15 Wines Under $15 Bucks!

Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to go out and spend $40 -$50 on a bottle of wine and  feel confident that you are getting something that should be pretty damn tasty. I say ‘should be’ because believe it or not, there are plenty of disappointing wines at that price point. But more often than not, a wine of that price should possess some sort of quality in terms of region, grape selection, production and aging. But what is much harder is to find those $10-15 bottles that taste like something 2-3X the price… but they are out there my friends. Sometimes you have to stomach through a bunch of swill to find those great values, but like anything in life it takes a bit of determination and hard work to discover those hidden gems.

graphic courtesy of foodandwineblog.com

Check out this list of 15 wines, in no particular order, which have a tremendous QPR (Quality Price Ratio) and will run under $15. I am not including vintages as these wines are consistently solid just about every year and possess similar flavor profiles regardless of vintage (for the most part)… Cheers!

White/Rosé

Belle Ambiance Pinot Grigio, CA – This is like the house white wine for my block. A PG with some body to match up to the acidity, with pretty floral notes surrounding the citrus fruit center.

Fox Run Dry Riesling, FLX – Keep it local with one of my favorite Finger Lakes value wines.  A little like Sprite on the palate (lemon/lime with just a quick hit of pettilance) with fresh grapefruit and searing acidity, a home run pairing for any kind of chilled shellfish.

 

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Louis Jadot Chardonnay Bourgogne Blanc – Classic Burgundy entry level Chardonnay with a concise balance of crisp apple and pear fruit, bright acidity and just a hint of that  buttery character.

 

NV House Wine Rosé Can – Good wine is coming in all shapes and sizes these days, so don’t let the can scare you! This is a great summer sipper, porch pounder…whatever you want to call it. Fresh and bright strawberry fruit with an appealing rose petal note.  

NV House Wine Rosé Can, 6Pk, 6 x 375 mL

RedImage result for vidal Fleury Cotes du Rhone

Vidal Fleury Cotes du RhoneOne of the biggest and most expressive CDRs at this price point. Concentrated red and black cherry fruit, peppery spice and mineral notes are all in balance as is the bright acidity and firm tannins. Easily could pass as a Gigondas for twice the price.

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Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva – Made from 100% Negroamaro, the dominant grape in this area of Puglia, this has a fairly intense nose featuring dried fruit such as raisin, prune and fig. But the candied blackberry and cherry notes come through on the palate and flow through the dry, pleasing finish. Big yet balanced…

 

Purple Malbec Cahors Chateau Lagrezette’s entry level red, this is simply a wonderful expression of Malbec from the motherland (France) with bright acidity, vibrant black fruits and just a dollop of black pepper.

 

Seaglass Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara – This is a perennial ‘best value’ Pinot for me as it stays light and lively on the palate but exudes true Pinot character, which most Pinots at this price point fail to do.

Underwood Pinot Noir, OR (Can) – Am I having this with a roasted duck? No… But for a light everyday wine this has enough fruit and depth to make it fully enjoyable. And do you know what doesn’t break and shatter all over the floor for your kids to step on and get little pieces of glass stuck in their feet?? Cans… that’s what.

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Slow Press Cabernet, CA – This has to be the best CA Cab for the Price on the market. All that Paso Robles fruit gives this full bodied wine an opulent core of black cherry, cassis and plum with just a kiss of sweetness. Plush and supple, but with enough depth to enjoy with a grilled steak.

 

Rosso di Ca’Momi, CA –  A fun blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah. Medium to full bodied with a fairly intense nose of toasted vanilla, blackberry and clove.  Super value at around $10.

 

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Chateau Souverain Merlot, CASorry Miles, but I am drinking THIS f&%king Merlot! It has some real umph to it with big dark fruit flavors, toasty oak laced with clove and spice aromas. Probably the best wine of the bunch here…

 

Lines of Wine

Columbia Crest Grand Estates, WAWhile the Syrah is my favorite in the line, this value brand under Ste. Michelle Estates is continually awarded “Best Buy” accolades from top publications, and for good reason. Tough to find a bad one in the lineup.

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Handcraft Wines, CA – The Delicato family produces this line of wines which offer tremendous value and drinkability across the board. Taste the Dark Red Blend and the Petite Sirah and you will understand exactly what I mean.

