Sponsored by Ansonia Wines

Half Off at West On Centre through Buy With Me Boston

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Group buying seems to be all the rage lately.  Here's one with particular appeal to Boston-area wine enthusiasts.  Here's how to take advantage of the deal: 

Step 1:

Visit the offer page for West on Centre on BuyWithMeBoston.com to take advantage of the offer.  Buy $40 vouchers for $20.  The thing I like about this offer is that you can use up to one voucher per guest.  Some offers like this limit you to one voucher per table.

Step 2:

Make a reservation for a Tuesday night as part of West On Centre's weekly promotion where they enthusiastically allow guests to bring their own wine. Their phone number is 617-323-4199 and here is their website.  Ask for Lawrence as your server if he's available- top notch guy who has taken care of us incredibly well each time we've been there.

Step 3:

Arrive at the restaurant with your wine and they'll take care of the rest.  They've got nice glassware and enjoy seeing what wines guests choose to bring.  Great food too.  Quite affordable in the first place but with the Buy With Me vouchers it's an even better deal.  Combined with the amount you'll save by bringing your own wine I think it's an amazing deal.  Don't forget to tip your server on the full amount the meal would have been if you didn't have the vouchers and you bought the wine from the restaurant.

Deal only available for a limited time.  Thanks to friend JF for the heads up on this.

Want to find more BYOB-friendly restaurants near you?  Check out: GoBYO

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Value Alert: 2007 Robert Craig Affinity

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I'm more of a Wine Spectator than Wine Advocate guy when it comes to numerical ratings and purchase decisions.  But when I saw that Robert Parker rated this $50 2007 Napa Cab 96 points it caught my attention.  96 points is a huge number, I love Napa Cab, and when I saw it on retailer shelves for $45 I bought a couple bottles.  As you can see from my notes and rating below, I wasn't disappointed- it's a beautiful wine.

Wine Spectator hasn't released their rating for this wine yet, though I expect them to shortly.  I'm putting the over/under at 93 points.  (Update: Wine Spectator rated this wine 88 points).  Comparing Spectator's ratings to Advocate's is an interesting exercise.  I've always though that James Laube from Wine Spectator was more conservative than Robert Parker, based on nothing more than gut instinct.  But you don't need to look much further than 2007 Napa Cab ratings to see some obvious differences.  James Laube has never rated a wine 100 points (WS subscription required) as part of a blind tasting for Wine Spectator.  Robert Parker has already rated five 2007 Napa Cabs 100 points.  And he's not even done released ratings for the vintage.

More on this next week as I compare Wine Spectator ratings to Wine Advocate ratings for 2007 Napa in general, and specifically for the wines they've both rated.  The results might surprise you.  I'd loved it if you subscribed to the WWP so you don't forget to come back to check it out.

At any rate HERE are tasting notes and more information about the 2007 Robert Craig Affinity from the winery.  And here are my notes:

2007 Robert Craig Affinity
Red Bordeaux blend:  79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Malbec
5,700 cases produced
$48 Release Price
14.5% Alcohol

Dark ruby red visually.  Blackberries backed up by some nice floral components.  Well balanced tannins provide backbone without getting at all in the way of enjoyment (even when consumed without food).  Long finish.  A strong showing from beginning to end.  Would expect it to develop more secondary characteristics over time, but it's showing well now as a balanced fruit-forward Napa red.

93/100 WWP: Outstanding

Shop for this wine on Wine-Searcher.com
See other opinions on CellarTracker 

Further Reading:
Have you had this wine or prior vintages?  If so, what did you think of it?  If not, what are some 2007 Napa QPR plays you're eyeing?

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Holiday in August: Value Sparkling Wines for Everyday Celebrations

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lets cheers Happy new year 2009
A few weeks ago a friend on Twitter asked for some value recommendations for sparkling wines to serve at a wedding.  I drink very little sparkling wine myself so I was stumped.  I asked for suggestions and Gloria Ferrer and Gruet were mentioned multiple times along with others.  Here are a few more options in this guest post from Alexis Bonari from CollegeScholarships.org.  I hope you enjoy it. -Bob

My fifth wedding anniversary is fast approaching, and I'm faced with a dilemma. Usually, I would dazzle the love of my life with a much-appreciated meal paired with a high-end sparkling wine.  For our first anniversary, we enjoyed the ubiquitous Dom Pérignon.  Each year since then our selections have been decidedly non-budget friendly. 

In short, we were spoiled.  This year, the recession and other extenuating factors have necessitated a change in strategy.  Luckily, we have discovered at least three solid value sparkling wines in our years together.  Although they might not be as complex or sophisticated as their higher-priced counterparts, the following selections certainly aren't to be overlooked:

Domaine Chandon Napa Valley, California

Created by California-based French wine cellar Moët-Chandon, the reserve can be had for less than $25.  Tones of fruit (strawberries and cherries) are followed by an exceptional creamy finish.

Roederer Estate
Anderson Valley, California

While you might have to go somewhat above $25 for the reserve selections, Roederer Estate sparkling wines maintain a great deal of the original champagne influence thanks to the climate in Anderson Valley, California.  The Brut NV has pear and spice overtones with a hint of hazelnut in the background.  Although the description may sound heavy, the overall flavors are quite light and pleasant.

Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad
Catalonia, Spain

Using the traditional method, bubbles are formed in the bottle to create this Spanish delight.  This is a traditional example of a label wine, as the Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad was originally created for use by the Segura family. It has a aromatic floral appeal with a citrusy zing at the end. Bottles run for about $22. 


While these particular sparkling wines may not be readily available at your local gourmet food shop, they are worth seeking out online if you have time to plan ahead.  If time is of the essence, don't be afraid to try a sparkling wine from Italy, Spain, California, or some other unique locale.  A sparkling wine doesn't have to hail from Champagne France to be noteworthy.

