Tasting Away on a Foggy Day

The Napa Valley faced some unusual June weather this past week, which fell on the same day as my tour and tasting appointment at Quintessa. Thankfully, the rain held out until the indoor portion of the tour, and my visit consequently turned out to be an amazing educational event.

Quintessa is a must-see experience for wine tasters seeking to learn about winemaking through the art of blending and the diversity of vineyard location and soil types. It’s certainly not for those afraid to step inside a sterile, organized environment. Farmed with biodynamic and organic techniques, Quintessa displays a gorgeous backyard of several hills, 26 vineyard blocks and the Dragon’s Lake as its centerpiece.

View of Quintessa

The by-appointment-only visit, started at 10 am sharp with a greeting from our knowledgeable host David. He guided us up a terrace pathway to catch a beautiful view of the land and to taste a white blend from the Quintessa portfolio called Illumination. David provided us with a detailed history of the land, the family and the winery, which added greater appreciation to the quality wine in our glass.

2011 Illumination
An aromatic white blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. It bursts with tropical characteristics of pineapple and tangerine. On the palate, crisp, citrus tangerine and mineral notes. Medium-bodied with rich, complex flavors that result in a refreshing and lingering finish. Pair with beet salad topped with goat cheese and vinaigrette.

We next headed back to the entrance where David explained the gravity-flow design and walked us down two floors for a peek into the state-of-the-art winery. Impressive high tech equipment around every corner and a story behind it all. The huge underground caves emitted aromas of butterscotch and caramel while giving off a spa-like atmosphere with a waterfall sculpture to maintain a constant flow of humidity for the barrels.

Winemaker's Winery

Following the tour, we entered an inviting lounge to taste through several vintages of Quintessa. The glasses rested on the table next to a beautiful presentation of information on the winery and tasting notes. David guided us through each tasting and paired the wines alongside three cheeses: Seascape, Toma and Lambchopper.

We first did a tasting comparison of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages. Each wine expressed an individual personality and made excellent pairings with the cheeses. The blends vary from year to year, and it’s not about the specific varieties used but about finding balance and perfection with what the winemaker has to work with.

Wine Tasting

David broke it down even more with barrel samples of Cabernet blocks from the Dragon’s Terraces and Corona Norte. This emphasized the contrasts of terroir and brought greater appreciation to the skill of blending wine. We finished the tasting with the outstanding 2006 Quintessa…full bodied and concentrated, offering smooth, rich, chocolatey nuances with earthy tannins.

Agustin and Valeria Huneeus founded Quintessa with the intentions of creating “The Quintessential Wine Estate.”  This proved to be a success as one will experience throughout the entire tour and website. Book an appointment at Quintessa the next time you’re in the area!


Wines for the Traveling, Wino, Foodie Spirit

Recently, I attended a private Salon tasting at Swanson Vineyards. I highly recommend this place for a relaxing food and wine experience. Keep in mind that it is by-appointment-only…so plan ahead! The quaint Salon and Sip Shoppe are hidden down a side street in Rutherford and require you to call at the gate before entering. Don’t let the exclusive vibe scare you off. Swanson Vineyards welcomes guests with top-notch hospitality and outstanding wines. There seems to be a unique story behind everything incorporated with the winery.

Swanson Vineyards

Upon arrival, our lovely Salonniére, Rosemary, greeted us with a taste of the 2012 Rosato made from 100% Sangiovese. It was the perfect introduction on a hot California afternoon. We enjoyed the taste of rosé at the garden picnic tables before entering the Salon for the seated tasting. While swirling the glass, fresh red fruit and flowers filled the nose with a fruity, citrus palate that reminded me of strawberry lemonade. Try with cured meats…shall we say jamon serrano?

Rosemary invited us into the intriguing Salon that goes very much against the traditional tasting room expectation. Bright coral colors and eclectic artwork surround the room. The Salon and its decor were inspired by a combination of the 18th Century Paris culture, New Orleans and many other world travels from the Swanson family. On the table, we found several glasses and a scallop shell filled with cheese, crackers, pistachios and an Alexis Bonbon (5-spiced truffle).

Caviar on a Potato Chip

Reflections from the Tasting:

2011 Chardonnay
This French Chablis inspired Chardonnay comes from the cool region of Carneros. Certainly not your buttery Chardonnay. This particular style emphasizes the fruit itself resulting in crisp, full-bodied apple and pear notes with hints of vanilla. It was paired with a potato chip topped with creme fraiche and Tennessee caviar. Delicious balance of saltiness and fruitiness.

