Sauvignon Blanc the most.

The red line-up included the following:

  • Holman Ranch Pinot Noir Hunter’s Cuvee 2010, which was very earthy with notes of black cherry, flowers and raspberries. I loved the earthiness of this wine.
  • Holman Ranch Pinot Noir Heather Hill 2011, which was juicy with notes of cherry cola and tobacco.
  • Holman Ranch Pinot Noir 2010 was another big terrior wine that made its mark on the tasters. 

I really enjoyed the diversity and experience of Holman Ranch.  If this is an indication of wines from Carmel, it appears I have some more research to do.

 


What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been: A Conversation with David Ready Jr.

It’s rare you sit down with an individual that saw 175 Grateful Dead concerts, went on tour with them and lived to tell the tale.  Then you find out he’s an esteemed winemaker for Murphy Goode, a newly converted runner (lost 50 pounds since he started), believes in giving back to the community to bring his dad’s legacy to life and is just an all-around cool person. 

David Ready started his career in winemaking in 1985 when his dad strongly suggested getting a job would be a good idea.  He grew up in Minnesota, played in rock band for a time and is a huge Vikings fan.  He worked harvests in Australia and Sonoma.  David moved back to California approximately 20 years ago and it’s been home since.  He worked his way up from cellar master to assistant winemaker and then served as the winemaker for Zinfandel in 1997.  Today he supervises 18 wines.  

David came through town last month to talk about his Homefront Red release, which raised 300K for Operation Homefront, a 501c (3) organization developed to support the families of deployed service members immediately following 9/11.  The organization provides emergency financial and other assistance to the families of service members and wounded warriors.  And the cool thing is that the distributors and sales people for the winery have chipped in to support the effort as well.

Ready wanted to do this to honor his father who passed away during the fall of 2010.  He pondered what it meant to “do good” with the current owners of the winery.  His father served in Vietnam and his family has a long history of military service.  In his words, “Everyone knows someone who has served.  These kids go off in search of a better life, service our country, get hurt and then they and their families suffer.  No family should ever be left behind.”

He makes wines that he wants to drink and wants to match them with different foods and settings.  “I love a big cab, but not every day,” he said.  We tried a few and I want to continue to drink them too.  Clearly he has found his calling and you can tell he’s passionate about food, wine and socializing. We tried the following:

  • Murphy Goode The Fume Sauvignon Blanc 2012 – citrus, tropical fruit and melon.  A really nice $14 poolside or Texas patio wine.
  • Murphy Goode Dealer’s Choice Alexander Valley Cabernet 2010 – blackberry, herbs, bay leaves and thyme.  A very well balanced and drinkable wine that could age well or be opened today. 
  • Murphy Goode All In Claret Alexander Valley 2011 – a blend of Alexander Valley merlot, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot is full of dark cherry, blackberry, herbs and raspberries.  It was a really great blend.
  • Murphy Goode Liar’s Dice Zinfandel 2010 – raspberry, Asian spice, black cherry with balance.  This wine called for BBQ but didn’t need it to be appreciated.

Johnny Schuler, the Pisco Man of Portón Tells His Story

I found Johnny Schuler, Master Distiller of Portón, holding court at The Porch last week with 38 mixologists hanging on his every word and tasting creations made with Pisco as they prepared and brainstormed for a “best cocktail” competition at Victor Tango’s.  Schuler is one of the top Pisco authorities in the world, and has been credited with single-handedly revitalizing Peru’s native drink.

His passion for Pisco started in 1977 when he was a well-known chef and restaurateur.  Johnny was a regular on the international spirits tasting circuit and was asked to help judge a competition.  He was ambivalent about the spirit at the time as he thought it wasn’t sophisticated.  During the competition however, there was a certain Pisco that he described as “love at first sip” as it had such a “robust and unique flavor”.  It quickly went from an interest to a hobby to a passion. 

