Easter wine tasting

One of my favorite Placer County wineries, Vina Castellano, hosted a kids’ Easter egg hunt and lunch and wine tasting for adults on Easter weekend. We rounded up some friends and family and made a day of it. This winery holds lots of events throughout the spring and summer months, including movie nights – and the winery is dog- and kid-friendly!

A seven-taste flight in the stone-cave tasting room is $5, waived if you buy a bottle of wine. Tacos were $1 each and the tastiest sangria I’ve had in a long time was $4/glass. The Easter egg hunt and a day of fun for the kids was free.

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King Estate Winery

My family in Eugene, Ore., has long been taunting me with pictures and stories from their favorite Willamette Valley winery, King Estate. The wine is among Oregon’s best, and the winery itself rivals any well-established estate – sprawling and stunning. And the restaurant, well, the fact that Eugene residents will drive 30 minutes outside of town on a two-lane windy rural highway to eat there speaks volumes.

King Estate exterior

So on a recent clear and brisk December day, my sister, brother-in-law, husband and I  escaped the pre-Christmas madness of Grandma’s house and drove out to King Estate for lunch.

We arrived a little late, but the kind hostess pushed back our lunch reservation so we could squeeze in a wine tasting first. A flight of, um, I lost count, was $9, I think. And that was refunded when we bought a bottle of wine, which of course we did!

King Estate is really known for its pinot noir (this is Oregon, after all) and most

Quentin Ransone, lead wine educator, shows us the layout of the vineyard.

of the grapes are estate-grown, the rest sourced from Northwest vineyards and all sustainably grown. We tasted a riesling that was surprisingly dry and refreshing, not syrupy sweet as so many rieslings tend to be. The gentleman pouring our wine called it a “patio wine,” something you a can drink all day on the patio, with or without a meal. And he was right!

We ordered lunch (I had the KE Burger, which is delicious, but the surprise was the homemade ketchup that came with the fries!) and shared a bottle of pinot noir. The restaurant atmosphere relaxed yet refined – in other words, you feel fine in whatever attire you arrive in, whether you’re out for a casual weekend drive or dressed up for a special occasion.

I can see why this is my sister’s favorite winery in the Eugene area. Oregon is proud of its wine and its own wine culture – this is not Napa – but King Estate raises the bar for what Oregon’s wine country can be.

My husband and me toasting to a fantastic lunch.

Martinborough Vineyard and Wairarapa region

A recent trip to New Zealand led me to the tiny wine town of Martinborough. Let’s not confuse this with Marlborough, the more famous wine region on the north end of the South Island. No, Martinborough is a tiny, picturesque town in the Wairarapa wine region – on the southeast corner of the North Island –  and it accounts for only 1 percent of New Zealand’s wine, producing primarily pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. For comparison, consider that the more famous Marlborough region comprises 146 wineries while Wairarapa comprises only 62 (re: www.nzwine.com).

This particular tour I was on included Martinborough’s first winery, the aptly named Martinborough Vineyard. Only 31 years old, the vineyard claimed international attention when it won the Bouchard Finlayson Trophy for best pinot noir in the world at the International Wine and Spirit Challenge in 1997. Winemaker Paul Mason explains that the climate in Martinborough is remarkably similar to Burgundy, France, which also specializes in pinot noir. Martinborough Vineyard only grows 120 acres of grapes, 75 percent of which are pinot noir. (while not certified organic, bonus points to the winery for its organic practices!)

My tour was fortunate to taste two pinot noirs at Martinborough, produced from its youngest and oldest vines. The 2010 Te Tera vintage, from the winery’s newest vines, tasted of sharp tannins and evident alcohol while the 2009 (from the vineyard’s oldest vines) was noticeably more mellow. The 2009 was aged in oak for 12 months which lent a honey scent and savory, mineral flavor to the wine. The 2009 was by far my favorite… and of course costs about twice as much as the 2010 ($70 NZD vs. $32 NZD).

Another winner for me during this tasting was the 2009 chardonnay, from some of the original vines planted at the winery. This chardonnay has a slight butter aroma that belied the heavy buttery taste. But don’t be scared off by the butter; the wine was richly balanced with toast and honey.

