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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!

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!

Travel Diaries: A Few Days in Finland

April 29, 2020 13 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

Open That Local Wine Night

March 28, 2020 Leave a comment

There is a good chance you heard of Open That Bottle Night, or OTBN for short – more than 2 decades old special celebration to encourage people to open their sacred bottle of wine and preferably share it with friends. OTBN is celebrated on the last Saturday in February, and I have to tell you that my last one was magnificent (see for yourself here). Today, while we are still celebrating wine and all the passionate people who put their heart and the soul into those bottles, we want to shift the focus to the bottles with possibly a different pedigree than the OTBN ones – today we focus on the local wines and wineries.

With the wines produced in all 50 states in the USA, the concept of a local winery is not an oxymoron. Local wineries offer a perfect weekend getaway, with wine, food, great discoveries, stories of passion and obsession, live music and simply an opportunity to relax, in the group and small or large. And oenophiles are willing to travel to their local wineries (it takes me about 3 hours of travel by car to the Long Island wineries – and this is perfectly local in my book) – but not today. With the pandemic madness we are living nowadays, we can’t really visit wineries, whether they are 15 minutes from our house or 5 hours – and this is the time when local wineries need our support the most. And actually, you and all of us can support them.

Whatever your “local” winery is, there is a good chance you have a bottle of your favorite local wine in the cellar. Frank Morgan, a veteran wine writer from Virginia, originally suggested making Saturday, March 28th (last Saturday in March) a night to open a bottle of Virginia wine. Lenn Thompson of The Cork Report fame suggested to extend this idea to all of the local wineries, no matter where those wineries are located, and designate that same Saturday as Open That Local Wine night. The event works in a very simple way – decide what bottle to open, open and enjoy it, with food or without, and share your support in social media using hashtag #openlocalwine.

It is obvious that the wineries need our support beyond opening that bottle today, and the best form of support, of course, is simply buying the wines. Literally all the wineries have special incentives for their customers. Many wineries offer free or heavily discounted shipping for their customers, such as a $5 flat rate, for example. If you have your favorite winery, you should check their web site and see what they offer. There are also a few of the winery lists with discounts which I can offer to your attention – here is one focused on the East Coast wineries, and here is another one covering pretty much the whole country.

You also should keep in mind that while you will be engaging in the great deed of supporting the local wineries, you will be in for a lot of pleasure. Amazing wines are produced today literally everywhere, not just in California, Washington, or Oregon. I’m a self-appointed wine snob, and nevertheless, I’m literally blown away every time I’m trying local wines. I had amazing wines last year in New Jersey and Maryland. Then I also discovered an array of amazing “orange” wines at Channing Daughters winery on Long Island (if you want to expand your wine horizon, take a look at this selection), of course in addition to all the whites, Rosé and reds they produce. Really, you have a lot to discover.

Let’s talk about my most recent discovery – Macari Vineyards from North Fork of Long Island. Macari Vineyards were founded in 1995 when the first vines were planted on previously a potato farm. Macari Vineyards uses biodynamic methods and produces some of the best fruit on the East Coast. They produce a range of wines, from more of Long Island traditional Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot to the oddballs such as 100% Pinot Meunier. I had an opportunity to try the samples of two wines Macari Vineyards wines, and I really enjoyed both – here are the notes:

2019 Macari Rosé North Fork of Long Island (12% ABV, $24, Merlot and Malbec blend)
Salmon pink
Herbs, strawberries
Underripe strawberries, crisp, fresh, good acidity.
8-, light and delicious.

2015 Macari Cabernet Franc Reserve North Fork of Long Island (14% ABV, $38, 20 months in 100% neutral French oak)
Dark Garnet
Bell peppers, eucalyptus, sage, cassis leaves
Soft, round, cassis, bell peppers, anise, crispy undertones, mouthwatering acidity, medium body, classic lean New York style.
8+, outstanding, the Cab Franc I love.

So what do you think, can you do it? Open that bottle of the local wine, maybe even get together with the friends – virtually, of course – Facetime, WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, … and enjoy that bottle. And then go and explore what the local wineries have to offer – the world is your oyster, so any winery can be your local winery. You are up for a lot of tasty discoveries, I guarantee you that. #openlocalwine, my friends!

