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In the world of craft beer and spirits, imagination and product innovation are never in short supply. Persimmon ale? Check. Smoked bourbon? Yep. Oyster stout? You betcha. But when it comes to wine, experimentation is usually limited to combining grape varieties that don’t traditionally go together. (Tempranillo with Merlot? Crazy!)
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The U.S. wine industry racks its collective brain about how to capture some of the magic of other craft beverages, but at the same time, many vintners are reluctant to try something different in the cellar. Years of tradition, combined with the lingering feeling that U.S. wines still need to prove their worth on the world stage, have led to instinctive eye rolling at the mention of any wine that dares to venture beyond the use of lesser-known grape varieties.
Would it be so unthinkable for a vintner to produce a wine infused with locally grown berries, or partner with a craft distiller to age a wine in used bourbon barrels?
It’s already starting to happen.
“At the start of my wine-making career, almost everything I made was unconventional,” Prairie Berry winemaker Sandi Vojta said. “I made wild fruit wines from South Dakota! I was by nature never a follower of traditions, and learning to make wine with unconventional fruit reinforced that in me. I have had the opportunity to wear traditional wine-making shoes as well, and doing so has taught me to respect and embrace all wine styles.”
Even mainstream wineries are starting to branch out. In late 2014, Fetzer released its “1000 Stories” Bourbon Barrel Aged Zinfandel, and in January, Robert Mondavi Private Selection launched a limited edition Cabernet Sauvignon aged in bourbon barrels.
According to Robert Mondavi Private Select winemaker Jason Dodge, aging in bourbon barrels is “ideal for use in Cabernet, because Cabernet has such an intensely rich fruit character. Instead of overwhelming the wine it actually integrates with (the barrels) very well.” The most exciting thing about the project, he said, is being able to combine the art of wine making with the craft of bourbon production.
And why not? There’s no reason craft distillers and brewers should have all the fun.
Adventures in wine drinking
Tired of the same old Cab? Check out these boldly unconventional wines:
Prairie Berry Blue Suede Shoes, South Dakota ($40): This fruit-infused wine is made with Zinfandel grapes and blueberries. It has a light ruby color, aromas and flavors of ripe blueberries and a pleasant sweetness balanced with acidity. Try it with blueberry pie or pungent blue cheese.
Baker-Bird Kentucky Black Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.99): This Kentucky winery ages its Cabernet for one year in used, heavy-charred bourbon barrels. The resulting wine has a spicy aroma with underlying herbal notes. It has red fruit flavors and lively acidity, along with notes of toasted oak and vanilla.
Blanc de Bleu Cuvée Mousseux Brut, California ($24.95): Packaged in a crystal-clear bottle to show off the wine’s Tiffany-blue color, this is a grape-based sparkler with blueberry extract added. While you might expect it to be sweet, the wine is technically dry. It’s light and fruity on the palate, with subtle blueberry and green apple notes.
Spicy Vines Original Blend Signature Spiced Wine, California ($23): Inspired by German glühwein, this is a blend of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Grenache, infused with cinnamon, cardamom, clove and allspice. The wine has chai-like aromas, and flavors of spiced red fruit. The wine is slightly sweet and can be served at room temperature, warm (think mulled wine), chilled or mixed into cocktails.
Main photo: Creative wines such as Blanc de Bleu are shaking up the traditional wine world. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo
When was the last time you cleaned out your kitchen pantry? I mean really cleaned it out? Sure, you try to stay on top of it, but the next thing you know you’ve got expired cans of tomatoes dating back to 2009. Oh, wait, maybe we’re talking about me.
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Not long after 2016 made its debut, I opened up my pantry door to find not the can of beans I was after, but pure chaos. I practically needed a machete to hack through the jungle of “vintage” condiments, dusty spices and botulism-enhanced canned goods. How did I let it get that bad? I resolved then and there to mend my disorganized ways.
I began by taking every single thing out of the cabinet and surveying the damage. Holy Moses, was there any edible food in there? These are just some of the treasures I unearthed:
- Cardamom seeds that expired in 2007.
- A half-used pouch of never-good-in-the-first-place taco seasoning, “best enjoyed by” May 2008.
- Two nearly full, expired bottles of Old Bay seasoning.
- Truffle salsa brought back from a trip to Umbria in 2007.