Alexis Bonari is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is a passionate blogger on the topic of education and free college scholarships. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

Photo Credit: nlmAdestiny

What are some of your favorite value plays in sparkling wine?

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Store Review: Wine Nation in Millbury, MA

Monday, August 23, 2010

A significant new player entered the Massachusetts market when Wine Nation opened its doors on July 30, 2010.  Perched atop The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley in Millbury, the store is by far the largest wine shop in the state offering more then 6,000 different bottles of wine.  And their shelves aren't even fully stocked yet.  To put those numbers into scale- most small to medium sized wine shops top out at around 1,000 different wines.

You may remember Wine Nation from their as-to-yet unsuccessful attempt to open in Braintree last year.  At the time, I was under the impression that Wine Nation was the same firm as the national retailer Total Wine.  They are not.  According to this piece in the Worcester newspaper Wine Nation is headed up by Thomas Trone, his wife Jill and their son Taylor.  Total Wine is owned by Thomas' brothers David and Robert Trone.

The implications of this split are meaningful.  First because the Millbury location is the first and only location of a new brand at this point.  Although the concept is similar in nature to Total Wine it truly is a distinct and independent new retail brand.  Second because Massachusetts allows any single retailer to hold only 3 liquor licenses in the state.  In other words Total Wine could also open here if they wanted which would bring a total of six new big box wine shops to the state.

Whether you'll enjoy shopping at Wine Nation depends, I think, on a number of factors:

  • Do you enjoy developing a personal relationship with store owners?  
  • Are you adverse to big box retailers?
  • Do you like having a wide array of products to choose from?  Or do you prefer retailers who apply an editorial filter and present you only with choices they believe in?
Can you scan through this list of wines and identify which are priced favorably vs. retail price and vs. other retailers?  3 of them are well-priced.  5 of them can easily be had at other Massachusetts retailers for significantly less:
  • 2006 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco $35.99
  • 2007 Elk Cove Willamette Valley Pinot Noir $14.49
  • 2008 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel $22.49
  • 2009 Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc $14.99
  • 2008 King Estate Signature Pinot Gris $11.49
  • 2007 Chappellet Mountain Cuvee $23.99
  • 2008 Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum $17.94
  • 2007 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon $10.89
Looking at this list of wines and their prices without much additional context is similar to shopping at Wine Nation.  They've got a ton of wines and it's up to you to find wines you want that are good values.
    First Impressions

    The store is located within The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley whose website says it's the "largest open-air shopping center in all of Central Massachusetts".  The center is home to smaller specialty retailers and other big boxes along with restaurants and a movie theater.  It's the kind of place you can easily spend several hours shopping because it offers so many things to buy and do.  Several police officers were directing traffic the weekend we visited.

    The store is located on a higher portion of the development and announces itself proudly to wine enthusiasts visiting the center.  When you're "into" a hobby like some of us are with wine every related mention of your interest catches your attention.  If you like wine, it would be difficult to visit this shopping center without noticing Wine Nation is here.

    I think their branding package is attractive.  What you see on the exterior of the store extends to their website and throughout the store.  The clean logo, contemporary legible font, and signage in the store presents the brand well I think.  Look how similar aesthetically the logo design is to a smaller local wine store that recently opened in Chestnut Hill.  Wine Nation is clearly trying to position itself as something other than a massive cluttered big box retailer:


    vs.

    The Place is Vast

    To give you an idea of the scale of the store, this location in particular was formerly a Linens 'n Things (the now-defunct home goods store).  Instead of a Cabernet "section" imagine an entire aisle devoted to the wines made from the grape.  And another aisle for Merlot, Pinot Noir and so on.  The place is huge and the number of different wines they have is either amazing or overwhelming depending on how you look at it.  I overheard a store clerk tell a customer they ordered 5,000 wines and I've read they plan to carry 8,000 when completely stocked.

    After diving in and exploring a few of the aisles I realized an overview of the layout would be helpful.  I stopped by the Wine Service Bar and picked up a map and chatted with an associate who was doing a wine tasting.  I passed on the Chardonnay and Merlot (had to keep a clear head for this important assignment, right?) but got a good crash course into how the store was arranged.

    The store is about 75% wine.  The remainder is beer, wine, and snacks.  A few unique points about how the wines are displayed:

    You can find a given wine in multiple locations.  Say you're looking for a bottle of Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir: It will appear in the Pinot Noir aisle of course, but it might also appear in the Staff Favorites section, and again in the New World Values section.  It could also appear in the Highly Rated section and in the "Lush" section where they arrange wines by intensity from Light to Intense. 

    Within most categories wines are arranged alphabetically by producer.  I wasn't a fan of this approach.  Say for example you're looking for all the Barbaresco they carry: You find your way to the Italian Reds section, and start looking through the options.  You have to look through two aisles of Italian reds and examine each label to see whether it's a Barbaresco.  I would prefer if they arranged the wines by sub-type within each category so I could see all of the Barbaresco in one place.  Alphabetizing wines by producer is confusing anyway.  Say I'm looking for a wine called "The Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum"- what letter would that be under? "T" for The? "S" for Seventy? "7" for 75? "S" for Sum?  Better to just arrange the wines by sub-type than by producer I think.  And then within that sub-type by price. 

    They make very little use of shelf talkers.  Especially those with numerical ratings.  I don't know if this is a conscious decision or something that hasn't been tended to yet since they were only open a couple of weeks when I visited.  They do have descriptions posted for their house brand wines, but overall I found very little in the way of signage customers could use to find more information about the choices in front of them.  Only about 5% of the wines had any kind of description at all.

    The lack of numerical ratings could be seen as a positive or a negative.  If they're adverse to numerical ratings and choose not to display them I can respect that.  But why have a Highly Rated section without further information about how the wines were chosen?