 

Bota Box – Boxed wine is not how you may remember it. This is no Franzia or Almaden, so get over the stigma already. Bota is producing really solid juice from all over the world (although mostly CA). And at $20 a 3L box (or $5 a bottle) there is no better value on the market, particular for the whites like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

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5 Summer Whites to Beat The Heat

It’s hot… It’s like Africa hot… Tarzan couldn’t take this kind of hot.  While the Biloxi Blues fans will get that reference, the rest of us can just agree that it is really starting to heat up around here. This is about the time where the shift to white wine from red starts to kick in.. But not just any white wine, as certain ones are far more thirst quenching and refreshing than others. Sure, I’ll still reach for a hearty Syrah or a spicy, juicy Zin when the grill is rocking with all kinds of meat. But for Summer sippin’ I tend to reach for those crisp, aromatic and tongue tickling whites…. like the ones listed below.

Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile white grape varieties in the world, as it leads to a wide variety of styles of wine. In warmer climates, or if picked later in the season, it can lead to an off dry or even sweeter wine leading to aromas and flavors of honeysuckle, almond and ginger snap. But in cooler climates, and when fermented to the fullest, Chenin wines are crisp, dry and mouthwatering with fresh green, apple, pear and just hints of that honey note. The most expressive examples come from South Africa (where it is also called Steen) and the Loire Valley in France. In fact, in Vouvray (region in the Loire) many producers will craft a sparkling version such as Domaine Pichot which is always one of my favorite ways to commence  any Summer grillin’ session. If you’re not into the bubbles, their Domaine Le Peu de la Moriette is quite a stellar still wine.

 

Albarino is a white grape mostly grown in the Northwest of Spain and Portugal with some experimentation happening in California and other new world wine regions. Most of the Albarino labelled wine you find on the shelves at your favorite wine shop comes from the Riax Baixes DO in Galicia, prime real estate for Albarino. These wines tend to have a bit more Image result for botanicalsdepth than other citrus driven whites (like Sauvignon Blanc) with searing acidity, discerning botanical aromas as well as white flower and stone fruit flavors. This not only makes it an ideal white to enjoy on its own, but a wonderful food pairing wine particularly with all kinds of chilled shellfish. Martin Codax is a very popular producer, and makes a widely available and solid Albarino, however I prefer the Bodega Eidosela, Ethereo with its mineral and tangy character for about the same price.

Speaking of Albarino… Vinho Verde is a coastal wine region in Portugal just south of Rias Baixes where Alvarinho (same as the Albarino grape) also flourishes. While the literal translation is ‘green wine’, the more appropriate explanation of the name is  ‘young wine’ as these are typically light and fruity with a touch petillance. Reds and Image result for petillance wineroses are produced in the region as well, made mostly from indigenous varieties, but the majority of wine that comes from the area is the Alvarinho based white (with other indigenous grapes like Loureiro and Arinto possibly mixed in). They are typically light straw or yellow in color, fruity and floral on the nose with a clean, lean and mouthwatering feel on the palate. And because these wines are typically quite low in alcohol, feel free to enjoy that second glass virtually guilt free! Vinho Verde options tend to be rather affordable, such as the Casa Do Valle Grande Escolha Vinho Verde which you can find for under $15.

Gruner Veltliner may be one of the most misunderstood and underrated wines in the world, but that seems to be changing as some of the finest examples are receiving well Grüner Veltliner (Green Veltliner) (white) | Aromas of green apple, lemon, blossom, cantaloupe, herbs, black & white pepper, mint | Austria, Slovakia & Hungary (Zöld Veltelini)deserved high accolades and ratings. Making up about 1/3 of all Austrian grape plantings, this spicy and aromatic wine comes in a variety of styles. Even though the bottle may look like a Riesling, GV does not have much in common with the popular German variety aside from the high acidity and some similar citrus notes. These wines typically feature more stone fruit than green fruit with white pepper, a lime or lemon note and a cool white pepper (or herbaceous) component. Some of the richer GV wines will age wonderfully where honey, almonds and a creamy texture prevail… which can come with a higher price tag. But for around $15 there is an ample amount of light and zippy Gruners to choose from, including this Domane Wachau Federspiel Terrassen Gruner Veltliner… thankfully it is much easier to drink than it is to pronounce. And keep an eye out for some FLX Gruner out there as the experimentation is starting to come to fruition.

 Soave (pronounced like  the iconic 80’s tune ‘Rico… Suave’) may be my favorite summer white wine of all. I’m not referring to the Bolla version (although for under $10 it’s a pretty good value play), but more so the wines from the Classico region of Soave. These tasty, undervalued wines that have the Classico designation are from the best soils in the area and are composed of at least 70% Gargenega with Trebbiano di Soave and Chardonnay possibly rounding out the blend. These light bodied, dry and refreshing wines commonly possess peach, orange zest and honeydew melon flavors with some almond notes in the better versions. If you are looking for something to pair with these wines think hearty seafood such as shrimp, scallops and even lobster as the acidity and fresh fruit balance perfectly with those meaty seafood dishes. Pieropan consistently makes a stellar Classico for around $20 and their Calvarino (produced from some of the best soil in the region) is well worth the extra $8-10, as it will age and improve over time.
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My WSET Diploma Level 4 Exam Experience

