Everyday Wines for Everyday People

The holidays are upon us and that means plenty of wine for sipping, socializing, and gift-giving.  There’s a way that you can enjoy the grape and give the grape without breaking the bank.  Simply buy tasty, inexpensive wine.  Easier said than done though, right?  No worries because I have you covered.

Understanding that taste is subjective and is as unique as the individuals doing the tasting, I hesitate to make recommendations to people based solely on what I like.  So I reached out to a couple of friends to join me in making some wine recommendations for the holidays.  I asked each to give me 3 wines under $30 per bottle that they enjoy and to tell me why they enjoy them in hopes of passing along some everyday gems to you.

First up is Joe Rustad.  Joe is a technologist from California now living in Toronto.  My wife Angela and I met Joe and his wife at a tasting at Nickel and Nickel Winery during a recent trip to Napa, CA.  He learned to love wine around his in-laws’ kitchen table, adjacent to the vineyards deep in Niagara wine country.

Here are three wines that Joe enjoys without stressing his wallet:

Napa Cellars Cabernet – Joe says this is everything that he wants out of a Napa cab.  It’s big and smooth, without too much fruit or oak.  “It’s a great example of Napa wine and taste like it costs twice as much.  Cost is about $24.

Hitching Post Gen Red – Joe says. “I normally associate Hitching Post with Pinots (because of the movie Sideways), but the amazing St. Rita Earth is rarely available under $30.  The Gen Red is a medium bodied blend under $20 and has a great balance and is just plain tasty.”

CMS Columbia Valley Red – According to Joe, CMS is a blend with a bit more oak and tannins that the other two he’s listed.  It’s a great wine for blind tastings, or to introduce to people who think that you are a wine snob.  The blend emphasizes the differences of Washington state from California.  You can score this tasty vino for about $19 a bottle.

Next is my longtime friend Rita Roane Blackwell.  I’ve know Rita since I was a teenager and her husband, Bobby, since elementary school.  Rita’s  bona fides run deep.  She is a Wine Consultant, Speaker and Planner who spends much of her time tasting wine.  For business and pleasure I assure you.  Referred to by her friends as “That Wine Girl”, Rita earned her Certification for Wine Studies from the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

Rita has tasted everything from “plunk” to the sublime.  Here are 3 wines that she enjoys without jeopardizing her son’s college fund:

2011 Bulgariana Cabernet Syrah Blend – For $17 a bottle, Rita claims that it is a super value without tasting like it.  This wine from Bulgaria has nice intense flavors of black current, cocoa and coffee with a smokey tobacco intensity.  It pairs well with a Gaucho Chili Coffee rubbed steak or a juicy burger with caramelized onions and smoked Gouda cheese. (I’m going to side-eye Rita here because she’s showing off).

Bailey Lapierre Cremant, Brut, Blanc de Noirs – A sparkling wine from Burgundy, France, Rita says, “It’s a bottle you can enjoy everyday that you want.  It’s made with all Pinot Noir grapes, and is fresh with lush fruit and a full-mouth feel.”  Average price is $24.

2015  Mouton Noir, O.P.P. –  The O.P.P. (Other Peoples Pinot Gris) from Willamette, Oregon is a Pinot Gris that Rita loves to drink during the holidays.  It’s fruit forward and well balanced.  Notes include apples and pears, and it has a tart and slightly creamy finish.  The average price is around $18.

Those who really know me know that I am a big fan of California Cabernet Sauvignon.  But I enjoy other wines too.  When I don’t want to tap into my collectibles, I turn to tasty, affordable wines that I can sip guilt-free. But first, a little about me.  I’m a drunk.  You know that.  End of story.

My 3 under $30:

2014 Conundrum  Red Blend – From the Wagner Family of Wines, the inky 2014 Conundrum is surprisingly bold.  This full-bodied wine is my everyday go-to wine.  Made of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, Conundrum offers layers of rich flavor that include dark fruit, vanilla, burnt sugar, and cocoa.  It can stand up to a good steak or juicy burger. I had it last night while snacking on some Korean BBQ flavored beef jerky.  ‘Twas very good.  Enjoy, slightly chilled, for about $22.

2013 If You See Kay – Originally attracted by the funky label, this quickly became one of my favorite Italian wines.  It’s rich, deep purple, full-bodied and great for cold winter nights.  Notes of blackberry jam, plumb, and spice grab me by the collar and yell, “drink me”! When entertaining, I enjoy it with a homemade lamb bolognese and pasta dish or a plate of cheese and olives while watching Netflix.  80% Cab, 10% Petit Verdot, 5% Syrah, and 5% Primitivo.  It’s a steal at $20 a bottle.

