Wednesday Meritage: Where To Get Wine [Values]

June 4, 2020 Leave a comment

Meritage Time!

This is a bit of an unusual Meritage post, as it is focused on one single subject – how to maximize your hard-earned dollars while continuing to enjoy your beloved beverage. Plus, I want to share with you my case buy recommendation at the end of this post.

The inspiration for this post were the notes I receive via subscription to the blog by Robert Dwyer called Wellesley Wine Press which I had been following for a long time. Robert has a special talent for finding wine deals and discounts, and he shares all that information in his blog, so we can all benefit from that.

In addition to Robert’s finds, I also want to suggest another source of discounts which might or might not work for you – the American Express credit card. If you don’t own the American Express card, you should skip all this Amex talk and advance to the case discount section. For those of you who has the card you can’t leave home without, please continue reading.

When you log into your account at the American Express website, you can find a section of “Amex Offers & Benefits” at the bottom of the page. There are 100 different offers that are available to you on any given day. I believe those offers are targeted, and I’m not sure if everyone will see the exact same set of offers. Today, out of those 100 offers, 12 are wine-related. These are real savings, I used those offers many times in the past and those are real deals, saving you $20, $30, $50. These offers are easy to use – find what you are interested in using, apply the offer to your card, then make a purchase in required amount before the offer expiration date on the American Express card you applied the offer to, and your credit will be posted automatically within a few business days.

Here is the list of the offers which are currently available for my American Express card – I’m also adding the additional discount information which can be found in Robert’s blog:

Wine.com

Spend $100+, get one time $30 credit. Expires 6/30/2020.
You can add to this a $50 off $150 purchase with the code CN50 – see Robert’s post for explanations and additional discount codes. So technically, you can spend $150 on the wine, and with the combination of these two offers, your cost will be only $70. I took this opportunity to get a few bottles of Grosset Riesling from Clare valley – definitely a great deal.

WineaAcess.com/amex

Spend $250+, receive $50 credit. Expires 9/30/2020. Limit of 3 statement credits (total of $150). Wine Access offers many interesting wines – you can read about my experience here.

Parcellewine.com

Spend $100+, get one time $20 back. Expires 9/1/2020

BenchmarkWine.com

Spend $250+, get a one-time $50 credit. Expires 8/22/2020. Benchmark Wine Group is one of my favorite online stores to shop for wine – lots of unique and different finds.

The restaurant at Beringer Vineyards or online at beringer.com

Spend $200, get a one-time $60 credit. Expires 8/28/2020. Beringer Vineyards needs no introduction – and this sounds like a good deal.

Vinfolio.com

Spend $250+, get 5,000 additional Membership Rewards points (one time). Expires 7/31/2020. Considering that American Express points can be valued at about one penny per point, 5,000 membership points would equate $50 – a good deal.

FirstBottleWines.com

Spend $250+, get a one-time $50 credit. Expires 8/23/2020

Benziger.com

Spend $200,  get a one-time $40 credit. Expires 7/20/2020.

Bcellars.com, the restaurant at B Cellars Vineyards and Winery

Spend $300+, get a one-time $90 credit. Expires 8/18/2020.

StagsLeap.com

Spend $200+, get a one-time $60 credit. Expires 7/27/2020. Another coveted winery on the list.

Vinesse.com

Spend $50+, get a one-time $15 credit. Expires 7/3/2020.

WineInsiders.com

Spend $20+, get $20 credit. Expires 10/31/2020. Limit of 3 statement credits (total of $60)

These are all the American Express offers which I found available today for my credit card.

Rabbit Ridge Wines Paso Robles

And now, for the case recommendations.

You see, when I find a good value wine, I’m always a bit hesitant to share that information with the world – what if there will be not enough left for me? Well, yeah, it is really not about me, right? It is all about delicious wine which you can afford to drink any day. What is also unique about these wines is that they don’t come from Spain, Italy, or France, where you can still find great bargains – these wines are made in California – at Rabbit Ridge Winery in Paso Robles.

I recently met winemaker and the owner Erich Russell and his wife Joanne at the virtual event organized by John Fodera. We were going to discuss Rabbit Ridge wines, and I ordered a few bottles for that discussion – 2017 Rabbit Ridge Allure de Robles Paso Robles (15.4% ABV, $10(!), Rhone blend), 2018 Rabbit Ridge Zinfandel Westside Paso Robles (114.9% ABV, $15), and 2013 Rabbit Ridge Petite Sirah Paso Robles (14.8% ABV, $20).

Opening a $10 bottle of California wine is hardly possible without trepidation – finding great wines at that price is really challenging. And nevertheless, Allure de Robles was delicious – soft, supple, well-present, and perfectly balanced. Would it compete head to head with the wines from Saxum or Alban – no, of course not. Yet this is an excellent, delicious everyday wine in its own right.

$15 Zinfandel is also not an easy find. Rabbit Ridge West Side Zinfandel was superb – the core of raspberries with a touch of smoke. Yep, delicious is the right word.

