Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: Favorite Wine & Spirit Related Items

What were some of my favorite wine and spirit-related items of the past year?

Let me continue the lists of my best recommendations and favorites of the past year, 2010. I have already posted a list of my Favorite Restaurants of 2010 and Favorite Food-Related Items of 2010.  This post will now concentrate on some of my Favorite Wine & Spirit Related Items.  This is certainly not a complete list but it is more a sampling of memorable matters I have experienced and posted about over the past year. All of the items here get my strongest recommendation.

Favorite Discount Wine Store: With our continued difficult economic times, price is very important to consumers so discount wine stores have become especially prominent, and new ones are sprouting up all the time.  For the third year in a row, Bin Ends, a discount wine store in Braintree, takes this honor. With some of the best wine prices around, a diverse selection and knowledgeable staff, this store is a must visit. Plus, the store is at the top of using social media, not only to promote themselves but also to engage in a dialogue with wine lovers and their customers.

Runner-Up Discount Wine Stores: This is a tie between the Wine Connextion in North Andover and the Wine Cellar of Stoneham in the B.J.s Wholesale Club in Stoneham.  Both were favorite picks last year, and have maintained their quality since that time.  Their prices are excellent, service is very good, and both can order wines for you, still at their usual discount. They both are also carrying more niche wines than last year.

Favorite New Boutique Wine Store: The Urban Grape has made its mark on the local wine store scene, carrying a interesting selection of wines, sake, beers, and spirits.  The sleek store, with its compelling Enomatic tasting machines, is appealing, though I am still not a fan of how they sort their wines by body/weight. But, I love that they carry over 30 sakes, and they hold some excellent tasting events. It has become a popular destination, and that will continue into the New Year.  

Favorite New Boston Wine Store: I was pleasantly surprised to find that the wine prices at Boston Wine Exchange were actually reasonable, and not inflated just because of their location.  They have a good selection of wines, beers, sake, and spirits, including some very nice high-end spirits. It is a convenient spot in downtown Boston and they run regular tasting events.     

Favorite Suburban Wine Store: The Lower Falls Wine Company remains my favorite suburban wine store, due to their diverse selection, good prices, excellent service and superb tasting events.  It is hard for me to visit the shop and not leave with a case of wine. I have discovered many new favorite wines here, and am sure I will find many more in the future. Highly recommended.

Honorable Mention Suburban Wine Stores:  I want to give some kudos to a few other suburban wine stores which deserve recognition for their good work.  These include the Beacon Hill Wine & Gourmet in Melrose, Vintages: Adventures in Wine in Belmont, the Spirited Gourmet in Belmont, and Wine-Sense in Andover. 

Favorite North End Wine Store: For the second year in a row, Kerri Platt, the owner of the Wine Bottega has made this North End institution a compelling wine store. Great selection, excellent wine tastings, a knowledgeable staff and lots of passion. If you are visiting the North End, make sure to stop by the Wine Bottega.

Favorite Wine Store FeatureCentral Bottle in Central Square, Cambridge is an excellent boutique wine store, and they have a superb feature, their weekly Wine Bar. You can stop by to actually drink some wine, while dining on delicious food.  It is like a neighborhood bar held inside a wine store.  They often have special guests and themes for the Wine Bar nights, which make this is an even more compelling wine store.   

Most Disappointing Wine Store Trend: Why is it that some large wine stores, carrying 1000+ wines, cannot seem to carry a decent selection of niche wines too?  With that much inventory, they should be able to easily carry a percentage of niche wines, rather than a couple hundred of the same old wines. Do you really need to carry 200 Chardonnays?  Wouldn't 150 suffice, and then 50 different wines? Wine stores with far smaller inventories are able to carry and sell niche wines so why can't the big guys?

Favorite Vermont Winery: For a second year in a row, Boyden Valley Winery earns my top kudos.   They only use Vermont grapes, hybrids, and the wines are delicious and generally reasonably priced. Their Vermont Ice Red, made from Frontenac, is even one of the best ice wines I have ever had. I also tasted their new Vermont Ice Cider and Vermont Ice Apple Creme and also found them interesting and tasty. Yes, local wines can be good wines.

Favorite Sherry Bodega: This was a tough choice, as I visited several top notch bodegas in the Sherry region.  But, in the end I had to choose Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, which produces not only superb Manzanillas but also superb Aged Sherries. The owner, Javier, is a proud and passionate man and you knew that his sherries were labors of love.  Kudos must also go to Bodegas Tradición, Bodegas Harvey, Bodegas Sánchez Romate, and Bodegas Gonzalez Byass for the great sherries they are producing.

Favorite Finger Lakes Winery: While at TasteCamp 2010, we visited several wineries and tasted wines from many more.  But the winery that stood out the most to me was Heart and Hands, which produces incredible Pinot Noir and delicious sparkling wines. A small, family owned winery, it exudes passion.  Their wines are carefully hand crafted, and the quality of their wines should place them on the list of any discerning wine lover.

