Thursday, April 14, 2016

Trader Joe’s Wines: Winners and Losers

With Chef Janet Ebright churning out one fabulous dish after another, our Cooking with Class spring dinner and tasting of Trader Joe’s wines was a home run. Not that I wasn’t a bit nervous about it beforehand, because I was.
The quality:price value of the Friexenet Cordon Negro Cava is tough to beat.

The source of my jitters: all the empties plonked down behind the school’s demonstration kitchen, most of which were the TJ wines that didn’t make the cut. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Night after night and with high hopes, my co-tasters and I had tasted through all of them, kissing a lot of frogs. Finding bottles on a budget that would be worthy of Chef Janet’s food and effort, and that would uphold my wine cred, turned out to be tougher than I thought.

Undaunted, we found wine redemption, charging through the TJ aisles to find these five winners you too might want to try or share proudly with friends.

We began with bubbles, of course, giving the value nod to the Freixenet Cordon Negro Brut Cava. Housed in a classy frosted black bottle, this Spanish sparkler – made in the traditional style used in Champagne but with native Spanish grapes – pours with a fine mousse, delivering refreshing citrus and peach flavors with a hint of nuts and flowers. Paired with the mixed charcuterie platter that had everyone abuzz, this lovely bubbly makes a perky partner for other appetizers and light dishes (tempura is especially divine). It flies solo too, a fitting companion for the warm days ahead. For only $8, it will beautify your table any day of the week or, at this price, you might find yourself reaching for it all week long.

This taste of Latour delivers at Trader Joe's.

Next, we uncorked the Maison Louis Latour 2013 Grand Ardèche Chardonnay, a $9 steal that often sells for two or three times as much. Diners who were not fans of Chardonnay were instead asking for another taste of this juice. Medium in body, the Grand Ardèche has lovely balance with citrus and apple fruit, a touch of oak and bracing acidity. Try it in honor of the recently passed Louis Latour, who ran the tenth-generation company from 1958–1998, the sixth Latour named Louis to do so. He saw the promise of the warm Ardèche region south of Beaune, where he expanded the business and built a winemaking facility in 1986. Merci, Monsieur Latour.

The third course was accompanied by two reds: the Château Roudier 2010
Montagne-Saint-Emilion and TJ’s own, the Trader Joe’s Reserve 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, Lot #71.

 These two bottlings brought big smiles to the red wine lovers. 

Whoa, you might wonder at first, good 2010 Right Bank Bordeaux at TJ’s? And what, for $13? Yup. Though lacking the conversation-stopping complexity of pricier Bordeaux, the Château Roudier allows you to experience one of the best Bordeaux vintages in the past 20 years at an everyday price. The wine shows characteristic Saint-Emilion dark, plummy fruit with cassis flavors and a velvety texture. Drink this one now and over the next 1–5 years with a grilled steak or, at this price, your favorite hamburger, pizza or steak sandwich.

The second red for the main course was just as popular as the Château Roudier, if not more – Trader Joe’s Reserve 2013 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, Lot #71, one of TJ’s new tiers of wine. Medium in body, this Zin had plenty of Zinny character without the harshness and raisiny overripe fruit often found in low-priced bottlings.

To finish with a perfect ending, Chef Janet dazzled everyone with a luscious dessert that featured different elements that all go well with Port – walnuts, blue cheese (Gorgonzola, in this case), pears and chocolate.

Try this affordable and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Port, the Noval Black.

The final tasting treat was the Noval Black Porto, an absolutely lip-smacking Port in the fresh and fruity ruby style. Much like the ‘I don’t like Chardonnay’ drinkers who were clamoring for more of the Grand Ardèche, the non-Port drinkers were dumbstruck to have found a new drinking buddy, especially for only $15, nearly half of the usual retail price. Housed in a slick black box, this wine, like the Cava, makes a terrific gift. Just remember to keep your opened, tightly corked bottle in the frig at home and nurse it to emptiness over the course of a week or two.

An honorable mention must go to one of my TJ favorites that wasn’t in the tasting but easily could have been: the Marques de Caceres 2014 rosé from La Rioja. This fruity Tempranillo-based beauty is a must-buy every vintage. With its screwcap and a $7 price tag, you can savor a taste of springtime all year long.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss TJ’s new tiers of wine and offer a few conclusions. Meanwhile, let us know your favorite TJ wines in the comments section. No slams, please.

Lastly, join us for our last food and wine pairing dinner of the season on Saturday, May 21st starting at 6 pm. Even though it won’t be Trader Joe’s, you can be assured of going home happy, well-fed and juiced about your evening’s food and wine adventure.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Trader Joe’s Wines: Bargains or Bust?

For five years running, the topic that always seems to come up at our Cooking with Class wine dinners is the wine selection at Trader Joe’s. Guests enjoy dishing about their favorite picks, passionately engaging in rounds of “Have you tried…” and ‘Yes, but have you tried…” Other times, our guests want to know what we wine professionals think about TJ wines or our opinion of their go-to TJ picks.

 Which of these Trader Joe's wines made our cut?

