Grape Madness – Round Three (Cost Plus Bracket)

number4_openAnd then there were four.

After two weekends of tasting thirty-two wines, the inaugural Grape Madness event is down to four worthy champions.

One last match-up, in my own Cost Plus bracket, to complete the Final Four and set up a dual-city tasting that will crown the first ever Grape Madness champ.

(2) The Show versus (3) Bodega Norton

I’m too lazy to research this fully but I think The Show was picked by far the most to come out of  the Cost Plus bracket and sure enough it did.  I had only heard about this wine recently and then promptly forgot about it, but as I said when the tournament opened and I found myself in the aisles at Cost Plus, something about the bottle itself just hit the right emotional buttons.  And  the juice did not disappoint.  It methodically made its way through each game not with flash, like some Tampa Bay Buccaneer, one year winning it all, the next four missing the playoffs.  No, The Show was more like my beloved Eagles, in every game, winning most of them.  In the end, would it make a city proud, or crush our hopes and dreams again, like some overworked dad, home too late to tuck us kids into bed and read us a story?

The Bodega on the other hand came in unknown and proceeded to pump out the highest consistent scores in this bracket.  After making short order with another nice CA Cab (337), it crushed the #1 seed killing Aussie handily to find itself in the Elite Eight.  Regardless of the outcome, everyone would know their name now.

The Bulldozer from Mendozer raced out to a lead with a big, jammy nose that like or or not, I like.  But The Show did what champions do, chipping away at the Malbec’s lead with a floral, fruity nose of its own, surprisingly mild for a young-ish Cabernet.

Halftime – Bodega 46, The Show, 41.

As the wines opened up in the third quarter, The Show earned its name by displaying a great balance,  soft fruit and just a hint of acidity, turning the tables on the Bodega, which seemed to have more fruit on the nose than on the palate.

Third Quarter – The Show, 63, Bodega 60.

Marc and I tasted and retasted these two wines, going back and forth on which one we liked best (not the same one again), and sure enough the fourth quarter was a low scoring affair. A last second missed jump shot by the Show sent this game into overtime, the first one of the tournament.

It would be a costly miss.

The teams came out for the extra stanza cautious.  The wines continued to open up and mellow but the Malbec started showing more than the Cab, which had slowed, perhaps its close, opening round games catching up.  The Show was getting tired.

With 42 seconds left to play and The Show up by one, 81-80, Bodega and its younger 2007 fruit took the ball up the court and promptly made a quick bucket (82-81, Bodega).  The Show called time out but as anyone in the crowd of two will tell you, they did not come back on the floor with a plan to win.

The inbounds pass was stolen, along with the hopes of many, who picked it to go all the way.

Final Score – Bodega Norton 82, The Show 81

And then there were four:  Bodega Norton Malbec, Talus Pinot Noir, Steven Vincent Meritage and Chateau Chevalier Cab

This has been a great ride so far.  Can’t wait to see what happens in the Finals.

Published in: on March 29, 2009 at 9:05 am  Comments (1)  

Grape Madness – Round Three (BevMo Bracket)

crowLast I checked the Grape Madness Scoreboard I was sitting pretty in third place, one of only five people whose pick to win it all still remained.  Yet it is with great humility that I acknowledge that this success did not come as a result of the BevMo bracket.  In fact, the two wines that made it out were my anticipated losers, showing once and for all that you have to be lucky sometimes too.

(3) 2007 Talus Pinot Noir versus (3) 2007 Penfolds Rawsons Retreat

For some reason I’ve always thought of Talus as a so-so brand, probably because it’s the kind of thing my wife will bring home when she heads to Ralph’s after work.  You know, the type of bottle that’s usually found on the close out table alongside a marked down jar of spicy pickles or those fried crunchy onions that only sell during the Thanksgiving season.

I may have been totally wrong about this assessment but my mind has a way of saying, “There’s no way The Devil Wears Prada is going to be a good film.” But then I see it and really like it.

As for the Rawson’s Retreat, I bagged on Marc prior to the tourney, calling it the poor step-cousin of Penfold’s other Cab/Shiraz offering, the Koonunga Hill, which I’ve always liked.

