Best Wines at Total Wine

Monday, December 28, 2009

A good friend asked for some wine recommendations for gift-giving purposes, so I thought to share my suggestions here to see if anyone else had a tip to share based on inventory at Phoenix-area Total Wine stores.  Let us know in the comments section.

Looking to give a gift of 3-4 wines to a friend who drinks mostly California Cabernet.  Average cost around $25/bottle.  Shopping to be done at Total Wine's Desert Ridge location in Phoenix, Arizona. 

For gift giving purposes, there's a few different ways to go.  You can give wines you think they'll like based on awareness of the categories they're fond of.  Or, it can be nice to focus on a region (France, Italy, Napa) and then combine the wine with a book about wines/travel to that region.  Or, you can mix it up and give them wines that align with the taste profile of their favorite category. 

Here’s 4 Napa Cabs that I’d recommend:
Chappellet Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Mountain Cuvee $24.99
-Delicious entry-level offering from a winery making incredible Cab (Chappellet Signature) at the $40 price-point. For immediate consumption (as opposed to cellaring it for a couple years) I think their Mountain Cuvee is a better play.

Honig Vineyard & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $31.99
-This is an outstanding wine and a good buy at $32. Big, bold, aromatic Napa Cab that drinks like a $50 wine. Highly recommended.

2006 Groth Vineyards & Winery Cabernet Sauvignon $39.99
-Long-standing brand that’s staged a bit of a comeback with this vintage. Drinking very nicely. Big and chewy without being harsh. Elegant label too.

Buehler Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley $27.99
-Buehler consistently makes a legit Napa Cab at a reasonable price-point.  This isn’t the best price I’ve seen on this wine, but if you want to do 4 Napa Cabs this is one I’d choose to round it out. Or ask someone who works there for a recommendation within your budget.

Other Red Value Picks:
Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Mendoza $9.99
-Haven’t had the ’08 vintage of this wine yet, but the 2007 was a WSJ value-pick and an amazingly delicious $10 wine.

2008 Two Hands Wines Shiraz Angels Share McLaren Vale $31.99
-Not the best price on this one (I’ve seen it for just over $20 here in Massachusetts) but this is a very delicious (if higher alcohol) Australian Shiraz.

Hall Merlot Napa Valley $22.99
-Haven’t had their Merlot but really enjoyed their Cabs.  Don’t see that Total Wine carries the Cab but if you wanted a Merlot to mix in with an assortment of varieties I’d give this one a go.

Carmel Road Winery Pinot Noir Monterey $14.99
-It’s tough to find a good bottle of Pinot Noir under $20 but luscious soft fruit makes this one a crowd pleaser. 

Pedroncelli Winery Pinot Noir $16.99
-The label isn’t much to look at but this wine is legit Pinot.

Elk Cove Vineyards Pinot Noir Willamette Valley $24.99
-Love love love this Oregon Pinot Noir. Every time. Big and fruity while still being serious.  Great looking bottle, and not too pricey. Highly recommended.

Sanford Winery Pinot Noir Santa Barbara County $28.49
-Decent price for this classic Santa Barbara Pinot Noir.

Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel Paso Robles $22.99
-Can’t go wrong with a big luscious red Zinfandel from this famous CA producer.

I really appreciate the way Total Wine has per-location inventory online.  It enables me to give suggestions to friends they can easily find.  Vintages weren't available for all of the wines, but I assumed the current vintage was consistent with is coming to market now.

You can follow @Total_Wine on Twitter 

Question of the Day:
What do you think of these picks?  What $25 gift-friendly red wine would you recommend from this Total Wine location?


Mystery Shopper: Buying Wine Online from Vinfolio

Monday, December 21, 2009

"It's simple, seamless and a buyer's and seller's delight." -from

When you want to track down an old or obscure bottle of wine, and there aren't any feasible retailer options listed on, the next place to turn is the online auction market.  Although there are a number of wine auction sites, my gut instinct tells me that Vinfolio is the leader in this space.  This is based on how polished and functional their website is, how complete their information is in terms of how the process works, and their integration with CellarTracker (which allows users to easily list wines they have on hand for auction without having to let them out of their hands for an indeterminate price).

The wine I chose to pursue for the purposes of this experiment (I'm doing this all for you, my readers, don't you know?) was the wine that got me into wine- the 1997 Cakebread Cellars Benchland Select Cabernet Sauvignon.  If I look at online retailers selling this wine nationwide right now, I see 3 available ranging from $124.99 - $199.99:

If I wanted to pursue buying the wine from one of these 3 retailers, I would need to spend some time determining whether each of them actually had it in stock, what their shipping terms are, and finally whether I trust that they're legitimate retailers that would follow through with the transaction in a pleasant manner.

