Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year

Life is too short. Here’s a photo of a small bottle of fine Scoth whiskey that Christine purchased for me during her trip to Scotland back in 2004. The whiskey is not one of the finest, ultra-premium whiskeys out there but it’s hard to find in the States and pretty expensive for our modest means. The little 250 ml bottle cost quite a bit, even in 2004, and it was even more of a pinch because Christine purchased it in pre “Great Recession” British pounds.

Before I opened up this little gem, my friends derided and mocked me for even having a little 250 ml. of whiskey. "Oh did a Leprachaun sell you that?" mocked my friend Brendan. Well, last time I offer them something special.

This little bottle of Cragganmore Speyside lay hidden in my closet for several years. Too special to be enjoyed it made the move to three different houses and at one point probably was forgotten a few times.

Then on my 31st birthday about a month ago, I just decided to open it up and give it a taste. I don’t know much about Scotch, so I can’t really say this was the most amazing Scotch ever! but it was tasty and smooth. I can discern lengthy aging to smooth out the rough edges of peat, oak and alcohol notes that usually dictate in Scotch, so that was enjoyable.

I guess my point is that we often get caught up in the big picture of what we have, don’t have, want or perceive to need. Most times, however, there’s a small bottle, both figuratively and literally, tucked away in the back of your closet that you already have and all you need to do is make time to dig it out of storage and open it up.

Here’s to a New Year! Let’s hope that in 2011 “mixologists” will be replaced by good bartenders who know how to make a Gimlet, Syrah will get some respect, beer prices will at least stabilize so we won’t be paying $12.99 for a six pack of Banquet beer and we all have fun enjoying The Uncorked Life.

Big boy brewing in Fairfield

I lucked out last week by being able to tag along with the X Winery holiday party, which consisted of a behind the scenes VIP tour of the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fairfield, just up I-80 from Napa.

While I had taken the free tour a few years ago, I jumped at the chance to take the VIP “Brewmaster” tours as these take the visitor deep into the bowls of the behemoth brewery as well as a sampling from a finishing tank. Super fresh Budweiser tastes like, well, Budweiser but it’s still pretty cool. And I do mean “cool.” The storage cellar is kept at around 36 degrees and the fun of the special tasting was diminished a bit when I was shaking and my hands were turning blue.

We got some swell swag, including a hat and beer glasses, and some great first-hand knowledge of production on such a massive scale it’s just amazing.

I thought I’d just post up a gallery of pics from the day’s tour:

(You can read more about the tour by going here: http://www.budweisertours.com/toursBeermaster_fairfield.htm)

What I’m drinking: Beer at $1 an ounce

The options for the beer lover these days have never been better. Go into any grocery story, or often even the lowliest of convience stores and you’ll find a plethora of beers to chose from.

Sierra Nevada and its speciality brews, Lagunitas and a sampling of foreign beers can be found almost everywhere. And in addition to these fine six packs one can also peruse shelves of even fancier 22 ounce bottles. These beers are often from ultra-micro breweries from across the nation and the world. The big bottles come with a big sticker price though, in the range of $9.99 to even a shocking $19.99 per bottle.

Recently I was hanging out with some buddies talking about Belgium brews and the American breweries that emulate the funky Belgian style. We were dropping names like the well-known Chimay to the more obscure Three Philosphers. I realized I hadn’t had some of these beers for a while probably because I’m not a huge fan of the Belgian style and I balk at buying beer at such a rate. With wine prices these days it’s often cheaper to pick up a couple of bottles of imported Shiraz then to buy a couple of sixers, let alone one of the special 22 ouncers.

That dog on the label kinda looks like CoCo. At $9.99 a bottle, I paused but Chrissy said let's get two of them. Not to beer and wine makers, pet owners still will buy almost anything with their dog on it.

But this blog is about experimentation, and living The Uncorked Life no matter the personal sacrifice. So at Whole Foods the other day I decided to drop down on some speciality 22 ounce bottles.

I picked up one bottle from an obscure brewery in Colorado because, well, the label featured a chocolate lab. The beer, the “Cellar Reserve” by Grand Teton Brewing Co., was part of the brewery’s signature artist-designed labels and a clerk at the store told me that the current bottles would be the last the store would have.

The beer was amazing. Hands down, one of the best Belgian style white ales I’ve ever tasted. This was so more than just a tasty beer; it had layers on layers of flavor that began with light, flowery all spice and coriander and then finished with sumptuous notes of hops. This was the type of beer that could complement and accentuate fine dining.

