Monday, December 31, 2018

Save Your Wine!

If you are like me, you'd love to have a glass of wine in the evening. You don't want to chug your wine and clean out a bottle all by yourself in one night or even two. You just want to sip and savor a glass. You do the math. If you get five to six glasses of wine from a bottle, will you finish the wine before it goes bad?

Thankfully the wine industry today is brimming with all kinds of wine preservation gadgets to solve this first-world wine problem. I'll share some thoughts about these gadgets in this post and even throw in one non-gadget solution that works surprisingly well.

Coravin

Every wine geek with an impressive cellar seems to own a Coravin wine preservation system. I don't own one yet. However, I have benefitted from restaurants that have one, which allows them to serve some exquisite wines by the glass.
Coravin wine preservation system

Introduced in 2011, the Coravin wine preservation system leverages medical device technology to allow wine to be poured without removing the cork from nor letting oxygen into the bottle. The gadget inserts a hollow needle into the cork to extract the wine. Argon, an inert gas, is pumped into the bottle to displace the space left by the wine poured.

When the needle is removed from the bottle, the cork will naturally reseal, leaving the bottle intact. It's almost like watching a sci-fi movie. Needless to say, Coravin does not work with synthetic or glass closures since it relies on the "self-healing" power of cork.

For all its wonders, Coravin is also cost-prohibitive, starting at $200 for the basic model to over $1,000 for the latest offering with all the bells and whistles. And that is before you consider that each argon capsule used to preserve the wine in the bottle costs about $9 and is good for about 15 glasses of wine. It is definitely not for the average wine drinker.

Best for: Savoring that special bottle of wine over time, even years, to observe how it evolves. It also allows you to taste multiple prized bottles side by side without worrying about finishing them all.

Vacuum Seal Wine Saver

For many years, my go-to wine preservation gadget has been and still is the Sharper Image Vacuum Seal Wine Saver. It was a thoughtful gift from my niece, and it has saved many bottles of delicious wine. The wine saver preserves wine by sucking the air out of the bottle and sealing the bottle. This reduces the contact with air, which would otherwise oxidize the wine.

Sharper Image Vacuum
Seal Wine Saver
The vacuum seal wine saver is no competition to Coravin's inert argon. The seal is often less than perfect, and air leaks into the bottle over time. However, my trusty Sharper Image wine saver will suck air out of the bottle throughout the day. On average, it has extended the life of my open bottle to about 5 days without severe deterioration to its quality.

There are a myriad of vacuum seal wine savers in the market with varying abilities to preserve wine. The price range is definitely friendlier than that of a Coravin. You can get a manual version for as low as $10 and an electric saver can go up to $50-60. The downside for my electric saver is that it drains batteries very quickly as it sucks air periodically throughout its use. I can go through about two AA batteries every week with constant use.

Best for: Enjoying a really nice bottle for a few days.

Freezer

Yes, you can freeze wine and apparently time too! This is probably the least expensive option if you already own a freezer. I actually got this idea from Wine Spectator Senior Editor, James Laube. There is some cred there. Nonetheless, I decided to try it for myself.

Freezing 2015 Pierre More Monthelie
I opened a bottle of 2015 Pierre Morey Monthelie this past Thanksgiving. After a couple of glasses, I put the seal back on the bottle and stick it in the freezer. A week later, I thawed the bottle for a few hours and poured myself a glass.

Viola! The thawed wine has retained not only the freshness of taste but also the aroma. I would not have known that the wine has been previously frozen purely from tasting it. The last glass had quite a bit of fine and almost sandy sediments, that was a bit unusual. But it was otherwise fine! That said, I probably would not freeze the wine for more than a couple of weeks.

Best for: Saving an open bottle when you have to head out of town for a few days or just because you are in a mood for a different bottle of wine but want to get back to this one again.

