Posts Tagged New World Wines

Wines of Napa Valley

Theme

California’s Napa Valley is the heart of America’s wine country.  Visitors who enter Napa Valley drive past a sign that reads “And the Wine is Bottled Poetry,” and it’s true.  Napa’s rolling hills, miles of beautiful vineyards and friendly locals make the Valley heaven on Earth for many first-time visitors.  This tasting introduces you and your guests to some value-priced wines from some well-known Napa producers, and it features the grapes that have made California famous.  If it’s your first trip to Napa, we bet it won’t be your last.

Angle

This is a relaxed, “horizontal” tasting of a broad variety of white and red wines from Napa Valley.  We’ve selected a few of Napa’s better-known producers and concentrated on the grapes that put Napa Valley – and indeed, California wines – on the map.   By the end your guests will have tried a nice variety of wines and acquainted themselves with some well-known winemakers that could become staples in their wine rack.

  Sample Lineup

  1. Frog’s Leap Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($15)
  2. Heitz Cellar Napa Valley Chardonnay ($17)
  3. Merryvale ‘Starmont’ Napa Valley Chardonnay ($15)
  4. Trefethen Estate Napa Valley Dry Riesling ($17)
  5. Rutherford Hill Napa Valley Merlot ($17)
  6. Avalon Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15)
  7. Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($16)
  8. Wall Cellars Napa Valley Zinfandel ($14)

The Wines

Start with a Sauvignon Blanc – racy, zesty, great with food.  Frog’s Leap is a whimsical winery – note the “Ribbit” on the cork – but they make serious wine, including one of the best Napa Sauvignon Blancs for the money.  But Napa is more known for Chardonnay.  We’d try two – one (like the Heitz) made in a more fruit-forward, Burgundian style, and one (like the Merryvale) that undergoes secondary malolactic fermentation to achieve a more buttery taste.  Riesling occasionally pops up in Napa Valley, and one of the best is the one we recommend from Trefethen, one of Napa’s stalwart winemakers.

Onto the reds – start with a Merlot, which for decades was the most popular red wine in America, renowned for its smooth, rich style.  Rutherford Hill makes a great one for the money, and if you’re ever in Napa Valley you should drive up there just for the view alone.  But Napa Valley made its name with great Cabernet Sauvignon, so we’d try two in this tasting.  The Avalon is a new one recommended for great value-for-money by our friends at K&L Wine Merchants.  The Twenty Bench has been around a little longer and again, is a fantastic value for a wine that can be quite expensive.  Finish with a red Zinfandel, a uniquely American grape with a big, jammy, spicy style.

Music

This will be an elegant, yet relaxed and fun event.  We’d recommend you play the kind of music that you’re likely to hear in the tasting rooms of Napa Valley’s wineries – crossover jazz pianist/vocalist Diana Krall.  The compilation album “The Very Best of Diana Krall” will transport you to California wine country, led by standards such as “S’Wonderful,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Fly Me to the Moon.”  And of course, don’t miss her song from that album that was made to be enjoyed over a glass of wine: “Peel Me a Grape.”

From there, segue into an American classic with a similar sound: Tony Bennett.  “The Ultimate Tony Bennett” is a perfect album for your tasting, with twenty great songs including “Rags to Riches,” “Smile,” “The Best is Yet to Come” and of course “I Left My Heart from San Francisco.”  The city by the bay is just an hour or so by car from California wine country…frankly, we left our heart in Napa Valley, so we know how Tony feels.

Pairings

For your cheese board, pick a nice array of American cheeses that will complement your California wines.  We recommend Humboldt Fog, Mt. Tam, Dry Jack and Cheddar.  You’ll want a goat’s cheese to pair with your Sauvignon Blanc, and our favorite is “Humboldt Fog,” the crumbly, cake-like goat’s cheese with the signature middle line of gray ash from Cypress Grove in California.  If you can find it, another great American cheese from artisanal cheese maker Cowgirl Creamery is “Mt. Tam,” named after a small mountain between San Francisco and Napa Valley.  It’s a triple cream cheese like Brie (except not French!) and it will go perfectly with your Chardonnay.  We feel obliged to recommend two more American cheeses for your reds, just to keep it in the family – Dry Jack and Cheddar.  But we have to admit we’re torn, because a nice aged Parmigiano-Reggiano pairs so well with both Chardonnay and Cabernet that your guests would forgive you for picking one Italian cheese!