No one likes a braggart, but I think I set some kind of record with this one: a bottle of Chinese five-spice powder from 1995!
Taking on the challenge
Three large grocery bags could barely contain all the forgotten food items I hauled out to the trash bin. I didn’t know whether to feel triumphant or ashamed.
The fun part was starting with a blank canvas. After tossing all the expired stuff, there wasn’t much left. (As much as I love having six different olive oils and five varieties of vinegar at my disposal, these items do not actually qualify as food.) A trip to the grocery store soon remedied that, and I returned with peanut butter, oats, polenta, pasta and other staples for my sparkling-clean cabinet.
Bottles and boxes tend to go rogue once the pantry door is closed, migrating to who-knows-where the minute your back is turned, so I also picked up a couple of baskets and a Lazy Susan to help keep everything in check.
Olive oils are now happily segregated in one of the baskets, placed in the front of the cabinet for easy access. My vinegar collection resides on the Lazy Susan, where a quick spin lets me find the bottle I’m looking for in seconds. Pastas and grains live together in harmony on the third shelf, and baking supplies stand ready on the bottom-right shelf. Few projects I’ve taken on lately have given me such satisfaction! Sometimes I open the pantry door just to admire the lack of clutter.
Now that all my pantry foods are neatly organized and unlikely to poison my dinner guests, all I have to do is keep them that way. My pantry got out of control because I kept adding new stuff without purging the items that were past their prime. Well, there’ll be no more of that.
You too can start 2016 with a tidy pantry filled with still-edible foods. Just follow these tips:
Create groupings that make sense. For example, store all your baking supplies together, so you don’t end up buying multiple bottles of vanilla extract and jars of molasses. The items will be easier to locate, and you won’t have duplicates taking up extra space.
Pay attention to “use by” and expiration dates. If an item is stamped with a “use by” or “best by” date, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat when that day comes; it means the product’s quality can no longer be guaranteed. An expiration date, however, means “eat at your own risk.”
When you buy canned goods, place them behind the older ones on your pantry shelf, so you’ll remember to use them before they expire. In general, the shelf life of foods canned in liquids is one to two years.
Staying on track
Dried beans seem like they should last forever, but that’s not the case. According to the U.S. Dry Bean Council, beans that have been stored longer than a year may never get soft enough, no matter how long you soak or cook them. They’ll last longer if you keep them in an airtight container.
Check your spices. Dried herbs tend to lose their color and flavor after a year. Ground spices last longer, up to three years. If you have the time and patience to grind whole spices as you need them, you can keep them up to five years.
Move that honey! For decades I made the mistake of storing honey in the pantry, then gnashing my teeth when it became hard and crystalized. Well, guess what I learned while researching this article? Honey never expires! It just hates being kept in dark places. If you leave it out on the counter, it will remain fluid and keep its lovely amber color.
Look out refrigerator, I’m coming for you next.
Main photo: Start off the new year with a well-organized pantry. (Magnifying glass for reading expiration dates optional.) Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo
There’s an old saying in the wine business: It takes a lot of beer to make great wine. The adage is especially appropriate this time of year, when harvest crews work overtime in the late-summer heat to bring in the new crop. But for an adventurous group of American craft brewers, it’s also true that it takes a lot of wine to make great beer.
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No one knows that better than Vinnie Cilurzo, co-owner and brewmaster at Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, California. A decade ago, when he decided to make an American version of a Belgian lambic ale, he couldn’t resist putting a vinous spin on it. Lambic beers get their distinctive tartness from wild yeast and bacteria, and Cilurzo’s creation was no different in that respect. The twist came when he aged the beer in used Chardonnay barrels sourced from a local winery. The result was a sour beer called Temptation, and it was such a hit that Russian River added two more wine-barrel-aged sours to its lineup.
One of the most interesting examples is Noble Rot, from Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. “We worked with Alexandria Nicole Cellars winery in Prosser, Washington, and they helped us find all this amazing botrytis-infected Viognier grape must (unfermented juice),” said Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head founder and president. “The botrytis infection is kind of a benevolent fungus that really intensifies the complexity of the grapes. It’s a perfect mix between a Belgian saison, a beautiful white wine and a sour ale.”
