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.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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."

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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 d├ęcor 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.

Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

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.
Send comment or questions to: hewitthoward@gmail.com

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Argentina, Paso Robles, & France - Some Good Juice

Time for a quick look at some wines I've enjoyed in the last few days. Two of the three I found in Central Indiana. The other would be hard to find.
Ocaso 2008 Bonarda-Syrah - I picked this wine up on a whim because it was a 50-50 blend and it caught my eye in an Indianapolis 21st Amendment Liquor Store. 21st Amendment, for those outside Indianapolis, is one of those big mega stores with lots of wine, beer, and liquor. But they're wine selection is quite good.

I have had various Argentian blends with one of my favorite, if not slightly obscure, grapes - Bonarda. I liked this one a lot. I was very much medium bodied with nice dark fruit. The Syrah provided big fruit while the Bonarda brought some nice soft and smoky round palate feel. It was an enjoyable and easy-to-drink wine.

Winemaker Patricio Gouguenheim makes an affordable wine that drinks well above it's price. It's hard to image a better glass of wine under $10. (Ocaso 2008 Bonarda Syrah, $9.98, Recommended.)

PasoPort 2010 Vinho Verde - I got this wine from a Paso Robles wine club so you're unlikely to find it at your neighborhood shop or liquor store. The point in even reviewing it is to promote Albarino. Albarino is grown largely in Spain and Portugal but continues to make inroads in California.

This 100 percent PasoPort Albarino is a really nice representation of the grape. It's bright and crisp without overpowering acidity. I found it to be a delightfully fresh glass of wine. The price point is $28 but you can find many Albarino wines between $10-$15. This would be great with seafood or sitting on the porch.

(PasoPort 2010 Vinho Verde, $28, Highly Recommended.)

Domaine de Noire 2009 Chinon - This is Cabernet Franc for you newcomers. Chinon is in France's Loire Valley and produces marvelous white wines, primarily Chenin Blanc. Their primary red wine is Cab Franc. Franc is used often as a blending wine but can be a really nice glass of softer red wine with a hint of a spicy finish.

This one is a good one and I've seen it in several Central Indiana wine stores. It has rich fruit and a nice fall spicy flavor - much like cider or a pumpkin pie. You know, it has the kind of spice in mild flavors that fully complement the fruit.

Look for this grape from Michigan and some Indiana producers. It does well in the midwest.

(Domaine de Noire, $16, Recommended, Grapevine Cottage, Zionsville)

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