Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some Great 2011 Wines Above Usual Price Point

My newspaper column, and much of what I do, focuses on value wine – I still drink a good amount of better wines that many readers will enjoy. 

My real price break for value wine comes at about $20. I define “the better stuff” for my budget  at $25-$50. I have always kept some ‘better stuff’ around the house but it’s not wine I usually open on a Tuesday night. These wines are for weekends and when having guests over for a glass of good wine.

I love some of the wines I wrote about in the newspaper column posted here, but there is no doubt there is a substantial quality difference when you double up the price.

Here are some notes and links on wines I enjoyed over the past year at a little higher price point. And, these are in no particular order.

The view outside Penner Ash's tasting room
Penner Ash 2006 Willamette Valley – A great wine from one of Oregon’s signature producers. This is a $45 bottle of Pinot that just never disappoints. Penner Ash wines always have a beautiful lingering finish that is lush as it is satisfiying. This bottle is full flavored but a medium-style Pinot Noir. This wine scored a 90 from Robert Parker. Penner Ash is widely distributed. I drank this wine in January of 2011 and then visited Penner Ash in July. It’s a must stop if you visit Willamette Valley. Penner Ash has great Pinot and fabulous views for your camera!

Claudia Springs 2007 Zinfandel – I traveled to California’s Mendocino County in January and this winery was a real surprise. Bob Klindt is making some marvelous Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. On the front of the palate this $24 wine had cedar, cranberry, and currant. I liked the dusty feel in the mouth. They only made 292 cases of this wine so it's not going to be easy to find. His Zin was a big hit at last year’s huge Zin-fest in San Francisco. Our press group had a delightful visit. Watch a video I recorded of Bob talking about his wines here.

Gary Eberle
Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah – This 50-50 blend is a big ol’ glass of beautiful wine. Big plum flavors, hints of vanilla, and a really plush mouth feel makes it easy to understand why it’s been honored time again in all the wine press. Eberle wines are widely available. This bottle sells for $29. Gary Eberle makes a great lineup of juice. He is also a real pioneer. Read more from this September newspaper column.

Ledgestone 2008 Frontenac – This was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2011 for me. I traveled Wisconsin in late April for a story on Wisconsin wines for Palate Press. I had never had Frontenac, a cold climate grape, and frankly was plenty skeptical. I was taken with its strong sour cherry flavor and great balance at Tim Abel’s winery. This is regional winemaking at its best. They can’t grow Cabernet and shouldn’t try. This $28 bottle of Frontenac was a real revelation.

Don Lange, chatting in July 2011
Lange 2005 Freedom Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir – I’ve written many times about Lange wines in my newspaper column, blog, and the quarterly magazine Madison. I’ve visited 3-4 times, including this July, and always come away very impressed. I opened this 2005 treasure this year and was again just blown away. It had dark blueberry, blackberry and a smoky spice that I just loved. And like all Dundee Hill Pinot, the Freedom Hill had that wonderful earthiness I love. It’s premier wine at a premier price worth every nickel at $60.

Justin Vineyards 2008 Cabernet – This was simply the best glass of Cabernet I had all year. And it comes in at a surprising $25. The wine had cherry, caramel,  and chocolate throughout it’s beautiful and rich mouth feel. The tannins were balanced and it paired magnificently with a grilled Bison Ribeye. I first had Justin Cab at a fine Paso Robles restaurant in 2010. I tasted the reserve which was $55. This wine is just as good. Go find some if you like Cabernet.

Oreste Strappiano 2009 Langhe Rosso – It’s really difficult to find affordable Nebbiolo wines. So when I wandered into Vino 100 in Columbus, Oh., and saw “Langhe” on a label I had to buy it. The Langhe region is known as the primo region in the Piedmont for the Nebbiolo grape. This $25 blend has Nebbiolo, Docetto, and Barberra. The wine was surprisingly light and nicely balanced. It just might have been the best Italian I tasted all year – and that includes a few much more expensive Tuscan Brunellos!

Oregon’s Willamette Valley, July 2011 – I spent three days in Oregon wine country and tasted more great Pinot than I can note here. I brought back a case of wine, and most of it remains in my wine storage cooler. Read about some great wines and experiences here, here, and here.

Mendocino, January 2011 - Another wine trip that yielded more than a few remarkable wines was that visit to Mendocino. I loved the Claudia Springs wines and others. The real hit for me was Coro Mendocino, a Zinfandel blend. I wrote a piece for Palate Press but the wine is hard to get in the Midwest. A few of the producers do have midwestern distributors but its worth a try at $37 if you can find it.

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Grape Sense's 2011 Top Wine Picks

Top 10/year-end lists are unavoidable at this time of year. Grape Sense has featured a Top 10 list for three years so here it is for 2011.

The Top 10 wines are value wines and are widely available in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. The wines taste above their price point and represent great value. I’d gladly serve this 10-pack to any guest in my home.

You’ll find more white wine in this list than any previous year. Great, and unusual, white wines have become a new passion.

No. 10 – La Vieille Ferme Blanc – A French white wine made of Grenache Blanc, Rousanne, and two lesser-known French grapes  has nice acidity and a hint of lime. ($5-$9). 

No. 9  - Bonterra 2008 Mendocino Zinfandel – Inexpensive Zin isn’t that hard to find in supermarkets or wine shops. But the Mendocino Bonterra label delivers one of the best full-flavored Zins you’ll find for the price. ($11).

No. 8 – Brassfield Estate Serenity - This is a very nice white wine blend.  Serenity mixes Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Gewurtztraminer and Semillon. It comes from Napa Valley. The wine has a distinctive pineapple and apple nose and taste. ($10-$14)

No. 7 – Buried Cane 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon – A great value Cabernet that’s 75 percent Cab and 25 percent Malbec from Washington state. It has dark fruit, richness, good acidity and finish. ($13)

No. 6 – Concannon Crimson & Clover – A new wine in 2011, the fifth to Concannon’s big-selling Conservancy line. A blend of Petit Sirah, Cab, Syrah, and Zin isn’t for the faint of heart. ($15)

No. 5 – Turtle Run Dry Traminette – Indiana’s wine industry has come a long way and, in part, thanks to Traminette. Most of the Indiana’s Traminette, similar to Gewurztraminer, is done in a sweet style. Jim Pfieffer at Turtle run is one of few to make a dry version. It rocks! ($12)

No. 4 - Chorum Sangiovese - Sangiovese is the great Italian grape at the heart of Chianti wines. This has sour cherry and a light feel on the palate. It’s one of the most drinkable Sangiovese wines you’ll find. ($10-$19)

No. 3 – Tikal Patriota – Bonarda and Malbec make up this wonderful Argentinian wine. It has cherry, raspberry, and goes beautifully with grilled or smoked meats. It is a critic favorite, consistently scoring 90-plus points. ($17-$19)

No. 2 –  Charles & Charles Rose - This is the first white or Rose’ to ever crack my year-ending Top 10 list. This Washington Rose is a collaboration between two premier winemakers. It’s 100 percent Syrah – big flavor with sage, raspberry, and a hint of Jolly Rancher. ($10-$12)

No. 1 – Alain Juame & Fils Domaine Grand Veneur Les Champauvins – This is one of the best value wines I’ve tasted in three years of wine writing. The Cotes du Rhone wine is 70 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, and 10 percent Mourvedre – a traditional French GSM wine.  It has a wonderful red berry aroma. It’s rich, perfectly smooth, and silky with just the right amount of spice. It is fabulous French wine. ($15)

Just for fun, here are my picks from the past two years:

2010: George Deboeuf’s Julienas, Domaine de Niza Languedoc 2005, J. Lohr Cabernet, Etim Seleccion, Montebuena 2009 Rioja, Errazuriz Cab, Altos Malbec,  Il Fiorino 2008 Chianti, Este de Bodegas Alto Almanzora, and my 2010 No. 1 pick: Durigutti Malbec .

