Sunday, June 27, 2010

Random Thoughts: On the Wine Bloggers' Conference

When I told my friends I was going to a wine bloggers' conference, they looked at me skeptically and then asked, "What are you going to do there?" No doubt they pictured a lot of intense people sitting through seminars with intriguing titles like, "Distinguishing funkiness: forest floor vs. barnyard" or "101 ways to describe tannins." Honestly, I wasn't sure what to expect, either, having only attended academic conferences to that point.

Part of a successful conference is the venue, but my friends' and colleagues' (at least the ones who don't know much about wine) reactions toward Walla Walla was one of scorn for this adorable little town. It's a great place for two reasons:

1. The plethora of wine tasting rooms within easy walking distance of my hotel.

2. The lack of humidity and pleasant temperature. We left HOT AND HUMID AS HELL Atlanta on Thursday. Warm and not humid? Really nice.

Keep that in mind if you're one of the bloggers complaining about Virginia next year -- every place has its charm, and Charlottesville has it in spades. I've liked Walla Walla since the first time I went there in 2007, but for some reason it gets a bad rap.

Back to the conference itself... The highlights for me pointed out some lessons that I had forgotten or that I needed to learn:

1. Wine tasting means wine spitting. Yes, this sounds silly, but the biggest surprise for me was how much wine I actually drank while at the conference. Admittedly, I'm not big on spitting. I just can't figure out how to do it gracefully. I did spit, though, at Woodward Canyon's vineyards because, hey, it was 9:00 in the morning, and it was a little too early for even me to start sipping. I did feel badly, particularly because the wine was good, and Rick Small, who is the fifth generation to farm the land (although the first to make wine) was so proud and passionate of the wines they make.

Speaking of crazy wine consumption, you may have seen my blog posts on the speed tastings. Trust me, I don't envy anyone who has subjected themselves to speed dating, although it may go better with a little wine. I poured a lot of good stuff out because there was no way to finish it before the next tasty bottle arrived with harried wine maker/representative/pimp. As for how badly it fried my palate… Let's just say it was so fried it could've been served up with hush puppies and slaw. That was a reminder how important it is to have adequate neutral-flavored munchies between tastes. Btw, mad props to Molly Dooker for bringing the wine with the pettable label:

Oh, and check out this post by Josh Wade at his Drink Nectar blog. He envisions the future of speed wine blogging as a sport. Watch out, Iron Chef!

2. While a love of writing is good, it's passion that will sustain. I felt lucky to witness the following examples of passion:

- Seeing Hardy Wallace speak on Sunday morning's panel. I may not entirely agree with him, seeing myself as a writer who happens to write about wine and not a "content pusher," but I admire his enthusiasm.

- Hearing Tertullia Cellars winemaker Quentin Mylet speak so lovingly of his Viognier, which was his first effort as a fledgling winemaker (and a darn good one). He described it as his "baby."

- Talking to David Honig of Palate Press. He thoroughly believes in what he's doing. He originally approached me about the ad network, but Palate Press also recruits writers. I'd've bitten much sooner if he'd mentioned that.

- Witnessing the efforts of the ladies from Okanagan Valley to start the movement to have the 2012 conference in Canada. Yay for Canadian wine! Boo for Canadian export difficulties!

- Hearing Nicky Vallee sing (@VinoChick75 on Twitter). For those who don’t know her, she is in the process of a reinvention, but one of her core loves is music. I was lucky to be on the bus with her for Saturday's excursion, and she got up and sang with the musicians at lunch. You can see the video here (the risk of hanging out with a bunch of bloggers – good equipment and immediate posting capabilities).

During this conference, I realized that, once I split the fiction off, I lost some of my passion for the Random Oenophile. For me, blog-post writing and fiction writing overlap a lot, and the conference helped me clarify how the skill-set is essentially the same (more about that on a post at Cecilia's Random Writings). I also realized that this split personality thing I have going on is not working for me because I feel too fragmented with the professional/personal dichotomy, and then splitting the fun part into wine and writing. I need to figure out how to give more reign to my creative part and let my other expertise shine through. I'm working on that.

3. Wine is a condiment. This is something the Montaluce guys profess strongly, and I agree. One of the most fun parts of the conference was Chef Jeffrey Saad's lecture on wine and food pairing as well as the actual pairings for lunch afterward by Chef Bear of the Marcus Whitman Hotel. When I'm out wine tasting, it's usually wine in isolation. This was a reminder of how flavors play together. The highlights of the pairing session were:

2009 Tilia Torrontes (Mendoza, Argentina) with Phyllo Bouchee with Monteillet Chevre, Pistachio, and Chestnut Honey
The Torrontes smoothed out the funkiness of the Chevre, while the honey brought out the minerality of the wine. Perfect!

2009 Clean Slate Riesling (Mosel, Germany) with Ahi Poke White Soy on Apricot Namasu (served in mini Chinese takeout containers with chopsticks – too cute!)
The off-dry Riesling and White Soy played so well together we can't wait to try something like this at home.

