Cooper's Hawk Comes To Oak Park

I live in Oak Park and was invited to check out the new Cooper's Hawk location on Lake Street. This was greatly anticipated by the community, as we don't have many close options for wine tasting in the neighborhood. I have been to Cooper's Hawk before, in South Barrington and Burr Ridge, and enjoyed the experience of tasting through their wines and found the food to be very good. 

I took my wife and we started out in the tasting room. It is really welcoming with a large L shaped bar, staff ready to help, televisions for sports viewing in the bar, and tons of wine chatchskis for purchase. When we started tasting, I was startled by the amount of different wines Cooper's Hawk had in their personal portfolio: Sparkling, Sparkling Rose, Moscato, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay (both oaked and unoaked, and a premium Lux brand), Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir and Lux Pinot, Barbera, Merlot, Malbec, Zin, Cabernet and Lux Cabernet, Lux Meritage, Tempranillo, "Super Tuscan" (Sangiovese based blend from Tuscany), Cotes du Rhone, and Shiraz. I tried a few of the wines and found the Sparkling Rose, Pinot Gris, Barbera and Super Tuscan to be quite good, plus the Cotes du Rhone collaboration with Jean-Charles Boisset was excellent as well. Some of the other wines were in the mediocre category, but definitely worth a taste.

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In The Barrels

Enjoying some Cooper's Hawk OP!

We later shuffled over to our booth and ordered our food. After speaking with the GM and our Waiter, we found that the restaurant employed over 200 staff members, mostly comprised of the surrounding neighborhoods of Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park and Austin Chicago. That is a huge bonus for the community. Back to the cuisine, the tuna tacos are an excellent starter with nice Asian/Mexican fusion flavors. My wife loved her chicken entree but I found my NY Strip to be slighly overcooked (I ordered it Medium Rare) and kinda flavorless. I am unsure where the beef is from, but I would go GrassFed as it tends to have loads more flavor. Our dessert was delicious, the Key Lime Pie, which was our waiter's fav.

All in all, it is a great addition to the 'hood and a fun time whether you are a wine club member or a casual diner. I will definitely go back to sample the new wines!

Kick Off Your Summer Grill

I've been cooking for almost 30 years and have learned a lot from mom, grandma, chefs, television, books and internet.  I've tried many new things in the past number of years and I have to say, I get the most enjoyment out of grilling outdoors.  You can cook almost any meal outdoors and more than you can cook in, and the enjoyment you get on your deck or in your backyard is priceless.  

I still love a juicy steak or pork chops on the grill, but after 40 you learn to add more fish and seafood to the menu.  And recently we've instituted "Taco Tuesdays" in our house and I've been having loads of fun with it.  Cornmeal crusted tofu, chili lime rum shrimp, tequila cilantro fish, etc has been the most delicious creations of the week.

If you'd like a great way to enjoy the weather, open a bottle of white (I normally use Riesling because of its limey, mineral properties) and get to work:

  • Marinate.  Today I bought Wild Caught Walleye (if you live in Minnesota, you'll come to LOVE this fish) and prepped it with garlic, oregano, cilantro, lime, olive oil, salt & pepper and tequila.  Let it sit covered in the fridge for at least an hour before bringing it back up to temperature.
  • Drink.  Pop open a refreshing bottle to enjoy (today was Charles Smith "Kung Fu Girl" Riesling) and cool off.  Enjoy the day while the kids play in the yard.
  • Grill.  Doesn't matter whether you're using a gas or charcoal grill: cover the grates with foil.  All flaky fish will disintegrate if you don't.  And use an extra large spatula to get under that filet.
  • Additions.  You may be drinking a bit, but try to multitask.  Make sure to chop your toppings like tomato, avocado, peppers, greens, etc.  
  • Tortillas.  Always use corn- it's the original, less calories and tastes better.  And make it easy on yourself and grill them up!  Brush both sides with olive oil, place them on the grill and have your tongs ready because they cook quickly.  Have a towel or covered plate ready to keep them warm.

Now you're ready.  If you're going spicy (which I always do), you may want to stick with something that is refreshing and has a tiny bit of sweetness like a Washington State Riesling, a homemade margarita or mojito.  After your bev is ready, it's time to construct some tacos with the family and buon appetito!

Grab a Burger with Wine

I know National Burger Day has passed but summer has just begun.  People will be firing up the grill to throw on America's favorite bite all season long.  Everyone has a favorite beverage, and wine has continued to trend towards casual and I know it has all the attributes to pair alongside delicious meat on a roll. 

Tannins in red wine (you can feel them as they grip at your gums while you drink) come from the grape skins, as does the rich red color, and meshes with any type of burger.  They can cut into the fattiness of an 80/20 meat or soften the chew through a leaner blend.  The complexity of fruit and secondary flavors (toast, cinnamon, pepper, tobacco, etc.) will enhance the meat and other favorite add-ons like ketchup, fried egg, bacon, cheese, aioli and mushrooms just to name a few.  I can still picture Miles from Sideways chowing down on a burger and onion rings with his 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc.  You don't have to go out a buy a $2000 bottle to put in your plastic cup, but I've got some great wines for you to try with your favorite burgers:

  • 2010 d'Arenberg 'The Stump Jump' Shiraz ($10).  Peppery, fruity and mixed with cocoa- I couldn't ask for more out of a wine under $10.  The body will stand up to your grill and you might as well buy a case.
  • 2009 Maipe Malbec Reserve ($14).  I would love this varietal choice to go with most burgers and even a pulled pork sandwich.  The fruit, chocolate and espresso matches with grilling and BBQ.  Pick a rich cheddar and add some spicy peppers to go with this value choice.
  • 2008 La Maialina Chianti Classico ($16).  A Chianti with a burger?  An old world classic makes an amazing pairing.  Sangiovese grape is known for it's tannins and cherry flavor and La Maialina "The Little Pig" comes through with so much more.  Plus it's a bargain at the price.
  • 2009 Ridge Ponzo Vineyard Zinfandel ($27).  This grape always brings smoke and fruit which is perfect for a grilled meal.  Spice, licorice and pepper is the way to go along with a full body.
  • 2010 Tamarack Cellars Cabernet Franc ($27).  One of the varietals that Miles went with on his burger hunt (the other in the Cheval Blanc was Merlot) is a noble choice for the grill- tight tannins and dark fruit.

