Friday, March 26, 2010

Hot New Trader Joe's Wines!!

I have a few hot wine tips for the millions of followers of this blog.  A few new wines just came into TJ's.

1) Canard 2008 Petite Sirah.  BIG, Bold, and Intense!  Inky with great tannins and lots of dark fruit.  Oh, and a hammerable 15.5% alcohol, so at $9.99 a bottle, it's an inexpensive good time.  But hurry, these don't last long.  BTW, from the Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma.

2)  PETS (Vinum Cellars) 2007 Petite Sirah.  Not quite as big as the Canard but this is a great value at $5.99.  Again, it's dark, with medium tannins and wonderful fruit aromas and tastes.  A real steal and a portion of the sales go to animal shelters.  All you animal overs (that's me) go get your PETS and know that you're helping sheltered animals.

3) Sonoma Vineyards Chardonnay.  This is an unoaked Chard so if you prefer an oaked, buttery Chardonnay, then this one is not for you but it's a great food wine.  Crisp and clean with lots of apple flavors.  At a mere $5.99 a bottle, it's a real deal...yes, I said "mere."

Good luck in your search for these wines at your local TJ's.

Tom da Wine Guy

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Adventures in Napa, Part 4: Conn Creek Winery & Blending Session

Today we end our Napa adventures.   We’re taking another wine blending session, but different in format.  Our experience at Paraduxx was formulaic and represented the Paraduxx blending style and varietals Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Merlot.  Today we're at Conn Creek Winery on the Silverado Trail.

The set-up at Conn Creek is different.  First, they use all five Bordeaux varietals in their flagship wine “Anthology.”  They also produce single varietal Cabernet Sauvignons from different vineyards and viticulture regions and they also produce a Cabernet Franc.

When we arrived for our 10:30 a.m. appointment, we were greeted by Wine Educator Jessica, who escorted us to their AVA (American Viticulture Area) Room for our barrel and blending experience.

The AVA room is beautiful.  Granite floor, beautiful wood tables and elegant sconces. Along the wall to our right, as we entered, were 15 barrels of 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, each from a different AVA in Napa.  Along the wall to our left, were four barrels, one each of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

On the table were three settings.  Jessica explained that our first step was to become familiar with the different Cabernets and the other four varietals.  The 15 barrels of Cabernet were divided into five groups of three Cabs each.  The five descriptive signs for the groupings were “soft, supple, complex, rich, and bold.”  The name of the vineyard, its microclimate, and a sample of the AVA’s soil is displayed.

We grabbed our wine glasses and began tasting, assigning a score, and making notes on each Cabernet.  It should be added that we did not get hammered!  When sipping that many wines, the smallest of portions is taken; just enough to get an initial sense of the aroma, taste, and feel.  We then re-tasted those that were of further interest.

The Cabernets had been in barrel for almost one year and had transformed somewhat since being barreled.  For example, one of the”soft” cabs, I scored as fairly “bold” with medium to heavy tannins.

Next, we turned to the four barrels on the opposite wall.  Again, there were alterations from what I would consider typical varietal characteristics.  The Petit Verdot was soft, smooth, and almost without tannins while the Merlot had medium tannins.  I would have guessed the exact opposite.

Before we started our sampling, Jessica had provided several of the Conn Creek wines for tasting.  I loved the Anthology blend and had decided to use it as a template for my own blend, but with changes.  The sampled Anthology was comprised of 76% Cabernet, 10% Merlot, 8% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot, and 2% Cab Franc.

First, we each had to decide how many of the Cabs to use; just one or a blend of two or more, and at what ratio?   For my blend, I decided upon a Yountville Cab from the “soft” group, the one that had morphed into a heavier version.  My second Cab was a Calistoga from the “Bold” group.  I blended them equally and that blend represented 70% of my finished product (35% of each) per the 100 ml container we used for measuring the blend.

Then, because the Petit Verdot had softened too much for my palette, I decided to not include it and instead went with 10% each of the Merlot, Malbec, and Cab Franc.  My 100 ml container was now full.  I took my first taste and was excited by what I had created!  It had all come together better than I had anticipated, and I actually preferred it to the Anthology (I won’t mention that to the winemaker, Mike McGrath).

Jessica tasted it and she agreed that it was brilliant (okay, my word not hers) but she was impressed with the final blend but it became apparent that she and I had very similar palettes and preferences for the heavier, bolder style of wine.

My companions finished their initial blends, made any adjustments they wanted and then we were ready to prepare enough for bottling (mine was the best, of course, I say modestly,but all were very good).

