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How to Pop a Champagne Cork…with a Sword!

August 31st, 2010 No comments

Ok, ok, there are many reasons that you should never try to “saber” (as it’s called) a champagne bottle.  Just off the top of my head: it’s dangerous, it’s sort of silly, and since it isn’t easy, you’ll most likely to get a carpetful of glass shards and spilled bubbly.  Yes, logic would dictate that we always use the tentative twist method.  But this is just so much cooler!

Sabering became popular just after the French Revolution, when Napoleon and his fearsome army were fighting their way across Europe and earning victories at every step.  Their success gave them plenty of reason to celebrate, and they would hold parties that involved many bottles of champagne, which Napoleon’s cavalrymen would open with their sabers.  In fact, Napoleon, who almost certainly supported the practice, once said:

Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.

If you want to impress your friends at your next (preferably outdoor) party by casually sabering a bottle of bubbly a la Napoleon, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure the bottle of champagne is very chilled–it’s best if you let it sit in the refrigerator overnight.  Some sabering experts recommend using only real, French champagne, which they say opens more cleanly.
  2. You’ll need some kind of sword-like object.  You can use a special champagne saber made for the purpose, but in a pinch, a big kitchen knife works fine too.  Of course, if you have an old French cavalry sword laying around, using it would bump up your cool factor considerably.
  3. Remove the foil from the cork, and take off the wire cage that surrounds it.
  4. Locate your target point.  You’re looking for one of the two vertical seams that run the length of a champagne bottle.
  5. Hold the bottle correctly: with a firm grip at the base and at a 45-degree angle pointing away from your kids, windows, and priceless art.
  6. With the blunt side of the saber (or knife) facing towards the cork, practice running the saber down along the bottle, aiming for that target point.

    We hope this kid isn't going to drink the champagne after he sabers the bottle.

  7. When you’re ready, in one fluid motion, draw the saber down along the seam, and pop off the cork.  Be sure to follow through, fully swinging your arm.  Don’t be timid–you need some real force here.
  8. Success!  If you did it right, the cork and the small ring of glass around it should have come cleanly off, and you should have lost no more than an ounce of champagne.  For the ultimate finishing touch, pour a round for your guests like the feat you just performed was no big deal.

Remember, this is an art, not a science.  If you didn’t do it right the first time, try try again.  (Or go back to the trusty manual way.  You coward.)

What’s in a Name? Weird Wine Names

August 28th, 2010 No comments

At a wine tasting event last night, I struck up a conversation with some wine lovers about the increasingly popular trend of wacky wine names.  Winemakers of yesterday tended to try and convey tradition and elegance with their wine names, often by using the name of the winemaker or the area of production.  Think of the classic Dom Perignon, which was named after the Benedictine monk who pioneered the production of champagne.  But today, more and more of these classic-style names are being replaced by something new, fresh…and a little odd.

Here are a few of the strangest-named wines out there right now:

  • Educated Guess, a cabernet sauvignon
  • Fat Bastard, a chardonnay
  • Bitch, a grenache
  • Arrogant Frog Ribet Red, a cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend
  • Frog’s Piss, a French red table wine
  • Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, a sauvignon blanc
  • Mad Housewife, a cabernet sauvignon

The wacky-name trend is something we’re seeing more and more of these days, especially amongst the lower-priced bottles.  One reason is that there are just so many different kinds of wine out there now.  When faced with a wall of bottles, the wine shopper is only going to notice something that stands out.  Creative, eye-catching names can help get the wine off the shelves and to the check-out.

Winemakers are also attempting to bring a little whimsy into their field with this trend.  Wine, long the territory of the wealthy, has over the last few decades extended its territory to the middle class.  This new naming trend is self-deprecating, lightening up the field and making it more accessible.  Jerry Prial, who makes a wine called Debauchery, says, “I’m a big believer in the theater of the mind.  People – when they see the wine, they really start to laugh and they smile, and that’s what we wanted.”

What do you think?  Do names like Frog’s Piss and Fat Bastard make you wince, or do you think funny wine names are just good marketing?

