December 20, 2012

Last-Minute Gift Guide

It's the most wonderful time of the year! It's also December 20th.  Only a precious few days before Christmas!  If you are like me, there may be a few lingering folks on your list.  I have amassed a few gift ideas that should be easy to find (or make!) for the wine lovers and novices on your list.  These are all accessories or books; the next post will highlight the wine itself.

For the red wine lover:

I love this little guy.  Vinturi makes some awesome, fancy wine aerator towers that look they are a rejected prop from a sci-fi movie, but this compact little guy wins my heart--and fits in most budgets.  I personally own this one and use it to aerate every glass of red I drink.  Patience is not my strong suit, so I love a little help getting reds to open up without it needing to sit for an hour.  Plus:  the sound it makes when wooshing through the aerator is strangely satisfying.  I have done a taste test and can vouch that aerating does, in fact, make a difference.

For that friend or loved one who has a really hard time opening a bottle of wine:

I have the the Waring Pro Wine Opener and love it.  Like I mentioned above, I am not the most patient in the world, and love the ease of opening a bottle in a few seconds.  This is also great if you know someone who keeps a lot of older wines in their collection--the ease with which it opens wine would reduce the chance that an older cork would split and crumble into the bottle.

Stocking Stuffer or Secret Santa Gift:

This is a great little stocking stuffer.  This is the wine preserver I usually use, and it keeps it fresh for the next day (I don't usually want too much longer than a day or two).

Books for the Wine Nerd:
Oz Clarke, Grapes & Wine:  This is a comprehensive guide to pretty much every varietal.  The wine lover will learn something and use this as a reference guide, but those who are thirsty to learn more would really benefit from this book.  It's like a great crash course in wine, and I can't recommend it enough.

Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, What to Drink with What You Eat  and The Food Lover's Guide to Wine.
I can't say enough about these two tomes.  Indispensable research guides for foodies.  They offer wonderful and unexpected pairings in an unpretentious manner. Love, love, love. 

The Crafty Gift:
Thank goodness for Pinterest!

After a quick search for wine cork crafts, I saw an ornament idea that seemed too easy--I was sold.  I painted the ends with glittery nail polish--though I'm sure some clear nailpolish and actual glitter would work, too--and then glue gunned the corks into a tree shape. (Before I glued them all together, I screwed into one cork a teeny hook I'd found at Michael's when I made pasta ornaments last year.) Glued on a bow, and voila! This took me less than an hour and all with things I already had, although if you need to run out for those hooks, they don't really break the bank.  Disclaimer: I am terribly not crafty.  I'm creative, but crafts usually take me forever, and I make a mess, and something always goes wrong.  This project, however, was TRULY foolproof, even for me.

So: stay tuned for some wine and food gifts you can give, as well as some wines to go with your holiday feast!

December 18, 2012

Look for the Helpers

"“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” –Fred "Mister" Rogers

I know I don't have many readers yet, but if you have been checking in with my blog to find it empty, I apologize.  After the horrifying events that unfolded last Friday in Newtown, CT, I've found myself unable to find the motivation to write about something so trivial as wine. All of my mental strength has been focused on wrapping my head around what happened, and praying for the deceased, the families, the community, our country.  I've returned, often, to the above quote.  Imagining the great comforter of my childhood speaking those words has brought me much peace.

 I've been slowly gathering blog posts in recent days, so stay tuned for more reviews, articles, and even a last-minute holiday gift guide.  

Love and peace,

December 12, 2012

The Modern Wine Connoisseur

I'm currently reading Eric Asimov's How to Love Wine.  I don't need much convincing to love wine, but Asimov (the very eloquent NY Times wine critic) writes brilliantly about wine and had a thought I'd like to share with you all:
"To [the modern wine connoisseur], connoisseurship is not a set of esoteric skills or the ability to regurgitate trivial matters of fact.  it's the emotion, the love of wine, that has led them to drink widely, and to learn about what they have come to love.  The distinction is crucial.  Those stuck in the past still speak of "wine appreciation," as if knowing wine were simply a matter of accumulating a set of skills, like impeccable speech and proper table manners.  The idea of wine appreciation reeks of bourgeois hopes for social mobility."

And later:
 "The twenty-first-century connoisseur grasps that the key to unlocking wine is love, not appreciation.  The necessary tools are a passionate curiosity, a motivating desire that demands time, energy, and money to pursue a vast field that is fascinating but, truth be told, not easy.  It means first falling in love with wine, which comes from drinking, not from tasting or learning how to taste. The emotion gives rise to the passion for learning."
Sometimes, when reading this book I'm tempted to shout YES! THANK YOU! Asimov just gets it.

