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The Best Bubbly Comes from…New Mexico?

7 May

photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Did you know that New Mexico is the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.?  Yeah, me neither.  But I did know that Gruet Winery, arguably the best sparkling wine producer in the country, is located there.  Over the years I have sold Gruet’s wines in my jobs at various wine store, and I have been happy to recommend (and drink) them.  They are not difficult to find (currently distributed in 48 states) and represent a great value in bubbly, starting around $14 a bottle.  For me, there is no better producer of domestic sparkling wine than Gruet, due in large part to its awesome cost-to-quality ratio, something that is sorely lacking in domestic fizz — particularly here in California, but more on that later…

Last week, I took a little vacation to our country’s oft-overlooked 47th state, and though this was not a “wine trip,” per se, I did  stop in at Gruet’s tasting room in Albuquerque to taste their wines at the source.  Sort of.  Gruet’s vineyards are located 150 miles south of its tasting room, in Truth or Consequences, NM, but the wine itself is made at the facility in Albuquerque, as it has been since the  first vintage in 1987.

First, a little history.  The Gruet family (from France, natch) were not New Mexico winemaking pioneers.  The first wine grapes were planted in the state around 1629 by monks who smuggled over some Mission grapes from Spain in order to make sacramental wine.  By the late 1800s, New Mexico was officially wine country, producing more than three million liters of wine per year.  So what happened?  Why isn’t New Mexico the wine powerhouse it once was?  Two things:  Prohibition in 1919 followed by the Rio Grande’s extensive flooding in 1926, the combined effect of which destroyed many of the state’s oldest and largest vineyards.

So in the early 1980s when the Gruets were traveling through the Southwest, the wine tradition in New Mexico was just beginning again.  During their trip they met some European winemakers who were having success with vineyards they had planted south of Albuquerque so the Gruets (who had been making Champagne in Champagne since the 1950s) decided to plant an experimental vineyard there, too.  And, it worked.  At, more than 4,000 feet in elevation, the Gruet vineyards are among the highest in the country, and this is to their advantage, as daytime temperatures in New Mexico can be very hot.  But at night, at this elevation, the temperature drops as much as 30 degrees very consistently, allowing the grapes to rest, mature slowly, and ultimately make very good wines.

So back to my visit.  The Gruet tasting room is a dated-looking faux château, located on a highway, in an industrial park, next to an RV dealership.  Check your idyllic wine country notions at the door.  They won’t be fulfilled in this setting.  Time to get on with the business of tasting wine.  Here in California, I often see Gruet’s NV Brut, Blanc de Noirs, and sometimes its Rosé.  These were all on offer, but I was more interested in some of the wines I hadn’t seen back home, namely:

NV Sauvage ($13.75) – A brand new release from Gruet.  This sparkling is made from 100% Chardonnay to which zero dosage is added.  Dosage is the mix of wine and sugar that is traditionally added to bubbly just before it is corked.  This slightly sweet (levels vary) mixture helps to balance the high acidity that typically exists in sparkling wines.  Non-dosed fizzies are becoming trendy these days.  I happen to like this style, but it can be too tart for some.  Although its worth mentioning that Gruet’s version is well-balanced, fresh and crisp, without being austere.

NV Extra Dry ($13.75) – Another new release also made from 100% Chardonnay.  This time there is dosage added, and for Extra Dry, the level of sweetness is typically on the higher side.  Extra Dry is kind of a misnomer, in that on the scale of sparkling wines, it is generally sweeter than a Brut.  How’s that for confusing!  Given my predilection for the drier styles, I typically veer away from Extra Dry for my personal consumption, which is exactly why I wanted to taste this wine at Gruet.  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of the sweetness I expected, I was met with ripe green apple with just a hint of creaminess.

2006 Blanc de Blancs ($25) – Unlike still wine, vintage sparkling wine  (vintage = a date on the label) is rare (it’s not made every year, only in the best years) and it takes a lot longer to make.  Thus, the price of a vintage is usually quite a bit higher.  So to see a vintage for $25 a bottle is a relative value.  This Blanc de Blancs — literally white from whites, which means all Chardonnay is in the bottle — was aged for three years before its release.  I found it to be very elegant and lemon citrus flavored with a light hazelnut toastiness.

