Björnson Vineyard Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills 2012



bjornsonThis shapely, stylish wine is from one of the newer, up-and-coming artisanal producers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Pattie and Mark Bjornson embody the do-it-yourself spirit, starting their vineyard and winery from scratch and doing most of the work, including designing and building their facility, themselves. The result of all that care and labor is evident in the glass.

Seductive black cherry cosseted by aromas of crushed rock and violets—the nose is pretty as a picture. The satiny mouthfeel is interrupted by a flood of minerality leaving vibrant, prickly sensations on a finish gently kissed by moderate tannins. Cola and cranberry flavors round out this supremely balanced wine.

Aged for 16 months in French barrels, 22% new, the oak is fully integrated and shows no overt wood notes.

A welcoming wine with a hint of flamboyance but with enough complexity and depth to be taken seriously

Natalie Merchant’s iconic video “Wonder” captures well the spirit of this wine.

Score: 91

Price: $26

Alc: 14.2%

Thanksgiving Wine: Something Different


sidre tendreWhat wine will go with turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, candied yams, sweet cranberry sauce, an array of vegetable dishes, and multiple pies contributed by guests?


There is no wine that will work with that variety of flavors and sweetness levels. And it’s way too fussy and chaotic to try to pair a different wine with each dish.

One solution is to pair a wine only with the main dishes—the turkey, stuffing and potatoes—and ignore the rest. For me, that means an earthy Pinot Noir. But a more general solution is to take the same approach to the wine as you do to the food. You have a variety of dishes on the table. Why not open a variety of moderately-priced wines and let people drink what they want?

Or for something utterly different. Pour your favorite wine to go with the poultry and find a nice, semi-sweet apple cider to go with the sweeter dishes. It has autumnal flavor notes to fit the season and most are low alcohol.

This Eric Bordelet Sidre Tendre from Normandie is made from a blend of about 20 apple varietals that are dried before being pressed in order to concentrate the flavors. Very intense baked apple and honey flavors leads to a lovely finish, slightly tannic and crisp. It is refreshing yet will match the sweetness of candied yams or cranberry sauce that will make wine taste tart and thin.

Budget Wine: Ironstone Cabernet Franc Lodi 2013



ironstone cab francYesterday in a blog post I was lamenting the preferences of wine consumers who like generic, homogenized wine instead of seeking something more interesting. This wine under review proves that if you’re willing to spend only $10-$12 on a bottle of wine, you are not condemned to the sweet- smooth-soft swill inhabiting the bottom shelf at the supermarket.

This Cabernet Franc  has the twiggy, green aroma note characteristic of this grape, but the layer of smoke and hints of coffee supporting the berry aromas give the nose plenty of depth. In the mouth, it is full bodied, firm, and steadfast with a slight chew to the tannins (meaning the finish makes you want to chew the wine as if it had some solidity.) The finish is medium length but features very bright berry notes that carry all the way through to the end. The finish is usually where inexpensive wine falls apart. This wine delivers from front to back. As we near December and the time for taking stock of the past year, this is a candidate for my budget wine of the year. Superb value at this price.

Don’t ignore Cabernet Franc when you see it on the shelf. It has many of the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon but the grapes are less costly so they often offer good value.

This wine calls for some straightforward, sturdy Heartland Rock, tough but with some finesse. Here’s a great clip from The Boss when he was young and “Growing Up”

Score: 88

Price: $12

Alc: 13.5%

Herd Animals and the Winemakers Who Feed Them



herd of sheepThis recent survey of American wine consumers by the Wine Institute contained some predictable information. The top four favorite varietals among the aggregate of high frequency and occasional wine drinkers were Chardonnay, Merlot, White Zinfandel, and Pinot Grigio in that order, the latter two of which belong in your drain. The noble, structured Cabernet Sauvignon and the nuanced, textured Pinot Noir were 5th and 6th respectively. The versatile, hedonistic Riesling was 7th.

