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December 8, 2014

Stocking Stuffers: 20 Under $20

 The gift of wine is always appreciated in these quarters, and now 'tis the season.

My Creators Syndicate Wine Talk wish list of liquid stocking stuffers this year was culled from my tastings of medal-winning wines over the past six months, from the Critics Challenge wine competition in June and the Sommelier Challenge wine competition in September.

I've chosen an assortment of wines that won either a gold or platinum medal and thus earned a rating of 90 points or higher, and all retail for $20 or less, which will make the period of wine gifting a bit easier on the wallet. I've tasted all of the wines and can enthusiastically endorse the decision of the judges in each case.

A by Acacia 2012 Pinot Noir, Carneros ($15) — Stunning pinot noir for the money and a welcome respite from the high-priced blockbusters that are too often overripe and clunky. The sommeliers awarded it gold.

Amalaya 2012 Malbec Blend, Salta, Argentina ($16) — This smooth red took a gold from the critics and a platinum from the sommeliers. This is that increasingly rare inexpensive Argentine malbec that consistently shines.

Banfi 2011 Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy ($13) — Though best known for its Brunello from the Montalcino district of Tuscany, Banfi has expanded its expertise into the Chianti district and is making remarkable wine for the price. Gold from both the critics and the somms.

Baron Herzog 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles ($13) — This gold-medal winner at Critics Challenge is both kosher and a tremendous bang for the buck.

Beaulieu Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($19) — We don't often associate the Napa Valley with great bang-for-the-buck cabernet, but BV's 2012 just might change some hearts and minds as well as turn a few heads. The somms gave it gold.

Bonterra 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendocino County ($15) — More often than not Bonterra gets my nod as the winery with the most undervalued wines. They're first and foremost delicious across the board as well as organic and inexpensive. The somms gave this Bonterra cabernet a well-deserved gold.

Cote Mas 2013 Pezenas, Coteaux du Languedoc, France ($19)
— Domaines Paul Mas is a rising star in the South of France, and this inexpensive Rhone-style blend is one of the reasons for Jean-Claude Mas' growing fame. A platinum-winner at Sommelier Challenge.

D'Arenberg 2012 The Hermit Crab Viognier-Marsanne, McLaren Vale, Australia ($17) — You probably know d'Arenberg best for its superb reds, especially the iconic Dead Arm Shiraz, but the whites aren't too shabby. This white Rhone-style blend impressed the somms enough to bad a platinum medal.

Dr. Konstantin Frank 2012 Gruner Veltliner, Finger Lakes ($15)
— This steely, crisp, mineral-driven white is the real deal, a close replica of the fresh, clean gruners you will find in Austria. If the Zocker gruner isn't the finest in America, Dr. Frank's is. Platinum at the Critics Challenge.

Erath 2012 Pinot Noir, Oregon ($19) — The improvement in pinot noir at this price point is nothing less than astonishing. A gold medal from the critics sends a powerful message.

Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Collection 2012 Claret Black Label, California ($18) — This Bordeaux-style blend is a beauty. Coppola's wines are on fire, and this is just one of the many Coppola wines that took gold at the Critics Challenge.

Giesen 2013 Riesling, New Zealand ($15) — It might surprise some, but this top-notch sauvignon blanc producer makes a mighty fine dry riesling. Good enough to earn a platinum award from the critics.

Navarro 2013 Muscat Blanc, Anderson Valley ($19.50) — This wine was one of my favorite whites over the past year. It's a dry muscat, which is a challenge to make because they so often turn bitter when fermented to dryness. Not so here. A platinum winner at the Critics Challenge.

Parducci 2012 Chardonnay, Small Lot Blend, Mendocino County ($13)
— This family-run winery has long made outstanding wine at modest prices. Nothing's changed. Gold at the Critics Challenge.

Renwood 2011 Premier Old Vine Zinfandel, Amador County ($19) — This winery is on the comeback trail, and the old vine zin is proof positive. The critics lavished it with gold.

Ruffino 2011 Il Ducale, Toscana IGT, Italy ($18) — An inexpensive "Super Tuscan" is a rare and beautiful thing, especially when it tastes this good. The somms gave it gold.

Sterling Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($19)
— One of the things you might notice about less expensive chardonnay is that it is seldom overdone. This one's a well-balanced gem from one of Napa's top producers, and it got gold at the Sommelier Challenge.

