Tasting With Tony

27 July 2013
The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

The author and Anthony Terlato (right) at Tangley Oaks

Some people envy wine writers because of all the delicious wines they get to taste, and I certainly love that part of the job. But just as much, if not more, I love the people who I meet along the way. People who love wine, I find, tend to love life, and spending time with them is invariably a pleasure.

I recently made my way to Tangley Oaks, a Tudor-style mansion that serves as the headquarters of Terlato Wines, a major importer and winemaker. According to its website, one in ten bottles of wine over $14 in the U.S. is marketed by Terlato. This company became so influential due in large part to the efforts of Anthony Terlato, who Wine Enthusiast named “Man of the Year” in 2003, noting that he changed the way Americans drink.

And so he did, importing one of the very first Pinot Grigios on the market (Santa Margherita) and introducing American wine drinkers to the joys of Sicilian wines. Now also an owner of wineries, Terlato never compromises on quality, choosing to raise prices when necessary rather than market an inferior product. This philosophy helped increase the sophistication of the American wine palate, which in turn lead to the generally wine-savvy culture we enjoy today.

It was fascinating to meet such an important figure in American wine history, but what made tasting this tasting such a delight was the obvious enthusiasm Terlato had for these wines. Here is a person who has tasted thousands upon thousands of fine wines over the course of his career, and yet each wine we tried excited him. “This is a beautiful wine,” he would say, or “This I love, love, love.” Other bottles brought up memories of the winemakers: “M____ is brilliant, but he’s a brat — he’s an adult delinquent!”

As delicious as the wines we tasted were (more on them in a future post), it was the company that made this tasting truly memorable. The afternoon with Anthony Terlato reminded me of why I love wine in the first place. However many you drink over the years, quality wines don’t become boring. The evocative aromas and flavors of a well-crafted wine somehow never lose the power to stir the emotions.

WBC Warm Up

30 May 2013

Wine Blogger Down!The Wine Blogger Conference (WBC) approaches! This year’s event takes place in Penticton, a lakeside town in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, one of Canada’s premier wine regions. If you’ve ever encountered a Canadian wine, it’s likely to have been a sweet ice wine, but they’re not just making dessert wines up there. Apparently, the terroir is well suited to a host of different varieties, many of which make perfectly tasty dry table wines.

I’m thrilled to be able to explore this odd corner of the wine world, along with Washington State’s unheralded Lake Chelan AVA. These two regions have unusual and obscure written all over them, and I have no doubt that all sorts of gems are waiting to be unearthed.

After my recent spin through Germany, I think it wise to slow down for a few days in order to recuperate. I usually post on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but I’m going to pause for the next week to prepare my palate and liver for the onslaught to come. Until Penticton!

Potentially Confusing Wine Terms

23 January 2013

Wine, like many fields, has its own vocabulary. For some, that’s part of its appeal, and for others, it can feel intimidating. I must admit I use winespeak on this blog not infrequently, with the goal of adding precision to my descriptions. But some of these terms, as my mother recently alerted me, can’t even be found in a typical dictionary.

I thought, therefore, that it would be handy to have a quick glossary of some potentially confusing terms you’re likely to encounter when reading about wine:

Acids: As in citrus fruit, acids can give wine a juicy, mouth-watering quality, and they’re usually very important for making a wine food-friendly. I find they can take on different shapes and colors, like pointy limey acids, or round orangey acids, or bright lemony acids.

Brut/Extra Dry: Ages ago, some marketing genius in deepest France decided it would be smart to use these terms counterintuitively. A brut Champagne (or other sparkling wine) will be dry, and an extra brut Champagne will be even drier. An extra dry Champagne, however, will be on the sweeter side. It’s France — they like to keep us barbarian Americans on our toes.

Cuvée: This word is thrown around willy-nilly these days, and it’s sometimes used just as a synonym for “wine” when wine writers don’t want to use “wine” too often in a single sentence about wine. It usually refers to some specific subset of a wine, perhaps indicating different blends, for example.