Martinborough Vineyards exports about 50 percent of its wine and is distributed nearly worldwide. Don’t worry, my American and Canadian readers, you can find in North America, but it may take some searching.

Bicycles outside Martinborough Vineyard

If you happen to be fortunate enough to travel to New Zealand, take time to stroll through the tiny town of Martinborough. Note the layout of the town square – designed after the Union Jack! (check it out) You can take the train – the Tranz Metro – from Wellington to Martinborough, and get off at Featherston (about an hour-long ride).  The all-day excursion ticket to Wairarapa is only $20 NZD and can be purchased at the Wellington station, and there is bus service from the Featherston train station to the town center of Martinborough. I saw several wine-tasters bicycling to wineries, and that would be my top recommendation for hitting the various wineries in town.

Another option is a private tour.  Zest Food Tours led the group I was with, and in full disclosure, the tour was built into the price of the conference I attended, so this was a hosted excursion. However, they did a fantastic job! If you want to see the region like a local but with the expertise of a professional, book a tour. They can pick you up from the train station or from your hotel if you’re staying locally, and the tours are for two to four people (if you hate big group tours like I do, this is a huge bonus point!).

Martinborough may not have the name recognition of Marlborough, but it produces some seriously great wine and has earned a solid reputation for its boutique wineries and hand-crafted wines. The countryside is positively idyllic, and is an unexpectedly wonderful way to get away from the bustle of Wellington for a day and explore one of the world’s up-and-coming wine regions.

NOTE: This trip was part of the Society of American Travel Writers National Convention, so many activities such as this wine-tasting tour were included in the registration fee for the convention. I consider it a hosted trip, and I hope my readers do too.

Acre to savor

There’s a certain level of snobbery that goes along with wine tasting. C’mon, we can all admit it. We look a little snooty sticking our beaks into a glass and inhaling like it’s incense from the gods. And that damn swirl! Do you know how many near-accidents I’ve had from swirling my glass a little too zealously? Swish it in the mouth, a sharp inhale, slow exhale… it’s such a process! And then the big dilemma – spit it out or drink it like you know you want to.

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s OH SO IMPORTANT! But sometimes it just feels so pretentious.

And then we open a bottle that reminds us why the process is important. Why anything worth doing is worth doing right. Why it’s not wise to cut corners.

That reminder came in the form of Acre 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon. I found it on sale for $10.99, so why not? Let’s give it a go. I wasn’t paying attention to the first swig and a sharp tang snapped me back into focus. Slow down, Beth, let’s try this again.

I swirled and mixed the air into the glass. Open that wine up, get it good and oxygenated. I stuck my nose in the glass and inhaled, snobbery be damned. Oh the aroma! The vanilla and oak! Mmmm, yeah! Then I swished a small sip, letting the wine play on my palate. Inhale, bringing the full gamut of flavors to the back of the tongue. Slow exhale, savoring the perk of tannins on the tongue. Ah yes, THAT’S why we do this song and dance.

What at first tasted like a tart, fermented grape juice turned into a complex, beautiful mix of flavors by putting it through the process. The oak balanced the fruit, producing a lightly lingering vanilla aftertaste.

Let me make it clear that this wine is delicious to just drink, but why rob yourself of the joy of discovery? Why rush something that is supposed to be savored? It’s like walking through a rose garden in bloom with a stuffy nose. What’s the point? Sure, the flowers are pretty and you’ll enjoy the stroll, but good god, go blow your nose and come back when you appreciate the amazing scents wafting from the petals.

Wine walk this way

Mama’s back!

I’ve been on the road for almost a week for work. And rather funnily, I drank more wine in that week than I ever could at home, but I didn’t have time to write about any of it.

So rather than try to piece together the miscellaneous wines I sipped over the course of the last six days, I’ll share a tidbit about HOW I tried all those wines. Two words: wine walk.

Those two words spell three hours of wine-soaked fun, and if the wine’s really good, the walk usually ends in a restaurant or bar for many more hours of fun.

