Melancholy Merlot… Maybe

I don’t know exactly why Merlot has fallen out of favor in recent years, but I have a few theories.  The most obvious one is the “Sideways effect” where Merlot was maligned as a wine that no “serious” wine drinker would consume.  It would have helped if the casual drinker had known that the fancy Bordeaux that Miles sips from a Styrofoam cup is actually Merlot, but I don’t think that this was the only, or even the most influential reason why Merlot has declined.  One indirect Sideways effect has led to less Merlot being grown (at least in California) as the demand for Pinot Noir led to much more of that grape being planted, and something had to pulled up to accommodate it, right?  But less Merlot isn’t a bad thing – more on that in a bit.

A main reason for Merlots decline is simply that there is so much more competition out there these days.  Many Merlot drinkers moved on to Shiraz, then Malbec and now red blends.  This is also not a bad thing – I’m all for people branching out.

Many times my customers say that they don’t like Merlot as they head to the Cabernet section.  I don’t understand this as Cabernet and Merlot have similar characteristics especially when you’re going to be drinking your wine immediately.  There’s a reason they blend so well together, and they can so often be interchanged on the table.  This is mainly because there was a lot of not so good Merlot out there in the under $20 range (which is the price that most people drink most of the time).  Couple that with the fact that Cabernet in that price has become much better – it used to be when I tasted through a line of wines that the Merlot would be better than the Cab, of late it has been the opposite.  As a retailer I have downsized my Merlot selection to half what it used to be.

But I see some hope in the future.  This year I have brought in a bunch of new (to my store) Merlots and I have been tasting more quality ones.  Some of these include the Clos LaChance at $14.99, Krug at $21.99 and Line 39 at $9.99.  The fact that there are fewer acres under vine has led to a better quality of the wines being made, and a quality Merlot has just as much to offer as Cabernet – good structure, tannins, oak balance and fruit, not to mention that it has traditionally been a more versatile food wine than Cab.  So the next time you’re reaching for that Cab, turn around and give a  Merlot a chance instead!

Spring Cuisine and Wine

I live in a wonderful place that produces amazing, well, produce. Starting in April, I can go down the street to a farmstand to pick up whatever is in season. Right now that is asparagus – we are just past fiddlehead season. The Fiddleheads were hard to get this year – the flooding of the riverbeds was just not timed right. Last year we had almost a month, this year, barely two weeks. If you are not familiar with this unique veg, it is the curled fronds of a particular fern that grows by rivers. The harvest areas, much like lobster trapping areas, are fiercely guarded.  Fiddleheads are like a cross between artichoke and asparagus taste-wise, and should be cooked, as eating them raw can lead to some stomach distress.

This time of year, it’s easy to understand why we release the new vintages of white wines, from sauvignon blanc to vihno verde.  These wines pair perfectly with spring produce.  The acid and crisp citrus fruit of these wines match the slightly bitter and acidic nature of these vegetables.

I feel that both asparagus and fiddleheads work best in pasta or risotto, paired with mushrooms and spinach, maybe a touch of cream, lemon and garlic.  Artichoke hearts and green onions also work well in the mix!  These dishes pair very well with Sauvignon Blancs and French white Burgundys.  I like to use asparagus in salads or with scrambled eggs as well.  It does freeze, but you have to like mushy asparagus – even the quickest blanche will leave you with mushy asparagus when thawed.  I do like it mushy, but you can also use the frozen stuff for soups or sauces.  I made a wonderful asparagus and spinach soup with crabmeat and caviar – yum!  I served that with a California Sauv Blanc called Starlane from Santa Ynez that was perfect!

Up next, peas and strawberries!

Breathing is Important

So I opened a bottle of Domaine Jean Fournier Marsannay ’05 Burgundy.  I was pairing it with my go to meal for Pinot, grilled tuna.  Intially, it was tight and dry, not unexpected.  2005 was a great vintage for Burgundy – it made many of the entry level wines, well, more drinkable  for the “american” palate.  But it also provided some great bones for the mid level wines.  This wine retails at a reasonable $24, and shows great staying power and balance.