That can be a little cumbersome, and that's where Vinfolio comes in.  They offer a certain level of consistency in the buying experience.  When I looked a couple months ago, this wine was available on Vinfolio at a "Buy Now" price of $99.95.  I thought that was a nice round number to work with in terms of assessing transaction/shipping costs relative to the wine being purchased.

You start a transaction on Vinfolio by entering the wine you're looking for in a search box:

From there, they list whether the wine is available with a "Buy Now" price -or- whether it's available in the Marketplace at all:

For an older wine like this with limited volume, this isn't as informative as a wine with higher current interest.  Say for example the recently-announced Wine Spectator Wine of the Year- the 2005 Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet:

A couple of observations here.  First, this wine was selling for less than $25 in stores when it was released.  Now that Wine Spectator has rated it 95 points and named it their Wine of the Year it's going for north of $100.  This tells me that for as much as we like to think that professional ratings are losing influence and community rating sites like CellarTracker and Corkd are gaining power, Wine Spectator can still move the wine market.  Second, we discussed this wine and where to buy it in the Boston area over a year ago.  Think of the profit you could have realized if only you'd stocked up!  Subscribe to the WWP now and you might know about next year's big values before prices go up.

Back to our original hero- the Cakebread.  On October 24th, I registered with Vinfolio, secured an account, and bid the asking price of $99.95.  I was quickly alerted via E-mail that my bid was accepted automatically (since it was a Buy Now price).  Depending on the wine you're bidding on, it might already be in storage at Vinfolio -or- it could be in someone's private collection anywhere in the country.  For the particular wine I bid on, I could tell it was in a private collection so I fully expected it would take some time for the wine to travel to Vinfolio so it could in turn be shipped to me.

Vinfolio's informational pages describing all aspects of the buying/selling process are very well done.  Many questions and complications arise as a result of the inconsistent state-by-state laws.  I found the following pointers to their policies the most relevant to my transaction:
The specifics about how difficult it will be to buy wine online from Vinfolio will of course vary depending on where you live, but they do a number of things quite well in this complicated arena:
  • They offer Vinfolio Safe Shipping- a unique program where they monitor the weather at your shipping destination and determine the optimal time and shipping method which will get your wine to you without risk of weather-related damage.  They're not just winging it- they've done more to analyze this than anyone I'm aware of.  Read their blog entry on the subject for more information.
  • They offer free storage up to six months.  This provides the opportunity to wait until weather conditions are favorable -and- you can stack purchases from multiple sellers and then ship a case of wine to reduce per-bottle shipping costs.
  • They've negotiated favorable shipping rates through the carriers they work with, and they don't charge additional fees for packaging materials.
For my friends in Massachusetts- they do not ship here.  You may be able to finagle something through one of their third-party carriers and assume the risk of this transaction yourself.  I wouldn't recommend this approach.  It will cost a lot more money and it's probably illegal.  Better to ship to a friend/family member in a neighboring state.  And better yet, consume it in the neighboring state if possible to avoid the uber-ambiguous dilemma of whether you need to remit taxes to the state for out-of-state purchases just like you should when you buy a computer in tax-free New Hampshire and drive it home to avoid taxes.  You do submit taxes to the state at the end of the year for purchases like these, right?  And when you buying something on that isn't taxed too, right?  Here's more information in this 4-page document from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue regarding "Use Tax".

One other nuance related to Massachusetts...  We're the only state Vinfolio lists as being problematic to ship wine out of the state:

Another tax implication that's ambiguous to me is whether these auction-based sales brokered by Vinfolio (not sure if broker is the right word but you get the idea) are subject to taxation.  I've read through Vinfolio's tax collection policies but I'm still at a loss as to whether taxes should be collected (or later remitted by the purchaser) according to the state wine is shipped to.  We don't pay tax when we sell a piece of used furniture on Craigslist- do things change when we buy and sell wine?  Does the answer change because there is an intermediary involved?  Who knows, really.  For as much information as Vinfolio offers, many answers depend on the laws in each state and whether you want to play strictly by the book.

At any rate, once the bid is accepted the wait begins until the seller ships the wines to Vinfolio for inspection and shipping.  I received notification that my wine arrived in San Francisco on November 12th, 19 days after I placed my order.  I thought that was pretty reasonable.

