Food Pairing: Hummus and Falafel

  Recently a friend asked me if I do food pairings. I didn’t quite know how to respond I taste a fair amount of booze and I eat a fair amount of food, but it surprised me how rarely I do both simultaneously. So my honest first response was, Yeah … I mean, sometimes. Why?

  He asked what I would pair with pitas and hummus and falafel. He probably asked me because I’m a vegetarian. White wine came to mind something light and fresh, and lighter reds like grenache, pinot noir or young tempranillo. Also beer. Beer pairs well with lots of food.

  So I thought about it for a while, decided it would be a fun dinner. I cooked everything myself. With my fiancée’s help, of course.

(click any of the pictures to see a larger image)


The Food

  I’m an amateur cook at best, it took us the better part of three hours to make this plate. There were  mix-ups, too. I hadn’t ever realized how much the bottle of horseradish in my fridge looks like tahini. I’ll never be a professional chef – I’m usually full by the time the food is ready.

  I made the hummus in the food processor; that’s olive oil pooled on it in the picture, and cumin sprinkled over the top. I skipped the garlic in my usual hummus recipe, garlic can conflict with wine, and made up for it with extra lemon juice and olive oil. The couscous salad has lots of parsley, green onion, tomato, cucumber, and of course, olive oil. Olive oil!

  The falafel was from a dried box premix, fried in olive oil. The dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and marinated olives were purchased from our local produce store. Also there is some shredded lettuce and cucumber and tomato on the plate to fill up some empty space and make it look more fancy. The store-bought pitas were a little dry.


The Wine

  The first pairing of the night was the 2008 Frenzy Sauvignon Blanc from Marlbourough, New Zealand. I first tasted this wine last month, and was impressed by its intensity and cut, esepcially for under ten bucks. It’s a very grassy and vegetal sauvignon blanc (think asparagus) that also has good grapefruit citrus and just a hint of sweetness on the finish. I’ve been really surprised at the great value of some sauvignon blanc from New Zealand I’ve tried recently. Perhaps because sweeter, lemon-lime citrusy sauvignon blanc is so popular right now, I’m finding lots of nervy, vegetal, and all around more inspiring sauvignon blanc at lower prices than ever.

  The Frenzy worked really well with the hummus, the lively acidity cutting through the nutty, oily hummus nicely. The herbal qualities didn’t match with the parsley in the couscous salad perfectly, but it didn’t conflict too badly, either.

  Next was the 2007 Tres Ojos Garnacha from Spain. This was featured as a Binny’s Wine of the Week Under $10 a few weeks ago, and for good cause it’s a surprisingly large grenache for the price, with heavier and darker fruit than I expected, with some roasted and raisiny qualities. It was actually a little too deep for this food, bringing into focus the bitterness of the parsley and onion. I still think a grenache would work well with Mediterranean food, but it would have to be a much lighter bodied wine with lighter fruit and low tannins. Perhaps a better choice would have been this week’s Binny’s Wine of the Week Under $10, the 2008 Ateca Garnacha Fuego.


The Beer

  Next up? Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweis. Another Binny’s guy recommended this beer to me a few weeks ago, selling it as the best American wheat beer he had ever tasted. That’s a pretty lofty claim. I mean, it’s good, but it’s still a wheat beer. Sierra Nevada got the formula right with the Kellerweis, almost to the point that it seems to mimic the balance of wheat, spice and orange peel in a German Hefeweizen. As I tasted it with this dinner, it felt as though I were getting my ethnic cuisines crossed. It worked best with the fried falafel and with the marinated olives, but seemed out of place with everything else. Maybe the falafel and olives were the closest things to the bar food that I’m used to.