Favorite Paso Robles-Area Winery: The Bodegas Paso Robles, owned and operated by Dorothy Schuler, really captured my attention with its interesting story and unique wines. Dorothy uses only Spanish and Portugese grapes, and the resulting wines are high quality and extremely tasty.  The grapes comes from vineyards throughout California, wherever the type of grapes that Dorothy needs are grown. What other California winery makes a 100% Bastardo wine?  If you can find these wines, you definitely should check them out.  Or visit their tasting room in downtown Paso Robles.

Favorite Wine Maker Tasting: Getting to taste wine with the wine maker can be an informative event, helping you discern his intent, methods and philosophy.  This year, I got to meet wine maker Carl Sutton, of Sutton Cellars, at two different events: a Wine Bar at Central Bottle and a tasting at Spirited Gourmet.  Carl is a fun, laid-back guy, the type of person you would love to while away a few hours drinking wine. His wine philosophy is compelling as well, desirous of making low production, affordable wines that make you crave another glass.  Plus, he makes a killer dry Vermouth.   

Favorite Wine Region Tasting: This category is for those tastings held locally, and which consist of a collection of wines from a specific region. It was a tie between a Greek wine tasting held by Athenee Importers and a tasting of Austrian Wines by Winebow. Greek wines still don't get sufficient respect, despite the fact there are many excellent Greek wines out there.  I have been a fan of Greek wines for years, continuing to learn more about them all the time.  This tasting had a great selection of wines, and even gave me an appreciation for Retsina!  The Austrian tasting also had a great selection, giving me an even greater appreciation for Grüner Veltliner as well as a new appreciation for St. Laurent.  Please try wines from these regions and I am sure you will find some new favorites.

Favorite Single Grape Tasting: Though these wines are not yet available for sale in the U.S., I was fascinated by a tasting of Japanese Wines made from the Koshu grape. Reminiscent of a cross between Muscadet and Sake, these wines had real potential, though the price generally needs to be lowered for them to make it in the U.S.  The Koshu grape is intriguing, and can make some quality wines. This could become a hot new wine in the U.S. in 2011.

Favorite Educational Wine Tasting: I love history and niche wines, so a tasting combining the two is perfect for me and that is what I found at a recent Madeira tasting.  Madeira has a vibrant history, with a strong American connection, and the wines themselves are intriguing and delicious.  What other wine can taste so good after one hundred years of storage?  Madeira is underappreciated but has much to offer and should be on the radar of all wine lovers. And I need to do more research on this wine's rich history.  

Favorite Personal Wine Tasting:  This was a tasting years in the making, with a hand-picked selection of friends, and held at the home of my friend Adam (who hosts some great wine tastings). It was a Sean Thackrey Pleaides Vertical, eight different bottlings of this quirky red blend, one of my favorites. I had collected these wines over a course of years, and finally put them together for a vertical tasting.  It was a great event, made better by having good friends present, and the wines generally showed very well.  It will remain a very memorable tasting.

Favorite Wine Trip: I went on several wine trips this past year, and all of them were very good, from TasteCamp in the Finger Lakes to Paso Robles, California.  But, my overall favorite had to be my time in the Sherry Region.  Great people, sherry, food, travel, weather and more, contributed to a wonderful experience.  I learned much, had tons of fun, met interesting people, and simply enjoyed everything. This is a region I cannot recommend enough.

Favorite Wine Magazine: For the second year in a row, Decanter, a British wine magazine, continues to impress me with its extensive coverage of many less common wine regions, often ignored or marginalized in other wine publications. Plus it has an amusing wine cartoon in every issue. With a new look, the magazine continues to deliver, and I eagerly look forrward to each issue of Decanter.

Favorite Local Wine Blogger: It seems the number of local wine bloggers had diminished over the last couple years.  A number of local food blogs do add the occasional wine post, but blogs dedicated 50% or more to wine are tougher to find. Rather than choose a favorite, I just want to give kudos to three wine bloggers who have been around for a time, have a passion for wine, and are producing some worthy words on wine.  They include Adam of Wine Zag, Dale of Drinks Are On Me, and Robert of Wellesley Wine Press.

Favorite Wine Trend: My favorite trend from last year was the production of some high-quality Boxed wines, and they have made slow, but positive, progress since then. I still love the idea and would like to see more producers availing themselves of this option. I think some of the stigma of boxed wines has lessened, and I have encountered little prejudice when I have shared them with family and friends. People are letting the wine speak for itself, rather than judging it by its container.  Keep up the forward progress.

