Budget Wines: Smoking Loon El Carancho Malbec Central Valley, Chile 2013



smoking loon malbecPurple highlights in the glass give away the varietal. There is blackberry and a stealthy invasion of funky earth on the nose, just enough to remind you this is an agricultural product. Some brambly thyme notes and cranberry light up the the mid-palate. A hint of sweetness, but plenty of spice and character to keep sappy impressions to a minimum.  Medium plus body with good, sharp acidity but it has the fruit to keep it balanced. The tannins are reticent but when they appear the finish become just a little coarse and rustic–in a good way.

I really like this wine at this price. Lots of dimension and balanced flavor. The literature from the producer claims 10 months in French and American Oak, 80% new. That is unusual for a wine in this price range.

Smoking Loon has fallen off my radar in recent years; this wine suggests I need to become reacquainted. This is one of Don Sebastiani and Sons’ labels—a large producer of supermarket wines. When you find a good one, it makes plowing through the plonk worthwhile.

To accompany this wine, you’ll want some shit-kickin’ music with a touch of class. How about some Bonnie Raitt?

Score: 88

Alc: 13.5%

Price: $9

Is Napa the New Bordeaux



wine spectatorI ran across this winy little piece at the Napa Valley Register. Apparently, Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines from 2014 and the San Francisco Chronicle’s end-of-the-year summary didn’t include enough Napa wines, and the folks in Napa had their little fifis hurt.

The Spectator included six wines from Napa Valley wineries, but only four had a Napa Valley appellation…The Chronicle’s list didn’t include any Napa chardonnays except an Enfield from Wild Horse Valley, which is partly in Solano County…

The list didn’t include any Napa sparklers or pinot noirs…Among the cabernets, Napa did have 10 of the 14 top wines…A very few Napa wines were also included in the list of 60 top values under $40.

Looking at the list, it’s clear that unusual and new was a major criterion for picking wines.

The article goes on to lament the fact that wine writers don’t write about what is popular:

The whole list, like that of the Spectator, is mostly irrelevant. Though great for the wines chosen, it has little to do with the wines most people drink; the vast amount of top wines are chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, most from well-known producers sourcing grapes from familiar places.

I’m always suspicious of such lists, for writers and critics get bored. They like something different, and they also sometime suffer from the Consumer Reports syndrome: The winner has to be unexpected.

A list of wines by popularity (i.e., sales) is more relevant, but not if you think your taste is better than consumers.

I quite agree that the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list has a misleading title. The best wines in the world seldom appear on that list and sometimes their choices are just baffling. The criteria for choosing what gets on the list do seem to include what’s new, innovative, unusual and unexpected.

But why is that a flaw? Why would wine writers want to write about what’s already popular and well-known. A list of wines by popularity might be interesting in a study of what people drink, but why would such a list be newsworthy? The job of journalism is to inform readers about something they don’t know. If most people drink Cabernet and Chardonnay, then it’s the job of journalism to inform people about other varietals. If most people think ‘’Napa” when looking for quality Chardonnay then it’s journalism’s job to point out other sources of quality Chardonnay if they exist. Wine writing that sticks to only established varieties and regions would just be boring.

And on a side note, it is just false that most people drink wine from Napa. Napa produces about 4% of the wine made in California. Should journalists then devote only 4% of their space to writing about Napa?

The Bordelaise for years adopted the attitude that only they made quality wine and they could ignore the innovation going on around them. The result is a serious loss of market share as other regions realized their potential.

Is Napa suffering from that same sense of entitlement?

The Sad State of Cooking in the U.S.



thug kitchenVia Eater, here is a list of the 10 best selling cookbooks in the U.S. in 2014.

1. Make It Ahead by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter)
2. The Pioneer Woman Cooks: A Year of Holidays by Ree Drummond (William Morrow)
3. Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook (Rodale)
4. The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier by Ree Drummond (William Morrow)
5. The Skinnytaste Cookbook by Gina Homolka (Clarkson Potter)
6. Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole-Foods Lifestyle by Diane Sanfilippo (Victory Belt)
7. The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl by Ree Drummond (William Morrow)
8. Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes to Eat Well & Feel Great by Danielle Walker (Victory Belt)
9. The How Can It Be Gluten Free Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen (Cook’s Illustrated)
10. Miss Kay’s Duck Commander Kitchen by Kay Robertson (Howard Books)


1 is about saving time. 2 and 7 are easy, traditional, comfort food recipes. 5,6,8 and 9 are diet cookbooks. 3 is vegan food with a few expletives thrown in. 10 is more comfort food with Southern-fried personality and lots of canned ingredients in the recipes.

Save time, be healthy, remember the 50’s.

How inspiring!

Serge Hochar, RIP



Serge Hochar, winemaker and proprietor of Chateau Musar, died last week while vacationing in Mexico. This may not be news since his death has been widely reported, but I wanted to emphasize what a loss to the wine world this is.