$20 Petite Sirah, drinkable upon the opening of the bottle – this doesn’t happen often, if ever. Petite Sirah is tricky and finding drinkable one at that price is also quite difficult – again, Rabbit Ridge perfectly delivered dark and firmly structured core, with the fruit leisurely weaved around it.

If these wines are not the case buy recommendations then I don’t know what is.

Here you go, my friends. I hope you will be able to take advantage of at least some of the offers and don’t miss on those Rabbit Ridge wines – nothing lasts forever… Cheers!

Daily Glass: Meeting The Expectations

June 2, 2020 3 comments

Expectations are essential in any area of human life. We find great joy when our expectations are exceeded, no matter what those expectations apply to – service, conversation, book, a dish at a restaurant, final grade – truly anything and everything. We are equally disappointed when our expectations are not met – subpar service, empty talk, boring book, bland dish, a B grade instead of an A. Believe me, works every time. Expectations are important, as they function as gates to happiness.

In theory, having low expectations is a perfect path to happiness – a solid guarantee that expectations will be easily exceeded and we will feel happy. Well, it is easier said than done. More often than not, the expectations are set on a subconscious level. When you read the test question, the brain instantly jumps in “I know the answer!” – left unchecked, the test grade might not meet the expectations. Or think about one of my favorite sources of disappointment while visiting the restaurant – the dish description which doesn’t meet your expectations. If the dish described as “spicy” it is better actually be spicy and not dull…

Expectations work exactly like that in the world of wine. One quick glance at the label unleashes a slew of instant impressions – ahh, Turley, yes, had this last year, maybe a different vintage, I think this is a great year, should be delicious, maybe need some time to breathe, ahh, and I remember not liking that wine at first, yeah, I still remember that… can I pull that cork already? Yep – one quick glance is quite enough.

Exceeding expectations is great, but, more often than not, meeting them is quite enough – especially if your expectations are already high enough. Here is my account of two wines perfectly meeting my expectations.

Peter Michael Winery requires no introduction to the wine lovers, producing some of the best Chardonnays, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines in California for more than 30 years. Turley Wine Cellars had been around for 27 years, and it is best known as producer of some of the most coveted Zinfandel wines. It is interesting that both wines I’m talking about here are sort of the oddballs for both producers – Peter Michael is not really known for its Sauvignon Blanc, and Larry Turley, the proprietor at Turley wines, was anti-Cabernet Sauvignon for a long time, so I’m not sure if wine lovers are even fully aware that Turley produces Cabernet Sauvignon for the past 5 years.

Both wineries are well known for their quality wines, and when you see their names on the label, you do expect to taste that quality in your glass. 2012 Peter Michael L’Aprés Midi Knights Valley Sonoma County (15.6% ABV) was superb from the get-go – a whiff of the fresh-cut grass, whitestone fruit, round mouthfeel, and clean acidity. The wine was really uncalifornian in its presentation – I would think I’m tasting Sancerre if I would taste this wine blind. The utmost elegance – and 8 years old fresh and vibrant Sauvignon Blanc is not an easy fit.

2012 Turley Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Cellars (14.1% ABV) also tasted as expected. As I opened the bottle, it was not the wine to drink – for sure not for my palate. Big, brooding, jammy, with a lot of semi-sweet dark chocolate and dark fruit. It was quintessential Californian and over the board. I’m sure it doesn’t sound great to many of you, but this is within the expectations, as Californian Cabernet Sauvignon are rarely pop’n’pour wines, and at 8 years of age, they are way too young. However, exactly as expected, the wine became magnificent on the second day. Cassis showed up, smothered with mint, eucalyptus, and a touch of anise. The medley of fruit and herbs was delicious, with perfect balancing acidity and velvety, roll-of-your-tongue, texture. Just the wine I would expect Turley to produce.

How often do you find the wines which meet your expectations? Better yet, how often your wine expectations are exceeded?

An Open Letter To The Wine Lover Visiting Prague

May 24, 2020 Leave a comment

How often do you have regrets in your life? For how long do they last?

Not a simple question to answer, right? When you don’t listen to your wife and don’t wear a scarf on a cold and windy day, this will be a very short-living regret – I’m sure you will happily make the same mistake in a week. If you ignore a friend’s request to join him in the startup, and then 2 years later startup make a $1B exit – this is the regret you might have to live with for the rest of your life.

Once you become a passionate blogger, almost everything you see and experience becomes an opportunity for the new post, especially if the experience is a great one. You quickly start imagining that post in your head, you literally feel the happiness you would feel once the blog post is out. Then life gets the way, and 3 months later, you still remember that you wanted to write this post. 6 months, 10 months, a year – every time you start a new post, the regret of unfinished work gets to you first. Then the feeling becomes numb, and you finally forget.

