Wine Adventures

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It's a memoir (slightly fictionalized) about my family's connection with the old Jewish resort hotels in New York's Catskill Mountains...and my years working as a waiter in the hotels to get money for college.

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The Great Cork Controversy

Corks. Screwcaps. What’s the big deal?

The debate rages on, and now it’s starting to swing in an unexpected direction.  The ferocious argument has to do with the venerable cork, used for centuries as a wine bottle stopper, and its opponent, the newer-technology screw cap.  (By the way, winemakers would prefer that we call them “twist-offs.”)

Why, after all this time, has the industry started to drift away from cork?  We’ve been using them in wine bottles for over 700 years.  Well, there’s a reason, and it’s all because of a fungus.

It’s called TCA, and I won’t clobber you with the polysyllabic technical name.  (Stephen Burch and I did talk about this during our seminar in New Orleans).  TCA is a fungus that infects cork, which is, after all, just the bark of a certain kind of oak tree.  This practically-indestructible organism lives in the wooden pallets in wine cellars and on other unlikely surfaces.

TCA, or cork taint, as its most commonly called, spoils wine.  At worst, it makes the precious liquid in the bottle taste like wet cardboard or newspapers.  At its mildest, it robs the wine of flavor components and makes it taste…well, blah.

In fact, winemakers estimate that between 5% and 7% of all wine bottled under corks gets spoiled.  People open the bottle, taste the wine, and pour it down the sink.  Imagine if you had a factory and five percent of your product turned out to be defective.  You wouldn’t stay in business very long.

Hence the move toward more neutral, non-reactive stoppers, such as screw caps.  The charge has been led over the past ten or fifteen years by New World wineries, especially in Australia and New Zealand.  The advantage:  no TCA, and the closure is supposedly perfect for wines that are going to be consumed within a couple of years.

But what about other wines?  Cork, being slightly porous, allows small amounts of air into the bottle, which helps break down tannins and makes the flavor components come together and harmonize.  And it’s true that bottles sitting around for 20-30 years will be slightly less full than newer bottles.  The wine disappears – it goes somewhere — so air must be getting in or out.  However, cork does break down over time, and collectors who have bottles that are 30-40-50 years old often get them recorked every couple of years.  The really expensive high-end wineries provide such a service.

My advice?  Don’t worry about it.  The mistaken perception that only lower-quality wines have screw caps is left over from the old jug wine days.  In fact, many top-quality wines are being bottled with screw caps.  Example:  Mollydooker “Carnival of Love,” a blockbuster Shiraz from Australia, was Wine Spectator’s #2 Wine of the Year last year.  It costs over $65 a bottle and guess what…  Screw cap.  The closure is ideal for wines that are meant to be enjoyed in just a few years…or tonight…which is most of them.
So if you have even one opposable thumb, that’s all you need to open and enjoy great wines.

Wine in Whiskey Barrels? Huh?

Rolling Out the (Whiskey) Barrels

Right around 2014, a new trend in winemaking emerged, and it’s started to gain a lot of traction…and attention.  Some winemakers have begun to age their wines in used Bourbon whiskey barrels.  They call it “cross-aging.”

The venerable oak barrel plays a critical role in the way wine ages and tastes.  There are dozens of ways winemakers can use oak to flavor and “season” wine, but until now they’ve mainly stored and aged their wines in new or used French or American oak barrels. But apparently, this new trend of putting red wine in used whiskey barrels opens a new world of flavors and textures.  And this is no “underground” phenomenon.  Even major wineries like Mondavi and the Australian Jacob’s Creek are doing it.

White wines are also getting the treatment, being aged in barrels that formerly contained tequila or other clear spirits.  And the situation gets more interesting from there.

Jeff Kasavan, Cellarmaster at Cooper & Thief in Lodi, California, has over 30 years of experience as a winemaker, and says that “cross-aging” is a relatively new trend because “Bourbon barrels present a new array of aromas and richness that you can’t extract from traditional new oak barrel aging.”  He also ages his white Sauvignon Blanc in used tequila barrels.  “Sauvignon Blanc is one of my favorite varietals,” he says, “so I experimented with how the barrels could enhance the wine’s flavor experience.  The acidity and citrus notes of Sauvignon Blanc are complemented by the subtle heat and toasty vanilla flavors imparted by the former tequila barrels.”

