Articles in Wine

Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Yo Endo would be the first to tell you he doesn’t know a lot about wine. What he does know is how to sell things. His last job was marketing tennis equipment, which took him to Los Angeles and Las Vegas; great restaurants — and wine, of course.

Today, Endo manages Cafe Triode, a cozy restaurant near the giant Tokyo Dome, home for Japan’s beloved Giants baseball team. The surrounding neighborhood is best known for the ultra-luxury La Qua spa, sporting goods stores, used bookstores and inexpensive restaurants catering to baseball fans and university students.

I stumbled onto the café while looking for a quiet escape from the rain during a business trip to Japan’s capital. Endo took my dripping umbrella and escorted me to a small wooden bar near the back. A hunk of Serrano ham anchored one end of the bar, and soft jazz played.

Women in Japan’s workforce is growing

Traditionally, the after-hours scene in Japan has been dominated by izakaya bars catering to salarymen. Beer, sake and whiskey are the favored drinks, and the vibe is usually loud and smoky or expensive — or all of the above.

Cafe Triode offers moderately priced wine, tasty nibbles and jazz — a perfect place for happy hour with girlfriends. And that’s exactly what Endo is aiming for.

Though Japan lags behind much of the developed world in female employment, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pledged to increase the percentage of women in the workforce. This includes providing more affordable childcare and encouraging companies to adopt family-friendly policies, such as flexible work schedules.

It also means finding a place for those women to unwind after a hard day at the office. “There’s an increasing need for working women to have a girls-only night out for a drink to strengthen their solidarity,” Chikako Hirose, a spokeswoman for Pronto Corp., recently told Bloomberg News. Pronto is reportedly expanding its Di PUNTO chain of wine bars to at least 26 outlets by the end of 2015.

There are other reasons the wine industry is chasing the female market. Women in Japan still make most of the household buying decisions, and they are more likely than men to attend wine tastings and classes, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service. Sixty percent of Japan’s wine experts are women.

Old-world wines dominate this market. Although Japan buys wine from 55 countries, just 10 account for about 98 percent of the imported volume, according to the USDA report. Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are the favored varietals. Sparkling wine is also growing in popularity, and “wine on the rocks” is being touted as a refreshing alternative on a hot summer’s day.

Endo sees these trends at Cafe Triode, where the majority of his customers are couples or young female professionals. When he first opened his café, his wine list included a range of wines divided by country, varietal and price. But he discovered most of his young customers would spend a long time agonizing over the menu and then end up somewhere in the middle, where they would have just a few bottles to choose from.

Cafe Triode still sells bottles of wine for as much as 19,000 yen ($159) but now offers a large selection of wines for 4,100 yen ($34) a bottle. During my visit, that included two California Zinfandels from Peachy Canyon and Ravenswood chosen by Endo’s wine broker.

American wines are slowly finding a market. In 2013, the United States held an 8.6 percent value share of Japan’s imported wine, up from 7.7 percent the previous year, according to the USDA. But U.S. vintners face significant barriers. A stronger dollar and high import duties push them into a higher price bracket, and Japanese consumers prefer wines with a lower alcohol content than most American wines offer.

By offering a “Reasonable Selections” list representing many different varietals and wine-growing regions, Endo hopes he can encourage wine newbies to experiment. “Everyone finds it very easy to make a choice, and it’s also easy to control the budget,” he said.

Armed with a glass of the house red wine (600 yen or $5), I turned my attention to Cafe Triode’s multi-page English menu, which married two of my favorite cuisines: Japanese and Italian.

Meat platter is most popular on menu

The most popular menu item is the Triode assorted meat platter delivered on a large wooden board with five types of meat (1,950 yen or $16.35). Other tantalizing offerings include dumplings made from fish and shrimp wrapped in yuba (tofu) skin (1,190 yen or $9.98), codfish and scallop pie (1,190 yen or $9.98) and Tajima beef rump steak (1,500 to 1,800 yen or $12.58 to $15.10 per 100 grams). Tajima is the strain of black Japanese Wagyu cattle that produce the famous Kobe beef.

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

The grilled duck salad from Cafe Triode. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

Endo, an easygoing man with an impish smile, started me out with a fig paired with a dollop of mineoka dofu. This delicate palate cleanser, made from an ancient recipe developed by Buddhist monks, isn’t tofu. It’s actually made from milk, arrowroot starch and sesame paste. Rich and creamy with just a hint of sesame, I resisted licking the tiny pottery dish and settled on the Saikyo-yaki (Kyoto-style) grilled duck salad (980 yen or $8.22) for my entrée.

Working out of a kitchen the size of my bedroom closet, Chef Yoshimi Imazu quickly worked his magic, preparing paper-thin slices of Parmesan cheese and duck marinated in a sweet white Saikyo miso on a bed of crisp greens.