    I could see keeping numerical ratings and tasting notes up to date on a store of this scale a truly difficult task so perhaps they're just choosing to avoid the work involved and leaving it up to shoppers to determine their own criteria along with recommendations from sales associates.

    If they don't want to clutter up the shelves with too many shelf talkers a useful alternative would be a reference area where shoppers could go to browse copies of popular wine publications, look up professional/CellarTracker ratings on computers, and grab a cup of coffee.  I think a real element of community could emerge if this approach was well-implemented.  The store is uniquely positioned with its scale to offer value added services like these.

    The Shopping Experience

    When you first come in the store, pick up a flyer and a map.  The flyer includes the dozen or so wines on sale that end in the number "4" like the Parallelle 45 Cotes du Rhone for $9.94. These specials are also listed on their website and if you see any wines you like in this list you'll probably want to buy them because these wines are sold as close to cost as possible.  They're not loss leaders (it's illegal for a retailer to sell wine for less than they paid for it in Massachusetts) but they're definitely favorably priced to get you in the door and look around.

    So there you are faced with finding the needles in the haystack.  After wandering around for a while, I picked up:
    • 2007 Elk Cove Pinot Noir for $14.49 (2 bottles)
    • 2009 Honig Sauvignon Blanc $12.94
    • 2008 Ravines Dry Riesling $13.59
    I've been a huge fan Elk Cove Pinot Noir for a while now and I was shocked how low their price was on this wine.  Compared to 2006 and 2008, 2007 was a bit of an off vintage depending on who you ask.  But at this price I was willing to take a chance.  The best price I see nationwide is $19.99 and it's typically on Massachusetts retailer shelves over $30.

    When I got home I cracked open one of the bottles of Elk Cove just to see whether I might want to buy more in the future or perhaps recommend the wine.  Unfortunately, the wine was awful.  It smelled like ketchup and raisins.  I thought the wine might be flawed (ie just this particular bottle was defective) or worse yet the entire lot was off hence the low price.  But what wine flaw leads to these characteristics?

    I put the Elk Cove aside and opened the Honig Sauvignon Blanc.  Wow what a wine!  Especially compared to the off Pinot Noir.  And at $12.94 what a price.

    A couple nights later I opened the second bottle of Elk Cove and it was much better than the first.  It still wasn't a spectacular wine and although I detected faint traces of some of the off-putting characteristics from the first bottle I now believe the first bottle was oxidized.  Strangely it reminded me of a bottle of 1999 Oregon Pinot Noir I had a while back which may have suffered from the same problem.  I've had quite a few corked bottles over the years but these are my first run-ins with what I believe are oxidized bottles.  Interesting.

    So now I have a flawed bottle of wine from a shop that's 30 miles away.  A compelling reason to shop close to home, but at these prices you might be able to justify dumping it and taking the hit.

    If they hold the price on the Elk Cove at $14.49 and start carrying the more highly regarded 2008 vintage the price would be just over $13 per straight 12 bottle case.  Compare that to $30.99 from a retailer who offers 20% off a case which works out to $24.79.  On this particular wine they're $10 cheaper per bottle when buying a single bottle than buying a mixed case at a higher priced retailer even with a 20% discount at the other retailer.  This is just one admittedly cherry-picked example.  But it's one reason I think a lot of people are going to shop at Wine Nation.

    At higher price points:
    • Orin Swift The Prisoner $35.99 (compare elsewhere at $29.99)
    • 2005 Cantina del Pino Barbaresco $53.99 ($47.99 at Gordon's)
    • 2000 Leoville Barton $199 (compare at $174.99 at Blanchards)
    • 2009 Dominus $139 (compare at $119 at The Wine Cellar of Stoneham)
    The most expensive bottle I happened to spot was a 2007 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg for $1,599.  Compare at around $700 on Wine-Searcher. [Update: This bottle was a magnum so the Wine Searcher price of $700 isn't a fair comparison.  My apologies to Wine Nation for this error.]

    Overall, their prices aren't uniformly higher or lower than other options in the area.  You really have to know your prices and what you're shopping for if you want to find the deals.

    Strengths
    • Amazing selection.  If you're a wine enthusiast I can't imagine you wouldn't enjoy perusing the aisles at least once to see what they carry.  It's not just commodity stuff- they've got some rather obscure wines too: 2007 Heitz Grignolino anyone?
    • They carry more local wines than most wine Massachusetts wine stores I've been to combined.
    • On certain items, they offer by far the best pricing in the state.  And in some cases the best pricing in the nation.
    Areas for Improvement
    • No e-commerce site.  Other than a few limited specials listed in their flier I can't check their inventory and pricing online.  Their inventory doesn't come up on Wine-Searcher.com.  This makes it difficult to write a shopping list at home with ready access to online research.
    • No social media presence.  One of my favorite ways to check availability is to ping a store owner on Twitter.  This makes it unlikely I'll check Wine Nation pricing when I'm looking for a wine online.
    • Limited guidance in terms of navigating their selection and finding wines based on reviews.  You can ask somebody or visit the Staff Picks section, but I'd like to see more reference material available to customers.  Imagine a station of iPads or kiosks set up with access to Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, and CellarTracker ratings along with Wine Nation ratings and notes.  This kind of information sharing would go a long way towards positioning the store as an ally to wine consumers.
    • Most wines are stored vertically.  There's debate in the wine community about how long it's safe to keep a bottle stored vertically because of concerns the cork will dry out.  Because of this horizontal storage is preferred.  This could be a concern for wines that are expensive enough that they'll be on the shelf for a while, but not so expensive as to warrant them being in the wine refrigerators in the front of the store.  Take for example the 2006 Felsina Fontalloro at $54.99.  Stored vertically and who knows how long it will be there before you buy yours.
    Discussion and Outlook

    I've heard Total Wine referred to as "The Costco of Wine".  I don't necessarily agree with that comparison for either Total Wine or Wine Nation.  One reason I shop at Costco is because they narrow down the choices I have to make when shopping in categories I don't care to spend time researching.  I appreciate that they've taken the time to sort through all of the toothpastes, printers, and sponges to offer good products at "pretty good" prices.

