Trust wines with track records

http://www.virtualme.bizThe hunt for an inexpensive, tasty bottle of wine is usually fun, but a recent string of bad luck made Catherine Rabb, an instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina, ponder the issue of wine reliability: What if you just want a bottle that delivers every time with no worries?

For suggestions, Rabb asked a mix of retailers, wine distributors and wine instructors. The parameters were to choose labels that sell steadily year after year and have loyal customer bases, those special wines they consider proven winners. In addition, she also asked them to stick (this time) to American wines.

Local distributors see hundreds of wines, and are able to give us a peek behind the curtain to see what they consider the most dependable choices. Angie Packer, vice president of Tryon Distributing in North Carolina, considers Caymus, Bogle, J.Lohr, Rombauer, Penfolds and Gundlach-Bundschu to be Tryon’s most reliable brand names.

Sara Gutterbock, director of education for Mutual Distributing, also a North Carolina distributor, has lots of suggestions at every price point. For affordability, she suggests Columbia Crest, Chateau St. Michelle, Clos du Bois, Coppola, Ravenswood and Robert Mondavi Winery. For something a little more upscale, she suggests Ferrari Carano, Merryvale, Franciscan, Mount Veeder, St. Supery and Joel Gott. For a special occasion, Gutterbock picks Archery Summit, Lange, Tablas Creek, Hall, Cuvaison, Buehler or Burgess.

Wine educators need to select wines that illustrate good winemaking. At Johnson & Wales, Sarah Malik loves Saintsbury, especially the Carneros Pinot Noir, while her colleague Jennifer Gallagher says Schramsberg is the only wine (sparkling or still) that she consistently buys both to drink and to give as a gift.

Rabb also shook down students in a couple of her advanced wine classes (who have to drink a lot to get ready for blind-tasting exams!) and got these favorites: Steele, Kunde, anything in the Duckhorn line, Domaine Serene, Fischer Vineyards, Patricia Green, Selby, Cakebread and Solena.

If you choose one or two of the pros’ recommendations, you can fearlessly try a new wine knowing it has delivered in the past and is likely to deliver in the future.

What are your tried and true favorites?  I’d love to hear from you.



A Sunday kind of wine: simple, easy pairings

http://www.virtualme.bizCatherine Rabb, owner of Fenwick’s Restaurant and a senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina says Sundays are a little tough for her since she cooks brunch at her restaurant.  She says the last thing she wants to do when she gets home is cook more.  So she’s developed a couple of go-to options, within these parameters: she absolutely does not want to heat up a single pan, or have dishes to wash.  It has to be something she can pick up on the way home (both wine and food), and not terribly expensive.  It has to be something her family and friends like, or at least doesn’t make anyone complain too much.  These sound like parameters we can all follow to simplify our lives somewhat, don’t they?

Following are Rabb’s top three go-to options:

Her favorite is a Spanish theme.  The wine is Rioja Crianza.  Rioja is Spain’s oldest and finest wine-making region.  The grape variety tempranillo is the star and is usually the main grape, with a few others in the blend.  Crianza refers to the age of the wine, and means it has had a bit, but not too much, aging.  These are fruity red wines that have a bit of complexity and are quite affordable, often under $10.

Rabb recommends pairing the wine with some good olives, manchego cheese, bread, and perhaps hummus.  This is so simple, you can put it out on the coffee table to snack on while you watch TV or enjoy it on the back porch with friends.  The leftovers make a great brown-bag lunch during the week.

Shrimp is popular at Rabb’s house (mine, too).  She loves to get a bag of frozen shrimp, especially when it’s a featured special and a bit more affordable (which it often is at our local Harris Teeter).  No cooking involved, just defrost them, slather with lemon, and serve with lemon butter or cocktail sauce.

The best wine to pair with this is sauvignon blanc.  The tart acidity in the wine acts like a liquid squeeze of lemon for the shrimp.  Most sauvignon blancs are under $15. Like Rabb, I have a fondness for the citrusy ones from New Zealand, but you might prefer a version from California as a less tart alternative.

Just about every grocery has rotisserie chicken these days, and they are often a steal, especially on Sundays.  With a little good bread and a few condiments, this chicken makes a wonderful dinner.

