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I’m A Grad Student: How can I buy good wine?

January 14, 2011

After one of my recent posts, my good friend and graduate student, Jon French (he’s a third year architecture student at the Univ. of Washington) asked me if I could post something about how a poor grad student like himself could learn about affordable wine. As much as he enjoys reading about my exploits, he knows that on his budget, he’s not going to be diving into a 15 year old Bordeaux any time soon (unless he’s in the neighborhood, of course). I promised him that my next post would cover the subject so here goes.

Let’s use poor Jon as an example. First, Jon’s a distant cousin of Allie Smith, wife of my favorite east coast wine-maker, Brian Smith of Oyster River Wine Growers, in Warren, Maine. Allie and Jon grew up spending parts of their summers together on Pond Island, a little piece of heaven off the coast of eastern Maine. Brian’s wines are inexpensive and Jon occasionally passes near-by on his way to Pond Island or to Breezy Point, another slice of paradise near Belfast, Maine. Jon should stop in and see his cousin; She’d give him a family discount for sure. 🙂

Jon lives in Washington State, home of the Columbia River Valley and other locales that harbor some of the best vineyards and winemakers in the country. Jon needs to join a couple of friends, throw his bike into the back of a pick-up, and depart the Seattle smog for wine country some Saturday afternoon. My guess is that three things will happen; i) they’ll stumble across some fabulous vineyards and taste some amazing wine, much of it for free. ii) they’ll find some very good wine for sale for very reasonable prices – $10 a bottle is easily obtainable, and iii) they’ll forget about grad school for awhile and have a great time, all the while getting exercise riding their bikes from one vineyard to another.

Jon can start by doing a little research on the local vineyards, for example by checking out the Columbia River Valley Wineries here. Among the numerous vineyards to be found there, the region is home to Columbia Crest in Paterson. Columbia Crest makes to a wide variety of wines, a few of which are very expensive cuvees meant to be cellered for awhile. Others are sold into the market for so-called premium wines that represent the core of the country’s wine market. I know Jon has had lots of Columbia Crest wine over the years; what he hasn’t done is sit down with six or eight glasses of wine from the same vineyard and get to taste each of them, looking both for their similarities and differences. This is how a person really learns about wine and it’s why Jon needs to get out into rural Washington State while he can. After all, eventually he’s going to graduate and move someplace else – like Sweden or Norway (his style of architecture would be appreciated in Scandanavia).

Seattle is also close to the many wonderful wines of the Willamette Valley and other regions in Oregon. Salem, home to St. Innocent, is only a few hours away and well worth the drive. In addition to sampling some of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs there, Jon could get a great deal on a couple of bottles of their Village Cuvee (2009-$24). St. Innocent is only one of the many vineyards in Oregon that attempt to make several wines and sell them at several price points. When Jon sits down with someone special to open a bottle he found on one of his visits to a local vineyard the opportunity to drink something he brought home from such a trip will make the entire evening that much more pleasurable.

One thing that interests and fascinates me about the wine business is that there are now many places in the US where you can go into the countryside and find local farmers growing grapes and making wine. Not all of their products are world-class but much of it is affordable and the fun someone can have making the trip is well worth the effort.

So get out there and find some local wine; you owe it to yourself.

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Happy New Year to all!

January 1, 2011

May all of you enjoy the best of life in 2011.

2000 Chateau Gloria

December 12, 2010

Broke out a bottle of 2000 Chateau Gloria this week and enjoyed it along with one of Pam’s great stews. The wine is an excellent example of St. Julien from Bordeaux and wonderfully smooth and velvety. I have about 10 bottles of this wine left so there’s lots more to enjoy over the years.

Port for Christmas

December 12, 2010

In our house, an open bottle of vintage port has been a Christmas tradition since the mid 1980s. And this year is no exception.

Pam was out last night, singing as part of the Portsmouth based choral group, ConTutti, and after spending over a half an hour trying to find a parking spot somewhere in downtown Portsmouth so that I could go to the annual ConTutti Christmas concert, I gave up and headed home.

It seemed like a good time to open up the Christmas port and since it’s just the two of us this year, I grabbed a split of 1994 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port, bottled in 1996. Sigh! It’s going to be a great Christmas.

