Make Your Smartphone Even Smarter!

You’re in a wine shop, scanning the shelves for a nice white to go with halibut, and nothing stands out. You think back to a wine you had at a restaurant at the beach a few months ago that would be perfect, but what was it? What was it called? All you remember is how delicious it was and that it had a turquoise stripe on the label …

Fortunately, you probably have the solution to this common, frustrating problem in your pocket or bag right this very moment. It’s your smartphone!

The simplest way to let your smartphone help you keep track of the wine you’ve tasted is to just snap a photo when you taste a wine you like, whether you’re at a restaurant, at an in-store tasting or at home. The most important thing to get is the label – make sure as much of the text on the label is readable as possible.

Then, when you’re in the shop and looking for a great Pinot Noir, show us the last one you had that you loved. We can help you find that exact wine in a split second if it’s on our shelves. If it’s not, the process of finding out if it’s available to special order for you will be that much quicker because we’ll have all the information we need, right there! We’ll also be able to use that information to help you find a wine in a similar style if you want something to drink tonight.

If you really want to get fancy, well, we live in the 21st century. There’s an app for that!

The app we’ve found the most useful is Evernote and its new feature, Evernote Food. With this app, you can simply take photos and store them in your phone’s regular gallery while you’re at an event or a restaurant, and then later go through and upload them to Evernote and add tags or notes. Any text that’s in your photos is also searchable, so if you have a great white at an in-store tasting, and all you can remember is that ‘dog’ is in the name, you’ll be able to find it again!

There are a slew of dedicated wine apps with various features. Some are free and some cost a few dollars. Here are a few for the iPhone and a few for Android phones.

We test-drove Hello Vino, a fairly popular app available in the Android Market, and to be honest, thought it was more trouble than it was worth. The label recognition feature doesn’t work very well, and the other elements that recommend wine based on what you’re eating or what style you say you like are simplistic and based on mass-market brands that aren’t very interesting.

It’s easy to see why this is necessary, since it’s a nationally marketed app and local markets vary so much, but it’s a little bland. After our phone crashed for the third time trying to upload an image of Louis Michel Chablis that the program never ended up recognizing anyway, we gave up on poor Hello Vino.

We recommend keeping it simple. Get into the habit of snapping photos of labels you want to remember, and come up with a note-taking system that works for you. The humans at a good wine shop or restaurant can do the rest much better – and won’t drain your battery!

What are your favorite methods for keeping track of wines you’ve tasted?

Performance Anxiety: What to do When You’re Handed a Wine List

If your friends know you’re a wine lover, we’re pretty sure this scenario is one you’ve experienced.  You and your closest friends or family members have gathered at a swank restaurant to celebrate someone’s birthday or anniversary.  Everyone’s ready to eat and drink something delicious, and that festive sense of anticipation is in the air.

“Well, you’re the wine expert!” someone says, laughing heartily while handing you a list the size of a phone book.  Sure, you think.  I can handle this.

As the waiter starts taking orders, you realize that three people have ordered an Asian-inspired fish dish, while a couple of others have ordered rack of lamb, and one a hanger steak.  Some friends!  You think, as your palms start to sweat and you start to panic.  These same dastardly fish and steak orderers will probably post awful photos of you on Facebook the next day in which your forehead looks shiny and enormous.

“Would you like anything from the wine list?” asks the waiter.  Suddenly the words on the list have disintegrated into fuzzy mishmash, like something out of a bad dream sequence from a sitcom.

No need to run for the restroom and hide out for the rest of the evening nervously eating the complimentary breath mints, or simply order a beer for yourself and toss the wine list back in the center of the table.  We’ve got you covered.

Start with a Sparkler. In a larger group where you’re going to be ordering multiple bottles, starting with something sparkling is always a good idea.  Prosecco, Champagne, whatever floats your boat and the group’s budget.

Sparkling wine is one of those things that people rarely order or buy for themselves, but when it’s handed to them, they often don’t want to drink anything else!  Party Laws of Nature: You always run out of ice and sparkling wine, and no one ever touches that vegetable plate everyone thought it was so important to include.

Ordering Whites. When ordering white, keep it simple.  Do not, say, order an eight-year-old Crozes Hermitages from an obscure producer as the first wine of the evening at a celebratory dinner with a friends’ family and then feel too nervous to call it when the wine’s oxidized, and spend the rest of the evening feeling like an idiot while the rest of the guests wince with every sip.  Not that any of us have ever done anything like that.

