New Year's Eve Sparkling Bargains

So the New Year is just around the corner and you still haven't gotten around to picking that special beverage for your midnight toast.  Not a problem!  There are many very good, affordable choices out there to be had and sure not to disappoint.  Now you can always drop the plastic and pick up a bottle of Champagne, most of which cost over $30 per bottle.  But there's so many bottles of sparkling wine to grab that taste great and cost around $20 or less.  Let's get down to some of these choices:

There is always value to be found in Italy and for this occasion, grab the Prosecco.  It's a light, fresh sparkling wine made from a grape with the same name.  It typically has fairly intense primary flavors like pear, peach and apple.  I recommend Mionetto ($9.99) or Bisol ($12.99).

Cava has been a hot item, made in Spain from typically three different local varietals: Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada.  It's made in the traditional method, where fermentation takes place in bottle, giving it extra complexity as the wine ages on the lees.  My favorite producer is Gran Sarao ($8.99) as they add a touch of Chardonnay to the blend giving it more body.

Next stop we have Methode Cap Classique, or sparkling wines from South Africa fermented in the bottle.  Many of these are made with Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir use is growing.  Go for the Graham Beck Brut ($14.99), a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with nice weight and lemon custard pie flavor.

In central Europe, the Germans and Austrians also are involved in excellent sparkling wine production, known as sekt.  The Germans normally (90%) use imported juice to make their sparkling wines, while the Austrians use local varietals and the traditional method to make theirs.  I'm a big fan of Szigeti Austrian sparkling Gruner Veltliner ($18.99) for it's clean apple flavor and light pepper spice.

We are, of course, no slouches to making sparkling wines in the United States.  California has great producers like Domaine Chandon, Iron Horse, Schramsberg and Domaine CarnerosSoter and Argyle are some of the best from Oregon, while Domaine Ste. Michelle holds the reigns in Washington state.  Chandon's Riche ($14.99), Schramsberg Mirabelle ($21.99) and Ste. Michelle's Blanc de Blanc ($7.99) provide a good range of weight, fruit, and style at inexpensive pricing.  I also really like Gruet Rose ($13.99) from New Mexico, as it provides a sparkling wine with excellent red fruit taste.

Now before we bypass France altogether, it's important to remember that there are alot more sparkling wines than just those that come from the Champagne region, mostly known as Cremant.  Examples can be seen all over the country, but I highly recommend one from Alsace by Gustave Lorentz ($14.99) made mostly of Pinot Blanc.  It has excellent citrus and apple with bright floral aromatics.

Whatever you choose, I'm sure that you will enjoy your New Year.  But just remember: be responsible and ask the Windy City Wine Guy for any further recommendations you may need.

(image courtesy of flickr)

Chicago French Market Part 3: Bake it Up!

As my tour at the grand opening of the Chicago French Market continued, I couldn't help but notice how many baked goods were available.  Breads, cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, tarts, and candies were all ready to be eaten by hungry shoppers.  The best news is there will always be more, as local bakeries, patisseries, and chocolatiers will be there with fresh goods daily.  Some of them were even able to take some time out and give some video info about themselves and their goods:

First off, here is an interview with Ellen of Necessity Baking Co.:


Their bread tastes amazing, as it is soft and flavorful inside, with a chewy crust outside.  And Ellen informed me that they have a bread baked with chorizo and cheese- can't wait to try that!  If you want any of their line of breads, you can contact them in advance, and they will be sure to stock and save them for you.

I then visited Provo's Village Bake Shoppe, located out of Riverside and owned by Wesley Kuras.  He focuses on giving his customers fresh, sweet, handmade European baked goods like pies, kolacky, and breads.  I particularly like the danishes, as they are soft, sweet, and made with fresh local fruits.

For more sweet pastries, I stopped at Vanille Patisserie.  The sweet team of Dimitri (the 2008 World Pastry Champion) and Keli Fayard bring the goods from North Clybourn sure to please.  Mousse cakes, tarts, and chocolates are their specialty.

Next came the mother-daughter team of Stasia Hawyrszczuk and Dobra Bielinski of Delightful Pastries.  They have been baking up breads, pastries, and cookies since 1988 at 5927 N. Lawrence.  They bake local and fresh- no preservatives or chemicals and even make low-fat and low-sugar sweet rolls if you're looking to keep the weight down!