My visit to Cafe Triode was just another reminder that you can travel well in Japan without breaking the bank. That, combined with that tasty salad, was enough to lure me back one last time before I left Tokyo.

Main photo: Cafe Triode manager Yo Endo pours a glass of wine at the cafe. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan

This Sonoma wine captivated with scents of gently crushed black cherries mildly seasoned with oak. Its attack was silky and the flavors echoed the wine’s alluring aromas. It was fresh and structured, though the oak gradually became more of a presence, indicating that the wine wanted cellaring.

It was the 2008 Vérité “La Joie,” an obsessively calculated blend of — here goes — 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. awarded it 99/100 points and rated the 2007 vintage 100/100. There was another perfect score for “La Joie’s” sibling, Vérité “Le Désir,” a Cabernet Franc-dominated blend. And the third wine of the Vérité trio, the Merlot-based La Muse, garnered 99/100 points.

I do not typically score wines. I write pages and pages of notes. Amid the adjectives for that 2008 Vérité “La Joie” I noted “quite European in style” and “very French.”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the wines were made by a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, 64, who hails from the Lot-et-Garonne region south of Bordeaux.

The Vérité project

The Vérité project was the dreamchild of California wine icon, Jess Jackson, who died in 2011. An attorney and self-made billionaire, Jackson bought a pear orchard in 1974, planted grapes and eventually began making wine. In 1982 he created Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and gave birth to a vinous revolution: Here was a moderately priced wine that trounced the Hearty Burgundies and other jug wines.

Jackson continued to build his empire, which at its height comprised 35 wineries in five countries. What eluded him was a great wine. Then Seillan entered the picture.

The time was 1995. Seillan was managing estates for the Bordeaux negociant Cheval Quincard, when a mutual friend arranged for Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, to visit Seillan at one of the châteaux he was directing. In 1996 Seillan visited Jackson and by 1997 the Seillans had moved to Sonoma County.

They wasted no time. Vérité debuted with the 1998 vintage. But, first, as Seillan recalls, “Jess and I explored his different estates, vineyards and properties around California and around the world. I was able to identify and develop new locations in Sonoma County that were the right place for growing very high quality grapes, and matching the terroir to the appropriate varietal and rootstock. I then was able to identify what I defined later as ‘micro-crus.’ ”

The ‘micro’ approach

Seillan has worked with micro-crus for most of his life. “Ever since my grandmother taught me about soils and gardening when I was little at my parents’ estate in Gascony, then my work across Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, in Tuscany and California. I learned to listen to the message of a particular place from the soil, climate and the vegetation, and to be able to match that to producing the right grapes in the right way.”

Seillan selects the best grapes from roughly a thousand acres of vineyards owned by Jackson to make the three versions of Vérité. The key parcels, well-exposed hillsides ranging from 578 feet to 2,457 feet, are: the Kellogg vineyard, Alexander Mountain Estate, Vérité Vale in Chalk Hill and Jackson Park.

Was the micro-approach uncommon in California? “Yes,” Seillan said. “Viticulture in California is still very young compared to France.”

In 2003, the Jacksons and the Seillans purchased the 55-acre Château Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru, and several years later, the 31-acre Château Vignot, also a St. Emilion Grand Cru. And Seillan manages the team at Jackson’s Tuscan properties.

Not surprisingly, the philosophy of micro-cru prevails, from painstaking selection of soils to persnickety parsing of grape percentages for each bottling.

A few favorites

Having tasted more than a dozen Seillan/Jackson wines recently, I had a hard job picking favorites. Nevertheless, I loved the 2010 Château Lassègue. Velvety and nuanced, it was fresh and structured, with notes of licorice blending with those of Burlat cherries. At $90 it’s not out of line for high quality Bordeaux and a lot cheaper than the 2008 Vérités ($390 a bottle). Of the three Tuscan wines, I much preferred the Chianti Classico to the two Bordeaux blends. Made from Sangiovese, the region’s traditional grape, it had a tasty story to tell on its home turf. What’s more, at $30 a bottle, it’s priced at roughly a third of the Super Tuscans.

And there’s a new, nicely priced charmer: Seillan has resuscitated vineyards planted by his mother on the Coteaux de Montestruc, facing the Pyrenees. True to form, he opted to plant Bordeaux grapes rather than those traditional to the region. The results are delectable. The 2012 Bellevue Seillan Côtes de Gascogne VdF, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, is a lip-smacking crowd-pleaser as well as a good value at $30 a bottle. Seillan’s grandma must be smiling.

Main image: Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan

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Malvasia vineyards and bougainvillea at the Capofaro estate on Salina

Sicily is famous for its distinctive wines and native grape varieties, particularly those that grow on volcanic soils. Nerello Mascalese, today’s most talked-about Sicilian red grape, only flourishes on the slopes of Mount Etna, Italy’s largest active volcano. The lesser-known Malvasia delle Lipari grows instead on the volcanic Aeolian Islands, where it’s made into a delicious and unique dessert wine that also goes wonderfully with cheese.