American’s favorite wine styles were “fruity”, “semi-sweet”, and “smooth” which in winespeak means boring. The two most important factors in the decision to purchase a wine were price and brand, with the most common price range between $10 and $15 dollars. Brand plays such an important role, I would guess, because once you discover a brand produces wine that is “fruity”, “sweet” and “smooth” you hang onto to it for dear life. Reaching for a brand makes shopping so much easier—you don’t have to think about it.

The conclusion to draw from all of this is that most American wine consumers don’t care much about wine, are looking for an easy-to-drink alcohol delivery system, and are neither curious nor adventurous.

But we knew that already. I review budget wines because I want to encourage more everyday adventure and curiosity but it is a daunting task.

At any rate, the #1 conclusion the authors of this survey draw is that wine producers should “Craft wines to match preferred taste styles (which should be fruity, smooth and perhaps a little sweet).”


The generic wine consumer that emerges from this survey keeps the E.J. Gallo’s and Constellation’s in business. There is value in that. Some of those people lovingly sipping their glass of White Zinfandel will someday get curious and branch out. We were all that person once. But most of those consumers are not what keeps a vibrant wine culture alive. That culture is kept alive by people striving for quality and uniqueness who seek out what is interesting and intriguing and are fascinated by the wine traditions of some obscure village in Piemonte or Slovenia.

It’s just bad advice to persuade up-and-coming winemakers to do what everyone else is doing. The only way you will make your mark following that advice is to come up with a clever new marketing gimmick. There is already a whole lot of fruity, sweet, and smooth out there. The only difference is the artwork on the label. Is that why you became a winemaker?

This headline caught my eye shortly after reading through this survey. “Americans Get Crafty: Wine is losing ground in its most important market to the new wave of artisanal beers, ciders and spirits.” Well no wonder. If all you find on the supermarket shelf is fruity, sweet, and smooth why wouldn’t you head to the beer aisle where there is actually something interesting and delicious going on.

The wine industry had better be careful or they will find themselves in the position of Kraft, Nestle, and General Mills, losing market share to the boutique markets.

So sure, make wine for the soda pop crowd if you have to pay the bills. Just keep making the good stuff for the rest of us.

Texas Hill Country Wine Road (not everything is bigger in Texas)


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The View from Pedernales Winery

Big hats, big trucks, big sky, big personalities, and of course a large land mass. There is some truth to the slogan “everything is bigger in Texas”. Even their wine region can boast about  its size. The Texas Hill Country AVA is the second largest in the nation, and the state now has 350 wineries scattered throughout every corner of this massive state. So trying to get your arms around it all is a bit like corralling a herd of longhorns. We focused on the wineries strewn along “the wine road”, the portion of Route 290, that begins about 45 minutes west of Austin in Johnson City and continues to the charming wine and food destination of Fredericksburg.

Given their reputation for size and their high temperatures during the growing season, I expected to find some big wine in our first visit to Texas wine country. But in fact most Texas wines are not “big” if we mean by that lots of highly extracted ripe fruit up front, high alcohol, and robust tannins supporting a long finish. In fact, hot weather will not always produce ripe fruit because photosynthesis shuts down when temperatures get into the 100s and the vines cannot complete their respiration if temperatures stay too high at night. Add to that the short growing season in the northern part of the state where most of the grapes are grown and a general shortage of grapes that encourages excessive yields, and you have the conditions for ripening difficulties and in some cases mediocre fruit. Although we tasted many good wines and a few exceptional ones, the overall level was uneven. Furthermore, the prices are quite high. Tastings at the better wineries are usually $15 and bottles of their best wines $30 and above, even when the wines don’t measure up.

Despite these issues, this is an interesting wine region with a lot to offer the wine tourist.

Tempranillo, the Spanish variety that flourishes on the hot, dry plains of Northern Spain, does well here because it buds late, is drought tolerant and ripens quickly. Wines made from this grape were by far the most consistent. Cabernet, Merlot, Rhone and Italian varietals are plentiful but inconsistent. We also found the white varietals such as Trebbiano, Pinot Grigio, and some Chardonnay to be generally crisp and refreshing although a bit shy and lacking aromatic intensity. The one exception to that is Viognier which showed well at several wineries. As to those local varieties that are relatively unique to this area, the white grape Blanc du Bois, a hybrid developed for its disease resistance and becoming increasingly prominent in the South, is crisp and refreshing with tropical notes and citrus. The red variety Black Spanish (aka Lenoir) was unimpressive, although as a dessert wine it may have promise. However, I tasted only a few and I should probably reserve judgment until I have the opportunity to taste more samples.