2004 Rioja Vega Reserva (La Rioja, Spain) with Pork Belly and Pea Vines with Saffron Scented Stock
Fatty Pork Belly and acidic Rioja tamed each other nicely.

2008 Terranoble Grand Reserva Carmenere (Colchagua Valley, Chile) with Oven Dried San Marzano Tomato and Andouille Flat Bread
Okay, this was essentially pizza and red wine, but rich pizza and a big, luscious red. It worked.

The other pairings were good, too. These were my favorites, and I liked them enough that I'll try them at home. Maybe I'll even write about them.

So there you have it, from the mundane to the lofty lessons. I'll do another post on the Saturday excursion, which deserves one of its own, as well as our post-conference wine tasting adventures. I'm still traveling, so free internet is hit or miss, but I'll post as I can.

Oh, and I should mention I'm drinking a beer as I wrote this. There's a saying that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine. It may also take some to recover from a Wine Bloggers Conference.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Live Blogging at 2010 Wine Conference: Speed-Drinking, Part Two -- Reds

Here's how this works: each winemaker or rep has 5 minutes to pour and talk about the wine, and we have the same amount of time to drink and write about it. 12 rounds. Here we go...

Monthaven Winery
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Central Coast)
Octavin technology -- an eight-sided "box" guaranteed to be good 6 weeks after initial opening, all parts recyclable
$23.99 for 3L package (4 bottles)
Blackberry nose, medium-bodied fruit with long finish and moderate tannin

Doolhof Wine Estate
2009 Dark Lady of the Labyrinth
Retail: $19
Breakfast (coffee & bacon) nose, smooth fruit and more coffee/mocha, done in toasted oak

Magnificent Wine Company
House Wine 2007: 32% Cab Sauv, 31% Syrah, 30% Merlot, 3% Malbec, 2% Zinfandel, 1% Cab Franc, 1% Petit Verdot
Retail: $13
Dark fruit nose, a little light-bodied with regard to flavors, but would be a nice, light summer sipper

2008 Sangiovese (Paso Robles)
Fruity-earthy nose, Sangiovese flavors, but not as acidic as one would expect from a Sangiovese; has a hot-climate backbone of cedar
Pairing suggestion: Tomato-based sauces

Louis M. Martini (owned by Gallo)
2006 Lot No 1 Cabernet Sauvignon (Mountain AVA's in Napa Valley)
Retail: $120 (Srsly!)
Smooth and elegant with long, fruity/oaky finish

Isenhower Cellars
Bachelor Button Cabernet (Walla Walla): 96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Petit Verdot
Retail: $28
Great berry/butter nose, old vine grapes, kind of delicate for a Cab, but still good w/nice structure

Don Sebastiani & Sons
2008 The Crusher Petit Syrah
$12 Retail
Berry and toasty nose, great mouth full of dark berry fruit, good balance w/ adicity

Desert Wind
2008 Ruah: 46% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc
Retail: $20
Fruity, coffee nose; big fruit, a little chewy with buttery finish
Guessed hot, right with 14.5% ABV

Duck Pond Cellars
2008 Red Blend (Wahluke Slope, WA): 52% Merlot, 29% Syrah, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon
Retail: $15
Bright fruit nose with leather, savory & chewy fruit, maybe a little bitter on the finish, but overall good; would be great with food

Molly Dooker
2009 Velvet Glove Shiraz
Retail: $180 (yes, srsly)
Ripe fruit with a little licorice on the nose, wow -- very smooth and savory fruit, velvety
ABV %15.5

Trio Vintners
2007 Riot: 52% Sangiovese, 36% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre
Very smooth nose for a Sangiovese, but has the acidity of the Italian grape and roundness of the others

Ponzi Vineyards
2008 Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley)
Earthy nose, earthy flavors continue on the palate with some interesting effervescence on the end of the tongue with typical Pinot cherry flavors

I think I just hit my tolerance, but that's also 12. Oh, wait, can't disappoint this guy...

2007 Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills)
Retail: $25
Another super earthy Pinot. Light- to medium-bodied, but nicely balanced. I'm done.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Live Blogging at 2010 Wine Conference: Speed-Drinking

Charles Smith Wines
Kung Fu Girl 2009 Riesling -- 1.5% Residual Sugar
"The Modernist Project" = drink it now
Retail $12
Notes: Crisp and refreshing, off dry and tart with nice citrus notes, smooth stone fruit undertones

K Vintners 2009 Viognier
Retail: $22
Notes: A little vanilla on nose, again crisp with good finish, more floral

Jordan Winery
2008 Chardonnay
Retail: $25
Oak & vanilla on the nose, not too oaky on the palate with good balance of oak and citrus
Would be great with Asian food.

a Maurice Cellars
2008 Columbia Valley Viognier
Delicate stone fruit nose, great texture -- chewy, but not syrupy, tart finish
Retail: $25

Cadaretta (winery named after a lumber schooner)
2008 SBS
Retail: $23
79% Sauvignon Blanc & 21% Semillon
Lime nose, citrus with another savory element that coats the palate -- some herbal notes, maybe? Long finish with a hint of sweetness on the end.