We’d probably keep this as a wine-and-cheese rather than introducing too many heavy appetizers to your party.  An assortment of tapenades will go great – perhaps olive, eggplant and artichoke dips, along with crackers and/or baguette slices.  Put out some grapes, strawberries and dried apricots as well.  Also, whole roasted almonds make a great accompaniment to your Chardonnay, while whole or pitted olives go great with Cabernet.  If you want to do something heavier, Chardonnay actually isn’t so food-friendly, but all of your red wines will gladly stand up to meat dishes like meatballs, sliced bratwurst, or grilled steak sliced into bite-size portions and served on sliced baguette.  But while it’s tempting given the California angle, we’d stay away from guacamole and chips (and would definitely avoid salsa).

Tasting Notes

Napa wines can be expensive, so we’ve focused here on big-name producers’ less expensive white wines, as well as value-priced reds from lesser-known producers.  In recent years, prices for top Chardonnays and Cabernets have soared; you can literally spend as much as you want on a Napa Valley wine.  We’ve focused on wines in the $15 range to introduce you to the region.

Frog’s Leap is a really fun winery to visit, but if you can’t make a trip to California, the wines are a worthy consolation prize.  The winery has gone totally organic, including running its own electric company for sustainable power (a friend of ours has a “Frog’s Leap Electric Company” T-shirt).  They make a range of great wines from a setting featuring a beautiful old-fashioned red farmhouse, and most of their wines still have corks that say “Ribbit” on them.  We picked their Sauvignon Blanc, but a close second would have been Robert Mondavi Winery’s Fume Blanc.  After all, Robert Mondavi decided to rename Sauvignon Blanc as “Fume Blanc” in a stroke of marketing genius several decades ago, and the wine’s popularity soared.

Napa Valley was put on the map in 1976, in the “Judgment of Paris” winetasting immortalized by George Taber’s excellent book of the same name.  A British wine shop owner named Steven Spurrier living in Paris at the time thought it would be interesting to commemorate the American bicentennial with a blind tasting of France’s great white and red wines against then-unknown, upstart new wines from California.  It was a bad day for France; Napa’s Chateau Montelena Chardonnay won the white wine tasting against the best Burgundies, and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignon beat out some top Bordeaux to capture the prize for best red wine.  As they say, the rest is history.  Napa Valley’s wine reputation still rests on Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon today, though many other wonderful wines are made there today.

California Chardonnay is often known by its buttery, creamy quality.  This effect comes from a process called malolactic fermentation, the chemical reaction during winemaking by which the mallic (fruity) acids in the grapes are converted to lactic (milky) acids in the end-product wine.  This is part of the natural evolution of any Chardonnay; however, many California winemakers then have their wines undergo a secondary, artificial malolactic fermentation that further accentuates this buttery character.  Winemakers often discuss the flavor contrast between a “Burgundian” style Chardonnay – one with clean, crisp fruit flavors – and the “California” style that tastes more buttery.  It’s worth mentioning to your guests that while many wine drinkers in the U.S. love this buttery Chardonnay character, many do not like it.  In fact, there are more and more California winemakers proudly making their Chardonnays these days in the more traditional, fruit-forward Burgundian style that does not feature secondary malolactic fermentation.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape that forms the backbone of many of the great (and wildly expensive) red wines of Bordeaux, France.  It’s known for its structure, richness, depth and “tannins” (the mild dry-mouth effect you notice when drinking it standalone), and it’s known as a wine that can age well.  The grape thrives on its own in Napa, both in 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines as well as Bordeaux-style blends that are based largely on Cabernet.  The better “Napa Cabs” start in the $25 range with wines like Clos du Val (which we recommend) and can cost as much as several thousand (!) dollars a bottle for “cult wines” like Screaming Eagle.

Merlot is also a big Bordeaux grape, but is smoother than Cabernet, if perhaps lacking in some of the flavor depth & intensity.  Merlot remains a wildly popular wine, though the 2004 movie Sideways single-handedly branded Merlot as the uncool cousin to Pinot Noir, a wine its protagonist believed was more worthy of admiration.  Overnight, Merlot sales plummeted, Pinot Noir sales (and prices) soared, and many wine snobs decided Merlot was uncool.  This is perhaps unfair; many great Bordeaux wines are made largely from Merlot, and the top Napa winemakers produce delicious, flavorful Merlots that are lush, rich and smooth.