Speaking of dessert wines, like other regions in the South, Texans have a sweet tooth. Most wineries offer several dessert wines and many offer a flight of sweet table wines as well. Sweet table wines are not to our taste but some of the port-style wines were quite good.

Despite the general uneven quality of the wines here there are several wineries deeply committed to producing top-notch wines and intent on overcoming the limitations of this region. If you’re really looking for the best wines go straight to Inwood Estates. These wines, primarily Tempranillo and Bordeaux varietals along with a Chardonnay, were simply gorgeous; head and shoulders above anything else we tasted. Their tasting room is comfortable and the bistro inviting but it’s really all about wine quality here. Here is my review of their Magdalena Cabernet-dominated blend.

Pedernales is also worth a visit. They have a sweeping view of the countryside and a truly outstanding Viognier Reserve, one of the best wines we tasted.  Their Tempranillo Reserve is also quite nice.

William Chris Vineyard has a charming tasting room annexed to the original farmhouse. Their non-vintage Cabernet Franc was outstanding as was their Mandola Estate blend of Italian varietals

For white wines, Lost Draw Winery in Fredericksburg is doing good things with Albarino and Viognier.

We also tasted at Hye Meadow, Texas Hills Vineyard, Compass Rose, Chisholm Trail Winery, Becker Vineyards, and Torre di Pietra.


Becker Vineyards

Many wineries in the area are weekend destinations with large, busy tasting rooms, attractive grounds, and food service to complement their wines. Although most wineries have vineyards on site, production in Texas Hill Country is too small to fill demand and most of their grapes are grown on the Northern plains.

cranky franks brisket

Cranky Frank’s Brisket

No wine region can be successful without restaurants to satisfy the hordes of wine lovers in further need of flavor. Fredericksburg has a wealth of options. Cabernet Grill and Navajo Grill are noted for their upscale wine-country fare. But we tend to seek out unique and distinctive regional foods when possible. Of course, if you’re visiting Texas you are morally obligated to hunt down the best smoked brisket, and Fredericksburg has one of the top options—Cranky Frank’s BBQ. Frank didn’t seem so cranky; in fact he was quite pleasant. This is a real hole-in-the-wall. The sides won’t remind you of the French Laundry, or even Mom’s best effort, but the brisket (marbled of course) is fork tender and smoky with a gorgeous bark—it’s the real deal. They are only open from 11-2.

Another Texas icon is just a 20 minute drive from Fredericksburg. Alamo Springs Cafe is reputed to have one of the best burgers in Texas (#3 according to the Texas Monthly) and it is quite a burger. The hand-pressed patty is Texas-size and juicy and there are plenty of options for condiments. I highly recommended the cheeseburger smothered in roasted green chilis. The house-made potato chips are a nice touch.  For burger hounds this is a must visit.

Fredericksburg was settled by Germans and it strives to keep its German heritage alive. There are several German-style beer gardens that serve a few German dishes along with Texas fare but we wanted a full menu of German dishes. Der Lindenbaum fits that bill with several versions of schnitzel, sauerbraten, German sausages and pork dishes with traditional German sauces, all served in a quaintly old-world atmosphere, and with a decent German beer list as well. Do not, I repeat, do not miss the desserts. The German chocolate cake was straight out of Bavaria.

For the wine tourist there is plenty to like about Texas Hill Country. The countryside is pretty, the wines improving in quality, and the food choices excellent.

Wine Review: Inwood Estates “Magdalena” Red Bordeaux-style Blend Texas 2012



There is time for one more winery visit before we leave Texas Hill Country, and we’ve been underwhelmed so far. I took the advice of some locals and stopped in at Inwood Estates. Finally, we taste a full lineup of quality wines. This blend is an example of what carefully tended, Bordeaux varietals can do in this forbiddingly hot climate with a short growing season. It’s a little more slender than California Cabernet but its unique characteristics make it worthy of some attention.

