Wine column no. 6: The real Americans

The lucky ones made it. They got off the ship at Ellis Island wearing dirty shoes, and over time they trudged through the lines and the new rules and the streets that weren't, it turns out, paved with gold. Now you -- their great-grandchild, their second cousin, their friend -- sit reading a newspaper, in America.
This means you could be a proud West Sider who goes to the Germania Mannerchor Volksfest every August. Or you could be a part of that generation whose ancestors cast off the immigrant hyphen of lore long ago. For you, you're simply an American.
Either way, wine's not some foreign substance that has no relevance here. Because here's the truth: Evansville may have strong German roots, but Germans make and drink wines, too, like Riesling. And if that's not convincing enough, then consider the fact that many of the wines you'll find in local wine shops are -- like many of us -- essentially blends. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, for instance. Or Chardonnay and Semillon. Shiraz and Grenache. The point is that these wines are a good fit for Americans, because we all came from somewhere else, too. And when you get the mix right, when you combine hard work and diligence and a fair amount of luck, you can be there to experience something awesome. And that, our friends, is the quintessential American story.
So we begin with the 2009 Orin Swift Prisoner from California. This blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono, Grenache and Malbec could be considered a mutt of some sort, but truth be known, it's definitely a top dog. Serious and fruit forward, this red is a good match against rotisserie chicken, and its slight tannins mean it will likely cellar well. Other vintages of this wine have scored in the 90 point range out of 100 at Wine Spectator. Kwiq Liquor has this in the upper $20-$30 range.
The 2007 Brassfield Serenity is a smooth jumble of Sauvignon blanc, Pinot Grigio, Gerwurztraminer and Semillon. This Clearlake, Californian, is fun, crisp, easy to drink, with inklings of lemon. Other vintages have ranked in the mid-80s out of 100 according to Wine Spectator's scale. You can get this 13.5 percent alcohol bottle at Winetree for between $10-$19.99.
Here's one to get at Big Red Liquors in Bloomington, Ind.: The 2004 Durigutti Familia, which is a potent mingling of Malbec, Syrah, Bonarda, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. We paired this 14.3 percent alcohol bottle from Argentina with steak, and it gave us plum, tobacco and cherry flavors in return. Wine Spectator ranked this a 92 out of 100. $59.99. 
And finally we arrive at Bogle's The Phantom. This shadowy figure is usually such a hot item that it doesn't remain on shelves for long, but we spied it at Kwiq Liquor some short time ago. We get one of these blends every year, but our tasting notes just take us back to the 2005 vintage. We thought that was earthy, and it was rated an 85 out of 100 by Wine Spectator. These days it's easier to find the 2007, which was released last August. It's a blend of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Mourvedre. 

Wine column no. 5: When Rosenblum rules

Far be it from us to hype one winemaker over another. But if you like red Zinfandel, then there's one company that seems to get it right more often than not. And that's Rosenblum Cellars based in Alameda, Calif.
Fortunately for us, various wine stores in town carry Rosenblum, which has made an art out of producing flavorful, fruity and smooth red Zinfandel. Especially now that we're getting into the grilling season, this varietal would likely be a good pairing with barbecued meats, grilled hamburgers and even strong cheeses. 
But first, a little background on Rosenblum. This San Francisco Bay area company began in 1978 and produces more than 50 different wines -- not all of them red Zinfandel. While not all of the six Zinfandel we've had from this winery are star wines, they are each distinct enough for us to believe that the others would be as well. And if you're lucky, you'll sometimes find a local wine shop that will have the higher prized Zinfandel on sale (Winetree did for a time, for instance). Wine Styles also sells at least one Rosenblum red Zinfandel.
Here's a little breakdown of each Rosenblum Zinfandel we've had over the years, our thoughts, and the prices at the time we purchased them:
2005 Rosenblum Cellars Maggie's Reserve: Fruity, gentle and soft texture
We've got to hand it to Rob Williamson, Greg's cousin, who introduced us to Rosenblum. This was our first foray into this Glen Ellen, Sonoma Valley creation, which was red fruit-forward but tempered by a soft mouthfeel. This wine was fun to drink, too, and at 14.8 percent alcohol, it was definitely on the higher end of the percentage-of-alcohol spectrum. Wine Spectator gave this wine an 88 out of a 100. $20-$29.99.
2006 Rosenblum Cellars Contra Costa County: Blackberry, also gentle and soft texture
We paired this wine with andouille and green pepper brats from Pearson's Rivertown Butcher Shop in Newburgh, and wow this was a great match! The spicyness of the sausages was a great contrast to the smooth creaminess of this Zinfandel. At 14.4 percent alcohol, this was another higher octane wine with blackberry overtones. Wine Spectator rated this wine an 86 out of 100. $20-$29.99.
2005 Rosenblum Cellars St. Peter's Church Zinfandel: Blackberry and menthol flavors, smooth texture
Missionaries in the late 1800s planted this vineyard behind St. Peter's Church in Sonoma County, and the result was wonderfully decadent. I prepared braised lamb shanks with garlic and rosemary recipe for this Zinfandel. Here's the recipe: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Braised-Lamb-Shanks-with-Garlic-and-Rosemary-100843
Against the gaminess of the lamb, this luscious Sonoma County Zinfandel was round and soft. It's definitely one of the better Zinfandel we've had. This earned an 88 out of 100 from Wine Spectator. $20-$29.99.
2006 Rosenblum Cellars Monte Rosso Vineyard Sonoma Valley: A bit thin
This Zinfandel got an 88 out of 100 from Wine Spectator, but we weren't that impressed. Especially after experiencing the exquisite creation that was the St. Peter's Church, this Monte Rosso may need to be cellared a bit. $20-$29.99.
Rosenblum Cellars Vintner's Cuvee XXXII Zinfandel: Maybe we had a bad bottle
This is a Zinfandel that is billed as one of Rosenblum's lighter fares. That's because the skins, which impart much of the tannins (that drying feeling in your mouth) and the flavors of the wine, spent less time intermingled with the grape juice. Still, we were probably influenced by the higher-priced Rosenblum Zinfandel, which is why we just couldn't get into this Vintner's Cuvee. 13.5 percent alcohol. $10-$19.99.
2006 Rosenblum Cellars Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel: A bit hit
We had a blind wine tasting party at our house, and our neighbors from down the street brought this gem, which was rated 87 out of 100 by Wine Spectator. This Sonoma Valley wine was easily the party favorite, with some saying it was mild with a good finish, berry flavored, smooth but mixed with slight tannins, and slightly sweet. 14.8 percent alcohol.