Once the wine arrives, it becomes part of your VinCellar- Vinfolio's cellar management solution.  You request your wine be shipped from VinCellar.  I was initially confused by this part of the transaction because an important part of the web page wasn't being rendered using the Google Chrome web browser.  When I checked the same page with FireFox, it became immediately clear how to interact with my newly-added wine to request shipping.  This appears to have been repaired since I ordered my wine.

A nice feature, and one I wasn't aware of when ordering, is the ability to estimate shipping costs and assess whether they can ship to your zip code via the form pictured at left.  Enter a Massachusetts zip code and it will say "NA" (can't ship here).  Ship to a Manhattan address and it will estimate the cost of shipping 1 bottle.  Switch the quantity to a case and you can trade-off the per-bottle savings vs. how likely you are to do additional purchases in the near future.

I really appreciate this feature because one of the single most annoying things in e-commerce is time wasted considering a purchase that you can't even make because they don't ship to your state -or- you find out after investing a lot of time in the transaction that shipping costs are higher than reasonable.

I think Vinfolio's cross-country ground cost of $9.40 for a single bottle (as of this writing) is reasonable, especially considering they don't charge additionally for packing materials.  You can get it down to $7.27 if you ship to a business.  For a case, it's $35.37 to a residence bringing the per-bottle cost to $2.94.  These guidelines are helpful when seeking to trade-off shipping costs vs. the cost of the wine vs. procuring locally.  I probably wouldn't consider shopping Vinfolio for wines under $30/$40 as the cost of shipping would be prohibitive but your situation may vary.

I considered trying the weather-safe option, but that forced a selection of 2nd day air and boosted the cost considerably.  Since temperatures were moderate across the country I chose ground.  There's no additional fees on top of the price of the wine and the shipping cost.  My credit card was charged for the wine when the order was accepted.  It was charged again for shipping when I requested the wine be shipped.

Although Vinfolio's shipping information page says I should have received a tracking number via E-mail I never received one.  I wasn't able to confirm the current status of the order by logging into my account either (or if this is possible I was unable to figure it out).  As compared to, this (order tracking) was one aspect of the transaction that I felt could be improved.  Or with Domino's Pizza from the moment you place an order, you can see where in the process your order is:

For Vinfolio it could be Ordered/In Transit to Vinfolio/Arrived at Vinfolio/In Transit to Me.  But I couldn't get that information.  One potential complication is that if I had the tracking number I could see where the wine came from and Vinfolio avoids letting you know who the seller is.  I'm fine with this, but I just want to know the wine is scheduled to arrive at Vinfolio so I can in turn know when I can ask it be shipped to me.

I decided to just wait and see if it showed up.  And it did.  I'm sure I could have called or E-mailed about the tracking number but I decided to not sweat it and see how things went.  If I was having to negotiate work schedules or staying at home to receive shipment this could have been a source of tension.

In the end, I received a bottle of wine that I couldn't find anywhere in my state, it cost half as much as the nearest retailer was offering it (in Rhode Island), and the seller presumably was able to receive far more than they would have otherwise.  Vinfolio brought together a willing buyer and seller in an efficient transaction in an otherwise complex market.

  • They've put in a tremendous amount of work to establish an online auction marketplace that operates within the context of an incredibly varied and complicated set of state laws related to wine shipment.
  • The information they provide in terms of various selling and buying scenarios is the most comprehensive I've seen.
  • Thoughtful touches like weather-safe shipping options, free temporary storage to enable bulk shipments, and reasonable shipping costs make transactions as efficient and effective as is reasonably possible.
  •  If you live near San Francisco or Napa, where drop-off and pick-up at Vinfolio would eliminate shipping costs, I can see this method of shopping being amazingly affordable and convenient.
Areas for Improvement:
  • A key portion of a page wasn't rendered when using the Google Chrome browser. This has since been fixed.
  • Order tracking could be improved in terms of website navigation and overall clarity in terms of where in the process each order is.
Other Options:

    For hard to find wines, especially over $30, Vinfolio is a site I'd recommend consulting.  Conveniently, their listings are reflected on making it easy to one-stop/comparison shop online.  They've put together a marketplace that makes it as efficient and easy as possible to buy and sell wine within the context of a complicated interstate shipping environment.

    Further Reading:
    Question of the Day:

    What do you think of online auction sites like Vinfolio? Best thing ever? Or more trouble than it's worth?


