Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon

We just celebrated Father’s Day in true American fashion: a reprieve from IPW13Iphone 210yard work and honey-do’s, and a big barbecue dinner. A hearty tri-tip on the barbecue called for a bold red in my glass, so I tried the Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon I found at Trader Joe’s for $7.99.

Dark Horse hails from California and “challenges the belief that premium-tasting wines must be premium priced.” You’ll find a slough of great reviews of this wine online, and consider this one more glowing review. This is a hearty cab that could easily land on the top shelf of any wine shop, but you’ll actually find it lower on the bargain shelves.

The wine is thick, the color of muddled bing cherries. The aroma is earthy with notes of vanilla spice. The flavor, however, is the most wonderfully rich mix of blackberries, vanilla, chocolate and espresso. The thick tannins give it structure without the pucker factor.

If you want to serve a solidly impressive cabernet without breaking the bank, this is a steal at $7.99.



Return of the easy dinner and easy wine

I’ve been trying some rather complicated recipes lately, and they haven’t all… um… worked out that well. After last night’s tasteless “Sicilian Meatloaf,” (yeah, you can’t make meatloaf fancy just by giving it a fancy name) I decided it was time to simplify. A return to the easy 30-minute meal was in order. I also needed a no-thinking-required wine. Something tasty and inexpensive.

My back-to-basics (read: slacker) menu centered around a pizza braid made with leftover lunch meats and refrigerated crescent rolls. This is the easiest recipe that can be adapted with just about any filling (ham, broccoli and cheese is pretty good too!). Add a packaged Caesar salad as a side and it’s a complete meal with almost no prep. 


We mastered the easy dinner, so let’s bring in the wine! I twisted the top on a $15.99 red I found on NakedWines.com (it’s only $9.49 for members, hint, hint!); this is a 2012 Sonoma County Pinot Noir by Ryan O’Connell under the label Kid Sonoma. I love that this younger half of a father-son winemaking team decided to return to the States from their stint in France to make his own wine. How’s that for striking out on your own? Image

On its own (you know, that glass you drink while hiding from your kids in the kitchen, aka making dinner?), the wine is young and fresh, evoking bell peppers and green veggies. The salami and pepperoni in the pizza bread did nothing for the wine, but the bread opened up flavors of clove and vanilla. I love wines that are surprisingly layered! 

This was an all-around home-run family dinner. Easy. Inexpensive. Fast. And capped off with a fun, spry wine from a young winemaker working his magic on Sonoma grapes. Doesn’t get much better for a weeknight.

Note: Read more about investing in new winemakers here

Willamette Valley Pinot Noir

If you have ever traveled on Interstate 5 south of Portland, Ore., you have passed Willamette Valley Vineyards. Its beautiful tasting room towers over the freeway, surrounded by sloping hillsides of grape vines and pine trees. It’s hard to miss, but for years I drove past it and didn’t take the time to stop. wvv 3

In August 2012, I righted that wrong while on a tasting trip with the Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland. The winery is even more beautiful up close. And bigger! There are 50 acres of vines on the Estate Vineyard, and the winery imports from non-estate vineyards to round out its production.

Did I mention that it’s sustainably grown too? You can read about the soil, climate and elevation here, and I’ll move on to the taste!

Tonight I opened a 2009 Pinot Noir, a fantastic example of why Oregon is wvv 1known for its pinots! The color is a ruby-jewel color, clear and crystalline and almost pink during the pour. The aroma is black pepper, green pepper, tobacco and plum.

The aroma is mirrored in the taste — peppery, plummy, and just a touch of smoke. This is something I love about good pinots – deceptively complex flavors in a seemingly thin wine.

There are a great many pinot noirs that are just watery and hardly worth the effort to drink them. But the ones I like to drink — like this Willamette Valley selection — are spicy like a good zinfandel but light and in feel and aftertaste.

Bonus points to Willamette Valley Vineyards for an abundance of info on thewvv 2 label. I have never seen a label that includes the grape clone names, soil type, date of harvest, and best dates to drink it. This wine is best consumed between 2011 and 2013, so I feel quite confident in what I’m tasting now in 2013.

McWilliam’s Cabernet

Ok, ok, I promise to start writing about white wines eventually. I just really, really like my reds! So bear with me: one more red before I bring some white back into my blog. (Note to reader: I will probably never write about a pink wine. I suppose a rosé might be in my future, but don’t ever expect me to taste a white zin and have anything nice to say about it. I’m a white or red girl, no pink.)

A friend recommended McWilliam’s 2008 Cabernet, a label I’ve never tried, so I was excited to try something new. I was greeted by a ripe bouquet of black cherries and vanilla. I want to say I detect a hint of sandlewood too.

This cab is heavy on the tannins, but not so much your mouth puckers, just enough to make you feel the wine you’re drinking. I may not have been too off the mark with the hint of sandlewood – there is definitely something aromatically woody about this wine. (I hate to mention oak, because that carries such a pre-defined description. This woody taste is more vanilla or almond than oak). Tart berries nip on the tongue but are chased away by a whisper of black pepper.

McWilliam’s Hanwood Estate is an Australian winery, established in 1877. I’d venture to say that they’ve perfected the craft in the six generations of growing grapes and making wine. The 2008 cab retails for about $12, but I’ve found it in several stores on sale for $8-$9. It would be delicious paired with a peppercorn steak or bacon-wrapped meatloaf, which was on my plate tonight. It’s also a wine you could proudly serve to guests without worrying that they will go home wishing they’d brought their own bottle.

Placer County wineries: Mt. Vernon

My freshman year in college, I met a fellow dorm-dweller named Ryan. He was from a little California town named Auburn and said that his family owned a vineyard. After graduation, he was going into the wine business with his dad… he said I thought he had to be crazy, or maybe exaggerating — there’s no wine in Auburn!

Oh, how little I knew! Ryan graduated and indeed worked the family winery with his dad. My husband’s family lives in Auburn, so over the years I’ve seen the little winery grow into a regional wine leader. Auburn now has many wineries, and one might argue that Mt. Vernon Winery was the catalyst in putting the region on the map.

Mt. Vernon Winery tasting room

A few weeks ago I went wine tasting in Auburn with a friend, and we finally tried Mt. Vernon’s — Ryan’s — wine. The tasting room is small but on gorgeous grounds in the lush Sierra Nevada foothills. We tried several wines, and I took home a bottle of Mountain Red, a blend of five grapes from the 2000 to 2002 vintages.

I opened that bottle tonight and now know why the winery has received much acclaim since its inception in the 1990s. The aroma is true-to-taste: chocolatey, oaky, a nice dose of cigar and a bright burst of fruit. The smoky, oaky taste would be overpowering if it were just a touch stronger, but Ryan and his dad worked their magic to keep the flavors in balance and present a well-crafted red that is begging to be paired with a hearty barbecued steak and mashed potatoes. I wouldn’t pair anything too spicy with this — spice would sour the smoke of the wine — but a brown-sugar barbecue sauce and a side of grilled asparagus would be Heaven with this wine.

Auburn — and Placer County — was actually one of the first wine-producing regions in California, established during the Gold Rush but abandoned during Prohibition. When Mt. Vernon burst onto the scene, it reestablished Placer County as a notable wine region. A well-mapped route links the dozen or so wineries in the region, and it’s now a viable competitor to the famous — and packed — Napa, 95 miles to the southwest.

I’ll never turn my nose up at Napa, but I might not make it that far when I can stop in Auburn along the way.

p.s. a great resource for all things Placer County wine is Carpe Vino, a delightful wine shop in downtown Auburn.