2008 Bouchard Aine et Fils Macon-Villages Chardonnay: Calling all lemons

may 14, 2011: grandmothers only turn 91 once. and since i had just talked to mine today -- victorine bon's had lots of calls, and she went out to dinner with my uncle yann -- we opened this macon-villages in her honor. we're not from beaune, france, but we live in the midwest, and cidre brut from brittany/normandy (my mother was born in and grew up in st. malo, a seaside town in brittany) wasn't available. so we opened this chardonnay, which we paired with a baked chicken with rosemary, lemon and garlic.

all i can say is if you chill this long enough, the lemons will run over your taste buds like a proud and boisterous parade. greg liked it, but when this winestyles purchase was chilled, the only other thing it brought to the table besides lemon was a crisp feel. once it warmed up a bit, this 12.5 percent chardonnay became a tinge sweet. but that sweetness was a shadow of sugar, something you'd find traces of, if you found it at all. i wouldn't necessarily get this wine again unless you definitely want multiple versions of lemon as the star guest at your dinner table. it wasn't bad; it just seemed one-dimensional.


2005 Wildekrans Cabernet Franc-Merlot: Mixed opinion, and be sure to decant

if anyone can tell me where we can get a pure cabernet franc around here other than the chinon they sell at winetree, then we'd be extremely happy. i was in chicago recently and was fortunate enough to find a saumur at binny's in lincoln park. saumur is a cabernet franc from saumur, a town in the loire valley, and it was the only one that massive wine store had. once we popped this frenchman open, it was consistently green pepperish, earthy and definitely refreshing. we paired it with roasted butternut squash, red onions, pototoes, red peppers and lightly pan-fried chicken breasts. it was wonderful and, unfortunately, pretty much impossible -- at this time -- to find around here.

greg and i were so impressed with the saumur that we decided we'd go on a hunt for cabernet franc in evansville. i went to varsity liquors, kwiq liquor, schnucks in newburgh, and winetree, but all i could find was a blend of a 2005 wildekrans cabernet franc and merlot from ... south africa. on first taste, this 89 percent cabernet franc and 11 percent merlot was musty and earthy, yet quite smooth. we decanted it, which seemed to help the fruit in the wine waft a bit above the rim of the glass. the mustiness hung around for a while before it finally disappeared, but this winetree purchase was still smooth and slightly fruity. this was definitely an interesting bottle, mostly because the texture was a gentle, pleasant bridge between the two flavors. and it's possible the smooth texture might have been its saving grace after all.

greg, meanwhile, was simultaneously drinking this wine and shaking his head. he just didn't like the flavors, and he said it was sour. so i don't think we'll be getting this 13.5 percent alcohol bottle again -- which is too bad, since i don't think it's a bad bottle at all. but if you do get this: decant, decant, decant.


