I'm Not Drinking any F*@#ing Merlot!

Way back in 2004, Merlot had a bad name. 

Myles, the main character in the movie Sideways, famously uttered his contempt for Merlot in this classic scene. That reputation was probably well-deserved as the market had been flooded with a lot of cheap, crappy wine.

Not anymore. Our friends, Alisa and Ken, recently hosted a blind tasting that proves Merlot is worth a try.

They served a line-up of four wines. For each one, we tried to guess the year, the cost, and the region. We also discussed what we liked and didn't about each one.

We attended a similar party at Alisa and Ken's last year, and a mid-priced Syrah from Ramona was the surprise winner. It proved the value of tasting wines blind - without any preconceived notions of price, region, or relative quality.

Would we have another surprise? Here were the vintages, regions, and price points. Which do you think was the winner?

  • 2010, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, $12
  • 2011, Ramona, $28
  • 2011, Napa Valley, $30
  • 2013, Napa Valley, $40

Perhaps it would help to know the wineries? Here's a photo line-up of the bottles:

And, the winner is...

The crowd favorite was the 2011 Clos du Val Merlot. It has a classic California Merlot taste. Dark fruit and a little spice on the nose and a little fruit-forward with blackberry and plum on the finish complemented with nicely balanced tannins.

Three notes:

  • We've visited all the wineries except for the one in France.
  • Trefethen displayed this funny sign outside their winery not long after Sideways came out.
  • Sally and I both had the Trefethen Merlot marked as #2 on our ballots. That's a surprise, because the last time we visited the winery we thought it was a dud.
Posted on August 20, 2016 .

How to Throw a Hassle-Free Single Varietal Wine Party

It's fun to focus on one varietal.

You really don't appreciate how different wine from the same grape can taste until you try several examples side-by-side. This can make for a fun party.

Here's one way you can do it that's relatively easy.

First, pick a grape that you know you and your friends generally like. We have a few friends that are crazy about Pinot Noir, so we recently decided to go with that one.

Next, invite some friends and ask each couple to bring a bottle of wine made from that grape. If you are inviting singles, you can ask half your guests to bring a bottle to keep things from getting too boozy. 

Now, you'll want to plan a menu that goes with that wine.

Wine pairing doesn't have to be difficult if you have the ultimate cheat sheet! We use What to Drink with What You Eat as our go-to guide for wine pairing. Just pick a grape and the book will give you a list of possible menu items that are sure to go well with that wine.

For our Pinot Noir party, Sally decided to go with beef brisket, mashed potatoes, and green beans wrapped in bacon.

We also started with a cheese course since wine can be fun to pair with cheese. Lucky for us, there's an amazing cheese shop in San Diego called Venissimo. All we have to do is tell one of their knowledgeable employees what varietal we're serving and they'll have several stellar recommendations at the ready.

The day of the party, it's a good idea to give your guests one wine glass for each bottle of wine being shared. Just be careful - this can make your table a little crowded.

We've found that dispensing with unnecessary items like table clothes, place mats, and center pieces can free up a little extra space.

There's one last prep item to mention. You want to get a bag of some kind for each wine bottle. Open yours just before guests arrive and then hand one to each guest.

This way, guests can open and bag their own wine so you won't see what they brought. We mark the bags with numbers so we can keep track of each wine while we're drinking it. Number one is the glass on each person's left, number two is the glass immediately to the right of that, and so on.

This helps during the tasting so you can all compare notes by referring to number one versus number two, etc.

OK, that covers the party planning. Once your guests arrive, it's time to enjoy yourself! We pour a small glass of each wine for our guests once everyone arrives and then start with the cheese course. This gives everyone a chance to try the wine with and without cheese.

We then move on to the main course. We all discuss the wine along the way. Part of the fun is discovering how people's perceptions change depending on what you're eating.

Finally, we see if there's a consensus favorite among the group.

