5 wine party concepts: Part Two

As I was saying, cheers to making wine tasting the centerpiece of a party.

I’m all for organizing a tasting around a theme, to give you and your guests a chance to learn something new about your preferences or about wines in general.

33 - wine bottles 

Yesterday I suggested some ideas for blind tastings. Here are four more organizing principles to consider. In each case, you can keep all the bottles served within a certain price range or explore for value by offering wines at high, low and in-between prices:

One grape, different regions/countries: for wine grapes that are successfully cultivated across a range of geographies, side-by-side comparisons can be revealing. There are many wines for which such tastings would be easy to arrange: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Noir . . . .

One grape, same region: if you want to focus on Oregon Pinots or German Rieslings, Piedmont Nebbiolos or Tuscan Sangioveses, this is a chance to compare producers and vintages.

National suite: here’s a way to showcase an array of wines—sparkling, white, red, perhaps rosé—from a particular country. The list of nations with sufficient wine variety is long and growing—and getting more interesting. Invite adventurous friends for an evening of Brazilian or Croatian wines, or stay more traditional with all-Italian, –Spanish, -French, etc.

Same vintage, different producers: otherwise known as a “horizontal” tasting, this scheme can be as tightly defined or wide open as you choose, from 2010 red Bordeaux under $30 to 2009 Cabernet Sauvignons from all over (or Napa Valley only).

No matter what you taste, enjoy.

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5 wine party concepts: Part One

Fall party season is upon us. Many events are benefits for various worthy causes; others are parties for pleasure’s and friendship’s sake.

32 - wine bottles

If you’re hosting, you can simplify the planning—and possibly wow your guests—by building the party around a wine concept. If you need to keep your costs in check, make wine assignments in advance: ask each guest/guest-couple to bring a bottle of a certain type, region or price point, in accordance with your party theme.

I came up with five ideas; here is the first:

Blind tasting: concealing the identity of the wines you’re serving, by wrapping the bottles or, if color is not a tell in your blindness scheme, decanting them, can add some geekiness to a party—can your guests distinguish a $15 wine from a $40 one, a Merlot from a Cabernet Sauvignon?—and challenge those who are savvy oenophiles.

The object of a blind tasting is to offer a range of wines organized around a particular attribute, such as:

  • Price – Pick a regional varietal (Napa Cabs, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, red Bordeaux, for instance) and offer a bottles at prices ranging from $10 to . . . $30, $50—whatever maximum you’re comfortable with.
  • Type – Blindfolds required for this approach. Researchers say even seasoned wine tasters can confuse reds with whites with rosés when they can’t see what they’re drinking. I can’t speak from personal experience but am intrigued by the idea.
  • Grape – You can present a range of reds or of whites, or some of each, but each bottle should be a different grape varietal. For example, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, and Gamay. Who can tell which is which?
  • Country – the same varietal but from different countries/regions. Cabernets from Chile, Argentina, Australia, South Africa, California. Rieslings from Long Island, the Finger Lakes, Germany, Austria. How geographically sensitive are your guests?

This approach elicits active participation, as guest-tasters weigh in on their hunches and can rank their likes, so it can be an ice breaker when people in the room don’t know each other. Be sure to organize your identification system ahead of time and label the bottles or decanters carefully.

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A corkage too far

I’m slightly peeved. While the dollar amount at issue is small, I think BYO restaurants that employ the policy I find annoying would help themselves by abolishing it.

Here’s what happened: a brand-new BYO restaurant we tried over the weekend in the Philadelphia area (I’ll leave it unnamed for now) charged $5 to open our bottle of wine. (By the way, it was a delicious 2009 Liparita Oakville Cabernet.) While the restaurant announces its BYO status in caps on the front door, it gives no forewarning of the “service fee,” which shows up as a line item on the bill.

In my experience, restaurants that lack liquor licenses and allow customers to bring their own wine or other alcohol (there are many such places in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) generally do not assess a corkage. After all, it’s inherently unfair to charge for opening a patron-supplied bottle when the restaurant cannot offer equivalent bottles on its menu.

And, more than unfair, the policy feels petty and makes the restaurant—particularly in this case, when the food is beautifully prepared and delightfully seasoned—seem miserly. If the owners aren’t meeting their expenses with the food prices alone, why not raise the menu items by a dollar or two? For this establishment, which is prix-fixe, it would be easy to add $2.50 per head and drop the corkage.

To make summer linger

In theory, reds, whites and rosés are all-season wines. But, honestly, dark, tannic reds are more crave-able in the depths of winter than light, acidic whites.

Cote Est

So, while I might serve Côté Est from Jean-Marc Lafage as an aperitif come January—it could be a brilliant way to conjure the sunlight and warmth of summer, just as basil pesto made in August and defrosted in February can do—I’m enjoying it now, as the calendar ticks down to autumn.