  Finally, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. I had really high hopes for this one, thinking that the bitter hops would cut through the olive oil and be refreshing at the same time, like the sauvignon blanc. It’s a great beer, even if it goes a little against my tastes: I want my ultra-hopped beers to have malty support underneath all the hops, otherwise they seem a bit hollow, like a very tannic wine with little fruit (I know a few hop-heads around here who might disagree, but there you go). Unfortunately, the Two Hearted didn’t work well at all. The floral and piny hoppiness really conflicts with all the bitter herbal elements in the Mediterranean food, like the parsley. Plus it doesn’t have the cut to get through all the oil. I know there’s a place for this truly delicious beer, but this it ain’t.

  I worry that beer is sometimes overlooked when it comes to food pairing, and I really hoped that beer would be excellent with this type of food. Maybe I picked the wrong beers. I think a simpler, more refreshing style a lager or pale would have worked better.


The Night

  I guess the best pairing of the night was the Frenzy Sauvignon Blanc, but I’d almost like to do it again just to prove that a lighter grenache would work great, and so would the right beer. But next time, I’m just popping the seven bucks for the veggie combo plate at the Mediterranean place down the street.

  Though it might not be the most romantic viewpoint, I think that pairing food with wine, beer and spirits starts with finding flavors that don’t conflict outright. I failed at that with a couple of these choices, but I know better now, and can move on and make more educated guesses with more experience. Throughout the dinner, my fiancée and I talked about pairing, about how the biggest step is to find beverages that work okay, without competing with the food, and to hone the flavors from there.

  After all that food all that oily, oily food -  my fiancée surprised me with a birthday baklava, candle and all. Did I mention it was my birthday? I really wanted some coffee with the baklava. That would have been the perfect pairing, right then. But we don’t have any decaf, and it was getting late, and I needed to go to sleep. Sigh. There’s always next time.

Styles Change, And So Do I

  Like anything else, styles in wine are constantly changing. But what does that mean for us tasters, and for our palates?

  Last Tuesday this issue came up at a Binny’s wine meeting. We were tasting through some exciting new releases, including the 2006 Tanbark Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon by Philip Togni. It’s sort of a second label bottling, a more affordable Cabernet from the famous winemaker.

  At first I didn’t think too much about it. My tasting notes go like this: A nose of green herb, very vegetal, like green pepper. Very herbal on the palate, with dry fruit, autumnal, hugely vegetal and tannic.

  Like I said, I didn’t think much of it. I didn’t dislike it; it is a good wine, but I hadn’t found it overwhelming. So I was a little surprised when a friend, whose palate I deeply respect and who has had decades of tasting experience, got excited about the Tanbark Hill.

  But it’s so green, I said. It’s so vegetal, like green bell pepper. Then I got quiet, because sometimes it’s good to keep my fool mouth shut and try to pay attention so I might learn something.

  She tasted it again, considered it, and then said, I see what you mean, but …. And then she listed the qualities of the wine that she found so exciting: it is big, dense, chewy, and tannic. Made for aging. She said that it is so much more elegant than the more recent and dominant style of cabernet from Napa, smelling like chocolate milk with coconut. She said that this used to be the style of Cabernet from Napa, and that while everybody under 35 probably won’t get this wine, everybody over 35 is going to love it.

  (Later, another guy there, who I assume must be under 35, said that he knew exactly what I was talking about, and that he thought the vegetal qualities I had mentioned were closer to pea pod than green bell pepper. So it’s not just me.)

  I suspect that it’s more than just a matter of taste. After all, our palates form out of experience, not in a vacuum. As American wine styles (and international styles as well: see Spain, South America, parts of Italy, and so on) shift toward clean fruit and lots of confectionary oak influence, what will happen to our palates, to our expectations for wine? While I’ll always try to appreciate more elegant and powerful and monolithic wines, I am afraid that my palate is getting used to a different style.


  While mulling this over in my mind, I was talking to another friend at the Skokie store who had recently tried the Colonial Estate Exile, a super-sleek and modern Australian red. He had shared it with several friends, who all loved it. Even one guy who only invests in old-world stuff like Barolo and Bordeaux liked it so much that he wants to purchase a case to lay down in his cellar. So even though there will always be different tastes and shifting styles, surely great wine will always have the potential to transcend.

