Biodynamic Wine Production: Fad or Fabulous?

May 9th, 2014 Comment

biodynamic winery in sonoma

If you haven’t heard of biodynamic wine farming, you probably will in the near future. This agricultural philosophy, founded in 1924, is sweeping the wine growing community, from France to Australia, from the United States to Chile. In fact, some of the world’s most coveted wines are being produced using this method.

What is biodynamic agriculture?

Biodynamic agriculture takes organic farming one (or perhaps two) steps further. The theory, first expounded by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, is based on the symmetry between the land and the plants. In this, biodynamics is similar to the French concept of “terroir” that maintains the flavor of a wine grape (and thus the wine made with it) is influenced by the soil and climate in which it is grown.

In addition to banning the use of chemicals and pesticides, biodynamic farming uses nine natural substances to enrich the soil, promote plant growth and boost the grape vines’ resistance to disease and pests. These substances include cow manure and quartz (which are buried in the ground inside of cow horns), dandelion leaves, chamomile, stinging nettles, yarrow flowers and oak bark.

Biodynamic farming uses the stages of the moon to guide planting, fertilizing and harvesting. Using the lunar calendar in farming isn’t a new concept. Such practices were used by Native American farmers for centuries.

Biodynamic wineries

This all may sound a little far-fetched, but this method of wine farming is being adopted by wineries all over the world, with astonishing–and often delicious–results. Some of the world’s major vineyards, including California’s Benzinger Estates, Burgundy’s Domaine Leroy and Domaine Zind Humbrecht in Alsace have adopted biodynamic farming. According to “Fortune” magazine, there are currently more than 450 biodynamic wineries around the globe.

What does this mean for the average wine consumer? In a word, it means taste. Although vintners and winemakers are at a loss to say way this practice works, the evidence is that biodynamic farming is producing superior wines to those produced using traditional methods. According to the “Fortune” article, biodynamically-produced wines were judged superior in several blind tastings to similar wines that were conventionally produced.

Though biodynamic farming is labor-intensive and only used by a relative handful of the world’s wineries, it’s a trend that merits watching. We predict now that you’ve heard this phrase, you’ll be noticing a lot more talk about biodynamic wines in the future.

A Guide to Italian Wines

April 8th, 2014 Comment

Italians know their wine. But there are so many varietals from its sunny, breezy climes that sometimes the rest of us forget the difference between a Barbera and a Barbaresco. No fear: this handy guide will keep you straight.

Italian Reds:

  • Amarone: From the Veneto region come Corvina grapes, which are partially dried to make this big, full-bodied wine that has a surprising undertone of sweetness.
  • Barbaresco:  Like Barolo? Try this lighter, more easy-drinking alternative.
  • Barbera: Mainly from the Piedmont region, this medium-bodied, very fruity wine is a crowd-pleaser and a great choice at a restaurant.
  • Barolo: This dry, full-bodied wine is complex, with berry flavors as well as earth, herbs and even tar. Delicious and often priced to match.
  • Brunello di Montalcino: From grapes grown in the Montalcino zone of Tuscany, this wine is dry and tannic.
  • Chianti: That perpetual favorite of homey Italian restaurants, Chianti is dry, moderately tannic, and usually flavored of tart cherries.
  • Lambrusco: A sparkling red wine that is often sweet.
  • Montepulciano d’Abruzzo: Smooth, flavorful, and great with food.
  • Salice Salentino: Dry wine from the Puglia region. Often has aromas of ripe fruit with a rich, chewy texture.
  • Valpolicella: Dry and moderately tannic with intense cherry flavors.
  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano: Like Chianti, but bigger.

Italian Whites:

  • Asti: Sparkling wine made from Moscato grapes, this wine is sweet and fresh.
  • Frascati: Mainly made of Trebbiano grapes, this wine is dry, light, and easy to drink.
  • Gavi: A medium-bodied wine, typically dry with aromas of apples and minerals.
  • Orvieto: A medium-bodied wine, often with flavors of pear and apple.
  • Pinot Grigio: This popular wine is light, dry, and crisp with no oakiness.
  • Soave: Generally dry, crisp, and medium-bodied. From the Soave zone in the Veneto region.
  • Verdicchio: From the Marche region, Verdicchio grapes make this wine dry, crisp, and pleasantly mineral.



