What We Are Drinking: Raphael Estate Merlot 2015

I am a devotee of Long Island wine. It is a region that has a great deal of personal significance for me and one that I have a far more direct connection than the more heralded regions that are- sadly- far, far away. It is also a region that has substantial issues right now. Wine production on the North Fork began in the late 1970’s when the area was just farmland and fishing posts and the area gained what little traction it has in the wine world in the mid-2000’s, just about the same time I began venturing out there. More than a decade later, as the value of the land just North of the Hamptons is swinging up and up, the prices for North Fork wines have started to outpace their quality. The winemakers have improved, to be sure, but when your quirky Cab Francs are now twice the price of those coming out of Chinon, there is a problem.

One of the producers that has managed to make good wines consistently without getting too pricey for their own good is Raphael. Their Cab Franc, Estate Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc all retail for under $20 in most places and are typically a good value. I picked up the 2015 Estate Merlot for $15 this week and found it to be a good example of what the grape can do in the North Fork for the novice Strong Island hooch.

The 2015 Estate Merlot is deep ruby in color and the nose is bright with notes of cassis, blackberry and cedar with a hit of alcohol that signals the youthful bit to come. The fruit up front is tart. Blackberries and sour cherry run ahead of sharp tannins that could do with some mellowing over time. The finish is arid with a hint of black pepper a key flavor in many of the Long Island reds.

This wine is drinkable now, but there is some projection needed to see it get to its ceiling as it feels a little green overall. At the price, I like the value, but mostly I would recommend this wine as an introduction to the North Fork. The best reds from Long Island share some of the details in common with the Raphael Estate Merlot and bring different tones along for the ride. This isn’t basic exactly, but it no enigma either

50/80- could mellow to an above average pro at it’s peak.


What We Are Drinking: Chateau Marjosse 2014 Bordeaux

The Bordeaux region of France produces some of the most desirable and collectible wines on earth, wines that are breathtaking in both taste and price. For the vast majority of us, those wines are out of the picture. It just isn’t happening. But, the region is vast and so are its offerings. I have found that it a place to go for reliable quality in reds running from $17-$30 a bottle, where there is a high floor for these wines and still the chance at hitting on something really great. The 2014 Chateau Marjosse didn’t blow me away as a rare gem for the price but it definitely came through enough to be a good value and a safe bet for a meal that needs a quality red wine beside it.

This Bordeaux blend features 80-percent Merlot and 20-percent Cabernet Franc and it is deep ruby color, almost black in the glass. The nose brings some black cherry, allspice, and suede notes. There is a nice medium to full-bodied feel on the mouth with a good deal of black fruits up front, soft chewy tannins and hints of tobacco and bitter cocoa on the finish. Basically, this is a great introduction to what Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends are like. There is a lot to like and there is some room for projection here as well, since this is currently a bit harsher than it should be in the future.

While this particular wine is far from the best value-buy I have found from Red Bordeaux blends, with a price tag between $15-$18 dollars, it definitely over-delivers.

60/80 solid starter Bordeaux with some room to age into itself

What We Are Drinking: Wimmer 2016 Gruner Veltliner

White wine can be a tough thing to get right. There is an ocean of uninteresting, inexpensive white that is boring to drink, adds little to a meal and can only be positively described as unobjectionable. There is also a good deal of white at the low end that is just plain bad. So, I get excited when I find an inexpensive white that goes when with a wide range of foods and has enough complexity to stand on its own. Right now, those qualities have made the Wimmer 2016 Gruner Veltliner basically our house white for the winter.

This Austrian Gruner has a light yellow hue and a subtle nose that hints at flavors of lemon, orange, and pear with just hint of herbs. It is crisp and refreshing with good minerality, a hint of candied lemon and tropical fruits on the palate that is much more subtle than what you typically get from New World-style Sauvignon Blancs. The finish is bright and clean,  leaving only a pleasant lingering of acidity behind.

We had this one with Scallops and artichoke and chickpea tagine one night and with Greek-style roast chicken breast and veggies with yogurt sauce and it complimented the buttery seafood and the herbed chicken equally well. It runs under $15 for a 1000 ml bottle, so it a perfect wine to toss in the fridge for whenever you need a solid white.

55/80- A utility player that can hold its place in the lineup and bring a little pop.

What We Are Drinking: Chateau Cornut 2016 Rose

I do not truck with those who would disparage men for drinking pink wine. Look, we aren’t talking about strawberry frozen margaritas here or some drink inspired by a character from Sex and the City. This is wine, and wine is good. Color be damned.

