Posts filed under Tasting Experiences

Our Incredible First Experience with San Diego's Wine Xplorer

Sally and I dined at a winery, in a beautiful room with 30 guests seated at a long table. An award-winning chef prepared a delicious six course meal. Each course was expertly paired with a different wine, and the winemaker talked about her wines as they were served. An opera singer entertained us throughout the evening.

It was hard to believe we were in Escondido.

Posted on January 27, 2019 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

How to Host an Easy Wine and Beer Pairing Party

It's always fun to experiment with wine pairings. There are equally endless pairing opportunities with beer, too!

So we decided to take things up a notch and host a pairing party. We gave it a "Better Together" theme to acknowledge both the pairings and the friends we were bringing together.

Here's our step-by-step guide so you can host your own wine and beer shindig.

Posted on May 18, 2018 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

First Impression: Wineries in Fallbrook

Our terrible photography skills are on display outside The Rib Shack in Fallbrook.

It started with a quest for barbecue. 

Our friends Alisa and Ken told us about a great place in Fallbrook called The Rib Shack. Another couple we're friends with, Karin and Jeff, recently went there too and confirmed it was legit.

So Sally and I decided to take a Sunday drive to Fallbrook for some barbecue. Fallbrook is an unincorporated community in northern San Diego County, so we thought it might make for a nice ride. And hey, while we were up there, why not check out a few wineries?

First, we're happy to report the barbecue at The Rib Shack is outstanding. Sally is a Texan with a pretty high barbecue standard, and she enthusiastically declared it barbecue she could stand behind.

On to the wine.

There are only a few wineries that are open for public tastings on the weekend. (A few others do tastings by appointment only.) Our new friend, Marcia, at Toasted Oak Winery gave us this cool hand drawn "Almost a Wine Trail" map of wineries that are open for walk-in tastings on the weekend. Most are open 12pm-5pm.

Fallbrook Almost a Wine Trail Map

You can download a PDF of the map here. The Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce also has a more extensive list of wineries available on its website. 

 

Toasted Oak Winery

There's a cool story behind the name. The entire property was burned by the 2007 Rice Canyon Fire and only one oak tree survived. That's the toasted oak you see here.

The surviving oak tree at Toasted Oak Winery.

Owners Marcia and Roger bought the property in 2008, but just opened their tasting room in April, 2017. The winery consists of two acres and they produce approximately 200 cases per year.

Marcia was our host in the tasting room and she was a lot of fun! It's clear that she enjoys sharing wine, just like us.

One thing I really appreciated is Marcia didn't try to give us tasting notes before we actually tried the wine. (Huge pet peeve!) In fact, she asked us what tastes and smells we were getting from the wines and compared them to her own notes. That's truly the way to taste wine since there's no right answer, and it made for a great experience.

We also enjoyed listening to Marcia's stories about running a small winery. She explained how the high price of oak barrels has made them rethink their oak program and even consider using flex tanks for future vintages in an effort to keep costs down. Winemakers will often add barrel staves or oak chips to impart oak flavor despite not using oak barrels.

Sally and I generally aren't fans of this winemaking style, but you can easily understand why a winemaker would choose to do this. The wines were all priced at either $25 or $28 per bottle and its hard to keep those price points at a small production winery.

It was also fun to hear how she and Roger navigated a lot of ups and downs that come with running a small winery, such as a bought of a grape fungus called botrytis that wiped out 75 percent of their crop one year and the scare of a big fire last fall.

This winery is definitely worth a visit if you decide to tour the region!

 

Estate d'Iacobelli Vineyards and Winery

This experience could not have been more different than our visit to Toasted Oak Winery. 

Our host didn't know much about the wines she was pouring and didn't seem to care. We tried asking a few questions, such as how the wines were aged and were consistently met with a flat "I don't know."

It's okay to not know. We never expect anyone to be an expert and it's perfectly fine to look something up or ask someone. But it's a huge bummer when the person pouring your wine doesn't even care and can't be bothered to try.