Le Chateau
2008 Chardonnay
Retail: $25
From near the airport, a little petrol & peppermint-vanilla on the nose. Interesting, can taste the alcohol, but balanced with vanilla and lemon/pear.

Don Sebastiani & Sons
2009 The Crusher Rose of Pinot Noir (Clarksburg): Pinot Noir, Viognier, Malbec
Very dry, floral nose from Viognier, mild fruit/plum, but some vanilla from oak
Retail: $9-$13

Cornerstone Cellars
2009 Napa valley Sauvignon Blanc
Single Vineyard, old clone, stainless steel fermented
Reminds me of European-style in that it's subtle and elegant with balanced citrus and good texture and a little spice at the end.
Retail: $25

Concannon Vineyards
4th generation vineyard, est. 1800's, 127 years ago
2008 Chardonnay, Conservancy (Livermore Valley)
Retail: $12-14
Light vanilla nose, lemon and brioche (yeah, got that from the tasting notes, but it fits)
Very enthusiastic about being "being friendly to Mother Earth" with solar power, etc.

Neethlinghof Estate
2008 Unwooded Chardonnay (South Africa)
Retail: $15
Nice floral/citrus nose, big citrus with mineral finish and a hint of nuttiness

Molly Dooker
2009 The Violinist (McLaren Vale): 100% Verdelho
Retail: $25
Apricot nose, some savoriness in the flavors -- toasty, maybe? -- and floral

Magnificent Wine Co
2008 House Wine: Chardonnay 78%, Riesling 11%, 5% Gewurtztraminer, 5% Muscat Canelli, 1% Pinot Gris
Retail: $13
Seashell-citrus nose, basically an all-around white with mineral, citrus, and a hint of floral

Dry Creek Vineyards
2009 Dry Chenin Blanc (Clarksburg)
Retail: $12
Stone fruit & herb nose, tropical fruit & a little grassy.
Back around to beginning with good pairing with Asian food. Also oysters.

Phew, and that was round 12 of 12. Ho-ly crap, that was intense! I'm glad I'm married so I don't have to do real "speed-dating."

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tasting Notes from the West Coast:

In honor of the upcoming wine bloggers' conference this weekend in Walla Walla, Washington, here are some recent notes from the Random Oenophile's West Coast correspondent James Bassett. All the content below is his. We're looking forward to visiting with him in Seattle next week. As you can see, he finds good stuff, both wine and stories (and we agreed on the "Southern Crossing," as you'll see next week):

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah Volume II
Charles & Charles
Mattawa, WA

The label looks like a poster for a low-rent circus coming to town, but fortunately this 50/50 blend isn’t nearly as egregiously gregarious. Light on the palate, not too tannic or oakey, and initially intensely plummy, though a surprising complexity develops through the long finish, with blackberry, plum, and spicy, acerbic cranberry riding on soft, sweet tannins. A hint of chocolate and even the vaguest touch of tobacco develop at the very end.

2007 Night and Day “Southern Crossing”
A to Z Wineworks, Rogue Valley, OR
36% Cab Sauv, 26% Merlot, 20% Syrah, 10% Sangiovese, 4% Grenache, 4% Cab Franc

Don’t let the mongrel blend fool you -- this is no mutt! A juicy Very Berry blast up front, tempered by spice and pepper, slowly gives way to a backbone of olives (*lots* of olives!), darker fruit, tobacco, and a slaty minerality that bites hard on the front of the tongue. The slate fades into cocoa in a long, slow finish. This wine gets *much* brighter as it open up -- taste it immediately after opening the bottle, then wait for 10 minutes before pouring a full glass, and you will be quite (pleasantly) surprised.

Corvidae Wine Company, Columbia Valley, WA
“Rook” 2007 CSM -- 17% Cab. Sauv., 57% Merlot, 26% Syrah

Full of fruit from the Merlot, with dark fruits like cassis, blueberry, and plum predominating thanks to the addition of the Cabernet, which also adds cocoa and rich tannins, but brilliantly balanced with smokey Syrah spices. Notes of leather, pepper, vanilla, and chocolate sneak in as well. This is a big, big wine, but it doesn’t quite manage to hide the heat from the alcohol. Perhaps the best CSMs I’ve ever encountered (though still not as spectacular as Corvidae’s The Keeper), but get it soon -- this vintage feels like it’s just on the downside of its prime.

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon
Barnard Griffin
Columbia Valley, WA

Berries (lots of ‘em!), plum, and cherry balance perfectly against an acerbic minerality and vanilla oak, with hints of mocha above and below. Bright and tart and surprisingly smooth, and all for less than $20 from a family-owned winery that is among the best in our fair state, with scads of awards (this particular wine is a double platinum award winner from Wine Press Northwest).