Categories: Purchasing Wine Tags:

Wine Review: Ravenswood 2007 Zinfandel, Belloni Vineyard (Russian River Valley)

August 26th, 2010 No comments

If you’ve ever searched for the perfect pairing for a porterhouse, we have the wine for you.  The Ravenswood 2007 Zinfandel just cries out to be imbibed with the buttery tenderness of a great porterhouse steak.

This wine is dark ruby in color and has a nose of black cherry, violets and baking spices.  The taste is characterized by lots of concentrated, juicy fruits including blueberry and blackberry.  The rich acidic quality this fruity taste contributes works wonderfully with the fatty unctuous taste of steak.  The finish had a hint of dark bitter chocolate, which contrasted well with the wine’s fruity qualities and made for a taste that truly embodied that word that wine experts love so much: balanced.

Rich, tannic wines such as Zinfandels tend to be very good pairings for steak.  The high levels of tannins in these wines bind to the fat molecules that are so prevalent in something like steak, acting as palate cleansers that refresh the mouth with each sip, leaving it primed for another bite of meat.   (Check out our article on The Science of Wine Aging to learn more about how this works.)  This Zin showed a particularly strong ability to stand up to the rich, meaty taste of the porterhouse, which was simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled to a perfect medium rare.

The vines at the Belloni Vineyard are estimated to be more than 90 years old.  The wine they produce is known for its round, fruit flavors and subtle complexity, which makes this 2007 Ravenswood Belloni the perfect candidate for aging.  The company recommends 7-10 years in the cellar to really bring out its background flavors of smoke and peppercorn.

A bottle of this great Zin, accompanied by a perfect steak was the wine lover’s idea of a perfect meal.  To finish with a 1994 Graham’s Vintage Port, now that would be living…

Vintage Cellars’ Very Own Max Walder at New Restaurant Morimoto Napa

August 24th, 2010 No comments

Masaharu Morimoto, the chef perhaps best known for his grim-faced determination on Food Network’s Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, has recently opened up a new restaurant in the Napa Valley.  This latest venture, called Morimoto Napa, is the most recent in a long list of well -respected restaurants in New York, Philadelphia, Florida, Mumbai, and Tokyo.  Morimoto is known worldwide for his innovative style and gorgeous, artistic presentations, and his work has earned him a Michelin star (for his Tokyo restaurant, Morimoto XEX).

Max with proud father and owner of Vintage Cellars Gene Walder, enjoying a glass at the 2009 San Diego Wine and Food Festival

Morimoto Napa seems to be delivering.  Napa restaurant-goers rave over unique dishes with playful names, such as “Duck Duck Goose” (a medley of duck preparations and frozen foie gras) and Sea Urchin Carbonara (uni, undon noodles, smoked bacon and crispy shallots).  The sushi menu is, of course, extensive, with fresh ingredients flown in from Japan.  Appropriately, most of the non-sushi ingredients are grown locally.  Many recent visitors have even had the pleasure of glimpsing the Iron Chef as he expedites in the kitchen, poses for photos with fans, or even shows off his impressive knife skills behind the sushi bar.

Of course, as a Napa Valley restaurant, Morimoto Napa’s wine list can’t disappoint.  And it doesn’t–about 200 local wines are featured, with lots of the sauvignon blancs, chardonnays, rosés, rieslings and the like that are needed to pair perfectly with sushi.  It also has a wide variety of deep, rich reds that pair perfectly with the straight-from-Japan Waygu beef that Morimoto serves here.  For non-winos, there is a great sake list, and rumor has it that Morimoto will soon be brewing his own beer on-site.

But in our opinion, the best thing about Morimoto Napa is that it’s the new workplace of Max Walder, the son of the owner, Gene, here at Vintage Cellars.  Congratulations, Max!  We wish you the best in your new life of creating fabulous dishes in one of the world’s premiere wine regions.

Stock Up Now: Interstate Wine Sales May Soon be Illegal

August 23rd, 2010 No comments

For years, wine aficionados have counted on the ability to order wines that aren’t available at their local stores.  Say you’re on a wine tour of Italy, or you’re spending a long weekend wine-tasting in a neighboring state.  Maybe you’re even browsing the wines of other places late one night on your laptop.   You fall in love with a certain bottle.  You go to down to your neighborhood wine shop or grocery store to search for it, only to find out they don’t carry it.  No problem–you call up the winery or go to its website, order what you want, and a few days later, it arrives at your door.  But you might not be able to do this for much longer.