    This isn't the case at Wine Nation- they sell too many wines to claim much editorial oversight into the selection process.  I can accept that but I'd prefer if the pricing model were a bit more uniform.  Their current pricing model offers a few well-priced items mixed in with wines offered at a healthy margin presumably hoping you'll pick up some of the latter when you come in for the former.  I'm not saying it's bait and switch- I'm just saying you need to be on top of your game when you go there because it's sort of a Vegas casino situation where on average you'll lose unless you know what you're doing.

    Conclusion and Recommendations

    Wine Nation's arrival in the Massachusetts market is a significant development.  When they open additional stores north and south of Boston they'll be within a 30 minute drive of a large percentage of the Massachusetts population and their business model will resonate with a lot of these consumers.

    Add to that the potential for Total Wine opening in the state in the future.  And imagine if the current 3-license-per-retailer limit is raised, and wine is allowed to be sold in all grocery stores. Lift the restrictions on wine retailers shipping into and out of the state and it's not too hard to see a future where the Massachusetts wine retailer landscape is more of a competitive free-market like California.

    Locally owned independent retailers can and will survive however.  And I'm not talking about the tired cliche of supporting your local retailer for no apparent reason other than good will.  I'm talking about retailers that add value by stocking a focused assortment of wines that make it easy to buy great wines at good prices.  Retailers that offer a high degree of specialization and focus in specific categories.  And retailers that connect with consumers in the way they want to be connected with making it easy to do business with them.

    Wine Nation is an interesting player.  I get the feeling that this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of changes in the Massachusetts wine retail space.

    Check 'em out:
    Wine Nation
    The Shoppes at Blackstone Valley
    70 Worcester-Providence Turnpike
    Millbury, MA 01527
    508-917-0400
    info@winenation.com 

    Want another opinion? Here's a review of Wine Nation from my pal Richard Auffrey: The Passionate Foodie. 

    What do you think of Wine Nation?  Or big box retail in general?

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    Uncorked Contest at Morton's Back Bay Boston

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    Each month Morton's The Steakhouse Back Bay offers an "Uncorked Tasting Series" where you try five wines paired with five signature hors d'oeuvres.  The next event is coming up August 30th from 6:30p-8:30p but there's a twist: The theme is "You Tell Us".  E-mail cm.mbo@mortons.com by August 26th, 2010 (no limit on the number of entries) and the winner and three guests will receive complimentary tickets to the event.

    I attended the June edition of this event as their guest and I wanted to share some notes in hopes that it might give you some ideas for submitting ideas.  My first thoughts were "Killer B's: Brunello, Barolo and Barbaresco" or "First Growth Bordeaux Through the Ages" or "Napa Showdown: Screaming Eagle vs. Harlan (and other value plays)" but I don't know if the price points of those wines fit the bill. :)

    The theme in June was "Southern Hemisphere/New World".  It started off with a stand-up walk around tasting of the 2009 Susan Balbo Crios Torrontes from Argentina.  Such a great wine.  You might remember it from my list of Five Freaking Delicious Wines (that wine geeks won't make fun of you for drinking).

    Once we got a chance to mingle and chat, we sat down for the rest of the evening.  Each wine was thoughtfully described by a representative from Ruby Wines.  We'd try the wine, enjoy the food it was paired with, and reconvene every 15 minutes or so to discuss the wine and learn about the next pairing.

    The first wine was a 2009 Lobster Reef Pinot Noir from New Zealand.  Paired really well with a taste of lobster- kind of reminded me of an Oyster Bay Pinot Noir- light and elegant.  I'm really intrigued by Pinot Noir from New Zealand- great source of affordable Pinot.  Next, a single vineyard La Posta Malbec (Argentina) offered nice spice with deep red fruit.  The Malbec was described as "somewhere between Merlot and Cabernet in tannic structure".  I thought it was a nice wine- didn't get too raisiny or pruney like some Malbecs can.

    Then a Hugh Hamilton "The Rascal" Shiraz from Australia.  I was expecting a typical Aussie fruit bomb but I found it earthy on the nose.  It paired beautifully with lamb.  Finally a Graham Beck Pinotage (pronounced: pinno-tahj) from South Africa.  Pinotage can be funky and smoky (or worse, smell like a pet shop) but this one was more approachable.  To me it presented like a Bordeaux blend would with Pinotage characteristics in the background.

    I hope that gives you an idea of the way the event works.  I thought they did a good job of exploring wines and regions that aren't the most familiar while still offering wines that tasted good.  I'll look forward to seeing what the theme is for the August event- sure to come from a clever WWP reader.

    PS Like the photo above?  It's their Crab Cake BLT trio- a new addition as part of their new Bar Bites menu available from 5p-11p at their Back Bay location featuring "signature appetizers" from $6.00.

    The cost of the event is $40.  If you'd like to attend call 617-266-5858 to reserve a spot.

    Check 'em out:
    Morton's Back Bay
    699 Boylston at Exeter
    Boston, MA 02116
    617-266-5858

    Read more...

    Massachusetts Tax Free Weekend Wine Deals

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    I thought I'd write-up a summary of deals I've heard about so far and update it as the weekend progresses.  I've got my itinerary lined up for Saturday and hope to hit some shops Sunday afternoon too.

