Wine After the Wildfires

The winter holidays have arrived and it’s time to consider which wines you’d like to grace your celebratory table. In support of The Golden State and the recent traumas suffered by our most prestigious wine growing areas, I propose selecting some of the finest from Napa and Sonoma. You’ll enjoy wines of incredible style and quality while supporting the fractured economy of a beleaguered region.

October was a fiery month for Napa and Sonoma. Hundreds lost their lives or were injured in the terrible inferno that destroyed homes, businesses, historic monuments, and vineyards. The fire was not one but a series of blazes that erupted on October 8 and became a massive firestorm that ranks as the very worst in California history.

The fires affected everyone in the region. Families were roused from their beds and evacuated in the wee hours of the morning only to find themselves homeless just hours later as the fires swept furiously across the land. The most devastating was the Tubbs Fire that started just north of Calistoga and decimated the town of Santa Rosa. The rural areas were hard hit and the fires extended all the way to Mendocino County.

Many vineyards and wineries were burned but fortunately most were saved from destruction. Strangely enough, vineyards actually make great fire breaks this time of year. The vines are green and leafy with little vegetation surrounding them. In many cases, the fire burned right up to the gates of a vineyard and stopped, answering the prayers of more than one proprietor.

The silver lining to the tragedy was the great spirit of community that thrived during this time of crisis.  Friends worked together to evacuate as the unthinkable overtook their once-picturesque neighborhoods. After the fires were extinguished, communities opened their homes to families that had lost everything. In the face of disaster, human kindness and the true spirit of Thanksgiving prevailed.

What does this fire mean for the wine industry of California? The industry will go on, to be sure. It’s likely that the 2017 harvest will be smaller than most but fortunately the majority of the fruit had been collected before the fire hit. Only the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon grapes were still hanging on the vines.

Says Mike Reynolds, President of Hall/Walt Wines, it was “the most interesting harvest” with which he’s ever been involved. Local growers tell stories of rinsing ashes off grapes while harvesting and crossing their fingers that smoke taint had not affected the fruit. Only time will tell what affect the blaze has had on this vintage, but Reynolds is optimistic.

“Napa Valley has recovered rather quickly from the fire,” Reynolds asserts. “Right now the biggest challenge is the loss of tourist dollars because of people cancelling their plans to visit.” Reynolds insists that except for burned hillsides, the beguiling valley is as stunning as ever. Strange as it may seem, it is the ideal time to travel to the area.

Napa and Sonoma are enjoying clear skies and breezy fall weather. If you’ve ever dreamed of visiting California’s famed wine region, do it now. The hotels, restaurants and wineries would welcome guests wholeheartedly to infuse life into their businesses. If you’d love to finally get a reservation at the acclaimed “French Laundry” restaurant, make that call today.

The notoriously well-crafted and delicious wines of Napa and Sonoma are natural accompaniments to traditional holiday foods such as roasted meats, game, or fish. You can’t go wrong. The holidays are the perfect time to check out some of the best California has to offer. Indulge in a hefty Napa chardonnay or a crisp sauvignon blanc from the Sonoma Coast.

Most wine shops carry a wonderful selection from Napa and Sonoma or go online and have a look around. Find old favorites or experiment with something new. If you are not familiar with the wines of Hall or Walt, look up the breathtaking 2014 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon for an incredibly decadent Napa-style cab, or try Walt’s 2015 Bob’s Ranch Pinot Noir for a rich, spicy wine that will bring great elegance to your holiday meal. Think of it as drinking for a cause.

If you’d like to give more directly to the recovery effort in Napa and Sonoma, go to Redwood Credit Union’s North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a 501(c)(3). All proceeds are donated directly to the fund and will help many struggling families.  

Have a beautiful holiday! Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perfectly Puckery Piquepoul Blanc

Before I started studying wine, I imagined there were only a few varieties of wine grapes: chardonnay, pinot grigio, cabernet sauvignon, and the ever-popular merlot. Possibly there were a few others, but certainly not more than say, eight or ten. I was shocked to learn that there are literally thousands of varieties of grapes that hail from regions all around the world.

I love finding interesting wines made from little-known grapes. As much as I enjoy the big favorites like chardonnay and merlot, they do get a bit boring if you drink them frequently. It’s fun to shake it up and try wines with weird and wonderful names like “piquepoul blanc.” Wait – what?You probably have never heard of piquepoul blanc (also spelled picpoul blanc), a white grape hailing from the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc region in the south of France. But just wait – you will! Piquepoul blanc is being touted as the ultimate accompaniment to oysters and seafood in general. What a treat. And the best news of all is piquepoul blanc also pairs beautifully with roast poultry. Just in time for Thanksgiving!

The French are surely shrugging their shoulders at us. They’ve known about this little gem of a wine for centuries. Piquepoul blanc is one of the permitted blending grapes in the famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. The French are well aware of how good it is and up until now, piquepoul blanc has been kind of a secret. But the cat’s out of the bag and the time has come for Americans to enjoy the pleasures of piquepoul blanc. As the holidays approach, this might be just the wine to offer at your Thanksgiving table for both flavor and intrigue.