2007 Naked Cabernet Sauvignon
Snoqualmie Vineyards
Columbia Valley, WA

Tart cherry, currant, and cranberry aromas. The taste is full of fresh young fruit and herbs (definitely sage; is that licorice, too?), with a medium-bodied tannic backbone and some slightly sharp spice notes trailing off into a hint of oak in the finish.

Snoqualmie sells no wine for more than $26 (and many for considerably less -- this bottle was just $10), and all of their “Naked” wines are made with 100% USDA-certified organic grapes.

2006 Bombing Range Red
McKinley Springs Winery
Horse Heaven Hills, WA
Another blend, this one 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cab Franc, 8% Syrah, and 4% Mourvedre. (Yes, all of these grapes grow in Washington -- and very nicely, too, thank you very much!)

According to the back label, during WWII the Army “asked” families in the Horse Heaven Hills to leave their farms so the area could be used to train fighter pilots. If all those munitions had an effect on the soil, it wasn’t a bad one. The Cab character comes through the strongest right off the bat, of course, but the rest of the blend smooths it out into a mellower, medium-bodied drink. This is a tasty wine, full of plums, cassis, and cherries and other dark fruit., but cedar, sage, and subtle tannins keep this safe from “fruit bomb” status.

Bottle-aged, this is a fairly small production and not widely distributed -- like the Renegade, there isn’t even a UPC code, so even in the PNW you’ll have to look for this in specialty shops, but it’s worth it for a good lazy afternoon kind of wine.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Learnin' Oenophile: Tasting Class at Total Wine

Last Tuesday evening, my colleagues and I attended a wine class at Total Wine & More, Perimeter location. No, these weren't wine-tasting colleagues. The range of wine knowledge was vast, which made it fun.

The classes are given in the large room in the back corner of the store. It doesn't have any windows, and it's a testament to the strength of the storms that night that we continued to hear the thunder. Large wine region maps are stuck to the wall with Velcro, which gave me a decorating idea I don't think Hubby will go for.

I don't talk about my day job on my blogs for anonymity reasons, but let's just say we all went to school for a really long time. Therefore, when our teacher gave us handouts and started with slides, we took notes. Yeah, habit. I'm happy to say that there is not a test at the end.

The classes include crackers, cheese, and water. However, it was the end of the day, and teacher Michelle (also the store wine manager) was very cool about letting us order pizza. Yes, Papa John's delivers to the Total Wine classroom. It just doesn't get better than that, y'all.

The theme of the night, "The Grapes Less Traveled: Delicious Whites and Reds which you may or may not have tasted," took us around the world in ten wines. We started in Argentina. Here are the wines:

2009 La Vuelta Torrontes (Mendoza, Argentina):
Aromatic with a little citrus, but mostly stone fruit and jasmine. Couldn't believe this one's only $8.99!
Rating: Very Good
Came home with me.

2006 Winzer Krems Grüner Veltliner (Austria):
Subtle citrus with more green apple and grape skin. Some effervescence. Cheese brought out vanilla notes.
Rating: Good

I'm not sure of the vintage on the next two.

Villa Lanata Gavi La Doria (Piedmont, Italy): 100% Cortese
Nose is slightly sweet. Again, some effervesence. Citrus/lemon/lime with mineral undertones and a tart finish.
Rating: Good to Very Good

Anakena Viognier Single Vineyard (Rapel Valley, Chile):
Interesting nose with hints of rose and ginger. The palate adds minerality and some herbal qualities. This was one of the oddest Viogniers I've ever tasted.
Rating: Okay/Good

2008 René Sparr Gewurtzraminer (Alsace, France):
The comparison for the nose on this one was "bath salts" in that it was very floral. Although it's designated "off-dry," it's just slightly so with nicely balanced acidity.
Rating: Very Good

2009 Finca Los Maza Bonarda (Mendoza, Argentina):
A pretty straightforward red with dark berry nose.
Rating: Good

2008 Vasco Sassetti Il Ginepro (Montalcino, Italy): 100% Sangiovese
Nice nose with a little cedar. Good fruit/acid balance. As luck would have it, the pizza came when we were tasting this wine, and it's a great pairing. At $11.99, this wine may cost less than a pizza.
Rating: Very Good to Excellent

2007 Sobon Estate Zinfandel Fiddletown (Amador County, California):
Apparently Fiddletown is an AVA, and this wine was made from all organic grapes. Smells like a Zin with big fruit and a long, fruity finish to match. It also had some vanilla.
Rating: Very Good

2004* Beaucanon Estate Cabernet Franc (Napa Valley, California): 95% Cab Franc, 5% Cab Sauv
Savory fruit nose and finish with a slightly chewy texture. One of the tasters designated it a "good gift wine."
Rating: Very Good

2008* Martin Family Petite Sirah (Dry Creek, California):
Comes out of the bottle inky purple. Blackberry nose, some spiciness on the palate, and cedar/fruit finish.
Rating: Very Good

Overall, I was quite impressed with the wines selected for the tasting. Prices ranged from a low $8.99 to still reasonable $24.99. The additional information that came with the wine included discussion of regional characteristics, descriptions of the winemakers, and a tiny bit of wine gossip. I'm not going to share that all here because, darnit, my school report-writing days are over. If you want some fun info and good wines, sign up for a class. Now I need to figure out where to get some of those velcro wine region maps.