    Many retailers are counting on the tax free weekend in conjunction with their normal discounts to entice customers.  Some are even erroneously claiming that 20% off a case + the 6.25% tax savings yields 26.25% savings.  The brighter students in class will recognize this isn't quite true because tax is applied after case discounts and the tax free savings are therefore diminished by the discount amount.  Oh well- it's still a good time to buy.

    Bin Ends Wine in Braintree

    • Having a Clearance Sale
    • I hear the bins are full
    The Spirit Shoppe
    • Mixed case discount 20% on non-sale items (regularly 15%)
    • Free shipping in MA with 6 or more bottles with code "freeground"
    • (Note: The Spirit Shoppe is a current WWP advertiser)
    Blanchards
    The Urban Grape
    Hingham Wine Merchant (no website)
    • Good pricing especially on harder to find domestic reds and whites
    • One of my planned stops for tomorrow
    Wine Nation
    • It was news to me that this new-to-MA retailer opened just a couple weeks ago in Millbury
    • You may remember this firm from their attempt to open in Braintree a while back
    • Evidently related to but not formally associated with oft-maligned/sometimes loved national retailer Total Wine
    • Everyday low price model but check out their specials on their site
    • I'll try to check them out soon and report what I find
    Upper Falls/Post Road Liquors
    • 25% off 6 or more non-sale bottles
    • Also it's not to late to order the 2009 Bordeaux futures offers featured in their newsletter.  Not subject to further discounts, ordered in 6-packs or straight cases, and tax-free this weekend. $21 Pipeau, $19 Paloumey and other values for delivery in a year or two.
     Any other deals you're hearing about?  Drop me an E-mail or leave a comment to spread the word.  Happy hunting!  Connect with me on Twitter for real-time updates: @RobertDwyer

    Read more...

    A Passageway to Italian Wine through Barbaresco

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    I think my struggles finding value in Italian wine are well documented at this point.  Too often, I've laid down good money ($20-$50) for bottles that lack depth of flavor, offer limited fruit characteristics, and generally don't bring me excitement on par with the price paid.  However, I think I've had a breakthrough and I'm pumped to tell you about it.  The wine is Barbaresco, and here's more about how I wound up going berserk for these wines along with some specific recommendations for quality and value.

    I've heard a lot of suggestions related to breaking through and learning to appreciate Italian wine.  I need to be spending more money, I need to seek out wines from a specific importer, I need to be trying wines from less famous regions, etc.  More than anything, I've been told that these are food wines and I shouldn't expect them to taste good on their own.  All of these suggestions are helpful, but I still find it difficult to find value in Italy.  I need specific examples of wines I can track down at good prices at retailers near me at reasonable prices!

    One thing I don't like when aspiring to expand wine knowledge is when someone tries to put you in the dunce category.  For example: "Oh, you think Bordeaux is too tannic and Burgundy too earthy?  You should try wines from the Languedoc."  Or "If you don't want to spend a fortune on Brunello you should save your money and drink Nero D'Avola."  How are you supposed to learn more about the great wine regions of the world without experiencing them?

    Okay Barbaresco.  It's a town and a DOCG in the Piedmont region so it's in northwest Italy- about an hour and a half by car northwest of Genova.  The grape used in Nebbiolo which is the same grape as is used in Barolo which is about a half hour away.  You can also find plain Nebbiolo from the region which could give a close approximation of the flavor profile of Barbaresco if you find a good producer.  I've enjoyed Nebbiolo from Vietti and Produttori del Barbaresco at around $20.  For me Nebbiolo-based wines are the Burgundy of Italy. I'm crazy for this stuff.

    I thought @garyvee did a great job describing Barbaresco the other day on Wine Library TV.  I've frequently heard Barbaresco described simply as more feminine and elegant than Barolo, but check out what he has to say about this high end Barbaresco he rates 97 points.  The video should be cued right up to the Barbaresco he's reviewing:


    Barbaresco: It's not inexpensive but it's an incredible wine I'd encourage you to check out, especially if you're like me and tend to gravitate towards new world wines most of the time.

    The notes and ratings below are from non-blind consumption of bottles I've purchased in the past year.
    • 2004 Cigliuti Barbaresco Vigne Erte - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (1/1/2010)
      A stunningly good Italian red wine. Medium-dark ruby color. Candy-like fruit on the nose- reminded me of Luden's Wild Cherry Cough Drops in a good way. Gets serious on the palate. Rustic in a good way but complex and balanced. Medium-high acidity makes it food-friendly but absolutely delicious and enjoyable on its own. Appreciated by everyone who tasted it. Highly recommended. (95 pts.)
      TOP PICK- the wine that sent me off on a Barbaresco binge that continues to this day.  Their "Serraboella" bottling is even better.
    • 2006 La Spinetta (Rivetti) Barbaresco Vigneto Bordini - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (3/17/2010)
      It was amazing how concentrated the flavors were given how light in color this wine was. Beautiful nose of red raspberries, tar and earthy mushrooms. Very tannic at this point and quite acidic. Nice stuff. The kind of wine that you enjoy smelling the glass after the wine is gone. (93 pts.)
    • 2001 Cigliuti Barbaresco Vigne Erte - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (5/17/2010)
      I was really looking forward to trying this 2001 after going so gonzo for the 2004. It was just about everything I hoped for. As expected the tannins have softened nicely, but there's still a good amount of grip. The flavor profile is what I really love about this wine. Cherries, rose petals, and just a hint of tar. Really beautiful wine. The kind of wine you want to seek out and buy more of before it's all gone. (93 pts.)
    • 2006 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (7/31/2010)
      Based on its price and its youth, I was expecting this to be a thin, aromatically limited Barbaresco that I'd think and hope would be better with more age. I was so pleasantly surprised with this wine however- I think it's drinking beautifully NOW. It's thin visually (you can easily see your fingers through the glass) but it packs a flavorful punch that I found utterly enjoyable to drink. Ripe strawberries and cherries on the nose accompanied by some beautiful earthy floral components in the background. On the palate there's no denying its firm tannins but they're in harmony with the amply sweet flavors. Drinking this wine with food is a delight and it's not so bad on its own. A value at $30 and a steal around $20. Highly recommended Barbaresco. (92 pts.)
      TOP VALUE- read more here on why this wine in particular is a unique value play.
    • 2004 Cantina del Pino Barbaresco Ovello - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (1/7/2010)
      Shades of greatness but fails to deliver to the high expectations I had for it. Opened the bottle for 4 hours prior to drinking. Off to a great start with its beautiful, complex nose. Elegant rose petals yet rustic at the same time. Things get rough on the palate and the grip on my teeth was just a little too much at this point in time. May improve as tannins fade and fruit steps up, but at this point I can't quite find my way to 90 points. But so close. (89 pts.)
    • 2004 Orlando Abrigo Barbaresco Vigna Montersino - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (4/9/2010)
      Quite a bit of sediment. Compelling Barbaresco notes I enjoy (strawberry, rose petal, a hint of menthol) but would have enjoyed it more with more amplitude. (88 pts.)
    • 2004 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (4/23/2010)
      Nice core flavors but wow- quite a sharp, unapproachable, highly acidic wine. Needs time that decanting/aeration can't help with. (87 pts.)
    • 2005 Socre Barbaresco Roncaglie - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (6/15/2010)
      Good enough wine, but kind of boring. Would have appreciated more personality in one direction or another. (87 pts.)
    • 2004 Pertinace Barbaresco - Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barbaresco (11/27/2009)
      Extremely disappointing. For me, there wasn't anything wrong this wine but there wasn't much special about it. Thin and non-descript. Easily replicated for $10 in a blind tasting. A very poor value at $40. (82 pts.)
    Posted from CellarTracker