Strangely, many of the current releases were from the 2010 vintage, which is unusually old wine for a winery to be pouring for tastings right now. You expect a little brick coloring on wines as they age, but the 2010 Sangiovese was extremely brick in color. It had a distinct raisin taste, which usually suggests the wine may have been "cooked" or overheated at some point.

We asked our host if the brick color was normal and she again replied, "I don't know," before adding, "I don't really pay attention to the color of the wine." Yay.

The lack of any enthusiasm was a little disappointing. The good news is there are more wineries in Fallbrook for us to try the next time we go on a barbecue run!

Posted on February 25, 2018 and filed under Tasting Experiences, Adventures.

First Impression: Texas Hill Country Wine

Sally is from Texas.

This means we have friends and family from Texas. Which, in turn, means we've been exposed to a few bottles of Texas wine. We're fans of any wine that tastes good, and some of it definitely tastes good.

So a recent family wedding in the Texas Hill Country town of New Braunfels gave us the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the local wine region. With Sally's mom, Mabeth, generously handling the driving duties, the three of us set out to taste some wine.

We were lucky to find two gems on a three winery tour. Not bad for any day of tasting. You can find these and other wineries on the Texas Wine Trail website.

 

Sister Creek Vineyards

Much of the wine we discover comes from shared bottles. Longtime family friends Robin and Dick Hesse shared a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Sister Creek Vineyards. It was really good, so we added the winery to our list.

The visit started with a self-guided tour of their winemaking operation. Next, we did a flight of several wines, including a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and several Cabernet Sauvignons.

Prices were reasonable at $13.95-$39.95, which seemed right because these were everyday drinking wines to our palate. Good mellow flavors, a little acidic (which is great with food), and not too much heat.

Oh, and the winery was in an old barn that used to be a cotton gin.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Clockwise from top left: The Cotton Gin, me and Mabeth sharing a toast, the Sister Creek tasting lineup.

Bending Branch

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Mabeth picked this one out, and it turned out to be a wise choice.

The winemaker, Bob Young, smartly chose grapes that were well-suited to the Texas Hill Country climate such as Cinsaut, Charbono, and Tannat. These grapes tend to fare better in warmer summers than cooler-climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The 2012 Texas Tannat was a standout for us. It's what Sally calls a "fighter grape" because the vines' roots had to work hard to find water in the soil, which leads to smaller grapes but more intense flavors.

This one had big tannins, with a splash of bright fruit up front along with some mushroom and earthy undertones.

And of course there was this pick-up truck parked outside!

 

Bonus Knowledge

The Texas Hill Country consumer loves sweet Muscat. Every winery we visited sold it, and our host at each one said it was one of their top sellers.

It's not our style, but you can't argue with them for knowing their customers!

Posted on March 14, 2017 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

Five Bottles, Eight Friends, Endless Fun

We're big fans of themed wine parties.

It's a fun and easy way to enjoy some good wine with friends without getting too fussy or pretentious. The formula is pretty straightforward. 

  1. Pick a wine theme, such as Bordeaux-style blends or Zinfandel
  2. Pair the wine with a tasty meal. We cheat and use this awesome guide.
  3. Invite some friends over. We prefer a small group of six to eight.
  4. Serve the wine blind.
  5. Sip, swirl, chew, and discuss.

The theme for our latest wine party was Cabernet Sauvignon. Like our last "Call Me a Cab" party, we served up several Cabs that we picked up on our travels. Each had its own interesting story. 

2010 Raymond Burr. We visited the now-defunct winery in northern Sonoma County a few years ago. Yes, the winery was founded by its namesake, the actor Raymond Burr who is probably best known for playing Perry Mason in the television series by the same name. A friend recommended we go there (why else?) so we stopped by as we were passing through town. The wine was excellent and we were saddened to learn the winery is now gone.