2009: Domain Lafarge Catalan Cote EST, Turtle Run’s Dry Tortuga, Burgan’s 2007 Albarino; Dona Paula 2007 Malbec, Creta Roble 2006, Pasanau Ceps Nous 2006  Priorat, Milbrandt 2006 Traditions Cabernet Sauvignon, Domain Lafarge Grenache Noir, Klinker Brick 2006 Old Vine Zinfandel, and my No. 1 pick:  Patrick Lesec’s Cotes du Rhone Bouquet. 

Howard Hewitt, Crawfordsville, IN., writes every other week for 18 Midwestern newspapers. Write him at: hewitthoward@gmail.com

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What's New Year's Without Sparkling Wine?

A wine writer’s occupational hazards include obligatory New Year’s columns on sparkling wines and year-end ‘best of” lists.

It’s fun to review the previous year and pick out a Top 10 – something you’ll read in the next Grape Sense. It’s tougher to write about sparkling wines when it isn’t a favorite. Still, it’s the time of year a lot of questions come up about a New Year’s sparkler.

After a little more than three years and 82 newspaper columns, only two were about sparkling wines. Some of that is repeated here along with two best bet suggestions.

Any discussion about sparkling wine has to start with French Champagne. It’s not cheap, there is lots of it, and it can range from plain awful to magic in a glass. You can buy the Dom Perignon for around $130 a bottle. You can take a step up from that and go with Louis Roederer’s Cristal in a crystal bottle if you’re prepared to shell out $350.

But let’s face it; most of us aren’t buying that sort of wine.

If you want something more than the grocery’s usual Asti-Spumante (which isn’t bad), then you have to get into your nearest wine shop and rely on the merchant’s expertise.

A good place to start is with an Italian Prosecco. It’s generally lighter than champagne, less alcohol content, but you still get the bubbles! And you can find pretty decent Prosecco at $15-$20.


Another great pick is a Spanish Cava. Cava hails from the region around Barcelona. Cava sparkling wines have become very popular and can be found in the $10-$20 range.

If you want a good U.S. sparkling wine (only France’s Champagne region can call its juice ‘Champagne’) there are good options. California’s Korbel and Washington’s St. Michelle have value sparklers and more expensive bubbling wines that will be great for Dec. 31.

Roederer Estate in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley makes really beautiful sparkling wine at a higher price point. I tasted several of their sparkling wines during a January 2011 trip to Mendocino and all were really beautiful. The Roederer Estate sparklers range from $20-$150.

Probably the easiest to find and safest choice, that will delight your palate, is California’s Gloria Ferrer’s Sonoma Brut. The wonderful and affordable Ferrer Brut is made of the traditional blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The bubbly has a nice soft or almost creamy feel in your mouth. It tastes much better than its easy-to-digest price point of $16-$20.

My top choice for your New Year’s Eve is widely available and one of the best wines I tasted this year. Banfi Rosa Regale is a delicious Italian sparkling wine. It has strong raspberry with a rich mid-palate. The bubbles are somewhat restrained. The dark cranberry color is festive and beautiful. The alcohol is a ridiculously low 7 percent. The suggested retail is $20.

You can’t go wrong with the Gloria Ferrer Brut or Banfi Sparkling Rose’. Try either or both and celebrate the New Year!

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Very Merry Grape Sense Christmas

One of the joy's of this holiday season was helping arrange the Holiday Greeting for work. I work at Wabash College, a private liberal arts college for men, in the marketing/public affairs department.

We don't always do a lot of warm and fuzzy but I thought using the Glee Club made great sense for the holidays. The bosses agreed and we put together this greeting. I hope you do have a great holiday with family and friends. I hope this short video will make it feel a little warmer.



Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dudes Taste Four Pinot Noirs for the Holidays

Dude Alex
There is nothing better than enjoying great wines with great friends. I've written before, and even done a couple of videos, with my wine drinking buddies. We call ourselves "Dudes on the Porch."

We started about a year and a half ago gathering every 2-4 weeks and drinking some wines. We graduated to theme nights and dinners. We are still doing it and still having just as much fun.

We recently enjoyed our holiday edition of 'Dudes' by planning a Pinot Noir night. We had an inexpensive Burgundy, a mid-priced Napa Pinot, and two Oregon Pinots.

We had a spread of some Italian meats, cheese, a great French goat cheese, crackers, and were about as wine geeky as we ever get.
Dude in Training - Cameron
In other words, we had a ball. I constantly encourage wine newcomers to get a group of friends together and drink some new wines, old favorites and just try things!

Let's go through the four wines and I'll share the group's thoughts. I was having way too much fun to play journalist and take "quotes." But, I did take enough notes to get a good handle on the group thinking about each of the four Pinot Noirs.

We don't always agree but we ended up with pretty similar feelings about each of our Pinot Noirs. We had four of our five regular Dudes and a 22-year-old college senior who has joined us on a number of occasions.

Bouchard Pere & 2008 Reserve Bourgogne - This would fall into the category of a basic entry-level Burgundy. There was very little wrong with it just not enough right to give it a recommendation.

We opened it shortly before drinking and that was a mistake. The wine did improve the longer it was open. At times the wine just didn't seem to have much going on - typical of bargain Burgundy. But with a little time we all detected some strawberry. It was very light bodied and a nice cherry red. There was little finish and not the spicy or earthy finish you'd get on many Pinot Noirs.

Dude Patrick brought this one and couldn't remember exactly what he paid for it but knew it was around $15-$16. (Not Recommended)

Beringer Napa Valley Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir - We struggled with this wine more than any of the evening. It had a short decant and improved with all the oxygen it could absorb. Many will see the Beringer name and think only of the supermarket wines. But Beringer makes wines at other price points as well.

Dude Alex brought the Beringer. I found it online anywhere from $16-$24 - and that's a pretty wide range for the same bottle of juice.