Malvasia delle Lipari Passito DOC is made from sun-dried grapes in several versions, from very sweet to drier. It offers orange and floral notes, toasted nuts and rich apricots to the nose and, at its best, enough acidity in the mouth to balance the sweetness and keep it lively and long. The volcanic soils often confer exciting, salty minerality.

The Aeolians are the archipelago that sits between Italy’s “toe” in Calabria and Sicily’s northeastern corner. You reach them by ferry from Messina. The cluster of eight small islands, known as Isole Eolie in Italian, was named for Eolo, the god of wind in Greek mythology. No wonder: The Aeolians are subjected to winds from all sides. The islanders’ rudimentary lifestyle of fishing and agriculture was dramatically captured in “Stromboli,” Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 black-and-white film starring Ingrid Bergman. It was set on the island of Stromboli, another of Italy’s three active volcanoes.

Islands at a crossroads of culture

Contemporary vine-growing takes place mostly on two of the other islands, Lipari and Salina, but the archipelago has long been linked to wine, as professor Attilio Scienza, Italy’s foremost viticultural historian explains:

“These islands played an important role in the history of wine. As Phoenician and ancient Greek ships traveled the Mediterranean, they stopped off here to stock up on food and this allowed for important cultural exchanges.”

Scienza was speaking at Sicilia en Primeur, the itinerant Sicilian wine event that this year was held on the island of Vulcano.

“We know that grapes were grown and traded here: Grape seeds from 6,000 years ago have been found in archaelogical digs on Lipari. Later, in the 6th century, an unusual sweet wine became famous on the islands. It was made when very ripe, sun-dried grapes were heaped into a high mound whose weight naturally pressed the juice from the berries. This wine was known to keep — and therefore travel — well and its fame spread throughout the Mediterranean.”

The family of vines called Malvasia grows throughout the Mediterranean, but the Malvasia now found on the Aeolian islands has a DNA very close to that of the original Greek Malvasia. Despite facing extinction after the phylloxera attacks of the early 20th century, today Malvasia is being made in sweet and dry versions by a score of producers on the islands.

“Mediterranean peoples have a different, more cyclical, history than other Europeans,” Scienza says. “Life on these islands has hardly changed in 3,000 years. Today, this archaic, heroic viticulture can teach us a lot about how to make wine while maintaining the landscape sustainably.” Malvasia vines are often still grown as free-standing bushes, ad alberello, in steeply sloping vineyards. Their long roots reach deeply down; it rarely rains on these islands.

A much-favored vacation destination

The Aeolians offer some of the Mediterranean’s most sought-after holiday destinations, so if you want to explore their viticulture peacefully, it’s best to avoid the August crush. Winemakers have more time in spring and autumn to show their vineyards and organize tastings. Book your visit ahead, as these tiny estates are usually worked by the owners.

I recently visited seven top Malvasia producers, most of whom are situated on Salina. I made my base at Capofaro, the luxurious resort owned by the noble Tasca d’Almerita family whose historic estate, Regaleali, is located in central Sicily. The hotel is surrounded by vineyards, and you can enjoy their fine wines at Capofaro’s restaurant.

The name most often associated with Malvasia delle Lipari is Hauner‘s, who was the first to revive this traditional wine. Carlo Hauner makes fine Malvasia in sweet and dry versions.

Like Hauner, Fenech and Nino Caravaglio are artisanal Malvasia producers who supplement their incomes with the other plant that loves these arid conditions, the caper bush. Their tiny, salted capers — the plant’s flower buds — are famous throughout Italy. You can sample and buy these producers’ delicious wines and capers from their small cellars. Barone di Villagrande is another enterprising estate on Salina that also makes native reds on Etna.

If you go to Vulcano island, make an appointment with Paola Lantieri to visit her lovely house and vineyard. She makes her passito from grapes sun-dried on the vine and on cane racks. The latest addition to the Aelioan wineries is Castellaro, a large, ambitious project on Lipari. Their state-of-the-art cellar and expanding vineyards promise well for these ancient islands’ continuing viticulture.

Main photo: Malvasia vineyards and bougainvillea at the Capofaro estate on Salina. Credit: Carla Capalbo

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Lemon and crab risotto is made with champagne.

There’s nothing sadder than dumping even part of a bottle of Champagne that’s lost its fizz the day after New Year’s. So don’t do it.

If you didn’t remember to stop up your leftover Champagne and put it in the fridge, plan to incorporate the rest of your sparkling into a couple of easy dishes and start 2015 with a burst of creativity in the kitchen. You can rest easy knowing one of the highlights of your holiday revelry did not go to waste.

