Doing what California can’t do for under $20


Chasing down a good red.

Chasing down a good red.

Cue Etta James. At Last!

Finally someone gets it. Gets how to make an all-out true Bordeaux blend for under $20 and it actually not be from Bordeaux. After years of California vintners plugging away at prestigious and often OVER-priced attempts at that five varietal Bordeaux blend, a South African winery shows them how it’s done.

Any wine lover's best friend.

Any wine lover’s best friend.

The 2011 Mulderbosch Faithful Hound Red combines the classic Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot) to make a solid southern hemisphere rendition of the iconic French wine and does it all for around $18. So consider this your new best friend.

A slightly cedar note and some Merlot-sponsored green bell pepper shine on the nose. Full bodied, the Faithful Hound begs for a nice chunk of red meat to tear into, so throw a slab of your favorite cut of steak on the grill and fetch a bottle or two of the Mulderbosch.  Your “lonely days are over.”

Say Cheese

(L-R) Fourme d'Ambert from Auvergne, Le Chatelain Camembert, Commis Saint Antoine from Jura and Chabichou from Poitou

(L-R) Fourme d’Ambert from Auvergne, Le Chatelain Camembert from Normandy, Commie Saint Antoine from Jura and Chabichou from Poitou

Come onnn…. Just say it!

Cheezzzzzeee! And you can’t help but smile.

Monsieur St. Valentine was a wee tardy last week delivering his gift of love, a wooden crate of fun and funky cheeses from France. The overnight package from Murray’s Cheeses included Fourme d’Ambert from Auvergne, Le Chatelain Camembert from Normandy, Commie Saint Antoine from Jura and Chabichou from Poitou. Talk about twice the mouthful!

MARGAUX? Oui oui!

MARGAUX? Oui oui!

And a surprise delivery from Lotsa Pasta, my favorite deli in Louisville Kentucky, included a nicely imported prosciutto as well as some soppressatta. Not only would the creamy and salty love-foods be enough to bail Cupid out of the doghouse, but they would also serve as a comforting and indulgent dinner.

Outside of the goat cheese-inspired Chabichou (which really needs a dry white), the rest of these cheeses will pair incredibly well with a Cabernet or Cabernet blend from Bordeaux. We enjoyed our improvised cheese-head dinner with a cellared red wine from Margaux, the 2003 Château Prieuré-Lichine. A blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot, the Prieuré-Lichine (unlike some wines from Bordeaux) is not to be aged for an extended time period. It had reached its performance peak, so our timing that night (unlike my Valentine’s Day miscue) was right on the mark.

What’s for dinner: Stracotto

Somebody turned forty-something last week and was surprised with a birthday feast of unimaginable flavor and (because everyone needs thirds) portions.

Say hello to Stracotto!

Mushrooms and the Italian version of the trinity.

Mushrooms and the Italian version of the trinity.

Sort of a savory, tender Italian style pot roast, Stracotto was a five hour (start to finish) commitment to slow cooking that infused the air with hunger-inducing aromas. San Marzano tomatoes, mushrooms, celery, onion, garlic, carrots, a little something-something and red wine all played key, supporting roles in this operatic devotion to an Italian roast.

Reduction Junction what's your function? Concentration.

Reduction Junction what’s your function? Concentration.

Comforting. Succulent. Robust.

The icing on the cake was the last remaining bottle of Cliff Lede from Napa Valley. Intense dark fruit, with some herbal notes and a hint of peppa, the Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon and Stracotto teamed up like knife and fork, poetically orchestrating an indulgent ode to life’s additional candle. Here’s to wishes staying true!

California Cabernets Keep Coming

* A version of this column was first published in the on-line edition of Saturday’s Knoxville News Sentinel.

Killer California Cabernets haven’t lost any steam over the years. And getting to try them each season and share the scoop on some of these winners makes writing this annual fall column on Cabs all the more easier. This year I wanted to seek out selections that represented both different price ranges as well as styles. Lucky for us, this year’s group has something for everyone.

Value-oriented Cabernets act as that multi-purpose wine with the reputation of being a crowd pleasing, wallet conscious, almost too good to be true bottle of wine. And with the season of entertaining approaching, you’ll want to have plenty of good but affordable wine on hand. This year’s safe case buy is the 2011 Carnivor Cabernet. For around $12 per bottle, the Carnivor will surprise you with its threshold reading on the gulp-ability meter. A little splash of Petite Sirah makes this wine both fruity and approachable as well as one heckuva an inky, tooth-stainer.