I thought the wine was disorganized. There was no mid-palate but all of us got pronounced oak on the finish - big oak. That is something many people are not going to like but others will appreciate the added structure. For my palate, the Beringer's oak was just too much. I love oak in Cabs and big, big red wines but want my Pinot really well balanced.

Alex got big strawberry after about an hour of having the bottle open and we all agreed. It had all the hints of expected dark fruit but not much terroir or spice.

Still, this might be interesting in another year or so and with a longer decant, perhaps up to two hours. It wasn't bad. It's just not that hard to find better Pinot in that price range. (Recommended)

The Dudes are admitted Pinotphiles and big fans of Oregon Pinot Noir. So we had two great Oregon Pinots at a big price point that really sparked some of our best wine conversation in a long time. Patrick brought a 2008 Cooper Mountain Vineyard Pinot. I dug into my hidden stash of great Pinot and pulled out a 2008 Winderlea Vineyard Pinot from the Dundee Hills.


Cooper Mountain 2008 Mountain Terrior 5 Element Series - We all loved this wine. This is a big fruit-forward Pinot with a really soft finish. The guys were getting a hint of citrus off the mid-palate and back of the palate that was delightful as it was unique.

Patrick described his wine as a Pinot "with layers of dark fruit with a bit of a bite on the back with acid." I can't really disagree with that.

Cooper Mountain sits in the Willamette Valley but is one of the closest wineries to Portland in all of the region. This bottle retails around $45 normally but Patrick picked it up as part of a case discount for $36.

This is fruit-forward wonderful Pinot Noir. It's certainly more widely distributed than the next wine. (Highly Recommended)

The setup for Pinot night!
Winderlea 2008 Winderlea Vineyard Pinot Noir - In the sense of full disclosure, this one of my consistent favorites. I have several favorites actually, but Winderlea is a wonderful story and marvelous wine.

The Winderlea Pinot is a $50 bottle of wine. Alex was the first to utter an opinion and offered "supple" as an adjective. Alex also called it understated.

I loved the floral notes and beautiful dark fruit and finish. This wine shows the terrior of the Dundee Hills ... you can just taste that wonderful red dirt that makes these great wines. I gush about the Winderlea because I think it's just that good.

The Dudes thought the perfect wine would be Cooper Mountian's fruit forward style with Winderlea's supple, spicy, and earthy finish. I'd like to taste that wine but for now, I'm glad there is more Winderlea in the wine cooler.

(Very Highly Recommended)

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Some Great, Easy-to-Find Red Wines

Let's take a look at some really nice red wines. Most of these are pretty easy to find and certainly plentiful in Indiana and neighboring states.

I've tasted some great wines lately and picked up a lot of wine for home. It's the time of year many of us are entertaining and you certainly want nice wines to pour your guests. Any of the wines reviewed in this post would fill that bill nicely.
Cameron Hughes Lot 247 2009 Cabernet - Cameron Hughes is a true phenom. It's now available in most states and represents great value. To make a long story short, Cameron Hughes buys excess wine from California producers with a confidentiality agreement and sells it at a price far below normal high-quality california wines.

This was my first CH Cabernet and for $18 I thought it was really nice wine. If I had tasted it blind, I'd have guessed in the $18-$30 range. It was very nice Cabernet and I wouldn't have been surprised based on taste only if someone told me it sold for $30-$45. But there is so much Cab in that price range it's tough to say this one tasted above the SRP of $18. It was good wine. And it was much better than most of what you can find in the $14-$16 range.

If you jump to the Cameron Hughes website you'll see details about this wine and how the winery that provided the juice starts their wines at about $60. I liked this Cab a lot but just didn't see it at the $60 price point. The wine has big fruit, soft tannins and all the characteristics of a more expensive wine.

The label also has a $15 Meritage and a $13 Rhone blend that I thought were fabulous. The Rhone blend, in particular, tasted like a $20-$30 French wine.

Cameron Hughes is definitely worth a try. The odds are you're going to get something that tastes better to far better than the price point. There are 30 red wines and 11 whites listed on the site so the buyers are clearly working the world.

(Cameron Hughes 247 Napa Valley 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, $18, Recommended)

Vecchia Cantina 2007 Vino Nobile di Montepulciano - A little Sangiovese anyone? And by little, I do mean mouth feel. This 100 percent Sangiovese wine was pretty limp when I opened it but opened up with reasonable and nice fruit after a little time out of the bottle.

It was really quite pleasant with a little pasta. I sat and sipped a second glass after dinner. It's certainly not nearly as acidic or over-bearing as some Sangiovese (the poorly made ones, at least) often can be even after a decant. It was rich and silky even it a bit unremarkable. I did enjoy it but quickly forgot it afterwards.

It might be a little tough to find this one but you certainly can find the Montepulciano wines in most wine shops!

(Vecchia Cantina Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, $16-$18, Recommended)
Vino Robles 2008 Red - The winery calls this wine the Power of 4 and they're not kidding. The wine is made from Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. If you like your wine powerful, you're going to lie Vino Robles.

This winery is located in Paso Robles which is known for it's full-bodied red wines. You're going to get big black fruit flavors and a hint of holiday spice - like cinnamon or nutmeg. The fruit is huge with softer tannins.

If you drink much Petite Sirah you're definitely going to pick it up in this blend. I bought this bottle in Ohio and couldn't quite determine if they have an Indiana distributor. It is available in Illinois.

This wine won't suit many palates. But if you're looking for wine with a steak, chili, or hearty stew, it will be a fine match.

(Vino Robles 2008 Red, SRP $16, Recommended)
Justin Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon - I loved this wine. As a matter of fact, this one of the best bottles of wine I've tasted this year. I visited Paso Robles in the fall of 2010 and Deborah Baldwin (Justin's wife) dined with the traveling press corp visiting. She poured their Reserve Cabernet that night and it was fabulous. I was able to pick up this entry level Cab near the end of the trip.

As opposed to the Cameron Hughes' Cab, this $25 Cabernet drinks like a $50 Cab.It had cherry and caramel, chocolate and beautiful richness. The tannins were well balanced but present even after a 2-hour decant.

I served the wine with a Texas-spice rubbed Bison Ribeye off the grill and the pairing was simply delicious. Justin wines are available in most states. This is unbelievable Cabernet for the average palate at this price.

(Justin Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, $25, Very Highly Recommended)

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Choosing Wine as a Holiday Gift

A bottle of wine makes a lovely Christmas gift when attending parties, calling on friends, or for that wine lover next door.

But, what should you buy? There are a couple of things you can do to assure success.

-          Does the person enjoy wine? Are they a regular wine drinker or just an occasional glass?

-          Does the person enjoy red more than white or vice-versa?

-          What are you willing to spend on a bottle of wine?

With no offense to grocery stores or even liquor stores, the first piece of advice is get to a wine shop or a liquor store with a wide selection and a knowledgeable staff.