Just across the way I spotted Sweet Miss Giving's (SMG), which not only gives us some great sweets to purchase, but also donates 50% of all profit to Chicago's homeless and HIV/AIDS afflicted.  SMG also offers up Uncommon Grounds coffee out of Saugatuck, Michigan.  You can find their goods at many locations in Chicago, including the French Market.  Here's a small interview with the shop manager:


If you're looking to get more of a coffee and sweet fix on, try Espression by Lavazza.  All of your favorite Italian style coffee and espresso creations accompanied by pastries, chocolates, and gelatos, brought to you by a 114 year-old family business.

Last on my sweets tour was Canady le Chocolatier, a favorite of mine from the South Loop.  Michael Canady has been pleasing the sweet tooth of South Loopers (and me!) for years now with his handmade chocolates, gelatos, and crepes.  His array of chocolates are on full display at the French Market, and make sure to visit his shop for the rest!

There are two other breadmakers: Chundy's Bistro and Pastoral Artisan, but I will save them for my next feature.  In the meantime, grab some bread and pastries, and don't forget the cannoli!

Chicago French Market Part 2: Soap and Flowers

So as I continued through the Chicago French Market on opening day, I ran into two vendors who were not about food or beverage.  The first was Abbey Brown Soap Artisan.  They not only create handcrafted natural olive oil soaps and body oils, but also feature works such as pottery, jewelry, and paintings from local artists.  Here is an interview with Abbey Brown proprietor, Deborah Kraemer:


You can also find their home storefront at 1162 W. Grand Avenue.

I also ran into the Market's local florist, Les Fleurs.  They feature fresh flowers from all over the globe, in all sorts of forms: fresh cut, potted plants, and European style flower arrangements.  So not only can you freshen yourself up with soap and oils, but you can freshen up your place with flower arrangements!

Holiday Event Planning at Your Service!

The holidays can be alot of fun, but they can also be stressful.  Picking out the right venue, caterers, beverages, pairings, etc. can make or break your event.  Fortunately, there is a solution: contact the Windy City Wine Guy!  Anything is possible, from finding the right spot for your corporate holiday party, to finding the right wines to pair with each catered selection, or even purchasing the right beverage for your baked ham dinner. 

Need a professional sommelier onhand for a wine tasting or to help entertain your guests?  I have over ten years combined experience as both a mixologist and sommelier, and have paired beverages with everything from caviar to cupcakes.  Santa Claus may be over three weeks away, but the Windy City Wine Guy can help anytime!

Contact me anytime:

Community Crush Chicago Label Design

The fruit has been harvested and crushed.  We've tasted the grapes and pre-barrel samples.  The product is now mellowing out in oak barrels.  Next step for Community Crush: Chicago- label design!

Just click on label design above, and follow the spec sheet.  Send in your label designs by May 1st, 2010.

Also, if you have not joined the community, sign up and reserve your allocation!

Mama's Got a Fusebox

Fusebox1I recently accepted the Fusebox Blendoff Challenge from Crushpad, where I would compete against some great internet bloggers like Dirty South Wine, Purple Teeth Diaries, NorCal Wine, Cellar Mistress, Pulling the Cork, Another Wine Blog, A Good Time with Wine, and Savvy Taste.  We each received a Fusebox, a home wine making kit which comes with enough equipment for you to make your very own Bordeaux red blend out of Napa wines.  Not only will our blends will be graded, but our own homemade labels as well.  Here is a bit more info on the fun I had with this product:

Fusebox2So, I opened the box, and inside were six 375ml bottles: 2 Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and a bottle labeled "Mystery Wine".  There was also a guidebook, a graduated cylinder, and pipettes.  All of these would help me create my very own blend.

Now, for those of us who do not know what a "Bordeaux blend" is, it is basically a red wine comprised of the grape varietals available in the Bordeaux wine region.  The five main grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, and Malbec are used, along with some Carmenere showing up in some blends.  Each grape adds its characteristics to the wine, such as color, tannin, body, structure, aromatics, spice, etc.  This all depends upon the wine maker.

Getting back to my work, I started by opening each bottle, and trying to pick up color notes, aromas, and flavorFusebox3 components for each wine.  I then noted differences, and used those to help me with my blending.  I tried at least five different blends before I finished with my final: a blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc, 8% Petite Verdot, and 7% Merlot.  Most wines from the "left bank" or left side of the Gironde river, are Cabernet Sauvignon based, and I found this varietal in the fusebox to have very good power and body, good for a base wine.  I added a good amount of the Cabernet Franc because I found the aromatics to be stunningly good, and a touch of sweet ripe fruit on the palate.  The Petite Verdot had an awesome deep color, and the tannins were extremely well structured.  The Merlot was kind of supple and slutty, and I wanted a touch in the blend.

