We’ve Got People Coming Over — Help!!

DSC_0135In the last few weeks, I’ve had more than one person ask for help with planning their holiday parties. They want to serve wine. They want to serve decent wine, but they don’t want to go broke. Or, they don’t want to serve expensive, high quality wines because they know that at a party very few people even pay attention. What, they ask, should they do.

Happily, you can serve wine a notch or two above pure plonk without needing a second mortgage. Every month the major wine mags are filled with notes and reviews of wines that are affordable and often play above their price points. If you need to start shopping for an upcoming party, or just want to be well-stocked as the holidays approach, the wines I’ve listed below are a reliable place to start. Cheers!


$12 2013 Charles & Charles Chardonnay (Washington) – “Polished, creamy and refreshingly balanced, with tobacco-accented pineapple and coconut flavors that come together smoothly and linger well.” (WS)

$14 2012 Foris Chardonnay (Rogue Valley) – “A directly appealing wine with notes of apple, toast and melon. It’s fresh in feel, medium bodied with a good sense of balance throughout and a lingering finish.” (WE)

$14 2013 Knapp Barrel Reserve Chardonnay (Finger Lakes) – “Tense and high-toned, with a lemony lift and a citrusy sharpness of tone and texture, this wine gathers some breadth and complexity from a satisfying leesiness in its flavors. The finish is bright, precise, mouthwatering. Chill it for cocktail hour, or a plate of shrimp on ice.” (W&S)

$10 2012 Stonecap Chardonnay (Columbia Valley)– “Tight and focused, with juicy pear and grapefruit flavors playing against hints of spice, lingering on the finish.” (WS)

$11 Bergevin Lane Linen Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – “Light and expressive, with pretty pear and cream flavors set on a try, tautly balanced frame finishing with an open texture.” (WS)

$11 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – “Sleek and refreshing, this offers pineapple and grapefruit flavors on a lively frame, persisting nicely.” (WS)

$14 2013 Waterbrook Sauvignon Blanc (Columbia Valley) – “Light and refreshing, with grapefruit and floral flavors singing brightly and lingering well.” (WS)

$10 2013 14 Hands Pinot Grigio (Washington) – “Light and refreshing with tangy pear and lime flavors on a sleek frame.” (WS)

$14 2013 Erath Pinot Gris (Oregon) – “This brisk gris is zippy and bright, with scents of green apple and orange blossoms. Its flavors shift to lime, . . . with a mild salty tang that suggests pairing it with roasted clams.” (W&S)

$15 2013 Red Hawk Pinot Gris (Eola-Amity Hills) – “This is a good, rich, leesy, and immediately appealing wine, with great texture and a fine mix of melon, apricot and peach flavors. For the price it’s hard to find a better Pinot Gris.” (WE)

$12 2013 Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Evergreen Riesling (Columbia Valley) – “Crisp and sleek, with juicy, expansive nectarine and peach flavors that play against citrusy acidity, finishing with zing and a sense of softness that lets the finish keep singing.” (WS)

$10 2013 Mercer Canyons Riesling (Yakima Valley) — “Scents of lime and passion fruit give way to rippling, high-toned peach flavors, . . . . It offers some complexity in an inexpensive package, proving a nice foil for pad thai.” (W&S)

$15 2013 L’Ecole No. 41 Semillon (Columbia Valley) — “Light and refreshing, this white offers flavors of tangerine peel and grapefruit that pick up a creamy fig note as the finish lingers.” (WS)

$10 2013 McManis California Viognier (California) — “…this viognier is a steal: ripe and warming but rich enough to hold the heat in check, fragrant with jasmine and apricot scents, lasting on an apricot-skin grip that turns earthy at the end. Pour it with grilled fish or roasted king trumpet mushrooms. “(W&S)

$10 14 Hands Moscato (Columbia Valley) — “Varietally spot-on with a scent of pine fronds and rose petals, this medium-sweet white has a hefty pineapple ripeness, and a brisk, balanced finish.” (W&S)


$12 2012 Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – “Polished, plush and vibrant, with a core of plum and black currant fruit welling up seductively against hints of sweet spices and cream. The finish lingers beautifully.” (WS)

$13 2012 Snoqualamie Cabernet Sauvignon (Columbia Valley) – “A dense, focused, and expressive red, with black olive-and-mineral-accented current and plum fruit that’s nicely restrained and shepherded into the velvet-textured finish. Lingers beautifully.” (WS)

