Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Drink Like a President

Disclosure: I received this sample for review

I had intentions of drinking this wine on election night and going live with this blog post the following day.  However, the unexpected outcome of the election had me in a state of shock that no amount of fortified wine could get me out of.

What do presidents drink?  Historically, the answer is Madeira.

What is Madeira?  And how did it become a presidential drink?  Madeira is a fortified wine made on the Portuguese island of the same name.  The island is located 625 miles off of the coast of Portugal, so naturally, it became an important stop on the trade route from Europe to the New World in the 16th century.   In fact, the North American colonies consumed about a quarter of the island’s production by the late 18th century.  Initially the wine was unfortified, but by the time the ships reached the New World, the wine had spoiled due to sun exposure on the hulls of ships.  To combat this spoilage, the wine would be fortified with a neutral grape spirit.  This would increase the alcoholic strength of the beverage and protect it from spoilage.  However, the wine was still subjected to maderization, which is the natural aging/oxidation of the wine from the exposure to the sun and the movement/rolling on the ship as it traveled.   This gave the wine “baked” flavors of: caramel, nuts, coffee, etc.  In the New World, particularly in the North American colonies, Madeira was held to high esteem and became a drink for the upper class, including our first presidents. Thomas Jefferson was a Madeira drinker and George Washington was said to down four glasses of Madeira every afternoon. In fact, Madeira was used to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

Today, Madeira no longer has to ride on a ship for a few weeks or months to develop those signature maderized flavors. Maderization is achieved in two ways. The slower, more natural canteiro process is where the wine is left in casks on racks (called canteiros) in lofts and are heated by the sun. This can take anywhere from 20 to 100 years! The artificial process called estufagem, is where wine is pumped into containers (called estufas) made of stainless steel and heated to mimic the maturation that used to happen on the ships. This process can take anywhere from 90 days to 6 months.

Aging Canteiros

Ok, back to 2016.  Yes, we have a new President, and while this isn’t a political blog, I’m not afraid to say that I am a combination of mad as hell and scared shitless for what the implications are for our country.  Only time will tell.  Speaking of time, the Madeira Club of Savannah, an “old boys club” in Georgia where the members get together regularly and drink old Madeira, has been meeting regularly for over 250 years. They even survived Prohibition.  That’s pretty damn cool in my book.

Blandy’s Alvada Madeira SRP $18 (500mL) 19% ABV

This wine is a combination of both Bual and Malmsey grapes, two of the “noble” varieties.  It is aged for 5 years in seasoned American oak casks using the traditional Canteiro aging system.  This is a beautifully complex wine.  The nose has intense notes of raisin, prune, roasted nuts, toffee, coffee, and even lime peel.  The wine is medium sweet and has less primary fruit flavors (raisin) and more tertiary notes of coffee, chocolate, toffee, and butterscotch.  Overall I’d call this wine elegant and refined.  Very complex.  A couple fingers worth of Blandy’s Alvada, and your insides are warmed for the night.

Blandy's Alvada 5 Year Old

Fun fact: The Blandy family is unique for being the only family of all the original founders of the Madeira wine trade to still own and manage their original wine company.

Friday, November 25, 2016

My Gift Manifesto

Happy Consumerist Friday, known as Black Friday to most! Black Friday is a day that I proudly do not like to participate in. Most people start their holiday shopping on Black Friday, whereas I do not to participate in holiday shopping at all. As a general rule, I don’t do gifts. I don’t give them and I don’t request them.

About 10 years ago I woke up one day and decided that gifts don’t make me happy. I don’t remember exactly what was going on in my life, or if it was around the holidays, but I do remember how strongly I felt. I was never a good gift-giver. I was always that person who struggled with what to get people. I didn’t get the warm fuzzies when I found the perfect gift, I felt bad for the environment when I wrapped my presents with wasteful papers/bows/ribbons, and then I found myself reluctantly giving and receiving these gifts. Gifts didn’t mean anything to me. It felt like this ritual you were “supposed” to do and I hated it. I had hit a breaking point. NO MORE GIFTS! I felt that I could no longer give gifts in good conscience. It felt against everything that I believe in.