For 20 years he’s been dedicated to bringing the government (INDECOPI) and private sectors to regulate the Pisco industry in Peru as the president of the National Tasters Guild.  In 2010, he was considering retirement at age 63 when he was approached by Bill and Brent Kallop, the founders of Portón, where he was tasked with creating an ultra-premium Pisco for the U.S. market.  “It was a miracle that happens once in a lifetime – I had the license to creative the ultimate spirit.”  The contract was never actually signed; it was a Texas handshake deal.

Johnny’s the host of Por Las Rutas del Pisco, which is aired in Latin America and the U.S. and he has written several books on Pisco.  Right now he’s primarily focusing on getting the word out about the versatility of the beverage through mixologists and chefs.  “It’s the hot new ingredient to use,” he said.

Johnny is still dreaming of recreating the Pisco experience that he had in 1977. “I’m dreaming of the one that I haven’t tasted.”  He also has a philosophy that I agree with about making a quality Pisco that sometimes evades Texans.  “We shouldn’t be proud of it because it is Peruvian, we should be proud of it because it is good.”

You can tell his passion and how involved he is with every aspect of making Portón.  “Nothing is bottled until my nose approves it,” he said. We tried two cocktails and a Pisco straight up, chilled in the right glass, which tasted of honeysuckle, orange blossom, violet, floral notes and was very smooth.  “The American market is a cocktail culture and certainly has embraced Pisco,” he continued.

To be considered authentic, Pisco must be made from one or a blend of eight traditional grape varietals including Quebranta, Common Black, Mollar, Italia, Muscat, Albilla, Torontel and Uvina).  In Portón, the torontel grapes are made in the mosto verde method, which means the distillate is made from grape juice that has not completely fermented.  Because some of the natural grape sugars do not convert to alcohol, the original flavor and aroma of the grape are kept.  Of the 280 distillers who make Pisco, no more than ten make it in this style.  The SRP is $39.99.

Johnny talked about his personal philosophy.  “I don’t believe in luck.  The more I worked, the luckier I was,” he said.  He’s got some big plans for the brand and the passion and energy to pull it off.

 


Duckhorn Winemaker Tour Rolls Through Dallas

Renee Ary, Duckhorn Winemaker

The Duckhorn Winemaker tour rolled through town this month and featured the launch of the inaugural Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Chardonnay as well as new releases from Duckhorn Vineyards, Goldeneye, Paraduxx, Migration, and Decoy.

First the chardonnay, Duckhorn started making this wine in 2011, but they didn’t feel like they fulfilled the vision until the release of the 2012 vintage.  It was made in an old world style, had lots of citrus flavor but with the beautiful notes that aging in French oak brings. I was impressed.

I also had the chance to sit down with Duckhorn Vineyards Winemaker Renee Ary, who became Duckhorn’s fourth winemaker in four decades.  She has worked at Duckhorn for 11 years first overseeing quality control, then as associate winemaker, then as assistant winemaker before being named to her recent position.  She was in the Texas market on the tour to debut Duckhorn’s new chardonnay and allow industry folks to taste the latest offerings.

Renee started as a chemistry and art major and then parlayed her passion of wine into a profession when she worked at Robert Mondavi Winery as a chemist.  She combines the creative genius and technical expertise to make some great juice while respecting the craft of winemaking.  And, she’s one of the nicest and most unassuming folks that you’d ever met.

You can tell Renee loves her job and the Duckhorn vineyards.  For her, it’s about making great wine and continuing the legacy of Duckhorn. 

I tried the entire line-up of Duckhorn including the 2012 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, the 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay, the 2011 Napa Valley Merlot, the 2011 Napa Valley Merlot Three Palm Vineyard, 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2012 The Discussion Estate Napa Valley Red Wine.  We also got to try the 2008 Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Merlot out of a double magnum, which was exquisite.  Like always, the wines were amazing and I’m excited to see Renee’s continued stamp on the future.

