A Blind Date-Gusto Tastings

A cool, rainy Sunday can feel a little like Christmas here in Central Texas, especially at the Summer’s end.  Settling in at home with a cup of tea is about as good as it gets.  Unless you can be at Barley Swine enjoying a Blind Tasting with Gusto Tastings.  That is even better.

Each month, Gusto Tastings holds a blind tasting which allows you to test your palate and chat with other wine lovers in a warm, casual atmosphere.  Gusto Tastings says they,”strive to provide a different kind of service; one that not only is unique and fun but one that can inform and leave an impression.”  They do just that.  The two events I have attended thus far have been outstanding.  It can be difficult to make wine education approachable for the novice and still stretch the seasoned professional.  They have found that sweet spot.

Daniel Kelada founded Gusto Tastings in 2008.  He is a Senior Wine Instructor and an Executive Sommelier.  Daniel is extremely knowledgable in all things wine.  That is undeniable.  However, what I most appreciate about him is his warm demeanor and his ability to bring that expertise to others so effortlessly.  Every question was answered, his explanations were thorough, and yet he made you feel as if you were just chatting with a friend.  As a former teacher, I recognize and appreciate his gift.

On each table, there was a list of possible grapes from a variety of countries.  There were tasting forms, glasses for the flights, and some ridiculously tasty munchies, courtesy of Barley Swine.  On each form, there was a series of questions to help you narrow down your guess.  The goal being to determine:

  • Country
  • Region
  • Varietal
  • Vintage +/- 2yrs.
  • Production Technique

Intimidated?  Don’t be.  Daniel then went through each wine and helped you recognize the clues in each wine that would lead to the correct answer.  I learned so much.  For example, where the acid hits on your tongue indicates the type of acid.  I learned about production techniques and the history of Gamay.  Yes, as luck would have it, we focused on French wines, about which I have much to learn.  The order of the wines in and of itself helped narrow down the possible regions.  The nose?  Another clue.  Old World or New world?  Cool climate or warm?  Seated with many professionals, it would have been easy to feel intimidated, but the group was so warm and so willing to help.  Instead, I felt encouraged and inspired.

Another special treat was a presentation by Madame Cocoa.  She teaches informal classes at UT Austin and at Chautauqua Institution in NY on the glorious bean.  She also gives dessert and chocolate tours here in Austin.  She shared four artisanal chocolates from various origins.  Amazing.  My favorites were Patric Chocolates from Madagascar.  A treat, for sure, but so worth it.

So, now I have a new addiction.  If it is the third Sunday of the month, and you need to find me, try Barley Swine.  Don’t want to wait that long?  Gusto Tastings is hosting another fun event this Wednesday at III Forks: Texas vs. The World where they will be featuring Viogniers.  And you know how I feel about Viognier.

Disclosure: I was provided a Media pass to attend this event

This Wine Costs What?- A Great Piece from Talk-A-Vino

If you are lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe’s, Talk-A-Vino has some great wine values for you.  His follow up to this post, with even more suggestions, can be found here.  If you aren’t already following him, check out his site.  Enjoy!

This Wine Costs What?

If you follow the wine discussions in the social media world, one of the most controversial (and therefore, popular and recurrent) subjects is price of wine. There is a full range of opinions out there, as you can imagine, from some people religiously advocating cheapest possible wines as their one and only choice, to those who pay $2500 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle or Chateau Petrus (to tell you the truth, I’m really curious as to what percentage of those spending the money on Screaming Eagle actually end up drinking it versus selling later on at an auction – but this is a subject for the whole another post). There had being also posts and articles advocating that consumers must buy only cheap wines due to the fact that majority is incapable to understand the difference between cheap and expensive wine anyway – here you can find my response to one such a post.

Why am I talking about the cheap value wines all of a sudden? While in California, I visited Trader Joe’s store near by. In Connecticut, where I live, Trader Joe’s sells only beer. In Massachusetts, Trader Joe’s has very good selection of wines (I wrote a few posts about those wines before – here are couple of links for you – one about Amarone  and one more generic). Wine selection at this Trader Joe’s in San Diego definitely beats the Boston store hands down – great representation of many regions, with a lot of wines offered at a great prices. So I decided to run a simple experiment – let’s see what I can get for a $20. I spent $21 on three bottles of wine, and when I tasted the Dearly Beloved Forever Red … this blog post was born.