2009 Merlot-Swanson’s flagship wine
(75% Merlot/20% Cabernet Sauvignon/5% Petit Verdot)
Winemaker, Chris Phelps, studied enology at the University of Bordeaux and continued his wine career in France working with Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrús where he developed a passion for Merlot. The Oakville Merlot is described as “a Cab-lover’s Merlot”-rich, silky, smooth with ripe fruit and subtle tannins. Think along the lines of chocolate-dipped cherries and blackberries. Went well with the various cheeses on the scallop shell and would also make an excellent burger wine.

2009 Instant Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-25th Anniversary Cuvee
(82% Cabernet Sauvignon/11% Merlot/7% Petit Verdot)
Swanson invites wine drinkers on an adventure of the senses. At first sight, the bottle reveals a fun, artsy label of the Salon experience. Intense aromas of ripe berries, spice and espresso emit from the glass. The medium-bodied palate offers a rich, velvety texture with bright fruit intermingled with a spicy chocolate sensation.
Savory experience: Pair with blue cheese to harmonize the salty/sweet combination.
Sweet experience: Wine version of a tequila shot…five-spiced chocolate truffle pairing in a three step process: 1. lick the curry spices sprinkled on top of the truffle 2. take a sip of Cab 3. eat the truffle. Sit back and enjoy food and wine pairing magic!

2007 Tardif Late Harvest Chardonnay
This sweet wine is a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat grapes that have undergone Botrytis Cinerea (“noble rot”) after a long period on the vines hence the name tardif (French for late). Rich, creamy and complex with each new sip. Concentrated honey and tropical fruit make a wonderful match alongside the saltiness and strong flavors of the blue cheese. Sweet and delectable…great dessert alternative!

Sip Shoppe

Following the tasting, Rosemary gave a tour of The Sip Shoppe where guests can make purchases in addition to tasting through wines in a casual, walk around environment. The room is designed out of a giant tent to go along with the New Orleans theme and is described as a “candy store for adults.”

Swanson offers something for everyone. Check out their website and make sure to stop by the next time you’re in Napa.

Chasing the Dream

Lots of changes happening to this starving wino…

I decided to make a few adjustments in my wine career. Still starving, still a wino, just relocated from Atlanta, GA to Napa, CA! With that said, I continue to stand by my theory that “true passion and strong desire may be all it takes to grow and succeed in the world of wine.” Hard work pays off and me being in Napa today proves it. Through research, networking and relationship building, I have proven that it is possible to make dreams a reality.

Just off the plane

I moved to Napa Valley last month with several suitcases, a buddy pass and my mom and stepdad by my side. We literally stepped off the plane and headed straight to the car dealerships. Within the next several hours, I purchased a car and prepared myself for my new life in California. After saying my goodbyes to the family, I headed off to my new job…

Terrace at Monticello Vineyards

Monticello Vineyards lined up a position for me working in Hospitality and Communications. In other words, I get to wear many hats each day in addition to taking on the social media role for the winery. Wonderful family, high-class wines and great location in Napa!

Monticello Merlot

Stay tuned for future news about the excitement of living in wine country. Please stop by Monticello Vineyards the next time you make to the Napa Valley!

Getting Older’s Not So Bad After All!

During my recent trip to the Napa Valley, Stephen Corley of Monticello Vineyards graciously presented me with a 1987 Monticello Cellars Corley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Monticello Vineyards is a small, family-run winery located in the Oak Knoll District of Napa. They produce top-tier wines with a classic Napa style and age-worthy standard.

'87 Corley Reserve Cab

Although I have tasted my fair share of older European wines, aged California wines have been something foreign to me. I looked forward to comparing the difference and, at the same time, somewhat nervous that the wine might be past its prime. There was only one way to find out so I planned the occasion!

I decided my Birthday would be the perfect time to celebrate with this wine, and what better place to go than Bone’s Restaurant. For those unfamiliar with Atlanta dining, Bone’s is famous for it’s top-quality steaks and fancy wine list. Plus, they only charge a $10 corkage fee on wines you bring.

The staff welcomed me with smiles and Birthday wishes and had even taken the extra step to decorate my table with confetti! Nothing over the top, just a nice gesture for a special dining night out. Our server, Jonathan, carefully opened the 1987 but had a little trouble after the cork broke in half. Thankfully, he removed it with no other issues, and it was clear that the wine was good. Due to its age and the large amount of sediment, we first decanted the wine to let it open up and breathe for a bit.

Back Label of '87 Cab

1987 Monticello Cellars Corley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 
100% Cabernet Sauvignon blended from Volker Eisele Vineyards, Spottswoode, State Lane Vineyard

The wine poured into the glass with a somewhat cloudy garnet red as a result of its age and sediment. Just out of the gate, it was very tight and needed time to express its true character. Tertiary aromas seeped from the glass with a mature, port-like nose combined with hints of dark fruit and mushroom. Still held smooth tannins and acidity.