A new bill, called HR 5034, or the CARE Act, aims to exempt alcohol from the Commerce Clause, which says that the federal government, rather than the states (they were originally given this power when Prohibition was repealed) should have control over alcohol regulation.

Proponents say that the bill is needed to clarify states’ rights and keep alcohol out of the hands of underage drinkers.  But those opposed say that these reasons are merely a smokescreen that cover up the true motivation for the bill: so that the large alcohol wholesalers can protect their business by removing federal regulations and keeping consumers from challenging alcohol laws that give their business away to small wineries.

Under the current system, states decide individually what their alcohol regulations should be.  For years, many state laws prevented alcohol from being imported and exported out of the state.  This may have been logical in the Prohibition days of moonshiners and rum runners, but in today’s mobilized world, these rules prevent consumers from obtaining wine, beer, and liquor that wasn’t available in their states.  As a result, consumers challenged these rules and today, 37 states and Washington D.C. allow alcohol to be shipped to consumers across state lines.

The new bill would make it next to impossible for producers, retailers and consumers to challenge these laws and others like them.  It would also undermine federal authority over alcohol pricing, taxation, product formulation, advertising, labeling, and product safety, which the bill’s opponents argue are essential to help protect the public.  It would make it much easier for wholesalers to monopolize the industry by making it very difficult for small producers to gain a competing foothold.

HR 5034 would likely mean that wineries wishing to get their product out there would have to go through large distributors.  For small “boutique” wineries like those that have been emerging in San Diego in recent years, this might mean that they can’t stay in business.  Shipped wine currently represents less than 1% of the industry.  But for a small winery just getting started, an extra 10 or 15 cases shipped directly out to consumers can mean the different between being able to produce another vintage next year or having to close up shop.  No direct shipping means that all wine sales business goes to the retailers–who are mostly large wholesalers.  Is it any surprise that HR 5034 was written by the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) with support form the Wine & Spirit Wholesalers Associations (WSWA)?

One thing to consider is that there are a lot more varietals and vintages produced than any wine store–even a great one–can be expected to carry.  What you see on the shelves is only a small percentage of what’s out there–it has to be.  And for wine lovers in smaller cities, there’s even less of a selection.  True consumer freedom means being able to choose the products you want without restriction from where you happen to live or what retailers choose to offer you.

Beyond business control or consumer rights, there’s something to be said about the sort of cosmopolitan ideals that wine fosters.  Since certain grapes can only grow in certain environments, wine is something we have to share between states and nations if we want to experience all of its wonderful variety.  Through wine, we learn to appreciate the little nuances that makes every wine region unique.  Isn’t that something we should be able to raise a (direct-shipped) glass of wine to?

Top Ten Wine Storage Tips

August 17th, 2010 1 comment

Here’s a handy cheat sheet to help you remember what’s essential to storing and aging your wine properly.

1.  Keep your wine storage area–whether cabinet, cellar, or refrigerator, cool.  Between 55 and 57° F is perfect.  This temperature lets some chemical reactions–the kind that improve the wine–happen, while keeping other harmful reactions at bay.

2.  Keep it humid–between 50 and 80% humidity.  This keeps the corks from getting too moist or too try.

3.  Keep it dark.  UV rays can cause the otherwise stable organic compounds in wine to degrade, ruining the wine.

4.  Keep vibration at a minimum.  Vibration disturbs the sediment that would otherwise fall to the bottom of the bottle as it is formed.

5.  Don’t expose your wine to big fluctuations in temperature.  Even a short exposure to extreme temps can cause chemical reactions that will ruin your wine. Use a cooling system to keep the temperatures in check.

6.  Keep bottles on their sides.  This keeps the cork moist, preventing it from drying out and letting in too much oxygen.  Tags on the bottle tops can help you keep track of what’s what without disturbing the wine inside.