My Verdict: There is a wine saving technique for every bottle of wine that is worth saving. (Not all are!) And the price ranges from $0 to over $1,000. Consider the different scenarios and options. I think I'm going to use all three!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Cru Who? The Lesser Known Bordeaux

When one thinks of Bordeaux, first-growth châteaux often come to mind: Lafite Rothschild, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Latour, and the more recently added Mouton-Rothschild. Unless you have deep pockets, these are not your everyday wines. Many Bordeaux geeks seek to buy Grand Crus Classé futures to get some coveted Bordeaux at pre-release prices. That requires an incredible amount of patience and knowledge. If that is what you are into, you should check out Spitbucket.net. My friend and wine-blogger, Amber LeBeau, shares extensive reviews of Bordeaux futures there.

Cru Classés tasting, compliments of Amber LeBeau

Bordeaux for the Rest of Us

If you have a modest bank account and/or limited patience like I do, finding quality Bordeaux at an affordable price point can be challenging. That is why I was thrilled when the West Seattle Wine Cellars hosted a free Bordeaux tasting last month. Now these are not your regular grocery store Bordeaux. Shop owner Tom DiStefano is particular about what he puts on the shelves and tends to seek out the less commercially known but incredibly delightful gems among wines. We knew we were in a for a treat!

A little snack to go with my red
The tasting line-up was poured by the Wine Trust, an importer with a strong focus on Bordeaux. The selection ranged from 2004 to 2013 vintages and included a couple of Crus Bourgeois from Haut-Médoc and a Grand Cru from Saint-Émilion. Sure there were no Grand Crus Classé in the mix, but none of the wines being tasted cost over $50 a bottle! And even I, with my perpetual self-imposed wine-buying moratorium in place, could hardly resist a half-case of these delicious deals.

Over the weekend, I decided to open the 2008 Château d'Agassac, Haut-Médoc Cru Bourgeois. On the nose, I got dark fruit with delicate floral scent, which both surprised and delighted me. The fruit carried through the palate with added layers of earthiness, spices, and nuts. The wine was medium to full-bodied and well-balanced, with ample acidity and fine elegant tannins. The finish was smooth and long-lasting.

For $30, this ten-year-old Bordeaux was delicious! I had it while snacking on some grapes and a piece of creamy blue Cambazola. But I could see see it pairing really well with a nice hearty beef and vegetable stew on a cold winter night.

Crus Bourgeois

Now, let's talk about Crus Bourgeois. As you know, the French like to rank and classify their wines. The most famous of which was the 1855 Classification of Grand Crus Classés requested by Napoleon III. Select châteaux in Bordeaux were assigned from first to fifth growths, with decreasing importance and price points. For châteaux in Medoc, there is another level added for high-quality wines that did not make Cru Classé. And that is Cru Bourgeois. Some would argue that there is a bit of overlap between Crus Bourgeois and the lower-level Crus Classé.

2008 Château d'Agassac
While they might be a good guide on the quality of wine, the different classification systems were and still are influenced by commercial and sometimes political interests. Wineries tirelessly lobby to be rated at the highest possible classification for both prestige and profit. Cru Classé and Cru Bourgeois rankings are no exception. In fact, the Cru Bourgeois ranking was annulled in 2007 and then re-introduced in 2010 with major revisions.

With a two-year lag in wine release, 2008 was the first vintage to be published under the new Cru Bourgeois rules in 2010. This Château d'Agassac was released just in time for that. Unlike Cru Classé, the recently revised Cru Bourgeois is a single level and is awarded annually to the wines rather than to châteaux. This kept the châteaux on their toes to produce high-quality wines.

2018 vintage will yet see another change in the rules of Cru Bourgeois, which will result in three tiers of quality and more stringent criteria. But we will not have to worry about that till 2020.

My Verdict: The 2008 Château d'Agassac was such a steal! It was delicious and sufficiently aged to display layers of complexity typical of a Bordeaux. I always recommend knowing your source with Bordeaux to ensure proper cellar condition before they get to the store. If you see a Cru Bourgeois in a trusted wine shop, scoop a couple up. Try one today and cellar the other for later. Santé!

Bonus Insider's Tip from Amber - Stock up on 2015/2016 Crus Bourgeois!