I was looking for a bottle to open, and you know how it gets – not now, later, not ready, need a company – a ton of decisions to make regarding every single bottle. I finally decided on the bottle of 2013 Salabka Tes Yeux Neronet from the Czech Republic. After the very first sip, the happy smile came. Next came the crushing regret – I never wrote long thought though and thoroughly enjoyed, in the head, post about an amazing time we had at Salabka winery, top-notch dinner, and amazing wines. I was remembering about this for more than a year, and still never wrote it – and one sip of this Neronet wine brought all this back – the happy memory of our time in Prague and the regret of not fulfilling my own plans.

Most of the people would associate Prague and Czech Republic overall with beer. And those people would be right – kind of. Yes, the beer in Prague is an absolute standout. I’m not a beer guy, and yet I would happily drink beer in Prague at any occasion. But wine is a big deal there either. In the Moravia region alone there are more than 1,200 small, artisan, often moms and pops, producers. The wines there are made both from indigenous and international varieties, and the winemaking history goes back thousand years – I wrote about Czech wines in the past, you can find that post here.

In 2017, I was lucky to spend more than 2 weeks in Prague as I had two back to back events there. The city of Prague is absolutely amazing, boasting history on every corner – I shared some of my favorite highlights here. We also had a lot of amazing restaurant experiences, and some of them I shared here – but I let the brightest highlight, the visit to Salabka winery, to become a regret. And one sip of that Neronet wine forced me to say nope, not happening. Of course, it is not the same as writing about the experience while every sensation is fresh and vibrant. But I still have the pictures, so never mind the 3 years – I will still be able to share the experience with you.

Salabka is a city winery, located right in the middle of Prague, on the right bank of Vltava River. The vineyard is about 11 acres, and the winery produces about 10,000 bottles every year, with a full focus on the quality. There are only two red grapes grown at the winery – Pinot Noir and Neronet, local indigenous variety, and quite a few whites (Riesling, Müller Thurgau, Scheurebe, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay). Every bottle of wine produced at Salabka has a picture of the vineyard on the back label, also with an indication of the exact parcel where the particular grapes were growing.

Salabka is more than just a winery – they also have apartments for rent on the property, and most importantly, a restaurant that specializes in modern cuisine – including the molecular gastronomy.

Considering that our visit took place three years ago, I can’t give you a detailed account of the dishes – but I have pictures which clearly show the creative cuisine we were able to experience.

We started with the tour of the vineyards and the cellars, with a glass of delicious Chardonnay in hand, seeing bud breaks on the vines and beautiful views of the red roofs of Prague.

Then we had a tasting dinner, with all dishes paired with different wines, with foam and other molecular gastronomy elements being present almost in every dish. 2007 Salabka Le Diamant Blanc de Blancs was excellent, and I can still remember 2016 Salabka La Coquine Chardonnay with its Chablis-like gunflint and apple flavor (La Coqine Chardonnay was wine number 12 on my 2017 Top Wines list). I liked both wines so much that I even had to bring them back home, together with the red, made out of the Neronet grape.

It was that 2013 Salabka Tes Yeux Neronet wine which prompted this post. One sip of this peppery, acidic, herbs forward wine instantly brought back the memory of that trip. One sip of this wine instantly transports you to the old cellar, where wine was made, spilled, and stored for hundreds year – any oenophile can close their eyes and easily imagine themselves in such a cellar. The time and space travel machine is not invented yet, but properly made wine can easily replace it, and this Neronet certainly did.

So here it is, wine lovers. If you will be visiting Prague, remember that delicious wines are waiting for you. And if you are looking for a pleasure-filled evening, Salabka might be just the place. Cheers!

American Pleasures #4 – Gratus Vineyards

May 22, 2020 Leave a comment

Wine can be many things to many people. Wine can connect people. Wine can bring back memories. Wine can bring back a unique experience, change one’s mood, and help solve a problem.

The wine is also often an expression of gratitude.

Those of us who love wine also love to offer it to others as an expression of our gratitude. We take great care in carefully selecting the wine to express what we feel – it makes us ecstatic when the gift recipient acknowledges our choice.

And then there are those who make wine to express their gratitude – sometimes, they even call their winery to show that, as would be the case for GRATUS Vineyards.

Gratus is Latin for gratitude, and this is exactly what Thomas Wargovich was trying to express by naming his Napa Valley winery GRATUS Vineyards – gratitude to the family, gratitude to his grandparents who came to the USA as millions of others in search of the better life.

Source: GRATUS Vineyards

GRATUS Vineyards is a 27 acres parcel in Pope Valley, the small strip of land adjacent to the famed Howell Mountain. GRATUS Vineyards is not just a winery. While 10 acres are planted with vines, the rest of the parcel constitutes a complex nature habitat, an arboretum with more than 300 rare and endangered species of conifers, trees which bear cones, among other plants. It makes GRATUS Vineyards a unique place with its own soul and personality.

The first vintage at GRATUS Vineyards, 2012, consisted of 75 cases. Current production is about 600 cases, with the wines ranging from the Rhone varietals to the classic California Cabernet Sauvignon and blends. Red wines at GRATUS Vineyards are typically aged for about 22 months in oak.

