Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fiver Rivers

This 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Five Rivers got trashed by the Brown Bag Sommeliers. They said it had notes of mushrooms, licorice, stewed prunes, and honeycomb. They said it had a flabby unpronounced balance with a broken finish.

In short, they hated it. Or was it because by this point in the tasting, they had tasted 8 wines. Yowch! That is a boozy bunch.

I am not about to go out on a limb and defend this wine, since it I didn't really care for it and it cost $12.99 a bottle and was thus at our price max - but a word to the wise; if you are having a tasting at home - limit the amount of wines you try.

After four or five wines, your palate loses its senses. After all, we're amateurs.

Another word to the wise - skip Five Rivers - especially at the recession un-friendly 12.99.

I've got two more Paso postings coming up - one is for the Liberty School Cab that the Brown Bag East tasted - aka my Mom and Dad. They loved it although who knows they split the whole bottle.

And the other post is for the Paso greatness of Rabbit Ridge - a great buy option - especially when they have it at Trader Joe's for $4.99 which they have been doing on and off for the last eight months.

RATING: 1.35 Screwcaps
LABEL: Five Rivers
GRAPE: Cabernet Sauvignon
PRICE: $12.99

Friday, July 24, 2009

J. Lohr - Seven Oaks

I picked up this 2006 J-Lo Cabernet Sauvignon for $12.99 at K&L Wines( which has become my new favorite wine store in Los Angeles beating out my old stand-by The WineHouse).

This fruit back wine with flavors of kiwi, blueberries, preserved lemons, and cinnamon had what the group determined was unstructured and immature tannins and was over-all lacking in body.

Unstructured and lacking in body are not what you are looking for from what should be a solid, mass produced California red - especially at $12.99. At that price point, you should be able to pick up a dependable, go-to bottle. The one you can safely get when you are in a supermarket looking at an uninspired shelf of vino.

But don't go looking for it at J-Lo's Paso based label.

I think that the group was looking for something a little more from J-Lo, and they didn't get it.

RATING: 2.45 Screwcaps
LABEL: J. Lohr 2006 Seven Oaks Cabernet
PRICE: $12.99

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Estancia Zinfandel

After a while, you have to wonder... what the hell am I supposed to write about a wine? Like this one with its flavors of dried strawberries, hint of citrus, cinnamon and graham and turmeric!!!

Who gives a damn? When the honest review is... it tastes fine enough to allow me to drink enough glasses to get sh**faced... Or this was the wine my cousin picked out to serve at her wedding where I got so drunk I chased her bridesmaids through the dirty fountain and fell face first into the pond scum... Or they served this wine at the company Christmas party.... I don't work there anymore.

I read the NY Times and the LA Times food critics give their spiel about wines week after week, and I wonder... When is their breaking point? When does Eric Asimov sitting at his computer in the Times Dining Section finally crack and spill some ink and say My God the wine business is all about getting people liquored up. It's not about terroir or fruit forward or back or nose or balance. That's secondary.

Wine is a way to get greased and still feel high-brow and in control.

And for a mass market Paso Zin, Estancia does a good job at that. I think they carry it at major supermarkets in California. So next time you're there, pick up a bottle, and bring a cork screw with you. When you find yourself stuck in line to the chirp chirp bleep of the scanner read week 50 of the Michael Jackson coverage, uncork and take a glug.

And if the checkout clerk gives you a hard time, tell her - Hey, this wine has notes of turmeric, graham, cinnamon, and a balanced soft finish. So step off!

RATING: 2.75 Screwcaps
LABEL: Estancia Zinfandel 2006
GRAPE: Zinfandel
PRICE: $10.99 - not a bad price for a solid wine

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Toad Hollow Cacaphony Zinfandel

Like its label with a dancing frog and a fox playing a banjo and black and white tile flooring, this wine was all over the place. Not in a good way. This wine didn't wing any fans. Its nose gave rise to heavy alcohol fumes and bay leaves.

With flavors of star anise, plum, and a hint of tuberose it came on strong and left weak with rubbery, unstructured tannins.

It's strange having friendly get-togethers/wine tastings because no one ever likes to criticize something that a guest has brought. Especially guests with good taste in wine - as was the case of the Brown Bagger who brought this bottle. You want to say something positive, but you also have to be honest.

This wine scored very poorly with the brown baggers, and by rights it should be wearing the brown bag of shame.

RATING: 1.5 Screwcaps
LABEL: Toad Hollow - Cacaphony
GRAPE: Zinfandel
PRICE: $12.99 ( shame on you Toad Hollow - at this price you need better quality control)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Castoro Cellars Viogner

Brownbag newcomer Leora brought this 2007 Viogner from Castoro Cellars to the Brownbag v. Paso Robles event. To mixed reviews (something to remember when organizing a wine tasting night - don't treat it like a no holds barred competition [even though I do]).

It opened up with a good floral nose but some found that its magnolia scented flavors gave way to a perfume-y, bitter fruit forward flavor. Brown Bagger Dennis said it tasted like lemon head candies which reminded him of seeing Superman 3 in Rogue River, Oregon, so maybe it made him sad to think of Superman getting mean and flicking beer nuts at supersonic speeds at the mirror behind the bar where he was drinking. I mean, I think Superman 3 is the one where he turns mean, and he has to battle Richard Pryor and a super computer - God being a screenwriter back then must have been a dream job.

Anyway... Some of the panel found the wine to have flat tannins with a lingering finish and a hint of bitterness.

It personally did not bring me back to any Superman movie screenings nor did I think it bitter. The one criticism I had of the wine is that it lacked the crispness of a viogner that I like. It had more of an oaky, chardonnay character which is why the group decided that the best food pairings would be bacon wrapped scallops and sausages with sauteed collard greens.