Owera Vineyards Semi-Dry Riesling – For my third wine, I’m going to stay local.  Owera Vineyards is a lovely little winery located in Cazenovia, NY just a few short miles from my home.  It’s beautifully decorated and the food that they serve is outstanding.  And so is their semi-dry Riesling.  Not too sweet, this Riesling is crisp with notes of grapefruit and peaches.  It’s a good representation of New York State Riesling.  It averages around $17.  Hopefully you can find it in a shop that features a New York State wine section.  If you live in Central New York, put it on your “must visit” list.

So there you have it.  9 different wines from 3 distinctly different wine enthusiasts.  I’m sure there are dozens and dozens of wines that could be on our lists, but we want to preserve opportunity for you to go out and find some gems of your own.  I know that my future wine procurement activity will begin in earnest starting with the recommendations from Joe and Rita.  I can’t wait to discover what they enjoy about those wines.

What’s your 3 go-to wines for under $30?  Please feel free to share them here and I’ll pass along to my wine-drinking friends.

A very special thanks to Joe Rustad and Rita Roane Blackwell for generously sharing their passion for wine with us.

5 Ways Wine is Better Than Sex

wine2Yes, it is true. I love wine and everyone knows it. My Instagram account is full of wine photos, my Tweets are about wine, and my Facebook posts are largely centered around vino. A friend remarked that I appear to cherish wine over most things, including sex.  Maybe I do and maybe I don’t; but here are 5 ways that wine is more enjoyable than sex:

  1. Wine pairs better with food. Despite kinky movies like Nine 1/2 Weeks and others that try to convince you that sex and food are fun, it is indeed a messy proposition at best. A well balance Cabernet Sauvignon paired with a juicy burger or perfectly cooked steak will delight your senses. What it won’t do is tangle your hair, stick to your fingers, or create extra laundry. Keep your whipped cream and pass me a good Spanish red.
  2. As they say, variety is the spice of life. There are many different grape varieties and types of wine to enjoy. Red wines, white wines, sparkling wines, dessert wines, fortified wines…the list goes on. Cabernet grapes, Chardonnay grapes, Pinot Noir grapes, Riesling grapes, Malbec grapes, Merlot grapes…this list, too, can go on ad infinitum. And while there are numerous positions described in the Kama Sutra, unless you are a contortionists or your partner weighs 80 pounds, you are probably experiencing 2 to 3 of those positions on average at best.
  3. Wine last longer. According to Dr. Harry Fisch, author of The New Naked: The Ultimate Sex Education for Adults, almost half of men surveyed finish sex within two minutes. That’s about how long it takes me to brush my teeth. A good full-bodied wine will have a long finish on the palate and you can nurse a glass or two or three long into the evening for hours of enjoyment. And you won’t have a frustrated partner.
  4. Wine is easy to open and get started. You need only peel the foil, pop the cork, and pour to enjoy the taste of great wine. It’s a three-step process people. There are 5 phases in the sexual-response cycle and let’s not mention the time, energy and effort needed for foreplay. That’s a lot of effort for 2 minutes of action. The economics here are not in your favor.
  5. With wine, you can have as much as you like when you like. Wine doesn’t have a bad day at the office. Wine doesn’t get headaches. Wine doesn’t have to be quiet because the kids are awake. Wine doesn’t get PMS.  And you don’t have to wait 24 hours until you have another.


Wine & Brothers

The U.S. wine industry produces over 836 million bulk gallons of wine annually and the Syracuse area has its fair share of wine shops, discount liquor stores and even a few wine producers.  That’s not unique to an area of our size.  What is perhaps unique, though, is that two brothers own and operate separate, similarly sized wine shops imprinted with their distinct antithetical personalities.

The Decker boys (Dana and Gary) were raised with 3 other siblings in Galeville, NY.  Gary, the younger of the two, recalls the typical competition between brothers, “We mixed it up quite a bit.  Things got physical from time-to-time but we had a lot of fun.”  All of the Decker siblings worked, at one time or another, in the restaurant business from service to ownership.  So it isn’t difficult to understand how Dana and Gary both ended up in the same business selling the same product.  But that’s where the similarities end.

Vinomania's Gary Decker pictured with a friend
Vinomania’s Gary Decker pictured with a friend

Gary is a funny guy.  A walking joke factory, really.  Vinomania (314 Pearl St. in Syracuse for the past 15 years) is an eclectic place much like it’s owner.  Walk through the door of Vinomania and you are likely to hear James Brown, George Clinton or some other master of funk music pulsating through the house speakers.