Finding that mid-tier Cabernet, which will make for some immaculate consumption, is often the most daunting quest from year to year. These Cabs are usually in the $20 range and should be able to prove their mettle and worth as an up-sell. A few years ago the Nashville-based BNA Wine Group and its winemaker, Tony Leonardini shipped one of their Napa Valley Cabernets, the Volunteer, to town. A much beloved moniker for a local fan base of volunteers, the wine actually gets its name from Leonardini’s days as a volunteer firefighter in St. Helena, California.

Shortly after that, the Volunteer was followed up by an even tastier and more affordable Cabernet. One taste of the 2010 Rule Cabernet from Napa Valley and the taste buds on the tongue will be skipping, ooh là là, like an old record. The Cab offers up luscious approachable blackberry fruit that adds an exclamation point to a plump filet, or better yet rosemary and garlic peppered lamb chops. You can’t go wrong with this Cabernet.

Finally, the connoisseur or collector in your circle will be impressed with your choice of the 2009 Alexander Valley Reserve Cabernet. Aromas of provincial herbs and dried tobacco are an enticing invitation from this $39 Healdsburg temptress. Cabernets like the ones from the Alexander Valley Winery have the backbone and structure that searchers of a food friendly Cabernet appreciate while gesturing a tip of the hat to wine purists who desire a less adulterated Cab. Enjoy!

Champagne, Cabernet and Barolo for the triumphs of Fall

* A version of this column was first published in the on-line edition of Saturday’s Knoxville News Sentinel.

This fall, there is any number of reasons why you may find yourself seeking out an exceptional bottle of wine or champagne. Besides the inevitable holiday gift giving, opportunities like a new job, an unexpected victory or a little romance may present themselves. And having these recommendations tucked away, for just such a situation, will serve you well in that moment of selecting the right bottle.

Ferrari Lineup, Perle in the pole position.

Ferrari Lineup, Perle in the pole poition.

Toasting to any of life’s victories is special; doing so in style requires little other than a nice bottle of bubbly. But keep in mind that successes don’t always come easily and enjoying them, without skimping on quality, makes that instant all the more memorable.

Two of the traditional French champagne houses that never seem to fail in delivering both enjoyment and quality are Bollinger and Pol Roger. They manage to convey complexity without being overly bready or yeasty. You’ll know you’re enjoying something distinctive while sharing toasts and congratulations over a fine, foaming flute of either of these French bubblies.

And if you can shakedown your favorite wine-smith for a bottle of Ferrari Perle sparkling wine from Trentino in Northern Italy, your wallet as much as your palate will be just as thankful. Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, this Italian version of French champagne may come in at half the price, but it does so while still delivering all the style and sophisticated deliciousness you would come to expect from its French colleague.

Similarly, romantic dinners or feast-like celebrations are accentuated with the mere presence of a prestigious, all-American wine. The 2010 Chateau Montelena is one of the best Cabernets that I’ve ever tasted from this award winning Napa Valley winery. It is remarkably accessible for being so young and has a flavorful fruit profile with heaps of currant and divine black cherry notes. If you’re the type that doesn’t want to have to wait for it to age, this is the one for you. Although with a little more patience, I can only imagine this baby growing up to be even more spectacular.

And if you’re looking this fall to give someone dear a little unexpected something, say for their most recent victory of a new job, new born, new union or new retirement, then offer them something that is both enjoyable on its own or with an extraordinary meal. For me that gift is a nice Barolo from the Italian region of Piedmont or more specifically, the Marziano Abbona Barolo Pressenda. Made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes, the Barolo is brickish in color and wonderfully aromatic with notes of wild flowers and flavors of dried cherries and polished pomegranate. A refined and reputable Barolo will blow them away!

Up a Quilceda Creek

Mushroom and cheese topped Filet.

Mushroom and cheese topped Filet.

This may truly be Washington State’s best Cabernet. Quilceda Creek has been making Cabernet and only Cabernet for over three decades now. And it is outstanding!

The Cabernet doing its pregame warm-up.

The Cabernet doing its pregame warm-up.

I had put back a bottle of their famed juice for a few years and just the other week I finally got around to opening it. The 2006 Quilceda Creek Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet comes from one of Washington State’s smaller appellations, Red Mountain. Located on the far eastern part of Yakima Valley, Red Mountain is such a small area that it presently has a little over a 1,000 acres of vineyards in use.