Go to California

  When they hired me years ago, they said that working at Binny’s would be a great learning experience. Then when I took a job in the office, they said the same. When they offered to send me to California, they told me how much I’d learn. This is one of the things that I love about my job, about Binny’s, and  about wine in general: there’s always something new to learn.

  Last weekend, a group of Binny’s employees headed out to California. We would visit several Gallo facilities MacMurray Ranch, Frei Ranch, and new to the Gallo portfolio, the William Hill winery. It may surprise you that the Binny’s folks on this trip weren’t the managers and wine buyers (though they do get the opportunity to travel) but were the wine consultants and other employees in the stores who do a lot of the customer interaction. See? It’s that Binny’s emphasis on education.

(Click the images to see a larger photo.)



The Place

  It is easy to get swept up in the beauty of California. I had been to wine country once before, but it was early in the spring, before the vines had leaves. This time, however, the countryside was breathtaking. These broad valley floors between huge hills, all planted in vines, all producing wine, there’s a certain weight to that. Our visits to the different Gallo vineyards took us across the valleys, up to the hilltops, the vineyards stretching out literally as far as I could see.

  It is awe-inspiring, to me at least, to see an endless supply of the source of wine, something that I’ve sold pretty much my whole working life. And if you want a good time, ride through Napa in a bus full of wine nerds. Every time you drive pass a winery, everybody gets excited. And there are a lot of wineries. The conversation goes like this: Sterling! Mumm Napa!  Quintessa! What did that sign say? I missed it! Pine Ridge! And on and on.






   Throughout the trip, the education continued. Your appreciation for a wine increases as you stand with a glass, looking out over the vineyards that are the source of what you are enjoying. You can walk out into the vineyards and pick a few grapes and taste them, and then spit the seeds and skins back onto the dry, rocky soil.

  We visited a Gallo winemaking facility, a huge industrial complex with massive silver silo-like tanks and a seemingly endless barrel aging room room. We enjoyed a blending seminar, mixing Bordeaux varietals to shape the expression of a Cabernet Sauvignon as is frequently done in California Cabernet, and had a contest to see who could make the best blend. The people, too, were full of information about the wineries the history of the properties, the people behind the wines, and Gallo’s commitment to the land, and on and on. Something you forget is that, aisde from the money and glamour in the wine industry, parts of wine country are still essentially agricultural, and the people who grow the grapes are farmers who work every day with things like plants and dirt. That’s something.


The Wine

  In California, you get to drink wine. Lots of it. Throughout the weekend, we tasted most of the MacMurray Ranch and Frei Brothers portfolios, all solid wines for the money. It was good to get reacquainted with these values. At the William Hill Winery, we tasted across most of their portfolio; bottles opened included wines from before the Gallo acquisition and after expect a stylistic shift in the William Hill wines with the new releases in the coming months the chardonnays will be more complex with more oak and less angular acidity, and the new focus on the reds will place more emphasis on elegant blends and approachable varietal bottlings.

  At the Frei Ranch, our bus broke down, and we were stranded for hours. What a place to be stranded! We ended up missing out on our visit to Louis Martini (a bummer, the Martini wines are excellent and always a value) but to make up for it, they opened bottles of E&J Gallo Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 2004, 1997, and 1994, and a fantastic bottle of Zabaco Toreador Zinfandel. I guess I was the only one geeked up enough to hunch there balancing a great glass of wine and a pocket legal pad and a pen,  sketching down my impressions.

We Had a Great Time

  The hospitality was amazing, the food was unbelievable and the accommodations were um excessive. I’m not being hyperbolic. One dinner, for example, was a barbecue held on the floor of a redwood forest bordering a Russian River vineyard. Another was a king crab dinner with crab legs bigger than anyone could believe at a table overlooking a vineyard in Napa, the sun setting over the vines. Hell, even the boxed lunch we got on the bus was great what a peanut butter cookie!

