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Not Just Blending In

  It was years ago I might have even been working in a different state at the time when this happened: I was helping a customer pick out a selection of wines, making recommendations for stuff she hadn’t tried that she might like. She seemed to get more excited with each bottle that went into her cart (It’s one of the best things about selling wine for a living, sharing your excitement for a wine and watching other people get excited with you). Everything was going great, until she asked for some Australian shiraz, and I reached for the Pillar Box Red.

  I explained that it is a red blend of shiraz, cabernet and merlot, and that’s it’s huge and fruity and jammy and a seriously amazing value for around ten bucks (since then, it has crept up to $11.99, and still a great value). I told her that Robert Parker had just given the Pillar Box 90 points (every vintage since has received either 90 or 91 points from The Wine Advocate). And that I, too, gave it my personal seal of approval.

  And she sort of crinkled her nose a little, and said she’d like to stick with just shiraz, please. She said she didn’t think she’d like blends. So we went and looked at some Aussie shiraz, which was fine.

  The whole situation stuck with me mainly because it was a lesson in customer service the customer really is always right, and you have to give them what they want, despite your personal tastes. But it has also stuck with me because ever since, I have wondered: Do a lot of people avoid blends? Do they really lack the cache carried by a varietal label?

  It’s not a secret that some of the most prestigious and classic wine in the world are blends. Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja, Champagne, Chateauneuf du Pape, Port these are all traditionally blended wines, and have been for centuries. In fact, most wine is blended, at least a little. The bottles in that very customer’s cart, the bottles labeled cabernet sauvignon and shiraz have other grapes blended in. In California, for example, a wine is allowed to be labeled as a varietal if it is composed of at least 75% of that grape, meaning there’s a lot of wiggle room in the winemaking process. It’s common for winemakers to slip in a touch of merlot or syrah into a cab to fill it out, or to add a bit of cab into a zin to toughen it up. Plus, blended wines are a great way for winemakers to express themselves. Unrestricted by the expectations held for a varietal bottling, they can make the wines they dream of.

  We’re always tasting red blends around here. One that recently caught my eye is the 2005 St Francis Red a kitchen-sink style blend (along with merlot, cab, syrah and zin, it has 6 % mixed blacks, including cabernet franc, grenache, alicante, and malbec). You might recognize the eye-catching red splatter labels; each bottle in the case comes with a different pattern. We tasted this wine in a lineup with wines ten times its price, yet it managed to hold its own. Along with the cherry, plum and rhubarb fruit, it has a streak of green bell pepper, and is rounded out with a touch of cocoa from oak. The St Francis Red just took a price drop it used to sell for almost $15 a bottle, but now Binny’s is offering it for $8.99. This is highly recommended as an everyday red that’s quite a value.

  If you’re looking for something bigger with more restraint and elegance, be sure to check out these traditional Bordeaux-style blends (blended from cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec): The 2006 Girard Artistry is well worth the $29.99 price tag, showing big plum, vanilla and cocoa on the nose, plush and spicy on the palate with notes of deep black raspberry and very tight, very drying tannins on the finish. Also a good value is Napanook, from Christian Mouiex’s Dominus Estate (Napanook is less than a third the price of it’s bigger brother). The 2006 Napanook is 87% Cabernet and shows it, with the powerful sort of elegance that you’d expect from a cabernet, only fleshed out with more plush plum, and a big finish with great tannins. Binny’s has the 2006 Napanook for $39.99.

  And for something a little different, check out the 2007 Lewis Alec’s Blend. This one is 70% syrah, and it also shows it. This is a plush, fat, modern wine with a thick, heavy, almost gooey texture. The oak comes across less like cocoa and more like milk chocolate, the plummy fruit is heavy like fruit preserves. My handwritten notes have the words plush and incredible. This one, it’s good. I went back and tasted it a second time. Don’t expect elegance, though, it’s modern-styled delight, and it’s awesome for $44.99.

  I realize that some of these $30-$45 blends might seem expensive, but they are great values as they compare to much more expensive wines. They easily deliver in the same league as some of those blue-clip Napa reds that you can only find locked up behind glass, and at a fraction of the price.

  By the way, you should totally check out the Pillar Box Red.