I cannot stop thinking about the notion of love vs. appreciation, and the emotion that the millenial wine connoisseur brings to wine thought.  Passion, emotion, love--that's what should drive a passion, don't you think?

So, go, run on over to your nearest bookseller (or e-bookseller, as it is for me these days) and pick up a copy of this book.  Let's all learn to love wine together.

All excerpts from Eric Asimov's How to Love Wine, copyright 2012

December 10, 2012

Picking Out a Bottle, Part 1: Letting the Label Speak

As someone who often pops into a wine store/Costco/the supermarket, and returns with a wine that I've never tried before, I get asked:  How do you actually pick out wine and know that it will be good?

Well, first of all:  you never do know.  But, I'm generally pretty successful.  I have a series of questions I ask myself (is this going with a meal? am I in the mood for something particular?) when I am looking for a very specific wine, and I will go into detail on this in future posts.

But let's say, you just want to pick out a wine to enjoy, and you want to try something entirely new.  I did that the other night.  I went into the store to pick out one wine for dinner that night, but decided it was in the budget to buy one more to try.

What do I do?  I LET THE LABEL TALK.  Yep, my friends: I use the very scientific of label searching.

First of all, I scan the racks for any labels that stand out.  Any regions I know?  Any years that I love?

Then, I look at the label artwork.  Yes, I said it. The artwork. Or lack thereof.  Usually I tend towards simple, uncluttered labels, maybe a single image or interesting logo.  Once in a while, I will buy the bottles with hilarious or vibrant labels (mostly this happens at Trader Joe's), but usually I stick to the basics. I also try to steer clear of wines with cutesy, punny names--and I love a good pun.  But I've found sometimes, cute names and pretty colors sometimes....overcompensate for the quality of the wine.

So, let's say something catches my eye. I pick up a bottle. Then, I flip it over.  This is where things get important.  Let's use a bottle I recently drank as an example:
The review for this bottle is coming soon. Spoiler alert: AWESOME
What am I looking for?  The wine's description on the back of the label.  Sometimes a wine store will have a little sign or placard that also denotes "notes" in wine, but sometimes, the back of the wine is all you got. Yes, it's marketing: but it's there for a reason. It's a start.

 I always initially ignore verbs and adjectives, and just focus on nouns.  In the case of the example bottle:   blackberries, cherries, vanilla, fruit flavors.  Sometimes, I will then look for a few adjectives: in this case, I pick up "creamy texture."

Let's say I wanted to buy a fruit forward wine to drink and not one that is really spicy or oaky or heavy. I see all fruit on the label, no tobacco or black pepper or meat or anything--just fruit and vanilla and light texture.  Sounds perfect.

So I buy it.  It may be awesome.  It may not be.  (This particular one WAS awesome).  This method is perfect for the person who knows their budget and a few factors that they enjoy.  This method is also perfect for the person who is not afraid of a little failure, or who is not ashamed to take a bottle of wine and turn it into cooking wine.  I wouldn't buy a $100 bottle this way, but it's a great way to experiment and find a new favorite inexpensive table wine.  

December 6, 2012

Trying to Like Wine you....don't Like

Even wine lovers don't like all wines.

For my dad, it's sweet wines and Zinfandel.  For some people, it's White Wines In General.  For others, it may be Merlot.

For me, it's Pinot Noir.  After the pretty darn good movie Sideways, people started loooving Pinot Noir and hatin' on Merlot.  No really:  Merlot sales dropped in the US while Pinot Noir sales rose 16%.

Yup.  The wine that Miles (Paul Giamatti) describes like this:
"It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet."
....I don't get it.  I'd rather have the Merlot.  I don't find Pinot Noir brilliant OR thrilling.  I may be able to taste the complexity doesn't DO anything for me.   I've had my fair share that truly taste like watered-down grape juice.  Maybe sometimes a hint of strawberry.

In keeping an open mind, I've found one or maybe two Pinot Noirs that have gotten me excited.  I can't say I've drunk a lot of high end Pinot Noir, either--usually, when at winery tastings, I skip over the Pinot Noir in favor of a Cabernet Sauvignon or even a Syrah (not my favorite either).   In fact, I think the most enjoyable Pinot Noir I've had was from a Trader Joe's.