Piquepoul means “lip stinger” in French. The acid in piquepoul blanc is very high and gives the wine a distinctly zippy quality. The citrusy freshness will make your mouth pucker with delight.  A fairly simple white wine, piquepoul blanc is light bodied with a nose of sweet, white flowers. The palate is dry and tangy with a bright, lemon acidity and a lingering minerality. When grown in a warm climate, piquepoul blanc offers lush notes of tropical fruit, such as pineapple and mango, and the wine can take on an almost buttery quality on the palate.

American and Australian wine producers seem to have discovered piquepoul blanc at the same time. New plantings of piquepoul blanc in South Australia and the New South Wales region have proved very popular and will likely lead to a true market demand for the tasty and refreshing wine Down Under. Best of all, it won’t be long before Aussie-produced piquepoul is imported to our side of the planet.

In the USA, piquepoul blanc is taking root in the popular winegrowing areas of California such as Sonoma, Santa Cruz, and Paso Robles. You can find locally produced piquepoul blanc up and down the California coast. Top vineyards such as Tablas Creek Vineyard and Adelaida Vineyards in Paso Robles produce a 100% Piquepoul Blanc that is well worth the trouble of seeking out. You can find a delicious bottle of 2016 “Picpoul” produced in Santa Cruz at the eclectic Bonny Doon Vineyards.

Interestingly enough, piquepoul blanc is also grown in the hot and sunny wine regions of Texas and Arizona. If piquepoul from the Southwest intrigues you, try a bottle of 2015 Picpoul Blanc from Bending Branch Winery in Comfort, Texas, or check out the Picpoul Blanc blended with Viognier at Keeling Shaefer Vineyards in Willcox, Arizona.

Best of all, piquepoul blanc won’t break the bank. You generally won’t pay more than $32 for a bottle, and usually much less than that. French produced bottles can often be found for as little as $10.95. You’ll find fabulous piquepoul blanc from France at your favorite wine shop. Look for Domaine La Grangette, Picpoul de Pinet 2016, Julie Benau, 2016 Picpoul de Pinet, or La Croix Gratiot, 2016 Picpoul de Pinet from France’s Coteaux de Languedoc.  As ever, a little searching online will reap a bounty of wonderful piquepoul to whet both your curiosity and your thirst.

This sassy white wine is fun and different and offers a lot of bang for your buck. Try something new. Go grab a bottle or two of perfectly puckery piquepoul blanc for your Thanksgiving table. Your friends and family will thank you.

Bon appétit! And cheers!

 

Questions or comments? Email Elizabeth at 4elizabethkate@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram at @ielizabethkate.

 

Always Chardonnay

Fall is upon us but the weather has yet to cool down. As a result, our preference in wine still tends more towards chilled, white wines. These wines are often lighter and more refreshing than say, a heavy, red wine. If you are seeking out something delicious and easy to enjoy this October, you need not look much farther than a classic favorite, chardonnay.

Chardonnay is considered a “noble grape” because its fine qualities are discernible and unique in chardonnay wine produced around the world. From France, where the chardonnay grape originated (there is even a town called “Chardonnay”), to California, Australia, South America and beyond, chardonnay is produced in different styles and qualities to suit everyone’s taste and budget.

How can a single type of grape taste so drastically different from one wine to the next, you may wonder. The answer is based on numerous factors including the location of the vineyard, the viticultural practices, and of course, the actual winemaking.

As in real estate, growing wine grapes is all about location, location, location. Winemakers often say “You can make bad wine from good grapes but you can’t make good wine from bad grapes.” Everything starts in the vineyard. If the grapes are good, the wine has a fighting chance of being palatable as well.

Long ago, Cistercian monks in France’s Burgundy region painstakingly chose the plots of land on which to plant some of the great vineyards of the world by actually tasting the soil in each location. Today the fine chardonnay produced in the famed vineyards of Northern Burgundy (called “Bourgogne Blanc” or “White Burgundy”) serves as the benchmark of excellence in the world of wine. The hard work of those monks did not go unnoticed. Chardonnay producers will often strive to make their chardonnay more “Burgundian” in nature. People want to emulate the best.

The location of a vineyard determines the daily temperatures and the amount of sun and rain the vines will receive. It also establishes the type of soil the vines will sink their roots into, and the annual schedule of planting, pruning, and harvest. The type of soil directly affects the grape vines.

Unlike with most agriculture where a rich soil is desired, grapevines grow best in poor soil and often thrive in the least likely environments. For example, the vineyards of Chateauneuf Du Pape in Southern France are replete with large, round stones that look like moon rocks and in Portugal’s Douro Valley, growers must blast solid walls of rock with dynamite to plant their vines.

The best vines are usually planted on slopes to allow for sun exposure and root drainage. Grapevines often do not require irrigation. In France, irrigation of vineyards is actually illegal. The French believe that to irrigate is to manipulate the vines and to create a product that is not accurately reflective of the region. As ever, there are conflicting points of view on this issue but few other countries besides France place such restrictions on growers.

