Lot 93 from 90+ Cellars

Better late than never to worthy discoveries. I tried my first wine from 90+ Cellars earlier this summer: a friend had brought one of the company’s Sauvignon Blancs to a backyard barbecue.

But was it the Lot 64 from northern California’s Lake County, or Lot 2 from New Zealand? I didn’t know enough about 90+ at the time to pay attention. Either way, though, it was nice and, I was told, not expensive.

Later I read up on 90+ Cellars’ story; they’ve certainly garnered great publicity since launching in the recessionary days of mid-2009. Looking for great wines at decent prices, the Boston-based company’s founders sought out highly-rated wineries with unsold product that were willing to have their wine bottled under the 90+ Cellars label, at prices (mostly under $20) below what the original winery names could have commanded.

90-plus Chardonnay (2)

A search on their website turned up 156 retailers and/or restaurants in New York City that offer 90+ wines, from Acker Merrall to the Tribeca Grand Hotel to Bobby Van’s Steakhouse. (You can also purchase the wines from 90+ Cellar’s shopping website.)

In Hoboken, the small but well-stocked Garden Wine & Liquor sells a wide array of 90+ varieties. Garden Wine owner Phil said they’ve proved a huge winner for the store, so he displays them prominently near the entrance.

The reds on recent offer included a Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo, a Pinot, several Cali Cabs, a Bordeaux, and more. Among the whites: that Lot 2 from New Zealand, a Pinot Grigio from Trentino, “French Fusion White” from Languedoc.

For $15, I took home a bottle of Lot 93, a 2012 Russian River Chardonnay, 700 cases made.

What did I think? In the glass, the wine is quite pale, implying Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. The nose suggests mineral, citrus and a hint of cheese. It’s a high-alcohol Chardonnay (14.5%) but doesn’t drink like one. I enjoyed the first sips, but the wine didn’t hit its stride until it had opened up for half an hour. 90 points? I’d give it 89.

Out with the pizza stone, in with the steel

Today I’m reading about the Baking Steel, invented and produced by Stoughton Steel in Massachusetts. An email from Pure Wow led me to the product site, and their story, and the rave reviews.

Scientist-cook-former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold inspired Stoughton’s Andris Lagsdin to fashion a steel plate for baking with his comments, in his epic Modernist Cuisine, about steel’s superior conductivity compared to the brick or stone typically used for commercially or home-cooked pizza.

A Kickstarter campaign quickly raised the money Lagsdin needed to launch a serious manufacturing effort for the baking steel.

The final product weighs 15 pounds, measures 16” by 14”, requires a lower oven temperature than a baking stone, and costs $79. Cook’s Illustrated, Food & Wine, the Wall Street Journal and other have applauded it.

So, what does this product have to do with wine? Once you make that pizza, you have a world of vino – red, white, rose – to pair with it.

I’m a traditionalist: sausage and mushrooms, which calls for a red, anything from a rustic Salice Salentino or Corbières, to a modest California Pinot or Merlot ($12 to $15 is about right for a pizza wine, in my view). Or what about one of the oodles of delicious, affordable Bordeaux from one of several recent fantastic vintages?

If you make your pizza “white” or veggie-only, dry or stony (there’s Bordeaux again) whites accompany nicely.

But, no matter which way you go – homemade, take-out, thick crust, thin, red wine, white wine – take the time to savor your choices.

Neighborhood favorites, part 2

When my friends recommend wine shops in their respective environs, I pay attention — even when their recommendations are geographically distant. And, as much as the product and the prices, what friends like about their local wine stores typically revolves around the proprietors and how they make their stores distinctive.

As I’ve said before, discovering and exploring independent bookstores can be similar to the experience of browsing and buying from delightful local wine shops.

Here are a few more favorites to note, courtesy of friends in different places. NOTE: the websites of Keife & Co. and The Wine Shop do not provide comprehensive search engines for their inventories; that is, you have to visit in person!

D.C. area:

Finewine.com – in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This store is a recent find of my friend Marsha. The layout of the not-huge space – “very cool,” she said, without traditional shelves and racks – impressed her, as did the broad and interesting selection.