7.  Prevent exposure to odors.  Odors in the wine storage environment can change the way the wine tastes.  Even shelving must be treated with a finish that is specifically designed for wine storage and so, completely odorless, so think about your paint, floors, and every other material in your storage area.  Keep smells out of your cellar and they’ll stay out of the bottle.

8.  Experiment.  There’s no way of telling whether that Cab should age for 5 years or 6 to reach perfection.  Keep a few bottles of your favorites on hand and open them at different times.  Track the results.

9.  Keep it organized.  Develop a system–whether on paper or in a computer wine cellar database–that lets you easily keep track of what bottles you have and how long they’ve been aging.

10.  Have fun with it!  Remember that wine is meant to be enjoyed.  Cheers!

A Great Summer Dessert: Fruit in Wine

August 16th, 2010 No comments

Here’s an easy summer dessert perfect for wine lovers.  The best part?  No hot oven required!

Although you might not normally think of drinking a wine with dessert (unless of course, we’re talking about dessert wines), fruit and wine make a natural pairing.  They play off each other perfectly: the fruit really brings out the sweet, fruity flavors in the wine, and the wine helps bring out the tartness, acidity, and more subtle tastes (like spice flavors) of the fruit.

This recipe involves marinating fruit in a simple syrup made with sugar and wine instead of water.  Since it needs time in the fridge to chill and let the flavors meld and work together, this is a great make-ahead dish.  If you’re outside grilling or hosting a summer party, this is perfect, because you can just pull it out of the fridge when you’re ready for it.  And it’s adaptable; easy to change to suit whatever fruits you have an abundance of.  Try it tonight!

Here’s what to do:

1.  Make a simple syrup.  You might want to vary the sweetness depending on the fruit you’re working with.  A good starting point is 1 and 1/2 cups wine to 1/2 cup sugar.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved.  Let it boil for 2 minutes, then let cool.

Note: You can use red or white wine here.  White wine is better for a mixed fruit dessert, because it doesn’t overwhelm.  But try red wine with fruits with stronger flavors, like strawberries, plums, or pears.  Even peaches are delicious in red wine!  Experiment and play to your tastes.

2.  Cut your fruit into bite-sizes pieces.  You can use anything you like here, and you use a variety of fruits for different flavors, colors and textures, or just one for a simple but elegant dessert.  Some kinds of fruit that work particularly well are: watermelon, cantaloupe, strawberries, peaches, grapes, and oranges.

3.  Toss the fruit in the simple syrup.  Use enough to coat generously but not so much that there’s a pool of liquid in the bottom of the bowl.

4.  Cover the bowl tightly (or  put in a lidded container) to prevent oxidation.  Let the mixture chill for a few hours so that the flavors can meld.

5.  Remove the dessert from the fridge.  For a great touch, toss with fruit-friendly herbs (mint is great, basil or lemon verbena would be divine too), and serve.  Enjoy outside on the porch or patio.  Be thankful for summer, fruit, and wine.

Spaghetti Cooked in Wine

August 12th, 2010 2 comments

Here’s a trendy new way to use red wine in the kitchen: boiling spaghetti in wine until it takes on a rich, deep fruity taste and a deep burgundy color.  This minimalistic dish gets so much flavor from the wine that it needs hardly any other ingredients.

Besides being a dish that is both interesting and simple, this is a great way to use that almost-full bottle of wine you have lingering in the back of the fridge–you know, the one that you poured one glass from and forgot about?  Don’t use a bottle of wine that’s gone so far it’s turned to vinegar, but something that’s been lingering in the fridge for a few days or even a week should be fine.

A rich red is what you want for this recipe, so try a Burgundy, Chianti, or even a Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel.  No need to use expensive wine for this one–a table wine should do fine.  Here’s what to do:

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil.  Toss in spaghetti.
  • In the meantime, heat up some minced garlic or shallot with a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet.  As soon as the garlic begins to brown (be careful not to let it burn or it will become bitter), pour in 3/4 of a bottle of wine (or a little more than 2 cups).
  • As soon as the pasta begins to bend (i.e. about 5 minutes), drain and toss it directly into the simmering wine and garlic.  Cook until wine is absorbed and pasta is al dente.
  • Toss with salt, pepper, and if you like, red pepper flakes.
  • The final essential step: toss with enough butter to give the pasta a glazed look (about 1 tablespoon).
  • Serve immediately, with some good crusty bread.  If you like, garnish with chopped herbs.