RATING: 2 Screwcaps
LABEL: Castoro Cellars
GRAPE: Viogner
PRICE: $9.99

Thursday, June 25, 2009


When I first started writing this post, I was convinced that it was the lead runner and ultimate winner of the Brown Bag v. Paso night. Looking back over my notes, however, the Eos 2007 Sauvignon Blanc came in 3rd. Yet another example of the Brown Bag Bias against white wines - something which will be challenged in the July Brown Bag v. Whites Night.

This wine with flavors of peaches, pears, and other sauvignon blanc flavors like hint of mushrooms, jasmine, soft lemon rind, and wet grass( I still asure you that these are actual notes and not figments of my imagination) was still a crowd pleaser. It has a fruit back tendency with a soft, lingering finish.

All around, this wine is a good bargain in the sweet-spot range of 7 to 10 bucks. It came in with an MSRP of $9.99.

Think of this wine as something that would go awesome with fish tacos or skillet fried corn( with a little bit of squeezed lime) or even a turkey club sandwich with some bacon and avocado.

Eos is a strong performer for what it is.

And come to think of it, it would be a good wine to revisit when the brown baggers take on white wines. How would it compare with a field of other white wines?

I give this a strong Brown Bag recommend - look for it on sale at BevMo.

RATING: 2.75 Screwcaps
GRAPE: Sauvignon Blanc
PRICE: $9.99

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Brownbagger Mike B does not like fruit forward jammy wines which is funny since he brought a bottle of just-that to the Brown Bag v. Paso Robles event.

This 2007 Foxglove Zinfandel that he picked up from Silverlake Wines was jam central with flavors of dried cranberries, black cherries, preserved fruit. Someone even detected a hint of Eucalyptus( I swear I am not making this up).

Honestly, I thought this was a great wine if you are into strong, full fruit flavors like that. It was not overpowering jammy as the fruit still had a nice balance to it with soft tannins.

As we went around the table discussing what kind of food would pair well with this wine, we decided first upon game. Meat with complex flavors like wild boar or venison or even marinated lamb would go very well with Foxglove.

Brown Bagger Aaron suggested getting some short-rib tacos from the now wildly famous Kogi taco truck( which for those of you who don't know is a taco truck that puts Korean barbecue style meats and also tofu on corn tortillas. They evidently have kimchi quesadillas which sell out as soon as the truck pulls up. People find the truck's location( I think there are two of them now)via their Twitter feed).

We might have to send a scout out and get a whole bunch of Kogi specialties in the future to see what wine pairings we can come up with.

As for Brown Bagger Mike B, I know you don't like wines like this Foxglove but I am glad you brought it - cause I sure liked it.

RATING: 3.5 Screwcaps
LABEL: Foxglove
GRAPE: Zinfandel
PRICE: $12.99

Sunday, June 21, 2009

ROBERT HALL'06 Rhone de Robles

So, the last weekend in May, the Brown Bag Sommeliers took on the promising Paso Roble wine region. Basically half-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Paso offers rolling hills, beautiful live oak trees and some delicious wines at great prices.

To the East of the 101 Freeway there are countless acres under cultivation that produce powerful, full fruit reds. They get pounded by that strong California sun all Summer long setting up big sugar content resulting in high alcohol but still flavorful wines.

Now West of the 101, the carefully cultivated hillsides still get a lot of sun, but they also benefit from the cooling breezes coming off of the Pacific Ocean. This area has become home to vintners making Rhone style wines attracting such winemakers as the Perrin Brothers who are famous for Chateuneuf du Pape du Beaucastel who make great Rhone wines at Tablas Creek.

The area West of the 101 is a great area to go winetasting, so it was only fitting that we started off our Paso Robles night with a Rhone Style wine.

The first wine up was this delicious Robert Hall 2006 Rhone de Robles. A blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, and Counoise grapes, this wine was peppery with hints of tobacco and dark stone fruits. Because of the California growing conditions, this wine is slightly more fruit forward than a French Rhone will be. But it has a great balance with firm but silky tannins.

This is a wine that would age nicely. We all agreed that a great food pairing would be a hamburger topped with a crumbly blue like Humboldt fog( which I initially thought was a weed reference - this is California and Humboldt is Humboldt - anyway I was quickly corrected that this was not a pot smoking joke but a sincere food pairing suggestion).

This wine is a winner. Unfortunately, not for the Brown Bag Sommeliers. It was brought by my Rebel-Without-A-Cork - brownbagger Aaron who claimed he just wanted to celebrate his victorious football club - they'd just won a good match.

Just because the price disqualifies it for Brown Baggery doesn't mean I don't want to drink this wine again. It was a huge hit.

So, thank you Rebel-Without-A-Cork( I'll need an acronym for that one) for sharing a delicious wine.

RATING: Would have been high but is out of price range
LABEL: Robert Hall '06 Rhone de Robles Central Coast
GRAPE: blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Counoise
PRICE: 27 dollars

(Although, I just saw that BevMo is having an on-line sale for this for 14.99 - check it out - seems like the same wine and it would be a steal at this price)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Finca Antigua

An earthy Tempranillo, this was the second highest rated wine of Spain Night. With a balanced, dry finish, it had notes of fennel, thyme, dark stone fruits, and dates.

This was really the kind of rich, ruby colored red I expect from a Spanish wine. It falls in that $10.99 sweet spot ( although I actually read in the LA Times Food section that 25 bucks was the new sweet spot because of the recession - 25 bucks???? are you f****in' kidding me???? I like the LA Time Food Section but that's like saying domestic Wagyu beef is hot because Kobe beef from Japan is too much of a luxury in these "uncertain economic times.")

Okay, enough of a rant. Seriously, I think you can get good value from Finca Antigua. Although, I do have to say that I was let down a bit by the BBS Spanish Night. I expected more from Spain in this price range. It could be perhaps that the Spanish wines I was loving over the past few years have been bumped up into a higher tax bracket. Or we're just getting jacked by the Euro.

Or we didn't yet find those jewels of the under 12.99 set.

I have one more to review from the Brown Bag East - my Mom and Dad had a bottle and emailed in their report.