2010 The Label. A 2013 trip to Paso Robles brought us to Turley Wine Cellars, a winery famous for its Zinfandel. Unfortunately, we caught them between vintages and most of their good stuff was sold out. They only had a few selections available for tasting that were all so-so until our host invited us to try some Cabernet Sauvignon called The Label that was a bit of the side project. Wow, it was good! They were selling magnums for the price of a regular 750ml bottle, so we said, "Yes, please!" 

2010 Cade Howell Mountain. This sister winery to the famous PlumpJack is becoming well-known in it's own right. We've visited a couple of times and have enjoyed their beautiful views overlooking Napa Valley and their incredible wine. 

 

Arrival

Do your guests arrive in the same car?

Ours don't. People spill in at different times, but it would be impolite to keep people's palates dry while we wait for the whole crew to assemble. We usually like to start people off with a bit of white wine, such as a 2014 Cuvaison Sauvignon Blanc.

 

Pairings

We like to start with a cheese course.

I wish I could tell you we were cheese geniuses. We're not. I mean, we took a wine and cheese pairing class once, but that's about as far as it goes. That's why we take the guesswork out of the whole process and trust the folks down at Venissimo Cheese to help us find a few selections to go with our theme.  

Dinner ideas come from What to Drink with What You Eat. You really can't go wrong with that awesome guide. The book suggested steak would go well with Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Don't over think things, right?

 

The Verdict

We keep the wines' identities secret until we've all had a chance to enjoy them with the meal. We do ask a few just for fun questions:

  • Which wine do you think is the oldest (or youngest)?
  • Where do you think the wine is from?
  • Which wine goes best with the cheese? With the meal? On it's own?

Finally, we ask our guests to vote on their favorites and then we reveal the selections.

The winner this time was the 2010 Raymond Burr. Alas, we drained our inventory that night and the winery is no more.

 

Post-Verdict Aftermath

It would be a sad party that ended right after the wines were revealed! There's always a call for a third bottle or two. 

This time, we shared a Cabernet Sauvignon Port that we picked up at Elyse Winery in Napa few years ago along with a Kaiken Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina's Mendoza region that we picked up on the cheap from San Diego Wine Company.  

Posted on January 24, 2017 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

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.

Fun With Friends: Zinfandel Blind Tasting Party

Wine can be a lot of fun when you abandon all pretenses and trust your taste buds.

One thing we enjoy is blind tasting wine with friends. We like to pick a particular varietal to explore and serve several bottles to our friends without telling them the year, region, or winery. The only way to judge the wine is by is color, smell, and taste.

Examples of past parties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Sirah.

We recently hosted a dinner party to share some bottles of Zinfandel we had acquired along the way. The wine was served blind and paired with a meal selected to go with the wine.

 

The Wines

The evening started with a bottle of 2013 Zorzon Sauvignon Blanc. We discovered this Italian white wine at a wine dinner hosted by Antica Trattoria, our favorite Italian restaurant.

Next, we moved to our lineup of three Zinfandels.

  • Robert Biale 2010 Monte Rosso Zinfandel
  • Cuvaison 2010 Brandlin Zinfandel
  • Sextant 2011 Holystone Zinfandel

The Biale and Cuvaison were single vineyard Zinfandels from Napa Valley. The Sextant was a blend from several vineyards in Paso Robles.

We finished the evening with a Rutherford Hill 2010 Zinfandel Port.

 

The Meal

Sally created a menu that was perfect to enjoy with the Zinfandel.

First Course: Prosciutto, arugula,  ricotta, and dried apricot bites

Second Course: Three cheeses. Creamy Gorgonzola, Feta, and Syrah Tuscany

Third Course: Baked chicken with apples & onions, mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, and mixed greens salad

Dessert: Blackberry pie and fudge


The Winner

All of the wines were excellent and our guests enjoyed them. 

It’s interesting how each one stood out in different ways. The Robert Biale and Cuvaison both had a subtle mix of pepper and fruit while the Sextant was much more jammy. Of the three, the Biale had the biggest difference from the first bottle to the second bottle, getting even better as it went along.