The shop is adorned with novelties ranging from classic radios and floating airplanes to old toys and a mounted deer head.  It’s a part of who he is.  In addition to collecting things, Gary also collects people.  There’s a usual cast of characters that can be found hanging around on a Friday afternoon or at the monthly wine tastings.  “It’s a bit of a frat house,” he says.  “A group of guys that share a passion for wine and spirits and a good laugh or two.”

Gary’s approach to the wine merchant business is to “get a deal that I can pass on to the customer.”  Vinomania has a mix of old and new world wine and, most recently, an assortment of imported and domestic high-end spirits.  He gets to know his customers, and in so doing, learns their likes and dislikes.  It helps him in assisting his regulars.  It truly is a mix of passion for the grape and providing a unique, fun shopping experience for his patrons.  His energy really picks up when you talk about the people and the Vinomania community.

Vinomania has an eclectic decor
Vinomania has an eclectic decor

How does his shop differ from his brother’s?  “Dana’s customers drink with their pinky fingers extended.  My customers grip the glass because they can’t afford to drop it.”  I relay that quote to Dana who chuckles and says, “that’s about right.”

Conversely, Decker’s Fine Wines & Spirits (112 Brooklea Dr in Fayetteville for 25 years) is the Dean Martin to Vinomania’s Jerry Lewis.  Dana is a pretty serious guy.  Not without humor, just serious about the business of wine.

Dana Decker of Decker's Fine Wine & Spirits
Dana Decker of Decker’s Fine Wine & Spirits

Walk through Decker’s doors and you’re met with classical music.  The interior is elegant and minimalist in design.  Bright colors and wall-to-wall wine.


Dana sells more than wine.  He sells a lifestyle.  “I have a deep understanding of food and wine and I like to pass that on to my customers,” he says.

I bumped into one of those customers on my way in.  Communications Consultant, Mike Fish, told me that he relies on Dana’s expertise.  “He really know’s what he’s doing,” Mike said.  And he does.  Dana travels annually to Europe to experience Old World wines at the source.

While you can find some good New World wine at Decker’s, Dana almost exclusively deals in the Old World grape.  In fact, he has an entire room dedicated to Italian wine, cordials and spirits.

You can see the passion in Dana’s face when he talks about wine and food.  He subscribes to the belief that “if it grows together, it goes together.”  For him, it is that simple.  “People are hobbyist by nature,” Dana adds.  “Wine and food is a fast growing hobby for many people and that’s who Decker’s attracts.”

Decker's boasts wall-to-wall Old World wine
Decker’s boasts wall-to-wall Old World wine

Two brothers, two wine shops, two totally different experiences.  Both equally passionate about what they do and who they serve.  You only need to decide which experience is right for you.

The brothers Decker are sharing their four holiday picks with us.  Dana recommends 3 Old World wines and 1 New World wine for you:unnamed-2

Gary recommends one Old World and one New World wine and a couple of spirits:


I’d love to know if you have a favorite wine, spirit or a particular region that you are passionate about.

Man Up In The Kitchen

Thanksgiving is a time for reflection and a time for family.  Some of my fondest memories as a kid growing up in Baltimore, MD are from Thanksgivings past.  Not only because of great food, family laughter and even drama, but because as a boy, all I ever needed to do was clean the vegetables and eat the meal.  I have vivid memories of being told by my grandmother and aunts to join the others in the kitchen to clean after the big meal only to have my grandfather walk in and say “get those boys out of this kitchen.”  Oh, how me and my brother would saunter off to a corner and snicker as our girl cousins would be left in the kitchen to clean.  Fond memories indeed.

My grandfather was of a different time where the kitchen was a woman’s domain and no place for a boys or men alike.  I loved him dearly for that as a child, but, in the long run, he did us no great favor. We were deprived of learning skills that we would need later in life as young men learning, needing to fend for ourselves.
Despite the fact that most of the world’s most revered and respected chefs are men, the kitchen is still seen as a woman’s domain.  I’m always amazed when I meet men who profess to knowing nothing about preparing a meal.  It is basic survival after all.  And our society continues to perpetuate, through popular culture, the notion that men are disastrous in the kitchen.  Even when searching for images for this post, many portrayed images that suggested man’s epic culinary failure.

