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.

Giving thanks for great wine

Anyone with a cellar stocked full of wine probably has several special bottles tucked away that have such

The holiday table is the perfect stage to present one of your special cellar selections.

prestigious pedigree that they couldn’t possibly think of actually opening and enjoying a bottle.

I had a small bottle of aged single malt scotch that sat on a shelf for years because I couldn’t bring myself to open that special bottle, my father has several cases of the good stuff just lying around untouched and dusty and my in laws have a great collection that heaven forbid they open.

But this Thanksgiving my wife and her sister were able to convince their parents to open a few of those special bottles. Because, as my wife says, every bottle has a story and when it’s opened the wine and its story come alive, or perhaps are revived as good wine never dies.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving I gathered with my wife’s family to have a second Thanksgiving because my wife and I celebrated with mine on Thursday. Two Thanksgivings ain’t a bad deal, especially as we’d be enjoying the meal with a ’59 Bordeaux and a magnum of ’87 Napa cabernet. The Bordeaux was Chateau les Conseillans where my father in law worked a harvest after studying at the Bordeaux wine university. Our discussion with that bottle touched on harvests in France, the wonderful aging potential of Bordeaux and the winemaker at the chateau who was my father in law’s mentor and one of the top wine researchers in France.

The magnum of Napa wine was a Pahlmeyer that was very different compared to the French wine. Of course, the two are of such different ages one couldn’t make a fair comparison but it’s always interesting to taste a Napa wine with a French. As my father in law said, “it’s like football compared to soccer.”

Fifty years old and the wine had almost no sediment. The cork was a real challenge to pull, but Christine is an old cork pro.

The French wine had a light body and restrained flavors but with a rich mid palate and a smooth finish. As expected, the Pahlmeyer had “more” of everything from more fruit flavors to more oak and a little more alcohol heat even though both wines had less than 13 percent alcohol. As we remarked on the differences of the two wine, the conversation turned to a winemaker friend of the MacLeans who worked with Christine’s mother and went on to find great success in the industry. It was an interesting conversation of family recollections and wine industry gossip.

My favorite wine of the night was indeed a special treat. Christine’s father pulled out a 1969 French brandy. This particular brandy was Domaine du Castagnet, an armagnac that had been aged in oak for two years. I never have tasted anything so rich, intense and lovely. The brandy had an dark amber color and it was a bit much for the rest of the MacLean ladies but I thought it was delicious and the perfect ending to a Thanksgiving feast.

A little bit of brandy does wonders on fighting that turkey coma after Thanksgiving.

Every year you can read through dozens of the same article on what to pair with the Thanksgiving, or any holiday, meal. Each expert has their own opinion that seems to change every year. In my opinion, a large meal with all your family gathered is the perfect time to open some of those old, special bottles.

Now I just need to start working on a cellar collection and having the patience to allow some bottles to age.

Diary of a Cellar Rat: Harvest is Done

Wait let me get this straight, Californians elected Jerry Brown governor and to keep weed illegal?

Is it 1974?

Coming back to the real world after harvest is a little odd. You find yourself with the luxury of a two day weekend and with an enormous amount of free time. My hands are little by little losing the the dark, almost black, stain of wine. However, the heavy base and caustic chemicals we use in the celler as well as the natural solvent alcohol still has them dried out, cracking and occasionally bleeding.

Ah this new career, my delicate hands used to just ply a computer, now they are cracked, calloused and gnarly.

But we got all the grapes in, and it will be an interesting vintage. The cool summer and storms in late October forced some winemakers to pick before they were entirely sure about ripeness. The result could be “greener” wines that don’t have all the ripe dark fruit flavors California wines are known for, but more vegetal, bell pepper notes. This past growing season has been charitably referred to as Bordeux like, but who knows.

My role this vintage was a mix of lab work, celler grunt work and a little bit of logistical and administrative work. Some days at the height of harvest, I’d spend about 12 and half hours of work in the celler working on yeast innoculations, additions, must adjustments, pumpovers and fermentation checks. After all that, it would be back to the lab to enter the data as well as check my e-mail for any pick specification sheets. I would have to save these into a database and then update the producation winery’s calendar for receiving fruit and then generate a crush work order for processing the fruit. Just another 14 hour day.

The challenge this year was that in addition to the tough physical work I had to also remember to have a cover page on my TPS reports.

It was a great learning experience, and I’m looking forward to a more regular routine at the winery to build on my knowledge.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there, and it’s going to be nice to return back to the real world and get back to The Uncorked Life.

Tasting Notes: Chateau Montelena


This image of this particular winery shot at this angle is probably in the photo collections Napa Valley trips by tourists from all over the world. People were taking this photo before Christine snapped this shot with her iPhone and then two more people took this photo after us.