(I once had a dinnermate order a PinoT Noyr, pronouncing it in the most exaggerated American accent possible.  I usually don't mind someone mispronouncing the varietal, but he was trying to put on SUCH a show, that I couldn't help but shake my head and roll my eyes at the attempt at pretense.)

I will continue to try the fickle, temperamental Pinot Noir grape, and hopefully find a bottle or two that I enjoy. I may not like any of the ones I try.  But I can rest, assured that I abide by my wine philosophy in that I a) will try anything once and b) stick to my own guns and not "trends."

December 5, 2012

Review: 2008 Rivetto Langhe Nebbiolo

My next wine review on this blog is going to be another international wine--and an under-$20 pick!  I found this guy at BevMo for about $15.

I not always-but often-try to pair Italian food with Italian wines.  I had ravioli in a marinara sauce last night, and so decided to break open an Italian red that I recently picked up.  And it did NOT disappoint.

The placard at BevMo described this wine as a "Baby Barolo" which I thought was exciting because Barolo is NOT CHEAP, you guys.

My first reaction was: CHERRIES.  Lots of lovely cherries--it reminded me, in a lot of ways, of the dried sour cherries you can get from Michigan.  So--the wine itself had a great deal of acidity, but was really balanced by the fruit flavor.  This was also a  smooooth wine--I'm glad I didn't pair this one with lots of beef because the tannins were so mild.

The aroma is where a lot of the complexity comes in:  sticking my nose in the glass, it's not just fruit aromas that jump out.  (Aromas--for me--are where complexity generally shines.  I usually can only taste recognizable food flavors in my wine, but the aroma is where I get essences of non-edible ingredients: grass, leather, tobacco, smoke, florals, etc.)

In this case, the aroma (because I refuse to use the word bouquet) is really, really reminiscent of roses. The whiff of perfume-y florals plus the flavor of cherries and an aftertaste of coffee add up to a great wine.

BevMo wasn't kidding--this really does have the characteristics of a Baby Barolo.  And at under $20, this is one I will buy again to accompany a pasta dish, or maybe even try it with lamb chops.

December 4, 2012

Essence of what now?!

Have you ever read a really, really ridiculous wine description?  I fear that's what keeps a lot of people from overcoming the "I like red vs. white" hurdle.  You know, those reviews where you read the whole "I recognize here a soupçon of fermented mushroom paste with a hint of elderberry bush with a side of" GIVE ME A BREAK.

My problems with this are....many:
1) Reviews are subjective to begin with.  Stop acting like they are definitive.

2) Reviews are suggestive, too.  People read the reviews, and say "Yes, I taste the lychee," when they may have never had a lychee in their lives.

3)  These descriptors make it difficult on those who can't taste the same thing.  I know I tend to worry sometimes "OMG what am I MISSING, I don't taste HAM."

4) It just reeks of elitism.

5)  Wine has definite flavor profiles.  Making them overly complex makes them accessible.

6)  It's extraordinarily easy to make fun of this part.  And it really sounds dumb.  Perhaps a new approach is needed.

You DON'T taste the hint of Twinkie FOR SHAME UGH.

Do you struggle with identifying flavors in your wine? Do RIDICULOUS reviews or descriptions irritate you as much as they irritate me?  Stay tuned.  I'm going to dedicate a future series of posts on how to identify major flavors in your wine--that way, when perusing the backs of wine bottles or checking out someone else's descriptions on those little placards in front of "featured" wines at the store, you won't be overwhelmed.

December 3, 2012

A MadCAP Debate: Cork vs. Screwtop Capped Wines

The debate over whether wineries should be using screw-top caps or remain using cork (or a cork substitute plug) rages on, with cork lovers clinging tight to the tradition and ceremony of popping a cork and the new guard claiming that screw caps are better preservers and more functional.

Though a traditional kind of girl in many aspects of my life, I'm a huge proponent of screw-top wines.  I love the elegance of a cork, and save pretty much every cork that I come across--I hope to create an actual cork board one day as both art, a scrapbook of all the wines I've enjoyed, and function, too.  But that's pretty much where my love for corks end.
See, corks are pretty! But that's about it.
I remember one sad Christmas when my father opened up what was to be "an amazing bottle of wine,"  only to discover that it had been beset with cork taint--from the second the wine hit the glass, we could smell the pungent, sour aroma that indicated that unfortunately, this wine had become an expensive vinegar.