After about 20 minutes, the wine opened up beautifully with a layered transition of the bouquet through each new swirl of the glass. Maple syrup and molasses mixed with herbs and berry-scented perfume. It transformed tremendously throughout the meal and paired perfectly with my meat trio dish of lamb chops, filet mignon and pheasant sausage.

An hour later, meaty nuances entwined with earthy fruit-like characteristics that filled the glass until the very last sip. To conclude, this wine offers a velvety texture that dances across the tongue with each new beat and results in a lengthy, memorable finish.

Shortbread Cookies

Following the meal and outstanding wine, Jonathan surprised us with Bone’s famous Mountain High Pie for dessert. It was a delectable treat to top off an already unforgettable dining adventure. They even threw in a gift of homemade shortbread cookies shaped like doggie biscuits for laughs on our way out.

Thank you Stephen Corley and Monticello Vineyards, Bone’s Restaurant and all my loved ones who made this evening possible!

Mountain High Pie

Atlanta Wine Bar Offers Something for Everyone

This week, I went wine tasting with some fellow winos at Vino Venue.

To give you a little background, Vino Venue is the new location for Michael Bryan’s Atlanta Wine School. The place is a retailer, restaurant, wine bar and classroom all in one! Upon walking in the door, the staff welcomes you with friendly smiles and a helpful attitude in guiding you through the perfect wine tasting experience.

Your tasting adventure begins by purchasing a $2 Enomatic card. Not really sure why you have to purchase the card, but maybe they’re taking a germ-free approach to not sharing cards. No matter the reason, you only have to purchase the card during your first visit. From then on, you place whatever amount you wish to spend each time you visit.

Now you’re ready to taste!

The Enomatic wine dispensers are located in various spots throughout the store and fall into the categories of whites, pinots and everything else red. You have 3 different pouring options and around 30 wines to choose from. FYI, make sure that you are the only one with your card in the slot when selecting wines at the everything else red dispenser! This machine has two different sides of card slots, and it can be a bit confusing…If you have any issues, just inform the staff and they will certainly come to the rescue.

Wines to discover:

2008 Fontana Candida Frascati Superiore ‘Luna Mater’ $
Lazio, Italy
50% Malvasia di Candia, 30% Malvasia del Lazio, 10% Greco, 10% Bombino
Luna Mater, meaning “Mother Earth,” thrives in the volcanic soil of the Roman hills near Lazio, Italy. Its name represents the ties to nature with its old vines.  A unique palate makes this a great alternative to the standard international white varietals. Both the label and the wine reveal a mysterious personality that intrigue you to open the bottle and explore. Aromas of apple and pear mixed with a slight nuttiness.  The wine creates a fresh, fruity start followed by hints of citrus and mineral and wrapped up with an intense, spicy kick. Serve with scallops tossed in a white pasta sauce or with steamed mussels and linguini.

2010 Alto Moncayo Veraton $$
Bulbuente, Zaragoza, Spain
100% Garnacha
This wine comes from very old Garnacha vines in an area of Spain that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves here in The States. Its producers aim for big, bold wines that are certainly not for the faint at heart. Keep an open mind and give it a shot…you might just love it! Deep purple in color, giving off a nose of ripe, red fruit and chocolate. Picture yourself in a field mixed with strawberries and raspberries sprinkled with mocha and cocoa powder; you would basically be experiencing the same sensations as if you were drinking the Alto Moncayo Veraton.  Delicious, easy-drinking red bursting with berry, mocha and spice. Pair with a spicy king ranch chicken casserole.

2010 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon $$
Napa Valley, California
Hall winery was founded in 2005 by former US Ambassador of Austria, Kathryn Hall, and her husband Craig. They use classic Bordeaux varietals to produce beautiful, award-winning wines in Napa Valley. I must add that Hall Winery takes extreme care in preserving the environment through organic farming approaches in addition to being titled the first LEED Gold Certified Winery in California. This particular Cabernet is an excellent expression of a new world-style wine with its full-bodied, jammy blackberry pie characteristics that transform into a chocolaty, lingering finish. The smooth, velvety tannins and balanced dark fruit nuances make this an excellent pairing for that special steak night!

The wines change frequently so don’t get too attached in case it’s not there during your next visit. Plus, change is good and you may discover a new favorite the next time! For more information, check out the Vino Venue website.

Cheeseburger in Paradise with a Side of Mencía

Monday nights at my house are considered “Soup Night”. Each week, we put our creativity and cooking skills to the test with a hearty soup to get us through the winter weather.

