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Escaping Consumerism, Celebrating with Sparkling Wine

  My fiancee and I recently came to an important milestone in our relationship: together we let our membership to our bulk-buy, warehouse-style superstore expire. After enduring a year of two-hour-plus shopping excursions and the zombielike, sleepwalking mental state such trips put me in, we’re done with the place.

  It’s a good thing. I realize now that I have a strong tendency to impulse purchase, which is a dangerous habit at a bulk-goods store. I now have a 64 oz jar of giardiniera congealing in my fridge, and have ingested an unhealthy quantity of those square cheese flavored crackers. The buyer’s remorse is strong when any item in the place can run over ten bucks. At our local tiny produce market, the dumbest things I can possibly impulse purchase are individually sealed pickles and those enormous green citrus fruits that turn out to be mostly rind.

  We don’t really have the space to warehouse consumer goods in mass quantity anyway. And we’re not really saving money by buying even more stuff. And the lines in that place aren’t worth it. At all. So we made one final trip, bought one last four pound bag of frozen ravioli … and some coffee … and some chips … and a big block of cheese … and then we walked away from the place forever.

  So the debate: how do we celebrate our newly rediscovered frugality? Champagne is for celebration except for, um, the frugality part. So digging through my recent tasting notes, I came up with a short list of sparkling wines from around the world, new to Binny’s shelves, that might be perfect for the occasion.


  Special Sparkling, or Bubbly on a Budget

  I’m not usually crazy about Cava (other than using it as an inexpensive substitute for Champagne in cocktails), so I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the Paul Cheneau Lady of Spain Brut. It’s a reasonably priced Cava, which means it’s still a great value given the world of sparkling wine. The nose shows a hint of cream and a lot of fresh fruit cocktail. It has good texture, and despite showing plenty of fresh pear fruit, it’s nice and dry and snappy on the palate. This would be great in cocktails, but is complex enough to stand on its own. Cute bottle, too.

  For something a little more unusual, try the Pacific Rim White Flowers. Aromatically light and pretty, this sparkling riesling has plenty of orchard fruit, with good acidity all the way through to the finish keeping it fresh, with just a tiny hint of sugar. It begs for something salty, like popcorn, which is good, because I still have most of a 48-pack of microwavable popcorn to chow through.

  But I think the bubbly of choice for this occasion is the Laetitia Brut Cuvee. When I first tasted it, I didn’t know the asking price, and guessed double the actual retail of $19.99. This wine is complex! The nose shows traditional notes of butter and cream and bread above more restrained, lighter fruit. It is broad on the palate, with some acidity, but the joy in the wine is in its breadth something like pastries, or marzipan or nutmeg, with candied pineapple, yeasty and spicy. Comparable to some Champagne.

  One thing I love about sparkling wines is their versatility; most will pair well with pretty much anything. This is especially great when you find yourself, like me, with several years’ worth of dehydrated hash browns, five pounds of fancy mixed nuts and a tub of inedible frozen meatless meatballs. Yes, I bought that. Glad I’m getting out. Let’s celebrate.

SIerra Nevada’s 30th Anniversary Series

Sierra Nevada is celebrating 30 years of brewing, and what better way to do that than launching a whole new series of beers.  Sierra Nevadas 30th Anniversary series will consist of four beers, the first of which was released this week.  Fritz and Kens Ale is the inaugural beer of the series, and is available now in very limited quantities.



Fritz and Kens Ale:  Now Available


Fritz Maytag, owner of San Franciscos Anchor Brewing Company, is regarded as the godfather of the craft brewing movement.  Fritz agreed to guest brew this very special ale with us in honor of our 30th anniversary.  As a nod to the robust black ales that seduced both Fritz and Ken in the early years, we bring you this Pioneers Stout, a rich and roasted ale, perfect for aging, and worthy of your finest snifter.




Charlie, Fred, and Kens Lager:  Available Mid-May 2010


Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhart are the men who launched a thousand breweries.  Their writing on the art of homebrewing and steadfast promotion of beer culture helped propel the craft brewing movement.  Charlie and Fred agreed to work with us on this special ale in honor of our 30th anniversary.  This Imperial Helles Lager is a testament to the ever-evolving brewers art.  Bold yet balanced with distinct toasted malt character, moderate sweetness and clean and floral hops.



Jack and Kens Ale:  Available Mid-July 2010


Jack McAuliffe is the original microbrewer.  McAuliffes tiny New Albion Brewery in Sonoma, California inspired countless brewers to start small-scale breweries of their own.  Jack agreed to guest brew this very special ale with us in honor of our 30th anniversary.  This American barleywine is a nod to the big ales New Albion server at their legendary summer solstice parties.  It is robust and complex- brewed with 100% American Cascase hops.



Our Brewers Reserve Ale:  Available Mid-October 2010


Brewers Reserve is a special ale highlighting our pioneering history and the innovative spirit that has carried us through all these years.  It is a marriage of our three most acclaimed ales:  Oak- aged Bigfoot, Celebration Ale, and fresh Pale ale blended together and generously dry-hopped.  Come join us in celebrating thirty years with this most special brew.  Drink it now, or save it for a future anniversary of your own.