Almost all good wine shops are a lot more interested in making you happy than just selling you a bottle for five bucks higher than you intended on spending. Small retail businesses of all type are totally dependent on repeat customers.

Let’s talk in general about some wines that would be great gifts. In this Grape Sense, I’m only recommending wines I have tried in recent years.

If your friend is a Chardonnay fan try to find something different than the stereotypical California oak-laden Chard. Ask the sales person for an unoaked Chardonnay or a Chardonnay that is a blend of oaked and unoaked juice. There is a huge selection of good Chardonnay under $18.

If this is a special friend get to a wine shop with a higher-end inventory and buy a French Chablis or White Burgundy. The 2008 Domain Joseph Drouhin Chablis is outstanding wine lighter on the palate with bright acidity. Drouhin offers several price points. The White Burgundy will be more expensive but be one of the nicest glasses of white wine your friend may ever enjoy. 

If you’re feeling adventurous look for a nice white blend. Sokol Blossor, Oregon, makes a delightful white with intense fruit and lasting palate impression called Evolution. It can be found in most wine shops at $15. Caymus’ Conundrum is a sweeter blend of several grapes that gives you tangy green apple, tangerine, and floral characteristics. The Condundrum normally retails $20-$25.

It’s easy to pick a Cabernet Sauvignon off the shelf and throw a bow on it. But don’t overlook the many beautiful red blends that are easier to drink, affordable, and go with just about any meal.

I’d direct consumers to Washington State red wines or California’s Paso Robles region. Paso specializes in the traditionally French Rhone grapes. It would be a unique gift that will impress your guests. You might look around for Ortman’s Cuvee Eddy, a wonderful Paso blend that sells for under $20.

I think of all red wine Pinot Noir makes the most beautiful gift. I’ve written often that good Pinot is very hard to find for under $20. There are a few labels that are nice wines – Robert Mondavi, Mark West, Drouhin’s La Floret, Mirassou, and Dashwood all come in under $15.

But it’s Christmas so splurge a little. Lange Winery’s Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is stunning for $22. It drinks far beyond its price point. There are many Oregon Pinot wines in the $20-$30 range which would impress.

And finally don’t forget the Rose’ wines. With the varied shades of red and pink they make a festive addition to your holiday table. A dry Rose can pair with just about any food or appetizer and makes a great sipper for holiday parties. Rose is not expensive wine. Try Charles & Charles from Washington state for a wine that is worthy of any table. It sells for less than $15.

If you want a very special treat, again head to the nicer wine shop and pick up a Rose from France's Provence region. Provence winemakers produce some of the world’s best Rose’ wines. They are typically a light salmon color. The wine is quite dry with beautifully balanced fruit and acidity.

Good to great Provence Rose’ can be found for $20-$50. If you’ve never had a great dry Rose’, one of the Provence wines will totally rock your wine world.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Wide Variety of Wines for Review (12-1-11)

Who says no one makes a great $11 wine? Well, sometimes I do. But sometimes we find one that works at the price point. Sometimes, you find three that make some sense!

Lots of Italian wine tonight and no real stinkers in the group.

I'm writing tonight while sipping on some Paso Robles Ortman Cuvee Eddy - a great $17 bottle of wine. Unfortunately, the Ortman's have announced they will be ceasing operations later this month. It goes to show that a great product, growing sales, and a dynamic wine story isn't always enough. It's tough selling wine out there!

Here are some you might like:
Banfi Centine 2009 Rosso - The Centine label is generally very easy to find and value priced. The Rosso is 60 percent Sangiovese, 20 percent Cabernet, and 20 Merlot.

This wine has big red fruit and spice but not a lot of balance but the finish is not off-putting. Wine Spectator gave this value bottle a very respectible 87 points. A lot of people may like it for its low 12.5 percent alcohol. It's not unusual to find this bottle under $11.

(Banfi Centine 2009 Rosso, $11, Trade Sample, Recommended)

Banfi Centine 2010 Bianco - This nice white is 40 percent Sauvignon Blanc, 30 percent Pinot Grigio and 30 percent Chardonnay.

I liked the white and the Rose (which I have reviewed from previous vintages) better than the red. The white was a little on the fruity sweet side for my palate but it's clearly a wine many would enjoy.

It had tons of pear and lime for my palate and similar low alcohol at 12-12.5 percent.

(Banfi Centine 2010 Bianco, $11, Trade Sample, Recommended)

Domaine Chene 2009 Bourgogne - It's hard to find drinkable Burgundy under $14 but the Chene makes a run at it. I bought this bottle on the recommendation of a sales person at Indianapolis' Kahn's Fine Wine.

This was typically Burgundian with a very light and earthy mouth feel. If you're used to California Pinot or even Oregon, you might not like this one for its nearly non-existent fruit. This Burgundy is about terrior.

Unless you just really want to try Burgundy at a cheap price, there are plenty of other Pinot Noir choices in a good wine shop. Save a few dollars and buy your first Burgundy at a little higher price point.
(Domaine Chene Bourgogne, $14.95, Not Recommended)

Scagliola 2010 Barbera - A great bottle of $18 wine! I've never consumed much Barbera but I'm ready to buy more after this one bottle.

This Italian red from Piedmont had bright fruit and acidity. I liked the somewhat lighter mouth feel for an Italian wine. You still get some rich dark fruit on the plate without the heavy after taste so many red wines will give you.

This is not a wine for your pasta and red sauce but it would be great with salami, crackers, and Italian cheeses.

The wine can be found in the $13-$18 range.

(Scagliola 2010 Barbera, $17.99, Highly Recommended)

Masi Modello Delle Venezie - Here is an Italian blend that most wine lovers will really embrace.

This is a blend from Veneto, Italy, that can be found under $12 but up to as much as $16 or $17. It's made moslty from grapes most aren't going to be familiar with - Refosco and Raboso. It has a beautiful ruby red color in the glass and a nice pleasant nose of ripe fruit. This wine is another lighter style wine that's dry but quite fragrant with cherry and red raspberry fruit.

(Masi Modello 2008 Delle Venezie Rosso, $11.99, Highly Recommended)

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Column: Guidelines for Holiday Turkey Wine Picks

NOTE: I'm tardy in getting my last newspaper wine column posted to the blog. So tardy it didn't occur to me until writing the one due for publication today!

There are thousands of wine bloggers, many wine writers and still a handful of newspaper wine columnists. They’re all writing about Thanksgiving/Christmas and wine pairing this time of year. I’ve done the same in recent years, and think it’s important to offer a little help when it’s most needed

Instead of a long list of wine selections, (I’ll offer a few recommendations throughout), how about some general guidelines to help you pick the right wines for your turkey dinner whether its Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Thanksgiving is about family so make it a festive occasion. Try a light sparkling wine before the big meal. It’s sure to be a hit. Look for a Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco, or Gloria Ferrer’s delightful Sonoma County sparklers. For something really festive and delicious, I love Banfi Rosa Regale. The Banfi wine sells for right at $20, has just seven percent alcohol, and is delicious.