Chardonnay can be produced both with and without the use of oak. Some less expensive wines use oak chips or staves in an attempt to produce the taste of oak without the considerable expense of oak barrels. The theory is better than the actual practice and often the wood flavor is not well integrated into the wines.

Old oak barrels are neutral and don’t affect the flavors of a wine. New oak barrels will deepen the color of a chardonnay and lend to it toasty flavors and aromas of wood, spice, and vanilla. When crafted without the use of oak, in stainless steel tanks or cement vats, a chardonnay might smell and taste of rich, golden apples, or tangy, tropical fruit. Neither version is right or wrong, but simply different and appealing to diverse palates.

Chardonnay from the Napa Valley or France’s Burgundy region is priced according to its market demand and in accordance with the value of the land on which the vines for each wine are planted. Often the prices can be quite high. The good news is that these wines are beautifully made and deserving of their top-shelf status. If you have the opportunity to indulge in these wines, by all means do! The bad news is they may still be out of reach for those on a budget. But that’s where the rest of the world comes into play.

Lesser-known wine regions in California like our own Livermore Valley and the Lower Sierra Foothills produce wonderful wines with more accessible price tags. If you love a good California Chardonnay, don’t overlook the wines from these areas. If you prefer to sample wines from across the globe, try chardonnay from Australia, South Africa, or South America. You’ll find interesting chardonnay produced in a myriad of styles and might happen across a new favorite.

The most popular white wine grape in the world maintains its top standing for one reason only: the wines are consistently delicious and have been for centuries. Any way you look at it, chardonnay is great.

Cheers!

Questions? Comments? Email Elizabeth at 4elizabethkate@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram at @ielizabethkate.

 

 

 

Sipping South Of The Border

If the rowdy wine-tasting crowds in Napa, Sonoma, or Santa Barbara have you singing the blues, consider California’s OTHER wine production area, just south of the border in Mexico’s Baja California. Valle de Guadalupe is a wonderful and largely undiscovered wine region hosting more than 100 wineries, located just an hour and a half from San Diego, near the Mexican city of Ensenada.

Why Mexico? Why not? While Mexico is known internationally for its fine tequilas, wine production is an up and coming industry and the local wineries in the Baja region are producing some noteworthy wines. Valle de Guadalupe is rustic and rugged, replete with diamond-in-the rough wineries. Come down for the day or make a weekend of it. The many local hotels will welcome you with traditional Mexican hospitality.

If you decide to stay, choose from the refined La Villa del Valle, featuring a swimming pool, spa, horseback riding, and winery right on the property, or try the minimalist and ultra-modern Encuentro Guadalupe with panoramic views of the valley from their hillside Eco-lodges. Check out Cuatro Cuatros and their glamping tents—glamorous camping taken to the highest level of fabulous, or stay just outside the valley at the Hotel Las Rosas where you fall asleep to the sound of the Pacific Ocean crashing on the rocks and wake up to the scent of salty sea air. You can’t go wrong.

Valle de Guadalupe is nowhere near as polished as Napa or other wine regions north of the border. Pitted dirt roads abound and street signs are hard to find.  You may want to consider hiring an English-speaking guide to ensure easy passage through the valley. Knowledge of the Spanish language is a definite plus but the friendly locals are happy to try out their English and assist you in any way. As some wineries offer tastings by appointment only, a guide with knowledge of the area can set your tour up in advance and avoid any scheduling disappointments.

You’ll find that not only wine is crafted in these verdant hills. Look out for spicy, tasty olive oils, artisan-crafted local cheeses, and tangy, sweet orange marmalade. If you’re in the mood for a snack or a meal, options abound. Everything from food trucks with traditional tacos to casual cafes offering burgers and fries, to an upscale Michelin-starred restaurant is at your fingertips. You’ll find delicious and creative fare featuring both meat and seafood. Paired with a selection of local wines, you’ll be in heaven.

So how did vineyards come to be planted in Baja California? Mexico actually has been producing wine since the 1500s when the Spaniards brought their vines over from Spain. Most of what was made was bulk wine for local consumption and quantity was valued over quality. It is only in the past two decades that Mexico has started to dramatically improve the quality of their wines and market them on an international level. Valle de Guadalupe is the center of Mexican wine production and is considered the “Napa Valley” of Mexico.

The hot climate of Baja California offers perfect growing conditions for red grapes from Spain, France, and Italy such as tempranillo, sangiovese, syrah, and cabernet sauvignon. Some white varieties are also cultivated, including palomino, viognier, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay. Over the years, “Flying Winemakers” from other wine-producing regions of the world have visited the valley, sharing their expertise and winemaking skill with local producers. The result is a grand variety of carefully crafted wines offering elegance and rusticity, reflecting all that is Mexico.

Most of the winemaking families live on their properties. These are small-scale businesses where the very heart and soul of the family goes into each bottle. J.C. Bravo Vinicola is a small, family-run business. The grandfather planted the vines, the father is the winemaker, and the wife and children work full-time in the family business.