2003 Grand Rosé Vintage ($32) – This blend of 92% Chardonnay and 8% still Pinot Noir (the latter gives the pink color) was the most vinous (i.e. tasted the most like regular wine) of the things I tasted.  There’s a little touch of smokiness on this bottling, as the still Pinot Noir that goes into the blend comes out of French Oak barrels.

Gruet makes a bit of still wine, mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but unbeknownst to me until my visit they also produce a very small amount of Syrah.  I tasted the 2007 Syrah ($25).  This bottling is the winery’s fourth vintage of the Rhône grape variety, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of being heavy and tannic, this wine was lithe and elegant with a nose of violets and rose petals followed by smooth blueberry notes on the palate.

I left Albuquerque more than satisfied with my visit to Gruet, and with a single nagging question:  Why doesn’t California produce good-quality, affordable sparkling wine like this? For my money, the Roederer Estate Brut NV from Anderson Valley is the best cost-to-quality ratio I can find in my home state, and it’s $20 — a full $5 more than Gruet’s Brut NV.  My other CA choices (almost all of which are owned by large Champagne houses) are variously overripe, overly sweet (due to high dosage that’s out of balance with the wine), and overpriced.   My suggestion:  California bubbly producers should take a few cues from New Mexico.  It is, after all, the oldest winegrowing region in the U.S.

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If You Drink Cheap Wine, Drink It Young

8 Apr

Every cheap wine isn’t a good deal.  You already know this.

All of us at one time or another has grabbed a bottle off the shelf because we’re attracted by its low, low price.  We are lured by the hope that this wine will be the steal of the century, the greatest bottle ever at a rock bottom price.  Problem is, it doesn’t always happen that way.  Best case scenario is that the wine is simply boring; worst and all-too-often-the-case scenario is that it just plain sucks.   Yesterday, while reading an article from winebusiness.com called, “Consumers Respond to Grocery Outlet Wines,” I was reminded of all the times I’ve purchased wine based primarily on price, paying little attention to other factors, only to be disappointed later.  In general, winebusiness.com article puts a primarily positive spin on the Grocery Outlet wine selection (which leans heavily on wines in the $3 to $6 range), but it also offers insight into how large outlet stores get their wine at such deep discounts.  This is important information for wine drinkers to understand, but given that your average wine drinker doesn’t sit around reading dry industry publications, I’ve decided to highlight the important parts here in my blog, just in case an average wine drinker happens to read it some day.  Why?  Because understanding how the mechanics of discounted wine works can help all of us make better wine choices in the future, particularly when we’re rummaging around in the bargain bin.

According to Doug Due, Director of Wine for Grocery Outlet, one of the primary ways the chain gets its wine at such low prices is by buying back vintages.  What does this mean, exactly?  As Mr. Due’s explains, this is when “a brand is releasing its latest vintage, such as an ’09, but still has ’07 or ’08 vintages available and needs to move the older “juice” in order to focus on the new one.”  Given that the seller (in this case the winery) needs to move inventory, the buyer (in this case Grocery Outlet) is in the position to negotiate a very low price, allowing them to offer the wine to their customers at a deep discount.  Sounds like everybody wins, right?

Well, maybe…sometimes.  Allow me to explain.  The vast majority (and I mean vast, like 98%) of all wine produced in any region, in any country on earth is intended for early consumption. Early, as in right now, or at least within a year or so of the vintage date.  Now, this doesn’t mean that all those wines turn to vinegar in 18 months, but they’re also not getting any “better” for those extra months sitting in somebody’s warehouse.  Contrary to popular belief, most older vintage wines are not improved simply because they have some age on them. Therefore, drinking an aged bargain wine actually means that you don’t experience it at its freshest, which is arguably when it’s at its best. Don’t get me wrong, many bottles will taste just fine with age; in these (best) cases they just aren’t much different than when they were first released.  However, there are a few types of wine that really, truly should be drunk within that first-year window because after that time they are typically tired and over the hill (i.e. they taste pretty sucky).  These are the wines I would, personally, steer clear of at the Grocery Outlet or any stores that sell back vintage wines at a steep discount.