Red Zinfandel is a quintessentially American wine (the grape does not grow outside the U.S., though some trace it to Italy’s little-known primitivo grape).  It’s a big, bold, spicy, jammy wine that goes great with red meat or – inside tip – with your Thanksgiving dinner, since it can stand up to the creamy flavors & foods most Americans include in their Turkey Day feast.  We think it’s a fun one to include in your tasting.

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Intro to Australia & New Zealand Wines

Theme

Kangaroo & Kiwi Wines!  These wines come from the lands down under, and are a ton of fun.  There are a lot of reasons to get to know Aussie wines and their Kiwi neighbors from New Zealand – they’re fun, they’re often great values, they represent a wide range of grape varietals, and many of the wines are fantastic.  This tasting will introduce your guests to some of the wines that have made Australia & New Zealand serious places for wine lovers to hunt for great bargains!

Angle

This is a “horizontal” tasting that covers a wide range of wines and styles that are totally different from one another.  The wines are totally different from one another, and they’re all at affordable price points, so there’s no reason to do the event as a blind taste test.  Present the wines from order – the lightest wines to the biggest reds.  If you’re inspired, fire up some shrimp and steaks on the “barbie,” but above all, relax and enjoy this tasting.

Sample Lineup

  1. Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand ($12)
  2. Cape Mentelle, Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon, New Zealand ($15)
  3. Lindeman’s, “Bin 65” Chardonnay, Australia ($9)
  4. Mana, Pinot Noir, New Zealand ($13)
  5. Te Awa, Merlot, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand ($13)
  6. Rosemount, “Diamond” Label Shiraz, Australia ($10)
  7. Marquis Philips, Shiraz, Australia ($15)
  8. Penfolds, “Koonunga Hill” Shiraz-Cabernet, Australia ($11)

 

The Wines

Your tasting starts with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region, a wine that has burst onto the world wine scene in recent years.   Villa Maria offers fantastic quality for the money, but you can’t go wrong with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.  We recommend trying two, including one that blends a little Semillon for some creaminess.  Then move over to an Aussie Chardonnay – they tend to offer a lot of big flavor for better prices than you can find in California. 

For the reds, start with a Pinot Noir from New Zealand.  The Kiwis are known principally for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, so their signature red deserves a place in your tasting.  From there, move to Australia’s best-loved wine export – its jammy, spicy Shiraz (the Aussie term for Syrah).  Again, we’d try two – a value-priced, widely-available Shiraz like the Rosemount Diamond Label, and a slightly higher-end, more complex wine like Marquis Philips.  Finish with an Australian red blend, which are notable for hyphenating the grapes included (e.g. “Shiraz-Cabernet”).  Penfolds is Australia’s best-known, largest producer, but don’t think that means they don’t make quality wines; the Penfold’s Grange is Australia’s most famous, most expensive red wine!

Music

This is a tasting with an emphasis on fun, so pick some Australian pop music to set the tone.  We’d start with a mix of Australian one-hit wonders off iTunes.  When all your guests arrive, fire up Men at Work’s “Down Under” to get the tasting rolling.  Make sure your mix includes Aussie imports like Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning,” Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” Olivia Newton John’s “(Let’s Get) Physical,” Alan Parson’s cover of the Aussie hit “You’re the Voice,”Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” and absolutely, positively don’t exclude Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.”  That’s right, they’re all from Australia.

From there, work in some classic fun AC/DC (yup, they’re Australian!).  Don’t miss “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Back in Black,” and “Thunderstruck.”  From there, pivot to Australian rock banc INXS; their “Best of INXS” greatest hits album includes the 80s pop/rock smashes “Devil Inside,” “Mediate,” “Need You Tonight,” “New Sensation” and “Suicide Blonde.”

At this point, your guests are probably all but dancing, so move to Kylie Minogue.  Her music is an instant party; her “Fever” album has great dance floor tunes like “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” “Love at First Sight,” “Come Into My World” and “In Your Eyes.”  For fun, download her 1980s remake of “The Locomotion” as well. 

