Category Archives: Staff Picks

Seeking value wine for the wine lover

14_07_03 1630 The Crusher, Sterling Anniversary_4000_BlogGrocery stores often have the strategic marketing technique of placing their alcohol selection near the check-out registers.  On, say, a Monday morning, this would make little difference to me.  But I don’t grocery shop on Monday mornings.  I grocery shop when I’m out of food and I’m hungry, and for whatever cruel reason that tends to be at the end of a long day, usually a workday—the sort of day when dinner is much better complimented with wine or beer, rather than water.

This was exactly the case last week, and it’s probably why my mouth started watering due to a pavlovian response while pushing my shopping cart down the alcohol aisle, which I could not avoid on the way to the checkout counter.  Now, this was a Trader Joe’s, and these guys are deceivingly clever as to how they present their alcoholic beverage options—the wine aisle’s selection is laid out by price, starting with the more expensive finer wines, and descending in cost to the cheaper table wines.

Thankfully, passing down the majority of that aisle I was undeterred and kept moving forward (granted, I found myself browsing with more and more interest, and my salivary glands kicked into overdrive).  You see, I’m trying to eat healthier (aka avoid the frozen pre-made dinner options), and there tends to be a positive correlation between healthy eating and higher spending at the grocery store, so I have less budgeted for purchasing alcohol at Trader Joe’s.  And anyway, if I’m going to buy a nice wine, it’s going to be from Wine.com, where I can find a much larger selection, and still at competitive prices (shameless plug).

But, Trader Joe’s has of course come up with a solution for buying wine on a small budget, and if you’ve been a college student in the last decade, you likely know what I’m talking about: Two Buck Chuck.  It’s Charles Shaw, a brand of bargain-priced wine that was given its own scale of classification: “extreme value.”  So here I am at 7:30 PM on a Wednesday night, hungry and annoyed by all-too skinny aisles, with a cart full of foods I don’t even know exactly how to turn into a meal (kale, organic yogurt, free-range chicken), and I want a drink.

Ultimately, it’s curiosity that gets the best of me.  I used to drink Two Buck Chuck all the time, when it actually only cost $2 a bottle.  It’s more or less how I was introduced to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay – can’t forget white Zinfandel – and I wanted to know if I would still find these to be enjoyable wines.  So I bought one of each, took them home, and in the meantime I’ve tasted them all.

Suffice it to say that my taste has changed since the days of using Charles Shaw in red SOLO cups to play “wine pong.”  While I’m working on my goal to develop my wine knowledge and have an even deeper appreciation for what makes a quality wine, I honestly never intended to actively dislike cheaply made wine.  There’s just no turning back after you expose your palate to some of the better wine out there.  Once accustomed to the good stuff, the mouth wants nothing to do with a cheap wine that has little going for it with the possible exception that it has alcohol.

However, it’s flawed thinking to suggest the senses always have to be pitted against the wallet—great wine does not need to also be expensive wine.  I’m currently on a mission to find some of the greatest wines out there for under $15.  I’ve come across dozens already, and the list is growing.  If you’re buying wine on a budget, I suggest you undertake a similar challenge.  It’s fun, it’s not terribly expensive, and you get to educate your palate while also learning about the world of wine.  You can start by narrowing in on the almost 200 wines we offer at Wine.com that have 90+ ratings and are sold for under $15.   If you’re clueless, you can try our Live Chat service and feel free to ask for our favorites at your price point – we have plenty.  While it can be hard to pass up the allure of the price of mass-produced super cheap wine, I think you’ll find the few extra dollars spent on a nicer wine make for a much more enjoyable wine drinking experience.14_04_16 1130 Rioja at The Wine Bar_1600_Blog

My top picks include:

The Seeker Sauvignon Blanc 2013

Hahn Estates GSM 2013

Castello di Meleto Borgaio Toscana 2011

Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages 2013

Cune Crianza 2010

Domingo Molina Hermanos Torrontes 2012

Poema Brut Cava

Las Rocas Rose 2013

Evodia Old Vine Grenache 2013

Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Zinfandel 2012

Dry Creek Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2013

Parducci Small Lot Blend Pinot Noir 2012

Louis Martini Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

The Crusher Petite Sirah 2012

Robert Oatley Signature Chardonnay 2013

Celebrate International Italian Cuisine Day With Wine and Risotto!