Wines with a higher acidity are going to pair better with fowl. There will be lots of different flavors on your holiday table and you want something that will hold up to everything served.

Consider buying several different wines if you have a large guest list. Most Thanksgiving family feasts feature a veritable cornucopia of dishes, so why serve just one wine?

First, there are no right picks. If you like it drink it. With that out of the way, it’s a good idea to rule out big red wines. Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Merlot, and Malbec are going to overpower the bird and side dishes.
Speaking of side dishes, consider the flavors and spices used to make the sides when picking a wine – not just the bird.

Wines with a higher acidity are going to pair better with fowl. There will be lots of different flavors on your holiday table and you want something that will hold up to everything served.

Consider buying several different wines if you have a large guest list. Most Thanksgiving family feasts feature a veritable cornucopia of dishes, so why serve just one wine?

When it comes time for dinner there is such a wide variety of choices. Instead of a Chardonnay, which can be over-powering and boring, try a semi-dry to dry Riesling? Gewurztraminer has become a very popular Thanksgiving wine in recent years. The wonderful spicy and floral aromas and taste are perfect for light fall fare.

If you want to support local pour an Indiana-made Traminette, a close cousin to the Gewurzt grape. Most Hoosier winemakers produce a sweet to semi-sweet version of the state grape that will work well with dinner. Just go to the semi-sweet or dry side if possible. Turtle Run Winery makes a dynamite dry Traminette if you can find it available.

A dry rose’ would also be a bold and delicious pairing.

If you like red there are more choices than Pinot Noir, a classic pick. While many might suggest the seasonal Beaujolais Nouveau, I always suggest a Beaujolais Grand Cru wine. Pick up a Beaujolais Morgon or Fleurie. A personal favorite is Georges Duboeuf’s Julienas which is widely available at $11-$15.

If you insist on Pinot you can’t go wrong on the pairing. I’d recommend staying on the lighter side and going up to the $15 price point. There are several drinkable Pinots around $10. New Zealand’s Dashwood, California’s Mark West, and the classic Burgundy of Domain Joseph Drouhin. Drouhin’s LaForet Pinot sells for just $10. Pick up Lange Vineyard’s Willamette Valley Pinot for around $20 for a real treat. The 2009 Lange Pinot is unbelievable wine for a 20-dollar bill.

Finally, don’t hesitate to do something a little crazy. I’m not a big fruit wine fan but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find some well-made fruit wines. Consider pouring a little dry cranberry wine with dinner. Cherry wine might have the same fun factor.

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Wine Review Roundup (11-21-11)

Time to do some quick reviews on recently consumed wines. It's Thanksgiving time and I'll post my wine tips column to the blog tomorrow (11-22-11).
Georges Dugoeuf 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau - A few friends and I popped open the third-Thursday-of-November specialty and were pleasantly suprised. I've sang the praises of the Beaujolais Grand Cru wines on numerous occasional while generally dismissive of the Nouveau. You will find that pattern with a lot of wine critics. And if you want a wine with a little more character and balance, the Grand Cru Beaujolais is still the better buy and a great value.

All of that being said, I really liked the 2011 Nouveau and so did my wine-drinking friends. This wine had less of the musty characteristic that often plagues Gamay for my palate. The fruit seemed fresher than the two previous years and there was a little spice or pepper.
Beaujolais producers always seem to proclaim the latest vintage as 'best ever" or other such platitudes. I've tasted the Nouveau for 3-4 straight years and this is easily the best of the batch. It's easy to find and very affordable at $10. And yes, it does make a good Thanksgiving pairing. This is an excellent choice if you have non-wine drinkers or not sure what to put on the table.

(Georges Duboeuf 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau, $10 - Trade Sample, Recommended)

Tuesday, Nov. 22 Update: I just read a great piece in the Los Angeles Times about the Beaujolais region and its wines. You can read the story here.

Oreste Strappiano 2009 Langhe Rosso - Wow! What a fabulous bottle of wine. This is a table blend from the very best region of Italy's Piedmont region. The wine features Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, and Barbera.

I could find very little on the internet about the winery or the wine but didn't need any support to proclaim this one of the more unique and tasty glasses of wine that I've enjoyed in a long time. Now, with Nebbiolo and Barbera you'd expect a bigger wine. But this was light and rich on the palate and in some ways reminded me of Pinot Noir.

The acid was really kept in check and the wine was beautifully balanced. I paid about $25 for this bottle at Vino 100 in Columbus, Ohio. I've not seen it in Indiana but would love to buy some more.

(Oreste Strappiano 2009 Lange Rosso, $25, Very Highly Recommended.


Buried Cane 2008 Heartwood Red Wine - This is a really nice blend of 78 percent Syrah, 10 percent Grenache, 7 percent Mourvedre, 5 percent Counoise from Washington State.

The majority of the Buried Cane line (which I have reviewed a few previously) is value priced at $14 this wine is worth the $25 price tag.

These Rhone style blends can be all over the place but the rich Washington grapes and winemakers' skill makes this a great red wine. I liked the lush dark fruit and hints of chocolate. It was big and bold enough to please that crowd but smooth enough for any wine drinker. Another dynamite effort from the Buried Cane folks.

(Buried Cane 2008 Heartwood Red, $25, Trade Sample, Recommended)


Paolo Scavino Rosso Vino da Tavola - Here is another Italian with the same grape blend of Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto that's quite nice but not the same quality as the Oreste Strappiano above -- except this producer throws in some Merlot to bring it all together or mask the differences. Now despite that cheap shot, this is pretty good Italian table wine and available in Indiana and other midwestern states.

This is good wine for under $15 and will definitely pair with some great pasta. It is pretty acidic to my palate and I'm a guy who normally likes acid.

This is a nice wine but if you can find the Strappiano - and will spring another $10 - the Strappiano is far more than $10 better!

(Paolo Scavino Rosso Vino da Tavola, $14, Recommended)

Ancient Peaks 2010 Sauvignon Blanc - If you like a nice tart white wine with those sweet seafood dishes you're going to really like Ancient Peaks Sauv Blanc. Count me in.

This Paso Robles winery really serves up a tart Sauv Blanc with prounounced grapefruit and citrus. The acid backs off a little as the bottle opens up. I paired it with a relatively simple shrimp salad with a mayonaise base and some herbs and it was really great.

Now, this wine will be tart for some drinkers but paired with seafood, it's very satisfying.

(Ancient Peaks 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, $14, Trade Sample, Recommended)
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Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Great Glass of Italy's Sangiovese

It's a struggle to find a great glass of Sangiovese at a reasonable price point, partially because there is so much wine on the market.
I found a new appelation with the wine I opened tonight and a very pleasing glass of Italian wine. Montecucco is a little-known but large region in Tuscany that runs almost to the Italian coast.I opened a bottle of Chorum 2007 Sangiovese.