      Wine Deal Alert: 2006 Keller Estate La Cruz Vineyard Pinot Noir

      Thursday, December 17, 2009

      They don't ship to Massachusetts, but the deal on Wines 'Til Sold Out today is a pretty good one. They're offering the 2006 Keller Estate La Cruz Vineyard Pinot Noir at $19.49.

      I visited Keller Estate in Petaluma, CA this spring.  Nice place.  I sought them out because Ryan Zepaltas sourced the grapes for his 95-point 2005 from this exact vineyard.  I just cracked open a 2004 Keller Estate La Cruz Pinot to remind myself what the wine is all about.  It's a restrained expression of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, full of flavor but not overbearing.  Medium-body, medium-acidity, and classic Pinot Noir fruit on the nose.  Not a lot of earth, but then again, I haven't found Sonoma Pinot Noirs to ever offer a lot of earth.  Nice elegant stuff.

      I recently had the 2005 vintage of this wine poured by the glass at A.R. Valentien at The Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, CA.  I think it was $16 per glass.  Steep, but showing quite nicely and I enjoyed it very much with a fantastic Chicken "Under a Brick" with Braised Escarole and Crispy Prosciutto.

      All together, I thought this was a wine deal worth mentioning for folks in a position to take advantage.  The deal is only available 'til sold out so act quickly.

      Further Reading:

      Getting this E-mail Friday morning when the wine is already sold out?  If so you might want to follow me on Twitter to hear about wine deals like this real-time: @RobertDwyer

      Question of the Day:
      Tons of deals lately.  What are some of your sources for the best online wine deals?  Even if we can't take advantage of them in some states it's interesting to hear what's out there. Let us know in the comments.


      Restaurant Review: Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger Wellesley

      Wednesday, December 16, 2009

      Maybe it was because the first time we ate there we'd just closed on our house in Wellesley, but I've always thought of Blue Ginger as being a very expensive restaurant. So the other day when we skated out of there for$38 (tip included!) after a thoroughly enjoyable lunch for two (in their relatively-new lounge area) I've changed my tune on this restaurant. I think it's one of the best dining values in the Boston suburbs- if you play your cards right.

      Celebrity chef Ming Tsai's (PBS's Simply Ming, Iron Chef) Blue Ginger is perhaps one of the top things Wellesley is known for nationally (2nd to Wellesley College/Hillary Clinton's time there). It's a gem of a restaurant, originally opened in 1998 and expanded in May 2008 to include private banquets and a lounge area where they're open for lunch and serving Asian small plates.

      We arrived shortly before they opened at noon on Saturday and enjoyed our very-comfortable table in the lounge area adjacent to the redesigned bar. The seating was thoughtfully designed for this sort of dining- it's not as if you're awkwardly trying to eat food in a bar area.

      We started with the Sweet Potato-Taro Fries with Chili Aioli ($4). Very nice- hot and crispy on the outside, soft on the inside with plenty of delicious dipping sauce. Tip: This is a great pick for folks looking to satisfy Wellesley's bizarre unique "you can't have a drink without ordering food" law.

      Next, we chose a trio of Ming's Bings ($14)- an Asian dumpling-like interpretation of a slider. Fantastic. You can mix and match a variety of fillings- we chose the Blue "Cheeseburger" with Bacon, the Red Roast Duck, and the Traditional Ginger Pork Scallion. These were the highlight of the meal effectively giving us a chance to taste 3 unique flavors in a single dish. The Asian Slaw that accompanied this was particularly good.

      Finally, the Blue Ginger Lettuce Cups ($13) were a nice rendition of a dish seen at many restaurants. I particularly enjoyed the slightly crunch texture imparted by the vegetables that accompanied the flavorful stir-fried soy chicken.

      Here is a link to their complete LOUNGE MENU

      We had a chance to talk with Deborah Blish about their wine program. She explained their wine selections are a group effort, with Chef Tsai making some of the selections personally.

      Their new banquet rooms are configurable to handle groups of 10-80 and will host the following wine dinners:

      • January 12 - East Meets Spain's Jorge Ordonez
      • February 8 - Sake Dinner
      • March 8 - Australian Wine Dinner
      • April 5 - Honig Wine Dinner
      More information on their EVENTS PAGE


      I think the lounge at Blue Ginger represents one of the most unique lunch-time dining venues in the western Boston suburbs. The range of flavors you can sample with a few small dishes is amazing and I highly recommend stopping in. This is top-notch food on a budget.