If you are one of the timid men out there, dodging roses for fear of its supposed emasculating effects, searching for your courage, or just someone with a taste for something not quite white and not quite red, I would suggest Chateau Cornut’s 2016 Rose from the Costieres De Nimes region of France’s Rhone Valley. This wine is made from eighty percent Grenache and twenty percent Syrah and over-delivers at around $16 a bottle.

On the nose, I got aromas of strawberries, cranberries, roses and a bit chalkiness or limestone. The tart fruits come through strong on first sip with a bit of nectarine joining the more astringent berries. There is also a salinity to the wine and strong backbone of acidity that make for a complex wine that defies simplistic explanations.

That complexity also may make this a tough wine to pair with food. We had a typical cheese spread accompanying one tasting of this wine and nothing quite worked with it. Fattier fishes such as salmon or  cod would would seem to be a match but not every preparation is going work with the tart cranberry and subtle musk in this rose. It did a nice job cutting the sweetness of some strawberry-blueberry jam we had in the mix but it would be a strange choice with dessert. I preferred this just on its own as a refreshing and still interesting summer wine.

55/80, a solid role player with too many limitations to be an impact player with most meals.

What We Are Drinking- Zorzal Eggo 2015 Tinto De Tiza

I am not the biggest Malbec fan but on a recent run to the wine shop, I was intrigued by this Argentinian red which boasted a 94-point rating from Robert Parker’s wine advocate and the very reasonable price tag of $25. At that price, it is hard to say that this wine failed to deliver in any way. Yet, the high rating probably raised my expectations a bit above what this red could deliver on. Along with the Malbec one expects from Mendoza, this wine has ten percent Cab Franc and five percent Cab Sauvignon. 

On the nose, I got some tobacco and leather tones mixed with blackberry and plum, That is an intriguing mix, but the aromas didn’t captivate as much as that description might suggest they would. The tart fruit tones dominated upfront with a hint of cedar adding some balance. This wines strength for me was in the silky tannins and brisk, slightly acidic finish. It is easy to image this wine standing out paired with a fatty cut of pork or a thick ribeye and just crushing it along side some nice smoky barbeque. 

Overall, on the 80/20 scale, I would put this wine in a 60-65 range, well above average, but a bit short of mind-blowing. It is a wine that needs a soulmate with some smoky and earth and can probably reach up into the 70 range in the right context. Well worth the money, but probably not something you need to track down this minute.

What We are Drinking: Rubus 2013 Shiraz, a reason to love Shiraz again

Back when I was first getting interested in wine, Australian Shiraz was just starting to develop some serious hype. It was easy to understand why. In the years around the turn of the 21st Century, Shiraz from Downunder was regularly a great value buy. It had a long history of success in the country, but it had fallen out of favor in the 1970’s and 1980’s before making a comeback in the 1990’s. Plenty of customers at the restaurant I worked during this time were unfamiliar with the grape and suspicious of Australia as a quality producer. Those are the kinds of factors that can lead to a varietal getting undervalued and overdelivering for the price. That was Shiraz 15-20 years ago, at least as I remember it.

It is not the case anymore. Wide-release brands like Yellowtail are out there now, giving everyone a sense, or better or worse, of Austrialia’s place in the winemaking world. At the other extreme, Penfold’s “Grange’s” perfect rating for its 2008 varietal put all the big spenders on alert. Shiraz now has to compete with the Old World Syrah’s that proceeded it and New World regions in California and Oregon that have embraced the grape as well. Now it is also far less likely to be undervalued and all too likely to underwhelm. Personally, my tastes have veered toward the Old World more and more as I have gotten older and more experienced with wine. Together, my taste and the downturn for Shiraz has moved me away from buying it regularly.

But the tasting notes from Wine Enthusiast for the 2013 Rubus Shiraz from the Barossa Valley region caught my eye, as did the 92-rating, which is high for a $14 bottle of anything, let alone Shiraz from one of the warmest regions. The WA tasting notes caught cedar and mocha notes, but I caught more tobacco and something almost caramel-like on the nose. There is a good amount of alcohol on the nose as well, which told me that a little time between pouring and drinking was for the best.