Now there are many other choices out there but that should get you started.  If you are on the hunt for a burger and want to relax while a chef makes it for you, try one of these favorite Chicago spots:

  • Burger Point (1900 S. State).  All natural meat from Rain Crow Ranch makes this a healthy and tasty spot.  The #1 is outstanding with pepperjack, bacon, roasted chiles and cage-free fried egg on pretzel.
  • Custom House (500 S. Dearborn). Burger with a top hat, getting all sophisticated- but outrageously delicious!  Short rib, sirloin & ground pork make up the blend and it's served on soft brioche with aged cheddar, onions, lettuce and tomato.
  • Kuma's Corner (2900 W. Belmont).  I love the variety- it could take all year to challenge the menu.  21 different burgers and all of them on pretzel.  I tried the YOB with smoked gouda, bacon, roasted red peppers and garlic mayo.  Yum.
  • Top Notch Beef Burgers (2116 W. 95th).  A family owned gem way on the southside which has been serving it up for decades.  Just like a 50's joint with cute service, onion rings and awesome milk shakes.
  • Portillo's (30+ locations).  A now-national powerhouse that started in the Chicago burbs makes THE best fast food burger you'll find.  Get the double cheeseburger with thick pickles and flame broil.
  • DMK Burger Bar (2934 N. Sheffield).  Grass-fed beef natural beef and insane Bison and Lamb burger with 6 different fry versions (I went for bleu cheese & bacon), mac n cheese and house-made sodas.

Chicago has so many other burger spots but these are just a few to wet the appetite.  Happy hunting and enjoy some wine with dem burgers!

Grilling & Wine for Memorial Day

Memorial Day weekend is finally here- days to remember those who have served for our Freedom and celebrate the coming of summer with family, friends and grilling.  I recall going to the Forest Preserve to play softball and have a pop (when I was very young) or a beer and enjoy the smell of meat grilling over charcoal.  Now that times have changed a bit, and my palate as well, I like to try wine with these events also.  What are some good wines to try with grilling?  Let's get to it:

  • Gotta have a nice refreshing white wine for seafood or to cool off.  For that I'm calling for 2010 Ponzi Pinot Gris from Willamette Valley ($15).  A dry wine full of tropical fruit flavor to pair with grilled oysters, fish, shrimp or chicken, and weighty enough to stand up to marinades
  • Think Pink.  Rose is a great way to is a fine way to go towards beating the heat and the berry sweetness will quench your thirst and pair phenomenally with BBQ sauces. Try the Bastianich Rose ($13) made from 100% Refosco by the Bastianich Family and Chef Mario Batali.
  • Looking for that light summer red to pair with light meats like chicken and pork?  Most people would grab a great Pinot Noir like 2009 Au Bon Climat for under $20, but I like to try different things.  A Grenache has slight bit more weight but can be an amazing summer wine.  Try 2006 Fireblock Old Vine Grenache ($15) from Australia- you'll get great red fruit, twizzler (awesome), tingling spice and flavor length.
  • When we're talking lamb, beef and game with grill marks, it's time to pull out the big guns.  You'll want a red with boldness, body, spice and fruit.  This has Malbec written all over it and I'm grabbing a bottle of 2010 Achaval Ferrer ($18) from Mendoza.  Zinfandel is always a great choice in this part plus it hits with BBQ and ribs.  Four Vines and Ridge make amazing wines and even some blends using Zin and you'll love them all.  Not to be forgotten, Shiraz/Syrah has 'wow' factor with black peppercorn and deep rich fruit, so go for Kilikanoon 'Killerman's Run' Shiraz ($17).

Any direction you go you can't go wrong because you'll be spending time with those you love getting ready for a terrific season.  Enjoy!

Father's Day with Wine

Father's Day is just around the corner and I'm sure everyone wants to do something special for Dad.  It's a day for families to thank the patriarch for all that he's done and for Dads to enjoy being surrounded by love.  Here's a few ways to show your appreciation:

  1. Sunday Grilling.  I love a good cookout- you can enjoy the weather, great company and relax by being surrounded by food.  It's also hard to beat the satisfaction (and taste!) you get from making a great meal.
  2. Take Dad Out.  There's so many great places in Chicagoland that Dad would love to eat at.  Prairie Fire in the West Loop will be having an omelete station, gourmet Bloody Marys and BBQ ribs.  Fleming's River North and Wheeling will be having a Father's Day Prix Fixe menu and Dad gets a $25 gift certificate to use on a future visit!  Prairie Grass in Northbrook has an amazing Father's Day buffet with NY strip, fried chicken, salmon and a crepe station.  Bistro One West in St. Charles has an amazing riverfront patio and a local menu featuring Wagyu beef hotdogs, smoked bacon BLTs, skirt steak salad and Meyer's farm burgers.  Try authentic Mexican for Dad at Guanajuato in Glencoe- Aztec spice rubbed chicken and a Spanish guitarist!
  3. Wine.  Get dad a bottle of wine for the occasion or his collection!  Great grilling wines make the perfect gift and I recommend Zinfandel like Martinelli Lolita Ranch ($70), Ridge Lytton Springs ($35), or Malbec like Catena Alta ($44) or Achaval Ferrer Mendoza ($25).