Founders Ponies up the Curmudgeon

Founders Brewing Company, a favorite among us beer lovers, has ponied up and given us Illinoisans a considerable amount of Curmudgeon. It is refreshing to see a beer stacked in our stores that we previously had to keep in the back room because of only receiving one case. This is a good sign, and hopefully in the future we will start to see multiple cases of Founders rarities such as Devil Dancer, Backwoods Bastard, and KBS.



Curmudgeon is classified as an old ale, a style that is similar to a barley wine. Old ales are usually dominated by malt characteristics, with very minimal amounts of hops added. While tradition says that old ales can have a wide range in ABV, it seems that most of the old ales brewed today are high in alcohol. Curmudgeon is no exception, and clocks in at 9.3% ABV.



Founders Curmudgeon has a very complex aroma and flavor. Caramel, toffee, and dark fruits are abundant. A big splash of vanilla and a hint of fudge are also apparent on the nose. Curmudgeon’s taste is all about the malt, with a heavy dose of the caramel version leading the pack. Flavors of vanilla, oak, and bourbon are noticeable and not surprising considering that Curmudgeon is barrel aged. The dark fruit flavors are there but faint. The intricate flavor profile fades into a lightly boozy but pleasant finish.



We would love to know which Founders beer you are most fond of. To answer our own question, I would go with the Harvest Ale, but that is probably because it is the current Founders beer located in my fridge. If there were some Curmudgeon in there(which there soon will be), then the answer may have been different.

A Question of Etiquette: Part II

  It was a couple of weeks ago when I went back to my hometown for a friend’s wedding. While in town, I stopped by the house I was raised in and checked in on my parents. We all had a good time.

  But I noticed something. They have a cute little wine rack. It holds about six wine bottles. It is sitting on the kitchen counter, right above the dishwasher, between the microwave and the floor-to-ceiling glass door to the back yard. And of course, this wine rack still has several bottles of wine that I have given them over the last three or four years.

  Wine storage 101: It is best to store wine away from big fluctuations in temperature and humidity, away from  vibration and in darkness. I would imagine that the worst possible place to store wine would be above a heating element on a windowsill in a bathroom. Or in a garage, I guess. But there, on the counter in the kitchen, above the dishwasher, that gave me a headache.

  Plus, the particular wines I had given them, the wines still on the cute little wine rack, are not wines meant for long-term aging. Not even in optimal cellar conditions.

  So here’s my new question of etiquette: What do you do when you see a bottle you have given somebody not being enjoyed, and even stored improperly? You gave them the bottle, after all, you should want them to like it.

  Keep in mind: I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all. I don’t like telling people what to do, and I especially don’t like correcting people. Plus, I’m still afraid of being labelled with the dreaded term wine snob.

  So what do you say? Do you offer to open it and taste it with them? Do you remind them to open the wine soon? Do you instruct them in proper wine storage? Do you keep your mouth shut and hope they open it some time and forget that it was you who gave them the bottle?

  Here’s what I did:


  I bailed.

  But it stuck in my mind for a couple of weeks. I thought about it, and then I called up my mom on the phone. I asked her permission to use her as an example on the Binny’s Wine Blog. It seemed like a good way to broach the subject. She asked what I was talking about, and I told her about the bottles on her counter. We talked about proper wine storage and so on. She asked which bottles I was talking about, and when I gave her an example, this is what she said:

  But I can’t open that wine! That’s DITKA’S wine! You can’t just OPEN Ditka’s wine!

    So what do you think? Would you say anything? What would you do?

Homebrew Contest Coming to Binny’s in Willowbrook


On November tenth, Binnys in Willowbrook will be hosting a homebrew contest. There is no charge to enter the contest, and the top three contestants will take home valuable prizes.   Beer experts from Binnys and Sam Adams will be judging the event. If you wish to enter the contest, please bring two bottles of your beer to Binnys in Willowbrook on November tenth no later than 5:30 p.m. Judging will start at 6 p.m., with the winners announced no later than 8 p.m.


During the judging, we have put together some events to keep all you home brewers occupied. Thanks to Sam Adams, every participant of the homebrew contest will get to participate in a Sam Adams Utopia tasting. Also, we will be sampling Sam Adamss seasonal lineup as well as some of their other beers; this will be available to everybody. Be sure to come with some room in your stomach, as the event will be catered with local cuisine. We are also working on securing some live music.