 

 

Pairings

You have a ton of flexibility for your cheeseboard here – there’s no need to try to pick Aussie or Kiwi cheeses, just pick widely available crowd-pleasers: Chevre, Brie, Manchego and sharp Cheddar.  You absolutely have to have a goat’s cheese like Chevre though – it’s a famous pairing with Sauvignon Blanc, which you’re showcasing here from New Zealand.  Brie will be a good choice that will pair perfectly with your Chardonnay.  Manchego is maybe our favorite cheese – it’s great with everything.  And Cheddar will stand up to your spicy Shiraz.

For appetizers, really the sky’s the limit for this tasting.  For fun, we’d recommend that you sauté or grill some shrimp skewers for a “shrimp on the Barbie” touch that will go great with your whites and your Shiraz.  Along those lines, grilled chicken or beef skewers (like Thai satay, but without the spicy sauce) would work great.  Maybe also get some fresh kiwi fruit (in a nod to your New Zealand wines) & slice it up on a platter with some strawberries. 

Tasting Notes

When it comes to wine, Australians think BIG.  They’ve planted a ton of grapes over the past few decades with the ambition to dominate the wine world (!) by 2025.  This ambition is relatively recent, and those vines are fairly young – in the year 2000, fully 20% of Australia’s 370,000 acres of vineyards were too young to be bearing fruit!  And the wines taste BIG – huge, fruity, mouth-filling flavors for both whites and reds.  The other thing that’s BIG about the wines is the value they represent; Australian wines are known worldwide for offering great quality for a good price. 

To get big, Australian winemakers have taken a user-friendly approach not just in the taste of their wines, but in their marketing: Australian wines are named according to the grapes from which they’re made, not for some far-off region you’ve never heard of before.  Australia also produces many unique wine blends that combine grapes in unusual combinations.  No other major wine region so readily combines Syrah/Shiraz and Cabernet, for example, or blends whites like Semillon or Viognier together with red wines.  And they make the blends easy to understand; Australian blends hyphenate the component grapes, e.g. “Shiraz-Cabernet.”

New Zealand, by contrast is SMALL – according to Hugh Johnson & Jancis’ Robinson’s “World Atlas of Wine,” New Zealand’s total wine acreage contains roughly the same amount of grapes as the tiny nation of Cyprus, just one-tenth of the production of the saucy Aussies next door.  But New Zealand’s reputation for high-quality wine belies its tiny size.  New Zealand’s wines are loved for their crisp, sharp flavors and food-friendly acidity.  By far, New Zealand’s best-loved wine export is its Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region, which many consider the finest expression of the Sauvignon Blanc grape in the entire world.  Luckily, you can get that quality for a low price – the most famous New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, from Cloudy Bay Winery, sells for just $20-30 in major metropolitan markets (and it’s fantastic). 

We’ve included some of our favorite Australia and New Zealand winemakers in this tasting, though the good value these countries’ wines offer means you have a lot of choice with your tasting.  Work with your local wine merchant to pick a good range that spans the varietals we include above.  And feel free to be creative; if you can find a good Australian Viognier or Riesling, feel free to include them in your event in lieu of a second Shiraz or Sauvignon Blanc as we suggest.

With that said, we think you should absolutely include Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc if you can.  It’s one of our very favorite wines, renowned for consistent quality for just $10/bottle; or pick a reserve wine from Villa Maria for just $5 more.  Similarly, we think you have to include a Penfolds wine in your event simply because it’s the most famous winemaker in Australia.  The Penfolds Grange is considered by many wine-lovers (most of whom are Australian, but still…) to be the best red wine in the world.  It’s 100% Shiraz from Penfolds’ select reserve vineyards in Australia.  It’s an age-worthy, complex mouth-filling dream of a wine, and it sells for several hundred dollars a bottle.  We included a Penfolds Shiraz-Cabernet because Penfolds is known for making some excellent Cabernet, in addition to their prowess with the Aussie’s beloved Shiraz.

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California Cabernet Sauvignon

The Theme

When you think of California wine country, you think of Napa Valley.  And no wine is more synonymous with Napa than Cabernet Sauvignon, those big, fruity, chocolaty reds that pair perfectly with your steak.  “Napa Cabs” rival the best wines in the world, and a tasting of a variety of these big American wines is sure to be a hit with your guests.