A few years ago, I walked past my wine rack to discover a small dried puddle of red liquid on the ground. Wuh-oh.  After thoroughly examining all the wines on that rack, I determined that it was, of course, one of the most expensive bottles I owned.  And it was a Wednesday night.  Out of fear that it didn't have much time, that wine got drunk that night, without the dinner party I hoped to accompany it.

November 30, 2012

Wine Recipe: Mulled Wine

It's rainy today in Los Angeles. For a city that doesn't get true seasons, this is what this in-between fall-winter holiday season is all about for me: it's an excuse to curl up and read a book (which, let's face it: I do anyway), with the dog and a blanket and holiday music and a hot beverage.

Sometimes that beverage is a cup of morning coffee or evening tea.  Sometimes, if I'm feeling like crap, I make a hot toddy with bourbon or brandy, a healthy squeeze of lemon and/or orange, honey and hot water.  If I skipped dessert, sometimes I will make a hot buttered rum that satisfies my sweet tooth.

But when I really want to be cozy, I make mulled wine.

I don't have a hard and fast mulled wine recipe.  It often has to do with what I have on hand. I'm inspired by all of the British, German and Scandinavian traditions that can be found with a quick search for glögg, glühwein, or mulled wine online.  (The image below is courtesy of David Loftus on Jamie Oliver's website.  His recipe for mulled wine is divine, and I've used it as an inspiration more than once.)

Here's what I do:
Start with an inexpensive wine.  I like my mulled wine to have a bit of a kick, so I use one that has a spicy kick to begin with, or I make sure to add extra spices.  Use a wine with a good fruit punch--I love Italian wines and Spanish wines for this, but would stay away from a Cabernet, for example.

Choose your spices (and if they are small, make a little sachet).  A lot of recipes call for star anise, which I don't always have on hand.  That's okay.  My favorite spices for mulled wine are lots of cinnamon, a few cloves, and ginger.  Add a little sugar--I like about 1/3 cup for every bottle of wine.  I also love vanilla, but if I don't want to use a whole pod--expensive!--I will add in a few drops at the end of the extract.  I also love adding a bay leaf, for a savory herbal flair, to the boiling pot--but it's not essential.

I sometimes will add some unfiltered apple cider or juice, and I particularly love squeezing an orange into the mix as well.  I generally add a bit of port or brandy, too, to give it some oomph...and because I love the flavor profile it creates.  But if the wine is enough booze for you, that's okay!

Heat it all in a good pot until boiling, let it cool for a few minutes, pour into a mug, and ENJOY!

Happy Friday, everyone!

November 29, 2012

Review: 2009 Do Vale Meao Douro Meandro

Well, friends.  Here's my first wine review.

I'm going to do things a little differently than most wine reviewers, which is to say:  I won't be ranking wines.  Chances are, if I feature a wine on this blog, it will have mostly redeeming qualities.  If it's a real dud, maybe I'll mention it, but I'd rather spend my time describing the good ones.  

Right now, I'm in rehearsals for a wonderful concert with my amazing choir, the Angel City Chorale, here in Los Angeles.  Rehearsals are fun, but have been going late in anticipation for this weekend's two performances.  Last night, I didn't have rehearsal, and I found myself really in need of a glass of red wine.  (This is also the reason for the lack of a Wednesday post.  Exhaustion and the need to relax took over.  Never again!) A few weeks ago, I had a Spanish-themed, tapas-style dinner party for a few good friends, and went a little crazy at Costco picking up some bottles for the evening.  This is one I sort of saved, because it's actually Portuguese, but I'd also been dying to really try a wine from the Douro region.  I was ready to relax with this puppy. 

November 27, 2012

My Wine Philosophy

In my first post, I had mentioned that I wanted to talk about my own wine "philosophy." I've had people sheepishly admit to me at dinner parties that they think they like what they are drinking, but honestly have no idea what makes a bottle of wine good.  Here's my response to that comment, and that generally forms the bulk of how I feel about wine, and the role it should play in people's lives.

First of all: we all have our own approach to the way we appreciate the things that we like.  Two people who are good friends may have wildly different preferences in music, for example, or may even like the same artist or musical group for entirely different reasons.  It simply is a matter of taste.

