You Never Forget Your First French Screw(top)

Well I did it. I drank my first French wine with a stelvin closure – a 2006 Ugni White Colombard from Tariquet. What did the screw top reveal once “popped?” Nothing less than a light, refreshing wine perfect for warm days. Reading the back label reveals that the wine is a perfect aperitif or accompaniment to charcuterie, fish and shellfish. “Balanced and light to satisfy moments of thirst and pleasure.” Well, I had my moment of pleasure with my French screwtop and a hot dog. I know, I know – how Freudian and crass at the same time. But the hot dog was an all beef offering from the venerable Buffalo sausage maker, Sahlen’s. For my tastes, it worked.

I really enjoyed the wine. Made from a blend of Ugni Blanc (70%) and Colombard (30%) grapes, the wine had another advantage in addition to working well with my frankfurter – it was downright cheap. $6.39 for the bottle! For some time now I’ll remember how well my cheap French screwtop made my sausage sing.

Niagara Revisited

Not to be confused with Brideshead Revisited, since there will be drinking but no palatial English Manor or dottie aristocrats… Instead this is the continuing story of our journey through the Niagara Escarpment AVA.

The next winery that we visited was Warm Lakes Estate. This winery was unusual in that they specialize in pinot noir wines. Their personnel were extremely knowledgeable about how the various elevations, microclimates and geology impacted the vineyard. They were also well informed as to the varieties of food that would accompany their wines, going so far as to supply samples of a spicy barbeque chicken to be tasted with the wine. Additionally vineyard employees brought in grapes fresh from the vines to demonstrate the intrinsic sugar in the fruit.
The wines available at Warm Lakes include:

  • 2004 Warm Lake Estate Niagara Escarpment
  • 2006 Warm Lake Estate Pinot Noir Futures (which can be pre-ordered now for November release)
  • 2004 Mountain Road Niagara Escarpment Pinot
  • 2004 Glace Noir Niagara Escarpment

There were also a small number of older vintages which maybe sold out as of now. These wines demonstrated how changes in soil horizons and microclimate could impact their wines.

After heading down the escarpment, we traveled along the road until we reached Eveningside Vineyard. This was the smallest of the wineries that we visited during the day. They produced only 800 total cases of their assorted wines. Of the wines available for purchase, the Reserve Chardonnay was my favorite. A cabernet franc had previously been available, but was currently sold out. The 2006 was not yet available.

Other wines available included:

  • Chardonnay 2006, unoaked
  • Reserve Chardonnay 2006
  • Vidal Blanc 2006
  • Riesling 2006
  • Mountain Rosé
  • Claret 2004
  • Crofton Blush

The last non-family was further afield… All the way off to Gasport, NY which is where my father grew up. Naturally, it was a must see for us. Vizcarra Vineyards at Becker Farms was unlike any winery that we saw on this tour. The winemaker married into a farming family that owns a prosperous farm stand. And by farmstand, I mean the kind that has pumpkin patches and hayrides all autumn long. So this place was PACKED. Ok, most of the people tasting were probably trying to escape toddlers waiting for pony rides after the train ride around the grounds and that we had to watch for buses as we crossed on the grounds, but we don’t hold their success against them.

This winery had a large assortment of non-grape wines. The tastings were conducted at three separate tasting bars. Being this crowded, we didn’t really get to chat with the employees, but they did provide relevant points about each of the wines and moved the scores of people through efficiently. The wines available included:

  • Berry Patch Pink
  • Becker Blue
  • Perfect Plum
  • Rhuberry
  • Red Creek Raspberry
  • Spiced Apple
  • Apple Cranny
  • Emperor Cherry
  • Joyce’s Joy (Strawberry Rhubarb and Diamond wine)
  • Paso Fino (Cabernet Sauvingon)
  • Quaker Red Rougon
  • Falls Fusion (Vidal Blanc)
  • Rusty’s Riesling
  • Erie Canal Catawba
  • Barrelled Over Niagara
  • Dusty’s Diamond
  • Concord

Whew… how is that for brief tour of that AVA? Ooops… Still one more to go! Proof that a love of wine is a family thing! Stay tuned for our exciting conclusion.