Bacon Cheeseburger Tomato Soup

This week, we served an All-American Bacon Cheeseburger Soup. It’s basically a tomato basil soup topped off with ground beef, chopped bacon and cheddar cheese. Such a creamy, tomato-based soup calls for a big, high acid, fruity red. I decided to pair the Patriotic dish with a Spanish red from the Mencía grape.

Pétalos del Bierzo comes from the old vines of Descendientes de José Palacios. Founded by Alvaro Palacios and his nephew Ricardo, the winery lies in the Northwestern region of Spain called Bierzo. It’s famous for its steep hillside vineyards where the Mencía grape is grown.


Mencía is an ancient grape rumored to have been brought to Spain in the Middle Ages by the French pilgrims traveling the Camino de Santiago. For more information on the Camino de Santiago, check out my Spain blog. No matter the true origin, the grape produces fantastic wines that are fun to explore with a wide range of food options.

2009 Pétalos del Bierzo $
Bierzo, Spain
100% Mencía
Pétalos is a hidden gem of Spain waiting to be discovered. Clean, deep purple color. This wine releases lovely aromas of dark chocolate-covered cherries lying in a field of violets. Having spent some time in new French oak, the nose and palate offer unique nuances from start to finish. Smooth, full-bodied with a combination of jammy dark fruit flavors blended with lingering peppery spice. Ranked # 26 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 of 2011. Pair this with a Bacon Cheeseburger Soup or spaghetti and meatballs.

Holiday Wines Around the World

It’s that time of year…

The holidays have arrived and you know what that means…it’s time to buy more wine! Whether it’s a gift for that special someone or a table topper when the cousins stop by, selecting the right wine can be tough. Lately, I’ve been tasting wines from various regions around the world and decided to share a few producers that truly give you what you pay for (and sometimes a whole lot more!)

While you’re preparing for those hearty holiday meals, here are several red wine recommendations that will make the perfect addition to your holiday feast:

2009 Chateau des Thibeaud $
Bordeaux, France
Chateau des Thibeaud is one of those “value for your money” wines. It looks fancy and tastes expensive but is surprisingly very affordable. Bordeaux’s famous 2009 vintage is one you do not want to miss out on, especially at a price like this.  Merlot dominates this right bank Bordeaux wine providing a smooth texture and subtle tannins. Flavors of dark berries and mineral sprinkled with vanilla. Medium-bodied and ready to drink now. Try pairing it with grilled beef tenderloin and roasted root vegetables.

2011 Vizcarra Senda del Oro Roble $
Ribera del Duero, Spain
The small production “garage” winery sends us this outstanding wine from its organic vineyards. Made from 100% tinto fino (aka tempranillo), it is meant to drink young while maintaining its fruity freshness! The juice has only seen a touch of oak, as indicated on the label as “roble”. The nose reveals hints of herbs and spices intermingled with blackberry tart, earth and meatiness. A full-bodied, fruit-driven palate layered with spices, dark fruit and leather. I suggest lamb shank and rosemary potatoes or a bison burger topped with smoked gouda.

2010 Southern Right Pinotage $$
South Africa
Brought to us by the South African producer Anthony Hamilton Russell, this Pinotage comes from a cooler climate region resulting in a well-balaced wine where both acidity and fruit are concerned. As a warning, wait about a half hour after opening in order to taste the full effect of flavors and textures this wine has to offer. Reminds me of a chocolate raspberry truffle buried deep in the forest floor. I sipped this with some quality bunless beef burgers topped with sharp cheddar cheese, bacon and barbecue sauce alongside brussel sprouts steamed in bacon fat. ¡Riquísimo!

2004 Marqués de Cáceres Gran Reserva $$$
Rioja, Spain
The Forner family spent a number of years in Bordeaux before starting the Bodegas Marqués de Cáceres. Upon their return, they gained a reputation as pioneers of modern Rioja by incorporating French winemaking techniques on Spanish grapes. Aged up to 28 months in French oak and up to 4 years in bottle before leaving the winery, the Gran Reserva develops a silky elegance of fruit with just a hint of vanilla. The deep red colored wine introduces a spiced, plum nose with leathery tobacco notes. Like the winery, steer away from tradition and try a holiday meal with spicy chorizo risotto tossed with sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms.

2007 Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon $$$
Napa Valley, California
You can’t go wrong with a 2007 wine from Napa, especially when it comes from the Meyer Vineyard. From the nose to the palate, Meyer embodies everything one looks for in a Napa Cab. An inviting bouquet of blackberry cobbler and hints of marshmallow cream create the anticipation for a memorable tasting experience. From the moment it leaves the glass and hits your tongue, full flavors burst with ripe, dark fruit and smooth, velvety tannins. Prepare yourself for a finish that goes on and on. This wine deserves a top quality filet mignon.

Now grab a bottle and get to planning your big night!