All of these are great suggestions that the whole family will enjoy.  Any way you go you can't lose!

Wine Guy On Demand Launches

Ever been stuck with the wine list at a business lunch and had no idea what to order?  Wanted to impress on a first date but weren't sure what wine would do?  Buying wine for a present but not sure if it was good enough for a friend's cellar?  Tried a bunch of Wine Apps with automated responses and no rhyme or reason?  Well, as a trained and certified sommelier, I've been answering these types of questions for years.  I decided to make myself available to everyone at any time of the day.  Here's how it works:

Download Wine Guy On Demand from iTunes straight to your iPhone (look for more versions in the future!) and all the answers to your wine questions are just moments away.  Type in some simple information and submit your question.  If I'm Online, you can expect a detailed answer in minutes.  If I'm Offline, no problem.  Your question will be stored and answered as soon as I return.  It's that simple!

There are many Wine Apps out there, but I'm aiming to provide a one on one connection you just cannot get from an automated database.  Think of it as having a sommelier or wine guy in your pocket!

Holiday Wine Picks

So the end of the year is near, meaning we have alot of celebrating to do.  Whether you're buying gifts (wine makes the perfect holiday gift), having friends and family over for Christmas dinner or you need some bubbly for New Year's, these wine picks should impress. 

Gift Wines

I tend to lean toward full bodied reds for gifts.  They tend to age longer, pair well with meat main dishes, and simply put, most Americans like red wine.  So here's a few to choose from, in various price ranges:

  • 2007 Cosentino Cigarzin ($16.99).  The name is very macho and so is the wine.  It's full of interesting flavors like rhubarb, pomegranate, cherry cream and the signature cigar box aroma.  This is one to warm up to and enjoy with a holiday meal or some chocolate.  Also, a great value I found at CostCo.
  • 2008 Langmeil "Valley Floor" Shiraz ($22.99).  This wine is deep and rich, loaded with plum, dark cherry and berry flavor along with vanilla and cocoa.  Plus the fact that it comes from Barossa and has a screwcap makes this wine hard to resist opening!
  • 2007 Tinto Pesquera ($32.99).  Great Tempranillo from the Ribera del Duero giving dark rich fruit, pencil lead, leather, minerality and nice acidic bite.  Will age gracefully.
  • 2007 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon ($39.99).  The all-American wine gift is a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and this bottle gives all that it should: full body, dark cherry, plum, coffee, licorice and a long finish.  This bottle should age gracefully and be a great part of the recipient's cellar.
  • 2007 Andrew Will Ciel du Cheval ($52.99).  A great blend of 45% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon from Yakima Valley in Washington.  Blackberry, cassis, flowers, spice and herbs are a part of the aroma and flavor profile.  The recipient will love you for this!
  • 2005 Giorgio Rivetti La Spinetta "Vigneto Gallina" Barbaresco ($79.99).  An awesome and present from northwest Italy.  This wine would be a great addition to any cellar and has lasting ability along with raspberry and plum, tar and truffle essence.

Food Wines

Here are two wines which match very well with most foods and are safe bets to pair with whatever dish you may run into.

The Bubbly

There is sure to be alot of celebrating and this calls for some sparkling wine.  Not only is it crisp and refreshing, but the foam, bubbles and fruity flavor will help you ring in the New Year in style.  I decided to leave out Champagne and only put in the value selections, but if you feel like it, grab a bottle of Duval-Leroy, Dom Perignon or any other Champagne.

  •  Gran Sarao Brut Cava ($9.99).  A great value with grannie smith apple, yeasty dough and lemon zest flavors.  They even added Chardonnay to the traditional blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo, giving it more body.
  • Huber "Hugo" Sparkling Rosé ($9.99).  An Austrian blend of Pinot Noir and Zweigelt, this wine will wow you with its strawberries, raspberries, rose petals and minerality.  And the pricetag is just right.
  • Mionetto Organic Prosecco D.O.C. ($12.99).  If you're trying to save money and stay green, this is the wine for you.  They even used recyclables to make the bottle and label!  Golden apples and elderflower along with crispness and fresh bubbles. 
  • Gustave Lorentz Cremant d'Alsace ($19.99).  A lively sparkling wine made up of mostly Pinot Blanc and loaded with brioche, apples, meyer lemon and a hint of nuttiness.
  • 2006 Argyle Brut ($19.99).  Blend of 58% Chardonnay and 42% Pinot Noir.  Full of honeysuckle, melon, vanilla spiced pear, apple, biscuit, lemon meringue, well, you get the picture- a must buy!
  • L. Mawby Brut Cremant Classic ($21.99).  Straight from Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula, made of 100% Vignoles (hybrid varietal).  Excellent fruit flavor, crispness, yeast and toasted pine nuts.

Holiday Beer

Yes, beer drinkers should not be excluded from the celebration, and here's a few to keep you happy:

Happy Holidays, stay safe and let me know how you enjoyed the recommendations!

