Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Another Cheap Wine From Trader Joe's

It's likely that 2004 Salice Salentino from Epicuro Winery was the first cheap wine from Trader Joe's that surprised me. Salice Salentino (pronounced sah-leech-e sal-en-teen-o) is a small Italian town on the heel of the boot just north of Lecce. Salice Salentino red wine is made primarily of Negro Amaro, which literally translates black cherry. The wine also includes grape varieties Malvasia Nera di Brindisi and Malvasia Nera di Lecce.

This particular wine is DOC, which means that the government makes sure that the grapes are derive from a specific region and that the wine is produced by traditional methods. Another Italian label for quality insurance is DOCG, which is a more stringent label used to identify smaller regions within DOC regions. DOCG wines are usually better quality than DOC wines and more expensive.

Salice Salentino is one of my favorite wines in Italy because it is medium to full bodied with dark, rich fruit and spice. We had an amazing bottle of Salice Salentino when we were in Italy for 6.99 euros, so it makes sense that the wine can be found in the US for reasonable prices. Epicuro's wine has a nice brightness to it, followed by a medium heat and spice, and while it is not the best out there, is a good wine.

We had ours with White Bean Soup with Roasted Vegetables on the side:

Ingredients for Soup:
1 1/2 onions
2 stalks celery chopped
6 cups broth/water
1 1/2 dried white beans
2 whole cloves garlic unpeeled
2 tsp salt

Directions: Cook onion, celery, and butter for five minutes. Add liquid and bring it to a boil. Add beans, garlic, and salt and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat for an hour. After an hour, boil again for 1-2 hours or until beans have softened. Remove from heat. Strain the beans, catching liquid into a large bowl. Puree the bean mixture, then return to large pan. Add 1/4 cup milk and broth until desired consistency is reached. Finished with a touch of cream.

For vegetables, just chop up your favorites (we used eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, red onion, and red pepper) and toss them into a well olive oiled baking pan. Salt liberally (sea salt is the best) and add another dose of olive oil (note: the quality of olive oil for this dish is not as important as others). Preheat the oven at 450 degrees and roast for 20-25mins.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Weekend In Anderson Valley - Part 5

Esterlina Vineyards is hidden up a 2.2 mile long road, but it feels much farther. The steep grade, loose gravel, washboard ruts, and extreme drop-offs make for slow driving. To further dissuade casual wine tasters, Esterlina requires an appointment in order to visit. This just means that you should give them a few minutes notice. Most tasting rooms are happy to make the call for you.

I served Esterlina's Pinot Noir many times when I was a waiter at Eos Wine Bar in Cole Valley, San Francisco, and always felt confident recommending it to people. I'd wanted to see their tasting room for a while, but getting to Anderson Valley always seemed out of reach. The days before we visited Esterlina, several people described the tasting experience with stars in their eyes.

After the treacherous drive, Esterlina is situated on the very top of a big yellow hill, from which we could see in all directions. We were the only people there when we arrived, and as we walked toward the tasting room, who would appear but the same boisterous man who had served us at Greenwood Winery (see Part 2). Our hearts sank. His tone was subdued in comparison to the other day, but he did repeat several jokes. Perhaps it was the quiet setting. Esterlina's tasting room is a breath-taking second floor veranda with two tables with umbrellas. Intimate and delicious, the experience is an aesthetic wonderland.

The wines were all mind-blowing. The Chardonnay, in my mind, even rivaled my favorite Chardonnays in the world, produced by Williams Selyem, and at half the price. The man did tell us that Esterlina only likes to have tasters who are big spenders and who take a case or two home with them. Whether this was his own feeling or the vineyards, it made us self-conscious.

As a young writer, I do my best to buy a bottle of wine at every winery I taste at - if I like it. There are some places, like Standish Winery, where I discover that I couldn't afford the wines. But at Standish, the woman behind the counter didn't seem concerned with that and taught us a number of things about wine. If you want to look at it from an economic perspective, I have a great love for wine at a young age thanks to extensive tasting, and I will be purchasing many more bottles of good wine over my life than if I had not done this tasting. But I don't think about economics: I just enjoy awesome wine and learning about it.