Then it was time to label my wine.  I called my wine "Prima Volta Cellars: Lil' Bambina Red".  Prima Volta means "first time" in Italian, and I love the phrase for the fresh start and innocent qualities it lends to a little baby, or lil' bambina.  This is a tribute to my unborn little girl, who is being carried by my beautiful wife, and will be delivered to us in January.

As far as the "Mystery Wine" goes, you must try to figure out the percentages of varietals used, and log into the given website for the answers.  I was actually pretty close on my estimates, but it is certainly a difficult task to get something like that right!

Also, this blog post's name is a play on The Who song Mama's Got a Squeezebox.  I had a good laugh off that one!

The ChillinJoy: Portable Wine Chiller from Chicago's Very Own

Potereks & ChillnJoyWhile strolling through the Windy City Wine Festival last month, I met Chris & Christin Poterek, co-founders of ChillinJoy.  I do get a bit excited when I see new wine gadgets, so I decided to investigate.

ChillinJoy is a portable wine chiller, capable of keeping any 750ml bottle cold for hours.  This allows you to enjoy picnics, concerts (Ravinia!), BYO restaurants, or a trip to the beach, while keeping a favorite bottle of wine at the temperature you like it: nice and cold.  You can also use it for just sitting in front of the TV, now with no trips back and forth to the fridge.

Chris & Christin are both from Chicago, and invented the ChillinJoy.  They love wine and enjoying it outdoors, so they sought out an invention to keep their bottles cool.  They both have participated in the Triathlon, and decided to use their wet suits stuffed with ice packs to keep a bottle cold.  Success! 

I recently received a sample ChillinJoy from the Potereks to try out.  IMG_1593The ChillinJoy is made with neoprene, and comes with three small ice packs.  I decided to use it with one of my favorite whites, Grgich Hills Chardonnay.  The wine was stored in my Cuisinart at a constant temperature of 57IMG_1595 degrees Farenheit, a great temperature for a fuller bodied white wine.  I added the ice packs to the ChillinJoy's storage pouches, and inserted the bottle.  I zipped up the top, which has a cutout sized perfectly to fit the neck of the bottle, leaving it exposed for pouring.  The ChillinJoy not only kept the wine at a cool temperature for hours, but also brought the temperature down after a while.  Since I keep my reds stored around 60 degrees, and drink them that way too, I would suggest using this for white and red transportation.  One thing the ChillinJoy does not do is a great job of chilling a room temperature wine- this takes about an hour.

IMG_1596This is the ideal travel companion, as it not only comes with a shoulder strap, but contains two small side pockets, which easily fit a corkscrew and stopper.  I will be taking this to all of my BYO and future picnic and Ravinia excursions.  If you get a chance, order yourself one.  It costs $24.99, which includes shipping, and comes in blue or green.  When you are sipping some chilled wine at your favorite BYO restaurant, you will be happy you did.

Check back and tell me what you think of your ChillinJoy.


(Top photo courtesy of Chilled Portable Products)

Oprah Says Tip Ten Percent?!

OprahI have seen Internet buzz where, supposedly, Oprah recently said it was acceptable to tip servers 10% in this economy.  I suppose her point was to tell her audience how to save some money during the current ongoing financial crunch.  There are some sites that say she said it, like, while reps from Harpo claim she did not.  I know Oprah has always been a staunch supporter of tipping well, and I don't know for certain whether she said it or not, but I know the statement is wrong.  There has been huge Internet backlash regarding the statement, and I would like to add a bit myself.

I have been in the bar/restaurant industry for about 13 years, with a good majority of that making tips as a bartender and a waiter.  Both behind the bar and on the floor, you are expected to be an expert regarding the food and drink your establishment offers.  When a guest asks a question or is looking for a suggestion, your bartender/waiter is expected to be there with the answer.  When you are looking for a dining or bar experience, you expect everything to go right, and it is mostly because of the bartender or waiter. 