Production is small at J.C. Bravo Vinicola, but the wines are crafted with love. All of the grapes are harvested by hand, and only by women, as men are considered “too rough” with the grapes. They make a single white wine—a simple, crisp Palomino, and two red wines: a 100% carignan, and a nebbiolo-malbec blend. The reds are rich and velvety and truly worthy of the many awards they have garnered.

Baron Balché is named for the Mayan word meaning “ceremonial drink.” The Rios family bought their property in 1997 and prides itself in the creation of wines steeped in tradition with an eye on environmental conservation and respect for the nobility of the land. Winemaker Oscar Castillo has created an incredible portfolio ranging from basic, easy-drinking reds and whites to world-class premium wines. His understanding of each variety and how to best showcase its strengths has propelled this winery to well-deserved acclaim and distinction.

Be assured that you won’t want to leave this wine-lover’s paradise but do give it some advance thought. Getting back across the Mexican border can take time. Be sure your tank is full of gas and consider using a Border Wait Time app to plan your return. Keep in mind that only two bottles of wine per person are allowed over the border without making a customs’ declaration. Though it seems inconvenient, consider this regulation a blessing in disguise. Now you have a great excuse to plan yet another visit to beautiful Valle De Guadelupe.

Tequila Time!

Summer is here and as ever, we are on the eternal quest for the ultimate summer beverage. With so many creative and fabulous cocktails out there, how can you possibly decide on just one? The drink menus at bars and restaurants today are often staggeringly long. Narrowing your choices down can be challenging. But while some drinks are infinitely more appropriate for winter, such as Irish Coffee, a White Russian, or a snifter of cognac, others just scream summertime and are equally refreshing and delicious on a hot day.

If you’re not in the mood to try the trendiest new cocktail on the block and are perhaps leaning towards something more traditional, why not sample some tequila? You may be surprised. Serious tequila drinkers can be as finicky as scotch drinkers and are generally very well informed. They each have their own favorite brand and style and if prompted will happily tell you why, in no shortage of detail.Some tequila aficionados prefer their spirit crafted into the ever-popular Margarita, either blended or on the rocks, salted rim or clean. Some like the fine, aged sipping tequilas. Others still enjoy the smoky goodness of mezcal. But hold on! Tequila is tequila, right? Wrong. Very wrong. Time to learn something new.

Not just a faceless liquor serving as the base of a margarita, tequila is an historic spirit of Mexico, steeped in history, and offering a true flavor experience to those daring to step beyond the platter of tequila shots at the local Mexican joint. Contrary to popular belief, tequila is not made from a cactus. Tequila is a spirit crafted from the Blue Weber agave plant, a bluish green succulent, which is a cousin to the lily and the amaryllis. The heart or “pina” of the blue agave is cooked in a kind of pressure cooker which forces out the juice or “agua miel”. This liquid is purified, fermented, and double distilled to a minimum of 40% alcohol.

The best tequilas are made from 100% Blue Weber agave (or just “blue agave”). Blended tequilas or “mixtos” may be made from a mixture of blue agave and other agave plants. These lesser tequilas often lack the freshness and finesse of pure blue agave.

The blue agave plant is native to our southern neighbor, Mexico, known for its hot climate, beautiful beaches, and spicy food. It makes perfect sense that the spirits crafted within Mexico’s borders would be appropriate and in fact, perfect, for warm weather sipping.

By law, tequila can only be crafted in five Mexican regions that together make up the state of Tequila. The most important of the five is the state of Jalisco, where the actual town of Tequila is found. If created outside the state of Tequila, a spirit cannot legally be called “tequila”. The two largest tequila companies, Sauza and Cuervo, are both located in the town of Tequila.

Tequila is divided into five categories: gold, blanco (or silver), reposado, anejo, and extra anejo. Gold tequila is generally the cheapest. The gold color is achieved through the addition of caramel coloring to a lower quality tequila. Gold tequila holds little intrigue and should generally be avoided.

Blanco tequila is the most pure in flavor. While pungent in nature, blanco tequila carries the true essence of the blue agave plant, unaffected by wood or age. It has a clean taste and can easily be sipped alone, shot with lime and salt, or blended into an ice cold margarita or other festive cocktail.

A reposado (“rested”) tequila is aged in barrel for three to twelve months. The extreme heat of the production region accelerates the aging process and allows the tequila to take on light notes of vanilla and wood.  A reposado tequila has a more mellow flavor than a blanco and the color is generally a pale caramel shade.

Anejo (“aged”) tequila must be aged one to three years in old Kentucky bourbon barrels. Anejo tequila has a deep golden brown color and is smooth and full-bodied with delicate essences of vanilla and oak. Cocktails are generally made with blanco tequila although mixologists are now experimenting with reposado and anejo tequilas to add extra dimension to their recipes.

Like anejo tequila, extra anejo tequila is also aged in old Kentucky bourbon barrels but must be aged for four years and is always made with a distillery’s very finest spirits. Extra anejo tequila is the most expensive tequila. Rarely made into cocktails, extra anejo tequila is served straight up and sipped.

