Shiraz Blind Wine Tasting

Recently (ok, a few weeks ago now) I was invited to participate and help host the Los Angeles area version of a nationwide blind wine tasting.  This event was put together by WineTwits, a huge online wine centric community that focuses in and around the Twittersphere.   The aim of this night was for us to host a blind wine tasting on behalf of Yellow Tail Reserve.  Yellow Tail is absolutely not a brand that I reach for, own, or ever call for in a restaurant or bar.  My history with the brand was that it was simply a lower end supermarket (aka mediocre) level wine and nothing special.  This all said, I knew this was a blind tasting and I’d have to put my palate to the test rather than my perceptions of a brand. 

In the Los Angeles area, we had 10 total tasters join us for what turned into an awesome, educational, and overall a lot of fun evening.  The way the event worked was pretty cool.  The day before the tasting, we received a box with tasting notes, turnkey instructions for hosting, 4 tasting bottles of Shiraz that were both wrapped in foil as well as brown bags, few other bottles of other Yellow Tail offerings to kick off the evening, and of course a cheat cheat to be used for the final reveal at the end of the tasting.  We got lucky and had the good fortune of having Pourtal in Santa Monica host our tasting.  Pourtal is an amazing wine bar down by the beach.  The owner went above and beyond setting up the patio for our tasting, complete with large notebook computer, speakers, wine glasses, and anything else we could dream up to ask for.  Being that this tasting was happening live across 20 other cities in the US, the Los Angeles crew opted instead to start a few hours later and simply watch the tasting via a video feed loop.  The event was lead by Doug Frost, a Master Sommelier and Master of Wine, and Yellow Tail owner John Casella. They were both on-hand at the Boston tasting, and through the magic of video, this live tasting was transmitted in real time to all other markets that were tasting at the time.  

Overall the event was excellent with a few expected hiccups with video feeds and audio quality.  Our group, like each of the other groups, tasting on our own, referring to and viewing the video feed as we progress from bottle to bottle in turn.  Like all good tastings, we compared notes, debated flavor profiles, and in the end voted on which we preferred. 

In the end, we tasted four different Shiraz  – 

  • Wine No. 1 – 2007 Archetype Shiraz – $15
  • Wine No. 2 – 2008 Marquis Philips Shiraz – $13
  • Wine No. 3 – 2006 D’ Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz – $60
  • Wine No. 4 – 2008 Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz – $11

In the end, my two favorite wines of the evening were #2 and #4.  Yeh, I know, Yellow Tail was in the final as one of my top picks – who knew?  The Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz was overall very drinkable, had a nice full body, and was a mix of darker fruits and pepper.  Overall, at only $11 I think its totally worth grabbing a bottle for a mid-week glass of vino.  Wine #3, the Dead Arm, was a nice Shiraz, but at $60/bottle I can see no chance that I would ever pay that for it.  If I’m spending that kinda money on a bottle of wine, its going to need a lot more character that this simple Shiraz.

In the end, while I know I probably am not going to run out to the store to buy a bottle tomorrow, I was very impressed with the Yellow Tail Reserve product and can see the extensive amount of effort that they are putting into the brand (and more importantly the end product). 

If you’re into Shiraz, give it a try and let me know what you think.

Cheers, Doug !

Wine Weekend Away Part 2

Day two started off a little slow, but then again, between tasting and drinking we polished off a nice amount of our favorite juice varietals the day before. 

Today was going to be a great day, and we all knew it.  Our first stop of the day was going to be meeting with Curt Schalchlin from Sans Liege Wines.  Curt is the winemaker and owner of this boutique, cult favorite Rhone variety style winery, known for choosing the best fruit from Santa Barbara up to Paso Robles.   The Sans Liege concept of “without allegiance” is his way to acknowledge that these grape varietals do not have a history on the central coast, yet, in the spirit of “independence in wine making” he’s going to go for it and make the best damn wine he can.

Now I have to admit, I really wasn’t ready to start tasting wine when we first arrived.  Curt came outside and greeted us, and his genuine warmth and down to earth nature was immediately welcoming.  He has his operation housed within Central Coast Wine Services in Santa Maria.  While Curt’s operation is amazing, he walked us through the CCSW complex and explained how the “big boys” produce wine in mass.  I’ve seen barrel rooms and wine caves on many occasions, though in this case walking the floor, seeing the de-stemmer, the sorter, the varied bins and drums, not to mention the giant steel drums, were all an amazing site.  This facility provides services to several big name wineries in the Central California Coast, doing anything from grape to bottle. 

In contrast this this automated and processed world, Curt showed us where he makes his wine, the old fashioned way, by hand.  We even got to press down the grapes in a bin to aid in the fermentation process.  Not exciting to some, so cool to us.  The warmth and aromas coming off these just picked fruit was inspiring.  Now, I was ready to taste some wine !  We sat down at casual table surrounded by rows and rows of stacked barrels, to walk talk and taste our way through the world of Sans Liege. 