Brag to Me

  A funny thing about being in retail wine sales is that one is often given the opportunity to taste wine, but it’s always what is currently available, which means it’s almost always young. A big part of being able to appreciate wine is understanding time and its affects, which can only come from experience, and experience can be scarce when one is exposed only to the youth of current releases.

  For example, I was fortunate to attend a Bordeaux tasting on Wednesday that included many 2009 barrel samples, mostly reasonably priced bottlings retailing in the mid-teens to just under $100 a bottle. The samples are monstrously tannic right now, with huge plummy fruit covering up almost all other complexities. How will they turn out? I can’t really tell.


  A few weeks ago, I shared a nice dinner with a group of wine guys at a suburban Italian BYO. Bruschetta, spinach soup, eggplant parmesan, and all the wine you can carry makes for a great dinner. Plus the company, of course.

  Among the plethora of great wine we shared that night was one especially memorable highlight a bottle of 1975 Pichon Lalande. This was the oldest wine I can remember tasting (besides aged port and sherry) since the 1981 Montecillo Rioja I had over a year ago. The 1981 was terrible; it really showed its age.

  The ’75 Pichon Lalande was a wine for reflection. It poured a healthy brick red, much more red than the brown I was expecing. Elegance on the nose, and the palate showed a surprising amount of tart red fruit, a little spice, and a lots of sturdy, drying, palate-gripping tannins on the finish. Kurt, my friend who brought the bottle, was concerned by Robert Parker’s most recent review of the wine (published in 1996) saying the wine was already past its prime, even back then. If anything, I appreciate the wine for its defiance of this sentiment I doubt it will improve much more with age, but this old wine is still alive and kicking.

  So that was the oldest wine I’d tried in a while, until this morning. The new record setter? 1967 Dr Fischer Ockfener Bockstein Riesling Auslese. I’m told 1967 was not a notable year in Germany, or pretty much anywhere else. I’ll have to trust my sources; I wasn’t around.

  Still, the wine was beautiful. The cork disintegrated into a hundred pieces, of course. It poured a deep gold, with a quiet nose of honey and baking spice and mustiness. The riesling was restrained and elegant, much of the expected sugar having backed off. It showed thin citrus fruit like lemon peel (maybe orange peel?). But it was the strong, fresh acidity, not quite as bracing as a dry sherry, that defined this (42+ year old!) wine and gave it focus.

  Without a doubt, a big part of the experience, of the joy, of tasting these aged wines is in their scarcity. There is novelty in such a thing existing at all, and I find myself impressed simply by the specialness of the occasion. I wonder how I would have reacted if I were unaware of the vintages involved, if I were tasing these wines blindly. Would I appreciate the delicate, elegant nature of age, or would I complain at the lack of up front fruit?


  So that’s my bragging, now here’s your chance to brag to me. Tell me about the oldest wine you’ve tasted recently. How was it? Do you wish you had waited longer? Acted sooner? If you have a bunch of old stuff stashed away, open it! Wine is for drinking!

Tasting Blind, and Noval Black

  Earlier this week I took part in a blind wine tasting. I did not do well. So I’m not going to blog about it, other than to say that I am proud that I didn’t wuss out (as I have been known to in the past), went with my gut instinct, and guessed incorrectly on every wine put in front of me.

  Instead, let’s talk about a brand new Port that just hit Binny’s shelves last week: Noval Black.

  This new non-vintage Port is a great example of the style for less than $20. The nose is typical for fortified wine: lots of alcohol along with candied cherry and plum, hints of herbal notes and maybe mineral, like pencil lead. On the palate, though, the wine explodes: A serious tannic spine frames everything candied, jammy raspberry fruit and sugar dominate the midpalate, backing off at the finish to expose the more delicate vanilla and orange peel, but still framed in tannins. This is a big Port, and drinks like a compact version of a 2007 for a fraction of the price.

  I wanted to know how well it would stand up to my benchmark for non-vintage Port, the Graham’s Six Grapes, so we opened a bottle. The experience suddenly got a lot more intimidating when two glasses were set in front of me with no indication of which was which.

  Blind tasting is a lot easier when it’s multiple choice, the odds are 50/50, and when you’ve tasted one of the wines immediately before.

  It was the tannic frame of the Noval Black that gave it away. The Six Grapes, which I still hold as an excellent value for Port, especially one that is drinkable now, shows much more plush fruit with a softer body and lighter, more sweet and spicy (baking spices like nutmeg) nature. By contrast, the Black is big and sturdy, less pretty and more muscular.

  I’m always puzzled that Port isn’t selling better as a category. Not only are vintage Ports some of the most unique and ageworthy wines in the world, but the non-vintage blends offer some of the best values out there. Stopped up and stored in the fridge, a bottle can last for a week or two (though it will evolve over that time), compared to the one or two day lifespan of a table red. Port pairs well with nuts and cheese, or maybe chocolate or cheesecake, or maybe just the relaxing end to your day.

  I urge the uninitiated to give Port a try, and either the Graham’s Six Grapes or the Noval Black would be a great place to start.

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