The Angle

This is a great “blind” tasting.  Napa Cabs are so popular that many good ones come with whopping prices.  But sometimes our palate tells us the money’s not worth it – there’s nothing more fun than discovering the $15-20 wine you like better than the expensive stuff in a blind taste test.  Line up about seven Cabs ranging from less than $10 a bottle to a few big-name wines in the $50 range, disguise the bottles, and let your guests’ taste buds decide.  May the best wine win!

Sample Lineup

  1. Charles Shaw, “Two Buck Chuck” Cabernet Sauvignon ($1.99)
  2. 2008 McManis California Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.99)
  3. 2007 Twenty Bench Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($15.99)
  4. 2006 Franciscan Oakville Estate Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.99)
  5. 2006 Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon ($34.99)
  6. 2006 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars “Artemis” Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($44.99)
  7. 2005 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($59.99)

 

The Wines

We’ve done this tasting several times and it’s always a blast.  In theory, all you need are a selection of wines at all price points, and your local wine merchant can help you assemble a selection that looks nothing like the one above.  However, the wines in our sample lineup above were chosen for a reason – we’ve had many of these wines before and they work really well for this event.  The higher-priced ones represent some big names in Napa that are good to know, while a few of the lower-priced wines have serious potential to be the spoilers that emerge as favorites in your tasting despite the modest price points!

On the low-priced side, if you can find it, you almost have to include “Two Buck Chuck” in this tasting.  It became a sort of California legend when Fred Franzia began distributing it at a $1.99 price point through merchants like Trader Joe’s, and many customers discovered that it wasn’t half bad – particularly for the price!  McManis is another fantastic wine for the money; for less than $10, we know many friends & family who love that wine.  Our friends at K&L Wine Merchants in California alerted us to Twenty Bench a few years ago, believing you wouldn’t find a better Cab for $15.  And Franciscan Oakville…well, suffice it to say that in two consecutive years of hosting this event, Franciscan emerged as the winner, beating out wines three times the price.  It’s one of our favorite cabernets, and a great wine to know about as it’s widely distributed.

The three wines at the higher-end of the sample lineup above represent a trio of big names.  Robert Mondavi is the undisputed grandfather of the California wine industry, a mentor to dozens if not hundreds of winemakers and one of the great marketers of the 20th century.  His winery in Napa is a veritable tourist attraction and though he makes wines at all price points, his higher-end wines are of excellent quality.  Stag’s Leap and Silver Oak (discussed further below) are renowned producers indelibly associated with producing great California cabernet.  They’re on wine lists everywhere and are great “brands” to introduce to your guests.

 

Music

A blind tasting like this one is a real party – it’s effortless, requires no formal academic discussion of the wines, and as such deserves some fun background party music.  Given that we’re focused on an American classic in California Cabs in an unpretentious setting, we’d suggest classic laid-back American rock.  We’d put together an iTunes mix here that picks unpretentious American classics but focuses on their more upbeat hits.  We’d go with Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, and The Eagles.

Bruce is a perfect choice: ideal songs for your mix would include “Born in the USA,” “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Hungry Heart,” “Brilliant Disguise,” and “Better Days”  You also can’t go wrong with The Eagles, the fathers of California rock – go with “Take It Easy,” “Get Over It,” “Hotel California,” “In the City,” “Life in the Fast Lane” and of course “Desperado.”  If you throw in Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” and “The Heart of the Matter,” well that’s totally fair since he was The Eagles’ frontman.  And for John Cougar Mellencamp, any of “Pink Houses,” “Jack and Diane,” “Authority Song,” “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” “Hurts so Good,” “Cherry Bomb,” or “Small Town” would suit your theme. 

 

Pairings

This is a fun, no-frills wine party, not a fancy wine-and-cheese.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t put some mean cheeses out and put some thought into what goes well with Cabernet.  Our friends at Wine Spectator did a great wine-and-cheese pairing issue a few years ago that we enjoyed reading so much we kept; we still use it as a reference.  They picked four cheeses to go with Cabernet: a nice slightly crumbly Dry Jack, a Spanish Manchego, Carr Valley Marisa (an American sheep’s milk cheese), and a cool cheese called “Roomano” which resembles an aged Dutch Gouda. 