A discussion of tequila is not complete without touching on mezcal. Mezcal aficionados already know that all mezcal is tequila, but not all tequila is mezcal. In other words, mezcal can be produced both inside and outside of Mexico’s Tequila region, while true tequila can only be produced within the borders of the state of Tequila. Also, tequila must be made with blue agave while mezcal can be made with any agave plant.

Mezcal has a strong, smoky flavor that comes from the roasting (as opposed to pressure cooking) of the agave plant. It is more artisanal than regular tequila as each producer has his own secret method of roasting the agave. Mezcal is an acquired taste and a splash of mezcal added to any cocktail gives a distinctly earthy flavor and smoky aroma.

This summer, branch out a little. Many local restaurants and bars now offer interesting tequilas and mezcals. If you’re feeling daring, order one of the many Mexican-style cocktails you may have never tried before. They just might rock your world. Try something new. Add a splash of tequila to your life and enjoy!

Cheers!

Questions or comments can be sent to 4elizabethkate@gmail.com. Follow Elizabeth Kate on Instagram at @ielizabethkate!

 

 

 

Screw Cap Versus Cork: The Real Story

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a group of 23-year olds about wine. I asked them how they felt about wine with screw cap closures as opposed to cork closures. They wholeheartedly agreed that they preferred screw cap closures.

“I don’t even know how to use one of those things,” one young man said.“You mean the corkscrew?” I inquired.

“Yes,” he affirmed, and the others laughed and concurred.

“I don’t even own one!” said another, and they launched into a discussion about how inconvenient it was to need some funny instrument to open a bottle. “What’s the point?” they asked me.

I mentioned a few passing thoughts about the elegance and tradition of the cork.  They looked at me blankly. Apparently, the alleged romance of pulling a cork out of a bottle is lost on the younger generation. Speed and efficiency are the name of the game and a corkscrew has no place in that world.

It appears the corkscrew may be going the way of the skate key. Long ago, a “skate key” was used to fasten and unfasten metal roller skates to children’s tennis shoes. Kids fastened the metal skates (yes, even the wheels were metal, making for a fairly bumpy ride!) onto their feet and then put the skate key on a chain around their necks until they needed to remove the skates.

Everyone owned the then ubiquitous skate key. They were as commonplace as, well, corkscrews—until of course, the old-fashioned skates were replaced by the infinitely better boot-style roller skates and skate keys all but disappeared. Nowadays you may encounter a skate key in your grandmother’s attic or perhaps an antique shop.

All of this makes me wonder—will the corkscrew suffer the same ignoble fate as the skate key? Will the once grand cork fall from grace altogether and be relegated to the history books? It could very well happen.

Corks have been used to seal wine bottles for centuries. Made from cork bark, they are effective and practical. All natural cork is the best quality and used in high-end wines. Most of the corks used in inexpensive bottles are actually composite cork: cork and cork byproduct, all chopped up and glued together. It’s kind of like Chicken McNuggets versus Chicken Strips. They look like the real thing, but they’re not. And sadly, these composite corks suffer from the same problem that natural corks do – cork taint.  

Corks can be affected with “cork taint” which is the presence of the chemical TCA, or Trichloroanisole. TCA taints the aroma and the taste of the wine, resulting in “corked” or spoiled wine. Corked wine has the distinct smell and flavor of old, wet cardboard. It is not harmful to consume but the aromas and flavors are reduced and masked by the unpleasant odor. Statistically, one bottle in twelve is corked, in spite of the wine industry’s best efforts to prevent TCA.

The official name for the screw cap closure is the Stelvin. It has been enthusiastically embraced by New Zealand, in particular, and can be found sealing most bottles of their fabulous sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs. The rest of the world has been less enthusiastic although screw caps are becoming increasingly popular.

There’s no question that screw caps are the best option for wines that are not intended to age, such as most white wines, roses, and youthful fruity red wines. The screw cap allows no oxygen in the bottle and the wines retain their fresh, fruity qualities. It is unknown whether screw caps could provide a viable option for fine wines that require aging and maturation in bottle.

Cork is porous and cork seals allow tiny amounts of oxygen to enter a bottle of wine over time, resulting in what is called “micro-oxygenation.” This micro-oxygenation, it is believed, allows the wine to mature and develop in bottle, softening tannins and adding to the complexity of the wine.

As screw cap seals do not allow any oxygen to enter a bottle, purists are concerned that wines from screw-cap sealed bottles may not age in the same way as a wine from a cork-sealed bottle. Experiments on bottles sealed with corks versus screw caps are now being conducted in some of the great wines regions of the world. With luck, we should have definitive answers in 5-10 years after these test wines have been allowed to age.

In the end, what matters most is the flavor of the wine. A sommelier I know told me of a couple who recently visited his restaurant. The man was planning to propose to his girlfriend and brought in an expensive old bottle of wine for them to share with their meal. When the sommelier opened the wine, he realized immediately that it was corked.