It has become a constant mantra among wine writers that it is not the wine itself but the stories of the people who make the wine that we should be writing about. But truth be told, winemakers are no more interesting (or uninteresting) than anyone else. Often the story behind a wine is just exaggerated pablum.

But Serge Hochar really was an interesting story. A creator of extraordinary beauty in the face of violence and staunch opposition, he made world class wines for 45 years in Lebanon, a predominantly Muslim country embroiled in civil war for much of that time.

The feat of making wine under such conditions is remarkable enough, but these were interesting, unique wines that carried the stamp of his personal vision.

I never met him but had the chance to do a vertical tasting of several vintages of his wine. My brief review of his career and the wines is here.

And here is the New York Times story announcing his death.

Wine Review: Mumm Napa Brut Prestige Napa Valley NV


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mumm napaEver since the royals in 18th Century France adopted it as their drink of choice, Champagne has been the wine of celebration, marking the joyful promises of weddings, ship christenings, and the New Year. Unfortunately, the best known brands of sparkling wine are too expensive for most of us to purchase except on very special occasions. 40% of sparkling wine sales happen during the end-of-the-year holidays. That is a shame because a good sparkler can be as satisfying and versatile as still wine. It is only price that stands in the way of  sparkling wine being an occasional everyday wine.

In recent years, sparkling wine from other parts of the world have stepped in to fill the void at the lower end of the market. Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco, and German Sekt are reasonable alternatives but they usually lack the quality of genuine Champagne. The best sparkling wine houses in California have traditionally kept their prices high, competing with the French for the high end  celebration market, feeding the conventional wisdom that sparkling wine under $40 dollars is not worth drinking.

But California producers are beginning to take a different approach. Two of the largest sparkling wine producers in California, Domaine Chandon and Mumm’s are offering a less expensive line of wines in an attempt to capture the attention of younger people who lack the income to drop $50 for a casual dinner. This Prestige Brut is Mumm’s entry in the millennial sweepstakes.

As you might expect of a wine intended for a younger American audience, this wine has a hint of sweetness on the palate. Neither bone dry nor unpleasantly sweet, Mumm’s has not sold their soul on this—it is dry enough to satisfy most Champagne lovers with only 1.08% residual sugar. Abundant aromas of fresh pear and lemon give this wine a fruity aspect, with subtle yoghurt notes emerging with time. With plenty of exuberant bubbles, the texture is lively and supple with some creaminess giving way to a crisp finish. The best sparkling wines bring to mind bread right from the oven. There is little of that yeasty quality in this wine, but that is not unusual at this price. It is an authentic if not exceptional sparkling wine experience and a terrific bargain.

I paired it with some very spicy Moorish-influenced pork kebabs. The combination was outstanding.  The versatility of sparkling wine as a food partner needs more attention than it is typically given.

If sparkling wine is to escape the “celebration ghetto” its reputation must shift from the that of the luxurious party girl we procure when good cheer is to be manufactured to something more serious and down to earth. There is indeed irony in the fact that sparkling wine too often ends up in a celebration of false hopes. As Saint Vincent croons: “I thought I learned my lesson but I secretly expected a choir at the shore and confetti through falling air…I make a living telling people what they want to hear, and boy I tell ya, it’s going to be a Champagne Year”.

The next time you get your brood on, try Champagne to match your mood. After all, those exploding bubbles are a metaphor for the lifespan of our best-laid plans.

Score: 89

Price: $18 (ave.)

Alc: 12.5%

Edible Art: Cauliflower Fricassee w/Raita and Pea Shoots


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Much of modern art takes an ordinary object as its subject matter and transforms it into something extraordinary by placing the object in an unusual context. The edible arts are no exception. Although the tools of modern science give chefs the ability to fundamentally modify the form of ingredients, you don’t need a chemistry degree to create stunning effects. By playing with the function of an ingredient and giving it a new role and unexpected partners, chefs can transform how that ingredient is perceived.

This dish by Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky from their book Elements of Taste is a good illustration of this principle.

Cauliflower is almost always served as a side dish or a minor component in a larger dish. It seldom stands alone as a featured flavor platform. Mild and vaguely nutty when raw, when cooked it begins to smell like, well, funky feet, and without some serious dressing up with salt and butter or cheese, it just becomes insipid the more it is cooked. Only when roasted, does cauliflower begin to taste like food. But almost everything tastes better when roasted and a plate of roasted cauliflower by itself still adds up to a boring meal. But that “funky feet” flavor can be a welcoming host when the proper guests are invited to contribute. In this exotic main dish, cauliflower stars as a gloomy contrast to overly exuberant fruit. The fruit shows a different side as well. The taste of fresh fruit is equally dependent on acidity and sweetness. Yet, in cooking, we typically think of a fruity dish as highlighting sweetness, with sourness employed to achieve balance. This dish reverses that equation-the sourness of lemon plays a starring role but is kept in check by explosive contrasting flavors.