Wine has been a passion of mine for just about as long as I have been allowed to drink it. From the bottles of straw bottomed Chianti and Pere Patriarche Rouge on my grandparent’s dinner table, to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin that my pops selected one night at Spark’s Steak house (my ‘epiphany wine’), it has always been a part of my life. The more I sipped,  the more curious I became about everything that went into wine and what made it so damn tasty. Once I started working in the biz, IImage result for Pere Patriarche Rouge decided I needed to step up my ‘wine geek’ status a notch or two which was when I decided to enroll in the WSET.  The Wine and Spirits Education trust is based in England with satellite schools throughout the globe and is one of the most recognized and respected wine education organizations in the world. They offer a variety of programs starting with a basic Level 1 Award in Wines all the way up the wine education ladder to one of the most grueling and intense programs out there, the notorious Level 4 Diploma in Wine and Spirits.

I entered the program through the International Wine Center in NYC 7 years ago at the Level 3 Advanced Level. While the Diploma Level gets most of the attention and accolades, the Advanced Exam is not to be discounted as it is a serious test of wine knowledge and blind tasting skill. It consists of a written theory section containing both multiple choice and short essay questions followed by a blind tasting of two wines under stringent time limitations. So after successfully passing the exam, the fateful decision had to be made…. To Diploma or Not To Diploma.

With a full time job at Wine Enthusiast and at the time having a 3 and 1 year old at home, I probably should have had my head examined. But having completed a Masters in Elementary Education program in my younger years, and more importantly having this deep rooted passion for wine, I was infinitely intrigued to see what all the hype was behind the Level 4 Diploma. There are 6 units to the program, each with its own exam. In order to complete the program you must pass all 6 within a 3 year time frame, and every one of the tests at this level makes the Advanced test seem like taking an eye Image result for wine eye chartexam with a magnifying glass. There are separate Units for Sparkling Wine, Fortified Wine, Spirits, Wine Production, The Business of Wine and the Granddaddy of them all… Unit 3 – Light Wine. ‘Light’ is a complete oxymoron here as this makes up half of the program and is the heaviest of all in terms of information, tasting and time expended. The WSET uses the term Light Wine, but it is synonymous with ‘still wine’, so this section covers every region in the wine producing world and every wine that comes out of those regions…literally.

I won’t go into the gory details of what is entailed in terms of studying… but let’s just say that my alarm was set for 4:30 every morning and my home, car and office were all decorated with homemade wine flash cards. Not to mention the inordinate amount of blind tastings (not drinking mind you) that my poor wife had to administer late into the night to train all the senses. So after passing a majority of the other units and heading into my third year of the program, it was time to take on Goliath. Who would have thought there was so much to know about wine?!? How many hectares of vineyards are planted in Valais? What grapes are used in the Nagy Somlo region of Hungary? At what time did they pick the grapes for the 1973 Chateau Montelena award winning Chard? What was the name of the third child of the Chateau Margaux winemaker in 1982? That sort of thing.

The Unit 3 exam is a 12 wine blind tasting followed by an extensive written section.  The WSET’s goal is to see if you are able to identify specific characteristics in wine, connecting them to particular grapes and regions, judging quality and ageability while defining the wine using the their ‘tasting grid’. A major benefit of the WSET model is the credit awarded by properly describing the wine characteristics. So even if you are incorrect in identifying the grape and/or region, if your description grooves with the majority of WSET examiners grading your exam you still have a shot at earning enough marks to pass.

After months and months of blind tasting and sleeping with the Oxford Companion to Wine under my pillow praying for some form of osmosis, the day had finally arrived. The first flight was to examine 3 wines all produced from the same grape variety. In front of me sat 3 lemon colored wines with varying intensity, so I started going through the tasting grid trying not to jump to any conclusions (which is easier said than done). I detected grapefruit and some grassyImage result for grapefruit and lemongrass notes on the first wine, so I ignored the grid as clearly these were all Sauvignon Blanc. Luckily, my snap judgement was correct as all 3 wines were indeed produced from Sauvignon Blanc. Of course, you do not find out results until about 3 months after the fact, leaving around 90 days to crucify myself for falling into the most obvious blind tasting pitfall. But the grapefruit don’t lie… most of the time.

