Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Toast of Taos July 2-11

Great wine festivals are those that offer wine dinners, a wide choice of wines, a venue that invites exploration and entices the senses, and a special location. Welcome to the Toast of Taos, one of the best festivals in New Mexico. Enchanting inns, imaginative restaurants, wonderful wines, and ghosts of New Mexico’s past all flood the senses here.

The Toast of Taos follows the Southwest Wine Competition in late June and many of the winners are featured at the area restaurants where celebrants can listen to the wine makers discuss their wines, and chefs create pairings to complement them. Last year’s celebration was the first I’d attended and I’m permanently hooked. The event runs from July 2 to 11 this year, but don’t waste any time if you are considering going. Call 575-751-5811, if you plan to attend any wine dinners, auctions, or art tours.

The best part is that all profits go to the Holy Cross Hospital Foundation to purchase medical equipment for the hospital. Sally Trigg and a host of dedicated volunteers keep things running smoothly, from the wine competition through the final dinners and auctions. If you enjoy fine food and wine, art, and scenery, this is the wine festival for you.

Barbeque Wines and Celebrations

Never one to pass up an opportunity to grill, I was surprised and delighted to be given the job of grill chef for a barbeque party on the Stanford campus near Palo Alto. The request was made by my good friend Judy Diaz, and I readily accepted because it was to honor her son David’s graduation from the university. David and Judy stayed with us while looking for a new home, and I played temporary Dad, a role I wish had a longer run. Nonetheless, the role of chef was one I took on with great relish.

My wife, Barbara, and I arrived early to set up the grill and get the meats cooking. When we went downstairs of the Kappa Alpha frat house and entered the kitchen and dining room area, an amazing sight greeted us. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Clearly the grads had partied hard the previous night. The floor was so sticky I had to use a spatula under my shoes to gain traction. I sort of remembered my ship’s parties when I was in the Navy, but this was much worse. At least we swabbed the decks afterward!

We found the briquettes easily enough, but no one had thought to include matches or a lighter. None of the participants had any ignition materials, and I was pretty sure rubbing the briquettes together wouldn’t do the trick, even though the bag said self-starting. Barbara, playing resourceful Girl Scout, rolled a section of a grocery bag into a wick, but since all the stoves were electric, her attempts to light the thing with incessant blowing on the feeble embers wasn’t working out too well. Finally she used tissue paper – remember how well and fast that burns – and sent one of the mothers running with it before it burned itself out. Just in time, too, she touched flame to briquette, and then blew on her fingers. We were off and running.

The tri-tip and sausages were soon sizzling, sending heady aromas over the picnic area, and I figured it was safe to open the wine. I’d stopped at Whole Foods in Palo Alto on the way to the event, because I knew I could rely on a great choice in wines, including a special one for the grad. I wanted David to get off to a great start so I grabbed a bottle of 1999 Chateau Deyrem Valentin Margaux Cru Bourgeois. The price range is from $40-65. At Whole Foods it was only $43, so I actually got off lightly. If David finds he loves Margaux wines as much as me, I can only hope he’ll soon be earning enough to manage the addiction.

I selected a Storrs Santa Cruz Mountains Petite Sirah ($23), which went great with grilling and sampling the tri-tip. Hey, a chef has to taste stuff to make sure it’s cooked properly, right? The wine was full-bodied and lush with black cherry and ripe berry flavors and wonderful tannins. Before I knew it that wine was done and we were just sitting down to dinner. Sitting down was a relative term as some of the attendees placed the tables in the shade, but on a deepening slope. Those on the down slope side had to refrain from sneezing or they’d be tumbling down the hill. I did notice that all the females stayed on the up slope side. Hmm.

I opened the other bottle, a 2006 Escudo Rojo ($13) from the Maipo Valley in Chile. This is a flagship wine of Baron Phillippe Rothschild’s winery in Chile, done in bold red colors. The wine was also bold with a generous mouth feel, good tannic structure, coffee and caramel, laced with spice. Since this was a modestly-priced wine, I wasn’t expecting to be this impressed. It easily handled the steak, sausages and trimmings, and had a high drinkability index. This one goes in my great wines under $20 category. The Baron still knows wine. Salud!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Chasing Down Cheap Wine

Economic downturns affect wineries as they do wine drinkers, but quality should never take a downturn. If a portion of your budget is tied to buying and enjoying wines, how do you maintain quality, and perhaps even increase it, without sacrificing your diminishing resources? There are ways to make this happen.

Taste Before You Buy

There are many good wines under $10 that can serve for everyday drinking, but your guide is not price as much as quality. There are also many great wines under $20 to satisfy your palate. How do you find this out? Wine tasting is the best way, obviously, but how do you do this cheaply? Close proximity to wineries whose wine you enjoy is optimal because tasting their product is built in. Often special discounts are available that can further the wine budget.

When tasting wine, save asking about the price until you’ve tried everything. It is too easy to be misled by price, thinking a $40 reserve Merlot must be better than its $20 cousin. Most likely more labor went into the crafting of the reserve, and the grape quality was probably higher, but the end result may not be the wine for you.