Order something neutral, un- or lightly oaked, with unchallenging flavors.  Dinner out with your extended family is not the time to introduce your great aunt to the wonders of whites from the Jura.  A crisp, vibrant unoaked Chardonnay is a great choice for an all-purpose white, as is Pinot Grigio from a good quality producer.  Sauvignon Blancs made in a friendly, California style also work well in these situations.  Don’t try and reinvent the wheel on the fly when you’ve already had a cocktail.  If everyone is ordering oysters to share, get a bottle of Muscadet and be done with it.

Finding a Red to Pair with Everything. Red is the hardest thing to order for a group at a restaurant, because the entrees will tend to vary wildly in terms of what wine will pair with them.  In these situations, light bodied reds are your friend.  In more mainstream restaurants, this is going to mean Pinot Noir.  Order one from California if someone in your party is going to be suspicious of a red he can see his fingers through.  Otherwise, go for France or  Oregon, because their lighter body and higher acidity make them more flexible with lighter foods, which is the hard bit with red wine.  At our staff dinner last year, the most delicious, harmonious wine with food of the night was also the least expensive: an Pinot from Sancerre of all places.

Northern Italian reds that are not Barolo or Barbaresco can also work really well. A Barbera done in a not-too-oaky style or a Dolcetto will work well with a wide range of foods.  And, if you see Barolo producer Vajra’s Pinot Noir, snap it up!  I can’t think of a red I’ve tasted in the last couple of months that is such a winning combination of crowd-pleasing fruit and food-friendly acidity.  And, of course, our favorite wine-geek workhorse Beaujolais is a great choice when you’re trying to pair a red with everything from fish to steak.  A Beaujolais Cru won’t be perfect with everything, but it won’t tromp all over lighter dishes while still feel in like a real glass of red.

The most important things to remember are to keep it simple and to order with confidence.  If you seem sure that everyone will enjoy the wine you chose, they most likely will!  Embrace your position of power and influence, however limited.  It’ll make up for all of those times you’re at the mercy of vindictive clerks at the DMV.

What We’re Drinking

Doug, in a continued effort to show us all up in the gourmet experiences department, had the lobster rolls from the Ad Hoc cookbook the other night, prepared by two of our favorite customers.  He said the secret to its deliciousness is that the rolls are toasted with an obscene amount of butter, but the lobster itself isn’t gloppy, providing the perfect flavor and texture contrast.  With this decadent sandwich, they enjoyed Sylvan Bzikot’s 2008 1er Cru “Les Folatieres” (here’s the 2009).  He says this wine is in a stellar place right now, providing the perfect marriage of richness and cut, and that the flavors are evocative of wines from famous producer Domaine Leflaive.

Randy brought the Pinot Bianco from Kellerai Kaltern and Vina Taboexa’s Albarino to a friend’s house for dinner.  They had these two fresh, mineral lovelies with homemade aoli served with a variety of cold cuts, green beans, and potatoes.  The acidity and bright citrus flavors of both of these wines did a great job of cutting through the richness of the meats and sauce.  Yum!

Despite the fact that she rails against the cliched pairing of red wine and chocolate – “it’s a bad pairing!  It never works, people just want it to work!” Diane had to eat her words when she had a few squares of Green and Black’s 70% chocolate with a glass of the Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2010.  It had already been open a day by the time she got to it, and the ripe, Grenache-y fruit flavors  exploded in the mid-palate.  It may not have been a textbook perfect pairing, but the chocolate and the wine both disappeared just fine.

What have you been drinking?

The Hunt for a Really Good Rioja

Norberto Miguel
Noberto Miguel at a class at Chain Bridge Cellars last May.

Way back in 2008, the first time I ever tasted local importer Jonas Gustafsson’s Spanish wines, I asked him – “Any chance you can find a really good Rioja that’s not wooded to death and is actually a good value?” “I’m trying,” he said with a small shake of the head.

It really shouldn’t be so hard to find a great bottle of Rioja. It’s one of Spain’s bigger growing regions, is loaded with old-vine, low-yielding vineyards and has 150+ years of global fame. And yet many of the Rioja we see are either over-ripe, woody messes with more American oak vanilla than a scoop of ice cream or are so lean and tart that they are hard to enjoy with everyday foods.

That’s why we were so excited when Jonas first brought us the wines of Bodegas Laukote from Rioja Alavesa. And after we met owner/winemaker Norberto Miguel last May, we were more excited still! This is the kind of story you can’t make up.

Echos of Romeo and Juliet

Noberto’s mother’s family began growing grapes in rocky, barren, Rioja Alavesa about 100 years ago, but tragedy struck during the Franco years. Norberto’s mother’s family were supporters of Franco, but she met and fell in love with a local boy who was an active Leftist. When they married, they’d planned to grow grapes and make wines, but her family refused them access to the vineyards and actually disinherited her. Soon, facing persecution from the local government, Noberto’s parents fled Rioja to safety further south.