It’s been a busy past few weeks, the onslaught of harvest has really hit and I’ve been a little lax with the blog. Well, everything else to be exact. When you’re working 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week you tend to get a little narrow minded.


But Christine and I did have a pleasant Sunday afternoon recently when we went up to Calistoga for a little wine tasting at Chateau Montelena. The chateau is one of Napa’s oldest and best known wineries. I’m taking a wine class at the Napa college and my partner in a class project works in the tasting room at Montelena. He invited me up for a tasting and as neither Christine or I had been up there, it seemed like a great idea.

The historic winery is quite an impressive old pile of bricks and it’s surrounded by gorgeous landscaping replete with a swan dotted pond.

The estate is what most people think of, when they think of a Napa winery — a beautiful, historic winery nestled in a small valley filled with vineyards. Chateau Montelena is an embodiment of the Napa ideal and it’s well worth a visit to regain a sense of the Napa Valley “magic” so to speak. The winery also has the allure of a bit of Hollywood fame as its story of success in a pivotal French tasting in the ’70s is depicted in Bottleshock. Not a bad flick, and if you like wine worth watching.

The wine at Montelena is as good as the winery is itself beautiful. The Cabernet is restrained yet still powerful. Definitely made in more of the classic Bordeaux style than in the big, bold oaky and “drink now” style that is the hallmark of so many other Napa wineries. To my surprise, one of the most enjoyable of the Montelena’s wines was the 2009 Riesling that had enticing fruit aromas backed by a crisp minerality and near-dry finish.

There are wineries in Napa that have an enduring appeal, and I think Montelena is one of these.

Just a turkey sandwich

A proper turkey sandwich served up by the pros at the Broadway Market in Sonoma. I enjoyed the sando with a little Italian proseco, very tasty.

It’s not that interesting, not that gourmet but there’s just something great about a good turkey sandwich. I’m talking about the ones from some of the best delis in Sonoma or Napa. This is kinda weird, but around here a solid turkey sandwich is expected and respected. I’ve never really thought of them as special until I traveled the world a little bit and couldn’t find that same combo of a fresh smoked or peppered turkey on a hard sourdough role with pepper jack cheese, tomatoes (when in season) onions, peppers, lettuce, pickles (not for everyone but those folks are weirdos, yes Cody, I think your pickle aversion is a little weird) mustard and mayo.

The meat is stacked high, the ingredients on top make a heady mix of flavors and the bread is key. You can’t have a great North  Bay deli sandwich without the sourdough. The crusty bread can be a little messy because the sandwich fillings can kind of slide out when you bite down, but that’s just part of the fun of eating the sandwich.

My current favorite in Sonoma is the venerable Broadway Market, but the Sonoma Market is also solid. In Napa, I’ve got to go Genova’s for the best but Vallerga’s Market is a close second. Brown’s Valley Market, also in Napa, has a solid sando but their butcher is really the only reason to shop there.

Up valley, in St. Helena you’ve got to go to Giugnis. Simply awesome. When I worked at Beringer I had to make a lunch run at Giugnis at least three times a week. They used to have a Cajun Turkey that was just amazing. It was smoked turkey with a rind of peppers and spices that was awesome. Cajun turkey, sour roll, jack cheese, sprouts and yes the juice. You always have to get the Giugnis’ Juice, a savory mix of olive oil, herbs and a little vinegar that’s the final complement to the sandwich.

In Lodi, there’s a great butcher shop called Fiori’s. Good meat and the best sandwiches in town, although they couldn’t do a proper turkey. They didn’t have the right bread or the right toppings. My Lodi friends would vehemently disagree with me, but I remember my first impression was  not bad but it ain’t what they got back home in the North Bay.

I don’t know, am I off base here? Is the turkey sandwich something special in the North Bay or is it just my own personal affinity. I think the deli sandwiches are just better around here, but I’d love to hear about great sandwiches elsewhere.

(Congrats to longtime friends of the blog John and Heather on the wonderful addition to their family, a healthy baby girl.)

Dairy of a cellar rat: Wine class

This harvest continues to surprise me. I’m not really sure when it’s going to start in earnest. I mean we’re working 10, 12 hour days six days a week, but the winery doesn’t have that true, chaotic feeling of crush yet. The cool weather has just slowed everything down to an amazing degree. Today I took my dog CoCo on a run and I could not believe how much Sauvignon Blanc is still hanging and we’re almost in October. Sauv B is usually the done by the start of September.

Not really a bad thing I guess as this fall I’m taking a class at the Napa community college in the fundamentals of oenology. The class is interesting but the best part is that as we discuss the art of winemaking I spend most of my days doing the exact same operations that are the focus of the class.