Using a conversion table provided by Jessica, we were able to convert the 100 ml formula into a 750 ml formula for bottling.  Once we had our 750 mls, we used a funnel to bottle our blends and then put the bottle and a cork into a manual corking machine that forced the cork into the bottle.  Then we each created a label for our bottles.  Mine was named “Tom’s Choice,” my wife Jacquie named hers “IBA” (Inspired By Angels) and my brother-in-law, Glenn labeled his “Le Gem Blend.”

The cost for the two-hour session was $95 dollars each,but we learned a lot, had a fabulous time, played “winemaker for a day,” and each walked away with a bottle of wine.  Jessica cautioned that because sulfites were not added, we should drink the wine within eight months or risk oxidation.

The blending sessions are offered twice daily at 10:30 a.m. and at 2:00 p.m., by reservation only.  Any of you who visit Napa should visit Conn Creek, and while in the Tasting Room, look for Wine Educator, Marion Hoel.  We met her on an earlier trip and she’s really fun and knows her wines.  And she has a great smile.

As you can determine from the descriptions of the blendings at Paraduxx and Conn Creek, the two sessions are quite different, but both very worthwhile and educational.  The Paraduxx session would probably be easier for those with limited tasting experience as sifting through 19 barrels of wine and deciding how to select a blend might be intimidating for the less experienced. But the people who work at Conn Creek are friendly and will assist and accommodate anyone at any level of experience.

For more information go to their website, or call 1-800-793-7960.

So ends our Napa experience....sniff, sniff.

Tom da Wine Guy

Monday, March 8, 2010

Adventures in Napa, Part 3: Paraduxx and Duckhorn Wineries

We arrived at Paraduxx Winery at 10:30 for a scheduled class in blending wines ($40 fee per participant).  We were greeted by Jeffrey who first invited us outdoors to briefly tour the grounds.  While touring, Jeffrey explained the type of soil in the adjacent vineyards and showed us the barrel and fermentation rooms.   Everything was remarkably clean and sparkling.

Then back indoors to our “classroom.”  In front of each of we three (remember the one-hit-wonder rock band, “we five?”) were five wine glasses.  Into three of the glasses we each poured a Zinfandel barrel sample, a Cabernet Sauvignon barrel sample, and a Merlot barrel sample.  We smelled and sipped each to get a sense of the varietals prior to blending the three.  Although Paraduxx creates blends also using Cab Franc and Petite Verdot, the three we were blending are their signature varietals.

Using a 10 ml pipet (it resembles a long glass straw), we first blended 7 ml Zin with 3 ml Cab in an empty glass. In the other, we blended 6 ml Zin and 4 ml Cab. Then we tasted the two blends. The 7 Zin/3 Cab was fruiter while the 6 Zin/4 Cab blend benefited from the drier heavier Cab. Next, we added 1 ml of Merlot to the above blends. The addition of the Merlot, while only 9% of the overall blend (being 1/11 of the total), further mellowed the fruitiness of the overall blend, and it did seem more balanced, but it also demonstrated how small amounts of an additional varietal can change the end product.  
Jeffrey asked us to taste the blended wines in two ways.  First, taste and let the wine sit in our mouths for a full three seconds before swallowing.  Then take another taste and let it roll around gently in our mouths for a full 10 seconds before swallowing.  He explained that the 10 second taste offers a glimpse of the aging potential over ten years, with each second  representing one year.  We did notice that the wine did seem to peak at 6 or 7 or 8 seconds (depending on the wine)and then level off.  I’m not sure I totally buy Jeffrey’s hypothesis, but it’s something that I’ll definitely try when tasting wines, at least for a while.

So, to summarize, our end formula was 55% Zinfandel, 36% Cabernet, and 9% Merlot, the Paraduxx signature blend.

Jeffrey offered to call ahead for a reservation for a tasting at Duckhorn Vineyards, the Big Brother to Paraduxx.  Before leaving, we did stop to chat with Angela, whom we had met on a previous visit to Paraduxx.  She’s delightful, and when you visit Paraduxx, be sure to ask for her as she will add to your visit and provide a really pleasant tasting experience.

Now, off to Duckhorn!!!

Upon arrival, we were greeted by Abigail, a Senior Educator at the winery, who was expecting us, thanks to Jeffrey’s call.

Abigail led us to a table where the three of us were seated and served cheese, almonds, and breadsticks to complement the forthcoming wines.  Abigail explained that she was assisting us because we were experienced wine tasters but she added that Duckhorn has a range of educators to assist visitors with differing levels of experience and expertise.  The staff is well trained because they get to work in many aspects of wine production.  Abigail had assisted with the last harvest and she also assisted with punch-downs on fermenting grapes.