By the way, have I mentioned how much I love my job and the people I work with?

* Not sure of vintages. I apologize for not paying more attention -- I didn't notice that they were only on the pictures of the labels in the handouts, some of which were too blurry on such a small scale to make them out. The ones I guessed came from internet research.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Confessions of a Fallen Oenophile: Desperate Times Near the Alamo

Okay, so I gotta say that I was not impressed with the wine scene in San Antonio. Duh, right? It's not that they didn't have nice wine lists, it's that the glass selection is really limited, like maybe four or five options per list. You see my quandary.

On Friday evening, we had a generally unremarkable dinner at some Italian place on the Riverwalk and ended up at SoHo Wine & Martini Bar. Sounds promising, right? Hubby ordered a couple of glasses of sparkling for us. They didn't have those or the other option Hubby tried, but they ended up giving us a fairly good bottle of sparkling for $20. I didn't really want to split a bottle of wine, but it was a great price, so I can't complain too much.

Saturday morning ended up being a comedy of errors. Hubby and I were to meet up with a friend of ours from college for lunch. Due to a rather slow start (I blame the surprise bottle of sparkling), we ended up eating breakfast at 10:30. I got back to the hotel room to find a voicemail on my phone, the gist of which was, "We're early! Our landscapers are coming so we have to get right back, so we'll eat an early lunch." Breakfast, part 2 ended up being at a Mexican restaurant. Okay, was probably not hungover enough for that. At least we got to catch up with our friend.

Now that I think about it, having Mexican for dinner after that lunch/brunch/Hobbit-style breakfast may not have been the smartest thing to do but we went to Rosario's Restaurant y Cantina, which is far enough off the Riverwalk that the margaritas are very, very strong. Here's a picture of the Top Shelf ones. Before we stirred them, the mix was a happy island in the midst of the alcohol:

This restaurant, and especially the ceviche, had been recommended to us by several people in Austin, so I had to try it. It lived up to the recommendations with its perfect balance of texture, citrus acidity, and crunch from the homemade tostadas, and a small portion was more than enough for appetizers for two.

Then came the entrees. Hubby ordered Parrilla de Tripas. He didn't connect Tripas with tripe, so when his fajitas came out with fried tubular protein, well, he was a little surprised. I tried a Tripa. It was crunchy and moist and fatty, kind of like deep-fried pork belly, but from further south of the navel. Now I know what Mexican Chitlins would taste like. My Tacos Nortenas, while a little safer, weren't nearly as interesting.

The next dining highlight came on Monday night, when a colleague and I had dinner at La Focaccia Italian Grill.

This is where I have to make my confession... Their glass list is limited as well, but they have a nice selection of house wines. I started off with the Frascati and wanted to move to red, but didn't want something too heavy or warm. So, I ordered a glass of Lambrusco. Yep, all I needed was the jelly glass to drink it out of. Cool, sweetly fruity, and buttery, it's kind of like the Italian version of Beaujolais Nouveau. I probably lost a lot of wine cred for that admission, but I do feel better for having gotten it off my chest.

Oh, and the food was good. Try the pasta and seafood dishes.

Not coincidentally, the two restaurants I just mentioned are off the Riverwalk in the King William historic district. The Riverwalk had a couple of highlights:

1. Acenar, a Southwestern-style restaurant with a different take on the usual fare. I had the Crepas de Pato, duck crepes with a tamarind-tomato grilled onion sauce. It almost flirted with Far Eastern-style food. Definitely different from the usual Tex-Mex. Oh, and they went really well with a Blood Orange Mojito:

2. I didn't eat at the Republic of Texas restaurant, but they had great margaritas compared to the other Riverwalk establishments we'd tried. They seemed to have one ingredient the others lacked: discernible alcohol. Try the fluorescent Prickly Pear Margarita:

It's the margaritas that you go to San Antonio for anyway, right?

Friday, June 4, 2010

Texas Wine Trip: Days Five through Seven

For those who are just jumping in, Hubby and I are in Texas. I have a conference here in San Antonio next week, so we came early to explore Austin and Texas wine country. I'm a couple of days behind due to inconsistent internet access, so this is going to be a long one.


We started out on Wednesday at the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas campus. They had a special Matisse exhibit and some great European art. I'll admit we don't really get that much into modern art, which they're heavy on, but those who are would probably like it.