The wine must be at least 85 percent Sangiovese but this one was 100 percent of the signature Italian grape. This makes the wine much like a Chianti Classico.

I loved the smooth and rich sour cherry flavor of this wine with unusually mild tannins for a Sangiovese wine. This wine usually retails around $18-$19 but I picked it up from the online flash site wtso.com for $9.99. At that price, this wine is a steal.

Simply put, it's one of the most drinkable 100 percent Sangiovese wines you're going to find. Wine Enthusiast gave this juice a very fair 88 points. If you come accross it, try it. It's good Italian wine.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sone Great (and Cheap) Wine Picks

The phone rings, then a text message, and sometimes I’m stopped at the grocery. It’s no sudden rush of fame but more likely after three years of wine writing I’ve become the ‘wine guy.’  And I admit I really enjoy it.

It’s usually a wine newbie, or even a really young (always over 21) wine drinker wanting a question answered or a recommendation. It’s happened a lot lately so that made me think it’s time again to offer up some really affordable choices and maybe repeat a few old ones.

All of these wines are under $15 (or less) and readily available in Indiana, Illinois and most Midwestern states.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection – This is the entry level wines for the iconic Mondavi line mentioned in my last column. I have tried one more of those wines since the last Grape Sense and the quality is very consistent. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay are all consistently good value wines for $11. And better yet, the Mondavi Private Selection label is really easy to find.

Here is the spot where I should also repeat an oft-suggested label or two. Mirrasou wines are another great pick from the grocery or a liquor or wine store with limited selection. Smoking Loon,  Bogle, and Blackstone are also palatable wines well under $15.

Banfi Centine Rose’ – Summer is not the only time of the year for dry pink wine. The Centine label is the value line from Banfi – which promotes itself as the world’s oldest winery. They do make some remarkably nice wine for, again, the $11 price point. I recently enjoyed the Rose which was very light in body with nice fresh red berry flavor and a hint of strawberry. The alcohol was a low 12.5 percent which makes it a great party wine. The Centine line also include a nice white blend and a Tuscan red blend which features Italy’s signature Sangiovese grape and Cabernet. These wines are also very easy to find.

Georges Duboeuf 2010 Morgon – The Duboeuf label is widely distributed and something you really should try. Duboeuf is king in France’s Beaujolais district but most people only think of the Nouveau when mentioning Duboeuf. I’ve never been a big fan of the Nouveau (wines that are bottled and sold within months of harvest), finding them rather uninteresting and bland. The Grand Cru Beaujolais is another matter. The Grand Cru (specific growing regions) offer bright fruit, smooth drinkability, and a light mouth feel. The Morgon is one of the top appellations for Beaujolais, I also like the Julienas for its earthy characteristics. The Beaujolais red wines are made from the Gamay grape. These wines are found under $15 and often around the $11-$12 price point.

Domaine de Noire ‘ Chinon  - This is another French wine but from the Loire Valley region. This recommendation is less about the bottle I appreciated and more about the grape. Chinon wines are made from Cabernet Franc, a grape that has gotten little respect and little notice for too long in the wine world. Cabernet Franc might be thought of as Cab Sauvignon’s little brother. It’s certainly lighter and has a nice spice or pepper finish.  It’s often used in blending Bordeaux-style wines. But the grape has gotten much more notice the last year or two for its flexibility. The de Noire was $16 and it is a label that is also easy to find. But pick up a Cab Franc wherever you can find one and give it a try. If Cab Sauv is a little too big for your taste, you just might like Cab Franc. I tasted some wonderful Cab Franc in Michigan last summer and it’s always on the shelves of most wine shops.
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Robert Mondavi's Impact in Perspective

The Oct. 5 death of Apple founder Steve Jobs had many people grappling with perspective on his death. Many called him this generation’s Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.

At about the same time two shipments of Robert Mondavi wines arrived to my office. Mondavi has been a household name to many for decades. But the odd timing brought into focus that beginning wine drinkers or value wine drinkers should know about America’s most iconic wine name.

Anyone interested can certainly find ample material online about Robert Mondavi. The details shared in Grape Sense come from internet research and the marketing firm that handles Mondavi wines.

The wines are distributed in all 50 states and are always good representatives of the grapes and a safe choice when nothing else on the shelf looks appealing.

Robert Mondavi became one of the world’s biggest wine brands not just through winemaking but the man’s marketing savvy and business sense. He was the son of Italian immigrants and a graduate of Stanford with a degree in economics and business administration.

He worked at Sunnyhill Winery with his father before the family purchased Charles Krug Winery. At the age of 53 he opened Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa. He pioneered winemaking techniques, led blind tastings, and preached the pleasures of wine, food and the arts to anyone who would listen.

He co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food with Julia Child and Richard Graff in 1981. He has been “man of the year” for more publications and organizations than there is space to list. Perhaps one of his most notable honors came in 2005 when he won the Legion d’Honneur award, France’s highest Presidential honor.

His story got complicated in the early 1990s when his sons took over the business. They were producing a half-million cases of wine a year but were buried in debt. The family business went public and production soared to nearly 5 million cases annually. The Mondavi empire ended in 2004 when Constellation brands bought Mondavi for more than a billion dollars.

But throughout the ups and downs of the business Robert Mondavi was the spokesman for American wine. He deserves considerable credit for showing the world great wines could be produced in regions outside of Old World Europe.

One of the great partnerships of the last decade was Baron Philippe Rothschild and Robert Mondavi combining efforts in 1979 to create Opus One. The wine became one of the first super premium wines with the two rock star winemakers at the helm. The Bordeaux style blend is currently in its 2008 release and retails for $210.

Robert Mondavi died in 2008 at age 94. His name should be alongside Edison and the light bulb, Henry Ford and the Model T, Michael Jordan and basketball.

I’m frequently asked what wineries one should visit when making a first-time trip to Napa. I always suggest hitting Mondavi’s Spanish style landmark. It is the “granddaddy of them all,” to steal a line from sportscaster Keith Jackson.

The wines are good value at the lower price point and great wines in the upper echelon.

Howard’s Picks:
Robert Mondavi Private Selections include nine different wines at value prices you’ll find in groceries, wine shops, and liquor stores. The wines are very consistent for the under $15 price point. Another good choice in the value category is Mondavi-owned Woodbridge wines.

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley wines are the real flagship wines. These wines retail around $20-$30 and represent great wines, good critic scores, and consistent value for the price point.

Robert Mondavi Reserve Napa Cabernet is the top bottling, consistently garnering 90-plus points and measuring up to any Napa Cab. But it is a $100 a bottle of wine.


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Monday, October 31, 2011

Unusual Suspects Red A Great Buy!

I've been trying to group my wine reviews but I liked this wine so much I just had to share - especially for those readers in Central Indiana.