With two bottles Zinfandel, we left Esterlina's beautiful winery and began our drive home. Of course, we tasted along the way. Meyer Family Winery was sharing one masterfully crafted Shiraz and one Port, both of which were delicious but not what we were looking for. Then we came upon Yorkville Winery and discovered their organic wines.

The knowledgeable man behind the counter, who'd studied Food Toxicology in college, the study of the chemicals found in food, poured a nice selection of white wines and a rose, which were perfect for the sweltering day. "You know that chocolate dip they put on soft serve icecream," he asked. "Well, do you know how much of that is petrolium jelly? 30%." From this perspective, organic farming is actually a more conservative method of farming. 20% of Yorkville's vineyards hold the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certification and much of their vineyards are just a year or two away from becoming certified.

Yorkville also a number of less-common red wine varietals, including Semillon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Carmenere.

We bought a bottle of the rose and sat on Yorkville's porch to have a picnic. We were all growing quietly sad as we pet a vineyard cat and stared out over the grapes. A firemen's benefit was taking place down the road and locals stood around gabbing. Our trip had come to an end. But like all trips to wine country, the end really isn't the end. We had a good collection of wines in the back seat that would take us back to the Navarro River and rolling hills with every sip.

A Weekend In Anderson Valley - Part 4

Well, you guessed it: We couldn't head back to San Francisco without another day of wine tasting and campin' on the river. However, we didn't go to quite as many wineries as we did our first day, opting for a quick trip to Mendocino on the coast and then a long swim at the location on the Navarro River recommended by Toulouse Winery.

Because we lost track of time, we only got to taste at one winery: Claudia Springs. Claudia Springs's tasting room looked, more or less, like a shed, and it shared a parking lot with a store that looked to sell knick-knacks. For some reason my girlfriend thought this was a good omen. Turned out, she was right.

As the story goes, Winemakers Claudia and Bob Klindt came up to Anderson Valley in 1989 for a weekend vacation and left with the deed to a vineyard. They stumbled upon a vineyard for a good price that came with a house that had all the materials needed to produce wine.

I really enjoyed the first Claudia Springs wines. The rose was practically a red wine it had so much character, but it amazingly maintained the body of a rose. I thought the Pinot Noirs were some of the best I'd ever had, two of which were actually from Harmonique Winery, a sister winery of Claudia Springs. Harmonique wines are crafted by Bob Klindt and Bruce Conzelman. I was completely elated with all the wines, but then came the Zinfandels, of which Claudia Springs had four. Perhaps a simple question of taste, I found them all way too heavy on the cherry-cola and chocolate flavors. As a Zinfandel lover, I was sadly surprised.

Because it was so late, we couldn't make an appointment for the vineyard we most wanted to try in Anderson Valley: Esterlina. But we weren't going to miss it before leaving the next afternoon.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Weekend In Anderson Valley - Part 3

Standish Winery
Surrounded by orchards heavy with pears and apples, Standish's tasting room was located inside what looked like an old mill. We spent quite some time just walking around the grounds, sitting beneath willow trees, and exploring the old tools and signs stored beneath the second story tasting-room. Once inside, the room had a feeling of rustic California: everything was composed of bone-dry, dark wood and rusted tools hung on the walls. Standish has a lot of wines to try and most are quite pricey. The wife of Standish's winemaker had recently tried her hand at the art for the first time: a rosé produced using the saignée method of fermentation. This French technique is the most common technique for producing rosés. It involves draining or bleeding the juice from the grape shortly after the grapes are crushed and the skins broken. This way the juice has only a slightly red coloring to it. The juice is then chilled and fermented at around fifty-eight degrees. The process allows winemakers to retain the bright flavors inherent to the fruit without making a wine dark in color.