I sent a mass email to everyone I knew and I let them know how I felt. I let them know that I would no longer be accepting or giving gifts. I felt that this would be easier than dealing with it on a case by case or holiday by holiday basis. Tell everyone in one clean swoop, and hope for the best! The great thing is that I got no backlash. I got many messages back of love and support for my declaration. A lot of people agreed with me and felt the same way, but they said they didn’t feel they could make the same declaration. Maybe friends/family wouldn’t understand and would judge them. Or maybe there were kids in the family who they didn’t want to disappoint.

Sometimes I do give gifts. It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes: Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything. A gift might happen here or there if I find something great….and I am ok with that. I still buy presents for weddings, baby showers, and wedding showers. Those are usually useful things that are needed in a home. Aside from those occasions, if I feel the need to give a gift, I have a few things that work within my moral and ethical beliefs. I’ll give an experience OR something that can be consumed. This can mean a vacation, a trip to the theatre, or a nice dinner. Also, wine and spirits are a GREAT gift for someone who likes to drink. It is something they can enjoy and can think of you when they open the bottle. With these types of “gifts”, it’s all about the memories. A sort of mental “consumption” with the memories living in your head and in stories you tell versus wasteful consumerist consumption with the wrapping paper/ribbons/bows living in the landfill and the actual gift getting thrown away one day as well.

There you have it. Let’s face it, A LOT of Americans spend a lot of time complaining about the holiday season. They complain how busy they are, they complain they have too many parties to go to, and they complain that they have SO much holiday shopping to do. I can’t remember the last time I complained about the holiday season. It’s one of my most favorite times of the year. It gets cold(ish) for us Californians, there’s tons of opportunities to eat great food and drink good booze, and there are endless opportunities to spend time with the people we love. How great is that!

Next time you find yourself dreading a trip to the overcrowded mall to pick up a gift, take a breath and think about taking a bottle of bubbly to that person instead. Bubbly relieves stress….not causes it. Have a look at this festive bottle of Chloe Prosecco. An elegant bottle and fun, lively juice inside!

Chloe Prosecco DOC SRP $16.99

Winery Notes: This wine is bursting with fresh fruit and fine bubbles, with notes of peach, green apple, citrus, and white flowers on the nose and palate. It is light straw in color with greenish hues. Opulent yet balances with elegant acidity, this wine offers a crisp finish with a hint of minerality, revealing the proximity to the mountains and calcareous soils where the grapes are grown.

Click HERE to see where you can purchase Chloe Prosecco (courtesy of

Disclaimer: I received this sample for review

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Sense of Place: Villa Bellangelo Winery

*Wine samples and the A Sense of Place book were received for review from Bellangelo Winery.

I’ve been struggling with a bit of post Wine Bloggers Conference blues as of late. Lodi is still on my mind, but how could I forget the Finger Lakes conference in 2015? My first foray into the WBC world. It was a whirlwind of a trip (see HERE), but it was a magical time when I had just started my blog and was starting to figure out what the heck I was doing in the world of wine. I was exploring with different writing styles, figuring out how to throw social media in the mix, and navigating the wonderful world of requesting samples. The samples received from Bellangelo Winery were the first press samples I ever received! I came back from WBC15 and reached out to a few producers who caught my eye in the Finger Lakes. Bellangelo was one of them. They sent me their book A Sense of Place by Christopher Missick and 2 bottles of wine, which I will discuss below.