Champagnes and sparkling wines lose their bubbles at different rates and based on several factors. The warmer the environment, the more quickly the Champagne will release the carbon dioxide bubbles and go flat. Sparkling wines nearly always differ in how much carbonation is in the bottle. But once you’ve determined your Champagne is flat, there’s a bevy of options to save its flavor.

Champagne adds body to marinades, contrast to fruit syrups, subtle nuance to your favorite risotto dish, sweetness to soup. Without its fizz, it has lost that effervescence that made it so attractive in the first place and likely tastes too off to drink by itself, but it is just as versatile and a lovely addition to some of your favorite dishes. Actually, any recipe incorporating white wine would do well with a dose of flattened Champagne, but there can be some lingering sweetness, so be sure to take that into account when choosing how to use it.

Even if you have a bottle that’s been sitting corked in your fridge for a week, you can use what’s left over to give some of your everyday dishes a big, ambitious kick (as in the case of the crab and lemon risotto recipe, below), or just a small dose of surprise (like in Champagne French toast). All it takes to impart the lasting flavor of most flattened Champagnes into your favorite dishes is about a quarter to half a cup of leftover sparkling.

Here are some great dishes to try once your Champagne has gone flat.

1. Lemon Crab Risotto With Mint and Hot Pepper Flakes

Set a saucepan with four cups chicken stock to medium on one burner. On another burner, in a large-mouthed pan, sauté 1/4 cup shallots in 2 tablespoons of butter until they are translucent but not brown. Add 2 cups Arborio rice and 1/4 cup leftover Champagne, stirring constantly. Stir until liquid has evaporated. Keep adding hot stock and stirring until the rice has plumped. When all the stock has been incorporated, stir in 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter and the juice and rind from 1 lemon. Add 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese if desired. Just before serving, stir in 8 ounces of fresh crab meat. Garnish with hot pepper flakes and fresh torn mint leaves.

2. Champagne Syrup

In a saucepan, mix 1 cup leftover Champagne with 1/3 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. Mix in the zest from one lemon plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice. Add one cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until all the sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool for half an hour. Pour over your favorite pound cake, seasonal fruit or raspberries.

3. Sole Poached in Champagne

In a large, non-stick pan, sauté one chopped onion in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Add 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon of  lemon rind and one finely chopped garlic cove. Lay fish on top of onions. Pour chopped tomatoes and parsley over fish, then pour 1/4 cup leftover Champagne around fish. Cover loosely with foil and cook over medium heat 8-10 minutes, or until fish flakes away.

4. Champagne Salad Dressing

Mix 1/2 cup mild-flavored extra virgin olive oil with 1/4 cup leftover Champagne, ¼ cup white wine vinegar, a pinch of sugar. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

5. Champagne French Toast

Use your favorite French toasting bread (we recommend day-old Challah) cut into slices 1-inch thick. Mix four large eggs at room temperature with 1/2 cup half and half, 1/4 cup Champagne and a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of sea salt. Soak the bread in the egg and cream mixture for one minute and then fry in foamy hot butter on each side until golden.

6. Champagne Marinade for Salmon

Add 1/4 cup leftover Champagne to 1/3 cup olive oil. Mix 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard with 1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves and 1/4 teaspoon thyme and a dash of salt and pepper. Marinate your favorite grilling fish in the marinade for at least two hours and brush with the marinade while grilling.

7. Champagne Soup

In a medium-sized saucepan, boil four cups vegetable stock with five de-skinned and chopped Anjou pears. Add the zest and juice of one lemon and 1 cup Champagne. Cook until pears are tender, about 10 minutes. Carefully puree the soup and stock until smooth in a food processor or with an immersion blender. Add the Champagne, lemon zest and juice and stir until smooth. Salt and pepper to taste.

Main photo: Lemon and Crab Risotto With Mint and Red Pepper Flakes is an inspired way to use some of your leftover Champagne or sparkling wine. Credit: Emily Grosvenor

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A sparkling selection from Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, paired with salmon. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Carneros

With every new year comes a resolution or two, so this is the perfect time to make a few changes to your wine-drinking routine. Take the opportunity to uncork (or unscrew) a bottle you’ve seen but haven’t tasted; try a new food pairing; make a detour on your next winery tour. A chat with the owner of your local wine store can get some ideas flowing, and a new cookbook may inspire you in the kitchen. Here are 12 ways to start new gastronomic traditions right now.

1. Drink bubbly with dinner.

Don’t save that bottle of bubbly in the fridge for a special occasion; open it up the next time you order sushi, Thai or even Indian cuisine. Sparkling wine’s naturally high acidity and minerality make it a natural partner with food. And there are so many affordable bubblies now that there’s no reason not to let it perk up a weeknight. Besides Champagne, try a Crémant de Bourgogne or Crémant di Limoux from France; Spanish cava or Italian Prosecco; a sparkling wine from California or New Mexico; or even a sparkling Shiraz from Australia.