Thanksgiving Wines Edition 3

Another Thanksgiving full of stuffing, yams, pumpkin pie, turkey and football is almost upon us.  I talked about some great wines and varietals and how they go with your holiday dinner in my 2009 Thanksgiving pairings article, and those rules still apply.  If you're still looking for the perfect wines to match, I've got a few for you:

  • Santa Margherita Prosecco ($16).  Yes, they do make a normally overpriced Pinot Grigio, but their Prosecco is amazing and a deal at this pricepoint.  Apricots, pears, peach and a hint of white pepper will tickle your tongue.
  • 2007 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris ($15).  A turkey dinner always needs some richness and this wine has it.  Loaded with sweet fruit nuances of peach, pear, melon and apple pie, a touch of minerality, a hint of spice and creaminess makes this the white wine buy of the holiday season.
  • 2007 Grgich Hills Chardonnay ($36).  A steadily amazing wine year after year, this biodynamic, full-bodied but bright white will match your turkey and alot of other dishes.  Ripe apple, mango, oaky vanilla, cinnamon, pineapple and wild honey are just a few of the nuances your senses will enjoy.
  • 2006 Dog Point Pinot Noir ($34).  Recently I've become a huge fan of New Zealand Pinot Noir, and this one keeps me coming back.  Excellent acidity, this wine is vibrant and full of earthiness, mushroom, ripe cherry and plum.
  • 2006 Château de Tiregand Pécharmant ($15).  A hard wine to find but well worth the adventure.  Hailing from Bergerac, this deal is made up of 45% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc.  It's silky smooth and complex, full of dark plum, coffee, blackberry, clove and vanilla.
  • 2007 Cosentino CigarZin ($15).  This is one of my favorite red picks for the holidays- a very festive wine with dark dried fruit and lively spice flavor.  Have to love the jamminess and cigarbox scents!
  • Terradora di Paolo Aglianico ($16).  A southern Italian classic which goes perfect with your holiday dinner.  Ripe raspberry, cherry, tobacco, licorice and more oak spice takes this wine a long way.
  • Dogfish Head Punkin Ale ($9.99/4 pack)  I'm always throwing a beer or two in and since I made a batch of pumpkin ale, I decided to recommend one of my favorites on the market.  The pumpkin flavor is subtle and it does have the spices and a hint of brown sugar on its full-bodied finish.

I hope you go with some of these selections and enjoy the day with your friends and family.  Also, have fun planning those post-Thanksgiving workouts and let me know how the pairings worked!



Washington Wine History

Washington Wine Month continues with a bit of Washington wine history.  So everyone knows that Washington has become one of the greatest wine producing states in the US, but how and when did it start?  Well, it began all the way back in 1825, when traders from the Hudson's Bay Company brought in the first vines to Fort Vancouver. 

Eventually, Italian and German immigrants brought in their own wines and produced wine in the 1860s and 70s.  Italians from Puglia brought in the Ottavianello varietal, which is related to Cinsault (a French Rhone blending grape).  This little known grape is no longer grown in Washington (though Cinsault is), but a recent indigenous grape revival has put it back into production in Puglia.  In the Ostuni DOC, wines are made up of no less than 85% of the Ottavianello varietal!

Wine production continued until Washington became one of the first states to begin Prohibition in 1916 and all Vitis Vinifera vines were lost.  After Prohibition, Concord grapes were planted, mainly by the Nawico and Pommerelle wineries, and used to create fortified sweet wine.  Finally, in the 1950s, Washington State University began to replant Vitis Vinifera vines (Grenache being the first) and test which varietals grew best in local climates and soils.  Some professors eventually banded together in 1962 to create what is now Columbia Winery, while Nawico and Pommerelle combined to form Chateau Ste. Michelle, and both began to produce premium wines. 

In the 1970s, Washington found a new home for Cabernet Sauvignon.  This grape brought them national acclaim, with Leonetti Cellar being the best example in 1978.  More notariety would come with Chateau Ste. Michelle being named Best American Winery in 1988 and five Washington wines making Wine Spectator's Top 100 for the very first time in 1989.  Today Washington has 650 licensed wineries and countinues to grow every year.  The state has a colorful wine past and a bright future!

WBC or Bust!

I'm always up for a challenge, and is putting it out there: 12 citizen wine writers are being given the opportunity to catch a free ride across Washington to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference.

I will now be writing about Washington wine for the next month plus to try to win my behind a seat on that bus!  I've been crazy about Washington wines for quite some time now and for many reasons: good quality, great value, wide range of varietals and numerous subregions.  So I will be sharing my enthusiasm with all of you about this great state for wine.  We'll run through the regions, producers, history and my favorite wines.  So sit back, put your reading glasses on, pop open a bottle and get ready to learn about Washington!

GrubHub and WCWG Team-Up for Valentine's Day Food/Wine Pairings

Here's an opportunity to take advantage of the cold weather, recent snow and a loving holiday: I've teamed up with GrubHub to bring you some excellent delivery food for two people, wine pairing recommendations, with each choice priced around $100 or less!  You can avoid the drive, parking or valet, and tipping by staying in the comfort of your own home with your significant other.  Just choose one of the meals, run out to your local wine shop or order the recommendation online, light the fireplace and enjoy!  Three cities: Chicago, Boston and Washington D.C. are involved.  If you come from one of these three cities, click on your city and you're set.  If not, use some of the wines I've recommended with the different cuisines and you'll be set as well.  Happy Valentine's Day and enjoy the food and drink!

Gary Vaynerchuk on Today Show for Super Bowl Wines

I woke up early this morning, grabbed my vitamins and water, and turned on the Today Show to find Gary Vaynerchuk giving out his Super Bowl wine picks.  This comes a day after I gave out my Chicagoland available wines and favorite carryout/delivery spots for pizza, wings and chili.  Needless to say, I'm always interested in what @garyvee has to say about pairings, plus he's pretty entertaining to watch.  So here's what dishes were picked and what to pair with them:

First, they started off with chicken wings, which Gary paired with an Albariño, which is a grape varietal used in northwest Spain to make white wines with high acidity, low alcohol (great for spicy dishes) and possessing peachy flavor.  I like this pick, but I think Alsatian varietals like Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc or Riesling would work better, a rosé wine or even a New Zealand Pinot Noir. 