So when both of these wines came out on top during his first and second round tastings, the taste on my palate was crow (it’s just like chicken!).

This next round of competition was tough, as we now had to match our own subjective likes and dislikes against one another .  Marc, in his usual MIT scientist meets The Galloping Gourmet way had a pre-printed, seemingly thousand point scoring chart, covering everything from brix level to region, from varietal to ph.

I had a white sheet of paper pulled from my printer.

Still the games are played in the glass and both wines showed well, with noticeable fruit on the nose, red for the Aussie, black for the Pinot.  And both showed nice subdued balance throughout, though the Talus was a bit tannic, which for me kept the RR on top at the half.

Each of us tried the wines several times, going back and forth between the glasses and I was pretty sure we were both going to pick different wines.  And of course we did.  But in the end after letting the wines open up even further, someone has to move on and someone has to go home.

After scoring them both, the loser has a much longer flight, that they should travel with heads held high, back to the land down under.

Talus 74, Penfold’s 71 (again, these are basketball type scores, not wine ratings)

Stay tuned for Sunday’s matchup between The Show from Californ-ia and pesky small forward from Argentina, Bodega Norton.

Published in: on March 27, 2009 at 11:53 am  Leave a Comment  

The Super Market 3.0

img_1333I was hoping to find a subject to write about as a break from the rigors of Grape Madness and truth be told it’s a topic I had started formulating in my head a few weeks ago and forgot about it, until  I opened today’s Times.

Once again the subject of selling wine in supermarkets is on the checkout stand in New York.  And although the person flying the flag the highest, Tom Wark at Fermentation will most certainly write about this with more passion and eloquence than me (if he hasn’t already), I’m continually mystified by the fact that as a person in the business of selling wine, some consumers, depending on geography, simply cannot buy it.

Thanks, America.

Growing up in and around New York City, I was not aware that one could not buy wine in a grocery store, mostly because we did not drink wine at my house.  So when I moved to California and saw wine on the shelves at the then Westward Ho market (now a Whole Foods), across from my apartment building, I suppose I always assumed you could buy it everywhere.

Not the case in my home state though, where a powerful political cabal of distributors, liquor stores and of course religious folk are fighting a proposal by Governor Patterson to raise revenue by allowing grocery stores to sell wine.

I mean, what man of the cloth doesn’t want to be seen going into Freddy’s Liquors on 46th & 9th?

The late (unbelievably) great, Bill Hicks used to say that the only reason the two most destructive drugs, tobacco and alcohol were legal was that they were the only two the government made money on.  He’s right.  But then how come wine is not as easily obtainable where hopefully responsible ADULTS can buy it alongside the liquid motherlode, beer?

The argument that allowing people to buy wine at a grocery store will put independent liquor stores out of business sounds so  tired these days that they may as well make the old crotchety guy on his lawn yelling at the neighborhood kids their spokesperson.  Need these retailers look any further than the states around them (Hi New Jersey) to see that it should always be about convenience for the customer?

A quaint concept to be sure, you know, allowing the people who keep your lights on the ability to buy everything they need in one place.  And the follow up argument is, well, if they can sell wine, let us sell cheese, because really, what better place to buy aged Gouda than a liquor store.

In fairness, I do see some of their argument, but it’s the same argument made by independent bookstores against Amazon and the local hardware store against Home Depot and yet I drive through LA everyday and see signs of life from both.  Just as there are signs that both are in trouble in 2009.

Last I checked the country was in a bit of a financial downturn.  Isn’t it time to allow businesses to make money selling legal products to legally appropriate consumers where ever they may roam?

Doesn’t get anymore Land of the Free than that…

Published in: on March 25, 2009 at 11:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Grape Madness – Round Two

17fb095fde4f77be My stinky palate and I went into Round Two feeling pretty good about the results so far.  The moral minority had spoken, questioning foul calls, screaming about illegal defenses and even suggesting that a late three pointer should have only been a two since part of the players shoelace had actually grazed the line.

But wine does not often lie when it comes to blind tasting and while some would rather take the word of others over their own judgements, I call them as I taste them.