Mixed olives would also go nicely as a finger food on the side that will blend nicely with your Cabs (olives don’t go great with every wine, but they are a good accompaniment to big red wines).  If you want to put out some heavy apps as well, we’re not going to discourage you.  Play on the “Cabernet and Steak” idea since that’s one of the great pairings.  We have a friend who slices up grilled sirloin onto bite-size portions of slized baguette with a horseradish cream sauce – that would be perfect for this tasting.  Similar variations on the same theme would be bratwurst, meatballs, or “slider” mini-burgers.  You want your guests to think “Cabernet and Beef” – they’ll thank you later!

 

Tasting Notes

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you display them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Number them in some way and then place them around the room to create a flow of traffic for your party.  Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“chocolaty,” “lots of red fruit flavor,” “I think this must be Two Buck Chuck!”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the Two Buck Chuck, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can buy a case or two of your favorite wine for what it takes to buy a bottle of the others at the tasting!  If you preferred the Stag’s Leap or the Silver Oak, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob! 

Charles Shaw wines are sold exclusively in Trader Joe’s grocery stores.  From their website: “Lovingly nicknamed “Two Buck Chuck” by a member of the wine press, these California wines have become something of a phenomenon in the wine world, and in our stores. Contrary to many an urban legend, these super-value wines began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier. They’ve become the nation’s best-selling wines, not surprising when you consider the combination of low price ($1.99 – $3.49 per bottle, depending on the region) and great taste Charles Shaw wines offer. Depending on the season and the quality of wine available, our selection of Charles Shaw varietals will vary, but the quality never will.”  Decide for yourself!

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is one of the great producers of cabernet in Napa Valley.  In fact, winemaker Warren Winiarski’s 1973 Stag’s Leap Vineyard cabernet shocked the wine world by winning the “Judgment of Paris” 1976 tasting against some of the great Bordeaux houses.  Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars makes a variety of cabernets; the “Artemis” above sells for about $45, the “Fay” sells for nearer $70, the “SLV” for $120 and the super-premium “Cask 123” for upwards of $200.  We like to include the Artemis to inject a little star power into the tasting.

To that end, Silver Oak is another “star” wine in California.  They make only cabernet sauvignon, and they do it very well.  Silver Oak makes two cabernets, actually – their Alexander Valley cabernet (above) is slightly less expensive at $60-70 while their Napa Valley cabernet sells for nearer $90/bottle.  We like to include both Silver Oak and Stag’s Leap in this tasting because if your guests love them, they’re easy to find and you’re likely to see them show up on restaurant wine lists for years to come.  And if you’re paying with a company expense account, even better!  Either way, we think it’s fun to get to know some of the “reference point” wines from Napa Valley, and a blind tasting is a great way to do just that.

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California Red Zinfandel

Theme

Many consider red Zinfandel the only truly native California grape – it’s an American original!  Zinfandel flourishes in California but not in any other world wine region.  And Zins are as American as can be in style – big, bold, spicy, jammy, mouth-filling red wines that some would say are over the top.  If you hear Zinfandel and think sweet pink blush wine, think again – red Zinfandel is a great wine to get to know.

Angle

This is another great “blind” tasting.  Zins are a bold, flavorful red, and so you get a variety of styles – some winemakers try to show restraint & produce a bold but elegant wine, while others just go nuts and make a hedonistic, alcoholic fruit bomb.  A “blind” tasting is a great way to determine which style you like!  And as always, “blind” tastings give you the opportunity to display a variety of price points, which adds to the fun.

Sample Lineup

  1. Ravenswood 2006 Sonoma Zinfandel ($13)
  2. St. Francis 2006 “Old Vines” Sonoma County Zinfandel ($13)
  3. Alexander Valley Vineyards 2007 “Sin Zin” Zinfandel ($15)
  4. Seghesio 2008 Sonoma Zinfandel ($20)
  5. Cosentino Lodi “CigarZin” Zinfandel ($20)
  6. Storybook Mountain “Mayacamas Range” 2007 Zinfandel ($30)
  7. Ridge 2007 “Lytton Springs” Zinfandel Blend ($30)

The Wines

You can go a lot of directions with this tasting.  A number of very serious winemakers work hard every year to make an earnest, elegant Zinfandel that truly expresses the grape but maintains some restraint.  Others go over the top and create a unique monster.  Still others have adopted for branding – “Sin Zin,” “The Seven Deadly Zins,” and these definitely show up frequently at your local merchant.  We’ve gone for a range in the tasting above, including “reference point” Zins like Ravenswood and Ridge as well as some artisanal producers and easy-to-find standbys.  Talk to your local wine merchant who will be happy to help you put a good selection together.