Scrolling through Finewine’s summer specials on their website, I note many labels, even some varietals, that I rarely, or never, see in my go-to retailers in the metro NY area. Calder Charbono from Napa, for instance. Several wines from California’s Tres Sabores winery – including their Por que no red blend and Sauvignon Blanc VYD. Mt. Monster Limestone Coast Chardonnay from Australia. Syrah and Chardonnay from South Africa’s DeMorgenzon.

Marsha reports that Finewine’s staff is excellent and makes “spot-on”suggestions.


Keife & Co. – Long-time New Orleanian Eleanor and her husband Jay give a shout out to this relative newcomer to the city’s downtown/warehouse district. They love the store’s unusual choices from, for instance, the Basque region and Croatia.

“We have found several reasonably priced wines of quality that we would not have found at any other wine store here,” Eleanor writes. “It is a family-run business of two married couples who travel together to find and import their wine selections.” In fact, the store closes up in August for a scouting trip to Europe.

Need snacks with those bottles you’re buying? Keife & Co. also offers an exclusive assortment of charcuterie, cheese, olives and, Eleanor adds, “of course, chocolate.”

Charleston, SC:

The Wine Shop – Sandy sings the praises of Charleston wine merchant Debbie Marlowe. She’s been in the wine biz for more than 25 years, and has owned this store since 1995. According to Sandy, Marlowe “has a gift for finding great values in wine, and also for knowing what her customers like and what they typically spend.”

Marlowe’s personal touch extends to leading winery tours for clients. My friend was the beneficiary of one such tour in Santa Barbara in 2011, which included a private visit to Dierberg Vineyard.

Mourvèdre by another name

I’ve drunk two Spanish reds in the past week and, coincidentally, they’ve both been 100% Monastrell. How odd is that?

Maybe no longer odd at all, given the growing trend among winemakers in Spain’s hot and arid southeastern region to bottle Monastrell unblended. Traditionally a blending grape in the Rhône (for reds) and Provence as well as in Spain, Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre) characteristically yields wine that is vibrantly fruity, tannic and high in alcohol.

Reds of such weight and intensity are not everyone’s choice for August drinking. Not so for me, however, as daily life presents such a spectrum of moods, meals and occasions that I can’t restrict a wine to a particular season.

Some impressions of these recent pours:

Juan Gil Monastrell 2010 – I love this wine! I originally found it at Giannone Wine & Liquor soon after it opened its Hoboken store earlier this year ($13.50). I’ve subsequently seen it at Hoboken Vine and Jersey City’s Buy-Rite ($13.99).

Juan Gil Jumilla

The grapes for this wine are cultivated in Jumilla, in Murcia province, under extremely dry growing conditions. The wine is aged 12 months in French barrels.

This Monastrell drenches the mouth with intense red fruit. Not a subtle sipping wine, the Juan Gil provides a dense immersion experience.

Vinos Sin-Ley “M” 2011 – Basque-style tapas restaurant Tertulia in Greenwich Village was featuring this wine by the glass last week – at $15 a pop, unsurprisingly overpriced (given that a bottle retails for the same or slightly lower amount).

“M” is produced in Yecla, a town (and D.O.), also in Murcia, that abuts Jumilla. This expression of Monastrell is less dense and less fruity than the Juan Gil, nevertheless a versatile accompaniment to flavorful Spanish dishes.

Recently red: Côtes du Rhône

Yes, it’s still summer but that fact hasn’t stopped me from drinking Côtes du Rhône. I’ve happened to open two bottles of Côtes du Rhône Villages over the past week, one a revisiting of a supply I purchased during the colder months, the other a new discovery. They’re both from the 2009 vintage and great values for their quality.

Domaine de L’Obrieu Côtes du Rhône Villages, Cuvee les Antonins, Visan, 2009 – I found this wine at Sherry-Lehmann, lured by the price (around $15/bottle at the time, based on a case purchase) and Sherry’s enthusiastic description: “more structure and darker flavors (think black currant and really dark cherries) than most Rhônes . . . Stunning value from the excellent 2009 vintage.”

Dom de L'Obrieu Cotes du Rhone Vill

Indeed, this wine tastes as dark as its hue. The flavor is dense and earthy; there is no mistaking that you’re imbibing the terroir.