One wine remained the favorite throughout and was crowned our winner: Cuvaison 2010 Brandlin Zinfandel.

This was an impressive third blind tasting win for Cuvaison. They’ve previously won our Pinot Noir and Syrah blind tastings.

Posted on February 5, 2015 and filed under Tasting Experiences.

How the Drought Might Bring us More Good Wine

The severe drought that San Diego and much of California is experiencing might have a happy side effect: more good wine.

How we’ll get there takes a bit of a detour through our local farmlands. Here are some fun facts from the San Diego County Farm Bureau:

  • Farming is a $5.1 billion industry
  • It’s the 12th largest county for agriculture in the US
  • San Diego County has more farms than any other county in the US
  • The county is the #1 producer of nursery crops
  • The county is the #1 producer of avocados

That last number is feeling the heat so to speak from a lack of water. 

Avocados are a very water-intensive crop. It takes 74 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados. Faced with water shortages, many farmers have fallowed or replaced their avocado groves. The 2013 San Diego County crop report shows a 21 percent decline in avocado acreage in just five years. 

So, how does all this lead to wine?

Some farmers are planting grape vines in place of avocados. A few, like Chris Broomell, are dry farming their grapes, which means they aren’t using any irrigation at all.

We read this article in UT San Diego about how Broomell and his wife, Alysha Stehly, were helping to adapt their family farms to the drought by growing grapes. Then, we read this article in the San Francisco Chronicle about how they were winemakers to watch in 2014. 

We had to pay their Vesper Vineyards winery a visit.

Their urban tasting room is located in Escondido, just north of San Diego. We arrived shortly after they opened on a Sunday morning and were lucky enough to have Alysha Stehly as our host. 

It quickly became apparent that Alysha and her husband are mad scientists at Vesper Vineyards. They sell wine in refillable growlers. They use acacia casks to ferment some of their wine. They make California wine with minimal manipulation.

It also turns out to be some pretty good wine. We are currently on a strict no wine purchases embargo due to some space limitations (that’s an entirely different story), but we still wound up buying a few bottles.

Posted on November 18, 2014 and filed under Tasting Experiences, Wine Discoveries.

Great Wine Event for a Great Cause

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This past weekend, thousands gathered in Balboa Park, San Diego for the 18th Annual Komen Race for the Cure. Organizers say about $1.3 million was raised during Sunday's race, helping to provide mammograms and services for those who can not afford it.  In support of this great cause, our friends at Antica Trattoria held a Wine Dinner, raising over $2000.  Chef Francesco Basile, once again, put together an incredible dinner paired with some pretty tasty wines! 


First Course

The Dish:

Tatara di Pesce Spada - local swordfish+lemon +EVOO+Capers Mousse+Micro Greens+Pistachio

The Wine:

2013 Zorzon, Collio Sauvignon, Puglia Italia

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Second Course

The Dish: 

Triangoli di Margo - homemade osso bucco ravioli+crispy local vegetables+trufle cream sauce (our favorite dish of the night!)

The Wine:

2009 Muralia, Babone, Super Tuscan, Maremma Toscano Italia (65% Sangiovese 35% Syrah)


Third Course

The Dish: 

Quaglie - boneless Sonoma roasted quail+bitter dark chocolate aglianico wine sauce

The Wine:

2012 Conte Calevi, Aglianico, Campania Italia (our favorite wine of the night!)

Dessert

The Dish: 

Pumkin Savaione and mixed fresh berries - roasted oragen pumkin+wild berries+spiced pumkin mousse (what's not to love about this!)

The Wine:

2013 Moscato D' Asti, SIFASOL, Piemonte Italia 

All the wines were less than $20 a bottle ~ affordable and tasty!  We look forward to sharing a few with friends.  So glad we could be a part of this fun evening ~ truly a great event, for an even greater cause! 



Posted on November 3, 2014 and filed under Under $20, Tasting Experiences.