Weekend in Wines

March 26, 2020 2 comments

Are we losing the sense of time? The weekend was always a special time, and I don’t mean in a TGIF way – most of the time, I’m happy with Friday evening, and I’m happy with Monday morning. But the weekend usually meant different types of activities – going somewhere, meeting with friends, maybe going to the city for a leisure stroll and a dinner – you name it. Now, as we have to be pretty much confined to your house due to the virus, the days are becoming mostly all the same, and the weekend simply means “huh, it is Saturday” (note the absence of exclamation mark).

My last weekend, however, was still a bit different, and it translated into some interesting bottles being opened.
On Friday, we had a family dinner. I always ask if anyone wants to drink wine, which defines which bottle will be opened. I got absolutely unexpected “yes, I would like some wine” which sent my heart racing for a second and caused near panic stall. You know how it is – when someone asks oenophile for a glass of wine on short notice, there is an instant desire to please, which translates into an attempt to identify the right bottle in a split second, thus you need to mentally flip through the content of all your wine cabinets (shelves) in the shortest amount of time, as nobody will be patiently waiting for you to perform the shelf dance for 20 minutes while the meat is getting cold.

I can honestly tell you that in a situation like that, the end result almost always ends up the same – I pull a bottle of Turley. Turley literally never disappoints, pretty much without any regard to the age, unlike many other amazing wines which simply can’t be appreciated until at least 10–15 years in the bottle. So the bottle I opened was 2014 Turley Zinfandel Cedarman Howell Mountain (15.6% ABV). There is a no bigger reward for the oenophile’s heart than to hear from someone you are trying to please “ohh, this is such good wine!” – and it really was. Rich, opulent, bursting with smokey blackberries and blueberries, you know that succulent and generous fruit you can’t just put down – the wine was stunning in its open generosity – and perfect balance.

The next day was my daughter’s 18th birthday, so needless to say that the appropriate bottle(s) had to be open. First, I always try to open a bottle of vintage matching the birth year. I don’t have a lot of 2002s laying around, unfortunately, so my decision fell on 2002 Lopez de Heredia Viña Gravonia Rioja DOC (12.5% ABV). Lopez de Heredia is one of the very best (and one of my most favorite) Rioja producers, so I’m always happy to open their wines. Lopez de Heredia white Rioja is legendary – white Riojas are still rare, and not all of them can age. This wine was an excellent example – it had a tremendous interplay of flavors in the glass, moving from succulent white plums, then showing tropical fruit undertones, then bristle with acidity to the point of young Chablis and ending with a beautiful oxidative profile of classic Jura Savagnin. If you like mature white wines, this is a delight for sure.

For the aged red, I decided to open the bottle of 1998 J. Kirkwood Merlot Napa Valley (13% ABV). I got a few bottles from the Benchmark Wine company last year at a great (incredible?) price of about $20 – I never heard of J. Kirkwood, so I really was going by the combination of age and price when ordering this wine. Boy, what a treat. Forget everything you know of and everything you think Merlot is. This wine was loaded with smoke, tar, and spices. Yes, there was a core of fruit, but not your typical aromatic cassis, more of the crunchy blackberries, smothered in exotic spices. Dense, brooding and delicious would be the right way to describe it – as long as I will not try comparing it with our last wine.

I’m sure you’ve been in the same situation. You have a special bottle of wine. You know it is not ready. You are 200% sure it is not ready. But then you simply get fixated on the idea that you want to open the bottle, especially when there is anything (anything!) to celebrate. And so my daughter’s birthday was a perfect reason to open the bottle of 2016 Andremily Wines Syrah No 5 California (15.5% ABV).

First I heard about Andremily wines after I signed up for the waiting list for the mailing list of Sine Qua Non, one of the most coveted wineries in the USA. While waiting to get on the mailing list (still waiting), one of the emails from the winery mentioned new projected, Andremily, related to the Sine Qua Non by way of the Jim Binn, who was working as a cellar master at Sine Qua Non. Jim started Andremily in 2011 with his wife Rachel, and the winery was named after their two kids, Andrew and Emily.

My first attempt to sign up for the Andremily list was also unsuccessful, but I finally got invited a few years after.