First round action saw two upsets, one close win for the underdog and a favorite advance, making the second set of tastings a real pick ’em when it came down to what would happen on the court.  Here’s a recap of these exciting matchups.

(3) Bodega Norton Malbec versus (4) Aaku Cabernet Sauvignon

On paper this was a close one going in.  Two lower priced wines, one from South America, one from Australia, both generally fruit forward offerings, which are often times hard to judge against each other.

The Aaku continued to slow it down early, with its unusually vegetative and earthy nose, allowing the Malbec with its red fruit  showing well, to jump out to an early 24-14 lead.  The mid palate for the Argentine showed good structure and fruit while the Aussie, so minimally tannic in the early round, tightened up, perhaps simple rookie nerves, finding themselves on the bigger stage with far more to lose this time out.  Norton at halftime, 46-32.

The Aaku came out in the second half, seemingly playing for pride only.  It took no chances, showing a little fruit on a finish that still felt dry.  Their prevent defense against a wine whose low tannins and great balance only prevented the Cab from winning.

The Malbec runs away in the second half like Secretariat at Belmont in ’73.

Bodega Norton 82, Aaku 65

(2) The Show versus (4) Pinot Evil

The Show came into the second round on a roll.  Many had picked them to win it all and it came out strong against Talia Rosso and never looked back.

This time around they did not know what to expect.  They had never seen Pinot Evil before, a wine that only three short years ago was playing Division II under a pesky head coach known only at that time  for a series of recruiting violations.

But no French Pinot cannot be taken lightly as Baron De Magana found out, further solidifying the Franco-Spanish feuding that’s been going on for hundreds of years.

The Show, and its brash young Americaness, pressed hard in the opening minutes, “showing” great color but a minty, musty nose that reminded one of old Wrigley’s chewing gum.  Maybe the larger stage was spooking them too. The Pinot showed its first round performance was no fluke, with a nose of rasberries and coffee.

Both wines showed nice fruit and balance through the middle of the game but the Pinot, its smaller players with something to prove held a slim lead at the half, 42-40.

The wines battled back an forth throughout the second half, finishing the third quarter deadlocked at 59.

For me and my (Warner Bros-esque) palate though, wine is all about structure and balance.  It’s what separates a great winemaker from simply a good one.  And it’s often what makes the difference between a $5.00 & $12.00 bottle of wine.

The Show delivered down the stretch not only a balance that was noticeable throughout the game but also told me that this was a wine that could have played another full game that night, while the French wine, however game, had run its course.

The Show 75, Pinot Evil 70

So the controversial Cost Plus Bracket end with two solid wine in the Elite Eight:

(2) The Show versus (3) Bodega Norton

What’s your bracket look like???

Published in: on March 23, 2009 at 9:01 am  Comments (1)  

Grape Madness – Round One, Part Two

42070d39a88b8-71-1Editors Note:  My scoring system for Grape Madness is meant to resemble basketball scores, not globally recognized wine critics who write newsletters or publish in major magazine’s scores…

The upper tier of our Grape Madness brackets have been completed and immediately there’s been some controversy.  We had comments from people (and when I say people, I mean one person) – but I’m thrilled someone is paying enough attention to call out the Ombudsman on us humble wine bloggers.

Yes, the first round brought some surprises, lower than expected scores, in my case upsets, but that’s the nature of blind tasting.  And it’s what I find so amazing when reading wine reviews by the aforementioned experts.  No doubt they’ve got better palates than I do, know more about the process of taste and proper criticism, yet I’m often mystified that the wines on the surface you’d expect would get monster scores all seem to deliver on the page.  Hmmmm.

But take heart sports fans (and if the girls in this photo are reading my blog please say hello – as a fellow Eagles fan I know exactly what you’re feeling.)  If your favorite wine lost, suck it up and look forward to next year.  That’s what us Birds fans always do…

(Cue ESPN music):  But now it’s off to the hardwoods for some more Grape Madness action from last night:

(2) 337 Cabernet Sauvignon ($10.00) versus (3) Bodega Norton Malbec ($8.00)

After the low scoring in the first set of match-ups (and by low scoring, I mean in basketball terms, Danny), these next two games offered the hope of some serious chucking from three point land.