The recent 2015/2016 vintages offer oodles of great values among the Crus Bourgeois. Like 2009/2010, these are vintages where quality was stacked up and down the ladder. Most savvy Bordeaux buyers who regularly drink the Crus Classés often stock up on these gems to drink while waiting those classified growths to mature.

Unlike 2009/2010 though, 2015/2016 vintages are evident of how much the Bordelais have adjusted to the demands of the American and Asian markets. While traditional European markets that are accustomed to cellaring wines for many years, American and Asian consumers often open up their wines much younger and expect them to be drinking well soon after release. Even among the Cru Classés, many of these young Bordeaux wines are drinking shockingly well with only a little decanting. It remains to be seen if these wines will ultimately hold up in the cellar like their predecessors.

Bottom line is that there are tons of terrific 2015 and 2016 Bordeaux wines at all price points that are on the market now!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Williams Selyem, from the other RN74


I first learned about Williams Selyem by following the celebrated sommelier, Rajat Parr, on Delectable. Raj, an expert on Burgundies this side of the Atlantic, is the mastermind behind Michael Mina's RN74 wine program. (RN74 stands for Route Nationale 74, the old name of the highway that runs alongside many of Burgundy Grand Cru wineries.)
Vineyard along RN74

So when Raj pays attention to a new world Pinot Noir, I do too. And this one hails from the Russian River Valley in California.

From RN74 to SR116


Williams Selyem was founded by its namesake winemakers, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem. Thanks to some excess grapes gifted by a grower in 1979, Burt started making wine from his home in Forestville, a small town on California State Route (SR) 116. Over time and with a few vintages of hobby winemaking under their belts, Burt and Ed went commercial in 1983. As fans of Burgundies themselves, Burt and Ed focused on making Pinot Noir.

In 1987, Williams Selyem turned into a cult winery overnight when their Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir beat over 2,000 wines to win the California Fair Sweepstake for the top red wine. With a limited production, the surest way to get Williams Selyem wines was to join the cult winery membership list if you could tolerate a two to three-year wait.

Today, with increased production (although still limited), Williams Selyem wines are a lot more accessible. While I do see the random bottles on retail shelves, they do come at a price premium. 95% of the wines are still sold directly to members. The waiting list has dropped to less than a year with a reasonably low threshold to maintain membership. (You only need to buy at least a bottle in three years.) However, your buying history will impact your future allocation. That allows the more serious collectors to get first dibs on special allocations.

Tasting outstanding New and Old World Pinot Noirs
Russian River vs. Morey-Saint-Denis

Several months ago, we did a side-by-side 2013 vintage tasting of Williams Selyem Bucher Vineyard vs. Domaine Lignier-Michelot Morey-Saint-Denis "En la Rue de Vergy." Same varietal but so different in expressions. The new world Pinot Noir was fruit-forward, perfume-y, and all-around a pretty wine. The old world Pinot Noir was earthy, spicy, and nuanced. Both were simply delicious.

To be fair, Pinot Noir from Morey-Saint-Denis tends to be more powerful and masculine even by Burgundy standards. A more interesting comparison to Williams Selyem Pinot Noir may be Volnay, which tends to be more feminine, delicate, and floral among the red Burgundies. Incidentally, Williams Selyem Pinot Noir often reminds me of a Volnay.

2014 Eastside Road Neighbor
2014 Williams Selyem Eastside Road Neighbor 


Last weekend, as I was dreaming about Thanksgiving, I was inspired to open up another bottle of Williams Seylem. This time, the 2014 Eastside Road Neighbor. (By the way, Pinot Noir is the go-to red for Thanksgiving.)

As usual, the wine was delicately aromatic, full of berries, cherries, and rose petals. The fruit forwardness and floral aromas extend to the palate, accented with some spice and coffee notes. It is medium to full-bodied for a Pinot Noir, with ample acidity and polished tannins. The finish was long and satisfying. As expected, the 2014 Eastside Road Neighbor was a well-made wine that is feminine, elegant, and pretty.