Niagara Redux

How many wineries did Kevin and I (and my Dad) manage to hit before we had to join up with the family?

Two, you say? HA! As if!


How about 5 and then the family wine tour as well.

Now you are probably thinking that we were driving like crazy people throughout the back roads of Western New York high on merlot…. but you would be wrong. The fact is that most of these wineries were fairly close together and the tastings rooms professionally operated which meant that we never got more than a tasting pour.

Which wineries did we visit?

Honeymoon Trail was the first stop of our tour…And the location where we signed up for the best deal we got the entire weekend… See, the members of the Niagara Wine Trail were celebrating their Harvest Festival. This meant that for the weekend you could purchase a special wristband for $10.oo, get a free tasting glass and then free tastings at the memeber wineries. Naturally we thought this was great!

Honeymoon Trail is a winery that has operated for about a decade. They produce a number of types of grape wines as well as fruit wines as well (Frankly, I view them all as fruit wines as grapes are fruit, but I have heard enough complaints from friends and relatives to stop making this claim… sort of ). One of the wines that we purchased was their dandelion wine which is produced from the flowers of the plant. Having been a girl who often walked around picking dandelions for my mother and offered as gifts at religions shrines I couldn’t resist trying this wine. The taste was unusual but reminded me of summer sunshine.

Other wines that were available at the winery include:

  • Apple
  • Baco Noir
  • Cabernet Franc
  • Cayuga White
  • Chancellor
  • Chardonnay
  • Cherry
  • Concord (Honeymoon’s Over)
  • Coyote
  • Dandelion
  • Diamond
  • Full Moon
  • Honeymoon Sweet
  • Mighty Niagara
  • Peach
  • Pink Catawba
  • Pinot
  • Raspberry
  • Razzleberry
  • Riesling
  • Seyval Blanc
  • Strawberry
  • Vignoles
  • White Lace

The next winery that we visited was the Niagara Landing Wine Cellars. This winery was somewhat smaller than the previous winery and also supports itself as a Welch’s contract grower.

They produce:

  • Chardonnay-semi dry
  • Riesling-semi dry
  • Vidal Blanc-semi dry
  • Cayuga White-semi dry
  • NL House White
  • Siegfried
  • Boxer Blush
  • Misty Niagara
  • Rosebud White
  • Rosebud Peach
  • Merlot
  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2005 Dry Steuben
  • 2005 NL House Red
  • 2005 NL House Rosé
  • Captain’s Choice
  • Red Rooster
  • Stearman Steuben
  • Sweet Captain
  • Rosebud Rosé
  • Raspberry Rosebud
  • Port
  • Cranberry Wine
  • Blueberry Wine
  • Cherry Wine
  • Pear Wine (Currently sold out)

Which wineries did we see next? Stay tuned until tomorrow!

Sherry or Montilla-Moriles?

When was the last time that you ordered a Sherry? Have you ever? Do you know what it is and where it comes from?

One of the many aspects of Wine that stimulates my passion for it is the variety. Sure, as creatures of habit we turn to trusty old favorites like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon again and again. But, on occassion, the ability to have a new experience, hear a new story, taste something exotic or distinct, and buck the routine is, as the saying goes, the spice of life. I like to drink beer, Champagne, German and Alsatian Riesling, White and Red Burguny, Bordeaux, to name a few. This week I had the unique opportunity to attend a Sherry-Style wine dinner and that is exactly the type of variety and unique experience that chases the ho-hum away.

I had my first exposure to sherry about five years ago, and it blew my mind. Last night I attended a dinner that paired the wines of Alvear, a Sherry Style producer from the region of Motilla-Moriles, at Aigre Doux, a fine new restaurant behind Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. The dinner was hosted by Fernando Gimenez Alvear, Consejero-Delegado of the Bodega, Rafael Rodriguez Panadero, the export manager, and the local distributor, Robert Houde of Garchacha Ltd.

The Dinner:
Unrelated but needs mentioning; Before the room was ready I had an Austrian Lager called Stiegl, something that I will seek out for future consumption, refreshingly tangy with subtle complexity and structure and an excellent apertif in its own right.