2. Buy large-format bottles.

It may seem like a luxury, but depending on the occasion, buying a large-format bottle can actually save you money — and make you the life of the party. Here’s some easy math: a magnum (1.5 liters) is equal to two bottles; a double magnum (3 liters) equals four bottles; and a jeroboam (4.5 liters of still wine) holds six standard bottles. (A jeroboam of sparkling wine is 3 liters, equaling four standard bottles of bubbly.) Sommeliers rave about these larger bottles because they often age better than the traditional 750-milliliter bottle; the oxygen-to-wine ratio in them is far lower, which allows for a slower maturation. More wineries are offering large formats, and stores such as Costco often carry them for the holidays.

3. Try a Rhône varietal from California’s Central Coast.

There are some exciting wines coming out of California’s Central Coast. The terroir is similar to the Rhône Valley, and winemakers are producing reds based on Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache, as well as whites with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, that whisk you off to France by way of the West Coast.

4. Order the wine-pairing option.

The next time you’re at a restaurant with a tasting menu, opt for the wine pairings as well (usually available for a supplement). The beverage directors and sommeliers work with the chef to create something out of the box, so why not take advantage of their expertise? It’s a chance to get creative and open your palate to new pairing ideas.

5. Try Italian whites.

Sick of Sauvignon Blanc? Try one of Italy’s white varietals. They may be hard to pronounce, but they’re easy to drink (and generally affordable). Falanghina, for instance, tastes like bananas, apples and pears; look for producers Feudi di San Gregorio and Terredora. Vermentino tastes of crisp apples and citrus; producers include Antinori and Pala. And Piedmontese Arneis offers flavors of lemons and apples; look for Vietti. All three pair beautifully with seafood, chicken, pork and anything fried.

6. Try a new wine-and-food pairing.

Break out of the mind-set that classic pairings (for instance, red meat with red wine, white meat with white wine) are your only options. Here are some creative examples:

  • Chicken fajitas and guacamole with still or sparkling dry rosé
  • Beef chili and cornbread with Zinfandel
  • Grilled swordfish with Beaujolais
  • Grilled sardines with Pinot Noir
  • Arctic char over tomato-olive tapenade with Sangiovese
  • Roasted veal chops with Viognier
  • Roasted pork chops and caramelized onions with Chardonnay or Riesling
  • Roasted asparagus with Chianti Classico
  • Roasted cauliflower with sparkling wine

7. Serve a French dessert wine with chocolate.

While Port is a natural with chocolate, try a glass of Banyuls for a change. Banyuls is a Grenache-based wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, fortified (as it has been since the 13th century) with clear brandy and aged for at least 10 months. With flavors of mocha, coffee and dark plum, it’s the perfect complement to any chocolate dessert. Serve it at around 58 F in small dessert-wine glasses. Ranging from $25 to $60 for a 375-milliliter bottle, Banyuls may not be easy to find, but it’s worth the effort. M. Chapoutier and Domaine La Tour Vielle are two to look for.

8. Drink white wine with cheese.

Many consumers don’t realize that cheeses generally taste better with white wine than red. Here are some starter pairings:

  • Goat cheese with Sancerre, Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano with Prosecco or Orvieto
  • Brie with Pinot Gris or Chardonnay
  • Triple crème with Riesling
  • Stilton with Sauternes

9. Try a white wine that you think is sweet.

Many wine lovers stay away from a varietal because they associate it with a characteristic they dislike. Take Rieslings: despite their reputation for sweetness, they’re not all sweet. Rieslings are wonderfully food-friendly whites that deserve a place at the table. Juicy and crisp, dry German Riesling sets the standard, but domestic Rieslings are on the rise, so there are plenty of options at a wide range of prices.

10. Visit off-the-beaten-path wineries.

Do your homework before your next California wine trip. It’s worth seeking out small family-run wineries that may be a bit out of the way. Picturesque Preston Family Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley has a farmstand and bocce ball court in addition to a tasting room. Iron Horse Vineyards boasts an outdoor tasting facility with spectacular views of Sonoma County. Cliff Lede Vineyards may be just minutes from a busy Napa highway, but its sculpture garden, art gallery and specialized wine tastings make it feel like a special getaway. (You can even book at a night at Mr. Lede’s Poetry Inn in the Stags Leap District.)

11. Sign up for wine-and food tours.

You should also check out wineries that do more than just pour a glass of wine. Many in California offer additional activities such as olive-oil tastings or farm tours. Here is a sampling:

12. Join a winery-run wine club.

They’re not just for tourists anymore. Wineries have been honing their club memberships in recent years to make them more personalized, and the rewards can be great — particularly the discounts. If you live within a reasonable distance of the winery to take advantage of their special members-only events, do it. But even if you just receive monthly or twice-yearly shipments, you’ll benefit from such programs.

