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Photo Courtesty of Katie Sokoler, colormekatie.blogspot.com

Jonny Cigar, one part performer to two parts wine geek, is the self-appointed master sommelier behind the city’s coolest underground wine salon, The Noble Rot.

Cigar’s impact on the New York City wine scene has been palpable; he was recently proclaimed one of the city’s new wine prophets by Time Out New York. He says it is crucial to point out that he has no official wine education – but he has studied performance and theater.

“I went to school for performance. What the hell am I doing?” Cigar said of his initial thoughts on receiving the news that he’d been named a “wine prophet.”

Cigar’s flair for the dramatic extends from his name (he was born Jonathan Cristaldi), to his bespoke three-piece suits and penchant for bow ties. At Noble Rot events, Cigar is known for his habit of introducing the evening’s theme and wines through dramatic readings, soliloquys and even the stray Frank Sinatra impersonation.

Meeting over tea on a chilly fall afternoon in the West Village, Cigar was in one of his signature three-piece suits with matching tie and pocket square – folded just so. Cigar has an easy grin and a mixture of sophisticated confidence – emphasized, perhaps, by his sense of style – and an endearingly goofy sense of humor that makes it easy to believe he’s a theater kid at heart.

“I should be a drama dork somewhere researching history for some big Broadway production getting paid big money to do that and instead I’m drinking and drinking professionally!”

The Noble Rot has come a long way since its first event. A few years ago, armed with not much more than a budding interest in wine and a mailing list from his performance art residencies at various downtown theaters, Jonny Cigar set out to hold a tasting of the best wines available for $10 or under. He found a

Photo Courtesty of Katie Sokoler, colormekatie.blogspot.com

rooftop, got together some friends to play music and make food and voila! The Noble Rot was born.

Cigar’s budding interest in wine sprouted, Cigar said, when he started drinking wine with the man who would become his father-in-law.

“My wife’s father is a serious collector of Burgundy and Bordeaux and old Italian wines – Brunellos and Barolos. So he would open up all this crazy stuff, I mean he doesn’t like to drink anything that’s not at least 20 years old, and so I’m dinking these wines and I didn’t know anything about them but I know there’s something special.”

His future father-in-law gave him a copy of a book called The Billionaire’s Vinegar about a wine fraud scandal that tore through the fine-wine collecting circle of the 80s and 90s. Cigar devoured the book in a single plane ride and found himself fascinated by the whole world and especially by the stories of extravagant vertical and horizontal tastings of first growth Bordeaux.

“I just thought, ‘This is very cool!’ I was really involved in the supper club scene and I thought, ‘I’m gonna start a supper club about wine so I can learn while doing it with a group of fun interesting people,’” Cigar said. “And it was sort of enlightening – we had a bunch of food and had a blast and we sort of took off from there.”

Time Out New York’s proclamation came just days before Cigar returned to New York City from a five-month trip to Napa that he’d taken in the wake of a professional break with his previous Noble Rot business partner.

“We tried really hard to hash out a business plan and in doing so we realized we had a lot of differences so we split ways,” Cigar said. “It came at a good time.”

Cigar seized the opportunity to get out of town and regroup.

“So I thought I will go west and look for gold!” Cigar riffed before taking a serious note. “The whole idea was to get an education, to completely immerse myself, and to get in from the ground up.”

Preparing for his move to Napa, Cigar set out to find work in a tasting room or a cellar and convinced himself he’d be spending most of his time knocking on doors and looking for work. Cigar caught a lucky break, however, when a new Sonoma winery called Ram’s Gate hired him to help launch their brand.

The Napa Valley, for all of the wine-fueled romanticism that surrounds it, is still very much farmer’s country and Cigar soon found his sartorial inclinations out of step with the community.

“I was the only guy in the whole valley wearing three piece suits,” he said. “I’d walk into the bank and people would get nervous because they didn’t know what to think, it was like ‘Oh god, whats this guy?! Whats he doing?’”

However, Cigar had no intention of trading in his custom-tailored jackets for overalls and, eventually, his sleek suiting helped to land him another job.

Cigar, dressed down in jacket & jeans, in Napa

Near the end of his two-month gig with Ram’s Gate, Cigar was invited to an event at a little known but beloved boutique winery owned by the Swanson family (yes, the Swanson family of frozen TV Dinners fortune).  The Swanson Vineyards & Winery hosts three by-appointment-only tastings a day in their tasting room, which they call the Salon, styled after the swanky Parisian salons of the 18th century, with intellectual discourse over good food and wine.

Cigar met the Swanson family patriarch, Clarke Swanson, decked out in a double-breasted suit at one of these events, and they hit it off immediately. Soon after, Cigar began hosting appointments in the Salon at the winery. When he wasn’t reciting passages of The Great Gatsby or serenading wine tasters, Cigar was doing grueling but, he said, fulfilling cellar work for another winery, Alpha Omega.

Having returned to New York City with a whole new appreciation of the winemaking process, and enlightened by his experiences in Napa Valley, Cigar has big plans for The Noble Rot.

“I’ve realized that I like a smaller more intimate group. I want our events to become a place for people to really come and learn about wine, and not only learn but experience something new,” Cigar said. “And also to be a conduit for people [who are] looking for hard-to-find awesome boutique wines – I want to be the place for that.”

Cigar’s first Noble Rot event since he returned to New York, a 2011 Harvest Party to “celebrate this year’s harvest from set to crush,” was an opportunity for Cigar to share his favorite stories and insights from working in Napa.