I’ve really been impressed with just about every Argentine Malbec I’ve tasted in the past few years, everything from the $2.99 La Boca (found at TJ’s) to more expensive versions of this big varietal.  Then again, I also know first hand what the 337 grape clone can do in the glass so I had high hopes for the Lodi appelated wine that uses it as its name.

Both wines exhibited fresh notes on the nose, the Malbec, raspeberries, the Cab a minty chocolatly thing not unlike the Girl Scout cookies I was strong-armed into buying last weekend.  But where the wines parted ways was on the mid palate where the 337 did not offer up much in the way of fruit (something I look for – your mileage may vary), while the Argentinian, not lush by any means displayed a balance of fruit that created a more satisfying finish.

Norton 82, 337, 76 (and by 82-76, I mean a basketball score, a close game that could have went either way but in the end, free throws made the difference)

(2) The Show ($13.00) versus (3) Talia Rosso ($7.00)

The last time the US and Italy met was the 2006 World Cup in front of 46,000 at Fritz-Walter Stadion, Kaiserslautern, Germany.  That match ended in a 1-1 tie (and the world wonders why we don’t like soccer).

This match up, drank before four fans in Encino, CA held much more excitement I assure you.

The Show lived up to it’s name and came out very strong, with a smoky, bacony nose that I must say was pleasing to this fifteen year veteran vegetarian.  I don’t normally like the smell of frying swine but I enjoyed this.  And yet the Rosso pressed back with some smoke of its own.

Both wines were a bit tight and tannic with nicely balanced finishes and headed to the locker rooms tied at the half.  But after a little bit more time in the glass, The Show, perhaps with a slightly conscious evaluation that it was a more age worthy wine, came out on top.

The Show 74, Talia Rosso 69

So the Cost Plus First Round bracket ends with some upsets and some higher seeds advancing.  Nothing to complain about there.

The Next Round looks like this:

(4) Aaku Cabernet Sauvignon versus (3) Bodega Norton Malbec &  (4) Pinot Evil versus (2) The Show

Hope you’ll all stick around for next week!!!

Published in: on March 20, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (4)  

Grape Madness – Round One

nl011Like Clay over Liston three days before I was born in ’65, Marissa Tomei over Joan Plowright at the Oscars in 1993 and Princeton defeating UCLA in 1996 (that one’s for you Jason), upsets have captivated crowds since some Gladiator took down a lion at the Coliseum in ‘2.

And yet I went into the first round of my Grape Madness bracket confident the higher seeds would prevail.

Here’s how real life played out…

(1) Edge Cabernet Sauvignon ($19.00) versus (4) Aaku Cabernet Sauvignon ($4.00)

It was the battle of the Cabs, Northern versus Southern Hemisphere, 2006 versus 2005.

On paper this was a mismatch, but as Vince Lombardi once said, the games are played on the field, or court, or I don’t even know if Lombardi said this.

The Edge came out strong, with a big, berry nose that pressed the Aaku’s green pepper all over the court.  By halftime though the minimal tannins of the Aussie made up a lot of ground on the tightness of the Napa Cab.  But the Edge still led with five minutes to play in a low scoring affair but could not convert its free throws, showing Aaku a glimmer of hope.

They called timeout with eleven seconds to go all tied up at 65.  Couldn’t have asked for a better chance to win this and not take any chances with overtime.  And as Cinderella stories go, the dry and slightly tight finish for the Edge could not stave off a clear shot from the corner by Aaku.  Nothing but net.

Aaku 68, Edge 65

(1) Baron De Magana ($18.00) versus (4) Pinot Evil  ($5.00)

Spain took on France in this first round matchup of 1 & 4 seeds.  2004 was a mixed year in Spain with weather alternating between miserable and almost perfect for grape growing.  And yet Baron did not start well, its barnyardy nose allowing the Pinot to jump out to a surprising but early 22-11 lead.