The next 3 wines all were produced in the same country. As I sniffed the first white wine, a hint of honey emerged over the apple and pear fruit core…obviously Chenin. Having already hastily predetermined the grape variety I moved down the line to the light red wine which emitted pretty aromas of red cherry, strawberry and a black pepper spice, so this had to be Pinot. My brain was racing trying to connect the dots. Chenin runs rampant in the Loire valley and the Pinot had Burgundy written all over it…France it is. The last sample was a sweet style dessert wine with quite a distinctive honeysuckle aroma, but it didn’t have that Sauternes-like character. It must be a late harvest Chenin from Bonnezeaux or somewhere in the Loire. Or could this be one of those trick tasting flights? South Africa produces plenty of Chenin and some Pinot, but this Pinot didn’t have those classic South African earthy undertones, and it felt like a cooler climate style of Chenin… so it simply HAD to be from the Loire.

Related imageOr, not so much… the first wine wasn’t even Chenin. It was a Kabinett Riesling from GERMANY! Both wines can have apple and pear fruit with a slight honey note as well, which is exactly why you don’t jump to conclusions. The red wine was in fact Pinot, but Spätburgunder would have been more appropriate in this case. And of course, the final wine was not an obscure late harvest Chenin, but an obvious Auslese Riesling.

In a word…FAIL!

The next flight of 3 needed to be placed in a ‘good, better, best’ order with specific reasons as to why. Moments after the wines were poured the entire room filled up with black fruit, smoke and spice… blatantly Syrah. However there was some clear evidence to back up my impulsive guess as all the wines had dark berry fruit with either sweet spices, smoked meat or olive tapenade. I had them all pegged as Northern Rhone wines, and while they turned out to be fairly high quality Australian Shiraz with some age on them, I felt like I nailed that section which provided a much needed boost of confidence going into the final flight.

The final 3 wines for the exam were a random sampling of any wine from anywhere. In front of me stood a white, rosé and red wine looking like Mariano Rivera at the bottom of the 9th ready to take me down. Image result for white rose and red wineThe white had a lovely nose of green apple, white flowers with just a touch of lemon peel.  WIth its high, crisp acidity, this one really felt like a dry Riesling.  It ended up being a dry, delicate Torrontes (which can carry Riesling character) but I was positive on my call so I was feeling strong heading into the Rosé. Fresh strawberry and cherry fruit, a little rose petal note and wonderfully bright acidity. I remember thinking to myself: ‘If this isn’t a Cotes de Provence Rosé than I simply have no idea what the hell I am doing’. Luckily, that is exactly what it was.

Having believed I was 2 for 2 so far, I was feeling like Bacchus himself going into wine number 3. I got within about 3 inches of the glass and that was all I needed. I tried to fight off those jump to conclusion demons, but how could it be anything else?! It was deep ruby in color exuding intense aromas of black cherry, cassis, vanilla and hints of eucalyptus with opulent fruit on the palate, high tannins and a long, dry finish. I figured the WSET took pity on us and finished things off with a lay-up… a high quality Napa Cab. But of course, the conclusion-jump once again landed me in the muck. This dead ringer for a Napa Cab was in fact a new world style Gran Reserva Rioja. But, I must have nailed just about every note in this section as I miraculously Passed with Merit on the final 3 wines.

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With the morning 2.5 hour tasting exam in the books, it was time for the written theory section for the final 3 hours after a much needed lunch break. I would have preferred the order reversed, as all of that tasting (even though you’re spitting) does take a toll on the mind and body. But nonetheless, it was game time.  5 of the possible 7 essay questions had to be answered with a certain amount of marks to earn a pass. I won’t bore you with the details of this section, but let’s just say I am thankful that I committed just about the entire Oxford Companion to Wine to memory, as there were some ridiculously obscure questions on regions, grapes, events and wine styles for sure. And trying to beat the clock for this part of the exam was even more challenging than for the blind tasting.

Turns out Tom Petty was right… the only thing more stressful than taking the exam is the three month waiting period to find out the results. After months and months of nail biting, self-crucifying and continued wine tasting in anticipation (without spitting this time), the irrevocable results had finally arrived. I braced myself for the worst and prayed that I passed just one of the two sections. I hesitantly opened up the envelope with my heart racing in full panic mode. I peaked just barely enough to see the results and was elated to learn that I passed BOTH the tasting and written parts of the exam. With a giant fist pump and a roar of ‘Hells Yeah!!’ that could be heard all around my block, it was over. Mission… accomplished.

The International Wine Center Announces the 22nd Graduating Class

My Favorite Napa/Sonoma Wineries to Visit

There are those that say Vegas is like Disneyland for adults. While I love Vegas as much as the next guy, for my money the Napa/Sonoma area of California wine country is more deserving of that distinguished title. With its stunningly beautiful scenery, perfect weather conditions, phenomenal restaurant and foodie scene and of course an overload of the very best wineries in the US… it offers everything the wine loving adult could possibly desire.

