As most wine connoisseurs are well aware, the Santa Lucia Highlands have been receiving a great deal of positive attention over the last ten years in spite of the fact that the region is a relatively small part of California’s immense AVAs (American Viticultural Areas).
The Santa Lucia Mountains separate the Salinas Valley from the Carmel Valley within sight of state Highway 101 and the Santa Lucia Highlands consist of a narrow strip of around 5,900 acres of vineyards and 34 growers. The vineyards are centered around the picturesque town of Soledad and the region was awarded AVA status in 1991. The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA area has received most of its recent attention for its Pinot Noir, which happens to be the area’s most dominant grape.
Exciting Pinot Noir Flavors
Many wineries outside of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA which focus on Pinot Noir have been buying grapes from this region in light of their excellent quality. In addition, many of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA vineyards have become well known to connoisseurs and have been producing wines which score extremely high with many major critics. A number of high-ranking wineries have grown up in the region, making it a source for some of the best Pinot Noir grapes as well as an intriguing and attractive wine tasting destination.
Californian Pinot Noir has a great price point when compared to the burgundies of the Côte de Beaune or Côte d’Or. Santa Lucia Highlands AVA Pinot Noir is known for its big, full-bodied fruitiness, with cherry and red fruit overtones. The majority of the Pinot Noir from the region is lively in the mouth, the main flavor being cherry, with mixed secondary flavors of chocolate and vanilla.
Some favorites from Santa Lucia Highlands AVA
2010 Lucia Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands, at around $40 per bottle, sourced from Gary’s Vineyard and Pisoni Vineyards fruit. It has a depth of cherry and black berry fruit, gripping tannins and secondary spice notes, in particular, cinnamon and cardamon.
Pisoni Vineyards’ 2010 Pisoni Estate Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands, at about $65 a bottle, is a darker, deeper ruby red with crushed black cherry overtones, with just a hint of fresh flowers and vanilla. This Pinot Noir tastes lively and would benefit from decanting, as it is a bit tight straight from the bottle, even after being chambered.
2010 Testarossa Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir at around $39 really hits its mark. Again, a deep ruby glassful with overtones of ripe cherry, herbal notes, and light spice for a balanced juicy finish underscored by cinnamon and leather.
Roar Gary’s Vineyard is a small-lot specialist with a single Santa Lucia Highlands AVA vineyard and their 2010 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir can be found at about $52 a bottle. Deep ruby red, a big black cherry nose, with berry undertones, this strong and supple wine has subtle flower and herb notes, even a touch of woody mushroom. Well worth seeking out.
Something special at any time of the year
Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir wines are amongst our favorites for their robust flavors, and their ability to surprise us with subtlety and wit. These are wines that you can select without hesitation to accompany rich, flavorsome foods such as beef and duck – they will more than stand their ground. We love them also for their understated class. In the summer we are often drawn to frivolous whites and frolicsome roses. How nice it is, in the evening, to pour out a glass of one of the many choices of Santa Lucia Highland Pinot Noir. To slowly savor the complexities of a truly rewarding glass of outstanding red wine.
In the last decade, wine has become a hot topic for filmmakers. And no wonder: there’s something magical about wine: the beautiful vineyards, the thrill of finding a great bottle, the fascinating — and often obsessive — winemakers.
If you’re looking for a great movie that features your favorite beverage, check out our top picks:
The seminal wine movie, Sideways is a dark comedy that tells the story of two very different friends who take a road trip through California’s Santa Ynez wine country. If you haven’t seen this film, it’s time to queue it up on your Netflix immediately. (We’ve mentioned this one before, in our Wine Profile for Pinot Noir).
Bottle Shock tells the famous true story of the blind Paris wine tasting for 1976, which pitted California wines against French wines for the first time. Parts of this movie are a bit cheesy, but the story is too good to miss, and Alan Rickman is fantastic as a wine shop owner who initiates the tasting.
This outrageous comedy showcases how four different Northern California wineries go out of their way to cater to a visiting critic and get him to choose their wine as the best. A hilariously diverse cast of characters keep this story moving.
Somm is a fascinating documentary that follows four sommeliers in the last few days before what might be the most difficult test in the world. If they pass, they’ll become Master Sommeliers, of which there are only 200 in the world. It’s a nail biter with an unexpected twist at the end: a can’t miss for true wine lovers.
Wine and cheese is a classic combination. Whether it takes the form of a lavish spread laid out at a cocktail party, or a simple and elegant course at a dinner party, a wine and cheese pairing is something no guest is ever disappointed to see. But making the perfect wine and cheese match can be intimidating. These five tips break down the process and making finding the perfect wine and cheese combination a snap.