Noberto’s mother had two aunts who had become nuns at the beginning of the Spanish revolution, but who had also managed to hold on to a small slice of their family land. Believing Norberto’s parents had been treated unfairly, they persuaded them to return to Rioja and gave them 7 hectares of Rioja vines, most of which had been planted by Norberto’s maternal grandfather.

Noberto’s father and mother grew grapes and sold them to larger Rioja estates for years, and that’s how Norberto began in the business as well. But, he came to believe that the quality of his old-vine Tempranillo and Viura was wasted in large winery blends. And so, in 2004, Norberto launched Bodegas Laukote to make wine from his 7 hectares of vines, making it the smallest commercial winery in all of Rioja Alavesa.

A Marriage of Tradition and Modernity

Norberto takes a practical, uncomplicated, approach to working his vines and making his wines. He farms his two plots of Tempranillo – one 82 years old and another 35 years old – and small plot of 80 year-old Viura vines as naturally as possible. The old vines naturally keep yields low, and Norberto picks his fruit when he thinks it tastes good.

“Tastes good” is, in fact, Norberto’s driving principle in the winery. His “young” (if you can call 35 year-old vines that) vines seem to taste best when they are fresh and fruity, so he vinifies them in tank using carbonic maceration and bottles the wine with no oak. His Viura is concentrated and deeply flavored with great freshness, so he uses a traditional barrel fermentation regime but pulls the wine from barrel to tank early, getting creamy texture and complexity with fine acids and minerality.

And, for his top wine – made from his now 82 year-old Tempranillo vines – Norberto ages the wine in wood until he things it’s delicious and ready to drink – and no longer. That’s why you won’t find the traditional “Crianza” or “Reserva” designation on the label of his Vendimia Seleccionada. Norberto is unwilling to tie himself to Rioja’s rules on minimum time in oak or bottle, even though doing so might make his wines look better in the marketplace. Instead he gives his Rioja the exact exposure to wood and time in bottle needed to make it excellent – and not one bit more.

“When you buy a bottle of wine … drink it!”

It’s hard to capture Norberto’s verve, energy, passion and humor in an email like this – especially since he speaks essentially no English (fortunately, his niece accompanied him and provided excellent translation). But I would like to share two snippets from his visit with us.

First, asked how long to age his wines, Norberto drew himself up and said, “Let me give you an important tip about wine. When you buy a bottle of wine…drink it!” Very fine advice, although my experience is that Norberto’s white and Tempranillo both improve for a year or so and hold for a while after that. And, as I drink through my stash of the 2005 Vendimia Seleccionada, I’m noticing that every bottle is a touch better than the last.

Finally, I think Norberto summed up things beautifully at the end of the evening when he reminded us all that, “What you are drinking are wines of heart and soul. My heart; my soul. I love my wines.” That love shines through in all his wines, but most powerfully in his flagship Rioja Vendimia Seleccionada. Come see for yourself!

What To Do With Leftover Wine

Lately we’ve been talking about ways to use up leftover wine.  There are different methods of preserving wine, all of which have their benefits and pitfalls, but inevitably, if you’re anything like us, you end up with a glass or two of over-the-hill wine knocking around in your refrigerator.

The easiest answer is to cook with it.  If you happen to be making a sauce that cries out for a slug of red, and you happen to have some, then, problem solved!

If life hasn’t lined up perfectly (and when does that ever happen?) freeze your wine!  Pour it into ice cube trays, and when they’re frozen solid, pop them into plastic baggies.  Keep one bag for red and one for white. Especially if you regularly cook for one or two people, these wine cubes are perfect for a quick pan sauce. Just defrost them in the microwave.  You can even toss them in the pan still frozen if you’re really short on time.

Spritzers are a good way to enjoy wine that is a bit over the hill.  They may be dated, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious!  On a warm afternoon or as a cocktail, they’re a refreshing, low-alcohol little beverage.  My current favorite is rosé with a dash of fresh grapefruit juice topped up with seltzer water. I’ve also experimented with some of those all-natural sodas (Izze, GuS Soda, etc). Flavors like berry and pomegranate are fun if you have a bit of lighter-bodied red that’s on its last legs (think Beaujolais or a lighter Cotes du Rhone).

Sangria is another way to enjoy wine that has lost some of its initial verve.  Most recipes make large batches, but you can improvise with scaling down for smaller amounts, or combine a few ends of bottles in a similar style.  Un- or lightly oaked, aromatic whites work best for white sangria, while reds are a bit more forgiving in terms of style.

You can also make your own vinegar.  None of us have tried this yet, but it’s a tempting fall DIY project, no?  All you need is a cool, dark space and a big container that has a sturdy spout.  You can buy vinegar starter here, and once your vinegar has started fermenting, you add about a cup per week of wine.