Upon my last visit I found some new spots that I really enjoyed, but still have my all time favorites from past trips that will always hold a special place in my heart. So while trying to narrow it down to a handful of the very best wineries to check out for a tour/tasting ain’t easy,  here are my top picks in each region that are not to be missed on your next wine country excursion.

Sonoma

Sbragia Family Vineyards

What was once the old Lake Sonoma Winery is now one of the best destination spots in all of Sonoma. Gaze over the Dry Creek Valley while enjoying some of the finest wines produced in the region. Iconic Napa wine making pioneer Ed Sbragia was producing wine for Beringer as far back as the 1970s and is one of the original winemakers responsible for putting Napa on the map. Now he’s crafting a stellar lineup of Sonoma juice with his son Adam, alongside a super friendly and knowledgeable staff. Ed has successfully created his own family legacy with his impressive portfolio of Sbragia wines. Ed and Adam make quite a number red and white varietal wines you can sample via their various tasting options, and if you catch him on the right day Ed may even taste you through his lineup… which is comparable to playing a pickup one on one game with Michael Jordan.

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Zichichi Vineyards

Steve Zichichi was a physician in New Orleans before his second career as a serious winemaker. For years he was just selling grapes from their Dry Creek vineyard, but after Katrina hit his family hard, he and his wife Kristin packed up and went all in with their Dry Creek winery. Since then he has been producing some amazingly powerful, yet elegant, Zins and a Petite Sirah. Some years back he added a Cab to his arsenal, and all of his juice is truly well crafted and ageable. This winery is worth the visit as much for the wine as it is for the southern hospitality and picturesque views. Steve has also been known to grab the wine thief and get into the barrels, which if given the opportunity I highly recommend joining him.

Moshin Vineyards

If you like  extracted, refined and downright tasty Russian River Pinot hand crafted by a mad wine scientist then get yourself to Moshin… fast. Just down the hill from Gary Farrell, Rick Moshin has been producing small lot, high quality Pinot for decades since he retired from his college math teaching career. Having had a hand in producing Pinots for top producers in the region, he eventually purchased his own vineyards and set up shop in the RRV. His line of limited production, single vineyard Pinots are certainly the highlight of the tasting. However he produces a variety of whites, reds, blends and dessert wines… and on the right day he may taste you through every single one (as he did on this particular day from the pic above). And if you can get back there for a barrel tasting with Rick, it’s a treat to see how all those puppies are aging at various stages of their lives. While in the area, it is certainly worth heading up the hill to Gary Farrell as well for their simply gorgeous views and of course stunning Pinot and Chard offerings.

Chateau St. Jean

I visited here on my first trip to Sonoma some10 years ago… and the memories it provided have not faded one bit. With its flower filled European style garden, the estate itself is worth the price of admission. My wife and I were lucky enough to enjoy our portfolio tasting out on the deck, which is all inclusive of the ridiculous views of the Sonoma Valley as well as some top notch charcuterie. CSJ produces all kinds of varietal wines such as Chard, Fume Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cab, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot, Malbec and of course their show stopping high end red blends like Cinq Cepages. The undeniable charm of the estate and those that provide these memorable tastings make CSJ a must visit.

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* * Other top notch wineries to visit include Jordan, Bella, St. Francis, Landmark,                                 J Vineyards & Rodney Strong (right next door to each other)

Napa

Pride Mountain Vineyards

This is hands down my favorite winery to visit…anywhere! The drive to get there is a tad treacherous, but if you make it to the winery atop of Spring Mountain you can buy a shirt that says “I survived the ride to Pride”.  Aside from the unbelievable real estate, where half of the winery sits in Napa and the half in Sonoma, Tim Bouchet and the entire winery staff are about the friendliest folks you can imagine. A gorgeous interior tasting room/bar leads out to a patio that overlooks their estate vineyards and lake. As for the wines, it is hard to find any winery that has a more stellar portfolio from top to bottom.  The Cab Sauv and Merlot are renown for being produced from both Napa and Sonoma fruit, but their Cab Franc may be the show stopper of the lineup. Their cave tour includes barrel tasting of certain single lot Cabs that go into the Reserve Cab, which is as good as any cult wine out there at a ‘value’ price of $140. I’ve been there 3 times now and every time I leave I cannot wait for my next return visit.