Main photo: A sparkling selection from Domaine Carneros by Taittinger, paired with salmon. Credit: Courtesy of Domaine Carneros

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One of the wines from Trader Joe's Reserve series, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley's Rutherford appellation. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

As the holiday party season winds its way toward New Year’s Eve, sparkling wine or Champagne is on many shopping lists. Personally, I feel sparkling wine is ideal as a drink before, during or after a meal, but when entertaining, I round up a good selection of still wines too.

Although my husband and I frequent specialty wine shops, a weekly visit to Trader Joe’s is a routine, and we’re not alone. Checking out doesn’t take nearly as long as finding a parking space at any of the Los Angeles area Trader Joe’s stores. Part of that chain’s mantra must be, “If they really want our bargains, they’ll fight for parking spaces!”

The grocery chain was founded as Pronto Market in 1958 by Joe Coulombe, and the store’s name was later changed to Trader Joe’s. The first Trader Joe’s store opened in 1967 in Pasadena, California, and now there are more than 400 stores in 40 states. Southern California has a heavy concentration of the stores, and it’s a favorite haunt for shoppers looking for global food flavors and wines for less than $10 a bottle.

Trader Joe’s wine comes with free tastes

On a recent visit to Trader Joe’s on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, I heard a friendly “Hi” in the wine section and turned around to see my neighbor Karis.

“I’m looking for a wine under $10,” she said. Her pick had to be kosher because she was buying it for a Hanukkah party that evening. Together we took a look at the limited selection of kosher wines, and I pointed out a 2012 Baron Herzog Old Vine Zinfandel from Lodi, Calif., that cost $9.99. The price was perfect.

In addition to bargain bottles, Trader Joe’s also stocks pricey brands to give people options for gift giving. “This time of the year people spend money,” said Jason, one of the managers at the La Brea store. The hot sellers are reds and sparkling and dessert wines, he said.

Pricey wines may not always be on display, though. “When people are looking for expensive wines for gifts they’ll ask one of our staff,” Jason said. The most expensive purchase at the La Brea store was Napa Valley’s 2008 BV LaTour Cabernet Sauvignon at $89. That’s a far cry from the less-than-$10 category, but customers buy these wines for parties, the manager noted.

Trader Joe’s is well known for its affordable wines, and the bottles are served at many Los Angeles parties or art openings. At the latter, don’t be surprised to find so-called Two Buck Chuck, those Charles Shaw wines that have, in fact, gone up to $2.49 (prices vary nationally) from the original price of $1.99. But the stores also have a nice lineup of pricey Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines from well-known brands such as Grgich Hills, Stags’ Leap, Caymus and Whitehall Lane.

The chain has added wine-tasting counters at five of its Los Angeles and South Bay stores, as well as some other stores nationwide. I stopped by for a taste at the store at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. The counter offers three tastes of wines, and they are rotated every three to four days. One of the daily offerings will be a Trader Joe’s brand.

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Trader Joe's Grand Reserve Meritage from Napa Valley. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

I found the Trader Joe’s Grand Reserve series impressive and affordable. Ranging in price from $7.99 to $14.99 a bottle, these wines are from distinct California appellations and display case production and lot numbers on the bottles.

The Grand Reserve 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted had a delicious, round mouthfeel. From Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation, the label read 999 cases produced. Others in this series include wines from various Napa Valley appellations: Zinfandel from Howell Mountain, Merlot from Spring Mountain, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros and Malbec from Sonoma’s Bennett Valley.

For less than $10 a bottle, Trader Joe’s carries a wide selection. The non-appellation designate California Pinot Noirs range from $5.99 to $7.99, and the Central Coast classified Pinots fall in the $7.99 to $14.99 category. In fact, Caretaker, a Santa Maria Valley-designate Pinot from California’s Central Coast, is an excellent buy at $9.99.

The Bordeaux Superieur lineup from labels such as Chateau Payanne and Mayne Guyon are good bets for a party, as are Malbecs from Argentina, Carmènére from Chile and California Zinfandels from Cline, Ravenswood, Bogle Old Vine and Rutz Alexander Valley.

Among the less-than-$10 category for Italian wines, you can find a good selection of Tuscan wines, such as Valpolicella Ripasso, Casa Rossa Rosso and Il Tarocco Chianti Classico. From Spain’s Rioja region, you can’t go wrong with Crianza wines (which have been aged two years, one of which must be in oak) from both Marqués De Riscal and Marqués de Cáceres.

For white wines costing less than $10, go for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from Nobilo and Picton Bay, Mouton Cadet’s Sauvignon and Semillon blend, or the citrusy Picpoul de Pinet wine from Cuvée Azan in the Languedoc region in France.