This bottle was $10.99 and available at Vendome Liquors.

NEXT UP: Paso Robles

RATING: 2.5 Screwcaps
LABEL: Finca Antigua
GRAPE: Tempranillo
PRICE: $10.99

Marques de la Concordia

This dusty, tannic Tempranillo had flavors of coffee, agave, black cherry with a little bit of tart blueberry on the back end.

It was the last wine we tried on BBS Spanish Night, and it scored in the respectable mid-range. It wasn't an outstanding wine especially not for the 13.99 price tag (it's hard to enforce the Brown Bag Sommelier price point rule of 12.99 or less).

But what was outstanding was what we paired it with. Newcomer Brown Baggers Dominique and Cindi brought these incredible chocolate chip cookies. What made them so good was that they had a hint of chili as well as salt. It was an incredible execution of a sweet and savory snack that paired very well with wine.

And it really brought some more flavors out of this Tempranillo which was having trouble performing.

I am trying to get the recipe from Dominique, and will post it in this space. I highly recommend you try this recipe. He told me that it might take some time getting the proportion of sweet to spicy to salty right. But when you do, you have this chocolate chip cookie that goes so well with red wine and is a really great food pairing to bring to casual wine tastings.

Watch in this spot for the recipe. I'll be updating it shortly.

RATING: 2 Screwcaps
LABEL: Marques de la Concordia
GRAPE: Tempranillo
PRICE: $13.99

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marco Real

tasting notes... spicy, peppery nose, boysenberries, tart/ fruit forward, medium dry, light tannins... These were the tasting notes for the Marco Real made from Garnacha grapes - wines I normally like.

Now you often see these notes in a grocery store or a liquor store in the description of the wine. It is kind of like the Amazon.com feature - you liked this book... so you might like these. Just because the wine has dark fruits like boysenberries or a peppery nose - does this really mean anything to you? It might give you some idea of what you might taste if you buy the bottle, crack it open, and drink some for yourself. Those flavors might be well orchestrated with real structure allowing you to savor these tastes, or the wine might fall apart as soon as it hits your palate. The flavors might be muddled, there but undistinguished, or just empty and flat.

This wine was a little muddled. The tasting notes above... tend to be the ingredients of wines that I like. I think that Garnacha grapes make inky, juicy yet earthy wines. But it didn't come together with this one. It felt flat. More mud than earth.

A few years ago I used to drink a Garnacha by the Las Rocas label. It was a wonderful wine and was about 9 or ten dollars. When I last checked, Las Rocas had snuck up to about 15 bucks, probably the victim of a weak dollar and a strong Euro.

What Spanish saint do I pray to, to bring Las Rocas back down to an everyday, Brown Bag friendly price?

RATING: 2 Screwcaps
LABEL: Marco Real
GRAPE: Garnacha
PRICE: $8.99

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sere Marca

When we first tasted this 2007 Sere Marca, Brown Bag Sommelier Dennis immediately remarked that my wife Christine would love this wine. Why? Christine loves jammy, fruit forward wines like California Zinfandels and Syrahs. Dennis does not - he's more of an old world fruit back, terroir kinda guy.

The funny thing about the Sere Marca is that although it seems all those things at first, it really isn't. It has flavors of plums, blueberries, tobacco, and dried strawberries. Things that you would associate with the big bold California zins crunching flavors down in the powerful California sun.

But somewhere through the finish which starts off strong, the unstructured tannins break down. The initially lingering finish falls apart.

I wanted to really like this wine, since it started off for me as the tight, modern wine neither old nor new world that I enjoy - almost like a peppery Argentinian wine. But it couldn't hold together for one reason or another.

Maybe the BB Sommeliers are becoming tougher critics, but at 13 dollars this should have been a real crowd pleaser. It was not.

RATING:2.35 Screwcaps
LABEL: Sere Marca
GRAPE: searched label and internet could not find info other than nebulous "Spanish Red Table Wine" evidently some kind of blend.
PRICE: 13 dollars out the door at Silverlake Wine

Monte Gudello

This 2006 Monte Gudello made from the Airen grape was a wine that simply did not generate a lot of conversation at the tasting. It had a decent enough taste. With a pale hay color and flavors of straw and sea grass and even a little kiwi, it made the grade.

Again, I think that for the most part, the Brown Baggers like red wines. Reds have a lot more range to pop and show - something that whites don't have, at least their shine is not as apparent to casual wine drinkers like our group.

Was this a good wine? Yes. I thought that it was. It had a nice balance and acidity, and would be a great wine on a warm afternoon. (disclaimer: I am partial to clean drinking whites).

The entry in wikipedia about the Airen grape said that acre for acre, it is estimated that there are more acres under cultivation for Airen than any other grape - as of 2004. It is a low density planting meaning other grapes liek Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon beat it out by total yield. Most of the acreage cultivated for Airen is in Spain.

In my years of drinking Spanish wines, I have never noticed Airen wines. Although the Monte Gudello didn't blow the crowd away - I'll probably look for it in the future. There's some intrigue.

RATING: 2.75 Screwcaps
LABEL: Monte Gudello
GRAPE: Airen
PRICE: $9.99 at Silverlake Wine

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Txakoli Gurrutxaga

Txakoli Gurrutxaga... no it doesn't mean you've had too much to drink if you cannot pronounce this wine. It simply means that it is Basque. With the only language in Continental Western Europe that did not branch off from the Proto Indo-European tongue( a strange fract that Atlantean conspiracists take to mean that Basques are the survivors of the wreckage of ancient Atlantis) Basques are known for their Gehry designed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, separatists, and a dish of garlicky, baby eels the width of bucantini. According to the Woodland Hills Wine Company( great wine shop by the way) Twitter feed this wine is made from 30% Hondarribi Zuri, 30% Hondarribi Beltza, 20% Mune Mahatsa and 20% Txori Mahatsa.