He greeted all of his guests that night with a glass of Cava – saying that the Spanish sparkling wine was a tribute to the Mexican workers who did much of the harvest’s work. Coming from anyone except the endearingly sincere Cigar, this could have been a gaffe but bravely wearing two paisley patterns that somehow meshed, Cigar pulled the whole thing off with charm to spare.

Once the small group assembled, Cigar regaled the small crowd with his favorite harvest stories while pouring wines from the wineries he worked for in Napa (Swanson Family Vineyards & Alpha Omega). When it was time to eat, he’d brought in The Brothers Green, a fraternal duo who run the same supper club circuit as Cigar, for a feast of tacos – another homage to the migrant workers and the end-of-day meals he ate with them.

Cigar plans to keep hosting events for The Noble Rot but is thinking of retooling The Noble Rot so that it’s membership only. He went on to say that he wanted to work his way into making The Noble Rot into a tiered membership, like a wine club.

“But the greatest wine club on the face of the earth,” Cigar said with confidence and a not a hint of histrionics.

Jonny Cigar’s Wine Picks:

I had to ask, what is he drinking these days?

“I’m big into Syrah right now – I just feel like it’s starting to turn crisp and cold and I love a good robust Syrah from California,” said Cigar.

I also asked Cigar, in honor of his recent trip to Napa to give me his five favorite California wines of the moment. Here’s what he had to say:

 Robert Foley Vineyards: “A wine I could drink all the time anytime is The Griffin. It is such a heartwarming delicious wine that’s got these subtle chocolate notes that are just outrageous.”

Covenant Wines: “A really outrageously delicious wine. Jeff Morgan is the winemaker and not only does he make a kosher wine, but it’s the best kosher wine on planet earth (according to Robert Parker).”

Pinot Noir from Carneros: “I have become a huge fan. I recently discovered Saxon Brown and Flowers makes a good Pinot, too.”

Ram’s Gate: “They are producing elegant wines with superb structure, aromas and will age beautifully

Gemstone: “ I had the opportunity to taste this wine right before leaving and I would say that its one of my favorite wines now.  So good.”

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Head right this way for Vine Talk’s Thanksgiving Wine Picks penned by yours truly! Instead of the usual suspects (Champagne, Beaujolais Nouveau, Pinot Noir, ect.) why not go for something off the beaten path? Picks include some of my new crushes, Blaufrankisch, Cremant de Limoux, and Courbieres Blanc.

Got questions on a specific pairing? Want more suggestions? Leave me some comments and…

Enjoy!!!

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So, readers, we’ve got some catching up to do. I’ve finally settled into fall and that means a change in my drinking habits. I’m waiting to bust out the big guns – the earthy ball-busters and powerhouse reds that I crave through the winter; California Cabs, spicy Syrahs, muscular Priorats and the like. Once I’ve started going down that path, and turned to the dark side, it’s hard to get back – so I’m biding my time with some in-betweeners.

That’s not to say, however, that the wines I’m drinking now are any less intoxicating than those lusty reds I’ll be cuddling up to when the snow starts falling. I’ve had quite a few infatuations this season that are exciting and delicious.

I’ve fallen head over heels with an Austrian wine called Blaufränkisch. Fresh berry flavors, bright acid, and delicious tannins make up the attributes that have me blushing every time I stumble upon a glass of this delightful wine. Did I mention that it’s insanely affordable at an average cost of $10 a bottle? Color me happy, folks. I’m also having a fling with another Austrian wine, St. Laurent – kind of like a male relative of that minx, Pinot Noir. With its sweet fruit, juicy tannins and ripe acidity this is a wine that seems fated for my Thanksgiving table – I have fantasies about sipping it alongside a plate piled high with turkey and cranberry sauce.

Recently, at the Savio Soares Fall Portfolio tasting in New York City, I tasted an example of each of these wines from a 100% Biodynamic producer called Pittnauer (the Blaufrankisch 2009, $9.99 and the St. Laurent Dorflagen 2009, $22.99). Savio Soares Selections is the importer of the moment in New York and Los Angeles. Savio, the owner, scours the world for small producers who make unique, delicious, and often biodynamic or natural wines. His wines are finding their way onto the wine lists and shelves of some of the city’s best restaurants and retailers (respectively, of course) and his portfolio is a wine geek’s paradise, filled with obscure varietals, regions, and producers.

I also have a big crush on the white wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. It started a couple months ago with a bottle of Les Deux Rives Corbieres Blanc 2010 that I received as a sample courtesy of Pasternak Imports. The wine retails for $11 and has a gorgeous nose of ripe fresh fruits like white peaches that follows up with a velvety full body with fresh acidity and a long intense finish. I couldn’t get enough. My next encounter with a Languedoc-Rousillon white was, again, at the Savio Soares tasting where I had the chance to taste Domaine Rivaton Blanc Bec Vin de France NV that retails for $16. This wine was made from a mixture of Carignan Blanc and Carignan Gris and had an amazingly rich port-ish nose, a sweet and lusciously full body that ended on a delightful savory note of toasty caramel corn.

I’ve been strangely drawn to these rich and toasty whites lately. Another favorite from the Savio tasting was a white from the Cotes du Rhone made up entirely of an obscure little grape called Bourboulenc from the producer Le Clos des Grillons. The wine, Cotes du Rhone Blanc 1901 2010 (retails for $16) seduced me with a nose of rich caramel and buttered popcorn and then delivered a lovely wine with nice acid and savory flavors. It was the wine-equivalent of a sweet/salty treat.