2006 Valle Reale Montepulciano D'Abruzzo: Others liked it, I was disappointed

may 1, 2011: our neighbors invited us over for dinner last weekend, and we brought over this montepulciano d'abruzzo italian to pair with a homemade -- and delicious -- cajun chili/lasagna made by jimmy. the meal itself was very tasty, and greg and our hosts said they liked this wine. but for me, it wasn't what i was hoping it would be. i wanted a fruity montepulciano, like the one greg and i had in honfleur, normandy, last fall. but after trying numerous wines from the same region, i'm starting to wonder if what we had then was atypical. this wine, which i bought at binny's in lincoln park in chicago, was a bit rustic, but the flavors, to me, were indistinguishable red fruit. about $16. not sure i'd get it again. 14 percent alcohol.

2005 Gnarlier Head Old Vine Zin: Better on the second night

may 4, 2011: greg liked this dry creek valley, sommer's vineyard, californian, as it was when we opened it. this means, to my eyes, that he didn't mind the initial acidity, or how light it was. he even went so far as to say he'd get it again. i was coming off a comparison to the better versions of rosenblum cellars red zins, so this gnarlier head was disappointing ... until i had another glass the next night. this time, i paired it with venison stew leftovers, and it was much, much better. somehow, being corked overnight had made the nose fruitier, and the thin texture was a plus against the hefty meatiness of the venison and its accompanying noodles and carrots. so i think this is a better food wine. greg, of course, disagrees, since he liked it by itself, too. this also has a good amount of sediment. 14.5 percent alcohol. $19 at kwiq liquor.

2009 Pine Ridge Vineyards Forefront Pinot Noir: Fruity, potent, low acidity

sometime in march, i prepared baked salmon to go with this blend of 51 percent santa barbara, 41 percent san luis obispo and 8 percent monterey county pinot noir from california. here's the recipe: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/baked-salmon-ii/Detail.aspx 

i thought this forefront had a really strong red fruit flavor and was very smooth -- almost too smooth. there were hardly any acidic qualities or tannins to balance the strong flavors. but greg liked that about it. he said he'd get it again.

as for its pairing with the salmon, i thought this pinot overwhelmed the salmon, which had lemon juice in it so it was set up to be paired with a mildly acidic wine. 14.5 percent alcohol. winestyles.

2006 Kokomo Sonoma County Zinfandel: Mixed opinion

someone brought this for our blind wine tasting party in march. this 15 percent alcohol speciman was described by various people as smokey, sweet on the first taste but changes quickly to rich, a little rough, and wonderful.

2009 Charles Krug Peter Mondavi Family Sauvignon Blanc

only one person commented on this at our march wine party, and that was only to say he liked it. so this 13.5 percent napa valley sauvignon blanc remains somewhat of a mystery.

2009 Cline Cashmere: Well liked

this 14 percent alcohol red californian was described at the march party as light, feminine and with some fruit, with at least one person saying they would drink more of it, and another saying they loved it.

2009 Rodney Strong Sonoma County Chardonnay: Good

this 13.5 percent alcohol speciman was described at the march party as having some grapefruit but smooth, having a nice finish, and "wow".

2008 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County: Good

this 13.5 percent alcohol californian was described by our march party goers as smooth and sweet, woody and "alright".

2007 Red Splash St. Francis Winery: Mixed opinion

this wine party bottle was described as boring, light, delightful at first but lacking a great finish, having some fruit, tannic, a bit woody, and uneven. 14.5 percent alcohol.

2009 Meiomi Pinot Noir: Generally a good review

this pinot noir blend from sonoma, monterey and santa barbara counties was described by march party goers as round and full-bodied, "nah, whatever," "it's nice," having a nice finish, slightly sweet , smooth, mild, kind of peppery, and soft. 13.9 percent alcohol.

2009 Cline Viognier: Liked

this north coast california viognier with 13.5 percent alcohol was described by wine party-goers as very nice and oaky.

2006 Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay: Citrusy and mild

this 13.9 percent chardonnay from sonoma county was estate-bottled in windsor, calif. it was described as citrusy, very easy on the palette, very mild, and having too much grapefruit.

2011 Ohio Valley Chianti: A wine party surprise

our neighbors jimmy and marti brought this to the wine tasting party, and it was a good homemade production. guests described it as "wow," fruity, light and good, nice and slightly sweet.


2006 Rombauer Vineyards Carneros Merlot: Nothing special

may 1, 2011: we opened up this napa, californian, and it was immediately a bit sour. so we corked it and came back to it. the sourness seemed to disappear the next day, and the day after that, and it smoothed out a bit over time, but there still wasn't anything really distinctive about this merlot. that's a shame, since it's our first rombauer. i know this company is well known for its chardonnay, but we've yet to try that (even though we've heard it's less buttery than it used to be.) i don't think we'd get this one again. 14.4 percent alcohol. binny's in chicago. $20-$29.99.

according to rombauer's website, this merlot spent 17 months in french oak, which is significant because french oak (generally) imparts less tannins than american oak. for some general information about rombauer family: it has more than 30 yeras of winemaking experience in the napa valley. koerner rombauer oversees the daily operations, while daughter sheana handles special events and promotional marketing. koerner rombauer III directs the national sales team.