During our tasting, we tried one Pinot Noir twice: once in a small, white wine glass, and once in a glass designed for Pinot Noir. The difference was clear as day: the smaller glass did not allow the bright, round fruit of the Pinot Noir to come out as clearly, giving the wine a tighter character overall. If you haven't already, I highly suggest comparing wine-glasses for yourself to see how profoundly different the tasting-experience is.

Before we left, the lady behind the bar told us to pick all the pears and apples we wanted, so we gathered a couple arm-loads. Today, we are actually cooking up another appple/pear-pancake (see "The Ultimate Brunch" below) thanks to Standish Winery!

Husch Vineyards
Husch is one of the better known wineries in the valley, and their inexpensive Pinot Blanc and Mojo Red are often the table wines offered in local restaurants. The caliber of their wines certainly goes beyond these wines. Their tasting room was a bit cramped due to their popularity, but we got to try a wonderful Gewürztraminer, who's residual sugars I've noticed, have seemed to lessen with each year's production, and a very fine Late Harvest Gewürztraminer. The only wine that I didn't like was the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which had a very barn-yardy aroma. However, with Anderson Valley's cool temperatures resulting in wine with high acidity, the Cabernet might change considerably with extended aging.

Handley Cellars
Milla Handley's wines were our last stop of the day. Milla was one of the first female winemakers in California, and started producing wine's under her own name in 1982. I enjoyed most of them, but my taste-buds were a little blitzed by that point and so we headed back to our campsite. That evening we drank a bottle of the Bliss Chardonnay from Brutocao and a bottle of Husch's Pinot Blanc beside a campfire while the locals down at the end of the campground played Bob Marley and laughed loudly. It was shaping up to be quite a weekend. Would we decide to spend another night in the land of plenty? Or would we just pack up and go back to San Francisco to take care of all those pressing responsibilities?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Weekend In Anderson Valley - Part 2

Greenwood Ridge Vineyards
Greenwood's tasting room is located just a few hundred yards down the road from Navarro. A pond with weeping-willow trees stands beside it with an arching bridge that goes out to a tiny island with picnic tables. Too bad there's no shade from the brutal summer sun to make this prime location useful.

Greenwood has one of the coolest wine labels I've seen: a red dragon silk-screened all the way around the bottle. I wish my photographs showed it better. Unfortunately, Greenwood's wines did not stand out as much as their labels, but for one important exception: their Pinot. Greenwood's Pinot Noir was getting closer to the ideal Pinot I was looking for; it had an intense spice that was eclipsed by a long dry finish, making it a great wine to have with food. Unfortunately, I was slightly distracted from tasting it due to the man behind the counter, who's schtick was fully ingrained.

"I'm retired, so I never drink wine to relax anymore," he said, before moving down the bar to a young couple, to whom he repeated the anecdote. I tried to focus: The Pinot was aged for 8 months in 100% French Oak and could be stored for up to five years, which is a pretty long time for a Pinot. "Sorry, we only have Pinot Noir, no Pinot Diem." At twenty-seven dollars a bottle, this Pinot Noir, which was recently acknowledged by Food & Wine Magazine, has a very reasonably price. "This is a beautiful Chardonnay, you should buy a case of it. Like I say, if you wake up in the morning with a glass in your hand, you might as well fill it with this!"

I can imagine that the position of wine-pourer can get monotonous. I've heard horror stories of tourists simultaneously chewing gum and tasting wine, or showing up completely wasted, then taking nothing but their rudeness with them when they leave. But the wine-pourer who is so bored with their job that they are more concerned with entertaining themselves than allowing customers to taste their wines is a painful distraction from an awesome day. For me, the experience of wine-tasting is very special. I'm out of the busy San Francisco atmosphere and into the beautiful California countryside. The wine inherently reflects this beauty, for example a late summer means a late harvest which means a great Pinot Noir. Also, I've gotten a ton of insider information through friendly conversations with people working at the wineries. For example, at the next winery we visited, Toulouse Winery, we were told about a local swimming hole that was exactly what we were looking for.