I have to tell you that opening that bottle was a mistake, but it was one mistake which I don’t regret. The note from the winery mentioned that it is recommended to decant the wine for 2–3 hours prior to drinking. I did that, and I have to say that 3 hours in decanter had no effect on the wine. Black color (not kidding), the wine was impossible to describe. It had an incredible aromatics of dark berries, ink, cola, iodine, a touch of barnyard. The palate was not tannic, but the power of this wine was beyond imagination – dense, chewy, ultra-concentrated, with dark fruit, tar, iodine, herbs, and sunny meadows, all attacking your senses at once. This was definitely not an enjoyable wine despite the 3 hours in the decanter.

I poured the wine back into the bottle, pumped the air out and tried it the next day. And the next day. And the next day. On day 3, it finally gave up and showed its true and beautiful character. Dark, succulent, tart cherries, sweet oak, pepper, sage, all mellowed down and started to sing together in a round, harmonious way. This wine needs patience, and the patient will be rewarded handsomely. For sure a memorable wine and experience.

These are not the happiest times we are living through, but still, there is plenty to enjoy (well, I always said that we, oenophiles, having it easier than all). What were your recent memorable wine encounters?

What a night! Notes from OTBN 2020

March 14, 2020 7 comments

Open That Bottle Night is the best wine holiday out there. It is nice to celebrate all the individual grapes – Chardonnay Day, Albarigño Day and the likes – but that can’t compare with an opportunity to open a special or the most special bottle you have in your possession, and most importantly, share it with fellow oenophiles, the people who appreciate and respect that special bottle.

I’ve been lucky for two years in the row to be invited to someone’s house to celebrate OTBN – last year Jim VanBergen of JvBUncorked fame was our host, and this year John Fodera of the Tuscan Vines hosted of amazing wine night.

John did a great job organizing this memorable night for the group of people most of whom he never met face to face (yours truly included – we had been following each other for close to 10 years, but managed to avoid any face to face contacts until now) – he developed a loyal group of followers as Italian wines expert, and I’m sure everyone was happy to finally meet him in person.

John managed to come up with a great program. After the round of Lambrusco bubbles (which is the rave nowadays) we started the evening with two blind tastings. We had 2 groups of 3 wines each, trying to identify at least a place and type of wine, and ideally even the producer. We also voted for the group’s favorites. I generally suck at blind tastings, so I did poorly (as expected). I also decided not to use the external factors in the tasting (I.e., John is Italian wine guy, so we should simply expect all the wines to be Italian; another guess would be that as John’s blog is called Tuscan Vines, all the wines will be from Tuscany).

Here are my notes for the first flight:

Wine 1: Touch of mint, full-body, good structure, a touch of black currant – super Tuscan?

Wine 2: great concentration, dark fruit, layered, silky smooth – Montepulciano di Abruzzo?

Wine 3: nice fruit, bright, good structure. Super Tuscan? New World?

Needless to say that I was absolutely wrong with all three. Again, I could’ve used a bit of psychology and figure out that John would be pouring only Tuscan wines, but I deliberately refused to do so. The wines were perfectly polished and complex, all three, without screaming “I’m Chianti” with the appearance of leather, tobacco, or tart cherries. To make a long story short, all three wines happened to be Chianti Classico Gran Selezione from 2016 vintage, provided to John by Chianti Classico Consortium. In the order of appearance, these were the wines:

2016 Fèlsina Chianti Classico Colonia Gran Selezione DOCG ($NA, 100% Sangiovese)

2016 Rocca delle Macìe Riserva di Fizzano Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG ($NA, 95% Sangiovese, 5% Merlot)

2016 Fontodi Vigna Del Sorbo Chianti Classico Gran Selezione DOCG ($NA, 100% Sangiovese)

I want to add that the second wine, Rocca delle Macìe Riserva di Fizzano, won a popular vote with 5 votes out of 10 – this was also my favorite wine.

The next flight consisted again of three wines. Here are my notes:

Wine 1: dark fruit, eucalyptus, crushed berries, green tannins – Bordeaux blend, can be from anywhere

Wine 2: Roasted meat, plums, salami, plums on the palate – Grenache/GSM? Can be from anywhere

Wine 3: too aggressive, green tannins, black currant. Bordeaux blend, can be from anywhere.