Lastly, I was sent some samples from a boutique winery in the Willamette Valley in Oregon called Seufert that had me smitten. I’m not alone, here either – the winery’s Jonah Vineyard Pinot Noir was just named one of the top 5 Willamette Valley wines to seek out by Travel+Liesure Magazine. Seufert makes its Pinot Noir from grapes grown in some of the best sites in Oregon and I had the pleasure of trying their Vista Hills Vineyard in the Dundee Hills AVA, Momtazi Vineyards in the McMinnville AVA (retails for $35 each), and my surprising personal favorite, a Willamette Valley AVA Pinot Noir called Pinotlicious (retails for $20). Almost more than I loved the wines was the fact that each wine came with a label on the back that gave a “snapshot” of the wine’s character and best food-pairings. Genius.

So now that we’re all caught up on my favorite Fall wines, I’ve got some exciting stuff that I’ll be posting over the next week or so. Look out for a roundup of wines that would be magnificent for your Thanksgiving Feast as well as a profile of The Noble Rot (and one of TONY’s “Wine Prophets), Johnny Cigar. In the meantime if you’re interested in getting your hands on any of the wines above, just plug ‘em into Wine-Searcher.com and see where you can pick ‘

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Soo…after the freakish snowstorm of Saturday it hardly feels like fall. Weird weather aside, however, ’tis fall and, even spookier, ’tis Halloween!

It’s much too cold to dress up like a skanky firefighter this year, so  instead I got myself all gussied up as some sort of wine expert over on Refinery 29.

So head on over and check out the collection of perfect-for-fall wines that are all available around the city and even better (!) are all available for $15 bones or less. And in honor of Haloween they can be like scary zombie haunted bones.

 

 

 

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On a cold rainy night last week I was introduced to the wines of Toro – incidentally, a very dry and warm winemaking region of Spain. Not only had the day’s rain dissipated into the kind of steady mist that makes you feel silly for hiding under an umbrella yet leaves you annoyingly wet without one – to make matters always worse, I had to navigate Times Square.

Eager for a drink after my damp and frenzied rush through the worst four blocks of Manhattan,  I was none too happy to find myself settled into the corner of a retro-chic red leather booth at The Lambs Club. It was my first time attending a winemaker’s dinner, and this was a much more intimate affair that the one I’d imagined. There were only seven of us seated around the table: the winemaker, Manuel Louzada of Numanthia, the lovely publicist who had arranged the dinner, an executive from Moet Hennessy (the company that owns Numanthia), three other journalists, and little old me.

It’s no wonder that we were introduced to Numanthia by way of its charming winemaker, Louzada. Born and raised in Portugal to a family that had been making wine for generations, Louzada likes to tell people that winemaking is in his blood. His is an interesting career path for a wine maker – he started off making Port, which in Louzada’s own words is all about the sheer power of nature, before moving to Argentina to work in sparkling wines – which, he said, are all about delicacy and detail.

When Moet Hennessy purchased the Numanthia label in 2006, the company invited Louzada to Spain to be the winemaker for their newest property and he fell instantly in love with the small region of Toro. The Estates & Wines division of MH is interesting all on its own; a collection of small wineries that span four continents from Napa to New Zealand. Because all of the wineries in the division are located in “New World” locations (also in Australia and Argentina), I had to ask – why Numanthia? Why Toro, Spain?

The answer was that MH snapped up properties in burgeoning wine regions – places they believed would yield unexpectedly great wines and were on their way to becoming the “next big wine region.” Also interesting, I thought, coming from such a large and globally recognized company, was the focus on smaller-scale production and the attention to detail that Louzada expressed. Several times the words artisinal  and hand crafted popped up when Louzada discussed his wines.

At the time of his move to Toro,  Louzada said he had little idea of the region’s potential or history. In fact, Toro is an ancient wine making region located in the northeast near the Castille-Leon region of Spain, just across the Douro River from the Portuguese border. In an interesting turn of fate, Louzada said that the Portuguese had a habit of looking out towards the sea rather than in towards their own country and that in a way, moving to Toro was bringing Louzada full-circle and back to his roots.

Toro is a region with a fascinating history; it is said that Columbus took Toro wine with him on his journey to America in 1492 because its immense structure and body made it suitable to survive long journeys. Though the vineyards of Numanthia don’t yield vines quite that old, there are 150-200 year old vines still growing in the area. These Toro vines are a rare and direct link to the wines of Europe before the phylloxera plague of the late 19th century destroyed about two thirds of the continent’s vineyards. The region is largely made up of a sandy soil that kept the Phylloxera at bay and protected the vines from the devastating plague.

The only red grape grown and used to make wine in Toro is called Tinta de Toro. The wines of the region are known as massive and powerful red wines and Louzada regailed us with stories of painfully losing his sense of taste for weeks after he had conducted barrel tastings of his first vintage –the tannins of the wine were so powerful. Louzada, with his background in sparkling wines and his penchant for detail set out to create wines that maintained the freshness of the fruit while using the tannins inherent to the grapes to sustain them and give body and structure.

Louzada said time and again throughout the dinner that his goal was to balance the concentration and intensity of the wines with elegance. He was inspired, he said, by the tastes he found in the vineyards themselves and aimed to give an impression of each vintage. The terroir of the region, Louzada said, was so massive and so concentrated that it had to be reigned in.