The wine is a blend of Grenache (90%) and Syrah (10%). The label indicates that all grapes hail from the commune of Visan, a distinct Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation.

Beyond its beautiful expression of the earth and the vines, this wine offers another promising story of a youthful winemaking couple, carrying on a family tradition. Ownership of Domaine de L’Obrieu passed from father to son last year, and Jean-Yves Perez and wife Cecile will be able to claim full credit for their 2012 vintage. I look forward to trying it!

If supplies last, this wine is on offer by the case at Sherry-Lehmann through Aug. 31, 2013, for an unbelievable $144.

La Grand Ribe Côtes du Rhône Villages, 2009 – I found this wine in the “Robert Parker Recommends” area of Buy-Rite in Jersey City. The $9.95 price was an irresistible invitation to try it. Now I’m sorry I didn’t buy more, as it seems to be sold out at that store – although an online search indicates it’s readily available elsewhere.

La Grand Ribe Cotes du Rhone Vill

La Grand Ribe, a small producer, grows its grapes organically, and indicates that this wine contains a minimum of 50% Grenache and 20% Syrah and/or Mourvèdre, and a maximum of 20% other grape varieties.

Compared to the L’Obrieu, this wine is less dark and intense, but its Côtes du Rhône pedigree is equally undeniable. The flavors suggest dark fruit, smoke and herbs.

I looked up Parker’s review, which was a rave, calling the wine a “sensational effort” and giving it 91-93 points. Absolutely worth seeking this one out.

Backyard basics

Alas, summer is winding down, but some decent weather for picnics and backyard barbeques still lies ahead. For those occasions, you might find my lightweight, go-anywhere wine-drinking and dining accessories useful:

Igloo thermos aka wine chiller – I repurposed an old but indestructible Igloo thermos, with a convenient handle no less, into a single-bottle wine chiller. With a few ice cubes and an inch or two of cold water in the bottom, a bottle of white or rose nestles in perfectly. For multiple bottles, a cleaning bucket partially filled with ice water works nicely.

Igloo chiller

Govino glasses – I take no credit for discovering these glasses; all the kudos go to my neighbor, Beth, who has a wonderful eye for such items. She’s sharing a box of these lovely, flexible-polymer (they won’t crack) stemless glasses with our condo building for the summer and they’ve gotten a major workout. Govino glasses come in several sizes; Govino also makes carafes.

Govino glasses

Transport/serving trays – I saved the garden-store trays that held my flats of petunias at the start of the season, because I knew I’d find a use for them eventually. Sure enough, they’ve gotten a second life, transporting dishes and supplies to the backyard for those under-the-stars dinners.

Tray w chiller, etc.

Happy outdoor dining as the countdown to Labor Day continues!

Nice Burgundy find

Keens - 13aug13 - Wines by the glass

Kudos to Keens Steakhouse for offering a 2011 Château Génot-Boulanger white by the glass. I tried it the other night before our wonderful (as always) dinner there.

Problem is, Keens’ by-the-glass menu lists it simply as “Génot-Boulanger ‘11.” I did a Bing search the next morning, but the possibilities only expanded.

This Burgundy producer, based in Meursault, makes red and white wines from 32 appellations in the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and Côte Chalonnaise. Its website does not reveal which of these were produced in 2011 and have been released.

So, back to Keens: the sommelier Tim told me over the phone the wine is the Mercurey “les Bacs.”

“A beautiful wine,” he said, “and very affordable.”

Indeed, a lovely, medium-bodied Burgundy. Sadly, though, it seems to be difficult to locate for retail purchase.

Neighborhood favorites

Garden Wine

When Hurricane Sandy’s voracious flooding forced Hoboken’s Garden Wine & Liquor to close for a month for rebuilding and repairs, patrons posted their declarations of fealty on the window: they were going cold turkey and wouldn’t shop anywhere else until the store was back.

Not every wine shop engenders this degree of affection and loyalty from customers, but I’m guessing most of those that do are one-off neighborhood spots. They may not offer the expansive selections of bigger stores but they give good value and great customer service, and often have a specialty that sets them apart from others in their towns.