      Check 'em out:
      Blue Ginger
      583 Washington St.
      Wellesley, MA 02482
      Follow @blue_ginger on Twitter

      Question of the Day:
      Have you been to Blue Ginger -or- recognize Ming Tsai's name from his TV shows? What do you think?


      Wine Shop Review: The Wine Bottega Boston

      Monday, December 14, 2009

      Sometimes the better stories take a little longer to write.

      A few months ago, I had a day off from work so I decided to visit a wine shop that I've heard good things about but haven't been to in a couple years. The store: The Wine Bottega in Boston's North End.

      The Wine Bottega was recently award Boston Magazine's highly regarded Best of Boston award in the Wine Shop category for 2009 beating out some formidable competition. In many ways, the Massachusetts wine market is a bit of an island unto itself with arcane legislation that prohibits open market competition on a number of levels. On the other hand, we're fortunate to have shops like The Wine Bottega that offer a high level of service and education to area wine enthusiasts.

      The day I stopped in, owner Kerri Platt happened to be in and invited me to sit in and taste along through 24 wines that wholesaler Jeff Slavin from Hangtime Wine Company was pouring for their consideration. What an opportunity to try outstanding wines from all over Italy.

      Kerri (formerly of Lower Falls Wine Co. in Newton, MA and Bare Cove Wine Annex in Hingham, MA) along with Matthew Mollo and Michael Dupuy made me feel right at home as we tasted through some good/very good Friuli, Super Tuscans and Nebbiolo d'Albas. They've got a way of being informative and educational without being preachy which I really appreciated. But when we got to the wines from Barbaresco I was *really* impressed. These wines had unique aromas I'd not experienced in others previously: Rose petals, tar and dark red fruit. Somehow these wines were, to me, dramatically different from Barolos I'd tasted (even though the two regions are within just a few miles of each other and both made from the Nebbiolo grape). The Barbareschi were medium bodied but very full of flavor. I was stunned by two wines in particular from Cigliuti- their 2004 Vigne Erte Barbaresco and to an even greater extent their 2004 Serraboella Barbaresco.

      The shop doesn't focus exclusively on Italian wine, nor do they ignore every-day drinking wines. All of their selections are thoughtful and hand-picked. It's the kind of place where you can ask them to select 6 wines to help you explore a region you're interested in and they'll pick an assortment of varietally correct examples that give you a good sense of what to expect from that category. They offer free tastings every Friday night from 5-8PM and have a regular schedule of focused tasting events.

      The Wine Bottega is located on Hanover Street in the heart of Boston's North End- home to unique Italian restaurants like Giaccomo's, Lucca and others. Not far from Bill Clinton's favorite spot (or so I've heard) for cannolis: Mike's Pastry. Parking is some of the tightest in the Boston area, but they validate and offer curbside pick-up!

      Check 'em out:
      The Wine Bottega
      341 Hanover St.
      Boston, MA 02113
      Follow them on Twitter
      Find them on Facebook

      Question of the Day:
      Have you been to The Wine Bottega? If so, what did you think?


      San Diego Wine Co. Does it Again

      Friday, December 11, 2009

      For the past couple years I've been working with a customer out in San Diego. Prior to my first trip out there, I recalled a vacation we took in the area a few years back and the great wine prices on wine we found at a Costco in Carlsbad, so I thought to check an area Costco while I was out there. I got lost along the way and instead discovered San Diego Wine Co. That random act guided me to one of my favorite wine shops in the country.

      Innocently situated in a strip mall near the Mirimar Naval Air Station, San Diego Wine Co keeps things simple. No fancy racks, or any racks at all for that matter: Wines are displayed mostly in the cardboard boxes they came in. They focus on popular categories like Napa Cabernet, domestic Pinot Noir, France and Italy. The wines they select in those categories tend to be highly rated by publications like Wine Spectator and hard to find -or- delicious crowd pleasers -or- small production California wineries I've never heard of before. The common denominator in the wines they select is that they offer them at unbeatable prices.

      The past couple of times I've been out there, coincidentally, they've sent out their monthly newsletter announcing their latest best deals. Their deals always seem to include one or two wines that I've had a very hard time finding in Massachusetts. Here's what I got this time:

      • 2007 Joseph Swan Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Cuvée de Trois
        93 WS/$28 Release Price/$26.95
        at San Diego Wine Co.
        Fantastic wine- thoroughly enjoyed it.
      • 2007 Coho Headwaters
        95WS on the '06/$40 Release Price/$31.95 at San Diego Wine Co.
        Sorry to say this one was consumed with the boys after hitting several bars. I seem to recall trumpeting the accolades of the '06 to my friends, probably talking about QPR more than they cared to hear about, and then heading out to get some burritos. :)

        Update: I did a more comprehensive tasting of the '06 and '07 Coho Headwaters.  Click here to have a look.