Dark plum and fig wrapped in subtle cedarwood with rosemary highlights produce a lovely aroma profile. The oak is already well-integrated, seamlessly melding with the fruit.

In the mouth, the wine is succulent and complex with balsamic and mineral notes surging at midpalate and continuing to show on the finish. A medium plus body with a texture more sinewy than lush, the tannins are fine grained and silky with little grip. There is tautness in the mouthfeel with backbone coming from the acidity. What sets this wine apart are the surprising tart flavors as the refreshing, medium-length finish draws to a close. This lifted quality on the finish is unusual in a Cab dominated blend—it’s pushing the limits of acid worship but it works.

A serious yet graceful wine with a vivacious aspect, it will excel as a food wine especially with rosemary-inflected lamb chops.

81% Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet France, with 2% Tempranillo. Purchase directly from the winery.

The dark, complex  yet energetic musings of Erik Truffaz’s Mechanic Cosmetic match the aura of this wine.

Score: 92

Price: $50

Alc: 14.4%

The Food Revolution is Taking Prisoners


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My soon-to-be-released book American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution makes the case that the food revolution in the U.S. is broad and deep and has the potential to reshape our attitudes  toward time, work, industrial food production,  sustainability, and pleasure. This recent piece in the NY Times lends substantial support to portions of that thesis:

General Mills will drop all artificial colors and flavors from its cereals. Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farm have begun to limit the use of antibiotics in their chicken. Kraft declared it was dropping artificial dyes from its macaroni and cheese. Hershey’s will begin to move away from ingredients such as the emulsifier polyglycerol polyricinoleate to “simple and easy-to-understand ingredients” like “fresh milk from local farms, roasted California almonds, cocoa beans and sugar.”

Furthermore, the article reports that consumers are turning away from established brands:

Per capita soda sales are down 25 percent since 1998, mostly replaced by water. Orange juice, a drink once seen as an important part of a healthy breakfast, has seen per capita consumption drop 45 percent in the same period. It is now more correctly considered a serious carrier of free sugar, stripped of its natural fibers. Sales of packaged cereals, also heavily sugar-laden, are down over 25 percent since 2000, with yogurt and granola taking their place. Frozen dinner sales are down nearly 12 percent from 2007 to 2013. Sales per outlet at McDonald’s have been on a downward spiral for nearly three years, with no end in sight.

People in the food business now refer to the inside aisles of the supermarket where packaged foods are sold as “the morgue”, as the the popularity of perimeter aisles filled with fresh ingredients soars.

And the future of industrial food is not looking bright:

42 percent of millennial consumers, ages 20 to 37, don’t trust large food companies, compared with 18 percent of non-millennial consumers who feel that way.

Industrial food is responding by introducing new products,  and buying up smaller, health food brands. Will that be enough to stem the decline? The authors of article say no but suggest that industrial food can save itself by getting religion:

Companies will have to drastically cut sugar; process less; go local and organic; use more fruits, vegetables and other whole foods; and develop fresh offerings…McDonalds needs to do more than use antibiotic-free chicken. The back of the house for its 36,000 restaurants currently looks like a mini-factory serving fried frozen patties and french fries. It needs to look more like a kitchen serving freshly prepared meals with locally sourced vegetables and grains — and it still needs to taste great and be affordable.

I’m not so sure. The whole idea of industrial food production is built around low cost convenience—and that requires a business model built around standardization. There is a reason why industrial food prep looks like a factory—it is a factory. Industrial production is  based on the precise calculation of units of labor, materials, and processes. It isn’t obvious such standardization is compatible with local sourcing catering to local tastes and the unpredictability of real kitchens.

There will always be a need for industrial food production in order to feed a large population with  a need for inexpensive food,  and confronted with the challenges of vast weather disparities, and transportation costs that sometimes favor bulk shipping. But it’s beginning to look like we’ve found alternative ways of thinking about food that can keep the worst excesses of industrial food production in check.