Music

Given this All-American grape, you could opt for contemporary Jazz or country music – both of which are quintessentially American music styles.  But for us – and forgive us for saying it – we’d recommend 80’s hair band anthem rock for this party.  Hey, the genre is having a cultural resurgence; the musical Rock of Ages has brought glam-rock to Broadway, while Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” punctuated the premiere of Fox’s “Glee” and the finale of The Sopranos.   And stylistically, it’s the perfect music for this wine – big, brash, bold, outrageous…and irresistible.

This calls out for an iTunes playlist.  Don’t leave out Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer,” Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” Poison’s “Nothing But a Good Time,” Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again,” Asia’s “Heat of the Moment,” Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” Guns N Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine,” Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night,” White Lion’s “Wait,” and of course Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Note, if you’re reading this appalled, hoping to host a far classier affair…feel free to go any direction you want with music.  Our point is that given the style of the wine, and the fun of the “blind” tasting format, we’d save Mozart and Sinatra for another day.

Pairings

Red zinfandel pairs well with hard cheeses – we’d put together a cheese board that includes Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dry Jack, Gruyere and Cheddar.  As with most “blind” tastings, the best format is to spread the wines around your party space to encourage a flow of traffic.  We like to cube the cheeses ahead of time to make easy “bites” for your guests, and you can display the various cubes around the room.

If you want to include some heavy apps, BBQ is a great choice, perhaps some spicy wings.  Sliders / mini-burgers, meatballs with toothpicks, or grilled steak sliced up and served on sliced baguette would all be fantastic choices for this wine.

Tasting Notes

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you display them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Number them in some way and then place them around the room to create a flow of traffic for your party.  Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“jammy,” “spicy,” “too syrupy”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the $10 wine, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can buy a case or two of your favorite wine for what it takes to buy a bottle of the others at the tasting!  If you preferred the $30 bottle of Ridge Lytton Springs, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob!

We always like working “reference point wines” into your tastings, to introduce your guests to some of the most well-known, well-liked & well-respected producers whose wines are widely distributed and easy to find.  Ravenswood is just about everywhere and is widely regarded as the only big-name winery to make its name (and most of its fortune) from Zinfandel.  We think you’ve got to work them into your tasting.  On the other end of the spectrum, Ridge is one of Napa’s most hallowed winemakers and has an extensive range of Zinfandels, from single-vineyard beauties to elegant blends.  They too are easy to find, and a great winery to get to know.

We picked the others to incorporate a nice variety.  Storybook Mountain is a fantastic artisanal producer in Napa Valley whose winery looks like something out of a Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale.  Cosentino’s CigarZin is a bomb of a wine and will definitely stick out in your tasting.  St. Francis’ Old Vine Zin is widely available and attractively priced.  And Seghesio is a wonderful Sonoma Valley winemaker that focuses largely on Italian varietals but who has always made a mean Zin at a pretty affordable price.  A good one to know – it won a blind tasting we held a few years back.

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Oregon Pinot Noir

The Theme

Oregon Pinot Noir has been getting a lot of attention in recent years – the climate in Oregon is a lot like Burgundy, so maybe it’s not surprising that both American and French winemakers have come to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to try their hand at making great Pinot Noir.  The results speak for themselves – this is a region and a wine worth exploring!

The Angle

This should absolutely be a “blind” tasting!  One of the beauties of Oregon Pinot is that it’s still fairly new to the world wine scene, and hasn’t been swept away by the price points of “cult” brands from California or France.  So if all the wines are new, let your palate decide what’s best.  Serve Oregon Pinots that range in price – may the best wine win!

Sample Lineup

  1. Castle Rock Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($11)
  2. A to Z Oregon Pinot Noir ($16)
  3. O’Reilly’s Oregon Pinot Noir ($17)
  4. Elk Cove Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($22)
  5. Evening Land Vineyards Oregon Pinot Noir ($25)
  6. Argyle Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($30)
  7. Domaine Drouhin Willamette Valley Pinot Noir ($40)

 

The Wines

Chances are your guests can’t name a single winery in Oregon, so don’t worry if your local wine merchant has a different selection than the wines we mention above.  Pull together a selection of Oregon Pinot Noir ranging from $10-15 on the low end all the way up to one “big-ticket” wine costing $40 or more (just to see if it’s worth it). 