Somehow, in our society, the honus of providing a living wage for restaurant service has fallen upon the consumer rather than the employer.  Lawmakers have allowed employers to pay LESS than minimum wage to their employees, even though they are the beneficiaries of that employee's work.  This can apply to any employee who receives tipped income, giving a restaurant owner the luxury of paying its bartenders, waiters, and bussers less than minimum.  In Illinois, minimum wage for tipped employees is 60% of minimum wage, which currently stands at $4.80/hour.  In many states it is less.  How this is construed as legal or correct, I have no idea.  Now while this is not fair to the consumer, it is their responsibility to provide an adequate tip if they plan on dining out.  If you can afford to play, you can afford to pay.

As far as the ten percent thing goes, that just will not cut it.  In many restaurants, a waiter tips out support staff like bussers, food runners, bartenders, sommeliers, and sometimes even hosts/maitre d's.  In alot of those restaurants, 10% of a waiter's sales go for that tip out, leaving the waiter with half of their tips IF they received 20%.  If you live by the ten percent rule, the waiter goes home broke, with less than minimum wage to show for it.  I am sure many do not know about these backdoor stories regarding tipping, but that does not make it untrue. 

There are also many who believe in not tipping on wine.  I once waited on a table that ordered $800 in wine (bottles), and $300 in food, and only tipped me 15% on the food because they don't believe in tipping on wine.  On $1100 in total sales on that table, I was expected to tip out my support staff $110, while the table only tipped me $45 total!  I lost $75 waiting on that table.  I still provided the guests with adequate recommendations regarding the wine list, provided polished stemware, opened and decanted the wine, and continued to pour it during the meal.  If you don't tip on wine, consider the work that goes into all of it, or start going to BYOB restaurants. 

A couple of simple rules to remember when regarding dining out:

  1. Go out with a good attitude.  Whatever happened that day to upset you, try not to take it out on others.  Remember, you are out for some atmosphere, a good meal and/or drink- an experience.

  2. Tip out the service.  If you had a bad meal, the valet treated you bad, the coatchecker misplaced your coat, the bathroom was dirty, do not take it out on the server.  If they provided you with the service you needed at the table, give them what they deserve.  Complain to the manager about the other stuff.

  3. Tip accordingly on complimentary meals, gift cards, coupons, etc.  Too many times have I seen bad form regarding this.  A person gets a complimentary $200 meal, and leaves $10, when they should've left $40.  Another person uses a gift card to pay half their bill, and tips on the new total.  Tip on the entire meal folks, after all, you just saved a ton of cash on your meal anyway.

  4. Don't short your friends.  Too many times have I seen a group decide to split a bill, with people giving cash to one person at the table who decides to pay using a credit card.  Then that person leaves a bad tip, despite the fact their friends gave enough for a good one, and pockets the rest.  That displays poor judgement, low class.

  5. Tip what they deserve.  I usually start at 18% and, depending on the service, my tip goes up or down.  If I felt the service was slow, uninterested, snarky, or just bad, it goes down.  If it starts off bad, I request a new server.  If service is adequate, they get their 18% (I use the total, not pre-tax), and if they go above and beyond, it can go as high as 25%, though not usually more than 20%.  This is your dining experience.  You should be out for a good time, good drink, good food.

Whatever your practices are, try to remember these intricacies surrounding tipping.  It will help you have better dining experiences, especially in places you frequent multiple times.  Also, as far as saving money in a down economy, why not try a few other practices instead, like not ordering that 2nd drink or that extra appetizer, try sharing a dessert, or purchasing more value based wines.  You can also try cooking at home or ordering take out or delivery.  Don't stiff your servers to try to save a few bucks. 

For a great view through a waiter's eyes, check out Waiter Rant.  The site's author, Steve Dublanica, is a waiter in New York, and not only has alot of experience in his field, he is also a great story teller.  Even if you don't agree with him, you will at least be entertained!

Let me know about any of your experiences or opinions.

(Image courtesy of wikipedia)

Chicago Community Crush Kick-Off

Team Chicago Community CrushThis past Wednesday, Community Crush: Chicago was launched at our kick-off party held in Rogers Park.  Taste Food and Wine was our host, and they are an awesome wine shop and Euro deli, which had ample space to accomodate all new members of the Community.  Onhand were  four Community Crush: San Francisco 2008 Pinot Noirs to taste, each very different, and gave all a sneak peak at what our Pinot Noir could be like next year. 