I had an opportunity to taste GRATUS Vineyards wines and was very much impressed with the consistency of the full range I was able to experience. Here are my notes:

2018 Gratus Vineyards White Blend Napa Valley (14.2% ABV, $39, blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Picpoul Blanc)
Light golden
Whitestone fruit, plums, a touch of lemon, refreshing and inviting
Round, medium-plus weight, noticeable texture, green apple, lemon, good acidity
8-/8, thought-provoking

2018 Gratus Vineyards L’ovey Rosé Napa Valley (14.2% ABV, $23)
Beautiful salmon pink
Light and refreshing strawberries, very inviting
Tart strawberries and cranberries on the palate, crisp, fresh, definitely a bigger body than Provence, and perfectly balanced.
8+, delicious.

2016 Gratus Vineyards Malbec Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $70)
Dark garnet, practically black
Dark berries, mint, sweet basil, overripe plum
Dark berries, ripe blueberries, and blackberries, iodine, dark chocolate, medium-plus body, smooth, good acidity, good balance, medium finish
8, tasty now, will evolve.
8+ on the third day. The wine lost sweetness and developed dark magic

2015 Gratus Vineyards Red Blend Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $90, blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Petite Sirah)
Dark garnet, practically black
Dark chocolate, mocha, cherries, anise
Lip-smacking, cherries, coffee, eucalyptus, full-body, supple, generous.
8, excellent on the 2nd day. It definitely needs time, but has good potential.

2016 Gratus Vineyards Red Blend Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $80, 80% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Dark garnet, practically black
Black currant, sweet tobacco, a touch of mint
Black currant, cherries, good minerality, fresh, firm structure, good acidity, excellent balance, medium finish.
8/8+, delicious.

2016 Gratus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Napa Valley (14.8% ABV, $120, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 15))
Dark garnet, practically black
Day 1: not a lot to report. The wine is massive and closed.
Day 2 notes:
Vanilla, dark chocolate
Dark chocolate, big, brooding, pencil shavings, iodine
8-, an interesting contrast with day 1 – need to wait for the day 3

As you can see, most of the reds are in the “needs time” category, but this is pretty much a signature of the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines. Hopefully, you got the patience, and the space int he cellar. Cheers!

Zoom Rhymes With Wine

May 17, 2020 4 comments

Zoom rhymes with wine. Nonsense, you said? Of course, silly, they don’t. Not in a traditional poetic sense for sure. Maybe only in a haiku?

Sun setting down
Zoom glimmers seductively
Pour the wine

Well, if this was the worst thing you ever read, feel free to disavow me. But for those who want to talk, let’s have a conversation about wine and technology? Or maybe just today’s life?

While wine is my passion, it is my hobby. Obsessive? Maybe. But still a hobby. My daytime job is in the computers and technology field, and if you will allow me to be even more precise, it is IP communications technologies, which cover almost everything from the internet to videoconferencing and to your toaster conspiring against you with your microwave (don’t worry, it is early and they still can be stopped). In this technology space, I was lucky to meet Jeff Pulver, who was a pioneer and a visionary, and not only in the space of technology but also in social media.

Before Twitter was even a concept, Jeff came up with a concept of a social breakfast. You see, many of the technologists are socially very conservative, and when those people get together, the hardest thing is to start a conversation. Every attendee of Jeff’s breakfast was given a few stickers to either tag oneself or a person they were talking to with random “identifiers” you would come up with during conversation, such as “wine”, “music”, “VC”, “video” – as you move around the room, those tags were easy conversation starters. If someone has a tag “garden”, you don’t need to think about what to ask that person, you can simply ask about that tag.

The attendees also had to come up with the tagline which would describe them in a short sentence. Mine was “I like wine and technology that works” – again, you don’t need to think hard about your first question when presented with an opener like this.

Believe it or not, but the technology part in my tagline above is more relevant to today’s world than the wine. How so? The company I was working for was in the videoconferencing space. And in those days (the early 2000s), the technology was subpar at the best – typical video conferencing call inflicted a lot of pain and suffering on all the participants, and every 10-15 minutes you could talk without significant quality degradation or a call simply dropping, was almost a reason to celebrate. And all that technology was really expensive and available only to businesses with deep pockets.

The situation is dramatically different today. There is a gazillion of platforms offering video communication capabilities, either streaming (Facebook live, Instagram live, Youtube live, …) or interactive video for two or more people (skype, Facebook messenger, WhatsApp, Google hangouts and then serious commercial ones such as Zoom and Microsoft teams) – and nevertheless, the video was not really a tool in the wine world.

Even in the early days, the wine industry realized the value of social media and the “word of mouth” opportunity it offered to educate wine consumers and promote wine producers, wine brands, and individual wines. As the internet was becoming more accessible and easier to use, at first there were the wine blogs. Twitter quickly became a social media darling of the wine world, offering not only the ability to reach anyone with the twitter handle, no matter how famous those people were, but also becoming an enabler of the group conversations, better known as the twitter chats.