  The folks who went on this trip will probably read this blog entry and say that it doesn’t do justice to the good times we had. It’s difficult to quantify. It is doubtless that a major reason the trip was so great was the people Binny’s people, but also our hosts from Gallo and from our local distributor. We shared a great time, had a lot of laughs, and learned a lot together. I learned that I can’t always control everything that comes out of my mouth. And that timeliness is subjective.

  Anyway, go to wine country in California if you get the chance. And know that the people who greet you in the aisles at Binny’s are always learning, and are always eager to share their enthusiasm about wine, and with good cause.

Unreal Sticky from Seppeltsfield

  Sitting in the office next to the Binny’s Australian wine buyer (and fortified wine buyer) affords me some interesting opportunities, so it didn’t seem unusual to me when an Australian-sounding man came into the Australian wine buyer’s office. His name: Nathan Waks, the managing director of the Seppeltsfield winery. The wines he brought with him were anything but ordinary. Thinking about what we tasted, I’m buzzing with excitement. Also caffeine.

  The Seppeltsfield winery is a piece of Australian fortified wine history. It was recently sold by Foster’s Group (Lindeman’s, Penfold’s, many more…) and produces some of the most popular fortified wines in Australia under various brand names. Now they’re breaking out internationally with a portfolio of stickies ranging from amazing values to amazingly old.

  So we started with their commercially available wines. Hopefully Binny’s will carry the The Cellar No. 7 Tawny, an affordable Aussie tawny good caramel tones with a thick mouthfeel showing notes of raisin and caramel. Also, expect to see the Cellar No. 9 Muscat sometime in September, with its hints of fresh orange peel and unmistakable and lively muscat character.

  I’m trying to talk our buyer into picking up the Tawnines as well the Para Grand Tawny (Red Label, 10 Year) and the 1987 Para Vintage Tawny (Black Label, 21 year). These fortified wines show wonderful honey and butterscotch, baking spices and vanilla, all underlined with viscous, syrupy mouthfeel yet framed by acidity. The value is in that acidity, adding complexity and lift to these big, sweet dessert wines.


  Well that was pretty cool, I thought, getting ready to put away my notes. That’s when Mr. Waks pulled out an archaic-looking case, a little too big to carry a clarinet. This was an original case that Seppeltsfield salesmen used to carry wine, back in the day. It opened to reveal a row of small medicine vials, held by cracked leather straps, holding wines in their Paramount Collection. It was all part of the sales pitch, but it worked it would have felt more natural if the case were colored in sepia tones. He also brought one example bottle, as pictured to the right, of the actual, for-sale package that a customer can purchase.

  The Seppeltsfield Paramount Collection is sourced from  casks with over fifty years of age. He said that the bottles are all marked XO because the wines are extra old. So old, in fact, that the winemaker isn’t exactly sure how old, just that they’re mostly over 50 years old. Prices for these wines would run in the $250-$350 range.

  The Paramount wines are unreal. The Sherries are defined by their bracing acidity, like lemon zest at the tip of your tongue. The XO muscat and tawnies are incredibly viscous and extracted, like molasses, but still show delicate nuances like orange blossom and wildflower honey, and despite their weight and age, exhibit wonderful lift. Binny’s probably won’t stock these wines, but if you want a bottle, we can likely get it for you.


  Just as I was getting ready to put away my notes again, Waks pulled out a tiny 100mL flask with just a dribble left of a pitch black syrup inside. He asked if we had smaller glasses to taste the next sample. Suddenly, it all seemed oddly familiar the case, the old, old Australian tawnies, all of it. That’s when I realized that Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator had blogged about this same exact thing just a few days earlier. I hadn’t watched the video.