Then, after entering the private dining room downstairs, I was poured a glass of the Alvear ‘Fino en Rama’ 2003, a vintage Fino, the first one in modern history according to the literature. The Fino was richer and more complex than others that I have tried and led us from reception into the first course, Caulifower soup with Dungeness Crab and Black trumpet mushroom garnish. WIth that course we were poured the second wine, the Alvear ‘Carlos VII’ Amontillado. Amontillado, or ‘in the style of Montilla’, is basically an aged Fino. While Fino is produced by keeping the Flor, a layer of dead yeast, and protecting the wine from oxygen, Amontillado is produced when Fino casks see a degredation of Flor. This particular wine was a light golden brown with similar character to the Fino, but with added nuttiness. The earthy/sweet flavors of the soup and garnish worked well with the nutty, dried fruit notes of the crisp, dry wines.

Don Rafael Rodriguez gave an informative presentation of the history of the Bodega and it’s wines through the first course and up to the Entree course, Chicken with Pomme de Terre, Broccolini, and lemon confit. Alvear Oloroso Asuncion NV was poured with this course, displaying the ability to form a beautiful pairing between Sherry-Style wines and savory foods. The Oloroso was a balanced, and slightly sweet, expression of the walnut, almond, dried fruit, molasses, and baking spice character that these class of wines are know for. This is a wine that, when you open it, fills the room with these distinct aromas and makes itself apparent to all in proximity.

Dessert, a Hazelnut and Chocolate Pot de Creme, was matched with two wines. The first, Alvear Solera Cream, is an Oloroso with addition of concentrated Pedro Ximenez (grapes that have been dried in the sun on mats for about 10 days) and has a dark brown color, with an unctuiousness and creamy texture that befits the style name. The second, and my Wine of the Night, was the Alvear PX Solera 1927. The Solera 1927 comes from a specific Solera System that was begun in 1927, is made exclusively from the dried and concentrated PX grapes, and contains more than triple the sugar/liter of the Solera Cream. This is a wine that, despite its sugar content, is remarkably balanced and, at least interms of value, has no match in the entire world of wine. Its German, Austrian, French, and Hungarian sweet wine counterparts fetch prices 2 to 10 times the cost. Brown sugar, molasses, creme brulee, hazelnut butter, and a syrupy, balanced palate experience.

If you are happy wearing the same clothes, eating the same food, and drinking the same wines everyday, then you may not be interested in trying Sherry, or Alvear wines from Montilla-Moriles. But, if you are interested in a different experience, traditional, though perhaps unfamiliar wines like those made by Alvear are one excellent alernative. With Fall and holiday dishes like white meats surrounded by earthy root vegetables and sweet, dried fruits, finding themselves on menus of restaurants and dinner parties, think about Sherry/Montilla-Moriles. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

A brief explaination of Sherry, and the distinction between it and Montilla-Moriles:

Sherry, as it is known in the U.K. and U.S, hails from a region of southern coastal Spain called Jerez, or Xeres, from which the name Sherry is derived (somehow). The area is extremely hot, though the ocean moderates the temperature to some degee. This part of Spain is known for a very unique white, chalky soil called Albariza (Albero in Montilla-Moriles). The Albariza soil is important because it retains water in an area that is hot and dry. The absorbent chalky alberiza soil will be a source of water to the vines when the 120 degree summer heat bakes the surface of the earth into an impenetrable crust. In Sherry they use primarily the Palomino Fino grape and produce two general styles, Fino and Oloroso. The basic difference between Fino and Oloroso has to do with exposure to air. Fino, protected from oxygen exposure in the barrel by a layer of yeast called Flor, kept ‘alive’ by a network of barrels known as the Solera System, will be pale, bone dry, and high in acid with a toasty, golden raisin quality. Oloroso, exposed to oxygen and fortified, will have a brownish hue and exude nutty, caramel, and honey aromas and flavors, and can be sweet. Sherry of almost any style is an ideal apertif because of the high acidity and complex flavors that stimulate appetite.