For example, my most recent class dealt with yeasts, fermentation, inoculating grape juice and the fermentation/yeast cycle. Prior to the lecture, I spent the day at the winery preparing yeast, inoculating must and monitoring fermentations.

It’s a wonderful combination of work and life as well as a little ironic when you’re taking a vocabulary quiz on such terms as yeast, starter solution and must (the unfermented mixture of grapes, grape skins, seeds, juice and other material) and your pants are covered in yeast, yeast starter and must.

Drinking Jungle Juice in Harlem?

A man known as Kool-Aid mixing multiple alcohols and juice at his home in Harlem to make a drink called nutcracker. He said he could make $700 in profit on every $200 to $300 in supplies. (Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times)

Summertime, sitting on the stoop in the heat of Harlem sipping on an icy Nutcracker.

Not how I spent my August, but according to this great article in the New York Times, many folks in Harlem are doing just that. The Nutcracker is a heady mix of different liquors mixed with fruit juice and sold for $5 a pop by neighborhood bootleggers.

The Nutcrackers reminded me of the Jungle Juice I drank at many a party during my college days at UO. The “Juice” could be a ruinous cocktail for naive young undergrads.

Myself and my friends Dex, Ken and Sarah threw a party one time and fixed up two 10 gallon coolers of the drink and mixed in fresh fruit. The fruit soaks up the booze and it was truly the brave who “ate the fruit.”

I think our recipe went something like this:

1 bottle of 151 grain alcohol like Everclear or 151 rum

1, 750 ml of citrus vodka

1, 750 ml. vodka

1 750 ml. gin

1 bottle each of pineapple juice, orange juice and cranberry juice.

Ice and water to top as well as fresh fruit.

I can’t remember if the recipe was split into both coolers or if was four bottles of liquor for each cooler, probably the latter.

Well I ever throw a Jungle Juice party again? Perhaps not, but it could be kind of fun to make a small batch for sentimental reasons.

Who knows, maybe I could make a little money on the side selling cups of Carneros Nutcracker out at the marina.

Beer tour on the North Coast

A tall frosty pint of Lost Coast Pale Ale, a welcome start to a North Coast brew tour.

If Portland, Ore. is the undisputed capital of America’s brew culture, than I have to say California’s North Coast is its sleepy, oft-ignored younger brother. The North Coast, which includes Humboldt County and its two largest cities Arcata and Eureka, may be best known as a pot grower’s paradise but the region is also home to some of the finest small breweries in the nation.

I recently got a chance to skip out of Napa for a quick weekend to savor the last bit of my summer freedom before the onslaught of harvest begins at the winery. My tour guide for the weekend was my good friend Brendan who has lived in the Arcata area for almost a decade. He’s a fellow Sonoman and was the best man at my wedding. He’s usually hunting on fall weekends, but decided to put down his bow and arrow to show me the brew scene in his neck of the woods.

I arrived late on Friday night, and after a night of reminiscing and talking about how country music lost its way, Brendan and I woke up early in the morning for a quick round of golf at the Eureka municipal course. Golf is a fickle pursuit. I try to play about every two weeks so I was feeling confident. Brendan plays about once or twice a year and he beat me by seven strokes. It was one of those days out on the links when about anything that could go bad did, and when something went good I was just making ground back from the last mistake.

Needless to say by the last hole I was ready to start the brew tour. Our first stop was Lost Coast brewery, probably the best known and most celebrated of the North Coast brews. This brewery is located in downtown Eureka and serves a wide selection of ales that includes their well-known Downtown Brown and Great White. The brown is a wonderful example of the classic Brown Ale variety that packs a subtle hop punch in the finish. The Great White is ostensibly a Belgian white but it has less aromatics and coriander spice taste with more German hoppiness. The Great White can fluctuate in quality but on the whole it generally is a crowd pleaser. I couldn’t believe the number of folks who joined us at the crowded Lost Coast bar and when deciding what to drink asked if the brewery had “anything light?” I don’t know why you would got to a brewery and inquire to drink something light. I guess they just wanted to try something new, but didn’t want to get to far out of their comfort zone. Most of them seemed to be making road trips on 101 and actually most of them seemed like they were from southern California. Probably Dodgers fans. And they probably prefer lite beer. Bastards.

Downtown Eureka is home to the Lost Coast brewery, one of the best and best known beermakers in the area.

Our next stop was Humboldt Brewing, but we quickly learned they no longer make their own beer, but do offer about 30 beers on tap. We had a quick pint and got to talking about the strangle hold pot growers have on the economy and society in Humboldt. It’s a shame that a small group of ponytailed oligarchs are holding the region back, but Prop. 215 may change all that.