In the interest of helping you drink better on the cheap, here’s my short list of what to avoid in the back vintage bargain bin:

  1. Dry Rosé
  2. Sauvignon Blanc (particularly from New World producers, like New Zealand)
  3. Unoaked Chardonnay
  4. Pinot Grigio
  5. Gamay (absolutely and especially if it’s labeled Beaujolais Nouveau)

The Secret to Finding Good Cheap Wine

24 Mar

I’ll let you in on a little secret.  I know where you can always find great, inexpensive wine.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t know where you live.  I know where to send you.  If you want a really good, affordable bottle of wine tonight, forget about Costco and Trader Joe’s.  Go to a specialty wine shop.  You know, that little boutique wine store in your town.  The one you’ve been afraid to go into because you think it will be filled with crazy bottles with Italian labels you can’t decipher and triple digit price tags.  Go into that one.

I know, I know.  This seems antithetical to what you would normally do, which is walk into Safeway, BevMo, or Total Wine and take your chances with something from the bargain rack.  After all, they have a large selection, which typically includes several bottles that fall into an affordable price range, be that under $20, under $15, under $10.  They also often have good sales like buy one get one for a nickel, or a 15% off six or more promotion, and so what if you only came in for a bottle or two if you’ll save by buying more…  This all sounds pretty good, until you walk in and are confronted by the wall of wine.  Row after row, bottle after bottle, label after label.  How do you choose? 

The problem with big box wine stores is not that they lack for choice, it’s that they offer a whole warehouse of choices and no one to help navigate them.  Once you realize this and are ready for a change (and a good cheap wine shopping experience) make your way to your nearest specialty wine shop.  Here’s why:

A boutique wine shop will almost certainly be small (thus one reason for the moniker) and because of its diminutive size, will have a nicely edited selection.  It will also likely be independently and locally owned.  There’s a good chance the owner/manager/wine buyer will greet you when you walk in the door.   Because this person has chosen the life of a wine merchant (which, believe me, is no get rich quick scheme), it’s a fair guess they’ve done so because they love wine, and because they want you love it, too.  When you walk in the door of a shop like this, you should find someone who is happy to see you, and who wants to see you again.  They way they’ll make that happen?  By giving friendly service, listening to what you want, and matching you with the right bottle of wine at the right price.  This is what good small shops do time and time again that big box stores don’t.

Now to the cheap part.  Contrary to the historical connotation, boutique wine shops aren’t just for people interested in expensive wines.  These days it’s quite the opposite.  Many small shops specialize — either partly or solely — in affordable wine.  Here are a few examples:

Plonk Wine Merchants, Los Angeles – all wines $30 or less

In Fine Spirits, Chicago – half under $20, 75 selections under $12

Cork: a bottle shop, Portland – 100 wines under $20

Vintage Berkeley, Berkeley, CA (full disclosure:  I work here.) – all wines $25 or less

The Wine Bin, Ellicott City, MD – 200 wines under $20

Now that you know to go to a specialty shop in search of good, cheap wine, stay tuned for Part 2:  How to Get Matched With the Best Cheap Bottle for You.

Forget Green Beer, Make Mine Green Wine

17 Mar

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, and while many of you will indulge in an ice cold beer tinted green by McCormick’s food coloring, I’ll be drinking green wine.  And by green wine I mean Vinho Verde, a light, low alcohol, slightly fizzy white from Portugal whose name literally translates as “green wine.”  But, it’s not green.  Not in terms of its color, anyway.  The green in this case refers to the wine’s youthfulness.  Vinho Verde is not the kind of wine you lay down in your cellar and fret over how many years you should wait until its perfectly aged and ready to drink.  Happily for the impatient among us (that’s me!), it is best when it’s super fresh and meant to be drunk immediately after you purchase it.

Given its name, Vinho Verde is the perfect St. Patrick’s Day beverage choice for those, like me, who would rather forgo the Guinness or green Bud Light, but there are also a whole slew of reasons to consider reaching for the VV well after the holiday has ended.  Here are my top 5:

1.  A good green wine can be had for very little green.  There are lots of great Vinho Verdes to be had in the $7 to $11 range.