Wine column no. 4: Why oh why?

If a flat tire makes you late for the presentation that could have earned you a promotion, it's safe to say that you may be having a bad day.

But for wine, the factors leading to a bad review aren't always as obvious. Did that wine purveyor keep the wine he or she sells near a heater? Did something go wrong with the cork in the bottle itself, making the wine take on a rotting odor? Or is it just that this wine needs more time to mature, so that it can become the best that it hopes to be?
The truth is that there's a lot about drinking wine that's essentially a gamble, and we'll be the first to admit that much of it is a subjective experience. Add food to the equation, and the results can be even more complex.
So what are some reasons that bottles of the same vintage, from the same vineyard, can turn out to be so drastically different?
According to Wine Spectator, storage matters, since heat does nothing for wine. But bottles lying in the same cellar can also mature differently. Sometimes, the cork "may respond to identical climate conditions in non-identical ways."
There's also such thing as lot variation even among identical wines. This means that grapes may be picked and fermented by lot, or selected batches, depending on when they ripen or what part of the vineyard they come from. And if you have part of a vineyard that gets more sun, or that gets more cool air, this type of lot variation can make a real difference.
Also, some lots may be separated during the barrel-aging process, the magazine said, before they are consolidated in large tanks. Another factor is what part of the barrel the wine is taken from: Whether it's the top or the bottom of the same barrel, it could make a difference.
And that's just talking about what the wine goes through before it makes it to the liquor store. Wine also evolves the longer it's been stored, and then once it's opened, it can transform the more it's been exposed to air. Temperature has a hand in wine's flavors and textures, too.
So here are two wines that we felt changed in some way, either through their reactions to food, time, or just our own preferences. The third wine is an example of a bottle that we think may need a bit more time in the cellar.

2008 Steele Shooting Star Blue Franc
This walked the line. It was strong enough to root itself in earth, yet also sensitive enough to absorb the scents of its own blackberry shadows. Meaning, this 2008 Shooting Star Blue Franc recommended by Tim at Winetree may have cloaked itself in dry austerity, but it had an alter ego that alerted us to the disguise. Ever felt the grip of a warm handshake, only to be rebuffed by a cold smile? That's what this fruity Blaufrankisch was like. And there's nothing wrong with that: Some wines, like people, take some time to really get to know.
Luckily, we happened to be the fortunate ones. I had opened this on a Friday, when at first, the nose was aromatic red fruit but the flavor was bland. There was also a lot of sediment. So I corked it, and the next day, we poured another glass with pasta and venison tomato sauce. Unusually for a second-night bottle, this Washingtonian developed a second wind, bringing flavor into the mix. It was as if it had been testing us, so that we were the bottled, and it was the one preparing its review. I'm not sure that we passed. But with its reddish fruits, underlined by a coarse, rugged edge of texture, it certainly did. Which means: If there's another $10-$19.99 wine we'd like to try, it'd be this one. 13.5 percent alcohol.

2006 Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
If ever a wine could introduce itself with warmth, and then exit with quiet restraint, it would be this Cabernet Sauvignon, which I'm sure we bought at Schnucks some long time ago. Greg grilled up pork loins, steamed asparagus, and prepared couscous as the night teemed with rain drops all around us. Yet for an evening flush with storms, we sat unaffected. That's because we were in our dining room, swapping stories and laughs, until this fruity and earthy 2006 finished itself in its own version of a gentle bow. Meanwhile, there we were to wonder how it had managed to end so smoothly and unobtrusively. Because here's the truth: We'd had this wine before, and it wasn't good. If we remember right, that particular 2006 was sour and bland, and it was only because we had stored this wine in a relative's cellar that we even decided to try it again. So there was the time in the bottle factor, yes. But another reason for the change was that it had spent some time exposed to air and the food we had it with. This particular Californian started off with a strong band of red fruit and was followed by the flavor of a long stretch of earth. Over the course of the evening, though, the two seemed to realize they could work together, and by night's end, they had blended quite well. $20-$29.99. 14.3 percent alcohol.

2008 Kokomo Cuvee
Some wines are like calligraphy. They know when to pulse, when to thin, when to burst with color and when to fade into the background. Other wines pound the page, an ogre's version of delicacy. This 2008 Kokomo Cuvee from Sonoma Coast, Calif., is somewhere in between the two. It's not that it's a bad wine; it's just very uneven. For all its red fruit, it's also got an edgy astringency ... kind of like an angry smile. I don't know if it needs to hide out for a while in a dark cellar to temper its mood, or if it's already reached the height of its maturity. Time will tell, we guess. Winetree. $20-$29.99.