1. The only rule is: there are no rules.
Rules and tips can help you, but they can also make you feel paralyzed. That’s why it’s important to keep in mind that the rules are meant to be broken. The most essential thing about choosing a wine and a cheese to pair is to pick something that tastes good to you. Trust your taste buds: if you want to come back for a second bite, your guests will too.
Here are some helpful tips for food and wine pairings.
2. Choose matching intensities.
You don’t want your wine to overpower your cheese or your cheese to overpower your wine. If one flavor swallows up the other, the balance will be lost. The best way to avoid that is to aim for the intensity of your wine to match that of your cheese. Mild cheese pair better with lighter wines, and pungent cheeses tend to pair better with more robust wines.
3. Go by region.
One good standby technique is to pair wines and cheeses from the same region. Similar soils and growing conditions tend to result in flavor compounds that are the same between the wines and cheeses from a specific region. For example, a smooth Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pacific Northwest region should pair nicely with a local smoked gouda.
4. Think about presentation.
The saying is true: we eat with our eyes. No matter how beautifully your chosen cheeses and wines work together, your guests just won’t fully appreciate them if you serve them with a flimsy knife for cutting, and crackers that don’t do them justice. Use a wood or marble cheese platter on which to display your cheese, with plenty of cheese knives, and a variety of crackers or a simple french baguette, sliced thinly.
5. Temperature is important.
It will be impossible to appreciate the full flavors of your wines and cheeses if you serve them at the wrong temperature. White wine should be served at 45-50°F, red wines at 50-65°F. Cheese should always be served at room temperature: bring it out of the fridge an hour before you plan to serve it to take the chill off.
One Monday evening last month, six people sat down for a blind Cabernet (and Cab-based blends) tasting. There were no experts on the panel. There were two people that prefer whites to reds. There was one experienced craft beer person, and there was me, representing Vintage Cellars (and I hold an advanced certificate from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust).
The one amazing thing I enjoyed in the tasting was watching the participants get more excited as the tasting progressed. There was one cheat sheet with basic descriptions of primary to secondary red wine aromas and tastes. The cheat sheet was in constant use as the participants tried to figure out smell and taste. Each person became more and more involved and interested as we progressed through the wine. Keep in mind, this was a completely blind tasting.
The instructions were simple: Note the sight (color), smell(aroma) and sip(taste) of each wine. Each time, we had to guess which wine we had just tasted (we had a list of the six bottles) and also guess the price point. Here are a couple of points I discovered:
Here are some combined notes on each wine:
2008 Melanson Vineyard Matthews Block Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
2009 Chateau Martinat Cotes de Bourg
2011 Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Mendoza
2007 Korbin Kameron Cuvee Kristin Sonoma Valley
2007 Guilliams Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District
2088 Mazzei Philip Cabernet Sauvignon Toscana
Overall, there were three first place votes for the Korbin Kameron, two for the Melanson and one for the Susana Balbo. As mentioned in the tasting, the Bordeaux was the least favorite on each scorecard.
I’m looking forward to setting up a white tasting with Rieslings from around the world. Want to be invited?
You’re out to dinner at a restaurant and are served a bottle of wine you’ve never had before. The waiter arrives and pours you a taste. You take a sip. The flavor is…strange. Is the wine just new and unfamiliar, or is something wrong with it? Unsure of what to do, you tell the waiter it’s fine, then spend the rest of the dinner wondering if you did the right thing.
We’ve all tasted wine that’s gone unmistakably bad. But it isn’t always easy to tell. Here are our most frequently asked questions about wine faults, so that you never wonder again.
1. What is “corked” wine?
Corked wine is wine that has been contaminated with a chemical compound called TCA, commonly referred to as “cork taint.” TCA is formed when fungi (which often occur naturally in wine) come in contact with certain chemicals in wine sterilization products. Infected corks will taint the wine. You’ll know a wine is tainted if it has the smell and taste of damp, soggy, or even rotten cardboard. Cork taint also dampens the fruity taste of wine. Neither pieces of cork floating in the wine nor mold on the top of the cork means that the wine has been tainted.
2. My wine has crystals in it — what does that mean?
Sometimes, you’ll get a bottle of wine with what looks like sugar crystals in the bottom. They are called tartaric acid crystals or “tartrates.” Tartaric acid is naturally occurring in grapes. When wine becomes very cold, or old, it can crystallize. Tartrates are not harmful to the drinker or the wine. In fact, they can be a sign that the wine is high-quality and has not been over-treated while it was being made.
3. My wine is cloudy — is that bad?
Cloudy wine usually indicates that yeast or another kind of bacteria is growing in the wine. Fizziness in wine can signal the same thing. While cloudy or fizzy wine likely won’t hurt you, it probably won’t taste very good.