$12 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle Grand Estates Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Velvety, focused and generous, with black cherry and coffee flavors, hinting at dark chocolate as the finish extends.” (WS)

$12 2012 14 Hands Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Fresh and expressive, a bit raw yet juicy, with black currant and blueberry flavors shaded with notes of toast and peach fuzz as the finish persists.” (WS)

$11 2011 Castle Rock Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Smooth and generous, supple, velvety and expressive, weaving a minty herbal note through a harmonious blend of blackberry, cherry and spice flavors.” (WS)

$12 2012 Charles Smith The Velvet Devil Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Polished, supple and expressive, with well-modulated blueberry and spice flavors that slide easily into a long and well-defined finish. Has deft balance, richness and depth.” (WS)

$15 2012 Columbia Crest Cabernet Sauvignon (Horse Heaven Hills) – “Dark and spicy, billowing with plum, currant and white chocolate flavors, picking up pear and white tea notes as the finish lingers with refinement. The tannins are submerged.” (WS)

$11 2012 Hogue Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Fresh and vibrant, with lively acidity to balance the rich blueberry pie and spice flavors, hinting at black pepper as the creamy finish lingers.” (WS)

$15 2011 Seven Falls Merlot (Wahluke Slope) – “Spicy, expressive, detailed and focused, offering white pepper and floral overtones to the raspberry and white chocolate core, lingering easily against fine tannins.” (WS)

$14 2011 Waterbrook Merlot (Columbia Valley) – “Light and tangy, with tobacco and coffee overtones to the black cherry and tangy balsamic flavors, lingering with persistence. Offers presence and refinement.” (WS)

$15 2013 Charles Smith Boom Boom! Syrah (Columbia Valley) – “Fresh, lively and sleek, with red berry, raspberry and spice box flavors in a neat package, lingering expressively.” (WS)

$12 2012 Bogle Petite Sirah (California) – “Wild berry flavors are ripe, fresh and juicy, with cedar, herb and red licorice overtones and chewy tannins.” (WS)

$11 2013 McManis Petite Sirah (California) – “Beyond the dark chocolate and wood smoke notes of this wine’s oak, there’s plenty of bright, firm petite sirah fruit. With grilled meat, the oak will recede and the fruit will shine.” (W&S)

$11 2013 McManis Pinot Noir (California) – “This marries black cherry flavors with barrel spice in a chewy structure that’s bold rather than delicate. Chill it slightly for grilled bratwurst.” (W&S)

$15 2012 Windy Bay Pinot Noir (Oregon) – “Soft and lilting in its scents of cedar and turf, this wine has a chewy density, lending depth to the dark cherry flavors. Its abundant grippy tannins will cut into beef stroganoff.” (W&S)

Key: WE — Wine Enthusiast; WS — Wine Spectator; W&S — Wine & Spirits


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Heading For Port — Full Steam Ahead

While our daughter sat through three days of orientation meetings, we took full advantage of her confinement and made the one-hour hop from Madrid to Porto for some relaxed education. A fortuitous website bargain landed us a stay at the Yeatman Hotel in Vila Nova de Gaia, a resort normally outside our comfort zone. We found out quickly after arriving, however, that the Yeatman is nothing but a comfort zone. Here are a few pics from our three days in Portugal.


The view from the front porch of the Yeatman Hotel, with the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, the Douro River, and the old town of the city of Porto.


The Yeatman Hotel, owned by the port house Taylor Fladgate, is named for the family that still owns and operates three of the top port houses — Taylor, Croft, and Fonseca. The Yeatman is more than a hotel. It is also part museum, part educational center focused on port and the history of the port trade. The hallways are filled with art, collections, and displays detailing the industry from its 17th century origins to the present.


Don’t know much about cork and its connection to the global wine industry? A five minute stop at this display and all your questions are answered.


Built into a steep hill, the Yeatman Hotel has many elevators, all of which are designed with panoramic views of the region. Here you’ve just stepped into the Douro Valley, east of Porto, as it winds through hillsides terraced with vineyards.


This elevator is designed to give the illusion of travel in a hot air ballon. That first jolt of the elevator moving is a bit of unexpected fun.