The next stop was Mad River Brewing. This brewery is located in the small community of Blue Lake just outside of Arcata near the 101 intersection with 299. This turned out to be my favorite spot of the day. The brewery is located in a small industrial park situated near a pulp mill. It seemed truly emblematic of the North Coast to be sitting in a beer garden with a bunch of college kids almost in the shadow of a mill drinking craft beer. Mad River is a hop head’s type of brewery. They have a wonderful selection of IPA’s that all exhibit the full range of hop flavor from grit your teeth bitterness to wonderful notes of citrus. They have a limited distribution but if you can find a 22 ounce or six pack in your store give it a try.

Another great brewery in the area is Six Rivers. Brendan and I visited this joint during a hunting trip last year so it wasn’t on our itinerary this time around but on my most recent visit I was able to try their porter and found it to be delightful. Most porters can be just a little too much smoky malt and little hops. Six River’s porter had a wonderful balance and a really crisp finish.

The view from a hillside a few miles outside of Blue Lake in Humboldt County.

But a trip to Humboldt wouldn’t be complete without heading up into the mountains. Brendan is a field biologist for a resource company in the area and took me out to a remote area where he’s conducting a study on spotted owls. We had a box of mice in the back of the truck and I was all jazzed for some great photos of me feeding a wild, Humboldt spotted owl, but after about 20 minutes of hooting, screeching, whistling and whooping on Brendan’s part to call in the owls we had no luck.

After the brew tour, Brendan and I went to downtown Arcata for a great dinner at the Plaza Grill. I had a huge platter of ribs and he had the sensible, heart-healthy seared tuna served over wild rice. As we made our way around the plaza, I was able to talk him into a quick drink at Everett’s. Well, a “quick drink” is never really that quick and after I had started on the Jameson’s and bought him a shirt, I tried to get him to go for a visit to the Tip Top club, but it was to no avail. I guess that’s why they call me full throttle.

They've got big trees up there dude. No really, like totally huge bro.

The next day I woke up to find the fog breaking up early, at around 9 a.m. Usually the coastal towns can stay socked in until 3 p.m. I took the opportunity for a quick five mile run to savor the fresh air and ocean breeze. The pleasant and clear weather made for a wonderful drive back down through the Redwoods on 101.

I always love visiting the North Coast. It’s definitely not part of the Bay and it’s not really pure Northern California — like Redding, Chico or Red Bluff — and it’s also got a much different vibe than Southern Oregon. I’m not sure if I’d love it that much if I lived there year round, the politics and marijuana growers would get old, but it sure is nice to visit. A big part of making those visits pleasurable is the vibrant and creative brewing scene.

(Update, Sept. 21, 2010, correction that’s Prop 19, not Prop 215. I do recall voting from Prop. 215 back in the day, actually it may have been my first election. I also voted for Dennis Peron too.

Also, the Tip Top Club reference was a joke. The place has always been a joke every since I first started visiting the North Coast. Unfortunately, my wife didn’t get the joke. Evidenced by the fact that after she read this post she sent me a text that started with “Your a pig!!!” and didn’t get any nicer. Women just don’t get jokes sometimes.)

Harvest 2010 is here

Today at 9:36 a.m. my colleague Diego, using a forklift, tipped a bin loaded with Sauvignon Blanc grapes into one of the presses at Starmont and harvest had commenced.

It’s been a bit of a slow burning fire this year. A cooler than normal summer has pushed us a few weeks behind a “normal” harvest schedule. A lack of a good long heat spell has also meant there doesn’t seem like there will be an onrush of early ripening fruit. Instead, it seems like a measured march into what could be very busy October and November. (There’s even some talk that we won’t get Thanksgiving off.)

I’ll be working in the lab and the cellar this harvest and I’m looking forward to not only seeing the production side again, but to see more of the analytical processes involved with harvest.

The start of harvest is always a fun, although bit tense time. While we’re all looking forward to the overtime and extra money the grueling hours and stress are not fun. Simple traditions, however, help keep you excited. This morning, us cellar guys gathered around with the winemakers, vineyard managers, lab staff and folks from the administrative office to toast another vintage with a glass of sparkling wine. It’s a nice tradition, practiced at many wineries, although some break out champagne to toast the last load of grapes for that harvest.

This harvest could well go deep into late November and perhaps even December depending on weather.

In the weeks leading up to today, many of my coworkers in the cellar would joke around with each other asking if “you’re ready for harvest?”

As our cellarmaster reminded us this morning: “It doesn’t matter if you’re ready or not. Harvest is here.”