This was the first of what will be many gatherings and chances to meet other people who are enthusiastic about wine and Chicago.  Make sure to join the Community online, become part of our wine's life cycle, and say hi to both myself and my co-leader Carol Ludwick.  Our next event is being held at South Loop Wine Cellar next Wednesday, September 16, from 6:30-8:30pm.  We will be tasting more Crushpad wines, and tasting some freshly picked Pinot Noir grapes from the Two Pisces Vineyard, the source of our 2009 wine.  See you there!

Community Crush Chicago

Winemaking.  It can be mysterious and seem difficult.  I want to start off by saying that anyone can make wine.  ButCrushnet without access to quality vineyards, equipment, winery space, and expertise, making a great wine is almost impossible.  But thanks to Crushpad, the average person has access to all of this.  Choose your varietal, and your grapes will be gathered from California or Bordeaux single vineyards, then turned into a full barrel (about 500 bottles)of great wine by their experts, with prices starting at $5,700. 

Now if you don't want to make that kind of commitment, Crushnet might be for you.  You can be involved with a community barrel, or one that you started with friends, with commitment starting at one bottle purchase.  And for Chicagoans, we have been given the unique opportunity to become part of a remote hands on experience in the Crushnetcreation of a wine.  I have just become co-leader of Community Crush Chicago, an interactive experience with the 2009 vintage of the Two Pisces Vineyard Pinot Noir.  For the low price of $26 per bottle, you will have access to a post-harvest grape tasting, winemaker Noah Dorrance, video updates and live streaming of the wine, post-fermentation and barrel sample wine tasting, designing of the label, and parties with your community of fellow Chicago winemakers!  A full barrel of wine or 511 bottles will be made, so make sure join the group, reserve your bottles, and join the community.

Go West Young Blogger- Out to WBC '09

WBC '09A couple of weekends back I had the pleasure of attending the Wine Bloggers  Conference 2009 held in Santa Rosa, California.  Over 270 of the nation's brightest wine writers flooded into the Flamingo hotel for three days of wine, tweeting, writing, and networking. 

The conference kicked off with lunch and then we moved onto speed tasting.  It was a bit like speed dating, as we sat at our tables while winery owners and representatives went table to table pouring wines, and giving out info along the way.  We were supposed to be using social media sites to send out live video and messaging while we tasted, but the hotel had Wi-Fi problems, which unfortunately carried on all weekend long.  Anyway, we tasted a few real gems, the first of which was the biggest value wine of the weekend: 2007 Line 39 Petite Sirah Lake County for $10 is a steal, with its smokiness and fruit depth.  The best wine of the afternoon was 2004 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($100).  It had spice, chocolate, and a deep earthy, dark berry flavor which lasted incredibly long.

The next day we were on to Napa Valley, where they had a full day of wine country planned for us, which will be covered soon enough.  You will have to wait until tomorrow to check out my visit to the Culinary Institute of America, St. Supery, Terra Valentine, Quintessa, and Spring Mountain Vineyard.  Until then, grab yourself a glass and enjoy!

Make Your Own Wine with Chiarugi Hardware

On my quest to find more places in Chicago that can help the average person make wine, I stumbled upon Chiarugi (KEY-AH-RU-GEE for those of you who have a hard time with Italian pronunciation) Hardware in Little Italy at 1412 W. Taylor Street.  As soon as I walked in I was greeted by the owner, Paul Rinaldi. Paul grew up in the neighborhood, and his family has owned the store for over 50 years.  The store's focus has shifted from supplying italian families to helping young University students, but he seems more than happy with the change.  The shop is full of tools and basic household supplies, and I was able to pick up two small propane tanks for the grill.  They also have many basic supplies for wine making like yeasts, acids, corks, bottles, and bentonite for filtering. 

Paul knows a bit about making wine, and all about the supplies.  A couple essentials which are not at the store are barrels and juice.  The oak barrels have become somewhat pricey to keep an inventory, but are available at a number of online sites.  The juice or whole grapes are available yearly in a lot on 35th and Racine from August to October.  The supplier gets all product from California, and I will have more info when the lot opens.

In the meantime, stop in and say hi to Paul, grab some supplies, and wait for the juice to roll in.  You could be on your way to making some good homemade wine!

Straight Facts: Mexican Coke

2179FG2G8XL._SL160_AA115_[1]During a visit to one of my new favorite Printer's Row eateries, Flaco's Tacos, I noticed they soldm[1] Mexican Coke.  Now, I have had it before, and know much about it.  But I am very sure that many of us in this country have no clue what the exact difference is.