    The best way to find these wines?  Wine-Searcher.com
    Photo Credit: habi

    Who are some of your favorite Barbaresco producers?  Or some value plays in Italian red wine in general?

    Read more...

    5 Tips for Discovering Restaurant Wine Value

    Monday, August 9, 2010

    This is a guest post from Dana Livingston from CulinarySchools.org

    Restaurants often apply a heavy markup to bottles of wine they serve.  Now, this is not a ploy to bilk you out of your hard-earned money, it’s just business.  Keep in mind they not only have to pay for a liquor license to serve said tasty alcohol, but they also need to make a profit.  And while you can certainly bring your own bottle and pay the corking fee (it varies by restaurant, but tends to average out around $10), there are a few advantages to drinking what the house has to offer.  Consider these tasty tips for stretching your wine dollar when dining out.

    1. Ask for Help

    Many fine restaurants employ a professional whose sole job is to tell you what wine will pair best with your meal.  If they suggest something out of your price range, don’t be afraid to tell them as they often have a less expensive option up their sleeve.  Many are also willing to give you helpful tips on what to try first if you’re just starting on your long journey towards becoming a connoisseur.  If there’s no sommelier at the restaurant you’re visiting, ask your server, the restaurant manager, or even the cook what recommendations they can make.

    Seek out restaurants that avoid the Top 10 Wine Service No No's for Restaurant Waitstaff.

    2.  Attend Tasting Events

    Some restaurants offer regular wine tasting events (often with dinner included) to give customers a chance to become familiar with their selection or a specific region.  These present a great opportunity to try a lot of different wines without committing to an expensive bottle you may not be thrilled with.  To learn about these opportunities subscribe to your favorite restaurant's E-mail list or check out LocalWineEvents.com.  An example is this one currently running at The Capital Grille through September 5th, 2010.

    3. Buy by the Glass

    There’s no better way to find out what you like than to see what’s offered by the glass.  This can provide big savings over bottle purchases because restaurants buy these wines in large quantity and (hopefully) pass the savings along.  There are five 5-ounce pours of wine in a bottle- do the math when considering your options.

    4. Take Flight

    Some restaurants offer up tasting flights where you can try several smaller pours for a reasonable price.  This provides a good way to compare wine styles in a category side by side.  Legal Sea Foods does a good job with this.  For slightly more than the cost of a single glass you can try several wines and learn from tasting notes along the way.

    5. Expensive Doesn't Necessarily Mean Better

    There is significant debate in the wine community whether price correlates with quality.  But with so much competition in the market (and many high-end labels producing lower cost bottles with just as much clout) you can find some pretty good wines for a lot less money.  Go for the style of wine you're in the mood for, match the weight of the food to the wine you're selecting, and when in doubt ask for help narrowing down your selection.

    Dana Livingston is a writer for a culinary arts website where you can browse schools and the latest trends in the culinary arena.

    Interested in writing a guest post for the site?  Drop me an E-mail with a proposed title and I'll get right back to you letting you know if it's a good fit.

    Read more...

    Tasting Report: 2007 Ghost Block Cabernet Sauvignon

    Sunday, August 8, 2010

    This experiment of cracking open nicer wines to determine whether to stock up during next weekend's Massachusetts tax holiday is proving to be a good time.

    A wine I've wanted to try for a while based on ratings and mysterious yet effective marketing is the Ghost Block Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  I couldn't track down any of the prior vintages in Massachusetts and when I'd find it elsewhere it was priced above retail.  When the 2007 came to market here at a fair price I jumped on it.  Did it live up to the hype?  Read on...

    From the Winery:

    Vineyards

    The fruit for the 2007 Ghost Block Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the Rock Cairn vineyard. The 25 year old vineyard in Oakville, Napa Valley that is 100% Certified Organic. The site is comprised of deep, gravelly loam with a western exposure, and the vines produce very concentrated fruit late in the season.

