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.

broken bottle

 

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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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

Check out these Summer Whites and “My” Malbec

While the weather around here is still way too cold to be considered Spring, it will be warming up soon. I mean, it has to right?? I recently hosted a couple of virtual tastings for two white wines that I am already stocking up on for this Spring/Summer. Both lend themselves to lighter fare (fish or poultry) but can also be enjoyed on their own as refreshing summer sippers. Best of all, they are fantastic values!

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I also co-hosted a video with my colleague Erika and we tasted this killer Malbec which happens to share my name… The Marshall! It’s made from extremely old vines that grow in a small single vineyard within Mendoza. It’s a big, soft and spicy red that will pair perfectly with just about any meat you intend to throw on the grill this summer. Check out the videos below…

Enjoy!

Belle Ambiance 2013 Pinot Grigio, California

Kunde 2012 Sauvignon Blanc, Magnolia Lane, Sonoma Valley

Bodegas Goulart 2010 Malbec, The Marshall, Mendoza

Look What Just Popped Up in Mt. Kisco… A Kick Ass Steakhouse!

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As you may or may not know, Mt. Kisco is chock full of great restaurants and more are popping up all the time. There are the old school staples like Lexington Square Cafe, Crabtree’s Kittle House (technically Chappaqua but close enough), Cafe of Love, Eduardo’s and La Camelia. But over the last year or two, some newcomers have impressed as well such as Village Social, The Rose Room (the old F.A.B location), Westchester Burger Company and MTK Tavern. But the latest restaurant opening has by far been the most impressive and just what the doctor ordered for Mt. Kisco…Blackstones Steakhouse.

It is situated in that cool, sort of speak-easy, underground location across from O’Connors Public House on Main Street. Upon entering, there are beautiful wine display racks that flow throughout the first floor leading into the large bar dining area. The ambiance is on the tranquil side as you are somewhat secluded from the activity on Main Street. The only downside of the location is parking can be a little challenging.

Having tasted most of the appetizers from their extensive menu I can say that nothing has disappointed. However if you are with a group of people (6 or more) there is no reason not to go with the seafood tower. This decadent chilled platter is loaded with fresh shrimp cocktail, lump crabmeat, lobster, oysters and clams. Each item on the platter is tastier than the next and there is plenty of everything to go around. Best to pair this up with the Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, NZ….an absolute no brainer.

As for the meat, it’s tough to go wrong with any of their prime cuts (although I would avoid the veal chop). As a NY Strip fan, I think theirs ranks with the best in the area in terms of quality, preperation and presentation. It’s cooked and served on the bone and sliced up beautifully with just enough butter on the plate to keep it hot and moist without drowning in it as certain steakhouses tend to do. I like my steaks cooked rare plus, a new temperature I learned about, where the steak is bloody red on the inside but brought just to the point of being warm…and they nailed it! They have the Napanook Cabernet Blend from Napa (Dominus’ 2nd Label) for around $80-90, a great value at that price and a perfect accompaniment to a steak of this caliber.

So the bottom line is this… the service, ambiance and decor is all what you would expect from a high end steakhouse (oh yeah, I forgot to mention that this place is not cheap). But more importantly, the food has been really top notch both times I have had the pleasure of dining there, having nothing to do with the fact that both meals were on someone else’s dime 😉  So if you are tired of eating at the same old steakhouses that Westchester has to offer you may want to give Blackstones a visit.

Cheers!

Some BBQ Wine Tips For The Grillin’ Season!

 

Now that we are in the thick of summer grilling season, you’ve probably overheard conversations about a wine being a “good BBQ wine”. But what makes a wine better than others for a BBQ? After all, it’s not like you’re tossing the bottle on the grill! For me, there are 3 characteristics that a wine has to possess in order for it to qualify as BBQ-worthy.

1) For a white wine, it needs to have crisp acidity and lots of citrus and/or tropical fruit flavors. With the heat we’ve had this summer, I’m not looking for a white that will weigh me down like some of the big, oaky Chardonnays tend to do. I want something light on its feet and refreshing to help cool down on these hot summer days. So typically I will reach for a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre, Vouvray or even a dry Riesling (not all Rieslings are sweet people). Plus, these wines typically make great pairings for chilled shellfish and seafood salads which always seem to find their way to the appetizer course before the grillin’ starts.

2) For a red wine, it’s gotta have enough structure to hold up to those typical grilled meat dishes (steaks, ribs, burgers, etc.) as well as enough tannins and spice to stand up to various BBQ sauces. Lighter wines like Pinot are good for openers, but they will get overpowered by most BBQ menus. So for me, BBQ reds are all about big fruit, gripping tannins and zesty spice that you will find in California Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, Rhone Reds (CDP, Gigonadas, Cotes du Rhone), Priorat and Mendoza Malbecs. Sure I’ll grab a Napa Cab here and there, but only if I know that nice piece of NY Strip or Ribeye is coming off the grill.