  I was handed a tourist’s novelty shot glass commemorating somebody’s visit to Hollywood Boulevard, with a tiny little bit of wine, just enough to cover the bottom of the glass. This was how I tasted Seppeltsfield’s 1909 Vintage 100 Year in the barrel Tawny.

  It is espresso-black, with a deep, deep nose showing a laundry list of descriptors: I smelled cloves, cinnamon, dried vanilla bean and coffee. Just a tiny sip was all I needed. The stuff is palate-coatingly thick, deeper and more extracted than espresso, and has the coppery and burnt flavors that I get when I bite into a coffee bean. Did I mention that I like coffee? The stuff almost knocked me out of my seat. It was one of those few wines that changed the way I think about wine.

  Anybody know what I’m talking about? Have you been there? How do you describe that experience without getting too wordy (or worse, snobby)?

  The amazing Seppeltsfield 100 Year Old Para Vintage Tawny is available by order. They’ll literally run some out of the vintage cask of your choice, into a 100mL ($250) or 375mL ($975) flask. This is an absolutely unreal wine that I’d never be able to taste if I wasn’t at the right place at the right time, which I am thrilled to have tried.

Binny’s South Loop: A Magnificent Suds Experience

Looking for an exotic beer that you cant find on the shelves? Look no further than Binnys in the South Loop. The sixteen constantly rotating craft beer taps makes Binnys in the South Loop one of the premier places to try beers rarely seen on draft.     From lighter Pilsners like North Coast Scrimshaw Pils and Victory Prima Pils to yeasty Belgian Guezes like Boon Oude Mariage Parfait, there is no doubt something for everyone.


When we traveled to Binnys in the South Loop after the air and water show yesterday, we were pleased to see not only see a wide variety of beers on tap, but also extremely uncommon offerings, some of which are only offered on tap and not bottled. Fitting into the category of a tap only offering are Sierra Nevada Brown Saison, a very tasty and drinkable brew that we were surprised to learn is 7.85% ABV. Great Lakes Independence Ale is a hoppy amber ale, and is also a draft only offering from the Cleveland brewery.


Perhaps the rockstar of the 16 taps is a Belgian sour ale from Bockor. This beer epitomizes the hard work that the Binnys South Loop staff does to bring in atypical and extraordinary beers. For those who havent enjoyed a premier sour ale like Bockor on tap, which is probably many persons since sour ales are seldom found on tap, you are truly missing out. This beer is a rare gem and traveling to Binnys South Loop may be your only time to endeavor it.


Our group really enjoyed the fact that there was truly something for everyone. The hop- heads sipped Tyranena Scurvy and Port Wipeout IPA, while an adventuresome duo discussed the complexities of the Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA in their chalices. We were also intrigued to see Gorch Fock available on the ever present Three Floyds tap handle. We ordered two cheese trays and soon had various blue, cheddar, and French cheeses accompanied by picante salami, duck breast, almonds, and a fig jam to pair with our beers.


The time to leave came all too soon, as we left feeling as if we had just endured a party in our mouths. The joy of discovering an unbelievable new beer can almost be indescribable. If you are looking for a magnificent suds experience, come on down and visit Binnys South Loop.

Oktoberfest Beers Rolling In

Oktoberfest beer is beginning to hit our shelves, with Great Lakes and the new to Binny’s Kostritzer Oktoberfest leading the pack as the first two released. Last year Great Lakes Oktoberfest was one of the first to sell out, due to it being limited in production and high in demand. Kostritzer Octoberfest debuted at Binny’s this week, and is a very economical buy at $7.99 a 6-pack.



A huge misconception regarding Oktoberfest beers is that they are actually around in the month of October. While some are still left over during the month they are named after, several of the more popular ones will be long gone by the time the 10th month rolls around. The Germans start celebrating Oktoberfest in mid September, and the world’s largest fair always ends on the first Sunday in October (although the last Sunday is no doubt a mega celebration). This year Oktoberfest will be celebrated from September 19th October 4th.