The first wine we tasted was the yet-to-be-released 2009 Termes. According to Louzada that year was riper, slightly warmer, and made a lighter and fruitier wine that was suitable for drinking now. This was not the first time I’d heard this from winemakers (remember the 2009 Bordeaux that could have been a fruit-bomb California Cab?).  In the glass, the wine was gorgeous and dark, the nose had the slightly sweet smell of toasted oak, liquourice and a whiff of eucalyptus. The wine was paired with a beef carpaccio drizzled with a fruity olive oil that had an amazing conversation with the wine – the olive oil’s musky and melony flavors brought out the fruit in the wine and the wine spoke back with echos of olives and dust.

It was really amazing, and when we all nodded in pleasure, proclaiming that we liked the wine, Louzada gave a shy boy “aw shucks” shrug that couldn’t have been more endearing.

Next up, we drank the 2007 Numanthia, which smelled like wet dirt, earth and cherries. This wine had big tannins and tasted of leather, coffee, and toasted oak. Paired with succulent medallions of veal, the wine’s unctuous flavors spoke to the sweet gaminess of the meat.

Last on our tour of Numanthia was the 2008 Teremanthia with a nose of baked blackberries that made it seem heavy and dark until it arrived on the palate where it was plush with dark fruit but supported by lots of tannin.  That was the wine, Louzada claimed, the stars had aligned to make.

While we drank each of these wines, Louzada emphasized that he was driven by his desire to achieve balance. Louzada wanted his wines to, he said, seduce in the nose and pleasure on the palate – making him a sort of oenophile’s Casanova. By the end of the dinner we’d all fallen in love with Louzada’s wines – rich, complex, powerful and elegant.

After last week’s tasting, I can see why all eyes are on Toro as Spain’s next big region – though I’m wary that just anyone should try to coax a wine with mass appeal from the region’s sandy soils. Indeed, this must be a region that  is as challenging for the vines as it is for the winemaker who tries to tame them. A winemaker looking to conquer the wines of Toro must have just the right blend of pioneer and perfectionist – such as can be found in Numathia’s Louzada.

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Last night, I had the privilege of attending a blind tasting class at New York Vintners in Tribecca. The tasting was hosted by the venerable Bob Millman, whose company, Executive Wine Seminars (doesn’t that just sound so professional and serious?), has been hosting big deal wine tastings since 1981.

  New York Vintners is a pretty cool little spot – upon first inspection it just looks like a hipper-than-your-grandma’s wine shop. But take a closer look and you’ll notice that there’s a whole second half to the store – a space devoted entirely to wine education and tastings.

The store employs their own chef who hosts classes revolving around food and wine pairings and also caters the private dinners and tastings offered. Being that the store is relatively close to Wall Street, they get their fair share of banking big wigs and hedge fund guys coming through to nibble on expensive food and gulp big-deal wines.

In fact, New York Vintner’s owner, Shane Benson, was a Wall Street guy himself, once upon a time.  But we’ll get to him later.

I really wasn’t sure what I was getting into heading into last night’s tasting. I was a little bit intimidated by Bob Millman and thought I was headed right into a lions’ den of pretentious swirling, sniffing, and declarative statements regarding obscure bouquets and flavors. Happily, I was dead wrong. Instead of being greeted by a bunch of guys wearing monocles with slicked hair and ascots, I was greeted by a glass of Gruet Blanc de Noirs (sparkling wine) from New Mexico.

The tables were occupied by groups of single ladies, couples, and me. In line for the bathroom one half of a couple commended me for being “brave” and coming on my own. That’s a post for another day.

The tasting was what Bob called “double blind” – we had no idea what wines were being served except that there would be three whites and three reds. Before we dove into the white wines, which sat winking before us, Bob gave a quick presentation on how to approach tasting a wine. The quick and dirty of the presentation was this:

Appearance: Clarity & Intensity. For white wines, this meant taking a look at each glass and noting how intense the color was. Bob pointed out that the deepest, most golden of the wines was made from the ripest grapes. Ripe grapes, Bob went on to tell us, usually means more sugar and lower acid. For red wines, however, color can be a decent indicator of age (wines change color as they get very old – almost always to a brick or orangeish color) varietal (some grapes are naturally much darker – like Syrah) and tannin since the color is derived from the juice’s contact with the skins and tannin comes from the skins.

Aroma: Bob talked about swirling wine and why we do it – to bring up the bouquet. He also taught us a little technique that can come in handy if a wine has a “shy” bouquet (ie not easily detected). If a wine just refuses to open up he suggested swirling the wine with a hand over the top, then releasing your hand just as you stick your nose in the glass. This technique, Bob offered, can help whip up and then trap the odiferous vapors. I’m skeptical of how much this would help seeing as I’m not sure I believe that vapors magically appear by swirling – you need heat for vapors!

Palate: To discuss the “taste” of a wine, Bob gave us a few factors to consider:

Sweetness: A big part of wine is the result of converting sugar into alcohol. Residual sugar will show up in a wine when the wine maker stops this process from completing all the way (leaving some sugar behind) or when the wine maker adds sugar to a wine after the fact. Usually when we’re talking sweetness, we’re talking desert wines.

            Acid: Bob Millman is a self-professed “acid freak” and most serious wine drinkers would agree that acid is super important. When a wine has low acid it can seem sleepy or dull. But a wine with enough acid is awake and alive.