Terra d'Oro 2012 Barbera, Amador County ($18) — The barbera grape does exceedingly well in the Sierra Foothills, and Terra d'Oro takes full advantage. This is a lush red with solid backbone. The critics gave it gold.

Wild Horse 2012 Chardonnay, Central Coast ($18)
— Very impressive chardonnay for the price. The critics gave it platinum. It was perhaps the finest chardonnay I tasted all year in this price range.

Zocker 2012 Gruner Veltliner, Paragon Vineyard, Edna Valley ($20)
— The finest gruner in California and perhaps all of the United States (though Dr. Konstantin Frank in New York's Finger Lakes might have an argument there). Critics loved it to the point of platinum.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 5:53 PM

December 1, 2014

For Shopping Season, My Wine Gadget of the Year

I’m posting this blog on “Cyber Monday,” and unless you’ve spent the past four days since “Black Friday” hiding under the covers to avoid the commercial barrage, you’re already all-too-aware that holiday shopping season is well underway. 

Wine lover that you are, you’ve probably got friends who share your interest in vino.  However, that’s no assurance that they also share your taste, so buying wine for them may not be the best idea.  Better to buy something that will help them enhance their enjoyment of the wines they prefer, and I’ve got just the thing.

No…it isn’t a Coravin.  Granted, that amazing device is probably the Wine Gadget of the Century, in terms of sheer innovative genius (it permits one to check a wine for maturity without
 oxidizing it, using a surgical-quality needle and a system for replacing the liquid with inert argon gas).  However, though I purchased a Coravin this year, and though I’m very glad to own it, I’m a bit too much of a populist to advise others to buy it.  After all, a gizmo that costs $300 to let one sneak a peek at a wine just doesn’t make sense for those outside of the wine trade--or those who already have so much wine and money that they don’t need my advice.

So, my recommendation goes to a device that costs one-tenth as much as a Coravin.  It is the “Aermate,” specifically the bottle-sized model, which is the most effective wine aerator that I’ve ever used.

As you may know, the world is now rife with wine aerators.  They became very popular a few years back, and proliferated like rabbits in heat.  For a while, I actually collected some of the most ridiculous devices that showed up on my doorstep, but as they started to stack up, the amusement value declined proportionately, and I chucked the lot of them.  (With the single exception of a glass with an internal aerator, which I thought was so delightfully stupid that I had to keep it, just for fun.)

For years, my aerating system has consisted of a thick, old milk bottle and a cheapo stainless steel funnel.  With virtually every bottle of red wine that I open to drink (as opposed to evaluate and score), I simply poured the wine vigorously into the milk bottle, and then funneled it back into its original bottle.  The fancy term for this is “double decanting,” and it is quick, effective, and used by famous winemakers around the world.  Never having found a device that worked any better, I was done.

Until the Aermate showed up.  It is basically a stainless steel wand with a squeeze bulb at the top and a tip that has lots and lots of teeny weeny holes.  I still use my old system, but once I’ve poured the wine into the milk bottle, I insert the wand and give the bulb 7 or 8 good squeezes, which forces a gazillion extremely small bubbles into the wine.  Once the resulting foam has subsided, I funnel the vino back into the bottle (not because additional aerating is necessary, but simply to avoid confusion, since I’ve always got multiple bottles open at once).

The device is very effective, and those with a lot of technical knowledge about wine will know the specific name of the effect as “micro-oxygenation.”  Those without a lot of technical knowledge will nevertheless find the effect to be significantly more pronounced than with other aerators, for the simple reason that a lot more oxygen is introduced to the wine because of the greater surface area of those gazillion little bubbles.

One little hitch:  The packaging for the device touts its ability to extend down to the bottom of a wine bottle, which indeed it will.  However, if you employ it in this manner without first removing a good glassful of wine, the foaming result of even a squeeze or two of the bulb will produce a massive, frothy overflow.  I confess that I made this mistake on my first use of the Aermate, and my only defense (for doing something that seems quite dopey in retrospect) is that I’d become so dismissive of aerators that I now test all of them in a perfunctory way, since most of them are a waste of money.

This one is not a waste of money, and as the manufacturer’s website is now listing this model at $30 (down from $40), it costs no more than one good bottle of wine.  It will make almost any young red more expressive in terms of aroma and flavor, and I give it my highest recommendation.

Very much to my own surprise….

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Got a gift idea to share?  Or a favorite gizmo that I may have overlooked in my jaded state?  Write to me at michael@franzwine.com

Posted by Michael Franz at 6:05 PM