    Winemaker Notes from Rob Lawson

    2007 harvest was a mild and lengthy season with a few series of hot temperatures that brought sugars and flavors up to be followed by cooler days for extended development. The ripening was steady and even. We were able to maximize picking decisions and get exactly the flavors we were looking for. 

    Winery Tasting Notes

    Distinctive flavors of Ghost Block and Rock Cairn were heightened with the 2007 growing season. Deep and concentrated with balance and structure. Bright aromas of roses, tobacco and spice lead to a full palate of blackberries, cherries and cocoa. The mid palate is full and leads to a bright long finish of cherries, caramel, spice, cassis and coffee.

    • Varietal Content: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
    • Total Acidity: .59
    • pH: 3.83
    • Cooperage: Aged 27 months in French Oak, 60% new
    • Release Information: 5000 six bottle packs, May 2010
    My Notes:
    2007 Ghost Block Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
    $55 (est from 2006 vintage)
    14.7% Alcohol

    Quite opaque with just a bit of see-through on the perimeter of the glass.  Herbal Eucalyptus at first on the nose but then along comes some caramel.  Would have liked more straightforward fruit, but there's no denying this is quality stuff.  Could get better with age if it comes together.  Whether you'll enjoy it depends on your preference for fruit vs. herbal.  Quite an intense wine either way. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

    91/100 WWP: Outstanding

    Based on the price point and overall experience I'd probably buy one more bottle of this wine to lay down for 2-3 years.  A similar conclusion that RJ's Wine Blog came to regarding the 2006 I believe.

    A more affordable play if you're looking for a more fruit forward 2007 Napa Cab?  Honig.  Available in the low $30s if you shop around it's guaranteed to satisfy.  Some other notable big 2007 Napa reds to consider:
    What are some of your favorite plays in 2007 Napa reds?

    Read more...

    Tasting Report: 2008 Shea Wine Cellars Estate Pinot Noir

    Saturday, August 7, 2010

    With the tax free weekend coming up in Massachusetts I find myself scrambling around a bit trying to assess whether I'd like to add to my position in certain categories.  2007 Napa Valley Cabernet and 2008 Oregon Pinot Noir are hot right now so last night for pizza night I cracked open a bottle of 2008 Shea Wine Cellars Estate Pinot Noir.

    The wine carries a release price of $40.  If you shop around a bit you can catch it in the low to mid $30s.  Tax free that's a pretty good price for a nice bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir.  But lately I'm finding it's easier to find an outstanding bottle of Pinot Noir for $20 and under.  Like the 2006 Londer Anderson Valley (CA) Pinot Noir, the 2008 Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir (also from CA), and the 2005 August Cellars Pinot Noir (from Oregon).  So the pressure is on for a $30+ wine to bring some excitement.

    I tasted through a number of 2008 Pinot Noirs at an Oregon wine dinner a few month back and was impressed with the wines.  Shea Wine Cellars wasn't present at that tasting so this was my first chance to try their 2008.  When I first looked up the wine in Wine Spectator's database I was confused because I've seen retailers describe it as a 93 point Wine Spectator wine.  Spectator's database lists it as 91 points so I assumed it was a retailer error.  However after further investigation the 93 point rating came from a non-blind vertical tasting (the same wine over a series of vintages) their Oregon editor Harvey Steiman did on-site at Shea Wine Cellars just a few months ago.

    I had the 2006 vintage of this wine a while back and rated it 90 points (kicking it old school with a Corkd review instead of CellarTracker!).  I also had a 2008 from Shea fruit made by Loring- again 90 points.

    Did the wine live up to a 90 point "outstanding" rating as we sat down and enjoyed it with our Upper Crust Pizza last night?  Unfortunately, not quite.  Here are my notes:

    2008 Shea Wine Cellars Estate Pinot Noir
    $40
    14.2% Alcohol
    3,678 Cases Produced
    (2007 label image shown)

    Somewhat limited in aromatic volume even after being open for several hours.  It does hint at some pleasant cherry and fresh forest-after-a-rainstorm notes but I had to squint and search intently to find them.  Some vibrant shots of acidity the first few sips.  Surprisingly tannic when consumed on its own but works nicely with food.  The wine is young and may improve beautifully with time, but for now I can't see my way to enthusiastically recommending this wine as outstanding.  Still, a nice bottle to have on your table for a sit down occasion.

    88/100 WWP: Very Good

    See what others thought on CellarTracker
    Shop for this wine on Wine-Searcher.com

    What wines are you eyeing for bulk purchase next weekend?

    Read more...

    Tax Free 25% Off at Upper Falls in Newton, MA

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    In Massachusetts we sometimes do this silly thing where we encourage people to delay buying stuff until a special weekend where no taxes are collected.  In 2010 it's the weekend of August 14th and 15th and the tax relief applies on most items less than $2,500.  Last year we didn't have such a holiday and since the 6.25% tax on wine is new within the last year this is the first time tax relief will apply to alcohol.  More here from the Providence Journal and official word from the MA Citizen Information Service.

    Concurrent with this Upper Falls Liquors in Newton, MA is offering 25% off 6 or more non-sale bottles of wine.

    Check 'em out:
    Upper Falls Liquors
    150 Needham Street
    Newton, MA 02462
    617-969-9200
    Facebook
    Twitter

    Further Reading:
    This coming November we'll have a choice as voters whether to repeal the alcohol tax at the point of purchase.

    I don't have a lot of specifics at this point, but I'm hearing whispers of sales at other Massachusetts wine retailers as well.

    Question of the Day: What wines at Upper Falls do you recommend? Any other sales you're hearing about?

    Read more...