Movies for Wine Lovers

March 26th, 2014 Comment

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

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.      

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How to Open a Bottle of Wine the Right Way

March 11th, 2014 Comment

You could open a bottle of wine in your sleep…but are you doing it right? Learn the simple steps to properly open a bottle of wine, and look like a pro at your next dinner party.

Step One: Gather your tools

There are a lot of fancy wine openers (we sell some great ones!) on the market, but you should at least know how to do it properly, with an old-fashioned “waiter’s corkscrew” (also called a “sommelier’s friend”) that you can pick up for a few dollars and that slips easily into a pocket.

Step Two: Remove the Foil

Flip the small knife on the corkscrew out, and hold the corkscrew in the fist of one hand, the blade pointing towards your thumb. Holding the bottle firmly in the other hand, place the knife blade below the lip of the bottle. (Too high, and you could potentially contaminate the wine with bacteria from the outside of the bottle as it’s being poured.) Squeezing the neck of the bottle between the knife and your thumb, rotate the bottle. After one or two passes, your foil will be cut cleanly all the way around.  Using a scraping motion with the knife, peel the foil upwards and away from the bottle. Finish removing it with your hands.

Step Three: Insert the Corkscrew

Close the knife, and flip the corkscrew out. Again holding the wine bottle firmly in one hand, use the other to insert the point of the corkscrew into the center of the cork. Applying gentle downward pressure while turning the corkscrew will help it get started traveling downward into the cork in the proper position. Continue twisting downward until there is one turn of the corkscrew left. (Going too far could push the corkscrew all the way through the cork, breaking it or pushing cork residue into the wine.)

Step Four: Remove the Cork.

Set the first step of the corkscrew (the projection closest to the screw) onto the lip of the bottle. Continuing to hold the bottle firmly in one hand (never put it down on the table, that’s considered bad manners), use the other to apply upward pressure and lever the cork up. Once the cork has moved up enough, switch to the second step of the corkscrew. Using both steps lessens the chance the cork will bend and break. Once you’ve leveraged the cork out as far as it will go, simply pull to remove it the rest of the way.

Step Five: Remove the Cork from the Corkscrew

Being careful not to poke yourself, twist the cork off of the corkscrew with your hand. You’ll want to inspect the cork for damage, which can include cracks running up its sides, mold, or other signs of deterioration. If the cork doesn’t signal you that something has gone wrong with the wine, it’s time to pour a glass. After all that hard work, you deserve it!



A Taste of Napa’s Growing Regions

February 26th, 2014 Comment

What makes Napa Valley such a renowned area for growing wine grapes? It all comes down to the dirt. There are more than 30 types of soil in Napa Valley. The chemistry of this soil is the most important factor of what the French call “terroir,” the distinctive tastes and aromas that an area’s specific conditions impart on the wine.

An understanding of Napa Valley’s geography can go a long way in helping you choose wines from the region that you know you’ll love. Here’s a basic rundown of Napa’s microareas and the flavors their conditions give the finished product, using that perennial favorite, cabernet sauvignon, as an example:

St. Helena: St. Helena climate and soils are very different from those of the surrounding regions. While the western hills warm and protect the area, breezes from the Pacific do reach here earlier than they do other regions. Cabernets from this area are ripe, round and fruity, with a “chewy” feel on the palate.

Rutherford: One of the least mountainous areas in the Napa Valley, Rutherford’s soils don’t drain as much as do the hillier vineyards, meaning that soil minerals remain in the area, and even grow more concentrated over time. The cabernet is earthy and high in tannins.

Spring Mountain: An extreme area for wine-growing, with sparse soil that drains quickly and is blasted all day and all night with chilly temperatures. The cabernet from Spring Mountain is as extreme as its conditions, rich, powerful and concentrated.