Vineyard 29

Situated high up in St. Helena off Route 29 you will find one of the most impressive winery entrances in all of Napa. Massive steel front doors gain entrance to an extremely impressive gravity flow winery equipped with a gorgeous rooftop patio that features striking views of the valley.  While up there you can sip on some of their CRU selections to warm up your palate before getting into their big dog Estate wines. Director of Hospitality Austin Gallion provides not only an educational and fun tasting experience, but if lucky enough to join in one of his wine and food pairings in the cellar, you are in for something special. As a CIA trained chef who spent much time in France and the celebrated La Toque restaurant in Napa, he is the real deal on all levels. The Estate Cab Sauv and Cab Franc are incredibly well made and are meant for the cellar, while the Aida Estate Series Cab and particularly the Zin are opulent and complex but can be enjoyed in their younger years. As you can see, the view is not too shabby…

White Rock Vineyards

Off the beaten path in the southern foothills of the Stag’s Leap District is where you will find one of the most underrated, yet extremely impressive, producers in Napa. These guys are quietly crafting some of the best Chard, Syrah and Cab in the region, and doing so at fairly reasonable price points (relatively speaking of course). They have implemented an innovative aging system where the wine stays in bottle for years before release. Their caves have arches carved out in the walls where up to 6,000 bottles are stored in each nook, which is quite impressive to see up close. On a nice day, you can taste with the warm and knowledgeable peeps that work there while sitting at a tree covered, traditional style picnic table over looking their estate vineyards. Needless to say, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Domaine Carneros

When it comes to winery visits, the experience can be as important as the juice itself… which Domaine Carneros fully understands. The Chateau is dramatically grand and impressive in every way possible.  From the giant stairways leading to the entrance to the gorgeous outdoor terrace complete with hillside vineyard views that go on for miles, this is a true Napa spectacle. And since it is in Carneros, you get that refreshingly cool afternoon breeze coming in from the San Pablo Bay. As for the wine, sparkling is the name of the game here. Founded by the Taittinger family, DC produces a number of various sparkling wines all in the traditional Champagne method… and they are solid to fantastic across the board. They also produce still Chardonnay, Pinot and a couple of other varietal wines for those not into the sparkling craze. There are few experiences as enjoyable as sipping some tasty bubbles while looking over the rolling hillside vineyards with friends and family on a warm summer day on the DC terrace.

** Other beauties are Staglin, Alpha Omega, Miner, Quintessa, Realm, Matthiasson,                      Del Dotto  & Joseph Phelps (their Insignia blending experience is way cool!)

 

A Few Wine Tasting Notes…

Just thought I would share some tasting notes on a few wines I have recently enjoyed ranging from good values to simply RIDICULOUS juice!

CAM COLLECTION 2013 MONTEREY PINOT NOIR $18 (found it for $10!)

CAM Collection 2013 Pinot Noir

This is quite forward on the nose with ripe, bright cherry and raspberry fruit aromas , showing hints of black pepper and cocoa. It’s fairly big for an entry level Pinot with the same fruit carrying over to the palate enhanced by notes of clove, smoked bacon and espresso. A lengthy, dry and overall pleasing finish caps off this true value Pinot.  GOOD

 

 

Cune Rioja Imperial Reserva 2011   $35

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This wine offers alluring aromas of black cherry/currant with dark chocolate and smoky oak. It’s a big wine, no doubt… but has good acidity playing nicely with the dense fruit and firm tannins. Opulent and rich, but exhibits some of that old world Rioja feel with the tobacco and mineral character. Will age well over the next decade.  SOLID

 

 

Alta 2013 Quatreaux Red Blend, Napa Valley $60 Retail (available for under $40)

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Quatreaux refers to four of the five Bordeaux grape varieites used in this blend including Cab Sauv, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot (no Malbec). It exudes new world Napa fruit including dark berry and cassis with an old world undertone of smoke, earth and roasted nuts. Tremendous balance of acidity, weight and tannins with a long finish that leaves just a hint of baker’s chocolate… I love that!  SOLID! 

 

 

Element Winery 2013 Lemberger, Finger Lakes  $42

If you have not heard of Element Winery yet, let me be the first to put it on your radar.  Chris Bates MS and his team are producing some of the best juice in the Northeast. I wasn’t expecting much from a Finger Lakes Lemberger, but this had a lot going on! Certainly intense with bright cherry, rose petals and spice on the nose leading to a vibrant palate driven by acidity and ripe red fruit. But it wasn’t a pushover, enough body and weight to stand up to some lighter poultry dishes for sure.  GOOD!

Now, for the RIDICULOUS wines…

2008 Léoville-Barton, St-Julien $80

Still bright ruby in color, this is drinking beautifully now but has lots of time left on the clock. Black currant, cocoa powder, espresso beans and graphite aromas on the nose are quite intense and sultry. Its supple and soft on the palate, as the tannins are mellowing with the acidity balancing out the dense fruit. Showing off that classic Left Bank terroir, loads of chalk and minerality on the palate with the dark fruit and cocoa hanging on through the finish. SOLID!