    Pinot Noir Showdown: California vs. Oregon

    Monday, August 2, 2010

    A couple days ago I mentioned I'd be following up with my first "bulk buy" recommendation since the 2007 Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel.  The wine is the 2008 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir mentioned below.  After this tasting, I found it on an short-burn E-mail deal from a retailer at a price too low to mention, but if you can find it in the neighborhood of $30 I think you'd be impressed.  The more affordable 2008 Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir is also an outstanding buy that can be had for around $20 if you shop around.  I think these wines along with the Elk Cove in this review are outstanding -and- good values in my book.

    What region comes to mind when you think of top quality domestic Pinot Noir?  If you're like a lot of people I've asked, the Willamette Valley tops the list.  This may have as much to do with Oregon's nearly singular focus on the grape variety as it does on the outstanding Pinot Noir produced in the region.  But California produces some fine Pinot Noir too.  In fact the California Pinot Noir tasted in this report impressed me so much, it's a contender for my most exciting wine of the year.

    The theme of a recent Pinot Noir online tasting event was to grab some Pinot Noir from your favorite regions and then tweet about it with a hashtag.  Like #wv for Willamette Valley or #slh for Santa Lucia Highlands.  It was a fun event and as you can see from the results Oregon was by far the most popular region.

    Relative to other varietals, I drink a lot of Pinot Noir.  In fact, looking back at my consumption history on Cellar Tracker over the past couple years it's out in front of Cabernet Sauvignon 72 bottles to 58 with Riesling a distant 3rd.  For the event, I tasted two wines: a 2008 Elk Cove Mount Richmond Pinot Noir and a 2008 Bell Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir.

    I chose each of these wines because they represent an upper end single vineyard designated label from wineries with more affordable appellation designated offerings.  Elk Cove's Willamette Valley Pinot Noir sells in the mid $20s, as does the Belle Glos Meiomi.  The wines I tasted this evening both sell in the mid-$30s with retail prices in the $40s.

    In reality, this wasn't so much California vs. Oregon as an opportunity to taste high quality stuff side by side to take stock of stylistic differences.  Which state produces better Pinot Noir?  Depends on what you're looking for.  Here are my notes:

    2008 Elk Cove Mount Richmond Pinot Noir
    $48
    13.5% Alcohol
    894 Cases Produced
    94 Points Wine Spectator

    I tasted a bunch of Oregon wines including several Pinot Noirs from the heralded 2008 vintage at a wine dinner at Blue Ginger a while back (my thoughts here).  Good stuff, but nothing compares to sitting down and really focusing on one or two wines over the course of an evening.

    This wine is dark in color and very refined stylistically.  A little bashful aromatically but improved with air (and after being poured through a wine aerator).  Balances rich flavors with ample acidity.  Elegant stuff that may well benefit from some bottle age.

    The only off note I detected, and it's a quirky I-don't-know-how-to-describe-it kind of thing but it's kind of a "twang" that I've gotten in several Oregon Pinot Noirs.  It's like a weedy/stemmy/dill flavor that pops up like a gopher every once in a while.  Strange, but it got in the way of full-throttle enjoyment for me a couple times with this one.

    That aside, an opulent fine wine that I'd be proud to serve at a sit down dinner.  Shop for it on Wine-Searcher.com.

    91/100 WWP: Outstanding


    2008 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir
    $44
    14.8% Alcohol
    1,635 Cases Produced

    I talked about the 2008 Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir (Pronounced BELL GLOSS MAY-OH-ME) a while back as a value alert purchased for right around $20 (Release Price is $25).  It's a blend of grapes from Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara.  I've had 3 bottles of that wine in the past couple months and every time it's been a real winner.

    The Las Alturas Vineyard is a single-vineyard wine (Release Price $44) from the Santa Lucia Highlands American Viticultural Area.  Santa Lucia Highlands is in Monterey County (here's a link to a vineyard map from SantaLuciaHighlands.com) so it's south of San Jose and San Francisco rather than north like Napa and Sonoma.

    The wine comes in a wax-dipped enclosure which gives it nice visual appeal.  Theirs comes with a handy "string" you can use to easily remove the top portion of the wax for easy access to the cork.  Handy tip on getting through wax enclosures though: Don't bother chipping away at the wax with a knife or a foil cutter.  Just insert the corkscrew right through the wax and the cork should break right through the wax with ease.  Funniest tweet of the night regarding the enclosure here.

    The Las Alturas was ready to go from the moment I opened it, revealing wonderful cherry pipe tobacco aromas, dark rich cherries, and even a little bit of earth.  Floods the palate with delicious rich fruit flavors and spice on the finish.  Never gets jammy or over the top, but it's not for the anti-flavor elite.  Finish goes on for a mile but not in a bad aftertaste kind of way- more of a "I want some more of that" kind of way.  Wow.  There's a striking similarity between this wine and the for affordable Meiomi but this wine succeeds in a big way in taking the experience to the next level.  Well done.

    I've been comparing every Pinot Noir I've had since I tasted it, and unfortunately it's frequently making other wines look run of the mill.  One to seek out if you can find it for anywhere in the neighborhood of $30.  Shop for it on Wine-Searcher.com.

    94/100 WWP: Outstanding

    More information about the Las Alturas Pinot Noir in this short but excellent video:



    Conclusion and Recommendations:

    The Belle Glos (California, Santa Lucia Highlands) was brawn to the Elk Cove's elegant yet confident finesse.  Both wines were outstanding but for me the Belle Glos Las Alturas stole the show.  Easily a candidate for my wine of the year for its rich luscious deliciousness with layered complexity.  A remarkable example of what Californian Pinot Noir can offer.

    Belle Glos Las Alturas was a sample for review.  Belle Glos Meiomi was purchased at The Spirit Shoppe (WWP advertiser) and the Elk Cove was purchased at @WineCellarsMA.

    Buy the 2008 Belle Glas Clark & Telephone from Wine.com:
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    Question of the Day: What are your thoughts on California Pinot Noir vs. Oregon?  What differentiates them in your experience and which are you buying more of?

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