Rabb recommends pairing this with a fruity red wine; although a full-bodied white is a wonderful choice.  Try it with a Valpolicella from Italy or a Cotes du Rhone from France.  The approachable fruitiness of these wines just seems right with the herbal flavors of the chicken.  Even very good examples of these wines are often well under $20.

Just in case you can’t even muster the energy for one of these simple meals, Rabb suggests this insider’s secret:  Open an inexpensive buttery California chardonnay and pair it with a bag of buttery microwave popcorn.  It’s an awesome combo, perfect for snacking stretched out on the couch after one of “those” days.


Red, White or Green?

http://www.virtualme.bizBoxed wines have come of age. A number of wineries are now boxing some of their higher end wines in boxes. According to April Schlanger, owner of Sip…A Wine Store, boxes can have a smaller carbon footprint. They are often made from recycled material, use no toxic glues and can be printed with soy inks. Your wine is guaranteed to remain fresher longer and you often get more wine for your money. No need to pack a wine key on your next outdoor adventure; just don’t forget cups. Recyclable cups are even better. This is a win-win for you and the environment.

April’s picks:

1.  Yellow+Blue Winery. Created by Matthew Cain, formerly with Kermit Lynch Imports, each carton of Yellow+Blue has a carbon footprint half that of the average bottle. Cain sources high-quality, certified organic wine from around the world and ships it in bulk in Tetra Pak containers. The wines are delicious and are bound to change the image of boxed wine. Spanish Rose, Argentina Malbec and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. $10.50 for a liter.

2. Bota Box. Box sources their juice from some sustainable vineyards in California and then boxes it. The boxes are printed directly on 100% recycled kraft paper (containing 100% post-consumer fiber), which is not bleached like white paper, and paper layers are bonded together with cornstarch instead of glue. The inks are soy-based instead of petroleum-based and the bag inside does not contain phthalate plasticizers or BPA. The box is 100% recyclable. The juice is yummy, too. Try a 3-liter of Pinot Grigio or Shiraz for $21.50. That’s equal to 4 bottles at $5.38 each.

3. 2009 VJ Riesling Q.b.A. trocken, Pfalz, Germany. Farmed sustainable. A well-balanced dry and harmonious white, with an abundance of mineral, pear and honeydew notes. A great food wine that will pair well with spicy cuisine, shellfish and port. $36 for a 3-liter.

4. 2009 Montirius, “Le Cadet” VDP de Vaucluse, France. Certified biodynamic and vegan. A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault, this blend is velvety and rich. Aromas of red and black berries with some spicy pepper, leather and earthy characteristics on the palate. A perfect complement for grilled meats, salmon and grilled vegetables. $40 for a 3-liter.

5. Govina Wine Glasses. Shatterproof and recyclable, the ultimate go-anywhere wine glass. Made from a proprietary, food/pharmaceutical-safe polymer that reflects the wine’s color and aromatics much like crystal. It is recyclable and reusable. The perfect glass for outdoor events, boats and by the pool $10 a 4 pack.

All of these descriptions certainly change my perception about boxed wines, and I can’t wait to try them.  How about you; are you game?  If you already have some favorites, I’d love to hear them. 

Making a case for sustainable wines

http://www.virtualme.bizThere’s a lot of interest in — and a lot of confusion about — what makes a wine sustainable in today’s increasingly eco-conscious world. Does organic mean sustainable, and vice versa? What does it mean to be biodynamic? After talking with some area experts in the field, Danielle Jackson, editor of Wake Living Magazine was able to answer these questions and more to help make the case for sustainable wine.

A defining term

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines organic as those products made using integrated cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster the cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Through its National Organic Program, the USDA certifies products as organic and controls the organic standards, including those for wine grape growers, producers, and processors.

In the wine cellar, organic suggests minimal processing and no use of chemical additives like sulfites, which act as a preservative. Organic winemakers typically look at three important elements: the use of wild vs. cultured yeast, the filtration method and the use of sulfur dioxide.

The fundamental idea behind organic wine is that using grapes grown without chemical fertilizers, weed killers, insecticides, and other synthetic chemicals is better both for the planet and the wine drinker.