I wanted to see how it was developing, and it was initially a bit disappointing.  It was showing dry with leathery hints – okay with a different meal perhaps, but it just didn’t have a enough fruit to marry well with Tuna.  I hate it when a wine doesn’t match well (especially a more expensive one) .   But I gave it another try the next night with a beef and broccoli stir fry.  I love Pinot Noir with Asian food, the acid balances the sweetness in most sauces well.  It was much better.  Now, to be fair, I think the extra day open helped smooth out the wine, giving it that velvety property I was looking for on day one.  Perhaps I should have decanted, which  I think is a good idea for most reds, but I generally skip for Pinot’s.  But it was a much different wine on day two – so I know that a few more years in the bottle will make this a very nice wine.

I think something that most everyday wine drinkers don’t do enough is allow a wine to breathe.  I often find that many wines show better the second day.  This applies to wines over the $15 retail mark, as most wines under that drink well right out of the bottle (as they should).  White wines sometimes need a bit of air as well, though mostly Chardonnay.  I think many people lose the best part of wine by not decanting or opening it ahead of time.

I tell people to do a simple test for decanting wines – pour 1/2 the bottle into the decanter, wait 15 minutes and then taste side by side.  And you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a decanter either, a $15 one does the job for most wines.  And a quick aside, Syrah (or Shiraz) needs air more than other wines, and can usually stand up better after several days open than other red wines.

So the next time you are disappointed with a red wine, give it a chance… to breathe!

Older Chardonnays Still Rock

Now, we all know that some white wines are made to age – especially French whites.  And of course Chardonnay is one of the best white wines to age, especially when it has seen oak treatment.  But when you’re talking about the American market, most consumers are wary of older vintages, and when given a choice will pick the younger wine.  Of course this means much more with most Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Grigios, as these wines taste best young.

I drink a lot of Chardonnay these days, which is still surprising to me.  I used to drink reds and while I had an appreciation of whites, I would almost never open a bottle at home.  All of this changed with an aged Italian Chardonnay – Marina Cvetic ’01.  This was in ’09.  It was stunning, rich and smooth, light vanilla and caramel and the perfect toasty oak finish.  The best part?  This wine usually retails for $40.  Because of its age, it was on a deep discount – $10.  I bought a case and attempted to sell some, but I ended up drinking almost all of it myself because of my customers reluctance to look past the older vintage, and the fact that it was from Italy, a place not very well known for that varietal.

Since then I have done a complete turn around, drinking mostly white wines now – not just Chardonnay, just about any white varietal finds itself on my dinner table these days.  I have realized that most of the food I cook pairs better with white wines, and both the food and wine taste better that way.

At this time of year, the fresh vintages of whites are coming out for the summer season, and many of my distributors are trying to get the older vintages out of their warehouses before it’s too late.  I picked up several cases of  Terlato Russian River Valley ’06 for a measly $10 a bottle retail when it usually goes for $20-30, a case of Conn Valley ’06 for a bit more  that usually retails for $40, a case of ’06 Pouilly-Fuisse for $8 (and if you know Pouilly-Fuisse, that’s a steal), and an ’05 Larry Bird/Constantino wine for $5.

All of these wines are still drinking great – arguably even better than on release, at a fraction of the cost.  Since I tend towards Chardonnays that are in the $20 range, this is great for me – I get quality wine at a much lower price to drink at home all this summer.  I will try to sell some, of course, but they are hard even to hand sell.

So, if you are a consumer who likes good Chardonnay, I would counsel you to look in the sale bins or pay attention at this time of year for good deals on older vintages.  You may have a better chance of getting an off bottle, but any shop will refund your money if you bring it back (undrunk, of course), so my advice would be to make sure you have a back up wine for the evening, which at these prices, shouldn’t be too hard on the wallet.  And what you’ll get is smooth, creamy, well structured wine that is a pleasure to drink.

Dry Creek Vineyards Chenin Rocks!

