Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sarah and Shafer Sitting in a Tree...

Last week my husband and I went to wine country. Please excuse the fact that there isn't a bottle of wine for sale at this place that falls within the price range of the average Whiney requirement. Hell, there isn't a varietal for sale at this place that you can buy for three times the under $15 suggested price, but I have to tell you about the best wine I drank when I was in California.


Let me start by saying that when I called Shafer for an appointment about five weeks before my trip the person who answered the phone laughed at me. She said they were booked up for over two months. I got on the waiting list for three different days.

That isn't how I got in.

I don't want to give away all the details but I will say that we completely got lucky. I was at another vineyard doing a tasting and by chance the guy who was doing the tasting happened to be married to someone who just so happened to work at Shafer. It was our very last day in California.

I begged, I groveled.

I told them I was a wine blogger.

THAT is how I got in.

That is also the exact minute I stopped being embarrassed to tell people that I blogged for a living.

People told me that Cakebread was the #1 place not to miss. I moved my appointment at Cakebread to go to Shafer.

I was not disappointed.

This is the tasting room.

Shafer Tasting Room

As beautiful as this photograph is (my husband took this picture) it doesn't even do the room justice. The place was breath taking and the vineyard is 100% solar powered.

They gave us this:

Shafer. Mmmmmm. Shafer.

That is five of their wines: the Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, the 2007 Merlot, the 2006 One Point Five Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2006 Relentless (a Syrah and Petit Syrah blend) and the 2005 Hillside Select® Cabernet Sauvignon.

I know Chardonnay gets a bad rap as a shitty grape (we even saw t-shirts at Honig that said "Friends Don't Let Friends Drink Chardonnay") but this was the absolute best Chardonnay I've ever had.

And every glass of wine we tasted there was better than the last one.

Everything was exquisitely balanced.

Listen, we were in California for a week. The lowest end winery we hit was Sterling. We ate at The French Laundry and Cyrus and drank what was recommended to us. I drank a lot of wine last week and this wine was superior to every other thing I tasted.

I don't mean to gush, but DAMN!

If you ever want to buy a bottle of wine for a special occasion and you have $50 I highly recommend the Shafer Chardonnay or Merlot. I am not generally a fan of Merlot but in this case I make an exception. I would give up an entire week of football for this wine.

If you ever want to buy a bottle of wine for a special occasion and you have $70 the One Point Five and The Relentless are outstanding. I would wear a Rams t-shirt for the One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon. I would wear a Kurt Warner jersey for a bottle of the Relentless.

For a bottle of the Hillside Select I would do unspeakable things.


I am talking about things that involve rooting for the Yankees.

The Shafer Hillside Select retails for $215 a bottle, assuming you can find it in a store. You might have to join the club to even have a chance to buy a bottle.

I joined the wine club. Hell, if there were some sort of Shafer cult I would have joined that too.

The wine was that good.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I bought it for the label....

C'mon, look at this guy..... you'd want to bring him home with you too, right?

Okay, well if not the guy... unleash your inner 6-year old and buy a bottle of The Bastard!

I got this quite some time ago and wasn't really sure what to expect. This 2007 bottle of Il Bastardo Sangiovese Rosso di Toscana was really my first foray into Sangioveses.

A little history....the Sangiovese is a red Italian wine grape most commonly use in making Tuscan Chianti. The grapes themselves are said to be fruity like strawberries, but with a hint of spiciness and take on a distinct oakiness when aged in barrels.

The Il Bastardo winery is located in the Rufina area of Tuscany just outside Florence in the Sieve River Valley -- this is said to be the best area for Sangiovese grapes.

The Big Dubya opened the bottle and poured two healthy glasses -- I took my first sip and was very pleased. It was extremely mild -- fruity, sweet, but not sticky sweet. I didn't detect any strawberries -- but there was a hint of blackberry for sure. The flavors weren't terribly deep, but that was okay because they were comfortable -- complex in it's simpleness. The finish was pleasant and very smooth -- there was no bite at all. This is the kind of wine you could drink a lot of and not feel weighed down or heavy.

I found myself wishing I'd picked up more and at less than $10 a bottle -- I'll keep an eye out for this one.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pumpkin Ales: A Comparative Study, Part 1

Welcome to October, my friends — the most wonderful time of the beer. It's the month that inspired U2's great song/album October, the month that moved the Germans to devote an entire 30-day stretch of the calendar to the celebration of beer... and the month that transforms happy little orange gourds into fearsome jack'o'lanterns across North America. It's a glorious month, and while Oktoberfest beers are a wonder in and of themselves, the sudden and simultaneous proliferation of similarly seasonal Pumpkin Ales is one of the great, consistent joys of my life.