Côté Est (East Coast) is a French wine, from the Côtes Catalanes, an emerging designation that suggests Spain (Catalan = Catalonia) but that Lafage is employing for his white Vins de Pays of the Roussillon region in southern France, smack up against the Spanish border on the Mediterranean Sea. No surprise that Lafage is one of the adventurous, young winemakers being attracted to Roussillon, where it’s easier to experiment with grape combinations than many other areas of France.

The wine is an intriguing blend of Grenache, Chardonnay and Marsanne, which may explain that on the nose, one swirl of the glass evokes the sea and seafoam while the next is floral. On the palate, the pale lemon-green wine gives citrus (lime, to me) and unsweetened stone fruit.

Besides being delicious, this gem is not expensive: I paid $11 at Sherry-Lehmann. Long live summer!

BYO deserves more respect

New Jersey is lousy place to live if you’re a wine drinker, according to a state-by-state report card issued last month by the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC).

My state of residence earned a D+, based on six criteria, and a #28 ranking (as did the other prongs of the Tri-State Area, New York and Connecticut).

(By the way, the AWCC gave seven states an A+ and a #1 ranking: California, D.C., Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oregon and Virginia.)

But New Jersey’s poor showing is due in part to the relative weights assigned to the study’s six criteria, and there I beg to differ with the methodology. This state is a BYO mecca, yet that benchmark is weighted next-to-last in this study.

brown bag2

As the report, “Consuming Concerns,” explains, AWCC surveyed 1,000 wine drinkers around the country to identify the key parameters on which to judge a state’s responsiveness to their interests. That survey further enabled AWCC to rank the six in importance, from most to least, and rate each state according to its laws around each parameter:

Ability to have wine shipped to their home from any winery

  1. No State monopoly on the sale of wine
  2. Ability to have wine shipped to their home from any wine retailer
  3. Ability to purchase wine on Sundays
  4. Ability to bring their own wine into a restaurant to drink with their meal (BYO)
  5. Ability to purchase wine in grocery stores

Really, is BYO that low on the priority list for most people? Maybe if you haven’t experienced its joys (and financial benefits!) you don’t know what you’re missing.

New Jersey is no paradise for restaurateurs, because it restricts the number of liquor licenses available, thus driving up their price. The result is a number of excellent dining establishments that cannot sell alcohol. (And even many licensed restaurants let customers bring their own by paying a corkage.)

But what’s bad for a restaurant owner is a boon for customers. For serious wine connoisseurs and collectors, BYO restaurants are prime locations to open a special or long-cellared bottle not found on a typical wine list or, if it is, that carries an exorbitant price tag. For average customers who may not be wine experts but nevertheless enjoy having decent wine with dinner, BYO establishments allow them to bring a bottle from home or a neighborhood wine shop, paying a fraction of what that wine would cost on a restaurant list.

In fact, rather than being inhospitable to restaurants, I’m willing to bet that BYO-friendly states like New Jersey result in more dinners out rather than less, because each meal with a BYO wine saves the diner $20 and up.

I can live with a D+ if it comes with BYO rights.

Looking on the white side

Say “Spanish white wine” and I tend to think Albariño. But lesser-known whites are drawing more attention lately and therefore becoming easy to find in stores and on menus.

Two days in succession I tried two different [non-Albariño] Spanish whites at my local wine bar, Bin 14. They’re simple wines, dry and light—fitting for warm, late-summer weather. A few thoughts about them:

Ermita de Nieve Verdejo 2011 – This wine is produced in Rueda, a long-established wine center in Spain’s Castilla y León region, some 80 miles northwest of Madrid. The area is situated on a flat plateau with a relatively high elevation, making for favorable growing conditions—cool nights, sunny days; similarly, cold winters and hot summers.

Ermita de Nieva produces Verdejo exclusively, fermenting it in stainless steel barrels. It drinks dry and crisp. On the nose, the wine is softly grassy but on the palate the grass is dominated by citrus—maybe lime, some say grapefruit.

28 - Verdejo, Rueda

Ermita’s Verdejo is widely available in retail stores for around $10. I spotted another Verdejo, Viña Gormaz from Bodegas Garci Grande, at my neighborhood supermarket, priced similarly.

C.V.N.E. Rioja Monopole Blanco 2012 – Most Riojas are Tempranillo-based reds, but whites—made from the Viura grape, called Macabeo elsewhere in Spain—are gaining in popularity. (FYI, the Rioja region is a bit farther north and slightly east of Rueda, but the areas share a similar climate.)

28 - Viura, Rioja Blanco

This Rioja Blanco, produced by Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España, evokes light seafoam and stone on the nose. There’s a bit of minerality on the palate but scant fruit. It retails for $12 to $14. Shop-Rite’s wine department stocks two Rioja Blancos at the moment, Royal 2010 and Diamante (semi-dry) 2011.

 

Mapping out Spanish wines

Noodling around the web yesterday to explore possible travel itineraries, I discovered a fine resource for understanding Spain’s wine regions and appellations.