The law of diminishing returns suggests that the incremental increase in quality may not be worth the two-fold increase in price, as in my example. The bouquet and palate results the winery was aiming at may not have translated to your palate, so don’t try to convince yourself that you should enjoy the reserve more.

Discounted Wine

Wine may be discounted for a number of reasons and not all of them translate to inferior quality. The wine might not be characteristic of the varietal, which is often a negative, but if a Cabernet Sauvignon tastes more like a Zinfandel, and you prefer Zins, this could be a good deal.

Label-damaged wines are another good bargain unless you prefer pristine appearance. I bought a case of water-damaged Chardonnay from a winery for less than half price. All I said was, “I really like this Chard, but it’s out of my price range.” (All us wine guys call it Chard.) Another possible bargain is buying older wines the winery or distributor has to move out for the current vintage. Storage costs for a winery can be very high, and unless the wine has shown noticeable improvement over its shelf-life at the winery, they may be willing to part with it for less than list.

Wine tasting at a wine store is another good possibility. They need to move stock, and setting up wine tasting is a good way to do that. If a placard lists the wines and price, try to ignore it until you’ve rated the wines yourself. The same thing goes for the high ratings tagged on some wines. Remember, it’s your palate, not Robert Parker’s that you need to satisfy. Buying a wine that’s been “discovered” by a wine critic is like buying stock when you hear how well it’s performing on the evening news. It’s way too late. Why not discover great wine bargains yourself? It’s much more fun!

Once you’ve found wines you like, particularly at a wine shop, check the lowest prices on the internet, and estimate the shipping costs as well. I have many California wines shipped to me, and what I save on sales tax often covers the cost of shipping. Many internet-based distributors are offering very good bargains including free shipping to help lagging sales. Alternately, if you form a relationship with a local wine shop, you’ll probably get first call on bargains and special deals. Lastly, cheap wine should not taste cheap. You’re only cheaping yourself. Salud!

What’s with Two-Buck Chuck?

I shop a lot at Trader Joes, particularly in a recession when I try to maximize my food and wine purchases. Their most famous wine, of course, is Charles Shaw, better known as Two-Buck or Three-Buck Chuck, depending on which state you live in. At less than jug wines prices, they manage to turn out wines that satisfy many wine palates. A 2005 Charles Shaw Chardonnay even won best California Chardonnay at the 2007 California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. What’s up with that?

Wine Economics 101

Getting a distributor to carry your wines exclusively, means you don’t need an advertizing budget. TJ buys it, and will advertize it to sell it if need be. At the prices the wine is sold, and with wine bargain hunters increasing daily, that probably isn’t necessary.

The raw product of wine making is the grapes. Buying grapes on the market and shopping for bargains, can reduce the costs of making wine. Alternately, if you own vineyards in the Central Valley of California, where acreage costs substantially less, and produce high volume grapes for bulk wine, the advantages of scale take hold.

Bronco Wine Company has some 35,000 acres up and down the Central Valley, adding 640 acres each year for use in about 50 different labels, including Charles Shaw. So now that you have the cheapest grapes, will this make the cheapest wine? If you streamline and automate the winemaking facilities, and maintain a high utilization rate, that is possible.

Wait a minute! Isn’t there an old saying, great wines can only come from great grapes? The corollary would be mediocre grapes make mediocre wine, wouldn’t it? In that case, the cheapest grapes better not be the worst grapes. For that you need someone well qualified to analyze each batch of grapes to insure the quality is reasonable. Then you need a wine maker that can perform magic with less-than-perfect grapes.

Charles Shaw Wines

Charles Shaw moved to Napa in 1974 with the intent to make French-styled Beaujolais, and, according to some accounts, succeeded. However, other varieties gained in popularity, and after his divorce in 1991, he sold the label to Bronco Wine Company. Once Trader Joes began marketing and selling it, the wine took off. Charles Shaw varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Beaujolais, Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Many contend the “best Chardonnay” award is an aberration, possibly a special reserve crafted for the competition. While it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened it is undeniable that many wine drinkers love their Two-Buck wines and buy them by the caseload. I’d add that it is possibly the best wine value at that price point.

High volume wine provides great savings, but consistency from batch to batch usually suffers when you haven’t hand-picked the grapes, defined a style, and put quality control measurements at every stage of production. Many consumers have commented on the variability of lots of the same vintage at different stores.

I occasionally find a varietal that is drinkable during a vintage year, but most often I call Two-Buck Chuck “One-Note Chuck”, as there is little complexity on the palate or nose to generate interest, for me. The wine demands little and may even be crafted to be easy drinking. I don’t drink it, but I list many wines in that category, and for a lot more money. Besides, it’s not my wine palate you’re trying to please.

Nonetheless, you do get your money’s worth, which can’t be said of many wines. Considering the large base of enthusiasts, they must be doing something right. Charles Shaw wine has motivated many non-wine drinkers to try wine for the first time, and that may be its greatest value in the wine world. Salud!