Rubus Shiraz

The real revelation here, however, comes on the first taste. I was hit with salt. Right out of the gate, that’s what I got and it was both surprising and welcome. The effect was along the lines of an Islay scotch, a touch of brine to kick things off. After that, I got a good deal of earthy tones, tobacco, ash, very dark chocolate and a hint of blackberry, all dressed in casual tannins and leading to a long, dry, and slightly tart finish. I am not sure this will send me back to the store to dig for other Shiraz bargains, but I would buy this wine again in a heartbeat.

Scouting report: Nose: 55, Mouth-feel 65, Taste 65, finish, overall 65, value 70



What We Are Drinking: Lexington- Best Bourbon Under $30

Over the years, I have gone through phases with whisk(e)y. My first passion was scotch. I fell for The Balvenie Doublewood and Lagavulin. I passed my days in college classes and working in an Upper West Side restaurant and picked up a bottle of the fine old stuff as often as funds would allow to pass the nights.  After that, I took up Irish Whiskey for a spell, mostly Jameson, not in shots (ok, sometimes in shots), but in small pours at the end of bitter cold days in the East Village of New York, when I would return from film school by way of East 9th St, the village’s own wind tunnel. The Irish version had the advantage of being cheaper and its sweet honey tones eased away the chill of those meager days.

Recently, I have turned to  American-made, if not for some sense of either patriotism or localism, then at least for the practical purpose of finding rewarding selections at great values and plenty of uncharted territory (for me at least) to explore. Bourbon and rye, America’s two great whiskeys, are both capable of delivering complexity and enjoyment on par with the Old World’s best and often at much lower costs. Scotch whisky is wonderful, but the worst are undrinkable and the ones that truly deliver are priced accordingly. Irish Whiskey is reliable but rarely exciting, just smooth, pleasant drinking that requires little thought. Rye is not popular enough among the general public to command big prices or to have many standard-bearing brands, but it can come through with wonderful aromas and toasty notes all the way up the scales, so I’ve been drinking it more and more these days. But for all the promise I find in Rye, Bourbon is still the front-runner on the American whiskey scene and my latest pick-up, Lexington Kentucky Bourbon, not only reinforces that fact but makes it clear that you don’t have to spend to get a killer glass of the stuff.

If the label were to be stripped of all text, the elegant portrait of a thoroughbred that adorns the bottle would be enough for you to know that Kentucky Whiskey is contained herein. In a most literal way, this liquor wears its heritage on its sleeve. Maybe you are immune to the pull of a starting gate and a line of muscular horses bucking for the start and a hot day and glass of bourbon, but I am not, not by  a long shot. At just over a hair above $20, the stately stud (or gelding, possibly) on the bottle would be enough to take a shot.

This whiskey didn’t need to rely on sucker-punch nostalgia branding, however. i picked it up at $20 and I believe it is suggested retail price is around $25. It could easily command twice the price and no one would complain- and let’s just all agree to not mention that to the proprietors, ok? Deal?


The first thing that hit me on my first sniff was vanilla and more specifically, I concluded a moment later, creme brulee- all vanilla custard and burnt brown sugar. Those sweet notes run just ahead of leather and oak, a nice payoff  for the bottle’s artwork. There is a lushness to the feel on your tongue that caught me off guard and border on oily in the best possible way, in keeping with the vanilla tones on the nose. Touches of orange and lemon add a crisp dimension, leading to a finish that is long on toasted wheat and cedar.

When I think about putting scouting grades on this baby, I have to call up the prospect days of guys like Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia. Those guys were undersized; this bottle is underpriced. But they looked like ballplayers and this bottle screams bourbon right from the label. Those guys had the minor league numbers of top prospects, this drink landed a 95 from The Tasting Panel. But people doubted those guys, until…laser show. Don’t doubt this one. This is a bourbon with a 70 nose, 75 mouth-feel, 70 flavor and finish and 80 value; a can’t miss prospect anywhere under $30 and destined to land the big free-agent deal in the near future.

What We are Drinking- Thoughts on Wine Ratings

I have many hobbies. Maybe too many. One is drinking. I am referring to the drinking of alcoholic beverages in part, but not exclusively. I drink coffee and tea and think about drinking these beverages in just about the same way I think about the more intoxicating ones. All of the drinks, regardless of proof, are central to human history and capable of connecting us with times and places distant from our present experience. They are all delicious, or at least they all have the potential to be. They all have sects of devotees that can spend endless amounts of time, money and energy obsessing over them. They are joined by the fact that they are worthy of serious consideration and they can reward that consideration with revelation. And that makes them excellent hobby-fodder.