Saturday, January 17th is International Italian Cuisine day. I thought we should blog about great food from the “old country”.  While there are tons of great Italian dishes out there, I have been craving that specialty of northern Italy, risotto.  Traditionally served as a first course, this creamy and delicious rice dish can work as a satisfying entrée.

Risotto can range in variety from the exotic Risotto Milanese, which is enriched with saffron, to light and delicate seafood riosotto, to the dark and dusky risotto al Barolo.  Regardless of the condiment or flavoring, great risotto begins with great rice. You need a short grain rice which is high in starch content.  Arborio or carnaroli varieties are readily available in most grocery stores.  It is well worth the effort to search for a specialty store that carries the vialone nano variety.

The next important trick to great risotto is mastering the method.  Instead of steaming, risotto is made by the timely addition of broth or water.  There are 2 tricks to this… First, make sure that the liquid and the cooking rice are at the same simmering temperature. Secondly, gently stir the liquid into the rice, and only stir as much as you need to. If the grains break, your risotto will become gummy and pasty.

Here is a base recipe and some ways to change it up:

Ingredients:

  • 5 cups homemade broth   OR   1 cup canned broth diluted with 4Ingredients cups water.  (I actually heat extra because it would be a disaster to be caught without enough cooking liquid.)
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons onion or shallot chopped very fine
  • 2 cups Arborio OR other imported Italian risotto rice
  • 1/2 heaping cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
  • Salt, to taste

 

Directions:

  1. In a sauce pan, bring the broth to a simmer. Make sure that it is close to the pan where you are making the risotto.
  2. Heat a heavy-bottomed sauté pan that has high sides (2” or so) and add the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter. Add the onion and cook gently until the onion is translucent.Making Risotto
  3. Add the rice to the sauté pan and stir gently so that all the grains are coated with the butter and oil.
  4. Now you will begin adding the broth from the sauce pan to the sauté pan one ladle at a time, stirring with a wooden spoon to make sure that the rice does not stick to the bottom of the pan.
  5. When the rice absorbs one ladle of broth, add another ladle of broth.  Repeat this process until the rice is tender but al dente. It should take about 20-25 minutes and the rice will look moist and creamy, not runny.
  6. When there is about a minute or 2 to go, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.
  7. Remove the pan from heat and add all of the cheese, folding gently in order to even distribute.
  8. Transfer to a platter and serve immediately with additional shavings of parmigiano. Serves 6

Risotto Recipe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great Variations:

White Truffle Risotto: Shave a half ounce of white truffle all over the top of the risotto right before serving. For those of us like me who are on a budget, you can always drizzle a bit of white truffle oil over the top.

Mushroom Risotto: In a separate pan, sauté about a pound of your favorite mushrooms in some butter and olive oil. I add a clove or 2 of garlic and some salt and pepper to taste. I deglaze the pan with a bit of wine and continue to cook until the mixture is dry. Before I add the butter and cheese to the risotto, I stir in about half of the mushroom mixture. I pour the finished risotto into a platter, top with the remaining mushrooms and chopped chives.

Butternut Squash Risotto: Cook and finely dice some butternut squash, about 2-3 cups. Instead of adding that last ladle of broth, add a ladle of heated heavy cream and fold in half of the squash. Finish the risotto with the butter and cheese. Top the finished risotto with the rest of the squash and some fried sage leaves.

 

Some WINES to try with these Risottos:

 

 

 

A Deal on Napa Valley Cabernets

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You may be skeptical of this, but not all Napa Cabernets require securing a loan. While some bottles may fetch upwards of $300.00 or more and consumers have been trained to spend at least $50.00 on a Cabernet with a Napa Valley AVA, there are still a few wineries that know their customers are still hoping to buy Napa cabs under $30.00. While they are not easy to find, they can be had. There still exists parts of the valley that are not considered the high rent district and at least a few companies have the wisdom of producing Napa Valley Cabernets in this price range. In my recent tasting journeys I have found a trio perfect for the bargain hunter.

First on the board is the Educated Guess. Almost fat and plump, this pretty wine always drinks well upon release. The 2012 version is sappy fine and just keeps on giving. I’d like this one with a juicy, rare slab of rib eye of beef. Coming up fast but certainly not behind is the succulent and mouth-watering 2012 Napa Cellars. A seemingly more serious wine, this cab shows a bit more weight and oak on the palate. The wine is very true to its Napa Valley heritage of bold fruit and firm, yet sweet tannins. The last wine of this trio is the 2011 Mount Veeder. Perhaps the most industrious of the group, there is just a little more to this one. Shows similar elements to the others, but it stays on the palate even longer. A solid cab in a decidedly difficult vintage, this one plays up the savory aspects of this varietal that is sometimes forgotten by the more expensive, highly-oaked wines from this this valley.