As with the Basque language, these grapes are completely alien to me. Also according to the Woodland Hills Wine Co, this wine is produced in a small run of 1000 cases having been fermented in steel tanks.

I liked this wine. Light-medium bodied with hints of grapefruit, honeysuckle, and sweet tarts it also carried a great mineral flavor that you find in tradition packed European wines. That mineral kick would make it ideal for pairing with oysters or any briny shell fish.

This was a really great drinking wine, low in alcohol, and a lot of the Brown Bag Team members really enjoyed it.

There's only one problem: it is over our price point. You see, every group needs a rebel, and the elite Brown Bag Sommeliers are no different. Our rebel is Aaron. He has a great sense for great wine. He knows what he likes, and he has introduced me to wines I would never have bought.

For example, one blazing LA Summer our power went out for days and compromised Aaron's wine fridge. He was concerned that the bottles he was keeping in a temperature controlled environment had been ruined and the only way to be sure was to open and drink all of them.

Christine and I had the good fortune of being wine guinea pigs ( we always volunteer).

I suppose it's good to throw 17 dollar wines into the mix to make sure our palate isn't just rotting from a steady schedule of Night Train.

RATING: 3.2 Screwcaps - minus 2 screwcaps for flagrant price point violation
LABEL: Txakoli Gurrutxaga
GRAPE: Blend of Hondarribi Zuri, Hondarribi Beltza, Mune Mahatsa and Txori Mahatsa
PRICE: $17.99

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dibon Brut Reserve Cava

This was the winner of the night. It also happens to be the wine I brought to this knife fight, which makes me happy since I have had two major duds in our four meetings.

The name "Cava" comes from the Latin "cava" which means cave which were used in early production of the Spanish sparkler. It usually uses a blend of grapes including: Macabeo, Parellada, Xarel·lo, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Subirat.

The Dibon is a blend ofXarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo.

The Dibon Cava was a crisp, refreshing sparkler. With a lemony nose and a hint of vanilla, this wine presented a lot of possibilities. It could be very successfully combined with shellfish, oysters, white flesh fish, or even a salad course.

Team members thought it would be the perfect cava to use in a white sangria. Overall, he consesus was that this could become a go to wine in everyone's arsenal: the cava to have on hand for occasions which though maybe casual still called for a sparkling wine to be festive.

Bravo Zulu* Dibon.

* = military code for job well done.

RATING: 3.35 Screwcaps
LABEL: Dibon Brut Reserve
GRAPE: blend of Xarel-lo, Parellada and Macabeo
PRICE: $8.99

Spain Tasting

After Australia, Brown Bag Sommelier set its sights on Spain. Spain is a country that in the past, I have had mad success in the $8.99 to $10.99 sweet spot - even with the mad run-up of the Euro last year, I was still able to find some bargains.

Something was off for the Spanish wines this night. Perhaps, the BBS team members were turning crack commando unit - up from the dirty dozen willing to drink anything that came in a brown paper bag, was made from grapes, and got them happily buzzed after a few sips.

Personally, I think it was a conspiracy. I had the winning wine, and I really believe everyone was giving out shitty scores to purposely depreciate the value of my win. Kind of like the year Rocky won best picture. Yeah it was good, but Stallone would never have won in a year against Scorsese and Coppola.

The huge plus of the night, including of course the company, was the food. Spain has dishes just geared for having with wine. Salty, flavorful, tangy, Spanish snacks have it happening all over the place.

Now the wines...

Four Sisters

At the end of a long night of powerful shiraz wines, there was Four Sisters Shiraz. This '05 Shiraz had its work cut out for it, since the crowd by this time was really sick of shiraz wines. These wines tend to be strong, dusty, fruit forward. Some of them were totally overpowering - like the inky darkness I brought to the party.

Four Sisters won some fans in the group. It was jammy like a zinfandel with tastes of preserved fruits and dried cherries. Some found the taste a little sharp, but still the feeling of the group was that this was a nice balanced wine.

With its zin flavor, this is a wine you could serve with something like a rib-eye steak with gorgonzola butter and smoked paprika. It's tannins would cut through the steak and the cheese cleaning your palate so that you could enjoy each savory bite.

At $8.99, this wine is a solid value.

RATING: 2.75 Screwcaps
LABEL: Four Sisters
GRAPE: Shiraz
PRICE: $8.99

Penfolds Koonunga Hill

Penfolds Koonunga Hill is a solid, dependable big operation winemaker shiraz. This is the kind of wine that I think of when I think of Australian wines: a massive producer that makes oceans of decent tasting, moderately priced red juice. Nothing earth shattering, but something you can pull from the wine rack knowing that it will be decent.

Judging from the team's score cards, no one was blown away by this wine. And I think that because of familiarity with the wine, no one was going to be surprised. Still it delivers on a level.

Structure tends to break down quickly. Still, it has a nice balance with a fruit back taste and a little bit of spiciness.

This wine is dependable, and at $8.99 that accounts for a lot.

RATING: 2 Screwcaps
LABEL: Penfolds Koonunga Hill
GRAPE: Shiraz
PRICE. $8.99

Thursday, April 23, 2009


This 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon from Southeastern Australia was another fairly high scoring wine. After the long string of Shiraz based wines, the group found the cab sauvignon wine a lot smoother and more easy going. This was a wine that would go well with food but could be enjoyed on its own.

The tasters found the nose to have a soft fruit hint like cranberry with some lavender. They also detected a taste that they agreed could only be described as "sweet tarts" - meaning the candy sweet tarts.

I missed a lot of the conversation as I was putting my son to bed( my wife and I host these tastings in our apartment), but I gathered that this wine although not blowing anyone's mind was definitely a crowd pleaser. One person wrote on their note card "love it."

I think this wine came from Ralph's grocery store - which always seems to have a hit or miss selection - so good job to Brown Bag agents James and Heather for bringing this find in.

Extra credit for the price. Both since it is below eight bucks and the decimal is so odd - .59.