But just because something isn’t organic doesn’t mean it’s not sustainable in some way.

“Organic includes being eco-friendly, but you can be eco-friendly without being organic,” says Justin Furr, executive director of the North Carolina Wine & Grape Council in Raleigh.

According to Furr, eco-friendly refers to producing products in a way that benefits the environment.

“Companies want to reduce their carbon footprint, which they can do by using recycled packaging, solar power, bottles made from recycled glass or lighter bottles to lower shipping costs,” he notes. “They also can recycled used corks, use grape waste to make other products, have a reservoir or recycle water in their irrigation systems, or not use pesticides that might harm the land or life nearby.”

There are several wineries throughout North Carolina incorporating such eco-friendly practices, like Sanders Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Boonville, which operates an organic farm and garden; Carolina Heritage Vineyards & Winery in Elkin, which is certified organic; and RayLen Vineyards in Mocksville, which uses solar panels for power.

“The general idea is that everything you do to the vineyard and winery for employees and the environment must have a positive outcome 10 years from now, including from a financial standpoint,” notes April Schlanger, co-owner of Sip … A Wine Store in Cary, which specializes in organic, sustainable and biodynamic wines. “You have to make all of these decisions and still be financially viable.”

According to Furr, being sustainable is just as important for the producer as it is for the end user.

“Many farmers, winemakers, and consumers believe that it’s safer and healthier without using most pesticides,” he says. “Consumers also tend to feel better about a product that’s being produced with an awareness toward the environment, and they feel like they’re helping the cause by supporting these eco-friendly products.”

A local authority

And while many winemakers throughout North Carolina employ these environmentally friendly practices, some choose not to get certified.

“Many small growers are fully organic but can’t afford to get the annual certification, which is expensive, so they go under the designation of sustainable,” says Craig Heffley, owner of Wine Authorities in Durham.

The shop, which carries smaller production wines, designates whether a winery is conventional, sustainable, organic or biodynamic on its shelves. Heffley is pleased with the public’s growing taste for varieties that are more eco-friendly in nature.

“The shift toward using more organic products is important because consumers now realize that what they purchase can have a positive or negative impact on the environment,” he says.

“With the small producers we work with, wines are made using more labor in the vineyard to increase the quality of the grapes and by making the wine simply by using no additives,” Heffley adds. “This way, it’s like a farmers market product, which varies from year to year and shows the character of each vintage.”

A biodynamic twist

According to Schlanger, who owns Sip … A Wine Store with her husband, Josh, the biggest taste difference is apparent with biodynamic wines.

“You get more differences vintage to vintage because indigenous yeasts are used, so they’re not influencing a particular taste or flavor,” she says.

Biodynamic wine producers follow the lunar and astrological calendars when it comes to farming grapes. According to Schlanger, these growers also take into account certain properties within the soil, like herbs, flowers and manure.

“You are what you eat, and you are what you drink too,” she says. “Everything we put into our bodies is important and makes a difference.”

Vino or vinho?

For a twist, this year try a wine or two from Spain and Portugal.

Some enlightening information about the wines of Spain and Portugal was shared by Craig Heffley, owner of Wine Authorities in Durham, NC and Mic Finger, the shop’s Vinodrome, in the Spring 2011 issue of Wake Living Magazine.

If you’ve experienced anything about the wines of Portugal and Spain, your introductions tend to be heavy, rustic red wine, or spicy, mature red wine. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find a wealth of variety in the Iberian Peninsula, including some of  the most exciting white wines in the world.

Spain generally is broken into six primary wine communities: Andalucia, Basque, Castilla, Catalonia, Galicia and Valencia-Murcia. Each region has distinct specialties influenced by historic kingdoms, climate and terroir.

Portugal, meanwhile, can be split into two general regions: the north includes the core regions of Bairrada, Dao, Douro and Vinho Verde, while the south includes Alentejo, Algarve, and Tejo.

No matter which variety you go with here, these tasty European treats are sure to inspire.


In Spain, Andalucia primarily serves as the land of Sherry and the wonderful dessert wines of Montilla and Malaga, where the sun bakes the grapes to raisiny goodness.