Most Over Rated Wine Trend: Yes, and though it may garner me some criticism, I am very tired of hearing about the "importance" of the Millennials. I have spoken on this issue a few different times: Rant: Are Millennials the Future of Wine?Those Darn Millennials Again, and Rant: Barefoot Millennials. Currently, it is all just potential, and it may never become a reality.  And frankly, most Millennials currently seem to be drinking very inexpensive wines, including much mass-produced plonk, often under $10. What happens if Millennials decide to remain beer and spirits drinkers, both industries who are also courting them?

Favorite Wine Book: Though it is a short book, Terry Thiese's Reading Between the Wines is packed with ideas and thought-provoking questions.  It is very well written, opinionated (but in a good way), and covers many different wine issues. It is must reading for all wine lovers, and offers a starting point for many fascinating discussions. Highly recommended.

Favorite Wine History Book: For a nice taste of American history and wine, then check out The Wild Vine by Todd Kliman.  A well written and fascinating look at the Norton grape, you will be amazed at some of America's early wine history.  I learned plenty in this book and any history lover or wine lover will find much of interest here.   

Least Favorite Wine Book: I have read both The Wine Trials 2010 and The Wine Trials 2011, by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch. Both times, I have questioned their methodology, and both times my questions have been largely ignored by the authors. Though they often push for a more scientific method to wine tasting, they seem satisfied to conceal their own methods.  They cite other scientific studies in their book, yet do not provide adequate details of their own tastings that led to the wines in their books.  This raises a large red flag in my mind. What do they have to hide?

New Wine Short Story: This year, I wrote a new, wine-related short story, The Veil of Flowers.  This is a rather unique story, told from an uncommon point of view. The story deals with Sherry but I don't want to give you any more hints and ruin the surprise.  I hope you enjoy this story and would like your feedback.

Favorite Hard Apple Cider: I tasted several different hard apple ciders this past year, and ultimately I cannot choose a favorite.  The top three included J.K.'s Scrumpy Hard CiderWoodchuck Hard Cider, and Magners Irish Cider.  Each is very good, but they have their own unique styles. So, it all comes down to which styley you might prefer. As I like diversity, there are different times I will enjoy all three of their hard ciders. Do you want something earthier, something with more bubbles, something sweeter?  Read my individual reviews of each, and find the style that best appeals to you.  (I inadvertently omitted mention of Farnum Hill Ciders which definitely belongs as part of this list for their delicious hard ciders.)

Favorite Pear Hard Cider: Pear cider, sometimes called Perry, is becoming more and more popular. In a Perry Showdown, I tried to discern my favorite, but it ended in a tie between Magners Pear Cider and Woodchuck Pear Cider. Both are equally good, yet different. It is more a matter of preference, or even your feelings at the moment.

Favorite Cocktail Book: For a more unique cocktail book, Japanese Cocktails by Yuri Kato will suit your desire. It contains over 60 cocktail recipes with chapters on Saké, Shochu, Whiskey, and More. Besides the recipes, there are also brief sidebars and sections describing Japanese alcohol, ingredients, history and culture.  It is a fascinating book and a welcome addition for any home bartender.

Favorite Cocktail Supply Store: For a small, but comprehensive, local cocktail supply store, The Boston Shaker in Somerville is a top choice. Glasses, mixing tools, bitters, books, and so much more can be found here. Plus, they run regular cocktail classes to assist all home bartenders. If you are a professional or an avid amateur, this should be your destination. 

Favorite New Liquer: The original Triple Sec, that orange flavored liquer, is Combier Triple Sec and it is different from its competitors. Using the original formula, and all natural ingredients, this Triple Sec tastes great, is not overly sweet, and is the perfect addition to cocktails. You might think it makes no difference in a cocktail to use inferior ingredients, but it certainly does. And for Triple Sec, I strongly recommend you use the Combier.

Favorite Non-Alcoholic Book: This is another fascinating history book, For All The Tea In China by Sarah Rose, and details efforts by England to steal the secrets of tea from China. It reads like a novel about Indiana Jones, and I bet you will find it a compelling read. Plus, you will learn much about tea and Chinese culture.  A must read.

For more wine and spirit related items, you can check my blog posts for the past year. Obviously I could not include everything in this review post.

What were some of your favorite wine and spirit related items this year?


1WineDude said...

LOVE that you're giving props to the best local wine shops.

HATE that I can't do the same thing because I live in PA. :-(


Dale Cruse said...

Thanks for including me, Rich. You know I appreciate that.

Robert Dwyer said...

Hey Richard! Thanks for the mention - very kind of you.

Interesting thought about local wine bloggers - there's *got* to be some newer ones that started in the past year that aren't on our radar screen.

Solid picks on the stores and some of my favorites too. I was over at Lower Falls this afternoon - love their knowledge and enthusiasm. Wine Cellar of Stoneham is a favorite too - love their model. We've got some great stores to choose from in the Boston area.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks guys!

Yes, I do agree there are probably some new local wine bloggers out there, but they have just remained under the radar. They need to get on Twitter. :)