Because this was the man’s own special bottle from his personal collection, the sommelier said nothing, but simply poured the wine. The couple enjoyed a wonderful dinner together and the evening ended very happily. As they left the restaurant, the man tipped the sommelier and thanked him effusively, commenting that it was the best bottle of wine they had ever tasted. The sommelier just smiled. Truly, beauty is in the eyes, or the palate, of the beholder.

Cheers!

Questions or comments? You can reach Elizabeth Kate at 4elizabethkate@gmail.com. Follow her on Instagram at @ielizabethkate!

 

 

 

 

The Rosés of Summer

Summer is here! Time to let down your hair, slip on your flip-flops, and pop open the rosé. Rosé is the ultimate summer wine, enjoyed by savvy Europeans vacationing on the beaches of St. Tropez and other sunny destinations for decades. As the warmest months descend upon the Northern Hemisphere, great waves of rosé (called “rosado” in Spain and “rosato” in Italy) wash over the shores of Europe and fill the impatient glasses of the thirsty population.

Why rosé? Why not? Rosé is pink in color and beautiful to the eye, floral and perfumed to the nose, and fruity but dry on the palate. Its refreshing acidity is bracing and cleanses the mouth between bites of food. Rosé is made from red wine grapes and takes its color from the skins. Depending on which variety of grapes is used and how long the grape skins are left in contact with the juice, the resulting wine can range from a pale, onionskin color to a deep, almost red hue. The finished color has nothing to do with the quality or intensity of the wine.

As all wines are different, so are all rosés. They can range from light to full-bodied, fruity and tangy to crisp and bone-dry, zippy and light to lush and smooth. The differences are part of the fun and an excellent reason to try many different rosés all year long. Rosé is meant to be enjoyed young. Buy it and drink it, don’t save it for a rainy day or stick it indefinitely in your cellar. A rosé wine should be no more than 2-3 years old. Sparkling rosé is the only exception to the rule and has the ability to age in a temperature-controlled cellar.

Rosé pairs perfectly with just about everything but truly shines when paired with classic picnic foods such as cheese and charcuterie, sandwiches and quiche. Casual bistro food is a perfect fit with rosé. It is a delightful accompaniment to savory fried calamari, briny oysters, crispy French fries, and juicy hamburgers. While we think of rosé as a summer wine, served lightly chilled at the shore, it can easily be enjoyed throughout the year with heavier seasonal fare like stuffed pork tenderloin and roasted salmon.

The United States showed up late to the rosé party. In fact, the USA was a little tardy to the wine party altogether. Unlike Europe, which has a history of wine consumption going back thousands of years, the USA was not a wine drinking nation until the 1970s. Rather than wine, Americans favored cocktails a la “Madmen,” and beer, of course.

When the wines of California began gaining international acclaim, Americans wondered what the fuss was all about. We ventured cautiously into the new and exciting world of dry table wines. Vineyards in Napa went on to become world famous and USA production of wine soared. Today, wine is produced in every state in the union, ranging from classic European varieties to sweet ice wines to fabulous, fruit wines from states like Idaho and Hawaii.

So how did rosé make its way into our vocabulary? Slowly but surely. We started drinking sparkling pink wine back in the 1940s with sweet wines like Mateus and Lancers. But these were not “serious” wines. They were created specifically for the American market, rather like Coca-cola for the older crowd. Dry wines were not favored and wine pairing with food was unheard of at the time.

Sutter Home’s White Zinfandel blasted onto the scene in 1975 after a fortuitous winemaking error and the sugary pink wine went on to define rosé for most Americans. The success of white zinfandel made many Americans assume that all pink wines were sweet. Rosé as a class of wines became gauche and discerning wine sippers avoided it. Fortunately, Americans went on to greater wine sophistication and learned the joys of dry rosé. Today the United States is the greatest wine-consuming nation in the world and at last, rosé wines have gained their rightful place in the hearts of Americans.

Rosé is such a favorite now that most restaurants serve it by the glass and offer a few different bottles on their wine lists. Some historic French rosés to seek out include Tavel, from the Southern Rhone Valley and Bandol from sunny Provence. An all-time favorite produced right here in California is Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris.

The warm weather is upon us. Better stock up now. Cheers!

 

 

 

MacLeod Ale Brewing Company

On a recent visit to Los Angeles, I had the good luck to discover a little gem of a place off the flashy, beaten track of movie stars and studio executives, tucked away in an industrial district of Van Nuys, California. Every community seems to have a neighborhood favorite that locals cherish exactly because it’s not trendy and it’s not competing to be the hottest spot in the ‘hood. These are places like the bar in “Cheers” where everyone knows your name and you’re always warmly welcomed. That place is definitely MacLeod Ale Brewing Company.

MacLeod Ale Brewing Company is a taproom and brewery all rolled into one. Authentic British ales—some from historic, original recipes—are carefully crafted in the back and served with a smile up front. MacLeod’s only serves their own products and are, in fact, prohibited by law from serving anything but their own brew. So if you’re craving a pink Cosmopolitan, this is not the place for you. But if you love a good Pale Ale chock full of character or a flavorful Brown Ale with an impossibly creamy froth, by all means, come one, come all.