I must admit, this is without doubt, one of my new favorite wineries!!  Not only is Curt making amazing Rhone blends, but he’s managing to keep the price points down.  Not only is the wine spectacular, but each bottle tells a story, starting with the name itself – The Pickpocket, The Offering, The Transcendentalist – each is a different wine with different story to tell, and each with its own unique spin on things.  Needless to say, we had a great experience here and walked out with a nice array of wines to try back home.

From here, our little group had a monumental decision to make.   We were all hungry, but the tasting rooms close early.  The decision was made, rather quickly I’d offer up.  We jumped into the waiting car and raced off to the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, opting to eat after the wineries close rather than waste precious wine time eating.  Now this area is not what most people think about when they think wine tasting but its definitely something I’d recommend experiencing.  The Wine Ghetto is an industrial park, located behind a Home Depot in Lompoc.  Visiting here is a factory style visit, although the tasting rooms have come along nicely this past year.  In the front of each “office” is the tasting room, and the back warehouse area is used to make, store, and age the individual wineries wine.  Each, very different from the next so give yourself some time to go into and try each one.   A star in my opinion here in Palmina Wines.  They have a nice variety of Italian inspired wines, a pleasant staff, and nice snacks to complement the wine tasting experience (did I mention we skipped lunch?).   They I’d have to admit are probably one of the bigger players in this complex.  The Lompoc Ghetto complex houses around 10-12 different and unrelated wineries, ranging from literally husband and wife winemaker teams to larger midsized producers.

When we left the Ghetto I was more or less wine’d out.  Tasting is fun, but honestly I can only go to 4-5 places MAX before my palate is fried and I lose my ability to distinguish flavor profiles (not that I’m that good to begin with).

For dinner, we went over to Full of Life Flatbread  up in Los Alamos.  This little joint in this tiny throwback old west feeling town is exactly what we needed.  Several of the locals we ran into over our weekend mentioned this as a local favorite so we knew we had to try it.  Excellent salads and artisan styled flatbread pizzas worked their magic to fill our stomachs, while a nice selection of local wines did the job to complement the food.  They also had a nice beer selection as well.

All in all, I remain a huge fan of wine country weekends away, and am already looking forward to going back up (hopefully very soon).  My next hope – roll up my sleeves and help with making wine.  I’m ready to get dirty and jump in today.

What do you like about wine tasting?   Favorite memory?  Please share…

Wine Weekend Away Part 1

We had an awesome time up in the Santa Barbara Wine Region last weekend.  First off, so sorry for being radio silent last week.  After what turned out to be an amazing weekend of wine tasting and education, I returned to my alter ego life and immediately jumped on a flight for a marketing consulting gig.  I needed that time away to dry out and was so crazy busy last week that I simply didn’t find the time to whip up a post..

This wine tasting trip was different for me than most in the past.  First off, we went with friends that we’ve never been to wine country with before, although we’ve done that a 100 other times.  Our friends were awesome and I believe had a great birthday weekend away.  The key difference this time is that for the most part, we avoided the large vineyard tasting room experience (also known as crazy tour bus infested tourist traps) and instead met one on one with some amazing people in the wine trade – sellers, wine makers, field harvest hands, and winery operations staff.  It was one of the most educational and fascinating wine tasting weekends that I can recall.

Now I’m not completely against the tasting room setup, although I do long for the old days when tasting was free (or comp’d if you purchase), when staff seemed to enjoy their jobs, and when you could taste and learn and enjoy before they throw the “wine club” brochure in your face.  This all said, more often than not, I taste in tasting rooms, and enjoy chatting wine with other visitors and wine lovers.

This trip rocked because we got face time specifically with the people making the wine, and to be honest, their passion for the craft was completely contagious.  Our first stop of the day was a private tasting and lunch with Jeff Fink, winemaker/owner of Tantara Winery.  Now after driving through the rolling hills out to the Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley, we arrived to what looked and feeled like a scene from BottleShock.  Jeff was there with a huge smile and down home style to welcome us, and he immediately introduced us to his team and colleagues that were in attendance – everyone from the sales manager, harvest field hands, to fellow winemakers.  We sat down to a wonderful meal catered in from a local Italian joint and immediately jumped into some time.  Jeff told us they love to “brown bag it” and we simply went for the ride.  In this case, all of the bottles of wine on the table were concealed in brown lunch bags, hiding their identity.  All we knew for sure, was that we’d be tasting several Pinot Noirs, and a handful of whatever else they stumbled across that morning.  Speaking for myself, I felt completely at ease with this group, although clearly out of my league on wine knowledge.  I could often pick varietal (sometimes even guessing right), but choosing the vintage, region,  and clone were well above my and my groups level.  We loved the game, and once each wine was revealed, we enjoyed chatting and talking about the tasting notes. 