Oktoberfest beers are lagers, and were traditionally brewed in spring for consumption in the fall. They are usually rich and malty with an ABV around 5-6%. Malt characteristics include roasted, toasted, burnt, and caramel. These brews are usually regarded as light and refreshing, and are swell session beers.



Besides the already released Great Lakes and Kostritzer Oktoberfest beers, many additional Oktoberfest Beers will be unleashed in the coming weeks. While there is too many brews to list the entire Oktoberfest portfolio, be sure to keep an eye out at Binny’s for the following Oktoberfest brews:





Weihenstephaner Festbier


Beck’s Oktoberfest


Ayinger Oktoberfest


Spaten Oktoberfestbier


Paulaner Oktoberfest


Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest


Warsteiner Oktoberfest





Sam Adams Octoberfest


Leinenkugel’s Oktoberfest


Victory Festbier


Flying Dog Dogtoberfest


Left Hand Oktoberfest


Three Floyd’s Munsterfest



Chances are that just about every beer lover will be indulging in at least one Oktoberfest brew in the upcoming weeks. What will be filling your boot?

A Visit to Napa: Part 2- Hard Times in Napa?

The economic state of Napa (and pretty much all well established wine producing regions) is hurting. Auction Napa Valley 2008 raised over $10 million. In 2009, they only raised $5.7 million. Some wineries aren’t really feeling the economic pinch, but most are. Throughout my week-long trip, I encountered many industry people struggling in the wine and restaurant businesses. Just about all of them said that business was down.

In my Napa visit in late July, many people at wineries and tasting rooms asked me how Binny’s was doing. I said we were not as frequently selling the higher tier wines, but plenty of the good value, lesser expensive wines.
In my visit to Shafer, I asked how their business was. They are not struggling as much as other places in the valley. Their waiting list for the flagship Hillside Select is closed because it is so long. Shafer produces about forty to fifty thousand cases a year. The five wines they release are always high in quality.
The current release 2007 Chardonnay will be exceptional - the Carneros fruit does not go under any malolactic fermentation, but it does see 40% new French oak, however. The nose has some toasty, leesy flavors along with lemon, green apple and vanilla. In the mouth, it is rather tart right now. It will be good. I remember feeling the same way about the 2006 when I had it in April of 2007. 
The Shafer Merlot is consistently one of my favorite domestic Merlots. The 2006 has a nose of ripe black cherry, blackberry and white pepper. It is fruit forward and well balanced in the mouth. 
The 2006 Shafer ”One Point Five” Cabernet got some thrashing from Wine Spectator. In my tasting, however I found lead pencil, cassis and and tart cherry in the Bordeaux-like nose. It is full bodied, well balanced and has a refreshing finish. This is going to be really good in the next 5-10 years.
The 2005 Shafer Relentless is an 80% Syrah/20% Petit Sirah blend. The nose shows Chambord, stewed blueberries, and baking spice. In the mouth, full bodied, extremely fruit forward and well balanced.
Shafer ran low on the 2004 Hillside Select. They ended up pouring the 2001 vintage. Personally, I think it’s a little disjointed right now. The nose is a bit warm, but shows dark berry fruit and cassis. The mouthfeel and balance of this wine, I think is what makes Hillside so special. If you have any 2001 Hillside, wait!
Shafer’s prestige, quality wines and good balance of sales between retail and restaurants keeps the economy from slowing them down. 


Shafer’s Hillside Vineyard’s in the Stag’s Leap District


Joseph Phelps is also a well renowned producer in Napa. The grounds are beautiful and the majority of the wines are solid. The 2005 Cabernet is sourced mainly from Rutherford and gives the wine a warm, earthy quality. There is terroir in Napa. The flagship 2005 Insignia needs some time to show its real stuff. It is mass produced wine. 15,000 cases times $200 per bottle equals A LOT of money.