We hope you enjoy this simple, easy recipe perfect for wine lovers!

Categories: Wine Recipes Tags:

Wines to Pair with Summer Tomatoes

August 9th, 2010 No comments

It’s the height of summer, and tomatoes are at their juicy, sweet best right now.  I’ve been eating them in salads, on burgers, and even by themselves.  As you know all too well if you grow your own tomatoes, the season for these beauties is a short one, and as you know if you’ve ever even tasted a home-grown tomato, there’s simply no comparison between the sweet flavor of the real thing and the watery, lifeless store-bought version.  So anyway, tomatoes are the thing to be eating right now.  But what to drink with them?

Pairing wine with tomatoes can be tricky.  You want a wine that doesn’t overwhelm the delicate sugars of the summer tomato, so don’t reach for something strongly tannic.  You also don’t want something with too much acidity, as tomatoes are acidic enough already.  What you really want is a wine that will bring out the fruitiness and subtle sweetness of the tomato, showcasing this short-seasoned treat–because, really, it’s good enough to shine on its own.

Although you want to be careful not outcompete the tomato flavor, raw tomato dishes like caprese salad and gazpacho need a wine with a bit of acidity to match the tangy quality of this summer fruit (not vegetable!) in its freshest state.  Try a fruit-forward Sauvignon Blanc or even a Pinot Grigio.  The bright, crisp qualities of these wines will match up to the acidity of the tomato, while the fruit will play up its sweet, juicy characteristics.

Cooking tomatoes lowers their acidity, so if you’re going with a richer, cooked tomato dish such as pasta with a fresh tomato sauce or stuffed tomatoes (fill them with fresh breadcrumbs and chopped basil, or cous cous with herbs), go with a lighter, fruity red wine.  Play with what you like here; just be careful to avoid overtly tannic wines, or you won’t be able to taste the tomatoes.  Try a Merlot or fruity Pinot Noir.  The 2008 Les Jamelles Pinot Noir would be perfection.

If your or your neighbor’s garden is overflowing with ripe red tomatoes right now, try having a tomato-themed outdoor dinner party!  Serve a caprese salad with a fruity Sauvignon Blanc, and follow it with simple pasta in a fresh tomato sauce with a soft Pinot Noir.  Extra points for a tomato dessert!

Wine Review: 2008 Les Jamelles Pinot Noir

August 7th, 2010 No comments

If you’re looking for a great red wine at a reasonable price, try the 2008 Les Jamelles Pinot Noir.  This is a wine perfect with a light summer meal or to drink on its own–preferably outside with your toes in the grass, watching the setting sun.

The first word that comes to mind when drinking this wine would have to be: smooth.  This isn’t a robust red, but that isn’t to say that it’s lacking in flavor.  It’s full of deep fruity flavors like raspberry, but doesn’t veer into sweetness–in fact, it’s a bit tart, making it a refreshing choice for hot weather.  It’s got subtle spice flavors and a distinct anise taste, which gives it an unusual, flavorful twist.  Despite its delicate nature, this wine isn’t weak on the finish–jammy and spicy, it makes you want another sip.  And for about $9 a bottle, you can afford one.

It’s a myth that all red wines should be served at room temperature, and since the 2008 Les Jamelles is an especially light red wine, it should definitely be chilled a bit.  To bring out its maximum fruit and spice flavors, we recommend serving this wine at proper cellar temperature: between 50 and 55 degrees.  Don’t have a wine cellar or a wine refrigerator with a special red-wine section?  Try putting the bottle in the fridge for about an hour.  Besides bringing out the subtle flavors, not the alcohol fumes, chilling this wine a bit amps the refreshment factor, making it a perfect way to cool off a bit when you’re still sweating by cocktail hour.

This wine would be great with pan-fried pork chops or a simple roast chicken.  It would also make a perfect picnic wine: pack up a basket with your outdoor-eating favorites (mine are cold grilled chicken and pasta salad) and enjoy the summer from your local beach, park, or hilltop.  Cheers!

Check out other posts about Pinot Noir.