            Tannin: Tannin comes from grape skin – which is why you don’t usually find a lot of it in white wines. Tannin is also, for that same reason, the factor that keeps a lot of wine drinkers away from red wines. Tannin can be rough and unpleasant or it can lend structure and body to a wine. Bob used the anecdote that the French love to drink their wines young and tannic (sometimes I like to think of these as wines that kick your ass), the British like their wines old and soft (tannin breaks down with age), and the American’s just like their wine.

            Alcohol: Up until the 1980’s most wines had a respectable 11-12 1/2 % alcohol. Queue Global Warming and you’ve got wines weighing in with a hefty 13-14%. All that alcohol contributes body and(!) gets you drunker.

            Body: Here’s a tricky one. When you talk about body, what you’re really talking about is how much of your palate the wine hits before it disappears. Some wines only really hit the tip of your tongue before they vanish – these are super light bodied wines. Some wines will linger through, hit the middle of your mouth (mid-palate and usually middle body) before saying Au Revoir! But a big, full bodied wine will fill up your whole mouth, and then linger after you’ve swallowed.

            Flavors: Everyone gets different flavors from different wines. Next….

            Finish: Once you’ve swallowed a wine, how long does it linger? Does it give out and vanish right away? Does it leave a watery after taste? Or does it hang out and stay a while in your mouth?

Once we were all well-versed in the proper tasting technique, we got to actually downing some vino. I, of course, was playing a little game with myself trying to guess the varietals of each wine. I lost. Like, seriously – lost. But! To be fair, the sommelier snuck in a really obscure white wine from Sicily made from a varietal so obscure (Inzolia) that he’d only heard of it for the first time the week before (it was a super light and racy white wine that was so acidic it was almost briny). I don’t even count that one.  We also tasted an oaky Cotes du Rhone Blanc (Viognier, Roussane & Marsanne blend) and a gorgeous Verdejo from North-Central Spain.

As for the reds, we tasted a Rosso di Montalcino (made entirely from Sangiovese – the oak should’ve given it away! Damn!) that I thought was either Beaujolais or, perhaps, a Dolcetto. We followed that up with a 2009 Bordeaux (a super ripe vintage that tricked even Bob into thinking we were sipping on a fruit-bomb California Cab) and my personal favorite – a 100% Syrah from the Rhone that was unctuous on the nose (comments from the peanut gallery: “It smells like dank dirty ass!”) and just gorgeous on the palate. I thought it was a Nebbiolo because of the barnyard-and-tar aroma. Wrong. Again. Lastly, we were surprised with a fourth wine when the winemaker showed up near the end of the tasting and threw his wine into the mix. This last wine was a real treat – an elegant, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend from South Africa that we were all happy to have tacked on to the end.

The tasting over, I tucked into a conversation with some of the people sitting around me while the staff poured the leftovers for anyone who wanted them. Usually, I’d be embarrassed to admit that I was one of the last two people to leave, but I was rewarded with a glass of an unbearably delicious Barbera d’Alba (you know how I love me some d’Alba anything!) and a great conversation with the owner, Shane.

Wearing a rediculous tye-dyed shirt (I warned him I’d have to give him shit about the shirt), Shane told me his story – how he went from culinary school to Wall Street (seriously, you’d never think it from the tye-dye) to owning New York Vintners. We talked about how the wine world is exploding, that people should drink what they like (even if its $3 wine from Trader Joes), and how we can’t wait to see wine snobbery fly out the window. Both Bob and Shane told me that the Blind Tasting class was their favorite class because it was a great way to introduce people to the right way to thinking about wine. Freed from expectations, people could approach each wine with the simple question of, “Do I like it and why or why not?” – which is exactly how everyone should find the wine they love.

Shane and his team have built a super friendly, relaxed, and fun space to taste and learn about wine. Especially if you’re interested in the relationship between food and wine, I’d head over to their website and take a look at the classes. Many of the people I talked to at the tasting had already been to three or four classes and had come back for this one. At $50 a pop for at least three glasses of wine and food, it’s a real value and a great way to spend an evening.

            Psst….! PS. Keep an eye out for a post coming up about Champagne & Sparkling wines and a fall wines roundup I’m working on! Cheers!

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So, one of the things I’ve been trying to do lately is actually get out there and spend some more time in the wine world. All of this is, of course, in the name of bringing you more snarky commentary and helpful advice.  One of the ways I’ve been doing this is by trying to attend more wine tastings and let me tell you – boy, it is a jungle out there.

Just this past week I went to two very different tastings (I know, tough life, right?) – the first was Garnet Wines (one of NYC’s most beloved wine shops) First Annual Fall Harvest Wine Tasting on the Upper East Side. Despite what Gossip Girl would have you believe, while there is a small portion of the UES that is inhabited by glamorous rich people, there are also a lot of old people and “young professionals” (bankers, finance guys, lawyers, and the Tory-Burch-clad girls who love them).

Anyways, the tasting was (not surprisingly) mostly populated with respectable looking older     people – the kind of people whose kids I would probably be friends with – and younger guys in yellow sailboat ties. The whole point of the event was to go and try a whole bunch of wines that the store was selling – you could place an order for bottles and cases as you walked around and sipped. It would be fair to say that I, being a female under 30 and the only person in the room wearing skinny jeans and also not in any kind of financial position to buy loads of wine, was the odd man (erm..woman?) out in the room. Nevertheless, I drank some awesome wine and passed a pleasant evening tasting and talking with strangers.