However, this technique may not work with all wines.  The reds that Kasavan chooses to age in Bourbon barrels need significant tannin structure and flavor intensity.  “For my red blend,” he says, “I use predominantly Merlot and Syrah complemented by Zinfandel, Petit Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  They stand up the best to the big bold aromas and flavors imparted by the whiskey barrel aging process.”

All cross-aged wines start out in traditional oak barrels, but then winemakers like Jeff Kasavan and 1000 Stories winemaker Bob Blue put their wines in used whiskey barrels for an additional two or three months.

Blue agrees that richly-flavored wines are the ones to use for this technique.  “Big, bold wines are best for the intensity of Bourbon barrel-aging,” says Blue, “which is why Zinfandel is our flagship varietal.”  He continues, “Bourbon barrels are intense.  Most wines can’t tolerate that kind of barrel intensity, but Zinfandel seems to fit the bill just right.”

He also sees a bright future for wines made this way.  “At first, we thought 1000 Stories would be more appealing to men, but women have become very enthusiastic.  And the wine also cuts across various age groups, which shows that the category really has universal appeal.”

Discover the appeal for yourself with these new recommendations…

1000 Stories Gold Rush Red California 2016 ($20) – Deep rich garnet in the glass with toasty oak and vanilla aromas.  Charred vanilla and smoke flavors with blackberry, blueberry and 15% alcohol.  WW 89-90

1000 Stories Zinfandel California 2014 ($20) – Contains about 19% Petite Sirah, so it’s big, bold, and concentrated.  Some minerality on the nose, fresh black cherry that lingers on the finish.  Smoke and vanilla.  Aged in old and new Bourbon barrels.  WW 90

Cooper & Thief Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2016 ($33) – With a whopping 16.5% alcohol, this is not a typical example of the varietal.  Vanilla and smoke, with almond notes and a creamy texture.  Long finish of oak, vanilla, and crème brulee.  Blended with Colombard, Semillon, and “other whites.”  WW 86-87

Cooper & Thief Red Blend California 2014 ($33) -- Almost a Port, with 17% alcohol, this blend of Cabernet, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Petite Sirah is all about smoke, vanilla, and deep black fruit.  Nothing subtle about it, and lots more smoke and vanilla on the finish.  WW 89


Discover the Delights of Sweeter Wines

What is sweet wine?  Why do so many people like it?  Find out in this informative and entertaining article from my friends at ilovewine.com.  Copy and paste this link into your browser. 




Discovering New Regions--and New Wines

The Pleasures of Paso Robles

In early May of 2018, I joined a gaggle of wine journalists from Florida on a private tour of California’s Paso Robles wine region, and it was a revelation.  Guided by Chris Taranto of the Winegrowers Alliance, we spent four days visiting vineyards and wineries throughout the expansive area, and what a delightful surprise it was.  Of course, I was somewhat familiar with this part of California, but an in-depth guided tour, and the opportunity to tastes dozens of wines, was a real eye-opener.

First of all, “El Paso de Robles” (which means the Pass of the Oaks) is located about halfway between Santa Barbara and San Francisco, not far from San Luis Obispo.  If you’ve ever taken the scenic Pacific Coast Highway drive, just jog inland to Route 101, and you’ll find it.  One of the city’s founders was Drury James, who made a fortune during the gold rush of 1849.  He also happened to be the uncle of infamous outlaws Frank and Jesse James.

Revelation One:  Paso has no real “signature” grape, unless it’s maybe Zinfandel.  They grow everything out there, not specializing in a single group of varietals the way Napa does, or Bordeaux.  They have Rhône grapes like Syrah, there are Italian varietals, Spanish, even some Portuguese.  What’s more, the innovative spirit of the vintners leads them to create highly unconventional blends.  We didn’t sample many wines that were 100% one grape or another.