Dozens of great microbreweries nationwide have taken to brewing Pumpkin Ales; as it happens, the wares of three of them made it into my fridge - and, subsequently, into my mouth - over the past week. Shall we review, I ask the crowd? "Oh, yes," you say. "We shall."

Win the crowd, and you win your freedom.

1. Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
I've been a bigbigbig fan of Smuttynose for quite some time now. Brewing out of beautiful Portsmouth, NH, they produce a wide range of generally quite good beers that are available across New England and - if you happen to be in Portsmouth proper - in the truly wonderful Portsmouth Brewery. So it was with great joy that I found myself face-to-six-pack last week with a six of Smutty's Pumpkin Ale at one of my local fine purveyors of hopped goodness.

Unfortunately... I've gotta admit: I was less-than-thrilled with the result. Overall, the brew has a lovely amber color and very subtle spicing for the genre, but there's a kind of lasting bitterness that arises in the aftertaste that ultimately overwhelms the mellow pleasures of the beer itself. This is the part where I should probably go into some kind of long-winded explanation of how that's a function of the hops and blahblahblah... but really, the fact of the matter is this: the beer was okay, but the aftertaste was bitter enough that after TheWife and I had both downed one (well, alright... it was two for me) we looked at each other and said, "This isn't actually all that good."

I won't hesitate to try other Smutty seasonals, but going forward I'm thinking this is one I'll be avoiding.

2. Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
Great googly moogly — now THIS is how you do a pumpkin beer. The spicing is clearly present but also extremely well-balanced: the pumpkin, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg add wonderful layers to the rich brown ale rather than overwhelming it, which is always the risk you face with spiced beers. It's a rich, full flavor but not so rich that it's too-filling... we actually found it to be a very adept accompaniment to food that actually added to our enjoyment of it, rather than competing with it as so many other spiced or heavy beers may do.

My one complaint: four-packs! It's like the packaging is custom-designed to build you up to a nice little happy place, ready for reach for another one... only to discover THEY'RE GONE. Of course, this is something that Dogfish likes to do with many of their seasonal or ├╝ber-artisinal beers, so I suppose that's the price you pay for delving into the Dogfish world. But as is true of just about everything they brew... they do it right, and even though you're paying a premium for fewer beers, you're getting a legitimate, top-quality product for your money.

You rarely regret going Dogfish Head, and the Punkin Ale is no exception. Outstanding.

3. Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale
This is the first Weyerbacher I've ever tried, and it's very, very impressive. I'll have to admit that going into it, I had a couple of reasons for trepidation. First off... this was another four-pack, and one even more expensive than the Dogfish Head I'd enjoyed so heartily earlier in the week. I think it was something like $12 for the four-pack, plus deposit — which it's hard not to admit is a rather hefty investment. Secondly, I've had mixed feelings about Imperial Ales in the past. TheWife is a big fan, but I tend to find myself a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the Imperial hops. Our divergence over Harpoon's Leviathan Imperial IPA this summer was a case in point; I found it ultra-hoppy to the point of being almost unbearably bitter, whereas she went completely head-over-heels for it.

Nevertheless, I forked over my fortune-for-a-four-pack (and you're most welcome for that crafty bit of alliteration, btw), and brought the pumpkin-headed beast back home with me. It sat waiting in my fridge for nearly a full day until this afternoon, as I sat down to watch the Pats take on (and ultimately defeat) the Baltimore Ravens... when I felt the need come upon me, so during a timeout I repaired to the kitchen and opened a bottle.

To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but the result was clearly very, very pleasing. The Imperial hops are a strong presence, but not one nearly as overwhelming as I feared — in fact, they worked in symphony with the delicate spicing (which included cardimom and clove) to create something very balanced, flavorful and entirely enjoyable. I'd say that overall it's a less-spiced animal than the Dogfish Head, but the spices are still a tangible enough presence that they add character and depth to the brew. It's an interesting contrast to the Dogfish - which, honestly, I'd presumed would be the best Pumpkin beer I'd taste this year - and a drinking experience pleasurable enough that if I had to choose one over another... honestly, I'm not sure which way I'd go.

But really? It's a win-win. Check 'em both out. And then, let me know: what else do I need to taste?