The Basque region, located near France’s border, lies on the Atlantic Coast. Here, the specialty is Txakoli (Chak-uh-lee), a tart, spritzy white wine that’s perfect for quaffing with seafood and spicy Basque cuisine.

Castilla is known as the land of Tempranillo, the base wine of Rioja and Ribera del Duero and Spain’s signature grape. The most exciting white here is Verdejo from Rueda, which has Sauvignon Blanc-like citrus flavors.

In the wine world, Catalonia often is considered an extension of France’s Rhone Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon, with red wines based heavily on Grenache and Carignan grapes. Bold, berry and thyme-scented, they’re generally rich and higher in alcohol. The best-known white here is Cava, a sparkling wine that’s Spains answer to Champagne.

Galicia is considered the green Spain of the northwest because it’s influenced by the Atlantic’s weather patterns. It’s best known for the juicy, mouthwatering whites from the Albarino grape along its coast. Slightly inland, the most exciting grapes are the white Godello and red Mencia. While Albarino is highly aromatic with citrus and floral aromas, Godello is more subtle, powerful, and lush, with complex mineral flavors, and the exotic Mencia grape’s flavors are peppery and supple, with tastes of cranberry and pomegranate.

Valencia-Murcia is home to the hearty Monastrell and Bobal grapes, the darkest, heaviest red wines of Spain. Muscat is the white grape that mimics the region’s famous orange orchards in dry or sweet wines.


Portugal is a small yet diverse world in itself, with numerous enchanting grape varietals found exclusively within its borders.

Dao and Douro, perhaps the most famous regions, are home to some of the world’s greatest — albeit well-hidden — red wines. The star here, the Touriga Nacional grape, is conducive to dark wines that exude both power and finesse.

Minho is virtually synonymous with one of the most refreshing white wines of all time, Vinho Verde. These crisp, often effervescent wines often are blends of up to six bewitching white varietals, one of which is Alvarinho, from northwestern Spain’s famous Albarino grape.

The Bairrado region is a relative newcomer to the international scene. Its Baga grape is capable of serious and age-worthy wines.

The south is led by Alentejo, where one of Spain’s most cherished grapes, Tempranillo, plays an important role under its Portuguese name, Aragones. It dominates many of the wines here and often is blended with Castelao and Trincadeira — and somtimes even Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Setubal is best known for its intensely aromatic, fortified wines made form Muscat (known here as Moscatel), while Ribatejo is home to an extensive army of grapes — both Portuguese natives and trendy French newcomers.

Contrary to Portugal’s propensity toward tradition and its arsenal of exclusive grapes is a dynamic climate of quality improvement and an intensifying philosophy of family-owned estate production, shadowing Spain’s similar transition a decade ago.

Following are Heffley’s and Finger’s picks of Iberian wines to savor:

  • Mas Codina – Brut Cava, $12
  • Los Frailes – Monastrell, $9
  • Vinae Mureri – “Xiloca” Garnacha, $13
  • Vina Aliaga – Tempranillo, $10
  • Touquinheiras – “Clemen” Vinho Verde, $11
  • Lezirias – “Samora” Red, $8
  • Fracastel – “Lua Nova” Douro Red, $12

What are your favorites? I’d love for you to share them with me.

Expert’s ‘Vintages’ videos make old lessons in wine new again

British Wine Expert, Hugh Johnson

I was so pleased to be introduced to the expert advice of British wine writer, Hugh Johnson, in an article that appeared in last Sunday’s News & Observer.  Written by Catherine Rabb, an instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, the article is Ms. Rabb’s testimonial to Mr. Johnson’s VHS tape series called “Vintage.”  It was a boxed set of four tapes which featured Mr. Johnson in some of the world’s famous wine regions telling the story of wine from ancient to modern times.

Through one of her students, Ms. Rabb recently discovered that the best parts of the “Vintage” series have been updated into short clips and posted on YouTube.   The clips are about 4 to 8 minutes each, and there are about a dozen posted so far.  I took a look, and they are really well done.  I agree with Ms. Rabb that the format is just right, as each clip is in digestible chunks — just right for the way we look at videos these days.  And the information is still fresh and interesting.  I encourage you to take some time to check these out.  Go to and type in “Hugh Johnson Vintage” or view them here.