I talked to the gentleman pouring the lineup of wines about the state of Phelps. I could not get much out of him, but from what I did, I am assuming they are feeling some of that hurt too.
Joseph Phelps’ Backyard (2/09)
O’Shaughnessy is relatively new player located on Howell Mountain. Their Howell Mountain estate vineyards are 1,800 feet up. The drive up is treacherous! O’Shaughnessy only produces two Cabernets and a Merlot. The other Cabernet comes from Mount Veeder. It was fun to taste the difference between the two Cabernets: The 2005 Mount Veeder was more gamey and structured. The 2005 Howell Mountain was more perfumed and was more approachable.
The 2006 O’Shaughnessy Merlot is awesome. Unfortunately, it was only available at the winery due to it’s 100 case production. (I think Merlot is going to start making a comeback. Every Merlot I tasted in Napa was great quality.)
Considering the quality and high ratings of O’Shaughnessy’s wine, they could ask for a lot more per bottle. They are a newer winery and maybe that is why they don’t jack up their prices.

O’Shaughnessy Vineyards


O’Shaughnessy Barrel Room


I find myself seeking out true value more and more. Has the sticker shock of Napa Valley wines affected you in this economy? Love to hear what you have to say…

Next time, I shall tell a tale about Quintessa and Ridge. I will also talk about my favorite winery, Kapcsandy Family.

An Amazing Australian Bargain

  I usually don’t take the time to point out discounted wines these wines are usually available in limited quantities and sell themselves. But when I tasted the following wines, and then heard the price we’d be selling them, I couldn’t resist at least bringing them to your attention.

  Last week, most Binny’s stores received a shipment of two wines from Colonial Estate the 2005 Emigre and Exile. Unfortunately, the Maltus portfolio of wines (of which Colonial Estate is a major component) is no longer distributed in the state of Illinois. But fortunately for you, Binny’s was able to buy up the remaining stock of two of the estate’s flagship wines, and at a great discount. I don’t expect they’ll last long.


  The Colonial Estate Emigre usually retails around $80 you’ll find the 2005 at Binny’s for $39.99 (with your Binny’s card). A great example of a huge and plush Australian red, it is composed of 30% Shiraz, 30% Grenache, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Mourvedre, and a little Carignan and Muscadelle. This monster is big and broad, showing huge layers of fruit, caramel and chocolate. It’s almost syrupy in texture, influenced by a large amount of new French oak, and hints at a depth that is, for now, hidden under layers and layers of fruit, but without going out of focus. To me, it’s liquid candy. For what it’s worth, Jay Miller of The Wine Advocate gives the 2005 Emigre 94 points, saying It is layered, opulent, and long while maintaining its elegant personality.

  After tasting the Emigre, I was thinking that my day probably couldn’t get any better, and that’s when they pulled out the 2005 Colonial Estate Exile. It’s like the Emigre, only bigger. It’s 85% Shiraz, with 10% Mourvedre and 5% Grenache, and usually retails in the $150-$180 range. We’ll have it, as long as it lasts, for $49.99 (also with your Binny’s Card). That is unreal. Like the Emigre, the Exile shows massive layers of fruit, but is even more dense, with hints of pencil lead, dense black fruits, and the influence of lots of new French oak. It received 95 points from both The Wine Advocate and Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar, who said this: For all its concentration, there’s superb balance, even freshness to this behemoth. At the risk of overselling it, I’ll stop there. For fifty bucks, this juice is a grand slam.


  This is a rare opportunity to grab a bottle or two of dynamite Australian red to try at a greatly reduced price, or to load up on an amazing value. When I tasted them, of course I was impressed. But it was when I found out what we’d charge for them that I started trembling, sweating, and trying to find ways to fit a few bottles of each into my budget. (Looks like I’m going without new shoes for a month or two. Also, I’ll be my own barber.)