4. I know it’s bad if wine tastes like vinegar, but what does it mean?
Vinegar-tasting wine means that the wine has been infiltrated by a bacteria called Acetobacter. It usually happens when a bottle has been left open for too long, or can also be a fault of the wine-making process. The reaction of Acetobacter with oxygen creates vinegar, and is actually how vinegar is produced.
5. Can a wine be too old?
Aging wine isn’t always a good thing. Over time, wine undergoes oxidation (this process can happen faster than it should if the cork doesn’t fit correctly or the wine is stored improperly). Wines that have been spoiled by oxidation taste dull and flat, and often turn brownish in color.
6. My wine tastes like struck matches. What happened?
Nearly all wines are made using sulfur dioxide, which helps prevent oxidation. But too much sulfur dioxide causes unpleasant aromas in wine, which smell like struck matches, or sometimes, rotten eggs. Occasionally, the smell is accompanied by an unpleasant tingling sensation in the nose.
Drinking good wine with good friends is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you love to entertain, but hesitate at the work and expense of hosting a dinner party, try a wine-tasting party for your next get-together. With just a few glasses, some bottles of wine, and perhaps a snack or two, you’ve got the makings of a memorable night. Here are our favorite tips for hosting a successful wine-tasting party:
Do you have any tips for hosting a great wine-tasting that we forgot to mention? Let us know in the comments!
Our very own Jake Austad, master of custom cellar designs, is an expert at touring wine country, and wants to share his tips and tricks. Jake has insider advice on the best vineyards to visit, the best places to eat, and tourist traps to avoid. So pull up a chair, pour yourself a glass of your favorite vino, and hear how an expert does wine country. Check back, because Jake will be blogging regularly in our new “Jake’s Corner” posts.
I would start the morning up north in Calistoga at Chateau Montelena, known almost more for its historical value than for its wines. The winemakers at Chateau Montelena are part of the group that started the Napa Valley wine boom. Tthe first thing I’d do would be to make a noon reservation at Duckhorn (reservations are required). Reserve the estate tasting and tour for a great experience. To learn something a little extra, do the food and wine pairing.
If you managed to resist the food at Duckhorn, I would travel into St. Helena for a late lunch at Brassica (Now called Cindy Pawlcyn’s Wood Grill and Wine Bar). It’s a Mediterranean place that has received rave reviews, and is a personal favorite of mine to boot. At this point in time, you probably only have time for one more tasting. I would finish at Hall in St. Helena. Since Hall has no appointment needed and stays open until 5:30 PM, you won’t be tied to a tight schedule. One of Hall’s new releases, a cab, was in the top 10 wines of 2011.
Since I’m a huge Iron Chef geek, I would eat dinner that night at Morimoto. It’s also in the revitalized river walk area in Napa, so if you’re looking to take a stroll before or after your meal, it’s a great place to do so.
Insider tip: Don’t fall victim to the lure of the Napa Valley Wine Train. This tourist trap has three main pitfalls: 1. Trains are really not that romantic. 2. Unless they have improved the menu dramatically since 2000, the food is awful. 3. The wine list is not that impressive, and what is impressive is so marked up that you can’t bring yourself to drink it.
I would head up the Silverado Trail, especially if it’s a Saturday. The less inexperienced wine tasters will be driving up the 29, so this is a nice way to avoid them. Start the day with a 10AM appointment at Quintessa. It’s a property and vineyard tour, along with the wine caves and a tasting of three or four vintages. Like Duckhorn, it’s appointment-only, so you have to make a reservation in advance. I know the wine are fabulous. It’s also one of the few places in Napa that does estate-grown only. Quintessa is a Bordeaux-style blend that makes only one blended wine every year, so the vintage tasting will be unique.
After that, start heading back to Napa again, and hit Mumm just to clean the palate with some bubbly. It should be time to grab lunch, so I would cut over on Rutherford Road and hit Rutherford Grill for lunch. I love Rutherford Grill, and never miss an opportunity to go. There is a decision to make at this point. Option 1: One more tour at Chappellet, a unique experience that puts you up in the hills, and has some pretty good wine to boot. After a 90-minute tour and tasting, you should have enough time to hit Miner. If you are “toured out,” do Option 2: hit Miner on the way back towards Napa on the Silverado Trial. Most likely, you’ll make a quick visit, since you don’t want to miss your 2:30 tour reservation at Staggs Leap. Again, I’m a sucker for history, and Staggs Leap is another historic winery that started it all and has been around for over 100 years.
After Staggs, your last stop will be Darioush. This winery doesn’t close until 5PM, and if you have anything left on the palate, they do some great cabs that are always cracking the top 100 wines of the year in the Wine Spectator. Take a nap after before hitting the French Laundry for dinner. If super-rich French food is to much to stomach, try Coles Chop House or the Napa Valley Grill.