Over the years, I participated in lots of different twitter chats, run under #winechat, #winestudio, #WiningHourChat, and the others. Twitter chats were always fun exercises that were difficult to follow – try to have 10 conversations at once, all with your hands, also trying to taste wine at the same time – not that easy. There were also a few of the video wine presentations, where winemakers would get together and present their wines (Montefalco Sagrantino presentation was one of the most memorable for me), with the audience running the discussion via chat – Snooth also conducted quite a few of those. But through all the years, I attended only one or maybe two tastings at the most which were done in the interactive video format, where all the participants were able to discuss the wines among themselves and talk to the winemakers and presenters – winemaker lunches and dinners were unquestionably much better venues. Until the virus happened.

The appearance of the COVID-19 has put everyone’s world upside down. With all the people stuck in homes, video communication became a lifesaver. Literally. It allowed people to reduce the pain of isolation. It gave us the ability to share our experiences, even if we were drinking different wines – but we were still able to do it together. Many winemakers embraced the opportunity which new world order had offered to meet their customers face to face – the tasting rooms became virtual, but luckily, the wines were not. Remember my tagline – “technology that works”? Zoom is a perfect example of that – it simply works. The level of communication experience which Zoom provides was not yet possible even 5-6 years ago. And today, we can have as many live video conversations as we want – for as long as we want them. I’ve been myself on the few calls which were not expected to last even for an hour, and instead, they lasted for 3 – all of it without a glitch. Yes, color me impressed. very impressed. And do you see now my point that zoom rhymes with wine?

The most interesting question for me if this newly found love between wine and video communications is here to stay. Once the world goes back to normal (yes, it will), will we have the time for 3 hours zoom call on a moment’s notice? I would argue that yes, the video-enabled virtual tasting room will become a newfound convenience – but it will not replace the actual clinking of the glasses around the table.

What do you say? Does zoom rhymes with wine for you? Cheers!

Wine in Numbers

May 14, 2020 Leave a comment

Who likes the numbers? I know that I do. Measuring is important as if you are not measuring, you are getting lost. And getting lost is no fun…

Numbers in wine are always interesting – how many cases were made, bottles sold – not that it is always important to know (unless this is your business), but it is still an interesting exercise.

Today, let’s talk about wine production and import. The folks at the House of Townend in the UK collected and analyzed open source wine production data from 2018, and even converted that data into the graphical form – yep, it is wine infographics we are talking about!

First, here is the world-view of wine production:

You can see that in 2018, Italy was the world leading wine producer with 54.8 million hectoliters (1 hectoliter is equal to 100 liters), following by France (49.1 million), Spain (44.4M), USA (23.9M) and so on.

However, if you will look at the wine production per capita, the picture is changing quite a bit – Spain is becoming an unquestionable leader with 95 liters per capita, followed by Italy and France. Okay, this is not that much different – together, these three European countries produce 51% of the wine in the world.  However, the USA moves down from the 4th place to the 12th, and Portugal moves from the 12th place in the total wine production to the 5th when the calculation is done per capita.

Let’s now see who drinks the wine:

Germany is the world leader in the wine imports, with 14.5 million hectoliters of wine imported in 2018, followed by UK (13.2M), and the United States (11.5M). After spinning the data in a different way – per capita – the situation becomes dramatically different – Belgium is becoming the number one wine importer with 26.31 liters per person, followed by the Netherlands (24.4 liters). The US moves down to the 7th place with 3.08 liters per person, and Japan makes a surprise appearance in the 9th spot with 2.05 liters per person.

There you have it, my friends – a few numbers to ponder at. Best with a glass of wine in hand. Cheers!

Celebrate Sauvignon Blanc!

May 1, 2020 Leave a comment

Here we go again – another grape holiday is upon us – Sauvignon Blanc Day it is.

I’m sure most of you don’t need a reason to open a bottle of wine. And the grape holiday doesn’t mean that one must drink wine made out of celebratory grape on that holiday. However, it is a good reason to talk about the grape we are celebrating.

Sauvignon Blanc is unquestionably one of the best known and most widely used white grape. While many of the red grapes can be included in the battle for supremacy, when it comes to whites, there are only 3 top contenders – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.

Sauvignon Blanc is growing everywhere – and while some of the traits, such as freshly cut grass undertones can be generally common, it demonstrates a wide range of expression depending on where the wine was made. The birthplace of Sauvignon Blanc is generally considered to be in Sancerre which is situated in Loire Valley. Sancerre might be a birthplace, but boy, did Sauvignon Blanc spread around nicely – it is used all over the Loire Valley, it is a very important grape in Bordeaux, especially in Entre-Deux-Mers; it plays a supporting role in Sauternes and Barsac. It is one of the best-kept secrets in Italy. Sauvignon Blanc is often part of the blend in Rueda in Spain, and it can shine on its own in Catalonia and La Mancha. Then, of course, let’s not forget the winemaking region which literally took the Sauvignon Blanc world domination crown away from Sancerre – venerable New Zealand, home to in-your-face delicious Sauvignon Blanc wines. Moving along, we cannot forget the USA where Sauvignon Blanc wines are made everywhere, from California to Washington to Long Island and many other states. Oh wait, South Africa makes some sublime Sauvignon Blanc renditions, not to be outdone by Chile, Argentina, Israel, and every other winemaking country.