      • 2006 Gaja Promis Toscana
        Best Price in MA: $39/$29.95 at San Diego Wine Co.
        Corked. Bummer. I didn't have time to take it back (though I'm always in favor of returning corked wine). Really saddened by this after enjoying the Gaja Sito Moresco so so much.

      What to do next:
      Question of the Day: Why are wine prices so much higher in Massachusetts than California for wines from freaking Italy!?


      And You Wonder Why I Try to Avoid Shipping Wine to Neighboring States

      Wednesday, December 9, 2009

      I've mentioned in the past that restrictive Massachusetts wine shipment laws are annoying to me because they require us to have wine shipped to neighboring states to take advantage of deals from out of state retailers. Invariably, something goes awry with this transaction: Missed shipment, couldn't connect with the driver to sign, 2 delivery attempts have been made, what's the tracking number again, where do I need to go to pick up this stuff? You get the idea. Even if things go smoothly you're imposing on a friend or relative to accept delivery.

      It's not that big a deal, but I thought I'd share an E-mail exchange with my father-in-law that describes one of the better ways in which one of these transactions typically goes:

      From: Me
      To: My Father-in-law

      Hi There,
      I hope you don't mind, but I ordered some wine online and had it shipped to your place. It should arrive some time the first part of this week- 3 bottles. Here's the tracking info.
      I think it will require a signature but I hope the FedEx guy can catch you on a day you're around and this isn't a nuisance for you.
      Thanks! Appreciate it.

      From: My Father-in-law
      To: Me

      Dear Bob,
      Perfect timing.
      I'm picking up a new bottle opener today.

      From: My Father-in-law
      To: Me

      Dear Bob,
      The hooch arrived yesterday.
      They were all great!
      Too bad we couldn't finish the third bottle, we were drunk and it spilled as I recall.
      I guess we should have taken notes.
      Love, Dad.

      From: Me
      To: My Father-in-law

      I should have mentioned before- they weren't actually wine. They were poison, which I ordered to test whether someone might intercept the delivery and consume it for their own pleasure. Hope you're feeling okay. ;)

      Ah, fatherly hazing. Good times.

      On a serious note, I see that the dreaded Martha Coakley won the Democratic nomination for Ted Kennedy's US Senate seat. At first I thought this was an awful outcome given her opposition to consumer-friendly changes to Massachusetts wine shipping laws. However, as I think about this just a little more, I see this as an opportunity to get her out of the state Attorney General position so hey maybe things will free up a bit.

      Summing this up: Every Massachusetts resident should be in favor of freeing up wine shipping laws because allowing legal shipments of wine would enable the state to derive tax revenue from the shipments thus reducing the need to raise taxes in the state further.

      Like reading about stuff like this? I'd love it if you subscribed to updates via E-mail so we can continue the conversation.


      Holiday Wine Blind Tasting: Sure it looks good, but does it taste good?

      Monday, December 7, 2009

      This is a guest post from Todd Broderick, a fellow Boston-area wine enthusiast.

      Like many of you, every year my wife and I give out bottles of wine as holiday gifts to friends, family and coworkers. We go through at least a couple of cases, so we try to make it a somewhat value driven purchase. But above all, it needs to taste good! At least that is my opinion on the matter. I can completely handle finding a crowd pleaser for under $15 bucks; the challenge comes when my wife demands an aesthetically pleasing bottle and label. See, I care what it looks like, but not as much as I care about what it tastes like, so what to do? This year we decided to take an objective and democratic approach. Blind tasting and aesthetics judging!

      The Criteria:

      • Red Wine – just because I am biased and it’s my tasting so I make the rules
      • Under $15 – seemed like a reasonable cut off
      • Decent looking packaging – we had to start somewhere!
      Over the course of a few weeks during regular wine shopping we picked up a couple extra bottles here and there. Some of the initial selections were ruled out based on the color palate of the packaging. One of these in particular I would like to make specific note of is Peachy Canyon’s, “Incredible Red,” this has consistently been a good value Zinfandel that I was able to find for under $10. It has wide appeal and is worth trying if you’re not offended by a little baby blue on the label! What you do see here were the five finalists that made the cut for the blind tasting. We browsed the wines at a few local stores that tend to have pretty good and reasonably priced wines; the Wine Connextion in North Andover, Bin Ends in Braintree, and the Milton Fruit Center. The looks came first, then the varietals. The wide variety was somewhat intentional, so we could look for tastes that would be pleasing to wine enthusiasts and novices alike.