Motilla-Moriles is not on the coast but farther inland and sees even more extreme temeratures than Jerez does. The varietal grown and used in Montilla-Moriles is Pedro Ximenez, a rich, early ripening grape that reaches high sugar levels and can result in wines that reach alcohol levels upward of 15% without fortification. Sherry-Jerez-Xeres and Montilla-Moriles became distinct regions with classification of Denominaciones de Origen (DO) in the 1930’s, but the wines are very similar and are generally known as ‘Sherry’.

For more information:

The Stephen T. Colbert Memorial: Better Know an AVA

Niagara Escarpment AVA

Yes, I know… in theory we should start with Augusta in Missouri… but there is a method to my madness.

The Niagara Escarpment is the area that I grew up in. At the time of my childhood, the majority of grapes grown were for eating and juice, but there were individuals making wine for their own personal consumption… everyone in the semi-rural area that I grew up with knew someone making wine, whether it was from their own grapes or not. In my case, it was my father, who worked diligently to make his own selections of wine and sherry stored in leftover glass bottles and even Tupperware for any number of years… Where it suffered the warm summers and frigid winters of Western New York.

The Escarpment is a almost ideal as a terroir as the French have defined. The region has shared qualities of elevation, geology, geography, mesoclimate and soil type. These are the defining characteristics of location… From the French perspective, we Americans fail in issues of aspect, vineyard management practice and vinification, but these are less important than place to the ATF or as we refer to it now, the TTB.

An escarpment in general is a transition zone between zones of different geology. The variations in the zones are observed as cliffs that age at their own individual rates. Western New York is unusual in that it is crossed by two separate escarpments, the Onodaga which runs from nearly Albany to Detroit through New York and Southern Ontario approximately 25 miles south of the Niagara

Niagara is more prominent, and runs from Rochester through Niagara County forming the cliff over which Niagara Falls flows through Canada’s Niagara Peninsula and then up through Ontario into Lake Huron, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Lake Michigan, Door County Wisconsin and finally to the Wisconsin-Illinois border.

The Niagara Escarpment AVA was created in 2005. The region has always produced large amounts of fruit including grapes and wineries have existed there since the 19th century. Since the 1990s the number of wineries in the AVA and the surrounding area have increased and include:

The Winery at Marjim Manor

Schulze Vineyards & Winery
Chiappone Cellars Winery
Warm Lake Estate
Niagara Landing Wine Cellars
Spring Lake Winery
Vizcarra Vineyards at Becker Farms
Freedom Run Winery
Eveningside Vineyards
Honeymoon Trail Winery
Arrowhead Spring Vineyard
Chateau Buffalo

Over the weekend, I will hopefully visit as many of these Escarpment wineries as I can fit in while attending my grandmother’s 100th birthday.

My Oeno-homage to Stephen Colbert

Love him or hate him, Stephen Colbert has provided an invaluable service to us all by individually highlighting our nations congressional districts on the Colbert Report in segments known as “Better Know a District”.

We here at VinoVerve think that he is on to something…. Especially if you start to apply the concept to wine.

The American Viticulture Areas are designations established by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF, yes, really, I thought it sounded crazy too) which has in our post 9/11 world has been re-designated as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). The AVAs are indications of a shared terroir (geography and geology), wine making history and name recognition. In this sense it is more like the Italian Indicazione Geografica Tipica.

Why do we think that we should learn more about the AVAs? Well consider how many you know about. Napa Valley? Russian River Valley? Heck, do you know any outside of California? You do? How about outside of the west coast? Ok, smarty pants… how about outside of New York? Now, I have you.

It turns out that the first AVA designated in the US was in Missouri. Surprise!

Did you know that there have been active wineries in the Altus AVA for over 100 years? Oh and so you know, Altus is in Arkansas.

In honor of our new appreciation for American wine regions, we are going to begin exploring them in a segment that I have dubbed:

The Stephen T. Colbert Memorial: Better Know an AVA….

Let the truthiness begin!

Destination Sommelier

Some of us choose a restaurant based on the wine list. Quality of food, of course, is a factor, as is the friendliness and efficiency of service, but, if you are like me, it is the wine program, or the Sommelier responsible for it, which matters most.