The major difference between the Coke made in this country and in others, like Mexico, is high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS.  HFCS is a sugar substitute made completely of corn.  The glucose from corn is chemically modified, and becomes an inexpensive product with sugar sweetness and longer shelf-life.  Since real sugar is a bit more expensive to get a hold of, and corn is readily available in the US, many American products include this manmade product.  It is proven to be harder to digest, and relatable to health problems such as obesity, liver disease, and diabetes. 

Mexican Coke is made with real sugar, instead of HFCS, just like many European products.  My favorite such product is42002[1] San Pellegrino Aranciata.  They have distributed it here with HFCS, but is available with no sugar substitute at many specialty Italian shops, like Panozzo's in the South Loop. 

tt1000037[2]OK- time to get on my pulpit.  I am very glad that many people are becoming more health conscious, but I hope that everyone is willing to take a good look at the ingredients of everything you buy.  Do not take it for granted that the companies making these products are looking out for your best interest- they are run by corporations, whose main goal is $$$, not your health or safety.  These facts also do not reflect well upon our government.  It seems that other countries, like Mexico and the EU, are more concerned with the health of their people than with how much money corporations can save.  We are a part of the greatest country in the world.  It is very important that we remember that, and also realize that the people are still in control.  If we refuse to purchase these products, they will stop making them.  If we voice our displeasure with our elected officials enough, they will work for us.  For a bit more about this all Natural talk, check out this link.

Also, if you get a chance, check out Flaco's Tacos.  Not only can you order online and pick up your food in the blink of an eye, but they make fantastic, homemade Mexican.  Their grilled tilapia tacos are awesome, along with the carne asada.  And their homemade salsas are the best I've had, especially the green salsa.  Check it out if you're in the neighborhood, and let me know what you think!

Father's Day in the Wine Biz


There is not much I like better than to see a success story come from an immigrant family, especially an Italian one.  After all, that's what the USA is all about!  It is also great to see that success flourish into a family business, run by a father and his children.  That is what I am featuring this Father's Day with the Terlato family.This is a three generation operation which was started by Tony's father in Chicago 50 years ago.  Tony's father was born in Italy and came to the US with his parents, and lived in Brooklyn before their business endeavors brought them to Chicago.  Since then, The Terlato family, through patriarch Anthony Terlato, has grown into one of the largest wine importers, as well as creating and owning many of their own labels such as Tangley Oaks, Chimney Rock, Sanford, Alderbrook, and Rutherford Hill, to name a few.  The company is now run by president Bill Terlato, and brother John, with much help from their father Tony. 

Tony trusts his children to build on a tradition of excellence, bringing quality wines from around the globe to the US.  They have commitment and loyalty to eachother, as well as to the business.  The love is evident, as John routinely gives his father a kiss each morning and night.  This family devotion reminds me of the relationship my brother and I had for our father, while growing up in an Italian American family.  The love of your family helps translate to an overall enthusiasm in life and business.  My love of life, family, and heritage helps me strive to bring quality wines and reviews to all through my website, as well as through my recommendations as a sommelier.

I hope everyone can enjoy this story and find a way to relate it to yourselves on this joyous day, celebrating fathers everywhere!

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)

The Body of a Wine

2809066322_5e06e9f968[1]I know all of us have heard the term "body" used to describe a wine, but what exactly is that referring to?  Certainly not the muscular nature of Michelangelo's David, but wine does have it. 

The body of a wine has to do with weight, or how it weighs on your palate.  The best way to understand this would be to take four glasses, filling the first with water, the second with skim milk, the third with whole milk, and the fourth with cream.  Take the water in your mouth and feel it.  It feels light and, of course, watery.  The skim milk will feel a bit more weighty, but still light, while the whole milk will start to feel more full.  The cream will be the heaviest, with a full palate feel.  You can go further with either heavy whipping cream or olive oil, but I think we should get the point.  These go on a light to heavy scale just like wine!

Body can be judged in both white and red wines, still and sparkling, sweet and dry.  White wine varietals which typically feel more like water or skim milk could include Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio, with reds being Gamay or Pinot Noir.  Fuller bodied varietals tend to be more weighty like whole milk or cream.  Full white varietals can be Chardonnay or Viognier, while reds can include Shiraz/Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Contributing factors for body are numerous.  Not only does the varietal's natural juice count toward the weight, but so does it's vinification.  Stainless steel fermentation, oak aging, maceration, malolactic fermentation, chaptalization, etc. can all affect the end product.  Getting to know your varietals will help you determine what body each are, as most varietals tend to be around medium body, but can be lighter or fuller medium, depending upon where they are grown and the winemaker. 