  Supply is limited! Be sure to call your favorite Binny’s location to make sure they still have stock of the Colonial Estate wines, and please know that this bargain won’t last long.

Bargain Sparkling

  Working in the office next to the Binny’s sparkling wine buyer affords me the opportunity to taste a lot of outstanding Champagne. But then, you have to expect Champagne to be good, right? I mean, it’s Champagne! Right?

  What’s more exciting is tasting sparkling wine from somewhere else in the world, something with nuance and complexity, and then realizing that it sells for a fraction of the price of Champagne. Here are a few bubblies from other parts of the world that caught my attention recently as especially great values.

  One consistent source of value bubbly is the rest of France, the parts that aren’t Champagne. Binny’s just picked up the Baur Cremant d’Alsace Rose, a 100% pinot noir sparkler from Alsace (we’ve carried the Baur Brut for a while – it’s another good one). This bone-dry rose is angular and lean, with hints of mustiness on the nose, leading to a palate of strawberries, light minerality and angular acidity.

  Also a great value from France, the Berthenet Cremant de Bourgogne is 100% Chardonnay from Burgundy. Yeasty and bready on the nose, it offers complex layers of fruit, fading from pear to lime, with a bit of baking spice on the finish.

  A pleasant sparkling surprise was the Miolo Brut. This one is from Brazil one a handful of wines that we carry at Binny’s from Brazil and is a blend of 50% chardonnay and 50% pinot noir. With honey and dried apricots on the nose, this delicious and weighty sparkling wine has expressions of spice, caramel, light peach and apricot, and a touch of residual sugar (it seems) that comes across in the toasty finish. This is a great sparkling wine for under $15.

  I usually balk at recommending Italian prosecco I’ve had so many that are thin and shrill, and though they are much less expensive than Champagne, they often taste like it. That’s why I was surprised when I tasted the Clara C Fiori di Prosecco. It’s an extra-dry with a clean nose showing peaches and a touch of vanilla. The small amount of residual sugar gives it a good, broad mouthfeel, and comes across in loads of tart green apple, plus there’s a green herbal undercurrent. This is a fantastic sparkling wine for the price, and a great example of prosecco.

  Of course, these few suggestions aren’t even close to an exhaustive list of value sparkling wines out there. What are your favorites?

A Visit to Napa: Part One

Recently, I took my fourth trip to Napa and Sonoma.  I visited many wineries and tasted some great wines.  The main reason for my trip was an introductory Sommelier course. There was an examination site in Chicago, but if there is any excuse to go to Napa, I’ll make it. 
My first visit was Chateau Montelena.  Binny’s has recently received a lot of new wines from Montelena.  The wines were the real showcase, here. 


Chateau Montelena


The 2007 and 1995 Chardonnay’s were great.  (It’s wonderful to taste library wines, and the 1995 Chardonnay is one of the oldest white wines I’ve tasted.)  The 2006 Zinfandel was tasty.  Same for the 2005 Napa Cabernet.  They were very fruit forward and bright.  The 2005 Estate Cabernet needs a few years in the bottle before it shows more complexity.  It was well balanced, however.  You can find our stock of new and older Montelena wines, here.


Chateau Montelena


As you can see, the Montelena Estate is pretty photogenic.  It was a great start to my trip.


My next visit was Carter and Envy  They share a winery.  The gentleman pouring, Jim, was outspoken, opinionative and incredibly funny.  The wines of Carter I tasted were stellar.  Envy was pouring some 2007 vintage Cabernet and Petit Sirah.  This was my first indication that 2007 is going to be a great vintage for the Napa Valley. 


I spent about two hours at Carter and Envy talking to Jim and wine geeks like me.  I decided wine is more enjoyable when you enjoy the company you are drinking it with.  Next time, we’ll talk about the state of some higher end wines from Shafer, Joseph Phelps  O’Shaughnessy and Quintessa.