This Saturday, starting promptly at 5:30 p.m., we’re taking on TJ wines at a special Trader Joe’s wine dinner and class. The tasty three-course spring dinner – followed by dessert, of course – will be accompanied by five wines from TJ’s current selection. The Chef Janet Ebright-designed menu features a few TJ specialties you might want to put into heavy rotation at home. Chef Janet will also demonstrate different ways home cooks can get creative with TJ products, including items you may not know or not know how to use in your cooking.

Plus, you’ll learn a few different ways to navigate Trader Joe’s every-changing wine aisles and how to spot the store’s value bottlings, beyond price alone. You’ll also taste a few gems we’ve found, from weekday quaffers to wines that will be the talk of your next dinner party.

Call Jane Angwin to reserve at 760.777.1161 or make your reservation online. Bring your TJ passion and a big appetite for food and fun.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Napa Valley Weekend

Visiting Napa Valley in the off-season has its charms. For starters, daytime temperatures are comfortable, tasting rooms are less crowded and restaurant reservations can indeed be had. Plus, with a minimum amount of planning, you can secure private tasting appointments at great wineries where you won’t feel rushed or rustled by season-harried staff. For those on a budget, bargains and hidden gems abound, from restaurants to lodging and shopping.

El Bonita Motel has an Art Deco history dating back to 1956.

We chose St. Helena as home base for sisters’ weekend, in part because a two-bedroom unit at the El Bonita Motel was available for only $150 a night. Located in the renovated building farther back from busy Highway 29, our rooms were comfortable, clean and warm, each with its own balcony and with breakfast included. Parking is ample and the location is within striking distance of Yao Family Wines, Yao Ming’s beautiful new tasting room, V. Sattui (a 15-minute walk away for the daring) and only a few miles from Corison, Vine Cliff and Beaulieu Vineyards, among many others.  

Fuel your Napa Valley adventure with lunch at the reliably excellent Rutherford Grill. After petting the bronze pig in the garden, step into the expansive dinner room with its open kitchen and hunger-stoking hickory smoke aromas. Settle into a cozy booth or, if you sit at one of the long counters, you might find yourself seated next to a local winemaker grabbing a quick bite, probably washed down with a palate-refreshing beer.

Your Napa arrival deserves a toast and Schramsberg brut rosé fits the bill, a delectable pink bubbly served in classy flutes. For starters, go with the grilled artichokes or share a grilled seasonal vegetable platter (ask about it if it’s not on the regular menu). For your main course, you won’t go wrong with any of the Rutherford burgers, the BBQ combo plate or rotisserie chicken, especially with their perfectly cooked wild rice. Lighter choices include the flying tuna platter and the kale and tender rotisserie chicken salad with roasted peanut vinaigrette. Save room for the cornbread, too.

With food in your tummy, wine tasting is next. As more Napa tasting rooms now require appointments, plan ahead to visit some of the more in-demand or prestige wineries. Be flexible to improve your chances of securing a hot ticket by requesting a visit outside of the busy 1 – 4 pm time slot. This trip, we chose Quintessa, perched high atop a hillside along the Silverado Trail one day, and picturesque Rombauer the next. More on those awesome experiences in another post.

Drop-ins are welcome at St. Supéry in Rutherford. The bright and airy new tasting room offers different tasting flights of the winery’s 100% estate-grown wines, served by friendly and informed staff.  For variety and quality, the broad and consistently delicious St. Supéry portfolio is tough to beat. Standouts from the two different tasting menus included the Napa Valley Estate 2014 oak-free Chardonnay, the outstanding 2012 Élu Estate Blend – a great food wine – and the silky Dollarhide 2012 Elevation, a blend of Cabernet, Malbec and Merlot. Considering joining a wine club? St. Supéry offers value, perks and options, including red-only or white-only wine clubs. Devotees of their popular Moscato can choose to belong to its own club. Yes, it’s that good.

By now, a down-home dinner might sound about right. If so, head to the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch. Housed in an old barn, the restaurant sits alongside a popular café and gift shop. The reasonably priced menu features organic, farm-fresh vegetables and grass-fed beef and lamb from their own farms. Don’t miss their fresh-smoked dishes too – the heritage St. Louis ribs are sure to hit the spot after a long day in the tasting rooms lifting and lowering wine glasses. Like the excellent American bistro Market in downtown St. Helena, corkage fees are either waived or much-reduced. We took the bring one, buy one approach. 

The next day, venture into downtown St. Helena for a range of shopping and yes, more wine-sampling ops. The hip and cavernous tasting room at Orin Swift Cellars, maker of Papillon and the I, F and S Locations wines, welcomes up to six people, with appointments required for larger groups. Don’t look for Prisoner here, however. Winemaker David Phinney sold that label in 2013 to Hunneus Vintners, owners of Quintessa.

The staff next door at St. Helena Wine Center, owned by the Beringer family, will help you find even more wine to purchase, bring to dinner or ship. They offer a wine club customized to what you like and don’t like, plus a selection of rosés seldom seen outside of Napa Valley.