Before its bottling in 2008, the Cabernet was aged exclusively in new French oak barrels. While waiting for a little decanting action, its deep red, almost raven color becomes the starting point of the wine’s appeal. You’ll soon enjoy a flavorful and concentrated black fruit profile and quickly appreciate the Cabernet’s polished structure.

Come sampling time my resistance was weak, so I had to indulge the moment with a chunk of beef and some tortellini. Quilceda is difficult to track down (and Ben Franklin expensive) so cherish the treat with someone special.

Super wine, super proud

It's good, but...

It’s good, but…

Back in the 1970′s, the Italian wine term “Super Tuscan” was born out of artistic necessity. Some vintners in Tuscany had felt trapped by the strict winemaking regulations of the area and needed a new branding campaign to separate their free spirited wine creations from the Chianti-obsessed old guard.

Their vision first led them to use the Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet and Merlot (along with some Sangiovese) to produce distinct and delicious wines that might have otherwise never been born. And these wines wouldn’t just carry a label designated with the word- “Toscana;” rather, they would require effective branding as seen through the introduction to the wine world of a new term, “Super Tuscan.”

Tignanello. Sassicaia. Ornellaia. Solaia. The first of the Super Tuscans hit wine shops with monikers fit for a Puccini Opera. Almost overnight, their popularity rose to rockstar status. And soon they’d have a price tag to prove it.

Not too long ago, I got my hands on a sample of the 2005 Ornellaia and decided to pop the cork this past weekend. A blend of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (60%) with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot comprising the rest, the 2005 Ornellaia is unquestionably an excellent wine. Dried cherry fruit and a sense of aristocratic finesse are evident.

But with insanely high prices (most costing hundreds), it’s hard to justify the net return. So seek out alternative Super Tuscans, like the Valdisanti, whose prices are in the twenty-something range and more than likely unnoticeably different from their super proud predecessors.

What’s for dinner?

How about some bowtie pasta, tomato sauce, basil and sausage with an affordable red wine from Toscana!

Farfalle pasta with pomodoro, basilico and salsiccia

Farfalle pasta with pomodoro, basilico and salsiccia

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, then you’ve probably surmised that my mom is Italian. Which means I ate well growing up… also that I’m pretty damn picky when it comes to Italian food, really just most food. Actually it’s more like most everything. So, when my bride decided she was going to start making and jarring her own tomato sauce, I was excited.

Facing China

Facing China


Supportive? I tell myself I was.

Apprehensive? Uh huh.

And my trepidation, what happened to it? It switched, from how bad could it be to oh shit, this tomato sauce is even better than my mom’s.

My bride’s soon-to-be-famous tomato sauce (like I’m going to share it with anyone else) took this everyday dinner of bowtie pasta, garden basil and sausage to a higher level. It’s rich sweetness beams from the fruit of legendary Grainger County tomatoes. And her additional smattering of anise is the bee’s knees.

Pair it with a very affordable $14 super Tuscan by Renzo Masi called Erta e China. This fifty-fifty blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet offers the depth of color and body of Cabernet with the dried cherry and licorice finish of Sangiovese. These two were meant to be together.

Offer a salute for Father’s Day

* A version of this column was originally published in Saturday’s on-line edition of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Wines fit for a king

Wines fit for a king

This Father’s Day you may not be able to send dad on that much needed vacation touring the vineyards of the Tuscan countryside or to be pampered by any of the countless numbers of wineries in California’s Napa Valley. But you can bring the vineyard to him, at least the best part of it. On his day of appreciation, give dad a beautiful and distinctive bottle of wine that he may enjoy at his leisure. Who knows he might even open it the next time you’re around.

Some dad’s are all about comfort. They like to know or be familiar with something before they dive into it. These are the old school, map in hand Pops whom plan almost everything in advance and are going to want to at least be able to pronounce the wine gift you chose for them. Chances are they’re quite aware of Napa Valley and their award-winning litany of sturdy, reliable Cabernets.

With that in mind, the preferred Napa Valley Cabs that I recommend for Father’s Day come from Cliff Lede Vineyards and Bell Wine Cellars. The 2009 Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon, in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, represents the tannic, bold style Cabernet with its firm structure and dark berry fruit. The Cliff Lede (pronounced lady) is a steak lovers Cab that will need to be opened well in advance of firing up the grill. Look to pay around $60.