Have you all come up with creative ways to use up leftover wine?  Have you ever made your own vinegar?  Let us know!

Who Picks Your Wine? Importer and Distributor Spotlight

In this occasional series, we’ll highlight importers and distributors that we think do an especially great job. We hope you’ll enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at the women and men who put wine into the hands of retailers and restaurateurs. They help hack through some of this wide world of wine so that you don’t have to!

Point of View: An Afternoon With Neal Rosenthal

Neal Rosenthal is known in the wine business as an early pioneer in the world of handmade, traditional, terroir-driven European wine. Like Kermit Lynch, he’s been doing this since 1977, way before it was cool. His book, Confessions of a Wine Merchant, is a must-read for any wine lover, and when you see his distinctive back label, we highly recommend taking a chance on the bottle it adorns, even if it’s from somewhere you’ve never heard of.

When Randy, Doug and I got a chance to visit his warehouse and taste with him this past June (thanks to Ryne Hazzard and Eric Hauptmann at Potomac Selections), we jumped at it.

Randy and I arrived at a non-descript warehouse in Maspeth, Queens with the bouncy, nervous energy of kids on Christmas morning – a little early, a lot excited. We were finally let into a large warehouse, where we gazed at pallet after pallet of delicious wine and met the man himself. Tall and wiry, he was wearing a very cool suede jacket that was probably a gift from Lou Reed or something equally awesome.

Up in the conference room and office overlooking the warehouse, a whole table was filled with bottle upon beguiling bottle, and as I started flipping through the sheets detailing all we were to taste that day I thought, hoo boy, fasten your safety belts!

The wines we tasted first were from the mountain regions of France and Italy. These all had a wonderful, limpid freshness, but without the too-clean nature of so many stainless-steel fermented whites. There is a kind of neutered perfume to many of those wines; all top notes and no depth. These mountain wines were fresh in an organic way, like an untouched stream, or laundry hung out to dry in the sunshine. We loved them so much that we’re doing a whole class on high-elevation wine this fall.

Nothing makes this little wine geek’s heart go pitter pat like obscure reds from the Loire Valley, and they were there in spades, along with quaffable, poised Beaujolais and unapologetically earthy Burgundies. There were Bordeaux that changed my entire conception of what Bordeaux can be: quirky, interesting, not score-pandering or astronomically priced. Majestic Italian wines, all resin and earth and high-toned cherry aromas. It just went on and on.

These are the kinds of wines that are easy to imagine as people you want to get to know. Each time you return to them they have something different and interesting to say. They have a point of view, and they express it without hostility or compromise. They are rooted in the past and tradition, but they are not quaint time capsules. Kind of like the man himself.

–Diane

Wine 101: Tour of Tuscany with Maurizio Farro

This past Thursday we were thrilled to welcome Maurizio Farro, founder of Cantiniere Imports and newly-minted US citizen, to the shop for an in-depth look at Tuscan wine. We saw some new faces as well as class ‘regulars,’ and it made for a fantastic evening.  Spending a couple of hours with our customers, some great wines, and delicious cheeses, is truly one of the most fun things we get to do here.

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Every last wine showed beautifully, and while Carpineta Fontalpino was the main producer showcased, there were a couple of other gems as well.  What struck us most as we tasted our way from the snappy, red-fruited Colli Senesi all the way to the inky Dofana Super Tuscan, was the elegance, perfume, and freshness of these wines.

Marramiero’s Trebbiano was the refreshing, melon-scented wine we used to kick off the evening, despite the fact that it comes from Abruzzo, and it was so popular we’ve made it a part of our Global Whites section.

The Du Ut Des Super Tuscan was  a perfect example of this modern classic style – a step up in weight and power compared to the Chiantis without becoming leaden or monolithic.

Villa le Prata’s 2004 Brunello di Montalcino also deserves an honorable mention – rarely do we find a Brunello so reasonably priced that is ready to drink now. We did not need to fuss with this wine to get it to strut its stuff, nor did we need to engage in crystal ball machinations and envision what it would be 10 years from now to eke out any enjoyment. It was delicious right out of the bottle, just like we like it! Randy summed it up nicely: “It makes me want to write bad checks.”  Really, is there a higher compliment?

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Thanks to everyone who made the first of our fall series of classes such a success.  If you weren’t able to join us, we hope you’ll make it to one of our upcoming classes and events, and peruse the links below to see what we so thoroughly enjoyed!

Marramiero Trebbiano Da Ma 2011

Carpineta Fontalpino Colli Senesi 2010

Carpineta Fontalpino Chianti Classico 2009

Villa Le Prata Brunello di Montalcino 2004

Carpineta Fontalpino Do Ut Des 2009