Last night’s wine tasting was a horse of a whole different color. I ventured out to Brooklyn for Second Glass’s Wine Riot. I’ve been talking the event up on this site because, in full disclosure, I’ve known the company’s founder and CEO, Morgan First, since high school and I think the concept behind their company is pretty awesome. This time around the crowd was way younger – mostly people in their 20’s and 30’s, there was music being pumped into the room, plastic stemless wine glasses instead of the usual suspects, and an air of giddy excitement.

These two very different wine tasting experiences placed side-by-side offer an interesting view of how the wine world is changing. The Garnet Wine tasting was far more traditional and so was the audience – the younger people at this tasting were the kind that were suddenly coming into respectability and felt compelled to grow up and learn about wine because that’s what you do!

At another party (this time I freeloaded off of some friends – cheers!) earlier in the week, I talked to a (straight!) Marc Jacobs lookalike about how he’d gotten into whisky as he’d approached 30 exactly because it was something he thought he should know about. When I asked about wine he said that it was something that he thought he’d come around to when he was approaching 40. 40!

The young people at Wine Riot were there because it was an event for them as much as it was about the wine – they were happy to be wandering around sipping wine all night instead of taking shots because the atmosphere was just as amenable to sipping a Jack and Coke as a Barbaresco from Piedmont.

Wine Riot was much more about bringing wine into a space and attitude that young people are familiar with than bringing young people into the “wine world” and the result was total success!

So my take away is this:

1. I’m gonna work on a post about how to attend a wine tasting without looking like an idiot 

2. There is no reason why young people shouldn’t be drinking more wine but the reason they’re not is because it’s still put up on this ridiculous shelf that a lot of people think you’re not supposed to reach until you’re 40 (40?!!).

3. I will continue to work tirelessly to correct the wrongs inherent in #2.

Lastly, what’s the point of going to these wine tastings if I can’t share with you some delicious new finds, right? Below is a list of my favorite wines from both of the tastings – cheers!

Chateau de Paraza Minervois 2009, $9.99: This wine from the Garnet tasting just about ran away with my heart. It is a simple bistro wine – a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre from the Languedoc region that was delightfully savory. It actually kind of tasted like stew and, more specifically, the carrots that you slice through like butter –  so rich.

Segura Viudas Brut Cava, $10: For $10, this is an amazing wine. It’d be no less delicious at $50/bottle.  With the teensiest amount of sugar (7g in a 750 ml bottle – that’s like…nothing!), this is a rich and full-flavored sparkler with an elegant bubble, notes of ripe apples, pears, and almonds.

St. Francis Winery Red Splash 2008, $15: I’ll be honest, this was one of the last wines I tasted at Wine Riot so I don’t remember a ton about it except going back for seconds because it was really yummy. What I can recall is a juicy, rich red wine that drank easily and satisfied.

Au bon Climat Chardonnay, $16: I was really skeptic about this one – I’ve really tried to like Chardonnay, guys, really, I have. But, at the end of the day, I have to admit that it’s just not my favorite. This wine blew my mind – it had just the right amount of slightly toasty oak – lending it a smokey richness that gave way to notes of hazelnuts and pears.

Austin Hope Trouble Maker (Paso Robles, CA), $20: A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Petit Sirah, and Mourvedre, this wine is so-named because, according to the guy pouring it, “It’s lots of trouble to make!” Indeed, the wine is made from grapes from three different vintages (2008, 2009, and 2010).  Besides being weird, it was also really delicious.

David Bruce Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir , $25: I think I’ve made no secret of the fact that I am not the biggest Pinot Noir fan – usually its just too light. But, the PN’s I do love are usually from Sonoma Coast or Santa Barbara and this one is no exception. David Bruce also makes a really good Petit Sirah worth checking out.

2009 Hauner Hiera Salina, $18: This was my absolute, hands-down, favorite from the Garnet Wines Tasting. My tasting notes read: “Wet earth, raspberries OMG”. The nose is where the wet earth comes in and it tastes very rustic until about mid-palette when it explodes into flavors of ripe raspberries. To die for.

Arlaux Pere & Fils Champagne Brut 2009, $36.99: A tiny producer in Champagne that, after one sip, will have you saying, “Veuve wha -?”. With a beautiful floral nose, the first taste is a really lovely “grapey” taste that tapers off into delicate notes of sweet almonds.

2009 Domaine Michel Bouzereau Beaune 1er Cru Les Vignes Franches, $70: Ok, this one is a stretch. BUT! It’s from Burgundy! And it had the most amazing perfume – seriously, like sticking your nose into a bouquet of roses and violets. And the wine was slightly effervescent on my tongue and had really nice savory quality to it that gave it substance.

 

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Summer is over and fall has begun to settle quietly in. As with all of you, I’m gearing up to hunker down and get back to business (too many prepositions?).

Fall is wonderful; the way the light shifts from the harsh bright sunshine of summer to the soft golden hue of autumn, the chill that creeps in slowly and settles with a pleasant crispness and the scent of dried leaves that whisks away the sour odor of New York’s summer streets.

In the beginning, it may get just as warm as a summer afternoon, but suddenly, a glass of Rosé, though rosy as it always was, isn’t quite as charming. The bright, crisp, and refreshing quaffs of summer, no less delicious, just don’t seem to pair as well with the slight coolness lingering on the edge of the breeze.