Toulouse Vineyards
During lunch, we struck up a conversation with some folks who said Toulouse was the perfect winery: The winemaker had already experienced great success in another field, before turning to winemaking, and he truly cared only to make the best wine, which resulted in small production. We pulled up to the quiet tasting room, situated among barrels of aging Toulouse wine, and found that they were sold out of every wine except three: a Chardonnay and two Pinot Noirs.

It was at Toulouse that the homey-feeling of Anderson Valley wineries really began to sink in. Rather than compete with one another, most wineries will recommend one another to suit your particular interests (and beyond that, they'll often tell you to say hello for them). The lady behind the bar at Toulouse told us that Winemaker Vern Boltz, ex-Captain of the Oakland Fire Department, would be tasting wine with us except that his wife, Maxine Boltz, was expected home any minute from a vacation and he needed to clean up the mess he'd made while she was away. The mood was jovial, the wine poured, a light breeze came through the barn-like doors, and we talked about many things other than wine.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Weekend In Anderson Valley - Part 1

Not that Labor Day weekend is the best time for a camping trip, but my girlfriend and a friend and I decided to visit the red woods and wineries anyway. Leaving San Francisco at seven am, we arrived in Anderson Valley around ten o'clock and, to our amazement, found an available camping site in the first campground we checked out. After staking our claim to a dusty spot beside Indian Creek, we took off for a day of wine tasting.

Anderson Valley is much closer to the coast than Sonoma and Napa Counties and actually shares a lot of characteristics with Oregon's Willamette Valley. Locals and workers at the wineries repeatedly declared Anderson Valley the best place in the world to grow Pinot Noir grapes. Pinot Noir grows quickly and ripens quickly, necessitating a cool and foggy climate in order to keep the grapes on the vine for a longer time. This allows their full flavors to come out. The cool climate also maintains a high level of acidity in all grapes, helping to make Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs especially conducive to aging.

Brutocao Cellars

Beginning our tasting-day (which ended up being an epic day of wine tasting), we pulled into Brutocao Winery. I'd recently drank a nice Primitivo from Brutocao, and was excited to discover that many of their wines were Italian varietals, including Dolcetto, a delicious, acidic-Pinot-Noir-like wine, a Barbera, and a blended wine named Quadriga, made from Sangiovese, Primitivo, Barbera, and Dolcetto grapes. Primitivo grapes have the same DNA as California Zinfandel, and Primitivo, in turn, is the genetic equivallent of the Croatian grape, Crljenak Kaštelanski. So, if anyone ever asks you where Zinfandel comes from, just say Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Brutocao's tasting was very relaxed and their wines were impressive. It seemed true that most of the wines had higher acidity, but was the Pinot Noir the best ever? While it was complex and delicious, we walked out with the Dolcetto and a selection of whites. Brutocao, interestingly, only filters one of their two Pinot Noirs, leaving the rest of their wines unfiltered.

Navarro Winery

With beautiful grounds for walking around or lunching and a long list of wines to taste, Navarro was one of our favorites. Their list of cooler region whites was particularly lengthy, offering a Muscato, a blended Edelzwicker, a Gewürztraminer, and a White Riesling. White Riesling, aka Johannisberg Riesling, is considered the "true Riesling"; clones with altered DNA, such as Gray Rieslings and Emerald Rieslings, have slightly different characteristics.

It was around this time that I noticed that Anderson Valley Syrahs are quite different than the Syrahs I'm used to. They are much drier, higher in acidity, even floral, but have very few, if any, "jammy" attributes. Syrah is one of the easiest and fastest grape varieties to grow. The Australia name for Syrah, Shiraz, came about because the original planter of the grape in Australia thought it originated in Persia, but, of course, Syrah is a French Rhône variety. In Anderson Valley, I found a new style of Syrah, one that a I greatly prefer to the more fruit forward, Australian style Shiraz.

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