Cooking requires great skill, precision, creativity, concentration and understanding of technique and science.  It is not an easy endeavor.  Despite my upbringing, I have been cooking Thanksgiving meals for my family for the past 20 years.  I have sacrificed a lot of football games on turkey day and well earned downtime for the sake of filled, satisfied bellies.  I do so because I love to cook and I understand that it is not my wife’s sole responsibility.  In a day and age where most households require two earners, every man should know how to cook, how to partner in providing for the family.  Shared responsibility beyond traditional role playing.  Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity to do just that.  To hang out in the kitchen, sharing the load, serving as a role model to your children, bonding, laughing.
If you cook, I applaud you.  I know many hominids that are doing their thing in the kitchen.  Shoutout to Fabio Santos, Jr who will be throwing down some turkey and ham, Matt Hackworth who is firing up the grill in 32 degree weather, my mentor Neil Best and his sweet potato pie, Davine Bey who is preparing duck pastrami, my dentists and good friend Dr Fred Gilbeaux who has fired up the smoker and Anthony Terry who has his hand in many dishes.  These men who cook are setting a shinning example for all of us hominids to follow.  We salute you!  For the rest of you, I say grab yourself a recipe, get your ass in the kitchen, and get to cooking!
Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Building A Better Burger

After a recent visit to Burger & Barrel Wine Pub in New York City, where I discovered quite possibly the best burger I’ve ever eaten, I wondered why I hadn’t stepped my burger game up in a while.  To know me is to know that I love a good burger.  It is simply one of my favorite things to eat.  And other than a good chicken wing, a juicy burger is the only food that I actually get cravings for.  The decision to build a better burger was made and thus I put forth great energy and effort to construct one.  So join me Hominids as I ManUp and attempt to build a kick-ass burger.

The Past

I suppose I’ve made good burgers in the past.  At least that is what the family has told me.  I’d grab some 80% ground chuck packaged in styrofoam and would start from there.  From time to time I’d grab some ground lamb for lamb burgers or ground turkey for turkey burgers to switch it up.  But I digress.  The beef burger is the subject at hand.  From that point, seasonings and toppings dominated the design elements.  And I think that’s where I became less concerned about the meat and more concerned about seasonings and toppings and, thus, began to buy preformed patties from the grocery store.  The meat is clearly king and I treated it more like the court jester.  We err, we learn.

The Quest

Understanding my past shortcomings, I began with the very foundation of a burger and chose to ditch the preformed patty offered by the local grocer and called on a local butcher (Mazzye’s Meats) for more flavorful meat combinations.  I wanted a juicy burger so I knew I needed decent fat content, but I also wanted a richer taste to my beef.
You are more likely to get a butcher to create a special blend of meat for you than your grocer.  I asked Mazzye’s to blend beef short rib (decent fat content) and brisket (richer beef taste) in equal parts and that combination produced a blend that was roughly 30% fat according to the butcher.
I plopped down the $7.26 for my 1.6 pounds of special blend ground beef and headed for the old homestead.  With rich blend in hand, I could now give thought to topping my new kick-ass hamburger.  I wanted some spice, crunch and extra flavoring.  Hmmm.  Let me come back to that after I consider the chariot in which my flavorful burger will ride.  I would like to have scored a few brioche buns to get the job done but, for the life of me, have never been able to find any in the Syracuse area.  Thus, I settled on a soft Vienna roll with the Mr Clean sparkly shine on top.
Bun now selected, my attention was back on flavoring and toppings.  I generously seasoned the patty with salt and pepper.  I did not mix it in the meat.  When you mix and mash your ground meat, it can alter the texture of your finished product and not in a good way.  You are not kneading dough.  A looser formed patty will be more succulent and juicy.  Don’t mix in sauces, eggs, bread crumbs etc. because it screws with the texture and the flavor of the beef.
I decided on a flavorful cranberry, chipotle cheddar cheese for extra flavor and spice kick.  For crunch I flash fried shallots and added a slice of man candy AKA bacon.  The final garnish was an avocado, garlic, mayonnaise spread.  You should choose garnishes that float your boat and not necessarily what I settled on.  I grilled my seasoned patty to medium well (some pink) to ensure juiciness, topped it with aforementioned ingredients and served it with some seasoned sweet potato fries (frozen from a bag because I’m too lazy to make my own).  Note:  Don not press your patty on the grill while it’s cooking.  All of the juice that drips out when you do so drains the burger of flavor.

The Verdict

Taking the time to visit a butcher for a unique blend of meats paid off and opened the door to numerous blend possibilities.  The result of my chosen blend was a juicy, flavorful burger with the rich, earthy beef taste that I wanted.  And while it fell short of the heaven on a bun I experienced at the B&B Wine Pub in NYC, the family really seemed to appreciate the taste and the effort to build a better burger.
When next you get a hankering for a good burger, put in a little effort to select good meat and you and your fellow diners will be rewarded.  If you are already a master of burgers and want to share your tips, feel free to do so.  My mouth (and mind) is always open.