They then went to pizza, and Gary pulled out a Touriga Nacional, a varietal grown in Portugal and normally used to make port, but in recent times makes colossal wines from the Douro.  These wines have a large structure and tannins so it could be a good pairing, but I like reds that match well with the tomato sauce.  Italian reds like those made from Montepulciano, Sangiovese or Piedirosso varietals work great with tomatoes because of their bright acidity and cherry flavors. 

Lastly, the focus went to sausage and peppers (and I am a HUGE fan), which Gary paired with Cava, a sparkling wine made in Spain, normally out of three indigenous varietals, Macabeo, Parellada and Xarel-lo.  I've always been a huge advocate of sparkling wines being a go-to for almost any pairing, but I will have to travel back to Italy and grab either a Super Tuscan, which normally has better tannins to go with the oily sauce and sweet peppers, or Aglianico from just outside of Napoli in the south.

Most of these wines can be found for $15 or under, which is great.  Gary has some great picks on his online store, Wine Library, or if you live in Chicagoland, just check out my Best Buys, travel to your local wine shop and grab a few bottles.  And enjoy your Super Bowl!

Super Bowl XLIV Wine/Beverage Picks

The big game is around the corner, and whether you're entertaining or bringing your favorite snacks and beverages to your friend's house, you'll want to put your best foot forward and pair up your eats with your drinks.  You can impress your friends and make them envious of your picks.  Besides Peyton and Drew, you'll be the talk of the party!  So let's get on to some colossal pairings:

Before we get into the wine, I always like to have some beer onhand.  It not only has that slight hoppy bitterness but is also a thirst quencher.  For this Sunday I like Lagunitas "The Censored" Rich Copper Ale.  It has everything you want in a beer and more.  A creamy, malty flavor, slightly bitter but smooth hops, a rich copper color, a touch of citrus, caramel and brown sugar.  You can find this for around $10.99/6 pack.  It's also great because it pairs well with most foods you'll enjoy, including spicy ones.  I love it with chili, wings and spicy chips.

Wine value picks with tough names are what's called for on Super Bowl Sunday.  You should have some white onhand, in case it's called for, and I couldn't think of a better one to have than 2008 Big Fire Pinot Gris ($12.99).  This grape has a great roundness to it and the wine packs the fruit in: grapefruit, tangerine and pears.  You can feel honey and smell flowers in the glass, giving you no problem when the spice from hot wings comes a-knockin'!

For the reds, we'll kick off with 2007 Torres Sangre de Toro (blood of the bull), a blend of Garnacha and Cariñena ($8.99).  It packs cherry and raspberry fruit flavor with cola and dried floral scents.  The medium body and soft tannins are a great blend to accompany your Super Bowl chili creation.  Next we aim to please our Pinot lovers with 2007 Three Saints Pinot Noir ($24.99).  Even if you're not a Saints fan, you will still enjoy the blackberries, raspberries and tea notes, along with the ripe acidity.  We can finish off the wine with two big, luscious examples.  First off, we have 2007 Tait "The Ball Buster" Shiraz, which has big dark fruit, vanilla, oak and smooth tannins ($17.99).  Also go for 2008 Owen Roe Abbot's Table ($22.99), a big blend of eight varietals, mostly Sangiovese and Zinfandel.  It's a big bite of rich red and dark fruit, and ready to take on your pizza and nachos.

The most important thing to take away from the pairings is what goes well with this cuisine.  You will be enjoying some spice, tomato based items (chili, pizza) and fried and greasier dishes.  You will need beverages that have a touch of sweetness to put out the fire, are fruity, a lower alcohol content (usually enflames spices) and that have a touch of spice themselves to mesh with the food.

I love making my own food (especially my World's Best Nachos), especially for big events.  I will have to include my wings and pizza recipes later, but in the meantime, I will give out some of my favorite vendors:

No matter what you pick, remember to drink responsibly, don't mix it with driving, and have a great time.  Any event that you get together with people you like is a sure to be a great time, so make sure it is positive from start to finish.  Have fun!

Healthy New Year's Resolutions, Weight Loss & Wine

OK, so we're finally done with Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve, etc. (though the Super Bowl is coming up!) and it's time to undo some of the damage that's been done and lose some poundage.  Hit the gym, pound the pavement, eating right, yoga classes, whatever gets you to sweat it out.  But all of this does NOT mean you have to give up some of your favorite beverages; namely wine and beer. 

Studies have shown the redeeming health benefits of MODERATE consumption of wine and beer.  I am not telling anyone to go out and fill your fridges with beers and pantries with wine or that you will lose weight if you take in these beverages.  But one to two drinks daily, and no more, promotes HDL lipoprotein (good cholesterol) which removes cholesterol from the bloodstream and transports it to the liver for removal.  Wine also contains flavonoids (polyphenols) and resveratrol, both known as antioxidants, which help slow cellular damage to the body and prevent plaque and clotting in the arteries, preventing cancer, heart disease and promoting cardiovascular health.  Beer, on the otherhand, is great because it contains many nutrients and vitamins from grains and yeast which survive the fermentation process.  You can also consume light beers which will give you the same benefits with less calories.

Still, I have to preach moderation.  Neither beer nor wine will actually help you lose fat.  Only a cut in calorie intake, proper diet and exercise will help you with that goal.  But when you reach your goal weight, those beverages will help you maintain your health and weight. 