So today, Don, one of my wine salesmen, brought by several Dry Creek Vineyard wines.  The ’09 Chenin Blanc, Fume Blanc and the ’07 Cabernet.  The whites were just what I was looking for as we head into spring, and the price made my choice even easier.  I was struck by the thought that many California vineyards charge way to much for the more obscure white varietals.  Now, I know that Chenin is pretty common, especially as Vouvray.  I sell two South African versions at $8.99, and a proper Vouvray, Bove, which is my personal favorite ($12.99).  Now, at my shop in Greenfield, we are usually a bit behind the curve when it comes to the “hot trends” in wine.  These trends hit the cities first, and make their way out slowly – that’s normal everywhere, I would imagine.  Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay are my best selling whites, followed by Sauv Blanc, and Reisling.  Anything else I usually only carry one or two different kinds, like Gavi, Trebbiano, Chenin Blanc, and Gewurtz.  Just about everything else in white, I only carry one – like Albarino, Soave, and Gruner.  White blends are the kiss of death – I think because you never know what you’re going to get when you open it – sweet, dry, acidic, perfumey… they are all over the map.

But back to my point – there are some great white varietals in California that are just too expensive for the normal wine consumer to take a chance on.  Roussanne comes to mind.  I have tasted some sublime examples from California – but they all seem to be above the $15 range.  Now people are willing to take a chance on something that is around $10 – albeit based on a review or staff recommendation.  But you get over $15, and forget about it – you may be able to sell it with a tasting, but you can’t have a bottle open all the time.  And forget about French and Italian whites that are off the beaten path.  Sometimes I even have a hard time selling the $7.99 ones!

Moscato has become a very popular white these days.  Why?  Because you can buy a bottle for $5.  Now the wines at this price level are not fantastic, but they create a demand.  It is much easier to recommend a Moscato d’asti to someone who has had a Moscato before, and has an idea what to expect.  I know certain varietals are hard to grow, or are only grown in small quantities, so that lends itself to a higher price.  But even producing a small amount at an “intro” price would encourage consumers to expand their horizons.  Big stores call this a “loss leader”.

So, I tasted a very nice Chenin Blanc from Dry Creek Vineyards that I can sell for $9.99, and help promote one of my favorite white grapes.  The Fume Blanc is the same price, and for an appelation wine, that’s a great deal from a quality winery with a proven track record.  It’s my opinion that there is no reason to spend more than $20 for a Californian Sauv Blanc, and wines of this quality at this price just solidifies that premise (more to come on that opinion later).

The verdict?  Less popular white wines need to be cheaper to introduce themselves to the everyday wine buyer.  We would all benefit.

Meeker Handprint Merlot ’04, Sonoma and dinner with friends

I will be having our friends Tom and Hillarie (who are opera singers extraordinaire) over for a simple yet always tasty meal of roast chicken (free-range, humane certified Murray’s) with roast vegetables and potatoes.  Such a perfect one pan meal.  I use a Joy of Cooking recipe that adds some garlic and rosemary under the skin as the bird roasts, and I add the same to the potatoes.  I usually like a California Chardonnay with this meal, but I have a 1.5 liter (or Magnum) bottle of Meeker ’04 Handprint Merlot that I wanted to try, so I think this would be a perfect occasion.  The Meeker is a lush yet soft Merlot that will not overwhelm the delicate flavors of the chicken, and will complement the roast brussel sprouts and carrots as well as the potatoes.  If you are unfamiliar with the Handprint, each bottle is unique, personally hand-printed by the wine makers with colorful paint.  They have a big BBQ party every year to accomplish this, and then the bottles sit upright to dry.  It’s quite a sight.  The photo shows a few bottles, and a neat idea for used, unique wine bottles.   I filled the bottle with gravel so it won’t tip over easily (we have cats that like to rub up against bottles… or just about anything).

I’m looking forward to sharing this wine with friends – I’ll post how it goes after!