Likewise, Anthony Bell’s 2009 Claret will amaze any wine enthusiast. Its local popularity was made possible by Mr. Bell’s continued presence in the market and by the long time listing on the wine menu at the Northshore Brasserie. A mostly Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, the Bell Claret is excellence defined. For the ready-to-drink wine man, only the layers of supple, luscious fruit surpass the Claret’s polished tannins and elegant mouthfeel. And it’s a very reasonable gift for under $40.

Father & Son

For the jet setter, aspiring world traveler or even the modern day “foodie” father, one needs to look no further than the vineyards of Tuscany for an impeccable bottle of wine and exceptional gift idea. Aged for three years in oak, the 2008 Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino is a delectable mouthful of 100% Sangiovese Grosso grapes. With dense black cherry flavors, a hint of anise and a finish reminiscent of wild berry reduction, the Castelgiocondo Brunello just begs to be paired with some braised lamb shank. Leather notes and holiday spices combine for an aromatic tour de force, so Dad will know his $70 gift was special the moment he leans in for his first sip.

Keep in mind that buying an expensive bottle is a commitment and not an investment. Always ask your local shop for a discount to defer some of the cost of your purchase. They should be more than glad to help you with such a special gift.

Burger Night with the Big Guy

Burger's best friend

Burger’s best friend

Budget week wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the all-American hamburger (and what to pair with it). And although the scope of what goes on that burger continues to change, the central ingredient is customarily beef. From there, interpretation seems to be limitless, including this version of goat cheese, avocado, bacon and egg; all ready to join a chimichurri mixed beef patty.

And that’s the thing with the evolution of the iconic American burger; there’s a whole lot going on between the buns. Selecting one, all encompassing wine to match perfectly is a bit of a challenge.

That being said it’s usually a safer bet to fall back on a well-established red blend that has some combination of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. The Cabernet and Syrah are experienced partners for beef and the Merlot brings more fruit and a softening element to the wine.

Washington State is a great place to start in your search for a $10-12 red blend for burger night. They have a host of choices and should be readily available at your local shop.

But if you have a little extra coin left over at the end of the week, grab a bottle of Bell Wine Cellar’s 2010 Big Guy Red from California. This Syrah and Merlot blend (with a touch of Cab and Sangiovese) has a remarkably well polished texture, especially considering its under-$20 price tag. The Big Guy ranks high on the gulpability meter and when it comes to chowing down on a great burger, the land of all beef patties has no greater partner.

Build a better burger

Build a better burger

Sunday’s Cabernet Column in the KNS

2009 Napa Valley Cabernets to seek out while they last

Napa Valley extended its run of outstanding Cabernet vintages to six years in a row with the successful harvest of the 2009 crop, but some vintage trackers are showing a return to mediocrity with the 2010 release. With the possibility of a drop-off looming, now may be the last best chance to secure some quality and yet affordable 2009 Napa Cabernets for the year ahead. With that in mind, I set out to find what’s left of the best.

Back in October, I blogged that the 2009 Martin Ray Cabernet promised to be a viable choice with some classic and comforting cedar notes and an all-out black cherry sensation. Its quality, for an under $20 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet, may be surpassed by few, but one wine with the most likelihood of doing so is the 2009 Black Stallion.

A virtual newcomer to the Napa Valley wine scene, Black Stallion offers an alluring profile of sweet oak flavors, cinnamon stick aromas and an all-spice cadence that is akin to catching that captivating scent of a freshly unwrapped piece of Big Red. It has a certain something to it that’ll remind you of old-school Christmas charm. For under $20, Black Stallion Napa Valley Cabernet is the quintessential “go to” for cool weather drinking and heartier dinnertime fare.

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The new 2010 Broadside Cabernet totes a one-two punch of focused fruit with blackberry aromatics and whiffs of Cedar trunk. Sourced from the Margarita Vineyard in Paso Robles, Broadside was recently listed by the New York Times as a Top 12 American wine value. Drier and seemingly less manipulated than a lot of California Cabs in the $15 range, the barrage of beefy notes would have Major Tom agreeing that it’s “just begging for a hunk of meat on the grill.”

The Evergreen State: A thorn in California’s side

Washington State persistently outshines California with tremendous everyday values and the Thorny Rose is another illustration of that trend.

Very vanilla aromas and sweet oak nuances open up to a gentler style Cabernet that isn’t shy in showing off a cluster of darker berry flavors.

The silky mouth feel and bottle-emptying sense of gulpability of the 2009 Thorny Rose Cabernet, helps to establish it as a new go-to case buy for a weekday or large event red wine.