We tried to pick wines, however, that have a talking point or two.  Castle Rock is a widely available brand at a value price point.  A to Z is well-priced and a Top Pick from our favorite West Coast wine merchant, who also considers O’Reilly’s to be one of Oregon’s great values.  Elk Cove has been featured in wine critic Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, while Evening Land was voted one of Wine and Spirits’ top 100 wineries of 2009.  Argyle is a big name producer (if there is such a thing!) in Oregon, and Domaine Drouhin is the Oregon outpost of a famous (and fantastic) producer in Burgundy, Joseph Drouhin. 

Music

So what music do you pick for a tasting of classic, elegant wines from a hip, up and coming region?  We’d go with Michael Buble, the young crooner reinventing the standards of the Sinatra era in a classic style for a new generation.  Start with is self-titled album “Michael Buble” and then let the music keep going with his followup album “It’s Time.”

For a follow-up album along the same lines, go with Eva Cassidy’s “Live from Blues Alley.”  It’s along the same lines, a modern but faithful reinterpretation of songbook standards, and one of her more upbeat albums.  Finish off with the soundtrack from “The Commitments.”

 

Pairings

There are a number of cheeses that go very well with Pinot Noir, but also a few that you should avoid.  Oregonwines.com suggests pairing Pinot Noir with Camembert, Cheddar, Gouda and Colby Jack, among others.  Those are also relatively easy to find.  But be careful with blue cheese or goat’s cheese – the acids in those cheeses will not blend well with your Pinot. 

If you want to make heavy apps, there may be no better wine than Pinot Noir to match up with just about any food.  Smoked salmon, seared tuna loin, chicken or beef skewers, turkey meatballs… the sky’s the limit.  The only type of food not ideally suited to Pinot would be sweeter foods like desserts.

 

Tasting Notes

As with any “blind” tasting, disguise the bottles before you display them.  If you have wine party decorative cloth bags, great; but paper bags or even aluminum foil work fine too.   Number them in some way and then place them around the room to create a flow of traffic for your party.  Have a simple scoring sheet where guests can write their comments (“cranberry flavors,” “smoky and smooth,” “thin and watery,” “tastes expensive!”) and rate the wines on a 1-5 or 1-10 scale.  When everyone’s tried all the wines, collect and quickly tabulate the scores.  Unveil the wines one by one, making sure to first highlight wines that some of your guests loved (or hated!).  The great thing is, no matter which wine one likes best, everyone’s a winner.  If you pick the $10 wine, congratulations – you’re a cheap date and can buy a case or two of your favorite wine for what it takes to buy a bottle of the others at the tasting!  If you preferred the $40 Domaine Drouhin, congratulations – you have a sophisticated palate and are well on your way to becoming a certified wine snob! 

Oregon’s Willamette Valley is located at the same latitude as France’s Burgundy region, which is known for producing the best (amd most expensive!) Pinot Noir in the world.  Pinot Noir reportedly made its first appearance in Oregon when David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards planted the grape there in 1965.  He was followed by a number of other growers in the 1970s but burst onto the world wine scene when his wines placed in the top three in wine competitions held in France in 1979 and 1980.  The second of these had been arranged by Burgundian stalwart Robert Drouhin, who was sufficiently impressed with the clear potential of Oregon Pinot that he ultimately bought land in the Willamette Valley and opened Domaine Drouhin in 1989.  Drouhin wines have been highly praised and respected for years in Burgundy, so the launch of Domaine Drouhin was a serious endorsement of the quality of Oregon Pinot.

Oregon now makes more Pinot Noir than any other U.S. state except California.  There has been a resurgence in the popularity of Pinot Noir in the last decade, fueled in part by the popularity of the movie Sideways, the 2004 tale of two buddies who escape to California wine country before one of them walks down the aisle.  The main character Miles is a Pinot Noir lover, and his hilarious exclamation “I am NOT drinking any [bleeping] Merlot!” sent shockwaves through the wine world.  Suddenly wine novices everywhere were leaving their old standby Merlot on the shelf at the wine store and discovering what all the fuss was about with Pinot Noir.  While Sideways proved a huge boon for The Santa Ynez wine region where the movie was filmed, Oregon too has been a huge beneficiary of the public’s newfound curiosity for Pinot Noir.

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