Yountville: The soil types here are varied, with a mix of sand, loam, silt, and others. The area is cooled by breezes from San Pablo Bay, not far away, meaning that the grapes can mature on the vine for a bit longer. The resulting cabs from this area will be smooth and boldly fruity, with dark berry aromas.

Mount Veeder: This mountainous area is above 2,400 feet above sea level, very high for vineyards. The steep slopes mean that soils are thin and vines are stressed for nutrients. That results in smaller crops from this area, but the grapes that make is are intensely colored and powerfully flavored, with great complexity. Wines from this area are great candidates for the cellar.

Howell Mountain: This region is similar to Mount Veeder, but since its temperatures run a little warmer, its cabernet is even more bold and concentrated.

Stags Leap area: The vineyards here are located in hills that cool off every afternoon. This, combined with its well-drained soil, gives the area’s cabernet highly perfumed, velvety wines big on flavor but soft on tannins.




Five Tips for Flawless Wine and Cheese Pairings

February 11th, 2014 Comment

8354435679_02e6638c08_oWine 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.

Winemaking 101

January 30th, 2014 Comment

Eberbach Monastery | Winemaking

How is wine made? Whether you’re a newbie wine aficionado who wants to get the  basics down, or  a seasoned collector in need of a quick refresher course,  read our step-by-step guide to find out how your favorite beverage goes from grape to bottle.

The Harvest

The last stage on the vine is the first step in the winemaking process. There is often a very small window between when grapes are underripe and when they’re too far gone, so the harvest is all about timing. The vineyard’s location, terrain, climate, soil, and age can all contribute to when the grapes are ready (as well as their taste). Winemakers use science and experience to watch and test their grapes so that they’re picked at the perfect moment. Grapes can be harvested by hand (which prevents oxidations resulting from damaged skins, but is expensive), or by machine.

Crushing and Destemming

After the grapes have been harvested, it’s a race against the clock to destem and crush them. Wait too long, and the grapes you’ve spent a year carefully cultivating will be useless. Winemakers often work through the night during this phase of the process.

The grape crushing is not only a physical process: it serves a chemical purpose as well. Crushing serves to split the grape skin and allow the juice, or “must” to begin to run out. As it does so, the sugar from the must mixes with natural yeast in the grape skin. The yeast consumes the sugar, turning it to carbon dioxide and — most importantly — alcohol. This is the beginning of the fermentation process.

During this stage, the grape stems are also separated from the must. And if the wine is intended to be white wine, the skins are removed as well. If it’s meant to be a red wine, the skins stay so they can provide color and tannins to the finished product.

Fermentation and Pressing

Fermentation is the step that turns what could be merely grape juice into wine. At this point, the wine is put into large stainless steel tanks, or sometimes oak barrels, which add certain (tasty) flavors to the finished product. During fermentation, the grape’s sugars turn to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The winemaker monitors the wine during this process, and may add sugar to bump up the alcohol levels, or acid if the wine’s acidity is low.

For white wine, pressing is done right after crushing, and for red wine, it’s done after fermentation. This process turns the grape solids left after crushing into a thick liquid that winemakers can add to the wine to improve its color and flavor.

Malolactic Fermentation

This additional fermentation isn’t used for all wines. When it is, the winemaker adds lactic acid bacteria to the wine so it can smooth out harsh-tasting malic acid by converting it into lactic acid. Most red wines, and some of the fuller-bodied white wines undergo malolactic fermentation to create a smoother, mellower final product.


For this phase, think barrels: they’re the most common vessel used for the maturation process. French and American oak are the most common choices for the pleasant flavors they impart to the wine. Oak barrels also allow tiny amounts of oxygen to enter and interact with the wine, serving to mellow out some of the tannins in red wine and contribute complex flavor compounds to both red and white wines. Some modern winemakers are beginning to use stainless steel tanks for this process instead of traditional barrels. Because they don’t interact with the wine, they can be a good choice for certain varietals, and as they don’t need to be replaced and are easy to maintain, they are more economical.