Who You’re Reading

Hi, my name is Melissa and I own The Wine Rack in Greenfield, MA, a full liquor store with an emphasis on fine and fun wine.  I have owned the store for over 5 years, and recently purchased a second store, Jay K’s Liquor and Wine, in Turners Falls, MA.  I am an avid wine drinker, home chef, gardener and snowboarder.  I started my wine journey about 20 years ago as a waitress at Pinocchio’s Restaurant in Amherst, MA.  I was understandably an Italian wine snob for many years.  There were many bottles of Barolo enjoyed by myself and my fellow wait staff during those years.  But I had just scratched the surface, as I later learned.  I went on to wait tables, bartend and cater while still thinking I knew about wine.  It wasn’t until I started working at The Deerfield Spirit Shoppe, in S. Deerfield MA, with a long time friend, that I realized how little I knew about wine.  My education in wine, however, as most in this industry would agree, has been far less tedious than my more traditional education.

My focus these days is food and wine pairing.  I started as an Italian wine snob, then I branched out to other regions, but stayed a red wine snob for many years.  Yes, I learned to appreciate white wine, maybe even order a glass with a meal, but never a bottle.  Then one fine day I went to a wonderful wine lunch at Dave Abbott’s (one of my wine salesmen, and perhaps my most important wine mentor).  We were lunching with Johnnie Masciarelli, the owner and winemaker for Masciarrelli wines.  There were many fantastic things about this lunch, but one of the most memorable for me was a ’97 Marina Cvetic Chardonnay.  It was sublime and paired so well with the asparagus soup course and the sea scallop in a saffron cream sauce.  It is normally a $30-$40 dollar retail wine, but it was on close-out for a ridiculously cheap $80 a case (so a retail price of about $10).  I bought a case for myself.  I wish I had bought more.  From that day on, white wine of all types became a regular addition to my table.  I discovered that the majority of the food I prepare pairs better with white wine – to my credit, I did drink alot of Pinot Noir.

My journey into being a home chef took a while longer.  My mother is a great home chef, and I grew up with a home cooked meals on the table every night.  But like most people, once on my own I mostly subsisted on pasta and sauce.  When you have roommates, it’s better to shop very minimally, as anything good will get eaten immediately.  Once My husband and I cohabited this changed a little, yet we were still pretty cash poor, so ramen noodles and mac and cheese played a prominent role in dinner.  Things got a little better as time went on, but it wasn’t until my husband developed an intolerance for enriched white flour that I really came into my own as a chef.  We had to completely change the way we ate – for the better.  A huge tool in doing this was my iphone.  It is so simple to plug a few ingredients into safari and see what comes up.  I became more comfortable incorporating new ingredients, and my meals got better and better.  I also began to be much more aware of the quality of food I was buying.  My mother was the head of a local food co-op when I was growing up and she almost never served red meat.  We ate mostly vegetarian, with some poultry and shrimp, and fish that my grandfather would catch on the cape.  I live in a rich agricultural area, so it was easy to make farm stands and co-ops the primary source of food instead of large chain grocery stores.  We do eat red meat, but only a few times a month.  It is mostly sustainable fish (thank you seafood watch app) on our table and free range, humanely certified local meats.  I do not eat meat unless I know where it comes from and how it was treated.  I feel that eating animals is defendable, but eating tortured animals is not.

As a wine retailer, I find that many wine drinkers do not pay much attention to food and wine pairings.  They drink what they like, sometimes with a meal, sometimes not.  That is certainly fine.  And there are wines that drink well on their own.  But most wines are made to be a part of a meal, and that is how I enjoy them.  More importantly, there are wines that can be ruined by the wrong food.  Case in point – I opened a bottle of Montepulcianno Reserve (about $20 a bottle) and it was fantastic with a grilled steak.  But I had a little leftover so I finished it the next night with pasta in a white clam sauce.  It was horrible.  So I often wonder when someones says they didn’t like a particular wine, what they were eating with it…

So I like to experiment with food and wine pairings.  I am in a position to be able to open multiple bottles of wine with meals, and I often do.  I hope to be able to share this knowledge with those who are interested.  I will drink other things beside wine too – I do like beer and mixed cocktails, and I have been known to sip expensive tequila on occasion, so I will also be passing along my knowledge on these subjects.  I might even be persuaded to make a few posts on my favorite spots to snowboard, and certainly some of the food and alcohol I enjoy while there.