Unsuprisingly, wine is a beverage and therefore also subject to personal taste.  However, there is another stumbling block that tends to affect someone's impression of a bottle of wine: cost.  Wine has long been associated with a splurge of the wealthy.  In restaurants, bottles of wine are generally marked way up, to the point where they seem inaccessible.  In response, stores have become overrun with cheap wine, saturating the market with reasonably priced, but awfully made, product.  If your first taste of wine is the cheap kind, with a slice of microwaved pizza in a poorly lit restaurant, or out of a slimy box at a college kegger--your gut reaction will probably be:  this wine is awful.  Because it probably was.

So, that said:  here are my pointers for enjoying wine in a way you may not have previously thought:

1.  The wine that you are drinking should TASTE GOOD.
I don't care what it is.  Are you drinking a fancy pants Châteauneuf-du-Pape from before you were born, or are you drinking a bottle on sale at your Trader Joe's that was $4?  Because whatever it is, it should taste delicious!  If you don't like the fancy bottle of wine--save it for a friend.  If you don't like the sale wine--hey, use it in cooking.  Wine is GREAT for cooking. 

2.  Good wine does NOT have to be expensive.
This, honestly, is everything.  One of the main reasons I am writing this blog is that in my vast attempt to find a wine blog that really spoke to me, I realized:  all of the wines that people were writing about were limited release, imported wines that on my limited budget as a twenty-something, were just not feasible for me to buy!  I want to go into my local Total Wine or BevMo, my Costco, my supermarket, and pick up a bottle.  Trust:  I love boutiquey labels and fancy Bordeaux blends as much as the next wine lover, but if that was my prerequisite--I'd never drink wine.  

3. Be open-minded, but true to yourself about what wine you like to drink.
Yeah, this sounds a little hippy-dippy. But here's what I mean:
Some of you who are new to wine may think:  I know I like red wine, but hate white wine.  I, Katie, view that as a personal challenge:  what white wines have you tried?  have you ever tried (insert varietal here)?  what qualities do you like in wine?  etc.  I encourage all of you with strong opinions about wine style, varietal, region, what have you, to go outside your comfort zone occasionally, because it may surprise you.  I similarly find myself often encouraging wine aficionados to stop turning their noses up at things they think they know, for the same reason.

That said:  start to learn what it is you like about wine, and be true to that instinct.  Do you like wines that taste like jam?  Stick to big, bold, fruit-forward reds when you are looking to expand your own wine collection!  Knowing what you like is a good thing-- you will enjoy wine more that way.

4.  Wine does not have to be intimidating.
This is also a big one.  And this is where I come in: in this blog, I'm going to (try) to demystify the world of wine for those of you who do find it overwhelming--because it can be.  But really, it's fermented grape juice that has been around since the earliest civilizations--we make it complicated because it can be.  It doesn't have to be.

And....that's really it, friends.

Wine is really, really exciting and wonderful and delicious.  It should be paired with dinners and enjoyed with friends.  I have amassed quite a collection, but not because I see them as an investment.  It's because I like to drink them all!

My point through all of this is:  Sometimes, the most enjoyable glass of wine is drunk on a Tuesday night, from a $5 bottle, after a long day, in sweatpants while watching television with a frozen pizza. I encourage that behavior.

November 26, 2012


Ah, wine.  Poets and playwrights have extolled its virtues.  It is a part of ancient rituals worldwide.  Both an art form and a beverage, wine means something different to everyone.  Wine can elevate an already elegant meal to otherworldly heights, or add class to a simple homemade pasta dinner.

Wine is simultaneously a drink of the everyman (talk to any Italian who says they began drinking from rustic jugs of wine as young children) and a mark of money(see: the exorbitant prices of wine on any wine menu, ever).

I am not a wine snob--I'd rather call myself a wine lover.  I am discerning in the wine I choose to imbibe and purchase, but I do so from a place of passion.  I love wine that has been made with at least little heart and soul, but will relish a bottle of wine that was $7.99 from Costco as much as the $100 bottle purchased directly from the winery.

I will dive into my wine philosophy in subsequent posts, but I hope for this blog inspire you guys to share the same passion I do for wine. I want to share with you all how to appreciate a bottle of wine without feeling like a pretentious snob.  I want to tell you all about my adventures in tasting rare and hard to find varietals.  As an unabashed lover of food, I may even share with you some of my favorite recipes that pair beautifully with wine.  And I will most certainly share in my search for finding the best deals in wine--because above all, wine should be drunk with abandon, and not hoarded because it was too darn expensive to enjoy.

I hope you will all enjoy me on this little adventure of mine!  Welcome--and, of course: Cheers!