Noble Rot: I suppose even a true marketing genius would have trouble making the botrytis fungus sexy. Noble rot can be quite desirable because it creates little holes in the grape skins, drying out and even shriveling the grapes a bit. This concentrates the sugars and flavors in the remaining juice, resulting in (ideally) marvelously deep, rich, sweet and lively wines. Sauternes and Tokai Aszú are two classic examples.

Tannins: In contrast to mouth-watering acids, tannins tend to dry the mouth. If you drink a wine and it sucks the moisture off your tongue, or (in extreme cases) feels like a mouthful of cotton, those are the tannins at work. Wines aged in stainless steel typically have fewer tannins than wines aged in wood, though the amount of tannins tends to be determined more by the grape variety and how much the winery used the stems, skins and seeds in the winemaking process. In any case, tannins help add structure and balance, and help keep a wine intact as it ages in the bottle.

Terroir: More and more, wine drinkers are seeking out cuvées– er, wines, which are expressive of their terroir. This French term doesn’t just refer to the qualities of the soil in which a vineyard is planted. It encompasses the entire microclimate of the vineyard, from soil to sunlight to rainfall to temperatures. Basically, terroir can be anything that gives a wine a sense of place. A single-vineyard wine should theoretically be most expressive of its terroir, as compared to a wine made from grapes grown across an entire region. It matters less whether a wine is a varietal or a blend of different varieties.

Variety/Varietal: Speaking of which, let’s talk about “varietal” versus “varieties.” I admit I confused these terms myself until relatively recently, and you’ll see them used incorrectly in all sorts of prestigious publications. Editors take note! A variety refers to the type of grape, such as Merlot, Chardonnay, or everyone’s favorite, Öküzgözü. A varietal wine is a wine made entirely (or almost entirely) from a single variety, and it should probably express the characteristics of that variety. Although “varietal” is technically an adjective, it’s also common these days to refer to a varietal wine as simply “a varietal.”

My goodness, well that’s enough vocabulary for me. Does anyone happen to have a glass of tannic terroir-focused extra-dry varietal something or other?

What The Heck Is Going On Here?

8 December 2012

Although many of my posts touch on the reasons why I gravitate towards the unusual and the obscure, I realize I’ve never distilled (if you will) the purpose of this blog in a single, concise post. So:

Why am I making such a fuss over the unusual and the obscure? I touched on the most practical reason in this post: Value. As wine writer Lettie Teague noted in a recent column for The Wall Street Journal, “The obscure and the uncurated will almost always cost less than the well known and well placed. If you don’t know what a wine is, you’re unlikely to pay a high price for it.”

I am constantly in search of good wine values, and most of the wines I describe on this site pack a lot of flavor for the price. Like most people, I’m on a budget, and usually I want tasty wines that cost $15 or less. But it can be daunting to weed through the huge array of inexpensive unusual wines. It’s my goal to single out the wines that are not merely unusual, but unusual and delicious. Because it can be difficult to find a specific wine if you’re not shopping in exactly the same stores I am, I try to highlight entire regions and wine varieties to watch out for whenever possible.

As important as price is to me, there is another reason much dearer to my heart: Sticking up for the little guy. By definition, most of the wines and spirits I write about are made by small producers without big marketing budgets. For just about all these winemakers and distillers, I suspect their work is a labor of love, and I like to think that’s something you can taste. Most of us would surely much rather drink something made with real heart than something concocted in a lab, but too often, we’re afraid to leave our comfort zones and try something new. Drink fearlessly, my friends! You’ll discover some incredible stuff, and you’ll be helping small businesses.

You’ll also strike a blow against flavor homogenization, helping ensure that the vast world of wine and spirits available to us today continues to be gloriously, wonderfully diverse. And what fun it is, at least for me, to learn about all these fascinating little nooks and crannies which are making tasty wines and spirits. Taste and smell are two of our most powerful senses, and every now and then, a drink transports me right back to its home, or even back in time. Bottles of something unusual and obscure almost always come with a great story.