      We ended up with the following:
      • Michael Pozzan Zinfandel from Napa Valley, 2006, $15
      • Vignamaggio Sangiovese Il Morino from Tuscany, 2007, $10 to $12
      • Line 39 Cabernet Sauvignon from Lake County, CA, 2006, $8 to $10
      • The Velvet Devil Merlot from Washington State, 2007, $12 to $14
      • Viu Manet Secreto Carmenere from Chile, 2007, $10 to $14
      Once the list was narrowed down, the illustrious Robert Dwyer and I sat down to taste through the brown bagged extravaganza. My wife was wonderful; she bagged and poured the wines so neither of us could make assumptions based on bottle shape, weight, etc.
      1. The first step was to taste through the wines, thinking through what we liked but also what would garner appreciation from the widest array of palates that might receive one of these tasty gifts! We made our pass through and then ranked in order of preference.
      2. Step 2 was judging the bottle based strictly on its appearance, my wife Kelly provided an additional vote in this category.
      3. The combined result of the taste and aesthetics scoring led us to our final pick.

      Here is how they ranked in order of preference and a few tasting notes:
      1. Pozzan Zinfandel: Soft mouth-feel, vibrant sweet fruit, smooth overall and not overpowering with heat. Maybe a little too “luscious fruit” for some, but the slight hint of sweetness on the back will please many.
      2. The Velvet Devil Merlot: Nice fruit on the attack, smooth mid palate, but a little faint, light on the finish. Which in this case I think is a positive and might make it more appealing to a wider audience. This was a close second, if not tied for first for both Bob and I.
      3. Line 39 Cabernet: Confusing nose, smoky with a little lead pencil in the mix. Tight mouth feel, some initial fruit that only makes a split second cameo. Not terrible, but not great – I could definitely find a more pleasing Cab for $10 to $15 from South America.
      4. Secreto Carmenere: Very green nose, almost with a weird hint of motor oil. Not far off the flavor profile of other Carmenere that I have tried, but probably less appealing to a wide audience.
      5. Il Morino Sangiovese: Acidic, (tried it with some cheese too – didn’t make it more pleasant) Black tea notes, and a little heat on the back. Not terribly enjoyable.
      It was really a lot of fun to taste through these wines blind. It also made the evaluation process pretty interesting. Then the bags came off! We ranked in order of appearance:
      1. The Velvet Devil: Fun Label, easy colors to decorate
      2. Pozzan Zinfandel: Simple, screened bottle, red accent
      3. Il Morino Sangiovese: Fun, playful with good holiday colors
      4. Line 39 Cabernet: Simple label, not offensive easy to work with
      5. Secreto Carmenere: Cheesy cartoonish look
      The result was a tie between the Pozzan Zin and the Velvet Devil Merlot. Some of the more traditional people on your list might be confused or offended by the playful “Velvet Devil” concept. Either way you can’t lose with either of these wines, you won’t break the bank and people will always remember that yummy bottle of wine you gave them!

      In the spirit of not breaking the bank, we also thought about different ways that you can decorate bottles for gifts from extra holiday supplies you might have lying around. I must credit this to the wine chick (my wife) for always coming up with simple ways to enhance the bottle I’m bringing to the office grab!

      Illustrated in the picture below, here are some easy alternatives:
      • That piece of nice wrapping paper left at the end of roll, it’s just big enough to wrap around a wine bottle. Tape at the seam and use a silver sharpie to write a little holiday wish
      • Put the wine in a clear cellophane bag, available at most craft stores in bulk, hang an ornament off the neck or tie a bow on it
      • Cut up last years holiday cards, the part that says “Merry” or “Cheer” on it, hole punch the corner and tie a thin ribbon through, like magic it’s a wine tag
      • A simple red bow – looks great with the black and white of the Devil label!
      • Go green, recycle that wine bag you received last year but didn’t have the heart to throw away, even though they only paid 99 cents for it at the Chrismas Tree Shops!
      This blind tasting stuff is a lot of fun and I encourage you to get some friends together and try it. You will be guaranteed a good time, and you might even figure out a way to do something productive – like pick your holiday favorite!