It’s a confusing time…you’re not quite ready for the big hearty reds of winter but you’re through flirting with summer’s tipples.  For me, fall belongs to the red wines of Piemonte in Northern Italy.

If you’ve ever heard of Barolo or Barbaresco, you’ve heard about the most famous wines of Piemonte, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know that that’s where they came from.

Barolo and Barbaresco  (made from the Nebbiolo grape) are the only two well known wines out of Italy that are identified by neither their place of origin (like Chianti, for example) nor their grape name (Montepulciano etc.).

Out of this same famed corner of Northern Italy come two less renowned grapes called Dolcetto and Barbera that produce wines by the same name (phew!).

Dolcetto is a grape that literally translates to “little sweet one.” Before you assume that I’m about to sell you on a sweet red wine (and you, like any self-respecting wine drinker, are thinking “Ew! Disgusting! Sweet wine?! Blagh!”) let me assure you that the grape’s name is entirely misleading.

Quite contrary to its name, this grape turns into an absolutely charming wine – dry, juicy, with good fruit and a fair amount of spice.

Dolcetto is the first vine to ripen in Piemonte and is often planted only on the least favorable sites in a vineyard. Many of the region’s most famed winemakers end up planting and producing Dolcetto out of sheer economy – they may have a site that’s unsuitable for Nebbiolo but instead of letting it go to waste, they’ll plant Dolcetto to sell as a simple table wine and offset profits. In the hands of the region’s star producers,  this humble little grape often ends up getting VIP treatment by default. The results have started to gain attention from wine drinkers here in the U.S – popping up in wine shops and on wine lists more and more as people realize the simple pleasures and particular food-friendliness of this little grape.

Barbera is Nebbiolo’s other ugly cousin – regarded with more esteem than poor little Dolcetto but still not as highly as Barbaresco or Barolo. Where Dolcetto is vigorous, Barbera is prodigious – capable of extremely high yields. Barbera also ripens after Dolcetto but still two weeks before Nebbiolo grapes and can thrive on sites still not ideal for Nebbiolo (a very picky grape).

Barbera, however, isn’t as charming straight off the vine as Dolcetto – with high levels of tannin and acidity that must be somehow softened. Until the 1970s this was done through blending with other varietals. Then, French winemakers suggested experimenting with aging the wine in small oak barrels. The oak barrels helped to oxygenate the wine, thus softening it, and also added richness and spice. These Barberas were suddenly structured, soft, and fruity wines that didn’t have to be blended at all! All of a sudden this grape, once only used for blending, became a good wine in its own right and quickly gained appreciation as such.

For fall, there’s nothing better than a glass of Dolcetto or Barbera – so how about a glass of both? Just the other day I was sent a sample of Cascina Degli Ulivi Bellotti Rosso 2010 – a blend of equal parts Dolcetto and Barbera – from my favorite online wine store, Plonk Wine Merchants.


Etty Lewensztain is the girl-crush lady-genius behind Plonk dedicated to bringing delicious, interesting, and affordable wine to anyone with an internet connection. She was just named one of Wine & Spirit Magazine’s 30-under-30 and she is the reason I have tried such weird wines as Plavac (Croatian) and Montsant (Spanish).

Cascina Degli Ulivi Bellotti Rosso 2010 ($18) is from a biodynamic and crazy natural winery in the heart of Piemonte. I swear, I usually don’t pay very much attention to a wine’s color but as I poured this one into my glass the color struck me – it was a gorgeous clear rose-tinted purple.

The nose was all wet leaves and hay and the first sip literally danced on my tongue. Maybe it was bottle shock – and I should have let the wine sit for a day or two longer, but the wine was lightly effervescent! Dark cherries and juicy tannins that sucked more at the tip of my tongue than the back of my mouth rounded out the first taste.

On her website, Etty suggests pairing this particular wine with a Soppressata and Wild Arugula Pizza; Rigatoni with roasted eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and ricotta salata; or Roasted veal chops with gremolata.

I suggest pairing it with these first few days of fall.

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I’m entering into the third week of my recent unemployment. I’m starting to feel like being unemployed is a lot like being on a long sea journey and that I feel like the captain of a doomed vessel. I think that maybe I should be keeping a captain’s log as I navigate the treacherous waters of this horrible economy in my quest for employment.  It would look something like this:

Day 1: This is awesome! It’s 11 am and instead of staring at an excel spreadsheet on a computer screen…I’m in bed. At 11 am. And its WEDNESDAY. I could get used to this…

Day 3: Up early with a cup of coffee and a muffin – feeling great about embarking on my job quest. Sure the economy sucks, the unemployment figures are dismal, and the NYTimes just published its third “Young College Graduates with Degrees from Ivy League Schools are Working as Bar Managers and Paralegals Because There ARE NO JOBS” piece but there ain’t nothing gonna bring me down!

Day 5: I applied to 24 jobs two days ago. Why isn’t anyone responding? Maybe if I check my inbox for the fifteenth time this hour something will – a new email! It’s just Shopbop telling me about a sale that I can’t even think about – I’m unemployed, remember?

Day 7: Will the weekend ever end? I can’t go anywhere because I can’t spend any money because I don’t have a job and I’m not going to get closer to a job until everyone else gets back to work and responds to my applications. I hate the weekend.

Day 10: Three interviews, seven hours, and two badly blistered feet later – I need wine. Lots and lots of wine. Now.