Henry Bishop is a name I had heard more than a year ago from a trusted member of the Chicago wholesale community. The name Henry Bishop surfaced again last week, when a new colleague of mine mentioned that she had dined at a mexican restaurant called Salpicon. She spoke highly of Henry Bishop, specifically a sense of humor and a penchant for the esoteric. I looked at the restaurant’s website,, which has the wines organized by country, and in some cases by producer. At that moment I had decided that I was going to eat there. I was not phased by the quixotic combination between a serious wine program and a mexican concept, and didn’t even look at the dinner menu.

I met Kevin and Maman for dinner at Salpicon last Thursday. We started with guacamole and chips, and three ‘Salpicon Margaritas’ (when in Rome…). It felt like a typical mexican restaurant experience. We asked if Henry was in, he was. Henry Bishop approached, introductions were made, common acquaintances referenced. We asked him to pair wines with our ‘tasting menu’ (always order the tasting menu). What happened next turned our typical mexican restaurant experience into a stimulating and thoroughly unique adventure into the [other] world of wine.

Henry Bishop’s Wine Pairings
1.Pere Ventura Brut Nature NV Cava, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, Spain
2.2005 Firelands Winery Gewurztraminer, Isle St. George, Sandusky, Ohio
3.1997 Villa Guntrum, Oppenheimer Schützenhütte, Kabinett Halbtrocken, Rheinhessen
4.2006 Dubaril Gamay Romand Rosé, Cave de La Côte-Uvavins, Morges, Switzerland
5.2005 Summers Winery Charbono, Villa Andriana Vineyard, Calistoga, Napa, California
6.2006 Emilio Bulfon Piculìt Neri, Valeriano, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
7.La Face Cachee de la Pomme, Neige, Apple Ice Wine, Quebec, Canada
8.Mount Pleasant Tawny Port, Augusta, Missouri

Each of the above wines delivered quality and balance and would have been acceptable under any circumstance. But what occurred that night was special, an adventure through six countries, two forgotten but important historical wine producing states, and french canadian apple orchards that employ cryoconcentration and cryoextraction to produce a unique and exotic ‘wine’. Henry had us in the palm of his hand. Each time he arrived at the table with a new wine meant a new surprise and new fork in the road of our conversation.

If you are like me, you choose a restaurant because of it’s wine list. And if you are like me, and enjoy to place yourself at the mercy of a talented and intuitive Sommelier, visit Salpicon and ask for Henry Bishop. Or, if you have a Sommelier that has earned your trust as Henry has mine, then please share your story and contact us at Destination Sommelier.

WOW! – America’s Wine Heritage

Recently had dinner at Salpicon, an authentic Mexican restaurant in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. A bright, fun, festive place. We chose the tasting menu with wine pairings. The food was excellent and varied, each dish accompanied by an outstanding sauce, that, at times, outshone the actual meat or fish on the plate. However, what really wowed me was the wine. Presided over by former Spiaggia (Chicago) sommelier, Henry Bishop, Salpicon’s wine list is truly extraordinary. Not solely for the fact that I never really associate wine with Mexican food, albeit haute Mexican cuisine, but for the fact that so many geographic surprises were represented. Henry poured each with such an intimate knowledge of each label from areas I did not expect. We had wine from Switzerland – a first for me. A Gewurztraminer grown on the banks of Lake Erie. A wonderful Tawny from Missouri – the first state to have an AVA designation.

These last two I mention for the fact that the wine pairings created in me an appreciation for America’s wine heritage. Sure Old World wines predate the US industry by several centuries and wine has been made for thousands of years, but I now understand that we have been producing wine in this country commercially since the early 1800’s. Jefferson and Franklin would likely correct me that it has been even earlier. But what struck me is that these early US wineries are still producing. Arkansas, the state with the eighth bonded winery in the US, had its wine business founded by Swiss immigrants arriving here in the 1800’s. It’s still going today. These facts guided the wonderful conversation even if we did not have a particular wine from a US region – we still spoke of all the US had to offer (Alaska too!). We had so much fun celebrating the diverse lands where grapes can truly thrive. What a wonderful night, Henry, thanks for the history lesson.