Tasting notes: The foreground flavor is bracingly sour fruit, flavorful yet astringent, that permeates the broth and persists throughout the taste experience. Curry provides a persistent background note while the thin slices of, with cumin and coriander kept whole to provide little explosions of flavor, keep the sourness from overwhelming. This flavor profile along with the cooling raita  contribute to the exotic, vaguely Indian feel of this dish.

Cauliflower is serving as a flavor platform and aspires to dominance without ever quite achieving it given the strong flavors of its partneers. The usual malodorous “funky” flavor of cauliflower becomes, in this dish, a mild dusky presence, like a gloomy twilight, that contrasts with the bright astringency of the sour fruit and sharp attack of the slices of ginger. The cauliflower tempers the bright, assertive flavors preventing their high spirits from manipulating the mood of the dish, while the exotic spice mix masks the “funkiness” of the cauliflower allowing its dark, gloomy note to persist. While eating through the dish, the curry and yoghurt melt into the broth, gradually transforming the dish from an exotic exploration of sour fruit to something tamer and more comforting-until the slices of ginger punctuate, leaping to the foreground to pull us back toward exotica.  As this battle between fruit and foreboding fades, the picante dimension of the ginger and pepper remains, perking up the palate in anticipation of another bite.

Recipe is below or can be found elsewhere online here:

Continue reading

Budget Wine: Fetzer Valley Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon 2012



fetzerIn today’s world of competent industrial winemaking, when you raid the bottom shelf at the supermarket looking for gems you run into lots of ordinary. This screams ordinary.

Modest aromas of generic berry, bell pepper and hazelnuts with earth undertones. For the price it is interesting enough but the nose is marred by the bell pepper which, in a Cabernet, is a sign of under-ripe grapes.  The medium- bodied palate adds vanilla and cocoa notes but  the lack of fruit intensity is not sufficient to balance the tart, sour acidity on the finish. The absence of tannins leaves a wine with little structure.  A drinkable everyday wine that doesn’t give a lot of pleasure.

But finding pleasure in the ordinary is the way of happiness. Listening to Bono’s lovely paean to Ordinary Love will make this wine taste like Petrus.


Score: 82

Price:  $8

Alc: 13.5

The Champagne Boycott



champagneI won’t be drinking Champagne this New Year’s Eve. If the Champagne trade association wants to act like thugs they can do it without my money.

CIVC, The trade association for Champagne, the region in France that produces sparkling wine, has long been engaged in a fight to prevent other sparkling wine producers from calling their product Champagne. This is entirely reasonable. If your grapes are not grown in Champagne then you don’t make Champagne—you make sparkling wine. Why should Champagne allow competitors to capitalize on their reputation?

But the CIVC is now suing an Australian blogger who calls herself “Champagne Jayne” because, while promoting Champagne to her readers, she sometimes praises other sparkling wines. She is accused of misleading her readers by using the name “Champagne Jayne” while promoting other sparkling wines, thus tarnishing the reputation of Champagne. This, despite the fact that she has won many wine educator awards in France because of her efforts on behalf of Champagne.

I fail to see the logic. Are her readers confusing Jayne with a bottle of Champagne? If she clearly distinguishes Champagne from sparkling wine where is the confusion? Apparently if you enjoy Champagne you are logically required to spit out the stuff from Napa or the Loire Valley.

This is just juvenile and makes you wonder what happened to the marketing genius that made Champagne one of the world’s most recognizable brands. Their thuggish tactics will tarnish their reputation more than anything Champagne Jane does.

Wine Review: The San Francisco Wine Press Yerba Buena Red Mendocino NV



sf wine pressThere are lots of health and environmental reasons to consume organic foods, but the jury is still out on whether they taste better than conventionally-grown products. Jeriko Estates thinks they do.

Located in Hopland Ca. near Mendocino, Jeriko Estates produces fine Pinot Noir and Syrah using exclusively organic and bio-dynamically-grown grapes.  This is Jeriko Estate’s second label, a blend of 45% Syrah, 23% Merlot, 22% Sangiovese, and some Grenache, named in tribute to the early immigrants who brought vineyards to the San Francisco area.

Bright, fresh, red berry aromas mingle with prominent clove and cinnamon and a hint of vanilla. The juicy, lively, medium-bodied palate is promising, with smooth but persistent tannins giving this wine surprising structure for the price. But the acidity is not integrated and turns sour and angular on the finish. It will cut through rich foods but as a sipper it falls apart just when satisfaction seems at hand.

Style: Fresh, spicy, tart

Score: 87

Price: $15

Alc 13.9%

Spicy like  a Mark Knopfler guitar lick but as Bobby Dylan laments “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight”


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