In a quarter full of warehouses and auto repair shops, MacLeod’s is the unlikely favorite haunt of everyone from blue to white collar, tow truck drivers to film directors. Why? Because the beer is excellent and the vibe is friendly. MacLeod’s hosts special events on a regular basis as well as weekly Game Nights and Story Slams. This year, MacLeod’s has even organized a 12-day tour of Scotland, including whisky tasting in the Scottish Highlands, for a few of its loyal patrons

MacLeod Ale Brewing Company is not a fancy place. That’s part of its charm. It has a cool, NYC warehouse style. Pull up a barstool and stay a while. You just might make a friend or two. Fancy a game of darts? Check. Prefer to play a board game with your mates? They’ve got plenty. Craving a light meal? Macleod’s provides free peanuts for all and there is always a food truck parked out front, ready to serve up a savory snack.

Owners Jennifer Febre Boase, a native Californian who plays a mean bagpipe, and Alastair Boase, a native Scotsman, complete with charming accent and quick wit, started producing their own ales in 2014 in this location. Beer making is a serious endeavor and MacLeod’s maintains the highest standards of production. They’ve even earned a “Cask Marque” plaque from The United Kingdom for passing two very thorough (and unannounced!) examinations with flying colors. Not a surprise. It’s a classy joint.

Reverse osmosis is used to purify the water. By stripping everything out of the water and then adding minerals back in, MacLeod’s is able to recreate the waters of Dublin and London, in terms of flavor and mineral content, to accurately reproduce the true flavor of beers brewed in those international cities. British and Irish patrons often get emotional upon tasting MacLeod’s ales, so authentic are they.

Most of their malt is imported from the UK, which adds to the expense of production, but is well worth it, in terms of flavor and quality. Both carbon dioxide and nitrogen are used to add liveliness and to carbonate the beers. General Manager, Kevin Pratt, explains that nitrogen adds a “subtle sweetness and a creamy quality” like Guinness, to the ales while carbon dioxide gives them “crispness and a slight bite.”

All of MacLeod Ale Brewing Company’s ales are named after bagpipe tunes so the names are as memorable as the flavors. Go ahead and try “The King’s Taxes” Scottish Brown Ale with a rich, malty character or “Deal with the Devil” IPA with classic, strong hoppy notes.

Brews are served at two different temperatures, adding to their authenticity. Their authentic cask ales are served at the cellar temperature of 50 degrees while draft beer is served at 38 degrees for an icy, cold quality. Accurate temperature control is key. Over-chilling can remove flavor and delicate aromas won’t shine through. Try one or try them all. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’re coming down to Los Angeles on business, skip the Sky Bar and The Whiskey-A-Go-Go and head for MacLeod’s. You may be lucky enough to catch one of their famous Pig Roasts, Jennifer practicing those bagpipes, or Alastair doing a dramatic recitation of Robert Burns’ “Ode to a Haggis”. There’s never a dull moment at MacLeod Ale Brewing Company. You may just opt for a later flight home.

Macleod Ale Brewing Company can be found at 14741 Calvert Street in Van Nuys, 91411. (818) 631-1963. www.macleodale.com. Open weekdays from 5pm to 10pm and weekends from noon to 10pm.

See you there!

 

Greenbar Distillery

Did you know that the distillery representing the world’s largest portfolio of organic, handcrafted spirits is located in Los Angeles? If not, then you probably don’t know about Greenbar Distillery.

Greenbar Distillery is a revelation. Using only organic produce to create their spirits, Greenbar strives to not only produce top shelf spirits, but also to affect the earth and the environment in a most positive manner. Their mission is to make the best possible spirits and to leave the world in “better shape than they found it.”

This dedication to the Earth is not something typically found in the spirits industry. But then Greenbar Distillery isn’t your typical company. When owners Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew, a husband and wife team, started the Greenbar Distillery in 2004, they made conventional spirits with conventional ingredients. But because of their passion for organic, sustainable produce, Melkon and Litty began to experiment with using organic produce to create their spirits and found that the flavors and quality vastly improved.

As with fine cuisine, the product is the sum of all parts and if those parts are organic, fresh, and delicious, that will be reflected in the end result. The spirits produced by Greenbar have nothing in common with mass-produced spirits with which you may be familiar.

Greenbar chooses organic for the fine quality and flavors it creates in the spirits, but also to keep America’s farmland free of synthetic and artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Greenbar’s lightweight bottles and recycled labels help reduce packaging waste and pollution. In addition, Greenbar plants one tree in the rainforests of Central America for every bottle they sell. Now there’s active participation in replenishing our natural resources!

While their work in sustainability is commendable, you may be wondering how Greenbar’s spirits stand up to a taste test. The answer is they stand up straight and tall. If you have the patience and stamina to taste through their entire line of vodka, gin, tequila, rum, whiskey, liqueurs, and bitters, you’ll learn for yourself how absolutely wonderful these spirits are. Be warned, you may never go back to the big brands. Why would you? Greenbar’s spirits are affordably priced and offer a purity of flavor rarely encountered.