Again, I should’ve expected another line of Italian wines, but I thought John could play some tricks, so I didn’t go with an obvious idea of Super Tuscans. And I was wrong. All three wines were well known Super Tuscans (these three wines were courtesy of Kobrand Wines):

2017 Tenuta Sette Ponti Oreno Toscana IGP ($75, 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot)

2016 Tenuta San Guido Guidalberto Toscana IGP ($54, 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot)

2016 Lodovico Antinori Tenuta di Biserno Il Pino di Biserno Toscana IGP ($70, Cabernet Franc with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot)

I really didn’t appreciate the tannic nature of wines number one and number three, and those tannins were not only aggressive but literally biting. Oh well. Wine #1, Oreno, was the crowd’s favorite (7 votes out of 10). This time around my vote didn’t match the majority, as I went with the wine #2, Guidalberto, as this was the only drinkable wine for my palate.

After finishing the tasting and discussing the results, it was time to eat. First, there was pasta bolognese, which John masterfully prepared:

And then there was meat. John decided to spoil the group with 2.5” porterhouse steaks, to make Bistecca Fiorentine:

We went to work the grill which was an interesting adventure, mining the grill to prevent flare-ups on a cold night. We actually had to make two attempts to get the steaks right, as they were still mooing after the first pass. But we managed to produce something delicious in the end and not ruin the amazing steaks.

Now, time to meditate. Nope, this was not an organized food prayer session. What happened was that the bottle of Soldera Brunello di Montalcino was poured out of the decanter. Mike Giordano brought a bottle 1999 Soldera Brunello de Montalcino in completely unassuming, low key, way. Gianfranco Soldera was a legend, who bought a property called Case Basse in Montalcino in 1972, with an aim to produce the best Brunello wines. By 1990s Soldera wines reached cult status, coupling impeccable quality with small production. Talking about Gianfranco Soldera and his wines would be best suited for a separate dedicated post, as controversy completely surrounded him; I have to say that I never expected to taste his wines – until this memorable OTBN.

Just look at this color…

1999 Soldera Case Basse Brunello di Montalcino DOCG was truly a meditation wine. “Meditation wine” might not be a simple term to explain in words, but if you like wines, there is a chance that you experienced it one time or the other. The nose, the aroma, the bouquet of this wine were simply magical. Taking the whiff from the glass, the time was stopping – no need to try to analyze the amazing palette of flavors to come up with individual descriptors – this wine should be described purely on the sensory level, as every smell was bringing a pure, hedonistic pleasure. I didn’t care for food, I didn’t care for talking – I just wanted to take another smell, and another, and another. When I finally took a sip, the wine was magnificent on the palate too – a perfect balance of plums, cherries, textural layers, structure, sage, rosemary – a perfect harmony of flavors. It is quite possible that this was my wine of the year 2020 – I know it is only March, but this was an experience that is seriously hard to beat. I don’t feel that I should even try rating this wine, but if I would dare, this would be my second ever 10- (don’t ask me why not 10, I have no idea what my perfect 10 wine should smell and taste like).

After the meditation session, just a few words on the dinner. In addition to the delicious meat, John made a couple of side dishes – the sautéed white beans were an absolute hit, adored by all literally as much as the beef. John actually promised to share a recipe – you can find the recipe in this post.

This was not the end of our wine program. We also had 2016 Campochiarenti San Nicola Chianti Colli Senesi – Campochiarenti is a producer John is always raving about in his posts, so it was definitely interesting to finally taste this wine (Campochiarenti wines at the moment are not imported into the US, but available directly from the winery). The wine was classic and simple, and for about $12 (if it will be imported into the US, this is expected retail price) it will be definitely a great value. I brought a bottle of 2010 No Girls Grenache from Walla Walla in Washington, which was very tasty but radically non-Italian, so I don’t think it was well-received. I also brought one of my recent finds – 2016 Pedro Cancela Selecção do Enólogo from Dão, which was an old world and a lot closer to the overall theme, and an amazing QPR at $9 per bottle at the local Bottle King store. 2010 Capanna Brunello Di Montalcino was delicious, but it was a tough call to get everyone excited after experiencing the Soldera. Lastly, we had 1999 Natale Fantino Nepas Nebbiolo Passito Piedmont which was interestingly dry and light, but not necessarily my favorite.