My Verdict: Pinot Noir is an extremely finicky varietal and highly selective in where it will grow well. So oftentimes, a great Pinot Noir tends to be terroir-driven, and the best of them come from Burgundy. However, this stateside version of RN74 is not too shabby either. I would recommend a bottle, if you can find it, for your upcoming turkey feast.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Fall in Love with Chocolate and Nina Lee

Fall is finally here!

The weather is cooling down. The days are getting shorter. The leaves are turning. For wine drinkers, fall also marks the return to red wine after a long summer of chilled whites and rosés. My husband had just returned from Zurich with a bounty of Swiss chocolate by Läderach. And I wanted something that would go well with the delectable treats.

Fall marks the return to red wine
It may be a romantic notion, but picking a dry red to go with chocolate is surprisingly difficult. The tannins in the chocolate sometimes clash with the tannins in the wine. Not to mention both chocolate and wine have varying degrees of fruitiness and acidity that may result in a poor match.

2012 Nina Lee with Swiss Chocolate
In my experience, the dry red that often has a chance to pair well with chocolate is Syrah. In fact, my go-to for that is Spring Valley Vineyard's Nina Lee. And I am not the only one who thinks so.

Nina Lee by Spring Valley Vineyard

If you go to the Spring Valley Vineyard tasting room in downtown Walla Walla, you will be treated with a whole line-up of outstanding single varietals and blends. Saving the best for last, Nina Lee is often showcased with a piece of chocolate specially made to pair with the wine.

From the stash of Swiss chocolate, I picked a dark chocolate bark balanced with the perfect amount of almond and orange bits. And I matched it with the 2012 vintage of Nina Lee.

On the nose, the Nina Lee was fruit-forward with cherries and berries. On the palate, the full-bodied luscious mouthfeel coated the creamy chocolate flawlessly. The tannins were fine and smooth. The earthiness and hints of spice and even cocoa from the wine complemented beautifully with the chocolate as well as the almond and orange bits - the warm flavors that I often associate with autumn.

What wine in your collection would you pair with chocolate this fall? Share your favorites!

Friday, August 31, 2018

What do Crazy Rich Asians Drink?

Have you seen the movie, Crazy Rich Asians?

If not, you must! Why? Because yours truly is from Singapore. And one might argue that I am two-third of the way to being a Crazy Rich Asian. For fun, I decided that I'd check on a couple of my Crazy Rich Asian friends and find out what wines they drink.

Erica is born in Singapore and lives in Malaysia so she gets to enjoy the best of both worlds. After being a stay-at-home mom for 20 years, she found her passion in educating people about using Essential Oils in their wellness journey.

Jimmy is a Taiwanese American entrepreneur based in San Francisco who has a few technology startups to his name. He now runs an accelerator program to help other startups grow and succeed.

Erica's Bordeaux babies

How did you discover your interest in wine?

Erica: It all started with the first bottle of 1982 Lafite, that I bought when I was only 24. That was when I learned that drinking wine is an art, that collecting wine is also an art.

Jimmy: I was a management consultant when I first started getting interested in wine. We would go out for large team dinners, and the partners would order expensive wine. But I realized that I didn't know anything about it. So I decided to learn more by taking winery tours and reading about wine online.

What is the most memorable bottle of wine that you have drunk?

Erica savoring her red

Erica: 1983 Petrus. I was amazed that it cost so much and over a casual dinner.

Jimmy: 2011 Scarecrow that I had with a good group of friends at my birthday party two years ago. It was special because it was a rare bottle of wine that I had been saving and I was able to share it with a good group of people who appreciated it.

What is your philosophy in wine consumption?

Erica: Drink all round the world. Taste them all, and love them all.

Jimmy: Everyone has different tastes. You should ultimately just trust your own taste buds. It isn't about the price. There are great bottles of wine for less. Just go out there and do a tasting and learn what you like and don't like.

What is a regular bottle of weeknight wine to you?

Erica: A Brunello!

Jimmy: It can be anything that is in my wine fridge, to be honest. My recent favorite is Kunde, but my girlfriend and I also drink a lot of wine from Black Stallion.

Where do you buy your wine?