Keep on rolling with Rickshaw Cabernet

Typically, Cabernet is not on my mind during the stale humidity of a Southern drought. But sometimes you have to turn the AC down low and dream of a cooler autumn day. That happened last night when I opened up a bottle of the 2010 Rickshaw Cabernet. Rickshaw’s first impression as an opulent and gratifying Cabernet is supported by the pedigree of its fruit sourcing, including the likes of Napa, Alexander Valley and Paso Robles. It may be hard to imagine something so rich going for around $15 but once the dense and dark fruit flavors start rolling around, you may have discovered just the right rickshaw to pull you through the dream-state and into a cooler frame of mind.

Easy-drinking reds perfect for cookouts

Warm weather usually means the proverbial switch to white wine. However, all those spring and summertime cookouts with lots of burgers and barbecue usually correlate to serving some easy-drinking reds. These four red wine selections are relatively new editions that are affordable, tasty and good all-around pairings.

n 2007 Coppola Celestial Blue Malbec ($14.99): The Godfather has done it again. Writer and director Francis Ford Coppola has once again extended his famous Diamond Collection of wines to include the very hot Malbec grape. Embellished with aromas of clove, pepper and allspice, the 2007 Coppola Malbec offers up black cherry flavors, a hint of cinnamon and a dash of oak influenced black fruit. Leave it to the movie maestro to work his magic on yet another wine. This one is classic Malbec with more fruit-forward enjoyment than the deluge of South American juice flooding the market.

n 2008 Darby & Joan Cabernet ($9.55): The latest roll out by one of Australia’s premier wine groups, the Grateful Palate Imports is the 2008 Darby & Joan Cabernet, an un-oaked red with loads of luscious fruit. Its bouquet opens up with a combination of plum berries and green bell pepper. Although it’s a huge 15 percent in alcohol, Darby & Joan doesn’t hog the glass like it was lugging around a lot of heat. A very gracious dose of watermelon Jolly Rancher does fade toward the end, but for under $10, this one shouldn’t disappoint.

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Three wines worth drinking this year

At the start of each new year, some people take time to look back and do some personal inventorying, while others prefer to look forward and explore what this new year has to offer. Fortunately for the latter, three wines are emerging as phenomenal super-values in 2011.

- Lamarca Prosecco Brut NV

Just because the New Year has already begun doesn’t mean that you need a special reason to celebrate. You do, however, need a great bubbly to do the celebrating. Lamarca Prosecco (from Italy) isn’t shy in showing a little swagger about being the first Italian Prosecco to make Wine Spectator’s “Top 100″ list. Not nearly as dry as French Champagne, Prosecco creates a softer, more approachable texture with fresh fruit flavors of peach and citrus.

- 2009 Chapoutier Les Vignes de Bila-Haut

While more and more wineries are going out of their way to find flashy ways to market their labels, one French producer is paying attention to what’s behind the label as well. Back in the 90s, Chapoutier became the first winery to put Braille on its label, informing the blind as to where the wine came from, when it was made and whether it’s red or white. Wine promoters may have perceived the change as a stroke of marketing genius, but more importantly, wine lovers were merely impressed that Chapoutier continued to put quality wine in their bottles.

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Grab a Great California Cabernet

In a universe of unpredictability there is, in spite of everything, one facet of the wine world that has maintained consistency: California still makes great Cabernets. Whether it’s the everyday, dollar-friendly stalwarts like 337 Lodi Cabernet and Bogle Cabernet or the high-end leaders like Caymus and Silver Oak, California is producing excellent Cabernets that offer something delicious in every price range. So in that spirit, this column is devoted to introducing you to some terrific, mid-priced Cabernets that California is currently releasing.


It may be impossible not to think of Napa Valley when someone brings up California Cabernet, and there’s a good reason for that. Napa Valley has been the home to great winemaking for the better part of American wine history, and the Raymond family has been a part of that same experience for the past five generations. Located in St. Helena, the Raymond winery stays true to classic Napa Valley varietals including their 2007 Raymond Reserve Cabernet. Fresh and fantastic aromas of lavender and Provencal herbs underscore the uniqueness and luster of this wine. Its structure and body is parallel to a Bordeaux-style Cabernet but the layered fruit finish of black cherry and sweet oak is All-American. An archetypal Cabernet like this needs a fitting partner, so hike down to your favorite butcher and request a fresh serving of your go-to cut of beef. Grill, pour and enjoy!

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