History of the Finger Lakes

Back in the day, in the Devonian Age to be exact (approx 400 million years ago), New York was covered in warm seawater. There was lots of marine life in those waters, and the marine life lived and died with their remains deposited on the seafloor. These remains contributed to the limestone deposits that are still there today. The sedimentary rock found in the Finger Lakes was formed by erosion from the Appalachian Mountains. Eleven long, narrow lakes make up the Finger Lakes. These lakes originated as ancient rivers and river valleys. Two million years ago we were in the Ice Age. Glaciation began, which is the advancement of massive continental glaciers. The Laurentide ice sheet both advanced southward and retreated northward carving rivers/river valleys and depositing glacial debris. Those rivers were the precursors to the Finger Lakes.


History of Grapes in the Finger Lakes

Fast forward to the early 1800s and Reverend William Warner Bostwick planted native North American vines (NOT vitis vinifera) to make sacramental wine. He distributed vine cuttings to his parishioners to do the same. There were native grape vines planted before Reverend Bostick came along, but he was determined to proliferate the vines. Dr. Konstantin Frank was the predominant champion of vitis vinifera vines in the Finger Lakes. In fact, in one decade alone he grafted more than 250,000 European vinifera vines onto American rootstock. This ensured that vinifera grapes (i.e. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Riesling) could be grown in the Finger Lakes. Using the native rootstocks allowed for successful grape growing despite winter frost, pests (i.e. phylloxera), and disease (i.e. mildews and black rot).

About Bellangelo

Villa Bellangelo winery, overlooking Seneca Lake, was founded in 2002 by Michael Litterio and in 2011 was acquired by the Missick family. Bellangelo only works with growers who do not produce their own commercial wines and growers who allow their cellar team to work with them during growing season. All grapes must be sourced from the Seneca Lake Finger Lakes AVA. 

The Wines

2014 Chardonnay $15 SRP

This wine is a clear, pale lemon color with a clean medium intensity on the nose. Aroma notes of: lemon and green apple with no MLF (as confirmed on the back of the bottle). On the palate I got flavor characteristics of lemon, green apple, stone fruit (peach). Overall this wine is balanced and has a nice length. Bright flavors (because of no MLF plus the use of stainless steel and neutral oak). A nice deviation from the whites I normally choose.

2013 Merlot $20 SRP

This wine is a clear, pale ruby color with a clean and medium (-) intensity on the nose. Flavor characteristics include: blackberries, a little tart cranberry, red cherry, black pepper, slight spice (clove?), and toast. This is not what I expected. The wine has nice fruit and an almost tobacco/leather character. A nice easy red to start the night if you don’t want to start with a white. Very balanced with nice juicy fruit.

Bellangelo wines can be purchased from their website HERE to ship to CA and NY only.

If you are located in any of these states (AK, FL, ID, LA, MN, MO, NE, NV, NH, NM, ND, OH, OR, VA, DC, WV, WY), Bellangelo wines can be shipped through VinoShipper.

The Bellangelo book A Sense of Place by Christopher Missick can be picked up on on their website HERE for $6.99.  It can also be found on Amazon.

Have you ever tried Bellangelo Wines?  If so, leave me a comment below and let me know what you think!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Donelan Wines: Quality Not Quantity

The motto at Donelan Wines is: Wine Is A Journey Not a Destination. And that couldn’t be more true! How I made my way to Donelan Wines up in Santa Rosa was certainly a journey.

Cliche alert!! My I Love Lucy moment! Cliche alert!

About two and a half months ago I had the incredible opportunity to participate in a harvest at an artisan winery in Sonoma County. I was gifted this experience from a family member for my birthday back in July. They gave me a birthday card and a bottle of Donelan 2013 Chardonnay and said “give Cush Donelan a call”! Anyone named Cush is bound to be a good time, right?!?! I made the call, and two weeks later I was on a plane with him up to Santa Rosa to spend a couple days in the vineyard and at the winery.

Donelan Wines is a small-ish boutique, premium winery. They own a vineyard (the Obsidian Vineyard in Knight’s Valley) and also purchase grapes from about a dozen other Sonoma growers, plus one in Mendocino. The winery is in an unassuming industrial park in Santa Rosa with a total case production of 6,000-8,000 cases annually.