Michael Fay, Winemaker Goldeneye Winery

I also had the chance to talk to Michael Fay, the Winemaker for Goldeneye Winery.  I wasn’t familiar with Goldeneye’s small production Pinot Noirs, but am very glad for the discovery.  I tried the 2011 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, the 2011 Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard, the 2011 Ten Degrees Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and the 2009 Goldeneye Estate Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Gowan Creek Vineyard in a magnum.  You could taste the ruggedness of Anderson Valley Pinot and the Gowan Creek had more structure and texture.  These wines were also great.


A Conversation with Eleanor Coppola: The Untold Story of a Renaissance Woman

 Courtesy of Coppola Winery

I was honored last week to spend several hours with Eleanor and Francis Ford Coppola at two different Dallas-based events.  The first, and my absolutely favorite, was an intimate lunch with a who’s who of women in Dallas food and wine, hosted by Eleanor Coppola, who is one of the most iconic women I’ve had the chance to sit down with in the wine industry.

You would never know that she has become part of the “first families” of California wine.  You would never know that she’s a well-regarded artist with curated shows around the world.  You would never know she’s an accomplished artist and film documentarian.  You would never know that she’s one of the most accomplished women that I’ve ever had the chance to sit down and talk to about her life.  That’s because Eleanor is focused on you. 

She started our intimate lunch of 12 at Hotel Za Za with a toast where we had to look each other in the eyes or we’d be cursed with seven years of bad sex, according to her husband.  She asked us to talk about how our love for food and wine got us to where we are today.  We spent a lot of time talking about family, what’s on the dinner table and what wine complements the family experience.

Eleanor’s journey began when her father studied art in Paris and discovered food and wine.  They lived in a blue collar town where it was unusual for wine to be on the table.  In college, she drank the traditional Gallo jug wine and it was funny to share that same college wine experience with her.

When she met and married Francis, he came from a big Italian family where wine was always on the table and kids drank the table wine, diluted with ginger ale.  She and Francis’ first experience with fine wine came when he was writing for Bill Cosby in Las Vegas.  Cosby, a wine aficionado, enlightened them to some of the world’s top wines and a love affair was born.

The Coppola’s have two wine properties in Sonoma and Napa.  One is the old Inglenook property in Napa, which was originally known as one of the first great California wines, but fell into making jug wine for many years.  They acquired the property in 1975 and in 2011 they were able to acquire the Inglenook name. They hired Phillipe Bascaules, an agricultural engineer who worked for Chateau Margaux, with the vision of bringing the property back to its glory days of making beautiful estate wines.   “These will be the best wines we can make,” said Eleanor.

But they never lost their love for “macaroni wine with family.”  Francis Ford Coppola Winery with its mid-range Diamond Series is meant to illustrate that love and they have created a family friendly experience in Geyserville complete with a swimming pool, tasting room, and restaurant featuring Francis’ personal favorite items.

The love for family was quite evident during the lunch.  We started with a glass of the Sofia Blanc de Blanc, which Francis made for their wedding.  It was a great wine and Sofia designed the packaging and other aspects of the wine.

Our next course involved their granddaughter, Gia, the daughter of Gian-Carlo Coppola who died in a tragic boating accident.  Gia, a photographer and bartender, is following in her grandfather’s footsteps with the release of Palo Alto, which will be released this Spring.

Then we followed with Eleanor’s wine, labeled Eleanor, whose label featured her passion for textiles.  She’s partial to red wines and this wine brings together a mix of the two properties in Napa and Sonoma.

Eleanor gave us a glimpse of what it was like to grow up in a blue-collar family and suddenly, with Francis’ success with the Godfather, go from a one-bedroom bungalow to a 22 room mansion.  “I felt like I needed to go to hotel school,” she laughed.   

Francis Ford Coppola Live at the Lakewood Theater, Courtesy of Coppola Wines

That night, I went to a very different event.  Francis Ford Coppola was at the Lakewood Theater where a few hundred food and wine lovers attended his one-man show.  This was a mix of Francis talking about his fascinating life with video clips supporting his story in the background.  He talked, he laughed, he sang.  He told a great story.  But, I was lucky.  I had already spent several hours with the woman who was the rock of the family.  Her story is the one that I choose to tell today.




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