That gives you more or less a full picture. We also had a wonderful spread of Italian desserts, and truth be told, for the first time ever I tasted cannoli which I liked. It appears that the good cannoli should be filled with cream at the moment of purchase and not before – now I will know.

And now we are done. How was your OTBN 2020? Cheers!

Sun and Waves

February 22, 2020 2 comments

Everybody needs a vacation.

Everyone’s idea of a vacation is different.

While I love active vacations, my favorite winter-time vacation is the one where I need to do nothing – just turn from one side to another to prevent the sunburn. Yep, somewhere warm, sunny, with an unlimited supply of good drinks. All-inclusive resort somewhere in the Caribbean in February usually does it for me.

We just came back from Iberostar Paraiso Del Mar, the resort located 25 minutes away from Cancun airport in Mexico, where we had all of these components – sun, water, drinks – everything. Plus an opportunity to take an unlimited number of pictures, especially those of sunrises.

Sunsets and sunrises offer equal magic of observing the day just starting or ending. Sunrises are a bit easier for me to catch, as the evenings are hard to time, to be in the right place at the right time – it is much easier in Cancun in February, especially as the sun comes up after 7 am.

Once a photographer accumulates lots of pictures, the next logical step is to … share them, yes! Below is an account of our recent trip to Cancun, with some additional comments. Hope you will enjoy!

This is some random plane leaving Newark airport

Our first vacation view

First sunrise (I think)

We met some friends:

Valentine’s Day was well acknowledged:

And more friends:

More sunrises:

Of course there was wine:

And there were cocktails:

Of course we enjoyed these simple views:

More friends visited:

We greatly enjoyed our surroundings:

And more sunsets:

And a few more:

An Evening With Friends

January 7, 2020 Leave a comment

What is your favorite part about wine? Is it the taste? The buzz? The sheer appearance of the bottle sometimes resembling the work of art? The joy of owning an exclusive object? The coveted status symbol?

My answer will be simple. My favorite part about wine is the ability to share it. Take a sip, reflect, have a conversation, preferably a slow-paced one. Friends are the best pairing for wine. Opportunity to share the experience, pleasure, and joy. Sharing makes it all worth it.

New Year celebration (the main holiday for anyone with the Russian upbringing) is a multi-step process for us. We like to celebrate the arrival of the New Year as many times as possible – the evening before the New Year, a midnight Champagne toast, the New Year’s day dinner, and more dinners shortly after (this is when the bathroom scales are the worst nemesis). Some or all of these dinners have to include friends – and it is the best when friends share your wine passion.

Such was our dinner on Saturday, bringing together a group of friends who truly enjoy what the wine world has to offer. We all contributed to the evening, both with food and wines, to make it fun and interesting. Below is the transcript of our wine extravaganza, with highs, lows, and surprises.

While we were getting ready to start our dinner, our first wine was something unique and different – how many of you know what Piquette means? It appears that Piquette is yet another type of sparkling wines. The story of Piquette goes back to 18th century France when the whole wine industry was in full disarray. Piquette is literally made by converting water into the wine – using water to rehydrate grape skins left after the wine production. We had 2019 Field Recordings Tang Piquette Central Coast (7.1% ABV, Rehydrated skins of Pinot Gris and Chenin Blanc) which was made using this exact process – grape skins were hydrated in well water for a week, then pressed, after which a little bit of the table wine was added, and the wine was bottled with leftover yeast and sugar to continue fermenting right in the bottle. To me, the wine was reminiscent of cider – light fizz, fresh apple notes, cloudy appearance of a nice unfiltered cider. Would I drink this wine again? On a hot summer day – yes, why not, but this is not the wine I would actively seek.