Sauvignon Blanc Collage

No matter what tickles your Sauvignon Blanc fancy – cat pee in Sancerre, unidentifiable aromatics of the Cloudy Bay, succulent lemons in Honig or Hanna, or sublime complexity of Ornellaia and Gaja – there is a Sauvignon Blanc wine out there for everyone.

Pour yourself a glass of whatever, and enjoy your quiet moment of reflection. Cheers!

Travel Diaries: A Few Days in Finland

April 29, 2020 12 comments

Oh, the things we take for granted. Let’s take travel, for example. It was so simple, easy, and basic. Get to the airport, get on the plane, eat, sleep, and magically appear in the whole new world, thousands of miles away from home. Nevermind all the travel hassles – they are really negligible next to the pleasure the travel delivers. And then, all of a sudden, this basic fundamental is no more. All thanks to the invisible enemy which takes no hostages, the travel is a thing of the past – at least at the moment. Of course, we will travel again, but for now, it is our memories we need to rely on.

Travel for me is associated with taking pictures. Pictures, in turn, require sharing – same as with wine, which I talk about because I really enjoy it and want to share my joy with people, I like to share my pictures with everyone – I got a proof of this obsession, scroll here. I like to share the pictures in a timely manner, somewhat close to the completion of the trip – when that is not happening, I don’t feel that it is a priority anymore – unless there is a compelling reason to do it even at a later point – like, for example, the one we are living through right now, where travel is no more, at least for the near future.

I visited Finland late last September for work. I only shared one post about that trip – a summary of my wine experiences in Finland. Now I would like to inundate you with non-wine pictures of that beautiful country.

My final destination in Finland was a little town called Kuopio, which is only accessible via the local flight from Helsinki, Finland’s capital. As I never been to Helsinki before, I set up my trip to have half a day to walk around the Helsinki. I stayed in the center of Helsinki in the hotel called Klaus K, which is a part of the Design Hotels and the only Marriott property in Helsinki – if you are ever in Helsinki, I highly recommend this hotel, especially if you can score a room on one of the top floors. I went to walk around the Helsinki and despite the gloomy weather, it was fun and colorful as you will see in the pictures below:

Take a look at these happy people – it is about 40F (4C) outside

Fresh berries, some just picked in the forest

And freshly picked mushrooms

My lunch at the market

This was taken by a trusted iPhone 7 and processed by SnapSeed. Doesn’t SnapSeed make everything look so much better?

The view from the 7th floor room’s balcony at Klaus K hotel

Early next morning, I took a flight to Kuopio with my colleagues. Looking from the plane, you can clearly see that Finland is a country of lakes. According to the information on the internet, if the lake is defined as a body of water larger than 500 square meters, there are 187,888 lakes in Finland. 55,000 of the lakes are at least 200 meters wide.

On the way to Kuopio

Once we arrived in Kuopio, a small city of about 120,000 inhabitants, coffee was the first order of business. If we can say that Americans like their coffee, then we have to say that Finns simply love their coffee. Good coffee can be found anywhere:

Next, we took an hour-long hike through the woods to the observation tower – I still can vividly remember the pleasure of walking through the forest which was very similar to the one I was accustomed to growing up as a kid – which is not surprising, as I grew up only about 500 miles down south from Kuopio.

Kuopio observation tower

Once we managed to the top, we were rewarded with the beautiful views and cold, dark, ultra-refreshing beer, brewed in that same town of Kuopio.

Mestari Stout Kuopio

While Finland offers a vast array of excellent restaurants, no matter where you are, the colleagues I was traveling with had a variety of the eating restrictions, so I had to just go with the flow – hence I don’t have any amazing food scenery to report. Here are just a couple of dishes I enjoyed:

The week flew by quickly as we were busy every day with the event we were attending. To get everyone a little break, we had a trip arranged to a special place – a famous sauna on the lake, one of the most famous in Finland. I’m sure you heard about the Finnish sauna, but you need to understand how important that is to the Finns. In this country of 5.3 million people, there are approximately 2 million saunas (!)

The proper Finnish sauna is not just a hot and dry room. The proper sauna is more of a ritual – you go to the super-hot sauna, you go out, you swim in the cold lake, return, have a beer, and repeat the sauna and the lake – from 3 to 5 times. Then you go and have dinner. I don’t have any pictures of sauna for you, but I have a bunch of pictures of the forest and the lake.