2.  Vinho Verde’s alcohol level usually hovers around 10%, meaning you don’t have to worry about getting buzzed on a single glassful.

3.  Although it’s not fully sparkling like Champagne, Vinho Verde does have a small amount of fizz.  This spritz makes the wine feel exceptionally fresh and lively.  Not to mention, it’s just plain fun.

4.  It’s the perfect picnic wine — light, fresh, great with finger foods, and easy to love.

5.  Vinho Verde’s flavor profile — crisp green apple and crunchy pear with a twist of lime — makes it a perfect Spring and Summer sipper, meaning you can enjoy it well beyond St. Patrick’s Day.

Why Are California Wines So Boring?

10 Sep

 

photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr

photo by tryingmyhardest via Flickr

 

I don’t want to be a hater.  I don’t want to pile it on to the upmarket California winemakers who, by all accounts, are in world of hurt these days, but there’s a big problem in Cali wine that no one seems to be willing to talk about.  California wines are boring.

Yesterday I tasted two very different wines.  From two different countries.  In two different price brackets.  It’s probably against an unwritten rule to compare them to one another, but it’s also human nature to do so.  I did.

Wine #1 was a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc without claim to a fancy appellation — it was VdP Jardin — retailing at about $15.

Wine #2 was a highly allocated, newly annointed by Mr. Parker 98 point Rhône blend from California, retailing for about $70.

The difference between them?  The Cab Franc had a personality.  It was charming, quirky even, in its two-thirds-of-the-way-to-rosé clear magenta hue with violet, plum, and fresh earth on the nose; mouthwatering raspberry and paprika on the palate.  So much going on for so little money.  The Cali red?  Its minty, dried wood aroma (hello, new oak!) translated on the palate to a massive, polished-to-a-spit-shine vanilla and vaguely berryish flavor.  I’ve tasted wine like this a thousand times before.  Technically perfect, like an air-brushed model on the cover of a magazine, it offers no surprises, no intriguing conversation.  No soul, just glossy packaging.  And, it was hot.  Why, I wondered, would anyone ever buy this when they could have 4+ bottles of the (far more fun and thus IMO superior) Cab Franc?

I taste lots of wine every week and inevitably end up pitting the best and the worst against each other in my mind: the snore of a Sonoma Coast Chard ($40) vs. a gorgeous as all get-out Grüner ($18); yet another big, alcoholic, hardly identifiable as Pinot Russian River Pinot Noir ($50) vs. a surprisingly layered beauty of a Sicilian Frappato ($20).  Unfortunately, in my mental rankings the California contenders typically fall to the bottom of the heap, largely because of the price to quality ratio.  I simply don’t want to pay $40 or $50 for an OK-but-nothing-special bottle from CA when I know I can find several intriguing, even complex, wines under $20 elsewhere.

California is the reason I fell in love with wine in the first place, and yet I seem to be falling out of love with California wine.  It’s sad.

Are charming, exciting, well-priced Cali wines even out there anymore, or are they extinct?

Sterling’s Coupon Campaign

31 Aug

Sterling CouponIt’s officially California Wine Month Eve, and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a coupon for Sterling Vintner’s Collection wine!  Yes, a hard copy, get-out-your-kitchen-shears-and-clip-it coupon for Sterling — $3.00 off the purchase of two 750 ml bottles — was in Sunday’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, sharing the same bifold as coupons for Seventh Generation diapers and Air Wick Scented Oils.  (No, I didn’t make that last part up.)

IMG_0867When was the last time I saw a wine coupon in the paper?  Maybe….never?  Liquor coupons, yes.  Particularly in the last six months or so, but not wine.  Not until now.  This discovery comes on the eve of California Wine Month and just a few days after Sterling’s parent company, Diageo, issued a statement saying 2010 will be a challenging year for business.  I don’t disagree with that, but will a $3.00 off coupon really help matters, or simply further erode the aspirational image of one of California’s most recognizable wine brands?