In the end, we learned a lot, both about the wine and the personalities behind them.  As the lunch went on, friends simply stopped by with bottle in hand and we kept on tasting and learning.  In the end, I think we tasted as many wines from Tantara as from elsewhere in the region.  By this point, I was a bit fuzzy on Tantara’s tasting notes and styles, however we still managed to leave with a 1/2 dozen bottles to revisit at a later date.  If your looking for a fun, educational experience, definitely check out Tantara.

From here, we immediately headed over to Foxen Winery.  As members, we love their big, spicy, bold reds and were happy to brings friends to “the Shack” tasting room.  I know, I should embrace Foxen’s grown and new tasting facility, literally 1000 feet down the road, however, the small rustic charm of the Shack is Foxen to me as much as their wines are.  Here, we simply tasted and relaxed.  We needed a more casual tasting after our lunchtime session and Foxen and their cult worthy Reds were exactly what was needed.

A quick stop in Los Olivos, well ok, maybe not that quick now that I think of it.  Wine country tends to close down around 5-6pm, so we went to the local wine shop/restaurants on the strip to enjoy some casual appetizers and a bottle of wine.   Dinner this evening was at Jocko’s in Nipomo, California.   Now we’ve been loyal fans of The Hitching Post II for well over a decade now, but eager to try something new we ventured north.  In the end, the wait was beyond insane, the wines were good, and the steak was excellent.  For me, not quite Hitching Post quality, but then again, the prices were half!  I’d  highly recommend it, although learn from our mistake and call ahead to get on the list.  If you forget, plan on sitting in the bar, working your way through a couple bottles of decent local area wines, and snacking on relish trays.  Oh yeah, the girls working the front desk, don’t take bribes (from what I hear!).

Part Two, coming up later…..

Wine Country Preparation – Santa Barbara Region

OK, I’m excited.  This weekend we’re heading up to the Santa Barbara wine country region.  My wife and I love wine, love wine country, and love being away from Los Angeles on weekends like this.  I’d say we head up there 3-4 times a year, minimum.  It’s more or less become a tradition on Mothers Day ever since our almost 7 year old son was born.  Picture a tiny baby, sitting in a Baby Bjorn (baby carier), while Mommy and Daddy talk with people at the tasting bar and compare tasting notes.  Believe it or not, he loves going up to wine country (I’ll talk about this on another post).

So wine country.. I love going!  Being surrounded by people who make their living from the grapes they grown, being surounded by those who cook with and incorporate this wine into everything about their everyday is just so much fun for me.  We often do day trips, but this weekend is a full blown weekend away with friends to celebrate two birthdays.  That gives us, almost 3 full days immersed in the world of wine.

While we don’t want to, or plan to, map out a detailed itinerary, we have decided to scope out the basics so we can maximize tasting and minimize driving.  Day one is simple – drive up, hit a little breakfast joint near the beach in Carpinteria in route, then boogie all the way up to Laetitia Winery.  We’re members here and need to pick up our September wine club shipment.  Since we’re there, why not taste a bit too!  I must say, while we’re members of their sparkling club (the wife loves her some bubbles), they make some awesome reds! 

After that, our friends should have made their way up to the hotel in Buellton so we’ll find a meeting place and jump into one car.  Our opening day will be to hit a few wineries in the area and potentially hit either Hitching Post II or Jocko’s up in Nipomo for dinner.

While we don’t yet know where to hit, some of those on our radar for the rest of the weekend include:  Tantara, Demetria, Sans Liege, Cottonwood, Foxen, Tres Hermanas, Buttonwood, Coquilocot, Pali, and the Lompoc Wine Ghetto.  Both Tantara and Sans Liege are by appointment only, and I think we’ve got one of them booked already for a little 1-1 time with the winemaker.  I’ll report back !

So fellow wino’s, especially you out here on the left coast.  Where do you go?   What do you taste?  Where to eat?   Advice please!!!   I’m not a newbie to the area but love finding that new (or old) hidden gem and getting referrals from other like minded people.

Dont just voyeur on by this little posting – stop, tell, talk, share….

 Cheers, Doug !

What to drink with a burrito?

So what goes best with frozen burritos?  I mean, they are homemade, by the wife, and now they are frozen.   You see, she knows I love them and when we do “taco night” she makes a ton of extra burritos, freeze them for me, then enjoys the fact that I have something to eat, that’s homemade by her, for when she’s out and about.  I must say, beer sounds best for this evening.  Something complex, deep, dark, that can stand up to the ton of flavor that my wife puts in them.

So, back to this beverage challenge.  The decision is done, I’m opting for 1554.   It’s an easy to drink, dark, semi rich beer.  They call it an “Enlightened Black Ale”.  I like a dark beer, and while this one is dark, its also easy on the palate and goes down smooooooooth.  I initially ran across this one at my local liquor store.  From there, a few days later I was with a friend at one of the new local Tavern’s that are popping up all over the place and the bartender recommended it to me, again.  I thought it was fate, tried it, and whamo, liked it.

You like?  You selecting something different?  Do tell.. but do it quick, I’m drinking beer here!