Garden Wine, at 7th and Park, occupies a modest corner space but Phil, the shop’s hands-on proprietor, is proud to stock the growing line of “90+” varietals (more about 90+ in future posts), along with a decent selection of standards. And he delivers locally!

Here are a few stores mentioned by friends in various places as their neighborhood favorites:

Washington Liquors – an unassuming storefront on Hoboken’s main drag, it gets a rave from my neighbor Beth, who says the owners are super-knowledgeable. Bonus: impressive diversity of beers on offer.

Vino di vino the go-to wine shop for many in Newton, Massachusetts (there’s a second location in Brookline). Their daily tastings are a big draw, and make it easy to find something new to take home.

80/20 Wines – my dear friend Linda swears by this Pueblo, Colorado, shop, where 80% of the wines sell for under $20.

Vine and Table – my cousin Priscilla recommends this combo gourmet food market/wine store in Carmel, Indiana. It’s the place to find the elusive Kokomo Wine!

Care to give a shout out to your neighborhood wine store?

The joys of browsing

Wine store shelves_2724326932

For me, wine stores are like bookstores: I relish the best of them for the hours of browsing potential they offer.

While physical bookstores are getting scarce (new-book retailers have died off in the county where I reside and no longer exist here), thankfully, wine shops are plentiful.

When a new one opens nearby, I check it out. When I travel, I seek out stores that come recommended. Home or away, I am invariably lured into a shop I stumble upon, curious to investigate its offerings.

I browse for pleasure and for information, for discovery and for comparison. I look at prices and watch for deals. I note the breadth of selection by region. What do they have today from Spain? Here, their South American section; it looks a little thin. Over there, the inevitable Kendall Jackson Vintner’s Reserve – but are they pushing it? No, they seem to be promoting Piedmont reds. This store is selling Chateau Montelena’s 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay but the one across town still stocks the 2009.

When in London I’ve enjoyed popping into the Nicholas shop on the nearest high street, to peruse the French labels unlikely to show up on U.S. shelves. In Cambridge, Central Bottle always reminds me of the number of wines I haven’t heard of. For sensory overload, Italian-style, Manhattan’s Italian Wine Merchants is the place to linger.

A store can be hushed and library-like; modern and minimalist; cramped or cavernous; outstanding or mediocre – it can hold my attention and renew my delight that the world of wine has so much to offer.

If you’re going for the lowest price, yes, online shopping will generally meet that objective. But then you miss the whole point of browsing.

photo credit: Simply Rikkles, Photopin.com, Creative Commons

Recommended reading

“The most informative and interesting wine emails on the Internet.” Indeed they are.

So does Chambers Street Wines bill its email communications program, and I can vouch for it.

Just in the past week I’ve gotten emails on new domestic arrivals; new arrivals from Macon, Beaujolais and Burgundy; a 2012 Fleurie from Alain Coudert; and an array of 2012 Muscadets and other Loire wines from a variety of producers.

And they’re not the usual labels you see elsewhere. That’s because Chambers Street specializes in bio-dynamic, natural and organic wines. Those terms are not interchangeable but together they convey that most of the product offered here has been produced with less chemical and mechanical intervention than is the norm for mass-produced wines.

Many of the producers represented on their shelves make their wines in small quantities. For instance, Chambers Street’s new bottles from California include the – how’s this for a name – Field Recordings’ 2012 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc Santa Ynez, just 40 cases made.

Also, from Mendocino, Salinia Wine Company’s 2012 Sun Hawk Farms Louisa Smith Love & Collarbones, an intriguing blend of the vineyard’s whites and reds (23 cases made). Chambers Street describes it as “piquant and silky” and “innovative and alluring.”

From Long Island’s North Fork, “paying homage to Friulian winemaking method and tradition long before it became trendy” is Channing Daughters’ 2006 North Fork Meditazione, an orange wine.

The Chambers Street store, in Tribeca, is a fine space for browsing and its staff boasts a very high wine IQ.

But for delightful reading that opens the mind to many wine discoveries from around the world, sign up on their website for Chambers Street’s emails. Do it now!