 

2001 Beaulieu Vineyard “Georges de Latour Private Reserve” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon  $90

2001 Beaulieu Vineyard "Georges de Latour Private Reserve" Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

From a great vintage like 2001, I was expecting this to still be fairly big and brash. But as a very pleasant surprise this was not the case. Super complex with layers of well developed dark fruit, cassis, oak, roasted almonds and subtle anise notes on the nose and palate. Supple, soft and silky with polished tannins and a long, memorable finish.  I am thrilled I opened it when I did, as I do not see this one improving much further. KILLER

Abacus, ZD Wines, Napa Valley (NV) $500

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This is one of the cooler and more interesting wines made in Napa. ZD basically uses a solera style aging and bottling process including all of their Reserve Cabs from 1992-2015 to make a non-vintage Reserve Cab blend. The result is a wine that has oodles of big, bomby Napa fruit and oak, but has the structure, finesse and elegance of a wine that has seen about 6-8 years of bottle age, so it is fairly ready to drink right away. It could still use another handful of years in the cellar, but it is one of the more impressive cult Napa wines out there. KILLER!

Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Columbia Valley, WA  $250

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This is not only the best wine I’ve tasted this year, but possibly one of my Top 3 wines of all time! This stunner is intense on all levels with dense and focused black cherry, plum and black currant fruit on the nose. Beyond the lovely fruit core there are layers and layers of sweet and exotic spices, smoke, sandalwood, lavender, anise, cocoa and vanilla. When you taste this wine, you will understand what all of those fancy wine terms mean. It has harmonious balance, incredible structure, elegance and finesse. It will certainly continue to age and improve over the next decade +, but what a treat to enjoy this wine with good friends over a perfectly cooked steak. FANTASTIC!

 

 

** My rating system is listed below as I prefer to use ranges than exact numbers.

WWG Rating Scale     
100 Points                    =     Perfect
97-99 Points                =     Fantastic
94-96 Points                =     Killer
90-93 Points                =     Solid
85-89 Points                =     Good
80-84 Points                =     OK
79 Points or below     =     No Comment

Tasty Brews + Good Food + Great Service = The Barley House

Craft Beer has not only retained its popularity over the last several years, but has gotten even more mainstream, dismissing those haters that wanted to see this fad fade. Hell, just about every deli and gas station now has a Craft Beer section, and some even have taps and growlers to take a tasty brew with you. The corner local pubs have all stepped up their beer game as well, as Blue Moon and Stella are no longer their only ‘high end’ options. But then you have the real Craft Beer Bar and Grills in Westchester, and there are plenty out there to enjoy.

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Lazy Boy Saloon in WP is the Grand Daddy of them all, pioneering the Craft Beer movement in Westchester before it was even trendy. Tuckahoe has now become the beer capital of Westchester with The TapHouse and Growlers across the street from one another, both excellent from a beer and food standpoint. Captain Lawrence Brewing Company is the Mecca for beer geeks, especially with the new menu they have recently implemented and the outdoor bar game section. And I have not had the pleasure of a visit yet, but I hear The Oath in Tarrytown is making a name for itself around the Fresh. But tucked away on the side streets of Thornwood sits a revitalized Craft Beer Bar and Grill that is making a strong case to be included in the conversation of top Westchester spots… The Barley House.

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With more than 30 beers on tap, there is something on draft for every palate. The beer menu is easy to navigate as it is organized by taste, flavor and weight. Selections are changed fairly frequently as well, so you can always find something new on the list. Plus, they always select a handful of brews to include in their Happy Hour deal, which is a great time to do some sampling. But more than just having this killer beer list, the food game at The Barley House is also on point.

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I’m told this wasn’t always the case, but since Chef Michael Orchart has taken the reigns they are putting out some of the best ‘pub and grill’ fare around. The staples like fried calamari, flatbreads, wings and burgers are all as solid as you would expect. But some of the specialty standouts and my personal favorites include the fish tacos (made with cod, not tilapia) the cuban, the wicked tuna sandwich and of course the 10 oz giant pretzel among others. Truth be told I have yet to put a morsel of food in my mouth from this joint that I have not enjoyed. And yes, they do have a modest wine list… but with all the cool and eclectic beer options, I admit I have not paid much attention to it.

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What more could you ask for? How about one of the best places for a large group event in town! Bobby Harris (you may remember him from the old Sports Page crew) and his staff do a bang up job from helping set up the menu, to getting the room prepared, to handling the needs of a really large cast of characters to ensuring everything is served hot, tasty and in a timely fashion. We have had two large work functions there recently and I’m already looking forward to the next installment. So if you’re in and around the Thornwood/Pleasantville/Valhalla area and are craving a bite to eat and and adult beverage, be sure to check it out.