The mid palate on both wines was better, with the Pinot showing nice balance for the price point and the earthy nose of the Spaniard giving way to some decent black fruit.  At halftime the crowd was restless and feeling another upset in the making as Evil lead 48-38.

They say that defense wins championships in most sports and a smothering press in the second half, coupled with continued balance throughout never let Baron back in the game.

Pinot Evil 75, Baron De Magana, 66

Two games in, two BIG, surprising upsets.

As Clay said in ’65, “I shook up the world.”  And today, two little wines did too…

Stay tuned for second half of the Cost Plus bracket tomorrow

Published in: on March 19, 2009 at 7:25 pm  Comments (2)  

Grape Madness: The Cost Plus Selection Show

n73622086884_8683Admittedly, its been years since I’ve gone into a Cost Plus store.  Probably due to the fact that I am no longer in need of a garish area rug or a dining room table of exotic origin that I have to put together myself in just 71 easy steps.

But upon walking into my (semi) local CP location, I was immediately hit with a wave of nostalgia for my younger days; the magical early 90’s when my whole world fit into a one bedroom apartment (now replaced with what I affectionately call, the garage).

Cost Plus was a cornucopia where I could buy a set of blue drinking glasses, a fondue set, patio furniture and a jar of hot sauce, truly the of its day.  But what you could also buy there was wine.  Interesting wines too (though back then any wine was interesting to me).  It was a time here in LA that I had not yet graduated to the wonders (or even knowledge) of Trader Joe’s.

Now that I know a bit more about wine, I was once again impressed with their eclectic but informed choices.  They might not have as many brands as the Joe, but they really do cover the right varietals for the right regions at every turn.

In fact, when I went into the store to seed my Grape Madness bracket, I spent all my time in one section, domestic, before I realized the reach of their international offerings.  Many wines jumped in and out of my cart on the way to the Elite Eight.


Edge Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa – Very Cool Bottle.  Don’t let anyone tell you design is not a buyers friend.

Aaku Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia – Had to find two bottles under $5.00.  This was one of them.

Norton Malbec, Argentina – Argentinian Malbec, $8.00?  Done.

337 Cabernet Sauvignon, Lodi – When I was brainstorming names for Six Degrees, 337 was on my short list. Both wines use the same grape clone (337).

The Show, Napa – Also a cool bottle design.  And I’ve heard good things about the guys who make the stuff.

Talia Rosso, Italy – Looking for an Italian wine in this price range.

Pinot Evil, France – Cheesy name and I don’t normally do cheesy but I’m a sucker for French Pinot, wherever it may grow.

Baron De Magana, Spain – I needed another top seed wine and had nothing from Spain in the cart, a region I grow more fond of with each wine I try.  Thank you end cap displayer/corporate product placement executive…

So there you have it basketball & wine fans, the Cost Plus bracket for Grape Madness.  Please let me know if you have any thoughts on these selections and of course I’d LOVE to hear some predictions of what you think will happen when these wines go head to head.

(insert Dick Vitale voice here): “It’s Grape Madness, baby!”

Published in: on March 11, 2009 at 1:33 pm  Comments (10)  

The Final Four of Wine: Grape Madness

travel_pauley1_590One of my (many) regrets in life is not going to a big time sports college where I can now carry on my drunk, carefree days of youth long into adulthood.  Because really, is there a sadder sight than some balding, inhebriated guy in a USC sweatshirt several sizes too small, tailgating with the actual students eleven hours before game time?

Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best illustration of what I missed.

What I meant to say was that I really do wish I went to a school where sports was an integral part of the collegiate experience. Where I could sleep in a tent for three weeks waiting for tickets to an Ohio State/Michigan football game or be able to share a fight song with 80,000 fellow disciples.

Alas, for me, the only sport I could become a fan of at my alma mater, The School of Visual Arts was the Ultimate Frisbee team who played their games in Central Park, or didn’t, if the Poetry Slam went too long the previous night.  There was no fight song to sing, unless you count something by Kate Bush or (insert punk anthem here) and instead of hanging around campus in logo wear, we all simply wore black – to show of course, how artistic we all were.

