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.

Thoughts on Napa


With the recent trip to California wine country, I have successfully checked off another item on the bucket list. It is certainly a must visit spot for lovers of food and wine.

In lieu of boring you to death with a chronological narrative of the getaway, I thought I’d rank the experiences to give you an idea of the highlights and lowlights. 

First…we eat!


Given that Napa is one of the leading wine producing regions in the world, it stands to reason that the culinary scene would be just as competitive.  While Napa is home to the French Laundry, one of the best restaurants in the country and perhaps the world, it also boast a number of fine eateries that are far easier to get a table in. Running through the alphabet and not getting far beyon the “b’s”, we dined at the following: Botega, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Bistro Jeanty, Brix, Gott’s Roadside, The Grill at Silverado, Lucy’s, and Morimoto.  And our favorite dining experience was…

#1 – Actually not a restaurant at all.  It was the Delicacies and Cave tour offered by Del Dotto winery. It’s not something that they do often but when they do…oh boy! The post cave tour delicacies pairing was prepared by Del Dotto’s head chef, Joshua Schwartz, in their state-of-the-art kitchen. The chef brought considerable culinary skills to the party as he is a former chef at the French Laundry. The small bites included a lobster roll on toasted Brioche, caviar and sweet corn egg mousse (pictured lower left), pasta with collard greens and pork shank Pastrami, and an American Wagyu Beef and Black Truffle slider all perfectly paired with delicious wine. There were two other food and wine-loving couples in our tour group which added to the positive experience. Our Del Dotto wine ambassador was knowledgeable about the wine, wine making process, company history and the food. Del Dotto surpassed all of our restaurant experiences. The total cost was $190 for the two of us.

#2 – For me it was the French centric Bistro Jeanty and their succulent Coq Au Vin (pictured upper left). Angela was less than pleased with her menu choice which happened to be sole. In her words, “it was extraordinarily bland.” Her second favorite was the chic Bardessono hotel’s restaurant Lucy. I had the lobster risotto (pictured upper right) and it was fabulous. Super chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant was also excellent  and ranks pretty high but the meals were a bit heavy for us after a day of wine tasting.

#3 – Morimoto located in downtown Napa had tasty food and offered more than the chef’s famed sushi. Angela’s porkchop (pictured lower right) was huge and delicious and I was more than happy to help her finish it. The restaurant was large and energetic which made it a poor choice for an intimate evening.

Special mention goes out to Gott’s Roadside. Their California burger is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.  Thanks to my friend Matt Martucci for pulling my coattail on that one.

Thumbs down goes to the Grill at The Silverado resort. The food was fair, the service lousy and the clientele…were mostly in polo shirts, golf shorts and in their 70’s. Honestly though, I blame myself for coming up short on the research.

Best Wine Tasting Experience


The experience offered by a winery is a very important part of the overall wine country vacation experience. Seeing a bit of how the wine is made, understanding the variety of soils used, distinctions in growing areas, wine-making philosophy, and even the history of the vineyard and personality of the owner help inform the wine-tasting experience.  The best experiences were those that offered tours of the facility, seated tastings, and education. These are of course at additional cost and most require advanced reservations. My least favorite are the ones where you plop down $25 bucks on the counter, get your 4 or 5 pours and a little conversation with the staff as they flutter between customers. With so many wineries and vineyards in the Napa Valley, it is impossible to visit them all even on a week-long holiday. We visited Charles Krug, Joseph Phelps, Plumpjack, Stags Leap, Cliff Lede, Opus One, Caymus, Silver Oak, Chateau Montelena, Hall Wineries, Del Dotto, and Nickel & Nickel. Here are our top 3 favorite experiences:

1# Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves (St Helena) – Founded by infomercial king, Dave Del Dotto, Del Dotto Estate Winery offers the kind of Vegas-styled production one would expect from a media and entertainment savvy owner. Del Dotto attacks the senses with aggression upon approach. You immediately get the not-so-subtle nod to Dave’s Italian heritage. And it’s more of the same as you enter the lower level of the building. All of the decor including tile, lighting fixtures etc. are imported from Italy. The tour starts with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and an introduction from your assigned Wine Ambassador. And with the yank of a velvet curtain, you are ushered into the “wine cave” (more of a basement than a hill-side cave). Here is where our experience gets elevated. Unlike other tours that we booked, every taste of wine (about 5 in total) was directly drawn from the barrels. You get to taste the differences in vintages, types of oak, barrel toasting grades, and regions.  For example, we were able to compare the exact same wine aged in two different barrels – one in French oak and one in American oak from Minnesota. The French oak offered sweet vanilla and burnt sugar flavors while the American oak delivered smokey bacon notes. Once done with the cave tour, our group was escorted to the private dining area for sensory overload with the delicious delicacies previously described in the dining section (pictured upper left)…and another 5 pours of wine! Overall, the wine was very good, the tour entertaining and the food/wine pairing exceptional. And that’s why it gets our top spot. If you sign up for the Delicacies and Cave tour at Del Dotto, make it your only stop that day. The tasting pours are larger than average and 10 of them pretty much knocked us on our asses. 

#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Located in the Stag’s Leap district, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar is a gorgeous facility with knowledgeable staff. Our tour started with a taste of Sauvingnon Blanc and an introduction to the facility, types of soil Stag’s Leap’s grapes are grown in, and their wine making methods including how the wine gets moved around the facility. The tour proceeds with a stroll through the vineyard’s hill-side wine cave. It was a gorgeous facility, beautifully decorated with touches that indicate the founder’s interest in the cosmos (pictured lower left). The cave temperature was cool and full of fresh oak aromas. The tour ended back in the main building’s tasting room with beautiful stone-covered walls and floor-to-ceiling windows behind the tasting bar that overlooked grape vines and mountain vistas.  And of course the wine was exceptional. The Estate Wine Tasting and Cave Tour is $60 per person and well worth the money.

#3 Hall Wines – Hall Wines in St Helena pays as much attention to pleasing your sense of sight as is does your sense of taste.  Founders Kathryn and Craig Hall blend their love of contemporary architecture, art, and wine-making to create one dynamic experience. After a quick trip to Hall Wines red bathroom (Kathryn’s favorite color) the HALLmark tour, like others, started with a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. The $40 per person 45 minute tour exposes you to some eclectic modern art (pictured upper right),  contemporary architecture, and advanced wine-making techniques. A stop in one of the temperature controlled barrel rooms allowed us to taste a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon straight from the barrel. After passing a beautiful infinity reflecting pool where club members can enjoy a glass of wine and extraordinary vistas, the tour ends with a seated group tasting of 4 outstanding wines (6 total taste from start to finish). Some of our favorite experiences occurred when we were grouped with other wine enthusiasts as was the case here. Good conversation and a shared love of wine is always a recipe for a good time.

Notables – Joseph Phelps Terrace tasting was awesome. The tour was minimal (pictured lower right) but the outstanding wine tasting on a terrace overlooking the vineyard and conversation with a fellow wine-loving couple made for a terrific first day in Napa.  Also, the tasting at Caymus deserves mention. While you don’t need reservations for a tastings, the vineyard doesn’t leave you sipping at a counter. We were seated at a private table for two nestled in their stunning garden and served 5 wines from the Wagner family of wines…including Caymus.  And you can’t go wrong with Caymus.

Least Favorite – Silver Oak – sure it was only a walk-in tasting but I somehow expected more from this reputable wine producer. There wasn’t much interaction with the server and no real history or information offered. The experience lasted  only about 15 minutes but we did purchase some nice swag from the vineyard store. Additionally, Chateau Montelena (also a walk-in tasting) was underwhelming. Located in Calistoga on beautiful grounds with a pond full of crawfish, the landmark winery failed to deliver a meaningful experience worth the drive up RT 29.