One of the advantages of the wine writing gig is getting to taste a lot of wines. Wineries, wholesale, and retailer outlets are always anxious to pour a sip of something special, different, or exciting.
I recently tasted several wines with Ashley Lockwood at Cork + Cracker in Indianapolis, near Broad Ripple. The winner of the bunch was Odisea's Unusual Suspects 2007 Lodi Red. It's called Unusual Suspects because of the blend which is 55 percent Carignane, 35 percent Tempranillo, and 10 percent Grenache.

The grapes come from nearly 100-year-old vines in the California Lodi region. It normally retails around $17-$18. But Ashley has it on clearance at her Cork + Cracker store right now.

The wine has bold dark cherry and an earthy spice flavor that I found totally irrestistable! It has a lovely mid palate and lingering finish. It's obviously distributed throughout Indiana and here is one worth looking for. It's great for wine newbies - something different with the grape blend, a wonderfully rustic flavor, and it's a price point anyone can afford under $15 at Ashley's.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Liz Rocks: Great Wine Shop, Great Service

COLUMBUS, OH. - I first heard of Vino 100 a national retail wine shop chain several years ago when dabbling with the idea of going into retail wine at retirement. On a work related trip I had my first chance to visit a Vino 100 on the north side of Columbus, Ohio, at the Polaris Parkway exit off I-71.

That was 2007 and on the first visit and two or three times each fall since, I get to chat with the delightful Liz Avera. Liz is the shop owner and wine guru. I wrote about Vino 100 on this blog and also for the national online wine magazine - Palate Press. (Click the links to see those stories.)

I had missed Liz on two previous attempts this year but spent about a half hour Friday afternoon talking wine and the wine business. The shop is located in Westerville, an affluent Columbus suburb. The Polaris Parkway area is a thriving retail district with businesses that one could fairly label "upscale."

Many wine retailers have talked of the recession of 2008 and how they've struggled to this day to recover. Liz and her Vino 100 story is a bit different.


"We’re not a good test study because we opened in 2007," she said. "Our history is very short and spanned the entire recession. Not a lot of people knew about us when we first opened so we didn't have a cushion of all thesewine drinkers coming here to buy wine. We’ve actually grown every year since we opened.
Liz in her shop with the tasting notes that helped build her business
"What is interesting is buying patterns have changed. Some of our market has gone to buying two $10-$15 wines instead of one $50 one. We’re still really strong in the value niche and the longer we’ve been here the more people realize we are good at finding really good drinking wines that don’t cost as much. We’ll show you a $50 wine but then we’ll show you one that’s $25or less that will be really really good. People have learned to trust our inexpensive wines just as much as our higher end."

The Vino 100 system labels wines on taste characteristics but Liz is the buyer an has an eye for unique wines and great values. After all, the Vino 100 marketing line is "100 Great Wines Under $25."

I bought five bottles of wine - three under the $25 price point. The first one I picked up stunned me! I found a Stroppiana Oreste Langhe Rosso. Langhe is the premier region in Italy's Piedmont known for the big and expensive Barolos. The $23 wine is a blend of the grapes from Langhe but at a price far, far below what you normally have to pay to touch the applelation. I can't wait to try it.

The other wine I noticed was a Vina Robles from Paso Robles red blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Mourvedre for $17. Liz then sprinted at me with a bottle of Ippeas Kikonees from Greece that "you just have to try." So I plopped down the $25 for this Cab/Merlot blend on Liz's assurances.

That also is an illustration of what I preach in the newspaper column and here. Find wine store proprietors you like and trust and then take their word.

Just as a side note, I bought two more wines above the $25 price - beyond what I usually write about and don't purchase that frequently. I am a big fan of dry Rose'. Liz's husband Don poured me a taste of Domaine Ott Cotes de Provence. It was very light salmon in color and simply the best darn Rose I've ever tasted. Apparently, according to Jim, Robert Parker raved about this Rose as one of the best France has to offer.
My other purchase is an entire story, that I hope to do, but often what you'll find in smaller shops Liz told me of seeking out Napa winemaker Sandi Belcher who few people know. Long story made short for now - longer later - is Sandi makes some incredible wines. Liz was lucky enough to strike a chord with Belcher and landed 50 cases of IMPROMPTU a blend of Howell Mountain Cabernet from 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. She's down to just 15 cases and expects to sell it quickly. She is the only retail store, minus one New York restaurant, to have the wine. Belcher won't be making any more.

So I trusted Liz and plopped down some bigger bucks for the Rose' and IMPROMPTU which I'll cellar for awhile. But I can't wait to taste them.

"What’s cool, I think, is the business has grown organically, by word of mouth," Liz said. "People who are into wine are out in the community or at a party and they get asked, ’Where did you get this wine?… Where do you shop? And they say we love Vino 100. That's been a lot of our growth."

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wine Reviews! Seriously! I'm Back to Wine Reviews!

Tools of the trade!!
I've had some dynamite wines lately a bit all over the price point so it's past time to share the results. All of these, with one exception, should not be too hard to find.

So I round up the bottles of my recent wines, pour a glass of a nice French blend (see details below), grab a few little crackers and let's go!

Labyrinth Haka 2008 Tempranillo - It's probably just wrong to be suspicious of a grape grown outside the area where it's best know - but hey, we're all skeptics. I've had some pretty good Tempranillo from the U.S. West Coast before. The Twisted Oak version comes immediately to mind as a great wine. Lange Estates, the Pinot Noir folk, make a pretty good Tempranillo that just disappears off their shelves.

A year ago I traveled to Paso Robles and became a big fan of that regions wines. So when I passed this bottle on the shelf I had to give it a try. It's just the second vintage for the well-respected Labyrinth folks to produce the traditional Spanish grape.

Simply put, this is a fabulous food wine. It falls somewhere between medium and full-bodied wine that has big fruit, some depth, and a very soft and memorable finish. It comes in at 14.5% alcohol and sees 13 months in oak. (Labryrinth Haka 2002 Tempranillo, $18.99, Kahn's Wines, Indy, Highly Recommended.)

Domaine Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Alain Jaume & Fils - This just might be the best value wine for the price I've ever tasted. Seriously. Domaine Grand Veneur Cotes du Rhone wine is a Grenache driven wine with stunning full fruit and smoothness. It's 70 percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah, and 10 percent Mourvedre - so very much a traditional French GSM wine.

It's fabulous quality might be partially understood knowing the vineyard borders the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation, the very best the area has to offer.

I loved the red berry aroma and flavors of this wine. It is rich and perfectly balanced. Many would use words like smooth, and even silky to describe this beauty. Online I found this wine at up to $19. I paid $14.99 for a bottle a few weeks ago and after opening it called the shop and had them set back a half case. (Domaine Grand Veneur Les Champauvins Alain Jaume & Fils , $14.99, Grapevine Cottage, Zionsville, IN., Very Highly Recommended)

Robert Mondavi Private Selection 2010 Pinot Noir - So as I've written here several times I do get sample wine shipped to me from a number of marketing firms. A few weeks back I got a couple bottle of Mondavi's $20-$30 wines which I truly enjoy. Since then I got a Cabernet and Pinot Noir from the Private Selection (about $11) label.