I will give you my tasting notes a bit later, but let me tell you – this wine was simply very, very good – at the price of $6.99, which I’m sure constitutes cheap wine in anyone’s book. I wonder how many people would reach out for this wine because of the label alone, which looks very cool, and then will put it back because they would think at $6.99 it can’t be good? I would very likely ignore this wine too, if I would not be conducting this experiment (not anymore, of course – after tasting it, I know I need a case). So what is driving the consumer behavior around the cheap wine? Outside of elitism, clever wine marketing and all the wine press which is trying to convince us that only more expensive is better, I think we have one fundamental issue coming out from our experience with cheap stuff. How many of you came back from the dollar store just to realize that what was looking almost as a treasure chest full of stuff for $10 or $15 is actually a $10 or $15 worth of junk, none of which can be used for its intended purpose? How many of us bought the cheapest tool just to understand that probability of killing oneself is a lot higher than probability of actually accomplishing the job you got the tool for? How many of us used cheapest possible material for a project, only to regret your decision every minute after and ending up paying a lot more than we would if we wouldn’t be so frugal to begin with? I think this experience is programming us to effectively disregard the cheap option simply from the fear of disappointment.

We transpose this experience onto our dealings with the wine world – and in a lot of cases we effectively end up losing. I have to tell you that I had a lot of $15-$20 wines, which end up being not good at all, with or without any comparison with this Dear Beloved wine. I tasted many $50 and $100 bottles which are not bad, but don’t give you nearly as much pleasure as this wine. Am I saying that from now on I will only be buying the wines for $6.99 or less? Not at all. And if anyone wants to spoil me with Chateau Petrus or DRC, I will be forever obliged. But if we will be able to avoid making assumptions and judgements based on the price of wine alone, we would be far better off in finding the wines we like at the prices we can afford. This is not simple. I would love to conduct a simple experiment – pour this wine to the two different glasses and tell people that wine in one costs $6.99, and the same wine in another one costs $19.99, and see how many people will wholeheartedly advocate the $19.99 wine to be far more superior to the $6.99 one. I’m sure it will be a fun exercise – something you should try at home (if you do, I will be glad to hear about your results). So we really need to work on our wine buying habits – we definitely will be far better off if we do.

Now, let me share the tasting notes with you. First, here are all three wines ($20.97 total + tax):

Let’s start with 2011 Caves du Journalet Cotes du Rhone (13% ABV, $4.99) – very soft and round. The wine rolls very smoothly in your mouth – very subtle tannins, good red fruit, good acidity – nice balance, nothing stands out, just round and smooth. Very easy to drink. Doesn’t give you any amazing “oompf”, but I’m sure would be a great party wine as it will appeal to the broad audience. Drinkability: 7.

Next – 2009 Dear Beloved Forever Red Central Coast, California (13.5% ABV, $6.99). Very nice nose of blackberries and some spice. More of the same on the palate – good red and black fruit, plums, ripe blueberries, warm spice, hint of eucalyptus, medium to full body, round tannins and and acidity, very balanced ( and stayed that way for 3 days). This is the description of much more expensive wine, but – $6.99 is $6.99… Definitely the wine to buy by the case. Drinkability: 8.

Last one - 2009 Blason de Bourgogne Montagny Premier Cru, Burgundy (13% ABV, $8.99) – Burgundy for $9? Can that be even drinkable? Nice and balanced. Nose of white apple and lychees. Very round on the palate, white fruit, with distant hint of vanilla and toasted oak, may be a tiny touch of butter. Good balance, good acidity – should be a good food wine. Drinkability: 7+.

That’s all for today folks. I’m glad it is a #WineWednesday, so this post will hopefully give you some food for thoughts. What are your great experiences with the cheap value wines, and what are the “not cheap wines” you regretted buying? Share it all here. Cheers and happy #WW!

An Icon on, and in, a Bottle

Earlier in the summer I received two lovely bottles of wine. And I am not just referring to what was in the bottle. Biltmore Wines have created a simple, subtle bottle with an etching of an American icon, the Biltmore House. The appearance is sleek, the blends irresistible.

Biltmore Century White is a beautifully balanced blend of Gewürztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Riesling, and Symphony. Looking at that list, you would think it would be quite sweet, but with a residual sugar of 3.24%, it would be considered only “off dry.” A nice reflective wine, yellow in color, and a very inviting nose. The bright citrus and floral nose were reflected in the taste. This wine was not too sweet by itself and it would pair nicely with a variety of foods. Salty cheeses, citrus or spicy seafood, a summer dessert, or my favorite pairing Thai or Vietnamese food.

I came up with this recipe last summer when I was trying to use up what I had in the house while sneaking in some veggies. Sometimes we have to get creative with the veggies, right? Although a bit time-consuming to chop everything, it allows for flexibility with how you build each bowl. The freshness of the veggies plays well of the citrus in the wine and the spice is tempered with the sweetness of the wine. You can generally count on the sweeter grapes above playing well with any spicy Asian cuisine. The peanut sauce is a little harder, but it worked well enough.