So it’s with great fanfare that I annouce what I hope will become an annual rite of passage each Spring, something conceived with the help of three other great bloggers, Jason from Jason’s Wine Blog,  Marc from Marc’s Muse and RJ from RJ’s Wine Blog, a race to the Final Four with wine:

Grape Madness

Here’s how it works…

Each of the four bloggers was assigned a store – Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Cost Plus and Bevmo – and a mission to pick out 8 wines (32 wines in total – cut in half from the NCAA 64, but we’re starting this with humble roots). The 8 wines are then divided into two brackets of 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th seeds. Each seed level is governed by the retail price of the wine:

  • 1st seed: $12 – $20
  • 2nd seed: $8 – 12
  • 3rd seed: $5 – $8
  • 4th seed: $5 and under

For Round 1, we will each blind taste our brackets (8 bottles of wines) and narrow the field to, first, the best four bottles, then, finally, the best two bottles from each store. These two bottles will then move forward to Round 2.

In Round 2, the bloggers will pair up locally (Jason and RJ in San Francisco and Marc and I here in LA) and taste the eight remaining top wines together, eventually narrowing it to the best wine of each blogger’s grouping, thus creating the Final Four. The Final Four will then be tasted by each blogger and together we will anoint the first annual champion of Grape Madness.

Wines will be all reds, tasted blind and scored on the 100 point scale. In cases when multiple bloggers are scoring a wine, the scores will be aggregated. The winner of each match-up will be the wine with the maximum composite score. Should a tie result, even after totalling up the points, the winner will be determined based on, first, lower prices, then, a coin flip.

Personally, my first round scoring will be a twist on the 100 point scale.  I’ll judge them using basketball scores as end results but wind up in the same place for the later rounds.

This is already shaping up to be a fun event that I hope you loyal readers will follow.

More details in the coming days…let the madness begin.

Published in: on March 9, 2009 at 10:39 am  Comments (1)  

Food & Wine: Recession Edition

I had a friend from England once describe to me the difference between Brits and Americans.  If a fancy car with a fat cat drove by an American, the Yank would think, “I’m going to be like that guy someday” where the working class Brit would say, “He’s going to be like me someday.”

Well that day has pretty much arrived and I’d say the Brits have won.

The economy is bad.  No one can stop writing about it, thinking about it, strategizing ways to make money off of it.

See Gourmet Magazine, long of the Eating the Four Star Lifestyle, at Four Star Prices and Viking appliance ads now including tips on how to stretch that food dollar, Leftovers: They’re Not Just for Broke Losers Anymore.  Over at Food & Wine, a long time favorite of mine, their entry into the economic swoon – other than sort of pink slipping great wine writer Lettie Teague –  is at least having Ms. T continue the Wine Matters column, this month focusing on the least expensive bottle of wine on a wine list.

My simple question is, why weren’t these types of stories being run anyway, perhaps as a way to gain readership among these  publications.  For when the Bernie Madoff’s of the world and his suddenly less well-off friends (along with anyone else who gets a 401K statement each month) stop dining out and traveling to France, Spain & Italy, ad pages decline to the tune of 42% for Gourmet and 30% for F & W.   At the same time, titles like Everyday with Rachael Ray, which caters to “regular” folk is up 7%.

For many of her viewers and readers, this blogger included – she brings me back to my two years spent in Upstate NY – we’ve been living this way since long before Wall Street decided to take our money with them to Greenwich.  I buy wine at Trader Joes, my lunches are generally leftovers, we’ve always preferred to find some group of friends to eat with on Sunday night rather than go out.  And I suspect most of you are drifting in the same boat too.  So why has it taken the glum news to shake us of habits we should have been avoiding anyway?  What happened to everything in moderation?

I won’t go so far as to say that I’m glad we are facing these tough times (see: my 401K) but I do see the value (pun intended) to losing the glutton of the past and instead focusing on not only the here and now, but understanding that if you’re drinking great wine that cost $250.00 and I’m drinking great wine that cost $10, we’re both drinking great wine.

Thus, who needs to be the fat cat in the fancy car anyway?  Lets meet in the middle and all be Aussies instead!

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 4:57 pm  Leave a Comment