For me, the fun started in Reno at the monthly wine walk downtown. Every third Saturday of the month (all year long!) from 2-5 p.m., hoardes of wine-lovers and just plain ol’ winos converge on downtown to part with $20 and pick up a commorative wine glass and map to the participating businesses. On a warm spring day, it’s the perfect way to burn a few hundred calories walking from shop to shop while sipping some wonderful (and not so wonderful) wines.

Just a few days later, I walked through downtown Winnemucca, Nev., (cue Johnny Cash, “I’ve Been Everywhere”) with a wine glass in hand a map to all the participating businesses. The Winnemucca wine walk was part of a conference I attended there, so I can’t guarantee it’s a regular event, perhaps to the relief of the townsfolk who had to wait at stop signs while crowds of conference-attendees stumbled across the street.

You’ve got to hand it to small towns; they really know how to make the most of a special event. The Winnemucca businesses rolled out the red carpet with appetizers, three or four varieties of both reds and whites, a generous pour on each, and really impressive wine. No Two Buck Chuck here!

I don’t know what they invested to participate, but the businesses must have seen a solid return on investment as the increasingly tipsy walkers browsed their wares and shelled out their dollars. I even bought a pair of sunglasses I could have sworn I really needed… at the time. Hey, I knew I’d need them in the morning when my bloodshot eyes met with the bright desert sun.

Wine walks are a wonderful way to see a town and get shoppers into stores. And the atmosphere is slightly more refined than a pub-crawl, but give a mama a few glasses of wine, three hours with friends, and a sunny afternoon, and well, all bets are off.

Those sunglasses came in very handy the next morning, and I’m already planning next month’s Reno Wine Walk. Cheers!

It’s bordeaux, you kneaux

I’m just going to throw this out there. I think a lot of winetasters are full of shit. To put it more delicately, they’re pretentious and throw around descriptive words that don’t actually say anything (other their ability to open a thesaurus). I don’t want to be that. I want to drink good wine and describe it in a way that’s understandable and applicable to the Average Jane.

In my college wine-tasting class, we had a session devoted to pairing wines and foods. I went into it thinking, c’mon, merlot tastes like merlot. Sometimes a grape is just a grape. When the professor made us take a bite of bleu cheese (oh, vomit!) and then swig some sort of red wine, I decided this whole pairing business is really just ridiculous. Then she made us take a bite of dark, bitter chocolate paired with a port. Oh. My. God. Explosions of flavor! Then the strawberries and champagne… oh ecstacy!

Now I get it.

Tonight I opened a bottle of Mouton Cadet bordeaux ($6.99 at Raley’s) and was infatuated with the first swish and swirl. Little bursts of green pepper and plum. Thick, slow legs on the glass and a full body on the tongue. Mmmmm, yes, this is good.

Then I popped a potsticker in my mouth (hubby and kids are gone for the night, so I’m dining on frozen appetizers and loving it!). I forgot about the wine as I savored the potstickers and spicy teriyaki sauce. I may have also been savoring the silence of no kids in the house. Joy! I grabbed my wine glass and absentmindedly took a sip and was stunned. The bright, peppery bordeaux mellowed under the spice of the teriyaki. It didn’t lose its body or full flavor, the pepper just stepped down a bit and made way for the sauce. Simply amazing.

I’m not very familiar with bordeaux, but I do believe it’ll be a new project of mine to understand what goes into a good bordeaux (besides the grapes, of course) and how to identify one. The Mouton Cadet is a fabulous introduction to this varietal and it will definitely be a new favorite in my wine rack.

Checking in on chardonnays

I’m a “red” person. I love red wines, or most of them, and just don’t really have much use for whites. On a really hot day in the middle of summer, I enjoy a spry pinot grigio, but it’s not something I’ll pour after a long day at work and just sip.

But for you, dear reader, I’m willing to put my prejudice aside and sample some white varietals. I’d hate to be known as “that red-only gal.” How limiting!

Not one to dive right into a dubious situation, I decided to stick with a winery I know and like. I found a 2008 Montevina chardonnay at Raley’s for $7.49 and decided to give it a go.

Wine-tasting at Montevina in Amador County, Calif.