Erica: I have a friend who is a wine importer. We also go to wine countries in France and Italy.

Jimmy: I have wine club memberships at Nickel & Nickel, Far Niente, Alpha Omega, Black Stallion, Kunde, BR Cohn, Buena Vista, DeLoach, and Raymond. Living so close to Napa and Sonoma means that we can pretty much go there whenever we want and pick up directly from the vineyards themselves.

Jimmy and friends at Black Stallion Winery in Napa
Describe your wine collection.

Erica: I collect wine both as an investment and for personal consumption. I have about 3,000 bottles mostly from Bordeaux left bank. I have a vertical of Chateau Pichon Lalande.

Jimmy sharing wine with friends
Jimmy: I collect wine to share them with good friends and experience them together with others. It isn't about the money or an investment. I have more bottles than will fit in my wine fridge, and the wine fridge fits about 160 bottles. We love red wines and especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Zinfandel. Most of my wines are from Napa or Sonoma.

Describe your dream wine cellar.

Erica: My dream wine cellar is in the basement and cool. There will be two barrels with six stools and a see-through glass ceiling so that I can peer at my wine cellar from the level above.

Jimmy: I'm looking forward to building the dream wine cellar, but I'd like to create a basement at my house where I can store thousands of bottles and start saving a bottle from every year so that I can pass that along to my kids in the future.

What is the dream bottle that you'd like to try?

Erica: 1961 Latour. I want to taste a true king of my terroirs!

Jimmy: I've yet to try the elusive Screaming Eagle, and I'd love to get a chance to try that and see what the big fuss is all about.




Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Home Wine Making, My Accidental Hobby

If you were to ask me a few years ago, I would not have thought of wine making as a hobby. I’m a pragmatist. Let the talented people do the hard work, and let me enjoy the fruit of their labor.


Then a couple of friends told me about a home wine making class organized by the Boeing Employees Wine and Beer Making Club and taught by Steve Foisie, whose list of past students include Ben Smith of Cadence Winery and Tim Narby of :Nota Bene Cellars. The class itself consisted of a day of theory followed by hands-on practice on de-stemming and crushing, primary and secondary fermentation, testing, and finally bottling. The best part is that I got to order grapes from some of the most coveted vineyards in Washington state, thanks to the buying power of the club.

My first vintage with Alisa
That was two years ago, and now I am preparing for my third vintage. So what attracts me to hobby wine making?

It Engages My Senses

I can't think of many hobbies that engage my senses in such interesting ways. I get to smell and taste the sweet juice during crush and as it gets dryer and more alcoholic through the progression of primary fermentation. I see the color deepens as pigments are deposited from the grape skins. And if I am quiet enough, I can just hear the wine yeasts happily bubbling away as they consume the sugar in the must and spit out alcohol.

Then in secondary fermentation, which is also when I start using the barrel, I taste for the conversion of harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid by the malolactic bacteria. But for the most part, I am looking for the mouth feel. Are the tannins softening in the barrel? Is the wine getting more concentrated with the slight evaporation through the porous barrel surface? For the same reason, is the color and quality of the wine stabilizing with micro-oxygenation?

Throughout the process, I am constantly engaging my sight, my smell, my taste, my touch, and arguably my hearing as the grapes are made into wine. It is all too fascinating!

It Engages My Mind

Wine making is about guiding a transformation, and many microorganisms are involved. I coax the yeasts to convert sugar into alcohol during primary fermentation and then provide a conducive environment for the malolactic bacteria to soften the acids during secondary fermentation. At the same time, I am actively protecting the wine from being exposed to acetic acid bacteria. No one wants to drink vinegary wine!

Yeast hydrated with warm water and must
Then there is oxygen, which is great in alcoholic fermentation but bad for malolactic fermentation and maturation. There is carbon dioxide, a by-product of primary fermentation, that comes in handy to protect the wine from oxidation. Finally, there is the much misunderstood sulfur dioxide, that has been wrongfully blamed for causing headache despite its antioxidant properties. I learn how to manipulate each to my advantage.