After the art museum, we found our way to "The Drag," which runs along Guadalupe Street for lunch and then wandered back through campus to the parking deck. It's a beautiful campus, and now I have a better idea of the University of Texas other than "that football team whose sole purpose is to annoy Ohio State." They even have a fountain that spews water roughly the color of margaritas (no, I didn't taste it):

After that, the heat chased us inside back to Cork & Co wine bar, where we had a few glasses, a cheese plate, and got to hang out with Alex from and Personal Wine. I don't have a picture of Alex, but here's the cheese plate:

By then, it was storming, so I still didn't get to see the bats. We ran back to our hotel in the rain, changed, and ate dinner at Sullivans Steakhouse, where they're having a great summer prix fixe of three courses for two for $69. We enjoyed everything we ate, which was typical steakhouse fare.

Back to wine country...

We took off early after breakfast at Bakerman's Bakery, where we split an amazing turkey and Swiss cheese croissant. The chocolate fudge brownie I'd gotten the day before was great, too. This is a place I'll seek out should I ever return to Austin.

Our first stop was Texas Hills Vineyard, where Camille welcomed us into the tasting room and made us feel right at home. We also thought the sign in the bathroom was funny:

The highlights:

2006 Syrah
Dark cherry and plum aromas balanced with smooth spice on the palate.
Rating: Very Good (but not quite $75 good)

2006 Kick Butt Cabernet Sauvignon:
Smoky nose, medium-bodied with a little leather. Berry-smooth.
Rating: Very Good

2006 Kick Butt Cabernet Sauvignon:
Smoky nose, medium-bodied with a little leather. Berry-smooth and a little tart.
Rating: Very Good

2007 Kick Butt Cabernet Sauvignon:
Earthy nose with bigger fruit. Very smooth on its own.
Rating: Very Good
This one is also award-winning. The trophy? Yep, you guessed it, big belt buckle:

We liked all the sweet wines as well, especially with chocolate. I talked with winemaker Gary Gilstrap, who said he is most proud that all his wines are good. I agree – I rated all of them as good or above.

We'd seen a low-slung brick building that wafted aromas of smoked meat out on to the road on the way in and returned to Ronnie's BBQ for lunch. We each had a huge sandwich – Hubby's was sausage, mine turkey – prepared by Ronnie himself. If we were impressed with Texas barbecue before, we really are now.

The place:

The equipment:

The owner:

The first stop after lunch, Pedernales Cellars, had the best views of the hill country wineries we'd visited. They're known for their Viognier and Tempranillo. Highlights there included the 2008 Garnacha rosé, 2008 Merlot, and 2007 Family Reserve blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a little Merlot and Tempranillo. With space in Bertha the wine safe at a premium, we didn't get anything there.

Woodrose Winery had a beautiful back patio where we were seated for tasting. It was like being on my parents' back porch at home with all the trees. Again, the wines were good, but nothing wanted to come home with us.

One of the fun things about tasting wine in Texas has been what I've called the Texas terroir. We could hear cows mooing from several tasting venues, and driving to the wineries was fun because we'd see fields of cows, cross cattle rails on roads, and then suddenly – grapes! Indeed, the driveway to Becker Vineyards has corn on one side and grapes on the other. However, they do have an elegant tasting building:

They also offer souvenirs:

We'd been told by several that Becker is the "Big Dog" of Texas wineries, and they did have a long tasting list. We stuck with reds. Highlights included:

2008 Claret: A Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot
Savory fruit nose and nice smooth palate.
Rating: Very Good

2008 Zinfandel:
Again, nice smooth fruit.
Rating: Very Good

2008 Syrah:
Blackberry nose, medium-bodied and fruity
Rating: Very Good to Excellent

2009 Reserve Cabernet Franc:
A little more acidic with a buttery finish, but already good. Probably wants more bottle time.
Rating: Very Good

2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve:
Nice fruit with cedar and caramel.
Rating: Very Good

Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (High Plains):
Dryer, but still great fruit.
Rating: Very Good to Excellent

Uh, oh. We got three bottles, the Claret, 2008 Syrah, and High Plains Cabernet Sauvignon. That meant we arrived in Fredericksburg with one spot left in Bertha, several tasting rooms to explore, and one or two more wineries to visit. The tasting room quandary solved itself because by the time we got to Town Creek B&B, checked in, and made it back to town, Fredericksburg had pretty much rolled up the streets. Yep, most of the shops and tasting rooms close at 5:30. We did find two notable exceptions:

Mar Silver Jewelry, where the jewelry prices are seriously low for the beautiful handmade pieces. I got two pendants and a chain. If you know me, you know I wear the same pieces all the time, so you know I was wowed if I'm willing to introduce others into the rotation.

Lincoln Street Wine Bar, where "Director of Nectar" Dave Shaw poured and kept us entertained for a couple of hours until we went to find dinner.