At our Pinot Noir party, we were all surprised to learn that everyone brought a Pinot Noir from Oregon's Willamette Valley region! Here's the line-up:

  • 2012 Maison L'Envoye Two Messengers Pinot Noir
  • 2012 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir
  • 2013 Solena Domaine Danielle Laurent Pinot Noir
  • 2014 Erath Pinot Noir

All of the wines were tasty, but they had some big differences. Some were earthy while others were fruitier. Some were lighter while others were darker. It was fun to compare.

As always, we voted on a winner just for fun. The crowd favorite this time was the 2012 Domaine Serene Yamhill Cuvee Pinot Noir.

Posted on May 21, 2016 .

A Short Guide to Wine Tasting in Los Olivos

Sally and I recently enjoyed wine tasting in the town of Los Olivos with some friends. If you've tasted wine from Santa Barbara County, you know it well. 

If you haven't yet visited Los Olivos, you should. Here's an overview to help you plan your visit.

 

The Town

Los Olivos is a tiny town of just over a thousand people located in Santa Barbara County. The town is near famous AVAs such as the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. You can get a good overview of the region on the Santa Barbara Vintners website.

The main section of Los Olivos is the intersection of Grand and Alamo Pintado avenues that form a central hub of tasting rooms, casual eateries, and small shops.

A look down Grand Avenue shows a few of our favorites clustered together: E11EVEN (a sub-label of Andrew Murray), Evan's Ranch (a sub-label of Gainey Ranch), and Olive Hill Farm, which is a purveyor of awesome olive and balsamic oils.

A fun quirk about this town is the public restrooms are located in the St. Marks In-the-Valley Episcopal Church. I think that officially makes Los Olivos a small town.

Los Olivos was also featured in the movie, Sideways. One of the most iconic scenes was filmed at the Los Olivos Cafe where Myles epically refused to drink Merlot..

Two Great Tasting Rooms

You can taste your way through several great tasting rooms without walking more than a block. There are a few other tasting rooms in the immediate vicinity that we'll have to try on a future visit.

Here are our picks:

 

Alta Maria

They specialize in Pinot Noir.

We tasted six different Pinot Noirs. Our favorites were the 2012 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, the 2013 Garey Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the 2013 Bien Nacido Block G Pinot Noir. Doing a side-by-side tasting of wines made by the same winemaker from the same grape really gives you an idea of how the location where the grapes are grown can influence flavor.

 

Kaena

They specialize in Grenache. Our favorite here was the 2013 Tierra Alta Vineyard Grenache. We ended up buying two bottles, which waived the tasting fees.

This is a very dog friendly tasting room. The dogs almost outnumbered the humans when we visited with four or five dogs crowded into a small space. 

 

Dining

There are a few cool cafes in Los Olivos, but we opted to pick up tri-tip sandwiches as the R Country Market. One block away, there are picnic tables in the park adjacent to the town square, which was a relaxing place to enjoy our meal.

We've enjoyed some nice sandwiches from Panino on previous visits. Our friends recommended a newer place called Sides, but there was a pretty long wait by the time we got over there. Maybe next time!

 

Bonus Stop

There are quite a few wineries that are a short drive from the main section of Los Olivos. We've visited several on trips in 2011 and 2012.

On this trip, we decided to return to Rusack. It was a good decision.

Rusack is a short drive from the main section of Los Olivos. They have a spacious tasting room with a patio overlooking rolling, vineyard-covered hills.

The wines are very good. They were out of their Anacapa Cabernet Franc (a favorite of ours), but we enjoyed some very nice wines including their 2015 Rose and 2014 Sauvignon Blanc. Don't tell Rusack this, but their 2013 Ballard Canyon Estate Syrah is a steal at $29 per bottle.

 

Lodging

We've stayed at The Hadsten House in Solvang on previous trips and it's been a very nice place for the money. There are more dining options near here, and it's just a short drive to the Los Olivos tasting rooms.

On this trip, we stayed at The Montecito Inn. It's in Montecito, an unincorporated community adjacent to Santa Barbara that's about an hour's drive from Los Olivos. I had been staying there all week because I had been on a business trip, so we decided to extend our stay.

