Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bringing Home the Bubbly

As we draw to the end of another year and a new decade (how did that happen?), many of us are searching for the right kind of sparkling wines with which to ring in a new and hopefully better year.

As every fashionista who ever heard of Yves Saint Laurent knows, Champagne is a wine growing district in France-- not a perfume and certainly not a sparkling wine grown in any other part of the world. Real French Champagne from the Champagne region is always written with a capital 'C'.

Otherwise, it's not Champagne nor is it champagne. In Spain, it is 'cava' and in the U.S. it is usually 'sparkling wine'...even if the root stock came from the Champagne region.

For obvious reasons-- shipping alone-- French Champagne costs more than American made, so in the spirit of economy, and with the excuse to sip my way through Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, I have put together a small list of possibilities for your new years' toasts. Call it the Bubbly Blog and turn up the Michael Buble.

Note that the month of December is usually filled with wine and bubbly promotions-- if you like to lay down this sort of thing, this could be your chance to fill up the wine cave. And for those of you who haven't apprenticed in Reims as I have, a few shopping notes to remember while you are making your choice:
* Unlike wine, sparkling stuff does not have a long shelf life. For non-vintage (NV), three years is the average life span. Vintage can last 10-12 years, but don't push it.
* Like wine, the flavor in the bottle-- and the color-- is related to the type of grapes used, the blend and the length of time the skins were left in the mix. This means pink sparkling wine is a reflection of grape skins.
* Sparkling wine is most traditionally bottled in a, uh, bottle-- but there are small bottles called 'pop' that are the size of a small bottle of Coca Cola or soda pop and allow you to sip with a straw and even cans (Sofia) for added novelty.
* An unfinished bottle of sparkly should be capped with a spring-type bottle cap, which can be bought in most liquor stores. If all else fails, lay the curvature of a spoon -- basin side down--over the open bottle top to seal. When properly placed, the spoon will be balanced.
* For NV wines, French imports will be approximately $10 more than US made. For vintage years and specialty bottles or cuvees, anything goes. You can buy bubbly for $10.99 from a fairly well-rated house or you can pay $60, or more.

Finally, if you have a favorite or two, don't assume that a tasting at the vineyard will enhance your appreciation of the wine or the brand. I just went to one of my favorite French/ American brands' tasting in Mendocino and found it depressing and unfriendly (and they weren't even French). I will continue to buy that label, but only from a store. For the most part, wineries build their tasting rooms to impress and want you to enjoy your visit.

if you are in the area, check out:
*Gloria Ferrer (; Sonoma
* Korbel (; Guerneville
* Domaine Carneros (; Napa
* Mumm Napa (; Napa
* Schramsberg (; Calistoga
* Jeriko ( Hopland
* Scharffenberg (split from the chocolate family years ago); Mendocino
* Domaine Chandon (; Yountville

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Reflections in a Goldeneye

Am just back from a few days in Mendocino (the city) and Mendocino (the county) with memories of amazing scenery and wonderful wine-tastings. The entire visit was a revelation to me since I have never seen such small towns (many are composed of 3-4 buildings) or cared so much about the price of apples.

This is the Anderson Valley, famous for its pinot noir grapes and its apple farms. The first stop was Goldeneye, which is owned by Duckhorn (in Napa County)and has five different estate bottled pinots. Unlike the mothership, where a tasting is expensive and does not make a down payment on a liquid souvenir, at Goldeneye tastings cost either $5 or $10, which does indeed count toward a purchase.

What counts even more is the tasting room and its location within a crescent of vines, with picnic tables outside and arm chairs inside and plenty of comfort for just sipping and daydreaming. It's hard to pull yourself away, but when you realize that just up the road a few miles there's two famous apple farms, well, it's time to see if there's an apple in your eye.

Gowan's is a huge farm with a small, well-stocked roadside stand selling much more than apples. They even make their own apple pies, which are sold in a frozen state-- $14. About one dozen varieties of apples are for sale. I held out for the Apple Farm, another mile or two ahead, where the shed is run on the honor system and most apple varieties cost $2.50 a pound. As the days passed, I learned this is very expensive-- but at that point I didn't know, and was totally charmed by the rustic farm, it's stand, the fact that they have cottages as well as cooking classes and that the family at one point owned the building that became the French Laundry in Yountville. Both of these orchards and apple ops are just passed the town of Philo, which isn't too much of a town. Never mind.

Within the town of Philo itself, there's a new tasting room about the size of my bedroom, all in a perfectly restored tiny cottage, created to introduce the Phillips-Hill wines. They offer five pinots from two different appelations; the tasting costs $5. There's also a few bottles of pinot rose-- not often found in stores or online--that are perfect for summer time.

Philo is also home to the Lemon Market, a small but rather well-stocked mini-mart which is better than the market in nearby Boonville and is the best you'll find until you get to the town of Mendocino.

After that, you pass a few more vineyards and then head through a forest of redwood trees before you hit the Navarro River and then the ocean. It's all magical, made more so if there's fog and/or mist and you've stopped at the Navarro Winery for a free (!!!) tasting and some of their $11 non-fermented grape juice.

There are some sparkling wines made in this area-- as well as in Hopland (closer to Ukiah)-- and there is a $6 tasting at Roederer. I prefer mine to be Cristal and bought in France, but Roederer is one of the better known French firms with US vineyards.

When we got to the town of Mendocino, we checked into our hotel-- the famed MacCallum House, a stunning Victorian house and barn-- and then went to assorted stores and markets in town. That's where we found even more apples-- all for a lot less moolah. Oh well... all's fair in love, war and farming.