Best Tasting Wines 


This a a tough one because the taste and enjoyment of wine is rooted in personal preference. It’s all subjective. Angela and I happen to love full-bodied reds that burst with jammy fruit and because the Napa Valley is one of the best regions on earth to grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the competition to be king of cabs is fierce. Whether you prefer Bordeaux styled blends, wines that are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, or something in between chances are that if you throw a rock while blindfolded, you’ll likely strike a good one.  While we were visiting Napa for a relaxing, flavor-filled holiday, Angela and I were also on a mission to find some unique wines to add to our wine room. Here are some of our favorites:

#1 Nickel & Nickel – Located in Oakville, Nickel & Nickel was designed to produce single-vineyard wines, and as such, a relative small number of cases are produced annually. The Cabs take on the personality of the different districts that the vineyards are cultivated in. These cabs are full-bodied and inky in color, and burst with ripe, dark fruit with long finishes and smooth tannins.  We loved all the wines that were a part of the tasting but purchased the 2013 Beatty Ranch Cab from Howell Mountain – exquisite! We also bought the 2013 Quarry Cab from Rutherford and their Darien Vineyard Syrah that our host was kind enough to introduce us to but was not a part of the official tasting.  All wine was served with 3 different cheeses in a private dining room in Nickel & Nickel’s charming late 19th century, historic farmstead.

#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Many know of Chateau Montelena’s historic 1976 win for white wine at the Judgment of Paris primarily from the movie Bottle Shock. The movie’s focus was Chateau Montelena’s story but it also highlights Stag’s Leap’s historic win for Cabernet Sauvingnon at the same international competition. The excellence in wine making continues today. We enjoyed several pours of outstanding wine including Winery Exclusive 2014 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay, and 2012 & 2013 Estate Collection Fay Cabernet Sauvignon.  We bought them all and joined their club.

#3 Hall Wines – Hall produces some outstanding wines and, quite frankly, this list could easily be rearranged with Hall going #1 or #2. It’s that tight of a ranking. There wasn’t one wine at Hall that I didn’t love. The 2013 Bergfeld was rich and inky with super smooth tannins and tons of ripe fruit. We snagged a bottle for the wine room and joined their club.

#4 Joseph Phelps, Plumjack, Caymus, Del Dotto- all of them easy top 3 candidates and all of them represent some of our fondest wine tasting moments. Joseph Phelps has one of the most drinkable Pinot Noirs (we snagged it) and their 2012 Backus Cab could be my favorite wine of the trip (snagged that too).  Plumjack wines are fantastic as are the wines of its sister label, Cade. We grabbed 6 bottles in all including the 2013 Plumpjack Estate Cab and 2014 Syrah. Del Dotto also offers outstanding wine and I can say I’ve never seen a bottle in a store in NY state. Most of their wine is sold to club members and visitors. We bought a Sauvignon Blanc, a fantastic red blend, and a Cab aged in American oak. It will be interesting to see if the wines are as good coming out of the bottle as they were straight from the barrels.

Disappointments – Silver Oak and Chateau Montelena. The wines were just OK and neither were worthy of the price points that you typically have to pay for them.


A final note on the Hotel Yountville and the town of Yountville, CA. The room, grounds and services at the Hotel Yountville made for a perfect holiday. From the public art on the grounds to the relaxing pool to the nightly chocolates that Angela hoarded, bagged up, and brought home, the Hotel Yountville served as the perfect base camp for our daily excursions. I remarked on several occasions to Angela that Yountville has to be the most fragrant town I’ve ever visited. Bushes of rosemary serve as landscaping and olive trees line the streets. Mix that with the aromas of fresh baked goods emanating from Bouchon Bakery and savory delights coming from Bottega and Bouchon restaurant and you create a truly happy place.  The public art spoke to the area’s unique place in the wine and culinary universe. We are counting the days until we return.

If you’ve visited Napa and have experiences to share, I’d love to hear them.

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.

Kama

Wine & Brothers




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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:

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