In chatting with Cush before the trip, he warned me that they run a tight ship up there. There are only four people who work in the winery, and they handle EVERYTHING. The team includes: a winemaker, assistant winemaker, cellar manager, and an intern. They are a well-oiled machine and work together seamlessly. First of all, the winery is clean. And I mean spotless! One reason for the extreme cleanliness is that Donelan does not use any commercial inoculations in their fermentation. They use only native fermentations. What this means is that they rely on the ambient yeast in the environment and in the winery to jump start the fermentation. There is a native flora that exists in the winery that needs to be maintained. A lot of the “cleaning” done in the winery is with water plus an organic, nontoxic, biodegradable detergent. Countless hours of scrubbing down every piece of equipment and surface, plus a water rinse, ensure the winery stay spotless. 

When you visit Donelan Wines at the industrial park in Santa Rosa, you may not know what you are in for. There are no romantic vineyard views and no Tuscan-style estate on the property. You drive into the park and see a series of white stucco buildings, one of which has a “Donelan Wines” placard. The tasting room is minimalist, yet comfortable.

Tasting Room

During my time at Donelan, I had the privilege of sitting in a tasting appointment. And yes, you need to make an appointment, as the tasting room does not keep regular hours. A “Meet the Family” tasting is $20 and a more extensive “Family Reunion” tasting runs $50. The tasting I witnessed, with a couple from Los Angeles, ran 2 hours.  There are no hurried pours here and no pourer who barely knows the wines he/she is serving. Cush poured every wine with care and shared the stories behind the wines (and the vines) with the couple, who were more than happy to hear about them. If the couple gave him no more than 30 minutes, I have no doubt that Cush would have treated the appointment with an equal amount of care and attention. He created a comfortable and safe space for this couple to taste. They drink and enjoy quite a bit of wine at home and have more knowledge than the average consumer, but they admittedly are not wine experts. Cush allowed them to guide the tasting (i.e. asking them what types of wines they like, and what they were interested in tasting) and let them share their impressions of each wine. There were no right or wrong answers, which is exactly how a wine tasting should be!

During my time at Donelan, I was in the way. A lot. As I mentioned, they are a well-oiled machine up there and really didn’t need me. However, I was happily superfluous to the process!

Day 1 entailed a lot of walking around, checking out barrels, fermenting tanks, cases of wine, destemming machines, presses, etc. Day 2 was going to start strong with an early morning harvest. I had participated in a few harvests in early August, so I felt like an old pro (at least in my mind). However, as Day 1 was winding down, we got word that the early AM harvest got moved to midnight that night. Holy crap….a midnight harvest...exciting! Cush and I grabbed a bite in town at The County Bench (try the chicken thighs!) and then retreated for a couple hours to get some shut eye before our midnight call time. Fast forward and I’m “napping” from 9pm-11pm and I get a text that the harvest got moved to 2am. Ok, back to sleep. Alarm went off at 1:15am and at 1:30am Cush and I (and our headlamps!) were en route to the vineyard! Harvest is quite a sight to see anytime of day….and a middle of the night harvest is no exception! Flood lights are set up to pour a bath of light onto the vineyard. The grapes were being manually harvested, and a large truck drove with the harvest team down the rows of vines. The truck had lights on it to shine directly on the vines, and had the large bins that the grapes were emptied into. For 2am, there’s a lot going on. A couple dozen people scurrying between the vines, a LARGE and LOUD truck making its way through the vines, a heavy (and wet!) mist coming over the vines, and not to mention the vines themselves! By 5am I was back in my room, moist from mist, and covered in dirt and bramble from the vines. But I was exhausted and tumbled into bed.