And because it’s the time of the year to traditionally pop sparkling wine, why not treat yourself to a really pricey Champagne? Perhaps a Veuve Clicquot Rosé ($58.99) or Moët Chandon Imperial ($36.99)? In the mid-price range — $12.99 to $26.99 – you’ll find good California bottlings from Schramsberg, Piper Sonoma and Gloria Ferrer.

But if you’ve blown your budget on Christmas gifts and your wallet is a little thin, there’s hope. You can ring in the new year with sparklers costing less than $10, such as Michelle Brut from Columbia Valley or Trader Joe’s Reserve Brut and Blanc de Blancs.

Cheers … and safe drinking.

Main photo: One of the wines from Trader Joe’s Reserve series, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley’s Rutherford appellation. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

Nochevieja, or old night,” as New Year’s Eve is known in Spain, is a celebration that comes with a bit of insurance. All across the country, welcoming the New Year includes 12 grapes and a glass of first-class cava.

On Dec. 31, when the clock signals the midnight hour, people eat one grape for every toll of the bell. The traditional grapes are known as las doce uvas de la suerte, or “the 12 grapes of luck,” and no one would want to start the New Year without them. But Spaniards like to wash down these grapes with the best bubbly they can find. And with every new year, their choices for first-class cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, get better and better.

While most people consider Champagne the New Year’s drink of choice, there are many options from around the world for sparkling wine that rival the best from that French region. Prosecco and Moscato d’Asti from Italy, Sekt from Austria and even Crémant from elsewhere in France. But in Spain, most Cava comes from the Penedés DO near Barcelona in the Catalan region and is one of the few sparkling wines that mimics Champagne’s production called méthode champenoise or método tradicional as it is known in Spain.

The approach is straightforward enough, but requires a laborious multi-step process. It begins by creating a low-alcohol still wine, then adding a mixture of yeasts and sugar known as licor de tirajo to initiate a second fermentation in the bottle, resulting in the wonderfully tiny bubbles for which sparkling wine is known. The final step is to slowly invert the bottle over a few weeks (riddling) to allow the yeast to accumulate in the neck, freeze the neck, remove the temporary crown cap and a small plug of ice and replace it with the cork that makes the quintessential “pop” when you are ready to start celebrating.

Catalan cava has true regional flavor

Like French producers who use three traditional local varietals — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — to make the blend known as Champagne, Spain’s cava producers rely on their own regional grapes: Xarel·lo, Macabeo (known as Viura in Spain’s Rioja region) and Parellada. Other varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are permitted for use in the Penedés region of Catalonia, but the best Catalan winemakers are increasingly using grapes emblematic of the area to showcase the unique style of their sparkling wine.

With a strong regional pride typical of the highly independent Catalan region, these top producers represent the best that Spain has to offer in today’s vintages. The result is a dry, crisp quaff redolent of apples, lemons and almonds, a little less sweet than Italy’s Prosecco and not quite as nutty as France’s Champagne.

Yet like many other Spanish wines coming out from under a long-standing reputation for middling quality, prices still trail far behind the improvements in taste. Some vintages, like Agustí Torelló Mata’s Kripta Gran Reserva Brut Nature, rival the cost of high-end French Champagne, yet most contemporary cava options represent wonderfully priced, first-class quality.

Many of these producers export great vintages to the United States, and their prices reflect some of the best bubbly bargains around. So this New Year’s eve, start celebrating with 12 grapes and some Spanish cava. The first will bring you luck, the second will bring you happiness.

Cava producers and labels worth celebrating 

Agustí Torelló Kripta Gan Reserva Brut Nature Sparkling

Castellroig Sabaté I Coca Reserva Familiar Xarel·lo

Gramona III Lustros Gran Reserva Sparkling

Juvé y Camps Gran Reserva Brut Sparkling

Llopart Leopardi Brut Nature Sparkling

Raventós Blanc de Nit Sparkling (which incorporates a bit of my favorite regional varietal, Monastrell to create the perfect pink sparkling wine)

Recaredo Brut de Brut Gran Reserva Brut Nature

Main photo: Spanish cava for toasting the new year. Credit: Caroline J. Beck

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Pouring out the Champagne. Credit: iStock

Corks are popping all over the place this month. More bottles of Champagne and other sparkling wines are sold during the holidays than at any other time of the year. With an elegance that eludes eggnog, bubbly is definitely a December favorite.

For many consumers, this is just about the only time that they buy and drink this particular type of wine. Not surprisingly, they often find themselves confused. Sparkling wines come in a wide array of styles and an even wider range of prices. Is the more expensive one inevitably best? Is Champagne always better than bubbly made elsewhere? And what do all those words on the label — “brut,” “extra dry,” “demi-sec” — really mean?

Here’s a primer, with answers to these and some other frequently asked questions.

Is Champagne really the best sparkling wine?