Do you think wine is a prominent theme here in Porto? How many hotel pools do you know that are shaped like a decanter?


In the end, everything comes back to the blessings of Bacchus. This statue and its pedestal dominate the hotel’s main staircase and atrium. If you’d like to see the statue up close but can’t get over to Portugal, there’s a replica in the courtyard at Jordan Vineyard and Winery in Sonoma.


The weather was beautiful during our three days in Porto. Of course we drank rosé.


As far as I’m concerned, the best ham in Europe comes from Spain, followed closely by Italy. The Portuguese don’t need to be modest about their own cured pork delicacies, however. This appetizer, with loads of tomato and olive oil, stands with the best from either of the other two countries. I could have done without the leaves. Color and all that jazz, yeah, I know. But, really, ditch the leaves.


The photo doesn’t come close to capturing the actual grade of this cobblestone alley leading down to the wharf. Steep going down, very steep coming back up.


The walkway along the river is studded with the names of the local port houses, which are the lifeblood of the region. Portuguese light wines (unfortified) from other regions are finally making their way into the mainstream wine markets globally, but for now, port remains the country’s dominant brand.


A great way to end a great day. Late afternoon bubbles as the sun begins to set over the Atlantic.


Our first night in Gaia we had no solid dinner plans so we ended up at the hotel’s poolside cafe. And, yes, that’s a hefty batch of foie gras to get things started. Oh, look, more leaves.


Some fresh seafood. Looked great. Tasted way better.


The wine program at the Yeatman, no surprise, is smart, and the hotel’s cellar is possibly the finest and deepest in the country. Hard to call it a night without a stop at Dick’s Bar for something special.


Day Two found us, bright and early, next door at the Taylor Fladgate tasting room. The design on the barrel is the brand that founder Job Bearsley, a British merchant, would stamp on his wool bales as they went to market. Nothing sheepish about the design of this tasting room, that’s for sure.


My lineup was a bit of a snack-pack. From left to right, a 10 year tawny, a 20 year tawny, an LBV, and a vintage. I’ve really come to prefer the tawny ports over the ruby style. But I’m open to more persuasion.


Our next stop was Sandeman, another top producer. There we did a tasting flight of tawny ports, from 10 year to 40 year. It was a close call between the 20 and the 30, but I think the 30 won the day. The 10 year lacked complexity and the 40 had a bit too much heat on the finish. An educational, and delicious, stop in our day of exploring.


Had I not been distracted by the wonderful wines in front of me, I might have taken more notes. The little box/shelf set-up was cute but made writing difficult.


A stroll through Gaia’s side streets, away from the throngs of tourists, gave us a truer sense of life in the region.


Our Day Two exploration took a culinary turn later in the day when we decided to splurge on the Chef’s tasting menu at the Yeatman’s Michelin-starred dining room. Before we even got up to speed with the evening’s menu, we were treated to several amuse-bouches. We got underway with these little treats, lollipops of foie gras covered in savory white chocolate.


Just like the 82 rooms at the hotel which are all situated to face the river and Porto, the dining room is set up so all diners have a similar view.


In all we had about 14 plates presented to us, and those were matched with six or seven Portuguese wines. All were good, some were excellent. Our only disappointment was a pinot noir that seemed to lack any real typicity. If it was pinot, it was nothing like any iteration of the grape we’d ever had. Otherwise, an unblemished score card.


This is a classic blend of Portuguese varieties and it was a perfect match for the heart of the menu.

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An almost perfect accompaniment to our desserts. If only it hadn’t been a bit hot on the finish.



A decadent ending to a decadent meal. Each of these little nibbles held their own surprise. I think the white chocolate balls had some frozen fruit or ice cream inside. The entire meal kept your taste buds on full alert at al times.


On Day Three I arranged a private tour of the hotel’s cellar, which holds 27,000 bottles and 1,300 labels at any given time, one of the most extensive collections of Portuguese wine in the world.


The hotel’s shop manager, Marco Myhre, spent more than an hour with me, giving me a detailed view of the cellar along with a brief history of the Portuguese wine trade, and the role of the Yeatman family over the centuries. Myhre works closely with Beatriz Machado, the wine director, on restaurant lists, bar menus, and shop offerings. When the staff at the Yeatman says the hotel is all about wine, they mean what they say.


