Please Pay Attention

DSC_0575_4If you’ve enjoyed wine for any period of time, and I don’t mean the past several hours or days, you know that there is more pleasure to be had the more attention you pay to what’s in your glass. For many would-be wine lovers, learning how to be more mindful when it comes to wine can be a tricky thing. My fellow wine writer, Lauren Mowery, recently wrote a smart piece for both the Village Voice and her blog, Chasing the Vine on this exact subject. I don’t normally post other people’s work here on The Grape Belt, but Lauren explains the best ways to get the most from your wine so succinctly that I just had to share it. I’m confident that if you are able to bring even a few of the focus points she suggests to your next good glass of wine, you’ll find that entirely new paths to pleasure will open in front of you.

Remember when your parents and teachers told you to pay attention? They weren’t trying to badger you. They were trying to prepare you for the wonderful world of wine. Cheers!

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Look Both Ways Before Crossing

The past year was filled with so many wonderful moments and even more delicious wines that it is impossible to count them all. Before uncorking 2015, I thought it would be worthwhile to mention some things that stood out in 2014, and offer a few modest, obtainable goals for the new year.

DSC_0069The visit my wife and I made late in 2013 to Champagne opened our eyes to a world beyond the big labels. During the past year we dipped our toes steadily deeper into the bubble pond, which only solidified our growing understanding that there is real excitement to be found away from the tried and true Grand Marques (the big names that almost all wine lovers know) that dominate the Champagne industry. We had been fans of Agrapart for some time, but in the past year, we also came to enjoy Jean Milan, G. Tribaut, Laherte Freres, Monthuys, Lallier, Gaston Chiquet, Pierre Peters, and several others. I have no reason to believe that the coming year won’t be as good or even better, as we continue our research into the sparkling wines of Champagne, France.

DSC_0778Another eye-opener in 2014 was my formal introduction to the wines of Santa Barbara County. I had enjoyed a few wines from that area over the years, but really had no coherent understanding of the producers in that part of California, much less any real idea of what the area was capable of. That all changed in July when I headed south to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference there, and then, at the invitation of Sao Anash of Muse Management, a local wine industry guru, I stayed for another week and received a memorable crash course in the region. Over the course of five days I raced from one terrific tasting appointment to another, meeting winemakers and winery owners in every corner of the county. Each day was filled with surprises and epiphanies. From the pinot noirs of Sta. Rita Hills to the syrahs of Ballard Canyon, and everything else in between, I came to believe, during this all-together too brief of a time, that Santa Barbara County and its collection of distinctive AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are America’s next great wine region. I plan on doing everything possible in the coming year to learn as much as I can about those areas and the great wines being produced there.

DSC_0372The last big wine excitements for us came in September during a three-day hop to Oporto and Vila Nova de Gaia on the banks of Portugal’s Douro River. The first surprise for us was just how much Mary, up until now no big fan of fortified wines, ended up loving the tawny, ruby, and vintage ports we sampled. She was prepared to be a good teammate and try whatever I tried, but she was completely unprepared for the persuasive, almost seductive moments so many wines offered her. Similarly, we both were reminded in powerful ways of the tremendous progress Portugal has made in recent years with their light (unfortified) wines. From casual lunches to formal dinners, we ran across white, pink, and red wines from all over Portugal that were not only complex, modern, and well made, but also appealing to the most frugal of wine lovers. If you are looking for a new wine region to explore in the coming year, you could do worse than a deep dive into the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula. The year will end before you’ve even scratched the surface.

Despite having had such a rewarding wine year, there are ways to improve; areas for growth are never in short supply. So, as 2015 gets underway, here are a couple of things that Mary and I hope to focus on.

DSC_0545The first goal is to drink more globally. We began our wine journey years ago sampling everything we could from anywhere on the planet. In recent years, as I’ve gotten busier with wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and made more friends in the California wine world, our cellar has begun to reflect these developments. Right now, our cellar is uncomfortably unbalanced, with 75% of our holdings hailing from the Golden State. Clearly, changes are necessary. So, starting with our next purchase, we will revisit favorite areas such as the Rhone and Italy (yes, all of it!), and say a cheerful hello to our new friends like New Zealand and Greece. Along the way we’ll learn about wines from Croatia, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria. We might even catch up with the wines from Chile and Argentina, which we’ve ignored for way too long. Of course we can never know enough about New York State, the Pacific Northwest, Virginia, the Niagara Peninsula, or the wines from western Canada’s Okanagan Valley. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us but we’re not afraid.

Wine Chaos plus Lucky 009What I am a bit afraid of, however, is the other goal we’ve set, which is to reduce our intake so we can reach the sports goals we’ve set for ourselves. The trick to success will be a commitment to focus, to being more discriminating with what and how much we drink. Ideally, we will not only diversify our buying and consumption, but we will appreciate even more what’s in our glasses. You know, on those occasions when those glasses are actually filled and on the table.

Wine Blog - 200If I could offer a prayer for the new year, it would have to be this: Sweet Baby Jesus, help us drink all the wine we should. Do not let us make the mistake of not drinking enough. Help us to do our part. To fail in that regard would be a sin, a sin for which no forgiveness is possible.

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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.

IMG_3258 IMG_3260 IMG_3267


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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