Day 2 was exciting, because our bounty (close to 4 tons of grapes) was going to arrive at the winery for processing. The whole cluster grapes arrive on flat bed trucks and are immediately weighed. Some samples are pulled for the winemaker to do some testing on (pH, TA, and Brix levels). The grapes are first put through a mechanical shaker, which helps to release the MOG (matter other than grape), such as: leaves, stems, bugs, rotten grapes, etc. Immediately after the grapes are shaken, they go on the conveyer belt sorter and we all manually sort through the grapes and pull out more MOG. It’s a fast process and you really need to concentrate and focus, because it’s easy to zone out and almost forget what you’re doing. After the grapes are sorted, they go into a destemming machine that magically (really, it feels like magic) de-stems the grapes. The grapes are cold soaked for a couple days, then a nutrient add, then the beginnings of fermentation. Some of the grapes needed to be stomped. Like, I Love Lucy stomped. They only needed one person to do it, and that lucky person was me!  So much fun!

What I love about Donelan Wines are the personal touches. Within 48 hours of anyone adding themselves to the email list, they get a personal call from Joe Donelan, the founder of Donelan Wines, welcoming them to the Donelan family. Cush also stays in touch with many of the Donelan clients. “We value customer service over everything and want that to be synonymous with Donelan. It strengthens our commitment to quality and reassures people that a family is behind it on all levels.” according to Cush. About ¾ of their annual production is sold direct to consumer (either online or in their tasting room).

The wines. Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir are their bread and butter. About half of their wines are even named after Donelan family members. Their focus is on cool climate varietals on great sites, according to Joe. Retails range from $48-$150. The quality of Donelan Wines is second to none. Robert Parker agrees, as he has personally visited the winery and given some impressive scores to various Donelan wines.

Joe Donelan got into the wine business as a second career right around the year 2000 with a business partner. In 2008 he started his own label, Donelan Wines. Joe’s son Tripp, in addition to being the Director of Sales, handles shipping and operations, whereas Cushing has more of a marketing focus on building brand awareness, business development and wholesale relationships. How did Joe get into wine? In his 30’s he spent some time in Europe and was exposed to great wines and the European sensibility with wine that every day is a celebration, and that every day calls for wine. A day with loved ones is a day to celebrate. He believes in living life to its fullest daily, and not just waiting for Fri/Sat/Sun. Joe says he has no plans for immediate retirement, because he’s having too much fun. He loves people and a sense of adventure the wine business provides him.  As mentioned earlier, about 75-80% of their wines are sold DTC (direct to consumer).  Joe doesn’t want to change that. He likes to meet these people and help them in their growth and journey to learn about wine.

What’s next for Donelan? According to Cush: We have experienced tremendous growth in the last 3 years: great vintages, an estate property, expanded the portfolio, a new winemaker and new territories. We are continuing to strive for the highest quality while maintaining a great customer experience. In the future we would like to acquire more property and ultimately a stand alone winery to call our own.

Enjoy some photos from my trip:

Barrels waiting for the juice
pH?  Brix?  TA? 
2am harvest decisions
Clusters just before harvest
Each large bin is about half a ton
Ready to go
Stems, stems, and more stems!
One more gratuitous "I Love Lucy" shot

Thank you to Cush for allowing me to tag on his harvest trip. And thanks to both Joe and Cush for allowing me to conduct these interviews. It was an absolute pleasure.

Have you experienced Donelan Wines before? If so, leave me a comment below and tell me about it!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

#WineStudio and Two Hands Wines

Disclosure: I received these Two Hands Wines samples for review as part of the #WineStudio program.

What is #WineStudio?

#WineStudio, the brainchild of Tina Morey, is an online Twitter-based educational program. Each month a different producer is selected, along with a lineup of wines from their portfolio. Anyone can participate in the weekly Twitter chats, yet only a select few are chosen to receive samples to accompany the conversation. Every Tuesday at 6pm (Pacific time), Tina hosts the group on Twitter at the WineStudio hashtag. Usually accompanying her is someone affiliated with the producer. Might be the winemaker, owner, salesperson, etc. Tina describes it as part instruction and part wine tasting. Discussion topics include: the producer history, the grapes, tourism, terroir, regional culture, food, etc. For each new topic Tina has seen dozens of original content pieces created, thousands of interactions via social media and millions of impressions created on our specific topic.