Adeus, Porto. Until next time. And, yes, there will be a next time. I have a lengthy, vine-covered river valley to explore.

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The Quintessential Look At Napa


Not all views of the Napa Valley are created equal. One trip to Quintessa on the Silverado Trail is all you need to understand that.


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Quintessa — All That’s Best About Napa Valley

DSC_0194_3A visit to Quintessa is an invitation to enjoy what’s best about the Napa Valley: committed relationships with the land, dedication to making fine wine, and the insistence on quality and sophistication in every task or gesture, no matter how small.

To learn more about one of the gems of Napa, continue reading here:



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Fueling And Schooling

All that apartment hunting had made us hungry so we rejoined Katie’s new Fulbright friend and  her father for a relaxing night out. Dinner, drinks, and lots of laughs gave us hope that the young ambassadors were off to a solid start. The next day, Sunday, we all met again to head north to Alcala de Henares in search of the schools where each of them would be teaching.


Katie, left, and her new Fulbright pal, Kelsey. There might be alcohol in those preprandials. Not really sure.


The waitstaff didn’t ask us if we wanted a starter, but this arrived anyway. And we were all glad it did. Gorgeous poached egg on these veggies made us all swoon.


Thank God I’m fluent in Spanish. Oh, sorry. I meant English. I’m pretty fluent in English.


A flurry of starters were bandied about so I ordered the most versatile and reliable white I could. The bottle arrived and everybody decided they just wanted entrees. Not a problem. Hello, Martin. Good-bye, Martin.


Fair pricing. America, are you paying attention?


Speaking of versatile in light of many different dishes. Our good friends at Emilio Moro do wonderful things with tempranillo. Tinto fino, with an emphasis on the fino. Delicious, modern, polished, and nimble. And the bank remains intact.


If more American producers could do this much with their back labels, I’d be a happier consumer.


Hard to enjoy a meal when all you get is an ounce. The sacrifices I make….sheesh.


Simple is good. Baby baby lambsicles. And some damn good fries to keep them company. Hola chuletas!


It was a quiet night at La Hoja, but the folks there took very good care of the six exuberant Americans. They understood quickly that we had minimal Spanish language resources — one full player and two half-backs — and took care of us with humor and warmth.


A nod to the Basque influence in the Life of Riley. Patxaran — for what ails you. Even if you’re not ailing.


Nightcaps in the Salamanca district, a short walk from our dinner spot. La Cochera was the perfect spot for wine, beer, and cocktails. Lost my juniper-berries-in-the-gin-and-tonic virginity. I’m still a bit shaken. Highly recommended spot.


Selfies from an entirely different point of view.


In the evening at our hotel, when ordering a cocktail, you are provided with a plate of nuts and olives. You are also provided with a small dish of Gummi Bears. Still trying to figure out why.


Atocha Station — Madrid’s version of Grand Central Terminal and Penn Station put together. Not all the grandeur of the former, but not all the slime and confusion of the latter.


If you’re a music buff who knows the 1960s, you’ll recognize these characters. It’s the Turtles, a very famous rock group. I think every train station should have a turtle pond, don’t you?


Katie Riley is going to be seeing a lot of this sign in the year ahead. A solid 35 minute train ride from Central Madrid, and then a mile-plus walk to her school. After the commute she had this past summer, from Brooklyn to Westchester, this is gonna be a breeze.


What else do you need to know?


I don’t want to take English lessons! You can’t make me!


Just what every town in Spain needs. Praise be to God.


Uh oh, looks like school’s about to start. Alcala, a city of approximately 200,000, has a large university and a sizeable assortment of other academic institutions. Everywhere you walk in this town you bump into some sort of school.


This is where some of them live when they are not busy delivering babies. Yes, those are stork nests. They are massive.


People like to say “any port in a storm,” but I like the port to be a good one, which this street-side cafe proved to be.


Simple, and simply delicious. And the service could not have been friendlier.


Maybe next time.


Grilled mushrooms and cured ham.


Lambsicles, again. We misheard the waiter when he said chuletas, thinking he was going to bring a ribeye steak for two. Nope. Have to admit I felt a little sheepish when these turned up. (It’s okay, you can groan.)


The day was hot and the walking was long — we did 10 miles-plus when all was said and done. Wish this had been my drink.