Even if you’ve blown your budget in the trendy boutiques, wander up to Steve’s Hardware & Homeware where you’re sure to find something you simply can’t live without. Comb through their well-stocked kitchen section tucked away on the right and their Napa-themed gifts.

Cross the street to savor a tasty energy boost at Woodhouse Chocolates. Another family-owned business, Woodhouse boasts sparkling glass display cases housing perfectly arranged small and irresistible chocolates. Sad to have missed their seasonal Oscar-like chocolate statuette, we consoled ourselves with petite heart of darkness, dark hazelnut and espresso treats.

The name of the Napa Valley drive-in was changed, but the sign remains.

Don’t even consider leaving town without a stop at Gott’s Roadside, also on Highway 29 in St. Helena. Surrounding the grab-and-go food mecca are shaded and sunny picnic areas where you can relax and relish your meal in comfort, hardly aware of the whizzing traffic nearby. Known for their burgers and shakes, keep an eye out for specials such as the po’ boy on a crunchy toasted egg bun and their special shake selections (peanut butter and chocolate, oh my). Want fish instead? The ahi burger is not to be missed.

Best of all, you can wash down all this goodness with a half bottle of Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc, a perfect ending to a perfect weekend.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Romantic Valentine’s Day Wines

With Valentine’s Day following the caveman jubilee and hog fest known as Super Bowl the weekend before, many of us will be ripe for some romance.

These tips may not be quite enough to take someone’s heart by storm but they’re sure to kick-start a wonderful evening. After all, it’s the company and the sentiment that count, right?

This New Orleans shopkeeper keeps the love vibe going all year round.

It’s the bubbles
Champagne may get dissed as a Valentine’s Day cliché but let’s face it: Nothing spells romance like Champagne, from the uncorking ritual to the pour. Bubblies deliver a full-on sensual and sensory experience, starting with the eye-catching streaming perlage to the prickling sensation on the tongue, the brioche-like aromas on the nose and finally, those first scintillating sips. If Champagne isn’t in your budget this year, or even if it is, look to Spanish cava (made also in the traditional French style), consistently excellent American sparkling wine producers (Schramsberg, Scharffenberger, Roederer Estate and J Vineyards in California; Argyle in Oregon) and even to South America. We like the Antucura Fleurie sparkling rosé of Pinot Noir so much, we’ll be serving it at our Valentine’s Day five-course food and wine pairing dinner at Cooking with Class.

Drop acid and go for aromatic
Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and other high-acid wines marry beautifully with many foods, from goat cheese salads to simply grilled fish in lemon-butter sauce – lovely, but not exactly sentimental favorites. Hold off on wines that deliver tang and zing, opting instead for wines with captivating floral aromas and those that deliver weight on the palate. V is for Viognier this Valentine’s Day – we like just about all the different Viogniers made by Yalumba over the past five years. The gently priced Y series (2014) is available in the desert at many locations, including grocers. 

For reds, do like Rob Thomas: smooth
Wine professionals sometimes joke about the overriding appeal of smooth wines. But hey, smooth is good and on Valentine’s Day, smooth is also sexy. Even if your usual wine taste veers toward austere, give your palate a party on the 14th with a fuller, more zoftig wine. Instead of lean or cooler-climate reds, treat yourself to a hefty Syrah (nothing says sexy better than Syrah and while Alban takes the cake, the Shafer Relentless is just that); a mouth-coating Merlot (Washington’s Northstar is a perennial favorite while Chile’s 2012 and 2013 Santa Ema Merlot are bargain standouts); or a not-so-young Cabernet (notable exception: the 2012 Jamieson Ranch Vineyards Double Lariat Cabernet from Napa Valley is drinking surprisingly well now, available at Dan’s Wine Shop in Palm Desert). A high-alcohol Zinfandel might put the kibosh on your romantic plans so perhaps steer clear of Zins pushing 15% or more ABV. Dan’s Wine Shop featured the 2010 Lake Sonoma Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley, a steal at about $10. Others worth a sip are the Trentadue La Storia 2013 Zin from Alexander Valley and reliably excellent Zins from Ridge, William Selyem and Novy.

Be a sweetie
Somm tip: Save the after-dinner wine for after or instead of the dessert, not alongside it. Valentine’s Day desserts tend to be extra-sweet or over-the-top, which can make even a very sweet dessert wine taste off or unexciting. For a classic pour, go with a Port with all its dark-fruited creamy sensuality and spice. The outstanding 2011 vintage Ports are too young to drink now but plenty of choices and bargains abound in 2007 late-bottled vintage (abbreviated LBV on the label) Ports. Try the Quinta do Crasto or the savory Quinta do Portal. Show some panache after a chocolatey or fruity dessert with a Banyuls, the Grenache-based fortified wine from southern France. M. Chapoutier is a reliable producer.

Romance the place
If your sweetie is of Italian, Canadian, Spanish or another ancestry connected to a winemaking country, consider choosing a wine that acknowledges that heritage. Match your beloved to a fine Canadian ice wine, an aged and noble Brunello or Tempranillo, an Australian late-harvest Muscat or whatever wine best reflects that ancestry.

Pick and choose from these suggestions or go full-throttle with one of each. Now that’s amore.