15 years ago, I subscribed to Wine Spectator, one of the major wine industry rags that caters to both the industry and to its customers. Much of my knowledge about the industry, the world-wide localities where wine is made, and wine, to the extent that you can learn about wine by reading about it, came from the pages if Wine Spectator; I must admit that if you’re interested in really learning about wine, subscribing for several years to the magazine, either on paper or on-line, is a great way to do so. Anyway, in 1996, Wine Spectator rated the 94 Taylor Fladgate, along with wine from its sister vineyard, Fonseca 100 points – perfection. Both winemakers are located in the heart of the Douro Valley, the wine-making district in Portugal, not far from the the coastal city of Oporto, the place where Port got its name.

To quote James Suckling’s words that I read in Wine Spectator in April of 1997, shortly after the wine was released to the market, “in a word, superb. It’s full-bodied, moderately sweet and incredibly tannic, but there’s amazing finesse and refinement to the texture, not to mention fabulous, concentrated aromas of raspberries, violets and other flowers…..”. Now here we are almost 13 years later and the wine is coming into it’s own (this powerful example of a great port will last for 100 years or more). The good news is that the tannins are beginning to subside – whole chunks were left in the bottle when I decanted it last night – but the incredible concentration of flowers and fruit hit like a freight train when you breath in the aroma of the wine and run you over when it arrives in your mouth. And it seems to last forever……..

I drank only a little last night, perhaps an ounce. I’m going to do everything to make it last until New Year’s Eve.

St. Innocent Winery

December 12, 2010

A couple of years ago, when Amelia was in her first year of graduate school at the University of Washington School of Information Sciences in Seattle, we rented a home on Bainbridge Island for a week at Christmas. It was our first real introduction to the Pacific Northwest and we spent a memorable week exploring the coastal communities and trtying out the best that Seattle had to offer. Kate flew in from Alaska, Amelia’s boyfriend, Jon, and his parents, along with our great friends, the Scotts, all joined us on the island for Christmas dinner and it almost felt like home.

Somewhere along the line, one of us bought a Pinot Noir from St. Innocent Winery, in Oregon. The wine turned out to be the beverage hit of the trip and before we left, we stopped into, Delaurenti’s,  a small wine merchant near Pike Place Market downtown and picked up a bottle of Justice 2006 – the same bottling and vintage we’d been lucky enough to try, and I tucked it into a travel bag to bring home. Only, like an idiot I made an attempt to carry the bag on the plane, and needless to say it was confiscated. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even get the TSA folks  to share it; they were prohibited from doing so – and it ended up in the garbage.

Anyway, several weeks ago, we took delivery of our 2008 allocation – when we returned home from Seattle, I promptly went on-line and pre-ordered a mixed case of the 2008s. Boy am I glad we did.

We opened a bottle of the Justice 2008 last weekend and while our choice of a meal to have it with was found wanting (turkey leftovers, good on their own but not up to a great pinot noir), the wine was a mouthful. Now this wine is very different from most american Pinot. For one thing it’s basically indistinguishable from a good burgundy. I’m not saying it’s a Romanee Conti, but the wine is well structured with  loads of raspberries mixed with plum and other berry flavors. The level of concentration is up there with many of the solid Burgundies from some of my favorite winemakers such as Jean Marc Pavelot, Paul Guaradet and Rene Engel – the wonderful folks who modernized Burgundy and made affordable Pinot Noir wines from small shares of vineyards in places like Volney, Savigny les Baunes, Vosne Romanee and Gevrey-Chambertin in the 1990s (don’t try to acquire their better offerings in a good vintage today without $100+ to spend).

And best of all, most of St. Innocent’s wine is affordable – especially if you live close by and can get it straight from the winery without having to pay for shipping. The wine has made it to the east coast as well. My favorite wine merchant in New England, Kenny Kirk at Action Wine and Spirits, has managed to find some from time to time so ask around.

Sea Smoke

November 20, 2010

Four years ago Pam and I spent New Years Eve at the Hancock Inn in Hancock, NH, a lovely and rural inn and restaurant that advertises itself as the longest continuously operating inn in the country.  That night, besides having a wonderful and romantic evening, lingering over a delicious dinner across from a roaring fire, our inn-keeper host, Robert Short, introduced us to Sea Smoke Cellars in Santa Barbara, CA, and their wonderful Pinot Noir wines.