Rather than spend endless paragraphs on the wines, let it be said that all the Duckhorn wines were excellent.  We tasted a Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernets and Merlots from different vineyards, and one excellent blend.

Visiting Duckhorn was a unique experience.  The building that we were in is beautiful, the original artwork was attractive, and the ambience was extremely pleasant.  The staff, especially Abigail, (with whom we did spend the most time) were friendly, attentive, and patient with our questions.  You won’t be made to feel uncomfortable at Duckhorn and you will taste some wonderful wines.

I urge any of you planning a trip to the Napa Valley, to add Paraduxx and Duckhorn to your “must see” venues.  In fact, we may be going back soon, as Abigail is going to be offering a new class focused on wine and food pairings.

Oh, one last item.  We were telling Abigail about Jeffrey’s 10 second tasting hypothesis, and she just rolled her eyes.  She confessed that she and Jeffrey have a friendly rivalry, with emphasis on “friendly.”  She does not buy into his offered hypothesis.

Paraduxx and Duckhorn position their brands as  “luxury” wines so while these wines are relatively high-priced, they are great values for what you get, especially when compared to some of the other wines in the Napa region.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Adventures in Napa, Part 2: Cliff Lede Vineyards

As mentioned in the last post, Adventures in Napa, Part 1, it was recommended that we visit Cliff Lede’s (pronounced Lay-dee) tasting room.  It’s an extraordinary place where the wines are awesomely wonderful and the staff is as friendly as any I’ve encountered in Napa.

I mentioned Tom in the last post but we also had another pourer, nicknamed Marmot (he’s not a furry little rodent, however) and his first name is John.  First, all the pourers paid the utmost personal attention to each and every visitor; no one was short changed time-wise or with  information.  Secondly, the repartee between the staff was fun to watch and entertaining.  Ah, and their supervisor, a very attractive woman, also joined in the fun and games.  I mention this, because it was a Saturday, when the wineries in Napa can get crowded and the pourers don’t have or take the time to interact with their clientele, but at Cliff Lede’s it was very relaxed and the exchanges were delightful.  Kudos to whomever is responsible for their training and the tasting room culture.

Before I get to the wines, it must also be mentioned that the winery is very supportive of the fine arts and there is a small gallery with some really incredible art.  In the garden was a sculpture by Jim Dine and in the gallery were works by Frank Stella and Robert Indiana.  Indiana is the artist that created the famous LOVE sculpture that once graced postage stamps.  I’m sure that many of you remember that stamp.  A smaller version of the LOVE sculpture was in the gallery, the other being on the streets of New York City.

Lede’s offers two different tastings, A sparkling wine and a still wine tasting, each at $20.00, so it’s not inexpensive, but they were worth every penny.

Tom did the pouring of the sparklers which included:

1999 S. Anderson Diva, with complex aromas of mandarin and green apple and a taste of citrus.  $55.00 a bottle.

2000 S. Anderson Diva, with aromas of apple, honey, and fig, and a taste of apple and nectarines.  $55.00 a bottle.

2001 S. Anderson Diva.  This was my favorite of the three with aromas of lemon and tastes of lemon, honey, and apple.  A blend of 2/3 Chardonnay, and 1/3 Pinot Noir.  Also, $55.00 a bottle.

Next, Marmot (John) poured the still wines, three 2006 Cabernet Sauvignons:

2006 Claret, Stags Leap District, with 57% Cabernet, 36% Merlot, and 7% Cab Franc. Aromas of fig, cacao, and cassis and blackberry and cherry on the palette.  
$40.00 a bottle.

2006 Cabernet, St. Helena with 75% Cabernet, 13% Merlot, and 12% Cab Franc. Cherry and cacao on the nose and currants and orange in the mouth.  $65.00 a bottle.

2006 Cabernet, Stags Leap District.  This wine scored 92 points from Robert Parker who called it “the best value in Napa.”  Lots of spices and black currant aromas and dark cherry on the palette.  $60.00 a bottle.  Being a Parker “best value,” we bit and went happily home with two bottles of this Cabernet.

In short, I can’t say enough about the Cliff Lede Vineyard and our experience there.  I urge any of you readers to be certain to visit when you get to Napa.

The next post will be Part 3 of our very eventful journey.  Next, a blending class and an extraordinary tasting at Duckhorn Vineyards.

Tom da Wine Guy