A trend in spirits’ marketing these days is boasting about how many times a particular spirit has been distilled. Companies brag that their spirit is better and “more pure” than the rest by virtue of being double, triple or even quadruple distilled. The irony is that with each distillation, flavors and natural characteristics are lost. The product is stripped of its unique and defining features with each process. In the end, a vodka, whiskey, or rum could taste like absolutely nothing on the palate.  Why would that be a desired effect unless the base materials were of poor quality?

Greenbar distills its spirits only once: Just enough to produce the desired alcohol levels and just enough to retain all of the wonderful, natural characteristics of the high quality base ingredients. The added flavors in the products are created by macerating natural fruits and spices to capture their beautiful flavor, scent, and color.

The zest of two whole lemons is used in every bottle of tangy lemon vodka. The spiced rum uses five whole spices, citrus, and flowers to make a rum that is rich, flavorful, and balanced. The liqueurs and bitters are intense experiences of roots, herbs, flowers, and citrus. You have to try them for yourself. Indeed, these spirits are memorable and will keep you coming back for more.

Greenbar Distillery is located at 2459 East 8th Street, Los Angeles, 90021. Look for them at Greenbar.biz and (213) 375-3668. Greenbar Distillery offers tastings, tours, and group events. Their unique products can be purchased all over California at most fine wine and spirits shops.

Rhone Valley Wines: A Trip to France in a Glass

Have you ever tried a wine from the Rhone Valley? If not, put it on your list of things to do this year. The wines of the Rhone Valley, located in southeastern France, are gorgeous, distinctive wines with savory aromas and flavors of what the locals call “garrigue,” a blend of wild thyme, rosemary, lavender, and juniper. Imagine these flavors in your glass! I love these wines and seek them out every chance I get.

The singular red wine grape of the northern Rhone Valley is Syrah, which is also known as Shiraz in other parts of the world. All of the red wine produced in the northern Rhone Valley is Syrah. By French law, winemakers are not permitted to produce red wine from any other grape in that region. The dominant white grapes in the region are Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.

Down in the southern Rhone Valley, blends are the name of the game. While any of the grapes produced could easily be made into a 100% varietal wine, the philosophy in the southern Rhone is to blend. The locals firmly believe in taking the strongest qualities of each grape and marrying them together.

Some of the red wine grapes grown in the south are Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsaut, and Carignan. The white grapes include Grenache Blanc, Piquepoul, and Roussanne, among others. While Grenache tends to be the predominant grape in the red wines, winemakers have recently been experimenting with using larger percentages of Syrah and Mourvedre, creating bigger, more powerful wines.

If you’ve never tried a Rhone Valley wine, start with a good, basic Cotes-du-Rhone and then move on to the decidedly more glamorous and expensive Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Chateauneuf-du-Pape includes red and white wines and can feature up to 13 different grapes in its cuvée. As always, flavors and quality vary from producer to producer. Try a few different bottles to find your preference. Some of my favorite producers are Perrin & Fils, Chateau Beaucastel, Chateau La Nerthe, and Vieux Telegraphe.

The wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or “New Castle of the Pope,” were developed and named in honor of Pope Clement V when he relocated the papacy from Rome to the seaside town of Avignon, France in 1309. “Chateauneuf-du-Pape” is both the name of a small village outside Avignon and the celebrated wine produced in the region. Traditionally, Chateauneuf-du-Pape comes in a heavy, dark bottle with an embossed papal insignia above the label.

Considered some of the greatest wines in the world, Chateauneuf-du-Pape truly lives up to its lore. Elegant, rich, concentrated, and high in alcohol, the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape are a perfect reflection of their warm Mediterranean climate. The white wines are full-bodied with heady aromas of the garrigue, strong minerality, and flavors of ripe citrus and honey. The reds boast a refined and complex nose with a palate of fresh strawberries, tangy herbs, leather, and wet earth. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is indeed fit for a king – or even a pope!

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is best enjoyed with a few years of aging under its belt. A very youthful Chateauneuf-du-Pape may be highly tannic and difficult to drink. Red Chateauneuf-du-Pape can easily be cellared 10-15 years, acquiring notes of tobacco, spice, game, and dried leaves with time. Collectors revere these wines for their amazing potential to age.

The white wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines are best enjoyed within 1-3 years from the vintage although a small number can age gracefully and take on interesting flavors of ginger, spice, and orange zest with time. Basic Cotes-du-Rhone wines are not intended to age and should be enjoyed soon after purchase.

The wines of Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape are delicious paired with cheeses such as Camembert, Brie, or Roquefort. The earthy flavors of the cheeses complement the savory quality of the wines. The wines also pair beautifully with a variety of main courses, the herbal qualities of the wines matching the herbs used to season the food. From game and hearty stews to roast lamb or chicken, Rhone Valley wines are a welcome addition to any table.

Explore the wines of the Rhone Valley with your family and loved ones. There’s a reason why people have cherished them throughout the centuries. These wines are true crowd pleasers. Treat yourself to a bottle, or buy one for a friend. Like a quick trip to France in a bottle—enjoy the journey. Cheers!