I never have very high expectations of a Pinot Noir under $11 but this one just rocked all my perceptions. It was typical California Pinot Noir with bold fruit and a soft oak finish. It might have been as good an $15 Pinot as I've ever had. I'm now quite anixous to try the Cab to see if it holds up as well.

The great thing about this wine is it should be very easy to find. This line of Mondavi wines can be found in Kroger and many local supermarket and liquor stores. It will shock you with it's quality. Now, it's not a Russian River Valley and no where near an Oregon Pinot. But for grocery store, Central California coast wine, it rocks. (Mondavi 2010 Private Selection Pinot Noir, SRP $11, trade sample, Highly Recommended at the price point.)

Chateau Mas Neuf 2010 Rhone Paradox - This nifty white wine offers a lot of wow factor for a Rhone white wine. I've tried a lot of white Rhone wines this summer and many left me unimpressed or with just an 'okay' reaction.

I liked this Chatau Mas Neuf blend of 65 percent White Grenache and 35 percent Roussane a lot. It has a freshness that many of the others didn't show, maybe even a delicate characteristic. The tasting notes suggest peach .. but I'd go a bit further and say white peach ... a bit of tartness that I loved. This wine is a great one with snacks, chatting with friends, or would hold up to lighter meals.

Exploring French whites, particularly from the Rhone region, has been a fun summer project I'm glad I carried into the fall. This is refreshing yet interesting. There are layers of flavor beyond many of the $10-$12 Rhone whites. Reviewers at The Rhone Report gave this white 89 points. I'm sipping a glass while writing this entry! (Chateau Mas Neuf Rhone Paradox, $10-$12, though I paid slightly more at Grapevine Cottage, Highly Recommended)
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Farm Bloomington Offers Eclectic Dinner Selections

I don’t consider myself a restaurant reviewer really but I do eat in enough fine dining establishments to offer some observations. I’ve tried to do a post on Grape Sense any time I visit a better restaurant and this week I have a stellar lineup.

I dined for the first time Tuesday night at FARM Bloomington and will be returning for my third visit Friday night to Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Lola Bistro in Cleveland.

Farm Bloomington follows the pattern of farm-to-fork restaurants that is exploding across the country. It’s probably safe to say few have the pedigree of Chef Daniel Orr. When you check out the Farm website be sure to read the chef’s bio.

Pork jowl with blueberry chutney on top
But how about Farm’s menu and food? A friend and I headed to Bloomington, In., to see an IU student production of the musical Hair. I made reservations several weeks ago to make sure we had a table at Bloomington’s latest hotspot. The décor is simple and the restaurant can get pretty loud when booked but the food is eclectic, inventive, and definitely delicious.

We both started with the Broccolli and Smoked Gouda soup. It was creamy with a wonderfully smooth texture. The Scholar’s Inn white bread which was deep-fried into croutons was insanely good.

I had the Anise and Cinnamon Braised Local Pork Jowl with root vegetables, “Chieftain” wild rice, with Michigan Blueberry Chutney. The pork, which is a tougher cut, was tender with just enough fat for flavor. The anise was strong throughout the dish, that strong licorice flavor was a tad over-powering but the uniqueness of the flavor combination was really enjoyable.

A nice, thick bone-in pork chop
My friend had the Grilled Gunthorp Bone-In Pork Chop with local pear and bourbon glaze, winter squash puree with pumpkin pepitas, and caramelized celericac. The thick chop was marvelous (ok we traded bites). It was moist and cooked perfectly. The pumpkin added a tad too much sweetness but again the one flaw in the dish was very minor.

We each had a glass of Spanish Garnacha blanc. It was a tad on the lighter sweeter side, but with a touch of acid proved a nice pairing for our medium-seasoned pork dishes.

For dessert we split a persimmon cheesecake bar with cranberries that was devine.

The damage – two soup, two entrees, one dessert, two glasses of wine and one cup of decaf came to $90 without tip.

If you have any reason to get close to Bloomington or IU, Farm is a destination restaurant.

I hope to get a blog post up Friday night after visiting Lolas. The two previous visits have ranked right near the top of my all-time restaurant meals.

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Blaze Your Own Fall Wine Trail

There’s nothing better than an October weekend drive. The leaves are turning, the cider is fresh, and you might even find some frost on the pumpkin. Oh, and don’t forget the apples!

There’s also no better time to visit local wineries. Many Midwestern wineries turn fall into festivals with special wines, food, and entertainment.

Let Grape Sense be your weekend travel guide. One of my favorite journeys is to Southern Indiana to visit Turtle Run and Huber Wineries. Turtle Run has a big day planned Oct. 16 with live music. Huber winery has live music every Saturday and Sunday through October.

Turtle Run's Jim Pfeiffer
While visiting Turtle Run say hello to winemaker and owner Jim Pfeiffer. Try some of his uniquely blended red and white wines.
Huber has quite a festival each October. The apple orchards are full of fruit and the kids can pick out a pumpkin for that special jack-o-lantern.

Huber makes some of Indiana’s best red wines. Try there Generations and Heritage blends. They also make a really nice Cabernet Franc.

Turtle Run and Huber are only a few miles apart. If you go to one, it’s a shame not visit the other!
Jim Butler
On the way south or coming back north go through Bloomington and make a stop at Butler winery’s tasting room downtown or out at the winery north of the city. Jim Butler is one of Indiana’s most-respected winemakers.

Try his wonderful dry Rose, Chambourcin, and dynamite specialty wines.

If you want more of a trip head up to the southwest corner of Michigan. Stop in at the Round Barn Winery, Tabor Hill, and Domaine Berrien Cellars.
The Round Barn has a wide variety of wines and a brewery where they craft beer. I’d recommend the Gewurztraminer. Bring a bottle or two home for your Thanksgiving Turkey.
Tabor Hill is one of the area’s most visited wineries and also features a restaurant. The wines are very light in style but clearly loved in Southern Michigan.
Domaine Berrien is one of the most interesting stops. The winery is one of the only Rhone Rangers members in the Midwest. They grow traditional French grapes, best known from the Rhone Valley, like Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne and others to make wonderful blended wines.
In Illinois, there are a number of wineries in the southern part of the state. Explore the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail for a wonderful weekend.
Earlier this year I visited Wisconsin and became a big fan of Wollersheim Vineyards just outside Madison. If you make the trip to Southern Wisconsin, drive a half hour south of Wollersheim and visit Fisher King Winery in the charming village of Mount Horeb and enjoy its Norwegian heritage.
But wherever you live there are plenty of options nearby. It’s easy to find these wineries’ websites with a simple internet search. If you’re not sure or want to find some new spots use the state association websites. Here are the official names: Indiana Grape Council, Michigan Wines, Wineries of Wisconsin, and Illinois Wine.
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