On Thursday, I took a flight back to Helsinki – it was really fun to fly with the sunset:

Flying over Finland with Sunset

Flying with sunset

I stayed overnight at the Hilton at Helsinki airport, as my flight was leaving at 6 am in the morning. I had dinner at the restaurant at the Hilton airport, and while the food was tasty, this was the smallest ever amount of food I had for 50+ euro (never mind also the worst service I pretty much ever had at any restaurant):

As was flying to Helsinki with the sunset, my 6 am flight to Munich coincided with the sunrise – an absolutely surreal experience:

Flying with sunrise

Flying with sunrise

Germany clearly lacks Finnish lakes:

Well, that’s about all there is to my story – except one more thing:

My one million miles flier prize

Yes, this glass of bubbly doesn’t look like anything special, but it was given to me together with the congratulatory words for reaching 1 million miles mark with United. United gives that status only after you actually fly, not spend, a million miles with them, so this was definitely a memorable moment.

My photo report is over.

We Will Travel Again

Have Grenache, Will Travel

April 24, 2020 Leave a comment

“Have wine, will travel” is one of my favorite openings for a post about wine because this is exactly what wine does – even before you take a sip, just a glance at the label is often sufficient to let your imagination run wild and yes, imagine yourself instantly somewhere 5,000 miles away from where you are now. But never in my scariest, horror-filled dreams, I would imagine that wine, along with pictures, might become the only way for us to travel, even for a day. Sigh.

So today I want to offer you a quick trip with the help of one of the most versatile, most widely planted grape in the world – Grenache, also known as Garnacha.

Grenache is a versatile grape on many different levels. First, it is widely planted. While supremacy of Grenache can be debated between France and Spain, literally every other winemaking country – Australia, Argentina, Chile, Israel, Italy, South Africa, USA, New Zealand – all have significant plantings of Grenache. Next, when we say Grenache, we typically assume red grape and red wine, of course – but Grenache family also includes Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris. Grenache is capable of an ultra-wide range of expressions – from light and simple, such as Borsao Tres Picos or Delas Côtes du Rhône to bombastic, tremendously concentrated expressions, such as Clos Erasmus, Horsepower and Sine Qua Non. Last but not least is pricing versatility. It wouldn’t surprise anyone that $100 bottle of wine drinks well – any grape can do this. But in under $10 range, very few grapes can excel – but Grenache is one of them, for example, in the form of Honoro Vera.

Today our journey will not be too long, but we are going to make two stops in the countries which can be designated as “classic” Grenache – France and Spain. To help with our travel we can even enlist the help of the website put together to promote European Grenache and Garnacha – you can find the link here.

Our first stop is in the south of France, in the small region called Maury, which in turn is a part of the Roussillon wine region. Winemaking in that area goes back a few thousand years. Maury located on the border with Spain, and it became a part of France only after 1659, so even today there is a lot of Spanish influence in the region. Grenache is the main grape used in the production of Maury wines, and it is considered to be one of the best in France. Maury is best known for its fortified wines, produced in the style similar to port, with the addition of the spirits in the middle of fermentation, which kills the yeast and leaves the sugar level high in the resulting wine. However, it is not the Maury AOC wine I want to offer to you today, but Maury Sec, which is a designation for the dry wines produced in the same region. Our first wine is produced by Jeff Carrel, and it is predominantly Grenache with the addition of Syrah:

2016 Jeff Carrel Le Grenache dans la Peau Maury Sec AOP (15.5% ABV, 80% Grenache / 20% Syrah)
Dark ruby
High Intensity, sweet cherries, cherry compote, tobacco, sweet basil
Sweet cherries, unexpected astringency, good acidity. High alcohol is surprisingly unnoticeable.
7/7+ on the first day, 5 minutes after opening.
8-/8 second day, much more balanced and round, adds a touch of pepper, astringency is gone, excellent.

Now, let’s go to Spain. As we are now in Spain, let’s switch to the proper name for our grape – now it is Garnacha to you. Once here, how about some Garnacha Blanca? The wine had been made in Somontano, an area up north close to the French border for more than 2000 years. Garnacha Blanca is one of the permitted and popular varieties in Somontano. Once in Somontano, we are going to visit Secastillo, the valley which takes its name from the seven castles overlooking it.

Vinas del Vero vineyards in Secastilla. Source: Gonzales Byass

Viñas del Vero produces the wines here, sourcing the grapes from 100 years old Garnacha vines, growing mostly at the elevation of 2,100+ feet.