3) It needs to be affordable! There are very few BBQs that offer a fine dining experience. Meaning you are typically drinking out of plastic cups on a hot summer day and probably even mixing in some beer, sangria or those fruity summer cocktails. So BBQ wines are all about having fun and hopefully finding an enjoyable pairing somewhere in the mix. Plus these BBQs can sometimes carry some big crowds, and there’s nothing worse than cracking open something really nice and finding an empty bottle when you go to get your first taste of it!

The last “X” factor in selecting a BBQ wine is this… make sure its a wine that suits your palate. If you are going to have family and friends ransacking your home while you slave over a hot grill all day for them, the least you can do is drink some juice that you like! Pairings don’t mean a thing if the wines don’t mesh with your palate. Below are some of my favorite selections for the BBQ season, use in good health!

Whites  (all under $20)

Brancott Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, NZ

Sancerre La Reine Blanche, Dom. Jean Reverdy et Fils

Eroica Riesling, Columbia Valley, WA Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen

Vouvray Sauvion

Conundrum (Caymus) White, CA

Reds (all under $20)

Terra D’oro Zinfandel Amador, CA

Cotes du Rhone Villages Cuvee Centenaire, Domaine La Grand Ribe

McMannis Petite Sirah, CA

Vall Llach “Embruix” Priorat

Bodega Norton  Malbec Reserva, Mendoza

Premium Selections (over $50)

Napanook (2nd Label Dominus) Cabernet Blend, Napa Valley, CA

Zaca Mesa Black Bear Block Syrah Santa Ynez Valley, CA

Some Helpful Wine and…Tantrum Pairings??

I think anyone with young children would agree that sometimes the best way to regain your post-tantrum sanity is with a glass (or even a bottle) of wine. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing that I love more in life than my children…but with a 3 and a 1 year old, I have found that tantrums can come in various forms. There are those which are somewhat mild and subdued and others that have you screaming “serenity now!” ala Frank Costanza by the time they’re done.  Just as certain wines can enhance the enjoyment of particular foods, I like to pair different wines with these various types of tantrums to help make them a bit more bearable.

The Subdued Meltdown: These tantrums can start off as normal requests from your kids such as asking to watch a certain show or possibly making a case to eat a cookie for breakfast. You start off with the rational reasons why this simply can’t happen, and while most times they would accept the refusal and move on…sometimes they just don’t want to let it go. These tantrums can usually be resolved, however they tend to be drawn out and pretty exhausting. I like to pair these tantrums up with either a Pinot Noir or possibly even a white wine option like Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc. These breakdowns stay on the lighter side, so staying with a lighter style wine just makes sense. Plus, the spicy side of Pinot Noir tends to remind me of the spiciness that most kids inherently have in their personality. If it’s a little warmer out I may lean towards a white as even though these are the most mild of tantrums, you can still work up a sweat by the time they come to a halt.

The Shock and Awe: This is one of the most confusing and deceptive forms of tantrums as it has many different moving parts. During a Shock and Awe, you may not realize you are even in the middle of a tantrum until a bowl of cereal goes flying across the room, or there is a rebellious move such as the emptying of a bladder somewhere other than the toilet. I find these require a bit of a bigger wine to come down from…so I usually reach for a Cabernet Sauvginon or Zinfandel after these debacles. All that fruit, oak and spice (especially in Zin) seems to settle the nerves nicely and the higher alcohol levels are quite conducive as well.

The Game-Ender: For those who are in the midst of, or recall experiencing, the terrible twos…this tantrum needs no explanation. From start to finish this is just a complete unraveling of your child where there is no consoling except to let it run its course. These can either end with a well placed time out allowing it to  finish in a somewhat calm manner, or with a complete redirect which is very difficult to pull off. Forget the wine and hit the Booze after one of these bad boys as they are both emotionally and physically draining. And since these Game-Enders tend to go down during the nighttime witching hours, there’s nothing wrong with knocking back a cocktail or two to end the day.

Just remember, these pairings are for after the tantrum has run its course…as trying to enjoy a glass of wine while one of these is going down can only make things worse.

Cheers!

Wine Tip of the Day

When ordering a glass of wine at a restaurant that does not specify the winery or producer, see if you can take a look at the actual bottles. For example, if the server says they have a Cabernet, a Chianti, a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc by the glass, you want to find out which winery they are from as typically they won’t all be from the same producer. This way if you recognize (or know that you like) one of the specific wineries offered, it makes your decision of what to order that much easier.

This happened to me last night at Eduardo’s in Mount Kisco, which was surprisingly delicious! I ordered the Chicken Scarpiello and was planning on getting a red wine by the glass. I didn’t really care for the reds they had, but their Sauvignon Blanc was the Villa Maria from Marlborough, New Zealand which I really enjoy. And since I had a chicken dish the white wine ended up complementing the meal beautifully.

Just some food for thought… figuratively 😉