After my second vintage, I have barely scratched the surface of the biochemistry and microbiology behind wine making. What about the polymerization of phenolic compounds? What about the enzymes? With every vintage, there is an opportunity to go deeper and learn the art and science behind wine making.

It's a Party!

Last but not least, it is all about having fun! For both my vintages, I made wine with good friends. Wine making can be very physical and messy. We learned together and worked together. In the last vintage, we started each get-together with a snack or a feast and a healthy serving of wine. Then we went on with the actual wine making activity of that day. The nourishment kept us in good spirits although the wine clouded our judgement on a few occasions.

Celebrating our final product
Still all is not lost. At the end of each vintage are those beautiful bottles of wine, that we can call our own. Every bottle contains the memory of that crush that was interrupted by power outage, that batch of yeasts that was accidentally starved, or that racking that spilled half a gallon of sticky wine. Yet when we open that bottle, our heart is filled with pride. The wine tastes better than we thought it could ever taste because it is the fruit of our labor.

My Verdict: Even pragmatists need a hobby. I am glad that living in close proximity to vineyards and great resources allows me to pursue wine making as a hobby. Steve Foisie once said a good winemaker has to be a good student first. I look forward to many more lessons.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Vital Response to SOS


These days it seems like there is a rise of xenophobia, and we are constantly confronted with immigration issues. The wine industry in Washington state and around the country is not immune, as migrant workers play a key role in viniculture. The 2017 harvest saw a drastic shortage of vineyard workers, and the outlook for the upcoming harvest is hardly optimistic.

Vital mission buttons
In this environment of hostility towards immigrants, it is timely that a winery was launched to intentionally do good.

Vital Winery in Walla Walla, led by winemaker Ashley Trout, donates 100% of its profits to fund a free clinic in the valley. The beneficiary, SOS Health Services, is an urgent care facility that provides walk-in healthcare services to underinsured and uninsured individuals. No questions asked!

This endeavor expands access to healthcare services for migrant laborers. This is also how Trout sees as closing the loop and bridging the two communities; the migrant vineyard workers and the wine industry.

The Winemaker

Trout has had several years of winemaking experience under her belt before launching the non-profit Vital label. She started part-time on the production floor at Reininger Winery when she was a student at Whitman College. She has since launched a few labels. In addition to Vital Winery, she also owns Brook and Bull Cellars (previously known as March Cellars).


Trout remembered what it was like being uninsured as many small wineries in Walla Walla could not afford to provide health insurance to all their workers. Today, she sits on the board of SOS Health Services and is keenly aware of its financial challenges. That led her to play an active role in providing the solution.

Working in the healthcare industry myself, I too am passionate about the need to provide access to basic healthcare. So in our last trip to Walla Walla, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to check out Vital Winery.

The Winery

Vital as well as Brook and Bull labels 
With Trout leading the charge, Vital Winery relies heavily on the donation of raw materials and services needed for wine production. It runs the whole gamut, with winery partners providing fruit, barrels, bottling materials, crushing and hauling services, and even PR. It is truly a community effort.

Co-located with Brook and Bulls Cellars, Vital Winery is one of the scenic Southside wineries. It is situated just north of the state line that separates Washington from Oregon.

The tasting room was spacious, tastefully decorated with minimum frills. It serves both Vital as well as Brook and Bull wines. The outside patio offers a picturesque view of the Blue Mountains as the backdrop for acres and acres of beautiful vineyards and wheat fields as you taste through the line-up.

We tasted the 2016 Vital GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre), which is really dominant on Mouvedre at 45%, followed by Grenache at 36%, and Syrah at 19%. On the nose, it was full of berries, which carried through to the palate. The wine has a rich mouthfeel with bright tannins and a well-balanced acidity. Considering that this was made from donated grapes, it was artfully crafted. At the price point of $28, it is a steal!

2016 Vital GSM
My Verdict: Vital Winery tugs at my heartstrings by making delicious wines while giving back to the community. Such a labor of love and compassion definitely gets a thumbs-up from me. May we all be inspired to be kind and do good. And if you have not tried Vital wines, you must!!