RATING: 3.15 Screwcaps
LABEL: Kalbarri
GRAPE: Cabernet Sauvignon
PRICE: $7.59


A blend of Shiraz and Viognier, the 2006 Yalumba earned some really high marks. Again, this was a wine showing some really dark fruits like plum and boysenberry. It was also part of a string of dark, fruit forward wines at the Australia night tasting. What the tasters found, however, with this wine was that it was round in the mouth, balanced, and smooth.

Some found some tart cranberry and crisp pear on the nose - possibly because of the Viognier blended in.

At the end of the night, I took an informal poll, and three of BBS tasters voted it their favorite of the night - even though overall the Gemtree shiraz rated number one. And for those who didn't vote Yalumba their number one, they nominated it second station.

And for a shiraz that has a silky almost elegant finish - what's not to like?

RATING: 3.75 Screwcaps
LABEL: Yalumba
GRAPE: Shiraz/Viognier blend
PRICE: $10.99

Friday, April 17, 2009


The Gemtree Shiraz was the winner of the night. From the McLaren Vale Region, this is a wine that likes to tell you its story. The label of the wine( great design by the way) explains how the owner/operators of Gemtree are committed to the building of a wetland in the middle of the their vineyard along with the planting of native trees and vegetation in a larger push to green Australia.

And that's great. The wine also happens to be good - and that makes their push to make Australia a greener pasture even that much better.

After two powerful, heavy shiraz wines, the 2007 Gemtree Tadpole Shiraz proved to be a smooth and balanced wine.

This wine had a great peppery nose with hints of leather and blackberries. Unlike the Winner's Tank and the Boxhead, however, its dark fruits had been tamed. This wine was really balanced and drinkable.

Now red-staters might think that the high rating the group gave this wine is because we're Hollywood crackpots with a soft spot for some Australian vineyard claiming the badge of eco-friendliness because they're building wetlands for some nearly extinct frog. This is not the case. Peer reviewed, this was the highest scoring wine of the night.

I also feel that this was the easiest drinking wine of the night - because it was so smooth. The rough edges of the other shiraz wines had been rounded and polished in the Gemtree. And right in the $9.99 sweet spot for the BBS group.

All in all, Gemtree Tadpole Shiraz is a great buy.

RATING: 4 Screwcaps ( wetlands restoration or no this is a good wine)
LABEL: Gemtree Tadpole Shiraz
GRAPE: Shiraz
PRICE: $9.99

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

2008 BOXhead Shiraz

Here's a wine with a great label and some decent taste. One of Silver Lake Wine's( on Glendale Boulevard in Silver Lake) 13 bucks out the door specials ( a 13 dollar wine seems to be a recurring theme from Silver Lake Wine when our Brown Bag agents ask for a great wine for 12.99 or less), this was the second of a string of powerful Aussie reds we tasted that night. With a big alcohol nose and a bigger alcohol content of 14.5%, this juice could have powered Mad Max's V-8 Interceptor across the wasteland and beyond Thunderdome( sorry - had to inject a Mad Max ref at some point in a series of postings about Australian wines).

This is a wine exhibiting a lot of dark fruit with a nose of figs, boysenberry, and some serious dirt earthiness it is big, strong fruit distilled into shiraz. Not necessarily a bad thing if you are prepared for it.

The talk back notes I got from the group were mixed. Some people enjoyed it. One of the tasters remarked that the wine was about a 1.5 screwcap rating - but taken with some cheese - the flavor got a boost.

This was part of a series of wines during the night that lead some people to think that maybe they don't like Australian wines. That perhaps the flavor is too concentrated. Too powerful. I do think that if you like wines with strong fruit then you might really enjoy Boxhead Shiraz.

The Boxhead like the Lanhorn Winner's Tank before it, ultimately, might be lacking in balance.

Something which the next wine from the night( which I'll post about tomorrow night), the Gemtree Shiraz really seemed to get right.

Overall... the Boxhead was good, but for 13 bucks.... it didn't make many Brown Bag friends. Which is unfortunate since Brown Bagger Mike has had a string of hits from his local wine shop Silver Lake Wines where he also picked up this bottle of Boxhead.

RATING: 1.75 Screwcaps
LABEL: Boxhead Shiraz
GRAPE: Shiraz
PRICE: 12.99

Friday, April 10, 2009

Langhorn: The Winner's Tank

If the Heartland Stickleback was a divisive white, this shiraz was a unifying factor for the group. It was almost universally hated. Which sucks because this was the wine that I brought. This means that out of three tastings, people have hated two of my selections. Both times, the wines were strong, powerful, and inky.

People found the Langhorn Shiraz to have a highly, highly alcoholic nose - it had a rather high alcohol content of 15.3%. It had a really dark color. Inky. You could barely see through it to the other side of the glass.

With flavors of dried figs, cloves, and even pipe tobacco, I think the group found that this wine was a little much. Did it suffer from following three whites? Maybe. Although I think only my wife and I liked it. It was a pretty unanimous trashing.

Which is unfortunate since in the past, I've found this to be a smooth and wonderfully drinkable wine. I've had it three times now. The first two times it had the same inky color and the same high alcohol content, but it seemed more refined.

At $12.99, I have to say that I would be reticent about picking up a bottle again. If I saw it on sale for maybe $8.99 or $9.99 I would be willing to give it another try especially if I had some cheeseburgers( with blue cheese) or a flank steak grilling.

Regardless of whether or not you like it, this dusty wine is really Australian: dark eggplant color and in your face potency.

RATING: 1.5 screwcaps
LABEL: Langhorn: The Winner's Tank
GRAPE: Shiraz
PRICE: $12.99

Heartland Stickleback

Did I love this crisp Australian White. A mixture of Verdelho, Semillon, and Chardonnay grapes. It had a great nose of straw and a slight citrus with a beautiful pale straw color. With a clean, quick finish, I thought that this crisp wine would be great with buttery fish like Monkfish or a shellfish either shrimp or scallops. I found it refreshing in its own way.