Getting to know about the varietals will also help you determine what you'd like to drink.  If I am outside on a warm summer day eating some oysters, I might pick a Muscadet, made from the Melon de Bourgogone varietal, which is lighter, with a touch of salinity.  If it is a bit cooler out, and I am eating some cumin spiced pork chops, I may go for a Sonoma Zinfandel, for its rich weight and slight sweetness and spice.  If you have any trouble finding a good pairing, ask the Windy City Wine Guy!

(photo courtesy of flickr)

Planning Your Wine Tasting Event

IMG_1147Everyone loves to do it.  Invite some friends to your home, offer some beverages and tasty food, entertain.  But how do you impress?  How do you make sure everyone has a great time and a memorable experience?  There are many ways to approach this, but the most important is planning.  With adequate time and imagination, you will be more than half way to success! 

The best way to plan is to start at the beginning.  The two most crucial determining factors in planning your event are the why and who.  Why are you planning an event and who are you going to invite?  Events could be anything from a baptism to the Superbowl, while you could be inviting friends, co-workers, family, etc.  This will help you with your theme, unless you are having people over just to have people over.  In that case, you will determine your theme.  The theme will translate to the components of your event. 

You should start dividing your event into components- food and beverage.  Determine which of these is most important, then pair the other off that.  Superbowl party with wings and dogs?  Grab some beers, wines, and other refreshments to compliment.  Inviting others over for some bubbly?  Pair up some rich cheeses or dessert. 

Once you narrow down your options, get your source.  Are you going to cater or cook?  Delivery or pick-up?  Search your local area for the best vendors and help.  Use the advice of these "experts" along with some internet research to finalize your selections.

Finally, you've reached presentation.  Survey your space and configure everything to make access easy for your guests.  If you have a large kitchen, that can be an ideal place to stage the food and beverage- there should only be ONE spot to retrieve both.  This will also hopefully be your main social area- a central area will make for easier cleaning afterward.  Make sure a bathroom is close and accessible.  And provide entertainment- throw on a movie or sporting event in an alternate area.  When people want a small escape from socializing, a television is ideal.  Also, make sure your guests will be able to get home safe.  Not only are you possibly legally responsible, but morally as well.  They are, after all, your guests.

If you are having any difficulty, consult some experts, like the Windy City Wine Guy.  You may have to pay a bit for some help and advice, but this will be further assurance that your event will be a success.  No matter what you do, if you follow these steps, you and your guests will be having a delicious and wonderful time.  Take pictures and grab your bragging rights!

South Australia 2009 Vintage Update

logo11This just in.  I received an update on the South Australia 2009 vintage from Janet (Sparky Marquis mum!), the General Manager of Mollydooker Winery in McLaren Vale.

The growing seasons in the Southern Hemisphere are almost exact opposite to Northern Hemisphere.  South of the equator, they more than likely have harvested most of their grapes for the year by now.  Therefore, wine vintages from South Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand will be available before those of North America or Europe.

South Australia experienced a rough '08 vintage due to a prolonged heatwave.  All signs pointed toward much of the same in '09- Janet even joked that global warming may force them to move to Antarctica!  Even though February started out hot, an Indian Summer moved in, letting the grapes stay on the vine to ripen.  The viticulture team in the field has claimed this vintage to be "awesome". 

After the grapes were harvested and brought to the winery, Janet was blown away by the ripe and jammy goodness of the fruit.  She claims it to be "rich, thick, silky, voluptuous, and yet vibrant and fresh" and "reminded me of my mum's blackcurrant jam".  More fruit needs to be harvested in the south, though Janet told me with the addition of "the beautiful, lifted, perfumed, fragrant Padthaway fruit" along with the McLaren Vale harvest "2009 is starting to look very special indeed".  Sounds like the makings of some fabulous wines. 

Thank you Janet, Sarah, Sparky, and Mollydooker Winery.