One can always spend a lot and acquire the best wines in the marketplace and I certainly encourage wine lovers to splurge when they can, but a little value shopping could yield some really fine “everyday” or more often enjoyment from this beautiful valley a couple of hours north of San Francisco. These three Napa Valley deals say that this valley has more than just the highest priced wines in the land.

The hunt for California’s Holy Grail

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You think you need to travel to The Mecca of Pinot Noir to satisfy your appetite for the variety? Well, I have news for all of you starving wine lovers. Though it is hard to deny that a week in Beaune, France would do wonders for the wine soul, I can point to so many places in California where Pinot Noir has gone to the next level. Where? Could it be the Russian River Valley, the Anderson Valley, Sonoma Coast? While those places do indeed have some of America’s very best Pinots, today I’d like to talk about the Santa Lucia Highlands.

History tells us that the earliest plantings in this AVA took place in the 1790’s, but it was not until the 1980’s and 1990’s that the area was re-discovered by farming families: Pisoni, Franscioni, Manzoni, Boekenoogen and others. Today there are many artisan productions proving this area’s potential for greatness. At the forefront of the movement is Bernardus, whose single vineyard Pinot Noirs are nothing short of spectacular. While Proprietor Ben Pon had been known for developing a strong case for Bordeaux blends (Marinus) out of Carmel Valley, his more recent launch of Pinot Noir is grabbing  attention from the top critics in the wine world. Wine publications such as the Wine Spectator, The Wine Advocate and the Wine Enthusiast, have given the wines superb accolades and high scores.

In my recent tastings I was really wowed by the 2011 single vineyard offerings. The  Soberanes shows great balance and trueness to the varietal. The Sierra Mar takes the varietal on a darker fruit journey and is pretty delicious. The Pisoni is scary good and so young that it could take a year of two before it is ready, though one could roast a leg of lamb and be pretty happy with this wine. The Garys’ is complete and distinctive as it offers a more savory personality. My very favorite is the Rosella’s. This wine is so spectacular that I could easily turn away a fine Gevrey-Chambertin and pour this one in its place. Gentle and bright, yet deceptively powerful, the wine just stays, stays and stays on the palate. It may now be the time to invoke a new saying, “Can Burgundy rival America’s best single vineyard Pinot Noir?”

Kicking off California Wine Month with Zin!

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Though Zinfandel is often called the “California grape,” its origins are slightly further away. Where is origin of Zinfandel? In 2000, Carole Meredith, co-proprietor of Lagier-Meredith and American grape geneticist, published findings that suggested Croatia was the origin of this varietal.  Before this, many in the industry believed Zinfandel was possibly a descendant of Primitivo, the Southern Italian grape. It’s true that Zinfandel and Primitivo are related, but they are both clones of Crljenak,  a native variety of Croatia.

Zinfandel has become “California’s own.” Since the early 1970’s the state’s wineries have produced some of the world’s finest red wines from our beloved Zinfandel. While the research continues, it is clear that California producers have made a stake in the Zinfandel sweepstakes. Whether it is called Primitivo or Crljenak Kaštelanski, California Zinfandel is the prize that is finding itself more often at the dinner table.

“The name Zinfandel was first used in 1832 and established a separate identity for the grape and one unique to America.” (Source: Zinfandel, Producers and Advocates, April 2002). It was not until the early 1970’s that Zinfandel emerged to become the superstar varietal that it is today. Ushered into the limelight by the 1968 Sutter Home Deaver Ranch, a flood of marquee players from the outstanding class of 1973 Chateau Montelena, Ridge Geyserville, Dry Creek Vineyard and others changed the varietal’s place in history forever. Zinfandel was now becoming one of the prizes on the runway.

I drink Zin all the time. My favorite match is pairing it with grilled pork chops. Pork tenderloin with a wine sauce reduction has been one another go to combination. But the ever popular grilled steak with fries works well too. Celebrate 10th Annual California Wine Month and pop the cork on the delicious 2012 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel. The golden state, family and friends will be happy you did.