Again, looking at the write-ups that the group gave - tastes do vary widely. They are nearly impossible to account for. Some found it too sweet, even effervescent as if the sugars were causing it to fizz on the drinker's tongue. Ratings ranged from unenthusiastic 5 out of 10s to 8 out of 10.

Now next weekend, we have the next Brown Bag Sommelier meeting. The kill zone for next week is Spain. Three of our weekly attendees have signed up to bring whites. I'll be curious to see how they are received. I know that whites are really out of favor with wine drinkers - at least the ones that I know. It will be interesting to see if choosing some good Albarinos, we'll be able to build a consensus.

Or is there something really broken with the production of white wines? Are they too sweet... acidic... syrupy... etc.,

Again, I really enjoyed the Stickleback. However, it came in at 13 bucks - out the door at the Silver Lake Wine shop. I don't know if I would drop 13 dollars on a wine that so clearly divided the room. I don't think I am willing to gamble 13 dollars on people's indifference to white wine.

Even though in the scheme of things, 13 bucks, is a modest sum, you should still be highly satisfied at that price point.

RATING: 2.75 Screwcaps
LABEL: Heartland Stickleback
GRAPE: Verdehlo, Semillon, Chardonnay
PRICE: 13 bucks out the door at Silverlake Wine

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rosemount Estate Chardonnay

Now the Australia event was a special one as my Mom and Dad were in town and able to attend. They were deputized by the high order of the BBS, and they did a good job. I'd gone up to K&L Wines on Vine Street just south of Sunset Blvd( a great wine shop that opened their first LA location a couple of years back. I believe they started up in San Francisco and the Bay Area). They selected a 2005 Rosemount Estate Chardonnay.

Now before the pours started, I knew this wine had an uphill battle. It is a chardonnay. A great many wine drinkers for whatever reason do not like chardonnays. Most wine drinkers complain of the oak.The oak flavor being popular back in the day, wine makers just pumped up the oak volume thinking that wine drinkers would love it that much more. My Dad likened the situation to the French Chablis of the mid to late '70s and early '80s. He said that a certain taste and the name brand Chablis had created a Chablis rush. Inferior wine makers rush in, and ruin the reputation of the grape and the wine.

I can say that personally, this wine quickly won me over. Someone remarked that it had some "green grass" on the nose. With a really nice straw color and flavors of grapes, apples, honey, yes - some oak, and believe it or not... nut oil - this wine had a nice balanced flavor. The general agreement was that though it did have the signature chardonnay oak flavor, it wasn't overwhelmingly oaky. Although one BBSers' comment was that it did have too much lingering oak on the finish.

Probably good with a buttery fish or shrimp or scallops. But it had a nice clean edge which might let it go also equally well with oysters.

RATING:3.5 Screwcaps
LABEL: Rosemount Estate
GRAPE: Chardonnay
PRICE: $7.99

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Jacob's Creek Riesling

So March 14th, the Brown Bag Sommeliers met for a night of tasting Australian wines hopefully ones that turned out to be good bargains. I personally felt like we met with a lot of success, although some attending felt like this night decided for them that they didn't like Australian wines. Not that you'd know from all the empties in my recycling bin. Said booze hounds who turned their noses up at Australian juice even as they poured it down into their wine circulating systems( aka: the bloodstream) shall remain names.

We kicked off the night with a 2005 Jacob's Creek Riesling. Looking back at the note cards that people handed in, this wine really divided the room. And it could have something to do with how wine drinkers feel about Rieslings. Some people described it as bitter with a nose of burnt rubber with lingering "yucky" tannins. While others felt that it had a nice, clean mineral taste - " a medium bodied wine with a hint of lemon rind, gooseberry, and seagrass. With a quick finnish but also a lingering syrupy taste."

Personally, I liked the wine. I thought it had a nice clean taste with mineral and hay notes. This is something I could have with shellfish. Aaron, who brought it, likes this with Thai food or something where the wines structure can cut the spicy heat in the food. He also wanted props that he brought in a wine for $8.99. He usually brings wines in at the $12.99 ceiling.

RATING: 3.25 Screwcaps
LABEL: Jacob's Creek
PRICE: $8.99

Sunday, March 29, 2009


On Friday night, Christine, my son James, and I went out to get something to eat at Greenblatt's Deli on Sunset. I love Greenblatt's, and I really love their tuna sandwich. It is one of the few things that I eat which I feel better after eating. Yeah yeah, I know it's strange, but for the most part I feel sick after I eat - not so Greenblatt's Tuna Salad Sandwich. I also know that Greenblatt's has some bitchin' wines in their cellar and selection.

Anyway, what I didn't know is that Greenblatt's has the best wine prices in town for in house eating. When you sit down to eat in the deli you can get wines by the bottle for retail cost plus a $5.95 corkage. To go along with our dinner we got a 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from Avalon. The total cost with corkage was $16.95. And the wine was fanatastic, and yes as a matter of fact it does go with tuna salad on rye. Another highlight on the menu was a bottle of Veuve Cliquot - the yellow label brut - for 43 bucks. That's less than I saw it in Gelson's for cryin' out loud.

So if you like Deli and you like good wine at great prices hit Greenblatt's Deli 8017 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood CA 90046

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cafayate Valley

The second to last wine of the night that we tried, the 2006 Cafayate Valley Tannat was a great teaching device. A lot of the Brown Baggers did not understand what was meant by a chewy wine. After trying this wine made from Tannat grapes we all know. This deep purple red was a puckery, chewy beast. It seemed like something that British confectioners would take and turn into a wine jelly that they would sandwich between chocolate, biscuit and marshmallow.

It was definitely not a crowd pleaser. Although some gave it some props - my wife suggested that it could be served with a carne asada burrito and that the pairing might elevate the wine.