It’s during this time that the winemaker might also do a step called “racking,” in which wine is moved from one barrel to another. This serves to separate the wine from the sediments that collects at the bottom of the barrel, and that can negatively impact the wine’s flavor. It also exposes the wine to a bit of oxygen, which helps flavors develop, giving the wine complexity.

Fining and Filtering

When the wine is ready, fining and filtering are done. These processes remove most of the sediment from the wine. (Sediment won’t hurt you, but it’s unsightly and can have an unpleasant taste.) Filtering will remove bigger solids such as dead yeast. Together, the processes turn a cloudy wine attractively clear.

Blending and Bottling

If the wine is intended to be part of a blend, this is when that process takes place. Winemakers don’t blend wines only to improve their taste, but also to adjust their color, alcohol levels, tannins, aromas, or pH. It takes a lot of experience and a sophisticated palate to blend wines well.

Finally, the wine is portioned into bottles, and each one is topped with an inert gas (read: one that doesn’t react with the wine and change its taste) like nitrogen or carbon dioxide. The bottle is topped off with a screw cap or traditional cork. Now, they’re ready to be stored for further aging, or drunk right away. Cheers!


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How to Navigate a Wine List

January 15th, 2014 Comment

Even the most confident of wine lovers can get bogged down by a wine list that reads like a novel. Here’s how to safely navigate a restaurant wine-list and pick a bottle that’s sure to please everyone at the table.

Step 1: Choose a Color

Start by choosing between white or red by considering what you’ll be eating. You’re out to dinner, after all: the most important thing is that your wine complements your food. But feel free to throw that old “red wine with red meat, white wine with chicken and fish” adage out the window. A better method is to base your wine decision on your dish’s most prominent flavor. A chicken breast simply poached in white wine, for example, calls for a white wine that won’t overpower the flavor. The same chicken breast topped with a Marsala sauce, with its reduced wine and hearty mushrooms, is bold enough to stand up to a red.

Step 2: Balancing Act

Next, consider the heartiness of the dish you’re eating: the dish and the wine should match each other in body or richness. One of the best ways to do this is to consider your sauce. The simple buttery, garlic-y wine sauce in a bowl of linguini with clams plays well with a white wine with some heft, like a California Chardonnay. A pasta primavera with a simpler olive oil-based sauce, however, needs the lighter touch of something like a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Step 3: Match like Flavors

Here’s where you can get really creative. You can match the flavors and aromas in a wine to ingredients in your dish. A dish spiked with verdant cilantro, for example, can go well with a white wine with herbal, grassy notes. A steak topped with a sauce studded with currants would pair perfectly with a Cabernet rich with berry flavors.

Step 4: Think about Structure

The perfect pairing will result in a food and wine match that’s perfectly in balance. Certain components of the food you’re eating can  increase or lessen the acidity, sweetness, and bitterness of  the wine you choose.

Acidic ingredients like citrus juice pair well with acidic wines, making them taste softer and better-balanced. However, if a wine is already balanced, acidic foods can make it fall flat. Likewise, the tannins in a wine interact with the fatty flavors in a dish. Rich foods like steak diminish the appearance of tannins in wine and make it taste smoother. Salty and spicy foods, on the other hand, interact poorly with tannins, and can make a wine taste harsh.

With these four steps, you’ll be able to successfully choose a wine to pair with any dish on the table. But as with all things wine, we encourage you not to feel limited. If you don’t like red wine, don’t let that stop you from ordering that porterhouse. After all, what matters most is that you enjoy yourself. Choose a wine you’d drink by itself, and you’ll always be happy.

See our recommendations for local San Diego shops that carry the wines we love!

The Perfect New Year’s Eve Wine Cocktail

December 31st, 2013 Comment

Your search for the ultimate holiday party cocktail is over. Spiced wine is the perfect festive beverage to serve at your New Year’s Eve gathering, and to enjoy throughout the holiday season. This traditional drink will warm your guests through and through, and looks impressively festive. But they’ll never know that this beverage couldn’t be simpler to make.

Spiced wine has been around for centuries. Nearly every culture that drinks wine has added spices to it at some point in history. Historically, this doctoring has served a number of purposes, from supposedly increasing the wine’s medicinal value to masking the taste of the beverage gone bad.