Budget Wine: Gato Negro Malbec Mendoza 2013

I keep hoping that if I persist in scouring the bottom shelf of the supermarket wine aisle, I will turn up a gem for under $5. It may be irrational to expect it but it happens every so often, just enough to keep hope alive. So here I go again with one of South America’s largest producers.

Alas no gem here. Black cherry and earth aromas lurk but green vegetal notes are prominent enough to be distracting. In the mouth it’s juicy up front but turns medicinal on the finish with no tannins to speak of. It’s not the worst plonk out there—drinkable if you’re not expecting too much but I see no reason to buy it. Their Cabernet is a little better.

John Prine captures low expectations as well as anyone. Some Humans Aint Human (and some wine aint wine)

Score: 80

Price: $8

Alc: 13%

Sure, Drink Champagne But Don’t Be Delusional


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More misleading “journalism” from our corporate media. Susan Rinkunas has the gory details.

A 2013 U.K. study inexplicably resurfaced on social media this weekend, leading to numerous gleeful headlines about Champagne being good for memory and protective for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Yet the study in question was not even an observational one, which would have looked at participants’ alcohol consumption over time and compared it with dementia diagnoses. No, it was conducted on rats. The researchers found that rodents given a rodent-size serving of Champagne daily for six weeks were ever-so-slightly better at finding a treat in a maze than rats given another alcoholic beverage or a drink with no booze. Seriously, that’s it.

Yep. That’s the evidence. Yet, here’s the screaming headline from People Magazine Online: “Pop Some Bottles! Drinking Champagne Weekly May Help Prevent Dementia.”

The study shows nothing of the sort and the author’s of the study draw no such conclusion. Not only do we not know if this applies to humans, we surely don’t know if it would help prevent dementia. The study apparently doesn’t even address the issue of dementia. This is a case of hack writers (I hesitate to call them journalists) just making stuff up to serve as click bait.

It really is disheartening to witness how far the profession of journalism has fallen. But who can blame them. We live in a society in which a carnival barker and an arrogant, narcissistic surgeon turned preacher are considered presidential timber.

Drink sparkling wine by all means but don’t expect it to cure disease.

A Simple Answer to A Simple Question



blue apronThe Plate asks “Can Blue Apron Teach You to Cook?”

The answer is probably not.

Blue Apron is one of several companies that deliver recipe kits and ingredients to your home taking the grocery shopping and recipe sorting out of cooking. (But looking through recipes is half the fun.) They send out 3 million meals a month.

Each of the companies offers a similar promise of good-tasting meals that aren’t too fatty (they have calorie limits) and take only about 30 minutes to prepare. This commitment is—according to conversations with customers and a search of reviews and social media posts—fulfilled. Making a satisfying meal is a matter of chopping, reading, and eating. It requires only a kitchen and a kit.

But they don’t teach you why you’re using the techniques they recommend and, of course, they do the shopping for you so learning to pick out good ingredients is not part of the bargain either.

The only way these services could teach someone to cook would be if you use the recipes and ingredients to further your exploration. But if you are motivated to explore, why use Blue Apron? It’s easy enough to pick up unusual ingredients at the store and use the Internet to find out how to use them.

Of course, that might mean your results are less than stellar at first but that is how you learn. Doing the trial without the error isn’t likely to teach you much.

One satisfied customer reports

“I’ve used ingredients I would’ve never touched because I’ve never eaten them, seen them in the store or know what to do with them,” says Chris Auchterlonie, a Los Angeles-based Blue Apron customer who considered himself a pretty good cook before trying the service. Auchterlonie has expanded this to away-from-the-box cooking.

“I’ve started to incorporate some of the ingredients or modifying the recipes to fit whatever I have on-hand into non-Blue Apron days now that I’m more confident,” he says

“Aha” moments are serendipitous. No doubt some customers will find they like this cooking thing and strike out on their own. But if you lack the curiosity or confidence to do your own exploring I doubt that excellence in cooking is in your future.

This is just one more way we make efficiency a goal and hollow out the very activity at which we we want to be more efficient.


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