Now me saying that this was not a crowd pleaser does not mean I am unappreciative of the Brown Bagger who brought the wine. Hey, we have to try a range. And we're weeding through labels to find the gems. There's a lot of wines out there, and it's good to know what is a bargain and what ain't.

But I suppose that trashing a wine that someone has brought to a casual tasting like this could cause some hardships. If you do this with friends, please emphasize that judgements passed on a wine are not personal attacks.

Wine tastings like this should not be a competition. They're really just good excuses for people to get together and bullshit while at the same time discovering great wines to pursue and villainous wines to avoid.

Cafayate Valley get to work on your Tannat - it's a good enough grape just step up your game.

RATING: .5 screwcaps
LABEL: Cafayate Valley
GRAPE: Tannat
Price: $5.99


Gouguenheim was one of the real stand-out hits of the night. A spicy Malbec that Brown Bagger Mike Brand picked up at the Silver Lake Wine Store Gouguenheim was a real crowdpleaser. It was a Malbec whose spicy, peppery notes had rounded off some allowing some of the real darkfruit flavors to come out.

Again, like the other Malbecs, the Gouguenheim benefitted with food especially the dark chocolate which helped some of its subtleties out.

An interesting thing about this wine: its price. Brown Bagger Mike consistently picks up delicious wines for these events, and every time they cost 13 dollars with tax out the door. Mike goes in and talks to his friendly Silver Lake Wine store guy, says I need a delicious wine from "X" region for 12.99 or less. And guess what? He gets a wine for 12.99 - 13 bucks.

Now there is nothing wrong with this. Silver Lake Wine is a great wine shop with tons of bargains from wineries overlooked by the big buyers. In other words, it is a very well curated shop, but I doubt it will ever have anything for less than 10 bucks - which is the Brown Bag Holy Grail.

10 to 13 could very well just be a sweet spot for wines. With rising labor costs, fuel costs, and land costs, delicious wines under ten bucks might be a thing of the past like buggy whips and manual typewriters.

All that said Gouguenheim is a really satisfying wine and would be a great thing to bring to a friend's house who is cooking you dinner - especially when they're making red friendly foods. If you do pick up a bottle of it for such an occasion bring some dark chocolate or a blue cheese to help bring this wine's flavours out and show off what it can do.

We learned from our Argentina night that the Argentine wines benefit from a little pro-active wine drinking - ie., be smart what you pair it with.

RATING: 3 Screwcaps
LABEL: Gouguenheim
GRAPE: Malbec
PRICE: 12.99 - 13 bucks out the door at Silver Lake Wine

Saturday, February 28, 2009


This spicy red made from bonarda grapes( which according to Wikipedia comes from Italian strains known in Italy as Dolce Nero - though not Dolcetto) was one of my big favorites of the night. People thought it was tight. One commenter called it thin, uptight, and peppery. But I felt that its dark fruit flavors of blackberry and cherry yielded a quick, modern tasting wine. How does one find modernity in a wine? Once at a restaurant in Boston called The Butcher Shop, my wife and I had an Austrian red( I think it was a zweigelt although I am not even sure since this was years ago and before I had even a hint of knowledge of wines). I loved the wine, but I had a hard time describing it. It didn't have flavors like a traditional European wine of terroir and funked up stone cellars, nor did it have the powerful, juicy pop of Californian wines. It was something else entirely - its own thing.

A modern tasting wine like this Durigutti then evokes late Summer nights in lower Manhattan, a street whose name you can no longer recall. Dim, tea candle-lit packed restaurants putting out blue cheese, spiky arugula, and hanger steaks with thin cut fries. That's what I taste when I taste a "modern wine," and I love it.

Now some in the group felt like its flavor didn't open up, but that's modern too. Like the well-dressed, too smart looking women in the above mentioned restaurants. It's not what you'd call open....

You have to be in the mood for that kind of crowd. Still for the $9.99 price tag, Durigutti is still a smart buy earning it 2 screw craps. I'd give it another .5

RATING: 2 Screwcaps ( 2.5 Screwcaps if this sounds like your kind of trip)
LABEL: Durigutti
GRAPE: Bonarda
PRICE: $9.99

Cruz Alta

The Cruz Alta was the last wine of the night, and we all agreed that this was a delicious, well balanced wine. In stark contrast to the peppery Malbecs, this Cabernet Sauvignon had smooth, ripe fruit back flavors. We all agreed that this was the one wine of the night that could be easily enjoyed without food. The other wines, as solid as they were, really benefited when combined with food be it meats or cheeses or dark chocolates - anything to smooth out the spiciness and bring out the subtleties. This wine had its full flavors more evident.

It was at the Brown Bag Sommelier price ceiling - 12.99. The BBS member found it at Whole Foods. I'd say she did well.

I have always found Whole Foods a difficult place to buy wine. They have some good selections, however, like everything else in the store - their wines tend to be overpriced. Worse than that, I have found that their staff in the wine section consistently tries to up-sell me. That is when I tell them what kind of wine I am looking for, they have time and again directed me to wines in the 16 to 20 dollar range. It could be because their lower priced wines are poorly curated for the most part with poorly structured flavors that never open up. Then again I have never been incredibly impressed with the wines that they have managed to up-sell me on.

This is not to say that you cannot find a solid, moderately priced wine in Whole Foods or any other supermarket for that matter. This Cruz Alta is proof of that. Super market chains, however, seem unable or unwilling to either find or choose wines in the 12.99 and under range.

The long and short of it: The Brown Baggers loved this wine.

RATING: 3 Screwcaps
LABEL: Cruz Alta
GRAPE: Cabernet Sauvignon
PRICE: $12.99

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pascual Toso

Pasqual Toso
Originally uploaded by david.gregg
The second wine we put the screw caps to was a Malbec from Pascual Toso. This was a wine that had no real nose to it. Not that that is an entirely bad thing. Though it was high in alcohol, it didn't have that boozy smell that some powerful California reds pack.