Grapevine News

Spicing Up Wining And Dining

Abe Opincar, writing for Food and Wine profiles wineries in Baja, Mexico, including Casa de Piedra, Château Camou, MogorBadan Winery, Paralelo, Tres Mujeres, Viña de Liceaga, Viñas Pijoan. Finally! Something besides cerveza and margaritas to sip on while munching your nachos…

Martha Stewart Living’s Matt and Ted Lee discuss blended wines, such as Cantine ArgiolasCostera, Mulderbosch Vineyard’s Faith Hound, and Conumdrum.

Bill Daley at the Chicago Tribune tells us about ten wines available in the Chicago area that we SHOULD be drinking but are probably not. 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Eroica, 2006 Dry Creek Vineyard Clarksburg, 2006 Frog’s Leap La Grenouille Rougante Pink, Lustau Pedro Ximenez Solera Reserva San Emilio, 2004 Charles Krug Merlot, 2005 Lynfred Winery Charbono, 2004 Las Rocas Vinas Viejas Garnacha, 2004 Laurenz V. Charming Gruner Veltliner, 2005 Marc Kreydenweiss Gewurztraminer, and the 2006 Quady Electra Orange Muscat.’s Jamie Rhein, posts about the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival taking place September 27-29th. The event will feature food by Jacques Pepin and local chef as well as wine from nearly 200 vineyards. Funds raised will benefit The Preservation Society of Newport County.

And finally,

Via Nerve’s Scanner Column, wines to help you close the deal! Mudgee Wines of Australia launches a line of wines featuring positions of the Kama Sutra. Varieties available include: The Union of the Butterfly (Shiraz), The Union of the Crab (Chardonnay), The Union of the Star (Cabernet Sauvignon), and The Union of the Monkey (Durif). Special promotions include a wine gift pack each month to a newsletter subscriber and a drawing for a free case of wine each day for an attendee of the local sexpo.

Tasting Injury

I have heard of ridiculous injuries. Professional athletes sidelined by blisters on their thumbs, blisters acquired from playing video games, for example. Yesterday I burned my tongue on extremely hot coffee. No bid deal for most, but for someone who relies on his sense of taste everyday, a debilitating situation. Today I will be tasting wine, although I have a feeling that I will not be able to really taste much of anything. It’s not that unusual to have your palate in a weird place, and even the slightest head cold can turn your senses upside down, but this time I did it to myself, and that’s what really hurts.

One of my mentors in the wine world, Greg Harrington, a Master Sommelier, once told me of a friend who burnt his tongue on coffee the day of a blind tasting exam. That is much worse, I suppose. Blind tasting in front of your peers, or Master Sommeliers for that matter, can be nerve racking as it is. Six glasses are put in front of you, and you have 24 minutes to complete a “blind” analysis of each down to varietal, region, vintage, and sometimes the producer. The point of this is not to, Svengali like, entertain at cocktail parties. Rather, the blind analysis and tasting method practiced by members of the Court of Master Sommeliers is a very useful professional exercise that hones the some of the essential skills of a Sommelier.

Blind Tasting Skills
Speed – First, because of the time limit format, you are trained to be decisive and confident in our choices. In a professional situation, when communicating to a guest a recommendation, quick and confident is a necessity.

Jargon – Second, blind analysis method forces you to connect a sensory experience to vocabulary. The majority of guest who come into your restaurant know what they like, or, at least know what they have liked before. However, they are not experienced enough to say “I like high acid, aromatic whites with a touch of residual sugar” or “I do not like high tannins, unless they are balanced by sweet fruit and appropriate acidity”. They will struggle to communicate their tastes with term like dry, sweet, sharp. It is up to the Sommelier to help them turn their tastes into words, or at least, into the bottle that they really want with dinner.

Experience- Third, the practice of blind analysis requires you to taste. A lot. To develop the skills and understand the nuances that differentiate Austrian Gruner Veltliner from Austrian Reisling, you must go through a fair amount of each.

That said, I will be on holiday from blind tasting until my coffee burn has healed.