Not a crispy cold beer, but the next best thing. Chilled and refreshing. Two bottles disappeared in no time.


All the glassware, and this was before two folks ordered beer as well, left little room for platters and plates, so the waiter brought a few side tables for us to use. Like I said, great service.


You’d think T. S. Eliot had come to lunch with us.



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The Brain In Spain

We are in Madrid to help our daughter find an apartment as she prepares to begin a year of living in Spain as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. We are pressed for time as she loses three days to orientation and we can’t stay forever. Still, despite the time crunch, we are finding ways to enjoy our visit to Spain’s magical capital. All work and no play makes us duller parents than we already are. So, we’re not going to let that happen. Here’s a look at our first two days.




The front of our hotel against Madrid’s azure sky.


Through all the neighborhoods we wandered, the one constant was the panoply of bright colors against the bright blue sky. I often wonder, after many trips to Europe, why America hasn’t fallen in love with a broader palette. We are still too monochromatic.


I had forgotten how hilly Madrid is. After all our walking I really envied this guy. Actually, I just wanted his scooter. In the end, going slowly on foot helped us to get the ‘vibe’ of the various neighborhoods we visited.


Every time I see a sign for Estrella Damm, I wish I was still a beer drinker. I’m immediately transported to Barcelona and the Costa Brava where I first enjoyed this cool, crisp, and refreshing brew. Sigh.


I have a feeling that the folks who own this shop must be real cards.


Our first meal in Madrid was lunch at a cafe deep in the heart of a rather sketchy neighborhood. The food — patatas bravas, pulpo, pimientos de Padron, and llomo Iberico — was excellent. But we were clearly not locals and stood out sorely. To take pictures of all the food, and the unfortunately bretty cider, would have made matters that much worse. All you get is the menu.


The dome of the Palace in the La Cupola lounge. Breakfast or lunch, afternoon cocktails or the obligatory night cap, there are few better spots to just sit and relax.


I’ve had several G&Ts since arriving three days ago. Unlike in the States, limes are not the common accompaniment to this magical mixture. Too often cucumbers, sometimes lemon. Yesterday I almost fainted when the seductive goblet arrived with slices of limes immersed. The drink here is an aberration, as large, heavy goblets are the customary vessel. Can you say gigante?


Maybe the best olives I’ve ever eaten. These were brought to us along with the bottle of cava rosado we enjoyed at the great wine bar and restaurant Garcia de la Navarra our first afternoon here. We returned for dinner the second night.


The aforementioned cava. In the heat of the late afternoon, this was a perfect refresher, balanced nimbly on the line between drinking and thinking. Not a simple quaffer but not a show-stopper. Just the right wine at the right time.


I think all sparkling wines should have this information. NV shouldn’t be a complete mystery. The consumer should have some idea as to what’s in the bottle.


We opted for the Perro Verde. The first wine was dismissed for the most obvious reason, and the second reminded me too much of a Bay Area prison. See, that’s how you make a wine selection when you don’t know any of the producers. Pretty simple actually.


Highly recommended. When we mentioned to the waiter that two of our trio had wheat allergies, he brought out, after several minutes, some gluten-free rolls, warm from the oven, that now rank among the best breads of any kind I’ve ever had. Whatever their secret is, they need to share it, and fast. That was the opening salvo in a wildly flavorful meal.


Day three, still no sherry. Personal survival now in doubt. Conditions growing perilous. I welcome your prayers.


Day two of exploring neighborhoods for possible apartments deposited us around lunch time at Mercado de San Miguel, just off the Plaza Mayor. This easy-to-drink pink put some life back into our weary bones.


I’d love some ham, shank you very much.


Cup o’ meat. Just what the doctor ordered. Sublime, melt in the mouth stuff. Nobody else in the world handles pig like the Spanish.

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Keep Your Glitz — Let’s Talk About The Wine

DSC_0760If you spend too much time in certain corners of the Napa Valley, you start to believe that in order to make great wine you need to have a Great, capital G, winery. One with a tasting room tricked out in stone and steel, glass and marble. Paneled rooms filled with fine collectibles and walls covered in original art. Parking lots filled with limousines and luxury sedans.

That is until you visit Failla. At Failla, you are reminded that, at the end of the day, it’s the wine that matters. The rest of the other stuff? Not so important.

To continue reading, just click here.

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