Friday (yesterday) found us back in downtown Fredericksburg after an incredible breakfast at the B&B. We stopped by a few more shops and one of the tasting rooms, and decided to head out to Chisolm Trail Winery, which everyone had described as "cute." They hadn't told us how good the wines are. The cuteness factor was, of course, upped by the winery critters.


Winery cat C.J.:

Our favorite wines:

2008 Belle Starr: Blanc Du Bois
Blanc Du Bois is a white grape with nose of pineapple and apple with great tropical fruit on the palate.
Rating: Very Good

2007 Lone Wolf: Lenoir
Lenoir is a red grape, also known as Black Spanish, that was developed from Spanish root stock brought over 300 years ago and hybridized with native grapes and root stock from Georgia. Or not. No one is really sure, but it's yummy with blackberry jam nose and tartness on the palate.
Rating: Very Good

Lil's Red Satin: Cabernet Sauvignon
Again, very berry/cherry nose with bright fruit and medium body. I might chill this one down a little and sip it on the back porch.
Rating: Very Good

We got two bottles, the Belle Starr and Lil's Red Satin. That meant we were one over in Bertha, but we took care of that last night with some Claret before dinner.

I'm in San Antonio until Thursday, but I'll be conferencing and need to give my Random Writings blogsome attention, both with regard to content and to get back to the serial I'm writing for The Penny Dreadful, so look for occasional notes on particularly great San Antonio dining experiences while I'm here. And, of course, I'll be tweeting daily. As for drinking, there will likely be lots of these:

Disclosure: We got free tastings and a discount at Texas Hills for being "industry." I felt guilty, so I didn't try for that anywhere else. I would have still rated all the wines as good or above even if they hadn't treated us so nicely.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Texas Wine Trip: Day Four

For those who don't know, Hubby and I are in Texas this week tasting wine and exploring cuisine. I have a conference in San Antonio the second week of June, so we came over a week early to check out Texas wine, food, and scenery. We're exploring the hill country and Austin. To read our adventures from the beginning, click here.

The heat and humidity smacked us in the face this morning when Hubby and I walked out of our hotel to find breakfast.

"Wow, welcome to the hot, wet blanket that is Texas!" I said.

"Those who live in hot, wet blanket houses shouldn't throw stones," Hubby replied.

Okay, as an Atlantan who grew up in Birmingham, I should be used to summer by now. Even so, we did try several strategies yesterday to escape the heat:

1. Shopping:

We walked up to the Second Street shopping district and found some cool jewelry stores that featured Texas and other artists. I didn't buy anything, but we enjoyed the shops and the air conditioning.

2. Walking along the river:

The breeze in Austin feels great where you can get it, but that's not along all city blocks, so we took a little pre-lunch stroll along the river. We went under the Congress Street bridge, where Austin's famous bats nest and fly out at sunset in a dramatic display. Or so we hear. We tried to see them last night, but circumstances weren't with us. We may try again tonight.

3. Find air conditioning and good food.

Once lunchtime rolled around, we had two criteria for a restaurant: someplace with good air conditioning, and available seating inside. We found both and some great food at Taverna by Lombardi, an Italian restaurant on 2nd Street. They started us off with great focaccia and dipping oil:

I had the whole wheat spaghettini with vegetable ragu and turkey meatballs. Whole wheat pasta can be a challenge, but this was cooked to the perfect texture. The meatballs had great flavor. Hubby had garganelli with tomato and basil. And then there was this molten chocolate thing for dessert:

4. Get a massage.

What better way to beat the heat than to get pampered in an air-conditioned spa? Hubby very kindly scheduled a massage for us at Milk + Honey Day Spa, also in the 2nd Street District. The massage was excellent, and the therapist actually got my sore shoulder (rotator cuff issue) to feel better.

5. Find a bar.

This one should really come as no surprise for you. After our massage, we stopped by Cork and Co. for a glass of wine. Actually, I ended up with a wine cocktail made from NV New Age white blend of Malvasia & Sauvignon Blanc. The predominant flavors in this off-dry wine are peach and citrus, so it's great served over ice with a twist of lemon:

6. Find sushi.

What food is better to beat the heat than raw fish? At the recommendation of several Austinians (Austinators? Austinites?), we had dinner at Uchi Restaurant. Chef Tyson Cole puts together a Chef's Tasting Menu of 10 courses that changes every night. We were feeling adventurous, so we went for it. In Japanese, Omakase means "It's up to you," or "I trust you." We were in good hands.

Each course was artistic and delicious, but these were the highlights:

Course #2: A Japanese Ceviche with salmon and sea bass. Sorry I don't have more details than that. At its busiest, the restaurant is really noisy, so it was hard to catch some of the descriptions.

The fish, as all of it was, came to the table perfectly fresh and at the right temperature. The silky texture of both fishes complimented the delicate citrus of the fruit.

Course #4: Grilled rare scallops with carrot gastrique, baby carrots, sea beans, and grilled cipollini mushrooms.