We were joined at our dinners by several winemakers, so there was plenty of opportunity for informal chats.  Over and over, we heard them say “what’s good for one of us, is good for all of us.”  The spirit of mutual support for everyone in the industry was as surprising as it is rare.

As a winegrowing region Paso is vast, and in many ways, it’s still considered the wine industry’s “wild west.”  It’s not as polished as Napa, or as compact, so the drive between wineries can be something of a haul, but it’s all worth it.  It’s generally divided it into East and West areas, and then into several sub-appellations, each with its own soil and climate characteristics.  For example, the Templeton Gap is a passage in the mountain range between Paso and the Pacific that brings cooler days and nights because of the ocean breeze that blows through.  All in all, a very varied region, with an extremely varied selection of wines.

There’s lots more to know about this exciting, unconventional area, and we’ll do that in future articles.  Meanwhile, I’d like to share some of our discoveries.  These wines may not all be available locally, but can be purchased through individual wineries’ websites.

Ancient Peaks Chardonnay Santa Margarita Ranch 2017 ($19) – From one of the area’s coolest regions, this wine is blended from three blocks in the vineyard.  Only a small percentage of the total had oak contact, preserving the flavors of tropical fruits, plus pear and peach.  There are hints of caramel as well.  Very nice.  WW 90

Pomar Junction Sidetrack White NV ($24) – Out in Paso, they love to blend.  This is a traditional Rhone mix of Viognier, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc that offers notes of peach and pear, along with a hint of orange and white flowers.  One of our favorites.  WW 92

San Simeon Stormwatch Red Blend 2014 ($65) – A classic Bordeaux blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, and other traditional varietals, this bold blend explodes with rich blackberry and blueberry notes.  The two years it spends in new French oak contribute overtones of spice and vanilla.  Excellent.  WW 95

A wine you need to know

Winemakers who decide to try their hands at making Pinot Noir are crazy in a very special way, because Pinot is known far and wide as the “heartbreak grape.”  Unlike Chardonnay, which will grow just about anywhere you stick it in the ground, Pinot thrives only in a narrow range of soil and climate conditions.  Second, the grapes themselves are very small, so it takes more of them to make a bottle of wine.  Third, if wine grapes can get any disease or malady at all, Pinot grapes will catch it first.  And if that’s not discouraging enough, the varietal is known to actually mutate on the vine, so what you plant may not be what you harvest.

But there’s an upside.  Of all grapes, Pinot Noir is capable of being turned into wines that are surpassingly elegant, silky, and seductive.  Which is why a Pinot such as France’s Domaine de la Romanée Conti sells for upwards of $3,500 a bottle, if you can find it.  (A double magnum of the 1996 vintage can be yours for a mere $69,995).  So Pinot is an attractive challenge for the winemaker, who, if successful, can create a truly spectacular wine that can be sold for large dollars.

So if Pinot Noir grows well in only very limited areas, where are they?  The first, of course, is the Burgundy region in France.  Over there, they grow only two grapes:  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they are mostly spectacular.  They are also supremely difficult to understand, because the Burgundy region is divided up into miniscule subregions, each of which has its own name, character, and winemaking traditions. 

Here in the US, Pinot lovers turn to Oregon and California.  The most familiar area in Oregon is the Willamette Valley (it’s “Wil-AM-it,” dammit!) though don’t be afraid to sample from the Umpqua and Rogue Valleys as well.

Just as Robert Mondavi put California wines on the world stage, David Lett did the same for the wines of Oregon.  In 1979, at an international wine tasting competition, his Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir came in third among 600 wines, beating out a whole lineup of legendary and obscenely expensive Burgundies.  It was like the American Olympic hockey team defeating the Russians in 1980.  Or the 1968 New York Mets.

The French went, bananas, or bananes, the way they say it.  They exclaimed, “Sacre bleu!  C’est imposible!” or words to that effect.  They absolutely could not accept that an American wine could compare so favorably to the best of Burgundy.  So they demanded a rematch.  A second blind tasting competition was held the next year.  Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir did not come in third.  It came in second.

Pinots tend to be extremely variable in quality and style, so my advice is what it always is…drink more wine.  Sample widely, and enjoy.

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