I also purchased a 22 of Allagash brewery’s special Curieux release. I was interested in this beer because it’s aged in small, oak barrels that had been used for aging Bourbon. The Bourbon barrel trend has become quite hot in the U.S. with brewmasters across the nation gaffling up any used Bourbon or other brown liquor barrels they can find to age their brews.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed. I had expected fireworks of deep flavor, and instead found the beer to be a bit bland. I could pick up a few notes of vanilla and some liquor alcohol notes, but I think that was about all I got from the Bourbon oak. The rest of the beer was a bit sour.

And at $19.99 for a 22 ounce bottle of the stuff, I have to admit that perhaps my uninterest was fueled by the bitterness in my mouth after having spent what I had.

It is what it is. I recommend tasting through these speciality brews when you can, because you can truly taste something rare and amazing. (Another good example is the Sierra Nevada Estate Beer, fantastic, and probably one of the few beers you’ll find with a wax sealed bottle cap.) Unfortunately you can also taste a clunker.

Tasting Notes: Joseph Phelps Winery

Inside the tasting area at Joseph Phelps Winery.

You can save lots of money by trudging out to the local Target on Black Friday to line up in the cold predawn hours. That’s just not me. I love a deal, but not at the expense of my post-holiday sleep and dignity.

Instead, Christine and I got up early the day after Thanksgiving to ensure we had plenty of time to make our 11 a.m. tasting appointment at Joseph Phelps Winery.

Located off Taplin Road, up valley near St. Helena, Joseph Phelps is one of the great names of Napa Valley and Christine and I are trying to polish off our Napa palates by visiting as many of these old mainstays as we can. It’s just the way it is when you grow up in area that you don’t appreciate the local highlights as well as the tourists.

Before our visit I read up on Joseph Phelps in a 1975 illustrated reference guide to Napa Valley wineries. Back then, Phelps had just been the first winery in the United States to bottle a Syrah and one of its most popular wines was a 1973 Johansesburg Riesling. The winery was a small but modern barn nestled in a tiny valley that had previously been a cattle ranch. (The book is a fascinating look at the Napa Valley back in the mid ’70s and comparing the “then” to “now” is going to be great fun.)

Today, Phelps is big time and the tasting area is located in an impressive room housing several large, but unused, wooden fermentation tanks. The tastings proceed at your leisure and Christine and I took a few breaks to wander around the grounds to enjoy the scenery and the pleasent vibe.

We started our tasting with Phelps’ Freestone line. This winery is located on the Sonoma Coast and produces cooler climate varietals like Pinot Noir and a restrained Chardonnay. Christine and I disagreed on Freestone. She loved all of their stuff, especially the Pinot, but I found them to be a bit too acidic, a little thin and lacking in the finish. It’s a definite style, I’m just not sure if I enjoy that style.

When we started moving into the Phelps’ labeled wines, I thought to myself that these were more my speed. The Phelps Napa cab had plenty of ripe, dark fruit flavors as well as some green undertones and cedar. But the best, bar far, was the winery’s Insignia label. This wine is made from the chosen lots of the winery’s estate vineyards, and Christine and I were both floored by the quality. The ’06 Insignia had such a redolent and enticing aroma that I almost felt I didn’t need to even taste it, I knew it would be good. And it was.This is the winery’s flagship wine, which receives all the praise and adulation and you can see why.

Oh, but at $220 a bottle taking one home for our modest cellar was not just going to happen. It would be nice to to just say, “Oh sure, let’s get a case for the celler and one to enjoy now,” but we’re not there yet, but thanks to the high rollers who keep our industry rolling.

Christine and I were both pretty interested in the wine and as two industry folks we soon started peppering the tasting associate with just a few too many questions.

“How much per unit do your bottles cost?,” asked Christine impressed by the custom French glass.

The view from the terrace, during our "Terrace Tasting" at Joseph Phelps Winery. Late fall is a great time to go wine tasting.

“I, I don’t know,” replied the woman. And then I jumped in with: “How many pumpovers per day during fermentation and do you guys do any extended maceration?”

Not wanting to embarrass anyone, we backed off and just went back to praising the Insignia.

A basic tasting costs $25 and can be arranged by calling (707) 967-3720. The relexed pace and beautiful grounds make it well worth a visit.

And I think Christine and I have a new tradition: Black Friday Tastings.

While I don’t think places like Phelps will have much in the way of “doorbusters,” it sure is a hell of a lot more relaxing that wrestling with an obese woman over a Blu-Ray player in a aisle at Target.