Sommelier Certifications

img_1145Becoming certified in a professional area is not only important, but also very difficult.  This is no easy task in the wine industry.  There are many agencies and certificates for sommeliers and wine professionals to pursue, for example, the International Sommelier Guild, the Court of Master Sommeliers, and the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.  I have a number of certifications, and just last week I was on my way to West Palm Beach, Florida, to obtain my second certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

For this certification, I had to concentrate and hit the books really hard.  I used Sales and Service for the Wine Professional by Brian Julyan, The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, and The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson.  These books are not just a wealth of information, but they give maps, detail, tips, and pointers in many areas, especially in the world of wine.  You will learn about vintages, terroirs, producers, and styles.

Now, certifications are not necessary, as I have met many sommeliers without them, but I believe them to be important tools.  They not only sharpen your skills, but they also give you a source of pride and accomplishment.  They are also useful in the fact that you meet and learn from knowledgeable and experienced masters of the profession.  This is invaluable and cannot be learned in a book- I highly recommend the certified route.

When I arrived in Florida, I locked myself in my room at the West Palm Beach Crowne Plaza, and immediately crammed for my exam the next day.  I took a break and traveled to Publix, a local souteastern grocery store, for some cheese, bread, and wine.  I purchased two bottles, one for that night, and one to celebrate my certification, hoping I wasn't being too overconfident!  The selections were slim, but I found a couple of good reds under $15: Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot and Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon.

The next morning I took a ride out to The Breakers Palm Beach for my exam.  The test was divided into three sections: a written, a blind tasting, and service with an oral examination.  It all was difficult, but I marched out with my new certification!  I went back to the hotel to relax my brain, and later headed out to a nearby seafood establishment, Legal Sea Foods, to have some sparkling wine and oysters to celebrate.  It was a good time, but nothing beats an exam in Chicago with some great local celebration!

The St. Joseph's Table: Feast and Wine

Many Chicagoans tomorrow will be celebrating  St. Joseph's Day, most of them Italians.  There will be parades and festivals, food and wine, family and gathering.  I have grown up with this day being part of my life, since I was a young boy at Santa Lucia Parish.  There is always services (mass), and some of my favorite Italian bakeries and southern Italian wines will be included.

St. Joseph's Day is a holiday celebrated in many parts of the world, but is extremely special to Italians.  Most towns and cities in Italy have days dedicated to saints.  The saints who have special meaning to the towns are their patrons, with the largest celebrations thrown in their honor.  In southern Italy, Sicily in particular, St. Joseph is held the most dear.  Each March 19th, a parade and feast are offered to St. Joseph, the father of Jesus of Nazareth.  This day is also very special for fathers and carpenters. 

During the middle ages, southern Italy was the victim of widespread famine and drought.  The people prayed to St. Joseph to bring them rain, and in return, they would offer a large feast.  The rains soon came, and everyone celebrated.  Breads and pastas, along with fish, wine, and desserts are on most traditional tables.  Meat has never been a big part of the celebration, as it not part of the regular diet of southern Italians, with the poor normally unable to afford it.  Plus, the day is always during Lent

Since bread and dessert is always part of the Table, a good bakery is always needed.  Here are a couple of my picks:

  • Il Giardino del Dolce, 2859 N. Harlem Ave.  This family bakery has been making some of Chicago's best for over 20 years.  They make great mini pastries like canoli, baba, sfogliatelle, and zeppole, which is the St. Joseph special pastry.  Also, try their apple slices and cheesecake.

  • Ferrara Bakery, 2210 W. Taylor.  Around since 1908, Ferrara has become an institution with Italian Americans, making breads, cakes, cookies, and candies.  Eating their biscotti always takes me back.

Wine can be eye opening, with many great value picks coming in from southern Italy.  My favorites include:

  • Terredora di Paola Falanghina ($14):  the falanghina varietal is often compared to viognier, with floral aromatics, rich minerality, and a soft full body.  This one also brings lots of fruit and honey flavor.

  • Cusumano Jalé ($20): a very rich wine, with toasty oak character, and golden fruit.  Made of 100% Chardonnay in Sicily.

  • Donnafugata Anthìlia ($13): citrus fruits are a hit, as this full white will not disappoint.  A blend of Ansonica and Catarotto, indigenous Sicilian varietals.

  • I Favati Aglianico "Cretarossa" ($22): this red varietal is the south's best.  It can create full bodied wines meant for aging.  This one in particular is from Irpinia, close to Napoli, and has a full body, with lush red fruit, meant to be consumed with food.

I hope this can help those of you seeking the right components for you St. Joseph's Table.  I also hope it encourages those of you who are new to the holiday to use it as an excuse to enjoy the day with family and friends, while learning something new about another culture.