If you overindulge in beer, wine or spirits, it will prove detrimental to your overall health.  Your liver will suffer from overuse and you could gain weight from the excess calories of the beverages and possible "munchies" consumed during lowered will power.

So when you embark on your 2010 diets, remember to count your beverage calories in with your overall daily intake.  This will lead you to your fat/weight loss goals as well as to you enjoying more of your favorite beverages.  And a longer, healthier life!

(Image courtesy of flickr) 

Birthday Wines

So it's that time of year again, when everyone you know sends best wishes for you chalking up another year of life, and you start getting ready for a new one.  It's your Birthday!  This is a time to reflect upon the life you've lived and to imagine the life you still have yet to live.  In that same frame of mind, it's also a time to reflect upon all that you have tried and still have yet to.  This applies to travel, food, wine, experiences, etc.  But now it's time to celebrate, so pick out your favorite meal and your favorite bottle(s) and share them with the people you love the most!  I put together a list of some of my personal favorite affordable wines, as well as one of my favorite meals and a special wine we shared out of my stash.

For some of my personal favorites, let's start with:

  • Rivetti La Spinetta "Ca' di Pian" Barbera d'Asti.  This wine has been produced by Giorgio Rivetti since 2001 and has been my favorite Barbera ever since.  His '03 vintage was outstanding, but any vintage will work from this excellently steady wine.  You can expect a deep ruby color, alot of great fruit like cherry, blueberry, raspberry, and currant, along with full body, smooth tannins, and balanced acidity.  Available around $24.

  • Tamarack Cellars Firehouse Red.  I love a great blend and this one has it all: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Sangiovese, Carmenere and Petit Verdot.  This comes from one of my favorite wineries in Washington state, operating out of a restored WWII fire station.  Fresh red fruit, plum, tobacco, pepper, and cocoa are some of the sensory highlights.  Available around $18.

  • Bodega Colomé Estate Malbec.  This wine is made from 90+ year old vines grown at the highest altitude (for grapes) in the world.  A bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tannat are thrown into the mix, and this deep, dark wine is full of flavors like fig, blackberry, plum, mocha and exotic spices.  The long length leaves you wanting more.  Available around $26.

  • Argyle Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.  A small Oregon producer specializing in Pinot Noir and dabbling in award winning sparkling wines, Argyle makes a fine example of this varietal.  Gushing with red cherry, cranberry, cinnamon and fresh floral notes, you can't go wrong spending less than $23 on this wine.

  • Niepoort Redoma Tinto Douro.  This is the first dry wine made from renowned port producers made from port typical varietals like Tinta Amarela, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca.  Dark fruit and chocolate are surrounded by creamy layers, ripe tannins and fresh herbs.  Hard to believe how far Portuguese red wines have come and this great example is available for around $30.

  • Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Blanc.  Coming from down below in New Zealand, this wine offers pink grapefruit, pineapple, lime, white pepper and fresh flowers.  The acidity and minerality will blow you away.  Perfect with goat cheese or oysters.  Available around $20.

  • Bodegas Viña Magaña Merlot.  This amazing Merlot comes straight out of northern Spain, and is nothing short of amazing.  Dark fruit, minerality, exotic spice, fresh flowers and grippy tannins are just a few notes you can expect out of it.  You can expect it to cellar well, if you can keep your hands off it that long!  Available around $45.

  • Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino.  This little known wine is made 1 hour outside of Naples, and is packed with serious tropical flavor.  Bananas, pineapple and mango mix with minerality and creaminess.  I can't believe you can get this for around $23.

I could go on and on, but I will leave you with those favorites and a bit from my Birthday dinner.  I was happy to go at my favorite activity, cooking, to make us a great dinner.  I took Italian sausage and roasted it over sliced bell peppers, onions and garlic which were tossed with balsalmic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt and cracked pepper.  I then sauteed mushrooms, garlic and spinach with olive oil and red wine, and combined it with tomato sauce.  All this combined with al dente fettucine and grated parmesan made up one of my favorite dinners.  Add a bottle of 1997 Tenuta dell'Ornellaia and I had all I needed.  This SuperTuscan is made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, and is considered one of the finest wines in Italy and the world.  So much power, balance and length makes it hard to argue.  It is the total package with loads of fruit, espresso, cocoa, licorice and cedar box.  If it weren't priced at over $150 every release, I would be all over this wine on a daily basis!  Needless to say I had an awesome birthday and will be looking for more wines and experiences to fill my time ahead- cent'anni!

(image 1 courtesy of flickr)

Tasting Notes: Useful, Yet Harmful?

Have you ever read the back label of a bottle of wine and been more confused than before you picked that bottle up?  Ever read a wine magazine tasting note or review and said,"What are you smoking, and can I have some?"!  As a sommelier, I've talked to many people who get so confused or turned off by these, that they just end up asking for a "house" wine, or forego the grape altogether and grab a beer.  So what's the deal with all the big, exotic words used to describe these wines and how do you know you'll like them?  Here's a guy's eye view to what to expect:

Most of the questions I get regarding this subject sound something like this: "so does this wine really have cherries in it?" or,"do they really make that wine with blackberries and plums?".  Follow this tasting note from Wine Spectator about Etienne Guigal's 2006 Côtes du Rhône (CDR):

"A textbook version, with mesquite and tobacco weaving through a core of crushed plum and blackberry fruit.  A licorice edge frames the lightly grippy finish." 