This was a great combo of smoky, sweet, savory, and vinegary flavors. Sea beans are a seaweed with the texture of string beans and flavor of asparagus.

Course #8: Wagyu short ribs, pickled peaches, shredded rhubarb and gastrique, and (seriously!) grilled popcorn puree.

Hubby and I loved the peaches with the perfectly tender short ribs. The grilled popcorn puree added nice elements of savory smokiness and creaminess to the dish.

Course #10: Smoked chocolate sorbet, dehydrated blood oranges, aerated chocolate, marshmallow mousse, chocolate powder, and chocolate bacon mousse and oil

This complicated dessert, essentially "deconstructed S'mores," as our server described it, was playtime. The perfectly smooth chocolate bacon mousse balanced the salty and sweet, and the sorbet had smoky/sweet, and the rest of it accented the two main elements. We had fun trying different combinations of tastes and texture.

Okay, Austin, I'm impressed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Texas Wine Trip: Day Three

For those who don't know, Hubby and I are in Texas this week tasting wine and exploring cuisine. I have a conference in San Antonio the second week of June, so we came over a week early to check out Texas wine, food, and scenery. We're exploring the hill country and Austin.

I'm writing this blog post from Little City, a coffee shop in downtown Austin just down the street from the state capitol of Texas. Hubby was drawn to them because of this warning posted on their web site (perfect for this trip!):

Alcohol Warning: If you consume 3 or more alcoholic drinks every day, you may need to double the recommended dosage of Caffeine. Ask your doctor or co-workers.

It's one of the great mysteries of life that lower-priced hotels (e.g., Hampton Inn) include internet and breakfast, whereas the nice ones (e.g., Omni) don't. Luckily, thanks to Hubby's mad skills with Priceline, we're not paying the premium price, and I enjoyed my bagel with cream cheese, tomato, onion, and bean sprouts.

Yesterday we headed out early-ish and made it to Fall Creek Vineyards, which gets my vote for best entranceway/driveway:

The tasting is "about eight wines, and you get to keep the glass" for $4 per person. We tasted twelve wines and could have gotten three more pours, but we didn't want to burn our palates on sweet wines that early. The highlights:

2008 Tempranillo (blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon):
Floral up front, a little tannic in the middle with good fruit, and nice fruity finish. While it's good to very good now, we got a bottle to age for a few years to mellow out the tannins. The question is now whether we'll remember not to drink it.

NV Merlot:
Oak and fruit with smoother tannin. Suggested pairing: Peanut Butter & Jelly
Rating: Good to Very Good

This is a good winery to bring a picnic and enjoy a glass on their patio, which is shady and complete with misters:

We also made the acquaintance of this gorgeous and friendly winery kitty:

We left Fall Creek with a quarter of a tank of gas. My GPS once again took us the scenic route on narrow county roads with loose livestock and not much else, so we arrived at Alamosa Wine Cellars hungry and a little frazzled. Karen Johnson, the "mom" of this "mom and pop" operation immediately set us at ease along with the welcoming committee, who did achieve consciousness when we walked through the door, but only briefly:

Their tasting is complimentary. The highlights:

2007 Scissortail HVV: Blend of Marsanne, Rousanne, and Viognier
A very well-balanced white with some citrus and vanilla.
Rating: Very Good

2004 Texacaia: "Super Texan" (that cracks me up) blend of Sangiovese, Syrah, and Tempranillo
Ripe berry nose. Medium-bodied with great fruit and a long finish.
Rating: Very Good

2007 Palette: Blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cinsault
Smoky nose that quickly goes to fruit, nicely balanced and complex with watermelon notes from the Cinsault smoothing out the tartness and tannin of the others
Rating: Very Good

2007 Rosato di Sangiovese:
Holy cow, another pink wine that Hubby likes! Milk chocolate-covered cherry and off-dry.
Rating: Very Good

A picture of the vineyard (with some Texas dust):

Karen recommended a couple of others, but they weren't open, so we headed back to Austin. We did get gas in time to not run out in the middle of nowhere (whew!), and we ended up at Subway in Lampasas for lunch because we couldn't find a local place that was open as late as 3:00.

I am proud to say that we hit the fitness center at the hotel after we got here. As Hubby noted, we "probably burned off a couple of tastes of wine and two bites of barbecue." At least we're trying!

We ate dinner last night at Malaga Tapas and Bar. We both ordered Spanish Tempranillo (sorry, Texas) and shared the Coca de Pato Ahumado, flatbread with smoked duck breast, blue cheese, caramelized onion, and sliced grapes:

Also, being true Southerners, we couldn't resist the thought of breaded and fried avocados with gaspacho salsa and some sort of lemon cream served with baked pita slices:

Then it was back to the hotel, where we enjoyed some time on the roof by the pool. I shall end this blog post with a picture of some of the Texas decor in our hotel room:

Moo, baby!