It is difficult to assess the “uniqueness” of the wines. There can be many reasons for the “unique” wine designation – small production, wine not produced every vintage, the wine which is no longer produced. There are, of course, many other reasons. How about spending 10 years to finally make about 200 (!) bottles of a drinkable wine? Don’t know about you, but this is unquestionably unique in my book. And so there was 2017 Olivier Pittet Les Temps Passés Vin de Pays Romand Switzerland (14.2% ABV, Arvine Grosso). Petite Arvine is a popular white grape in Switzerland, producing nice, approachable white wines. On another hand, Petite Arvine’s sibling, nearly extinct thick-skinned Arvine Grosso (or Gross Arvine), is a nightmare to grow and to work with. This was the Arvine Grosso which took about 10 years to restore the plantings and achieve a drinkable result. The wine needed a few minutes to open up – then it was delicious, fresh, with a touch of underripe white plums, bright acidity and full-body, similar to Marsanne/Roussanne. I wish this wine would be a bit easier to procure and not just through a friend who lives in Switzerland…

I was happy that Stefano brought a bottle of 2008 Berlucchi Palazzo Lana Satèn Riserva Franciacorta (12% ABV) – I love Franciacorta sparkling wines, they always offer a playful variation of the classic Champagne. Berlucchi is the founder of the Franciacorta sparkling wine movement. This wine was also a Satèn, a unique Franciacorta creation, which is specifically made to be a bit gentler than a typical Champagne with the lesser pressure in the bottle. The wine was soft, fresh, delicate, and admired by the whole table enough to disappear literally in the instance.

The next wine was as unique as only inaugural vintage can be. Christophe Baron is best known as Washington Syrah master, with his Cayuse, No Girls, and Horsepower lines. But Christophe’s roots are actually in Champagne, so it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that he decided to embrace his heritage. The first bottling, with a promise of many more, was as unique as all Christophe Baron’s wines are – pure Pinot Meunier, vintage, and bottled only in magnums – 2014 Champagne Christophe Baron Brut Nature Les Hautes Blanches Vignes Charly-Sur-Marne (12.5% ABV, 100% Pinot Meunier, 1613 1.5L bottles produced). I made a mistake of slightly overchilling the wine, but it came to its senses shortly after it was opened. The wine was nicely sublime, with all the Champagne traits present – the acidity, brioche, apples – everything balanced and elegant. This was definitely an excellent rendition of Champagne, but to be entirely honest, at around $300 it costs considering tax and shipping, I’m not sure it was unique enough to justify the price. Oh well… definitely was an experience.

Before we move to the reds, a few words about the food. The New Year celebration is a special occasion, which is asking for a special menu. Our typical New Year dinner menu is heavy with appetizers and salads. Our staple salads are “traditional” – Olivie and “Herring under the fur coat”. For the appetizers, we had red caviar, bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed Belgium endives, different kinds of cold cuts and cheeses, tiny prosciutto/pecorino sandwiches, and I’m sure some other stuff. Tea-smoked duck and delicious lasagna comprised the main course, then finishing with loads of baked goods and candies. Yeah, don’t even think about dragging me onto a bathroom scale.

Let’s get back to wine.

The next wine belongs to the “interesting” category. NV Channing Daughters Over and Over Variation Twelve Long Island (12.5% ABV, Merlot, Dornfelder, Syrah, 208 cases produced), a multi-vintage wine which is produced using Ripasso and Solera methods. The name “Over and Over” is emblematic of the production method of this wine – there are many manipulations which I will not even try to describe – you better read it here. I’m all for the fun and complexity, but my problem is that I tasted the standard vintage Channing Daughters red wines which were literally identical to this Over and Over wine. It is great to play with your wine, no questions – but only if the end result is different, and better than the individual parts. The wine showed very youthful, with fresh crunchy fruit and cut through acidity – but it was lacking complexity. It is not a bad wine, but I was not moved by it.

Next up – 1996 Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc AOC (12.5% ABV) – this was a happy wine. The cork came out easily in one piece, and the wine was perfect from the get-go. The perfect minty nose of Bordeaux with a touch of cassis, some hints of mature fruit on the palate, but only the hints – still good acidity, solid core, excellent balance – the wine to enjoy. Yep, was gone in no time.

Of course, the duck on the menu is calling for the Pinot Noir, and what can be better than the Burgundy? 2007 Louis Jadot Grands Echézeaux Grand Cru AOC (13.5% ABV) was our designated match for the duck. The wine opened up beautifully, with succulent plums and a touch of smoke, a delicious, classic Burgundy. However, the joy lasted in the glass for about 10 minutes or so – next, all the fruit was gone, and while you know you are drinking wine, this wine had no sense of place of origin. I don’t know what happened – the wine closed up, needed more time, or was already at the last stretch of its life? Don’t know, and don’t think I will ever find out. Well, there is always another bottle, right?