The Prizes:

First Place: An all expense paid trip for two to the 2010 Great American Beer Festival

Second Place: $100 Binnys gift card

Third Place: $100 Binnys gift card

Best Label: $100 Binnys gift card


If you wish to register for the event, or have any specific questions, please email me at We are looking forward to sampling some great brews, and wish you all good luck!

Malbec: On the Rise

  I bought a bottle of Coppola Diamond Series Malbec on my way home last night. I don’t usually drink the varietal, but I had malbec on my mind, so I figured I’d pick up a bottle.

  Ten or fifteen years ago, everybody was drinking merlot. It was easy to pronounce, and it was widely produced in a fruit-forward style. Then, the hot thing was Australian shiraz, for similar reasons. Then some movie came out and the wine of the times was pinot noir. So what’s the next big thing?

  While we were in California in August, that was one of the questions we asked Jim Collins, the senior director of coastal wine growing for Gallo. His answer? Malbec. He says growers in California are tearing up other varietals to make space for new malbec plantings.


Malbec’s Roots

  The story is that malbec originally came from France, where it was grown as one of a few varietals blended in Bordeaux, and also from the region of Cahors in the Southwest of France, where the wines are composed of at least 70% malbec. The grape didn’t really come to mass appeal until relatively recently, and from a perhaps unexpected area: South America. Chile and Argentina are quickly becoming known for this signature grape. As of now, malbec is grown in California, but mostly in small quantities for use in Bordeaux-styled blends.

  Here’s the part where I lose friends: I’m just not that big of a fan. It seems to me that there’s always something missing, that flair of elegance that makes a wine truly world-class. Then again, every time I tell a colleague this, I get a dirty look. People who like their malbec can get a little fanatical about it. With a flavor profile somewhere between cabernet and merlot, malbec tends to have plush fruit, backed with light tannins. As with all wine, I try to keep an open mind:


Some Tasting Notes

  As I said, last night I picked up a bottle of Coppola Diamond Series Malbec (I had the 2006). Even the label pays tribute to the grape’s South American nature its Celestial Blue references Argentina’s flag. The wine is decent, I suppose. A nose of plum and blueberry and hints of vanilla and wood lead to a somewhat hard and acidic red that shows a fair amount of plum fruit. The finish is a bit austere but not too tannic. I didn’t finish the bottle, so I have more to look forward to tonight.

  A more austere malbec is the 2007 Clos la Coutale Cahors. This is just about as rustic as malbec gets, but in a good way. The nose is dusty with dried herbs and cedar. There is more fruit on the palate than the nose lets on, a thin, dry, tart cherry fruit, balanced with rustic, dusty tannins. Surprisingly, the thing reminds me of some young top-notch 2005 Bordeaux I tasted recently, if less complex aromatically. This is a great value if you like malbec, be sure to check out Cahors for a more old-world style.

  Then there’s the other world of malbec, the ultra-modern. I’ve tasted a lot of South American malbec lately, and it seems that the best are plush, jammy, modern wines that pack a punch for the price:

  At $7.99, the 2008 Maipe Malbec is a huge value. Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate gives it 90 points, using the phrase gobs of fruit, which I totally agree with. But not only fruit, the Maipe has a pudding-like amount of vanilla and cocoa. It isn’t super-complex, but I could drink it all day.

  For a little more money, the 2007 Marchiori & Barraud Malbec is a knockout, with big cassis and raspberry fruit, plus a more restrained use of oak, and enough tannic structure to hint at balance and elegance. Good stuff. Also, keep your eye out for the 2006 Benegas Malbec Libertad Vineyards, which just arrived at Binny’s. It’s another plush Argentinian Malbec combining deep berry fruit with plush cocoa and vanilla (Binny’s currently carries the less expensive Juan Benegas Malbec, another good value, but when tasted side by side, the Libertad Vineyards really shows as the better wine).


Malbec: The Future?

  So what do you think? Do you have some favorite Malbec? Where is it from? Will malbec really be the next big thing from California? I think it might be, but I guess that in the end, it’s up to you.

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