Last night when I arrived home from work I found a case of Sea Smoke’s 2008 wines waiting for me; it’s been a long time coming. Shortly after we returned from Hancock, I searched out the Sea Smoke website and added my name to the mailing list, only to be disappointed when I received a response several hours later indicating  that the annual allocation of wines to mailing list members was long sold-out and that it could be years before we would make it to the allocation list. So I bookmarked the website and promptly forgot about the whole thing….. until a couple of months ago when I received another email indicating that after four years I had finally made it to the allocation list and  I should make sure that my contact information was up-to-date. It seems that the recession has had one positive impact, clearing lots of folks off the sold-out allocation lists of various vineyards around the country.

Southing 2008

I think it’s safe to say, I could hardly wait to open the wine and get a taste of what memory told me was a wine for the ages. For someone who enjoys good French Burgundy, it’s hard to imagine that it’s possible to find a great Pinot Noir outside of that illustrious appellation. But I’m here to tell you now that you can. We opened our first bottle from the mixed case, a 2008 Southing, to accompany a simple dinner of fresh lemon dover sole along with steamed Zuccinni. Pam took the first sip and exclaimed “it’s full of caramal!” My first taste was of the insides of cherry pie, with hints of cinnamon and  clove. Over dinner, as the wine opened up, the fruit never diminished but the tannins began to show themselves, giving a long finish and hinting at a wine that will continue to age for years to come.

This wine represents to me what American winegrowers and winemakers are capable of when it comes to Pinot Noir. I have to admit that I’ve never tasted a Burgundy that comes close to this particular taste, so it’s not fair to to really compare say a 2001  Georges Compte de Vogue Chambolle-Musigny Burgundy with SeaSmoke Southing 2008; each has its place. But it’s clear, great American Pinot Noir has arrived.

The Brunellos of Tuscany

November 13, 2010

I first tasted a Brunello di Montalcino in 1996, visiting with a friend in Boston when he took me to a local trattoria for a drink. The wine, a 1985 Poggio Antico Reserva, overpowered me and left me with a sense that I had just discovered Italian Sangiovese for the first time. Of course we’ve all being drinking Sangiovese since college (it’s the principal grape found in Chianti, a staple of the college dating scene for as long as we all remember). Who can forget taking that special someone to a small Italian restaurant with the red checkered table-clothes and basket-covered wine bottles with the glowing candles on the table providing the romantic cover that set the evening in the right direction. For me, that restaurant was Dino’s on Plantation Street in Worcester, where I attended college.

Shortly after my first taste, I laid down my first case of Brunello; a mix of 89 and 90 Poggio Antico that I found at my favorite wine merchant in Shirley, Ma. Brunello quickly became our favorite wine to have when Pam gets adventurous in the kitchen with pasta and tomatoes. Over the years we’ve put down and gone through cases of Castello Banfi, La Poderina, Poggio Antico and several others. The wine has been uniformly full-bodied with lots of intense fruit, silky tannins (after a few years of aging) and interesting hints of leather, smoke and tobacco. Of course, I’ve paid attention to the vintages and selected wines with appropriate structure but I’ve been lucky. All of the Brunello we’ve laid down has been wonderful.

Anyway, last night I got home early from work and Pam offered to make pasta with some locally produced hot sausage she’d found along with fresh pasta and locally grown tomatoes. I headed down to the cellar and found what turned out to be our last bottle of 1999 La Poderina, a wonderful Brunello that once got 96 points from Wine Spectator. Now, if you follow the link, you’ll find a lot opinions about this wine but it likely comes down to how well the wine has been stored. This bottle was close to perfect. As Brunellos go, this one is on the light side – not quite full-bodied but still lots of intense fruit flavor, hints of leather (due to it’s age) and tannins that would keep this wine aging nicely for at least another 5 years, if not a decade.

The only problem with Brunello is the price. Typically, you’ll spend $50 or more per bottle for the good stuff (Brunello is typically aged on the lees for 3 years before release) and the reserve wines (released a year after the regular bottling) can go to $100 or more. In order to afford these wines, I pull out all the stops. I buy by the case to get the 20% case discount, I look for sales, and whenever possible, I’ll share a case with someone. If memory serves me, I shared the case of La Poderina with my niece’s husband, Vince. I hope he and Erica have enjoyed their share of the case as much as we have.