If I take a look at this through the eyes of a wine novice, I would have a hard time figuring out what's going on.  How do they flavor this wine and is it made with all those fruits?  Well, the first thing to remember is almost every wine you see in reviews and shops/stores are made solely out of grapes (some are made with other fruits, but it will always be stated on the front label).  These reviews and "tasting notes" are simply that: an expert telling you what flavors they pick up through smell and taste of particular wines. 

Wines are fermented fruit juice, with most wines available to us made of grapes.  A large number of factors influence how the finished wine tastes when it reaches your palate: how the grapes lived their summer life, how they were fed (fertilized), what kind of weather they experienced, what pests, molds, funghi they encountered, how they were aged, was oak used, etc.  The vineyard, farmer, and winemaker have the biggest impact on the finished product.  You should also be weary of your vendor and how the wines were stored.  Many factors can also affect a wine after it's in the bottle as well: light, temperature variation, vibration and moisture.

Once you come to learn these few facts, you shouldn't be intimidated- just use the tasting notes as a guide to find what kind of wines you like.  Some wines are described to taste like gooseberries, figs, black tea, raisins, graphite, etc.  Just because this reviewer picked up these notes does not mean you will and it also doesn't mean you will pick up totally different notes.  But if you don't think you'd like any of those flavors, move to the next wine.  You can also laugh (like I do!) at some of the descriptors.  I've found Kenya AA coffee, shiso leaf, briar, crème fraiche, Pastis, acacia blossom, maduro tobacco and quince paste to name a few.  I've also seen other funny references like loamy edge, cocoa tinged toast, broad-shouldered, providing undercarriage and smoldering finishes.  Sometimes the descriptors are almost as entertaining as the wine!

Also, if you're a beer guy, don't think that tasting notes are only for the wines.  One of my favorite sites, Beer Advocate, gives taste descriptors, beer reviews and tasting notes to almost any beer on the market.  Plus, many of the descriptors can sound just as hawty tawty as wine ones. 

So just be aware of the reviews, but the most important thing to do is to make your own- and enjoy!

Halloween Wines

PoizinHalloween is a festive time, for both children and adults.  Children get Dots, Twizzlers, and Wachamacallits, so what do adults get?  It's time to delve into some tasty beverages fit for your favorite Halloween party!

Armida "Poizin": This is a full bodied blend of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah.  A bold wine with sweet ripe fruit flavor, it is a perfect fit after you just bobbed for apples.  Plus the fact that it comes in a coffin, makes it perfect for the season.  I've seen it sold in three pack online for $56.99, so I would imagine it sells for about $20 per bottle.

Ghost Block Cabernet Sauvignon: A wine this good could drum up the spirits atGhost Block your party.  The wine and vineyard it comes from is named for the Pioneer Cemetery which it borders.  Locals say the vineyard is haunted by the ghost of  the valley's first planter, George C. Yount, as he looks over the fruit of his labor to this very day.  The wine itself is full of berry fruit and chocolate flavor, and is available for around $65 per bottle.

The PrisonerOrin Swift "The Prisoner": This could be one of the most popular wines I've ever sold, and it is perfect for the party.  A complex blend of mostly Zinfandel, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, and Grenache added, the wine and label artwork is sure to capture your guests.  The wine is available for around $35 per bottle.Casillero del Diablo

Casillero del Diablo Wines: The "Cellar of the Devil" carries a wide variety of affordable value wines, priced around $10 per bottle.  18 different wines are Toad Hollowproduced by this label, anything from Viognier to Carmenere. 

Toad Hollow "Eye of the Toad" Pinot Noir Rosé: What party would be complete without some witch components?  This one is a bit lighter, but will wow the crowd with it's pink fruit flavor.  Available for around $12 per bottle.cider_02[1]

Doc's Draft Hard Apple Cider: This is a mega award winning cider, with big apple flavor.  I don't see how any Halloween party could be complete without this beverage.


Make sure to enjoy these holiday pairings, and let me know about your parties.  Trick or Treat!


Cooking with Wine


Everyone knows what the main function of wine is- to drink!  But it can also be used in the kitchen to help create many of your favorite dishes.  It will enhance meals with a bold flavor, and allow you to create even more interesting beverage pairings.  Here are a few quick rules to remember when cooking with wine:

Rule #1 is to never use a wine you would


drink!  A wine's flavor will be present in any dish it is used for, so if you think you can help out your recipe with inferior wine, think again.  I typically drink while I cook, so the wine is there when I need it.  I would not suggest using

Chateau Mouton Rothschild

for cooking, but rather wines that you enjoy in a modest price range.  Never use anything labelled "cooking wine".  This is a cheap wine with additional sodium, being sold for more than it could fetch as a normal wine.  If you don't drink it, don't use it.

There are three main purposes for wine in cooking.  The first is for marinating.  Many meats, especially tougher ones, taste and chew better when they are marinated.  A wine can help break down muscle tissue and tendons, making a tender, soft, and tasty cut of meat.  During the breakdown, blood and other flavor will seep out of the meat into the marinade, making for a tasty braising liquid. 

The second purpose of wine is that same braising or cooking liquid.  A wine will jump up the flavor to any sauce, stew, or braising liquid when added.  Alcohol, sulfites, and water evaporate from the wine, leaving behind the concentrated flavor of the grape juice.  These complex flavors, along with the natural sugars will enhance your meal. 

 The third purpose, and perhaps the most fun, is finishing.  This is when you close the deal and give your meal the finishing touch of flavor, and sometimes flame, that it needs.  A fortified wine, such as Port, Marsala, or Sherry, will enflame a dish, and give it a carmelized crust.  You will also be giving it a desired flavor  profile such as caramel and sweet cherry from Port, nuts from Sherry, or maple and licorice from Marsala.  Finishing a dish can also mean deglazing a pan to create a sauce.  You will pour wine into the just used pan on low temperature, hoping to get all the flavor crusties to mix and meld with the liquid.  The liquid will reduce, leaving behind an extremely concentrated and tasty sauce to accompany your meal.