October was the month of Two Hands Wines, hailing from Australia.

History of Two Hands Wines

Two Hands Wines was the brainchild of Michael Twelftree and a business partner in 1999. Their goal was to share Australian Shiraz with the world, and that they did. At the time, most exported Australian Shiraz was cheap, jammy industrial stuff. Not necessarily terroir-based wines. Two Hands crafted Aussie wines that showcased regionality and varietal differences. It started out as a negociant business, while they spent the time building their winery and acquiring vineyards along the way. Michael since has a new business partner, but is still very much involved. They export over 30% of their wines, and Michael has spent A LOT of time on the road maintaining relationships and creating a personalized experience for those who bring Two Hands into their portfolio, storefront, restaurant, etc. Ben Perkins, the winemaker for Two Hands Wines and has joined us on the weekly #WineStudio chats.

Photo: Milton Wordley

Picture Series

Two Hands describes these as serious wines with irreverent labeling. The Picture Series is the gateway to the Two Hands portfolio. Bottles are approachable and fun with the goal of the juice being: purity of fruit. This is where Two Hands can let go and use different varietals and regions.

Two Hands Angel’s Share Shiraz 2014 McLauren Vale $36 SRP
Purple fruit, coffee, and mocha. This wine calls for food. It had a more subtle and fruitier nose than the others.

Two Hands Sexy Beast Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 McLauren Vale $36 SRP
You immediately know there’s a Cab in your glass here. A combination of red and black fruit, green pepper, eucalyptus, herbaceousness, and vanilla. A definite tannic grip. Worked famously with a steak salad.

Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2014 Barossa Valley $36 SRP
Round tannins, black fruit, smoke, chocolate, cedar, pepper/spice. Overall, this one was a bit meatier than the others.

Garden Series

The Garden Series is the super premium range of Shiraz from six of the finest Shiraz growing regions in Australia, showcasing the regionality of Australian Shiraz. All the wines here have identical vinification and maturation processes, allowing the regionality (a regions winemaking reputation) to shine through. This is a FINE way to do a side by side tasting, as with consistent winemaking you can really see, smell, and taste the differences in a single varietal from different regions.

Two Hands Lily’s Garden Shiraz 2014 McLauren Vale $69 SRP
A combination of red and black fruit, lots of spice (cloves and pepper), cedar/toasted oak, and vanilla. Overall, this was my favorite of the Two Hands Wine we tried. It was feminine, round, supple, and sexy.

Two Hands Bella’s Garden Shiraz 2014 Barossa Valley $69 SRP
A combination of red and black fruit with a slight baked quality, pepper, earth, vanilla, and leather. This one was a bit understated. I’d describe it as androgynous...not quite feminine, but not quite masculine. Somewhere in the middle. A lovely wine. Holds it’s own and does not need food.

Flagship Series

The Flagship Series is where Two Hands Wines uses the very finest varietal selections from each vintage. And it’s quite a precise system to determine which are the “finest varietal selections”.  Ben Perkins and owner Michael Twelftree meticulously taste each and every barrel. The barrels are blind tasted and each barrel is granted a “grade” from an A+ down to a C. Only A+ barrels are used in the Flagship Series. The Ares wine is the pinnacle of their Shiraz production.  I did not receive this wine for sampling.

What's next for Two Hands Wines?

According to Michael Twelftree, they are working on some new vineyards, increasing clonal selections, and they have a new winery planned for 2018.

Have you tried any of Two Hands Wines before?  If so, leave me a comment below and tell me what you thought of them.

See HERE on for where you can pick up Two Hands Wines near you.