Thirsty for more wine-inspired brews? Click on:
Main photo: Dogfish Head Brewery makes this saison-style beer with Viognier grape must infected with a desirable fungus called botrytis that intensifies its sweetness. Credit: Copyright 2015 courtesy of Dogfish Head
I think it was Ben Franklin who coined the saying, “Everything tastes better with grill marks on it.” (Or was it John Adams?) This is especially true in the summer, when a bounty of vegetables and fruits bursts from our gardens, and it’s just too gorgeous outside to stay in the kitchen.
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Most of us have tossed asparagus, ears of corn and red bell peppers on the “barbie.” When we’re feeling really adventurous, we may even grill peaches. But why stop there, when there’s a whole farmers market of summer produce to explore?
With this idea in mind we hit the market, revved up the Weber and found some fabulous new options to add to our summer grilling repertoire. (And as Ben Franklin would tell you, not all experiments are successful; that’s why our list also includes a couple of clunkers.)
Grab your tongs and click on!
Main photo: Drizzle grilled romaine lettuce with balsamic vinaigrette and top with crumbled blue cheese, toasted walnuts and fresh ground pepper. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo
Let’s say you bought some Cabernet Sauvignon vines from a local nursery to plant a vineyard. You decided on Cabernet because you determined that this particular grape variety would be best for your location because of its soil type, sun exposure and climate. But then a worrisome thought enters your head: What if the vines aren’t Cabernet Sauvignon after all, but some other less-suited variety? What if the nursery somehow got them mixed up with Sauvignon Blanc vines? That would be a mighty costly mistake.
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You could pray, sweat and grind your teeth until the first grape clusters appear, and then wait some more until they change color and mature enough for you to figure out the vines’ true identity. Or, you could call an ampelographer.
Ampelography is a type of grapevine botany that uses the physical traits of grape leaves to identify varieties. Grape leaves vary quite a bit between varieties, so a skilled ampelographer can easily distinguish Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc.
In the world of ampelography, it would be hard to find a more renowned practitioner than Virginia-based vineyard consultant Lucie Morton, who travels around the country lending her expertise to grape growers and vintners.
Among Morton’s clients is one of California’s best Sauvignon Blanc producers, St. Supéry Estate Vineyards & Winery, which flew her out to the Napa Valley earlier this month to teach an ampelography class. I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop, and learn some tips from a master.
Before taking us into the vineyard, Morton explained the background and basics of vine identification. Lesson number one: “Looking at clusters is cheating.”
In the early days of the California wine industry, American vintners often brought back vine cuttings from Europe to plant in their vineyards. Sometimes, the varieties were not identified correctly, or were known in their native country by a different name than the one used by the rest of the world.
In the 1970s Morton began to discover that some vines planted in American vineyards were misidentified. For example, she said, in the Finger Lakes region of New York people used to say that the Chardonnay grown there tasted “Germanic,” due to the area’s cold climate. The real reason was because their “Chardonnay” was actually Riesling.
Up until the early 80s, nearly all of the “Pinot Blanc” planted in California was not Pinot Blanc but a French variety called Melon de Bourgogne. An ampelographer — Morton’s teacher, Pierre Galet — set the record straight. “It does not make you popular, pointing out other people’s mistakes,” Morton told the class.
Even so, her skills are in demand, even in the modern world of high-tech viticulture. Although DNA testing can identify varieties, Morton pointed out, it can’t distinguish between clones. Ampelography can. “There’s still practical value in this skill,” she said.
Anatomy of a grape leaf
According to Morton, the main characteristics that distinguish grape leaves include:
Lobes: If you imagine the leaf as a hand, the lobes would be the individual fingers that extend outward. Some leaves have prominent lobes, other leaves are shield-shaped and have none.
Petiolar sinus: This is the empty space surrounding the stem of the leaf. Some sinuses are wide open, others are very narrow.
Teeth: These are the serrations on the outside edge of the leaf. Some are jagged and sharp, others are rounded.
It’s also important to look at the color and texture of the leaves.
In the vineyard
Providing each of us with a list of defining characteristics for several different grape varieties, Morton sent us out into St. Supery’s Dollarhide vineyard and challenged us to bring her back a leaf from each variety. If we got it wrong, we went back to try again.
Identifying the vines was more difficult than I expected. In a given vineyard row, not all of the leaves are identical, even among the same variety. Just when I would think I had a match, I’d notice that one of the distinguishing elements wasn’t quite right: The teeth were rounded instead of triangular or the surface was smooth instead of leathery. Each time I was sent back for another leaf, I came to respect Morton’s skill a little more.