What Wines to Pair with Your Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve

This is my favorite time of the Christmas season. The shopping frenzy has settled down and the focus directs back to the most important parts of the holiday… family, food and wine! My family goes all in on the Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner, and as of late we use a lot of different seafood styles throughout the meal. One year there was even a crab cake app that made the cut. But that is the beauty of this fish feast, there are no steadfast rules of what you HAVE to cook which gives the chef a true sense of freedom and creativity.

So to give an exact wine pairing for the feast is difficult, as there are literally dozens to hundreds of different ways to prepare each of type of seafood. It is more about the consistency and texture of the fish and the sauces. For example, an appetizer of raw oysters and clams will covet a far different wine than clams casino or fried oysters. Below are some easy and general wine pairings for various styles of seafood that you may serve for your seven fishes feast, along with some specific wine recommendations.

RAW/CHILLED SEAFOOD:

The general rule of thumb is the lighter the dish, the lighter the wine. Pinot GriImage result for durand reservegio is probably the most popular light white wine for this part of the meal, but quite frankly unless it is REALLY good, it’s a little too neutral. But if PG is your go to, try and grab one from the Collio region…Fiegl always makes a solid offering. But I prefer Sancerre for this paring. The flinty minerality in these high acid, citrus fruit based wines seem to bring out all the lively flavors and freshness in any chilled seafood dish. Durand’s Reserve is a wonderful expression of Loire Sauvignon Blanc and at around $20-25 a good deal. The Pascal Jolivet is also a solid option and is usually under $20 a bottle.

 

BAKED/FRIED SEAFOOD:

For dishes like baked cod or seared scallops, you still want to keep it light but with a bit more body than your typical PG or SB. Albarino can work quite well as these wines still exude that crisp acidity but have a bit more body and structure. Chablis is a solid option too, as these typically unoaked wines made from Chardonnay have all the endearing qualities we love about Chard, but without the oak influence. Simmonet-Febvre is always tasty and usually can be found for around $20 a bottle.

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If your fish is getting fried, you’re gonna have to step up to some bigger whites like those Burgundies or California Chards, and here is when you can start getting into the reds. The thicker and heavier the batter, the bolder you cRelated imagean go on the wine. Lighter Chianti Classicos and Pinot can work for a delicate sautéed dish, but if you are going with the deep fryer don’t be afraid to pull out a Zin or Syrah, especially if you are cooking up something with a little spice in it. The Mullineux Syrah from Swartland, S.A. is a fantastic option, not just for this meal but for ANY meal! It’s around $30 a bottle which may not be cheap, but drinks like something twice the price.

 

SEAFOOD WITH PASTA:

For openers, make sure you use the same color wine as you do for the sauce. For white sauce dishes, like linguine with white clam sauce, you can still use the same PG or SB as you served for the raw/chilled seafood. But I like to step up the Italian white game for these dishes and go with a quality Soave (made from the Gargenega grape) or even a Fiano d’Avellino. Pieropan makes a phenomenal Soave and even at $30 it is a screaming value, while Feudi di San Gregorio produces a lovely Fiano for under $20.

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Red sauce = red wine… preferably something  a little high on the acid scale. Tomato sauce is high in acid so you want a wine that can match up to it allowing the food and wine choice to complement one another. My mom makes a mean shrimp and calamari fra diavolo which is always a Christmas tradition for our feast. I love to pair this up with a quality Chianti Classico Riserva or Barolo… both of which can cost a pretty penny. Monsanto CCR for around $20-25 is pretty tough to beat, but the Marchese Antinori CCR for  $40-50 may be my all-time favorite… particularly the 2007 vintage.

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HEARTY SEAFOOD:

This is also a sauce driven pairing in terms white or red wine, but because this type of seafood can be quite meaty and weighted you can go red for both sauce options. Personally, I prefer an oaky, buttery Chard with a broiled fish and white wine or butter based sauce. But it can’t be over the top in terms of oak aging (as many of the Cali Chards are) as I like the acidity and fruit to stay in balance. Fox Run in the Finger Lakes makes a stellar Reserve Chard for under $20, and I simply love the Domaine Ferret Pouilly Fuisse. It may carry a somewhat hefty $40 price tag, but is flat out tasty juice.

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If your seafood finds itself swimming in a sea of marina sauce, you can stick with the same red options from the pasta course. However, here is where you can get into some of the bigger reds as lobster and king crab can hold up to the weight of those dishes. A Super Tuscan or Brunello would be the traditional big red pairings, but if you have been dying to break open one of your aged Bordeaux or Napa Cab gems… this is the time to do it!