At this point, I’d pack the bags and drive over the mountain to Healdsburg and the Dry Creek Valley. Make a reservation at Charlie Palmer’s place, Hotel Healdsburg. Start at Zichichi and then drive south down West Dry Creek Road (eventually turning into Westside Rd). It’s a small, twisty, windy road but a offers a unique change from the large-cellar, big tour, big tasting rooms in Napa with little cottages and family-owned wineries. I’d go all the way down to Porter Creek Winery a few miles down. You taste their wines in a little cottage, and often, the winemaker is the guy pouring the wines. Porter Creek is also a fully organic place, tends to bottle a lot of grapes that are normally blended (like cab franc).
From there, start making the venture back towards Healdsburg. Another great stops on the way is Williams Seleym (always a top 100 producer). It’s not a bad idea at this time to go park back at the hotel and walk around the square in Healdsburg. There is Stephen & Walker, which has a fabulous port, and several other places to check out. And if you need to switch to beer, there is a brewing company in the square. This way, you can take a day without reservations or a schedule, and just do whatever you want, from a simple sandwich lunch to a pastry at the downtown bakery, to Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen for dinner.
Have a good bottle of wine? Need the perfect music to set the proper mood? Have no fear; Wine DJ is here! Wine DJ is an iPhone app designed to help you build the perfect playlist based on your desired mood, coupled with the Liberty School wine you’re drinking. Simply enter the type of wine you’re planning to drink, use a variety of fun controls to customize and fine-tune the desired mood, and discover the perfect playlist for the occasion!
Though the wines featured are those by Liberty School, the app is still fun to use if you substitute other wines. For example, if you’re opening a nice Cab, no matter the winery, simply select the “Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon” from the wine list.
Though other programs with “intelligent” playlist-generating features do exist, Wine DJ’s mood sliders allow you to add a more refined level of selection to generated playlists based on personal choices, in addition to your chosen wine. (The algorithm, created by Grooveshark, has produced some compelling playlists, indeed!) And if a song appears that you don’t own (but want to), all you need to do is click the “Download on iTunes” button. Simple! Playlists can be saved, too, so you can relive the memories of any night, anytime.
For a free app, Wine DJ is certainly entertaining. Wine DJ is available from the iTunes store. It is compatible with all iPhone models, plus iPod Touch.
In an episode of “Frasier,” Doctors Niles and Frasier Crane begin the show with a blind wine tasting…
Niles: Now, now, let’s move on to number seven.
Frasier: [while blindfolded:] Ahhh… Touch of oak, hint of currant, whisper of…
Frasier’s father enters with his dog, Eddie, on a leash.
Frasier: …what is that? What is that? Oh yes, wet dog!
While amusing in a sitcom, similar scenarios have played out in real life. Because such a big part of wine tasting is connected with a wine’s nose, tasting wine in less-than-ideal locales can unfairly color your judgement of the soundness of a wine. Here are some places you’d best avoid holding a wine tasting…
Where the dog sleeps, cat goes, or hamster scurries: Strong pet odors from dog beds, litter boxes, or small mammal cages can make even the most appealing nose seem foul. If holding a tasting in your living home, make sure there are no trace animal odors lingering in the room or on the furniture where you plan to gather.
Near a restroom: This goes for restrooms inside restaurants, too (though most quality restaurants position their restrooms a good distance from their dining areas). Still, save yourself and your guests embarrassment and disgust. Never hold a tasting within flushing distance.
Near livestock: Though outdoor country wine tastings have increased, tasting wine close to cattle is usually less-than pleasant. What is more, the scent of excrement can imbue a wine’s nose with a convincing “barnyard” aroma, masking the true nose of the wine altogether.
Outside near fast food restaurants: Exhaust from the kitchens of fast food joints, in particular, can be extremely overpowering. It’s hard to get a decent sniff of wine if your nose is bombarded by the scents of big burgers and fries.
Near pools: Almost all pools utilize chlorinated water. Because our sense of smell and taste are connected, having a wine tasting next to a heavily-chlorinated pool can color the wine with a chemical taste. This is very apparent when tasting Zinfandels. Just try taking a sip next to the pool, then take another sip 10 feet away; you’ll be amazed by the difference.
Near smokers: Cigarette smoke can greatly kill the nose of many wines, and can add an artificial “tobacco” hint to some wines.
Within wind distance of a garbage dump: Refer to “Near a restroom,” above.
In a heavily perfumed area: Unplug your whole-room air freshener before you taste. Strong scents of pine, violet, vanilla, etc., will unfairly impact the perceived scent of your wine.
In a moldy room: Aside from obvious health hazards, tasting wine in a pungent, moldy room will not boost its rating.
…You get the idea! To learn more about the nuances of wine and wine tasting, visit our Wine Storage Education Center. The next time you host a wine tasting, be sure to take a good whiff and ask yourself “Is there anything in here that really smells?”