Day 11: The blisters from wearing heels all day yesterday have only worsened. I’m super pumped that my prospective place of employment is so laid back and all but it’s severely unfair that I have to dress up, put on heels, and look professional while you get to interview me in a slouchy tshirt, black leggings, and flip flops. God, how I wish I could be you instead of me – you have a job. And no blisters.

Day 12: No follow up calls. No follow up emails. Nothing. Buy wine instead of dinner.

Day 13: Unemployment seriously ruins the weekend. Just two more days of waiting to hear nothing back from any of the next batch of 25 job applications I sent out or the people I interviewed with. Why didn’t I just lie and say, “Why yes! I am detail oriented! I am incredibly detail oriented!”? I will never be honest ever again. I will give up every shred of integrity oif that’s what it takes. What does that even mean, “detail oriented”? Who cares! I will be it! I will do anything just so I don’t have to spend another afternoon on the couch obsessively checking my inbox.

Yeah, it would look something like that -  with the lucidity and sanity of the first few days quickly giving way to the desperate rants of a madwoman.  

It’s taken every ounce of strength not to open the bottle of wine I brought with me when I moved from California as my “Celebration Wine” – the expensive wine I brought to open when I got my “first real job”.

But unemployment does not call for the good stuff – no, when you’re unemployed, you should be drinking cheap wine; cheap, cheap wine because it’s all you can afford.

Perhaps that’s why I was intrigued by a South African Chenin Blanc in the window of my corner wine shop that came with a measly $9.99 price tag. Chenin Blanc is one of my new favorite varietals. I’d only had Vouvray before, where the grape is manifested in a slightly sweet and fruity quaff that finishes with a rush of minerality – like licking granite. It’s unnervingly pleasant.

This wine, by the producer Kanu, was ripe and tasted of tropical fruits – litchi and melon – more than the ripe pears and apples I’d come to expect from Chenin Blanc. It had a tangy finish that was more like a scoop of passion fruit than a slick of granite and left me a little wanting – even at only $10/bottle.

Nonetheless, it calmed my frazzled nerves and helped me to steele myself against another day of chronic unemployment.

Sidenote: You’d think that with all this free time on my hands I’d be blogging more, right? No. Wrong. Seriously wrong. I’ve been focusing on finding ways to pay the rent and in the course of doing so have come across the opportunity to work with some seriously awesome wine people – and you’ll be hearing all about that in a bit.  I’m looking forward to branching out a bit and bringing you all more winey goodness….stay tuned!

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A couple of weeks ago I received my very first wine samples. They arrived unceremoniously with a sticker that warned, “Do not deliver to an intoxicated person”. I was giddy with the prospect of free wine, being taken seriously, and having a lovely picnic that weekend with some friends (that’s my friend Cammy in the photo below).

The weather hadn’t yet turned into the disgusting monster that ruins your hair within 32 seconds of stepping outside, raises your electricity bill, causes you to sweat profusely before 9 am, and abducts small children and the elderly. Ok maybe not the last part.

We picked a perfect spot in Central Park where we had a view of the shirtless masses sprawled across Sheep Meadow but were secluded and shaded by the canopy of a few perfectly positioned trees. Seriously, it looked like that Manet painting below except no one was casually naked or wearing a turban-y hat.

There was however a drunk guy who kept coming over to tell us that we were beautiful and when we asked him kindly to leave us alone threw ice cubes at us. New York is so charming, sometimes.

I was eager to pour the wines, carried from 88th and Broadway down to the Bethesda Fountain with a cold pack nestled between them, for my friends on this perfect summer day. The two wines were both Sauvignon Blancs from France.

The first one we opened, Le Jaja de Jau 2010 Sauvignon Blanc ($8.99) is from the Languedoc region and produced by a famed old estate in the region called Chateau de Jau. The name of the wine (jaja) is slang for the region’s everyday wines and it’s a wine that owns up to being “fun and youthful”. This seemed like the perfect wine to bring on a picnic with a bunch of young ladies who didn’t want to take anything that day too seriously.

To that end, it was perfect. It was juicy and full of fruit and finished with an herbal kick that made it the perfect partner to our green ambience. One of my friends loved it so much she spent the next weekend scouring her neighborhood wine stores looking for it.

The second bottle was a more expensive Pouilly Fume (still Sauvignon Blanc) from the Loire Valley (Le Domaine Saget Pouilly-Fume 2009, $34.99). Unfortunately, this bottle came with a cork and we were sans corkscrew. After ten minutes of trying to open it by banging it, tucked into a shoe, against a tree, we were obliged to ask the local restaurant for help.

This is one of those classic French wines – one that has legions of obsessed drinkers and has a price that reflects its quality. This second Sauvignon Blanc was a perfect example of Pouilly Fume with lively lush fruits and a pineapple-ish acidity that makes it sparkle on the tongue. It was a little more restrained, more sincere than the flirtatious “JaJa” and probably belongs on a dinner table more than a picnic blanket.

Sauvignon Blanc has never been a favorite and neither of these wines were life-changers for me to that end and if I have to be honest, I think I preferred the JaJa de Jau with its lowly price point and lack of pretentions more than the Pouilly-Fume. Both of the wines were the perfect pairing for that lovely day and if you’re interested in picking up either to try, head over to winesearcher.com – a great website that lets you type in the name of a wine you’re looking for and the zipcode in which you’d like to buy it.

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