Some of you may also be wondering: Why wines and spirits? Most blogs focus on either just wine or just spirits/cocktails. That keeps things nice and tidy, but that’s not how most people I know drink. To be sure, there are some of us who only drink one type of alcohol, but if you’re like me, sometimes you want some wine, sometimes you want a cocktail, and sometimes you want a beer. (I don’t write about beer, because, well, I had to draw the line somewhere.) I see no reason to deny ourselves the pleasure of mixing it up, and I want this blog to be somewhere you can go whenever you’re in the mood to taste something new and different.

So as you’re doing your shopping, consider picking up something unusual and obscure to bring to that holiday party or give your friends as a Christmas present. (My top gift picks are listed here.) Seek out a bottle of cheer with a story, crafted with love, rather than just another bottle of booze made in a factory.

An Odd Bacchus Gift Guide

1 December 2012

If you, like me, have only just begin to contemplate making your holiday shopping list — let alone actually buy anything — do not despair. If your circle of family and friends, like mine, contains quite a few drinkers, all you need to do is make one trip to your favorite local wine/spirits shop, with this list in hand.

I’ve suggested mostly regions or categories of wines and spirits, rather than specific brands, so that you’ll have a better chance of finding them. The links go to fascinating, beautifully composed blog posts with additional information:


(In no particular order)

1. If you’re buying a gift for someone who really knows their wine, someone you would like to impress, a Grower Champagne is an ideal choice. Produced (theoretically) by the people who grew the grapes in specific vineyards, this Champagne will likelier reflect its terroir more than a Champagne made by a négociant, which buys grapes from an array of vineyards in the Champagne region. A Grower Champagne will be indicated by “RM” (Récoltant Manipulant) on the label, usually in very small type, as opposed to “NM”, which stands for Négociant Manipulant.

2. One of the best white-wine values out there is Savennières, a Chenin Blanc produced in the Loire Valley. Haven’t heard of it? That’s one of the reasons it’s such an excellent value.

3. Another excellent white choice would be a wine from Pessac-Léognan, a sub-region of Graves, which is a sub-region of Bordeaux. “Pessac-Léognan” may not roll right off the tongue, but its luscious tropical flavors and voluptuous texture will thrill the palate. This was probably my favorite white I drank this year.

4. A less-expensive but still-delightful gift would be a Furmint from Hungary. I just had a very fine example a couple of nights ago at Big Jones, with up-front pear flavors followed by a spicy, almost fiery finish. It works beautifully with a range of foods, and typically doesn’t cost all that much. If you have a bigger budget, go for some Tokaji Aszu, the justly renowned Hungarian dessert wine (the more “Puttonyos,” the more concentrated the flavor).

5. One of my favorite odd red wines of the year was St. Laurent (pronounced “Sahnkt Lorent”) from Austria. This variety tends to make rather sexy wine, with dark red fruit, velvety tannins and a touch of earth.

6. Good wines from famed Tuscany tend to be rather expensive, but Morellino di Scansano has yet to be discovered. These Sangiovese-based wines from a corner of the nearby Maremma region tend to be better values than their Tuscan cousins. The one I tried had deep, enticing fruit and some real finesse.

7. I’ve had great experience with Massaya, a well-regarded winery in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Its wines made quite an impression on me, both red and white. If your wine shop carries vintages by Massaya, don’t pass them up.

8. For the spirit drinker, you can hardly go wrong with Ron Zacapa, a fine rum from Guatemala. Smooth and complex, this rum is made for sipping, not mixing with Coke. Go for as old a rum as you can afford.

9. If you don’t find Ron Zacapa, look for Flor de Caña instead. This Nicaraguan rum also impressed me with its refined character and rich flavors.

10. For the mixologist who has everything, seek out Crème Yvette. This floral, violet-based spirit  went out of fashion in the 1960s, and when it stopped being manufactured in 1969, it looked to be lost forever. But production was restarted in 2009, and once again, we can mix proper Aviations and Blue Moons. Not inexpensive at about $50, but sure to impress.

Happy Shopping!

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