At $15.99, this bottle is a little more than a Monday wine and a little less than most weekend wines. I just that just makes it a great anytime wine. Cheers!

Thai Meatballs with Veggie Vermicelli and Peanut Sauce

  • 1 lb. Ground Chicken
  • Vermicelli
  • 2 carrots
  • grated
  • 1 cucumber thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup Panko bread crumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp grated ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/4 sweet onion
  • thinly sliced
  • 2 limes
  • 1/4 cup peanuts
  • 1/4 c peanut butter
  • 1/4 c coconut milk
  • 1 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. chopped mint
  • 2 tbsp. chopped cilantro
  • 1/4 c rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • red pepper flakes (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Combine sugar, rice wine vinegar and onion in a bowl. Let that sit.

3. Mix ground chicken, egg, Panko bread crumbs, 1 grated carrot, ginger, 1 tbsp of mint, 1 tbsp cilantro, 1 tsp. salt in a bowl.

4)Form small meatballs (about 1 in. diameter) and place on baking sheet.

5) Bake in a preheated oven for 17-20 minutes or until firm and cooked through.

6) While the meatballs are baking, cook the vermicelli as directed.

7. Run the noodles under cold water to stop the cooking process.

8. In a large bowl, toss the noodles in the vinegar mixture and 1 tbsp olive oil. Squeeze the juice of 1/2 a lime over the
noodles. Set aside.

9. Make peanut sauce by combining peanut butter, coconut milk, soy sauce, the juice of half a lime. You may add red pepper flakes if you want heat.

10. Top the noodles with grated carrots, peanuts, cucumber, the remaining mint and cilantro.

11. The meatballs and peanut dipping sauce can be served on the noodles or on the side. Serve with mint garnish and a lime wedge.
This can easily be made gluten-free by using potato flakes instead of Panko bread crumbs and a rice pasta. Try other vegetables in the meatballs (sweet potato, kale finely chopped) or on the salad (red cabbage, tomatoes) as to meet your child’s needed nutrition and preferences.

*{Disclosure: I was provided with this wine from PR Firm, Folsom & Associates. All statements and opinions expressed in this article are my own.}

Grief and Gratitude (Originally posted 9/11/12)

This morning, our country marks the anniversary of September 11th, 2001. I originally posted this piece last year in honor of a dear friend, Jason Oswald. In his short time here on earth, he lived a life worth honoring. I am forever grateful for his friendship and his example.

The light here begins to change in September. It softens a bit, reflecting off the leaves. The fauna seems to let out a collective sigh of relief from the harsh Texas summer. And yet, for me, it now comes with a heaviness that wasn’t there eleven years ago. A mixture of grief and gratitude.

For most people, September 11th, 2001 was a night where sleep was fitful and hard to come by. On top of the horror that the entire nation experienced, I was awaiting news of a dear friend. Jason had last been seen that morning, getting on the subway on his way to the North Tower. He had recently begun his job as a Bond Trader at Cantor Fitzgerald. I called his phone repeatedly throughout the day, leaving message after message. Unaware of the location of his new job, I was completely caught off-guard when I got a phone call that evening saying that he was missing. I chose to hope for the best. I knew the chaos the entire city was facing. I chose to believe I would hear his sweet voice again. And I have, but only in my dreams.

In one of the few moments of rest that night, Jason came to me in a dream. He kissed me on the cheek and told me he would always look out for me. And I believe, in many ways, he has.

I met Jason at Wheaton College but our friendship didn’t really blossom until after I left. At first we connected through letters, and then we found ourselves both living in Austin. Even when he left to begin a career in Chicago, we would fly back and forth to spend time together. Although we were usually in dating relationships with others, we each looked to one another for advice, encouragement, and a safe place to be. Jason had found the perfect balance of listening without judgment, but pointing you to the truth. And when you needed to laugh, he knew just where to insert the under-the-breath comment. He was truly one of the most Christ-like men I have known. His integrity and compassion impacted so many. With his wisdom and wit, he was a steadfast source of comfort for all who were fortunate enough to call him a friend.

Jason lived life to the fullest. He ran a marathon, learned to barefoot ski, and would drop everything to help a friend. In a paper written for his Senior thesis, Jason penned the following words. “If we could realize daily the brevity of our lives, our definitions of success would take on a more eternal scope…I would hope that I would not be the one…from whom God would have to wipe away remorseful tears.”