2017 Secastilla La Miranda Garnacha Blanca Sonomontano DO (14% ABV)
Straw Pale
Lemon, fresh grass, lemon zest
Whitestone fruit, Meyer lemon, clean acidity, nice and refreshing
7+/8-, very good

Let’s continue our trip going a bit more down south. Now we are in Catalonia, in Terra Alto DO (Terra Alta means High land), where Cellers Unió had been producing wine from the beginning of Terra alto DO been formally established in 1982 (Cellers Unió is a conglomeration of cooperatives which operates across 5 DOs, 11,000 acres of vineyards and includes 20,000 families of growers across 186 cooperatives). Now it is time to drink some classic Garnacha:

2016 Cellers Unio Clos Dalian Garnacha Tinta Crianza Terra Alta DO (13.5% ABV)
Dark Garnet
Cherry Coolaid, sweet cherry, candy
Cherries, fresh sour cherries, wow. Touch of tobacco, earthy undertones, perfect balance, soft and round.
8, excellent

Our trip is over, unfortunately – but see how easy it was? I wish you many great journeys, all enabled with the power of wine glass in your hand. Until we travel again – cheers!

High Altitude Malbec for the World Malbec Day Celebration

April 17, 2020 Leave a comment

Cafayate desert. Image by gabrielgcossa from Pixabay

Do you like Malbec? If you do, great – you have a perfect reason to celebrate one of the world’s most popular grape on its holiday, World Malbec Day, always celebrated on April 17th. If you don’t  – great, as you can taste a lot of wines in order to eventually find Malbec which you will enjoy.

Malbec is one of the unique grapes in the wine world, with a long history full of ups and downs. Malbec history can be traced almost a thousand years back. It used to be one of the most popular and most planted grapes in France. Wine from Cahors, a small region just south of Bordeaux, was famous for its dark and brooding qualities and was very much welcomed by the royals as early as the 1200s (well, the grape is not called Malbec in Cahors – it is known as Côt or Auxerrois). However, as Bordeaux started developing its own brand, it started blocking Cahors wines from reaching its intended destination, as most of the trading routes had to pass through Bordeaux before reaching the wine consumers.

Malbec used to be widely planted in Bordeaux, but this thin-skinned and disease-prone grape was difficult to work with, and it became anything but literally extinct today. Of course, Malbec is still the main grape in Cahors, where it is made into delicious, long-living wines – if you can find them in the wines stores, of course. However, the real fame of Malbec is related to its second motherland – Argentina.

Malbec was brought to Argentina in the mid-19th century and higher elevation vineyards with mostly dry climate happened to be a godsend for the moody grape. From there on, Malbec went on the path of becoming the most famous Argentinian grape. I guarantee you if anyone will ask what is in your glass, and you will say “Malbec”, 99% of the people will have no doubts that you are drinking Argentinian wine – yes, this is a good example of fame. Malbec’s success in the new world didn’t stop in Argentina, as it is successfully growing today in Australia, Chile, California, Texas, and many other places. But it is still the Argentina which rules the Malbec world today.

Altura maxima vineyard. Source: Bodegas Colome

Altura maxima Vineyard. Source: Bodegas Colome

When it comes to Argentinian wine, Mendoza is the first area that comes to mind. It is hardly surprising, as 2/3 or Argentinian wine comes from Mendoza. But it is not Mendoza we are talking about today – we are going higher, much higher – to Salta (Mendoza vineyards are typically located at the 1,800 – 3,400 feet altitude, and in Salta altitude ranges from 7,000 to 10,000 feet). Salta is home to the highest vineyard in the world, Altura Maxima (elevation 10,200 feet/3,100 meters). It is also home to one of the oldest wineries in Argentina, Bodegas Colomé, which was founded in 1831.

I already wrote about the wines of Bodegas Colomé in the past (you can find this post here), as well as the wines from Amalaya, a 10 years old project by Bodegas Colomé in Cafayate desert. It was very interesting to try the same wines only from a different vintage. I can say that there is a noticeable improvement in the quality of the Amalaya – 3 additional years make a lot of difference. The Colomé Estate Malbec was more or less on par with its older brethren – but I certainly like the new label design, the bottle looks more elegant.

Here are my notes for the three of the Malbec wines I was able to taste:

2018 Amalaya Malbec Salta Argentina (13.9% ABV, $16, 85% Malbec, 10% Tannat, 5% Petit Verdot)
Dark garnet
Inviting, eucalyptus, blackberries, crushed berries, baking spices
Fresh berries, coffee, bright, easy to drink, good structure, good acidity, good balance.
8, simple and delicious. Needed a couple of hours to open up.

2017 Colomé Estate Malbec Valle Calchaquí Salta Argentina (14.9% ABV, $25, grapes from vineyards at 7545 to 10,200 feet elevation)
Dark garnet
Vanilla, baking spices, restrained fruit
Vanilla, blueberries, tar, firm structure, very restrained, appears more as an old-world than anything else.
8, excellent.

2018 Colomé Auténtico Malbec Valle Colchaquí Salta Argentina (14.5% ABV, $30, high altitude vineyard ~7000 ft)
Practically black
Vanilla, blueberries, baking spices, inviting
Blueberries, coffee, good acidity, silky smooth, layered, ripe fruit but still balanced.
8, classic and tasty – but needs time. Really opened up only on the day 3

What do you think of Malbec wines? Do you have a favorite producer? How did you celebrate World Malbec Day? Until the next time – cheers!

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