From time to time, I am going to write about various beverages. I suspect I will devote most of these entries to wine, but whiskey will get its time to sign along with other spirits and coffee and tea might make an occasional appearance. I hope it is fun and I hope you, brilliant readers, enjoy it and maybe even find it useful.

First, however, something like a disclaimer.

I am not a sommelier. I profess no great training in the art of wine or winemaking. I once made beer. I went…ok. I am just a guy who thinks about what he is drinking and enjoys when other people do the same. There are so many people out there who write about wine and other drinks so well that I probably don’t need to bother.  I will do it, though, because, to paraphrase Joan Didion, I often do know what I think until I write and with all the time I already spending thinking about what I am drinking I might as well put something down on digital paper. I also tend to believe that the idea, of implied if not outright stated, by those who taste, rate, sell or otherwise consider wine et al. for a living, that the evaluation of these things is a careful and precise science.

The sommeliers and other experts aren’t at fault for this impression, really. I suspect that most of them hate the number-one cause of this fallacy even more than the casual drinker. The problem is the damn ratings. The 100 scale of wine ratings is a nightmare. It is unnecessarily specific and that makes it arrogant. What is the qualitative difference in wine that scores 89 and one that scores 91? If it is significant enough to matter, why is the spread only three points on a scale of one hundred? If it is not a meaningful distinction, why even make it? And where are the 50-point wines in this scale (which is the bottom of the Wine Spectator scale linked to above)? Is it safe to assume that that handle of $5.00 Gallo Merlot is a 50 or could it be lower? In reality, outside the wine magazines themselves, you only see ratings over eighty anyway, because no one advertises a rating that is lower. Fifty-to-one hundred is a fifty-point scale and a difference of three points looks more meaningful in that context. If only wines that get over 80 are worth consideration, that make a twenty-point scale for those, where a three point spread actually matters a lot. So what is the real scale and how much is each point really worth?

There is no good answer if you are just at wine shop trying to decide on something to buy. False precision makes the system itself seem almost useless. The ratings imply more meaningful difference than the drinks can possibly deliver. And for an industry that is hurt by a reputation for snobbishness to start with, being arrogant enough to believe you can rate things this precisely is more off-putting than helpful.  In reality, I tend to see a few tiers of quality and craftsmanship and not much more worth digging into. The predictive power a 91 rating over an 89 rating for enjoyability is essentailly zilch, even if the rating system linked to above implies they are in different classes. Wines that are rated 95+ are the great wines of the World, basically without fail and they are correspondently rare. That doesn’t mean you will like them. You might love them, but you might also find them above your taste, but that is, at least, a very distinct class. Experience is key with this class (and some serious money to spend helps too).  I drink wines in the second tier almost exclusively, for practical reasons. Or at least I try to. When rated by the big ratings folks, they will score somewhere between 92 and 87, and they are, for the most part, reliably good, though not reliably exciting or thought-provoking and ratings difference seems basically arbitrary. The next tier down would be the vast majority of non-jug wine. The average ones, the kind of wine that you could grab for a decent price, serve to people and they would nod with thoughtless approval. It’s “meh” in a bottle, not objectionable or memorable in any way. Price is no predictor of the difference between the second and third tier and ratings don’t really nail the difference down either. It’s wildly subjective and the best guide is either the tasting notes and your preference or advice from someone with taste like yours, preferably an expert. Below that, there are ones you regret buying and ones you probably shouldn’t have been considering in the first place.

People like the ratings, though.Hell,  I even kind of like them (mostly because they come with better tasting notes than the winemaker’s).  I am loathe to go without them completely. I think they just need more humility by way of broader strokes. If I have to create some kind of numbering system for wine rating, I’m going to go with the 20-80 scale that baseball scouts use. It is sx-tiers, with grades limited to the tens and “half-grades” at the fives. The 80- grade is extremely rare (it’s Mike Trout and nobody else) and the 20 grade is so low as to not factor into most discussions (you might say Bartolo Colon is 20-grade baserunner, but that’s about it). 50 is average and while half-grades (ie 55, exists), they are used judiciously. A 75 is rare in relation to how rare 80 grades are and so on down the line. This works well for wine not only because it gives nice, understandable tiers and enough wiggle room to make distinctions but because it also implies, through its lineage that different factors could score differently and that would be a welcome addition to the wine conversation in my mind. 65 nose, 50 pairing ability, 60 finish, solid everyday contributor with a chance to develop into something special in 5-10 years. I’d by that wine and start it at shortstop tomorrow.