It offers small, but nice guest rooms and is a short walk to the beach and a lot of restaurants. It's also in a very wealthy part of town. On one half-mile walk to dinner we saw seven Porsches, an Aston Martin, and a Bentley!

Posted on April 23, 2016 and filed under Adventures.

Why It's Fun to Taste Wine Blind

Too many people are concerned with what wine should taste like.

That’s really nonsense. The only way to do it is to trust your taste buds. Focus on color, smell, and taste. If you like it, it’s good. 

Blind tasting is a great way to strip away the noise. Your preconceptions can’t influence your perceptions. It’s just you and the wine.

Our friends Alisa and Ken hosted a Syrah blind tasting last night. There were four wines served. The wines were a variety of vintages and each came from a different region. And, they all sold for different prices.

Based on these factors, which wine do you think would be the best?

Vintage

  • 2005
  • 2009 (2 wines)
  • 2012

Region

  • Languedoc-Roussillon (France)
  • Napa (CA)
  • Ramona (CA)
  • Santa Ynez (CA)

Price

  • $8
  • $28
  • $36
  • $40

So, which wine was the winner?

You might be tempted to guess the winner was a 2005 Syrah that came from France and cost $40. You’d be wrong. 

The French wine actually cost $8. It was a 2012. And, it was the group’s least favorite. (Although, everyone enjoyed all the wines to varying degrees.)

The winner? A 2009 Syrah from Ramona that cost $28!

Here’s the line-up:

Sorry it's blurry. The camera had downed a few glasses when it took the picture.

Sorry it's blurry. The camera had downed a few glasses when it took the picture.

Left to right:

  1. 2005 Mayo Family Winery Page-Nord Vineyard Syrah ($40)
  2. 2009 Andrew Murray McGinley Vineyard Syrah ($36)
  3. 2012 Level Syrah ($8)
  4. 2009 Edwards Ramona Valley Syrah ($28)

The Edwards Syrah was a clear winner. The Andrew Murray and Mayo Family Winery were tied for second while the Leval was a clear fourth place pick. 

One fun surprise for Sally and I -- we were familiar with two of the wines. We visited Edwards on our inaugural trip to Ramona. We'd been to Andrew Murray twice, including one funny experience when we unexpectedly ran into Alisa and Ken in the tasting room!

The night proved that blind tasting can be a lot of fun. And, you never know how you’ll feel about a wine until you taste it!

Posted on July 12, 2015 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

Wine Maker Dinner: Niner Wine Estates

One of our favorite ways to explore and share new wine is at special tastings.  On this occasion, our favorite local spot, Antica Trattoria, was hosting a wine maker dinner with Niner Wine Estates.  We first discovered Niner on our first trip to Paso Robles in 2011.  We have enjoyed a number of their wines, and love everything Chef puts together at Antica, so sounded like a perfect event for... Girl's Night Out!  

First Course - favorite wine of the night

the food: Duck Mousse Crostini (seasonal jams + figs + roasted pistachios)

the wine: 2014 Albarino, Edna Valley 

the notes: crisp, with light citrus and lemon finish. Very refreshing, good on own, and better with food (especially salty)

Second Course 

the food: Calamarata Pasta (dungeness crab + sea urchin + leeks)

the wine: 2013 Grenache Rose, Paso Robles

the notes: flavors of bright strawberry throughout, with a dry finish. 

Third Course - favorite pairing of the night

the food: Veal Loin (roasted fennel + aujus)

the wine: 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles

the notes: caramel and dark berries on nose and at first sip, gave way to darker fruits and a little touch of smoke on the finish, medium tannins

Dessert - favorite dish of the night

the food: Chocolate Budino (wine broule + almond crema + crumble amaretto)

the wine: 2011 Port, Dolce Nove, Paso Robles

the notes: tawny style port, with a little sweetness

Posted on July 2, 2015 .