Following are the characteristics of five of California’s most popular grape varieties:
Morton calls this leaf the “monkey face” or the “mask,” because when held with its tip facing up, it looks like it has eye and mouth holes. It has five lobes, rounded teeth and an open (or naked) petiolar sinus.
This is a shield-shaped leaf, with shallow, sawblade-like teeth and an open petiolar sinus. The vine’s young shoots will have red nodes that are distinctive to Chardonnay.
This leaf is longer than it is wide, with five prominent lobes, an open petiolar sinus and deep triangular teeth. It’s yellowish in color, with a waffled, leathery texture.
This five-lobed leaf is green in color, with a wavy texture. It has a narrow, almost-closed petiolar sinus, a round shape and rounded teeth. The lobes have three prominent troughs that resemble spouts from a fountain.
This leaf is a heart-shaped shield, with a relatively narrow petiolar sinus and shallow pointy teeth. It has a puffy, quilted look and a thick, leathery texture.
Main photo: In a sea of vines, ampelography can help growers tell which grape varieties are which. Credit: Tina Caputo
Portugal is famous for producing two styles of wine that couldn’t be more different: Port and Vinho Verde. Port is known as a wine for winter — rich and warming, perfect for fireside sipping. Vinho Verde is the yin to Port’s yang — light, fresh and (typically) white. Vinho Verde is a wine for spring.
With a name that translates to “green wine,” in reference to its youth and freshness, Vinho Verde comes from the rainy region of the same name in the northwest corner of Portugal. While reds and rosés are also made there, Vinho Verde wines are primarily white. Known for their crispness, acidity and light effervescence, the wines are naturally low in alcohol and usually priced under $10.
The new Vinho Verde
While those cheap-and-cheerful wines are still plentiful, a new style of Vinho Verde wines is emerging alongside them. Like their traditional cousins, these wines are crisp and refreshing, yet they’re drier, riper and more mature in character. Their alcohol levels are low compared to many other whites, but at 12%, they’re a bit higher than the traditional 8% or 9% for Vinho Verde. Prices also have gone up, from about $7 a bottle to a still-affordable range of $11 to $20.
Another notable change is that producers are starting to showcase single-grape varieties such as Alvarinho, Loureiro and Trajadura, which were traditionally blended together.
This new approach is the result of a campaign by the region’s viticulture commission to encourage growers to plant in new locations, and improve their farming practices. Instead of using the old pergola trellis systems, growers are wire-training the vines on more modern systems. Rather than planting on the valley floors, they’re planting on slopes. The result has been a remarkable increase in the quality and complexity of the wines.
Wines for spring dishes
The great thing about the new-wave Vinho Verde wines is that they’re still wonderful for spring sipping. Not laden down with heavy oak, the wines pair beautifully with warm-weather dishes, including salads, shellfish and grilled fish. In Portugal, where fabulous fresh seafood is plentiful, Vinho Verde is often served with grilled sardines, arroz de marisco (seafood rice) and clams cooked in a cataplana.
Here are four delicious Vinho Verde wines to help you ring in spring:
Quinta de Gomariz Loureiro 2014 ($13): Made from the Loureiro grape, this wine has a spicy, floral aroma. It has fresh citrus notes on the palate, accented with spice and a bit of orange peel flavor on the finish.
Vercoope Via Latina Loureiro 2014 ($18): This wine has lovely aromas of green apples and citrus, with light floral notes. It’s fresh and crisp, with citrus and green apple flavors, and just a bit of tropical fruit. It’s nicely balanced, with bright acidity.
Aromas das Castas
Aromas Das Castas Alvarinho-Trajadura 2014 ($12): With a fresh, peachy aroma, this wine is slightly spritzy, with tangy citrus and peach flavors. It has a nice long finish, with a note of lemon zest.
Casa de Vilacetinho
Casa de Vilacetinho 2013 ($11): A blend of Avesso, Arinto, Azal and Loureiro grapes, this wine has citrus and tropical fruit aromas. It’s off-dry and a little bit fizzy, with stone fruit and citrus flavors.
Main photo: A new style of Vinho Verde wines is emerging, and it’s perfect for springtime sipping. Credit: Copyright 2015 Tina Caputo
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