In a word, yes. Real Champagne comes from a relatively small region in northern France, where the cool climate and chalky soil combine to produce sparkling wines of remarkable grace and finesse. That’s why good Champagne remains the benchmark for anyone producing bubbly just about anywhere else.

What makes Champagne so distinct? Many things, but the most important factor is that the area is too cold for wine grapes to ripen fully. They retain lots of acidity, and while too tart for still wine, are perfect for bubbly.

That Champagne remains best doesn’t mean, however, that other sparkling wines are bad. Vintners all over the world make bubbly following the time-honored Champagne method, a laborious process in which a second fermentation in the bottle produces a stream of tiny, delicate bubbles. Their wines can be delicious. Look for an indication of this “classic” or “traditional” method on the label.

Why is Champagne so expensive?

Two reasons, really. First comes supply and demand. Though people clamor for Champagne all over the world, the region itself is relatively small. Second, because demand is so strong, vineyard land in Champagne is expensive. Growers need to charge a fair amount for their grapes to cover their costs. Couple the high price of the raw material with the expensive production method, and the wine simply can’t come cheap.

Speaking of cheap, you still can find some bottles of American bubbly for under $10 labeled as “Champagne.” Though regulations now restrict the use of the term, producers who labeled their wines with it in the past are allowed to continue to do so. These wines, however, are not made with the traditional method. They bear virtually no resemblance to true Champagne.

Are there any good, affordable Champagnes?

Absolutely, and this is definitely the time of year to buy them. Most shops put bubbly on sale during the holidays, and you can find some excellent Champagnes for under $30 a bottle. Look for the bruts from Henri Abelé, Piper Heidsieck, and Mumm (Cordon Rouge), all of which have impressed me recently.

What does ‘brut’ mean?

It means dry, and “ultra-brut” (Laurent-Perrier makes an excellent one) means very dry. Champagne nomenclature, however, gets confusing. You’d think “extra dry” would mean very dry. It doesn’t. Instead, a wine labeled “extra dry” will be slightly sweet, though not quite as sweet as one labeled “demi-sec,” a term that literally means half-dry. There’s absolutely no logic to it.

Incidentally, rosé Champagnes, which many people assume will taste sweet, are usually quite dry.

What about sparklers from elsewhere in Europe?

Spanish cava is always a popular alternative to Champagne, particularly since it carries a lower price tag. Made by the traditional method, but with different grape varieties, good cavas taste nutty rather than toasty, and rarely cost more than $15. Cristalino, Mont Marcal, and Segura Viudas are reliable producers.

Bubbly from the Loire Valley in France, though inevitably coarser in texture than Champagne, can be another option. For around $12, look for the bruts from Bouvet and Marquis de la Tour.

Prosecco from northeastern Italy is surging in popularity these days. Rarely made by the traditional method, the wines usually taste somewhat sweet. More like Champagne in style are brut Italian sparklers from Trentino and Franciacorta. Popular with the chic set in Milan, they are priced in the same league as the French originals.

Are there any good American sparkling wines?

Yes, and more and more all the time. Let’s start in California, where the Champagne-styled sparklers tend to taste fruity and frothy, the wines being made from riper grapes than in Champagne. Names to look for include Domaine Carneros, Gloria Ferrer, Roederer Estate, and Schramsberg. Expect to pay about $25 for a basic brut, and more for a vintage or prestige bottling.

Many other places in the United States also produce good bubbly. Westport Rivers in Massachusetts, L. Mawby in Michigan, Gruet in New Mexico, Chateau Frank in New York, Argyle in Oregon and Thibaut-Jannison in Virginia are examples of wineries whose wines have won numerous medals and awards at international competitions and are well worth trying.

What foods go best with ‘brut’ bubblies?

Wherever it comes from, brut sparkling wine pairs best with savory fare. It’s a remarkably versatile food wine, and can complement almost anything on your holiday buffet. I’m especially partial to it with seafood, notably shellfish and sushi.

But what about dessert?

Brut bubbly is simply too dry to complement desserts, as sugar or pastry cream makes the wine seem thin and metallic. Serve extra-dry or demi-sec wine instead. Veuve Clicquot makes an excellent non-vintage demi-sec that costs about $45. If that’s too much money, try Freixenet’s extra-dry cava for about $10.

Incidentally, virtually no sparkling wine matches well with chocolate, as the dark cocoa flavors invariably make the wine taste bitter.

What if I buy more wine than I end up opening over the holidays?

Good bubbly will improve noticeably with some time spent in the bottle, becoming more complex, nuanced and intriguing. You do need good storage conditions — a place that is relatively cool, with little direct light. Whether you use a closet or a basement, don’t worry about leftover bottles. Given all the sales during the holidays, this is definitely the season to stock up!

Main photo: Pouring out the champagne. Credit: iStock

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