Worth the Challenges

Grenache (pronounced gren-AHSH) is well-known both as a white grape (grenache blanc) and a red grape (grenache noir). Grenache is indigenous to Spain, where it is known as garnacha (gar-NA-cha). Like pinot noir, grenache is genetically unstable, making it an extremely difficult grape to grow—and even more challenging to make into wine. From less-than-ideal vineyards, grenache can be heavy-handed, simple, and fairly alcoholic. But, at its best, it has unmistakable purity, richness, and beauty, with the aroma and flavor of cherry preserves. It’s typically blended with other varieties such as carignan, syrah, and mourvèdre to make some truly stunning wines, most notably in France and Spain. The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (France) and the Priorat (Spain) are perfect examples. (And perfect right now in cold winter months).


Cooking Wine: The Golden Rule

A note of advice from the late Julia Child this holiday season: never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink. This is still the golden rule. Wine too poor in quality to drink can actually harm great food flavors. So toss out any red or white table wines that have been hanging around in the back of the fridge. There is, however, one type of wine that can get quite old and still be great in cooking: fortified wine. Madeira, Sherry, and Port (the three leading types of fortified wines) do not spoil quickly. For months after the bottles have been opened, each of these wines will still add a delicious richness to soups, stews, sauces, and roasts.


West of the West—Finally

To anyone who has stood, wrapped in a down vest, on the edge of the cold Sonoma Coast in California, the expression “West of the West” makes sense. The long slice of rugged land bordering the coastline and tracking more or less perfectly with the San Andreas Fault has been (unofficially) referred to as the “true Sonoma Coast” for years. Standing there, you feel almost as though all of California is east of you.  Now the “true Sonoma Coast” may become a reality. The area is on target to become its own AVA in early 2019 when it will officially be known as the West Sonoma Coast. The challenge with the current AVA—Sonoma Coast—is its size: more than 500,000 acres. Critics say that’s simply too large, especially for an AVA where the hyper site-specific grape pinot noir is widely grown. The West Sonoma Coast will be much smaller and the pinot, chardonnay, and syrah grapes grown there will benefit from a climate cooler than Burgundy’s.


The Myth of Chocolate and Cabernet

I know. I know. National Chocolate Day is coming up (it’s October 28th). But please don’t drink that great cabernet with chocolate. It may sound romantic—even inspired—but as marriages go, chocolate and cabernet are a match made in hell (or in the depths of the marketing department). Chocolate is an extremely powerful, profound, and complex flavor. Its deep bitterness accentuates the tannin in cabernet sauvignon, making the wine taste severe and angular. Chocolate’s rich fruitiness blows away cabernet’s graceful fruity nuances, making the wine taste drab and hollow. In short, chocolate needs a partner more powerful than herself. Which may be one of the reasons that sweet, luscious, opulent Port is a life necessity (and chocolate’s perfect mate).


Imaginary Foods—If Only They Were Real!

Atlas Obscura recently asked readers to list the best imaginary foods in literature and on film—foods the readers wished were actually real. Here are some.

•    Roast Beast from How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
•    Frobscottle from The BFG by Roald Dahl
•    Cauldron Cakes from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
•    Klingon Bloodwine from Star Trek: The Next Generation 
•    Bilbo Baggins’ Seed Cakes from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
•    Soy Pop from The Simpsons
•    Doozer Sticks from Fraggle Rock
•    Snozberries from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
•    Subtraction Stew from The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Impressive and Infectious: A WineSpeed Book Review

Columbus Day is next week and that reminded us how much we love Italian wine and Italian wine culture. Native Wine Grapes of Italy, a book by Ian D’Agata, celebrates both. In it, D’Agata takes a deep dive into about 500 native Italian grapes, everything from the big players—like Barbera and Nebbiolo—to little-known ones like Biancone and Peverella. D’Agata’s writing is impressive and infectious. By the end of the book, you’ll crave a trip to Tuscany to taste the varieties that, as D’Agata reminds us, you can only truly experience in their native environment. “Ultimately,” D’Agata writes, “wines from native grapes remind us Italians of who we are and where we have come from: their roots dig deep within our collective memories. There is no future without a past.”

Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata (2014; University of California Press) $50


The Near-Death of California Cabernets

Some of the most riveting cabernets throughout California have all traced their parentage back to three clones (or genetic subtypes), simply known as clones 07, 08, and 11. The three were imported from Bordeaux (allegedly from Château Margaux) by Irish immigrant James Concannon, founder of Concannon Vineyard in the Livermore Valley, east of San Francisco. (He was also the first Irishman to own a California winery). Concannon’s agent in Bordeaux was the legendary San Francisco lawyer-turned-grapevine-dealer Charles Wetmore. While many clones died out during the Prohibition in the 1920s, the “Bordeaux/Concannon clones” survived the 13-year ban on wine. All thanks to Concannon’s reinvention of itself as the lead supplier of altar wine to the Archbishop of San Francisco.


Things to Love

Harvest has just started in California. When some of the state’s winemakers were asked what’s best about harvest, here are a few things they said:

  • The smell of fermentation
  • Camaraderie
  • Breakfast burritos
  • Seeing the sun rise over a vineyard
  • Cold beer
  • Avocados
  • Spicy Cheetos
  • Chocolate
  • Knowing there’s an end…

The Indescribability of Albariño

Albariño (al-bar-EEN-yo) is the great white grape of Rías Baixas in the province of Galicia in northwestern Spain. Albariños are light, snappy, dry white wines with terrific crispness. They aren’t full-bodied like most chardonnays, they aren’t green like a lot of sauvignon blancs, and they aren’t as fruity as rieslings can be. Rather, albariños have their own clean, fresh character with just a hint of peaches or almonds. Because fishing is the major industry in Galicia, it comes as no surprise that albariños are made with seafood in mind. Throw some shrimp on the grill, open a bottle, and you’ll see just what we mean.


Washington has 14 American Viticultural Areas, several of which have fascinating names. To wit:

Snipes Mountain—Named after cattle baron Ben Snipes who came to Washington in the 1850s in search of gold, but ended up striking it rich by grazing cattle and supplying beef to the mining camps.

Walla Walla—A Native American name meaning “place of many waters” after several small rivers that flow into the Columbia River.

Horse Heaven Hills—Ok, another cowboy tale. In 1857, when cowboy James Kinney witnessed his herd of horses eating native grasses on the hillside, he was so moved he decided to call the area “Horse Heaven.”

Red Mountain—It’s not a mountain and it’s not red (although you can drink some very nice red wine there). So named because of cheatgrass, a droopy reddish colored grain-like plant that grows all over the area.