Grief is a funny thing. It ebbs and flows. At times it is overwhelming, and then you realize that you’re living lighter. And then you almost feel guilty that it is gone, for now. The cliché tells us that time heals wounds. I wouldn’t agree with that statement. Grief has to be tackled and embraced, absorbed and freed.

For years, I found myself retreating to mourn in solitude. I didn’t know what to do with the loss I felt. If you are a spouse, a parent, or a child, the gravity of the loss is widely understood. As it should be. But what about dear friends? How do you explain that loss? Did I have the right to still be grieving?

Then last year, on the tenth anniversary, I chose to plan the Austin 9/11 Walk to try to bring people of all faiths together and remember. I chose to work and walk for Jason. This past Spring, I returned to his memorial at our college campus and processed with another dear friend. I cried and laughed and mourned. I have found more healing in the “doing” than I was able to in all of the previous years. No one can tell you how and when to grieve. It is a unique path for each of us, but one that must be walked.

My birthday fell the weekend before that Tuesday. He always called or sent flowers. He forgot to call. I knew that he had moved to New York to see where things could go with a girl. But for him to forget to call, I knew things must have been getting serious with her. I had to process, “Was I okay with this?” “Of course,” I thought, “If he is happy, that is all I want for him.” I decided that I would give him two days to call, or I was going to give him a hard time. That time never came. This Spring, as I was praying about the grief I still felt, I felt like God was saying to me, “You were willing to give him up before as long as he was happy. He is with me and he is very happy.” There is comfort in that thought.

So as September approached this year, I noticed that I felt a little lighter. I noticed that the gratitude for my time with him, and for all he taught me, outweighed the grief of the loss. We all have a choice. To dwell in sadness and fear or to move through it. It is easy to see how Jason became the man he did. In an article published shortly after his death, his mother said, “My choice is to be bitter and angry or to go on and make the world a better place. I know what Jason would tell me.” Thank you, Jason, for making me a better person and the world a better place.

Jason Douglas Oswald 12/18/72-9/11/01

A Friend Indeed

On our way to Colorado, we stopped at McPherson Winery in Lubbock, Texas and loaded up.  Truly.  Our truck was p-a-c-k-e-d and yet I still found room for over a case of wine.  Priorities, right?  Before visiting, I had tried the Tre Colore and the Viognier, both of which I really enjoyed.  I knew I would like his wine, I just didn’t realize that I would like ALL his wine.  That doesn’t happen very often.

McPherson Tasting Room

One of the gems we picked up was Les Copains, a white blend of Grenache Blanc (45%), Viognier (45%), and Roussanne (10%).  Translated from French, Les Copains means, “the friends” or “the buddies.”  This is a lovely, versatile blend which retails for about $14.  The Viognier gives it rich floral notes, the Grenache Blanc gave it green and citrus notes, and the Rousanne balances the two to create a fantastic summer wine.

One of our last nights of the trip, we were staying with friends in Boulder and picked up some Italian food at a restaurant called Arugula.  Since that is one of my favorite greens, I thought we were on to something.  I ordered the Summer Vegetable Risotto and the Scallops for my husband.  I figured that our “friends” would work with both.  They did so splendidly.

When we returned home, I was still dreaming about the pairing so I tried to replicate it at home.  Unfortunately, I could not find Les Copains that day, but the risotto replication was spot on. I think I will have to add some to our next shipment since we, of course, joined the wine club.  See if you can find some near you, or go ahead and order some.  In the meantime, try out this risotto and pair it with a light to medium bodied, crisp summer white.

Summer Vegetable Risotto (Inspired by the one at Arugula)

Warm 3 cups (I did half and half) water or chicken stock in a 2 qt sauce pan.

Add about 2 tsp. Olive oil to a sauté pan.

 Sauté 1 medium onion over medium heat until soft, reduce to low heat.

Add about 1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half.

Cut the corn off the cob from 1-2 ears and add to the pan.

Stir until warm and slightly wilting.

Salt and pepper to taste, turn off the heat.  Warm again quickly when ready to add to risotto.

Pour yourself a glass of wine for the following steps.  It will make it taste better.  Trust me.

Put about 1-2 oz of white wine and 1 cup Arborio rice in a 3 qt. pan or similar. 

Gradually add the warm water/broth, about a half a cup at a time, while stirring. 

When the liquid is absorbed, continue adding until the rice has reached a creamy consistency. (The whole process took me about 30-45 min.)

When the risotto is cooked, stir in  3-4 oz. plain Goat Cheese.

Then add the warmed vegetables, and about 8 basil leaves, chiffonade.

I hope the recipe is easy to follow.  I don’t generally write (or follow) recipes, but please let me know if you have questions.  Cheers!