Spanish vineyard

If you’re considering a self-guided trek through Spain and were wondering how to include some winery visits in your schedule, Spanish-wines.org gives pointers on specific wineries along with their addresses and contact telephone and fax numbers (although no email addresses, unfortunately; you’ll have to do some independent digging for that info).

Tourism ideas aside, for wine lovers who want to understand what they’re drinking, the site is arguably most valuable for the explanations it gives of 14 wine-growing regions, from Andalusia to Valencia, and its A-to-Z listings of the myriad red and white grapes cultivated in Spain.

Excellent trivia fodder in these listings, by the way: for instance, what’s the primary grape in Txakolí?

The website, which bills itself as “The World of Spanish Wines,” has a few other gems, including a history of cava, but goes off topic with sections on the wines of Argentina and Chile.

But, back to the reason I found the website, its attention to tourism-minded oenophiles. Its region-specific pages in the “Spanish Wines Tours” section offer overviews that can help in comparing wine routes along with winery details.

One caveat: the website carries a 2011 copyright, suggesting that winery information is not up to the minute. The site’s sponsorship is not identified but may likely be a government- or producer-supported association.

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Healthier living through wine

According to the latest news flash from the realm of how-wine-consumption-impacts-health, modest weekly wine consumption can stave off depression in people over 55.

This assessment comes from a seven-year study of some 5,500 Spaniards; results were published recently in BMC Medicine.

Champagne toast 

While the methodology and conclusions of this particular study seem a bit shaky (meals and socializing with friends and family probably do help ward off depression, but is the wine that’s part of those rituals responsible?), I nevertheless reserve the right to have faith that wine consumption can help me live a longer, healthier life.

After all, belief in wine’s healthful attributes dates back to ancient Egypt. Wine for centuries was prescribed to improve digestion, alleviate diarrhea, ease the pain of childbirth and, applied topically, disinfect wounds.

Wine, and alcohol consumption in general, subsequently fell into disfavor in some quarters. Among the claims of wine’s possibly pernicious effects have been that it boosts the risk of breast and other cancers and weakens bone tissue.

But, on the bright side, a number of medical studies find that wine drinking in moderation contributes to longevity and good health for most adults.

Simply enjoying the glass of what’s in front of you should be reason enough to drink wine. But if you need a health justification, here are a few:

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A winery grows in Brooklyn

Make that three wineries, and counting, in New York’s hippest borough.

wine tasting

Urban wineries—in most cases, facilities where juice from regionally-grown grapes is blended and bottled as well as sold in on-site tasting rooms—are a booming phenomenon in cities around the country. According to Visit Urban Wineries, there are urban wineries in 20 states and Canada. Seattle and Portland are in the vanguard of the trend but locavore-friendly Brooklyn is not far behind.

My research has turned up Brooklyn Oenology (BOE), the oldest of the three (established 2006), and Brooklyn Winery, both in Williamsburg, and Red Hook Winery in, well, that neighborhood.

All three produce small-batch, craft wines and offer them for sale through their websites—although tasting first, which you can do here, is not a bad idea. In fact, Brooklyn Winery appears to depend heavily on its wine bar business; the space is a decent size and food is also served. BOE and Red Hook Winery feature more traditional tasting rooms.

BOE and Red Hook wines are made exclusively from New York State grapes—that is, mostly from Long Island’s North Fork and the Finger Lakes. Brooklyn Winery’s whites tend to be sourced from Finger Lakes vineyards but their reds look to come mostly from California; their online descriptions are quite specific about appellations and production methods.

Prices? For all three producers, they fall mostly in the $20 to $35 range.

I got turned on to Red Hook with their 2012 Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend at Bin 14 in Hoboken, but I don’t see it listed as available on Red Hook’s site. Next up: a field trip across the East River to investigate.

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A modest proposal, for Detroit

Detroit, $18 billion in debt and seeking bankruptcy protection, is desperate to reinvent itself. Once America’s 10th largest city and the world’s car-manufacturing capitol, the Motor City/Motown is exploring ways to regain financial viability with a population that’s 40% of its peak levels in the 1950s and with acres of vacant land.

Detroit

Why not plant grapes and build a new mecca for wine production in Michigan, a state with a robust and growing wine industry? Michigan already boasts dozens of wineries across five distinct wine-growing regions, but Detroit to date has not been part of this boom.

Yet urban farming is indeed sprouting on plots of Detroit land abandoned by former residents, businesses and factories, and many city boosters see farming as an ingredient of a successful future for this city with such a vast physical footprint.

Even if Detroit’s soil proved hopeless for growing any of the many local or European grape varieties, wine makers would find cheap real estate there to set up winery and tasting room operations.

B. Nektar Meadery set a precedent for such a business model when its founders claimed an unused property in Ferndale, Michigan, a short drive north of Detroit, and scaled up their formerly home-based honey-wine production.

Where the entrepreneurial spirit simmers, empty land goes begging, and thirsty wine lovers await, I see opportunity.

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