Today, of course, we know that a few spices probably won’t make wine better for us, and we have no need to disguise the taste of rancid wine. Modern spiced or mulled wine recipes cause for the wine to be warmed with a few spices, along with additions of your choice. Here, we use orange juice and zest, but you can also add a fortifying beverage such as brandy to make your wine cocktail even more festive.

The roots of spiced wine go back as far as ancient Egypt. The Egyptians laced their wine with figs, herbs and pine resin (yum!) to create what was believed to be a medicinal brew. Spiced wine was also popular in Medieval Europe, where it helped the people get through long and terrible winters, and on top of that, was rumored to function as an aphrodisiac — cheers!

The crusades played a major role in spreading the love of spiced wine across Europe. The countries that embraced spiced wine made it their own, designing recipes that are deeply ingrained in their traditions today. In Britain, the beverage is called mulled wine and is a popular drink throughout the winter. In Germany, it’s called Glühwein. In the Nordic countries, it’s called glögg or gløgg.

Whatever you call it, spiced wine has a long history and tradition that make it a great choice for a wintertime party cocktail. There’s no strict recipe, so feel free to make tweaks to the recipe below to make a signature version of spiced wine that you can enjoy with your friends and family for years to come.

Spiced Wine:

In a large pot, bring to a simmer:

1 bottle red wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon

3-5 cups apple cider (depending on how strong you like your spiced wine)

The juice and zest of one orange

3 tablespoons-1/3 cup honey (depending on how sweet you’d like it)

3 cinnamon sticks

A few cloves

Simmer for 30 minutes, then pour into mugs and serve.

Jake’s Corner: Cabernet Around the World

December 12th, 2013 Comment

Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the vine

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:

  1. With a few exceptions, everybody was within $10-15 when guessing the price point of each wine.
  2. With one exception, everybody was able to guess the Bordeaux.
  3. The most guessed right was four of six. The beer guy had two of six.
  4. Most were amazed at the quality of the Cabernet from Mendoza (Argentina), as their familiarity with Argentinian wines is “cheap.”

Here are some combined notes on each wine:

2008 Melanson Vineyard Matthews Block Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley

  • Deep purple with long legs on the rim. Allspice, blackberry jam and dried fruit on the nose. A hot smell from the alcohol. Blackberry and prune on the palette start fading to leather and smoke. Fruit forward with soft silky tannins and a nice long finish

2009 Chateau Martinat Cotes de Bourg

  • Tawny color fading to brown on the rim. Cedar planks with an earthy animal nose. Very light on fruit with a hint pepper. Very dry with under developed tannins, tar, pepper and barnyard characteristics with little discernable fruit. This was the least favorite wine tasted by the group (of course I had a budget, so it wasn’t a first growth).

2011 Susana Balbo Cabernet Sauvignon Signature Mendoza

  • A deep intense ruby color. Aromas of blueberry, blackberry and full of herbs: sage & basil. A deep silky texture that took over your mouth with a sweetness of dried fruits like raisins. Attractively sweet like blackberry cobbler. A long finish with smooth tannins that develop a thought of violets.

2007 Korbin Kameron Cuvee Kristin Sonoma Valley

  • Equally split between ruby purple, with aromas of black cherry, chocolate and tobacco. All fruit on the palate, concentrated cooked down blackberry, boysenberry and dried cherry. The tannins are soft and well-rounded.

2007 Guilliams Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain District

  • Intense purple that appears almost black. Pepper, blackberry and chocolate on the nose with hints of cedar & cigar. It’s chewy like stewed black fruits. Hints of licorice, almonds and even basil. Very tannic with a dry finish. More licorice on the finish.

2088 Mazzei Philip Cabernet Sauvignon Toscana

  • Garnett in color. Black cherry, baked red apples, even dark red Jolly Rancher. Lots of black fruit aromas. A peppery zing when it first hits your palate with spice, chocolate and young firm tannins. A spicy finish.

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?


Categories: Tasting Wine Tags: ,