      I hope our little experiment will help you find that perfect holiday gift! If not, that’s ok too because we had a good time trying!

      Happy Holidays!

      Todd can be reached via E-mail:
      You can also follow him on Twitter: @ToddBrod


      Cinderella Wine Nails Barbaresco Deal

      Thursday, December 3, 2009

      Okay, this is too coincidental to be true. As I've mentioned previously, we've been on the look-out for a Barbaresco case club deal. The tough thing with Barbaresco: It's not an affordable category. On one hand it's a tough wine to dabble in, on the other it makes it all the more necessary to combine purchasing power.

      That said, there's a limit to how much a case discount can reduce the price of a wine. By law, Massachusetts retailers aren't allowed to sell wine for cheaper than they buy it for. However, close-outs sometimes enable retailers to offer wine at seemingly impossible prices.

      I'm not sure how Cinderella Wine does it (witness this deal on Ridge Lytton Springs just a couple weeks ago) but when they mentioned they were featuring a 2004 Barbaresco I was wondering who the producer was. Lo and behold it was the exact wine I tried at a couple of tastings recently that made me reconsider whether opting out of Italian wine as a category was a good idea.

      When Italian wine disappoints me it's because it's thin, limited aromatically, lacking in flavor, and austere. It apologizes for this by claiming it needs to be paired with food in order to be enjoyed. I'm not buying it. Bad wine doesn't become good when paired with food.

      This wine, on the other hand, bucks the trend of these disappointing values. It's full of unique, complex aromas of red berries, leather, and spice. It's got a savory component on the palate that I love, and while it's true to its Italian roots with ample acidity, it doesn't whine about needing to be paired with food.



      Get Boisterous with Bubbles at Ball Square Wines in Somerville, MA

      Saturday, December 12th from 3-5PM at Ball Square Fine Wines, they'll be hosting a sparkling wine tasting event. Learn more about what Grower Champagne is, taste it and discover why it might be a better choice than the big brands that dominate the Champagne market. You'll also get a chance to nibble on snacks -and- sample other staff favorite sparklers from around the world. Sounds like a good chance to try some nice wines!

      The event is FREE and open to anyone 21 or older.

      Check 'em out:

      Ball Square Wines
      716 Broadway
      Somerville, MA 02144

      Click HERE to download the flyer for further information.


      Tasting Report: 2007 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon

      Wednesday, December 2, 2009

      Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon might just be the definitive aspirational Napa Cab. Readily available yet highly sought after, familiar yet prestigious, and ever-present in steakhouse cellar windows. Consistent as all get-out. Since 1998, Wine Spectator has rated every vintage between 91-93 points (all outstanding).

      Consumers are impressed as well. As of this writing, every vintage from 2001-2006 has a median rating of 92 on Cellar Tracker. The 2007 vintage is seeing an uptick however. After 36 ratings, the 2007 vintages carries a median of 93. People aren't frequently disappointed when they buy a bottle of Caymus.

      I'm hearing rumblings that it might be advisable to buy few 2006 Napa Cabs in favor of the 2007 vintage that's now coming to market from wineries that release their wines on the early side. In the grand scheme of things, talking vintage variation and Napa Cabs is a bit of a silly pursuit. It rarely rains during the growing seasons and the conditions vary from "good" to "great" and high quality names like Caymus can typically manage their way to success.

      Here are my tasting notes for this wine:

      2007 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon

      When I first opened this wine, I thought it was just another solid effort from the folks at Caymus. But after it breathed for just a little while I'm thinking this vintage might be a high water mark for Napa Cab. Classic Cabernet aromas of black currant with a touch of vanilla. Perhaps a little nutmeg. On the palate this wine is straight cola in a good way. Hardly tannic at all and it's only 2 years old. I was worried it was going to be a little young, but that's not the case. Perhaps not highly age-worthy but I thought this was an outstanding wine. A value at around $55 retail ($70 release price).

      94 WWP/Outstanding

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      Further Reading:

      • Lewelling Vineyards has supplied grapes to Caymus in the past, and they make some great wines of their own. Read more about Lewelling HERE
      • The 2007 California Pinot Noir vintage was hailed by Wine Spectator as being best-ever. Read more about there HERE. Will 2007 Napa Cab receive similar accolades?
      Question of the Day: Have you tried Caymus in the past? If so, what did you think? If not, what is your impression of the brand?



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