Now, let’s talk about surprises. No, not the Chateau d’Yquem, which you would assume should qualify as a surprise – the 1999 Finca Villacreces Crianza Ribera Del Duero (13% ABV) was a real surprise. I heard the name of Finca Villacreces as one of the venerable Ribera del Duero producers, but I never had it before. When I was able to score this wine at the Benchmark Wine, I was very excited. The New Year’s celebration seemed to be a perfect opportunity to open it, especially as nobody had it before and we were all looking forward to getting acquainted.

The cork came out easily, in one piece with no sign of any issues. Once I poured the wine into the glass, on the first whiff, the scary thought instantly showed up – the wine might be corked. I tasted the wine, and it seemed just a touch off – it didn’t feel unquestionably corked, but the fruit was not coherent and the wine had sharp, raspy undertones which in my experience are associated with the corked wine. We moved the wine into the decanter and continued tasting it throughout the evening – it stayed practically unchanged.

This was not some random bottle I can get replaced at any store, so I really couldn’t just pour it out. And I’m an eternal optimist. So I used plastic wrap to cover the top of the decanter and left the wine standing there overnight. The next day, about 22-23 hours since the wine was opened, I decided to check on it. Oh my god. The wine completely changed. The hint of the musty cellar was gone. The mighty fruit appeared on the palate, layered, present, velvety and powerful, covering your whole mouth and making you extort “ohh, this is good”. I thoroughly enjoyed the wine after 24 hours in the decanter, and even the next day the tiny leftover was still drinkable. How is this possible? What has happened? I don’t have any answers, but if you have any ideas, please share.

We finished the dinner on the high note – 1988 Château d’Yquem Lur-Saluces Sauternes AOC (13.5% ABV). I’m you sure you don’t need any introductions here – Château d’Yquem is the Bordeaux legend, an absolute hallmark of the Sauternes region, with every other Sauternes wine simply measured against the Château d’Yquem. A perfect pop of the cork from this bottle was music to my ears. The nose and the palate of this wine were in full harmony – it was all about apricots. Fresh apricots, dried apricots, candied apricots – the taste kept moving round and round. The apricots were supported by clean acidity, which became more noticeable as the wine had an opportunity to breathe. Well, this was a short time window in any case, as this half bottle was simply gone in the instance. This 32 years old wine was truly an experience and a perfect finish to our great evening with friends.

That’s all I have for you, my friends. How 2020 started for you? What did you have a chance to discover over the last few days? Cheers!

Seeking Peace with Sherry

December 26, 2019 3 comments

Sherry, a.k.a Jerez or Xerez can be considered a graduation wine for the all-encompassing wine lover (pun intended or not, but I believe Sherry is actually a part of the last exam for the WSET diploma candidates, so you can read whatever you want into this). While Sherry has a very long history, it completely lost the clout it had in the 17th–18th centuries, and today it is more of a wine for the people in the know, a sort of the secret handshake for the true wine aficionados. “Do you like Sherry”? “Of course” – that answer would instantly create the bridge of understanding between the participants in the dialog.

Harveys Bristol Cream sherry

Sherry is fascinating. It is not just another white wine. It offers a very complex taste. Sherry production involves some elements of magic – identified as Flor and Solera. Sherry usually undergoes the long aging process in the barrels. Sometimes, the thin veil, a layer of yeast is formed on top of the wine aging in the barrel – this layer is called Flor. Flor is thick enough to protect the aging wine from the oxidation, but it also requires a very specific level of alcohol in the wine in order to survive. If the wine will finish its aging while protected by the flor, it will become a fino or manzanilla Sherry. However, the formation and survival of the flor is the thing of the mystery.

And then there is Solera. In the solera method of aging the wine, which is often used in the production of Sherry, the set of barrels is always topped off with the younger wine, moving wine from one barrel to another as the wine ages. The barrels are never emptied and never washed, thus if the solera was started 100 years ago, there will be traces of the 100 years old wine in your glass – how cool is that?!