Make sure that you always pair the proper wine with your dish.  If you're goal is to prepare a pepper crusted skirt steak, marinate it in Syrah/Shiraz.  If you are making a lemon caper sauce for chicken, use Pinot Grigio.  A butter sauce will be optimal with an oaked Chardonnay.  The list goes on and on.  If you have questions about these, leave your comment or ask





(image courtesy of flickr)

4th of July Wine Picks


So the 4th of July weekend is upon us and now it's time to add the finishing touches to your shopping list.  Whether you are grilling, BBQ-ing, cooking in, or ordering out, these are some sure-fire picks to please all palates.


We are going to start off with a couple of good rosé wines.  Now you have to have a sparkling choice, since it is a holiday.  And for that I choose the Mionetto "il" Rose NV ($9.99) sparkling wine from northeastern Italy.  It has a great nose full of raspberry, along with minerality, bing cherry, and light crisp bubbles.  Great with almost any food options.  I also chose a still rosé, the 2008 Gustave Lorentz "Le Rosé" of Pinot Noir ($10.99) from Alsace.  A bit more depth and fruit flavor, it is light enough to enjoy on a hot sunny day- and very versatile with food.



Moving along, we may have some guests who think of sparkling or rosé as a bit "phoo-phoo".  These next cool picks aim to please.  2008 Tabali Viognier ($10.99) has honey citrus, peach, fresh herb, and creamy texture- excellent with fried foods.  For another honey toned wine, we have the 2007 Simonsig Chenin Blanc ($10.99) from Stellenbosch, South Africa.  This wine is packed with tropical flavor and complexity.  Next we move to 2007 Leitz Dry Riesling ($14.99) from the Rheingau in Germany.  Apricot, lime, and a floral nose are enough to tackle most spicy dishes.  For the ultimate summer wine, try the 2007 Puiatti "Zuccole" Pinot Grigio ($16.99) from Friuli.  This version has a bit more weight than your usual, with apples and pears, perfect with anything from seafood to 80015407_label[1]spice. 

No party would be complete without beer, and my choice is the North Coast Brewing Co. Blue StarNorth Coast Brewing Co. Blue Star Wheat Beer.  There might be nothing more refreshing on a hot summer day than an ice cold wheat beer, and this one packs light hops and citrus fruit flavor.  Stick it in the cooler and enjoy the food and fireworks.

For those that need some red wine, I would choose to go with wines packed with fruit, so off to Australia.  Red Heads Studio presents 2005 Barrel Monkey Shiraz ($16.99).  Full of red rich fruit and light spice.  For aKilikanoon Killerman's Run Shiraz Grenache bit more, try 2006 Kilikanoon Killerman's Run Shiraz Grenache ($18.99) blend.  Charred red fruit and chocolatey coffe flavor on this well balanced wine will make it the hit of the day.  Both wines are the perfect complement to BBQ and sauces.

No matter what you pick, I hope you all enjoy your holiday, and stay safe.  As for me, I will be indulging in Rib Fest '09 in Naperville!


(image courtesy of flickr)

Oak & Wine: Giving it the Wood


If used, oak can have a profound effect on wine.  Not only can it affect the color and flavor, but it also adds tannin and complexity.  Now, wines fermented and/or aged in stainless steel give a more natural, crisp, and clean taste to a wine, but wines vinified with oak can be just as good, if not better.  Oak barrels allow a small amount of air in, which not only softens harsh wine tannins, but also evaporates alcohol and water.  This leaves behind a concentrated evolving wine, with more flavors and tannins added from the oak.  But the kind of oak and how it is charred will determine the additional flavors of the wine.  What kind of oaks and char levels are used?

First, let's delve into the different oaks.  The oaks used normally come from North America, France, and Slovenia.  North American oak has more bold flavors, due to the preparation and higher amount of lactones, giving off more intense, sweet, and vanilla flavors to a wine.  The best of North American oak is found on the east coast and midwestern United States.  Other sources are Oregon and Canadian oak. 

French oak imparts less flavor and aromatics, but offers a higher amount of wood tannin, making it a better aging oak.  There are many forests that are used to harvest the oak, each used for different types of wine.  Tronçais is used to create long lived reds with big tannins, while Vosges is used to impart oak to faster maturing wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Other forests include: Nevers, Allier, Centre, Bertrange, Jupilles, and Limousin.

Slovenian oak is normally used by Italian winemakers, and imparts low aromatics and medium tannins to a wine.  This allows the juice to truly express itself, while gaining a small tannin boost for richness and aging.  Eastern Europe is also being looked at by the French as a cheaper alternative, mostly from the Black Sea and Baltic areas.

Now we can get to the char.  The toast level of a barrel will affect wine differently as well, and can give amazing flavor profiles such as yeasty bread, creamy vanilla, smokey bacon, and spicy cinnamon and nutmeg.  A low char on a barrel will impart more oak flavor and tannin.  A higher char will give off more flavor quickly, remove some of the coconut, but can reduce the color of a wine. 

It is up to each winemaker to determine the type of oak and char they would like to use on their wine.  This greatly determines the style, and can turn good juice into a great wine, or vice versa.  This can also affect the price of a wine.  If expensive French oak is used, and the wine is aged for 22 months, with more evaporation and concentration, the wine will cost much more than one fermented and aged in stainless steel.  I say try out all types and see which you like the best- you may just like them all!

(photo courtesy of flickr)