A Malbec loaded with pepper, this is a spicy wine which some in the group found off-putting.

Filled with hints of dark fruits like blackberries and cherries as well as fresh currants, this is a dry, fruit back wine with a quick finish. This wine could cut right through the richness of a big, juicy hamburger.

I can recommend this wine at the price I bought it for: $9.99 with an even stronger buy order if you see it on sale for $7.99.

RATING: 2 Screwcaps( out of 5)
LABEL: Pascual Toso
GRAPE: Malbec
PRICE: $9.99

Monday, February 16, 2009

Crios Torrentes

The first wine we tasted was a Crios Torrentes by the Argentinian winemaker Susana Balbo. Made from the popular Argentinian white wine grape torrentes, this wine had a great nose with notes of citrus and straw. With a good acidity and quick finish, we thought this was a crisp, capable white wine.

It was a clean wine with a good color. This wine would go well with seafood, most especially shellfish. But you could also have it as an aperitif.

As a general note for the Brown Bag Sommelier, we rate wines based on their nose, balance, and finish as well as for price. The Crios was our most expensive wine of the night coming in at 12.99. The Holy Grail for this website is finding an awesome tasting wine for 5 bucks.

Despite the fact that its price was at our ceiling, it was strong in all of its categories and at its price a good value.

RATING: 2.5 Screwcaps (out of 5)
LABEL: Crios
GRAPE: Torrentes
PRICE: 12.99

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Best Served with....

Just a quick post. In the coming days, I'll start listing the wines we tried and rated from Argentina. One of the things I'll reference is common: what would go great with this wine? What is best served with this wine?

All wine is best served with friends. One of the problems I have with the fetishizing of wine as has happened in the United States is that the emphasis has been so put into the wine. So much power has been placed into the bottle, that the djinni overpowers what it is meant to serve.

Wine is a drink in celebration of social gatherings whether family weeknight dinners, wine and cheese served at sunset, or big blowout dinners for extremely special occasions. Wine is meant to be served with and in the service of friends and friendship.

If you have ever felt weird tasting wine from a bottle that you've ordered in a restaurant, or have been unsure about what bottle to pick up for a dinner party, or if you have felt burned by the $20 bottle you did buy for that party, then this blog is designed to help.

Greatness can be found at all levels of price and variety. Greatness that is best served with friends.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Liquid Fruit of the Gauchos

I've read that Yerba Mate is known in Argentina as the "liquid vegetable of the gauchos." This nickname has been slapped on the tea-like yerba mate for its supposed healthy benefits. It is traditionally drunk from a hollow gourd, and every now and then in Los Angeles you'll see someone drinking mate from just such a gourd. Yes, you're right, he is the one wearing the angry, smug expression and matching Che T-shirt.

I've tried to get into yerba mate with no success. So, instead, I've turned my attention on the liquid fruit of the gaucho - wine - Argentinian wine. And at the last Brown Bag Sommelier tasting event, I can say I had a lot of success.

Again, the Brown Bag Sommeliers went in search of delicious wines for 12.99 or less. Argentina has a lot more wines that fit that description than does Southern California within a one hundred mile radius of Brown Bag HQ. Of course, Argentina's wine regions comprise an area about the size of the entire state of California( but this is no excuse So-Cal - you still have to wear the Brown Bag of Shame until you start crushing and bottling delicious wines for 12.99 or less). So, there is a greater margin for success. Still, every wine we had had something good going for it. Even the chewy tannat that made my mouth pucker up like a wine-drinking large mouth bass had the chance of showing up again on my table next to an Astro-Burger with a side of fried zucchini sticks.

Argentina's star grape, the Malbec had a strong presence at the tasting, but we also had a bonarda, a cabernet sauvignon, a tannat, and one white, a torrantes, amidst the deep reds.

Over all, the wines were great. They were satisfying. They were peppery, spicy, and went great with dark chocolate. Aside from the cabernet sauvignon, the wines we had should be paired with food. The cab we found was definitely a wine that worked with or without food.

These wines were tight, clean, modern. They aren't structured like the intense, highly engineered California wines, but neither do they have the traditional taste of European wines. Argentinian wines seem a mixture of the Old and New Worlds.

Reviews to follow...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One Hundred Miles From Home

They said it couldn't be done, but Saturday, the Tenth of January 2009 AD, the high order of the Brown Bag Sommelier held its first group tasting. The rules were simple: the wine had to be 12.99 or under, and it had to be made within a hundred miles of central Los Angeles, an area known to local realtors as Hancock Park Adjacent. Originally we had considered within seventy five miles, but that proved too difficult, so we expanded the range to include a little over a hundred miles. Some BBS members bent the rules a little further. Still, most of the wines came from within one hundred miles. We had wines from Temecula, Camarillo, and even what according to google maps on my iPhone seemed to be Lancaster ( home of creosote bushes and people more interested in crystal meth than Kristal). Yes, Southern California wines were well represented.

I can say this about wines priced under 12.99 made within a hundred miles of Hancock Park Adjacent: you have your work cut out for you. Was I expecting too much from these wines? Was it wrong of me to think that for 8.99 I should be able to get a delicious wine made in my backyard - this being California - major wine producing region that it is.

I suppose the answer is yes. It was far too much to ask for great tasting, well priced wines, made within a hundred miles of Los Angeles.

But, we're optimists here at the Brown Bag Sommelier. And we're already dreaming( perhaps a pipe dream as in a crack pipe dream) of the day when we can pick up a bottle of locally sourced and produced syrah for 7.99. Sound far-fetched? Drinking is believing. And that holy grail is out there, either already produced and somehow over-looked, or perhaps a Platonic truth in the mind of some visionary wine maker just waiting to be distilled from the combination of our beautiful sunlight and cool ocean breezes.

At any rate, I'll be posting over the next several days about the wines we tasted at the first event. And coming soon, we'll be casting a wider net this time looking for great value wines from Argentina.