Now, it is time for the hard truth. 7 or 8 years ago, I truly enjoyed the range of Sherry wines, starting from the driest fino and manzanilla, and all the way to the “liquid sugar” Pedro Ximenez – here is the article I wrote back in 2011; I also talked about Sherry in the Forgotten Vines series of posts. Today, I’m avoiding dry Sherry like a plague, as I’m unable to enjoy it much. When I’m offered to taste a sample of the Sherry, I usually have to politely decline. Talking to the fellow bloggers who are raving about their love of Sherry, I usually try to avoid making eye contact as much as possible, so I don’t have to share my opinion.

When I was offered a sample of a Cream Sherry, my first reaction was “no, I’m not touching the Sherry”. But then I thought “hmmm, Cream Sherry – this should be a premixed liqueur, like Baileys and Cream – I can probably do that”, so I agreed to review the wine.

When the bottle showed up with all the explanations, I quickly realized that I was wrong in all of my assumptions.

First, there is no cream in Cream Sherry. It is simply a special style of Sherry – not dry, but not as sweet as Pedro Ximenez would be. The wine I got was Harveys Bristol Cream – and there is a slew of fun fact I would like to share with you, both about the Cream Sherry style and about this particular wine (courtesy of González Byass, a producer and importer of this wine):

Harveys Bristol Cream cream sherry“Did you know that Harveys Bristol Cream
1) …was first created and registered in 1882 by John Harvey & Sons in Bristol,
England, creators of the “cream” Sherry category?
2) …is not a “cream” liqueur, like Baileys, but a Sherry? They decided to call it
a cream Sherry because the richness rivaled that of cream.
3) …is a blend of more than 30 soleras of Sherries aged from 3-20 years? And
it’s the only Sherry made from 4 different styles of Sherry: Fino,
Amontillado, Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez.
4) …is the only Spanish product with a Royal Warrant from the Queen of
England since 1895?
5) …first came to the United States in 1933 and quickly became a best-seller.
6) …is best served chilled? We think it’s perfect at around 50°-55°F.
7) …is defined by its blue glass bottle and now has a label with a logo that turns
blue when Harveys reaches its perfect temperature.
8) …can be stored in the fridge for up to one month? Although it rarely lasts
that long.
9) …pairs really well with cookies, especially Oreos?
10!…is the number one selling Sherry in the world?”

Secondly, I happened to enjoy this wine! Beautiful mahogany color, more appropriate for cognac or nicely aged scotch, a nose of hazelnut and a touch of fig, plus unmistakable Sherry salinity. The palate shows caramel, burnt sugar, hazelnuts, a dash of sea salt and perfect, clean acidity, which makes this wine a real pleasure to drink. Add a fireplace to this wine over a cold winter night, or a cigar on the deck in the summer, and you got your thirst of guilty pleasure fully satisfied.

Will this be a pivotal wine for me to find Sherry love again? I can’t say it for sure, but I will definitely try. If anything, I’m now at peace with Sherry. And I’m off to pour another glass.

Festival of Lights

December 25, 2019 6 comments

I like love wine.

But wine has nothing to do with today’s post.

I also love photography.

I had been a photography fan for a long time, much longer than I had been drinking wine. No, I don’t pretend to achieve any amazing greatness in photography, but I still truly enjoy taking the pictures and then sharing my view of the world with the world.

The time around Christmas and New Year celebration offers a lot of great picture taking opportunities – decorations are everywhere. Yesterday we visited LuminoCity Festival in New York City, which was an absolutely delightful spectacle, full of … yes, light, and creativity. Different worlds came together, from the North Pole to Africa, all beautifully set at the Randalls Island in Queens, with no shortage of ingenuity with music, lights and motion providing non-stop entertainment.

Below are a few glimpses of this beautiful world, which I had a lot of fun taking the pictures of with my new toy – iPhone 11 pro. One day I will master a quarter of the features the 11 pro camera offers, and it will be a good day – for now, here are some of my best efforts.

If you are in New York or will be visiting, the Festival is continuing until January 5th – I’m afraid that most of the times are sold out, however. Well, you can still try and see for yourself.

Enjoy!

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