A couple of summers ago, my friends and I found ourselves on the wine trail in Amador County, a wonderful hamlet of wineries in the Sierra foothills of California (find San Francisco and Sacramento and head east). Montevina was one of the wineries we stopped in to wet our whistles. It’s a beautiful winery, and committed to sustainable agriculture, which scores big points in my book. 

Friends making tasting notes at Montevina in 2008.

OK, back to the wine. At first taste, the 2008 chardonnay is melony and light, in both color and taste/feel. But after a nice swish around the palate, light oak and hints of a nutty vanilla make a brief appearance. It’s good, if you like chardonnay, and I’m learning to. (Oh! Bonus for those of us who can’t drink a whole bottle in one or two nights: Montevina uses a screw-cap rather than cork, so this bottle can stay in the fridge while I get back to my beloved reds.)

Wine Walks

In the dead of winter, it’s hard to muster up the energy to meet friends for a glass of wine — or even coffee! — after work. It’s dark already and we all just want to get home to our warm homes, snuggle into PJs and go to bed. I hate being cold, so really the only thing I like about winter is having fun in the snow. But once the ski slopes close, warm me up and don’t bother me again until spring!

So when the Riverwalk District in downtown Reno announced its Wine Walk schedule for 2010, I started daydreaming of warm spring afternoons tipping my glass toward whatever sample the merchants decide to pour that day. I love wine walks! I love the camaraderie of hundreds of winos and aficionados enjoying the sunshine and the spirit of wine tasting. I love spending hours with friends with nothing on our minds but gossiping, drinking and having fun.

I imagine most towns have something like this, either limited to certain neighborhoods or throughout the whole downtown. I have a tentative date with a friend in Santa Cruz to go wine-tasting there; apparently one neighborhood is becoming known for its wine bars and events. Sounds good to me!

Now I can’t wait for the snow to melt and the days to heat up past 40 degrees! I need to thaw out and enjoy longer days and free time to spend sipping wine with friends. I think that’s called a vacation, but I’ll take a three-hour wine walk for now.

Motherhood with a side of malbec

Once upon a time, I enjoyed glasses of Rombaur and Ferrari-Carano. I couldn’t afford it then anymore than I can now, but at least the $18 glass of wine didn’t come out of my kids’ diaper fund. Indulging occasionally in a really great bottle of wine was the equivalent of shaking my silky, blond hair (in my dreams!) at a camera and saying, “I’m worth it!”

Now, I’m worth it, but so are my kids. They’re worth cutting back and searching the bottom shelves for great deals on, hopefully, great wines. I’ve come to believe that smart shoppers can find good wine for $10 or less, and I stick to that rule pretty closely. But I do still miss being able to experiment and buy whatever bottle I want. I miss going to wineries and buying multiple bottles rather than one token low-budget vintage.

So on my last wine-tasting trip to Sacramento (we hit wine bars rather than tasting rooms), I asked the wine-tender to surprise me with something different. Tall order, right? I told him I wanted to try something GOOD in the area of dry and oaky. I told him I like zinfandels but wasn’t feeling like something quite that spry and tangy. I’ve gotten a little tired of pinot noirs; for a while that was all I drank in a stand of solidarity with my Oregonian family (ok, my motive was a little more boring that that – I just liked pinots a lot).

The helpful gentleman suggested I try a malbec. He was the second person within about three weeks to tell me to try malbecs, so who am I to argue? And what do you know? It was just what I was looking for. Full and dry like a cab but with a splash of tang like a zin.

Whatever he poured for me was wonderful but definitely not under my $10 limit. So my last visit to the grocery store included an in-depth look at the wine shelves, and I found an interesting malbec. Alamos 2008 malbec – on sale for about $9. It’s from Argentina, as I’ve learned that the best malbecs are, and it’s the perfect winter wine. Pinot noirs are too thin for the cold January nights. Sure, a merlot would be ok. But dammit, I’m not a boring mom. I don’t want a plain ol’ merlot. I want something exotic. I want something different. I want a malbec!

Yes, you can call me a snob. But at $9 a bottle, I don’t think that name would stick. Besides, next week I’ll probably be over my malbec kick and ready to try something new.